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Shadows Before the Sun
After filling out mountains of paperwork, Detective Charlie Madigan sets out for a death-defying trip into heavenly Elysia to rescue her partner Hank and bring the siren home. Of course, she doesn't expect to leave behind an all out siren revolution or return home to find that jinn crime boss, Grigori Tennin, has begun a massive search for the divine being, Ahkneri. Tennin's tactics set off a chain reaction that puts Charlie in the crosshairs of the shadowy creature known as Death and awakens Ahkneri from her long sleep. And when Vengeance rises, Atlanta will never be the same.
Shadows Before the Sun (The fourth book in the Charlie Madigan series) A novel by Kelly Gay
who always finds the sun
beyond the shadows even
when I cannot
THE SIREN CITY OF FIALLAN
His muscles tensed, going rock hard as the whip sliced through the air with a long, brutal sigh. The glowing barb flashed over the walls of the chamber and struck his left shoulder blade, sinking in deep and then ripping flesh as its power burned like acid through the wound.
A shocked gasp lodged in his throat. The pain strung his body taut, frozen, as though time itself had paused to acknowledge the vicious blow.
In a blink, time moved on and the barb withdrew, catching and slicing the flesh over his hip as his breath returned in a great, shaky rush. His head fell forward, hanging low between his shoulders and pulling down painfully on his arms. Shackles held his wrists high above his head—so high only the balls of his bare feet touched the cold stone floor.
“A lash for every year you denied us.” The voice was so beautiful and pure, so powerful and deep, like nothing he’d ever heard from a siren before.
The initial strike of the whip had clouded his vision with pain, but his sight cleared and he saw them; the three witches who held sway over the king and the entire city of Fiallan. The Circe.
All three were similar in height and looks except for the color of their eyes. Some said they were sisters, some said triplets, but there was no one left alive who knew for sure. Their regal bearing and siren looks were deceptive, though. They clung greedily to their power with ancient, iron fists, still denying the natural deaths that should have taken them eons ago.
“Two hundred fourteen in all,” the one on the right spoke, green eyes lighting in earnestness.
He growled at them, adrenaline fueling his wrath and dulling his pain for a brief moment. The arcane barb on the end of the whip would impede his natural ability to heal, to knit his wounds back together. That many strokes might kill him. The old bitches were ensuring he would suffer before he died.
“Oh, but sisters . . .” the one on the left said excitedly. “He has denied each of us.”
He wrapped his hands around the chain above him, cursing his inability to attack, to summon his power, to call upon his voice. The helplessness burned through him as harsh and bitter as the barb that had opened his flesh.
“True. Very true.”
“Two hundred fourteen leashes for each of us, then.”
Rage urged him to fight, to kill. And yet he could do nothing. He struggled and tried to speak, to curse them, to show his complete and utter hatred, but he could not. Nothing came. His words were hindered by the Circe’s magic, so he growled between ragged breaths, promising them with his eyes that they’d pay.
Oh, they’d pay. Even if he had to come back from the dead, he’d see them pay for every Malakim they’d destroyed, every life they stole. This was not finished.
“Stop when he loses consciousness,” the Circe told the whip master. “And continue your count when he wakes. He must feel every lash.”
The middle one stepped closer, her head only coming to the height of his heart. She lifted her chin. “Do not waste your time praying for death. You will not die, Malakim. Every time your body gives up and your soul prepares to leave, it will be forced to endure until the final lash is struck.”
The second one stepped up to join her sister. “And once it has, perhaps then we will grant you leave to meet your family in the afterlife.”
The third joined in. “Welcome home, Niérian, strongest of the Malakim sirens. Welcome home, traitor. With you the great house of Elekti-Kairos comes to an end.”
They watched him, eyes wide and eager and . . . waiting.
Waiting until he understood, until he realized the implications of their words. Cold crept over his skin. The last of his family? That could not be true. When he’d left, his family was large, joined of the two great Malakim houses of Elekti and Kairos through marriage. It had been filled with sons and daughters, nieces and nephews . . .
The Circe smiled in eerie tandem as the truth hit him harder than any barb they could ever wield.
“And now you understand the depth of your betrayal.”
“Someone had to pay, after all.”
“All gone. Every last one, but you.”
They left him then.
A scream of despair, bleak and cold, pushed on his chest, but he was unable to release it. Unable to do a goddamned thing. His pulse came rapid and erratic. Only a wounded, angry groan issued from his throat, finding its way past gritted teeth and out through lips wet from tears.
They were gone. All of them. Wiped out.
Because he had dishonored them.
Because he had escaped from the tower where he had gone willingly and proudly as a child, where his power had helped feed the four rings of protection that strengthened the inner wall around Fiallan.
Being a Malakim, a guardian, was a thousand-year-old tradition and the highest honor one could receive in Fiallan. But it was all a lie. A horrible, horrible lie.
The Malakim never asked to stay in the towers after their seven years of service was done. There was never any choice, never an escape or a survivor who could tell the truth about the Circe’s towers.
He’d found a way to disconnect himself from the grid—as he called it. He alone knew the truth.
Once he escaped, his ring fell, alerting the Circe and the king. They fought in the tower and, somehow, he’d managed to throw the king into the grid, a move that eventually cost the king his life.
Then he’d fled. Branded a traitor and murderer, the first ever in a long line of guardians to dishonor his family.
He had no knowledge of how to care for himself, how to eat, what to eat; the basics were unknown to him, as the grid had taken care of him in the way that power does.
For two hundred years, he lived in the sidhé forests of Gorsedd, learning, growing in strength, and finally leaving to make his own way, always training, learning, and preparing to one day return and liberate the Malakim once and for all.
Only that day had come sooner than he’d planned . . .
He never imagined his family would pay for his desertion; that an entire lineage would end with him.
While he was learning and growing and, in the end, thriving, they were dying.
Christ. They were all dead.
The lash whispered through the air once again and this time when it hit, he accepted the excruciating pain as his due.
“I’m serious, Charlie. I think I’m becoming telepathic.”
“Telepathetic is more like it,” I muttered.
Rex’s tone went flat. “Funny.”
I slowed my vehicle to a stop at the light, and then took a sip of coffee, meeting Rex’s dark, sleep-deprived scowl over the rim of the cup. He was unshaven and needed a haircut. And, yeah, he might be the biggest goofball I’d ever met, but now that he knew who he was and where he came from, he’d become edgier and fiercer than before when he was simply a Revenant occupying the body of my ex-husband, Will.
“What?” He stared at me with one eyebrow cocked.
“Nothing.” I looked out my side window for a second and then back at him. “Your eyes are different.”
“Noticed that, did you?”
“Hard not to,” I admitted.
Will Garrity’s gorgeous gray-blue eyes that had always put me in mind of stormy skies were now changed—once I’d pulled his soul from his body, releasing him to find peace as he’d asked, it had allowed Rex’s jinn spirit to lay claim, to knit itself into Will’s physical form in a way that was beyond possession, in a way that was permanent and complete.
As a result, small jinn signatures began to manifest, changing things on the inside and the outside. The gray-blue color of Will’s eyes was still there, but now it was shaded in the violet indicative of the jinn race, turning them into a strange but beautiful lavender shade.
“I look like a fucking girl,” Rex grumbled as I accelerated through the intersection.
Somebody shoot me.
From the time Rex had gotten into the passenger seat, I’d had to listen to him detail every ache and pain, his every claim and suspicion about what he thought was taking place inside of him. “You don’t look like a girl,” I said. “Your eyes are . . . pretty.” Which I knew would set him off, but I had a certain payback quota to fill when it came to Rex.
His finger punched the air. “Exactly! Pretty. Not masculine. Not dark and mysterious. Fucking pretty.”
“Oh please. Women love guys with beautiful eyes. Trust me. I think you’re good.”
He thought about it for a moment, calculating. “How good, exactly?”
I laughed and saw he was grinning. Will had a smile so warm it could melt snow and in Rex’s possession . . . well, the female population of Atlanta was in for a treat if Rex decided to start prowling.
“You shouldn’t fish for compliments, you know,” I said, parking along the curb and then cutting the engine. “It kind of breaks the whole thing you got going on with the scruff and the leather jacket.”
Rex might look good on the outside, but inside he was a contradiction convention. Arrogant, yet unsure. Extremely intelligent, yet would veg out in front of Nick Jr. like a four year old. A warrior at heart who walked around the kitchen in a cherry print apron reciting Shakespeare sonnets.
He had a devil-may-care attitude that came from thousands of years as a spirit, one who couldn’t be killed, one who had seen it all and done it all within host after host of willing bodies. Until he fell in with the Madigan clan. Until he met my daughter and felt the stirrings of the one thing he hadn’t done in life: be a father. Part of a family.
We got out and proceeded down the sidewalk, which ran alongside the tall fence surrounding the Grove. I ducked my shoulders against the light mist of rain and silently cursed the weather. The off-world darkness I’d summoned months ago still churned above Atlanta like a living shroud, but the rain was even worse. It carried some of the darkness to the ground, creating a thin off-world fog and causing my Charbydon genes to go haywire from all the raw arcane energy in the air.
Ahead, ITF cruisers blocked the 10th Street entrance to the Grove and two officers stood nearby talking. I’d been one of them once, proudly wearing the Integration Task Force uniform and dealing with the influx of beings from the dimensions of Elysia and Charbydon. Eventually, I’d moved on to detective, where I dealt with crime in the off-world communities in and around Atlanta, usually in Underground, the biggest off-world neighborhood in the city.
But those days, like everything else, seemed like a lifetime away, when I’d been human, when I had an identity I was sure of. I supposed in a way, Rex and I were both having our own identity crisis. We were just approaching it differently.
Rex bumped me with his shoulder then lifted his chin a notch so I could get a good, clean look at him. “So besides the eyes, do I seem different to you? Like on a sensory level?”
Yeah, totally different approaches.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock and Rex was already getting under my skin. “For the hundredth time, no.”
“Well, I feel different.”
“No shit, Rex,” I finally said, exasperated. “You’ve been floating around for thousands of years as a Revenant, occupying one body after another. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Now you have a body all your own and it’s bound to feel different for a while. Look, you’ll get used to it.” I took another sip from my paper cup. “You kind of have to, since you’re stuck with it.”
He rolled his eyes. “Gee, thanks. Promise me you won’t accept any speaking engagements, or start counseling, or writing self-help books. Really. Stick to killing things because your motivational skills suck ass.”
I shrugged. “We each have our talents.” And I was perfectly fine at giving pep talks when the situation called for them, and this one didn’t. I wasn’t about to feed Rex’s imagination. “But I’ve always thought about writing a book one day . . . maybe something like How to Deal with Overemotional, Highly Delusional Revenants or maybe I’ll just shorten it to Revenants for Dummies.”
Rex gave a humorless laugh. “No, yours would be Don’t Let Life Get You Down, Let Charlie Do It Instead.”
I shot him an eye roll, unclipped the badge from my belt, and flashed my credentials at one of the two uniformed officers standing before the open gate. Somewhere beyond that gate in the home of the Kinfolk, the city’s largest population of nymphs, was a dead body.
As we stepped around the officers and into the Grove, unease slid down my back. Gone were the concrete paths, the benches, the water fountains, and the public restrooms that existed here years ago when this was Piedmont Park. In their place was an ancient forest, thick and dark—spurred into old growth by the nymphs’ magic. The forest of the Grove was dark even on the sunniest day, but now, beneath a cover of living darkness, it took on a sinister feel. And when the nymphs said stay on the path, don’t stray from the path, one tended to listen.
Torches lined the path that cut through the forest from the gate all the way to the shores of Clara Meer Lake and the nymphs’ colossal wooden temple. The only things that kept me from feeling like I’d just stepped back in time by a few thousand years were the skyscrapers and city lights surrounding the park.
“This is . . . rural,” Rex said as we kept to the path.
“The nymphs’ private playground.” The only beings born with the power to shift into an animal form—without the use of spells and crafting—the park gave the nymphs ample room to run and play and hunt. “They built their own Stonehenge on the hill there,” I said, gesturing to Oak Hill.
Rex stared at it for a few steps. “Looks creepy as hell.”
“It’s even creepier when it’s being used.”
The stones sat silent for now, ghostly monoliths that could pulse with power so strong and deep it had once made me momentarily deaf and extremely nauseous.
“You know I’m changing, Charlie, or I wouldn’t be here to help with the investigation,” Rex said at length.
“I know, Rex. But you’re just regaining some of your old jinn traits. You’re not developing powers beyond what a jinn is naturally capable of. And telepathy is not a jinn trait. I brought you with me because of what a jinn can naturally do.”
“I can only tell you if I sense a jinn presence at the crime scene, so I’m not sure how much that’s going to help.”
“It’ll help a lot. It’ll rule them out. The only eyewitness says he saw a large gray-skinned being near the lake.” And since the jinn had skin that ran the spectrum of medium gray to dark gray, and were built like linebackers, they were the first to come to mind, unfortunately. There was also the darkling fae, but they were thin, sinewy beings and definitely didn’t fit into the “large” category.
But a jinn? That spelled all sorts of trouble. Nymphs were from Elysia. Jinn were from Charbydon. They weren’t known for being friendly since the beings of “heaven” and “hell” had continually warred for eons. Here in Atlanta, the ITF and local representatives from all the races made sure peace was maintained and treaty laws adhered to—a sort of neutral ground for all beings. But none of that stopped years of bias and hate. And when it came to the boss of the local jinn tribe, Grigori Tennin, and the nymphs’ Druid King . . . well, those two made fire and water look like friends.
So, yeah, a jinn here in nymph territory? Not good. A jinn murdering a nymph within said territory? Monumentally bad. Not to mention the highly disturbing suspicion that if a jinn was really here, he or she might’ve been in the Grove for a very specific purpose. And the subject of that “purpose” was already whispering a welcome in my mind. The soft, feminine tone flowed through my mind, relaxing some of the tension in my shoulders.
Ahkneri’s words were usually too distant to understand, and they were brushed with a sadness that made me ache. I had a strange connection with the divine being hidden beneath the lake—weird dreams, the ability to sometimes sense her emotions, understand her language. The First Ones were supposed to be a myth and to most people they were. But to some, like Grigori Tennin and the Sons of Dawn cult, she was their ticket to starting a three-world war. He’d stop at nothing to find her.
The First Ones were the ancestors to humans, Elysian Adonai, and the Charbydon nobles. Their existence would prove to the worlds that the nobles were related to the Adonai, and that they were indeed cast out of Elysia in the forgotten past. If the nobles were to learn the truth, they’d launch an all-out war against the Adonai to take back their true homeland. It would leave the jinn in charge of Charbydon, free from noble oppression, and Earth in the middle of a war we’d no doubt get sucked into.
For the sake of all three worlds, Ahkneri had to stay hidden.
If Rex said there was no jinn signature anywhere near the body, one crisis averted. If not, I didn’t even want to think about it, especially since I was supposed to be leaving for Elysia and the siren city of Fiallan tomorrow.
As we drew closer to the colossal wooden structure rising up through the trees, the temperature dropped slightly and the air became cooler and scented with lake water. Rex whistled in appreciation, his steps slowing as he ogled the nymphs’ temple with its huge wooden columns the size of California redwoods. I kept moving, going through the structure, the main courtyard, and to the dock that stretched out over the lake.
Liz and her crew were already on the shoreline near the dock. “The chief fill you in?” she asked as I approached.
“A little while ago. I hear we have a body in the lake and one highly uncooperative Druid King.”
The ITF’s lead medical examiner and gifted necromancer snorted at that. “Highly uncooperative is being nice.” She glared at the figure at the end of the dock through horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
“Careful,” I said, smiling. “You keep shooting eye missiles at him like that you’re going to melt your lenses.”
Liz frowned, and then shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “He irks me.”
“I noticed. If it makes you feel any better, he does that to everyone. Here, hold this.” I handed her my coffee cup, which she took but didn’t know what the hell to do with, and said, “Wish me luck.”
My boots echoed on the wooden planks as I approached the Kinfolk’s spiritual leader, enforcer, protector, and all-around badass. And those titles were more than accurate to describe Pendaran.
He stood at the end of the dock, alone, hands tucked into his pants pockets, a white T-shirt stretching over his broad back, and his black hair just touching the collar. His focus was on the scene in the lake as two search-and-rescue officers in a dinghy pulled a corpse to shore. Liz hurried closer to the waterline.
A soundless flash of green in the undulating gray mass above us illuminated the dark water and its corpse for a split second. I felt for the nymphs. The Grove was a sanctuary, a home with defined borders patrolled day and night. One of their own had been killed within those borders. And as far as I knew, that had never happened before.
I walked into a thick wave of rage, strong enough to knock the unprepared back a few steps. But I expected Pen’s wrath. I stopped next to him at the end of the dock, watching the scene unfold for a moment, letting him get used to my presence. “I’m sorry for your loss, Pen. The chief said you have an eyewitness?”
At first he didn’t reply. He continued to stare at the scene, his profile hard as granite. The winding Celtic-style tattoo, which I knew to encompass the entire left side of his body—toes to hand to temple—was stark against the exposed skin; pale not from fear, but from blinding rage.
I went to repeat the question, but he turned.
And didn’t even spare me a glance because his gaze zeroed in on Rex like predator to prey.
It dawned on me then what a huge mistake I’d made. Of course Pen would know, would sense that despite the human figure walking down the dock, it was a jinn coming toward us.
I stepped in front of the Druid King. Probably not the wisest of moves, but I didn’t really have a choice. My hand eased back my jacket to rest on the grip of my right sidearm. “Stop, Pen,” I warned. “Don’t do it.”
His nostrils flared. A shimmer of abalone color filtered over Pen’s irises, the same color I knew was on the underside of his enormous black wings. If Pen turned dragon and went after what he saw as a jinn coming toward him, we were screwed.
The Druid had nearly declared war on Grigori Tennin and the jinn when Daya, one of his Kinfolk, had died, caught up as she was in Tennin’s plan to reveal Ahkneri to the world. Now Pen believed a jinn had invaded his territory and killed another one of his kin. And to add insult to injury, a jinn was coming down the dock.
Pen’s features had turned from harsh to downright homicidal.
My vision went cloudy. Heart pounding, I did everything I could to prevent my own power from rising in response. “He’s with me. He’s here to tell us if your eyewitness really saw a jinn. Rex was a Revenant, Pen. He hasn’t been a jinn for thousands of years. He doesn’t act like them or even think like them. He watches cartoons, for Chrissakes . . .”
But Pen wasn’t listening, and Rex had stopped still, like a mouse caught in the gaze of a cobra.
“He lives in my house,” I went on. “He’s in the body of my ex-husband and my kid loves him. I swear to God if you go after him,” I promised with a conviction that came from the depths of my soul, “I’ll do whatever it takes to stop you.”
No one moved for the longest time, which was good because I needed everything I had to keep a lid on my power as Pen struggled to regain control, his dragon and his grief warring with his own good sense.
He looked down at my hand pressed flatly and firmly against his chest. I hadn’t even realized he’d moved forward or that I had touched him. My other hand was still wrapped around the grip of my gun. A raven eyebrow arched. The alpha, the ruler, in him would never move back, so I dropped both hands and took one step back.
“Keep him away from me,” he snarled in a deep voice brimming with power.
Crisis averted. I let out a shaky breath. “Okay. No problem. I can do that.” I walked back to Rex on shaky legs. “Go to the courtyard and wait for me there.”
A muscle in Rex’s jaw flexed. He leaned forward. “What an ungrateful piece of work. Why should I help him when all he wants to do is tear me apart?”
“Keep your voice down. One of his kin just died. God, Rex. He thinks a jinn is responsible. You do the math. Just go wait and I’ll come get you when I’m done, okay?”
He tossed an evil look at Pen’s back and marched away, muttering about staying in bed and demented, homicidal nymphs.
I waited until Rex was out of sight before heading back to Pendaran’s side. Once there, I let out a loud sigh, knowing just how close we’d come to a bloodbath.
“Thank you,” I told him. “For showing restraint. I know that was hard.”
“You know nothing.”
I didn’t rise to the bait. “Look, if you just point me to the witness in question, I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Doubtful,” he muttered. “Since your witness is standing before you, Detective.”
I stared blankly at him for a moment. Pen was the witness. Perfect.
“It was a jinn.” His tone was low and deep and full of soft menace. No wonder he’d nearly gone medieval on Rex. He knew what he saw and believed it.
“Tell me what you saw.”
Pen shoved his hands back in his pockets and turned once again to stare out at the water. “I saw,” he began in a condescending tone, “a jinn.”
“Yeah, already got that part. What else did you see?”
His highly imperious expression said he’d already answered my question and was done. I was dismissed.
I plastered a thin smile on my face and tapped into my Mommy Calm. “If you say ‘a jinn’ one more time, I’ll have to turn into Bad Charlie. We don’t want that, do we? I have a brand-new shirt on today that I happen to like, and my favorite boots, so let’s not soil them with ye ole dragon’s blood and tears, which is what’ll happen if you don’t start cooperating, so . . .”
An eye roll and the relaxing of his jaw gave me the opening I was hoping for. “Look, Pen. I want to help here, but I can’t do it unless you go through the motions with me. That means giving me every minute detail even if it seems unrelated or mundane to you. Let me do my job, okay? You trusted me once when Daya was killed. You have to trust me again.”
Well, he’d sort of trusted me. Ordering Orin and Killian to follow me around as I investigated Daya’s murder and giving me that insane ultimatum to solve the case on his timetable wasn’t exactly trusting, but he hadn’t interfered, and he’d come through when I needed him. His trust didn’t come easy, but I felt we had something of a relationship now, one forged on the battlefield atop Helios Tower against the Sons of Dawn and Grigori Tennin, one forged on common goals and secrets that could shatter worlds.
“I was sleeping in the lake, in the cave . . .” The cave which held the agate sarcophagus containing Ahkneri. Pen cleared his throat. “Killian was on patrol on the east side of the Grove.”
My stomach dropped. “Not Killian.”
But Pen didn’t react to my outburst; he stared straight ahead, lost in his memories, while my chest burned and my fists clenched. Goddammit . . . No, no, not Killian!
“There was no scent,” Pen went on, “no disturbance, or identifiers. I should’ve been able to smell an intruder, to feel a presence other than nymph. Even beneath the water, I know who comes and goes. I am the protector of my kin. . . .” Frustration and guilt edged his deep voice. After a long moment, he continued. “The only thing I did notice was the scent of adrenaline and then Killian howling. I shot from the lake, knowing he was already dead.” He pointed to the eastern shore. “And I saw a gray-skinned being throw a wolf into the water. The wolf changed to nymph as Killian’s spirit left him. I gave chase, but it was like chasing a shadow. The speed was incredible, a blur. There was no scent to follow . . . nothing.”
“Did you see the eyes?”
Pen paused and I could tell he really wanted to say yes. A jinn’s eyes glowed a reddish violet when they fought or experienced rage. There’d be no way one could’ve fought and killed Killian without his or her eyes turning. And they were the only off-worlders with that specific trait.
“No. But the build was very large, tall and bulky, like a jinn.”
“What about hair? The males are bald and the women usually have braids . . .”
He shook his head. “I didn’t notice the hair or lack thereof. I only noticed the shape and body color. And,” he added with a heavy sigh, “the scent of death as I returned to the Grove.”
“Did you or anyone else try to get him out of the water?” It’s every investigator’s hope that a victim remained untouched, but the fact that Killian had stayed in the lake, that no one had tried to save him or resuscitate him, bothered me. He was a good guy. He’d put himself in harm’s way helping me in the battle on Helios Tower . . . He was quiet, capable, sarcastic. He deserved an attempt, at least.
“He was dead before he hit the water, Charlie. Nothing could’ve changed that. I went after the jinn. I called your chief from a borrowed cell phone after I gave up the search, and by the time I got back, your medical examiner was already here and”—he glared at Liz as Killian’s body was being pulled onto the shore—“that tiny Asian necromancer wouldn’t allow me near the body.”
“That’s Liz for you,” I said quietly. “She’s always been possessive about her work.”
“She shoved me.”
I blinked at that. Liz had a razor-sharp tongue and balls of steel, but I’d never known her to get physical. And I certainly couldn’t picture her small frame squaring off against a six-foot-four wall of off-world power and muscle. “If she pushed you, my guess is you probably deserved it. No offense.”
His deepening frown told me I was right. “She’s a menace.”
I let out a tired sigh, trying to explain without scolding him. “Because you made such a menace of yourself when Daya died, calling the morgue every day and making unreasonable demands instead of letting her do her job. Otherwise,” I said gently, “she might’ve gone easier on you today.”
His eyes narrowed on me and the imperialism was back. “Are you scolding me, Detective?” he asked softly. “You overstep. Again.”
“Yet another one of my gifts.”
Pen shook his head as though I was a lost cause, but I liked to think that underneath his gruffness, he admired the fact that I poked holes in his I-was-once-worshipped-as-a-Celtic-god complex.
“Look . . . I really am sorry about Killian. I . . . liked him. He was a good guy. I understand where you’re coming from. I do. But try to ease up a little and let us do our jobs. I’ll keep you in the loop with whatever we find out.” I took a chance and gave his big shoulder a pat, which only resulted in him looking at me like I’d gone mad. “I’m going to get Rex to take a look at things. I’ll let you know what he says.”
“How can you trust anything he says? He’s a jinn. He’d never incriminate his own kind.”
“Rex has no ties to Tennin’s tribe or any other. His only tie is to me, me and my daughter . . . We’re his tribe now. Go get some rest, talk to your kin, grab something to eat. I’ll check in with you later.”
I began to walk away, but he called my name. I turned back toward him with a questioning look.
“I hear you’re going to Fiallan tomorrow to retrieve the siren.”
A sudden lightness spread through my belly at the words. “That’s right.”
Pen nodded, his grim face unreadable, but his eyes taking on a sincere light. “Good luck.”
The corner of my mouth lifted. “Thanks.”
As I left the dock, I watched Liz on the shore as she gently pulled Killian over onto his back. His skin was marble white, stark against his usual dark clothes and wet black hair. Grief squeezed my throat and my shoulders sagged in sadness.
I had to leave tomorrow, and I hated the idea of leaving Killian’s case in the hands of someone else. But nothing short of a family emergency would stop me from bringing Hank home. The siren wasn’t only my partner; he was my family, too, the person who’d had my back from day one. Hank and I . . . we’d grown from partners to friends to something more, something that felt like it had real possibilities. But fate seemed hell-bent on keeping us from figuring out exactly what those possibilities were.
I found Rex in the temple courtyard, reclining back on a chaise lounge, eyes closed, ankles crossed, and hands tucked behind his head.
He’s a work in progress, I told myself in a rare moment of optimism.
Drawing in a steadying breath to get my mind back on task, I nudged Rex’s feet off the side of the lounge with my boot. “Stop goofing off, we have work to do.”
His eyes cracked open. “I have decided I want a consultant fee.”
My brow lifted. Rex actually bringing home a paycheck? Now that would be a novelty I’d welcome. “I’ll submit a request to the chief. Come on, we have work to do.”
I led Rex to the shore of the lake where Liz was making her first necromantic pass over the body, trying to pick up any residual traces of crafting or imprints on the body. If the perp was a crafter, she’d be able to tell. Her hand moved over his torso, palm down, a couple inches over the body. Her glossy black bob was tucked behind both ears, allowing me to see the frown pulling down her mouth.
I dropped onto my haunches on Killian’s other side. “Anything?”
Using her knuckle, she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Nothing. The water doesn’t help.” Her gaze turned to Rex. “You sure he can pick up something?”
Rex scoffed. “He’s sure.”
Liz didn’t bother hiding her dubious expression. But she stood and stepped back from the body. “No touching.”
“Don’t need to. I can tell you already, there wasn’t a jinn around this guy.”
Liz folded her arms over her chest. “Just like that.”
“Just like that.”
“And how does that work, exactly?”
Rex shrugged. “Like any other animal that can scent their own kind. If a jinn fought with him, I’d be able to tell.”
And if Killian had been killed by a jinn, there was no doubt in my mind he would’ve put up one hell of a fight. A jinn scent would be all over him, water or not.
“Hmm. We’ll see.” Liz cast a glare over at the dock where Pen made no secret about watching our every move. “You think you can keep His Highness off my back for a couple days?”
“I’ll try. But give him a break. He’s lost two of his own in the last few weeks. I’m taking Rex over to where Pen saw Killian being thrown into the water. Keep me posted.”
“As always. Who’s going to take point on this when you leave tomorrow? And please, please, please don’t say Ashton.”
“Okay, I won’t.” At her look, I apologized. “Sorry, I know he rubs you the wrong way, too. If I had my way, it would be Thompson or Lesley, but they’re both up to their eyeballs in the crap Tennin’s been pulling lately in Underground—small-time stuff, I know, but I think it’s the jinn boss’s idea of breaking them in.”
“Naw, I think ole GT just misses you and wants you back patrolling Underground as usual, so he’s making a fuss.”
I chuckled at that. “Right. I’ll get the chief to brief Ashton and tell him to tone it down and not push so many buttons with the Kinfolk and Pen. Tensions will be running high enough already . . .”
Liz resumed her necromantic check over Killian’s body as Rex wandered to the shoreline. “Well, it sucks you have to leave at a time like this, but thank God you’re going in to get Hank. The thought of him being in that grid . . . How do you think talks will go?”
“In our favor, I hope. The delegates have been there for two days already, so let’s pray they’ve made some progress. I’d like to have the way cleared for Titus to work on releasing Hank from the grid.”
“Nice having the most famous scientist in the world on your side.” Liz called over her shoulder for a body bag. “You’ll bring him home,” she told me, sounding certain. She stood. “Then you two can finally stop hedging.”
She gave me that smart-ass look of hers, which I returned in kind. “It means stop being a chickenshit and take a chance. You and Hank are good for each other. God knows you deserve some happiness.” Her apprentice/assistant returned with a bag. I hadn’t seen him for a couple months, but he still looked ten years old to me.
“Hi, Elliot. How’s middle school treating you?”
His grin went deep. “Haha.” He rolled his eyes and moved to help Liz with the bag.
I stared down at Killian, sobering. “Take care of my friend here.”
“We will,” Liz said. “Good luck tomorrow.”
Rex and I made our way around the lake. It took longer than it should have due to the docks, temples, and homes we had to go around. The shore where Killian had most likely died was already taped off and a couple of uniformed officers and Kinfolk were walking in a grid pattern over the ground, looking for any evidence that might have dropped to the soft cushion of grass and leaves.
Signs of the fight were everywhere along this portion of the wooded shoreline. Deep ruts had been torn into the ground. A few branches on the trees were broken. Blood splatters . . . Killian had put up a damned good fight—as to be expected from one of the Druid King’s enforcers.
“Anything?” I asked Rex.
He shook his head. “Nothing. I don’t know what the Druid saw, but it wasn’t a jinn. If there was any signature, it would be here of all places.”
Which was an enormous relief. But now we were left back at square one.
“You can always get a rogue jinn in here for a second opinion,” Rex said, mistaking my silence as questioning his ability.
“Do I need a second opinion?”
“No. Just thought it might make you feel better. I’m gonna walk around a little bit.”
“All right. Go slow. And watch your step. If you see anything that shouldn’t be here—footprints, clothing, trash, anything—call out, don’t touch it.”
“I got it. No touching.”
As he walked off I asked, “You need a flashlight?”
He smiled over his shoulder, shook his head, and then continued into the darkness of the woods. Guess he had his jinn night vision back as well.
Alone now, I moved slowly toward the water. Even though beams of flashlights darted through the trees and small sounds from the officers reached me, I suddenly felt very isolated. Even the temperature felt colder than it had seconds ago. The sounds of the city beyond and the activity from across the lake faded into the background, making the lapping of the water against the shore louder.
The marks on my right arm ached—a weird stinging burn, the intensity coming and going. I stopped, the toes of my boots inches from the water, wondering if it was because I was so close to Ahkneri and her divine weapon—the thing had nearly burned my hand and arm to a crisp, leaving behind the strange markings that Aaron, the Magnus mage, believed to be the language of the First Ones.
Well, the language fucking hurt.
I kneaded my forearm, trying to find some relief as I stared at the dark lake and the city lights reflecting off its surface like a million tiny gems. If I listened hard enough Ahkneri’s ancient whispers would become clearer. If I let my guard down I could hear more than her. I could hear strangers, bits and pieces of conversations that meant nothing to me, that just seemed to filter in like I was some sort of transistor radio. Occasionally my reality would really screw up and things I shouldn’t be able to see through or into, I suddenly could.
I turned away from the lake and resumed my study of the area. I might’ve missed the long, arcing scar in the tree if it hadn’t been eye level and a sliver of bark missing to reveal the lighter wood beneath. The cut was thin and clean. Razor-sharp, too. A breeze stirred the woods and a flash of movement caught my eye. I stepped closer to the tree to find a long white hair caught in the corner of the scar.
Killian had black hair.
Male jinn were bald. And no female jinn had long white hair unless they were elderly. The exception was Sian, the human/jinn female currently working as our office assistant. She also happened to be Grigori Tennin’s daughter, but while Tennin was harsh, demanding, and confrontational, Sian was soft, timid, and kind. If Pen had seen a huge, dark figure, I was pretty sure I could rule out both an elderly jinn female and Sian. The only other race of beings that came to mind were the sidhé fae warriors who had appeared in the oracle’s club on New Year’s Eve, looking for me and the sarcophagus. Albeit they had light gray skin, not dark, but anything in these woods would seem darker than normal . . .
“There was a jinn here.”
Rex’s voice nearly gave me a heart attack. I swung around, heart in my throat. And then his words sank in. “A jinn was here? Where?”
“Came over the fence, through the woods. Stopped a few feet back from the scene and that’s it. Like he watched and then went home.”
“Are you sure?”
“Shit.” So the jinn were snooping around in nymph territory. Near the lake. Near Ahkneri. Could be, if the hair belonged to a sidhé fae, the jinn had merely followed the fae. Tennin’s goons had been at the club that night, too. The fae hadn’t exactly made their purpose a secret, either. Tennin would be smart to stick a tail on them just in case they found the sarcophagus before Tennin did. I glanced down at the hair strand knowing it could just as easily be human or any number of beings, but . . .
Christ, this is a mess. I parked my hands on my hips and watched Rex wander along the lake’s edge, head down, occasionally bending over to look at something.
How do they know you’re here? I asked, more to myself than to the being in the lake, but her voice flowed through my mind with an answer.
They follow the signs.
The call of power. The wakening. And . . . you.
. . . Perhaps.
I glared at the lake. Ahkneri should’ve been in league with the oracle using a cryptic answer like that. A straight answer, for once, just once, would’ve been nice.
Laughter breezed through my mind. That was a straight answer. You are an . . . uncertainty. A divine being, made not born, imbued with the blood of the three noble races my kind created. You are like us, but not. An unknown. A confusion.
I knew several people who would totally agree with those words, and I was one of them. Ever since I’d been brought back to life a year ago, the Adonai and Charbydon noble genes I was given were fusing with my own human code. I was becoming like those who had seeded the three races. The First Ones. That was the theory, anyway.
“Who are they? Who follows the signs?” I asked her.
“So is that like a rhetorical question or do you really want me to answer?” Rex stood beside me, staring at the lake as if trying to figure out who I was talking to. Apparently I’d asked my questions aloud.
“Not unless you know more about those sidhé fae we ran into at the oracle’s club,” I said, pulling a set of plastic gloves from my pocket.
“You mean the night I kicked ass?” Rex’s mouth twitched. “It kills you that I have skills, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I shot him an eye roll and handed him the small plastic evidence bag and extra pair of gloves Liz had given to me earlier. “Here. Put these on and hold this open. Skills or not, you shouldn’t be fighting. If Will’s body takes a mortal blow, you’ll be heading straight to the Afterlife. No wandering around until you find another body. You’ll be gone. Finished. Game over.”
“And your worry for me comes out of a deep, unwavering love, is that it?” I went to reply, but he cut me off, saying, “I knew I was growing on you.”
Whatever I was about to say deflated and I was left shaking my head. I gently removed the hair from the tree. There was no need to deny it; Rex was growing on me. Already had, in fact. He’d become an indispensable part of my family and a huge part of my daughter’s life. I’d thought living with him would be strange and uncomfortable, and at first it was. Now, I couldn’t imagine him gone.
Once the hair was in the bag, Rex sealed it. “To answer your question, no, I don’t know any more about those puffed up old faeries than I did before. I thought you asked Sian of the Beautiful White Hair to dig around.”
“I did.” Rex fell in step beside me as I headed back to the main temple to deliver my find. “She hasn’t turned up much other than a few vague mentions about a very old, very secretive warrior sect. And as we all know, legends turn out to be true in most cases. Those guys were definitely old school . . . And speaking of Sian, is it really necessary to call her every day? You do know she’s not interested in guys, right?” The memory of finding Sian clutching Daya’s photo came to mind. From the moment Rex had seen Sian, when she’d pulled a gun on me and shoved me into an alley in Underground, he’d been smitten, too smitten to even come to my aid—not that I’d needed him to. But still. It was the principle . . .
“I’m just being friendly,” he said defensively. “Nothing wrong with chatting and getting to know someone. Consider it therapy,” he said, amused by his logic.
“And what? You’re the doctor of the shy and introverted?”
He laughed. “Sure, if you want to call it that. I’m helping her come out of her shell a little, all pro bono, of course. And who knows. She might swing both ways.”
He was grinning like a damned idiot. I wasn’t sure whether he was being serious or just giving me a hard time like usual. But I decided not to proceed down that particular road. If Rex wanted to beat himself up against the impenetrable shell that was Sian, then he’d do it whether I advised against it or not.
After giving the bag to Liz, Rex and I left the Grove. Pen wasn’t in sight, and I didn’t go in search of him. I’d call him later. He wouldn’t see having a possible jinn witness to Killian’s murder as a positive thing. In fact, he’d most likely scour the jinn underground to find said witness and end up causing a war we didn’t need.
I dropped Rex off at the house and then drove back to the station to file a report and talk to the chief about handing the case over to Ashton Perry, a.k.a. “Asston,” and his crew. They’d have to be briefed on Pen’s sometimes volatile nature, and the current state of relations between him and Tennin.
As I exited the elevator onto the fifth floor and headed down the hall, Sian stepped out of our office, saw me, and froze like a thief caught red-handed.
Immediately, I knew something was wrong.
Her hand was still on the doorknob, holding it ajar, but her eyes were pinned on me and her pale gray skin went paler. Slowly, her expression went from shocked to sad. What the hell?
“Sian,” I said, approaching. “What’s wrong?”
My voice was like a jolt. She jumped, blinked, and then stammered. She was such a contradiction, this tall, beautiful creature with indigo eyes, a cascade of white hair, and a body that wouldn’t quit. Her hand shook as she smoothed down a black pencil skirt.
“What happened? What is it?”
“Charlie, it’s . . .” Normally she exuded a calming vibe that could lull even the most aggressive creature and yet I wasn’t getting that from her. “I’m so sorry, they—”
The chief peered around the door.
“Chief,” I said slowly, starting to feel scared, “what the hell’s going on?”
He held the door wider. Sian stepped back and looked at the ground. “Come on in, Charlie,” he said gently, too gently for the chief. The guy was a bulldozer of a man, in looks, in speech, in everything he did. He didn’t do anything gently.
I followed him through the maze of discarded office equipment that made up the front portion of our work space. We’d cleared out a large corner near the kitchenette, made a private office for the chief, and claimed the open area where Hank, Sian, and I had our desks.
It was also where six delegates made up of civil rights attorneys, Federation representatives, and ITF officials happened to be standing—the same six who were supposed to be in Fiallan working toward the release of my partner.
That they were here now . . .
“Charlie, calm down. Breathe.”
My eyelids slid closed at the chief’s words. If only I could.
I let my forehead rest on the drywall near my left hand, palm pressed flat against the surface. My other hand was sunk deep into the hole I’d just made. Pain radiated from the center of my chest in a burn so acute it felt as though my entire torso had become a boiling, poisonous cavity.
Just give me a minute, I wanted to say, but nothing came out. Just a minute to myself where all eyes weren’t on me. To regroup. To allow my wildly beating heart time to slow down. But they weren’t going to walk away until I accepted the complete and utter bullshit they were trying to feed me.
I jerked my fist from the hole in the drywall and turned to face them, these vile people, these . . . liars.
This isn’t happening.
This. Isn’t. Fucking. Happening.
I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek, needing to hurt, to ground myself and force some focus into this nightmare. I glared at the small assembly crammed into our office and repeated what I’d said earlier, right before I hit the wall. “I don’t care what you say. You don’t have a single bit of evidence. No proof. Nothing at all to back this up.”
Argue with that, assholes.
But argue they did, softly and with pity. The arguing I could take, but the pity—not so much.
My gaze found the chief and latched on. He leaned back against the small kitchen counter and wiped the inside corner of his eye, his large shoulders sagging in defeat. My fists closed tightly. I wanted to scream at him. How could he give up so easily and accept what they were saying?
A woman stepped forward. Human. Classy. One of the attorneys, I remembered. Her hesitant look to my left where our resident ITF psychologist, Doctor Berkowitz, stood almost made me laugh. Like Berk could do anything. Like Berk could protect them if I went psycho.
“We’re truly sorry, Detective Madigan,” the attorney said. “I know your source identified Hank as being in one of the towers, but the Circe took us into each one. Your partner was not there. He was exec—”
“Don’t. Don’t say it. Just . . . don’t.”
But she pressed on. “Without Hank’s testimony, we have nothing to put pressure on Fiallan and the Circe to end the Malakim practice. Nor do we have any cause to bring a case against them for the execution of someone they consider a known traitor and murderer. One of the things that enables the Federation to function is respecting the cultures, customs, and laws of its members . . .”
Blah, blah, blah.
All I could focus on was the fact that she said the one word I told her not to say. What did she not understand about Don’t say it? I wanted to kill her for that, wanted to wrap my bare hands around her throat and choke off the lies spewing from her painted lips. It would feel good and right, justifiable after they just left him there and—
An echo, a whisper of my name, nothing more. I shrugged it out of my head and went back to considering murder.
A gentle hand touched my shoulder. I shrugged that off, too.
A second hand landed on my other shoulder. Hurt and anger filled me with a rush that stole my breath. A crash sounded somewhere far off. Power pushed at me, filling me, searing me from the inside out.
And, for once, I didn’t care.
I didn’t care that my power had become a beacon. Let Sachâth come. The weird shadow being I’d first encountered back in the oracle’s club was drawn to my power like a heat-seeking missile. Chances were good it’d knock me out and everything would turn into blackness like before. And blackness would be an easy escape.
No, some inner part of me rose up and said. Hank deserves more than you falling down now, Charlie. Stand and fight.
I tried to concentrate, to think, to battle against the sorrow and listen to that inner voice. I had to figure out what went wrong and fix it.
Had to fix it.
Because the idea that Hank was gone and would never come back . . .
Hot grief stabbed my chest as their words breached my defenses. We’re sorry to inform you, your partner was executed upon his arrival in Fiallan. There was nothing we could do . . .
A sharp pinch to my bicep made me flinch. I swatted at it, wishing they’d all just shut up and leave me alone. My face was wet and hot. I couldn’t see, couldn’t get enough air into my lungs.
They didn’t understand how it was. The bond of friends and partners, the things we’d been through, facing down death together, what that meant. If they were right . . . he didn’t deserve to go out like that. Not like that. Like a criminal. Hank . . .
The ache . . . the squeezing wouldn’t stop. I dropped to my knees. I leaned over until my forehead touched the carpet. My nails dug into the fibers. “It’s too short. This carpet is too short.” I couldn’t even grab it, pull at it.
“Charlie. Listen to me.” Berk placed her hand on my back. “You’re going to be all right.”
A wet laugh burst from my lips. Right. I fell slowly to the side until my face pressed into the floor.
“I gave you a shot, a sedative, something to calm you down.”
Someone sat down behind me and pulled the hair back from my wet face, and I knew it was Sian. She’d stayed in the corner, watching, always trying so hard to not draw attention to herself. But now she was here on the floor next to me, her lavender scent filling my nose and her strange, calming vibe working alongside the sedative.
And I just lay there. On the office floor, eyes open but unable to see.
He’s not dead. He’s not dead. He’s not dead.
* * *
Emma’s soft voice jerked me awake. I stayed still, the side of my head deep into my pillow, my brain feeling as heavy and overworked as a wrecking ball.
“Yeah,” I forced out through scrunched lips.
The bed dipped with her weight as she sat behind me and put her hand on the comforter covering my hip. “How do you feel?”
“Peachy.” Just peachy. My gut clenched into an empty sour ball and I groaned. Once the romance wore off, sedatives and I had a hate/hate relationship. “Can you grab me some saltines?”
After she left, I rolled onto my back, threw off the comforter for cooler air, and cracked open my eyes to the sound of panting. Brim’s bald gray head rested on the mattress, his expression pathetic, worried, and hopeful. His tiny ears twitched as if trying to determine my state, and his rear end swayed back and forth as he wagged a tail he didn’t have.
I lifted my hand. Immediately the hellhound rooted my palm with his wet nose. “I’m fine, you big stinky beast.”
