Progress on Darkness Wanes is coming along well. I want to once again apologize for the lengthy delay in getting this novel out due to personal setbacks. I finally got back into my writing groove last month and I’ve been working like mad on it ever since. My poor family may have forgotten what I look like since I barricade myself behind a closed door most of the time. Not to worry, though, they make me come out to eat occasionally.
The first half of the book is in good shape and I’m just revising the final chapters now before sending them off to my editor. By the looks of things, this novel is going to end up being about 120k words. As a comparison, Darkness Shatters was 96k and Stalked by Flames was 101k. Darkness Wanes will definitely be the longest book I’ve ever written by quite a bit, but there is a lot to wrap up and I want to be sure to do the characters (and story) justice. Special thanks to all the beta readers who’ve helped out along the way. You all are awesome!
I have high hopes I will be able to release this novel by the end of the month. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Below are the first three chapters of Darkness Wanes (about 10k words). Hope you enjoy 🙂
Some places should be avoided at all costs. Troll villages, the woods on a full moon, and retailers on Black Friday topped my personal list, but above them all—Purgatory. It was an inhospitable island set outside of time and space where human souls went after death when they weren’t quite good enough for Heaven, but not bad enough for Hell. One might consider it a sort of way station—though it was probably closer to a prison. Unless you had a very good reason, you didn’t come here voluntarily.
The sandy beaches at the island’s edge could fry eggs or blister bare feet. A prisoner couldn’t swim away, assuming they made it through all the guards first. The ocean surrounding the land extended forever, an infinite mass of water with no apparent end. Not that you’d want to be outside in Purgatory. Blinding light shone down from a sun that appeared twice as large as Earth’s, and it generated more heat than any mortal could survive for more than a few minutes. That is, assuming the low oxygen levels didn’t suffocate them first.
Jagged mountains rose in the middle, raw and intimidating. All along them, human souls relived the crimes they’d committed in their past life. These were people who weren’t good enough to enter Heaven yet, but neither were they terrible enough for Hell. Purgatory served as a place for them to learn from their evil deeds before they went on to their final destination.
They had no bodies, only the light of their inner beings, but that didn’t reduce their suffering. On the rare occasion I came close enough to them, I felt their pain and remorse in every fiber of my being. Nothing could be worse than facing one’s past mistakes over and over again with no relief. This place couldn’t be mistaken for an island vacation spot. It was real, and it was only one step above Hell.
It wasn’t that much better for me, either. The only difference being I wasn’t dead yet. Purgatory also served as an immortal penitentiary, though supernatural inmates didn’t stay up top with the human souls. The guardians of the place—sort of an offshoot breed of angels—kept us confined deep inside the mountains in a vast network of tunnels and carved-out prison cells. Of all the inmates here, they hated me the most. I’d broken into Purgatory twice, using modern firepower against them, to free others who didn’t deserve to be here. Those people were now free, which made it worth it, but I had no way of escaping without assistance. I was trapped here for my full three-month sentence.
In the caves we inhabited, it dropped to bone-numbing temperatures and the stone walls wept with the icy tears of its denizens. That wasn’t meant to be poetic. Purgatory had a way of torturing you with both your darkest memories and your most cherished. I’d had a lot of time to think since arriving. One moment I’d feel the pain of my worst mistakes, including those that led to the loss of good friends, and in the next moment I’d remember my lover, Lucas, or adopted daughter, Emily. They were part of the good things in my life, but the longer I stayed in Purgatory, the more I wished I didn’t think of them. It would have made my time easier that way.
This was an ugly place where nothing good belonged, especially in the bowels where I’d been confined. The walkways were frozen except for the occasional numbing cold stream running along the path. Sharp icicles hung from the ceilings, often falling on hapless victims. I’d had my head struck more than once—made worse by the fact it took considerably longer to heal in Purgatory than on Earth. It was also eerily dark. If not for the greenish-blue glow emanating from cracks in the stone, even those with the best night vision wouldn’t have been able to see anything. Then again, it didn’t seem to bother the guardians who lorded over their prisoners. They moved around just fine.
Clink. Clink. Clink. The sound of pickaxes droned on in an annoyingly familiar rhythm. I suspected I’d hear them in my head long after I left this place. I blew a strand of my auburn hair from my cheek where it had come loose from its braid and continued chipping away at the blue-gray stone in front of me.
This section of the tunnel and I had become well acquainted since the archangel, Remiel, dropped me off here two and a half months ago. In that time, I’d managed to extract about five pounds of ore. The older and stronger supernaturals working alongside me gathered much higher amounts. Not that it really mattered. A cavern several levels above us had at least a dozen piles of it wasting away. The guardians had long since gotten enough to make all the chains and weapons they needed. They just wanted us to continue adding to the heap.
I rubbed at my aching lower back. Even an immortal body couldn’t handle fourteen hours of crouching in mines every day without getting sore. By the end of my shift, my spine always became so bowed out of shape that I could hardly stand up straight without a lot of effort and pain. If I never saw an underground tunnel again it wouldn’t be long enough.
The clinking of the axes slowed and whispers rose among the other prisoners. I took a surreptitious gaze around to find our guards had wandered down the tunnel out of earshot. It happened so rarely I had to seize the opportunity while it lasted.
“Eli,” I called softly to the dark-skinned nephilim hunched ten feet away.
He turned his head toward me. “What?”
Eli wore the same basic uniform as me—buckskin trousers, a matching sleeveless top and leather boots. We hadn’t gotten utilitarian clothing when we first arrived in Purgatory. They’d given us long robes that chaffed at our skin and no footwear. It made it difficult to navigate the treacherous tunnels. After a few days, I’d had enough and went on strike.
No one else joined me at first. I was a sensor, and the rest of the prisoners were nephilim. Our races were eternal enemies, but I was trying to change that. I’d mated with a nephilim, Lucas, and he’d made me immortal. Most of the supernatural world knew about us and how we’d found common ground. Some of them had grown to accept me, mostly in Alaska where we lived, but we had a long way to go before our races got along entirely. The majority of the sensors and sups still didn’t trust each other.
