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See No

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See No

Hidden Evil #2

Lizzy Ford

Cover design by Lizzy Ford

www.LizzyFord.com

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[_See No _]copyright ©2017 by Lizzy Ford

www.LizzyFord.com

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Shakespir Edition

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Published by Kettlecorn Press

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Cover design copyright © 2017 by Lizzy Ford

www.LizzyFord.com

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Photography copyright © 2013 by @iconogenic via Fotolia

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All rights reserved.

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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

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This novel is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events; to real people, living or dead; or to real locales are intended only to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and their resemblance, if any, to real-life counterparts is entirely coincidental.

Created with Vellum

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Also By Lizzy Ford

About the Author

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h1=. One

One month later

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Shanti George sat on the beach, listening to the waves race towards her before they retreated toward the ocean. The cold Atlantic nibbled at her toes. She smiled, unable to imagine what the color of the ocean would be, or how large it was. These things could never prevent her from enjoying the flavorful breeze or chilly water.

She drew a deep breath. “I have to go. The tide is coming in.”

No answer came. None would. The body beside her had been dead for several hours. Shanti trailed her fingers over the familiar features of her friend and guardian, a spirit guide named Julie.

“I hope you are in heaven,” Shanti added. She picked up the velvet dice pouch Julie had in her pocket and the two knives Julie always carried with her. “I shouldn’t have let you go out alone. I can take care of myself. I should have taken care of you, too.”

Despondent, Shanti lingered, not wanting to leave her guardian alone, even when she knew Julie had been dead for half a day at least. Their hiding place had come under attack shortly after the clock struck twelve noon. While Shanti couldn’t tell night from day, she identified the differences in air temperature and the chime assigned to the hourly reminders Julie had programmed into her phone.

Julie had left to draw out the attackers, leaving Shanti hidden, alone. She had heard a series of gunshots and smelled the gunpowder in the air, meaning the gun battle didn’t happen far from their hiding place at the beach. When the spirit guide didn’t return, Shanti had followed the direction of the sounds and used her guide stick to search the beach.

According to her ring tone, it was four in the morning when she found Julie’s body.

“Plan B,” Shanti murmured.

She rose and snapped open her guide stick. She started up the beach, paused to orient herself when her guide stick tapped cement, and began walking slowly until she reached a curb and beyond it, a sidewalk. With her other hand, she clutched the stones in the velvet pouch. There were five: one for each of the other three gatekeepers like her, one cold enough to suck her energy out of her body, one that alternated between warm and cool, and hers – a smooth stone that felt warm, happy, even on a day when she had no reason to be either.

Shanti was one of three incarnated angels charged with protecting the stones capable of locating and opening a gateway to Hell. The stones had awakened several weeks ago after being cool and dormant her whole life – and for the extent of time since Creation. She didn’t understand what the dual stone meant, but she innately understood it wasn’t a good sign. It beckoned her north, likely towards its source.

“Todd,” Shanti called softly when she reached the intersection closest to the beach. The lazy beach town was quiet this time of morning. Her heightened senses picked up on the brush of a hand against jeans, and Shanti turned towards the sound. Todd’s energy was agitated, his aura flashing between orange and green. “I’m ready.”

“How do you do that?” he muttered. Her unwilling companion slammed a car door shut unhappily and rattled the handcuffs securing him to the steering wheel.

Shanti circled the car and opened her door before sliding into the passenger’s seat.

“North,” she directed him.

“That’s it? Just north?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t keep me prisoner forever! I have a family that’ll be looking for me soon.”

His aura burst into a rainbow colors, an indicator he was lying. “You don’t have a family, Todd,” Shanti chided. “And you don’t have a job or anywhere legitimate to be, or you wouldn’t be stalking me.”

“This,” he rattled the handcuffs, “will get you thrown in jail.”

“No one’s going to believe a sweet little blind girl beat up and then tied up someone of your size. Or maybe you want to tell them you’re a Satanist spying on me and see how that goes?”

Todd cursed and put the car into gear. “You weren’t supposed to know that, either.”

Shanti pulled on her seatbelt and settled back against the seat.

“How did you know?” he asked reluctantly.

“Consider me Sherlock Holmes when it comes to using energy and my other senses to deduce where I am and what’s around me. I learned to put together puzzles long ago. You aren’t the first person to hunt me down, and Julie wasn’t my first guide. I won’t survive, if I’m not aware of danger,” she replied.

“Fleek, I guess,” he allowed, confirming her suspicion he was in his late teens or early twenties, young enough to use the slang and old enough to be as muscular as he was. “Still doesn’t explain how you can tell I’m a Satanist.”

Shanti smiled. Some secrets were better left unspoken. She may have been blind, but she was far from helpless, and the man driving her towards Washington DC didn’t need to know her whole story.

“People tend to underestimate those of us who are physically challenged,” she replied.

“I learned that lesson.”

“How’s the leg?”

“Probably broken.”

“Be good, and I’ll make sure you get to the hospital when we arrive.”

Todd was silent, skulking, if she had to guess. He was the kind of meathead who relied on his size and physical strength to intimidate. When they had no effect – such as on a woman who couldn’t see them – he had no backup plan. He was a grunt for the Satanist movement, not a thinker, which meant he couldn’t know about the stones in her pocket. No one who did would ever send brawn without brains to collect. He’d be easier to control than an independent thinker, for which Shanti was unusually grateful.

Already, she missed Julie, who had been Shanti’s favorite guide by far. Smart as a whip, strong and sarcastic, Julie was also ruthless and had never questioned Shanti’s abilities or doubted her, as most people did upon meeting the disabled.

Julie was good people.

“I have to decide whether or not to let you go after this trip,” Shanti mused aloud.

“I didn’t kill that bitch. I told you.”

“I know. But you didn’t stop them either.”

“Why would I?” Todd grumbled. “They got her out of the way.”

“And you continue to claim they were guides?” Shanti asked, not for the first time.

“They were guides. They weren’t my people. I was told to watch and not engage. Three of them came out of nowhere and ambushed that bitch –”

“– Julie!”

“Whatever. Ambushed [_Julie _]on the beach. They beat her up, then tried to question her, and she chose suicide by firing squad instead of answering.”

Shanti had never heard of spirit guides killing another guide. Todd’s voice and energy gave no signs that he was lying. He believed what he was saying to be true, even if Shanti remained skeptical.

Then again, she hadn’t known much about the guide corps at all before they found her a few years ago. She was born knowing her mission and never had a need for support. In the past five years, she’d been assigned three guides for protection, and all three had been murdered. Something was different this era of guarding the stones. Even so, she had never met anyone else within the guide group outside those assigned to her, and none of her guides would fill her in on what was going on.

“What are you? Fifth gen? Sixth?” Todd asked.

“Fifth,” Shanti answered. Her connection to the Other Side was a trickle. She had been an angel prior to being incarnated. With each life lived in the human world, her connection to the Other Side became weaker.

“A blind fifth gen?” Todd sounded confused. “Then why are you important?”

“Drive, Todd.”

Her cranky driver obeyed.

Unable to tell north from south, Shanti was forced to trust her companion to take her towards the unknown beacon that had become more insistent since Julie died.

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h1=. Two

Nathan, spirit guide and caseworker for incarnated angels, lay handcuffed to a bed in a swanky hotel room, where he’d spent the past two weeks. His shoulder ached from the awkward position, and he wore briefs but nothing else. Outside the room, Zyra – the head of the radical 3G – and one of her lieutenants spoke too quietly for him to make out their words.

His thoughts, however, weren’t on how uncomfortable he was, Zyra’s naked body, or the situation he’d voluntarily walked into. Of everyone who could have been on his mind, he was thinking about Pedro, the oldest – and most bizarre – of the angels in existence, who ran the angel corps, guardian angel corps and possibly, headed up the Archangels, too, though Nathan had never thought to ask.

That was the problem, he realized. He didn’t ask enough questions. He assumed he knew everything already.

It had never been an issue before now, when he found himself questioning more than whether or not Pedro was in charge of everything on the Other Side. Nathan had brushed off every insult he’d ever received, content with who he was and what he did. He was generally an asshole and also the only spirit guide in history that incarnated angels always sought out when they were in trouble. Because he was that damn good.

[_I used to be, _]he thought. He began to think some of those insults he had heard over the past three millennia could possibly be accurate. Was he selfish? Had he not spent enough time considering the feelings of others? When it came to an incarnated angel, he put them first.

Humans? Other guides?

Never.

He had never had a reason to question himself before the events of last month, when he’d chosen to murder his soul mate rather than explore different solutions to help her.

Was he rethinking his actions, because he had ultimately failed for the first time in his spirit guide career? Or … because he began to suspect there should have been a different solution, and if he were a less selfish, less arrogant person, he would have put more effort into finding it? It could be argued that pride was the worst sin of all, and he was a perfect example of what happened when this sin overtook someone’s judgment.

[_Who kills their soul mate? _]He’d been asking this question several times a day. In the heat of the moment, with the fate of the world at stake, he’d done what he thought was right.

His primary responsibility was to protect those who needed it. If he were half the man he believed himself to be, he would’ve found some other solution to the Kaylee dilemma. Yes, she was connected to the first Horseman of the apocalypse who hoped to take his true form when the initial gateway to Hell was opened.

Kaylee was also an incarnated archangel and Nathan’s soul mate. She should have been first on his list of people to protect, not the one innocent person on the planet he decided to kill. He’d always found a way to help those strangers he was charged with helping and he’d put far less effort into his soul mate than he ever had a random incarnated angel or spirit guide.

The brutal truth made it hard for him to sleep and impossible for him to focus on anything except for redeeming himself by finding and helping her.

Which brought his thoughts around to Pedro. The head of the angel corps had made a token attempt to remind Nathan of the spirit guide creed before providing him with the insight into how long Kaylee had to die in order to free Shadowman from her. Pedro, who revered free will, had likely told Nathan what he wanted to hear, for reasons Nathan would probably never understand. Maybe Kaylee’s death was inevitable, or maybe, this played into some greater purpose.

If Nathan had asked the question differently, would he have received a different response from the cagey angel? He wanted to think Pedro would never condemn an archangel to the kind of death Kaylee suffered from or the circumstances of how she’d been brought back to life.

Nathan rested his head against the headboard of the bed. He hated not knowing the bigger picture, hated the feeling of doubting himself. Before Kaylee, he had never had a reason to question his actions or the thought process behind them.

After three thousand years, he had stopped caring. This was no surprise. But had he let his jaded outlook hinder his ability to do his job, the one thing he was good at in life? Had he stopped trying, too?

The door opened.

“One last test,” his ex-wife, Zyra, said, smiling. “I’m satisfied you’re here for the right reasons.” Her eyes swept over his form. “But my crew needs proof.”

Proving himself to her had consisted of sex – tons of it. Nathan had to make her believe he was there for her as much as her cause. Three thousand years gave him plenty of time to perfect lovemaking, and he’d been able to shut Kaylee out of his thoughts as he fucked his ex. He’d spent a month pleasing Zyra in every way he knew possible and the rest of his days cuffed to a bed.

It didn’t feel right – but it was for a greater purpose. He’d messed up once. He wasn’t going to again.

“What’s the test?” he asked and lifted his head.

“You’ll see.” She tossed him the keys to the cuffs. “As much as I hate to say this, put on some clothes.”

Nathan felt … nothing. He already knew what he was capable of, and had recently discovered how far he was willing to go to do what was right. He’d already passed rock bottom and was still falling, but it no longer mattered. He’d taken the one life he shouldn’t have. Nothing Zyra asked of him would ever be worse than what he’d done.

Nathan freed himself and stretched with a grimace. His arm was either numb or aching most days. He dropped to the floor to do a few pushups, reminding his sore shoulder how to move. When it felt less stiff, he stood and changed into the dark clothing worn by Zyra’s Greater Good Group, which consisted of disgruntled spirit guides who preferred a more direct, more aggressive strategy when it came to dispatching evil from this world. The angel corps respected free will.

3G did not. They preferred to kill an innocent than allow evil to walk free.

Over the years, Nathan had often found himself agreeing with their philosophy. Why allow a dangerous person to hurt others, when the angels already knew about the darkness inside this person and potentially, what was going to happen? Why let bad things happen at all?

Nathan had respected the angels’ decisions, whereas Zyra had not only questioned them but broken away from her duty and formed an enforcement group, one that wanted Kaylee dead.

The angels had allowed him to have free will in how he chose to handle Kaylee. They’d allowed 3G to form, because it, too, was a demonstration of free will. While Nathan would never try to speak for the angels, he began to think he had an idea of why the angel corps played the role of bystanders rather than enforcers.

Free will could destroy the world.

It could also save it.

He finished dressing and exited the hotel room into the hallway, where four of Zyra’s largest men waited. Their weapons were hidden from view, but he had no doubt they were all packing. They eyed him suspiciously. Zyra was nowhere in sight.

Nathan smiled. He had never been intimidated by anyone, and he wasn’t about to start today. “Let’s go, boys,” he said.

Two of them began walking, escorting him down the hallway, past quiet hotel rooms and towards the elevators. The other two followed.

They entered the elevator and rode to the ground floor. The men escorted him past the front desk, their formation spacing out some, so as not to catch the attention of the hotel employees. They continued out of the hotel, hopped into a van, and drove down the street.

Nathan ignored the route they took. For the time being, he had no intention of being anywhere except for where Zyra wanted him to be.

The van spirited them southwest, away from the DC area, and into rural Virginia. It left the highway and half an hour later, turned down a narrow, two-lane road lined on both sides by trees whose brilliant autumn leaves edged the road and filled the gutters. The branches were almost bare, with only a few tough leaves clinging to their perches overhead.

Normally, autumn was Nathan’s favorite time of year. That was before he killed the one person he shouldn’t have.

Content waiting to see what Zyra had planned for him, Nathan sized up the four bodyguards and driver in silence. Their auras read as agitated – nervous? concerned? – he couldn’t pinpoint their exact emotions without speaking to them. It was clear they were unsettled, and he was all but certain it had nothing to do with him. In their eyes, he was no threat, not when surrounded by four of them armed with a small arsenal.

The idea they underestimated him left him smiling to himself. It meant he could catch them off guard, if he needed to act.

The van pulled off the road onto a bumpy, gravel side road. Nathan had expected them to take him to one of their off-sites or operation centers. The van pulled up to a small clearing instead.

The moment he stepped foot outside the van, Nathan understood the test. Zyra and two more of her 3G compatriots stood in the center of the clearing on either side of a bound man kneeling on the ground. The familiar face of Randy, one of Maggy’s lieutenants, was battered and bloody from what Nathan assumed had been an interrogation, probably to discover the location of Maggy – the leader of the legit spirit guides searching for Kaylee in the DC area. Maggy alone understood Nathan’s purpose in infiltrating the 3G and would never blow his cover. He had no fear of his true intentions with Zyra being discovered during the interrogation.

Nathan approached without waiting for his guards to escort him. He glanced at Randy then at Zyra.

“I’m guessing you’re done with him,” he said dryly.

Randy looked up at his voice. “Traitor!” he hissed.

Aware they’d both die – along with Kaylee – if he hesitated, Nathan held out his hand for Zyra’s weapon.

“Use your hands,” she said firmly. “It’s too easy to put a bullet in someone.”

Raised in a much different world, where only the ruthless survived, Zyra could be as heartless as Nathan.

“You all will go to Hell for betraying the angels and your god!” Randy said. “Especially an apostate like you, Nathan.”

“Tell Pedro I said hi, and his advice sucked, as usual,” Nathan replied as he moved behind Randy. “Don’t struggle. I’ll be quick.”

When Nathan put his hands on either side of Randy’s head, the spirit guide did struggle.

[_I’m sorry, Randy, Pedro. _]Nathan thought to himself.

He yanked Randy’s head back and braced his knee against the guide’s spine to keep him in place. Death had been part of Nathan’s world for as long as he could remember. He didn’t take it lightly, not like he had as a Roman soldier, but neither was he about to back down when his only chance of saving Kaylee rested in his ability to prevent 3G from reaching her first. He had to make it look like he was the man Zyra needed him to be.

Before Randy could try to wriggle free, Nathan snapped his neck.

He released the spirit guide, whose body slid to the ground, and stepped back.

“Anyone else you want dead?” Nathan asked, glancing around the group hesitant to accept him.

“You satisfied?” Zyra was smiling. She addressed one of the men in particular, who regarded Nathan with such malice that Nathan wondered if he was a jilted lover, and not someone truly concerned about loyalty.

“For now,” was the stiff reply.

“We were always a good pair.” Zyra approached Nathan and kissed him lightly.

He wrapped an arm around her, pulled her into him and kissed her more deeply. Often, he pretended his ex was Kaylee, who would probably – and rightly so – never, ever, ever let him touch her again.

Nathan released Zyra, who stepped back with a wink. “Later,” she promised. “Henry is satisfied enough for us to take you to one of our satellite sites. I won’t give you the keys to the kingdom until you’ve contributed more, but this is a start.”

“I’m here to stay,” Nathan said, aware of Henry’s death stare. “I’ll be the second in command by the end of the month.”

“Asshole,” Henry muttered.

“Let’s go!” Zyra said and strode towards the van.

The group trailed her.

As much as he wanted to, Nathan didn’t look back, didn’t ask why they weren’t going to bury a fellow guide. The price of speaking up now was too high.

Nathan climbed into the back of the van. “Do I get a gun?” he asked as he slid the door closed.

“Nope,” Zyra said. “You get the pleasure of fighting with your hands and any other weapon you come upon. If you survive, you might be initiated.”

“Survive …” he repeated, waiting.

“We found one of the Satanist sites,” Zyra said from the front seat. “Kill more of them than Henry, and I’ll consider giving you a knife for the next raid.”

“Challenge accepted.” While his words were calm, friendly even, Nathan’s mind was racing. He doubted they had found [_the _]location, but he couldn’t be certain, since he’d been sequestered in the hotel with no access to information of any kind for a month. Last he’d heard from Maggy’s intelligence collection efforts, Kaylee was alive and imprisoned in a Satanist stronghold.

No questions, no hesitation, no regrets. If he wanted to make his dedication to Zyra and 3G look real, he had to play the part in every way. He knew how to kill with or without a weapon. While he hadn’t had to resort to such measures in a very long time, he had trained for it, just in case.

His mind went to Randy who lay prone in the field. Nathan pushed the thought of what he’d done away. It was a necessary evil, and it hadn’t been the first time he’d killed in the line of duty as a spirit guide. It wouldn’t be the last, either, he understood, eyes on the back of Zyra’s head.

He silently said a short prayer for Randy and focused on meeting whatever challenge came next.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Three

“My friends are getting restless,” said Eddy the Satanist.

Kaylee looked up from her tray of food. She had always thought the assassin with spiky blond hair tipped with black would be handsome, if she didn’t already know he was a raging psychopath. His deceptively wiry frame hid tremendous strength, and his smile hid menace she didn’t know existed before crossing his path. Wearing a pentagram pendant, Eddy had chosen his Spongebob t-shirt this day and wore a sweatshirt tied around his waist. His colorful tattoos were on display down his arms once more. His smile was always quick and wide, though his eyes pierced straight to her soul.

She sat among Eddy’s friends in a small cafeteria in the underground bunker where his secretive cult was hiding. She had grown accustomed to the looks the others gave her, which ranged from suspicious to awe to curiosity. Eddy’s people had thus far kept their distance from her, as if they already understood how dangerous the fallen guardian angel – an archdemon named Shadowman – connected to her soul really was. She was harmless, but no one would risk provoking the demon.

“If Shadowman doesn’t want to show up, I can’t make him,” she replied to the only person seated at the table with her.

Her shadow, Eddy, was also her protector, the only person standing between her and the other members of the cult as well as their leader, a tall man with hooded eyes who went by the name Bullet. Whenever she spoke to him, she understood how he had been able to pull in the several hundred people to his cause. Quiet, calm and sharp, Bullet was also enigmatic, unnaturally so.

“You can feel him?” Eddy pressed. The cheerful assassin with a camp counselor voice always smiled when he talked to her, though his eyes told her a different story. He was constantly evaluating her to determine if she told the truth.

Kaylee was too scared to lie to anyone, let alone to her companion, who freaked her out on a daily basis. “I can,” she replied without looking away. “Like I said. It feels like our connection has been torn most of the way through. I don’t know what that means or if it’ll heal or even if he’s okay. I don’t know what else to tell you, Eddy.”

“That’s good,” he said in encouragement. “You’re doing good, Kaylee.”

What the hell did good have to do with anything in her life? Kaylee kept this thought to herself. Since meeting Nathan, her life had taken a turn worthy of the horror movies she used to watch.

“Any dreams?” Eddy asked curiously.

“Just the one about lightning and rose petals two weeks ago. It’s weird, but every other time I fall asleep, I feel like I’m back where I was when I died. There’s … nothing. I don’t feel like I’m sleeping. I feel dead.”

Eddy’s glass hit the floor. “Looks like I need more coffee. Not awake yet.”

“You okay?” she asked.

Eddy was the most careful man she’d ever met. Further, he was also one of those annoying morning people who always woke up happy. He didn’t need coffee to be on his game.

“Groovy.” He leaned down and swooped up the glass.

Her attention dropped to her food. She finished the mashed potatoes and set her fork down. The food was good. The cult members were nice, the few times she interacted with them. Her room was large and comfortable, despite the constant presence of Eddy. She was treated well.

She’d accepted her current circumstances, despite understanding how truly bizarre they were. Was this Stockholm syndrome? Was that why her alarm had faded, why she felt safer with Eddy than she ever had around Nathan?

“Every once in a while, I question my sanity,” she admitted quietly to the only person she’d had to confide in for a few weeks.

“It’s understandable,” Eddy replied. “You’ve been through a lot. We’re not exactly a mainstream group of people, either.”

When the friendly neighborhood assassin agreed with her, Kaylee found herself questioning whether or not she should feel the way she did.

“How have you been feeling?” he asked.

“Like my heart has a hole in it,” she replied.

Eddy laughed quietly. “Yeah. I get that. You’re almost completely healed, though. No need to worry about your heart. Physically, anyway.”

Eddy read her too well. Among the cult members was a surgeon who had stitched her back together after Nathan killed her. If not for Eddy, and the cult surgeon, she’d be dead. Nathan’s impact on her life had been more than physical. She couldn’t stop thinking about him, and some part of her ached for a stranger she didn’t think she should ever have anything else to do with after he murdered her and left her for dead.

“I’m still not … right,” she added. “It might be in my head, but sometimes, I have this weird sense of … heaviness. Like I’m suffocating beneath it. It’s different than Shadowman’s stifling presence.”

“You’ve been through a lot. I’m sure it’s a side effect of being dead. That’s not normal, you know.”

She sighed. “Definitely not.”

“Bullet has an idea for encouraging Shadowman to appear,” Eddy continued. “I’ve put him off for a few weeks, because you needed to heal. But … if you’ll accept my advice, it’d probably be a good idea to humor him.”

“I’m in danger here?” she asked and met Eddy’s gaze.

“Not in danger. But I don’t want him to take more drastic measures than necessary.”

“Does it involve chopping off body parts or sacrificing me to demons?” she asked cautiously.

“It’s just a demonstration.”

“Demonstration? Like asking Shadowman to take his human form?”

“Not quite that but similar.”

Kaylee studied Eddy, sensing the assassin wasn’t going to reveal exactly what they had in mind. It scared her to think of what these people were capable of and more so that Eddy was concerned enough about the equally secretive alternative to recommend she cooperate with whatever Bullet wanted to do. Eddy was her protector, but she didn’t know the extent of his power at the cult.

“Okay,” she said. “When is this demonstration?”

“Tonight.”

Kaylee swallowed hard. “So no shooting range.” Eddy had been training her to fire a weapon. While she doubted she’d ever use one on a person, she appreciated the distraction. Being surrounded by a cult waiting for an archdemon to talk to them didn’t exactly help her anxiety.

“Better to get it over with than stew, right?” Eddy asked and stood. He picked up her tray and returned it to the window of the kitchen where several other trays were stacked.

Kaylee trailed him. She stretched her senses to feel for Shadowman, the archdemon whose soul was connected to hers in the manner a guardian angel’s was supposed to be. How had she gotten the worst draw of the lot? Was this karma for some past life event, assuming she believed in any of that stuff?

Or just another example of the shitty luck plaguing her life? She had once thought her father was the devil, and her former boss one of his rabid minions, before being introduced to the insane world of angels, demons, and spirit guides. In truth, Nathan’s appearance in her life hadn’t been the strangest thing. Shadowman’s oppressive presence was what started everything and drawn Nathan to her.

Why couldn’t she dismiss her soul mate from her thoughts? She’d already written off Mike, her old boss, who was slain by the leader of the group called 3G. But Nathan? A man she had known for less than a couple of weeks? Why had he sprouted deep roots in her mind? How had she fallen for him without even knowing his real last name, or where he lived, or even what his favorite food was?

Why did he matter?

“We’re going above ground,” Eddy said, breaking into her thoughts. He waited for her at the doorway of the cafeteria.

Kaylee nodded absently and followed him through the familiar hallways whose cool shadows never fully dispersed despite the bright fluorescent lighting. She had spent enough time around Shadowman to understand these shadows weren’t normal. They felt like he did: cold, damp, heavy.

She shivered and crossed her arms.

Eddy led her in a direction she’d never been before, away from the wing where the rooms of the cult members were located. The underground bunker often reminded her of the world’s largest basement, what with the plain cement walls and the musty scent and chill that never quite left.

But that’s where the similarities stopped. The bunker was equipped with a ventilation system, full bathrooms, a massive working kitchen, firing range, a gym where she did her physical rehab under the surgeon’s supervision, even a tiny arboretum where the master chef grew his herbs. Running water, cable television, a library … it was an itty-bitty, self-supporting town beneath the ground.

Kaylee had no idea how someone had built this place or how much it cost to maintain, except that Bullet was either extremely wealthy or had the support of someone who was.

Eddy led her to a parking garage where several dozen people had already gathered. They were loading up into a tour bus, a perfect disguise for a group of people around the DC area. He headed towards his car.

One of the things she was strangely grateful for: Eddy was her companion, not the beefy security guards who roamed the halls at night with dead eyes that left her wondering if they were demons. Eddy at least appeared to be human. He slept in the room next to hers and had probably booby-trapped her door to alert him if she tried to leave. She didn’t put anything past him, and she had no intention of testing him. He was dangerous; she didn’t need to see him in action to understand a predator when she saw one.

Like Nathan.

Whenever she thought of him, her mood turned foul, and anger blinded her.

“The usual warning,” Eddy said, pausing beside the car. “Don’t run. We both want you to keep your fingers and so on. We straight?”

“I understand.”

Eddy flashed a smile and climbed into the driver’s seat.

In moments like this, Kaylee wondered if she should have tried to escape at any point the past month. Did going along with her captors make her party to her own kidnapping?

She shook her head, hating this thought. In her position as a junior attorney, she had interviewed many victims of heinous crimes. She used to wonder why they felt guilty about what happened to them, even though the crimes were never their faults.

[_I get it now, _]she thought. There wasn’t a day she awoke without feeling both frustrated and powerless by her situation.

Opening the car door, she dropped into the passenger seat of Eddy’s beater car.

He drove through the garage, up a ramp, and into the night.

Kaylee rolled down her window and breathed in the crisp, autumn air. “Oh, god,” she murmured. “I’ve missed fresh air so much.”

“Yeah, the air gets stale down there.”

“Do you think we can go out every once in a while? Even if we just sit in the driveway?”

“Maybe.”

They pulled out onto a gravel road that led to a dirt road, which eventually led to a two-lane country road. Kaylee twisted to see behind her. When the underground entrance closed, the bunker’s location was completely invisible.

“Amazing,” she breathed. “I didn’t think it was possible to build a doomsday bunker that nice.” Noticing the tour bus continued to follow them on the main road, she frowned. “Are all of them coming with us?”

“Yep,” Eddy replied. “But that’s a good thing. The more witnesses, the better. No one can claim you aren’t who you are, if everyone sees it. You’ll be safer.”

“I don’t feel safe.”

He glanced at her, amused. “C’mon now. You’ve got the world’s best assassin as your wingman!”

“I meant in general. Not about you,” she replied. “You are strangely … comforting to have around.”

“Sweet!”

[_And weird. _]She added silently. “Does your family know about your profession?”

“No family,” Eddy answered. “I was orphaned around the age of two or so. Grew up moving around in different foster homes.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. But … that’s probably better than having shitty parents.”

“Your parents are influential within the Beltway.”

“Doesn’t mean they’re good parents,” she replied. “They both care more about appearances than substance.”

“I know they’re wealthy. I wondered why they hadn’t put up a reward or something for you,” he admitted.

“It doesn’t surprise me. I didn’t turn out the way they wanted.”

“Your new family likes you!”

She glared at him.

Eddy laughed. “Just sayin’. I found my home here. You might, too.”

Kaylee was quiet. She began to realize why she’d felt empty, and it wasn’t entirely because of Nathan.

She didn’t have a home. Not a real one, anyway. Her parents didn’t want her around unless there was some kind of photo opportunity requiring them to appear to be a happy, normal family. She’d felt at home with Nathan, until he murdered her. The career she’d chosen to please her father was over the moment her boss was killed and her office building blown up then swallowed by an abyss.

When this was over – assuming it ever ended – she had nowhere to go and no one waiting for her. The only benefit of this insane adventure: it gave her otherwise wasted life some sort of meaning, as terrifying as that meaning was.

“Uggghh!” she cried in exasperation. “I’m twenty seven, and I have nothing good to show for my life! I haven’t contributed to the world at all.”

“Give yourself some credit,” Eddy responded. “Right now, you’re the most important person on the planet.”

She hadn’t thought of her relevance in the grander scheme of things. He was right. She hadn’t succeeded or made a difference in the traditional sense but would either become the person who started the end of days or who somehow stopped it. What could be more significant than saving the world?

Destroying it.

“I don’t know if that helps or makes everything worse,” she said, confused. “You are so contradictory, Eddy. Do you smile when you kill people?”

“Hopefully you never have to find out,” he said.

Every once in a while, Kaylee knew without a doubt she wasn’t going to make it out of this alive.

She fell into silence, once again uncertain what to think about Eddy. She recalled him being present when she awoke, after Nathan stabbed her. The memory was fuzzy from pain medications and the shock of being dead. But she could have sworn he told her to hide the stones Amira had given her to protect.

Had this event actually happened? Or was it a pain med-fueled dream? She’d been afraid of asking him, in case she revealed the precious stones Eddy could use to help Shadowman and Bullet cause Armageddon.

They drove in silence for two hours, followed by the tour bus, away from the DC area and towards central Virginia. The terrain changed from city to rural, from farmland to trees, from flat to rolling and finally, near the West Virginia border, to the forest-covered Appalachia foothills.

Eddy’s car crawled up a winding road leading to the top of one small mountain. The tour bus passed them halfway up.

“Maybe you should ask Satan for a new car,” Kaylee murmured.

“That’s not how it works,” Eddy said.

She didn’t really want to know how it worked.

They reached a campground near the top of the mountain half an hour after the tour bus did. Eddy parked and she got out, spotting a bonfire towards the center of the campground. Eddy led her towards it, where the other cult members were roasting hotdogs and marshmallows in a scene of normalcy that left Kaylee feeling as if she had entered an alternate reality.

“We can have s’mores after,” Eddy said, following her gaze. “Bullet and a few others are waiting for us.”

Reassured to hear she’d be alive to eat s’mores after this demonstration, Kaylee trailed him down a narrow path towards a scenic view area, a cliff with a plaque explaining the significance of the spot and surrounded by a three-foot tall wooden fence.

No less than ten men and women waited, whispering, some of them snacking on hotdogs or fragrant s’mores that reminded Kaylee she hadn’t eaten chocolate in almost a month. The surgeon had placed her on a strict diet to help her recover faster.

“Wow,” she breathed, eyes on the valley that stretched from the bottom of the cliff to the horizon. Fog clung to the branches of trees far below, and a cold mountain breeze swept by her.

“We come here monthly for meetings,” Bullet said.

Kaylee faced him, arms crossed from the cold air as well as the chill she always experienced around him.

Tall and slender, Bullet’s look was always a little too direct, and he never blinked. His eyes were dark, his skin olive, his hair a high-and-tight. He was striking in appearance, a silver fox, though he appeared to be no more than forty.

But it was his air that left her both entranced and uncomfortable. Something about the man was mesmerizing, and she couldn’t take her eyes off him, even when her instincts were whispering for her to run away – quickly. If the security guards weren’t demons, this man probably was.

“That’s nice,” Kaylee said, realizing everyone was waiting for her to speak after the awkward length of silence.

“Thank you for agreeing to this demonstration,” Bullet added with a smile that made her knees weak. It didn’t reach his eyes, which left her feeling … scared. The ambivalence of her emotions did nothing to help.

“She’s a great sport,” Eddy said with a grin. He never left her side, even when they spoke to Bullet.

For once, Kaylee was truly happy her assigned assassin was with her. She had the sense she’d either fall into Bullet’s spell or end up murdered at his feet if she were alone with him. There didn’t seem to be a happy medium in what she went through in his presence.

“Many of my people have expressed their concerns about Shadowman’s silence,” Bullet continued. “We’re a democratic community. They voted for these ten members to be present to witness this demonstration.” He motioned to the group of men and women who had fallen quiet. They appeared generally curious, if apprehensive.

“What exactly is this demonstration?” Kaylee asked, puzzled.

“It’s simple.” Bullet took her arms and positioned her in front of the fencing at the edge of the bluff.

His touch was like ice. It penetrated her sweatshirt, as if she held a cold pack directly against her arms. She winced, surprised anyone’s hands could be that cold.

“You trust Eddy. I need you to trust me.”

Kaylee looked up at Bullet’s quiet voice. The sensations of both falling into him and needing to flee left her speechless. His eyes reminded her of Nathan’s; he seemed to peer straight into her soul. Except, where Nathan was warm, this man was cold. His body radiated no heat, and his smile was empty. The coldness of his touch crept through her arms, up her shoulders, into her chest and neck.

They weren’t going to kill her. This much she knew. Eddy had saved her life, because his people wanted Shadowman alive. If Shadowman lived, she had to as well.

Blinking out of the spell, Kaylee glanced past him at Eddy. Her assassin gave her a double thumbs up and a smile.

“Why?” she asked.

“It’s important for this ritual. If you trust me, so will Shadowman. I need you both to know I’m on your side. I don’t want him to retaliate,” Bullet explained.

[_I’ll never trust you. _]But she’d tell this man whatever he needed to hear if it kept her alive. “I can do that,” she lied.

“I need you to say the words. I trust you.”

“I … trust you,” Kaylee repeated.

“Great!” Bullet released her.

The chill left her body and she shivered.

The men and women appeared excited.

“Was that it?” she asked.

“Not quite,” Bullet answered.

The next moment happened too slow, and then too fast, for her to register exactly what happened. Bullet’s kick landed in the center of her body. The air was knocked from her chest, and Kaylee flew backwards over the edge of the cliff. The world almost stopped, and her heightened senses – fed by adrenaline – memorized every face, every expression. Bullet was thrilled, his people excited and cheering, and Eddy …

Eddy wasn’t smiling. It was the first time she’d witnessed the grave expression on his features. His jaw was clenched, and he appeared to be concentrating hard, though on what, she couldn’t know.

And they were all gone, and she was alone in the night, falling. Cold air rushed by her ears and a scream burned her throat. She fell down, down, down, helpless to stop her plummet towards the forest and ground below. Kaylee thrashed in midair, trying to grab at the occasional tree or bush growing out of the side of the cliff. She managed to twist so that her back was to the sky. The trees rushed closer by the breath. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop watching death as it charged towards her.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Four

Coldness stirred within the part of her that wasn’t hers. Shadowman was shifting.

Before Kaylee had time to dwell on why, she squeezed her eyes shut and covered her head, as if she could prevent herself from splattering all over the forest floor. Ice ripped through her. Suddenly, she stopped.

Kaylee waited for the impact, gasping, shaking from cold and fear. Had she hit the ground, died instantly and was now a ghost? She’d seen nothing but darkness the first time she died.

She opened one eye and then the other.

She hovered at the top of the trees, close enough for their tips to brush her body as they swayed in a breeze.

While she could not see him, she could feel him. Shadowman’s oppressive weight surrounded her, prevented them both from dying.

But he was weak. He was straining. The air around her trembled along with her body, a sign this test was taking what he had regained of his strength. In that moment, she didn’t question whether or not she should let him drop her, let her die.

“Tell me what to do,” she said hoarsely, not about to continue her fall if his strength gave out.

Grab … tree.

Kaylee wiped away the tears in her eyes and stretched down. Shadowman lowered her slowly before dropping her a good ten feet. She snatched at the branches and caught herself, halting her second fall. His grip around her slid away, to the point she barely felt it. He was too weak. She was on her own.

Kaylee swung one leg to the nearest branch below her then the second. Balancing herself with her death grip on the tree, she walked to the trunk and sank down onto the branch beneath her legs, arms wrapped around the tree.

Shaking, she sobbed. It wasn’t only Nathan who tried to kill her. At the back of her mind, she understood this demonstration was meant to draw out Shadowman – or kill her, if she lied about him being alive.

How bad was it that the very creature threatening the existence of everyone was the only one who wanted her alive?

When she was too cold and tired to cry more, she leaned her head against the trunk. “Can’t we just go somewhere? Away from everyone?” she whispered to the darkness clinging to her.

Purpose.

“Our purpose is to be killed!” she retorted. “Do you really think you will open a portal to Hell when the chances of surviving are getting worse by the day? Neither of us is strong enough to survive!”

Shadowman didn’t answer. She sensed he was … uncertain. What did it mean, if an archdemon with the power to bring about Armageddon didn’t know if he could keep them alive?

Then we become stronger.

“It’s not like you can flip a switch. You’re barely alive. I’m not sure how I lived through Nathan.”

No more demonstrations. I am displeased.

“No shit. So am I.”

His stifling presence all but vanished. He was at the peripheral again, where he had been since she was killed. His presence was replaced by the newfound sense of heaviness she’d experienced only since awakening after her death. It became hard to breathe, and she sagged, weighed down by something she couldn’t identify.

The spell passed after a moment.

Kaylee stayed where she was, not trusting herself to climb down the tall tree in her shaken position. Shadowman didn’t have the strength to save them a second time.

But … did she want him to? Should she end this mess now, while she had the chance?

Shadowman’s presence became stronger. Was her inability to commit suicide fully her decision and cowardice, or influenced by the demon connected to her soul? Because saving the world was definitely the best cause she’d ever find!

Guilt trickled into her, the same she felt whenever she questioned whether or not she should put some effort into trying to escape.

Exhausted, Kaylee closed her eyes. If she was silent and still, would Bullet and his people assume she died and leave her alone? Would she finally have a drop of luck in her life?

“Kaylee!” Eddy’s shout came from below.

Kaylee winced. She wasn’t at all surprised that the assassin who appeared to read her mind at times also knew she was alive after the fall.

A spotlight illuminated the trees near her. If Bullet was not fully from this world, as she suspected, was Eddy also of supernatural origin? Was that how he knew where to look? When she was thinking about running? That she was thinking of Nathan? If he weren’t homicidal, and a demon worshipper, she would believe him to be a guardian angel.

“I’m here!” she called at last as the spotlight shifted nearer.

The light turned to her. She closed her eyes, blinded, and held up her hand.

Eddy let out a triumphant whoop. “Can you make it down?” he shouted.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m kinda … freaked out.”

“Stay there. I’ll come to you!”

What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just end this?

Frustrated by her weakness, Kaylee waited for the Satanists to save her.

The branches rustled beneath her and minutes later, Eddy reached the branch directly below her.

“Great to see you!” he said with a grin. “Put this on.” He tossed her a harness attached to a climbing rope.

Kaylee reluctantly maneuvered into the harness. “Done.”

“Come on down!” He held out his hand. “It’s secured. If I drop you, the others will lower you down.”

Kaylee stretched towards him. Eddy caught her as she lost her balance and fell off her branch.

Eddy carefully moved to the next branch down and then waited for her. They moved down the tree trunk foot by foot, branch by branch, until they reached the ground, where Bullet and his ten witnesses waited.

Kaylee now had two men on her shit list who had tried to murder her. The moment Eddy freed her from the harness, she spun to face Bullet. If anything, his presence was even colder, his eyes somehow darker.

“You pissed him off,” she informed him icily. Her body continued to tremble. “Shadowman isn’t happy with you.”

“I apologize,” Bullet said with a bow of his head. “We had to know for certain he survived. I hope he understands.”

He waited for her response, and the people behind him appeared anxious as well.

To her surprise, the cult leader was sincere for the first time since she had met him. The scary man in front of her feared the demon connected to her.

“He’s weak,” she said. “Your test took what strength he had. I don’t know what he feels or thinks right now, but he needs more time to heal.”

Bullet relaxed, as did those behind him, as if they had expected the archdemon to condemn them all.

“I respect that,” Bullet said. “We all saw him save you. We know he’s alive. You will both have more time to rest.”

The ten people behind him nodded and exchanged looks of excitement, if not all out euphoria.

“Eddy, she needs rest. Return to our base,” Bullet said and began walking away. “We’re having a party.”

“Sure, boss.” Eddy slid his hand around her arm, as if suspecting she was about to collapse.

Kaylee sagged against him, hating herself more for being the source of happiness for an entire cult bent on destroying the world.

She walked with Eddy to the car parked at a second campsite, this one located at the base of the bluff. She all but fell into the passenger’s seat and sagged.

Eddy climbed into the driver’s seat. “I saved you a s’more,” he said.

Kaylee glanced at him then at the tinfoil square he held out. She accepted it. This night, after being thrown off a cliff, nothing could faze her.

Eddy started the car and began the long trip back to the underground bunker. “For the record, I didn’t doubt you,” he said.

Beyond the point of being able to think straight, Kaylee opened her treat and nibbled on it. “I should’ve just ended it,” she whispered, distraught.

“We all saw him save you,” Eddy replied. “We would’ve brought you back again if you committed suicide.”

“With fewer fingers, no doubt.”

“You’re starting to understand. That’s good.”

Kaylee lowered her s’more and fought the urge to cry. Drawing a deep breath, she wiped her tears away and forced herself to focus on her food. When she finished, she rested against the headrest and dozed.

Eddy’s loud curse awoke her, and she opened her eyes groggily. He stopped the car and pulled over onto the side of the road. They were on the two-lane, paved road near the bunker.

Smoke filled the sky above the forest.

Eddy climbed out of the car and stood in front of it, staring in the direction of the bunker. Finally, he pulled out his phone and made a quick call before returning to the car.

“New plan,” he said with a tight smile. “We’re heading to an alternate site.”

“Someone found the bunker.” Kaylee frowned. “How?”

“I don’t know, but the boss isn’t happy about it. That’s our headquarters. We have other sites. They aren’t as nice.”

“Who did it?”

“I imagine 3G. They’re desperate to find you.”

Kaylee shook her head. The alleged good guys wanted her dead. “Didn’t you meet with their leader at the safe house?” she asked, recalling the tense meeting with Zyra that occurred before her death.

“In exchange for information about our common enemy.”

“You mean Nathan and his people.”

“Exactly.”

“How are his people more of a threat than 3G?” she asked.

“Let’s just say they have the backing of some really heavy hitters. 3G is on its own. I’ll take my chances with Zyra over Nathan any day.”

Kaylee had no way of knowing what heavy hitters he referred to. “I hope the next site is a hotel.”

“It’s another bunker,” Eddy replied. “Smaller, smellier.” His nose wrinkled. “Not my favorite.”

Kaylee shifted in her seat. As uncomfortable as she was around the cult in general, she viewed the sudden change in circumstances with trepidation. “None of this is going to end well, is it?” she murmured.

“Depends on who ends up with custody of you,” Eddy answered with his normal honesty.

“I still don’t know how Nathan can be a good guy.”

“It’s relative,” Eddy said. “Can’t get him off your mind, can you?”

“God, I wish I could.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Five

Amira Santiago and her guardian, a disenchanted spirit guide named Troy, stood on the beach midmorning. Police officers and yellow tape surrounded an area near the reach of the waves. While she didn’t know whose body it was, she sensed what it was. A spirit guide, murdered and left for dead. Not far from the corpse were three more splotches of blood, indicating the guide had caused extensive damage to several of her attackers before being killed.

Unable to hear the ocean, Amira could still appreciate the endless water and its gray waves as they swept up onto the shore.

When she awoke this morning at a bed and breakfast near the beach, the stone that led her this far had traveled north. Troy had been tipped off about the dead guide by one of his cohorts in the spirit guide corps. When he was satisfied, they’d head north again to find the key holder.

