Chapter 21 - The Final Barrier
This was it! This was my chance to make a name for myself among the international royal community. After today I will always be known as the Queen that finally discovered the secrets of the Hidden and captured their leader.
-Queen Florence Collins
I stood with my guys in the void and watched with mounting dread as Florence and Eli took control of the situation with military efficiency. Max and Ethan were forced away from Constance and my newly healed biological mother was hauled up roughly by two royal guards. They walked over to where Valerie was still standing tall within my Shield and held Constance in a punishing hold to Valerie’s right so that Florence could easily see both women. Florence took her time to evaluate both women before flicking her eyes to the Shields that surrounded Louka and Mariana. Even though she couldn’t see us or them, my Shields were visible through the barrier between the void and the human plane. Thus, to her, they would appear to be empty but I was sure someone informed her about the other two Hidden that had popped up in the backyard.
Florence refocused on Valerie and said, “My name is Queen Florence Collins and I am the rightful and supreme ruler of this territory that you are currently trespassing on. According to our laws you must identify yourself and declare your intentions for being here.”
“I am more than aware of who you are and I can assure you that I am unimpressed,” Valerie stated in a cool and indifferent tone. “I do not recognize your laws or your right to rule. Your ancestors stole this land from us. If anyone should be the rightful ruler of this place, it is me.”
Florence’s face turned an alarming shade of red and the amount of dread I was feeling nearly doubled as she looked over her shoulder and nodded at two of her guards. I wasn’t familiar with them but I felt Connor tense beside me. Whatever happened next wasn’t going to be pretty. However, before the guards could take more than a step in Valerie’s direction their feet sank into the Earth, trapping them in place. Then a huge amount of wind started to spin, gathering leaves, twigs, and napkins from the table and swirling them into a vortex that centered around Valerie. The dozens of people gathered in the backyard all looked around curiously, obviously not understanding what was happening. The wind continued to pick up speed until everyone had to actively fight to stay upright and I glanced at Valerie to see a sly smile lighting up her face.
We did not feel the wind in the void and I asked what was going on, not really expecting anyone to answer me. “Valerie maintains control of wind and earth. Did you really think someone as powerful as her would allow herself to be questioned by her enemies without fighting back? You can put a stop to this. Release us from these Shields and we will return to the Northern City,” Louka told me in a reasonable voice, but he was lying.
“Every time you lie to me, the less I will listen to anything you have to say. Considering that we are both Gatekeepers and will most likely have to work with each other during the course of our lives, I would advise you to think twice before doing it again,” I told him point blank and returned my attention to the action within the physical plane. My attention was caught by an almost excited gleam in Constance’s eyes a moment before at least ten people, including the important royals leading this integration, all started scratching at their throat and falling to their knees.
“What is happening to them?” Blake called in horrified fascination. This time when Louka answered, every word he said was the truth but I wished they weren’t.
“Constance also has the Air Gift. She has honed her Gift until she is able to literally steal the air right out of your lungs. She can suffocate people with a single thought. It is her favorite torture technique and seems to take great pleasure in being Valerie’s interrogator.” Someone must have figured out that the prisoners were the ones causing all of the uproar and one of the guards stepped forward and hit Constance in the temple with the butt of his blade and she fell limp within the Guards grip. The people that were suffering under her power were able to regain their composure and everyone redoubled their efforts to somehow stop Valerie.
I considered dropping the Shield so that they could also knock her out, but I knew that the moment my Shield disappeared she would Teleport away and be lost. I also felt torn on whose side I was on right now. I held Constance and Valerie responsible for the kidnapping and subsequent torture of the Rebec Clan, but I knew that the Collinses and Norwoods weren’t exactly the good guys in this equation.
Before I could make a decision on whether to act or not, Ransom was able to get close enough to the center of the vortex to Compel Valerie to stop using all of her Gifts. The wind slowly dissipated and the contingent of royal guards was quick to snap back into formation, making the threat clear. Valerie may be incredibly strong, but she was no match for the dozens of human-bound Valkyries that she was facing. Especially because she was still trapped within my Shield and I was blocking her escape route to the void.
When Florence regained her composure, she nodded a small acknowledgment to Ransom before the two royal guards that she had called before stepped up and Compelled Valerie to answer all of Florence’s questions honestly and completely. Then, with a satisfied smile on her lips, Florence started getting the answers that her family had been working to discover for generations.
