Laura smiled at Adam’s sister. Coraline’s power appeared to be the ability to make plants grow, and she was walking around the house sprucing up the houseplants. And telling stories about what Adam was like as a kid. “…gigantic doofus. Instead of just telling me where it was, he climbed back over to the other side of the roof and tried to jump to the oak tree.” Coraline gave the spider plant a critical look before gesturing wildly. “Lost his grip and boom…” She slammed one hand into the other. “Went right through Mom’s brand-new picnic table. Dad comes tearing out of the house, totally panicked because he’s convinced Adam just broke every bone in his body. And then Adam just sort of stands up, dusts himself off, and you know what he went and did then?”
Gabriel stepped back as Lidia nearly pushed Matthias down in her rush to get to her son. Adam looked shell-shocked as she threw her arms around him. “Adam. Adam.” Her voice broke into sobs. “Oh, Adam.”
It took a moment for Adam to put his arms around her. “Mom…” His voice was thick. “Mom, you shouldn’t be here.” He took a deep breath. “You have to get out of here.”
“I thought France would look different.” Laura frowned.
“How so?” Matthias glanced down at her.
“You know. Exotic. Far away.” She shaded her eyes. “That just looks like an ordinary city.” She wrinkled her nose. “I can even see a McDonalds.”
Khait yanked at the ropes binding him to the stone table. To his surprise, they failed to give even the slightest amount. He frowned, then began struggling in earnest. The last thing he remembered was a woman pouring him wine. There were a half-dozen black-robed figures moving around the room. One of them came toward him with a knife. Khait blinked as the figure began cutting off his clothing. Then he smirked. “Ah, it’s going to be like that, is it?” He licked his lips. “You know, if you wanted to pl…” He cut off as a woman came through the door. “Oh.”
“Tighten the restraints. He needs to be still.” She waved a hand at one of the robed figures.
He grunted as the figure obeyed. “Isis, look, I’m certain this is…” His eyes widened as she drew a knife of her own, and cut open his arm. “Isis, you and I go back a long way, and…” She touched her finger to the blood, then began using it to draw a glyph on his chest. “Isis. Isis.” He started shaking his head. “This isn’t…”
“You…” Her eyes gleamed with an unnatural light. “Were warned.”
What he hoped was a charming smile came to his face. “Look, I get that you are angry, but why don’t we just —”
“Your antics have jeopardized us all.” She shook her head.
“I…” He winced as she worked the blade again to draw more blood. Though he knew it would do him little good, he tried to summon up his magic anyway. He felt as though he were trying to get purchase on ice. “Isis, you don’t want to do this. You want to just eat me and go one with —”
“Eating you…” Isis rolled her eyes. “Would do me little good.”
“Little good? You’d get a good meal, I’d be out of your hair, you win.” He tried struggling again, but the restraints prevented him from moving. They pulled at his joints, straining them until just breathing was painful. “Isis —”
“I’m well aware killing you is not an option.” She leaned down until her lips were near his ear. “Usariel.”
Not good. Painful or not, he started thrashing. He even managed to nearly pull his arm free before it was yanked down and secured again. He opened his mouth. “Isi—” Metal was forced between his teeth, both gagging him and holding his head in place.
Isis stood. Her eyes had left the masquerade of humanity behind, and glowed with green fire. She set a gemstone on his forehead. Power seemed to wrap around him, and then it started to tear.
Behind the gag, he screamed.
Yalathanil lay back on the bed, Greg half atop him. The dark brown locks of Greg’s hair tickled Yalathanil’s chest, and he smiled at the sensation. “Are you asleep?”
“Yes.” Greg’s voice answered him.
“I want to defy the rules. To stay.” Yalathanil took a deep breath.
“That would leave your people ruled by Saelethil, and uh…” Greg rolled to lay next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “Pretty sure that won’t work out well for humans in general.”
“I know.” Yalathanil sighed. “I wish I could show you my kingdom. The world beneath the waves, shielded from…” He rested his cheek on Greg’s head. “To show you the beauty of my world as you showed me the beauty of yours.”
“Twix bars and farmer’s markets.” Greg ran a hand over his chest. “I hadn’t even begun showing you the marvels of the surface.” He gave a small laugh. “I haven’t even gotten you drunk yet.” The laughter died on his lips. “I won’t forget you, Yala.”
“Perhaps…” Yalathanil closed his eyes. “There will come a time when my people can reach up to yours. When that happens…” He held Greg close. “I will remember you.”
Greg smiled when he saw Adele standing behind her father. “They are alright.”
“She told you they were.” Yala sat down next to him, and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Seeing is a bit different.” Greg exhaled, then shifted to put an arm around Yala. He glanced at the door to the other room. “I mean, I believed her, I just…” He took a deep breath. “It’s been a long day.”