Tilting her head to the side, Amira gripped the stone in her pocket and waited for a picture to form. The image of where the gateway to Hell she was assigned to protect grew more distinct each time she tested the stone. Events were escalating faster now, if she could make out where it was.

The tiny pulse of energy reached her from the direction of the bushes huddled beneath trees lining the top of the beach. While deaf, she was able to sense the presence of energy, usually from those approaching her who she wouldn’t otherwise hear. Amira glanced towards the trees before tapping Troy, whose expert gaze assessed the situation. They were among a handful of locals curious about what the police did and provided a good cover for the spirit guide trying to take a picture of what had happened.

“Troy,” she said when her guide didn’t respond.

She waited for him to face her, so she could read his lips when he spoke. The muscular man was taller than her almost six feet with dark hair and eyes and a trim goatee. He was intense and brooding, his air tainted by deep sorrow. Whenever he looked at her, her heart skipped a beat for reasons that he hadn’t figured out. He was her OTL – one true love, a soul mate, the greatest honor possible and granted to her by Pedro and the other angels. One day, he would figure it out.

“We should go,” she told him.

“Just a minute,” he replied. “I need to get a picture of which guide this is to Maggy.”

Amira hadn’t met Maggy, the woman in charge of the spirit guides around DC. Troy had mentioned her several times but preferred to keep Amira under his watch solely. He didn’t seem to trust anyone aside from Nathan. Amira wasn’t in a position to understand his concern or the dynamics of the spirit guide corps.

But she sensed the odd energy Troy didn’t appear to notice. She held the velvet dice bag containing the precious stone she was charged with protecting with her life. It wasn’t ready to fully reveal its secret to her, and she hoped it never did, for she wanted nothing to do with the portal to Hell through which the second Horseman, the archdemon Death, would emerge.

Her attention drifted towards the bushes. Had the second gatekeeper or her guide dropped something that might help Amira find the second gatekeeper?

Troy was determined to move close enough to snap a picture without being seen by the police or anyone else who might be looking for them. Amira sensed no danger from those around them, but she wouldn’t recognize a threat that was purely human. Her senses were attuned to the Other Side and anyone emitting the subtle energy indicating they were demon or angel or spirit guide.

She moved away, towards the trees and bushes lining the beach. She walked through the loose sand and was breathless by the time she reached the edge of the trees, some fifty feet away. As she neared, the gentle pulse of energy grew stronger.

It wasn’t a stone beckoning her towards the forest.

Amira paused and visually searched the area around her feet. The energy came from somewhere nearby. Venturing farther into the forest, away from Troy’s line of sight, she knelt and pushed bushes aside. A wallet lay at the base of one tree. The lingering energy originated from the wallet.

Plucking it up, Amira opened it and studied the identification card for Shanti George, a beautiful woman with large, soft eyes and a bright smile. Amira smile back at the photo, excited. Putting a face to the second key holder would make finding her easier.

The sea breeze suddenly ceased, and she sensed the light, stable energy belonging to spirit guides. Amira froze. She set the wallet on the ground and discreetly pushed it beneath a bush before standing. With a deep breath, she turned.

Two guides dressed in the black uniforms used by Zyra’s 3G group stood behind her.

Before she could shout for Troy or run, one of them grabbed her. The other slapped a rag over her mouth. Within seconds, her surroundings began to slip away, until she was swallowed by darkness.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Six

“You’re right,” Kaylee said, frowning at her surroundings. “This place kind of sucks.”

“Yeah,” Eddy agreed.

They sat in a small, cement room. It was one of several dozen former self-storage lockers located in a warehouse-sized building somewhere in Maryland.

They’d spent a day in this location, during which other Satanist members brought them food and water. The majority of Bullet’s followers, however, were strangely absent. She began to think the strike at the cult’s headquarters was worse than cheerful Eddy let on.

“I never thought I’d say I miss the bunker,” she murmured.

“Here. Take your mind off things.” Eddy unloaded a handgun and handed it to her, along with a dime.

Kaylee stood and faced the wall opposite her. She picked out a crack at about chest level and raised the weapon. Placing the dime at the end of the barrel, she drew a breath and focused. The purpose of Eddy’s game was for her to squeeze the trigger without the dime falling.

“No compensating for the kickback,” he reminded her. “Focus on your breathing. The weapon won’t hurt you.”

She obeyed and squeezed off one round, then a second, before the dime fell.

“Not bad,” Eddy said and bent to retrieve the coin. “Is it feeling easier?”

“A little,” she replied. “You know I can’t kill someone, right?”

“You might be surprised what you’d do if 3G corners you. They can’t die anyways, so they’d make good target practice for you,” he said. “Do it again.” He replaced the dime at the tip of the muzzle.

She fired several more times without dislodging it.

Arms crossed, Eddy smiled, nodding in appreciation as she managed to make it past her previous record of ten.

“It’ll become second nature,” he told her. “When you have a feel for this, we’ll move on to much larger weapons.”

Kaylee focused, grateful for the distraction, and continued to practice. When the weapon grew too heavy for her arms to hold extended, she plucked the dime free and lowered the firearm.

One of the cult members appeared in the doorway and beckoned to Eddy. The assassin stepped into the hallway without letting her out of his sight.

Kaylee turned the cold, metal weapon over in her hands, regarding it with a little fear and reluctant curiosity. She’d never had a reason to learn to shoot a gun and never really understood the appeal. But holding it, she didn’t feel quite as helpless, even if it wasn’t loaded. Eddy taught her because he wanted her to be able to protect herself if something happened to him.

No one had ever wanted to empower her before. Not her parents, not her terrible boss. No one.

Why had she never thought of empowering herself? Why had she spent her life doing what others wanted her to do, instead of exploring what she wanted and pursuing her dreams?

[_What are my dreams? _]She had never tried to understand herself.

She lowered the weapon. What she wanted above all else: the ability to make decisions that made her feel good about herself and her life, instead of feeling like Daddy’s little failure. She’d gone from her parents ruling her life to Nathan telling her what to do to Eddy monitoring her every move. She was more than what others wanted her to be.

Kaylee blinked out of her thoughts. Coldness moved within her. She twisted to face the corner nearest her, where she alone could see the shift of shadows indicating Shadowman was struggling to take form. He usually only did so when they were in danger, or when he needed to communicate an important message.

[_We need help, _]he said. He was strong enough for her to sense his emotion.

“You’re scared,” she murmured.

His answer was more of a feeling than an articulated response.

“I’m not going to disagree,” she said. He wanted to open the portal to Hell. She had no intention of helping him.

[_Survival, _]he reminded her. Images of Nathan murdering her and Bullet shoving her off a cliff fluttered through her mind.

“I can’t believe I’m agreeing,” she said in frustration. They were natural enemies, except they needed one another to survive. “What are you thinking?”

A vision of Nathan appeared, followed by lightning.

Kaylee gritted her teeth as she did whenever she thought of him. “You can’t be serious.”

The image remained.

“I don’t understand.”

Bound to you.

Her brow furrowed.

“Is he here?” Eddy asked, a distracted note in his tone.

Kaylee turned away from the corner. “Yeah.”

“Is he getting stronger?”

She tested the bond. “No. But he’s worried.”

Eddy studied her the way he did when he wanted to ensure she spoke the truth. Satisfied she did, his smile returned, and he sat on the floor, back to the wall. He waved her over.

Kaylee glanced towards the corner. Shadowman was gone, leaving her with the puzzle about Nathan. She sat down beside Eddy and set the weapon on the ground in front of her.

“We have footage of the attack on the bunker,” Eddy said. He shifted the electronic tablet he held so she could see. “Pretty effective.”

“You approve?” she asked, amused.

“I can admire their tactics while disagreeing with who they use it against,” he replied.

He played the video, which appeared to originate from surveillance cameras. The first set of images consisted of infrared and heat sensors. Around twenty people inched towards the garage entrance of the bunker, their bodies showing up as red and orange splotches against a black background.

“They’re definitely 3G. See how they move in formation?” Eddy asked.

“I’m not really into military tactics like you,” Kaylee answered, unable to recognize what he spoke of.

“Trust me. They’re good.”

She watched the video. It flashed blindingly bright, obscuring everyone before returning to the black background and splotches representing people.

“Did they do that?” she asked.

“No. It’s lightning.”

Lightning. Again.

The angle shifted from outside to one of the cameras in the garage. This was clear, traditional digital video rather than infrared blobs. Men and women in black, wearing masks and armed to the teeth, moved stealthily through the garage. They overtook and killed the half dozen guards positioned in the garage without a single shot being fired.

“How did they get in?” she asked.

“The cameras surrounding the entrances were taken out before the raid,” Eddy replied. “Either they were damn lucky, blew up the entrance, or they had help from the inside. It’s impossible to tell from what footage we have.”

She flinched as a member of 3G stabbed one of the guards a dozen times. Neither spirit guides nor Satanists steered away from violence, leaving her questioning who the good guys really were.

“And you don’t know how they found the bunker either,” she murmured.

“Not yet. The theory is that 3G tagged one of our people with a GPS locator or bug of some kind. Our members routinely leave the bunker and head to the city for entertainment purposes or to scout and hunt 3G. All it would take is 3G identifying one member and tagging him or her.”

She glanced at him. Eddy was studying the footage intently, as if looking for the answers to their questions within the mayhem of the garage.

The fuzzy memory of him telling her to protect the stones returned, along with the image of his face she’d seen before falling off the cliff. He hadn’t been anywhere near as happy as the other members of his cult.

Was there more to Eddy?

Dared she ask him to find out?

“See how they take out the garage cameras here,” Eddy said with quiet frustration. “We have splotchy coverage of everything.”

He skipped several minutes of blacked out footage before more images returned.

“You won’t like this part,” he added.

The members of 3G removed their masks once in the cafeteria. Beneath a thin layer of what appeared to be fog, the floor was littered with a dozen or more bodies, as if the cult members had made this area their last stand. While there was no sound to the footage, Zyra seemed to be giving orders to those around her. Her people bent over to search the corpses.

Kaylee’s gaze was quickly riveted to Nathan. With dark hair and eyes, Mediterranean skin tone, and chiseled features, his looks would draw any woman’s gaze. He was tall and lean and moved as if he commanded the entire world. He stood beside Zyra, observing the damage impassively.

“Nathan,” Kaylee said and then flushed, hearing the breathless note in her voice. “Wait. He’s in 3G?”

“According to reports, he defected.”

She frowned. “Why would he …”

Nathan and Zyra were locked in a passionate kiss.

A flush of anger, then shame, flew through Kaylee. How had she ever thought he was sincere during their one night stand? How had she convinced herself that she was anything other than a case for him to resolve? He’d killed her, for god’s sake!

“Our reports say he felt betrayed by his people for how your case was handled,” Eddy explained.

“As in, they failed to kill me right the first time?”

“I don’t fully know. Our intel is okay but not great when it comes to 3G and the guide corps in general. We can’t get anyone into either, because … well, we’re kind of a dead giveaway.” He grinned. “So we’re left using mainly electronic means to get our info. It works for keeping an eye on them but not for identifying what their plans are. Our reports end up vague. They said Nathan had a blow out with his people and defected.”

Kaylee didn’t know what she felt in that moment aside from fury with herself for being smitten by Nathan.

The images changed, showing a different angle, as the members of 3G swept through the bunker, searching for her and eliminating anyone they came across.

Nathan killed as easily as any of them, using his hands, knives, and handguns. In one instance, he used a baseball bat he found in one of the cult member’s rooms.

Why was she surprised to see how violent he could be? Kaylee didn’t know. He was dangerous; she’d sensed this from the first time they met.

The scenery changed again, and Eddy yanked the tablet back towards him.

“You don’t want to see that,” he said.

“What?” she asked. “Secret intel?”

“Not exactly.” He cleared his throat. “We’ve had surveillance on 3G. It kind of shows another reason why Nathan might be with them.”

She waited.

“Zyra is his wife. Ex-wife. Depending on which report you read.”

Kaylee’s mouth felt dry. Nathan wasn’t just a bastard – he was a lying, [_cheating _]bastard! How in the hell had she fallen for him?

“Let me see,” she said more calmly than she felt.

Eddy shifted the display for her to view the latest footage.

Nathan fucking his ex. And looking pretty damn into it. Passionate, rough, naked fucking. He appeared to be in a penthouse or hotel room suite. One scene displayed them fucking on the couch. Another of him bending Zyra over a table. Another bedroom scene. One after the other, the brief recordings flashed across the screen.

Kaylee pushed the tablet away, numb. She was uncomfortably warm, and the base of her belly blazed to witness Nathan’s naked body, his dick, to recall how he’d held her down and fucked her until she couldn’t breathe or think.

He appeared even more into Zyra than Kaylee had believed he was with her.

“Sixty three times in a month,” Eddy said in approval. “Not bad.”

“Not bad?” she repeated, distraught.

“If it helps, it’s probably the honeymoon phase. They’ll probably settle down to once a day in a month or two.”

Kaylee squeezed her eyes closed.

How could she still crave Nathan, his scent and recall how his warm palms had seared her skin, branded her, made her believe she was the only woman he had ever made love to with such passion?

Then again, he had always claimed she was just a case. The proof she meant nothing to him played across Eddy’s screen. She was the problem. She couldn’t move on, and she loathed herself for it.

“I hate him,” she whispered.

“It’s not your fault. You had no idea what you were getting into,” Eddy said kindly.

She made a strange sound, a choked half laugh, as she silently acknowledged that her current best friend – and the most supportive person in her life ever – was Eddy.

“What does he have to do with this?” she managed to ask without crying.

“With what?” Eddy asked.

“I’m not talking to you, Eddy.”

He cocked his head to the side and lowered the tablet.

What had Shadowman said? Something about being bound? Kaylee waited with a small hope that the archdemon would tell her Nathan had to die.

No answer came. Shadowman had retreated. Perhaps the response wasn’t worth the effort this time around.

“I take it back,” she said and picked up the handgun. “I can think of one person I wouldn’t mind shooting.” It would be even easier, because Nathan wouldn’t actually die. Spirit guides possessed the ability to heal.

With the images of Nathan fucking his ex replaying in her thoughts, and her emotions raw, Kaylee picked up the weapon and stood. She placed the dime at the tip of the muzzle and focused hard, imagining she was shooting Nathan.

The coin stayed in place this time for over forty shots.

Eddy watched. After a while, a cult member brought them lunch. Eddy accepted the tray supporting fast food bags and sat down.

“Come eat,” he urged.

Kaylee lifted the dime off the muzzle and lowered the gun. Her arm ached, but nothing hurt as much as the hole inside of her. How had she been such a sucker for some handsome man who made her feel special for a night?

She sat and ate in silence. As if suspecting she was struggling, Eddy glanced at her several times.

“You want to play a game?” he asked and handed her the tablet.

Kaylee looked from it to him. “You trust me not to email someone for help?”

“Who?” he replied. “Not your parents, and you don’t have any real friends.”

She sighed.

“Not judging. Just saying,” he said with a smile. “And you wouldn’t want police involved, because you know what I’d do to them, right?”

“Right,” she whispered.

“Take it. Watch cat videos or play a game. It’ll help you relax.” He slid the tablet to her.

Kaylee accepted it and sat back against the wall, eating French fries absent-mindedly. She pulled up the extensive list of games on the tablet, put there by Eddy, who played on his phone when he was bored. She tapped one before opening an Internet browser.

She typed the images from her only dream in over a month into the search box: [_Significance of lightning and rose petals. _]She hit the search button.

The top entry made her do a double take.

Barachiel, archangel of lightning, blessings, storms, and head of the guardian angels. Symbols include lightning and rose petals.

“What’s wrong?” Eddy asked, sensitive to the slightest changes in her.

Before Kaylee could close the window, he snatched the tablet. Eddy’s eyes fell to the screen briefly.

“On second thought, let’s watch cat videos together,” he said and sat down beside her. He closed the search results.

Kaylee wished she could be as relaxed and calm as he was about everything and doubted she would live long enough to find any sort of peace.

Eddy didn’t turn the tablet over to her again, though he was true to his word about sharing the screen so they could watch cat and animal videos.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Seven

“Kaylee.” Eddy’s urgent whisper and a light shake awoke her from the sleep of death she’d grown accustomed to.

She blinked and rolled onto her back. Her body was stiff from their meager accommodations, which consisted of sleeping bags on the hard cement floor. The lights were on in the room and hallway, and Eddy was awake and alert.

“What time is it?” she mumbled, hating that he was a morning person even before he had a cup of coffee.

“Dunno,” he said, eyes on the entrance. “We need to go.”

She sat up and listened for the sound of them being attacked. It was quiet, as it had been when she fell asleep. Unable to sense what Eddy did, she nonetheless flung off the top of the sleeping bag and pulled on her shoes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You hear it?”

She paused to listen again. “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s the problem. The ventilation’s been cut.” He motioned to the two vents near the ceiling. “I closed them, but it might not be enough, depending on whether they use gas meant to disable us or murder us.”

“What? Who?” she asked, growing alarmed.

“I assume 3G found us again. They’re definitely tracking someone or have inside help.” He left the doorway and went to the pitcher of water near the leftovers from their dinner. He ripped a spare t-shirt into two strips and dunked both into the water before tossing one of the rags to her. “Tie it around your nose and mouth. It’s not going to keep the worst away, and it won’t help your eyes if they use tear gas. I’m hoping they use smoke like they did at the bunker.”

Kaylee tied the wet, cold rag around her lower face.

“If they’re smart, which they always seem to be when it comes to strategy, they’ll have the entrances and exits either booby-trapped or sealed off. We have an alternative, but we have to reach it.” Eddy checked his weapons quickly and strode to the door.

Kaylee’s pulse raced. Eddy wasn’t cheerful or happy. He was on edge for the first time since she’d met him over a month ago. She guessed his transformation to mean he wasn’t optimistic about their chances.

The person who should have been her enemy was getting ready to defend her from someone who should have been her ally. Frustration and fury boiled within her again but were soon eclipsed by fear as she realized her life was at stake this night. 3G wasn’t going to let her escape and probably wouldn’t let her live.

“I’m ready.” She joined Eddy at the door.

“We got this,” he said and offered a quick smile. “Follow my instructions and as fast as you can. If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to duck, you duck. Do not hesitate, Kaylee.”

She was too concerned to respond aloud and nodded.

Eddy knelt beside her. He pulled off one of the many holsters he wore and wrapped it around her leg and hips to secure it against her thigh.

“If I tell you to shoot, you shoot,” he added. “It’s loaded.” Standing, he gazed down at her, the lethal edge present in every inch of his features. “If you use it against me, Shadowman and 3G combined won’t be able to save you from Hell.”

In that moment, Kaylee was more scared of her guardian than 3G. “I won’t,” she whispered.

“Great! Then let’s go!” Eddy gripped her hand and pulled her out of the room into the hallway.

They jogged down the hall. Everything was …silent. Kaylee hadn’t noticed the background purr of air conditioning until it was gone, and the only sound was that of their sneakers against cement.

Smoke curled through the periodic vents near the ceiling.

“Ah, smoke,” Eddy said in satisfaction. “So far things are going our way.”

[_Seriously? _]Kaylee shook her head.

They reached an intersection. Eddy slowed their pace and ventured into it.

Shots rang out, and he ducked back quickly. He released her to pull a grenade from his cargo pocket. Pulling the pin loose, he paused for a moment and then tossed it down the hall, towards the shooter.

Seconds later, an explosion rocked the warehouse. The walls shook.

“Easy as pie,” he said to her. He was starting to relax again, comfortable in battle. “There’s another route.” He started back the way they’d come. They ran in the direction opposite the grenade and shooter, past the room where they’d stayed the night, and around the next corner.

The sounds of pursuers shouting came from behind them. With their forms obscured by smoke, Kaylee prayed Eddy knew where he went, because she could see no farther than him. Eddy slammed to a stop. She careened into him, almost plowing him over.

Kaylee peeked around him.

Flickers of the black clothing worn by 3G members moved in and out of view ahead of them, clearing lockers. It was difficult for her to make out how many there were.

Eddy took her hand again and crept forward, towards the black splotches marring the white smoke filling the hallway. She felt the edge of a corner. Eddy slid around it at the same slow speed until both of them were out of the intersection. They ran then into the fog, towards a destination she didn’t know. Her senses were heightened, and adrenaline drove the sleepiness out of her better than four cups of coffee.

She hadn’t believed the warehouse of self-storage lockers to be that big. Soon, her instinct was confirmed. The fog began to settle. They crossed through an area of charred walls and blood and ichor hanging from the ceiling. She covered her mouth, horrified and disgusted. Eddy pulled her through the space where his grenade had obliterated two men. He continued past the intersection they had originally tried to cross through.

He paused at another intersection and peered around the corner. Across from them were three cult members, one of whom beckoned them towards him.

Eddy released her, made a few hand signals to those across the hall, and drew two weapons. “When I say, run across the hall. They’re going to take you the rest of the way,” he told her.

“What about you?” Kaylee asked before she could stop herself.

“I’ll follow. Promise. I’ve kept you alive this long. I’m going to distract our enemies.” Eddy flashed her a smile. “If something happens, shoot first, ask questions later. 3G won’t hesitate to kill you. Got it?”

How the fuck had she ended up in this situation? How was any of this real?

Kaylee nodded. She could be dead in five minutes, if she didn’t do as Eddy said. Shadowman was weak, distant, and she doubted he was going to interfere unless her death was inevitable. Even in that circumstance, what could he do, if there was more than one person for him to fight off? He couldn’t protect her from bullets and grenades in his current state.

“Go!” Eddy ordered softly.

Kaylee darted across the hall. Eddy went with her, firing his weapons, positioned in front of her to prevent any of the others from shooting her. A smattering of gunfire answered his shots.

One of the cult members snatched her and slammed her against the wall in his hurry to pull her the remainder of the way. Eddy reached the corner and pressed his back to the wall. Someone shouted down the hallway, and the squelch of a radio sounded in the ensuing silence.

He lifted his chin towards those with her. One of them grabbed her and pulled, but not before she saw the blood splattering Eddy’s face. It wasn’t blood from those blown up by the grenade but fresh, bright. He’d been hit.

Kaylee’s chest tightened at the thought she was about to lose her only buffer between her and those who wanted her dead. She stumbled and focused on the three rushing her down the hallway. The smoke was settling. They tore through an intersection. Gunfire sounded, and the third person in their procession dropped to the ground.

The man holding Kaylee’s arm, who signed commands to the others, slowed. The woman behind her helped the downed man to his feet. Blood pooled from the wound in his chest.

Seeing blood left Kaylee terrified. It was easy to pretend everything would be okay until she witnessed those around her being shot. From the looks of things, she, too, would end the day being murdered, this time permanently.

They bolted through a third intersection. More gunfire, though this time, no one appeared to be hurt. The injured man returned fire before rolling a grenade that made the walls shudder when it exploded. Bleeding but on his feet, he joined the rest of them. They darted left at the fourth intersection, took another left soon after, and stopped.

Panting, Kaylee bent over to catch her breath. The others were equally winded.

“Almost … there,” the team leader, who had grabbed her arm, said quietly.

The others nodded.

Kaylee’s thoughts were on Eddy, and she wanted to kick herself for hoping he survived. The sense of being weighed down returned, as if night itself were sitting on her. She wobbled and braced herself against the feeling. It didn’t last longer than thirty seconds.

“Let’s go,” the team leader said.

Kaylee straightened. She was unusually drained, more so than she thought healthy considering adrenaline should have perked her up.

They began running again, this time towards the sound of gunfire. They passed several heavily armed cult members who were positioned at the corners of intersections to provide cover as her group raced through. More than one cult member was gunned down, and she winced each time she heard a cry of pain.

Bullets exploded the cement wall near her head, and she ducked, startled.

“They’re behind us!” shouted one of the cult members escorting her.

The team leader didn’t respond but hunched his shoulders and continued to run.

More bullets zipped past her and put chinks in the wall. Kaylee sprinted as hard as any of those with her. At long last, the leader ducked around a corner and into the nearest room.

Kaylee sagged against the wall of another storage locker, this one much larger than the one where she and Eddy had taken cover. The team leader turned on the lights and darted towards the corner. The other two cult members made it into the room as well. The wounded man dropped to his knees while the woman took up position at the doorway, armed and ready to shoot anyone who turned the corner.

The leader paused in the corner and turned his gaze towards the cement flooring. Kaylee followed his look. If there was an escape anywhere in this room, she didn’t see it.

The leader cursed and planted his hands on his hips, staring hard at the floor, as if he could will a door to appear.

“Where is it?” the woman at the door demanded quietly.

“This is the right locker, isn’t it?” the wounded man wheezed.

“It has to be,” was the less than encouraging answer from their team leader.

Coldness penetrated Kaylee, and it wasn’t normal fear. “We’re in trouble,” she said. A murky vision flashed in her mind, two gunmen eliminating the last of the Satanic resistance in the hallway.

“I’ll find it. It’s the right place,” the team leader snapped.

“No. I mean, they’re coming. He’s warning me.”

The woman and team leader exchanged a look. He tossed her a grenade, and the wounded man lurched to his feet to stand on the opposite side of the doorway.

Kaylee pushed herself away from the wall to join the team leader, who continued to scour the floor. For what, she couldn’t tell. The cement was unbroken. There was no door, no underground escape hatch.

The sound of the grenade exploding down the hallway rattled the walls and floor. The sense of danger drifted out of Kaylee’s mind.

“It’s here,” the team leader mumbled.

It wasn’t. Or at least, neither of them was capable of finding whatever it was he sought.

Gunfire rang out from the corridor perpendicular to theirs. Seconds later, Eddy dove into the room. He staggered to his feet, one arm useless at his side and blood smeared on the floor from where he had landed.

“Kaylee, get ready to shoot anyone who comes through that door,” he told her.

With shaking hands, she fumbled with the snaps securing the weapon to her thigh.

A shot, and Eddy was sent flying into the wall behind him. A second one, and the woman dropped, a third, and the injured man fell.

A form all in black, down to the black ski mask, entered the room, weapons raised. He shot the man behind her next.

Kaylee froze. Why hadn’t Shadowman warned her about this guy?

The man pointed the weapon at her. To her surprise, he didn’t fire. Instead, he went to the man and woman at the door and shot both of them through the head.

It was when he stepped towards Eddy, who struggled to sit, that Kaylee raised her weapon. The gunman kicked Eddy’s weapon away. She released the safety as her assassin had taught her and rested her index finger lightly against the trigger.

[_He won’t really die, _]she told herself. The members of 3G were all guides, who were mostly immortal.

“Stop,” she whispered in a shaking voice.

The gunman’s attention shifted towards her. He didn’t lower the weapon trained on Eddy.

“Eddy,” she said, unwilling to take her eyes off the man in black to check on her guardian.

“I’m good.” His voice was strained.

The gunman holstered his firearm and pulled off the mask.

[_That’s why he didn’t warn me. _]Shadowman had a thing for Nathan.

Kaylee’s heart stopped, as it always did when she was confronted by Nathan. His dark gaze was intent, his hair mussed from the mask, his stance on edge.

He lifted his hands. “Hi, Kaylee,” he said in the low, calm, husky voice that had made her melt into his arms once already. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

“Considering you defected to 3G, you’ll excuse me if I don’t believe you!” she snapped. Anger replaced her fear, further agitated by the tension she always experienced when Nathan was around.

She couldn’t get the images of him and his ex out of her mind.

And she wanted him so badly, it hurt.

If there was one person she could shoot, it was Nathan. After all, he would heal, unlike her.

“You left me for dead, Nathan!” she said.

“That’s not entirely how it happened.”

“You left me for the Satanist cult to rescue and heal!”

“That wasn’t my intention,” Nathan said, hushed.

“I don’t give a shit about your intentions, Nathan. I care about your actions.”

“Agreed,” Eddy said. The assassin rose unsteadily and balanced himself against the wall.

“You better have an escape plan, because I can’t get you out of this one right now,” Nathan said quietly, not taking his eyes from hers.

“Of course you can’t,” she retorted.

Nathan reached one hand towards his vest and unzipped it. He wriggled out of the bulletproof vest, tossed it and held out both arms.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I know you want to.”

She did want to. He’d killed her. As appealing as the idea of shooting him was, she hesitated. Some small part of her panicked at the thought.

“Sixty three,” Eddy managed through teeth clenched from pain.

Fury spread through Kaylee once more.

“Sixty three?” Nathan echoed.

“It’s how many times you’ve fucked your wife since leaving me dead on the mountain,” she replied.

Nathan said nothing. He had likewise been silent the last time she needed him to say something, when she had asked him to tell her she wasn’t another case, when she needed to know she mattered to him.

Why did she want him to say something this time? She’d already seen the footage.

Tears blurred her eyes.

“Keep her safe, Eddy,” Nathan said finally.

“You’re such a coward, Nathan.” Kaylee drew a breath and squeezed the trigger as she had been taught.

The report of gunfire didn’t surprise her, and neither did Nathan dropping to the ground. Kaylee lowered the weapon, caught between panic and bitter satisfaction.

“Straight through the heart,” Eddy said. “Good work.” He pushed himself away from the wall.

“He’ll live, right?” she asked, close to hyperventilating.

Kaylee approached Nathan and stood over him. He’d removed his vest so she could hurt him the way he had hurt her. It didn’t make her any more willing to forgive him or hear him out, if they ever met again. He wouldn’t die – but he could feel pain, and he’d offered her his pain when he could have shot her instead.

Eddy was right. She’d shot him through the heart without meaning to though there was poetic justice in where she had instinctively aimed.

Blood pooled beneath Nathan’s still form, sending alarm ricocheting within her. He became pale as he bled out – and also began to radiate intense heat.

She wanted to cry, standing over his dead body. Had he felt an ounce of anything when he killed her or moved on to his next case?

“Feel that? He’s pulling energy from the Other Side. He’s too strong to be down for long,” Eddy said. He squatted in the area where the team leader had initially looked for a trap door. Eddy pressed his hand to the ground.

The cement shifted down and away, revealing a yawning black hole.

With mixed emotions flying through her, Kaylee went to Eddy.

“There wasn’t a door when we looked before,” she said, voice and hands trembling.

“It’s complicated,” Eddy replied. “Hop in.” He tapped the ladder with one hand before stretching out to remove the weapon from her grip.

Voices came from the hallway.

Kaylee released the weapon gladly and hurried down the ladder. The air beneath the cement was cooler and smelled of dirt. Seven feet down, her toe brushed the ground. She moved away from the ladder to make way for Eddy.

Her protector moved with effort. He lowered himself rung by rung until his head was beneath the level of the floor. He pressed his palm to the underside of the trap door. It slid into place, sealing them in the darkness.

Eddy sighed. “We’re safe here.”

“Where is here?” The pitch-black surroundings reminded Kaylee too much of what she had experienced whenever Shadowman appeared, before she was killed. She stretched for the wall. Her fingertips grazed the cool dirt wall nearest her.

“Cellar, for lack of a better term. It’s an emergency hiding place.”

“I can’t believe I shot him,” she said, starting to digest exactly what she’d done.

“He deserved it,” Eddy said with a small, pain-filled laugh. “Thanks for standing up for me, by the way.”

[_Should I have, though? _]She leaned against the wall, too mentally fatigued from second guessing every thought and action to dwell on this question. She heard Eddy shifting around with none of his normal grace.

“Here we go.” A large candle lit up the dark space, bright enough to blind her briefly. Eddy lowered himself to the ground with a grunt and set the candle down beside a first aid kit. “There’s food and water, enough for a few days. Hopefully by then, 3G moves on.”

“There’s no way out?” Kaylee peered around, grimacing when she spotted the camping style latrine consisting of basically a toilet seat and bucket in the corner.

“Nope,” Eddy replied. “I need a hand.”

She went to him and knelt, assessing the blood. He’d smeared blood all over the first aid kit in his unsuccessful attempt to open it. He rested his head back against the wall.

Kaylee studied his features, concerned. She didn’t ask if he’d make it; she was afraid he’d say yes and equally frightened he’d say no. She opened the first aid kit and sorted through the various items. It was far more robust than anything she had ever bought at the store. This one contained small bottles of antibiotics and morphine, syringes, enough gauze to wrap a mummy, and other essentials.

“One of those. One of those.” Eddy pointed to the bottles. “And we need to stop the bleeding.”

“I’m not good with shots.”

“Load up the syringes. I can do the rest.” He shifted away from the wall and began peeling off his shirt with one arm. After a moment, Kaylee leaned forward to help him. She tugged his sweatshirt and t-shirt free to reveal the lean body of the assassin.

“What are all those?” she asked, surprised. His upper body was crisscrossed with long scars, healed over punctures, and what appeared to be gunshot scars, all of which broke up the otherwise smooth lines and colors of his tattoos. He suffered from two fresh gunshot wounds, along with a shoulder out of socket or broken. She couldn’t tell aside from the fact it was grotesquely out of place.

“People don’t wake up one day as the best assassin around. You gotta earn your way,” he replied dryly.

“I’ll take your word for it.” She prepped the syringes and glanced towards the ceiling. “Are you sure we’re safe here?”

“For now.”

Nathan was unconscious when they dropped into the hidden area, and too much blood had splattered the room for anyone to identify the exact point where the trap door was located.

She shivered, recalling how Nathan had shot the Satanists in the head to ensure they were dead. What kind of person was capable of seeing a wounded person and then making sure he or she never got up?

She had never asked enough questions about him. Their connection had been instant. She felt as if she’d always known him when they met.

But Nathan was a dangerous stranger, which she knew from firsthand experience.

“I’m going to need help with the shoulder,” Eddy said.

Kaylee’s eyes dropped from the ceiling to him.

Shoving his shoulder back into socket almost made her faint. When she was finished, she sat back to suck in deep breaths before helping him bandage the wounds in his chest and arms and one in his calf.

They both rested against the walls opposite one another.

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” she asked, concerned. His blanched features had taken on a sickly pallor.

“I have to be. Both our lives depend on it.”

“You’re the only one dying right now.”

Eddy grimaced. “You have something aside from my health on your mind.”

“Why didn’t Nathan kill me? Why tell you to protect me? If he wanted me safe, why is he fucking his ex?” she demanded with more emotion than she intended.

“He’ll do what he has to in order to protect you.”

“You’re defending him?”

“No. I’m just saying I get it. He would put himself in harm’s way, fuck his ex, fuck every ex he’d ever met, if it meant he could be in that room with you when it counted.”

Kaylee lifted her head from the wall, startled by Eddy’s candid response. “There has to be a better way.”

“There’s not. I’ve watched this group for a while. 3G is aggressive and willing to break all the rules Nathan’s people follow. 3G doesn’t care about collateral damage and will kill their own at the drop of a hat, if they smell betrayal or someone in their way. It’s the only smart move on Nathan’s part, if he truly wants to protect you.”

“Eddy, you’re supposed to be on my side,” Kaylee grumbled. Logically, she understood the argument.

Emotionally, she couldn’t dismiss the images in her mind of Nathan happily making love to his ex or double tapping helpless humans.

“Why can’t I just let it all go?” she said in frustration. “I’ve had brief relationships in the past. Why can’t I drop it and move on? He [_murdered _]me!”

“That’s easy,” Eddy said. “You have a soul agreement.”

Kaylee blinked. “What?”

“It means the angel corps decided you and Nathan are fated to be together. Your destinies are bound. He’s your pre-determined soul mate, the man made especially for you.” The cheerful note was back in Eddy’s voice. “You can’t get over him, because he’s already part of your soul.”

“That’s not possible. I don’t believe in fate. Not like that.”

“I’m sure you thought the same about Shadowman.”

She chewed on her lower lip.

“You’ll never get over Nathan. It’s not possible,” Eddy added. “But that’s good, because he’ll never get over you, either. We can use that down the road.”

“He seems to have moved on without a problem.”

“What you feel, he does, too.”

Kaylee liked this statement least of all. She was suffering and had been every moment of the day, since Nathan stabbed her. The idea Nathan was hurting as well … She didn’t want to empathize with the asshole at all!

“I don’t believe all of that,” she said firmly.

“You don’t have to,” Eddy said. “You’ll see.”

Kaylee’s thoughts slid to Shadowman. “You said we’re bound,” she repeated. “Shadowman said that, too.”

“He’s in a position to know.”

She caught herself before explaining what Shadowman had been talking about. Did she go out on a limb and trust Eddy with the truth of why Shadowman had revealed this to her? And how did those two pieces – Shadowman and Nathan – fit together?

Did it involve shooting Nathan again? Because she wasn’t going to rule it out, even if her breath caught when she thought of watching Nathan go down.

Soul mate. If that was the case, why hadn’t Nathan told her? He had made her feel like she was utterly alone and nothing but another routine job, before murdering her.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t believe any of that, Eddy,” she said finally.

The assassin didn’t respond. Kaylee lifted her head. Eddy was unconscious. His eyes were closed, and blood seeped through the bandages.

What happened if Eddy didn’t survive? Where did she go?

The drain she had experienced earlier became more pronounced, a combination of exhaustion and heaviness. Shadowman felt even farther away from her, as if they were drifting apart.

Kaylee closed her eyes, unable to fight the sudden fatigue. She slumped.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Eight

Whenever he set eyes on Kaylee, Nathan’s insides twisted or fluttered. From her petite, toned frame and gorgeous blue eyes to the memories of her crying out his name during sex, she was everything he didn’t know he’d needed his whole life. Seeing her drove him crazy, but nothing made his blood burn as much as wanting to touch her and knowing he couldn’t.

Woozy from blood loss, Nathan exited the bunker, accompanied by two others. The bullet had gone straight through his heart and out the back, leaving holes and blood in his clothing. He had awoken in a pool of blood, healed but mentally rattled. He thought he had been prepared to see Kaylee again.

Zyra and the others were regrouping outside the bunker. Nathan surrendered the weapons he’d stolen from the Satanists in a sign of good faith.

“How ‘bout you guys?” Zyra asked, frowning fiercely. “Any sign of the target?”

“Yeah, before she shot me,” Nathan replied and stopped. He balanced himself. While his body was healed, it’d require some time for the lost blood to be replaced. “I don’t know what happened next. This guy found me.” He motioned to the 3G member to his right.

Zyra’s eyes went to the wound in his chest. “She didn’t go out either of the entrances,” she said. “According to the blueprints, there was no third way in or out.”

“We searched every inch of that place twice,” Henry said, equally frustrated. “They could have created a third route.”

“Maybe.” Zyra didn’t sound convinced.

Nathan suspected where Kaylee and Eddy had gone but kept quiet. Part of him was wounded, and not just physically. Did he really think he’d never have to explain to the woman he was – in theory – destined to spend his life with why he fucked his ex?

He hadn’t wanted to think that far ahead. He’d thought only of protecting Kaylee, of making things right, and this was the only way he could. What happened next, the consequences, the fallout, couldn’t be considered when he needed to focus on saving Kaylee today.

As before, he’d believed himself to be right until he saw the depth of Kaylee’s pain, and the tears in her eyes.

He’d devastated her. He was trying to save her, and he was destroying her from the inside out instead. He felt her suffering in the far reaches of his soul, beyond the point where he thought he could feel anything.

By the pain in Kaylee’s eyes, it was too late for them to ever be together. At one point, he hadn’t welcomed the news he had a soul mate. Feeling her warm blood slide down his hands after he stabbed her a month ago had shattered something inside him. Only when it was too late did he understand his heart and fate.

“Nathan,” Zyra said loudly. The other members of her team were moving away, some towards their vehicles and others towards the bunker.

He straightened and dismissed his thoughts. “Feeling a little rough,” he said and stretched back with a grimace.

“We’re staying here for a day or two to make sure our target isn’t hiding within the lockers.”

“Sounds good,” he replied. “What do you want me to do?”

The skin around Zyra’s eyes softened. “You’re really back, aren’t you?” she said quietly. “You’re serious.”

“Tired of reacting instead of preventing,” he replied truthfully. “Too many lives have been lost. It’s time to try a different strategy.”

She smiled and held out a firearm. “You’ve earned this. I’ll make sure you have enough firepower to take out Eddy next time.”

“He’s a tough bastard,” Nathan said.

“You’re telling me. He’s been on our radar for five years! I’m offering a reward for anyone who brings me his head.”

Nathan didn’t know the players in the DC area well enough to understand the level of Eddy’s threat, but if ruthless Zyra and her cohorts hadn’t been able to corner the Satanist, then he had to be good. It wasn’t just Zyra who wanted Eddy dead. Maggy had said the same.

For Kaylee’s sake, Nathan was relieved to hear of Eddy’s reputation. The only problem would come if he had to challenge Eddy in order to free Kaylee.

“Come on. Some naked reiki will heal you up,” Zyra said with a wink. She strode towards the bunker.

Nathan drew a deep breath before following. He had never felt as disgusted with himself as he did in that moment.

Pedro had been out to teach him the ultimate lesson. Or maybe, the head of the angel corps wanted to torture him after all the rule breaking Nathan had committed over his lifetime. Nathan wouldn’t put either past the angel, but neither did he believe an innocent person like Kaylee deserved to suffer for his mistakes and arrogance.

Because she was suffering. With all his experience and skills, Nathan didn’t know how to help her or how to stop her pain. He was not accustomed to being powerless. He had never feared the future. Uncertainty had never been part of his reality.

He experienced all of this now, along with the heavy weight of dread sinking into the pit of his stomach.

Zyra halted, and Nathan realized she’d led them to a private locker, away from the others. She faced him with a smile.

Nathan yanked his thoughts away from his plight, from Kaylee’s pain. He was useless to Kaylee if he didn’t play his part and play it well. She would never forgive him, but he would still do everything possible to ensure she made it out alive.

“Clothes off, sweetheart,” Nathan said and peeled off his shirt.

Zyra complied eagerly and pulled off her shirt and pants. He wrapped her in his arms and kissed her deeply before pressing his erection to her hips. Zyra unzipped his pants to free his dick. He lifted Zyra onto his hips, rubbing his dick against her wet pussy.

“Ready?” he whispered into her ear.

“Always,” she said hungrily.

Battle made Zyra horny. She didn’t care that Nathan was exhausted from being shot. It took three rounds of fucking to satisfy her before she dropped into slumber.

Nathan, however, couldn’t sleep at all. He waited until her breathing grew deep and steady before rising and pulling on his clothes once more. He left the small locker they’d claimed as theirs in search of food to help his sluggish body heal.

Reaching the hallway where the first grenade had gone off, he stopped. His eyes went in the direction of the locker where he’d encountered Kaylee and Eddy. With a glance down the corridor, towards the direction where the voices of other 3G members originated, he shifted his course for the room where he’d been shot.

The bodies were gone when he arrived, though the blood remained. He stood over the pool of blood that was his and shook his head, unable to stop his bitter smile. Kaylee had been brave enough to challenge him and strong enough to pull the trigger. She needed both courage and mettle to survive what she was going through. He was proud of her – and hurt she hated him enough to shoot him.

Do I blame her?

No.

He was, however, surprised. The woman who let him kill her hadn’t had a violent streak in her. She was toughening up fast.

He retraced his steps in the room then went to the wall where Eddy had fallen after being shot. Nathan followed the trickle of blood he believed to be Eddy’s to the point near the corner where it stopped. With blood from five individuals smeared all over the floor, it was hard to determine if Eddy had changed direction and left the room.

Nathan assessed the area. No bloody footprints led to the door or were present in the hallway. Which likely meant Eddy and Kaylee hadn’t left this room.

Nathan looked up at the exposed metal beams and ducts of the ceiling. The dust hadn’t been disturbed in quite some time, and no blood was visible.

“They went down,” he murmured and squatted near the point where Eddy’s blood trail went cold.

The cement was solid and smooth beneath his palm. It didn’t seem possible that there was a trap door present. The cement had been poured in a single slab; there were no seams at all in this room.

How did anyone leave this room, if not through the only door?

Nathan examined the walls and corners without finding any other explanation of what had happened. He couldn’t figure out how, but he knew this locker was the key. If there were tunnels or sub-basements, the blueprints Zyra obtained would show them.

Unless the Satanists created them after the warehouse was built and its blueprints filed with the county. After seeing the luxurious bunker they raided two nights before, Nathan didn’t put it past the Satanist crew to create an elaborate tunnel system beneath this building. This was one of many backup sites; had they put as much effort into this location as they did their headquarters?

The vacant storage area revealed none of its secrets. It was rare when he was vexed by something, even rarer when desperation crept into him.

He stood and went to the door.

“What’re you doing here?” Henry’s terse voice came from the hallway.

“Trying to figure out what happened after I blacked out,” Nathan replied casually.

“We’ve been over every inch of every locker in this hallway. You think you can find something the rest of us missed?”

Nathan faced the resentful spirit guide and smiled. “Yeah. I’m that good, Henry.” Without waiting for a response, he struck off down the hall to find his dinner.

“I know you’re up to something. I’m going to prove it!” Henry called after him.

“You think you’re the first person Zyra has fucked and left hanging?” Nathan replied, unfazed. “Welcome to the party, Henry.”

