“You sure about this?” I tossed my pillow onto my bed with a thunk. It had fallen on the floor sometime in the night. My room was dark and crowded with Sanctus’s palette taking up most of the floor. I was in a rush to get dressed before we met with the rest of the group downstairs. He pulled himself free of the blanket he had cocooned himself in on my bed. It had taken some convincing, if he felt it necessary to slip into my bed in the middle of the night, to get him to stop crowding me into the wall and take that spot instead. I had to be able to get up and fast in case of an emergency.
“Mercurius has my brother and sister. He killed Mercator. He threatened Abby and Sam. If I was ever sure of something, it’s this.” He escaped the tangle of sheets and rooted around for his clothing for the day. He mimicked me in his choice of thick, protective fabrics. He shrugged into his weighted vest and shoved a hairstick into an inner pocket of the black material.
I pulled my trench coat on, followed by my boots. “I hope you’ll see your brother and sister again. They must be the two who have been at the Meeting of the Heads. I’ve never seen their faces, but they’ve been with Mercurius since I started co-leading.”
Sanctus paused to study me, a furrow running across his brow. “I’ve been to the Meeting of the Heads every year.”
“Seriously? I’ve never seen you…oh.” The puzzle pieces snapped into place. Sage and rosemary. I had always thought the smell had come from the pair with Mercurius. “You’re the person under the red sheet.” Sanctus regarded my reaction warily. “Did you know your siblings were in the room with you?” I stamped my foot into the heel of my boot until it shifted up my ankle.
“No. I never saw anyone through that shroud.” He followed my example and pulled his shoes on.
“Gemma has some bizarre, cruel quirks.” I grimaced, tying my laces.
“She’d muzzle me under it, so I never would have been able to talk to Paul and Aurelia even if I had known they were there. She got off on knowing she had someone helpless there and that Thalassium and Caeruleum didn’t know better. She’d boast about it on the way back.” He dropped that one on me as he walked to the door.
My stomach flattened to the floor. “I revise that. She’s a heartless bitch.”
His lips thinned at my assessment, but the fire in his eyes told me that was a better approximation. “There will come a time when she will be presented to the gods of man and beast, and even the evil ones will turn their backs on her. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself when the nightmares wake me up. Shall we?” He opened the door and pointed to the stairwell.
“As long as you’re still good,” I followed him out the door and locked it.
“She hunted me in my dreams last night. I’m itching for a fight today. Mind helping me find one?” he asked as we descended the stairs.
“Don’t go getting yourself turned into barbecue,” I hedged, still trying to pick my stomach out of my shoes.
“That’s what your coat is for, isn’t it?” He smiled back at me sweetly. I almost missed the next tread, sliding that terrifying two inches before my impending demise stopped with my heel making contact with the grated riser. He could not be smiling at me like that. Now my stomach was working its way back to its regular living quarters and my heart was up behind my Adam’s apple.
“Yep,” I answered, words failing me.
“Boss. Sanctus,” Tempestatis greeted us at the guzzler as the first rays of sunrise burned through the massive garage doors. Maria Mater and Cortex were outfitting the beast with spare provisions. I collected our main resolution bag from Clavis – the one that contained everything to get my people back to normal after a firefight.
Clavis watched the gathering from his station, a sour line to his mouth. “You come home in one piece. No need to be dealing in another hole today.”
“We’ll return home, Clavis. Thanks for worrying,” Tempestatis dropped the hood to the guzzler with a clang.
“You keep your brother safe, you hear!” Clavis turned back to his workbench and pulled out a small engine part to tinker on.
“Yes, father.” Tempestatis pulled out the air pressure tank to fill the tires.
Sanctus slipped into the backseat next to Mater. “Thank you, Sanctus.” I heard her say to him while I checked our final preparations.
“I only met him once, but he was family. No one threatens the children,” he shared with her.
“He liked you immediately. Said you had a gentle soul.”
I didn’t hear a reply back. Chucking our provisions pack in the trunk, I slammed the lid and checked that it didn’t stick. With the tires inflated and the engine purring better than I had heard in the last few months, I moved around to the back door. Everything was as good as it was going to get.
