Read Dying Wish: A Novel of the Sentinel Wars Online

Authors: Shannon K. Butcher

Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction

Dying Wish: A Novel of the Sentinel Wars (44 page)

BOOK: Dying Wish: A Novel of the Sentinel Wars
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“I don’t, either.”

His memories began to come back. The kidnapped girl. The caves. His inevitable death. Jackie refusing to let him go. He remembered feeling her tied so tightly around his soul that he knew if he tried to leave his body in death, she would have followed him.

His monster. It had bargained with her, accepting the gift she offered. Her soul. Iain had tried to stop it, but he’d been too weak. He’d had no chance of regaining control of the beast.

“Oh, God,” he breathed, the impact of what had happened barreling down on him.

She’d given him her soul.

Iain reached for her, diving headlong through their link. He had to give it back. He had to force her to take back her offer.

The ethereal constructs of her mind seemed familiar to him now. He’d spent so much time connected to her that she felt like home.

He found her lounging by a sparkling blue pool, soaking
up the sun. She seemed completely at ease, completely content. She looked up at him, shielding her eyes with her hand. Her sweet body was barely covered by a bikini, her skin dewy with perspiration.

The smile that stretched across her face drove the breath from his body with its beauty. “Care to join us?”

“Us?”

Her words made him notice that a few feet away on a lounge chair lay his monster, completely naked and sunbathing.

Confusion rattled him, but that seemed only to make Jackie’s grin widen.

“He’s not all that bad, you know,” she told him.

Iain’s mind sputtered as he tried to make sense of her words. “Not all that…?”

She shrugged one lovely shoulder. “A little rough around the edges, but completely trainable.”

The monster let out an affirmative growl. “At least she doesn’t keep me locked in a fucking cage all the time.”

This was all too surreal. None of this made any sense. Clearly he
had
died and this was what hell looked like.

As if reading his mind, she chuckled. “You’re not dead. Neither am I. Neither is Stan.”

“Stan?”

“I thought he should have a name,” said Jackie.

The monster smiled. “Kinda manly, don’t you think? Very human.”

Iain had no words to express his feelings of
What the fuck?

“You need to stop worrying,” she told Iain. “Everything’s fine.”

“The hell it is. You gave me your soul. Take it back.”

“I
tried
to give you my soul. You only took half. We’re both going to be fine. I’m just going to sleep for a bit longer. Stan here had me use so much power to kill Murak that I’m still wrung dry.”

“I’ll fix that,” promised Iain. “And then we’ll talk.”

She and Stan went back to their sunbathing, completely ignoring him.

Iain fell back into himself and opened his eyes. “Her soul,” he whispered to the concerned group hovering over him. “She gave me half her soul.”

“That changes things,” said Ronan. “We didn’t even know such a thing was possible.”

“I’m going to call Joseph,” said Drake. “Ronan’s right. This changes things.”

He and Helen left.

“I need to take her outside. Replenish her strength.”

“You’re too weak to carry her,” said Ronan.

“I’ll do it,” Cain offered.

Iain nodded. As much as he hated seeing her in another man’s arms, it was for the best. He needed to feel the ground beneath his fingers and draw upon its strength to drive away her weakness and his.

Ronan helped Iain stumble outside. He knelt on the cool ground and dug his fingers through the dry grass into the moist dirt below. Cain held her close enough for him to cup his left hand around her throat and allow the two halves of the luceria to connect.

He gathered up the power of the earth and let it trickle into her. It strengthened both of them, and soon, he felt almost normal.

Iain took Jackie from Cain’s arms and cradled her against his bare chest just as she was beginning to wake. Her gray eyes looked up into his, so full of love he wasn’t sure he could hold it all.

He heard Ronan and Cain walk away, leaving the two of them alone under the stars.

“We made it,” she said, her voice faint.

“Thanks to you.”

She smiled at him, and it warmed his very soul.

His soul. He had one again, thanks to her.

She laid her hand over his heart, and the branches of his lifemark swayed, stretching toward her touch.

Tears filled Iain’s eyes and splashed down onto her wrist. “Thank you,” he told her. “Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for sharing yours with me.”

She shrugged. “You would have done the same for me.”

He would have. He’d do anything for her. He loved her.

As that thought hit, his whole being swelled with the strength of it. He loved her. She’d not only saved his life but given him back the most basic of pleasures—loving another. That had been stolen from him for so long, he’d forgotten how good it felt, how restoring and peaceful it was to love.