Henry muttered what Nathan assumed were probably curses. Satisfied to get a rise out of the clingy second in command, he continued through the hallways.

The locker, and Kaylee’s disappearance, tickled his instincts, left him with the feeling he was missing something important. Or perhaps, he was feeling her presence in that space. He didn’t know if a soul mate could feel another, after her lingering energy had had the time to disperse. His gut told him Kaylee hadn’t left the building, and the secret to her location had something to do with that locker.

One of the 3G members motioned him over as he entered the operations center they’d set up near the main entrance. “You definitely live up to your reputation.”

“Of being a cocky bastard?” Nathan asked with a smile.

“Killing.”

Nathan kept his smile in place. He hadn’t expected to be known as a killer, unless their information came from Zyra, who had known him in a different time. He hadn’t murdered as many people in the past three millennia as he did a two-year stretch fighting for Rome.

He killed when necessary, when angels or humans were cornered by demons. When Pedro’s secret entrance to the Other Side was compromised. When he needed to convince Zyra of his loyalty.

“You took out how many with your hands?” another guide he recognized as Ricky asked, joining the two of them. Ricky handed Nathan an MRE.

“We’re really eating this shit?” Nathan asked with a scowl.

“It’s not like we have funding from the Other Side,” Ricky replied with a grin. “These aren’t so bad.”

“No, they’re terrible,” Nathan said before tearing open the plastic bag. He needed food to heal, and he was starving after a day of obeying Zyra’s every order and whim. “The answer to your question is five.”

Ricky glanced at the other guide in appraisal. “You’re the oldest spirit guide in the corps, aren’t you?”

“Third oldest. My mentor is still alive, and Zyra is second oldest,” Nathan responded.

“I’m Vic, by the way,” the first guide told him. “You need no introduction.”

Nathan didn’t doubt everyone knew his name, if not his face. He didn’t bother to learn the names of the newbies after the first thousand years in the corps. Most newbies fell out within a few hundred years, usually because they were worn down by the often soul-crushing duty. He understood how 3G had gained traction rapidly among the disenchanted guides who felt powerless to stop evil when forced to follow Pedro’s restrictive rules.

When Zyra left Nathan thousands of years ago, he had also learned never to drop his guard and never to allow his emotions to compromise him again. He’d been successful, until Kaylee. He told himself the attraction to Kaylee was as much from divine intervention as his own emotions.

Not that it mattered. She had pierced the walls he built around his heart in a matter of seconds.

The three of them ate in silence. Ricky passed him a canteen.

Aware of Henry’s glare on him anytime they were in the same room, Nathan glanced discreetly towards Zyra’s right hand.

“He’s a lovesick fool,” he said and shook his head. “I almost pity him. It’ll end badly for him.”

“The rest of us already knew not to sleep with the person in charge,” Vic said quietly. “But Henry … he’s stupid and loyal.”

“And dangerous,” Ricky added. “If he doesn’t like someone, he’ll tell Zyra and she’ll get rid of them in a heartbeat.”

Except me. “You guys are afraid of him?” Nathan asked curiously.

“Not him. Her,” Vic answered. “This crusade is personal to her.”

Nathan hadn’t considered why Zyra was driven to shun the spirit guide corps and angels. He had assumed it was the 3G doctrine of preventing or combating evil. His interest piqued. What other reason did Zyra have for breaking away from the corps?

“She tried to revive the archdemon’s host,” Ricky whispered.

“She shot me to get to the host,” Nathan replied. “But why?”

“None of us know. No one expected it,” Ricky answered. “She failed. The Satanists grabbed the host before she could do anything else. Trust us. She surprised all of us with that move.”

Nathan finished his meal. The dread he’d experienced since submitting himself to the mercy of his ex was transforming into full on doom.

Zyra claimed she wanted Kaylee dead. If true, she wouldn’t have tried to revive the host after Nathan murdered her. Wouldn’t keeping Kaylee alive go against everything 3G stood for?

“Interesting,” Nathan said, unable to explain what Zyra was doing. He hadn’t expected this assignment to be anything but black and white. He was wading deeper into a mystery instead.

“Nathan,” Henry called from the opposite side of the large locker. “Your turn cleaning up the bodies.”

“My pleasure,” Nathan replied smoothly, suspecting the second in command was trying to punish or provoke him. “Where do I start?”

Henry scowled. “Wherever you see bodies,” he snapped.

“Sounds great.” Nathan stood and left the room. Henry didn’t know it, but he was doing Nathan a favor. Unsupervised, he would have more time to figure out how Kaylee and Eddy had disappeared.

Nathan began the gruesome duty of dragging or carrying dead Satanists out of the bunker to an existing pile of corpses located outside, near the main entrance. He paused after depositing the first body.

3G had no respect for the dead. He disagreed with this position as well. Bodies were vehicles for souls, and they deserved to be treated as if they had protected and hosted the lives they did. Respect for the deceased was one of the few rules Nathan had followed.

But that wasn’t his fight this day. When this was over, he’d have some explaining to do to Pedro.

Turning his back on the dead, Nathan returned to the bunker and began searching for more.

His gruesome duty was completed before dawn. A few 3G members were awake and patrolling the forest around the compound while the remainder of Zyra’s followers slept.

Nathan checked in on Zyra, who slumbered deeply. He changed clothes and returned to the room where he had last seen Kaylee.

“I know you’re here,” he whispered and knelt in the doorway.

He closed his eyes and drew off the energy of the Other Side, evaluating the locker with senses humans didn’t possess. The strongest of the guides, he often saw what other guides could not.

The image in his head was one of energy rather than form – shifting smoke of different colors highlighting the different energies in the space. The most activity came from the corner where Eddy’s blood trail disappeared. It wasn’t just the energy of the room and those who had been present within the last twelve hours. Something more was present. Something … different. He recognized the dark taint of Shadowman and the flicker of Kaylee’s energy hovering in the corner.

The third energy was dark, faint and elusive.

Nathan opened his eyes and went to the space again. Until that moment, he hadn’t considered the idea Eddy had the ability to tap into the kind of energy needed to mask a hiding place from everyone, including the guides searching the bunker.

If he had that kind of power, Eddy couldn’t have been an incarnated second gen angel, as Maggy had claimed. Nor was he human. His energy was unlike anything Nathan had crossed in all his time. Eddy wasn’t an angel, demon, or human. He definitely wasn’t an incarnated angel. It was possible he was an incarnated demon, one who had taken form in a similar fashion to incarnated angels. Nathan couldn’t recall the last time he’d heard of anyone running across an incarnated demon, though. Possessed human? It happened all the time. It was the easy route for a demon to become corporeal instead of energy.

Not for the first time since joining 3G, Nathan had the urge to track down Pedro for some real answers.

[_Later, _]he promised himself. Nothing could interfere with his current mission: finding Kaylee.

Footfalls came from down the hallway outside the locker. Nathan shifted away from the corner and went to the door, pressing his back to the side. If anyone witnessed him returning to this spot over and over, he’d inadvertently alert Henry or Zyra to something he didn’t want them to know.

He waited until the footsteps passed and faded before leaving the locker. He did one more sweep of the bunker for bodies before returning to the operations center.

He’d have to wait until the others were gone or sleeping to test the theory forming in his mind.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Nine

Shanti opened the car door and climbed out. She let her senses assess her surroundings. A few seconds later, she nodded in satisfaction.

[_Close enough, _]she thought. The stone’s pull was stronger. Both it and her former guide had wanted her to travel in this direction. Julie had told her to head to DC and find the conclave of spirit guides gathered there, if anything happened to her.

Shanti had a phone number for the spirit guides in DC, but her plan was not the one Julie intended. She was going to find the other gatekeepers. The three of them had a better chance of surviving if they were all together. Perhaps, one of the other key holders would understand what was going on. The events predicted at Creation had unfolded, but the knowledge of what exactly was supposed to happen, and when, had long since been lost.

“We’re here. Do I get the handcuff key now?” Todd asked from his position inside the car. “I haven’t peed in hours.”

Shanti would never accuse her companion of being pleasant, but she didn’t want him pissing himself either, even if it meant he ran off when she freed him.

“There’s a gas station on the corner,” she said and pointed.

“How … never mind. Just give me the damn key.”

Shanti tossed it to him.

Todd moved quickly, freeing himself. He slammed the car door and jogged across the street.

“Stay put, bitch!” he shouted as he left.

Shanti leaned back against the car. She needed to be on the north side of DC but hadn’t been willing to reveal her exact destination to someone whose interests ran counter to hers. She couldn’t trust him with any information, even how she knew to go where she was headed. He had brought her this far north but sooner or later, he was going to turn on her. Shanti had no doubt about his loyalty being elsewhere.

She needed a new ride.

She’d stolen all the cash from Todd’s wallet. Apparently, being a Satanist didn’t pay well, because she’d felt the security strips running down two of the bills – probably twenties – and none on the other five bills. Todd seemed like the kind who went to stripper bars with handfuls of one-dollar bills, not someone who could afford to tip tens and fives. It was safe to assume she had forty-five dollars to her name, maybe more, if any of the other bills was a five or ten instead of a one.

She could always play up her disability and take advantage of human kindness to catch a ride north, but she hated doing that. Hated being pitied. Hated playing the damsel in distress when she was the mistress of her fate.

[_That’s pride. It’s a sin, _]she reminded herself. She had to do whatever it took to reach her destination and achieve her goal, even if she didn’t like doing it.

The pre-dawn air was chilly and carried the scents of the Potomac, rubber, pollution, sewage, fresh cement, and gasoline. Todd had brought her to the southeastern side of DC where area gentrification attempts had recently run out of funding and been all-but-abandoned for the local gangs and criminals to take over. She had heard about the budget cuts on the news. Judging from the lack of traffic, he’d stopped off the main road. He was probably from a place like this, but she wasn’t. Worse, on the surface, she was a little more vulnerable than the meathead. She could handle herself, but not if she ran across an entire gang or people with guns.

A fifth gen, Shanti tried hard not to pass judgment on others. It became more difficult with each generation, as she became less angelic, more human. But she couldn’t help drawing the conclusion Todd was a total dick for stopping in a part of town where a blind woman in her early twenties definitely drew attention to herself.

She scanned the street around her for the telltale signs of energy belonging to humans. A thatch of trees was off to her right. Anything living, including trees and animals, emitted an energy signature. Her greatest challenge when it came to parks was determining what was a tree and what was a human.

At the moment, five signatures moved towards her. Since trees didn’t generally walk, she shifted her weight and prepared to face the people headed directly towards her.

“What’s a pretty girl like you doing in this part of town alone?” said the first man to reach her.

Shanti cocked her head to the side, assessing. One, possibly more, held a gun, judging by the smell of oil. The fact she could smell gunpowder meant he’d fired it recently. These weren’t stupid teens playing the part of thugs; these were hardened criminals, probably gang members, given the location.

Shanti moved away from the vehicle to give herself room to move.

“Mind if we take your ride?” one asked sarcastically.

She snapped out her guide stick and faced them. Rather, she faced just to the left of them, wanting to convince them she was harmless.

One of them laughed. “What’s a blind bitch doing with a car?”

“Obviously not driving,” she replied.

“You got company?”

She shook her head.

“How did you get here?”

Shanti didn’t answer.

“Grab her purse,” one of them ordered. “Cooperate and we might let you live.”

Shanti’s grip tightened on the satchel she carried. The stones were inside. After a split second of rapid thought, she pretended to trip and dropped the bag a few feet from her. The thug coming for her belongings went for the bag rather than her.

She smashed the guide stick into his throat. He gasped and dropped to his knees. Without waiting for him to recover, Shanti kicked him in the side of the head then smashed the metal guide stick across his nose.

Adrenaline bolted through her. She had participated in simulated attacks but never fought off anyone before Todd.

The others began to react. One grabbed her arm and punched her. Shanti fell, senses scrambled. She managed to avoid a kick, rolled until her back hit the car tire, and smashed her heel into the knee of one thug. He cursed and stumbled away. She lashed out again and missed hitting anyone, tilted her head to listen, and saw the energy of the third attacker too late to react. She covered her face with her arms, the way she’d been taught by her boxing instructor. The thug was slow. After the first blow, she caught his foot, twisted, and smashed her heel into his shin.

“Shoot the blind bitch!” one of them shouted.

Bounding to her feet, she heard the cocking of the gun, dropped and whirled, catching the potential shooter behind the ankle and sweeping his feet from beneath him.

Another of them pressed the cold muzzle of a weapon into the back of her skull.

Shanti went perfectly still. Without guns, she stood a chance. With them … no one was fast enough to outrun a bullet.

The man behind her kicked her in the knees. She dropped and knelt. The muzzle remained pressed to the back of her skull.

“That’s some Daredevil shit,” one of the thugs muttered, his voice edged in pain.

“Grab her purse and the car,” their leader ordered. “I’ll finish this.”

Shanti cursed herself for not being more on her game, for recovering too slowly from the blow that muddled her senses. She read the energy of those around her with ease, but energy couldn’t always tell her what they were doing. Her senses filled in the blanks, which made them often more important than knowing where someone was located.

She waited for the bullet that would end her life. Her last thoughts were of the stones and how – ironically – they were probably safer with a bunch of thugs who had no idea what they were than they’d ever be with her, since she was being actively hunted.

Something hard smashed into the head of the man behind her. He and the firearm he held fell away.

“What the –” one of the others started. He scrambled forward. The sound of a fist hitting flesh, of two more blows, of kicks and an elbow to someone’s nose.

The distinct sounds played out on the opposite side of the car, whose presence blocked some of the energy. She couldn’t make out who was attacking her attackers, or who was winning.

Silence fell, except for the loud breathing of whoever was left standing.

Shanti rose. Warmth dripped from her nose to her lips. She touched her bloodied nose and then wiped it on her sleeve. Her midsection was burning from a punch, and one of her knees stung. It had absorbed her full weight when she was forced into an execution position. She’d be sore in a couple of hours and in need of an Epsom bath in the morning.

“You stole my fucking wallet,” Todd said and then spit what she guessed was blood. “You’re damn lucky I came back when I did.”

“I had it under control.”

She hadn’t. It was the closest she’d ever been to dying. She shook from exertion and fear. If Todd had been two seconds later, the stones would have fallen into the wrong hands. She would have left her fellow gatekeepers exposed and failed in her sacred duty to protect the gate to Hell.

Unsettled by her close call, Shanti tapped the area around her with her guide stick. She ignored the body of the man who wanted to shoot her and bent when she heard the thump of metal on her leather purse.

“Under control?” Todd retorted. “You’re only alive because I came back for my wallet! I couldn’t buy my energy drinks without it.”

“It’s in the car, asshole.” Hopefully, he didn’t notice the fear in her trembling voice. She’d been trained in martial arts and boxing but never had to put her knowledge and skills to use in real life. It was far more frightening than she had expected.

Shanti tapped the road. She found the curb and then the sidewalk. She began walking in the direction the stone pulled her.

“Wait,” Todd called reluctantly.

She ignored him.

“Wait!” he shouted.

She braced herself, preparing to fight him off, if he came at her. She was at a disadvantage facing five men, but she’d already proven to Todd what happened if he tried to take her one-on-one.

“You can’t be out here at night.”

“Oh, suddenly you care,” Shanti snapped. “This is your fault for driving us to the ghetto!”

“How the fuck do you know where you are? Are you even blind?”

She began walking again.

He sighed. “Just … get in the car.”

“Why?”

“I’m an asshole, but I’m not going to leave a blind girl in the ghetto.”

“Did you double check your Satanist handbook?” she returned. “I wouldn’t want you [_not _]to get into Hell.”

“You caught me off guard at the beach. It won’t happen again.”

Shanti snorted and shook her head before walking away once more.

Todd’s footsteps retreated. The car engine purred to life a moment later. The vehicle sidled up to the curb beside her and stopped. The passenger side door opened.

“You won’t make it two blocks,” Todd said, calmer.

Shanti hesitated. She didn’t look forward to another confrontation, not with her important mission and shaken nerves stemming from her first real fight.

“I wasn’t thinking when I stopped here,” he admitted.

“So you didn’t want me dead?” she challenged.

“You’re annoying as fuck, but I’d rather kill you myself. Fortunate for you, my boss wants you alive.”

He was honest. She had to give him that much.

“You’ll take me where I want to go?” she asked cautiously.

“Yeah.”

“Then what?”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” he snapped.

Once she reached her destination, she could handcuff him again and leave him wherever she had to. She had already taken him down once. Shanti compressed her guide stick and got back in the car. Closing the door, she assessed the interior for new scents.

“You stole one of their guns,” she said. “You plan to use it on me?”

“If I did, I would have already.”

As the car left the curb, she began to think Todd wasn’t the meathead she originally considered him to be. He hadn’t resorted to violence or threats with her. Judging by his size and how he moved, he was a thug, or enforcer, the kind of person sent on a mission when his bosses didn’t want survivors. He wasn’t an independent thinker, but he wasn’t a complete idiot, if he understood it was better to work with her than try to toss her into the trunk.

“You weren’t just surveilling me, were you?” she asked. “You’re a hitman.”

“When needed. I was sent to protect you from your own people.”

[_When we stop again, I’m outta here, _]she decided. The Satanist movement likely wasn’t going to let her go easily. She’d have to escape before Todd could contact his friends for support.

“That was the plan,” he added, frustration in his tone. “Your people are more convincing than I expected.”

“You’re working for them?” she asked, surprised.

“Oh, so you didn’t use your Sherlock senses to figure that part out?” he retorted.

“I read energy not your mind.” She sighed. “Do you know who I am?”

“Not really. Just some bitch I was told to pick up who has my people and yours worried.”

To her surprise, this statement read as true. “When you say my people, what do you mean?” she asked.

He was silent for a long moment, his energy agitated. “3G,” he replied. “Spirit guides who broke from their kind. They somehow knew I’d been assigned to find you and hired me before I left DC.”

“And you just agreed out of the kindness of your heart?”

“I agreed because they wired me fifty thousand dollars and promised me another fifty when I deliver you, dead or alive,” he snapped.

“You chose alive,” she said, amused. “Regretting that decision?”

“Every fucking second,” he admitted. “My people want you alive, and a hundred grand won’t pay off what I owe to shady people. I might be able to sell you off to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, I need you alive for that.”

“Good to know where I stand,” she stated. “As long as we go where I want first, I don’t care who you sell me to.”

“Where am I going?” he asked tersely.

“North.”

“North where? Interstate ninety five north or route fifty north?”

She hesitated. “Tell me when we reach one, and I’ll let you know.”

Discreetly, she reached into her purse and held the rock guiding her north. Of the four stones representing people, the dual stone, the one that left her skin crawling, was the one talking to her. It made more sense to find the other gatekeepers first. One of them could know what the dual stone meant and about the dark threat it radiated.

The dual stone, however, was insistent. For reasons she didn’t yet understand, she had to go where it bid her first.

Unable to identify which route they took, Shanti began to suspect she never should’ve accepted Todd’s offer to drive her north. She was confident she could subdue him and escape, unless he delivered her to his people or hers. She wasn’t going to take down a dozen Todds or a dozen guides.

She gripped her purse tight, senses alert for any change in Todd’s energy that might warn her in time for her to act.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Ten

Kaylee awoke feeling worse than when she lay down. She had failed to sleep off the sense of heaviness and fatigue. How long would the side effects of being dead stick with her?

Their hiding place remained pitch black, and Eddy’s breathing was ragged. She groped around in the darkness until she found the candle and lighter and brought some light into their bleak circumstances. She crawled to the food and plucked out an MRE and a bottle of water. She set them beside Eddy before fetching her own.

Eddy stirred and lifted his head from the wall. He’d fallen asleep sitting up.

“You okay?” she asked, studying his pale features.

“Been better.” He smiled. “You?”

“Good. Anything I can do?”

“Nah.” He glanced down at his body. One of the bandages had bled through. With effort, Eddy went through the motions of changing it. “Have they left yet?”

“I hear sounds every once in a while,” she replied with a glance at the ceiling. “We’re safe, right?”

“Our only concern is running out of food and water,” he replied. “No one else can find this place.”

“Because you used magic to open the door.”

“I guess it looks that way,” he said. “I manipulated energy to hide the entrance. No one can find it.”

“Even Nathan?”

Eddy looked up at her. His hesitation was enough to tell her he didn’t really know. “I assume if he hasn’t found his way down here, he hasn’t or won’t.”

“He’s special, isn’t he?” she asked, puzzled. “He’s not a normal guide.”

“No, he’s not,” Eddy agreed. “He’s the most powerful guide there’s ever been.”

Kaylee didn’t fully understand what that meant, except that even the Satanist assassin across from her was unusually wary of Nathan.

“How long …” She drifted off, eyes returning to Eddy.

He had sagged. His chin rested against his chest.

How much blood had he lost? Too much for them to escape when 3G left? Definitely too much for him to protect her. She crossed their ten by ten cellar to his side and checked his bandages delicately, not wanting to disturb him when he needed the rest. The shoulder she’d helped pop into place was swollen and bruised. Blood had already seeped through the bandage he replaced on the worst of his wounds. He was pale, his breathing shallow, his skin clammy.

Worried, she returned to her side of the cellar. Her medical knowledge didn’t extend past basic first aid. She didn’t know how to help him or even if she could without real medical supplies. Kaylee pushed her food aside, no longer hungry when she considered what happened if she were truly on her own to face 3G and everyone else who wanted her dead.

Whether or not she should have, she liked him. Eddy made her feel a little less alone facing the mess she was involved in, and he’d been a buffer between her and the worst of it for several weeks.

She was also left with the frustration of having no control over where the river that was her life swept her. She wanted to take charge – but didn’t know where to begin.

Kaylee pulled her knees to her chest and hugged them, praying for Eddy to recover soon and wishing she could do more to help him along.

Unable to tell what time it was in the dark cellar, she fell into a restless doze and snapped awake a short time later, alerted by the sudden sense she wasn’t alone.

Nathan sat in front of Eddy, gently checking his bandages. “I’m not here to hurt you, Kaylee,” he said without turning to see her. “3G doesn’t know about this place.”

Kaylee froze, hating how she felt both relieved he had survived being shot and furious he’d found them.

Shadowman stirred deep within her.

“Eddy’s in bad shape,” Nathan said quietly.

Kaylee moved toward him, concerned gaze on Eddy. She ignored Nathan’s direct look, uncertain she could handle her inner turmoil when he was this close. Nathan’s familiar scent – spice, man, and sweat – left her insides doing somersaults. He smelled like home. He tasted like home. He held her like she was home.

He betrayed me like I was nothing.

Eddy didn’t awaken by their voices or their proximity.

“Can you help him?” she asked Nathan. “The way you healed my arm in the elevator.”

“Do you want him healed?”

Kaylee looked at the man Eddy claimed was her soul mate. “Of course I do.”

A flicker of something she couldn’t identify went through Nathan’s gaze. But she felt it, along with the familiar taut tension determined to compel them towards one another, whether or not they wanted to be together.

“Seriously?” she asked. “You’re screwing your ex, and you’re jealous?”

“You’re not?” he countered. “I can play this game better than you, babe. You think I don’t know what you feel whenever we meet? Half-fury, half-hunger and a whole lot of confusion?”

She stared at him, fighting to suppress the emotions he had already identified.

“Not to mention how much you’re hurting.” This was softer, spoken with his normal candidness.

“Fuck you, Nathan,” she whispered. “The difference between you and Eddy is Eddy has never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. And he definitely didn’t murder me or make me feel like just another case to be solved and thrown into a filing cabinet.”

“You’re right. I’m a dick.”

She waited for Nathan to say more, to retort with his normal arrogance or stinging wit.

Nathan shifted closer to Eddy. He placed one hand on the assassin’s chest and the other on the assassin’s arm.

Kaylee watched him. Whenever they met, she always wanted more from him than he was willing to give her. The knowledge he wasn’t ever going to meet her halfway was the worst feeling.

Nathan began to radiate heat, the way he had after she shot him. She withstood it as long as she could before moving away from the furnace.

Shadowman’s cold trickled through her. The archdemon was paying attention. Kaylee’s thoughts went to his claim that Nathan had something to do with them becoming stronger. She wasn’t in the right mindset to ask.

Nathan finished and dropped his hands. Rolling his shoulders back, he released a breath. Candlelight danced across his features, the aquiline nose representative of his Roman heritage, high cheekbones and chiseled jaw. Even knowing all he’d done, her heart raced when he was close, and she leaned closer to smell him again.

How could this soul mate business be real? Shouldn’t Nathan feel something for her?

“Thank you,” she managed to say in an attempt to focus her whirling thoughts.

“I did it for you, not him.”

Kaylee’s cheeks warmed. He gave her enough to throw her into profound confusion but withheld so much more.

“We do have one thing in common,” Nathan continued. “Eddy and I will both do whatever it takes to keep you safe. None of us gets to decide what form that takes.”

Nathan rose and went to the ladder.

Kaylee watched him. Desperation crept through her. She wanted to say something but couldn’t imagine there was anything safe enough, or worthy of being said.

“All you had to do was tell me I wasn’t just another case,” she whispered at last, raw emotion in her voice. “Just a few words, Nathan.”

He paused at the ladder. Her emotions were too volatile for her to determine what his were.

“If I say it, would you believe me after all I’ve put you through?” he challenged softly. His low voice, velvety and quiet, was a teasing caress to her desperate mind.

She swallowed hard. He knew her answer before she did.

“I know what you want me to say, and I know what you need to hear,” Nathan said. “I can’t give you either of those right now.”

Her heart felt as if it plummeted to her feet.

“I’ll come back when I figure out a safe time for you to leave.” Nathan climbed the ladder, opened the trap door, and left.

He’d done what she asked but refused what she longed to hear. Eddy had claimed Nathan felt what she did, that it was the nature of their bond. Kaylee couldn’t reconcile her despair and hope.

Shadowman’s shift within her was stronger than before.

Aware of her trembling hands, Kaylee sat back against the dirt wall and hugged her knees once more. Her thoughts made less sense than before.

Nathan’s lingering heat dissipated, and Shadowman became distant once more. Being around Nathan definitely made the archdemon feel more present. Kaylee wasn’t certain that was a good thing.

When she’d calmed, she crawled on her knees to Eddy. He radiated with heat to a lesser extent than Nathan, as if he had absorbed the guide’s energy. She checked Eddy’s wounds carefully. Knowing Nathan’s healing power did nothing to dispel her wonder at what he had done. The smaller wounds were healed, while Eddy’s worst injury had grown smaller.

Kaylee cut through the gauze. Eddy remained unconscious, and she sat back, hoping he had the strength to move, once Nathan returned.

She refused to allow her thoughts to slide to the spirit guide who had disrupted her life. It was easier to hate him, to write him off, if she knew he hadn’t been affected by their short time together.

“What the hell?” Eddy mumbled.

Kaylee wiped the tears she hadn’t felt gather in her eyes.

Eddy was looking down at his healed wounds in confusion.

“Nathan found us,” she said in a hushed tone. “He healed you.”

“Nathan healed me?” Eddy asked skeptically.

“I told him to.”

He smiled with a grunt. “Good girl.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“Healing me? Or asking him for anything?” Eddy said.

“I don’t even know.” Kaylee handed him an MRE. “He said he’d return when he’s sure we can leave safely.”

“I better be ready.” Eddy straightened and accepted the food.

Kaylee didn’t reveal her doubt aloud. The assassin looked like shit and didn’t seem to be in much better shape. With any luck, Nathan wouldn’t find a window for them to escape for a couple days, when Eddy was stronger.

“He made you cry,” Eddy said.

“He was nice,” she replied. “Which was worse. He’s never been nice.”

“You’ll change one another. It’s the nature of having a soul mate.”

“I can’t handle that garbage right now.” She leaned back against the wall. “What’s the plan when we leave?”

“We rejoin what’s left of my people,” he answered. “There are emergency locations throughout the DC Metro area. If Bullet is alive, he’ll get word to me somehow.”

She didn’t want to return to the cult protecting her. She couldn’t exactly go home or allow herself to trust Nathan again. “What happens when this is over?” she asked.

“How do you mean?”

“What happens to me?”

“It depends on what we have to do to free Shadowman,” Eddy replied. “We think, but don’t know for sure, that you have to stay alive no matter what, or he disappears completely, too. We want him to lead us to the other archdemons. We help them, and we become part of the new world order when they clean up the planet.”

“I stick around for all that?”

“I believe so. There is a second theory Bullet believes to be true. Once the first gateway opens, Shadowman might be strong enough to take his own form. If so, he may not need you anymore.”

She shivered. In that moment, Kaylee acknowledged a truth she’d been too afraid to admit. Eddy wasn’t protecting her. He was protecting Shadowman. She meant nothing to him beyond her function of anchoring Shadowman.

“Then you’ll kill me,” Kaylee murmured.

“I’d make it quick,” Eddy said in a conciliatory tone. “You’re a good person. You shouldn’t suffer. Promise. It’ll be much better than the first time you were killed.”

Kaylee smiled, darkly entertained by Eddy’s sincerity. She’d been unsure and struggling since this all began, afraid to ask the questions she already knew the answers to. No matter what happened, no matter who claimed to be protecting her, she was dead once someone got what their cause wanted.

Her hand went to the stones in her pocket. Amira had entrusted them to her the last time they met, before Nathan executed his plan. Kaylee vaguely understood what they signified. The three blue stones could locate the key holders protecting the gateways to Hell. Her stone located her and Shadowman, assuming he wasn’t with her. At first, she had believed the stones could guide her to the gatekeepers who might help her.

Anymore, she began to think the stones had a different function. They could help her avoid the key holders, who would be needed to help Shadowman and Eddy’s cult complete their mission.

“What of the women who hold the keys to the gateways?” she asked. “Why am I involved with them?”

“I imagine it’s your link to Shadowman as one of the four archdemons.”

“But why me? Couldn’t he have attached himself to anyone?”

Eddy was quiet.

Kaylee lifted her head to look at him. “Thus far, nothing has seemed random about this,” she mused. The stone belonging to her and Shadowman had been one of the many stones passed down from generation to generation of guardians.

If it was her fate to be attached to Shadowman. If their connection had been determined at the time of Creation or shortly thereafter, then there had to be a reason. A reason why Nathan – the most powerful guide in existence – was her soul mate. A reason why the first gatekeeper had known her on sight.

She wasn’t random. She hadn’t drawn the short straw or won Hell’s lottery. She had to be a player in this game, not a helpless, wimpy host for something much greater than she was. She was special, not cursed.

Shadowman shifted within her once more. Her eyes went to one of the dark corners, where he tried to take form.

“Am I right?” she demanded.

Eddy followed her gaze.

Sensing the archdemon’s discomfort, Kaylee laughed, surprising herself as well as Eddy. It was what Shadowman [_wasn’t _]telling her that left her feeling as if she was on the right course.

“I can’t imagine an archdemon tells jokes,” Eddy said.

[_Can I stop it? _]She willed the question to Shadowman.

Shadowman didn’t answer, but the same discomfort reemerged.

“How?” she asked out loud.

Equals.

Kaylee’s brow furrowed. The image of lightning and rose petals flashed through her thoughts. The dream featuring both had led her to the search engine result for a Barachiel, an archangel who she’d had no time to research before Eddy caught her.

“What’s he saying?” Wariness crept into Eddy’s voice. The change in his tone was enough to warn Kaylee the assassin was on guard once more.

“He says the key to becoming stronger is Nathan,” she said, aware Eddy could read her if she lied. “But I don’t understand. He’s too weak to explain.”

Eddy studied her briefly before relaxing again. “It makes sense if Nathan is your soul mate. You are each half of a whole. Shadowman may need that whole in order for him to regain his strength. Maybe he can draw off both of you.”

“That’s not happening,” she muttered.

“Your life went to shit about the time Nathan appeared, right?”

She nodded.

“Then chances are, Shadowman needs you both.”

Kaylee considered then frowned. “Shadowman was strong enough for me to see him outside my body before I met Nathan.”

“I imagine Nathan was near and you didn’t know it. Shadowman would’ve felt the connection. That might’ve been enough for him to draw off it and grow stronger.”

“Maybe.” Kaylee didn’t want to know how long Nathan was stalking her before he officially entered her life. She wasn’t surprised by the idea, either, assuming Eddy was correct. “There are no coincidences I’m learning.”

Eddy shifted, testing himself. He gritted his teeth and relaxed again. “Nope,” he said and released his breath. He paused on his knees. “I’ll be good to go in a few hours!”

Kaylee glanced towards the corner where Shadowman had begun to melt. He remained too weak to stay outside her for long, though this was the longest since Nathan murdered her. If what Eddy believed was true, then Nathan’s brief appearance in the cellar had strengthened Shadowman.

Equals, Shadowman had claimed.

[_I’m special, _]she thought, comforted by the idea, even if she was terrified about what that meant. She’d been a ping-pong ball throughout all of this, batted between opponents who didn’t bother explaining the rules to her. Of everyone who could have helped her understand her role, Shadowman was the only one who gave her hope she was something more.

“What’s equal to an archdemon?” she asked pensively. “Aside from other archdemons?”

“Only an archangel.”

From what little she recalled from Sunday school, there were only a handful of archangels, and they were all men in the versions she’d heard.

She definitely didn’t feel like an archangel. Angels didn’t have fucked up lives like hers. Archangels were tough, from what she remembered from Sunday school. They were always smiting someone or leading armies or similar. Archangels had purpose and fought evil.

Equals. She dwelled on the word, determined to discover the secret about herself that Shadowman already knew.

Barachiel was an archangel. Kaylee’s cheeks were warm. It was not just presumptuous but embarrassing to believe she was [_that _]important! No mighty, enemy-smiting archangel would live such an uninspired life.

But what if it was simpler? Shadowman could open a portal, and she had the power to close it or possibly prevent it from opening in the first place.

I want to believe this shit. I want to make a difference on this earth.

She’d been through enough to know the world as she knew it was very different from the reality of what it was. Kaylee plunged into doubt again.

Nathan would know if she had a purpose greater than hosting Shadowman.

The moment he crossed her thoughts, she shivered. Every time …

She sighed.

“Thinking of him again?” Eddy teased. “You always get this look on your face like you want to murder puppies.” He settled back against the wall.

“That’s an awful image!” Kaylee exclaimed. “Yes, I was thinking of him. Why do I have a soul mate, if things are going to turn bad at any time?”

“Not everything makes sense. Like why you didn’t leave me for dead twice now. You know I’ll kill you someday.”

She studied him. “Someday,” she repeated. “But not today. I don’t exactly have any allies right now. You are the least of all the evils chasing me.”

“That’s the spirit! I’m the one keeping you alive.”

The man had issues. But so did everyone else in her life. She never thought she’d be the best-adjusted person she’d ever known.

[_Am I an archangel? Or was I at some point? _]She asked Shadowman with some trepidation.

[_Equals, _]he replied again, this time with a sense he was unhappy answering the question.

So … yes?

He didn’t respond.

But I’m special.

Shadowman was displeased.

Kaylee didn’t have magic energy like Nathan or Eddy. The idea she was special gave her the first ray of hope she’d had in years. She was meant for something important, and it had nothing to do with following in her father’s footsteps and winning major cases, or marrying the wealthy guy her mother chose for her.

She had a purpose, one that could change the world, if she figured out what to do and how.

“What’s the smile for?” Eddy asked.

“Things are starting to make more sense,” she replied honestly. “I don’t feel like I’m in the middle of a popcorn machine trying to control which way I pop.”

Eddy was quiet. When she looked at him, he had rested his head against the wall behind him and closed his eyes.

Kaylee’s heavy fatigue returned, oppressing her ability to think clearly. She stretched out on the floor and extinguished the candle. She’d need her energy when Nathan returned for them.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Eleven

Nathan returned much sooner than Kaylee expected, although it was impossible to tell time in the cellar. Light spilled through the open trap door, and the lean form of Nathan slid down the ladder.

“We have to hurry,” he said urgently, quietly. “We don’t have much time.”

Kaylee rose.

Eddy shifted, paused, and then stood as well. He wobbled and balanced himself against the wall.

“Eddy, I take it,” Nathan said and extended a hand.

The Satanist glanced towards her before smiling. “Nathan,” he said. “Great to meet you finally.”

“If anything happens to her, I will tear you into bite-sized pieces and deliver your soul to Hell myself.”

“Groovy. Glad we’re on the same page. ”

Surprised by the cordial threat, Kaylee’s eyebrows shot up.

Nathan turned away, unconcerned about having his back to the armed and lethal assassin, and scaled the ladder.

Eddy motioned for her to go next. Kaylee hurried to grab a bottle of water, just in case their journey took a while.

She climbed the ladder. Nathan reached down to help her up the last few rungs when she was within distance. He lifted her with ease that reminded her of how strong his naked form had been pressed to hers. Nathan wrapped one arm around her and stepped back until both her feet were on the cement.

Trapped in the dark eyes of Nathan, with her body held against his, Kaylee couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe. Her instincts whispered a sigh, as if her soul knew she belonged there, in his arms. His body was warm and hard. His penetrating gaze seared straight into her soul. He, too, appeared to be under the strange spell. Did he feel the urge to melt, to stop resisting the otherworldly compulsion trying to force them together, to strip off his clothing, so there was nothing between them? She wanted to cry in frustration at the storm of emotions inside her and the sense this could be the only moment she would connect with Nathan before one, or both, of them became victims of the brewing war.

Eddy cleared his throat. “Escape first, moon over one another second.”

Kaylee flushed, becoming aware of herself once more.

Nathan blinked out of the spell as well and released her. He pulled a sidearm from the holster at the small of his back.

“I know you know how to use this,” he said and handed it to her. “If anyone gets in your way, pretend it’s me and unload every last bullet in that clip.”

“Nathan –” she started.

“Let’s go,” he said curtly. He strode towards the door without another word, leaving her to right her senses and swallow the apology she had been about to give. He didn’t deserve an apology after all he’d done, but she’d witnessed the pain in his eyes when he spoke the words. She didn’t want him to hurt, even if he deserved to.

Eddy closed the trap door before limping towards the door. She walked with him, in case he fell, and tucked the weapon into the holster strapped to her thigh.

Nathan led them through the warehouse. Kaylee’s eyes rarely left his black-clad form. If 3G ambushed them, she wouldn’t notice, not with her attention riveted to the man Eddy claimed was her soul mate.

Nathan was putting his life in danger by helping her. She didn’t want to give him credit for wanting to make things right, but it was hard to deny the fact she and Eddy were screwed in the cellar. They needed the help, and Nathan was in the right place and time, likely on purpose.

[_Sixty three. _]She couldn’t flush the images from her mind. Maybe all he had to do was sweet talk his ex and fuck her a few more times to be forgiven.

Eddy’s pace was deliberate and steady, as if he were starting to feel his strength return.

They exited the underground compound, and Kaylee’s shoulders dropped. They’d made it through the worst part – escaping beneath 3G’s nose. Nathan led them into the night and to the edge of the forest beyond the parking area around the warehouse. He paused when they reached the trees and faced them.

“The cameras in this direction have suffered a temporary short,” Nathan said with a half smile. “They won’t be blind for long. I’d recommend moving as quickly as possible. There’s a road half a mile south. I can’t help you more without landing in the kind of hot water even a guide can’t walk away from.”

“No worries,” Eddy replied. “I can take it from there.” He moved past Nathan.

Kaylee hesitated and started to follow, debating whether or not she thanked her killer or asked if he were placing his life in danger on her behalf. Nathan rested a hand on her arm, stopping her. When she looked up at him, any words she could summon fled.

“Be careful,” he said roughly.

Their proximity left her fevered, conflicted and utterly entranced. The sensation of being compelled toward him grew stronger with each interaction.

If Nathan had anything to say, he was silent. He released her arm.

This is torture.

Unable to bear the tension or anyone’s suffering, Kaylee lifted onto her tiptoes and kissed him lightly on the lips.

Nathan’s response was fast enough for her to believe he’d been uncharacteristically waiting for her to make the first move. His arm slid around her to pull her body against his. He cupped her cheek in one hand, kissing her deeply. His familiar flavor and scent intoxicated her, removed her from their danger and surroundings. Heat raced through Kaylee, and desire roared. She melted against him, the primal part of her begging her never to leave his touch again.

Nathan lifted his head, breaking off the kiss. He rested his forehead against hers, the thumb of one hand stroking her cheek lightly.

“You need to go, baby,” he whispered in a husky voice.

“I’m sorry I shot you. You deserved it, though,” she said.

“We can call it even.” He squeezed her against him before releasing her. “Call Maggy if you need help.” One of his hands slid a piece of paper into her pocket.

His heat and touch fell away. Kaylee felt the sudden loss to her soul.

“We’ll see each other again,” Nathan told her confidently.

“Because we’re soul mates.”

“Someone told you.” He glanced past her towards Eddy. “Yeah, we are. It means we won’t be apart long.”

Kaylee stepped away, aware of Eddy watching. “I like that idea,” she murmured. “I think. As long as you’re not an asshole again.”

Nathan smiled. “Go on, baby. It’ll all make sense later. But first, you need to escape.”

Kaylee nodded and turned, ruffled by the sense she was leaving him behind. She approached Eddy and followed him into the forest. When she looked back, Nathan was already gone.

“Are you okay, Eddy?” she asked, focusing on the path ahead of Eddy, in case he tripped or fell.

“Great. This was the least worst beating I’ve ever gotten.”

She would never understand the cheerful assassin whose body showed the signs of severe torture or battle. Was that why he was crazy? Had he been through too much and snapped?

They reached the two-lane road a short time later. Eddy checked both directions before setting out to the southeast.

“We need a car, don’t we?” Kaylee asked. “3G won’t be far behind when they figure out we’re gone.”

“We should have some time. No one figured out we were there, aside from Nathan,” Eddy replied. “Not much surprises me, but there was no way he should’ve been able to discover us.”

“You said he was the most powerful guide.”

“Even so. It’s impressive.” Eddy shook his head. “He handles weapons well. He seems like a great catch.”

“But you’ll still kill him if you meet him again,” she said.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t admire him.”

“Do you think you could kill him?”

“It’d definitely be an interesting fight,” Eddy replied. “If 3G finds out what he did, I won’t have to worry about it.”

Kaylee fell quiet, not liking the reminder Nathan was in danger.

They walked for an hour, until Eddy’s pace lagged. Taking pity on him, Kaylee stopped to rest and sip from the bottle of water. Eddy glanced at her before he halted as well. She passed him the bottle and studied him in the moonless night.

He wasn’t close to being okay.

“You need to rest,” she said.

“I’m doing great. Much better than yesterday,” he replied and handed back the water. “But we could definitely use a ride or phone.”

“This isn’t exactly a main road,” she said. “I haven’t seen any houses or turnoffs, either. And no cars.”

“We’ll find something,” Eddy said. “Ready?”

They began walking once more in a direction that appeared as desolate as that from which they came.

Another hour passed, and the cool fall night turned cold, announcing dawn was coming. Warm from walking, Kaylee nonetheless felt the chill as her breath began to freeze. She crossed her arms and shivered. Eddy appeared immune to everything, including the cold.

As dawn began to lighten the eastern sky, a car appeared down the road.

Eddy grasped her arm and pulled her into the trees. He nudged her behind him, on full alert, his other hand lifting the firearm from its holster. His stance, intensity, and the strength he possessed, despite the damage done to his body, alarmed her. He wasn’t someone anyone with a drop of sense would mess with. If it came down to it, and he did decide to kill her, she’d be too afraid to run.

“Doesn’t look like 3G,” he said, watching the car as it neared.

She held her breath, hoping he didn’t decide to massacre the occupants for the sake of stealing either a car or a cell. She wouldn’t put it past him.

“What a shitty car,” he said. “It’s worse than mine. Definitely not 3G.” He didn’t relax despite the words.

The car closed in on their position, and Kaylee held her breath, praying he let the car pass in peace.

“Good enough,” Eddy decided and stepped out from the tree line. “Stay here.”

[_Shit. _]Kaylee obeyed, unable to look away as Eddy leapt across the gutter and strode towards the road.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Twelve

The dual stone was pulsing hot then cold in quick succession, its strength growing to the point Shanti could barely hold it. “Where are we?” she asked, shifting restlessly.

“Nowhere. Literally,” Todd replied.

Why would the stone want her to stop in the middle of nowhere? Shanti squeezed it, willing it to reveal something tangible but was forced to drop it after a few seconds. The heat was scalding, the cold freezing.

Suddenly, both hot and cold flashed through her with greater force, all but knocking the air from her lungs.

Todd slammed on the brakes.

“How’d you know we’re there?” she exclaimed and opened her car door.

Todd grabbed her arm. “Are you crazy? He’s got two handguns!”

Shanti shook him off. Too interested in the stone, she’d missed the energy of the man standing in front of their car. His energy was controlled, even, unnaturally void of any tells about his mood or intentions. Even trees gave off a more animated signature than this man.

