All in a Day's Work by Amber Lynn

I was having an “it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times” moment. Two weeks had passed since my wedding, and there was a part of me that couldn’t be happier. Committing myself to Nate always made me happy, a thought I wouldn’t have thought possible prior to getting my memories back.
All in a Day's Work
All in a Day's Work by Amber Lynn
The fact that I’d just had the eggs containing my children removed from the warm home my body made for them dimmed my joy just a little. Okay, little was the wrong word, but the more I thought about how pissed I was, the more I wanted to start punching everyone around me. It was for their safety. I knew it, and they knew it, but none of us liked it. The communication between us had just opened up. Nate and I decided that as soon as we were able to talk to them, it was time to make sure they were safe, so we could take care of a little unfinished business. Malphas had been quiet, even though his army of warlocks was getting awfully cozy in Iowa, as Malphas had told us they would. My hope was that they’d fallen off the face of the world, but I knew that wasn’t a possibility. My family meant the end of warlocks according to a stupid piece of paper that everyone believed to be true, and that spelled trouble for their leader. “I know it hurts, but they aren’t in danger in the incubator. And just think, you don’t have to worry about getting as big as a house.” Nate held my hand as we gazed in the incubator he’d mentioned. The procedure to remove them had only taken a few minutes. A doctor came in, sawed up my belly and took them out. She was nice enough to put a few stitches in to make sure my guts didn’t spill out while I healed, which had already happened. “It’s what we planned, and I know we don’t have a choice since you couldn’t keep your hands to yourself on our honeymoon, but it still feels like I have a huge hole inside me now. Since they’re out, I know they won’t be going back in.” “If I recall correctly, it wasn’t my hands that had the issue, but I’ll let you blame me if it makes you feel better,” Nate said as he squeezed my hand. “Of course it does. I have to blame someone for not having any control that night and I’m sure as heck not going to blame myself.” Nate chuckled and leaned in to kiss my neck. “It was the best wedding night we’ve ever had, as far as I’m concerned. I know I’ve said that about all of them, but I felt even closer to you this time.” With my memories back, I knew what he said was the truth. We’d never had a dull honeymoon, but we were both a little different since the last one. He’d lived with the fear of never seeing me again, and I’d lived years not know who I really was. Those things changed us. In my estimation it was for the better. There was no chance we’d ever find ourselves parted again, thanks to a little spell I’d said, but we’d finally both found out what it was like to fear. Living your whole life, especially one that spanned millions of years, without fearing a single thing makes you overlook how precious life really is. We saw it every day as we observed humans, but without the mind-crippling terror that comes when you think of losing someone you love, I don’t believe we were ever really living. Every unique had come to understand that fear, and I thought we were better for it. It didn’t make us happier, but it made us a little more human, which wasn’t as awful as it sounded. “It’s probably best we don’t get into what made it so great right now. We have a demon and his minions to track down.” I didn’t want to stop staring at our eggs, but I knew I had work to do. “I’m pretty sure he can wait. It’s not like he’s done anything since he crashed our wedding. As far as I’ve heard, he hasn’t even been spotted since then.” I turned to look at Nate. We were alone in the room, so for once we didn’t have any interference from outside forces. My mother had tried to power her way in with us, but I’d been adamant that it was a moment we needed to be alone. “Doesn’t that scare you even more than anything else? He’s had more than enough time to set a trap that we won’t expect.” “Have you seen anything particular that indicates that?” Nate brushed a few strands of hair away from my face. “No, after my forced trip into the future, I haven’t seen a lot of anything. I’m only going by what I’ve seen in the past, and that’s more than likely changed.” “That’s got to be a good thing. You haven’t always blocked when you’ve thought about that moment by a tree, so I know why you did everything you did and why you’re trying so hard to make sure everyone knows you can take care of yourself.” I’d assumed as much. I was good at blocking, but I wasn’t always thinking about it when it came to Nate. Being soulmates, we were meant to share everything, even when we knew certain things would hurt. “I don’t know that I’d call it a good thing. I want to see an outcome I can live with, and so far nothing I’ve seen makes me feel good about the fight.” “What about the time missing from your memories? Do you think there’s a clue we’re missing from that month?” Nate attempted to pull me out of the room, but I stood my ground for a second, not quite ready to leave what would soon become a nursery. There were so many things we needed to do before the kids were born, and looking around the room that had once been my side of our bedroom suite, it looked so empty. We’d moved my bed and other furniture out for the incubator. We hadn’t had time to repaint or put in any baby furniture. Standing there, I really wished we had. If the room didn’t look semi-sterile, it might have been easier to leave it. “Who’s on guard duty first?” I asked, delaying the inevitable. “Trey and Sean, but you already know that. Let’s go figure out if we can find where Malphas is and get this over with so we can come back and stare at the kids.” He pulled again and I allowed it for a few steps. “How scared are you that things won’t work out how we want them to?” He’d been so careful to hide his thoughts on the subject that I wanted to hear exactly where he stood. There was no denying I was afraid, even though I did my best to pretend otherwise. “I hide my thoughts on the subject because I’m not afraid, and I know you’d find that strange.” “How’s that possible? If you know everything I’ve seen, you know things can go really wrong, really fast.” Looking in his eyes, I didn’t see a lick of fear, and that boggled my mind. I was able to function with the level I felt, but I had to consciously put it to the back of my mind all the time. If I started thinking about it, my mind drifted to try to come up with ways to prevent the havoc I felt coming. “I know you don’t think so, but I’ve learned to believe Eva when she says something. I’m surprised you haven’t after your little trip to the future.” Shock plastered on my face, I stared at him. I was fairly certain I’d heard him wrong. “Care to repeat that?” He smiled, revealing his perfect rows of teeth. “I’ll do that if I can get you heading towards the dining room. If you can pick your jaw up off the ground, that would also be nice.” I stepped with him as he moved towards the door again. I looked one more time over my shoulder to make sure nothing had changed in the incubator. The three chicken egg sized, yellowish eggs remained undisturbed. I’d said enough spells and dripped blood all over the room while I said them to keep everyone without my permission out, but I didn’t trust Malphas, or the fighting ability of anyone who was going to be keeping guard. It put me in a tough situation. I had to leave in order to ensure they remained safe, but I didn’t trust their safety while I was gone. Seeing the doorframe as I walked through it, I took a deep breath and turned my head forward. “They’ll be fine. Malphas will be so worried about keeping track of what you’re doing that he won’t try anything here. Plus, between your protection and Eva’s assurances, I think the kids will be fine.” “What’s up with your sudden love for Eva? You do recall every time you found us together in the past she was causing trouble.” We walked by the two werewolves, who were huddled at the top of the stairs, trying to give us some privacy while we were in the nursery. It was nice of them, but I wanted them glued to the door. “No need to say anything,” Trey said. “I know that look and we’re on our way.” The duo practically ran to the door we’d exited. It wasn’t enough for them to just sit outside the door. I wanted whoever was on guard duty to have their eyes glued to the incubator. “You have them trained so well.” Nate drew me in close while we walked down the stairs. “And I’m pretty sure you’re the only person who actually hates Eva, which surprises me since you remember her now.” “She doesn’t hate me, Nate,” the she-devil herself said as we rounded the corner to the dining room. “She hates that I know more about what’s going on than she does. Your wife has always had the need to know everything.” “Well, I know that’s true. Avery needs reminded about that line you’ve been repeating over and over the past few weeks. I’d like for her to stop hyperventilating before we start the conversation.” I took my seat at the table and glared at my husband. “I’m breathing just fine, thank you very much.” “I think it’s her brain that’s doing the hyperventilating. She still doesn’t realize time for certain people is irrelevant. She’s been given chances to see the fact firsthand, but some people are just a little more hard-headed than others.” Eva climbed into Liam’s lap as she spoke and I vomited a little in my mouth. I knew they had a happily ever after in their future, but I still wanted better for my berserker buddy. “Let’s not worry about what you guys claim is an issue, and start talking about making a move. Where are we going?” No one immediately jumped to tell me what I wanted to know. The table was full, with leaders from every faction who planned on sending troops with us. Most of those leaders were talkers, and I didn’t feel comforted by the fact that no one was speaking up. “Are we supposed to say congratulations about the babies now, or should we wait until they hatch?” Brad asked. His words were tentative from his position six seats down the table to my right. Nate and I sat at the head of the table, with Freddie directly to my right. Joseph was to Nate’s left and the rest of the first quarter of the table was filled with the people closest to us. “It’s probably best to wait,” I suggested. “When we can hold them in our arms is probably the best time for congratulations.” “But you are able to communicate with them, right?” Frannie asked. She was sitting with Gary and his father. “Yes, they’re all healthy and fine up in their new warm environment. In case anyone was wondering, the surgery to remove them went fine and the scars are already healed. They’re currently still in eggs about the size of a chicken’s, so there isn’t a whole lot to see,” I explained. “And can you tell which one is the oracle?” Seth, the tiger leader, asked. “That’s something to figure out when they’re older, if any of them happen to be the oracle the prophecy speaks of. It could be a future child for all we know.” I didn’t want any pressure on my peanut-sized children, so I thought it best to wait for them to prove who and what they were on their own. “If you guys don’t mind, the way we’ve had to go about protecting our children is a little bit of a sensitive subject. No one wants to have their babies put in an incubator because it isn’t safe for them to be carried normally,” Nate chided. “Let’s focus on what plans need to be made.” “Good idea,” Joseph said, taking over. “Right now it seems everyone is in a small town called Orange City for some annual celebration they have going on there. I shouldn’t say everyone, but that’s where we’ve picked up the most activity. I highly doubt the warlocks are enjoying the festivities, but they’ve been moving around to either populous cities or places where they can blend in.” I was happy to hear we were getting to the action. I wasn’t sure why Malphas had picked a location in the middle of the country, but I was game to follow him anywhere to get things over with. “And do we know if there are only warlocks there?” I asked. Joseph hadn’t mentioned demons, which could’ve been a good thing, but I really didn’t feel like going on a wild goose chase. “I’m sure you already know this, but demons are really good about hiding themselves. We don’t have anyone who can pick them up without some magical assistance.” Joseph was correct that I knew how slimy and slippery demons could be, but I’d thought someone would’ve unearthed some relic stashed away somewhere to help with that problem. If they hadn’t, they should’ve interrupted my honeymoon so I could’ve made something. “Okay, I guess that means the sooner we leave, the better. Am I correct in thinking we’ve moved a good portion of our troops to the area already?” “That is correct, dollface,” Kyle said as he rubbed his hands together. He was as eager as I was to get on with the show. “Can you give me a location to plop us in at?” I wasn’t chancing getting on an airplane. Even if the jet we usually used was under our control, I couldn’t trust the runways to be cleared for landing and takeoff. “With almost everyone in this room going, it’s probably best to not land right in the middle of town,” Vinnie said, bringing up a map on his phone. “Land us here.” The place he pointed to wasn’t anything more than a cornfield on a satellite image. From what I knew about Iowa, there were a lot of cornfields around, but I could get us to that particular one. “Here goes nothing,” I said as I pricked my finger for a spell. CHAPTER 2 A quick walk through a cornfield It’d been a while since I’d been in a cornfield, but before I opened my eyes, I knew I was in one. There was a gentle wind that drifted through the stalks of corn, making a soft rustling noise. The smell was so unlike the pollution I usually found in the city, and I inhaled deeply to take some of the fresh air in. The air was clean, with the scent of the dirt below my feet predominant. It reminded me of years gone by, and how different the world once was. Being able to remember there were days when things were simpler made me long for them just a little. I’d seen enough of the future to know the days ahead were the exact opposite of simple, so I opened my eyes to take in our new location. The rustling I’d heard was caused by corn barely to my shin. As early in the year as it was, the corn wasn’t anywhere near ready to harvest. It made sense, but I’d expected to have to fight my way through the rows of corn to get a good look at our surroundings. As it was, we might as well have landed in the middle of the town. I couldn’t see it from where we were, but I could see houses behind the rows of baby corn. “I suppose time of year makes a little difference when it comes to the usefulness of the corn,” Nate said from my left. “Just a bit,” Rick voiced from the other side. I could feel guys around me on every side other than directly in front of me. I sensed someone was going to move to block out my view, and I put my hand out to stop them. “This isn’t the right place.” I closed my eyes and reached out a little with the senses I’d forgotten I had until recently. I’d watched the final battle many times and even if we’d landed exactly where Vinnie had indicated we should, I knew we weren’t in the right city. There were a lot of small indicators, but the main one for me was that the air wasn’t right. It was too clean. “You do enjoy taking the fun out of everything.” Eva huffed a little and appeared in front of me. I didn’t hear her move, so she was lucky I didn’t lash out at her. When I was in a heightened state senses-wise, it was a good idea not to make sudden movements. Kyle had learned that the hard way one day as he met the pointy end of one of my knives because he’d sneaked up on me. I thought everyone had learned from his mistake, but Eva was someone who needed reminding. “I want to get to the battlefield so I can get home to watch my children grow. Last I checked, that was the objective and I know Malphas isn’t here. I have a feeling I’m not going to like what I do find here.” My hands had drifted to my hips as I stared the Fate down. Even remembering her, and all the escapades we’d partaken in together, she grated on my nerves. I found myself surprised we’d ever really been friends. I had a feeling she’d put a spell on me to get me to be friends with her. There was no way I’d willingly enjoy hanging out with her. “You know, sometimes those thoughts of yours hurt. I’m out here trying to make sure you don’t do anything stupid, and all you can think about is how you’ve perceived me over the past few months.” I glared at the blonde and forced my frustrations with her down. We both knew what my real issue with her was, and until it was resolved, she was going to stay on the top of my list of annoying people in my life. “Whatever. Liam, are there actually warlocks around or did they sense our arrival and retreat? Just because Malphas isn’t here, doesn’t mean we can let them do what they want in town.” I could feel a slight pulse of electricity coming from the north of us, but it was so weak it felt like nothing more than a tickle. With all of my abilities online, I’d expanded my repertoire a little. I wasn’t to Liam’s or Rick’s levels when it came to picking up energy sources or uniques, though, and since I knew we had people in the area, I wasn’t sure who the tickle was coming from. “They’re still here, but I don’t think the reports we were getting equal the handful I feel. You mentioned we weren’t in the right place. Does that mean we need to teleport again to find the mass of them?” Liam’s deep voice was confused, which didn’t surprise me. Everyone had assumed we were going right to at least the opening number for our epic battle, but what we’d found wasn’t even an appetizer. A handful of warlocks were nothing for the dozens of people who’d made the trip. Mak could wave his hand at the problem and we would’ve been on our way back home. There was an irritating factor to what I predicted had happened in the town. I didn’t doubt the reports about it being overrun with warlocks were at one time correct. I knew I’d be able to tell if my prediction was indeed correct soon enough, so I pushed Eva to the side and started walking towards the street. It was a few hundred yards in front of us, and my mission would’ve been quicker if I’d taken a diagonal route, but I didn’t want to stomp on the corn growing under my feet. It was bad enough I was sure some of the more heavy-footed among the group had done damage by just landing. I assumed the growing corn was important to the farmer who owned the land, and I didn’t want us messing with someone’s livelihood. Chances were there were young mouths that needed fed involved, and I was all about making sure kids were taken care of. “Where do you think you’re going?” Nate asked as he hurried to keep up with the quick pace I’d set. “I would think that’s rather obvious. There’s warlocks around here, so I’m going to go kill them.” I didn’t think there was a need to explain that, especially since I wasn’t blocking that from him. He knew everything I did, and delaying my actions was a little silly on his part. The longer we stood in the middle of nowhere dressed in all black, the more explaining we’d need to do. It wasn’t everyday a large group of ninjas showed up at your doorstep. “Don’t you think we should discuss numbers and come up with a plan of action?” I didn’t pause to contemplate my response. The more time we wasted, the longer it was going to take to figure out Malphas’ location. “No. I think an example needs to be made.” “What’s she talking about?” Jimmy asked from a ways back in the group. The group was moving with me, but even if they weren’t, every person there would’ve been able to hear our conversation. It was a curse only having friends with extraordinary hearing. Keeping secrets was next to impossible if the other party couldn’t communicate telepathically. “Joseph, when was the last time someone reported in?” Nate asked in return. I was sure Jimmy thought we’d started talking about something else instead of answering his question. Nate was keeping on task, though, and Jimmy would know soon enough what I was getting at. “I get reports on the hour, but those on the ground here knew we were going to be moving soon, so it’s been about an hour and a half. I told them we’d need radio silence once we got here so we could make plans.” Most people in the group wouldn’t have thought anything about that, but there were a few who should’ve known something was up the moment we landed, my brother being one of them. “Now, Rick, since you’re so good at picking up uniques, would you tell the group how many you feel in town? I know there’s enough of us here that your number could be skewed, but you should be able to give a rough estimate.” I didn’t need him to tell me our people weren’t in the town. I could feel it myself. “There aren’t any other uniques around.” There were a few shocked noises, and a very loud expletive from Joseph. The situation we’d expected had gone south before we’d arrived, probably not long after the last call between Joseph and his lead person on the ground. There was a part of me that wasn’t even sure the people calling in for check in were who they claimed to be. “It hasn’t been long enough that they could’ve killed them,” Ben said, more than likely remembering what had happened up in Alaska. “Correct, and since we can’t feel them, that means they took them somewhere. Finding them is our number one priority, and in order to do that, we have to go find the warlocks left behind to deliver the message.” I still hadn’t slowed, and if anything I sped up. I hadn’t heard official numbers, but Joseph’s deployed teams usually were twenty person teams. The number of warlocks needed to subdue that many uniques, at least ones trained by me, were close to four times that number, and they would’ve had to have been stronger than most of the warlocks we’d met up with. I was having problems thinking of a single warlock who would’ve given any of the troops trouble. We’d learned all their tricks. “What message, and how sure are you that they’re actually gone. Maybe the warlocks are just masking them. We’ve run into that before.” It was Brad asking the questions, which was a little unusual for him. When I said something, he didn’t have any issues believing what I said. I’d made it to the street and looked both ways down the two-lane highway. I knew we weren’t in the town proper, where some kind of festival was supposed to be happening, but things were quieter than I expected. There were no cars to be seen in either direction. “It’s hard to explain how I know things, Brad. When we landed I immediately felt like things were off, and it didn’t get better as I took everything in. Something bad happened here and the only reason anyone would still be around when they knew we were coming is if they have something to say.” I tilted my head to the side, taking things in again. I could’ve saved my energy by staying where I was, as I felt the tickles getting stronger, but I wasn’t waiting for the soulless monsters to come find me. I was tired of waiting. My steps became even more determined as I turned to the right and marched my way towards whatever was coming at us. I saw both berserkers move in my peripheral vision to try to get in front of me. “I will skin both of you if you get in my way. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m in a really bad mood right now and it’s probably best if you let me take that out on the warlocks.” “You might want to tone down your aggression a little,” Kyle suggested. “Most of the guys here find that kind of thing to be a turn on.” “Has anyone ever told you what a moron you are? We can discuss it later, but for now, just stay out of my way. You all know I appreciate the backup, but there can’t be more than five warlocks. Last I checked, there was little they can do to hurt me, so stay out of the way.” Neither brother fell back, but they didn’t block my view either. It’d been a few days since I’d spent time in the gym, and I assumed they thought I lost something while I was focusing on growing my children. It had been weird for me not to workout, because I didn’t remember the last time I’d gone a day without at least smacking a punching bag around. “Does motherhood always make you this moody, or is it the specific set of circumstances this time?” Liam asked. “Always,” Nate and Rick replied in unison. I threw mildly heated fireballs at their feet for their annoying response. I didn’t think I was being moody. I was pissed off, and I didn’t think anyone had a reason to question why that was. They’d decided I was their leader, and part of that job meant it was up to me to keep everyone safe. It was a job I took seriously, and I was missing close to two dozen people. “If I remember right, Nate is the one who usually gets moody when I’m pregnant. He doesn’t like that I get to feel our kids inside me and he doesn’t.” “That’s only partially true,” Nate said, trying to defend himself. “Before we were able to change forms, phoenixes laid their eggs like normal birds, so both parents had responsibilities to keep their children warm. Nowadays, it falls solely on the female of the species, and I want to do my part.” “As someone who’s in charge of creating babies, I have to say you’re the only male alive who wants responsibility when it comes to incubation. In at least a third of the couples I grace with a child, the man runs for the hills once he finds out he’s created a life. I’m pretty good at predicting the runners, but every once in a while I get a surprise.” I was sure someone would remind Eva that there was no way the third she was talking about were uniques. We were dedicated to our offspring like no other beings, even if we lived forever, legacy was important. I thought about saying as much, but the group of men and women I’d been looking for came into view. “We can circle back to the topic if anyone has something else they feel needs said, but until we get this conversation over, I’d like to refocus on the fact that the five people walking towards us are going to be dead within in an hour.” An hour was being extremely generous. Killing a few of them before we even started talking was a strong possibility. I decided I should probably wait to see who was going to be the most talkative before wiping people out. I heard the grumblings from behind me. We hadn’t killed anyone purposefully since we’d banded together, so I understood the general confusion about my words. They’d know soon enough why I’d made my decision, and I didn’t doubt they’d back me up. I just hoped they realized I wouldn’t let anyone else take away my targets. CHAPTER 3 The monster has been unleashed There were three males and two females in their group. They looked confident, but I projected their deaths in my eyes, and once they saw that, they lost a little of their easygoingness. It made me happy to see they understood the situation. More than likely they’d been told we didn’t kill our opponents, so they probably thought they could deliver their little message and be on their way. Evidently Malphas wasn’t equipping his troops with the most accurate information, not that he knew it, but we were in an official war and certain acts received very specific punishments. There had to be some rule that to be a warlock, which even the females were called, you had to have black hair. It was either that or they all decided to dye their hair, which I found annoying. Malphas more than likely decided to make his minions in his image. For them it was a bad fortune, because it only reminded me of their leader. As my mind wandered, I had to admit I had seen warlocks that didn’t have black hair, but maybe two out of a hundred was such a low number that I tossed them to the side as irrelevant. They were more than likely the ones who had dyed their hair. I imagined if I’d sold my soul, I’d do everything I could to not have to face that fact when I looked in the mirror each morning. Our two groups stopped twenty feet from each other. On my side of things, I didn’t need to get any closer to kill them. I imagined on their side they didn’t want to get any closer because they thought it’d be easier for me to kill them. I assumed they still believed they’d be able to somehow kill me, which was a joke. Along with the black hair, warlocks all seemed to have a cockiness about them that made them irrational. “Where did you take them?” I asked, breaking the ice. My voice was low and menacing, and sadly it didn’t scare them into spilling their guts. We’d stood there for thirty seconds and it didn’t seem like they were going to start talking. A few of them were darting their eyes around, searching for either a place to retreat or an attack, which was a reaction I hadn’t seen before. A retreat would’ve been smart of them, not that it’d help in the long run. I was pissed and there wasn’t a speck of dirt they could hide under that would save them. Even if their “master” had worked some kind of magic to protect them, I would’ve found a way to undo it. “Breathe, Avery,” Nate said, mentally trying to get me to clear my head a little. I couldn’t literally see red, but I knew where the phrase came from. My brain was singularly focused on the task ahead, and even Nate’s calming wasn’t going to do much to help that, not that it often helped a whole lot. The warlocks were in a V formation, which they always seemed to take when there was more than two of them. It was kind of funny since my people actually had birds amongst us and a V formation was well-known in our flying patterns. “I can’t tell you where your people are, just a simple message I was told to pass along.” It was the warlock at the point of the V doing the talking. He was a pale man, who wasn’t that tall, maybe five-seven. Most of those in his group were about the same height. One of the females was closer to six-foot. She stood in the back of the left side of their V. They all wore black, so we looked like two opposing ninja forces squaring off in the middle of the street. Numbers were clearly on my side, though, and the squirming I saw let me know they were aware of it. It was good to know that they could at least count. “I’d like to know exactly what happened here, and then you go about delivering your message.” I didn’t leave any room for argument in my statement. There was something off about the town, and it wasn’t just the fact that my people were missing from it. There should have been noises coming from the celebration, but other than nature quietly moving around us, I couldn’t hear anything. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to have to be more specific. We’ve been in town for a few days, and quite a few things have happened in that time.” I sent a warning fireball across the wide gap between us. I made sure they had a chance to see it form and come towards them and set it to a mild scorching level. It wasn’t meant to cause damage, just let them know I wasn’t going to put up with any crap. Since it was aimed at the lead guy’s feet, he jumped back a foot to keep it from hitting him. It was smart on his part not to use magic to combat it. I would’ve taken any magic as a threat and acted a little more accordingly. I really was in a foul mood. “Do I really need to repeat the question and clarify, or are you going to stop acting like an idiot and tell me what I want to know?” The warlock shook his head. “No need. We put the town in stasis when we got here. Malphas said none of them could be hurt, so we thought that’d be the easiest way to ensure that while we handled your forces.” My eyes narrowed as I growled at them. I wasn’t the only one making that particular noise, as Joseph’s growl came out more like a roar. Since wolves were one of the more numerous uniques, at least half of the forces we’d had in the town were his. “Joseph, correct me if I’m wrong, but the calls you received didn’t include any news of the town being frozen, did they?” My initial thoughts about the town being a trap for our recon team were looking to be true, which was one of the reasons I was so mad. I hated the idea of Malphas getting one over on me. I knew he was powerful, but if I was forced to factor in him being intelligent as well, things weren’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped. “Not a word. I was told there was a festival and the warlocks were trying to blend in.” “So, I guess my next question to you guys,” I said, glaring at the warlocks, “is whether you’re good at throwing your voices or if you had skin-walkers lying in wait.” The lead warlock looked a little nervous about how I would react to his answer. He had to be one of the smartest warlocks I’d met. They were usually all about telling me how brilliant Malphas’ plan to defeat me was. Sadly, none of them were able to tell me what the plan was so I could come up with a really good plan of my own. The other warlocks looked like they wanted to speak up, but they waited for their leader to say what was on his mind. The look of fear in their eyes wasn’t as deep as the man out front. He knew for sure how things would end that particular day, and he was trying to figure out if there was a way for him to change that. “I’m sure you know I can’t reveal the full plan. Malphas wants you to be surprised as you travel around for the next few days, and he’s ensured you can’t torture what he foresees happening out of us.” I smiled. I’d seen the trick before when I’d tried to interrogate warlocks. The second they tried to talk about a subject, a self-destruct switch went off and they were rendered as close to dead as they could get with their heads still attached. “Hmm, I guess that limits how useful you are to me. It must be a great feeling knowing your great ‘master’ can kill you whenever he wants. Would you have signed up to have your soul stolen from you if you would’ve known what kind of man you work for?” For some reason my mood had turned more playful. It probably had to do with the fact that Malphas being smarter than me wasn’t waved in my face for once. He’d gotten one over on us in that town, but that didn’t mean he’d be smarter than me when it came to our fight. “It gives us an easy way to get out of the torture you cretins would try to inflict on us,” the tall woman in the back said, hissing out every word. “Shut up, Lena,” the lead guy said. My eyes darted back to her and my smile widened. Sometimes it was just too easy getting under their skin. “Really? Have you ever wondered what’s waiting for you when you die? You seem eager to find out. To become what you are, who you are is taken away from you, making it so there really isn’t a heaven or hell out there waiting for you. It’s just an endless void where you don’t know where to go. “You spend years trying to keep your memories fresh in your mind, but eventually everything fades away. Since you’re already a shell of a person, maybe that doesn’t sound so bad to you, but you aren’t alone in the void. There are others like you, and with all that confusion, it isn’t exactly pretty.” I held the grin on my face, but talking about the void wasn’t something I liked doing. Malphas had given me my memories back, even the ones I didn’t know I needed to remember. I wasn’t in the void long enough to totally forget who I was, but I knew what went on there. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” one of the male warlocks said. He seemed pretty adamant about his statement, and I was glad to see the usual stupidity of warlocks shining through. If they’d magically grown brains, I would’ve been worried. “If you are able to remember this moment in a hundred years, feel free to reach out and let me know I was mistaken. Purgatory can be different for different people, but the memory thing is something I know happens to everyone. Anyway, why don’t we get back to what you guys are still doing in town? I believe you have a message for me.” I already knew from what had been said that it was going to be directions. We weren’t going to be sending in more teams to scout if there was a chance they’d be kidnapped, and Malphas was aware of my thinking. He’d once told me we were more alike than I would ever admit. He may have been right about that, at least in the sense he claimed. We both had people who looked to us for direction and would do anything we asked of them. His people didn’t have a choice, and mine did. That probably made mine just a little dumber, but they were mine and I would protect them as best I could. With some of them missing, and in the enemy’s hands, I knew I hadn’t done my job. Someone would pay for that, and I was pretty sure that someone was anyone Malphas put in my path. “He says to go east to find the place stuck in time. He knows you aren’t a big carnivore, but for those among your group who are, he recommends sampling the bacon. It is by far the best he’s ever tasted.” I laughed as the lead warlock finished delivering the message. It was disturbing my enemy knew my eating habits, but because he did, I didn’t have to consult my humanoid computer for a location. Without giving any indication about what I was doing, I generated a ten-foot wide fireball set to destroy and hurled it at the group of warlocks. I’d made a little adjustment to the middle two feet of the ball, so as it incinerated his companions, the lead warlock remained only slightly scorched. He looked at me in shock as he worked to extinguish the fire that licked at the edges of his clothing and hair. The four other warlocks incinerated without a peep, which I imagined wasn’t something they thought possible. The warlock left standing didn’t seem in a hurry to speak, so I went ahead and said my piece. “I thought when we walked up all of you saw what was ahead for you, but your friends ended up falling back into the normal warlock state of mind, stupid. You never lost the fear in your eyes, and for now that’s spared your life, because I needed one of you. I have a message of my own that I need delivered, and I believe you’re just the person to do the job.” I paused for a second to see whether he was ready to hear the message. He’d patted out all the fire, without taking his eyes off me. He looked a little different without his dark eyebrows and newly pink skin, but those were things he could recover from. If he was as strong as I assumed he was, he could say a spell once we left and look normal within seconds. He nodded his head quickly, so I continued. “First, before the message, we’re going to leave the town after this little talk, and I’d like you to make sure it’s left the way it was when you arrived. The people here aren’t in danger of getting in the crossfire anymore, so there is no reason for them to remain frozen.” I’d been shocked to hear any consideration had been given to the humans. I’d had to deal with the opposing side trying to blow up buildings with uniques and humans inside. “Understood,” he said quickly. “Great. I’m sure Malphas will want a status report, since he’ll know you’re still alive. When you’re telling him what happened here, I want you to let him know that payback is a bitch, and he should consider me killing Alex as nothing compared to what’s coming his way. There will be no warlocks or demons left by the time I’m done, and I’m pretty sure every single one of those deaths is going to be gruesome.” I had nothing left to say, so I turned around and started walking back to the cornfield. My people parted to the sides as I made my way through them. I saw the looks of shock and gleefully smiled as I practically skipped to decide what our next plans were. I hoped their surprise was because I’d actually left someone alive. It was a necessary evil at the moment, but I was sure eventually Mr. Warlock would be on the receiving end of a fireball. CHAPTER 4 Time to start carrying around a fire extinguisher “You do realize you just said a bad word, right?” Rick asked. He wasn’t far behind me and I could hear the laughter in his voice. I wasn’t feeling jolly, so the immediate response he got was my fresh-from-killing-four-people glare. “It’s a saying. It doesn’t actually count as saying a bad word.” I didn’t pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about. I could’ve and he would’ve gone on for about ten minutes teasing me. We didn’t have time for that, so I went a different route. The easiest would’ve been to just say “so what”, but I couldn’t take away all his fun. “Are you feeling okay?” he asked, rather than having the fun I expected. I wasn’t stomping as quickly as I had out of the cornfield, but we were already back to the part of the road I’d paused to look around. I should’ve probably followed the warlock to make sure he was a good boy and fixed the town. There was a lot of should’ve, could’ve and would’ve going on in my mind, and I needed to focus on what I was going to do, so I assumed he could follow directions. I about kicked myself for making that assumption. Warlocks couldn’t be trusted, and I had a strong urge that I needed to stick around, but I just didn’t have the time. Getting to Malphas and ending the stupid game we were playing took precedence. I rotated to look at the mass of uniques following me around. Everyone other than Nate had been kind enough to give me a little room. He turned with me and held onto my hand; I wasn’t really sure when he’d grabbed it. He knew what was going on in my head, and he didn’t seem to be overly concerned. If anything, he was a little excited. “I don’t think I have to tell you I’m pissed off. Other than that, I’m feeling perfectly fine. If you’re bored and want to check out my vitals, I’ll give you five seconds to get the rhythm of my heart.” “You’ve all fought her enough to know that battle puts her in that mood. This isn’t any different,” Nate added. If his words were needed, the warlocks’ stupidity had worn off on them. “But what was all that about what it’s like to be in Purgatory?” Kyle asked. “It sounded like you had firsthand experience, and that’s the kind of thing you share with the group. There are stories in our background about people getting out of Purgatory, but they’re rare and something you should’ve mentioned to us.” I rolled my eyes and turned to look out at the corn. I really wished it was taller and I had time to run through it. Ever since I’d gotten my memories back I’d wanted to be out in nature. It helped me think, and running through crops meant to nourish people was one of my favorite places. It didn’t beat getting lost in the woods, or soaring through the sky, but it was pretty high on my list. “I wanted to see if they’d doubt Malphas’ leadership when they heard what was going to happen to them. I guess that plan didn’t work out too well, since they were too stupid to believe me.” “I don’t think that was what Kyle meant, and you know it, little sister.” Rick put his hands on his hips, imitating one of my favorite poses. I was fairly certain I looked better doing it. It was unfair that his size made him look more intimidating than I did, and in most cases would probably make people take him more seriously. “I’m well aware of what Kyle meant, and I don’t think now is the time to talk about it. We need to figure out what’s waiting for us in Amana.” I saw my statement was met with a lot of confused faces when I looked over my shoulder at the group. I knew what to expect, but I was hopeful they’d learned I sometimes just magically had the answers. I sighed and massaged my forehead for a second. “The message,” Nate said taking over for me. “Avery thinks Malphas wants us to go to Amana. I can’t say why she knows about the quality of bacon there, but I agree that it’s probably a good place to start whatever game Malphas is playing.” We’d actually already started the game, but I refrained from correcting him. I couldn’t say for sure when the game started, but as soon as someone shared the prophecy tying us together, the fun began. “I’m not over my questions about Purgatory, but why in the world would we go to Amana? We don’t have any of our people there and I think figuring out where they are is probably a bigger priority.” “Normally I’d agree with you, Rick,” I said, shaking my head, “but unless one of you can follow energy trails that have been gone for days, I don’t think we’re going to have any instant luck finding our people.” I didn’t like the idea that we were left doing what Malphas had mapped out for us, but I wanted to find him and kill him, and the only way I could see to accomplish that was to follow the clues. I wore the knife that could kill the demon in a sheath around my waist. It was one of the only knives I never bothered hiding, and I’d kept it even handier than usual since my wedding day. My fingers wrapped around the handle and I felt a gentle pulse in the knife. It scared me a little, since I’d never felt it before, but I hid my reaction. I wasn’t sure what the pulse meant, but I figured I’d find out as soon as I caught up with Malphas. “Can you answer what was up with the giant fireball? You’ve never done anything that big, and they usually don’t incinerate warlocks, at least not that I’ve ever seen.” Vinnie was asking for technical reasons. He’d want to try to take the concept and weaponize it so everyone could use it. “By the time we get back home, there won’t be any warlocks left to use it on, so I don’t think we need to worry about it now. The warlock I left alive said Malphas had a few days planned out for us, so we should probably get on our way. If we can pick up all the clues quicker than he expects, we may be able to catch him off guard.” I was ready to move. I had three very special reasons to make it back home as soon as possible. With the guards and my parents there, no one would get to the babies, but I wouldn’t feel at ease until I saw them again. I wasn’t sure that the babies were completely safe from Malphas; I figured if I kept telling myself they were, it would have to be true. “I don’t think we should go anywhere before you explain exactly what’s going on with you, baby girl. The fireball wasn’t normal.” “But it was, Rick. You just didn’t know. No one did, not even Avery.” Eva’s words drew my attention and I turned to focus on her. She’d managed to go unnoticed for a little while, which wasn’t like her. The fireball hadn’t bothered me as it did everyone else, but I’d felt the raw power coming from me when I’d generated it. It wasn’t a power I remembered having. It was different than the other fireballs I’d made, none of which had the power to burn through warlocks. “You see, Eva, that’s why you grate on my nerves so much. You know things about me no one else does.” “And that’s why I’m your best friend, even if you’ve tried to replace me in this life. It’s not time for you to learn about the month missing from your memory. I already know you’ve seen things from it you shouldn’t have, but I have to put my foot down when it comes to you trying to dig for more details too soon. You’ll thank me for that, trust me.” I had to laugh at the thought of trusting Eva. It sounded like a punchline of a very sad joke, one I wasn’t going to be involved in. “Can you tell me if I’m going to find more surprises when I deal with whatever is waiting for us in Amana? I barely envisioned a fireball frying the warlocks a few minutes ago and it was there and it did exactly what I wanted it to.” Eva skipped away from Liam’s side and moved to stand two-feet in front of me. She stared into my eyes and tilted her head to the side. “I know you’re in for lots of surprises before the week is out. Some will come from you, but not all of them. You’re more powerful than you remember, my darling friend.” Her eyes stayed glued to me, like she was trying to figure something out. It was never a good thing when a Fate didn’t know the answer to something. She looked over to Nate, and I followed her gaze. They didn’t say anything, and I didn’t hear anything spoken between the two of them, but there was definitely something being said. I waved my hand in between their eye contact to get them to cut it out. They continued for another second, and then Eva skipped back to Liam. “What in the world was that about?” I asked. Everyone else around me had been confused by my actions, and evidently confusion was catching. “Nothing, silly. I just remembered a recipe I wanted to share with Nate so he could surprise you for your birthday.” “One of these days I’m going to figure out a way to kill you, Eva. I know you’re pretty attached to her, Liam, but I can find you a new girl who will be easier to get along with.” I looked over to Nate to see if he had anything he wanted to say about the exchange. He didn’t even bother speaking, instead choosing to shake his head. “Fine. So we have no explanation about the fireball and I don’t want to talk about the other thing we mentioned. Is there anything else someone is dying to know, or should we make guesses about what we’re going to find when we get to our next location?” “Maybe I should go ahead and check it out for you,” Mak suggested. He was the only jinn with us on the trip. If there had been more, I would’ve maybe thought longer than a second about it, but no matter what, I wasn’t sending him anywhere without the rest of us. Demons had enslaved the jinn for as long as demons had been around. I’d made it so Mak wasn’t able to take orders from someone, but that didn’t mean a demon couldn’t find a way to put shackles on him again. If Malphas was waiting for us to send recon in, Mak would’ve been in trouble. “No,” I said, shaking my head. “There’s no more recon. We’ll follow the clues where they lead, but we’ll do it as a team. We’re strongest when we’re all together.” “What about the missing team? You don’t seem too worried about them.” Joseph didn’t seem too worried when he asked the question either, so I got the feeling he wanted me to repeat what he already assumed for everyone to hear. “He’s not going to kill them, and we have no way to follow them. It’s not that I’m not worried about them, it’s that I know there isn’t anything I can do right this second. We don’t have the resources to go on two wild goose chases at once.” “But either Eva or Mak could be sent to try to find them. She might even know where they are,” Joseph pushed. “I’ve always loved your need to ask the question others are thinking, even if you already know the answers, Joseph, but wouldn’t it be just as easy if you answered them directly?” Being able to read his troops was part of what made Joseph good at his job. He couldn’t directly read anyone’s mind, but he knew the details about what made them hesitate to follow orders and he was capable of making sure the hesitation was limited. “I see your point, but I think it would be better coming from you. So, why don’t you think they’ll be killed and why won’t you send either of the two I mentioned.” “Fine. If you guys really need to hear it, he won’t kill them because he plans to use them against us. The warlocks wouldn’t answer my question about whether skin-walkers were involved because they are. I can’t explain exactly why I thought they might be, but the fact remains that if they are, our comrades can’t be killed. “As far as sending Mak in, would you rather him fight with us or against us? If there is a demon trap set and Mak gets captured, I can’t be sure they won’t find a way to turn him against us, not that he would do so willingly, but he may not have a choice and I for one prefer to have him fighting next to me. “I’m not sure why anyone is wondering why I don’t ask Eva to go. I thought it was pretty clear she’s only here because she finds me amusing to watch. I’m sure when the time comes she’ll try to figure out something to do, but in a battle, it’s her sisters you want by your side. No offense.” I didn’t really care if I offended her. As far as I was concerned I should’ve tried to offend her as much as I could in hopes she’d get tired of hanging around. “None taken. I’ve seen the looks questioning what I’m doing here. Truth be told, I’m here to make sure Avery doesn’t do anything stupid. My calendar had that task penciled in for a while now, so I decided I would take a vacation from my regular duties to ensure things happened as you’d want them to happen.” I gave the Fate a mental slap for being cryptic. She knew I hated it, but she loved finding new ways to drive me crazy. When I saw her rub the side of her face I’d seen myself slap, my eyes widened just a little. Making physical contact wasn’t something I’d been able to accomplish. Eva laughed. “Should’ve seen that one coming. I told you you’re stronger than you know. Why don’t I act like I’m here for a purpose and transport us to our next location. It’s the least I can do for pissing you off, my queen.” I saw her dip into a curtsey before things went hazy and I felt the usual pull of being teleported to a location. CHAPTER 5 I don’t recommend traveling with a group full of know-it-alls When we landed in our new spot, I made a note to make sure Eva was never in charge of transportation again. Using satellite images to find a quiet cornfield was a lot more precise than using a lunatic for navigation. Not to mention the funny feelings I got while we were in motion. My whole body felt like a live wire had been plunged into my flesh. I made myself shiver a few times to get rid of the feeling, but it remained subtly under my skin. As I glanced around the street Eva had plopped us in on, I saw a sign for the Amana Meat Shop & Smokehouse. “Which is exactly where you wanted to go, if my memory serves me right.” I hated when Eva took on her overly confidant tone. She had way too much power for someone who liked to rub it in. “Didn’t you forget to add your majesty to the end of that?” I quipped. “Not at all, my queen, I just didn’t think you liked hearing that constantly, so I’ve decided to limit myself to saying it only four times a day.” She’d finally gone insane. I’d always thought she was at least borderline in need of a straightjacket before, if not a fully padded room without a way to escape. Her calling me her queen before we changed locations, and actually meaning it, had crossed her over a line I didn’t think she’d be able to come back from. “We’re drawing a crowd, so maybe we can discuss Eva’s need to proclaim her fealty a little later,” Liam suggested. I didn’t feel any tingles close by, so I assumed without looking that our crowd was of the human variety. I’d wanted to draw as little attention as possible, which is why I thought landing in the middle of the street was such a dumb idea. I knew very little about Amana, but I was fairly certain the locals weren’t expecting a large group of people to appear. “As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t need to be discussed, but you should probably start picking out straightjackets that match your skin tone, Eva.” I couldn’t see the crowd Liam had mentioned, and I was fairly certain the only reason he could was because he was ten-feet-tall. Not literally, of course, but compared to me he might as well have been. As far as me seeing what was going on in front of our group, it didn’t help that I was standing behind a Kapre. “What exactly do you consider a crowd, Liam?” After doing conferences in front of roughly a thousand people, my definition had changed from what it used to be. “About thirty, and I believe they would be tourists, at least most of them.” I imagined a group of people in corny t-shirts with cameras draped around their necks. I was sure a few of them were recording our sudden appearance, which was going to be fun for our public relations people. When we traveled in a big group there was usually communication with the humans, so there wasn’t a rash of calls to the local police. “Wonderful. Since we have no idea why we’re here, or whether we’re in the right place, I suppose we better ask a few questions.” No one had asked why I’d immediately thought of Amana based on the clues the warlock had relayed. I didn’t doubt there were other places that would qualify, but I’d ordered a bacon bundle pack for Rick’s birthday from the shop Eva had brought us to. I didn’t think that was a coincidence. I’d found more and more during my life that things rarely happened by chance. I hated the fact that it seemed my life had been planned without my involvement. “Now that we’re here, and I’m sure you know there’s no warlocks in the area, is it okay if we split up and look around a little?” Eva asked. “With this big of a group, we can cover a lot more ground if we break up into thirds. I’m sure it will still be intimidating to any humans sight-seeing, but since we don’t know what we’re looking for, getting our eyes everywhere can’t hurt.” I glanced over at the Fate, and even though what she’d said sounded logical, I had to question the words coming from her. She was just along for the ride, making sure I didn’t do anything stupid. Whatever that meant. Eva liked to come to our meetings, mostly just to flirt with Liam, and drop in at unexpected times, but she’d never been too involved in making plans. I’d never really wanted her input, because I was sure it’d be disastrous. I wasn’t sure I believed that she didn’t know what we were looking for since she took pride in letting everyone know she knew everything. “Don’t look at me like it’s impossible for me to have a logical thought. I’ve spent enough time with you in recent weeks that it was bound to rub off.” She rolled her eyes and waited for the stunned expression to leave my face. “I honestly didn’t think the word logical was one you knew. It’s nice to see you’re actually using the ‘word of the day’ calendar I got you. As you mentioned, there are no warlocks lurking around, so maybe we need to rethink things.” “Nah,” she immediately replied. “We’re in the right place, we just have to figure out why this is the right place.” “Are you saying you don’t know the answer to that? I thought you knew everything when it came to my life.” I hated not being able to see around the wall of soldiers in front of me. For some reason there wasn’t a crowd behind us, which I’d looked over my shoulder to confirm. I wanted to get a feel for whether the tourists were trying to find pitchforks and run us out of town. Other than the conversation I was having with Eva, things were too quiet. “Even the best oracle wouldn’t be able to predict the events of your life, my queen. I’ve observed enough people to be able to say no one messes with the timeline like you do. I think we’ve had that conversation before, though, so I’m going to take a small group and start wandering around. I know you’ll need to keep enough people with you to start a small village, but if you can spare two groups of ten, I think we can be out of everyone’s hair relatively quickly.” I didn’t understand her sudden need to call me her queen, and probably never would, but doing something other than standing around sounded like a good idea to me. I checked with Nate, and he nodded to let me know he had no problem with the notion of splitting up. If it came down to us disagreeing about that, we both knew I’d win. Checking in with him was just a courtesy. “I’m not sure what we’re going to find, but I don’t get the feeling we’re going to be running into Malphas.” Nate slid his hand behind my back as he spoke. “No, just like I knew the last place wasn’t the right one, this isn’t either. He’s getting us to hop around while he sets things up exactly as he wants them. It’s already been said, but this is just an elaborate game he thinks he’s going to win.” It annoyed me that my words were true, but I apparently had a plan in place to make sure things worked out in my favor. It would’ve been better if I remembered the plan. I assumed eventually I would, but that time couldn’t come fast enough. I knew I’d been working on a plan for a long time as I’d prepared to become as strong as I could decades before. It appeared all the final decisions had been made during the month I didn’t remember, though. Because all I knew was who the opponent was and that I was fighting not only to save my life, but also my brother’s. Remembering everything other than the missing month was even more frustrating than having no memory at all. I’d assumed that once the rest of my life had been sorted out, all mental blocks would be down. I had to remind myself it was my life, though, and nothing ever made sense. The fact that my enemy was the one who granted me most of my memories had proven that. It was in Malphas’ advantage to keep me forgetful, and yet he’d oddly shared the life I’d forgotten. Part of me believed he’d only done it to prove how strong he was. I couldn’t really think of another reason why he’d have done something so foolish. “Can’t someone perform a little trick and just tell us what we’re looking for?” Rick asked. He sighed, like walking around trying to figure out why we were in Amana was a big deal. Our original goal was to zip off into battle, so I was fairly certain we hadn’t taxed all his stamina from making him walk through a cornfield. “It’s probably best we refrain from doing that, don’t you think?” I said as I nodded towards the humans I couldn’t see. There were things humans didn’t know about us, particularly me, that we didn’t need someone catching on camera. We’d kept my sorceress powers a secret and I had no plans to start saying spells in the middle of the street. “It’s not like anyone would see, and you know Mak can do things without anyone noticing. He’s moved large groups of people without blinking an eye.” Rick had a point, but I didn’t know how much help Mak could be. I’d tried hundreds of, or at least five, spells to figure out where Malphas was and none of them worked. As much as I hated to admit it, the jerk was powerful. “It shouldn’t take long to figure out the clue and move on to the next place,” Eva said before I had a chance to reply. I looked at her, ready to make a comment about her still standing there, but Rick had his own plans. “You say that like the next place isn’t going to be the one we finally meet up with Malphas.” “Wow, you aren’t as stupid as you look,” Eva said, sparing only a quick glance at Rick before turning to me. “If you find anything, whistle. I’m sure we’ll hear you.” She latched onto Liam’s arm and directed a group of uniques to follow her. The words she’d said to Rick weren’t mean-spirited, but he was pouting when I looked around to see if anyone else was going to take off to follow Eva. Most of the ones who did had looked my way to make sure it was okay they left. “If you keep sticking your lip out like that, it’s going to get stuck. Can we talk about the scavenger hunt we’re on later and figure out what we’re looking for? As amazing as it would be for Mak to point us to what we need, Malphas is too smart to make it that easy.” Rick’s lip protruded out a little further before he tucked it back to its normal position. He sighed, and then waved his arm out in front of him, indicating the floor was mine. “I can’t see around our wall either, but I imagine you’ll be a little less scary to the humans. A third of them want to be your best friend, another third wants to marry you and the last third just wants to pick you up and cuddle with you.” “Very funny, Freddie. Last I checked it was you who looked like a giant teddy bear. Would you like to tell everyone to clear the way so we can get down to business?” I looked over my shoulder at Nate, waiting for his command. “You’re so cute when you pretend I’m in charge. You know they’ll move if you ask them.” Sometimes that worked, but more often than not I found my protection squad a little overbearing, and they waited for Nate to agree with me before following my commands. It gave him a nice little ego boost, while driving me crazy. As much as some of the troops enjoyed anything that irritated me, I tried to find workarounds whenever I could. “Just tell them to move.” It wasn’t like they didn’t hear the conversation. One would think that when their nominated leader said move, they would. I supposed I was their prophesized leader, but either way they looked to me for direction. “They’re still trying to decide if there’s any danger. You’re known to run head first into spells.” The laughter in Nate’s voice made me want to punch him. Vinnie had worked tirelessly on our spell detectors, and none of them were going crazy. I didn’t feel any warlocks, or any other uniques, and no one else sensitive to those things was wigging out. “Can we not get into the argument brewing after that statement,” Rick said as he started pushing his way through the crowd. People moved more easily out of his way than they ever had for me. I moved to follow, but Elan and Joseph were directly in front of me, and trying to move Elan was like pushing through a titanium reinforced concrete wall. If he was really feeling ornery, he’d make up a scene for me where I thought I was winning. “Seriously? We’ve been standing here for over five minutes and this is stupid. Believe me, I’ve seen the future and I know I’m involved in the battle, so there isn’t going to be anything that keeps me away from it.” “Do you really think that logic works when Eva just got done saying you had a tendency to change the timeline more than anyone else?” Elan asked. “Whether you like it or not, there are times you need someone to keep you from getting in trouble.” “I’m pretty sure all roads end with Avery being at that battle, so let’s go ahead and do some looking around. I know no one wants to really leave Avery’s side, but it makes sense for us to split up and look around a little. Joseph, do you mind leading a group.” Joseph spun around and stared at Nate. The look on his face made it clear that move wasn’t in his plans, but he nodded and walked off. A group followed him without being told. That left me with my Kapre friend in my way. There was a vacated hole next to him, though, so I slipped around him and through some bodies before they realized I was on the move. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the questions and needed explanations, but it was best to hurry up and get them out of the way. CHAPTER 6 Would someone please look up the word helpful? Once I made it through ten road blocks, I was able to get a look at the humans congregating in front of us. Some stared, mouths gaping, while others started whispering as soon as I came into view. I could see how little ol’ me surrounded by the hulking men I kept company with might take a second to digest. I didn’t have time for them to work things out, though. I had places to be, and the sooner I figured out if they would be helpful in figuring out where those places were, the sooner we could be on our way. I assumed they had places to visit and things to buy, so I hoped they’d be willing to help us out. “I’m sorry we dropped in unannounced, and in the middle of the road. Usually we aim a little better. None of you are running away, so I assume you know who we are.” It was kind of unnerving that those words could be true. Even with all my memories, I was still uncomfortable around large groups of people. Living over two decades as a shy person who was skittish around large groups of people had done a number on my personality. “You’re the woman from the news, the one who turns into fire,” a man in the front of the group said. “I like to think I turn into a phoenix, not just fire, but you’re right. I’m Avery, and if you’ve seen any of my conferences or television appearances, you know I don’t leave the house alone.” “That may be, but you usually don’t have an army with you, unless you keep the weapons in a pile next to the stage.” A woman pressed her way through the crowd as she spoke. No one in the group really stood out to me. They looked like a bunch of tourists who had bitten off more than they could chew when we’d appeared out of nowhere. Even with us splitting up, we still outnumbered them three to one. “You’d be correct. We aren’t exactly here picking up some of the fine goods the local merchants have to offer. Are any of you locals? We need to know if anything unusual has happened around here today, or maybe even in the last few days.” There was silence as the group glanced around, watching to see if anyone would step forward. I couldn’t blame them for being hesitant. I wasn’t the most intimidating person because of my size, but it was a little difficult to miss the multiple men around me who were around seven-feet tall and had muscles that grew their own little muscles. It didn’t help that it had already been pointed out that they were armed. I could’ve mentioned that if any of them wanted to hurt the humans, they didn’t need the weapons, but I decided that would make things even worse. Hearing your head could easily be ripped from your shoulders didn’t get people talking. “Look, I know we seem to be overrunning the town here, but we were led to believe someone has been here recently and left some kind of message for us. Now, while we may not be into messing around with and hurting humans, the group we’re after has no problem using whatever tactics they need to cause us problems, and in the past they have threatened the lives of humans.” If I was smart, and had less scruples, I would’ve just started drifting around each of their minds to see if they knew anything. I’d done it before with humans I was investigating, but it was tedious when people weren’t always focused on the item you were looking for. “You’re looking for the man who was at your wedding, aren’t you.” I darted my eyes to the left and focused on the blonde women who’d spoken. “I don’t believe he’s personally been here, but yes, I’d like to find him and make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone.” “I remember watching the wedding and wanting to throw things at the TV screen when he mentioned wanting to take your child. I’m a mother of four, and I can’t imagine what it was like for you to hear someone threatening your baby.” The woman wore blue jeans and a purple cardigan set. Her arms were filled with shopping bags as she made her way over to the center of the group. “It certainly made for an interesting reception. As much as I’m worried for my children, it’s everyone else’s kids I’m truly trying to protect. If the man from the wedding has his way, the world’s going to become a living hell, which I assume most people would like to avoid.” I’d always thought directing the subject away from myself to how my troubles would change everyone else’s life was a good way to handle the unique-human dynamic. Humans were able to relate more if there was something that impacted their futures. As cool as it was to know that there were shapeshifters out there, our lives were kind of separate from theirs. “What exactly is at stake?” a deep male voice asked. He wasn’t in front of the group, so it took me a second to pinpoint the rotund gentleman who didn’t look as enthralled as the rest of the group. There always seemed to be one person who didn’t treat us like we were novelty items. I usually liked those people, as long as they weren’t plotting ways to kill me. Those people were wasting their time, and generally fools for thinking they had a chance to kill a unique. “I don’t think we really have time to go through everything right now, do we?” Rick asked from behind my right shoulder. I heard him, but I was busy studying the man who’d asked the question. I’d seen the look in his eyes quite a few times since we’d revealed who we were. It was pretty clear he fell into the bucket of idiots who liked to cause me problems. “Are you a card-carrying member, or do you just share their beliefs?” He looked a little surprised that I’d called him out, whether he knew what I was talking about or not. The fact that he hadn’t immediately ripped into me, I didn’t believe he’d made it to any meetings. I’d learned the first thing taught at the meetings was to start yelling as loudly as you could that I was an alien. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and if you ask me, you’re just trying to avoid answering my question.” The man shuffled a little to try to conceal himself behind the people in front of him. “I suppose I’ll let that drop, but I recommend visiting our website before you join them. As far as the question about what will happen, an exact answer to is difficult because it’s a part of the future I haven’t seen. What I do know is that you would more than likely consider the individual we’re searching for a demon. What do you think will happen if he’s allowed to take control of your life?” I was taking up precious time, but I’d never been able to have a debate with a follower of Humans Unite without them being escorted away. Even though the guy wasn’t hardcore, I still wanted to do what I could to change his mind about uniques. I’d heard a few deep inhales when I’d mentioned seeing the future. I knew it was one of my abilities that had a bigger shock value, so it wasn’t one we really touted. It would take time for people to understand how it worked, and in the meantime we didn’t want people lining up at our door trying to get me to tell them what was going to happen. “You’re a witch,” was all the man could come up with for an answer. From the sounds of it, he probably had attended at least one of the meetings. “It isn’t something we tell people, but I prefer the title sorceress. It’s a little bit more accurate. Since no one has stepped up to tell us whether there’s been anything funny going on recently, I guess we’re going to need to move on. We need to check in with our friends who went off to search in other directions. Hopefully we’ll be out of your hair soon.” I moved to turn around, but a flash caught my eye and I darted back around. It wasn’t the variety that came from a camera. It was just a little glint off a piece a metal in the sun, but the sense of déjà vu I felt made it worth my attention. Nate noticed my focus and stopped me from taking a step. “Let someone else go grab it. I know you hate doing that, but if there’s a spell, we’ll need you to counteract it.” I groaned, but nodded that he was right. We couldn’t deal with me disappearing mentally for a month, or longer, and as many times as I’d been knocked unconscious, I knew it was a likely possibility. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” I wasn’t sure why anyone would have hung a trinket from a tree. Focusing on it closer, it looked like it was tied around a leaf, which led me to believe it hadn’t been there long. As fragile as the leaf looked, I doubted the trinket would’ve still been there if a strong wind had blown through the area. Mak was the one to move towards it. Since he was normal-sized compared to the humans, it was smart of him to go to ensure we didn’t find people scattering. He also could work his own magic to make sure touching the trinket didn’t cause an explosion. “It’s a pocket watch,” Mak reported. He was still a few feet away from it, and he wasn’t reporting anything I hadn’t been able to figure out from my vantage point. After I noticed it, it had started spinning in a slow circle, allowing me to get a better look at it. “Can you tell if there are any booby traps? Usually by the time I’m that close something bad happens.” “That’s because it’s always targeted for you. I don’t think there’s anything funny about this, other than the fact that there’s a pocket watch hanging from a tree,” he said as he snatched it from the branch a little above his head. I waited for someone else to finally feel what I did when one of the doozies hit, but he flipped it around in his hands studying it. It was horrible that I was disappointed and that I hoped Mak had actually disarmed any spells before he touched it. I didn’t think he had, so it either was st to explode when I touched it, or for once it wasn’t a booby trap. “Do you mind opening it up over there?” Nate asked. It wasn’t like he was that far away, but my proximity to it when opened could’ve caused the explosion I was expecting. Figuring out someone else’s twisted ideas of magic was always difficult. “Sure, but I’m telling you I feel nothing magical about it at all. I’m not sure who left it here, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the scavenger hunt.” I could hear the soft click of him opening the watch, and his voice died down the second he got a look inside. He glanced over at me, and then back down. Nothing popped out at him, but the expression on his face told me something was up. “Okay, I stand corrected about it not being tied to the queen, but I still contend it isn’t magical.” He wasn’t hurrying to get back to us, so I shook off Nate’s touch and made my way over to the tree. It was a fluke I’d even seen the watch in the first place, and a part of me had been happy when Mak said it didn’t have anything to do with Malphas. I hadn’t totally believed him, but I’d hoped he was right. Mak held it out so I could see what had caught his attention, and my annoyance threshold, which was usually easy to peg, vanished completely. I didn’t know how Malphas knew me well enough to know what would tick me off, but he seemed to succeed every time he tried. He had probably at some point taken lessons from my mother, because she’d previously been the person most likely to piss me off. On the right side of the watch was a beautiful clock face that showed the gold-colored gears and gizmos moving underneath the surface as it kept the time. On the left side was a picture of a determined-looking me standing just outside a cornfield. A scene that had taken place that very day. “You’ve got to be kidding me. There wasn’t anyone there to take that picture. I would’ve felt him.” I sincerely hoped my words were true as I reached out and took the watch from Mak. I didn’t really want to touch it, but I needed to verify there wasn’t a doppelganger in play. The metal warmed as my skin touched it. I was a little worried some delayed explosion was going to happen, but it only got to a comfortable heat level and maintained it. The photo was centered on me, but I could see people behind me, even if their faces weren’t visible. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the picture was legit, even the best clone couldn’t copy the look on my face. “Well, at least someone got your good side. We only saw the five warlocks in town, do you think there was more hanging out?” Rick asked as he caught a glimpse. Our whole group didn’t move to get a look, but I did have a half dozen guys standing around trying to see what I was staring at. Without glancing back, I knew everyone else, uniques and the humans who were mostly too scared to move, were watching to see what I’d do next. “No, he took this. It has the creep factor he exudes written all over it. Get in touch with the other groups and have them start looking around for things like this. He wasn’t physically here, and I don’t think anyone else from his side was. There’s got to be something else that will tell us where to go.” The troops jumped to action while the humans did their best to stay out of the way. Nate grabbed the watch from me and closed it, so I stopped staring at myself. It was unlike me to do something like that, but there was something about the picture that drew me to it. Somehow it was the first of its kind to ever really capture what I felt inside, and that feeling was still brimming just beneath the surface of my skin. CHAPTER 7 Mothers, every once in a while they have a good idea “It’s not really that good of a picture of you. I’m sure I’ve seen better. In fact, I think the best picture I’ve ever seen of you was on a cave wall a few millennia ago.” I didn’t know how Eva managed to do it, but she always knew the best things to say to add to my irritation, obviously she’d spent too much time with my mother too. We’d covered every inch of the small village, and no one had found anything that looked like a clue. We’d managed to drive the tourists all away, which made me feel a little bad for the merchants who relied on their business. Those merchants did get the joy of dealing with dozens of hungry men and women who needed places to sleep, so we did add a little something to the local economy. The promise of money was probably the only reason the locals hadn’t taken off with the rest of the humans. They were extremely welcoming, but I could tell they were leery. “To me it looks like she’s about to walk out of the picture and scold someone, which as we all know is how she looks ninety-nine percent of the time, so someone could’ve just found a picture of her and superimposed it in front of some corn.” No one was about to argue with Rick as far as the look on my face. The watch had been passed around and it was unanimously decided that it was me and that it had to have been taken in Orange City. At least it was unanimous until Rick decided to throw in the photo manipulation angle. The watch had been taken apart and searched for any clues, with no results. If it was meant to tell us where to go, we were going to need to find an expert cryptologist, and whoever that person was would have to pry the watch away from me. I’d gotten a little possessive of it for some reason and almost punched Nate when he suggested someone take it apart. “It is weird how she looks three-dimensional. What kind of camera do you think he used to create that effect? I guess it could have been added after the fact, but it looks natural.” “That’s a good question, Elan, but the more I look at it, the more I think it’s something more than a picture. I swear there was no one there, so he must have been viewing the scene from somewhere else and somehow captured it. I know that sounds farfetched, but I refuse to believe I wouldn’t feel him if he was close by. There would have to be some smut hanging in the air.” A small group of us were hanging out in Nate and my hotel room. There were a couple dozen troops keeping watch on the town and the rest were eating or sleeping. Joseph had worked out shifts to make sure everyone got some rest, while making sure no one could sneak up on us. The troops deserved a little relaxing after turning over every blade of grass in a ten-mile area. It’d taken us all day, and even though we had all the stamina in the world, the task was tedious. “Hmm, speaking of remote viewing, I forgot there was a matter I needed to get taken care of today. Don’t wait up for me,” Eva said as she gave Liam a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see everyone in the morning.” I’d been surprised she’d spent all day with us, so her taking off wasn’t earth-shattering. I tended to think better when she wasn’t around, and I was past due for some kind of revelation. “You do know the only reason I put up with her is because I love you like a brother, Liam. If she hadn’t cast her spell on you, she’d be out on her ear as fast as I can flick my wrist. Even knowing how you feel about her, most of the time I wish I could kill her.” “I know she can be abrasive, but she’s doing everything she can to help out.” It would’ve been better if it sounded like he was trying to convince himself he spoke the truth. Eva had him so brainwashed that eventually I was going to have to get buckets of soap and take care of the problem. “Well, if no one has anything else to add tonight, we should probably try to get some sleep and hope we dream of the next location. When we wake up, we can regroup and figure out where to go tomorrow. I don’t usually advocate bouncing around until we find the right place, but we’re going to go crazy sitting around here.” As usual Nate was right, and our top advisors shuffled out to the room without having much else to say. Even Rick was a little sullen about the fact we didn’t have a plan. I knew Malphas wasn’t going to make things easy on us, but I’d thought he’d at least leave a decent trail of clues. “I believe it was you who thought earlier that he was setting things up to his liking. I don’t like the thought of him being ready for us whenever we find him, but it beats an ambush. I guess he could be planning an ambush for when we get to the spot, so never mind my half asleep mumbling. You haven’t indicated, but I’m guessing this isn’t the right place for the battle either.” Nate picked me up from my spot on the floor so he could carry me over to the bed. I was tired from having done a lot of running around for no good reason during the day, and he could tell just how depleted my reserves were. He set the pocket watch on the table, and then carefully worked my various knives out of their sheathes and put them on the table next to me, with the one that could kill Malphas closest to me. I’d strapped on a few other weapons for good measure, so he went ahead and removed the various holsters. Most of the goodies were spells Mak and I had worked up that might come in handy. It was hard to know whether magic or steel was the way to go against different warlocks, and I had no idea what would work best against the demons. It would’ve been nice if someone had tried to battle them before us, so we could have some sort of reference. “No, the scenery isn’t right. I’ve shared with you the particular thing we’re looking for, so you shouldn’t have to guess when we do finally find it.” “I know, but he could know you know and the delay in us finding him could be because he’s changing the location.” He pulled the comforter up over me, and then walked around to his side of the bed, removing his shirt on the way. He put it on a wooden rocking chair next to the one window in the room. He slid out of his jeans to reveal a pair of black boxers, and his jeans joined his top. “I don’t doubt he knows, but I don’t think he’s changing things around. There’s something about that spot. I can’t explain it, but I think it means something to him. I’m sure I won’t ever figure out exactly what that is, but I know he’ll be there.” Nate had crawled under the blankets next to me. He rolled me over on my side so he could cuddle me from behind. When his fingers brushed across my stomach I felt a little of the loss I’d been feeling throughout the day. Keeping busy had helped my mind from thinking constantly about what I was missing. It was wrong that I hadn’t been allowed to carry my children. Out of all the good I was expected to do for the world, a job I hadn’t signed up for, creating all of my children was what I was most proud of, and I didn’t think defeating evil would change that. “Should we call your mom for an update? It might make you feel better to know everything is okay at home.” I nodded. I’d wanted to call about every five minutes during the day, but once I started calling for updates, I didn’t think I would’ve been able to stop. I could sense the babies in a faraway way, but it wasn’t the same as hearing from someone they were okay. And that definitely wasn’t the same as seeing it with my own eyes. Nate got back up and fetched his phone from his pants, dialing the number before he handed it to me and made his way back in bed beside me. He was just as worried as I was, but he knew if he showed it, I’d start really freaking out. “Hello,” Mother answered the phone, sounding a little groggy. My instinct instantly went to the idea that she’d been drugged and someone had made off with my kids. I sat up in bed and threw the covers off. Nate managed to keep me from grabbing my knives and heading home via the Teleportation Express. “Try talking to her for a second before springing into action,” he suggested. “Avery?” a little less suspicious voice asked. “Is there a reason you’re calling at one in the morning? I expected to hear from you earlier today, but didn’t want to call and bother you if things were heating up on your end.” “You were sleeping,” I said as I sighed in relief. “Yeah, your father had to hit me over the head to get me to go down, but we’ve let the others keep watch for the last hour or two while we’ve tried to reenergize. I suppose it’s good you called, because I think he shut off my alarm.” “I thought you were only going to check in a few times during the day. We left a full guard schedule.” “Do you really think I’m going to let those barbarians, and I use that word in the nicest way possible, be the only ones watching my grandchildren? They weren’t even bothering to read stories to them. How are the babies supposed to learn anything if they’re stuck in there listening to the grunting of wolf shifters?” I smacked my hand to my forehead and let it slide down my face. I could imagine my mother lying in bed in a smock of some kind with her hair in curlers as she scolded me about who I left in charge of my children’s protection. Off the top of my head I didn’t know how long it was until her next resurrection, but it couldn’t come soon enough. I was tired of the fifties housewife persona she was stuck living. “There’s a good reason why I left those barbarians in charge of keeping the kids safe, and you know that. I take it since you aren’t acting anymore nutty than you usually do that the kids are all okay. Has there been any disturbances at all?” Malphas wanted the next oracle, I wasn’t really clear whether he wanted her alive or dead, but I expected he knew where to find her. The thought caused shivers to crawl up my spine. “All’s been quiet here. How have things been going for you? I haven’t seen anything on the news to indicate a massive fight has broken out in the middle of the country. I don’t trust those human reporters to be on top of a big event like that, but I figured at least one would’ve stumbled upon the scene.” I was so happy to hear things were fine I almost hung up the phone then. I didn’t really want to get into the fact we’d accomplished nothing, but knowing my mother, she would’ve called back until she got an answer. “Things are slow from our side of things. We went to the first place, but it just ended up leading us to a second one. We’re trying to figure out where the next one is, but the clues aren’t exactly lining up.” I figured I didn’t need to sit up anymore, and leaned back into Nate’s waiting hold. He propped us up so we were half sitting and half lying down. “So you didn’t rush out of here this morning to head right into battle? I thought you guys would be gone one day and the problem would be solved.” “If you want to get technical, we left yesterday morning since it’s after midnight. I thought whatever Malphas had set up for us would be quick, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In the first town we were given a riddle, which didn’t seem that hard. Once we got to the second town we found a pocket watch with a picture of me from the first town, but we haven’t found anything else to indicate where we should go.” “Why would you need anything else? Isn’t that a good enough clue for you?” My mother sounded like she did when she helped me with my homework when I was a kid, like the answer was obvious and it shouldn’t be that hard for me to figure it out. “As far as I can tell it isn’t a clue at all.” I glanced up at Nate to see if he understood what she was talking about, but he shrugged his shoulders. It wasn’t good when the person I used as an interpreter didn’t have a clue. “If it’s a picture of the last place you were, don’t you think maybe you should head back there and see if there’s something else there that you missed?” Since I knew the battle wasn’t going to be in Orange City, I hadn’t thought the scavenger hunt would head back through there, but it did kind of make sense given what we had. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to give that a try. I don’t know why he’d make us go back there, but we can check it out since we haven’t found anything else here. I’d love to talk more, but I’ve gotta go.” I hung up before she could go into how brilliant she was. We weren’t even sure she guessed right yet, so I wanted to save all the gloating until I had something to show for her wisdom. “I know you’re thinking we’re just going to gather everyone up and head out this second, but let’s let everyone get a shift of sleep in, and then head out. It will be the middle of the night there anyway, so finding anything isn’t going to be easy.” “Quit being logical,” I said as I put the phone on the table next to my side of the bed. He was lucky I was actually tired. If I’d been wide awake, his suggestion wouldn’t have stopped me from making a move. CHAPTER 8 Lack of sleep makes me a bit punchy It was hard for me to get any decent sleep. Each time my eyes drifted shut I saw the picture in the pocket watch come alive and the events following it replayed in my head. Someone had the dang thing on a loop, and living it once had been good enough for me. It was kind of cool the first time I watched me create the giant fireball from a different perspective. I was brought out of my fitful sleep by the sound of a rooster crowing. Not an actual rooster, just the alarm clock next to Nate’s side of the bed. It was a good thing he had it on his side because I would’ve thrown it across the rom. I groaned as I listened to it annoyingly squawk. I understood it went with the general farmhouse vibe the hotel had going on, but it was not the way I wanted to wake up. At some point Nate had removed my shoes, so I couldn’t reach under the covers and pry one of them off to throw at the ear-piercing device. “It’d probably be easier if I hit the button, but I can provide you with a shoe if that would make you feel better,” Nate whispered into my ear. His idea had merit, and I pondered it for a split second. “Just turn that thing off. I need to be able to think today and too much more of that will leave me without a brain.” There wasn’t a logical reason why it would slowly dissolve my brain, but I could see it happening. He chuckled as he rolled over and hit a button. As soon as silence hit my ears I breathed deeply and got a big whiff of cinnamon. I’d been so occupied at figuring out our next move that I hadn’t exactly cleaned my plate at dinner, and my stomach rumbled to remind me it liked to have food in it. “Yeah, and this morning I’m going to make sure you don’t skimp. I know we’re quick healers and all that, but I wouldn’t doubt it if your body still had the impression you were eating for four. Also, I don’t think I need to say it, but I will anyway. You need all the energy you can get for whatever is ahead of us today.” “I only ate the entire buffet line once, and I vowed that wasn’t happening again, so I don’t really care what my body thinks it needs all the food for. It will get exactly what I deem necessary and not a bite more.” The buffet line incident wasn’t in my current lifetime. It’d happened when I was pregnant with Zain. Back then, the food was a little more rustically prepared and a buffet usually consisted of every part of an animal or two cooked by various methods, plus a few sides. Just the thought of all that braised, grilled and boiled meat made my stomach sick. As time had gone on, I’d developed some different standards of food preparation, and nothing from that time period would have met those standards. If I only had a conventional oven back them, I would’ve ruled the world. “We’ll see how it goes. I’m sure the bacon and ham will be safe from you, but I’m not so sure about the pancakes and eggs. I think I even smell some hash browns, and we all know about your weakness for fried potatoes.” I groaned and kicked at his thigh before I escaped the bed to use the bathroom attached to the room. As I made my way to it, I swore my stomach was taunting me, telling me a trough of cheesy hash browns was the only way to make it shut up. I didn’t believe Nate could actually smell them, but I was sniffing the air as subtly as I could to see if I picked up a whiff. When I was finished relieving myself, washing my hands and straightening my hair a little, I came back in the room to find Nate dressed and ready to go. It was going to take me a minute to grab my weapons and put my shoes on. The shoes weren’t that important, but I wasn’t going anywhere unless I was armed. “I’ll take care of the shoes, you start arming up,” he instructed. I looked at him skeptically, so he explained what he envisioned. “I’m pretty sure you can put all your toys on while sitting down on the bed. It might be a little awkward for a few of them, but you’ve been wearing things externally, so it won’t take special maneuvering.” He was right, but watching me pretend to be a flamingo would’ve been more fun for him. I walked over and put the knives that I wore on my thighs in place. I probably could’ve done it sitting down, since my sheaths were on the outside of my pants. I usually hid them, but having them handy was more important than scaring the average person walking down the street. Once everything felt comfortable, I sat down and lifted my right foot up for Nate to go to work. It felt silly, because I was used to doing everything for myself. There was a short time when Nate had waited on me when I’d been shot and he’d convinced a unique doctor to tell me I had to take things easy. Other than that, I’d always done everything for myself. Even during that time I tried to take charge of everything. It was no fair Nate was bigger than I was and at the time the only one of us who had any powers. “How many times did you threaten to kill me within that first month? I think I stopped counting after the first hundred. I figured if you could come up with a hundred ways to kill me within a day, I didn’t want to think too hard about whether you could pull it off.” I had to laugh as I secured a machete to my back. I was lucky my sheaths were pliable, so it didn’t hurt to sleep with them on. I hadn’t ever slept in one prior to then, but going through all the effort of taking them off would’ve been too much for me the night before. “If I had to guess, I’d say I averaged twenty times a day, at the minimum, so probably around a thousand times. I really hated how you barged into my life and decided you knew what was best for me.” “But I did know what was best for you, especially since you didn’t even know who you were.” He finished tying my shoes and let his hand linger on my left calf. Most of the guys opted for combat boots, but I preferred a pair of beat up, purple sneakers I’d had for four or five years. If I could’ve gotten by without shoes, I would’ve run around barefoot, but when you’re looking for a fight that just isn’t logical. “I knew exactly who I was, other than the fact I was a zillion years old, married to you and had five kids. None of those changed the fact that I was capable of caring for myself.” Nate smartly didn’t comment any further on the subject and stood up. I’d managed to get all my gizmos and doodads in place, so I got up as well once I carefully slipped the pocket watch in my pocket. My stomach was still demanding food, so I grabbed his hand and hauled him towards the door. I could hear silverware clacking against plates, and I wanted my share of food. Hearing other people eating was making me jealous, which said a lot about my state of mind. “You could make the food appear up here if you’re really that hungry,” Nate offered. “Or I could teleport right to it, but I’m trying not to scare the owners of the hotel. We’ve already scarred them for life after they had to deal with Rick’s ‘needs’ last night. The man is lucky I love him.” I ran down the stairs to the first floor a little faster than normal. I heard voices around mouthfuls of food, which meant if there was any food left, it was probably in limited quantities. I’d warned the nice woman who’d checked us in that we were going to need about five times what they usually made for each individual. She’d eyed me skeptically at the time, but I hoped she realized I wasn’t joking. “There’s nothing weird about asking for a trained squirrel to bring me a chocolate mint at exactly one-thirty-five in the morning.” Rick waited until we’d made it into the dining hall before making his comment. The owners of the hotel who’d heard the request had laughed, but they quickly realized Rick was being as serious as he was capable of. I tried to pass it off as a joke, but Rick had his eyes set on that squirrel, and pressed that his experience would be subpar if he didn’t get it. “Sorry if I believe differently. I’m guessing you didn’t see a squirrel at that time, trained or otherwise.” I grabbed a plate and started piling pancakes on it, while trying to keep myself from drooling on them. It was a difficult task, especially when I found there were four options for syrup. There was the traditional maple, along with strawberry, blackberry and apple. My brain didn’t want to make a specific decision, so I poured the various kinds in streaks across the five-high stack of pancakes. There was still a little room on my plate, so I spooned a couple of piles of hash browns on. They were of the variety that were just potatoes cut into small squares sautéed with peppers and onions, otherwise known as my favorite. I started nibbling on them before I even got to one of the few free seats in the room, sadly it was next to my brother. No one seemed particularly jovial, but there was a nice buzz of conversation going on. Most of it consisted of ideas of where we could find the clue we’d overlooked the day before. It was nice to know that not everyone listened in on my phone conversations. I assumed some of the stronger uniques had accidently overheard things, but at the same time no appeared like they were ready to pack up and head to the next spot. I couldn’t believe Rick hadn’t been listening outside my door. “Nah, no squirrels, but they did tie a mint around a dog and send him to my room. They’re all about making the customer happy here. I may even decide to come back for a visit once all the dust settles. I tried talking the folks who own that smokehouse into letting me move in with them, but they were a little worried about how much of their product would end up in my stomach.” “Don’t worry, I ordered you a bacon bundle a few weeks ago for your birthday, and I’m sure you can sign up for some kind of bacon of the month club. It’s a little surprising you haven’t found one of those already.” “I see,” Rick said as he bit into a piece of bacon. “That’s why you instantly thought to come here.” “I can’t believe you told him. You never give any clues about presents.” Nate sounded genuinely offended as he took his seat next to me. “True, but I didn’t want him trying to stay behind when we leave in a little bit. He’s hard enough to keep an eye on with him right in front of me and focused on a task.” I didn’t care that my mouth was full of pancakes as I tried to get my words out. Rick put his last bite of food in his mouth and pushed his plate away. He eyed me, seemingly waiting for me to say something else. I decided not to oblige him. “Seriously? You aren’t going to come right out and tell me what freaky dream or premonition you had to say confidently that we’re moving on from this town in a little bit?” “Well, when you put it that way, I think I’ll keep my freaky dream or premonition to myself.” “Now you’ve done it. Why do you always have to put her in a bad mood?” Joseph asked. Our table had eight chairs, with the berserkers, Vinnie and Elan taking up the other seats. Kyle and Liam were busy filling their faces, but everyone else was waiting for me to come up with a real answer. The conversations I’d noticed around the room had died down. “It’s a talent he learned in the womb. Speaking of the womb, I called to see how things were last night and mom was using the part of her brain she passed on to me.” “Wait,” Rick said interrupting me before I could explain. “Are you admitting that mom actually figured out what about a hundred other people couldn’t?” “Technically we won’t know until we get there, but for once in her life she made sense.” “Wow, what does she have that she’s blackmailing you with, and why hasn’t she shared it with me?” “Shut up, Freddie. Nate kept me from leaving last night, but I’m just about ready to go. Why don’t you go make sure the bills are all paid and the rest of us will talk about where we’re going?” I knew that wasn’t going to happen, and since we’d prepaid for everything, it wasn’t necessary. As frustrating as things were turning out, it was nice to joke with him a little. “Well at least you didn’t tell me to go run in the street. I’m pretty sure around here it’d take a while for a car to come along and do any damage.” He was more likely to get run over by a horse, unless some tourists had shown up. Since there was no chance a horse would get the better of him, I avoided continuing that line of conversation. “Anyway, we’re heading back to Orange City. As Mother pointed out, the only clue we’ve found here is pointing back to where we came from.” “Why would we be directed to come here if it was only to go back?” I didn’t have a good answer to Rick’s question, even after thinking about it while I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to move forward, but until Malphas lifted whatever veil was keeping me from pinpointing his location, I was stuck following his directions. “We won’t know until we go there and see if that’s really what the pocket watch meant. I’m heading outside. Hopefully within the next five minutes everyone is ready to go. I don’t want to transport anyone while they’re in the shower, but I’m not going to wait around forever.” CHAPTER 9 Does anyone happen to have any idea what’s going on? It took the troops less than three minutes to meet me outside. It made it easy when all your belongings kind of followed you along, which Mak helped coordinate. Once everyone was in place, I went ahead and sent us back to the cornfield. I figured I had its coordinates, so there wasn’t a need to figure out a new location, and even if the town had woken up, they probably wouldn’t be gawking at the cornfield when we arrived. The instant I felt the corn around me, I also picked up the signatures of twenty uniques, who weren’t with our group. I went on instant alert and held my hands out to the side make sure no one rushed to do something foolish, but Joseph took off in a run towards the uniques. I understood his move, but I wished he would’ve waited an extra three seconds so we could get a handle on the situation. “Do you think someone should go after him?” Rick asked as we listened to the corn stalks being flattened along Joseph’s path. I’d been so careful not to hurt the corn during our first visit that I almost yelled for him to watch where he was going. “If he picked them up, I assume they’re his wolves, so he’s probably safe. Why don’t ten of you follow behind him at a safe distance just in case it’s a trap? Malphas isn’t here, and I don’t think any of his minions are, but they could’ve set something up.” Ten wolf shifters followed after their leader, the species solidarity wasn’t surprising. They followed my commands, but they usually had to answer to Joseph, and wolves made up the majority of the troops. “I thought you were worried about skin-walkers being involved.” Nate had more than likely seen the reason I thought skin-walkers were involved, so the hint of question in his statement wasn’t surprising. “I saw a time when we were fighting against people who looked an awful like some of the guys and gals I’ve trained. Since I let Joseph roll out the patrols, I can’t say for sure if they were the ones who were missing from here yesterday, but I don’t believe in coincidences.” “When you say ‘a time’ can you tell if the location was here?” Liam asked. “Maybe we should’ve sent more people after Joseph. The uniques could be under a spell.” I shook my head. “It was during the big battle, so I think we’re fine. The lack of yelling and screaming tells me we’re probably okay, and I’m sure you can feel the unique tingles our troops are giving off.” “I can, but I’m not as sure as you seem to be that Malphas isn’t lurking around. How sure are you that you’d feel him?” “I’m not sure. I’ve only met the monster once, so I can only base my assertion on what I felt then. There is no way I’d miss the kind of power I felt at my wedding.” I wasn’t in a big hurry to leave the rows of corn. They weren’t tall enough to make me invisible, but I was leery of going behind the corn. I didn’t appreciate having my picture taken, and somehow I felt a little more secure being within the boundaries of the corn. “Is the plan to just stand here and wait for whatever new clue we need to find here stumble upon us? I hate to tell you this, baby girl, but the chances of that happening are slim.” “Gee, you think, Freddie? I guess it’s a good thing I’ve decided the recently missing troops will probably have the clue.” “But you don’t know that for sure. What if Malphas’ plan is to make us stand around like fools looking for pocket watches? If there’s one in the cornfield, I’m not going to spend all day looking for it.” Rick started turning in a circle, and the general mood he was putting me in made me want to slap him. After having a decent breakfast, I wasn’t usually grumpy, but my brother had a way of rubbing me the wrong way. I knew it wasn’t really his fault; he was just really easy to blame when unexpected twists got me down. I should’ve been happy that we didn’t have to fight against skin-walkers pretending to be our troops. The fact that they were back meant a future I’d seen had changed, which also should’ve been a good thing, since I was trying to change parts of the future, but I had an odd feeling about things. “Before you two get into it, can I get a look at that pocket watch?” Mak asked. I looked over my shoulder and watched him come around to the front of me, with his hand outstretched. I didn’t want to hand it over to him. I thought if there was anything to figure out about it, I’d be the one to do it. I reached into my pocket and felt the warmth of the watch. There was something about the heat that felt familiar and it bothered me that it did, mainly because I didn’t know why. I pulled it out, quickly handing it over to Mak to hide any thoughts of me being more obsessed with it than I should’ve been. Mak stared at the golden shine of the outside as he inspected it. I didn’t ask whether he thought it was warm. I somehow knew that was something reserved for me. When Mak opened the watch, I watched his face closely. I didn’t know what he was looking for, but I wanted to know the second he found it. His expression didn’t really change; however, I knew whatever he was expecting was visible inside the watch. He could’ve just asked me to open it up and look inside, if that was all he wanted to do. “I don’t know if it’s good news, but I don’t think the troops Joseph ran off after have any clues for you. As I expected after you figured out we were supposed to come back here, the watch will be our clues going forward.” Mak left the watch open and handed it back to me. I saw what he was talking about before I had it back in my hand. The scene behind me in the photo had changed. Instead of barely knee-high corn, there was a wall of colorful rocks. It was hard to make out exactly what it was. There wasn’t a lot of sense when it came to figuring out why a certain rock was in one place, other than someone thought they’d look good glued together. What they assembled was beautiful to look at, even in the very small quantity I was able to see. “Okay. That seems a little random to me. I’ve never proclaimed to be a Malphas expert, but I didn’t think he was going to be generous enough to just tell us where to go. There can’t be a ton of grottoes in Iowa, and I would assume he’s at least marginally smart enough to know we know that.” Unless there had been a grotto building marathon during the month I didn’t remember, I knew of a single large one in the state. Generally, I didn’t follow what priests did in their spare time, but one of my daughters had made sure some of the rocks she had a special affinity towards were included in the grotto. No one involved in the project, not even the priest who started the painstaking work of building a massive, and beautiful, pile of rocks, knew that Mirari had a hand in its making. Anytime she could see her love of stones and jewels take shape, she made sure the best items for a particular construction were available. Even when she gave away tons of her collection, what she had remaining weighed a few tons. It’d been a while since I’d seen any of the displays she kept, and I assumed they’d only grown over the years. “I don’t like that you have knowledge of the places we’re being sent. I wasn’t aware of any ties you have with where we are now, but we both know of Sophia’s tie to the grotto in West Bend and your recent purchases in Amana.” I wasn’t surprised Nate referred to our eldest daughter by her current name. In my mind I always reverted to her original name, but when I spoke about her, I used what she preferred. Theoretically we didn’t have to worry about changing our names anymore, but I hadn’t heard of many uniques reverting back to their original names. “I hope you realize how wrong that came out. We’ve lived long enough that we know of every speck of dirt on this world. I agree that it’s weird that I have a connection of sort with the two locations we’ve been sent, but I’m choosing to believe that’s a coincidence. I can’t think of a single reason why we were sent here twice.” At least I was saying that was what I believed. If I thought any different, I would’ve had to consider that Malphas was making the battle even more personal. It was bad enough that I’d allowed my sons and one of my daughters to join the troops. They were lucky I hadn’t seen anything go wrong in their futures. If I would’ve seen them even get a paper cut, I’d have found a way to lock them in a room somewhere. The different things I’d seen over the years indicated people were more than likely