For three days, my prison mates watched me get whipped every morning because I refused to leave my cell for work in the mines. On the fourth day, Eli was the first to join me. We’d met a couple of times before, and he’d seemed more open than most. Eventually, all twelve nephilim participated in my little strike.
It wasn’t just the poor clothing choices I’d protested, but also the awful gruel they fed us every day. The lack of oxygen and stronger gravity of Purgatory drained us too much already. Poor nutrition made things worse. Immortals might not be able to die, but they could become severely weakened if their basic needs weren’t met. We needed humane treatment if we were going to have the energy to work.
The rest of my companions were centuries or even thousands of years old. They’d lived during times when the weaker always submitted to the stronger. It didn’t occur to them to demand more for themselves.
I was a modern woman and military veteran who believed in standing up for my rights. The ancient guardians running Purgatory had no idea how to handle me, but I had experience dealing with their kind before. In fact, I’d helped rehabilitate one of the worst among them. I just had to suffer through their punishments for a while before I got my way. Though it wasn’t easy—they nearly broke me more than once.
“How do you call on an archangel without a summoning stone?” I asked Eli. There was a bit of Denzel Washington’s features in him that always struck me, especially in the eyes and chin.
He frowned at me. “Why?”
He was constantly telling me to keep my head down and stay out of trouble. Not that I did, and more often than not he got caught up in my battles with the guardians. It wasn’t like I forced him to do my bidding. Eli just had a need to help people no matter what it cost. We had that in common, which was why we were both stuck here.
“Because I need to know.” Working in the mines gave you a lot of time to plot. I estimated that in about two or three weeks—they wouldn’t give an exact date—I’d be out of here. I had things to do as soon as I got back home.
“Melena,” he said in a warning tone. “I’m not helping you again.”
I glared. “It’s important.”
“Let it go until we return to Earth.” He turned away and began swinging his pickaxe again.
“Come on,” I said in a pleading tone. “I just need to know how to summon an archangel.”
He ignored me. I considered throwing my pickaxe at him, but I couldn’t risk drawing the attention of the guardians. Not to mention the chain stretching between my ankle and a hook in the floor would keep me from getting the tool back. All the prisoners were restricted so that we couldn’t move more than a few feet.
“Eli,” I growled when he still wouldn’t answer me.
A female nephilim with shoulder-length blond hair turned toward me. “Be quiet!”
Sabelle’s golden eyes were filled with hatred. It never ceased to amaze me how a woman with such a sweet nature could become that hostile toward someone she hardly knew. When I’d first met her, her heart-shaped face had seemed welcoming and kind. That only lasted until she discovered I was a sensor.
“What is your problem?” I asked her. Not that I expected a logical reply.
Sabelle’s nostrils flared. “You! Your kind are nothing but…”
“I can tell you how to do it,” Bartol interrupted, putting a stop to the hate speech. He worked on the wall to my right and spoke so rarely that I was startled to hear his voice now.
I turned toward him. Bartol’s long brownish-gold hair fell past his shoulders in light waves. The oily strands didn’t quite hide the horrific scars on the left side of his face. The burns marred what had once been handsome features. Nephilim could usually heal from anything, but a magic spell had been infused with the damage so that he’d never be whole again. Not even my ability to nullify magic could do anything to help him now.
Bartol had been in Purgatory for nearly a century as his penalty for seducing an angel. Not long after arriving an overzealous guardian, Kerbasi, burned him as part of his own personal brand of punishment. Bartol had faced many horrors since arriving here, but that was probably among the worst. By my estimates, his sentence would finish around the same time as mine. He was a friend of Lucas’ and we planned to help him as much as we could when he got out.
“You know? How?” I asked.
He kept his head bowed. From what I’d heard, Bartol had been one of the most attractive nephilim in the world—which said a lot since they all had an otherworldly beauty about them—but his disfigurement and torturous time in Purgatory had broken him. I’d yet to catch a glimpse of the strong, cocky man that supposedly once existed.
“Summoning an archangel is a complicated spell that will require specific ingredients,” he replied in a low tone.
“What kind of…”
“No talking!” a female guardian yelled, her footsteps hurrying toward us.
I’d been too busy speaking to Bartol to notice her coming our way. The other prisoners picked up the pace with their pickaxes. Dannia’s silver eyes focused in my direction, and her expression said she considered me nothing more than demon spawn. It was more likely that the large, muscular woman had come from Hell herself. She had some of the severest features I’d ever seen—and I’d met a lot of scary people.
She uncoiled her bull whip. On all fours, I scrambled as far away as my chains allowed me to go, losing my pickaxe in the process. The shackle around my ankle jerked me to a stop right as her lash zinged across my back. It struck with a loud snap. I had to grit my teeth to keep from crying out as sharp pain raced across my skin. My buckskin top could only provide so much protection against her favorite weapon. I angled my head around and looked up at her.
“Bitch,” I spit out.
Dannia’s face turned red. She raised her whip high and swung it toward me again. As it whistled through the air, I leaned back and caught the tail a few inches before it could wrap around my neck. She jerked, but my gloves helped me keep a solid hold. This was only the second time I’d been fast enough to grab the whip before it struck. She’d been pissed the first time I did it, and I had no doubt I’d pay for doing it again. The shock now reflecting on her face made it worth the trouble, though.
“Let go,” she commanded.
Dannia had a lot of physical advantages over me, which meant I had to work harder to outsmart her. My senses—inherent to my race—could reveal all kinds of information about supernaturals, including their age, emotions, power levels, and types of magic they used. I knew she’d been alive for about ten thousand years, whereas I was only twenty-eight and mortal for most of that.
She primarily relied on her superior strength, but I had a couple of things going for me as well. For one, I was used to being weaker than most of the sups around me. Two, I had immunity to magic. The spells she used to control the nephilim didn’t work on me. Physical punishment was her next option, but the archangel Remiel would step in if she went too far. Ever since Kerbasi got caught abusing his prisoners too much, the archangel had started keeping a closer eye on things in Purgatory. It wasn’t his job, but he ranked higher than the guardians and used that position when he was so inclined.
