Red River Song by A. R. Mummey

In the dark, I could be whoever I wanted to be, whatever I wanted to be. Anything was possible. Life was full. Easy. There were endless possibilities.

But it was all a lie. Reality was hard, painful, cruel. Fantasy, dreams, possibilities: those were easy. I’d always been a dreamer, an observer of life, never really living it.
Red River Song
Red River Song by A. R. Mummey
This was my mantra. For me, every day was exactly the same. That was what burned me. The fabricated dreams that I mattered, that I would do something noteworthy with my life … they were nothing. I failed. All that hope and promise were just that: hope and promise. Lies I’d created to get me through the day-to-day, to keep breathing, to get through the mundane everyday existence of my life. With each passing day, the lies became harder and harder to believe. My imagination decayed along with my dreams, leaving me lost, stuck, terrified—and desperate. I was about to graduate from college, knowing nothing other than the same dead-end job that I’d had since high school. It had taken me six years, but I was finally about to complete my degree. That morning, I would start my last quarter. Three classes. That was it. The constant dread and fear of my impending graduation enveloped me. Now what? What am I doing? Where do I go from here? These were the thoughts that plagued my every waking moment. The screeching of the alarm clock snapped me into existence. I sighed, hit the snooze button, and rolled away from the annoying clock to face the light streaming through the window. Three classes, twelve weeks. The anxiety began to build again in the pit of my stomach. Damn my brain. Twelve weeks, then a diploma, and then … then…. No. I couldn’t think about that yet. My grades for the past few years at Portland State University had been well above par, but before that, I’d been unfocused, clueless, naïve, and a complete failure. I’d gone intermittently, taking some quarters off as I became overwhelmed with my course load and with working full time. I’d been doing the bare minimum at both school and work for some time, just floating by, drifting along, and waiting for my life to awaken me. Waiting for something to grab me and shake me into being. But it had never happened. I had been so unsure of my path that I’d floundered, until I woke one day and realized it was now or never. It was time to buckle down at school and get a degree of some kind. So, I’d picked history, a subject I excelled at. A subject that moved me. But it’d been too late. No graduate school would accept me with my GPA, and as for a new career path, no place would want to hire me without a recommendation from my current employer, which I would never get as my attitude had significantly declined with each passing year. I was ill-suited for customer service. But to be a historian, digging through archives and old musty books and articles, discovering things of the past … now, that suited me to a tee. The alarm sounded again, breaking my thought process. Exasperated and anxious, I slammed the button on the clock. As soon as my fingers made contact, I felt a jolt of electricity. Crying out, I jumped up as light blue sparks hissed and died where my fingers had just been. What the…? I let the question linger as I grabbed a comb, prodding the clock gently before carefully examining it with my bare hands. Nope. The clock was most definitely dead. Maybe a power surge? My mind trailed along, coming up with multiple explanations to justify what had just happened. It wasn’t the first time either. A week ago, I had woken from a nightmare. Unable to sleep, I went to make a pot of coffee and, as soon as I touched it, it too had been covered in iridescent blue sparks. I had debated calling Heath, my best friend, over. He would drop everything to stay with me. But I couldn’t risk it. In turn I had run down my small list of friends: Theo, Anabel, Greta, Madison. No. I didn’t want anyone to think I’d lost my mind. I shook my head, still in mourning for my dead coffee pot. Trying to clear my mind of all things weird—I mean, maybe it was bad wiring—I started when I checked my phone. Damn, damn, damn. I was going to be late. I quickly grabbed a pair of somewhat clean jeans from the pile of clothes at the foot of the bed and began searching for a fresh shirt. I hastily plucked a red button up from the pile and threw my dark brown hair into a ponytail. No time for a shower. I rummaged through the closet and spotted a gray zip-up hoodie, which I pulled out before I made my way into the small hallway. To the right was a small bathroom, facing the living room to the left. The living room had an archway with an open bookcase that separated it from the kitchen. Walking out through the living room and into the kitchen, I stopped at the small table with two chairs at the far end. Lifting my backpack off the nearest chair, I made my way out the door and down the small path to my car. Another dreary day in Portland, I thought as I started my black Civic and turned on my windshield wipers. I glanced at my phone again and saw the time. I threw the phone onto the passenger seat next to my backpack and put my car in gear. What a great start to the day. Right. Pulling into the nearest parking garage on campus, I collected my things before slamming my car door and taking off. Class had just started. Not a good way to start my first day of my last quarter. I jetted out of the parking garage. Luckily, my class was just across the street. Without looking, I started to cross. A sharp blast of a horn stopped me in my tracks. Startled, I turned to see a car skidding to a stop directly in front of me. I jumped back and held out my hand as if by some miracle it could repel the oncoming vehicle. The car’s horn kept sounding as it came to a complete stop, grazing my fingertips. A surge of adrenaline pierced through me, and anger rose as my hand turned into a fist. I slammed the hood of the car and shouted, “Crosswalk!” My heart pounding, breathing fast, I stared at the driver, a young man in sunglasses with dark hair. He rolled down his window, shouting, “Are you crazy or something? What the hell is wrong with you? Watch where you’re going!” Whether it was to tell this man off or make myself feel better, or a little bit of both, I slapped the hood of his car as hard as I dared. I inhaled sharply as my hand made contact with the car. A surge of energy rushed through me, and light blue sparks erupted from my fingertips on contact. Dazedly, I shook my head and glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. This isn’t happening. It’s not real. My breathing slowed as my brain tried to rationalize what had just happened for the second time today. Then I did the only thing I could do, I turned and walked away. I was unharmed, extremely late, and did not have time to argue about right of way with that ass. I would freak out later. Propelled forward by my need to get to class, I ran into the building and up the three flights of stairs. As I entered the room, I saw there were only a few seats left. I silently made my way toward the one by the window. I sat and began to rummage for a fresh pad of paper and pencil. As I settled, I surveyed the room. That was the thing about college: once you started your classes to fulfill your major, you began to see the same students over and over again. It came in handy if ever absent and in need of notes. Out of the class of forty, I saw seven that I’d had previous classes with, not including the professor, whom I’d had twice before. One of the seven, Greta, my friend, waved from the front of the room in acknowledgement. I felt a genuine smile cross my face in response before she turned back around. Professor Brooke, his name bold on the chalkboard behind him, was the epitome of the absentminded professor. Always in the midst of a pivotal point, he spoke with a fervor that left white froth clinging to his lips. He wore a white button up with disheveled, green corduroy pants that complemented his sagging stomach and white hair. His tight face nearly swallowed his small eyes, which were magnified by his glasses. He was a man to be admired, as his brilliance was unparalleled to anyone I had ever met. I respected him and had achieved great success in his classes. This was to be our last class together, and the subject matter was the American Revolution. Everyone in the classroom was younger than me. I felt ancient, even though I was just a few years older. Looking around as the syllabi was being passed along the rows, I was reminded that I had once held promise. I’d had a path, but somehow it had all become a confused mess. Professor Brooke started discussing the syllabus, all heads bent down to review it but mine, unable to focus. The summer before my senior year, my father had upheaved our lives in Westerville, Ohio, a quiet suburb of Columbus where we had lived my whole life, to shuttle us off to Astoria, Oregon. My world had transformed completely. Ohio enjoyed definitive seasons. The weather was at times confused, but there were still seasons. The terrain in Ohio was flat, the population, crowded. I enjoyed being able to hide myself amongst others. Anytime I ever stood out had always been for negative reasons, mainly being poor. That’s why it was so hard for me to fail when all I wanted to do was matter. More than anything though, Ohio was the last place I had a real family. All my memories were there. It was the place that I had a mom, dad, and sister. Coming here had ended all of that. Astoria was small, with a view of the Pacific Ocean and mountains. The only season was rainy—never too cold, never too hot, just dreary and mild. The picturesque town was not at all my style. I was always an outsider there. Where in Westerville I learned to disappear into anonymity, in Astoria there was nowhere to hide. I got a job as soon as I arrived in order to occupy my time and get my father off my back about making friends and doing things. I had made a few friends but I wanted to be alone mostly or at the very least make money, so I worked at the local grocery chain, Larsen’s, in Warrenton after school and on the weekends. My grades suffered, and I became more withdrawn. For me, this was the beginning of the end. My older sister, Prue, had graduated a few years before me and gone off to college in New York, leaving just my father and I. My dad had progressed in Astoria, meeting people, coming out of his shell since my mother’s death a few years earlier. He’d even met a woman with whom he’d tentatively begun dating. He was succeeding where I was floundering, and I resented him for it. Unsure of myself, unsure of what to do, I graduated and began to work full time, living at home and starting at Clatsop Community College. Despite how much I hated it in Oregon, I’d been too scared to venture off to another state, even back home to Ohio. I’d become so dependent on taking care of my father during my mother’s illness and after her passing that I wasn’t able to let go yet despite our differences and my jealousy. I was scared, and I needed him as much as it pained me to admit. As much as I hated Oregon, I just couldn’t leave. “Lorelei.” I started. Damn, my mind was always wandering. I was so unfocused; I hadn’t heard Professor Brooke calling on me. He had a habit of calling me out, always acutely aware of what I was or was not doing. “Well, Lorelei, what do you think?” Crap. What had he been talking about? Why did he have to call on me? “Sorry?” I asked sheepishly. “I asked you if you think the Civil War would have happened if the American Revolution had not taken place. In other words, Miss Abrahms, do you think the Civil War had to happen? Was it eminent, and did the Revolution set up the Civil War?” Professor Brooke stared at me firmly, but with a twinkle in his eyes. He knew that, even though I hadn’t listened to a word of his lecture, I would have an answer. This was my field. To bolster a dynamic or a real discussion, Professor Brooke always called on a few key people he’d had before to give momentum to the subject at hand. I mentally shook off the negative thoughts rolling in my head, immersing myself in the one thing that made me truly happy, history. Smiling, I began to outline why I felt the Civil War was inevitable, not because of slavery per se, but because of the role of states’ rights, seen again and again through the Louisiana Purchase, the Missouri Compromise, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The dynamic with which the states had come into the union, particularly the Southern states, led to a rising tension between states’ rights and federal rights. As I finished my thought, hands flew up to protest my statement. I sank back in my chair and gazed out the window, my job done; now I could continue doing nothing. The lull of my fellow students combating their thoughts against one another soothed my mind, and I drifted absently. An odd feeling of being watched crept over me, bringing me back to reality. I turned my gaze to see a man sitting in the seat beside me. I frowned; it had been empty just moments before. Where did he come from? He stared at me intently. Maybe a few years younger than me with wavy, dark brown hair and deep brown eyes. Undeniably handsome, he was slim and well-built, with light caramel skin, high cheek bones, and tight, pursed lips. My eyes opened wide in surprise, my jaw dropping down as a gasp flew from my mouth. Why was he looking at me? I was cute, pretty even, by most standards with my long chestnut hair, hazel eyes, and slender build but I was never beautiful. He was way out of my league. Seeing my surprise and as if reading my thoughts, the man jerked his head away. Now it was my turn to stare. After a moment, he slowly shifted his gaze back to me, smiling slyly. “Sorry,” he said. When I didn’t respond, he added, “So … you never answered my question.” “Excuse me?” “Are you crazy or something?” A confused look swept across my face. “Crosswalk,” he prompted. “Oh…,” I said before comprehension set in. “Oooohhhhh.” I hadn’t recognized him, but then it hit me, this was the guy who had nearly run me over with his car. It was only when he mentioned the crosswalk that I remembered he had yelled at me, asking me if I was crazy when he’d almost hit me with his car. Irritation swept through me as I tried to come up with a biting retort. “Or something,” I replied haughtily, outwardly regaining my composure, while inwardly I rolled my eyes at myself. Great comeback, Lorelei. You sure showed him. “Is that so?” he said in turn. I glanced toward Professor Brooke, seeing him still engaged in debate with a group of students at the front of the room, I turned my gaze toward the cloudy day outside. “Yes,” I said. It’d started to sprinkle. That was Portland for you: cloudy and rainy. The mild temperatures didn’t stop me from missing the seasons, the hot summers and snow-covered winters. More than the seasons, I missed my life in Ohio. I never felt trapped there or destined for failure. Sometimes, I imagined what my life would be like if I’d never had to move. Would I be happier? More successful? “So, maybe you should be more careful.” I was yanked back into reality. “What?” This guy was really starting to annoy me. “I said maybe you should be more careful. Maybe look both ways before crossing the street.” “Look. In case you didn’t know, people in the crosswalk have the right of way, so maybe you need to go back to Driver’s Ed and learn something. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to listen to the lecture.” Ignoring his throaty chuckle, I buckled down, turning my attention sharply to Professor Brooke. I spent the next hour diligently listening and taking notes. Occasionally, I would steal a glance at the guy sitting next to me. He looked vaguely familiar, as though I’d had some previous class with him. It was entirely possible as I tended to keep to myself and had a bad memory for faces, but I felt like I’d remember this guy, as attractive as he was. Usually, the only people I recognized were the more boisterous ones that I’d had multiple classes with—the ones who were always raising their hands, throwing about their thoughts. He was certainly not boisterous. He looked thoroughly bored as he sat listening with an unopened notebook in front of him. Maybe he was a graduate student sitting in on the lecture, or a teaching assistant, there to listen and grade our papers later on. I wasn’t sure, but he didn’t look like either. Maybe he was like me and didn’t really need to take notes in class. Despite the pretense of my pen scrawling across my paper, my attention wasn’t on the notebook in front of me. My gaze was continually pulled to the strange man. Something foreboding about him held me on edge. He seemed too dark and miserly for someone so young, but then again, couldn’t the same thing be said about me? More than that he was handsome. He could have been a model as beautiful as he was. Beautiful, but still an ass, I thought with annoyance. Who is he to judge me? He almost ran me over, but I need to be more careful? The nerve of this man. And so my thoughts went for the rest of class as I took notes and stole looks at my would-be killer. When the clock ticked the hour I got out of there as fast as possible, without a backward glance. Bolting past all the other students in order to avoid another confrontation with him. Between classes I had a two-hour window. Buying breakfast at a small café on campus, I slid into a window seat that overlooked the street. I watched the passersby when I felt the seat across from me move, instantly making me smile. Greta. One of the seven from Brooke’s class, Greta and I had had several classes together the past few years. She was one of the greatest people I knew. A few years younger than me, she was one of the most put together people I’d ever met and one of a few I considered a friend. When I had first met her I had been jealous of her but, I couldn’t stay spiteful toward her. Her family was well-off but she was down-to-earth and gentle-hearted. “Hey, Greta.” “You should have sat with me and Nicole.” As soon as she said it, she giggled. She knew as well as I did that Nicole hated me. Neither of us knew why, but I always suspected it was because our professors tended to favor me over her. They knew I was a hard worker and it showed. I was top in their classes making fresh arguments. I had the ability to look at both sides of a situation and defend both sides equally well, giving me an edge. Considering we were history majors, our grades came from essays, papers, and in class participation. I excelled. But that’s where it ended. Nicole had nothing to fear from me. I’d never be a match in terms of overall GPA. Not with my community college GPA following me. “No, thank you. You know I like to sit by the windows.” “True. Well, I stopped over to see who your new friend was. You know, the sexy guy with the bad-boy look that sat next to you today. Ohhhh, the way he was eyeing you, oh my.” She pretended to fan herself with her hand, giggling when I reached over and smacked her arm. “Greta!” I couldn’t help but stifle a laugh. “Stop. I just met him, okay?” “Okay. But something’s going on there. I can feel it. I saw you two and…. Oh, I’m so excited! I can’t wait for details.” “You’re ridiculous. You know that, right? Besides we both know I’m heartless and mean.” “You love me. So I know you’re not hopelessly bitter…yet and yes, I’m ridiculous. But it brightens your day, and you know it. I gotta head to my next class, but text me when you’re free since I know you won’t sit with me in Rucken’s class later because of Nicole, you jerk. We need to hang out. I’ve missed you!” Greta picked her backpack off the floor, leaving me shaking my head and smiling. Propping my legs up on the chair, I pulled out a book on James Madison and my notepad. As I pored over the introduction, taking notes, my mind began to wander back to the handsome guy from class and my good mood evaporated. Who was he? What was his deal? Why was he talking to me? Why was I so curious about him? I didn’t even know his name, and yet I was somehow drawn to him. But then … why not be curious about him? I joked plenty about being dead inside, but there was some truth behind it. The years had made me increasingly withdrawn and apathetic. So I sat, reading and drifting, envisioning future encounters with my would-be killer. Man, I wasn’t going to let that go anytime soon. My second class, Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democracy with Professor Cash, passed quickly. My course load for my final quarter had been set up perfectly with only three classes with three different professors I’d had before. Not only did I know their expectations but, more importantly, I also knew how much work I had to put in to ace their classes—and, luckily, I was on good terms with all three of them. I had a fifteen-minute window to rush across campus from Professor Cash’s class to Professor Rucken’s. I loaded my backpack a few minutes before class ended. As soon as we were dismissed, I raced forward and, with a disapproving look from Professor Cash, I was the first one out of the room, beginning my run to the opposite side of campus. What’d started off as a sprinkle earlier had turned into a severe rain storm as drops pelted down, making it almost impossible for me to see. I could barely make out the sign for the building when, whack! I slammed right into someone. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” I brought my hand up, shielding my eyes against the beating rain. “I’m okay. Are you okay?” A face that had been turned down toward the ground lifted up, and I was staring right into the eyes of my new-found irritant and almost murderer. A half-smile crossed his face as he said slowly, “You know, you really need to watch where you’re going. And before you go getting all pissed off, there’s no crosswalk here.” My expression hardened. “Sorry,” I muttered prissily as I walked away, leaving him standing there, staring after me. I felt his eyes on my back as I walked up the stairs and into the building. Shaking off excess water—I was never a fan of umbrellas—I journeyed yet again to a window seat near the back of class. Sitting, I pulled out my notebook and pencil, rolling my neck to ease tension, a force of habit. “We have to stop meeting like this,” said a familiar voice. I sighed deeply, rolling my eyes and inwardly cursing the heavens. I preferred him to be a fleeting person in my life, one I could turn into a hero, a villain. A person that I could envisage anything about. So rare was it that someone piqued my interest, or that I used my imagination on other things besides my pathetic fake future, I was becoming, if possible, more angered by his continued presence. “I think we started off on the wrong foot.” he said, sitting down in the seat next to me. “Oh, really?” “Yes. Hi, I’m Patrick James.” My eyes narrowed as I looked at him, debating between punching him and answering him. “Lorelei. Lorelei Abrahms.” I mentally patted myself on the back for going the mature route. “It’s a pleasure, Lorelei. Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think we should forget about this morning and start fresh. I was rude; you were….” He stopped as my eyes narrowed again, before he could say that I was rude or in the wrong. Oh well, I sighed. It was nice while it lasted. My earlier visions of him and his personality vanished. I was going to find out what he was really like, and then the illusion would be shattered. Then I’d become bored with him as I did everything else. Up to this point I could pretend anything about him, ignore him completely even, but this moment cemented my fate. I could no longer pretend he wasn’t attractive and that I wasn’t interested. I was. Desperately. And that terrified me. “Agreed,” I said. He looked at me as though he wanted to say something. His mouth opened and his eyes brightened, but before he could speak, Professor Rucken began to introduce himself to the class and the lecture began. From time to time, I could feel Patrick’s eyes on me. Not on me, really, but through me, as though he were reading everything about me: the false exterior, the layers, all the way to my core. The intensity of his gaze flustered me. I blushed, trying desperately to concentrate but to no avail. Secretly, a part of me wanted to know him and, more importantly, wanted him to know me. It wasn’t just his physical presence that attracted me to him; it was his sheer intensity. I hoped my interest would fade as soon as I got to know him, but for now, with his gaze upon me, I felt more alive than I had in years. Whenever I turned to meet his stare, he idled, our eyes fastened, and then he would suddenly look away. With our eyes entwined, the world went away, and it was just us. I was frightened by the rush of desire I felt mixed with a sense of wrongness somehow. I chalked it up to my sense of worthlessness and mentally gave myself a pep talk. I needed this, deserved this. Even so, I was scared to feel real, normal. At the sound of our dismissal, I slowly began to pack up my things, waiting and hoping for Patrick to say something to me. The anticipation was palpable as I looked over at him, watching him zip up his backpack. He met my eyes, quickly looked down, and walked away. “See you,” he murmured softly. And then nothing. He was gone, and I was left feeling empty again. No, not empty, numb. The same as before, confused about life, depressed, desperate to figure things out. Only now I felt worse, unwanted. Maybe I’d read the signs wrong. Maybe he just wanted to make sure I watched where I was going. Maybe he was a concerned citizen. Or maybe he was just an ass trying to get me to admit I had been wrong. Who knew? But that tension between us, that heat … that hadn’t been faked, had it? I went home somehow even more miserable, in part because, for a fleeting moment, I thought someone, anyone, might want to know me—really know me. I’d been alone for so long. I enjoyed it mostly. I’d never really liked people, and they’d never really liked me. Working customer service at a grocery store had only made me increasingly annoyed with the human race. But the way he’d looked at me, the way he stared at me, his gaze burrowing into me, I had felt something. Since moving to Oregon, I’d become completely numb, closed off. I’d begun to live more within myself than ever. I had friends, mostly work friends and a few friends I made senior year in Astoria that had stayed in the area. But, aside from Greta, I had no friends in college. Even then, we rarely saw one another outside of school. With one glaring exception, everyone I talked to or hung out with had never even given higher education a thought. Most people were proud of me. They expected me to go places, and I was grateful, but I talked a big game. Truthfully, I was scared. I am scared, I amended. I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing. For a moment, a breath of fresh air had washed over me in the form of Patrick James, a handsome, smart-mouthed, confident man, with an air of grace and knowledge. But for some reason, he had brushed me off. The running theme of my life had become that I was the problem. Something was wrong with me, and that was why I was alone. Even though I was surrounded by people all day, every day, I was completely alone. No one understood me, so I relished in books, music, television, and movies. I turned inward. Chapter Two That night I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t. My mind kept turning, and the more it turned, the more depressed I became. I desperately wanted to text or call Heath but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. He’d know something was wrong and I couldn’t tell him the truth. Being back in my apartment made me feel like I was crawling out of my skin. I kept staring at my hands waiting for flames to burst out of them. Well, not really flames, but blue sparks that killed small appliances. “Don’t be stupid, Lorelei,” I muttered to myself. Great, now I was talking to myself to boot. But I couldn’t help it. Sitting on my bed, remembering my hands on the clock that morning, the feel of energy powering through me as I hit Patrick’s car. But his car hadn’t died. It had kept on going, so maybe I was delusional… or I could only massacre small gadgets. I shivered. Jumping up, I went into the kitchen, flipping the light on and staring at the appliances. If I touched one, would it fizzle beneath me? Decision made, I tentatively reached over, lightly touching the toaster with my index finger. Nothing. Frowning, I placed my whole hand on it. Nothing happened. “You are an idiot!” Blushing furiously at my own ridiculousness, I went back to bed. I hardly slept, going to work the next morning in a foul mood. Luckily, I was working with a few good people and friends at the customer service desk. I knew they would help me get through the day and refocus. After a few angry customers and about halfway into my shift, I chatted with my friend and co-worker Madison Cooper. Only a few years younger than me, she had graduated from high school the year before and was taking time off before starting college. While she tried to decide on a major, she started to work full time at the customer service desk with me, graduating from part-time cashier. We became close, managing to get into frequent trouble for standing around and talking, instead of manning the floor: monitoring the cashiers, bagging groceries, running breaks, and what-not in our down time. Of the front end team, I was second in command. I had the ability and the know-how to move up the grocery retail ladder but no desire. So, I stayed second in command to Jackson Crale, a man in his early thirties, with a wife and three young children, and another on the way. He was smart, dedicated, and someone I greatly admired. Jackson was a man who had a firm handle on his life and knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. He confessed time and again that his life was perfection; in fact, he was a candidate for management in the next few years, he never minded his job, and he had the extraordinary ability to brush people off with a smile. He never let anyone or anything bother him. He loved that I was in college and that I wanted more. As he told me, he never cared what he did; it wasn’t important to him. To him, family and friends were everything. Even though he never had any goals beyond marriage and children, he wanted education for his children—and for me. He wanted us to dream big and not get stuck in retail, working every weekend and holiday. I admired him, always a gentleman, always honorable, always a great man. All in all, there were eight people who worked customer service. Our counter stood overlooking seven check-out lanes and four self-scanners, so we could easily monitor our cashiers and baggers. Aside from Jackson and I, my friends, Theo Walker and Anabel Turner were directly below us, in charge when Jackson and I were not around. They were followed by Madison, her boyfriend Caleb Connell, Jessica, and Maura, our customer service helpers. Jackson, Theo, Anabel, and I did accounting work, handled the money going in and out of the safe, and trained the cashiers and baggers, while our helpers did whatever we needed them to do. And so today, Jackson was upstairs writing our work schedule for the following week as Madison and I avoided work. She stood behind the customer service desk with me on the other side. My elbows were on the countertop, my chin in my hands as I leaned across the counter, listening to her describe her latest boyfriend troubles. “I mean, really, how ignorant can he be? I don’t want to be a doctor or a nurse. I don’t want to help people. I don’t like people. Why would I want to help them?” she said while I laughed. We were really quite alike sometimes. “He just wants you to do something meaningful with your life,” I reasoned. “Meaningful. Ha. He wants me to make a lot of money so he can do nothing and be a bum!” “Then why are you dating him?” I asked. “I don’t know. We’ve been seeing each other for a month, but we just … I don’t know. We just don’t get along. We’re better friends than a couple. I think he feels the same way but just doesn’t want to admit it,” she said. So our conversation continued. We were each other’s therapists, and we confided everything to one another. Almost everything. I never discussed how alone I felt, how much my life had gone off its path, but to some degree I think she knew. Feeling the hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck prick up, I looked around to see who was watching me. Assuming Jackson or a member of management, I slapped the counter. Taking my cue, Madison turned her back to the counter and began to busily organize a pile of receipts, while I picked up a clipboard with a list of cashier and bagger breaks on one side and a cleaning list on the other. With it in hand, I walked off to stand in front of the registers and monitor the front end. Still sensing I was being watched, I looked around, but to no avail. No Jackson, no management. “Hey,” a familiar voice said from behind me. I turned, grinning, into the open arms of Heath, my long-time best friend. I would know his voice anywhere. When I moved to Astoria, he had been one of the few people to talk to me and accept me. He had moved to Portland and had gone to Portland State University directly after high school, graduating with a bachelor’s in engineering. We kept in touch and saw each other steadily. Now he worked as an engineer while working on his master’s degree. I was unbelievably proud of him and admired him for his achievements. And he was gorgeous. Medium height, sandy blond hair, blue eyes, dimpled smile, and fit. I always wondered why he’d befriended me. He was a man with a future, and I … well, I was his complete opposite, but our friendship had persisted despite our differences. “Hello, love,” I said while he picked me up, hugging and swinging me about. He had a way of easing my mind and making me forget my problems. “Well, what’s going on? I came to check on you and see how your first day of your last quarter went,” he said. “It was interesting,” I replied. Something in my tone gave him pause. He waited for me to say more. When I didn’t, he grinned. His expression changed as he looked past me, from quizzical to fierce. “Do you know you’re being stared at? Do you know that guy?” I turned around, following Heath’s gaze. Across the store heading for the checkout lanes was Patrick James—and he wasn’t alone. A lean young woman, about my age, with white blonde hair walked in step with Patrick. In front of them walked a middle-aged couple, the man pushing the cart of groceries while the woman kept turning her head around to talk to the small group behind her. Patrick’s eyes were fixated on me, his companions glancing in my direction while talking excitedly amongst themselves. “Well, do you know him?” My eyes shifted back to Heath. Before I could open my mouth to explain my day at school, Madison came up to us, smiling shyly at Heath. She was perfect for Heath in every way: funny, intelligent, challenging. She was also just his type physically with her shorter, slim, athletic build. Raven hair, naturally olive complexion, and dark brown eyes. Having met him a few times before, she had grown enchanted by him. She never understood how I could be just friends with him. “Do you know there’s some guy ogling you over there?” “Yes,” I said as I quickly began to tell them about how I had met Patrick at school and how we had a few classes together. I left out that I had thought of little else beyond him since our encounter. “He seems a little stalker-ish the way he’s looking at you. And who are those people he’s with?” Madison continued. I glanced up to see his group had picked a checkout lane. He and the blonde woman stood by the exit door waiting for the elder couple to check out. His eyes met mine, and a slight smile crossed my face. I quickly looked away when the side of his mouth quirked up, to find Heath staring at me. My brief smile had not gone unnoticed. A frustrated expression shadowed his face. “I have to get going. I’ll see you Saturday,” Heath said gruffly, stalking off. As he crossed Patrick, he paused. A look passed between them, and then he was gone. “I think someone’s jealous,” Madison sing-songed. “Oh, so jealous,” I mocked. “He is.” Her expression was suddenly serious, her voice wounded. “No. He’s just concerned. He wants the best for me. Besides, I happen to know for a fact he likes someone else.” “Who?” “You! But you’re taken … for now.” With a wry smile, I walked back to the service desk, leaving her flushed with embarrassment. Heath didn’t have to say anything. I could see the way he looked at her and talked to her. It was different from how we interacted. With us it was friendship. Deep and complicated, but never romantic on either of our parts. With her, he came alive in a whole new way. He just needed a little nudge in the right direction. I glanced at the door, but they were gone. Again, I felt as though the air had been vacuumed right out of me. And so I felt for the rest of the day. Each idiotic complaint, each self-righteous customer, was a punch in the gut. I felt more and more desolate as I plastered a dumb smile on my face and listened to their drivel. People quibbled over a ten-cent price discrepancy and demanded the product be free. They squawked over their items not being bagged a specific way and wanted to return empty products that they were unsatisfied with even though they had used or eaten the whole container. The worst part was the bitching, as though it were life and death. As though the world were coming to an end. In between customers, I cradled my head in my hands, feeling a migraine coming on. At last, Jackson winked at me and said, “Go on, get out of here.” Smiling gratefully, I left. I’d been too busy and too downtrodden by customers to think of Patrick and my freakish blue embers. Patrick, who hadn’t said anything, just stared with his piercing eyes. I breathed in sharply. Class tomorrow. I’d see him, and then Saturday, Heath and I were hanging out. Madison was supposed to come as well, dinner and a movie. It was a bi-weekly tradition that Heath and I had had since graduation. Theo, Heath, and I had all graduated together. While I’d never been particularly friendly with Theo, he was nice and a good friend to Heath. Then Theo and Anabel had started dating toward the end of senior year. Even though she had gone to a different high school, she and Theo were always around. I used to be uncomfortable around her and Theo—too many people for my taste. After high school, Heath and Theo had gone off to college together, I had done my own thing, and Anabel had started at Larson’s with me, prompting us to grow closer. Then Theo had dropped out and joined our customer service crew. Heath had started to invite Theo and Anabel out with us around this time, on our Saturday nights. I had slowly started to accept them, and warm to them. Now they were friends I couldn’t bear to be without. Theo, Anabel, Heath, and I were our own little group that Madison was slowly becoming a part of. Chapter Three Sleep had come quickly that night, allowing me a full night of rest and I awoke the next morning in anticipation. I couldn’t wait to see Patrick. Wondering if I would feel the same rush when I saw him, I dressed hurriedly. I considered texting Heath but decided against it. He had seemed pretty upset so I’d let him cool down and talk to him in person. It was perfectly normal for us to go a few days without speaking just as it was perfectly normal for us to argue. We disagreed on a lot of things: politics, religion, life. But our friendship was solid. So I let my mind wander back to Patrick. I’d gotten up early in hopes of reaching campus and finishing my reading before class. Parking in the same garage as before, I carefully crossed the street, and sat on a bench outside of Professor Brooke’s class. Taking up my book on the American Revolution, I became quickly engrossed. This was what I would miss: the smell, the feel, the hope of school. Here, I felt as though my future wasn’t bleak. I felt as though maybe, just maybe, I had a chance, but it was more than that. Here my thoughts mattered. I mattered. Sometimes it felt as though school were the fantasy. I would miss college. School was something that, with focus, I did exceedingly well at. Here, in the ivy-covered history building, I felt as close to alive as I ever did. At work, at home, I was subhuman. Done. My chapter finished, I glanced at my phone. Ten minutes. Students began to arrive and file in. Grabbing my things, I followed suit, again taking a window seat in the back. Pulling my notebook and pencil from my backpack, I automatically looked outside. A book bag slammed to the ground next to me, making me jump. Sighing, I turned to see who the culprit was, only to come face to face with Patrick. “Hello,” he said. “Hey,” I replied warily. “So, I saw you yesterday. You work at the market.” “Yes.” I snorted. “If by ‘market’ you mean a grocery store.” Who calls it a market? “Or market. Or supermarket.” He grinned widely. “Were those your friends standing with you” I relaxed a little, still wary. His moods were confusing to say the least. “Yes. Those were my friends Madison and Heath. Who were those people with you?” Even though a part of me was excited by his presence I was still feeling a little defensive about how he’d left things the last time we had class together. “That’s my family.” “Oh,” I replied casually, secretly relieved that the pretty blonde was a relative. He hesitated a moment. “So, that guy with you, Heath, is he just a friend?” Blushing, I said, “Yes. He’s been my best friend since senior year of high school. He’s one of the few people that understand me. Or try to anyway.” “Try to?” His eyebrows rose. “I don’t know. It’s like you can never really know a person or what’s going on with them. People are way too complicated to understand,” I blushed scarlet as I realized I was saying way too much. “I think, given enough time, you can.” “Maybe, but life is short. It’d take a few lifetimes to figure me out. I barely know myself,” I said. He grinned and chuckled lightly. “I’m glad I amuse you,” I said. “No,” he replied, “you’re just seemingly complicated.” I looked down, a smile looming, but before I could respond, Professor Brooke began his lecture. I felt Patrick’s gaze on me, but I forced myself to focus. Halfway through the lecture, Professor Brooke called for a break. As students filtered out, I remained seated, turning to meet Patrick’s gaze. “Why senior year?” he asked. A quizzical expression crossed my face, so he spoke again. “You said Heath’s been your best friend since senior year of high school. Why senior year?” “Oh. Right. I’m originally from Ohio. My father moved us to Astoria the summer before senior year. The first day of school, I arrived early to figure out where my classes were so I wouldn’t have to ask, you know?” He stared at me blankly, so I surged on, shaking my foot nervously. “Anyway, I get there, but the place is already teeming with people, who are all staring at me, because, hey, I’m the new girl. Yay. I tried so hard to remain calm, but I started looking for my classroom, and I couldn’t find it. I was way too shy to ask anyone where it was, so I decided to leave and try again tomorrow. I know, ridiculous, but that was my mind set. Just getting the hell out of there. So, I take off down a flight of steps when I slam into someone and start to tumble down. Looking like a complete fool, totally humiliated, who should come up to me but Heath, in his varsity football jacket, asking me if I’m okay. So, yeah, Heath was the first person to ever talk to me, and we’ve been friends ever since.” “Wow,” he said, his face turning red as he tried not to laugh at me. “Okay. Whatever. I was a klutz. I fell down stairs. I walked into people, doors … anything, really. I’d rather run home scared than face a moment of humiliation. Go ahead and laugh,” I waved my hand dismissively, and he burst out laughing. I shook my head and looked away as people turned to stare at us. “So why didn’t you run home the other day after the Crosswalk incident.” “The ‘Crosswalk Incident’.” I finger quoted back to him with a mocking grin. “Yeah.” “This sounds weird, but it’s different. Then, it was like, I was going to see those same kids every day and I couldn’t handle it. It was a small school. Here, I may never see these people again. I pass someone on the sidewalk and that’s it or I see them for twelve weeks and then poof, most of them are gone forever from my life. So a random encounter with you was nothing. Plus, I like to think I’ve grown up a little. Besides, if I didn’t need to be here, I may have left.” I added the last part laughing at my own ridiculousness. “All of that and now you’re here,” he said after he calmed down. “Yes, now I’m here,” I said briskly. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.” He fidgeted in his seat, suddenly looking apprehensive at having offended me. “It’s fine. I don’t mind. I didn’t mean that to sound bitchy. I’m just not used to talking about myself.” Students began to filter back in, including Greta and Nicole, who stopped next to my desk. “Hey,” Greta said, looking from me to Patrick. “Nicole and I are starting a study group for this class and Professor Rucken’s. Since both of you are in that class as well, we were wondering if you’d like to join.” “Sure. That’d be great. We’d love to join,” Patrick said before I could reply. Greta smiled and winked at me knowingly. Exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses, we setup a weekly time to meet and they went off to recruit more people. “Sorry,” he said. “It’ll be fun though.” “Fun … right,” I said sarcastically. “Clearly you haven’t had a study group with the Barbie doll twins before. It can be a bit vicious with that one.” I said, pointing to Nicole. As if sensing me, she looked up from across the room and glared in my direction. “Barbie doll twins?” He chuckled. “Yea. Don’t tell Greta I said that. I love her, but seriously,” I waved my hand in their direction. He studied them for a moment, nodding his head in agreement. And it was true: luscious blonde hair, sky blue eyes, petite frames. They were gorgeous. They were Barbies. “It’ll be good for you. The study group. You look like you are apart from the world, and you should be a part of it. You’re far too young to be so discontented.” I glanced at him harshly. Seriously, how old was this guy and was I really that transparent? Could he know me this intimately after so brief a conversation? “I’m sorry.” “You say that a lot.” My voice was cold. “I didn’t mean to offend you. You just…. Look, from the moment I saw you, when you walked into the middle of the street … you just seem so unhappy, oblivious, and … well, careless.” “Right. Because I might not be unhappy that you almost ran me over, right? I forgot you knew me so well, seeing as how we’ve known one another for so long and all.” I swallowed hard. I was floating. Going through the motions of the day-to-day, but how dare he, damn it? And yet, a sense of relief came over me. To him, I was completely transparent, and it felt nice. The rest of class went by like a blur, between taking painstaking notes and fighting back a whirlwind of emotions threatening to erupt Class over, I rushed outside, where the cold, wet air smacked my face. I breathed deeply, numbing my senses. Walking to the café, I tried to clear my mind of Patrick. My next class flitted by. Upon entering Professor Rucken’s class, I found Patrick wasn’t there. He never showed up, and a biting loneliness filled me the next few days. The endless stream of work and studying occupied my time, but in the dark, alone, the images of a better life evaded me, and I thought of Patrick. Before I knew it, it was Saturday. Heath was coming to pick me up on our way to meet Theo, Anabel, and Madison. I was in the bathroom straightening my hair when Heath came in the apartment. He’d had a key for as long as I’d lived there, coming and going as he pleased. Heath sat on the edge of the tub while I finished getting ready. “You excited? One week down, eleven to go, and then graduation!” Heath said energetically. “Yea, I’m excited,” I said non-enthusiastically. I loved Heath but he had too much faith in my future. “Liar. Get excited. This is what you’ve been working toward. After this, you can get a better job, do anything, go anywhere.” “Yea,” I smiled meekly, my stomach churning. Before he could start back up, I added, “I think Madison and Caleb are on the outs.” “So?” he said, his cheeks turning red. “So, it means you have a choice.” “Whatever,” he grumbled. “You can either continue on as you are, pathetic and sad, or you can ask her out, declare your love, get married, have babies, and blah, blah, blah.” “Pathetic and sad.” Heath snorted, ignoring the rest of my statement. “Yes. You haven’t been on a date in forever Heath. You deserve so much. You’re last real relationship was with Rebecca and that was back in undergrad. It’s time to get back out there.” I stared at him in the mirror as I continued to straighten my hair. “I go on dates, Lor. They just don’t go beyond the first one. I was with Rebecca for four years. I loved her. She broke my heart. I’m not looking for that again. Besides, every time I date, the woman always gets jealous of our friendship. I can’t handle that. I don’t want someone to try to make me choose them over you. It will never happen. Until I meet a woman who is really secure with our friendship instead of jealous, there’s no point.” He met my gaze in the mirror, shaking his head slightly. I sighed heavily. “She’s not like Rebecca. She knows we’re close. She’d be walking into it with her eyes wide open. I just want you to be happy. I’m so proud of you. You have a great job, you’re finishing up grad school, but I know you want more.” “I’m good. I’m way more worried about you. Always have been. Let’s just take one day at a time.” His smile comforted me and I couldn’t help letting one more remark slide out. “Say what you want but I see the way you look at her,” I teased, the hot iron running through my hair. I smiled mockingly at him through the mirror before flicking the switch off and grabbing his arm, pulling him out the door. Thanks to me, we were running late. In the car, he turned to me, a glimmer of hesitation and fear mingled in his eyes. “I saw the way that guy looked at you the other day and I don’t like it. There’s something off with him.” I said nothing, just sat there and stewed, wondering why our relationship was changing this way. Heath was always protective of me. He was like a brother, vetting out all potential men. I’d never been in a serious relationship but I knew if I was, they’d have to meet Heath and be approved by him. Heath had good instincts. He could always tell who was a player and who was serious. But this was different. I’d just met Patrick, I didn’t even know how I felt beyond being attracted to him, and Heath had only seen him once. It was a quiet drive to the restaurant. The meal passed pleasantly, Heath and Madison eyeing one another. Heath was dressed casual in jeans and a plain black tee while Madison looked radiant in a white billowy dress, her hair falling in waves down her back. Theo and Anabel discussed their plans to move in together. They adored one another. Anabel was a quiet, pale-skinned woman with curly, pale red hair and light blue eyes. Despite his glasses and the long brown hair he always wore in a ponytail, Theo had a quiet masculinity. I remained aloof that night, mostly inserting comments every now and again. Before long, we were off to the movie theater. Theo and Anabel had gone off in search of seats while Heath, Madison, and I waited in line at the concession stand. “I’m just saying, we just ate. Do you guys really need snacks?” Madison said. “Yes!” Heath and I cried in unison, before laughing. Feeling a surge of kinship, I decided to let my anger go for the rest of the night. We could always argue another day. A sudden urge to tell him about the freaky incidents had me opening my mouth, only to slam it shut just as quickly as I remembered we weren’t alone. But I would tell him, soon. Even though I felt anxious over the Patrick obstacle with him, there was no one I trusted more. “It’s a tradition,” Heath explained to Madison. “We always have popcorn and soda at the movies. Always,” I continued. “You didn’t have to wait with us; you could have gone ahead with Theo and Anabel.” “Thanks, but no thanks. They were getting a little too close for my comfort.” The line was five people deep with one person behind the counter. I sighed, listening to Madison and Heath chat each other up, their eyes dancing. They had become oblivious to the fact that I was there. The truth was Madison didn’t go ahead with Theo and Anabel because she wanted to be close to Heath. My eyes became fixated on the woman in front of us. She looked familiar with her white blonde hair and slim build. She was dressed in blue jeans, a white shirt, and a tan leather jacket. Her hair was long and thin, cascading in waves. As if sensing me, she turned, looking me up and down. Then, as though brushing me off, she turned around. It hit me abruptly: this was the young woman that had been with Patrick at the grocery store. I began to look around fervently for a sign of him or the rest of his family. “What are you doing? What’s wrong?” Madison and Heath were staring at me as though I were a mad woman. “Nothing. Sorry. I thought…. Never mind.” Embarrassed, I looked away and began drilling a hole into the concession stand with my eyes. “You know what? I’m going to run to the restroom before the movie. Get me my usual, thanks.” Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out some cash and handed it to Heath before I walked off toward the main doors. I stopped and waited, leaning against the wall outside the entrance, closing my eyes. I just needed to be alone for a minute. “Hey,” a woman’s voice snapped me back into focus. I opened my eyes, and there she was, the blonde-haired woman. I hadn’t noticed her eyes before. She must be Patrick’s sister, I thought. Their eyes were so much alike, deep, rich, piercing. This time, she wasn’t alone. She was standing with a muscular young man. “Stay away from my brother.” Her voice was raw and bitter. “Jo,” the man said warningly. “No.” She shrugged, as if tossing the word, dirty and unclean, from her. “No, Aidan.” In that moment, I missed my sister. I imagined her staring down this femme fatale, chewing up her thin frame, and laughing at her nerve to dare mess with her baby sister. Prue would never allow this woman to look at me as though I were manure she had stepped in, unsanitary, odorous, and vile, that she needed to scrape off. But, she wasn’t here. She hadn’t been for so long, and somewhere deep inside a lump began to rise to my throat. Don’t get me wrong, I can handle myself. I’m not afraid to put someone in their place, but when we were little, nobody bullied Prue’s sister but Prue. If she heard someone had teased me or tried to fight, or didn’t share a toy in kindergarten class, she’d been there, pulling the kid aside or speaking to the teacher privately about the value of sharing. As this woman, Jo, stood staring at me, I thought of my sister and how much things had changed between us since our mother passed. I realized how much I missed her protective nature, too. I smiled to myself sadly and braced for the impact. “Stay away from my brother!” she said again. “Do you understand me?” I looked at her questioningly, searching her for a reason, a clue as to why she was attacking me. After a moment’s pause, trying to decide how to react, I decided to go for confused. “Sorry. Do I know you? Who’s your brother?” “You know exactly who my brother is. I am his sister, and you need to leave him alone,” she hissed, her mouth curled in contempt. The man, Aidan, grabbed her arm. “Jo … Josephine! Let it go.” Turning to me, he mumbled an apology and started to drag her away, but not before she gave me another look of disgust. I stood for a moment, dumbfounded and dazed. Closing my eyes, I began to wonder what I had done to make this woman despise me. Why was she so disgusted by me, and why did I need to leave her brother alone? He actively spoke to me. I sighed deeply, wanting to sink into oblivion. “Unh, unh.” The sound of a throat clearing roused me from my thoughts. “Sorry. Let’s go,” I said, exhaling slowly. I opened my eyes to come face to face with Patrick James. He grinned at me. “Where are we going?” I flushed. “Sorry,” I said. “I thought you were someone else.” His grin fell slightly. “Sorry to disappoint. Who did you think I was?” “I’m just waiting for a few friends. You didn’t disappoint.” His smile reappeared. Gazing at me for a moment, he said, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine, really. I just ran into someone….” Pausing, I tried to determine whether or not to inform him of his sister’s ambush on me. “Nothing. You know what? Never mind. It’s not at all important.” He stared at me, smiling with a confused and worried expression in his eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay?” He gestured to the door. “I’m about to go in. My siblings are waiting … or we could leave.” He winked at me, causing a rise of annoyance to well within me. “I’m with friends,” I said firmly. I hesitated and added, “Listen, I just don’t get your deal. You’re all friendly one minute, and then your sister comes at me like I’m the devil or something telling me to stay away when I barely know you. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand.” I looked down, embarrassed by my verbal vomit. I couldn’t bear to look up, couldn’t bear the gnawing ache I felt when I looked at him, or the feelings he aroused when I was near him. I felt his hand brush stray hair from my face. Lifting my chin delicately, he said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been going through some stuff lately. I don’t know why she attacked you, but it will never happen again.” And with that, he turned and walked into the theatre. That’s all I get?! ‘Going through some stuff’? What does that even mean? I stood there, frustrated and angry. How could I be so stupid? Lusting after this random stranger I knew nothing about. Fuck it. I walked into the theatre and spotted Anabel, standing and waving her arm to motion me up. I paused. Really? I fumed Really! There they were, the three of them—Jo, Patrick, and Aidan—seated directly behind Anabel and Theo. Jo sat in the middle, and she and Patrick were leaned in toward one another, both their expressions angry. I couldn’t help but stare as I walked up. On the other side of Jo, Aidan nudged her with his elbow. She turned swiftly as if to yell, but he quickly leaned over and began whispering something in her ear. Her face turned to stone as I finished my journey and sat down directly in front of her, where Anabel had tapped the chair for me to sit. As if on cue, Heath and Madison came in and sat beside me. Great, Anabel and Theo to my left, Heath and Madison to my right. Nothing better than being the fifth wheel. Heath handed me my change and food. “Your favs,” he said, smiling. “Thanks,” I mumbled, my heart racing. I heard the hushed voices of Patrick and Josephine; she was so close I could feel her breath on the back of my neck, the rapid fierceness of each intake followed by a heavy growling release. An uncomfortable pit sat in my stomach with every fiery breath I felt. It seemed her breathing was growing harsher and hotter until I felt her right next to my ear. “You. Are. Nothing.” Feeling overwhelmingly horrified and embarrassed, my body began to quiver. Glancing over, I saw no one else had heard her barrage. I had spent my whole life building myself up from the state of destitution I had been born into. I’d been teased for my second-hand clothes and mocked for our family using food stamps. In that moment, I was brought back to the realization that all people saw when they looked at me was trash. Is that what this was about? She considered me garbage? I quickly leaned over, making vague excuses about not feeling well. “I’ll go with you.” Heath said worriedly. “No, no. It’s fine. I’ll text you when I get home.” “Lor, it’s no big deal.” “No. Stay, please.” I begged him silently with my eyes until I felt him accept that he wouldn’t get his way. He nodded, reminding me to text him when I was home safe. With that I bolted down the steps, feeling seven pairs of eyes boring into my back. When I reached my car, I stopped, keys in hand, trembling, angry, confused, alone. Always fucking alone. I leaned my head against the driver side window, unleashing a series of unrepeatable curses. Feeling a surge rush through me, I slammed my fist on the window next to my head. Heat reached out, caressing my cheek. Turning my head at the sensation, I saw blue embers flicking off my fist. “No, no, no, no.” Shocked, I jumped back, dropping my keys. I brought my hands up, staring at my shaking limbs. Nothing. I examined the driver’s window, the ground. No embers, no flames. Mentally I counted to three, once, twice, three times. Cracking my knuckles three times, bouncing on my feet three times, I felt my control coming back to me as I let my obsessive compulsive tendencies momentarily take hold. I tried to rationalize it, but hadn’t I just felt the heat on my cheek from the ember? Hadn’t I felt a surge of energy, adrenaline? Isn’t that what happened on the first day of school when I slapped the hood of Patrick’s car? I bent for my keys before once again leaning my head against the window. I needed to calm down. I was sounding insane, even to myself. I’d just been through two traumas when these incidents happened: almost being hit by a car, being called trash. And the other two instances, my emotions had been on the fritz. My mind was overloaded, upset. Yes. That made sense. Just breathe. Random electrical power surges at home and brain overload. That’s it. “Hey.” I felt a hand on my shoulder, turning me. Patrick’s eyes stared so hard into my face I thought he could see through me. Taking the keys from my hand, he said, “Let’s get out of here. Is that okay?” When I nodded he added, “I’ll drive.” “No.” I answered softly. “Well, how about we sit in my car for a minute?” With a brief jerk of my head he pocketed my keys, grasped my elbow and led me to his car. He opened the door and helped me in. I sat there for a minute still in shock over the past twenty minutes. “You’re shaking,” he murmured, turning the heat on full blast, directing the vents on me when he entered the car. He reached into the back and pulled out a hoodie. “Put this on,” he said, handing it to me. I gave a strangled smile trying to relax. The shock was ebbing but I was too keyed up to just sit much longer. “Thanks.” Great, now I felt like a fool as well for not wearing a coat. He must think me completely incompetent. “Where do you want to go?” he asked. “Home,” I answered immediately. Where did that come from? My mind started to race between the insanity of blue sparks and dead appliances and his sister making me feel weak and pathetic. I needed something to fill the void to make me forget, if just for a few minutes. For a moment I decided to be reckless and selfish as I leaned in closer, lowering my lashes at him, hoping he wouldn’t refuse me. My lips briefly touched his, soft and light, before he took control, deepening the kiss. Make me forget. Please. “Do you want to come over?” I asked, slightly breathless. He leaned in kissing me again his hand gripping my neck before pulling back, a mischievous smile on his face. “Absolutely.” Grinning at him, I gave him my address, after again politely refusing his request to drive me. I left ahead of him when he said he had something to take care of before I rushed home. Normally, I’m a clean person, but you can never be too sure. Besides, I wanted to freshen up. After quickly texting Heath and letting him know I was fine, I went around the apartment, picking up automatically, my mind distracted as I went through the motions. As much as I cared about what he would think about my apartment, especially after what his sister had said, I couldn’t help but feel out of it. I had just enough time to touch up my makeup when there was knocking at the door. I smiled at myself in the mirror, forcing dark thoughts from my mind, making myself walk, not run to the front door. “Still wearing my hoodie, I see.” Patrick smiled at me as I opened the door and moved aside to let him in. Closing and locking the door, I turned to find Patrick right behind me, pressing my back into the door. “I told Jo to stay away from you and out of our business. She’s worried about me, but it’s no excuse. Her behavior is inexcusable. I like you a lot Lorelei. I want you.” “We barely know each other.” “It doesn’t give her the right to treat you like shit.” He said, his hand caressing my face. “No. But this is sudden. And it’s only for tonight.” He didn’t respond and he didn’t have to. I felt the need coming off of him as badly as I felt my own. My mouth suddenly dry, all I could do was nod my assent. He grabbed my hair, pulling my face to meet his, his lips consuming mine hungrily. He gave me no quarter and I wanted none as he thrust his tongue into my mouth, setting the pace. I was on fire. With one hand in my hair, his other skimmed down my back, gripping my backside. I moaned into him, wrapping my legs around his waist as he carried us to the couch. Tossing me down, he lay on me, our bodies pressed together, tangling in need. I reached between us, lifting his shirt, forcing him to lean up so he could take it off. Damn. He was toned. Not overpowering but lean muscle, washboard abs. Our bodies crashed back together as my hands explored his body before reaching for his belt buckle. He stood, pulling me with him, his hands tugging the hoodie up and over my head, followed by my t-shirt. Next he unclasped my jeans and crouched low so he could peel them off me. Seeing him lowered before me sent shivers up and down my spine. Shakily, I reached for him. In just my bra and underwear, I wanted nothing more than to strip myself bare and follow through with every dirty fantasy playing in my mind. He shucked his jeans and boxers, then pulled us back to the couch with me astride him. I writhed above him, his hands making quick work of my bra and panties. His hands roamed everywhere, touching me in places I hadn’t been touched in years. My love life was non-existent and I preferred it that way. I’d had a few lovers over the years but nothing ever serious. I was too solitary, too damaged for anything more. Briefly, I tried to remember when the last time I had a lover was. The thought vanished as our bodies entwined. Who cares anyway? My mind blank, all I could do was feel. He owned me. In that space, there was no loneliness, no fear, just us. And it was everything. Chapter Four I slept uneasily that night. In retrospect, maybe I should have allowed Patrick to stay. I could tell he wanted to, but my apartment was a haven—and that meant no sleepovers with men. After our round on the couch, we had showered together. In the safe confines of the shower, we’d lingered, taking our time, exploring one another’s bodies, sating our needs. When all was said and done, we’d kissed goodbye. I’d drifted to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I dreamt of Ohio. I dreamt of my mother, her gentle laugh, her tenderness, her embrace, her scent. My dreams were slanted memories of long ago. I dreamt of the moment she told my sister and me that she had cancer. I dreamt of her pain and agony. Her funeral had been small, intimate, just family. A clear, sunny day—perfect weather, really. The cemetery had brilliant, bright green grass, and her plot rested next to my grandfather’s. The pastor said a few words, followed by each of us throwing a handful of soil onto her coffin as it was lowered into the ground. My mother hated cremation. She hated fire. When she had gotten sick, she’d made us promise to spare her and bury her properly, as she’d said. But this dream of her funeral was different somehow. I felt a presence. Male. I felt his arms around me, enveloping me, comforting my grieving younger self, but I couldn’t see him. I didn’t know who he was, just that it was a he. I turned in circles, searching for him, but there was nothing, just sensation and a flicker of deep cerulean eyes. My dream drifted; I was eight. It was my birthday, and my parents were arguing in the kitchen. My sister Prue and I were sitting in the living room eating cake. She kept smiling at me, a pity smile, as tears rolled down my cheeks onto my plate. They were fighting again. I had a yellow sundress on, and I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television. As their screaming grew louder, my tears flowed faster, my body shaking, and I dropped my plate. Cake spilled to the floor. Prue flew over, fear in her eyes as she tried to help me clean it up, but it was too late. My mother was there, her face livid. Her mouth didn’t move but she spoke, demanding to know who had done it. Prue quickly said she’d spilled it, that it’d been an accident. Before I could contradict her, my mother’s hand had already violently struck her in the face. Again and again, harder and harder, a sick clapping sound rang out with each hit. I felt warm arms envelope me as a presence, his presence, surrounded me again. I sobbed and screamed for her to stop. Why? Why?! I woke up crying. That was her. That was my mother, not the gentle woman in my first dream. In a way, her diagnosis had been a blessing. I knew it was sick to think of it that way, but she had been too weak to be violent. When I was young, she had loved me. She’d held me, kissed me. She had been tender, loving, but she had an awful streak to her. Every kindness to me had meant lashing out at my sister, who bore the brunt of all the violence. Prue was my protector, my true guardian. Our father was oblivious, weak, and with her gone, it meant freedom for all of us. She never mentioned the big C word. Cancer. It was ugly, painful, agonizing, but she went quickly, heavily sedated. My feelings for her were so mixed with anger, betrayal, and love. I tried to never think of her. And why now? Fucking dreams. Who was my mystery man, and why was he there? Those eyes. I’d never seen eyes that color before or felt that presence. Why did I have to dream of her? I lay there with the television on, trying to immerse myself in something else, but the tears kept coming, and eventually I cried myself to sleep. I worked early the next morning, my eyes puffy and heavy from lack of sleep and too many tears. Thankfully, it was just Madison and Jackson. Madison explained to him about my getting sick last night and after taking one look at me, Jackson decided to leave me alone, giving me as little to do as possible. “I’m sorry you don’t feel well.” “Thanks, Madison. How did last night go after I left?” I asked politely. “Oh my God! Heath is so sweet. He walked me to my car after the movie and we talked for like an hour about everything and anything. He’s so amazing. Did you know his family has like three houses? One right on a lake.” I smiled as she rattled on, grateful for her own selfishness. When I got home, I sat at my small kitchen table and started my readings for class, but after an hour, I realized I had no idea what I’d just read. Exhausted and feeling completely miserable, I fell asleep on the couch in a dream free state around five in the evening, not until it was time to go to work the next day. A few days passed with no sign of Patrick. Part of me was pissed off. We’d had sex and he just checked out. No texts, phone calls, nothing. But then, did I want more? I had said it was a one-time thing. So, I had no right to be upset, but still, part of me had hoped he’d reach out. The monotonous lull of school and work were impeded only by violent nightmares. Each night I awoke, covered in sweat, shaking, terrified, but with no recollection of my dreams, just a sense of danger, fear. The days passed slowly and the nights painfully. Each day grew longer as I slept less and less, my body tired, my thoughts cloudy. Before I knew it nine days had passed since I had seen Patrick. It was Monday morning and I was so muddled I didn’t notice Greta and Nicole come up and stand beside my desk until Greta cleared her throat. I jumped back into myself. “Oh. I’m sorry. I’m super tired. What’s up?” I smiled sheepishly. “We’re meeting up at the library this afternoon to have our first study group. Are you coming?” Greta asked sweetly. “We e-mailed you. You never responded.” Nicole added, eyeing me stonily. “Patrick will be there.” Greta waggled her eyebrows at me. I fought back a smile. It was hard to be lost in myself when Greta was so cheery. “I’ll be there,” I said to Greta as Nicole turned abruptly and stalked away, followed quickly by Greta at her heels. Greta turned briefly with a sad smile on her face and I shrugged my shoulders in a ‘whatever’ gesture. It wasn’t her fault Nicole was a bitch. I knew it bothered Greta and I knew she’d snapped at Nicole once. It was the only time I’d ever seen her upset. Sadly, this version of Nicole was the nicer version. Old Nicole pretended I didn’t exist. Personally, I preferred the old Nicole but Greta thought this was a step in the right direction. Ha. The prospect of seeing Patrick was enough to make me go, I wasn’t sure how I’d react when I saw him. He hadn’t shown up to class in a week so either something happened or he was avoiding me, yet he was going to study group? But I had another reason to go. Maybe Patrick was right; maybe I was a dreamer. I lived more in my head than in the world, and maybe, just maybe, I needed to be a part of the world instead of apart from it. Even just a small study group could help me be more open and less self-possessed. After class, I headed over to a small café to replenish myself and go over the day’s notes for class. It was only the start of the third week but midterms were right around the corner. It was another dreary sort of day: crisp, dark, with a slight fog. Watching the passersby, I woofed down a bagel and drank my tea before, rather unwillingly, pulling myself to my notes. I became deeply engrossed in going over the day’s lecture and reading passages from the prescribed books while painstakingly making new notes, that I never noticed someone sit down across from me. “Hi.” I gasped, my body jumping and my hand knocking into my cup of tea. Before it could spill, a small, creamy white hand grabbed it deftly, moving it away from my books and papers. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” said the musical voice. My heart still pounding, I raised my eyes into the face of the most beautiful, enchanting woman I had ever seen. Dark, curly tendrils of hair that ran just past her shoulders framed her face graced with creamy white skin, delicate features, and dark eyes. I was awed by her presence. She was the epitome of a porcelain doll. “No, no, I’m sorry. I should have been paying attention.” I smiled weakly. “Well, let me start again. Hi. I’m Thea, and you’re Lorelei right? We have Professor Cash’s class together. I just saw you and thought I’d come over and introduce myself. I also wanted to see if you’d want to get together before midterms and prep a little.” “Um, yea. I’ve got work and a study group for my other classes but, yes, definitely.” I racked my brain but I couldn’t remember having seen her before. “Good. Well, I’ve got to get going, but if you give me your number, I can text you and we can work something out.” “Yea, that’d be perfect,” I replied, giving her my number before beginning to pack up my things. “You leaving, too?” she asked. “Where are you headed?” “To the library. A couple of girls are starting this study group for these two classes we have together.” “Well, my next class is that way. Mind if I tag along?” Thea smiled broadly. “Of course.” “What classes are you guys taking?” “The American Revolution with Professor Brooke and African American History post-1877 with Rucken.” “I had Brooke’s class last quarter for Colonial History, and he was great, except for the spittle that forms on his mouth when he’s getting really into his lecture,” she trilled. “Oh, I know!” I exclaimed. “And how his arm always jerks out and flails around when he’s making a point.” I imitated his arm movements as we continued laughing. “The perfect absent-minded professor,” she said. “That’s exactly how I describe him.” Our laughter grew. “I haven’t had Rucken, but I hear he’s pretty fierce.” “He’s definitely intense and passionate. He doesn’t let anyone slack off. I’ve seen him kick students out for not taking notes, but he’s also really easy. At the beginning of class, he gives you a list of terms. You take notes based on the list he gives you, and those are the terms that pop up on quizzes and exams,” I explained. “Wow. That does sound straightforward. I don’t know about you, but I’ve honestly found that all my major courses have been so much easier than the GEC courses.” “That’s why I’m kind of sad to be graduating this quarter. There are so many good classes left to take. I feel like most of college was spent on classes that had nothing to do with history. Then when you finally get to your major, you have to squeeze in as many good classes as you can. Not to mention some of them only come up once a year.” “I know what you mean. I graduate next quarter, and I can’t seem to narrow down my final classes. But there’s always grad school,” she replied as we rounded another quarter. “I suppose so.” She looked at me, hearing my hesitation. “That is … if you want to go to grad school.” “Oh, it’s not that,” I said quickly. “I want to go. It’s just that undergrad was expensive enough with my student loans. I just don’t know if I can afford the added expense. But I’ve already started to see what’s out there with my bachelor’s degree, and it’s not pretty.” “Believe me, I understand, but you seem smart and capable. You’ll find your path,” she consoled. We had come to a slow pace as we neared the library. “Well, I’ve got to go,” Thea said, “but I’ll text you later, and maybe we can study soon or just go have a beer. There’s a couple of new bars I want to try out.” With that, she was gone. I stared up at the library, a nervous energy coming over me as the thought of Patrick crept into my mind. Smiling to myself as memories of Patrick and I in the shower flooded me, I entered the library, only to be immediately greeted by Greta. “Hey! I saw you walking with Thea and thought I’d wait for you. I didn’t realize you knew her. She’s so great, isn’t she?” Greta said animatedly. “I actually just met her,” I said, “but, yea, she seems all right.” “Well, come on. We’ve got a lot to cover.” Her voice was bright and optimistic. I smiled, following her to one of the workrooms. This was why I liked Greta. She was a genuinely good person, unmarred by bitterness and anger. She was one of those do-gooders with stick figure bumper stickers and a Jesus fish on her car. God-fearing parents who adored her. Nothing bad had ever happened to her. I was slightly jealous of my friend. Here was a girl who’d go far, while I … well, I couldn’t even think about the future without getting anxious and nauseous. All I saw was darkness, nothingness. Shaking myself, I glanced around trying to escape the darkness. Nicole was already there. A born leader, she was giving directions to two other boys in our classes. I wasn’t quite sure of their names. “Hey, Nicole,” Greta greeted her before turning to me. She pointed to one of two open seats at the opposite end of the table from Nicole. “Sit here, and then Patrick can sit there.” She winked, walking off to help Nicole organize some papers. I greeted the two guys—I thought they might be Greg and Chris—and sat down, pulling out a notebook and pencil. The air in the room changed suddenly, becoming potent, and my body tensed. “Patrick,” I whispered. Peering up, I saw him walking toward me. Our eyes locked. His eyes never leaving mine, he greeted everyone and sat down across from me. His dark, bold eyes were so severe. My entire body sighed. I needed a cold shower; every fiber of my being wanted to launch myself at him. The intensity, the heat, the passion. His eyes radiated the same desire, his lips twitched into a knowing smile. For the next hour, I was in absolute Hell. I tried to be good. I really did. He had never texted or called. He hadn’t even shown up to class after our encounter, and I was mad, despite the fact that I had no right to be. But all I could think about were his lips on mine, gently caressing my skin. Trying desperately not to look at him, I fidgeted mercilessly, tapping my feet. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I would glance his way, only to see him staring at me, his eyes somehow darker, hungrier. My body was rigid, my hands white from clutching the notebook so tight. My breathing was erratic, my heart beating like I was running a marathon. Nicole was talking, papers were being passed, I had no idea what was going on—and I didn’t care. Something pulled me back into focus. Nicole. “Lorelei? Lorelei!” Nicole’s voice was shrill. “Sorry,” I pulled my eyes from my blank notepad. Everyone was staring at me, and I flushed scarlet. “Are you okay?” Greta asked, concern in her voice. “I… I… I… actually, I’m not feeling well. I should go. So sorry.” With all their faces gawking at me, I grabbed my things and ran, stopping the second fresh air rushed into my lungs. My breathing slowed; my head cleared. What the Hell was that? I mean, yeah, we had sex. Twice. But that intensity was way more potent than before. I couldn’t figure out why he affected me that way. It was absolutely mortifying with everyone staring at me. I started a slow pace to my car, trying to make sense of the intensity of what I’d felt. Embarrassed and worried, I made my way to the parking garage, only to stop short a few feet from my car. Leaning against it was Patrick. How the Hell…? My thought trailed as our eyes met. “I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said, his voice dreamy to me. “How did you get here so fast? How’d you know where I parked?” I whispered, my heart accelerating. “Took a short cut and a chance after our first encounter at the crosswalk,” he mused. Disbelieving, I shook my head, closing the distance between us. I unlocked my door. He took my arm, turning my body toward his, gently lifting my chin to meet his gaze. I shivered, suddenly apprehensive. Patrick immediately dropped his hand. “Sorry,” he muttered. Silence enveloped us for several minutes until I murmured, “You surprised me; that’s all.” I reached out to touch his arm, but he cringed away. Rejected. “I should go,” I said. “Are you okay?” he asked suddenly. “I’m okay,” I managed. “I don’t know what came over me back there.” At that, he smiled broadly. The questions burned in me, begging to be unleashed. Why didn’t you text? Or call? Or, hell, show up to classes? I swallowed them down to the best of my ability. I’d never been a needy person before, and I certainly wasn’t about to start now. “Here,” he said, handing me a small stack of papers. “Notes and outlines Nicole prepared. Stuff to go over. We’re meeting same time next week. I circled the part you’re supposed to have ready. If you need help with it or want to work on it together….” His voice trailed off. “Yes,” I said quickly—too quickly, and I inwardly cringed at myself. “I’ll try not to sit so close.” He winked at me, the smile reaching his eyes. “I seem to have an adverse effect on you.” I flushed. “When?” I asked, outwardly ignoring his remark while I inwardly warred between anger and embarrassment. “Tonight, maybe, if you’re free. Your place, if you don’t mind. Mine is crowded. You’ve seen my family.” He gave a small laugh at that. “Okay.” As I moved to get in the car, he leaned in suddenly, so close our faces were almost touching. My breath quickened. “Lorelei,” he whispered. “Yes.” “I’ll see you later.” Winking, he shut the door, leaving me flustered and breathing heavy. Driving home, I chastised myself for still being so enthralled by him. I had no rights to him. No reason to be jealous and wanting but it still stung, that he didn’t try to reach me and all of a sudden popped back up. And I had jumped so eagerly to his side. When I got home, Heath was there waiting for me, looking annoyed and distracted. I wasn’t surprised. Since he had a key, I was used to him being there. Besides, I hadn’t talked to him since we all had gone to dinner and the movie. “We should go out tonight,” he said by way of greeting as I sat on the couch next to him, “to a bar or something.” “Why?” I heard the suspicion in my voice. We never went to bars. Heath never drank. “I want to go. I want you to come.” “I can’t. I have plans, and I have to work early tomorrow.” “Please cancel them. I won’t keep you out late. I just need you to go,” he persisted. “Why?” My eyes narrowed, knowing full well he was bullshitting me for some reason. “I told Mads you’d be there,” he said awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Mads…?” I paused, “Mads. Madison! You mean Madison! You’re calling her ‘Mads’ now?” I giggled, bouncing on the couch animatedly. “She broke up with that idiot and wants to hang out with us,” he mumbled. “She wants to hang out with you, not us. Besides, I’m so not going to sit there and watch you two ogle each other all night. No way.” “Shut up.” A grin lit up his face. “You think she’s really into me?” “Oh, hell yea. Trust me.” And just like that, our easy banter, reminding me of our years of friendship made me feel like it was time to be honest and tell him what had been happening to me. “So, what plans do you have?” he asked, his smile still alight. “Just studying with a friend from school.” I tried to sound aloof. “Who?” Now it was his turn to sound suspicious. “No one you know,” I said, feigning innocence, suddenly very interested in the seam of the couch. “Lorelei! Who?” He nudged me with his elbow. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, smacking his elbow away. “Besides, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, and it’s important. Please?” I added as he glared at me. He hated when I kept secrets from him but he nodded anyway. Taking a deep breath, I told him about each instance of freaky blue sparks and how, each time it happened, it seemed to be growing in intensity. I described the rush of energy, the adrenaline, the now-useless clock and coffee maker. I even went so far as to bring them out and show him that they were broken now. He sat there silently, taking it all in, nodding at some parts, shaking his head at others. I commended him for not shutting me down or looking at me as if I’d lost it. When I was finished, he leaned forward and grasped my hands in his. He looked at me with understanding and compassion, reminding me why our friendship had persisted through the years. “You’re my best friend, and I love you. I would never do anything to hurt you.” I nodded, swallowing back my rush of emotions, the tears threatening to break through. “I know,” I whispered. “I love you, too.” We sat like that for a moment, holding hands, sitting in companionable silence. “There’s so much I have to talk to you about, Lor. I just…. I don’t want you to ever hate me, okay? I need you to remember that everything is because of our friendship.” Fear gnawed at me. He’d just said he’d never do anything to hurt me and yet now that statement made me wary whereas before I had known it as fact. “What’s going on? Do you know something about all this? Or … oh no. Do you think I’m going crazy?” I dropped his hands like they were burning me and sank back deeper into the couch. “No, Lorelei, no! Please just let me explain. But first, I need you to tell me who you’re hanging out with tonight.” “Why?” “Please, Lor. There’s a reason.” He stared at me intently as we sat in silence for a moment. “Patrick,” I said slowly. “The guy from the store?” “Yes.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Heath’s face contorted in anger, his hands clenched, and I could swear there was steam coming out of his ears. “No. Absolutely not. He’s dangerous,” Heath thundered suddenly. I gaped at him, momentarily stunned, before I found my voice. “You don’t even know him!” I stood, beyond furious. “Who the hell do you think you are?” My own hands clenched, anger coursing through my veins. “Lorelei, no. You don’t know this guy either. You need to stay away from him. We need to talk, and then you’re coming with me tonight.” “No. I’m not. I’m studying with Patrick tonight, and that’s it.” “Like hell you are!” “What did you just say to me?” I froze, my voice quiet. He opened his mouth to respond, knowing full well he’d crossed a line. I shut him down. “You know what? Shut up. One minute you love me. I’m your best friend, but then the next you freak out on me. I’m having a hard time here, Heath. I needed you, but no more. Get out! It’s none of your damn business what I do!” I roared. “You’re not my father or my lover. Stop acting like a jealous boyfriend and Get. Out!” “Lor—” “Get out! Now!” “Please listen,” he began, pleading. “Go.” I pointed shakily to the door, tears in my eyes. “Fine.” He sulked to the door, pausing momentarily. He turned and started to say something but, thinking better of it, he walked out. Blind rage grew in the pit of my stomach and what happened next, I can only imagine as being a dream. He had exited the door, swinging it slowly behind him. My hand flew out, a diaphanous light blue flame leaping from my fingertips and slamming into the door so hard the frame shook. Frantically, I scurried away into the farthest corner of the room. Okay, okay, reason it out. Blue flames spurting from your body, doing your bidding isn’t reasonable. It’s certainly not possible. Think, think, think. Fuck. Why did I let Heath leave? He said I wasn’t crazy, so that must mean he knows something. Reason. Use reason, Lorelei. I was on the other side of the room. Heath had let go of the door; it would have been impossible for him to slam it. I ran to peer out the window, but he was already driving away. Still baffled, I stood there, staring at my hands, watching as a blue hue faded from them. What. The. Hell. What is happening to me? Maybe I was overtired from lack of sleep, and my mind was playing tricks on me. But I knew, deep down, that wasn’t true. Heath had answers, but I just couldn’t face him. I felt angry. Why did Heath have answers? He knew what was happening. My gut tightened with the knowledge that he was keeping things from me. Turning away, I sat on the sofa and tried to tune out Heath’s words and what had just happened. If there was one thing I was really good at, it was denial, having lived in a state of it most of my life. Growing up poor with unstable parents had taught me to cope through denial. It also taught me to watch TV. Every major life trauma was connected to a memory of a television show or movie that helped me through the dark times. Just as I had as a child, I sat in silence, watching bad reality TV. Until there was a knock on the door. Patrick! I’d forgotten. I gave a cursory glance around the room, adjusting my clothes as I went to the door. Feeling nervous, apprehensive, giddy even, I opened the door, fully aware that I must look horrible. There he stood: Patrick, lean yet muscular, as handsome as ever. “Hello.” He smiled wickedly at me, his eyes twinkling. He carried a backpack on one shoulder. “May I come in?” “Of course.” I flushed darkly and moved to let him enter. “So, this is your apartment,” he said, winking. “I didn’t get a chance to look around the last time.” He sat down on the couch before glancing at the TV. “What are you watching?” I flushed again. “Nothing. Just flipping through the stations,” I mumbled. “So, did you want to study in here or in my super small kitchen?” “Actually, I kind of filled out your section of the outline already.” He grinned, embarrassed. “I thought maybe we could just go to dinner or hangout.” “You filled out my part? How did you even have time? You didn’t have to do that. Really. Thanks…. Um, yea. What did you want to do?” I felt incredibly addled and thrilled. He wanted to spend more time with me? I mentally gave myself a high five. I’ve always prided myself on having a good front when it came to confidence. But in truth it was all an act. I was deeply insecure. He looked me up and down, making me turn a deep purple before he said, “Let’s go to dinner.” It was at this point that I genuinely looked at him. Dressed in a dark suede coat, a tan sweater underneath, and a dark pair of jeans, Patrick looked casual yet high class. “Okay. Let me change real quick,” was all I could say as my eyes finally dared to meet his, again. My urge to jump him was quietly being checked by my more rational side. In my room, however, I began to panic. His clothes were so nice, while I had nothing even close to chic, or high end. Sighing, I started digging through my clean pile of clothes and closet, eventually deciding on a dark pair of jeans, black boots, and a black sweater with a white camisole underneath. Re-doing my ponytail and adding a touch of makeup, I went back to the living room, where I found Patrick checking out my bookshelf. I felt my stomach churn. Who was this man? And why was he interested in me? I was beyond repair, a broken mess, who was now bordering sanity. I pushed the thoughts away as he turned to meet me, his eyes appraising me appreciatively. “You look good.” He glanced back to the shelves. “You have quite a collection here. I see you like to read.” “I’ve always been an avid reader.” I smiled. Books were a subject that relaxed me, brought me comfort. “So, where are we going to eat?” “It’s a surprise. Come on, we should go.” A flicker of trepidation crossed his face as he glanced at the door. He turned back to me, his face suddenly light, the transformation so quick I wondered if I had imagined it. After all, I clearly couldn’t trust myself lately. Grabbing a small handbag from my room, I followed him to his car. As we drove away, he kept his gaze on the rearview mirror, his eyes narrowing, hand clutching the steering wheel fiercely. “What is it?” I said, turning repeatedly, unable to see what he was looking at. “Nothing,” he said. After a few minutes of silence, we reached the freeway. His eyes kept flicking to the mirror. Before I could ask what was wrong, we were flying down the road. Cringing, I clung desperately onto the dash as we weaved in and out of lanes, bobbing through traffic at dangerous speeds. Just when I was about to scream, he slowed. My body trembled, my mind rushing with adrenaline. A few minutes later, we came to a stop in front of a restaurant I’d never heard of. “Sorry about that. Are you okay?” he asked as he turned off the engine. I stared at him as he nodded to my hands, which were snow-white and clutching the dashboard. “You ask that a lot,” I said, my voice uncontrollably high. “I’m sorry. I was distracted.” He sighed, running his hand through his hair before reaching for my hand. I moved my hands swiftly to my lap, clenching them together so I wouldn’t slap him. “Distracted? Distracted?! By what? Were we being followed? Were we in a car chase and I was unaware, or do you just drive like a maniac for kicks?” In one moment, I’d exited the car, slamming the door shut, and walked away from the restaurant as I pulled my phone out of my purse. I was going to have to grovel to Heath, beg for forgiveness. He’d been right all along. I moved quickly, but Patrick was too fast for me. Like an apparition, he appeared in front of me, my phone in his hand. Dumbly, I stared at my now-empty hand, wondering how the hell he’d done that. How did he get in front of me? Let alone grab my phone? The crazy was mounting, and I was going to lose it soon. “Where are you going? Are you planning on walking home?” His voice was light, playful. “No. I’m going to get a ride from someone who’s not trying to kill me,” I growled. “Please stay. Please. I’m sorry. I was just ensuring our time together.” “What? You know that makes no sense, right?” My voice was so high-pitched, soon only dogs would be able to hear me. “Please come inside. Have dinner with me. Afterwards, if you don’t feel safe, I’ll call and pay for a cab myself. Please.” His intense eyes pleaded with me, and I felt myself buckle. “I want my phone back.” I tried to sound angry still, but he knew I’d faltered. A smile eased his face as he dropped my phone carefully into my hand. He gestured back toward the restaurant, and we walked in tandem, our steps slow. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” His voice sounding remorseful. “There’s not a lot that scares me.” I chuckled softly as I calmed. “Oh, really? So what does scare you?” “Aside from people driving crazy?” I chuckled again. Always the gentlemen—well, almost always—he held the door for me and got us a corner booth. Private, dimly lit, warm atmosphere. It was perfection. Sitting across from him, I found his eyes burrowing holes into me, his expression concerned. “What’s wrong?” I questioned. “Before, you laughed and said there’s not a lot that scares you. So, what does? Scare you, I mean.” His brow was furrowed as he waited expectantly for an answer. “You’re inquisitive,” I murmured, turning my eyes down from him. For the second time since we met, he reached over, lifting my chin to meet his gaze. Just as before, I shuddered with desire and something else … trepidation. I breathed deeply. Instinctively, he dropped his hand, murmuring something inaudible. But then he took a deep breath and said, “I just really want to know you. I find you very easy to talk to and interesting, to say the least.” “You want to know me? I mean…. Don’t get me wrong, but no one ever really wants to know me. I have friends, but even my best friend doesn’t truly know me.” I closed my eyes, seeing Heath’s face was before me, a lump rising in my throat. Clearing my throat, I continued. “Besides, I’m far from interesting. But I do…. I do find you easy to talk to, too.” My face could not possibly get any redder. “Aside from the fact that you’ve almost murdered me twice now.” I slowly opened my eyes to face him. “I find you,” he paused for a moment, a smile playing at his lips, “enchanting. And I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to know you.” His eyes locked on mine as I felt the heat, the burning passion again attracting us together like magnets. But how could he be for real? I wanted to cry at that moment. Most girls would do anything to hear those words being said to them. Not me. I felt terrified because I knew it couldn’t possibly last. This would end and end badly. Everything did. This was how Heath had gotten so close to me. Friendship trumped romance and love. Even as my friend I could still hold him at a distance. I sighed heavily. “Please,” he murmured. “Please tell me what scares you?” “Why? You haven’t answered my question yet.” “I will. Please. Your laughter was disturbing to me,” he tried again. “Well, death doesn’t scare me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not crazy. In fact, I’m all about self-preservation,” I added this last part as his eyebrows went up in doubt. “But death itself? No, it doesn’t scare me. Neither does aging or being alone. Most people are terrified of those things. But not me. That’s the cycle. Time keeps moving forward.” “So, what does scare you?” “Life.” I whispered so low I thought he couldn’t possibly hear me, but he had. “Life?” he sounded confused. Luckily for me, our waiter picked that moment our waiter to come over and greet us. I sat in silence, not hearing a word the waiter was saying. My eyes were only on Patrick’s face, examining every detail. I knew I had to stop this before it went farther. The longer it went on, the more mangled I would be. Then the waiter was gone, and it was just us, Patrick waving his hand in front of my face as concern and confusion etched his eyes. “Where did you go?” he demanded. “Off for a stroll in my head,” I tried to smile. “You do that a lot, you know. Welcome back,” he added, his concern fading. “I hope you don’t mind I ordered for you since you went catatonic on me.” “I don’t mind. Thank you. I appreciate it.” “Life?” He prompted after a minute. Here we were again. My luck had run out too quickly. I thought for a minute. When I felt Patrick’s unease growing, I finally responded. “It sounds stupid, but … yes, life. Really living. Unfulfilled dreams, expectations. Doing nothing, being nothing. I can handle that. I can deal with this shell of a life, mostly. It’s the dream of love and joy, family and friends. A life of real happiness. Seeing it around me, happening for everyone else, I start to let that desire seep in. But I know, I actually know it will never happen for me, and it crushes me. Knowing your life is over before it even begins, that’s the worst part. The failure of it all. It’s the hope, the secret unfulfilled promises in the dark, that’s what scares me. That’s what haunts me….” And that was it. So quickly my eyes couldn’t see it, he was next to me, where a moment ago he’d been across from me in the booth. His lips were on mine, cool and needy, while his hands were in my hair, pressing my face gently yet urgently into his. Cool breath mingled with my warmth, and I felt my body lighting up. Just as quickly, he was gone. Back in his seat. His kiss still lingered on my lips. I touched them gently to make sure that it had been real, that I hadn’t just imagined it. I looked at him, my need for him growing, but my eyes questioned. “Do you feel that?” He breathed erratically, his eyes jet black. “Yes,” I stuttered. “That’s life. That’s real.” “Is it? I’m not so sure.” Instinctively, I touched my lips again, tracing where his lips had been. Then the waiter was back, placing drinks and a bread basket in front of us before taking off. I took the moment to pull myself back together. “Why not?” He hadn’t taken his eyes from me. “If you left. If this feeling faded. If something happened to you….” As I listed each scenario, I ticked off a finger on my hand. By the third one, I couldn’t finish. I was revealing too much, too soon. Heath was right, as always. I barely knew this man, yet my feelings were so vivid. I’d never felt this passion, this unbelievable pull. Sex had been a way to kill the pain of loss, the void of loneliness. I knew that this wasn’t just lust, and that was what was so horrible. Lust you can get over. Lust you can work out of your system. Love, love was dangerous. I’d loved before—not in this sense, but I’d loved my mother, father, and sister, and they had broken me. I couldn’t let myself fall for him or let him see that I was. Then he would have the power to destroy what was left of me. I mentally started counting, tapping my foot in sequence, trying to counteract my anxiety. “What are you thinking?” His voice pitched low, over the murmur of conversations surrounding us. I had to lean in closer to hear him clearly. “That this is wrong. You want something else. Someone else. I’m not for sale.” My words were cold, harsh. The food arrived, and our waiter hurried off, sensing the tension at our table. We sat in silence, both of us suddenly furious with the other. “I want to know you,” Patrick said at last, sounding sincere. “Be your friend…. Well, really, I want to be more, but I can settle for friend. For now. I know you feel the pull. Believe me, I feel it, too. The other night was beyond anything I’ve ever felt, Lorelei. It’s never been that way for me. Then you didn’t want me to stay, and I was suddenly an insecure boy, wondering if I should call or text. I don’t want to scare you. Just know you. Understand you. Protect you. If that’s all you want.” His voice was soft, patient. Again I wanted to cry. Why did I have to be so broken? His last words clung to me and triggered a flood of unpleasant memories. Nobody had ever understood me. Not really. And protect me? Ha. Only Prue, but she was gone, off in New York. And Heath, I reminded myself, but I was feeling insecure about where we stood. I felt my eyes sting, but I fought it back, refusing to let him see me so weak. Instead, I shoved another forkful of food in my mouth, working to swallow it, the lump rising in my throat. I nodded slowly, unable to respond, continuing in silence for a few minutes. He politely looked away as I struggled to pull my face into submission. Before I knew it, the waiter was back with two boxes and a check. Patrick handed the man cash, saying something to him I didn’t hear, for that was the moment I realized he’d barely touched his food even though. In fact, it looked as though he’d just shoveled his food around on his plate. I looked at his glass. Full. I stared at my own things, my glass and plate half-empty. I hadn’t even realized I’d taken a drink, let alone eaten so much! Then I looked back at his plate, my brows furrowing together. The reasoning part of my brain kicked in as if to tally this to a list of strange happenings. Shaking my head slowly, I knew something was off. What wasn’t I seeing? Then his plate was gone. He was looking down, pulling the contents of his plate into the white Styrofoam box left by the waiter. His eyes never moved from his meticulous actions. Sighing, I tried to shake it off, boxing my own food. He mumbled, “Guess I wasn’t that hungry.” I nodded, trying to comprehend what I was and wasn’t seeing. We left, making our way to my apartment in silence. He drove very carefully, a few miles under the speed limit—to appease me, I guessed. When we got close to my place, he turned to me, as sly grin crossing his face. “No distractions.” “I have no idea what that means. You still owe me an explanation.” I said, slightly annoyed. “I’ll explain in your apartment,” he promised. As soon as I opened the door, I turned on him. “Explain,” I demanded. “Your friend was following us. I was just shaking him loose.” His face relaxed as he strode to my bookshelf and ran his finger along the stacks. “What are you talking about? Who was following us?” Fear creeped into my voice. “Heath. That’s his name, right? He seemed very determined to be wherever you were. I just wanted to … steer away from him.” Patrick said calmly. “Heath? He wouldn’t. He … he … he would never violate me in that way.” Anger began to mix with the fear. “I’m afraid he did. He doesn’t like me much. He thinks I’m dangerous.” His serenity was starting to piss me off now. “You couldn’t possibly know that. Besides, you saw him once. How on earth could you tell he was following us?” I mentally started counting to three, trying to calm my apprehension. “It was all over his face that day. Besides, I have very good eyesight. Never doubt that. Black jeep, right?” I swallowed hard, nodding my head slowly as I counted to three again. Seeing my fear, he added, “Don’t worry. It’s not about you so much. It’s me. He’s truly concerned for your safety. He needn’t be, but he is. Why don’t you sit down and we can talk.” I nodded numbly as he led me to the sofa. Flipping on the television, he lowered the volume so it was just background noise. He turned to me, waiting for me to tune back in. “Talk to me,” he said finally. “You creep me out when you do this.” I immediately pulled myself back into focus. “I don’t know. I just don’t understand. He’s never been like this before. Acted so jealous or overprotective. I just don’t get it. We’re like family, you know? I know he’s crazy for Madison, so this makes even less sense.” Seeing the confusion on his face, I told him about my argument with Heath earlier, leaving out the crazy door details and all the freaky stuff. “I think Heath just wants what’s best for you. He’s a good friend to be worried.” “But not to be a stalker!” “No. But, not all of the facts are in yet. I’m not a threat to you, but I could be.” Patrick looked at me, his expression blank. A shiver escaped at his words. He could be a threat to me. Meaning, if he wanted. “I’m not a great person, Lorelei. When he saw me at the store that day, he knew it. I can be dangerous.” “What does that mean?” I was still slightly freaked out by the hint of a future threat from him in those words could be. But I believed him when he said he wasn’t currently one. “It means give him a chance to say his peace. We’re just getting to know each other and he’s protecting you from the unknown.” His mask fell, a small smile forming, reaching his eyes. I nodded in agreement. “Will you be a danger to me?” I couldn’t help myself from asking. Looking deep into my eyes he said, “To your heart.” With a wink he leaned back as I chortled. “That was the best you could come with? That was the line?” I gasped out. Relaxed, we talked for most of the night with Patrick asking me superficial details, I think to keep me at ease. I’d had enough crazy for the evening. Mainly we discussed books and music. Books were a great passion for him as well. We both loved the classics and a good Poirot novel. Our tastes were expansive in books and music, and we found we had a lot in common. Our conversation turned to movies and television, and I was thrilled to finally have met someone who knew all the same old movies and shows as me, along with all the more recent ones. We discussed favorite authors and actors. Who was truly great versus who was just bolstered for beauty’s sake. We laughed and joked, and I never wanted it to end. It had been a long while since I’d had such a good time. Eventually, talking turned to intimate whispers, to jokes, to sweet caresses. Before any sense could be made, we came together again, our bodies crashing into each other rhythmically. Tonight, I wanted him to stay. When I yawned, he took it as a cue to leave. I protested, but he simply said, “You have to work early, remember?” Nodding, I walked him to the door where he turned and said, “You’re far more interesting than you give yourself credit for. Good night, friend.” Kissing me softly, he was gone. Maybe I can do this, I thought, have a friend and a lover rolled into one. Chapter Five I went straight to bed, letting my thoughts roll over in my mind. Wait. Had I told him I had to work early? I couldn’t recall having said it, but how else could he have known? I sat up, the weird list mounting. Running over the evening, I tallied the strangeness. His touch, his speed. He knew Heath had been following us. He knew I had to work early. Some could be explained away. Maybe he really did have good eyesight. Maybe he really hadn’t been thirsty, but … I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off, and I knew it wasn’t just him. I was off. The pull I felt toward him left me with a chill. Not to mention my flaming hands. Sleep eluded me, and when it did come, so did terror. It was dark, cold, and I was running. They were following me. They were going to catch me. I couldn’t see them, but I knew if I stopped running, death would soon follow. I was in the woods, nowhere I recognized. So cold, so frozen. Every breath was like a knife in my chest. Trees whizzed past me as I stumbled, clawing my way through the blackened forest. I could hear nothing but my ragged breaths and rapid heartbeat. Fear clawed at me. I couldn’t stop tripping over my feet as I ran clumsily onward. I knew if I slowed or stopped, it was over. I had to keep going, keep fighting. I saw a clearing up ahead. A clearing and a house, a cottage. Hope. I kept going. I was suddenly elated and buoyant. Soon, soon, I kept repeating in my head. I just had to get to the house, dazzling, surrounded by soft, comforting light. Surely, the light would protect me, dispel the dangers. I just had to keep going. I was dizzy. How long had I been running? I was closer now, so close. If I could just reach out and touch the light…. I had to make it. I had to. But, as I thought it, my body slowed. Why wasn’t my body cooperating? Please keep going, I begged silently. I tried to will my body into action, but it was failing me. It kept slowing and slowing, but the light … the light was so close. It was gone. I felt my feet falter one last time over a tree limb, and I was down. It was over. I tried to get back up, but the light was gone. The trees, the forest, it was all gone. It was just me in darkness in the middle of a field. I heard them before I saw them. Like lions stalking their prey. I knew I had only moments left. Desperately, I looked around, but there was nothing. Nowhere to run or hide. Just vast openness all around me. It was done. Pale moonlight streamed across the field as shadows formed, creeping closer. Their black outlines developing as they neared. I saw their eyes first. The bright whites were shocking. In the center of each were narrow, pitch black dots. The teeth next. Glistening white. And then their faces. I gasped in horror—Patrick, his skin translucent in the moonlight, his lips curled over his teeth. Had they grown larger? That’s when I saw the rest of them. His teeth had changed on either side of his two front teeth where his last incisors were. They had become longer, larger, pointier. He growled an inhuman sound, his face becoming more distorted. On either side of him were his family. Five in all, they stood, freakishly translucent and inhuman. I felt my knees buckle, and my brain screamed at my body to run. To move. To do something. I finally felt my head and body work in unison, and I turned right into a frozen wall. No. Not a wall. A body. Terrified, I turned to meet this creature. Two dark eyes mocked me from under a hood. I couldn’t see its face, but I knew it wasn’t human. The creature reached up slowly to pull back its hood. As it did so, I could feel the hideous laughter of the monsters behind me. Then this creature began to laugh as well—a sickening, deadening laugh. In that instant, I knew. I knew. It was her! My monster, my demon from the great beyond. My hand shook as I reached forward. I grabbed the hood, my breath catching in my throat. In one motion of sheer determination, I pulled back the hood on the creature. “Mom,” I gasped as I woke trembling. Tears racking my body. I needed light; my body and mind were screaming for it in the darkness. With a crackling surge of blue, my small apartment was illuminated. Every light in the place shone on. Letting out a muffled cry, I scrambled to the farthest corner of the room, where I stayed for what felt like hours. I rocked myself back and forth until I could focus. It was a dream. It wasn’t real. I was imagining things. The lights, I must have been sleepwalking or maybe Heath … but I couldn’t think of a lie good enough to convince myself this time. So I sat rocking, back and forth, back and forth, my head spinning. When I woke, I was still in the corner, my body numb and achy from sleeping with my knees hugged to my chest. Trying to stretch my legs out, I felt the sudden rush of blood send thousands of pins and needles through my legs and feet. “Argh,” I moaned softly. All the lights were still on, and I shuddered violently from the memory. I rolled my stiff neck, stifling a groan. I glanced at the cable box. Fuck! I was already fifteen minutes late for work. Slowly I stood, wary of the pins and needles, and grabbed the cleanest clothes I could find. Shaking out the kinks, I quickly dressed and limped for the door, turning off as many lights as I could on the way. I didn’t look back. I was still terrified and overwhelmed. The day crawled by. Every part of my body ached, and my head throbbed from overthinking the past night’s events. The dream, I could explain away. It was just a dream, right? But the lights all turning on at the same time … that was real. It had to be. Otherwise, it meant something far worse. I felt terrified. My mind had always been slightly off. It was understandable that I suffered from depression: an abusive mother, a neglectful father, an impoverished childhood, my mother’s subsequent death, moving during such a pivotal moment in my life. I’d been to therapy to help cope but found it unhelpful since I didn’t want to talk about my emotions. I took my dose of antidepressants daily to keep my bed of pain at bay. I was fine most of the time. I was coping, and that was that. But this…. If this was my mind, maybe I was sicker than I had ever thought. Maybe my shyness, my sadness, my isolation had warped my mind beyond repair. What if I was hallucinating? That scared me more than anything. I hated the idea of being unable to trust my mind. My mind was all I had. By the end of the first hour of my shift, I was shaking and on the verge of tears. Hiding in the bathroom trying to find an answer, I knew it was real, but to admit that meant that I believed in … well, what? I wasn’t ready to answer that, nor could I admit that my mind might be crumbling. Finally, I exited the bathroom after a solid hour, resolving that I needed to journal about what was happening. Get some perspective. Reason needed her day, so I decided to write about all the strange things going on. Most importantly, I resolved to talk to Heath. He clearly had some idea as to what was happening. Not to mention we definitely needed to talk about him following me and the boundaries of our friendship. I spent the rest of the day avoiding as many people as I could, co-workers and customers alike. Madison kept bolstering me for conversation, ranting about her evening with Heath. “First of all, he was late. Not just late, but late late. And then he didn’t even apologize,” she fumed. “Then he was, like, distracted the whole night. He was there but not, like, really there. You know what I mean. It was awful. He was so distracted, and then when he did talk, it was about you!” She glared at me. I pretended not to notice. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what that was about,” I mumbled, attempting to walk away. “Well, I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but it’s not fair to me. He supposedly doesn’t have feelings for you, but he complained the whole night about how he was worried about you. Something about some guy you were seeing. I don’t know. Who are you seeing, and why does he care so much?” “I really don’t know, and I’m not actually seeing anyone.” With that, I walked off before she could continue her barrage of questions. I wanted to be left alone. To not deal with the nonsense. I had real issues to think about. Madison spent the rest of her shift glaring in my direction, arms crossed, chin up in the air. I ignored her. I wasn’t about to apologize for Heath being overly involved in my life. I was grateful when it was time to clock out. I pulled into my parking space, staring at my apartment. I felt a cold wave of fear run through me. I didn’t want to go in. Sitting with the car turned off, I flipped through my phone, putting off the inevitable. Two missed texts, one missed call. The missed call was from Heath. I ignored it. I was pissed and had no desire to speak to him yet, and I couldn’t do it over the phone. One missed text was from Thea and the other from Greta; both were telling me to join them at the new bar by campus. I checked the time. They would be getting there about now. I debated briefly before deciding I’d much rather go there than go in my apartment. I quickly texted both back with a quick “On my way” before flooring it out of my complex. The farther I got, the better I felt. By the time I reached campus, I had all but forgotten my fear. The small parking lot was full, so I had to search up and down side streets until I found a spot three blocks down. Walking swiftly, I was more observant than usual. Campus always made me nervous, especially at night. Here, my mind wasn’t the danger. You could never be too safe. When I was within distance of the bar, I relaxed. The bar was severely crowded, wall to wall covered with college students. I felt incredibly old. Even though just a few years separated our ages, it felt like centuries. Maybe it was because I had never had the luxury of just going to school, living on campus, and enjoying the typical student life. I had to work full-time through college to keep a roof over my head and clothes on my back. Yes, it was definitely part-jealousy. No one paid for my education. I stifled my bitter thoughts as I watched Greta shoving through the crowd toward me. I smiled, my negativity fading. No one could control who they were born to. It certainly wasn’t their faults they had parents that helped or could afford to help with their education. Greta taught me that not all well-off kids were awful or spoiled. Greta shouted something over the throng of people, their chatter and the blaring music drowning her out. Shaking my head, I tried to motion that I couldn’t hear her. She beckoned me toward her, pointing toward the back. Being tall and standing on my tip toes, I could easily make out Nicole and Thea at the far end of the bar by a pool table. I nodded in understanding, weaving my way through the crowd, trying not to trip or bump into anyone. As soon as I reached the pool table, I was plied with a drink. Thea smiled. “About time you got here. I was about to drink your beer. What do you think?” She motioned around her. “It’s a bit crowded and loud,” I laughed, “but not bad.” “It’s perfect! Come on, we’ll drink and play some pool. You and Greta versus me and Nicole.” We took turns switching partners, playing three rounds of pool. I managed to not be the worst player. Nicole turned out to be quite horrible, knocking the balls off the table, hitting strangers with her stick when shooting. She turned out to be quite a sore loser as well, making snide comments and glaring at me at every turn. We moved farther away from the pool table, drinking and talking. I was feeling light, free, and tipsy. The conversation went from school, to future careers, to men. I smiled and laughed, making small comments. Mainly I just listened as Nicole and Greta discussed their boyfriends and passion for teaching. “What about you, Lorelei? You haven’t talked about yourself at all tonight. Are you seeing anyone?” Thea asked, her eyes bright. “No. Not really.” “Liar.” Nicole rolled her eyes. Getting up, she said, “I’ll be back.” Greta smiled gently, getting up to follow her. “Ignore her. She’s had too much to drink.” “Nicole seems to think you’re seeing someone.” Thea leaned in closer to me. “Who is it?” “No one, really. It’s stupid.” “Please tell me,” she asked, her finger tips grazing my forearm as she batted her long lashes at me. I didn’t know if it was the alcohol or the lights, but her dark eyes flashed, making her look somehow even more beautiful. I felt a rush of pleasure along with a sudden urge to tell her anything she wanted to know. “There’s this guy in a few of my classes. He’s different, but I don’t know. It’s too much. I feel overwhelmed, but….” I blushed, unable to stop staring at her pouty lips and her deep, dark eyes. Wait. Pouty lips? I shook my head. She moved her hand from my arm to my face, gently caressing my cheek. I felt dizzy with a rush of desire for her, a beast awakening in my body. I couldn’t think. I just wanted to please her. I wanted to tell her everything. “Tell me more,” she whispered in my ear, her fingers trailing down my neck, running along my side, her lips grazing my neck and ear. I moaned. Any chance of resistance vanished. “Tell me more,” she said again. She looked at me, her eyes glowing into two burning embers. “Please,” I sputtered. Her hands caressed my face as she leaned closer. Her face began contorting, stretching into something unnatural, grotesque even. I knew something was wrong, I knew I was in danger, but I couldn’t think. I just wanted her to touch me, kiss me. I needed her. I needed to obey her. “I said, tell me. Tell me everything about him,” she coaxed, tilting my head back, one hand on my throat, the other winding its way to my hip. I groaned, and words rushed from my lips. I told her all about him—from his almost hitting me with his car, to our encounters at school, the parking garage, the restaurant, the kiss, everything. When I had finally trailed off, she put both hands back on my face. I tried to lift my hands to hers, but I couldn’t. They were pinned at my sides. It wasn’t until then that I realized I was no longer sitting at the bar. I was outside, up against a building. Throwing her head back, she laughed, a hideous, high-pitched cackle. Her still-ember eyes glowed fiercely as her once lovely curly hair was now serpentine, flowing from her face, her skin pellucid, veins rising to the surface in a hideous bluish green road map. I tried to struggle, my senses converging back to me, but it was useless. She clung to my face, her nails digging into my skin as she turned her cold eyes back to me. Thea grinned maniacally, showing off barbed and broken teeth. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. “It’s no use,” she said sweetly, her breath hot and putrid. “Look down, my love … if you can.” Releasing my face, she stepped back. Desperately, I tried in vain to move but to no avail. I couldn’t budge. Her smiling face mocked me as I shakily looked down at what was binding me. On either side of me were Greta and Nicole, on their knees. Their hands firmly held my arms, their mouths on my wrists as blood dripped from the corners of their lips. Lifeless eyes stared up at me, draining me. I couldn’t breathe. What was happening? I began to shake violently, hyperventilating with tears rolling down my cheeks as I helplessly tried to cry, beg, plead, scream for help. No noise escaped my lips. I suddenly felt my wounds where they were draining me. Pain tore through me as my senses kicked in, and I heaved and struggled. “Greta,” I whispered. No, no, no! This couldn’t be right. I had to wake up now. This had to be another nightmare. I tried desperately to swallow back the tears and the rising terror. “No baby, no.” Thea was back, pulling my head into her hands. A rush of warmth and desire flowed through me at her touch. My fear abated as I met her red-eyed gaze. “Have no fear. I will protect you.” She stroked my face, making me tired. I closed my eyes while she continued, “So our little friend wants you, does he? That’s interesting. I wonder…. I very much wonder….” She began murmuring to herself, still stroking my face. I felt too weak to stand, and a part of me knew I was dying. I knew what was happening to my body, but I couldn’t wake up. I was under her spell. “Lorelei,” she crooned. Opening my eyes, I watched, fascinated as see she transformed back to her former porcelain shell, her face closing in on mine. She kissed me gently, my lips parting to meet hers. Her tongue gently caressed mine when she began to ease back, pulling from me, her lips hovering over mine as she stole energy from me. I felt my life force draining with each pull. Desire and horror warred within me. Every kiss was killing me as she drained me of energy, desire, will. My mind began to scream again and again, Get off. Get off. Get off! I chanted it in my head over and over, fear clawing at my heart as my body became cold and numb. I felt my body vibrating abruptly, light tinged blue shimmering off of me in waves. With a flash of light and a deafening boom, my body soared through the air, darkness closing in. I flowed in and out of consciousness. Darkness mixed with sights and sounds, quickly turning back to darkness as the pain consumed me. Heath, Theo, then Anabel, arguing. “We need to move her now. She’s lost too much blood. She’s dying,” Anabel choked. “We can do nothing for her. We have to call an ambulance now. We can’t move her ourselves. Our powers aren’t strong enough to heal her,” Theo said. “If we call, we’ll have to explain what happened. We need to think this through.” Heath sounded like a wounded animal. Why aren’t they helping? Am I really dying? Please, Heath, please don’t let me die. “We can’t help her, but they can. We need to take her to them. They can save her. We’re running out of time,” Anabel was sobbing. I felt her hands on my arm, wrapping something around it. Who were they? What powers? What was happening? My mind was screaming, struggling to be heard. “They are probably the monsters that did this to her. Look at those wounds you’re wrapping. Those aren’t scrapes. They were draining her.” Heath’s voice was strained, making me even more desperate to be heard. Heath. “Listen. We don’t know what happened here or why she’s alive, but….” Theo’s voice trailed off as I sank into unconsciousness. My eyes flashed open as Heath stood over me, calling my name from what seemed like miles away, tears in his eyes. He looked terrified. I wanted to console him, but…. I was gone again. When I fluttered to, Anabel was by my head, talking to me, but I couldn’t hear her. I was moving, and the pain, so much pain. Chapter Six I awoke, pain flowing from every part of my body. Moaning hoarsely, throat dry, I struggled to sit up in the darkness. “Lorelei,” a voice whispered from the corner. “Oh my God, Lorelei. Thank God you’re awake. We’ve been so freaked out.” A small light flickered on, and Madison swept over to me. “I am so freaking sorry. I don’t know why I was being jealous and crazy. I was so mean to you, and then … and then this happened. I felt so guilty. What if … you know?” Her face was tight with emotion. I touched her hand, trying to ease my face into a grin but only managing a grimace as pain rolled through me. “Water,” I gasped. She obliged quickly. Drinking eagerly, I rested my head back against the pillows, looking around. I was in a private hospital room, hooked up to monitors. Stifling a groan, I flashed over the events of how I got there and shuddered as I remembered everything. “I should get the doctor,” she said suddenly. “No! No. Please, tell me what’s happened. How long have I been out? How bad is it?” “Well, we’ve been really worried. You looked awful. You lost so much blood, and you were so weak. We’ve been taking shifts you know, so someone was always with you, Theo, Anabel, Heath, and me.” Her eyes looked away as she continued, “It was bad. Jackson has been great, covering your shifts and getting you on medical leave so you get paid. He’s been to see you. Then we contacted your professors, and your work is on hold. We got you notes and extra time to do your midterms. Everything is taken care of, but….” She hesitated, looking around, deliberately not meeting my gaze. “It’s been five days,” she whispered. “Five days,” I gasped, pinching my eyes shut. I had missed so much. Fuck! What was happening? “Yeah. Listen, there’s more. The police have been here. They’ll want to see you to find out what happened. Do you remember what happened?” My mind was reeling. I shook my head. What could I possibly tell the police? I needed time. I needed to think. And I needed Patrick. “Go ahead and get the doctor.” As sore as I was, as awful as I felt, the doctor told me how lucky I was and I believed her. Bruises caked the entire right side of my body from impact with the car. A long gash, ran the length of my forehead. Bruised ribs, along with minor scrapes running the extent of my body made me look and feel like a zombie. After a few days and some sedation I was discharged. True to Madison’s word, I was never alone. They came in shifts, Madison, Heath, Theo, and Anabel. Always questioning, poking, prodding, and most noticeably, with the exception of Madison, they were brooding. A few times, I overheard them outside my door in hushed conversation, looking anxious. I wanted to question them, but I couldn’t. The biggest change was that I could feel them. Whenever Anabel, Heath, or Theo were near, I could feel an energy, much like my own only less potent, radiating from them. Something inside me clicked, I was either insane, or people were lying to me. Either way I decided to pay closer attention to my friends. I filed it away in my mind, chalking up my moodiness around them to being in the hospital. They were easily appeased. The police turned out to be easily appeased. I stuck to the story that I remembered little. I was in the bar, and that was the last thing I remembered. I was there alone, had a few beers. I met up with Nicole and Greta, but that was all. One of the detectives seemed strangely familiar, but I couldn’t place him. As soon as he walked in the room, I felt at ease. Everything about him, Detective Ash, brought my senses to attention. He smelled like spring and earth, with a hint of musk. Tall with tousled, jet-black hair and deep cyan eyes, he was lean and toned with muscles showing through his suit. His voice was kind and gentle, low and seductive. His eyes never left my face as I answered his questions. Power radiated from him, causing energy to stir within me. It both frightened and comforted me. I could feel my sparks, wafting on invisible tendrils, trying to reach out to him and his energy. It recognized him as one of us, whatever we were. More importantly, I recognized his power as equal to my own, whatever that meant. I didn’t feel so crazy anymore. His partner, Detective Cramb, seemed to think I had been intoxicated and blacked out before being grabbed. He muttered something about “probably some guys on drugs” and referenced the “zombie apocalypse,” causing me to question his sanity. I knew a few years back there’d been a lot of drug-related deaths from bath salts in which people had been found chewing on other people like they were chicken wings but still. I wanted to argue, but who knew? Maybe somebody did slip me something. Regardless, I still left Thea, Nicole, and Greta out of the equation. I’d be locked up if I told them what I remembered. Apparently I’d been found by my car, covered in shards of glass from having been thrown into the windshield. No wonder my body ached. It was to everyone’s surprise that I had only scratches and bruises. When they moved to leave, Detective Ash lingered, giving me his card. Our fingers touched and, feeling a jolt, I glanced down hurriedly to see blue and black sparks emanating from our joined hands. Gasping, I scrambled back on the bed while he smiled at me knowingly. My breathing was frantic, eyes wide. He chuckled lightly. “We have a lot to talk about.” “What are you?” I whispered. “Same as you. Only slightly different. You don’t seem ready yet to know who and what I am.” “I don’t even know who or what I am.” “I think I can help you with that. You, Lorelei, are part of the Others. There’s a whole separate world out there, and you’re at the center of it. You’re one of the Gifted. A sorceress. But I think you’ve already started to figure that out. Making strange things happen? Kill any small appliances lately?” I gasped in shock, making him chuckle. “We’ve all been there. I’m your friend. I’ve been watching out for you. When you need me, I’ll be there. In the meantime, let’s keep this between us.” He walked out, adding mischievously, “Call me, anytime.” Madison walked in, winking at me after that. “Oh my, oh my. I am jealous, Lorelei! All of these sexy men lining up for you.” Waving her off, I rolled my eyes, outwardly trying to conceal my terror while simultaneously trying to stifle my trembling hands. Deciding to keep the incident to myself, I focused on pretending to be normal. Heath brought me my school books and laptop. Under the close scrutiny of my babysitters and in an attempt to avoid questions I couldn’t answer, I diligently did schoolwork. Obviously, I wouldn’t be going to study group, and midterms were only two weeks away. Heath kindly called my sister, preventing her from coming to see me. He wasn’t pleased, but he followed my instructions carefully. I couldn’t face her, and our father wouldn’t care. I was right, of course. He didn’t even attempt to come to the hospital; he was busy with his girlfriend. Being given two more weeks off work when I went home made me feel incredibly grateful. If only I could get time off when I was well! Feeling exhausted, I slept all the time, having terrifying nightmares. Moving around, getting up, walking, everything tired me significantly. Mostly I awoke from my dreams with no memory of them but other times I was in the forest running again, only the face was no longer my mother’s. It was Thea’s, her face inhuman and contorted, her teeth so close I could feel them slicing into my flesh. Waking in the darkness, I could swear I heard her, calling to me. I felt myself growing weaker day by day. Something was wrong. When I looked into the mirror, my body looked sunken and pale. I had no appetite and little desire to move. I just wanted to sleep. No, I needed to sleep, to see Thea. Even in my nightmares, I was drawn to her like a snake to a mouse, only I was the mouse. I was still under constant guard. Heath grew more anxious, peering out the windows, pacing the apartment. He stayed every night. Anabel tried to nurse me to health, her eyes always red, face puffy. I could hear her crying in the bathroom. Something was happening, and I needed answers. Theo was the most normal of the three, helping me with my schoolwork, typing up papers while I dictated, too weak to write. Madison popped in and out to tell me I looked like shit while always talking about work and Heath. I was grateful for her selfish nature—and grateful for Theo, who was my rock of dependability. A week into this new routine, I awoke from a dream. I’d been in a meadow, Thea next to me holding my hand. “Tell me everything.” She smiled at me, her face jubilant. “There’s nothing to tell. I haven’t seen him. I’m under guard. I don’t even have my phone. It was lost after the accident.” Her fingers tightened on my hand, desire quickening through me. I knew I needed to heed her. “They have your phone. Get it back, Lorelei. You need to see Patrick. You want to, don’t you? When the time comes, you will need to do something for me. But for now, find him. Will you do that for me, Lorelei?” “Yes,” I whispered. She smiled sweetly, pulling me closer to her. “Tell no one,” she said, her face an inch from mine. The second our lips met, I woke shaking. The line between reality and dreams was blurring. I was losing it. “Heath!” I cried. He was beside me in an instant, his arms draping around me while I sobbed. “What’s happening to me? I don’t understand what’s going on. Help me, please. Please don’t send me away. Please,” I choked out the words between deep, wracking sobs. Rubbing my back gently, he asked, “What are you talking about? Why would I send you away? Everything is okay. It’s okay,” he coaxed. “It’s not okay.” I pulled away, my voice raising, a tirade of verbal vomit I could no longer hold back spewing forth. “You were there. I heard you, Heath. I saw you there after the accident. Don’t lie to me. You have my phone. I want it back, now! I need it. You followed Patrick and I when we went to dinner. You won’t let me be alone for a minute. I’m under constant guard. Anabel is a mess; you’re nervous and jumpy. You spend half the night burrowing a hole in the living room floor, staring out the window. What’s going on?” I fell back on the bed, weakened by my outburst. “Why don’t you start, Lorelei?” Heath yelled. “You’re throwing accusations around, but you’ve been lying this whole time. You know what happened that night, don’t you? You know things aren’t what they seem. Yet you lie and hide behind this wall you’ve built. So tell me, your best friend, what happened to you at the bar. There’s no way you were there alone. Was that guy there, Patrick? Did he do this to you?” Heath’s voice was strained and feverish. I closed my eyes tightly, tears running down my cheeks. “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy. I’m not sure that I can trust myself. Trust my mind. I told you before what’s been happening. Strange, insane things, and they seem so real … but then, they can’t be, can they? What if I’m losing it? You said I wasn’t, but … you don’t know what it’s like to not be able to trust your own mind. I don’t want you—not you, of all people—to lose faith in me.” “Lorelei, Lorelei, I’m always on your side. Always.” He flung back on the bed next to me, patting my head. “I love you. You’re my best friend in the world. We’re family, you and I. Not everything is what it seems, Lor. I will always believe you. Sometimes, life is a little weird. Just tell me what happened. Trust me.” I took a deep breath. Heath would believe me, maybe. At the very least, I felt like he loved me enough that he’d never have me sent away, even if he thought I was nuts. I lay there in the darkness, perfectly still, every now and again feeling him nod in understanding as I explained it all—my blue sparks, the door locking itself, the lights coming on by themselves with a burst of blue energy. Then I explained Thea, her fiery eyes and sharp teeth. I told him everything, leaving out only the weird feelings I had about Patrick, the fact that Thea was appearing in my dreams, and my conversation with Detective Ash. When I was finished, there was a deafening silence. Unable to stand it anymore, I whispered, “Heath?” “No, Lorelei. This is my fault. I should have been honest with you the moment I saw that Patrick had taken an interest in you. You’re right, of course. We were there, Theo, Anabel, and I. I was worried when you hadn’t come home. I wanted to apologize for following you and Patrick and explain why he was dangerous. Well, when you weren’t here, I called Theo, and we went looking for you. Anabel found you. She said she saw a bright flash of light, heard screams, and the sound of breaking glass. She found you lying by your car. She called us, and we were there in minutes. We didn’t know what to do, so we argued. Then we had Anabel go to a pay phone and make the call to 911, saying she’d seen you at the bar. You stepped out without your things a little later, but you didn’t come back. Worried, she went looking for you. Or so that’s what we told the police.” “So, wait…. How did you find me? How did you know where to look for me? I was on campus at a bar I’ve never been to. And the argument you had after I’d been hurt, arguing about how to help me… Theo said you guys didn’t have enough power to help me. What did that mean?” I was suddenly invigorated with a determination for the truth. “Everything you’ve told me, I believe. And there’s a reason why I believe it. I just need you to trust me for a minute and don’t freak out. Promise me you’ll stay calm.” “Okay,” I agreed. He sighed next to me, knowing full well I was lying. Calm was not my strong suit. We sat in silence for several seconds. Beside me, he took a deep breath. Then, a spark of white tore from Heath’s hand, disappearing into the light switch. The lights came on, and I gasped. He remained motionless beside me, his eyes on my face, watching my expression intently. I sword I could hear the spark moving through the circuits as the hallway light turned on. Leaping off the bed, my eyes wide and frantic, I asked, “Did I? Wait, no. Did you? Did I do that?” He grinned and rolled his eyes. “No, I did that.” “I don’t understand.” I felt the adrenaline ebbing, faintness taking hold. “Power. That’s what Theo meant. We’re different, see? Theo, Anabel, me, and you, too. We have certain Gifts, so to speak, and Anabel thought we could heal you on our own. But we’re not that strong. As for how we knew where to find you … easy, we called for you.” “What Gifts? I don’t understand. How did you call for me?” My voice was small, holding the note of wonder like a child. I ran my fingers through my hair as he spoke. Watching his face, I saw him in a whole new light. I simultaneously noticed his sandy hair had grown shaggy the past few weeks, his eyes darker, and a five o’clock shadow that made him look fierce. Sleeping on my couch was clearly not agreeing with him, or maybe it was. “We have certain Gifts. I can do things with my mind if I focus. When it started, I could make things happen when I was in a state of distress. That’s how my mom taught me to recognize when I was vulnerable. Anytime I was distressed. For some reason, you’re just now changing. I don’t know why now, but it’s real, and with time and practice, you will be able to control it. Theo and Anabel each have different Gifts, but that’s for them to discuss with you. With these Gifts, we’re able to call for one another and we can sense each other’s general whereabouts. When were close we’re also able to sense each others energies.” I nodded. That’s why I could feel them now. “I called for you in my mind, and I saw flashes of restaurants and bars on campus so we set off and split up.” It took several moments for what he said to sink in. I wasn’t entirely sure that this was real, but a part of me understood that I was different. That I’d always been different. “So, Thea … she’s like us?” “No. There are different types of people in the world. Then there are monsters. We … we’re … we’re called Gifted. When you break it down, though, we’re sorcerers. We’re very, very real. I’m not sure what Thea is, but she’s not human. However, it seems to me Nicole and Greta are very much human, and that’s what’s worrying me. How they’re being controlled. You said they were the ones draining you, that their eyes were lifeless.” I shuddered. Their eyes so cold, so dead. The image of them would haunt me forever. Heath put his powerful arm around me, dragging me back to the bed. Laying me down, he covered me with blankets. Then he sat beside me, shaking his sandy head. “I’m sorry. This is too much for you.” “No,” I cried, “I have to know. I need to know. What do we do now? And why are you guys so worried? And why can’t I have my phone?” “We don’t know who or what Thea is, Lorelei. We can’t just leave you alone, unprotected. We don’t even know how you survived. Whether they just stopped or if you have some hidden power. And we’re freaked out because you’re getting weaker, not stronger, and we don’t