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Copyright © 2022 Stephanie Van Orman

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of written quotations in a book review.

Any reference to historical events, real people or places are used fictitiously. Names, characters, places are products of the author’s imagination.

Front cover image by Anna Ismagilova

Book design by Stephanie Van Orman

Author photograph by Alison Quist

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If Diamonds Could Talk

The Sequel to ‘His 16th Face’

By Stephanie Van Orman


Other Books by Stephanie Van Orman

His 16th Face

If I Tie You Down

Rose Red

Behind His Mask: The First Spell Book

Hidden Library: The Second Spell Book

The Blood that Flows

Kiss of Tragedy

Whenever You Want

A Little like Scarlett: A Partial Autobiography

The Boy Born with a Key


TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE  - Screaming Through Glass

CHAPTER TWO  - The Way Down to the Heart

CHAPTER THREE  - The Taste of Control

CHAPTER FOUR  - Eating My Heart Out

CHAPTER FIVE  - The Price of Control

CHAPTER SIX  - All that Matters

CHAPTER SEVEN  - The Forge Inside Me

CHAPTER EIGHT  - The Sword Through the Mirror

CHAPTER NINE  - The King of the Red Forest

CHAPTER TEN  - Healing the Castle

CHAPTER ELEVEN  - The Other Side of Immortal

CHAPTER TWELVE  - The Ocean Room

CHAPTER THIRTEEN  - Stars Draw Dreams

CHAPTER FOURTEEN  - Motorcycle Helmet

CHAPTER FIFTEEN  - Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Accessory… to Crime

CHAPTER SIXTEEN  - The Place He Hates

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN  - All the Things Hidden in Christian’s Closet

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN  - The North Iron Room

CHAPTER NINETEEN  - The Woman with the White Heart

CHAPTER TWENTY  - Christian’s New and Terrible Secret

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE  - Half Married

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO  - Red Hair, Red Heart, Red Forest

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE  - Hardly Holly

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR  - Killing Him Softly

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE  - Shaping Diamonds

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX  - Chance Encounter

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN  - Rings that Ring

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT  - Date with the Devil

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE  - Bleeding From More than One Place

CHAPTER THIRTY  - The Third Christian

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE  - Our Kindred Immortal

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO  - Bomb at Every Door

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE  - The Incinerator and The Doctor

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR  - Newborn Diamonds

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE  - The Bridges We Burn

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX  - The South Iron Room

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN  - The Earth’s Heartbeat

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT  - The Heart of the White Forest

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE  - The Golden Couple

CHAPTER FORTY  - After the Storm


CHAPTER ONE

Screaming Through Glass

I was in the changing room of a high-end clothing boutique. Christian was choosing clothes for me. This time, he was buying me a dress. The frock I was trying on was pink blush with thousands of sequins and feathered material in the skirt. The price tag read that it was forty-six thousand dollars, but I was choosing a dress to wear to an important event, so the price tag didn’t matter.

I parted the curtain of the changing room and stepped out into the open. It was the most luxurious clothing store I had ever been in. Sunlight came into the room from a skylight and reflected on the mirrors that surrounded me, giving me a perfect view of what I looked like in the dress.

Christian entered the room with a steady stride holding a white dress that could only be a wedding dress. For once, his face was not a disguise. His nose was so pointed, he looked like all his lies had caught up with him. His hair was blond and spiked like he still wanted to do his hair like Rogan. With his characteristic careless smile, he asked me to try the dress on.

I took it from him, smiling too because I couldn’t help it. “You want me to try this on?” I took the dress from him and examined its folds. “Are you asking me to marry you?”

His expression changed to the smirk that dared me to be different. “I’m asking you to try it on.” He took a step back from me and leaned against the doorframe.

I turned my back on him and was about to slip behind the curtain when his voice stopped me.

“You don’t need to hide.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said, you don’t need to hide.” He looked at me with eyes that were both patient and curious. He sought to test my limits.

“I don’t want the shop girls to see me,” I replied smoothly.

“I wouldn’t worry about them,” he said. “They’ve seen women without their clothes. They’re dressmakers. Besides, they’re too busy to bother popping in here. We’re alone. It’s fine. Take your clothes off.”

I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t like to balk. I wanted to marry him. I had told him so. Certainly, I had meant it. Swallowing a lump in my throat, I undid the concealed zipper in the side of the blush gown and allowed it to fall to the floor. Standing there in my bra and panties, I reached for the wedding gown.

Christian was smiling at me, but it wasn’t a smile I had seen lately. It was a smile reserved for when he placated an innocent child. I was the child in this scenario.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“This isn’t what I meant when I asked you to show yourself to me.”

I hesitated.

He cleared his throat and clarified. “I meant for you to strip, not down to your underwear, but down to the bone.”

Glancing at one of the many mirrors that faced me, I now saw the skin above my breasts was gone and I was staring at my bare ribcage, and the heart inside me pulsed behind ribs like prison bars.

My panic was interfering with my judgment. The grin that played on Christian’s face was one I’d never seen before.

What did a smile like that mean? It wasn’t the smile he wore when he dared me to be something more. It wasn’t the smile he wore when he said goodbye. What was that expression? Was it pride?

My hands reached for my chest, but I could feel nothing as I tried to slide my fingers between my ribs, feeling for his heart inside me like I was reaching for a star—nothing I could hold in my hands.

At that point, my dream had become too far-fetched for me to accept as reality. I woke up, replacing my inner vision with the blackness around me. This chair here, the bed pointed in this direction, and squares of soft light coming in patches from recognizable locations.

I was on Tombstone Mountain in the castle made to test immortals. In my bed, I was dreaming of a Christian who did things the real Christian would never do. He didn’t tease me about stripping for his amusement or suggest that having his heart made me his possession. My brain was making up garbage while I was asleep, which meant I was having a nightmare.

In the dark, I felt the metal ring that kept me a prisoner. It was not around my ankle the way it had been when I first arrived. Instead, it was pierced through the skin between my Achilles tendon and my ankle bones. Using the Red Forest, I had been able to push it through skin, vein, and tendon, but pushing it through the bone was impossible. I knew now that was why my body had directed the bullet in my brain down my throat when I had been shot in the head. There were pathways there that didn’t involve penetrating bone.

My inability to manipulate bone also meant that the hole in my head where the bullet went in was not completely healed. Everything was where it was supposed to be, but the bone wasn’t intact.

I didn’t understand why bone should behave differently than the other parts of my body, all of which seemed to be at my command. I had considered breaking my ankle more than once to remove the ring, but I knew Brandon, my captor, wouldn’t stand for it. I’d wake up with the ring on my other ankle and have to start all over again. The ankle I’d  broken would still be broken like the dime-sized hole in my head I hadn’t been able to fill.

It was dark outside. It was dark almost all day, every day. I had to be very far north to have so few hours of daylight. Christian had not come to rescue me. It was like waiting for him in the hotel when I ran away from boarding school to get his attention, except less fun because I had visitors.

Sometimes, Brandon and Pricina came to see me.

The immortals were not normal and they enjoyed showing me their grand abilities. Pricina would raise a piece of glass in the middle of the room and once it had filled the whole space from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, she and Brandon would enter the room and sit on the other side. Sometimes, they just came in through a door. Sometimes they had to move stones in order to make a doorway for them to enter. Each block moved smoothly and nonsensically, exactly the way I ordered my cells around in the Red Forest. Once they had made themselves comfortable, Pricina would make holes in the glass. Tiny little holes for us to speak through and Brandon would begin.

It was always the same.

“Have you been going to the Red Forest?” Brandon would ask briskly.

“You’ve been watching me, so you must know that I have been,” I would reply.

I probably spent half of each day sitting on my ankle bone in the Red Forest. In my mind, it looked like a bridge made of bone. I could see the whole silver ring from my place in the Red Forest, even though only a small portion of the ring was actually in my body. The ring was laced through the bone bridge. It hung over brown bloodied land and a river of sparkling ruby waves (my body’s depiction of a bloodstream). I spent my time there trying to find another way to get the metal ring through the bone rather than the one Brandon was about to suggest.

“Why won’t you go to the heart?” he asked, forgetting all about his old Scottish accent. Now he spoke with an accent so strange I couldn’t identify it. His new voice made him seem like more of a stranger than when he was mute. Alien to me, he continued, “It is the entrance to all of Christian’s knowledge.”

I would roll my eyes. This line of conversation was difficult to listen to because he and Pricina didn’t want Christian. That was why Brandon had left him behind when he kidnapped me by the side of the road. They didn’t want him because the important part of him was inside me, riding around in my chest like I was a fancy safety deposit box. Without his heart, it seemed, Christian did not know who he was. He knew he was immortal, but he didn’t know the details. How did he become immortal? He didn’t know. How do you make another person immortal? Still, he didn’t know beyond an educated guess. He didn’t know the inner workings, and Brandon and Pricina wanted answers to more difficult questions than those.

“If you open his heart and go inside, you’ll learn everything you need to know,” Brandon said, attempting to sound persuasive.

It didn’t sound persuasive to me. We had been doing this for months. That was why there was so little light in the castle. It had been the end of summer when I had been kidnapped. We had slipped into autumn, passed the equinox, and my birthday. Now as we came closer to the winter solstice, the night was so deep, it was practically outer space.

I hated them.

I hated Brandon and how I had once trusted him. Christian had trusted him!

In my rage, I had attempted to break the glass between us more than once. I threw a chair. I threw lamps. I threw myself.

It didn’t matter what I did, Pricina could do more than alter her body. She could alter the matter that surrounded her. Any glass I broke would immediately reform into a glistening sheet. She could do it so quickly I couldn’t even reach Brandon to slap him across the face before the glass was remade.

Otherwise, she leaned back in whatever seat she occupied and smoothed her brown skin like a cat grooming itself. She was a lot like a cat. Her face did not show that she felt one way or another about the interviews she oversaw with Brandon and me. She never spoke or took a side. Her sole purpose was to keep the glass in place. She was elegant and beautiful far beyond anyone I had ever seen. Her creamy beauty made Felicity-Ann (who I had once envied for her appearance) look crude and tacky. It was tempting to hate her as much as Brandon, who I thoroughly hated now, but it was impossible. She didn’t do anything hateful. She merely protected Brandon by keeping the glass up.

Slowly, her presence helped me understand. “Why do you bring her?” I asked Brandon in a tone that was accusing. “Can’t you keep the glass up yourself?”

“Uh,” he replied, taken off-guard.

It was true! He didn’t have the ability to manipulate the glass or rearrange the stones of the castle himself.

“She’s here as an example for you,” he replied, trying to sound reasonable.

I nodded, not like I believed him, but like I thought he was more full of crap than any other person on earth. From experience, I knew I wasn’t going to like the next thing he said.

“You shouldn’t be afraid to go into Christian’s heart inside the Red Forest,” he said, his accent getting a little thicker. “I told you, you are allowed in that sacred place. You’re his wife.”

It was this little tidbit that had kept me out of Christian’s heart in the Red Forest. Whenever Brandon brought this up, I was filled with a little more rage.

“He didn’t marry me!” I would yell back. “He asked  me to marry him and if you had left us alone for four more hours, I would have married him, but that didn’t happen!” If my screaming became deafening, Pricina would close the holes in the glass to keep the sound to a minimum.

Brandon continued trying to persuade me. “A marriage ceremony with only vows spoken would have meant comparatively little. I told you. I performed the marriage ceremony when I performed the surgery that gave you his heart.”

“There’s this neat thing called consent,” I bit back frostily. “You can’t marry a fourteen-year-old girl to an ancient, immortal man without consent.”

“Consent had been given,” Brandon replied calmly. “No matter which way you want to look at it. You were sleepy, but I asked you if you wanted to die or if you wanted to receive Christian’s heart, become his wife, and live forever. You replied that you understood and you never wanted to leave him.”

I hated it when Brandon mentioned this because I did remember waking up on the operating table. I just didn’t remember him talking to me. He did wake me up, but I had no idea I was agreeing to anything. If I had been completely awake, I knew I wouldn’t have believed him, but I would have agreed to anything. I had three days to live. In retrospect, it seemed unforgivable to tell a child if they didn’t agree to get married, they’d die.

Of course, when thinking of it that way, you don’t really get the idea that the groom could be a man like Christian. He was as reckless as he was attractive and a perfect gentleman.

No matter what Brandon said about true marriage being ‘bone to each other’s bone and flesh to each other’s flesh’, the mandatory trading of body parts among immortals to bond them together, and not a simple promise to love one another for the rest of your lives, I didn’t believe for a second that that was how Christian felt about it when he gave me his heart.

“You can’t have a true union between two immortal beings without the exchange of body parts. Among us, it has different consequences than if your lover gave you their kidney and you gave them yours. With humans, nothing special would be transferred but an organ meant to filter blood and discard waste. Yes, Christian gave you his heart, but so much more. He gave you himself. All those things he can’t remember… all the blanks he can’t fill… you will be able to fill them. It was a gift he gave to you on top of everything else he gave you: life, immortality, healing, beauty, agelessness. Through his heart, you can unlock the secrets of universal creation.”

I hated Brandon’s guts. The more he talked, the more he made it sound like he had performed the surgery in order to gain Christian’s knowledge for himself. He couldn’t take a part of Christian’s body and he knew I’d be an easier lock to pick than Christian. If anything, it sounded like Brandon had convinced his friend to take his treasure out of his vault and put it in a cardboard box.

I was the cardboard box in that simile.

I clenched my teeth.

I wouldn’t let him get anything.

I fought Brandon in every way I could, contradicting him, mocking him, and arguing with him every step of the way. He couldn’t make me do it, but he had a lot of energy for debate and all the time in the world.

“I couldn’t give consent. I was fourteen,” I’d argue.

“Your legal guardian can allow you to get married before you’re eighteen if you have their consent. Your legal guardian agreed to it.”

Brandon was talking about Christian, my legal guardian at the time. He was desperate to save me. He would have agreed to anything. Christian obviously knew that Brandon considered us married after the operation, but it didn’t mean the same thing to him. Even after the dust had cleared and Christian and I started living our lives with me living at the boarding school and only staying with him for holidays, Christian never told me what joined us or asked me for anything that signified that he considered me his wife. There were sparks, glances, and hidden longing, but it was covered in a thick glaze of propriety.

No matter what Brandon said, Christian did not consider me his wife and what violation would I be guilty of if I stormed into his heart without his permission?

