Black Orchid (Svatura #4) – Chapter 1
“Lila!” Adelaide Jenner screamed the panicked word into her sister’s mind.
Lila was in the middle of explaining to the High Council her part in the most recent battle with their enemies. The debriefing had been going on for the past week. Technically, Adelaide wasn’t supposed to interrupt. The purpose of the meeting was to figure out how to defeat Maddox, a powerful dragon metamorph whose main goal in life appeared to be the annihilation of any Svatura who didn’t follow him. They’d fought him more times than Adelaide cared to remember, and they’d yet to defeat him despite all the extraordinary powers on their side. Maddox always managed to stay one step ahead.
But right now, Adelaide needed her sister. To hell with the debriefing.
“What?” Lila’s telepathic response was immediate.
“Nate’s leaving. Something’s wrong. I know it,” Adelaide replied, not caring about how frantic she must sound. At the same time, Adelaide sprinted through the halls of the Vyusher castle to where she could sense Nate’s presence. He was attempting to keep his mind closed to her but wasn’t entirely successful. And what she found in his thoughts made her sick.
“I’m coming, Delia. Where?” Lila answered after a few tense moments.
Adelaide flashed her sister images of where she was headed—a cell in the lower levels of the castle. Muscles burning, all she could hear were her harsh breaths and the slap of her shoes against the stone floor as she sped around the final corner. There, in front of the room, lay two guards, unconscious on the floor. The metallic scent of blood filled the air.
She skidded to a halt in the open doorway, and what she discovered almost brought her to her knees. Nate was her best friend, her love, her te’sorthene. The word literally meant a friend bonded by heart or spirit. For Svatura it represented a predestined bond between two people that was elemental, almost physical. But Nate, the man who was supposed to be her lifelong mate, stood beside three other women, all known associates of their enemy.
She didn’t acknowledge their presence. Instead, she focused solely on the man who was being pulled away from her, like a wave being sucked back into the ocean by the tide. But she was the one drowning.
“Nate?” The quiver in her voice was pathetic, but she’d gladly sacrifice her pride if it meant saving him.
Adelaide didn’t move any closer. A sixth sense warned her that he could be dangerous if she did so. She searched his face—his usually laughing, warm brown eyes—for any trace of the man she knew and loved. All she found was a wall of hard, dark indifference.
He said nothing.
She felt the blood drain from her face as a rush of despair rode in on a surge of dizziness, swamping her vision.
At that moment, Lila flew around the corner, followed closely by her own te’sorthene, Ramsey. They hurried to her side, and Adelaide vaguely registered Lila’s shocked gasp. With effort, Adelaide struggled to keep from passing out, pushing her way through the darkness that threatened to consume her sight. She had to do something—anything—to keep from losing the best man she’d ever known.
“Don’t do this, Nate,” Adelaide begged in a broken whisper. “Don’t go.” She held her hand out to him, imploring him to listen. To stay. She touched nothing but air.
“Talia’s my te’sorthene.” Nate took a step back. “I have to go.”
Shaking started deep inside her. “I’m your te’sorthene.”
“Are you?” A cruel sneer curled his lip.
Oh, God. Please no. Adelaide engaged her ability to see relationships. The glittering red line that had always represented their connection as te’sorthene was still in place. Barely. The bond was faded and slightly frayed but still there.
Adelaide shuddered with relief as she desperately held on to that one remaining shred of hope.
“Goodbye, Adelaide,” Nate said. And he was gone.
With no warning the barely-there thread of the te’sorthene line connecting her and Nate snapped. At the same time, a wall of terror and heartbreak smashed through Adelaide and splintered her soul. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, the sound welling up from deep within.
“No!” she screamed as she fell to her knees. The jolt of hitting hard, cold rock didn’t register through her anguished sobbing. “No! No! No!”
Adelaide wrapped her arms around her stomach, rocking back and forth, trying to hold herself together as her body wracked with trembles. But nothing eased her torment. Tortured, she turned to Lila, and her sister actually flinched. A dreadful, uncontrollable something built inside her, deep in the hole Nate’s abandonment had created inside her heart.
Her breath came in uneven pants. “I can’t…I can’t…Please help me,” she begged.
