Drowning wasn’t something I feared like being buried alive or set on fire. Sinking beneath the waves and succumbing to the pressure while the element stole each of my senses… everything dark and quiet, lulling one into eternal slumber—it didn’t sound so bad.
Perhaps it was that romanticized version of drowning I created for myself that led to me being consumed by my work, drowning in the lab, and isolating myself from the outside world for the third time that week—and it was only Tuesday. While it didn’t bother me, it seemed to bother those around me. They’re hassling and mother-henning bothered me. I was a grown-ass woman, and I could take care of myself.
“Pull up the specs for Gianna’s armor.” I tossed the breastplate back onto the bench and glanced at the hologram behind me. The electric blue light illuminated the corner, complete with the blueprint, data on the weaponry built into the armor, and video clips of her armor in action. I pulled the hologram closer and blew it up to get a better look at the left arm. “Remind me to tell her not to completely trash this next time,” I said, grimacing at the way the metal had warped around her arm, completely folding inward and rendering all of the weapons inside useless.
“As you wish.” The slightly stilted voice came across the speakers, the sarcasm loud and clear.
I shook my head, half in pride and half in annoyance. The voice belonged to my artificial intelligence system, Scout. While he was still a work in progress, especially in taking initiative and some learning modifications, he was doing astoundingly well at following complex commands and communicating protocols with others. Scout was certainly one of my favorite inventions, and he was improving every week.
“We still have the materials to make new channels for her energy balls?”
“Fuck yeah. Go ahead and order anything we’re almost out of.” I walked around to the supply area and started dragging out everything I’d need to revamp the left arm of the armor. Dragging it back over to the workbench to begin, I fired up the equipment and set to work.
Music blared through the speakers, the equipment hummed with life that no creature ever managed to capture, and I sank into bliss. Surfacing from it wasn’t something I was willing to do, so when someone dragged me back into the real world, I went kicking and screaming.
The music cut out. I jumped and bumped against my finger with the soldering iron. “Fuck!”
I glanced up, looking back toward the door. My brother, Malachi, stood there with his arms folded over his chest as he frowned at me.
I rolled my eyes and looked back down at the joint I’d been working on. “What do you want? I’m backlogged down here, and things don’t get done if I’m upstairs playing royalty.”
“And anyway, what right do you have to turn off my music? That’s very rude.”
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important, Eleanor.”
I grimaced and flipped my visor up. I set the iron down to get a better look at my finger. Should’ve worn the gloves, genius, I thought agitatedly. I wiggled my fingers and pulled moisture from the air. Water wound around my burned finger and started to sooth the searing pain that throbbed through it. With the burned tended to, I turned to look at him. “Every knight filed a request for an upgrade or a replacement or something. That’s on top of everything I have due for the military’s arsenal, and the private contract I have with IRIS. So, on a scale of one to the fae going rogue an holding the world hostage, how important is this, Malachi?”
His expression was somber and brown eyes serious as he shook his head. The movement was small, and had I not been looking for it, I would’ve missed it entirely. The set of his shoulders was taut, and he stood straight, nervous. “You’re the last one we’re waiting on, and apparently, we don’t have time to waste. We’re in the conference room when you’re ready.”
I nodded, watching as the glass doors parted, sliding open to let him out.
“Hurry,” he said, glancing back at me, expression stern. The doors shut behind him, and I sighed, smoothing the strands of hair that’d escaped from my bun back along my scalp.
If things were as dire as Malachi made them seem, things were only about to get worse. Not only was I the member of the royal family that handled all things technological, but I’d also been selected as the royal family’s representative among the Knights.
Unlike almost every other realm in existence, the Saiphe Realm was very traditional in keeping a royal family—king, queen, the whole shebang—whereas the majority of others had switched to directors and subordinates. The bureaucratic model left less room for corruption compared to the monarchy model. As for the Knights, they were more or less a glorified Unit 01—just a personal guard to the director and consult to the military commander.
But instead of keeping the royal family out of harms’ way, it was tradition to select one member to become a Knight. It kept the royal family in control, didn’t allow for any takeovers, and really put the corrupt in corruption. The Saiphe Realm hadn’t had a problem with it, but after seeing so many realms fall, good realms fall, I didn’t believe anything could remain pristine forever.
“Put up the Nighty-Night Protocol, Scout. Looks like I’m heading out for a bit.” I pulled off my visor and set it on the bench. Grabbing the forest green sweatshirt I had lying across my desk, I pulled it on, and took my hair out of its bun. The family—or the Knights, for that matter—probably wouldn’t appreciate the ripped jeans and hoodie look, but they wanted me quickly, and that was how I planned on going.
They’d all seen me look worse.
Yeah, maybe that’s why it’s obvious I’m adopted, I thought, snorting derisively at myself. As I headed out, Scout shut down the equipment, sent some of the other bots to start putting things away, and dimmed the lights.
“See ya later, kids,” I called back to them.
“See you soon, L,” Scout said.
I smiled and watched as the lab doors shut behind me, the automatic lock clicking and windows tinting—black and opaque. Perfect. I stepped onto the elevator and left the basement, heading up to the fifth floor of the palace. I went down the hallway, to the main military conference room. Just as Malachi had said, everyone was already there. My usual seat, between my adopted mother, Queen Robin Orion, and the commander of the military as well as the Knights, Poppy Barnes.
My entire family, from the king and queen all the way down to my fourth cousins, were present. They watched me with a bit of disappointment, maybe even some annoyance. The Knights managed to look a bit more respectful, but they weren’t pleased either. Poppy looked the most annoyed, but she was around me the most. I’d gotten use to that look—brows slightly pinched, lips pursed, looking every bit like she wanted to tell me what a disgrace I was but couldn’t because while no one was certain if I was related by blood, I carried the Orion name, I had elemental powers, and I was under the protection of the King and Queen.
Yeah, life was good.
I slid into my seat and nodded at my adopted father. “Gang’s all here. Go ahead.”
He blinked at me for a moment, like he debated on whether to call me out, but in the end decided against it and started the meeting. “All of you were summoned here, because the livelihood of our realm has been threatened. This morning, Nikita Leonhart contacted me about a robbery at the element containment site in Nice.”