Florence was still getting rudimentary information from Valerie; her name, location of her home, how many hidden live in the Northern city, when Louka spoke up and captured my attention. “I am curious because honestly, this wasn’t how I thought all of this was going to go down. Why did you and the old man attack Constance when we first showed up? I would have thought you would have been thrilled to be reunited with your long-lost mother from whom you were stolen from so very long ago,” Louka said and this time he wasn’t lying to me. He really thought that I would be happy to see Constance.
I felt Derik shift between me and the trapped Gatekeepers, clearly thinking that this was some sort of trap but I wanted answers. “Are you telling me that you don’t know what Constance and Valerie did to the Rebec Clan?” I questioned, my voice laced with skepticism.
Louka’s brow furrowed and he looked genuinely confused. “Who are the Rebec Clan and what do they have to do with your reunion with your mother?”
I studied him for a moment and considered that it was possible that the adults had kept this from Louka and Mariana. Wiyot and Kanza did say that they didn’t learn of what Valerie was doing until after it was too late and it wasn’t like they were likely to go around bragging about how they kidnapped and raped a group of men to produce especially Gifted children. “What story were you told about my childhood and the children that were murdered?” I asked and noted that while Blake was paying attention to our conversation, Connor’s attention was still trained on Florence as she questioned Valerie. Good. He could tell me everything he learned later.
“Nearly sixteen years ago, the human-bound Valkyries finally found a way to travel into the Doba,” Louka said slowly, like if he was trying to explain something that he knew to be a fact to a small child. “They wanted to hurt us in the vilest way possible and cripple our future generations. So this group of human-bound Valkyries attacked the daycare center without ever trying to talk or negotiate with us. They went straight for our innocent children that had no way of defending themselves and killed four babies before we mounted a defense. One got away with you and we have been preparing ourselves for another such horrific and spineless attack ever since. These people are the reason you were ripped away from your home and your family. Yes, Constance is not the warmest woman, but she adored you. She was a dedicated and present mother. Your disappearance devastated her.”
Louka wasn’t lying, so he must really believe that was what happened. But he was wrong. That version of events didn’t explain how Samuel was my father. And no human-bound Valkyrie can travel to the Doba. They had to be brought there. “That isn’t what happened,” I stated with confidence and tried to think with so much going on around me.
“What do you mean? What do you think happened?” Louka asked and almost unbidden my eyes were drawn to Mariana. She hadn’t said anything since I used my Truth Gift on her and right now she looked scared out of her damn mind. I doubted that she was or ever would be the brains of the operation.
Mariana’s fear and Louka’s ignorance were making me feel bad for imprisoning them. This was our parent’s war and we were getting dragged into it simply because they wouldn’t let go of their grudges long enough to hear the full story. Neither of them had done anything to me or the Rebec Clan. Turning them over to the royals to be questioned and quite possibly punished didn’t seem like the right thing to do. All they had done was shown up unannounced and unexpected.
“Valerie and Constance have done horrible things that they now have to take responsibility for. I can tell you that I know without a shadow of a doubt that what you were told about the murdered children was a lie. The human-bound Valkyries that attacked were brought to the Doba years before those children died and the man that took me was my biological father. Take the time to find out the real truth. It may be important in the future,” I told Louka vaguely and saw his eyes flick to where Valerie was being questioned. “It is clear that you have no idea what is really going on right now and I really don’t want to leave your entire people without their leaders. If I let you go now, will you leave? Return to the Northern City and leave me and my clan alone?”
Just as I was finishing speaking I got that overwhelming feeling of being watched again and searched our surroundings looking for whoever else had just appeared. “No,” Louka said and the feeling of other people coming into the void only increased. But I was in the void and couldn’t see anyone. “I am sorry but we are unwilling to leave Valerie here. She is our leader. The premier Gatekeeper of her time and I owe it to her to fight.”
Just then I felt a surge of power that wasn’t mine and an incredible amount of strangers appeared in the void, overlapping with the Valkyries in the physical plane. Making my brain hurt and making them almost impossible to count. But it looked like there were at least as many people in the void now as there were in the physical plane. I understood then. I hadn’t been feeling the presence of people in the void. We were already in the void. I had been feeling the presence of people in the Doba and either Louka or Mariana had just shifted them to the void because I hadn’t locked that doorway.