Even his love for Serena was there, faint and watery by comparison with what he felt for Jackie, but still its own kind of gift.

“I love you,” he told her, enjoying the ring of those words in his ears.

Her eyes shimmered with happy tears. “I love you, too.”

A smile stretched his mouth for the first time in years.

Jackie pulled in a breath and grinned back. “I thought you were hot before, but when you smile, you’re…breathtaking.”

“I’ll show you breathtaking,” he said, and lowered his mouth to hers. He was going to spend the rest of his long, long life showing her how grateful he was, and just how deeply a man with half a soul could love.

Tynan’s phone rang, distracting him from his thoughts. Project Lullaby was progressing well, but not nearly fast enough. They were going to have to pick up the pace if they were to have any hope of saving themselves from starvation.

“Jackie’s pregnant,” said Ronan as soon as Tynan answered. “Your cure has worked again.”

Shock glued Tynan’s lips shut for a brief moment. His world began to shift under his feet. Things he’d believed
true were simply wrong, and he was struggling to adjust to the new data. “I never gave Iain the serum.”

“Then how is it possible she carries a child?”

“I have no idea. Did she bed another man?”

“No. I walked her memories while she slept, searching for a way to save her. I saw no other man. I did, however, see something else.”

“What?”

“There was this odd memory of a black field, like a starless sky. Lights flared into existence, one by one, as she learned how to channel Iain’s power into different forms and uses. It was so bizarre that I poked around, searching for the source of such an odd mental image.”

“What did you find?” asked Tynan.

“One of the lights had a familiar feel. It felt like…Lexi, whose mind I’ve touched. I inspected that light more deeply and found a connection there. Lexi actually called me to see if I was well—she said she’d suddenly had a bad feeling that something was wrong. I don’t understand how or why, but Jackie is connected to Lexi. And to many others.”

“Did you recognize any of the others?”

“Yes. Andra, Helen, and Tori also had lights of their own. But there were others as well—ones that were not at all familiar. There were, however, some things they all had in common.”

“And what were they?”

“Every light felt feminine and was laced with power. It is my belief that whoever these women are that Jackie is connected to, every one of them is a Theronai.”

“How many?”

“Six. And I saw each one flare to life as I walked her memories. More may well appear.”

The implications of that were huge. It meant that there were more women out there just waiting to be found. Tynan’s mind spun as he put this new information
into place, forcing other pieces to shift and spin to make room. “How do we find these women?”

“I don’t know. Jackie may be able to locate them. But there’s something else this explains.”

“What?”

“I believe this connection is why she’s seemingly compatible with all male Theronai. If she’s somehow tied to other women, it could grant her the ability to tap into any man’s power.”

“Do you think that this ability is something that can be learned?”

Ronan’s voice dropped with disappointment. “I don’t think so. My guess is that this is an inherent ability that only Jackie possesses. I will look into it further if I get the opportunity. Iain’s awake now, though.”

So the chances of Ronan spending time in Jackie’s mind were slim.

“Do I tell them?” asked Ronan.

“Tell them about Jackie’s gift, but keep the news of her pregnancy to yourself for now. Let me administer the serum to Iain first.”

Ronan’s voice was accusatory. “You want to take credit for this when it wasn’t your doing?”

“Think about it, Ronan. If the Theronai have somehow spontaneously regained their fertility and they don’t know it, the chances of procreation are higher, especially with human women. If they know they could have offspring, some of them may choose to use birth control. Do we really want that?”

“No. Of course not. We need all the blood we can get.”

“Then we’re in agreement. As soon as Iain returns, I’ll give him a shot of saline and no one will be the wiser.”

“Until the next woman turns up pregnant by one of the male Theronai.”

A smile stretched Tynan’s face. “There may be hope for our race yet.”

*  *  *

Cain couldn’t watch the lovefest. It wasn’t that he begrudged Iain his happiness, but it was hard to see his chance for a future come so close, only to slip through his fingers.

Jackie had never truly been his. She never would have been his, even if Iain had died. She loved him, and Cain was thrilled to see her happy.

His own happiness hardly mattered by comparison.

Cain looked down at the cold, black ring on his finger. He was delaying the inevitable. Wearing this ring might even prevent him from finding the woman for him—assuming she was even out there. He didn’t hold out much hope, but the thought of missing out on what might be his one and only chance left him cold and afraid.

It wasn’t the pain. That he could stand, no matter how grueling it got. It was the loneliness. It was eating him up inside, chewing away at the few strands of hope he’d managed to hold on to.

