THE LAST STRIKE - CHAPTER 1 - asher
“We will attack the royal compound. Reed is in place,” Asher said, his voice shaking with rage. “It is time for Adani to fall.”
Fury lashed through Asher’s veins. He wouldn’t stand for this. The Adani King had known that attacking the Lithe Ruins would hit Asher hard, but he had underestimated just how hard. The Lithe Ruins were not only a holy site—they had also been Asher’s favorite place in the world. A place he went to seek solace, to soothe his soul.
King Khalil had made a huge mistake attacking Asher’s beloved ruins.
And now he would pay.
“I’ll issue the order,” Asher said.
“There is no turning back now,” King Luang, his new ally, said. He sighed. “I guess there was no turning back anyway, not after your press conference announcing war.”
“There is no turning back. If we give into them now, they will destroy the entire region. My kingdom, your kingdom, and every kingdom that stands in their way,” Asher said. He needed to move, to pace, but as he stood his legs felt that strange sense of heaviness yet weightlessness. He put a hand on the wall to steady himself.
“I know, Asher. That’s why I, and the other kingdoms, sat at the round table and agreed to fight with you. But war is ugly, and this will be a scathing mess. Prepare yourself for a long, hard journey. You’re going to need to support and uplift your people. If I can give you one piece of advice from someone who has ruled longer than you, and ruled during war, it is this: keep the morale of your people high. Stay connected to them and keep a visible presence, even when it’s hard. Your people will need to see you and know you remain strong and confident.”
King Luang reminded Asher of his late father. Asher’s heart ached for him, wishing he was here to guide him—to handle this for him. But he wasn’t, and Santina was now Asher’s responsibility.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Asher said.
King Luang gave a slight chuckle. “Please call me Luang—that’s what your father called me, because we were friends. Now we’re friends, Asher, and we’re going to need each other.”
“Thank you, Luang,” Asher said with a warm smile.
Asher wondered if it would be the last time he smiled for a while.
“Now, go issue the order. Let’s teach King Khalil a lesson in manners,” King Luang said with a hint of excitement. Asher knew he wasn’t excited for war, but the end of Adani would be a blessing to their region, even the world.
“Copy. I’ll keep you updated,” Asher said before ending the call.
He went to the bathroom, splashed some water on his face, and brushed his teeth. He pulled on a fresh white T-shirt and jeans. When he returned to the bedroom, Abi was awake—he’d no doubt woken her with his phone call.
“King Khalil attacked the Lithe Ruins. It’s started,” Asher said, the fury returning. During his conversation with King Luang, he’d momentarily felt calm, but now that was forgotten. Now he would use his anger to strengthen him.
Abi’s jaw fell open and she scrambled out of bed. “Wait for me. I’m coming with you,” she said as she reached for a sweater, pulling it over her head. He held out his hand for her and pulled her into his embrace.
“I love you,” Asher said, looking into her eyes. “Whatever happens from here on, know that I’ll protect you at all costs, Abi.”
“We’ll protect each other,” she said, looking up at him through her lashes.
He lost himself in her resolve for a moment. He nodded. “Always.”
Asher knocked on the bedroom door twice and security opened it. “To the command center, please,” Asher said.
As they walked through the hallways, accompanied by a full security team, it was not lost on Asher that he’d had to temporarily move into his future father-in-law’s house. He was the King of Santina, but he had no residence of his own after King Khalil’s men had destroyed his palace—and the second safest place in Santina was the Bennett’s family home. He almost laughed at the reality he’d found himself in, because if he didn’t, he might lose his mind.
Asher would rebuild. He and Abi would build a new palace, a new beginning for them and for Santina. But Asher couldn’t do that until he won the war he’d started. Once he took control of Adani, the oil funds would secure Santina’s future and fund building a new palace. Until then, he would need to stay on the good side of his future father-in-law.
As they turned the corner and entered the command center, Asher’s eyes landed on James Thomas, who was seated at a large dining table filled with monitors and various technical devices. Asher was not surprised to see William Bennett seated beside him.