I clenched my jaw as fear for the guys pierced through me and instantly shoved all of the newcomers back into the Doba and solidified the barrier between the void and the Doba. The dozens of Hidden disappeared from sight but I could still feel their presence in the next plane of existence. Almost as soon as I had solidified the barrier I felt pressure against my hold and my eyes snapped to Louka’s.
“You are stronger than me Sierra. Clearly the premier of our generation. But holding both barriers closed, not to mention keeping these Shields up, has to be taking a great deal of power. Sooner or later your power will start to drain away and then you will have to make a choice. Either return Valerie to us and I swear that we will return to the Northern City, or wait for the barrier to fail and watch as war breaks out between our people,” Louka said, sounding almost sorry that he was placing this on my shoulders.
“She practically raised me,” Louka said in a soft voice filled with emotion. “I cannot leave her here. I will not.”
Blake’s hold on my hand tightened so much I was sure he was going to leave bruises and I turned to Derik for help. But he wasn’t looking at me. He was glaring at Louka. “Why the fuck do you keep calling her Sierra?” he growled and I was more concerned with the fact that was what Derik was thinking about at this moment. Our backyard was about to become a battleground and he was worried about a name?
“That is her name. Her given birth name. Sierra Delphine Belanger. Clearly, there is much for you to learn about who you are and where you come from, Sierra. Bring Valerie back and return to the Northern City with us. I will show you your heritage. I will show you your childhood home. I will show you where you belong,” Louka said and a shiver of revulsion ran down my spine. I really didn’t like that this stranger knew things about me that I didn’t.
I returned Blake’s punishing grip and reached out for Connor with my other hand before I shifted us back to the physical plane while leaving Louka and Mariana behind in the void. I continued to feel the combined pressure of their Gifts trying to break past my own and admitted to myself that I was starting to feel the strain. I dropped the Shields around Louka and Mariana to try to save energy and made a beeline for Elijah. I needed advice and I needed it now.
We spooked several Royal Guards when we returned and more than one tried to step up and detain us, but I wasn’t playing around here and didn’t have the patience to explain to them what I needed. I simply pushed them momentarily into the void and walked through their questing hands, making a statement and scaring the shit out of anyone that was close enough to see. The rest of the guards practically tripped over themselves to get out of our way.
Elijah had been pushed away from the main core of people around Valerie but he was standing with his eyes shut and I knew that he was concentrating on deciphering the immense amount of thoughts that were surrounding him. He was probably learning a ton right now, but I could feel Louka starting to push harder and my control slipping away. I was starting to sweat and felt slightly dizzy. We needed to make a decision and we needed to make a decision right now.
Hernan spotted our group on the move and walked away from the questioning to step in my path. I was just about to walk through him as well when I reconsidered. Out of all of the Collinses and Norwoods, Hernan was the lesser evil. At least from my point of view. Elijah was still lost to his concentration and I decided to take a risk and ask Hernan for advice.
“Where have you been? Where are the other two Hidden that appeared here? Why have you dropped your Shields that I had assumed were keeping them secured?” Hernan asked in a hushed, urgent voice before I could get any words out.
I pulled him to the side and hoped that no one would hear my hushed words. The last thing I wanted to do was start a panic. “The Hidden are not okay that we have captured and are questioning their leader. They have gathered just as many or more numbers as you have here and are threatening to attack if we don’t release Valerie back to them.”
Hernan looked at me with surprise as the reality of our current situation fully dawned on him. “You told me once that you wanted to heal any notions of discord between our peoples, and graciously invite them to integrate back into our society. If that is still your end goal, I can promise you that forcing today to end in bloodshed is not the right answer. I have been told that they want a war. Thus they will be significantly more prepared for one than you are. We must release Valerie and then work to open the lines of communication,” I said with desperation. The more I thought about war breaking out at the Oakland Clan house, the more I shied away from the idea. I knew that if that happened I would feel responsible and didn’t want the fallout on my conscience.
