“Impossible!” Andreas boomed. “They don’t exist!” He jumped up and slammed his palm on the wall.
“Hell no, anything but that,” Grant added. “You can’t be right, Rhi, you can’t.” He shook his head vehemently, folding his arms tightly across his chest.
“Uh, guys?” asked Kat, her excitement dissolving into confusion. “Could someone fill me in please?” In my hurry to explain things to her I had left out the little bit of supernatural background that I had gleaned, sticking solely with the day-to-day details of my life.
I felt dizzy. I stood up numbly. “Sit down everyone!” I shouted. “Shut up, please!” I rubbed my head, suddenly feeling exhausted. “Think about it before disagreeing, please,” I implored. “It’s the only thing that makes sense! O’Dell murders my parents and then disappears. David attacks me and then disappears. O’Dell probably was dead before he every murdered my parents. Someone took his place and then conveniently disappeared afterwards into another life, just to throw everyone off and keep us in the dark! David probably became a worm, or a rat or something, and slipped out underneath everyone’s noses. No offense to the wolves’ noses, Grant,” I added, “but a rat still smells like a rat, right?” He nodded in agreement. “And then there’s me. Thanks to Andreas’ wild magic, I’m suddenly randomly soaking up whomever I’m around like a sponge. If that’s not skin-walker run amuck, I don’t know what is!” I shouted, with righteous conviction, knowing from the tip of my toes to the top of my ears that I was right.
Andreas shook his head, still refusing to believe it. “Rhi, we destroyed them eight-hundred years ago. It’s just not possible.”
“Would someone please talk to me?” demanded Kat. “What the hell is a skin-walker?”
Andreas rolled his eyes and stood up, looking down at Kat. “Well, since Rhiannon insisted upon dragging you into this,” he said, glancing up at me in brief annoyance, “Skin-walkers were the vilest creatures to walk earth, and we eradicated them eight-hundred years ago during the Great War when they tried to destroy humanity. I’m an angel, Grant’s a werewolf, and Rhi… well, we’re not sure what she is. There’s no such thing as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, but fairies and vampires are real, and watch out when you go to bed or the bogey man’s going to get you.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Satisfied to be in the loop?”
I dropped my jaw, stunned at his unexpected revelation, although for the most part it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already told Kat. Kat nodded her head and swallowed. To her credit, she had accepted everything calmly so far. Perhaps she hadn’t fully believed me, however, until Andreas confirmed it all for her. She sunk slowly to the floor, trembling, in shock again. He looked at me and shrugged as if to say ‘in for a penny, in for a pound.’ His lack of tact left something to be desired, however.
He leaned down to talk softly to Kat. “And if you breathe a word of this to another human, ever, it will cost you your life,” he said darkly. Kat just shut up then, sitting there in fear and shock. Yes, definitely lack of tact. I grimaced.
“Rhi, I admit you have a point,” Grant said diplomatically, “But it’s so farfetched it can’t possibly be true!”
I shook my head. “I know it,” I said fervently. I decided to try to reason with him. “Grant, how did you know you were a werewolf, how did you find out? And Andreas, when did you learn you were an angel?”
Grant shrugged. “I was born with it. My parents are wolves, I’m a wolf, I’ve always known it.”
“Ditto,” Andreas murmured, nodding curtly.
“And neither of you would ever believe yourself to be anything other than what you are, would you?” I asked rationally. They both looked at me like I was crazy. I half-smiled out of the corner of my mouth. “Well, I wasn’t raised by shape shifters, and until last week I didn’t know I was anything other than human, but believe me when I say that I know what I am. This is true. I feel it,” I finished hotly, pouring as much conviction as I could into my statement.
Andreas scrutinized me closely, searching every centimeter of my face before finally shaking his head and sighing in resignation. “I believe her.” He looked pissed.
Grant swore. “What the hell is going on?” He shouted, angry, confused, and frustrated. I knew exactly how he felt.
I shrugged. “The world is bigger and badder than even you knew,” I said softly. A thought occurred to me. There was someone who might know what the hell was going on. “But there is someone who might know,” I mused. “Hey, Andreas, how do we get a hold of Nikumbha?”
He spun towards me. “Absolutely not, Rhiannon Maddox! We are not going to summon a rakshasa demon just so you can have a little chat with him!” he shouted. “That’s not only playing with fire, it’s jumping straight into the coals!”