[_Who can do that? _]She thought uneasily. Was this the source of the stone?

She snapped out her walking stick and stepped away from the car. She smelled the weapons.

“No one needs to get hurt,” said the man. “I need your keys and phone.”

Shanti ignored him and walked forward without hesitation, tapping the road to determine how far it extended before reaching grass or gutter.

“Fine,” Todd grumbled. “Bitch, stay still.”

She sensed their would-be robber shift into her path. He held out an arm, blocking her progress. The moment he touched her, a flare of warmth drifted through her.

She tilted her head, gauging the situation. The robber was not the source of the stone’s burst of energy. He wasn’t alone, then, if she felt the presence of the person to whom the stone was connected. Were there more than two of them? The forest confused her senses, gave her too many energy sources for her to determine which was human and which was not.

She smelled blood – a lot of it. The robber was hurt, which – along with surprise – would give her the advantage.

“Stay here, sunshine,” the robber said in an upbeat tone. “We don’t want you falling into a gutter, now do we?”

If there was anything Shanti loved more than proving someone wrong about her perceived weakness, it was ice cream. But that was it.

She snapped into action and drove her metal cane into the man’s stomach, followed by a punch and kick.

The robber spun away and deflected the kick. Undeterred, Shanti switched tactics to catch him off guard. She landed one more strike before her attacker’s reflexes knocked every other blow away. He moved with control, disrupting her balance rather than hitting her, and choosing to deflect instead of counterstrike. His reflexes were inhuman, his reaction instinctive.

Less than two minutes later, the highway robber yanked her off balance and into his frame, whirling her into a hold. His arm locked around her neck at an uncomfortable angle, partially cutting off her ability to breathe. If she resisted, he could snap her neck with minimal effort. The lean frame at her back was well balanced and stable – but his breathing was irregular, and the other arm locked around her shoulder trembled from effort. The scent of blood made her nose crinkle.

As much as her dangerous position concerned her, Shanti’s focus was on the strange sense she’d met this man before while knowing she never had. Her body recognized him, and her soul whispered a secret she couldn’t quite make out. Whatever it was, it was directed towards the man holding her and not the source of the stone hiding in the forest.

“Just take the car and phone,” Todd said in irritation. “She tries that shit on everyone.”

The man at her back tensed. She’d challenged him and lost. He wasn’t the kind to walk away. Except, in that moment, she felt him hesitate. Was he experiencing the odd sensations she was?

“Eddy!” the cry came from the direction of the forest. “Please don’t.”

Shanti’s senses shifted instantly. The woman rustling the grass as she crossed the ditch was the source of the dual stone’s energy.

“Please, Eddy,” the woman called. “Let’s take their stuff and go.”

Shanti’s attacker shifted, as if he were considering his options. At long last, he released her and stepped away.

Shanti gasped in cold, pre-dawn air, rattled by her second brush with death in twelve hours. She heard Todd toss the thief the keys. The woman moved towards the passenger’s side.

“Wait,” Shanti said and started forward. She had come all this way to find the source of the stone. She wasn’t about to walk away now.

“Don’t mess with this guy, Shanti,” Todd said for her ears only.

Shanti ignored him. The woman’s presence was like a burr beneath her skin, but the thief’s affect on her, even at a distance, left her rattled. She refocused with effort, needing to stop the woman before she lost her.

“Stones!” Shanti cried, uncertain what else to say without giving herself and her purpose away.

The woman froze.

“Kaylee …” the man named Eddy started and then stopped.

Kaylee began moving again, but not before Shanti sensed Eddy shift.

“What is it?” he asked and closed his door.

“Nothing,” Kaylee answered.

“First time. Guess the honeymoon is over,” Eddy said with a laugh. “Toe or finger?”

Shanti listened, confused. Eddy was circling the car, while Kaylee stepped back.

“Neither!” Kaylee replied. “I just … I know her.”

“Two,” he said.

“Doesn’t it count I saved your life?” the woman retorted.

“We’re even, by my count.”

Shanti heard the sound of a switchblade whipping out. Kaylee’s aura changed. Her energy became frantic, fearful.

“She has to come with us,” Kaylee said quickly.

“Why?”

Silence.

“Three? So soon?” Eddy asked, entertained.

Shanti shivered. Whatever game the two played, it was freaking her out. Todd pulled her away.

“We don’t want to be here,” he said.

“Speak for yourself.” Shanti wrenched away. “It’s okay if you tell him, Kaylee!”

“Tell me. Maybe we’ll go back to zero,” Eddy echoed.

There was a long pause. “She’s a key holder. One of the three,” Kaylee replied finally.

“Ahhhhh. Fantastic!” Eddy responded. “Back to zero. Good girl.” His words were accompanied by the whirring sound of the knife, and the scrape of metal against leather. Eddy had replaced the knife and drawn his firearm.

“Shit,” Todd muttered.

“Get in the car, Kaylee,” Eddy called. “You, too, gatekeeper.”

Shanti started forward.

“I’m supposed to deliver her to Bullet,” Todd said grudgingly. He then spoke a few short words in a language Shanti didn’t understand but which she guessed had something to do with the demon language Satanists used to communicate with demons.

The energy around Eddy remained steady. He responded in the language but didn’t holster his sidearm. “Kaylee, you’re driving.”

The woman hurried to follow his directive.

Shanti moved to the passenger seat while the two men remained in front of the car. She kept her door open, so she could hear what the men said.

“I’m supposed to take her somewhere,” Todd said.

“Sorry, dude,” Eddy responded. “Great to meet you. But you’re not part of the plan.”

Two shots rang out. Kaylee gasped. Shanti didn’t have to be told who had won this match.

[_Poor, stupid Todd, _]she thought, pitying the meathead involved in something much larger than him.

Eddy slid into the seat behind her. Shanti closed her door and assessed the woman she couldn’t see, trying to determine whom the stone had led her to.

“Ugh,” Kaylee said. “I need a second, Eddy.”

“Take your time,” was the cheerful reply.

Kaylee’s energy stilled, darkened, faded.

Shanti recoiled. It was different than the trace of darkness in both the woman and the dual stone representing her.

Kaylee’s sudden change resembled death.

“What the hell is –” Shanti started.

The cool blade of a knife slid against her throat. She froze, unaware of Eddy’s movement when she had been consumed with understanding what was wrong with Kaylee.

“You’re blind but not,” he observed. “You read energy.”

Shanti swallowed. She had the urge to roll down the window in the hopes of alleviating the cool heaviness of Kaylee’s energy.

“Stay quiet about this, sunshine,” Eddy whispered for her ears only. “We straight?”

Shanti didn’t understand what [_this _]was. But she knew Eddy was dangerous, and that the stone had fallen silent once Shanti spotted Kaylee.

“Yes,” Shanti whispered.

“Great!” Eddy didn’t remove the blade from her neck. “What’s your name?”

“Shanti,” she said.

Eddy began laughing hard enough she expected the knife to cut into her neck. It didn’t. His control was too solid.

“Why is that funny?” Kaylee asked. Her energy righted itself, and she started the car. She turned around and started back the way Shanti and Todd had come.

Eddy’s laughter wore off. “Her name means peace in Hindi. I’m betting her gateway belongs to War.”

“There’s absolutely nothing funny about that, Eddy,” Kaylee said in a hushed tone. “Stop threatening her.”

“I can’t hurt her,” Eddy said and removed the knife from Shanti’s throat. “Though I might take off a few toes or fingers if she attacks me again.” He sounded amused. “Everyone on the same page? Run or fight me and things get bloody real quick.”

“Yes,” Kaylee said softly.

“Yes,” Shanti echoed. She took a deep breath, suspecting she – like Todd – was involved in something over her head.

What was it about the cheerful killer that made Shanti shiver in more than fear? She hadn’t gotten the lethal vibe from Todd, who had accidentally left her to be murdered in a ghetto because he wanted an energy drink. Todd hadn’t possessed the control over his energy that Eddy did.

[_He definitely didn’t make my insides warm or feel like someone I’ve always known, _]she thought, perplexed.

“Who are you people?” she demanded.

“I’m not sure who I am anymore,” Kaylee replied wearily. “Eddy is my … protector. Sorta.”

Shanti was quiet, suspecting there was a great deal more Kaylee didn’t say. Like why her energy dissipated at the drop of a hat and why her situation seemed to be more like that of a hostage than someone with a bodyguard.

“Nice to meet you,” Kaylee added. “I’m sorry I can’t lie to save my life.”

“It’s okay,” Shanti replied. “I think we’re meant to be here together.”

“One big happy family,” Eddy said.

Kaylee was silent. Her energy calmed, but she was nervous. “Where am I going, Eddy?”

“To route fifty then west,” Eddy said.

Shanti wanted badly to talk to Kaylee privately, to understand the stone and what the hell Kaylee was doing with a man whose aura screamed killer, Satanist and something far more dangerous than anything Shanti had encountered during her lifetime.

[_He does smell good, though. _]The moment the bizarre thought entered her mind, Shanti dispelled it. She’d never noticed how anyone – man or woman – smelled before. She had been up all night. She needed sleep and hadn’t trusted Todd enough to allow herself to rest.

“Shanti, you have some skills,” Eddy said. “And the best cover ever.”

“You’re amazing,” Kaylee seconded.

“She reads energy, Kaylee. Right, sunshine?”

Shanti didn’t think there was anything safe to say to Eddy. But lying to him didn’t seem like a good idea at the moment, either, if Kaylee’s very real fear was any indication.

“Yes,” Shanti said. “Energy and auras. My senses put together the rest of the picture.”

“So you can see in a sense?” Kaylee asked curiously.

“Not like you can. It’s more of … sensing. Primal instinct kind of stuff,” Shanti answered. “It’s how I hitched a ride with Todd. I kicked his ass and cuffed him to his steering wheel.”

Kaylee laughed.

“My kind of girl,” Eddy said, a smile in his voice.

Shanti didn’t have to know more about him to understand Eddy’s favor wasn’t a good thing.

She couldn’t read him. Eddy controlled his energy well enough to shield himself from her somehow. She’d never thought to ask this kind of question of Julie, who knew much more about the supernatural world and Other Side than Shanti could remember after five incarnations. Then again, she’d never had a reason to ask about the abilities of others. She’d been isolated from the supernatural world her entire life. It was possible there were a lot of people like Eddy, but she didn’t know.

She twisted towards Eddy, struggling to pick up something she could use to identify him.

Nothing.

“Can’t read it, can you?” Eddy asked casually.

“There is something really screwed up about both of you,” Shanti replied.

Kaylee slammed on the brakes. Shanti was thrown against her seatbelt. Her attention shifted forward. The energies of those in front of the car were jumbled on top of one another, an indication the people were likely in a vehicle, probably a van based on the number of people she was picking up.

“3G,” Kaylee said. “I’m not going with them, Eddy.”

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “I got this.”

Shanti focused on the energy, recalling Todd’s words. “Rebelling guides?”

“Something like that.” Eddy stretched past her to the glove box and opened it.

Shanti froze, a strange sense moving through her. It wasn’t emotion or intuition. It was … deeper. Different. His effect was stronger this time. It was as if her soul knew him. Had they met in a past life?

The sensation disappeared as quickly as it came.

Eddy dropped back into the backseat, armed with two weapons. “Kaylee, you shoot anyone I miss. Understand?” he asked and opened the door.

“Yes,” Kaylee said.

She had a weapon and was still scared of Eddy? Shanti didn’t think that boded well for either of them.

“How many, Shanti?” Eddy asked.

The people were emerging from the vehicle and putting space between them, allowing her to separate the different signatures.

“Six that I can tell, including the driver and one sitting in the back,” she responded.

Kaylee’s breathing had quickened unnaturally.

“Deep breaths, Kaylee!” Eddy called. “Breathe in. Breathe out.”

Eddy left the car. Shanti tracked his energy as he approached the van. He said something to the others, who responded by preparing weapons. One of them spoke.

“You can shoot?” Shanti asked Kaylee uncertainly.

“I won’t have to,” Kaylee replied. “I can’t handle it when people get hurt.”

Gunfire erupted from the people in the road. She covered her ears, sensitive to anything loud that might interfere with her ability to assess her surroundings.

“Breathe in, Kaylee!” Eddy shouted cheerfully, as if sensing Kaylee was in meltdown mode.

“It’s okay,” Shanti said and rested her hand on Kaylee’s arm. The source of the dual-stone was shaking.

“Breathe out!” Eddy called.

Several more shots rang out.

Shanti watched the energies. One by one, in quick succession, all six stilled. The seventh, Eddy, alone remained standing. He went to the van and hauled the body out of the back, along with the driver.

He returned to Kaylee’s side of the car. “You did great. Come on. I got us a better ride.”

Kaylee hissed out a breath and opened her door.

Shanti climbed out of the car and trailed Kaylee past the bodies to the van. Kaylee’s breathing remained erratic. She was unaccustomed to death and killing, Shanti assessed. After losing three spirit guides and witnessing each of them wipe out demons, Shanti wasn’t bothered anymore by the idea of death. She had been trained in martial arts, self-defense and boxing, hobbies that didn’t exactly promote peace and non-violence. She understood the nature of violence, even if she’d only recently began to commit it on her own.

Shanti sat in the passenger’s seat and pulled on her seatbelt.

Kaylee slid behind the driver’s seat. She didn’t move, didn’t close the door. Her breathing was shallow, uneven. Her aura was a mess of different colors again.

“You-know-who wasn’t in the van,” Eddy reassured her.

Shanti’s brow furrowed. How could the woman connected to the dual stone not handle violence? Hadn’t she witnessed her guide fighting or encountered a demon at any point?

Kaylee drew a deep breath and closed her door. “Okay. I’m good.”

“Who are you exactly, Kaylee?” Shanti asked.

“Kaylee is special,” Eddy replied.

He said nothing further. Kaylee was barely hanging on, and Shanti didn’t press her.

A phone vibrated from the back seat. Seconds later, Eddy tapped in a response.

“We’re headed to the Bowie Town Center,” he said. “Bullet’s meeting us there. You know the way, Kaylee?”

“I do.” Kaylee put the van in gear.

No one spoke for forty minutes as Kaylee drove the van to a destination Shanti knew nothing about. She’d grown up in the south and Florida, not around the DC area. Kaylee had calmed, and Eddy checked his weapons before settling into quiet as well.

The van rolled to a halt. The side door slid open.

“Stay here,” Eddy said. “Keys, Kaylee.”

The van’s engine switched off.

Shanti waited until the van door closed. Kaylee’s energy was agitated. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Traumatized. It’s my new normal. Thanks for asking,” Kaylee said with mirth. “You?”

“Kind of confused,” Shanti admitted. “You know what the stones are, but you aren’t one of the gatekeepers.”

Kaylee cleared her throat and shifted away.

“You’re afraid of me,” Shanti said, startled.

“I’m afraid of everyone,” was the honest answer. “The last key holder I met tried to murder me.”

“You’ve met one of us! Where?”

“She’s somewhere near here. I’ve been under the uh … supervision of Eddy for a few weeks, so I’ve avoided using the stones to find out. I can’t lie, and I don’t want to put anyone else in danger.”

“Why would we hurt you?” Shanti asked.

Kaylee hesitated and then answered. The woman related her tale, though Shanti sensed she left some parts out by the occasional shift in Kaylee’s energy. When she finished, Shanti sat back, uncertain how to digest everything.

“I understand why she did it. Killing you didn’t work, so I’m not interested in trying,” she said.

“I’m still alive, thanks to Eddy.”

“The assassin. God, I’m sorry,” Shanti said in a hushed voice. “And now we’re both screwed.”

“Maybe.” Kaylee paused. “The archdemon I’m attached to told me something I can’t quite figure out. I asked him why me, and he said we were equals. Does that mean anything to you?” By the flare of yellow in Kaylee’s aura, she already knew, or suspected.

“Logically, I’d say you were an incarnated archangel,” Shanti said. “I’ve never heard of that, but why not?”

“Does that give me any magical power like you all have?”

“Magic.” Shanti smiled. “I don’t know. This Nathan guide you met. If he’s one of the oldest, he should know.”

“He’s not an option,” Kaylee responded.

“Pedro would know, if you could reach him.”

“Who?”

“The head of the angel corps. He supervises the guides. Julie – my guide – went to him before she died to ask how to protect me,” Shanti said sadly. “I don’t think she asked the right question, or she’d be alive and I wouldn’t be stuck with you guys.”

“Where does Pedro live?”

Shanti giggled. “He’s … well, he doesn’t live anywhere. He’s on the Other Side.”

“So I’d have to die to see him?” Kaylee asked, perplexed. “I didn’t meet anyone when I died.”

“No. Guides possess the ability to visit, and others might be able to visit as well, though I’ve never tried. He lives in a dimension within this one. He can be accessed by a secret portal of sorts.”

“How the hell do I do that?” Kaylee muttered. “Even if it were possible to ask him, I’d have to know where it was and reach it before Eddy reached me. Assuming I could escape him in the first place without losing all my digits.”

“Maybe there’s another way,” Shanti said and reached into her satchel for the stones. She chose Kaylee’s and held it. Kaylee’s side of the stone marked her as being present in the van. The second soul was murky at best, unformed and weak. “Did you ask Shadowman? Use your stone to help you.”

After rustling around, Kaylee was quiet for a long moment.

“Here. Take this one.” Shanti held out her dual stone. Kaylee’s soft hand brushed hers as she accepted it. “These are strong, and they’re extensions of both of you. Maybe they will help.”

Kaylee’s aura changed, calmed and then grew darker. A chill radiated off her as she summoned the archdemon’s presence. Shanti leaned away once more, unsettled by the idea of communicating with a source of pure evil, even if they did need answers.

Kaylee released the breath she was holding, and the sense of cold, dark, ancient evil slid away.

“He answers my questions, which I don’t understand,” she murmured.

“He has to. Guardian angels have to either answer the question truthfully or not respond at all. They cannot lie or deceive those they are connected to. Until he has his own form, he’s bound by certain rules,” Shanti explained. “Did he answer?”

“With a picture. A building in downtown DC. I’ve seen it before, but I’m not sure where.”

“Can you find it, if we got away?”

“It might take some driving around, but eventually we might, if we had enough of a head start.”

“Then let’s go.”

“Um, we don’t have the keys, and I don’t know anything about hotwiring a car,” Kaylee said.

“Is it safe to leave?”

Kaylee leaned forward. Though Shanti’s senses were muted by the van, she sensed no one. The stores hadn’t opened yet, but that didn’t mean Eddy wasn’t standing behind a pillar close enough to watch over them.

“I don’t see him. He went around back,” Kaylee answered. “How can …”

Shanti rested her hand on the steering column and then took one of Kaylee’s hands. “You are strong. I can channel your energy.”

“Like Nath … a spirit guide does?”

Shanti nodded. “I don’t retain much, but with your energy …” She didn’t have to finish. The van’s engine rumbled to life.

Kaylee’s breath caught a split second. “Eddy’s going to chop off my arms and legs for this,” she whispered. “But if I do it, I’m in control of my life again. I’m not in anyone’s shadow or helpless or … me. I’m better. Special. Right?”

Shanti lifted an eyebrow. “Do you want me to answer or is this some sort of stream of conscious?”

“I’ve been struggling with my self worth and identity. I’ve had no say over my life for weeks, years, now. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to try to be better than I was. More confident.” Kaylee sounded as if she were on the verge of tears.

Shanti sensed the woman was about to have a mental breakdown. “This is a good step towards controlling your life,” Shanti reasoned. “We just have to not get caught.”

“I’m about as good at that as I am lying.”

[_What the hell do I say to keep her from flipping out? _]Shanti thought.

The van lurched into action. Shanti held onto the handle on the side of the door, understanding Kaylee’s urgency. The woman connected to an archdemon tore out of the parking lot and raced down the street at a speed that couldn’t possibly have been safe in an urban setting but which matched her panicked aura.

Shanti held on for the ride, gritting her teeth every time the van careened dangerously around a curve and praying when Kaylee slammed on the brakes. The ride smoothed out as they reached a highway. For the first time in her life, Shanti was thankful she couldn’t see, or she’d be freaking out about Kaylee’s insane speed and how close she was to other vehicles before she dodged around them.

Kaylee slowed a little when she veered off the highway in what Shanti guessed was an exit. The van almost tipped, and Kaylee came to an abrupt stop.

“I’m feeling a little nauseated,” Shanti said.

“Sorry. I’m panicking. We’re in DC. It’ll be stop and go from now on.”

Shanti swallowed hard. The last thing she wanted to do was throw up. It would make their daring escape seem much more desperate.

Kaylee fished around the dashboard then floor. She swerved. An angry chorus of honks erupted from Shanti’s side of the van.

“Assholes,” Kaylee muttered.

“Can I help you find whatever you’re looking for?” Shanti asked. “So, um, we don’t die?”

“Sorry. I was hoping to find a cell phone.”

“To call your guide?”

To her surprise, Kaylee stifled a sob.

“Sore spot,” Shanti said, watching the energy around her companion change.

“I don’t have a guide. I don’t have anyone but Eddy!” Kaylee exclaimed.

“You have me now,” Shanti said calmly. “As long as we don’t die before we reach Pedro.”

“Both hands on the wheel,” Kaylee chanted twice.

The woman was close to losing it completely. Shanti hoped they parked before Kaylee broke down into tears or snapped into some sort of psychosis. Shanti’s guides had always claimed her energy was calm, supportive. She couldn’t tell, since it was hers, but people did relax around her, including Todd, who hadn’t abandoned her either time when he could have.

They drove around for an hour or more. Shanti’s sense of time was off without the alerts on her phone. Kaylee’s driving became less erratic as she concentrated on finding the building the demon had revealed to her.

“There!” Kaylee exclaimed. “I see it!”

She slammed on the brakes.

“Holy …” Shanti gasped.

“Come on. We have to go!” Kaylee flung open her door. The blares of angry horns surrounded them.

The passenger side door whipped open.

“This isn’t a parking lot,” Shanti said, confused by the energies flying around them. “Did you stop in traffic?”

“Parking in DC is a bitch and I have no money for a meter.” Kaylee tugged her out of the van. “Maybe the traffic jam will delay Eddy from finding us.”

Shanti allowed Kaylee to guide her through the chaos she had created. They reached a sidewalk, and Kaylee stopped to help her up the curb.

A familiar tingle of energy tickled Shanti’s senses. She snapped out her guide stick. “This is it!” She walked forward eagerly.

“What floor is he on?” Kaylee asked. She held open a door, and Shanti walked through.

“He’s not on a floor,” Shanti said with another laugh. “He’s through.”

“Through … what?”

“Just [_through. _]Take my hand.”

Kaylee did so. She was shaking. Shanti pitied her but couldn’t help her excitement at crossing to the Other Side after five incarnations of separation.

“Will they be upset we’re here?” Kaylee asked.

“They’re angels. They can’t be upset.”

Shanti led them forward. She didn’t need to see what was ahead of them; she felt the presence of the Other Side. If it didn’t want them to find it, it would have hidden itself.

She strode forward eagerly.

“Wait, there’s a …” Kaylee stiffened and then stopped completely.

Shanti felt the change in the air and her thoughts erupted with white, sparkly energy. She grinned. “We’re here.”

“We walked through one office building into another?”

“Close your eyes. This gets weird,” Shanti advised her.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Thirteen

Weird didn’t begin to describe what was happening. Kaylee’s panic was barely checked. Upon entering the building, she could think of nothing other than Eddy murdering her. Shanti had headed directly for a reception desk, confusing Kaylee, until they walked through it and into a second building. It appeared plain, with the exception of the strange, sparkling glitter and lights that floated in the air.

She closed her eyes as Shanti recommended.

“We’re there!” The gorgeous gatekeeper with large, brown eyes and ombre hair that ranged from black to auburn to blond squealed the words.

Kaylee opened her eyes.

She and Shanti stood in an office unlike any she had ever seen. At first glance, she noticed the collection of artifacts and what appeared to be a row of outdated fax machines and other archaic technology. A small, dark-skinned man sat at a desk five times his size, dismantling an oversized, forty-year-old cell phone. With no memory of how she had gotten from the reception area to here, Kaylee stood dumbly. Was this a dream? Had she gone insane with fear?

“Pedro!” Shanti shouted. She tapped the floor with her guide stick and circled the desk. When she reached him, she flung her arms around the small man, who gave her a look of tired irritation.

“What have you done now?” he asked, wise eyes on Kaylee.

Shanti faced her as well, and Kaylee realized he was addressing her.

“I, uh, stole a van and drove here,” Kaylee said, at a loss for what else to say.

“Not you.”

[What had to be done, _]Shadowman answered with no small amount of malice. _What was foreordained.

Kaylee opened her mouth to convey the message.

“I heard,” Pedro said. He rose. “You are the problem Nathan told me about. Both of you.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Kaylee replied. “We need help. I’d like to discuss stopping Shadowman.” And if I’m an archangel. Like Barachiel. She shoved the idea out of her mind, embarrassed to consider it again.

“You are who you believe,” Pedro answered. “You have what you need. It is what you think.”

Kaylee stared at him, her adrenaline-addled thoughts struggling to decipher the riddle that felt important but which sounded too simple to be the solution to anything.

Shanti beamed a smile. “Isn’t he wonderful?”

“What does that mean?” Kaylee answered. “And are you talking to me or … him?”

“You asked the questions,” Pedro said.

“I didn’t ask any questions.”

“You may not know you did, but you did,” Pedro said wisely. “What have you done to Nathan?”

“Nothing. I mean, he joined a cult of sorts to protect me.”

“But you should be protecting him,” Pedro replied. “You are who you believe. You have what you need. It is what you think.”

Kaylee had never questioned her sanity before Shadowman – and shortly after, Nathan – appeared in her life.

“Here is my price.” Pedro handed her the classified ads from a newspaper whose pages were yellow from age. An ad had been circled. “Next time, bring it, and we can talk more.”

“Thank you, Pedro!” Shanti gushed and hugged him again. “I’ve missed you.”

He waved her away and returned to the chair behind his desk.

Kaylee stood awkwardly, waiting for real answers to her very real problems.

“Close your eyes,” Shanti told her.

Kaylee blinked.

They were back in the lobby filled with floating glitter.

“What the hell just happened?” Kaylee breathed. “Did I just risk being murdered for this?” She waved the newspaper around.

“He gave you more than he would anyone else,” Shanti replied. “He answered three questions.”

“I never asked him one question!” Kaylee exclaimed. “What does any of it mean? And how do I deal with Eddy when he comes for my fingers and toes?” She didn’t try to hide the note of hysteria in her voice. “He’s going to chop me into pieces!”

Shanti settled her hands on Kaylee’s arms. “It’s okay,” she said, her unseeing brown eyes on Kaylee’s face. Warmth shifted through her, winding through Kaylee’s emotions and taking the rough edge off them. “We have to leave now.” Shanti’s hands dropped, and she started towards the front door.

Kaylee batted away the lights and sparkles gathering around her. Calmer but uncertain of her fate, she followed.

Four steps later, the sound of traffic reached her, along with the quiet voice of a receptionist answering a phone. Her eyes, however, were on the sidewalk and street beyond the front doors. Eddy wasn’t there, but he would be soon. He had a knack for keeping track of her and reading her intentions before she knew what she wanted to do.

The gentle tap of Shanti’s cane on the marble floor ended when she reached the door and opened it.

Kaylee remained in place, struggling to understand Pedro’s riddle. She lifted the paper and read the ad he’d circled.

***

A gentleman would like to acquire a typographer machine. Enquiries shall be addressed to his agent at Thiessen & Co., address as follows …

***

She re-read it. When the hell had this ad been written? The language was stilted and old.

Kaylee flipped to the front page of the newspaper.

“Eighteen sixty seven?” She read through the ad again before leaving the reception area to join Shanti on the sidewalk. “What does this mean?” She asked and started to hand the paper to the blind woman before flushing. “Sorry. I’ll read it to you.” Kaylee read the ad and told Shanti the date.

Shanti listened, her head tilted and a smile on her face. “He wants a typewriter from eighteen sixty seven. He collects things.”

“So if I can find a typewriter, he’ll help me?” Kaylee asked.

“He’ll talk to you again. How helpful it is will depend on what answer you’re looking for,” Shanti said. “It’s not always the answer you ask, either. It could be the one you feel.”

Kaylee lowered the paper, pensive.

“There’s a question you have wanted to ask me, too,” Shanti said. “I can see your aura change colors. What is it?”

“It’s stupid. But … I want to know if I really am special. If I’m an incarnated archangel,” Kaylee mumbled, in case anyone overheard.

“Then that’s the question he probably answered.”

You are who you believe. You have all you need. It is what you think.

Barachiel, archangel of lightning. She was far too embarrassed to ask if she could be that archangel in particular. Even if she were Barachiel incarnated, of what use was lightning or flowers in her current situation?

“Are all angels vague?” she asked.

“Just Pedro. He knows all the secrets of the universe. He can’t tell them to anyone, though, so he gives hints and riddles,” Shanti said. “I don’t think we should stay here.” She faced the direction they had come.

“I have a phone number,” Kaylee said unhappily. “But it’s for someone who tried to kill me once.”

“Do we have any other choice?”

“Let’s get off the street. I’ll ask the receptionist to use her phone.” Kaylee took Shanti’s arm and hurried her inside the building. This time, when she approached the desk, she didn’t pass through into somewhere else.

A moment later, she dialed Nathan’s friend and ex.

“Maggy,” answered the crisp voice.

Kaylee froze, uncertain which bothered her more, that Maggy was another of Nathan’s exes, or that, at one point, this particular spirit guide had to be talked out of murdering her.

“Hello?” Maggy prodded.

“Hi,” Kaylee managed. “Nathan said I could trust you.”

There was a pause and then a sigh. “Hold on.” Maggy covered the speaker and shouted at someone before Kaylee heard the sound of her boots on wooden steps. “Okay. Where are you?”

“Do you still want to kill me?” Kaylee asked cautiously.

“I want to kill Nathan more.”

“He has that affect on people.” Kaylee glanced out the door. Two men were going car to car down the street. She recognized them: Eddy and Bullet. Quickly, she gave her location to Maggy and hung up.

Grabbing Shanti’s arm, Kaylee went towards the bathrooms located in a shallow hall near a bank of elevators. She paused in front of the women’s restroom before backpedaling and entering the men’s.

“Ew,” Shanti said, nose wrinkling.

“I don’t think they’ll check in here,” Kaylee said and led Shanti to the stall farthest from the door. “I hope Maggy gets here fast. And doesn’t try to murder me.”

Shanti was quiet.

The two of them hid in the stall, Kaylee fidgeting as she waited for the door to open and Eddy to begin dispatching her fingers.

Shanti rested a hand on her arm, and the fearful energy stilled within Kaylee.

“Thanks,” she murmured. “Sorry I’m a mess.” She paused, mind on Pedro’s riddle. “What powers do archangels have?”

“Well, each of the main archangels has his or her power and duty. It’s likely you were incarnated long, long ago. Long enough that you didn’t make it into mainstream religious doctrine, which recognizes between three and seven archangels,” Shanti said. “They can heal, fight, send and receive messages, lead armies, and do a whole lot of things. Whatever needs to be done to fight evil and protect humankind and angelkind.”

“That sounds nice,” Kaylee murmured. Having an ability would give her life purpose, one greater than anything her parents thought she’d ever have. “Maybe it’s something really simple like closing the gates of Hell if they open.”

Shanti was quiet.

Kaylee glanced at her.

Shanti appeared surprised. “Was that part of your question?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” Kaylee said.

“But it could be the one reason why you are connected to Shadowman and your stone has been passed down since Creation. Your function may be to undo whatever he does.”

“It doesn’t sound as glorious as healing people or fighting evil.”

“But at the right time and place, you can be the most important person who ever existed.”

Kaylee smiled. Shanti’s sincerity reminded her of Amira, who had been sweet after their initial meeting. The two gatekeepers believed in her more than anyone else she’d ever met. Except maybe Eddy.

“Hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” Kaylee murmured. “I thought archangels were all men.”

“In their true form, angels and archangels don’t have a gender.”

The bathroom door opened.

Kaylee tensed, and both of them held their breaths. She clenched her hands. It was not the time to wonder how badly having her fingers chopped off would hurt.

Deliberate steps entered the bathroom and closed the door. Shanti inched to the door of the stall, her guide stick in one hand. She lowered her stance, ready to fight off anyone who tried to open the door.

“Kaylee?”

Kaylee released her breath. “We’re here, Maggy.”

Shanti straightened and opened the door.

The willowy brunette, as beautiful as Zyra, eyed them both.

[_Where does he find these gorgeous women? _]Kaylee asked herself. She was nothing like either of them. She was shorter for one, compact rather than graceful, with not an ounce of violence or ability to defend herself. Zyra and Maggy were strong, tough. Kaylee felt as if she was going to break every few minutes.

“This is …” Maggy’s critical gaze was on Shanti.

“One of the gatekeepers,” Kaylee replied. “Did you see Eddy?”

Maggy’s eyebrows went up. “They’re moving down the street checking cars. We need to leave now, before they start looking in buildings.” She went to the door and held it open. “Nice call, by the way. Most men wouldn’t think to check the men’s restroom.”

Eddy was crazy enough to, though Kaylee kept this to herself. She slid her hand around Shanti’s forearm and followed Maggy out into the reception area.

“Are you alone?” she asked a little anxiously.

“Unfortunately. You and Nathan put me in a tough position,” Maggy replied. “I guess I should be used to it by now. Nothing is ever simple when it comes to him.”

By the edge in her tone, she wasn’t talking strictly about working with Nathan.

Kaylee didn’t blame her at all for the frustration.

They reached the entrance before Maggy paused.

“In case I have to distract your fans,” she started dryly, “I’m parked in a black sedan around the corner. The engine is running. If I’m not with you, hop in and drive. Here’s the location we’re heading to.” She handed Kaylee a post-it note.

“We stand a better chance if I drive,” Shanti whispered.

Kaylee smiled.

“All right. Let’s go.” Maggy strode out of the building and to the sidewalk. Her eyes went to the left, down the street, as she assessed Eddy’s position. She motioned Kaylee and Shanti towards the right.

Kaylee went. Shanti tapped her way down the street while Maggy followed at a distance. When they rounded the corner, Kaylee spotted the black car with tinted windows as promised. She opened the door for Shanti before sliding into the backseat. Relief trickled through her. Maggy shifted the car into gear and pulled away from the curb.

“How are you feeling, Kaylee?” she asked, glancing at Kaylee through the rearview mirror.

“After your botched plan to murder me?” Kaylee retorted. “Better, thanks. Nothing like owing your life to a Satanist.”

“You were out long enough it should have worked. Someone shot Nathan before he could revive you.”

“Really?” Kaylee leaned forward in interest. “He didn’t just kill me and abandon me?”

“This is Nathan we’re talking about,” Maggy said with a shake of her head. “He’d never do that. His duty comes above everything else in his life. Always. That son of a bitch.”

Shanti stifled a laugh. Maggy frowned at her.

Kaylee listened. She had believed Nathan to be devoted, to handle each case seriously. After being left on a mountain to die, she hadn’t known what to think of him. Hearing the truth soothed the part of her that freaked out whenever she thought of him being her soul mate. But it couldn’t completely erase the unease and fear she experienced watching him double tap three injured people to ensure they never got up. Sure, they were Satanists, but why not disable them and walk away?

Nathan may not have meant to kill her and place her at the mercy of his enemies, but he had nonetheless. He was lethal, and there was no way to explain his brutality or how he had decided the best course of action was to murder his soul mate.

[_Not that I believe in soul mates, _]she thought.

“What were you doing? Visiting Pedro?” Maggy asked.

“Something like that,” Kaylee replied.

“He’s amazing!” Shanti gushed.

“That’s not the word I’d use,” Maggy muttered. “It’s safe to assume he didn’t really help you.”

“No,” Kaylee agreed, her thoughts on Shanti’s explanation. Without the adrenaline and fear messing with her head, Kaylee began to think Pedro had said a lot more than she initially thought.

She was what she believed herself to be – an archangel old enough to be lost to the world’s consciousness.

She had what she needed, the power to stop Shadowman, even if she didn’t yet understand what that ability was. Could it be as simple as closing a door only she could close?

Nothing had been simple about anything she’d been through.

As for his final claim … she was at a loss to explain it. It is what you think.

What question in her subconscious had Pedro picked up on?

Kaylee couldn’t recall her exact thoughts from that exact moment, though she could think of half a dozen questions that could be answered with the vague response. Perhaps she wouldn’t know what it referred to until later.

It still didn’t explain why Pedro hadn’t been more direct. He had to have been concerned about the unfolding events.

Maggy drove them to 395 and exited onto 495, the Beltway surrounding DC. She headed towards the Northern Virginia side of the metro area and exited onto route 66, which led due west of DC.

Kaylee looked behind them, expecting to see Eddy in hot pursuit.

“We’re clear,” Maggy said. “This isn’t my first time escaping his people.”

“Are we going to your base?” Shanti asked.

“No. They don’t know I have you both. This is a favor to Nathan. Anyone else would want you dead, Kaylee.”

“It didn’t work the first time,” Kaylee reminded her.

“Permanent death might.”

“Is that what 3G still wants? They’ve gone through a lot of effort to try to find me.”

“If I were in 3G, I could tell you.”

Kaylee sat back. Shadowman shifted within her, punctuating Maggy’s words in a way that left Kaylee feeling sick. He didn’t trust Maggy. The instinct was much like the warning about the 3G members who almost killed her and the three Satanists in the locker with the trap door.

He was trying to warn her. But against what? Maggy? Kaylee didn’t think Nathan would mislead her. If he were going to betray her again, he would have turned her over to Zyra after discovering her in the cellar.

“But if you kill her, she can’t close the gateways to Hell,” Shanti said. “What if someone opens a portal, and Kaylee isn’t there to close it?”

“Assuming that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Kaylee said quickly.

“Interesting. I thought you were just Shadowman’s host. Is it possible for you to close a gate?” Maggy asked.

“Yes,” Shanti said.

“Maybe,” Kaylee answered simultaneously.

“So neither of you knows for sure,” Maggy surmised.

“No,” Kaylee said.

“It’s a lot to risk on an unknown.”

“We just need faith,” Shanti said.

“And a plan,” Maggy added.

“I’d settle for some decent food,” Kaylee said.

“That I can do.”

Maggy drove them to the drive thru of a fast food restaurant before continuing eastward for several hours, until they crossed the West Virginia state line. Trees and mountains greeted Kaylee in every direction, and she began to relax knowing she’d managed to throw Eddy off her trail and would be relatively safe for the time being.

Maggy pulled off the highway and drove on a state route for another hour before turning onto a dirt road leading up a small hill, where a double a-frame house with a blue roof sat at the top of the driveway.

“This is a safe house,” she explained as she parked the car. “I’ve got places to be and can’t be gone too long without the others becoming suspicious. It’s stocked with food and other supplies, enough to last you for a few weeks, if it comes to it.”

Shanti had frozen. Kaylee glanced toward her then back.

The gatekeeper was staring out the window, stiff, an expression of disbelief on her face.

“You okay?” Maggy asked, leaning forward to see her features.

“Yeah.” Shanti shook her head. “Sorry. Sometime the trees confuse me. They give off energy, too.”

“Is it safe?” Kaylee asked, concerned. In the short time they’d been together, Shanti hadn’t expressed this level of worry. Not when facing Eddy, not when kidnapped, not when they stopped in mid-traffic during the DC rush hour.

“Yes,” Shanti replied. “Thank you, Maggy.” Shanti opened her door and left the car.

“This is great, Maggy,” Kaylee said, eyes on Shanti.

“Here’s a disposable phone. Use it only if you’re in danger. My number is in there.” Maggy handed her a cell. “You shouldn’t need anything else. I’ll come back in a few days.”

Kaylee nodded and smiled, grateful to one of Nathan’s exes. She got out of the car and closed both hers and Shanti’s doors.

Maggy backed up, her car’s tires crunching in the gravel, and disappeared down the hill.

Shanti had made it to the front door. Kaylee followed her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as they stepped into the kitchen. Dark shadows filled it. She turned on the light.

The comfortable, single-story cabin had rustic décor with a spacious kitchen and a wood stove in the living area.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Shanti replied and faced her.

Kaylee shivered at her expression. “Why not?”

“Because one of the gateways is close.” She held out her palm, on top of which was balanced a red-orange stone. It glowed.

“Maggy couldn’t have known that,” Kaylee said uncomfortably.

“It can’t be a coincidence.”

“But if the gatekeepers alone know where the portals are, she would have to have one of you in custody.” Kaylee’s thoughts went to Amira.

“And we wouldn’t reveal the location willingly,” Shanti’s whisper was haunted. “I just told her you could close the portals. What if whoever she’s working with has another reason to murder you?”

Kaylee looked around, suddenly feeling as if the shadows were watching her. Shadowman had been warning her about Maggy, and she hadn’t listened.

“We’re not safe here. I’m so sorry,” Shanti breathed.

“Don’t be,” Kaylee replied. “I’ve been screwed since this began. Let’s figure out what to do next.”

“We can leave.”

“There’s nothing between here and the main highway. We didn’t pass one house or gas station or anything. We have no vehicle either. She gave me a cell. But … I don’t have anyone to call.” Admitting the truth sounded far worse out loud than it did in her head.

“What about the guide Nathan?”

“He’s unreachable right now. Undercover in 3G.” Fear slid through Kaylee. Maggy had dropped them off in the middle of nowhere, because she knew it was the location of a portal.

“Kaylee, I think she’s in 3G.”

“She can’t be,” Kaylee said. “Why would you say that?”

“I can tell when someone lies, and she was lying most of the time we were with her,” Shanti answered.

“Nathan wouldn’t send me away from 3G only to tell me to call them,” Kaylee said.

“Maybe he doesn’t know.”

Kaylee didn’t want to wrap her head around the idea she couldn’t trust someone else. The heavy fatigue was drifting over her, clouding her ability to think. She sat down heavily at the kitchen table.

“We’re in trouble,” Shanti said.

“If we are, then Nathan is, too,” Kaylee said softly.

“He’s not just a guide, is he?”

Kaylee flushed. “No.”

“Your aura goes crazy when you mention him,” Shanti said, amused.

“So do I.” Kaylee looked around the cabin. She plucked the phone from her pocket and checked the contacts. Only Maggy’s was present. “Can you talk to the other gatekeepers with the stones?”

“Not that I know of.”

Shit. They were in a winless situation. “I guess we pack up some food and start walking.” Silently, she wondered how far she would make it when her companion was blind.

Shanti explored the house while Kaylee gathered what food and water she thought they should take with them. She fished two cotton grocery bags out from one drawer and loaded them up.

“I found another gun,” Shanti said proudly. She held up a handgun and box of shells.

Kaylee rose and crossed to her. “I never thought I’d shoot anyone before Nathan.”

“Is that why you can’t call him?” Shanti asked with a laugh. “You left that part out of your story!”

“It was a bad day,” Kaylee mumbled. “I thought he’d left me for dead on the mountain until Maggy said otherwise.”

Shanti cocked her head to the side the way she did when she was trying to figure something out. “He’s a boyfriend?”

“Um, I think you guys call them soul mates or something.”

“An OTL?” Shanti asked and grinned.

“No idea.”

“Wow. So he killed you and you shot him and now he’s working for 3G … that’s a really messed up romance.”

Kaylee laughed. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a romance.”

“But it is. Or will be. You’re bound by a soul agreement. He’s yours. You can’t fight it, and neither can he,” Shanti said matter-of-factly.

Kaylee rolled her eyes. “I’m sick of this destiny shit. Neither he nor I am going to survive any of this. What does it matter that we’re soul mates?” As she said the words, she reminisced about her last kiss with Nathan. One that managed to convey his desperation and need. Nathan was not the kind of man who blindly went along with fate, but she’d felt his acceptance then when she hadn’t when they made love.

“Your aura is gorgeous,” Shanti said. “You love him already.”

Kaylee didn’t know how to respond. She barely knew Nathan. If she cared for him, was it because of the magical bond they shared? The one that destined them to be together? She’d been attracted to him at first sight, but who wouldn’t be? With his noble features, penetrating gaze, natural intensity and confidence, she could see why Maggy and Zyra had fallen for him. Or at least, fallen into bed with him.

“We should go,” she said quietly. “We don’t know what Maggy has planned.”

“I’m guessing she’ll wait until she thinks we’re asleep then come back and catch us off guard,” Shanti said. “It’s what I’d do.”

Two months before, such a thought never would have crossed Kaylee’s mind. Neither would volunteering to be murdered or discovering angels, demons, and spirit guides were real.

“Maybe we should leave on a couple of lights, in case she comes back.” She hurried around the house and turned on the living room lights before joining Shanti again at the door. “Let’s go.”

“I have a better idea. Do I smell natural gas?”