“No,” I said, tightening my hold on the whip further.
Dannia’s silver eyes brightened with an eerie glow. “You will regret it if you don’t let go.”
All the other prisoners had stopped working to watch us. I could feel their eyes on me, as well as their disapproval. They hated it when I fought back. Most of them just wanted to serve their time and leave. Except for Bartol, they were all in this place because of their plot to reveal supernaturals to the human world. It had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. I’d had nothing to do with that since the “coming out” party had actually been a distraction for another plot—the one that got me into trouble.
While the archangels dealt with the chaos that erupted after the sups made their presence known to the world, I was breaking into Purgatory to free the nerou. They were hybrids—half sensor and half nephilim. It didn’t happen often that the two races mated, perhaps a handful of times each century. But as I could testify, enemies sometimes became lovers. The archangels forbade creating offspring from such unions. They claimed that children born with the combined powers of sensors and nephilim would be too strong to let them roam free on Earth.
For thousands of years, they had been taking the nerou away shortly after their birth and confining them in Purgatory. Some of us—including my mate’s brother, Micah—had disagreed with that practice and found a way to get them out. Everyone involved in the rescue operation had been punished one way or another, but my individual penalty was a three-month sentence in Purgatory. I was rather certain the guards wished I’d been sent elsewhere.
“Go to Hell,” I growled at Dannia. “There’s nothing wrong with us talking.”
She narrowed her eyes. “There is if you’re plotting something.”
“I’m not plotting anything,” I said, glaring at her. Thankfully, she didn’t have a way of telling truth from lies the way I did. “You’re just paranoid and delusional.”
She jerked the whip, dragging me forward on my knees. I freed my hand from it, but I didn’t have time to move before her fist swung out. Pain exploded in my jaw as it drove into me like a battering ram. I crashed into the tunnel wall and bounced my head against the hard stone.
Stars clouded my vision. I blinked until the worst of them went away, and I could see again. This wasn’t my first round with Dannia. I was getting better at taking the beatings she inflicted on me every chance she got. Lucas had survived Kerbasi—a much crueler guardian than her. I always reminded myself of that whenever she took a few swipes at me.
“You’ll learn how to show some respect, sensor,” Dannia said, hovering over me.
I spit a mouthful of blood at her feet. “Respect that, Bitch.”
Rubbing at my bruised cheek, I noticed Eli giving me a pleading look. Most of the nephilim here were hardened and uncaring, but he was a psychiatrist back on Earth. He genuinely wanted to help people, supernaturals in particular. I’d become his newest pet project, whether I wanted to be or not.
“Guards!” Dannia yelled, calling them from down the tunnel. “Take the prisoners back to their cells.”
Half a dozen of them came marching toward us, wearing dark gray robes. One by one they freed the male and female nephilim from where their shackles were fixed to the floor and bound them together like a chain gang. It was meant to be demoralizing. Some held their heads up high, but the looks in their eyes told a different story. On Earth, they were powerful beings who commanded fear and respect from everyone around them. Here, they were treated worse than animals. It got to you no matter how much you tried to fight the feelings of helplessness.
When the guards reached me, Dannia shook her head. “This one is going to solitary…again.”
I gritted my teeth. In the seventy-six days I’d spent in this place—not that I’d been counting—ten of them had been in solitary confinement. Dannia hadn’t thought of that as a punishment right away, but once she realized its effectiveness she used any excuse to throw me in there.
“How long this time?” Aldous asked. He was shorter than the other guardians at only five and a half feet tall, but he had the thick muscles and stocky shoulders of a linebacker. Though he rarely smiled, he didn’t act cruel, either. That was a good thing, considering he ran the mining operations and watched over us during the day. If you had to work hard labor, you wanted a guy like him in charge. He did his best to look out for us.
Dannia straightened her shoulders. “Three days.”
“I don’t have much time left with these prisoners,” Aldous argued. “I could use her help here before they’re gone.”
He was lying. For reasons I hadn’t figured out, he often protected me the best he could.
“We both know you’ll be fine without this one. She hardly works, anyway.” Dannia unlocked my chain from the floor and yanked me to my feet. I couldn’t help wincing as a fresh wave of pain ignited in my head and blackness dotted my vision. There had to be a crack in my skull from where she’d slammed me into the wall.
Aldous’ eyes flashed with annoyance. As he watched the female guardian drag me away, I sensed his impotent rage. He didn’t care for Dannia’s treatment of me at all. As much as I wished I could appreciate his anger on my behalf, I couldn’t. It only made things worse. In this place, kindness was harder to take than cruelty. It was a subtle reminder that you were an actual person and should have the right to more humane treatment.
My heart was heavy as I shuffled down the corridor, moving as fast as my leg shackles and aching head would allow. Dannia brought me to the solid metal door that led to the solitary chamber. There was no fighting going in there. I’d already made my stand and wouldn’t push for a second round. If Lucas was sleeping right now, he might suffer another beating with me through his dreams—a side effect of our mating bond. It was only to protect him that I didn’t fight more often. I estimated that as long as I didn’t get hurt too much, he might not experience it. The last thing I wanted was for him to worry about me.
“Enjoy your stay,” Dannia said, shoving me into the dark room.
I fell onto my hands and knees on the frozen ground, waves of dizziness passing over me. Before I could turn around and get to my feet, she slammed the door and slid the lock into place. Everything went black. Not a hint of light entered the room, though I’d already memorized its dimensions from previous visits. I had about ten square feet to move around—larger than my other cell, but far too lonely. Without others nearby, I couldn’t sense anyone’s emotions. Somehow, even the anger and bitterness coming from my prison mates was better than the empty feeling I got in solitary.