“No one at the facility sustained any life-threatening injuries, but the robber escaped with the air elemental crystal. I’m sure I don’t have to go into detail on why this is a threat—”
“Okay, so I know we protect the primary elements,” I said, “but I’m not sure why someone else having them is bad other than that’s sort of what we base everything on. No one got around to explaining that bit.”
My father, King Grayson Orion, heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “If someone else obtains every crystal, that puts the possessor in control of all the elements. In the worst case scenario, if a demon or any creature of evil captures each crystal, they have the ability to turn the nymphs, fae, imps, and pixies to their side. Evil creatures will also have stronger elemental bases in their powers, which they don’t currently have. It has the potential of tipping universal balance in a way that would be detrimental to our existence.”
I nodded. “Gotcha. Other people with primary crystals equals bad. Cool.” Unlike the rest of the room, I hadn’t grown up with the stories of the Orion family protecting the elements. I knew they protected them, that their lives revolved around it, but that was all I knew. I’d been brought into the family as a pre-teen, which meant even a few centuries later, I often found myself out of the loop when it came to family matters.
...Maybe that’s why all my friends were machines. Wow, I sucked sometimes.
“We must get the air crystal back. While it takes all four elements to do serious damage, I don’t like the thought of the air being used against us,” Grayson said.
“We should also keep the other containment facilities more heavily guarded,” Poppy said. “People usually don’t want just one of the elements, and I bet this guy doesn’t either.”
Grayson nodded. “I agree. Commander Barnes, I want you to send our a few of your best units to the containment facilities around the realm. Keep them guarded at all costs.”
“As for the Knights, I want you to work on retrieving the air crystal. Find the robber, get the crystal, and bring him back so the Saiphe Realm can get justice.”
The Knights nodded simultaneously, like they were programmed to move in sync.
“As for Orion,” Grayson said, gaze flitting around the family in the room. “I want you working closely with the Knights and reporting to me daily on the progress, along with Commander Barnes.”
No one said a word. For generations, the royal family had always had one member as the Knight representative. Except, everyone always knew which family member it was. It was always a big celebratory thing, and they were sort of like another King or Queen, even if they were a fifth cousin or something. Once I claimed the title, however, the family decided to keep my identity hidden, from the Knights, from anyone that extended beyond fourth cousins, no one knew. Not only did it have to do with the fact that I was adopted, but I was also considered to be weaker than my siblings and cousins. There were other females, so it wasn’t a gender thing. There were other water manipulators, so it wasn’t my elemental ability. No, it was the fact that my water manipulation was so strong and so ingrained in my body that it made me a liability. I couldn’t stay in cold places, because I ran the risk of dying from hypothermia. No matter how hot it was, I was always, always freezing. My bones were comprised of ice, my core body temperature was significantly lower than what should’ve been possible, and there were days when using my abilities felt like my body was going to crack apart as if it were ice. Despite all those things, I’d still beaten each of my relatives while competing for the title of Orion, of the warrior, of the hunter.
And that hadn’t gotten many of them to like me either.
But whatever. They were basically over it, and if anything, they were glad they weren’t the ones risking their lives every week when the latest apocalyptic scenario unfolded.
So, there it was. And so, I’d be busy as fuck alternating between trying to find the fucker stealing the elemental crystals and staying on top of my work.
“Marianne, Levi, and Cecily, I will keep your families informed,” Grayson said, nodding at the other family heads. “Knights, I want to you continue sticking by your other duties as well. If something must slip for sake of the investigation, fine, but do not allow it to happen often.” Grayson’s gaze went to Poppy. “Commander Barnes, feel free to set up in Eleanor’s workshop for the time being. It will be easier for you to keep watch over her while you work.”
“Yes, sir.” The tight set of her lips promised that would be fucking torture.
I went through spells where I kicked her out of the workshop from time to time, because she thought the music was too loud, or I needed to take a break, or, the absolute worst, she thought I was being too dangerous and was going to hurt myself. She drove me insane. It was impossible to work with her around sometimes.
Pretty low on the list—but still on the list—of her distracting qualities was the fact that she constantly wore skin tight clothes that left little to my imagination. And after that one time, I didn’t have to imagine much anyway, but whatever. Still too much room to daydream, and it was incredibly difficult to create armor and test energy beams and other weaponry while a Knight strode about my workshop with her vanilla perfume and full, pink lips.
She cut a stern look over at me, and I could almost hear her thinking that I’d have to figure out how to be a little more docile for a bit. I rolled my eyes and turned back to Grayson.
“Commander Barnes, I’ve already emailed your team with the necessary files, as well as given you Nikita Leonhart’s contact information. If you have any questions or concerns, both Malachi and myself will be available.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Any other questions?”
No one stirred, which meant I could get back downstairs and look over everything, so I could finish up the Knights equipment. I didn’t want them going out when a couple modifications and repairs needed to be made to ensure their safety.
“The meeting is dismissed. Please do try to keep this to yourselves for the time being as well. The longer we can keep the information contained, the easier it will be to find the robber.”
Everyone teleported from the room, vanishing from their chairs and back to their homes or offices. I stood up and pushed my chair in, not wanting to waste magic just to pop back downstairs. As I headed out, Poppy caught up.
“I’ll be down later. I need to check out the files Grayson sent and make plans with the Knights. Can you make a spot for me in that warzone you call a workshop?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, batting her away as I slipped into the corridor. “I’ll put you at my desk. That should keep you out of the firing line for a bit, anyway.”
Her jaw clenched. “I’ll be by later, Eleanor. Try to have the upgrades done too. I know you’re busy flaunting yourself to anything with a pulse, but I have a team to protect and an element to find.”
I gave her a tight smile. “I’m sure I can find time to do that between getting the Rusei Realm’s ambassador’s daughter to fuck me and taking my midday nap.”
“Please do.” She brushed past me and stalked down the hallway, everything about the way she moved screaming military and domination.
I wet my lips, pushed the fragments of old memories from my mind, and headed downstairs to my small slice of paradise with my machines where I could pretend the rest of the world didn’t exist, if only for a few moments.
“I think I’m heading out.”
“Hm?” I glanced up from the circuit board I’d been tinkering with, blinking slowly as the bright light struck me and reality snapped back into focus.
Poppy frowned. “I’m heading out. It’s late, and I have a meeting tomorrow morning. You going anywhere tomorrow?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t going anywhere as far as she was concerned anyway. “You’re off the hook. I guess I won’t see you around until after lunch, then?”
