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  • Home > Keri Arthur > Darkness Splintered     
    Chapter 1
    I woke up naked and in a strange bed.
    For several minutes I did nothing more than breathe in the gently feminine – but totally unfamiliar – scents in the room, trying to figure out how, exactly, I'd gotten here.
    And where the hell "here" was.
    My brain was decidedly fuzzy on any sort of detail, however, and that could only mean my mission to consume enough alcohol to erase all thought and blot out emotion had actually succeeded. And that surprised the hell out of me.
    Thanks to our fast metabolic rate, werewolves generally find it difficult to go on a bender. I might be only half were, but I usually hold my alcohol fairly well and really hadn't expected to get anywhere near drunk. I certainly hadn't expected to be able to forget – if for only a few hours – the anger and the pain.
    Pain that came from both the worst kind of betrayal, and my own subsequent actions.
    My eyes stung, but this time no tears fell. Maybe because I had very little in the way of tears left. Or maybe it was simply the fact that, somewhere in the alcohol-induced haze of the past few days, I'd finally come to accept what had happened to me.
    Although it wasn't like I had any other choice.
    If I had, then I would have died. Should have died. But Azriel, the reaper who'd been my follower, my guard, and my lover, had forced me to live and, in doing so, had taken away the very essence of what I was.
    Because in forcing me to live, he'd not only ensured that my soul could never be reborn, but he'd made me what he was.
    A dark angel.
    The next time I died, I would not move on and be reborn into another life here on Earth. I would join him on the gray fields – the unseen lands that divided this world from the next – and become a guard on the gates to heaven and hell.
    And that meant I would never see my late mother again. Not in any future lifetime that might have been mine, because he'd stolen all that away from me.
    What made it worse was the knowledge that he'd saved me not because he loved me, but because he needed me to find the lost keys to the gates.
    And because I was carrying his child.
    The stinging in my eyes was nothing compared to the pain in my heart. I curled up in the bed and hugged my knees tightly to my chest, but it did little to stop the tidal wave of grief washing over me.
    If he'd said, just once, that I mattered more than any quest or key – or even the child we'd created – then perhaps the bitterness and anger would not have been so deep, and I wouldn't have banished him from my side. But he hadn't, and I had.
    And now all I could do was try to figure out what had actually happened in the days that had followed his departure, and move on.
    Because despite his actions, my task in this world had not changed. I still had keys to find, and I very much doubted whether the patience of either my father or the Raziq – the rebel Aedh priests who'd jointly created the damn keys with my father before he'd stolen said keys from their grasp only to lose them himself – would hold for much longer.
    Hell, it was surprising that one or both of them hadn't already appeared to slap me around in an effort to uncover what the hell had gone wrong this time.
    But maybe they had no idea that I'd actually found the second key. After all, this time it had been stolen not only from under my nose, but before I'd managed to pinpoint its exact location. Which meant the thief – the same dark sorcerer who'd stolen the first key, and who'd permanently opened the first gateway to hell – wouldn't know which of the many military weapons he'd stolen was the second gate key in disguise. Thanks to the fact that my father's blood had been used in the creation of the three keys, only one of his blood could find them.
    And I would find them. Without my reaper. Without my protector.
    A sob rose up my throat, but I forced it back down. Enough with the self-pity, I told myself fiercely. Enough with the wallowing. Get over it and move on.
    But that was easier said than done when my entire world had been turned upside down.
    I scrubbed a hand across gritty eyes, then flipped the sheets off my face, and finally looked around the room. It definitely wasn't a place I knew, and I very much doubted it was a hotel room. There were too many florals – the wallpaper, the bedding, and the cushions that had been thrown haphazardly on the floor all bore variations of a rose theme – and the furniture, though obviously expensive, had a well-used look about it. There was a window to my left, and the sunshine that peeked around the edges of the heavy pink curtains suggested it was close to midday.
    Curious to see where I was, I got out of bed and walked over to the window. My movements were a little unsteady, but I suspected the cause was more a lack of food than any residual effect of my drinking binge. Alcohol cleared out of a werewolf's system extremely fast, which is why it was so damn hard for us to get drunk. And that was definitely a good thing, because it meant my desperate attempt to forget wouldn't have done any harm to my child.
    I drew one curtain aside and looked out. In the yard below, a dozen or so chickens scratched around a pretty cottage garden. To the left of the garden were several outbuildings – one obviously an old stable, another a large machinery shed – but to the right, there was nothing but rolling hills that led up to a thick forest of gum trees.
    It definitely wasn't somewhere familiar.