Tears streamed down her face, the salty taste bitter on her lips. She was barely aware that Lila had knelt and wrapped her arms around her until tendrils of serenity started to move through her. A grateful part of her realized Lila was doing the one thing in her power to help her sister—using her ability to heal emotions. Gradually Adelaide’s body relaxed until her sobs stopped and her head lolled on Lila’s shoulder, subdued but still lucid.
Lila whispered to Ramsey, “When I witnessed Maddox’s memories, I saw what losing his family—his te’sorthene—did to him. It turned him into a psychopath. Adelaide’s mind—her spirit—might not survive this.”
“Maddox didn’t have anyone to help him. He lost his entire family. Adelaide has us. We’ll help her,” Ramsey said.
But I don’t want to survive this.
Then darkness claimed her.
Six months later…
Escape from the constant cold was impossible these days, even inside the walls of the castle. But the bite of the chill didn’t faze Adelaide. She was too numb to feel much of anything. Had been for months. Ever since Nate had left and Lila had turned off Adelaide’s emotions so she could cope.
The move had been a desperate attempt to save her sanity, to block out that horrible instant when she’d lost her te’sorthene. She still relived it any time she had a spare moment to herself. Logically, she knew losing Nate was the worst moment of her unnaturally long life—the worst thing that could happen to any Svatura and unheard of among her kind.
But emotionally, she felt…nothing.
“Hey, Delia. You ready to go?” A soft voice interrupted her reverie. Adelaide winced at the inane nickname, one that had never bothered her before, but had become…annoying…lately.
She sat in one of the common rooms of the castle owned by a tribe of wolf metamorphs called the Vyusher. Dressed warmly in black slacks and a gray cashmere sweater, she stared, unseeing, into what should have been a cheerful fire.
Now she glanced up to find her sister-in-law, Ellie in the doorway. The pixie-like girl had recently married Alex, Adelaide’s adopted older brother.
Adelaide tucked a strand of honey-blonde hair behind her ear and stood up. “Ready.” Inwardly she sighed. All they did these days was train.
Ellie must’ve caught her train of thought with her telepathy because she gave her a lopsided smile as they headed out of the room. “It’s necessary.”
This time, Adelaide didn’t bother to hide her sigh. “I get it. Maddox is still a huge threat. To all of us.”
The Vyusher once included Maddox among their members. Now they were the main target for his ultimate plan to destroy all Svatura. She had more cause to hate and fear him than most. Maddox was the reason Nate had severed their te’sorthene bond. However, at most, she felt a vague sense of purpose to bring him down. Training and preparing to fight him, or at least being able to defend against him, gave her something to fill her endless days.
Ellie nodded, her long, dark ponytail swinging. “He is a threat.” She paused. “But more than that, the last time we fought Maddox and his forces, we were unable to coordinate and that cost us. If the four of us had done anything to prepare ahead of time as a unit, that battle could’ve turned out much differently, and this war could even be over.”
They let themselves into Ellie’s bedroom, where Lila waited. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
Adelaide shrugged. “All our training.”
“Ah.” Lila looked back out the open window she’d been facing when they’d come in. “We’ve got to figure out how to defeat that psychopath. If Ellie can’t take him on when she’s a dragon, then the only chance we have is the four of us working together.”
In the last battle, Maddox had revealed that he was a dragon metamorph of incredible power and size. He’d come close to killing Ellie, the only other dragon morpher they knew.
“Besides,” Lila continued. “We’re not just fighting Maddox. We have an entire contingency of his people to deal with. All of the Vyusher are training together, but with our unique set of abilities, it’s important we be just as ready.”
Adelaide held up her hands, tired of the lecture. “I get it.”
Lila and Ellie exchanged glances just as Selene entered the room. She paused to check that the hallway behind her was empty before she closed the door.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it,” Ellie said to Selene.
As Queen of the Vyusher, Selene was always insanely busy. “This is too important to skip, and my High Council understands that. We have to be ready.” She looked to Ellie. “What’s the plan today?”
“We’ll spend the first half practicing solo attack-and-defend,” Ellie said. “After Lila was almost taken out by that condor morpher and those lava bombs in the last fight, we need to improve how we perform in the air when we’re on our own with no one to watch our backs.”
All four girls nodded.
Ellie glanced at Adelaide’s nice sweater and Selene’s wool skirt and white blouse. “You going to be okay dressed like that?” She and Lila were both wearing jeans and sweatshirts.
“I don’t plan to be in my human form out there,” Adelaide said.