I sighed and pressed the heels of my palms against my eyes, shivering as I tried to wake myself back up. There was more to do before I slept. “This whole investigation thing—it’s important, obviously. You can let this part of your job slack for a while. I’m not going anywhere but the workshop for the next few weeks.”
“Thanks, but we both know you’re just trying to get rid of me. None of this stems from real concern about the crystals.” The set of her sky blue eyes was hard and stern. She was unwavering in her convictions, and while they so rarely worked to my advantage, I admired that about her, that confidence.
“Who gives a shit why it is. We both know your time would be better spent working on that than watching me tinker.”
“I can work from here, we both know it. And even when I can’t, it’s not like I’m very far or no one else can’t keep an eye on you to keep you out of trouble. The entire Orion family has a personal guard, and it just so happens that King Orion wanted me to be yours. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but assignments are assignments, and sometimes we have to do things that we don’t enjoy.” Poppy stood up from my desk and collected a few of her things—files, mostly. Her phone and laptop were stuffed into her black shoulder bag that hung off her toned arm. Unlike me, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, she wore shorts and a tank top. Her short blonde hair had been brushed back off her face, and still, her porcelain skin glistened with sweat.
If I kept it much hotter in the workshop, she wouldn’t have much of a choice in having to leave… Well, I could get away with it, as cold as I tended to feel anyway.
“Sometimes you enjoy it,” I murmured, despite my better judgement.
She sighed deeply, clutching her files to her chest as she scrutinized me. Unwilling to sit still under her gaze, I turned back to the circuit board to start working again. Soundlessly, she moved closer to the door. If not for the quiet hiss the doors made when they opened, I wouldn’t have even realized she’d moved.
“If you weren’t so goddamn difficult and didn’t act like a brat, I might enjoy it more often.”
I didn’t even get a shot at a rebuttal, because the lab doors had slid shut and left me in silence. “Turn the music back up, Scout.” A second later, electric guitars and crashing drums burst through the speakers around the workshop. The music and the work helped to mute some of the thoughts buzzing in the back of my mind—about Poppy, about what she said, everything she felt about me, toward me.
I knew she was only talking about the person I projected to the rest of the world: Eleanor Orion, genius, inventor, adopted brat, slut, and somehow, atop it all, I managed to pass as sickly too. I was too sick for people to know I was Orion, but not sick enough to avoid fucking or investing in. Poppy didn’t know that I was the royal representative that fought next to her, that she treated as an equal, that she respected. And really, I’d never given her a reason to respect me as I was. She had morals and shit, she was a good person, and I tended to contradict that.
It was okay that she didn’t like Eleanor as long as she liked Orion and continued respecting her judgement. Eleanor was kind of a bitch anyway, from time to time. But, it was all part of the character I had to play in order to keep playing the role of a hero. And, I kinda liked that role. I liked it a whole hell of a lot better than I liked being Eleanor.
The fact that Orion was sick of being Eleanor really said something about me that I didn’t want to dig into, especially on three hours of sleep over the last fifty-two hours. I ran my hands back through my hair, pulling the hair-tie out. Long, black waves fell down my shoulders. If I’d looked into a mirror, I would’ve been able to pick out small, caramel strands under the harsh light of the room.
I stood up from the stool and walked over to the mirror, widening my eyes as I peered a bit closer a myself. I looked like I’d been awake for over forty-eight hours. The blue-green of my eyes was so dulled down that the highlight of my eyes had become the red creeping through the whites. My olive skin looked paler, except for the tip of my nose and cheeks, which always looked a little pink with the cold. The bags under my eyes were a bit more defined, and while I hadn’t noticed it earlier, everything ached. I hadn’t been out on assignment as Orion in over two weeks, and yet I still felt every blow I’d ever taken from an enemy creep over my skin, blooming beneath my bones. Shivering again, I crossed my arms over my chest and walked to the other corner to check my thermostat.
It was almost eighty-five degrees, and still, I felt like I was fucking freezing. My skin was ice. Maybe it was good that Poppy left when she did. That was how everything had started that night.
“Stop it,” I hissed at myself, irritated that I wouldn’t stop thinking of our night together. I went back over to the circuit board and sighed at it. Maybe a quick nap would reset everything. “Scout, I—”
“L, Commander Barnes just sent an email to Orion,” Scout interjected.
“What’d she say?”
“Commander Barnes said, ‘I’m meeting with Nikita Leonhart tomorrow morning at her element containment facility. The meeting is at 9:00, but we should meet around 8:45 in the usual spot. Let me know if you’re unable to join so I can find an alternate.’”
“Let her know Orion will be there.” I yawned and stretched, glancing at my phone. It was just after 2:00. “Wake me at 6:00 if I’m not already up, Scout.”
“Of course. Sleep well, L.”
“Thanks.” I went back through the lab to the small corner at the other side of it. Pressed into the corner was a worn, gray sofa with a blanket tossed over the back and a pillow. Across from it was a small bathroom I’d built into the lab specifically so I could wash up without every having to leave my workshop.
Putting it to use yet again, I showered, washing all the grease and grime from the day off my skin. I climbed back out, changed into a pair of sweats, a clean hoodie, and a pair of thick socks. Pulling my hair into a loose bun, I curled up on the couch, pulled the fleece blanket off the back, and buried my face into the pillow. A soft groan spilled past my lips as I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
As usual, I woke up far too soon, shivering hard and gasping for breath. The dream had already receded and drowned in my psyche, leaving me without a trace of what’d occured, but hadn’t bothered to take the residual fear with it. Gods. It fucking sucked. I rolled onto my back.
“Lights on, Scout,” I croaked, my voice grating out of my throat like someone took sandpaper to my vocal cords.
The workshop brightened instantly, and I sighed with relief once I could see everything around me. The sight of my robots, my equipment, and my workbench had me settled enough to settle back down for a moment. I rolled over and felt around under the sofa for the half-empty bottle of water I’d dropped a few nights ago. Feeling it, I grabbed the bottle, pulled it up, and took several, long swings from it. The plastic cracked obnoxiously as I tossed the bottle across the room. It bounced off the rim of the bin and bounced in.
“What time is it?”
“It is 4:47,” Scout said.