    Frowning, I let the curtain fall back into place and turned, my gaze sweeping the small room again. My clothes were stacked in a neat pile on the Georgian-style armchair, and flung over the back of it was a fluffy white dressing gown. Sitting on the nearby mahogany dressing table was a white towel, as well as bathroom necessities. Whoever owned this place at least didn't intend to keep me naked or unwashed. Whether they intended me other sorts of harm was another matter entirely.
    The familiar, somewhat harsh tone ran through my mind and relief slithered through me. I might be without my reaper, but I still had my sword, so I wasn't entirely without protection. Amaya – the name of the demon trapped within the sword – was as alert and as ready for action as ever. The sword itself was shadow wreathed and invisible, so the only time anyone was truly aware of her presence was when I slid her dark blade into their flesh. Although she did have a tendency to be vocal about her need to kill, so she certainly could be heard on occasion – generally when she was about to kill someone.
    What do you mean, "not"? I walked over to the Georgian chair and started dressing. Like the room itself, my clothes had a very slight floral scent, although this time it was lavender rather than rose, which was definitely easier on my nose.
    Harm not, she replied. Foe not.
    Which didn't mean whoever owned this place was a friend, but my sword had saved my butt more than once recently and I was beginning to trust her judgment.
    Should, she muttered. Stupid not.
    I grinned, not entirely sure whether she meant she wasn't stupid, or that I'd be stupid not to trust her. I sat down on the chair to pull on my socks and boots, then headed for the door. It wasn't locked – another indicator that whoever had me didn't mean any harm – but I nevertheless peered out cautiously.
    The hall beyond thankfully was free of the rose scent that had pervaded my room, and it was long, with at least a dozen doors leading off it. To the left, at the far end, was a wide window that poured sunshine into the space, lending the pale green walls a warmth and richness. To the right lay a staircase. There were voices coming from the floor below, feminine voices, though I didn't immediately recognize them.
    I hesitated, then mentally slapped myself for doing so and headed toward the stairs. My footsteps echoed on the wooden boards, and the rhythmic rise and fall of voices briefly stopped.
    I'd barely reached the landing when quick steps approached the staircase from below. I paused on the top step and watched through the balusters. After a moment, a familiar figure strode into view and relief shot through me.
    "Ilianna," I said. "Where the hell am I?"
    She paused and looked up, a smile touching the corners of her green eyes. Ilianna was a shifter, and her human form echoed the palomino coloring of her horse form, meaning she had a thick mane of pale hair and dark golden skin. She was also a powerful witch, and one of the few people outside my adopted family I trusted implicitly. Tao, our flatmate; Mirri, Ilianna's partner; and Stane, Tao's cousin, were the others.
    "We're at Sable's winter retreat," she said. "And it's about time you woke up. I was beginning to think you intended to sleep the rest of your life away."
    Sable was Mirri's mom. I'd met her only once, but I'd seen her often enough on TV. The woman was a cooking phenomenon, with two TV shows behind her – the repeats of which still pulled good ratings – and a slew of books on not just cooking, but herbs and natural healing. Mirri's dad, Kade, had worked with my aunt Riley at the Directorate years ago, but had unfortunately been killed when Mirri was little more than a baby. It had been Sable who had looked after his herd and kept them all together when he'd died.
    "After the events of the last week or so, sleeping the rest of my life away certainly has its appeal." I couldn't help the grim edge in my voice. "Why the hell are we at Mirri's mom's rather than home?"
    "Because we figured a change of scenery might get you out of your funk. You coming down for lunch?"
    "Funk" was definitely the polite description of what I'd been through the past few days. "Lunch would be good," I said, even as my stomach rumbled rather loudly.
    Ilianna's eyebrows rose at the noise. I grinned and walked down the rest of the stairs, only to be enveloped in a hug so fierce I swear she was trying to squeeze the last drop of air from my lungs.
    "God," she whispered. "It's good to have you back."
    I blinked back the sting of tears and returned her hug. "I'm sorry, Ilianna. I didn't mean to worry you. I just —" 
    "Needed to cut loose a little," she finished for me. "I understand. More than anyone else ever could."
    It was gently said, but nevertheless a reminder that I wasn't the only one who'd been played and abused. Guilt swirled through me and I pulled back, my gaze searching hers.
    "Are you —"
    "Yes," she said, interrupting before I could finish. "As I said in the hospital, my pregnancy was meant to be, even if the method of conception was both unforeseen and unwelcome. But we are not discussing me and my pregnancy right now."
    I half smiled. No, we were discussing me and mine. "I've a feeling I'm about to be told off."
    "Not told off. Just… warned."