“Tell me again what Jim said.” Yala brushed Greg’s hair off his shoulder.
“That you have to claim your throne no matter the cost.” He couldn’t quite look at Yala when he said the words. Yala claiming a throne would mean an end to something that had started to become very precious to him. “That if you don’t…”
“If I do not…” Yala lifted his head. “Saelethil will.” His fists clenched. “Jim just left you there.” He stood. “Just…” He growled. “Left you in Xue’s hands. With men willing to torture you and watch you die.”
“He said he didn’t have a choice.” Greg started to stand.
Yala grabbed him, pulled him into an embrace, and kissed him. Greg moved his hand to the back of Yala’s neck as he returned the kiss, savoring it. He doubted they were going to have much more time together, and from the tension in Yala’s grip he knew it too. Yala’s fingers went through his hair, and he made another soft growling sound. “I won’t abandon you.”
“You have to go back, Yala.” He touched his forehead to Yala’s.
“Not until I know you are safe.” Yala caressed his cheek. “And it will not be forever. You have a boat, you said.” He swallowed. “We can visit.”
“That would break the laws of your people.” They turned to see Mbaba standing there, holding a tray of food. Her voice was gentle, and her eyes sympathetic. She gave a small shake of her head. “I know what you feel for him, Yalathanil. I have felt it before. It is how your father came to exist.” She glanced at Greg, and gave him the smallest of nods before looking back at Yalathanil. “He is human. You are not.”
“It doesn’t…” Yalathanil started shaking his head.
“Greg…” Her eyes went to him again. “Ask him how old he is.”
“Why is that…” He trailed off as he stared at her, then he turned toward Yala. “I —”
“I don’t know.” Yala exhaled, his eyes half-closed. “I do not understand how you mark the passing of time.”
“Yalathanil was born over four hundred years ago.” Mbaba set the tray down. “It will be nearly two thousand more before he needs to fear the passage of time.” She took a deep breath. “Despite such longevity, his people are few. They withdrew from the surface because the alternative was their utter destruction, as befell the other shepherds.” She leaned on the table, then give a small shake of her head. Her eyes closed for a moment, then reopened. “Treasure the next few days.” She smiled, then reached up to brush a little of Greg’s hair back from his face. “And then say your farewells.”
He could hear the groan of the metal through the water as the cage was ripped nearly in half. Silt swirled up around them, making it impossible to see what was at the cage. Greg felt Yala’s arms around him tighten, then he felt the other man shift into his fully aquatic form. A kick of the powerful tail, and they were rocketing through the water away from the cage. He wrapped his arms around Yala and hung on for dear life.
They came up together some distance from shore, with Yala shifting into the amphibious form as he surfaced. “What…” Greg glanced at him, and saw Yala giving a huge smile. Xue’s ship was being dragged out in the other direction at a rapid speed. “Yala?”
“She came.” Yala laughed. “She came.”
“Are you alright, Greg?” Yala touched his cheek.
“I’m freezing, but yeah.” Greg nodded.
“Yes.” Yala frowned. “Humans should be warmer than you are now.” He shifted his grip on Greg and then began pulling him back toward the shore.
“How about you?” Greg adjusted his position so he could kick with his own legs, as much to get his blood flowing again as to help Yala propel them. “Are you alright?”
“I am tired.” Yala nodded. “I need to sleep, but then…” He glanced at Greg. “I will be fine.”
“Right.” Greg exhaled. “Let’s find a safe place to hole up and contact the girls.”
“It’s dangerous.” Liam shook his head.
“You said I would serve you, Aihuroa.” Mikaere looked up at him. “I cannot serve you if you leave me here.”
“You are serving me. You are watching out for my family.” Liam folded his arms.
“I can understand the trade language now, and I’ve beaten Chidike three times now in duels.” Mikaere lifted his chin stubbornly. “I can help.”
“Mikaere, if you…” Liam leaned on the ship’s railing. “If you come with me to the Wildlands, you’d have to pretend to be my slave.”
“I am your —”
“No.” He raised his voice, then almost regretted it as he saw the wounded look in Mikaere’s eyes. Liam exhaled. “Mikaere, you are not my slave.”
“Aihuroa, my life is —”
“Mikaere, I…” He looked up, and saw Uduak giving him a sympathetic smile. He’d once been convinced he was her slave. Except Uduak had… “You’re not my slave, Mikaere. You are part of my family.” The younger man’s eyes went wide, then started to shine with unshed tears. “And you’re right. You came to the Ilael because of me.” He squared his shoulders. “Next time I go ashore…” He smiled. “You may come with me.”
Mikaere’s face broke into a wide smile. “Don’t worry, Aihuroa. I’m sure Captain Adaeze will let you go ashore again.” He scampered off, pausing to help one of the crew tie down a line.
