Ella arrives at seven, and we camp out in the family room with a huge bowl of our favorite homemade snack mix: popcorn, cheese puffs, and honey-roasted peanuts.
"You know, we shouldn't be eating this the night before we have to squeeze into prom dresses, sweetie."
"We'll be fine as long as we don't refill the bowl," I say, grinning.
We spend most of the evening talking about Davin and Tal. Ella knows nothing about Olympus, so I have to be very careful not to slip. As far as she's concerned, Tal and Davin are graduate students at the Institute. A couple of ordinary human college guys—who happen to be totally extraordinary in every way.
"You're in love with him, aren't you, sweetie?"
I don't hesitate. "Yes."
"Have you told him?" She tilts her head and looks at me expectantly.
"Not exactly." I sigh. "But I think he knows."
"Not exactly? What does that mean?"
I haven't the foggiest idea. "I don't know. I guess I act like I'm in love with him. I tell him things…"
"Things? He's a guy, sweetie. Males lack the intuition gene, ya know? They need things spelled out. If you're sure you love him, you need to tell him." She props her chin up on her fists and stares at me with pursed lips.
She is relentless.
"I've never loved a guy before. I'm not sure what to say."
"How about, ‘I Love you, Davin'?"
"Hmm. I guess that would work."
"I think you're afraid he won't tell you he loves you. Are you afraid?"
"Of course not. Well, maybe a little."
"Sweetie, if he doesn't tell you, it doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't love you. It just means he's not ready—or willing—to admit it. I've seen the way he looks at you, the way he strokes your hair. That guy is in love with you. I'd stake my life on it."
"So you think I should tell him?"
"If you don't, I will," she says, grinning mischievously.
"Uh-huh. It would be a public service. You two belong together, like coffee and cream."
"You drink your coffee black," I say with a smirk.
She narrows her eyes and glares at me. "You know what I mean."
I want to tell him. I'm just waiting for the right time. The perfect moment. "Then I guess I'll have to tell him," I say with a contented smile.
"That's more like it," she says.
"So, how do you feel about Tal?" I ask, holding my breath.
Ella gazes up at the ceiling. "It's kind of evolving. There's a spark between us. A really hot spark. But he's a little weird about things sometimes. I mean, we'll have this passionate make-out session, and then he'll just stop and be a Boy Scout the rest of the night. It's a little infuriating. He's got enough hot to heat a small city—but something is a little off. Ya know?"
I hate lying to her, but I have no choice. "I'm sure he's just a little shy. Maybe a bit old-fashioned. I think everything will work out."
The fact is, Warriors are extremely honorable. Tal is simply being cautious. He's being a Warrior. He also knows that if Ella finds out he's immortal, things could get really, really complicated.
"Yeah," she says through a yawn, "I'm going to go with the flow and see where it takes me. He is a mighty unique guy."
"He is. Do you love him?"
"I think I could fall in love with him, but I'm not there yet. Maybe tomorrow will be our breakthrough. I'll let you know."
"You do that. So, I assume you broke things off with Tom?"
"I did. Interestingly, he understood. I think he felt as uncomfortable with me as I did with him. It's funny how things work out sometimes."
"Yeah. I'm glad Tom's okay. He wasn't a good fit for you, but he is a nice guy," I say, as we head into the kitchen to clean up.
Ella sighs and nods.
I wash out the snack bowl, dry it, then grab a couple of cold water bottles from the fridge. "Let's go upstairs and get some sleep. Maybe we'll have sweet dreams," I say.
"Sounds like a plan, sweetie."
Bright lights. Sunshine. Eyes hurting. I look at my phone. It's almost noon.
Across the room, there is a snoring lump on my sofa. Ella. I decide to let her sleep.
I grab my robe and tiptoe to the bathroom.
Stepping into the shower, I close my eyes and let the water gently massage me. My mind wanders. I'm an angel. Will I be strong enough to play the hand I was dealt? Am I really in love with Davin? Or am I using him to stay grounded?
I towel off and run a comb through my hair as I stare at the new and improved Ari in the mirror. Since my awakening, I've noticed subtle changes in my appearance. Smooth and unblemished skin. Softer, healthier, and blacker hair. Gray eyes that now sparkle like jewels. Arms, legs, and abs that are more defined. Breasts that seem fuller. I've always considered myself pretty, but the girl in the mirror is different. She's a woman—a very beautiful woman. And there's only one reason it matters. I want to be beautiful for Davin. Only for Davin. I'm still the same old Ari inside. My smile spreads to my eyes as I realize that I do love him, I love him with all my heart. There will never be anyone else. Only Davin.
And tonight I will tell him.
I walk back out into the bedroom. Ella is starting to stir. "Wake up, sleepy head," I urge, while nudging her gently. Ella could sleep through a hurricane. One eye pops open. Then the other. "Let's get some breakfast. Okay?"
She stretches and yawns. "You go ahead, sweetie. I'm going to clean up. Meet you in fifteen. Okay?"
"Don't go back to sleep," I nag, as I get dressed.
She stands on wobbly legs. "I won't."
"See you in the kitchen," I say on my way out.
The house is quiet. No sign of Mom.
Is she with Thalia?
I find a note in the center of the kitchen table. It's wedged between the salt and pepper shakers.
Spending the day with Thalia – at the Institute. It's all good. See you tonight in time for pictures and hugs. Love you — Mom
I picture Mom and Thalia sitting in Nagi's restaurant, chatting casually, about angels, and space portals. And I smile, because what else can I do?