I didn’t know what could happen. I’d never visited Christian’s heart inside the Red Forest for fear that it would interest me too much. I had explored the rest of my body. I knew how the Red Forest twisted and turned, how it looked completely different in my hands, compared to my neck, compared to my thighs, and compared to my gut.

More than anything, I did not want to allow Brandon even one concession. His logic sickened me. I could not be a man’s wife unless he declared me so with his own mouth.

“You should bring me Christian,” I said, practically spitting through the holes in the glass. “If he says I’m welcome in his heart, I’ll go. I’ll go. But he has never claimed me as his wife, so I don’t believe anything you’ve said. Bring him here. Have him marry me in a ceremony I can understand and I’ll do what you ask.”

This was when Brandon would look uncomfortable. If he and Pricina knew where Christian was, which I doubted, they would not bring him to me. He was not a part of their plans. Whatever information was stored inside his heart, Christian himself didn’t have it on him. They didn’t want him. They wanted me.

And I wouldn’t give them anything.


CHAPTER TWO

The Way Down to the Heart

All the screaming was about the bone in my ankle. Brandon told me repeatedly that the information they sought from Christian’s heart was specifically related to getting the ring around my ankle through the bone. If I would stop being so difficult and go to the heart, I would find the information, and then any chains placed around me now, or in the future, would be meaningless. According to Brandon, I’d learn how to escape from anywhere, even the castle that surrounded me.

Aside from escaping their awful castle, I had no idea why they wanted me to gain that ability. Brandon didn’t explain anything. He just sought to persuade me to go to the heart.

“Go to his heart.”

“Beat the door down.”

“Burrow inside.”

“Eat what’s there.”

“It’s your heart now.”

I felt sick.

As I mentioned, I celebrated my twenty-second birthday alone in the castle. At least, I guessed I’d had my birthday. I wasn’t overly interested in what day it was anymore. Brandon didn’t mention it and it didn’t matter much.

Even without going to Christian’s heart, I gained piles of knowledge from the Red Forest. Since I realized my power over my body, I changed anything about it I didn’t like. Moles disappeared, hair fell out or grew more plentifully, as I desired. Muscles grew and fat disappeared. While I made modifications, I found it was actually impossible to hit the nail on the head. I had been given perfect control over my body and I couldn’t decide what was actually perfect when I looked in the mirror. I fiddled with my appearance constantly, especially my upper arms. What looked good when I looked down at them was a lot different than what looked good when I looked at myself in a mirror.

Aside from fiddling in the Red Forest, there wasn’t much to do in the castle. There was a bathtub with a skylight over it, so I often filled the tub with hot soapy water, turned off the lights, and gazed into outer space.

Of all the rooms I could access in the castle without moving stone, the kitchen was the least thrilling. It wasn’t because it wasn’t beautiful. It was. It was just that it had been stocked with food that did not make anyone’s mouth water. There was powdered milk, condensed milk in cans, rice, flour, and other canned food. The canned food was as exciting as canned food got, meaning I ate olives out of the bottle, mandarin oranges, and pie filling. I supposed I had the ingredients to make a pie. If I had known how to make a pie, that probably would have been the best thing I could have made.

Except I didn’t know how to make anything with the ingredients they supplied with no recipe books, so I watched the snow fall and ate pickled beets from the jar.

I was very bored. I would have started writing on the walls in blood if the walls hadn’t been hewn out of rough stone. It wouldn’t have had any effect on Brandon or Pricina anyway. Pricina could change anything she wanted.

That morning I had cream of wheat, made with water and I really hated it. I ended up opening a can of pears that I had been saving because it depressed me so much.

When I was finished, I tugged my chain, dragging it noisily across the polished marble, and got back into bed. I wrapped the blankets around me cocoon-style and closed my eyes. I wasn’t going to sleep. I was going to try again with my ankle in the Red Forest.

I went there every day without fail. I closed my eyes and disappeared into the place behind my eyelids. It was a place where the sky was brown. The trees grew with slick red bark and no leaves. I wore a black dress that fell over my shape as comfortably as a nightgown. It was the place I went for a split second before I died, and because I was willing to make sense of what I saw, I was able to stop a bullet from killing me—the Red Forest.

At the spot where the ring pierced my ankle, I sat on the chrome ring. I swung on it like it was a circus swing and pounded my figurative fists against the ivory wall that was my ankle bone like it was a door that would not open. I asked blood insects that floated by what they knew, but they only knew what I knew: bones were not blood. Bones were blood factories.

That was the problem I had been contemplating when I went to sleep and dreamed of the dearest man in the world, Christian, asking me to undress for him. The dream had not been inspiring. That was not the way Christian ever treated me. My subconscious made him that way because I had been trapped for so long.

What was Christian like again? Could I remember? Sometimes he felt like something I had imagined because everything in the real world sucked.

When I tried to ask the Christian in my memory what he would do about Brandon, he didn’t say a word. He only looked at me levelly with that look in his eyes as if to ask me if there was anything he wouldn’t do.

That was the crux. Christian would do anything. Cut off his hand? Cut out his heart? He would do absolutely anything. He had no limits.

If I was going to be like him, would I have to give away my limits too?

I often thought about escaping the castle. It was probably possible… to a certain degree. I could break my ankle to get the ring off. Perhaps breaking the chain the ring was connected to was a better way, but I had every reason to believe that if a link was broken, it would bring Pricina  down on me. Breaking my ankle would probably work better, but would I be able to heal it, escape the castle, and make it to safety before Pricina caught me? My chances were poor.

The terrain outside the castle was the harshest on the planet. A bullet to the head was one thing, but hundreds of miles of snow-capped mountains were something else. I couldn’t open a window and the outside temperature was a mystery. It could be the sort of weather wherein people lost fingers and ears.

Brandon and Pricina had orchestrated this scenario so that I had no other way forward, like a mouse in a tunnel instead of a maze.

If I continued to resist going to Christian’s heart, what end would there be?

This was damnation. As long as I was in the castle, I was damned.

When I looked at the remaining roads ahead of me, I saw three paths. Christian might try to rescue me. Without the secrets he hid in his heart, there was no part of him that was as powerful as Pricina. If he had once had power like that at his disposal, he wouldn’t have needed me to help him retrieve Brandon’s head from the compound. He would have been able to do that himself without losing a hand. He wasn’t strong enough to rescue me.

Secondly, Brandon might give up on me and let me go. I snorted. He wasn’t going to get tired. He wasn’t going to think it wasn’t worth his effort to keep working on me. He was immortal. He had time to spare and he’d steal all of my time if I let him keep me locked up.

Thirdly, there was chaos. Something unexpected might set me free.

When I thought that, I realized that I had reached the end of possibilities, except the one Brandon suggested.

I had to do what Brandon said without letting him know. I had to sneak into Christian’s heart and when I was free, I’d chop off Brandon’s head again. It turned out that I liked him better without it. Rolling my eyes, I amended my thought. Perhaps taking his whole head was overkill. I’d cut his tongue out at least. I wasn’t a barbarian.

I swung up and leaped off the ring. Gravity was like a dream in the Red Forest, and I floated until I landed on the pads of my unchained feet on the bone bridge. Swinging my steps like a little girl who wasn’t in a hurry, I walked the long way through the Red Forest, all the way from my ankle to Christian’s heart. The walk, though imaginary, did me good. It gave me time to think.

When I arrived at the place of Christian’s heart, the sky above was almost stormy. Clouds made from the hot air in my lungs also made this part of me darker than the rest. The first thing I felt was a hot wind. The world inside me was a humid forest where I was the queen of everything. I saw insects, sometimes small animals scurrying on business of their own, a perpetual crimson night with no moon and no stars. The black flounces of my skirt flapped  around my legs like flags in the wind. I stood on the outskirts of the Red Forest, gazing into a clearing.

I stood outside Christian’s heart. Before I arrived, I imagined his heart appearing as a forest inside a forest, denser and darker. It was nothing of the sort. It was a building like a shrine or a temple. It had a sloped tile roof and no windows.

In front of me was a stone path of flat black stones. They seemed to be floating in a pool of blood surrounding the shrine. The blood stirred like it couldn’t stay still because it lived to form little peaks on the surface of the pool.

I placed my black ballerina slipper on the first stone and stepped forward onto the stepping stones that made me cross blood.

As I got closer, the wind came hotter and faster. I was feeling my blood pump, not a wind, but it felt hot as I breathed it. Again, I was in a place I should not have been. I had become a person who lived exclusively in places humans did not go. A normal person is not allowed to look inside the heart of their lover, as it is their core, and no place could be more sacred or holy.

It had to be mine now.

As I stood there, I felt a fresh wash of hatred toward Brandon. He was forcing something that never should have been forced. If Christian meant me to have access to all of this, he never got the chance to tell me.

I may have been justifying myself, but I told myself that if Christian loved me so much that he was willing to give up his heart so that I could have life, I knew he was willing to give up even more for my freedom. I had to put aside the imperfection of the situation and swallow or I’d be a prisoner forever. I knew, without a doubt, that living in the castle was not what Christian wanted for me.

I stepped over the threshold into the first chamber of his heart.

Black beams stretched across the ceiling. Heavy black posts held up the roof. The floor was carpeted with layer after layer of luxurious red carpets. Following the lengths of carpets, they led to a throne. Christian occupied it.

In my excitement, I called his name, but immediately I realized he couldn’t hear me. His eyes were closed. He was dressed completely in dark red: red shoes, red trousers, a red vest, and a slightly open red shirt. He wore a crown on his head, a single circlet of pewter that contrasted this blond hair. It hung loosely, tipping toward one eye.

I wanted to wake him and speak to him, but suddenly I felt it was better to understand every room before I disturbed him. I held my peace and proceeded further into the shrine.

In the second chamber, I was surprised to see Christian again. This time he was lying on a slab of black stone. He wasn’t dressed but had an incredibly long piece of black silk draped over his groin that fell to the floor on either side. He had round black stones arranged in patterns across his chest, arms, and face. Two stones rested on his eyes and another over his mouth.

The room had a mirror on the wall. I looked at myself in it. I was thrilled with what I saw. It wasn’t the way I saw myself when I looked into a mirror. Those mirrors always showed me what was wrong with me, what was incomplete. My reflection here must show the way Christian saw me. This mirror showed love. I swelled with emotion. The dream I had earlier was a distortion of the greatness of the man I loved.

I continued on.

By the third room, I expected to see a new version of Christian there. He was hanging from a rope from the ceiling. Not by his neck, but by his right arm. The rope wasn’t tied to him. He was not hanging there because he was trapped. His fingers were knotted tightly around the rope like he wouldn’t let go no matter what happened next. He was tattooed everywhere with words. I couldn’t read them and I couldn’t find a part of his body that was not written on. I had to circle him to find his face. It was marred by hundreds of words tattooed in black ink. I could make out a few of the letters, but I could not distinguish even one complete word. He wore trousers like a doctor’s scrubs, with a white cotton undershirt marked in the occasional bloodstain.

A pool of water was under him. If he let go of the rope, he would fall into the water. What was bad about the water? I got down on my knees and dipped my fingers in the dancing ripples. I understood less than I had before as I shook off the water. How deep was it? There didn’t appear to be a bottom. Thrusting  my arm in the water up to my shoulder, I couldn’t find the bottom. I thought of jumping in but refrained. This was a sacred place, not a place where you splashed around for fun or curiosity.

In the last chamber, there was a pole in the center of the room. Christian was tied to it. His arms were wrapped around the mast and his wrists were heavily tethered. His ankles were tied too. There was a gag in his mouth and a blindfold over his eyes. He wore weathered jeans and a white dress shirt that was barely done up. With so many cords wrapped around his wrists, it was difficult to tell which ones were holding him captive and which were a fashion statement.

None of the versions of Christian moved. None of them fluttered an eyelash. I walked back through the chambers of his heart and wondered what each of the figures meant. If I were guessing, I would say that he had to be strapped down, silenced, blindfolded, and unconscious in order for him to live forever. He told me he had to forget who he was in order to bear the pain of immortality. Did these men represent lives he’d lived? Or something else entirely?

As I reflected on the problem, I found myself in the second chamber. I saw the version of Christian that lay on the altar with shining river rocks placed strategically over his eyes and down his body.

All at once, I thought that I ought to try to wake him.

“Christian,” I said.

Nothing happened.

I tried his real name, “Damon.”

I was about to yell when I realized that if my presence and my voice didn’t wake him, then my screaming certainly wouldn’t.

He had rocks all over him. What if I took them off?

I reached forward and plucked one of the stones off his abdomen. It uncovered the prettiest patch of tan skin and curved muscle beneath. I turned the rock over in my hand and saw there was a word etched in gold on the underside. It resembled one of those pretty inspirational stones I’d seen in gift shops that moms bought that had words like faith  or love  written on them. Christian’s stone bore the word control .

Instantly, I felt that I should not have picked it up.

I tried to put the stone back, but it would not go back. There was an invisible force preventing me from returning it. I turned the rock in my hand and tried to figure out what I ought to do with it. On the side that had been blank new words appeared. The words read  swallow me .

That honestly seemed like the worst thing I could do or ought to do. I shouldn’t swallow a rock.

I tried to set the stone down in a different place on Christian’s skin, but each place repelled the rock even harder. I was starting to panic. I tried to drop it on the floor, but it stuck to my fingers like a magnet. It slipped all over my skin without letting go.

I pulled at it with both hands and when that failed, I tried to use my chin to push it free and was immediately more successful than my hands had been. Yet, not completely. It was coming free, but it hadn’t let go. In my frenzy to push it off, my mouth was a little open and the stone brushed my lips. Realizing my mistake, I dropped my hands and licked my lips as a reflex, only to taste something I’d never tasted before.

Impossible to describe, it was sweet, but also savory. I probably would not have been so interested in the taste of that stone if I had been given anything better to eat by Brandon and Pricina. They knew the trials I faced and they fed me lackluster food in order to make me crave something delicious. The emptiness in my stomach, which hadn’t bothered me much since I came to the castle, was suddenly unbearable.

I wouldn’t eat it. It was a rock. It was not food. I should not have picked it up, but I couldn’t put it back. I told myself that the rock would drop off me if I tried to leave the building with it in hand. I went to the door and flung it open. The rock went with me as I stepped onto the first stepping stone. Dropping to my knees, I put my hands in the pool of my own blood to break the bond the stone had with my skin.

It didn’t work.

I’d failed and the stone consumed my mind so that I could not concentrate enough to leave the Red Forest and wake up in bed.