Liam looked up as Uduak approached. “I have a feeling I just became a grandmother again.”
“He’s too old to be my son.” Liam laughed, then let it die away. “I admit, when I go to the Wildlands and see Jurgen with Rutger and Rien, I…” He shook his head. “Have absolutely no idea how Jurgen manages to put up with little brothers.”
“Little sisters are better.” Ama’s voice came from behind him, and a moment later she was climbing onto his back. He shifted so she could settle herself more comfortably. He felt the slight spark of her power as it brushed up against his, and saw the hint of a smile that revealed she felt it too. “The storm is going to be big.”
“If we alter our heading a few degrees we can ride it out along the edge.” Liam nodded.
“Be more fun to go through.” She smiled at the clouds. “They are singing.” She snuggled into him as he shifted so she was sitting on his hip. “Listen.”
He closed his eyes, tracing his mind along the edge of her fledgling gift. Her head rested on his shoulder, and he knew her eyes were closed as well as she leaned into his focus. “They are.” He nodded. He started to open his mouth, then closed it before tracing the edge again.
In his arms, Ama tensed slightly. With their powers linked, he knew she’d seen the same thing he had. “I could try.” She lifted her head. “I could try.”
“I know.” He drew her further down the line, and heard her let out a small whimper. Then he let the vision fall away. “We can come around the other side. It won’t save the ship, but it will save the crew.”
“I’ll get stronger.” He opened his eyes to meet her darker ones, and saw the determination inside. “I will.”
“I know.” He touched his forehead to hers. “And I will help you.”
Lidia stepped back, took a look, fussed with the drape again, then stepped back and took another look. Then she exhaled and made herself stop messing with it. Like it or not, it was finished. She took a deep breath, and stepped further back to get a look at the whole. “My dear girl…” The voice behind her made her turn. Mr. Ishi was looking around with a smile on his face. “You’ve done marvelous work.”
She smiled. “Really?” She shifted from foot to foot. “You don’t think it’s a little cheesy?”
“Darling, this is Las Vegas.” Mr. Ishi laughed.
“Good point.” She turned to look at the chair. It was fashioned to look like a tree stump, with part of the tree remaining and spreading out into branches over the walls and along the book shelves, with fake leaves interspersed with actual plants. “I’m just worried it’s creeping into Limburger territory.”
“I don’t think it goes beyond a nice cheddar.” He turned to the gentleman standing next to him. “What do you think?”
“Could use more nymphs.” The other man’s voice was surprisingly rich and deep, with an accent that sounded Welsh. “Are these original Beatrix Potters’?” He gestured at the artwork.
The grove was the transition point from the small children’s art museum into a play area, and once she’d learned Mr. Ishi was willing to let her have her way on the design, she’d gone with a full on fairy-tale theme. “Four of them.” She indicated the work. “There are more in the museum itself, but I thought the rabbits suited better here.”
“I saw the museum. Excellent taste for most of it.” He made a grumbling sound. “Could have done without that garish St. George one by the window.”
“Oh, get over it already.” Mr. Ishi rolled his eyes at his companion. “Mrs. Wu, this is Mr. Emrys, an old friend of mine. With your permission, I would like to introduce him and a few other friends to Coraline. There is a small matter she may be able to assist with.”
When Mr. Ishi gave her a slight reassuring nod, she smiled. “She should be here in the next half hour or so. She’s been helping.” Coraline’s control of her powers had improved over the past year, and the braided climbing roses around the museum’s entrance had been her work. Twenty years of growth in a few minutes. Lidia gave a small frown. “I’m sorry, Mr. Emrys. I think I’ve heard your name before but at the moment I can’t recall where.”
“Quite alright. Many get the name wrong anyway.” He extended his hand, but when she offered her own instead of shaking it he kissed the back. “Myrddin Emrys. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. I…” She stopped. Then she stared at him as realization dawned, and she glanced at Mr. Ishi. He nodded, a bit of mischief in his eyes. She looked back at the man in front of her. He was tall, with brilliant blue eyes and black hair threaded with silver. Like Mr. Ishi, he wore an elegant tailored suit that was just a little old-fashioned. “Old friend…”
“You’re Merlin.” She stared, her mouth falling open. “You’re Merlin.”
He turned, and gave Mr. Ishi a look that was more than a little bit smug. Mr. Ishi rolled his eyes. “We are in the West. Come to Japan, and see which of us is recognized.”
“I told you, you should have kept the name Jin. It suited you far better.” Mr. Emrys turned back to Lidia. “Thank you for allowing us to speak with your daughter.”
