The tip of Zin’s finger brushed Thorn’s temple and moved away again, but the first-sworn’s transformation was instant.
Zin lowered her hand to her side, and she smiled. She made a small pleased sound and raised herself up on the balls of her feet like a child quietly proud of mastering a new skill.
The pained frown marring Thorn’s brow smoothed out, and his eyes grew wide and disbelieving. He straightened and raised his hand to the cheek that a second ago had borne the scar of a bullet’s devastating passage. Thorn’s searching fingers found stubbled skin over solid bone.
The first-sworn tilted his head as though listening to something, then spun to the woman next to him. Her wounds were gone and her countenance pain-free.
The bondsan smiled, and her beauty surprised Avril. Where before he’d only seen a cruel adversary, now stood a woman who cared deeply for the people closest to her. Avril saw the warmth in her expression and the coming together of Thorn’s cadre, and he felt a matching flush of warmth for them and overwhelming pride for Zin.
Zin returned his smile.
Who are you? he wondered, but unlike before, now he knew the answer. This was who she was. Zin was the one who saw through the pain and the fear; Zin was the one who helped when everybody else fought.
After a second of eye contact, Avril gasped and realized Zin had taken his pain.
“How?” he blurted the question. “You didn’t even touch…”
Zin shook her head with mock pity and smiled as she approached him. “You’re such a cog, Avril Ethanson.”
Avril laid his hands on Zin’s shoulders. The warmth and tingling started beneath his skin before he even made contact.
Thorn’s cadre froze, and as one, their eyes hardened on Avril. Their joy at being made whole gave way to duty, and the bondsan assumed defensive postures.
Thorn left his cadre and took two cautious steps forward.
Avril tried to forestall him. “We’ve hurt each other enough. Let’s not undo Zin’s work.”
“We don’t want to go with you,” Zin said.
“Those machines are gone.” Avril sensed their absence, but it changed nothing. They were still bondsan. “Zin fixed it, but if you die for Lord Mikkel now, you die for good.”
Bondsan gripped weapons that had already been jammed.
Avril cursed. “That wasn’t a threat. We can all walk away.”
Thorn took a deep breath and looked at Zin. “Thank you for what you’ve done for us. When we arrive in Ardel, I will speak on your behalf and do all I can for you.”
“We won’t go,” Maxian said and widened his stance as if preparing to fight.
Laurill still held the laser-cannon and said, “You can’t beat us.”
“I am indebted to you, but I cannot break faith with my lord. We are bondsan,” Thorn said.
Zin touched his cheek where the bullet had torn through his face.
Thorn didn’t resist her touch, and Zin said, “I understand. You must protect your cadre, and going against your lord puts them in danger.”
“It’s not so simple. We cannot go against Lord Mikkel. It’s not in us. No matter what you do for us, we cannot.” Tears formed around Thorn’s eyes.
Laurill stepped forward, brow pinched and lips poised to ask a question, but Zin met her eyes, and Laurill stopped.
“I understand,” Zin told Thorn. “You must protect your cadre, but I must protect my cadre too.”
Cadre? Avril thought with astonishment, but before he could consider it further, he caught a flash of Zin’s intention, and he said, “Zin, no.”
Still with one hand held against Thorn’s cheek, Zin looked at Avril and said, “I figured it out. I can hold it all in without losing the pattern.”
Avril’s vision doubled, and he saw himself through Zin’s eyes, and in an instant, he knew what Zin knew.
She could let go of her material form and turn to dust, and she could travel on the wind and reassemble herself far from here. She could even take Thorn and his cadre with her, and when they were safely removed from Avril and the others, she could return.
He knew because they were connected. They were part of a cadre. It didn’t make any sense, but it was true, and they’d find out more together.
His perspective narrowed again, and he saw the world through a single pair of eyes, instead of two, and he stepped back without speaking. Words were no longer necessary.
Zin smiled, and then she and Thorn’s cadre dissolved and were gone.
Avril stared into the space she’d occupied and waited.
His heart beat in his chest and anticipation and adrenaline amplified every beat.
One. Two. Three.
“Come back,” he whispered.
Four. Five. Six.
“Please come back, Zin.”
The connection to her had been pure and all-encompassing, and for an instant, they’d known each other completely.
Avril’s memory of the connection was already fading, but the sense of beauty and wonder at knowing somebody so completely remained, and he was eager to renew the knowing.
Seven… Eight… Nine…
Avril’s heart slowed to a normal rate, and he took a breath and sighed.
Maxian spoke first. “Was she right? Are we a cadre? Is that what this is?”
Avril looked at the dualist and remembered being hypnotized by one of the dragon’s golden eyes as it circled him on Taral’s city wall. He hadn’t felt threatened even though logical self-preservation dictated fear was the only response.
That was the connection, Avril thought and stepped across the room that seemed bigger now there were fewer people present, and he held out his hand to Maxian.
The dualist scowled at the hand, then accepted it, and a look of first surprise and then understanding crossed his face. A smile broke through Maxian’s stern expression, but concern replaced the smile, and he asked, “Is she coming back?”
Avril nodded, certain. “Yes.”
This is the end of Malicious Designs, but it isn't the end of Cogs Web Serial or Avril and his cadre's adventures. The story continues in book two, Discarded Gods, which jumps back in time and explores the mystery behind Avril's and his cadre's binding.