“Come on, boss. Let’s go dethrone us a king.” Tempestatis barred his teeth in a derisive smile.
“I’m going to strangle him with his own crown,” I pledged.
“Maria Mater already called dibs.” He slid into the driver seat. Cortex sat next to him in the passenger seat. I put myself into the backseat, squishing Sanctus between Mater and myself.
“You’ve got dibs?” I raised an eyebrow at her. She very rarely used her full power. It had to have been three years ago that I had seen her use her power for more than lighting candles and tinder.
“My family ties are being harassed, and I am the founder of Caeruleum. I will not tolerate such abuses to my people any longer. Whether I am ready to take on more people or not. We can’t keep taking it from him.”
“Do I get a bite out of Mercurius?” I showed my fangs.
“You keep our Providentia alive. I want them to know that I will take care of my own.” She had her hair in a tight twist and was fiddling with the button on her high-necked shirt. She watched out the window as Tempestatis rolled us out of the warehouse.
“As you wish.” This was another policy I held myself to. If Maria Mater wanted to get involved, she got involved, and I did not get in her way.
We drove the hour through Aurantiaco territory to Mercurius’s ostentatious base. Austere, white rising towers of stucco and glass, the presumptuous bastard kept his throne room high above his people. Alarms were raised along the way that Caeruleum had received Aurantiaco’s invite. I watched people rush along in front of us to the building to disappear inside. Mercurius would know we were coming to him.
Tempestatis parked us in front of the gold-painted doors. An egg hit Mater’s window. Cortex and I slid out to take first point, the rest following behind our shield. The doors opened for us, and we were greeted by a sarcastic sneer. The man’s own bad luck that I was the one standing in front of him, not Cortex. I grabbed his skull, pulling him away from the door. A feather of power, the thunderclap in a rainstorm at my neck and a mound of ash piled up at my feet. I turned to find Sanctus’s finger coming away from me. “That’s beyond useful.” I nodded my gratitude to him. The impending colour change from the regular world to thermal radiation sat at the back of my eyes, waiting. “You good to keep going?” I asked, flicking my glance to the crew gathering through the halls. I wasn’t sure how long Sanctus could boost for. I had never thought to ask if it was a one-shot wonder or a constant live-line.
“I’m not fast, so I won’t keep up if you go running off. Can you throw your power?” He asked as a man rushed toward us.
Cortex met the interloper with a roundhouse to the head, dropping him to the ground. I walked up to the downed thug and fried him from the inside out. “Only if I let go of all of it. It’s not so much throwing as a big bang from the centre. Not something I like doing in buildings. It’d clear the floors, though.” I mused up at the Romanesque ceilings as we repeated the scene a second time.
“Is that really something to be considering? There’s got to be a hundred guys down this hall alone,” Mater asked.
“It’s marble and steel plate, boss. It won’t come down like you’re thinking.” Tempestatis spun a man away from Mater, snapping his neck.
I shrugged. “If you’re positive. Are there living souls after the hallway? I don’t think you all wanna be snacks when my Repercussion hits full force.”
“I’m willing to watch,” Sanctus muttered, hiding behind my frame when the flood of bruisers swamped us. I pulled him to put Cortex between us and the others and slipped my trench off.
“Really, boss?” Tempestatis asked, a malicious smile flitting across his face.
“Oh, it’s been a while.” Cortex glanced over his shoulders as he dodged a fist.
“Dead Man Walking,” I warned. “You wear this. You hit the deck. You don’t come back up until Cortex calls all clear. You got it? If you won’t, then we aren’t doing this.” I pulled my trench around Sanctus and the hood over his head while Cortex and Tempestatis kept the rising tide at bay. Sanctus nodded mutely, his eyes going wide at the warning.
“Oh, I love Dead Man Walking.” Cortex chirped.
Mater pulled Sanctus from me and pushed him to the ground. I tossed my shirt on the ground, catching the first punch in my arm from one of Mercurius’s men. That was going to leave a lasting impression.
“But, I’m supposed to boost him,” Sanctus protested.
