The shift from Tara to Lucas was seamless. Hannah only realised that it had happened because Tara’s mind didn’t scratch against hers the way Lucas’s had. It was still unpleasantly alien compared to her family but Tara’s mind was similar enough to Sean’s that Hannah found it tolerable.
Yes, getting used to merging with people you don’t have a bond with is always tough, Tara said. I knew you and Sean dated but I didn’t know you had bonded.
It wasn’t like that , Hannah said. We all did. You never know when you’ll have to merge when you’re a warrior, so we cultivated platonic bonds in the group just in case. It never came up in the end.
That makes sense, I suppose, Tara said. But I’m still surprised he never mentioned it. But let’s get down to business. This is the barrier concealing what happened to my parents. She tapped something with her minds and suddenly a massive rocky cliff loomed in front of her mind’s eye. Yes, that’s how I visualise it. It was well concealed as well. You wouldn’t think it could be hidden to look at it.
So what am I looking for? Hannah asked.
A crack or crevasse Tara said. Anything that might be a way though. It’s impossible to make something like this perfect.
This is the second layer, right? Hannah said.
Yes, the first ward was meant to be found.
Okay. Hannah turned her attention to the cliff. As she touched it with her mind, the familiar sensation caused her to jerk back. Shit!
What is it? Tara asked.
The Core made this. I’d know its touch anywhere from when it mushed my brains up.
What? Sonia’s voice rose through the merge. There was a pause. You’re right, but not just the Core – there’s someone else here as well. I knew it was familiar but I never had much contact with it . Does this mean the Core killed them? Why would it?
That’s the most likely explanation, Carl said. But not the only one. Let’s not jump to conclusions.
There! The interruption came from one of the Laverne cousins. There’s a gap there! She was mentally pointing at a barely noticeable crack in the barrier.
Good! Tara said. Everybody ready? Tara’s mind wrapped around them, deepening the merge until Hannah wasn’t certain where she ended and the others began.
We hit it. We hit it now, and we keep hitting it until it shatters. For a moment the small part of Hannah that was still just her tried to identify the speaker, but then she realised it was pointless. The thought was all of them. They were truly of one mind.
She summoned all her strength and threw it into the merge, aware of strength pouring in from the others as well before even that weak distinction between self and other faded. The merge pulled itself down into a fine needle and dove towards the crack. Pain ripped through Hannah and she had to cling onto Tara to avoid being thrown free of the merge. From the cries she could hear, the others had felt the same. It took a moment for them to reintegrate, then the merge dove down at the crack again and again, the crack seeming wider and the recoil less each time.
Abruptly it gave out, and they were forced to scramble back from the mental avalanche as the entire face of the mental cliff shattered. When the debris cleared, the cliff was gone – although it took them a few moments to process what they were seeing beyond where it had been.
The plane was filled with unconscious bodies. Indeed everyone except a middle-aged couple who must be Tara’s parents seemed to be unconscious. They were standing back to back in the aisle and were obviously ready for a fight.
You should have picked a better time to get a conscience. That was the Core’s voice all right. Your family has always been a good way of removing threats; you should just have killed them for me. Now I’ll have to use your successor – and all these people? Their deaths are you fault.
“Marian won’t help you,” the woman said. “She’s got more of a conscience than we do. She’ll find out what happened here and crush you.”
That would be true, except I have help. It sounded smug. Someone else who wants Sonia Keefe out of the way has a solution to that. She’ll have to break herself to get through our barrier and what she finds will be what we want. Then he’ll remake her. Now, goodbye. My friend is going to finish you.
The tortured sound of tearing metal filled the plane, and a huge black draconic claw ripped through the fuselage towards them.
The merge fell apart as Tara started sobbing. Next to her, Carl had laid his head on his forearms and his shoulders shook as he also wept. Hannah got up and hugged both of them as the others began discussing what they’d seen.
“Was that…” Sonia asked.
“Mitakrian?” Nerezza said. “Yes it was. I think he must have been using the same weakness in the Core’s wards that Emms was to manipulate it. But how did he get to Gaia without the others sensing him? Unless…” She trailed off thoughtfully.
“Unless?” Sonia asked.
“Unless the Core opened the gate. The others wouldn’t notice that. I’ll have to talk to Alaryia, though. It shouldn’t have been able to ally with a drag-” She broke off as a despairing wail came from the cellar, followed by ominous silence. “Marian woke up?”
“Yes, and it looks like she somehow followed us through,” Lucas said. “Well, it saves us from having to persuade her of the truth, but I can’t sense her mind anymore. We’d better go and check on her.”