“I’ve spoken with King Luang and we’re ready. Command Reed to proceed,” Asher said, standing beside James. He didn’t think he could sit for this; too much nervous energy was pumping through him.
“Reed?” James asked.
“Copy.” Reed’s voice came through the speaker system, echoing through the room.
“Proceed when you’re ready. Once you detonate, you’ll have two minutes to get inside. Make it count, but don’t rush. Watch your back,” James said, calm and encouraging.
Asher looked to James, wondering when he’d last slept. They’d been up all night the previous night—when the palace had been under attack—and then they’d spent the day in negotiations with the kingdom leaders. Yet he appeared wide awake and alert as he commanded Reed. When did the guy sleep?
“Copy. Moving into position one.”
Asher followed James’s gaze to the two screens directly in front of him. Two different windows of footage were displayed on one—Reed’s front and back cameras.
The other monitor displayed a map of the Adani palace grounds. King Khalil loved to invite the media into his palace, and his ego would now be his downfall. Samuel had been able to take the media photos published online and combine them with images not previously published—Asher didn’t ask where those photographs came from—to create what they thought was an almost perfect map of the grounds. It had been very helpful in formulating their plan.
As Reed ran along the east boundary of the palace wall, Asher’s worries began to bubble like a pot of water on the verge of boiling.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to send him in without a team?” Asher asked.
He already had the blood of his soldiers on his soul. He didn’t need it to be smeared with Reed’s blood as well.
“A team will attract too much attention. Reed is there because he can move like a ghost. He can do this alone. A team would be destined to fail.” James looked to him. “You need to trust me on this.”
Asher nodded. He did trust James, but it seemed almost insane to send one guy in to take down an entire palace. Needless to say, this was an unusual plan. Initially, they’d planned to attack the palace in the same manner King Khalil had attacked—by sending in teams of men to destroy the palace and kill Asher. But Khalil had only partly succeeded, and Asher was determined to fully succeed.
“King Khalil used brute force, manpower,” James continued. “If Reed does this right, he’ll be in and out of the palace before they’ve even realized they had a visitor, and then we let nature take its course. You won’t win this war with brute strength, Asher—you don’t have the resources available, even with the other kingdoms’ aid. Strategy is your only option.”
James was right, and Asher knew it.
Still, the responsibility weighed on his shoulders like a kingdom of bricks. He thought of his father, wondering if he was looking down over Santina. Would he think this was a brilliant idea or a disastrous one? Because it could only go one way.
But his father wasn’t there. King Khalil had made sure of that—and he’d taken Noah before almost killing his mother.
Without declaring it, King Khalil had started a war. And now Asher would finish it.
“Copy. Detonate,” James commanded.
Asher held his breath as a round of roaring, crashing thunderclaps echoed through the speaker system.
“Go!” James said as Reed launched up, scaling the brick wall. Then, “Steady,” as Reed neared the top.
Another screen of footage flashed up, and Asher knew it was the small camera Reed was using to look above him.
As they’d hoped, everyone on the grounds was running toward the explosion.
“Detonate!” James said.
Another explosion boomed, and then another.
Chaos followed. Men yelled and ran in all directions.
“Go!” James said and Reed seemed to pounce up on top of the wall and run toward the adjoining palace. He was conveniently dressed in an Adani soldier’s uniform—one unlucky soldier had been sacrificed upon Reed’s arrival. The soldier had been deemed a necessary sacrifice, and Asher would have to live with that. Better one Adani soldier than all of Santina, Asher had justified.
Asher’s eyes dropped to the numbers counting down in the bottom of the screen.
“One minute, twenty seconds,” James said, his mind clearly all too aware of the time as well.
Asher looked at the dot tracking on the screen, indicating Reed’s position. He was almost to the palace. Asher refused the urge to pace and instead homed in his focus.
“Detonate,” James said again and another explosion followed.
The camera footage bounced wildly as Reed ran, and Asher couldn’t get a clear picture of the grounds. But that was the fourth explosion and Asher prayed it would be enough of a distraction.
Reed needed three minutes inside the palace.
Three minutes to seal King Khalil’s fate.
Reed swore as the ground in front of him chipped away.