I went back inside the shrine.

What I felt was all wrong. I shouldn’t want to eat it.

I don’t know how many hours passed as I sat alone in the second chamber of Christian’s heart before I caved. I didn’t want to, but I never felt so satisfied in my life as I was the moment I put that rock in my mouth and bit down on something soft and scrumptious. Control tasted better than anything else I’d ever tasted. I felt warmth slide down my throat and the moment it hit my stomach, something surprising happened.

I knew how to move bone .

I ran from the building and I didn’t stop running until I made it to my ankle where I saw the chrome ring exactly where I’d left it. Stepping up to the place in my bone, I took my finger and scored out the section that needed to move. When I finished I stepped back and snapped my fingers. The section of bone fell apart like lego blocks. I ordered my tendons to push the ring through like the strings of a suspension bridge moving in all the wrong ways.

Then I dropped to my knees and slowly, by hand, I rebuilt the bone bridge piece by piece. It was not like the other parts of the body that could bend and change. As a bone, its function was to stay still, not to move. I had been right. If you wanted bone to move, you had to break it, but not the clumsy way I had been thinking of going about it. You had to do it carefully.

There were two bones I needed to be rebuilt. It was not the quick fix it had been when my father shot me in the head. It was a careful rebuild that took hours, maybe even days.

When I slid the last piece of bone into place, I returned to my senses in the castle and found the ring that had kept me captive abandoned between the sheets of my bed.

I grabbed it triumphantly. Then I panicked. I shouldn’t have taken it off. Brandon would know I’d made progress. He knew I couldn’t figure it out on my own, and I hated to give him the satisfaction.

I grabbed a scrunchie from my bedside table and twisted it around the ring. Then I slipped the loop of the scrunchie around my ankle. Then, at least, the chain would move with me until I could put the ring back through my ankle. If I was lucky, Brandon wouldn’t notice my progress.

I was so excited. Brandon wouldn’t know if I repaired the bullet hole in my skull. Knowing it was there had made me quite uncomfortable. Sadly, I couldn’t do anything just then, I was too tired.

I fell asleep and as I slept there was a moon and stars in the Red Forest of my dreams.


CHAPTER THREE

The Taste of Control

When I woke up the next morning, Brandon and Pricina were in my room. They were on the other side of the glass partition Pricina created. They stared at me with faces as still as masks.

I tucked my ankle with the scrunchie around it under my bottom and resolved not to leave the bed until I had put the metal ring back through my ankle. I could not let them see the progress I’d made… unless they already knew.

“Have you found Christian yet?” I asked snarkily.

They didn’t answer but continued staring. Did they know what I’d done?

“Are you even looking for him?” I tried again.

Brandon cleared his throat and said, “I think we’ve made a mistake not explaining the bigger picture to you.”

I nodded impatiently. “Can we not  talk today? Would that be even a little bit possible? Could you two just leave and maybe not come back ever? I’m pretty sure I’d rather die today than talk to you again, Brandon.” This was not how I usually spoke to them. I had never before mentioned dying or that I’d like to die.

It made Branon’s eye twitch.

Pricina had a different reaction. For the first time, she smiled. I couldn’t tell what emotion accompanied the expression. Was she happy? Or was it something else?

Brandon stuttered, his eyes wide in horror. “After you took a bullet to the head and lived? How do you plan to die? Are you thinking you could die if we never came back and you ran out of food?”

“The food you guys gave me sucks. I haven’t complained because I thought that it was part of your grand design. Give me yucky food, make me desperate, and get me to do what you want. I want you to leave. I’ll eat the food or I won’t, but with my access to the Red Forest, I’m pretty sure I don’t have to eat anymore. It’s merely a luxury and with luxuries like powdered milk and quick oats to be had, who would care for your generosity?”

He clicked his tongue. “I see. We’ve been too hard on you. We should have done more to show you that we’re your friends.”

I snorted when he said the word ‘friends’. Nothing about what the two of them had done since I arrived smacked of friendship. They had subjected me to the most humane form of torture, but they’d also separated me from Christian, which pissed me off.

“It’s just that we’re in a remote location and getting supplies here is tricky at best,” Brandon said, still prattling on about the food.

“I don’t care about your excuses or your pathetic offer of friendship. We are not friends. I don’t need to eat and you don’t need to come back here. I hate listening to you talk,” I said with only the tiniest sprinkling of malice because I’d already tried throwing tantrums with very little success.

“Would you talk to her?” he asked, pointing to Pricina.

“If she’s going to say the same crap as you, I’d rather not,” I said bluntly.

“I won’t,” Pricina said crisply.

She glared downward and used her matter manipulation to drop the stones that made up the floor under Brandon and without warning, he fell through the cracks, chair and all. He screamed, but she sealed up the hole and blocked the sound.

“He won’t die,” she said, motioning for a chair from another room to come into the bedroom and seat her. The way it moved was unusual, almost like it was on invisible rails. Its movements were mechanical and choppy. She sat down gracefully and looked at me.

I looked back at her.

She broke eye contact and gazed out the window at the snow-covered mountainsides  lit only by the light from my window. “Did he tell you that he’s my husband?”

“Brandon?” I asked hopefully since there were no other men around.

She nodded, sucking on her lower teeth in an expression of exasperation. “He’s quite a bit younger than me. He’s only three hundred, while I am somewhere between fifteen hundred and seventeen hundred. He thought he could speak to you better because of the history he has with you and Christian, but it’s clear that he’s failed and now I can try.” She turned her neck to the side and I heard the bones crack.

The sheet of glass between us rolled itself into a tube and sat next to her, slowly taking the form of a transparent bishop like a piece on a chessboard, but so large it sat a little higher than her head.

“That’s a neat trick,” I said. For once, I didn’t sound like I was so disgusted I was about to choke on my own tongue.

She began slowly. “I think you object to entering Christian’s heart because you have been raised to believe that there are certain boundaries in this world that shouldn’t be crossed. You believe in property, don’t you? This land belongs to this person, so it’s theirs. In your case, you do not want to enter Christian’s heart because his secrets are not yours. Like you’re back in his house in Scotland and all the books are under lock and key. If those books had not been behind glass, would you have read them?”

I remembered my disappointment. I had wanted to learn everything about him, read every book he had read before, and feel a little bit of what he felt, but all of that was locked against me.

“This is like that,” she continued in a measured, easy voice. “He didn’t give you the key to the cabinets of his library. If anything, it was like he put the library inside you. That’s what his heart is. It’s everything about him you have ever wanted to know. He didn’t give you his heart to merely be a pump for your blood, though it has served that function for you.” She paused. “If you don’t understand, you should know that Christian is damaged. He was broken before he gave you his heart. When you were ill and he sat with you in the hospital, he would have seen you, not just as someone he could save if he was willing to sacrifice enough, but also as someone who could save him.”

I gasped. How so?

Pricina was much better at this than Brandon.

She continued. “You loved him so much. You would have given him anything he wanted, done anything for him. Put yourself back in that moment. If he had asked you to cut out your heart and give it to him, would you have done it? If he was the one who asked?”

I felt myself deflating as she read my mind and spoke my words. I tried not to show a reaction. She was almost two thousand years old. Of course, she knew how to pull someone’s heartstrings.

“How many people do you think Christian has held in his arms at the very moment their hearts stopped beating? How many people could he have saved by giving them a piece of his body? Maybe all of them… but how many of them could have returned the favor by saving him? Not even one… except you. You are what he wants completely. He knew he was marrying you as a fourteen-year-old girl. He knew how unacceptable that was to everyone in this day and age… especially how it might look to you. He couldn’t risk offending you… and yet… He knew he couldn’t trust himself to stay with you all the time. He would want things from you. He’d want you to love him the way you could never love him as a child. Think of how he treated you,” she commanded softly.

And I did. I thought of all the presents he’d showered on me. All the times when he thought the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon was to watch me try on clothes. He would buy me anything I liked, no matter what number was written on the price tag.

I thought of all the times we’d sat in cafes and sipped delicious drinks and he’d listened to me prattle. When I was young, I’d say stupid things and he’d look at me with this look on his face that I couldn’t identify. Was I stupid? Was he bored listening to me? He swore he never was, that he could listen to me talk forever.

“He had to wait,” Pricina continued. “He had to wait until you were ready to accept his situation, his age, his skills, and all that he is. It’s a lot. Not everyone could. But he knew if he waited long enough, if he was patient long enough, you would come to him and be what he envisioned you could be. You’re becoming it now. Can you feel it?”

As she spoke, I really wanted to hate her. I wanted to hate her as much as I hated Brandon if not more. “How do you know all this?” I meant to ask rudely, but it came off meekly.

“I once had a husband who was almost like Christian. I understood everything about him, and though Christian is a different man and the specifics are different, real love, real bonds, and real relationships are all formed in the same ways. That’s why you’re married to him because of your cores—yours and his—you promised everything to each other and you sealed it with your own blood. For that reason, no matter what resistance you face, what truths you discover, or what you find that is broken. Inside his heart, you will still feel the same way toward each other. You could give each other everything. He wants you there.”

She stood up and said one more thing, “Regardless of how things seem, this isn’t about Brandon or me. Locking you here was not a selfish thing, though it may appear that way to you now. If you don’t want us to return, we will not. The way out is through Christian’s heart. Don’t be afraid. Brandon performed your wedding correctly and Christian will give you everything. Goodbye.”

Pricina strode out and slammed the door to my bedroom behind her without touching it. She didn’t want me to see how she left my part of the castle, but oddly enough, she left her bishop in my bedroom.


CHAPTER FOUR

Eating My Heart Out

The ring around my ankle was not the only thing intended to keep me captive. The castle itself had me bricked away as though I was already in my tomb. The stones of the castle moved the way Pricina ordered them to. Brick walls blocked my path and kept me in four rooms. If I wanted to leave, I had to move the stones en masse to create doorways the way Pricina did.

Pricina’s abilities were a level above mine. I could arrange the cells in my body, but that had limits. Like Christian, I couldn’t change the color of my hair or my eyes, though I could change the shape of my body in a limited way, I couldn’t use matter around me. Pricina could arrange her body and she could arrange the matter around her. Brandon was showing her to me as a goalpost I was supposed to aim for (even though he hadn’t made it to that level himself). He presented it as one way to leave the castle.

Looking out the window into the world of a winter deep in the mountains, the castle wasn’t the only thing that hemmed me in. There was a natural fortress surrounding me. In every direction I looked, even for hundreds of miles, I could see I was a prisoner. Even if I survived the fall out a window, if I survived the cold and the elements, I had no idea where to go, and no idea where I was. Pricina didn’t need to watch me because I couldn’t go anywhere unless I started breaking down barriers in my brain that dictated what I could or couldn’t do.

That was when I started thinking about the stones on Christian’s chest. If eating one of those stones gave me the ability to rearrange bone, what could devouring the others do?

I rubbed my head. I was uncomfortable with that line of thinking. She said Christian would give me everything. When I swallowed the stone inside the shrine of his heart, I took something that was not mine and absorbed it into myself. Did that mean that I had taken it from Christian or did we both have that ability now? I didn’t think Christian knew how to move bones. If he could do that, he could have made himself taller or shorter depending on his needs, but he didn’t.

I felt sick. The uneasiness of indecision weighed on me.

I didn’t want to make a mistake. I didn’t want to do something wrong within Christian’s heart and take something from him that I could not give back.

My only comfort when I was weighing my options was that the stone I had eaten had instructions on it for me to swallow it. That wasn’t something Brandon or Pricina could make happen. The stone said I was supposed to eat it and that was the only communication I’d had from Christian when I was inside his heart.

There were many stones carefully balanced on his body… knowledge like bits of brownie and now I knew what they tasted like.

If I had his permission, was there a point in resisting?

***

I took turns sitting in the different rooms of Christian’s heart. I rearranged the carpets in the first room to see if that would annoy the crowned version of him enough to wake him. I tried to sound out the words tattooed on his neck in the third room. I couldn’t figure out what the letters on his skin meant. I tried to untie the knot on his gag in the fourth room, but the knot was tied so tightly that I couldn’t get it to budge.

Obviously, I avoided the room where I’d actually been able to do something that had an effect. Like each room was its own puzzle and I was afraid to finish the first puzzle I’d started.

Eventually, I went back to the second room and pushed my palms into the altar, which was becoming less sacred and more familiar by the minute.

“Christian,” I whispered into his ear. “Could you please wake up? I need to talk to you. I miss you and I feel like I’ve already waited for you for a hundred years. Open your eyes.”

It was hard to talk to him. He had stones over each of his eyes. Maybe that was what was stopping him from waking up. Automatically, I put out a hand and removed a stone.

His eyelashes fluttered.

He moved!

That was all I needed to confirm that I was supposed to remove the stones and eat them.

Once I came to that conclusion, I had never felt hungrier in my life. I flipped over the stone in my hand. It had the word movement  inscribed on the back. This time I didn’t try to shake it off. I put it in my mouth and it tasted like a tart. Not just any tart, but the best strawberry tart I’d ever eaten.

If I learned something from the second bite, I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that I felt energetic, so I left the heart and repaired the broken bone in my forehead by assembling the scattered pieces. It was a relief that Brandon and Pricina were not coming back, so I didn’t need to bother with reinserting the ring into my ankle. Besides, I thought Pricina would know by now that I’d entered Christian’s heart and made progress.

Correcting the hole in my head took hours. Bits of bones like puzzle pieces were floating away through the air and burying themselves in the ground.

When I was finished, I went back into the heart shrine and started counting the remaining stones on Christian’s body. There were a hundred and twenty-three. That meant that originally, there had been a hundred and twenty-five.

I put my hand on the bare place on his face where the rock I’d eaten had rested on his eye. His skin felt warm and the arch of his eyebrow was so beautiful that I thought I’d cry.

I picked up a stone resting on his wrist. I flipped the stone over and read the word hardness  on the back. I ate it. I read the back of all the stones before I gobbled them down. They had words like flexibility, density, malleability, and weight. I had never been so greedy in my life.

Soon there was only one left. The last one was covering Christian’s mouth. I saved that stone for last. I hoped Christian would wake up when I removed the last stone, but he didn’t wake up. The last stone said bonded  on the back. I slid it between my teeth. It tasted like salt… the best flavor of all. I gulped it down and looked at Christian, hoping he would open his eyes.