Emma returned and tossed me a half-eaten pack of crackers. I caught them with my left hand, scooted back against the headboard, and stuck a dry saltine in my equally dry mouth.
A parental sigh came out of my daughter’s lips, the sound completely at odds with her twelve-year-old self. Her wavy brown hair had been pulled back into the usual ponytail and her round brown eyes rolled skyward. “Hold on. I’ll get you some water.”
“Thank you. Can you bring me a wet washcloth and the hand gel on the sink, please?”
Em returned, sat on the bed, and handed me a cup of water. “Here.”
“Thanks.” I washed the lump of cracker down my throat and then took the hand gel to remove the evidence of Brim’s loving nose and tongue bath. “My head is killing me.” I glanced at the clock. “Can’t believe how late it is. It’s Saturday, right? Please tell me I haven’t been out for more than a day.”
The clock on my night table said it was nearing noon, but who knew what day it was or how much power Berk had packed into that sedative. Hell, I could’ve been out for days.
“It’s Saturday. You missed dinner and breakfast, though, so Rex is bringing up some food for you.”
Thank God. Not too long at all.
Emma grabbed my wrist and turned my arm so she could look at the markings that had been emblazoned there after I’d wielded the First One’s divine sword, Urzenemelech. Anguish by Fire. Aptly named. It had cleaved the Adonai serial killer, Llyran, in two, burning him to ashes as it went, and it had left me with bluish markings that ran from my hand all the way to my shoulder.
I’d told Emma only what was safe to know, only what she had to know. The same thing that was in the official report: the sarcophagus contained dust and bone fragments and the sword, all of which were destroyed. There was no such thing as a First One. And if those bones in the coffin were something from myth and legend, then they were long since gone from the world.
I didn’t like lying to my kid, but the lies came easier when it meant her safety.
“I wish we knew what this said,” she remarked in a wistful tone, releasing my arm.
“Probably something like: She Who Was Dumb Enough To Wield The Sword . . . ”
Em laughed. “You have to put more gloom and doom into your voice when you say it.”
I smiled and shoved her gently with my foot as Rex entered the room with a tray of food and drink. “I see the grizzly is awake.”
“Rex said you snored like a drunken grizzly. But I thought it was more like a jackhammer turning on and off. On and off. On and off . . .”
“Great. Thanks a lot.” I made a face at both of them. Rex busied himself with the tray. “Sedatives can do that to anyone, you know.”
“Whatever you say, Momma Bear,” he said with a smile. The smell of coffee made my stomach grumble. Rex turned with a mug and handed it to me.
He set the tray on the bed near my knee. “Bagels. Turkey sammy with provolone. Some leftover macaroni salad from yesterday. That should hold you and your divinely morphing self a couple hours.”
I set the coffee on the bedside table and picked up the sandwich. Ever since I began evolving, as Aaron put it, my metabolism had skyrocketed. My body was working overtime to readjust to the new DNA that had been introduced to my system. That introduction had saved my life, but it had also enabled me to call darkness over the city for the madman who’d engineered me. I’d done it to save Emma, and would do so again if need be, but would that I could find a way to fix things. Would that you could fix a lot of things.
When I glanced up, Rex and Emma were staring at me. Worry and sadness etched their faces. They knew about Hank. Of course they knew.
“He’s not dead,” I said, chewing.
But they didn’t say anything, just stared at me. Tears sprung to my eyes. I set down the sandwich.
“Momma, please don’t cry.” Emma walked on her knees over the mattress to hug me. My arm slipped around her and I hugged her to my side, kissed the top of her head, and then drew in her familiar scent.
My exhale was rather shaky, but I proceeded on. “I’m sure the chief told you all about it . . . what they said about Hank. But he’s not dead.”
For a long moment, we just stared at each other. They loved Hank, too. Emma, certainly. Rex would in time. Right now he was having too much fun playing the protector. It wasn’t so much that Rex thought I needed protecting, but more that he found it vastly entertaining to give “the siren” a hard time.
“So here’s the way I see it,” Rex broke the silence. “We have two choices. Accept the official government drivel, or give them the official Madigan salute.”
“The official Madigan salute?” I was almost afraid to ask.
He rolled his eyes like I should be following (like it was ever easy to follow Rex’s Crazy Train of thoughts). “Emma, dear one, close your eyes.” She snorted, but did as he asked. Then he turned to me and said, “Let me introduce you to your new response to any and all comers who spew this particular party line.” He made a grand gesture of lifting his hand, folding his fingers down, and popping up his middle finger. “Voilà.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Em said dryly. “I have seen the middle finger before.”
Rex gave her a gentle shove. “Already she’s a juvenile delinquent. What are they teaching you at this school of yours?”
“A bunch of boring stuff,” she muttered, falling back behind me, drawing in her knees, and crossing one leg over the other, so that her knee rested against my shoulder. Brim’s nose lifted her hand in a bid to be rubbed.
Emma had gotten a partial scholarship to attend the League of Mages’ school in Atlanta, a very private, very expensive school that taught gifted children, human and off-worlder, how to craft and best grow their powers. They also, to Emma’s great dismay and my delight, were keen instructors of math, science, grammar, languages, and believed in laying a solid foundation to crafting long before students were able to actually craft.
“Since you were going into Fiallan anyway and Bryn and Miss Marti are already watching me for the week, I think you should stick to the plan. Still go.”
Rex joined in. “The chief is still cool with giving you the week off to go to Fiallan if you want to. He wanted me to tell you that. Thinks you need closure, to see for yourself or you’ll always have doubts. And you already have the necessary paperwork to travel . . . Everything is still on, Charlie. Only question is, when are you leaving?”
A feeling of such relief and hope erupted inside of me. They weren’t going to take anyone’s word for it, either. They’d stand by me, by Hank, no matter what.
“Well?” Rex prompted.
My stomach was doing somersaults. Right. Okay. “Well, as soon as I get a shower and pack then,” I heard myself say.
Rex slapped his hands on his knees and then stood. “Awesome. I picture you walking out the Circe’s door with the siren thrown over your shoulder, giving your new salute as you go.”
Emma laughed. “That’d be so cool. You totally have to do that.”
“Yeah, I’m sure Hank would love to be thrown over my shoulder and rescued like a sack of potatoes.”
“Oh, but that’s the beauty of it,” Rex said with longing. “He’d never live it down and I could spend years reminding him of it.” He looked off into nothingness. “Good times. Good times.”
I got off the bed. “You guys are nuts.” But they believed in me. Believed in Hank. And I was fine living on the funny farm as long as I had them in my corner. I leaned down, grabbed my daughter’s face, and kissed her on the forehead. “I love you. I’m taking a shower.” I turned to walk away.
“Uh, hello? What about me? What the heck kind of gratitude is that? Why don’t I get kisses on my forehead and I love yous?”
“Aww, what’s wrong, Wexie Poo?” Emma teased. “Are your whittle feel-wins hurt? I bet Brim will kiss you, won’t you, Brim.”
Rex’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare tell that hound to kiss me.”
I stopped by the bathroom door. That was the thing about my kid. She could communicate with the hellhound, and poor Rex was about to get slimed.
Rex stood on one side of the bed and Brim was on the other, attention fixed on Rex with perked-up ears and a drooling mouth. The look on my daughter’s face was priceless. She so wanted to do it. Like she was on the edge and already falling.
Rex must’ve realized she was a goner. “You realize I will get you back for this evil,” he told her.
Her grin was wide. “I know, but it’ll be worth it,” she said, right before pointing at Rex and commanding, “Smooch!”
Happy to oblige, Brim leapt onto my bed and off the other side, tackling Rex to the floor. He fell with a loud oomph and screamed like a girl, vowing revenge as Brim laid wet kisses on his face. I couldn’t help but laugh. Em rolled on the bed, holding her stomach and yelling that she was going to pee her pants.
“Don’t pee on my bed!” I said, laughing as she jumped off and called Brim after her, running for cover, thumping down the stairs and out the back door.
Rex moaned from the floor, arms flat out, panting, face screwed up and wet. “Call 911. Hurry. I’m not . . . gonna . . . make it. Tell my wife . . . I lov—” he gasped dramatically, lifted his hand to some unseen apparition, and then died a painful, glorious pretend death on my floor.
“Nuts,” I muttered, shutting the bathroom door. “I live in a house full of nuts.”
I hadn’t thought beyond the shock of what the delegates claimed, beyond the denial, but with everything already taken care of and the path cleared for me to go into Elysia, the idea settled easily into place.
I hurried through the shower, dried off, wrapped a towel around me, and then brushed my teeth. When I was done rinsing and glanced into the mirror, I paused. The face staring back at me was weary and pale, a drawn shadow of what I used to be. I couldn’t look at this face and not acknowledge the worry and the question I refused to allow anyone else to see. My eyes stared back at me with grief, broadcasting my greatest fear.
What if it was true? What if he’s really gone?
No. I couldn’t think like that. If I was going, I had to go strong and with purpose. With belief. Otherwise, I might as well have given up right then.
I squared my shoulders, giving myself a long, hard scowl, trying to make the determination brewing inside match the worried face that stared back. God, I looked so tired. And sad. Acknowledge it and move on. Dwelling on the fear and grief wouldn’t do me any good, I knew that.
I dipped my shoulder, turning in order to get a good look at my shoulder blade and the mark Hank had given to me during our fight in his apartment.
I’d given him the same arrow-shaped symbol with two slashes and a dot on his chest. The Throne Tree ink now embedded into my skin was used in ceremonial markings, bindings, and, once upon a time—and now highly illegal—death markings.
I hadn’t had the mark all that long, about three or four weeks and—
Goose bumps erupted all over my arms and thighs.
Images seemed to emerge from the mirror. Me lying on the grass in Stone Mountain as my mark warmed and Hank knelt down beside me. Going down the steps into Underground and the mark warming even before I saw Hank stand from his seat on the fountain ledge.
I could find him. The mark connected us. I had my own built-in radar system right here, embedded into my skin. Before all this, I hadn’t given it much thought. I hadn’t needed to. Hank wasn’t lost; he was in the grid. I’d known exactly where to go. But now that he was missing, the mark would be instrumental. If Hank was in the city, I’d find him.
All I had to do was get into Fiallan, tour every inch of the place if I had to, and see if the mark warmed. And when it did, the Circe and I would have a nice little chat from the end of my fist.
Feeling more hopeful than I had since the delegation invaded my office the day before, I hurried into my bedroom and found a pair of clean cargo pants and a black T-shirt. I gave my hair a quick blow-dry in front of the mirror; it had grown since being chopped off in the black crafting ritual that saved Aaron’s life, and could now be worn in a ponytail that actually stayed—mostly. The bangs still slipped out of the band to curve around my chin. I’d have to dye it, I realized suddenly.
The game had changed. The sirens who had apprehended Hank behind Station One had seen me. Sure, they’d seen me covered in blood, grime, and the gray sand of Charbydon, and while I doubted any of them could pick me in a lineup, I didn’t want to take any chances. I flicked the ends, remembering when Hank had done the same after it had been chopped, remembering the crooked grin he gave me when he did it. My throat grew thick. Determined to see that grin again, I looked away from the mirror and finished getting ready.
I jogged downstairs and asked Rex to run to the drugstore for a box of dye, while I pulled on my boots and then selected weapons from my own personal arsenal.
After Rex returned, Emma helped me bleach and then dye my dark reddish brown hair to a dirty blonde. “Why not a glamour spell?” she asked from behind me, working the dye into my hair as I sat on the vanity stool.
I watched her through the mirror. “Because the Circe are said to be very powerful. If they see through the glamour, they’ll wonder who I am and why I’m trying to hide behind it.”
Once my hair was done—and no one liked the new color; Brim even growled at me—I stood at the front door and hugged my kid tightly, kissed her several times on her forehead, breathed her into my lungs, and prayed for her safety and my safe return. I threw caution to the wind and kissed Rex on the cheek, gave Brim a ruffle on the head, and then left the house, reminding Em to eat well and do all of her homework.
I gazed out the window of the taxi as it entered Hartsfield-Jackson airport, a place that had once seen two million people pass through its terminals every year. Now those giant buildings were silent and dark, locked up along with all the hangars, offices, and other buildings until the day the darkness lifted and air travel safely resumed.
The darkness above had no effect on inter-dimensional travel, however, so the off-world terminals continued operating as usual. Atlanta was the city where genius scientist Titus Mott discovered the other dimensions of Elysia and Charbydon. The first official portal into those worlds had been built here at Hartsfield-Jackson. Other terminals eventually followed: New York, L.A., London, Paris . . . But ours remained the busiest and our city housed one of the largest off-world populations around.
As the taxi swept along the curve of the road, the terminal came into view. Made of glass and steel, it shone brightly like a beacon rising from a world of darkness.
Instead of entering through the security wing, I had the taxi driver drop me off at Arrivals and entered through the main doors. My backpack was filled with a couple changes of clothes, a shower bag, and essentials. The small black duffel I carried over one shoulder held backup clips for my Hefties, additional rounds for my firearm, and capsules for my Nitro-gun just in case I ran into any Charbydons—which wasn’t likely since only two Charbydons had ever set foot in Elysia since the discovery of worlds. And those two were delegates of the Federation. But, it never hurt to be prepared . . .
My actual weapons were secured on my person. 9mm on my hip. The Nitro-gun snug against my right rib cage. The Hefty tucked against my left. I was right-handed, and depending on what perp I was going after, I liked to keep the most effective weapon on my left, so I could grab it easily with my right hand. The Hefty was extremely effective at subduing Elysians. The High Frequency Tag emitted a sound wave capable of dropping most any from that world. The Adonai, however, proved a little harder to detain, but still we managed.
Game face on, armed to the maximum allowance by law for an officer engaged in inter-dimensional travel, I strode through the automatic doors and into the terminal.
The center of the long rectangular terminal where I entered was the hub of activity. There was seating, a few kiosks selling books and maps, a café, coffee shop, and bakery . . . The center area was pretty much neutral, designed to be comfortable to beings of all three worlds. But walk left or right and things began to change. To the right was the Charbydon ticket counter and checkpoint for those traveling to the city of Telmath, the capital city of Charbydon. There was seating and a few more kiosks run by goblins and then the final security checkpoint before the giant blue sphere glowing at the end of the terminal.
Been there, done that. I swung a left and headed toward the glowing sphere that occupied the other end of the terminal—a two-story sphere lit with swirling pinks and oranges.
Every world, every planet, had its own unique frequency, a natural emission of electromagnetic sound waves. Its own “music.” Titus Mott’s harmonic resonance generator had accidentally dialed into the unique frequency of Elysia, creating a portal into a world that had inspired our myths and ideas of heavenly paradise, a world where the beings within could no longer hide, no longer deny they’d been visiting us for eons, meddling, and inspiring myths of gods, angels, faeries, and other paranormal creatures. The discovery of “hell” or Charbydon as it was called, wasn’t far behind and we were to learn the same—the nobles, jinn, ghouls, darkling fae; they were the beings behind the legends and fears of demons, monsters, and dark gods.
And though it wasn’t the biblical Revelation, the term had stuck. Fourteen years ago, the world changed. Laws and policies were put into place, and the Federation of Worlds was created along with the Integration Task Force, ITF, which policed and monitored the influx of new beings into our society.
Now there were terminals in several major world cities. But unlike air travel where you could leave from one place and arrive in most any chosen location, the spheres were only connected to one location apiece. Atlanta’s Charbydon gate only took you to Telmath. The Elysian gate only opened to the Adonai’s capital city of Ithonia. Yet another reason Atlanta was the hub for off-world travel and immigrants—we had the only two spheres that lead to both off-world capital cities.
Unfortunately, this meant I wouldn’t be arriving directly into Fiallan. I had to go to Ithonia first and then contact a Magnus-level mage to whisk me to my final destination. And they didn’t come cheap, either.
Since I already had my government travel arrangements, I bypassed the ticket counter and headed straight for the main gate guarded by a gate agent, a highly trained security expert with loaded weapons beneath his desk and a license to take down any threat.
The terminal in Ithonia had been created with much reluctance on the Adonai’s part. They considered their city and land pristine. They thought any influx of off-worlders would pollute the beauty and sanctity of their world. Never mind that they’d been coming to our world since the dawn of civilization, using Earth as a battleground in their war with the nobles.
Travel to Ithonia was limited by visa and stays longer than a week required special permission. Ridiculous given that terms were different should any Adonai want to come to Earth.
The Adonai took entrance into their city very seriously, so I wasn’t surprised to find the agent was an Adonai, a tall, blond-haired, undeniably beautiful male. Easy to see why they’d been called gods and angels by early mankind. And it probably killed him every time he had to allow a human to pass through the gate.
“ID and papers,” he said, holding out an expectant hand.
I gave him my travel papers and then set my ID on his desk. His brow rose at what he read, and then he took a moment to compare the face on the photo to mine, the hair color having thrown him off. He set the paper and ID down and pierced me with an unimpressed, arrogant look that instantly got under my skin. I returned his lovely welcome with a smile that dripped smart-ass.
He slid my information back to me. “Bags on the counter.”
I rolled my eyes. “Really?” My credentials and permits were in order. He didn’t have to search my stuff, but in the end it was the prerogative of the gate agent, and not something I could or would argue about. Even so, it annoyed me because I knew he wasn’t holding me up due to any threat or suspicion I posed, but because he apparently got off on being a jerk.
With a martyred sigh, I lugged my duffel onto his desk followed by my backpack. “Enjoy yourself. The underwear is near the bottom.” I turned, intending to plop myself dramatically onto one of the seats against the opposite wall.
I froze midstride.
It took several seconds to wrap my brain around the sight of the veiled person sitting there, radiating power without even trying. Her hands moved with speed and grace, bright red nails flashing.
I stepped closer to the oracle. “Alessandra. Are you . . . knitting?”
Her hands stilled and her chin lifted a notch. The veil dropped back slightly, revealing more of her features than I’d ever seen in the smoky haze and dark lighting of her theater where she held court like the Queen of Underground, dispensing riddles and prophecies at a hefty price.
Alessandra and I weren’t friends. In fact, she seemed to take great pleasure in making things as difficult as possible whenever I procured her services—which I always thought a huge waste of time since she made the department pay dearly and then never gave us much but cryptic answers and sarcasm. The one time I’d used her prophetic services for personal reasons, to find out if my sister Bryn was possessed, she’d been little help.
The oracle was actually quite pretty, her coloring—otherworldly mossy green eyes, deep red lips, and curly raven hair—vivid against pale skin. Of course, this was Sandra, so her expression was the usual sly amusement and the monumental smugness that came from two thousand years of being a world-renowned know-it-all.
“Yes, I’m knitting, blondie. It calms my mind,” she said, setting the blob of fuzzy pink and white yarn into an open bag next to her. “Sit down, Charlie.”
I glanced over my shoulder. The agent was setting all my clips on the counter. If he decided to count every one, we’d be here forever.
“Going on a little excursion?” I asked, taking a seat. “Family visit?”
Her smile hiked at the corners as she angled in her seat to face me, her veil dropping in a slow fall of fabric to her shoulders. “Trying to discover my background, are we?”
I shrugged, glaring at the gate agent. “Thought I’d give it a try.” He began to dig through my shower bag. “So what’s with all the secrecy, anyway?”
“Not secrecy. There are those who have been around since my emergence. My past is not hidden. But it is mine. Mine to share if I choose.”
The Adonai jerkwad held up my bra with two fingers like it was radioactive. I crossed my arms over my chest as my cheeks grew warm. “Is that really necessary?” I griped loudly, but he simply ignored me. “There’s a blue one, too.”
I wanted to sink my fist into the superior expression he gave me. My teeth clenched.
Sandra tsked. “You always rise to the bait, Charlie. You’re so predictable.”
I snorted. “Everything is predictable to you.” Others would say I was the opposite—they never knew what I’d do next.
It was something in her voice, a resignation, a worry, that got my attention. Her eyes swam with something I’d never seen from her before. Fear, I realized. And then it was gone. Before I could digest that, her next words completely bowled me over. “I’m not visiting anyone in Ithonia, Charlie. I am here to escort you into Fiallan to find your siren.”
I blinked, frowned, then frowned some more . . . And then I scanned the terminal for a hidden camera because the Oracle of All Oracles showing up here, to help me—me of all people, who made it a point to give Alessandra as good as she gave—was just a little too bizarre to comprehend.
She stared with one eyebrow cocked as I grappled. Finally I found my voice, but she cut me off. “I know what you’re going to say, of course. And I don’t need to be an oracle to know that much. I’m going with you. I don’t like it. But I’m going. So you might as well get over it.” She glanced at the gate agent and gathered her things. “He’s done. You ready?”
Then a thought occurred to me and I hurried after her. “Wait. Are you saying Hank is alive?”
“Oracle,” the agent greeted her, making a respectful bow. She nodded serenely and took the small disposable earplugs he offered her. “Please proceed through the sphere without stopping. May your journey be safe and prosperous.”
Alessandra was honored; I would never be, even though I was law enforcement, even though I put my ass on the line for the beings of all three worlds.
Prosperous, my ass.
The gate agent tossed a pair of earplugs onto the counter. I grabbed the small plastic bag and returned his glare before catching up to Sandra. “Damn it, Sandra, wait.”
She finally stopped at the steps, her head tilting up as she stared at the sphere hovering less than an inch above the copper alloy platform. It dwarfed her, making her look so small, like a child. The giant ball of pink and orange energy swirled and changed like a shifting sea of colors, and the drone coming from it pulsed through my entire body. As awe-inspiring as it was, it didn’t hold my attention long.
“Did you see him? Did you see Hank in one of your visions? Sandra.” I grabbed her arm, tugging it so she’d look at me. “Do you know where he is? Just tell me; I can move quicker by myself and—”
“No, Charlie, I must go. And as for your siren . . . I don’t know.”
“You know everything. What do you mean, you don’t know?”
There was that look again, the flash of fear, and it made me cold. “I can’t see the future. Yours. Hank’s.” Tears pricked her eyes. “I can’t see any of it.” Alessandra fled up the steps and disappeared into the sphere.
I picked my jaw off the floor, inserted the earplugs, grabbed my stuff, and hurried after her.
I’d passed through a sphere before. I knew to keep walking. I knew not to stop. But Sandra’s bombshell left me completely off-kilter and I forgot to prepare myself. The portal’s intense energy field hit me like a sledgehammer. I stumbled to a stop.
You’re not supposed to stop.
The ends of my hair lifted and the fine hairs on my skin stood straight. The earplugs prevented my eardrums from bursting, but it did nothing to ease the heartbeatlike drone of thick energy pulsating through every molecule of my being, so strong and overwhelming that my teeth clinked together in time.
Disorientation crept in. I tried to move, to put one foot in front of the other, but I felt so sluggish. The drone encompassed all until it seemed as though I’d become a part of it, part of the energy, part of—
Warm fingers wrapped tightly around my wrist and yanked me forward so hard that my neck snapped back.
The next thing I knew I was tumbling down the steps, coming to a stop flat on my back, blinking up at a high marble ceiling where fuzzy marble sea creatures stretched out and then snapped into sharp focus.
I had arrived. And in style no less.
Deep muttering curses filtered into the ear where the plug had come partway out. I groaned and pulled them both from my ears as my gut rolled sickly.
“Of all the stupid . . . Human. I should’ve known.”
A face moved into my line of sight. A highly annoyed Adonai glared down at me. “I should let you wallow in IDT sickness.” But he placed his palm over my forehead and muttered some disgruntled words. Heat spread over my skin. The fuzz began to clear from my mind and the intense nausea in my gut eased.
Most humans experienced a minor level of Inter-Dimensional Travel Sickness, but prolonged exposure in the spheres or taking an illegal form of travel was like having a hangover while still drunk.
A small crowd had formed. Alessandra peered over the agent’s shoulder with an expression of relief, amusement, and contrition. The gate agent ran his fingers through his hair and let out a heavy sigh, then looked up at the crowd. “And that is why we tell you not to stop in the portal. Never stop in the portal. Ever.”
With that lesson delivered, he stood, reached inside of my jacket to get my ID and papers, and then went back to his desk.
Alessandra offered me a slim hand. “Really, Charlie, I thought you knew better.”
“I did. Next time save the bombshells for after we jump worlds.” I slid my hand into hers and got to my feet, my bags sliding off my shoulders to remain on the floor. “Ugh. Dizzy.”
“Nasty things, those gates.” Sandra patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. “I remember the old way of travel,” she said wistfully.
“The old way?”
“Preparation, ritual, communing with primal gods, becoming one with nature . . .”
“Stop, you’re making me want to hug a tree.”
“Ha ha. The dizziness will go away in a minute. You’re lucky you escaped.”
I didn’t say anything as I dragged my bags to the agent’s desk and hefted them onto the counter. He refolded my papers and slid them to the edge. “You’re lucky to escape.”
“So I hear.” I shoved my papers back inside of my jacket. The thing was, I did know better and it embarrassed me to the point that my cheeks got hot. I drew in a deep breath and looked at him. “Thank you.”
He stared at me for a long moment and then nodded. “Just doing my job.”
“Not something you have to do very often, I’m sure.”
He shrugged. “A few times a month, but if it makes you feel any better, never had a repeat from those who’ve gotten . . . stuck.”
“Yeah, definitely a lesson one never forgets.”
After he completed a cursory inspection of my bags, he handed my ID back and set me on my way. “Stay out of trouble.”
I let out a soft laugh. “Would be a first.” Trouble and I had a way of finding each other.
His lips twitched. He shook his head as a couple came through the sphere and his attention went back to work.
“You need to sit for a minute?” Sandra asked as I caught up with her.
“No, I’m fine. Let’s go.” I glanced back at the Adonai. He wasn’t so bad. Definitely not a jerk like the other one. Maybe people were just in a better mood on this side of the gate, being in paradise and all.
Sandra followed my gaze and my train of thought apparently. “They’re still full of themselves,” she said as we continued on, walking past high marble columns that lined each side of the terminal. “The Adonai’s arrogance is somewhat justifiable, I suppose. They are, after all, the most powerful race in Elysia.”
“Yes, but there are others . . . just as powerful or more so.”
“True. But as a group, as a whole, they are stronger, more organized and disciplined. Their power shows in every facet of their existence. Once we clear those doors, you’ll see what I mean.”
She swept ahead of me toward a shaft of golden light that spilled through two-story-tall double doors, which were held open by two giant statues of armored warriors.
It was like walking toward the gates of Saint Peter. My pulse picked up. What existed outside of those doors was the model for heaven. Heaven.
I wasn’t deeply religious, but I did believe there existed a higher power—undefined and beyond our understanding. I was well aware the land beyond the golden light wasn’t a place of eternal rest, a place where souls found peace and reward. I knew all that, but it didn’t stop me from experiencing a profound sense of wonder as we drew closer to the wide shaft of light.
People passed in and out of the light, not even noting the beauty of it. And when I did the same, when I passed through that golden light, I came out onto a scene that took my breath away.
My first view of Ithonia was framed by massive white columns, part of a long colonnade stretching to the left and right. I moved to the marble railing built between each column and stood there taking it all in. From our higher vantage point, the city of Ithonia sprawled out in a gentle slope below us. In the distance, far beyond the city, a sun hovered just above green mountains. The white marble walls, streets, and buildings glowed.
I thought of Emma and Rex, of Bryn and my parents—if only they could see what I was seeing. I thought of Will and wondered if the Afterlife was as beautiful as this, and I prayed that it was.
“Ithonia.” Admiration filled Alessandra’s soft whisper.
“I never thought I’d see this. Never thought it’d live up to the hype, to the picture I had in my mind, but it does.” A hundred times over, it does.
“For once, we are in agreement,” she said with a genuine smile. “Many of the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean—the Minoans, the ancient Greeks, the Etruscans—were influenced mostly by the Adonai and sirens who visited your world in ancient times. The architecture here will seem familiar to you because of this.”
For so long the mystery existed of how early humans jumped so quickly from being hunter gatherers to building monumental cities with cultures rich in art, religion, writing . . . For so long historians wondered about gods, Star People, the Annunaki, fallen angels; those ancient myths of beings who arrived from another world to teach mankind. Those beings turned out to be the Elysians and Charbydons. The nobles had inspired the Mesopotamians and early Central Americans. The nymphs and fae inspired much of the Celtic pantheon, and so on . . .
It made one wonder what mankind would have been like had they not come.
“This was the model for the mythical Mount Olympus, the Elysian Fields, heaven . . .” Sandra added.
I dragged my gaze away from the splendor of Ithonia and stared at the oracle. She was smaller than me by almost a head, but her presence well made up for her size. Granted, I didn’t know much about her personally, and she liked it that way, but I did know the oracle never did anything without a price.
“Why are you here, Sandra? So you can’t see my future or Hank’s; it doesn’t explain why you felt the need to come.”
“I told you already.” She moved back from the view and began walking down the long colonnade, so tall and colossal it made us look like ants. “The mages’ league isn’t far from here. We should head straight to Fiallan. We’ll be detained outside of the inner walls until we’re cleared for admittance, so we might as well wait there instead of wasting time here.”
“No, you didn’t tell me already. Not really.” Her steps had gone swifter, until I was almost jogging to keep up. “Sandra. Slow down.” And still she went. “Will you just stop for a minute?”
Several passersby stopped—at least they listened—appalled by my raised voice. Guess that didn’t happen too much in paradise. But Sandra had stopped, too, so I ignored the curious looks thrown our way and edged us over to one of the columns, lowering my voice. “My partner is missing, dead if you want to believe the Circe, and right now he’s probably wishing he was. This isn’t a game or an adventure or whatever it is to you . . . and you can’t keep running away from giving me a straight answer. There’s too much at stake not to know your intentions. I won’t be going in blind like this.”
Frustration ballooned inside of me. Alessandra was two thousand years old. Did she even appreciate how precious time was for those of us whose life span was so small? Did she understand loyalty and love and family? Before we went further, I had to know her objective.
I heard whispers from people who passed by us. Oracle. The oracle. Clearly she was known here. Clearly from the tone, she was revered here.
Sandra pulled me deeper into the shadow of the column, her eyes glowing brighter than before. Ah. There it was. That Pissed Off Green I knew so well. “Okay. Fine. Here’s the truth. The only time I’m not able to see another’s future is when their fate is intertwined with mine in a significant way.” She let that sink in. “Our fates have collided. Mine, yours, Hank’s. I’m here because I must play whatever part Fate has laid out for me. That is the law of the oracle. And as much as I’d rather be back in my temple knitting a sweater for my python, I cannot break Fate’s Decree, trust me on that.” Her voice broke for the briefest of seconds. Then, she squared her shoulders. “Fate requires me to come and face my destiny and so that is what I must do. And, for the record, I’m not enjoying this any more than you.”
“So what if you refused to play your part, what then?”
“That never works, Charlie. Trust me. I’m old enough to know and let’s just leave it at that. I cannot escape my destiny. Neither can you.” She glared at me, daring me to challenge her.
And then it hit me. “You tried once before, didn’t you?”
“To not follow this decree. You tried and failed. I can see it in your eyes.”
Her expression went stony, and her hands curled into fists. Then, she seemed to regain some control because her eyes went narrow and shrewd. “You are the most irritating human I have ever known. And let me put that into perspective for you: I’m two thousand years old.”
Yeah, a two-thousand-year-old know-it-all, I wanted to say back.
She swept around me, proceeded to the end of the colonnade, and then went swiftly down the wide marble steps.
“Well, that’s quite an achievement,” I mumbled, feeling a little offended. “Maybe I should add that to my resume.”
We went the rest of the way through the city in silence, which was fine by me. It was all very Utopian. Wide, clean streets. No machines or pollution. Gorgeous architecture that surpassed the great temples of ancient Greece and Rome. Only these buildings weren’t in ruins; they were majestic and pristine.
Don’t let the landscape fool you.
This place was a paradise, no doubt, but I was well aware that evil existed here just as good existed in the hellish realm of Charbydon. Looks were deceiving and I knew better than to be influenced by my surroundings.
“This is it,” Sandra said, veering across a wide square to a massive templelike building that took up one side of the entire square. “Your mage should be here.”
We jogged up the steps. The doors were open like they were back at the terminal—the weather here was always beautiful—and while the mage’s headquarters held priceless artifacts, books, and powers beyond belief, no need for a lock; the Elders here had other measures in place to secure their treasures.
Inside was a long main gallery, both sides lined with statues of mages holding staffs, books, orbs, and other arcane devices. The tall columns that supported the roof and lined the gallery were black as were the walls. Arched doorways led into rooms off the gallery, but it was the marble floor that commanded my attention and awe. It spread out like a perfect photograph of the night sky, like someone had stretched the universe flat and laid it on the ground, twinkling stars and all. The lofty ceiling was a mirror image of the floor.
Low voices, the soft swish of robes, and echoes filled the place, but it was all tempered by the space, a space designed to make one feel small and yet part of something greater, part of the cosmos, and open to the mysteries that lay within. Sandra, in her veil and robes, with those strange eyes, fit right in.
The delegates had been here, had employed the services of the mages who knew how to manipulate matter and energy, to take a person from one place to the next in the blink of an eye. For a hefty price, of course. There might be portals from one world to another, but there were no portals that linked cities within worlds. You traveled the old-fashioned way—by foot, by horse, by flight, by crafting, or you hired a mage.
I pulled out the itinerary Sian had originally prepared for me and Titus, using the same travel template the delegates had used, and proceeded toward the appointed room.
We were stopped several times by mages who recognized Sandra and greeted her with a reverence I knew she adored. And every time we moved on, she gave me a superior smirk, making me wonder which she loved more, the attention or getting on my nerves. “I’m surprised they aren’t asking for your autograph,” I said after the last admirer left us.
“Elysians might be godlike, but one gift they do not possess is divination. They have come to me for ages to get a peek at the future, and they’ve paid in riches you cannot even imagine in your paltry human mind.”
“Which,” I pointed out, “makes one wonder why you set up shop in Underground Atlanta of all places. Why not buy a small country and live like a queen?”
“Well, that particular information would cost you, now wouldn’t it?”
“Do you do anything without a price, Sandra?”
“I’m doing it right now.”
We passed libraries, apothecaries, classrooms, and with all the interruptions, I was pretty sure we missed our destination. I scanned the paper. “I think we were supposed to stop at the room we just passed . . .”
Sandra stopped suddenly and held out her hand.
“Your itinerary. Give it to me.”
I gave it over, pointing at the paper. “That’s what it says for travel, it’s the ninth door down on the right. That’s also where they sell the grimwyrd I’ll need to . . .” She tore the paper and threw the pieces into the air. They floated down to the polished floor. “What are you doing?”
“Forget about the schedule, and the grimwyrd. You really want to shove a needle in your arm every day you’re in Fiallan? You’re traveling in style now. Watch and see what being celebrated three worlds over gets you. Perhaps then you will develop some respect for your elders.”
I gave her an unimpressed look. “Doubtful.”
Her lips quirked into a faint smile. “I knew you’d say that.”
She continued on as I glanced around, expecting someone to appear and give us hell about littering on the amazing floor. But the paper stirred as though a breeze had come, though none had, and fire ate up the paper in a soft whoosh until it ceased to exist—ashes and all. Just like that.
A self-cleaning floor. God, these mages are brilliant.
I caught up to Sandra, wondering if my crafting sister knew how to make a floor clean itself, and wondering how the hell to get around the human/siren issue if not a daily injection of grimwyrd.
“Okay, so if not grimwyrd then what exactly? It’s what the human delegates used. It’s what every human going into siren territory uses.”
“You’ll see,” was all the answer Sandra deigned to give.
On Earth, sirens were required by law to wear voice-mods to subdue their natural lure and insanely potent voices. Sirens gladly wore the device since the idea of being followed around by a bunch of drooling men, women, children, and some animals was not exactly their idea of a good time. But here, things were different. This was their world where humans were a very small minority. It was up to the human traveler to protect themselves.
Because of my otherworldly genes, I was developing a partial immunity to the natural siren lure, but I didn’t want to chance it. I needed my wits about me, and grimwyrd was the only thing that blocked the lure.
The gallery dead-ended at a tall arched doorway. The hallway split, going left and right. Before we came to the intersection, the massive doors opened and three mages swept toward us. The two on the left and right were male, fit, with strawberry blond hair and dark, intelligent-looking eyes. Brothers, maybe even twins. They both wore the long forest green robes that signified their level as Magnus, which put them at a couple hundred years old even though they looked to be in their mid-thirties. The only level above Magnus was Elder, and the Magni had a couple hundred years more of study and training to reach that distinction, if ever. The woman who stepped from the middle with her hands reached out to Sandra’s in greeting, however, already had. She was an Elder.
Whatever she said to Sandra was lost on me because she spoke in the common tongue of Elysia, but it gave me time to study the newcomer. The woman had a kind face, hair on the blonder side of strawberry that had gone white at the temples pulled back into a high bun. Her robe was white, without a single embellishment. She was nearly as tall as me, and attractive with high cheekbones and proud nose.
“Forgive me,” she said, turning in my direction. “Sometimes I forget not everyone can understand our language. I’m Edainnué Lightwater.”
I held out my hand. “Charlie Madigan.”
Her smile grew wider, and she seemed so pleased. “Oh, I know. I know who you are, dear.” She introduced her nephews, Brell and Trahern Lightwater, and then invited us into her private study beyond the massive doors.
“I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see you, oracle. It has been too long, much too long. And to come with this one! A surprise to be sure. Tell me, Charlie Madigan,” she said as she sat down behind a low marble desk, “how do you feel?”
I was halfway down to one of the chairs opposite the desk when the odd question made me pause for a second. “I’m fine. How is it you know me exactly?”
“Hard not to know the person who called primordial darkness from one world to another.” She leaned against the high back of her chair and steepled her fingers under her chin, her shrewd bright blue eyes intent and curious. “It’s quite a feat, what you did. Some claimed impossible until you proved them wrong.”
I thought of Emma; I’d move mountains for her if I could. I ended up moving darkness. “It could’ve been anyone,” I said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“Dead, I hear, when you were given gifts of the noble and Adonai. Not what I would call the right time, eh?”
As nice as Edainnué Lightwater seemed, I hadn’t come to Ithonia to be interviewed or to chat about all the things that had happened to me. I’d come for my partner. “I survived. I see that as being in the right.”
Lightwater laughed and said to Sandra, “She does have spirit, you’re right.”
Sandra leaned over the arm of her chair toward me. “Just so you know, spirited is not the word I used to describe you.”
This made Lightwater laugh again, and my impatience rose. “I don’t mean to be rude, Ms. Lightwater, but—”
“Right, right. Fiallan, I know. Reclusive, the sirens of Fiallan, even from their own kind. Quite cut off from the rest of the world. Though, they choose to be that way. I will have Trahern and Brell take you both, but first you will need a few things for your journey and I would beg an audience with the oracle in return.”
“Accepted,” Sandra said, not giving me a chance to speak.
My cheeks grew warm and I squeezed my fists tightly. How long was an audience? Hank could be in trouble, hurt, dying for all we knew and they wanted to hang out and chat about the future?
“Charlie.” Sandra’s voice pulled me out of my internal tirade. Lightwater was eyeing me with interest, and her nephews stared at me with concern. “Your hand.”
I glanced down and saw the symbols on my right fist were beginning to glow. Shit. I pulled my hand back into the sleeve of my jacket and drew in a steadying breath. “It . . . does that sometimes,” I tried to explain, but it just sounded lame. “It’s just that . . . time is crucial, and I have to get to Fiallan as soon as possible.”
“You have the right of it, to want to move quickly. I understand. Your delegates came through a few days ago, and I believe they were attempting to free a siren who was wrongly accused, though the specifics were not told to me.” Lightwater studied me with ancient eyes, wise and knowing. “You will need a few things, of course.”
She stood, pushed her chair aside, and then bent to root in the large cabinet behind her. “First,” she said over her shoulder, “a cloak of the apprentice, and then . . . ah, there it is.” Lightwater gathered her finds and came around her massive desk, setting them on the corner. “Here, put this on.” She handed me a dark blue robe. “Fiallan doesn’t get many foreigners, but the occasional human student of the arcane isn’t unheard of.”
I stood and took the robe, grateful and suspicious at the same time. There was no reason for her to help me. True, the Adonai had no love for the sirens of Fiallan—even sirens from other cities had no care for their brothers and sisters—but to offer all this. Was it because of Sandra or some other reason?
“And this.” Lightwater presented an amulet.
I took it and examined the tear-shaped milky blue stone etched with a spiral of symbols from top to bottom. “What is it?”
“You’re about to enter the land of the sirens, Charlie. They wear no voice-mods like they must in the human world. You might be changing, evolving into a being capable of withstanding their voices like we do, but you’re not there yet, so let’s just play it safe and wear this at all times.” Ah, so here was the Elder’s version of grimwyrd.
“Wouldn’t want you drooling after every siren who crosses our path,” Sandra quipped.
I shot her a hard glare. “I’d planned to buy some grimwyrd.”
Lightwater only chuckled. “Two spirited ones, I’d say. And this is for language.” The Elder came at me with her pointer finger.
Instinctively, I stepped back. “What are you doing?”
“She’s making it so you can understand and converse in all languages,” Sandra said with a sigh. “Really, Charlie, try to keep up. It’s a simple syndialexi spell. Relax. Travelers do it all the time.”
Lightwater gave me a motherly smile. “It won’t hurt a bit.” Her pointer finger pressed against my temple as she muttered words unknown to me. Warmth radiated from her touch and spread through my skin. Gentle and un-intrusive and then it was gone almost as soon as it began.
“There. Now you may talk and understand.”
She was close to me, so close I could smell lavender and sage on her skin. “Why are you helping me?”
Lightwater leaned her hip on the edge of the desk and folded her hands in front of her. “Because I want something in return.”
Ah, there it is.
“After you have obtained your goal, set things to right, and have had time to recuperate from your journey, I would ask you to return here to Ithonia and grant me two days.” My eyes narrowed. “To study you. To learn. I will have you answer any question posed to you and demonstrate your gifts to the best of your ability.”
The cloak I could’ve gotten. The grimwyrd I could’ve gotten in place of the amulet. The mages to take me into Fiallan, could’ve gotten that, too. The language spell was helpful, but travelers also employed translators. So, Lightwater really hadn’t offered me anything I couldn’t have gotten myself.
“You give me two days, Charlie Madigan, and I will grant you one marker in return.”
“A marker,” I repeated.
“A promise. One. To put all my power, all the knowledge at my disposal, to completing one task, solving one dilemma, or granting a desire you ask. To the best of my ability and as long as it harms none, of course.”
Sandra let out a low whistle. “Never offered me a marker.”
Lightwater turned a kind eye to Alessandra. “There is nothing I can offer the oracle that she does not already have. And that which she does not have and desires is unobtainable. This you know.”
Sandra huffed as I slipped the amulet over my head, deciding to accept the offer. “I accept your terms, as long as the two days I’m here harms none as well.”
The Elder flashed a grin. “Of course. The deal has been struck.” She moved back to her seat. “Trahern and Brell will take you now.”
Sandra stood, said her good-byes to the Elder, and then faced me. “Ready?”
Trahern stepped next to me and curved his hand around my elbow as Brell did the same to Sandra. And then they vanished. I had a half second to see them blink out before the ground dropped out from under me.
I’d traveled this way before courtesy of Aaron, so I knew what to expect, but it sure as hell didn’t stop that brief flash of panic as my body dispersed into energy and then re-formed moments later in a new place, feeling about a hundred pounds heavier.
Yep, I thought. The sensation of going from weightless to weight? Still hated it.
He’d always thought going back into the grid would be a fate worse than death.
He was wrong.
Leave it to those fucking old hags to come up with something worse.
His laugh turned to coughs. He lifted his head a fraction to relieve the hard bite of the stone floor against his cheekbones and the side of his skull. He was naked and cold, chained facedown on the floor, arms straight out, held there by manacles on his wrists, neck, and ankles.
They wouldn’t let him die. And every time he did, every time his body gave out and his soul departed, their vicious spell would lasso it back, drag it back into his broken body. To endure. He’d seen the fucking light so many times it was making him mad, those glimpses of peace, the feeling it gave him, the brief absence of pain.
There was pure, soft, welcoming light. And then it would begin to dim, growing smaller and smaller and smaller, until he was surrounded in darkness and screaming to go back. This was a dark, despicable magic; one of the most heinous of spells, tethering a soul to a dying or dead body.
Returning to his broken body was a torture the like of which he couldn’t comprehend. The shock of it, the utter contrast between peace and pain . . . It was a sensation worse than the grid, worse than the whippings. It was a horror so unique that it fucked with his mind.
He was losing his hold on reality. He craved his own demise. They were turning him into a madman. His lust for death was only overshadowed by his hunger to kill the Circe, to exact the cruelest, most prolonged, most vulgar kind of end imaginable.
Over time, as he lay there, his pathetic body would actually try to heal, to knit some of his wounds back together. To give the whip master something else to tear back down. But nothing could repair his psyche, his mind, his tired soul. There was no healing for that. The sane part of him knew it and no longer cared.