Crawling to the far corner, I slumped against the wall and pulled my knees up against my chest. The frigid air in the room seeped into my bones. It had to be the coldest place in Purgatory. Every breath of air felt like it crystallized in my lungs and made me shiver. Immortality would keep me from getting pneumonia, but I’d still suffer. I ducked my head down and curled into myself as best I could. It would be three very long days.
Lucas pulled up to the high school and searched the crowd of teenagers leaving campus for a girl with shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes, and a perpetual scowl. Emily usually waited for him on the sidewalk, but he saw no sign of her today. If she had detention again, he would not save her this time. No matter what argument she gave him.
At some point, she needed to push past her anger and resentment. She still had a bright future ahead of her. Lucas couldn’t keep intervening or else she’d never overcome her problems. Not to mention her math teacher, Mrs. Blackburn, had a way of treating him as if he was a schoolboy rather than a twenty-five-hundred-year-old immortal who had seen civilizations rise and fall. In all his existence, he’d never met a human who could look down on him even while he compelled them. He couldn’t entirely blame Emily for getting into trouble with her so often.
Shouting across the street drew his attention. Through a throng of adolescents, Lucas caught a glimpse of a red jacket the same shade as Emily had worn that morning. He left his SUV and marched over to the crowd, coming to stand at the back. He was nearly a head taller than most students and had no trouble seeing over them. What he found at the center of the circle left him cursing.
“Get out of my way,” he growled, squeezing past a couple of kids shouting encouragements.
Lucas had been in a bad mood since two nights ago. In a dream, he’d witnessed Melena getting whipped and beaten by one of the guardians. He’d woken drenched in sweat, feeling the haunting effects of her pain and knowing there was nothing he could do about it. If he could have found any way to get her out of Purgatory, he would have done so already. Unfortunately, every plan he and his brother devised would leave Emily alone and vulnerable.
Lucas had promised to take care of her seventeen-year-old adopted daughter, but the task had not been easy. Emily lost her boyfriend, Hunter, a matter of days before Melena left. He’d died in battle not far from where the girl lay in bed recovering from a plague infection that had spread through their community. The death of her first love devastated her enough, but losing Melena shortly thereafter made matters even worse.
Emily shut herself away during those first weeks, leaving her room only to go to the kitchen or bathroom. Lucas and others who cared for her took turns each day trying to talk to her. But she just lay on her bed hugging her pillow and hardly acknowledged them.
He’d faced immortal warriors who had an easier time opening up, though to be fair, they were usually drunk when they did. After two weeks, Emily finally left her room one morning and announced she was going back to school. Lucas had recognized the look in her eyes. She’d found a way to block the pain and let anger take over instead—resentment at the entire world, including everyone in it. According to others who knew about such things, this wasn’t unusual for a teenager. Lucas hadn’t been certain whether to be relieved or worried. Until today.
The teenagers closest to him parted like the Red Sea after taking one look at his glowing gold eyes. He marched past them, heading toward two girls slapping and punching each other’s faces. One of them was Emily and the other her close friend, Gabrielle. Emily’s brown hair had fallen from its ponytail, and her red jacket hung halfway off her shoulder. Blood ran down her chin from a cut on her lip, and her right eyelid was swollen.
Her opponent wasn’t faring any better. Gabrielle, a female werewolf with ebony skin and long curly hair, had a broken nose and half the buttons on her shirt were ripped off. A snarl escaped her lips after Emily punched her in the stomach. Gabby’s eyes narrowed and she leaned low, charging into her shorter opponent. They crashed onto the ground and fought for the highest position.
Lucas considered stopping them, but centuries of experience had taught him it was best to let them burn some of their energy off first. It might even help Emily get some of the rage out of her system. The two girls had been close friends for several years. Whatever made them fight, they wouldn’t kill each other over it—he hoped.
He might have worried about Emily battling a werewolf, but that wasn’t much of a concern anymore. She’d gotten a dose of Melena’s immortal blood a few months ago to save her from the plague. It didn’t make her invincible, but it did make her strong enough to handle her supernatural opponent.
With a critical eye, he watched as they rolled across the ground slapping and punching each other repeatedly. They lacked any proper training. Lucas made a mental note to teach Emily a few fighting techniques to help improve her skills. He was surprised Melena hadn’t done so already, but she probably thought that would only encourage the girl.
Several minutes passed without any sign of them tiring. Lucas winced when Emily gained the higher position and pressed her thumbs into Gabrielle’s eyes. Who knew girls their age could be that malicious? It was probably time he put a stop to it. Melena would have his head if she ever found out he let the fight last so long. He sorely missed her constant criticism of his morals and would gladly listen to all of it if he could have her back now, if not sooner.
“Enough!” Lucas shouted, grabbing Emily by the arms and pulling her to her feet.
She struggled to free herself. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her still. Lucas hated to resort to such a method, but he didn’t know what else to do. He’d never seen her behave this violently before.
“Let me go,” Emily demanded.
“What is this about?” he asked, turning her to face him.
She glared up at him. “Nothing.”
He studied her pale features and the stubborn set of her jaw. “You are not very convincing.”
“It’s none of your damn business!”
He was getting nowhere with her. It was time to try a different tactic. Lucas turned his attention to Gabrielle, who stood a few feet away dusting herself off. “What happened?”
Unlike Emily, fear shown in the other teenager’s eyes. He had a tendency to inspire that in most people. It was only with those he cared about that he softened, though he wouldn’t actually hurt the girl unless she became a real threat to those he loved.
“Emily was talking with some strange guy,” Gabrielle answered, dropping her gaze to the ground. “He smelled human.”
“Shut up!” Emily dove for the other girl.
Lucas almost lost his grip. His fingers slipped on the fabric of her jacket, yet he did not want to rip it. “Stop.”
“Then don’t make my friends spy on me!” Emily swung her fist up, connecting her knuckles with his chin. “How could you?”
The blow had little force behind it, but his breath caught on her words. “How could I what?”
“You know what.” Her blue eyes were full of accusation.
