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Heat beat against Merrie’s body. The waves of burning ripped at her raw nerves, reminding her of the tiny cuts and scratches that peppered her body. She could feel the heat against the rents in her thin skin and the contrast of the icy darkness inside her with the smoldering air.

She whimpered and tried to roll away from the heat and back into the cold embrace of the shadow creatures that protected her. The movement caused agony to spark along her senses. She managed to roll up on her side and then down on her front, crushing her breasts against the hot ground.

Her rolling also brought her into contact with the sharp edge of something wood or metal. It cut into her skin, peeling it open and allowing more heat to pour into her fragile body.

Merrie gasped as she woke up fully. Inhaling, she choking on ashes and embers. With a cry, she doubled over and slammed her head into a heavy barrel before slumping to the ground. Still choking, she covered her mouth and winced as her raw skin scraped against the wood.

Blinking, she peered underneath the barrel. Light flickered across the room, yellows and oranges painted on the ground. Wood smoke and sharp smells swirled around her. It dragged streamers of embers and sparks around Borias’ prized possessions.

Merrie pulled back and peeked up from her vantage point. The entire ceiling was on fire, the flames already blackening the timbers and ashes poured down. She pulled back from the flickering light and crawled further underneath the barrel.

Fear sparked in her mind. She reached out for the shadow creatures, to make sure they were okay. Instead of brushing against a cloud of thoughts, there was nothing.

Her heart beat faster in her chest. She tried again, extending her senses beyond the burning basement and up into the area above her. She felt where the portal to the Shadow realm had been, the fading magic felt like a healing scar along smooth flesh. But there were no shadow kin or even the smaller creatures around her. They had all disappeared, no doubt killed by Sable’s holy magic.

Tears burned in her eyes and she let out a choking sob. They had sacrificed themselves for her again. It wasn’t the first time but that didn’t diminish the ache she felt in her heart. She could still feel the places where their minds connected with her own. The thin leads that lead to each one had been burned away and left gaping holes in her psyche.

She started to sink into despair but then heat flashed over her. She opened her eyes to see that a hunk of the ceiling had fallen less than a meter away from her. Sparks rose up from the wood as it blinded her with its brilliance.

Merrie looked away and blinked furiously to clear her vision. When it did, she caught sight of her own body. About half of her skin still clung to her body. The pale white was a painful contrast to the boiling black mist that made up her innards. She could see the black veins that connected her heart and felt the triple beat of it pulsing through her body. The taste of the collar’s powerful regeneration magic tickled the back of her throat but it was quickly fading. She didn’t want to think about what it meant, of the two healing spells in the collar, one was for bringing her back from the death and the other was the slow torture of recovery.

She shook her head and looked for shelter against the flame. She braved the firelight and crawled out from underneath the barrel. The heat bore down on her, prickling her skin and tugging on her hair. She tried to transform into a shadow but her injuries and lack of energy refused to let the spell take hold. Instead, she had to work her way across the room with her naked body. Her breasts teased the warm ground, nipples scraping against the rocks. Her limbs shook from exhaustion and injuries but she managed to make it to the bed and then to the shattered door.

As she moved, she could see how the shadow creatures had shoved her further away from the stairs and into the room. The books, furniture, and even bed were shoved aside. Black ash and the faint smell of sake painted the floor to mark where the creatures died in their attempts to save her.

Her cold tears splashed on the ground as she leaned against the door frame. The hallway outside of Borias’ room was cooler but not by much. The flames hadn’t reached it. Thankful to get away from the suffocating heat, she crawled around the wall before slumping against it.

Above her, the roar of fire filled the air and she heard glasses and pottery shattering from the heat. The mill house was destroyed.

Merrie took a deep breath and calmed herself. Closing her eyes, she carefully expanded her senses to identify the situation above her. She also hoped to find the rest of her friends were still alive, though a fire in the house didn’t give her hope. She started by searching for the infernal traps but every sign of the spiders, large or small, appear to have disappeared. She didn’t know if one was being shaded beyond her limits but otherwise she could safely use her psychic abilities.

Opening her mind, she listened for submissive thoughts surrounding her. As her senses rippled out, she felt the thoughts of warriors as dim lights in a field of black. They must have approached when the shield went down.

There were also priests. Their minds were brighter because they submitted themselves to a higher power. It gave Merrie some leeway into their minds and she could feel their triumph and joy bright against her skin. It sickened her knowing they were celebrating their victory.

She frowned and reached further, pushing as quickly as she could with the air growing hotter around her. She panted softly, sweat sliding down her breasts. Her thoughts traced along more individuals, at least a hundred celebrating.

And then she brushed up against a field of brilliance. It was a ward built from prayers and faith, a shimmering cloud of light. The creator, whoever it was, had given themselves completely to Lemetri and her name whispered endlessly in the cloud.

Merrie flinched at the light but then explored the ward. It took her precious seconds to find a weak spot and ease into it—Borias had called her a shield breaker for her talents. Inside, there were multiple minds speaking out in conversation.

When she felt Bass’ consciousness, she almost sobbed with relief. With a hesitant tendril, she reached out for him and connected. (Hello, master.)