“You’ve got two seconds,” Cortex yelled as he ducked to the ground. A hand snaked up under my pant leg. A bottled tsunami. I had planned to take myself a lot farther from Sanctus, but if we were playing with fire, I might as well see what kind of infernus I could create. Tempestatis pulled everyone under his arms protectively and gave me a thumbs-up. It was time for the fireworks. I stepped forward out of Sanctus’s reach and let that fire roil free. It tasted like freedom. Mountains in summer. The breeze in the shadow of a pine at noon. The burst swept through the hall, funneled toward the far end where it wrapped down the left and right wing. Cinder dropped from the ceiling in small orbs, and ash accumulated over dismembered torsos and legs. The structure wheezed at the pressure, struts grinding behind the marble facade. Those of Mercurius’s guards that had realized what I was about to do and plastered themselves to the floor looked around in horror.
The after-effect hit me like a two-by-four to the back of the head. I had expected the crippling fall into darkness where I would wait for the next walking starburst to glut myself on. Instead, my vision went to infrared and sat there. I still had control.
“Stay down. Don’t touch him,” Cortex cautioned behind me.
“But there’s more coming. Wait, is he going to eat them?” Sanctus’s voice was muffled.
“You said you didn’t mind watching.” Mater hedged.
“Down,” I ordered. I had enough stored in me to do it one more time when heads started coming up from Mercurius’s line. The bang of a door and an authoritative voice yelling at men to move was all I needed to make my day a little better. I ran toward the far end of the massive hallway to put myself centre of the t-intersection. I’d be floating after this. Letting that much power out all at once was euphoric and addictive. Fireballs hurtled my way. My explosion swallowed the measly flames, charring the white marble a grey-black, shadows of men burned into the surface.
Darkness swamped my vision, turning those who had ducked and covered into a swirling constellation. What I wouldn’t give to have a different Ustor mutation right now. Something like the thick callouses on Cortex’s hands, or the extra bands in Tempestatis’s legs that let him jump higher than the average person. To not feel that driving madness at the back of my skull. That hard knot in my chest begging to be eased.
The first throbbing constellation moved, barreling toward me. Every pulse of copper and ash pushed through thin strands of gold. I caught it, pulling it around to use the body as a shield and sank into it, melding with hot metal. I turned off and stepped away, letting my feral side run wild. Bodies dropped, and blood flowed in rivers. I don’t waste coagulant when I enter this abyss.
Gradually the world came back into focus. I was breathing heavily and the flavour of copper and ash coated my mouth. I brushed at my chin, coming away bloody. Fuck. Corpses and ash piles accumulated around me. I glanced around the blackened marble halls. Where was I? I paced one way and found myself at a dead end, turned back and found the leg of the T.
“You here, boss?” Cortex yelled from the doors where everyone was still down.
“I won’t eat you.” I pulled a handkerchief from my trouser pocket and wiped my face and arms of red speckles.
“You sure?” Tempestatis eased back slowly. For all my explanations of what happened to my vision and my sense of smell when I went rabid, he was still convinced if he kept his movements slow, I wouldn’t see him as food. The only one I would not see right now, if I was still stuck in the dark world of walking stars, would be Sanctus, due to the trench coat. Everyone had returned to their normal colours though.
“I’m good. I think the halls are clear for us to continue.” I walked back down to the group as they rose. Sanctus clung to the small ball of my shirt, his fingers shaking.
Tempestatis stepped between Sanctus and me, hard eyes searching. I regarded his posturing for a minute, taking it for what it was. He reached for my bar code. Petrol and iron filings. That roar for copper was dull at the back of my head. “Not still snacky, boss?”
“I’m good. Thanks, Temp,” I swallowed.
He moved out of the way and let me collect my shirt from Sanctus, who’s colour had flushed to an amusing pink. “You’ve got blood on your chest,” he pointed out in a small voice before I could tug my shirt on.
I looked down to find a fine mist across my collarbone and pecs. “Sorry,” I mumbled, trying to get myself clean.