know how to help you. We’ve been doing research, but we’re coming up empty. When I saw your wrists, I thought … I thought Patrick did this.” His voice cracked, and I felt a rush of fear. Patrick. Oh, no. He was in danger. “But he didn’t.” “But you just told me this woman wanted information on him. He’s connected somehow. And if you think I’m going to let him waltz in here after this, you’re wrong.” His blue eyes brightened. “He can help. I’m sure of it. Besides, why and how would he have done this?” I shoved my wrapped wrists in Heath’s face, he cringed away, disgusted. “You don’t know what he is or what he’s capable of. You shouldn’t trust him.” “And you do?” I retorted. “What is he then?” Heath shook his head, saying, “Your phone is hidden. We will protect you, and we’ll discuss this more later, but you need to rest, and we need to keep researching. I won’t let anything happen to you.” With that, he was gone, shutting the door and turning out the lights on his way, but sleep evaded me. He couldn’t just plop all this info on me and expect me to sleep after. However, part of me felt relieved that I wasn’t alone in this. But, they had hidden this from me. My friends. I didn’t know if that word fit anymore. I tossed and turned. Sorceress. Gifted. Detective Ash. So many secrets and lies, yet somehow I knew the revelations were just beginning and I was going to be in for a whole lot more anger and hurt. Chapter Seven Waking a few hours later, I heard voices arguing in the living room. I kept my eyes closed as I strained to hear their conversation. “So, she’s come into her powers. Otherwise, how did she get away? She shouldn’t have survived that kind of attack,” Theo said. “Maybe she has more than one power. That light wasn’t normal, the bluish hue I told you about. You know what that means! I told Bast, and she agrees. Not to mention, I saw her soar through the air into the car. She didn’t land nearly as hard as she should have.” Anabel’s voice was elated. Who’s Bast? The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I was so focused on trying to remember where I’d heard Bast’s name mentioned that it took me a few minutes to process the fact that I had soared through the air. “I don’t know. We don’t know! The Gifted leaders have been in hiding forever. What are the odds this one just drops in our laps? And Bast? You’re not even supposed to talk to Bast. You know better. Especially about this. Look, guys, now that she’s been honest, we can check into this Thea and try to figure out what she is and how to kill her,” Heath said. I inhaled sharply. Kill. Could we be murderers? They would be stupid to think I’d let them fight her on their own. Thea wasn’t human. But did that matter? She was a living being. No. It didn’t. She had Nicole and Greta. I was somehow tied to her and I was dying. I would kill her if I could. Thea was evil. “We’re not murderers, Heath. Besides, who’s to say we can kill her? She’s obviously incredibly powerful to possess two humans like that and compel a Gifted to her command.” Theo’s voice was raised. Shame washed over me. Theo wasn’t a killer. Hell, he wasn’t even a fighter. I couldn’t drag him into this much further. “What else can we do, Theo? Do you not see her lying in there? Don’t you see how weak she is? Whatever it is, it’s killing her.” “Calm down, both of you.” Anabel’s voice was strained. “Listen. First of all, Heath, I will do whatever I can or work with whoever I need to in order to make Lorelei better. Even if you disagree with it. Bast is the best source of knowledge we have. She has a plethora of resources on her side: scribes, journals, grimoires, not to mention all the darker spells and concoctions that we’d never dare use. Secondly, we need Patrick’s help. He and his family could cure her. They have certain elements on their side. Don’t look at me like that, Heath. I’ve been researching them, and I’m fully aware of what they are, but I also know she trusts him. You’re a fool if you don’t see it. Otherwise, why would she be attacked? They can help us find and destroy whatever this Thea is and, most importantly, they can protect her.” “We’re not discussing this. Just help me research and keep her focused on school.” With that, the door slammed, and I knew Heath was gone. Lying in silence, grateful for Anabel’s commonsense and angry at Heath’s audacity to try to rule my life, I knew I was right. Anabel would help me. The door opened, and Anabel and Theo came in smiling. “Hello, my little Gifted sister,” Theo said, grinning. I sat up slowly. “So, we’re focusing on my schoolwork, eh? You’ve gotta keep my mind off of the fact that I’m dying.” “Don’t be absurd. We won’t let you die.” Anabel sat down on the bed next to me. “You look better. Now that you’re not crying,” I said softly. She smiled gingerly. “I’m sorry. I’ve been weak. But then last night I had a vision, and I got a brand new resolve.” She winked at me. Theo laughed at my puzzled expression. “Anabel has a very sensitive mind. She knows things. She sensed you were determined and that you needed her to help you escape.” I must have looked mystified because Anabel explained, “Don’t worry. I didn’t read your mind, but you appeared to me last night in a vision. You showed me, opened your mind to me, and I saw everything you shared with Heath last night.” I bolted upright. “That’s so cool. And weird. But, wait, how does it work?” “Energy flows from me, allowing me to reach out and touch people’s minds. People can shut themselves down, blocking me out if they want to. It takes some practice, learning to build mental walls, but, I usually keep this part to myself and don’t try to reach people’s minds. It’s highly intrusive and exhausting. However, if someone’s plea or desire to be heard is strong enough, I hear them. In dreams, like last night, you reached out to me, like a knocking on a door in my mind, and I answered. I hear pleas all night long in my dreams, and sometimes I hear them during the day, which is why I avoid hospitals at all costs. People’s prayers, their desperation, … it all bombards me, and I can’t help them. But if I put up my own mental shields I might miss something important.” “I’m so sorry, Anabel. I had no idea.” “Of course you didn’t. It’s my burden to bear. Don’t be sorry.” “So, what’s the point of the power then, if you can’t help people?” “I can’t help all, most, or even half of them, Lorelei. But some … some, I can. We can.” She reached over and touched Theo’s arm. “Let’s say I’m nearby and a woman is being mugged. I can call the police. That’s why I leave my mental walls down.” “Or if Heath’s there, he can use his Gift to knock the guy against a wall or hit him over the head with a brick, all while remaining unseen,” Theo chimed in. “So, basically you guys are a crime-fighting bad ass crew of superheroes? Yeah?” I asked with mock sincerity. “Basically,” Theo said, straight-faced, eyes sparkling. “Ohh, oh, oh. But now we can get a dog, and we can be Scooby and the Gang. I call dibs. I’m Daphne,” Anabel said excitedly. “I’m not Velma. Besides, you’re the Ginger.” I mock punched her arm as she laughed. “You are most definitely Velma, Lorelei. Velma’s a nerd, and well….” I scoffed in horror at the thought. “Not to change the subject, but I have to ask, will you help me?” “Absolutely. As soon as you finish your papers for school, you can have your phone. Theo will help you. After all, these are your midterms, so do your best and email them in. I’ll be out doing some research. I think I’m on to something. Then, when you’re done, we’ll stay here and Patrick or whoever can come over and we can discuss the situation openly. The thing is, you can’t tell Heath or Madison about this, and you can’t tell people that you’re Gifted.” I nodded, deciding to ask the question that had been plaguing me. “Why lie to me? All these years. I thought we were friends.” Theo cleared his throat, looking away, unable to make eye contact. “Lorelei. I know you’ll never be able to fully forgive us, but please know we are truly, deeply sorry. You are our friend, and we didn’t tell you because we couldn’t. We have an oath to our Gifts and our world. We are sworn to protect it with our lives. If you’d never come into your powers, we’d never be able to tell you. It’s our job to safeguard our secrets. If not, do you know how dangerous that could be? What would happen to us? We are strong, but only as strong as our weakest links. Our survival is based on secrecy. Even though you were always one of us, if the power is dormant and you weren’t raised as one of us, with us, we can’t share our world with you. But now we can.” Anabel gazed at me. I nodded, trying to understand, but failing “Did you know I was like you the whole time? Did you sense my energy?” They shifted uneasily, giving me my answer. I blinked back the burning tears threatening to fall. Lorelei Abrahms. Always alone. “Lorelei?” “Don’t.” I removed Anabel’s hand from where she’d placed it on my arm moments before. “We have an obligation. We can sense who is like us. It draws us together. With your power dormant, we still needed to be in contact with you. In case. Well. In case…” Anabel faltered, staring at my stomach meaningfully. A new wave of horror washed over me. “You mean you would have stayed my friend forever in case I had kids and they came into powers. And then, if in this hypothetical world I did have kids with powers, then you would have told me.” “We are your friends.” “But our friendship is based on a lie! You knew. The whole time you knew!” I felt power coiling within me, pulling taut, ready to spring. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” Tears fell down Anabel’s cheeks as she got up and left. Silence permeated the air between Theo and me. “Ask me anything.” Theo said, palms spread out in a sign of acquiescence. “Is Madison? Is she different, too?” Theo snorted with laughter. “Maybe mentally for being so head over heels for Heath. But, aside from that, no. She’s totally human. She is a fool for that guy. I don’t know why.” Theo stood, making breakfast as I took everything in. “You look better,” he commented as I ate most of the eggs and bacon. “I feel a little better. Lighter, really. Now that I don’t think I’m completely insane, you know. No thanks to you guys,” I added, letting the jibe slip. He stiffened briefly before surging ahead, “Believe me, we’ve all been there even though we grew up around it. But, most of us are teens when we come into our powers, so it’s overwhelming. We think that puberty helps trigger it: hormones, becoming more independent, everything about us is changing.” “Why didn’t it happen to me?” “I don’t know. You had a lot of trauma going on, so maybe it took longer. Your body knew you had too much to deal with. Also, it could be because you were repressing it. Most people have a parent with powers that help them, but maybe you didn’t … or your parent or parents were repressing their own powers.” “So, my mom. She could have been powerful?” I asked slowly. “Maybe. But we don’t know. Your dad or sister would have shared with you by now, been looking for signs, but clearly they haven’t. Or it could have skipped a generation. Maybe a grandparent.” “What about your parents? Or other nearby sorcerers?” I cringed as I said the last word. It felt too surreal when I said it out loud. Theo chuckled at my expression. “It takes some getting used to, that word. We prefer Gifted. But, listen. You will adjust. Now, my mom and Anabel’s mom don’t really practice or try to harness their power. Heath’s more like you. His mom isn’t Gifted, so we think it’s his dad, or his dad’s side, but we’re not certain. My mom had to help him learn to control it. Besides us, there’s not a large number in Oregon.” “When Heath used his Gift last night, I saw it. It was this white spark, like electricity or a white ember from a flame. It was beautiful.” “I think we should wait for the others. It’s a very rare gift to be able to see someone’s energy like that,” Theo said quietly before gently adding, “Now let’s finish up your schoolwork.” I had a million questions I wanted to ask, but the sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could move on to more important things. No matter my anger, my exhaustion, my confusion, school had to come first here. So, I worked furiously to finish my essays and research paper. Hours passed and I was beyond exhausted, but I knew I had to continue. I had no other option. Anabel returned just as Theo finished emailing my professors. Smiling tightly, she leaned against the front door. “What is it?” Theo asked. “Detective Ash is back. He’s come to question you again, Lorelei. He’s right behind me. I just asked for a minute to tell you myself.” Anabel’s brow furrowed, and she was unable to meet my eyes. That was interesting. Could she not meet my gaze out of guilt or because of why the Detective had come? “What else, Anabel?” “Greta and Nicole have officially been declared missing persons. That’s why he’s here. They were last seen with you at the bar. Now I told the detective, Greta and Nicole were still in the bar when you left, since I was supposedly there. But, you’ll have to speak to the detectives.” “O-o-okay.” My mind raced, heart stuttering. Panic seeped in, taunting me. Greta and Nicole. There’s no way I could deny any of it now. Sweet Greta and even Nicole. Why was this happening? “Let’s move you to the couch, Lorelei. You’ll be more comfortable there.” Nodding, I let Theo guide me to the couch while Anabel let the detectives in. Detective Ash smiled at me gently, crouching down in front of me. No hint of recognition crossed his face, as if our discussion of the Gifted and sorcery hadn’t happened the other day. But while his face remained devoid of our bond, I felt our energy reaching toward one another, in a smooth caress, offering me comfort. “I assume Ms. Turner told you why we’re here?” “Yes, sir. You have some questions for me,” I responded politely, while inwardly my stomach churned. His energy snapped back into him as if he knew it made me war between fear and comfort. “Your friends … they were with you the night at the bar. Tell me what you remember about them.” Detective Cramb said from the doorway. I’d forgotten his presence. “Greta had texted me to come out to this new bar that’d opened recently. I didn’t want to be here, so I went and met up with her and Nicole. We ran into some people we had classes with, said a few words, but then we mainly just had a few beers and shot some pool. Then I left, alone. They were still there, and that’s all I remember after that.” “Well, when we went to verify yours and Ms. Turner’s stories, we couldn’t find either Greta or Nicole. They’d disappeared. Their family, friends, boyfriends are worried and fear maybe whoever attacked you went on to them.” Detective Cramb said, his expression sour. I met Anabel’s gaze, and she interceded. “I’m sorry, detective, but I didn’t run anyone off. Lorelei was lying on the pavement. No one was near her.” “Do you mind if we have a minute alone, please?” Ash asked me, nodding toward Theo and Anabel. Detective Cramb hesitated, his cold eyes narrowing on me before exiting the apartment. Theo and Anabel followed, Anabel giving my shoulder an encouraging squeeze on the way. “I need to ask you, Ms. Abrahms, is there anything you’re not telling me? Anything at all that would help us locate your friends?” “Honestly, no, not that I can think of, detective,” I lied easily, slightly annoyed that we were alone and he was still keeping up the formalities. “Liar. But that’s okay. I can see your mind working. Not sure who to trust. Alone. Confused. Your eyes have started to be opened, but there’s so much more to this. It will come together for you. And soon. You still have my card?” I nodded. “In that case, call me if you remember anything or if you need anything.” Reaching over, he patted my hand, sending a rush of pleasure through me … and setting off a shower of blue and black sparks. I was reminded of our first encounter, the spark from our touch. Looking down, I saw he’d already removed his hand. “Detective Ash?” I called as he went for the door. “Yes?” He turned to me, his blue eyes full of concern. He quickly came back toward me. Reaching up, I grabbed his hand, gasping when I saw black sparks flick off his fingertips at the contact. Dropping his hand, I looked up at him, but I wasn’t afraid. For whatever reason, I knew he was an ally and not an enemy. He stared at me, his eyes deepening from blue to midnight black. “Can they not sense your magic?” “No. Just you.” “Why me?” I asked, pulling him closer, his eyes sparkling with intent. “Because you’re special. I have the ability to block my power so no one can sense it. Only a handful of the most powerful Others in the world can still sense it through the block. You’re incredibly powerful, you just don’t realize it yet.” Silence surrounded us as we continued to stare at one another. “Are you Gifted?” “No.” “Are you a sorcerer?” He hesitated briefly before nodding. “So you are Gifted.” “No.” “Please. I need someone to be honest with me.” “Let me tell you a story.” I started to protest but he put his hand up to stop me. “That’s all I can give you for now. Take it or leave it?” I paused, glaring at him before agreeing. Ash moved to sit on the edge of the couch beside where I lay. “There is an old legend of the sorcerers. Of how we came to be. There were once four Queens long ago. Each Queen wielded an element. One could control Fire, another Water. One could control Air, the last, Earth. As time went on the Queens grew lonely. They mated, had children. When their children hit puberty it happened. They began to display powers. One specific power per child. An energy from within each one, allowing them to move things without touching them, read minds, heal or destroy things, bring things back to life, commune with the dead, and so much more. But in each Queendom, one child was superior. One child could do all those things and wield the element of their Queen. Two of the Queens praised this and two worked to destroy it. Air and Fire saw the children as their damnation and moved to massacre them, creating a long-standing war with Water and Earth. Any survivors of Air and Fire kept themselves hidden and eventually died out. Anyway that’s the main part of the story. Suffice it to say, two factions of sorcery survived the generations that the Others are aware of.” All questions evaporated from my lips as I gazed into his face. He was a sorcerer. But he wasn’t one of the main sects and apparently I was. So why not admit it? Were they still in hiding from some mythical story, of Queens surely long dead? His eyes trapped me with their beauty, his face relaxed, comfortable. My stomach flipped as his hand reached out brushing a stray hair out of my eyes. Without another word, he turned and left, leaving me to stare after him in wonder. Shaking it off, I decided to keep Ash’s power to myself. I filed away all of the information Ash had given me. He was clearly my greatest resource. He was not a threat to me and he would be a great ally. So, when Theo and Anabel returned, I pretended everything was normal. Theo helped me back to the table. Anabel smiled at me and set down my phone on the table. “Well, at least it’s over with, and they’re not suspicious of us. Here. Hurry, before Heath comes back.” I wanted to hit her, to yell at her that it was my apartment, my phone, my life they were screwing with, but I tamped it down. First, I needed to heal. Then I could kick some ass. Yanking the phone off the table, I dropped all thoughts of Ash and dialed Patrick’s number. He answered on the first ring. “I’ve been worried,” he said “I need to see you.” “I’m already on my way.” With that, he was gone. Smiling, I touched my lips, remembering his gentle lips parting mine…. “Do you need a minute alone?” Theo laughed, nudging my shoulder gently. Snapping back into myself, I realized awkwardly that he and Anabel were staring at me bemusedly. “Don’t do that. I’m not ready to pal around with you right now,” I snapped, my emotions chaotic. “Well, at least you have some color back,” Anabel began, stopping short at a knock on the door. “That was fast. Too fast,” I whispered. Anabel and Theo exchanged looks. Anabel nodded quickly and went to the door as Theo grabbed my arm, pulling me behind him. The knocking began again, causing me to peer out from behind Theo. Anabel again nodded at Theo, flinging open the door. Josephine. Dressed in dark jeans, a fitted black jacket, and tall boots, she was fiercely beautiful. The reminder made me hate her even more. “You,” I hissed, as she peered around the room from where she stood. “All clear,” she called. Aidan appeared from behind her, looking as casual as possible in faded jeans and a polo. “Obviously it’s all clear, considering we’ve been here and you two have been leering from outside for days now,” Theo said, stepping away from me and guiding me back to my seat. “Well, are you going to invite us in, or are we going to just stand here?” Aidan said quietly. He met my gaze and smiled calmly. “Sorry to barge in. Patrick is on his way. We need to talk, peacefully perhaps. Assuming that’s why you allowed her to call,” he added quickly, glancing between Anabel and Theo. “Nobody allows me to do anything,” I interjected haughtily, motioning them inside. “She’s not safe here,” Josephine said to no one in particular, turning her back to us to stare out the window. “He’s near,” she said, her voice far away. “We know she’s not safe here. We’re trying to figure out what to do,” Theo responded. “She needs to come with us. You can’t protect her. You don’t even know what you’re up against—,” Aidan began. “Oh, and you do? Please! You’re the ones that got her into this mess,” Theo challenged. With that, Theo and Aidan began shouting streams of garbage at one another, while Josephine never turned her face from the window and Anabel walked off into my bedroom. Exasperated and still mentally jumbled, I sat silently, staring at the floor. The front door burst open. Like a streak, he was kneeling at my side. “Lorelei,” Patrick whispered, brushing my hair from my cheek. “Thea,” I whispered. “Thea has a present for you.” “What? What did you say?” He stood quickly. “I-I … I don’t know,” I stammered, shaking my head. Silence fell as everyone stopped, turning to stare at me. Standing, he backed away from me slowly, locking eyes with Josephine, who for the first time looked scared. I rose from the table, not knowing why. Turning my back to everyone, reaching into the nearest drawer, I grabbed a small paring knife. Slipping the blade in my palm, I turned back to Patrick, who was still looking at Josephine. My mind was racing. What the hell was I doing? What was happening? But I couldn’t stop myself. I crossed to his side in two strides. He turned to meet my gaze. Grabbing his face with my free hand, I kissed him tenderly, trying to ease his worry as I stroked his cheek lovingly, inwardly screaming. Knowing what I was about to do, powerless to control my body, I watched as my hand jerked up, driving the knife into his heart. The viscous, cool blood spattered my face and wept freely down my hand, breaking the spell surrounding me. The scent of blood like hot metal, only sweeter, fruitier, hit my nostrils, making me gag. But it was the look of utter betrayal that etched in my mind as I felt myself being thrown up, into a wall. Darkness closed in as screams of panic erupted, followed by Thea’s soft laugh echoing in my head. Chapter Eight “Lorelei.” I stood in a meadow. The sun, vivacious, shone in my eyes, and I had to raise a hand to shield my eyes. I turned to where the sound had come from. “Lorelei.” No one. Turning in circles without seeing anyone, I began to panic. “Lorelei.” This time in my ear. A light whisper, a giggle. I jumped as Thea appeared before me, smiling. My name was a sing-song on her lips as her black hair flowed freely around her face. Her eyes were wide and dark, skin vibrant, in a strapless black silk gown that billowed from her body in a non-existent wind. Looking at her, I felt ashamed. I’d failed her deeply. Raising her hand to my face, cupping my chin with one hand, she gently brushed the hair away from my eyes. She closed the distance between us, running her hands through my hair, her lips grazing mine. My body trembled. I moaned softly, my brain foggy, “Thea.” Her fingers traced my face and neck. Smiling gently, she brushed her lips across my neck and collarbone. “Thea, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” “Shh … it’s okay, my love. You can make it up to me. You will make it up to me, won’t you?” She raised her eyes to mine. My mind swam; all I wanted was to please her. “You are going to help me, my sweet.” The meadow began to swirl. Thea giggled as she wavered in and out of my consciousness. “Tell me, please. What can I do?” The sky darkened, and the meadow began to lose its hue. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You already know what to do.” Waking suddenly, my body hungry with need, want, I moaned, crossing my legs tightly, and stretched. It felt delicious. Eyes still closed, I traced where her lips had been: collarbone, neck, lips. Wait. No, this is bad. “Unh-unh.” Roused from my reverie, I sat up quickly. “Sorry to interrupt,” Patrick said, eyeing me warily. Relief washed over me; I hadn’t hurt him. I wanted to run into his arms, to kiss him, to love him, but a cold hand of fury wrung my heart, quickly evaporating all devotion I may have held for him. Without hesitation, I leapt up, but he was too fast for me. Slamming me against the wall, he pinned my hands together over my head, his body pressed against mine. Feelings of love and hate coursed through me. Unable to choose a side, I let out a guttural cry from deep within. I wanted to please her, but… I couldn’t. Closing my eyes, I tried to find some semblance of control. “Look at me,” he said. “I can fix this, I promise. I will figure this out. I just need you to look at me.” His lips fell gently on my forehead. The cool touch invigorated me, and I instantly felt calm, recollected and, most importantly, me. “What’s happening to me? Why do I want to hurt you?” I slowed as a face flashed in my mind. A whisper, a giggle. I shook my head, and it was gone. “Get off of her,” Heath appeared, glowering at Patrick’s side. Hands appeared, separating Patrick from me. It was Jo. “Let go,” she said quietly. Immediately, Patrick backed away from me. Looking around the room for the first time, I realized I had no idea where I was or how I’d gotten there. We were in a sitting room. Great room, really. It was enormous. A traditional, beige camelback sofa sat in the center of the room with end tables and two smaller cabriole sofas on either side. Directly across from the camelback was a massive stone fireplace. French doors stood on the near side of the room next to a fainting couch where I had been lying. The far side opened onto the entryway. Bookshelves lined the wall. Heath stood a few feet from me. Jo had moved to the far cabriole sofa opposite me, where she was joined by Aidan, Patrick standing behind them. Theo and Anabel entered, positioning themselves on the large camelback. Mentally I counted to three while physically rubbing my middle finger and thumb together three times. Some of my tension lifted. Better. When everyone was settled, I found my voice. “How are you alive?” I looked to Patrick. “It was real, right? I stabbed you in the heart.” Shuddering, I looked around the room. Heath took my arm. “Come on. Let’s have a seat and talk.” I stared at him in disbelief. Shaking Heath off, I went to Patrick. “I stabbed you.” “Yes.” “In the heart?” “Yes, Lorelei,” Patrick said, face blank. “But you’re alive.” No response. In fact, no one said anything as Heath led me away from him. Silence resounded through the great room until I’d finally had enough. “What’s happening?” I demanded. “Sit,” Jo said coldly, motioning to me as she would a dog. “Please,” Patrick admonished her. “Welcome to our home. After you attacked me, Jo overreacted, and you got knocked out. For which she is truly sorry. We all agreed you’d be safest here until we can come up with a plan.” Jo’s expression didn’t change. She probably wanted to do more than fling me into a wall. No wonder my head ached. Making my way to the fireplace, I stood watching the empty grate, boring my eyes into it, imagining a fire as destructive as my soul. Head pounding, anger rising, I willed it to life. I tilted my head slightly as a blue spark flickered. Inhaling sharply, I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. Anabel and Theo, heads close, were in deep discussion, while Heath and Patrick leered at one another, leaving Aidan to gaze off and Jo…Jo watched me. But she was too busy staring at me to notice the fireplace. Turning quickly, I closed my eyes, picturing the flare swelling into a luminescent blaze. Upon opening my eyes, I watched the spark grow. Before a bright, vibrant ember now mushroomed into a glorious fire. Stunned, I turned toward my friends, my rage dissipating to wonder. Heath, torn from his pissing match with Patrick, and Anabel, ripped from her conversation, gasped, but Theo jumped to my side. His eyes wide, he guffawed. “You’re far more powerful than we realized. I think this is how you have survived. This is glorious.” “What does that mean?” Jo hissed. “It means she is Gifted, if you hadn’t figured it out yet. It means she has untapped powers. In all honesty, she should be dead by now. Think about it. She was attacked by Thea and her minions. I saw a bright flash of light, she crashed into a car, but all she got were cuts and bruises. Now she’s attacked Patrick twice: first when she stabbed him, second when she just leapt at him, not even twenty minutes ago. Since the accident, she’s been growing weaker and weaker. There’s blackness in her mind, like she’s not alone in there. She’s being drained, but she’s resisting somehow. She’s fighting her mind and her body, and she’s still standing. So, the question right now is: why and from what?” Anabel’s low voice was careful as she refused to meet my gaze. Good. She should be too ashamed to look me in the eye. Everyone in the room gave pause. Theo returned to his seat, taking up Anabel’s hand. “What is she? This Thea. Who is she?” Heath questioned. “I already told you everything that’s happened,” I snapped at him. “Tell the rest of us,” Jo snarled. “Please.” This time, it was Aidan who spoke. “Why don’t you start?” Heath retorted. “This all started when you guys came into her life. That bitch wanted to know about him, and she’s using Lor to get to him!” Heath fumed, glaring at Patrick. “Don’t start. We’ll tell you everything we can, but,” Patrick turned to me, “I need you to tell me everything, from the beginning. Start from the moment you met me. Tell me everything you remember.” “Okay.” I locked eyes with Patrick. The world faded away, and it was just the two of us. I started from our near-miss at the crosswalk, the first time I met Thea, the night at the bar, but when I got to my attack on him at my apartment, I hesitated. “I don’t know what came over me. I look at you, but when I feel … passionate or … I don’t know. I can’t describe it accurately. I see you, and I feel happy, alive, and then this hatred rips through me. I hear a voice, see a flash, and I just know I have to hurt you. But, it’s more than that. I want to kill you. My body just reacts like it’s a separate entity.” I looked away, ashamed, but he was instantly at my side, caressing my hand softly. He pulled me into his arms, murmuring softly to me. I met his gaze, and our lips met hesitantly. His kiss was slow, sensuous. His hands ran up my back, cradling my head. I ran my fingers through his hair, tugging softly. “DO YOU MIND!” Heath shouted. Breaking apart, we found everyone in the room eyeing us. Anabel, Theo, and Aidan politely looked away, grinning to themselves, while Jo and Heath stared at us in disgust. Why was I so needy for Patrick? A warning bell started to go off and quickly evaporated. Jo rose, giving Patrick a look of reproach before pulling me to sit on the cabriole. I felt defiant. I wanted to go back to the fireplace. I felt pulled to it. For reasons I didn’t understand, I needed to be by the fire. “So, this Thea, describe her?” Jo’s voice was sharp, her narrowed eyes focusing on my face. I described her, her snowy complexion, dark, curly hair, pouty mouth, dark eyes. Her face, vivid, danced in my mind, whispering to me in her bell-like voice, The fire. Go to the fire. Meanwhile, Jo’s expression turned to horror and then rage. Nostrils flaring, she turned her face to Patrick’s, communicating silently to one another. “Would you like to tell the rest of us what’s happening?” Heath’s voice dripped with contempt. “Do you know this thing?” “We might.” Jo’s expression became blank as she faced the others. “She sounds familiar. Like someone we’ve run across before, but … her powers … it’s not possible for her to have such powers.” “Well, what about Lorelei? How do we help her?” Theo spoke, holding Anabel’s hand, his expression grave. “I may have an idea.” Patrick rested his hand on my shoulder, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. “No!” Heath snarled. Taken aback, I stood. “He’s just trying to help. He’s not the one who’s been lying to me for years.” My voice rose. “You don’t know what he is. You don’t know how dangerous he is. He could hurt you. There are ramifications. Tell her.” Heath was in front of me in two strides, grabbing my shoulders and looking pleadingly at Theo and Anabel. Exchanging a look, Anabel rose, motioning for him to come sit down. As I opened my mouth to speak, Jo pulled me back down next to her with a warning look. The room was silent until Heath took his seat. I could feel Patrick pacing behind me. When Anabel spoke, her voice was low and sad. I could barely hear her. “We don’t have much of a choice. She needs to make her own decision. I think you and Theo should go. Lorelei and I will stay here tonight. We’ll talk it out and maybe come up with a plan. This is our fault as much as it is theirs, so don’t take your anger out on them.” Heath looked at me, his expression pained. “We’ll find another way. A better way. One that doesn’t keep her bound.” “ENOUGH!” I roared, springing up off the couch. “I am so done with this. This is all bullshit. Heath, I’m done. You lied to me. Our entire friendship is a lie. You knew I was different. You knew, and you said nothing. How long did you know, huh? From the first moment? I’ve never felt so betrayed. Not even by my parents. “Anabel, Theo, I’m so angry. You all lied to me. You infiltrated my life to keep tabs on me, to wait around for my future children like a bunch of sick perverts. Would you ever have told me? I’ve been relatively calm and a decent sport about everything. But you know what? You’re all liars. Everyone in this room has been lying to me, except Jo, who hates me, and Aidan, who doesn’t know me. I almost died. If any of you had been honest with me, maybe, just maybe, I would have known to be more careful or to not go out by myself when there’s so much crazy shit out there. Maybe I could have learned some defenses. So I don’t want to hear anyone’s fucking BULLSHIT!” Turning away from them all, I went to the fireplace. As I gazed into the flames, I focused on my breathing. Deep breath in, slowly exhale, again and again until my ire dissipated. Another flash. Lorelei, a voice whispered. Abruptly I felt drained of energy, grabbing the mantel to steady myself. Do it. Do it. I gazed around the room. Everyone was talking, but I could no longer hear them, just that haunting voice and the sound of my heart railing against my chest. Anabel’s eyes flicked to mine as I turned slowly. Her expression turned to terror, as if she knew before I did what I was about to do. I looked back into the fire as the whisper started again. Do it, Lorelei. You know you want to. A tittering echoed in my brain as I leaned closer to the fire, blocking the room from my view. My body moved on its own as I reached my hand down into the grate, letting the flames lick my arm. I felt nothing. I heard nothing but a contented sigh and a giggle. Such a good girl, it whispered in my head. Then, suddenly, it was as if I were coming up for air—noises, feelings, smells came rushing back. Screams. Suddenly there were screams. My own? Someone was trying to pull me away, but I resisted. More screams. And then the pain. My God, the pain. Fuck. It tore to the surface, but I couldn’t move. My body was stagnant. I was screaming for release. Fuck. The pain was so intense, so severe, I willed my body to black out to save myself the unbridled horror. The last thing I saw before losing all consciousness was the fire burn blue, my arm going instantly numb. Chapter Nine I was in a forest running like before. I had to keep going. If I stopped, I was dead. Fear coursed through me as I slowed. How long had I been running? Just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t stop! This time, there was no light ahead … just darkness. Deep, hideous laughter radiated through the forest. I tripped over a root, crashing down hard. I tried to scramble up, but I was shoved back down. Quickly surrounded, I had run out of options. I was shaking violently. “P-p-please. You don’t have to do this!” I cried out. “We don’t have to. We want to,” someone hissed. More laughter. I circled. Six of them. Six hooded monsters. I knew they were all there: Jo, Aidan, Patrick, their parents, or whatever they were, with their razor teeth, lifeless eyes, bloodless faces. The skin stretched freakishly across their barren skulls. And then, her. Instinctively, I moved toward one of them. I knew it was her; it had to be. My hand reached out, clutching her hood. I began to peel it back…. I woke up screaming. Anabel and Theo were on either side of me, pinning me back against the bed. Thrashing and screaming, my body contorted and trembled in fear. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s just us. We’re here. Look at your arm. It’s healed. There’s no need to fear,” Theo soothed. “It was just a dream. I’m here. Theo’s here. You’re safe. Truly,” Anabel chimed. My breathing eased, and I stopped thrashing. “Your arm’s healed,” Anabel said. Dread pierced through my heart like an ice pick. I’d been so caught up in my nightmare I’d forgotten my arm. Bringing my hands in front of my face, I inspected both to make sure they looked the same. No damage. I glanced at both faces curiously. “It was Theo.” “Thank you, Theo. How did you do that? Wait.” I sat up quickly. “The fire.” “That was you. I don’t have the power to do that.” Theo sat in a chair next to the bed. “We’re just figuring out how Gifted you are. We have no idea what all you can do, but I feel this is just the beginning.” Anabel smiled. “Is it normal to have this type of power? I mean, why does everyone keep saying I’m really powerful? If I am, are you, too? Or am I a freak among freaks?” I sounded calmer than I felt. Inside, the terror was clawing to escape and I did my best to clamp it down. Ash had said sorcerers only had one power, maybe Gifted were different, or he was wrong. But…I hadn’t done anything yet, besides have blue energy that could lock doors, and I had turned on the lights… I trembled. “We’re all talented in our own rights. Theo’s energy is focused on healing and destroying. It’s quite beautiful, really. His energy can mist into every little crack and crevice of something and, poof, it’s gone. Heath can use his energy to move objects, to physically impose his will, whereas mine is all mental, really.” Raw emotion charged through me. Jealousy. Their power was so precious. The only power I’d truly seen was Thea’s and hers was seductive, all-consuming, deadly. My eyes began to prick with the heaviness of my emotions. “We’re not freaks,” Theo added dryly. Anabel and Theo exchanged a long look as if determining what to tell me. Guilt crept up, helping me keep the terror at bay awhile longer. I didn’t think they were freaks. Maybe I thought I was, but the gift of healing, of helping people that was wondrous. “You are normal. You are not a freak,” Anabel said, still staring at Theo. I looked back and forth at them. I choked out a strangled cry, crumbling and failing to keep it together as I began to sob. “Shh, shh,” Anabel lay down beside me, cradling me while I cried. Theo discreetly disappeared. “Sleep, Lorelei. I promise you will have no dreams while I’m here. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but everything will be okay. You will be okay.” I drifted off, and she was right: it was a dreamless sleep. Waking disoriented and alone, I clambered out of bed, trying to grasp my surroundings. Across from the bed was a large brick fireplace. The room itself bare. The bed was large, made of sturdy oak, and the floors were wooden with a large oriental rug. A small night table and bureau were the only decorations. A door on the far wall opened into a small on-suite. Splashing water on my face, I gazed at myself in the mirror. I looked gaunt, my skin sallow, and I felt exhausted, like I could sleep forever. To calm myself, I counted. One. Two. Three. Breathing deeply, I did it again and again. Fortifying myself, I went out of the bedroom and started down a long hallway, following the voices in the distance. The hallway opened onto a landing and led to a large oak staircase. Holding the banister, I dragged myself down slowly. The staircase led to a grand entrance way. To the left, I could make out the great room, where the voices were coming from, and to the right was what looked like an office. I stood wavering between the heated voices from the great room and the idea of going back to sleep when Anabel appeared. She smiled at me. “Good, you’re up. Come on; I’m hungry.” She pulled me past the staircase down a narrow hall, passing various rooms until the hallway emptied into a large, bright kitchen filled with stainless steel appliances, a large island, and marble counter tops. The kitchen didn’t match the rest of the house. It looked modern, fresh, while the rest of the house echoed a long-forgotten era. I breathed sharply. “I know.” Anabel winked at me and sat me on a barstool by the island before she began rummaging through the double wide refrigerator. Pulling food out and making sandwiches, she yawned. “It’s only ten, but it’s been a long day. We need to eat and go back to bed. Heath and Theo will be back in the morning.” “They left?” “I didn’t give them a choice.” Anabel grinned. “There’s nothing they could do for you. You’re better protected here than anywhere else, and I’m with you to keep that bitch out of your head. Besides, we can’t all miss work.” Is that why we all work together? I tucked the thought in a mental folder to bring up later as she set a sandwich in front of me and slid onto the barstool next to me. We ate in silence. Feeling safe for the first time, I knew it was because I was here. I decided to not ask the question that was floating in my mind. I’d get answers. I would make sure of it. But for now, I just wanted to enjoy the peace I felt. “What?” She looked at me with a puzzled smile on her face. “It’s just … I feel relieved. Relieved to be here. Safe, which sounds crazy, but it’s true.” “No, no, no,” she said quickly. “You should feel safe here. While you were asleep, I came up with a temporary fix. I put a block on your mind so your sleep will be dreamless. She can’t get to you, awake or asleep.” “Anabel. What all can you do?” “Well,” she grinned mischievously, “one of my Gifts is the ability to go into your dreams, kind of like Thea. It’s complicated, but suffice to say, I can enter your dreams. You came to me … remember, I told you that? You showed me what was going on in your mind—your thoughts, your plans. You asked for help. Subconsciously, you knew I could help you. It’s a newer power, honestly. I came into it a few months ago. Theo came to me in a dream, or so I thought, but I had actually entered his dream, his mind. Crazy, right?” She looked at me, blushing. “Don’t worry. I don’t root around in there. And whatever I see, I keep to myself. I’m sorry. I should tell you…. In order to block her, I went into your mind while you slept. I forced my way in to see her, what she was doing to you. I had to see it in order to find a way to block her.” “Okay.” I hesitated. “It’s just a lot to take in. I’m not quite sure how to process it all. I’m still really angry, Anabel. I don’t know if, after this is all over … I don’t know if we can be friends or anything.” I paused, letting that sink in. She nodded, blinking rapidly, her expression hurt. I looked away, pretending I didn’t see the tears she was struggling with, and gave her a moment to collect herself. Guilt ate at me, but I reminded myself that I wasn’t the one who had lied. “How did you do it? Block her, I mean?” “She uses touch to entice you. Every touch binds you closer, making the real you fade and become more obedient to her. I came up with an herbal remedy and gave it to you. It’s only temporary but effective.” She smiled weakly at me. “You’re really good at this.” “Good at…?” “You’re really good at being Gifted. You always seemed so normal, so put together, yet here you are, rooting around in my dreams, throwing together a drink to keep a psycho from possessing me.” “Well, I am normal, Lorelei. It’s just that I’ve always had a hard time being close to people who don’t know I’m Gifted. I always thought it was better to keep you at a distance because you didn’t know. But, please understand, I do care about you. Heath is like a brother to me. He’s been your best friend for a long time, and that has always been real.” She reached over, patting my arm in an issue of reassurance. I knew it would be obvious to her that Heath’s betrayal had cut me deeper than anything. While I understood her trying to comfort me about Heath, it only angered me. As if sensing that she pulled away. “We will get you through this.” She smiled tightly and stood, effectively ending our conversation. Cleaning up after ourselves, we made our way back to the staircase in heavy silence, each consumed by our own thoughts. Patrick walked out of the great room, his eyes appraising us. Anabel started for the staircase, saying, “I’ll be sharing your room. See you soon.” Her slim figure slipped silently up the stairs, leaving me alone with Patrick. “We should talk,” he said. He held out his hand, and I took it hesitantly. “Don’t worry. Anabel’s blocked your mind. It’ll keep Thea at bay for a little bit. She can’t get to me through you.” Instead of pulling me into the great room, he took me into the study. Gesturing to a green leather back sofa, he sat beside me, putting his feet up on the coffee table in front of him. A great desk took up the majority of the room, a large, green leather chair looming behind it. Patrick pulled an afghan from the back of the sofa, draping it over us. A pillow propped my head up, and we stayed in silence, eyeing one another. I had to fight the urge to mount him. My breath quickened as those familiar urges rose within my body, awakening the great beast within. I squeezed my thighs together, and Patrick’s eyes darkened, a sly smile crossing his face. “I want you. Here. Now,” he said, “but we need to talk.” He broke eye contact. Sitting up, breaking physical contact, I tried to increase the space between us. “What are you? Really,” I spoke softly, slowly. My fingers traced my lips, remembering our kiss. “First, I just need to say I’m sorry. I never meant for this to happen. I had no idea. I-I—” Placing my hand over his mouth, I said, “How could you have known about that thing, whatever it or she is? Let’s just be honest with one another. Who are you? What are you? Where are we?” “Well, for starters, we’re in my family’s home. My name’s Patrick James, and we’re at the James estate,” he smiled mockingly, and I rolled my eyes. “Sorry, sorry. I’ll be serious. We are on the James estate, and my family has resided on this land for generations. I’m not sure how to explain what’s happening to you or what I am. While you were out, there was a discussion about trying to ease you into this world. There’s a lot of guilt from your friends about not preparing you, but you may never have come into your powers. I can’t help but think it’s because of this, Thea and myself, that your Gifts are starting to show.” “Are you Gifted?” My body began to tremble. I sensed no energy coming from him, Jo, or Aidan. Whatever his answer, I knew I wouldn’t like it. He laughed for a moment before growing serious. “Oh no. Not even close. I can’t tell you what I am. You have to guess.” “What? Just tell me. If you’re not Gifted, then what the hell are you?” My voice sounded colder, harsher than I had meant it to. “It’s against our nature, to tell anyone what we are. This is hard for me. I’ve never had to be open about it before. Look at me; really look at me. Think about every interaction we’ve had. Haven’t you noticed anything strange or different about me? Think, really think. Add it all up.” Standing, he began to pace angrily. Patrick and Heath had more in common than they could imagine. Both made cryptic remarks and paced when upset. But Patrick was right, and I let the reasoning portion of my mind pull out her checklist and have her day. As I ran down the list quickly, it felt like ice water was being poured over my body. Panic tore through me as I realized the obvious. Gasping, I ran to the door, but Patrick was already there blocking my path. Stumbling back, tripping over my feet, I started to fall. Before I could hit the floor, Patrick had lifted me up, sitting me on the couch. I cried out and pulled myself up into a ball, shaking uncontrollably. “Lorelei … Lorelei, please understand. I’m not going to hurt you. I won’t ever touch you again unless you tell me to. I promise. Please look at me. Talk to me. Your friends would never have left you here if they believed you were in danger. This is the safest place for you.” Ignoring him, I rocked myself back and forth, the silence stretching for what felt like eons until Patrick said, “I’ll get Anabel. They were right. I shouldn’t have said anything. I know it’s all too much.” “No.” I found my voice. Continuing to cradle myself, I met his gaze. “Vampire,” I whispered softly. He looked like I’d slapped him. He moved to sit behind his desk. “We don’t appreciate that term. We go by Sang,” he replied, his voice crisp, “but, hey, whatever you prefer.” “Do you hurt people? Do you kill them?” My mind raced with questions. “If I want to, I can, but mostly no, and it depends. I also drink from blood banks.” He eyed me coldly. Inhaling sharply, I asked, “It depends?” “Listen. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I’ve never killed before. You’d be a fool to believe me, and it’d be ridiculous for me to say so.” Suddenly in front of me, Patrick brought his face closer, his eyes narrowing. “I will not lie to you about who or what I eat. I will not hurt you or anyone close to you. But I do hunt and eat. And on the rare times that I have to kill, I make sure they deserve it.” “So, you’re what…? The judge, jury, and executioner, all rolled up into one,” I spouted angrily at his callousness of lives he’d taken. My heart pounded so hard it was ringing in my ears. “More like the Dexter of vampires.” He said drily. “So good to know you keep up with all the latest TV shows and can compare yourself to a serial killer. That’s quite refreshing.” I tried stepping away from him, but he held on, pulling me closer. “I am not human. My moral compass is not the same as it once was. But, over the years, I have learned to discriminate when it comes to killing. I have not killed in many years. It’s not something I want or need to explain. Now, in feeding, I will feed on whomever and then send them on their way with a pleasant memory of something else and in need of some sugar.” “Have you ever, you know … eaten or, you know, bit me?” Curiosity overriding my anger and commonsense, begging for an answer. “No. Now let’s change the subject for tonight. We can discuss it again later.” A wave of disappointment hit me. Did I want him to bite me? For some reason the idea was oddly thrilling. I mentally smacked myself, searching for a safer line of questioning. “What about your family? Are they like you?” Patrick scowled at my questions. I raised my eyebrow in response, in a clear display of defiance. There was no way I was completely dropping the topic. He sighed, annoyed, and moved to sit beside me on the couch. “Yes and no. Josephine and Aidan are like me, but the other two, Constance and Connor, they’re … different.” “Different?” “Well, they’re not like you, and they’re not like me…. It’s complicated.” Patrick said looking slightly uncomfortable at talking to me about his family. My body relaxed at his discomfort, my arms folding across my chest, I eased myself deeper into the leather of the couch. It felt good to see him off kilter, even for a moment. I was tired of being the one always unbalanced. Forgetting my earlier fear, I eyed him petulantly. “I’m waiting.” He smiled, his eyes lighting up. All trace of hesitation gone. “They’re called Guardians. They guard our secret, watching over us. They make us seem … normal. So we fit into society better.” “But, why would they do that? Are they human then or something else?” “They’re something else. Guardians were once people. When they died, they were left with unfinished business so, unable to move on, they stayed on this plane in corporeal form. At that point, they’re what we call the Lost. They wandered aimlessly until they ran into one of my kind. Together, they formed a pact. The Sang gets security, while the Guardian is able to assume solid form again forever. In addition, there are several other little kinks. The Other world is filled with vast amounts of creatures, Lorelei.” “Where are they? No one has mentioned them and I haven’t seen any traces of them around here, not that I’ve seen a lot with my mostly being incapacitated.” “They’re travelling. They don’t normally stay here. Connor and Constance are usually abroad, doing their own thing, but they come home a couple months out of the year to catch up.” His vagueness about them surprised me because I knew they had to be important to him if they were Guardians, but I let it go. Nodding slowly, steadying my breathing, I forged on. “So, these kinks?” “A Guardian can never be hurt. They are immune to death, so to speak. The only way to kill one is to kill the Sang it’s tied to. One cannot survive without the other once bound. The Guardian can never return to ghost form. They just cease to exist, like the Sang.” I stared at the floor, my mind on overload, when Patrick plucked my hand up, holding it between his, lightly caressing it. Calm washed over me, clearing my head enough to focus my train of thought. “Wait. There are three of you, though, and there are only two of them. So, how does that work?” “It’s complex, and I can’t explain everything in detail, at least not now. Part of how we survive is by not exposing who we’re tied to. The pact is to protect both sides.” “But, what do you get out of it? I mean, really, it sounds like they benefit more?” With that, Patrick smiled sadly, looking away from me. “We get to walk in the sun. Trust me, it’s a fair price to pay. To walk in the sun, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to feel the sun on your face after so long….” “I’m sorry. But—” “Please, let’s talk about something else.” His smile looked pained, so I changed course. “And Thea? You know her, don’t you? Why is she doing this? Why does she want you? What is she? Who is she? Please….” My voice quavered. I was still so weak, still unsure that any of this was real. Patrick stood, turning his back to me. I could feel anger breaking through my fear and, with sudden strength, I grabbed his hand. “What is she?” I demanded. He kneeled, cradling my hand silently for a moment. “Lorelei,” he whispered softly, kissing my hand gently and pulling me down on the sofa across from him. My body relaxed; my anger slowly abated. He kissed my hand repeatedly, grazing his cheek and lips across my fingers, murmuring my name sweetly. I lay back in my seat, sighing deeply. Damn him and his power over my body. “Please,” I whispered. He sighed, exasperated. “I don’t know. At least … not anymore.” “Meaning?” He shot up and started pacing the floor. “Based on everything that’s happened, everything you’ve said, I think … I think she’s my Guardian. Or at least was. I don’t know for sure, but….” His voice trailed off. “What!?” I cried out, clutching the leather couch, hands shaking with violent anger. “Lor—” My hand leapt out, cracking him in the face. Grabbing my arms, he pinned me against the couch, his legs on mine. My breathing was ragged, his face distorted with rage. I couldn’t help myself; I squirmed, trying to throw his body off mine. I just wanted to crack him again. And it was all me, not Thea in my head, just me. “Stop. Lorelei, stop,” he said through gritted teeth. His body pressed cold and hard against mine, sending my body into overdrive. Screw it. Our faces were so close. I leaned in and kissed him, hard and needy. I stopped squirming. His legs relaxed, and I wrapped mine around his waist. His arms moved down my body to my waist. He swung me up so he was standing, my body still draping his. As I moaned into his mouth, his tongue found mine. We stood embracing for a moment before he carried me over to the desk. Brushing everything off in one fell swoop, he sat me down. Patrick kissed my neck, one hand on my thigh and the other running up and down my side. I grabbed his upper back, digging my nails in. He groaned, murmuring my name over and over as he trailed kisses up and down my neck and collarbone. “Do you trust me?” His eyes, dark with lust, burned into mine. “N-n-no,” I stuttered. “Not at all.” “I have an idea, but you have to trust me.” “What is it?” “You’ll see.” He grinned mischievously, pulling me to my feet. I felt drunk, intoxicated by this gorgeous creature, my yearning for him more palpable by the second. But I was still pissed. He was a liar, a self-professed murderer, a vampire … but, God, I was a fool. Lust, betrayal, and near death, I just didn’t know how much I cared to fight it. “Patrick,” I whispered. He leaned in toward me, and I slapped him hard across the face again. “You should have said something earlier about her.” Grabbing my arm angrily, he led me from the room and down the darkened hallway. A self-satisfied smile lit up my face. That felt damn good. Once in the kitchen, he grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses. Squeezing my hand, he led me out the backdoor down more steps and onto a walkway. I focused only on my breathing, letting him guide me. We walked up a narrow path, and I realized we were entering a small cottage. He hesitated as he opened the door. “My retreat.” It was a one-room cottage. A small kitchen, unused, was at the front, a small island separating it from the living area. A bed and bureau were nestled in the back with a door leading into what I presumed was the bathroom. My breath caught in my throat both by the cottage itself and Patrick inviting me into his private space. It was magnificent. Patrick gazed at me expectantly as I took it all in. “It’s perfect. Thank you for letting me see it.” I said, and he smiled broadly, clearly pleased that I liked his place. Shelves lined all the walls. I wandered over, browsing his book collection, my lust forgotten. After a beat, he came up behind me, wrapping one arm around my waist and kissing my ear, handing me a glass of wine with his other hand. “Don’t be angry with me. I can’t be sure. I can only guess.” “Then only tell me the truth, the whole truth, from now on. I don’t think I can handle any more bullshit.” “Drink up,” he whispered. “Why? You don’t need to get me drunk to talk to me, you know.” “No, but I need you tipsy to listen to my idea.” I couldn’t help but grin. His arm still around my waist, I sipped indulgently. My fingers skimmed the books on his shelves. “This collection is amazing,” I murmured. “You like it. I’ve been building up my library for decades.” I stopped and turned to face him, my mind burning with questions. “How old are you?” I moved to sit on the love seat, downing my glass of wine. He swiftly poured me another glass, his expression blank. “Does it matter?” His voice was instantly devoid of all emotion. “It’s the most basic of my questions,” I said softly. “Okay. I’ll tell you some information about myself, and then I’ll tell you my idea. Tomorrow when everyone is up and together, I’ll let everyone know who I think Thea is and we can work on a way to get rid of her.” “And save Nicole and Greta,” I added quickly. “I don’t know if we can.” Sadness crept into his voice. “We have to save them. They’re good people.” Even though I didn’t care much for Nicole I knew she wasn’t evil. She was a decent human being, just not to me. “They’ve done nothing wrong. Thea’s a monster, torturing them. They have futures, families, lives….” My voice began to crack, my eyes teeming with tears. He moved to sit beside me, pulling me into his lap, but I moved away, swiping back the hot liquid burning my eyes. I hated being weak. I hated myself. I hated my life. He kept on trying to console me through touch, but I pushed away stubbornly, disgusted with myself. When I felt composed, I looked at him and found his face a mask. “I was created in 1840 at the age of 25. Please, before you ask, no more questions tonight. It’s late, and tomorrow will be a big day. Let me tell you my thought.” Stunned, I just nodded. I had no words. “Vampire blood has healing properties. If you drink it, it will heal the physical damage she’s done. We believe she’s draining your energy, your life force. The very essence of you. But my blood should cut all ties to her. Make your body whole and yours again. However, there could be some drawbacks that you may not like.” I motioned for him to continue as my mind roiled. “My blood will create a bond between us. A very real, unbreakable bond. Once you drink my blood, I will always be able to find you, to sense you. And you will be drawn to me. The connection, the pull we have now, will only increase. You will be able to sense me and to call to me. Our bond will be that strong.” “Drawn to you?” I asked slowly. “Yes. In the sense that, if I’m near, you will always feel the pull to find me, to be physically near me. Now, the pull will lessen with time, but we will always be able to sense each other if we want to or need to. You will always be able to call to me if you need me.” I closed my eyes, wanting to shut it all out. The wine made it so much easier to turn my brain off, or maybe it was the sheer exhaustion from the day—or the fact that I was potentially dying from an energy-sucking monster. I felt Patrick leave my side, a cold breeze moving over me. As quickly as it came it was gone, a soft blanket covering me as I drifted into a dreamless sleep. Chapter Ten I woke to sunlight being blasted in my face. “Oh good, you’re up.” Anabel smiled archly at me. I threw a pillow, hitting her in the face. “Of course I’m up, you jack wagon. You just threw the curtains open.” “Jack wagon? Seriously. That’s the best you can come up with, jack wagon?” She tossed the pillow back at me, and we broke into laughter. My anger with her momentarily forgotten. I glanced around the room. As if reading my mind, Anabel said, “After you fell asleep, Patrick brought you up here. You were out. I thought you might be dead until I heard you snoring. I thought a bear was on the loose, you were that awful.” She laughed. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God!” I jumped out of bed and grabbed her arms. “Hey, I was just kidding. It wasn’t that bad. It’s okay.” “No. Anabel, fuck. He’s,” I paused, mentally adding figures in my head, “199 years old! Fuck. I thought he was younger than me. He’s a vampire. You’re a witch, or one of the Gifted, or what the fuck ever. His parents aren’t real. They’re ghosts brought back from the dead or some shit. Oh my God!” I shook her as I spoke the latter, and she took my shoulders, pushing me back toward the bed. “Breathe. Just breathe. This day is going to blow your mind even more than yesterday. I promise you, we will get through this. I just need you to focus. Go clean up and meet me downstairs. Heath and Theo are on their way.” Her voice authoritative, she stood, leading me to the small bathroom. “I’ll get you some fresh clothes.” With that, she was gone. Gazing at myself in the mirror, I looked shaky, sick, and dirty. I showered quickly, sad to leave the heat and serenity of the shower. I wanted to stand under the hot water and mull over everything from the previous night. The revelations Patrick shared with me made me further question my supposed friends. I was confident Heath knew from the moment he saw Patrick that Patrick was a vampire or Sang. He hid it from me along with everything else. Overshadowing that was that the Sang were real. Detective Ash had been right, there was a world full of Others. As promised, fresh clothes awaited me on the bed: jeans, a button up, fresh socks, and under garments. Dressing hurriedly, I made my way downstairs. Halfway there, I had to stop and sit on the stairs, my body failing me. Heath found me. I’d never seen him look so scared. He tried to hide it, but he knew I was dying. My anger faded slightly when I looked at him. Our years of friendship blasted through my mind, forcing me to swallow the rising lump of sorrow. I put my arms around his neck as he carried me to the great room. All eyes turned to us. Patrick, Josephine, and Aidan sat together on the camelback sofa. Anabel and Theo sat on the cabriole facing us as we entered. Heath propped me on the sofa, sitting gently on the edge with a look of horror on his face. His hair was shaggy, dirty. When had he showered last? Aidan disappeared, only to reappear moments later with a large gray and white blanket and pillow. Heath took it with a curt nod as though dismissing him. When I was finally all situated, my legs in Heath’s lap, he sat back against the sofa, with me wrapped up firmly in my blanket. As angry as I still was, I just needed comfort from my best friend, even if it wasn’t real, if only for a moment. Aidan said, “Let’s have the truth now, Josephine, Patrick.” “Aidan, I would never—” “Stop. Who is this woman? I know you would never lie to me intentionally, but you held back yesterday. Be honest.” His eyes pierced Josephine’s, and her hardened expression softened slightly. She took his hand, kissing it. Patrick cleared his throat. “I’ll start. When I first changed, I was lucky. My family had been well off, we owned a lot of land and properties, so I was able to hide during the day and stay close to home. But, eventually I became restless and began to wander. One night I broke into an abandoned home, looking for shelter from the morning sun. I was searching for a nice spot to sleep when I heard weeping. I followed it, wondering if I’d been mistaken; surely, the house had been boarded up. “It was in the nursery that I saw her. She was on the floor kneeling over a bassinet. Her body racked with sobs. It was the first time I’d ever encountered one of the Lost. I felt sad for her but terrified. This was foreign territory for me, you understand? Her body quieted, and she turned toward me slowly. Fury. Her face was contorted with pure rage. I backed out of the room slowly, stammering an apology, turning to flee. But then she was there, right in front of me, pointing back to the nursery. I took a tentative step back into the room. It was empty. Then she was there, motioning me toward the crib. “I realized then that the whole thing was wrong somehow. I wanted to get the hell out of there, but I couldn’t. There I was, the ‘creature of the night,’ a scary monster, terrified of this specter and this place. Her face had gone from rage to pure anguish, and I knew. I just knew. I knew before I even looked. I’d been so shocked before that I hadn’t paid attention to my other senses screaming at me. The smell of death clung to the air. The sweet smell of sickness and disease, decay, rotting, putrid flesh. I leaned in to the bassinet and saw a blanket covering a small form lying there. I looked back at my Lost companion. She nodded to me. I reached forward….” Patrick’s voice broke off, as if he found it too painful to talk about even now. I shuddered, unable to imagine that kind of horror. He didn’t have to finish. We all knew what he had found. Silence stretched as Jo hugged Patrick, rubbing his arm. It was obvious this was a memory that still haunted him. “No words can describe that night. What I saw, felt. After I pulled the blanket back, the woman smiled at me gratefully and leant back over the bassinet, murmuring….” He trailed off again, blinking his eyes rapidly. Everyone was still silent, waiting. “When it was over, she spoke to me, thanked me. She’d never got to say goodbye to her baby. She never passed over, instead staying in that house grieving, never able to leave until she could have her proper goodbye. That night, at her request, I buried her child. When I awoke the next night, she sat waiting for me. She had another request: that I burn the house to the ground. In return, she had an offer for me. She knew a special ritual that would allow her to assume human form again and give me a chance to walk in the sun. There was more, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to feel the sun on my skin again. I didn’t necessarily believe her, but I was willing to chance it. So, the following night, I performed the ritual at her direction, and it worked. We burned the house and all its remnants to the ground. We roamed together for a long time until Josephine….” They exchanged a knowing smile, and she picked up where he left off. “I met them in 1923. In a swing club, of course. I’d never seen a Guardian before or a Daywalker. We tend to be solitary creatures when we’re young. All we care about is eating, sleeping, and keeping others off our territory. But Patrick and I hit off. We had so many interests in common with a few key differences. I was a predator. I didn’t kill … normally, but I ate, and I ate well, and I liked to play. Patrick, by this time, had become soft, or what we Sang consider soft on humans.” Josephine laughed. Patrick shook his head, his eyes hard. “Sorry,” she muttered. “Anyway, Tempie—that’s what I called her—and I also hit it off at first. We teamed up to pressure Patrick into not just feeding from people but enjoying the hunt. We traveled around, and it felt like home. I slowly started to realize she was slightly off. Small things she said. She’d get me intoxicated and push me to feed and feed and feed….” Jo shivered. “Those were dark times. I’d wake, and I’d just remember her laughter. The guilt slowly started to eat at me. Me. A woman with low scruples. “I tried to get Patrick to leave her, but he refused. He just kept saying she was still healing from her loss; she needed him. I wanted to prove to him that she was dangerous. So, one night she went out, and I followed her deep into the forest, watching from the shadows. A small group was waiting for her—three Sang and three Lost. A fire had been built in a small clearing. Tempie stood in front of the fire, her back to me, chanting. The fire turned black and silver, growing higher and higher toward the heavens. She called forward one of the Sang, cutting his hand with a dagger, letting the blood drip into the fire. She began chanting again. This time, one of the Lost, a man, came forth. “Taking more blood from the Sang, she dripped it onto the Lost man. He began to shriek and burn. The other Lost ones cried out, the Sangs laughing mirthlessly. I’ll never forget her face—her black, dead eyes, her sick smile as the Lost man turned to ash. Mixing the ash with blood, she chanted, rubbing some on her chest and the Sang’s face, having the Sang drink the rest. I was frozen, disgusted, horrified. “When I got it together, I knew I had to get away. I turned to flee, but she was there. She said ‘Did you like what you saw, pet?’ and dragged me to the clearing. Her strength was unbelievable. I fought, pleaded, but it didn’t matter. Whatever part of her that had once been human was gone. I watched, chained by silver, as she performed the ritual again. “Two down, one to go, I screamed for her to stop. The Lost had done nothing wrong, and their destruction served no purpose for her. I still had my human memories, still had family out there, still had a level of compassion. I tried to use that on her, explain humanity to her, but I angered her. She had been one of the Lost, after all, her baby, or so I thought…” Jo stared at me as she mentioned the baby, raising an eyebrow. She wanted me to focus on the baby. Our connection broke as she continued, leaving me to try to figure out why the baby was important. I filed it away in my mind for the time being. “I only angered her more. She broke my neck. “When I woke, she was gone. It was daylight, and I was in the sun, not burning. I wasn’t alone either. Traditionally, we don’t talk about who Guards us but I think it’s safe to tell you this next part. I wasn’t alone. Without knowing it, I had saved him, saved Connor, a Lost. I don’t know why she did it, but there we were, bound together, forever. We found Patrick. He listened to us, and we ran, never looking back.” Tears rolled down her cheeks as she finished her story. Patrick leaned over, and they hugged again. She punched his arm lightly and called him a dumbass while Patrick ruffled her hair. Aidan wiped her tears, and they kissed, passionately, as if they could crush themselves into one being. I looked away. She was a bitch, but I couldn’t hate her. She loved her family. Still, something about her story was off. I could never imagine her begging, especially not to someone like Thea. And the whole compassion thing…? She killed and ‘played’ with humans. I somehow doubted her compassion. Also, why save her? Allow her to walk freely during the day? “So, then Connor is your Watcher,” Theo said to the fireplace, courteously avoiding the make-out session. Jo sighed, and they drew apart hesitantly. “Yes. Around here, I just call him Dad, though. Patrick’s my brother, Connor’s my dad, and Connie is my stepmom.” “Stepmom?” Heath stared at her. “Unlike Connor and Jo, Connie is my actual mother. So, since Jo and I are together, it’s easier if people don’t believe we’re blood relatives,” Aidan spoke softly, his eyes moving over everyone in the room. “And before you ask, yes, she is my Guardian. Who better than your own mom? I’ve been incredibly lucky.” He kissed Jo’s hand seductively. Heath looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I knew full well he was just as curious as I was as to Aidan’s backstory. Again, Theo broke the silence. “So, Tempie was a Guardian. We would have had to kill Patrick to kill her. But now she’s Thea and is insanely powerful and creepy. What was she doing that night? To the vamps?” “Temperance. Her name was Temperance,” Patrick murmured, looking lost in his own memories. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen them since. And it’s Sang,” Jo replied. “Wait. Where are they? Your parents?” Theo asked. “Gone. As per usual. On a second honeymoon of sorts,” Jo said drily. Everyone began talking at once. “An army,” Anabel whispered. My eyes flicked to hers, an understanding passing between us. “What? What is it?” Patrick looked from Anabel to me as silence again fell. “It’s just that … I mean. Think about it. She knew when she met you how to bind you together, Vamp and Guard. She knew the spell, she knew what it would do, which means she knew it when she was alive, which means….” “She was Gifted,” Heath’s eyes gleamed as he finished where I left off. “Yes. How else would she have known? She couldn’t have been dead very long when you found her, so it’s unlikely she saw anyone else. It makes sense. She’s knowledgeable. All the Gifted learn to use special herbs, to create types of potions.” “But she would have had to be a Dark. Rituals like that, even a simple bind between a Lost and a Vamp, is something a Gifted would never do. It messes with the balance,” Theo finished. “But an army?” Jo’s voice held awe. “Maybe, or maybe a cult, a following. Someone like her needs to feel power, and the only way she can is by having people worship her,” Anabel said. Jo nodded, her face pensive. “We can’t kill her. She’s a Guardian. Some of that magic from the pact is still around if Patrick can still go out in the sun. To kill her we’d have to kill Patrick. That’s not going to happen.” “Why not?” Heath’s face darkened, his tone ice. Jo snarled, leaping from the couch, her body a blur as she pounced. Heath flung his arm out, his energy pausing Jo in mid-air. She gasped in shock before hissing at him. Her face turning twenty shades of red in anger. Everyone was out of their seats in milliseconds, yelling. But Heath just stared at Jo, with a slight tilt of his head. His energy rushed off him, sending Jo crashing into the wall. Aidan punched Heath in the face, the force sending Heath flying over the back of the sofa. Theo clung to Aidan’s arms, trying to stop him from jumping the sofa after Heath, but to no avail. Aidan was on top of Heath in a beat, pummeling him. Patrick and Anabel had rushed to aid Josephine, but seeing the action Patrick ran to help pull Aidan off Heath. Before he could get there, Aidan flew off Heath, crashing down, skidding across the floor, taking Theo and Patrick with him. Anabel had gotten Josephine to her feet, blood oozing from her head, a large hole in the drywall above. I stood surveying the scene. Drained, annoyed, but mostly angry, I found my voice. “ENOUGH!” I threw my hands up as I shouted. Blue fire emanated from my fingertips, flying out in a wave across the room and knocking everyone off their feet, effectively silencing them all. Six faces of mingled shock, awe, and fear looked back at me. I stared at my hands where blue fire radiated from them. Feeling faint, I started to fall, everything going black, but then Patrick was there, throwing me over his shoulder and storming from the room, shouting, “Enough is enough! Back here. Two hours. Everyone come up with an idea as to how to get this bitch.” I couldn’t help but grin inwardly as I watched the upside down faces of the five people left behind. “Get this bitch,” I mumbled as I tried to cling to consciousness. Instead of admonishing me, he chuckled, his whole body rocking. At the top of the staircase, he went through the very first door which held a second flight of stairs, wrought iron and curvy. He set me down and opened the door at the top, revealing a large bedroom, furnished like the one I had slept in. The large oak canopy bed was draped in red and cream swirls with cream curtains. It was furnished with a white and cream quilt with red inlays. A soft grey fainting sofa made of oak stood off to one side, balanced by a large bureau on the other. Not far from the bed was a stand with liquors and glasses. I breathed in sharply. It was amazing. Simple yet elegant, it seemed to fit Patrick perfectly. As he had the night before, he looked at me with hesitation. I knew he was letting me in, sharing a part of himself with me. In this moment he was a shy guy, looking for approval and my heart melted. Smiling, I lightly kissed his cheek. “This is amazing. You have this and that cottage. It’s all beyond lovely. Words aren’t enough.” His face lit up with wonder and joy. Throwing his arms around me, he crushed me against him. For once, I wasn’t torn between lust and anger. I was just happy to be with him and see him be happy. His lips found mine, parting them, his tongue eagerly exploring my mouth. I put all my energy into him. I had nothing left to give. I was dying, and I wanted him to know, to feel, how much he meant to me. He held nothing back as well. He was gentle yet fierce. He bit my lip playfully, his eyes smoldering with desire. I trailed kisses from his neck up to his ear, tugging lightly with my teeth. He chuckled, easing me off him. “Always so eager, so needy.” He ran his finger across my bottom lip sensuously. Pecking it lightly, I felt the pull from the pit in my stomach. I wanted him, now. I wanted every bit of him. “Have you thought about what I said?” While his voice was low and seductive, mine was breathy and uneven. “I can’t do much thinking around you. You distract me.” “Trust me, Lorelei. Trust me.” He swept me off my feet, gently laying me on the bed. Lying beside me, he slid his leg between mine, his arm propping up his head. We lay together in silence, his fingers trailing my body. I felt alive again, a burst of awareness, knowing it was because of him. His touch, his sheer closeness, made me feel more than I’d ever felt. Eyeing me lustily, his mouth curled up in a seductive half-smile as he kissed me swiftly. He bit into his wrist, his eyes never leaving mine. I watched the dark blood dripping down as he offered his arm to me like he would a glass of wine. I shied away, unsure, disgusted. His mouth curled down, his eyes more somber. “Please,” he said. “It’s the only way I know to save you. You said that night at the restaurant that you were all about self-preservation. That’s what this is. Nicole and Greta need you. Hell, I need you. There’s something here between us and I’d like to see how it plays out. There’s no one else I’d rather be bound to than you. Unless it’s me you’re unsure of.” He started to turn away, but I grabbed his arm to stop him. Patrick stared as I lowered my mouth to his wrist, lapping up the blood tentatively. It tasted salty, metallic, gross. “Look at me,” he said. Obediently, I lifted my gaze. “Don’t stop. Bite hard and drink as much as you can. I know it doesn’t taste pleasant, but it will heal you.” Under his watchful eyes, I bit down onto his open wound, sucking up his blood greedily, trying to get the experience over with quickly. He moaned with pleasure. Shocked by his response, I bit down harder, letting more blood flow into me. Grabbing my hair with his free hand, tangling it between his fingers, he pulled gently. The beast within me stirred as he groaned. His eyes sparkled with intensity as I sank my teeth down harder. He called my name, and I was in Heaven. I could move him, affect him this way. I forgot the taste and focused on the pleasure, squeezing my thighs together as a growing ecstasy rose within me. I bit down one last time, eliciting one last moan from him to excite me. As I let go of his arm, my breath caught. I could feel my eyes burn with pleasure. I wanted more. More of him, more biting and hair pulling. I wanted this more than I had ever wanted anything. “Stand up,” he growled. My legs shook, giving me away. The left side of his mouth curled up in a smile, his eyes still sparkling. “I want to taste you.” It came out softer but still more of a command than a question. I nodded. God damn, he could bite me any day. I blushed at the thought. “You are so fucking beautiful,” he breathed, his hands unbuttoning my shirt, eyes never leaving mine. Walking around me, he slid my shirt off, throwing it lazily on the settee. Pushing me back on the bed, plucking my shoes and socks off, he tossed them aside. While he unzipped my pants, I arched my back up to help as he slid my jeans off. He stared lovingly at my body. “So beautiful.” Climbing on top of me, he brushed hair from my face and kissed me firmly but gently. I sighed into his mouth, my body hungry for him. Trailing kisses from my lips to my chin, down my neck, stomach, stopping at my panty line, he kissed from one hip to the other, leading his tongue all the way back up my body, finding its way back into my mouth. I sucked on his tongue gingerly, and we moaned in unison. With his knee between my legs, I moved to lower my sex to meet his flesh, twirling my hips in a circular motion. Smile deepening, he pinned me back, moving his knee out of my reach. He whispered in my ear unevenly, “Where should I bite you? Here?” He kissed my neck. “Or is that too obvious?” “Anywhere?” My body writhed beneath him. “Hmm. How about here?” He kissed the top of one of my breasts. My breathing hitched. Oh God, he was killing me. “Please,” I moaned out loud. “Please what?” “Please … please bite me. I need it. Now.” He made a path of kisses down, this time over my panties down each of my legs and back up, stopping at my right thigh. Our eyes met, my face full of want and need, his full of pleasure. He sank his teeth into my flesh by my panty line, and I was gone. I screamed his name, my body breaking into a million pieces. But it wouldn’t stop; I came again. One hand yanked a fistful of his hair with all my strength, the other ripping into his back as I rode the waves of my pleasure. He released me with a smile I had never seen before. He licked his lips, lapping up the blood that had run down his mouth. Bending back down, he licked at my wound, and when I looked down, it was gone—as if he’d never bit me. My body quaking, I pulled him up to me, pressing all of him on me. Stroking my lips gently, he asked, “Well, how was that?” “More. Please. I want more,” He laughed lightly. “You want me to bite you again?” “Maybe that, or we could, you know….” My voice fell, and I blushed scarlet. “Have sex?” I nodded as he finished my broken sentence. Suddenly serious, he sat up. “How do you feel?” he demanded. “What do you think?” I felt insulted. “Not that. Believe me, I know how that felt. I think everyone within a hundred miles knows how that felt. I mean you. Do you feel stronger, better, whole?” Suddenly embarrassed and humiliated from my being overcome with pleasure, I turned away. Gathering up my clothes, I began to dress, examining myself for the first time. I did feel better. I felt healthy, fit … and wide awake. Examining my features in his full-length mirror by the bureau, I realized I looked amazing. My skin was no longer tight and sallow. I had color again, my face fuller, body still shaky but good. “I feel almost perfect.” “Almost?” He came up behind me, looking at me through the mirror. His eyebrows raised. “Yes. Almost. I would be beyond perfect if you hadn’t ruined the moment. Telling me how incredibly loud and awful I am.” I scowled at him. He spun me to face him, flying us back against the far wall and sinking his teeth into my neck. The pain was exquisite. Intoxicating. I felt it building up from deep within, slow and steady, building, building. Ripping my panties to the side, he tugged my legs around him and sank into me. In no time, I was screaming his name, my body exploding hard and fast, convulsing beneath him. We sank to the floor, our bodies tangled. He licked my neck gingerly, and I felt my skin prickle. I knew I was healed. “You are the sexiest moaner. I could listen to you yell my name like that over and over. I wasn’t berating you. I was just teasing.” Patrick looked into my eyes. I flushed with pleasure, wrapping my arms around his neck I kissed him. “I wish we could stay like this forever,” I murmured as I pulled back. “One day. But not today. We have to get ready to go back downstairs.” Sighing, he pulled me to my feet, and I went back to the mirror to straighten my clothes and hair. “Patrick?” “Yes?” “Is that it? Am I really healed?” I asked, trying to conceal my fear. “Absolutely.” He smiled. “This is going to sound stupid, but thank you for saving me.” He pulled me into his arms, eyeing me intently. Before he could say anything, I said, “Can I ask you something?” “Anything.” “I’m so new to this, and I hate being so naïve, but I have to ask. What’s a Dark?” He looked at me, puzzled. “Downstairs, they said Temperance must have been a Dark. What is that?” He nodded in understanding. “A Dark is another type of sorcerer. A different faction.” He saw his error as soon as he spoke, only he thought it was because he was shocking me with information. In reality, Ash had told me as much all ready. Patrick’s confirmation of it just made Ash’s info all too real. He sat me on the bed beside him, cradling my hand. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize. I should have. Of course you didn’t know. It’s a lot…. It is, but it’s all real.” “It’s all … real? Demons, vampires, witches, ghosts…? I just feel so, so stupid. How could I have not known? How doesn’t everyone know?” My voice was only a whisper as realization flooded through me. The dreams, the dreams where I was running in the forest, the sharp teeth, the contorted faces. It had all been a warning. And then suddenly a thought hit me like a light bulb turning on in my brain. “Wait, wait, wait! It’s all real? All of it?” “Yes. I know—” “No. Wait. You don’t know. I have an idea. I think I know … maybe. It’s crazy, but I don’t know….” My face lit up. Of course it had to be real. I began chewing the inside of my cheek, mulling over the possibilities. Patrick snapped his fingers in my face, bringing me back to reality. “What is it? I hate it when you pull inward like that.” His face was arranged in an expression of deep concern, but his voice held a note of slight irritation. I grabbed his arm. “Come on. I’ll explain downstairs. We need to get the others.” I felt rejuvenated. Alive. My mind ceased to worry about the future; I focused only on the now. I flew down the stairs two at a time, Patrick keeping my pace with ease, a look of amusement on his face. When we reached the bottom, I pushed him playfully. He feigned injury, and I laughed. Jo stood at the entrance of the great room, eyeing me with abhorrence. “Are you two quite finished? I didn’t realize there was time for jokes.” The word rolled off her tongue with contempt. “Easy, Jo,” Aidan said from somewhere out of eyesight. Patrick bored through her with his eyes, pulsing anger in waves. I took his hand, and we moved around her into the room, Jo at our heels. Aidan stood, motioning for me to sit by him. “Jo,” he called, “will you get me a drink, love? My usual, please.” She rolled her eyes, but exited the room anyway. As soon as she was out of sight, he leaned in. “Excuse her. She’s the love of my life, but she can be a raging bitch.” He winked at me, his face breaking into a childish grin. Patrick snorted with laughter, and I joined in. “She saw it in you when she first met you. She knew you were different. She’s never liked Gifted people.” “How did she know? Did you?” “Not a clue. Neither did he,” Aidan motioned to Patrick. “She just knows. She sees right through to the core of all creatures. She can look at something and tell you if it’s human, demon, Gifted, whatever.” “And she didn’t tell you?” I turned to Patrick now. He shook his head silently. “Of course I didn’t,” Josephine stood in the entrance of the hall looking infinitely bored. Her eyes swept to Aidan. “The raging bitch brought you your drink, love.” Aidan chuckled and, faster than I could see, he was sweeping her back in a romantic embrace with one hand, his drink in the other. I wondered if Thea knew about Jo’s ability. That’d be one reason to keep her around. The front door opened, and Heath, Theo, and Anabel came inside. Heath looked ashen, with his blonde hair falling over his eyes. Theo and Anabel were both somber, walking in tandem, hands grazing one another’s. I moved to stand in front of the fireplace so I could see everyone’s faces. The vamps were on the camelback, Anabel and Theo on a cabriole. Heath stood behind them, hands on the back of the sofa. “I had a thought upstairs,” I began. Jo snickered. Patrick squeezed her arm hard while Heath made a deep, menacing growl in Jo’s direction. Sighing heavily, I began again. “As I was saying,” I eyed Josephine warily, “I had a thought. If it’s all real … I mean all of it—vampires, witches, demons, and what not—then what about Thea? What scary legend does she currently represent? Anyone? Heath? Think about it.” Everyone looked around, trying to figure it out. I stared at Heath; his penchant for horror movies was the only reason I even came up with my thought. Slowly he lifted his head, eyes locking with mine, and ran to my side. Heath grabbed me laughing and swung me around, hugging me. “You’re a genius!” He grinned. “What?” Everyone eyed us curiously. “Can I?” Heath asked, his eyes gleaming. I nodded. Ruffling my hair, he looked around the room. “Succubus. She’s a succubus.” “No,” Patrick gasped. Aidan snorted. Theo and Anabel looked confused and Jo, angry. “It’s not possible,” Aidan began. “There’s no such—” “Stop. Just because we’ve never come across one doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We’ve never seen a Night Runner, but they’re real.” Jo nodded at me, her face still angry. “I have no idea what a succubus is.” Anabel looked around curiously. “I’ll tell you if you tell me what a Night Runner is.” We exchanged smiles. “Night Runner is a term we use for werewolves. Like Gifted instead of witches or mutants.” I flinched at the word mutants. The word incongruous with my desire for normality. “So vampires?” I asked, curious as to why it was so offensive. “It’s an ugly term created by humans. We hate it. Just like Night Runners don’t want to be called werewolves and Gifted don’t want to be called witches. It’s insulting.” Jo’s expression was cold and distant. I nodded. “We’re called Sanguisuge. Literal translation, ‘blood sucker.’ But don’t call us blood suckers or leeches. Call us Sang for short,” Aidan added for my benefit. “So, succubus?” Anabel said. “Right.” I turned to look at her. “So, a succubus in legend is a demon who comes to men in dreams. It takes the form of a woman and has sex with men, drinking their blood. But some lore has succubi as women who feed off of the life energy of people through seduction and sex. They have the ability to enrapture their victim. Some lore says blood is the life force, while other lore says they feed off the soul, another version of the life force.” “But they don’t have the power to compel their victims—to turn their eyes black and make them drink blood.” I shuddered at the memory Aidan’s words brought to me. “Why not?” I said more sharply than I intended. “Her touch, her scent, her looks, her kiss, everything about her makes you want to obey, which means a succubus can enrapture her victims. And if she was really a Dark before then, and a Lost, and a Guardian, then there you go. She would have her ways. She’s more powerful than anyone realizes. If you could have seen the deadened eyes….” I stopped and looked away. “So, how do we kill her?” Theo spoke for the first time. I looked at Heath and shrugged. “I don’t know that we can. But we have to find a way to drive her off or trap her. What’s her weakness? What kills Sanguisuge? Or Night Runners? Or demons? Or anything else?” My voice rose higher and higher. Patrick, who had stood deathly silent, stared contemplatively as he spoke softly. “Her weakness was her former life. She was in so much pain for so long. Tempie never said much about it, but it always loomed over her.” I couldn’t help but notice Jo turn away from Patrick and roll her eyes at Patrick’s take on Thea. “She’s never done anything without a purpose. Everything is calculated. She’s done all of this for a reason. I don’t know what or why, but for whatever reason, she’s coming for me.” Patrick continued. “Just like she became my Guardian and, for whatever reason, not only let Jo live but gave her a Guardian as well. Something must have stirred her into finding me again. Regardless, whatever she is now, whatever she’s become, it’s for a reason. My only guess is power.” “The Sanguisuge drink blood because they have to,” Theo observed. “It’s the essence of life. It keeps them young, it keeps them strong, keeps them alive. Take away blood, and they starve. When they starve, they become incapacitated and they age. Their blood turns to rust, and they mummify. The sun is their weakness, so is blood. Decapitation is usually effective. Stake through heart with white oak works. Holy symbols harm them only if they believe they’re damned. Did I leave anything out?” Jo hissed in response while Aidan laughed lightly. “Like we’d tell you if you did.” At that, Theo smiled. “Night Runners usually end up killing each other off. They’re strong, fast, big. A bite from the Sanguisuge will kill one and vice versa. Aside from that, white oak stake through the heart, decapitation, silver, and holy symbols if they believe they are damned.” “Demons are harder to kill. They die, they go to the pit, Hell. They hate salt, sand, holy objects, silver…,” Anabel continued. “So, the common denominators are holy objects, but they only work if the creature believes they’re damned?” I looked around for confirmation. “Then there’s you,” Jo said with a sadistic smile. “Sorry?” I puzzled at her. “You. You and your blue fire,” Jo flailed her arms about, mocking me. “She’s correct,” Anabel mused slowly. “You ran her off. When whatever happened, happened, the blue fire made them scatter. There’s been no sign of Nicole or Greta at campus or their homes. They could have been injured.” “Or Thea’s got them,” Theo added. “Well, they have to be somewhere,” Anabel continued, ignoring Theo. “They’re probably dead.” I gasped at Jo’s words. Heath and Patrick held me back as I snarled at her. I tried to jerk, to claw, to pull my way out of their grasp, but they were much stronger than I was. I breathed heavily, anger surging through my veins. “Your anger is better suited elsewhere, witchy-witch,” Jo condescended. “I was just being realistic. Even if they aren’t dead, we can’t help them. We have to find them. And you ruined the only way we can. Thea was walking around in your head, and you shut her down. We could have used that to our advantage, and now it’s gone.” I stood silently. She was right, and I knew it. “That’s not fair. She was dying, Jo,” Patrick said angrily. “So instead two more die in her place, and how many more after that? How is that fair, Patrick?” Jo fired back. “This isn’t helpful. We need to find a way to get her,” Aidan soothed, squeezing Jo’s hand. Jo turned her head slightly, staring at Anabel. As if answering a question, Anabel nodded, and they both rose. In my head, I could hear a soft, velvety voice. Fire, fire. Start a fire. I knew it wasn’t Thea. It sounded like Anabel, but it couldn’t be. Could it? I turned to stare into the fireplace. Breathing deeply, I focused on what I wanted, the ethereal blue fire I wanted to create. It started quickly. First a yellow ember, growing and changing, yellow to orange, to red, to blue. I felt Anabel and Jo on either side of me. I watched as they threw two vials of dark red liquid into the fire. The fire froze. I turned. “What the…?” My breath caught in my throat as I looked around. Everyone was frozen where they were. Everyone but Jo and Anabel. They both smiled gleefully at one another. “What the hell is this? Are they okay?” Concern flitted from my voice as I turned from one to the other. “Men are dumb.” Jo shrugged. “Men are not dumb. They just tend to be a bit blinded when it comes to ‘their women,’” Anabel corrected with air quotes. “What the hell is going on?!” I screamed. “We needed to talk to you, without them. They would never agree to what we’re thinking. They only want to protect us, even if it means their deaths. They’re only going to go around in circles. In the meantime, Thea is going to do God knows what,” Anabel explained. “What? Wait … what? What have you two been up to? And what’s up with the vials?” I eyed them warily. “The vials are Jo’s blood and yours with a little potion mixed in. I took it while you were sleeping. Don’t worry. Time’s not frozen, but they are. In a sense. I sort of used my energy and that potion to go in and short-circuit their minds for a few minutes. Throwing the blood into the fire keeps you and Jo from freezing as well. But we are short on time, so we need to move this along.” “There are some things my brother doesn’t know about.” When I shot her a skeptical look, she said, “I do think of him as my brother, but this is a very sensitive subject. We need to act, and we need to act now. We need to get you out of here. Back to a normal schedule. Or just back home to draw her out.” “With us protecting you, from a distance,” Anabel interjected, shaking her head at Jo. “It’s the best chance we have. She wants you. Well, she wants Patrick, but she wants to use you to get to him. She won’t come for him out right. She wants him to come to her.” “So, you want me to play sitting duck to a psychotic succubus? Great plan. And you, what, froze everyone to get me to agree and then we can strong arm the rest of them?” I rolled my eyes. “Do you have a better plan?” Jo growled. “What about my phone? Where is it, by the way? Thea’s and Greta’s numbers are in there.” “Disconnected. And it’s here.” Anabel drew it from her pocket and handed to me. “Have you had it this whole time? I am not a child! Stop taking my damn phone!” I said angrily. “You have no right to be affronted. Do you know what Anabel has done for you? She’s gotten you more sick time from work, pretended to be you, answered your calls and texts, kept your sister at bay. You should be thanking her,” Jo’s look and tone was scolding. I felt my face grow red with shame even as the shock of Jo sticking up for Anabel rocked me. I couldn’t help but wonder when and how they became confidants. “I’m sorry. I had no idea. Thank you, Anabel. Really.” Anabel shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “Well, you’ve been possessed, and I’ve lied to you for years, so it was the least I could do. Which reminds me, you aced your midterms, and I’ve sent them more documentation, but they want to know when to expect you back in class. I said … well, you said you’d let them know by the beginning of next week. And Madison is driving me nuts. She keeps blowing up your phone.” I was beyond stunned. Anabel had done so much for me recently and she’d never said anything. She’d let me hate her even while working so hard to help me. “Moving on,” Jo interrupted. “Are you in, or are you chicken?” She cocked her head to the side, smiling vindictively at me. “Let’s do it. I want to go home, anyway. Get caught up on school and wait for Thea to come for me. It’s a plan of sorts. One question, though: what do we do when she comes for me? How do we stop her?” “All supernatural beings aside from the Gifted or the Dark hate silver. In my story, maybe you heard me say Temperance bound me in silver. I didn’t want to repeat it to add to Heath and Theo’s repertoire, but I do know a little about succubi, and they hate it as much as we do. I don’t trust your friends.” I nodded as Jo added the last bit. If Heath knew, he’d use it in a heartbeat to keep them away all the time, regardless of Anabel and Jo’s new-found friendship, or whatever it was. “It won’t kill her, but we can bind her. Hold her somewhere. It’s the best we can do for now.” We exchanged looks. With a wink, I watched as the blue flames unfroze, conversation erupting around me. “Stop!” I announced over the chatter. The room quieted, six pairs of eyes on me. “I want to go home. We draw her out. We fight her with everything we have. And if we can’t kill her, we stop her, hold her someplace.” Chaos broke out, everyone arguing, but I wasn’t listening. I was staring at my hands, pleading with my body to work. Seeing what I wanted in my mind, I felt the energy start in my belly, building, rising through my stomach, illuminating through me. Then there it was, the ethereal fire. My hands glowed, flames emanating from my fingertips. Smiling, I twirled my hands in a circle, creating an orb of blue fire and letting out a gasp of amazement. It was beautiful, and it was all me. In that moment, I knew that it didn’t matter that I felt alone or uncertain about my future. I had to focus on Thea and Greta and Nicole. I wanted to show everyone that we were strong and we could handle this succubus. Lobbing my orb from hand to hand, on a hunch, I threw it as hard as I could at Heath. Heath, who had long ago gone back to stand behind Anabel and Theo on the cabriole, leapt back in surprise, throwing up his hand and sending it spiraling back at me. I let it hit me on instinct, feeling its energy absorbing back into my body. I accepted it willingly, creating a new orb and sending it back at Heath. This time, he was grinning wickedly, ready for me. He’d taken a stance behind Jo and Aidan, whose faces were set in awe. He let the orb get mere inches from his face. I could almost see his energy radiating off of him as he tilted his head, sending it spiraling toward Anabel, who froze it in midair. Theo moved in then, staring at it, cocking his head to one side. He put his hand out, bringing it into a fist, his energy crushing it, and we watched as the orb shattered. Patrick, Jo, and Aidan stared at each other, mouths agape, while Heath, Anabel, Theo, and I started laughing and hugging each other. “That was amazing. Theo, what the hell was that? You’ve been holding out on me.” I shoved Theo’s arm. He laughed, shrugging his shoulders. Heath spun me around, cheering. “Did you see that? That’s what I’m talking about! Look how strong we are together. Look how powerful we are when we work as one.” “It’s you, Lorelei. It’s you.” Anabel stared at me, smiling. “You are the true leader. You are making us and our powers stronger.” She turned to everyone. “Listen, I’m going to take Lorelei upstairs and make sure she’s fully healed. I think the rest of you should try to coordinate a plan now that we all know what we can do.” We walked away, leaving the others to fight it out. I sat down on the bed upstairs, back in the room Anabel and I were ‘sharing.’ She stood in the center, motioning me to stand in front of her. Pulling a small orange bottle from under the bed, she started to spread an orange powder in a circle just big enough for two of us to stand in. My eyebrows raised quizzically. Without looking at me, she said, “So the Sangs won’t hear us. It insulates our voices in this circle.” I nodded. “What now?” Anabel looked at me, her expression apprehensive. “We have to leave here. There’s someone we need to go see. The Sanguisuge can’t know. Not even Jo. There are some things we must keep to ourselves.” She looked at me pleadingly. “Anabel, what is it?” She was making me anxious. “When one of our kind is born, we’re born to Gifted or Dark families. You choose to remain Gifted or Dark, or to change sides. It’s a personal choice. Not all families are Gifted or Dark. You can be Gifted with Dark parents or vice versa. We’re brought up with this knowledge. As children, we’re all taught about our history together. We form bonds. But once we choose a side, we’re not allowed to remain in contact with the other side anymore. The Gifted is a small coven because most of our families are normal people, Dark, or non-practicing. The Gifted is a dying breed, Lorelei. That’s why it’s so important for you to be with us. You make us stronger. If the newer generations can see what we can do, then maybe they will choose our side over the Dark.” Anabel squeezed my hands tightly. Her hope sent me spiraling. How could I be responsible for an entire faction of sorcerers and not just any faction, but a dying one. “I still talk to my cousin. She’s Dark, but we were like sisters once. We need to go see her. Look at her books. See what she knows. The Dark have legends and lore, and I know we can find what we’re up against. Heath and Theo never paid much attention to the Dark lore, but I did.” She smiled wistfully. “So, as kids, you learn about both sides, and then you choose?” “Once you get your powers, yes. There’s no way to predict what power you’ll end up with but sorcerers with certain powers tend to gravitate to a specific faction. Healers for example tend end up Gifted, Communers with the dead tend to end up Dark, etc.” I nodded, shocked. I felt lost. I’d missed out on so much. Then anger surged as I realized how much they’d held out on me and how they’d plotted my future for any children I might have. Bastards. Only for now, though, did I have to play nice and then I’d leave them. I didn’t have to be anyone’s leader. “How do we get out of here?” I said slowly. “The front door. Theo’s telling them we have to go see Jackson at work, talk to him and management about your leave. Then we’ll come back. Tomorrow, you go home.” I instinctively smiled. Home. Peace, silence, home. I sighed. I missed home. Using the tip of her shoe, she brushed the powder back and forth, effectively ending our private conversation. “I’ll clean this up later,” she mumbled. “Anabel?” “Yeah?” “So, how’d you freeze the orb then?” “Lorelei. My powers are all mind-related. I can touch your power through your mind.” Anabel smiled deviously at me. “You are more powerful than you let on, aren’t you? And not nearly as sweet and innocent as you pretend to be, I fear,” I said, eyeing her. She just shrugged her shoulders in response. “One more question, Anabel.” “Yes?” “Can we grab lunch on the way? I’m starving.” Her stomach growled in response, and we both laughed. I caught myself quickly, feeling wistful about these moments between us. Chapter Eleven In the end, Heath wouldn’t leave me. I’d hoped to do this without him, but he sensed we were up to something and became annoyed when Theo broke down, telling him where we were going. So, here we were. The door opened, but Anabel stood in front of me, blocking my view. Anabel introduced the three of us in turn, the guys greeting the woman with an air of familiarity. I held back, being introduced last. “And this is Lorelei. Lorelei, this is my cousin, Bast.” In the dark recesses of my mind, I remembered hearing her name before in whispered conversations while I was dying in my bed. Looking at her, I saw the family resemblance immediately—tan, with long, black hair, bright green cat eyes, high cheek bones, and a lean build. She looked like her namesake. It was like seeing a slightly older version of Anabel, with different hair and eyes. But there was something about her presence, the way she carried herself. She had an inner strength that was intimidating. Looking at her, I knew that she wasn’t just one of the Dark; she was a leader. My energy reached out to hers tentatively. Her eyes flickered over me, her energy pulling taut. Without speaking, she moved out of the doorway, extending her hand to wave us in. Taking a deep breath, I followed Anabel. Heath and Theo brought up the rear. She led us through a hallway, moving with poise and grace. We went to the back of the house to a large study. Everything was modern, chic. A shag white rug was spread across the center of the room. Dark wood floors seeped out from the edges of the massive rug. A curved glass desk sat kitty corner from the door. The far wall was floor-to-ceiling glass. The desk stood facing the door and the rest of the room with two swoop arm chairs across it and a large sectional in the opposite corner. Bast sat at her desk in a large white chair. The boys moved to the sectional while Anabel and I sat in the chairs across from her. Her emerald eyes met mine, and she spoke for the first time. “My sister Freya will be home soon. It will only upset her if she sees you.” She turned her gaze to Anabel, the last comment causing her to flinch. That’s when I remembered they weren’t supposed to have a relationship. Based on Anabel’s flinch, I guessed Freya had a huge problem with Anabel being Gifted. Anabel spoke concisely, watering down everything that didn’t directly involve Thea. When she was done, Bast rose and stood in front of us, leaning against the desk. “Who are you?” She flicked her eyes to me. “Where do you come from?” “I’m Lor—” She cut me off. “I know your name. Who are your people? What side of your family has powers, and how far back can you trace it?” Anabel broke to explain my lack of knowledge until very recently. I fought the impulse to shuffle my feet as she revealed how I was essentially clueless in this other world—how my powers had come suddenly and were becoming strong quickly. She ended by explaining that their powers were strengthening as well. “Well, that’s easy enough. Your interaction with the Others finally tripped you up. You couldn’t stay dormant forever. Not you.” She looked at me. “So, is that why their powers are growing?” I asked, nodding my head at Theo and Heath. “In part. But it’s also you. You are a true leader. You come from a very strong, very old bloodline. Your family must have taken great precautions, great pains, to hide you from this world. Are you certain no one—not a parent, a sibling, a grandparent—had powers?” I shook my head slowly. “My mom passed from cancer. My sister and father are normal. Father’s parents are mean, but normal. My mom’s parents were lovely. They passed shortly before my mom, but they weren’t around much.” Bast walked out of the room only to return momentarily with a large, tattered, leather-bound journal. Setting it in my hands, she closed her eyes, her hand hovering over the book. An emerald mist emanated from her fingertips down to the book. It flew open, the pages turning fast, stopping swiftly. I felt a sudden breeze behind me, and I knew Heath and Theo had joined us. Holding my breath, I looked down. “The problem with the Gifted is that they don’t embrace their power. They run from the supernatural and therefore can never be truly powerful. Their covens are weak, and they give up the life or play second fiddle. That’s why the Dark reign. We embrace what we are meant to be. The Gifted don’t want to upset the balance, but by not strengthening themselves, they give us the upper hand. That’s why the Gifted are dying out. You’re not doing good. You’re doing nothing.” I felt the others tense, and I knew why. She was talking about their families. “Please,” I said quickly. “How do we win?” “Do you know the legend of the succubus? Where they come from? How it relates to us?” “Lilith. Adam’s first wife, supposedly, instead of Eve, if I remember correctly. She left him because she didn’t want to be subservient to him. She was one of the sacred four. She mated with one of the archangels,” Heath responded quickly. I looked at him, eyebrow arched questioningly. “What? I paid some attention to the Sorcery teachings.” “Exactly. People believe Lilith was the first Queen. Mother of the demons. Maybe she was. I couldn’t say. She left Adam and mated with Satan, who treated her as an equal. Notice the theme of strong women being evil? Anyway Lilith produced demon spawn that God took away from her for refusing to go back to Adam. All speculation.” Bast rolled her eyes. I couldn’t help but smile, even in sorcery women had to be inferior. “Now, supposedly Lilith and Eisheth Zenunim bloodlines are dead. Only Agrat bat Mahlat’s and Naama’s are still around. They were the Four Queens of the demons, or the Sacred Four.” “What do you mean their bloodlines ‘are’ still around?” I asked, my eyes widening slowly. My conversation with Ash spiraling through my head. Four Queens he had said. He never mentioned they were succubae or angels! A pit rose in my stomach. My hands started to tremble as I realized where this conversation was heading. “The four queens mated with the archangel Samael. God wanted to punish them so he castrated Samael and made Lilith infertile. Before he could castrate Samael, however, Samael mated with Agrat, Naama, and Eisheth. They bore sons from him. Agrat’s was Asmodeus and she pretended it was King David’s child. Her bloodline continued through her son and through the centuries. Naama’s and Eisheth’s son’s names are unknown, but their lines descended in much the same way. It’s also said, that with Satan’s help Lilith was able to have a son with Samael and protect him and any subsequent descendants from God’s wrath. Some of our kind still believe these succubae are still around. That they’re immortal and they still rule over all demons. Point is, succubae are rare. To become one, this Thea would have had to be incredibly powerful, and she would have had to pay an awful price.” “So, again, how do we win? What does this legend have to do with the here and now?” I looked from Bast to Anabel, questioningly. I now had two versions of the same story of the Four Queens and no information on how to kill a succubus. This was a waste of time. Bast sighed in exasperation and rolled her eyes, reminding me of Josephine. “Watch,” she said. She pulled a glass bowl from the bookshelf nearest her. The bottom had what looked like water in it. She stared at it, her face pulled into a look of fierce concentration, when a red ember began to bloom on top of the water. She smiled, and the ember bloomed into a flame, changing slowly from red to green. I felt Heath’s hand on my shoulder as I caught my breath. Bast stared at me over the fire deviously. I knew what she wanted me to do; it was my turn to focus on the flame. I could feel the energy pouring from me as I focused every inch of myself on it. Slowly, it began to rise up and twirl, the color fading from green to blue. My blue. Bast clapped gleefully, and the flame disappeared. “I knew it,” she gushed. “That’s demon fire.” My mouth dropped open, and I stared at her, horrified. Anabel murmured soothing words to me, but I wasn’t listening. Demon fire?! The words hung in the air. My mind raced. “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re scaring her. Look at her,” Heath was arguing heatedly, Theo trying to calm him, but Bast was still staring at me, smiling. “The legend,” Bast began, ignoring everyone. I had no clue if anyone else was listening, but I leaned in, her voice the only sound in the world. “The legend continues that each Queen wielded an element. Part angel, part succubus Agrat bat Mahlat’s element is water. That blue fire you have is called demon fire. That fire shows up once a generation and as her descendant you wield that fire. The fire is a way to preserve balance. With the Queens gone or in hiding, it’s our job to use this fire to protect our world from evil. It got its name long ago when we fought battles against demons who tried to wreak havoc on the world. They feared your ancestors and gave your gift that name. You have to understand Agrat is a fallen angel, but an angel nonetheless, as well as a succubus. She believes in balance. That fire shows up in every generation. It is demonic and heavenly and makes you a leader of the entire Gifted race. You saw my fire. It’s called hell fire. Again a name the demons gave it. Anyone descended with this emerald fire is always a ruler of the Dark. Anyone descended with your sapphire fire is the ruler of the Gifted. My guess is that your family tried to protect you from your calling. It’s a tall order.” “So, how was I chosen then? Why not my sister?” I asked hesitantly. “Bloodline. Just like mine. It can be anyone. Once someone dies off, another is chosen. Cousin. Sister. Mother. Long-lost female relative. As long as it’s female. There’s no way to tell who is going to be the leader.” “How am I a ruler of the Gifted? It’s not possible. Demon fire. We’re part demon.” My mind whirled as I muttered incoherently to myself. “We’re sorceresses. Agrat mated with Samael. Two fallen angels. That’s your line. So, your fire or energy is a mix of Agrat’s water element, angelic purity, and also Agrat’s succubus side. But most importantly, you’re part human. A large chunk of you is human. When you mix all those elements together you get a sorceress. You’re not angelic or demonic, you’re you. A Leader. A fighter. Think of us as built-in safeguards. The Queens rule. But we’re a separate entity that can fight back and hold our own. Defend humans.” I felt dizzy, crazy, trying to wrap my mind around all she was telling me. “But, wait…. We have choices. We can choose to be one of the Gifted or one of the Dark.” “Yes. They do.” Bast said, gesturing to Anabel, Theo, and Heath who all sat enraptured by the conversation. “But not us. It’s in our nature. It’s who we are. Don’t get me wrong. No one is inherently good or evil. Everyone is a mixture. For you and me, it’s not about good or evil. It’s the big picture. We’re two sides of the same coin in a much larger vision.” Bast stared at me, her cat-like eyes searching mine. “But, how can I be a leader?” I felt my voice straining. “Because we’re human. Humans with special abilities. Angels can be vengeful and cruel. Demons can be respectful or sparing. But, in order to lead, in order to take on the evil in the world, you have to be a little dark! You have to believe in justice and be able to dole it out! So, Agrat was both, and she passed on that Gift to female ancestors. You are a leader. You are special. We have a lot in common. Think about it. Demon fire, to slay the monsters. Hell fire, to send them back to the pits they came from. Dark and Gifted are divided only because they believe it needs to be so, but it’s not true. We have the same goals, just different means of achieving them. You and I are alike. We both consort with unseemly characters, and doing so enhances our abilities. Admit it; it makes you feel whole.” She looked at me, her face suddenly wistful. “How long have you felt lost? Devoid of everything. Then one day you happen upon someone who breaks you open, and your world is changed. You feel more intensely than ever before. But more importantly, for once, you feel like you have a purpose. Something real, tangible. This is a beautiful Gift. I know my cousin and her little friends here have been holding out on you. There comes a time for each of us when we have to make a choice. Dark or Gifted. Two sides of the same coin, Lorelei. If we choose different than our friends and family, we have to break ties. I’ve broken the rule because of Anabel. I’m sure she told you we keep in touch. I was sixteen when this power came to light. The moment it did, I knew I was on my own. My parents, Anabel, the entire family had been Gifted. But this was different. It forced me to re-evaluate. To look deeper into my past, my family tree. I uncovered certain things…. “Anyway, my sister Freya joined me and Anabel almost did, but she chose what she felt was right. You will have to choose, and soon. You are Gifted; there’s no choice in that. It pours out of you in waves. You will have to choose whether to embrace it or stand down.” She broke eye contact with me, leaving me to turn everything over in my mind. “What about you?” I asked thoughtfully. “What about me?” “If I’m descended from Agrat, then I assume you are descended from Naama?” “Correct.” She eyed me expectantly. “So, what makes your fire or energy different?” “Ahh, now you’re thinking. Hell fire. Naama’s element is earth. She wielded the natural soil and bedrock to her bidding. While she is depicted as being the most nurturing of the queens. She is nurturing and loving to her element and to her children, but she is a seductress, preying on people at crossroads. Enchanting them, corrupting them, feeding from them. As for the name hell fire … it’s just a name, mostly, like demon fire. But names that strike fear into all creatures.” “So, when you say we’re two sides of the same coin, you mean that? Because Agrat and Naama were sister angels, and then they had sons by Samael. We share blood. That’s what you mean? How we’re sorcerers? We’re distantly related.” She stared at me briefly, and I knew I’d hit the nail on the head, so to speak. “Anabel, it’s time to go. I don’t want Freya to know you’re here. You know how it upsets her.” Bast’s expression was slightly worried. Anabel nodded, and they embraced briefly. I tried not to feel too annoyed that I kept getting the brush off as soon as I got close to some real answers. After all, I felt Bast had given me more information about myself than anyone else. We stood, the boys and Anabel heading out when Bast grabbed my arm. “One more thing,” Bast whispered urgently. “Thea is very old and very dangerous. She’s quite cunning and manipulative. She’s the most powerful and most famous Dark there’s ever been. Ask around; look it up in the scribes. Her real name is not Theodora. She has many names, but look her up as Temperance Decker.” She let go, shoving something in my hand, and I walked in a daze to the car. My mind was a mess. It kept turning over and over. I felt sick and angry. How much had my supposed friends known? How could they let me wander blindly in this? The worst part was how easily Bast understood me. I did feel whole. Really whole. With Patrick, with my Gift. For a moment, I had completely forgotten about work, school, the gnawing ache in my heart when I thought of my life, and the feeling that I was slowly suffocating whenever I thought of my future. Bleak, hard, pathetic. Chapter Twelve We stopped off at work where seeing Madison and Jackson brought home the fact that they were surreal to me now. The past few weeks had upheaved every idea of what normal meant. Madison cooed over Heath, clearly distressed by his rather rugged and grumpy appearance. They headed outside to talk, which left me to soothe Jackson’s ruffled ego. He hugged me briefly, looking distraught at my arrival, and pulled me upstairs for a brief chat. We sat in the manager’s office in awkward silence as Jackson drummed his fingers on the desk, looking everywhere but at me. “What’s wrong? Has something happened?” I couldn’t bear the awkwardness any longer. He cleared his throat, finally bringing his gaze to rest on me. “Yes. I wanted to wait until you came back to talk to you about this. There’ve been some things in motion while you’ve been away.” “Okay … such as?” I felt my stomach clench. “I’ve been tasked by management to go over this with you. I want you to know that I’m on your side.” “Jackson. What’s going on?” I could feel my breath becoming uneven, panic swelling in my chest. “Madison’s really been stepping up to the plate while you’ve been gone. She’s been a real trooper. I don’t know if you’re aware, but she’s been running customer service in your place. There’s a lot of changes happening here. That being said, before your accident and everything, the past few months you’ve become increasingly despondent. Harsh even. There’ve been some complaints.” My heart sank deeper into my chest. “Complaints? You never said anything. No one ever said anything.” I paused for a moment as my upper lip began to tremble. “A-a-a-m I being fired?” The words strangled my throat. “No. Not fired. Management … we feel that a change would be best. You hate customer service. Maybe a different department, less responsibility, especially now, after everything that’s happened to you. Maybe that would make you happier. It’ll be good for you.” “I’m being demoted. What? I don’t understand. I’m good at my job. No. I’m great at my job!” Panic crept into my voice. “Lorelei. You are great on the business side of things. You are, technically speaking, the best. You’re a great trainer. But you can come across as rude. You may not realize it, but you look upset even when you’re not. You can be harsh when you’re critiquing people or when a customer crosses you. Besides, you’ll be graduating soon. This was never permanent for you. Do you see what I’m saying?” “No. No, I don’t. I always thought that you thought I was good at my job. That you respected me. Valued my opinion. I trained Madison. Me. And now you’re just giving her my job. I’ve given everything to this company. I took quarters off school because my schedule didn’t coincide with what you wanted me to work here. And now you’re using school to help fire me. I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me, and you’re sitting there saying I’m losing my job because I’m too harsh. Is it too harsh to tell a bagger to go on lot and push in carts? Is it too harsh to tell everyone to clean when there’s down time? This is a business. Since when is it my job to coddle these people? Do Anabel and Theo know?” My voice was rising, body shaking. “You’re not being fired … and, no, they have no idea. This is an opportunity, Lorelei. You know I respect you. You know I think of you like one of my own.” “Don’t, don’t do that. Don’t try to play on my emotions.” “Lorelei. Trust me. This is what’s best.” “For who? For you? For Madison? Because, for me, it’s a demotion and a loss of pay. So show me documentation. Show me proof, Jackson. Because we’re union, and I’m out on a temporary medical leave. My job is still mine when I come back. You can’t just take it from me without a paper trail. I’ve played Union Steward enough times to know that.” “Lorelei. You’re being unreasonable.” “Unreasonable. Do you hear yourself? I’m up here, off the clock, without a union rep. You didn’t even ask me if I wanted one. So this conversation isn’t even real according to union standards because a member of management has to be here since we’re both union and you don’t possess the ability to take away my job, Jackson.” I slapped my hand against the desk in a show of defiance. To my horror, little blue sparks flickered off my hand. I heard a sharp gasp and looked at Jackson. He stared at me quizzically, looking at me and then at my hand, and back at me. “Did you … did you see that?” “See what, Jackson? Don’t change the subject,” I surged on, ignoring the sparking and trying to divert his attention. “I could swear I saw sparks. Bluish sparks,” Jackson said slowly, continuing to stare in confusion. “Don’t do that to me. Don’t make up lies to distract me, Jackson. We’re done here.” I stood. In that moment, I knew I was right. We were done. Permanently. I could feel the sadness building. I swallowed hard, trying to stuff it down. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t cry here. I didn’t stop to see if Anabel or Theo were waiting for me or if Heath had come back in. I just needed silence. To get as far away from here as possible. I left Jackson mumbling to himself. Hopefully he’d shake out of it and reason it out to be an electric shock or trick of the mind’s eye. By foot, it was a twenty-minute walk to my apartment. I walked quickly, head down. Keep it together. Keep it together, I chanted over and over in my mind. So what if I just lost my only parental figure? So what if he was the only adult that mattered to me or that I respected? I brushed it aside. I was me. I didn’t need him anyway. I’d been betrayed by my real parents. Now, that … that hurt. I wasn’t about to let Jackson break me. It was sprinkling, a slight chill in the air. But it felt good. Walking always helped me sort things out. It felt good to be alone. It was like walking to freedom. I hesitated at the door, unsure of whether or not I wanted to go in. Feeling disconsolate, I sighed heavily and opened the door. The first thing I noticed was that my apartment was clean. No, not clean, immaculate. Hmm … who’s been cleaning in here? My apartment had never looked like this; everything gleamed. That’s when they caught my eye. A stack of books and an envelope sat on the small table in the kitchen. I opened the fridge to find it fully stocked. Grabbing a soda, I sat down, turning the envelope over, no writing anywhere. Taking a sip of the soda, I opened the envelope. The note was from Bast. Lorelei, I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to earlier. Next time come alone. Since you’re brand new to this world, I thought you could use some help. These are some old scribes and books passed down from Gifted to Gifted, and the last one is the spell book of a Dark. Let’s see if you can guess who the Dark is. It won’t tell you who she really was or is, but it’ll show you her true nature. Remember: Gifted and Dark leaders are transferred down through the bloodlines, meaning you can trace your family. Be wary of those who don’t tell you what you need to know. Any half-brained Gifted or Dark would see your blue hue and know you were a leader and how to trace you. So, why not tell you the whole truth? We don’t have to be on opposite sides. We’re meant to be a team, regardless of what those Gifted say. Best, Bast P.S. Anabel is the one who cleaned and stocked your fridge. She let me in to drop this off as well. I read the note over and over trying to understand the more cryptic parts of the message. I knew immediately that the spell book must have been Thea’s. It seemed everyone was withholding information. If any of my Gifted friends saw the blue hue and knew I was a leader of a powerful race of Gifted, why not tell me everything? Why lie? Then again, did they lie? They told me I was powerful. Yet, Bast must be up to something by telling me this. But what? As for my supposed friends, if Bast knew all of that, so would they … so why bring me to her? So they didn’t have to tell me themselves, or what? Remembering the piece of paper she’d slipped me, I retrieved it from my pocket, studying the eloquent writing. Just tomorrow’s date and a time listed. I set the note to the side, disregarding it in turn to study the pile of books before me. There were four books in all, followed by a large journal. It was made of brown leather, heavy and worn, but sturdy. I immediately recognized it as the one from Bast’s study, its pages flying open without her touch. Her name was etched into the front cover, Temperance Decker. Holding it made me feel nauseated, so I set it aside and went to the next book. This one was about the history of the Gifted and the Dark. It looked intriguing, with lots of charts and diagrams, but I didn’t have time for that yet. The next was filled with genealogical charts on the oldest families of the Gifted and the Dark. Following this one was an alphabetized scribe of the oldest and most powerful in our world. This must be what Bast had mentioned earlier about looking her up. I flipped through until I found her listing, a full page. I braced myself and began to read: Decker, Temperance Daughter of a founding family of Columbus, Ohio, during the 19th century, she is regarded as the most powerful Dark of her time. Even more so than the leader of the Dark, which was and is, still unheard of to this day. She is best known for her role in making Columbus a mecca for the Dark, for being the first member of her bloodline to choose to be Dark, the Deckers having been a revered Gifted family for centuries. A key leader, second-in-command, until the untimely demise of the Dark leader, Agatha Johnson, and her entire known family. Although there is much speculation about Decker’s involvement in the deaths of Johnson and her family, nothing was ever proven. Decker took up the reins, ruling the Dark until her sudden disappearance at a Dark convention in Louisiana in 1835, in what is known as the Dark Massacre. Known For: Focused her talents on death and the dying. In so doing, she created spells to increase life expectancy. These included spells to treat diseases and cancers, but were found to be too dangerous, requiring binds, sacrifice, and soul leeching. Worked on all supernatural creatures to find ways to bind their power or take it from them and infuse it in other creatures. Often sold her talents to the highest bidder. Created ways to prolong death. Known for torture and for necromancy. Rid Ohio of all Gifted people through various means. The list continued, but I had read enough. I felt disgusted. My mind raced. It was all so vague, but if it meant what I thought it meant, none of it was good. My first instinct was to find Anabel, but I stopped myself. This woman—or whatever she was—was incredibly powerful. More than I could ever be. She raised the dead, used torture and, from the sound of it, killed a lot of people. And she was coming for me. I looked through the scribes until I found the listing for the Dark Massacre: Louisiana, 1835. A Dark Convention was held by the leader of the time Temperance Decker. Not much is known about the incident as there were no known survivors. Darks traveled from all over to meet the great Decker who held sway in government, local and federal, and high society. Decker was a much-admired and feared Dark of the time. In all, 256 Darks convened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to date the largest gathering of any group of supernatural beings. On the night in question, reports of silver and black flames shooting up into the sky, followed by screams, and pleas from the convention came in. Other reports stated that a woman in black was seen leaving the scene as the screams died. The woman exited the burning building covered in a silvery hue. The woman, believed to be Temperance Decker, was never seen again, leading many to believe she died in the fire. The fire itself was documented as having raged for two days. It never spread, eventually burning itself out, leaving behind no remains. I sat in stunned silence. No sign of bodies … 256 people just vanished? I shook my head, trying to figure it all out. So, I sat and sat and sat … until I could sit no longer. Grabbing my keys, I ran for the door and drove straight to Patrick’s. I wasn’t sure what I needed or wanted, but I knew Patrick could give it to me. The James estate was massive. He hadn’t been lying when he said ‘estate.’ In looks, it was like a smaller version of Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate. While the Rockefeller home managed six stories, the James estate only had four. Only. It was built in the same Classical revival Georgian form with thirty rooms, sitting on a whopping forty acres. The small cottage in the back he had taken me to was only one of seven that could be used to house extra guests and family. I hadn’t had a chance to explore, but a peek from the bedroom had shown me a massive garden. I was in awe, and I was itching to research his family. I mean, who the hell were the James’s? The door was unlocked, and no one was around. And it pissed me off. At the front was a massive gate and a guard station, but still: who leaves their door unlocked when they lived in a freaking mansion? I searched the whole downstairs before heading up to his room. He was in the bathroom. I could hear the shower running. So, I sat and waited, breathing sharply as he walked out a short while later, his hair wet, in jeans and an unbuttoned shirt exposing perfect muscles. He smiled in surprise at seeing me. I stood slowly, staring at him ravenously. It was time. My brain screamed at me that this was all wrong somehow, that I was still missing something, but I didn’t care. There were no words. I wanted this. I needed it. To pour my anger and frustration into something else. I needed to feel. To convince myself I was alive. I closed the distance between us. He looked at me, passion in his eyes. Then, with a seductive smile, he grabbed me. His hands were in my hair as my mouth parted to meet his, his tongue seeking mine. Pulling away after a moment, he studied me with a wicked grin, his eyes intense, searching mine as if seeking an answer. In response, I slid my finger into the front of his pants, pulling him teasingly to the bed. I pushed him down. Straddling him, I bent over to kiss him, his hands exploring my body. I moaned lightly into his mouth as his fingers traced over my skin softly. My body began to stiffen as his hands became more eager. Without warning, he flipped me over so I was under him. “Let’s get this shirt off of you,” he said enticingly. Sitting up, I smiled shyly and shuffled out of my shirt. He stood looking down at me as he undressed himself until he was in only his boxers. I felt a blush spread across my entire body. Leaning over, he unzipped my pants, taking them off slowly. I stared at him in awe. Everything about him was beautiful—well, except for the whole murderer thing. Pushing the thought out of my mind, I pulled him closer, wanting to feel him everywhere. Easing my legs apart to free himself, he pulled me up, unclasping my bra. “You are so beautiful,” he murmured, kissing each breast lightly. He positioned me so I was propped on my elbows with pillows behind me, and I watched him as he kissed my thighs. With one hand, he reached up and pulled my underwear to the side. Suddenly he was there. My body rigid, I could only moan as his tongue found me. I was all sensation as he twirled his tongue over my sex. Grabbing his hair with one hand, clinging to the sheets with the other, I felt the pressure building slowly. He stared up at me as he continued. Our eyes locked, and I felt his fingers enter me, then I was no more. My body collapsed against the bed as I moaned his name. Instantly his mouth was on mine, his body slamming into mine. I cried out. Patrick’s eyes were dark and full of need as he slammed into me again and again. My legs wrapped around him, pressing him into me, filling me. My fingers found his flesh and dug in hard. I pulled one of his hands toward my mouth, kissing it, sliding his fingers in. He groaned, and I bit down lightly. He thrust his body into mine deeper and deeper. I nodded at him, crying out, the pleasurable need rising. Patrick gave one last delectable thrust and groaned out my name. I followed swiftly, screaming out as my body writhed in sheer sensation. He collapsed on top of me, as I whimpered, my legs still shaking. I woke alone to darkness and clambered bleary-eyed out of the bed searching for my pants. Finding what I needed, I switched my phone on. Midnight. Well, it was now or never. Dressing quickly, I surreptitiously exited the bedroom and crept down the staircase. Silence. I couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was. But then again, did I want to know? I’d been betrayed by everyone. At the entrance, I took one last look around. In my heart, I knew this was it. I was heading out into a world of uncertainty. Remembering the feeling of sheer joy just a few hours earlier, I couldn’t stop the pit of emptiness from consuming me now. It was all wrong. My relationship with Patrick, my friends, the danger I was going to be facing, everything. Smiling sadly, I left. Chapter Thirteen I went home needing privacy and time. Feeling shaky, I checked all the crevices of the apartment to ensure no one was there before pushing the sofa up against the door, just in case. Then I took Thea’s journal into the furnace room and sat in the far corner so I could see the door. I’d left all the lights off in the apartment in my paranoia. Sitting in the dark corner with a flashlight reading her journal, I even went so far as to push a towel up against the door so there would be no chance of light seeping out into the kitchen. The first few pages of Thea’s journal were drawings of strange symbols I didn’t recognize followed by pages filled with spells, some vocal, some powders and potions. They started off seemingly simple. Basic herbal ingredients. They became more complex and terrifying the further into the journal I went. A page titled Necromancer caught my eye. Not only to raise the dead but to control them. Another page was titled Spirit Possession. This one was just how it sounds: To take over someone else’s body both temporarily and permanently. More symbols lined the pages. The back of the book was focused on evading death and prolonging life. This part I read in depth: Guardian Gifted and Dark can never become the Lost. They are banned from ever staying on after death. Never to wander, even if they have unfinished business. This is a trial to break the balance of nature, to create life after death for Darks and Gifted. It will strip the Gifted or Dark of their powers, making them completely mortal. They can then wander and become Guardians to the Sanguisuge. Patient Zero: Willa – Powerful Gifted, it took a large portion of my energy to strip her powers. She didn’t survive. Her powers removed, she shriveled up into nothing. I finished the spell, but Patient Zero did not make it to the next stage. More subjects needed. More focused power needed to strip patients while keeping them alive so they can wander. This was followed by a spell in an unrecognizable language, more symbols, and ingredients for a potion of some sort. The next few pages were dedicated to more of her test subjects. She seemed to be taking their powers, consuming and absorbing them. All her spells were designed to build her power, to make her untouchable. She described her continued tests focusing on ways to kill a Gifted or a Dark, while absorbing their powers and allowing them to wander. The journal ended abruptly, with her unsuccessful. I stared in the dark, letting my mind fill with horrifying images of her victims. Greta and Nicole flooded into my vision. Closing my eyes, I tried to find a happy thought. I focused on Patrick and our afternoon together, but my mind wandered to Detective Ash and his cerulean eyes. Eventually I found peace, drifting off. It was a bright day. I was lounging in the sun on a blanket, my eyes closed as I let the rays lick my body. Every part of my being was relaxed, and I smiled. I felt a slight breeze, and I opened my eyes, blinking rapidly into the sun. Shielding my face with my hand, I saw that the breeze had come from Greta as she’d passed by me. She sat down on the ground in front of me, legs crossed, barefoot, pale hair shining. She smiled happily at me. I felt relieved. She was okay. “Greta!” I sat up quickly, hugging her happily. “Thank God you’re okay! I was so scared.” “Lorelei. I’m okay … I think. I have a message for you. It’s from Thea.” She continued to smile, as a cold stab of fear ran through me. “No, Greta. That’s not possible. She’s blocked from entering my mind.” “She is. That’s why she sent me. She says to stop playing games. She’ll kill us. She will rip Nicole’s throat out and torture me to death. Only you can save us. You have to go to her. Text the number in your cell phone. It’s listed under a new contact. You’ll figure it out.” Her face never altered. The sweet smile was set in stone as tears rolled down my cheeks. Reaching forward, I grabbed her hands. “Greta, I’m coming. I will save you. I promise you. I will save you. Do you hear me? Hold on to that, please.” I clung to her as she started to evaporate. I