“Me, either,” Selene added.
Ellie shrugged. “Okay.” She turned to Lila. “Is it clear out there?”
Lila leaned forward, her long blonde hair, similar in color to her sister’s, brushed the stone windowsill as she made one last check then waved them over. “Let’s go.”
Without further delay, all four girls morphed into their falcon forms. They each shimmered briefly, appearing to be shrouded by mirage-like waves of light as their bodies mysteriously changed shape without a single sound.
They hadn’t always all been falcon metamorphs. Originally, only Ellie could claim that power. But now, thanks to a freak accident almost two years earlier, morphing was a shared ability.
Lila, Ellie, and Adelaide had once joined forces to try to help Selene. Her soul had been scarred by her experiences with Gideon, her twin brother who’d once ruled the Vyusher and had brainwashed the wolf shifters into doing unimaginable horrors.
Using their combined abilities, all four girls had healed that scarring inside Selene, but their powers had become entangled in the process. Since then, one by one, each had started manifesting the others’ special traits. Now all four were falcon metamorphs and telepaths. There were a few other skills mixed in there, but those were the only two that all four women shared. So far, at least.
Lila flew out of the opened window first, followed by the other three. Thanks to regular practice, all four birds gained altitude, turned north, then split up. During the first part of their training session, they would fight each other, working on individual skills. After that, they would move to coordinated attacks and formations in teams. They were careful never to fight directly over the castle for fear of being spotted by someone who shouldn’t see them.
As soon as Adelaide reached her desired location in the sky, she soared high, her wings spread wide as she rode the currents of the wind. She used her sharpened vision to search for her intended targets. For a brief moment, she appreciated the tranquil silence that happened when she was able to just be still and observe the world below.
When Adelaide had first learned the falcon morph, she’d hated flying. She’d gained the ability just before they’d fought Maddox’s forces that last time, so when she’d been called upon to use it, she’d struggled. When she was human, heights gave her vertigo. But now, she’d not only gotten used to it but had come to trust her new form and her own ability to control it. Ellie had helped her a lot as had the frequent training sessions. Now, flying was the one thing that gave her any semblance of joy.
But that wasn’t saying much, and now was not the time to savor this sensation.
Aerial sparring with the girls was serious business. Adelaide pulled her focus back to the moment and swooped in ever-widening circles, riding the currents of the wind, as she searched. The other three were somewhere in the expanse of blue sky.
A flash of bright white. Selene. Finally she spied her prey, and, even better, she hadn’t been spotted yet.
Adelaide tucked her pale yellow wings close to her body and dove. She reached dizzying speeds as she dropped through the air. Pulling up at the last second, she flared her wings and attacked with her feet first. Her sharp talons flashed gold in the sunlight as she hacked at her intended target. Selene was taken by surprise but managed to pull away and plunge downward.
Damn. Adelaide changed direction and followed.
But no matter how streamlined she made herself by pinning her wings tightly back, she couldn’t catch her quarry. Of the four, Selene was the fastest when she moved into a stoop. Adelaide would’ve been clenching her teeth in frustration if she’d been in her human form. She needed to go faster.
She had to—
Lila plowed into her from the side with a bone-jarring impact.
“Nice try, but a bad idea to risk wrestling with me,” Adelaide telepathically chided her sister before twisting in her grasp.
The two birds twisted and thrashed as they plummeted, beating at each other with claws and wings and snapping with their sharp beaks. Neither one could get a good shot at the other until, finally, Adelaide saw her chance. She managed to snag the top edge of Lila’s wing with her talon and then her beak. Her sharp claws curled like a fist and ripped open a gash, pulling feathers out with her vicious attack. The hollow bones of Lila’s wing snapped with satisfying ease, and the tang of blood filled her mouth.
Lila’s sharp cry pierced the air. Adelaide released her, allowing her sister to tumble away into the empty space below. She took a moment to halt her own descent, splaying her wings wide to catch the air. Then she drifted for a moment and watched with almost dispassionate curiosity as Lila plummeted below her.
“Help!” Lila called as she morphed back to her human form. She flailed through the air as she found no way to halt her free fall.
A small spark of regret and worry pushed through the frozen void that surrounded Adelaide’s heart. She tucked in her wings and dove after her sister with very little chance of catching her. And no idea what she’d do if she did.