As he went in and out of consciousness, visions of a former life flashed through his mind, of the forest of Gorsedd and the sidhé fae hermit who taught him, of a life that meant something, of a smiling child with big brown eyes, of a woman so fierce and loyal and beautiful that she took his breath away. He’d tried to hold on to those images, tried not to miss a single detail that played through his weary mind.
But they were all disjointed and random. All part of a shattered life, one that he’d been stupid, idiotic to believe could ever be his.
The most painful, intense regret filled him in the lucid moments after those flashes. It burned through him, searing his chest, his heart, his throat. And sometimes it burned so raw and fierce that he couldn’t hold it in and he dug his fingernails into the stone and roared in pain and rage.
He was no longer siren. He was animal. A crazed thing to be toyed with and tortured and lost. An animal that would ravage its keepers as soon as the slightest opportunity arose. Kill or be killed.
He laughed again, the sound ragged and thin. He laughed at that because he had been killed. Over and over and over again.
Red washed across his cloudy vision, and he could almost smell the iron tang, and feel its heat and thickness. Red, all of it red in Circe blood and Malakim vengeance.
* * *
The highly unpleasant sensation of losing all physical sense and then becoming whole again paled in comparison to opening my eyes and knowing I was there. In Fiallan. In Hank’s city. So close. I’m here, Hank. I squeezed my eyelids closed and forced down the emotion. I was here, and I was damned well going to succeed.
Trahern’s hand fell from my elbow. He stepped back, bowed to me, and then blinked out. Behind him stood Sandra; Brell was already gone.
We stood on a large platform, a wall rising behind us and a market spread out in front of us. I could smell the sea and, beyond the murmur of many voices and activity, I thought I heard it, too. The aroma of fresh bread and seafood mingled with the salty air and the faint scent of the stones warmed by the sun. I tipped my head to the sky and let it bathe my skin in warmth. It was easy, after a while, to get used to the darkness back home. The only times I acknowledged how much I missed the light were times like these.
Sandra stepped off the block. I followed her, walking backward to get a good look at the wall. It was two stories tall, broken by an arched gate manned by guards. Through this break, I’d guess the wall was at least fifteen feet thick. There were two towers far in each direction. The Malakim towers. I’d envisioned them looking more medieval, but they were actually obelisk in shape, made of smooth cream-colored stone, and rising at least five stories high. The remaining two towers weren’t visible from my standpoint, and I saw no rings of power, no visible force field of any kind.
I let out a disbelieving breath and turned around in a circle. I was in Fiallan, the inner wall in front of me and the outer wall—which was built after the city had expanded its old boundaries—far behind us. Both walls were shaped like a horseshoe, enclosing the city to all but the sea.
I knew from my earlier preparations to go into the city that a request had to be made at the gate in order to enter the old city. As I took in my fill of the large market, the gate, and the four streets that fanned off of this central area, I noticed Sandra straightening her veil, lifting her chin, and gliding toward the main gate. Request in progress.
I stayed back, allowing her to do her thing, knowing she’d accomplish the task with ease. And that was fine by me. The less notice I gained the better.
I turned away from the gate where Sandra held court and scanned the large marketplace and the crowd, gauging the mood, the threat level, and just letting myself become accustomed to the environment. What I knew of the Circe conflicted with the energetic, happy mood of the place. But then there were few who knew of the lies and heinous practice going on around them.
Eventually, I felt Sandra’s presence. “Now we wait.” And then she breezed past me.
There were mostly sirens, but some nymphs, a few imps and fae, and one or two humans in the market. Vines and flowers bloomed from railings and over pergolas, creating shaded spots under which tables and chairs had been placed. Streets fanned out from the market, lined with whitewashed buildings no higher than three stories. Brightly painted pottery decorated corners of buildings and doorways, filled with flowers, plants, and seashells.
It was all strangely . . . idyllic, completely at odds with the darkness I’d attributed to this place.
I lost Sandra, but found her again as she neared the building on the corner. It had a bright blue door, whitewashed stone walls, and flowering vines attached to one corner. Her head turned; the flash of her eyes in the shadow of her veil found me and waved me over. I caught the door before it closed, stepping inside behind her.
I’d heard for the normal traveler, it could take a day or more to get approval, but government officials and celebrities like the oracle—it might only take an hour or two.
After Sandra spoke to the innkeeper, we were led to a private room with a window that overlooked the market. As soon as we entered the bright room, Sandra shrugged off her veil and sank into one of the couches. The window was open, one side framed in blooms that crawled up the outside of the building.
I let my bags slide off my shoulders and stared out at the market scene, itching to do something, itching for a fight, honestly. To do what I knew best. I was out of my element, in another dimension that looked like some Mediterranean paradise while all I wanted to do was bust some heads, exact some revenge, and get my partner the hell out of there.
I let out a loud exhale.
“Nothing like Charbydon, is it?” Sandra asked.
I glanced over my shoulder. “No. Nothing like.” I turned back to the scene outside. “It’s beautiful here.” Which pissed me off; it shouldn’t be beautiful. It didn’t seem right, not when children had died to protect this place. “Have you seen the city, Sandra, in your visions?”
When she didn’t answer, I moved away from the window. She was watching me, her expression blank. I stopped by the arm of the empty couch across from hers. “Have you?”
I waited, wondering if I’d be able to detect a lie if she told one. Alessandra was a lot of things. Greedy. Haughty. Prideful. Sarcastic. But for some reason, she didn’t strike me as dishonest. Oh, she milked her clients for every penny she could, but as far as I knew she never told things she did not see. She was more the type to deliver the brutal truth or simply not answer at all. This time, she chose the latter, which meant she had seen this place in a vision.
“Sit down, Charlie. Relax. If you start pacing, I might throw something at you.” Her eyes drifted closed and her head fell back against the cushion. “I’m already getting a headache.”
I sat down. “I’ve been thinking about what you said . . . If you can’t see Hank’s future because it’s intertwined with ours, that means he’s alive, right? He’s part of all this. Otherwise you’d be able to see.”
Her chest rose and fell. Her eyes opened and she looked at me with a mixture of exasperation and pity. “Well if he’s dead, I wouldn’t be able to see him, either.”
I winced, her words slicing between my ribs as effortlessly as a surgical knife and straight into my heart. Sandra had a way of hitting me where it hurt, and this time was no exception. I gazed out the window, knowing that pressing her wasn’t going to get me anywhere, but I’d needed to do it anyway, needed some hope or reassurance . . . something.
“I’m sorry, that was insensitive of me, Charlie. I’m just . . .” She searched for the right words, but none seemed to come.
“Pissed off that you can’t see the future?”
Her eyes glowed and her tiny form seemed to vibrate with energy. “You could say that. It’s not enjoyable to . . . wonder what will come.”
* * *
The soft knock at the door came in just under an hour. Must be a record, I thought as Sandra stood and shot me a superior smirk before answering the door.
“Oracle!” A tall siren dropped to his knees, grabbed the hem of her robe, and brought it to his lips. “Fiallan is honored by your presence, simply honored.”
I didn’t miss the note of discomfort in her voice, which was surprising. Guess after a while, groveling grew old even for the oracle. Who knew?
The siren straightened. He was handsome, a bit on the thin side with a straight nose, long chin, and thick dark-blond eyebrows. Like all sirens, he was blond and blue-eyed.
“Your name, siren,” Sandra prompted him with patience.
He colored. “Pelos, Emissary to the Royal House of Akleion. I offer greetings from King Aersis himself and bid you welcome to Fiallan. You would bestow a great honor upon us to accept the king’s invitation to stay at the palace during your visit to our fair city by the sea.”
“Well spoke, Pelos.” Sandra turned to me, an eyebrow arched.
“Your servant—” His gaze swept over my insignificant self until it landed on my weapons, visible since I’d removed the robe. “Pardon, your guard is most welcome, too, of course.”
“She is both, as it happens. It is always wise, dear Pelos, to employ those with multiple talents. Will her weapons be permitted inside of the palace?”
Pelos stumbled. It was clear by the red creeping in his cheeks that they were not.
“Of course,” Sandra continued on, “there is no need for protection within the royal house, but my . . . popularity, you see . . . Once word reaches the masses, well, as you can imagine my presence requires protections from those more . . . ardent seekers of the future, and I am so attached to my guard and rely on her greatly.”
His eyes grew wide and he was nodding before he probably even realized he was. “Oh, of course. I had not considered that. You must need protecting at all costs. I’m sure the king will permit this protection on your behalf.”
Sandra bestowed a glorious smile on poor Pelos. “That is wonderful news! We shall accept his invitation with the highest gratitude.”
Pelos turned and motioned to someone behind him. A siren guard, dressed like those at the gate, stepped inside of the room and picked up Sandra’s bag. I waited for him to pick up mine, but no. They were already walking out the door, leaving me to shrug back into the robe, toss my backpack over one shoulder and my duffel over the other.
The emissary fawned over the oracle as we were escorted past the wall and into the inner city or old city as it was also called. As my subservient role required, I followed directly behind them.
The old city of Fiallan sloped gently down toward the sea. Houses had been built snugly into the rocky landscape, packed tightly together or with narrow alleys between them. It was no wonder the sirens took an interest in the Greeks—their land was familiar, from the rocky landscape to the blue sea and the pebble beaches.
The city was made of marble and whitewashed stone that seemed to glow in the sunlight. The main streets were wide and paved with smooth flagstones, and the houses all faced the sea with balconies and fluttering curtains waving in the breeze.
We walked through the meandering streets, Sandra chatting idly with Pelos while I took in my surroundings. Seabirds cried. The sound of the waves mixed with the sounds of everyday life. It was all so familiar and yet . . . not.
I couldn’t help but think of Hank as a child, growing up here. His roots were here, his family, his people. I spied the other two towers rising in the distance—needles jutting up from where the wall turned into sheer cliffs rising straight up from the sea. Goose bumps sprouted along my arms at the contrast of beauty and the evil I knew to lurk there. Sometimes that was the worst kind of danger, the kind veiled in beauty, the unsuspecting kind.
Pelos pointed out areas of interest as we went—the way to a sacred spring, the baths, the market, and the temples to the sirens’ primal sea deities, Merses, and his consort, Panopé.
“And those magnificent towers,” Sandra said. “Framed on either side of the cliffs, they look like gateways to the sea itself.”
“There are two more on the wall behind us. We have four in all. They are the Malakim Towers, built during the war with the Adonai, a thousand years ago.”
“Is it true there are children guarding the towers?”
Pelos didn’t miss a beat, and I remembered what Hank had told me about the Malakim being so old and so ingrained in his people’s customs that no one questioned it. It was just something that had always been. “Oh yes, and they are the bravest of our people,” Pelos was eager to share. “The practice, you see, began during the war with the Adonai when the city of Fiallan nearly fell. The Circe, old even then, saved our fair city by creating the four towers and the spell by which four sons—children of its mightiest warriors who were off fighting the Adonai—would release their power, link together, and form the rings of protection around the city. It worked. The city was saved from an Adonai attack. The young guardians became heroes.
“Once peace was reached seven years later, the Circe entered the towers to remove the children. Only, the sons of its warriors proved strong and proud. They asked to continue their guardianship and thus became Malakim. Every seven years, they would be approached again, and yet again refuse.”
“Such bravery is rare indeed,” Sandra said. “But surely your fair city is safe. There has been no threat from the Adonai since the peace.”
“Oh, but the Circe say we must be ever vigilant. There are threats always lurking, always waiting for a weakness to show itself. The towers and the Malakim protect us to this day.” He glanced back at my stony face. “Much like your protector guards you.”
“Indeed,” Sandra said lightly as Pelos moved on to another subject, but the quick look she shot over her shoulder was incensed.
I wanted to grab Pelos by the collar and shake some sense into him, but a calmer side of me played devil’s advocate. The siren people had been duped by the Circe for so long. There was no one left alive from the war, and the entire population had been born into the Malakim practice and into the Circe’s control. They knew no other way. And they had no idea what had really happened in that tower when Hank freed himself. No, the blame lay squarely on the Circe’s shoulders.
Eventually, we came to the palace. It had been built at the southern edge of the inner city on an outcropping of craggy rock, a vast complex of straight lines with large, long rectangular buildings supporting smaller ones, like building blocks stacked wherever there was room. It had a commanding view of the sea and everywhere there were smooth columns painted red and black. They lined entire buildings, framed entranceways, or held up balcony roofs, and there were several sets of stone stairs leading to balconies on varying levels.
It wasn’t heavily guarded or fortified, but I supposed it didn’t have to be seeing as there were the towers and walls and the Circe to contend with. Fiallan was remote, separated from the nearest siren city of Murias by Gorsedd, a forest the size of Texas. It made me wonder why the sirens had built a city here to begin with and why they’d warred with the Adonai in their early days. What could the Adonai possibly want with such a remote city?
The main courtyard was huge, rectangular and paved with smooth stones inlaid with mosaics depicting sea creatures of the natural and mythical kind. Steps that ran the entire length of the courtyard led into a gallery with a line of red columns with black bases. The far wall was brightly painted in reds, blues, and sea green.
We passed through what appeared to be a main hall and then through a confusing maze of hallways, levels, and atriums before finally coming to our rooms.
“I hope the rooms are to your liking, oracle.” Pelos pushed the door open and stepped inside. “You have a main lounge, two bedrooms on either side with bath chamber, and a private balcony with views of the sea.”
“It’s lovely. Please extend our thanks.”
“Of course. We have already dined, but I’d be happy to bring something to eat if you’re hungry.”
“That would be most welcome, thank you, Pelos. You are an excellent emissary. I will be sure to tell the king.”
Pelos looked like he was going to burst into song, but he held himself straight and still. “You are too kind. I shall return shortly.”
Once he was gone, I said, “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?”
“A requirement when one plays with royalty. Be glad you have me along.”
“As much as it pains me to say it,” I admitted with a small smile, “I am glad. And grateful.”
Sandra clutched her chest, her eyes squinting in humor. “Be still.”
I ignored her and wandered around the room, taking in the luxurious appointments and the way the open balcony, which ran the length of the entire room, framed the blue sea. White curtains hung on either end and they moved ever so softly in the warm breeze.
“Is it just me or does this place have a bad vibe?” I asked, eyeing the view.
“Like being in a nest of vipers.” She rubbed her arms. “With a gorgeous view.”
The sky was striped with indigo, orange, and pinks from the setting sun. One of the towers by the sea was in the frame of that beautiful picture. Had Hank been there? Was he still there?
“I’m taking this room!” Sandra’s voice echoed from one of the bedrooms. No doubt, it was the larger of the two. But I didn’t care. What did it matter? I wasn’t here to vacation; I was here to save my partner.
I leaned my shoulder against the column that framed each side of the balcony, crossed my arms over my chest, thinking I might just take a little night stroll through the city . . .
I walked the streets alone, passing sirens and other visitors. Lanterns and open fires burned, lighting the streets and the market, which had yet to close down. Waves crashed against the rocks and lapped gently into the shallow curves of beaches. But nowhere did I feel the warmth of my mark.
Sounds were all around me, but distant. Inside I felt silent and dark and alone, so still that every step I took, every breath I made sounded like thunder to my ears.
I followed the long curve of the inner wall, stopping at the base of each tower. I placed my hand on the warm, smooth stone, and felt nothing. At the end of the north tower, I could go no more unless I wanted to drop off the massive cliff into the sea below, so I went down the winding walking path that led to the shore.
For a long time I stood on the pebble beach, listening to the waves and feeling an absence of emotion, of hope. Voices in melody seemed to go in and out with the waves, sounding faintly hypnotic and encouraging—inviting me into the sea. But those were most likely from the people on the docks and in the market.
Finally, I moved away from the water and continued my search.
In the center of the city was a massive square with an impressive fountain and a statue of a mermaid sunbathing on a rock. Stone dolphins surrounded her like sentinels, water pouring from their open mouths.
I went slowly, past every building, every temple. The city hall. The treasury—and still nothing. My mark did not react.
I had no idea where prisoners were kept—if there was even such a building. And it seemed with every step, my hopes grew fainter.
I headed up a winding street toward the palace and then swung a left to where colossal houses were tucked against a sloping curve in the land that led back toward the sea. It was a dark area of the city. Old. Private. Wealthy. Commanding high vistas over the water.
The breeze turned cooler. I walked beneath a tree with gnarled limbs reaching over the street. A gate’s rusty hinges whined in the silence. Unlike most of the low walls that defined the property of the wealthy homes I’d passed, the wall I came to next was overgrown and crumbling. The gate was open. And down the drive, I could see the dark shape of a sprawling ruin.
It was a lot like the palace, only smaller. Columns were faded and broken. Weeds and vines grew unchecked. The courtyard was cracked and strewn with dead leaves. The doors were open, so I had to go inside. It was more than the usual curiosity, I thought as I went. Something inside of me related to the house, the desolation, the sadness.
Inside, it was hollow and gutted, except for a few broken bits of pottery. Scenes painted onto the walls were faded or chipped away. It was easy to imagine a family living there, the place filled with voices, the running feet of children, of gatherings. A home this large should be filled with family.
But now it was empty, the shutters on the windows gone or hanging askew, left open to the elements, the wind and leaves, the insects and birds . . .
The clip of boots sounded on the stones behind me and then stopped.
I stilled, a zing of alarm sliding up my spine.
Several seconds passed. I didn’t move. The visitor didn’t move.
Then, slowly I turned to see a man leaning against the wall, arms folded over his chest, regarding me with an even but curious expression. Could’ve been a siren or an Adonai. He certainly had the looks—tall, golden brown hair, muscular build—but I wouldn’t be able to tell for sure until he spoke.
One thing, however, I could tell. He was one powerful sonofabitch.
“When visitors come to Fiallan,” he said in a deep baritone, “this usually isn’t on the sightseeing list.”
I didn’t feel threatened . . . just wary and on guard. He, on the other hand, projected a calm indifference, and his aura was astounding—a rainbow of colors snapping like an energy field around him. Hadn’t seen that before.
“It wasn’t locked,” I responded.
He didn’t move, didn’t answer, just kept staring at me with one corner of his mouth turned up in a faintly mocking smile.
“What is this place?” I asked, trying to get a better feel for him. “Seems a shame to leave it abandoned. The view is incredible.” I glanced at the wide terrace. Columns framed out either side. It was completely open, no doors, no curtains . . . but it was similar to the room Pelos had given us in the palace. I could hear the sea from where I stood. It was easy to imagine it as it might have been, framing the view like a massive picture window, maybe soft sheer curtains blowing in a breeze, a fire burning in the basins beyond each corner of the pool, now dried up and crusted with algae.
The stranger pushed off the wall and strode to the opposite side of the opening where he stared out at the sea, giving me a better view of him. Nice profile. Straight nose, stubborn chin, hair that had a bit of wave to it, the length brushing the collar of the thin leather jacket he wore over a white dress shirt. The shirt was open at the neck and he wore faded jeans.
Well, one thing was sure; he’d been around humans for a while.
He drew back the sides of his jacket and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “This was the house of Elekti-Kairos. A place of grave dishonor. Of horrors better left in the shadows.” He turned to look at me, his eyes a startling golden brown. “Left like this as a reminder.”
“A reminder of what?”
“What brings you here, to this place in particular?”
I had no good answer for that. “Curiosity, I guess. You?”
His lips curved up again into that same mocking smile. “Following you.”
Inside my senses were screaming red alert! but at the same time, I knew there was no imminent danger, no menace or malice coming from him.
“Confusing, isn’t it?” His grin grew wider. “On a primal level, your body is telling you I’m a threat. I’m predator, you’re prey. Yet, your signals are crossing.” He shrugged in a casual yet arrogant manner. “Confuses the enemy. Lets me strike at will. Useful, no?”
Point taken, I wanted to say, but instead moved on. “So what happened to the people who lived here?” I stepped off the main floor to the terrace stones and then sat down, angling myself to see the stranger as he stood at the far column. I wanted the chance to get a deeper read on him, to figure out if he was friend or foe, and show him that I wasn’t interested in a battle of wills or powers.
“Bad things. Very bad things.” He leaned against the column behind him, hands still shoved in his pockets. Very relaxed, it appeared. “Tell me, Charlie Madigan, if you find Niérian is dead, will you leave or stay to right the wrong that was done here, in his home?”
His words were like a stun gun to my brain. Thank God I was sitting down because I might have fallen. My mind scrambled to get past the shock and process what he’d said.
Oh God. I was in Hank’s home. He had changed his name when he came to our world, to start fresh, make a new life for himself . . . Christ. I was in his fucking house. The house of Elekti-Kairos. A place of dishonor.
This guy knew my name and why I was here, which meant I couldn’t let him leave. Guess I was getting that fight I was itching for, after all. I stood slowly, shaking on the inside but calm on the outside. My hand moved back the cloak and rested on the grip of the Hefty. “Who are you?”
He eyed me for a long, calculating moment. “You’re definitely making a name for yourself in . . . certain circles.”
“What else is new?” I said dryly. “You have about three seconds to answer my question before being in a world of hurt.”
A light of humor appeared in his eyes, making the gold seem brighter, as though it was lit from within. “Threats already?” He pushed off the column, removing his hands from his pockets, and moved toward me with an easy, deadly stride. In an instant, his expression went from humorous to predatory. “I can be friend or foe.” The smooth warning gave me chills. “The choice is yours.”
“Not interested in either, thanks.”
“Oh come, now. You’re too involved now not to choose sides. And if you don’t . . . well, wild cards always get hunted and killed.”
Now I was getting mad. I moved toward him, not stopping until we met in the middle of the room. “Are you threatening me?”
I pulled my Hefty and aimed it at his heart. “I’m going to ask you one more time, who are you, and how do you know about me?”
He regarded my weapon as though I was pointing a pencil at him, and sighed as if in pain, like he’d rather be anywhere but here. “My name is Leander. I err on the side of good. Usually. As long as I get to kill things. I’m here to”—he glanced down the length of my body and up again, his eyes meeting mine with an arrogant light—“feel you out and see if you’re worthy of my offer. And I must say, I prefer your natural hair color better. You had a beautiful shade, like polished mahogany.”
“How do you know Hank?”
“First I must complete your interview.”
“Well, let me help you speed things up.”
I pulled the trigger, done with whatever weird-ass game he was playing. The tag would stun him for only a moment, but it’d be long enough for me to subdue him—hopefully.
The tag embedded in his chest, shuddering through him. His eyes fluttered closed and his arms spread wide as though he liked what the sound wave did to him. Psycho. His arms went down, his eyes opened, and he grinned. “They said you were a hothead. My favorite kind.”
I didn’t ask who “they” were, nor did I want to know his “favorite kind” of what.
He snapped his fingers. A sheer dome surrounded us, its edges sparking until it was completely enclosed, and then shimmered like thin glass with millions of tiny air bubbles. I could see through it, but was pretty sure I couldn’t go through it.
Cool air hit my skin, followed by warmth. Odd. I glanced down and saw that my cloak and weapons were missing.
Okay, now I was pissed.
The fucker did not just put me in a black leather bodysuit. Except, he did. And the fact that he was standing there grinning like a damned fool was more than I could take. “You are so going down.”
“Be glad I didn’t opt for more skin.”
I shook my head, thoroughly disgusted and feeling the hot sweep of power tingle through my veins. We began circling each other. “So what, you like getting your ass kicked by chicks in leather, is that it?”
He laughed. “Depends on the chick. You know, I wasn’t happy about coming here, but now . . . I’m going to enjoy seeing what you’re made of. What all the fuss is about.”
“Which won’t ever happen if you don’t stop yapping,” I pointed out. “You gonna talk or fight?”
“I do love you humans and your penchant for trash talking. No one does it better.”
He cracked his knuckles. A maniacal gleam entered his eyes. He made a motion so quickly I couldn’t follow it and then a bolt of blue energy shot from his hands and hit me square in the chest. I slammed into the sphere. All the breath went out of my lungs and a sizzling vibe radiated through me, lighting every nerve with pain.
Shit, that hurt. I slid down to my feet, knees bending until my hands hit the floor. Head down, one steadying breath, and then I glanced up.
How the hell did I fight him with no weapons of my own, unable to use my powers, and only reliant on my physical abilities?
I rose slowly and then charged him. Another bolt shot from his hand as I used my momentum to slide like a runner hitting home plate. The bolt slid an inch over my head. I slammed into him, taking him out. He fell forward over me. I rolled, popped to my feet, and roundhouse kicked him in the jaw as he tried to rise. He flipped to his side, rolled, and got to his feet. His hand went to the corner of his mouth and pulled away blood.
“You can’t take me in a physical fight,” I taunted him. Probably wasn’t the case, but if I could get him to physically engage, get my hands on him without him using his power . . .
“You have no idea how much I’m holding back already.”
I laughed. “Anyone who has to point that out tends to think they’re stronger than they really are.”
He came at me. God, he was fast. Every punch I blocked knocked me back several feet. And it was true; he was holding back. Way back. As long as I made him bleed, I didn’t care. I’d learned a thing or two in my training on the job. I’d been fighting off-worlders for years, criminals who didn’t fight fair and ITF trainers who did.
A punch to my side left me gasping for air and backpedaling. He pressed relentlessly. I went to grab his shoulder, but he grabbed both of my wrists as I knew he would, leaving the rest of his torso unprotected. I brought my knee up and slammed it into his groin, then spun out of his hold and slugged him as hard as I could in the jaw with both fists locked together. Before he could react, I grabbed his shoulders, dropped all my weight backward, and pulled him down. With my boots in his gut, I launched him over me.
He slammed upside down into the sphere, catching himself from landing on his head and flipping to his feet, but satisfactorily bent over due to the pain in his groin.
I could barely breathe, but I got to my feet, staying crouched over, holding my side, pretty sure one of my ribs was cracked. “Hope you weren’t planning on having babies anytime soon.”
“My ability to do that is just fine,” he ground out. “It’d better be.”
“You know, you didn’t need this dome. I don’t run from a fight.”
He smirked. “It’s not to keep you from running. It’s so you can use your power without Death coming for you.”
My jaw dropped. One, because he knew about Sachâth. And two, because all this time, I could’ve been using my power, power that I’d had pent up for what felt like years. The idea of being able to release it almost made me weep. I forgot about the pain and stood. “Don’t fight fair, do you?”
“People who do are stupid and don’t live very long.”
“Did I mention you’re an ass?”
“Did you? When a woman speaks, it just goes in one ear and out the other, especially when they’re dressed in leather.”
I made a face at him. I was going to love putting the hurt on this guy. Everything came flooding to the forefront; all the caged energy leapt and built, eager to find release. It burned hot and cold, fighting, wanting out. There was no way I could control it, not this time. This time I didn’t have to.
Leander was about to taste a little divine retribution.
My arms and limbs tingled all the way to my toes, fingertips, and my scalp. I clapped my hands together and threw out both arms. Bolts of blue and red shot out as Leander’s own power leapt forward to collide with mine.
It ate his up, wrapped around it, scurried down its length, and absorbed it all while speeding its way toward him and finally slamming into him.
He flew back into the dome as my power exploded, radiating around the perimeter and then shattering the dome in a shower of sparks and a boom so loud it shook the house. I fell to my knees.
Leander landed on his feet in a crouch. Now he looked serious. Now he looked deadly. Shit. I straightened.
The breeze once again blew in from the sea and we stood there staring at each other.
Leander’s scowl was dark and menacing. He spoke in a tongue I had never heard before at the same time moving his arms and hands in a graceful set of gestures, as though pulling some invisible force to him. The air warbled as he spoke. Even with the spell Lightwater had given me, I couldn’t understand the words. They were deep and so powerful it felt like all the air had left the house. He made a swirling motion with his arms and spun. Light shot out in all directions, and then came back in again, bringing with it sparks and colors, all condensing down to where we stood. Leander released another word and the dome went back up and my power blew through me as it erupted inside of the sphere and then dissipated.
I ended up on my ass, breathing heavily, eyes wide with shock.
Leander knelt in the center of the circle, one forearm draped over his bent knee and his head hanging low.
My brain scrambled to make sense of what had happened. I’d never seen anything like that before. Never even heard of anything like that before. “What the hell are you?”
His head lifted. His eyes glowed and then slowly faded.
He stood, brushed off his jacket, and then regarded me with a curt expression. “And that concludes this portion of the interview.”
I rolled my eyes and got up. Leander wasn’t too bad at trash talk and sarcasm, either. “Can I have my clothes and weapons back now?”
He snapped his fingers and everything was back where it had been.
“So what exactly was the light show about?” I had an idea but I wanted to hear it from him, mainly because it seemed so impossible.
“I have business to discuss with you. Your power escaped the confinement circle. Sachâth coming here would’ve delayed proceedings. I hate delays. You should make a note of that.”
“So you brought it back. My power. You pulled it back and manifested the circle to contain it. Are you a siren?” I’d seen beings manipulate powers that weren’t their own, but this . . . this was commanding my energy with voice and word. And if Leander could do that, then he could’ve kicked my ass anytime he chose. I was lucky to be breathing.
He lifted an eyebrow. “Done yet?”
“No, not yet.” I was too intrigued to stop now, and if the guy had wanted me dead, he’d have done it by now. “How do you even know about Sachâth? And how do you know about me? And Hank? Is he alive?”
“I know many things, Charlie Madigan. How I know them is not important. I will tell you this . . . your partner lives.” My knees went weak. “And dies.”
I blinked. “What?”
Leander walked closer to the column to stare out at the dark blue sky. Only a few slashes of muted orange remained. “Putting it mildly, the Circe can be . . . cruel.” He smiled ruefully, his voice dropping low. He turned to me and there was a brief look of empathy in his eyes. “Death might be the most merciful option for Niérian now.”
I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry and my heart pounding. Before I knew it, I was next to Leander, grabbing his arm and jerking him around to face me. “Where is he?” My voice broke.
Leander said nothing. His hand covered my own and instead of removing the death grip my finger had on his bicep, he closed his hands over mine. “Surviving the NecroNaMoria is . . . rare. I’m sorry.”
I flung his hand away and released him, stepping back. “Then you don’t know Hank. If I can get to him in time, he’ll heal from this . . . Necro thing. He’ll sleep for a long time and then he’ll be fine, he’ll . . .” Leander’s eyes turned sad, resigned, as though Hank was already gone, and it pissed me off, this sympathy. “Fuck you. I’m not giving up. That might be how you do things, but not me. And not Hank.” A tear slipped from my eye and I wiped it away angrily. “You’re going to tell me where he is or I swear to God I will unleash everything I have until nothing remains of this house or you.”
His look said yeah, right. “I don’t know where your partner is being held, but I know he is here and I know of the NecroNaMoria because that kind of crafting defiles a place, corrupts the energy of this world like a slow disease. No matter how hard they try to hide it . . . Once you’ve tasted soul crafting, you never forget the stench it leaves behind.”
“And the NecroNaMoria, what’s it do?”
“It’s a spell that tethers a soul to a body that has died. It forces the soul back from the very edges of paradise and into a world of pain. If the body is in a condition to heal and resurrect, it does. Then, the torture can start all over again.”
And that’s what Hank was going through. Right now. All this time. God.
Numbly, I walked to the step between the main floor and the terrace and sat down. For a long moment, I stared at nothing, feeling like I burned from the inside out. Burned because I was here and he was there, and I couldn’t do a damned thing about it. I wanted to scream.
“Since you seem to be familiar with this kind of crafting, you can help him,” I said at length, glancing over at Leander. “Whatever business you think you have with me, whatever it is you want from me, won’t happen unless you help me.”
“That I cannot do. Once the NecroNaMoria is begun, there is little one can do to stop it.”
“Then I guess we’re done here.” I got up to leave.
“I need you to retrieve an object from the Circe.”
I kept walking.
“Retrieve it and I give you something in return.”
I turned around at the front door, pissed that I was crying, angry that he couldn’t help me after everything he’d put me through, angry that I was standing there in Hank’s home not getting anywhere. “Don’t you get it? There is nothing else you could offer.”
“There is, Charlie. Otherwise I would not be here.” He paused as if best deciding how to proceed and then it seemed he decided for bluntness. “I have the antidote to ash.”
Time screeched to a sudden stop. I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, staring at him, my mind trying to catalog his words in the midst of my grief.
“Whether or not you can save your partner”—he shrugged—“I don’t know. But I do know you can save your sister and the others in your city. Does this not interest you?”
My mouth worked and I finally found my voice. “You have the antidote to ash.”
“I have something you need. The Circe have something I need. You plan to gain access to their domain to save Niérian. A little detour to retrieve the tablet and your sister’s drug problem is solved. This is what they call a win-win.”
And you’re what I call a smart-ass.
I wiped the wetness from my face with my arm and regarded him for a long moment. My thoughts cleared. “What’s the object?”
“It’s a rectangular stone tablet.” He held out his hand and cupped it slightly. “The size of a small book. Rounded corners. The front and back are also rounded like dough that has just started to rise. On the tablet are hundreds of small symbols pressed into both sides. It is the color of dried mud and looks worthless to the untrained eye.”
“But the symbols are not,” I surmised.
“No, they are not. They were priceless enough to start a war.”
“And what do you plan to do with the tablet?” Visions of Llyran and Grigori Tennin flashed before my eyes. “Because I can tell you, I’m up to here with psychos out to rule the world via ancient relics and weapons.”
Leander’s lips curled into a genuine smile, which turned into a laugh. It was a rich sound, warm and deep. He opened his hands in a sign of innocence, though his expression was cocky and anything but.
“The tablet holds information about the First Ones and their Disciples.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. I let out a loud sigh. Why did it always come back to them? “First Ones I know, but Disciples . . . never heard of them.”
“They are beings imbued with the power to serve and protect their lord, a First One, as myths call them—we call them Archons. When the Archons slept, the Disciples stood guard until one day they, too, slept.”
“And the tablet is necessary because?”
His look became impatient. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe because stacking the odds in our favor would be a good fucking idea. Because if we don’t and the Circe figure out what they’ve got, then we’re all going to the Afterlife. Is that reason enough for you, Madigan?”
I rubbed a hand down my face. Leander grabbed my arm. Power radiated from him. His fingers dug hard into my muscle. “We need that tablet or we’re fucked, and it’s only a matter of time until the shit storm arrives.”
I winced and tried to pull away but he held me firmly. “How do you know about me? About Sachâth?”
“I know all about Ahkneri and her sword. You think those anonymous politicians in Washington don’t answer to someone higher? You think your new job and everyone else like you are there for the hell of it? Think Tennin and the Sons of Dawn are bad? You ain’t seen the shit I deal with on a daily basis. You’re living in a bubble, Madigan. Think on that.”
“Who are you?”
“One who knows what’s coming. Do we have a deal or not?”
“We’ll exchange in Atlanta. My terms. If the antidote works, you get your rock.”
“I’ll wait in the city. Contact me when you’re ready.” He shoved a business card into my hand, released my arm, and stepped around me, bumping my shoulder.
After he left, I glanced down. No name on the card, just an address and a number. The address I committed to memory, not that it was difficult; I’d been there numerous times.
I’d returned to a palace illuminated. Fires burned in basins at the corners of balconies and courtyards. Light spilled from rooms open to the night air. The entire complex shone above the city like a beacon.
A beacon to getting lost, maybe.
The guards had recognized me, so getting in hadn’t been the problem. It was finding my damned room that proved to be a challenge. It eluded me at every turn, every hallway, atrium, and level. The entire palace was one giant labyrinth, and I was beginning to suspect the design served a purpose—an ingenious one, from a defensive standpoint.
I got lost, turned around, repeated steps, and might’ve kicked a statue or two in frustration. Finally, I leaned back against the wall before I did some real damage, and, thankfully, at that moment, Pelos hurried by, stopped, and came back. He regarded me with a knowing expression. “Lost, are you?”
He smiled. “Happens all the time. Come along. I’ll take you back to your room.”
“The builders were pretty smart,” I said as we walked down the dimly lit corridor, “to design a palace like this.”
“It started out small. Every king made his mark, adding to the palace, connecting levels in different ways. Most confusing to visitors and enemies alike. If you live here, you get to know all the passages and levels. We in the palace could escape while the enemy would get lost, like you did, and give our soldiers a chance to attack.”
The only real enemy would lie from within, I thought. Someone who knew the palace. But I kept that thought to myself as we passed a hallway I’d previously come down, and through a courtyard I recognized, up a level and then finally to the room. “There you are. In a day or two, finding your way back here will come easier.”
The light by the door was bright compared to the passageways, and as Pelos opened the door and stood aside, he gasped. “What happened to your face?”
I hadn’t forgotten about the fight with Leander, but I’d given little thought to my appearance. No wonder the guards had given me an odd look as I hurried inside the palace. “I ran into that statue of the griffin, the one we passed in the first courtyard. Or was it the second.” I touched a sore spot over my left eyebrow. “Hurts. That’s what I get for getting lost and turned around.”
He winced on my behalf. “We have excellent healers. If you’d like I could—”
“No. But thank you. I can take care of it.”
“As you will. There is food waiting in your room.”
I gave him a nod of thanks and entered a wonderful place filled with the smell of roasted fowl of some sort and breads, cheeses, and fish.
Bone tired, I shrugged off the cloak, filled a plate from the buffet, and then sat on the long couch to eat, wondering if Sandra had already gone to bed for the night. That notion was stifled when she walked in the front door.
“Oh, good, you’re back. I was doing a little recon and—”
I nearly choked. “Recon?”
She patted me hard on the back and then proceeded to the buffet. “Of course. The sooner we achieve whatever task fate has set out for us, the sooner I’ll be able to return to normal.”
I snorted at that. She glared over her shoulder, brought her plate to the opposite couch, and sat down, where she studied me for a long moment with those creepy earthy green eyes of hers. “Nice bruises. Fighting already, are we? We’re supposed to keep a low profile.”
“Believe me, no one saw the fight. And, for the record, I didn’t start it.”
“You never do, do you?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “Did you go to the towers? Did you feel your siren in residence?”
My chest went tight. The food in my stomach turned heavy and Leander’s information swirled in the forefront of my mind. “No. I didn’t feel anything.” I pushed my food around the plate with my fork.
“That’s too bad. Maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck. Everyone here is locked up tight, lips sealed, you know? I tried small talk with a few visiting dignitaries who have been here for two weeks—two weeks!—and they look at me like I am asking them to take a trip to the moon. No one wants to talk about the Circe. Like they’re the boogeyman or something . . .”
She shoved an olive in her mouth. “Hmm?”
“What is Sachâth exactly?”
Her chewing motion froze and we just stared at each other.
She wasn’t on her stage high on laurel smoke, and I wasn’t a paying customer. We’d gone beyond client and oracle to something different. Sitting here like this, more casual and intimate than we’d ever been . . . it smacked of the beginnings of, maybe not a friendship, but a relationship nonetheless.
She reached for her drink, took a few gulps, before setting her plate down beside her. “There are certain paths, certain decisions people must make for themselves. My job as oracle is not to change a person’s destiny, but give them foresight so they might fulfill the fate set out for them.”
“So what’s the point, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“If there’s no changing or altering this predetermined path we’re all supposedly on, then why bother living at all, why struggle, why get a job, and fight the good fight? If all of our decisions come around to one single end, no matter what we do . . .” I shook my head. “I don’t buy it.”
“You don’t have to. There are many paths, many decisions that alter one’s life. Fate does not have a life planned out to a tee. It’s the journey that makes life worth living, but there are roads we must cross, people we must interact with, things we must or must not do in order for the bigger picture to play out as it should. Take you, for instance . . .”
I set my plate on the cushion beside me.
“And your daughter, Emma. There would’ve been nothing you could’ve done to prevent her from being conceived or from being born. She needed to be here and so she is. The Revenant coming into her life was also destiny, since he will impact her life in a way that shapes her and her future.”
“And Sachâth? You called it Death. Will it kill me, then?” She opened her mouth and then thought better of answering.
“Why the hell can’t you tell me?”
“Because I don’t know!” She got up and started pacing, wringing her hands together. “You have no idea how stressful my calling is. No idea. To have to make these decisions, to decide what to tell and what not to tell, what small bit of information might change a life or even end it.”
“Well, be confident in the knowledge that whatever you say, Fate has decreed that you would and should say exactly what you end up saying!”
She stopped and leveled a glare my way. “There are lives that don’t play a part in Fate’s bigger picture, Charlie. Lives that play supporting roles, sacrificial roles, roles to move things along to the endgame, lives that don’t seem to matter at all,” she said quietly.
Annoyed and yet feeling sorry for the burdens she obviously bore, I got up and carried my plate to the buffet, stopping to get hers. “Done?”
She nodded, handed me her plate, and then walked out onto the balcony.
I disposed of our dishes and then went into the bath chamber—it was too enormous to be called a simple bathroom. Normal bathrooms didn’t have columns and a sunken pool filled with steaming water. I washed my hands in the sink and noticed the yellow bruising around my left eye and the nice purple mark on my chin.
I just stood there, staring into the mirror, wondering how in the hell I was going to find Hank, and what Sandra’s inability to see him really meant. And all this fate craziness was mind-numbing; I could only imagine what it must be like for Sandra, day in day out, vision after vision. . . . I huffed at my reflection. “Go make peace.”
* * *
It had grown cooler since my earlier foray outside. The sky was dark and littered with stars. Waves crashed against rocks in the distance, the ever-present sound mingling with echoes from the harbor, the market, and the music and voices from the palace.
Sandra reclined on a white chaise lounge, her knees drawn up, head back, and eyes closed. She didn’t move when I sat down on the end of the lounge. “So this whole fate thing . . . it pretty much sucks.”
Her surprised laugh made me smile. She sat up, tucked a black curl behind her ear, and then wrapped her arms around her knees. “Sucks doesn’t come close.” She went silent and thoughtful, before saying, “I’ve had visions of you that have since come to pass—flashes, moments of crisis, of pain, or happiness. My visions are never linear, never from one moment to the next, so I must interpret what they mean, put them into a context . . .
“I like to say I know all, like to push people’s buttons, but the truth is,” she admitted, “I live a life of confusion, addiction . . . I gamble every time I open my mouth and relay my visions. What should I tell and not tell? There was a time when the gift of prophecy was relayed verbatim, but sometimes oracles see things too clearly, things which should not be shared. And sometimes we must interpret what we see and hope our interpretations are pure.”
She gave me a sidelong glance. “I’d think I knew what choices you’d make and then you’d surprise me. It’s not often I’m surprised.”
I stared out at the sea, the stars from above reflecting off its dark surface. “But nothing surprises All-knowing Fate, is that it?”
“For the most part, probably not. Sometimes I wonder if Fate gets a kick out of changing things, out of screwing with me, gathering information like some kind of super computer and then changing outcomes or courses to suit some end no one can see, not even me.”
“So this not being able to see your own path . . . that has happened to you before?”
She rested her chin on her hands. The gesture made her look small and impossibly young. When she spoke, her voice was softer. “It didn’t end well. Someone always loses.”
So she kept herself apart from others, didn’t want to get involved. As unnerving as it was, Sandra was starting to make sense and I was beginning to see her in a more complex light. “Well I don’t plan on losing. Neither should you. The only ones losing this time are the Circe. I believe we make our own fate. No offense.”
She looked amused. “None taken.”
We stayed like that for a while, the sound of the water creating a sense of peace—false though it was. Even so, I breathed it in and savored it. When I went to stand, Sandra stopped me before I could rise, her expression suddenly determined, as though she’d made a weighty decision.
“Sachâth is drawn to your power because it is reminiscent of divine power. You have the genes of the three noble races inside of you now, Charlie. Just like the First Ones.”
I sat back down, careful not to show my surprise; I didn’t want to give her any reason to change her mind.
“When the Creator decided it was time to withdraw from the worlds, some of the First Ones refused to go; they’d become attached, you see, to the worlds and to their offspring. To the Creator, their job was done; they had seeded the worlds. They found themselves for the first time in opposition. The rebellious First Ones fled and Sachâth was designed specifically to hunt them down. It is drawn to their unique power—only theirs and none other.
“Some of the First Ones went into hiding, trying to stay one step ahead of this creature. Some interred themselves into tombs of agate to mask their power. Sachâth awakens when this power flares. It senses your power. But because you are not quite there yet, in terms of your evolution, it becomes confused; it doesn’t know what you are. It is only supposed to kill First Ones. There are no judgment calls, no maybes. And when it gets close enough to strike at you, it knows you are not quite what you should be and therefore withdraws.”
Disbelief slid past my lips in a cold rush. That thing, that shadowy creature that vibrated with power so deep and ancient, was a killing machine made by the Creator. I could only imagine the strength and power it must have in order to kill the First Ones.
“That morning on Helios Tower,” I said, remembering when Ahkneri’s tomb had been taken by the Sons of Dawn to the top of the tower, and Llyran pulling down the darkness to open the lid. The power surge that had escaped had been astonishing.
“Yes. For the first time in many thousands of years, Sachâth woke. But when it arrived at the source, the battle was over, the lid was back on, and the Druid King had hidden the sarcophagus in the lake. There was nothing to be found. But the creature is a hunter. It scoured the city, looking. And then you used your power in my club and it felt it. I suspect had her tomb not been opened, your power wouldn’t have been strong enough to call to it as it slept. But it was already in the city.”