Lucas had been cautious when he compelled Gabrielle. With supernaturals, he couldn’t erase their memories the way he could humans, but he could force them to do his bidding under whatever guidelines he provided them. Emily shouldn’t have been able to figure it out.
He’d have to choose his words carefully, but perhaps he could still salvage the situation. Gabrielle had been the only method he could use to watch over Emily when he wasn’t near her. The female werewolf reported all her movements and plans. It had been an ideal setup so that he could protect her. The last thing he needed was to lose that now when Emily had strange men coming around. He didn’t know what he’d do if something happened to her.
“You must be mistaken,” he said. Lucas couldn’t outright lie, or the young sensor would know it.
“That is such bullshit. Why else would your number be in her phone?” Emily asked.
This was going to be more complicated than he thought. He glanced at Gabrielle. “Go.”
She gave Emily an apologetic look, then took off down the street. Most of the students who’d gathered to watch the fight had already left. He gave the few remaining stragglers a menacing glare and they took the hint. In less than a minute, only he and Emily stood there.
“I gave her my number so that if anything happened to you she would know how to contact me,” Lucas said after considering his answer carefully.
She stopped struggling and stared up at him. He couldn’t quite read her expression, but she didn’t appear enraged anymore. “And that’s the only reason?”
“Who was the man you were talking to?” he asked, deciding the best course of action was to change the subject. Teenagers were more astute in this day and age.
Emily averted her eyes. “No one.”
“I don’t need your abilities to recognize when you’re lying,” he pointed out. She wasn’t half as good as she thought.
She set her chin into a stubborn tilt and said nothing. This was going nowhere. Whether he liked it or not, she wouldn’t tell him anything until she was good and ready. Lucas had tried every tactic he could devise—short of harming her—on previous occasions with no positive results. Emily was every bit as stubborn as Melena, perhaps more so.
“Why attack Gabrielle if you think it was my fault?” he asked, taking her arm to guide her back to his vehicle. He didn’t want to keep standing in the open where they might draw further attention. They’d already created a big enough scene.
She clamped her lips shut and didn’t look at him. Lucas picked up the pace. He decided there needed to be a special realm far from Earth where all kids should go from ages twelve to eighteen to save their parents and guardians the grief of dealing with them. He had no idea how Melena managed to raise Emily and deal with all the supernatural problems they faced at the same time. It increased his admiration for her even more, along with the pain he felt at her absence. The world was a much better place when she was in it.
“Are you taking me home?” Emily asked after they got into the SUV.
“No.” He didn’t dare leave her alone in her mood.
She stared out the window as he drove down the street. “The nerou compound?”
She’d been there a few times when he thought she needed closer observation. The compound was a facility they’d built where Lucas and other supernaturals trained the nerou so they could become acclimated to life on Earth. He didn’t mind the job all that much. It was the only way the nephilim-sensor hybrids could remain, rather than going back to Purgatory. The archangels had mandated the hybrid race must eventually take up the role of policing the sups of the world. They had a lot to learn before they could do that, but at least they’d eventually be allowed to live semi-normal lives.
Emily took some tissues from the glove box and cleaned the blood from her face. She hadn’t been wounded as badly as he’d originally thought. The swelling was already starting to go down, and the cut on her lip was closing. Melena’s blood must have quickened the healing process. By the time she finished wiping her face, you almost couldn’t tell she’d been in a fight.
“I want to go home.”
“I think not,” he said, shooting her a dark look.
She was quiet for the next few miles and didn’t speak again until they were leaving the Fairbanks city limits. It would take almost an hour to get there. They’d built the training facility in a remote location to reduce chances of human detection, though it had magical protections concealing it as well.
“I miss Mel,” Emily said, breaking the silence. Her voice came out soft and sad.
He understood her pain, though he tried to hide his for her sake.
“She’ll be home soon,” he replied, attempting to sound optimistic.
If only he knew the exact date, but Remiel refused to answer that question as of yet. Lucas’ chest tightened at the thought of what Melena must be enduring. He had known her for more than a decade, but he regretted the fact he’d spent much of that time despising her. Not just because she was a sensor or that he’d been forced to protect her, but also because she beguiled him. Melena was beautiful, strong, and brave. Perhaps he’d known on some subconscious level that she would be his undoing if he ever let her get too close to him. Lucas had done everything he could to keep his distance and make her hate him. Yet the attraction always lingered.
For many years, he fought and denied the pull between them, but over time she’d broken past his defenses. After he’d finally given in, every force imaginable conspired to keep him and his sensor apart. Their relationship was both the best and most difficult period of his very long life. He wished he could whisk her far away from all their troubles.
“Have you dreamed about her?” Emily asked, peering over at him through the fall of her hair.
Lucas fought the urge to grip the steering wheel and give himself away. She knew that when he’d been in Purgatory Melena had dreamed about him, but only when he was in intense pain. If he admitted to seeing Mel in his sleep, Emily would know things were bad. Yet he couldn’t lie to her, either.
“Yes, but not often.”
She swallowed. “How bad is it?”
“It could be worse.” That much was true. The guardians watching over Melena were not nearly as cruel as Kerbasi had been to him, but he’d rather not see his mate hurt at all. Of course, it would help if the blasted woman wouldn’t antagonize her jailers. He’d seen that part as well. Melena was no better than him at behaving well with her captors.
“Are they torturing her?”
“Not exactly,” he paused, not wishing to go into the details, but not certain how to put the teenager off. “But they have put her in solitary confinement for stirring up trouble.”
“Is she purposely pissing them off?”
Lucas took a turn too fast, and the wheels skidded for a second before regaining traction. Emily squealed. He forced himself to slow down and take it easy. If it were only him, he wouldn’t care as much, but he had to bear in mind the teenager sitting next to him was far more breakable.
“Yes,” he answered a minute later.
She ducked her head, but he thought he caught a glimpse of a smile. “I’ll bet she’s giving them hell.”
He grunted. “Let us hope not too much.”
“Remiel promised he’d watch over Mel,” Emily said, sitting up straighter.