    Tension rolled through me. "About what?"
    She hesitated. "While I understand your need to cut loose after everything that has happened recently, others do not, and they are looking for you. Specifically, one person. And she's not someone any of us should piss off."
    "Hunter." I practically spat the word.
    Madeline Hunter was the head of the Directorate, a top-ranking member of the high vampire council, and a monster clothed in vampire skin. She was also, unfortunately, my boss, thanks to an agreement I'd made the day I'd scattered my mother's ashes.
    Of course, that agreement technically no longer stood, because I'd been the one to find and kill the man who had murdered my mother, not Hunter. That man had been my Aedh lover, Lucian, who had managed to fool me in more ways than I was willing to think about. Not only had he been responsible for my mother's murder, but he'd also been involved in the theft of the keys.
    And, as a parting gift, he'd kidnapped and impregnated Ilianna, and had tried to do the same to me. Thankfully, I'd already been carrying Azriel's child by that time.
    Ilianna grimaced. "Yeah. Tao's fobbed her off a couple of times now, but she's getting pretty scary."
    Scary was a normal state for Hunter, but I certainly didn't want to piss her off any more than necessary. Not after what I'd seen her do to the dark spirit who'd murdered her lover.
    Still, it was decidedly odd that she didn't know where I was. "Why would she be hassling Tao, or anyone else, for that matter? She knows exactly what I'm doing every single minute of the day, thanks to the fucking Cazadors."
    Cazadors were the high vampire council's kill squad, and they'd been following me astrally for weeks, reporting my every move back to Hunter.
    "In this case, she doesn't, because they can't follow you here." Ilianna tucked her arm through mine and escorted me down the hall.
    I raised an eyebrow. "You've spelled the place?"
    She nodded. "Mom found a spell that automatically redirects astral travelers every time they approach the spell's defined area."
    Just astral travelers, not Aedh, I guessed. Which was logical, given that the only spell we had to keep the Aedh out was the one we were using around our home, and that had originated from my father. Which meant my father and the Raziq could get to me here. I shivered and tried to ignore the premonition that I'd be confronting both far sooner than I'd want.
    Still, some protection was better than nothing, and at least we could plan our next move without the Cazadors passing every little detail on to Hunter. "There wouldn't happen to be a mobile version of that spell, would there?"
    "Unfortunately, no."
    Of course not. Why on earth would fate throw me a lifeline like that? "Then I guess I'd better give the bitch a call ASAP."
    And pray like hell she didn't have another job for me. I really didn't need to be chasing after escapees from hell right now – especially, I thought bleakly, when chasing hell-kind was all I had to look forward to in the long centuries after my death.
    Besides, I needed to find the sorcerer and snatch the second key back. While he might not know which one of the items he'd stolen it was, there was nothing stopping him from taking them all to hell's gate and testing them out one by one.
    And while my father and the Raziq had been relatively patient so far when it came to my lack of progress on the key front, I doubted that would last. They'd already threatened to destroy those I loved if I didn't find the keys. I wouldn't put it past any of them to actually kill someone close to me, just to prove how serious they were.
    As if tearing me apart to place the tracker in my heart hadn't already proved that.
    "Calling her should definitely be a high priority," Ilianna agreed. "But come and eat first. You look like death warmed up."
    No surprise there, given I nearly had been. "So what's stopping Hunter or the Cazadors from physically finding us?"
    "She probably could, given enough time. While the spell is designed to confuse astral senses, they'd still have a general idea of location."
    "But all she has to do is hack into my phone —"
    "Which was left at home," Ilianna interrupted. "Along with anything else that could be used to track you. We're not that dumb."
    No, they weren't. And Hunter was undoubtedly hassling Tao simply because she couldn't get to anyone else. Even she had more sense than to contact Aunt Riley. I might not be related by blood to Riley, but she and her pack were the only family I had left. They would not have reacted nicely to the news that Hunter was after me. "Knowing Hunter as well as I now do, I'm surprised she hasn't done more than merely threaten him."
    Hell, she probably considered a spot of bloody torture a good way to start the day. Although, given that Tao was rapidly losing the battle with the fire elemental he'd consumed, maybe I should be hoping the bitch did attempt to torture him. Crispy fried Hunter was a sight I wouldn't mind seeing.
    "She's given him until tonight to find you, so there's time. You need to regain some strength before you run off to confront that psycho bitch."
    "Ain't that the truth," I muttered. "Especially now that I have to do it alone."