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the edge of the altar before me. Nothing happened. Christian had not woken up. I felt sick. I wished the whole thing had been less tempting. It got me on every level. Removing and eating the stones revealed more of his perfectly cut body. When I put the stone in my mouth, it tasted like whatever I was craving whether that be buttery popcorn, chocolate, or bacon. With every bite, I thought that I’d never tasted anything more delicious. The stones fell in my stomach like a warm drink on a cold day.

My head drooped. Was there something more I had to do? Or did it not matter what I did, I couldn’t wake him?

Without warning, the Christian on the altar opened his eyes. “Hello,” he said.


CHAPTER FIVE

The Price of Control

“What are you doing here?” Christian asked like I was the last person he expected to see.

“You invited me,” I retorted, shocked by the hardness in his face.

“I have never invited anyone in this room,” he replied, picking up the cloth draped around him and tying it like a sarong around his waist.

“Well, you invited me, Christian,” I said, hoping the use of his name would snap him into some sort of awareness.

“That doesn’t sound like my name. It sounds like a lame alias I use to hide who I really am,” he said crossly as he got down from the altar and approached me like a predator approaching prey.

“Your name is Damon Christianus. I just call you Christian for short.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t sound like you really know me either. That sounds like you’re from the village and someone taught you to say that so that I’d tell you everything I know about everything. I admit you’re a lovely specimen, probably the best they could have found, exactly my type, but no. I don’t let just anyone in here.” He was forcing me toward the door that led into the first room.

“I’m your wife,” I said, saying it like it was the last thing I wanted to say.

He laughed before executing a perfect wall slam next to the door by pinning me between the wall and him. He put both hands on either side of my head and forced me to look him in the eye. “That’s perfect. If you’re my wife, you should know all kinds of personal things about me that should prove what you say is true. Go on,” he dared, pointing at me with his chin. “Tell me something about me that no one else knows.”

I glared at him, challenging him. “You gave me your heart.”

“Did I?” he smiled, running his tongue along his teeth menacingly. “A lot of women think I’ve given them my heart.”

“Your heart is in my body!” I snarled, wondering if I could make myself any clearer.

That got his attention. He backed off. His hands tightened the knot on his sarong. “Are you saying that if we go out those doors, we’ll be in the forest that changes colors except it will be your forest and not mine?”

“Yes,” I answered firmly.

In the next second, he was in the first chamber and then out the front door.

I ran after him, catching up with him outside. He stood, gaping at the Red Forest he could see from our side of the moat.

His mouth hung open for an instant before he covered it with his tanned hand. “This is not my body.”

“Of course, it’s not your body,” I said, slapping him on the back. “I told you, it’s mine.”

“It’s very red,” he said as if he’d never seen the color before. “You must have been very near to death when I gave you my heart.”

“Why can’t you remember giving me your heart? You’ve been here the whole time.”

His shoulders sank. “I don’t know. I know that I was listening to another part of me. Not the version of me that was in the first room. Not the king… it was a different version… a different part of me. Like listening to the angel on your shoulder and then realizing he’s the demon in disguise.”

“Was he the demon or the angel?” I asked, knowing exactly how Christian talked when he acted like that.

“Both,” he whispered. “I was supposed to go to sleep. I don’t know how long ago that was or what prize he got for putting me to sleep.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not that part of myself. The brain thinks all sorts of things it doesn’t consult the guts about. It was like that. I was sent here to starve because a higher part of myself decided that I should stop functioning.”

I smiled broadly. “Are you the heart?”

The look of horror left his face. “Of course I’m not the heart. I was using that as an analogy.”

“I was hoping you were Christian’s feelings and not a blood pump,” I retorted.

“This building is the blood pump,” he said, turning to look at the shrine behind him. “It’s very red here. That’s concerning. Not only must you be close to dying with your forest so incredibly red, but I must be close to dying too with a heart this color. What have I done to myself?”

“What color is it supposed to be?”

“White.” He stared at it and breathed like his world was unraveling before his very eyes.

“Can you do anything to heal it?”

He shook his head negatively. “I can’t. I’m the part that controls matter, so I can’t manipulate the Red Forest.” Then he turned his gray-green eyes on me. “Tell me who you are and how I met you.”

We sat on the edge of the pool and dipped our legs in the blood-filled moat in front of us. I hiked up my skirt and he hiked up his sarong. The blood was warm, like a bathtub.

“My parents died, and you were my guardian. I was dying and in love with you, and you decided to give me your heart. I didn’t know you’d done it. I just woke up one morning and knew I’d had surgery, but nothing else. I was all better. No explanation that made sense was given to me and it was years before I knew what you’d done.”

“I married you without telling you?” he asked awkwardly, pinching the crinkles between his eyebrows. “That’s a risky move. I must have thought it was worth it… like loving you was the last thing I’d do. Tell me the good parts. Tell me about the moment I told you how I felt about you. Tell me how sweet it was. How much I wanted you and how we made love under starry skies.”

I hesitated. “Uh… neither of those things has happened exactly.”

The Other Christian looked ultimately perplexed. “I haven’t done any of that? I didn’t take you in my arms and make you mine? That sounds unbelievable. Am I no good in bed without this part of me?” he asked himself, looking down at his impressive torso. “One wouldn’t think losing me would cause such a problem in that area.” He got up and paced, mumbling things under his breath while he left bloody footprints behind him.

“Look, there are very good reasons why,” I said, feeling the need to explain.

“Were we separated a lot?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Was I in chains much?”

“You had your hand cut off,” I supplied .

“Did I get it back?”

“Most of it. The last time I saw you, you were still missing a finger, but I think Brandon has it. Though I have to say, I am willing to cut one off him if we can’t get yours back,” I said, letting some of my steam about Brandon’s treatment of me escape.

“Angry at him?”

“He’s kidnapped me too many times for me to think about him pleasantly,” I said with my nose in the air.

The Other Christian smiled, looking at me like he couldn’t stop looking at me.

I loved it. It was exactly how I wished he would look at me all those years when he was my guardian. He had always looked at me like he enjoyed being with me, listening to me, watching me, but finally, there was a time and a place for him to look at me like he was in love with me.

I had been dipping my fingers in the blood, but when I saw his face, I flicked it off my fingers and stopped his pacing by sidling up beside him. “Who are you and the other versions of you that are still inside? What does all this mean?”

He smiled conspiratorially. “Let’s go see them.”

Together, we went into the room with the king on his throne.

“Hmm…” he murmured as he lifted the king’s hand and let it fall against the armrest with a THUD!

I winced. It seemed like a profane thing to do, except that if anyone was allowed to do something like that, it was the Other Christian. He pursed his lips and went to the remaining rooms. I followed him and watched as he pushed the version of Christian with the words written on his skin in the third room and made him twirl over the pool of water. The Other Christian dismissed that version and entered the last room. There, he crouched in front of the version who was tied to the mast. He looked at that one longer.

“What do you think happened?” I asked timidly.

“I almost killed myself,” he said steadily.

“How?” I gasped. “I thought you were immortal.”

His expression was calm, almost playful when considering his own demise and staring at another version of himself. “There’s no such thing as perfect immortality. I did this to myself on purpose. I cut myself into fragments in order to save something more important than myself. The reward must have been great.” He paused. “It was this one. This is the version of me who put me to sleep. It looks like he did the same thing to himself. We’re not able to do it yet, but at some point, we’re going to need to wake him up.”

I didn’t think there was any way to wake the Christian in the fourth room. I had already tried everything I could think of. Granted, that hadn’t been much. There wasn’t much in the room to interact with. I let it go.

The only thing I could concentrate on was the fact that he said he was close to death. “All this trouble doesn’t have anything to do with us switching hearts, does it?”

“No. At my greatest, I could have simply ordered my heart out of my body and it would have gone. My forest was so white in those days that I didn’t even have blood. This mess has to do with intentionally cutting off thousands of years of experience, losing abilities that were once as natural as breathing, and deliberately leaning toward humanity. To have such large chunks of myself dormant inside my heart, I must have come very close to becoming human… and if I’m human… then I can die.”

I knew instantly that was why I had suddenly gotten results out of Brandon and Pricina. What the Other Christian said meant that just because someone was immortal one day, that didn’t mean they would be the next day. I could kill myself. Accidentally threatening to do so had got Brandon and Pricina to back off.

It also meant that wherever Christian was, he wasn’t immune to death either.

“You told me once that you cut off your memories and burned the bridges inside you. You said that was the only way you could go on,” I recounted, even though now that reasoning didn’t make sense.

He breathed heavily, thinking.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked.

He smiled reflectively. “It doesn’t work like that. What I know about myself is spotty. I’m not the house of my memories. I am the keeper of a particular secret.”

I leaned in. “Can you tell me your secret?”

“I already told you,” he replied with matching glints in his eyes and teeth. “I am the  ability to reorganize matter .”

I stared at him. “Like Pricina?”

“I don’t know her, but I have no way of remembering anyone. I   am  the  knowledge to command air particles, make wind, form storms, concentrate gasses, and pull all the air out of your lungs. I can move liquids, change the course of tides, twist whirlwinds, make waterfalls flow upwards, and make underground oil squirt up like a geyser. It goes even further. I can control minerals and alloys, move mountains and make whole cities disintegrate with a snap of my fingers.”

I wouldn’t have considered believing him if I hadn’t already seen Pricina do such things on a smaller level.

I cleared my throat and asked, “Are you a god?”

He looked at me curiously. “You didn’t know I was a god? That’s bad. In that case, let me make a few things about this clear. I’m not the  god . I’m not the original god who set this world rotating. I’m not The Beginning and The End. I’m not the author of all this. There are other gods working here.”

“Is Henry Brandon one of them?” I asked.

“I told you, I don’t know everything Damon Christianus should know. That doesn’t mean that person isn’t a god. It just means I don’t know him. Gods and goddesses crop up from time to time. Sometimes they don’t hold it well. Obviously, I haven’t, but if I’ve taken a wife then I’m probably on track for regaining some of my former glory.”

“I don’t think you know you’re a god,” I said slowly. “The Christian I know is always on the run, hiding, lying, disguising, changing his face, and changing his name.”

The Other Christian’s face softened beautifully as his eyes met mine. After all those times he had been forced to school his features, not let his love for me show, seeing his unfiltered love on his face straight up took my breath away.

I licked my lips. “I don’t understand. Are you saying I’m a goddess because I have your heart?”

He nodded. “When we married, I gave you everything that I am. In a human ceremony, they give all their worldly goods to each other. They only do that in a vain attempt to make their weddings like ours. I didn’t just give you whatever possessions I have. I gave you the gift of becoming all that I am.” He leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “Current circumstances notwithstanding, I’m literally everything.”

My breath caught. “I thought I wasn’t supposed to eat the stones.”

“If you hadn’t, you could never have awoken me and consequently, our union could not have deepened. Can you feel how it’s getting deeper?”

I nodded.

“Good. Thinking back, if I was in a position where I had to cut myself off, I would not have cut off my ability to control matter in one go. I would have done it in sections; a hundred and twenty-five sections to be exact.”

“That was how many stones were resting on you!”

He suddenly looked down at my stomach like he had realized something else. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine. Great, even.”

His eyes traveled between my face and my stomach a few times before he inclined his head. “I’ll check on you later.” Then he returned to the previous subject. “The reason I would have chosen to cut my abilities into a hundred and twenty-five pieces is that there are a hundred and twenty-five different kinds of matter on this planet.”

“Are you talking about the elements on the periodic table? There are a hundred and eighteen.”

“Don’t bore me with whatever scientists think right now. There are a hundred and twenty-five unique forms of matter that went into the creation of this world. With each of the stones you ate, you gained the ability to bend that element to your will the same way you can move individual cells in your body. The easiest way is to learn how to manipulate all of them at once rather than to learn them individually, and I will teach you”

He took me by the hand and led me back to the second room. Once there, he lifted me onto the altar. “Have you ever been sacrificed before?”

“I’ve never been butchered for funsies. If that’s what you mean.”

He looked at me earnestly. “Have you ever sacrificed yourself?”

I straightened my back. “I thought you didn’t want me to die?”

“You’re absolutely not going to die, but the version of you that is human will be gone if I tell you the secrets to manipulating matter. You’ll have the power to change anything around you with a blink. Rain will turn back into clouds because you say so. You’ll have eyes everywhere because the floorboards in a house will tell you everything you want to know. Even diamonds will tell you their secrets,” he said with the most seductive click of his tongue.

I leaned forward and rested my forehead against his. “I’m afraid it might be too late to do anything else.”


CHAPTER SIX

All that Matters

“The most unfortunate thing about this situation inside your heart is that I will not be able to do a demonstration for you of matter manipulation and you will not be able to practice under my guidance. You will have to learn everything like you’re reading a book and when I’m far from you, you’ll have to put what you have learned into practice.” The Other Christian briefly touched the tips of our noses together. “I believe in you. You’ll do beautifully.”

Stroking the side of my face to bring my ear close to his mouth, he began what he needed to tell me. “This world,” he said smoothly. “Is fake.”

I gasped. “What?”

“The planet earth is fake.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that it didn't naturally exist in this place in the solar system. It was moved here and terraformed.”

“You did?”

He chuckled. “I didn’t. I said I wasn’t the god of this world. Another god did the heavy lifting. He moved dirt, made continents, built mountains, planted forests, dug streams, and made a planet where people could live. This planet is not surviving here naturally. The balance of sunlight, breathable gasses , water, radiation, and magnetism is precarious. One tiny variation and the whole thing goes up in flames. Like many other planets like Earth, it’s a place to train trustworthy people to become gods themselves. Keeping the planet in order is the mission of the little gods who were born here before they can move onto other worlds.”

“So people like Pricina haven’t been doing a good job caring for the planet?”

“I don’t know about her specifically, but I do know that no one is doing a good job caring for the planet at this very minute,” the Other Christian explained.

“Was that your job?” I asked, feeling a knot in my stomach.

“Yes. My assignment has been to restore balance to this planet. If I had been able to accomplish everything I set out to do, I would have left already.”

“Left and gone where?”

“To terraform another planet or to work on my own personal world. I’m not from here. I came here because there has been a serious problem the younger gods couldn’t handle. Weaker gods are supposed to take care of earthquakes, tsunamis, meteors, and anything else that might wreak terrible devastation on the inhabitants who live here. They’re supposed to practice caring for a whole planet. It’s what you do as a god before you attempt to terraform one yourself.”

“Those all sound like pretty big problems to me. If you weren’t dealing with earthquakes and meteors then what kind of problem do they call you in for?” I questioned.