Mr. Ishi had definitely made an impression on her mother. For the first time since James had been murdered, Coraline was allowed to be off by herself. For a short time, with a cell phone, and in a strictly limited range. While her mother discussed taking a job in the casino’s small art museum, she was allowed to be in its arcade. That the arcade itself was dragon-themed amused her just a little.
With freedom so new, it took her a bit of time to work up her nerve. She took a few deep breaths before slipping out of the gaming area and toward the operations area of the hotel casino. She got past the first level by stating she was there to see her mother, but the second level simply told her to take a seat and asked her for her mother’s name. “Actually, I need to speak with Mr. Ishi.”
The receptionist gave her a look of amusement and skepticism. “Right.”
“Look, just let him know Coraline Wu would like to speak to him and it might be important.”
After a moment, the receptionist rolled his eyes and got on the phone to pass the word back. She sat there for a few minutes with him occasionally looking up from his work to smirk in her direction. A tall, elegant looking black woman came out of the door behind the receptionist’s desk. “Miss Wu?”
Something about the woman unnerved her just a little. She had to take a deep breath before replying. “Yes.”
“Mr. Ishi will see you now.”
It was all she could do not to poke her tongue out at the receptionist as she followed the woman back. The look on his face was comical. When the door closed behind her, however, she felt trepidation. Rather than give in to the desire to turn and walk back the way she’d come, she looked at the hallway. The walls were painted with Japanese style artwork, featuring elegantly rendered natural disasters of various sorts. She’d expected to see more works depicting dragons.
His office was large and elegant, but oddly asymmetrical. “Miss Wu.” Mr. Ishi gave her a concerned look. “Is everything alright?”
“I…” She had to take a couple deep breaths. When she glanced at the woman nervously, Mr. Ishi gestured and the woman inclined her head before turning to leave. “I don’t know.”
“Please, sit.” He indicated the chair across from him. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No, I…” She went to the chair. “I think there is something you need to know. I’m not sure if…”
“Miss Wu, I assure you whatever it is you tell me will go no further than this room without your permission.” The smile he gave her was warm, and rather grandfatherly.
“That’s not…” She reached into her purse and grabbed the item she’d brought with her, setting it on his desk. He raised an eyebrow at the small pot and seedling. “I’m just not sure if it’s going to work. It doesn’t, not all the time, but…” She put her hand around the pot, and concentrated. Most of the time, it seemed to only work by accident, and with him watching she was sure it wouldn’t… The seedling suddenly started growing, spurting up in height and spreading as though weeks were passing in seconds. She took her hand away, then looked up at him as he stared down at the lavender plant on his desk.
“You’ve a gift, Miss Wu.” He slowly nodded. Then he rose and walked over to a small cupboard. She blinked as he set a slice of cheesecake in front of her. When she gave him a surprised look, he smiled again, gently. “Magic uses your own energy. I’ve never known any witch who would turn down food.”
“That Cabal wanted me because they thought I could do magic.” She took a bite of the cheesecake, chewing and swallowing before continuing to speak. “What happens if they find out I really can?”
“The woman who escorted you to my office…” He sat back in his chair. “Her name is Ahit. And she is no more human than I am. There are others here. Some like you. I even have a few werewolves and a vampire on staff. They are all under my protection. That does come with a few restrictions. I expect you to be discrete with your usage of magic. It is in the vested interest of all that our world remain less than visible to the world at large. I also will expect you to refrain from using your powers to harm innocents. As long as you meet those expectations…” His eyes caught hold of hers. “You will be safe.”
“I used to have this t-shirt. Adam got it for me. It showed a knight with smoke coming out of his armor, and said ‘do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you —’”
“Are crunchy, and go well with ketchup.” He smiled. “There are several variations on that theme for sale in my gift shops.”
A small laugh escaped her. “I just, uh…” She finished the cheesecake, then set the fork down. “I thought it was something you needed to know.”
“You indicated your control remains a work in progress?”
Coraline modded. “Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes parts of the plant grow at different rates, like the roots sort of explode but the leaves don’t come in, and uh…” She winced. “I’ve had some mishaps with fruit.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “I can arrange a teacher, if you would like.”
“You may call me Ryuu.”
“Then you can call me Coraline.” She nodded. “I, uh…” She took a deep breath. “Can I help?”
“I mean, if I could shoot fireballs or something I could go help Stasya kick all the asses. But it seems like…” She shook her head. “I mean, Spiderman said it best. With great power comes great responsibility. I’m just not sure how great this power is.”
For a moment, he was silent. Then he opened the laptop on his desk, and typed for a moment. He turned the screen toward her. “This plant here is known as dwarf wheat. It is the creation of a man called Norman Borlaug. And it is a creation on par with the invention of penicillin. Without it, billions would have starved. Entire cultures would have died out. This single, humble plant, my dear girl, saved the world.”