I rubbed both hands down my face. “God.” I laughed through my fingers in defeat. “My timing really sucks.”
Every time Sachâth had approached me, I’d felt its confusion, felt its curiosity and hesitation. And that was a sobering thought. I’d been dodging a fucking divine assassin, and it was just a matter of time before it finally recognized me and went to work doing what it was created to do.
“Well, at least for now, I can still use my power if I need to. It’ll show up, but it won’t kill me.”
“Thanks for adding that,” I said with a wry smile.
“How many people would know about Sachâth? Even to most Elysians and Charbydons, the First Ones are merely legend.”
“A few. Sachâth is even more obscure than the First Ones. As is, not much exists in the prehistorical artifacts and writings, and what does exist is interpreted as mythology. But, as you know, there are those who search for the truth and those who inadvertently discover it. And there are those who still exist from the time of the First Ones.” She laughed at my stunned look. “If your Ahkneri still exists and this creature, then the idea is not so impossible, is it?”
“No, I guess not. It’s just . . .”
“A lot to digest. I know.” As I went to stand up, Sandra stopped me again. “I’d advise against tiptoeing through the palace at night. Going in and out, or taking a stroll before bed is one thing, but sneaking around in the middle of the night is another. We’re in a good position. The royal family trusts me. The Circe have no reason to suspect us. I know you want to find your partner, but to do that we must find their inner sanctum and it’s not in the palace.”
“I have to try. I came here to try. I can’t just do nothing.”
“That’s exactly what you’re going to do. Nothing.” Alessandra turned on the lounge and placed her feet on the ground. “We’ve been invited to a banquet tomorrow with the royal family. The Circe will be there. They will ask me to consult the Fates. I’ll say I’ll need a private sanctuary, a holy place, close to the gods, close to the things important to the Circe. We won’t have to search for their inner sanctum. They’re going to invite us in.” She let that simmer in the air for a moment. “As long as you don’t go snooping around and screw it up.”
* * *
I woke just before dawn, my right arm aching and hot. My room was open to the balcony and the thin linen curtains swayed in a languid dance. The air was cool and clean, the ever present salty breeze and the sound of the sea playing like a soft lullaby. It felt as though I’d woken from one dream only to find myself in another, in another world, heaven, Elysia, home of the gods . . .
But, as much as I wished it otherwise, this wasn’t a dream.
As my vision adjusted, the mural on the high ceiling began to take shape—brightly colored depictions of fish, dolphins, flowers, reeds, waves, griffins . . .
I’d dreamt of Ahkneri again, of some faraway land, of speeding over valleys, plains, and mountains, across the same vast desert and to the colossal temple rising up from the sand and the glittering river beyond.
I knew the dialogue that followed by heart, felt her cries and her heartbreak as if they were my own. As if it was me kneeling on that floor, knowing I was pleading in vain and yet trying anyway.
Our purpose is at an end . . . It was always meant to be like this.
As I lay there gazing vacantly up at the ceiling, I understood now—thanks to Alessandra—what the recurring dream meant, and with no small amount of astonishment, I realized I’d heard the Creator’s voice answering Ahkneri’s plea.
She’d wanted to remain on Earth; she wasn’t ready to leave, to fade from physical existence. Rebelling was her only option, and she’d felt betrayed by the Creator. She wasn’t a slave, wasn’t a thing. Yet she and those like her weren’t given a choice, weren’t allowed life after they had seeded it, after they had created it.
And they’d been hunted by Sachâth.
It was a sad irony for the First Ones like Ahkneri who had been forced to entomb themselves. Being alone, asleep, gone from the world they so desperately wanted to be a part of was the very thing they’d tried to avoid.
I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. My arm hurt so much; a deep ache that burned from my fingertips to my shoulder. Slowly, I worked the arm, opening and closing my fingers, rolling my shoulder, using my other hand to knead my bicep. As I did, I stared out into the predawn sky, watching it grow lighter.
I missed my kid.
I wasn’t sure what kind of time difference existed in Fiallan compared to Atlanta, but it didn’t stop me from picturing Emma asleep, skinny arms thrown wide, mouth parted . . . My chest tightened with the need to hold her, my daughter.
“Ugh. Get it together, Charlie.”
With a heavy sigh, I forced those thoughts away, knowing how easy it’d be to make myself homesick. I had a job to do, had to stay focused on finding Hank. I stood and headed for the bath chamber, deciding to slip into the bath, shake the depression, and, hopefully, ease the ache in my arm.
I showered first and then stepped into the hot saltwater pool, the steam parting for me as I went. The sirens’ penchant for open-air living was growing on me. There was about twelve feet of stone floor separating the bath from the outside. I could soak and watch the dawn transition into day.
I swam to the edge of the pool, rested my elbows on the ledge, let my head fall on my good arm, and closed my eyes with thoughts of the banquet, the Circe, and Hank.
* * *
Sometimes he dreamt.
After the lashes, after his death and resurrection, when he was left naked on the floor to heal for the next go-round, he slipped into unconsciousness. And he dreamt.
Mostly they were nightmares, repetition of his torture, of his tired soul being pulled back into his broken body. But some were relished, like those of death, blood, and vengeance against the Circe.
And some were more painful than all the others.
The good ones were the worst.
The good ones left him waking up to the reality where nothing good existed. He hated the good ones.
Yet, they would come, like they did now, and he would find himself in another time, another place where his mind and body were healthy, where his gaze was currently fixed on the hypnotic sight before him, of the woman who slept in a steaming bath overlooking the sea.
The water pressed and flowed over his skin as he moved toward her. Droplets fell from the ends of her hair and ran down the curve of her back, disappearing into the water that hugged her hips.
He wanted to touch her, to lay his rough palm on her smooth skin, to feel the contrast and make a connection, forge a link, to claim her—all of her. Body. Mind. Heart.
His heart pounded. He felt powerful. But she was more so because she could reduce him to this . . . need.
The water lapped at her back as he moved behind her. He could smell her skin, her hair, hear her soft breathing. A sudden tenderness went through him, making him pause as he went to touch her.
No, he was not tender. Not kind or good.
He was fucked up. Changed. And he didn’t care anymore. He didn’t care if she cared.
He reached out and slid his fingertips over her hip and then around the curve until he held her. He swallowed hard. Her skin was hot like the water. Silky. Damp. He stepped closer, moving his other hand up her back and then curling it over her shoulder.
Christ, it hurt, being so close, yet not close enough.
He bent over and kissed her shoulder. She stirred, releasing a soft female sigh that made his fingers dig into her hip. He held on as though his life depended on it. As if letting go would shatter him into a million pieces.
His lips brushed back and forth against her skin and then moved to the spot where her shoulder met her neck. He smiled against her warmth. He liked this spot. He wanted to tell her how he felt, what he wanted to do to her, how his body was about to break apart because of her.
So he did.
He wrapped his arms around her, his big hands splayed over her bare stomach, dipped his head, and spoke softly, just below her ear, the deep power of his words giving life to his thoughts, his wants, his driving need. He told her everything.
She straightened, finally waking like Aphrodite rising from the sea. Her back pressed into his chest. Her hands settled over the top of his, holding him to her as her head dropped back, exposing more of her neck as though she wanted more, wanted him.
The knock at the bathroom door heralding breakfast jerked me out of the dream so fast I almost sucked in a mouthful of water. My heart beat like a jackhammer, and my body practically hummed. I coughed several times and then swallowed hard, trying to reclaim some control over myself, but it was pretty damned difficult.
That dream . . . God.
Feeling dazed and shaky, I left the pool and dressed quickly to the sound of servants bringing in the morning meal, setting the small buffet, and Alessandra’s muted voice.
As I sat down on the end of the bed to pull on my boots, I was still reeling. Still shaking. Cheeks still flushed and warm.
Hottest dream on record. Period.
Hank’s deep, exotic voice echoed in my mind and whispered against my skin.
The mark on my shoulder, however, was still unresponsive, and that realization cooled me off considerably. Thankfully, the ache in my arm was nearly gone. And in a few hours, I’d meet the infamous Circe, start making headway into finding Hank, and proving those delegates wrong.
He was here. He had to be.
Shaking off the last shreds of the dream, I stepped into the main room. Sandra took one look at me and said, “We need to do something about your wardrobe.”
“Gee, thanks. Good morning to you, too.” I went to the table to pick up a slice of warm bread, feeling edgy and frustratingly unsatisfied. “There is nothing wrong with my clothes.”
“I didn’t say that. But you can’t exactly wear that outfit to the banquet. And this”—she gestured from my toes to my head with a wild flourish of her hand—“just doesn’t cut it.”
“Well, let’s see . . .” I lifted a foot. “Steel-toed boots.” I stuck out my hip. “Cargo pants for ease of movement.” I slapped a hand on my weapon strapped to my waist. “ITF-issued High Frequency Tag gun; otherwise known as a Hefty.” I spun around so she could get the full effect. “Outfit designed to maximize that ass-kicking edge . . . priceless.”
Alessandra huffed. “You’re such a smart-ass.”
“So are you. You’re just a better morning person than me. Which is annoying by the way.” I sat down on the couch.
“You might be my personal bodyguard, but within the confines of the palace, attending meals and meetings, to carry a weapon is to suggest the place unsafe. It would be an offense to our host to attend the banquet armed. And you can’t go dressed like my bodyguard.”
“All of which I do know.” I shoved the last bite of bread into my mouth.
“Good. Then let’s go shopping.”
* * *
The hall was lit with small lanterns set into niches in the walls. Alessandra walked ahead of me, the fine material of her midnight blue gown flowing out behind her and making shadowy waves on the walls. Wind and string instruments echoed down the passageway in an exotic melody.
And even though the sights and sounds were beautiful and mesmerizing, I was unarmed and feeling completely exposed and antsy.
Don’t attack the Circe on sight, I repeated, knowing myself and knowing as soon as I laid eyes on the old bitches I’d want to rip their collective throats out. Don’t kill the Circe. Don’t react at all.
“They are eerily insightful,” Sandra had counseled me as we got ready—her in some kind of traditional gown with yards of gauzy fabric and me in loose pants that fell like cool silk and matching tunic with long, flowing sides. “They pick up the smallest vibes. Think of them as a pack of drug-sniffing dogs, and we just lit up a joint back in our room.”
I’d just stared at her with a you-did-not-just-say-that look. She sniffed and returned to the mirror to fix her hair. “Oh, please. Like you never smoked a bowl back in the day.”
“Oh my God.” I couldn’t help it. I buried my face in my hands and started laughing. Sandra responded with a chuckle that caught fire until she was laughing as hard as me, holding her side and getting teary-eyed.
I was beginning to think Sandra and Rex would make the perfect couple. They both were walking contradictions and both came up with the most off-the-wall shit. Like most off-worlders, they were a unique blend of ancient being and pop-culture junkie. They stayed true to their identities, but they embraced human culture and all the fun things like fashion, entertainment, technology . . .
Alessandra’s choice of analogy might be lighthearted, but she was right. I had to play my part; had to be a simple observer on a pleasant trip with my benevolent—as Sandra had put it—boss.
The hallway emptied into a massive covered courtyard, the roof supported by giant round columns set in a rectangular pattern that followed the shape of the courtyard. A large fire burned in the center of the room and there was a wide circular opening in the roof above it.
Long tables ringed three sides of the room, the fourth was left bare and completely open to the outside. People milled about under the roof and in the open courtyard.
As we moved deeper into the area, a wave of silence suddenly flowed from one end of the room to the other. Everyone dropped to one knee. Except me. Because I was frozen. Not by the sight of the sirens sweeping into the room, but by the two creatures walking on either side of a handler.
Short-haired and as tall as Great Danes, bodies sleek and muscular and colored like lions. Wings folded back against their sides with feathers ticked with a succession of tan, brown, reddish brown, and finally red at the tips. They wore thick leather collars and had heads like an eagle only ten times bigger. And ears tipped with the same red as their feathers.
Sandra yanked me down with a glare. “They’re just griffins,” she whispered as though seen-one-seen-them-all. Uh, yeah. Not this human.
I went down on one knee, totally missing the announcement part of the royal entrance. I knew the worlds of Elysia and Charbydon were full of creatures we’d never seen before and some that we’d seen carved and painted all over ancient walls of our past. Lions, birds, dolphins, goats, snakes . . . these animals had been depicted all over the Mediterranean right alongside griffins, sphinxes, mermaids, and other mythical creatures.
I knew they existed in Elysia and had once existed in our world, but to see not one but two, in the flesh, being led to a spot behind the table where they sat like regal statues, was extraordinary. Em would love to see this.
Activity resumed. Music, laughter, conversation mingled with the clink of glasses and the snap of the fire. We were led toward the far side of the room where the royals had taken up position behind their table. Toward the majestic griffins.
Pelos found us, led us the rest of the way through the crowd, and made introductions to the royal family. While Sandra chatted with the royals, I scanned the assembly, searching for the three old hags until Sandra pulled me next to her. “My assistant is captivated by your griffins, my lord. They are truly magnificent. I have not seen one in quite some time.”
“Are they not extraordinary?” The siren king, Aersis, beamed, casting a glance behind him. “And so rare. These two are the last mating pair in this part of Elysia.” He eyed me. “Would you like an introduction?”
I blanched. “Thank you for the offer, but . . . I think I’ll admire them from here if that’s okay.” At a safe distance.
The king laughed. “A most wise decision.” I wasn’t sure if he was messing with me or if he was serious, but I definitely didn’t want to find out.
As Sandra spoke with the king and his queen, I returned to my search. No hags in attendance as far as I could see, though my gaze did snag on something. Someone. Shit. Not good.
I recognized one of the sirens who had traveled to Atlanta to apprehend Hank. The same one who had grabbed me in the parking lot when I was travel drunk. He stood with a group of male sirens and they all looked deadly and ready to meet any challenge or threat.
At the time of our altercation, I’d just gotten back from Charbydon. I was bloodied, bruised, covered in gray sand and grit. Now I was healed, washed, my hair was dyed, and Sandra had convinced me to pull it back and to dress in feminine attire. I didn’t look anything like the woman who had stumbled out of Charbydon. And more important, I had to act my part.
He, too, was scanning the crowd, and inevitably, his gaze came to me. I was human. He was siren. As such it’d be natural for me to acknowledge him because that’s what humans did, they admired sirens, and that was putting it lightly. He gave me a brief, unimpressed once-over and then moved on.
We followed the king and Pelos down the table. Sandra’s fingers dug sharply into my skin as we stopped. I went still and focused, getting her message loud and clear: Circe dead ahead. I began my chant from earlier.
Don’t kill the Circe. Don’t kill the Circe.
“May I present our beloved advisors,” the king said, moving aside. “Arethusa, Calliadne, and Ephyra.”
They weren’t what I’d expected. Not old or bent over or cackling like Halloween witches. No, the Circe were beautiful. Flawless. Regal. Nearly identical in size, height, and looks, except for eye color and small differences in the fullness of lips, the slant of the eyes . . . All three were decked out in deep burgundy gowns. Their hair, so pale a blonde it looked nearly white, was piled onto their heads and draped with jewels.
A creepy sense of unease replaced the initial shock. At first, I couldn’t figure out what it was and then as I studied them, I began to realize that their beauty was deceptive. Unnatural. Something I knew on a sensory level was wrong.
“Honored,” Arethusa said to Alessandra.
“Yes, honored.” Calliadne.
“To have you here.” Ephyra.
Oh God. A shiver went down my spine, and I had to concentrate on not shuddering at the sound of their voices. The singsong quality was so profound, so exquisitely beautiful it made me want to weep. They were so powerful the amulet Lightwater had given to me burned against my chest. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like without that protection.
Alessandra made a respectful bow. “As I am honored to be here.” She straightened and moved a bit to the side. “May I present my assistant . . .” Oh shit. We hadn’t actually discussed an alias. “Carly Madison.”
I coughed in reaction. Her head whipped around, eyes widening in warning and irritation. I recovered, offering apologies, and bowed my head, acknowledging the Circe with all the feigned respect I could muster.
Carly Madison? Really? I half expected someone to slap handcuffs on me or shoot me with a lightning bolt right then and there.
The weight of the Circe’s regard felt like a boulder on my submissive shoulders. But it was only a second before their attention returned to the oracle.
Arethusa, of the sharp green eyes, swept Alessandra with a measuring gaze. “Your reputation precedes you, prophetess.”
“We hear your gift is astonishingly accurate,” Calliadne added, her blue eyes narrowing as if trying to ascertain that fact for herself.
“Matching that of the first oracle of Delphi,” the last Circe completed the triple play. Ephyra’s eyes were a strange yellow-brown and they relayed a humor the others hadn’t—all malevolence and bad intentions like a hungry cat deciding how best to enjoy its meal.
“Surpassing it, actually,” Alessandra answered.
“And, thus, you were blessed with immortality.”
“Whereas your mother was not.”
They spoke in the same order as before, so I pegged Arethusa as either the eldest, the strongest, or the smartest of the group. Possibly all three.
The music stopped once more and a deep bell preceded servers spilling into the room with food. The banquet had begun.
“Enjoy your meal.”
“We shall talk more after.”
Alessandra and I were shown our seats, which were thankfully on the other side of the royal family, away from the Circe. Food was laid out in front of us—platters of fruits, vegetables, roasted meats, fresh breads . . .
And none of it was appealing. My stomach was in knots. It had taken everything I had to stand there, right there, in the Circe’s presence and not do a thing. But it was done. Sandra had gotten us this far, and soon we’d be invited into their inner sanctum. Soon, Hank. Soon.
Once the food and drinks were deposited, female performers swept into the center of the room and made a circle around the fire pit. They were dressed in sheer gowns, their light hair long and loose. They wore shell necklaces and anklets.
“Ah, fabulous!” Sandra exclaimed, leaning closer to the shoulder of the king. “It has been quite some time since I’ve enjoyed this type of entertainment, and in such magnificent company.”
Go, Sandra. Schmoozing with royalty was apparently no problem for the oracle, but then she’d been around for two thousand years, give or take, gaining influence, respect, reputation. If nothing else, she’d definitely earned the outrageous confidence and ego.
Her words pleased the siren king. “Then this shall be a memorable occasion for you.” The music began. “The Song of Panopé commemorates the primal goddess of the sea gifting us, her creation, with the Source Words. It is a dance you won’t see anywhere but here in Fiallan.”
While sirens could manipulate energy, heal themselves, and have extraordinarily long lives just like most races of Elysia and Charbydon, their true and unique gift lay in their voice, and in speaking words of power. But I’d never heard of Source Words before. The only time I’d ever witnessed a siren using a word of power was when Hank had used one on the roof of Helios Tower. It had flattened everything and everyone, but it had cost him a week’s worth of recuperating time.
The dancers twirled around the fire, their movements fast and frenzied, in sync with the loud drumbeats. “It begins with Panopé waging war against the fire deity to claim the land around the sea. It was hers by right since it rose from the sea itself during the time of Chaos,” the king translated in between mouthfuls of meat.
The drums stopped. The dancers faced the fire, bent over, hands out to the flames, flames that gradually turned to water. The music turned soft and ethereal. They straightened, moving around the water as it rose and gathered shape into a vague semblance of a female. I had to admit it was breathtaking to watch.
“From the essence of the sea and the deity, we were then created to hold the land. She gifted us life, gave us her song, and won us this land. We are the true heirs of Elysia.”
“I’m sure the Adonai would disagree with that,” Alessandra said, neutrally.
The king spat. “This world existed long before the Creator chose it as the home for his . . . experiments. The sirens, nymphs, fae . . . we are all born of this world, all rose from it as children of the primal deities who resided here in the sea, the earth, the air. We, as their descendants, are the rightful heirs of this land. Just as the jinn are to Charbydon and the Neanderthals were to Earth.” He waved a hand, and it was pretty clear this particular tirade was a favorite. “Noble races. Ha! There is nothing noble about settling a land that is not your own with some master race designed to rule it.”
He proceeded to curse the Adonai.
All this was prehistory, of course. And some would argue that the Adonai had as much claim as anyone else. When they came to Elysia, the place was devoid of any civilizations. The beings that did inhabit the world were on par with cave-dwelling mankind, or so the story went. The Adonai had lived in Elysia so long that there weren’t many who’d consider them “settlers,” exactly.
“Here is where the deity gifted us with the Source Words,” the king said as the magically dancing water began to sparkle, small dots of light took shape, and they linked together to coil around the watery form in what appeared to be a long strand of starry pearls. Only the pearls I knew didn’t possess a burning inner light. “The words were given to us, inscribed on the jewels of the sea.” I realized that the glow wasn’t coming from inside the pearly “jewels” but from small inscriptions on each one. “Had not the words been lost, we might have defeated the Adonai and ruled supreme.”
I waited for Sandra to inquire what had happened to the words, but she simply nodded; she already knew. I, however, was in the dark, so I couldn’t help leaning over my plate to ask, “What happened to the words?”
The king drained his wine and then set it down hard on the table, leaning past Sandra to pierce me with a cold blue stare. “Stolen.”
“Not all of them,” Sandra amended, glancing to me. “But the most powerful ones disappeared shortly after they were given. Many believed Panopé took them back, the words being too powerful to be in such young hands. Others believed the Adonai stole them.”
It was obvious from the king’s dark look which one he believed.
“Is that what started the war?” I asked.
“Not specifically, no,” Sandra answered as the king’s attention was drawn away by his wife. “The war came thousands of years later when the sirens stole a relic from the Adonai. Many believed the theft was in retaliation for the theft of their Source Words.”
“Long time to hold a grudge,” I said as Sandra bit into a grape. “If they knew the Source Words, though, why couldn’t they use them to defeat the Adonai? Wouldn’t the words be passed down orally anyway?”
“To understand, you must know siren history. When the sirens were given their power and the Source Words, each family was given a specific word. The study of each word shaped the abilities and the contribution each siren family made to the community. As time passed, the words became embedded into the very essence of their lineage and power. Think of it in terms of the Greek gods. You have gods of love, war, hate, beauty, nature, air, thunder, wisdom . . . This idea came from the sirens, from their control of an attribute and the ability to wield it in all its varied forms.
“There are some who believe that each siren family was already preprogrammed to bond with the word given to them. It was built into their DNA, if you will. But with some of the words gone, certain families did not develop as others did. They did, however, triumph, becoming great warriors instead. They trained fanatically in physical combat and they employed mages to train them in the arcane. When war with the Adonai finally did come, they were ready, and they became instrumental.”
It wasn’t a leap to figure it out. “The Malakim came from those families.” And Hank was one of them.
“What were the words that were stolen?”
“Creation, Chaos, and Destruction.”
Goose bumps spread up my arms. I could see why the deity might have taken them back. And, if they were stolen by the Adonai, their motive was pretty clear. Taking away the sirens’ most powerful weapons despite the fact that the Adonai couldn’t wield them was a damned good strategy.
I was betting on the Adonai. “So what do you think happened?”
She shrugged, her attention on the food and the dancers. “It’s not something I have foreseen.”
The dance ended. Applause filled the room. But it all seemed to fade into the background as my thoughts turned inward. Maybe it was a good thing the sirens lost their words. Things might be very different today had they not.
I’d actually been in the house of a Malakim family, one who had, despite the theft of their words, risen to become significant players in the history of their world. And the Circe had chosen them, or their children to be specific, to protect the city. Why them? Hadn’t they done enough? But I already knew even as the questions came. The Circe had chosen them because of what lay dormant inside of them.
The Malakim might’ve been lacking their own words, but inside they had to be extremely powerful, powerful enough to wield the stolen Source Words. If a choice had to be made, if all the warriors were off fighting against the Adonai and the city was threatened, who better to choose than the powerful sons of those warriors?
But why continue the practice? That was a question only the Circe could answer. Their creation of the towers secured them a spot as advisors to the royal family. But they’d continued to breed fear into the hearts of the siren people—always keeping the threat of another Adonai war in the forefront of their minds. And no one questioned this after all this time. The royal family had become nothing but figureheads with no real power at all.
Sandra had been preening for the last half hour, ever since we’d returned from the banquet wherein I did not, in fact, kill the Circe. My restraint, however, put me in a piss poor mood; I was more frustrated and impatient than ever.
“If you say I told you so one more time, I swear to God, Sandra, I will choke the words right out of you.” I propped my feet on the edge of the table in front of the couch.
“Touchy, aren’t we?” She dropped onto the cushion across from me. “But I did say so, didn’t I? They played right into my hands. It was perfect, and now we have our invitation into the Circe’s inner sanctum to take part in their Panopéic rites, an honor rarely granted, after which I will do my thing and read the leaves.” She stopped her self-adulation and pierced me with a flat look. “You should be happy. Why aren’t you happy?”
“Well, it’s kind of hard to feel happy given the situation Hank is in. But I am glad we’re making progress.”
“I made progress,” she corrected. “You just gawked at the griffins.” After a long moment of silent regard, she asked, “You really care so much for this siren of yours, then?”
“Of course I do.” My response was immediate. “You should know.”
“I know you care enough for him to risk your life, but that’s not what I’m asking. The last time I read you there was quite a bit of baggage mixed with your feelings for Hank. A lot of desire, too. And struggle. And hurt. Do you love him? Romantically?”
That was a subject I wasn’t ready to think on, but her question stuck anyway. Did I love him? Yes, without question. Romantically? We hadn’t got that far. The newer, more potent feelings I was developing for Hank were tangled up in the feelings I already had for him, for our friendship, the loyalty we had to each other, the trust . . . But all that didn’t equate to romantic love and it certainly didn’t mean those feelings would develop into love, either. For me or for him. But knowing all that, there was an indefinable aura about this thing between us, like it was something bigger, more significant than simple lust and friendship.
“The question. Do you love him?”
“No.” Not yet. “There is something, though . . . I don’t know . . . But I want the chance to find out, whatever it is.” And to explain it all to Sandra would take forever and make me feel like a wishy-washy idiot, so I left it at that.
She considered my response. “You are so certain he lives.”
“I know he does.” I hadn’t told her about my run-in with Leander and now was as good a time as any to see what she thought about that. “What do you know about the NecroNaMoria?”
Her eyes grew wide and she straightened her posture. “How do you know of this?”
“Well, I don’t know much, but I know it’s happening to Hank . . . that the Circe are torturing him with it.”
She just stared at me for a long moment before sinking back into the cushions. “Torture is too mild a term. I think I need a drink.” She went to the side table to pour a glass of wine, then leaned against the table and gulped down three long swallows. “Gods, Charlie . . . I know of it. But first tell me why you think this is happening to your siren.”
I watched her carefully. “Leander told me.”
Her face went white. The glass slipped from her fingers and crashed onto the floor. And still she didn’t move. Her stunned expression finally shifted into one of intense thought. “When? When did you see him? Is he here in the city?”
“He was. I don’t think he stuck around. Why?”
“Because if he was”—her eyes turned cold—“I would kill him.” I went to speak, to question her, but she cut me off. “It’s none of your business, Charlie. Don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re friends, that we share. I don’t share my past with anyone.”
With that she stepped over the spilled wine and stormed out the door and into the hallway.
“Well, that didn’t exactly go as planned, did it?” I said to the empty room.
And, damn it, I never got my answer to the NecroNaMoria.
* * *
I was standing on the balcony, leaning against the stone wall that separated me from the cliffs below, when I heard Sandra return. The short clip of her heels on the stone told me she was still pissed, or at the very least intent.
The sound came through the main room and right up behind me, where it stopped. I supposed she wanted me to turn around, but I continued to watch the stars in the night sky and listen to the sea. “You know, all that negativity you’re throwing around is kind of ruining a perfectly good moment here.” I glanced over my shoulder.
Her eyes rolled. “Pot, meet kettle.” She took up a spot next to me and watched the stars for a long beat. “I’m not exactly good with people.”
I smiled. “And now you’re preaching to the choir.”
“Yes, that is true. Your people skills are exceptionally bad. Far worse than mine.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly.
We watched the sky for a while before she spoke again. “About what I said before . . . the friend thing . . . You see, it’s . . . well . . .”
“Don’t sweat it, Sandra,” I said with the bizarre realization that she and I were actually similar in a lot of ways—except when she was like Rex. “If you can’t let off a little steam with friends, then when can you, right?”
A soft sigh went out of her that sounded suspiciously like relief, but she joked, “Since when are we friends? I don’t even like you.”
“Yeah, well, right back atcha.”
“Good. I’m glad that’s settled,” she said with humor in her voice. We settled into a companionable silence. And it was nice. Until she said, “So you want to know about the NecroNaMoria.”
I turned away from the view, let my hip rest against the stone, and crossed my arms over my chest. As much as I knew I wouldn’t like what she said, I had to know. I drew in a readying breath. “Yeah, I need to know what he’s going through.”
“The NecroNaMoria is the blackest, vilest kind of crafting. Only a few exist who have the knowledge and power to defy the very nature of the soul. It’s a spell that tethers a soul to its body even if that body dies. With a siren, able to heal from his wounds, the spell becomes a cycle that is beyond comprehension.”
“In what way?” I prompted.
“The body dies and the soul is released. Peace in the Afterlife is at hand. But the tether prevents it from entering that resting place. The soul is pulled back into the body. Imagine that kind of freedom and then being forced back into a dark, damaged, foul container, a prison where every ache and pain is felt a trillion times more intensely, as if for the very first time. The worst thing about the NecroNaMoria is that this can be done indefinitely, over and over again, until the spell is released.”
“And once it’s released. What happens to the victim?”
“It depends on when the spell is ended. If it’s while the soul is out of the body, the person is finally granted death and the soul continues on to the Afterlife. If it happens when the soul is within the body, the person heals eventually, but . . .”
“The toll on the psyche is often irreparable. It is difficult to come back from that, Charlie. Maybe if it’s done once or twice, but to experience this over and over again . . . I’m sorry,” Sandra said softly.
A wall went up inside of me. “It’s not the end, Sandra. There is always a way to fix things, always a loophole . . .” Which sounded lame even to my ears, but on I forged. “If there are people who know things like the NecroNaMoria then there are those who know how to heal from it. I’m not sure how much, but Leander knows something about it. Lightwater might know about it, too.”
“Well, I can tell you Leander wouldn’t help you even if he could.” Her green eyes narrowed on me. “He doesn’t offer information for free. He wouldn’t just show up and tell you this about Hank; that wouldn’t even approach his level of interest.” Her arms crossed over her chest, and she lifted her brow. “So out with it. What’s his angle? What did he ask in return for this information?”
My first reaction was not to say anything, but it wasn’t like I had anything to lose by confiding in her. Despite what she’d like me to believe, Sandra was good, that much I could tell from the short time we’d already spent together. She cared about right and wrong. And she was a fount of information. If I shared with her, she’d be more comfortable sharing things with me. “He wants me to retrieve a stone tablet from the Circe, one he said was priceless enough to start a war. I think he wants the same thing the sirens stole from the Adonai all those years ago. Makes sense based on what you told me about the theft and the war that followed.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “For all his power, he is unerringly predictable. Tell him I said that if you see him again. The tablet was stolen by the siren in retaliation for the suspected theft of the Source Words. Neither side will claim responsibility in either theft. Neither side knows how to use what they stole, but each has been trying to regain what they lost for ages.”
“The Source Words went missing way before the tablet was stolen, though, right? Why would the sirens wait that long to retaliate?”
“They simply weren’t powerful enough. There were a couple thousand years between the two thefts. The early sirens always suspected the Adonai of coming in and stealing their most powerful words while the sirens were still in their civilization’s infancy. This sentiment grew and grew, passing from one generation to the next. When the opportunity arose to steal the tablet, the sirens couldn’t resist. And, thus, the war began. Did Leander tell you what the tablet does?”
“It tells about the Disciples. Apparently they were guardians of the First Ones; Archons, as he called them.”
“I always wondered what made the tablet so valuable.” Her shoulders slumped. A vulnerable, weary look overtook her features. “Some things are coming to pass, then.”
“He has the cure for ash,” I explained, trying to assuage my own guilty conscience—because what if I turned the tablet over to someone who’d cause more damage than ash ever could? But my sister Amanda, the others . . . ash was slowly killing them; the drug was designed to make their will step aside, to make them weak, shadows of themselves so Grigori Tennin’s cult had vessels to control. Withdrawal meant death—once ash was in your system, you took it forever or you died. If Leander really did have the cure . . .
“As you say, ‘don’t sweat it,’ Charlie. The tablet in Leander’s care is the safest place for it. He is, as much as I despise saying it with every breath in my body, on the right side for once.”
“The right side being?” Adonai? Siren? Human?
“The side of life.”
The ominous reply was spoken with such sadness that it sent a flare of unease through me. “Do you know what’s coming, why Leander is preparing?”
She glanced at me and gave a halfhearted attempt at a smile. “I have seen only the random scenes the Fates wish for me to see. It is difficult to put them into context at this time.”
As frustrating as that answer was, I didn’t press her because right then, the oracle looked like she had the weight of the worlds on her small shoulders.
I pushed away from the balcony’s wall and headed for the main room. “Come on. I need a drink. All this talk about doom and gloom makes me want a stiff one.”
Her heels clicked behind me. “So when you say ‘stiff one’ . . . does that refer to a drink or a di—” I spun around, mouth dropping open.
Sandra came up short. “What?”
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
“Well, technically, I didn’t get to finish. I didn’t peg you for a prude, Charlie Madigan. And I believe, and I’m not mistaken, that the gutter has come out of your mouth more times than anyone can count.”
“Yes, but that’s me,” I said with a laugh as we continued inside. “Hearing the infamous oracle about to say the word dick is . . . nothing short of spectacular in my book.” And like Rex, I was starting to expect the unexpected when it came to Alessandra.
As she went to sit down, I made for the sideboard to fill two glasses of wine. What I wouldn’t give for a cold beer right now . . .
“Still, you haven’t answered the question,” she said over the back of the couch. “So which is it?”
“Well,” I answered, pouring the second glass. “Depends on the guy.”
A wistful sigh blew from her lips. “I have several propositions to consider for tonight, so at least one of us will be getting lucky.”
I lifted an eyebrow and gathered the glasses. “Oh, really?”
“Mmm. A few rather exceptional sirens from the banquet.” She took a glass from me as I passed her to sit down. “The sirens”—her eyes went starry—“as I’m sure you can imagine, are incredible lovers. They turn the whole talking during sex thing into a religious experience. It’s . . .”—she saluted me with her glass—“out of this world.”
I’d just bet it was. I gave her a salute of my own, the Madigan salute, though I delivered it with a smile before downing a large gulp of wine. Sandra’s laughter left me feeling a bit disgruntled that she was going to get lucky and I wasn’t. And it wasn’t really the sex part; it was just being with someone, connecting, being wrapped up in strong arms and feeling safe enough to cast aside the constant guard and just relax.
Oddly enough, I did get a visit from a siren that night.
* * *
I slept hard and was deep into the usual Ahkneri dream when a burning in my lungs woke me.
Hand over my face. Large hand, cutting off my airway.
Immediately, adrenaline and panic poured into me. My pulse lurched and then began a loud, rapid pounding against my ribs and through my eardrums. I struggled, my legs tangling in the sheets.
A large shadow loomed over me, and as my vision adjusted to the dark, my senses also kicked in. Siren. And if he didn’t release me soon I was going to pass out.
He leaned down. “Whore. Think you can hide.” He removed his hand, grabbed me by the throat as I gasped for air, jerked me out of the bed, and then slammed me against the wall. My skull cracked against the stone.
Moonlight and darkness bled together as the room spun in a kaleidoscope of shapes and shades. A moment of stark fear swept through me, bitter and frigid and more painful than what the siren had just done to me. This could not be how it ended! We were so close. The Circe’s ritual was in a few hours . . .
“Come here to save your traitor . . .” His fingers dug into my neck. His nose brushed mine as he leaned in. “You’re too late. He’s dead. And soon you will join him . . . Detective Madigan.”
“Dang,” I wheezed. “You found me out.” Apparently, he didn’t appreciate my sarcasm; he head-butted me in the face. Pain exploded in the front and the back of my head as it hit the wall from the force. He’d gotten me on the bridge of my nose. Hot pain pulsed out across my cheekbones. Fucking hell.
The siren released me, ripping the amulet from my neck as I slid down the wall, gasping for air and blinking back tears.
The instant he spoke, my will took a backseat to his command. A cold sweat broke out on my skin as I fought against it. My body moved, getting to its knees in supplication. No.
“You whored for a traitor. You can whore for me before you die.”
I realized being under the lure of a siren didn’t mean I lost my ability to think or reason because I was keenly aware of what I was doing. I just couldn’t control my actions. From the sound of his voice, this wasn’t about pleasure; this was all about punishing and demeaning me. My hands shook as I lifted them and reached for the button on his pants. Don’t do this, Charlie. Don’t do this. My stomach turned when my fingers touched the flesh of his belly. I undid the first button. Goddamn it, stop! But I didn’t stop. The first button popped open and I moved to the second.
I had to use my power. It was the only thing left to me. Risking a physical fight to subdue this guy would be messy and loud—not that it mattered, since he had me enthralled, but even if I could fight him I knew it’d be a mistake. I couldn’t risk bringing the guards. My power, however, was another story. Sachâth or not, I didn’t see much of a choice, and I desperately wanted to stop doing what I was doing and kick this guy’s ass into next week.
Having Death pay me a little visit would be worth it.
I was pretty sure the siren standing over me was the one who had made eye contact at the banquet, and the fact that he was here alone suggested that he hadn’t told anyone else of his discovery. Yet. Guess he wanted that glory all to himself. His mistake.
His buttons were undone. My hand dipped inside and curled around him. He was hard and warm, despite his aversion to me. The compulsion was there, urging my body to take him into my mouth.
I shook, trying with everything I had to stop. My heartbeat was frantic. I was sweating with the effort to stop, and every nerve was lit with energy.
No. This was not going to happen.
Okay, Sachâth, rise and shine . . .
I withdrew inside of myself, concentrating on how my nerves felt, how the energy seemed to lick and snap like the flames of a raging fire. I imagined the floodgates opening and letting the powers I possessed pour into my center, the powers of both the Charbydon nobles and the Elysian Adonai. Unlike before when these powers warred with each other, they now mingled and combined, fuel to my fire—my evolution at work, and something that drove me that much closer to being divine.
As the power built and filled me, it pushed the will of the siren from my body like it was nothing. I was back in control. And the siren was about to be in a world of hurt.
I squeezed hard, twisted, and stood up, spinning both of us around and shoving him into the wall as he had done to me. One hand choking him, the other squeezing the life out of his penis. My amulet dropped from his hand, clattering to the floor.
The energy inside of me hummed so loud and consuming and angry I was lost in it, swept away. The symbols on my right arm began to glow. Vaguely I felt the siren struggling, heard him trying to speak, but he was immobile, unable to release any of his power against me. I was holding him and his power back.
The siren’s blue gaze locked with mine and spoke of hatred and death. He said something, his lips moving, but I didn’t hear a thing. The glowing symbols on my arm intensified and the same burn I’d felt holding Ahkneri’s divine sword blazed down my arm, though this time it didn’t hurt. But I wanted him to hurt. I wanted him to burn for what he’d tried to do to me. That was all that mattered.
Something changed in his expression. Fear replaced the hatred in his eyes. He struggled and kicked and pulled at my hand around his throat. I squeezed harder, with both hands, wanting to finish this. To make him go away. Make him go away. A surge of energy went through my right arm, down my hand, and into his now-soft penis.
His eyes rolled into the back of his head.
And he burned up, from his dick, to his groin, to his torso; he simply burned up like paper being eaten away by blue fire.
I stumbled back, wide-eyed and panting. The symbols on my arm and hand slowly dimmed and a familiar hot ache took over.
There was nothing left but ashes on the floor. Nothing left. I didn’t know how long I stood there gaping at what should’ve been impossible, and trying to come to terms with what I’d done, what had come out of me.
Just like Llyran. Just like the sword that had cut him in two and burned him as it went. My eyes were dry and hot, stinging with unshed tears. What the fuck was—?
I was picked up and thrown across the room, landing out on the balcony on my back, the breath knocked out of me. Stars twinkled in the dark sky and the half-moon was large and bright. The smell and sound of the sea . . . it was . . . peaceful. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it as tears slipped from the corners of my eyes.
In my shock, I’d forgotten Sachâth would come.
A dark cloud blocked out the night sky, swirling above me, condensing into a vague shape—head, shoulders, arms that became wispy and translucent as the thing moved. But in the very heart of it was the same horrifying black void I remembered. The shape moved closer.
I was empty and spent; all the power surrounding us was Sachâth, not me, and it was heavier and denser than anything I’d felt before. It made me sick to my stomach. Tendrils of the gray, swirling matter floated toward me, over me, around me, snaking around my body as though hugging me, lifting me up, and pulling me into the black void.
And then the voice. Ancient and deep, imbued with such power that my teeth clattered together with every syllable. The words I didn’t understand, despite Lightwater’s syndialexi spell, but the frustrated restraint in them was unmistakable.
Then, it released me. I was weightless for three seconds before my back hit the stone floor of the balcony again. Stars dotted my vision and I faded into darkness.
I regained consciousness sometime before dawn. The cool air had worked its way into my bones, and my muscles were tight and trembling, trying to create some heat within my body. My skull and shoulder blades ached, and my arm burned. Overhead, the stars were giving way to a purple sky.
Christ, I hurt.
Carefully, I rolled onto one side and pulled my knees to my chest, giving myself time to adjust, time to think and come to terms with what I’d done.
I didn’t enjoy ending someone’s existence, didn’t enjoy the kill, and didn’t seek it out unless it was absolutely necessary. At heart, my goal was to protect. If that meant engaging a foe, defending others, or stopping a murderous creature, then I would. I loved a good fight, sure. I loved feeling like I made a difference, and knowing that I helped people who couldn’t make a stand. But there was no thrill in what I’d done.
I’d defended myself. In moments like those when shit is coming at you faster than you can process, you do what you have to do to survive. I acted on instinct, which wasn’t anything new—my response had been the normal Charlie MO. It was the way I’d killed him that I had a hard time with.
Eventually, I got up and shuffled stiffly into the bedroom where I cleaned up the ashes of the siren and then dumped them over the balcony into the sideways breeze.
I needed to get out of the palace and away from the reminders of last night, so I dressed slowly and then attempted the maze of hallways beyond my room until I found myself outside. The guards gave me a nod of recognition, which I returned before proceeding down the steps toward the sea, not stopping until I came to the market.
I bought a small loaf of warm spiced bread and took it past the dock to the beach, where I walked for a while, taking in the fresh air, the views, and the sunlight. I climbed the path to the cliffs beneath one of the towers and found a good spot to eat.
I needed this . . . peace, this solitary time, and the mindless distraction of the sea as it splashed against the tall, jagged rocks below me. I watched the birds dive from the cliffs and into the sea for breakfast. I watched the sky change colors. And eventually all those things helped clean away the darkness inside me.
My gaze turned to the tower across the bay. The obelisk’s pointed top caught the first rays of the sun and sparked bright enough to make me shield my eyes. And then I saw it; the rings of power that made the wall of Fiallan impenetrable. Just a glimpse, like a shimmering mirage and then . . . gone.
I drew my knees in, wrapping my good arm around them, and rested my chin on top. No matter what had happened last night, my goal hadn’t changed. The siren had come in secret, of that I was sure. But his disappearance would be noted at some point. They’d start searching, they’d be alert, and eventually they’d make their way to us. The outsiders. But we’d be inside the inner sanctum long before that happened. I hoped.
I stayed a few more minutes, and then headed back toward the palace to attend the Panopéic rites.
* * *
“I really don’t see why I have to be bare-ass naked in front of everyone!” I whispered vehemently. “You’re the one who was invited.”
Sandra had neglected to mention that being invited to the Circe’s Panopéic rites also involved a cleansing—a nude, arctic, freeze your fucking ass off cleansing. I didn’t appreciate the non-warning, nor did I appreciate the fact she hadn’t stopped flaunting her amazing night of lovemaking ever since I’d returned from my morning walk. In reality, if I thought parading naked through Fiallan whistling “Dixie” would get me closer to Hank, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I didn’t have to like it or the company.
Sandra and I were the last of the all-female procession to shed our clothes and step into the sacred spring. I was allowed to keep my amulet, but I worried about the mark on my shoulder blade and the symbols on my arm being visible. But more so about the mark, as it was identical to the one on Hank’s chest. We had squabbled at length with the priestesses, trying to forgo this part of the ritual, to the point they threatened to bring the Circe to back them up. We’d considered Sandra going in alone and then reporting back, but then we learned once the procession was over, no one was ever permitted inside of the sanctum. Sandra felt sure she would not be invited back again, and I might miss my chance to get inside.
In the end, we decided this was our moment. We had to take it whatever the risk.
“You can’t come unless you’re purified in the spring,” Sandra sang over her shoulder.
I shot daggers at her back as a gazillion icy goose bumps swept up my legs and arms. A siren attendant filled a bowl with water and lifted it to my shoulders. I braced myself as cold liquid hit my skin. “Sweet Baby Jesus!”
The only good thing about that moment was watching Sandra get the same treatment, though it was hard to really enjoy her shock since I was in the process of becoming a human Popsicle.