Davin, Tal, Mom, and Thalia arrive together at six-thirty. Mom runs to fetch her good camera, while Tal and Davin stare at Ella and me as if we're prey. Our dresses are, in a word—hot. Ella's white strapless gown has a form-fitting skirt with a thigh-high slit. Mine is black and features a scooped tunic bodice over a curve-hugging, floor-length, double-slit skirt.
"You are the two most beautiful creatures I've ever seen," observes Tal, looking as if he is about to drool all over his exquisite black tux. "Don't you agree?" he asks Davin.
Davin looks like he's trying really hard to say something, but his mouth seems a little stuck. "Davin, you look very handsome."
He walks across the foyer, takes my hands in his, and finally finds his voice. "Ari, the dress is stunning. You are…you look like a goddess."
The poor fella looks awestricken, and I'm liking it, a lot. "Thank you, Davin," I say, as a camera flash makes me blink.
Mom and Thalia are snapping away. Then they get serious, making us pose for what seems like a hundred photos. They are really enjoying themselves—and I feel like royalty.
I don't get a chance to talk with Mom and Thalia about their meeting, but I do get an opportunity to give them each a questioning look—to which Mom responds with a wink, and Thalia a thumbs-up. So their meeting was good. I flash a big smile and give each of them a little nod. The details will have to wait, but I have a feeling it will be all good.
We finally manage to sneak out the door, while our personal paparazzi keep snapping pictures until the four of us are seated inside Tal's black Porsche SUV.
"Ella," Mom calls out from the doorway, "Say ‘hi' to your mom and tell her I'll be posting a bunch of pictures on Facebook."
Ella's mom, a teacher at our high school, will be a prom chaperone tonight.
"Okay, Doc. Will do," Ella replies.
Tal pulls up to the main entrance of the Sandhaven Hotel. Built in the 1920s, the Sandhaven is the Valley's showpiece, having hosted Presidents, royalty, and captains of industry in grand style. It's a storybook setting for a prom.
The valet hands Tal a claim check and then opens the doors for us. Davin tracks the Cayenne as the valet drives it away.
"What are you looking at?" I ask.
"Our car. I want to see where he parks it—in case we need to find it."
I nod. The guys probably have spare keys in their pockets. I have a lot to learn about strategy and tactics.
"Hey, y'all," comes the grating voice of Jen Hilliard. She's Edgewood's head cheerleader and the shallowest person I've ever known.
Her ample assets are in danger of popping out of her gown, and I'm hoping it won't happen in front of me. She's a pretty girl, but it's obvious that's all she has going for her. Life after high school might easily prove to be a rude awakening. I feel sorry for her. Maybe she'll find herself at college.
"Where'd you get the pretty fellas?" Jen asks, as she checks out the guys. She certainly isn't shy about it, either.
Ella glares at her. "They were selling them down the road. Did you miss the kiosk? They came with a Porsche. All for one low price. We just need to get them back before midnight or they'll turn into garden gnomes," she says with narrowed eyes.
Jen's date walks up just in time to rescue her.
As we walk inside, Davin leans in close, and whispers, "She would make a great Warrior."
I smile in silent agreement. Indeed she would.
The grand ballroom is immense. A posh dining area rings a polished wood dance floor. The room has to be two hundred feet long, half as wide, and about forty feet high. The décor is early twentieth century and totally gorgeous. I love everything about it. It would make a great setting for an old movie—and it probably has.
The ballroom ends in a solid glass wall, which opens onto a large ornate balcony—perched high above the Valley.
We find our table and are quickly greeted by a server, who brings us water and takes our dinner orders.
After dinner, the DJ switches from mood to dance music, and Ella looks ready to party.
"Alright y'all. We have to dance the first dance. Follow me," she says. She stands and waits for Tal to take her arm.
I'm a little less forward and wait for Davin to ask me.
As we make our way onto the dance floor, my cheeks flush as I realize how many girls are ogling Davin. It's almost indecent the way some of them gawk. I lean close and whisper, "I think you have some fans here."
He looks around. "In case you haven't noticed, almost every guy in this room is staring at you. I guess we make a nice couple," he says, looking happy and relaxed.
Davin holds me close as we dance. Every nerve in my body is on high alert and I'm oblivious to anyone or anything, except him. The side of my face finds a cozy nest on the left side of his chest. It's a perfect fit.
"You're a very graceful dancer," I say.
"Thalia worked with me. We watched videos."
"How cute," I say, imagining them practicing. "Thank you for coming to the prom with me."
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
He's being sweet, because I'm pretty sure being surrounded by a bunch of human teenagers is not his idea of a fun evening. "Thank you. It does mean a lot to me."
I look up just as an adorable smile begins to form on his lips.
"I know that your human heritage is important to you. This dance is important to you. I want you to be happy."
"I'm happy whenever I'm with you, Davin," I say, as I softly knead the nape of his neck.
"Mmm, if I kissed you now would you get into trouble?"
"I don't care, because if you don't kiss me now I just might explode into little pieces all over your nice tuxedo."
So he kisses me. It's a wonderful kiss, a kiss that might never have ended had the music not come to a scratching, screeching halt.
Our blissful interlude shattered, we stare up at the stage. A large man is standing behind the DJ, holding a gun to his head.
This can't be happening.
The man grabs the mike and announces in a perfectly clear voice, "Boys and girls, may I have your attention please? Please give me your undivided attention."
He gets what he asked for, because everyone stops talking and looks at him. It's then that I realize how grotesque he looks.
"Davin, I can sense him. Is he—"
Davin doesn't answer. I hear a loud pop, and the front of the DJ's head explodes in a macabre spray of blood and tissue. It takes several seconds for reality to sink in—and then all hell breaks loose.