    Ilianna hesitated, then said quietly, "Look, I don't know what actually went on between you and Azriel, but —"
    Something twisted deep inside me. Pain rose, a knife-sharp wave that threatened to engulf me. No, I reminded myself fiercely, you can't go there. Not just yet. Not so soon after waking. I needed at least some time to mull over the implications of my actions by myself.
    "Ilianna," I said, when I could, "leave it alone."
    "But he wouldn't have left you —"
    "He did, because he had no choice. I banished him." How I'd actually managed that I had no idea. I mean, he was a reaper, a Mijai, and me telling him to leave me alone had never worked before now. So why the change?
    "Why the hell would you do that? Damn it, Ris, you need —"
    "Ilianna," I warned, the edge deeper in my voice this time.
    She drew in a breath, then released it slowly. "When you want to talk about it, I'll be here. But just remember one thing – he's not human. He's energy, not flesh, and he doesn't operate on the same emotional or intellectual levels as we do. But whatever he did, he did for a reason. A good reason. And no matter how absolute or final his actions may seem to you, it may not be a truth in his world."
    "The truth," I replied, bitterness in my voice, "is that the keys were always first and foremost to him."
    And I wanted more than that. Wanted him to feel about me the way I felt about him. But was love an emotion reapers were even capable of?
    I blinked at the thought. I loved him. Not just cared for him, but loved him.
    When the hell had that happened?
    I'd spent far more time with Lucian than I ever had with Azriel… I paused at the thought. No, that wasn't true. Not really. I may have spent more time sexually with Lucian, but for every other part of the day – and night – Azriel had been by my side. Somewhere, somehow, he'd snuck past my guard and stolen my heart. How that was even possible when we were still little more than strangers, I have no idea. It wasn't like love and I were on familiar terms. Quite the opposite really, given the only other man I'd loved had been Jak – the werewolf reporter who was one of the people we'd pulled in to help with our key search – and that had turned out to be a complete and utter disaster.
    Obviously, my heart had no damn common sense when it came to picking men. Or it just liked to be broken.
    Ilianna said, "I would not be so sure of that —"
    "Ilianna," I warned yet again.
    She sighed, then pushed open the door and ushered me through. The twin scents of curry and baking bread hit, making my mouth water and my stomach rumble even louder than before.
    The room itself was a kitchen bigger than our entire apartment. The country-style cabinets wrapped around three of the four walls, providing massive amounts of storage and preparation space, and there were six ovens and four stovetops. A huge wooden table that would have seated at least thirty people dominated the middle of the room, and it was at this that Sable, Mirri, and two other women sat.
    They glanced around as we entered. Sable smiled and rose. In either human or horse form she was stunningly beautiful, with black skin and brown eyes that missed very little. Mirri, a mahogany bay when in horse form, had taken after her dad.
    "Risa, so glad you're recovered." Sable kissed both my cheeks, then stood back and examined me somewhat critically. "Although you do need some condition on you. You, my girl, are entirely too thin."
    I smiled. "Werewolves do tend to be on the lean side."
    "Not this lean, I'll wager. The ladies and I are just about to go out, but there's a curry in the oven and the bread should be done in about five minutes."
    "Thank you —"
    She cut me off with a wave of her hand. "Ilianna is family now, and her family is my family. So please, don't be thanking me for something we'd do for anyone in the herd." 
    I smiled. At least Mirri's mom had accepted her relationship with Ilianna. The same couldn't be said of Ilianna's parents – although I personally thought they would come round if they actually knew about it. But Ilianna refused to even tell them she was gay.
    Sable collected her coat and bag from the back of one of the chairs; then she and the two women retreated out the glass sliding door.
    I raised an eyebrow and glanced at Mirri. "That felt like a deliberate retreat."
    Mirri grabbed a couple of tea towels and rose. "I told them you and Ilianna need some alone time for a war council when you woke up."
    "War council? Sorry, but whatever I do next —"
    "You're not doing alone." Ilianna began setting the table for the three of us. "Azriel may be gone, but Tao and I are still here. And we're a part of this now, Risa, whether you like it or not."
    I didn't like. Not at all. She and Tao had been through enough because of me and this damn quest. I wasn't about to put them through anything else. But I also knew that tone of voice. It was no use arguing – not that that ever stopped me from trying.
    "The first thing I have to do is find the damn sorcerer who stole the key, and that's not something I want you involved with. It's too dangerous, Ilianna."
    "Maybe." Ilianna gave me a somewhat severe look. "But the Brindle is more than capable of taking care of a dark sorcerer. There aren't that many in Melbourne, you know, and they'd be aware of all of them."