I raked my hands through my hair, frustrated as hell. I’d barely slept two and a half hours. Gods, I was getting sick of the whole insomnia bullshit. But, there was no sleeping in my future if my heart rate and shivering had anything to say about it. Instead of laying there and wasting time, I needed to get my ass up, finish up the work I had left on my armor, and then I had a certain commander to meet.
Time ticked by quickly and Scout’s voice reminding me of the time had me jumping out of my chair to grab another shower and suit up. The armor flowed over my body like waves washing up along the shore. It seeped out of my skin and melded against me. The helmet came up next, shielding my head and face. A microphone built into the base of the throat also morphed my voice to sound like Scout’s. As the inventor of the armor—as Eleanor—it didn’t look weird that Orion’s voice was Eleanor’s AI, thank the gods. The same vocal synthesizer was built into the cheek of the armor to give off the same voice over the comms.
The armor moved like a second skin, easy and light. It was a constant eighty degrees in the armor too, ensuring I wouldn’t get cold or have a freeze up when I needed to use my magic. The pieces were all black and silver, but if caught in the light, they almost looked blue. The armor was sexier than any piece of clothing I owned, and few pieces of apparel had the potential of changing that.
I didn’t walk out of my workshop like that. While it wouldn’t be strange for Orion to be in Eleanor’s workshop for upgrades and whatnot, it would be somewhat peculiar during that time of the morning, when Eleanor should’ve still been asleep from the previous night’s exploits. Instead, I teleported straight to the rendezvous point—in the small staff kitchen on the third floor of the palace.
Poppy was already there, clad in her silver and navy-blue armor sans mask. The masks were only necessary during a fight, and while we were going to investigate and a fight wasn’t impossible, it didn’t seem likely.
She smiled brightly. The dimples in her cheeks deepened and her blue eyes sparkled. “Good morning, Orion.”
“Good morning,” I said. “Sleep well?”
She shrugged. “More or less.”
She nodded and shrugged again. “What can you do?”
“Not much,” I sighed. “Ready to meet Ms. Leonhart?”
“Yeah. She’s expecting us anytime now,” Poppy said, glancing at the time on her phone. “Maybe after we can grab some breakfast.”
“Or brunch. It’ll probably be late enough for it.”
She grinned. “Brunch, then.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “If you’re going to be picky.”
Poppy rolled her eyes and put a gloved hand on my shoulder, teleporting us from the palace and to the containment facility in Nice. All of my energy went toward focusing myself on that moment instead of the things Poppy had said the night before. There was no reason to act odd when the things she’d said had been for Eleanor, not for Orion. I just had to keep playing the game, enjoy the fun parts when they rolled around. No use dwelling on the shitty things, after all.
The yellow kitchen vanished before my eyes and in its place appeared a sprawling white building in the middle of an industrial complex. While it wasn’t the most inconspicuous of the element containment sites we had, it was one of the most secure. The idea behind it had been hiding in plain sight, which had worked well for several centuries.
Poppy and I headed inside to the front desk where she asked to speak with Ms. Leonhart. We were shown to her office, which was located in the corridor just off the corner of the lobby.Ms. Leonhart sat at her desk, her weary brown eyes trained on the screen in front of her as she typed. Poppy rapped her knuckles against the door a few times, which drew Ms. Leonhart's attention to the threshold.
She smiled politely. "Hello, I'm Nikita Leonhart. Take a seat," she said, nodding at the two chairs in front of her desk. Ms. Leonhart turned away from the screen to focus on Poppy and I as we settled in the plain, black chairs opposite her.
"Commander Poppy Barnes." Extending a hand, Poppy and Ms. Leonhart greeted on another briefly.
"Knight Orion, Royal Representative." I shook her hand and settled back in the chair. "Start us off."
"Everything happened so fast—I, I'm so sorry we weren't able to protect the crystal."
"It's okay. Sometimes, these things happen, and there's not much we can do about it."
She looked like shit, like she'd been freaking out ever since the crystal was stolen. While she should've been since it was her and her team's job to protect the crystal, it was gone. There was no reason to keep beating herself up over it. It didn't get the crystal back, and it certainly didn't make her feel any better.
"Why don't you tell us exactly what happened yesterday?" Poppy leaned forward, propping her chin on her fist. Her blonde hair fell into her eyes a bit, but she didn't move it, intent on listening to every detail of Ms. Leonhart's account of the previous day.
Her voice trembled as she sucked in a deep breath and nodded, mentally preparing herself to begin the story. "Everything had been normal and quiet. I'd just gotten back from lunch, and the alarm went off. Anytime someone steps in the room with the crystal, it triggers an automatic alarm that sounds throughout the complex. Security goes straight there, usually I set it off going to check on it, or it's the cleaning staff, but when they arrived, a man was standing in there."
"How did he get in?" Poppy asked.
Ms. Leonhart shrugged. "It's protected by retinal and magic residue scanners."
I glanced at Poppy and cocked my head, letting her know what I thought of the situation. She nodded minutely, such a small movement that Ms. Leonhart wouldn't pick up on it.
"What happened after security saw the man?"
"They tried to subdue him, but it didn't work. They didn't even get close to him before he had all of them down." She bit her lip and shook her head. Her eyes glazed over with the memory. "I remember getting their call for backup, but by the time I got down there with the others, the man and the crystal were gone." She turned back to her computer and brought up a list of files. "We have the CCTV footage, if you'd like to see that."
She nodded and clicked on one of the files.
"Has anyone messed with the scene?" I asked, watching as the little blue bar in the center of the screen slowly filled.
"We've had a couple security guards in and a tracker, but no one else has been in there. King Grayson requested we keep the scene as clean as possible," she said.
"Good. We'd like to see that next, as well as the tracker's report."
"Of course." She turned the monitor toward us so we could get a better look at the footage as it played with faded colors and pixelated people.
The camera was located in the top left corner of the back of the crystal's housing room. Everything was visible aside from a small sliver of the left wall. At the front of the room in the dead center of the wall as a slim, metal door. A few feet from that was a cylindrical glass structure that housed a clear crystal about as big as my pinky finger.
Everything about the room was quiet and calm. The door slid open after a moment. A man dressed head to toe in solid black stepped in. The door remained open behind him, and little bursts of light from the corridor came from the alarms he'd set off. He traipsed to the center of the room and stood in front of the glass, peering inside of it, pressing his hands against it. He was about six feet tall with an athletic build. Nothing else about the state of him gave me any clues as to whom or what he was.