“That’s why you didn’t want me seeing your Repercussion,” Mater said over a butchered body. Blood stained the hallway in swatches and pools. It had made it convenient for me to not worry about her or Sanctus’s reactions. Knowing she was annoyed with me for hiding it, and that he wouldn’t puke, was freeing.
“He didn’t want to accidentally eat you,” Cortex whispered in her ear. Her colour paled. She turned to me, horror plastered to her expression. I could have done without that.
“He wouldn’t.” She walked up to me. “You wouldn’t.”
I tugged my shirt on and pulled my hair free of the collar. Grimacing, I tried to meet her eyes. Sanctus handed me my trench coat, giving me a minute to not need to respond.
“Lunam?” she pressed. Most of the time I wanted for her to let me vent, or to ask hard questions. This was not one of those times.
“She probably should know, boss.” Cortex handed me our provisions pack.
“Know what?” she demanded.
“I haven’t done Dead Man Walking in, what is it, two years now?” I asked my shield.
“Two and a half, at least.”
“I haven’t done that because the last time I went off, the first person I sighted on was Tempestatis when my Repercussion hit. And it hits hard when I do that.” I pulled the strap over my shoulder and flipped my lapels over it.
She paused in the midst of a protest to look between Cortex and Tempestatis to see if I was joking. Reaching out, she jerked my sword to her and pulled back the grey scarf he perpetually had wrapped around his neck. A ragged scar zagged up three inches of his throat. “The fuck is this? Why was I never told?” She demanded.
“I thought you knew,” I hissed back.
“I never told her, boss. It was a mistake. We all learned our lesson. Didn’t need to rehash it.” Tempestatis shrugged out of her grasp and returned his scarf to its regular position.
“I thought that was why she was pissed off at me for the last couple years.” I rummaged through the pack to make sure everything was at hand.
“You got super reclusive about taking your men with you, and it was making me worried that you were going fighting people on your own! I was pissed because I didn’t want you getting hurt or pushing yourself too hard because of your Repercussion,” she explained.
“I got reclusive about having my men near me because I almost killed him last time I burned.” I tramped back down the hall, the group following behind me.
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry for pushing you,” Mater apologized.
“Nothing you should need to say sorry for. My own fault for not having better control over my Repercussion. It’s Temp that I should be apologizing to.”
“You say sorry to me one more time, I will roll the guzzler over you. It happened. We’re moving on. I just know not to get in between you and lunch next time.” Tempestatis slapped me on the back and pushed me toward the end of the hall. A tight spiral staircase at the end rose through a column of white and silvered glass. We clambered up it, wary that we were easy targets for those above us. The halls had gone silent, though, and no one else was willing to turn into a bonfire.
At the top of the stairs, we emerged onto a short marble landing pad that ended at a soaring gold door. Sanctus pulled his hair up into a knot in frustration, shoving a thin stick into it to hold it up. “Sanctus? You doing okay after that?” I asked when he stripped his vest off and tossed it to the corner of the door.
“Rubrum’s shown me worse. For now, I want the bastard who broke Medicus’s heart to burn till Hades doesn’t even recognize him,” he muttered to me as he pushed tiny buttons free of their holes, and his shirt joined his vest. His blue-knotted necklace was stark against porcelain skin. “No one threatens my Caeruleum.”
Mater raised an eyebrow at us. My heart was beating fast, and for once, it wasn’t me having a gutter moment with Sanctus. I was terrified of him walking into that room with that much skin waiting for a fireball.
“Ready?” Tempestatis whispered to us. I nodded at Maria Mater’s signal. He and Cortex pushed the doors open.
Walking into Mercurius’s chamber was an uncomfortable feeling. I hated his space. All shined marble and white plaster walls. Its brightness was raw and stark in a sterile sense. Save for random scorch marks on the marble.
“Maria Mater,” Mercurius hissed. Slaked lime and oil shale.
“Mercurius.” Her teeth flashed with malice.
“You really should learn to control your men.” He flicked a wrist at one of the hooded lackies, the shorter of the two, I had seen at the Meeting of the Heads. The other one was missing from the room. The hooded figure approached to take his hand as he stood up. A crackle of ozone sizzled through the air. He stepped down from his throne, every footstep leaving behind oily burning puddles.