    The Brindle was the home of all witch knowledge, both ancient and new. Ilianna's mom was one of the custodians there, and Ilianna was powerful enough to have become one – and in fact had started the training when she was younger. She'd walked away for reasons she refused to discuss, but if the predictions of the head witch, Kiandra, were to be believed, Ilianna would one day not only finish that training, but her daughter would save the Brindle itself.
    "Yeah," I said, "but given Lucian was probably working with him, he'll know about my connection to both you and the Brindle." I grimaced, then added, "I'd bet my ass he's taken steps to ensure you – and they – can't find him."
    "But it would take major magic to achieve something like that, and it would create a ‘hot spot' that could be traced."
    Maybe that sort of ruling would apply to Earth-based magic, but would it apply to magic that was Aedh sourced? And even if it did, that still meant dragging more people into the search, and I really didn't want to do that unless absolutely necessary. It was just too damn dangerous.
    "It's an option." I sat down. "But it wouldn't be my first."
    Ilianna placed the hot bread on the table. "Why not? There's no easier way to find a sorcerer than to trace his magic."
    "A normal sorcerer, perhaps. But this one has been working with an Aedh, remember, and has probably acquired much of his knowledge." Which was another reason to be glad Lucian was dead. At least the bastard couldn't pass anything else on to our ever-elusive sorcerer. "Besides, our best option right now is to go through Lucian's things and see if he left any clues behind."
    Mirri snorted as she began dishing out the huge chunks of curried vegetables – which wasn't normally a favorite of mine, but it smelled incredible. "Forgive me for stating the obvious, but you've been on a bender for three days. That would have given our sorcerer plenty of time to go through Lucian's things and ditch whatever evidence there might have been."
    "Lucian was clever enough not to leave such information in easy reach. If there is incriminating evidence to be found, then it would be somewhere ultimately safe from everyone but him."
    And that, I realized suddenly, could mean the gray fields. They might be the unseen division between worlds, but they were as filled with life as anyplace in this world. And given Lucian had once been an Aedh priest under my father's tutelage, then maybe the first place I should look was in temples near the gates of heaven and hell. I had no idea whether they still stood now that the priests had all but disappeared – or if someone like me would even be able to see them – but what better place would there be to secure information? It was doubtful whether the reapers or the Raziq would bother to look through ruins in an effort to find information on a dark sorcerer.
    Of course, that was presuming Lucian could get onto the fields. The ability to attain full Aedh form had apparently been ripped from him by the Raziq, but that hadn't stopped him from shoving his fist into my mother's chest and blowing her apart.
    Which is exactly how I'd killed him.
    I'd had my revenge, but its taste wasn't as sweet as I'd expected.
    I swallowed heavily and added, "The bastard was more cunning that a basketful of foxes."
    Ilianna's smile was grim. "But not cunning enough in the end."
    "No." I tore off a chunk of bread as Mirri slid a plate of curry my way. "I'll search his place first, then I'll do the same to his lover's place."
    "And if you find nothing either there or on the fields?"
    Then we were in trouble, because I honestly didn't think the Brindle would be able to help us. Not in this. Not when Aedh magic was involved. And there had to be: The ancient cuneiform that gave the magic to the transport pillars we'd found – pillars both the dark sorcerers and Lucian had been using to move around undetected – could have come only from Lucian.
    "If I find nothing," I muttered, as I dipped a chunk of bread into the curry, "we're up shit creek without a paddle."
    "Then," she said, "talking to Kiandra can't hurt. At least she'll be able to tell us if there is some sort of hot spot near the intersection. Until we know that, we can't make any other plans."
    "We?" My gaze shot to hers. "There's no damn we —"
    "Oh yes there is," she cut in, voice fierce. "You can't do this on your own anymore, Ris."
    I snorted. "I was never doing it on my own, and look where it's gotten —"
    I cut the words off as awareness ran through me. Something approached the house.
    Something that wasn't human, or in human form. An invader that was as silent as a ghost, and yet accompanied by such a wash of heat and power that the hairs on my arms stood on end.
    It was a sensation with which I was more than a little familiar.
    An Aedh approached the house, and he was in energy form rather than physical.
    Only it wasn't any old Aedh.
    It was my father. And he was not happy.
    Having to face a parent as prone to violence as mine certainly wasn't what I needed right now – especially when I didn't have Azriel at my back.
    I closed my eyes, trying to remain calm, trying to contain the fear that galloped away at the thought of another confrontation. The desire to reach out to Azriel, to tell him that I needed him, that I wanted him back in my life, was fierce. But that was just a reaction born of fear. After all, the last time my father and I had met face-to-face, he'd just about killed me – and that was with Azriel present.