Kids are running around aimlessly, screaming and crying. I see one girl fall and get trampled by two other kids. She manages to get back on her feet and takes off running.
Tal appears beside us, holding Ella protectively, as more shots ring out. She's shaking.
"Ari, take Ella and go to the balcony," Davin commands, as he points to the glass doors at the back of the ballroom. "Get down to the Valley and go straight to the river. Tal and I will secure things here, and then we'll find you. Go!"
"I want to help you."
"Tal and I are in no danger, but Ella is. PLEASE!"
He's right. "Be careful, Davin."
"I will. Now GO!" he roars over the deafening din.
Ella is sobbing uncontrollably. "Did you see his head—?"
"Shh," I whisper in her ear. "I'm going to get us out of here. It'll be okay."
I kick off my shoes, pick her up in my arms, and rocket to the balcony at full speed. To any human observer, we probably appear as an unidentifiable blur. Taking one last, heart-rending look inside the ballroom, I leap up and onto the balcony wall.
"Ari, you're not going to jump!" Ella screams. She's writhing like an eel, struggling to squirm out of my arms. "You'll kill us both!"
"Stay as still as you can. We'll be fine."
"Please let me down, sweetie. Please."
"Close your eyes and trust me. You know I'd never hurt you."
I don't want to prolong her agony, so I hold her tight against my chest and launch us off the balcony, toward the Valley, forty feet below. The soft ground cushions our landing and I look down to make sure she is okay. Her breathing is steady, but she's out cold.
I jog to the riverbank, set her down on the grass, and brush the hair away from her face. She's coming around. Now she's glaring at me. Her expression quickly progresses from confusion to anger. I brace for the tirade I know is coming.
She sits up slowly and leans against a tree, fixing me with a look of grim determination. And then she erupts. "You picked me up like I was a little kid. Then you took off running like a freaking express train. And…and that jump into the Valley should have killed us both. But it didn't. When did you become a superhero, huh? What the hell is going on?"
"I can't tell you right now. When Davin and Tal get here, we'll go somewhere and talk. It'll all make sense. I promise."
I lied. I have no idea whether the Warriors will want Ella to know what we are.
"Really? You can't tell me?" she asks, as I start walking upstream. "You get back here right now!"
"I'm just going to look for the guys. I'll be right back."
"Ari! You need to tell me. Right. Now."
Maybe I can give her a partial explanation. I turn and start to walk back toward Ella when a man's voice resonates through the darkness—startling me.
"My, such a pretty young lady." His tone is deep, rich, and evil.
I turn toward the voice just as its owner emerges from the shadows. Steely dark eyes and an aquiline nose dominate his face. His oily black hair is slicked back. I suddenly know what Davin meant by a Warrior's instinct. He reeks of evil, causing the Essence to surge through my skin, as my body generates a protective shield. "You are Zon," I hiss.
"Oh, my. A Warrior," he croons. "A most serendipitous encounter. How can this be?"
"It's your lucky day, I guess. Are you responsible for what happened in the hotel?"
"I am responsible for many things, my lovely." He bows at the waist and continues. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Artemus Bodden."
"What do you want, Artie?" Energy is boiling inside me. I'm coiled and ready to spring.
"What do you think? I want to create chaos, provoke panic, and cause you to tingle with terror. And then I want to taste your fear, my dear."
He's got my attention. I place my hands on my hips and stare daggers at him. "Can't have any."
"Well, let's see." He pauses and stares at me—running his gaze the length of my body.
I'm totally creeped out.
"Hmm. First I'll make you moan with pleasure and then I'll make you scream in agony." His face contorts into a perverted, sickening smile.
"What the hell is going on?" Ella bellows. "Are y'all crazy?"
"Ella, stay back there. Everything will be okay. The guy is nuts."
He is trying to charm me. I can feel it. He's testing my power.
"I'm completely sane, ladies," Artemus says, with a lilt. "I just have a highly evolved sense of pleasure." He's leering at me now. God, I hate it when guys leer at me. Okay, this is going too far, and I'm about to pop.
"You've got less than ten flippin' seconds to live. I suggest you start praying for redemption."
Davin once asked me if I could look a snarling Zon in the eye and destroy him without hesitation. One look at Bodden and there's no doubt. I can do this. I can tear him to pieces.
"If you attack me, your human friend will die." His tone is smooth and ice cold.
I turn toward Ella. A man is crouched next to her. He smells like Artemus and looks even crazier—and he's wielding a wicked-looking knife. Crap!
Ella looks petrified, her face a mask of abject fear.
I'm not prepared for this at all. What would Davin do? If I charge, she will surely be stabbed before I reach her. I could project energy, but I don't have enough control yet. I could unintentionally hurt my best friend. Maybe even kill her. My only hope is that Davin and Tal will arrive in time to help. I have to buy us time.
"What to do, what to do," Artemus says, in a sing-song cadence. "Your fear is palpable. I haven't felt pleasure like this in centuries."
He's acting like a total perv.
"You're sick," I say. "Let my friend go and I will be merciful."
"You are not in a position to bargain, Warrior."
"If she is hurt, you will die. There will be no negotiating. Do you want to die?"
"Oh, please don't be angry. It's such a useless emotion. Fear is so much tastier. How can I terrify you?" He looks at me and then at Ella. "Ah, I think I know," he says with a maniacal cackle.
He turns to the beast beside Ella. "Lander, stick your knife into the pretty little human, but try not to kill her too quickly."
"No! Please don't hurt me," Ella pleads.
Lander smiles wickedly as he leans close to Ella. "Are you afraid, little girl?"
