At a signal from Zan and Max, the two groups surged into the two entrances of the large conference room with arms outstretched, but stopped in surprise when they saw what was inside.
Facing them was Lonnie, a fully-healed Rath, Nicholas and a dozen Skin soldiers.
Nicholas smiled. “You’re here finally,” he quipped. “It’s about time.”
Liz quickly scanned the Skins, surprised that any of them had survived after Tess’ fireball in the school. Or maybe, she wondered, they were different Skins. They certainly looked the worse for wear. They were all peeling horribly, large clumps of skin hanging from them, making them look like an army of zombies.
“Nicholas,” Isabel hissed. “But how…” she trailed off looking at Lonnie. “We just saw…”
An arrogant grin raised the corners of Lonnie mouth. “You’re so stupid,” she snarled. “You think you’re so good with that little power of yours, but you’ve never been up against someone who really knows how to use their powers.”
She laughed, looking only at Isabel. “It was too easy. I knew when you were in my head. I showed you exactly what I wanted you to see every step of the way; my unsuccessful healing of Rath, the phone conversations with Nicholas where he refused to help, and poor Rath getting weaker every day and on death’s door.”
Lonnie shook her head. “I was stalling, waiting for Nicholas to arrive. Then I led you right to us.”
While Lonnie talked, Zan and Max communicated silently, coordinating a retreat.
“There are too many of them,” Max said.
Zan agreed. “We have to get out of here.”
“I’ll cover us while you try to distract them to give the others time to get out,” Max said.
Max inched forward while Zan moved slightly to the side and when they were in position they both yelled. “RUN!”
Max raised his shield and Zan sent out a burst of energy that filled the room. Two of the Skin soldiers who were standing closer to them went flying when Zan’s power touched them, but no one else moved. Max wondered why no one was trying to stop them, but figured they were caught off guard.
It took a couple of seconds for the rest of the group to realize what was happening but Liz and Michael pushed Isabel, Tess and Ava toward the door.
But they all stopped, recoiling as more Skin troops filled the corridors where they had entered, blocking their escape. The Skins moved forward, forcing the group back into the room and stood in the doorways.
Max and Zan gathered the group together on one side of the room, against the wall, and Max let his shield drop to save his energy.
Nicholas chuckled, “There’s no escape,” he said with a smile. “You are completely outnumbered, and no little tricks will work this time. We’re ready for you.”
He motioned to the room around them. “Since you refused the invitation to the summit, we’ll just have to have it here instead, although it will be in less pleasant circumstances.”
“Of course we refused,” Max said. “The summit was a trap.”
“Of course it was,” Nicholas agreed. “But we would have discredited you in front of the other ruling families first,” he said with a shrug. “And the manner of your deaths would depend on if you took the deal Khivar offered. But now…” he trailed off.
“What do you want?” Max snarled at Nicholas.
Nicholas took a few steps closer. “The same thing I wanted last time, the Granolith.”
Max shook his head. “What is it? Why is it so important?”
Nicholas looked at him and then shrugged. “I might as well tell you. It’s not like the information can help you.”
He started to walk across the room, pacing in front of them.
“On our planet, the Granolith is like the Holy Grail, to reference something you might actually have heard of,” he sneered. “It’s a relic that is thousands of years old and has become the symbol of the rightful ruler of Antar. So it has been a bit inconvenient for Khivar that he hasn’t had it all these years, and there are factions who will never accept him as the king unless it is in his hands.”
Max nodded, but remembered what Liz had told him about Future Max using it as a time travel device. “But that’s not all,” he said.
Nicholas stopped in his pacing long enough to look at Max. “It does have a certain amount of power that can be used in various ways, healing, growing crops, localized weather control. It will help power our ship so we can return to Antar in a matter of hours instead of the long months it would take without it.”
Zan spoke up, “So this whole summit was just a setup to get the Granolith for Khivar.