    But if it was my father approaching, why hadn't the Raziq device woven into my heart reacted? It had been designed to summon them the minute my father appeared in my presence, and when it activated, it felt as if someone had shoved their hand into my chest and was intent on squeezing every ounce of life out of my heart. Painful didn't even come close to describing the experience.
    This time, however, there was nothing. And while it was curious, I wasn't about to complain. I might not want to confront my father, but I sure as hell had no desire to be caught in the middle of a battle between him and the Raziq.
    He hurt not, Amaya commented. We stronger. Fight.
    I snorted. Fighting was my sword's answer to every problem.
    Not every, she said. But kill better.
    I ignored her and said, "Ilianna, Mirri, get upstairs. Now."
    Ilianna opened her mouth to protest, then took one look at my face, grabbed Mirri, and got the hell out of the kitchen.
    And not a moment too soon.
    An instant later I was hit by a blow of energy so fierce it smashed the chair and flung me backward. I was thrust along the floor with such force that I crashed into one of the cupboards, sending jagged pieces of wood and china flying. Then a band of iron settled around my neck and hauled me upright.
    "Where is the second key?" The voice was a deeper, angrier version of mine, and so thunderous it rattled the remaining crockery in the cupboard.
    I opened my mouth to answer, but no words came out. No air was getting in, either, but it was anger rather than panic that bloomed through my body.
    Damn it, I was getting rather tired of being thrown about by all and sundry. My father, the Raziq, Hunter – they all needed my help, and it was about time they started remembering it.
    Even as the thought crossed my mind, energy surged through my body and Amaya was suddenly in my hand. I gripped her hilt tight and swung at the invisible band of steel wrapped around my neck. She screamed in pleasure and anticipation, eager to kill.
    No, I warned. Not yet.
    Fun not, she bit back.
    Then shadowed steel met Aedh force. Lilac fire flared down her length, leaping from the tip of her steel to race along the cord that was my father's energy. He roared, the sound one of fury and pain combined, and released me so suddenly I hit the ground knees first. Pain shot up my legs, but I ignored it and held Amaya in front of me. Her fire flared out from the sides of her blade, forming a curved circle that completely encased my body. And just in time.
    Energy hit the barrier, and once again pushed me back into the cupboard. Amaya screamed her fury, her shield burning bright where my father's energy flayed her. But she held firm.
    "Try to remember you need my fucking help," I said, my voice surprisingly devoid of the fury and fear that tumbled through me. 
    "I am your father," he roared. "I may have given you life, but I can also give you death."
    Amaya's hissing got stronger in my head. Whether that meant she was finding it harder to maintain the shield or she was simply getting more pissed off, I couldn't say. But the sooner this attack ended, the better for us both.
    "My death will hardly help regain control of the two remaining keys," I countered, still managing to keep my voice even. "Besides, I've already been dead. It holds no fear for me."
    The words were barely out of my mouth when the attack stopped with a suddenness that had me blinking. There was a moment of silence before he said, "You died?"
    A hint of amusement had replaced the anger, and I frowned. What in the hell was funny about me dying?
    "You didn't feel it?" Amaya was beginning to quiver in my hands, which generally meant she was running low in resources and would soon start leeching mine. And while that was something I couldn't afford, given that I wasn't exactly at the top of my game after the last few days, there was no way in hell I was about to ask her to drop the shield. Not until I knew the reason behind my father's sudden mood switch. "I thought the blood bond meant you could feel my presence no matter where I was?"
    "When you wear flesh, yes," he replied. "But place yourself in death's hands, and it is a different matter entirely."
    "Why? I mean, wouldn't me dying break any sort of connection? That in itself should tell you something happened."
    "It is not that simple."
    "It never is."
    His amusement got stronger, but it didn't make me feel any safer. Quite the opposite, in fact.
    "If you had remained on death's plane, then, yes, I would have sensed it. But you chose to come back."
    "Which clarifies nothing, given the gray fields themselves are the realm of death." And the Raziq certainly had no trouble finding me whenever I stepped onto the fields.
    "Stepping onto them as an Aedh is very different from stepping on them as a soul ready to move on."
    Which I would never be able to do again, thanks to Azriel's actions. Bitterness stabbed through me – bitterness and anger and a splintered sense of loss. I swallowed heavily and somehow said, "So is the fact I basically died the reason why the device in my heart hasn't summoned the Raziq?"
    "Yes. As I told you previously, only death could stop it."
    Which only meant I was free from the pain of the device, not from the Raziq themselves.
    "And is that the reason you seem to find my death so amusing?"
    "It was not so much your death, but the mere fact that you succeeded in short-circuiting Malin's plans."