Lucas wished he could feel the same confidence in the archangel, but there was too much bad blood between them. He wouldn’t ruin Emily’s hopes, though. “I’m rather certain the guards in Purgatory are counting down the days until Melena leaves as much as she is.”
He turned off the highway, pulling onto a narrow dirt road. A warning buzzed in his head, and soft whispers urged him to go back. Lesser supernaturals would have difficulty ignoring them. Emily scratched at her arm and scowled at the “keep away” spell. Her abilities told her it was only magic. She could sense it and possibly feel discomfort, but due to her immunity, it couldn’t truly affect her.
Trees towered on either side of the road and branches brushed against the SUV. After they came around a bend, Lucas saw two fallen logs blocking the path. He ignored the illusion and drove right through them. It was another one of the precautions they’d put in place to discourage humans from coming near the nerou training area.
He followed the road for another two miles before coming to a fork. If he went to the right, which appeared to be the most navigable, he’d reach a river after a few hundred feet. Lucas went left. This was his least favorite part of the journey. The vegetation—mostly an illusion—was so thick some of the branches and leaves appeared inside the passenger compartment of the vehicle as he passed through them.
Emily swiped at an intangible twig. “Don’t you ever get tired of this?”
“I usually only drive when I have you with me.” Her immunity to magic prevented him from flashing her into the compound as he would have preferred. On his own, he could reach the compound in a matter of seconds no matter where he was in Alaska.
“Oh, right.” She frowned.
They stopped at a ten-foot tall wrought-iron security gate. Emily grabbed the remote from the visor and pressed the button. With a slight rattle, the gate slowly opened for them. After they had driven to the other side, she pushed the button for it to close. He didn’t continue farther until the gate fully shut.
It took another quarter-mile before the trees broke and the training area appeared up ahead. They’d had to remove a lot of vegetation and build on the land during the coldest month of the year—February. Both supernaturals and angels assisted in the project, using their magic to finish it in less than two weeks.
Two red brick dormitories stood on the far side of the clearing, each of them with central heating and running water. Between them, there was a small dining facility with a large kitchen where they cooked their meals—after some training on how to use the appliances. Solar panels and generators powered everything, rather than connecting the compound to the electrical grid. Water came from a nearby river.
Across a small parking area, there were two large corrugated steel buildings. One served as a lecture hall with six classrooms inside and the other as a gym with exercise equipment and training mats. The nerou had everything they needed to acclimate to human civilization as well as prepare them for their future jobs.
“Is that smoke?” Emily asked, pointing toward the east.
Lucas scowled at the gray plumes rising into the sky. “It appears the forest fires are getting closer.”
Her expression reflected worry. “They’re worse than usual this year.”
“Yes, they are.” He parked next to the lecture hall. “But we’ll fight them off.”
They got out of the car and ran into Micah before reaching the building entrance. His twin brother looked the worse for wear. His shoulder-length blond hair was soaked with sweat and soot, and his jeans and t-shirt were covered in ash.
“We have to do something about this fire. It’s getting out of control,” Micah said, his voice raw.
“How close is it?”
“About five miles away, heading northwest, but it could turn toward us at any time.” Micah shifted on his feet and gave a troubled look at the sky. He rarely showed apprehension, but the expression on his face said he was concerned now.
“Take care not to get too close to it,” Lucas warned. Micah might be immortal, but he could still be burned.
His brother nodded, then his gaze shifted to Emily. “What happened to her?”
Emily’s wounds had healed, but grass stains ruined her jacket and her hair needed a good combing. “A fight at school. I’m handling it.”
The teenager in question leaned against the SUV and glared at them. They hadn’t spoken loudly, but her hearing had improved in recent months. No doubt another side effect of Melena’s blood.
“Let me know if you need any help,” Micah offered.
Lucas didn’t need help so much as a miracle. He pulled his phone from his pocket and handed it over. “Go somewhere with a signal and call the shaman. He might be able to do something to slow this fire down.”
The supernaturals and nerou within the compound had a wide range of abilities, but none of them included controlling the weather on a wide scale. If they were to keep the facility safe they’d need someone who could call down rain, which fell under a shaman’s skill set. They’d have to hope Ajax, who’d taken on the job less than a year ago, could handle it.
“You don’t want to try Remiel?” Micah asked.
“If he wanted to handle it himself, he’d already be here.” The archangel hadn’t been around since they finished building the training facility. Most of the time, Lucas appreciated that, but today would have been good for him to make an appearance.
Micah nodded. “I’ll call him, but there is one other thing.”
Lucas lifted a brow.
“Sable got out of the house again.”
It had taken a week for her to come back last time. Ever since Melena left, the shape-shifter cat had been disappearing for long periods. They suspected she was looking for the sensor and wouldn’t accept their explanations on her whereabouts, though she normally understood English with no problem. For the past month, they’d been keeping her locked inside. She spent half her time mewling at the door and the rest glaring at them. He didn’t know whether to be frustrated or worried about her.
“We’ll just have to hope she comes back,” Lucas replied.
“And stays away from the fires.”
His brother had a point. “Go. I’ll search for her later tonight if she hasn’t returned.”
After Micah flashed away, Lucas led Emily inside the lecture hall. He’d be giving a class to the nerou in less than thirty minutes and needed to prepare for it. As long as the fire didn’t get too much closer, it was best they maintain their regular schedule.
“Hey, Lucas,” Emily said, glancing up at him as they made their way down the brightly lit corridor. “There’s something I need to tell you about that man I met today.”
“What is it?”
He continued walking, not looking at her. If he behaved calmly enough, she’d tell him everything without much prompting now that her initial anger had passed. Patience had never been his strong suit, but he was learning.
Lucas waved Emily into the classroom he used for lectures. It had three rows of tables and twenty-four chairs, as well as a metal desk at the front with a white board behind it. Lucas pulled open a drawer and grabbed the handouts he’d prepared the day before. Of all the things he’d considered doing over the centuries, becoming an instructor had never been one of them.