He runs his knife along the front of her neck, drawing a thin line of blood. He looks at the knife and moans. And then he licks Ella's blood off the tip of his blade. Ella is sobbing, and Lander is getting more excited.
"LEAVE HER ALONE!" I shout.
"Watch closely," Lander says. He sticks his knife into Ella's stomach, inserting it slowly. Then he twists it.
Ella screams in agony as my heart shatters into little pieces.
"NO-NO-NO-NO!" I scream, as blood gushes from Ella's abdomen, turning her beautiful gown red.
I leap toward Lander, screaming, or perhaps roaring. He pulls the knife out of Ella and lunges. But he's not quick enough. My foot connects with his midsection, and he flies into the river.
I kneel beside Ella, who is lying on the ground, moaning. "Hang on, honey, help is on the way," I tell her.
"Ari, you roared," she says in a weak voice.
Ella looks behind me and her eyes go wide with fear, causing me to turn, just as Bodden raises a handgun and aims. I move in front of him, shielding Ella, as he fires. The bullets are repelled by my shield. He curses and throws the gun onto the ground.
"You will not leave this forest alive," I say. The words come out as a guttural snarl.
"Such a spoil sport," he whines. "Regrettably, I will take your leave and live to fight another day. It was a pleasure to meet you. Now you'd better tend to your little friend. She does not look well at all."
I'm about to kick his evil face into pulp when a sudden movement in the shadows catches my attention. Gliding like a panther, Davin appears in front of us. His fist shoots out like lightning and the left side of Bodden's head explodes.
"Ari, behind you!" Davin shouts.
I turn to see Lander charging up the riverbank toward me. He's moving fast, too fast for me to plant for a killing strike. I slide to my left and strike the side of his face with a straight right hand. He staggers backwards, but recovers quickly and lunges. Davin steps in front of me, but this is my battle, and I won't be denied. I shove Davin out of the way and launch myself at Lander. I'm on him in an instant, pinning him to the ground. He sneers, trying to speak, but I cut him off. "You will never hurt anyone again." I snarl, grabbing two handfuls of his hair.
Is he begging for mercy? Because if he is, I have none to offer.
"NO!" I roar, as I slam his head into the ground.
He tries to spin free, but the Essence within me is far too strong. I drive his head into the hard, rock-strewn soil, over and over, and over again. I can hear the bones in his neck cracking. Blood pours from his nose, his ears, and his eyes. I want to rip the heart from his chest.
"THIS IS FOR ELLA, YOU BASTARD!"
A gentle hand grasps my shoulder. "Ari, he's dead. You can stop," Davin says, softly.
I can't look at him. I can't stop smashing Lander's head into the ground.
"HE'S NOT DEAD ENOUGH!" I bellow.
Davin lifts me off my feet and holds me against his chest, breaking the spell and bringing me back to what remain of my senses.
"Ari, are you hurt?"
I look down at my dress. It's covered in blood—Lander's blood.
"I—I'm fine. He tortured her, Davin. Is she…?"
We both turn toward Ella. Tal is kneeling beside her, pouring something into her wound.
"What is he doing?" I ask.
"He is administering a medicine that will help slow the bleeding. It is similar to what your mom would call a hemostatic agent—but more effective."
"Will it heal her?" I ask, hoping it would.
"It will buy her time." Davin doesn't look confident.
"Help her, Davin. Don't let her die. Please!" I begin to sob.
"She is human, Ari. I cannot share the Essence with her. But you might be able to. I think there is a chance…"
I can't move. I can't speak. I just stare at him, wide-eyed, unable to stop sobbing. He grasps my shoulders and gives me a firm shake.
"Ari, you need to help her. It's her only chance."
"BUT YOU HEALED ME!"
"Because you have angel DNA. Ari, please, there's not much time. Your powers are unique. I believe you can help her."
"This is my fault. I hesitated, Davin. I should have saved her. This is all my fault…"
"It is not your fault. Get hold of yourself and go to her. Now!"
I shake my head, trying to clear my mind.
I have to try.
I go to Ella's side and gently grasp Tal's shoulder. "I'm going to help her heal, Tal."
Tal gives me a curious look and nods. He looks devastated. Defeated.
I kneel down next to Ella and inspect her wound. Blood is everywhere. Lander didn't just stab her—the monster tore her open.
"What do I do, Davin?" I ask, as I lay my hand gently on her stomach. She flinches and moans—but doesn't wake up.
Davin kneels beside me and places a hand on my arm. "Ari, release your energy into her. See it in your mind. Think about how much you love her."
I nod, unsure whether I can do it, but I'll try. I'll try as hard as I can.
I focus—pulling energy inward. Whatever Tal poured into her wound is working, because the bleeding has slowed to a trickle.
Please God, give me a little help here. Maybe a miracle?
I push out hard, releasing energy into her torso. The air around me warms, and a faint glow appears over my hand. It's almost imperceptible. But then it grows brighter—until Ella's entire body is bathed in a soft blue halo. Her eyes open wide and she gasps, trying to speak. But all she can do is mouth my name.
Davin leans in closer and whispers, "It's going to hurt a lot, but you must stay connected. Do not let go."
Ella's eyes close again. I watch the slow rise and fall of her chest. "Don't give up, Ella," I beg, as tears stream down my face.
Ella convulses, and I feel hot, really hot, as if every muscle and organ in my body is on fire. I groan in agony, refusing to scream, fearing I'll lose my focus.
"Hold on, Ari," Davin says. "You're doing it. I'm here with you."
After several long, agonizing minutes, the pain begins to subside and I can breathe again. Ella's eyes open and she looks at me.