He scratched under his eye. “Earth started wanting to flip its magnetic poles roughly five hundred years ago. It needs to do so from time to time. For hundreds of years, all I did was hold the north pole where it should be. Normally, it’s a job done by two gods. One controls the north pole and the other controls the south pole. We didn’t have even two candidates for the task among the little gods here. They thought I could do it alone because of my greatness because of the other versions of me who have mastered concepts more difficult than moving a mountain. I did as they asked and waited for a better solution. The younger ones were supposed to be learning, preparing to control the poles, but I can tell you for nothing, they failed.” He sighed and closed his eyes briefly. “I can feel it now. The north pole is all over the place. It’s splintering. We’re relatively close to where it should be, but it’s not here. Half of it is in Siberia and another fragment in Lapland. The other parts are so broken and fuzzy, that I’m not sure where they are right now. If it keeps moving, it could be devastating to the human population.”

I glanced around, feeling like I should have been able to figure out that much by myself. “Wait, then you know where Tombstone Mountain is? You know where we are.”

“I don’t know the name Tombstone Mountain, but I know we are somewhat near the place of a significant gold stream. I took most of it for myself.”

“The Yukon gold rush,” I sputtered. I was further west than I imagined. “What happens if the poles flip?”

“We want them to flip. The problem is that they’re not flipping smoothly, and the erratic movement and splitting of the poles cause breaks in the earth’s magnetic field. Humans need the field to protect them from solar radiation. I don’t know how far along you people have come technologically since I was last flexing my muscles in the earth’s core, but if your people have come far, it might cause a lot of damage. That’s not even mentioning all the life that will be disrupted.” Then, it was as though he thought of something he hadn’t thought of before. “Why are you so close to the North Pole? Why are you here? You said you were kidnapped many times. What’s happening?”

“Most recently, I am currently being held hostage by some of your ‘little gods’ and I have been chained up in an empty castle in the mountains for months.”

“Chained up?”

“Literally. They told me I had to learn how to get a metal ring through my ankle without cutting off my foot. I did it, but I am still a prisoner and that was how I ended up eating the rocks off your abs.”

He pulled me closer to him and kissed the side of my head. “My brave girl,” he whispered, sounding so familiar it hurt.

Yet, even though he held me so close, even though I felt warm in his arms and heard his words in my ear, I knew he wasn’t really there. What I saw was a physical manifestation of him, but I was talking to information he’d hidden in his heart. That bit of him took on the appearance of something I could understand, his body. It was the same way his heart looked like a shrine when it was actually a blood pump.

“Do you know where my body is?” the Other Christian asked.

I shook my head.

“The lesser gods are panicking,” he continued, his voice raspy and clipped. “That’s why they chained you up and separated us. If we were together, there would be no reason for us to be tinkering around in each other’s bodies. If we’re separated, we’ll go inside ourselves searching for a means to communicate. They’re trying to get you to repair me and make us a real couple. Most immortals who have shared body parts can communicate without tools.”

Then it made sense. That was how Brandon had contacted Pricina when his head was cut off and both parts of him were locked up. He still had his bond with Pricina because she was his wife. Considering her power, she could have gone to save him. Brandon wanted me to go save him in order to get me closer to Christian. I suddenly hated him a lot less.

I looked at the Other Christian. He didn’t know anything about Brandon. He was only thinking about himself.

I chuckled. “You’re about to tell me how great you are, aren’t you? How you’ve always shown me how dashing you are on the outside and now you’ll show me how magnificent you are on the inside? How even amongst gods, there is no one greater than you?”

He looked at me strangely. “My magnificence is funny?”

I dropped my smile. “No. Your magnificence is not funny,” I said, before letting a corner of my mouth tilt up. “The constant reminders of your magnificence are extremely funny.”

Unlike my Christian back in real life, this version of him didn’t know what to do with my teasing.

“Are you surprised you love someone like me?” I prodded.

“Not at all. It’s very obvious why I want you under my skin and why I want to be under yours. I’m waiting impatiently for the moment when you tell those lesser gods that you are the strongest on Earth and they will obey your every instruction because, without you, their immortality has damned them. I’m sure you’ll find a way to say it so it sounds like you’re flattering yourself instead of cursing them.”

My mouth hung open.

He looked in my eyes and I saw the part of Christian that dared me to be more. It was clear that part of him had never been an act.

He spoke, “I’m going to teach you everything I know about manipulating matter. What I’ve told you so far is only the beginning. Then I hope I’ll be able to deliver your sword, forge an adequate connection between your body and mine, and I can return to my body. If all these things happen, we might be able to attempt to flip the poles and restore balance. It is a very rewarding project because the new balance should last at least two hundred thousand years.”

Had I missed something? “Deliver my sword?”

He smiled. “The stones in your belly. They’re being forged into a sword.”

“I can’t fit a sword in my belly.”

He put his hand on my stomach and then bent down to place his ear against my stomach. “This isn’t a real place. You were not eating stones. You were processing knowledge—too much knowledge for a person to take in at once. I’ll help you process it. The part of me that you’re talking to right now is a part of me I cut from my body. The rest of my body doesn’t know how to manipulate matter. I was put here as a package for you to open. I’m sure you understand. Things in the Red Forest take a shape you can understand. That’s why we’re in a building and you’re talking to me… because I am a shape you understand. It’s very intimate that you turned me into a man instead of a book or a download.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying,” I admitted.

“The sword is not a sword, it’s knowledge about how to manipulate matter and how to send messages through particles between two points. One point is you and the other point is my body. Once you understand everything I do, you can send a vast spectrum of knowledge across the air to me and my body can accept it. Once that’s done, we’ll be able to coordinate everything we think and do in a way that is beyond humanity.” He paused. “In other words, we won’t need to be together to communicate through our hearts. We’ll be able to tell each other where we are and make plans to meet.”

That meant he’d be able to rescue me and if not, I’d be able to do more than just make doorways. I’d be able to bring the whole castle down.

“Well,” he asked, “are you ready to start becoming everything I am?”

“I hope so,” I whispered, biting my lip.

“At first, it’s going to feel like you’re carrying every single diamond in Aladdin’s cave. The weight of the knowledge will be unbearable, but as you get used to carrying it and using it, it will become as natural as carrying the calcium that makes up your bones. Listen well.” He drew me closer into his arms and whispered how the different elements worked.


CHAPTER SEVEN

The Forge Inside Me

If there had been a camera pointed at me in the castle on Tombstone Mountain, what it recorded would not have made much sense. If the recording started in the morning, it would show me asleep in bed. By afternoon, I would not have moved at all. My eyes were closed in what appeared to be sleep. When evening came, I would not have had anything to eat or drink, and I would still be under the covers. I wouldn’t have made a single trip to the bathroom. Anyone watching the footage would think I was dead, except for one thing. I opened my eyes once a day to see if Brandon or Pricina had returned. It was a pointless exercise. Pricina was a woman of her word.

I had never had much interest in keeping count of the days I spent on the mountainside and I didn’t bother to keep count once the Other Christian started teaching me.

Every day, I curled up in his lap like a cat and he taught me how to solidify tepid water, mold rock with a thought, reorganize tectonic plates to minimize an earthquake, and more.

I had questions. “Can I reorganize the matter in another human’s body?” I asked him, wondering if I could heal broken bones in someone else’s body.

“Can you?” he asked. “Have you ever done it?”

I shook my head.

“You will, but I can’t teach you that. Haven’t you noticed that everything I’ve taught you is how to deal with inert materials? Things that don’t move by themselves and have no power to move on their own? I imagine one of the other versions of myself can give you that knowledge, but not me. I have no power over living things.”

I smiled as I listened to all this. He sounded exactly like the Christian I had known. He didn’t know a hundred different facts about himself, but he knew how to organize his surroundings to suit his tastes.

Suddenly, he asked me, “Have you ever been to the village of the people who never die—Nhagaspir?”

I shook my head. “Where is it?”

He pointed downward. “Under us. It’s an underground palace that moves from time to time in order to hide lesser gods from the eyes of the world. It’s a place where they can monitor the planet and keep things on track. You will need to go there when the time comes for us to flip the poles. Doing it from there will be the most convenient.”

“Why?”

“Because there are lines of communication laid out throughout the world and being there offers you a method where you can send messages down lines of cooperative particles. It’s a seat of power. However, there’s no food there. It’s about as flourishing as the middle of the desert, so humans can’t live there. Though humans have occasionally visited. They’re in awe of the beauty. It was crafted by immortals with my kind of power, so it’s like the gates of heaven, but it’s not a place for humans.”

The idea that I could thrive in a place that is not meant for humans struck me suddenly. He had meant it when he said I wouldn’t be human anymore. For some reason, I hadn’t completely believed him. “Am I not human anymore?” I mumbled.

The Other Christian was not in the mood to humor any kind of remorse on the subject. “You can go back to being a human any time you like,” he said heartlessly.

“How would I do that?”

“You’d merely have to consciously replace all the cells in your body that belong to me with new cells. A human body replaces cells regularly and flushes useless cells all the time. You’d just need to instruct your body that the cells that make up my heart are bad. You’d eat, drink, sleep, and slowly your body would throw away all the cells in my heart and replace them with new cells of your making. After that, you could become human just by telling your body to die. You’d lose control of the Red Forest and your body would age normally again.”

“Do immortal people make that choice?” I asked.

“Yes, but what happens more often is that they lose control of the Red Forest without meaning to.”

I suddenly remembered asking Christian about the Red Forest in those precious hours between leaving the compound and my kidnapping. I had asked him about the Red Forest and he had no idea what I was talking about. He had fallen very far, but somehow, he was still giving his body instructions and his cells were still following them. After all, he was living without a working heart, but a new urgency to find him was mounting inside me.

“Teach me more. I need to find you.”

The Other Christian obliged and, over the days and weeks, he taught me everything he knew. The world outside went black and then one unknown hour at the top of the world, a soft glow appeared.

When he told me the last thing, I knew we had reached the end. A heat had been growing in my stomach with every word he said. When he told me the last thing, it completed a pattern that had been building in my head, and the moment he slid the last fact into place, a terrible pain spiked inside me.

I groaned, holding my stomach.

“It’s time,” he said. He scooped me off the floor in his arms and placed me on the altar. “Don’t be afraid. It will hurt but when it’s over, the rewards will be great.”

“Don’t let go,” I gurgled, reaching for him. The pain was burning up my esophagus.

“I have to stand behind you,” he said, changing his position. “Be strong. When it’s over, everything about this situation will be better.” He stood behind me and put his hands on either side of my head. “When it hurts most, put your head back as far as it can go, and don’t mind my fingers in your mouth.”

“I’m going to throw it up?”

“Not exactly. Remember to throw your head back. I’ll help you hold it there if I can, and I’ll guide you with my voice.”

The next moment I was screaming. There was a fire in my belly like someone had ignited a rocket there.

Christian was cradling my head. “You’re beautiful.”

My eyes went wide.

He continued and I caught snatches of his words through my pain. “You’re beautiful. I’m nothing… merely a collection of thoughts, but suddenly… you are so very beautiful.”

I couldn’t reply. I could only scream.

His voice was in my ear. “Think of what you thought the first time you saw me. What did you think?”

I felt like I was spitting fire, but I managed to go back to that often visited memory. “You were too much for me. So handsome, so much more than I expected. You stopped my heart.”

“And what do you feel toward me?”

“Obsession, devotion, love…”

“Excellent,” he soothed, stroking my cheek. “You’re going to live forever. Your scream is beautiful. Go ahead and scream.”

I wasn’t human anymore. My screaming was like singing… like an angel singing.

“Take my hand,” he urged, clasping mine in his. “Hold on as tight as you wish. Soon you’ll start coughing.”

It was hard to say exactly what happened after that. I screamed and all the pleasure I felt eating those stones was repaid with pain. Then the pain deepened and it was as if every moment I had ever felt anything positive with Christian was turned against me. Soon, the pain was so great I was paying for every moment I had ever been happy in my entire life.

The Other Christian put his fingers down my throat until I gagged. He put my head back, so it was hanging over the edge of the altar, and held my forehead down with his other hand. He began pulling something out of my throat. I choked and squirmed, but he kept a firm grip on the sword coming out of my mouth.

“Easy girl,” he said, pushing down on my forehead.

A moment later the worst of the pain was gone. I rolled over to get away from it and fell off the altar.

The Other Christian came around and lifted my head. “You did it.” He showed me a sword. It was black metal with the same amount of sheen as the rocks I’d swallowed.

I wanted to stay with him, in the heart, in the Red Forest. I wanted to hear what he’d say about it and how he planned to use it, but for the first time, I was actively ripped from the Red Forest and awoke in my bed.

It was night and the room was almost pitch black, except for a nightlight in the hall. I felt just as sick in my body as if everything that had happened was real. My throat was beyond parched and my mouth felt burnt. I stumbled to the bathroom and put my face under the facet.

The Other Christian had not warned me it would be that painful. I had blisters on my tongue and down my throat.

I let the water run and run because I could not go to the Red Forest to repair myself. I could feel at once that it was impossible. If I could have repaired this kind of injury, I would have done it while I was there. The damage was too much for me to just wish it away. It was too much for my little immortality… which meant what I had just gone through was worse than a bullet in my brain.

I had learned so much, but at that moment, only one thing was clear to me. I had taken a crucial step away from humanity. I looked at myself in the mirror above the sink.

The Other Christian was right. The pain, the sacrifice, the knowledge that came with it… it had somehow made me more beautiful.


CHAPTER EIGHT

The Sword Through the Mirror

For three days, I was ill. I could not return to the Red Forest and the only thing that brought relief was the water that I froze for myself.

I took a sip of water, froze it in my mouth, and sucked on it, allowing the heat to melt it on my tongue. I sat in my bed, repeating the process over and over as the water slid down my burnt esophagus.

From my bed, I stared out over the window at the mountain view. I tried to calculate how hard it would be to make a planet if you were one person tackling the project one step at a time. Order these molecules to make a mountain. Order this water to collect here. Move this, change that, and alter the face of a planet. It would take millions, perhaps billions, of years to accomplish.

I sighed. That was what the science books said.

I looked at the glass bishop Pricina had left in my room. It was a far greater reminder of what I could accomplish than anything else. Could I do something like that too?

I looked at the interior of the castle, the disorderly, madcap slabs of stone that made up the walls, and I realized they were disorderly because the lesser gods wanted to give a person like me a chance to practice reorganizing matter. I ordered a few of the stones in the wall using angry looks instead of words and organized them into something resembling a pattern, but it tired me. If I did that, I couldn’t freeze the water in my mouth.