Nicholas nodded. “And a convenient way to get rid of all of you,” he said, resuming his pacing. “Khivar would have offered you a deal to come home in exchange for the Granolith, and if you agreed, there would have been some quick and very public executions.” He motioned to Max and Zan, “After all, it might be confusing for the Antarian people to have to choose between two clone kings and their current leader.”
He stopped again, looking at the group, “But this is so much cleaner. After we get the Granolith, we can just kill you here.”
Zan shook his head. “But you won’t have any proof that we’re dead.”
Nicholas smiled. “Why do you think I had Lonnie stalling so long? I had to prepare several of my troops to mind-link with Antar.” He motioned around the room with a sweep of his hand. “This whole thing is being broadcast live to the summit that Khivar is holding at his palace. The rulers of the other four planets are in attendance and they will witness how pathetic you are, and how ridiculous this whole plan to resurrect you was in the first place. Your powers are no match for us. Your defeat and execution will be seen around our star system and then no one will oppose Khivar.”
“We won’t give you the Granolith,” Max said.
A bark of a laugh burst from Nicholas’ lips. “I’m not giving you a choice,” he said arrogantly. “The last time I was pulling information out of your head, I saw how valuable the human is to you.” He motioned to Liz. “By the way Max, you were incredibly stupid to bring her. What did you think this was, a date? Thought you’d impress her by defeating the big, bad aliens?”
He smiled, “But since she’s here, we may as well make her feel welcome. So you can tell me where the Granolith is, or I will start with her and see how long she can hold out against my powers.” He gave a slight shrug. “Of course when I’ve used them on humans in the past, it hasn’t gone well, and the screaming gets so annoying.”
Max and Zan moved closer to Liz, and Zan’s eyes hardened as he spoke. “You can’t have Liz either,” he said gruffly. “You’ll have to go through all of us to get to her.”
Nicholas nodded. “Not a problem.”
While Max and Zan had been keeping Nicholas talking, they were frantically communicating in their heads to come up with a plan to escape.
“There are too many of them,” Max said. “And we’re sitting ducks here. We need to even the odds before we try to take them on.”
Zan agreed silently. “I have an idea,” he said. “You concentrate on getting us out of here.”
Liz had been listening silently, but spoke up now. "Go through the wall like Lonnie did."
Max barely had time to take in Liz’s words when Nicholas spoke up, “Last chance.”
As Nicholas’ troops raised their hands, Zan concentrated his power on the ceiling above Lonnie, Rath and the Skins before him.
It felt like he was trying to lift an elephant, but he knew if he didn’t buy them some time they might not live through this.
There was a groan as the materials above them started to weaken, and a small shower of dust sprinkled down that gave Nicholas and Lonnie just enough time to leap aside just before the roof and ceiling came crashing down. The whole building shook and a roar filled the air as debris landed on top of the troops inside the room, and filled the doorway so the Skins outside the room were blocked.
Zan saw several Skin soldiers disintegrate in a poof of dust as the rubble rained down, but didn’t linger to see the full impact of what he’d done.
Turning he saw that Max had filled in Isabel and Michael and they were already using their power on the wall behind them. Particles of the wall swirled quickly away as they made a gap to escape.
“Back to the cars,” Max bellowed.
Michael and Isabel went through the opening first, hands raised, scanning the dusky surroundings for enemies.
The sound of running footsteps coming toward them, made them all turn as a man came rushing at them, and Michael used a blast of energy to send him flying.
When everyone was out, Zan pulled the brick wall down behind them, and it collasped with a whoosh of dust.
The group hurried back the way they came, but staying together and all going around the front of the building this time.
Liz thought she could hear shouting from inside the building, and then a section of the wall next to her disappeared, and a badly peeling Skin soldier reached for her. With a yelp of alarm, she automatically raised her hand and a glowing wall of yellow light erupted from her palm, pushing the man away and causing the remains of the wall between them to crumble.
Surprised, Liz jerked backward, falling to the ground.
“What the hell was that?” Michael demanded, looking back at her.
Zan and Max rushed forward, each taking one of Liz’s arms, lifting her to her feet. “It was her shield,” Zan said.