"I'm here Ella."
"I know that. I can see you."
I smile at her through a steady stream of tears.
"You healed me, sweetie. It was as if you and I were…as if we were one person. How…?"
Her voice is weak and raspy. I look at the guys for help, not knowing what to tell her.
"I will explain everything when you are stronger," Tal says.
"No you won't," Ella says. Her voice may be weak, but her mind is strong as ever. "You will explain now. That creepy dude called me human. Why would he do that, huh? And Ari and Davin did some things that were clearly more than human. I'm nobody's fool, Tal."
"You need to rest, and then I will tell you everything," Tal says, as he rubs her forehead and temples with a very aromatic ointment.
"Stop it. That stuff is gross. You better tell me…" Her voice trails off and her eyes close.
She's sound asleep.
"What did you put on her head, Tal?"
"A sedative. She needs to rest."
"That was one hell of a sedative. Is it safe?"
"Yes. She will sleep for a couple of hours and then wake feeling refreshed."
"Will you stay with her?"
"I will not leave her side."
"Thanks. She cares for you a lot. If any human can handle our little secret, it's Ella. If we hide the truth from her, she'll know, and she'll be terribly hurt. She's a lot smarter than you think. You need to tell her what you are. What we are."
He looks at me with a wistful expression and sighs. "Sometimes I think she is smarter than most angels. I will talk with her tonight. You should get some rest, Ari."
"I think you're right. If her condition changes, come get me."
"I will," he says, and then he grasps my hand. "You were amazing tonight. I am very proud of you."
"Thank you, Tal. But I should have done more."
"You did all you possibly could. You displayed courage and good judgment. You are a true Warrior. Neither Davin nor I could have done more."
I smile and give Tal a pat on the shoulder. "Coming from you, it means a lot. Thanks."
He nods and smiles back at me.
"Take care of her, Tal."
"I will," he says.
I stand up on wobbly legs.
Davin wraps an arm around my waist for support. "How do you feel?" he asks.
"A little drained, and I have a really big headache. Oh, and every muscle in my body feels like mush," I say, wincing. "Other than that, I'm pretty good."
"I know the feeling," he says.
"Is that how you felt at Renegade Falls?" I ask, remembering how drained he looked after helping me to heal my leg.
"How did you know I could heal her? Did you know?"
He takes a deep breath. "I didn't know for sure. But I suspected you could. Warriors cannot heal humans. But you are more than a Warrior, Ari. Much more."
"This is all so incredible, Davin. I felt as if I was inside her soul."
"There is something we need to consider."
"What do you mean?"
"Think of what you've learned about angel genetics. How do we heal?"
We heal from the Essence. In the event of a major injury, we can help another angel by sharing energy. But angels heal themselves because they are genetically equipped to do so. I gasp. "The Essence. She used the Essence."
Is he implying that I changed her?
"Oh, Davin. You don't think…"
"There is a very real possibility that you have altered her DNA."
"How can we find out?"
"Let's go sit down and wait for Thalia," he says, pointing to a large SUV parked under a tree. "She will know."
"Oh God," I whisper.
Davin gives me an odd look, then smiles. "Precisely."
End of Excerpt
“Your personal assistant will arrive in a few moments to assist you, Lady,” the guard says as he unlocks the door with a wave of his hand. Tall and dressed in black military garb, he appears to be in his early twenties, and the only weapon I see is a thick, silver baton attached to his belt.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Steven,” he says, as he combs his fingers through thick, sandy-colored hair. While quite attractive, he does not possess the unique beauty that most angels do.
“You are a Minion,” I state.
He eyes me curiously, his brow arched. “Welcome to Shangri-La,” he says, neither confirming nor denying what he is.
“Is that what Janus calls the Citadel now?” I ask, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
Steven smiles wanly, looking a little confused. “I’m not at liberty to say, Lady. When Lord Janus arrives, I’m sure he will address any questions you might have.” And with that, he backs away from the door and bows to me. “Have a pleasant evening.” The door shuts with a solid click and I swear I can hear him chuckling.
On a whim, I wave my hand across the panel on my side of the door, but it remains locked. I’m a prisoner in my chambers. My windowless chambers. In freaking Shangri-La.
The room is clean, large, and modernly appointed. White chairs and a matching sofa stand in stark contrast to the black tiled floor. Even the wall-mounted art is harsh, looking as if it were selected from a catalog of Rorschach tests. A large flatscreen is mounted on the wall opposite the sofa. There are six doors inside the room. I walk over to one and wave my hand across its panel. Surprisingly, it opens into a spacious bedroom. I quickly try the other five doors. Only one of them responds to my hand. It’s a small kitchen, with fully stocked cupboards and a rather large, built-in refrigerator. I grab an apple from a bowl and stare at it for a few seconds, thinking about the poison apple that Snow White ate. Taking a large, juicy bite, I turn and head toward the bedroom.
Siting on the edge of the bed, I feel a sense of panic threatening to overwhelm me. I cover my ears, listening to the sound of my heart.
I’m alone, I’m powerless, and I’ve never felt so afraid in my entire life. I’ve always been strong. I’ve always been in control. But now? Now Janus is in control. I’m at his mercy.
The first sob does not want to come out easily. I’m stubborn that way. But once it escapes, I can’t hold back the torrent that ensues. I want Davin, I want my mom, I want Ella, I want…
“Lady Ariel?” The sound of a woman’s voice startles me. I quickly snatch a handful of tissues from the nightstand and dab at my swollen eyes before turning toward the intruder.
“Who are you?” I ask the young woman standing just outside the open bedroom door.