“Do explain, Mercurius.” Mater put on that polite mask I had seen her wear too many times.
“My general, under my direction, acquired a pair of Accendium in a legal sense between their father and himself. I find out later the same day that they were to be brought to me, Percius and Maximus have gone missing along with the Accendium. Now, here I was, thinking I had some rogue generals. They had never shown one inkling of dissatisfaction, so what was I to make of it, Maria Mater?” He shrugged his shoulders, pouting at the information.
“What of it?” Maria Mater held her ground.
Mercurius glanced at Sanctus, who was standing almost directly behind her and to my left. “You look familiar, boy. Have we met?” he asked. The figure to Mercurius’s side subtly shifted their head. Sanctus swallowed, trying to still his trembling. He shook his head mutely.
Mercurius cocked his head to study Sanctus as he continued talking. “You see, your pet snake went and put a couple holes in Percius’s neck. At least, that’s what my coroner said after he got hold of the body last week. Had been bled almost completely dry. Found him in a back alley rotting away. Your demon’s calling card is quite distinct. Now.” He snapped his attention back to Maria Mater. “I want the Accendium back that I rightfully paid for, and compensation for the death of my men if you don’t want me bombing your line and taking over your territory. I’ve had enough of you two playing house and not taking your positions seriously. It is a slap in the face to the rest of us.” A small pool of fire conglomerated around Mercurius’s feet.
Mater refrained from moving her position. The pool inched its way closer to her. “Pet snake? Oh. You mean my co-leader? Mercurius. You know how this works. Why else would you have sent us back Mercator? And now we’re here. Let’s see if you can remember this term from the last time we had to talk face-to-face, shall we?” She stepped closer to him. “No,” she told him quietly, causing him to come nearer to hear her. The hooded figure flinched. Mercurius’s pool roared to life like flames on an oil slick. Sanctus reached for the back of Mater’s neck, channeling, as Cortex laid a hand on Sanctus’s back and dropped to a knee, pulling a massive teal wall of flames between Mercurius and Mater.
“Shit! Another Sanctus. Aurelia, you good for nothing bitch, why in infernus did you not tell me?” Mercurius screamed as he backed up a step from the wall.
Tempestatis sprang forward, pulling a hand up Sanctus’s shoulder to gather a momentary burst of extra energy, and stepped into my foothold. I launched him over Cortex’s wall and watched him bring down a fire-laced tornado on Mercurius. Guards rushed forward, launching fireballs and whips of flame to attack. A blonde man, his hood thrown back, dressed in robes similar to Aurelia, broke through the guard block and launched himself at Tempestatis. My right-hand man struggled with his grip before allowing him to hang on.
“Cortex!” Mater shouted as her hands came up, holding a pulsating plasma ball, significantly larger than I had ever seen her produce. I pulled up my hood. Aurelia stomped on Mercurius’s foot, getting him to release his grasp. She flattened herself to the floor. Cortex dropped his shield as I stepped behind Sanctus and pulled him in under my coat, forcing him to kneel to the ground under me. I wrapped my arms around his head as Maria Mater chucked her orb at Mercurius. Tempestatis’s tornado snuffed out for a split second, long enough for me to see the horror in Mercurius’s eyes, before it turned into a full-blown hurricane of destruction. The heat of the firestorm pushed back, flexing the walls of Mercurius’s compound. Guards flew back, hitting the walls.
Flames died out across the room. Tempestatis sagged to the floor, the other man standing over him, trying to support his weight. Cortex’s hands were shaking, as were Maria Mater’s. Sanctus twisted in my arms, popping his head out to see. “Aurelia?” he asked in the quiet aftermath.
The woman who had plastered herself to the floor looked up. Cognac eyes. “Jude?” she whispered.
“Jude?” asked the man keeping Tempestatis from completely passing out.
“Paul?” Sanctus’s voice caught in his throat. His cheek went hot against my arm. Power built under my skin as his emotions channelled a flood through me. He pulled out from my protection to skitter toward his siblings. Tempestatis dropped to the ground, waving to me that he was okay. Paul and Aurelia scrambled to engulf Sanctus.
