Fragments—everything was in fragments. It was like when you hit that button on your console controller and it jumped forward to a completely separate scene or event in a movie. It wasn’t slow motion or fast forward, things were just…skipping. Then there was Warren, or rather Warren wasn’t, and the portal was collapsing as it destabilized. Portals and other magical energies didn’t tend to do so in a quiet and orderly manner—it would look something like my bakery counter after the half-kin died and released his energy. Only it would be on a scale about fifty times as powerful. Blood magic always packed a more powerful punch.
Chaos raged as people fought the few, smaller creatures that had managed to come through, and gunfire was dangerously close to everyone as well as killing our hearing. Better than human hearing could be an advantage, except when you have weapons firing near your ears.
Then Mina’s face came into view, panicked, bloodied, and yelling in my face. Our eyes met and we paused as she calmed down now that she had my attention, and after I drew in a full breath everything resumed it’s normal flow of time. A little more sound made it through to my brain as it shed a couple layers of shock that padded it from the horror.
“We hav—et—itha—d—riel!” her voice coming in snatches of sound.
“I can’t hear!” I shouted and she flinched back, so I lowered my volume. “But I think you said we need to get Talitha and Meriel out of here,” I finished and scanned the room, her emphatic nod and face slack from relief visible in my peripheral.
I caught sight of them hiding behind a few of the crazy-pants adults, who were fighting with a couple of Dragons almost the size of the Drakken. The girls were crouched behind the fighters and cowering with the majority of the other children.
My body was beaten, tired, sore—not to mention the state of my mind—but there is no accounting for how much adrenaline can do for you in these situations. I faced Mina and jerked my head toward the girls. She gave me the thumbs up and got behind me as I moved low and fast across the floor. With all the commotion and racket, the loose Dragons didn’t pay us too much mind since there were targets that were attacking and thrashing about far more than the two, small targets trying to get across the room.
I trembled as uncontrollable bursts of energy shook my limbs. I did my best to breathe and drive on. We made it over to Talitha and Meriel, though the fighters guarding them glanced back from us to the Dragons, conflicted on which target to annihilate. I didn’t give them a chance to ponder further and grabbed Talitha, who had Meriel attached to her, and Mina grabbed Meriel’s hand to take up the rear. I motioned for the other kids to follow, pulling a couple of them from their crouches.
“Follow them!” I yelled, motioning to Mina. Some of them simply refused to move, and we didn’t have time to waste.
I left them.
We beat a hasty retreat from the portal room, and though the noise lessened outside the room, it still wasn’t like whispering a library. I had no idea where we were headed, but our luck held out, and two baby-faced recruits spilled out of the room and ran down the hallway like, well, Dragons were on their tails. I wasted no time and tugged the girls along after them, but after three or four turns that seemed to get us nowhere I started to ponder my decision. Then we found a metal-rung latter that led up a tunnel, to what I prayed to the Dark Goddess was a porthole, or whatever they called the damn things.
The kids scrambled up and we followed, and for the first time I realized the only noises I heard was the ragged breathing of our group and my blood pounding in my ears. Either someone had won the fight, or we’d gotten far enough away that we couldn’t hear them anymore.
As we climbed up the latter and into the bright Florida sunshine, it sharply contrasted with the blood on my naked flesh and on the girls’ cloths. I sucked in a deep breath of the fetid air, made heavier by the fact we were in some kind of swamp, but the rotten air was as welcome as roses in my book. The two kids huffed, bent over at their waists with hands on their knees, and one of the boys hurled bile onto the soggy roots of Live Oak that was draped in Spanish moss like a Mexican woman’s grieving veil.
The ground rumbled beneath our feet, and erratic magic bit and burned along my skin like fire ant and jellyfish stings all rolled into one theme park delight of sensation. It got us moving again, though, and as we ran the ground trembled as the spells holding the pressure against the bunker at bay, collapsed like a poorly made soufflé.When I looked around again after the dust had settled, the two boys were nowhere to be found. I hoped it didn’t come back to bite us later, though the rest of me could only say; “Good riddance to bad garbage.”