He curled his hands around the glass tube. It shattered. Little pieces of glass rained against the floor, bouncing off it. As he reached for the crystals, six guards spilled into the room. They surrounded him. Each of them had a weapon drawn and aimed at the man. He held up his hands, as though he planned to surrender, but the movement sent the earth beneath them quaking. Rocks shot up from beneath the metal floor and wound around the guards tightly, restricting their movements. Some of the confinements were tighter than others, and even in the low quality of the recording, I could tell some of them were losing their color.
The man turned back around and picked up the crystal. He tossed it up in the air and caught it in a small drawstring bag. Tucking it away, he turned to see the next batch of guards, fronted by Ms. Leonhart, at the door. Giving them an impish wave, just a wiggle of his fingers, the man vanished from the room. The rocks that had pinned the security guards receded into the earth to free them.
Ms. Leonhart stopped the video and pulled out a piece of paper from the small stack of files next to the keyboard. “This is the tracker’s report. He wasn’t able to pick up anything but automaton demons.”
Poppy took the report and held it between us so we could skim over it simultaneously.
“I’m not an expert on demons, but that was not an automaton demon,” I said. “It was too smart, too independent. Automaton demons work under very specific orders and follow them exactly… They also don’t have control over an element.”
Poppy frowned as she pursed her lips, thinking. “Can you take us to the scene?”
“Absolutely.” Ms. Leonhart stood from her chair and gestured for us to follow her. The corridors were solemn and silent, the stairwell echoed with the sounds of our footsteps, and the door to the crystal’s housing room was still open, showing a bare room with holes torn in the metal floor and shards of glass everywhere.
We stepped into the room, and Ms. Leonhart gasped. The sound echoed through the silent room. My gaze fell on a small white sheet of paper that was attached to the intact top of the glass tube that was suspended from the ceiling. I walked over to it and plucked it off the glass.
“‘Everyone runs ‘round to chase their fears.
Apparently demons crawl up to us.
Random assortments of them are gruesome.
Thinking you can beat them is overly ambitious.
Hurry along now.’” The words weren’t odd, but something about them felt foreign on my tongue. The way they spilled off my lips felt like an incantation to the demons lurking in the earth, waiting to be called upon and used for all sorts of nefarious purposes.
“It’s code,” Poppy said.
I startled, jumping back from her a bit. She stood just over my shoulder, looking over me to read the note. “What?”
“Look at how the letters are lined up. He’s going for the earth crystal next.”
“Think he wants to be caught?”
Poppy shrugged, her eyes jumping up to meet my armored ones, as I realized how close we stood to one another. Not for the first time, I was thankful for the mask that hid the red flush that crept up my neck and cheeks. But, it also gave me a second to look at the bright, cerulean blue of her irises. They sparkled with knowledge and courage, determination and skill.
That night, they—
Stop it, I snapped at myself mentally.
“Maybe he’s trying to make a show of this. Based on what we saw, he looks like an elemental, so maybe—”
“He’s trying to send a point to the Orion family?”
Poppy nodded grimly.
“We need to keep this out of the press, then. Get back to Grayson, let him know what’s going on—”
“And then get to the earth containment facility.”
With a small smile, Poppy turned back to Ms. Leonhart. “I think we have everything we need here. For now, you need to put in a request to Princess Eleanor for a new housing unit for the air crystal once it’s retrieved. Contact King Grayson for further instructions on what you and your team should do in the meantime.”
Yes, please, give more work to the princess that’s already backlogged and now has to go on a wild goose chase for elemental crystals, I thought bitterly. At least it would be a good reason to stay in the workshop—and avoid conversing with Poppy as Eleanor.
“Yes, ma’am. Let us know if you need anything else, Commander.” She saluted us politely.
Poppy returned the gesture and placed her hand on my shoulder, teleporting us out of the containment facility and back to the palace. “We’ll fill King Grayson in, and then get brunch, how does that sound?”
It sounded like something I wouldn’t be able to do if I needed to build a new housing unit and prepare to stay at the earth containment site. “We’ll figure it out once Grayson gives orders. We might not have time to.”
“True.” She held the door of the staff kitchen open for me as I walked into the hallway. We walked side by side, heading toward Grayson’s office. “So, you had an idea earlier when Ms. Leonhart mentioned the man got past the scanners?”
“Oh, right! I thought he might have some sort of mimicking ability, but if not, I thought he might be part of the housekeeping staff, someone that would be cleared to enter into the room.”
“But you aren’t thinking that now, are you?”
“Nope,” I said, popping the p. “The man is an elemental. He wants a show; he wants to be noticed by us. I think he’s a member of the Orion family that feels slighted.”
“I know that’s meant to narrow it down, but I think you forget how big the Orion family is.”
“Oh, I don’t forget that. That’s the only reason I’m confident that no one knows which member of the family I am.” If I’d only had ten cousins and one sibling, it wouldn’t take very long to deduce exactly who was under the mask. Instead, the extended family, all the way up to the fourth cousins, at least, was comprised of almost seventy cousins complete with aunts and uncles.
All Orions were cleared in the systems, so anyone, even a distant cousin, still would’ve been able to gain access into that housing room.
“King Grayson isn’t going to like this.”
“Not even a little bit, but we don’t know what this guy is trying to do. Maybe he’s just trying to make a point, but maybe he’s more sinister than that. The tracker said he got a whiff of automaton demons, so who’s to say that this guy doesn’t have demonic backers?”
Poppy frowned, slowly as we reached Grayson’s office door. “Think we need to get the Covenant involved?”
I shook my head. “We haven’t encountered any demons yet. Besides, all their red tape is just going to slow the process down. By the time the Covenant determines that demons might even play a role, this guy might already have all four crystals.”
Heaving another sigh, Poppy knocked on Grayson’s office door. “Let’s go break the news.”
The small blue cube that contained a complete replica of my lab slipped into my pocket easily. It didn’t carry the same full stock of supplies, but it carried everything I thought I’d need for the few days the Knights and I would spend at the earth crystal containment site. If I’d had things my way, I wouldn’t even be taking the portable workshop, but Grayson had fucked me over on that one.