I felt like an overcharged battery after holding onto Sanctus. I approached Maria Mater to get a better view of Mercurius. The man was amazingly not vaporized. “Nice shot,” I congratulated her. He was missing his left arm, shoulder, part of his leg, hip, and some of his torso. He was staring around wildly, gasping like a fish out of water. Already dead, his brain had not caught up with his body.
Mater walked up to Mercurius and relieved him of his crown and keys. He turned to grasp for the keys. His hand fell as the lights went out in his eyes. “Took him long enough,” I grumbled. “You going to make it?” I turned to Mater.
“Got that water bottle?” She held her hand out for the pack at my side. I handed it over for her to dig out her Repercussion solution. Maria Mater pulled a tiny dustpan and broom from the pack and slid it over to Cortex. “Would you? That spare energy is pretty useful, but I’m still drained.” She nodded toward Tempestatis, holding out the bag for me to take back. She worked through downing her half-gallon of water while I took the bag back from her and rummaged out Tempestatis’s box of metal blanks.
“You’re not Gemma?” Aurelia asked Maria Mater from where she stood with Paul, protectively guarding Jude behind them. I walked past them.
“They aren’t in Rubrum! Lunam saved me from Gemma,” Sanctus explained to his younger siblings.
“Why are they using you?” Paul demanded, seething.
“I asked to help,” he protested.
I handed Tempestatis his box. He dumped his stack of metal blanks on the floor, the clank echoing in the muted hall. “Mind, guys?” I flicked a glance back at Maria Mater and Cortex and pointed to the flock of collapsed guards. I needed to get this energy out.
Cortex waived me on. “Keep a couple of them over; I can’t handle your Repercussion right now,” he cautioned.
I traipsed over to the moaning mass of Mercurius’s guards as Sanctus’s brother gave him an earful. “Need help, boss?” Sanctus asked over his brother’s tirade.
I waved him off. “Say hi to the fam,” I instructed, stooping over a groaning man. Sanctus had helped me enough. I’d be able to burn through the hoard on my own.
“See what I told you,” Sanctus chirped behind me. Disposing of the guards was easy when they were already down. Superheat the bodies until ash piled up in clumps. The last one, though, had regained enough of his functions to realize he was on the chopping block and tried to make a run for it. I rushed him, tackled him to the ground, and engulfed him. Pulling the high band of his collar away from his throat, I fell to my Repercussion.
“Holy Hades! What the-!” Aurelia gasped. “The Vampire of the Hades Purge! What are you thinking, Jude?” she demanded while I drained the man dry. Sanctus turned from one sibling to the other, trying to fend them off.
I dropped the body, rose, and stalked over to the trio. Paul pushed Aurelia behind him. “Monster,” Paul spat.
I smiled evilly, letting my red-stained fangs show. “Aren’t we all?” I stepped up to him and breathed in, dragging their scent deep into my lungs. Sage was the sibling smell. All three had it. Aurelia’s secondary note was honey. Paul was cedar. “Infernus, why do you all smell of summer mountains?” I muttered under my breath as I sized up the three together and pulled my coat off. Paul was a couple inches taller than Sanctus, Aurelia shorter. Sanctus slid out from behind his brother and came around to my side.
“Jude!” Paul protested.
“Are you joining Caeruleum, or am I tossing your asses out?” I growled as I pulled my coat over Sanctus’s shoulders. His siblings looked up at me in horror.
“You really are Nigrae Lunam of Caeruleum?” Aurelia swallowed.
“And you’re the kids your brother was trying to take a bullet for from an Angelus soldier,” I returned flatly, brushing at the tattoo on my cheek. Colour drained from her face.
I smiled maliciously. “What kind of boogeyman did Mercurius feed to you?”
“Murderer!” Paul spat.
I grabbed him by his robes and pulled him up off his feet. “Trying to make me mad, Sanctus? This the reaction you want from me?” I asked him as I watched the colour drain out of his face. His pale grey eyes went wide. “It’s never going to happen with you, brother.” I set him down and turned back to the cognac eyes at my side.
