Authors: Connie Suttle
While Winkler and I held our mental standoff, Joey settled into the chair behind Obediah's massive, walnut desk and powered up his desktop. It didn't take long for Joey to slip into Obediah's records.
* * *
"Rezil." Hordace handed a comp-vid to his best assassin.
"I saw it," Rezil muttered angrily, tossing the comp-vid on Hordace's desk with contempt. "Who knew she'd have so little intelligence? She knows this is a death sentence." Hordace's comp-vid held the images plastered across both Alliances—of Kalia, Teeg San Gerxon and Teeg's first mate, Reah Silver.
"My concern is what she may have told him," Hordace snapped. "Find her and kill him. I want her alive so I can torture what she knows out of her. Take one of the Sirenali with you. I don't care what you have to do to accomplish this—just get it done." Hordace smashed his fist against the comp-vid, cracking the fragile screen and sending a few splinters of shatter-resistant glass tinkling across his desk.
Rezil didn't reply; he stalked angrily out of Hordace's study instead.
* * *
What is he doing?
I asked Joey silently as I peered over his shoulder at the records he'd uncovered. Reservation after reservation appeared—for arenas and convention centers across the United States. Obediah was using drug money to rent large spaces? What the hell for?
This defies logic
, Winkler observed.
* * *
Quislus stood on the edge of Baetrah, waiting for Kifirin to arrive. His child had called out to him, when he'd instructed Kifirin never to do that. He was concerned—there was no doubt. Should Kifirin learn the truth, he'd be forced to destroy or contain him.
Acrimus had advised Quislus long ago, as he contemplated the creation of Kifirin, to make him in such a way that he might be destroyed easily should the need arise. Kifirin had existed with that shadow, completely unaware.
Acrimus no longer survived; therefore, that avenue of advice had disappeared, leaving Quislus to make decisions for himself—at least where Kifirin was concerned. The thought of the General and what he might demand was a constant concern to the rogue god, who'd helped Acrimus recruit and maintain the Hidden—an army prepared to wait until it was safe for them to be revealed.
Quislus quashed the thought that the General was risking everything by bringing the Hidden forward now. Many, however, believed as the General did—that with the elimination of the Three, everything was now theirs anyway. All that remained was to assert their dominance over the created races.
We are the masters
, Quislus repeated Acrimus' oft-spoken mantra.
We are the masters
* * *
I have it
, Joey crowed, holding up the flash drive with a grin.
I'm ready to get out of here, now
* * *
"Father, I hear terrible things about you," Kifirin began as he settled—in Full Thifilathi—on the steep edge of Baetrah's caldera.
"From whom?" Quislus demanded.
"That does not matter. What matters is whether those things are true." A cloud of smoke escaped Kifirin's nostrils as he rustled massive, leathery wings.
"You dare to insult me this way?" Quislus snapped. "Keep your breath clear and your wings still before me."
"I am done bowing to you, Father." Kifirin turned his back to Quislus, exposing his wings to the one who'd created him. Quislus raised his hand in reply, destroying Kifirin's essence with a thought.
* * *
Perhaps he imagined I wouldn't feel Kifirin's death. He was wrong. Screaming out my grief, I folded to the world Kifirin had created long ago.
Quislus still stood there—blinking at his handiwork. Kifirin's Thifilathi lay on the edge of the caldera, his body lifeless—his spirit destroyed.
"You," Kifirin's parent lifted his eyes as I appeared before him, tears blurring my vision and anger controlling my breaths.
"I," I answered.
"And I." Li'Neruh Rath appeared at my side, Kiarra, Dragon, Adam and Merrill not far behind him.
"You created him thus, did you not?" Li'Neruh became Thifilathi and breathed smoke. Kifirin's parent took a step backward. "How long did you and Acrimus plot his death? Did you allow him to live so long as he served your purposes?" He stepped forward, following Quislus. "Did you love him, or merely pretend to do so? I recall lofty words concerning love, Quislus."
"I loved him," Quislus' corporeal body quaked. "I swear it."
"Yet you killed him." Li'Neruh tossed out a hand, indicating Kifirin's still form.
"The General would never have allowed him to live," Quislus quavered. "He would have treated him more harshly than I."
"So his death at your hands was a mercy?" Li'Neruh wasn't buying it as he took another step forward. "I name you coward, Quislus. Hiding within the ranks, waiting for others to defeat what you see as the opposition, so you might take an easier place among the warriors, is that it?"