“Hey Scout, I need you running the Puppett Protocol for Orion today.”
“Puppet Protocol has been initiated, L.”
The way Grayson arranged things would make it a bit more complicated for me. I’d managed to get myself a little wiggle room, but getting to and from the facility would be a little more tricky. The day before, after Poppy and I returned from the meeting with Ms. Leonhart, we met briefly with Grayson to give him the rundown and get the new plan.
Essentially, all the Knights, including myself, were being sent to the earth containment facility to protect the crystal and apprehend the robber—and hopefully retrieve the air crystal in the process. He’d reacted well to the news of one of his relatives being the culprit. Instead of freaking out, he’d simply sent out strict memos about keeping the crystal robber investigation under wraps and not letting anything leak to the media. If anyone outside the family or the Knights knew, the Saiphe Realm ran the risk of destabilization. Others would claim the Orion family was no longer fit to rule. From there, chaos would descend.
“I would like Eleanor to accompany the two of you and the other Knights to the containment facility,” Grayson said as the briefing wound down.
“Why?” Poppy demanded. “Can’t she stay under the protection of Malachi’s guard until we return?”
“Under normal circumstances, I would allow that, but the facility may need her technological expertise if the housing unit is compromised. If there are any issues with the Knights’ armor or weapons, it’ll be good to have her around.”
Fucking hell, that meant I’d have to make sure to keep up appearances as both Orion and Eleanor. I’d also have to use Scout to autopilot the Orion armor so both Eleanor and Orion were seen at the same time. If Poppy stuck around like usually did to keep an eye on Eleanor… that could make the situation a bit more precarious.
“I can bunk with Eleanor and watch over her, so Poppy can focus on the investigation,” I said.
Poppy shook her head. “No. I can’t dump that responsibility on you when—”
“It’s no trouble.” I glanced up to find even Grayson looking a bit skeptical about that. I sighed, trying to bite back my frustration. “It’d be easier for me anyway, since she knows who I am. I won’t have the wear the armor constantly.” I looked between the two of them, and while neither of them seemed pleased, they understood.
Grayson stroked his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Very well, you can watch over Eleanor during this. Just, be careful.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Soon after that agreement, the meeting disbanded so Poppy could gather the other Knights, while I supposedly went to inform Eleanor. Instead, I cleaned myself up, pretended like I’d had a full night of sleep and wasn’t fucking exhausted, and finished my packing.
“Hey, Penelope, bring me that sweater.” I glanced over at the small bot that chittered at me as it spun slowly, searching for the black cardigan thrown over the back of my chair. Instead of grabbing the sweater, she grabbed my screwdriver and rolled over, depositing it on the floor by my feet. “Well, they start with the same letter.” I sighed and patted the bot’s chassis before picking up the screwdriver and putting it back on the bench.
“I’ll only be gone for a few days, kids. Don’t have any wild parties, and Scout is in charge.” The bot at the far corner, near my sofa, whirred excitedly. I snorted, “Don’t give me that, Rusty. You know what happened when I left you in charge last.”
“L, Commander Barnes is requesting access into the workshop,” Scout said.
I pulled my hair up swiftly, twisting it into a bun. “You have Puppet Protocol in place?”
“All right, let her in. Let’s rock and roll.”
The doors slid open and Poppy stepped inside. She still wore her armor, but as a Knight on duty, she was expected to. If I were going as just Orion, I’d have to do the same thing whether they knew my identity or not. She’d put a little more product in her hair, slicking it back and to the left, giving a better look at how the right side of her head was shaved, a tattoo of a field of poppy flowers winding above her ear.
“Princess,” she said, addressing me curtly before looking at the armor and smiling. “Orion. Are you two ready?”
“We were born ready,” I said, grinning shamelessly.
Poppy rolled her eyes. “This isn’t a game, Eleanor. We actually have a job to do.”
I held my tongue, knowing if I started riling her up that quickly, it’d be a long rest of the evening. Things needed to stay relatively calm until later that night, then I could piss her off if the opportunity arose.
“Let’s go. We’re meeting the others upstairs.” Poppy led me and the armor upstairs to the staff kitchen—the usual spot. The other Knights stood there, clad in the armor, waiting patiently for us. We banded together and teleported en masse to the earth containment facility in the southernmost part of the Saiphe Realm, to the city of Farahn.
Trees surrounded us for miles in the valley with a mountain on each side of us. Not only was the facility flood due to the shape of the valley, but the forest surrounding it was thick and difficult to navigate through. Anyone that attempted to teleport directly to the facility—that hadn’t been cleared prior to arrival—would arrive on top of the Northwest Mountain. A security checkpoint would intercept them. At that time, since they were on high alert, every mountain had a security checkpoint set up. Guards also patrolled the perimeter of the valley.
The building of the facility itself was entirely made of stone, erected by members of the Orion family that had control over the earth element. Fairy lights were strung in the trees at the entrance of the facility, giving the doorway a warm glow. Since they were submerged in nature, they often had nymphs and fae-folk passing by, so they tried to keep the facility inviting to them. Their natural protection helped to hide the facility for anyone that might have gotten into the valley unnoticed.
Poppy knocked at the door and a petite man with warm, sepia skin and long black hair answered the door. He smiled serenely.
“Welcome, Commander Barnes. Knight Orion, and Princess Eleanor.” He bowed his head at both of us before looking over our shoulders, to the others. “Knights. Come inside.” Stepping back, he held the door open for everyone to enter. The foyer was made of earth and wood—it almost looked like we never stepped out of the forest.
Once everyone trickled in, the man came back over to the front desk. “I am Salem Godfrey, and I run this facility. During your stay, I ask that you not bother the nymphs passing through. They startle easily.” He tucked a lock of glossy black hair behind his ear and glanced down at a paper on the desk. “You each have rooms. The Knights rooms are all grouped together, except for Knight Orion’s.” His warm gaze fell on the armor at my side. “You will be staying with Princess Eleanor, yes?”
“King Grayson mentioned something about you needing a larger space for your lab, is that right, Princess?”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter. It’d be easier, but it’s no big deal. I can fit the lab to whatever you me.” I smirked, sliding my hands into my pockets.
“We have a space upstairs on the fifth floor. It’s a spare conference room that’s relatively large. We can move a bed—”
“Unnecessary,” I said, waving a hand dismissively. “I packed for that.”