“Go! Go!” James said. “Keep running!”
Asher held his breath as bullets hit the wall, somehow missing Reed. Then his heart skipped a beat as Reed ran straight into a stained-glass window. His shoulder hit the window first, shattering it, and the camera tumbled along with his body. Then he pounced back onto his feet, crouching like a cat.
“Clear,” said a voice Asher recognized as Samuel’s. “Take the first right and then down the stairs to the Marble Hall. Go!”
Reed darted to the door and peered out. Asher exhaled a shaky breath when he saw the hallway was clear.
Reed sprinted forward, taking the first right and scaling down the stairs like he was flying. Asher wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen someone move so fast.
He came to a sudden halt at the bottom and pressed his back against the wall.
Two Adani soldiers ran past, their weapons raised.
If they’d turned around, they would’ve looked straight at Reed, but they kept running toward the latest explosion.
“Activate the drones, Samuel,” James said. “Give Reed some breathing room.”
It sounded like background noise, but the sound of the explosions was unmistakable. James hadn’t wanted to send a team to their deaths, but that didn’t mean Reed didn’t have any support. Right now, hovering above the palace grounds, was a team of drones, firing and bombing everything in sight.
Asher prayed that would be enough to keep the soldiers occupied for a few more minutes.
In a situation like this, a minute seemed nothing more than a breath, but it also seemed like an eternity.
“Moving into position three,” Reed said as he checked the hallway and surged forward.
The Marble Hall came into view. It was named the Marble Hall for obvious reasons: the entire hall—the floors, walls and ceiling were made of marble and the hall was lined with marble columns and arches. It was the most ridiculous, ostentatious display of wealth Asher had ever seen. King Khalil should’ve used that money to feed his poor.
Asher chewed on his cheek.
It is time for you to fall, Khalil.
Reed sprinted through the Marble Hall.
“Veer right; there should be a door on the left. That’s your entry point,” Samuel said.
Asher’s stomach churned. Should be a door on the left.
They were confident it was there, but if any amendments had been made to the palace recently, there was a chance it was not. This entire plan hinged on this entry point.
Reed hurled around the corner and Asher’s eyes widened as he saw the wall. It was paneled. No door in sight.
“Look for the door, Reed,” James commanded. “It’s there.”
Asher didn’t know how he knew that, or if he actually did. But one thing was certain: there wasn’t a hint of doubt in his voice.
Reed ran his hands across the wall panels.
Asher’s eyes dropped to the clock. Thirty seconds remained. The drones could only hold the enemy’s attention for so long before the soldiers moved back in to secure the palace. Reed was running out of time.
“It’s flat. Nothing here,” Reed said.
James stared at the screen. “Keep looking. It’s there,” he said.
“Got it!” Reed said as he ran his fingers along what looked like an architrave.
James exhaled audibly.
The door opened and Reed disappeared into the darkness. A moment later, Reed turned on a flashlight and Asher saw another set of stairs that led to a basement.
Asher’s foot tapped nervously on the floor. He couldn’t help it now.
Reed scaled the stairs and ran toward the water system. It was time for Khalil to get a taste of his own medicine.
“Preparing the syringe,” Reed said with labored breath.
“Use the clear pipe, not the gray one,” Samuel instructed.
Reed jammed the syringe into the pipe then connected it to a larger bottle from his kit.
King Khalil had wanted to poison Santina’s water supply with it, but in return, Asher was going to poison the Adani Palace and everyone in it—leaving no heirs to the Adani Kingdom.
“Complete,” Reed said as the lights turned on, fully illuminating him.
Asher choked on his breath. No!
“Take cover!” James said as Reed pulled the container away. Asher only saw it for a split second before Reed ran for cover, but there was no mistaking it: Reed had pulled the bottle, but the syringe hadn’t come with it.
“Leave it! Take cover!” James said, obviously noting the same thing. “If they see it, eliminate them. Otherwise, stay hidden. We still need to get you out.”
Asher’s eyes didn’t leave the footage as two Adani soldiers walked into view. They seemed to be scoping the basement, looking for something—or someone. They turned in a full circle, seeming to stop at the water system. They looked at it a moment and then raised their weapons as they moved around the system. As one soldier circled it, he pressed his back and heels against the system.