    Malin was the head of the Raziq, and my father's former lover. She was also a woman scorned, as my father had apparently refused to give her the child she'd wanted, deciding instead to seek out and impregnate my mother. It was a combination that made her less than benevolent when it came to me and, in part, the reason behind my latest kidnapping. What she'd actually done to me during that time I couldn't say, because she'd erased all memory of it.
    Although given that she'd told me my father would more than likely kill me if he ever found out about it, I'm guessing it was something pretty bad. Something that perhaps tied me to her just as much as my father.
    "I hadn't exactly planned to die, you know."
    "Humanity rarely does. It is one of their greatest failings."
    Strength fade, Amaya said, annoyance heavy in her mental tones. She didn't like having to admit to any sort of failing. Must draw —
    No, I cut in. Drop the shield.
    And I mentally crossed my fingers that my father hadn't been waiting for that very event.
    The faint lilac haze around me flickered, then died, and Amaya's blade became shadowed once more. I tensed but, despite my fears, my father didn't immediately attack.
    Not that I relaxed any. "It's a failing also shared by the Aedh. I hardly think Lucian had planned to die so soon."
    "Perhaps not, but he was aware of its approach, as you well know."
    He paused, and that vague sense of amusement vanished. My grip on Amaya tightened so abruptly it was a wonder my knuckles weren't glowing.
    "Lucian's plans are no excuse for you having lost the second key, however."
    "No, because you own some of that blame." My voice was curt, which was perhaps unwise given the state of both my strength and Amaya's. "You not only knew he was fucking the sorceress Lauren, but also that he was working with the sorcerer who stole the first key. You didn't tell me the first fact until after I'd questioned you about her, and you didn't even bother mentioning the second."
    "Because it should not have been relevant. No human should have been able to access the fields, let alone the gates."
    "But he had Lucian's help, and he's a very powerful dark sorcerer."
    "Lucian could not attain full energy form, and therefore should not have been able to step onto the fields."
    "So how the hell did the sorcerer get to the gates with the first key if he didn't have Lucian's help?"
    His anger swirled around me, fierce and frightening, but this time, its force was not aimed at me. And it had a rather frustrated edge to it.
    "That I do not know."
    And it killed him to admit it – a situation that cheered me up no end. "We think the sorcerer accessed the fields via stone portals formed by both black and Aedh magic —"
    "While that is more than possible," my father interrupted, "he should not have been able to see the light and dark paths, let alone access them."
    "Unless he had Lucian's help."
    "Even Lucian would not have been so foolish as to direct a human to their location. Not when he had his own plans for them."
    "Lucian's plans had nothing to do with the gates. He not only wanted revenge on the Raziq, who'd made him less than he was, but to turn back time and once again become full Aedh."
    An aim that seemed right up there with pigs flying, and yet Lucian had totally believed it was possible.
    "Only the strongest magic raised on the strongest ley-line intersection could feasibly allow a human to achieve something like that."
    I frowned at his slight emphasis on the word "human." "Meaning Aedh are capable of transcending time?"
    "Of course." Amusement filtered through his words again. "How do you think Lucian came to spend so much time here on Earth? He was not only stripped of his ability to become full Aedh, but he was relegated to suffering eons of human development."
    "And all it did was not only give him plenty of time to plan his revenge, but plenty of time to find a ley line strong enough for him – and his sorcerer buddy – to place their portal."
    And it was so well protected we'd yet to find the damn thing. According to Ilianna, the sorcerer had to be using a containment spell to keep us from sensing it, but surely the amount of power he'd need to suck from the intersection just to change form – let alone access the fields – would not be so easily restrained…
    I added, "I'm gathering Lucian would have been able to access the fields that way?"
    "Certainly. But both he and this sorcerer would have to alter the composition of their bodies to that of energy, if only temporarily. Souls are the only other entity outside Aedh and reapers who can walk the fields, and only then with the help of a guide."
    "What about the temples?"
    "What about them?"
    I bit back my impatience. I wasn't about to rock the boat too much when my father was being helpful. Or as helpful as he was ever likely to get.
    Although it did seem somewhat surreal to be having such a calm and collected conversation with him after his initial entrance. "Would either Lucian or the sorcerer have been able to access the temples in their altered forms?"
    "Lucian could have, as he was my chrání. The sorcerer has no need to enter the temples. The gates are within the grounds that surround the temples, not in the temples themselves."
    A chrání, in Aedh speak, basically meant student or protégé. "That doesn't actually answer my question."