"What—are you going to do?" Quislus cowered before Li'Neruh Rath.
"Confine you to Baetrah," Li'Neruh's voice rumbled like thunder. "I will wait patiently for the General to come for you."
"He will not come," Quislus bowed his head.
"And yet you offered your allegiance to him."
"Through my parent, Acrimus."
"Ah. Acrimus. Where do you suppose he is, now?" Li'Neruh asked.
"Wh-where my child is," Quislus sobbed. "Gone forever."
The word forever echoed across the caldera, and I wept harder. I'd always thought Kifirin would return to me. That could never happen, now.
"You placed the mind clouds, didn't you?"
"On two," Quislus claimed. "The third transferred onto a weakened mind." He knew about Gavril. Knew my son's spirit was being sapped away. Had likely had a hand in it.
"So, two murders are on your hands," Li'Neruh declared. "What does that make you besides a coward, Quislus?"
"A traitor," Quislus muttered. "A killer."
"Did Acrimus create you to kill?"
"Yes." Quislus hung his head.
, a voice filtered into my mind. Recognition of the voice danced on the edges of my mind, but I couldn't grasp it.
It's a trap
, I whispered to my allies.
, Hank whispered mentally back.
, he echoed the previous instruction into my mind and to those around me.
We are here
, Connegar and Reemagar arrived.
"Why are there Larentii here?" Quislus suddenly seemed terrified.
"Why should we not be here?" Kalenegar also appeared and stood beside Connegar and Reemagar, his arms crossed over his chest—he was angry, that was easy enough to see.
"No reason," Quislus cowered.
"Quislus, what have you done?" The ground trembled beneath our feet as the voice thundered over our heads. I was forced to slap a shield over my ears, the words were so loud.
* * *
"Jaydevik!" Glinda's cry brought me to her side immediately when the planet trembled beneath the palace.
"What the," Gardevik skipped to our suite as the palace shook about us.
Baetrah is exploding
, came the message.
"Hank and the Larentii are the only ones I didn't have to reconstruct," Karzac informed me when I woke four days later. "If the Larentii hadn't surrounded him there at the last, I might have had to repair his body as well."
The General had made his presence known, and after snatching Quislus away from us, he'd proceeded to show us what he was capable of doing. At least the General knew to leave the Larentii alone—he'd seen what happened to Acrimus, I was sure.
"I feel weak," I attempted to sit up in bed.
"You are not alone," Karzac brushed hair away from my face gently. "I have heard from those left on Earth in the past at least four times a day, asking how you and the others are."
"What did you tell them? I imagine Winkler is going crazy."
"As is Gavin and all your mates," Karzac smiled. "I told them that you would be fine. As you are."
"Thank you," I sighed. "Is there anything to eat? I'm starved."
"I believe we might find a place at the table for you," he said, his smile turning into a grin. "Tomorrow, I'll allow you to walk about your palace."
"How much work was this—to put me back together?"
"That is none of your concern. Come, let me help you up. I will accompany you to the dining hall."
"I know. Nefrigar holds his Thifilathi in the Archives. With the Three."
* * *
Hank told me to stay put. I'd stayed put while Lissa, Kiarra, Adam and Merrill were almost destroyed. I now saw the complete wisdom in selecting Karzac as Ko'Ahmari. He'd reconstructed what had nearly been obliterated by the General. A lot of power had been collected on the edge of Baetrah, but the General had swept it away with little effort. That terrified me.
How could we combat something that powerful? What the hell was the General, anyway? I had a feeling Breanne had seen what he was; she'd just never explained it. Perhaps it was too frightening for any of us to know.
I called out.
When you feel up to it, I'd like to talk.
I'll be there in a few days
, he promised.
, I replied.
"Traje?" Bill set a sheet of paper in front of me. I'd chosen to do my ruminations during a coffee break on a warm Fresno morning at the compound.
"What's this?" I lifted the paper to study it while I sipped coffee. Keeping it hot was child's play, nowadays. All I had to do was think it hot.
"The list of dates for the arena and convention center rentals," Bill replied. "They're hitting twenty out of the fifty states, and Joey is wondering if maybe this isn't the end of it—that they might go global with this before it's over."