He stopped with his foot touching the syringe.
Asher couldn’t breathe. He put his hand on his chest, pressing against it like that would calm his rapid heart.
Asher was sure the soldier had seen it—or felt it—but then he stepped forward and motioned the other soldier to follow.
“There’s nothing down here,” he said as they moved toward the stairs.
Reed’s cameras didn’t move. Not an inch.
He didn’t take a breath.
THE LAST STRIKE - CHAPTER 2 - REED
His heart whooshed in his ears and he didn’t dare breathe. If they saw him now, there would be no escape. He was pressed between two storage containers and had nowhere to run. Reed looked to the syringe that the solider had unknowingly almost tripped on.
Big mistake, Reed.
He’d hastily grabbed the container, not realizing the syringe had stayed lodged in the pipe. One simple mistake could’ve ruined it all.
“Focus,” James said through his earpiece, like he could read Reed’s mind. “Finish the job.”
Reed drew a calming breath and listened for a moment.
He slid out from between the storage containers and rushed to the water system. He reconnected the container and flushed it through the syringe. He looked over his shoulder at the stairs. He didn’t know how much time he had, but he didn’t think it was much.
Reed kept his eyes on the volume level in the container, watching as the last inch fed into the system.
It was almost gone when a piercing ring ran through his ears. His head snapped to the stairs. He didn’t know what that alarm was for, but he knew it wasn’t good.
Was it a fire alarm?
“Samuel?” Reed asked. “What’s the alarm for?”
“I don’t know.” Samuel’s reply came quick, rushed.
“It’s not a fire alarm . . . Give me a second . . . Shit!” Samuel swore. “Is the solution in?”
“Yes, it’s done,” Reed said, quickly packing everything into his kit before he pulled out the glue, sealing the tiny hole he’d made in the pipe with the syringe. He didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
“Good, because you have about thirty seconds to get out of there. I don’t know if you tripped something, or maybe the soldiers called for backup rather than confronting you alone, but there’s about twenty soldiers heading your way. Move!”
Reed’s chest tightened as he ran his thumb over the glue quickly, spreading it in. It looked invisible under the flashlight and he hoped it would hold up if the soldiers examined it.
He sprang to his feet and scoped the basement. He couldn’t get out the same way he came in, so he looked for another exit, beaming his flashlight in an arc. He saw a door at the back of the room, hidden behind shelving. Reed had no idea where it went, but right now he didn’t have a better option.
He ran for it, placing two hands on the metal shelving. He pushed against it, careful not to move it too fast and knock everything off, but he needed to push it hard enough to actually move it. It groaned, then slid an inch. He pushed again, and again, until he had enough wiggle room, but the handle wouldn’t budge.
Pulling a lock-picking set from his kit, he inserted a tool. He wriggled the handle and heard a click a second before he heard voices on the staircase, followed by the sound of multiple pairs of boots on the stairs.
Reed slipped behind the door, locking it behind him. It wouldn’t give him much time, but it might buy him the few seconds he needed to get out of this pickle.
He walked into a marble room and for a second he thought it was the Marble Hall, but it wasn’t.
“Samuel, where am I?” Reed asked.
“I have no idea . . . It’s not on any of the plans we have, or in any of the photographs. Just keep moving until I can direct a course for you,” he said calmly, like they were talking about the weather and there weren’t at least six men behind Reed.
Reed ran forward, keeping his pistol raised. He had no idea where he was or what awaited him.
He looked over his shoulder and saw nothing except the indents of his shoes. The ivory carpet was so plush he was leaving a footprint trail. He swore under his breath. Nothing was working in his favor.
Reed moved faster, working to make his footsteps as light as possible. He needed to get off this carpet. He needed to get out of the palace.
He heard two voices ahead of him and he darted to the closest wall, pressing his back against it.
He focused on his breath and slowed down his mind.
“Hold,” James said, which Reed considered good advice for the voices in front of him, but he was also concerned about what was coming behind him.