going to get hurt, but never them. “If we’re just hopping around to places you know about, can’t you tell us where the big battle will be and take us there? I have a feeling we’re going to get really tired of this, real soon.” Liam sounded antsy. I closed the pocket watch and tucked it into my pocket before I turned to look at him, and everyone else standing around as they waited for Joseph to get back. I knew Joseph had made it to his men and was already coming back, so it wasn’t like we had a ton of time with nothing to do, and I was sure Liam knew that. If Mak hadn’t shown us the watch, I could’ve kept everyone busy doing some quick searching for clues. Since they knew the score, the chances of me keeping them occupied were slim. “Did the she-devil ever show back up? Maybe she’d like to share what she knows about the situation, because I’m sure she knows more than she’s let on.” I didn’t mind Eva being gone, but if it was going to cause Liam to be weird, I could put cotton balls in my ears and try to tune her out. Weird probably wasn’t the right word, but I didn’t think what I heard in his voice was because he wanted to get the fighting started. I knew he was antsy for that, but it wasn’t something he worried over. “No. She sent me a little message last night saying we were going to have to deal with things without her, at least for a while. I know she’s not your favorite person, but I felt better with her around. Having one of the Fates right here with us tends to do wonders for moral support.” He shrugged his shoulders and tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I understood why he felt the way he did, but it was something we’d have to agree to disagree about, because I thought the bickering between the two of us kept people on edge. “I’m not exactly sure what she could’ve found more important than doing what she was capable of to make sure Malphas doesn’t get the upper hand as he has us jumping through his hoops.” My voice showed next to zero emotions. I knew going into things that Eva was the last person you wanted to have to depend on having your back. “That’s probably why I’m a little perturbed by her right now. Calling to say something more important came up when there are lives at stake doesn’t sit well with me.” I thought about screaming Halleluiah, but kept my excitement to myself. Anytime Eva did something to tick Liam off, the happier I got. I felt Nate’s hand on my shoulder, so I turned to look his way. “Even though he was being a grump when he said it, Liam had a good point about trying to figure out where the big battle is going to take place from your memories. You already mentioned we’ve been everywhere on the planet, but there’s got to be something we can use to jump ahead a few steps.” “I like that plan,” Rick chimed in. “If he’s going to send us around to fifty different places over a month’s time, I’d really like to avoid that.” “You’re preaching to the choir, both of you. Do you really think I’d be standing in a cornfield if I knew where we were supposed to meet up with Malphas?” There were times I thought my conversations went in circles, and I was definitely in the middle of one of those times. Everyone knew I’d racked my brain trying to figure out where to go. I wasn’t hiding the fact that I hated the idea of a scavenger hunt just as much as everyone else did. “Maybe they’re right and the places we’ll go are all places you’ve been,” Mak said softly. “If that’s the case, maybe I can assist helping you awaken the visions you’ve seen.” I didn’t know exactly what he was thinking, but using the words awaken and vision probably weren’t the best ideas. It made me think of the different scenes I’d watched when I started regaining my memories, none of which I had control over my body for, by far my least favorite thing in the world. “I’d like to hear more about that idea, but let’s see if the guys and gals with Joseph picked up any hints, wherever they’ve been,” Nate suggested. He’d felt me bristle and knew I’d need to warm up to the idea if I was expected to willingly partake in whatever Mak thought would help. We should’ve probably gotten clarification right then, so I could make a quick decision, but the troops behind us were excited to see that their comrades weren’t in pieces. I admit that I was excited too, but we had a lot of things to work out, and I didn’t think the missing troops were going to be as big of a key as I once had. They were all smiles, which didn’t lead me to believe they’d been clued in on whatever Malphas’ evil plan was. That meant after a few questions, we had to get back to work, and that led us to The Grotto of the Redemption. CHAPTER 10 There are days nothing makes sense The smiles didn’t last long as the questions began to rain down on the twenty-some troops. I studied them as they tried to answer as quickly as they could. I didn’t see any of the usually scorched clothing that seemed to happen for most people who battled a warlock. They were all trained well, but at least one warlock in a group managed to get an energy blast through to its target, if said target wasn’t one of the strongest in our group. Of course I didn’t really know how many warlocks we were talking about. I assumed it had to be an army to make our troops disappear, unless they had someone a little stronger than just an everyday warlock with them. The people around me were asking for an explanation of what happened, but there was a bit of a question overload, making it so no one said anything of meaning. I was about to put a halt to the proceedings when Joseph’s loud whistle ripped through the air. If people weren’t left deaf from it, I’d have been surprised. There were times sensitive hearing wasn’t an advantage. It did a good job of getting the crowd to fall into silence, which my ears were thankful for. At least they would be once they stopped ringing. I’d never seen the group so crazy about something. “First, in case you didn’t hear it, the town is back to life and living it up at their little festival,” Joseph said directly to me, knowing that was a concern of mine. The tips of my lips turned up as I nodded. “Thanks. I can hear the bustle of the town and assumed things had been righted, but it could’ve been an illusion. I was pretty sure the warlock wasn’t playing scared after I vaporized his friends.” They rarely ever showed any emotion to me other than defiance, believing their “master” would swoop in and save them. Malphas’ demons really did pick out the stupidest people, or maybe they were just all really gullible. “It’s nice to find a warlock who is newer to the ranks and hasn’t let the power go to their head. They tend to be a little more reasonable.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but Mak’s statement made sense. It made me wonder how new a warlock had to be to still have a conscience. The one from the day before had seemed a little young, but he’d also appeared to be the leader of the group I’d decimated. If they were all new, I was a little worried about how Malphas was stocking his troops. “We can think about that more after we get things here figured out. Freya, why don’t you try to explain what went on here prior to yesterday. There were regular reports, but they stopped not long before we showed up. I should’ve realized something was wrong the first time you missed a check-in. “Since all of them had been nothing more than all’s well, I thought you got tired of saying nothing. And I admit I had a few other things running through my mind, so I didn’t reach out.” All eyes focused on Freya, even before Joseph finished his half of an apology. He never got around to saying he was sorry for not checking in, but it was clear he blamed himself for whatever they’d gone through. Freya was standing to the left of Joseph, in front of the group she commanded. In the world of wolf shifters, it was difficult for a female to rise up to the ranks she had, which irritated me to no end. To move up in the hierarchy, you had to fight your way up, which was difficult for females because of how big the males got to be. I respected the tall woman with bronze-colored skin. She kept her long, straight hair back in a bun and worked out in the gym more often than I did. All the working out had given her a body that a body builder would be envious of, which was probably the only reason she was able to get the best of the male wolves vying for her spot in the organizational chart. “Sorry, sir,” Freya bowed to Joseph. Her voice was strong as she made her apologies for losing contact. “Things happened quickly, giving us little time to phone the problem in.” “I do not blame you for that, Freya, I blame myself for not realizing what was going on.” Joseph could be a hard-ass, but I knew how much his people meant to him. There wasn’t anyone to blame other than Malphas for the disappearance, but Joseph felt guilty. Some would’ve seen that as a weakness, but Joseph’s passion for keeping his people safe was why he was one of my most trusted friends. “Let’s move past the issue of who’s to blame and figure out what happened. When we came here yesterday we didn’t feel you in the city. Was that because you were masked, or were you whisked off somewhere? I’m not seeing any evidence of a fight, so I’m a bit confused.” I had trained most of the troops personally, so I knew they wouldn’t have gone anywhere without a fight. Moving on to our next location before worrying about what had happened might have been more productive, but I felt like we were missing something. The troops being returned as themselves, and not skin-walkers, had surprised me. With everything on the line, I didn’t like to be surprised. “There wasn’t a fight. We were here one minute, somewhere else the next.” I usually liked Freya’s way of being direct. In this case I wanted more information, and I had a feeling it was going to be akin to pulling teeth, something I didn’t like doing even when I had all the time in the world. Joseph evidently felt the same way and took matters into his hands. “We need a full report in as few words as you can make it. I want to know all the details, but we need to evaluate everything you say before we make any decisions on our next move, so as contradictory as it is, please be concise.” “Yes, Sir. As you know we were sent here to keep an eye on things. When we arrived there were thirty-seven warlocks in the general area. As instructed, we observed their movements and reported back at our scheduled times. “There was no warning that anything had changed. All of sudden we just weren’t here anymore. I don’t know exactly where we went, but it was a cave of some sort without an opening. And it stunk like something had crawled up in it and died about a hundred years ago and the maggots were just getting around to helping out with the decomposition.” She paused to cringe and take in a big whiff of clean air. The kind of smell she described was something I would’ve thought lingered, but I didn’t smell anything particularly foul coming from their direction. “Sorry, sir. You wanted me to be concise, but since I have very little to report, I thought I’d expound on how wretched the place we were really was. We tried to break through the rock and searched for any means to escape the cave, but were unsuccessful. “We were brought back to reality just before you arrived here. We had literally just got our bearings when we felt your presence. I’m not sure how much time has passed, but the last time we spoke it sounded like it’d be a little while before you showed up.” “I don’t know exactly when you disappeared, but I know you weren’t here when we arrived yesterday, so it’s probably been over a day, which would explain why I keep hearing stomachs grumble. The heathens should’ve at least fed you.” Joseph wasn’t the only one able to hear the roughly two dozen stomachs. It was a little surprising they hadn’t reappeared missing some arms and legs. Uniques, wolf shifters in particular, weren’t people you kept food from. It probably didn’t help that the rest of us smelled like breakfast. “Since we know where we’re going, why don’t we let everyone refuel,” I suggested. I was still trying to figure out why the group had been abducted in the first place, and who had worked their magic to make it happen. It was easy to tell they were who they were supposed to be, and not imposters. I hadn’t been around a lot of skin-walkers, but they couldn’t mimic everything about the person they were pretending to be, especially not the special tingle I felt when someone was a unique. “What are the chances the next place will be the one we’re looking for?” Joseph asked. “Absolutely zero. I know the area enough to know that the scene I’m looking for isn’t there.” The more I thought about the location, I could picture parts of it that I didn’t know I knew were there. I could see a gas station that I was fairly certain wasn’t there when I’d wandered through the area. I wanted to close my eyes and focus in on what my mind was trying to show me, but I didn’t like the idea I was picking up someone else’s memories of the area. I shouldn’t have been able to focus on what was in front of me and whatever I was picking up, but I could see the two sights easily. As strange as seeing modern buildings was in the view of the grotto area, seeing people wearing modern clothing was even stranger. I looked over to Nate to see if I was picking up something from him. He had his head tilted slightly to the side as he thought about something. I was getting ready to ask him why he looked concerned, but Joseph continued the conversation we were having. “Then if you don’t mind, I’d like to get out of this town. Something doesn’t feel right here and I prefer not to find myself in a cave with no chance of escape.” “I think we need to discuss what you just said and what Avery’s seeing. I believe something feels off here, but I think that’s something we should probably investigate, not immediately run from. We’ve been dedicated to human relations for a while now, and if there’s any danger here, we need to deal with it before we leave.” Nate wasn’t leaving any room for arguing. I agreed with him, but I didn’t want to leave the rows of corn. My issue with the place was that I had the feeling I was being watched, which I hated. I doubted what I was feeling was the same thing that made Joseph think something was off. The odd part about the feeling was that I didn’t feel any malice behind it. I couldn’t feel an actual person, so it was hard to know where to look to find out what the person’s problem was, other than they had a staring problem. “We can all hear the humans having a good time, do we really need to stay because it feels funky?” Rick wasn’t the only one grumbling thoughts along those lines. He was the most articulate, though. The majority of the rest of the group wasn’t going to question Nate’s decision. “Avery’s seeing what seems to be a live view of the place we’re going to next. Has anyone been there recently enough that you’d project current gas prices? She’s usually really good about not picking up stray thoughts, so someone’s feeding her that information.” The price I’d seen wasn’t what it was in New York, but I supposed it could’ve been a reasonable price for the middle of the country; we hadn’t run into any gas stations to know whether that was true though. I closed my eyes and decided to go ahead and focus on what I was being shown. I figured if I walked along with the person, then I’d get some grand clue about what in the world I was doing hopping around from place to place. We’d barely started the game, but like Rick had already said, the sooner we could find a way to bypass it, the better. Nate grabbed my shoulder, causing me to open my eyes before I could get a good look. I glared at him and let him know why I wanted to let things play out. He was connected enough with me that he already knew, but he seemed to need me to spell it out for him. “I understand why you want to figure things out, but you don’t know who’s sharing.” “I know it’s no one here, and I’d like to know why someone is giving me a tour. I’ve been trying to block it out, but I can’t. That doesn’t leave me a lot of options.” “I’m pretty sure every option leads to not following him down a rabbit hole, baby girl. You know you’re stronger than basically everyone out there. If he’s trying to connect with you, we need to figure out a way to put a stop to that. What exactly are you getting?” Rick acted like I didn’t understand who was sharing the images. I was well aware that only one person had the power to do it. Scratch that, because I was pretty sure Eva and her sisters could, but I knew it wasn’t one of them. I knew it was Malphas, and if I thought he was actually in West Bend, I would’ve zipped right over and taken the battle to him. Malphas wasn’t stupid, sadly. He was messing with me, and I didn’t understand what he hoped to gain from showing me around town. Seeing the faces of happy humans going about their business didn’t really give me a lot of information. “I’m not getting anything interesting. It’s like I’m walking along taking a tour of the city. I don’t see anything threatening, and I don’t think he’s actually there.” “Did he pack a picnic lunch for this stroll?” Kyle asked. I looked over my shoulder and gave him a glare that would have him thinking twice before asking something that stupid again. Of course I’d given him the look many times, and it never helped. “He’s not really there, so I doubt he was kind enough to provide something to eat. Mak, would you be kind enough to get a buffet lined up? We should probably stick around for a few minutes to figure out what funk is hanging in the air.” I didn’t want to sit around and analyze what was going on in my head with everyone else. I didn’t think I was in danger. I thought I’d discover something useful if I could just sit in a quiet place and let things play out. Then again, chances were good that it was just something to waste my time and quite possibly drive me insane. CHAPTER 11 Figuring out the enemy is difficult when you’re not sure how many there are “Why are you being difficult?” Nate asked. He wanted to be angry at my continued desire to see what was down the yellow brick road, but he could only manage frustration. I’d moved a little bit away from the larger group, but I couldn’t shake five people, who were glued to me. It was strange that I kept them amused while food was around. Usually just the scent of food drove their direction towards it, especially with Kyle and Liam. “I’m not being difficult. I think it’s odd that the creep is sharing something as benign as walking around, when he’s clearly more into death and destruction. Why isn’t he sharing one of his little minions doing his bidding? I’m sure his little heart pitter-patters whenever they use their fake powers against humans.” I didn’t like that he was trying to humanize himself. Humanize wasn’t really the best way to describe it, but I felt he was trying to lull me into a false sense of contentment. One of us was meant to die, and there was nothing he could do to change the fact that I’d do everything to make sure I stayed alive. I was sure he knew that, which made me wonder if it was really him messing with me. That led me back to the fact that there were very few people who could intrude into my mind. Eva was off probably getting a mani-pedi, and I didn’t think either of her sisters were invested enough in my life to mess with me. “I don’t get it.” Rick ran his fingers through his hair as he tried to figure things out. “What exactly are we doing here? A bunch of his flunkies were here, which brought us here, but they mostly cleared out before we got here. The guy has clearly been monitoring your moves and life, which is a little weird, and has decided to waste our time by sending us to locations that mean something to you.” He rambled, and didn’t say anything we hadn’t already discussed, but hearing himself say things helped him process them. I waited to hear if he had anything else to add, but he ended up rubbing his forehead, doing his best to massage his brain into figuring out the riddle we were in. “I don’t like the part where he knows the significance a place like the grotto has to you. That was over a hundred years ago. Why is the fight just happening now? I don’t believe for a second he waited around until we heard about the prophecy, because letting you get your sorceress powers isn’t something that’s going to work well in his favor. Maybe we should rethink following the clues blindly.” Nate made good points. I could give him that, but I didn’t see any options. Malphas wasn’t going to just show up and be ready for the battle. He’d had numerous chances to do that. “Are you suggesting we pack up and head home? I can’t say I know what Malphas knows, or his motives. I can tell you that I want this to be over with now. I’m not going to allow a threat to my family just wander around.” “Obviously.” Nate grabbed my hand as he tried to counteract the fire he’d ignited. “I’m just saying maybe we should refuse to play his game. Make him come to us.” “I like this idea,” Joseph said as he started looking around at the terrain. “This area’s no good, but I’m sure we can find something nearby.” At the suggestion, the dual vision I was having morphed into a scene I was all too familiar with. It was a little different, there wasn’t a fight taking place. It was just a quiet meadow with a tree that haunted my dreams. “I wanted you to learn that I understand who you are. I don’t think you will get the chance to do the same with me, but it is wise to learn about one’s opponent before battle. I believe that’s a fact you’ve tried to take to heart once you remembered my name. Sadly, there hasn’t been a lot written about my life.” The voice wasn’t in my head, like Nate’s was when we conversed telepathically. It felt like it was all around me. I didn’t appreciate the delivery method. “Just because you’ve managed to look into my past doesn’t mean you know who I am. Hearing about things I’ve done doesn’t give you a look into the emotions that caused my actions.” I heard Rick whisper uh-oh only after I’d spoken, so I didn’t bother asking whether anyone else heard the voice. I didn’t have a body to focus on, so I looked out into the corn, wondering if maybe he’d appear to make the conversation it seemed we were going to have a little less creepy. “I can’t say I’ve looked back to your very beginning, but I think watching a few hundred years of your life has told me a great deal. You’re a worthy adversary, even if your life hasn’t been filled with battles. Mine has, which may be to your advantage, as odd as that sounds.” “You don’t think the last year dealing with your pawns hasn’t warmed me up for the main course?” “Probably not, but the last month has changed the battle. I told you that we aren’t really that different, and I’ve learned those words were even truer than I meant them. In the end, our battle is against the same forces. It’s a battle we can’t win, so we’ll have to destroy each other to make things right. I wish there was a way we could fight our destiny, but everything I’ve tried lately hasn’t proven fruitful.” “Is anyone else getting this?” I asked, hoping someone could back up that Malphas was completely nuts. I looked around the group, and found heads shaking. Nate had moved to wrap his arms around me, so I couldn’t see his reaction, but I knew what it was. I hadn’t felt his touch, so something was impeding my connection to the real world. I didn’t think it was possible for something to keep Nate from picking up everything I heard. “You know, if you weren’t so interested in what I have to say, you’d be able to connect with him. I suppose that doesn’t matter, but it makes me feel better about things. You’re about to get a visitor, and we can’t talk when she’s around, so I’ll have to leave you for now. She knows where you need to go, and always has. I know you don’t trust her, and you’re right not to.” The dual vision and weird feeling I had of being watched disappeared. There was a sensation of missing whatever connection there’d been. It made me shiver thinking about that fact. I didn’t want to feel a loss when the enemy stopped focusing in on me. There was something very wrong about that. I relaxed into Nate’s arms. I needed his warmth to replace the loss, and I didn’t hide it from him. He needed to know all the sensations going on through my body, because I hoped he’d be able to explain them to me. “And you wonder why I didn’t want you falling into his trap. The man, and I use that word loosely, is a menace. He not only plans to kill you, but now he wants to make you feel conflicted about the fight. I didn’t expect that approach, and when we finally meet face to face in battle, I intend to let him know that it wasn’t appreciated.” Nate reacted about how I expected him to. With Malphas’ presence gone, I could share the weird caressing feel I endured while he’d been there. The admiration behind it was enough to make me sick to my stomach. “For those not connected on the molecular level with you, can you please explain exactly what just happened? Clearly you got a visit of some sort from the demon lord, but I don’t understand the sudden chill. That’s not just me, right? The air temperature just dropped almost five degrees.” Hearing Rick say it had gotten colder made me feel better. If Malphas had made the temperature warmer while he was there, then some of my reactions had another explanation. “He didn’t like the talk about not playing the game, so he tried to explain why there was a game to begin with.” I wasn’t really sure that was the reason for the conversation, but I didn’t want to say he was even creepier than we’d thought. Anyone who spent time watching another person’s life, especially hundreds of years of it, deserved to be in the dictionary next to every synonym of the word creep. “He actually had a reason for driving us crazy? I appreciated the hearty meals in that last place, but searching around like idiots for hours left me a little pissed.” Liam stated what I picked up on pretty much everyone’s mind. “I wouldn’t call it a reason. He claimed he wanted me to know he knew me. Or at least he thinks he does. He didn’t share everything he’s figured out, in fact he didn’t share anything at all. I don’t really know what the deal was, but he says Eva is coming and she knows where we’re going next, so I guess we wait for her and move on.” It didn’t take a fancy degree to know that my frenemy was the “she” he’d been talking about. I’d known from the beginning that she knew where things would happen, even if she claimed to be oblivious. “She told me she wouldn’t be coming back. She actually said we had to do this without her help.” Poor Liam still hadn’t realized the words coming out of his girlfriend’s mouth couldn’t be trusted. I’d tried to warn him, but she had some kind of evil spell wrapped around him, one that I hoped I’d eventually be able to counteract. “Plans change, honey bunches.” The she-devil appeared directly in front of her unsuspecting beau. At last Liam was used to her enough that he didn’t jump in shock. Although, if he would have seen it as an attack and tried to slice her in half, I would’ve laughed hysterically. “Only when they suit you. Is your urgent business all tended to, or can we expect to have you suddenly disappear on us any second?” If more people spoke to Eva the way I did, I imagined she’d figure out how annoying she was. I doubted she’d do anything about it, but if she spent more time in her black hole of time to get away from all the people who hated her, I wouldn’t shed any tears. “Matters are taken care of at least for now. I was a little worried when you bleeped out of my range for a few minutes there. I wanted to make sure things hadn’t gone away from the plan. I see you all made it back here without any damage.” “Funny you should bring that up, because it brings us back to the fact that you have a plan and haven’t been sharing it with us. Would it have been that hard to just share where we were supposed to go?” “Don’t start with me, Avery. You know as well as I do that people can do things to change paths. Just because I know where the location you keep seeing is, doesn’t mean what you’ve done in the past didn’t change it. You and I both know the fact that you got your little followers back already wasn’t in the original plan.” “Be that as it may, it would’ve been nice to jump over there and see if there’s an army mounting. We’ve known for a while that the bulk of them are being masked from our detection, so they’ve got to be somewhere.” No one else in the small group, or the larger one, which had gone dead silent, was about to get in the middle of a fight between me and Eva. When our claws came out, even Nate backed away a little. “Or you can’t find them because they aren’t here yet. With all the research you’ve done, you really don’t know your opponent, but that’s okay. You’ve got me around to guide you, which is probably the only reason you’ve made it as far as you have.” I shook my head as Nate reached out and held my arms tightly to my side. He may have moved a few steps back, but he was smart enough to know I was ready to attack. “You know what? I think you need to crawl back into the hole you came out of thousands of years ago and stay there. I think we can get by just fine without you showing up whenever you feel like it and causing everyone grief.” “Really? Where exactly do you plan on going next?” I wanted to walk up to Eva and punch the smirk off her face. Slapping just wouldn’t do enough to gratify me, she needed a full on punch. “Keosauqua,” I replied, saying the first town that came to mind. I couldn’t think of a reason for my choice, as I tried to remember what connected me to the city. The ties to the other cities we’d been were so weak that it could’ve been anything. I could’ve stopped overnight there to rest before the city even saw human inhabitants. I felt Nate racing though memories trying to come up with an answer. Staring at Eva, I knew it didn’t matter. The dumbfounded look on her face was enough to let me know I was right. “He told you. I thought I’d made it back before you could get too deep into conversation.” “Not that I want to converse with the enemy, but for some reason I get the feeling you really don’t want us talking. Does that mean you’ve dealt with him before and are afraid we’d talk about how much we both hate you?” “I don’t know why you insist on claiming you hate me. It’s impossible to hate me, so I wish you’d just get over it. I know what a smooth talker he can be, so I’m just trying to save you from dilemmas you may run into later down the road.” “Are you sure you aren’t his mom, or maybe sister? You two have about the same ability to make sense.” I was still tense from listening to Eva speak for longer than five seconds, but I tried to let my emotions calm down. “I can tell my guess was correct, so why don’t we head to Keosauqua and see what we can find. If someone would hand me a map, I’ll figure out where we should’ve landed yesterday.” People didn’t move immediately, but I was okay with that. I was trying to read Eva. I always knew she kept secrets, but I had a feeling there was something big she was hiding, and it was something she didn’t think anyone would find out. CHAPTER 12 There’s no such thing as calm before the storm After hearing we were finally going to get to the site of the battle, the troops came alive. The excitement of battle was hard not to get caught up in, but my issues with Eva prevented me from getting totally immersed in it, along with the worries I had of what would happen during the battle. There was something going on between Eva and I, and it was more than the usual annoyance on my side of the equation. She felt even more off than usual, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. There was definitely a big bug crawling up her butt, and I hoped she got it checked out soon. With the tension in the air, it was a little hard for me to concentrate. I wanted to know what she was hiding, and how much it would interfere with the battle. She clung to Liam’s side, like being close to him would protect her from me figuring out her secrets. We both knew she had the power to do that on her own, but she was playing a game of her own. Mak had produced a map and Vinnie was instructing where things differed from the information he was able to pick up on his networks. Most of his information was on building changes and construction areas, but I wasn’t interested in those. I knew we weren’t looking for something in town, and the road conditions mattered very little to us. “What’s this here?” I asked, pointing to a large irregular shaped area shaded to indicate it was wooded. I couldn’t make out what the map said, if the squiggles were actual words. The area wasn’t as far from civilization as I thought it’d be, but I had a good feeling about it. I still didn’t remember having a connection to Keosauqua, but that didn’t mean anything. The game Malphas had wanted to play was probably the only part tied to me. “It’s a state park. Logistically speaking, it’s probably not the best place for a battle because of the often heavily wooded area. There’d be way too many places for the enemy to hide, and it is a place frequented by humans.” Vinnie studied the map for a second, and then pointed out a different spot. “If we’re focused on this general area, here would be the best spot to keep outside interactions to a minimum. There’s also very little chance of being ambushed.” He indicated somewhere north and west from where I’d suggested. The map I was looking at didn’t show detail, so I couldn’t confirm or deny whether it was a good place for a battle. I did know I didn’t think it was the right place. Something was guiding me to the park, and I was okay letting things play out there. It was early enough in the season that I didn’t think there’d be tons of people out camping, and even if there were, we had enough magic to protect them. It was as simple as me asking Mak to move them somewhere else. “My gut’s telling me we need to go here,” I said, tapping the original area. “Unlike what Eva claimed earlier, Malphas didn’t give me a location, but I feel really strong about this place. It’s where I’ll find the scene I’m looking for.” “Are you sure you want to trust instincts he’s probably controlling? You can’t say he didn’t give you the city. You’ve been wandering around trying to figure out the spot for over a month and haven’t had a single idea. It’s not like the name Keosauqua is something you’ve had sitting in the back of your mind.” I met Eva’s eyes as she challenged my decision. I didn’t know what had got her panties in a bunch, but she was pissed about something. I couldn’t say I was sad to see her irritated, especially if I’d had a hand in it. She deserved to have a little grief in her life after all the grief she added to mine. “Have you decided you don’t want this prophecy business to be over? Are you suggesting we just pack up and go home?” Answering a question with at least one of my own was just how our conversations went. I did it with other people, but not as much as I did with the she-devil. Answering one of her questions was as bad as spending an afternoon shopping with Frannie. Neither of those things were something I wanted to do unless my life depended on it. “How long did he talk to you and what did he say?” Her expression morphed into a stern teacher, looking for a ruler to rap across an unruly student’s knuckles. I wanted to see her try the move on me. I’d show her a few of the moves I’d practiced before Nate had suggested I focus more on growing our children than becoming the ultimate fighting machine. “How do you not know what was said?” I’d done everything I could to keep her from reading my thoughts, but she didn’t believe in my barriers. If anyone ever needed a reason for why I didn’t like her, that alone was enough. I could deal with my soulmate knowing everything about me, but an outsider, who I didn’t particularly like, needed to butt out of my head. Eva didn’t look happy that I’d brought the issue up, or noticed it. Her line of questioning had made it impossible not to figure out she’d been left out of the conversation, a fact I was sure had never happened to her before. “I don’t think I need to answer that question. It’s clear that since I asked, your friend has caused some interference.” A smile stretched across my face. I didn’t like that she referred to Malphas as my friend, but I loved the implication that he knew of a way to keep her out. If anything would keep me from killing him, which nothing would, the idea that he could teach me to block her out would be it. “Look, before this turns into a cat fight, which I wouldn’t mind watching,” Liam eyes were glowing as he thought about the possibility, “I think we should move on to discussing the location we’re getting ready to go to. And as much as I hate to say it, maybe you should head back to whatever called you away before, sweetie.” I almost asked how it felt to finally grow a pair, but that was rude, and Liam didn’t deserve that. I couldn’t blame him for whatever stupid spell Eva had on him. It was a little sad that she didn’t immediately reflect a hurt expression from his words. “I was planning on it, but I wanted to verify someone wasn’t getting cold feet. I don’t know what he said to you, but I’m sure it was a lie. He is scum and the only way to protect yourself and those you love is to kill him. You realized that years ago and found a way to solve that problem. Don’t let his kind words change your focus.” “Are we sure she’s not a skin-walker? I think someone pushed her down a stupid tree a few times either today or yesterday, if the skin-walker idea is out.” I looked around to see if anyone would agree if I suggested skinning her to see whether she was really Eva, but I didn’t see that playing out well. The