No matter what knowledge the Other Christian had given me, I was still very new at actually doing it.

I was healing. My body was racing to heal, but the damage was vast. I couldn’t speak. Sometimes I couldn’t breathe. There was only the ice that I froze when it was on my tongue. It melted, but I froze it again when it was in my esophagus, and again when it was in my stomach. I felt some relief. It could have ordered the melted ice back up my throat, but separating it from my stomach acid was a nuisance. It was easier just to drink more water.

On the fourth day, I was a bit better. I could croak out words and my breathing was comfortable. I no longer felt like sucking ice chips and I decided to try traveling to the Red Forest.

I didn’t go straight to the heart. I went to my throat and oversaw the repair work that had already started. It was hard to describe the damage. It was different from other wounds I had repaired within myself on other occasions. It was like the damaged cells were warped instead of just broken. Staring into the dark lines like harp strings that made up my vocal cords, I realized the cells weren’t different because they were broken. They were new cells because I was changing. They were different because my body was moving away from producing the human cells it had before. This was the start of becoming something different from the inside out.

I could instruct my body to stop what it was doing… to heal the damage by making the cells the way they had been made when I was human, or I could let these new cells take control and spread.

The new cells made up a better design. I could see that immediately. If I allowed this to continue, I would no longer be fragile, but the process that transformed me into a truly immortal being would take a long time if I was the one in charge of the change. It would probably take the same amount of time it took to terraform a planet—millions of years.

I allowed it to continue.

I snapped my fingers to attention and ordered a clean-up of the area, which meant tying down nerve endings so I wouldn’t feel any more pain.

As I watched different parts of myself flail like ivy vines in the wind, I realized one of the reasons people gave up being immortal. They lost their nerve. Everything that was happening inside me was outside my life experience and expectations. It flew in the face of everything I had ever been taught to wish for or dream about. Those dead gods must have longed for something familiar, something that made sense to them.

I felt a stab in my chest as I thought about Trinity. She was the only thing I was leaving behind that bothered me.

Once I knew I had given my body enough instructions that there would be no more pain, I was eager to speak to the Other Christian and found myself standing outside the shrine of his heart.

Inside, he was pacing the length of his chamber, balancing the sword over his shoulders as though he were in stocks. Upon seeing me, he bounced it off his bare shoulders and caught it in his palm. He rushed to me and kissed me.

It was not like a real kiss. It was like the gut-wrenching memory of a kiss that couldn’t really materialize in this place.

It could not last. The feelings I had when I was kissed rolled around a few times in my stomach and dissipated. We separated and our eyes met.

“Do you know what happened to me when we pulled the sword free?” I asked, my voice smooth as butter—very unlike the way I had spoken when I was awake in the castle.

He shook his head. “You left to rule your Red Forest. Didn’t you?”

“It looks different out there. What we’ve done has changed me.”

“As we hoped it would.”

“Did you know the pain I would suffer?”

He shrugged because he was helpless. “I couldn’t have prevented any pain you suffered and I didn’t make you eat the stones. They were a pleasure to eat, so there has to be an equal and opposite effect.”

I took a step backward. “There’s no way that the pain I suffered was equal to the pleasure I experienced eating those rocks.”

“It wasn’t just the pleasure of eating them that had to be paid. It was also all the knowledge you gleaned. You’ve practiced out in the real world, haven’t you? Moving stone? Shifting matter? Speaking to water?”

All of that was true. Perhaps it was an even trade, yet I still felt somewhat cheated. “You could have warned me.”

He tilted his head to the side and said, “I did. It’s just that every time you gain something, you lose something else. This time, whatever was capable of hurting felt it when you became so much more. Please remember this rule and try not to call foul every time a natural consequence crops up.”

I groaned. “I hate maturing!”

He waved to me to come to him and I did. “You’ve been asked to mature much faster than… pretty much everyone. I’ll let you complain. All you want. Go ahead.”

“It really hurt! It took me three days to heal enough so that I could come back here.”

“Only three days! You good girl! I thought it had been three weeks!” he exclaimed.

I pouted. “Are you mocking me?”

“It amuses us both.”

I stuck out my bottom lip. “What are we going to do with the sword now that we have it?” I asked dully, still weak from three days of agony.

“You’re going to break the mirror in my chamber,” he said with an adorable tilt of his head.

I took the sword in my hand. The Other Christian gave it to me with a grin. It was the first time I held it. In a different world, he’d be a delighted husband, handing his wife oversized scissors for her to cut the ribbon on the day of her boutique’s grand opening. As it was, he was handing me a black sword and asking me to stab a mirror.

I did not feel excited in the least. I felt weak, depleted, and sick at heart.

He put his arms around me and positioned me in front of the mirror. His hand covered mine on the hilt of the sword.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m supposed to split the mirror by impaling it? I get that part, but what is supposed to happen after that?”

“I will disappear because you are sending my information to the real me. You’re using your image in the mirror to indicate where you want to send the information. When you stab the glass, you need to stab yourself in the heart,” he said with calm, measured words.

“Stabbing myself in the heart seems like the exact opposite of what I should be doing,” I complained.

“It seems so, but you’re no longer completely human and many of the things we do to accomplish our means look like we’re about to commit suicide. We do it that way because they are acts that are not normally performed by humans. We have to do things that remind us that we’re not human or we might slip and allow ourselves to revert back to what we were. After all, we still look human. Besides, this is nothing. You’re attacking a mirror image, not yourself.”

I agreed and wondered what acts of self-destruction I would need to do in the future if I stayed on this path.

The other Christian continued, “When I arrive on the other side, I’ll repair your heart and get it to beat.”

“I thought you didn’t do anything in the Red Forest because you only control inert matter?”

“I don’t, but when I arrive, I’ll be able to relay your command to heal the cells there. In the same way you’re in my heart now, I’ll pull the blade through the mirror into the halls of your heart, completing the connection. Once I run out the door of your heart into my Red Forest, I’ll again become part of Damon Christianus. Christian will remember me and the next time we meet, he and I will be one person. The mirror will become like glass and you and I will be able to talk through it and arrange how we can meet again in person.”

“You’ll pull it through?”

“I’ll grasp the blade of the sword, cutting my fingers, and pull it through. You forged it with great pain and I’ll pull it through with great pain. The joy we’ll feel at the end will be on the far side of happiness.” He breathed fervor and fire. “Are you ready?”

“No! Will there be a version of me in the chambers of my heart when you get there?” I wondered loudly, interrupting his rush to get started.

“It’s unlikely,” he explained, slowing down. “Unless you deliberately planted a part of yourself there, then it is probably empty.”

“That sounds sad,” I said, plumping my lip out in a pout.

He looked at me twice, enjoying something about me before continuing, “It may be, but if we are very successful, by the end of this, all these broken parts of me that sit around here like dumb idiots will step through the mirror and rejoin my body. Then, these chambers will be empty too. Because I’m not actually supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be with my body, ordering matter , and bringing down the halls.”

With the hilt of the sword between both my hands, he crushed my fingers between his.

“I can’t wait to see you,” I said breathlessly, glancing upward at his set jaw.

“If you think I fell hard for you before, you should know I’ll fall much harder when I see you now. I’ll be your slave. Are you ready?”

I nodded, fearing what danger the real Christian was in, wherever he was.

The Other Christian let go of me and stepped back. “Drive it through the mirror!”

I backed up, unsure of how much force I would need to push it through. Running, I slammed it through the mirror’s surface. I should have expected it, but the surface of the mirror was not hard like a mirror in the real world. It was soft and fleshy and I felt an acute pain in my chest. Like the thinnest needle in the world had slipped between my ribs and pierced my heart.

I screamed and fell, clutching the frame of the mirror.

Then I heard the pounding footsteps of someone running toward me.


CHAPTER NINE

The King of the Red Forest

Christian’s hand covered mine as it rested on the place of pain on my chest. The sword was in the mirror. I could see it sticking through the glass, but I felt it like it was in my heart.

I stared at him wide-eyed. “I thought you were…” I gasped. “I thought you were supposed to be gone.”

He looked around the room. “I just got here. How could I be gone?”

I staggered away from the mirror and fell to the floor, breathing hard. As I leaned against the altar for support, I noticed he was not wearing the sarong, but a red tailored suit. He had a crown on his head. Bits of his fair hair curled around the dark circlet. He was the king in the first room, not the victim on the altar from the second room.

I chuckled as I sank further to the floor. I had awoken another one of them.

He knelt beside me and when he put his hand firmly on my ribs, all the pain disappeared.

“You made the pain go away?” I gasped.

“Of course, I did,” he said, compassion glimmering in his eyes.

I flicked his crown with my fingers. “What are you the king of anyway?”

“The Red Forest,” he answered modestly. “And I don’t mean to alarm you, but the sword in your heart might be made of information about the one  of the hundred and twenty-five elements existing on this planet, but it’s still a sword and it’s still stuck through your heart. If I wasn’t here to heal you every one-hundredth of a second, you would be in unbearable pain.”

“Thank you,” I murmured, still feeling a tightness in my chest.

“Can you tell me what’s happened?” he asked pleasantly.

I had known a lot of doctors from my time living in a hospital and King Christian’s bedside manner was top-notch. The look in his eyes and the timbre of his voice were both excellent.

I told him everything that happened, everything that the Other Christian had told me and if he had wanted more, I would have told him my whole life story, he listened so kindly.

“You’re doing great,” he said evenly, “but something has gone wrong. I’m going to have a look in the mirror and see if I can figure out the problem. Keep breathing.”

I watched him stand up and examine the surface of the mirror. He slid his fingers up and down the sword like he was contemplating pulling it out.

I stayed quiet and let him figure out what he could. Soon he abandoned his idea of removing the sword and crouched beside me. “Please forgive me if any of what I’m about to tell you is redundant. I’m just meeting you for the first time, Beth, so let's try our best to be patient with one another.”

“How do you know my name? The Other Christian didn’t know anything about me.” I questioned.

He gave me an adoring smile. “I gave you my heart. Without a King of the Red Forest, neither of us would have lived through that operation.” His eyes lingered on my chest, on the exact spot where I felt the pressure from the sword. “Just now you awoke me by stabbing that sword through my heart. The Christian who was in this room, the Other Christain, you just called him, the one who was attempting to forge a connection… He has probably failed.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I’m repairing this heart a hundred times every second. I can do so with less than a thought. If the Other Christian made it back to my body, my real body, through a particle channel, he would be able to pull the sword through on the other side immediately. It should have been painless from your perspective. Painful from his, but painless from yours. The fact that he hasn’t pulled it through means he has failed. He didn’t open the gateway between you and the real Christian.”

“What?”

King Christian sighed and explained, “It should have opened a gateway so that the mirror is no longer a mirror, but a window or a doorway. It would become a channel for you to talk to me… the real me. Something is wrong.”

“What could have caused our plan to fail?” I croaked, still breathing strangely.

He shook his head. “It could be any number of things. Maybe I’ve fallen so far that I can’t remember how to walk into my Red Forest. Maybe your heart has disintegrated so badly inside the real Christian’s body that it needs to be repaired before the sword can be pulled through. If the real me is in the middle of running or fighting, I might not be able to forge a decent connection, even with everything in alignment here. Whatever the problem is, rest assured, the Other Christian, who was sent across airwaves like an encyclopedia to accompany the sword, will be a force for good, almost as if he were a real person.”

I nodded, believing him completely.

“And immortality is pain?” I said.

He smiled. “For now. There is one thing I can tell you that might comfort you. You’ve not perfectly invulnerable yet, but until you are, I will protect you like an unsleeping bloodhound. You won’t suffer a scratch that I won’t immediately heal.”

He kissed me, and it was like the kiss the Other Christian had given me. I could feel his lips pressed against mine, but still, it was more like the memory of a kiss than a real one.

“This still isn’t real, is it?” I asked, pulling away.

He smiled and shrugged. “I would understand if it wasn’t your cup of tea. The physical mechanics of what I just did are not as they appear here, and well… I won’t kiss you if it’s only a sad imitation.”

I frowned. “That was why Brandon and Pricina didn’t want me anywhere near the real you because loving you in the real world would distract me from what I could learn here.”

He stood up and reached for my hand. “Let’s go have a look at your body.”

I got up and, holding hands, we left the shrine.

The Red Forest looked the same as it always had, like a wet jungle where a brutal massacre had just taken place. I felt more self-conscious than ever. Perhaps I was supposed to do something more to tame the forest, and I had not. I hadn’t even thought of how to do it.

“Beth,” he said, looking at the forest’s edge with compassion in his eyes. “At its height, when you have the finest body I can make you, your forest will no longer be red. It will be white.”

“Is the inside of your body white?”

A sad smirk played across his face. “Probably not, but it used to be. You can fall from any height or power… supreme knowledge… invulnerability. Brandon and Pricina are doing everything they can to save the real me.”

“You know them?”

“Of course. I worked with Brandon when we did the operation that switched our hearts.”

“Why did you package yourself up and come over to my side?”

“Someone like the Other Christian told me where I was supposed to be and it was here.”

I thought back. He was talking about the Christian in the last chamber. If King Christian had memories from the real Christian, I had to get him to share what he knew. “Hmm… When I tried to mention the Red Forest to you… uh… to the real Christian before I was kidnapped, he didn’t seem to know anything about it. How was Christian changing faces or pumping his blood through his body without you, without a heart, and with no access to the Red Forest?”

“He would just wish for what he wanted and it would be, but his talent for that was fading. By the time he switched hearts with you, I know he was relying on makeup and other things to hide what he couldn’t do.”

I grumbled at all I didn’t know.

King Christian rested his head on my shoulder. “You should leave me here,” he murmured, kicking a root with his toe.

“Why should I leave you?”

“Because communicating with me is ineffective. I have complete access to your body. I’ll work on it for you. For now, you need to go back to the real world and use your new abilities to reform the castle. When you fix the structural abnormalities, new passages will appear. You’ll be able to leave.”

I sucked in my breath. “Where should I go? It’s very cold outside. Snowing.”

“Don’t go outside. Heal the castle. It’s much larger than it looks from the rooms you’ve seen. If you move everything to where it’s supposed to be, you’ll find a way down. It will lead you to Nhagaspir.”

I bit my lip. That was the village of the immortals that the Other Christian told me about. I had to go there alone?