Hernan stared at me for several moments, but I could tell that he wasn’t really seeing me. His analytical mind was running through the possibilities and the plausible outcomes. “Let me go talk to Flori,” Hernan said before striding away from us with purpose. I was relieved that he was taking me seriously but all of a sudden I felt incredibly dizzy and shuffled to the side, trying to maintain my balance. Max appeared at my side and didn’t hesitate to reach out and steady me while quietly asking what was going on. Blake explained in a voice so low that even I was having a hard time hearing him.
Max ended up scooping me up into his arms and walked over to a chair in the corner as I took as much comfort as I could from the clan bond burning between us. I had never felt this drained of power before and considering that lately, I have been struggling with too much power, I was surprised that I was feeling this way so soon. I guess blocking travel between three different planes of existence took way more power than just moving through them did. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer and decided to release my hold on the barrier between the Doba and the void, allowing me to focus on keeping everyone from entering the human plane of existence. Almost immediately I felt better, but I also felt the looming presence of an army of Valkyries step closer.
Minutes passed before Hernan finally returned and told me that Florence was refusing to agree to let Valerie go. He instead started detailing to me a plan that they were hatching to catch as many Hidden as they could during the fight. They wanted me to hold them off until I was signaled and then I was to push everyone in the void to the physical plane. He was convinced that with the advantage of surprise, that while they would sustain losses, overall they would come out triumphant. At this point, I tuned him out and scanned through the dozens of faces of the people gathered in our yard. Some I knew, most I didn’t. But I knew with a dark certainty that most of them would die for no reason if I let this continue.
“You do realize that the mere act of telling me this makes the plan very much not a surprise,” I said to Hernan without looking at him, instead still studying the vast amount of people in mortal peril because of who I am. “They are in the void right now. You may not be able to see them but they can see you. And they most definitely can hear you. They have the strategic advantage. No matter what you do, I do not believe you will be triumphant.”
I finally turned to look Hernan in the eye and I could tell that he agreed with me. He didn’t want to spark this war right now either. If I had to guess, I would say that he had been outranked by his sister and if the desperation within his gaze was anything to go by, Hernan was terrified. He couldn’t see a way out of this. He wasn’t powerful enough to end this.
But I was.
I took a deep breath and then pushed Valerie and Constance into the void and dropped the Shield holding Valerie prisoner. An eerie silence filled the outside space as everyone came to terms that their prisoners had simply disappeared from sight, and I felt the pressure against the barrier between here and the void cease. Slowly, I stood from Max’s lap and turned to face Florence and the rest of the royals. I understood that she was not going to be thrilled with my disobeying her direct orders and that I may have just cost the guys their home. I just had to make sure that any punishment that she dolled out was solely aimed at me. I would protect my guys at almost any cost.
Royal Guards, members of the Blade Clan, and even Darron and Queen Anne stepped aside as Florence slowly walked towards me. Max stood from his chair behind me and the twins took a step closer on either side of me until I was completely surrounded by my Three Musketeers. Derik shifted in front of our group, clearly trying to stand as the first line of defense and Elijah cried out No! from his position on the porch. Clearly, whatever Elijah was reading from the Queen’s head was pretty serious and I mentally tried to prepare myself for whatever was coming my way.
Queen Florence stopped about two feet in front of Derik and hissed out, “Move,” in a clear order but my fierce protector stood strong. Florence flicked two of her fingers and three guards moved out of formation and marched towards Derik. I instantly snapped up Shields around all of the guys and felt an immediate head rush as I stumbled to the side. My tank was precariously close to empty and I was still holding the barrier between here and the void closed. The army of Hidden had not retreated.
When I regained my balance, I stepped up beside Derik and looked Florence in the eye. I would not shy away from my decision. “Bring them back,” Florence hissed again in the same venom-filled voice that made my skin crawl.
“If I do that, people will die,” I said in a loud voice so that everyone could hear me. These people deserved to know that their queen was going to throw their lives away just so that she could be known as the Queen that took down the Hidden. “As I informed you before. They have greater numbers and Gifts that we don’t know how to defend against. They have the strategic advantage and we have zero reasons to start a war. There is no reason for people to die today.”
“Those people kidnapped, tortured, and killed your father and his entire clan,” Florence spit back in my face. “Where is your loyalty? Where is your honor? I will not allow your cowardice to stand in the way of justice. Bring them back right now!”