I nodded my head. “I understand,” I agreed. “But do you know how to?”
He groaned, burying his face in his hands. “You owe him a favor. All you have to do is mention his name. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already – ”
Andreas was cut off as Nikumbha materialized, with the smell of sulfur. I felt a surge of strange energy wash over my skin as soon as he appeared, crawling through me, and penetrating me, whispering of unspoken secret power. Nikumbha was as I had first met him. He flickered between solidity and translucence, wearing the azure blue scaly demonic form, one to certainly instill shock in any god-fearing human. Smoke drifted up from his black clawed feet, and venom dripped off of the clawed fingers on all four hands to land with a popping sizzle on the floor, only leaving no mark behind. His eyes, glowing with a blood-red haze, stared at me, and his fang-filled mouth curled up into the ugliest, most menacing smile known to creation. I couldn’t help myself as a shiver of fear ran down my spine, and I took a step backwards.
“If he’s already here,” Andreas finished grimly, stepping protectively towards me.
Kat let out a blood-curdling scream. She just screamed and screamed, pointing at Nikumbha in abject terror. He turned his smile towards my friend, soaking up her fear like a sponge, reveling in it. He raised his arms above his head and roared. Grant rushed over to her, and wrapped his hands around her mouth, holding her tight, and stayed there. She finally stopped screaming, too terrified to do anything further.
Nikumbha turned to me and smiled hideously. “So you figured out the little puzzle, good for you!” he wheezed, laughing. “And you brought me a snack,” he added, staring at Kat hungrily. “How thoughtful!”
“Oh, no you don’t!” I lunged toward him, intent upon grabbing him, but my hand passed right through him, finding only thin air.
“You are such a spoil sport,” he pouted. “Foiling my bluffs so easily. Humans are too gamey anyway,” he sniffed. “I’d much rather sample a little skin-walker.” He leered at me. “But very well. Are you ready to pay for your favor?”
I swallowed. “What exactly do you want?” I whispered. Andreas reached out and grabbed my hand, and I clutched tightly to his.
Nikumbha grinned. “Why, only a few hours of your time, my dear. You might find my instruction very… useful.”
“What kind of instruction?” I asked, picking my words very carefully.
“Tsk tsk,” he said. “You have such potential, my little half skin-walker sponge. You just need a little help to bring it out!” He reached out for me, and I jumped another foot back, tensing up fearfully.
“Rhiannon, he’s not really here, he can’t touch you,” Andreas reassured me.
“I’m hurt, angel, I really am,” Nikumbha said, taking on a mocked wounded tone. “I might not be here corporally, but that doesn’t mean I’m absent. All it takes is the right words from the little therianthrope…” he trailed off, grinning crazily, and spit drooled down his vicious teeth.
“No!” bellowed Andreas. “Don’t listen to him, Rhiannon,” he ordered.
I looked at Nikumbha. He had said it not once, but twice; therianthrope, skin-walker. I had been right. “So it’s true,” I stated.
“Thanks to dear old daddy,” he beamed, nodding his scaly head.
“Where have they been hiding all these centuries?” demanded Andreas. “How come we have never known?”
Nikumbha laughed. “I’ll answer that one for free!” He said gleefully. “The best place to hide, young Atlantean, is in plain sight! You angels, you think your world is in order, everyone in their place, everything the way you want… you’re fools, all of you.” He laughed uproariously, giggling in that horrendous way only a demon could manage. He looked back at me. “So you aren’t ready to pay your favor yet. I shall be patient a little longer, but I’m a hungry demon, so mark my words, your day is coming!” With that, he disappeared in a puff of sulfur-smelling smoke. I swung the door open to air it out, coughing and wrinkling up my nose.
Grant slowly released Kat, who just sat there trembling. “Was that…” she whispered, trailing off, unable to finish her question.
Andreas walked over and patted her on the shoulder. “That was the bogeyman, Kat. You’d best hang out with Grant,” he said, looking up at Grant for acknowledgment. “I think Rhiannon and I better go have a chat with Ariel.”
I shook my head. “No way.”
Andreas sighed. “Rhi, she needs to know. The council needs to know. I promise to protect you.”
I shook my head, unwilling to be swayed. “Give me until tomorrow morning at least,” I begged. “I don’t want her to lock me up,” I whispered. “Please! Help me to find Marshall Lewis! Help me find out why my parents had to die, and why Lewis is after me so badly!”