“Listen,” he said, taking my hands in his. “There is nothing to be gained from staying here to see if the Other Christian was successful. The moment he pulls the sword through and opens the channel of communication, you’ll know it. It will be very obvious. You can safely pay attention to escaping the castle.”

“It’s a real sword?” I asked, looking for confirmation.

“It’s not made of metal, but it is as real as my soul and yours. As I said before, it would not have hurt you if the Other Christian had been able to pull it through on the other side. For now, it is pierced through your heart and you’re only feeling alright because I am here, saving you from the anguish that it would inflict on someone as weak as you at ruling the Red Forest.” He stroked the side of my face. “This place will be different when you come back. Go on. It may be that the real me is waiting for you in the village, but I lack the power to rescue you from the castle without the knowledge of the Other Christian.”

I stepped away and repeated his instructions back to him. “Rearrange the stones, find the passage downwards?”

“You can do it,” he affirmed.

I waved goodbye to him.

“Imagine yourself a belt to go with that dress,” he called to me as I disappeared.

That was just like him. Giving fashion advice when he was only a fraction of a person.


CHAPTER TEN

Healing the Castle

I opened my eyes and, though I only felt an odd tightness in my heart, I could see the black hilt of the sword protruding from my chest. I moved to touch it and my fingers went straight through it. I rubbed my eyes. I could see it, I knew it was there, but I couldn’t touch it. Just as King Christian said, it wasn’t made from the one hundred and twenty-five elements I could control. It was made of something I couldn’t even touch.

I slid off the bed.

Aside from the sword, it was obvious the King of the Red Forest had been meddling with my body. When I put my weight on the floor and stood upright, a bunch of pale little balls in my nightgown fell to the floor. I bent over to see what they were. I picked one up and squished it between my finger and thumb. I yelped and dropped it. It was a wad of skin and fat that he had removed and let fall off. I shook out my nightie. There were a lot of them.

I yanked off my nightdress as I rushed to the bathroom to have a look at what he’d done. Looking at myself in the mirror, I saw the sword’s tip poking out of my back as well as sticking out of my chest.

Looking at the rest of my body, I realized quickly that I had never been that lean in my whole life. Removing my body fat had made my muscles visible. My hair was straighter than it had been before, and even though I had been lying in bed for an inestimable length of time, my hair wasn’t even ruffled. It fell in waves almost like it had a life of its own… or at least like it finally knew it was hair and was behaving accordingly instead of frizzing at everything.

Checking myself out, I thought of the attention to detail it would take in the Red Forest to instruct each line in my body. The adjustments I’d made myself had never been that substantial. I didn’t have that kind of power or a reckless spirit. The King of the Red Forest was a sculptor and I had been his art. Yet he had only been alone with my body for a few seconds.

I put on a new set of clothing (leggings and a long button-up-the-front shirt), then I started doing what King Christian had advised me to do. At first, I walked around and instructed individual stones to move by touching them, the same way I had begun giving my body commands in the Red Forest.

Soon, just as he told me, I found the corners of passageways. Too small to fit through, I saw patterns in the puzzle and started moving whole walls with a wave of my hand. As promised, the castle was more extensive than I had been led to believe and soon I was strolling through parts that had been hidden behind stone walls.

Walking through the rooms brought back bad memories because the castle was organized in the same way as the compound outside Edmonton. There were meeting rooms, and rooms like the ones I had just left, intended for imprisoning people who couldn’t die. I checked the spaces, curious as to whether or not there were more people like me locked away, but they were empty.

Finally, it seemed that I had explored everywhere and the only thing that was left was a circle on the floor with the stones arranged in a spiral. I knew what it was immediately. Those were the stone steps that led straight down through a tunnel in the mountain. If I could get them to open for me, I could go down.

It wasn’t difficult. I stepped on them with instructions for them to give way for me, and they immediately obeyed. As I descended downward, I only had fifteen stones to create a staircase that dove miles straight down into the earth. I had to make them move constantly, making stones I had already stepped on leap across the air to catch me as I took a fresh step.

I did that for a while until I realized how inefficient it was. I stopped on one stone and made it travel straight down like an elevator moving at a rate I could stand. The whole thing was nerve-wracking. For one thing, there was no light except the light from above me and it was disappearing fast, and I was falling down a tunnel that had no reasonable bottom. I saw my breath as vapor until the light was gone and I was plunged into complete darkness.

Uncomfortable, I whispered, “Is anyone there?”

The rock slab under my feet trembled and I felt like it was listening.

I rubbed my foot across the stone. Speaking aloud, I asked, “What kind of a rock are you?”

I heard it rumble. “It’s nice that you can talk to rocks.”

“Apparently, I can,” I gaped in surprise. “You heard me and obeyed me earlier. It’s only natural that I should be able to hear you too. You are a very white stone. Do you know what kind of stone you are?”

“I’m dolomite,” it whispered.

“Calcium magnesium carbonate,” I replied, understanding completely. “Did you know you could be a diamond someday?”

“Could I? I thought I was part of a staircase, but you abandoned the others.”

“Were they your family?”

“Rocks don’t have families. Neither do you.”

I nodded my agreement before I realized the rock wouldn’t be able to see my nod and said, “I guess so.”

“I’m glad you chose me. It will be interesting to be with a creator.”

I scoffed. “I’m not a creator.”

It didn’t dispute that. Instead, it asked, “When we get to the bottom of the tunnel, may I stay with you?”

I thought about its suggestion. I had never had a pet rock. Previously, I thought things like that were stupid, but suddenly, it wasn’t stupid. It was awesome. “Do you have a name?”

“Dolomite,” it replied.

“But aren’t all rocks that are dolomite called  dolomite?”

“There hasn’t been anyone around to name us all.”

I smiled. That had been  tremendously cute. I chirped in reply, “What happens when you become a diamond? Will I call you Diamond then?”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you know how far it is to the bottom?” I asked.

“At this speed, it will be hours, if not days.”

“We could go faster…” I muttered uncertainly .

“Are you worried about falling?”

“A bit,” I admitted in the darkness.

“If you fell, you wouldn’t die. You probably wouldn’t even be hurt. If you’re as good at this as you appear, you’ll be able to slow yourself down before you hit the end of the tunnel. I’d catch you if you needed me to. If we free fall, I can fall faster than you.”

“Freefall through the dark? No thanks.” I shook my head even though the dolomite couldn’t see me doing so.

“Shall I help you?”

“Does helping me entail you toppling over so I fall for a bit before you catch me?” I asked suspiciously.

I felt something minor spread under my feet and for a moment I thought I was feeling the rock smile. “Yes. That is exactly what I had in mind. What are you so afraid of? You already know you won’t die. Are you worried about landing on something at the bottom and killing it? Again, that is completely impossible. There is nothing here you could kill. All the people here are immortal. Are you worried about falling on your face like an idiot?”

“Maybe,” I whispered. “Maybe I’m afraid of a lot of things.”

“Maybe it’s time to stop being afraid of anything.”

“Are you going to drop me?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you have to do what I say?” I protested.

It hesitated before answering. “Yes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t love you.”

I felt both my eyebrows arch in the darkness. “Excuse me? Are you threatening me with tough love?”

“There’s no such thing as tough love. There’s only love. If you want my opinion, you should just drop.”

“Is that what the other people did who left the castle and took this tunnel? Just dropped?” I asked.

“Of course not. They were cowards. They did not have the power to awaken rock.”

“So, they couldn’t command every element?”

“Exactly. The first one anyone learns is calcium, and I’m not completely calcium, but I have enough of it in me for a novice to order me about.”

“You’re about a million times prettier than calcium,” I said out loud as I thought of the shiny white stone I was riding.

“How about if you fall a little way and then I catch you?”

I scratched my forehead irritably. I was about to get pushy and make the dolomite do what I said when suddenly I realized that was the wrong answer. I needed to listen to it and do what it suggested. It worked in the same way when I listened to the cells in my body when they told me better ways for reconstruction than what I thought of on my own. Being the one with the control didn’t make me not  an idiot.

“Okay,” I said, and without further ado, it dropped me.

I yelped with surprise, but within a second, I had ordered the calcium in my bones the same way I’d ordered the dolomite and I was floating at roughly the same speed as before. I couldn’t see what happened to the dolomite, but sensed it below me, waiting for me. It caught me as promised.

“Do you see? You don’t even need me,” it murmured happily.

I clapped my hands together. “Okay. Let’s drop. Will you be able to slow down at the bottom on your own?”

“You haven’t said whether or not I can stay with you,” it reminded me.

I thought it over before I answered. “If I take you with me, you can’t be a stone in the staircase anymore,” I said. “You won’t fit in the staircase anymore because you’ll be a different shape, and you’ll have a different name. You’ll be my rock.”

“Yes! Please! All that!” it said.

I thought of the shape of Pricina’s pet bishop that she’d left in my room. I wanted something like that, except not a bishop. A bishop was not a good shape for sitting on and I wanted something functional. I wanted a rhuk like a stool. I went over what it did and what it was called in my mind, sending the instructions to the dolomite.

“I’m going to be called Rhuk, aren’t I?” it said, sounding pleased.

“Will you be okay with that?”

“Yes,” it murmured as it finished changing shape. “You can sit on me.”

I crouched down and felt its smooth surface in the darkness. “You are a much bigger rock than I thought you were. You’re the size of a chair.”

It was the shape of a rhuk, but with a few of the turrets on the top missing, so I could sit on it comfortably. The turrets were high enough to be armrests and a backrest. I sat down.

“This is better than falling like a maniac,” Rhuk said. “Hold on. Let’s speed up.”

I held onto the ridges and we fell with a rush of cold air.

When I finally arrived at the entrance to Nhagaspir, I was met by Christian and Brandon.

They watched me gently descend on my enormous white rhuk and looked at me like they’d never seen anything weirder in their entire lives. Maybe their expressions had more to do with the black sword still lodged in my chest than descending on a chess piece.

Judging from the scar still looped around Brandon’s throat, he couldn’t be very skilled.

When I was close enough, I leaped off Rhuk  into Christian’s arms. Clasping him to my chest, I asked him, “Get your hands bloody yet?”

He stared at me in confusion with his tongue tied.


CHAPTER ELEVEN

The Other Side of Immortal

I kicked him in the face.

He wasn’t Christian.

The unknown man went sprawling on the floor.

I landed gracefully on my feet and turned to Brandon with an angry snarl. “Nice ring you’ve got around your neck.”

He returned my gaze sans my smirk. “Okay,” he said, raising his hands in mock defense. “Christian is not here. I don’t know where he is.”

“After what you put me through, did you really think I wouldn’t be able to spot an imposter at first sight?”

“I thought I might get away with it. You were fooled so many times. You even thought I was Christian,” he said, defensively crossing his arms.

I snarled again before pausing and looking at my surroundings for the first time. It was a place that had been written about in fairytales—a forbidden city. I thought the castle above ground had been magnificent in its own way, but it was nothing.

Before me was the entrance to Nhagaspir. A domed, vaulted ceiling greeted me. It was as though the walls themselves whispered things about me, whispered thoughts communicated through particles that they did not have to air. The walls were patterned like the shining gold scales of a dragon, each one carved individually. No. The gold carved itself, following instructions of a god, and seemed to shine internally. They flashed together like the thousand eyes of an angel. I stared back like a defiant daughter, a rebel, who had finally come home.

The man on the floor got up after being kicked and when he stood up, his face looked completely different. He was as gruff as a Viking, with heavy bones in his head and thick lips.

“I’m Axel,” he said.

I looked at him like I was bored. I was  bored. “I don’t know why I bothered coming down here.”

“Beth…” Brandon said, hesitating on how to proceed.

“I don’t want to talk to you. Even though I have forgiven you a thing or two, I want to talk to Pricina,” I instructed coldly, waving him off and looking at the grand ceiling over my head. “Don’t speak to me and get her.”

Brandon was silent, and I was thankful because I was seriously considering if I still wanted to cut his tongue out.

He swallowed and rubbed the scar on his neck. He took a deep breath and started explaining anyway. “I know you’re annoyed we haven’t found Christian. We have  been looking for him, but we’re not miracle workers or superheroes. Axel and I brought you to our helicopter pad, and we flew from Athabasca across the border into the Yukon and then to the foot of the mountain. We got you set up in the castle and I went back to Edmonton. I have called Christian every time I’ve had an opportunity and I have never once got an answer. I went looking for him. I looked everywhere—every one of his favorite haunts. It seems like he’s nowhere. No one has seen him as Christian Henderson, as Rogan Cormack, or any of his other aliases. I called Hilary and Mabel in Belfron, and nothing. I called other people too. It’s like he was wiped off the face of the planet. One would think that you’d be able to get in touch with him if you were able to move a stone as your personal elevator.”

I shook my head impatiently. “I haven’t been able to. Can’t you see the sword in my chest?”

Brandon looked sharp but also baffled.

“I can see it,” Axel observed. “It’s very elegant.”

“Elegant?” I huffed, feeling a whisper of the pressure the sword was inflicting on my chest.

A grin spread across his broad face. “Yes. There are many ways to establish a connection between two immortals. It’s been hundreds of years since I saw something like this. So beautiful!”

I glared at him. “You’re ogling my chest.”

He backed away. “Sorry. I should go. I’m supposed to be in the meteor room.”

Brandon put himself between me and Axel. “I’ll take you to Pricina. She’s in the tsunami room. There are several other immortals, spread out over other rooms. You can meet them later.”

He began leading the way out of the gold room into a dark corridor. All the corridors that led from the gold room looked dark, like leaving the sun in order to enter outer space.

Brandon kept talking as we stepped into the darkness. “I was hoping that you would be able to find Christian if you went into his heart.”

“Trying to get me to fix your mistake?”

“Look, trying to kidnap Christian would have been impossible for only Axel and me. When dealing with us, he wouldn’t have had to hide his immortality. He would have had fewer limits,” Brandon said, his weird thick accent returning, then disappearing. It was like he didn’t know how he should talk or what character he should adopt to give himself the best advantage while conversing with me. I’d already rejected him so thoroughly. He returned his voice to a neutral North American accent and continued, “The best way was to get you and then get him to come after you. That was the only method that would have worked. As it went, I don’t know if he was taken by someone with better manpower than us or if he disappeared on his own. It seems impossible to think that he wouldn’t be trying to find you if he’s not a prisoner somewhere.”

All that time, I’d just thought Brandon was being a jerkface for not getting in touch with Christian. It had never occurred to me that he had tried and failed. The idea filled me with fresh panic.