The group in front of us received their gowns and began walking down the shallow stream that led out of the pool.
The grotto and spring tucked into a high rock was, according to Alessandra, supposedly the sacred spring where the deity Panopé had appeared to the Circe and given them the vision of how to save the city from the Adonai. Panopé was also called the Witch of the Sea, which I thought appropriate given her association with the three hags I planned on killing.
Males were prohibited from taking part in the Panopéic rites. Good thing. As it was, my poor brain felt permanently damaged at having to see Alessandra in all her bare-naked glory. Like most Elysians, she wasn’t shy when it came to baring all; they often gathered in the baths naked as the day they were born, eating, conversing, as though nothing was out of the ordinary—though for them nothing was.
It made me wonder about her origins. Some race of Elysian, possibly? The fact that nudity didn’t faze her was a clue I cataloged with all the others.
Sandra took the gown offered to her. “Besides, Charlie, it wouldn’t kill you to let your feminine side out once in a while.”
“Uh . . . I believe my feminine side is out right now for all the world to see,” I grumbled. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean anyway?”
She laughed. “You’re just grumpy because I had fun last night and you didn’t.”
My glare was cut short by water over my head. I stopped myself halfway into spinning around and decking the attendant. Fuck, that was cold! I swiped a hand down my face. “I hate you,” I told the oracle with as much menace as I could manage.
She tossed a cocky look over her bare shoulder. “It was good, too.”
I rolled my eyes and pulled the gown over my head. Yeah, if only she knew the night I had. Hers obviously had been nothing but pleasure while mine had been . . . brutal. Whatever. I refused to let her bait me and tried to ignore her constant hints at her amazing night.
As I tugged the gown over my wet skin and arranged it correctly, I realized it left part of my mark visible. I glanced over my shoulder, trying to see how much was actually exposed.
“Charlie.” Sandra stood downstream, waiting in the bend.
For a moment I was struck by the scene: her wet black hair spilling down her back, the white gown with its hem floating in the water around her calves, the blossoms in her hand, the trees that lined the mossy banks with their thin, fragile-looking limbs and the delicate leaves . . . Like a painting, a scene straight out of some Renaissance artist’s dream of goddesses and ancient rites.
Then her eyebrow arched and one corner of her red lips dipped down, ruining the whole picture. The attendant handed me a bowl filled with white blossoms, which I was to carry down the winding stream, releasing them as I contemplated the gifts of the goddess, asked for her blessing, and offered her my gratitude. Blah, blah, blah.
I tugged on the shoulder of the gown with one hand and balanced the bowl in the other. Well, at least we were the last to go, I thought as I picked my way along the mostly sandy bottom of the stream. And I sure as hell wasn’t backing out now.
Once I caught up to Sandra, who looked as though she was taking instructions seriously, I poked her in the back to get her attention.
“How well can you see my mark?” I asked, turning around.
“Fairly well. But I’m standing right by you. Don’t sweat it,” Sandra said, moving on. “You’re the least important person here, so you’ll be in the back where no one will notice you.”
Gee, don’t mince words, Sandra.
“Now, hush. We’re supposed to reflect on the goddess and the connection we make from us to the water and to the sea.”
The chant of Tibetan monks came to mind and I couldn’t help but say, “Should I start Om-ing?”
She tossed a flat, unamused look my way and then returned her attention to the procession. After a few minutes, Sandra said thoughtfully as she walked, “I want your word on something, Charlie.” She glanced over her shoulder to make sure I was listening. “If anything were to happen to me . . . Promise to take me back home to Atlanta. Tuni will know what to do.”
The goose bumps that slid over my skin had nothing to do with the cold. Sandra was worried, which was understandable, especially for someone who could always see the future and now couldn’t. “I will,” I promised.
“You swear?” Her eyes narrowed as she stopped to look at me.
“I swear. Cross my heart and everything. Will you do the same for me if you can?”
As we continued walking, I mulled over her request. Did she know something she wasn’t saying? Or was she just concerned? Neither thought was comforting.
Eventually, we came to a high rocky ridge topped with trees where the stream disappeared into the large opening of a cave. My feet were completely numb from the cold.
“We’re close to the sea now,” Sandra said over her shoulder, though it was unnecessary. As soon as we entered into the dark cave, I smelled the salt water and heard the faint echo of waves from some distant place up ahead.
At first it was pitch-black inside, and I was glad the sandy bottom allowed us to walk without much trouble. Light soon came, however, in the form of sunlight, which shot through random holes in the cave ceiling, making gossamer shafts straight to the water. The small waves our passing made reflected light in ripples on the water and along the caves walls.
The mood changed, taking on a quiet reverence. Occasional murmurs from the procession goers drifted back to us in solemn tones.
My senses sharpened. We had to be getting closer to the Circe now. I took the opportunity to scan the cave walls, looking for any passageways and hoping—waiting—for my mark to warm. We were entering the Circe’s lair, where they did their dirty work, where Hank most likely was being held.
A song had begun, rising softly over the sound of the waves, the natural acoustics of the cave giving it added volume and significance.
Finally, the proverbial light at the end of a tunnel slowly appeared and we came to an enormous chamber the size of a large department store. The main source of light was a massive opening at the far end of the cave that extended into the sea itself. A few stories high and wide, it provided plenty of light and allowed in the constant push and ebb of the sea. Rocks and ledges jutted up from the seafloor, creating pools within the cave that stayed filled with water. Time had eroded a small beachlike area where the floor of the cave met one of the large pools.
Some of the calmer pools were crystal clear and the bottoms glittered. The closer I came, I realized why. Gold, jewels, and other treasures littered the sandy floor.
Sandra tugged on my arm. We moved out of the stream where it met with the sea and onto the smooth flat rock that made up about half the chamber’s natural floor.
Tucked back against the wall was an altar behind which the Circe had gathered, but my attention locked almost immediately onto the narrow opening behind them. Without a doubt, I knew I had to get inside that passageway.
What followed next was a tediously slow sequence of events. First came a song—a beautiful long song. After the song, offerings were made to the deity, which explained all the underwater treasure. Alessandra and I tossed our flowers into the sea, and they floated with the hundreds of others, making a pretty web of white blossoms on the water.
Once the rites were over, the procession filed out of the cave, going back up the stream the way it had come. The Circe crossed the floor, heading our way.
“Thank you for coming, oracle,” Arethusa said.
Calliadne took her turn. “Your presence pleases Panopé.”
“Come. Let us retire to our sanctum.” Ephyra gestured toward the passageway.
“I am likewise honored to take part in the rites. Your hospitality is most kind.” Alessandra turned to me and the question not voiced was what they were going to do with me: invite me along or make me wait in the chamber?
The Circe exchanged glances, odd ones that made me wonder if they communicated telepathically. And then they stared at my arm and warnings fired through my brain.
“Your servant’s markings.” Their eyes didn’t stray from my right arm. “Where did she get them?”
“They are . . . unusual.”
Alessandra didn’t miss a beat—and after the whole “Carly Madison” thing, I feared what would come out of her mouth next. “They were given to her by the jinn who trained her to be my bodyguard. They are ancient jinn markings.”
Relief slid down my spine. Well done, Sandra. Well done. Using the jinn was genius because very few Elysians ever bothered themselves with Charbydon practices and rites.
“She may accompany you,” Calliadne said at length, “but must wait outside the sanctum once we enter.”
Alessandra and I bowed. “Most kind,” she said.
I followed them into the passageway. Finally. It took most of my focus to bank my emotions and aura so the Circe wouldn’t feel anything suspicious coming from me, and concentrate on my surroundings.
Dressed only in the gown, I was at a serious disadvantage. The length could easily get tangled in my legs. I had no shoes, no weapons, no power to draw on unless I wanted a visit from Sachâth. So that pretty much left my fists, my training, and my ability to think on my feet.
The passageway made a serpentine path through the gray rock. The air was cool and damp, but it warmed the farther we went back into the earth. I found it strange, if this was indeed the Circe’s dwelling, that there were no guards and no real security system—well, at least the kind I could see; crafting was another matter entirely. They could have this entire place protected with wards and traps.
Unless they had gotten complacent. In the thousand years since the Circe had risen to fame and control, there hadn’t really been any challenges to their power. Who did they need protection from? Everyone here adored them. And, maybe, the lack of guards was for a reason. Like the fact that they didn’t want anyone knowing the evil they did down here.
We walked single file until we came to a round chamber. There were three doors facing us. Calliadne opened the center door and motioned to Alessandra. “Our sanctum is this way.”
Ephyra turned to me. “You must wait here.”
I wasn’t surprised by this, but I was shocked at the level of worry I felt for Sandra. The idea of her being alone with the Circe filled me with a very real, very acute sense of dread. I made a step forward. She couldn’t go alone. I was her bodyguard, after all, and—
She stepped in front of me, pressing a hand into my shoulder. The smile of encouragement she tried to give me failed miserably. “I’ll be fine. There’s a bench there by the wall. Just wait for me here.” She was trying to hide it, but she was afraid. I knew her well enough now to know that, and I knew her well enough to care. And I felt very strongly about not wanting her to go. “Sit and rest,” Alessandra went on, squaring her shoulders and taking on an imperious tone. “There is much work for you to do when I return.”
I dipped my head and moved back, not liking it one bit. It went against every single protective instinct I had. My fists closed tightly and I clenched my teeth so I wouldn’t say anything out of character for an oracle employee. But, God, I wanted to.
Sandra couldn’t see her fate or mine; she had no way of knowing if she’d be safe. But we did know we were too close now to screw things up. With that thought holding me back, I remained silent. As the Circe ushered her through the door, Sandra glanced over her shoulder and the look in her otherworldly eyes gave me chills. Regret. Resignation. Friendship.
We’d truly become friends. And she’d just left with three of the most powerful creatures in siren history.
Fuck. I rubbed a hand down my face, eyeing the room and trying to figure out what the hell to do next. I paced. The absence of intel made me bristle. If I knew where Hank was being held, how many guards patrolled the area, I could make a plan. But as it stood, I didn’t have the luxury of schematics and intel. And I had to act.
The look in Sandra’s eyes had been haunting. What the hell had she been thinking? Or maybe I was hyped-up to the point that I was exaggerating things, seeing emotions that weren’t really there.
We’d worked hard to get here, and I wasn’t going to ruin it now by running after them. The Circe wanted a reading from the famous oracle, nothing more. Sandra was far too famous and loved; harming her would cause a three-world uproar, and the Circe were too smart to bring in that kind of scrutiny. They had a good thing going, after all.
Putting the worries aside, I turned my focus to the left and right doors. They were unguarded, but it could be quite different on the other side. And there was a very good chance that each door was warded. I should be able to tell once I touched them.
If confronted, I’d just lie my way through. It’d be perfectly reasonable to claim I was looking for the restroom. Had to be one around there somewhere. Even sirens had to pee.
I chose the door on the left, which did not exude any crafting signatures like a ward, but it was locked. “Okay. Door on the right it is, then.” Also locked.
Great. The only door that wasn’t locked was the center one. Enough time had passed that the hallway should be clear—at least from the Circe. I grabbed the handle and pulled it back slowly to peek inside. A long hallway with smooth walls and floor stretched out before me. I squeezed inside and eased the door closed.
I was pretty sure the farther I went, the more confusing this place would get. The Circe’s own labyrinth, I thought, coming to a fork in the hall. Muted voices echoed from somewhere down the left passageway, so I took the right.
About twenty steps in, warmth flooded the mark on my shoulder.
It was so unexpected that my mouth opened in a silent cry and I almost fell. Holy shit. Every nerve tingled. My heart skipped and then began to pound hard. I leaned on the wall.
He was here. He was alive. Hank was alive.
Leander had said Hank lived, but this validation, this knowing it, this feeling it filled me with relief.
He was here and close. All I had to do now was play a game of “Getting Warmer” to figure out where he was being held.
I straightened and made it two steps before I realized he had to feel it, too. His mark would’ve warmed just like mine. A grin spread across my face. Wherever he was, he knew I was coming.
* * *
Something had changed, he sensed it.
His body was healed enough to begin the lashes again, yet the whip master hadn’t returned. He must be close now to reaching the six hundred and forty-two lashes. Christ, it felt like he had endured six thousand.
Perhaps his sentence had been fulfilled, which didn’t mean shit. He might be going mad, but he knew enough to know they’d never be done with him, never let him go, never let him die.
He couldn’t wait to kill them. He was going to bathe in their blood, decorate his cell with their entrails, and use their heads for footstools. He was going—
Warmth spread suddenly through his chest.
He lay there frozen, heart pounding, holding his breath for fear this strangely familiar pleasure would just as suddenly leave him.
No, he couldn’t take it.
Whatever new kind of torture this was, he’d rather be whipped than to feel this goodness and hope.
He roared in pain because, goddammit, he wanted none of it! No reminders, no marks, no dreams, no flashes of memory, of a life that could never be his!
“Circeeeee!” he bellowed. “Face me, you spineless old hags!” He started laughing until his gut hurt from it.
Then, he clutched the mark over his chest and began digging it out, ripping the flesh with his nails, wanting it gone, off of him so it couldn’t be used against him.
* * *
The deep yell thundered down the hallway, making me freeze in my tracks. It was too distant, and so ringed in echoes that I couldn’t understand the words, but the sound made goose bumps crawl along my flesh. It was a wounded, angry, maniacal sound.
Hank was down there somewhere. That was my partner, my friend, my . . . something. Didn’t matter if I was out of my element. Didn’t matter that I had no idea what I was walking into much less how to get back out. There was no conceivable way to formulate a plan until I knew where Hank was, the condition he was in, and how he was being contained; right now, nothing mattered except finding him.
I started running down the hallway, finally finding a door. I eased it open, ready to fight. But inside, it was empty. And then the smell hit me. Fresh blood. Dried blood. Urine. Sweat. Leather. I covered my mouth and nose with one hand, noticing the manacles chained to the far wall and the dark pool of blood on the floor beneath them. So much blood.
A rack of whips and barbs lined one wall.
But everything stilled inside me at the sight of the small, narrow door to the right of the rack. I was across the room in a second, grabbing the key ring on the wall with shaking hands and unlocking the door.
As the lock clicked and released, a deep voice beyond the door spoke.
“About time. I thought you forgot about me.”
For a moment, I thought he was talking to me, but his next words corrected that assumption. “Shall we bet again on how many lashes it takes to kill me this time?”
Oh God. Hank.
I pushed the door and it swung wide, bouncing gently against the wall. I froze in the doorway at the sight of him spread eagle, facedown, shackled to the floor by two ankle manacles and a collar around his neck, holding him down.
He was naked, and covered in blood and wounds. I’d never seen anything like this before on a living person, one who was still able to speak. I couldn’t move. My throat went thick and fat tears slipped from my eyes. His back was ripped open in clawlike slashes from his neck all the way to the backs of his thighs. There was hardly a clear bit of flesh to be seen. His wounds ranged from fresh to every stage of healing, which told the horrifying tale that this had been done to him over and over again, new wounds on top of old ones.
“God,” I said, barely above a whisper. “Hank.”
I entered the room on shaky legs. His hands were free, one flung out and the other tucked under his chest, fresh blood pooling on the stones. His hair was bloodied and matted and he’d gone completely still and silent at my voice.
I knelt down beside him. “Hank? It’s me, Charlie. I’m going to get you out of here. Everything is going to be okay.” My voice came out startlingly calm for all the chaos going around inside me.
I got up, intent on freeing him, intent on finding the fucking key. My hands shook. Christ, they had him chained facedown on the fucking floor.
Hank started laughing. The low, raspy chuckle grew until his body shook.
Before I could process his reaction, hands slid beneath my armpits and jerked me out of the room. The cell door slammed closed and locked. Manacles were slapped around my wrists as I came to my senses and tried to break free.
The amulet protecting me from the siren lure was yanked from my neck.
Arethusa’s face came into view and her smile gave me chills. “Stop struggling.”
And I obeyed.
Her voice . . . it was like a drug, an intoxicating, wonderful drug. Poisonous, a small voice inside my head said. But it was just a small voice, nothing compared to the rapture of the Circe’s power.
“Well, this changes things, sisters.”
“Oh, I do love a tragic romance. How marvelous!” Calliadne exclaimed.
“We must begin interrogations at once.”
Somehow, even in the fog of hearing them speak, I wasn’t surprised by Ephyra’s comment; she did seem the most brutal of the three, but her voice was so beautiful, like an angel, I didn’t care too much about what she said.
I was handed off to a male siren, barely noticing the rough handling as he pushed me out the door and down the hallway. I stumbled, disoriented by the Circe’s power and grief-stricken for Hank. I couldn’t seem to get my bearings and when the guard shoved me into a small room, I fell to my knees.
I wasn’t sure how long I stayed that way on the floor, eyes wide open, tears leaking out, knees bleeding. The only thing I saw was Hank lying on the floor.
Eventually, the fog lifted and I moved off my sore knees and onto my rear.
Okay, Charlie. Time to think. I lifted my manacled hands and rubbed both hands down my face. You can’t change what you saw. You can only move forward.
I’d made it this far. They hadn’t killed me, hadn’t even harmed me, which meant they were saving that bit of fun for later.
Whatever the Circe planned, the first thing I had to learn was how to brace myself against their voices. I had to put the force of my will and my power behind keeping their voices from overwhelming my thoughts. I had to be prepared before they spoke because if I wasn’t they’d have me enthralled with the first syllable. My power was strong enough. It had to be. And though the Circe were far stronger than the siren who’d attacked me, I knew it was possible. I knew my power could, at the very least, lessen the impact of their power.
And I had to find out what had happened to Alessandra because if the Circe knew about me, then everything about the oracle’s presence in Fiallan was in question. I hoped like hell she was currently lying her heart out, telling them I’d tricked her, that she had no idea who I really was.
And lastly, and in keeping with my mantra, I had to kill the Circe.
“No problem. One step at a time, right?” I let out a hefty sigh and scooted so my back rested against the wall.
I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, at the hopelessness, and it made me remember Hank laughing. He’d sounded . . . like he’d gone insane.
He wasn’t surprised by much these days, but the Circe coming back into his cell was an unwelcomed surprise. His neck was freed and he was lifted to face them, held up by two sirens on either side of him.
Dizziness made the Circe’s faces blend into one and then separate into six. Funny, that.
Except he was hungry and being upright made his stomach turn like one of those fun house rides at Stone Mountain. Fuck. He was going to hurl.
His body lurched and he dry heaved at their feet. There was nothing to come out but spit and bile; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.
The Circe stepped back. He laughed at them.
“Niérian is much stronger than we thought.”
“Perhaps better used in other ways, sisters.”
“This human will be our leverage. We must know her secrets.”
“Shall we torture her first?”
“Surely she will break much quicker than a son of Elekti-Kairos.”
“Surely.” One of the bitches grabbed his face. “What is she to you, Malakim?”
“Release me, witch, and after I dismember you and strangle you with your own guts, I’ll have mercy and throw your remains into the sea.” He grinned at her, wanting her to fight him, wanting to lash out, even if it killed him. He wanted her death so badly, he could taste it.
She smiled at him. A beautiful smile. Evil to the core. Her grip tightened and then she looked down at his chest where he had clawed the marking. “You are linked to this human.”
“Yes, but how are you linked?” another one said, which made him frown in confusion.
“He doesn’t remember.”
He hated that they spoke of him like this, so plainly, as though he did not exist. He struggled against the guards. “He is right here, morons.”
For that he received a punch in the stomach by one of the guards, followed by an uppercut to the jaw. Without support, his legs were too weak to hold him and he collapsed onto the floor. Onto his back. He screamed in pain and rolled to his side, the shock of it stealing his breath, and then the kick to his back sent him to blackness.
He came to on his back, his entire body humming with pain; three faces stared down at him, chanting in the most beautiful melody and tone he had ever heard. Each reached down and touched him with their pointer finger. One on the forehead, one on the left temple, and the other on the right temple.
Bright light blinded him. And then he saw flashes. Of the woman in his dreams. But these visions, they conflicted with the ones he’d had before. Of her sitting on a couch . . .
“Do you love him?” someone, a female, asked her.
Then other visions, bits and pieces of her, laughing at him, thinking him dim-witted and slow. Using him to get what she wanted. He heard himself groan. He didn’t like these things. These confusing things that somehow had the power to hurt him.
“Who wouldn’t want a siren in their bed?” the Circe’s voice echoed inside of his head. “You are but a trophy, a thing to be used, so she can say she had you.”
“She doesn’t love you.”
“She doesn’t respect you.”
“She believes you to be lesser than siren, not raised as a siren, not taught as a siren, not educated or sophisticated.”
And it was all true. He had fled Fiallan as an adult male with not even the most basic knowledge about how to live or care for himself. He’d had to learn it all from a hermit in the woods of Gorsedd.
The conflict inside of him pushed like a living thing at his chest until he demanded they stop.
“Do as we say, Niérian, and you shall reclaim the honor your treachery stole from your family. Do as we say and the name of Elekti-Kairos will be exonerated with honor and your estate reclaimed.”
“Fuck you,” he said, knowing they lied.
“Do as we say,” the voice whispered softly against his ear, “and we will release you from the NecroNaMoria. Your soul will find peace, Niérian. Peace.”
Peace was more than a word, an idea, or state of being. It was a place. Something he’d seen for himself, felt for himself, a glimpse of true heaven, true paradise for his broken soul. His will cracked, just a small fissure, but a crack that spread. All he had to do was agree.
But then, he could always kill the bitches instead and release the spell that way. If only he had the strength within him. He was one siren against three of the most powerful siren witches in history, and they’d made sure his body was weak and drained.
“Remember what it feels like, siren,” the beautiful voices whispered as one, one so powerful the temptation-laced words made him shudder. “Your soul free from the confines of your body. Aren’t you tired, Niérian? Of the pain, the regret, the longing and guilt? We offer you freedom, the infinite beauty, the absence of all but peace . . . Stillness. Serenity. Silence.”
And that’s when he caved, when he couldn’t fight it anymore because he had tasted paradise so many times his heart and his soul wept for it. Those brief encounters with freedom haunted him, destroyed him. Tears slipped from the corners of his eyes and his throat tightened, but not before he said, “Agreed.”
“You’ll do anything we ask of you?”
He glared at them, all the hate he felt burning his eyes. “Yes. Anything.”
* * *
“Hello! Anyone out there?” I kicked the door, glared lasers at it, and then kicked it some more. If I had my boots I could really make some noise. As it was, my bare feet only made the hinges rattle. “Come on!” I yelled. “You have a prisoner in here in case you fucking forgot!”
If it wasn’t for Sachâth hounding my every power move, I’d use my freakish fireball of an arm and burn my way free. But then passing out in the hallway where I’d be found and confined again wouldn’t really do me any good.
“Ugh!” Hours of waiting. Hours of wondering. If they were going to interrogate me, then: “Get it over with already!” I wanted a fight, to avenge Hank, to give the Circe a taste of their own medicine, but they weren’t going to oblige. I kicked the door again and marched back to the wall to sit down. I drew my knees to my chest and pulled the fabric of the white gown around my legs.
I closed my eyes. Okay, chill. Find your Happy Place.
Of course, my Happy Place was Emma, which was a bad idea. I was too charged, too emotional. I really should have a backup Happy Place where things were good and warm and—my stomach growled—and satisfying. Ooh. Like Aeva buns. The Happy Imp Bakery where all things were fluffy, white, and delicious.
I rested my forehead on my folded arms and imagined myself lounging on white clouds, eating an Aeva bun, savoring every bite, every sugary flavor . . . Finally, I felt exhaustion easing its way into my body and mind.
* * *
Note to self: using food to induce a calm state of mind while imprisoned is not the brightest idea in the world—I woke to an aching ass, stiff neck, and a really pissed off stomach.
My feet were freezing cold, but at least the ends of the gown had dried. I got up and brushed off my gown, then worked out my stiff joints.
The door to my cell opened. I glared at the siren guard, all my earlier ire resurfacing. I did not plan to be a good prisoner or make it easy for my captors; it was the principle of the thing. “It’s about fucking time.”
He grabbed my arm to pull me to the door, but instead swung me in an arc so that I slammed into the wall next to the open door. “Oops, sorry,” he said, and then jerked me through the door and into the hallway.
But I did note, as we went down the passageway, that his voice didn’t have much effect on me. The Circe were another matter, of course, but I’d been caught off guard before. This time I’d be better prepared.
I was taken into the main chamber, the massive cavern where the sea flowed in and out, the sound echoing off the walls. Some of the white blossoms we had placed in the water during the Panopéic rites remained in the calmer pools. The Circe were gathered behind the altar, their attention fixed on the altar’s surface.
The urge to be sarcastic and disrespectful almost had me saying Yo, bitches. But I said nothing and parked a glower on my face as I was led forward.
They looked up in unison and I decided the whole triplet thing was getting old. I glanced down and saw what they’d been hovering over. Oh great. A certain stone tablet, yea big, with rounded corners and symbols just as Leander had described.
There was my ticket to free my sister and the others from their ash addiction.
Ephyra stepped around the altar and grabbed my right arm, holding it out to examine the writing as I concentrated on bracing myself against her voice. “It is the same,” she said. Her fingers dug into my skin. My arm was still sore from the night before and it felt as though she was digging into a bad bruise, but her voice was so pretty . . .
C’mon. Concentrate on your power! I drew my energy into my core and envisioned it as a barrier against the Circe’s voices.
Arethusa shoved the tablet at me. “What does this say?”
A wave of giddiness swamped me, but I held strong to the barrier I envisioned, finally finding my voice. “How should I know?” I tried to pull away but was held tight. “You’re the old ones, not me.”
“Yet you have the same writing on your arm.”
“You must know what it means.”
I jerked out of Ephyra’s grip, rubbing the offended arm and taking a deep breath to steady myself against their thrall. “I don’t. I have no idea what my markings say or what that tablet says. It’s probably an ancient receipt for cows or something,” I added just to irritate them.
“She lies,” Ephyra said.
Calliadne touched my bare shoulder and walked around to my back, trailing her hand over my skin to the marking on my shoulder blade. Her touch made my skin crawl. Barrier. Think Barrier. Don’t let them in.“And this, do you know what this means?” she asked.
I swallowed hard, using my anger to focus. “I’m guessing the answer doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Not really,” Arethusa answered, her eyes narrowing. “All we need to know lies with another. With Niérian, as he bears the same mark on his chest.”
“His name is Hank.”
“No. His name is Niérian,” Ephyra said, challenging me with a lift of her chin.
Fury leapt hot and ready to the surface, rising in me with every word I spoke. “Well, if you wanted him to keep his given name so badly then maybe you shouldn’t have lied to him, labeled him a traitor, killed his entire family, and then tortured him to death, you stupid bitch!”
Her slap was so quick I didn’t see it coming. There was enough power behind it to send me airborne. I landed in a heap on the cavern floor, so angry that the initial landing didn’t hurt as much as it should have. I saw stars, though, and the side of my face felt numb.
That whole don’t kill the Circe thing? Fucking dissolved. Disappeared. Gone. I stood, rage tearing around inside me like a tornado.
Rational Charlie reminded me I couldn’t let loose the power gathering inside me. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring Sachâth here in front of them.
“Her arm, sisters, it’s glowing.”
I glanced down and covered my arm with my hand, not that it helped. The markings glowed blue from my hand to my shoulder. Shit, shit, shit. Calm down. Must calm down. Think of the bakery. But that only made me see red because I was starving, and that was another strike against them.
I never had the chance to calm myself because they approached me like I was some kind of interesting bug. A specimen. They began jabbing at me, pushing me to lose control; they wanted to see what would happen.
“Stop it!” I yelled, hearing the panic in my voice as I backed away until my foot slipped in the water. I struggled to retain my balance, going deeper into the water until it covered my calves. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Before I could blink, I was grabbed by the neck, hauled out of the water, and shoved against the altar. The tablet was stuck in my face. “Read it, then.”
“I can’t!” I cried.
“Try,” they all said at the same time. With my defenses down, there was no barrier, yet I was brimming with divine power. When I looked at the words . . . I knew them. I began reading, not knowing what I was saying. I was just a vessel, a conduit from the words in front of me to a language that was eerily similar to the way Sachâth had spoken to me and Ahkneri had spoken in my dreams.
I spoke the words and then collapsed onto the altar, but was given little mercy as I was grabbed once again and shaken. “But what does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” I answered tiredly.
“Liar! You just read them! You know!”
I straightened, my endurance at an end, feeling drunk and reckless off their voices. I held my hands wide in a gesture that said I really didn’t care whether she believed me or not. “I don’t. Get over it, Ephyra. Now feed me because I’m hungry.”
That really got under her skin, as I knew it would.
A vein popped out on her perfect forehead and a growl erupted in her throat, which turned into a screech as she came at me. Arethusa stepped in front of her and said very evenly, “We have much to discuss. Let us convene with the oracle once more.”
That got my attention. “Alessandra isn’t part of this. She doesn’t take sides. She didn’t know—”
“Oh, but the oracle knows everything.” Ephyra smirked. “She’s ours now. Just like Panopé, just like Niérian, just like the Malakim, just like the king.”
“Full of yourself, aren’t you?” I shot back, but her words were burned into my brain and I had a very keen sense that something terrible had happened to Alessandra. I turned my attention to Calliadne, who seemed like the nicest of the three, if such a thing were possible. “What did you do to her? I swear . . . Please . . . just . . . don’t hurt her.”
A dimple formed in Calliadne’s cheek as she considered my plea, met the eyes of her sisters, and then shrugged. “See for yourself if you’d like.”
“Perhaps granting you this wish will encourage you to grant us what we wish,” Arethusa said.
They led me down the passageway to the chamber with the three doors, through the center one and then instead of going right toward the cells, they turned left, the same way they’d gone earlier with Sandra.
As we walked, I tried to prepare myself. She was probably just in a cell, or shackled to a comfortable couch or something. Who’d hurt the oracle? She was one of the most famous people alive. They wouldn’t do something so foolish as to harm her.
I’d all but convinced myself of that when the Circe opened a beautifully carved door leading into an equally beautiful room that resembled the palace in style, art, and architecture. There was power in this room. Old power. In the center was a circular hole, a huge chasm in the ground, and in the middle, in a smaller ring, was a rock jutting up from the depths of the chasm. On the rock was a statue, a female figure rising out of the waves reaching for the sky. She looked like glass, water somehow made solid, but not. A gold, glittery sheen sparkled in the glass and from her hands a shower of radiant gold light spilled upward and disappeared into a round disk in the ceiling that also glowed.
As we drew closer, I saw that the chasm went all the way around the statue. A small bridge connected the main floor with the statue; the chasm was too wide to jump.
The drone that came off the statue and the shower of pearly gold was enormous, like a heartbeat filled with energy and power, much like the spheres and the henge in the Grove.
We kept our distance, moving around the centerpiece and into the next room, which was smaller than the vast main chamber. The room was round with niches built into the walls. Some niches were empty, some held pedestals with relics, objects, and statues.
We went up two wide steps at the end of the room and into another yet smaller round room. “Ah, here we are.”
My instincts screamed at me not to look. I knew this wasn’t right, them bringing me here to see, the feeling in the room. But I had to look for Alessandra’s sake because whatever they had done to her I had to know, so I could figure out how to save her.
But as my eyes found her, I realized with a sickening turn that saving her would be impossible.
“Hungry now, human?” Ephyra whispered as she breezed past me to park herself next to the pedestal in the center of room.
I struggled to stay standing. To stay conscious. Horror warred with such overwhelming grief that I could do nothing but stand there in shock and stare at my friend’s head perched on the pedestal like some goddamned trophy.
Oh God, Sandra. No.
I slapped my hands over my open mouth so I wouldn’t scream or vomit, but tears flowed instantly from my eyes and down over my hands.
Her eyes were shut. Her skin gray, lips purplish blue . . . Her beautiful black hair fell around the pedestal like a curtain. A crack drew my attention. In the back corner of the room a griffin fed on her headless body. “Oh God.” I stumbled back, dazed, sickened, falling and then scrambling up, crawling away, but getting trapped in the folds of the gown. Tears streamed down my face as I sobbed and gasped for air.
Keep crawling. Just get away. Oh God, Sandra. Sandra . . .
I was vaguely aware that someone pulled me up. A siren guard. I could barely see for the tears clouding my vision. The Circe stood behind Alessandra’s head. I turned away but rough hands grabbed my face and forced me to look. A groan burst from me. Hadn’t I seen enough?
“Let us consult the oracle, shall we?” Arethusa said.
“And see the human’s future for ourselves.”
They chanted a short phrase together. Dread slid down my spine and all the blood in my body felt like it had drained out of me, leaving me with nothing but the cold.
Alessandra’s eyes popped open.
I jumped and felt the siren guard jerk in surprise. Her eyes were vacant, but they were her eyes, the same earthy green, the same ones that had sparked with life and laughter. Goddammit!
Her mouth dropped open and a voice came out, and I knew this was crafting at its worst and most powerful.
“One sleeps. One wakes. One weeps. One takes.”
She stopped and blinked. A frown wrinkled her brow. “Charlie?” Her voice was lost, like a child in the dark, unseeing. Her eyes blinked, looking around wildly, but not finding me.
“I’m here, Sandra,” I said in a strangled voice.
Her gaze snapped in my direction, though it seemed to look right through me. “I lied, Charlie. I have always been able to see my fate.” A stunned whoosh left my lungs. “Charlie . . . the answer, the . . .” She gaped like a fish out of water, the instinct to breathe still with her. “Accept yourself to make the shadow whole . . . together, together . . . but not by your hand,” she warned, “. . . and death will come to death . . .”
My heart hurt; the tight, aching squeeze unrelenting. I couldn’t watch her gasping for air she didn’t need, would never need again. Her words blazed a path into my memory and would haunt me forever. I squeezed my eyelids shut and forced away the image of her and the sounds of the griffin in the background, turning in the guard’s hands as much as I could.
Then I was being led away, past the statue and down the hallway to my cell.
It seemed like ages ago that I wanted desperately to leave it, and now I wanted nothing more than to go inside, shut the door, curl up on the floor, and just lose myself in silence.
Sandra was gone.
As I lay there curled on my side, my back tucked against the wall, I wished time would reverse. So many instances played through my memory, times where if I’d just done something differently, she’d still be alive.
I stayed in that cycle, constantly replaying events, unable to stop until I exhausted my mind.
If Sandra was with me, she’d laugh and tell me I couldn’t escape Fate. One way or another, no matter what path I chose or decisions I made, I’d always come right back around to whatever significant event Fate had in store for me.
And she knew. That’s what was killing me inside. She knew! She’d walked right into that passageway knowing what would happen. And still she went. The image of her looking back at me, all the emotion, the flash of fear in her eyes, it all made sense now. Now, when it was too late.
Her convictions and beliefs were infuriating. How could she have given up her life like that? She hadn’t even tried to prevent it. Damn it, Sandra! Fuck your stupid Fate!
And yet her bravery, to walk the path of her beliefs, to have such faith . . . It put me to shame.
And it all hurt, it hurt so much . . .
I cried until my face was dry and hot and my head pounded. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sleep or rest my thoughts. After a time, I sat up, wiped my face with the end of the gown, and just stared at the bland stone walls in disbelief.
Eventually, her prophetic words seeped into the numbness, and I let them roll around, repeating, listening, trying to make sense of what she’d said.
Far be it from me to guess the mind of an oracle, but it sure as hell sounded like Alessandra had been talking about Sachâth.
To make the shadow whole. Death will come to death.
Sachâth was one of my biggest obstacles. In order for me to have any kind of power at all, I had to defeat it. And I didn’t have the answer on how to do that. Sandra knew, and the more I thought about it, the more I believed she was trying to give me the answer—how to kill Sachâth. But I had no clue what not by my hand and together, together meant.
My head fell back against the wall, wishing she was around to tell me.
* * *
The Circe had apparently decided to change tactics, because the next time the door opened, I was taken to a chamber where I bathed, put on a clean gown—this one also gathered over one shoulder—and was adorned with a circlet of gold placed around my left bicep.
The bath and the nice dress didn’t mean squat to me, but the food was extremely meaningful as was the use of a restroom. I sat at a table in a room off the bath and ate quickly, taking advantage of the reprieve.
After their little show-and-tell, the Circe were probably certain I’d cooperate and translate the tablet. And, if they felt this new tactic of “nice game” wasn’t working, they’d play the “torture game.”
I had no choice but to play along until I could figure out my next move.
Once I was done eating, I didn’t wait. I got up and walked to the main door I’d been brought through to the guard who stood there. “I’m done. I’m sure you have orders to take me to the Circe, so let’s get this over with.”
He regarded me thoughtfully, then turned and opened the door, ushering me into the hallway.
The Circe had allowed me to see Sandra in order to intimidate me, horrify me, and make me think twice about refusing them. It was a clear message on the lengths they’d go to get what they wanted. Well, it had worked. I was horrified, but not intimidated—okay, maybe I was, but that wasn’t going to stop me from ending their reign. I took exception to murderous, power hungry witches who tortured and killed my friends, and I wouldn’t rest until Sandra, Hank, and the countless other victims of the Circe were avenged.
And my determination to do just that was stronger than their intimidation.
Ahkneri had been called an instrument of retribution and vengeance, her sword, Anguish by Fire. Holding Urzenemelech had done something freakish to my arm, had somehow imbued it with the same kind of power as the sword—at least with the siren in my room it had seemed that way.
Okay, Sandra. You want me to accept myself? Consider it done. I’m about to become your avenging angel.
Unfortunately, my rousing internal pep talk only lasted the thirty seconds it took for the guard to lead me into another room.
I’d expected to go to the Circe’s inner sanctum, not a few steps down the hall. I knew immediately that the game had changed once again. Trying to brace myself for whatever they had planned, I went past the guard and into the unfamiliar chamber.
The door shut behind me.
And there was Hank.
And all the breath left my lungs, replaced by a cool acrobatic wind that tumbled through my chest and down into my belly. My feet seemed to grow roots into the floor and it felt like the entire room—not just me—held its breath.
It felt like years had passed since I last saw him. The size of him, the way he filled a room, struck me anew. He had healed significantly. The fact that he was standing on his own two feet was a very good sign.
He’d been bathed and dressed in clean clothing. His wavy blond hair was longer, more bohemian than ever, and his beard was gone, revealing a strikingly beautiful face, one whose lips usually curved like the devil and whose eyes glinted with shameless confidence.
But those eyes now stared at me flat and hard, like cold, dark sapphires.
I stayed frozen, suddenly unsure, heart pounding.
His aura was blank and there was a void, an absence of self where there should’ve been . . . something.
“Uh, surprise . . .” I said lamely, searching for more words. “This is not exactly the way I pictured rescuing you . . .”
He didn’t respond, just stared at me, his fists clenched at his sides. I wanted to edge back toward the door.
“So, um, you look better, Hank.”
“My name is Niérian,” he said, and I was blessed with the most gorgeous voice in all three worlds. Rich, deep, rough, potent . . .
Until his words sank in and lit a fire under my skin. He showed not even a flicker of emotion at seeing me. Nothing.
This wasn’t the Hank I’d expected to find.
All the blame for this sudden transformation was squarely on the Circe’s shoulders, not his. They’d done something to him, had messed with his mind, had tortured him so badly . . . hell, I’d stand there, too, and act however they wanted me to act in order to get out of that cell and away from the barbed whips.
My main concern was whether or not he truly believed in what he said, that he was now Niérian, and if the Circe had pushed him to a point of no return . . .
Knowing Hank like I did, there were only a few ways to knock him off balance and get through to him. I could come on to him, or I could piss him off. Quite frankly neither one appealed to me for various reasons, but I decided to go with pissing him off, since I had more practice in that department and knew how to push those buttons a lot quicker than the others.
After what he’d endured, I found it pretty distasteful to do what I was about to do, but there was no guarantee when I’d see him again. This might be the only opportunity I had to shake him up and get through to him.
I folded my arms over my chest and cocked an eyebrow at him, hating my next words. “Don’t tell me they got to you. What? A couple spankings and you’re the Circe’s new groupie? Didn’t expect you to roll over and kiss ass.”
His eyes narrowed. He didn’t seem to like that at all.
Oh yeah, big boy, I’m going to get under your skin, and this is just the beginning.
* * *
Chaos reigned inside of him.
Joy. Betrayal. Lust. Anger. Possessiveness.
Images flashed inside his weary mind, and he couldn’t separate out what was real or what was fiction.
When she first walked into the room, his heart lurched and he was consumed with the need to reach for her. But then the other images came and he wasn’t so sure. Those things she thought of him, those things she said, they cut him in a way that made him empty and hopeless.
She used him, lied to him.
And now she dared to stand there with her arms crossed and disdain on her face? She dared speak to him with such loathing and disrespect?
Before he knew it, he had her by the throat, shoved against the wall. “I would gladly go by whatever name the Circe chose as long as I get what I want in the end.”
Her brown eyes flashed fire. She choked out: “And what is it you want, Hank? The Circe are using you, poisoning your mind—”
“No different than you.”
“Oh, that’s great,” she shot back, struggling to speak. “Okay, so . . . poisoning your mind against me. I thought you were . . . smarter than that.”
His grip on her throat increased and then eased until he simply cradled her neck in his hand. His eyelids slid closed. Gods, he was tired. His mark was too warm, too uncomfortable. She was too warm, too comfortable, and, despite his will, his body leaned into hers until his forehead rested against her own. She smelled familiar. Good. Exotic. Untamed.
Full tilt, balls to the wall, the chief called her.
Niérian shook his head.
He didn’t need or want any more thoughts or memories, any more regrets. Yes, he’d had another life, pretended to be this Hank for a while, but none of it mattered now. And she was better off knowing she couldn’t save him.
Why she’d even want to after all the conflicting things he’d remembered of her . . . No, if he tried to solve that puzzle, his head would explode.
“It doesn’t matter,” he ground out. “Just tell them how to read the tablet.” His other hand lifted as though it had a mind of its own, tunneling into her hair, threading his fingers through its softness, and then toying with the ends. It wasn’t the color he thought it should be, but maybe he was wrong.
Gods, how he hated this woman! Tying him in knots like this, making him want her, even as she schemed against him and laughed at him. He couldn’t take it, couldn’t take her. “Please. If you have any care for me at all, tell them . . . and set me free.”
Her breath was shaky. “What are you saying? They’ll let you go if I translate the tablet?”
Freedom to her meant something far different than what it meant to him. And even though he knew it was wrong, he didn’t correct her assumption. “Yes. They swore it, and once sworn are bound by their words.”
He could feel her mind working, calculating, already wondering if she could figure out how to translate the text in order to free him. He hated himself. If she knew the truth, that his freedom meant his much desired death, she would not be so eager to help him.
“I’ll figure it out,” she was saying. “I’ll tap into my power. I’ll try again. Maybe it just takes practice and then maybe I can read what it says.”
He moved his hand from her throat and with his other hand, he cradled her face. “Stop, Charlie. Just . . . stop.”
Her big eyes turned up at him, glassy, confused, and hurt. Her hands curled around his forearms. “Tell me what to do.” A tear slipped from her eye. “Tell me how to help you.”
“Set me free.”
Set me free.
Those words had no sooner been uttered than the door opened and a guard removed me from the room. Hank hadn’t even looked at me; he simply stepped away, turned his back, and that was it.
The short minutes we had were intense, confusing, and hurtful. I wanted to help him, to read that damned tablet and secure his freedom. The Circe had used him to convince me to do just that, had obviously screwed with his mind, but why did it feel so . . . final? I couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was wrong, and quite frankly, it felt like I’d been hit by a rogue wave and was still sputtering up salt water on the shore.
“You can tell the Circe I’m ready to cooperate,” I told the guard before entering my cell.
I was left alone for all of ten minutes before being retrieved again and taken to the massive cave opening to the sea. Hank was there, which surprised me. He stood rigid, a stone sentinel staring out at the water with flat, cold eyes. The neck manacle was back, chaining him to the wall behind him. They’re that afraid of him, I thought.
I approached the altar and picked up the stone tablet. It looked so innocuous and yet the small piece of clay was the key to my sister’s freedom and Hank’s freedom. To hell with Leander and his doom-and-gloom diagnosis about the NecroNaMoria. Hank would recover. And the first step to recovery was freedom from the Circe.
If I could translate it.
Of course, passing along the knowledge written on the tablet to the Circe was one hell of a gamble, but I’d come this far. Sandra was gone, kind of, and I wasn’t going to fail or abandon my partner; he’d had enough of that in his life already. I’d come here to find him and return him home. That goal hadn’t changed.
And, besides, if the words did end up making sense to me, who said I had to tell them the truth? This was simply an exercise in buying time.
I mustered my determination and turned my attention to the tablet. The symbols and slashes did, in fact, resemble the markings on my arm. But just looking at them didn’t tell me a damned thing. “If I’m able to translate this,” I said, eyeing all three and pulling up my shield against their voices, “you’ll free him.”
“Of course,” Arethusa said.
“We have already sworn this to him.”
“Our word, once given, cannot be broken.”
“And if I can’t translate it, then what?” I asked.