“All those other children…” Talitha gasped, and fell to her knees, looking over the five or so we’d managed to get out with us. “They didn’t make it out. Why?” she asked in disbelief and looked to me.
My lips tingled with the remembrance of Warren’s kiss, and my heart wrenched so painful it drove the air from my lungs.
“Because sometimes the universe feels the need to remind us just how unfair life can be,” I said, tired.
Eventually they dug out all the bodies, and I felt a grim satisfaction when I was told that Keeper Voss had died from an, “animal-like,” attack prior to the building collapse. The man wanted Dragons, and by the Gods, he got them in spades. Call me a bad person for relishing in the suffering of another, but I was willing to tarnish my conscience a bit to enjoy his pain.
Apparently Keeper Voss had a half-kin son many long years ago, but before it became unpopular, (and the full-blood Drakken numbers dwindled in the face of human breeding), his son had been caught in a half-kin purge. He’d been a lowly scribe at the time, but it set him on the path that led to trying to open the portal. It didn’t justify his actions or ideology, not one bit, but it did give us insight into the, ‘why?’
As for Pullman, no one could seem to find any records on him, or at least none they were willing to share. He had that feel of someone whose records were so redacted you might as well just read a blank sheet of paper, for all the good it would do you. His body was supposedly the only one not recovered, though no one could say if he was alive or dead.
They never did find Warren’s body. It’s hard to quantify the struggle between mind and soul in the desperate hope that arises from glaringly, obvious hopeless situations. Portals like that one were one way, and though it destabilized after he disappeared—not disintegrated like the human—it didn’t mean he was still alive. Maybe I’m just doomed to pursue those who were dimensionally unavailable. It certainly made for a very safe relationship.
I have days where I battle back from the edge of hysteria, with nothing more to set me off than an ill-timed bad noise, or a glimpse of a face that looks like Terry’s, Vern’s, or any of the people seduced into joining Keeper Voss’s cause. The clan was footing the bill for the girls to go to therapy, but I must have been a disposable resource, because I was essentially told to suck it up, buttercup. As long as it helped the girls, though, that was all that mattered. They both still woke with nightmares, and it might be a while before my bed was exclusively my own again. It centers mostly around the children for Talitha, since she spent the most time with them, and unfortunately she had to learn some hard, grown-up lessons about survival. I didn’t mind. Nights were hard for me to be alone, too.
Meriel was doing well, given what she’d been through, and still came to the bakery with her father for visits. Turns out she a macaroon fan, and I made sure to have some of those strawberry tarts for Lord Kieran. She’d called to talk to Mina and Talitha a few times since the kidnapping, and a small seed of optimism lodged deep in my heart. I didn’t want it there, but try as I might it was determined to stay. Maybe someday half-kins and full-bloods would be equal in the clans, and nothing like what happened would transpire again.
It was a few weeks into being back at the bakery, and what little media coverage had been gained by the melting of our counter and the obscure happenings in a little swamp just south of Jacksonville, had all but vanished. Life was getting back to normal, and Aida whirled around the tables in that graceful, dance-like way of hers, cleaning them and getting refills for customers on food and drink. I’d been worried she’d leave us after almost being vaporized, but she shrugged and said she’d seen worse at the courts of the leannán sídhe. I didn’t bring it up again—my nightmare chest was full, thanks. The girls were at school, since they’d missed enough of it recently, and were complaining every night about the crazy homework load. I promised I’d try to plan the next Armageddon during their Spring or Summer break. They were not amused.
I was behind the spanky new counter, restocking on some of the cookies wiped out by the late lunch rush, when the front door tinkled as it hit the bell above it.
