July, three years after the fall of the Legion
Bela coughed against the sulfurous wind in her face before she even broke free of the transportation channel.
I have to be crazy, coming here first.
The saner part of her mind urged her to turn around and run right back to the earthy, orderly comfort of Motherhouse Russia, but she’d be damned if she’d let a bunch of fire-spitting Irish bitches send her home with her tail between her legs.
Bela lunged through the final barrier of elemental power separating her from her destination. She barely managed to keep her balance as she stumbled out of the ancient channel of energy onto the large, round platform in the communications chamber deep within Motherhouse Ireland. Her right hand gripped the hilt of her sword before she could see or hear or get her bearings. Her battle leathers felt a size too tight as they reacted to the heat in the big stone chamber, and her heart thumped like ritual drums during a Solstice celebration. She jerked in a ragged breath as her chest expanded in opposition to the crushing pressure of moving through space and time so quickly. The ancient channels of transportation and communication that crisscrossed the earth were effective—but a real bitch for people without lungs the size of Rhode Island.
As Bela’s vision cleared, she caught a last glimpse of the place she had just departed—Motherhouse Russia.
Or a great place to hide.
The familiar images of brown-robed Russian adepts lingered in the projective mirror, the special piece of elementally treated glass sealing the channel from which Bela had just emerged, but faded as the glass once more grew solid. Smoke swirled through the surface, gradually obscuring everything Bela associated with peace and safety.
She was all alone now.
Bela’s jaw clenched as fire billowed around her.
The hot blast of energy singed her from all sides, flowing down from the huge castle above her. It took all of her elemental earth talents to keep the scalding power from sizzling her into ash and tooth enamel.
Did everything with fire Sibyls have to be so confrontational?
If she had more status in her Motherhouse, if she had managed to make herself somebody’s favorite, one of the Russian Mothers might have stood with her this night and lent her support as she took this step toward reclaiming a useful life. But Bela had never been the endearing type. She was nobody’s favorite, and being alone, well, that was just fine and normal, wasn’t it?
Refusing to choke on the smoke and stench of singed hair—her own—Bela wiped sweat off her forehead with her palm and faced the frowning fire adept who had managed the transport. The redhead’s arms were still raised and smoking, and her feet moved in the dance necessary to close the ancient channels that allowed Bela’s instant travel from Russia to Ireland. Four more green-robed adepts stood in the chamber around the platform, finishing the chant. Tiny jets of fire blasted from their fingers, feeding the gray-white cloud that hung over the high-ceilinged space.
“It’s late,” growled a sixth woman, this one standing toward the back of the stone room. She wore green robes, too, but her hood had been shoved back to reveal her frail features and the ropes of gray hair lying across both shoulders. Her face was a collection of wrinkles, but her green eyes burned with a timeless, ferocious light. Her gnarled hands looked deadly, never mind the Irish hand-and-a-half sword belted at her waist, or the tip of the gigantic Chinese great sword visible above one shoulder.
None of the Russian Mothers will give me the time of day, but this bitch shows up to welcome me to Ireland?
Bela didn’t bother to fake a smile. She had grown up hard on the streets of New York City despite the weekday respite of training at her Motherhouse, but she had never bothered with learning to con or hustle. Her fists usually persuaded people to see things her way.
Forcing herself not to draw her weapon on women who were supposed to be her fellow warriors, Bela stepped to the side of the adept who had brought her through the channels. To the small figure in the back of the room, she gave a half bow from the waist. “Mother Keara. Thanks for showing up to say hello.”
The old woman snorted, and a halo of sparks burst over her gray head. “I’m not makin’ a social call. What the livin’ hell do you think you’re doin’, coming here this time of night?”
Bela climbed down from the big round platform and pushed her way through the glaring, smoking adepts. Will?power alone kept her expression flat and her eyes calm despite the roar of blood through her veins. There were few times in life that an earth Sibyl could show weakness, and showing up unannounced, unaccompanied, and uninvited to choose a fire Sibyl for her fighting group was definitely not one of them.
“I don’t owe you an explanation for my timing.” Bela came to a stop in front of Mother Keara, doing her best to keep fear and irritation out of her tone as she gazed down at the tiny icon of fire power. “I can choose my fighting partners when the energy feels right to me.”
The old woman’s green eyes narrowed until Bela was certain Mother Keara couldn’t see anything but the zipper on Bela’s leather bodysuit.
“Yer last triad fared poorly.” Mother Keara let fire flash along her skin to punctuate her statement. “What makes you think I’ll waste another fire adept on yer questionable skills?”
Pain hotter than any flame lanced Bela’s very soul. She swayed on her feet but somehow managed not to close her eyes or let loose with a heart-deep scream.