“Fuck you!” Paul swung wide for my chin. I caught his fist before contact, spinning him around until I had his back pinned against my chest. His power swamped me like a thunderous downpour. “Calm yourself, little brother of the River. For the number of men I just burned, I’m still hungry,” I whispered in his ear, pushing him away from me.
“Damn it,” Paul hissed, turning back to face me, shifting low. He sprinted for my stomach as my Sanctus moved in to intercept. I pulled him out of the way and behind me and took Paul’s full tackle to the chest. Air left my lungs in a wheeze. I twisted, felling Paul to the floor so that I wouldn’t back into Sanctus. “Oye, get a hold of your kid brother,” I demanded of him, pinning Paul to the ground.
“Paul! Stop it!” Sanctus commanded, squatting down to help me contain his brother’s outburst.
“Need help, boss?” Tempestatis asked, looking down at the mess. His box of blanks glinted in his hands.
I deflected Paul’s pummeling fists and raised an eyebrow at my sword. “Clearly, I am reviled by holy people.”
“Something about drinking blood, boss.”
“I’m getting that.”
“What did you do to Jude! He’d never follow an Angelus soldier! What have you done to him?” Paul demanded.
“You see the slash-through on this damn bar code? I was tossed in here just like the rest of you. Angelus can burn to the ground for all I care.”
“You’re still black, boss,” Cortex cautioned, joining me on the other side to look down at Paul’s struggles. Paul flicked a terrified glance his way as Cortex unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves.
“Would think a whole human would make it go away. How are you doing after that bevy?” I hissed in frustration, still fighting with Paul wiggling underneath me.
“I’m not sweeping am I? How much you need?” He kept it slow and clear to Paul as he offered me his arm. I captured both of Paul’s skinny wrists in one hand and held him still to take Cortex’s offering. I didn’t take much, enough to take the last of the edge off the other guy had not sated. Paul stopped struggling as he watched in horrified fascination. I swiped my tongue across the gash and turned back to the younger brother.
“You have green eyes,” he swallowed, his cheeks turning pink.
I snorted. Sanctus giggled. I glanced up at him, unable to suppress the laugh we both found ourselves in. Paul glanced back and forth between us as I got off him and dragged him from the floor. I released him and brushed my trousers of ash.
“What?” he puffed up.
I waved off his offence. “Sanctus said the exact same thing after I had eaten the first time we met,” I explained.
“You ate from him?” Paul’s voice strangled in his throat.
“Absolutely not. I don’t eat off of my rescues. Policy,” I growled.
“Why do you call Jude ‘Sanctus’?” Aurelia asked.
“That’s the name he gave me, and I’ll respect it ‘til he tells me to use a different one, Sanctus of Lakes,” I answered her respectfully. She looked up at me, puzzled.
“Boss really is a nice person, guys,” Sanctus explained to them again.
“Nice? I’m always nice,” I goaded.
“Say that to the ash piles,” Aurelia muttered.
A pit dropped in my stomach. “One of them yours?”
She bit her lip and shook her head as tears washed out her eyes. I looked to Paul in confusion. Aurelia took my hand, drawing my attention. Her power flowed gently, like fog accumulating over a glass lake. She pulled me into a hug and buried her head in my shoulder. “Thank you.” She trembled in my arms. I blinked down at her before looking between her brothers for an explanation. Paul tapped her on her shoulder and pulled her under his arms. “You’re an uncle, Jude,” he told his brother quietly. We both stared at the pair, trying to process what was going on.
“Cortex,” I called.
“Boss?” he asked.
“Com link. Bring in a team to sweep. We have an Accendium in here that belongs to one of the Sancti.” I got Paul’s attention. “How old, boy or girl?” I demanded. He clamped his jaw shut, glaring daggers at me.
“His name’s Rain. He’s four. Brown curly hair. Brown eyes. He should be in the kitchens,” Aurelia told me as she dried her tears. I gave Cortex the description and sent him out for the com to order in a team.