“At least six men are coming through that door in a minute,” Reed said, his voice barely audible to his own ears.
“Hold,” James repeated firmly. “We’re creating a distraction. Give us a second.”
“Copy,” Reed said, his finger on the trigger. He didn’t know how many seconds he had to give, but right now, as he always did in the field, he placed his trust in James.
Reed’s eyes snapped up to the ceiling as a voice echoed through the room. It seemed to be coming from the speakers.
“Alert! Alert! The palace is under attack. Your Majesty commands you to the basements to take cover. Move immediately. Do not hesitate.”
A smile spread across Reed’s lips and he almost laughed. The voice had spoken in the Adani language, but that was not the voice of King Khalil. It was the voice of King Asher, but Reed knew no one in the palace would ask who the voice belonged to when it boomed with such authority.
Reed heard scurrying feet and knew the plan was working. The soldiers would remain in the basement, and everyone else would move there—or to the subsequent basements—making for crowded and confused groups of people.
“Move when you can,” James said.
Reed crept forward in time to see two women, most likely servants, running out of the room. When a third one ran past him, he inhaled sharply. He saw her face—only for a split second—but that was enough.
“Grace!” James exclaimed.
Aunty Grace, the evil-minded woman who had sided with Adani to take Santina down.
“Let her go. We’ll deal with her later. Focus on getting out,” James commanded.
“Copy,” Reed said, even though his feet were itching to follow her.
Reed was moving toward the door when realization hit him. Two servants had run out before Grace, and now he’d entered a bedroom. His eyes swept over it, landing on the adjoining room.
He moved toward it.
“Reed,” James said, his tone an urgent reminder of the imminent danger he was in.
“Five seconds,” Reed said as he slowly turned the doorknob, and inched open the door. It was a closet. Reed scanned between the clothes but couldn’t see any threat. He moved inside.
He had no way of immediately knowing for sure if this hunch was right. But something held him there, unable to walk away. Gut instinct.
Reed ran to the drawers and searched them.
He moved to the next row.
“Come on,” Reed said under his breath. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he couldn’t leave.
“Reed, you need to move!” James said.
“Copy,” Reed said, but he didn’t take a step because his eyes landed on the back of the panel of a drawer, which was leaning at an odd angle. Reed reached forward, pulling it, and he soon saw why. It was full of maps.
Reed shuffled them through his hands.
Maps of every Kingdom, and they were numbered.
Santina was number one.
Reed tucked them into his kit and quickly searched the remaining drawers, but the gut instinct that had held him there was gone.
“Soldier, what is your identification number?” a voice asked from behind him and Reed felt the unmistakable press of metal against the back of his head.
Reed silently cursed the fluffy carpet that had masked the sound of the soldier’s footsteps.
He looked into the small mirror on the chest of drawers. He could only see one soldier behind him, but it was a small mirror and there could be many more. Reed weighed his options but there only seemed to be two: fight or surrender.
“Lower your weapon,” the soldier said, but Reed wasn’t holding one—he’d put it down to pick up the maps and shuffle through them.
Reed held up his empty hands and the soldier took a step toward him.
Reed spun around and slammed his fist into the man’s forearms, knocking the pistol from his hands. He hadn’t anticipated Reed could move so fast, and that would be his downfall.
Reed delivered a second blow underneath the man’s chin. His head snapped back and he stumbled. Reed kicked his knee cap and the man howled before Reed clamped his hand over his mouth.
“Quiet!” Reed reprimanded as he delivered a knee to the man’s stomach, winding him and making it impossible for the soldier to shout for help.
But it didn’t matter. Reed heard the footsteps approaching this time, and there was more than one soldier coming his way.
Reed grabbed his weapon and pressed his back against the wall, sliding down so he was crouched on his heels. He angled his weapon up and waited, silently counting the seconds.
Three, two, one!
Reed fired two shots at the first soldier’s chest and he fell. Shots fired back, directly above his head, chipping the wall. Reed had anticipated the move and had crouched down to dodge the shots.
He kept firing as the soldiers ran forward, falling one after the other. When Reed heard no more footsteps, he sprung up and ran from the closet, firing one last shot into each of the soldiers to make sure they didn’t get up—a risk he couldn’t take.