“I’m Fiona, your personal assistant. May I enter your room?” she asks with a shy smile.
She sports a lush shock of shoulder-length auburn hair and an alabaster complexion that seems to make her glow from the inside out. She’s pretty enough to be an angel, but given her Irish name, she’s probably a Minion. “Well, you’re standing in an open doorway looking inside my room. I’d say you’ve already entered. What do you want?”
“I’ve been assigned to assist you, Lady. I will be living in the servant’s quarters.” She points to one of the locked doors across from the bedroom.
“Oh, that’s just great,” I say with a heavy sigh.
“You should be happy. Janus has chosen you, but yet you seem sad.” She snatches a tissue and dabs around my eyes, causing me to flinch. But her touch is gentle. “Will you allow me to draw you a hot bath? I think it will help.” Fiona’s expression is odd, as if she’s trying to convey another message…as if she wants nothing more than to get me into the bathroom.
A bath would be nice. I nod slowly. “I suppose it will. Thank you.”
She smiles, as if I’ve given her a great gift. “Come with me and I will tell you all about your new home while I prepare your bath. Knowledge is power, yeah?” she says with a warm smile. She has a slight brogue, which is terribly cute, and I can’t help but smile.
“Were you raised in Ireland?” I ask as Fiona closes the bathroom door behind us and glides over to a huge sunken tub.
She nods as water begins rushing into the tub, then turns to face me. “There are no cameras or microphones in here. We can speak freely, but please keep your voice to a whisper. Okay?”
Her voice is different. Gone is the tentative, submissive tone. This woman exudes confidence and poise. Can she really be an ally? “Why would we want to speak freely, Fiona? You work for my captor, after all.”
Her expression turns fierce, and for a moment I think she might not be an ally at all. “Not everyone here chooses to follow Janus.”
Fine, but she needs to prove herself. I need to know she can be trusted. “And I’m supposed to trust you? Just like that? This could be a trap.”
Fiona nods. “Aye, it could be…but it’s not. Look into my heart and you will know it is pure.”
“Look into her heart and you will know it is pure.” Could Agapás have been telling me to trust Fiona? She touches my arm, and that’s all it takes. Our connection is strong. We smile as if we just shared a private joke, and I know beyond any doubt… “I trust you.”
She nods. She felt it, too.
“It wasn’t me,” I say. “We connected through your powers. But you’re a Minion. How?”
“Ach! There is a lot you need to learn about us lowly Minions,” she says with a wave of her hand. “The genetic modifications we undergo as babes can lead to all manner of angelic abilities. The only ability we’ve yet to see in our kind is flight, but with proper training, you never know.”
“Amazing,” I say.
“‘Tis. Now about this curse that they placed inside your body…”
“The same. When you were attacked, you were able to kill several of Eloy’s human soldiers, yeah?”
I nod, cringing at the memory and all the blood.
“That should not have been possible, because you were under the influence of argolinos. From what I hear, Eloy nearly soiled his trousers.”
I can’t help but smile at the idea and the innocence with which she said it. “So that’s why he used the collar?”
Fiona nods. “It was an extra precaution. Janus ordered it because he fears you. The implant is functionally similar to the collar, except that the implant can also cause…discomfort. I’m sure Apollonia demonstrated that feature?”
The memory of it makes me wince. “I’ve never felt such intense pain.”
“I can only imagine, and I’ll tell you what I know, but please get into the tub first. If we’re in here too long, we will draw suspicion, and you really do need a bath,” Fiona says as she turns her back to afford me a modicum of privacy. “Leave your clothing on the floor. I’ll attend to it later.”
The bath water is soothing, but Fiona has my complete attention.
“So the implant works on my nervous system?”
“Aye. Most of the time it renders you relaxed, on a cellular level, to the point where you cannot access your higher powers—such as flight and energy projection. It does not, however, affect your strength, your speed, or your ability to heal. The way you’re put together, Ariel, has them completely banjaxed. To Janus and his cronies, you are a riddle they can’t figure out.”
Well that sucks. I could have overpowered Eloy, but I was too relaxed? “Could I have powered through the effects of the collar?”
“Theoretically, yes, but don’t beat yourself up,” Fiona says. “You couldn’t have known. You were taught that argolinos blocks your power, but you have somehow evolved to a point where it doesn’t affect you the way it affects other angels. Perhaps we can discuss how that happened when we have more time?”
“Of course,” I say, but I’m distracted by a more important and timely question that pops into my head. “Can I leave here with the implant still inside me?”
“Well, actually, you can…but it would hurt like the dickens, so you probably wouldn’t get very far before you passed out from the pain. The device will activate if you leave this room. It will also activate if you attempt to use your higher powers, and that’s the real problem, because for us calling on the Essence is like breathing. It’s a reflex. Using only your physical strength, you could rip this tub in half, and not trigger the implant. But if you were compelled to use your powers to form a shield, or to throw energy, then the implant would activate. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nod. “I can punch and kick all I want, but if I attempt to make a shield or otherwise call on the Essence, the implant will be triggered,” I say.
“Aye. We’re working on getting a remote control from the labs so that we can turn the bloody thing off. If we can’t acquire one, we’ll just have to do a little surgery on you.”
My hands start shaking because I remember the pain I felt when Apollonia activated the blasted thing. “Can you help me cut it out now?”
“That would be messy, and I’d feel just terrible if I cut out something important, like your liver. I guess it would grow back, but…”
I hold up my hand. “I get it.”
“Not to worry. If we need to remove the bugger, we have a doctor on the team who can operate. He’s highly skilled…”
“That’s good,” I say with a slight shudder. “So, tell me—how many Minions are there who oppose Janus?”