Andreas let out a little growl of frustration, but nodded his head. “Ok, Rhi. We’ll do it your way. We better call Aislinn.”
“TerraGen’s corporate headquarters are in San Diego,” whispered Kat, finally recovering from her brush with the rakshasa demon. She carried a haunted look in her eyes. She would be fine, though, I knew it. She was strong, she could handle her world being shaken up, probably better than I could.
Frankincense and Myrrh used that moment to make their entrance. “San Diego?” squeaked Frank, doing swoops and dives in the air. “We have cousins in San Diego!”
Myrrh excitedly flew in circles around my head again and landed on my shoulders. “Take us, take us! We can help!” she insisted, fluttering her wings and showering glitter on my arm.
Poor Kat, she had had too many shocks for one day. This was the one that broke the camel’s back. She fainted, sprawling backwards onto my desk. Perhaps her strength needed time to build up, I mused.
I rushed and got a wet rag, mopping Kat’s forehead with it until she came to. “Grant, can you take her someplace safe?”
She shook her head. “No no, I have to get home, I have to get to Rob…” her voice faltered, and she trailed off, at a loss for words, and looked up at me in abject misery.
I shook my head. “Rob can’t know, Kat. Ever. And for now you’re safer with Grant than you would be at home.” I looked up at Grant for agreement.
He cocked his head thoughtfully to the side. “I don’t see why she can’t go home. They’re after you, not her,” he reasoned. “We’ll send someone over to keep an eye out in case Lewis decides she’s worth using as leverage,” he assured me.
“Thank you,” Kat whispered.
I hugged her tight. “Everything’s going to be ok, kitty kat, you wait and see,” I promised her.
I stood on the balcony looking down. We were on the twentieth floor of the Millennium Tower in downtown Seattle, in the penthouse condominium. I didn’t know how anyone could call this a condo, though, it was more like a mansion. I had never been in the building before, but admit I secretly always wanted to know how the other half lived. Andreas kept claiming that he didn’t like the concrete jungle, that steel and glass made him uncomfortable. Obviously this didn’t hold true of all angels, since this was Felix’s home. And what a home it was! Sleek, modern, two stories, and easily as big as two of my houses.
The open floor plan on the main floor encompassed the entry, living, dining, kitchen, and home office area. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined the wall, opening onto the balcony, and the panoramic view covered not only the entire city, but I bet on a clear day I could see Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Mountains spread off in the distance. The sky was overcast, however, and the sun was about to set. The city was bright below me, but the mountains were obscured in mist. I stepped back inside. The hardwood floors echoed beneath my feet. He even had a grand piano, but it appeared dusty with disuse. The kitchen was all granite and oak, with top of the line appliances and a wine cellar. I shook my head, not letting anyone know that the impressive settings were impressing me.
Andreas, Felix, and Aislinn were all in the office area, overlooking the massive living space. I had never seen more computer monitors in my life. The walls were lined with flat screens, and the amount of computing power packed into the area was probably enough to run a small city. I counted no less than five printers in the room, from color laser to plotter. Most of the machinery was foreign to me. I know my way around a personal computer, but that was about it. I spotted Frankincense and Myrrh perching on the edge of a shelf. They flew over and landed on my shoulders, their wings fluttering in excitement.
Felix looked up at me and frowned. “I don’t like this, Andreas. You can’t trust fairies.” He shook his head in disapproval.
Frank jumped up, sputtering. “You overgrown weed! I’mgonnacut you down tomysize, then see how much you don’tlikethis!” he gushed excitedly. Frank pulled out his porcupine quill sword. I stifled a laugh at his bluster.
“Rhiannon has their loyalty, and that’s good enough for me,” Andreas said, smoothing things over. “You know how loyal fairies are, they live and die by loyalty.
Myrrh jumped off my shoulder to join Frank. “We’ll protect our skin-walker to the death!” She proclaimed somberly, brandishing a tooth pick.
I literally covered my mouth and swallowed back a laugh. I looked at Felix as seriously as I could. “Are you with us or not?”
He scowled. “I still don’t like this. We should go to the council, Andreas, let them deal with this.” He folded his arms across his chest, leaning back in his chair.
“I promised Rhiannon that she had until tomorrow morning. All I am asking for is your silence until then, and your brain,” he implored.