Running through the bedroom, he paused at the hallway and peered around the architrave, checking each end of the hallway.
“Go!” James said.
“Right!” Samuel directed, which was a good thing, because Reed was about to turn left.
He turned right and sprinted forward. There was no element of surprise now—speed was his only tactic.
Thanks to Asher’s audio message, the hallways were clear, but Reed had the strange sense he wasn’t alone. He looked up at a security camera as he ran and knew he was being watched.
He pushed faster, ignoring his burning lungs.
Reed saw it, but he saw it a second too late. He hurdled, but his left foot clipped a neon-green laser beam.
His life seemed to flash before him and when he fell to the ground, it shocked him that nothing happened. He looked back at the green bar of light that ran from one side of the hallway. He’d definitely just tripped something—it was not there for decoration.
The confusion stunned him for a moment but he decided he’d deal with whatever catastrophe he’d just created when it presented itself.
He got back to his feet, sprinting forward again, his eyes more mindful of electric tripwires. But the rest of the hallway was clear and when he got to the front lobby of the palace, it was empty too.
While Reed had anticipated most soldiers and staff would go to the bunkers, he highly doubted everyone would. A percentage of soldiers should’ve stayed to control the palace. Something was wrong.
Reed ran for the front door, quickly realizing it didn’t have a lock. He pulled the handle but it didn’t move. His eyes shot up at the sound of something spraying, like an automatic air freshener. Reed held his breath just as James’s voice sounded in his ear.
“Use the window!” James said with an urgency to his voice that wasn’t normally there.
Reed ran for the windows in the adjoining rooms, but they didn’t have locks either. Reed frowned and grabbed a nearby chair, hauling it through the air and into the window. The glass cracked, but didn’t break. Reed backed up a few paces and then surged forward, kicking the window. It finally broke and Reed continued to kick his heel into the glass until he had an opening large enough to fit through.
Reed stumbled and pressed a hand against the wall to catch himself. His vision blurred and his eyes stung.
“Reed, are you okay?” James asked.
“I’m fine,” Reed said as he pushed through the sudden pain. His eyes stung and nausea rolled through him like tidal waves. His heart seemed to be beating a million miles an hour.
“Reed, breathe. Go through the window. Now!” James commanded and through the fog Reed somehow heard his voice.
He focused on the window, which kept shifting. Reed pressed his hand against the wall and inhaled the fresh air. He took a few deep breaths and immediately felt better.
“Reed, move! Get out! Go through the window!” James was yelling at him, but Reed barely heard him. Everything was hurting again, and everything was hazy.
It took all the strength he had, but Reed grasped the top of the window frame and maneuvered through it. He hissed as a shard of glass cut his skin. Reed dropped onto the flower bed below, his body twitching and convulsing.
“Get up! Move!” James commanded. “Get up!”
Reed looked around, momentarily forgetting where he was. He pushed up onto his knees and then used the wall for support.
“Go right, along the wall!” James commanded.
Reed ran right, keeping this hand on the wall at all times, but the wall kept moving. He took another deep breath, and then another. Eventually, he could see only one wall but his head was pounding and he was sweating.
“Keep moving, Reed. Go through the gate,” James said as a noise hovered above him. It sounded like an airplane but when Reed looked up he couldn’t see anything.
Suddenly, a man fell from the top of the fence, landing in front of him.
Reed stumbled, using the wall yet again to steady himself.
“Keep moving. You’re almost out,” James said.
James’s voice sounded distant.
“Keep moving, Reed. Breathe. Focus. Two more steps. Two more,” James said. He kept repeating two more steps, or at least Reed thought he did.
Another wave of nausea rolled through him and this time he couldn’t stop it. He leaned forward, emptying the contents of his stomach.
He heard voices behind him, but they sounded like they were a million miles away. He turned his head to see who was coming, and the men fell to their knees. Reed clutched his churning stomach as his entire body shook.
“Reed, move! Go through the gate. Focus on my voice.”
Reed looked around. Who was talking to him?
He took a step forward and stumbled.
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