rest of the group was too scared of her. I did know I didn’t need a lecture, nor would I stand for her giving me one. I had my memories, at least most of them, so I knew what was at stake. The fact that she assumed Malphas had been kind when we spoke led me to believe she’d know exactly what his cryptic words had meant. I didn’t have the time to deal with her nonresponses to any questions about his motives. “Let’s head to Keosauqua, so I can verify things go as they should. You’ve already started causing ripples.” Eva disappeared before I could say anything. It was probably for the best, because I was sure we could stand there and argue for at least an hour. She seemed to know how to push every single one of my buttons, and was willing to test the ability. There was a time when I thought Nate won the prize for knowing which combinations set me off, but that had become acceptable when I found out he was my other half. There was a few seconds of quiet after Eva’s departure. I imagined most of the troops were waiting for me to take off after her. The smart ones knew I was going to move at my own pace, and that I’d never just blindly follow her. As far as I was concerned, she was just as big of a threat as Malphas. “I don’t want to be the one to say anything, but, brother, your woman is trouble. I don’t care who she is, it ain’t smart messing with dollface, and Eva seems to try to screw with her every chance she gets.” “I’m not going to make any excuses for her, or do her apologizing, even if I think an apology is in order. I think she’s just worried about how things are going to go. We’re all bundles of nerves right now and she’s not used to sitting back while other people figure things out. Okay, I take that back since that’s kind of what she spends her time doing, but she feels a little more involved in this case.” “She’s worried?” I didn’t think that was an emotion Eva was capable of feeling, nor did I buy it as an explanation for her being crazy. Liam shrugged his shoulders. “That’s the only thing I can come up with to explain what was going on today. I know you two usually have issues, but it’s never been this bad. If I found myself doing the same things she was, I’d say it was because I was worried.” “I can think up some other options, but I don’t know much about the gestation period of Fate and berserker spawn. I got a motherly vibe with a little psycho added in for good measure.” Clearly Rick and I didn’t share a brain, because all I saw was total psycho. I knew there was a future out there somewhere where Liam and Eva had kids, but I thought the world had time to prepare for it. If she was already pregnant, the end of civilization was just around the corner. “There is that possibility, but I don’t think that’s it. She’s been doing a little whispering to her sisters when she thinks I’m asleep. I’m sure she knows I’m not sleeping, which makes it even stranger that she’d risk me hearing what they’re talking about.” “You know you’re going to have to explain that and tell me everything you’ve heard, right?” I didn’t like the idea of the Fates whispering in the middle of the night. It was a little narcissistic of me, but I had a feeling they were talking about me. “I guess I should have stated that the reason why she risked me overhearing was because they spoke in some weird language I couldn’t understand. I have no idea what they were saying, and if they said any names, they were ones I wasn’t aware of.” “How good is your memory? We have a translator.” I knew something important was being said, and I really wanted to know what it was. There was a good chance it explained all the questions I had running through my head. “Sorry, Avery. I’m sure even if I remembered, she’d have found a way to make sure I didn’t share the information.” “And the fact that you admit that makes me wonder why you continue to claim her as a significant other. Are you really that big of a glutton for punishment?” “I don’t think I need to explain matters of the heart to you, my fearless leader. Look, we can discuss getting me a shrink for my problems later. It’s probably a good idea for us to head to wherever it is you think the battle is going to be.” I could hear the ears perk up around us at the mention of leaving. A part of me wanted to see how long Eva waited around for us, and I hoped her patience was short, so she wouldn’t be there when we arrived. I didn’t know for certain she’d really gone to the area I was planning to drop in on, but it seemed she was dedicated to making sure I didn’t screw things up. “Can you tell me how long the late night whispering has been going on?” I was ready to leave, but I couldn’t leave not knowing everything I could about Liam’s revelation, and I wasn’t going to be able to ask with Eva around. “I should’ve kept my mouth shut, because I’m not prepared to sit through an inquisition. All I can tell you is that it’s been three days. I couldn’t understand a word and the only reason I know it was her sisters was because she did say their names. I should’ve clarified that part earlier when I said I didn’t understand everything.” “There’s not going to be an inquisition. I just want to have all my ducks in a row when whatever they’re planning comes back to bite me. Did everyone get refueled?” I turned to Joseph for an answer the question. I knew the answer, but I was dragging my feet. “We’re all set and are awaiting orders. We didn’t really get a chance to discuss expectations, but I believe we’re ready for whatever is waiting.” Joseph wasn’t happy about not having a game plan. I loved the way he let me know that without throwing a fit. There were some people, who in his position would’ve dragged their feet until we’d mapped out every detail, something we didn’t have time for. “Okay. Everyone get ready to travel. This time I’d suggest you have any weapons you plan on using drawn. It’s not going to be like the simulations. Well, I suppose some of it will be, but the demons and Malphas are unknown entities in reality. “I know you’ve all prepared for this, and I wouldn’t have brought you along if I didn’t think you could handle yourselves. I want you all to watch each other’s backs out there. We’re in this together and I have every confidence we will come out of it victorious.” I tried to convey a confidence I wasn’t sure I had. I’d protected everyone with everything I had, but Malphas had already proven to me he was stronger than what I had in my arsenal. It didn’t bode well for me. I had to believe the spell weaved into the knife on my hip would do what it was meant to. CHAPTER 13 Uncertainty, it happens to the best of us When we landed in the new spot, I knew it wasn’t quite the right place, but we were close. The air was filled with something I considered familiar, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I’d purposefully aimed for a wooded area, because I knew Malphas would be somewhere with limited foliage. The woods were potentially a miscalculation based on Vinnie’s claim that it was a good place for an ambush, but it also gave us a little cover. I couldn’t feel anything close by, so I considered it a good starting spot. “Did you forget how to aim?” Eva’s voice was impatient, and made me roll my eyes. “The clearing you’re looking for is about three hundred yards to the left.” “I’m well aware of where we need to be. I thought having a second to scope out the place made a little more sense than just dropping in the middle of things. Why don’t you go stand in that clearing for a little while and wait for us.” “If your opponent had a lick of sense, he’d have anticipated that move and had people waiting everywhere. I guess you’re lucky he seems to be preoccupied.” I looked up to where Eva was sitting on a tree branch above our heads. I glared at her as I tried to sense people around us who didn’t belong. I knew our group was large, so big I didn’t have an accurate count of troops, but that didn’t explain why I didn’t feel warlocks, demons or Malphas. “I have good news for you. If for some reason you aren’t able to kill Malphas, I’m going to go ahead and kill him.” Eva seemed to be in a slightly better mood, but it didn’t explain her sudden willingness to get involved. From the very beginning she’d been nothing more than a spectator, only voicing her issues with every move I made. “You do understand what you said isn’t great for morale, right? It makes it sound like things aren’t going to go in our favor, which is probably something we didn’t need to know.” Even if Eva was in a better mood, I wasn’t, and it could be heard in my voice. Anytime I was forced to grit out my words, people knew it was best to stay away from me. “My comment has nothing to do with the outcome of things. There are very few things that can mess with my abilities, and I don’t appreciate not being able to monitor you anymore. I’ve been doing it for so long that to have you suddenly gone has affected me more than I thought it would.” I found the statement funny, especially because she had lost track of me for a number of years when I was reborn. It was also a little weird that it disturbed her so much. “You’re being moody because of a five minute outage? That’s got to be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t think the conversation had anywhere else to go, so I started walking towards where Eva had indicated we were supposed to be. I wanted to know why there wasn’t a welcome party, when I knew we were in the right place. I’d made it a few steps, with the troops following closely behind me and a normal wall of people trying to circle around me, before I felt Eva pop in right next to me. Her quick movement caused a surge of electricity, and I felt like someone had rubbed their feet on carpet a hundred times and then shocked me. I didn’t know if it was her or me who caused it, but she moved back a half an inch. “It wasn’t a temporary outage from when you two were talking. I still can’t feel you, even right here next to you.” For once something Eva said interested me. I’d thought I needed to torture Malphas until he shared how to close Eva out, but it appeared he’d given me a little gift. I assumed it was only because he didn’t want her to know what he’d said to me. “He’s totally blocked you out?” Jumping up and down for joy was a little out of character for me, so I settled with just doing it in my head. “You don’t have to be so giddy about it. I don’t see how that’s a good thing. I can’t help you if I can’t feel you.” Dropping the conversation sounded like a good idea, because I didn’t feel I had time to explain that our definition of help differed, and I highly doubted anything she’d do would be helpful. I wasn’t sure if Malphas knew the favor he’d done for me, but it was a big one. It made me wonder if he was somehow trying to soften me up. He didn’t know me as well as he claimed to if he thought a favor would somehow change the fact that he’d threatened my family. “Moving on, do you have insight on why there’s no one here? I can feel this is the right place, but it’s lacking opponents.” There were trees all around us, some full of leaves, some just starting to bud. They made it difficult to see the destination we were walking towards, but I enjoyed the smell of spring in the air. I could sense everything trying to come to life, and that made me somehow feel more alive. “That would mean we need to discuss what you don’t know about your opponent, and when I mentioned that earlier, you turned into a pouty little girl. I’m not sure now is the best time to go over all the details.” “I’m hoping you keep running your mouth that way just to get me charged up. Everyone here knows I don’t pout, so claiming I did just makes you look foolish.” Eva laughed. “I’m running my mouth because I’m pissed off at Malphas, and you get the brunt of my anger because he involved you. He’s trying to get me riled up, which he should know won’t work out well in his favor.” I thought it was interesting that Eva had turned something that had always been about me into something about her. From the very beginning, Malphas had targeted me. Eva’s name had never been brought up. She’d been alluded to slightly in the conversation we’d had, but nothing was really about her. “Care to share why Malphas would want get you mad? I wasn’t aware you two were friends.” The trees were getting thinner as we neared the edge of the woods. The troops were unbelievably quiet as we traipsed through the various foliage. As big as some of the men were, magic had to be in play, which I assumed came from Mak. There was no way not even a single twig snapped. “I don’t have a clue why he’d try to get on my bad side, other than I’m on your side of the battle. Maybe I’m taking it personally that he’s specifically blocked me out, but that doesn’t matter. He’s shown he has power above and beyond what I was aware of, which means you are ill prepared for what’s to come.” “If you think the fact that he’s stronger than me is a revelation, it’s not. I’ve known that for a while now, and I’ve prepared for dealing with that, at least as well as I could. I believe that’s why I made the knife, isn’t it? Because I knew there was no hope for me winning a battle of magic.” Eva reached out and stopped me from walking out into the sun waiting for me beyond the trees. Her hand was cold on my skin, which was a little weird. Even on frigid days when we’d jumped in a lake together being silly, her body temperature was just as warm as mine. She removed her hand when she realized I noticed the oddity. I didn’t know anything about Fate, but there was something wrong if she wasn’t controlling herself. “It was one thing when he was just stronger than you. If he’s found a way to surpass my power, then we’re in trouble. Maybe you should rethink going out there to meet him. You need to train more in magic if you have any hope of defeating him. Physical fighting isn’t going to be enough, and if he’s grown in strength, I can’t promise the knife will be enough either.” I couldn’t believe it, but Liam was right. She was worried. She obviously didn’t think I was going to win the battle, and she wanted me to just give up before I’d even tried. “You said a few minutes ago that you’d kill him if I couldn’t. Do you think you can handle making and keeping that promise?” I could feel everyone stiffen at my words. I didn’t particularly like that everyone’s movements were somehow tracked by my brain. I could stand with feeling those directly next to me, but dozens of people was a little overwhelming. “I don’t think you understand. It doesn’t matter if I can kill him, which I’m sure I could. You have to live. Even if he gets destroyed at some point, things won’t work unless you are here to run things. That’s what the prophecy says in case you missed it.” When Eva claimed to be sure she could kill Malphas, it was the first time she’d ever set off my lie detector abilities. That didn’t help my confidence, and I wasn’t sure what her angle was. I felt like she was trying to confuse me. “Maybe you should explain what’s so important about me. It’s not like I’m that special. It’s not like I’m the first of my species or anything. I can’t understand why you think I’m important enough that my life matters that much more than the next persons. I don’t care what the prophecy says about me, if it’s actually about me, the only reason I’m here is because he threatened my kids.” “We don’t have time to go through the history of the world or why you were chosen to lead the world into peace. You’ve seen the prophecy. You know it describes you.” “I can’t know that for sure. You gave me a piece of paper that said things that could describe me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re about me. There’s billions of people on this planet, and I’m sure I’m not the only bird capable of bringing those people together.” I highly doubted the piece of paper she’d given me was an original copy. It was more than likely in her handwriting, and written five seconds before it landed in my hand. I had no faith in it being true. “This isn’t the time or place for that discussion. Get through the battle and I’ll be more than happy to explain everything to you. I’ll even introduce you to the oracle who predicted your actions.” I’d been under the assumption that person wasn’t alive, but I didn’t feel like questioning it. Eva had switched to a terse intonation, meaning she didn’t want me to push my questions any further. I didn’t think Malphas was going to jump right in with an attack, so I did what I did best and ignored her wishes. “I think now is the only time we’ll have to talk about this. What if the oracle was wrong? What if it’s not me who is supposed to kill Malphas? I think we should probably hash this all out now, since it’s been brought up. Maybe it’d work better if I gave someone else the knife.” “Baby girl, as much as I hate to disagree with you, I’m pretty sure there’ll be time to figure that out later, and after everything we’ve been through, it’s hard to believe you aren’t the one the prophecy mentioned.” Rick didn’t really disagree with me, he even whispered that fact to me privately. The direction the conversation was heading didn’t bode well for the morale of the troops, and he was hoping that I didn’t put too many holes in the prophecy. “I’ll move on, but I want Eva to look me in the eye and tell me the prophecy is about me.” I thought the request was easy enough, and since I’d been able to pick up a lie from her, I was sure I could do it again. Whether she believed the prophecy was about me didn’t really matter. We were going to battle Malphas’ forces and I’d find a way to win. I just felt I deserved to know whether anyone could do the same thing or if there was something special about me. Eva wasted no time turning so she was in front to me, and our eyes were locked on each other. I stared into her blue orbs looking for any hints deceit. If there was any, I was sure Eva was a master at masking it, so I couldn’t pick it up. “I have absolutely no doubt that the prophecy is about you. You were born to lead the world. I know you hate that fact, but from the very beginning your life was meant for greatness.” Either she’d discovered my recent pick up of her lie and adjusted her tactics to deceive me, or she was telling the truth. There was no hint of deception. “I’ve never asked before, but when was that prophecy given?” It really didn’t make a difference, but I should’ve asked more questions about the prophecy before I’d followed along with where it had taken me. All of a sudden it felt like there was something wrong with the prophecy. It wasn’t the right time to have second thoughts, but it was better than having them in the middle of a fight. “I don’t know the exact date, but it’s been thousands of years. It isn’t something someone threw out there last week.” Since I’d known about it for over a week, I knew that was true. I still didn’t like the feeling I got when the prophecy was brought up. It probably had something to do with the fact that Eva had decided I wasn’t really ready to fight Malphas. Hearing that things were not exactly what we’d planned for made me worry about what I was getting the troops into. If Malphas was stronger than we’d thought, then there was a good chance the demons we’d eventually face were too. It made it hard for me to decide what actions to take. I turned and looked at the anticipation on the faces close to me. Hearing things could be tough didn’t bother them one bit. They were warriors and they deserved the chance to prove themselves. I looked back at Eva and smiled. “I can’t tell them we’re going home to train some more. We came here for a fight, and as soon as we figure out where our opponents are, we’re going to fight.” CHAPTER 14 Who invited the Fate to the party? All I could hear was Eva’s dramatic sigh as I walked out into the clearing. I’d moved quickly enough that I didn’t have to try to see my way through a wall of buff men, or the annoyed Fate. That lasted only long enough for me to verify there was no one waiting for us, and there was a lone tree in the middle of the clearing. I didn’t mind that the wall blocked out the tree. I hated that tree and I wondered if anyone would mind me mentally knocking it over. I hadn’t moved something that large before, although the combo of Liam and Kyle was probably fairly close, and I didn’t want to waste that amount of energy, so I left it alone. There was power coming from the tree’s general direction, and I assumed messing with it would probably be a bad thing. A bad thing based on the fact that I thought destroying the tree would make it difficult to get to Malphas. I didn’t have a sense of what was really going on just then, but the tree was going to be key. “I don’t think I need to state the obvious, but no one’s here. You pulled the name of a city out of the air, are you sure this is where we’re supposed to be? Maybe there’s another nice clearing somewhere that has people ready to fight waiting for us.” Even though the words sounded like something Eva would say after recent conversations, they came from behind me, and were spoken by a male. Vinnie more than likely was hoping we would relocate to the spot his data told him was better. He was focused on the data and science aspect of things, and not the mystical side of things. “It’s the path to where the fight will happen. Something as epic as a battle between forces of good and evil isn’t going to happen on this plane. There are too many external factors that can’t be controlled.” Eva’s words explained why the terrain wasn’t quite what I expected. From what I’d seen, the battle didn’t take place on a flat surface. I hadn’t done enough plane jumping to know things could be the same, yet different between them, but I could understand the implications. “What do you mean the fight is on another plane?” Everyone other than Nate shared Rick’s question. Nate knew what I did about the battle. The tree was right, but everything else was off. “Do you think you can manage to open up the portal?” Eva asked, ignoring Rick. It wasn’t clear who she was asking, but I assumed it was me. I hadn’t prepared for a portal, but I didn’t think figuring out how to manipulate it would be a problem. I’d been forced into other planes, so I had a little experience with them. That didn’t mean I was going to be able to wave my hand and get in. “If you’ve got somewhere you need to be, I’m sure we can figure out how to find our way. As much as you like to think we couldn’t have gotten here without you, I did find the location without you, and I knew without you saying anything that there was something here I’d need to investigate.” “Only because he let you. Whatever he’s been planning is finally in place, and he’s just waiting for you to walk into his trap. If I wasn’t here, you would’ve probably jumped right in, and I can only imagine how that would’ve turned out.” “I’m stopping this right here,” Liam said as he moved to get in between me and Eva. “I love you dearly, Eva, but this is Avery’s deal. I don’t know what the point of coming here and fighting with her has been, but we have bigger concerns right now, and I think you need to leave.” Liam wasn’t the maddest I’d seen him, but he was cute when he put his foot down. Hearing him actually say he loved Eva made me throw up a little in my mouth, but I could deal with it since he was picking my side over hers. “I’m trying to convince her to do the right thing and wait. I thought coming here and lighting a fire under her wings was the way to go, but now that I have more details, you guys aren’t ready and there’s a good chance some of you won’t make it out of the fight. Everything about the future is changing and things aren’t boding well for team unique.” I’d seen so many different scenes of the battle that I knew death was always possible, and I’d accepted that. Every time I watched it there was always one person who died. Even though I didn’t share that with everyone, I didn’t think the idea of death was a surprise to anyone who was prepared for what we were going up against. “We don’t have time to wait. My children are in danger and if Malphas is going to stick his head out to let me kill him, I can’t pass up that opportunity. I don’t want to live my life looking over my shoulder any more than I’ve already had to, and my children shouldn’t have to live in fear.” “You’re being irresponsible, which is exactly what he wants. It isn’t often I beg, but I’m asking you with strong conviction not to go through the portal today. Waiting another week won’t make a difference. That was how long you were supposed to take to track him down, and learning how powerful he’d become, we could’ve figured out some things to get you up to snuff.” Eva had always confused the heck out of me, and switching tactics, or whatever she was doing, made absolutely no sense. There was something beyond believing we weren’t ready for the fight. She was holding something back, which was what she did best. “If you know something that will change my mind, you need to say it right now, because the wishy-washy way you’ve been trying to sell your point isn’t working. What has really changed that much to make you think things will end up any different than we’ve seen them in the past?” “Fine. Have it your way. Head into battle ill prepared and watch how it blows up in your face. I’ll even be nice enough to open the path to your destruction for you. You seem to think you know best, so we’ll just have to see how that plays out for you.” She moved to wave her hand, but I stopped her. I didn’t reach out to do anything, I just concentrated on making her hand remain stationary. Surprisingly enough it seemed to work. “I can, and will, do that on my own. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. At least I assume I have enough gumption to do something as easy as that.” I managed to nudge my way through the bodies in front of me and headed straight for the tree. It was the only thing I could see that was on both planes, so it stood to reason that it was the key to moving back and forth between the planes. I figured the power I felt from it had to do with the fact it was a portal of some sort. When I made it to the oak tree, I ran my fingers down the bark. I felt a tingle crawl up my arm the second I made contact. There was magic in the tree itself, and I didn’t think it was just the fact that it was the portal. That probably factored into it, but I knew there was something deeper to it. It was a warm magic, which spoke to the fire that burned inside of me. If Malphas had a hand in the magic, it was surprisingly compatible with what I felt within myself. “I’d suggest not getting lost in the spell he’s weaved around the tree. He’s trying to fool you into thinking you’re alike. That’s his game.” Eva was at my side. The shoulder closest to me moved, and I thought she was going to touch the tree. I didn’t want her messing with the almost pure nature of the magic, so I stopped her again, and found it even easier than the first time I had. She grunted in frustration. “You shouldn’t be able to do that.” “Makes you wonder if it’s really Malphas blocking me from you, doesn’t it.” I walked around the tree, keeping my fingers on the bark as I moved. Nate, Rick, the berserkers and Joseph had moved closest to me, but they still kept a little distance. They didn’t necessarily want to, but they were smart enough not to interrupt. “Magic is still new to you, Avery. I know you’ve done your best to learn everything you can, but the magic at play here is something you still don’t understand. This is dangerous magic that not even your jinn friend can help you with.” “And you’ve had plenty of time to fill me in. Since you aren’t going to, I guess it’s up to me to figure things out on my own.” “You’ve always been trouble. Once you go through to his world, I won’t be any help.” I didn’t bother looking over at Eva. I’d positioned myself on the opposite side of the tree so I didn’t have to see her. I knew what was coming, and she was going to try to use her powers of persuasion against me. They very rarely worked, so I doubted I was going to change my mind. “You were never going to be any help, Eva. You did everything you could when you tried to guide me into this prophecy years ago. You knew about me long before you bumped into me, and you’ve tried to determine when and how everything happens. I think it’s time for me to take that destiny into my own hands, don’t you?” “I don’t think I’d be here asking you to follow my advice and leave if I thought that was a good idea. I’m sorry I can’t give you any more information, but my advice is good.” “Well, this is where I stop listening to your advice. You lied to me today. I know you won’t admit it, but this is where we part ways. I’ll do what I can to fulfill the prophecy you think is so important, but it will be under my terms.” “Can you promise me one thing?” “No,” I replied before she had a chance to continue. It didn’t stop her from saying what she had on her mind. “Fine. Just make sure you kill him before he does what you know he wants to do. I don’t care what he tries to tell you, you have to strike first. It’s the only way this will all work out.” I didn’t bother with a response. She had to think I was stupid if I had any plans to just stand around and watch Rick die. I’d thought saving him was the point of everything I’d done in the past. It was as far as I was concerned anyway. “Are you guys ready to figure out how to traverse the different planes?” I came out from around the tree and made my way back to Nate’s side. I had a feeling I understood what I needed to do to find Malphas, but figuring out the right time to stop between the planes was going to be fun. “What are the chances we’ll be fighting within the next five minutes?” Kyle asked. “Fair, as long as I don’t take us back to the Middle Ages by mistake. Mak, just out of curiosity, how familiar are you with different planes? I might need a little assist if things get crazy.” I wasn’t going to ask Eva for any help, but that didn’t stop me from polling the other magical people I had with me. It was too bad that none of Frannie’s Faie friends had joined us in the fight. For the most part they lived on a different plane, and were experts and moving back and forth. If I would’ve known the knowledge was useful, I’d have had a few lessons. I imagined there was some hidden reason why Eva hadn’t insisted my sorceress teacher show me how the planes worked. I ended up being more self-taught than following anything Nadine showed me, so it could’ve just been my teacher not wanting to share the knowledge, if she knew it. “I’m well versed in the travel we need to do. I can tell you want to be the one driving the train, though, so I will only offer guidance if you ask.” “That’s the reason I love you, Mak. You don’t force me to do things your way.” I glared at Eva as I made my way back to the tree, this time with the troops all following behind me. She didn’t bother changing the nonchalant expression on her face, and she didn’t bother moving away from the tree. She still hadn’t touched it, which made me happy. The tree wasn’t for her. Even though I hated the tree for what it could represent, I knew it was mine. Whatever that meant. I put my hand on the bark again and closed my eyes. It was strange how much more I could see sometimes without looking through my eyes. The tree came to life as I concentrated on it. Well, alive in my world anyway. Fire pulsed behind the bark and I could feel the gentle warmth start to heat up. It reminded me of the moments before I turned into a phoenix. It made me want to change forms, but I fought the instinct and focused in on where the fire was coming from. Deep within the flames was a hole, or more accurately, a portal. It was dark and didn’t seem wide enough to fit anyone bigger than me, but I knew we’d all be able to ride the waves within it. I focused on the waves that were calling out to me. I didn’t hear Malphas’ voice say anything, but I could feel him on the other side. There wasn’t going to be any need for a conductor on our trip. There was only one place the portal would lead, and whether Eva liked it or not, I was the only person able to open and control it on our side of things. I sensed that strongly, and it made me smile. “Buckle up, guys,” I said as I concentrated on moving our group into the hole. For how hard Eva made things sound, there was nothing to the magic of traveling from one plane to another, at least not with a handy portal at my disposal. I was in a clearing one second, and the next I was in another. CHAPTER 15 A good day to start a war The new location was exactly what I expected, a fact that made me a little proud. Eva trying to convince me the only reason I’d made it anywhere was because of her had really pissed me off. In the plane we were on, there weren’t hundreds of trees surrounding the clearing. There was the single tree, with its leaves swaying gently in the breeze filling the clearing. It looked as benign as ever, but there was something a little different about it. I wasn’t sure what that was from where I stood, but it was a little off. It could’ve been the fact that Malphas was leaning up against it. His black hair slicked back to help give him a somewhat menacing look, but the hair, and the matching black outfit with trench coat, didn’t match what I saw on his face. The smile didn’t fit a man hell bent on destroying my life. It was a nice smile, with some hidden warmth that he was having trouble hiding. It made me think it was Christmas morning and he got the present he’d been waiting all year for. I supposed me showing up to face him in battle could’ve been a Christmas miracle, but I was doing my best to project his death in my gaze. There wasn’t an ounce of rolling over on my side of things, so I didn’t know why he looked like things were going to be easy. I didn’t waste time looking at his minions on the field. None of them felt particularly strong, so I had a feeling they were of the warlock variety of opponents. I’d expected the best of the best to be waiting for us. “Queen Yara, you look as beautiful as ever. I’m sorry we didn’t get things spruced up before you showed up, but contrary to recent conversations you’ve had, I wasn’t quite ready for you. I thought our game would last at least two more days.” His voice sounded like it did when he’d opened up the conversation in the cornfield. I wanted to hear him snarl at me like he had at my wedding, or deliver a message of him looking forward to bathing in my blood. The civility was out of place, and even more than not knowing where all his demons were hiding that scared me. “What were you planning? A few gardens for us to destroy while we worked to kill each other? I can assure you I’m fine without the worry of pollen sending me into an allergy attack.” “We both know the only allergies you have to flowers is when you receive them in a romantic gesture. I’m sure Malik has figured that out by now and has kept his presents to shiny metal objects that put dents in human flesh.” Malphas bowed his head in reverence when he mentioned Nate. I wasn’t sure why he decided on using our original names, but that mattered little when he acted like we were his equals, or maybe even superiors. Knowing that I preferred knives to flowers didn’t impress me much, because it was a well-known fact and he’d already admitted to watching years of my life. I got the feeling mentioning it was just his way of reiterating he thought he knew me. “I don’t mean to butt in to your little chat, but it would seem we’ve come a long way, and I didn’t think the purpose of the trip was to sit around and chat. If you’re trying to prove to me you know something about my soulmate, she already shared your earlier conversation with me.” Malphas nodded. “I know, Malik. That’s the funny thing about soulmates. When you use magic that works to make sure no one else can pick up certain things, soulmates can always find a way around it. You two make it impossible to keep things from each other unless you really want to.” I got the feeling the warlocks on his side of the clearing were just as confused by what Malphas was saying as everyone on our side. We’d been fighting them long enough that I knew they expected the fight to begin the second we showed up. I wanted to look around at the surprise on their faces, but my eyes remained glued on Malphas. All threats to our side came from him, so looking away was foolish. “I believe what he was trying to get at is that we came here to fight and if you don’t object to it, we’d like to get things over with.” “So your eyes tell me. I take it you haven’t reconsidered handing over the oracle? I have no intention of killing the baby, if that’s what’s kept you from agreeing to it in the past.” I couldn’t help but laugh, which I was pretty sure was exactly what he expected. His words had to be a joke. “Our opinion hasn’t changed. There’s no way I would hand over any child, let alone my own flesh and blood, to someone like you.” “I know, and that’s okay. I’m sure you’ve got her well-protected from the likes of me. In a way it’s too bad you aren’t aware of the real threat in her life. Eventually you’ll understand. So how do you want to do this?” It wasn’t a good thing when the bad guy implied there was a bigger threat than him. I knew I couldn’t trust anything he said, but I felt a chill run up my spine as my brain quickly scrambled to think of anything I’d missed. “Stop,” Malphas commanded, louder and darker than his previous words. “I didn’t mean for you to start questioning what you’ve done to protect them. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t the biggest threat against her in the grand scheme of things. Just because our battle will be over soon doesn’t mean there aren’t other people who will want to control your daughter.” I noticed that he had said them and then her, so he knew about the triplets and Aisling. No one was supposed to know anything about them. Only Nate and I knew about Aisling being the true oracle. I assumed the Fates and maybe another oracle out there somewhere might, but Malphas shouldn’t have been able to speak with authority on the subject. For once I had to hold Nate back as he made an aggressive move forward. The growls coming from his chest made me think he was part wolf. “Calm down, Mali. He’s just saying things to get us to do something stupid.” “Believe me, what I want to do wouldn’t be stupid. It’d end with him in a million pieces on the ground.” “Be careful with your words. She gets turned on when you go into alpha male mode.” I heard Kyle snicker behind me. No one else was stupid enough to react to the truthful claim. “Okay, I’m done with this talking. I don’t know what you expected, but we’re only here to fulfill the prophecy so we can get back to our regularly scheduled lives.” I let go of Nate and pulled out the demon-killing knife and a blade from another sheath. The regular blade was a touch cold in my left hand, but the one that could kill Malphas was warm and pulsed in the other hand. “I see.” Malphas’ eyes, which had been glued to mine, dropped for a second to look at the knife that would lead to his death. It was only for a second, but there was something odd that ran through those eyes before he met my gaze again. “I don’t remember you saying how you’d like to get things started. There are so many options when it comes to engaging in battle.” “Really? Cause I thought it tended to end up being two different parties rushing at each other and doing everything they could to kill each other.” “If you’re in to barbaric methods, I suppose that’s what it comes down to. We could try to make a grand spectacle of it and partake in Olympic-style games.” “Why would we want to waste time doing something stupid like that?” Rick asked. “If you’re putting up your flunkies against us, it’d be over in seconds.” Malphas’ teeth showed as the corners of his mouth lifted. He didn’t bother looking over to Rick as he answered him. “It was just a suggestion. I can see your point, but I think you’d still have fun playing.” “Are you hiding either about a hundred more warlocks or some demons who may actually serve as a challenge?” Liam was asking more for the fight ahead. I didn’t think he cared about playing games. “As I said, I thought I had a little longer to prepare, but rest assured there will be plenty of bodies to fight against. That’s why I suggested something to pass the time until they get here.” I thought about launching my knife at him, but I was afraid to let it leave my hand. If he was able to control it, the fight would be over before either side got a chance to do anything. “You expect us to believe you couldn’t make the rest of your minions appear with a wave of your hand? I don’t know what your scouts told you, but we’re not that stupid.” “I know you’re not, Yara. As I’m sure you have a game plan when it comes to fighting, so do I. If you’re not willing to play, we can try things your way.” He said the words, but no one moved. I felt that our numbers were close to double the warlocks, so I expected things to be over pretty quickly. The air pressure changed slightly right before Malphas disappeared from sight. I took a defensive stance, with the demon-killing knife raised up in front of my face. I could see a black mist hang in the air. It didn’t move, but as it hung there I felt Malphas’ power leave the clearing. “Where are you going, coward?” I yelled. “This fight is supposed to be against you and me.” I didn’t expect an answer, but I got one. “And so it will be, but not today. Work out some of that aggression, and when we meet again we’ll play out the prophecy.” The guys around me didn’t wait for permission to attack. They’d been waiting long enough to use their toys. I knew they were probably disappointed they had to settle with warlocks as the main course, but they were a blood thirsty bunch who didn’t really care who the opponent was. I didn’t want to miss out, especially since there were limited opponents, so I hurried to find someone willing to fight me. The warlocks tried a sad group attack, sending different forms of energy flying towards our group. There was at least seventy of them, but they weren’t the strongest warlocks we’d run into. That part was maybe the most depressing. We’d met some warlocks who were truly dangerous, but the ones in the clearing seemed to be babies. I was tempted to let one of their energy streams through just to see how weak the power behind it was. Tempted, but I wasn’t stupid. I dodged a stream before generating a fireball and launching it towards the center of the group. They scattered and the fight really began. In most cases, two uniques went up against a single warlock. The warlocks ended up being a little better at hand-to-hand combat than I expected, but that was something every one of our troops could do in our sleep, and it showed. Within twenty minutes we were left standing in the clearing without anyone to fight. “There’s going to be more, right?” Liam was looking down at his hands as he asked. I was fairly certain he’d used his hands to rip a warlock’s head from his shoulders, and he was checking to see if he had any blood on his fingers. Neither berserker had morphed into their bigger forms. His eyes were glowing a little, but I didn’t think it was enough to guide someone through a dense fog, whereas in full berserker mode he could land planes. “Malphas indicated there’d be more. I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for them, though.” I mumbled my words as I looked around to verify no one had taken on any serious damage. It was just something to occupy my thoughts for a second. I only saw a few people even sweating. “We haven’t torched them yet, should we let them put their heads back on so we can go another round while we wait?” Kyle had reached down and picked up the head closest to him. “Put that head down. You don’t know where it’s been.” Those were words I didn’t think I would ever have to say, at least not to a grown man. I could see one of my children needing to be reminded that playing with severed heads wasn’t a good idea. I looked up to the mist that still hovered by the tree. Our little skirmish had taken place closer to where we’d appeared. I wanted to keep us away from the tree as much as possible because I wasn’t sure what the mist signified. “Come on, Avery. We were having so much fun five seconds ago. Don’t you what to play some more?” “Kyle, I’m not going to tell you to put that head down again. We don’t know what’s going to come our way next, but I’d prefer we didn’t have to deal with resurrecting warlocks while we’re in the middle of fighting.” Kyle tossed the head to the side and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “We don’t know how many other people are coming. We might need the extras just to make sure everyone gets their own warlock.” Before anyone could decide Kyle made sense, I sent fireballs out to make sure all the bodies were well and truly dead. I’d been around quite a bit of charring flesh, but the bodies burning around us was a record, and not a good smelling record. “I’m starting to think we should’ve taken him up on the offer of some games. Maybe we could’ve played how far can you toss a warlock.” “I bet I could’ve beat you,” Kyle replied to his brother’s suggestion. Considering the berserkers grown men had been foolish on my part. I was fairly certain my barely created triplets were more mature than they were. Thankfully, I saw Liam look up to the sky when I felt a large pulse of power in the clearing. It was stronger than what we’d just defeated, which put a smile on the berserker’s face. “I suppose I forgive you for taking our fun away. I don’t think they’re anything more than warlocks, but there should be enough of them to go around.” He rubbed his hands together and everyone waited for the next round of fighting to begin. CHAPTER 16 Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes It had been days since the battle started. The memories I had of seeing the future hadn’t shown me how long and grueling things would really be. I thought it was over and done with quickly, but after the first round of warlocks had been dealt with, the demons came in and neither side gained any ground. Malphas hadn’t been seen again since his original appearance. His voice could be heard each night calling his demons back to his side. I didn’t understand his tactics, but getting a little rest before the demons showed back up was appreciated. I didn’t figure he’d meant to do us any favors, though. The break in fighting wasn’t exactly used for resting for me, but I tried. Sleep was difficult when you were trying to figure out if you’d made any mistakes that would end up biting you in the butt. I went over every action, and hadn’t found anything, but I continued trying to find things. We had no big injuries on our side. Everyone still had all their appendages, and other than a few burn marks, we were whole. From what I could observe, while doing my best to cause damage, the demons weren’t in bad shape either, which made me really wonder what in the world we were doing. It was clear by the very few injuries that neither side was winning. I tried to get into Malphas’ head to figure out what in the world was going on, but clearly I wasn’t delusional enough to piece things together. What I did know was that I fought next to my men and he remained hidden like a coward. That didn’t come as a surprise to me, even after he claimed we were so much alike. He hadn’t been willing to face me when I’d been a few cards short of a full deck, and gaining my abilities back made me even stronger than I remembered. I couldn’t blame him from wanting to keep his distance, but this whole thing was leading up to our fight, and I was as ready for it as I could be. I’d been watching my back, along with every person on our side of the battle. I could feel their eyes on me, waiting to sound an alarm and jump in to try to protect me. It was annoying to me, because part of me thought maybe we’d gain an upper hand if everyone stopped worrying about me so much. I couldn’t blame them without becoming a hypocrite, though. My attention was split between fighting the demon in front of me, trying to sense Malphas and watching Rick. There were also moments spent checking in with Nate, but he was usually by my side, so I didn’t have to look far. Rick hadn’t said anything about me keeping an eye on him during the four days of battle, but I knew he felt it. I tried my best to hide it, so he wouldn’t become suspicious. That usually meant fighting four or five demons at once to keep my mind occupied. “Hey,” Nate said from beside me, bringing me out of my daily analysis of what was going on. We were in our tent, which was set a little ways away from the rest of the tents Mak had manifested for us. I hadn’t asked for the privacy, but it was assumed we needed it. After eating dinner and going over anything we’d learned each night, we were pretty quick to disappear from the group. It wasn’t really for anything that needed privacy. I just didn’t like having everyone staring at me. As the fight went on, more of our troops were called in, so there were even more eyes watching me, and if someone ever needed a break, someone else filled in for them. “I thought you were still sleeping.” I leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “I haven’t heard much movement, and it’s still a few hours before the fighting will start up, according to the schedule we’ve seen so far. I have no idea why Malphas is keeping to a schedule, but I also don’t know why he’s dragging things out. This should have been over the very first day.” I hated that the schedule wasn’t mine to set. The ball had remained in Malphas’ corner the whole fight, and I feared things would stay that way. When our opponents disappeared at dusk, it was hard to chase after them and try to take the fight to wherever Malphas was hiding out. They were pretty much there one second, and thin air the next. We’d sent scouts out to see if they had a camp anywhere, but no one had been able to find one. “It’s hard to sleep when your mind has slipped into overdrive, examining every single thing you’ve seen the past few days. We have plenty of people around who can take some of that pressure off you. I know you won’t agree to help in that matter, but I felt the need to remind you.” “I’m aware, but I don’t think anyone would look at the things the same way I do. I watch the battle a little bit differently than most.” “True, but I’m sure the rest of us could help if you’d let us. Did you get any sleep?” I’d sat up, when I went into my spiel about why I had to be the one deciphering everything, but he pulled me down next to him as he rubbed my back. I knew he was trying to calm me. It’s something he always tried, but there was no way the electricity running through me would allow that. I’d woken up buzzing, even more than I had on previous mornings. He was lucky I’d stayed in bed. The energy coursing in my blood made me want to get up and run a marathon. “More sleep than I needed. Today is the day, and I need to figure out a way to give us the upper hand before Malphas shows up. That’s why I’ve been going over things. There had to be a clue in there at some point to guarantee us a win.” “What?” Nate asked, sitting us both up, but keeping me glued to his side. “I’ve been listening to your rambling thoughts and nothing going on in your head said today was the day.” “I was purposefully trying not to think about it. There’s a lot of other things I need to figure out, like the aforementioned key to our victory.” I wrapped my arms around his bare torso and pushed my fingernails into his skin. My nails weren’t long, so they weren’t going to leave marks. Feeling my Mali next to me, I didn’t want to move from the spot, ever, but there was a lot that needed to be done, and we both knew it. It was nice to just hold him for a few moments, though. “How do you know? You didn’t know the fighting would go longer than a day. I’ve sensed how surprised you’ve been about that.” “How do I know anything? I just get a feeling in my bones that tells me something is going to happen, and ninety-nine percent of the time it does. Today I feel like things are coming to an end in the fight.” The feeling was what had brought me out of my fitful sleep. I couldn’t sleep when I knew someone was watching, at least not without being in a coma, and I had a constant feeling of being watched. I couldn’t physically sense Malphas close by, but he was keeping an eye on me, like he had when we were in the cornfield. I couldn’t wait until I plucked that eye out of its socket. If I didn’t get anything else accomplished, I wanted that task done. “After days of monotony, I can’t say it’s not exciting to hear something is going to happen, but I know what you fear happening.” “It’s not going to happen,” I said quickly. I didn’t want any thoughts turning to possible outcomes. There was only one outcome acceptable and I was going to make sure things played out how they were supposed to. Rick had to live because I couldn’t live without him. I had to live because Nate and I had children to raise and if I died so did he. There was a lot resting on my shoulders, and I needed to figure out how to make sure I got everything done. The previous days of nonstop fighting hadn’t done what Malphas had hoped. We weren’t discouraged, and if anything, the fact that we weren’t hurting only made our hope increase. As I’d worked to figure out what Malphas was thinking, I’d come to the conclusion he wanted us worn out before he made an appearance. Between all the magic we had working on our side, it was going to be years before that happened. “I love hearing that confidence in your voice about what will or won’t happen, but at the same time it scares me. There are so many questions we don’t know the answer to.” I lifted my finger up to Nate’s mouth to keep him from continuing. I knew he was going to bring up the fact that I’d seen a future where I’d been killed, and no matter how many times I told him I wouldn’t let that happen, he was still worried I’d sacrifice myself. The truth was I probably would if it was between Freddie and me, which was why I had to make sure that choice never came to be. There had to be a way for our side to get everything we wanted, which was simply Malphas dying while everyone else lived. I didn’t know what would become of the demons we’d been fighting, but that wasn’t my concern. My immediate concern was getting Nate’s mind off the worry that had filled it. Knowing my mate as well as I did, there was one easy way to get him thinking about other things, and I quickly replaced my finger on his lips with my lips and pushed him down, so I could straddle him. Nate groaned, knowing I was distracting him, and that he wouldn’t stop me from the distraction I had in mind. He’d probably still worry, before, during and after, but there was another reason to make love to him. I worked hard not to think about that reason as I removed my shirt, but we both knew there was a chance we wouldn’t make it through the day, and what came after that was something neither of us knew. Nate deserved at least one happy memory from the days of fighting. He actually deserved everything he wanted after having to deal with me over the years, but I wasn’t sure I could give him everything. I leaned down to nibble on his neck when I heard a throat clear behind me. I didn’t know which one of us groaned louder, but I had to believe it was me. There was only one person I couldn’t really sense as she moved around, and I took a second to wonder, for the hundredth time, whether my special knife could kill her. After how she’d gone off the deep end, I was surprised she even bothered to show up. “Possibly, as far as the knife goes, because the stronger you’ve gotten, it’s gotten, but we have other things to talk about. I know I interrupted a tender moment, and I’m truly sorry I had to. Things are going to start happening before we know it and we need to talk.” I sat up, grabbing my shirt to throw it back on. I was well aware I’d gone skinny dipping with Eva before, but I didn’t feel the need to share my nudity with her. If I could’ve managed to make her unsee what she already had, I would’ve gone with that option. “I’m surprised you didn’t wait longer and watch the show.” “Actually, I would’ve interrupted sooner, but you were having a meaningful conversation and I thought it might be useful for you to talk things out. Once I saw where things were going, I decided I better get our conversation in before you went too far. I was a little surprised at how quickly you moved to distract Nate.” I didn’t know whether that was Eva’s way of saying she was being thoughtful, but I could tell there was something cryptic behind her words. As there always was. “I’ve seen your boy toy out fighting with the group, but you’ve been missing since we got here. I’m not really sure what you think we need to talk about, but I think I’d rather continue with what I had planned and catch up a little later.” I looked down at Nate, watching a smile slide across his face. He’d always enjoyed when my mind focused in on his favorite activity. “I guess I didn’t make myself clear when I said I was stopping you two before things went too far. Don’t make me zap us away to my void, Avery. Dismount your stallion and ask him to leave us alone for a few minutes.” The tone of Eva’s voice had me a little worried. There was none of her teasing, carefree nature in the words, not that I expected them to magically be back. Whatever she had to tell me was important to her, and I got the feeling it would finally be something worth me hearing coming from her mouth. It was more than likely a foolish thought on my end, but it did make me consider hearing her out. Feeling Nate’s warm body underneath me made me really want to tell her to get lost. Nate’s smile faded a little as he leaned up to give me a peck on the cheek. “I guess we should probably listen to her. I’ll go make sure your breakfast is being prepared to your liking and wait outside for you.” He rolled me over, but I held on for a few more moments. “Does he really have to leave? He’s eventually going to know whatever you tell me.” The fact that it was clearly something important made me want to keep Nate close by, someone needed to stop me from killing her if she went off like she had a few days prior. I looked over at Eva and found her expression matched the tone of her voice. She shook her head, and that was enough to get Nate moving. He was gone before I could say another word. I sat up and gave Eva my dirtiest look. “This better be important.” “For once I think you’ll agree with me that it is.” Her eyes turned white and a chill made its way down my back. I didn’t have any idea what she was going to say, but her eyes freaked me out. I gripped the handle of my dagger under my pillow. If she was about to turn crazy on me, I was going to fight back. CHAPTER 17 Unlikely babysitters “As surprising as it seems to be for you this lifetime, I’m still not the enemy, nor will I ever be.” Eva’s eyes remained white as she walked closer to the bed and took a seat. I didn’t want her sitting that close to me, so I moved back a little. I didn’t think of it as a sign of weakness, I just didn’t want her crazy rubbing off on me. “Do you want to explain your freaky eyes?” I didn’t think I’d be able to sit through a whole conversation without knowing why they’d changed. I didn’t remember ever seeing them change like that. “They get that way when I’m working to be in two places at once. I don’t have a lot of time to relay everything I need to, so I’ll just hit the bullet points. Don’t have sex with Nate, don’t underestimate Malphas and don’t forget that you at one time knew everything that was going to happen and have made sure things would be fine in the end.” She spoke so quickly that my head felt like it was spinning. I somewhat understood everything she said, but I knew I was missing why any of it was important. I didn’t understand her comment about being two places at once, so I started there. “What do you mean you’re in two places?” I wanted to reach over to see if she was solid. She was sitting on the bed, so I figured she was. Her eyes hadn’t been crazy when I first looked at her, so I assumed at one point she’d only been there in the room with me. My brain was having trouble trying to make sense of things, and that made me irritated. “For about five seconds I was here, and then I went back to my post. I figured you wouldn’t mind dealing with my projection, and since you seem to want to kill me, it’s probably better for my health if I’m not here.” “I haven’t made any decisions about that. What post did you have to get back to? Like I already mentioned, I don’t think I’ve seen you at all the last few days, which isn’t a surprise after how we left things.” She smiled the warmest smile I’d ever seen on her face. The eyes didn’t exactly complete the look, and more than anything the whole package kind of scared me. I wondered if it was just her way of showing me she was still stronger than I was. She had to have pulled some strings to make it to the plane, because I knew she couldn’t have used the tree. “Your kids are going to be amazing. I can only imagine the kind of pride you have to feel knowing that you had a hand in creating them.” I’d worked hard not to think about my little eggs back at home. It was easy to let my mind float to them and what I’d seen in the future. I couldn’t let that cloud my thoughts, though. I hadn’t expected her to mention them, and the fact that she had didn’t sit well with me. “You were supposed to tell me where you’ve been, not bring up my kids.” “But I’ve been with them. You may think I’ve decided to sit back and let things play out, but that isn’t the case, nor was it ever my plan. I was there to help get you to where you needed to be, but after things heated up here, I made a beeline back to the babies.” I stopped her before she could say anything else. “What do you mean you’ve been with my children?” I didn’t know what to think after hearing that. My hand tightened even more around my dagger and I brought it out for Eva to see it was in her best interest to choose her words wisely. “I’ve been protecting them. I’m sure you’ve noticed Malphas isn’t here, and that’s because he’s been trying to figure out a way to get to them. I moved them into my void and put dummy eggs at the house. As well as you’ve done at training your troops, none of them are a match for Malphas. Only you and I are, and you’re needed here.” I was momentarily speechless. “You’ve been protecting my kids?” My words were so quiet I barely heard them. Eva, or at least the projection of her, looked at me oddly. “Of course I have. I can’t be their Aunt Eva if we let Malphas get to them. He knows they exist, but he isn’t sure any of them are the oracle. I’ve been doing what I can to keep him from figuring that out.” I stared at her dumbfounded. She’d been doing everything she could to get on my nerves, and yet she was sitting there telling me she’d been taking care of the things most precious in my life. Part of what she said didn’t ring true, since Malphas had indicated he did know about the kids, but I supposed he could’ve been hiding that from her. “Please don’t get mushy on me. We really don’t have time for that. You don’t remember it, but you told me before that you needed me to be there for them. That’s the thing about you missing that month of your last life, you don’t remember that everything is going according to plan.” “What plan?” I’d always assumed I had one, but it would be nice to know what that particular plan was, and whether it coincided with the plan she clearly had. “The one where everything works out in the end. We spent days discussing it and I think we covered all of our bases. Now, I’ve spent longer here than I want to, but I have to make sure you’re not going to try to jump Nate’s bones again after I leave. “As I mentioned, Malphas doesn’t know if the triplets are the babies he’s looking for, and because of that his focus is a little divided. As romantic as the gesture is, you getting with Nate will more than likely put another baby in the mix, and that would only make things more dangerous. A fourth baby wasn’t in your plan, so make sure it doesn’t become a reality.” Her face was stern, and reminded me a lot of my mother’s. I hoped to never find myself in a room with both of them looking at me with that look. “Not that I think that mood will arise again after you interrupted us, but don’t you control whether or not babies are made?” It wasn’t a conversation I expected having on the morning I felt would lead up to the final battle. It was between Eva and me, though, so the conversation wasn’t even our strangest one. “You know I hate repeating myself, and I’ve told you before I don’t always control when things happen with your body. I knew you’d get pregnant with the triplets when you did, but that was only because you told me you would.” “What happened during the month I don’t remember?” She kept eluding to that time and I thought it was time for me to learn what I was missing. “Trust me, you don’t want to remember, at least not yet, probably never. Anyway, to remember that, you’d need to talk to one of my sisters, and both of them are back in the void helping me protect the triplets.” “Are you saying all three of the Fates are protecting my children?” “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how important they are. Plus, it was part of the deal. Now, if there are no other questions, I’d like to get back.” “I have tons of questions, but I doubt you’d answer them. I do want to say thank you for taking care of my children, I think. I’ve been trying not to think about them, but it’s hard.” “I know, but we’ve got them covered. You do what needs to be done here and try not to deviate from the plan. Things would’ve been easier if you didn’t remember the visions regarding your brother, but when the time is right, I know you’ll do what needs to be done. That is if you’ve been a good girl and listened to everything I’ve told you.” Before I could ask her to repeat the parts she thought were particularly important, she disappeared. She wouldn’t have answered, since she’d made a point about saying she didn’t like repeating herself. I wasn’t really sure what to think about what she’d said. I’d spoken to my mom the night Eva had disappeared in Amana, which I assumed was when she’d gone and gathered the kids, and Mom hadn’t said anything about Eva showing up. “Is the coast clear?” Nate asked from outside the tent door. “It seems the cone of silence has been lifted and I have a plate of food for you.” “She’s gone, not that she was really here to begin with.” “Did she explain where she disappeared to? Or at the very least why she needed me to leave?” Nate stepped into the tent. He brought with him the aroma of freshly baked bread. Mak magically brought us in food, since we were in the middle of nowhere and didn’t think to pack provisions. I’d offered to help him, but I’d been told to save up my magic for more practical things. Nate handed me a plate and then took a seat on the bed. “She and her sisters have been looking after the triplets. She said Malphas has been trying to get to them, but evidently I planned ahead and made some kind of deal for them to be looked after.” Without all the details, I focused on my food, which consisted of a slice of bread with butter, a cantaloupe wedge and a cream cheese danish. I needed some sugar, so the danish was the first thing I focused in on. I didn’t know where Mak had brought the food in from, but the flaky baked good was one of the best I’d ever tasted, which was hard for me to concede since I enjoyed my own so much. “I guess that’s good news, but she didn’t have to interrupt or send me away to tell you that. Are you able to tell me anything else that was said?” I offered him a bite of the danish, just in case he hadn’t had a chance to get his own. He took a small bite as he waited for me to answer the question. “Nothing of great importance. More than anything I think she was just here to make sure I didn’t have my way with you. There was a time when she wanted to lock us in a room together, but evidently today isn’t one of those days.” Nate raised an eyebrow without saying anything. He picked up the piece of bread and broke off a bite before holding it in front of my mouth. I was finishing chewing the last bite of the danish, so it took me a second to open my mouth for his offering. I wasn’t surprised that the bread was slightly warm, so the rich butter was partially melted. Mak was on his game awfully early in the morning. The sun hadn’t even come up and he was whipping up some of his best work. “She showed up just to tell you not to have sex with me. For some reason that sounds completely unlike something Eva would say. Are you sure it was her and not some kind of trick? From what I could see she wasn’t as combative as she’s been lately.” “It was her, or at least a projection of her. I didn’t try to wave my hand through her body, but I probably could have. She said other things, but since I complained most about her interrupting us, she explained we didn’t need a fourth baby running around in the near future.” “The more time we spend with her, the more mysterious I find her to be, and I end up siding with you about trying to keep her away. I suppose she has a point, but I imagine we could’ve figured out a way to keep from having a baby.” “I doubt it. I’m pretty sure we just have to touch certain body parts together and I’ll be pregnant again. You’ve always said what we have is magical, and I don’t doubt at all that just thinking about having a baby would make one.” Nate laughed and kissed my forehead. “I think that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. Are you ready to go out and figure out what’s on the agenda for today?” I liked that he didn’t push too much for more of the conversation he’d been blocked out of. I could tell he wanted me to replay everything that was said, but he refrained from grilling me, which would’ve made me hit him. I hated interrogations. “I love you more than words can really express.” He knew that already, but it felt like a good time to remind him, especially since I wasn’t being allowed to remind him in the way I’d planned. “I’m aware, and I love you too. Do you want to change, or are you going to go with the same shirt you’ve been wearing for days now?” “Is that your way of telling me I stink?” Spare clothing was another thing Mak had imported in for us. I hadn’t really noticed anyone else changing, but that could’ve been because all we ever wore was black. “No. I just wasn’t sure if your shirt was going to start walking on its own. How sure are you that today is the day?” Nate reached down to pick up his shirt and put it on. His had come off every night, giving it a chance to air out. I liked being prepared in case we had unexpected visitors. It didn’t help that the one time I’d taken mine off that someone had shown up. “I’m sure. Eva didn’t say anything specific to back up my feeling, but I think she knew it too. At least I’m not remembering anything she said about that. She was rather scattered, though. I haven’t seen anything to indicate you were in danger, but I want you to be extra careful today. Malphas knows who’s closest to me, and I don’t doubt he’ll try to use that to his advantage.” “Don’t worry. Even without your handy knife, I have a few things up my sleeve to protect myself.” I put my plate down on the floor next to us and climbed out of bed. Nate’s words worried me a little bit, but I’d make sure to check in on him when the fighting got started. I didn’t know if Malphas was aware that killing Nate was as good as killing me, but I hoped that he’d missed that portion of our wedding. CHAPTER 18 Down a rabbit hole We barely made it out the tent door before an energy ball came flying at us. I shoved Nate out of the way as soon as I felt the force come close. He was going to have to yell at me later about that move, because the power behind the energy ball was set a little higher than the ones we’d been facing. My focus was completely on the demon who’d manifested fifty feet in front of us. I didn’t see any other fighting going on, and the demon looked singularly focused, which was good. We didn’t need any of his dark-haired, mangy friends showing up while I was pretty sure a third of our camp was still resting in their tents. The demons I’d fought over the days had blended together, so I wasn’t a hundred percent sure the man dressed in black with a long matching trench coat was someone I’d run into before. He stunk like all the other demons had, so I couldn’t even use smell as a gauge. It was like they spent hours of their days rolling around in a putrid sulfur-like substance, which led me to believe they lived close to where the troops from Orange City had been kept. “I imagine you thought you’d catch me unaware. Is that why your side has been keeping such strict schedules? Eventually you thought we wouldn’t expect an early morning attack?” I asked as I manifested a large fireball and hurled it at him. He ducked out of the way, but his coat felt the heat as part of his shoulder singed. It surprised me that he hadn’t worked a fireproof spell on his clothing. The fact that he hadn’t made me believe we hadn’t met in the previous days. Everyone that had crossed my path was completely fireproof. “I’m just here to deliver a message and I thought I’d have a little fun.” The demon righted himself as he spoke, but I sent another fireball at him to keep him on his toes. I really wanted to kill the demon, and I had a weapon that theoretically would. I didn’t remember whether the knife was a one-time thing, so I couldn’t just hurl it at the demon and be done with him. I’d packed the knife away and sent it to my mother long before my reincarnation, so I should’ve remembered the spell I’d used on it, but it was just as hazy as the month of my memory I was still missing. I didn’t know if that was because I’d done something to finalize what it could do during that time or what. I just knew I wasn’t going to waste it driving it into a flunky demon’s flesh. “I don’t like Malphas’ messages, so you’d just be wasting your breath.” Nate had stood up and had made it back to my side, but he was letting me do the talking. He just growled a little, which I usually found cute. In that moment, I rolled my eyes because he was growling about me pushing him out of the way. “I don’t know why he’s so obsessed with you, but I’m to let you know today is the day you die,” the demon paused and made a face like what he was about to say didn’t want to come out of his mouth. “Unless you decide to leave the life you know and settle in as Malphas’ consort.” I could understand why he didn’t want to say those words. Even having the idea out in the air made me want to throw up. The growling by my side got louder, and it wasn’t directed at me. “Did he seriously think there was any way I’d say yes to that?” There were a lot of things I didn’t understand about Malphas, but how his brain worked had to be up at the top of the list. I was fairly certain I’d been clear with anyone who stood still long enough to listen that I was set on killing Malphas. Where in the world he got the idea I wanted to play house with him was something beyond my understanding. “I don’t pretend to know what Malphas thinks. I just do what I’m told, and he would like you to reconsider the battle today.” “Well you can go back to your ‘master’ or maker or whatever it is you call him and tell him I’d rather be a duck’s consort than spend a minute with him. Make that a second. I would rather hang out all day and play wife to a duck than spend a single second with him.” The demon shrugged