The ring wasn’t going to help. It was cheating. He’d lived his whole life by the rules. Skirting them now seemed…cowardly.

Cain pulled the ring from his finger and set it on the kitchen table of the little Gerai house. Iain would find it and give it to someone else.

He felt another leaf inch down his chest. The pain hit him hard, leaving him panting through it, gripping the back of a chair so hard he heard the wood creak. Slowly, the pain eased up to simply grueling, and his vision returned.

Things were changing, and Cain wasn’t sure he could change with them. He’d been alive for far too long. As much as he loved his job of protecting humans and guarding the gate, a man couldn’t live for his work alone.

Sibyl no longer needed him. Gilda and Angus were dead. Several of his brothers had found mates, and their
ranks were once again growing. Even little Nika was pregnant, giving hope to all the other men.

Cain had never realized how much he loved having a child of his own until Sibyl was gone, and a great, gaping wound had opened up inside of him. She wasn’t his by birth, but she was his daughter in every other way. Even now, all she had to do was call him and he’d run to her aid.

But he knew her better than that. She wasn’t going to call him. She craved her independence too much. He was on his own and had to find a way to keep going, so that’s what he’d do. For whatever time he had left.

Turn the page for a sneak peek at
the next Edge novel,

EDGE OF SANITY

 

Coming in December 2012 from Signet Eclipse

 

I
t was the blood that woke him.

Clay Marshall’s fingers were glued together, sticky and itching where the blood had dried. The heavy, metallic smell of it clogged his nose, choking him with the stench of violence.

He stared at his dirty hands, disoriented and numb from shock. Fatigue dragged at his bones. Pain pounded deep inside his skull, worse than any hangover.

The water stain on the ceiling was a familiar comfort, telling him he was in his own bed. Now, if he could only remember how he got there.

As the fog of sleep cleared, the meaning of the blood began to take hold. Concern gnawed at the edges of his numb haze, nibbling away at the false sense of calm. Reality squeezed around him, shoving out his breath like a giant boa constrictor.

Clay sat up, trying to control the fear before it became full-blown panic. His clothes were stiff and dark with drying blood, as if someone had splashed a bucket of it down his front. He searched for the source of the blood, seeking out the kind of physical pain this much blood loss would create.

He ripped off his shirt and jeans, only to find the skin beneath whole. His sheets were stained, but there was
no pool lying where he’d been. Those smears were only from contact with his clothes.

Clay rushed to the bathroom on shaky legs, and peered into the full-length mirror on the back of the door. No cuts. No gashes. Only a collage of bruises of varying ages, and a body that was so thin he barely recognized it.

The blood wasn’t his, and yet he could find no relief in that knowledge. It had to belong to someone.

The need to scrub it away rose up, compelling him to stumble into the shower. Cold water hit him hard, driving the air from his lungs before it slowly warmed. He lathered himself from head to toe, watching in disgust as the rusty suds spiraled down the drain.

Even though the hot water stung, he still felt detached from the world, as though he were covered by a thick layer of foam, preventing anything from really reaching him. His head was clouded with confusion—so much so that he was only just now realizing that he was confused.

He dried off and headed for his kitchen, where the coffee lived. After three cups and twenty minutes, Clay’s brain finally began to function. And with that relative clarity of thought came fear.

There were stains on his floor in the shape of his boots, leading from the kitchen door all the way to his bedroom. He followed them to where the bloody pile of clothes lay on the rug.

There was even more blood on them than he’d imagined. So much that he knew someone had to be dead. The question was, who? And had Clay been the one to kill them?

A sick sense of dread settled over him, making the coffee in his stomach churn.

He had no memories of last night. The sun was streaming in through the windows, but he couldn’t remember anything since lunch yesterday. As hard as he
tried, there was simply a gaping black hole where that time should have been, as if he’d been asleep since then.

The blood proved otherwise.

Clay turned on the local news, barely breathing as the anchor moved from one story to the next. He wasn’t sure what he expected to hear—reports of a building collapse or a giant pileup on I-35, maybe—but he knew what he feared: murder.

His hand shook as he surfed from one station to the next, seeking some sign of what he’d done. When they started repeating the same stories, he wasn’t sure if he was more relieved or scared. Maybe he hadn’t hurt anyone. Maybe he’d saved someone’s life and gotten them medical attention. Then again, maybe they just hadn’t found the body yet. Or bodies.

This wasn’t the first time Clay had woken up with blood on his hands, but he had no way of figuring out how to make it the last time. The only person he could trust was his best friend, Mira, and he couldn’t stand the idea of burdening her with his problems.