“Far more than you might think. Among my kind, nearly a thousand. And there are twelve full-blooded angels on the team.”
“These twelve angels—they seek redemption?”
“They seek revenge, Ariel. They’ve decided that the devil they know is far worse than anything else. You have no idea what evil Janus and his circle are capable of.” She leans back against the door and sighs. “No one does. We need to get you out of here.”
I’m all in with that idea, but… “We’re not in the Citadel, are we?”
“Naw. Janus figured that once you were taken, the Citadel would be the first place your people would go, so he had you brought here—to Shangri La.”
I have a feeling this Shangri La is not the earthly paradise described in Lost Horizon. “And where in the world are we, exactly?”
“Nepal—between China and India, not far from Mt. Everest. Actually, we are under the Himalayas. Janus does fancy a good mountain fortress… especially now that the Citadel is gone,” Fiona says with a smirk.
“Yeah. Your husband got a little crazy when he found out you were taken.” She smiles and gives me a knowing nod.
My first reaction is anger. How could he be so impetuous? But then it occurs to me that if our situations were reversed, I’d have done the same damn thing. “What did he do?” I ask, as all sorts of thoughts race through my mind. Was he injured? Were any other angels injured? “Is he all right?”
“By all reports, he is. The Citadel, on the other hand, did not fare very well. It seems he vaporized half the mountain. Your angel just walked in through the front door…after he melted it. The argolinos had no effect on him. The authorities think the explosions were caused by gas trapped inside an abandoned mine. It must be nice to have someone who loves you enough to blow up a bloody mountain for you, yeah?”
I make a sound halfway between a gasp and a groan. “Collateral damage?”
“Not so much. Janus had already evacuated most of the angels, Minions, and human servants. Those who remained were beyond salvage. No one died that day who did not deserve to.”
“So, the entire population of the Citadel was moved here?”
Fiona shakes her head. “Less than fifty were relocated here. Janus has dozens of strongholds around the world. The Citadel’s population has been strategically dispersed to several different locations. The evil wanker thought it would be harder to find you here.”
“Fiona, I need to get out of here before Janus returns. Do you think we can break out?”
“I do, but I’m afraid it’s going to take a bit of time to implement.”
“How much time? Janus will be back in seven days!”
“Not that long. We need forty-eight hours to gather enough security footage to embed a false loop into the system. While security watches the loop, we’ll be free to move about…and to meet with other resistance operatives. We’ll be able to do it, Ariel. In total, there are seventy-six people in this facility, and twenty-eight are on my team. Coming up with a plan will be child’s play.”
Is she truly that confident? “Child’s play? Don’t they have weapons?”
“Mm hmm,” she says with a quick nod. “They have everything we need!”
Okay, maybe I was wrong about Fiona. Maybe she’s a little…delusional. “Explain what you mean.”
She laughs, a pretty tinkling sound, and I can’t help thinking that maybe the pretty half-angel in front of me has a wee bit of fairy DNA in the mix. “We’re dealing with an evil angel who also happens to be the largest weapons dealer in the world. We are sitting three floors above a warehouse stocked with thousands of top-secret tactical EMP devices.”
“Okay…I’m familiar with the concept of electromagnetic pulses. But tell me what you mean by tactical.”
She slowly paces, as if she’s a college professor about to launch into a lecture. “As I’m sure you know, an electromagnetic pulse can cause catastrophic damage to all electronic devices in its range. The problem is that the only effective deployment methods to date require a highly explosive and destructive delivery system—like a hydrogen bomb. Our evil angel has devised a weapon that is just as effective as a nuclear bomb, but it doesn’t kill people or destroy buildings. It simply fries any electronic device within its kill zone. That’s what I mean by tactical!”
A thought suddenly occurs to me. “What does Janus plan to do with all of these weapons? I think I know, but I’d like confirmation.”
Fiona smiles, but it’s a grim smile. “He’s going to use them to drive the world back into the stone age. They can be wielded by foot soldiers, launched from manned aircraft, and also from drones. We’ve estimated that the entire world could go dark within forty-eight hours.”
The very idea causes me to shiver. “We’ve spent months trying to figure out his game plan, only to be frustrated time and again. We keep coming back to the same conclusion.”
Fiona arches her brow. “And that would be—”
“That we’re dealing with a crazy angel,” I say, shaking my head.
Fiona nods. “A total nutter.”
I can’t help chuckling. I’m not sure whether it’s Fiona’s dry Irish sense of humor, or the absurdity in trying to analyze a sociopath. “In any event, the information and insight you bring to the table could help us immensely. I just wish I could communicate with my people.”
“About your people,” She says, as she takes in a deep breath, “I’m in contact with them. In fact, one of our key operatives is with them now.”
“What? You should have told me immediately!”
“Don’t be upset, please. You cannot actually talk to them. Our method of communication involves coded messages sent via various social networks. ‘Tis a bit convoluted and quite time-consuming…and I was going to tell you.”
So Davin knows I’m alive. I breathe a sigh of relief. “So they’ll be aware of our escape plans?”
Fiona nods. “We’re not in this alone. When we break out of this place, they’ll be waiting for us.”
“They’re bringing transports, right?”
“Again, it’s difficult communicating details, but if by transports you mean aircraft, then yes.” Her brow momentarily furrows as she looks me straight in the eye. “What exactly is a transport?”
“Have you watched any Star Wars movies?”
Her brow arches and she nods. “They are from Olympus?”
“Yes, we moved several through the portal. Each one is large enough to carry dozens of people, along with approximately forty tons of cargo…and hopefully several thousand tactical EMP weapons,” I add with a big smile.