    Yet again his amusement touched the air. While it was nice that he was in such a jovial mood, I suspected it wouldn't take much to bring back his wrath.
    He said, "Only those of Aedh blood can enter sacred temples."
    Meaning the gates weren't considered sacred? Why not? "So I could enter them, if I needed to?"
    His energy swirled around me, contemplative in its feel. I wasn't entirely sure why, given he could access my thoughts and would have to know where this was heading.
    And yet, his next question suggested the exact opposite. "Why might you wish to access the temples?"
    "Lucian was a devious bastard who trusted no one." And rightly so, given it was my father who'd betrayed him to the Raziq in the first place. "Not only would he have kept information about the sorcerer's identity, but he would have kept it somewhere not even the sorcerer could access."
    "Being Aedh does not automatically give you access to the temples – indeed, only those initiated into the order can move freely within the inner realm of the temples."
    "Which is a roundabout way of saying I'll need your help?" And it would come at a price, of that I had no doubt. Still, it was worth reminding him exactly what was at risk. Hell, he might even surprise me and offer help without threats or strings.
    And tomorrow, those damn pigs will fly.
    "You will need help to access the temples, yes, but I will not be able to provide it. The Raziq have traps waiting around them." Contempt darkened his tone as he added, "They hope to ensnare me should I be foolish enough to go near." 
    "So how in the hell am I supposed to get into the place if you can't help me? I'm thinking you don't want me asking the Raziq for help."
    Anger surged, strong enough to snatch my breath and send lilac sparks skittering down Amaya's sides. "That would be unwise."
    "Then how about offering a fucking solution, instead of just threats?" I snapped. "Because if you want the sorcerer shut down before he can use the key, I need some help."
    "There's your reaper. While they are not initiated into the order, they have always had access to the temples."
    My reaper… pain and regret stormed barely shored-up defenses, and once again tears were stinging my eyes. Damn it, no. I was stronger than this. I'd survived Jak's betrayal, and I'd get over this, too. I had to, because this time, there was more than just my heart and my mother's reputation at stake. This time, there were lives on the line. Many lives.
    A world of them, in fact.
    I fiercely thrust the pain aside. "Didn't you just say the gates are within grounds? Why, then, would the reapers be able to access the temples?" After all reapers, as soul guides, needed access to the former not the latter.
    "At one time, they did not. But the priests have long gone, and the reapers have been forced to do what the priests once did."
    And that was keeping the gates in working order, as well as stopping anything – and everything – that tried to escape hell. With the first hell gate now open, more and more demons were escaping into the fields and subsequently onto Earth, and the Mijai – who were the reaper soldiers – found themselves spread very thin indeed.
    God, I hope Azriel is keeping himself safe…
    I shoved the unbidden thought back into its box. "My reaper is no longer part of this mission, so it's not like I can get his help."
    "It is not like one of the Mijai to abandon a mission before it is finished."
    "He didn't abandon it. I banished him."
    "But you could not do that unless he —" He stopped, and once again I felt his amusement. "That is an interesting development."
    "And what, exactly, is so interesting about me banishing him?"
    "The mere fact that you could."
    Which in no way explained his amusement. Goddammit, could no one ever give me a straight answer? "Care to go into a bit more detail?"
    "No." Again that glimmer of amusement trailed around me. "You are not unprotected, however. The Mijai still need you, just as the Raziq and I still need you."
    "Meaning someone else is now guarding me?" Someone who was keeping their distance, and refusing to interact with me in any way? Because I certainly hadn't sensed their presence.
    "Yes. What their plans are beyond that, I have no idea. Nor do I have any interest, other than reminding you your allegiance must lie with me. Otherwise —"
    "My friends will die," I cut in, annoyance back in my voice. "I've heard that song before. So tell me, how the hell am I going to access the temples if I can't get reaper support?"
    "You are not the only half Aedh in this city, and the other is also trained as a priest. He could get you in." He paused. "However, you will not gain access into the quarters the chrání and I shared without my help."
    He was talking about Uncle Quinn. And while I really didn't want to involve either him or Aunt Riley in this fucking quest any more than I already had, it was looking more and more like there was no other choice. "And the price of your help is no doubt the key."
    "No," he said, voice so ominous it sent chills racing down my spine. "The price of the key is the life of your friend."
    And just like that, the facade of civility snapped.
    Power surged, an energy so fierce it momentarily felt like he was trying to pull me apart. Amaya screamed in response, and flames leapt from the point of her blade. But they swirled around aimlessly, as if she couldn't find anything to attack.
    And she couldn't, because my father had disappeared. Completely disappeared.
    A heartbeat later, Ilianna screamed.
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