Kaylee glanced at the oven. “Yes.”

“Crank it up. We’re going to burn this place down.”

“To cover up the portal?”

“Or the proof Maggy is working with 3G,” Shanti said.

“I’m not following.”

“This isn’t a safe house, Kaylee. It’s someone’s home. I found the bodies in the utility room.” Shanti’s voice was hushed. “Spirit guides are forbidden from murdering humans.”

Kaylee went still. “Maggy killed them?”

“And left us here to fend for ourselves while she went to find her 3G friends, if I had to guess,” Shanti replied. “We’re leaving, but we need to burn the bodies, so no demons can possess them before we leave. We have no idea who else might know we’re here.”

“I didn’t know that was possible.” Kaylee sucked in a deep breath, not wanting to imagine how a reanimated corpse, or a possessed one, would act. She loved horror movies but hated zombies.

She did as Shanti directed and went to the oven to crank up the dials.

“I found matches and candles in the living room,” Shanti said. “Light one. It’ll do the trick.”

Kaylee hurried to follow the instructions. By the time she returned to the kitchen, the scent of gas had filled half the house.

Shanti led them outside. Dusk had begun to fall and along with it, the distant rumble of thunder. Clouds covered the sky.

Kaylee shivered as much from the chilly autumn air as the idea she could be dead by morning – or stalked by demons wearing human bodies. She hunched her shoulders as they walked down the sloping driveway.

Nathan was in more danger than he knew, if Maggy were working with 3G, too. Kaylee couldn’t help the frustration and anger boiling within her at the idea she could trust no one. The key holders alone were trustworthy but needed protection and allies as much as Kaylee did. It was a no-win situation.

They had barely reached the halfway point of the driveway when an explosion roared behind them. Fire leapt into the air above the house, along with smoke.

A light drizzle began to fall, quelling her concern about starting a forest fire.

Shanti continued walking, back to the destruction they’d both caused. “I hate that,” she muttered. “Fire is crazy energy. The bigger the fire, the more confused my senses get.”

Kaylee couldn’t get the image of zombies out of her mind. Finally, she shook her head and caught up to Shanti.

“Maybe Maggy is working for 3G and wants me alive to close the portals,” she reasoned. “Maybe she wouldn’t kill me after all, now that she thinks I might be useful.”

“Unless she plans to kill all the gatekeepers and you. That’s the only way she could prevent the gates from opening in the first place until a new generation of gatekeepers were appointed,” Shanti said.

Kaylee didn’t want to think about how many people Zyra, Maggy, Nathan, and Eddy were willing to murder in order to achieve their goals.

[_What if I have a say in this mess after all? _]She thought. Unable to understand what form that might take, Kaylee subsided once more into silence. She possessed one piece, maybe two, of a puzzle with a hundred pieces and the vague, odd riddle given to her by a cranky angel.

Shanti tripped over a large rock and stumbled.

Embarrassed she was remiss with regards to Shanti’s limitations, Kaylee caught the gatekeeper before she fell completely. “I’m a little distracted,” she said.

“You should be. I’m fine,” Shanti said and straightened. “If it comes down to it, and they’re coming for us, and I can’t keep up, you run.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“They won’t kill me.”

“Unless they plan to murder all the gatekeepers, like you said.”

“Even then, they’ll have to find the third. According to the stones, she’s nowhere near here right now, which means, she’s free,” Shanti said. “And even if they do find us all, if you’re alive, you can close the gates.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Kaylee replied.

They reached the end of the driveway. The road was completely dark in both directions.

“Can you see any … um, energy this way?” she asked and nudged Shanti towards the left.

Shanti tilted her head, quiet, and then shook her head. “Nope. Just trees. Everywhere.”

“They block you?”

“They radiate energy like every living being. There are a ton of them around here. It takes me a little longer to figure out what’s a tree and what’s not.”

“I guess we’ll find out what’s this way.” Kaylee struck off at a moderate pace down the road, not wanting to be too far from Shanti if she stumbled.

Shanti moved into the middle of the road, which was littered with fewer rocks. “I’ll hear anyone coming for a few miles,” she said and began walking quickly.

Kaylee moved to the middle and matched her stride, relieved they could move faster than she originally thought. The more space they put between them and the house, the better their chances of surviving, if Maggy really did plan on ambushing them in their sleep.

The drizzle turned into a steady downpour. Within minutes, they were soaked.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Fourteen

Nathan resisted the urge to ask too many questions about what had happened after Kaylee and Eddy escaped. He didn’t trust the Satanist, aside from Eddy’s desire to protect Kaylee – and Shadowman. Eddy would lay down his life for Kaylee, until his people had no more use for her. The only good thing about the Satanists: they weren’t anywhere close to getting what they wanted, or Zyra would be far more stressed than she was.

Zyra’s search had expanded around the compound. They found the body of a dead Satanist off the road Nathan had told Kaylee about, and no one could explain why the man with a Florida driver’s license had been there in the first place. It was no coincidence, Nathan knew, even if he couldn’t piece together what happened.

Unable to reach out to either of the two people he trusted – Maggy or Troy – Nathan was left with no alternatives beyond blind faith and prayer.

And keeping Zyra as happy as possible.

After a long night fucking her, and a day of regretting it, Nathan sat in the quietness of the locker. Zyra hadn’t returned. He had time with his thoughts before she showed up, and he was back in puppet mode.

He normally enjoyed the space to meditate. Anymore, he didn’t like at all what he found in his mind when he had the time to center himself.

Kaylee was forefront in his thoughts, followed by a sensation he was growing accustomed to: guilt. He had never in his life felt guilty about sleeping around. If his partner wanted him to be exclusive, he usually complied until he didn’t feel like it anymore, and then broke it off or broached the subject of an open relationship. For the more common occurrence of short-lived relationships, it was never an issue who else he slept with.

Kaylee was different. He understood why without fully being able to accept that he, of all people, had a soul mate. One he couldn’t touch. One whose life would probably end long before they had a shot at anything. One who knew he was sleeping with his ex and would probably never trust him again.

[_That’s the worst part, _]he admitted to himself. He wanted Kaylee’s trust. He wanted the kind of unbreakable bond that soul mates spoke of with stars in their eyes. He wanted a partner. Kaylee couldn’t be those things, because he had chosen the path to keep her alive over exploring their potential as soul mates.

If her kiss was any indication, he had a shot at something, assuming they both lived. He hadn’t expected the kiss or the vulnerability in her eyes. Both gave him hope that maybe, with time, she’d forgive him and maybe, with time, he’d find his home in the arms of the woman he was fated to be with.

Until then, he had his guilt as his constant companion.

Nathan wiped his face and made the silent choice not to be alone for too long again, lest his thoughts drive him crazy.

“Nathan!” called Ricky from outside the half-closed door of the locker.

“I’m awake,” he replied.

“Zyra wants you to check out the surveillance we have from last night.”

“I’m on it.” Nathan stood and pulled on his clothing. His skin and clothes smelled of Zyra.

There was a time when he had loved her scent and how it clung to his skin.

I wish it was Kaylee’s scent. The desire was followed by a pang of emptiness and despair that hit him straight in the gut when he considered it might never happen again.

If he could go back and tell himself anything, it would be not to kill her. To make love to her every night after the first, to protect her as he was sworn to do and find a different means of dealing with Shadowman. He had grown too apathetic over the years.

Nathan shook his head and grabbed one of the protein bars Zyra’s crew stocked up on every chance they had. He left the locker and walked through the quiet corridors of the bunker beneath the warehouse and to the operations center. Several heavily armed members of 3G loitered within the room, but most of the men and women were gone, resting in their quarters. Henry stood near the computer screens used to review or monitor footage originating from any of the dozen cameras positioned around the compound.

For once, Zyra’s second in command was smiling.

A warning bell went off in Nathan’s head. He continued to the surveillance station, suspecting that, whatever made Henry happy, was probably a bad sign.

“What’s up?” he asked and paused behind Vic, who was seated at the station.

“We found out how she escaped,” Henry replied.

“Let’s see it.” Nathan waited, unwilling to buy into what could have been a bluff.

Vic pulled up the footage, taken from a camera at the top of the warehouse, one Nathan hadn’t known was present, or he would have disabled it. Vic zoomed in as far as he could without distorting the picture beyond recognition.

The footage was from the night before. Nathan’s image appeared on the monitor, followed by Kaylee’s and Eddy’s.

His heart sank.

“I knew you were dirty,” Henry said triumphantly. “You showing up on our doorstep at the perfect time couldn’t have been coincidence, but Zyra wouldn’t believe me.”

Nathan remained calm, his eyes on the image of he and Kaylee kissing at the wood line. A stir of desire shot through him, along with yearning, as he watched her walk away. Nothing hurt as badly as knowing there was a possibility they’d never encounter one another again.

He sensed the 3G members gathering behind him, ready to take him down if he fought.

Nathan crossed his arms. “Did you show her?” he asked Henry.

“As soon as he found it, like a true friend would,” Zyra said tersely from behind him. “I shouldn’t have doubted you, Henry.”

Her second in command preened to the point Nathan rolled his eyes.

Zyra slid in front of Nathan. Hurt was in her pretty eyes. “I trusted you!” she said quietly. “What happened to this being about us? About leading the movement together?”

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Nathan replied. “I can’t turn my back on what’s right, even for you.”

“On what’s right,” she repeated, eyes sparking. A flush of anger spread across her cheeks. “We are doing what’s right!”

“You’re doing what you think is right,” Nathan allowed. “It’s called pride when you believe you know better than the folks running the Other Side.”

“Always a true believer.”

“Always,” he agreed.

“You were here to save her. That’s it.” Zyra searched his features.

If he lied to her, he had a chance she’d be lenient. But Nathan was tired of lying and causing more pain than he needed to.

“My attempt to kill her didn’t work,” he said carefully, likewise unwilling to tell Zyra or anyone else the truth about Kaylee being his soul mate. “She’s innocent. I shouldn’t have gone that far. There has to be a better solution.”

“Talk about pride!” Zyra snapped. “Killing her once and for all would have resolved all this!”

“Except the Satanists will still be after the portals to Hell. They’ll be just as happy to release three archdemons into the world as four. Kaylee’s death wouldn’t stop them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to face one archdemon, let alone three.”

“Then we get rid of everyone!” Zyra snapped. “Gatekeepers and Shadowman’s host.”

“This fight has been going on since Creation. You think you’ll win it?” he challenged. “It’ll start all over again. Or, you could focus on the long game.”

“There won’t be a long game, if Shadowman succeeds in opening the first portal. No, I don’t want three archdemons loose. But it takes all four to start the apocalypse. I’d rather deal with three archdemons than the end of the world.”

Nathan understood her stance without agreeing with it. There was no easy way to triumph in this struggle, or someone would have done it long ago. Zyra, however, wasn’t open to any other solution but hers.

How many Zyras had history witnessed try and fail to defeat the apocalypse and evil once and for all?

“Besides, I have a different plan,” Zyra added, calming. “But we need Shadowman’s host first.”

“For what?” Nathan asked.

“If you weren’t a traitor, I might tell you.” She motioned two of the security detail forward and stepped away from Nathan. “We could’ve been like old times, Nathan.”

“No, Zyra. That was never an option,” he replied. He held out his hands.

One of the security guards cuffed him, and the other took his arm.

“We move out in the morning,” Zyra said icily. “Henry, make sure both of them are dead by dawn.”

Both? Nathan ignored Henry’s broad smile. He could think of no one else Zyra wanted dead unless … was it Maggy? If so, how had the toughest woman Nathan had ever known been captured? She would have chosen death over capture.

Henry followed Nathan’s escort down the hall and past four guards posted at the intersection of a shallow hall.

The last door on the left was flung open. Nathan’s gaze fell on the occupant, and his heart skipped a beat.

Amira. She was bloodied and dirty, huddled in a corner, shaking.

The security guard undid his handcuffs.

Nathan entered the locker and hurried to her. He crouched next to the first gen angel, whose aura projected her distress. He touched her arm, and she pulled away, deeper into her corner.

The door slammed shut behind him.

Nathan reached out to Amira again and planted his hand on her forearm, pushing heat into her.

She froze then lifted her head. Her eyes were red rimmed. One was black and blue. Her lip was busted and a slash marred one cheek.

“Nathan!” she exclaimed, too loudly, as was usually the case. She flung her arms around him. “Nathan, I did something terrible!”

Nathan shushed her, even knowing she couldn’t hear him. He wrapped his arms around her. Her body was bruised all over. Several ribs were cracked, her foot bones broken, and cigarette burns and shallow cuts littering her exposed skin. He summoned energy from his surroundings and pulled from the Other Side, channeling it into her.

Fury stirred within him. Was this what Zyra had come to? Torturing an innocent first gen given the sacred duty of protecting a gateway to Hell?

Amira began crying and clung to him.

Nathan pulled her into his lap and sat back with his back against the cement wall. His thoughts went to Zyra’s orders. He wasn’t surprised she wanted him dead. But Amira and the other gatekeepers? Did Zyra really believe she could murder everyone involved and win this war?

Was I any different? If not for Kaylee’s status as his soul mate, would he be standing alongside Zyra in earnest, ready to murder four innocent people? He had believed death to be the only solution to Kaylee when they first met. He’d broken the most sacred of the spirit guide corps’ rules by murdering many times during his career. The difference: none of them had been innocent.

Kaylee was. Amira was. The other gatekeepers, wherever and whoever they were, were also innocent.

[_This is definitely karma, _]he realized grimly.

He hadn’t figured out any other option. He only knew killing innocents was not the answer. Especially when those innocents held the very keys to preventing the emergence of the archdemons.

Amira clung to him. Nathan stroked her hair absently. He continued to channel energy into her and felt her body respond and begin healing. He focused on her foot first, in case they needed to run.

When she had calmed, Amira sat up and gazed at him. Her expression was desolate, scared.

“What’s wrong, baby?” he asked softly.

Her eyes dropped to his lips as she read the words.

“I did something bad,” she said again.

[_Can’t be worse than anything I’ve done lately, _]he thought. “I doubt that.”

She wiped her face and wrung her hands, distraught.

Nathan tipped her chin up, so she could see his lips. “What is it?” he asked.

“I told them where the gateway is,” she said, more tears in her eyes.

It definitely wasn’t the greatest news he had heard this day.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she said and swallowed hard.

“They tortured you.”

“Yes, but they said they would kill Troy if I didn’t tell them.”

Nathan smiled sadly. Troy, his mentor, was Amira’s soul mate. Nathan ached for her. There was no rule he wouldn’t smash in order to save Kaylee this time.

“It’s okay,” he said and rested his palms on Amira’s cheeks. “Troy is stronger than all of them combined. They’ll never find him. If they did, he’d take out anyone who hurt you.”

“But they can find him,” she said, sighing. “Maggy knows where he is.”

“Maggy is too tough to take down.”

Amira’s brow furrowed. “But, Nathan, Maggy helped them question me.”

Nathan went still. His thoughts froze and then began racing. Zyra had visited Maggy’s townhouse, where she and her lieutenants hid out. Nathan had never asked how Zyra found the place. He had also wondered who at the townhouse had switched out the solutions several weeks ago, when he went to kill Kaylee. He’d been forced to use a knife instead of the drug they planned. If Maggy were working with Zyra, then she would have known the leader of 3G didn’t want Kaylee dead. Had she been planning on it not being in Nathan’s nature to murder Kaylee?

Had Maggy tipped off Zyra about Nathan as well? Was that why Henry had pulled the footage from the roof camera?

[_Kaylee. _]His breath caught. He had given her Maggy’s number to use if she managed to free herself from Eddy.

Not for the first time the past few days, Nathan found himself putting his faith in the Satanist assassin.

“Nathan?” Amira was studying him, fear in her eyes.

“We’ll figure it out,” he reassured her. “But first, we need to escape.”

“It’s only half the gateway, but it’s still more than they had.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Amira closed her eyes in a sign she wasn’t going to discuss it further with him. Nathan smiled despite his worry and wished he had her ability to shut out others.

Releasing her, he stood and turned away, waiting until he faced the door before breathing out a puff of air. He rubbed his face, unable to control the primal fear streaking through him, or the sense of betrayal.

Zyra he understood.

Maggy? Had she really bought into the 3G ideology and betrayed Pedro and the others?

Nathan had understood the appeal of 3G before he saw the lengths the radical group was willing to go to in order to carry out their agenda. Torturing Amira was beyond horrific.

Who else had suffered, or would suffer, if 3G had it their way?

Nathan shook his head. Anger unlike any he’d experienced since becoming a guide was building in his chest. It had been directed at himself since Kaylee almost died. It was currently directed at those responsible for hurting the innocent.

He focused on the problem at hand: escape. Four guards had been stationed in this hallway when he was brought to this locker. Nathan could handle all four, especially if he had the element of surprise on his side.

But he couldn’t fight the rest of 3G to escape and he couldn’t disable the cameras around the building to cover their tracks, either.

His thoughts shifted to Eddy’s hiding place. There had been MREs and bottles of water down there, enough for a few days. Zyra planned on moving out in the morning. Would she stop her plans if he disappeared, or stick around long enough for them to run out of food and water?

They didn’t have any other option, Nathan decided. They could hide and then work on a plan to escape, preferably after Zyra left. If that plan failed, he’d figure out what to do next. They couldn’t risk staying in this locker until morning, when Henry would gleefully put a bullet in Nathan’s head.

Steeling himself, hiding his true emotions from Amira, Nathan faced the key holder once more. Amira was a mess. Whether or not he had the right solution, he needed her to trust him enough to move if and when he said to.

She sat huddled in her corner again, hopeful gaze on him.

He had never failed an incarnated angel, and he wasn’t about to start.

“We’re leaving tonight,” he told her. “I want to wait an hour or two to ensure no one else is roaming the hallways.”

She nodded eagerly. “How?”

“I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” he said with a wink. “Trust Nathan, okay?”

Amira smiled. “Troy will kick their asses for hurting us, won’t he.”

Nathan laughed. “Yeah. He definitely will!”

The first gen appeared calmer and rested her chin on the knees she hugged to her chest.

Confident of their ability to escape, furious for not seeing the signs about Maggy, Nathan sat down with his back to the door to wait. He listened for the sounds of the guards moving around and talking, trying to determine if they had added more people to stand guard.

Never in his lifetime did he think he would have a soul mate, entrust her safety to someone like Eddy, and have one of his closest friends betray him. His world had gone from simple and predictable to a dumpster fire of epic proportions overnight.

I need to get out of here now.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Fifteen

Kaylee and Shanti continued down the middle of the road as night overtook the cloudy sky. They walked for miles in the rain. The air grew colder, and both women shivered. Kaylee couldn’t help glancing at the foggy forest periodically, wondering if Eddy or Maggy or Zyra – or their people – were following. If they were, Shanti would read their energies, but this knowledge did little to reassure Kaylee. She’d been through too much to believe she could walk away from anything.

“Someone is coming,” Shanti said, head tilted.

Kaylee froze, expecting someone to attack. “Where?”

“A car. About two miles away.” Shanti pointed in the direction of the cabin.

“I saw a trail leading into the woods.” Kaylee led her to the side of the road, down a shallow ditch, fifty yards back the way they’d come, and into the forest. “If it’s a guide who can read our energy, how far away do we have to be?”

“Guides read auras, not energy,” Shanti replied. “But … maybe two hundred feet, behind the trees, just to be certain.”

Kaylee kept her eyes on the narrow path. It was similar to the one she had walked down at the campground where Bullet threw her off a cliff. Was there a camping area nearby?

No human could help them, and if either of them had someone to call for help, she would have done it already.

Whenever the feeling of helplessness crept over her, Kaylee reminded herself she was part of this because she was special – an incarnated archangel, if she believed in that sort of thing. She wasn’t powerless to change her fate. She just didn’t know what that power was.

At the moment, her sole advantage was not being in the possession of anyone who sought her.

Shanti tripped. Kaylee slowed their pace while listening for sounds of the car passing by them.

The vehicle crept past, as if searching for something or someone.

“They’re looking for us,” Shanti said. “Wait.” She tugged to a stop and turned, head cocked to the side.

“What do you see?” Kaylee asked.

“Three of them in a car. They passed us but are coming back,” Shanti said. “Do you have that cell phone?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m pretty sure they’re tracking it.”

Cold slid through Kaylee. She pulled it out of her pocket. “I didn’t think of that. God, I’m terrible at this!”

“You’re innocent. There’s a difference,” Shanti said kindly. “But I’d recommend throwing it, preferably not in the direction we’re headed.”

Kaylee mumbled curses that would make her socialite mother faint. She flung the cell as far as she could into the wilderness, grabbed Shanti’s hand, and started down the path as fast as they could go.

Not long after, voices reached them, too far to distinguish their words, but close enough Kaylee began to feel frantic.

“It’s okay,” Shanti said. Her warmth moved through Kaylee, easing her distress. “We just keep going.”

“They’re going after the cell.”

“They’ll fan out and search for us once they realize we’re not with the phone.”

Kaylee stopped to step over a log in the path and helped Shanti navigate it. The muddy trail split ahead. The fork was marked by a small sign, confirming her belief the path was manmade, which meant they were probably close to a campground. She went right.

“Wait,” Shanti said again and stopped. She turned to scan the forest. “They’re searching the area. It won’t take them long to reach us. Is there anywhere to hide?”

Kaylee looked around wildly in the dark, seeking any sort of shelter. “Just trees and brush from what I can tell,” she said in frustration. “Come on. We have to keep going.” She tugged Shanti forward and trotted, anxious to be away from whomever was pursuing.

Shanti clung to her arm to maintain her balance. “You have to consider what I told you,” she whispered between breaths. “They won’t kill me. But they might kill you!”

“We don’t know any of that to be true,” Kaylee said. “I get you’re okay with sacrificing yourself for me, but I’m not okay with it. We do this together, or we surrender together.”

Shanti sighed.

They concentrated on jogging down the dark, wet path. Even Kaylee had trouble seeing too far ahead in the darkness.

A rumble spread across the sky and seconds later, lightning lit the sky.

Kaylee glared upward, irritated that the universe thought she needed more of a challenge.

The downpour became heavier, punctuated by distant thunder and flashes of lightning. They were forced to slow when their visibility decreased.

“Dammit!” Shanti muttered. “Dropped my guide stick.”

Kaylee stopped. She saw nothing around their feet.

“It’s okay. Let’s just go.”

They continued, arm in arm, cold and wet, for what felt like forever, but which Kaylee judged to be about an hour or hour and a half. After a particularly brilliant flash of lightning, Shanti stopped.

Kaylee caught her balance in the mud. Both shuddered from cold. Her lips were cold, her cheeks, fingers, and the tips of her ears numb.

[_I won’t feel anything if Eddy chops off my fingers now, _]she thought ruefully.

“Anything?” she whispered to Shanti.

“We haven’t lost them,” was the grim response. “We have to keep going.”

Where? Kaylee didn’t ask the question beating at her brain. They were running blindly in the rain with no destination and no plan.

It wasn’t going to end well.

She slipped in the mud and crashed to her belly, dragging Shanti down with her. The two of them struggled to their feet, caked in mud and soaked to the bone. They helped one another to their feet.

“Kaylee!” Shanti said suddenly, grabbing Kaylee’s arm. “We have to leave the path!”

Kaylee was too cold to ask why and walked into the brush, holding onto Shanti not only for balance but for warmth as well. They maneuvered their way through the brush and trees. When they reached a fallen tree, Kaylee stopped and tugged Shanti down beside her.

“What did you see?” she whispered.

“We’re surrounded.”

The coldness of Kaylee’s body was nothing compared to the chill in her heart. None of her senses picked up what Shanti did. Without the blind gatekeeper, Kaylee would be dead on the road.

Kaylee closed her eyes.

[_Are you there? _]She asked the archdemon sleeping inside her.

He stirred.

I need help.

“Uh … whatever you’re doing, it scares me,” Shanti murmured and shifted away from Kaylee without releasing her.

“Talking to Shadowman.” Aware of how weak he was, Kaylee focused on being open to the archdemon’s messages. “If he has anything to do with it, he won’t let them kill me, but I don’t think I can protect you.”

A flicker of something different, new, moved within her. It wasn’t cold and dark, like Shadowman, but warm and bright.

Reading her aura and energy, Shanti gasped. “Do more of that!”

Kaylee had no idea what she had done. Rather, what Shadowman did. This didn’t feel like him, but she hadn’t done anything at all aside from ask him for help.

An image of lightning flashed through her mind.

“Stop showing me that if you aren’t going to tell me what it means!” Kaylee snapped.

Barachiel.

Kaylee’s heart slammed into her chest.

“What?” Shanti prodded.

“He showed me a picture of lightning and said the word Barachiel.” Kaylee waited for more. Nothing else came. She opened her eyes. “I take it back. We both might die tonight.”

“Barachiel,” Shanti said, a smile spreading across her face. “Did you know that name when you went to see Pedro?”

“Maybe.”

“That’s what Pedro meant. You are Barachiel.”

“It does no good for me to know which archangel I could be if I can’t do anything!” Kaylee asked. “We’re sitting ducks!”

“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. If Julie were here …” Shanti’s voice turned sad.

[_You are who you think. _]Pedro’s assertion emerged from the recesses of Kaylee’s mind.

Her attention turned towards the sky, where thunder and lightning flashed and boomed. “It doesn’t matter right now. We’re not going to make it through the night.”

“They’re closing in,” Shanti said, hunching down. “But …” She tilted her head. “… something isn’t right.”

“How many?”

“Twelve total.”

“What do you –” Before Kaylee could complete her question, the report of a firearm tore through the night during a pause in the thunder. She ducked closer to the muddy ground and pulled Shanti with her.

“I need to see,” Shanti said and pushed at her.

Several more shots went off.

“Stay down!” Kaylee flinched with each shot. “I think we can rule out them shooting at us.” She and Shanti crouched in silence.

Lightning, thunder, and the furious firing of weapons filled the air around them. Rain pelted them and dripped down her nose and hair. Shanti shook as hard as she did. Kaylee glanced up at the next lightning strike, unable to piece together what Shadowman was trying to tell her.

If she knew one thing, he wasn’t getting stronger, and he hadn’t seemed at all interested in the location where a portal to Hell was supposed to have been. If anything, he appeared to be weakening.

The gunfire stopped, and Kaylee held her breath.

“I need to see,” Shanti said again.

Kaylee released her hold on the gatekeeper. Shanti lifted her head above the log. No gunfire sounded. Briefly, Kaylee hoped everyone had shot one another, leaving her and Shanti with a path out of the forest.

“If I tell you where to aim, can you shoot?” Shanti whispered.

Kaylee withdrew the sidearm Nathan had given her. She sucked in a deep breath, horrified by the idea of hurting anyone.

“They’re guides,” Shanti reminded her. “You won’t kill them. We just need them stopped so we can escape.”

“Okay.” Kaylee struggled with the mud until she could balance herself. She rested one arm on the top of the log. “I can’t see anything.”

“Right, about fifty yards.” Shanti rested a hand on Kaylee’s arm and shifted her over. “There. I think.”

Kaylee swallowed hard, feeling as if she were completely blind to the world. She followed the instructions Eddy had given her.

Breathe in, breathe out, hold, squeeze.

The weapon kicked in her hand.

“Left, seventy yards.” Shanti moved her arms once more.

“Did I get the first one?” Kaylee asked nervously.

“Yes. There are only a few more. The rest went down with the gunfight, I think. I can’t read their energies.”

“I don’t like hurting people,” Kaylee whispered.

“Because you’re an angel,” Shanti said proudly. “Now shoot!”

In, out, hold, squeeze.

“One more,” Shanti said urgently. “That one’s headed towards us.”

Kaylee obeyed, firing into the night.

“One more. Fast!” Shanti shifted her arm one last time. “Hurry!”

Kaylee heard the crash of brush a few feet from them a split second before she fired. The guide was lit up by lightning as he fell on to his face and went still.

“Now we run,” Shanti said and took Kaylee’s hand.

Kaylee hurriedly put the weapon away and charged through the brush towards the path. She slid into a tree once she reached the mud and dragged Shanti forward at a run.

A dark figure stepped onto the path ahead of them then quickly ducked behind a tree. Kaylee thought it was Shadowman until lightning illuminated the man’s frame a split second before he sought cover. Kaylee slid to a halt, and Shanti careened into her.

“What is it?” Shanti asked.

“You can’t see him?”

“No. He must be using the trees.” Shanti sucked in a breath. “This is bad.”

They were both blind. The man launched at them from around the tree.

Kaylee yanked Shanti off the path and toppled into the brush.

Gunfire rang out, this time within feet of them. A shout went up from one direction and was followed by the reports of several more weapons.

Kaylee and Shanti huddled together, forced to wait until the chaos ended before they could decide what to do.

Someone tripped over them and landed in the mud, unmoving.

Silence fell.

Kaylee lifted her head.

“Hey, there, sunshine.” Eddy’s camp counselor voice sent fresh fear and relief through her. “Great shooting. I taught you well.”

Of everyone who could have possibly found her, why him? “Hi, Eddy,” Kaylee said. Any resistance she could muster fled when she acknowledged him as being the lesser of two evils again.

“Duck.”

She dropped without a second thought.

Eddy fired four times, and a body dropped behind the fallen tree. “Ready to ditch this party?” He wrapped a hand around her arm and pulled her up.

Kaylee reached for Shanti. “I can’t – ”

Eddy pointed the firearm at Shanti’s head. “You sure?” he asked. “I’m good either way.”

Kaylee froze. If she left Shanti, she risked her new friend being murdered by 3G.

If she refused to do what Eddy wanted, Shanti would be shot within seconds.

Kaylee ceased fighting.

“Good choice.” He pulled her away, through the brush, away from the path.

Fed up with being dragged, coerced, and lied to, Kaylee stretched for the firearm at her thigh. She pulled it out and yanked free of Eddy, lifting the gun. She aimed it at him.

Eddy whirled.

Kaylee’s heart raced as she challenged one of the two most dangerous men she’d ever met.

Eddy appeared to be frozen in place, as if he was waiting for her to back down, like she always did.

“I’m not leaving her here to die,” Kaylee said through chattering teeth. “You might maim me, but you won’t kill me. Keep in mind hurting me will make our getaway harder.” She breathed deeply, on the verge of panicking when she thought about what Eddy might do to her in retaliation.

“So you’d shoot me?” he asked, amused.

“Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not in the head, but if I shoot your leg, I’m going to slow you down,” Kaylee replied.

Eddy approached her, unafraid. “Unlike the guides, if you shoot me, I could die,” he reminded her. He stopped when his chest bumped the muzzle of her weapon. “We both know you’re not a killer, Kaylee.”

She hated him in that second and herself more for not being able to pull the trigger on the murderer who could very well torture her before the night ended. He was right; he could die. She’d seen him vulnerable before, and she understood he didn’t have the extra supply of lives like the guides.

“I don’t want to hurt you. But I’m not leaving my friend here. She has to come with us,” she said.

Eddy shifted, looking past her at Shanti. To Kaylee’s surprise, he appeared to be considering it. He was still, as if listening.

“A direct gateway to Hell would be nice to have around,” he said, considering. He brushed past Kaylee and went to Shanti, who was on her feet. Eddy slung the small woman over his shoulder. “We’ve got a bus to catch!” he called and strode into the forest.

Kaylee lowered the weapon, shaking from more than cold. She replaced the gun at her thigh and hurried after Eddy. Was this a good idea or a terrible one? Eddy had a use for Shanti as much as 3G did.

Eddy led her through the forest and to a campground, where a small day-trip sized tour bus waited, as promised. He climbed into it and set Shanti down in a row of empty seats.

Kaylee stepped into the warm, bright bus. Her eyes fell to the splotches of blood around the driver’s seat and on the floor leading to the back. She swallowed hard.

Eddy flung himself down into the front row of seats and wiped the rain from his face and hands. “Let’s go!” he said.

Kaylee sat without a word, closed the doors, and put the bus into gear. The heater was on full blast. Soon after pulling onto the road, her fingers and toes began to thaw. She didn’t dare look at Eddy for fear he’d either be smiling or plotting how many toes he’d chop off. That he had backed down in the forest shocked her. She had no real leverage, and he’d called her bluff.

She drove for forty-five minutes, towards DC, before venturing to look at Eddy in the rearview mirror.

He was playing a game on his cell phone.

Shanti was perfectly still, seated two rows behind the assassin on the opposite side of the aisle. She was as tense as she had been when Maggy dropped them off at the cabin.

“Are you mad at me?” Kaylee asked, uncertain how to ask Eddy how many fingers he planned on chopping off.

“Nah. I don’t get mad,” he replied.

“You just get even?”

Eddy smiled without looking up.

[_I hate this man, _]Kaylee thought. She gripped the steering wheel tightly. She didn’t want to imagine what Eddy, or Bullet, had in store for her or Shanti.

“I really like my toes and fingers,” she murmured.

“Which of them are your favorites?” Eddy asked.

Kaylee’s breath caught in her throat.

At her silence, he lowered the phone and twisted to Shanti, whispering a few words.

Shanti began crying.

Startled, Kaylee glanced back.

The pretty woman had her face in her hands and was sobbing. [_Sobbing. _]Her shoulders shook.

“Are you hurt?” Kaylee asked instantly.

Shanti shook her head.

Eddy appeared unconcerned. Kaylee couldn’t explain Shanti’s strange behavior. The sweet incarnated angel had been cool under pressure, even when being shot at.

“What’s wrong, Shanti?” Kaylee asked. “You’re scaring me.”

Shanti shook her head again.

“Eyes on the road, Kaylee,” Eddy said. He stood and shifted to sit in the row of seats across from Shanti.

Kaylee bit back her words. Had she given Shanti a strong enough warning about Eddy? Did the gatekeeper understand he was not the kind of person anyone messed with? That he could read lies and predict what those around him were going to do?

Eddy leaned forward, elbows on knees, and spoke a sentence or two to Shanti. Kaylee strained to hear what he said but picked up nothing.

Shanti responded in fewer words.

Eddy smiled, an expression Kaylee had no idea how to read. He went from cheerleader to murderer and back again in the span of a breath.

“Don’t worry,” he said and stood. He returned to his seat.

Shanti continued to cry.

Kaylee couldn’t begin to imagine what the hell had just passed between them.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Sixteen

The movement outside their locker grew quiet after a while. Nathan judged there to be the four guards and no roving guards. He had heard some foot traffic and greetings but not for half an hour. Either Henry and friends were content Nathan was caged, or the bulk of 3G’s forces were resting and packing up to leave soon.

He motioned to Amira to join him and knelt beside the lock in the door. She moved tentatively at first. When her foot didn’t cause her pain or collapse beneath her weight, she crowded him nervously.

“I’m going to melt the lock and take out the guards. I want you to stay here, okay?” he told her.

She nodded, worry creasing the skin around her eyes.

Nathan focused on the task at hand: melting the lock. It wasn’t his first choice, since generating that amount of heat put him near the point of implosion. He nudged Amira back to protect her and closed his eyes. Opening himself to collect all the energy he could reach, he pulled from the Other Side as well. He placed a hand over the deadbolt and began channeling.

Within seconds, Amira backed away of her own accord. Sweat dripped down Nathan’s face. The heat quickly turned the locker into a sauna. Dropping his hands, he blew out a breath and wiped sweat from his face.

The lock was molten. Amira had retreated to the corner farthest from the door. Her features were flushed, and sweat sparkled at her hairline.

Nathan rose and pulled at the door. The lock gave silently, easily. He motioned for Amira to stay in the locker and peeked around the corner of the door.

Four guards, as he believed, all armed to the teeth. Nathan calculated who to tackle first and then eased out of the locker. He crept up behind the man nearest the locker and snaked an arm around his neck. Before the 3G member could shout, Nathan had snapped his neck.

Their scuffle drew the attention of the others. Using the dead man as a shield, Nathan snatched a weapon and shot one of the others before the other two opened fire on him and his human shield. He ducked his head down behind the man and spotted the grenade strapped to the man’s belt. Snatching it, he pulled the pin and flung it and then bolted for the locker.

Amira was at the door, watching. Nathan pulled her back, away from the door. An explosion ripped through the hallway. The walls shuddered, and then silence fell.

He took her hand and sprinted away from the locker. His attempt at being subtle, at a quiet escape had just turned loud enough to draw all of 3G. Nathan led Amira down the hallways and back towards the room where Eddy’s hiding spot was located. He darted into the locker, whose floors and walls were still bloody, and dropped to his knees. A flare of heat slid through him and out, into the floor. The concealed trap door materialized and slid aside in response to his energy.

He motioned Amira down into the darkness before following her.

As he closed the trap door, he heard the beating of boots on cement and the shouts of 3G members looking for him.

Nathan stepped away from the ladder, eyes on the trap door entrance, in case someone had seen them enter the locker and followed. After ten minutes, no one charged down the ladder or tried to smash the entrance open. He turned away.

It was too dark to see Amira, and she wouldn’t hear him if he called to her. Eddy and Kaylee had lit a candle and perched it on the box of MREs on the opposite side of the small hiding spot. Nathan moved across the area, not wanting to trip over or hurt Amira. Reaching the box, he patted around it with his hand. The cool, cylindrical shape of a candle greeted his fingers, along with the lighter beside it.

He lit the candle’s wick and turned around.

Amira was huddled against one wall. Her eyes went to him when she saw the light, and she smiled.

Nathan tossed her a bottle of water, grabbed one for himself, and sat down beside her. He tapped her arm. She looked at him.

“You okay?” he asked.

Amira nodded.

“We may be here a while.”

“I feel better being with you,” she said. “But what do we do about the portal? They’re going to figure it out when they get there, Nathan.”

“I don’t understand what that means,” he said, studying her features. “How can it be half a gateway?”

Amira hesitated and chewed her lower lip, her gaze conflicted. “It’s not just a location. But if they go to this place, they’ll figure that out.”

“It’s a decoy?”

“It’s not only a place, Nathan,” Amira’s voice was hushed. “It’s a person. Me.”

“You’re the gateway,” Nathan said softly. “You and the gatekeepers.”

“Yes. I have to be at the gateway.” Her voice was tiny. “I believe we all see the first portal until it’s opened. Then we will all know the location of the second and the third after the second is open.”

“Are the portals assigned? Or can the nearest gatekeeper be used to open it, once the location is identified.”

“I don’t know. It’s never happened.”

Nathan shifted forward, pensive. “What does it take to open a gateway? Or close one?”

“I don’t know that either. It has never been a threat in all the generations the stones have been passed down. But I think Kaylee has something to do with it, too. Do you know where she is?”

Nathan’s eyes went to the dark ceiling. “No,” he replied. “I don’t know if she’s safe or if 3G has found her.” Eddy would likely deliver her back to his people, assuming the cult hadn’t all been wiped out by 3G by now. In that circumstance, where would Eddy go?

“I fucked up with Kaylee again,” he said. “I gave her Maggy’s contact information without knowing Maggy was with 3G.”

Amira’s gaze was warm. “She is strong, Nathan. She has to be in order to host Shadowman. We’ll find her and Troy.”

Nathan smiled in return. He wasn’t going to upset her by expressing the extent of his fear and doubt.

“Do you know what 3G plans to do when they find the gateway’s location?” he asked.

Amira nodded. “I don’t think they realized I can read their lips. They had someone signing to me. But one of them mentioned Zyra wants to open a gate to Hell. She wants to end this.”

A few seconds passed before Nathan could digest these words. “By opening a gate?” he asked, hoping he’d heard wrong. “She’s not crazy enough to challenge the Fallen One!”

“Maybe she is,” Amira replied. “Doesn’t 3G want to destroy evil?”

“Yes, but that’s insane, even for Zyra.” Nathan frowned, struggling to make sense of what Zyra was doing. “If that’s the case, why would they want Kaylee dead?”

“Who says they do?” Amira asked.

Nathan gazed at her. “Zyra admitted as much.”

“But she tried to revive Kaylee after she shot you. I was on the mountain. I saw you … kill your soul mate.” These words were hushed, sorrowful.

“I was wrong.” Never had he said anything harder to admit! “Zyra shot me. What happened then?”

“Zyra put Kaylee in the back of a car and tried to revive her. She failed, and then that Satanist guy charged in and stole Kaylee.”

“Zyra claimed she wanted Kaylee dead,” Nathan mused. “What reason would she have to keep either Kaylee or Shadowman alive, once she knew where the portal was?”

Amira shrugged. “

“Did Eddy bring Kaylee back to life before leaving?”

“No,” Amira said.

“Then she was dead for …” Nathan didn’t know how long. The firefight could have taken two minutes or ten, and where had Eddy gone next? To someone who could revive her? How long had that taken? He wasn’t able to do it on his own. He would have had to known the right person, probably a demon, who could summon a soul back to its body.

Why was this starting to sound worse and worse, the more Nathan delved into the politics of the DC spirit guides and Kaylee? He’d distanced himself too far from the corps, and he was paying the price.

Amira sighed and rested her head against the wall, drained and pale. The bruises marring her skin were mostly gone and healing quickly.

Sensing she was exhausted, Nathan didn’t press her to talk more about the night he killed Kaylee. He wanted to purge that memory from his head. It was impossible, but thinking of it caused him pain. He’d made Kaylee suffer, and for what? So she could wind up being tortured either by Satanists or 3G?

He stretched out on the floor. He puzzled over what the intentions of everyone involved were. There was no real way of knowing, unless he spoke to someone in the midst of the mayhem directly.

Would Pedro help him more than usual? The angel preferred not to involve himself in earthly matters, but perhaps he would make an exception if the fate of the universe was at stake.

[_After I find Kaylee, I’ll do whatever it takes to find the answers, _]Nathan vowed. She had suffered enough; he wasn’t going to make her wait longer.

Nathan feel asleep as soon as he lay down and awoke some time later with a jerk. The candlelight flickered across the floor and walls nearest it. The cellar was peaceful, quiet, cool. He had been slumbering unusually well when Amira’s soft murmuring awoke him.

The deaf teen was tossing and turning on the ground, caught in a nightmare. He stretched out and touched her arm. Instantly, she settled into deep slumber.

Nathan remained on the ground, exhausted. He’d used more of his energy than normal the past few days, and he was starting to feel the drain. He’d need a long vacation, if he survived the mess he’d made worse.

He stood and stretched before checking the weapon he’d grabbed from the guard outside the locker where he and Amira had been imprisoned. He had one handgun with five bullets as well as a hunting knife he’d snagged before running. If he encountered a few members of 3G, he was set. But he wouldn’t be able to fight off the main 3G force.

He tucked the weapons into his waistband.

There were no windows or doors or clocks in the cellar, and neither he nor Amira had a cell. He wouldn’t know until he left the cellar whether or not Zyra and her people had left.

With a glance at Amira, Nathan went to the ladder and climbed it, paused to listen, and then placed a hand on the trap door. It lifted at his touch and slid to the side.

The room was as dark as the cellar. Nathan strained to hear anything at all before silently climbing the rest of the way out of the hiding place.

The hallways were dark, too. Crossing to the door, he planted a hand on each side of the doorway. No sounds reached him, and no light brightened either direction.

He crept down the hallway to the corner and around the intersection, senses on high alert as he moved along the wall. He wouldn’t put it past Zyra to leave a few booby traps behind, just in case. He was met with no tripwires or mines as he crept down the hall. When he reached a second intersection, he noticed the faint lift in darkness. This corridor remained unlit, but light came from a second intersection about a hundred feet down.

Nathan continued, inching his way down the hall. When he reached the second corridor, he spotted the light coming from one side of a cracked door. His senses picked up nothing to alert him, and no colorful auras came from either direction. He removed his knife and went to the door. He nudged it open while remaining to the side, in case someone fired upon anyone entering.

Nothing.

He peered around the door and then stepped out from behind the doorframe.

“Fool,” he said and lowered his weapon.

Tied to a chair in the middle of the room was Henry, or what was left of Zyra’s admirer. Her lieutenant’s head sat in his lap, severed from his body in this very room, while he was still alive, according to the pond of blood covering the floor.

Nathan shook his head, pitying anyone who underestimated Zyra. Had Maggy done the same? Waded into something too deep to find her way out of? It didn’t excuse her betrayal of Amira, but Nathan couldn’t help wanting Maggy to be different than Zyra. He wasn’t accustomed to being the patsy or used and tossed aside.

A note was pinned to Henry’s chest. Nathan walked through the blood and plucked it free.

***

Nathan,

You’re too late.

Zyra

***

Nathan’s heart leapt in his chest. His first thought was that Zyra had found Kaylee. Crumpling the note, he tossed it onto the ground. He made an effort to control the anger bubbling within him and then searched Henry for weapons, cell, or anything that might tell him where Zyra had gone.

The guy had nothing on him aside from his clothing and boots.

Nathan strode out of the locker, disgusted with himself for not knowing Maggy and Zyra both were capable of this level of malice and violence. By keeping people at a distance, he’d lost the ability to understand who they really were.