“What?” Tess exclaimed. “Since when does she have a shield?”
“Later,” Max snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”
They passed an emergency door to the building and it suddenly burst open, two Skin soldiers rushed out with outstretched arms.
Isabel and Michael both used their powers to each lift one of the Skins and slammed them into the brick wall of the building, breaking the seal on their husks and turning them to dust.
Michael called over his shoulder, “How many of them did you see?”
Max shook his head, “I don’t know, at least thirty.”
Michael nodded. "Zan probably took out a few in that collapse, but there still could be anywhere from ten to twenty of them out here."
"So let's get moving," Isabel said, "before they have time to regroup."
The group hurried forward, with Isabel and Michael in the front. As they approached the front door of the building, Michael slowed to cautiously look inside, but Isabel put a hand to the wall, causing bricks to cover the door, sealing it.
Michael gave her an impressed nod of his head and kept moving.
Once again they had to slow when they approached the edge of the building, and the whole group stopped, crouching down. Only a driveway separated them from the next building.
Michael quickly looked around the corner of the building, checking for any signs of the enemies, but saw nothing.
He turned to the others. "No one’s there," he whispered.
"Maybe they’re still inside," Isabel suggested.
"Or maybe it's a trap," Zan said.
Max nodded. "Either way, we’ve got to get out of here, so we have to risk it. It’s almost dark,” he said, looking to the last sliver of sun visible over the horizon. “We just have to be careful and watch out for each other."
Michael nodded. “I’ll go first.”
Checking around that side of the building again, he hurried across the short expanse of asphalt and reached the other building without anything happening. Taking a deep breath, he checked his surroundings and then motioned to the others.
Carefully the rest of the group crossed to the next building, Isabel and Ava, followed by Liz and Tess, and then Zan and Max. When they were all across, they started to move forward quickly.
Max and Michael hadn’t been on this side of the building when they were going to confront Lonnie and Rath. There was more vegetation on and a single car in the parking lot that was in the space closest to the building.
Just past the car was a stand of short trees on one side of a rock garden. In the center were a half circle of cement benches with high backs.
The scene struck something in Max that sent a shiver all the way through him, and he couldn’t help mentioning it aloud. “That looks so familiar,” he said to Zan. “I don’t know what it is, but I know I’ve never been here before.”
Zan looked across to where Max was motioning and the sensation of familiarity rushed through him too. He shook his head. “I didn’t notice when we were going the other way,” he said softly. “It’s the way the benches look against the trees with the sun behind…” he trailed off as he suddenly stood up and walked the short distance.
Michael called out in a harsh whisper, “Zan, where are you going?”
But Zan didn’t stop.
Michael looked to Max for an explanation, but Max stepped forward, following Zan, and Michael called out, “What the hell?”
Max and Zan couldn’t stop staring at the scene before them because it looked so familiar, and through the connection in their minds, thoughts and feelings rushed between them as the sensation of other started to fill them.
“We’ve been here before,” Max said silently to Zan.
And suddenly they didn’t see the scene before them any more, but saw a similar setting in another life.
A small grove of alien trees stood behind a flat rock that jutted out of the ground in the palace’s private garden. The young king had seen it a thousand times before, but that evening as he stumbled toward it, the red leaves of the tree seemed to almost glow with fire as the setting sun lit it from behind.
He couldn’t help but think that it was appropriate because his entire world had gone up in flames that day, and it was likely where he would die.
At what was supposed to be a peace conference, Khivar had savagely attacked them, and Zan watched his sister and first in command die. Zan was grievously injured in the short fight too and blood poured out of his side. Every step he took felt like his legs were made of lead and he knew he’d soon be dead.
He’d barely escaped, his men sacrificing themselves so he could get away. He was carrying his young bride who was bloody and unconscious, and he kept moving forward for her sake. He’d exhausted himself in the fight and he had no power left to heal her. Maybe she could be saved if he found help. Maybe…
Inside he knew she was probably dead too, but he couldn’t stop. He had to do something for her. It was his fault. If he hadn’t married her… He shouldn’t have married her. He needed a wife and she was so eager to fill the position, but he’d never loved her. He’d tried, but he just couldn’t love her. And now she was dying because of him.