“I’m going with you,” Aislinn pitched in. Frank landed on Aislinn’s head, showing his solidarity, and Myrrh flew back to my shoulder.
Felix just rolled his eyes. “Great, it’s three against one,” he muttered.
“You mean five,” I corrected, gesturing to the fairies. They were small, but they still mattered, and they’d helped me out twice now, they definitely mattered in my book.
“No one counts fairies,” Myrrh whispered in my ear. That bothered me. They might be tiny, but they mattered.
“Fine,” Felix said tightly. “I’ll help you track Marshall Lewis down, but nothing further!” He rolled his chair up to a keyboard and started typing. Aislinn sat down at a different keyboard. Images on monitors started flying about, like chaotic digital static, and I just couldn’t follow what they were doing. Andreas came over to keep me company while the computer hackers worked at a frenetic pace, tossing geek speak back and forth. We strolled into the living area and sat on a plush white leather couch, leaving the two to work. The fairies flew off to explore. I made them swear not to take anything.
“So what’s the deal with Felix?” I asked Andreas. “Are you two really brothers?” I realized I knew little about this man, and the past week had flown by so fast we hadn’t had much time to just sit and talk.
He took my hand, twining his fingers through mine and nodded his head. “He is my older brother by a couple hundred years. Our families…” he turned to look at me. “We don’t have what you would consider typical families. I didn’t grow up like a human would, playing with brothers and sisters while my father goes off to work and my mother takes care of us.” I didn’t interrupt to point out that most human families weren’t like that anymore, either. “I grew up in the seventeenth century in the Pindus Mountains of Greece. My brother was long gone by then. I met him for the first time when I was twenty. We angels, we have small families. And while the ties are strong, we can go decades without seeing each other. When one lives forever, time is relative,” he said with a small smile.
I tried to imagine that, but it was difficult. His sense of time was so foreign from my own. “What about your parents?” I asked.
“Ah, now that’s a whole different story,” he said softly. “They were blood linked. You understand what that is now, right?”
I thought about it. “I think so. Isn’t that what you did with me? Tuned into my emotions and all that?”
He nodded. “Exactly. Only that was an unfortunate mistake, it should never have happened.” He furrowed his brows. “A blood link is generally forged between two angels when they decide to mate, choosing to bond with one another forever.” He looked up at me. “Humans marry, angels forge blood links. It’s an unbreakable bond. You have no idea the intimate connection two people can have when they are linked that way,” he whispered fervently. “Forever tied to each other’s emotions, forever a part of each other. It is a powerful force. Two people connected like that become more than themselves.”
I was stunned. A powerful force, and he forged a one-way bond with me? Permanently? Accidentally? Forever? My hands started to sweat, and I shifted uncomfortably. “Can you ever form one with another angel?”
He shook his head, his lips tight. “It’s a one-time deal, Rhiannon.”
I sat there for a moment, not knowing how to reply. Andreas had sacrificed any chance he had of ever bonding with another angel because of me. The ramifications of what he had done were just now sinking in. Never would he have that chance. That is what he was telling me. Even if he met the perfect angel someday down the road in another five hundred years when I was long gone, he would never be able to bond with her. But that couldn’t happen; he was going to die when I died, because of the damned bond.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I didn’t know what else to say.
He shrugged. “What’s done is done. Now I am linked to you. When you die, I die, what you feel, I feel. It’s a fact I’m learning to live with. I’m just glad I like the way you feel,” he said with a small smile. “What if you had been an obnoxious idiot? I don’t think I could have born that, I would have taken a dive off the Golden Gate Bridge, or something,” he teased gently. I laughed at that.
“What about other races?” I asked. “I mean, you formed a bond with me, do other angels bond with other races?”
He shook his head. “Hardly ever. We can, with elves and shifters, but it is exceptionally rare for an angel to choose such a path, and rare is the elf or shifter that wants it.”
“What about Aislinn and Felix? What’s their relationship?” I was curious, but didn’t want to be rude and ask either of them. They obviously lived together, but I’d yet to see them affectionate, so I couldn’t determine what the deal was between them.
He smiled. “Felix raised Aislinn. He found her abandoned in the Comeragh Mountains one day in Ireland about a hundred years ago or so. Just a slip of a girl, a wild child, uncivilized. Who knows how long she had been living in the wild. He took sympathy and rescued her. He helped her track down her clan. They had ostracized and banished her due to her inability to perform elven magic. She was deemed unfit and inferior. Aislinn has been with him ever since. Felix became her new clan.” He kissed my knuckles.