Emily cleared her throat. “That guy wasn’t exactly a stranger.”
“What do you mean?”
She shifted on her feet. “He was a sensor.”
Lucas froze. Almost all the sensors who could cause trouble for them were confined in a Department of Homeland Security facility in New Mexico. He checked with the agency every week to confirm their status. The only one unaccounted for was Melena’s brother, but he could have allies working for him. Sensors they didn’t know about.
“Did you talk to him?” Lucas asked.
She took a deep breath. “Yeah, and I think he might be my father.”
He braced his hands on the desk. This had to be some sort of trick to catch them off guard. Even if the man who approached her were her father, Lucas couldn’t begin to imagine why he would show up now after all these years. “Why do you think he’s your father?”
“My mom kept a picture of him.” Emily shifted on her feet. “I used to sneak into her room and stare at it when she wasn’t around. He looks a lot like him, except older.”
That could have been a coincidence. “What did he say to you?”
“Well…um.” She ducked her head.
Lucas gritted his teeth. A strange man claiming to be her father showed up when he wasn’t around to protect her. She should never have spoken with him, but that wasn’t the point. Lucas should have done more to keep an eye on her. He’d already failed Melena, and would regret that for the rest of his life. He would not lose Emily.
“What did he say?” he growled.
She took a step back, eyes wide. Emily was feeling the full force of his fury through her senses. He was scaring her, and he had no idea how to calm himself down. One touch from Melena could do it, but she wasn’t here. The longer they were apart and unable to renew their mate bond, the more difficult it became to control his emotions.
Lucas closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He didn’t mean to make Emily think she couldn’t be open and honest with him, but he didn’t know how to handle her. In his world, he demanded answers and if they didn’t come he forced them out. He couldn’t do that with her. Emily was fragile and needed patience and understanding. It wasn’t the girl’s fault if a man claiming to be her father suddenly showed up and wanted to see her. On the remote chance he might be her sire, she had a right to answers. He could not deny her that, but he needed her to be more careful and aware of the dangers that she might face.
“I’m not angry with you. Just tell me what happened,” he said, then gentled his voice. “All I ask is you be honest, and there will be no repercussions.”
Emily’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. “Really?”
“Yes.” She had no idea what it took for him to say that.
“You won’t kill him or something?”
Lucas counted to three. “As long as he has no intention of harming you or taking you away, I will not kill him.”
“Okay.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Well, he showed up in the parking lot about twenty minutes before school started. Gabby and I were sitting in her car talking. When he pulled up behind us, I recognized him—from that old picture.”
He took a seat, needing to ground himself. “You would have sensed him approaching before that.”
“Yeah,” Emily said, chewing her lip. “But I couldn’t explain to Gabby how I knew he was coming. Plus, she was talking about a fight she had with her boyfriend and got mad when I tried to interrupt her.”
Lucas worked to keep his expression blank. Teenage girls and their priorities baffled him. For all Emily knew, the man had been coming to take her away, but rather than run for the safety of the school she stayed to listen to gossip. As much as he wanted to berate her decision, he couldn’t risk discouraging her now. She’d clam up and not say another word.
“Very well. Go on.” Lucas dipped his chin.
“Anyway, by the time I convinced her to get out of the car the man had already pulled up. He knew my name and said my mother had sent him because she was worried about me.” She paused and looked away. “Then he told me he was my father.”
Emily’s mother, Stephanie, was a deadbeat vampire who was unlikely to give a damn about her daughter. Since Melena had promised to kill her if she ever showed up in Fairbanks, Stephanie seemed to have found a way around that decree. There was no telling what this man wanted, but Lucas would have to find out. If he truly was Emily’s father, he’d been missing for all of the girl’s life. He could have some ulterior motive for showing up now.
“Did he speak the truth?” Lucas asked.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “That’s why I didn’t run off right away when he showed up. He also told me his name is Patrick, which was what my mom always called him.”
Lucas ran a hand through his hair. It wasn’t down to his shoulders like his brother’s, but it was getting longer than his fingers. Melena would be shocked if she knew how much he’d let himself go. “What else did Patrick say?”
She stuck her hands in her pockets. “He gave me his phone number. I had to get to class, so he told me to call him later.”
“And Gabrielle heard all of this?”
Emily stiffened. “Yes.”
Lucas put it all together. “You were going to meet him after school, and she tried to stop you.”
“Yeah, because you made her spy on me!”
He sighed. He’d worried this would come out at some point, but he’d hoped to avoid it. Having a teenager who could sense emotions and detect lies made it rather difficult to hide anything from her. How did Melena do it so well? He supposed being a sensor herself gave her a lot of practice.
“You knew I’d be coming to pick you up,” Lucas said, narrowing his eyes. “You didn’t think I’d be concerned when you weren’t at school?”
Emily shrugged. “I’m not completely stupid. I was going to meet him at Cori’s tattoo shop down the road. It would have given me enough time to talk to him and send him away before you found me.”
Lucas tilted his face up and gave the “powers that be” a scathing look. It didn’t make him feel that much better. Whether he liked it or not, he would have to compromise in this situation. Otherwise, Emily would go behind his back. “I have Sunday morning free. Call him when we get home tonight and tell him we’ll meet him then.”
“But that’s two days away!”
“You can wait.” And it would give him time to find out more about Patrick.
She narrowed her eyes. “Swear you won’t kill him.”
“I already said I wouldn’t.”
“Fine, but you better keep your promise, or I’ll tell Mel when she gets back.” Emily spun on her heels and stomped from the room.
Lucas stared after her. How low had he fallen that a teenager could threaten him and do it so effectively? He shook his head and went back to work organizing for his class.
The nerou had many historical events to study before they went out into the world. One thing he’d learned over the centuries was that the past had a way of shaping human and supernatural behavior. To understand people and their motives, you had to dig deep into their history. If the nerou were to be good enforcers, they’d need to learn all the most important details.