(Merrie.) Bass’ thoughts were analytical but fractured. Most of his attention was directed somewhere else; she could feel a storm of despair raging against his other mind. It was Sable. The other alpha had cracked when she thought Bass had died and she could feel him frantically trying to piece together his alpha’s thoughts with love and affection.

Guilt slammed into Merrie. (I’m sorry. I—)

(No,) came the command. The intensity of it, raw power against her mind, sent a flash of liquid heat coursing along her body. It came with a welcomed rush of power as her submissive side rose up to obey.

She gulped and wrapped her short arms around her chest.

(I can’t help both of you. Sable needs me and I need you to be strong for yourself.) His thoughts were structured but she could feel his own emotions leaking out through the cage of his willpower.

Merrie nodded even though Bass couldn’t see her. She took a deep breath and then did it again. Her breasts rose and fell with the effort as she struggled to calm herself. Her collar, heavy against her collar, thudded against her chest and she was reminded that she was her own mistress.

The despair faded. It may never go away but it could wait until they were no longer in danger.

(Good girl.)

She moaned at the compliment. (Thank you, master.)

He sent a wave of affection toward her, brief but intense. It felt like curling in a hot bathtub with strong arms around her. (Are you safe?)

(No, I’m trapped in the basement.)

(After Lemetri’s army captured us, they set fire to the house. It has been burning for about a half hour so you don’t have much time. Do you have an exit?)

She frowned and glanced up at the flames. They were getting brighter and the heat was making it hard to breath. She looked up at the stairs but the kitchen was burning brightly. She sighed and sent an image of what she saw to Bass.

(Damn,) he projected sadness. (That place has been my home for half a century.) His mind focused away from his emotions. A blanket of logic and strategy muffled his sorrow.

He opened his eyes and she saw the inside of a blanket tent. Only a few streaks of light came in through the stitches of the heavy canvas. He blinked and looked away from the light but his eyes couldn’t focus on anything other than heavy barrels and supplies. (Not much to see here, they are keeping most of us helpless.)

Bass continued. (Both alphas are bound by spells to keep them unconsciousness. I can reach Sable but she is suffering from terrors in her sleep. I can’t hear or feel Dixie.) There was a strange edge of discomfort in his thoughts; Sable had been his mental companion for decades. Her agony raged against his mind and he withdrew for a second to comfort her before going back. (She is very damaged, both mind and body by that attack.)

She stared to respond but he interrupted. (It was a battle. Haviston told me you gave the order. Thank you.)

Merrie’s thoughts drew back in shock.

(If given a choice of losing my friends and compatriots for decades verses spending the rest of my life comforting a wounded lover, I would have done the same thing. Without hesitation.)

She sobbed with relief.

(This is a war,) his thoughts grew darker, (and the battle isn’t over.)

Merrie let his thoughts sink into her own, trying to give comfort without leaking her own fear into his mind. Her eyes focused on the flames, watching as they grew closer.

(They are beating Tabitha every few minutes to keep her dazed until they can figure out a way of keeping her bound. She’s escaped at least four times already.) Memories of the screams rose up and fell. (Haviston and Borias are both bound, blinded, and gagged.)

Embers cascading down and she backed way from them to avoid getting burned.

(What happened to Borias?) asked Bass.

Images of the mage rose up, sharp with fear and surprise. Borias had just come down the stairs in a moment of silence between the fighting.

“Get back inside, you idiot!” snapped Tabitha.

Bass growled and kept one eye focused on his own opponents. He reached out for Borias with his own hand, as if it could stop his friend from being too close to death and killing himself.

Borias winked at him.

Bass stopped, stunned with surprised. Something had changed, Borias had always run away from fights before. He had too, if he was in the presence of death, it would have killed him also. Now, there was something new to his demeanor, a fear that had been stripped away. He cocked his head slightly and then gasped, Borias had his geas removed.

Merrie flinched at the memory seeping into her mind. It only took a second for Bass to figure out the geas. She wished she could tell him the details but the bonds of her own geas prevented her.

Instantly, it felt like a weight had been ripped away from Bass. He had spent years worrying that the wrong turn would kill Borias and there would be nothing Bass would be able to do stop from every organ pouring out of his young body.

Borias raised his hand.

Two paladins in front of him hesitated. They kept their weapons away from him, no doubt because they were told of his limitations.

Red energy spread out from Borias’ hand. It was a magical disk about a half meter across. It was also brighter and more intense than any spell Bass had seen Borias cast before. Energy curled around Borias’ body, warping the world as he stared at the two paladins. Sweat beaded his brow the swirling energy sharpened into arcane runes floating in the air before him.

The spell ignited into twisted whips of power. They shot across the distance and wrapped around the necks of the paladins.

They let out strangled cries which ended abruptly as Borias yanked his hand back and blood exploded from their mouths, noses, and ears. It streamed out of their bodies and formed into long ribbons of crimson.

Borias ripped the gore out of the two warriors. The blood whip cracked against the house, exploding it violently. He snapped it forward and the blood lash whipped through the air, bisected the two paladins, and then burst the chest of a priest rushing up to heal the two victims.