He frowned at me. “Are you certain—?”
“Trust me, I’ve got everything one could possibly need.” I elbowed the armor. “Well, everything two could possibly need.”
“Very well, Princess. I understand.” He smiled politely and turned back to Poppy and Orion. “What will you be needing during your stay?”
“I want maps of the facility, surveillance footage—”
“I can send the feed to your phone once I get everything running.”
Poppy nodded briskly, not even pausing in rattling off her list. “—a full tour of the housing room and the areas around it, a complete list of your staff including their photo I.D.’s, and the blueprints of the building to—”
I popped my phone out of my back pocket and easily bypassed the security checks on the facility’s system as I hacked into it. I retrieved the blueprints and sent the file to Poppy’s phone. “You have the blueprints. You can send them to everyone else.”
“Eleanor, stop,” she said sternly, shooting me a sharp look past Orion.
I rolled my eyes, already giving up on not pissing her off. At least I’d been acting helpful. Gods. Remind me not to do her any favors as Eleanor, I thought bitterly.
“We just want to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Poppy said.
“I understand, and I thank you for your thoroughness. The housing room isn’t stable enough for more than five people to be inside at once, so you will have to view the area in groups,” Salem said.
“Let’s see…” She glanced back at the others, picking out who would be first to see the room. “Eleanor, Orion, Micah, and I will go in first. The rest of you can divide yourselves into two more groups and head down after us.”
“If the rest of you will wait here for a moment, Nat will be up to show you to your rooms.” Salem stepped around the desk and motioned for the four of us to follow him down the corridor. “I’ll go ahead and show you the housing room.”
Salem led us to a stone platform in the center of the building. We stepped onto it, and he stomped his foot. The platform sank into the ground, gently dropping us several stories down to what felt like the center of the earth. As cold as I was, the temperature of the room actually warmed me up. I almost felt like I was about to start sweating. Fucking hell, I didn’t like it. The moisture in the air was thick and made my limbs felt like they were sticking to each other.
Rock and dirt surrounded us with a few lanterns burning around the room to provide some illumination. In the center of the room was another glass tube with a brown-green crystal inside of it.
“So, what happens if more than five people are in here?” Poppy asked, cautiously edging around the room.
“It throws off the natural balance. This entire room has been built underground, but the way it’s been constructed has it balanced very particularly on other stone beneath us. If there are more than five people, it runs the risk of being too heavy, which will cause the building to fall in on itself,” Salem explained, voice gently as he stood on the platform, watching as we moved about.
“It’s a great set up,” I said. “If you’re being attacked by numerous people. If there’s only one, as there was in the air facility, that does nothing for us. Do you have an alarm system?”
Salem nodded. “There are cameras and sensors built into the lanterns. They sense magical residue, and if anyone not in the system comes in, they’re set off. The platform will retract and seal the intruder down here.”
“And what if the intruder can manipulate the earth?” I turned back to look at him, knowing it’d be a better question from Orion, but I couldn’t ask as Orion right then, and I needed an answer.
“Any earth manipulation in here that is not sending that platform up will also compromise the integrity of the room and bring the building down.”
I nodded and stepped back up on the platform. “I’m not saying it’s a bad system, but I’d like to make your defense system a little safer for everyone inside. If something happens, I don’t think it’s right that everyone has to risk their lives, especially those of you that can’t manipulate earth.”
Salem smiled. “I would love to listen to your ideas, Princess. Perhaps we can discuss it further once this situation is over and you aren’t as tied up with the Knights?”
“Absolutely.” I took my phone out and embedded my contact information into their system. “Anytime you’re ready, just call me. Don’t worry about getting through Grayson or Malachi.”
“Trust me, you’ll have my number.” I grinned, turning to watch as the Orion armor dutifully followed Poppy back onto the platform. Micah was the last to join.
Salem bent down, sinking his fingers into the stone. He lifted up. The platform ascended back to the main floor, clicking into place. “I’ll show the four of you to your rooms, and then go back for the next group. Follow me.”
First up was the spare conference room for Orion and I. Salem led us up the stairs and to the end of the corridor. He opened the door to a large, empty room with stone walls and a wooden floor.
“Are you sure you won’t be needing anything?” Salem asked.
Fishing the portable lab from my pocket, I tossed it into the room. “I won’t need a thing.” It bounced across the floor. The little cube expanded. The walls were washed in a blue, metal hue, my workbench, sofa, and shower stall were all there. Cubbies containing my tools were there as well as any materials I’d need to fix up the Knights’ armor or weapons. There were two computers and a holographic table. The only bot I had for the portable lab was Scout. I didn’t trust any of the others to behave while contained in the cube.
“This is amazing,” Salem said, dark eyes wandering around the room with a childlike wonder.
I grinned. “It’s paradise.”
“I thought you had two beds,” Poppy said, frowning as she scanned the room.
“The couch is a pullout. Cool your jets.” I rolled my eyes and strode into the room. The Orion armor followed and went straight over to the sofa to sit down. “I’ll get the surveillance footage set up. If you need anything from either Orion or I, you know how to get us.” I gave Poppy a tight smile that was actually closer to a sneer, and then looked back to Salem. “Thank you for the room. I appreciate it. Just let me know if you need me to do anything while I’m here.”
“Thank you, Princess.”
I nodded and shut the door, sighing in relief as I slumped to the floor. “Thank fuck,” I muttered, tipping my head back and closing my eyes. “Scout, you can shut down the armor. Thanks, buddy.”
“You’re welcome, L.”
I shivered and pulled my jacket a little tighter around my shoulders. “Turn that heat up too. What is it in here? Sixty?”
“The current temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Seriously? Damn, bump it up to 85 for now.” Maybe it was where I’d actually gotten warm in the housing room that made it feel colder.
I stood up from the floor and quickly set up Poppy’s connection to the surveillance feed. Just as the connection finalized, Scout’s voice pierced the air.
“Commander Barnes wants to talk to Orion.”
“Okay, hold on.” I went over and wrapped my fingers around the armor. It slid up and onto me, clinging to my skin. “In five minutes, start the shower stall, Scout.”
“And send Poppy in,” I said as the faceplate of the helmet snapped into place.