Today, he’d be teaching them about the supernatural war that had occurred several centuries ago. The anger and resentment from that period still affected their community today. Thousands of lives were lost, but many of the surviving sups remained, still seeking revenge against the sensors who betrayed them. Lucas knew because he used to be one of them until he met Melena. The nerou needed to know that.
“The shaman is taking care of the fire,” Micah said, entering the room.
He glanced at his brother, noting that he was still covered in ash and soot. “Do you think he can manage it?”
“Ajax says he’s gotten better at calling for rain, but it still takes a heavy toll on him. He won’t be able to do it again for at least a few days.”
They’d have to hope no more fires broke out. “Keep an eye on the situation in case we need to take more drastic measures.”
“You know I will.” Micah glanced at the doorway, and his expression turned critical. “Was it really a good idea to let Kerbasi teach the nerou about human holidays?”
Lucas shrugged. “He volunteered.”
Micah’s lips twitched. “I’m heading home for a shower, but you might want to check on him soon. He told the nerou Thanksgiving is some sort of ritual sacrifice of innocent turkeys because humans have a problem with winged creatures.”
Lucas wasn’t all that surprised. “I’ll go over there in a few minutes.”
“He’s starting on Christmas next. You might want to hurry.” Micah flashed away.
Lucas wanted no part of whatever the guardian taught in his classes, but the nerou didn’t need that kind of misinformation. He couldn’t begin to fathom what the archangels were thinking when they decided to have Kerbasi work at the training center. Perhaps they just wanted to keep the annoying guardian far away from them. If only he had that option.
Heading down the hallway, Lucas entered the room at the far end of the building. Emily stood at the back with a hand over her mouth, snickering as she listened to the guardian speak. She shook her head at Lucas as he came to stand next to her.
“Did you guys have to let him teach this class?” she whispered.
“He wanted to,” Lucas replied.
He was beginning to think allowing Kerbasi to handle the sex education class they had scheduled for next week was a bad idea as well. Lucas just hadn’t wanted to do it and Micah refused after he had to give a lecture on feminine hygiene products. That left the task to Kerbasi.
He was a former guardian from Purgatory who’d abused his prisoners, including Lucas, for centuries before the archangels found out. To say he’d been ruthless and cruel would have been an understatement. Last year, they sent him to Earth as punishment with the stipulation he couldn’t return until he found his humanity. Melena had been working with him on that until she was taken away. She’d done better than expected, but Kerbasi still had a lot of room for improvement.
Now, the hulking man with silver eyes and long black hair served his sentence at the nerou training facility. He had a way of getting under people’s skin due to his lack of tact or consideration for others. Melena had been the only one who could handle him. Without her around…well, Lucas couldn’t hold his anger in check against the man who’d once maliciously tortured him. He’d tested Kerbasi’s immortality several times in recent months, but it appeared nothing could kill him, yet.
The obnoxious fool stood at the front of the room, pointing to a slide show photo of a Christmas tree. It was the one Melena and Emily had put up in their home last December. How had the guardian obtained a picture of that? And managed to put it in a slide show? They’d showed him how to use PowerPoint for his classes, but Lucas hadn’t thought Kerbasi would learn the program well enough for photo insertion.
“This is what humans call a Christmas tree,” Kerbasi said with a sneer. “For reasons I’ve yet to comprehend, they like to cut these innocent trees down from the forest and decorate them.”
“Decorate them with what?” a male nerou student asked.
The guardian’s expression turned grim. “With shiny baubles and lights. Yes, I know…” he paused, throwing his hands up, “it’s ridiculous.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Olivia asked. The slim student with shoulder-length blond hair was Micah’s daughter. It was still hard for Lucas to imagine having a niece, but after getting to know her these past months, he’d come to truly care for her. “We used to decorate our living quarters with whatever we could find.”
Lucas had seen their austere dwellings in the underground tunnels of Purgatory. It was depressing to think of anyone growing up in such a cold and dark place, much less innocent people who’d never committed a single crime except being born to the wrong parents. It was no wonder the nerou had tried to make what improvements they could to their homes. When they’d escaped, almost every one of them had some sort of handmade object they’d insisted on bringing with them such as necklaces or small figurines.
“This is different.” Kerbasi’s lips thinned. “Decorating a tree is an abomination of nature. Much like a certain nephilim…” His eyes drifted toward Lucas.
Emily had to grab his arm to keep him from flashing over to the guardian and beating the life out of him for the hundredth time. Kerbasi had a very low opinion of nephilim, which was why he’d taken such pleasure in torturing them in Purgatory. Lucas would never be able to forgive him for the things he’d done to him and others of his kind.
“It sounds fine to me,” another student spoke up.
A few others in the class murmured their agreement.
“Ah, but there is something wrong with it.” Kerbasi wagged his finger. “Nature should be respected, and you should avoid seeking meaningless pleasures.”
Emily straightened from where she’d been leaning against the back wall. “Says the man who owns a pair of smiley-face boxers—in canary yellow.”
More than half the class laughed.
The guardian’s eyes narrowed on her. “You gave those to me. I could hardly reject a gift.”
“But I didn’t make you wear them.”
Everyone’s gazes swung to Kerbasi.
“How did you…?” he stammered.
“I didn’t,” she said, unblinking. “Until now.”
Kerbasi’s olive skin turned a bright shade of red. Emily was his biggest weakness. Somehow, she’d endeared herself to him, and he’d do almost anything for her. No matter how much she teased or embarrassed him, he’d put up with it.
That was one of the reasons Lucas had allowed the guardian to continue staying in the shack behind their house after Melena left. Kerbasi would protect Emily whenever he and his brother were away. Also, the teenager had begged them not to make the guardian live anywhere else. After losing the boy she loved and the depression she’d suffered since then, it was difficult to refuse her anything.
Lucas cleared his throat. “I believe class time is over. I expect everyone down the hall in five minutes.”
“But I haven’t told them about Halloween yet,” Kerbasi argued.
“Do it tomorrow,” Lucas said, walking away.
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