"You think they've abandoned the church idea in favor of larger venues?" I asked, handing the sheet back to Bill. I'd already committed the information to memory. I didn't need a physical reminder, now.
"I don't know. What if this is just a ruse? Maybe they want us to find this, so we'll be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Bill shook his head and crumpled the paper in his fist. "Face it, money means nothing to those in charge, but that's our first gut reaction—to follow the money. Speaking of money, we're supposed to meet with the Romes' lawyer tomorrow. Do you think Lissa will make it back?"
"She'll be here, even if she has to bend time," I said. "The others, too. Karzac says they're just weak—their bodies are fine."
I didn't say what I was thinking, though. That the General had shown up once already. What if he decided to visit a lawyer's office in Los Angeles, too?
* * *
"Reah, please don't make yourself ill with worry." I took the lounge chair beside hers on the patio behind San Gerxon Palace. The pool was a transparent blue before us, and I heard clearly as a stray leaf dropped with a tiny plip onto the water's surface.
"Have you ever noticed how we ignore the breeze most of the time—as it blows through the trees or ruffles the grass?" Reah turned lovely, green eyes to me and blinked.
"True," I agreed. "Generally we are focused on other things, so the winds are of no consequence."
"Until they become strong enough to destroy buildings," she said. "How strong do you think the General is?"
That question concerned me—just as it did all the others who'd received power recently. None of us knew. I imagined that Li'Neruh Rath, whom Breanne referred to as Hank, didn't know either.
"I cannot answer that, as I cannot make even an educated estimate," I replied as evenly as I could. "We cannot focus our worries there—we must focus on what we can accomplish instead. I feel Rezil Foculis has been sent already, and if my guess is correct, he may be accompanied by at least one Sirenali."
"I think that as well, since we can't
to find him anywhere," Reah nodded. "It only takes a day to get here from Du'Ferias, by traditional means. They may not bother to travel that way."
"Yes, I have considered that," I agreed. "They may already be here, although I have all my forces on alert. With a Sirenali, they may have been seen and obsessions may have been placed to ignore that, or to assist them, even."
"I worry about that, too."
Reah and I had shields around the palace; nothing came or went without our knowing. Kay often stayed in her suite on the second floor—she worked constantly to fight off her fear of Rezil Foculis, Hordace Cayetes, Q'Ind Ribalo and the sadistic women who'd stolen her childhood and abused her during her training as a sex slave.
"It's almost too painful to comprehend—what Kalia went through. Isn't it?" Reah asked.
"It is." I reached out to pat her hand, but she surprised me by linking her fingers with mine.
"Reah?" I said. Just the one word, but a mountain of questions lay behind her name.
"I can't help myself," she squeezed my fingers, then attempted to let them go. I didn't allow it. Instead, I pulled her hand to my lips and kissed it gently.
"Neither can I," I acknowledged.
* * *
"I remember the comesuli making their trek to Baetrah to ask Kifirin to take them home," Glinda sighed.
Baetrah lay wasted before her as she stood on the edge of the volcano with Jayd and Garde. Lava rock crumbled beneath their feet; the caldera, cold and empty, waited below.
"The heart of Kifirin is no more," Garde shook his head. "What will become of us, brother?" He turned to Jayd.
"I can't answer that," Jayd replied.
"I fear for our future," Glinda said. Jaydevik Rath, King of the High Demons, pulled her close as he gazed upon the ruin of Baetrah.
* * *
"He refused to stay behind," I sighed, dropping a small bag of toiletries on the kitchen island. Gavin rumbled a growl behind me as he thumped his leather suitcase on the tiled floor.
"All help appreciated," Trajan shrugged. "Ready to travel to L.A.?"
"I'm ready. I heard from Reah this morning before we left—she and Tybus are waiting for Rezil Foculis to show up on Campiaa. Merrill will be here in a minute—he, Adam and Kiarra are at the other house, right now."
"What about the Gavin here and now?" Trajan asked.
"Wlodek sent him to Siberia." I wanted to snicker but held it back—the Gavin behind me didn't appreciate severe cold and I knew he'd have memories of it when this was over.
"Does this mean you're going to L.A. too?" Jayson walked in, dressed in a suit and tie.
"I will be going." Gavin's words were clipped.
"I'm ready," Merrill folded in, straightening a cuff on a snowy dress shirt. He and Gavin wore suits that cost a mint. I hoped the Rome lawyer was prepared to be intimidated.