He hurried down the hallways and returned to the secret hiding place.

Amira was awake when he slid down the ladder.

Nathan crossed to grab the candle and then motioned for her to follow him. She scrambled up and hurried after him.

Nathan led them out of the bunker and warehouse and into the fading evening light. He didn’t bother to search for anything that might help them; Zyra was too thorough for that.

He tapped Amira’s arm. “We have to find a phone,” he said. “We need to call Troy.”

Her features brightened, and she nodded.

“Do you know where the other gatekeepers are?”

Amira’s smile faded. “No. Kaylee has my stones.”

“Then we head to the gateway. If 3G has Kaylee, she might be there already. I need to find someone who knows what Zyra’s crazy plan is. I have a better chance of snagging someone for a chat at the gateway than trying to hunt them down.”

Nathan began walking towards the road. The storage lockers were abandoned and located not far from an active business area at the edge of Bowie, Maryland. By noon, they’d reach a phone. He doubted Troy would take long to find them. If Amira knew where to go, Nathan hoped to find Kaylee before sundown.

Panic rose within him at the thought of what happened if he didn’t find her soon. He hadn’t yet deciphered what exactly the different players in this mess wanted. Zyra wanted to annihilate evil, but tried to save Kaylee. Maggy was on 3G’s side. Were all the spirit guides aligned with Zyra, and he alone in the dark? He had been in Tucson for years, far away from the politics of DC. He preferred it that way. The farther away from Pedro and headquarters of the spirit guides he was, the less interference in his day-to-day duty.

Eddy and the Satanists had some powerful players on their side, if someone was able to revive Kaylee post mortem ten minutes or more after her death.

The darker Nathan’s thinking became, the faster he walked. Nathan broke into a jog. Eager to see her soul mate, Amira kept up with him.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Seventeen

An hour later, Eddy directed Kaylee off the highway in northern Virginia rather than returning to Maryland, where their other bases were located. They stopped in a quiet subdivision. Kaylee sidled up to the curb in front of a stately house at the end of a road.

“You two out,” Eddy said. “I’ll ditch the bus. Back door is open.”

Kaylee left the driver’s seat and stepped out of the bus, followed by Shanti, who had had some time to calm down. Her eyes were rimmed with red, her hair mussed, and her clothing as muddy and wet as Kaylee’s.

They walked up the driveway. Kaylee took Shanti’s arm. They went to the six-foot tall gate in the wooden fence and entered.

Kaylee closed the door behind them.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, concerned. “Are you hurt? Did Eddy say something stupid to you?”

“No.” Shanti’s voice was soft. “He knows.”

Kaylee released her and opened the back door, her focus on what was behind the door. [_I hope he didn’t murder the family that lived here. _]She sucked in a breath and prepared herself to witness an atrocity. Flipping on the light, Kaylee braced herself.

No one was in the kitchen. No dead bodies or blood, either. The house was furnished and showed no signs of dust or dirt.

Shanti trailed her. “I need a bath and to change clothes.”

“What does Eddy know?” Kaylee prodded.

“About the portal.”

Kaylee faced Shanti. “Okay … care to explain?”

“Each gateway consists of two parts: a location and a key. It’s a defensive mechanism. Both parts have to be together in order for it to open.”

“That’s great. Then 3G doesn’t know, right?”

“Right.” Shanti sighed. “But Eddy does.”

“We can’t catch a break, can we?” Kaylee said. Tired, wet and miserable, she was too numb from unpleasant surprises to react. “Let’s find some clothes. Watch the stairs.”

She led Shanti to the second floor and peeked into three bedrooms decorated with cartoons and bright colors. She stepped away from each one quickly, not wanting to dwell on where those kids were.

When she reached the master bedroom, she flipped on the lights and crossed to one of the two walk-in closets.

“We have clothes,” she said, taking in the extensive collection of clothing.

“Whose is it?” Shanti asked. “And whose house is this?”

“I’m afraid to ask.” Kaylee grabbed a towel from the linen closet. “Here. You go first. Get cleaned up.” She placed the towel in Shanti’s hand and led her to the bathroom. “You okay from here?”

Shanti nodded and walked into the bathroom. She closed the door.

When certain she was gone, Kaylee sank onto the floor and hugged her knees to her chest. Tears trickled down her cheeks.

She hated Eddy.

She needed his protection.

Was Nathan safe, or had Maggy betrayed him, too?

Kaylee cried, overwhelmed with her situation.

“I’m the key. The other half of the portal,” Shanti said quietly.

Kaylee looked up. She hadn’t heard the door open. Shanti stood in her dirty clothing, her features stricken.

“Eddy knows,” Shanti said.

“Of course he does,” Kaylee replied with no heat. “How does he always know everything?”

“Don’t tell anyone else. 3G can’t find out.”

“I won’t. You’re a gateway, and I’m maybe an archangel named Barachiel.”

“You are!” Shanti insisted. “Pedro said as much.”

“We remember that conversation very differently,” Kaylee replied.

Shanti smiled sadly and closed the door again. The sound of a shower sprang to life beyond the bathroom door.

Kaylee had no idea how a person could be a portal. She was too tired to ask. The fatigue was back, leaving her slumped against the wall beside the bathroom door. A few minutes later, the spell had passed.

Shanti showered for twenty minutes and Kaylee for thirty. She emerged from the steamy bathroom, dressed in borrowed clothing, to find Shanti seated on the bed and Eddy standing in the doorway, arms folded across his chest and lean form relaxed. He was drenched and muddy but appeared oblivious to his condition.

“I was going over the rules,” he explained.

Kaylee slid her hands behind her back and clasped them together.

“We’re good,” Eddy told her. “You brought me a present. Clean slate.”

Kaylee said nothing, eyes on Shanti. Maybe I should have left Shanti in the forest.

“What next?” Kaylee asked.

“We stay here for a bit,” Eddy replied.

“What happened to the homeowners?”

“Vacation.” Eddy was impossible to read. “How about some coffee, Kaylee?”

She nodded and went to the door.

He shifted away, out of her path, and trailed her down the stairs to the kitchen. Eddy locked the back door and lingered in front of it, eyes on the backyard.

Kaylee found everything where she thought it would be. The pantry and fridge were recently stocked, the coffeemaker digital, and the china expensive. The homeowners could definitely afford a vacation, and she prayed that was actually what happened.

[_No one stocks a pantry and fridge before leaving on vacation. _]She hated that her mind wouldn’t let her be content with the simple explanation.

“How is Shadowman?” Eddy asked.

“Weak. I don’t know why he hasn’t healed.”

“Are you stunting him somehow?”

“I wouldn’t know how to, Eddy.”

“You also told me you’d never be able to shoot anyone, aside from Nathan, and you took out three guides in the forest and held a gun on me.”

Kaylee sighed and turned her back to the counter, facing him, so he could read her face. “I’m not lying, Eddy. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. But he feels like he’s getting worse.”

Eddy’s intensity vanished. “I believe you.” He placed his firearms and weapons on the kitchen table along with a cleaning kit before rolling up wet sleeves.

Kaylee returned to her task and flipped the coffeemaker on. “You don’t have a plan, do you?”

“Not at the moment,” he replied. “We’ll just go with the flow for now.” He seemed content to sit at the table and clean his weapons.

Far from calm, Kaylee crossed to the pantry to grab cookies she spotted when looking for tea. Her mind went to the question she’d wanted to ask him for a while now. Tired enough to be reckless, Kaylee decided it was time to find the answer.

“Did you talk to me when I was healing from Nathan’s injury?” she asked.

“Several times.”

“I mean, did I ask you about … smelling toast?”

“More than once,” he replied.

“How about the time when you said I wasn’t dead enough?”

“Not sure. I might have.”

“Are you messing with me?” she demanded with more heat than she intended. “Do you know what I’m talking about or not?”

“Why don’t you tell me, Kaylee?” Eddy responded and lowered the weapon and cloth he held. “This may come as a surprise, but I can’t actually read your mind.”

She clenched her jaw hard. Eddy’s face gave away nothing. Being the object of his full attention, however, was never good.

“You didn’t know Shanti was the portal until tonight,” Kaylee said.

“I did not.”

“What gave her away?”

“Proximity, I imagine. She radiated the energy of Hell. I politely asked a 3G member about the location when trying to find you and put the two pieces together.”

Politely asked. Kaylee suppressed a shudder. She turned away and tapped the counter with her fingertips. She ate two more cookies on autopilot, too anxious to pay attention to anything beyond the chatter in her brain.

“You’re not a coward, Kaylee. Ask your question,” Eddy said.

“Did you tell me to hide the stones?”

“Yes.”

Kaylee waited for an explanation. When Eddy didn’t expand on his answer, she crossed her arms and faced him.

He was cleaning his weapons, relaxed and content. “It’s called leverage,” he replied to her unvoiced question.

“You don’t trust your people?”

“Do you?”

“Of course not. But they aren’t my people.”

“You can’t ever really trust a fanatic,” he said.

“Or an assassin.”

“Hey now. I thought we were friends.”

Kaylee rolled her eyes.

“The stones will guide us to all the gates. Why would I give anyone that power?” he replied.

“You’re not what you seem to be, are you?” she questioned.

“No one ever is,” Eddy said pointedly. “I know what you are. What Shanti is. What I am.” He smiled.

It had never occurred to Kaylee that Eddy had the answers to the questions she hadn’t known to ask when this all began.

“You know what’s going on,” she said thoughtfully.

“Coffee’s done.”

Kaylee prepared them both cups of the strong brew. After their time together, she knew exactly how Eddy preferred his coffee and set it down in front of him. Rather than retreat up the stairs and hide from him, like she really wanted to do, she sat down and watched him.

His hands moved with practiced efficiency as he disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled his weapons.

“Go get your gun,” Eddy directed her.

Confident she wasn’t going to shoot him, even if he cut off her toes, Eddy glanced at her when she didn’t initially move. Kaylee stood quickly and went upstairs with a cup of coffee for Shanti and to fetch her weapon.

The gatekeeper was curled up in the middle of the bed, asleep. Kaylee set the coffee on the nightstand before fishing her gun out of the pile of wet, dirty clothing in the bathroom. She returned to the kitchen and placed it on the table in front of Eddy.

“Just like old times at the bunker,” he said. “You know how to clean it.”

Irritated, Kaylee ejected the magazine and carefully disassembled her weapon. She had none of Eddy’s routine finesse. When satisfied she’d followed the steps he taught her, she began cleaning the weapon.

“Are you going to talk to me?” she asked.

“About what?”

“About everything!” she exclaimed “Holy shit, Eddy. You know what I’m talking about!”

“It’s more fun this way!” He laughed. “Ask me exactly what you want to know, and I’ll decide whether or not I want to answer.”

Kaylee considered where to start. “How do you know who … or what I am or was at some point?” she asked finally.

“How did you ever [_not _]know?” he countered. “Why else would Shadowman be with you?”

“I’m not from your world, Eddy. I didn’t know any of this before Nathan found me,” she replied. At the mention of his name, she paused, drifting into her conflicted thoughts once more. She shook her head. “Do you know what my role is in all this? And don’t say to anchor Shadowman,” she said quickly. “I’m not a pawn. I’m a player.” The words sounded much more self-assured than she felt.

Eddy sipped his coffee, dark eyes on hers. “I’m not answering that question,” he said. “But one for two isn’t bad! What else you got?”

“How does this all end?”

“In flames, I imagine. No matter who wins, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Kaylee wasn’t at all surprised by the response. “Who, or what, are you really?” she asked. “You can’t just be some guy in a cult. I know you can fight, but … that’s not all you are.”

“Great question!” Eddy’s eyebrows lifted. “Do you really want to know?”

She swallowed hard.

“What if I told you I was a fallen angel?” he asked. He rested his elbows on the table, leaning closer to her. “Would you believe me?”

“Like Satan? No way,” she replied without hesitation. “You bleed. You could’ve died. How can you be … [_him _]if you can be hurt or killed? Wouldn’t that put the simplest end ever to this entire thing?” She eyed him. “You also like to keep me on my toes and slightly terrified of you. You’d tell me whatever you wanted to maintain the status quo between us.”

“Probably.”

“And wouldn’t you want the stones for yourself instead of returning them to me?”

“As long as I have you, I have the stones,” he reasoned. “If Bullet caught me with them, it’d look suspicious. He’s smart.”

“He’s a demon,” she stated.

“Yep. Possessed the body of the former cult leader.”

“You’re not like him. You’re not a demon.” She waited. “Are you going to tell me?”

“You’re an incarnated archangel. I’m not saying I’m [_the _]fallen angel, but what’s to say there aren’t incarnated fallen angels?” he countered.

“I don’t know enough about this shit to answer that question,” she said. She lowered the weapon and rubbed her head, beginning to feel the drain of her hectic day. “I don’t even understand what incarnated angels really are. Are they human? Mostly human? Sort of human? I’d never heard of an archdemon before and I really can’t imagine I’m an incarnated anything.” She paused.

“What?” Eddy asked, monitoring her features.

“I still don’t think it makes sense. If you’re a demon, why not possess someone instead of incarnating? Shanti says it’s easier.”

“If you say so,” he said cheerfully.

“You’re too damn happy to be a demon in any form.”

Eddy returned to his weapons. “I guess that settles that. Any other guesses?”

Kaylee didn’t need to see his smile to know he was messing with her. She gazed at him, waiting for him to say anything else about who he was that might make more sense. Too exhausted to mull over his latest game, she stood. She went upstairs and randomly chose one of the kids’ bedrooms.

She stood in the doorway, eyes on the castle painted on the wall and pink blankets.

The family wasn’t on vacation.

In moments such as this, she could readily believe Eddy was the devil himself.

Freaking herself out, she backed away and went to the linen closet. Grabbing pillows and a blanket, Kaylee returned to the first floor, avoided the kitchen and went to the couch to sleep.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Eighteen

She awoke with a headache. Sluggish, Kaylee felt as if she needed a full week of sleep to recover completely. Brain fog slowed her thoughts and the heavy sense of fatigue lifted. She sat up. The house smelled of coffee, eggs and bacon.

“Breakfast is ready!” Eddy called from the kitchen.

Lucifer definitely wouldn’t be making her breakfast. Would another fallen angel? She didn’t have it in her to care, as long as someone cooked her breakfast. Kaylee ducked into the half bath on the main floor before padding into the kitchen.

“Where’s Shanti?” she asked.

“Good question!”

Alarm fluttered through Kaylee. “You don’t know?” she asked, on her way to the stairs. Kaylee took the steps two at a time and hurried down the hallway to the master bedroom. The bedding was wrinkled, but Shanti was gone. She automatically searched for blood or signs of a struggle.

With a sound of frustration, Kaylee returned to the kitchen. “You let her leave, knowing she can’t see?” she demanded.

“I didn’t let her leave,” Eddy replied. He placed two plates of food on the table. “She’s in the basement.”

“May I ask why?”

“She’s not as vulnerable or weak as you think. We had a talk. I wasn’t satisfied, so I sent her to the basement to think about her answers,” he said. He sat at the table and motioned for her to do the same.

“You grounded her.”

“Exactly.”

“Is she okay? Did you hurt her?”

“Not yet. We’re going to have another talk later.”

Alarms went off in Kaylee’s head.

“Try anything and I will hurt her,” Eddy said. “Sit down and eat.”

The sense she should offer some token resistance, barge down the stairs, or go on a hunger strike, fled at the threat Kaylee knew to be true. She sat down and picked up her fork, starving after a day or two without food.

“I know she’s not weak,” she murmured. “But Eddy … please don’t hurt her.” Kaylee glanced at him. Eddy was eating quickly, attention on the screen of his cell phone as he played a game. He ignored her.

“The devil wouldn’t play games on his phone,” Kaylee said icily.

Eddy smiled faintly without taking his eyes off the screen.

She ate her breakfast, annoyed with him already and concerned about Shanti. She finished her meal and swept up both their plates, depositing them in the dishwasher with the other dishes Eddy had used. Thunder rumbled outside the house, and rain pattered on the rooftop.

“What’re we doing today?” she asked.

“This is it.”

“Just hanging out?”

“Yep.”

It wasn’t the worst idea. She’d been far too cold and wet the night before to want to be outside. Still, she couldn’t help thinking of Shanti out there somewhere, wet and cold and scared.

Kaylee folded her arms across her chest and went to the window. “Can I see Shanti?” she asked.

“Nope.”

Kaylee sighed. Even when Eddy claimed he didn’t have a plan, she suspected he did or was waiting for something.

“Make yourself comfortable here,” Eddy advised.

“I take it the owners won’t be returning from vacation soon.”

“No, they will not.”

“Are they alive at least?” she ventured.

“Nope.”

She hugged herself. “I guess I’ll look around.”

“Just avoid the basement,” he said nonchalantly. “If you break this rule, you won’t get another free pass, and neither will your friend.”

Kaylee shuddered. “Maybe you really are the devil,” she whispered. She marched out of the kitchen and went to the family room. It took effort not to look at the portraits and school pictures on the walls of the hallway. She didn’t think she could handle imagining what Eddy had done to the parents and three kids who had lived in this house or where he had stashed the bodies.

[_This is a nightmare. _]Kaylee crossed to the windows facing the backyard.

Lightning streaked across the steel colored sky, and she dwelled on what Shadowman had been trying to tell her when she asked for help.

What about the warm light inside her? The one that had delighted Shanti? Could she summon it, or had Shadowman been controlling it?

Kaylee closed her eyes, focusing internally, the way she did when sensing Shadowman. He was present, quiet, cold, distant.

[_Show me again, _]she ordered him.

Shadowman complied. The tiny trickle of warmth made her shiver for reasons different than when Shadowman moved within her. This felt … nice, like drinking hot cocoa during the holidays.

Her body relaxed, soothed by the warmth despite her danger. Kaylee stood, content and comfortable with the dual sensations – Shadowman and light – moving within her.

How long she remained in place, she didn’t know. The window’s chill reached her eventually, and she opened her eyes. She had no idea what the warmth meant, or if it even mattered.

Turning away, she paused, unaware of how long Eddy had been standing on the other side of the room.

His chin was down, his gaze edged with the creepy intensity that scared her, and his head tilted, just like Shanti did when she was reading someone’s energy. He resembled the villain in a horror movie assessing his unsuspecting prey.

“Don’t do that,” Kaylee murmured.

Eddy straightened, and the predatory vibe left his air.

“You can read energy?” she asked. “Or auras?”

“Yes.”

“Which?”

“Both.”

“Is that how you always predict what I’m thinking?”

“Neat trick, right?” he replied.

“Why can’t I do anything like that?” she asked in frustration. “I’m completely useless!”

“You have a different purpose. You need different skills.”

“You can’t pretend to be compassionate and keep me prisoner at the same time. It’s weird!” she snapped.

“I figured you’d prefer it this way,” he countered. “Unless you prefer the basement option. I planned on bringing Shanti up a little later. You can take her place and we can have a chat under less friendly terms.”

Kaylee glared at him. “You were never an angel, fallen or otherwise.”

“Keep thinking. You’ll get there!” he said in his camp counselor voice.

“No basement. We’re good,” she mumbled. “I’m just going to watch television.”

“Sounds great. I’ll bring coffee.”

[_You weren’t invited. _]Kaylee responded silently.

“Can I ask you something else?” she ventured.

“Go for it.”

“What do you know about Barachiel? The archangel.”

Eddy folded his arms across his chest. “I know he … or she … is a pain in the ass for someone like me.”

“That’s who I was, isn’t it?” Kaylee detested herself for putting more weight into Eddy’s response than Pedro’s, who allegedly was in charge of all the angels in the universe.

“Yes.”

“That’s why you took away the tablet after I Google’d him … me,” Kaylee said. “Shadowman is the first Horseman of the apocalypse, and I’m an archangel named Barachiel. Do I have superpowers?”

“You really think I’m going to let you point a loaded gun at my head a second time?” Eddy countered with a smile.

He left for the kitchen.

For the first time since Shadowman began to torment her, Kaylee felt hope unfurl within her. Eddy wouldn’t tell her the truth, because he wasn’t going to risk that she used her archangel abilities against him.

[_I’m not helpless, _]she told herself. She was an archangel named Barachiel. Even if she had no idea what that entailed, except it had something to do with lightning.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Nineteen

After borrowing a stranger’s cell phone to call Troy, Nathan and Amira waited in the quiet parking lot of a grocery store. Nathan had no wallet and no money to buy them both much needed new clothing. Meticulous about his dress code, he had been bristling about the black uniforms Zyra’s 3G members were required to wear. From the poor quality t-shirt he wore beneath the canvas top, to the boots that cost a fraction of what his Italian loafers did, he had been uncomfortable since setting foot in Zyra’s camp for more than one reason.

He could tolerate a few more hours of his current dress. It was Amira he worried about. Or rather, Troy when he saw Amira. Her clothing was torn and bloody, and dried blood smeared across her exposed skin, leaving no one any doubt about what she’d been through. A steady drizzle made them both look worse than they already did.

Amira appeared content, excited even, at the prospect of seeing Troy. Nathan sat back against the tree under which they’d taken refuge from the rain.

[_I need a cigarette, _]he thought, irritated. He’d been using patches while in Zyra’s camp but had abandoned them the moment she cuffed him.

Half an hour of sitting in the parking lot, Troy’s truck sidled up beside them.

Amira leapt to her feet, her features glowing. Nathan remained where he was, satisfied to give them their reunion before filling Troy in on just how bad things were.

Troy slung open his door before he’d parked the truck and hopped out. His jaw ticked, and his gaze went straight to Amira.

She was smiling.

The corner of Nathan’s lips curved up as he watched Troy’s reaction to his angel’s state. Fire flared within Troy’s eyes as long dead emotion sprang to life. He’d been in a downward spiral long enough, and now, he had a reason to pull himself together and become the badass guide Nathan knew him to be.

Red crept up Troy’s neck and face, all the way to the tips of his ears. He was rigid, frozen in place, the muscles in his cheeks ticking, and fury in his features as he met Amira’s eyes.

Troy gripped her arms. “Why the fuck did you leave my side?”

Her smile faltered, and her vulnerable air turned desolate.

“She thinks you’re mad at her, Troy,” Nathan said, aware she couldn’t hear him.

“Maybe I am!” Troy snarled.

“Sure. Whatever.”

“I’m sorry, Troy,” Amira said sadly.

“Jesus, I’m not mad at you!” he replied. “I haven’t slept since you disappeared. Who the fuck laid a hand on you?”

Amira shrugged. “Lots of people. I can’t really remember.”

Troy was ready to erupt. Amira searched his features, her sorrow growing as she assumed Troy’s anger was a form a rejection.

Nathan laughed. He understood what she did not; Troy was awake for the first time in over ten years.

Troy hugged Amira against him hard. Her arms went around him, and her aura burst into the brilliant hues of joy.

Nathan watched, genuinely happy for his friend. Troy was starting to understand how important Amira was to him.

[_He won’t fuck it up like I did, _]he thought gloomily.

Troy held Amira for several minutes, the tension slipping from his body at the touch of his OTL. He pulled away and cupped her cheek in one hand.

“Don’t leave my side again. Got it?” he told her.

She nodded and smiled. “Someone had to save Nathan,” she joked.

Troy forced a smile. “Next time, I’ll do the saving.” He released her but remained close. “Did you know she was my soul mate?” He directed this to Nathan.

“Pretty sure everyone knew,” Nathan replied and stood. “Except you, of course.”

“Fuck you, Nate. You could have told me.”

“And ruin the surprise? At least you figured it out. Shadowman had to tell me.”

“Who hurt her?” This question was a low growl.

Zyra and Maggy both made a mistake crossing Troy’s soul mate. The muscular man, half a head taller than Amira’s six feet, bore the swarthy, fat free shape of a Viking on steroids. Any damage Nathan could do, Troy would triple, and Nathan was no lightweight.

“Let’s go somewhere and talk,” Nathan said. “We both need to clean up. She’s healed but we’re both beat.”

Troy growled low in his chest, displeased. His eyes went to Amira and lingered. Her disheveled appearance and pale features changed his mind, as Nathan knew they would.

Troy circled the truck and opened the passenger’s side door for Amira before returning to the driver’s side. Nathan hopped in behind Troy.

“I’ll take you home,” Troy said. “Then you’re going to tell me the name of every person who came within an inch of Amira.”

“Sure,” Nathan agreed, unable to hide his amusement. “Aren’t you glad I roped you into this?”

“This feels like Pedro meddling. He had to have known about Amira being my … I can’t even say it!”

Nathan laughed again. “I feel ya, Troy,” he said ruefully. “I still can’t quite believe I’ve got a soul mate, either.” His mirth fled as he thought of Kaylee.

Sensing the change in him, as only a guide could, Troy glanced at him via the rearview mirror. “She’s lost again, isn’t she?” he guessed. “And you probably fucked it up with her.”

“You know me better than I do,” Nathan replied. “Yes to both your questions. I helped her escape 3G and handed her off to Eddy, because I wasn’t in a position to protect her.”

“Eddy … Steele? The Satanist?”

“Yep.”

“Well, she’ll be taken care of, until they don’t need her,” Troy said.

Nathan gazed out the window at the gray, rainy day, reading what he didn’t need right now in his best friend’s aura: Troy’s pity.

“We’ll figure it out,” Troy said.

Nathan looked at the back of Troy’s head, surprised. “Look who’s decided to dive headfirst into the deep end instead of killing himself.”

“I don’t have much of a choice now, do I?” Troy replied acidly. “My only friend, and now my … angel are both in trouble, and I’ve gotta fix everything.”

Nathan grinned, grateful to know the man he had known for three thousand years was finally back.

Oblivious to their conversation, Amira’s gaze went from the scenery flying by out the window to Troy. “We need nuggets,” she told him. “And a milkshake.”

“Agreed,” Nathan seconded. “Cigarettes for me.”

Troy muttered a curse beneath his breath but nodded once, curtly.

“I missed you, Troy,” Amira told him.

“You’re an asshole, Nate.” He glanced at her then back, softening. “I missed you, too, Amira.”

She smiled, and so did Nathan.

An hour and a half later, Nathan and Amira had bathed, eaten and started to relax in Troy’s dusty home.

“Baby, can you give us a minute?” Nathan asked Amira.

She nodded.

Troy’s eyes didn’t leave her until she turned the corner from the kitchen into the hallway. “How did we both end up fucked?” he asked, a note of disbelief in his tone.

“Blame Pedro,” Nathan said. He leaned forward. “I need your help, Troy. You’re the only person I can trust.”

Troy’s gaze settled on him. “You never told me who hurt her.”

“There is a laundry list of possibilities. Zyra, Maggy, other members of 3G.”

Anger turned Troy’s face red once more.

“But, and you aren’t going to like this,” Nathan continued. “We need to tread carefully. You can’t charge in and crack skulls.”

“We can’t do nothing!” Troy growled and rose, pacing.

“I’m not saying we do nothing. I’m saying if we don’t do this right, we’re going to get everyone killed. Or worse, facilitate the apocalypse,” Nathan told him. “You know I’m the last person on the planet who hesitates to do what needs to be done. Do you think I’d recommend this plan if I didn’t think it was the only way?”

Troy was quiet. Unhappy, but quiet.

Nathan summarized everything he’d been through while at Zyra’s camp, to include the information Amira provided about the portals being a combination of people and places, and the possibility of Zyra trying to open a portal to challenge the devil himself.

Troy ceased pacing, riveted by the story Nathan privately admitted was worse than any nightmare he could create.

When Nathan paused, he was met by stunned silence.

“That’s why we need to find out what 3G is doing and what Kaylee’s role in all this is. And protect the gatekeepers. And fight off Eddy and his pals. And prevent Armageddon or the emergence of any archdemons. With no support from anyone,” he finished.

“We’re going to need lots of weapons,” Troy said finally.

“And a plan.”

“Fuck pla –”

“And a plan,” Nathan said more insistently. “If anything happens to either of us, Amira, Kaylee and the other gatekeepers will be on their own to face our enemies.”

Troy rolled his eyes. “Fine. We’re headed to Virginia?”

Nathan nodded. “And we’re taking Amira with us.”

“No.”

“She knows where the portal is.”

“She can tell us the location,” Troy said stubbornly.

“She needs to go, Troy. There are too many unknowns for us to leave behind one of the four people connected to the gates,” Nathan replied.

Troy started to speak, stopped, and then sighed. “I already lost someone I cared about, Nathan. I can’t do that again.” The words were quiet. His gaze was on the floor, the muscles of his jaw ticking as he clenched it.

“She’s safer with you than alone here,” Nathan said softly. “I know what you went through, Troy, what losing your daughter did to you. But we need Amira with us, and you can protect her better if she’s with you.”

“It didn’t help the first time.” A note of raw pain was in Troy’s voice.

“This isn’t a disease. You can protect Amira. You aren’t helpless this time.”

Troy was silent, pensive, brooding. His aura was one of suffering and deep sorrow. There was no way to relieve Troy’s pain, but if there were, Nathan would have gone to the farthest reaches of the world to help him.

“If things turn bad, I’m sending her away,” Troy said.

“I respect that,” Nathan said.

Amira returned to the kitchen wearing a rain poncho and carrying a backpack. “I packed everything you said to, Nathan,” she said. “I’m ready to find Kaylee when you guys are.”

Troy glared at Nathan, who smiled. “I know you, Troy,” Nathan said. He faced Amira. “Good girl! We’re leaving as soon as Troy empties his arsenal.”

Muttering curses directed at Nathan, Troy slammed the back door of the house open and strode out, towards the shed in the backyard.

Nathan retreated upstairs to grab boots and raingear before returning to the kitchen.

Troy had indeed lugged in his arsenal, which included everything from CZs small enough for Amira to hold, to semi-automatic handguns and rifles, a grenade launcher, sniper rifle, grenades, and a mini machine gun.

“High explosive rounds,” Nathan said, picking up a box of wicked looking shells.

Troy returned for another round and dumped more ammo and magazines on the table.

“This is most of it,” he said. “Knives and holsters in the bag.” He motioned to a gym bag. He picked up a small Beretta and walked to Amira. He tapped her arm and pointed to his mouth. “Can you use this?”

To Nathan’s surprise, she nodded. “Scott taught me,” she replied, referring to her previous guide.

Troy fished through the gym bag to find an over the shoulder holster for her. He put it on her carefully and slid the weapon into place, along with four extra clips.

Nathan watched, amused, as he selected the weaponry he wanted on hand. The rest would remain in the truck until needed. When he was satisfied with his firepower, he helped Troy take the heavy equipment to the truck. They packed up food and water next, along with extra clothing and shoes.

When ready, the three of them stood in the foyer, dressed for rain and war.

Nathan didn’t have to ask to know Troy was reconsidering allowing Amira to accompany them. As if suspecting the same, she slid her hand into her soul mate’s and looked up at him with a smile.

“I’m ready,” she said.

Troy sighed, defeated by her gentle influence. He squeezed her hand and led her out of the house, towards the truck.

Nathan trailed, his thoughts too dark for him to care that his best friend had found a new reason to live and would never be alone again.

They got in the truck, and a tense silence fell over them.

Amira gave Troy the location, which was around four hours away, and they left Troy’s house for a battle no one knew anything about.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Twenty

When they arrived, it was mid morning, though the dark sky and persistent rain made it seem closer to dusk. Troy pulled off the road far enough away not to draw attention and parked. He tossed Nathan a disposable phone.

“I’ll be back,” Nathan promised and hopped out of the car. He glanced up and down the quiet road before trotting across the street and into the forest on the other side. He was more fidgety than usual but didn’t reach for his cigarettes, not about to alert any scouts Zyra left in the forest. He would need one alive to question. Sneaking up was paramount.

He tugged the hood of his rain poncho up and cut a path quickly through the trees and mud. He reached a hill and zigzagged up it and paused at the top.

Though the trees, he spotted a burnt out cabin. He surveyed the area quickly to ensure none of Zyra’s people were lying in wait then maneuvered through the rest of the trees into the cleared area around the cabin.

The scents of charred wood and smoke were thick in the air. The cabin had burned and then been extinguished by the downpour sometime within the past day or two. Nathan scouted the area for any clues as to who had been there, and more importantly, whether or not there were bodies in the fire. If Zyra understood the portals were people, she wouldn’t have been in a hurry to murder Amira.

Dissatisfied with what he’d found, Nathan texted Troy an update and paused to look around.

Someone had been there. What had happened? Where did they go?

Was Kaylee present at one point?

[_I’m a day behind, maybe more, _]he thought with frustration.

His phone vibrated, and he shifted to view its screen within the safety of the poncho.

[_Amira says there’s a stone nearby. Can you see one? _]Troy had texted.

Nathan frowned. One stone among the ashes and rubble? He didn’t think it was possible for him to find.

He snapped a picture of the destroyed cabin and sent it back with a question mark, uncertain how to find a single rock in the charred remains.

[_We’re coming to you, _]was Troy’s response.

Nathan waited at the top of the driveway, wishing he could sense what Amira did or better yet, had an inkling about Zyra’s plans and how to run interference before it was too late.

Troy’s truck crunched over the gravel in the driveway. Nathan trotted forward and climbed into the back of the cab.

“Amira.” He touched her arm. “Where?” he asked when she looked at him.

“Not here,” she replied. “That way.” She pointed down the road.

Troy turned around and drove to the bottom of the hill before stopping.

Amira hopped out of the car.

Nathan went with her, aware of how tense Troy was when his soul mate left the vehicle. He was on the verge of sending her away, even before they’d run into any danger.

Amira leapt to the side of the ditch nearest the forest and slowed, observing the area around her as well as within the waters of the ditch.

Nathan trailed, also scanning the area for a glimpse of the stone she sensed.

She paused, her eyes going to a point in the distance. “I think it’s a few miles away. It’s very strong, though,” she murmured.

He motioned to the truck, and they both climbed in.

Troy drove them at a snail’s pace down the road. Amira’s head was tilted to the side as she sensed the stone they sought.

“Here,” she said finally, around seven miles from the cabin.

Her eyes fell to a trail leading into the forest. She leapt out of the cab and across the ditch.

It wasn’t the elusive stone that caught Nathan’s attention.

Blood. A lot of it.

He moved past Amira. Several bodies had been dragged down the path, leaving puddles and smears of blood that hadn’t yet been washed away by the rain. His pulse racing, he closed his eyes to focus on reading any energy lingering from the bodies that had passed through the area.

Guides. All of them, which explained why no drag marks left the trail. They had likely been gathered in one place to wait for them to heal enough to walk.

3G had been there.

Nathan returned to the mouth of the trail and waved for Troy to join them.

Amira was on her knees, searching small puddles and brush for what only she could sense.

“I found it!” she called triumphantly and rose. She held a small, bluish stone that glowed.

Troy joined them. “Whose is it?” he asked.

She squeezed it in her hand and frowned. “No images. If there are sounds, I can’t hear them. But I smell … dirt. It’s tugging me towards the east. Whoever it is, she’s not close.”

Disappointed, Nathan smiled tightly at her before moving into the forest.

“Something bad happened here, Troy,” he said.

“Guides?” His mentor had picked up on the blood and lingering energy. “Lots of them. Who … ah. Eddy? His group?”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Nathan said. “There’s only one reason they’d have a firefight this close to the portal.”

“Kaylee was here.”

Nathan didn’t answer, his attention on identifying any other energy.

“The question is who has her?” Troy voiced his unspoken concern.

“3G took a beating, but that doesn’t mean they lost,” Nathan reasoned. “As much as I hate to say it, I hope Eddy won this round.”

“There’s another one,” Amira said and walked past him. She followed the trail for about a hundred feet.

Nathan trailed her, followed by Troy.

She stopped and searched the area around her feet before dipping her hand into a puddle. She lifted the stone and then dropped it with a gasp.

“What’s wrong?” Troy asked immediately.

Nathan nudged Amira. She wrung her hand, pulled the raincoat over her palm and reached down again. She grimaced when she straightened. In her covered palm was a two toned stone, half blue, half milky yellow.

As Nathan watched, a ribbon of black shifted across the surface of the stone.

“Kaylee,” Amira breathed. “And Shadowman.”

Nathan’s eyes went to her face. “Where?”

“A house. It’s raining outside. But something is wrong. This doesn’t feel right.” She peered at the stone.

Nathan released a breath in relief. The details were shoddy, but with some work, they might be able to figure out where the house was located.

“I don’t think we need to go farther,” he said, motioning to the trail ahead of them.

“Agreed. I’m picking up nothing,” Troy said.

Amira’s eyes shifted from one of them to the other as they spoke. “I can find her,” she said eagerly. “Both of them are telling me to go east.”

“I’m not walking into a trap,” Troy said.

“Maybe I can identify landmarks from Kaylee’s stone. We’ll know what’s there before we arrive,” Amira suggested.

“There’s a diner down the road,” Troy said. “Let’s get warmed up and regroup.”

Restless to know more, Nathan nonetheless went along quietly. Amira could find Kaylee. Once he found his soul mate, he’d worry about how to rescue her from Eddy and what 3G was planning.

Troy drove them to the diner, a mom-and-pop spot with poor lighting and a smiling waitress. After taking their order, the waitress left them alone to talk.

Amira had placed the stone in a wad of napkins and was gazing at it intently.

“I see a man with blond hair tipped with black,” she said.

“Eddy,” Nathan murmured. “I guess that tells us who won the battle.”

“One guy took out all those guides?” Troy asked skeptically.

“He’s no normal guy. I guess he’s well known around these parts. Maggy and Zyra both have prices on his head. He’s not what we think,” Nathan said. “I sensed his energy. He’s not a normal second gen, which is what Maggy claimed him to be.”

“Was she lying?”

Nathan wanted to think Maggy hadn’t lied about everything, but he didn’t know anything for sure anymore. She had asked him to come to DC to help her find Amira and Kaylee. Was her primary concern discovering the gateway instead of protecting a first gen being hunted by 3G and the Satanist cult, as she claimed?

“You’re upset,” Troy observed.

“Yeah,” Nathan admitted. “I’m starting to think I was invited here under false pretenses. I could do what 3G couldn’t; spring Amira and reel in Kaylee. When I arrived, Maggy fed me some bullshit about hiding Kaylee from Pedro and the angel corps. Sounds like she was trying to fly under the radar instead.”

“What reason would the angels have to harm Kaylee?”

“She’s connected to the gatekeepers somehow and attached to Shadowman, who could ostensibly bring about the end of days,” Nathan replied. “That was enough for me to be cautious.”

“I would’ve done the same,” Troy said kindly. “You can’t know what’s in people’s hearts.”

“But I should have cared more. Asked more questions. Found alternatives.”

“You don’t get this far without regrets or fucking up every once in a while.”

Nathan nodded. “It’s my fault. I should have taken my duty more seriously.”

“We’re both working on making amends for our past.”

“Hopefully.” Nathan waved to get Amira’s attention. “What else?”

“Shadowman is a whisper,” Amira said. “Kaylee is inside, watching television. She’s … cold. Very cold. Eddy’s there. I see rain and the steeple of a church outside the window.”

Nathan and Troy both sat up straighter.

“Church,” Nathan repeated. “Do you think you’d recognize it, if you saw it in person?”

Amira nodded.

“Can you see anyone else? More cult members?”

She shook her head.

Troy was already Google-ing churches in northern Virginia. He began showing her pictures. Their shoulders were pressed to one another’s. Nathan smiled, suspecting neither of them understood how deep they already were. Even if they hadn’t kissed or spoken of it, they were already a team.

Troy would never make the mistakes Nathan did.

Amira pointed to one church steeple.

“Ugh,” Troy said and showed it to Nathan. “It’s plain and surrounded by subdivisions. If Eddy’s friends, or 3G, are hiding out in the ‘burbs, we won’t know until we’re in the middle.”

The waitress brought their food, and they subsided into silence.

As if they felt his urgency, the others ate as fast as Nathan.

Twenty minutes later, they were on the road again, speeding in the direction of the stones.

They reached the church two hours later and stopped in its vacant parking lot. Rain continued to pour down.

Nathan peered out the window and gritted his teeth. Troy hadn’t been joking about the church being surrounded by houses. The suburbs stretched for miles.

“We can narrow the neighborhood down by how much of the steeple Amira can see,” he said. “Still leaves us vulnerable.”

“Then we’re driving around and scouting out the exact location before we do anything,” Troy said and put the vehicle in gear. He left the parking lot. “Either way, we risk putting innocent people in danger, when we find her. What’s your plan?”

“Plan,” Nathan repeated. “At this point, it’s to do whatever we have to in order to free Kaylee.”

“So you don’t have a plan. Normally, I’m okay with that,” Troy said. “But you can’t live with hurting any innocent humans who might get in the way. We can’t break out a machine gun in a neighborhood like this, and we can’t risk Eddy or 3G freaking out and killing the neighbors, either.”

“I do have an idea,” Nathan replied. “It’s a bad one.”

Troy frowned and eyed him through the rearview mirror. “How bad?”

Nathan began removing his weapons and setting them on the seat beside him. He pulled off his poncho as well. “Depends on whether or not Eddy will shoot me on sight.”

“I think I can answer that question without you testing the theory.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. He knows I’m Kaylee’s soul mate. I’m not connected to Shadowman directly, but I’m connected to her. Shadowman won’t hurt me. He may advise Eddy not to as well.”

“Maybe. Might. These aren’t the kinds of words that fill me with confidence,” Troy said.

“We try it my way first. If that doesn’t work, you do it your way.”

Troy was quiet, clenching the steering wheel hard enough for his knuckles to turn white.

Nathan watched the houses as they crept by. He couldn’t help wondering – had he and Kaylee met under difference circumstances – if they would have ever had a shot at a happy, peaceful life in the suburbs.

In truth, he didn’t think he could bear such an existence, just imagining it. Then again, being around Kaylee made him forget the rest of the world. If he could spend every minute with her, would he really care where they were?

Did they ever have a chance at all? Not in this life, or so it seemed. He had yet to come up with a scenario where everyone walked away unscathed let alone alive.

There had never been a real plan to help her, he realized. Maggy’s ulterior motives had been impossible for him to know at the time. She had agreed to his idea, not because she wanted to help Kaylee, but because Zyra had a plan that likely required rendering Shadowman too weak to oppose her when she carried it out.

Nathan had been a pawn in their scheming, and he hated his weakness more than anything else. Had he been the man he was a thousand years ago, he never would’ve agreed to hurt Kaylee.

When exactly had he changed? Or had his transformation been so gradual, he didn’t notice it happening until the rude awakening a few weeks ago? Until realizing one of the two people he trusted most in the world had become disillusioned and abandoned her true duty?

Unable to identify which of his many shortcomings had led to this outcome, Nathan was able to assess the brutal truth. He’d fallen off the path as badly as Maggy, but he had the chance to make things right. To choose the right option. To follow Pedro’s guidance.

To become the kind of man Kaylee deserved.

He had been effective at his job his entire life. At one point, he had cared, too. That was what he needed to return to: the man capable of compassion as well as duty.

If Pedro wanted him to learn this lesson, he could have done it in a far less painful method.

Troy continued driving.

They wandered through several neighborhoods that ended in dead ends before finding the right road leading to the right house. This time, when Troy pulled off to the side, Nathan sensed Eddy’s faint but distinct presence without trying.

“No 3G. Doesn’t feel like anyone but Eddy,” Nathan assessed, reading the faint energy coming from the house.

“Doesn’t mean he won’t ambush you. I’ll give you ten minutes,” Troy said. “Then I’m coming in, guns loaded.”

Nathan left the truck and trotted to the house Amira had identified. He knocked at the front door and waited in the rain for someone to answer.

He wasn’t at all surprised when Eddy whipped the door open and then smiled.

“We have company!” he called over his shoulder.

Nathan didn’t trust the camp counselor act or smile. He recognized a killer when he saw one. Eddy’s stance was relaxed but balanced, a sign he could snap into action in a blink. He was also armed. Nathan counted three weapons: a firearm at Eddy’s ankle and two knives hidden at his waist. He wouldn’t put it past Eddy to be carrying more.

“I’m unarmed,” Nathan said and held out his arms.

Eddy patted him down quickly. He stepped aside for Nathan to enter and closed the door behind him.

“To what do we owe the pleasure?” Eddy asked, crossing his arms.

Nathan sensed Kaylee without looking. She was in the house, nearby. He yearned to go to her, to ensure she was safe.

“If I found you, 3G can, too,” Nathan replied. “What’re you doing so far from your home base, Eddy?”

“Waiting out the storm,” Eddy replied with a smile.

Nathan’s instincts nudged him about the assassin. The energy he’d picked up at the bunker – too old or different for him to place – swirled in the air around Eddy. It was subtle and fleeting, as if Eddy had the ability to suppress it. But it lingered in the house, as if it took effort to suppress it and Eddy didn’t always try to.

“I want to see Kaylee,” Nathan said quietly.