As he reached the rock in the center of the garden, his legs went out from under him and he fell to his knees, still clutching Ava to his chest.
He took a deep breath, but pain ripped through his side causing him to wince. He had to ignore it though. He had to save the wife he should have loved.
Cradling her carefully, he reached out and grasped the edge of the rock and used all of his strength to lift himself to one foot. Resting for a moment, he gathered himself again to try and stand, when suddenly he was hit hard on the side.
His arm went numb as he spun around and his grasp on Ava faltered. She flew away from him, landing a few yards away, and he ended up on his back, facing the opposite direction. Before him was Khivar and several of his men.
“Finally,” Khivar said, “the boy king.”
Zan looked to where Ava was laying. “Spare her,” he groaned, every breath causing him pain.
Khivar smiled. “How romantic,” he scoffed. “But I wonder if you’d want me to save her if you knew the truth. Ava is the reason you are here.”
Zan was having trouble thinking and his vision blurred, but he shook his head slightly. “What are you talking about?” he breathed. “She wouldn’t betray me. She loves me.”
Khivar’s smile widened. “But you never loved her,” he said. “She would do anything to get you to love her. So foolish, little Ava thought if she got the two of us together that we could end this war. She would be the hero and you would finally love her and live happily ever after. So even though you thought the peace conference was a trap, she convinced you with the help of her powers to proceed.”
Glancing at her, Khivar continued, “Well she was right about one thing, I am ending the war, but not in the way she envisioned. And instead of being a hero, if she is remembered at all, it will be as a stupid little girl whose selfishness brought down a kingdom.”
Zan glanced once more at Ava and then looked away. He could tell there was nothing more he could do for her.
Khivar was still speaking and Zan realized he’d missed some of the words.
“…you can do now. Antar is mine and soon you will be dead, but before you die I will have the location of the Granolith.”
Zan looked at his enemy who towered over him, and rage filled him. This evil man had taken everything from him without a second thought, and now he expected Zan to hand over the Granolith before he let them kill him. Slowly, excruciatingly he pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the pain the best he could as he stood before Khivar straight and proud. “Never!” he growled. “I’ll never give you the Granolith.”
A satisfied smile lifted the corners of Khivar’s mouth. “We’ll see about that…”
As Khivar spoke, Zan seemed to hear his voice from farther and farther away and then heard a more familiar voice. A sweet voice filled with concern and love, “Max! Zan! Wake up!”
Liz’s voice in their heads made Max and Zan come suddenly back to the present.
They were laying on the ground near some benches and Liz was shaking them. They looked around to see their group surrounding them, arms raised, protecting them.
For a moment Max and Zan were confused but through the connection they saw what had happened through Liz’s eyes.
As they walked toward the trees, the rest of the group followed them, trying to get their attention. At that moment a Skin soldier started coming toward them out of the growing darkness. Isabel, Ava, Tess and Michael moved into position around them to hold their enemy off as Liz tried to wake them.
When the Skin got too close, Michael lifted him off his feet and slammed him into the ground, turning him to dust.
“Grab Max,” Michael instructed. “I’ll get Zan and we’ll carry them if we have to.”
Two more Skins came from opposite directions and Isabel and Ava had to pause to deal with them, but more shapes were emerging from the dusk.
“There’s too many of them,” Isabel said. “We can’t outrun them carrying Max and Zan.”
Michael nodded, looking around. He focused on the car that was parked just a few yards away and used a burst of power to drag it toward them using it as cover, as more Skins approached.
Liz pushed Max and Zan to the ground as the Skins got closer, and she started yelling at them in their heads. They’d really only been out of it for a few moments, but it had given the enemy the upper hand.
“Snap them out of this,” Michael yelled at Liz over his shoulder as they crouched behind the car. “We aren’t going to last much longer.”
Never Underestimate Destiny|
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