awoke with fresh tears on my cheeks and anger coursing through my veins. I meant what I’d said. Feeling more determined than ever to save Nicole and Greta, I grabbed my phone and went through my list of contacts until I found the one I was looking for, Temperance. Of course she was a step ahead of me. I quickly texted the number. The reply back was an address and a time, seven p.m. Good. I had all day to plan. Immediately, I got in my car and drove straight to Bast’s. My phone had several missed calls and texts from Anabel, Patrick, and Heath. Anabel’s was simple: “Call me when you’re ready.” Patrick’s and Heath’s were urgent and numerous. Ignoring the voicemails, I scanned the texts. It would be no time before they found me. Bast answered the door, her eyes glistening. “I’m glad you came. Come, I have someone for you to meet.” I followed her to a sitting room off the front door. While Bast’s office had been modern and chic, the sitting room was set in a French country style with a homey feel to it. An oversized sofa with two upholstered antique chairs in a rustic gold and red dominated the room, while a bureau stood in the corner and in the middle of the room sat a low-lying coffee table. Oversized mirrors and tapestries lined the walls, with large planters and urns in the corners. The sofa faced the door with armchairs across from it. Seated in the center of the sofa was a young woman with pale blonde wispy hair and delicate features. Bast motioned me to one of the two chairs, seating herself in the other. “I’d like you to meet my sister, Freya. Freya, this is Lorelei, the one I’ve been telling you about.” I couldn’t help but stare. Where Bast was tall and lean, with sharp green eyes and dark hair, Freya was her opposite. She appeared fragile, as if one hug would break her into a million pieces. Her features were small, delicate, airy. Nothing about her seemed powerful or intimidating. I had a hard time grasping how she was a Dark. As if reading my thoughts, she met my eyes, and a sudden cold fierceness radiated from them. I shuddered. “Pleasure to meet you,” she said, her voice authoritative. And there it was. Despite appearances, they had the same deft and commanding spirit that came from within. “What did you think of the books my sister gave you? I assume you studied them.” Where Bast’s eyes were a fierce green, Freya’s were a watery grey. Calculating the similarities and differences to ease my comfort, I nodded, “Like my life depended on it.” “Freya and I have studied the heritage of the Dark and Gifted our entire lives. We delved farther into the Dark than anyone had in centuries. We’ve given you a tool to help you.” “That’s what I don’t understand. How does it help? How do I defeat her? And why is she doing any of this? If she is who you say she is, why is she playing a game? Why not just kill me?” “The kill is a means to an end. It’s the chase, the hunt that is the thrill. Why end it when she can keep you running? She’s wants her game. And you are finally a worthy opponent.” Freya turned to her sister, exchanging looks. “So, why help me? Why give me those things?” “Is she always this inquisitive?” Freya asked Bast, wearily. Bast sighed. “Sadly, yes.” “Have you ever heard of the Blood Countess?” Freya directed the next question to me. “You mean the one who supposedly bathed in blood? Yes, Elizabeth something. What does that have to do with anything?” “Elizabeth Bathory. She was a sorceress. Did you know that? She was also one of the inspirations for Dracula and one of the descendants of Thea.” “Great, so a psychopath. Of course.” Bast smirked at my comment, and then it hit me. “Wait … what? How is that possible? You mean ancestor, right? Descendants come after, not before. And how did Thea become the leader of the Dark if she wasn’t a descendant of the bloodline? She killed that Agatha woman and her entire family.” “She was distantly related,” Freya threw out. “The point is, Lorelei, that all of this—you, me, Freya—we’re all the same. It’s our actions that define us, not our heritage. Yes, in every generation there is one truly powerful Dark and one truly powerful Gifted to balance nature. Temperance Becker is completely unnatural and, to be perfectly honest, who’s to say she was ever real? What if she was far older and far more powerful, just assuming an identity? Which is why she must be destroyed. She seeks out the Gifted to destroy them. That’s why your family put you into hiding—to save you until you were ready. And look where you are. You’re sitting in a room with the most powerful Darks in the world! And you, you are the most powerful Gifted, and together we will end her reign of terror.” “Why would you do that?” I asked suspiciously. “I mean, if she’s a Dark, like you? Who do you think she is? Do you think she just assumed this Temperance woman’s life or what? And why are you so invested in this?” “Thea. She would sooner enslave us—or, worse, torture us and steal our powers—than let us be free. When she’s done with you, she’ll come for us. Besides, Thea isn’t a Dark.” “We cannot fight.” Freya’s voice hardened. “It would be cowardly for us to sit on the sidelines, sister,” Bast replied, her voice equally stone. “No. We cannot, and we will not. If you lose, Lorelei, then we will find a way, but the world cannot afford to lose all the most powerful of our kind in one night. This isn’t a war, not yet.” “You mean it’s not your war? Not until she comes for you directly. So, who is she really? At least tell me that. You’re talking in circles.” I felt the anger rising through me. “We can only speculate,” Bast said, turning to Freya. “Come off it. You’re involved, and you know a hell of a lot more than you let on. Be honest with me. I may die tonight.” Freya sighed as she and Bast exchanged a look. The sisters communicated silently for a moment before Freya huffed, leaving Bast with a self-satisfied smirk. Bast turned to me, clearly the victor and started talking. “Honestly. Our cousin will fight to the death by your side because you’re her leader. So I want you to be safe, to keep her safe because she is very dear to me. What we believe is that Temperance was a real person who either became friends with or became known to someone very high up the food chain. She was Dark on her own and powerful on her own, but someone saw an opportunity, so they used and manipulated her, eventually killing her … or simply took her over for their own ends. When they were done playing, she was discarded, which is why she was never heard from again after the Dark Massacre.” “Who?” I eyed them both querulously. “You won’t believe us,” Freya stated. “Try me.” “Remember what I said before about the lore of the succubae?” Bast asked me, coming over and crouching before me. “Yes. The four succubae. Queens of Demons. That I’m descended from Agrat, and you from Naama.” “And I said that the other lines were supposedly extinct?” “Yes. So what? You’re saying their lines aren’t dead, and it’s a descendant?” I rolled my eyes, silently begging them to get to the point already. “N-n-noo. Not exactly.” Bast paused, turning back to Freya, who nodded her head encouragingly. “Not a descendant anyway.” I stopped. My eyes snapped to hers, and my mouth dropped open. “No,” I whispered. “If you really think about it, it makes sense.” Freya shrugged defensively. “You think an angel turned succubus is Thea? That’s insane! I mean, how do you even kill a freaking angel?” I shouted. “Not an angel.” “What?” I raged. “You’re focusing on the angel part when really you need to focus on the demon part. And honestly, Lilith was human,” Freya said, shaking her head at my supposed ignorance. My body shook with indignation. I wanted to zap her with my energy so badly, but I tried to rein it in. “Seriously, Freya, do you hear yourself? Honestly. And Lilith, really? Isn’t she supposed to be the worst of the worst?” I said through gritted teeth. I’d seen enough Supernatural and True Blood to know that Lilith was a psycho. The sisters ignored me and continued on. “We think it has to be Eisheth Zenunium. Do you know much about her?” I shook my head in response, so Bast continued, “She is also known as ‘The Woman of Whoredom.’ Eisheth uses seduction to lure people to do bad things, damning them. Then she kills them or waits for them to die and eats their souls. She also has the ability to manipulate memories. Technically they all do, but she’s the best at it.” “Lovely.” “It’s just lore.” “You sure say that a lot. What does that even mean?” “That most of that stuff is hearsay, exaggerations, or blatant lies. Mostly not true.” If her words were supposed to bring me comfort she failed miserably. “It sounds like Thea, I guess. But isn’t she immortal if she was an angel and now she’s this demon?” I asked. “She could be, but it’s highly doubtful. Otherwise, she wouldn’t fear you—and trust me, she does. If she didn’t, she would have taken you that night instead of running off. Our lore says she always feared her sisters, Agrat especially. Agrat was always far more powerful than she was, and it burned her. But it makes sense if you think about it. Agrat’s element was water; Eisheth’s was fire. Water puts out fire. You’re a natural enemy to her.” “So, how do I fight her?” “Like you originally intended. If Thea is Eisheth, you mustn’t let on that you know. She’s toying with you. Tonight won’t be her grand finale. It’s just a warm-up to something bigger, setting the stage. So, proceed as normal,” Freya advised as if she knew I had a plan, which I didn’t. Hell. That was partly why I had come. “I think it’s time to go,” Bast said. “I’ll walk you out.” She followed me as I stomped angrily, throwing the door open and clomping down the steps. She stopped at my car door. “I love Anabel. I would never let anything happen to her, not if I could stop it. To beat Temperance or Theadora or Eisheth, whatever she’s going by, just remember: everything she’s transformed herself into has a weakness and that means she has a lot of them. Don’t let your friends die for you.” With that, she walked away. The barb hit its mark. I’d never let anyone die for me and the implication pissed me off. Not only that but who were they to judge me even if I did. There I was being sent to the slaughter while they stayed safely at home. I was the one with no training being called upon to fight an ex-angel turned succubus. I was the one being told to fight on my own. Was I that expendable? Apparently. I called after her, but she didn’t flinch, even when the stream of obscenities began flowing from my mouth at full speed. Chapter Fourteen In my car, I felt my phone vibrate in the seat beside me. Well, now or never. “Hello?” “Lorelei, where the hell are you?” Heath’s voice was tense with anger. “I’m okay. I went back to see Bast. She had some more info for me. Listen, I’ll meet you at my apartment around six. I have some errands to run, and we can plan everything out then, okay?” “I’ll come with you.” “No. I’ll be at Bast’s for a while, and I need some time for myself. I’ll see you at six.” With that, I hung up before he could respond. Next, I texted Patrick to tell him I was fine, that I was running errands and I’d be at my apartment later. Finally, I forwarded Temperance’s message to two of my contacts. I smiled. I had always been a good schemer. Maybe that was the demon in me. Then I called Anabel. I was going to need some help. Getting Anabel away from the others was less of a challenge then I thought it would be. Anabel, Theo, and Heath had all left Patrick’s. Theo had gone to work and Heath was apparently meeting with one of his professors leaving Anabel free to help me. I spent the day planning and preparing. Having more time to go back through Thea’s journal, Anabel and I looked for simple spells and potions I could use to ward myself and set about collecting and mixing ingredients. We spent the better part of the day examining the texts, looking for clues, anything to give me an edge before heading out to a clearing to practice my Gifts. Controlling my ethereal light was second nature after so little time. Now I focused on harnessing my energy: drawing power, creating orbs and streams of light. I formed light that was as gentle as a caress or as harsh as a whip. I let the light consume me, the heat licking my skin, but it would never burn me. It was me. The hard part was doing it quickly. I didn’t have the experience like Bast did to just conjure a flame by mere thought. It took focus and time for me to do it. Another hard part came when focusing on other Gifts. As it turned out, I sucked at spells. An hour into practicing a basic water spell, I succeeded only in setting the clearing on fire, making Anabel howl with laughter. I was water, and I couldn’t even harness it. Before I knew it, I had run out of time. Anabel was hesitant to leave me, but I laid out my plan for her, and she agreed to my terms, setting off to do her part. I left Anabel better prepared than I would have been on my own, but still nowhere near ready to face what was coming. At least I had a couple of bottles in my bag, and a couple of simple word spells memorized to defend myself. That would have to do. As it turned out, the address Thea had sent me was to a plot of land surrounded by trees and brush. A narrow path led up to a house, which I could barely make out through the darkening sky. I parked about a mile out, hiding my car between shrubs and hiking it the rest of the way. I felt a pit of excitement and apprehension run through me, starting in my loins and burning out through my extremities. By now, Heath and Patrick would have realized I wasn’t coming to our rendezvous at my apartment and would begin searching for me. I knew my time was limited. My fists clenched and unclenched as I walked. Counting to three, I clenched and unclenched my fists again. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies were getting worse from the strain. My heartbeat quickened as I came closer, the adrenaline pulsing through me. Stopping outside the gate, I let myself feel the fear. Now or never. Sure, I could be a coward—hell, part of me wanted to be a coward. But if I could save Greta and Nicole, people who had futures, real futures, then I had to try. Taking a deep breath, I passed through the gate, walking silently up the path, into the house. I had to remind myself to breathe. The house loomed dark and empty, like every horror movie ever. Reaching over, searching for a light switch on the wall, I heard a giggle. I squeezed my eyes shut. I’ve always hated horror movies. Part of me wanted to turn and run screaming before I ended up in a slasher film or a paranormal thriller like Scream or The Conjuring. The giggle sounded again, and my eyes snapped open. It was her giggle. My body went rigid. A flurry of movement went past me, so fast I couldn’t make out what it was, but I knew without seeing. It was her. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or even more terrified. “Lorelei,” she sing-songed, “I missed you.” A rush of wind passed me again, and the lights came on. Thea stood in the doorway opposite me. “Miss me?” Her smile was maleficent, her dark eyes glowing at me wickedly. With her heart-shaped face, porcelain skin, and curly dark hair, she was exquisite. Of course she could entice anyone to her will. Maybe she really was Eisheth. “No.” “Liar. You don’t have to lie, Lorelei. No one needs to know. Admit it, you’ve been having fun. Your life is bleak at best, and because of me, you’re finally living.” “Living. Is that what this is?” I gestured around the empty room. “Yes!” She sauntered forward, slowly circling me. “Be honest. Because of me, you met Patrick, and B.T.W. I’m the one who made that happen. You’re welcome! So, because of me, you got the guy, you got your powers, you got adventure.” “I was in the hospital! You almost killed me, and then you almost killed me again rooting around in my head making me stab Patrick.” “Lorelei. I found you. It took me decades, but I found you. Do you know what that means?! You’re the one. With me, you can really live. Or, you can go back to your shitty little life. Your crappy apartment. Your sad, pathetic, dead-end job you hate, taking shit from everyone until you grow old and die.” Malice tinted her voice, dropping it deeper as she degraded my life. “Or you can matter. Change history, change the world. With me, you will matter. Come on. Come with me; be my companion.” “What?” “I didn’t invite you here to kill you. I thought about it, sure. But when I saw you, I mean really saw you … oh, it was amazing! You were so beautiful, the way the light just shone throughout your body. You illuminated the sky that night. I couldn’t believe Patrick had found you, finally. I’d been waiting for so long for him to find you. I was getting exhausted. I even gave him Jo as extra help.” She sighed dramatically, her voice back to its sweetly melodious tones. “What are you … what are you talking about? How did you know he’d find me?” My heart began pounding in my chest, fear ripping through me. Thea came to a stop in front of me, lifting up her hand to motion behind her. From the darkened doorway, Nicole and Greta emerged, their eyes vacant, black. Walking in tandem, they stood on either side of the doorway, guarding it. She motioned for me to follow her, the lights turning on as she stepped through into the other room. “Why else did you think you were both completely drawn to one another so instantly? Did you think I could only get in your pretty little head?” Looking at my face, she giggled, “Oh, it’s so naïve. That’s tragic. Truly. I’ve had his ear since I met him. My hold on him is everything. To be fair, he never remembers that he’s my inside man. Patrick’s function is to find every unknowing supernatural living as a human. He becomes friendly with them, gains info, passes it to me unknowingly, and I decide if they’re worth my time. How infatuated he is with them tells me how powerful they are. With you, it was so passionate, so strong, you had to be the one. “And you, your ancestors, I did blood magic on them centuries ago. That’s why they hid you, and in Ohio, no less. I love it! You were under my nose the whole time. I’ve been waiting for you, so strong, so powerful. A true leader. And Bast, your complement in every way. It’s been too long since such power has existed together. It’s fabulous. But regardless, your feelings … they’re not real. You’re drawn to Patrick for the same reason he’s drawn to you, ME. Deep down, you know it felt wrong, not quite authentic.” She smiled, her face contorting into a freakish grin. My mind was reeling. I sat down. Everything was a lie. Not only had everyone been lying to me, but I’d been lying to myself. I felt sick, lost, insane. I couldn’t even trust myself. But then again, I had known that, hadn’t I? On a baser level, I’d known it wasn’t genuine. She cocked her head to the side, staring at me. The pride of having crushed me exuded from her. She pulled my face up to meet her gaze. “When I was growing up, I was taught with the other exceptional children. I always knew I was going to be Dark. Always. There was never a moment’s hesitation, and as I grew into a young woman, my powers became magnified. I knew I was the true leader of the Dark. No Gifted person could dare stop me. There was one who tried, your ancestor, Clara. She was foolish to the last. The only clever thing she ever did was to hide her descendants from me. It was the last thing she did before I stripped her of her powers and killed her. “I heard rumors of the Dark and Gifted joining forces to end me or imprison me for my experimentations. Well, at that point, I’d been working on making our people able to wander after death. A second life, so to speak. So when the time came, I was prepared. I stocked up an arsenal of weapons, spell books, charms, what have you, in safe spots all over the US. Then I called together a conference in Louisiana. I seized the opportunity to use the collective powers of those at the conference to perform a ritual. I staged it perfectly. I simultaneously stripped 256 Darks of their powers, and they didn’t even know it. Standing at the podium, I thanked them all, the fools. They thought they had me, but no, I had a surprise for them. They tried to run when I started the fire. It was wonderful. The high was better than sex, better than anything I’d ever felt. I just stood there and watched, my powers holding them in, keeping the doors locked. No one escaped. No one! I killed an entire generation of Dark, Lorelei. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever done. They begged, pleaded, some even tried to rush at me. I spilled all their blood.” Her eyes rolled up, and she sighed heavily, lightly stroking her collarbone. “Oh, it still turns me on just thinking about it.” “That’s revolting.” Something pinged at the back of my mind. Something about her history wasn’t adding up. I tried desperately to remember. “Lorelei,” she stuck her lower lip out, pouting, “you have no idea what I’m capable of. That was just the beginning. Imagine what I can do now.” She stroked my cheek, and I shuddered. “Come on. Come with me. Join me. I promise not to harm anyone you care about. Your pathetic little wicka friends, or whatever they call themselves. Honestly, each generation becomes weaker and stupider, too trivial to be called what they once were. Sorcerers. Anyway, you can live, truly live. No fear. Do what you want, whenever, wherever. If you want, I could always bring Patrick, too. You can live out your existence with him. I can just keep him thinking he loves you.” “No. It’s not real. My feelings for him are an illusion. I couldn’t be with him knowing that.” That was it. It was Patrick. The way she met Patrick. It had to be false. That’s what Jo had wanted me to catch when Patrick had been discussing how he’d met Tempie. I shoved it aside mentally holding it to use later on him. “Well, with me, you can be with anyone you choose. Male, female, perhaps both.” Her eyes darkened. I began to wonder what she truly wanted from me. Me or my powers? Would she strip me of my powers and kill me? “No, Lorelei. I won’t hurt you if you come with me.” I gasped, and she giggled. “I can read you like a book. Your emotions are etched across your face, love.” She paused for a moment, before starting on a different track. “Look, Lorelei, the story is what you make of it. You don’t have to be second-rate. You don’t have to hide or pretend to be something you’re not. You’re not the first person to question life. I’m offering you infamy.” “I can’t.” I swallowed hard, my throat tightening. “I’m not like you.” “You’re wrong.” She ran her hand down my cheek. “We are exactly alike. The only difference is that I gave into temptation, freeing myself from all romantic ideals. Look at Nicole. Has she ever been nice to you? Showed you an ounce of respect or kindness? No. Why? Because she thinks she’s superior. She is rude and insolent. So, why do you care what happens to her? She’s a pest, a flea. You are magical. The epitome of power. She should bow at your feet.” She motioned Nicole forward until Nicole stood before me. “Admit it. Just one little charm, one little flick of the wrist, and you could own her. Come on, Lorelei. Admit it. Aren’t you tired? Tired of caring, worrying about a pathetic future?” I stared into her dark, hard eyes, and I knew she was right. How often had I felt alone, downtrodden? How many times had I stayed up late, hoping, dreaming for a real future? Down to my core, I knew I had the darkness in me. The cruelty, the corruption. I knew I could be just like her, and I would enjoy it. Looking at Nicole, who had never been nice to me, I imagined all the things I could do. “Kill her, Lorelei. Or better yet, humiliate her. Make her lower herself, grovel before you.” She flicked her hand, and Nicole bowed. Eyes blank, she kissed my shoes. Uncomfortable, ashamed of my thoughts, I pulled away. Head lowered, Nicole said, “Thank you, Master.” Thea motioned her head, and Nicole went back to her position at the doorway. I paused, mulling it all over in my head. All the lies and half-truths. If it was all a lie, Patrick and my feelings, why stop myself from falling over the precipice? Nothing was left to keep me on the other side. Why not change my story? Why not become something else? Was I a good person? Could I even balance nature when I hated most people? Thea knew all of this about me. She knew I could go either way. I looked over at Greta and knew what I had to do. Maybe I was a bad person, maybe I hated people, but I saw the good in others and the kindness they gave me when others didn’t. My mind was made up. I just needed to play along. “Okay. Let’s say I want to make a new destiny,” I said slowly. “What would I have to do?” “Whatever you want to do. Just leave this life and these people behind. On a show of good faith, you need to do one small thing for me.” “Which would be?” “A kiss and a kill. One kiss for me, and kill one of them. Prove your worth.” She leaned in to me, smiling. “I’m not a killer.” “Pick a side, Lorelei,” she sang. “Either way, you will end up a killer. It’s inevitable. Think about it. In the meantime, a little kiss to seal our deal?” I stood, closing the distance between our bodies, pulling her to me. As I ran my hands through her hair and aligned our bodies, my lips parted to meet hers. Leaning in, I was lost in her sweet scent of death. She enveloped me in her arms, her hands sliding down my back. My body shuddered in disgust, and Thea pulled away, her eyes turning to daggers. “What was that?” “Pleasure,” I spoke calmly, trying to quell the bile rising through me. “Pleasure? Do you think I’m a fool? What are you up to?” Her eyes began to glow ember. Nicole and Greta stepped away from the doorway, moving toward me. “Stop!” I shouted, putting my hands up. Light flew from my palms, flinging them into the walls, their bodies crumpling to the floor like rag dolls. “Oh, I see someone’s been studying. But really, do you think you can outwit me? That you’re stronger than me?” Thea’s voice dripped with venom. We began circling cautiously, never taking our eyes from one another. Outside I heard a roll of thunder. Anytime now. I could feel it. I just had to hold on a little longer. “Why do you want me to go with you? What do you want from me?” I could feel my hands begin to burn, and I automatically began to spin them, forming a blue orb. “What do I want from you? You know nothing,” Thea sneered. “You are nothing. You’re a bug for me to squash.” “Then why am I still alive? Why go through all this trouble if I’m nothing? Why do any of this? Why am I, and Bast, and Patrick so key? Who the hell are you?” Thea threw her beautiful head back and laughed mirthlessly. Her eyes glowed brighter, her skin stretching across her face, contorting her beauty into something monstrous. “Oh, you’ve been digging, haven’t you? Who do you think I am, little Lorelei?” “I don’t believe you were born Temperance Decker.” I flicked my orbs in my hands, readying myself. “Clever girl. You’re right, though. I am much, much older than that—which is why you will lose, sweet little Lorelei. Temperance was a clever girl, too, you know. Far too clever for her own good. I taught her well, led her toward her own destruction. She did it all on her own, with just a little influence here and there from a dear old friend. Then that selfish twit thought she’d strip me of my power, like I was some common sorceress. “Really?” she scoffed. “I showed her. Her death was agonizing. For me, it was melodious, and fruitful. I learned all about her research and her grand plan. She learned my true face and my true nature. So, I carried forth her plan, the convention, that was all real, Lorelei. What I just told you, my supposed story, was hers. I didn’t lie, and killing all those people at the convention, 256 souls, it was better than sex.” With that, she flung out her arm, a red light of energy striking me in the shoulder and sending me into the counter. I crashed down, my orb flying. Thea caught it, put it over her heart, and shoved it into her chest, absorbing it. “Anything you can imagine I am capable of, I am and more. You cannot hurt me. I thrive off of your energy. Your bloodline’s powers have been diluted through the centuries. Even you can’t hurt me.” With that, she opened her mouth and red mist poured forth, making its way for me. I lay on the floor exhausted. The red mist swept over me, a tingling running over my skin. It started to sting, and then … I was screaming. It was like my body had been dipped in acid. I fumbled my hand toward my pocket, once, twice, my hand kept slipping past. My eyes were closed, but I knew … I could feel the blood flowing down my hand, and knew the mist was eating my flesh. I screamed in my head and slammed my hand into my pocket. The tight fit peeled off more flayed skin, more blood trickling down. I grabbed a small bottle and pulled it out, pouring it on my chest, above my heart. Immediately my body started pinching and pulling, healing itself, skin sewing itself back together. I kept my eyes closed, knowing the mist was still there. Healing, I was able to focus on my next move. My energy. I summoned my fire, unleashing it on the mist. I felt the room shudder and groan. Thea shrieked. My eyes snapped open as the red mist flew back into her mouth, her eyes glowing fiercely. She snarled and threw a red orb at me. I rolled away in time. As her orb connected, the cabinets and counter exploded, wood shards and granite raining down on me. The laugh died on her lips as she began to clutch her chest. Her body began to glow blue as my orb shattered through her. She cried out, stumbling backwards. “What is this?” I spoke, my voice hollow and cold, “Silver. In my healing potion. Not harmful to a Dark or a Gifted, but very lethal to a fallen angel, a Lost, a Guardian, or a Succubus, of which I am sure you are probably a little bit of each. It was the only thing that made any real sense. You’re not just one thing. You’ve transformed yourself so many times that you’re an immortal psychopath.” “It won’t kill me,” she sputtered out in between gasps. Outside another roll of thunder boomed, followed by a flash of lightning. I stood over Thea. Our eyes met, and I watched the glow fade from her eyes. I shot another orb into her chest and directed one straight up in the air. The orb flew through the ceiling and the second floor before bursting out into the night sky. “No, it won’t kill you, but it will slow you down.” I moved toward Greta and Nicole as a flash moved before my eyes. I felt Jo next to me with Anabel right behind her looking slightly winded. “About time you signaled. I was getting worried,” Anabel gasped. “Sorry, Jo ran with me. She’s really fast.” Anabel continued, seeing my worried expression. “They’re breathing, but we need to get them to a hospital,” Jo said, surveying the room, her eyes moving over Thea. “Anabel, you’ll need to go with Jo and them. Do whatever you can to block Thea from their minds and find out what they remember … and maybe help them forget,” I said quietly. “You shouldn’t be left alone with her,” Jo growled. “Let me call Patrick.” “No! I know you heard everything that happened in here. He’s the last person I want near me and certainly near her. I can handle this. Besides, you weren’t the only one I texted this address.” With that, I turned and shot another orb into Thea’s chest. Thea called out a stream of obscenities and lay on the floor, gasping. “Jo, we’ll be quick, and you can come right back here.” Anabel looked at me questioningly. Without a word, Jo lifted Greta off the floor, and Anabel swung Nicole over her shoulder. Jo’s eyes narrowed at Anabel. Anabel shrugged her Nicole free shoulder. “Strength charm. What? I’m not a Sang. You want me to drag her out of here?” Jo shook her head, and they walked out, Jo muttering about Anabel needing to take a speed charm. “Isn’t that cute?” Thea gasped. “The witch bitch and the vamp skank are besties now.” “Yes, and when I leave here, we’re going to meet up, hold hands, and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” I bit out. “Funny,” Thea said. She eased herself up into a sitting position. “Now what? You can’t kill me. What are you going to do?” I eyed her, immediately on the defensive. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was up to something, but then again, so was I. “It’s not what she’s going to do, but what we’re going to do,” Bast said as she sauntered into the room. Perfect. Right on time. Thea’s expression darkened, and she made to move, but Bast and I shot orbs at her simultaneously. Our orbs coursed through her, and her body flashed blue, green, and finally silver. She began to convulse on the floor until finally she stilled and lay limp, her eyes looking listlessly at us. “We’re going to kill you. Each part of you, one at a time.” Bast smiled vindictively. Bast and I moved forward, closing in on where Thea lay. Relief washed through me that she was here. “You came.” What would I have done if she hadn’t? “Of course. And with a present, too.” She held out her hand, and I saw a needle on her palm. “What’s in that?” Thea gasped in between words. “This…? Oh, this is pure silver with a blend of iron and nitrate.” Turning to Bast, I said, “That’s amazing. Do you want to do it?” “The pleasure is all yours.” Bast smiled wryly. “Thank you. See, Thea? Look at us, Gifted and Dark working together to stop the likes of you. I read your journal, or rather Temperance’s. I read her biography, too, and a few other things. I am going to relish this moment.” I ground out each word, my body shuddering in anger as I knelt beside her. Too late, with Bast with me I had let my guard down, and wasn’t prepared for the sudden change. The air crackled with energy, again, too late, I realized it was coming from Thea. I gaped at her and she smiled at me. “You’re beautiful.” Her voice was suddenly strong. Before I could react, Thea shot her hand out, sending a stream of black energy tinged red straight into Bast’s heart while grabbing my throat with her other hand and squeezing tightly. “You have no idea what all I am, little girls. I would never reveal all my weaknesses so carelessly.” I gasped for air, tugging at her hand on my neck. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bast slumped over in the corner, blood oozing from her head. “I am not some pitiful demon succubus. I am a Queen of demons. Your Queen. An original, you little fools. I played you both. You thought you could hurt me. You can’t even begin to scratch the surface of what I am. I am Heaven. I am Hell. I have the blood of angels and demons. You have no idea what I’ve done to get this far.” Darkness was closing in. My world began to waver. “You will suffer. You will pay for your sins.” Her hand glowed red, and a searing pain enclosed around my throat as I choked and sputtered. As my field of vision darkened, I heard the sound of glass breaking and screams. I saw orbs of fire and obsidian flying past my field of sight, and I felt the sweet relief of my lungs sucking in the breath of life. Before I completely passed into oblivion, a blurry face came close to mine. A man’s familiar voice asked, “Are you all right? Lorelei? Shh … relax. I’ll make everything okay now.” A hand stretched to my face and tenderly cupped my cheek. “Rest now,” the blurry face said. My last thought before caving in on myself was that Detective Ash had come for me. And I was safe. Chapter Fifteen I sat in Professor Brooke’s classroom at my usual seat by the window, gazing out at the world, only something was off. There were no people milling about, wandering from building to building, engaged in conversation. Nothing. No people. Confused, I glanced around the room. Empty. Except for one seat. Even with her back to me, I smiled, relieved to see my friend. “Greta,” I called out. She didn’t answer. I tried again, but she still didn’t respond. Nervously, I stood up and walked over to her, reaching out to grasp her shoulder. “Don’t touch me, Lorelei. Please.” She pleaded. Walking around to the front of her desk, I knelt down to face her. “Greta,” I said softly, tears rolling down my cheeks as I stared at her. “It’s not your fault, Lorelei. Don’t blame yourself. Promise me you won’t. You couldn’t save us, you know that. We were dead from the moment she saw us.” Greta’s sweet, smiling face stared at me, bruised and discolored, her eyes dull and lifeless. “No. No, no, no. Not you, Greta.” I sobbed, reaching for her. She pulled away. “You can’t touch me. I’m here to help you. This is the only way I could, but it’s one of the rules. No physical contact. I don’t want to be a Lost one, Lorelei. I need to move on. I need you to do this for me.” “Anything,” I whispered. “Kill Thea. Kill her. She’s true evil. The things she made us do….” Greta shuddered. “Death was a swift blessing. But for us to be free to move on, Nicole and I need you to kill Thea. We need closure. Our families need it to. Please. It’s not your fault what happened to us, but you’re the only one that can stop her. We can’t move forward until she’s dead.” Silent tears slid down Greta’s face. “How?” I asked. “She’s Eisheth like you suspect. She fears you because of Agrat. Agrat hasn’t been heard from in centuries, but Agrat is a fierce protector of her own. You can tap directly into Agrat’s power, and you don’t even know it. You can wield water like you do the ethereal flame.” I stared at her, slowly understanding what she was telling me. “How do I do it? Tap into her power and wield water?” Greta shook her head. “I don’t know. But there are others out there who can help you.” This time I shook my head in confusion. The scene started to change, Greta wavering in and out before me. “No!” I reached for her one last time. “Lorelei … you were a good friend and so much better than you give yourself credit for. Be strong.” She disappeared as the world shifted to complete darkness. I was suddenly alone, cold. In a void of nothingness. Out of the darkness, a form appeared, looming over me. Catching my breath, I felt apprehension niggle at me. I felt I knew what lay beneath the hood of the creature before me. I moved my hand up toward the hood, tugging it back, and there she was. Mom. I felt her move. Knowing what was coming, I went to step away, but she was faster, backhanding me across the face. I spat blood. “Worthless. Useless. Filth.” She said each word as if it were a curse. Disgusted, she shoved me with tremendous force. I stumbled back, barely keeping myself upright. “Pathetic. Disgusting. Don’t eyeball me, you ungrateful piece of trash!” she roared. Her cruelty stung. “I never loved you,” she hissed. “How could I? Look at you. Thank God the cancer killed me before I had to see you like this, a sniveling coward. Thea gave you an opportunity, and you scorned her.” “No,” I said, “my mom would never—” Before I could finish, she swung, punching me in the stomach. I landed in a heap on the ground, wheezing for air, choking on blood. I willed myself to wake up. Why was I dreaming this? This was beyond even her level of cruelty. This wasn’t my mom. Was it? “Oh, it’s me, Lorelei. I’m everyone you love and hate.” She laughed before kicking me in my side. I cried out, trying to crawl away from her. She grabbed my hair and rolled me over. Her face changed from my mother to Prue, to Bast, and then Thea. “Is this better?” she asked. Her teeth and nails elongating, she dove on me. I shrieked in terror and pain as I felt my skin being shred into ribbons, blood pouring out of Chapter Sixteen I awoke in Bast’s office, lying on her sofa. Freya sat, leaning forward, so her face was inches from mine. “What happened tonight will never happen again.” Her voice was calm, but she held her shaking hands in her lap. “You did this. Bast could have died tonight. You do not go up against this thing. Do you understand that? She is more powerful than you will ever be. All we can do is run and hide and try to stay alive. We’re jokes to her. We’re pawns in a greater war between God and Man. Thea plays with people. She messes with them, and then she kills them. She will turn you cruel for sport. That’s her new angle.” “Is Bast okay? I’m so sorry, Freya.” I reached forward to touch her hands in comfort, but she slammed back, her entire body suddenly engulfed in dark grey flames. The veins in her face shone black through her skin, and her eyes became silver. “You walked my sister into a trap. She was already a target for Thea, being the leader of the Dark. You led her, our cousin, and our childhood friends to doom. Bast will live for now. But for how long? You have no idea what you’ve done. But you will. Nicole and Greta disappeared from the hospital. A cloud of mysterious red vapor that the police assume must be a chemical weapon was responsible for the deaths of several hospital employees, and a trail of blood led to Nicole’s and Greta’s rooms. It burned them like acid, killing them slowly, their skin cut up in ribbons like it had sloughed off. “Word has spread through our communities of Dark and Gifted. Thea has sent a message for you. She wants you to meet her at this warehouse in one week, or she will tear Greta and Nicole apart, limb by limb. And she will do it, too, I promise you that.” “Freya,” I gasped. “What’s happening? Why do you have Bast’s hue? I thought there was only one leader. You said Bast was okay. She’s okay, isn’t she?” The last came out like a prayer. “Her heart stopped. She was dead for a full minute before we got it working again. When a leader dies, another is automatically chosen.” “Is it permanent? Can there be two leaders?” “Leave.” Her voice was firm. “Freya, I need answers.” Freya’s eyes shone with tears, her flames evaporating as she thrust a piece of paper in my hand and started for the door. “Leave here, Lorelei. And don’t ever return. I wish you luck, but if you come back or seek Bast out, I will have you killed. I’ve brought your car here and loaded it with some special materials, but I repeat: this is a fight we will not be a part of.” “How dare you? You said she’s not Thea, right? She’s Eisheth, a succubus, an ex-angel. You told me to fight her like she was a succubus, not to focus on any other part. I’m sorry Bast got hurt, truly, but we have to work together. We can’t win this alone.” “Leave, Lorelei. I was wrong. All wrong. She is my sister, and I can’t do this. The materials are in your car. Good luck helping your friends.” “They’re already dead. I feel it, Freya. Greta came to me. She told me it wasn’t my fault. What do I do?” My voice cracked. I cleared my throat instinctively. “You? You fight. Because you’re strong. Because she won’t expect it. And also because you will have a few special weapons.” Quickly, as if making a decision, she turned and came to me. She started speaking in a foreign tongue. Drawing a small knife from her skirt pocket, she slit the palm of her hand and then proceeded to grab my hand and do the same. Instinctively, I trusted her. She continued speaking, her eyes rolling into the back of her head, her body glowing in a silvery hue as she started to seizure. I watched in amazement as her body lifted from the ground and the lights flickered. I felt all the energy in the room rushing toward her. She grabbed me, linking our two bloodied hands, still chanting, and my body rose in tandem with hers. Freya reached over with her other hand, a silvery orb gathering there, full of all that extra energy. She aimed straight for my heart and let it loose. The lights blew out. Our bodies fell. My heart stuttered. My body seized. Freya quickly exited. I waited for my breathing to slow before I sat up. I knew before I looked that my hand was completely healed. I felt heady from the energy. I had an idea of what she’d done, but I couldn’t be certain. There was only one way to be sure. Tears rolled down my cheeks as my body continued to convulse. I tried to comprehend everything that Freya had just said and done, and everything that I had seen earlier, but my mind was blank. It was stuck on fear and the image of Bast slumped over, her head bleeding, and Thea’s laughter. And Nicole and Greta, what could I do for them? Greta’s dead eyes, once full of life, now devoid of color, haunted me. How many people had died tonight in my efforts to save them, and how many more was I willing to risk? What if there was still a chance they were alive? Even a slim chance meant I couldn’t give up. My mind rolled over to the voice that saved me. There was no doubt in my mind that it had been Detective Ash. He had saved me. I didn’t know whether or not to go for him to help. He’d given me his card, saved my life, told me what I was, but what if Thea hurt him? Could I have that on me as well? Evil knows no bounds. But I was supposed to be good, wasn’t I? So, how could I let people die? And my friends? My friends, my friends … wait, my friends? Where were they? And Patrick? I jumped up, still shaking, but now for a new reason. Now wasn’t the time to let fear stop me, to eat away at my soul. Anabel answered on the first ring as I fled Bast’s home. “Lorelei,” Anabel hiccupped through tears. “Oh, thank God. Is everyone all right? Where are you?” “Heath, Theo, and I are at our apartment. Jo just left to meet up with Patrick and Aidan. But listen, I know you were at Bast’s and that Thea’s trying to draw you out, but you can’t go. You can’t fight her alone. We need a plan. At the hospital tonight … something happened…. I—” “I know, Anabel. Freya told me. Stay where you are. I need to find Jo. Jo and Aidan are in danger. Patrick is under Thea’s control. He has been for a long time.” “No!” she cried out. “Yes.” My voice cracked. “Just stay where you are. Promise me. And keep Theo and Heath there with you. I’m going to track down Jo and Aidan and send them to you for tonight.” “You’re coming too, right?” “There’s something I have to do first.” “You can’t get them back. Nicole and Greta, you can’t save them.” “I have to try. And I can’t risk anyone else. Just let me do this. Please.” I wiped the tears away furiously as I continued to drive. “I love you, Lorelei. Come back to us.” Hanging up, I tried to assuage my guilt. No response was the best response. I still loved my friends. I had always tried to keep them at at a distance, but they’d wiggled their way into my heart. I would die for them, but that didn’t mean I was ready to forgive them. Maybe it was cruel to not respond to Anabel but I was on a mission, so instead I shoved the guilt aside. Next I tried Jo, but it went straight to voicemail. Knowing which way my luck was going, I hit Patrick’s number without hesitation. “Hello,” a voice sing-songed at me. “Thea,” I muttered, hatred in my voice. “Oh, darling, don’t be bitter. It’s not my fault I bested you. You really couldn’t have expected to beat me now, could you?” I could hear her pout over the distance. “Where’s Patrick, Thea?” “Around. Don’t you worry, darling. More importantly, I miss you. But I’ll see you soon. You and your friends hurt me. I daresay your time is almost up. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to dear Nicole and Greta, now would we?” “I’ll be there, but this is important. I need to know where he is.” “I said not to worry, Lorelei. If I were you, I’d be more concerned with the precious cargo I have here with me. After all, you heard about my trip to the hospital. You know when you try to turn the tables on me, it ends badly. I’ll text you the address the night of. You’ve got a week. See you soon.” She hung up abruptly. Parking in my complex, I looked at the assortment of nonsense Freya had put in my passenger’s seat and on the floor in front of it. There was a bundle of letters, some books, a small box containing several vials of assorted liquids with a piece of parchment describing what each vial held, and a second box that held a pure silver folding knife. I flicked my wrist, and the knife clicked into place. I briefly examined the ornate silver and blue-encrusted handle. Shaking my head, I carefully folded the knife shut, taken aback by the feeling of calm that washed over me with it in my hand. I turned and smiled at one vial in particular, knowing it was why Freya had fried me with energy earlier. I considered my options. Patrick was in the wind. Theo, Heath, and Anabel were safe, for now. That just left Jo and Aidan. Shit. I was exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, but I needed to check on them. Throwing the car in drive, I headed back to the only place I knew they’d end up, the James estate. The guard post was empty, so I punched in the security code I’d been given and pulled through, slightly surprised since the last time the Estate hadn’t been locked up. One. Two. Three. Breathe. I kicked myself in gear. Browsing quickly, I pocketed the blade and a handful of vials, committing their uses to memory. The rest I’d have to discover another day—if I had another day, that is. I walked quickly, nervousness flooding through me. It was just after four in the morning, and my body was running on anxiety and adrenaline. I entered quietly, going first to Patrick’s study to investigate. Nothing unusual struck me, but I wanted to take a closer look at his financials. Any buildings or properties he owned were potential places he could be hiding out. “What are you doing here?” Jo’s voice was quiet, materializing from the shadows in the corner, her eyes red and swollen. I yelped, clutching my heart, frightened. My fear only increased when I saw her face, bitter, menacing. “Looking for Patrick.” I forced myself to say calmly. “In his desk at four in the morning? He’s gone. Long gone,” Jo spat out moving closer to me. “And Aidan?” I braced myself. There was no way I could out run her if she came at me. “Patrick snapped his neck. He hasn’t woken yet, but when he does, he’ll be pissed.” Her face cracked a little at the mention of Aidan and I realized that this was all an act, for me. She didn’t want me to see her weak over Aidan. “She has him. She’s had him under her control for who knows how long.” “I know. Anabel called.” I felt like I’d been slapped. Anabel called her. Their closeness was really starting to piss me off. Damnit! “I’m so—” “Save it! I don’t need your bullshit,” she snarled. “We’re going to get him back. When are you meeting them?” “We’ve got a week.” “Well then, I suggest you get some rest. Tomorrow, we start training.” Chapter Seventeen Training to fight, maim, and kill enemies was exhilarating. It kept my mind and body focused without panicking about why I was learning this. There was something about learning to wield the blade given to me that moved me. Jo and Aidan took care of the physical training and conditioning. A week was nothing, so Aidan taught me basic knife fighting skills while Jo worked on hand-to-hand combat. When I wasn’t with them at the estate, I was with Theo, Anabel, or Heath, or a combination, depending on who was working. With Theo, I focused on my control. With Anabel, I worked on potions and spells, and with Heath, I worked on fighting with my power. It was thrilling and exhausting. For once, I felt like I had a purpose. But then I would remember my friends, Greta and Nicole, and all joy would vanish. All those people at the hospital, Bast. This was my fault. Any spare moment I had was spent staring at Detective Ash’s card. I wanted to call him desperately. Somehow I knew I needed his help, but how would I explain him to everyone? A stranger with powers no one knew about. I couldn’t risk it. Even though I knew he had saved Bast and I from Thea that night. If he was a sorcerer, there was only one Queen he could be descended from, Lilith. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that despite the fact that he saved me, told me what I was, and was more honest than most people I knew. But, did I want to trust someone related to Lilith? Every myth or reference in popular culture depicted her as the cruelest of all demons. She was always a soulless villainess. Coming up with a plan turned out to be the most difficult part. Everyone wanted to go and rush in. We all had vague ideas until the day of the meeting, when a text came in from Thea with a time and place. Working together, we set up a two-front assault. I’d go straight in, alone, assess the situation, and communicate straight to Anabel mentally. Jo, Anabel, and Heath would move in, surrounding the building as soon as I communicated Thea was there. I’d send a signal when ready, and they’d come in to help, being the next strongest of the group. If anything went wrong, or Thea had reinforcements inside, I’d be able to tell Anabel directly for her to relay to the others. Aidan and Theo would stand guard on opposite ends of the block, moving in if needed, blocking anyone or anything from coming to Thea’s rescue. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best we could come up with in the timeframe. I bounced on the balls of my feet, counting to three, three times. Nine was such a good number. Calming. When my tics got out of control and I spent an hour straightening, checking doors and locks, touching doorknobs, I would take the number three and multiply it times three as many times as possible to focus my brain elsewhere. At the moment, I was focusing on square roots, in particular the square root of 27. I’d said my goodbyes and good lucks and was now sitting in my car a block from the warehouse Thea had texted me. Almost time. Almost midnight. Time to die. Chapter Eighteen NOW My emotions flow through me, lending me strength through the sheer terror. Flinging my hands up, waves of iridescent sapphire energy bubble out, shielding me from the fiery embers. I know that pain. I shudder at the memory of feeling blood flowing down, my skin burning, tearing. Suddenly it’s over, and I hear her laughter. Ignoring her briefly, I pull out a small vial with a silver liquid in it, gulping it down in one shot. It tastes sweet, decadent, intoxicating. Stretching my mind, I scream out to Anabel and the others for help. If I’m their leader surely they should be able to hear my call, not just Anabel. Desperate for help I pray that at least she can hear me. I stand on my feet, stronger, and turn to face Thea’s laughter, only to be brought right back down. Patrick’s taken residence by his mistress’s side. He kneels on one knee beside her as she pats his head like she would a dog. I feel the bile rise in my throat as I look at her. She’s covered in blood like she’s bathed in it. When we make eye contact, she smiles, wiping some blood off of the side of her cheek with a finger. She licks it, exaggerating the motion. My stomach cramps as I fight down the bile rising in my throat. Before, with Patrick, it had been tantalizing, addictive. Now, all I feel is revulsion. I wonder if it’s Greta’s, Nicole’s, or some other helpless victim’s. “I’ve always wanted to bathe in a river of blood. Have I ever told you that?” “Oh, God,” I look down, trying to stop myself from puking. “Never look away from me, darling.” Thea rushes me, grabbing my chin. “Look at me. As I was saying, I’ve always wanted to bathe in a river of blood. Imagine that: a river of blood. The waves lapping at your skin.” She closes her eyes briefly, tilting her head back in ecstasy. “Can you hear it, Lorelei? The beautiful music it would make….” She opens her eyes, fixing me in place with only her gaze. “Now, look, really look. This, this is the blood of all those hospital workers. This is the blood of your pathetic humans behind me. Patrick did most of the work on that one. He was glorious. Now, now, don’t worry. I helped, of course. I’ve always enjoyed being able to turn people into nothing with just a little bit of my power. You felt it earlier. The red mist eating away at you slowly. First it attacks your skin, going in through any open orifice it can find. Imagine that mist, that acid, eating away at your eyes, throat, mmm. Just think of those hospital workers. There’s something about the heat of battle…. It drives me wild.” She leans in, her touch intoxicating me slowly, weaving me into her web, the revulsion I feel for her, ebbing. “All those bodies and all that blood. I was able to take most of it with me. To bathe in it. Revel in my glory.” In my pocket, I grab the last two vials. Screaming in my mind again for Anabel, I tear off the caps. I smash the red one into her face and swallow the blue one. She shrieks, her beauty fading, the true beast emerging. Her skin crackles from the red potion. What the potion is, I have no idea, but the parchment said it acted like an acid. The blue acts as a healer, able to sustain my body through minor injuries. The silver is linked to Freya’s energy session with me from the week before, and I am getting ready to test what it can do. “Patrick,” Thea’s bell-like voice becomes shrill and venomous, “kill her.” The moment she shrieks his name, I move, knowing every second counts. I have my knife out, popping the blade open as Patrick dives toward me. I swing my blade out, catching him, slicing him from elbow to wrist. Cursing, he dives again, but this time I block him, throwing out my blue orb, sending him flying. I go for Nicole and Greta, but Thea steps forward, barring my path. Her crackled skin has begun to fester and boil. Pus oozes down, skin weeping off. The mess spreads across her body. “Neat trick. What’d you use in it?” Thea grates. “Aren’t you a Queen of demons? You’ve been fooling everyone for who knows how long, pretending to be a Dark, a Lost one, a Guardian. Shouldn’t you know what’s in it? Surely the great Thea or Eisheth or whoever the hell you are is a master of all concoctions.” “I am not a weakling queen or any of those things, you obstinate girl. I am a God!” She roars. “I have made it so I have transcended every threshold. I will not be defeated by you. I have ripped my body, soul, and mind to pieces for this life. Now tell me what you did!” “You are not now, nor will you ever be a god.” I can’t help but taunt her. She was an angel once, as close to God as I imagine it’s possible to get and she spat in his face by betraying him. “I don’t know what I did. I can only tell you what I’m about to do.” I burst into purple flames as I taunt her, bombarding her with magenta orbs. “This is Dark and Gifted power mixed as one. For tonight only, I hold the power of the leader of Dark and Gifted and you, Thea, are the petulant girl. I am something you never dreamed of. You wanted to drain power. You wanted to consume every energy, every being, except one. I believe it’s because you can never hold my power or any Gifted energy. Not truly. So, let me show you. This, this is what happens when the factions work together. We transcend you!” Thea’s eyes have turned into two glowing rubies, her face has popped with a map of blue veins, trailing down to her neck, arms. Her teeth have broken into their barbaric form, hair coiling, but for all the theatrics, I can smell her fear and she knows it. With one hand, I stream my fire into her. With the other, I bring up my blade, arcing down, slashing her throat, my eyes watching hers as they transfer back. I can see a reflection of myself in her eyes. Glowing purple rings surround my pupils, my skin has goldened, hair darkened. I look beautiful. Perfect. I hear Patrick’s roar, but I’m too far gone. I’m in Heaven. The power is pure ecstasy. Who cares that my backup hasn’t shown up? The pathetic weaklings. I’m stronger than all of them. I turn up the power full blast, hitting her with everything I have straight into her heart. She slides to the floor, her body writhing. She shrivels in on herself, smaller and smaller. I’m jolted from behind, and my body swings around to face Patrick. I blast him in the heart with my power, stunning him. He screams out, going down, taking me with him. Our bodies entwine, and we roll, each of us trying to get the upper hand. He flings me off, and I skid across the floor, farther away from Nicole and Greta. My energy is draining fast. “You’re not like her, Patrick. She’s Eisheth. Do you know what that means?” My back hits something solid, but a quick glance tells me it’s a wall and not another monster. “That she’s strong. She’s battled her sisters since the beginning. Eisheth, my Queen, was always unappreciated by your scum ancestor and her whores, Lilith and Naama. But oh, my Queen tells me things. Naama and Agrat bore their descendants to create balance to Lilith’s demon progeny. Lilith, the half-breed, thought she was better than the others, but Eisheth had been an angel. Eisheth had been the first Demon Queen. Lilith wanted to control Eisheth and her fire element. Eisheth was too good for Lilith.” Patrick edges toward me slowly. “As a human, Lilith had spat in the face of God, and that was something she couldn’t forgive. It wasn’t a human’s place to judge divinity. So Eisheth began creating her own brands of demons to counter Lilith and her sisters.” “And yet, Eisheth herself spits in the face of God continuously,” I throw out as he closes in. “She is of Heaven and Hell. She is of the highest order. You will not judge her!” he roars, slamming his fist into the wall directly above my head. Rolling out of the way, I stare at a gaping hole where Patrick had crashed his fist. He turns to me as I scramble to get up and run. Grabbing me by the back of the hair, he throws me down. I groan, pain striking every surface of my body. I make one last attempt. “Everything she told you is a lie. She and Lilith thought their descendants were abominations. They tried to destroy them. That’s why she wants me Patrick. How she met you isn’t even real. It can’t be. The baby was never real. Even if it was, it was never hers. She’s probably the one who killed it!” Roaring, he clutches me to him, biting into me. That’s what Jo had been trying to tell me when she said Tempie had been a Lost, or so she’d thought. My body betrays me in a wave of pleasure while my mind screams. He tears at my neck. As the blood wells out of me, I think of my life. My sad, little life. Work, school, friends. Who’ll miss me? Jackson. He’s just fabulously demoted me. Madison. Took my job. Heath, Theo, and Anabel. Friends who lied to me for years. Who would truly mourn, and who wouldn’t care? Jo and Aidan. At least they were honest. Mainly, though, I think of all of the things I’d never have a chance to do or be. And I think of those two lives I can’t save. The ones with futures. Good futures. Who have real friends and families that love and care. Unlike mine. No one to rescue me. Save me. Are they outside now, hoping I’ll die? My body dying, no energy left, I have to make one last push. I take one last breath, hitting him with every bit of power left in me. Chapter Nineteen I’m standing in front of a tombstone holding my mother’s hand. “Mom? Why are we here?” “Because you’re so angry with me, darling.” An older version of myself stares back at me. I feel a deep sadness. I don’t need to read the name on the tombstone to know it’s hers. “Mom. Really? I don’t have time for this.” She smacks me across the face before the last word is out of my mouth. “Look at me, Lorelei, darling. There you go. This is your dream. I’m just here to help you work through this.” “I don’t want your help.” I jerk away from her. “Lorelei, Lorelei, Lorelei,” she sings to me. “You know why you hate her, your mother.” Dread pulls in my belly as her features shift and contort. The hair snakelike, the teeth sharp, filed, the skin putrid, dark veins popping out. “It’s because she was like me.” Thea cackles. “You win this battle little, Lorelei, but I’ll see you soon. And I’ll make you pay for every day you cost me and every second of pain you inflicted upon me.” I awake with a start, gasping for air, clutching my chest. I’m back in the hospital. Looking down at my battered body, the tubes, the IVs, I begin to sob uncontrollably. I’m in Hell. Pure Hell. “Hey, shh … I’m right here.” I wheeze out a cry of surprise as Bast moves from the shadows. Slipping off her boots, she climbs in beside me, holding me as I cry. No words are exchanged as I doze in and out of sleep. Bast stays with me, and it’s just what I need. She gives me peace, but her dark hair only illuminates her pallid complexion. Worry etches her face every time she looks at me. After what seems several hours, she rolls me toward her in the bed. Her cat green eyes, dulled by her trauma, meet mine, and she throws up a ball of energy that arcs into a dome over the bed. “To ensure no one hears this.” I nod. “I’m going away for a while. Freya is coming with me. This will be the last you see me for a while. Look through everything else we gave you. If I find anything new, I will find a way to get it to you. I’ve stocked your apartment with more vials and ingredients and anything you might need.” “What happened, Bast? What happened to you?” “Eisheth—or Thea, as she’s calling herself—is one powerful bitch, Lorelei. My elemental power only slowed hers. It wasn’t enough to protect me. She hit me right in the heart, and it was like I was burning alive from the inside out. It was the most horrifically painful experience of my life. I’m not sure I know how to explain it, but I died. The fire was too much, my insides liquefied, my bones broke down, eaten away by the acidic fire she threw into me. I died. I felt it. I felt the pain leave me as nothingness consumed me. Then I felt cold. A rush, a tidal wave of cold washed over me. The iciness blanketed me, dipping into every part, pulling and stitching me back together. I felt my bones rebuild, my skin, my organs regenerate themselves from the mush that I’d become. But the coldness numbed it. The whole time I heard this man talking to me, telling me I’d be okay. I’d survive.” “Really? I just saw flashes of light, and this man told me I’d be okay, too, but his face was blurry. Everything else was clear, just his face, like an eraser had been run over it, you know?” “Flashes of light and a blurry face?” “Yea, I know. Not much, right? But there was something else. I heard Thea scream, like she was frightened or in pain. There’s got to be more going on. Also, the light. It was black. Onyx.” I decide to be vague, leaving Ash out of it for the moment. In reality I’m not lying, I can only guess it was Ash. “Honestly, Lorelei. I died. I came back from death, and here I am. Freya and I are anomalies. Two people shouldn’t wield the same power. It goes against nature. But here I am. There Freya is. You held our power for a week. We were depleted. Then after you’re fight, boom, we both have the same power. Now you say there’s another leader potentially running around with black energy, and it’s male. I don’t know. My guess? The fourth queen …. Lilith’s descendant, maybe. Just hard to accept a man having that power.” “It would explain her fear if it were Lilith’s descendant. As for Mr. Blurry Face, I suspect he’s the guy that talked to you and me. It had to be. There’s something else. About the light. I may know something.” Making my mind up that omitting information makes me no better than Heath and my friends, I quickly run down my interactions with Detective Ash and the black embers I’d seen him emit, along with the fact that he’d been the one to tell me what I was and everything else he’d told me. She nods along slowly, taking it all in. “If he’s still on the case, he’ll be in to talk to you. You need to confront him, Lorelei. Find out who and what he is, exactly. Trust your gut, but use your brain.” I agree, and we discuss it for a few more minutes before a random question pops in my head. “How did we get to your house?” “Ahh. Jo and Anabel. They brought us home. Freya banished them after. Apparently it took some time for Freya to agree to let you in the house. She was quite angry. Your friend Jo hit my dear sister, apparently pretty hard, too. Threatened to bite her. Freya was impressed. As for our mystery man, demons can mate with humans…. Maybe one of Lilith’s spawn mated on down the line, or maybe it’s something else entirely.” “That makes sense, I guess, about the guy.” I nod, before realizing what she’d said before that. “Are you serious? Jo hates me.” I scoff in disbelief. “Not as much as you think. That, or she at least has a modicum of respect for you. Whatever the case, Freya and Jo battled it out a little, and that was that.” Bast laughs. “Battled? Do I want to know?” I roll my eyes. “We’re all very formidable women. Freya was surging with new power, and she may have shocked Jo a time or two, thrown her about a little, but Jo, from what I hear, held her own.” At this, we both giggle. The image of the two women scuffling brings tears to my eyes, and I can only hope Anabel taped it on her phone for our personal entertainment later. “Sweet baby Jesus.” I giggle. “I know.” Bast smiles tiredly. “Are you okay?” I ask, worried. I feel a kinship toward Bast, a sisterhood. She’s one of the few people I trust. An ache in my chest starts up as I realize Anabel and I won’t be getting warm and fuzzy anytime soon. She won’t be regaling me with the battle between Jo and Freya. I’m lost in thought when I realize Bast is still speaking, only I haven’t been paying attention. “I’m not all bad, you know. Gifted aren’t good, and Dark aren’t evil. It’s more of a balance of beliefs. Gifted are realists. They’re practical, focus on the here and now. Dark are dreamers. We have psychics, necromancers, all sorts of paranormal stuff that Gifted scoff at. We hold on dearly to the lore. We pray to our Queen. Gifted are more scientific. They want proof. We’ve always stood against demons, defending humans. I’m a selfish person, but this power is a curse of humanity on my head. Part of me is drained from my experience with Thea, but part of me is just exhausted from leading a generation of Dark. You know what I mean?” I nod as I realize Bast is justifying herself. She’s not doing this for me, she’s doing it for herself. She wants to explain herself and let out her feelings, and so I let her. I nod as she finishes, and we lay there within our safe bubble, in amiable silence. “I’m sorry,” I finally say after several minutes have passed. “Sorry? What for?” “I shouldn’t have texted you that address. If I hadn’t, you would have never died. You’re the one person I need, Bast. I need you more than anyone. In my heart, I know we can only stop her together. But it has to be with you.” I kneel on the bed before her, silently and physically begging her not to leave me alone in this. “Lorelei. I have to heal. I need time to re-cooperate. I’m not abandoning you.” “Bast—” “No, Lorelei. Listen! You held two powers within you. You displayed more power than any Gifted or Dark ever has. But it still didn’t kill her. She’s not just an immortal. Even immortals can die. She is a chameleon, changing herself physically, consuming powers, creating an army for who knows what. Yes, Lorelei, Anabel told me everything that’s happened from the beginning. She said she thinks Thea has an army. For what purpose? We’re on the same side, but right now we need to divide and conquer.” “The power, when I held it within me, it was consuming,” I admit. “The moment I called upon both elements, it was like this insane rush. The power, the adrenaline, it was the biggest high I’ve ever had. I felt invincible. Like a god, Bast. It scared me. I could have torn the world apart, and I would have enjoyed every second of it. I can’t do that again. Whatever we do, in the end, we have to face her and her army as a team, I think. No, scratch that. I know it’s how we survive.” “We need an army, Lorelei.” “We’re the leaders of Dark and Gifted. Together we’re a species of kickass sorceresses with demon and angel blood pumping in our veins, Bast. Where we lead, our people will follow. Not only that, but we’ve already got a small band of Sang and Guardians to back us, and I guarantee there will be more flocking to us if a full-scale war erupts.” I punch her arm, and she nods in agreement, clearly still worried. I know she’s scared. I’m scared too, but I can’t focus on it now. “There’s something else I need to tell you.” “Go on.” I sigh deeply, rolling my eyes. What now? “Our combined power … well, when you hit Patrick with it, you knocked Thea out of him, literally. He’s out from her spell. But,” she says quickly as I start, “I don’t know all the details. What I do know is he freaked and left after he brought you here.” “Okay,” I say without feeling. “Okay?” She eyes me speculatively. “Honestly, yeah. The whole time I wanted him, I wanted him so much. It wasn’t right. I knew it, but I didn’t care. Red alerts popped up in my mind repeatedly, but I just needed him more than I needed air. It felt unhealthy, desperate even.” “And now?” “Embarrassed. I let him bite me. I had sex with him. He’s handsome, gorgeous even, but he’s dead.” I tuck my head down, my cheeks flushing in embarrassment as I admit my transgressions. Bast eyes me for a moment before she begins to giggle hysterically. “It’s not funny! He’s not just dead. But dead, dead. Creepy old, too. Plus, when I think about everything from start to finish, it’s not him I feel or even felt butterflies for,” I continue. “Anyone in particular you’re feeling all fluttery for?” she mocks, still laughing at me. “Nothing I care to share. Anyway, I’m worried for Patrick. I care, just not in the same way. Oh, it’s all a mess.” “Well, I need you to know,” Bast says, suddenly serious, all traces of humor gone. “I need you to know Patrick brought you here first. I think you know already, but when he went back for Nicole and Greta … they were dead. I’m so sorry.” I feel my heart implode. Everything I did to try to save them. It was all in vain. Greta had been right. They were dead from the moment Thea set eyes on them. The tears flow like rivers down my cheeks as sobs wrack my body, but Bast forges on. “Thea is weakened severely as you know. But she got away. She’s not only on the loose. Before she left, she put enough evidence around the crime scene to frame Patrick as the murderer, so now he has a warrant out for his arrest in connection with the case. The police need to speak to him, you, everyone.” “Thea was in my dream. I thought she was gone, that she couldn’t get to me in them anymore.” “A lie. She can get to you whenever she wants. Patrick was hers. His blood stopped her from killing you, sealing the link between you and Patrick. But she can enter your dreams. She’s a succubus. You can put together a concoction to have a dreamless sleep that’ll keep all succubae at bay, but you’d have to take it forever. That’s just a way they feed. Through dreams. There’s no escaping that fully. The good news is that she can’t prettify herself in dreams or reality. Anyone and everyone will see her as she truly is and not the façade she shows. She’s so damaged her abilities are limited, so she can’t do a lot of harm. But now is the time to find her and finish her.” “How, Bast? Our combined powers didn’t work, so now what?” “That’s partly why I’m leaving. I’m going to try to find a way. I’ll do some research and set up some allies for the future. We’re going to need them. Don’t give up, and I won’t either. We can do this together.” Bast kisses my forehead, climbing off the bed, dismissing the dome. “Bast?” “Yes?” “If she’s real, so are Lilith, Naama, and Agrat. Where are they? Why don’t they stop her? We’re supposed to be linked to them. They had to have known we were and still are in danger.” “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out. I’ll see you.” She throws her silky black hair over her shoulder as she slides on black boots and exits the room. Chapter Twenty I stay awake for several hours listening to the sound of my heartbeat. Every so often, the realization of the deaths of Nicole and Greta hit me, and I’m gone in a sea of tears. When I sleep, it’s because of exhaustion. When I wake, Jo and Anabel are in the room. “He’s gone. Really gone.” Jo averts her eyes, her voice heartbreaking. “I don’t understand.” I make my face go blank. No emotion. These bastards left me alone in that warehouse. “He’s gone. Nicole and Greta are dead, and he’s been implicated. The police are looking for him. Only she can make this go away. So, whether he went of his own volition or she used her power to make him, he’s gone. Lost to us.” She pauses and then adds, “Who knows if he was ever ours?” She looks away at the last, muttering softly. I’ve never seen Jo like this, and it scares me. I hate her, yet I almost feel sorry for her. Almost. She’s a woman always in control, and now she’s on the verge of losing everything important to her. She can’t cope. She turns to me suddenly, her eyes black and expression hard. “Everything he was is now in question. If you see him, you need to run. You can’t let him near you. He’s dangerous, Lorelei, more so with her pulling the strings. Do you understand what I’m saying?” I nod, trying to placate her. Jo may still hate me, but she doesn’t want me dead. We’re on the same side. I was telling the truth before when I told Bast we’d have Sangs and Guardians with us. A heaviness settles over us, each in our own worlds. We sit in stillness. Jo eyes me severely for several minutes. Her midnight eyes bore holes into my head. I avoid eye contact, trying to focus my eyes and mind elsewhere. I’m a woman on the precipice of a breakdown, and I feel Jo trying to provoke me. Closing my eyes, I lay back and relieve some of my burden. “It was a lie. None of it was real.” I swallow the lump in my throat, feeling the pit of loneliness rising. For once, someone had wanted me, to be with me, but that wasn’t so. It was all a joke. I was a joke. Fucking Thea. Jo rolls her eyes. “Get over yourself! Jesus Christ! I’ve known him for decades. He is like a brother to me, and now … now I might have to kill him,” Jo snaps at me bitterly. “You’re right. I know that, but he is himself now. When I hit him with the combined power of Dark and Gifted, it broke him free of Thea’s control. I know he brought me here. I know he’s gone and my friends,” I pause to clear the lump from my throat, “my friends didn’t make it. That it was all for nothing. That he was a pawn and our feelings were make-believe. Congratulations, Jo, you were right. I should have stayed far, far away from your brother.” “Right now I think we need to focus on the practical elements here,” Anabel chimes in from the corner of the hospital room. I’d forgotten she was there and I was feeling grateful for her presence if only as a buffer between Jo and I. “First the cops will be questioning all of us, Patrick’s ‘family’ and friends. So we all need to be on the same page. Then we need to ensure your apartment is as safe as possible. That includes extra protection from Bast and the Dark, Jo and the Guardians, and me, Heath, and Theo. This is a group effort until Patrick and Thea are caught or until we think of something else.” “Wrong. Bast and the Dark are out. They’ve hightailed it out of here. Bast left a letter for you when you’re ready to read it,” Theo says as he and Heath walk in. “They wouldn’t just leave. Not without at least saying goodbye,” Anabel says, shocked. “It’s true, Anabel. Bast was here last night. She stayed with me for a while and brought me up to speed. She’ll be back. They’ll be back.” Anabel moves back, her expression wounded. “Great. There goes that plan,” Jo says harshly. “Knock it off, Jo. And get over it, Anabel. At least someone was concerned. Where were you, by the way, when I was screaming, begging for your help at the warehouse?” I snap. “She blocked us out, Lorelei. I couldn’t even hear you. We tried everything to get in. Then we were attacked from behind with some sort of spell, Aidan was shot in the head, and Theo was knocked out. By the time Aidan healed and we all woke up, it was over. You were here. Thea was gone,” Anabel explains. “What the hell?” “Yea,” Jo mumbles grimly. “It was some sort of crazy powerful spell to knock us out like that,” Heath adds. “Better that then being knocked out, man. My head still hurts. Next time you get to be the outer Guard. They took me out first, didn’t expect me there, I guess, then spelled you guys.” Theo touches the back of his head gently. “Shit. I almost forgot. We saw the police on our way in, so better hurry up,” Heath states quickly. I look at Theo, and he nods. For some reason I feel the most comfortable with him. Maybe it’s because we were never super close. “Everybody out. Let’s give Lorelei some privacy before she has to speak with the detectives.” With that, everyone filters out. Heath stops by the bed, taking my hand, holding it between his. Staring down at my hand cradled in his, he kneels by the bed. “I love you, Lor. Never do anything like that again, okay? You’re my best friend. You’re everything to me. You almost died. All I can think about is how angry you are. Angry with Theo and Anabel for lying, but mostly with me. I feel it, Lor. I feel your disappointment, your feelings of betrayal. I never meant to or wanted to. When I saw you, Lor…. When I saw your power, the blue hue, the orbs, the flames, I knew I could never protect you again. Not once you knew. I’m sorry. I just wanted you to feel as normal as possible before having the leadership of an entire species thrust upon you. I hope you can forgive me one day and I can earn back your trust. I really do love you, Lorelei. I’ll be back later.” He kisses my cheek gently, leaving me in silence. I feel the pang in my breastbone. Guilt, sadness, bitterness, rage. My thoughts churn. How did all of this happen? I hold my hands up in front of me, calling forth my power and watching the flames heat my skin. It comforts me, stilling my thoughts. The flames inch up my arms, calling to my wounds, seeping over and into my injuries, healing them. I gasp as my body fixes itself. The sound of knocking at the door has me gasping again, dissipating the flames, and stopping the healing process. “Come in,” I call. “Hello,” the door opens, revealing Detectives Ash and Cramb. Detective Ash smiles at me, and I’m once again struck by how familiar and comforting his presence is to me. His warm eyes and gentle smile send shivers through me. “How are you feeling, Miss Abrahms?” “I’m all right, I guess. It’d be nice if we stopped meeting like this, though.” “I’m going to have to agree with you on that. We’re here to ask you some questions if you’re feeling up to it.” I nod, gesturing to the seats my friends vacated minutes earlier. Ash sits on the seat by the bed whilst Cramb presides by the window with an air of annoyance about him. “Well, Miss Abrahms, do you remember what happened?” “Please, Lorelei. And it’s all a bit fuzzy still but it’s come back to me in pieces.” Taking a shaky breath, I try to piece it all together in my mind. “I had met this girl at school, Thea…. I don’t know her last name. The night at the bar, I’d been with her before my attack. She texted me to meet her, and when I got there, Nicole and Greta were there. They were different. Not themselves. Thea started talking all this crazy nonsense about me. How she’d attacked me. She wanted me out of the way over this obsession with a guy from school, Patrick James. I couldn’t leave Nicole and Greta there with Thea, not after my attack. She pulled a knife on me, and I fought her off. I called a friend who was nearby, and she got the girls to the hospital. Thea escaped in the chaos. She called me shortly after we heard about the attack on the hospital and that Nicole and Greta had disappeared. I got a message to meet her at this warehouse and not to tell anyone. So, I snuck away and … Nicole and Greta, they….” I take a breath. I just need to finish this. “They were there. They weren’t moving. Hanging from some beams. She came at me again. This time I was prepared. She had her knife, and I used a piece of pipe I had hidden in my jacket. I hit her, but she struck me hard and stuck me with her knife. She was coming at me again when out of nowhere Patrick flew in and pushed me out of the way. I hit my head, and I must have blacked out. I don’t remember anything after that.” Silence stretches across the room. Detective Ash stares at his notepad. Suddenly, Detective Cramb turns to me. “That’s everything?’ “Yes.” “Nothing strange, perhaps unusual, happened?” He stares at me, his gaze piercing. “You mean other than having a crazy woman try to kill me and having two classmates murdered and a guy I had been seeing accused of murder and on the lam? No, absolutely not.” Ash chuckles from his seat. Cramb continues a barrage of questioning that only keeps my back up. I refuse to bend or break for this man. Not only will I not explain the true nature of events, I will not help to frame Patrick, when Thea was the true villainous. As both detectives stand to leave, Ash turns to me, his hand outstretched. “Thank you for your honesty. If you need anything, call me.” The moment our hands touch, I feel it. A spark. Again. Dropping his hand quickly, my eyes roam his face. His smile only widens. “I’ll see you soon.” He winks. As he walks out the door, I felt him tapping my mind, whispering, Be careful who you trust. What. The. Hell. The whispering in my ear, the comforting sensation, and a flashback. The dreams. The man in my dreams comforting me with blue eyes. It was him and I was positive of the fact. I feel the sudden urge to run. To run and run and to never look back. I’m surrounded by creatures. Creatures of light, creatures of dark, but creatures all the same. Ash speaking in my mind is the final straw. I know he’s like me but it doesn’t matter, I can’t take it anymore. I need space. I feel my skin crawling. I just want one breath, one moment that isn’t a mess. Free from misery, anger, malice, death. I scramble out of bed, shaking, gasping for air. Clawing at the IVs in my arms, I tear out of my gown. Dressing in clothes Anabel had dropped by, I make my way out of the hospital and back to my apartment without incident. Standing naked in the bathroom mirror, flames covering my body as I heal myself, I watch mesmerized. Could I always do this? Or is this a byproduct of the vials of potion I took? I practice expanding my flames, my energy, to create a shield. I smile, pushing the energy out and shielding the entire small bathroom. I can’t wait to test my abilities further. I don’t have to wait long either. Bast starts visiting me in my dreams regularly. The first time is terrifying. “Bast!” I exclaim. “Hey, Lorelei.” She smiles, her emerald eyes bright with mischief. “I’ve got a surprise for you. Come on.” I follow Bast as we walk. She leads me from a lush forest area through to a clearing. The sun beats down on my skin, the heat feeling all too real. “What are you doing in my dream, Bast? Why not come to me in person?” “Too dangerous right now, remember? I’m on a mission. As for what I’m doing here, look around you, Lorelei. What do you think we’re doing here?” “Well, considering we’re in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature … my guess is training?” I inflect the last word. “Exactly. We’ll meet in your dreams twice a week for elemental training. You need to learn to wield water, call it to you, and see how you can make your ethereal fire interact with your water element. We’re going to strengthen you, L. You’re going to be one badass Gifted leader.” I laugh effusively. “Okay. But this is all your element. Where do we start?” “Just watch, L.” She closes her eyes and continues speaking. “Do you feel the sun heating your body? The cool damp earth around your ankles, swirling up? Doesn’t it feel real? We’re in Alabama right now…. Did you know that, Lorelei? Do you know why? Because of the soil.” Her eyes snap open, the feline glowing emeralds narrowing in on me. She bends down and grabs a fistful of soil, letting it run through her fingers. She smiles wryly. “There are different kinds of soil, you know? But this, this is the best. Loam. It’s sand, silt, and clay. It’s great for farming, but it’s even better for me. It’s energy, the life force for nature and people. Our survival, our future, right here in my hand. Without it, how would we grow crops, or have trees for oxygen, wood, everything we rely on? It’s beautiful.” She kneels as she talks, digging a small hole and packing a small amount of the dirt in her hands. She sits, stooped like that in silence, eyes closed, her body relaxing. Her hands held open, I watch as the soil begins to trickle up out of her hands, little by little. It flies up and over her head, spinning in a spiral, until the last particle is in the air. Her eyes open then, and I jump back, my entire body bursting into blue flames as I stare into silver eyes. “Don’t be afraid, L. It’s just my element. Trust me, please.” I calm myself, my flames evaporating instantly. “Now imagine if I call more soil forth. A cyclone of soil, spinning as fast as I want it to go. Imagine the destruction.” The small twister moves through the air above her head toward me, gaining speed. Soon it encompasses my head. I can’t see or breathe. I hold my shirt to my face, coughing. It stops suddenly, a rain of dirt falling down on me, covering my head. I shake my head angrily, smacking the dust off of me. “What the hell was that, Bast? That wasn’t necessary, and you know it!” I huff prissily. “Sorry. I guess I got a little carried away.” Bast smiles at me coyly. I mutter a few obscenities at her, but she ignores them good-naturedly. She walks over to me and grabs my arm with one hand, snapping her fingers with the other. The scene around us changes. I know immediately that we are back in Oregon. We are at Lake Oswego on the bank. “Wow,” I breathe. “I haven’t been here in forever. Heath’s family owns a house over here. He used to bring me up here with him on the weekends sometimes.” I smile to myself at the memories. “Yea. Anabel used to tell me. You guys all came up here for graduation. She said you always seemed at peace when you were here. So I thought this would be the easiest place for you to wield your power. The memories give you calm, and that’s what you need right now. So, Lorelei, I need you to clear your mind. Focus on a happy memory here on the lake.” “Okay.” I sigh, taking a deep breath. Closing my eyes, I picture the first thing that comes to mind. It was the first time Heath had brought me here. We were seventeen, and I had been deeply depressed. My father had forgotten my birthday, and I was working forty hours a week at the store cashiering and helping to pay my father’s bills. To top it off, I missed Prue desperately. He invited me here, blowing off friends and his girlfriend to help me. His reasoning was that I couldn’t go through life without knowing how to swim. It offended him, my fear of water, my inability to master something so ‘basic,’ as he said. I laugh, remembering my refusal to get in the water, my fear when he bodily threw me in, and I flailed about helplessly. We spent the whole day on the lake, and I still can’t swim. He eventually gave up because I almost drowned us both on several occasions, but it was a great day. Later we drank, had a bonfire, danced, and talked through the night. That was the first time he called me his best friend. “You pick a good one?” Bast breaks me from my reverie. “Yeah.” I crack one eye open. “Close them!” She snaps. “Focus on your memory. I need you to lean down, stick your hand in the water. Cup it and bring it up, letting the water flow from your fingertips. Yes, like that.” She guides me as I sit cross legged, leaning over slightly, letting the water slough from my hand again and again. “Feel it, Lorelei. Feel the water. It’s pure energy to you. You command it. Wield it. Think of your memory and call on the water to do something. Focus. It’s just like your demon fire.” I breathe in and out, in and out, concentrating. I feel a pull deep inside, an awakening in my mind. The memory fades as I see the water in my mind yielding to me. A wave of adrenaline hits me when Bast gasps and my eyes fly open. My vision is tinted blue, and I know immediately my eyes have changed color. I smile as I see what I have done. An arc of water, about four feet wide, flows over us, over the dock, like a fountain. Water feeds up, around and down, above our heads. I burst into laughter and grab Bast’s hands. I twirl around, taking her with me, dancing and laughing, as I make the arc stop flowing and rain down on us. She hugs me in triumph. We fall together down on the dock a few minutes later, my body depleted of adrenaline, energy, and awareness. Bast takes my hand, checking my pulse. She lets me lie there for several minutes as I drift in and out. “You have a lot to learn. Time and practice will build your strength. This elemental power is tricky. It’s not like the energy we all have. This is draining, but its benefits when learned are astounding. You could get the entire lake working for you. Anabel told me you have a fear of water, but now you don’t even need to know how to swim. You fall in; it lifts you up. You could walk on water! My God, think about that!” “Bast, can you yield an entire desert?” I ask sarcastically. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried. You want to try?” I give a tired half-smile, knowing she is only half-kidding. I yawn, and my eyes close of their own accord. I fall asleep listening to Bast tell me a story about the history of Gifted and Dark families. When I awake the next day, it is four in the afternoon All I can think is, Did she take me to Alabama? I go over it in my head, wondering if it was possible for me to go to Alabama and Lake Oswego while sleeping and physically use my powers, thereby draining me and causing me to sleep all day. I end up confused and with a headache. My new philosophy is not to think about it too much. Overthinking does no good. Chapter Twenty-One I call into work and find I have another two weeks left on leave. Thank you, Anabel. Emails from my professors inform me I have aced my midterm papers as Anabel had said, but I have another week’s worth of reading and work to catch up on. So, I buckle down, focusing on my readings and assignments. Returning a few days later, I speak to the school, exempting myself from having to return to actual classes for the rest of the quarter. There’re only a few weeks left, and each professor is willing to work with me so I don’t have to sit in those classes without Nicole, Greta, and their suspected killer, Patrick. Each night, I have nightmares. Even the two nights a week I see Bast, right before or after I have a nightmare. The nightmares are about my mother and Thea, but mostly it’s Greta’s sweet face haunting me. She pops up, pleading for help, or accusing me of abandoning her. I failed her. Thea is alive and she can’t find peace. After every nightmare, I wake crying. During the day I just sit in silence. At night I can feel them out there. Jo, Aidan, Heath, Theo, Anabel. I know they’re there. I feel their presence, their power. I never answer my phone, and eventually they stop calling. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to them. I just have nothing left to say. Jo and Bast were the only ones who’d ever been honest and, truth be told, I don’t really know Aidan. I finish all my coursework early, thanks to all my free time. With all that had happened, I decide not to walk for graduation, which is a week and a half away. Eventually, I go back to work. My first day back, Jackson pulls me upstairs to continue our previous discussion, but I stop him. “We’re union, Jackson. You want my job. You want to take away my pay. Fight me for it. Next time we talk like this, management and a union rep need to be here.” With that, I walk out to the floor. I’ve became deadened at work, more so than usual. I go through the motions. Smiling hurts. I can’t do it. Every smile feels like a slap in the face. How could I smile with so many dead? So much blood on my hands. The only time I feel free is when I practice my Gifts. I’ve taken to disappearing to abandoned buildings or factories to practice. The night of graduation, I sit in my room, alone. In the darkness, I stare at my phone. Missed calls from Heath, Anabel, Theo, and my sister Prue. Voicemails and texts I can’t respond to. Not one from my father. I’d been burning myself out to avoid the inevitable, finding myself. When I first met Bast, she gave me the books, one of which is the lineage of all Gifted leaders. I still can’t bring myself to open it. Once something is known, it can’t be unknown, and I don’t know if I’m ready for those answers. In the dark, I can be whoever I want to be. Only that’s a lie I tell myself. Here I sit, wondering if I can trust myself. When I think of Patrick, I feel strange, almost hollow. No romantic feelings. Just a kinship and a genuine fear for his well-being. So, which feelings are real? When I was mad for him, or this new sisterly affection? My hopes for the future are gone. Dead. People are dead because of me. There’s a psychotic monster who wants to bathe in a river of blood. Her Red River Song. So I sit alone, planning, preparing, in the dark. I can feel Jo out there tonight. I feel her rage simmering just beneath the surface. In the end, I know we will stand united—Bast, Jo, and I, and all factions of Others out there. We will stand together against Thea and her minions. It will end in the river of blood Thea so desperately wants, and we will sing our Red River Song of victory.


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