“Starting a war that will leave the majority of the people here dead will not bring the Rebec Clan back. It will not heal the wounds that their disappearance left behind. It will not miraculously turn my father back into a good person or erase my horrific childhood. It will lead to even more hate and bloodshed. More broken families and orphaned children. You are the queen and what you order your people to do is up to your discretion. But I will not aid you in starting this war. I am not strong enough to protect everyone here and people will die,” I said and heard the low murmur of whispers permeate throughout the onlooking Valkyries.
Florence glanced around at her guards and her face continued to grow redder and redder as she came to the conclusion that her own people were starting to question her. Just then, I felt a huge push from the void with three distinct points of power. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to stand strong and keep them out. If they came through now when everyone was distracted, the human-bound Valkyries would be slaughtered. I felt light-headed and locked my knees to keep myself upright as I felt warm blood start to drip from my nose.
“Ray!” Max called but I tuned everything out and concentrated on keeping the fabric of reality solid. I dove deep and asked my Gift to hold because everyone here needed me to be strong enough not to break. I felt a slight waiver and all of the Shields I was holding dropped but then a new boost of power ran through me and I threw every inch of it into my Cloaking Gift and felt the resulting solidness of the barrier. I felt more blood run from my nose but I was more confident that Valerie wasn’t getting back through and I think she realized it. The pressure against the barrier dropped away and I opened up my eyes to see that nearly everyone was staring at me with wide, questioning eyes.
“You are keeping them from attacking,” Darron Deveroe stated in an awed statement of fact and I heard another ripple of whispers travel through the watching guards and hunters.
“I was, but they are no longer here. They have retreated,” I lied in hopes that Florence would stop pushing me to drop the barrier. Just then I felt the click in my head indicating that someone with the Truth Gift had just truth checked me. I looked over Florance’s shoulder and found Kaiden staring right at me. He knew that I was lying, but as the seconds ticked by I was less and less sure that he was going to reveal my lie. I took a closer look at him and realized that he was terrified. He wasn’t ready to fight and most likely die here today. I felt someone touch my shoulder and I turned to see that Max was holding his shirt in his hand and he carefully cradled my head and wiped the blood from my face. I felt his power lick against my skin and knew that he was checking for injuries, but I was almost positive I wasn’t hurt, just exhausted and drained of power.
I looked up into Max’s worried eyes and did my best to reassure him that I was okay. To reassure myself that we were all going to make it through this whole and unharmed. “Arrest her!” Florence screeched and I snapped my head in her direction in shock. Was she fucking serious right now? I had just stopped a war from breaking out and the threat was not yet gone and her answer was to arrest me?
No one responded to her yelled order so she repeated herself, “Valkyrie Delia Olsen disobeyed a direct order from the ruling Queen. The Law dictates that I am well within my rights to have her detained and whipped for such an action. There are consequences for blatant disobedience and it is time that you learned your place,” Florence spit out, looking directly at me. “You will either kneel and accept your lawful punishment or I will detain you and your entire clan under Compulsion indefinitely.”
My stomach dropped and I tore my eyes away from Florence to look back at Max. My sweet, kind, considerate Max, who had done absolutely nothing wrong. None of my guys had. The only reason the Hidden were here in the first place was because of me. I had brought so much into their lives in the last two months, both good and bad. I knew that none of them regretted my sudden appearance in their lives, but I couldn’t let them be punished for it.
I felt a hand tighten on my shoulder and I knew without looking that Derik was ready to take on every single Valkyrie here before he ever let anyone hurt me. I turned and pushed my face into the crook of his neck and breathed in his distinctive scent, letting the smell calm me. “I love you. I love all of you. And I am completely irrational when it comes to protecting you,” I whispered so that only he could hear me. “I know you understand what that feels like. They are not gone. If I lose concentration or use my Gift to Shield you instead of keeping the barrier closed, everything will have been for naught. I can take this. I can do this and not break. Then we can move on together. I cannot take losing one of you. Please let me just do this for us.”
I felt him stiffen against me and his hand fisted into the fabric of my shirt. His entire body was tense and I knew that he was fighting every single one of his instincts as he turned and placed a lingering kiss on my forehead. His beard ticketed my face and I pressed up into the kiss before pushing away from him to stand on my own in front of the gathered Royals, Guards, and Hunters.
Florence and Eli both had matching grins that dripped with satisfaction and I straightened my spine.
I could do this. I would do this.