Unfair words. Bald and awful. But true. Even after three years, the loss still cut so brutally Bela thought she’d die from the sharpness. A Sibyl without her triad was orphaned by the universe itself, severed from the spirit of life and fighting and battle. Months spent in meditation and retraining at Motherhouse Russia melted into nothing, and all Bela could think about was the first time she’d come here searching for a good fighting match.
Nori’s smile had been so bright, and her fiery power had surged through Bela, joining Bela’s earth energy so completely. Bela ached at the memory as if she were bleeding to death inside—and she almost wished she could will herself to do just that, here, now, to atone for whatever shortcomings had led to the deaths of her original triad sisters.
What kind of mortar loses her pestle and broom?
And what kind of monster uses that pain to gain advantage in an argument?
Bela glared at Mother Keara, who glared right back.
Even though Bela had expected a challenge, her rehearsed defenses caught like dry bread in her throat.
I fought for Nori and Devin. . . .
I’ll tear off my own arms before I lose another triad sister. . . .
Mother Keara was honest. Merciless, but telling the truth. How could Bela argue with that? But Mother or no, mean was mean, and Bela wasn’t about to be out-nastied by some sawed-off flamethrower. She squeezed both hands into fists. “A lot of triads lost Sibyls when we kicked the Legion’s ass. You suffer through those damned remembrances just like I do—so why are you being such a bitch?”
Fire crackled in the air over Mother Keara’s head and singed Bela’s cheeks, but Bela didn’t move an inch. So much for her eyebrows. Who needed eyebrows anyway? They’d grow back fast enough.
Without breaking eye contact with Bela, Mother Keara gestured to the adepts in the stone chamber. The younger women immediately broke ranks and filed out of the arched wooden doorway, trailing smoke behind them as they returned to the upper reaches of the castle.
The door once more swung shut, and an unusual chill grabbed the quiet space.
Mother Keara’s smoke faded to a light fog. She faced Bela with a calculation and coolness Bela never expected from any fire Sibyl, even a Mother. “Yer air Sibyl, Devin, went down in battle. For that, I won’t be faultin’ you. But Nori was murdered. You let her down.”
The ground beneath Bela’s feet trembled as a burst of her own dangerous elemental energy escaped. She couldn’t hold back the quake of earth power and she didn’t want to, even if she tore open a canyon beneath Motherhouse Ireland and the whole damned castle crashed all the way to the planet’s molten core.
Feeling like she could breathe fire herself, Bela leaned down until her face was only inches from Mother Keara’s wrinkled cheeks and angry green eyes. “You think I don’t live with Nori’s death every second of my life, old woman? You think I don’t miss Devin, too—that I don’t know my triad is dead because of me?”
Mother Keara’s lips pulled back in a snarl, and Bela matched it. She met Mother Keara’s explosion of fire energy with a crushing wave of earth energy. Growling like the Russian gray wolves that roamed the halls and forests of Motherhouse Russia, they locked in combat, earth to fire, fire to earth, energy broiling between them, shaking the air itself.
Bela’s fingers twitched above her sword hilt. She wanted to draw the serrated blade and beat the stone wall over Mother Keara’s head until sparks flew, until the stones broke open and turned to dust.
I’m an earth Sibyl.
All the months in silence, trying to relearn control despite the pain and grief and loss—did that effort matter?
She couldn’t turn loose her temper—it was wrong. Dangerous. But that’s exactly what she was doing. If Mother Keara’s energy hadn’t been battling Bela’s earth power, Bela really would be tearing a hole the size of New York in the ground beneath them.
“You’re weak.” Mother Keara’s eyes gleamed like green fire as her words knifed through the radiating elemental energy. “Draw yer sword. Give me the pleasure of riddin’ the world of an unworthy Sibyl.”
Bela kept a wall of earth power plastered against the orange sheet of flames spilling off Mother Keara. Her hand moved outside her own bidding, ripping her serrated blade free of its leather guard and raising the blade so close to Mother Keara’s nose she might have drawn blood.
What was that?
Who cared anyway?
Motherhouse Ireland started to shake with the earth beneath it.
Three years of trying to move on from her losses, and not a day of it mattered. She’d never get over them. Mother Keara was right. To hell with this. She had no chance of beating a Mother in a sword fight—especially not this Mother—but Bela really, really didn’t give a shit.
“For Nori, then,” Bela said through her teeth, hearing her Bronx accent surge over the neutral inflection her mother had taught her. “She never liked your scrawny ass anyway.”
Excerpted from Captive Spirit by Anna Windsor. Copyright © 2010 by Anna Windsor. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.