The door swung open, and Poppy strode right in, like she owned the place. “Hey.” She smiled warmly at me—at Orion. She glanced around with a small frown. “Where’s Eleanor?”
“She just went to shower,” I said. “Wanna—?” I nodded over to the sofa.
“Sure.” She sat down, and I joined her on the other side. We sat in silence for a moment, and in the corner of the room, I heard the shower stall turn out, just as I’d instructed Scout to do. It kept up the illusion that Eleanor was showering instead of sitting in a full suit of armor next to Poppy.
“Is your room nice?” I asked, breaking the silence to fill it, to keep it from getting awkward.
“Yeah, it’s not bad.” She sighed and folded her hands on her knees. “Are you okay, Orion? You’ve been really quiet today.”
“I’m fine.” I shook my head. “I—just tired, I guess.”
Concern pinched her face and dimmed her usually vibrant eyes. “You sure?”
“Yeah.” While her being snippy with me as Eleanor for the last few days hadn’t been great, I really should’ve been used to it. That was how our relationship worked when we were Poppy and Eleanor…
That horrible thought I’d been avoiding popped into the forefront of my mind right then, and I felt stupid for it. After that night, when Poppy and I were tangled together, and for once I actually felt warm, I’d believed that things between us would change. An idiotic little piece of me thought she would treat me like she did when I was in the armor. Then, she didn’t. Quips that I never would’ve thought about twice felt like knives being twisted into my stomach.
I shivered violently.
“How on earth can you be cold in this sauna?” Poppy asked, looking at me like I’d gone insane.
“I have the air turned up really high in here. It’s really fucking cold, but I don’t want to turn it back down.” I faked a small laugh, which Poppy seemed to buy since she smiled. I sucked in a deep breath and leaned back against the cushions. “I can’t sleep.”
“Yeah, and insomnia. I haven’t slept longer than four hours in weeks. I’m fucking exhausted.”
Poppy slid a little closer and put her arm across my shoulders, pulling me closer. She rested her head on my metal shoulder. I couldn’t feel it, but the pressure of her weight was enough to make me realize she was there and present, that it wasn’t another phantom sensation from that night. “You know my room is always open, if you just want to hang out in there or want someone to talk to that isn’t Eleanor. I might not be able to do much, but I can be there with you.”
“You’re welcome.” She pressed her lips against my shoulder—against my armor—and sat back up. “I worry about you, you know. If something isn’t okay or you need something, I want you to feel like you can talk to me about it.”
“I do,” I said, telling a white lie. “But, I’m fine. I think I’ll be fine once I sleep.”
She rubbed my back. “Well, I’m going to head out before Eleanor comes in. I’ve had enough of her today, but I wanted to check up on you. Just text me if you need anything.”
“You don’t want me running patrol or anything tonight?”
“No. Try to get some sleep. If anything happens, I’ll come get you. You can take a shift tomorrow morning.”
“Okay. Good night.”
She smiled and kissed the cheek of the armor. “Good night, sweetheart.” Poppy left the room soundlessly. The doors slid shut behind her, and I felt so utterly alone that my chest felt hollow. My stomach churned.
“Shut off the shower, Scout.” Recede. My armor retracted, seeping into my skin like water and storing itself in my bones, strengthening them from the ice that kept forming along them. I curled up on the sofa, my head resting where Poppy had sat. Despite only being there for a few moments, I could still smell her vanilla perfume. A bit of her heat still radiated off the cushion.
Inhaling deeply, I rolled over, facing the cushions and burying my nose in them. Poppy filled my nose, my thoughts, and I couldn’t escape. With exhaustion draping over me, I wasn’t even going to try. Easing into the dark of slumber, I imagined I felt her soft, full lips brushing mine. Her soft hands skimming over my callused, ice cold skin, making me feel as though I burned under her touch. Every mask I wore slipping off, melting from my face, and leaving me exposed to no one but her. A strong woman of determination and valor; a woman that took no shit.
The woman I loved, because no matter how stern and stubborn she was when facing Eleanor, I’d witnessed how kind and gentle and devoted she was to Orion. The same side she showed Eleanor that one night, that one moment. The side that overruled how unnecessarily cruel she could be when she faced an adversary.
I loved her, I wanted her to love me out of the mask too. I thought I managed it. But, she didn’t. She wouldn’t. It would never happen, and it was something I would just have to live with. The only person I ever loved, and I knew she’d never love me if she knew what lay under the mask.
Those thoughts haunted me, plaguing my slumber, and driving the darkness into a chaotic madness that left me gasping, breathless, and terrified when I woke to a pitch black room.
The lights snapped on, completely illuminating the workshop. I was alone, of course, and I was perfectly fine, if not a little cold. Frigid sweat matted my sweatshirt to my skin. Tendrils of my hair that’d slipped out of my bun stuck to my neck and cheeks. I felt like I was going to puke.
“L, your heart rate is dangerously high. Might I suggest Protocol—?”
“No, I—” I sucked in a deep breath and forced myself to lay back down, gritting my teeth. “I’m fine. Just, give me a second.” I squeezed my eyes shut, only to pop them back open when the blackness spun, making everything feel distant and unreal.
“Commander Barnes is demanding entrance into the lab.”
“Fuck.” I raked my fingers through my hair. “Let her in. Start the shower.”
The door swung open once again, and Poppy strode inside. “Where’s Orion?” Her voice was tight and fast. Something was wrong. Shit.
“Just got in the shower. Why?”
“There’s been a breech. Send her downstairs as soon as she’s done, got it?”
I nodded, closing my eyes as I leaned back against the armrest. I was so going to puke inside the armor.
“Eleanor! Do not fall asleep! Go get Orion. Did you not hear me?”
“I fucking heard you, okay?” I got off the sofa, planning to make a show of storming over to the shower stall when I stumbled. I fell back against the sofa and cursed.
The same concerned light from earlier illuminated Poppy’s eyes. “You alright?”
“Fine,” I snapped. “Scout, relay this to Orion, will you?”
I looked back at Poppy and raised my brows. “There. It’s taken care of. She’ll be down in a second.”
“Thank you.” She walked back out, not saying a word or anything else as the door closed behind her.
“Let’s do this,” I muttered to myself, trying to psych myself up as I willed my armor to crawl back over my skin, shielding me from the world and letting me be someone else, even if only for a little while.