When I looked up and saw Danika my stomach dropped to my toes and my mouth went dry. I hadn’t seen her for a while. Not since Lord Kieran had been over during one of her visits and seen my increased panic at her presence. Getting PTSD was almost worth it, if it meant fewer visits from her. Almost, but not quite.
She rolled her shoulders and nervously glanced around the bakery, it was the first time I’d ever seen her in a state other than malicious self-assurance. When she caught sight of me her demeanor faltered, like a person almost taking a step and then not, but she straightened her posture and started over to me.
Her heels struck the tile like a perfectly timed metronome, and any lack of confidence was lost in the confident sway and sashay of her hips as she moved through the bakery.
She stopped in front of the counter, and even the patrons were holding their breath, sensing the two of us weren’t here to exchange pleasantries. At each male gaze drawn to her, she pulled their interest and sexual hunger around her like a cloak, and regained whatever balance she’d lost by coming here today.
“This is for you,” she said, almost hitting the neutral mark with her tone. She pulled a worn, leather-bound tome from the breast pocket on her jacket and thrust it at me. Without any further explanation she turned on her heel and left, leaving me there as patrons peered at the book in barely veiled interest.
The lettering on the front of the book said, Nameless, and my breath caught. It was about Warren. No one owed me an explanation, least of all another clan, and I wonder who had pulled strings to get this to me. If Danika’s reaction was any indication, she’d read it, and had been thrown for a loop. No matter, I was sure she’d be right back on her devilish feet again once she got a hold of some half-kin. Some Drakken never learn.
I mumbled something to Aida, who had come up to the counter not long after Danika had left, and I went through the kitchen doors to the back without waiting for her reply. Once I was in the office I closed the door. Thankfully it was Kyne’s day off. He’d been upset and overly protective since we’d gotten back, and I’d had to tell him to back off or have his head bitten off. He’d wisely gone down to the Keys for a few days.
I sat down and just looked at the book. When I think about it rationally, he’d only been in my life a couple short days, although they were highly traumatic. I think what hit me the hardest about Warren leaving was he was so like my father in personality. Being fair and teaching a half-kin daughter about her powers was something my father had to fight for every minute, of every day. It was that kind of fight and desire for equality that I’d seen in Warren, and the world was a poorer place for having lost him.
I opened the book, and while the old leather was supple from age, the pages were far more fragile. With a tenderness most reserved for their young, I flipped through the pages that detailed Warren’s birth, life, fall from grace, and recently added death. The ink was so fresh in those last pages that I almost feared I would smear it if I looked at it wrong.
He’d risen through the clan ranks to the trusted head guard in the clan leader’s household. When the clan leader’s daughter had been kidnapped, he was tasked to find her. Unfortunately, the daughter had been taken by a plot constructed by her mother, the clan leader’s wife. He was promiscuous, and she was angry as a result. In the attempt to get her back, the girl was killed.
The wife was beloved by the clan, not to mention her family, and the father was grieving, but the stability of the clan came before everything else. They blamed Warren for all of it. They cut off his wings, struck his name from all records, and he was cast from the clanslands to live among humans.
The book was held in trust by the clan leader, stating that if he perished, her horrible deeds would be made public by the book, hidden somewhere out of her reach. At the end there was a note, cautioning me against spreading the tale. If I did so, I was warned worse would be rained down upon me by not only their clan, but mine as well.
When I finished tears welled in my eyes. Not just for something that was lost before we even knew what we’d had, but for a man who had continually done the honorable, right thing, and always got the raw end of the deal.
There was never another choice for you in that room, was there? I choked out an unamused laugh and placed the book safely in my purse, to read at my leisure once I got home.
I went back out to the front of the bakery, and allowed myself the luxury of laughing and enjoying myself for the first time since my life tried to crash around my ears.
I wish we’d had more time. Well, I still had time here on this lovely green Earth, and it would do Warren’s memory and sacrifice ill if I did not live each day without at least trying to live, laugh, and maybe even find love in the future. Life is just too damn short to live any other way.