“You aren’t here to visit.”

“No, I’m not,” Nathan replied. “But I have a proposition you may be interested in.”

Eddy waited, his sharp gaze never leaving Nathan’s.

“3G will find you, if I did,” Nathan started. “You and I both have the primary concern of protecting Kaylee. Would you consider a temporary truce?”

“Work with you?” Eddy asked, eyebrows lifting. “You sound crazier than me.”

“You know by now what Kaylee is to me,” Nathan replied. He kept his features stoic, his focus on Eddy rather than where it wanted to be. “Do you think I’m any less willing to do what it takes to protect her than you?”

“No,” Eddy said after a pause. “I think you’re the only other person on the planet who would go as far as I would.”

“Our endgames are different. But it won’t matter, if neither of us goes that far.”

“Neither of us can afford trust anyway.”

“I’m not asking for your trust. I’m suggesting an alliance.”

Eddy fell quiet, his head lowering as he conducted what Nathan suspected was a much deeper evaluation of his aura and energy.

Nathan had nothing to hide. He meant every word. If joining forces with the assassin was the only way he could keep Kaylee alive, then he wasn’t going to make the mistake again of listening to someone else over his duty. Her life came first, no matter what the expense to him.

“Does this include the guide I sense in your truck?”

“Just me,” Nathan replied. He wasn’t about to put Amira within Eddy’s reach.

“You have any firepower? I’m low.”

“That can be arranged.”

“I think we can work this out,” Eddy said with a nod.

“Good. Let me tell my friend and he’ll be on his way.” Nathan said. He exited the house into the rain, relieved he’d struck some kind of deal, even if it meant working with the man who would have been his mortal enemy at any other time.

He trotted to the truck and opened the back door. “I’m staying here,” he told Troy firmly. “Eddy’s willing to work with me to protect Kaylee.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Troy demanded. “He’s more likely to murder you the second your guard goes down.”

“Maybe,” Nathan replied. “You’d take the same risk for Amira.”

Troy was silent.

“Take her somewhere safe,” Nathan advised. “Wherever Kaylee goes, 3G will follow, or try to, once they realize the truth about the gateways. By the time they realize they need Amira, you can have her too far for them to find.” He snatched his weapons. “I’m also taking a bunch of guns.” He began loading up one of the gym bags with weapons and ammo.

Troy grumbled but didn’t object. “You’ll keep your phone with you?”

“Absolutely. And if I need help, I’ll call you right away.”

Amira twisted to see him.

“Take care, angel,” Nathan said and smiled at her.

“I’ll know where you are,” she said and raised the stone. “Tell Kaylee I said hi.”

Nathan nodded and closed the door. He stood on the sidewalk until certain Troy pulled away from the curb and left the neighborhood.

Returning to the house, he opened the front door. He missed a step when he saw Kaylee beside Eddy in the foyer. She appeared in much better shape than the last time he’d seen her. Her color was back to normal, and she wore a sweater and jeans. Physically, she appeared healthy.

Her eyes told a different story entirely. He’d never seen a look that chilled him like hers did.

Nathan ripped his focus out of his thoughts and closed the door.

“Sweet!” Eddy exclaimed and took the bag from him. He went to the kitchen.

Kaylee didn’t move, didn’t speak.

Hating her raw expression, Nathan crossed to her. He cupped her cheek with one hand. Her warmth shot through him, grounding him, setting his soul alight with joy he couldn’t afford to feel. His blood blazed with need. Her warmth and softness, coupled with her scent, felt too right for him to question why he had a soul mate any longer. He was where he belonged, beside his soul mate, and nothing was ever going to separate them as long as he was alive.

Kaylee made no attempt to kiss him, and Nathan didn’t dare breach the fragile trust stretching between them. Her gorgeous blue eyes expressed the same emotions he felt to his soul.

“Hate to interrupt,” Eddy said from down the hall. “But we need a plan, Nathan.”

Nathan’s hand dropped from Kaylee’s face, whose breathing was as uneven as his own. One touch, and Nathan was ready to surrender everything for a chance at a kiss.

“I’m glad you’re safe, baby,” he murmured to her before stepping away and down the hallway, towards Eddy.

Kaylee’s pain plagued Nathan, as did the yearning tugging him back to her arms. She didn’t know the depths of how well he could feel her emotions. It was torture – and he deserved every second of it.

Eddy appeared entertained, if not satisfied. He had Nathan by the nuts and knew it. He had begun to unpack the weapons and line everything up on the table.

“I’m blind,” Eddy started.

Nathan glanced at him then at the table of weapons. Kaylee’s scent lingered, distracting him away from Eddy and back to the small moment he’d shared with Kaylee in the hallway.

“My people are scattered, and I’ve had no contact with anyone for two days,” Eddy said. “I couldn’t tell you if 3G was in the house next door.”

“I have a feeling that’s not true,” Nathan replied. “They’re not, but if they were, you’d know.”

“Aw, you caught me! Yeah, I would. But if they found me as easily as you did, we’re in trouble. The problem with guides is rendering them permanently dead. You guys are like immortal cockroaches,” Eddy complained. “I keep wounding the same ones over and over.”

“That’s not the solution,” Nathan agreed. “What you have to realize is that we don’t exactly have any allies. You, me, my friend – and that’s it. We’re not going to win this battle straight on.”

Eddy paused from his task of laying out the weapons and looked at Nathan curiously. “What do you have in mind?”

“We need to go on the offensive and outsmart them. We know what they want. We know [_who _]they want and why. We find the other two gatekeepers and make sure 3G never lays a hand on them.”

“Two gatekeepers. You know where one is,” Eddy said. “Is it the one I have in the basement?”

Nathan raised an eyebrow. “You have a gatekeeper in the basement?” Amira wasn’t in the basement, and Nathan wasn’t aware of another key holder being discovered.

“Then you’re talking about a different one,” Eddy said. “There are three. We just need one more. Where is yours?”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m not in favor of giving your kind access to the gates of Hell,” Nathan said dryly.

“Our paths don’t diverge quite yet,” Eddy pointed out. “If we have the gatekeepers, 3G won’t have them and won’t try to murder them, either.”

“You know what 3G’s plan is?”

“I suspect, as I believe you do. I appreciate their enthusiasm, but what they plan could put a dent in my people’s plans. We need all four archdemons freed, not three, not an accident that obstructs our ability to summon all of the Horsemen. As easy as it sounds to summon the Horsemen and start the apocalypse, it’s a precision operation, not the floundering around 3G is doing,” Eddy replied. “3G is in over their head, but they possess the ability to mess things up in a way no one can fix.”

If Eddy’s people were a threat, 3G was a disaster waiting to happen. How had spirit guides become a greater danger than the Satanists who wanted to start the apocalypse? The Satanists knew what they were doing. While they had to be stopped, they weren’t likely to [_accidentally _]bring about the apocalypse, which Zyra would, if she continued on with the plan Nathan believed her to be pursuing.

“I never thought I’d agree with one of you,” Nathan said.

“But you do!” Eddy exclaimed.

“I do.”

Sitting, Eddy began loading up clips and magazines with bullets. Nathan followed his lead, thoughts on how close Kaylee was.

“Kaylee has great aim, doesn’t she?” Eddy said.

Nathan snorted. Did Eddy know his thoughts, or was it obvious where Nathan’s mind was? “I take it you taught her?”

“Yep. She’s a great shot. As long as she’s shooting at someone who can’t really die.”

“She’s an archangel. What do you expect?” Nathan pointed out.

“Don’t try to tell me the archangels have no blood on their hands. One could argue the seven have out killed every demon who has ever existed.”

“Probably,” Nathan agreed. “Anymore, I’m not sure I blame them.”

“We’re going to make a great team.”

“Yes, we are,” Nathan said softly. He glanced up. In that moment, he sensed he and Eddy were thinking the same thing.

They were a great team, until they reached the time where their interests diverged, at which point, they were likely to annihilate anything within miles of them in an attempt to beat each other to the portals and Kaylee.

[_At least I know where he stands, _]Nathan thought bitterly. He had been fooled by Maggy and to an extent, by Zyra.

“Oh, and don’t think Kaylee’s going to let you off the hook,” Eddy added. “We had a little talk about your sixty three plus times. You’ve got some work to do.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“Just a friendly warning. She’s not the wilting flower she was before you killed her. Death changes people, sometimes in good ways, sometimes not.”

“Speaking of death,” Nathan said, “who brought her back?”

Eddy smiled.

“She was dead much longer than the time I had planned, wasn’t she?” he prodded.

“Half an hour.”

Nathan frowned. It should not have been possible to bring her back after so long. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who or how?”

“How is irrelevant. As for the who – yours truly.”

Nathan assessed Eddy’s energy and aura once more. The assassin was hiding his true self well. “At what price?” he asked quietly. Kaylee’s presence placed her in the living room, too far to hear him. “No one who dies returns for free.”

“True,” Eddy allowed.

“Meaning?”

“Good and evil can both bring souls back from the dead. Good and evil can choose how those souls repay the favor.”

An uneasy feeling slid through Nathan. “I’m guessing you weren’t benevolent.”

“Benevolence is not my thing,” Eddy replied. “But I’m not dictating the price. I returned her with the blessing of the Fallen One. If you think I’m a force to be reckoned with, you have no idea what he’ll do to free himself from Hell. I used the magic of Hell to return her. Truth be told, I don’t even know what that price will be.”

[_Holy fuck. Can things get any worse? _]Nathan thought. “Does she know?”

“Nope. Shadowman probably does but he hasn’t returned to full strength after the ordeal. That’s something I can’t control.”

“You’re not the second gen Maggy claimed you to be,” Nathan said. “But I think you misled her. It wasn’t her lying to me this time.”

“I heard you were good,” Eddy said. “I am older than I claimed to be. I am stronger than you can guess. I am here for the same reason you are: Kaylee. It’s part of the elaborate chess game that’s been going on since Creation. You were made her soul mate, and I was made her protector, long before either of us existed.”

Something stirred within Nathan, the sense of jealousy he’d experienced when Kaylee asked him to rescue Eddy. It struck him that Eddy had spent more time with Kaylee than he had. The assassin knew more about his soul mate than Nathan did.

Despite his irritation, Nathan’s mind couldn’t help returning to the paradox of an archangel being returned from the dead by Hell itself. He couldn’t imagine the price both

Eddy and Kaylee would pay. No one who called upon the Fallen One was exempt from the price of using His power. Ordinarily, Nathan wouldn’t care what Eddy gave up in exchange for Kaylee’s life. In this scenario, however, Nathan suspected whatever it was would make Eddy far more determined and lethal in order to make his sacrifice worthwhile.

“You recognized my energy at the bunker?” Eddy asked.

“Recognized? No,” Nathan replied with honesty he didn’t know if Eddy deserved. “I have no idea what you are or what you were. I did follow your energy to the cellar.”

“Guess I’m getting sloppy, eh?” Eddy smiled. “In my defense, I was severely injured. That was the day Kaylee shot you.”

Nathan drew a deep breath. “I deserved worse.”

“I’m not going to disagree. But I did give her a silencer, in case she needs to shoot you a few times without the neighbors calling the police.”

Nathan didn’t quite understand the dynamic between Kaylee and Eddy. If she were armed, why not shoot Eddy and escape?

[_Where would she go? _]He answered his own question. To date, everyone she knew was trying to kill her. He’d been no different. He’d actually been the only successful one thus far.

Eddy was right. Kaylee deserved more than any excuse Nathan could provide. Since the night he slid a knife through her ribs and into her heart, Nathan had felt lost.

“She needs space,” Eddy replied, confirming Nathan’s suspicion the assassin was actively reading his energy and aura. “And to see you actually care.”

“Never thought I’d take relationship advice from a psychopath,” Nathan said with a laugh.

“Can’t be a an effective killer without understanding human nature.”

“Maybe that’s my mistake,” Nathan replied dryly. “I used to try to save people.” But not Zyra. Not Maggy. Not the other members of 3G. Their recklessness had placed innocents, and the world in general, in danger.

They had crossed a line Nathan couldn’t ignore, even if he wanted to, even if he cared for at least two members of 3G, even if stripping the guide corps of its most effective, most senior leaders meant undoing the progress the spirit guides had made the past millennia. It would take a century or more to recruit and train new guides. There was no salvaging those who had embraced a different kind of evil.

In three thousand years of relationships, Nathan never paid attention to how to create a healthy one. He’d never had a reason to take one seriously. Like his duty, he was generally grateful for the physical stimulation but apathetic towards the emotional aspect. He had no friends and a list of exes too long for him to remember all the names.

He wouldn’t know a healthy relationship if he was in the middle of one. But he did know without a drop of uncertainty that his relationship with Kaylee started on a dysfunctional note and only grew worse.

“We can’t stay here long,” he said, needing to take his mind off of his challenges.

“My thoughts exactly. Leave in the morning?”

Nathan nodded. “With the gatekeeper. 3G is executing the women without understanding who or what they are.”

“They haven’t figured out the gatekeepers are part of the portals,” Eddy said.

Nathan lifted an eyebrow. He shouldn’t have been surprised Eddy had figured it out.

“Will you be telling me where your gatekeeper is?” Eddy asked.

“That’s my secret to keep you in check,” he replied firmly. “You know. Since we’re temporary allies and all.”

“Not fair. I’m willing to share my gateway with you.”

Nathan smiled. Eddy was entertaining. He had to give the assassin credit for that much, along with keeping Kaylee alive thus far.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Twenty-One

Shanti’s nose wrinkled. The basement smelled of the graves Eddy had been digging for the people who lived in the house. She sensed energy around her, but it was still, quiet, dark, the fading energy of the dead.

The bodies were too fresh to smell of decay, but she could [_feel _]their presences, even if they didn’t stink. Or perhaps, it was her imagination creating boogeymen out of the innocent dead slaughtered by what smelled like pretty violent means. They weren’t shot – probably because Eddy had complained of needing to preserve his ammunition – which meant the family had been killed by hand.

Brutally, if the amount of blood in the air was any indicator.

She huddled against the wall. She had never fully been grateful for being blind before the adventure that brought her from Florida to the DC Metro area. Not witnessing the bodies would keep her sane, even if her imagination painted gruesome pictures.

Normally, she didn’t shy away from danger. She also hadn’t realized how much her guides protected her from reality before coming to DC. She couldn’t fathom anyone hurting people in this manner. Reality left her unsettled, off balance, uncertain if she wanted to challenge her situation or slink away from it.

The idea of running was new to her. Unfortunately, it sounded like a damned good solution when she thought about how twisted Eddy had to be in order to do something like this.

[_I hope there were no kids, _]she thought. Her chest tightened at the idea Eddy was capable of violence on that level. She wanted to believe no children had been involved.

The signatures of energy told her otherwise.

If he were the person Kaylee believed him to be – incapable of mercy or feelings or good of any kind – what did that mean for either of them?

More specifically, what did it mean for her?

Of everything Shanti had been through, of everything she thought she could handle, a man like Eddy had never crossed her mind or radar, because the existence of a man like Eddy didn’t seem possible. He was worse than any serial killer movie or audiobook she’d ever listened to.

Shanti began to hyperventilate. She was beginning to understand why Kaylee freaked out so much around Eddy. What horrors had the former archangel witnessed?

Tunnel vision formed. At the edge of her mind, Shanti was aware of the soft footfalls of someone descending into the basement. She couldn’t focus on him when she was mid-meltdown.

“Head between your knees,” Eddy told her. He didn’t approach her side of the basement but went to the far wall and opened a cardboard box, whose flaps scraped and brushed each other. “Deep breaths.”

Shanti listened, more because she was terrified of what happened if she fell unconscious around him than because she wanted to take advice from him.

Why him? She asked herself for the millionth time since being banished to the basement and surrounded by corpses. She’d stayed because she innately knew to fear the consequences. The proof of Eddy’s insanity lay around her.

“Any new insight into how you turn into a magic gateway between Hell and Earth?” Eddy asked.

“I told you. I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t think it’s anything I can control.”

“Not even with those rocks of yours?”

She groaned at the tease. She’d lost two of them in the forest during her and Kaylee’s escape from 3G.

“If so, wouldn’t I have accidentally opened a portal by now? I’ve carried the stones my whole life. They were passed down to me by one of the many, many gatekeepers. If it were that easy, a gateway would’ve opened when I went to the right location.” She’d broken down and confirmed the truth about the portals only after he confronted her on the bus and claimed he could see the truth.

It had taken five words, and her greatest secret – and fear – were both realized.

[_You’re the gateway, aren’t you? _]His tone had been conversational.

However, it was what she realized next that shattered her attempt to remain tough, untouched by the gruesome circumstances she found herself in. The panic and tears were completely out of her control.

“Kaylee has less of a clue than you do,” Eddy mused. “You’d think there’d be an instruction manual to opening a gateway to Hell. Guess I can Google it.” He laughed.

Shanti frowned. She didn’t put it past someone in the world figuring out how to do it and posting it online.

“You’re hiding something,” Eddy said.

“Not about the portal,” she replied.

“That statement reads as true. But it’s important, whatever it is.” He knelt near her. His warmth and scent reached her. He’d bathed recently and no longer smelled of rain, forest and mud. His nearness left her insides fluttering and her soul whispering happily.

“It’s my business,” she said.

“All right.” He rose and moved away.

“Is Kaylee okay?” Shanti ventured.

“Of course.”

“I thought I heard voices upstairs.”

“We have a new ally.” Eddy returned to rummaging through a box. He grunted as he lifted a heavy one and dropped it on the ground. “Does your secret have anything to do with our soul agreement?”

Shanti’s breath caught in her throat. She sat in stunned silence.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” Eddy continued in his normal conversational tone, as if they weren’t discussing one of the two most important facts in her life. “It won’t happen, though. Not the way it’s supposed to. I have a different purpose here, and so do you. Sorry, sunshine, but we’ll never work out, even if we’re supposed to be soul mates.”

“I wouldn’t want us to,” she breathed.

“Great!”

Shanti shivered. How long had he known? She didn’t notice when they first met, not until they were on the bus together. She definitely hadn’t given the truth away. She couldn’t imagine anything worse than to be the soul mate of a man who slaughtered an entire family and buried them in their own basement!

As a fifth gen, she wouldn’t be capable of committing evil for another few generations, according to what the other angels said.

She hadn’t earned this curse. Was this another lesson in how unfair the human world was? Because she was tired of learning that one!

“Can I go upstairs?” she asked, hating how the energy of the dead inched into her mind, no matter what she thought about. It surrounded her, left her claustrophobic.

“Any games, and I won’t hesitate to do to you what I did to these people. No more beating up on Eddy. We straight?”

“I understand.” And did she ever. He left her in the basement overnight with her wild imagination, the scent of blood, the still energy, and the horrifying truth that he had bludgeoned or stabbed parents and their children to death.

It was a mind game at the ultimate level, leaving her surrounded by death with only her senses to tell her what happened. Eddy knew just what to do to freak someone out and remove any doubt as to what he was capable of.

She was tough, but she was neck deep in someone else’s game. Eddy played on a depraved level Shanti wanted nothing to do with.

“There’s someone who might want to talk to you,” Eddy said. He shifted to her once more and took her arms. He helped her to her feet and released her, but not before she felt the warm electricity marking him as hers drift through her body. “The stairs are ten steps straight ahead of you. Don’t stray, or you might step on someone.”

How could this psychopath be her soul mate?

Shanti didn’t dare stray from the path. She placed one foot in front of the other, terrified of disrespecting the dead who had already suffered enough. Reaching the stairs, she planted one palm against the wall and ascended slowly. When she reached the top, she considered closing the door and locking it.

Like Kaylee, she was afraid to escape when she had the chance. To do so was to invite the vengeance of a man too unstable to predict.

“Hey, there,” a male voice said.

Shanti assessed the energy of the man standing on the other side of the kitchen. He projected the calm, steady aura of a guide. Her brow furrowed. The kitchen itself smelled of food recently heated in the microwave and gun oil.

“It’s a long story,” he said, amused. “I’m Nathan.”

“Nathan. Kaylee’s … friend,” Shanti said.

“Exactly. I don’t know why you were in the basement, and I’m not about to ask,” Nathan said. He crossed to her and rested a hand on her arm. He guided her to the table and pulled out a chair.

Shanti sat. She was on the verge of sobbing again, not out of fear, but out of confusion and exhaustion. She’d been unable to sleep since Eddy put her in the basement. While she understood ghosts weren’t real, being surrounded by corpses wreaked havoc on her thoughts.

“You must be gateway number two,” Nathan said. “What can you tell me about the third?”

Shanti hesitated, uncertain whom to trust. Kaylee trusted this man, but Shanti hadn’t yet figured out whose loyalties were to whom. “Not much,” she replied. “I lost her stone.”

“You lost your stone and Kaylee’s. We found them in the forest.” Nathan corrected her neatly, without Eddy’s lethal edge. “Wanna try again?”

Shanti swallowed hard. She wasn’t going to be able to lie to the spirit guide or assassin. “If there’s a place, I can’t see it. I can only hear it. The last time I checked, it sounded like … wind. Lots of wind through an open area. It smelled like sand. Or dirt. I’m not sure.”

“Too vague,” Nathan said pensively. “Are you okay?” This question was quieter, softer.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’m scared.”

“My alliance with Eddy is temporary. I need to be close to Kaylee and the three portals in order to protect you all. But I will get all of you out of this, one way or another.”

Despite his confidence, Shanti wasn’t at all convinced. Even if she escaped, she wouldn’t be free, not with 3G and Eddy’s people hunting her at every turn.

“About the gateways,” Nathan continued. “How do they work?”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to know. Eddy asked me the same question. The only thing I know is that I have to be at the site and Kaylee is probably the only person who can close a gateway once opened.”

“Interesting. I keep wishing she wasn’t involved in any of this.” While she couldn’t place the note in Nathan’s voice, she could read his energy. He was worried to the point of despondent, as if he didn’t think Kaylee was going to survive.

Shanti wasn’t so certain the archangel would, either. No one involved was guaranteed a life beyond what happened the next few weeks.

“I’d like to see you and Kaylee interact,” Nathan said.

“Interact?”

“Your energies.”

“Why do you need to know how to open a portal anyway?” Shanti asked uneasily.

“I don’t. But I want to know how to close one or prevent it from being opened in the first place. If I can remove one of the factors, no one will be able to do it. Maybe there’s something in your combined energies that will tell me something. Anything.”

Shanti nodded and swallowed hard. She felt Kaylee’s tense presence when the former archangel entered the kitchen. She wasn’t the only one whose energy was heightened to the point of erupting: Nathan’s calmness took on an edge that left Shanti shifting away.

Any doubt Shanti had about the connection between the two of them vanished.

Kaylee rested her hand on Shanti’s shoulder in a silent greeting. She stood beside her.

Nathan was silent. His energy stilled as he focused on something other than his soul mate.

“I got nothing,” he said at last.

The ensuing silence was thick with unspoken words and heavy emotions. Shanti understood their pain. Though she felt nothing for her own soul mate, beyond bafflement and horror, she could imagine what it was like to have someone she cared about and not be able to be with him.

“We’re leaving in the morning,” Nathan said. “Eddy and I will figure out a place to lay low. 3G is aggressively hunting you both. To my knowledge, they don’t yet understand the link between the gatekeeper and gate, which puts our third gatekeeper in danger. They’ve already tried to murder one of you. Shanti, if you can think of any other details about the third key holder, let me know.”

“I have Amira’s stones,” Kaylee said. “We can work together on it.”

Kaylee’s energy, streaked with black, remained erratic. Shanti was in no rush to remain with either Nathan or Eddy. She stood.

“Let’s figure it out, Kaylee,” she said. “Living room?”

Kaylee rested a hand on her arm without answering. The two of them walked to the living room, where a television played quietly.

Kaylee’s energy changed immediately upon leaving the kitchen. Shanti recognized a touchy issue when she saw it. Rather than ask her friend about Nathan, she sat beside Kaylee on the couch and held the stone belonging to the third portal.

“What did Eddy do to you down there?” Kaylee whispered.

“Scared the hell out of me,” Shanti admitted.

“He’s good at that. You’re okay?”

“Physically. Mentally, I think this whole experience is going to leave me pretty scarred.”

Kaylee laughed. “Me, too.” She fell quiet, concentrating on her stone.

Shanti’s senses picked up nothing more than what she’d found before. She focused on breathing in the scent. It was dirt but not wet, earthy dirt. More like … dust. Dry and smoky.

“Cactus,” Kaylee said. “It’s familiar. Let me check something.”

“Do you smell the dust?”

“I think so. Wherever she is, there doesn’t seem to be anything else around. Like she’s standing in the desert.” There was a quiet moment. “Weird,” Kaylee murmured. “Saguaro cacti, the kind that grows near where my grandparents lived for a few years. Nathan!”

“What is it?” Nathan called.

“Is there any chance the third key holder is in Tucson?”

Shanti released the stone.

“Under my nose?” Nathan grumbled. “Nothing’s impossible. What are you seeing?”

Kaylee explained it.

“Figures,” Nathan said. “It could be anywhere in the Sonoran desert. But …” He drifted off. Shanti heard the rustling of paper. “Pedro gave me this last time I visited him. He marked two addresses in Tucson: one mine, another on the southeast side of town. That crazy bastard gave me her location without telling me.”

“Pedro’s the wisest entity that’s ever existed. He’s not crazy,” Shanti said.

“I’m starting to understand that after three millennia,” Nathan replied. “I’m guessing we’re going on a road trip.”

“Do you want Eddy to know where the portals are?” Kaylee asked, concerned.

“I want to reach them before 3G does. As long as Amira stays away, Eddy can’t do anything. But we need to put this third gatekeeper under protection. It’s a risk we have to take.”

Shanti listened, comprehending the situation while disagreeing, as she suspected Kaylee did. Did Nathan underestimate how dangerous Eddy was? Or was he confident he could handle whatever Eddy had planned?

Nathan left, and Kaylee began to relax once more. Shanti didn’t voice her observation that things had to be awful between them, judging by their energies.

“What if we planned to escape?” she whispered.

“You and me?” Kaylee asked.

“Yes. To Arizona. We can find the third portal before anyone.”

“We can trust Nathan to do his job.”

“But not Eddy,” Shanti pointed out. “If we kept far enough ahead of them, we could reach the portal first.”

“Where is this coming from?” Kaylee questioned. “You didn’t make a run for it when it was just Eddy. Now there are two obstacles. Did he do something to you when you were in the basement?”

“No,” Shanti replied. It was technically true. Eddy’s connection to her had been in place since before either of them was born. “I get tired of being protected and feeling like I can’t make my own decisions.”

“I understand.” Kaylee was quiet, considering. “I honestly don’t think we could stay far enough ahead. They aren’t like normal guides from what little I’ve seen. They can find us when they shouldn’t be able to.”

Disappointed, Shanti wasn’t completely surprised. She was operating out of a sense of panic, wanting to be as far from her psycho soul mate as possible. Kaylee was being rational.

“Okay,” she said reluctantly. “Maybe we should wait until we’re closer to Arizona to plan something.”

“I am tired of not being in control of my life,” Kaylee added. “I don’t know if I have a choice right now. There doesn’t seem to be any benefit to being a reincarnated archangel.”

“Yet,” Shanti responded. “There will be. It’s impossible for you not to be meant to do something truly incredible.”

“I hope so.”

“What does Shadowman say?”

“Nothing at all recently. If I had to guess, he feels weaker. I’m not sure how that’s possible. I’m alive. Shouldn’t he be back to normal as well?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Shanti replied, mind on Kaylee’s occasionally funky energy. “But isn’t it a good thing he’s weak?”

“I want to think so but … something tells me it’s a sign of something really bad. Worse than my new normal.”

Shanti was quiet, uncertain what could be worse than being attached to an archdemon determined to take his form and start the apocalypse. Kaylee’s energy turned dark, her aura black. The air around her grew chilly like a fall breeze.

“Are you talking to him?” Shanti murmured.

“No. Why?” Kaylee had slumped and appeared fatigued.

“Curious.” It wasn’t the first time Shanti had seen Kaylee’s aura change without her reaching out to Shadowman. Why would Kaylee’s energy resemble the cold emptiness of death, if she weren’t communicating with Shadowman? “I’m hoping he has some insight.”

“I can ask him again. He’s been ignoring me lately, unless we’re in danger.”

“Maybe wait until we’re in danger again.”

Shanti managed not to inch away, even though she wanted to. She hadn’t had the nerve to ask Kaylee about her aura. Even if she did, would Kaylee understand the question? Her friend was the closest thing to a civilian involved in the war between good and evil.

Kaylee straightened, and her energy returned to normal. “I’m feeling drained. I think I’m going to relax upstairs for a bit.”

Shanti didn’t blame her. Her friend left, and Shanti listened to Nathan and Eddy moving around in the kitchen. Nathan appeared to feel the tension as well. She heard the sound of the back door closing. Eddy’s scent and presence were unusually strong, which she assumed had to do with their connection.

After a moment, Shanti rose, traced her fingertips down the couch so she didn’t run into it, and made her way back to the kitchen.

“Most people don’t come back for a second round after I interrogate them,” Eddy said.

“You know I’m not a threat.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve seen you in action.”

Why him? The question wouldn’t leave her mind. Fed up with her thoughts, Shanti paused in the doorway.

“What happened to Kaylee?” she asked.

“At what point?”

“When you brought her back.”

Eddy shifted in the chair in which he sat. His energy remained neutral; he had somehow learned to suppress it from revealing his emotions and intentions.

“Death clings to her,” Shanti prodded. “It shouldn’t, once the magic used to return her is gone.”

“Maybe it’s Shadowman.”

“It’s not,” Shanti said firmly. “It’s like the spell or curse or favor or whatever you did to bring her back is still in play. She almost seems … dead and suddenly not. Like your spell didn’t work all the way and sticks around to bring her back whenever she dies again.”

“Careful. You don’t want to go down this path,” Eddy advised. “I’m impressed that you can sense this much, but you might want to drop it.”

She was right or close to right. Shanti tilted her head, assessing him, searching for the smallest tell in his aura or energy. He gave away nothing.

Not about to press the psychopath, she turned away, towards the direction Kaylee had gone.

“How many –” she started to ask.

“Four to the carpet. Then twelve down the hall. Turn right and the stairs are there. Top of the stairs, turn right and walk fourteen steps. That’s where Kaylee is hiding out.”

Shanti released a sigh. Eddy knew too much, sensed much more, and generally freaked her out every time they interacted. She reached the fourth step and stretched for the wall. The tip of her toe brushed the carpet of the hallway, while her fingertips trailed along the wall.

She was three steps down the hallway when it hit her. Shanti sucked in a breath, horrified.

Kaylee’s dark stillness.

The lingering energy of Hell.

Shadowman’s general absence.

Shadowman was caught in limbo. And so was Kaylee’s soul.

Kaylee wasn’t alive. She was animated, but it was the power of Hell keeping her on Earth.

“The first one who figured it out wins a special prize.” Eddy’s approach behind Shanti had been silent. His arm blocked her path, and his lean frame rested lightly against her left arm.

Shanti froze. Somehow, he understood what she knew. Was it her energy? She didn’t have his ability to suppress what she felt and prevent it from reaching her aura.

“You get to choose your prize,” he continued. “Silence or your tongue.”

“I’m right,” she said, mouth dry. “She’s what? A zombie?”

“Someone who dies, if she leaves my side for an extended period of time. Which is worth considering, if you two plan on running off at some point,” Eddy warned. “You’ll kill her. I’m her link on this plane.”

Shanti wasn’t the only one connected to the assassin. She found herself breathing in his scent and wondering what his face looked like, if she traced her fingertips across his features. His frame was wiry, lean, which she knew from their first meeting, when he’d grabbed her. He was strong and solid.

He was an incarnated demon. Or something similar. She had no idea, and he allowed no traces of his true nature to slip past his defenses.

“Silence,” she said, aware he was waiting for her decision. “I think it’s better she doesn’t know that yet. How can she live like this?”

“It’s working.”

“How can [_you _]live like this?”

“Me?” Eddy chuckled. “I thought we agreed to break up earlier.”

She flushed and smashed her elbow into his chest before knocking his arm away.

“There’s my girl,” he said, unfazed.

Shanti continued down the hall, counting her steps.

“I’m fine, by the way,” Eddy called after her. “Always nice to know someone cares!”

[_What an asshole, _]she thought. Even if he weren’t a psychopath, she couldn’t ever see herself with a complete ass.

“It won’t last,” she said when she reached the bottom of the stairwell leading upstairs. “You can’t keep something like that a secret for long. And even you can’t sustain that level of energy.”

“It better work, or half the people in this house end up deader than they currently are.”

“Because your life is connected to hers.”

“Bingo. That was the agreement,” Eddy answered.

“With … Him.”

“It’s in His best interest.”

“But not in yours,” she pointed out. She tilted her head again, struggling to pinpoint any flare or flux of his energy. “Aren’t you afraid of what happens?”

“Nah. Been through worse.”

“That’s truly … insane,” she said, amazed anyone could look forward to a trip to Hell. “None of this makes sense.”

“You mean us.”

“Non-us.”

“Maybe your fearless leader thought he could save me. Or sway me. He can’t, of course, but he must think highly enough of you to believe you stood a chance to change my mind. Take it as a compliment. I’ll take it as an insult,” Eddy reasoned.

Shanti hadn’t considered her bond to the assassin could be meant to do anything other than make her life miserable. Was he onto something?

[_Why didn’t I know to ask when I saw Pedro? _]Was this why the spirit guide corps as a whole was constantly frustrated by Pedro? Because he knew the answers to questions they hadn’t known to ask?

“Do you want to be saved?” she asked thoughtfully.

“Nothing in any world could do that.” His energy remained stable, his tone as well. “Thanks for the talk, sunshine.” He turned and left, his footsteps padding down the hallway.

Was everything a joke to him? Was he capable of caring about anything, even his own soul?

Why in the hell had Pedro matched her with a sadistic murderer incapable of being saved?

Shanti followed Eddy’s directions and found herself in the master bedroom, where Kaylee sat, crying.

Her frustration fled at the sniffling. Shanti moved towards the sound and perched on the bed beside Kaylee.

“Men suck,” she started.

Kaylee gave a teary laugh. “Yeah. They really do.”

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Twenty-Two

Shanti’s instincts sent a cry of alarm. She snapped awake on the bed beside Kaylee, who had fallen asleep crying. Unwilling to leave her, Shanti had stretched out to sleep next to her.

The house in general was quiet, and no one’s energy was present in the room aside from theirs. Kaylee’s aura was dark and still once more; she was in zombie mode, which creeped Shanti out almost as much as her stay in the basement. Kaylee was the sixth corpse in the house, except no one other than Shanti and Eddy understood that to be the case.

Puzzled as to what had awoken her, Shanti shifted off the bed as gently as possible so as not to disturb Kaylee. She stood and swept her foot in front of her, stepping two steps at a time after ensuring her path was clear.

When she reached the door, she counted back the steps she had taken to the stairs, walked down and paused once more.

She heard nothing. Sensed no one.

But something was … wrong. Or off. She couldn’t tell for certain which was true. Had Eddy or Nathan done something to trigger her instincts? Or had the house been discovered by 3G?

She strained to identify any trace of danger.

Nothing.

“Hey, sunshine. You need to move. Fast.” Eddy’s whisper came from the direction of the front of the house.

“I don’t sense –” she began to reply.

Someone barreled into her. Someone who could hide his energy.

She landed on the carpeted floor beneath Eddy, who attempted to not fall fully on her. He rolled them and then wrapped an arm around her, pulling her with him behind the sofa in the formal living room.

“What the hell?” she muttered and wriggled.

He kept her against him, his strong frame tense. “They’re using infrared and I’m not sure what else.”

Shanti went still. “3G?”

“Yep. Looks like they found us!”

“How can you be happy about that?”

“I like a good fight. Murder, mayhem. I’m good at direct confrontation.”

She shook her head. He was absolutely crazy.

Eddy didn’t release her. They sat in the quiet, hunkered down behind a sofa, his arm tight around her. The warm electricity she experienced whenever they touched trickled into her, soothing her tense muscles and helping her relax.

It was the wrong moment to relax, she knew, but she wasn’t able to help the sensations inside her or the strange urge to shift closer to him.

Did he feel any of this? Or was she alone being tortured by an attraction to a monster?

None of her senses picked up on any indication from him that he was aware of her in the same manner she was of him.

A sound, too soft for her to make it out, came from upstairs. Shanti listened hard. It didn’t come again. If it was Kaylee, she could have gone to the bathroom. Fortunately, it didn’t sound like she was headed down the hallway towards the stairs.

“Ah. Laser guided weapons. So un-creative,” Eddy said.

Shanti kept her attention on any movements or sounds originating from upstairs.

The soft sound came again. Not a footfall. Not snoring or the sound of running water or a door closing.

When it came a third time, she shifted away from Eddy.

Shanti started to stand. Eddy snatched her back against him.

“Something’s going on upstairs,” she said and strained. He held her fast. She positioned herself to unleash a barrage of self-defense moves to dislodge him.

“Can you see the lasers?” he asked, entertained. “Because I can. You’d be hit before you reached the stairs.”

“Can’t have your precious gateway being shot!” she snapped. “Kaylee’s in danger. I can’t explain how I know it, but she is.”

“Can’t have that now, can we?” Eddy loosened his grip and shifted around her. “Stay here, sunshine. I’ll check it out.” He released her and bolted, taking with him the comforting warmth.

A gunshot was followed by two more.

She held her breath, waiting for the pops of sound to quiet before listening for Eddy. The assassin had made it to the stairs. She didn’t smell blood, leading her to believe he’d made it without being shot.

Shanti waited a moment. She tracked his movement down the hallway above her head. Then she heard it – the sounds of a struggle. After a split second of indecision, Shanti shifted onto her tiptoes. She took a deep breath and sprinted.

Bullets whizzed by her. She hit the wall behind the stairs and then scrambled up. The bullets stopped when she reached the top, and she slowed as she went down the hallway.

The energies of a dozen people were ahead of her, none of which were Kaylee’s. They radiated the steady auras of guides. Concerned, Shanti entered the melee in the master bedroom and smashed a kick into the back of one of the people fighting Eddy. The attacker whirled to confront her. She punched, kicked and swept his legs before slamming her heel into the guide’s throat.

He gagged and wheezed.

Shanti ducked a blow aimed at her head, her senses picking up the energy that was too fluid for her to sense in time. Whirling, ducking and twisting, she waited for her attacker to lower his guard. When he did, she went in hard and fast, smashing her heel against his nose and knee into his groin.

Too late she sensed the blow coming from behind her. Shanti whirled – but Eddy was there first.

“Don’t listen to instructions, do you?” he asked, strain in his voice as he held the wrist of the man aiming for her head while simultaneously keeping a hold on the other guide to his left.

“I don’t need help!” she retorted and slammed her elbow into the attacker’s face. She gave him a knee to the groin then clocked him as he fell.

“I know. He’s all yours.”

Somewhat placated that Eddy didn’t think her weak, Shanti focused on the next attacker and sensed Eddy behind her, his back to her. He trusted her skill to let her cover his most vulnerable side, his back.

Why did that make her happy?

Within minutes, their attackers lay on the floor, most unmoving and one wheezing. Sensing her balance off, Eddy reached out to steady her. Shanti straightened and swiped his arm away, breathing hard.

“We need to leave before they bring reinforcements,” Eddy said.

“But, Kay-”

“She’s gone. Nathan went out for more supplies.”

Shanti started in the direction of the large window beyond the bed, not believing him.

“We don’t have time,” Eddy said. He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her towards the door.

Shanti wrenched free. She sensed him reach for her and lashed out as hard as she had with the 3G guides attacking them.

Eddy moved with inhuman speed, predicting her blows and deflecting them with firm gentleness, the same he’d shown her during their first encounter on the road in Maryland.

“I’d love to fight you, sunshine,” he said. He snatched her fist mid-punch and whirled her, yanking her against his strong form. As before, he used an arm bar around her neck certain to kill her, if she resisted. “But maybe we can pick a better time and place. Cool?”

Unable to resist, Shanti growled in frustration. She made a mental note to learn a defense strategy against the move he’d used against her twice.

“We straight?” he asked without releasing her.

“Fine,” she muttered.

Eddy released her. “Then let’s go!” He grabbed her hand and guided her – quickly but carefully – through the bodies in the bedroom and into the hall.

Shanti went, hating that her guide stick was elsewhere. She could read energies to navigate people but she needed help avoiding inanimate objects and stairs, which she had learned the hard way long ago.

“When did you figure it out? About us?” she asked as she blindly allowed Eddy to guide her.

“As soon as I saw you,” he replied.

Shanti mumbled a few curses. “That’s why you didn’t shoot me, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t shoot you because I had six rounds and didn’t want to waste them.”

For the first time since they’d met, she caught something different in his energy.

He was lying. Shanti was too surprised to know what to ask or even if she’d read the tiny fluctuation correctly.

Eddy didn’t take them to the stairwell. The windows on the main floor shattered, and tear gas tickled her nose as it floated up the stairs. The shuffling movement of 3G members moving through the ground floor came next.

Eddy continued to one of the other rooms down the hallway. He slung open a glass door. Fresh, cold night air swept over her. It was laced with the scents of gunpowder.

Eddy stopped. Her free hand tapped the air beside him until she found the cold metal railing around the balcony.

He let go of her hand. “Can you swim?”

“Can I what?”

Before she realized why he was asking, Shanti was soaring over the balcony. She stifled a scream as she fell.

She hit the water of the pool in the backyard. Shanti sank beneath the surface, her skin jolted into hypersensitivity by the freezing water. She began kicking and surfaced, gasping and furious.

A splash sounded near her, announcing Eddy’s dive off the balcony.

Shanti began swimming, arms extended to feel for the side of the pool.

“Other way,” Eddy said as soon as he surfaced.

She changed her direction. At the moment, 3G was a greater threat than Eddy. She reached the side of the pool. The sound of Eddy pulling himself out was followed a second later by his hands gripping her wrists. He hauled her up and out.

Shanti’s toes reached the cement border. Eddy released one wrist as she planted herself firmly on the ground once more.

“They found my arsenal,” he said, disappointed. “It’s a shame, really. I hate wasting my toys.”

Shanti frowned. Nothing about Eddy was subtle. She heard him fish something out of his wet pocket and then a click.

“Eddy!” she exclaimed. “We’re in the middle of –”

“Better duck, sunshine!” He pulled her away from the house. She didn’t understand their direction until they reached a shed with rough wooden walls. He pulled her between it and the fencing then wrapped one arm around her and knelt, supporting her in the space between his knees. “Three, two, one.”

An explosion ripped through the neighborhood. The shed rattled but held. Flaming parts of the house, and likely those in it when it went up, rained down around them. Heat rolled over them. Shanti careened back against him, her sensitive ears ringing painfully and senses overwhelmed by the energy radiating off the explosion.

Eddy steadied her. “Let’s see those cockroaches survive this,” he said, sounding satisfied. “Great way to cover up a multiple homicide.”

“You’re crazy!” she cried.

Shanti struggled to right herself. Unlike sounds, where she could cover her ears, she couldn’t turn off the ability to read energy. The world was ablaze with it, her surroundings a mangled mess. She held her head, struggling for balance within the chaos. Her breathing was harsh, her equilibrium askew to the point the ground felt as if it moved beneath her.

Eddy’s free hand went to her forehead. A flow of energy – cool mixed with warm – pushed into her mind, suppressing the chaos.

Shanti rested her head back against his shoulder as the sensations released her.

“You into kinky shit by chance?” he asked. His hand circled her neck, and he squeezed gently.

A shiver went through her, one she was embarrassed to acknowledge as pleasure. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Shanti demanded but didn’t move.

“Yeah, I thought so. This soul mate business is not happening, but if you ever want to f-”

A second explosion went off, drowning out his words. Shanti braced herself. Eddy’s palm returned to her forehead, and more soothing energy flowed into her.

“That’s our sign to leave,” he said.

“What about the others?”

“Nathan will find us.”

“Kaylee can’t be away from you for long.”

“3G won’t make it easy to find her. We need to retreat and plan. I might have a last resort idea.” Eddy’s hand dropped. The energy remained, calming her mind. He stood and helped her up.

Something told her the cheerful assassin’s idea was going to be terrible. Shanti didn’t ask, though, afraid to hear him admit the truth.

“How long can she survive if she’s not with you?” she asked, concerned.

“Not long.”

“A few days? A week?”

“If we’re lucky, a day. But as long as I’m within about a tenth of a mile of her, that should be enough.”

“Holy shit! Why would you agree to something like that?” Shanti demanded.

“It was a spur of the moment thing.”

“At what point did turning someone into a zombie sound like a good idea anyway?”