“I…” She stared at the image on the screen, then looked up at him. “I want to help.”
The man leaning quietly on the side of the building stood only a little over five feet tall. He looked Japanese, old enough to have some steel in his black hair, and was impeccably dressed. How the hell had he managed to sneak up on her? Stasya aimed her handgun at his face. “Who are you?”
“At the moment, a friendly party.” He shrugged. “Shoot me, and that will change rapidly.”
“How did you find us? I covered tracks.” She shook her head.
“Oh, you did. A very good job, in fact. I was actually impressed.” He straightened. “But I marked you at that little church fair a while back.” He turned to look at Sean. “Mr. Wu, the circumstances regarding the western division are extremely complicated. I believe it would be best if your family remained apart from those affairs.”
“My son is —” Sean glared.
“An extraordinary individual. The apple has fallen rather far from the tree.” The newcomer smiled, ignoring the fact she was still pointing her gun at him. “Steps have already been taken regarding Adam’s wellbeing. It is in his best interest if you remain far from harm’s way.”
“As it happens, Mr. Wu, I am almost always in need of talented accountants. I would like to offer you a job.”
“Who the hell even are you?” Sean shook his head.
“Someone who can ensure the safety of your family, Mr. Wu. Madam Petrov is extremely talented at what she does, and I have no doubt she will do all she can to keep them safe. She may even be successful. I would certainly give her better odds than most.” He smiled. “I, however, can make it a guarantee.”
“If you don’t tell me who you are right now I’m going to ask her to shoot you.” Sean glared.
“My name is Ryuu Ishi.” He met Stasya’s eyes as he said his name.
The gun nearly fell out of her hand. She stared. “Bozhe moi.”
“Oh, not quite that.” He shook his head. He held her eyes with his. “I am offering them gainful employment in my service, you as well, with all the…” He smiled again. “Benefits and protections that come attached.”
“You should take offer, Mr. Wu.” She lowered the gun.
Coraline looked up at the mysterious man. He gave her a warm smile. Her parents were still discussing taking him up on his offer, but the simple fact he clearly intimidated Stasya made her a little concerned. “Who are you?” She raised an eyebrow.
“In truth, my dear girl, the concern is not so much who I am…” He shrugged. “But what I am.”
“Alright.” She nodded. “What are you?”
He held out his hand, and light suddenly seemed to coalesce above it. A heartbeat later, the toy horse she’d forgotten in their flight from home materialized, dropping into his hand. He offered it to her. “Powerful.”
She took the horse from him gingerly. Then she looked down at it. “James found this at a rummage sale and I wanted it, but I didn’t have enough money. He bought it for me with his money, then had Adam repaint it before giving it to me for my birthday.” She ran her fingers over the little carousel horse.
“Your brothers love you very much.”
“James is dead.”
“That doesn’t change that he loves you.” Mr. Ishi smiled.
“Mr. Ishi…” Coraline looked over to see her father. He took a deep breath. “I need to know what your offer entails.”
“Naturally.” Mr. Ishi nodded. “I will relocate your family to Las Vegas, and take care of all associated expenses. There are three bookkeeping positions open, all of which pay fair wages. I will not ask anything unethical or unseemly of you. Even if you choose to leave my employ, as long as you remain in Las Vegas you will have some measure of protection. There are also job openings for your wife.” He glanced at her mother. “Should the public schools not interest you, I can also make arrangements at one of the private academies for Coraline.”
“I beg pardon, Mr. Ishi…” Lidia swallowed. “But your offer sounds too good to be true.” She shook her head. “If you can do all this, can’t you help Adam?”
“Yes.” Stasya nodded. “Could you —”
“I have…” Mr. Ishi’s voice was soft. “Made arrangements in that regard. It is best, however, for Adam’s own personal safety that I not take a direct interest. However, given his gifts and the true nature of his parentage being kept secret, it would not surprise any that I sought to acquire his sister. The Cabal itself had similar inclinations.”
“And just what…” Sean’s eyes narrowed. “Exactly is your interest?”
Something flickered across Mr. Ishi’s eyes. “Has Stasya told you what I am?”
“She said you’re a powerful man.” Sean glanced at Stasya. “Frankly, though, I’m not sure how much I believe what I’ve been told lately.”
“Perhaps it would be better…” Mr. Ishi stepped off the patio. “If I showed you.” His form suddenly seemed to glimmer. There was a flash of gold and silver as his shape changed, growing long and serpentine as his flesh changed from skin to scales. Her mother’s legs went out from under her and she sat heavily on the ground, and her father staggered before catching himself on a railing. Even Stasya was not immune. Coraline watched raptly as the man vanished, and a dragon took his place. The massive head lowered, eyes glowing with silvery light. “Tell me, Mr. Wu…” The voice rumbled with ancient thunder. “Do you believe now?”