"Me, too," Bill said, appearing beside Jayson. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, this wasn't Agent Bill I'd met in the field long ago. This Bill was in charge of a large intelligence organization and could strike fear in just about anybody. It wouldn't have mattered if he'd gone naked. I'd never say it to Tony, but Bill was better at this than Tony ever was.
"Are you ready for this, Lissa?" Trajan asked softly. He didn't say what all of us were thinking—that this could be a trap, just as Baetrah had been a trap.
"Yeah." I hunched my shoulders. Gavin pulled me protectively against him.
"The rest of us are just mindspeech away, don't forget that," Trajan said as Gavin kissed the top of my head.
* * *
"Swanky," I muttered as we walked past heavy glass doors and into the building that housed a prestigious law firm in Los Angeles. Trust James Rome, Sr. to hire the most expensive suits he could find. Polished marble was everywhere; the massive receptionist's desk was curved and made of solid, dark wood and fresh flowers filled tall vases on tables scattered throughout the foyer.
Our steps echoed as we made our way to the elevator—the offices we needed were on the tenth floor. With heavy shields surrounding us, we stepped onto a waiting elevator and pressed the button.
, Jayson's voice sounded in my mind.
Kal is bringing Mom, by the way
It's good that she's traveling with a Larentii
, Merrill observed.
I'm glad Kal is making his presence known
, I replied.
Connegar says that he disappeared for thousands of years because he and his father disagreed on just about everything
At least he's back, now
, Merrill sighed mentally. The elevator dinged as we reached the tenth floor. Kathleen Rome, standing beside a shielded Kalenegar, stood there, waiting for us as the elevator doors opened. The surprise was this—Terry Johnston, Breanne's attorney, was also there, waiting.
* * *
"Yes, he left a third of his estate to each of you," the lawyer slid papers across his desk toward Kathleen, Jayson and Jamie, Jayson's brother. Jamie's wife, Laurel, fumed from a chair in a corner—Jamie left her there while he, his mother and brother tended to business.
"But," the lawyer continued, "Mr. Rome set up a separate account and placed the profits from the sale of
Torture in Texas
in it. That account holds his name, as well as Breanne Hayworth's charity. As Ms. Hayworth couldn't respond personally, I contacted Mr. Johnston as her representative. That account is in the charity's name and it is now the sole holder of those funds."
"How much?" Laurel stood and demanded.
"Laurel, shush," Jamie snapped.
"I just wanted to know," Laurel whined.
"Half a billion, I believe," the Lawyer replied stiffly. Laurel huffed as she sat heavily in her chair, arms crossed angrily over her chest.
I suppose one-and-a-half billion just isn't enough for her
, Merrill offered dryly. That's what each of the three would get, when all was said and done. I wondered at the fact that Rome Sr. had even thought to put the money in the charity's name. The truth, however, was that he wouldn't have had a story, or his revenge against Joyce Christian, without Breanne's suffering.
"I'll see that the money is placed in Ms. Hayworth's charity account," Terry nodded to the lawyer. "And I'd like to thank the Rome family on her behalf—this money will be used to help children across the globe."
Laurel snorted at Terry's comment. I wanted to slap her for that.
"Laurel, Breanne saved my life. Where were you when I had a heart attack?" Kathleen turned hard eyes on her daughter-in-law. Yes, Kalenegar had made her appear older again before bringing her to the attorney's offices. Once she was away from there, he'd allow her younger-looking self to manifest again.
"Not worth it, Mom," Jayson placed a hand over his mother's. "Let it go."
"You're right," Kathleen nodded. "At least James found his heart before he died."
"Jayson, I can give you your job back," Jamie began.
"Jamie, I've moved on," Jayson lifted a hand to hold his brother off. "Let somebody else have that slot. I don't need it anymore."
"If that's what you want," Jamie sighed. "Are we done?" He turned to the lawyer.
"Yes. I'll have the funds transferred in two weeks. Let me know if you have questions or problems." The attorney stood and extended his hand to Jamie first.
* * *
"I'll never understand what Jamie saw in her," Kathleen muttered as we watched the couple walk away with a driver and bodyguard in tow.
"I'm surprised we didn't get ambushed by the enemy," I responded. "Not that I'm complaining," I added.
"I'm just happy we got out of there unscathed," Jayson said. "Relatively speaking."