“Is this one of those relationships where you’re going to complain about me leaving the toilet seat up?” He grabbed her arm and began walking along the fencing. “Let’s get a few things straight. One, when the Fallen One himself asks for a favor, you do it. Two, if you run, I’ll cut off some body part you like. Or one I like. I’m not gonna lie. There are a few I’ve been looking at.”

Maybe she had pissed off Pedro without realizing it. That would explain pairing her up with a man who belonged in an asylum for the criminally insane. How was this her life? Her reality? Her fate?

“Three,” Eddy continued, “desperate times, sunshine. Don’t get in my way.”

Shanti tripped as she stepped from the walkway around the side of the house to the sidewalk. Sirens shrieked in the distance, along with the sounds of a large vehicle peeling out. Neighbors were in the street, their numbers large enough to blur her surroundings. She didn’t do well in crowds; too many signatures left her senses confused, unable to tell individual people apart.

Eddy smashed his fist into someone’s face. Overwhelmed by her surroundings, Shanti focused on him. His energy always read slightly differently than anyone else’s. It was cooler, more controlled.

Two shots rang out, followed by the shocked cries of the nearest neighbors.

“That one won’t stay down long,” Eddy stated and replaced the weapon in the waistband of his jeans.

A car sidled up to the curb.

“You all need a ride?” Nathan asked casually.

Eddy opened the door to the backseat. Shanti slid in numbly, uncertain how to process her night.

“Where’s Kaylee?” Nathan asked.

“Gone,” Shanti replied. “3G has her.”

Eddy’s door slammed closed. “Nice ride.”

“I thought you could protect Kaylee!” was the retort.

Before Eddy could speak, Shanti leaned forward. “She’s dying, Nathan. Eddy has something to tell you about that.”

“Silence or tongue?” Eddy replied.

“He needs to know!” she snapped. “If you want help getting her back, you need to give Nathan what he needs to know to find her before it’s too late.”

“Too late?” Nathan echoed. “3G has her! It’s already too late.”

The car pulled away from the curb and crawled down the road.

After a pause, Eddy spoke. “About bringing Kaylee back. That’s not entirely what happened. She’s not permanently back.”

“She’s a zombie,” Shanti said and leaned back against the seat.

Nathan was silent, still, his energy dangerous.

[_You two figure this shit out, _]she thought. Soreness from the blows she’d absorbed crept into her muscles. One calf was cramped and the knuckles on one hand swollen. They weren’t broken, but she’d never hit anyone with full force. Before coming north, she’d only ever hit punching bags or sparred with her guides. Prepared to fight, she was nonetheless surprised by how terrifying it was to hit someone on purpose, with all her strength, when in the projects. This night had been worse, because she was scared.

Had she killed anyone?

If so, it had been an accident. She’d been operating out of fear. Her insides felt as if they were trembling from effort and emotion, and she couldn’t help trying to relive every blow she made to ensure she hadn’t killed.

Then again, these were guides, capable of healing.

[_Except when someone like Eddy blows them up. _]Stressed from her first real battle, Shanti focused on settling the unstable energy inside of her.

After a clipped discussion, Nathan and Eddy had subsided into terse silence. Nathan’s aura radiated his tightly controlled fury and fear. Eddy was … Eddy. Unreadable.

“What do we do? How do we find Kaylee?” Shanti ventured.

“We use the stones,” Nathan replied. He handed her a pouch containing the stone she’d lost in the forest.

Shanti dumped it into her hand. It was cold enough to burn. She dropped it with a hiss then used the pouch to pick it up. Touching its surface tentatively, she waited for her senses to engage.

“There’s nothing,” she said, troubled. “That’s never happened since they awoke.”

Nathan was quiet.

“How can that happen?” Shanti asked and tried again.

“Moonstones block evil,” Nathan murmured. “Maybe they can be used to trap evil, too.”

“She’s not evil,” Shanti said, bristling at the idea the former archangel could be anything like Shadowman.

“Her life force currently is,” Eddy replied. “Hell is why she’s alive.”

“It’s not right. We have to find her, Nathan,” Shanti said. She replaced the stone in the pouch but didn’t return it to him.

“You okay, hon?” he asked.

“More or less. I’m going to need some serious counseling after all this.” She paused. “Nathan, is it possible to request a new soul mate?”

“If it were, Kaylee would’ve ended up with someone else by now,” he replied dryly. “Why do you …” He started to laugh and then stopped. “Eddy? Really? What the hell did you do to piss off Pedro?”

“It must’ve been pretty terrible,” she said with a sigh.

“You know I can hear you guys, right?” Eddy replied.

Nathan laughed, a loud, rolling belly laugh.

Shanti didn’t blame him. She’d laugh, too, if someone told her they were matched with Eddy. It didn’t seem possible the honor of a soul mate would fall to a man without a conscience.

“I thought I was fucked!” Nathan admitted when he had calmed. “If there’s any good to come of it, I guess you’ll always be safe.”

“Unless he wants to cut off body parts.”

“I’m right here!” Eddy said.

“He said he’d only chop off the parts he liked,” Shanti added, enjoying what small torture she could cause the assassin.

“But what if you need all your parts to open a portal?” Nathan reasoned. “You’d have to be whole.”

“Too late for that,” she said. “I’m kind of blind.”

“Wait,” Eddy said, an odd note in his voice. “Say that again.”

“I’m blind?” she asked. “You knew that, right?”

Nathan’s aura lit up. “Not that,” he said. “You’d have to be whole.”

“That’s the key,” Eddy said, excited. “That’s what we were missing.”

“Someone explain,” she said in irritation. “I am whole. Being blind doesn’t make me less of a person.”

“I don’t mean that,” Nathan said. “I mean, the gatekeepers are a unit. You all have to be present to open a portal. To open the gateway, there is an image only you can see, a sound only Amira can hear, words only the third gatekeeper can speak.”

Shanti relaxed, understanding his point. She had never considered she could open a gateway because she could see something no one else could. But what did that mean?

Nathan’s energy was troubled. Shanti doubted he wanted Eddy to know the secret; she definitely didn’t.

None of it would matter, though, if Kaylee died before they could reach her.

But is that a bad thing? Shanti hated this thought, more so when she began to think Kaylee’s death could stop the first horseman from emerging. Then again, if 3G succeeded in opening a gate, only Kaylee could close it. She was the safety net, if all Hell broke loose.

“Is there an alternate way to force a portal open?” she asked, fearful of the answer and what it might mean for Kaylee.

For a moment, no one responded.

“You’d think there would be,” Eddy responded. “Seems shortsighted to have only one mechanism to open the portals. But it wouldn’t bring the four archdemons out of Hell. Only three, because Kaylee is the key to one of them. No one wants that.”

“Except maybe 3G,” Nathan said.

Shanti didn’t want to think about what happened when the two men in the front seat parted ways.

“What’s your terrible idea?” she asked Eddy reluctantly.

“I’m glad you asked. If we can’t find her, then we have to increase my reach.”

“Reach,” Nathan repeated. “You need Hell for that.”

“Bingo. I have a friend who can help out.”

“You mean a demon.”

“You can’t take Shanti into the Satanist den or to a demon,” Nathan replied.

“I plan on having said demon come to us.”

Shanti listened, fascinated by the conversation. Nathan’s aura was all over the place. She couldn’t guess what he was thinking about at the moment, but it had to have been a lot. His twisted history with his soul mate, perhaps?

“You want her to stay alive?” Eddy prodded at Nathan’s silence.

“Of course I do. I just don’t want her to suffer more than she already has and will because of what you’ve already signed her up for.”

“No help is going to be free,” Eddy replied. “Unless angelkind will step down off their lofty pedestal to do something for once.”

“Let me make a stop first.”

“Just don’t take too long, or there won’t be anything left of her to save.”

Nathan took off fast enough to press Shanti against the back of her seat. The first time he careened around a corner, she pulled on her seatbelt. They picked up speed when they reached what she assumed was the highway.

Shanti nibbled on her lower lip, concerned for Kaylee.

They drove through ten songs on the radio before the car stopped abruptly.

“This is a no parking zone, and DC fines are no joke,” Eddy complained.

“Shut up and wait here,” Nathan replied as he got out of the car.

Shanti smiled and then giggled. Nathan and Kaylee had more in common than either of them knew. They were both terrible drivers.

“How we doing?” Eddy asked.

“After being attacked by 3G and nearly blown up?” she returned. “Not bad.”

“Great perspective.”

She snorted.

“You took boxing and martial arts. Ever learned to fight with weapons?”

“My guide stick,” she answered.

“You’d probably be a natural at the bo. What about knives?”

“No.”

“Wanna learn?” he asked.

Shanti opened her mouth to respond, closed it and then shook her head. “You’ve threatened me how many times now? Besides, I thought we agreed to break up. Why do you want to spend more time around me?”

He was quiet.

She waited, morbidly curious and hating herself for being genuinely interested in his response.

Eddy laughed. “You’re holding your breath. You want to hang out, don’t you?”

“What? No,” she snapped.

“You can’t even see me, and you’re totally into me.”

“You put me in the basement surrounded by corpses! You murdered children! How can you possibly think I’m into you?” she shouted.

“I was teasing, by the way,” he replied, unruffled by her outburst. “The children died quickly. The parents … well, the children died quickly. I had to send you a message.”

“You could’ve just asked me not to run off!”

“Does that work?”

“Have you ever tried not being a creepy psychopath?”

“It’s been working fine for me.” He was amused by the conversation.

Shanti made a sound of frustration. Drawing a deep breath to keep from hitting him, she centered herself. “I know you lied to me, Eddy. You may not want a soul mate, but you don’t want anything to happen to me, either.”

“Maybe.”

“Next time, don’t kill an entire family and force me to spend the night with them to prove your points. Just ask. Considering the alternative, I’ll definitely hear you out.”

“You wanna go out sometime?” he asked.

“No.”

“You’re right. Much easier,” he mused. “But it didn’t work. We’re going out, or I’m chopping off something.”

“No.”

“You’ve gotta throw me a line. What’s the right way to ask you?”

“Right now, there isn’t a right way!” she retorted. “Try not being a dick for a day or two, and we’ll see how I feel then.”

“Assuming we survive the next two days, and I don’t murder any more families, will you go out with me?”

Shanti sighed.

“Are old people fair game?”

“No.”

“How about –”

“You can murder 3G members, bad people, and anyone else who gets in the way,” she clarified. “No one innocent and definitely no children.”

“I’m not comfortable with all these rules,” he replied.

“Then we aren’t ever going out.”

“I’ll give it a shot. I might surprise us both and go two days without killing irrelevant people.”

[_Why am I agreeing to this insanity? _]Shanti demanded of herself. It had to be the result of being soul mates, because she’d never date anyone like him otherwise.

Nathan’s energy reappeared nearby.

Thunder smashed into the sky above them with force that made Shanti’s heart jump.

Eddy flung his door open and got out. The earthy scent of coming rain drifted into the car. The two men stood in silence for a moment.

Energy unlike anything Shanti had ever sensed danced around the car. She climbed out, struggling to make sense of it. Storms always brought in new energy, but this was different. Too erratic and strong to be a normal thunderstorm. It clung to everything, including her.

She lifted her hands from her sides, following the energy with her senses.

“I’ve been advised not to pursue your course of action,” Nathan told Eddy. “But that tells me we won’t need to do anything after all.”

“No, we won’t,” Eddy said.

“What is it?” Shanti asked. “What tells you this?”

The stone in her palm burst into boiling and frostbite. She dropped it and wrung her hand. Her palm burned from both sensations. Extreme temperatures and fluctuating energies more powerful than any she had encountered rolled off the small stone.

Shanti backtracked quickly, her senses overwhelmed by the intensity. It was worse than the explosions Eddy had set off. She gripped her head.

She stumbled. Eddy caught her and wrapped an arm around her waist. His other hand went to her forehead as he once again took the edge off. It was all he could do this time; the stone throbbed power that left her disoriented. She strained against Eddy, who stepped back.

“What the fuck is happening?” Nathan breathed, retreating beside the two of them.

“Well, shit,” Eddy murmured. “Never mind my plan. Looks like Heaven and Hell are fighting over who saves Kaylee directly.”

“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” Shanti whispered.

“Yeah. It is.”

“That’s what Pedro meant,” Nathan said, frustration in his voice. “He said Kaylee had the power to save herself. She either invoked divine intervention or …”

“Neither Heaven nor Hell is taking a chance they lose,” Eddy said. “She had you and me last time, Nathan.”

“She’s got no one now.”

“I take it back. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” Shanti said. Unable to escape the energies beating her brain, she removed Eddy’s hand from her waist and rested it on her head.

His steadying influence increased, and she calmed. Whatever was happening around Kaylee, it couldn’t be good.

“We need to go, Nathan,” Eddy said and nudged her back towards the car.

Nathan moved wordlessly back to the driver’s seat. Shanti slid into the backseat, scared for Kaylee.

“Call your friend,” Eddy said. “I’ll call mine.”

For the first time since she’d encountered Eddy, Shanti heard no trace of amusement in his voice.

“We’re taking Shanti somewhere safe first,” Nathan said.

“I can protect myself,” Shanti told him quickly.

“I know you can. You’ll be protecting the other key holder. She’s not like you.”

Shanti settled into silence, preferring this task to being taken care of. “We have to find the third one.”

“One thing at a time,” Nathan replied.

Shanti relaxed, her own plan beginning to form. As long as the other gatekeeper, Amira, could drive, they could leave for Arizona and find the third long before Nathan and Eddy knew they were gone. All she had to do was slip the paper out of Nathan’s pocket, and she’d have the location. Content with her plan, Shanti couldn’t help praying Nathan and Eddy could help Kaylee.

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Twenty-Three

Kaylee could see nothing through the black hood over her head. She had been asleep when they grabbed her, terrifying her awake. It felt as if they blinded, bound and threw her out the bedroom window to the people waiting below. She was then slung into the back of a van. Her left side was bruised from the metal floor of the vehicle. She had brushed against the legs of several people during one rough turn.

No one bothered to steady her, and the driver sped and turned with abruptness that left her dizzy, nauseated.

The journey smoothed out at what she assumed was the highway. At that point, she was able to focus on finding a comfortable position in spite of her awkward situation. She expected the vehicle to stop shortly after 3G kidnapped her, somewhere in the metro area, but it continued long enough for the drone of the road beneath the metal floor to lull her into a doze.

This time, when she dropped into slumber, she didn’t feel the heavy sleep that reminded her of death. It felt more like a natural sleep, less like she left her body.

Lightning. It flashed in a dream filled with clouds. There was nothing else – only lightning and clouds and the faint scent of roses.

When the van stopped, she awoke instantly. What the fuck does lightning have to do with anything?

The rear doors opened, and new fear lit her blood on fire. She was hauled to the edge of the van by her feet before being slung over someone’s shoulder. The people around her remained silent. Cold air pierced her clothing, and the feet of those around her crunched over gravel. Thunder rumbled in the distance, though no rain pelted her back.

The man carrying her entered a building, and warmth replaced the night chill.

She was set down in a chair and the hood pulled off.

Kaylee squinted around her, waiting for her eyes to adjust after the hours with a hood over her head. She was in the vacant living room of a house with no furniture. Floor lamps lit up the area, and an abandoned end table had been moved out next to the wall. Glowing faintly, several hundred pounds of polished and unpolished moonstones had been poured around the perimeter of the room.

Two armed men in black stood at the doorway leading to the rest of the house. The hallway outside the room was lit up. She couldn’t see farther than the entrance, though she heard voices talking somewhere beyond, in the hallway.

Kaylee shifted uncomfortably. Her wrists were tied behind her back. Her ribs ached from the trip into the house, and her muscles felt bruised from struggling to stabilize herself on the floor of the van.

No part of her felt especially good. Her head was woolly, her body sluggish to respond, and fatigue weighed her down. Her shoulders in particular burned from the awkward position.

“If we free you, will you stay put?”

Kaylee’s heart fell when she heard the familiar voice. It was as much dread as empathy for Nathan, who hadn’t known Maggy was a traitor.

“Yes,” Kaylee replied.

Maggy moved behind her and cut through the zip tie.

Kaylee groaned as she moved her arms in front of her. Her shoulders pulsed angrily, and she rolled them back tentatively.

Maggy pulled up a chair in front of her, appearing far less fatigued than Kaylee felt.

“Hey,” Maggy said. “How’s life been?”

The first and only time Kaylee met her was when Nathan brought Maggy to Kaylee’s office to explain the first of their horrible plans, which had ended with Kaylee’s death.

“Terrible,” Kaylee replied truthfully.

Maggy smiled. “It’s probably not about to get any better.”

“I’m not really surprised. I assume someone’s going to kill me at some point.”

“Not yet,” Maggy admitted. “Zyra has some crazy ideas about how we can use you before you die.”

“Great.” Kaylee sighed. “Any chance I can get some coffee before this crazy idea starts?”

“Sure. Breakfast?”

“Yes, please.”

Maggy motioned to one of the men at the door. He stepped away from his position and disappeared into the hallway. “You’re taking this all much better than the first time we met.”

“I was murdered and spent a month in a Satanist cult. The shock of all this wears off after a while.”

“How is … he?” Maggy asked.

“Shadowman or Nathan?” Kaylee retorted. “Or Eddy?”

Maggy snorted. “All of the above.”

“Nathan’s pissed. Shadowman’s not talking to me. Eddy’s psychotic as usual. I’m sensing a trend about the men in my life.”

“Me, too.” Maggy smiled again. “What’s wrong with Shadowman?”

Kaylee explained the archdemon’s inactivity the best she could. Maggy appeared to be thinking the information over. If Kaylee had to guess, her latest captor didn’t understand Shadowman’s strange distance either.

“Might be a good thing,” Maggy said at last. “It means he can’t control you or your environment.”

“Unless I’m in danger. He pops up then.”

“He didn’t stop us from kidnapping you.”

“Mortal danger,” Kaylee clarified. “The kind I won’t walk away from.”

“Archdemons are new territory for everyone. I have no idea what to expect. I do know Nathan kidnapped one of the gatekeepers. Know where Amira and Shanti are?”

“Shanti was in the house with me. If you didn’t grab her, then I have no idea where she is now.” Kaylee shook her head. “I’m useless to you, Maggy. No one tells me things, because they fear Shadowman will find out. But I also believe no one tells me things also because they can’t figure this all out either. Nathan alone knows where Amira is. Eddy knows where his people are and what they want to do with me. Neither is willing to tell me anything.”

Maggy studied her. Kaylee assumed the senior spirit guide was reading her aura, similar to how Nathan did. “I believe you,” she said. “You’re not helpful but you’re far from useless. You’re at the center of all this, even if no one understands exactly how or why. I’m leaning towards your theory about closing portals, because nothing else makes sense. This means you and Shadowman are potentially useful to us.”

Kaylee sighed.

“About Eddy,” Maggy continued. “None of his people were with him at the house. Why not?”

“He said they were wiped out or scattered by you guys, and he was waiting for someone to contact him. Probably Bullet, the demon.”

“They’ve gone underground, and Bullet is missing.”

“That’s all I got,” Kaylee said and leaned back, tired.

“You aren’t even trying to be evasive.”

“Why bother? I don’t know anything.”

Maggy studied her once more. “Okay, then. Enjoy breakfast, and we’ll talk about what happens next.”

Kaylee had wanted to know what happened next since this entire journey started. But something about the way Maggy said it, and the guide’s smile, left her chilled rather than eager for the answers.

Maggy left, and one of the guards brought Kaylee a tray of food and coffee. He set it down on an end table near the wall.

Kaylee waited for him to leave before she dragged her chair to the end table and wolfed down the food. It was plain but filling. She wrapped both hands around the mug of coffee and leaned back, content to sip it. For all she knew, this was the last coffee she’d ever drink.

Her mind roamed over her options and returned to the fact she had none but to wait to see what the world had in store for her, which made the sense of doom over her head grow more ominous. She looked around the room as she drank her coffee. There were no windows and only one door. A surveillance camera pointed at her had been placed into one corner.

Kaylee glanced towards the floor, recalling Eddy’s secret hiding place. She wasn’t going to get lucky with a second cellar twice.

There was one way out, and it was guarded by two men twice her size.

[_Things have to break my way. I’ve been through too much, _]she told herself without an ounce of faith in her luck. Pedro’s advice echoed in her thoughts.

She had what she needed to become who she needed to become. What exactly was that? How did she access the inner chamber of her soul where these secrets lived? How did she discover her purpose, before someone succeeded in killing her?

Dizziness hit her suddenly. She dropped to her knees. This time, the fatigue and heaviness were more intense. She struggled to stay on her knees beneath the oppressive sensation of being crushed by an invisible weight. Her head throbbed, and her body was like stone, too heavy to move. Not even her lips would form the cry for help stuck in her throat.

[_Dying. _]Shadowman’s voice was stronger than usual. She didn’t sense him becoming stronger, only that he put more effort into communicating with her.

Kaylee was too panicked to respond. At first, a sudden onslaught of images flooded her mind too fast for her to make sense of it. It slowed, and she made out one scene playing in a loop.

***

Eddy carried her out of his beater car and into the forest. Her features were pale, her lips blue, her clothing soaked through with blood. He laid her at the center of a pentagram, lit black candles, and used her blood to trace a circle around the pentagram. He slashed his arm and walked the circle again, mixing their blood with the dirt. When he reached the top of the circle, he began to chant words she didn’t understand.

He glowed black and cold, and his eyes became bottomless holes in his face. For a moment, she could almost see his true form, which was no solid form at all but a mixture of darkness and light. His chanting became louder. The pentagram glowed next, followed by her body, which lifted off the ground.

Eddy’s body emitted black shadows that took on the form of tendril-like fog stretching towards her. They began to circle her, moving around her and then through her, winding in and out like a ribbon. They remained tethered to Eddy, whose chanting took on an otherworldly sound, as if a hundred voices whispered in unison.

A blinding flash of lightning, many times the brightness of the sun, burst into the circle, knocking Eddy back. It was joined by a flash of black lightning, as cold as the first bolt was hot. The two merged and swirled, fusing together light and dark, hot and cold. They sank into Kaylee’s body and disappeared. Eddy climbed to his feet, eyes on her corpse. His features and eyes had returned to normal.

The shadows lowered her to the ground, though one of them remained tethered to Eddy.

***

The heaviness released Kaylee and she gasped, resting on all fours. “What the fuck did he do to me?” she whispered, horrified by the images of how Eddy had returned her to life.

[_He could not bring us back fully. He re-animated us, _]Shadowman explained.

“Re-animated? Like … I’m a zombie?”

Re-animated.

Was that a yes? She didn’t ask again. She wasn’t going to hold onto her wits much longer if he confirmed she was the undead.

[Eddy sustains us. He cannot find us here. Dying. _]Shadowman explained with effort. _Dying. Dying. Dying.

Kaylee sat back on her haunches, breathing quick and hard. “What do we do? Tell me!”

The image of lightning flashed in her mind, accompanied by a trickle of warmth. He had given her this answer before, when they were in danger in the forest.

Before she could demand he tell her more, thunder exploded overhead, loud enough to cause the walls of the house to shudder.

An odd feeling trickled through Kaylee, as if her instincts almost understood what Shadowman had been trying to reveal to her through the images.

She stood and looked up at the ceiling, unable to see the storm roaring outside the house.

“Barachiel,” she repeated quietly. “Lightning, storms, luck and guardian angels.” She didn’t quite understand how they all fit together. At the moment, she cared only about lightning – and a little bit of luck.

She was dying and with her, Shadowman.

“Nathan said you were a guardian angel, the only one to fall since Creation,” she murmured. “And Barachiel was the head of the guardian angels. That’s why we were fated to be connected, isn’t it? You fell, and I went after you. To save you? Stop you?”

Shadowman was quiet, distant.

The heaviness slammed into her again, shoving her to the floor. Kaylee groaned beneath the weight of what she now knew to be death. The vision of how Eddy had reanimated her … the nights of sleep where she felt as if she died … the general sense of fatigue she experienced since waking up after Nathan murdered her … Her body wasn’t going to be able to fend off death for much longer. Eddy was her anchor, and he couldn’t defeat all of 3G’s forces to reach her in time, assuming he found her.

Kaylee lay on the floor, struggling to breathe. She could do nothing until the spell passed. Vaguely aware of footsteps and voices, she didn’t have the strength to resist what 3G planned to do to her. Hands lifted her off the floor. A heavy vest was tied around her torso. Someone hefted her up and carried her.

Rain soon wetted her face.

With effort, Kaylee opened her eyes. Her moonstone vest glowed and reflected the ripple of lightning above. Those around her spoke words her dying mind couldn’t process. The 3G members sounded urgent, as if they had figured out she was in some serious shit health wise.

Pedro’s three claims echoed in her mind. He hadn’t appeared to be concerned about her ability to survive, because he understood what Barachiel, and therefore, what she, was capable of.

Thunder crashed loudly enough for her teeth to chatter and ears to pop. It was followed by an extended flash of lightning. She squeezed her eyes closed.

Lightning. The evidence of divine will, influence, judgment. A means of both vengeance and, when joined by rain, of growth. Prosperity. Abundance. Blessings. Protection by guardian angels.

The information came from somewhere deep inside her and faded once more, as if every part of her, down to her soul, was dying. Understanding and warmth trickled into her. According to the vision Shadowman showed her, light and dark existed within her, archangel and archdemon, good and evil.

The full meaning behind it all, however, eluded her mind, which was sinking towards oblivion.

You are who you believe. You have what you need. It is what you think.

Cold rain pelted her face, and the second violent crash of thunder dragged her back from the brink temporarily.

“I am Barachiel. I am lightning.” She mouthed words she didn’t have the effort to speak aloud. Shadowman shifted inside her and with him, the warmth she had experienced on several occasions. “I am Barachiel. I am lightning.” She continued to repeat the affirmations without believing they meant anything.

Sustained brightness lit up the darkness of her eyelids. Agitated by the brilliance preventing her from sinking into herself once and for all, Kaylee opened her eyes. A second bolt of lightning smashed into something near her. The man carrying her was flung away, dropping her in the process. Kaylee landed in a puddle. She lifted her head, jarred out of her stupor by the frigid water.

The world went dark. The heaviness of death lifted from her as it had before, though she suspected with no small amount of panic that the next one would kill her for sure.

Weakened by the experience, she twisted to orient herself to who and what was around her. One of 3G’s cars was on fire, torched by lightning. Several of the rebellious guides climbed to their feet. Her ears still ringing from the lightning strike, Kaylee couldn’t make out what they were shouting about. She didn’t have to. They were looking for her. She’d landed in a puddle near the wood line on the other side of the van they’d probably been taking her to.

She sucked in a breath and pushed herself up. She wasn’t going to last much longer; her body was wooden, her breathing labored. She was dying faster, and Shadowman was all but gone. Water dripped off her face and hair. She was drenched from a combination of the puddle and steady sheet of rain.

Turning away from the scene beside the cottage where they’d taken her, she staggered into the forest. Kaylee caught herself against the nearest tree and pushed away, lurching forward. Her body remembered how to function and steadied her, as if it had been dead for the few minutes she was stuck in the place between life and death.

A shout came from behind her.

Panic fed Kaylee’s desperation, and she tore through the forest, oblivious to the branches scraping her skin or the bushes trying to trip her. She ran.

Lightning blinded her. She gave up on understanding her connection to the meteorological phenomenon and ran as fast as she could.

Her foot twisted beneath her, caught between branches of a fallen tree. Pain cut through her. Kaylee fell hard and stifled a cry. She tugged at her leg without luck. Sitting, she gingerly touched her ankle. It was hot to the touch. Her fingertips brushed an out of place lump, one that – combined with the pain pulsing up her leg – confirmed she’d probably broken it.

Tears blinded her as she tried hard to dislodge her foot. It came loose finally. She rose on her good leg and gently shifted her weight to the other. Sharp pain caused more tears to spring into her eyes. Kaylee leaned against the tree beside her.

She couldn’t run. She couldn’t fight. In about five minutes, she’d lose what little control she had over her circumstances when the first 3G member found her.

“I am Barachiel. I am lightning,” she whispered and wiped tears and rain from her eyes. She sank down with her back to the trunk of the tree and stared at the sky. Her ankle throbbed, and the familiar sense of fatigue descended upon her once more. “I’d like to say I had a good run, but that’d be the biggest lie of all. If anyone is listening, if guardian angels are real, I could use some help tonight.”

Another roar of thunder shook the earth. Kaylee covered her ears and slumped, not trying to fight the heaviness of death as it crept upon her.

A bolt of lightning smashed into a tree near her. Wood pelted her exposed skin.

A second bolt hit another tree nearby. This one was black, the same shadowy lightning she had witnessed in her vision.

A third and fourth brilliant bolt slammed into the trees, followed by a rapid succession of three black bolts.

Horrified by the display, Kaylee staggered to her feet. Both light and dark strikes were creeping towards her. She hopped away from the tree whose trunk she had sat against. As soon as she stood, it, too, exploded into pieces.

Kaylee hit the ground hard enough to knock her breath out of her. Her ears rang painfully. She was disoriented by the brilliant lightning and immobilized by her ankle. She rolled onto her back, certain she would never stand again.

As with her trip over the edge of a cliff, the next moment happened in slow motion, and then too fast. A streak of brilliant lightning shot from the sky, a black bolt in its wake. The two raced towards her.

Time caught up to her.

Hot and cold smashed into her, tearing her apart from the inside out. The dual sensations coursed through her, each creating its own flavor of searing agony. Shadowman thrashed, as vulnerable to the lightning as she was.

Kaylee screamed, and hundreds of voices from hundreds of directions screamed with her.

The blessing of unconsciousness enveloped her, removing her from the pain.

The gentle patter of rain against her face pulled Kaylee from the recesses of her dark mind. Drops crept down her nose, tickling her sensitive nostrils and upper lip.

Kaylee wriggled her nose. Her ankle throbbed with pain and her limbs were stiff. She remained where she was in the mud, reliving the memories of where she was and why. Her skin was cold, her insides unusually warm. The scent of roses filled her nose.

How much time had passed? Had 3G given her up as dead when the lightning hit?

She opened her eyes, not fully believing she was alive after being hit by two bolts of lightning. The storm had calmed and started to move on. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and lightning flared within the clouds.

Rose petals surrounded her. She lay in the middle of what appeared to be a wasteland. The forest around her was gone. Nothing but charred sawdust and woodchips had been scattered for a hundred yards in every direction.

She wasn’t alone, either.

“How are you here?” she whispered.

Shadowman, in his dark form without definition in his features or body, was kneeling near her, wobbling.

They couldn’t bring you back without returning me as well. They split us.

“Great.” Kaylee pushed herself into a sitting position. He appeared outside of her, but she still felt the connection to him, a cool stream of energy disrupting her otherwise warm insides. “We’re not independent.”

Shadowman stood and took a step – then hopped and shifted his weight off one leg. [_Your pain is mine. Mine is yours. _]He sounded more disgruntled about this than anything else he’d ever conveyed to her.

“I guess it still takes two of us to be whole,” she said. Kaylee stood, bracing herself for pain. The trees were gone, leaving her with nothing to lean on to walk. She’d never make it anywhere hopping on one foot. The wasteland around them was filled with hazards. She searched the area around her feet for any intact branch that could be used as a walking stick. Nothing larger than chips of wood the size of her finger had survived the storm.

Shadowman hissed.

Kaylee looked up.

Two-dozen members of 3G lined the side of the wasteland nearest the cottage. All were armed with their weapons pointed towards her and Shadowman.

Kaylee cursed silently. She wasn’t going to do any running this night, and neither would Shadowman. They were sitting ducks awaiting their execution.

Two shots rang out.

Kaylee experienced the same out of time moment she had twice before. The world slowed to a near stop, to the point she could see the bullets making their way towards Shadowman.

What kills him, kills me.

“No,” she whispered.

Lightning – laced with both lightness and darkness – tore through the expanse stretching between her and the bullets.

The world returned to its normal speed. The bullets were gone, and so was the lightning.

Had she done that? Used lightning to redirect bullets? Kaylee’s jaw went slack, and she blinked rapidly, uncertain she’d witnessed it.

“Cease fire!” a female voice shouted. “Weapons down!”

The guides obeyed.

Kaylee watched apprehensively, afraid of what her opponents would try next. She rested the tip of her toe on the ground to relieve some of the pressure off her good leg, which ached already from balancing her on the uneven ground.

She and Shadowman hissed at the same time. She yanked her foot up.

“We’re coming out! Unarmed!”

Lightning lit up the area briefly. Maggy and Zyra were disarming. Kaylee glanced at Shadowman, whose emotions were clear in her mind.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” she said. “I don’t want to be shot.”

The two women left the line of guides and picked their paths through the debris leftover from the storm. They stopped when Shadowman growled a warning.

“What the fuck just happened?” Maggy murmured, eyes on Shadowman.

Zyra studied the air around Kaylee. Kaylee assumed the guide was reading her aura. “I’d say a certain archangel decided to wake up and brought her archdemon pet back from the brink,” Zyra observed. “You’re still connected, and no portal to Hell was opened. Nothing’s changed.” She directed this to Kaylee.

“Pretty certain a few things have changed,” Maggy replied.

“He has no power without the gateway.”

“She does.”

Zyra’s cold gaze didn’t leave Kaylee’s face. “It’s limited. We’ll need to be more creative.”

All Kaylee could think about was the collage of videos of Nathan fucking his ex. Her features felt hot, and anger boiled anew within her. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up. Light and energy sizzled around her.

Alarmed, she focused on calming down, lest she explode.

“Besides, Shadowman will agree with our plan,” Zyra added and shifted her attention to the dark form. “We want a portal open. Think you can bring your partner on board?”

Shadowman was satisfied but suspicious.

“That’s not happening,” Kaylee said. “He’s present but I’m in charge. We won’t go along with this plan.”

“We don’t need you to open it,” Zyra replied with a faint smile. “We need you to close it once we have a gatekeeper open it.”

Kaylee frowned. “Why would you want to open it at all?”

“To purge the world from evil, once and for all.”

“Sounds like a terrible idea.”

“We will open one. It’s only a matter of time,” Maggy replied. “You can come with us and make sure it closes or … walk away. Let the world burn.”

“No one else can close it,” Zyra said. “Your choice.”

[_Can I stop them? _]Kaylee asked Shadowman telepathically.

He refrained from responding, which was an answer in and of itself. Kaylee debated silently, torn between going along with their plan and not wanting to make things worse, if she and Shadowman were part of the process to open a gate. She already sensed what Shadowman wanted to do. The women in front of her were resolute. They were going to open a gateway no matter what the cost. Shadowman was eager for it, which meant their success would lead the worst possible outcome imaginable.

There was only one way Kaylee could stop anyone, and only one way to help Shanti, Amira or the third key holder, if they were captured.

“We’ll accompany you of our … my own free will,” Kaylee said finally. “No handcuffs or zip ties or anything of the sort. We’re with you voluntarily and free to leave as desired. If any of you tries to hurt either of us, I’ll test out my lightning trick.” On cue, a bolt of brilliance and shadows smashed to the ground behind the two women, and a stiff wind whipped past them.

Kaylee alone was surprised. Shadowman relished any source of destruction, while neither Zyra nor Maggy flinched.

[_I have to learn what I’m doing, _]Kaylee thought, afraid of accidentally frying someone.

“Agreed,” Zyra said. She and Maggy stepped aside for Kaylee to walk between them.

“We might need some help,” Kaylee said with a glance at Shadowman. “We’re both hurt.”

“Medic!” Maggy shouted and turned towards the line of guides watching them. Two people started towards them.

Kaylee resisted the need to relieve the stress on her uninjured leg. It was beginning to hurt, but her ankle was much worse.

Zyra’s penetrating gaze was on her.

Kaylee didn’t like the way the spirit guide regarded her with similar intensity to Eddy, who was always ready to pounce.

“I knew there was something,” Zyra said. “You’re Nathan’s soul mate.”

Maggy’s eyebrows went up. “I never thought to look for that.”

Zyra laughed. Kaylee flushed from renewed anger.

Zyra smiled, as if understanding the source – Nathan’s affair with her. “Tough luck, kid,” she said. “Nathan won’t settle down for anyone, even a soul mate.”

Kaylee didn’t realize she wanted him to until Zyra spoke. She didn’t know what she wanted when it came to Nathan, but seeing him with Zyra had torn a new hole in Kaylee’s heart.

[_Can’t kill a soul mate, _]Shadowman said, sensing her fury.

“I wasn’t going to,” she replied in irritation. “As much as I want to.”

We need him.

“Why?” she snapped.

Zyra was looking between them, unable to follow half the conversation.

We are alive temporarily. Nathan can make it permanent. Until then, use our abilities carefully.

Kaylee’s breath caught. She hadn’t stopped to think about how she was alive this time. She felt normal, aside from the battering her body absorbed during the storm. Death no longer weighed her down.

The medics reached them. One bent down to assess her ankle.

The other stood to the side of Shadowman, doubt on his face.

“He won’t bite,” Kaylee said. “Or he might. I’m not sure.”

“Just do it,” Zyra ordered the hesitant medic.

Kaylee’s mind was on Shadowman’s assertion. How long did she have before whatever happened this night wore off?

Shadowman didn’t answer this silent question. If he knew, he would tell her, because it concerned both of their survivals.

“Ouch!” Kaylee cried out as the medic maneuvered her ankle. The pain drove her close to fainting. She wobbled then sat hard.

“Broken,” the medic said.

“Same here,” said the man kneeling beside Shadowman.

“Get them patched up and ready to move,” Zyra said impatiently. “Maggy, let’s talk.”

The two of them left, speaking quietly.

“This isn’t good,” Kaylee whispered.

Shadowman’s face – devoid of features – was pointed in the direction of the two women.

Kaylee tried to keep her next thoughts private while knowing it wasn’t possible when connected to the archdemon. Her mind drifted to the kisses she’d shared with Nathan recently, to how safe she felt with him and how his warm, solid body seemed to be made for her. He was strong where she was uncertain, confident where she was terrified of making a mistake. If they’d started out differently, he could’ve become her partner in ways she never imagined possible. They’d leapt into a relationship based on a connection between their souls, and it ended in disaster. But what if they had a chance to start over? To go on corny movie dates and walk the malls?

Zyra’s claim Nathan would never settle for one woman left Kaylee feeling sick to her stomach. She wasn’t lowering her guard only for him to hurt her again.

Eddy had been surprisingly supportive of the spirit guide. Nathan had done what he thought was best, including fucking his ex to ensure he was there when Kaylee needed his help. It didn’t make anything right, and nothing would ever purge the videos Eddy had shown her.

What would she have done in Nathan’s circumstances?

[_Whatever I had to. _]Her own response left her dissatisfied.

Anymore, everything hurt, down to the ankle the medic was gently splinting.

“You guys ready for a road trip?” Maggy asked, returning.

Zyra returned to the others.

“Does he eat?” Maggy asked curiously.

[_This is a bad idea, _]Kaylee thought.

Shadowman glanced towards her. We’re in this together.

It made everything so much worse.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Arizona.”

They knew where the third gatekeeper was. But they didn’t have Amira or Shanti, which gave Kaylee a ray of hope. “We’re ready when you are,” she murmured. “I get a gun.”

“That can be arranged.”

Maggy and Zyra were far too happy to have her along and cooperating for Kaylee’s comfort. But this time, she wasn’t vulnerable, and she understood that she had power of some kind.

You better find me soon Nathan and Eddy.

Hidden Evil Trilogy

Hear No

See No

Speak No

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. Also By Lizzy Ford

Young Adult Fiction

Non-Series Titles

The Fall of Esme (2017) (teen paranormal)

The Door (teen sci-fi)

***

Lost Vegas Series – young adult post-apocalyptic

Aveline

Tiana

Arthur

Black Wolf

***

Guardians of the Realm – young adult romantic fantasy

Water Spell

Dragon Spell (2018)

Moon Spell (2018)

Sword Spell (2019)

***

Omega Series – teen dystopia with Greek Gods

Omega

Theta

Alpha (2017)

***

Omega Beginnings Miniseries – individual episodes

Alessandra

Mismatch

Phoibe

Lantos

Theodosia

Niko

Cleon

Herakles

Omega Beginnings Miniseries – complete set

***

Theta Beginnings Miniseries

Silent Queen

Shadow Titan

People’s Champion

Supreme Magistrate

Theta Beginnings Miniseries – complete set

***

Anshan Saga – new adult science fiction romance

Kiera’s Moon

Kiera’s Sun

***

Witchlings – young adult paranormal

Dark Summer

Autumn Storm

Winter Fire

Spring Rain

***

Broken Beauty Novellas – new adult dramatic fiction

Broken Beauty

Broken World

Broken Chains (2017)

***

Foretold Trilogy – young adult fantasy

Elle’s Journey

Shadow Rising (2017)

Journey West (2018)

***

Voodoo Nights – young adult paranormal

Cursed

Adult – erotic fiction

Non-Series Titles

Star Kissed (erotic sci-fi)

A Night Worth Dying For (short story, contemporary erotic thriller)

***

Trial Series – erotic paranormal romance

Trial by Moon

Trial by Thrall

Trial by Blood

Trial by Heart

***

Heart of Fire – sexy dragon shifter

Charred Heart

Charred Tears

Charred Hope

***

Incubatti Duet – Buffy meets 50 Shades

Zoey Rogue

Zoey Avenger

***

Writing as SE Reign, erotica writer

101 Nights Box Set (featuring all seven serials)

Adult – Sweet Romance

(no graphic sex scenes)

***

Non-Series Titles – 2014 – 2018

Black Moon Draw (fantasy romance)

White Tree Sound (2018) (fantasy romance)

Highlander Enchanted (historical romance)

***

History Interrupted – Time Travel Romantic Adventures

West

East

North

South (2018)

***

Super Villainess Chronicles – twisted superhero romance

It’s Not Easy Being Evil

It’s Not Easy Being Good

***

Starwalkers Serials (with Julia Crane) – new adult science fiction serial

Severed

Trapped

Exiled

Revealed

Escaped

Ascended

***

Sons of War – contemporary military romance

Semper Mine

Soldier Mine

SEAL Mine

***

Rhyn Trilogy – new adult paranormal with demons

Katie’s Hellion

Katie’s Hope

Rhyn’s Redemption

***

Rhyn Eternal – Death finds love

Gabriel’s Hope

Deidre’s Death

Darkyn’s Mate

The Underworld

Twisted Fate

Twisted Karma (2017)

***

War of Gods – paranormal with gods, guardians and exceptional humans

Damian’s Oracle

Damian’s Assassin

Damian’s Immortal

The Grey God

***

Damian Eternal

Xander’s Chance

The Black God

***

Hidden Evil – paranormal with angels and four horsemen

Hear No

See No

Speak No (2017)

***

Unnamed Series

Unnatural (TBD)

***

Short Stories

Santa’s Ninja Elves: Natasha

Santa’s Ninja Elves: Hunter

Snow Whisperers

***

Non-Series Titles – 2011 – 2013

A Demon’s Desire (paranormal romance)

The Warlord’s Secret (fantasy romance

Maddy’s Oasis (contemporary romance)

Rebel Heart (sci-fi romance)

p(((((())))))=.
h1=. About the Author

I breathe stories. I dream them. If it were possible, I’d eat them, too. (I’m pretty sure they’d taste like cotton candy.) I can’t escape them – they’re everywhere! Which is why I write! I was born to bring the crazy worlds and people in my mind to life, and I love sharing them with as many people as I can.

I’m also the bestselling, award winning, internationally acclaimed author of over sixty titles and counting. I write speculative fiction in multiple subgenres of romance and fantasy, contemporary fiction, books for both teens and adults, and just about anything else I feel like writing. If I can imagine it, I can write it!

I live in the desert of southern Arizona with a pack of spoiled dogs and Tubbs, the Godfather cat who rules them all.

Connect with LIzzy

www.LizzyFord.com

[email protected]


See No

Hidden Evil #2. Nathan’s attempt to stop the first archdemon of the Apocalypse failed miserably – and cost him the love and companionship of his soul mate, Kaylee. To make things right, he joins the extremist 3G group in the hopes he can find Kaylee before they do. Captured by a cult hell bent on starting Armageddon, Kaylee is forced to depend upon unlikely allies – Shadowman, the very demon who threatens the existence of the world, and her self-appointed guardian, an assassin named Eddy. She soon uncovers her true purpose and why so many people are after her. She’s not just a pawn meant to anchor Shadowman; she’s also the only person who can stop him. Meanwhile, the second keyholder is located. A blind young woman named Shanti is left alone when her spirit guide is gunned down. Aided by her unique abilities, she heads north to find the other keyholder and the spirit guide corps who might have more information about why the magic stones she safeguards have suddenly awakened. When the paths of Nathan, Kaylee, and Shanti cross, all mayhem breaks loose.

  • Author: Lizzy Ford
  • Published: 2017-08-05 18:40:27
  • Words: 72986
See No See No