“At any rate, my father died a century ago. He was crushed in an avalanche climbing Mount Everest,” he said softly. “We climbed that peak long before humans conquered it,” he murmured absently. “It happened at night. My mother – she knew instantly, and went to try and save him, but it was night, and she was weak, and he could not heal.” He paused, and clenched his teeth recalling the sad memory. “He died before the sun had time to rise. She died of a broken heart then, too. Now they are together in Elysium for eternity,” he finished in a whisper.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” I said, squeezing his hand in between both of mine. So the angels believed in an afterlife, after all. I was surprised.
He looked up at me sadly. “And now, Rhiannon Maddox, you understand. When you die, I shall die too, of a broken heart, and there is nothing you or I can do to change that, and I will move on to Elysium alone.”
“Hey guys!” shouted Aislinn. “Get in here, I think we got him!”
We both got up, shaking off the somber sadness of the discussion, and headed into Felix’s office, ready to take the next step.
She pointed to one of the monitors, which was tracking an airplane flying across the country towards San Diego. “He’s flying into San Diego from Chicago tonight on his private jet. His plane won’t land for a couple of hours, so we have some time!” She jumped out of her chair. “I’ve got his home address, blueprints, security system information, and all the information we could possibly need,” she said, rolling up blue prints she had printed on the large plotter and stuffing them into a round canister. She started opening cabinets and pulling out backpacks, stuffing electronic equipment into them. Time for more breaking and entering, I gathered. She tossed me one. “There’s a black jumpsuit in there, I suggest you change.” She tossed a similar one to Andreas.
I pulled the jumpsuit out, happy to finally be able to change out of miniskirts and heels. “Got any shoes to go with it?”
She stood up and rolled her eyes. “Come with me!” She led me upstairs to a massive bedroom. It was truly magnificent. A wall of windows opened onto the city below. A giant white bed took center stage, surrounded by plush white chairs and benches. She opened the door to a walk-in closet. I gasped. Her closet was bigger than my entire bedroom. “I hope you can wear a size seven,” she said over her shoulders as she went to the side wall, which was filled with cubby holes holding dozens of pairs of shoes. She pulled out a pair of utilitarian black boots and handed them to me. “Go ahead and change and meet us downstairs,” she said, running back out of the room. I did exactly that. He shoes were a little tight on my feet, but they didn’t pinch my toes too much, and were way more practical than stilettos. I imagined breaking and entering Marshall Lewis’ house wearing those boots Lucas gave me, or the mary janes from before, and I giggled. I would have cut quite the figure.
I ran back downstairs to join the party. Felix and Andreas were talking. Andreas was dressed all in black, and Aislinn had found the time to change, as well. The fairies had even switched into shimmery black clothing, and I wondered where on earth they had gotten it from, since I highly doubted Aislinn stocked anything in their size, and they weren’t carrying any bags. They were flitting about, sparring with their little swords in midair, having a rollicking time.
“Be careful, brother,” Felix said somberly. “The sun is going down. Watch your back. Don’t waste your energy. Get in, get out, and don’t do anything stupid.”
Andreas nodded his head. “I won’t. And thank you, brother. I will see you in the morning.” He walked over and took my hand.
“Please tell me you have a jump site in San Diego,” Aislinn said. “And please tell me it isn’t one of your middle-of-nowhere sites.”
Andreas laughed. “Mission Trails Park,” he said to her.
She pursed her lips and ran over to the computer to look it up. “Damnit, Andreas, that’s the middle of nowhere,” she whined. She picked up a phone and dialed a number, tapping her foot impatiently until someone answered. “Yes, I’d like a taxi at the visitor’s center of Mission Trails Park in thirty minutes.” She gave them her name and number, and hung up. “We can reach the visitor’s center in thirty minutes, can’t we?” she said crossly.
Andreas chuckled. “We’ll have to run, but yes.”
Frankincense and Myrrh flew down excitedly. “I’m riding with RhiannonMaddox!” Frank declared, diving into my breast pocket before I could object.
“Notwithoutme, lemon brains!” Myrrh shouted, diving in after him.
I laughed and squirmed. “Keep it down, you two, that tickles!”
Aislinn took Andreas’ other hand, and as soon as we were set, he concentrated, and teleported us off to Mission Trails Park in San Diego.