He couldn’t make his mouth work. Or his legs. Or his hands. Stars appeared before his eyes and he realized he’d actually forgotten to breath. He drew a ragged breath, then another. The dragon shifted, once again becoming the dapper little oriental man. Mr. Ishi raised an amused eyebrow in his direction. “I…” Sean swallowed. “You’re a dragon.”
“I am.” He smiled.
“You’re a dragon.” Coraline was staring. “You’re an actual…” She blinked. “You didn’t have wings. Can you fly? Can you breathe fire? Can you —” She cut herself off.
“Yes. And yes.” Mr. Ishi smiled, then winked at her. “And yes.” He looked back up at Sean. “I can also protect your family, Mr. Wu.”
“I guess…” Sean looked at his wife. She was still pale, but she nodded. He looked back at the dragon. “You’ve got yourself an accountant.”
“Marvelous.” Mr. Ishi turned toward Stasya. “I could also use talented individuals in my security team, Madam Petrov. My offer extends to you as well.”
“I…” She took a deep breath. “I accept.”
“Excellent.” He smiled. “You’ll find a jet waiting for you down there…” He pointed at the town in the distance. “At the local airport. The pilot’s name is Reginald. Do wipe your feet before you get inside. He is ever so fussy about keeping it immaculate.” Mr. Ishi bowed.
And then, just like that, he was gone. Sean stared at the spot he’d been only a moment before. “A dragon…” He swallowed. “Just hired me to do bookkeeping.”
“A dragon…” Lidia slowly got to her feet. “Has taken an interest in our son.”
“Perhaps it is best…” Stasya nodded. “We learn the nature of said interest.”
“Agreed.” Sean glanced at the house. “Alright, everyone get your stuff. We’ve uh…” He rubbed his neck. “Got a plane to catch.”
Lidia stared. The house was lovely. Mr. Ishi had kept his word thus far. Their belongings had arrived two days ago, carefully and meticulously packed. They’d accepted the mover’s aid in getting the heavier furniture where they wanted it, but she’d declined their help with the rest. She’d been uncomfortable at first with the nature of both the offer and their benefactor himself.
The items that held her gaze had changed that. Every year, on their birthdays, she’d had her children stand against a different door frame and marked their heights. When her own mother had died, James had ridden on his bike nearly twenty miles to the house she’d grown up in and had stolen one of her mother’s old rosebushes for her. The mouldings with their carved marks and the carefully potted rosebush sat in the corner. Monsters wouldn’t have understood. “Thank you.”
“I hope that means the accommodations are to your satisfaction?” Mr. Ishi raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve…” She nodded. “I know you must have had your own reasons, but I do appreciate all you’ve done.”
He nodded to the backyard, where Coraline was making friends with the two dalmatians owned by their new neighbors. “It does an old soul good to see children smiling. I fear I do not have the opportunity as often as I would like.”
“Next week I’ll take her to look at schools. Let her settle in a bit first.” She sighed. “Let us all settle in a bit first.”
“Ah, that reminds me.” He produced a couple folders from, as near as she could tell, thin air, and set them on the table. “I believe I mentioned private schools?”
“You…” She blinked. She’d discounted those at first, but then again, with the money Adam had sent, they could afford to send Coraline to the best school available.
“There are two I would recommend. Coraline, however, may prefer this one.” He moved one of the folders closer to her. “They have a focus on art and music, as well as a thriving drama program. And…” He opened the folder. “Their science department actually maintains a small zoo.”
“Well now…” She laughed a little, then it faded. “Adam would want her in a place like this.”
“He is a strong young man. Stronger than I gave him credit for, and clever.” He nodded to her.
“You’re…” She hesitated. “You came to us because you are looking out for him.” She met his eyes. “Why?”
“I fear the answer to that question, Mrs. Wu, would greatly increase the danger to all of —”
“He’s my son, Mr. Ishi.” She folded her arms. “Do you have children?”
“I…” Something flickered across his features. “Yes.”
Her stomach dropped as realization came to her. “Adam’s father. Haru. He…”
“It would be best, Mrs. Wu, if you discontinued this line of reasoning.” His voice was gentle rather than threatening. “For Adam’s sake.”
The memory of the man’s true form filled her eyes for a moment, then she nodded. “Do they have horses?” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Coraline has always wanted to learn how to ride.”
Her condo was a simple one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. She could see the Wu family residence from the balcony. The complex had a pool and a gymnasium, and Coraline had already stated her intention of coming over to visit for the express purpose of using the former. The Wu’s were in their backyard now, apparently trying to decide how they wanted to set up their patio furniture.