Electricity snapped in the air. Metal and magic sparked against stone. I turned slowly to see a male siren striding across the floor, dragging a whip behind him. A metal, spiked barb was tied to the end of the whip and it glowed with some kind of arcane energy.
My gut tightened. I flicked a glance to Hank, it all making sense now why he’d been brought here. “That whip touches his back and I won’t translate a word.”
“You will translate it.”
“The tablet’s meaning has eluded us from the beginning.”
“We’d all but forgotten about it until you came along.”
“And now we know”—Ephyra glanced at my right arm—“there is power in the symbols.”
“The deity has brought you to us.”
“A gift of power, surely.”
I frowned. “Like you don’t have enough already?” Three pairs of eyes stared back at me blankly, as though the idea of it was incomprehensible. “Right,” I muttered, returning my focus to the tablet, holding it in both hands, and closing my eyes.
With Sachâth threatening any power move, and life being in virtual overdrive the last few months, I hadn’t really practiced calling up my power at will. Sure, it rose like gangbusters with my emotions, but standing here like this, with the whip sparking, the Circe’s eyes on me, and a translation to make instead of a fight . . . my power didn’t rise quickly, let’s just put it that way.
But with enough concentration . . . there. There it was . . . pooling slowly in my center. A quiet kind of event. I heard the Circe whispering in that strange singsong way of theirs, which was a little distracting.
Finally, I felt the familiar tingle, the hot and cold, the hum that bled into every part of my body. I looked at the tablet, seeing the symbols through a filter of energy. The language flowed into my mind, and I could speak the writing as naturally as breathing . . . but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make the connection between this ancient language and my own.
Damn it all to hell. I kept trying, but it was a lost cause.
I finally gave up, releasing the mental hold I had, and felt the energy drain away into a dormant state. Weariness replaced the void. “I’m sorry,” I said, breathing heavily. “I can say the words—I just don’t know that they mean.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, hesitant to look at Hank, and my fear spiking. I’d failed to do the one thing needed to set him free. When I did glance at him, he stood stock-still. I’m sorry.
My fingers curled into tight fists against the altar. “It’s not his fault.” I tried to reason with them. I’d seen what that whip could do. “Please don’t hurt him.” If that barb struck his skin, all bets were off. I knew I’d lose it.
“You will try again,” Ephyra demanded. She nodded to the whip master. He grabbed Hank and turned him around to face the wall.
I cursed Sachâth, cursed Fate for having given me great power and then tying my hands behind my back. What was the point? Frustrated, I grabbed the tablet with both hands and tried again . . .
And failed again. I glanced up at the Circe, intent on making them understand. “It’s not—”
The whip cracked.
I flinched. The sound reverberated through the chamber. The barb sliced through Hank’s shirt at the shoulder, leaving a long tear. At first there was nothing, a delayed reaction. And then the blood came.
Hank remained silent, but his body was taut, the muscles on his arms tight, the cords on his neck standing out. The whip sliced through the air with the backlash, creating a distinct sound, and the barb skittered across the stone, snapping and sparking as it came to rest.
Panic and fear ballooned, reawakening all the power I’d just drawn. My pulse began a frantic dance. I felt trapped, with no way out, no way to help Hank, no way to stop the whip or the Circe.
A hand on my arm pulled my attention back to the Circe. Arethusa had me and was leaning over, peering at the symbols on my arm, which had begun to glow brightly. I jerked against her. “Get off me.”
Rage clouded my thinking. I wanted to kill her, right then and there. I was pretty sure I would, but Sachâth lurked in the back of my mind. While I might be able to kill one, the other two would have me at their mercy if Death came and knocked me out.
“We must learn more of this power, sisters,” she said. “If not through the tablet, then through the human.”
“Not going to happen,” I ground out, pulling back, but she was stronger than she looked.
I tried to push my power back down, but Calliadne reached over the altar and grabbed my other arm. “Yes, let’s see what happens.”
“Stop it!” I managed to pull free and slugged Arethusa in the jaw. “You don’t know what you’re doing!” Their hands dug deeply into my arms. Power continued to fill me, fueled by my panic. Ephyra stepped in the center of her sisters and smirked. They were going to make me use it. I didn’t see any way out of it, but I knew one thing: I sure as hell would take someone down with me. Collateral damage—they should’ve thought of that before they pushed me.
Ephyra placed one hand on Arethusa’s shoulder and her other on Calliadne’s, making a link between the four of us. Heat surged through both of my arms. I screamed, gasping as their power slid into me.
I squeezed my eyelids closed and gave myself up to the divine. It was so eager that it lashed out immediately. I heard myself scream again but was lost in the pain of their power being pushed back from my body.
My eyes popped open as a strange sort of calm took over. My hand curled around Arethusa’s arm and I directed everything I had into that hand, into doing exactly what she had done to me, but a thousandfold. From my shoulder to my fingertip, my arm burned cold and hot and deadly.
“You wanted my power?” Light breached my fingertips. “Here. I hope you choke on it.”
And then it arced out of me with the force of a rocket, burning electric as it went into Arethusa, and shoving me backward. I hit the ground and saw stars, but quickly scrambled to my feet to defend myself.
A high-pitched keening erupted in the chamber, rebounding off the walls, and making me cover my ears. After several seconds, the volume dropped enough to allow me to raise my head.
A bluish white light—what came from me—ate its way slowly through Arethusa’s chest. Direct hit. Her sisters were pulling at her, chanting, using their power to try and save her, and screaming.
God, the screaming.
Hank faced the wall, had a fistful of chain, and was trying to pull it free of the stone, using one foot braced on the wall for better leverage.
I have to help him. Before Sachâth gets here. Before I’m completely screwed.
I made for Hank, but Ephyra’s head snapped up. The light in her eyes was maniacal. I got two steps before she threw out her hand and shouted one word.
Instantly I was rooted to the floor, held there by her word. I pushed against it, knowing my power was greater than hers, knowing I had to figure out how to fucking gather it again and use it. Through the adrenaline haze and the sound of my own wild pulse pounding through my ears like a ritual drum, images and language scattered across my brain. Ancient things. Words that echoed in my head.
My skin tingled with power, and I latched on to that sensation. Growing it, fanning the embers left over from before. I wasn’t as empty as I thought.
I gave everything I had to push through the force of Ephyra’s word. A scream built from somewhere deep inside of me, burgeoning, growing, trembling along with the rest of me as I gave all my strength and power. The sound burst from me and I fell forward onto my hands and knees, gasping.
Oh shit. I’d done it.
Startled, I glanced up and met the shocked eyes of the two Circe. Arethusa was gone, burned up. Dead. And I had just broken through Ephyra’s power word.
The siren with the whip gaped from the Circe to me, unable to move or process what he was seeing.
And then the entire chamber shook. Small rocks came loose from the cave ceiling high above, pinging the floor and splashing into the pools. A whine like an inbound missile filled the space and the sonic boom rocked me onto my ass just as the wall around Hank’s chain cracked and shattered with his strength.
Too late. Death has come, I thought, scrambling to my feet just as shadows crept quickly into the cave like a coming storm, gathering me up.
* * *
He was free.
Bitches would pay.
One already had. Arethusa was dead. And the two who were about to die faced him along with the whip master who had moved behind them. Only it was too late; he was already there, snatching Calliadne by the throat, spinning her in his arms so that her back was against him, bracing his elbow on her shoulder, and grabbing her head, twisting her neck until he heard the sickening, satisfying crunch of her spine snapping in two.
A second, two at the most. And it was done.
With a gathering of strength and a growl, he wrenched her head from her body. Blood, warm and thick, ran over his hands and forearms as the rest of her slid down to a pile at his feet—the only thing now lying between him and his next target.
Ephyra’s face had drained of all color. He lifted the head of her sister, holding it out to her, making her see what he was capable of, what he was good at.
And then he started laughing. It was too easy. And he’d wanted them to suffer as he had suffered.
He tossed the head aside, staring at the last remaining Circe, his bloodlust nowhere near fulfilled—he was just getting warmed up.
“Run,” he told her, letting her see the intention in his eyes, the gleam of anticipation that he felt all the way to his toes.
Her eyes flashed fire. The whip master grabbed her arm. She snatched the tablet and they fled.
The hunt was on.
Calm settled over him. He walked toward the passageway where Ephyra had disappeared, stopping for a moment to look over his shoulder at the gray shadows swirling above, holding Charlie immobile in their grip. Then he continued walking.
Nothing mattered now but the kill.
* * *
Pressure squeezed my neck, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a hand. All around me darkness floated. Directly in front of me, it began to condense, slowly forming a dark, featureless face with ghostly eyes.
That had never happened before.
I tried to swallow but couldn’t. I could barely move enough to look down, far below me, to the altar. Hank stood there, paused at the passageway, staring over his shoulder. Staring at me.
And then he turned and walked away.
He just walked away.
Sachâth spoke then, and I nearly wet my gown, the voice reverberating through me so heavy and powerful that everything went a little squirrely. It sounded like a hundred voices all speaking at once. It made the Circe look like amateurs, and I was glad I couldn’t understand the words.
I struggled, tried to grab at the pressure on my neck, but there was nothing solid to hit or kick or grab on to. Pressure built in my face. My pulse went into overdrive, and I knew I couldn’t keep this up for much longer.
The blackness around the white eyes began to form into finer features—still dark and difficult to see, but there was a real face there, coming together until finally it resembled a female, but still wrapped in shadow. I stopped struggling. All around the face, the shadows moved and swirled like tentacles. One whipped toward me, striking me on the cheek, drawing blood, blood that was taken to the dark mouth and tasted.
Its brow furrowed deep and angry and frustrated. The pressure on my neck increased. It leaned in and spoke in a very pissed off voice before throwing me down and retreating into a swirl of vanishing gray.
I braced for impact, for my body to break against stone.
But I slapped against water instead, hitting one of the pools, and drawing in a shocked gasp that filled my lungs with seawater. I sank to the glittering bottom as everything went black.
* * *
Her face appeared so clearly in the blackness. But it was different, she was different. Older. Gorgeous. The sun was like a halo behind her, making the red in her brown hair turn to fire and gold. It was down, long, like mine used to be, and it moved in the breeze, and she laughed, dimples slicing into smooth cheeks, eyes brimming with happiness and serenity, a confidence that wasn’t there now. Wasn’t there yet.
Love. Profound love. So perfect and pure, it made my soul hurt. It pierced my heart and demanded I acknowledge its significance.
The golden light behind Emma’s form shimmered, growing until it blinded everything and in this light another form took shape. Female shape, hair moving as though underwater and glinting like sunlight on the sea. I felt a smile, more than I saw one. Felt kindness and acceptance.
I saw myself reaching out, but didn’t feel the movement, only knowing that I was supposed to open my hand. It was enveloped in golden warmth. Two pearls were pressed into my palm. They were the size of marbles, and heavy. The inscription on the jewels glowed.
I gazed in dreamlike wonder at what rested in my hand. I remembered the dancers at the banquet, the story . . . I knew what I held.
Yes, a voice entered my mind, a beautiful voice filled with kindness and love and power. And I knew this could only be Panopé, the Witch of the Sea, the mother to the siren race. But how? Laughter filled my head, sweet and ethereal, and I wondered if I was gone.
No, you’re not dead, human. The only way I could reach you was here, in the sea. The Circe have imprisoned me.
They have kept my power locked in their sanctum. They had so much promise. They took the gift of my vision and twisted it, became too powerful, too unworthy . . .
I glanced down at the Source Words in my hand. The Adonai never stole them. It was my voice. You took them back.
It was long before the Circe were born, but yes. My children were not ready for them.
And now they are? And why was she giving them to me? I wasn’t a siren. I wasn’t preprogrammed to read or wield the words inscribed on the pearls. And why two of them?
They are but two of the three words I took back. And there is one who is ready to wield them. Hank? But . . . To wield words of Creation and Destruction one must understand the weight of that power, the sacrifice, and the responsibility. The corruption power can bring. Only now is he ready for such gifts.
But how? I found myself asking. He could only wield one of them . . . right?
When the families of Elekti and Kairos combined through marriage, the children inherited the innate power to wield not one but two Source Words. Destruction, originally intended for the Elekti, and Creation, intended for Kairos. Niérian was one of only a few children born to this marriage before the Circe struck and destroyed the house forever. Give him the jewels. With them, the Circe’s power will end as it should have ended long ago and I will be free. We all will be free.
I hesitated. Unsure of why, but knowing that no one gave something for nothing. It just didn’t work that way. And if it did . . .
There is always a cost. I give Niérian a curse as much as a gift, but it is his choice, if he chooses to bear it or not. Now, you must leave the water. Leave now.
I came awake, hacking and heaving salt water. My upper half was splayed on the stone floor of the cave, my lower half still in the pool. I was freezing, shaking, and for a while too weak to pull myself the rest of the way out. When I finally did manage it, I collapsed.
Once my breathing returned to normal and some of the shaking stopped, I pushed up to a sitting position.
Ten feet in front of me lay Calliadne’s head. The physical response to that sight was instant, and my stomach scrunched up tightly. I winced, turning away only to see a thin red line going down the cracks and dips in the floor. I followed it back to the source where her body lay next to the altar. It was a gruesome sight, but even so I felt an enormous amount of satisfaction for Sandra. Next to the body was a pile of ash that had once been Arethusa.
Hank was gone. Ephyra was gone. The siren with the whip was gone. And so was the tablet.
The chamber was quiet except for the ever constant sound of the waves flowing into and out of the cave. And then it hit me. The sea. Panopé. Holy shit. Holding my breath, I opened my palm. They were there. They were real. The Source Words of Creation and Destruction lay nestled in the palm of my hand.
Heart pounding, I picked one up to examine the softly glowing inscription wrapped around in a spiral. God, it was beautiful and mesmerizing, and I felt a little like Frodo Baggins looking at the Ring of Power.
You’re losing it, Charlie.
Sandra would’ve had a good laugh at me for that random thought. But Sandra would never laugh again. A hardness settled over me then, a tight, steely resolve. I pushed to my feet, wringing out as much of the gown as I could with one hand, and then headed for the passageway.
With every step I took, I grew weaker. Once I made it to the room with the three doors, I had to sit on the same bench that Sandra had pointed out before she died.
Blood was splattered on the wall across from me. One of the guards lay in a heap on the floor. Sirens could live for hundreds of years, as long as they didn’t face a trauma too intense to heal from. Decapitation, fire, the heart being ripped from their body, or—like the siren on the ground—the skull being bashed into a stone wall until the brain was damaged and exposed.
If I thought Hank had sounded insane before, I knew now he was consumed. Some might take the opportunity to run away and escape. But others like Hank didn’t think about their own lives—only about defeating the evil or die trying.
I turned away from the scene, knowing I should feel something, have some reaction to the blood and small clumps of brain matter stuck to the wall, but the sight barely even turned my stomach. The physical drain had crept into my mind and dulled everything, even my reaction to Hank’s bloody rampage. But I had the Source Words. With them we had a fighting chance. I had to keep going.
That last surge of strength that always got me through, that always enabled me to shove everything else aside, felt so out of reach. Two of the Circe were dead. One by me, one by Hank. He was clearly on the warpath, but was his rage enough? Not if Ephyra made it back to the grid. If she drew upon the power of the Malakim, we were toast.
“I’m not done yet.” I kept one hand on the wall to support myself as I stood. There was no fight left in me, but if I was going to crap out, then I’d do it after giving Hank the Source Words at least.
The hallway that led to the Circe’s inner chamber was empty and quiet save for my movement and breathing. The Circe had been so sure of their power, so set in their ways and secrets that now their lack of protection worked against them.
The sanctum door was wide open. Two bodies lay over the threshold. I stepped over them, sliding in their blood. My feet were bare, the soles leaving bloody prints as I edged around the vast room.
Power pulsated strong and loud, mingling with the eerie echo of chanting. Ephyra stood in front of the strange glassy statue, which I realized was a cage imprisoning the deity and her power. The bridges were gone. The last Circe was completely out of reach, and was glowing with gold radiance.
Hank faced off with his tormentor, the siren with the whip, as Ephyra watched. They circled each other as I continued to edge my way around the room. The smaller room off the main chamber came into view and beyond it the pedestal with Sandra’s head. I froze. Her eyes were open and glowing green. Her voice was the source of the eerie chanting, her mouth moving fast and possessed, spouting off strange lines and rhymes, increasing in magnitude. The power was so thick in the air that I wondered if it had set the oracle off.
The sound of the whip made me flinch. The siren arced it over his head and aimed for Hank. No longer shackled to a wall, Hank could move. And he was fast, just rolling out of the barb’s touch. A crack filled the room and then the whip sailed again, this time Hank didn’t dodge, but spun, and snatched the barb. It sliced his hand, but he held on, using his other hand to grab the leather and yank the whip from the siren.
The siren advanced, but Hank was ready. They met in a brief but brutal hand-to-hand, Hank never letting go of the whip and finally wrapping it around the siren’s waist. With a hand on each end, Hank pulled, using all of his brute force. The whip tightened around the siren until it cut into him, severing him to the spine. Hank shoved him off the chasm ledge as his body broke in two pieces.
And Ephyra watched the entire thing. She never lifted a finger to help the siren, and she didn’t seem surprised or upset that her last defender was dead.
Hank stood in front of her, chest heaving, gripping the handle of the whip. Ephyra looked strong and so sure of herself. She didn’t need any guards, I realized. Whatever power was contained in that statue, she had tapped into it. That’s why she glowed; that’s why she looked smug. She was also holding the stone tablet in her hand.
I squeezed the jewels tightly in my fist, considering my options.
A chill crept up my spine. Her head turned toward me. I straightened. “Ah, so you survived,” she said in a voice magnified and so powerful that my eardrums rang. Before I could cover them with my hands I was picked up and tossed with a word. I experienced two seconds of weightlessness before slamming into the far wall. My skull, which was already bruised and battered, hit hard and something cracked in my back.
I slid to the floor, the movement agonizing to my back, neck, and head. My lung wasn’t working right. I was numb on the left side and knew I must’ve broken a rib, one that had punctured my lung. There was so much pain that I was too afraid to move. One tiny shift would intensify the hurt, and might make me pass out.
But I had to move, had to—
My vision swam. Heat radiated in me as my body tried to heal itself, but there just wasn’t enough time. Using my forearms, I began dragging my broken body ever so slowly—ever so excruciatingly—over the floor. Keeping my head up was like trying to lift a bowling ball. Blood filled my mouth. I spit it onto the floor.
“Hurt much?” I heard Ephyra say, before I was jerked by an unseen force and swept along the floor. I screamed, holding tightly to the Source Words. Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out. Not yet. Please, not yet . . .
I didn’t stop sliding until I came to the ledge, one hand dangling over and feeling the cool air rushing up from the depths below.
“You do the honors, Niérian. Whip her.”
Had I been able to laugh I would have. Sick bitch. Hank stood over me with that evil whip in his hand. Sweat and blood covered him. His eyes were flat and his jaw was tight and grim. He shook all over and I realized that he was trying to disobey her.
“Do it,” she commanded, using all of the power at her disposal. His aura was still blank, but now I could see faint grayish words and symbols around him.
His hand lifted and a frown began to crease his forehead. His breathing became even more pronounced, as though he fought his greatest battle right then and there.
“Remember our deal, Niérian,” she said, her voice trembling with power. “The NecroNaMoria still binds your soul. Only I can release it. You have two choices. Honor your word and I’ll lift the spell. Or try to kill me to end it. I know you’d rather kill me, but really . . . look at me. I have more power than you can ever imagine. My sisters’ power is now my own.” She glanced up at the energy flowing upward. “And the deity’s and the Malakim’s . . . You can’t kill me. And when you fail, you will face the next thousand years wishing for a death I will not grant you. Your soul will never find freedom, never find that peace you’re so desperate for.” She glanced at me and smiled. “You follow this one order, and I will lift the NecroNaMoria.”
Hank glanced to the chasm. Ephyra laughed. “Killing yourself won’t release you. The spell does have certain safeguards. No, Niérian. You are mine. Mine until I release you. Whip her until she dies.”
He looked wild, feral, and I knew he couldn’t fight her. “And let’s not forget,” Ephyra added, “that she lies. She thinks you nothing more than a simpleton. She never really cared for you. Never loved you.”
“That’s not true.” Blood spilled out with my words. “Hank, you know she’s lying.”
Ephyra laughed again. “Peace, Niérian. I offer you a swift death and a soul free to enter the Afterlife.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Oh, didn’t he tell you? He gets the death he longs for in return for following my orders.”
That couldn’t be right. Hank would never wish for death. He was a fighter to the end. And he sure as hell would never wish it if it meant harming someone else. Like me. “That true?” I asked him. “You’d rather die than fight?”
“If he continues to fight and loses, his soul is forever tied to his body, his bones . . . It is a hell, a torture you cannot possibly fathom, human,” Ephyra answered for him. “He can’t risk that. He knows he can’t defeat me. So, what will it be, Niérian? Rest and peace, or everlasting torment?”
Our eyes met, mine and Hank’s. There was no emotion there. They’d hurt him so badly that all he wanted was to die. I swallowed, wondering if he’d do it, if he’d kill me—part of me not blaming him if he tried.
The only way to free him and leave him alive was to take out Ephyra before she killed him. And from where I was lying, she sure as hell had the upper hand. I coughed up blood and a spasm of pain ripped through my side. Cold sweat broke out.
Unable to keep my head turned anymore, I let it fall back on my arm. I felt Hank over me, heard the spark of the whip as he withdrew it off the floor in a slow arc, heard the sigh as it went airborne.
My fists tightened around the jewels. Under Ephyra’s spell, giving it to him now could be a monumental mistake. I didn’t know what to do. But I did know if he did this, if he killed me, it would destroy whatever thread of sanity he had left.
And then the barb struck.
A shocked gasp robbed me of breath and filled me with a sting, a burn so harsh it felt like someone held me down and poured boiling water over my skin. Then I was crying out loud. How had he endured this?
The barb had torn my gown to my waist, baring my back. Then Hank’s knee touched my side as he knelt beside me.
“What is this?” His question came out very low, guttural, angry as his fingertips brushed my mark. He was silent for a moment. “Truth mark,” he whispered to himself, remembering.
All he had to do was ask, ask if the lies the Circe had told him were true. The mark prevented me from lying in response to a direct question. “Ask me,” I forced out.
“Finish her,” Ephyra commanded.
Before he could rise, I braced myself for the pain and rolled onto my back, just praying I would have enough time before I passed out.
I grabbed his left hand, as his right still held the whip, and pressed the pearls into his bloody palm. I wanted him to ask me to tell the truth. If he did, he’d know everything Ephyra said about me was a lie. But he didn’t ask me, he just stared at me coldly and then opened his hand to look at what lay there. “They’re Source Words,” I bit out, holding on to consciousness. “Yours. Your family’s . . .”
He didn’t respond. His hand closed over the pearls. There wasn’t a flicker of anything, and I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to reach up and touch him. His hair, dark and wet with sweat hanging over his brow, his blood-streaked warrior’s face, the small lines around his eyes that used to deepen when he grinned, the strength in every breath he took . . .
“Ask me,” I forced out. “Ask me the truth.”
His voice was hard when he spoke. “I don’t have to.”
He stood and faced Ephyra, his left hand fisted, still holding the pearls. Tiny spider veins of gold appeared through the skin. He lifted his hand and opened his palm, eyes fixed on his prey.
The Circe’s eyes went wide. So did mine.
The blood vessels in Hank’s hand and wrist shimmered gold, the power of the words filling him, sweeping up his arm. It took my breath away, and I knew this was one of those images branded into my memory forever.
* * *
He’d whipped her. The barb had rent the gown from her shoulder, exposing her back and the mark she bore. The mark like his. He knelt next to her. He knew what it was, and yet . . .
“Finish her.” Ephyra’s command shivered through him.
He went to place a hand on her broken body. Pushing her off the ledge would be such a simple thing and then he’d find peace.
The serenity he’d glimpsed and longed for so many times called to him, beckoned him stronger than any siren lure.
Just do as asked and then it’d be his. Or he could kill Ephyra instead.
He wanted to scream with this war inside of him. This fucking indecision.
Who the fuck was he?
Did it even matter now?
And then she placed the words into his hand. His fist closed tighter over the pearls. The tighter he squeezed, the hotter they became.
“Choose, Niérian,” he heard the voice of the Circe call to him amid the oracle’s constant utterings and the ragged breathing of the woman next to him.
The indecision pulled on his mind, stretching it out like a rubber band as far as it would go and then snapping back, breaking, opening, flooding with something new. Warmth surged from the words, seeping down into his hand, spreading out and bringing with it understanding and knowledge. “Ask me,” Charlie urged. “Ask me the truth.”
“I don’t have to.”
He didn’t need to ask her for the truth; he already knew it.
He didn’t need to decide; his decision was already made.
It was crystal clear, and he’d rain destruction down on them all.
And then try like hell to survive it.
When he glanced up, he realized that only a heartbeat had passed and the last Circe was waiting for him to fulfill his part of the bargain. He stood.
His hand was hot now. Shimmering golden power snaked through him. He opened his palm for the Circe to see. The pearls were gone. They’d sunk deep into his skin, into the essence of his being, leaving behind a round brand. The words that had been inscribed on the jewels were now within this mark, shimmering like the gold energy radiating from the Circe.
His mouth twitched, then widened in a deadly smile.
Time slowed. Realization appeared in her look and she threw out her hands, her mouth opening, a syllable coming out. Oh, she knew. She knew the choice he’d made.
But he was already speaking, already drawing that shimmering gold knowledge into his core, gathering the word he knew but didn’t know, building and building and building.
Destruction rang out of him with utter clarity; he didn’t care if it killed him because he was taking her with him. Either way he won. He saw her death before his word even reached her.
As her power flowed out to him, it was obliterated by his as it rode on an unseen wave toward her. Her eyes went wide. And then it reached her and blew her body apart.
One second there, the next . . . not.
An unsatisfying revenge.
Directly behind where the Circe’s body had been, the wave connected with the statue.
A crack boomed, shaking the chamber.
He reached down and grabbed Charlie, tossing her screaming self over his shoulder. He heard another crack, this one from Charlie, and knew that something else had broken inside of her. He’d wounded her more, but then wounded was better than dead, and that’s what they’d be if they didn’t get the hell out of there.
He ran, but her voice stopped him. “Sandra,” she slurred. “You have to get her. Please. I promised . . .”
“Fuck.” He swung back around and raced for the oracle who was chanting wildly to the eerie sound of the statue cracking, like an arctic ice sheet about to give way.
He fisted the black hair, dragged the head off the pedestal, turned, and ran.
Over the dead sirens at the door, down the passageway . . . And then it shattered, the sound dropping him to his knees as he tried to balance the woman on his shoulder and not drop the head in his hand. He used his forearms to cover his ears, as something bigger and far more powerful erupted outward, blowing apart the chamber behind them like an atomic bomb.
He surged to his feet.
Out into the chamber that was open to the sea. The walls behind him blew. They were picked up by the force and sent hurtling toward the cave opening. The walls disintegrated. His body was pinged by debris, large portions of the wall, tiny pebbles like a million arrows slicing into his flesh.
And then they were out, blinded by light and then submerged in deep water.
He kicked his way to the surface and dragged them to one of the many rocks that jutted up into the bay of Fiallan. He pushed Charlie as high as he could, laid the head of the oracle beside her, and hung on, his body pulled back and forth by the churning water.
His strength waned.
The cliff that made up the south side of the bay collapsed, rocks dropping into the sea, the great obelisk tower on top of it crumbling, too. And like dominoes the next two towers in the wall went down. The last one, which rose out of the cliffs on the other side of the bay, remained standing.
A massive wave barreled toward them. “Fucking hell.” He drew in the last of his strength and hauled his ass onto the rock and then dragged them higher, to the very top while the wave crashed at their feet, spraying over them with force and moving on out to sea.
He lay, belly down over the jagged rock, breathing harder than he ever had before. Soaking wet, his body limp, and his exhausted mind in disbelief. The grid was down. The Circe were gone.
After a time, there came a strange, echoing “Thank you.” It flowed through his exhausted mind with a warmth that he could only describe as a smile.
“The sea will heal you”—this time the echo was clear, the voice grief-strickenly beautiful—“and restore that which was needed in you to end the Circe’s reign. You have done well, siren.”
As she spoke, he saw images of the past and knew that in the sirens’ time of need, during the war with the Adonai, that the deity had shown herself to the Circe and given them the means to protect the city while its strongest warriors were away fighting. The deity had offered her own power, a temporary gift. But the Circe had bound her, turning her own power and that of the Malakim against her, binding her there where they used the power, drank from it, used it to rule, and to live far longer than they should have.
All this time, she had been trapped.
Until she was able to pass along the gift of the Source Words to him. And now they were his. He opened his palm to find the mark still there, like some round brand made from pearly white ink with the golden shimmering inscriptions written there. His words. His family’s legacy finally achieved. He’d been made for this. Trusted.
“And the Malakim?” he asked, staring over the settling water to the crumbling towers.
“Three will survive. One has chosen to pass on to the Afterlife. The truth will be shown to the people.”
He stared at the city that had betrayed him, the city that had stood by when his family had been killed. He felt no love for it, no love or understanding for its people. He was not one of them nor did he want to be. His path was set. His choice made.
“They would follow you,” the voice said to him. “You could be king . . .”
The thought made him shudder.
He sure as shit wasn’t going to devote his lifetime serving those who never once questioned the Circe, never once took a fucking stand. Besides, he already had a life, one he fully intended to embrace now that he was no longer a fugitive and the Circe were dead. “I’d rather be Hank.”
“You would go back to Earth, to your old life?”
He thought for a long moment, not about his choice, but about the damage done to his psyche, his soul. He would never be the same, he knew that. He knew the road he faced, the way the pain would creep over everything he was and wanted to be. How the hollowness left from his soul continually leaving and returning would grow. He was fractured. Even though his soul was back and he was free from the NecroNaMoria, he no longer felt . . . whole.
“Stay with me and heal, Niérian. Give yourself time.”
He let his forehead fall on his arm, tired, so fucking tired . . . “I would go home.”
A soft sigh seemed to blow over him. “And so you shall, but healed from your wounds at least.” She hesitated before adding softly, and with so much love that it burned his chest, “Your strength will see you through, Niérian. Your soul will heal in time. Until then . . . enjoy . . .”
He lifted his head, immediately knowing her intent. “No, I don’t want—”
And with that the sea rose up and swallowed them.
I woke to warmth and the smell of citrus, herbs, and salt water, realizing with a jolt that the excruciating pain I’d passed out to in the Circe’s inner sanctum was gone. I was sore and stiff, but that was all. I’d healed.
Bright stones glittered into focus—hundreds of them inset to form a wave pattern in the white ceiling above me. They looked like jewels set in a ceiling of pearl.
Carefully, I moved onto my elbows and scanned the room to determine location and threat factor. I’d seen Ephyra blown into a billion bits, but that didn’t mean shit. I’d seen stranger things re-form or come back from the dead . . .
Despite the grogginess, I sat up and swung my legs over the lounge. After the vertigo passed, I pushed to my feet, expecting to feel some measure of hurt. But the only thing I felt was cool silk falling down my legs.
What the hell?
I wore a slinky gown of the deepest blue. Where the light hit the material, it shimmered in a rainbow of colors. It was gathered at one shoulder and trimmed with light blue stones that felt cool to the touch. My feet were still bare, but clean, and thin bands of sparkling stones encased my ankles.
I ran my hand over my ribs, distinctly remembering a few being broken—at least one had punctured my lung—but only a bruised sensation remained. I touched the back of my head where I’d cracked my skull. Again, only a bruise. My hair was dry and clean, left down to fall in soft waves to my shoulders, and I saw as it fell forward that it was back to being my natural color. Both of my biceps were wrapped in jewel-encrusted bands of gold.
“I’ve fucking died and gone to Harry Winston’s.”
I sat back down in utter confusion, rubbing my face and feeling dried tears staining a trail from the corners of my eyes to my jaw, like I had been crying in my sleep. My heart hurt as everything came flooding back. Sandra.
And Hank . . .
My mark was warm.
My mark was warm! I shot to my feet. Hank. The room spun. Okay, maybe not the best idea to stand so quickly. I stayed still, waiting for things to settle down.
The temple, the clothes . . . it was enough to believe I was dreaming or having some sort of out-of-body experience. Or that I did, in fact, die. I felt real, though. Solid. Grounded. And the fact that my mark was warm meant wherever this was, Hank had come along for the ride, too.
I swore softly, wondering if it was over, if we were out of the constant barrage of threats and torture.
Warm, humid air breezed across my skin, drawing my attention to the right where columns framed a view of a blue horizon shot with streams of pink and orange. To the left was a gallery of six white columns. Thick spiral bands of inset jewels wrapped around each one from top to bottom. If only I had a pocketknife . . .
I went toward the gallery of columns, keeping my eyes trained for movement, for an attack, going slowly because no matter how beautiful a place it didn’t mean there wasn’t evil underneath.
I stepped through the last set of columns and went down three wide steps into a courtyard of soft, spongy grass, dotted by delicate trees that reminded me of weeping willows, but their thin limbs were tipped with fragrant white blossoms. I stopped suddenly in the grass, wondering what I was doing, and why I moved from the temple. Maybe I should go back, let whatever or whoever had brought me here come to me.
But then that wasn’t exactly my style.
A few feet ahead of me was another temple identical to the one I woke in except steam rose from the center. The sound of water lapped the sides, and a strong arm sliced up through the steam and disappeared.
I wiggled my toes in the grass and bit the inside of my cheek, suddenly unsure and self-conscious in the goddess attire. It was all hazy. I didn’t remember getting here or where here was. And I definitely didn’t like being kept in the dark.
I gathered the sides of the gown, went up the steps and into the temple.
Five seconds later, I stopped near the long side of the pool. All the determination to demand answers evaporated as I watched Hank, Niérian, Siren of Creation and Destruction, dip beneath the water. He came up for air at the far end. Water swirled around his hips and ran down his back as he stood. His back and one hip were terribly scarred, but the lines were faint and flat as though years of healing had occurred.
How long had we been asleep?
His arms lifted, biceps and back muscles flexing as he shoved his hair back from his face. Then, he stilled.
Arms still up, he turned and my stomach did a full three-sixty.
God, he was beautiful.
And there was so much more to him than just the beauty. It was everything I’d learned, everything on the inside, everything he had endured that added to the picture standing there all hard and lean, a fallen angel with a tormented soul and a devil’s attitude.
His gaze was solemn and unreadable as it swept me from head to toe and back up again. He was so still and quiet in his regard, giving off a calm vibe that conflicted with the power and intensity radiating from him. I swallowed. His arms dropped. His hands floated idly on the water.
Fires burned in the two basins in the far corners, and bejeweled columns rose from each corner of the pool. I resisted the urge to do something with my hands, like wring them on the gown.
God, please don’t let this be a dream.
God, please let this be a dream.
This didn’t happen to me. I prided myself on control, on knowing what I wanted and going after it. Unless, apparently, that thing was Hank.
Heart pounding, I walked down the long side of the pool, in and out of shadow, the siren tracking me with his eyes and body. He was leaner from his time in Fiallan, but no less intimidating. And wet like that, with his hair swept back from his face, full mouth darkened red from the heat in the room, and spiky wet lashes . . .
One corner of his mouth quirked, slicing a faint dimple into the side of his cheek. I’d been waiting for that, I realized, the sardonic grin. Something that told me this was Hank, and not Niérian.
“Stop that,” he said, slowly—and, sweet Jesus, the deep rumble of his voice drenched me in a wave of lust. “Or I’ll take you up on it.”
Those were words he’d used once upon a time in another pool far, far away. I couldn’t help but smile. I had a witty comeback on the tip of my tongue, but when I opened my mouth to deliver it, nothing came out. I didn’t have anything to say. Warmth spread over my cheeks.
His grin grew into a blinding white smile. “Lost your train of thought, did you?”
Normally that would’ve gotten a rise out of me. But I just stood there like an idiot, my blood thumping thick and hard through my veins.
As we stared, the mood went heavy and significant and highly charged. I began to wonder if siren staring could cause a mini-orgasm, because I sure as hell was getting hotter by the minute. And, Hank, damn him, must’ve sensed it because he had to go and make things worse.
“Drop the gown and get in the pool, Charlie.” His hot gaze swept over me. “But leave the jewelry.”
The devil is back, I thought, catching a topaz blue glint in his eyes. He just had to go tempting me, putting images in my head that left me reeling. Hell, all I could see for a second was the material sliding off my body, leaving me naked, the jewels around my ankles and biceps glittering.
This was the Hank I knew, the one who liked to confound me and rib me every chance he got. Like now. But was it real?
Dream or not, wherever the hell we were, I had a decision to make. One that every ounce of my physical self screamed I make in the affirmative.
I walked around the corner to the short side of the pool where steep steps led into water. I gestured to the shenti loincloth he wore. “I see you haven’t dropped trou.”
He swam over, the water licking his chin, his eyes dancing. “Just wanted you to stay conscious until you got in the water.”
I laughed at that, but quickly sobered up because he stood again. He moved closer to the steps, and I was transfixed by the water swirling around his navel.
I blinked, dragging my attention back up. “Huh?” His eyes had gone diamond blue. “Where are we? What happened?” I croaked out.
“Panopé’s realm. Her . . . gift to us. To heal. In peace. The Circe are dead. Time is slower here, much slower . . .” He gazed at the gown again and I was pretty sure he liked what he saw. “The gown, I imagine, is her attempt to play matchmaker.”
“Ah.” I meant to say more, but that was all that came.
He waited, wondering what I’d do. What choice I’d make.
The choice was clear, though. No point in denying that. So much had happened, so much pain and hurt and heartache, and I wanted to wash it all away, to make something better. With him.
The last time I’d seen Hank—the Hank that I knew, not the Niérian whom the Circe had tortured—was back at the station when the sirens from Fiallan had shown up to apprehend him. And before that we’d been running for our lives in Charbydon.
We hadn’t had a chance to just . . . be. And, hey, if time was slower here, we were out of danger, and Hank was standing there in the flesh, you’d better believe I was going to take advantage of it.
Okay, then. Decision made.
When I reached up to move the gown off my shoulder, a faint note of surprise swept across his expression and then was gone, replaced by a hunger that flashed raw and tense. There was a desperation in that brief flash, and it made my heart hurt. He needed this. I needed this. Something good to banish the pain and grief.
The gown fluttered to my feet.
Hank’s eyes immediately went to my breasts. I smiled, feeling shy, but loving the fact that his response was so male, so normal. A groan rumbled in his chest and it was in that moment that I left any self-critical thoughts behind. He devoured me with his gaze, stopping to linger and torture himself over all the parts that had been hidden from him before. Then, finally, he met my gaze and rubbed a hand down his jaw.
I quirked my lips. “Lose your train of thought?”
He laughed and held out a hand. “Hell, no. My train of thought hasn’t deviated since you walked into the temple.”
Hot water closed over my skin as I stepped down.
Sliding my hand into his felt . . . right. And then suddenly my emotions shifted from anticipation to an overwhelming sense of relief and intense emotion. Hank dragged me off the step and into his arms.
He was okay. Alive. Not executed. Not a casualty. A survivor.
I wrapped my arms around his neck and just hugged him, my nakedness totally forgotten as all the fear and grief and pain flooded back. I pressed my face into the crook of his neck and just held on. My heart pounded. I couldn’t speak if I’d tried.
He held me just as tightly.
We stayed like that for a long time. His heartbeat strong against mine. I wanted to tell him how glad I was that he was okay, that we’d made it. But there were no words.
Then he pushed me back, his expression stark and serious, haunted. “I know I got lost. I know what I did to you.” And it was killing him inside, that he had struck me with the whip, had walked away from me when Sachâth had me. “And that is something . . .” He lifted his gaze to the ceiling, looking for the right words as his Adam’s apple slid up and down. Then he seemed agitated, refocusing on me. “Why the hell did you drop the gown?”
I blinked. “What do you mean?” Embarrassment filled me. “You asked me to!” I said in accusation.
“I didn’t think you’d do it.” I tried to pull away from him, but his arms were like steel. “But I’m eternally grateful you did as that image is now burned onto my brain for all time.” His hand cupped my face. “You take my breath away, Charlie. You always have.”
“Hank. Did you or did you not want me to lose the gown? And why are we even having this conversation?”
“Because I fucking hurt you, that’s why.”
And he needed absolution, maybe even retribution, some kind of punishment to assuage the guilt he felt. So I closed my eyes and kissed him as gently as I could on his warm, wet lips. There. Absolved.
My heart knocked hard in my chest. I pulled back a fraction, lips just touching, sharing breath, savoring the sensations of being this close, this intimate. He smelled clean and male. I kissed his cheek, his jaw, his neck, flicking out my tongue to taste him.
His fingers dug into my skin. Then we looked at each other. He tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear and then rested his forehead against mine as if pained. “I hate myself for saying this . . . I don’t think there are condoms in Deity Land.”
Sirens didn’t carry disease nor did they contract or carry human diseases, but pregnancy between races was possible. “I’m on the pill, the latest and greatest . . . And I haven’t been with anyone since the divorce.” Heat filled my face, but I pressed on honestly. “I don’t want to stop. Do you?”
He lifted his head. “You sure about this?” If I was even the slightest bit unsure, he’d back off. I nodded. A slow, crooked grin built on his face. “Because you do realize . . . once you go siren, you never go back.”
I laughed, joy filling out all the dark corners. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
“Your fault. You make me crazy.” He gave me a squeeze and nuzzled my neck. “I like seeing you smile, hearing you laugh . . .”
I pulled back slightly and waited until he lifted his head, then I cupped his face and kissed him hard, speaking against his lips and grabbing him through the shenti. “It’s not laughing I’m wanting to do, siren.”
“Christ. You’re killing me . . .” His tongue slid into my mouth, deep and hungry and so carnal, I nearly lost it right there.
He pushed me back, pinned me against the side of the pool with his size, and kissed the daylights out of me.
His hands roamed, rough and hot as his mouth moved to my neck. He hiked my leg over his hip and held it there. The shenti was gone—didn’t know when that happened—and I felt him hot and hard against me. My pulse pounded so quick, I could barely speak. “Do it. Please.” Him. Inside me. Now. I pulled him close, wanting to meld into him, become so close that there was no distinction, nothing separating us.
If he didn’t do it now, I’d go over the edge without him. Next time, my frantic brain promised, next time we’ll go slower.
He chuckled, and I realized I said that last part out loud. Didn’t care. I urged him, snuggling my hips closer, trying to—
And then he spoke.
His lips moved against my neck and his siren voice flowed out of him like warm honey, tugging on every pleasure nerve I possessed, magnifying . . . everything. At the same moment, he slid into me. One long stroke, all the way, and the world as I knew it shattered, replaced by one of mind-altering pleasure.
He didn’t move until my spasms ceased and I came out of my stupor. He was still inside of me, hot and hard as a rock. I kissed the tense muscle in his jaw and said breathlessly, “Okay, now I’m ready. Go.”
He groaned and thrust.
* * *
“I think you short-circuited some of my brain cells.” Hank lay with a towel around his waist on the lounge near the pool, his eyes closed and his fingers linked over his bare stomach.
I lay similarly on a twin lounge next to his, so sated my body was a useless lump. “I think I overdosed on endorphins.”
His deep, satisfied chuckle made me smile. “You did lose consciousness a couple times.”
I laughed at the joke. But who knew? I might have. There were moments I . . . I couldn’t even put into words, didn’t even know a body could experience that much. I’d barely had enough strength left over to get out of the pool, dry off, and pull the gown over my head.
He rolled onto his side, propped himself up on his elbow, and rested his head on his hand. “I thought your cavewoman demands were . . . adorable.”
Oh, yeah, Hank was back and giving me hell.
I slapped my hands over my face. “Oh my God.”
“I was particularly fond of Move. Now and Go.”
I glared over at him even though I couldn’t stop grinning. “You know, I’m not even going to try to improve my sex talk,” I said, “because you’ve got the market cornered in that department.” I lifted my nose in the air and said airily, “I’ll just work my magic . . . elsewhere.”
“Explain,” he said, deadpan, and then smiled widely.
God, if he didn’t stop looking like that I was going to jump him. Again.
I was . . . happy. And it was more than simply getting my universe rocked multiple times. Hank and I, we got each other. We had the same offbeat sense of humor, the same love of the good fight. I trusted him. I knew he had my back. He always had.
I tried, I really tried to lie there and not let the worries creep in, but I couldn’t help wondering how things would be once we got back home. If we could be partners, friends, and lovers. If it would alter our perception and our actions at work, under fire, under pressure.
If Emma would accept this new direction in our relationship.
“We’ll figure it out,” Hank said, sensing my shift in mood. “Whatever comes, we’ll deal with it. As fast or slow as you want to take it, Charlie. I’m not going anywhere.”
I sat up. “I’m sorry I left you at the station.” I’d hated that moment, and I had to say that, to get it off my chest. When I’d had to choose between running after Bryn and fighting against the sirens who had come to take Hank back to Fiallan. I wanted him to know it hadn’t been an easy decision.