Bass let out a gasp of surprise and relief.

Borias stared at a moment, the spell crackling along his air. Even from Bass’ vantage point, he could see that Borias’ cock was hard. “Be fucking me,” said Borias, “I be living.”

“Great!” snapped Tabitha. “I’ll fuck you later for not telling me! Now go kill the fuckers!”

Bass withdrew his memories. (Borias had his geas removed recently. Did you know about it?)

She opened her mouth and then closed it. A pressure on her mind refused to let her project anything other than, (I can’t tell you.)

Bass’ mind worked for a moment. (It would take a Royal Family to pardon that geas. The queen would have never left Franome City and Borias couldn’t go there with his other geas. One of the princesses is warring with Emberka and the other is at home. That means it had to be Prince Claston, who I heard may be friendly to you. It was him, wasn’t it? Probably while we were at the Blood County Festival.)

She shivered, he was remarkably accurate.

(You don’t have to tell me either way) His thoughts were wry. (I know how these spells work. If it was Claston, I bet he traded the prisoner’s geas with the Royal Protectorate. You accepted the same geas, right?)

Merrie didn’t think the spell binding her thoughts would allow her to acknowledge it, but she tried anyways. She managed to send a wave of acknowledgement before the geas drew her thoughts back.

(Good.) There was relief in his thoughts. (Protecting the country is a noble goal. Though,) he added with a wry thought, (I’m curious how you summoned a shadow land while keeping the country’s best interest in mind.)

With a blush, Merrie ducked her head. (I don’t know. I had to let the Lord of Shadows through but I limited how far they could go.)

Bass didn’t answer for a moment, then responded curtly, (We will deal with that later. Iolis, the former high priests of Lemetri, is going to kill me.)

An image of the woman came with the name. It was a woman wearing a blood-soaked, long-sleeved shirt and black jeans. Her small breasts tented the fabric but the swelling only emphasized the symbol of Lemetri that was nestled in her cleavage. Her heavy boots contrasted her slender form, they looked like bricks. She had no obvious weapons but Bass could feel the intensity of Lemetri’s power filling her.

(She is probably going to drag me into the original shadow land, to where the goddess died in hopes of rescuing her. I suspect she is going to sacrifice me.)

(Lemetri is dead.) Merrie sent an image of the goddess’ corpse and the feeding shadow kin.

(I know. Iolis doesn’t want to acknowledge it. She clings to the fading shreds of magic that we have as proof that Lemetri exists. I have never felt that she survived. That moment when you killed her….) Nightmares began to rise up in his thoughts but he forced them down. (She is going to hold Sable’s life to ensure my cooperation. If any of us attacked, she promised to kill Sable, Dixie, and the others.)

Merrie shivered at the intense hatred that rose inside her. Bass had suffered enough for his faith, he had hid himself for decades to avoid the Church of Lemetri. Once again, they forced themselves into his world with violence.

Bass’ mind grew dark with a howling rage. (I will destroy that woman for threatening my Sable.)

She blinked at her tears, Sable was her friend too. (What can I do?)

(Get out from the house by any means. It will take the priests another day or so to heal up everyone to prepare to invade Lemetri’s Grave.) It was the name he had given the shadow land that had surrounded the former battle.

Merrie took a deep breath, wincing at the heated air that pricked her throat. She looked around again but there was no new way to escape.

(I will kill them but I must keep my Sable safe. You are still an unknown, I hope that she assumed you died during the attack. The infernal must have told her that you had returned because she has protection spells against darkness wrapped around her but I don’t know how long she’ll maintain them.)

Merrie looked around at the basement. There was no place to escape the heat.

(Be safe, be a good girl.)

A little surge of pleasure rippled through her body. She smiled and let her mental communication fade. Drawing her attention back to her body, she inspected the basement but couldn’t find an escape. The only thing she found were barrels of Borias’ lager stacked up near the foot of the stairs along with tools and supplies. He had rolled out one of the barrels in preparation of celebrating when the others approached.

She looked at one of the barrels and then smiled. If she had a day, she might be able to survive inside one of them. It would be risky but she had no other escape. Grabbed one of the chisels with her mouth, she crawled over to the nearest one.

The heat around her burned her skin as she jammed the chisel into place between the spout and the wood. She had to use her teeth to pull at it, it was loose but she was weak. The long minutes it took her to pry off were some of the longest in her life. Her shadowy body kept melting away, stripped away by the fire that roared above her.

When the spout finally fell off, lager poured out. It was icy cold and she gasped for relief. It bathed her parched skin. Even though it stung, it was nothing compared to the heat and light peeling away her skin. She panted softly and sank down into the puddle, enjoying every second of the coolness.

Before long, the lager had poured out of the barrel and left it nearly empty. Inside, it was dark and cool. Merrie forced her body melt and poured herself into the barrel. A single tendril wrapped around the spigot and pulled it back into place, sealing her tightly inside.

Encased in darkness and surrounded by the powerful fumes, Merrie gathered the darkness around her until the inside of the barrel began to ice over. With a groan, she let her body relax and prayed that she would heal enough before the basement burned down around her.