Still, if anyone could help him solve the mystery, she could.

Clay dug his cell phone out of his bloody jeans and wiped it clean before dialing Mira.

Her voice was so cheerful and bright it hurt his head. “Good morning, Clay. You’re up early.”

“Heya, Squirt. I need a favor.”

“Sure.”

“I need to know if anyone in the area was killed last night.”

The line went silent for a minute. “Uh…what?”

He hated lying to her, but there was no other way. “I saw a ton of blood on the sidewalk outside a club. I was wondering if anyone was murdered. Can you find out?”

“Where was it?”

Shit. He hadn’t been thinking clearly enough to consider even such a simple question. He was even worse
off in the mental department than he’d thought. “I don’t remember. I was drunk.”

“Clay,” she said in that voice that told him she knew he was lying. “What’s really going on?”

“Can you find out or not?”

She let out a heavy sigh. They’d been friends a long time—since they were kids—and he was not easy on his friends. Especially Mira.

“Hold on.” Disappointment weighed on her voice.

Clay heard the clicking of keys in the background before she came back on the line. “There was a drug-related shooting that killed three. One fatal car accident. Three deaths from natural causes. That’s all I could find.”

“Any John or Jane Does?”

“You want me to hack into the morgue? That’s a little dark, even for you. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Really. Don’t worry.”

“How can I not worry? You sound awful. Did something happen?”

The lie nearly choked him. “No. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“You’re not a bother, Clay. You know I love you. Whatever you need, I’m there, okay?”

An unexpected spurt of emotion clogged his throat. She was the only person in the world he really cared about. He didn’t know why she stuck with him when he was such a mess, but he was glad she did. “I love you, too, Squirt.”

“Then let me help you. The headaches, the blackouts—you need help.”

The pile of bloody clothes popped into his mind, staring at him in accusation. Until he figured out what was going on, he wasn’t safe to be around. “I’ll be fine. But I’m not feeling so great, so I’m taking a sick day. Will you let Bella know?”

“Sure. Get some rest and call me if you need anything, okay?”

“I will,” he lied.

*  *  *

Mira hung up the phone, feeling sick to her stomach. Clay was getting worse. The bruises, the split knuckles, the dislocated joints. And now he wanted her to check death records? Even if her IQ had been cut in half, she would have been able to figure out what that meant.

He thought he’d killed someone.

Clay kept pushing her away, making up reasons why they could no longer hang out together. The more she tried to help, the harder he pushed.

If he wouldn’t let her help him, she had to find someone who could. And there was only one man Mira knew who even had a chance at getting through Clay’s thick skull.

What she was about to do would piss her best friend off, but that was just too bad. She owed him her life—even if he didn’t remember—and if she had to suffer through his anger, so be it.

With her decision made, she dialed the phone.

Clay had just shoved the last of the bloody fabric in a trash bag when his doorbell rang. He took his time washing his hands, hoping whoever it was would just go the hell away.

The chime rang again, followed closely by a sharp knock.

“I know you’re in there,” came a man’s calm voice. “Mira called me.”

Payton Bainbridge. His boss’s right-hand man and all-around buttinsky.

“Go away,” called Clay.

“Not going to happen. Open the door.”

“I’m sick.” He forced out a fake cough to add texture to the lie.

Payton’s disbelieving tone said he wasn’t buying Clay’s story. “I’m immune. Open the door.”

The sooner he got this over with, the sooner Payton
would leave and shove his nose into someone else’s business.

Clay unbolted the triple-locked door and let the older man in.

Payton was in his late fifties, with the suave kind of good looks that made younger women take notice. Or maybe it was simply his ridiculously expensive suits that spoke to them. He walked in, spine straight, hair perfect, suit without a single wrinkle, looking like he’d just walked away from one of those celebrity makeovers. His pale eyes moved over Clay’s rumpled clothes and mussed hair, but rather than seeing disdain for Clay’s lack of grooming, there was guilt in his eyes—as if he were somehow responsible for the way Clay looked.

“You need a doctor.” Payton shut and locked the door behind him, dimming Clay’s already dingy living room.

“I’m not that sick. Nothing a bit of rest and some chicken soup can’t cure.”

“You’re favoring your left knee and hunching over as if your ribs ache. No amount of soup will fix that. You need to be X-rayed.”

Payton had looked at Clay for all of ten seconds and seen that? Shit. That meant he was going to have to take more time off work than just a day.

