The near future…
“Sshh.” A hand, small but strong, cupped Shelise’s mouth closed while the stranger who had grabbed her whispered to her to be quiet. “He already has your scent. If you make another sound, he’ll pick up the trail where he lost you. Then we’ll both be dead. Do you understand?”
Reluctantly, Shay nodded her head that she did. Afterward, the tiny fingers unwrapped themselves from covering her lips. Once she was free, Shay spun around to get a glance at her new captor. In the dismal light of the underground cavern, she couldn’t make out many details. From the feel of the hands and the softness of the voice, the newcomer was definitely a female. Anything other than that, other than the other woman being deceptively petite, was a mystery,
A scratching sound floated across the blank wall behind her. Shay felt pelts of soft earth fall on her face. She turned toward the spot and waited breathlessly for the mangy man-thing to rip a hole in the low-hanging dirt ceiling then drag her back outside into her last midnight.
“We’re safe,” another whisper wandered toward her. “He’s not allowed to cross the borders of the palace.”
“But you just said he would catch my trail and kill us.”
“No, you misunderstood.” Despite Shay’s attempts at capturing a better look at her rescuer, the small female made sure to keep most of her face and other features shrouded deep within the shadows that cloaked this hidden space. “I meant that if he hones in on our location, others will come for us..and they are not tied by the same spell. No doubt Carl has given orders to kill you on sight.”
Carl. The name struck a nerve. Then she remembered the sickly face that accompanied her memory. She also recalled how he had nearly killed her himself early on in the evening. Why did he hate her so much?
“You must keep your guard up whenever you’re in his presence alone.” The female spoke as though she had been reading Shay’s thoughts.
“I don’t intend to ever be anywhere near him ever again, so no worries on that one.”
“Wrong.” The word was spoken with finality.
“Excuse me,” Shay countered in a defiant tone. Without realizing it, she had stepped forward three paces, and was now standing nearly face to face with her mystery host.
The other woman didn’t back away, and her voice remained calm and low.
“Hold your peace, Shay.”
“How do you know me?” Shay’s voice cracked with aggravation. She strained to keep her level at a whisper. “How the hell does everyone in this shitty place know me? I’ve never been here before.”
“Everything in due time. For now, just know that I’m a friend.”
“Friends don’t hide in dark corners so that I can’t see their faces.”
“But allies do save asses from being eaten, don’t they.”
Her new pal countered well, successfully silencing the tirade that Shay was about to work her way up to.
“True,” Shay said and backed away, doing her best to shrug off the battle-mode muscles her knotted into.
“It’s also very true that you’re not going to like my next command.”
“Command? Hold on. I don’t follow anyone’s orders. Especially since I have no idea what’s going on. One minute my life is shitty, but I’m safe..for the most part, anyway..Next I’m tazered and dragged across town to a location I never even spotted until today.”
“Like I said, there’s only so much you need to know right now. Too many details will confuse you and make this mission harder than it has already become.”
“Mission?” A twinge of hope hovered in Shay’s quick response. “You mean, as in a rescue mission?”
“Yes..why else do you think I saved you just now? If you’re dead then nothing else that happens from this moment forward matters.”
There was a long story behind that comment. A tale that would require more time than the two women had to spare right now. Shay reluctantly understood and accepted that fact.
“Alright,” she spoke flatly. “Enough of the death talk. What’s next? How are you going to get me outta’ here?”
The answer stung Shay so hard that a tiny tear surfaced at the corners of her narrowed eyes.
“I thought you said you were here to rescue me.”
Two small words, yet another mystery had just bubbled to life. We. Who else could be hiding down here?
“For someone who says explaining the full truth will confuse me, you’re doing a better job at it by not telling me anything that makes sense.”
“Shay,” the other female’s voice turned ghostly serious. “You have to go back to him.”
Shelise’s heart exploded into rapid-fire pulses.
“Like hell, I will. I’ll find my own way out.”
Before she could move past the smaller woman, a hand as small as a child’s but as strong as any man’s gripped her wrist hard, making another step forward impossible for Shay.
“You will do exactly as I say, or that’s where we’ll all be headed..a lot sooner than expected.”
Using her own brute force, Shay pried her arm out of the tight clutch of tiny fingers.
“Either you give me one good, solid reason to listen to you or I knock you down and dig my outta’ here. You act as if I giva’ shit what happens to anyone other than me.”
“Well you should. You’re the key.”
Shay’s face wrinkled in disbelief and annoyance.
“The key to what?”
She had not been expecting such a blunt answer. The shock caused her to hold her tongue longer than she would have liked.
“Didn’t you grandmother always call you princess?”
How did she know? Shay’s mind marveled at the statement. Ethan called her that too. But the way he used the word, she knew there was no way he could have known its significance to her.
“Yeah..so what?” She tried to sound as nonchalant as she could.
“Why do you think she did that?”
“No clue. Maybe she read a lot of fairy tales when she was young.”
“Myth and legend are the surface of truth and history.”
“Okay..now you’re only getting weirder by the second.”
Her dark companion didn’t bother to react to that stab. She merely went on as though the words had never crossed the air between them.
“Go back to Ethan.”
“Why should I?”
“Because if you don’t, he’ll burn this city to the ground until he finds you. Chances are, you’ll be a casualty of the flames before he sweep you out of danger. The choice is yours..but you know that I’m right.”
A stiff nod from Shay followed. He was truly insane enough to kill her by accident while trying to find her. After all, he let loose a beast to sniff her out. They’re not dogs, they don’t collect trophies, they kill prey.
“Do whatever you need to to make him think he has your cornered. Make him believe that you’ll stay with him and that he has no worries about you running off again.”
“And then what?”
“Wait for me to contact you again. We need time to come up with a new plan.”
We. Who was the other conspirator? How many more people had been watching her all this time? And how had she allowed her senses to become so dull that she had missed every clue about what was leading up to this moment?
Before she could answer, the second woman had vanished as stealthily as she had appeared. Shay’s eyes darted around the cavern as she searched for an exit. Still unsure of what her next move would be, she at least knew that she wanted out of this dank pit. Three steps forward and she suddenly sunk to her knees. Clutching her stomach in a fit of agony, she waited for the pain to subside. She wouldn’t be leaving this underground nest anytime soon, at least not for the next twelve or so hours. Dawn was approaching, and even under this dark tent the power of the sunlight still had a firm grip over her reality. For now, she was stuck in place. Sleep now. Escape later. That was her one and only option until dusk slipped over the horizon once more.