his shoulders. “You are a bird, so that doesn’t sound extremely odd. I’ll let him know that’s your answer and we can see what his next move is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned into a duck and fulfilled your thought. I wasn’t joking about him being obsessed with you.” The demon disappeared before I could alter my words to be something that included Malphas being dead. I hadn’t gotten the feeling Malphas was obsessed with me, so I wasn’t sure what the demon was talking about. There was his talk about watching years of my life and us being alike, but I hadn’t really thought he’d meant things romantically. He knew I already had a soulmate, so he had to know he was barking up the wrong tree. I was a magnet for weirdoes. “I thought we’d have more time before lunacy arrived on our doorstep. I hadn’t expected something quite that crazy.” There was still a little growl in Nate’s voice. I reached over and grabbed his hand to calm him down a little. I predicted there would be plenty of time for him to get growly during the day if that was how we were starting things out. “I have no idea what that was about, but I’m going to be on the lookout for ducks. I’ve only seen the man a few times and he seemed more interested in our babies, so I’m not sure where the idea of you being a consort came up. He does know that’s impossible, right?” “I’m pretty sure I’ve made my view about Malphas’ mental capability clear. He’s an idiot with a lot of power, which means he needs to be dealt with. We can’t let someone crazy enough to know who and what I am think he could use me the way his minion just implied.” “I agree with you there. I just don’t understand why he’d suddenly decide to switch from wanting our child to wanting you. I mean I get why a person would find you attractive, but you have off-limits written around you in blood.” I liked his idea about me, but the thought that Malphas had changed his goal was a little disturbing. I knew he already knew about the kids, and even assumed one of the girls was the prophecy. “Why don’t we go see if the plans for the day have changed any from the last few days?” I suggested. “We really don’t have time or the need to waste brain cells on trying to figure out what Malphas is up to.” Standing around waiting to see if anything else appeared in the spot the demon vacated was a waste of time. I was fairly certain everything we’d been doing was a waste of time, but at least the demon had confirmed my suspicion that today was going to be the day. Malphas was going to finally be out of my hair. “Sounds like a good idea. You might as well witness Rick laughing at you in person instead of having to listen to him from far away. I don’t know why he laughs when you get hit on all the time, but he has to have something to amuse him.” “I think I liked him more before I remembered he was my brother. Although, back then he was trying to hit on me as well. There’s clearly a lot of problems running in my family.” Nate and I both laughed as we walked to the main grouping of tents, holding hands, which we tended to do anytime we weren’t in the middle of a battle. Like a moment of déjà vu, we’d barely made it ten steps before an overwhelming energy felt like it was pressing me down into the ground. I hadn’t ever been run over by a bulldozer, but I got the feeling I understood what it felt like. It was a little hard to describe, but I was sure I was going to look like a pancake once things were over. “What is that?” I asked as I tried to push back against the energy. “What’s what?” Nate replied. He looked around, trying to find whatever caught my attention. “Are you telling me you don’t feel like someone is trying to turn you into a golf tee just before they teed up a ball?” It was a little difficult to speak. My words all came out, at least I thought they did, but my tongue felt like it was swelling in my mouth. It wasn’t bad enough something was trying to squish me, it had to give me the worst case of dry mouth I’d ever felt. “Mak, Elan, we need your help over here.” Nate yelled his words, but a wind that came out of nowhere drowned them mostly out. I bit the inside of my lip to cause a little blood and spit in onto the ground. “Pressure and wind surrounds me, turn them around to bring the sender to his knee.” I really didn’t have time to be creative, and I tended to make up some really stupid rhymes when I didn’t have an extra minute to figure out something good to say. “Sorry, Yara, but I made sure you couldn’t do something like that. Plus, it’s my presence causing the way you feel, not a spell I sent your way, so a little spell won’t just take it away.” I could hear Malphas, but a quick glance around didn’t reveal him anywhere. I hadn’t sheathed the knife since I’d trotted out of the tent, so I lifted it up to prepare for a fight. Knowing that Malphas would at some point attack made it prudent that I was ready for him. “I’m currently all around you in a clear fog, so no one else can feel or hear me. I think it’s time we spent a little alone time before you request I turn myself into a duck. I’m not as bad as you think I am, and as I’ve said before, we are more alike than you think.” I was starting to think the crazy man had found Carl, off in whatever institute they were keeping him. I really attracted strange men, and I couldn’t understand why that was. There had to be a website out there somewhere where they gathered and talked about me. When I got home I was going to shut the site down. “I prefer that you just show yourself so we can be done with this. I have a very nice knife just waiting to pay you a visit. I’m sure it will only hurt for a second.” “And as you know, I have the same for you. I’ve been watching you though, and I think the world still needs you in it, but things would have to change in order for that to be possible.” I kept my vomit down hearing him say that he’d been watching me again. I’d had trouble getting a pinpoint on his location and he blocked me so much that it seemed a little odd that he’d have been peeking in my windows. I really wanted to believe I would’ve felt him that close to me. “The problem with that plan is the fact that I’ve decided the world no longer needs you in it. I’m sure there’s nothing you can say that would change my mind as far as that’s concerned. You threatened my family, and if you know anything about me, you know I’m not going to let that stand.” “Do I want to know what’s going on?” I heard Nate ask from far away. We were holding hands still, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t feeling what I did. After Malphas had blocked him out earlier, I wasn’t totally surprised, but that was just a conversation. “I’m sure you do, but I doubt you’d like anything happening or being said. Malphas seems to think spending quality time together would help unique and demon relations. I’ve told him he’s nuts and I’m working on trying to get him to manifest so I can stab him a few times. As it stands right now, I don’t think stabbing the air around us would kill him.” “You know, one of the reasons I’m so convinced you aren’t that different from me is because I’ve seen how your life would’ve been if you didn’t have him for a mate,” Malphas said, breaking up the conversation I cared more about. “Why are you still talking? Either manifest or leave and come back when you’ve grown a pair.” I heard a soft, almost comforting laugh in the wind. I tried to stab the knife in the air around me, hoping I was wrong and something would connect and get rid of him. I didn’t see anyone other than Nate watching, which was good because I was pretty sure I looked ridiculous. “I think I’ll be leaving for now, but I’m going to take you with me so we can finish our talk and I can show you what I’m talking about. Tell your boy toy that you’ll be back and will remain unharmed. My forces won’t attack while we’re gone either, so maybe he can catch up on his reading or sleep. Whatever he does when you aren’t around.” The sound of Malphas so cocky and confident was in no way comforting. I hadn’t seen any events when I was stuck spending time with Malphas, and I certainly didn’t want to find that becoming my reality. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” I hurried to try to say a spell, but Malphas was too fast and I was torn away from Nate as I traveled down some sort of vortex. I still scrambled to try to come up with something to fight back as the wind increased and light was blocked out, so all I could really see were occasionally flashes of neon green lights. It wasn’t a way I’d traveled in the past, so I had no idea what to expect when I came out on the other end. I did hear Malphas relaying the message I hadn’t. I doubted Nate would be comforted one bit, but at least he had a general idea of where I’d disappeared to, which wasn’t going to make him feel very good about the situation. CHAPTER 19 The delusions of a delusional man I landed with a thud. It would’ve been nice to know a hard floor of some kind was in my future, but I had very low expectations when it came to dealing with Malphas. He probably expected me to somehow cushion my own fall. “And your low expectations are exactly why I thought we could use a little alone time. Sorry for not stopping the abrupt landing. I’m not used to caring about whether the people traveling with me are comfortable.” It was still dark, so I didn’t know if he’d taken a form. I did notice I still had my knife clutched in my right hand. I raised my left hand and manifested a small fire ball to see what was immediately around me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know exactly where I was. After hearing stories about Malphas’ origins, I was fairly certain we were in hell. Not necessarily the place most humans would think of, full of fire and brimstone. In my mind, hell was anywhere Malphas decided to call home. Judging by the couch I saw immediately in front of me, it felt like I’d found myself in a house of some sort, which was not what I expected. When I thought of Malphas, I didn’t envision a white picket fence. “With Nate is where I want to be, take me there now and let me be free.” I didn’t bother offering a sacrifice. I thought the need to be away from Malphas allowed for me to be a little casual with the normal ritual. I didn’t immediately feel any headaches and it was obvious I didn’t send myself back to Nate’s side. I increased the intensity on my fireball to get a better look around. Right as I was making out more furniture, a light was flipped on and I could see the living room I stood in without the shadows my light cast. I kept the fire burning, because I was fairly certain I was going to need to hurl it at the man smiling at me from twenty feet away. Malphas was dressed in all black, which was the only way I’d ever seen him. It matched the color of his soul, so I supposed it was appropriate. “I brought you here because magic doesn’t work here. Yes, you can manifest your fire toys, but that’s because that comes from a place that isn’t magic. It’s just part of who you are. Also, I’ll let you know now that nothing you can do will cause me any damage. Even your knife right now is neutralized, so we won’t be killing each other while we talk.” I let the fire in my hand die without hurling it at him. I thought about doing it to reiterate I didn’t want to be anywhere near him, but it didn’t feel like the right time to be childish. Most of his demon spawn were able to keep it from hurting them, so I was sure he could, whether he was able to use magic or not. “What about you? What abilities do you have that don’t come from magic that I need to worry about? You didn’t mention whether you were able to kill me, of course I probably wouldn’t believe you whatever you said.” I was still sitting on the floor, and I didn’t have any plans to move. I could see Malphas, a couch, two recliners and an entertainment center with a large flat screen. I had no idea where I was, but it was too normal to be a house Malphas spent a lot of time in. I imagined his home would was filled with shriveled body parts as decorations and darkly painted walls. I didn’t see any specific art or family photos hanging on the beige walls, but it seemed like they’d fit in fine. It was a little more modest in size that the mansion I called home, but it didn’t seem like he had thirty other people living under his roof. “Only on the battlefield do you need to worry about what I can do. We are both perfectly safe here. By the way, I’m glad to hear you don’t mind my choices in decorating. I have a special room where I keep my shrunken heads and withered hearts if you’d like to see them at some point, but for the most part I prefer the more normal décor.” The smirk on his face as he finished speaking told me there wasn’t really a room where he kept his more macabre decorations. He hadn’t divulged what powers he had that weren’t magical, but reading my mind was on the list. I hoped the ability to block people out that I’d developed would start kicking in. “Do you want to explain why we’re here?” Malphas moved from his spot across the room, causing me to jump to my feet. I didn’t want to be in a vulnerable position in case he moved to attack. I had no reason to believe his claim that my knife wouldn’t work. It was the kind of thing anyone would say if they knew someone in a room wanted to kill them and had the means to do so. “I’ve already explained that. I want us to have a chance to talk and I prefer that we did that without outside forces, even though I know you’d be more comforted with them around. I’ve found you to be more interesting than I thought you’d be.” “The only reason you have any need to have a conversation with me is because you can’t find the baby you’re determined to kill. Eva told me you’ve been trying to get through her protection, and I’m sure this is just some kind of ploy to try to get to your goal of destroying my family.” Malphas cut the distance between us in half and stopped as he pondered my words. He didn’t look like the same man who’d crashed my wedding. His hair wasn’t as long, or unruly, as I remembered and the sinister look I remembered had melted away to reveal a man who was obviously working to be charming. I preferred dealing with a villain who looked the part. I could still see Malphas as the villain, but the new appearance made him look like an average man. Maybe not exactly average, there was something curious about him. It wasn’t something I wanted to figure out, but I could see it. “The prophecy states you will be the end of me and my family, and you wonder why I’ve worked to disrupt you and your family. The initial request for your next baby was only because I thought having the oracle would keep me safe. Just like the next person, I prefer not to die.” “And now that you’ve remembered that it’s me who will kill you and not one of my children, you’ve decided to change your tactics. Don’t you realize the fact that you even for a second tried to threaten my children means I have to kill you? I’m not one of those people who can turn the other cheek and live happily knowing there’s someone out there who may decide to attack.” “I know how much your family means to you, which is why I think you may come around to my thinking. I’ve managed to come across a glimpse of the future where your brother doesn’t make it out of the battle. We both know the future can change, and I’m giving you a way to do that.” “And you think me becoming your consort will solve all my problems. As Nate said when he heard your offer, you do know that’s impossible, right? It’s not like we’re just merely fond of each other. We’re connected on a level I doubt you understand.” It was creepy hearing a man who unapologetically stole people’s souls saying he wanted me as his companion. Even if he hadn’t implied it would be for a physical relationship, I didn’t want anything to do with him. I was doing my best to try to come up with a way to escape from him without saying spells, or the usual ability I had that could transport me from one place to another. It would take a lot of work if I tried the natural ability I seemed to have, because I’d only used it to travel short distances. I had no idea where we were, but I figured Malphas wasn’t living in a nice farm house in Iowa. “I don’t think it’d be as difficult as you think. You just have to give me a part of you to hold on to, and your mate back at the tents won’t be an issue. It’s a really a simple procedure, and I promise you won’t feel a thing.” My jaw dropped when he revealed that part of his plan. I had met quite a few delusional people, but Malphas had to top the list. I didn’t think it was possible for a person to be as crazy as he was. “Not only do you think you can get me in your bed, but you think I’ll be okay with becoming one of your flunky warlocks? Were you dropped repeatedly as a baby or something? I’ve never found anything that said you had a mother like a normal person, but I assume you didn’t magically appear one day the size you are now.” He tilted his head to the side and shook it. “You’re thinking about the wrong part of you. As I told you earlier, I’ve been watching you since your wedding and I’ve grown fond of what I’ve seen. I think with us teaming up together we could accomplish so many things. You could be the goodness that counteracts what has made me who I am. I wouldn’t mind being seen as something other than an evil monster.” In no way had he explained his plan further, at least not past the part where he claimed he wasn’t ripping my essence out of my body to make me a warlock. I was afraid to learn what he had in mind, and since I knew I wouldn’t agree to the deal, it wasn’t important. “It would’ve been nice if you could’ve found a nice woman to provide the goodness you think you need, but I’m not that woman. I think to qualify for that job it would be important for the person not to have killed people. If you remember, I’ve managed to kill quite a few of your little pride and joys. In fact, you once sent me a letter talking about how you wanted to bathe in my blood, or some other nonsense.” “Hmm. That’s right. I was a little emotional after your first kill, and I may have took things a little far. Alexander was a tad foolish to take you on by yourself. We had hoped early on you wouldn’t have had as many powers as you did. I’ve been working to get your attention, to see how you’d react in different scenarios.” “And clearly I’ve made a lasting impression. That doesn’t change the fact that I belong to another man, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t make the conscious choice to be with you. You’re evil and only because of that have you made me into the somewhat ruthless killer I am today.” Malphas nodded. “I am, and I suppose you can blame me for altering your life the way I have. I don’t deny what I am, just like you can’t deny what you are. You’re a queen among beings who don’t deserve you. I don’t think you’d accept the title of queen in my world, so the best I can offer you is my consort because we kind of live between the two worlds. “It’s not like I’m asking you to be my concubine. We would be equals and can wait until our relationship is on solid footing before we consummate anything. If that was all it took to save your brother, surely you’d be willing to give me a chance. As part of the agreement, I would make sure no more warlocks, as you like to call them, were created and my followers would adapt to our new lifestyle.” I tried hard not to really analyze any of his words. He could tell what I was thinking, and I really didn’t want to give him the idea I was actually thinking over what he had to offer. I wasn’t, but the amount of thought he’d put into the notion was mind-boggling. “You still haven’t explained to me how exactly you think you can change the fact that I’m bound unconditionally to Nate. I assume you’re aware that he’s probably tracking me through the connection we have. I can feel him out there. He’s not close, but he always finds me. Even when I came back as essentially a different person, he eventually found me.” “You know, I’ve always been curious about phoenixes bonds. It’s difficult to find a pair to experiment with, but I’ve tampered with enough normal uniques to have a good feeling that what I plan will work. I’m sure it will be a little strange since you’ve spent so much time with him, but we have time to work it out.” Malphas took a few steps towards me, and the amount of air I was okay sharing with him diminished, so I took the same number of steps backwards. He’d said magic wouldn’t work, and my spell hadn’t. That left me with fighting in the normal way, which was fine, but I wanted to catch him off guard when I attacked. “And what if I decide your idea is stupid and settle for things working themselves out on the battlefield? You have to know that’s going to be my preference.” A look of cocky arrogance flashed across Malphas’ face as he smiled brightly at me. I promised myself that would be the last time he thought he had the upper hand. Our location made that a difficult promise, but I’d try to keep it. “Before we go into the details of what I propose and figuring out your decision, I want to prove to you that we aren’t as different as you and everybody else thinks. In fact, even more than you and your Nate are connected, we have a road so intertwined that no matter what that prophecy says, we were bound to eventually be together.” I couldn’t take it anymore. The man was missing so many marbles that his brain had turned to mush. I didn’t think about it at all. I just charged at him with my knife held high. We’d see how much we belonged together, right after I killed him. I only made it three steps before the room slipped away. For the room being a magical blocker, I felt a tingle that couldn’t be explained by anything other than magic. CHAPTER 20 Just when you think you have all the facts It wasn’t a portal, but it was another way I’d never traveled before. I felt Malphas close by, but he wasn’t in reach to stab as I watched moments of time flash before my eyes. In all my years, I’d never seen the passing and changing of time in such a way. It was scary to see time literally fly right past me. “It takes years to be able to control time without having to use external magic. I’ve gotten good about going to the past. Seeing the future is harder, and I’ve only been able to do that a few short times. Rest assured that I’m not as delusional as you think. I know you’re going to turn down my offer, which is why I haven’t told you how we could actually be together. “I know you’ve lived most of your life adored by every male who walked into it. It’s impossible for men not to be drawn in by you. You officially only cropped up on my radar after I found out about the prophecy that brought us together. For some reason it was a well-guarded secret from me, but it shouldn’t have been. “When I found out you were meant to kill me, I set out to get to you first. I’ve since found out more information about the prophecy that intertwines our lives and it’s not information that settles well with me, nor will it you. I don’t know if it will really change things for you, but it has for me. I feel gypped out of the life I should’ve had.” He’d lost me from the moment he’d opened his mouth. The more he spoke, the more confused I got. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to know what he meant. I’d probably thought that about everything thing that had come from his lips. Before I could open my mouth, the timeline before my eyes stopped moving and Malphas picked out a particular point in time. With how fast the scenes had been going, I hadn’t been able to see what any of them looked like. I’d tried to make sense of them, but all I got were fragments of images that may have been of my life. For some reason I didn’t think they were. “We’ve both lived for so long that it would take centuries to wade through just a second of every important scene. We’ve spoken briefly about Eva and I know she’s one of the Fates who are protecting your children from me. As I told you before, I’m not the threat though, watch this.” I didn’t have a lot of options. The living room we’d been standing in was gone and it seemed like we were in a void like Eva often hid out in. I wondered how one found a void to call their own. I had a feeling I’d need one at some point. If nothing else, I hoped I could send people there when they needed a timeout. Speaking of Eva, I saw her appear in the scene we were watching. She didn’t look any different, other than she wasn’t wearing a lick of clothing. I covered my eyes before I could see more than I already had. If he wanted to show me what a lunatic she was, there were plenty of scenes that illustrated that when she was fully dressed. “I’ve seen you both running around naked before, so you really shouldn’t act like this is something surprising, or unseen. If you really have turned that modest, I suppose you will be fine just listening in, but I’d like you to watch their faces and tell me what you see. You’ve spent more in person time with her, so I consider you an expert on the subject.” I didn’t owe Malphas a single thing, so if he was determined to make me watch something he thought was important, he could deal with me not actually watching it. “This shouldn’t have happened,” I heard Eva’s annoying voice say, not even that had changed over the years. “Obviously, but since it has, we need to decide what to do. We need to keep them away from each other,” another female voice said. It sounded vaguely familiar, probably because it wasn’t too different from Eva’s. “But that will be difficult with what she’s meant for. How in the world does something like this happen? We’re so careful about giving out destinies and somehow we managed to end up with one person having two people connected to her in a way that shouldn’t happen.” It was Eva speaking again, and she was irate about whatever mix-up she was talking about. I was tempted to move my hand away from my face to get a look at the person she was having a conversation with, but a third female voice joined in, sounding just a little deeper than the other two. I had a good feeling I knew who the other two women were, and I didn’t remember ever seeing them all three together. That fact almost caused me to part my fingers. “It would be easy to just kill him. Well, at least easier now that he’s a baby and hasn’t had a chance to really develop into a phoenix. I’m sure we could still find a way if we let him grow up, but why take the chance that they’d find each other? If that were to happen, we couldn’t kill him.” “Of course your first idea is to make his life short, Lachesis. The two of you love to measure out time and determine how and when to cut the threads of life. I propose we give him a chance, but we’ll have to alter him in some way to make it so they don’t meet. We already know that she’s bound for greatness. We just have to change things so he doesn’t make his way into that picture.” I couldn’t help parting my fingers to look at the scene at that point. Eva and her sisters stood in a circle talking about some poor guy’s fate. It was one of the main reasons I hated the Fates, and god-like people in general. They thought it was okay to control other people’s lives, and in reality they should’ve been more concerned about their own. “What exactly are you suggesting?” the sister I knew to be Atropos asked. Eva rubbed her hand on her chin as she pondered the question. “For one, we need to alter him so he isn’t a phoenix, or at least in a way that he won’t ever realize he is. While we’re at that, we need to do some memory erasing on his parents. I’m sure other phoenixes felt him come into the world, but I don’t think he’s been introduced to anyone else.” “And then what? Throw him out to the wolves? Even we can’t remove all his powers and it’s going to become apparent quickly that he isn’t human if we leave him with one of them,” Lachesis said. “Very true. I say we leave him with Hades. I’m sure he can find someone to look after him, and then we don’t have to worry about her meeting him. She’s not going die, so we should be good. I can’t think of a single reason why she’d ever visit the underworld.” Eva had something all planned out and it sounded horrible. “But what if he comes to this plane? The humans are still pretty early in their development and eventually he may wish to experience life away from the banished. They could still be drawn together.” Lachesis at least wasn’t willing to follow Eva blindly. I liked her a little more than I had in the past because of it. It wasn’t like we were best buds or anything to begin with, or worst enemies, but I liked that she challenged her sister. “When the time is right, we’ll make up a prophecy that forces them to face off. It will be just what we need to make her realize her destiny. By that point, I’m sure we’ll be able to arm her with something to kill him.” Eva was practically giddy that everything was falling into place. I understood exactly what she was saying, but my brain pleaded with her to be wrong. “It seems a little extreme, but we have to clean up the mess. She can’t have both of them in her life. They would all kill each other because of the connection that’s already been in place for years,” Atropos said. Lachesis appeared to be a little hesitant to agree, but after a few moments of silence she nodded her head. “Other than killing him right now, there isn’t another way to keep them apart. I’m not sure that removing the part of him that’s a phoenix, if that was possible, would keep the connection dimmed and she has to take her place as the leader.” “Great,” Eva said as she rubbed her hands together. “Let’s go grab Malphas and get things settled. Eventually I’ll make contact with her and make sure she’s guided in the right direction, but I think I’ll wait awhile. Neither side is ready to come together, and there are so many of the special ones not yet in existence. We have to wait until just the right time in history. I have a feeling we have many years of waiting ahead of us.” Malphas stopped the scene, a move I was thankful for. I didn’t want to know what they did to him. Like they’d implied, I didn’t even know it was possible to make a phoenix not a phoenix. “I didn’t find this until I started scanning through my past after we met. I don’t believe I was ever supposed to find it, but they already had me there with them, so it’s actually one of my memories. I don’t think they realized my powers had started while I was in the womb. I would’ve been a strong phoenix if they would’ve just left me alone.” Malphas sounded mournful for the life he believed he lost. For all I knew everything he’d shown me was a lie and he was doing his best to be a good actor. Knowing Eva as little as I did, it sounded like something she would’ve done, though. “Why should I believe what you just showed me actually happened? Not only could the whole thing have been made up, but I’ve been around Eva enough to know that there are other planes and that could’ve been something from one of them.” “That may be true, but I did grow up in the underworld with Sisyphus looking after me. The gods allowed him to quit messing around with that boulder of his so he could make sure I was fed and taken care of. He found out about the power I had and taught me to use it to make people my slaves. Power in the underworld is important, and what I have flowing through my veins was enough to make me a force to be reckon with.” “You’re joking.” He had to be joking. I could see how being raised in the underworld would mess up your mind, but there was no way what he said was true. “Why do you think everyone calls me and my followers demons? I swear everything I’ve shown you and said was true. We were born connected and that connection apparently threatened what you were to become, so I was dealt with.” I didn’t understand how that was possible. It made absolutely no sense. Phoenixes only had one person they were tied to, and I liked to believe the Fates didn’t have anything to do with that. They hadn’t even been around when Nate and I originally connected. “I understand this isn’t the best time to be giving you this information, but I thought you should know before we meet today on the battlefield. I know you still need to fulfill your destiny, and to do that I need to die. I want you to know there are no hard feelings there, but I will make every attempt to take you with me. Nate has had you long enough. “We’ll build our own life together where I grew up. That’s at least what I’m hoping for. I’ve seen things that may give me a different hope for my future, but I think eventually we’ll find a way to have the life we were denied.” Nothing seemed to change the fact that he was delusional. I had to take the news that the prophecy was fake in stride, because even if it was, the Fates believed I had some kind of destiny to fulfill, and I doubted that was to die with Malphas. “We’ll see how that turns out, but I’m pretty sure the second I see you anywhere near one of my friends on the battlefield, I won’t hesitate killing you.” “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t really want to kill you or your people, but I can understand why none of the Fates are standing by your side for this one. I would do anything to end their lives.” I’d threatened to kill Eva many times, so I couldn’t fault him for feeling that way. I didn’t know what to feel about anything. What I did know is that I’d seen him kill my brother in a vision and he knew about said vision. I didn’t hear him saying he wouldn’t kill Rick, it was just that he didn’t want to. I wasn’t sure what else needed to be said between us. I had a feeling he’d shown me everything he wanted to. “I can’t make any promises about what will happen in the heat of the battle. If you can get your friend Eva on the phone, you could probably talk her into making things work out however you wanted them to. You have to know that she’s the one running the show, whether she’s there during the action or not.” “Personally I think the fighting they’ve set up is kind of silly. Neither of our sides are taking any damage, even though I remember people getting hurt from the things I’ve seen.” “I find they let you see only what they want you to. I’m going to send you back to your troops. It will be a little while before I get everything together and meet you. I hope you take that time to think things over and make the choice that works best for you.” There wasn’t a reason for me to respond, because I had no idea what to think about what had been revealed. It was a good thing one of the weird vortexes opened up and sent me on my way. I didn’t expect Eva had counted on Malphas reaching out to me and revealing the truth as he knew it, so things were bound to get interesting, especially if she showed her face. CHAPTER 21 Plans worth breaking I landed in my tent on the return trip, and there wasn’t a thud to jar my bones to attention. I had mentioned to Malphas that Nate would probably come to find me, but I knew he hadn’t moved. He was planning something, but it wasn’t exactly a rescue mission. The fact that he wasn’t rushing to save me more than likely had to do with Malphas’ blocking abilities. “You’re so cute when you go into planning mode,” I said loud enough that he’d hear me from where he was about a football field away from our tent. “So you’ve told me. Are you in one piece?” He didn’t rush to my side because he could feel that I was on the move in his direction. I’d barely stayed in the tent a second before I was on the move. The sun was shining brightly when I exited the tent. By where the glowing orb sat in the sky, I’d been gone at least two hours. It’d only felt like fifteen minutes to me, which had me questioning Malphas’ way of traveling. It could’ve also been the fact that some planes didn’t always work on the same timeline. “You can’t believe I’d let him actually do any harm. He just had something he had to get off his chest and it was easier to show me. The battle continues as planned.” I joined Nate and the usual characters as they stood at a table. All eyes were focused on me and I did my best to not reveal the reasoning behind my sudden disappearance. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but I knew things would go on as expected. It’s what the Fates wanted, and evidently they always got their ways. “Are you sure? I might need to do a thorough exam just to verify that claim,” Nate said as he looked me over. His eyes showed worry, which I understood. “Traveling took the longest time. Once Malphas actually had me around him, he realized it’d been a while since I’d had a bath and sent me on my way. You were right to wonder if I should change my shirt this morning, and it’s a good thing I didn’t take your advice.” I smiled, and indicated to him that it wasn’t the time to push. He nodded and turned back to what they were studying on the table. The rest of the crew wasn’t quick to dismiss my absence. “What did he need to show you that he couldn’t show the rest of us?” Rick asked. I could almost feel him prying at my brain searching for the answer. If Nate couldn’t get at it, Rick didn’t have a chance, so I wasn’t worried about him finding out. I’d been able to hide other important information from him and I trusted my success with that would continue. “Nothing I deem important to what’s going to happen today. I do know he’ll be coming and everything will be over before the sun sets.” “And in whatever vision you’ve had of the sun setting, are you still breathing?” It was Liam asking the question. I knew how much my not making it through the battle would mean to Nate, Rick, my parents and my children, but I tended to forget about the non-biological members of my family. Liam’s voice broke just a little as he asked the question. I looked at the man as his blue eyes bored into mine. There were certain times when I wished I didn’t have an aversion to hugging. I felt like every one of the men and women who’d been fighting for and with me deserved one. If I would’ve even offered one hug, they’d try to skin me to make sure I wasn’t an imposter. I decided to wait until the fighting was all over; it’d be more meaningful then anyway. “The only time I’ve ever seen a future where I didn’t exist was that messed up coma the warlocks put me in. Anything I’ve seen with my own power has me alive and kicking, so rest assured Malphas won’t win today. I’m pretty sure whether they’re here with us or not, the Fates have placed money on that outcome.” The group around me didn’t look so certain, but they got back into whatever they were discussing before I’d shown back up. Mak was the only one who continued to stare at me like he knew something was up. He’d been with the group long enough he should’ve known when it was time to move on, but he wanted to press things a little. He opened his mouth to ask a question, and I quickly shook my head. “Not now,” I pushed into his mind. “There will be time to ask later, but for now it isn’t important.” He didn’t look happy, but he kept his mouth shut. I was sure everyone else wanted to grill me about what had happened while I was gone and exactly what parts of the future I’d seen. By me not saying anything, they knew I didn’t have anything that would help. “It’s after the time we’ve seen them every other day, how long do you think we have until they show up?” Nate was looking at some kind of map while he asked the question. I’d thought they’d been planning some kind of rescue mission for me. Maybe I didn’t fully believe that, but I’d expected them to just because of how they normally acted. The map they were studying was of the terrain around us, and it was detailed enough that it had to have been drawn at some point while we’d been there. I didn’t remember seeing anyone doing the drawing, though. Ignoring Nate’s question, I asked, “What’s this?” “The way things have been going, we’ve been so focused on fighting and recharging that we haven’t had a chance to see if there’s anything around us that we can use to our advantage. Vinnie took it upon himself to draw this up so we can hopefully find something.” It made sense Vinnie was involved in its creation. I was a little surprise he hadn’t brought it out the very first day. “Please tell me you haven’t spent the last two hours staring at a map.” I knew none of them had that kind of attention span, so I was curious what else they’d been up to. “Do you know how long it takes to try to torture your location out of him?” Kyle nodded his head towards Nate in case I needed an explanation. “I heard Malphas tell you that he’d return me, did he say something I didn’t hear that made you believe him?” “Not really. He probably just used some of his magic on me to make me believe he was telling the truth. For some reason I got the feeling he didn’t want to hurt you, which didn’t make me feel extremely joyful, as odd as that sounds.” “We didn’t get to hear the magic words and we about tied him down and took off in every direction to find where you’d gone,” Joseph said. “The fact that we weren’t sure you were somewhere we could actually get to was the only thing keeping us here.” “That and the fact that you couldn’t tie me down if you wanted to,” Nate boasted. “Anyway, looking at the map, the guys think the high ground around this tree is vital.” I didn’t look down at the map. The quick glance I’d seen had the tree circled. “High ground is logical, but we’ve been fighting all over these plains and I don’t think any specific location has given us an upper hand.” I’d purposefully been trying to keep certain members of our team away from that tree. I wasn’t really sure what difference position would make in a battle against an opponent who could easily overcome any disadvantage. Looking over to the tree in question, I saw there was already a group scouting out the area. It was about three hundred yards to the object I despised. It stood there, with its leaves that couldn’t be more than a month old taunting me. “I’m sure you’ve discussed the blind spot with that location. It may be high ground, but it’s hard to see people coming up from the north side if you’re focused on an attack coming from the logical direction.” It wasn’t really much of an excuse to get them focused on something else. I already knew they were in the latter stages of their plans, so any weaknesses had already been figured out. “You’re right.” Joseph went right into his general speech. I listened along as he explained where everyone would stand and how the blind spot wasn’t that big of a deal because we had Liam to keep an eye on it. I was going to point out the obvious that once Liam went true berserker, his focus was mainly on breaking bones, but Joseph kept speaking. “Before anyone can make it up the steep incline, they’ll have to go through a little minefield that I believe was just finished being put in place. Even if Liam is busy, I don’t think we’ll miss that explosion. Plus, I think we can spare some people to keep an eye on it. With how the fighting has been going, I don’t think everyone has to engage in the battle.” “But how can you be sure the demons will detonate a physical weapon? If they can detect and feel it, they’re going to find a way around it.” “They aren’t physical,” Mak provided. “I’m sure if you weren’t indisposed, you would’ve been able to supply the ammunition. Since you were, I made a few warning devices that won’t be easy to detect. I don’t know that they’ll work if Malphas shows up, he’ll probably see through it, but the guys we’ve seen the past few days are all we’re worrying about coming up that way, I think we’re safe.” “Okay, so that location may work. How is focusing our efforts there going to make things different today? I’ve heard the battle plan, but we’re still fighting a force we can’t make a dent in. I guess that probably doesn’t matter with Malphas showing up. All everyone needs to do is make sure they don’t get any body parts cut off.” “I brought this up while you were gone, but I want to get your opinion on whether you think the demons have only been fighting half-heartedly. I know we’ve gotten a workout each day, but from what I’ve heard about them, I feel things should be a little tougher.” I wished I had heard what everyone else had to say about Rick’s thoughts. I’d wanted to believe that we were just more prepared than the demons were, but after talking with Malphas, I had a feeling they were told what level of energy to exert. It would make sense that their horrible attitudes were partially because their leader told them they were only allowed to keep us occupied. “I’m still trying to figure out why it is that we haven’t had to deal with demons in the past. I know they tend to have their own hangout spots, but shouldn’t we have planned a little better for this situation?” I had no idea where demons like to spend their free time, but to make their minions they had to visit our plane at some point. We should’ve tried to find one of them and learn what made them tick like we had the warlocks. “I’m pretty sure if the troops had to go through your training any longer than they did, we would’ve found out just what a unique’s limit is. Unless you had a way to give us your powers, I think we’re as good as we’re going to get.” That was easy for Kyle to say. He hadn’t needed very much training since fighting was something in his blood. Most of the uniques were similar, but they all required training to deal with the magical aspect of things. “We don’t have time to rethink what we could’ve done differently. Are you ready to answer my question about how much time we have before company shows up?” Nate reached over and pulled me closer to him. I was surprised he’d left any room between us when I’d appeared at his side. It seemed he didn’t want to let on how much Malphas snatching me had affected him. “It won’t be long. He wants this over with just as much as we do. We probably better move into our positions to get ready. I’ll grab my extra weapons and be right back. I’m not saying they’ll show up by that time, but we’d be smart to prepare for anything today. I imagine sneak attacks will be something new they’ll be trying out.” I squeezed Nate’s hand, and then jogged off to the tent. I really wanted to get into the fighting so I didn’t have to think about anything. Whether the prophecy was a bunch of crap or not, I’d consistently seen the same vision for how things turned out, and nothing I’d done had really fixed the problem. I knew Nate was on my heels as I left, so it didn’t surprise me when I found myself turned around and his lips attached to mine the second I stepped into the tent. It became clear that he didn’t think either one of us needed to breathe, so I nudged him away. He resisted for a second, but allowed me to breathe through my mouth. “I’m not going to ask what happened. I already know the news was bad by how many layers of locks you’re keeping it under. I assume he didn’t take advantage of you in any way, but if you’d like to verify that, I’d be grateful.” Nate ran his hands through my hair as he tried to pick up anything from my eyes. There was a time when he knew every detail fluttering through my brain by just looking at my face. I prayed, to who knows what god, that there’d be a time soon that I didn’t need to keep anything from him. “All that came out of the meeting was a greater hatred for someone I’ve wanted to kill for a while. I don’t have time to deal with that now, but I promise to fill you in. It’s not going to be an easy day, and I’m going to need to vent. I just hope I can pull everything off.” “If anyone can, it’d be you. Grab your stuff and let’s go see how long it takes for them to show up.” Nate did his best to hide his worry. I was lucky that there were enough people in the world who I wanted to kill that he wouldn’t immediately guess I was going to wring Eva’s neck as soon as I could. CHAPTER 22 Fighting Fate I made sure I had all my weapons where they needed to be, plus a necklace with a pouch of my blood just in case I was in a bind and needed to spill some to say a spell. Spells were probably the only weapon that made any difference, but I would’ve felt naked without my knives and the etched revolver Nate had given me on our wedding night. I wasn’t used to carrying a gun around, but I considered that one lucky, with all my family’s original names written in a language no human would understand. Nate had a leather holster made that wrapped around my left shoulder, and managed not to interfere with my back sheath and the machete I was carrying in it. “Have I told you that you are the only man I could ever imagine myself with? I know after all these years that has to be pretty obvious, but I don’t think there’s another person out there who could put up with me the way you do.” Feeling as ready as I could for the day, I faced my other half and tried not to cry. It was an odd feeling for me to have when I was about to try my hardest to kill anyone who attempted to mess with my family. “Hey,” Nate said, gathering me into him. “You’ve made it so we don’t have to live without each other, so if it comes down to Rick or us, and you can’t deal with that, choose him. I understand the bond you have and how selfless you can be. I lived about fifty years in misery because of that selflessness.” “And yet you still love me. I don’t know how things are going to go down, but my hope is everyone makes it through the day alive. We better get out there and make sure no one hurts themselves with the tanks Joseph is having them roll out.” I realized we hadn’t used all the weaponry Joseph had requested Mak bring in once we got settled the first day, but after days of fighting I didn’t know how the various larger pieces of artillery would help. There was a chance Mak had worked his magic on them, so I shouldn’t have assumed anything. “I don’t think he had the tanks brought over, and you should probably keep that down, just in case he decides they’re needed. I’ve let him go ahead and run things today, but we both know none of it will make a difference.” “I could scream that we need a nuclear missile and he wouldn’t hear me with the protection I’ve put on this tent.” “That’s true. I wish we could stay in here and not deal with today, but that wouldn’t help things, so I suppose we’ll do as you suggested and head out. I love you, Yara.” “I love you too, Malik.” Nate loosened the hold he had on me and smiled as he kissed my forehead. He didn’t say anything as he dragged me out of the tent. I wasn’t prepared for the scene that awaited us. For the second time that day, a demon greeted us. This one wasn’t just there with a message, though. He wanted to fight based on the barrage of energy streams coming at us. Instinctively, I pushed Nate out of the way and started firing back as I dodged the green and blue lines. I didn’t think they’d hurt me much, but I didn’t want to test that theory. It was bad enough I was trying to figure out what had been done to our tent to make it so I couldn’t feel a demon standing outside of it. “They’re here earlier than I expected. I’ll handle him, but the others are going to need some help.” I tried to get Nate to go so I’d have someone with eyes on Rick. It helped my case that the demon in front of us didn’t look very old. I didn’t know how I could tell, because they all seemed to have the same general sullen look to their face and black hair, but something felt newer about the male in front of me. “You sure you got him?” Nate shouldn’t have wasted time asking the question, but I humored him by replying in the affirmative quickly. I upped my fireballs as he ran, faster than some eyes could keep up with, to get to where the main battle was taking place. I hadn’t had much of a chance to see exactly what was going on, but there was a lot of yelling going on, and that wasn’t something I’d heard much of in the previous days. “I’m surprise there’s only one of you waiting out here for me,” I said as I changed tactics a little and switched to trying to get closer for hand-to-hand fighting. We’d found that the demons were better with physical fighting than the warlocks were, but we were by far superior in that aspect. They liked to rely on the spells, but our side wasn’t really phased after I’d protected everyone from that kind of magic. “Everyone else is a little busy at the moment and Malphas thought you needed some special attention.” The demon’s eyes brightened when he said his creator’s name, or whatever Malphas decided he was to his demons. “And he thought a wet behind the ears demon could give me that special attention? How old are you, a century?” “I’m five hundred, I’ll have you know, and I can fight just as well as anyone else.” To prove his point, he pulled out a long dagger from underneath his shirt. My eyes widened just a little to see a demon with a physical weapon. I’d known something was going to be different about the fighting, but to have him actually stop sending energy at me and be willing to fight wasn’t something I’d expected. “Are you sure you’re holding that the right way?” I asked as I pulled out my machete. I didn’t think pulling out my gun and firing was exactly fair since he was so willing to give knife-fighting a try. It would’ve done about the same amount of damage as the machete would in my summation, so I stuck with what I knew best. He came charging at me with his twisted piece of metal. I suppose he thought he’d catch me off guard, but I was ready, and darted out of the way while I tried to slice his side as I moved past him. He was quick to turn and try to come at me again. We danced for a few minutes, and I wondered if the reason Malphas sent him after me was because he could actually keep up with my attacks. That didn’t change the fact that I picked up he was a little weak on his left side. When he decided to open it up for me, I couldn’t resist pushing the machete right into his side. He was skinny enough, and the force I used strong enough, that it ended up coming out the other side. I felt ribs crack as it met a little resistance. The demon looked down at the handle sticking out of him and the look of shock on his face was almost comical. I couldn’t believe he’d never been stabbed when he’d practiced before. His teacher had to have been pretty good for him to learn some of his moves, so there had to be a few times when someone had gotten the better of him. “It hurts,” he said, not even bothering to hide his confusion. “Well, yeah. I’ve been stabbed enough time to know it hurts.” “But it never has before. Malphas said it wouldn’t hurt.” The demon dropped down to his knees, and I let go of the handle as he did. His dagger had fallen from his hand within seconds of me injuring him. He was too busy trying to figure out what was going on to worry about fighting. I was going to say something, but he fell on his side as his body started to disintegrate. Whatever was going on, I didn’t think he’d like the taunt I had lined up for him. I pulled my machete out of him and continued to watch until there was nothing left of him. I had no idea what had just happened, but the yells and screams coming from the main battle told me I had bigger things to worry about. I started out by finding Rick and ran in his direction. Everyone was in the general area of the dang tree and he was in the middle of a battle with two demons. I decided to try out my revolver on one of them, just to see if it did any damage. I felt a small recoil as I sent the bullet on its way. I’d shot a gun enough that my aim ended up being true and hit the demon right in the center of the chest. If he hadn’t been so focused on Rick, he probably would’ve seen it coming. Since he hadn’t, he screamed in pain and started instantly dissolving like the other demon had. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was ready for a rodeo I felt like we could win. Rick seemed to have the other demon taken care of, so I moved on to find more to kill. It was invigorating knowing that our side was finally doing something. There were a lot of demons, though, and even with Joseph working the heavy artillery, it was going to take a while to get through every last one of them. A part of me was surprised they didn’t retreat when they realized something had changed. As the fight went on, I lost track of my surroundings and Rick. I felt a sudden surge of energy in the air and I frantically started looking around for him. I’d managed to get away from the tree during my battle. I couldn’t believe I’d let stupid demons make me lose focus. “Freddie, I need you by my side right now,” I screamed as loud as I could mentally. I didn’t want to alert everyone that I was looking for him. “I’m a little busy right now, sis, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. Every once in a while I come across one that’s pretty good at fighting and they take just a little bit longer.” I could hear the exertion he was dishing out in his thought. It didn’t sound like it was to the level necessary to take on an evil demon leader, so I concluded I still had time to get to him. I took off in a run, able to see the top of the tree from the part of a hill I was standing on. I didn’t remember getting that far away, but I tended to go where the battle took me, and as my protector, Rick was usually by my side. He picked the wrong day to take his duties lightly. The worrisome energy was getting stronger and I knew it wouldn’t be long before Malphas manifested. I could feel Nate hurrying to get to Rick, since he was closer, but I doubted Malphas would be as easy to slice into as the demons. For some reason it felt like I was almost running in slow motion as I got to a spot where I could see the tree in full. It didn’t surprise me that I could see Rick there fighting with a demon. Nate appeared and quickly stabbed the demon from behind and yelled at Rick to get to me. It was too late, though. I saw the black mist that had shown up at my wedding appear right behind Rick and without any movement other than the mist, I watched as Rick burst into flames and ash fell to the ground in the spot he’d stood. I was still running at that time and it felt like it was some kind of bad dream. In my visions, Malphas had a shape when Rick died, so I was thrown for a curve that not only had I not been able to prevent it, but it also didn’t play out like I’d thought. For one, it happened way too fast. There should’ve been at least a chance for me to save him. What good was becoming a sorceress if I hadn’t really found a way to save Rick? I didn’t understand it, and I came to a sudden halt as I tried to figure out if I’d walked into something that caused me to hallucinate. “I’m sorry, Yara, it had to be done,” I heard Malphas say. “One day you’ll understand.” Malphas didn’t appear the fifty yards in front of me where the mist had been. His voice was right next to me, and it was calm as could be. There wasn’t an ounce of calm in my body, just anger and the need for immediate revenge. I didn’t hesitate for a second as I took the only knife that could kill him and jabbed it into his neck. I wasn’t prepared for the instant pain that radiated through my body at the same time, but I made sure the knife made it through. Malphas was taller than me, so I had to stretch to ensure I did as much damage as I could from the side of him. “Whatever they try to tell you to cover up what I shared with you, know it isn’t a lie. Your brother dying was because of them, not me. It had to be done in order for things to be righted.” I didn’t understand what he was saying, and bringing up Rick just made me madder. I took the knife out and moved so I was facing him. He didn’t seem concerned about the blood leaking out of his neck in buckets. “You killed my brother. It doesn’t matter what you thought needed righted.” I plunged the knife into his chest. The pain of that wound was even worse for me, but it had to be done. I hated seeing the smile on his face as fire started at his feet and worked its way up his body. I jumped back a little, not wanting it to touch me, but I kept my eyes on his face. It was serene, and it didn’t deserve to be. Grabbing one of my throwing knives tucked into my thigh sheaths, I threw it at him. Hoping to change his expression. The fire accelerated before it made it to him. Nate snatched my hand and pulled me away from him. He tried to calm me down by whispering to me. It didn’t work, and I only got more pissed off as I watched the fire that seemed to go on forever, at least a lot longer than my brother’s. Malphas didn’t deserve some strange grand sendoff. He didn’t deserve me sitting there watching it either, so I stopped. I took Nate and I walked over to the spot I’d last seen Rick. I felt the heat dissipate the second I turned away. I didn’t bother looking back to see if there was anything left of Malphas. I knew there wasn’t. Whether the others were still fighting or not, there was only one thing for me to do. I sat down with my brother’s ashes and I cried. CHAPTER 23 Five years isn’t enough time to mourn I’d lived for so many years that before Rick had been taken away time had probably literally flown. Five years living without him seemed longer than the thousands of years I’d spent time in human form. I understood why Nate had refused to face reality after I’d taken my partial leave of absence, and he hadn’t had to watch me go into the fire. I couldn’t just take off and leave things to resolve themselves. The battle had come to a screeching halt when Malphas died, it probably had the second he’d shown up, but I was too busy to notice. I was told after the fact that the demons had all disappeared when the smoke came, which meant everyone got to watch as my life was tilted on its axis. No one really kept track of how long I sat there on the ground, but I remember Nate telling me we should go check on our babies. Remembering who was watching after them was enough to snap me to attention and I got us back to our home, bringing what I could of Rick with us. There wasn’t a lot, but I wanted to be able to say I had something. I wasn’t sure how to get to wherever the Fates were keeping our eggs, but it turned out I didn’t need to find them. Eva was waiting in the nursery for us, with the babies right where I remembered seeing them last. I’d checked to make sure it was actually them, and not some kind of trick. Once I connected with them and verified they were okay, I turned to Eva and threw the strongest fireball I had at her. Being the all-knowing thing she was, she moved out of the way before it hit her. I’d made my stance on her being anywhere near my family clear, and even after a few attempts on her part we hadn’t spoken a word. I was only ever a pawn for her, as was everyone else I loved. It made things difficult for Liam, who idiotically still claimed to love her, but I wasn’t about to give him all the reasons for my hatred of his wife. I protected him where I could and the rest was up to him. The only person who knew everything was Nate. I had a feeling Aisling knew too, as the real her was exactly like the alternate reality version of her. Although, since she had the real me to imitate it was even funnier to watch her stroll through the house bossing everyone around. My three amazing kids, and their daddy, were what kept me sane as I tried to figure out how to live without Rick. I knew how connected Nate and I were, but I’d felt the strong strings that were cut when Rick died. A part of me knew that Malphas had something to do with some of those strings, but I would never admit it. “You must think we’re total failures,” a female voice I’d only heard a few times said from behind me. I’d been sitting in Rick’s room thinking about how long it would take the next year to pass and sharing with him some of the things that he’d missed. It was something everyone allowed me to do on the anniversary of his death. I tried to keep my true moping down to only that day, and it turned out it was easier if they just let me do my thing. I didn’t bother turning around. She looked too much like her sister and I blamed all three of them about equally for messing up my life. Since it was Atropos, she was as much to blame as Eva. She was the one who had to actually cut Rick’s thread of life. “How’d you get in? I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping your sister at bay between my magic and a handful of jinn boosting my spells.” “It works to an extent, but on days like today we felt we’d push our luck and counter it so I could have a little discussion with you.” She didn’t move from her spot, which probably kept her from getting a fireball haphazardly thrown her way. I made note of needing to work out a better spell and tried to ignore her. “I know you’re mad and that’s my fault. There had to be a price paid for a miracle and the only thing I could think of was your memory. You’d already used it for your own spell, so I thought it’d be okay to keep a part for myself. In the grand scheme of things, I still think it’s a fair trade.” I didn’t want to, but I turned around to face her anyway. She didn’t sound like Eva in her constant “I’m better than you” voice. There was a hint of sorry in her voice, which didn’t really help her cause, but I was interested in the words she’d been saying. “What are you talking about?” She stood inside the closed door to the room. Her white draped dress shifted as if a wind was there to keep it in constant motion. “The month you’ve been missing since you came back. You traded it to me for a favor. Most of the time I don’t accept any kind of bargains when it comes to my line of work. It’s one of the reasons I have very little contact with anyone. Even uniques like to barter for a few extra years when they’ve found a human they’re fond of.” “What favor did I trade it for?” I didn’t bother asking if she’d be able to give the memory back to me. I’d stopped trying to rack my brain for anything I could be missing. “I think you already know the answer to that, which is why removing the memory was important. You had to have revenge in your heart when you killed Malphas. If you would’ve known the future we’d planned out, it wouldn’t have worked.” I knew one thing for sure after listening to her, she made about as much sense as her sister. I needed them to take out a whiteboard and draw it out for me. Before I could ask her to expound on her musings, I heard the doorbell ring. She smiled and nodded. “It was a good trade, and I believe you’re going to want to go get that. I know you found out about Malphas’ origins and what we did to make sure you didn’t meet, but we’ll talk about that another day. Right now you have something to celebrate.” She disappeared and the door swung open. There wasn’t anyone there, but a second buzz of the doorbell moved me into action. If I’d read the clues right, I was going to do a lot of celebrating. “I’ll get it,” I yelled as I flashed to the doorway. I didn’t have time for running and Charlie was already about to open the door. It was nice having everyone in the house to keep me from wallowing too long, but getting in my way was hazardous to their health. “You sure you’re okay to greet company, Mom? It looks like you’ve been crying and I know how much you hate it when people see you crying.” “This guest will relish in the fact that I’ve been crying, and he’ll be lucky I’m happy enough to see him that I won’t mind his jabs.” I didn’t waste any more time talking. I threw open the door and my hand flew to my mouth when I saw it was really him. A part of me was sure Atropos had been playing a joke on me, but she wasn’t. Rick stood in front of me, wearing a pair of jeans and a black button-down shirt. I could sense him, and it was different than the feeling I’d been clinging to for years. It was stronger and healthy and alive. “I heard you might be throwing a party for me today, so I figured I better show up.” His cocky smile made the tears flow a little faster. I didn’t care as I took a few steps and wrapped my arms around him. We stayed glued together until Nate’s throat cleared behind us. I wanted to stand there and continue verifying Rick was alive, but I supposed other people wanted to see him too. “Hi, Uncle Rick,” Aisling said as she walked out and pulled on my pant leg. “Mama, there’s some of us here who haven’t had the chance to meet your brother, so maybe you’d like to let him come inside and sit down so we can get a look at him.” I looked down into her eyes, so much like my own, and laughed. “I suppose that would be the nice thing to do.” She nodded and trotted back inside. I loosened my grip just enough that we could both walk, and ushered Rick inside. I had questions I hoped he’d be able to answer, but I had a feeling I’d have to contact at least one Fate to get the full story. That Fate still wasn’t going to be Eva. “Where have you been for the last five years?” I asked. It came out a little accusatory, like he’d been in on the scheme to keep him away from me. “You would probably know the answer to that better than I would. I remember fighting a demon and Nate yelling at me, and then nothing. I literally woke up like ten minutes ago and found myself out in the woods leading up to the house. Seeing your little mini-me leads me to believe five minutes hasn’t gone by.” I shook my head as I sat down on one of our couches. “Not exactly.” Nate sat down next to me and my mother sat next to Rick. It was a little tight, but I didn’t think anyone cared. Much like the future I’d once seen, everyone had shown up to honor Rick, so the room was overfilled with men trying to keep the fact they were tearing up hidden. Nate put his arm around me and pulled me back a little. “I’m sure Rick would like to not have to compete for air with you.” “That’s true, but if I’ve been gone long enough that this little cutie is up to my knee, I can understand why baby girl is having some trouble. Just what adorable little niece are you?” Rick asked. “I’m Aine. That’s Aisling and that’s Aidan. You look a lot like the picture Mama keeps by her bed.” “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve been elevated to that honor. She used to only allow pictures of your daddy there.” Rick winked at Aine, then looked back up at me. “Do you have any idea what happened? Maybe that isn’t something you should answer right now, but I’d like to know if I’m going to get any clues soon.” “Mama traded some memories to make sure a vision of you dying didn’t come true. Atropos agreed to the trade, but the five years was something she couldn’t really control. There’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle still in motion, so no one knows much more than that right now.” My eyes darted to Aisling. I wondered how long she knew that Rick was going to come back and the exact details about things. She shrugged her shoulders, which was her move to let me know she wasn’t going to answer any of my questions. “Well, I guess you know what we know, and what I’d been clued into just before you showed up. I should probably go get you something to eat. You’re always hungry and you haven’t eaten in years.” As much as I wanted to keep touching him to make sure he didn’t disappear, I needed to be up doing something. “Do you mind if I come in and grab some water real quick? I know someone would probably run and get it for me, but I’d like make sure you guys weren’t haven’t fun by installing a foosball table in the kitchen while I was gone.” It was clear when he spoke that he needed a moment of my time without everyone else around. I was fairly certain we had plenty of time to talk when everyone had scattered for the day, but I was curious what he wanted to say. “Sure, but you have to know I wouldn’t let that kind of atrocity happen.” Nate rubbed my back quickly as I stood up. It was a nice gesture, and I was a little surprised he wasn’t following us. “You can fill me in later. I think you two need a moment.” Nate kept the words between the two of us. “I’ve got quite a few things made for the dinner, so it shouldn’t be hard to find something to nibble on. Since you’re going to be in there, please stir the sauce on the stove,” my mother said. I knew she had food cooking and had been at it all day. It kind of defeated my need to make something for Rick to eat, but I could stir to try to keep myself from turning into a total blithering idiot. We kept quiet as we made our way to the kitchen, but I kept a firm grip on his hand, and that was good enough for me. I was sure he had all sorts of questions about what had happened in the years he’d been gone. “You’re pretty open with your thoughts, baby girl. Do you think you can lock them up for a little bit, at least from the majority of the mind readers in the other room? You’ll probably want to make sure they can’t hear us regularly too, unless you feel like having this chat telepathically.” His words confused me. We’d made it to the kitchen, so I stopped walking and turned to him. I couldn’t think of anything that would require a cone of silence. He’d just reappeared after five years and had claimed he didn’t have any memories of that time. I didn’t waste time quizzing him about what he considered secret. I pricked my finger with a kitchen knife I had to move to find and said a spell before returning to my spot. “Did something happen while you were gone you don’t want everyone else to know? If those Fates played around with you, I will kill all of them. I’ve been doing a lot of research on how to do it and I’m pretty sure I could whip something up.” “No, what we need to talk about is what someone whispered into my ear before I felt a knife in my chest.” He didn’t have to say anything else for me to know he was right to make it a private conversation. I would’ve preferred never having the conversation, or at least waiting until he was settled, but it was probably best to get it out of the way. “What did he say?” “I have a feeling you won’t be surprised, which is a little concerning.” “I’ve learned enough surprises about Malphas that it’d be impossible to not know there was always something else out there.” Rick stood there and just stared at me. I’d hoped he’d be willing to go for the ripping it off like a bandage route, but I wasn’t going to press him. If I waited long enough, he could’ve decided I didn’t need to hear whatever it was he had to say. “He told me when I came back to let you know that eventually he would too, but he’d made sure things would be different. He said something about wanting you to describe what it felt like when you pushed that knife through his heart. I thought he was a little delusional, since you hadn’t stabbed him, but the worried look on your face tells me differently.” I’d been wrong about nothing surprising me. I deemed it not the right time to think about what was said. I walked over to the stove and started stirring the sauce. “I’m sorry I didn’t wait to tell you, but you have to remember no time has passed for me. I’m going to grab a roll and a glass of water and head back out. I’ll keep everyone at bay with my amazing wit until you’re ready to rejoin the party.” I looked up briefly from my stirring and saw him filling a glass of water. “Thanks, Freddie. I won’t be long. I just need a second to fix this sauce. Mom let it sit at too high of a heat for a little too long.” He smiled and walked away, knowing I was making up the bit about the sauce. There wasn’t really anything I could do about what he’d said, other than hope the eventuality he mentioned was millennia away. As I got back into my normal routine in a kitchen, I decided that was exactly what it meant and there was no reason to worry. I’d defeated the bad guy, brought together people who’d been at war for centuries, and I had a family who I adored and they adored me back. Life was perfect, and I promised myself it was always going to be that way.


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