“Excellent,” Fiona says. “Are they armed?”
“Olympus hasn’t seen war in over a million years. There wasn’t time to develop offensive capabilities, but their shields are strong enough to deflect just about anything Janus can throw at them.”
“Excellent. We also have access to aircraft—there are twelve fighters and three tactical bombers parked on the hangar level, but they are too small to ferry much freight.”
“You have pilots here?” Fiona arches a brow and nods. “You’re a pilot. Aren’t you?”
“One of the best—and thank heavens I am, or I’d be popping mini Minions out of my tummy every couple of years for Apollonia.”
That jives with what Thomas and Mora told me, but unlike the two young Minions I encountered in Washington, Fiona’s knowledge of Janus’s operation is obviously based more on fact than on rumor and supposition. “How old are you, Fiona?”
“Thirty-two,” she says matter-of-factly.
She looks no older than twenty-two, I think, which makes me wonder just how long-lived Minions actually are. Thomas and Mora were not sure. Perhaps Fiona knows more… “You look remarkably well-preserved for your age,” I say with a grin.
“You wish to know how long Minions can live, yeah?”
I nod slowly.
“I am an archetype—an elder member of the first viable generation of Minions. No one knows how long we’ll live. I aged like a normal human girl up to the age of twenty. There have been no signs of aging since then, although it could just be a matter of the process having slowed to an almost imperceptible rate. I think the scientists are both intrigued and a little frightened.”
I think I know why the Fallen might be fearful, but I want to hear Fiona’s opinion. “Why would they be frightened?” I ask.
Fiona grins like the cat that got the mouse. “Because some of us are considerably stronger than they anticipated we would be. There are some angels who perceive us as a threat to their dominion…” She pauses, her smile growing wider. “And it’s all Janus’s fault.”
“What do you mean? What did Janus do?”
“The first generation of Minions failed. They were emotionally unstable and prone to violence, but they were no stronger than Stratóri angels, whose DNA was the basis for their transformation. They were a nuisance, but easy to deal with.”
“They were destroyed,” I say.
“Aye, and then a second-gen program was launched, but the DNA used by Apollonia and her team was not Stratóri.”
“They used Serafeím DNA?”
Fiona smiles, slyly. “They did. The genetic material was extracted from the strongest Serafeím—including Janus. So, in a way, we Minions are related to the evil slug.”
She thinks Janus is Serafeím. Of course she would. If Janus disclosed his true origin, his followers would rebel…or flee. “There is much that Janus has kept hidden from his followers. First and foremost is that he is not Serafeím…”
Fiona’s eyes widen in shock. “I don’t understand. Are you saying he is a lower angel? That is not possible. He’s too powerful.”
“What? I thought they were legends,” Fiona says.
“In a way, they are. Most other angels—Stratóri, Apestáli, Warriors, and Serafeím—evolved on Paradise over millions of years. The Prostáti, however, came into being fully evolved and tasked with a very specific mission—to guard Paradise.”
“Most other angels?” she asks with a curious glance.
“You said most other angels evolved, which implies there are other angels who did not, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I say with a cheeky grin. “My grandparents.”
Fiona gasps. “Jaysus. The angels don’t tell us much about Paradise, and being that they’ve fallen from grace, I imagine it’s a sore subject, but I need to know…”
I wait for Fiona to tell me what she needs to know. I arch my brow in an attempt to coax her to finish, but she can’t seem to complete the question. “Ok, the anticipation is killing me. What do you need to know?”
She shakes her head, seemingly frustrated with herself. “Paradise…you’ve been there?”
Even if I’d wanted to, I cannot deny her. “Yes,” I say, as her eyes fill with tears.
“And your grandparents…they are gods?”
I fidget in the tepid bathwater. Many Olympians and angels—especially the ones based on Paradise—consider my grandparents to be gods. Others think of them as royalty. And me? Well, I’m really not sure what to think. If I allow myself to believe they’re gods, then what does that make me? I’m not ready for that. I’m just not. “They are the first angels. The archetypes.”
Fiona nods reverently. “Just so you know,” she says with a wry smile, “should you turn out to be a goddess, I won’t think any less of you.”
“You have a gift for subtlety, you know?” I say, unable to suppress a chuckle.
“Oh, I have many gifts. Sometimes I can’t keep track of them all. Now, I need to make an appearance outside, for the cameras. Dry yourself, and I’ll be back in a moment with your nightclothes.”
“Ooh, these feel really comfortable,” I say, as I run my hands along the legs of the silk pajamas Fiona brought me.
“We’re about the same size…and they’re a bit more classy than the standard issue Fruit of the Looms stuffed into your chest of drawers.”
“Thank you, Fiona.”
“The pleasure is all mine. Are you feeling better?”
“Mm hmm. I should be in top condition for my next session with Apollonia, which reminds me—do you know what she has planned for me?” I ask.
“Well…” Fiona can’t find the words, which is not good. “Um…”
“Just spill it,” I snap.
Fiona clears her throat. “Apollonia is wary of your powers, so I think the focus will be on coming up with a way to control your mind. She’s going to try to break your spirit, Ariel.”
“How do you know this?”
“We have allies in the medical wing. People close to Apollonia.”
“Can she do it? Does she have the means to break me?”
Fiona locks eyes with me, her expression somber. “She is a master manipulator and, sad to say, a brilliant scientist. But she’s not going to break you. You’re far too strong.”
Except when I’ve got a remote-controlled pain generator implanted somewhere inside my body. “I’m feeling a bit handicapped right now if you really want to know, but thanks for the vote of confidence. It means a lot.”