Even after unpacking, the place was still virtually empty. She put Patrick’s things in the hall closet. It was silly, but she couldn’t bear disposing of them. She’d left his rifle for Adam, but Patrick’s extra handguns were in the drawer beside her bed. Lidia had brought her a painting the day after their belongings had arrived. It was a simple landscape, but she recognized the signature of the artist. Adam’s work. Lidia had followed it up by insisting she come to their Sunday family dinners as often as possible. “You need troubleshooter.”
“There are occasionally troubles I would like to have shot.” Mr. Ishi nodded. “However, if you would prefer to remain local, arrangements can be made.”
“Just until they settle in, are comfortable. I made promise to Adam.” Stasya turned to face him. “After that…”
“After that…” He took a deep breath. “Not all who fall afoul of groups like the cabal are lucky enough to find shelter with werewolves. I could use someone to help me with…” He smiled. “Retrieval.” Before she could speak, he held up his hand. “Given that it is in Adam’s best interest that the Cabal not learn he spared your life, you would not be dealing with them. There are other groups though, some just as dangerous.”
“I’m in.” She nodded.
“Just like that?” He raised an eyebrow.
“You know my background, Mr. Ishi. You know why I joined Cabal. I was fool. Thought them different. Thought them…” She shook her head. “They became monsters in their search for power.” She smiled, a bit of bitterness in the expression. “You were always a powerful monster.”
He laughed softly. “That is, I suppose, one way to put it.”
“I am not good. Neither are you. I want to do good. So, I think, do you.” She shrugged. “I think that is reason enough to work for you. And there is work to do.”
“I have always admired Russian pragmatism.” He inclined his head. “Let me know when you are ready, Madam Petrov. There is, indeed, work to be done.”
“I punched the harbinger of the apocalypse in the face.” Christophe sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the wall.
“Ragnarok.” Lykos shrugged.
“I punched the harbinger of the Ragnarok in the face.” Christophe kept staring at the wall.
“Not the Ragnarok. Just Ragnarok.”
“I punched Jörmungandr in the face.”
“Was good punch too.” Lykos grinned at him.
“I punched a dragon, in the face.”
“You know, if was going to punch a dragon, he was right choice.” Lykos patted his shoulder. When Christophe slowly turned to look at him, Lykos shrugged. “He think it funny, respect your guts. Other dragons? They just set you on fire. Or bit off head.”
“Your grandfather is the World Serpent.” He exhaled.
Lykos shifted to sit next to him, and put an arm around his shoulder before pulling Christophe in. “You should sleep. Was big day. Nearly got brain fried, nearly nuked, punched dragon, rode off on back of dragon…”
“He flew from Colorado to Holland in less than six minutes. I can’t even…” Christophe shook his head. “We should not have been able to survive the G-forces involved with going that fast.”
“You ride dragon, and you worry about g-strings?” Lykos tilted his head.
“G—” He turned to stare at Lykos. “There you go. Thinking you’re funny.” He smiled a little.
“I…” Lykos put a hand on his chest. “Am hilarious.”
“Yeah…” Christophe shook his head. “Like the plague.”
“Bah.” Lykos lay back on the bed, pulling Christophe down with him. Christophe shifted so he was laying in Lykos’s arms, his head resting on Lykos’s chest. Lykos stroked his hair gently. “Are you okay, my Christophe?”
“Yeah.” Christophe nodded. “Strange as…” He swallowed. “I am.”
Lykos tossed the last soldier into the room, then slammed the door. It took only a heartbeat of concentration to seal the metal door into the metal frame. “I want you to know, I did not kill anyone getting in here.” He tilted his head. “Except that doctor. May have broken her skull. A bit.”
“I, uh…” Christophe nodded to him as he pulled the pants up over his hips. They were too big for him, so he had to cinch the belt tight. “Yeah, I’m okay with that.” He smiled, then checked the gun before putting it back into its holster. “You weren’t hurt, were you?”
“I got buried by avalanche.” Lykos stared at him.
“Yeah, but were you hurt?” Christophe raised an eyebrow at him.
“A. Va.” Lykos narrowed his eyes. “Lanche.” He shrugged. “Then forest fire. Also, got shot.”
“Yes…” Christophe drawled the word. “But were you hurt?”
“Well…” Lykos shook his head. “No. Not really. Annoyed. They stole my guns.”
“You stole them first.” Christophe gestured to a corridor, and Lykos started down it. Christophe followed.
“I’m glad you’re alright, Lykos.” Christophe’s quiet voice made him turn, and he saw Christophe giving him a shy smile. “I, uh…” He rubbed his neck. “I was scared for you.”
“Scared for me?” Lykos ran his knuckles down Christophe’s cheek. “You were one nearly got brain fried.” He tapped Christophe’s nose. “Come. Which way go now?”