“What are you going to do with him,” Paul growled.
“Get all of you out of here. That’s what we’re doing. We’ll figure out housing in a little while,” I told them.
“Daddy?” a chirp from the door had my heart in my throat. If my internal organs shifted any more today, I’d need to see Medicus about stitches. I swiveled to find Abby standing with a perplexed Cortex. He shook his head, not sure how she had gotten here. She looked exhausted.
“Astrum? What’s wrong, what are you doing here?” Sanctus asked as he and I both ran to her at the same time. Abby held her arms out to be picked up. Sanctus reached down and hefted her up to his side as I checked to make sure she was okay. A couple scrapes on the tops of her shoes and her knees, along with some marks on her palms told me she had fallen down a couple times in her haste.
“Sam said you were coming here to keep us safe. I wanted to help.” She smiled up at us proudly.
“Jude?” Paul asked as he and Aurelia approached us. “Did she call you daddy?”
“No. She called Lunam Daddy.” He brushed her hair back from her face, her blue glass beads clinking in the quiet. Paul cocked an eyebrow at me.
“Who are they?” Abby asked me.
“They are Sanctus’s younger brother and sister. Remember the tool and lace makers he told you about? Do you want to say hi?” I asked her. She nodded her head as she went to stick her thumb in her mouth. I gently diverted her to hold her hand. Sanctus rummaged through the pocket of my trench coat. “You burn?” he asked, concerned.
She nodded her head mutely. I pushed her hair from her shoulders to find small points of black singes speckling the neckline of her shirt. Sanctus produced a small wax-paper wrapped salt crystal and handed it to her. She peeled the paper open carefully and shoved the crystal in her mouth. “Thank you, Sanctus.”
“You’re welcome, Astrum. You need to learn to keep these in your pocket; that way you aren’t trying to get salt off your skin. Your hands aren’t clean. It’ll make you sick. Okay?” He took the wrapper back from her and deposited it in my coat pocket with the handful of other wrapped salt crystals I kept in there in case of an emergency.
“You have Accendium too?” Aurelia asked, her voice cracking. She was going to start crying again.
“Two, in fact. I just adopted them.” I motioned all of us to leave the room. Mater locked the grand room behind us.
“Not your biological children?” she asked.
“No. They are the Accendium Mercurius’s general…” I trailed off. Abby didn’t need to know. Not right now. Sam was still determined to protect her from that knowledge.
“You like Jude?” Paul asked Abby.
“Jude?” she asked, not having heard Sanctus’s real name before.
Paul tapped his brother on the shoulder. “This guy, right here.”
“Oh, Sanctus? He’s great! He goes with Sam and me to see Scriba and translate stories she reads to us.” She beamed. “He’s nice. You look like him. Are you really his brother?” She studied his face in earnest, causing him to go red.
“Aurelia and I are a few years younger than him,” he told her. We made our way down the spiral staircase and out to the main floor.
“Sam’s four years older than me!” she confided.
“Sam’s your brother?” he asked her.
“Yep! Sam doesn’t know I’m here though, so shh.” She held a finger to her lips.
“Not happening Abs. Sam’s finding out, and you’re grounded. No more sweets from Archimagirus for the next month. You should know better than to follow us out here. It could have been dangerous,” I explained. I was still trying to figure out how she had escaped through Caeruleum lines and made it so deep into Aurantiaco territory without some adult finding her. That was terrifying.
“But…but.” Her lip trembled as flaming tears escaped the corners of her eyes.
“You should know better Abby,” Mater reprimanded her as we left the halls to the outside of the compound. Cortex motioned over a pair of men arriving ahead of the crew. He pointed out Aurelia and gave them a description of Rain.
It was on our way home that I found out Abby had climbed into the trunk of the guzzler while we were standing around getting things packed. She had thrown a black tarp over herself and hid against the far back so as not to be seen. The scrapes were caused when she popped the lid and tumbled out onto the gravel. I made it policy after that to check the vehicles before they left the base for any children or animal stowaways. I did not want to risk someone’s kid getting caught in the middle of a firefight.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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