He sat up, swung his legs over the lounge until our knees were touching. “I seem to recall telling you to go.”
I frowned. “Yeah, but . . . still. It wasn’t easy and you’re my partner, leaving you was . . .”
“The right call.” He leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “But I’m glad it matters. And I’m sorry for hurting you.”
“I know what they did to you, Hank. I saw it. I knew about the NecroNaMoria before Ephyra mentioned it.” I regarded him for a long time, studying his face, his expression, trying to see for myself that he was truly healed. “Is it gone, the spell? Did it end when she died?”
He toyed with my hand. “It’s over.” He smiled and shrugged, then plowed his fingers through his hair, releasing a deep sigh. “The Circe are gone, that’s all that matters. They made me crazy for a while, fucked with my head, but I know what they did and I’ll get over it.” Which was putting it mildly, but I decided to leave it alone.
And what else could he do? I’d been through horrors I’d never forget, ones that still lingered in my psyche. Putting one foot in front of the other, as cliché as it sounded, was what had gotten me through. People who were there for me, who never pushed me to heal, but gave me time and let me know they were there, they cared.
I’d be that person for Hank and I wouldn’t push.
He stood up and held out his hand. “Come on.”
I slid my hand into his and together we walked toward the pool, where Hank retrieved his clothes and dressed. Just dropped towel and bared ass. Nothing to be shy about, I thought, smiling.
He sat to pull on his boots, regarding my gown. “You’re keeping the gown.” He glanced up, eyes sweeping the room, raising his voice. “And the jewels.”
“Are you telling me this or Panopé?”
“Both.” Done with his shoes, he stood, then reached behind the bench and lifted a sack.
I went still. “Please don’t tell me that’s Sandra.”
“Okay. It’s not Sandra.”
“Well, what did you expect me to do with her? Set her on the table? She’s a head, Charlie. A talking head.” A wave of weariness hit me and I sat down in a slump as Hank regarded me for a long moment. “What the hell was she doing in Fiallan?”
“She showed up at the terminal. She . . . helped me. Said that this was her path, that her fate was tied to ours.” I thought of our time in Fiallan, before things went wrong, and felt the rise of grief again. My fingers twisted the gown. “I actually liked her. Can you believe that? She was a good person, Hank. Really good and . . .” I couldn’t finish, couldn’t go down that road, so I drew in a deep breath and went another way, one less painful. “She made me promise to bring her home, said Tuni would know what to do. Thank you,” I said, “for going back for her.”
After twisting the fabric some more, I continued. “The worst part about it is that she knew. She knew what would happen to her and still she went.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever totally understand why or get over the look on her face the last time I saw her alive.
Hank held out his hand, his voice gentle and understanding. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go home.”
I let him pull me up. And just like that, I was gone, weightless. One second physical, the next, nothing but energy particles. Then I was whole again, my weight settling hard down into me.
We stood on the cliffs of Fiallan, facing the sea.
Far across the bay, the tower was gone, large blocks of it scattered or submerged into the sea below along with a good portion of the cliff itself.
Behind us was the left cliff tower, which still stood, its top blazing with the setting sun’s light. If I had to guess by the amount of activity going on across the bay, only an hour or two had passed since the collapse.
The waves rolled in and out. The wind whipped at our clothes and hair, bringing with it the salty, wet air.
“Did you bring us here or did Panopé?”
“The goddess,” he answered, staring at the destruction. “I have yet to master that power.”
I squeezed his hand. “You okay?” This was his home, his people, his history . . .
He gave a faint shrug, his profile unreadable as he continued to gaze at the city.
“How could the Circe have trapped a deity?” I asked at length.
“Panopé gave them her power to help create the grid. It was supposed to be temporary, drawing on her powers and the Malakim to make the walls impenetrable. The Circe must’ve devised a way to keep Panopé there. They saw an opportunity and took it. Panopé waited, all this time, for someone to come along.”
“Someone like you.” I smiled and wiggled my eyebrows at him.
He snorted. “Yeah, who knew . . .? Come on, we need to find a mage to get us out of here.”
We left the cliffs behind and walked a winding path through the inner city, to the main gate. A few curious looks were thrown our way, my gown and jewels drawing the eye, but attention was focused on the chaos of the three towers falling, the recovery effort, the wounded . . .
“Why do you think she waited so long, though?” I said as we went. “I mean, every year during the rites, sirens walk through her waters. Why didn’t she say anything?”
“Maybe she did. I don’t know. Maybe she knew that if she did communicate, the Circe would immediately silence the person and the goddess from speaking again. Maybe she was waiting for the right moment, an enemy of the Circe. Who knows?”
Once we were in the outer city, Hank arranged for a mage to take us back to Ithonia. He bent down and unclasped one of the ankle bracelets and handed it to the mage, whose eyes turned to saucers. “Will this do?”
The mage stammered and managed a nod.
Hank turned to me. “He’ll take you first, straight to the terminal in Ithonia, then he’ll come back for me.”
Part of me wanted to tell him to go first. I’d left him behind once, and didn’t want to do it again. But I knew he’d brook no argument, so I nodded. The mage pocketed the anklet, took my elbow, and we were off.
I arrived at the terminal and waited for Hank to join me. He appeared in short order and then we headed toward the gate. Unfortunately, the gate agent from before wasn’t there as I was hoping.
With no ID or papers, we had to be fingerprinted, run through the system, and then had to wait for temporary passes before being allowed through the gate and into the sphere. We also nearly came to blows with several gate officials about the head in the bag.
We spent three hours sitting in a windowless room, getting the basic interrogation tactics. Amateurs. I told it like it was. Sandra had given specific instructions to her guard in the event of her death. An agent had gone through the gate into Atlanta, contacted Tuni, her jinn bodyguard, and had returned with him to confirm the oracle’s last will and wishes.
A jinn’s presence in Ithonia, even at the gate, was a memorable event. Tuni was huge, with smooth gray skin, bald head, pierced ears, and a bolt through one eyebrow. His eyes were violet and intense, and he strode from the gate like some demon lord who had every right to be there.
He pretty much stopped everyone in their tracks.
I stood from the long bench against the wall near the gate agent’s desk. I had no idea what kind of relationship Alessandra had with Tuni, but I did know he was her number one, and he took his job seriously. My anxiety rose the closer he got. I waited for his eyes to glow violet, but he strode by me without a glance and followed the agent into a room.
There was silence over the entire terminal as everyone in the know waited for the explosion, for Tuni to flip out when they gave him Sandra’s head. But the only sound was the click of the door as it opened.
Tuni strode out with the sack. This time he stopped in front of me. His eyes swept over my gown and his brow lifted a fraction. He reached to his back pocket, pulled out a letter, and handed it to me. “She wanted you to have this.”
I took the letter. “Tuni . . . I’m sorry . . .”
“Don’t be. She knew what she was doing.”
With that, he gave a curt nod to Hank and continued on. The entire terminal didn’t release their collective breath until Tuni disappeared into the sphere.
Since Hank and I were both in the system with federal law enforcement status, and our story checked out—as much as it could be checked—we were eventually given clearance to leave.
From Hartsfield-Jackson, it was a taxi ride into the city, Sandra’s letter still clutched tightly in my hand. Hank was quiet for most of the ride, staring out the window at the dark landscape of steel and concrete and lights. Coming back to Atlanta felt surreal after where I’d been, what I’d seen, the things I’d done . . .
“How did you know about the NecroNaMoria?” Hank asked quietly.
I started at the beginning and told him about walking through the city, trying to use my mark to get a lead on his location, finding his home, and my altercation with Leander. “He seemed to know a lot about you. Do you know him?”
Hank shook his head. “Is he siren?”
“Might be. It was hard to tell. He’s old and powerful, and he knows a lot about First Ones.” I explained our fight and how Leander had called back my power before it escaped enough to draw Sachâth, how he knew about First Ones and their Disciples. And the tablet. The fucking tablet. “And with it, went my chances of getting the cure for ash.” Which, after everything, was a hard pill to swallow. I stared out the window for a long moment. “Leander knew about your family, the history, everything. Was he right about all that? About what the Circe did to them?”
Pain flashed through his eyes, pain and deep, deep guilt. I knew what he was thinking. If he’d never left the grid they’d all be alive. I thought about fate, and was on the verge of telling him that maybe he was meant to leave Fiallan, to become a different person, one worthy—because of what happened—to be given the Source Words.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About your family.”
He was staring out the window again, his only response a curt nod. Hank had taken his revenge, and he’d blazed one hell of a bloody path to do it. I would’ve done the same. The Circe got off easy, all the lives they’d taken over the years, an entire family wiped out . . .
The taxi pulled up to the curb on Alabama Street to let Hank off. “Make the meeting with Leander, Charlie. I want to know what he knows. Sachâth is still out there. Neither one of us will be able to rest until that thing is dead. If we take the offensive and face it on our terms . . .”
Which was better than having an accidental power surge, or drawing it here in the heat of battle, or simply becoming divine enough until it sensed me all the time, in which case, I’d be on the run for eternity.
Sachâth could be killed or Sandra wouldn’t have given me the prophecy. I—we—just had to put the pieces together to figure it out.
“I’ll call you when I have a time and place.”
Hank opened the door and got out, leaving me feeling a bit dumbfounded. He handed the driver a card, which was scanned through the machine in order to pay the fare, then gave him the address to my house.
I sat there, wondering if that was it. Now that we were back home, things had suddenly turned weird and awkward. I’m not sure what I expected, but even a See ya later, thanks for the out-of-this-world sex and trying to save my ass would’ve been better than . . . nothing.
I was so deep in thought that I didn’t see Hank come around the front of the car and open my door. I nearly fell out of the car. He righted me and leaned in quickly, kissed my lips, withdrew just enough to look into my eyes, and said, “Put the jewels and the gown in a safe place. We’ll be needing them later.” He winked, shut my door and then banged on the top.
Before I had a chance to gather my wits and respond, the taxi was already pulling away from the curb.
The ride passed in a blur.
I used the spare key to let myself in the house. Emma was in school and my Tahoe was gone, which meant Rex had gone somewhere.
I set the letter on the bedside table, hung up the gown, hid the jewels in an empty shoe box in the closet, and then took a long shower. After rummaging for leftovers and filling my belly, I crawled into my bed and went to sleep.
* * *
Emma’s sweet voice saying hello and her soft kiss on my cheek made me smile, but I didn’t open my eyes right away. I’d slept damned good for once, thanks in part to Panopé healing my wounds. I’d vaguely acknowledged Emma and Rex coming home, heard the back door slam and the usual sounds of people in the house, but then must’ve drifted off again.
“I bet if you pinched her nose and covered her mouth, she’d wake up.”
“She’s already awake, Rex.” Emma’s weight settled on my bed as I opened my eyes and stretched.
I pushed up to a sitting position and then froze, eyes widening in disbelief. “Rex!” He had pulled the chair from the small writing desk next to my bed, had his feet propped on the mattress, and was reading Sandra’s letter.
I leaned forward and swiped at it, but he was too fast, moving it over his head and out of reach. “That is mine. Give it back before I hurt you.”
One eyebrow lifted, then he handed it over. I snatched it and folded it back up, promising revenge with my look.
“So . . . what happened?” Emma asked. “Where’s Hank?”
I proceeded to give the short, PG-13 version of what had gone down in Fiallan, then turned my attention to my daughter, intending on asking her about her week and school—the usual. “Are you wearing eyeliner?”
She sat back, tucking her foot beneath her thigh. “No.” A beat passed. “Okay, yes, but just a little bit. You can barely tell.”
“You let her go to school like this?”
Rex rolled his eyes, huffed, and then studied Em’s face, shaking his head. “I don’t see anything.”
Emma, of course, grabbed on to that. “There. See, Mom. You can barely notice.”
“No makeup,” I told her, then glared at Rex. “How many fingers am I theoretically holding up?” I asked, meaning the middle finger.
“Funny. My eyesight is perfect. So what’s with the letter?”
“Gee, I don’t know . . . maybe that’s because I haven’t read it yet. You might’ve noticed it was sealed.”
Rex shrugged. “Might’ve. So?”
Emma made a grab for it. “Let me read it.”
I gave up, let it slip through my fingers, and fell back onto my pillows as Emma cleared her throat, intending to read it aloud. “Ohmigod, that is so freaky! She knew I’d read this to you! How cool is that? I just got goose bumps. Okay, starting over . . .
Since your daughter is reading this to you, I will behave. Charlie, I write this because my end has been revealed. I cannot see yours nor all the events that will lead me to mine—I only know that it will happen and I must follow the path Fate has laid out for me. I have, however, seen a glimpse of Death, and your future, when you drew it here last night to my club (thanks for listening by the way. You owe me three grand in damages).
Sachâth will soon recognize you as divine, and, stating the obvious here: it will kill you unless you kill it first. It’s you or it, Charlie. Plain and simple, no?
Ask yourself why it has been so successful, why the Archons themselves feared it. Not even they had the power to end its existence. Therefore, neither do you. Though, in a roundabout way, you do. Makes you crazy, doesn’t it? Welcome to my life.
Here’s the thing. I see random bits and pieces. I don’t see the complete picture. But (and I hate to say this) the things I have seen tell me that (gag) you and I bond, become (gag, again) friends, so I want to help you. Who knew, right? You will hurt for me, which is nice to know. I hurt now even though I don’t understand all of it.
Just know that I will be with my sister Fates in the end, and the prophecies I will continue to give will be more powerful than ever (if such a thing is possible, because, hello, World’s Best Oracle here).
And remember this: the Creator didn’t account for everything.
Bye, Charlie. I don’t get to say that in the end, so I’m saying it here.
P.S. I hope you find your siren.
P.P.S. On the three grand: I take cash, credit cards, and checks. Just give it to Tuni.
I pressed my palms to my eyes, feeling a sting in my throat and behind my eyelids. My chest felt like it had been punched. I wanted to laugh and cry, and wished to God that Sandra was still around so I could shake her and hug her. Damned oracle.
After a heavy moment, Emma cleared her throat and said, “So you have to figure out how to kill this Death person. And what’s an Archon?”
I sat up to find her sitting cross-legged, the letter in her lap, a thoughtful expression on her cute face, and a dimple in her cheek that told me she was biting the inside like I often did. I stayed quiet, not about to clue my kid into the fact that First Ones still existed, but I couldn’t deny the threat that Sachâth posed.
“But you won’t be able to,” she continued, however, not waiting for me to answer. “But you kind of can.”
“Frustrating, isn’t it?” Rex told her. “Oracles are always like that. Take my advice, avoid them at all costs.”
I told them about Sandra’s prophecy. Accept yourself to make the shadow whole . . . together, together . . . but not by your hand . . . and death will come to death . . .
“So, if you accept yourself, you make the shadow whole . . .” Rex said, resting his chin on the teepee of his fingers. “Whole could mean physical. If it’s physical, flesh and blood, it can be killed.”
“And accepting yourself could just mean all your powers coming together or something,” Em said. “And not by your hand . . . does that mean you use your power, Mom? Like from a distance? I don’t get it.”
I sighed. I’d already worked most of what they were saying out for myself. “I don’t, either.” And I needed to work it out because I sure as hell couldn’t call Sachâth here to fight unless I knew how to defeat it.
“The oracle seems certain you become divine,” Rex observed.
I’d definitely come into a strange sort of power in Fiallan; the fact that I could use my arm with the same effect as Ahkneri’s sword; the fact that everything seemed to work together inside of me to make that happen. It hadn’t been just one power, but all of them, everything inside of me, all the human and off-world genes coming together. And I was starting to suspect that I’d had a little help in that department from a certain earth sylph who had once told me I was fractured on the inside and offered to fix me. I’d temporarily been given the gift of Nwyvre, the Hidden Element, in order to save my sister Bryn, and now I was starting to believe it had brought peace to the warring powers inside of me, made me whole.
“How much homework do you have?” I asked Emma.
“A ton. Geometry and more Geometry, Astrology, and I have to study for a Crafting Vocab quiz tomorrow.”
“You’d better get started, then,” I said.
Since it was only four o’clock in the afternoon, and Sandra’s letter burned in my brain, I decided to pay a visit to the one being I knew had some answers. “I need to make a quick stop at the Grove and grab another cell phone from the station.” I already had a duplicate ID, badge, and weapons at the house, but the cell would have to be configured with my old number and contacts by the tech guy at the station. “How about I pick up a pizza on the way back and then I can help you study? Sound good?”
“Two pizzas,” Rex said.
“One cheese,” Emma said.
“One with everything. And get some of those breadsticks,” Rex added. “And you’ve got yourself a deal.”
I stuffed the letter back into the envelope and then held out my arms to Emma. “Hug.”
After a long, tight hug, I kissed the top of Emma’s head and smoothed the wispy hairs that had escaped her ponytail. “Missed you, kid.”
“Missed you, too.”
Rex cleared his throat. The lifted, expectant eyebrow and the exasperated look in his lavender eyes had me nudging his foot with mine. “I know,” I said. “You missed me, too.”
His eyes rolled to the ceiling, but his lips curved into an attractive smile. He promptly removed his feet, stood, bent over, and kissed my forehead. “I did, actually.” And then he walked from the room, calling out, “And don’t forget the breadsticks, woman!”
Em laughed. “He’s so weird.”
“You can’t hold your breath that long.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. The lake’s not that deep. And besides, all you have to do is blink me in. You’re the Druid King, so I know you can do it.”
Pendaran and I stood in his private quarters, away from the main temple and courtyard. The breeze over the lake stirred the white curtains that hung on either side of the large opening to Pen’s private dock. He stood framed in the space while giving me his lame-ass excuses.
“You’re being a bit overprotective, aren’t you?” I asked. It was one thing to keep Ahkneri hidden and protected from the outside world—it was detrimental, in fact. But I wasn’t just anyone. I had every right to see her if I wanted to, more right than him for sure.
Pen turned and glowered at me, and I had to grudgingly admit, he was intimidating. Maybe if I hadn’t seen him turn into a dragon, things would be different, but once that image was seared into my mind, it was hard not to be a little leery of the guy.
“My borders are being crossed. My kin are at risk. Protective?” he asked mockingly. “Damned right I am. Why do you want to see her?”
“I just want to talk to her, to try and communicate. I have things I need to ask her, and she’s the only one who can answer.” If she chose to. “Look, I’m the one who wanted her protected in the first place. I’m lying to my boss and my superiors; I even lied to my own kid to keep her secret. Letting me in that cave won’t change anything, but it might save my life, which I’m kind of partial to, so . . .”
He stared at the water, arms crossed over his chest, profile as stubborn as his body language. “I stay with you the entire time.”
“Fine.” Even though we’d been through battle together and had trusted each other, it didn’t mean Pen trusted me with this. I supposed I couldn’t blame him. Anything could happen in that cave. Hell, if Ahkneri decided she wanted to take a tour of Atlanta’s hot spots, who was I to say she couldn’t take over my mind and make me release her? There were things that could go wrong. Very wrong. Having the Druid King by my side was a bonus.
Pen faced me, placed his gigantic hands on my jacket-clad shoulders, and we were off.
“Don’t move yet.” His deep voice filled the darkness as my weight settled back into me. “The floor is rocky.”
A light flared, followed by another. Sconces on the damp bedrock walls held dancing arcane light. It was green and dim, but enough to allow me to see.
The underwater cave was enormous, holding a huge air pocket deep beneath the lake. Water dripped in loud echoes. It wasn’t cold like I’d expected, but warm and humid. Pen reached out and snagged my hand. “This way.” He pulled me along like I was an errant child, still reluctant to have me in his private space.
The cave floor was uneven and filled with loose rocks. Even though I didn’t like being led around, I was grateful for the strength of Pen’s hand since it kept me from falling and twisting my ankle on more than one occasion.
Lights flared as we passed between rocks as high as my shoulder, finally coming to Ahkneri’s resting place.
Pen stopped and released my hand.
I’d forgotten how stunning the sarcophagus was, how large and significant. The thing had been carved out of one enormous piece of agate, so smooth it gleamed in various colors of honey, flaxen, and cream. Not a single marking lined the body. Only the thick agate lid bore a line of script around its perimeter—the same type of script on my arm.
As beautiful as it appeared, I now understood it for what it really was: a prison.
“I’ll wait over here.” Pen’s deep voice echoed in the cave as he picked his way over the rocks to a flat oval depression in the ground. I shouldn’t have been unprepared when he shifted into his dragon form, but just seeing it took me by surprise.
The light bounced off his black scales as he circled and then lay down, giant jaw resting on his front legs, wings folded against his back. He was so large I could hear his breathing from where I stood and see the slits of his nostrils move in and out with each breath. His eyes blinked and then stared at me calmly, quietly, that weird abalone color filtering across the irises.
Ahkneri hung at the edges of my mind, always that welcome, that whisper of acknowledgment. I turned back to the sarcophagus. Now that I knew more of what she’d gone through thanks to Sandra and the dream I’d had in Fiallan, I wanted her to be free. She’d been totally shafted. All she’d wanted was to live her own life, and to suffer like this was unimaginable and unfair.
Would this be my eventual fate? The thought left me a bit sick to my stomach.
I need to know, Ahkneri. I placed my hand on the smooth agate and pleaded in my mind. I need to know how to defeat Sachâth. Part of me thought the obvious: if she knew, then she would’ve defeated it a long time ago. But then knowing and actually doing were two different things.
I felt her smile. Weird, that. Please. Tell me.
I will show you instead.
Immediately, I was taken out of time and reality. I wasn’t sure if my body was still standing there in the cave or if I was really standing, in the physical sense, on the wide, level rock on a vast red plateau. But I sensed I was just a visitor, not part of the scene, not able to affect or alter anything around me.
Not that I could move if I tried. The scene playing on the plateau rooted me to the spot.
Ahkneri was there, dressed in some badass black armor and it wasn’t the polished, gleaming type; it was dented, bloodied, and spiked. Her black hair was in two long braids; she had what looked like war paint on her face—stylized symbols slashed across one cheekbone and around the corner of one eye. She held Urzenemelech in her hand, and the blade glowed like my arm had glowed.
She and five others, four males and a female, all armored, all wielding swords, fought against what I knew had to be Sachâth, only it wasn’t just shadow, it was like them, a physical body, but male and without the armor. The shadows were there, too, like an extension of its body, seeping from its skin like smoke, swirling around it, lashing out. The shadows were its armor and its weapons.
Red dust flew in the wind, grunts and steel echoed over the plateau. The fight was hard, nasty, and brutal.
It appeared as though they worked in three pairs. Each pair consisted of one without a helmet and one with. Ahkneri and a male. The other female and a male, and then the two males. The two females and male who fought without helmets were on point, and their partners worked in rotation with them, defending, giving them time to regroup and attack when necessary.
I was pretty sure since Ahkneri was without one, that the ones without helmets were First Ones, and the ones with were Disciples, and they were no less intimidating than the divine beings they protected.
The shadows flowing from Sachâth got a piece of the male First One, slicing through his arm, severing it. It fell, still gripping the sword. Before he could dodge, the shadows curled around him, enveloping him, and then like some fucking porcupine, shot him through with spiky shadows wherever there was a break or weakness in the armor. The First One’s wings shot out—wings as white as snow—released in panic, fear, death, I didn’t know, but a scream erupted in my head as light burst from the body. It happened so fast, like a vicious blur, and it was done. The First One was dead, dropped to the ground, discarded.
Shit. My heart pounded as his Disciple roared with fury, attacking with a passion and speed that was incredible to witness. He rolled, coming up with the First One’s severed arm still gripping the sword. He shoved it into Sachâth’s side. A spine-chilling screech filled the plateau as the creature stumbled back. I held my breath. It was wounded. It could be wounded.
A shadow lashed out and decapitated the Disciple. The helmet rolled, skipping over rocks before coming to a stop several feet from the battle.
Ahkneri and the other female lunged at the wounded Sachâth, pressing the advantage. Ahkneri closed in and they fought with such pace, it was like watching a battle on fast forward. The two Disciples rotated in; Ahkneri’s Disciple took over and was stabbed clean through the armpit as he lifted his sword arm. The shadow came out through his opposite shoulder blade. His sword clattered to the ground. The shadow withdrew and the Disciple crumpled to the red ground.
The other female First One rotated in and delivered a vengeful blow, her blade sinking straight into Sachâth’s heart.
Ahkneri screamed, “No!”
I knew it was a killing blow.
Sachâth looked down in surprise and then its face became more animated, more humanlike. Emotion poured into its eyes as its shadows reached out and pulled the First One close. “Forgive me, sister,” it said before darkness threaded its way from the wound, wrapped around her sword, covering her hand and then scurrying up her arm, covering her like a horde of insects.
The female’s Disciple went berserk, hacking at Sachâth, attacking, trying to save her, but he was tossed like a rag doll. He landed forty feet away, the crash of his armor loud in the sudden quiet.
Ahkneri lowered her sword and began backing up.
That is why we cannot kill it. Strike a deathblow, and you become Death. It’s a fail-safe. To ensure there is only one outcome—the total annihilation of my kind. When the last one of us is dead, Sachâth will return to the Creator.
Ahkneri’s black wings shot out as she moved slowly away from Sachâth. Then she turned in my direction, and ran. Supernaturally fast. Arms pumping. Face determined and haunted. She took flight, shooting past me, the tip of her wing passing through my shoulder, heading for the Disciple who’d been thrown.
He was flat on his back, but jerked suddenly and woke swinging, as if from a nightmare, a broken cry on his lips. He struggled to his feet, jerked the helmet from his head, and flung it, roaring his pain to the sky. His golden hair was damp with sweat and blood, and his power and grief were so raw that his cry seemed to rip the air apart. And for a moment, I thought I was looking at Leander, but then Ahkneri’s wings swept in, blocking him from view. She grabbed him and flew away.
The scene retreated as though I was being pulled away along with Ahkneri and the Disciple.
I returned to the cave, swaying slightly at the sudden disorientation, and having to grab on to the sarcophagus for support. Pen’s dragon head lifted. He watched me with solemn eyes as I bent over and tried to get my wild pulse under control.
I felt like I’d been in battle myself for how shaken I was and how hard my heart pounded. Ahkneri had allowed me to see something of great significance. All of it brutal and unbelievable. All of it needing a moment to sink in, which I took.
That was the last battle ever fought with Sachâth. You can kill the creature, Charlie, but you will take its place if you do. You will become Death. Sachâth can only be killed with a divine weapon. No one but us can wield them. And yet, you strike the blow, and you take its place. Another fail-safe.
I thought for a long moment. What about someone else, can someone other than a First One kill Sachâth?
As you saw, the Disciple delivered a blow with a divine sword that wounded the creature. Had he held the sword, however, it would’ve killed him. There were times in battle when Disciples attempted to slay the creature with our weapons . . . suicide, they knew, but just one moment was all we’d need, just one killing blow that did not come from our hand . . . and yet that blow never came. We tried everything, coordinated attacks, launching our weapons from afar, but our weapons are an extension of us. Struck by hand or afar, the killing blow still kills the weapon’s owner and another Sachâth rises. If another were to use my sword and kill the creature, I’d still become Death, wherever I was.
What about using a sword from a First One already gone? I asked. Sachâth would die, and there’d be no First One to change into Death.
It was a thought that worked better in theory. No one can wield our swords, Charlie. And most, even if they could for a few minutes, did not have the strength to defeat Sachâth in that short period of time.
What about other races, I went on, their powers, can they harm it?
We fought Sachâth at a time when other races were in their infancy. There are primal powers perhaps strong enough, but Sachâth is . . . perfect.
Anything else you can tell me?
Sachâth will only attack one of my kind, unless it is provoked, then it will defend itself. But it is not programmed to seek out and kill others. Just us. That is all I know . . .
“Thank you,” I said, hand flat on the sarcophagus.
That incredible being I’d just seen fighting her heart out was lying beneath the lid. I shook my head. It wasn’t right. Ahkneri was good, not some evil being cast to Earth like in our biblical stories.
I have accepted my lot. You are . . . like us, but . . . different. You wear your weapon on the inside. You are the weapon. But you will still become Death should you strike the blow that ends the current Sachâth. Even now, your power calls to it. You grow stronger every day. Soon it will hunt; your power will be a beacon, a lure it cannot resist. If you run now . . .
I can’t run. I had a life. A family. A child. I couldn’t leave her. Just the thought of it was like a kick in the gut. Leaving Emma and running was no different than if I died trying to defeat Sachâth. Either way I was out of her life for good. Because I sure as hell wasn’t going to uproot her and drag her all over the world while Mommy slept in a fucking stone coffin.
I, too, had a child, a family . . .
Well, it’s not right. It’s not fair, I told Ahkneri sadly. I have to face it, or sooner or later I’m dead anyway. And I’d do it on my terms, and hopefully with a little help from my friends.
The emotion I got from the ancient being was patient understanding. No doubt, she’d felt the same as I did at one time. She’d been there, tried that, and look where she ended up.
I straightened, not allowing myself to think like I was defeated before the battle had even begun. If Sandra thought there was a way, then I had to think the same.
And one thing I knew for sure—the oracle was never wrong.
* * *
I sat at Pen’s kitchen table, nursing my beer as he grabbed his second one from the fridge and bit off the cap. He spit the cap into the nearby trash can, parked his hip on the edge of the counter, and then took a long, deep swig. Since he was no stranger to the truth about the First Ones, I confided in him about Sachâth, the details of my vision, and Alessandra’s prophecy. He might have embraced some of our modern ways, but Pen was old. Rumor was he’d once been worshipped as a Celtic god. He was a Druid, too. And he was intimately acquainted with the arcane and with Nwyvre.
“Nwyvre is a primal power source,” he said, picking up where our conversation left off. “The Creator didn’t create Earth, or Elysia and Charbydon for that matter. They were already there; they exist outside of divine influence. The Creator simply made the First Ones and then seeded the worlds with their offspring. The Adonai, the nobles, and humans all descended from the Creator’s divine children, but the rest of us, we rose directly from our home; we evolved on our own, albeit much later. Interesting thing,” he said, eyes going narrow and thoughtful, “you have the power of all three noble races within you, which makes you divine, but . . .”
“Yeah?” I prompted when he fell into silence.
Pen smiled wryly and pulled out a chair, flipped it around, and sat down. “Well, think of it this way . . . Even the noble races have evolved since they were first given life. They’ve acclimated and changed. The Adonai, for instance, they learned to utilize the power of Elysia with utter precision, they wield it, heal from it, draw it into themselves . . . You don’t think that has changed them over the course of millennia? It has. You weren’t given the genes of those early ones who seeded the worlds; you were given the genes from those who had evolved over thousands and thousands of years.”
“True,” I said. “It makes sense, but how is that going to help me?”
Pen shrugged. “Not only are you divine, but you have ties to each world. You don’t rely solely on divine power. You’ve used Charbydon and Elysian power in the past, yes?”
He took another drink. “Sachâth’s power is divine. The Creator is also a primal power. How do you fight primal power?”
“With another primal power,” I answered. “We fight Sachâth with Elysian or Charbydon. Or both.”
Pen smiled. “Or we hit him with all three.”
I knew there was a reason I liked the Druid. A very tiny spark of hope lit in my mind.
“I can pull insane amounts of Nwyvre through the henge, so I’ve got Earth covered. You come with Elysian and Charbydon power and we strike it with all we got . . .” He shrugged and drank. “Then we might have a shot.”
“That’s drawing the creature right into your territory, using the henge,” I pointed out.
“If it only attacks other races when provoked, I don’t see a problem. I’ll make sure my Kinfolk won’t attack. The bigger problem is getting a primal energy source, raw, arcane stuff, from both Elysia and Charbydon. Good luck with that.”
“Thanks.” I stood up and set my half empty beer on the counter before turning toward Pen and giving him a long, curious look. “Why would you help me? There’s nothing in it for you.”
He went still as he studied me and the hairs on the back of my neck lifted. Then the sensation was gone as quickly as it came. “If Sachâth is gone, Ahkneri will be safe.”
Oh, I had a feeling I knew where he was going with this. Not good. Not good at all. “She can never rise, Pen. You know that. No one even knows how to awaken her, except maybe a Disciple. And the tablet about them was destroyed by the Circe. And even if she could rise, her existence would start a three-world war. You can’t seriously be thinking this.”
He drained the last of the beer, watching me as the liquid slid down his throat. He set the bottle on the table. “She rises. We reveal the sarcophagus. Let the jinn, the Sons of Dawn, and any other cult out there see that it was empty all along, then she can live in peace. That’s all she ever wanted, Charlie.”
“And her weapon? Her power. You can’t hide that.”
“Sure I can. I’m the Druid King.” A small smile played on his lips. “Tell me you don’t want to see her free, too.”
“Of course I do,” I answered immediately. “Christ, Pen . . . Let’s just take this one step at a time, okay? We get rid of Sachâth and then we’ll work out a plan. But we have to agree, have to cover all our bases, before we even seriously consider what you’re thinking.”
That was too easy. “I want a geis. Your vow.”
His expression went shrewd and that eerie color washed over his irises again. His chair screeched along the floor as he unfolded himself. He held out his left hand, palm up. “Place your palm flat over mine.”
Having never actually demanded a binding vow like this, I was a little hesitant as I stepped forward and placed my palm over Pen’s. A tingling energy wrapped around my hand and the winding tattoo that covered his left side moved, or at the very least shuddered, awakened . . . Along his wrist and hand, a shadow of it climbed over my skin like vines, threading together and making a knot over our hands. A bond. As it did this, Pen vowed that Ahkneri would not be awakened until we agreed upon terms.
And then he dropped his hand and it was done.
I rubbed my hand. “So what happens if you break the vow?”
“I can’t even if I wanted to. I won’t be able to move beyond an intention to break the vow, so it’s a moot point.” I slid my hand into my jacket. It felt prickly, like it had fallen asleep. “The henge is yours. You let me know when you figure things out.”
“Don’t mention it. You’ll be taking over Killian’s case, now that you’re back, I presume?” It was phrased as a question, but sounded more like a demand, a very subtle one, but still.
“Yeah, let me get Death off my back, and I’m all yours.” Pen’s eyebrow arched, a raven’s wing that didn’t seem to appreciate my sarcasm at all. “I’ll get an update from Ashton and Liz, look over the labs and paperwork. I’ll let you know the status as soon as I can.”
I returned home with pizza and breadsticks, helped Emma with her vocabulary, and then settled in for the night. I’d never made it to the station, but I planned on being there first thing in the morning.
My dreams that night were a rehashing of Ahkneri’s battle, Alessandra’s eerie head spouting off prophecies, and random bits of me and Hank, his torture, and the fight against the Circe.
By the time I woke, I felt like I’d relived a couple lifetimes in just a few hours. I took a cool shower to wake me up, ate breakfast with Emma and Rex, and then dropped Em off at the League of Mages school before continuing to the station.
“Well done, Madigan.” The chief clapped me on the shoulder as I entered our work space. He must’ve decided that wasn’t enough because he pulled me into a bear hug. “Well done.” He set me back, the look in his eyes warm and fatherly. Then he winked at me and went right back to work mode. “You’re going to have one hell of a report to file, so better hop to it. And don’t forget to file a report on the oracle as well. Sian will send a copy over to the folks in Ithonia. Glad to have you back.”
“Has Hank been in yet?”
“He’s over in legal giving a statement.” The chief grabbed a file off his desk. “I’ll be back after noon. Ashton’s in the process of following up a lead, but he’s got until the end of the week to get his reports and notes together on the Grove case, then it’s back over to you and Hank.”
“I’m sure he loved hearing that.”
The chief gave a merciless shrug. “He knew all along he was just filling in. Good to have you back, Madigan.”
The chief barreled out of the office. Sian finished making coffee in the small kitchenette, and offered me a cup. “You should’ve seen his face when he found out you and Hank had come through the gate. He had to sit down, on the floor. I swear I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Teary-eyed and everything.” She handed me a bag of bagels. “For you.”
“Thanks, Sian. And thanks for . . . before . . .” When she’d tried to comfort me as Hank’s supposed execution dropped me to my knees.
“No problem. I got you a copy of the latest report from Liz. That hair you found by the lake came back as sidhé fae. I’m still searching the histories for that ‘old school’ group that showed up in the oracle’s club. Might be the same guys . . . I mean, pretty coincidental, right?”
I sat down at my desk. “Could be.” Probably was. This wasn’t going to be a cut-and-dry case, and I had a feeling Killian’s murder was just the beginning. As soon as I took care of my literal shadow of death, I’d be able to put my full attention to solving Killian’s murder. For now I was content to let Ashton finish up with his lead. I didn’t like him or his tactics, but he was a good investigator. “We’ll see. Keep searching. Try searching the word Disciple and see if anything comes up, will you? And run the name Leander through the database. Let me know if you get a hit.”
“Sure. That all?”
“No,” I said, chewing my bottom lip. “Can you get a courier up here? I need to send a message to the mages’ headquarters in Ithonia.”
“I’ll call downstairs and see if one’s available now.”
“Thanks.” Edainnué Lightwater was an Elder in Ithonia’s League of Mages. And I had her marker. If there was anyone who might know how to defeat Sachâth, it was her. And Leander. Leander knew way more than he let on . . .
After working all morning, I broke for lunch and headed into Underground to eat with my sister Bryn. We chose Abracus since it was right across the street from her shop. Using the same details as I’d given Emma and Rex, I filled her in on the happenings in Fiallan, leaving out Panopé’s “gift” to Hank and me, which I knew she’d love to hear all about, but I just didn’t want to talk about it; it was too new and tenuous at this point, and honestly a little unreal.
Bryn made up for my surprising lack of appetite, eating her burger and fries, and then picking at mine. “I take it things are better,” I said.
“As in?” she asked, mouth full.
“As in your health and relationship with Aaron.”
She grunted and swallowed a drink of sweet tea. Emma and Bryn looked so much alike it was scary. Big brown eyes and wavy brown hair—though Bryn’s coloring on both was lighter than Em’s. They had the same full lips, slightly upturned noses, and that impish quality to their look. “Ash is still kicking my ass. But I’m managing. As for the warlock . . .” She rolled her eyes and snagged another fry. “Irritating. You’d think a guy like that with a couple hundred years of mage training and scholarly pursuits wouldn’t be so . . . pigheaded and alpha all the time, you know?”
I laughed. “Shouldn’t surprise you.” With all the scholarly pursuits, Aaron was still a warlock—a warrior class of mage.
“It doesn’t. It’s just annoying. After everything, now he wants to take things slow when before he wouldn’t leave me alone. And now, suddenly, I’m the one who wants everything right now and he doesn’t.”
“I think he’s just worried about you. You’ve been through a lot. So has he.”
“I know. But”—she pointed a fry at me—“what better reason to grasp love by the horns while you can, before something comes along and snatches it away from you?”
She did have a point and as she went on about her complex relationship with Aaron, I smiled. I hadn’t seen Bryn this animated since before her exposure to ash. She still had shadows beneath her eyes, still had gray threaded through her aura, and I knew she suffered, but even with all that she seemed more like the little sister I knew and loved.
I’d held that stone tablet in my hands, the very thing that could’ve freed her from addiction, and then watched it shatter along with Ephyra. Gone.
But the cure still existed . . .
And if Leander had it, then I sure as hell was going to find a way to get it. Tablet or not.
After lunch, I walked back toward the plaza where Mercy Street joined with Helios Alley and Solomon Street. The scene—people shopping, goblins pushing their sale carts, patrons sipping coffee at the outdoor tables in front of the imp’s bakery, the sound of the fountain and the traffic echoing from the city above—it was comforting. It was what I knew, what I loved, and I hoped to God my inter-dimensional travel days were over.
I hadn’t told Bryn about Sachâth. Doing so would involve her in knowledge that was far too dangerous to have. And while I’d turned a corner when it came to including those I loved in details of my life, this wasn’t something I would or could share. Pen, Hank, and I had made a promise when we hid Ahkneri in the lake. No one would know. No one.
For Bryn or Rex or Emma, even the chief and the ITF, to know that a First One existed, that a divine weapon existed, was knowledge that’d get them killed, used, targeted . . . And I couldn’t reveal details about Sachâth without getting too close to the truth.
As I came to a stop in the middle of the plaza, I felt Hank before I saw him.
I turned slowly and watched the main stairs that led from Topside Atlanta down into Underground. First his combat boots stepped casually down the steps, then tan cargo pants, standard issue equipment belt with hip weapon, black tee . . .
His eyes were on me the second they came into view and it felt like the crowded plaza vanished. Wavy blond hair, sardonic tilt to his mouth, five o’clock shadow. I knew what those arms felt like, how the skin tasted, knew how it felt to suck on that slowly curving lower lip.
Partner. He was my partner. As in work. As in: how the hell was I supposed to separate the work from the relationship?
I let out a shaky breath as he strode toward me, all large and male and greedily taking up all the oxygen and space in the plaza. “Charlie,” he said, purposefully making his voice lower and deeper than it already was.
“Hank,” I countered, narrowing my eyes, but not being able to keep from smiling. Damn him.
“So, listen . . . I know it’ll be tough, but try to keep your dirty thoughts to a minimum. Once we clock out, we’ll go back to my place, and you can have your wicked, wanton way with me. Sound good?”
He was enjoying this way too much. But then, I guess, so was I. He waited a beat, and when no response came out of my idiot grinning mouth, he leaned in, kissed me, and walked around me, saying, “Awesome. It’s a date.”
Nice, Charlie. I rolled my eyes at myself, spun on my heel, and fell in step beside him. On one hand, I was glad he was trying to fall back into his old routine—the easygoing, likeable, flirtatious guy. On the other, I wondered how he really was and how he was dealing with the wounds on his mind and soul. I knew what it was like. To forge ahead, to pretend something didn’t happen or just deal with it in the quiet of your own space, in your own time.
We entered Helios Alley—or as I often called it Elysian Territory—and headed down the middle of the street, avoiding the busier sidewalks. “How did it go at legal?”
“The usual barrage of boring, repetitive questions. The Feds are sending a group to Fiallan to help with the fallout. The king has abdicated the throne . . .” He slid a glance my way. “I hear the delegates told you I was executed.”
“Yeah.” Not a pleasant memory.
He bumped me with his shoulder. “Thanks for not believing them.”
I bumped him back. “You’re welcome.”
Helios Alley dead-ended into the underground lobby of Helios Tower. After a quick walk through the tunnel, we emerged into the spacious lobby complete with restaurant and bar/lounge. We bypassed the receptionist’s desk and took the elevator.
“This is giving me flashbacks,” Hank muttered.
“Tell me about it. At least we’re only going to the fourth floor this time.” Instead of the rooftop, or the forty-sixth floor from whence we took our tumble . . . I shuddered with the memory.
The lower floors of the tower were devoted to businesses. The address that had been on Leander’s card had said 4th Floor, Suite 107. No name. Nothing else but a phone number. The plaque indicating Suite 107 was also otherwise blank.
I opened the door to find a typical waiting room and a desk behind which sat a thin middle-aged woman whose fingers tapped efficiently on a keyboard. She stopped typing, looked up, but didn’t say a word in greeting. How lovely.
“We’re here to see Leander,” I said.
She peered at me, then Hank over the rim of her glasses. “Who may I ask is inquiring?”
“Detectives Madigan and Williams,” I answered.
“One moment, please.”
As she left the room, I glanced around the small front office, noting that it looked like my accountant’s office, and not what I expected from the mysterious Leander.
“Right this way,” the receptionist said, returning to lead us down a long hallway to an end door, which she held open and then closed behind us.
The room was the size of my entire downstairs cottage in Candler Park. Two gigantic windows offered views of the city. The chair behind the massive desk was empty and it looked as though neither one had ever been used much. To the left were two couches with a coffee table between them and beyond that an entire wall of books from floor to ceiling.
Leander, however, was to the far right with his back to us, playing a pinball machine.
Hank gave me a look that said, You’re shittin’ me. This is the guy?
Oh yeah, this was the guy. There was no mistaking the power in the room. We walked over. The words Bally’s Wizard! were painted across the back glass along with some curvy, barely clad women, and if I wasn’t mistaken a guy that looked like the Who’s Roger Daltrey in the middle wearing a Pinball Wizard T-shirt.
From the less than impressive score, either Leander had just started playing or he sucked at pinball. I was guessing sucked, since he lost the ball seconds later.
Leander barely acknowledged me. His gaze went straight to Hank. They stood several feet apart, about the same height and weight, both broad shouldered, both powerful, and easy on the eyes. “So you brought back the last son of Elekti-Kairos,” he said to me while studying Hank.
“Actually, he kind of brought me back,” I said, giving props where they were due.
Hank stared so intently at Leander that my hand moved to rest on the grip of my firearm. The energy in the room shot up and the hairs on the back of my neck rose.
Leander folded his arms over his chest. “Ignoring it won’t make it go away, siren.”
“So what does, then?”
“Nothing, really. Time. Distraction. Women. Killing things . . . they just make you forget for a little while.”
“What are you?” Hank asked.
Leander cocked a smug eyebrow and then finally turned his attention to me. “Where’s the tablet?”
He leaned back against the pinball machine, his casual stance deceptive because I could feel the surge of anger that ballooned around him. “Then you waste my time.”