“I was kind of out of it when they brought me in here, but uh…” Christophe pointed. “These are all laid out similar —” He cut off at the sound of footsteps heading their way. “And since that is the way the reinforcements are coming from…”
“I may have to kill —” Lykos started to put a hand on Christophe’s shoulder. The alarm blared into life as all the lights in the area started blinking red. “Christophe?”
“Yeah, that uh…” Christophe shook his head. “That’s not good.”
“One would think at some point in the past few centuries you would have learned patience.” Lykos growled at Jormun, who just rolled his eyes. Jormun continued, ignoring the growling sound. “Christophe has been moved back to the military base. He is still sedated.”
He didn’t miss Jormun’s small frown. “Why still sedated? Is no need sedate Christophe.”
“Captain Guerin’s orders. Christophe is to remain sedated until he can be transported to a secure medical facility.” Jormun set his cell phone down. “It is possible —”
“He called out warning to me.” Lykos started pacing. When Jormun raised an eyebrow, Lykos sighed. “Twice. Yelled warning before first shot, yelled when rocks fell.”
“He is mine.” Lykos shook his head and gave Jormun a furious look. “He said he would stay with me.”
“And Lima Syndrome.” Jormun exhaled. “You developed feelings for your hostage.”
“Is not like that.” Lykos glared.
“Or perhaps you’ve just become sentimental in your old age.” Jormun stood. “Lykos, you need to put this behind you. If you care about the boy, let him be. Let him go home to his family and —”
“He knows.” Lykos clenched his fists. Then he met Jormun’s eyes. “He knows his father killed innocent people. Shot the deputies. Murdered them.” Lykos waved a hand. “Send them after me then kill them for going after me. Cannon fodder.”
“There are reasons for our rules, Lykos. And one of those reasons is men like Guerin.” Jormun sighed. “Come. It is time to —”
“No.” Lykos shook his head. Then he started for the door.
“Lykos.” Jormun called after him. “Lykos, where do you think you are going?”
“To get my Christophe.” He grabbed the door handle and started to open it. The door slammed shut again. He turned toward Jormun. “He is mine.”
“If you persist in this, Lykos…” Jormun’s eyes narrowed. “I may have to take measures.”
“Defending is allowed.” Lykos glared.
Jormun sighed, then nodded. “Exercise discretion.” The door clicked open behind him. “And good luck.”
“You’re just messing with me, aren’t you?” Christophe narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“You doubt me?” Lykos gave him a wide-eyed look of shock, but the corners of his mouth twitched just a little.
“There is no such thing as a were-beagle.” Christophe folded his arms.
“Just the one.” When Christophe raised an eyebrow, Lykos shrugged. “Never gamble with pixie. Always with the thinking they are funny.” He looked around the camp. “Few days, jerky will be dry.”
“Yeah.” Christophe nodded. “Any chance we could get some pepper or —”
“We leave in five days.” Lykos turned back toward Christophe.
Christophe blinked. “What?” He stared at Lykos for a moment, then his eyes widened. “You mean…”
“Go Canada. Find little town. Cabin. Get you television.” He put a hand on Christophe’s shoulder. “Maybe violin.”
“I, uh…” He gave Lykos a hesitant smile. “I would like to learn to play again.” It took him several minutes to realize that travel would give him the opportunity for escape. He could…
“Christophe?” It took him a moment to realize Lykos was speaking to him again. “Your eyes went away.”
“I was…” Christophe exhaled, then touched the collar. “A few nights ago, you forgot to lock my chain.”
“Did not forget.” Lykos met his eyes calmly.
“You…” He stared. “You were testing me. You…” He took a deep breath, then stepped forward and shoved Lykos hard enough the man actually took a step back. “You think taunting me with freedom is fucking funny? In case you forgot, you fucking kidnapped me. You…” He felt the anger start to fade, and that pissed him off again. “Son of a bitch.”
“Hey.” Lykos poked him in the chest. “I not insult your mother.”
“You can write. Drop letter in mail on way. What you tell her is your choice.” Lykos squeezed his shoulder. “I will not read letter. If…” Lykos hesitated a moment. “If when time to go, you want to go a different way…” He met Christophe’s eyes again. “I will take off chains.”
“You…” He swallowed. “You’d let me go?”
“Yes, Christophe. If you want to go…” Lykos sighed. “I will let you go.”
“I…” It was Christophe’s turn to hesitate. “But then you’ll go after my father again. You won’t…” He looked away. “You’ll kill people.”
“Is possible. Is also possible they will leave me alone and I will not have need kill people.”
“Let me think about it.” Christophe couldn’t believe he’d just said that. Lykos was offering to… He gave a small shake of his head. “Let me think about it.”
“Take all time need.” Lykos patted his shoulder before heading into the cave.