Clay straightened up, ignoring the throbbing pain in his ribs and shoulder. “My bones are fine.”

Payton pushed past him and walked into the kitchen as if he owned the place. “Mind if I make coffee?”

“You won’t be here long enough to drink it.”

The older man ignored him and went about searching Clay’s cabinets, putting a fresh pot of coffee on. “Mira says you’re in trouble.”

“Mira is wrong. Everything is fine.”

“Your bruises say you’re lying. Judging by the color palette you’ve got going there, you’ve been injured at least three times in the past two weeks.”

“I joined a fight club. I would have told you, but you know the first rule of fight club….”

Payton turned around, his face tight with anger and something else Clay couldn’t name. “This isn’t a joke. She said you were asking about dead bodies.”

“Mira and I are clearly going to have to have another talk about oversharing information.”

“She trusts me. You should, too. I’m not here to judge.”

“Then why are you here?”

Payton’s direct gaze slid away to the empty mug he was holding. “We all make mistakes, Clay. If you’ve made one, I can help set things right. All you have to do is tell me the truth.”

The truth wasn’t going to help him any more than it was going to help the person whose blood he’d been wearing when he woke up. “I’ve got it under control.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah. So you can take your coffee to go. Keep the mug.”

Payton stared Clay right in the eyes, daring him to lie. “Did you kill someone last night?”

In that moment, Clay’s world began to close in around him. The panic he’d felt since seeing the blood exploded until there was no room left to breathe. The edges of his vision began to fade out into gray nothingness. Sound became muted until all he could hear was the rapid, out-of-control beat of his own heart.

He needed help. He needed to find someone who could make sense out of the chaos his life had become. Mira was too vulnerable and precious for him to fuck over with his problems. As far as she stuck her neck out for him, one of these times she was going to lose her head.

Payton stood there silently, patiently. He didn’t move a muscle or blink a lash. There was no hint of reproach on his face, only the faintest lines of regret.

Clay swallowed, barely able to work up enough moisture
to move his tongue. His choices were simple: continue on alone and wake up covered in blood again, or grab ahold of the lifeline Payton offered.

He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He knew he was completely capable of killing and not remembering it. The mission in Arizona a few months ago had taught him that.

What if he killed again? What if this time he hurt someone he cared about? What if he hurt Mira?

That couldn’t happen. He’d eat a bullet before he’d take that risk.

And yet he took that risk every day, never knowing when he’d lose another chunk of time and wake up bruised and broken, with no memory of what he’d done or where he’d been.

Today had to be his wakeup call. Mira was still alive and safe. That could all change so fast. She was like a sister to him—the only family he had—and he couldn’t gamble with her life.

Clay met Payton’s stare and told him the truth. “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know? Either you killed someone or you didn’t.”

“I don’t remember anything about last night. That’s how. I remember grabbing a burger at lunch yesterday. After that…nothing. Until this morning when I…” He couldn’t even say the words. If he did, they would make this whole bizarre nightmare real.

“What happened this morning?” asked Payton, his voice gentle but insistent.

Rather than reply, Clay fetched the trash bag and dumped it out on his kitchen floor. Bloody sheets and clothes tumbled out in a stiff clump. The meaty smell nearly gagged him.

“This happened,” said Clay.

A look of panic that mirrored Clay’s brushed over Payton’s aristocratic features. “Are you hurt?”

“Not enough to make this mess. It’s someone else’s blood.”

“Or something’s. It could be animal blood.”

Clay hadn’t even thought about that, and it brought him a sense of relief so heavy his knees buckled under the weight. He collapsed into a kitchen chair, dizzy and swaying. “You think?”

“It’s possible. I’ll have it tested.”

“I don’t want anyone else involved.”

“I understand. I’ll make sure the test is anonymous.”

Clay’s head was suddenly too heavy to hold up. He propped his elbows on the table and let it sag into his hands. “Things are all fucked up, Payton.”

“I know. I’ll help you sort it all out. But you’ve got to be completely honest with me. No more evasion. No more lies. Agreed?”

Clay hesitated. As much as he liked the man, he didn’t trust anyone as much as he’d need to if he was going to spill his guts about everything. Instead, he let out a nondescript grunt that could be taken as agreement.

“This has been happening for a while, hasn’t it?”

“The bloody clothes? Hell no. At least not like this.”

“No, I mean the lost time—the blackouts. This isn’t the first time you’ve lost your memory.”

BOOK: Dying Wish: A Novel of the Sentinel Wars
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