“I’m going to face Sachâth,” I said, surprising both Leander and Hank.
Leander recovered first and snorted. “Didn’t figure you for a total head case.”
Hank was watching me, his eyes narrowed, his mind working. “What makes you think you can defeat it?” He knew I’d never face Sachâth unless I felt I had a chance.
“Yes, do tell,” Leander added, amused.
“Since you know about Ahkneri’s existence . . .” I said to Leander. “She gave me a vision. She showed me the last battle she fought with Sachâth.” Leander straightened and the quiet intensity that stole over him made me stutter.
I forged on, though, and told them about the vision, what Ahkneri had told me about the nature of Sachâth, and of my talk with Pendaran. Leander looked a little pale, and strode over to a cabinet and poured himself a drink. He tossed it back in one gulp and then turned to us, cradling the empty glass in his large hand. “So you think all you have to do is pull together three primal energy sources and that will be the end of the Creator’s assassin.”
“Do you have a better idea?” I shot back.
But Hank was watching Leander. “Has that ever been tried?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Leander admitted. “Sachâth was always engaged by First Ones and their Disciples. Every weapon conceivable was tried, to my knowledge,” he felt the need to add again.
“The indigenous people of Elysia and Charbydon developed outside of the Creator’s influence,” I said. “They sprung from the primal deities and energies that emerged in those worlds’ infancy. Like the sirens, fae, and nymphs,” I said. “And the jinn and the ghouls . . .”
“So you want to hit Sachâth with powers that aren’t connected with the Creator,” Hank said.
“Right. I just need to figure out how to bring them together. Pen can direct the Earth’s arcane energy . . .” I looked at Leander. “I just need a means to use Elysia’s and Charbydon’s. I don’t know what you are, Leander, but you must have some idea of how I can do this.”
He eyed me for a long time. “Did you read the tablet?”
I blinked at his change of direction. “Um . . . yeah. I read it.”
“Yes,” I said slowly.
“In the ancient tongue?”
“I believe so. Why?”
He walked to another wall of cabinet and bookshelf combinations, and pulled out a drawer. Inside he retrieved a metal cylinder and then walked back to me. “Here.”
I took it. It was cold. “What is it?”
My hand tightened around the metal, and my heart lurched inside of my chest. “What do you mean? This”—I shook it at him—“is the cure to ash?”
“Yes. But maybe you shouldn’t shake it like that.”
I froze. “But why?” And I didn’t mean the shaking.
“Because, Detective, the entire point of retrieving that tablet was to read it, out loud, and in the language of the First Ones. Since you have done that, I’m upholding the bargain.”
Wariness flooded down my back, setting off every warning bell I had. “What the hell did I read, Leander?” But based on what he told me before about the tablet, I had a good idea. “I woke a Disciple.”
He grinned. It wasn’t happy or smug or even satisfied. It was feral.
“Tell me something, Leander,” I said. “Where did the Disciples come from?”
“They were among the first generations born to the First Ones when they seeded the worlds. The first Adonai, the first humans . . . There were none more powerful than them save the First Ones. They offered their swords and their lives. Some guarded mothers and fathers, some guarded lovers, husbands, wives . . .”
And then I took a chance. “I saw you in the vision.”
There was no reaction at all in those golden eyes, almost like he’d been waiting for me to say it. “You saw what you wanted to see.”
“I know what I saw.”
His voice was soft, but lethal. “No, you saw your precious Ahkneri turn her back on her own Disciple to save another. That is what you saw.” He moved back to the pinball machine. “As for Sachâth . . . If your plan will work”—he shrugged—“who knows. But I will lend my aid at the time and place. Just call my secretary. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m extremely busy running my empire.”
He turned back to the pinball machine, pulled the lever, and set the ball free.
* * *
Hank wasn’t happy with me. I could tell. It might’ve been the heat radiating off his hand when he grabbed mine and pulled me to a private spot in the lobby. Or it might’ve been the pissed off gleam in his eyes, or the plowing of his fingers through his hair and then the exasperated way he parked two fingers on his hip, dropped them, and paced before me.
“When did you plan on telling me about this idea?”
“Christ, Charlie!” he hissed and dragged me over to some tall palm trees in pots. “You can’t seriously think . . .”
“You’re the one who said in the cab we had to get rid of it!”
That seemed to take some steam out of him. “I know what I said.” He stared up at the ceiling, blew out a deep sigh, and then faced me again. “We have one shot. One. And that’s it.”
“Well, no pressure or anything,” I said, knowing exactly the risk involved. “And what the hell were you and Leander talking about anyway?”
He gaped for a minute, his focus still on Sachâth. “The NecroNaMoria.” Completely deflated, he slumped into a nearby chair. I did the same in an adjoining one. “Whoever he is, it happened to him. Even if he hadn’t said anything I knew . . .”
“What do you mean, you knew?”
Hank shook his head as though he was confused by it all. “I don’t know if I can even put it into words. It’s a sense of him being . . . not whole . . .” He let out a heavy breath, and gave up. Obviously not really something he wanted to think about.
I let that simmer for a moment, honestly not knowing how to respond, and disconcerted by the notion that if Leander exhibited a sense of not being whole, then Hank most likely did, too. I stared at Hank, this big, capable guy, sprawled on the chair, his head back against the cushion, who was still cracking stupid jokes and trying to fall back into the person he was before the Circe got ahold of him, and knew he was struggling. On the inside. Where no one could see. Where he wouldn’t let anyone see.
“You get a feel for what he is?” I finally asked.
He lifted his head off the back of the chair and scrubbed a hand down his face, leaning forward in the chair, knees apart, hanging his forearms over them. “He’s not siren. I don’t know what he is, Charlie. You really think he’s a Disciple?”
“I don’t know. I was hoping to get more of a reaction out of him.”
“Was he in the vision or were you just bluffing?”
“I don’t know. I thought . . . if not a Disciple then what is he?”
“He didn’t deny it.”
“No . . .”
Hank opened his hand, staring down at his palm for a long moment. “Well, I know how to solve the Elysian part of your problem. Straight from the deity herself.” He lifted his head and held out his branded palm. “Primal Source Words.”
Since we were comparing weapons . . . I lifted my arm, the one with the symbols, and smiled weakly. I hadn’t told him everything. “Ancient divine weapon.”
His crooked smile threw me off-balance. “Some arm you got there, kiddo.” At my confusion, he said, “I saw you use it. In the cave. When Arethusa died.”
Oh. Right. “Yeah, well, I was a little distracted.”
“You and me both.”
“So now what?”
“Well, now we work on the third power problem.”
And what was likely to be the impossible one. “Charbydon.”
The cure for ash had been passed along to Titus Mott. It would need to be studied; its properties identified, then re-created and put through a series of tests before using it on live subjects. For now, we were keeping it under wraps—no need to get anyone’s hopes up if it didn’t work. But I was pretty sure that whatever Titus discovered in that cylinder would be the key to ash’s demise.
I’d sent out the courier the day before and had just gotten a reply. Lightwater said no. Apparently a stickler for details, she required her two days with me before giving me her marker. That had been the deal struck, and that’s the way it would stay. I wanted to send another courier saying that if I died then she’d never get her two days, but decided it was pointless. Lightwater wasn’t a fool; she knew exactly the kind of gun I was under. And she’d had the nerve to write Good luck.
I couldn’t exactly go into Ithonia and give Lightwater her two damned days first. She wanted to study me, and my power. No way in hell I was going to chance Sachâth coming again. The next time it did, I was sure it would be my last.
And I’d yet to go to Hank’s apartment to have my wicked, wanton way with him, and was pretty sure this contributed to my bad mood. Last night, he’d come back to my house and eaten dinner with me, Emma, and Rex. And since I hadn’t told Emma anything about a relationship existing between Hank and me, I wasn’t going to go home with him after. We ended up back at the station to work late with Sian, researching the sidhé fae, every myth and legend I could get my hands on concerning the First Ones and their Disciples, and the ITF database for Charbydons in the city (and beyond) who were old enough and powerful enough to beg, blackmail, or threaten into helping me.
Lost cause, really.
I’d made enemies of the two most powerful Charbydons in the city: Grigori Tennin and the Master Crafter of Atlanta, the ghoul, Nuallan Gow. Hank was willing to put his life on the line to fight Sachâth, and Pen had an ulterior motive he thought was worth the risk, but there was no Charbydon who’d be willing to do anything of the sort. In fact, they’d stand on the sidelines cheering Sachâth for the win.
The following morning, I was tired and cranky as I sat at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal, not looking forward to starting yet another day of endless frustration and roadblocks. Soon Sachâth would come whether I used my power or not. I had to be prepared, had to face it on my own terms. I had to win.
The Creator didn’t account for everything.
I kept coming back to those words Sandra wrote in her letter. I felt certain she was telling me Sachâth wasn’t perfect. There was a flaw in the First One assassin, the flaw being, in my opinion, that it was only created to kill First Ones. Not other beings. Sure, the fail-safes were there, but had those other races been taken into account? They were only in their infancy, not even a blip on the radar during the time of the First Ones. Had the Creator taken into account that ages later those “blips” would become intelligent and powerful?
I was sure I was on the right track, but I hit a wall when it came to the Charbydon issue.
Emma flounced down the stairs, dropped her backpack in the middle of the kitchen floor, grabbed a bowl and spoon, and then slid into a chair at the table. She grabbed the cereal and milk from the middle of the table and poured. After her first bite, she said, “So?”
“Mom.” The expectant look she gave me was wan and no-nonsense, and very much like . . . me. “The problem. What is it, what’s bugging you? We only have fifteen minutes, so be quick.”
I returned her look, shaking my head, and deciding to play along. “Okay. Fine. Say you had a project where you had to draw on power. Not just any power, but the arcane energy from each world, really primal stuff. So three different sources. And you have Earth and Elysia covered, but not Charbydon.”
She chewed thoughtfully for less than ten seconds before she said, “Simple.”
I smiled. “Oh, is it?”
“Yeah.” She flipped her spoon until it was pointing to the ceiling. “You just take it from the darkness overhead. It’s all raw energy from Charbydon anyway.”
And just like that my twelve-year-old kid floored me. Floored. I dropped my spoon, clattering milk and cereal all over the table. My mouth hung open and she just looked at me, then around the room. “What?” she asked, cheeks full of cereal.
“Nothing. Nothing.” I grabbed the spoon and bowl, standing up, shaking. “You’re just . . . that’s just . . . genius. And right. It’s right.”
Her mouth split into a smile, and she continued chewing cheerfully, completely in bliss at being right. After she swallowed, she said in a very aristocratic tone, “I shall mark this day down in the annals of the Madigan Family Saga. The day Emma Riley Garrity, the Genius, was right. Right, I tell you! Right, I say! Right, right, right!” She punched her spoon into the air with each word.
Rex shuffled into the kitchen, all sleepy and grumbly. “Right. Whatever. Coffee. Emma. Stop being happy. It’s too early for happy.”
She laughed and resumed shoveling cereal into her mouth as I stood at the sink, rinsing my bowl out, amazed and embarrassed that I’d been so intent on the Charbydon races that I’d missed the obvious hovering right over my head.
And I didn’t need a Charbydon to use the darkness, just like Pen didn’t need to be human to draw out Earth’s energy. All one needed was strength, knowledge, and a shitload of power.
“Rex,” I said, turning to eye him. “I don’t suppose you know any jinn rituals for calling down or commanding the darkness, do you?”
He shut the fridge and gave me the blandest expression, like I was wasting breath even asking him such a ridiculous question. One that didn’t even warrant an answer.
Well, I had to give it a shot. But I was already well on my way to solving the problem because I knew another who had manipulated the darkness. Llyran, the level-ten felon who had stolen a tome from the Adonai’s Hall of Records, one that told him exactly how to command the darkness.
And guess who had that book? The Druid King.
I wiped the table, kissed Emma on the cheek. “Hurry up, we need to get going.”
* * *
After dropping Emma off at school, I placed a call to Hank, filling him in on Emma’s brilliance, then to Pen to let him know we were on our way.
As I parked by the curb near the 10th Street entrance of the Grove, Hank ducked out of his car and my belly went light. I ignored the feeling, turned off the engine, and got out.
Hank approached as I shoved one side of my hair behind my ear and locked my vehicle. I slipped my keys into my pocket. My mark grew warmer. The darkness overhead made me tingle. And my heart rate rose at the idea of facing Sachâth again. Ugh. Talk about edgy. And it was only going to get worse.
“Morning,” Hank’s rich voice broke the quiet.
I drew in a deep, steadying breath and turned. “Morning.” I continued, stepping past him and onto the sidewalk. “Sure you’re ready for this?”
His answer was a casual shrug as he fell in step beside me. “You call Leander yet?”
I stopped. Hank walked a few more steps before turning around with an eyebrow lifted in question. “Hank, are you really sure about this? Sachâth might be designed to kill First Ones, but it’ll attack anything if provoked.” And that meant Hank and Pen were as much a target as I’d be.
He took three long strides, coming to stand directly in front of me, so that I had to lift my chin to look him in the eye. “Were you sure when you left the city to find me?” Of course I was. I didn’t even need to think about it. I nodded. “It’s the same thing, Charlie. We defeated my demons, now we defeat yours.” He tossed a look over his shoulder toward the gate. “Come on.”
We fell in step again. Hank asked again if I’d called Leander. “Not yet. I want to make sure I can read the tome and do what Llyran did. If I can, then we’re all set and should do this as soon as possible. Pen’s meeting us at the henge.”
Sometimes, when it was sunny beyond the darkness, a little light would filter through, leaving the daytime looking like a dark, dark thunderstorm was approaching, but this morning it must’ve been cloudy and overcast because it was black as night outside.
The Grove had become a creepy place since the darkness had parked itself over the city, but now—knowing what I needed to do—it looked downright scary. The ever-present flashes of green snaked through the swirling mass overhead, and the city lights beyond the park bathed Oak Hill in light.
We veered off the main path and walked up the grassy hill to an exact replica of what Stonehenge looked like when it was completed in ancient times. The monoliths were colossal and seemed to grow higher as we went up the hill; they dwarfed us and everything around us.
Pen stood in the center of the henge, the tome spread out on the altar stone in front of him. As I stepped into the circle, a slight vibration of energy went through me. I came up next to the Druid and stared down at the ancient tome, one of the histories of Elysia.
The writing on the pages was a blending of early Elysian, a bridge between the language of the First Ones and the language of the Adonai, which then evolved into the modern Elysian language used by most of the races of that world today. In other words, a bitch to read. There weren’t many people who could.
But I tried to remain optimistic. Llyran had figured it out. And Pen had been in possession of the tome since the battle on Helios Tower. He’d been studying it, trying to decipher the language and the commands Llyran had used to control the darkness.
“Here,” Pen said, passing me an amulet. “I’ve been wearing this to aid in the translation. It should work for you, too. Try it.”
I placed the amulet over my head, let it rest against my skin, and felt its heat snake into my body. It took a minute, but eventually, the words on the tome took shape, some of which I could understand, some of which I couldn’t. “It’s not working all the way.”
Damn it. This had to work. Why wasn’t it working?
“You read the stone tablet in Fiallan, right?” Hank reminded me. “How did you manage that, how did you understand the words?”
“I only read it; I never understood the words. I don’t know . . . this is different writing, though, so maybe . . . Before I used my power. Not anything big, but just . . . engaged it, I guess you could say.”
“Try using your power with the amulet,” Pen said.
Hank leaned closer to me, our shoulders touching. “Just be careful. Don’t draw too much. We’re not ready for war just yet.”
I wasn’t ready for war at all.
I centered myself, drew in a deep, even breath, and closed my eyes, imagining a pinprick of light appearing in my core that worked like a magnet, pulling power from my cells and creating a small well of energy swirling inside me.
Then I opened my eyes. Words reshaped themselves through my vision much quicker than I expected and I understood some of what I saw. “It’s working,” I whispered.
I began flipping carefully through the old pages, until I found what I was looking for and what I knew now were the same words Llyran had read to manipulate the darkness.
If only I could test it first . . .
I released the energy, careful to bank it within my core rather than let it go outside of myself where Sachâth lived. “I need to call Leander.” I slid a glance at the two powerful beings staring down at me from lofty heights. “Are we ready to do this?”
They both nodded.
Goose bumps spread over my skin. “Sachâth won’t sense Ahkneri being this close?” I asked Pen.
“The agate has masked her power for thousands of years. There is a reason she chose that sarcophagus. The water adds a layer of insulation as well.” He crossed his arms over his chest and parked a weighty stare on me. “So what’s the plan, Detective?”
* * *
Thirty minutes and about a hundred I can’t believe I’m doing this mantras later, I stood in front of Hank. Leander and Pen were over by the altar, arms folded over their chests, feet planted, eyeing each other suspiciously and curiously. They’d been at it for at least three minutes.
“All set, kiddo?” Hank asked, flicking the ends of my hair and smiling a crooked smile.
“I’m pretty fucking scared right now, Hank.” A gazillion second thoughts ran through my head, along with every single thing that could go wrong. And I tried like mad not to imagine someone walking up to my front door, telling my kid I’d failed. I was gone. But the thought remained a shadow in the back of my mind.
Shit, shit, shit.
“It’s a good plan, Charlie. The oracle is never wrong. She wouldn’t have said those things if there wasn’t a way to kill it. She wouldn’t have written you that letter and led you down this path. We’ll win because we were meant to win.”
I frowned up at him, wondering if he really believed that or he was just saying it to boost my confidence. He cupped my face in his big hands, leaned down slowly, and kissed me gently. I grabbed his jacket and pulled him closer, trying to brand the feeling onto my soul. In case I didn’t make it, in case the only thing left of me was energy and memories.
Hank drew me into a hug, just holding me as tight as he could, and I knew he was doing the same as I was, committing me to memory. Just in case.
We stepped back at the same time. “Thank you.” If I didn’t get to say it after, I was saying it now, so he knew how much this meant to me, this . . . standing by my side.
I took my place at the altar where I could read from the book. Pen walked to the largest trilithon, the center stone set in a horseshoe ring of five that stood within the circle. It was directly across from the altar stone, making Pen and me face-to-face over the distance. Hank and Leander took up places about ten feet away from each end of the altar stone, facing toward it.
Here we go.
Pen began first, feet braced apart, clasping his hands together in front of him and bowing his head as though at church. It was such a familiar stance; it took me by surprise. And then the familiarity ended. The intensity of the henge rose until pain flowed through my eardrums. It was like standing inside a heartbeat—Earth’s, to be exact. The center trilithon behind him began to glow and soon every monolith and capstone had taken on a soft gray light.
When the Druid lifted his head and opened his eyes, they were the same color as the stones. And that’s why he’s called the Druid King, my inner voice said in awe.
Next came Hank. I glanced over, heart pounding now. His eyes connected with mine. He closed his fist, and the shimmering golden light began like it had before. The lopsided grin he shot me said, Yeah, I know it’s cool. I smiled. Show-off. His grin widened. His hand brightened. Light flooded through his veins, a beautiful web of primal golden power.
I turned to Leander, not really knowing what the hell he was going to do or what power he planned on using. Or, hell, maybe he’d just come to watch. He just stood there, arms folded, and cocked an unimpressed eyebrow at me. Whatever. Guess it was my turn.
Dear Lord, please get me through this.
According to the tome, once I read the words, I need do nothing more than use my intention to command the darkness. I drew on my power like I’d done before. The words took shape and I opened myself up, allowing my power to grow and brighten and consume me. Hot and cold stung my insides as everything came together, and then hummed with crystal clarity and unity.
I vibrated with energy. The symbols on my arm began their strange bluish glow. Accept yourself. Make yourself whole. Make the shadow whole. I was Charbydon, Elysian, Human, Divine. Not one or two, but all. It was time to accept every part of me and let go of the past and the fears, to stop clinging to my humanity and the shadows of my former self. The barriers I’d built had to come down. This is who I am now. I accept it. I welcome it. I seize it by the fucking balls and bend it to my will.
I felt the break, the snap of final resistance giving way. I burned, but the burn felt good, strangely . . . right.
I know who I am now.
When I opened my mouth to issue my commands, there was enough force behind them that Sachâth would notice.
I tilted my head back, shouting the words into the sky. With intent, I commanded the darkness to move, to swirl like a hurricane. Bottle green flashes snaked like lightning through the undulating gray as its motion began to realign, slow and slumberous, a giant waking. I’d been inside that mass, courtesy of Llyran, and knew millions of tiny particles of raw energy were there for the taking.
Leander finally looked suitably impressed. But then his attention snapped off to the left. Fuck. Incoming. The sonic boom rent the air and shook the ground. Adrenaline pumped through my veins swift and strong.
I held on to the altar. Death was here.
A jagged shroud of gray hovered over the henge and then floated down, coming together into form as it landed on solid feet. A solid being. Like I’d seen in Ahkneri’s dream. I swallowed, using my intent to summon the darkness, to draw it together and build its energy, bringing those tiny sandlike particles together over the henge.
Make the shadow whole.
Together, together. But not by your hand.
It stood between me and Pen, blocking the Druid King from my sight. The altar I stood behind created a barrier, but that was just an illusion in my head—nothing was going to keep Sachâth from advancing, altar or not.
No longer needing the book, I closed it slowly. All I had to use now was my focus and intention. I backed away from the altar. It advanced. My hair stirred. I wanted to look up, but didn’t. I shoved away the images from the vision and pulled the darkness down, imagining it as a sliver, a thread pulled from the swirling mass above.
Sachâth spoke and the force, the power behind it, sent me back two steps. Oh, yeah, it was definitely going to strike. There was no confusion, no curiosity, or frustration in its ancient tone this time.
I backed away as it strode forward. It jumped onto the altar and when it did, I yelled, “Now!”
With everything I had, every bit of will I possessed, I commanded the darkness into Sachâth, imagining it shooting forward like a rocket, the mass above forcing it down, sending all those particles of energy into the blow. At the same time, Pen stepped back and the trilithon swallowed him whole; the only thing I could see was his outline, which brightened, and then the staggering power of Mother Earth shot out from him/the stone and hit Sachâth from behind as the darkness hit its chest.
An eerie scream popped my ears.
It floated up and onto the altar, intending to step down and continue on its driven path to assassinate me. But it was hit by an arc of brilliant gold. Sachâth’s shadows wreathed like snakes around its body. The female face elongated, eyes going hollow, mouth turning black, then gray, then translucent.
My arm went hot. My power wanted out. It pushed at me, begging, needing to fight. It craved battle on a level that felt inherent. No. I couldn’t strike the blow or I’d become Sachâth. Didn’t matter that I had no weapon; my arm was the weapon.
The three primal powers snaked over Sachâth, battering against the Creator’s divine power. The creature writhed and screamed, but it wasn’t dying.
Panic cracked my focus. I glanced at Leander. Or where he’d once stood.
Leander was gone.
What the fuck?
My heart hammered until it was all I heard. Power pulsed through me. I had to regain focus. Calm down. I looked up at the darkness, struck by how angry and alive it seemed, how a huge arm of it had reached down and curled around Sachâth, pushing at it, trying to get inside. More. Fill it up. Tear it apart.
Hank’s power glowed from the center of Sachâth’s chest, like a bright flame trying to eat its way inside, trying to destroy. And yet it was getting nowhere.
My arm lifted on instinct. I forced it back down. Goddammit. But I remembered. I could wound it, take out its legs, and weaken it. I renewed my command on the darkness and then zeroed in on the creature. Yes, strike, my power urged, compelling me, building until my arm went completely numb. I lifted my hand and blasted the fucker.
It hit Sachâth in the ankles and split the altar stone with a booming crack. The creature buckled and fell in a shower of divine light. Its screams filled my head. Oh yeah, it was wounded.
As if sensing weakness, Pen, now in dragon form, shot from the blinding light of the stone. His large black body came at Sachâth talons first, his muscled legs outstretched, talons curved like razor-sharp scythes. He slammed into the creature, claws sinking deep into the chest. The force sent them tumbling. It was quick and vicious. Sachâth’s shadows snapped and stabbed and constricted. Pen bit and ravaged with fangs and talons. Hank surged forward as Sachâth righted itself, floating above the ground. Pen went tumbling across the grass and struck one of the outer monoliths. The glow in the center trilithon went weaker, but power surged through the other stones and brightened where Pen had landed, filling him up again. The dragon’s eyes popped open. He righted himself, crouched, and let out an angry roar.
Shadows sliced and jabbed around Hank, but he was preternaturally quick. He would’ve made an awesome Disciple, I thought in a weird moment of observation. And then Pen was back in the fray, and the siren and the dragon faced off against Death as I kept my focus on the darkness.
If I could wound it again . . .
But then in a burst of clarity, I had another idea. I sent an order to the darkness. I’d strike a nonlethal blow, and the darkness would attach itself, ride with my power straight into Sachâth’s body. Hank’s power was already trying to fulfill its destructive purpose. With the Charbydon energy also inside . . . They’d blow Sachâth sky high. Hopefully.
A shadow pierced Hank’s thigh, through the front and straight out the back. He faltered, going down on one knee as another sliver rose up to take his head. Pen struck, using his tail to knock Hank out of the way. The shadow redirected, slicing through Pen’s wing. The roar that followed . . . I blanched, knowing Pen was seriously wounded.
Sweat rolled down my back as I gave everything I had to growing the divine power inside me and keeping the darkness attacking Sachâth. Hank forced himself up, but Sachâth was quick. It used its shadows like thin razor-sharp slivers and pierced Hank’s body in multiple places, pinning him into the grass.
In instant reaction, I threw everything I had at the creature. Sachâth’s head came up as my power slammed into its shoulder. A tendril of darkness shot through with my power, entering Sachâth’s wound like a rocket.
Enraged, Sachâth released Hank and advanced, determined to kill me. It stumbled, but kept moving. It was being eaten from the inside out and yet it fought; its power staggering.
Well, fuck it. I was enraged, too.
It screamed at me and I screamed back, moving toward it. But arms enveloped me and lifted me off my feet. “No, Charlie. Don’t.” Leander.
“Get off me, you coward!”
“Coward.” He laughed. “I’d like nothing better than to fight, but this kill belongs to another.” He held me so tightly I couldn’t breathe. “Just watch.”
Sachâth’s steps slowed. It turned its head away from me as though sensing something. Leander released me. And I swear to fucking God a knight walked into the circle. No, not a knight. A Disciple. “We must move quickly,” Leander said.
The Disciple intercepted Sachâth, and what I’d seen in my vision was ten times more stunning in reality. The speed and precision was . . . unbelievable. “Charlie!” Leander hissed.
I turned as Leander shoved the lid off a long agate box. Power swamped me like a wave and continued on through the circle, dissipating as it went. A quick glance told me that Sachâth felt it, too. It started for us, but the Disciple intercepted again.
Leander bent down and pulled a divine sword from the box. He was touching a divine sword, hand wrapped around the hilt, the blade pointing down. And he wasn’t dying. I didn’t have much time to digest that when he started for me, tossing me the blade. Heart in my throat, I caught it on instinct. Heat seared my skin and shot through my arm, my symbols flaring bright, so bright they were no longer blue but white. My power ignited, wrapping around the weapon, joining.
Leander grabbed me by both shoulders and turned me toward the battle. “Sachâth is wounded. Get close. As soon as it falters, give the sword to the Disciple, he’ll know what to do.”
Hank was back up fighting, but he was wounded and his energy would soon wane. He’d used the Destruction Source Word. He wouldn’t last long before he was completely depleted.
“Do it. Or we all die.”
With each step, calm settled over me. Sachâth’s head whipped up. It was eager to meet me, to get the job done. I was its target, not the Disciple.
Sachâth sent Hank flying. He crashed into one of the trilithons. The Disciple’s head turned toward me, a golden flash in his eyes barely visible from the slit in his visor.
As I strode, I gathered momentum, using it to lift the heavy sword off the ground and on my last step, I swung with all my might.
Shadows blocked my strike. A sliver snaked out and pierced my side. The Disciple pressed. Just wound it, get it on the ground. I did my best, giving in to the strange sense of urging from my power. To fight. To move. Block. And strike. Like it knew how to dance this dance.
Shadows pierced me as I spun; one jabbed into my hip, the other into my shoulder. I screamed and swung out in a wide arc, slicing through its torso, and kept going until I was back around again, facing it and about to shove the sword into its gut, when the Disciple’s armored hand clamped down on my wrist.
His eyes met mine through the visor. Hard. Unreadable. And yet calm, like he had long ago accepted his fate. In one smooth motion, he grabbed the sword.
He couldn’t grab the sword or he’d die. What the hell’s he doing? But I already knew. He’d hold it long enough.
He shoved me back as a shadow pierced through his neck and came out the other side. The hand that held the sword began to burn, the armor turning red and hot. A deep bellow echoed from him as he hefted the sword, and spun, shoving the sword into Sachâth’s heart.
I fell to my knees, cushioned by the soft grass, and grabbed my side. But it was my hip that made my stomach turn; the shadow had hit bone . . .
Sachâth didn’t scream. In fact, it went eerily silent. Its writhing, deadly shadows stilled. The Disciple didn’t let go of the sword. Let go.
Together, the Disciple and Death fell backward. Sachâth landed on its back, the shadows evaporating, leaving behind the First One, the female I’d seen in Ahkneri’s vision—the one who had killed the Sachâth before her. The Disciple landed partway on top of her. His hand was already gone, along with half of his forearm, the divine power eating away at him. Despite the pain I knew he felt, he rose up and ripped his helmet off with his other hand.
Golden hair, long to his shoulders. He turned, nodded gravely to a point over my shoulder. Leander stood there, his face stony as he nodded back. He radiated power, emotion, even though there was none to be seen on his face.
The Disciple turned back to the First One. No one had to tell me. I knew now that he was her Disciple. That he’d been the one taken to safety by Ahkneri when the First One killed Sachâth. And now he had his revenge.
He touched her face as she blinked up at him. His shoulder was gone now, eaten up by divine flame, and yet he didn’t cry out, determined to see her, to make her see him. Jesus. My throat thickened.
She lifted her hand, smiled, and cupped his cheek, and then the fire consumed his neck and head, and he was gone as her hand flopped to the ground and her head fell to the side.
Time seemed to pause for that one unbelievable moment. And then her body jerked, arcing as power shot from her, screaming out and exploding. It hit me before I could blink.
* * *
I came awake to a blurry vision looming above me. My throat was so dry it was hard to work my mouth, to speak. A hand smacked my cheek, none too gently.
Leander’s face came into focus.
He moved away and I watched as he retrieved the sword lying by the broken altar stone and took it back to the agate box. With extreme effort, I rolled to my side, took a breather, and then sat up, my back against a chunk of broken stone. Hank. Where was Hank?
I found him not far from me on his back. He groaned and let out a soft curse.
Leander knelt down and slid the lid into place. As soon as he did, a vacuum of . . . normalcy fell over the henge.
Sachâth was gone. A disbelieving laugh bubbled out of me.
Leander hefted the box, which had to weigh a couple hundred pounds, onto his shoulder, balancing it with one hand. He approached, stopping at my feet. “Nice work, Detective. You and your friends have done what the Archons could not.”
“How?” How was it even possible that we had done it, and they—some of the most powerful beings ever created—hadn’t?
“Because they never had that kind of backup before. There were no Druid Kings, no henges, no powerful sirens back then who could wound Sachâth or hold it off long enough to allow a Disciple to strike a suicide blow. You don’t think they tried?” He shrugged and said simply, “We had to wait until such a time came . . .”
He waved the question away. “We. The world. All of us with a stake in the future. But this day, this day we won, and my brother had his revenge.”
“Your brother. He was your brother.”
Leander paused. “Brother. Son. Father. Don’t seek to know my world, Charlie Madigan. You won’t like what you find.”
“His revenge cost him his life.”
“His revenge set Asaria free.”
“He loved her.”
Leander shrugged. “That, too. You woke him by reading the tablet. Your power led him here to take his revenge. It was his to take, not mine.”
“What are you, Leander? Disciple or First One?”
His mouth dipped down. “We’ll have to work on your listening skills.”
“You touched the sword.”
“I did. Try not to let it keep you up at night.”
Hank’s groan drew our attention as he pulled himself to a sitting position, plowed his fingers through his hair, and then surveyed the scene. “We actually pulled it off,” he said, amazed.
“You and your siren will be seeing more of me,” Leander said to me. “Plenty of time to beat your brains out over who and what I am. Remember what I told you in Fiallan, Charlie? The shit storm is coming. And suddenly here I am with a divine being and the only siren in existence who can wield two of the most powerful Source Words ever created. The question is, what I am going to do with you?” He regarded us with cunning in his golden eyes. “I’ll be in touch.”
He walked away.
“I’m not the only divine being around, you know,” I called after him. “And Sachâth is gone . . .”
Leander spun around, his face dark. “You’d better pray Ahkneri never rises, for if she does I will end her once and for all.”
With that he turned and strode out of the fallen henge.
Too exhausted to think about Leander’s words, I let my head fall against the rock behind me and closed my eyes. After a time had passed, I rolled from a sitting position to my front and belly crawled slowly over the grass to where Hank sat, one leg out, one drawn up with his arms resting over his knee. His head hung low. His side was bleeding badly and his thigh was drenched in blood.
I collapsed next to him, struggling to catch my breath before rolling onto my back and scooting up to sit. Several nymphs stood outside the henge, all with pale, stunned faces. And that’s when it registered. “Holy cow.” The henge was down. Every stone but one had fallen outward, blown out by the force of Sachâth’s death.
The only stone that remained standing was the middle trilithon. And it still glowed a faint, strange gray . . . For a moment it seemed to brighten and then dim as a shadow filled it and Pen stepped out.
He strode over until his foot was inches from mine and glared down at us. “I thought you were wounded,” I said.
He rolled his eyes, then one eyebrow arched. “Druid King.”
I laughed through the pain. Arrogant bastard. “Sorry about your henge,” I said, glancing around.
“They can be raised.” He stared at the broken altar stone, then at me. He held out his hand, and for a moment I thought he was offering to help me up, but he said, “My amulet.”
Hank reached over, lifted it from my neck, and tossed it to Pen. “I’m keeping the tome,” Pen told us. “You have one more week to figure out who murdered Killian. I’m tired of waiting.” With that he strode out of the circle and the nymphs turned and followed him.
Hank looked at the trilithon in envy, and I knew he was thinking about how easily Pen had healed. “Guess it’s good to be king, huh?” he said, gruffly.
“Yeah. No doubt.” I stared up at what little darkness remained. Powerful stuff, that. “You going to crash like you did last time?” I asked Hank. Using power words sapped sirens of strength and energy, causing them to fall into sleep, a deep sleep while their bodies recuperated from the intensive drain.
The limp hand hanging over his knee turned, so that the brand on his palm was visible. He stared at it a long time.
“Probably,” he answered. “Last time I used one of the Source Words, Panopé gave me back all the energy it took to use it, or at least I think she did. But using it feels different than the normal words we use.”
He scrubbed a hand down his face, and then stared off into nothing. “I don’t know. More natural, easier in some ways . . . It’s part of me like my regular power never was.”
“Well,” I said thoughtfully, “Source Words are supposed to be innate to specific sirens, so maybe that’s why. It’s part of your makeup, your niche. Destruction and Creation are your things. Which”—I slid him a pained smile—“is hot, by the way. I think you should create me a vacation.”
Hank chuckled. “I’ll work on it. That whole divine being thing is pretty hot, too. And you with a sword?” He rubbed his chest and grinned. “Sexy as hell.”
I rolled my eyes. But talking like this helped distract from the pain, made it bearable.
“You gonna be okay while I’m out?” he asked.
I was about to answer him, but then it struck me and struck me hard. What we’d done . . . “We did it, Hank. It’s over.”
He smiled down at me, the crooked smile of his that made my chest feel light, yet tight at the same time. Then he leaned over and kissed my forehead. “We sure did, angel face.”
I laughed, wincing as the movement jarred my side. “Ha. I draw the line at any and all divinity jokes.”
“Aw, c’mon. I was just getting started.”
“You know what else?” I said, filled with happiness.
“I can bring back the sun.”
THREE DAYS LATER . . .
“If you want to live long enough to see the light of day, then you’d better unhand the snickerdoodles.” Rex glared at me.
I grinned with my mouth full, chewing—and savoring every bite of—the snickerdoodles Rex had made for our picnic at Stone Mountain. I swallowed. “Since I happen to be the one bringing the light, I think I’ll live.”
The happiness and sense of wholeness I felt was still a bit of a novelty. Hank was back. Sachâth was dead. The darkness overhead was about to be lifted. And I’d come into my divine powers. They weren’t exactly the same as the First Ones’, but they were close enough, and I was more certain than ever I had the sylphs to thank for bringing my powers together and making the transition easier. That day I’d been buried under the ground, embraced by the earth, I knew something had happened . . .
Rex spread out the second picnic blanket on a flat area of granite while Hank played Frisbee with Emma, Brim, and Amanda. Apparently, all Hank had needed was three days of rest and he was back to his old, insanely beautiful self. Though if he didn’t stop making “halo” and “angel” jokes, I was going to hurt him. But he was mine—another novelty I was still getting used to. He wanted a relationship, no matter how fast or slow I wanted to take it. He was here for the long haul; I knew that without him ever having to say a word.
Aaron and Bryn sat on the other blanket talking with Marti and Titus, who were now officially a couple. Titus was still in the process of identifying the properties of the liquid found in Leander’s cylinder. His goal was to reproduce it and then put it through a series of tests before trying it on the ash addicts. It was a slow process since the substance was off-world and unknown to our scientists. But if all went well, then maybe, just maybe, we might have a viable cure in the days or weeks to come.
While Rex wasn’t looking, I stole another snickerdoodle and popped it into my mouth as Liz, Sian, and the chief emerged from the trail and out onto the massive rocky landscape of the mountain. Since the darkness had spread itself over the city, the Summit Skyride, which offered a cable car ride to the top of Stone Mountain, had cut their hours of operation in half. Still, people liked to come up here to get a closer look at the darkness or to see the city lights of Atlanta in the distance.
I gave them a wave, thinking for the hundredth time how I could strangle Rex for telling everyone what I was about to do and then turning it into a family outing. I’d wanted to come to Stone Mountain because it was high, about eight hundred feet or so, and got me close to the darkness without, say, standing on top of a skyscraper—been there, done that, and wasn’t doing it again. The massive exposed piece of granite was a prime spot to watch today’s success or failure.
I still had control of the darkness. It was mine until I released it. I stood, wiped my hands on my jeans, and got ready to start the show. Hank came up behind me. “You ready to do this thing, angel cake?”
I turned and glared up at him. But it didn’t last long because the blinding, bad-boy grin he gave me struck me like a gale-force wind. His irises shifted into topaz blue. He leaned down close, his nose nearly brushing mine. “Tonight. My place. Bring the damned jewels.”
The breath left me. It took me a moment to find my voice, one that meant to say something insanely witty, but all I said was, “What about the gown?”
His grin grew deeper. His mouth brushed past my cheek to my ear, and he dropped his voice down to a level of potent, blatant lust. “You won’t be needing the gown.”
I blinked as a wave of heat shuddered down my body. He slipped his hand in mine. So maybe the relationship part would progress slowly, but the intimate part was already blazing a trail across the sky. And I wasn’t complaining.
We stood at an area of the rock where it began to slope gently downward. Emma held my left hand, Hank held my right. Rex stood next to Emma with his arm around her shoulder, Brim standing between them. The others had gathered around us. I felt Bryn behind me, squeezing my shoulder.
It was now or never.
I gazed at the massive, tumbling waves of darkness, suddenly sad to see it go, which was weird enough for me to not delve into. Atlanta needed the sun back. The plants and animals, the people, needed the light. Hank and Emma squeezed my hand at the same time.
I grinned down at my daughter as she smiled up at me with a look of such belief and happiness.
Deep breath. Focus with intention. Command the darkness back to Charbydon.
Goose bumps lifted the tiny hairs on my arms. The tingling feeling traveled, engulfing me. The once forty miles of darkness was now less than half its size, thanks to events at the henge. Still large by all accounts, though, so it was a slow start as the behemoth began to swirl in one direction.
As it moved it eventually began to thin, the outer edges of it thinning first and finally disappearing until it grew smaller and smaller and smaller, revealing blue sky until there was just a shadow left over the sun.
I held my breath, heart pounding.
And then . . . sunlight. Gorgeous, warm sunlight burst through the last of the shadows and blinded us.
* * *
He strode down the path leading to the Druid’s temple in the Grove. The sun had already set, making the way dark and familiar—the usual. Ahead of him Charlie and Rex walked side by side. He could hear the soft murmurs of their voices as they drifted back to him. They didn’t know he was behind them yet, but the closer he came, Charlie would know, would feel her mark warm. He was late, had meant to meet them at the gate. More evidence had been discovered along the lake and they needed Rex to take a look.
He was too far away to see Charlie clearly, but he saw enough. Dressed for work in cargos, light leather jacket, no doubt armed to the teeth . . . God, she was tough. And beautiful. And so fucking fragile of heart it made his chest hurt. The way she’d surprised him last night . . . He hadn’t thought she’d actually show up. With the jewels. He loved those damned jewels.
He’d felt her shyness, though she’d die before admitting it. He’d felt her fear, too. Fear of getting her heart broken again. If only she knew the lengths he’d go to see that never happened . . .
She’d stood on his doorstep, a sparkling anklet dangling from her raised finger, those bow-shaped lips twisted into a brazen smile. And he’d been lost. Sucker punched.
Charlie. Bare skin. Jewels. Cavewoman talk.
His pulse leapt at the memory. Blood diverted. Down boy.
He was walking alone, in the dark, smiling like a goddamned idiot. And it felt good.
Last night, he slept without dreams, without nightmares and reminders, and this morning, he woke with . . . hope.
Ashton Perry, ITF detective and champion dickhead, headed down the path toward Charlie and Rex. Hank could feel the guy’s rage even from this distance. Charlie liked to fight her own battles, but this was one he’d love to fight for her, to end the racist comments and sneers. The bastard needed to get a fucking life and move on. The case had been officially moved back to their department and, as expected, “Asston” had had a hissy fit. He was probably here to brownnose the Druid and convince Pen that he was better off with Asston on the case.
Hank’s long stride covered ground and he’d gotten close enough to hear the exchange as Asston approached Charlie with his hands clenched at his sides—no doubt Pen had sent him packing, which would explain the higher than usual anger. “Druid’s a fucking dick, so I’m sure you two have lots in common, Madigan.”
“Bite me, Asston,” Charlie shot back.
“They couldn’t pay me enough to get that close to you.” Asston slammed his shoulder against Charlie’s as he passed. Hank’s fists clenched tightly. “Where’s your partner? Siren orgy at the Bath House?” he called over his shoulder.
Charlie turned. “Why? Jealous?”
“Yeah, right. How’s it been, Madigan, slumming with an off-worlder?” Asston laughed and then turned back toward the path where his face plowed into the wall that was Hank’s fist.
Asston spun, already unconscious before he hit the ground.
Sweet fucking satisfaction flowed through Hank’s body as he gazed unmercifully down and then stepped over the unconscious asshole on the ground.
“Nicely done,” Rex said as Hank approached.
“Felt good, too,” he replied in a deep timbre that he knew would get under Charlie’s skin. He stopped in front of her. She gazed up at him with humor glinting in her eyes and he couldn’t help himself. “So, how’s it been?” His grin went lopsided. “Slumming with an off-worlder?”
She tried to hide her smile, and again there was that punch to the gut. “I wouldn’t know,” she lied for Rex’s benefit.
He dipped his face close to her ear. “Want to find out?”
“Oh, geez! Get a room!” Rex cried, slapping his hands over his ears.
Charlie’s laughter filled the Grove, sinking into his being and filling it with that sense of hope again. He thought suddenly of Fiallan, where he could be king, could rule and demand satisfaction for the wrongs done to him . . .
He shoved his hands in his pockets. To hell with being king. He was right where he wanted to be.
Deepest thanks and warmest regards to my readers for their continued support and kindness, to my family for putting up with the Deadline Crazies, and to my friends for sticking by me and remembering who I am after the writing-inspired hibernation/absences.
Much thanks to Megan McKeever for the excellent edit and to Miriam Kriss for keeping the business wheels turning.
But most of all, to my editor, Ed Schlesinger, who gets my work, trusts in my storytelling, and helps me make sense of it all when I can’t, and who gave me the gift of time—a lot of time. Thank you!
© Jonathan Gay
is the author of three previous novels in her urban fantasy series featuring Charlie Madigan: The Better Part of Darkness, The Darkest Edge of Dawn, and The Hour of Dust and Ashes.
She is a two-time RITA Award finalist, a 2010 finalist for Best First Book from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and a recipient of North Carolina Arts Council’s fellowship grant in Literature. She lives in North Carolina.
Follow the author on Twitter, visit her on Facebook, or go to www.kellygay.com
ENTER THE THRILLING WORLD OF AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR KELLY GAY
The Charlie Madigan Series
The Better Part of Darkness
The Darkest Edge of Dawn
The Hour of Dust and Ashes
Shadows Before the Sun
Writing as Kelly Keaton
Darkness Becomes Her
A Beautiful Evil