“I’ll look for him,” Rhuk suddenly suggested. It had been floating by my side so quietly that I’d almost forgotten it was there.

I sucked in my air and through my tension managed to ask, “Can you do that, little rock?”

“What?” Brandon interrupted. “Did you just call me your ‘little rock’?”

“I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to my pet rock. Its name is Rhuk, and yes. You can’t hear it speak?”

Brandon took a step back. “No. I couldn’t.”

“That’s too bad,” I said to Brandon with an angry condescending sneer. “Please try,” I said softly, addressing Rhuk.

I expected Rhuk to lift off the ground and disappear down the corridor, but instead, it rotated slightly as if focussing its attention in different directions.

“What are you doing?” I asked it, patting one of its turrets.

It bounced a little under my palm. “I have been asking the other rocks what they have seen. Now that they know what they’re looking for, we should be able to find him, but it might take some time depending on how many rocks we have to talk to.”

My brain did wild calculations, counting how many rocks were between Tombstone Mountain and the Canadian Shield and then how many were between us and New York. Paris? Belfron? Fiji? It would have been easier to count the stars in the sky. Wouldn’t talking to every stone take a million years?

Brandon interrupted. “I can’t believe I’m being excluded so you can talk to your rock.”

“By the end of tomorrow, every rock on earth will be looking for Christian. Even the diamonds in lady’s rings. Get comfortable,” it said.

That sounded more hopeful than I originally thought. I turned my attention toward Brandon. “Rhuk is going to search for Christian. We’ll see if it does a better job than you. Where are we? I thought you were taking me to see Pricina.”

Brandon quickened his step and we left the darkness and moved to a hallway with more light. It had a glass ceiling. At first sight, I thought we were looking at the night sky, with stars lit above us, but that was impossible. We were miles below ground. Finally, I realized we were looking at the ocean. The lights I saw were not stars, but bioluminescent sea creatures, lighting up to show not just white, but also crimson and blue. I paused and gazed upwards. It was breathtaking. If I had to lay a guess as to what the architect had been intending to imitate, I would have said the feeling of walking through a comet’s tail.

Brandon stopped, slowing his footsteps on the floor that mirrored the view above. Colored lights were over us and under us. I caught up to him, our footsteps echoing on the floor, even though I wasn’t wearing shoes. The empty space begged any sound to fill it.

As we walked, Brandon continued, attempting to sound reassuring, “I wouldn’t worry about Christian too much. We weren’t worried about him when we picked you up and left him behind. He’s one of the most powerful gods this planet has ever known.”

I didn’t like to tell him how that fact had changed, or how far Christian had fallen. Brandon was useless anyway, and I swore to myself that if he ever got in my way again, I’d do worse than cut off his head. Until then, I decided to give him one more chance to be useful in exchange for asking for my help in his rescue. Perhaps he would come in handy.

“This is the moon room,” he said as he invited me in.

The room Brandon introduced me to was an enormous half sphere, like the moon was hollow and we were entering it. The walls should have shown the backward shape of the craters formed in the moon’s mantle, but instead, the white stone walls were decorated with ornate semi-circles. Carved into the stone walls were peacocks resting in the crook of the moon, women leaning against the curve of the moon like it was their lover, a two-headed dragon grooming itself while staring listlessly at a moon in the distance.

The light in the room was unusual because it came from only one place in the floor, but that point of light moved along the outside curvature of the room. The shadow created unusual shapes and made the carvings on the wall look like one thing when the light shone on them from the left, only to look like something completely different when the light shone on them from the right. It was almost as though the person who designed it had the perspective of someone who had actually been on the moon. The light that shone on the moon was not filtered through an atmosphere. There was only hard  light.

The furniture in the room was a large crescent-shaped sofa where everyone could only look at each other.

Brandon offered me a seat. Rhuk stopped in front of me bobbing itself up and down. It wanted me to put my feet on it, so I did.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that before,” Brandon said. “I mean, I’ve known immortals who could command the elements, but I’ve never seen a mineral act like a pet or see an immortal chat with one. The elements Pricina commands don’t seem to be able to offer affection—only facts.”

From what I had learned inside Christian’s heart, a mineral having a personality shouldn’t be impossible or even strange. Rhuk was merely able to communicate with me better because I was in control of all elements. That included all the elements that made up Rhuk’s  body and all the particles between us. Were the other immortals not trying to learn the language of the hundred and twenty-five elements or were they unable to?

I couldn’t say because the Other Christian had given me everything and I hadn’t had to work for the knowledge in the same way. I had no idea what barriers presented themselves to people who couldn’t learn directly from a greater god.

“Get Pricina,” I ordered softly.

Brandon disappeared from the room. When he bought Pricina back with him, his  face was pale and her cheeks were rosy to accompany the telltale smile on her face. If I had to guess why, it was because her method of convincing me had proved so much more effective than his and she was rubbing it in his face.

“Bethany! You’ve arrived.”

I crushed my teeth together and stood up to greet her. “For the record, I dislike being called Bethany.”

She squinted. “It’s a very traditional name. I’d be proud to have a name so steeped in tradition. However, I will call you Annabeth if you prefer.”

“I like being called Beth.”

“It’s too short,” she said disapprovingly. “Beth is fine for everyday use, but we cannot call you the Goddess Beth. It sounds terrible. You need an extension for special occasions and times when people wish to address you formally.”

“Fine. You can call me Bethany when a formal occasion arises, otherwise don’t,” I said. From what I knew about Christian, a name was only a temporary thing. She could call me whatever she wanted.

“Perfect,” she said with shining eyes before sitting down across from me with Brandon beside her.

As we both sat down, the crescent-shaped sofa rose off the ground and moved slowly around the room, as if to give a perfect view of the art carved into the walls. I snapped my fingers and Rhuk bounded up next to me while I tucked my feet under me. The white light and black shadow had a chilling effect, almost like we were in outer space, flying by the surface of the moon.

“Let’s talk about Christian,” Pricina said in measured tones. “He is the oldest of the gods we have left. He was tasked with correcting our problem with the magnetic field, but he couldn’t fix it on his own. He merely held the north pole in place for five hundred years like those stories of Atlas holding up the sky. Then one day, his mind broke and he couldn’t hold the pole in place for another minute. That was roughly a hundred years ago. Various immortals have tried to hold the poles where they should be. The north pole is going crazy. Half the time it’s in Siberia. Many gods have tried to control it in Christian’s place, but none of them were as good as Christian and the attempts hurt them… irreparably. Christian doesn’t know who he is, what power he used to wield… anything. He’s confused, but he’s in much better shape than the others.”

“What happened to them?”

“They don’t know who they are, where they are, or what they should be doing. The work they did disfigured them. They wander around the village. I have to explain about them in case you see one of them. It’s very likely. There are dozens of them wandering around.”

“Do you have to care for them?” I asked.

“No. They’re immortal… until they’re not… but we don’t know when that happens until one of them turns up dead.”

“They die then?”

Pricina nodded. “Yes. Christian is the only god who could command an Iron Room.”

“An Iron Room?”

“It’s a room designed for giving the best view, for lack of a better word, of the iron river that creates the earth’s polarity. We have other rooms for controlling other aspects of our planet: tsunamis, meteors, earthquakes, and even storms. Our best immortals are busy stopping the earth from destroying itself. One of them is stopping California from detaching. I work in the tsunami room. I don’t need to stay there all the time, but I do need to check up on it most days. I can usually stop disasters from happening, but as you have lived on the surface, you’ll know that I haven’t been able to stop them all. Some of them shouldn’t even be stopped because the consequent rearrangement of the tectonic plates is an improvement in that it provides a more stable structure.”

“Do you prevent a lot of calamities?” I asked.

“I do.”

“What can you do?” I asked Brandon, leaning forward.

“I can heal myself. Obviously, not as well as you, but I can heal others with their consent. That was how I managed to pull off double heart surgery by myself.”

“I wish you’d stop congratulating yourself for that,” I said with a little sting in my voice. “It wouldn’t have been possible if Christian had not been on such a high level and I am still suspicious of why you were willing to do it in the first place. If I could, I’d unravel your mind to uncover your mysteries. However, I do find it interesting that you are able to heal other people.” I knew that was outside my abilities and I wasn’t sure if King Christian could show me how to heal another person. I guessed it was outside his power too.

“I can heal other people better than I can heal myself,” he admitted with a wry smile. “I want them to be well more than I want to be well myself.”

I sighed and twirled a strand of my hair between my fingers. “How did you become immortal?”

“I took control of my cells. Once someone learns that it’s possible to do so, anyone can do it, but it isn’t a good thing for most people.”

I leaned forward. “Why do you think that?”

Brandon looked like he was trying to stop himself from sneezing, his discomfort obvious, but he still attempted to answer me. “It’s knowing something you shouldn’t know to the hundredth power. You have control over yourself, so why shouldn’t other people have control over themselves? You start to realize that people die because they want to. They’re banking on it. They’re hoping to be spared from the long-term consequences of what they do. They live their lives like it’s the last day of work so it’s okay to flip everyone off. It’s too much for their little minds to handle if they understand that the consequences of their actions can have effects that are everlasting.”

“Do you know what happens if they choose death?” I whispered.

“I don’t,” he explained quickly. “I don’t know where people’s spirits come from or where they go. Just that they are. Your spirit is not your brain, not your heart, not your body. You know that too if you’ve pulled a bullet out of your own brain. How could you make a decision with a bullet in the part of your mind that makes decisions? Something inside you can think without your body. That much I know.”

Slowly, Pricina started talking as the hard light lit up half her face like she was a moon in the first quarter. “It’s not our privilege to know what path lies on the other side of death. That is exemplified by many common threads of life. You only get the experiences won by your own choices. The rest is only in your imagination. So, we can imagine what death is to those who experience it. Something happens to that part of them that is not their body, but we can’t know. We decided to keep our bodies and move forward that way.”

“Go on”

She obliged. “I can only know how far immortals can go from what I’ve seen. We can arrange our cells. We can rearrange matter . We can organize the cells of others. The highest I have ever heard of is a god who can create matter. I’m sure you know that flies in the face of the laws of thermodynamics, which most people think are the cornerstones of God’s laws. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, but I know that it can be. I just don’t know how to do it myself.”

I smiled an evil little smile. “Do you need me to chain you up in the castle? I could arrange that. Apparently, that’s the best way for a god to uncover their potential.”

Pricina laughed. “That castle is designed especially for the manipulation of matter and it was designed perfectly… flawlessly.” The evil little grin on her face matched mine. “You’ll never guess who designed it.”

I groaned. “Christian?”

“Bang on, my girl,” she chuckled victoriously. “He made it, though obviously not for you. I put parts of another house inside it in order to give you some modern conveniences, but the guts of that castle have been there for over four hundred years. It’s a brilliant design. When it’s not in use, there are not even windows and it gets swallowed into the mountain. He built it as a training ground for the weak.”

I remembered how weak Christian thought the lesser gods were.

Pricina smiled a sorrowful smile and regarded Rhuk. “It’s so obvious that you are being personally trained by him. That was another reason he built the castle, so no one would be personally trained by him.”

“Why wouldn’t he be willing to train anyone?” I asked, confused. He had been such a careful teacher when he dealt with me.

“To keep everyone away from him,” she said. “All those years ago, there was something he wanted, beyond fixing our planet, beyond raising gods… he wanted something for himself…” Her eyes met mine. “I wonder how he will react when he is healed and he looks back over everything he has accomplished, lost, forgotten, and retrieved… how he will feel about the strange thing he picked up on the beach when he was meant to be mining.”

Pricina wasn’t being very cryptic. I didn’t think she was trying to be. She was trying to be polite as I did get the feeling that she wasn’t trying to offend me. She was genuinely curious. If he had chosen a lover earlier, perhaps a goddess, and taught her how to hold the south pole, they could have flipped it hundreds of years ago. Yet, he hadn’t. He had waited until he had been on the very edge of death before choosing me… a dying child. Once he returned to his greatness, what would he think of me?

I smiled at her. There was no need for me to be curious. He intended to raise me up to his level. He had said as much. I might not have been what he wanted all his life, but I would be what he wanted in the future.

So, I took no offense and bobbed my head as I had no other answer to give her.


CHAPTER TWELVE

The Ocean Room

Most of Nhagaspir seemed to be made up of hallways that were different from the first hallway I had seen. They were completely underground and no one had bothered to try to hide that fact. The walls and ceilings looked exactly like the tunnel I had used to enter the village—bare rock.

Axel and I walked through a hallway that led to the Ocean Room. The passageway opened and I had the feeling that I was emerging from a cave as we stepped into the expanse that made up the room.

In front of us was a raised ceiling, the rock was carved to look like angry storm clouds over our heads. Our feet sank into white sand and the sizable room was filled with aqua-colored water that was lit up in the same way as a hot tub, with lights shining under the surface of the water. The water itself was cold as it splashed against my bare feet.

In the midst of the circle of water was a small building, like an ancient submarine that had been beached in the shallow water. It was spherical and built heavy with large bolts protruding at the seams in the iron. A round door was on the front of it like an old-fashioned scuba diving mask. It was even made of glass, like someone enormous underwater was using the room as a helmet.

“Ever seen anything like this before?” Axel asked, gloating at the sight before us.

“No. Something like this would be in a museum. How old is it?”

“Who even knows? Keeping track of time is annoying. What does it matter what year it is, what day it is? Why would that matter here?”

“How do we get across?” I asked.

He smirked. “However you like.”

So, the method was going to be left up to me? “Is the water shallow all the way over?” I persisted.

“It might be,” he answered vaguely.

I was the one who said I wanted to see the Ocean Room and try ordering tectonic plates around. I didn’t know if I would be able to stop a tsunami, but I wanted to see how Pricina did her work in the village.

How should I get across? It was obvious to me that Axel wanted me to walk on water in order to prove my divinity, but I’d have to make the water vibrate in order to make it warm enough to touch comfortably. I wasn’t much in the mood and the simplest solution was not what Axel  wanted, but I didn’t need to put on a show for him. I merely stepped up into the air like I was climbing an invisible staircase. I could order my calcium to position itself in the air as I chose and the air was much warmer than the water. I began walking in a straight line toward the center of the Ocean Room.

“I can’t do that,” he said, watching me.

I turned around and stood in the air. “How do you get across?”

“I use one of these.” He pointed to the wall behind us and showed me what looked like black slate surfboards.

So he ordered the slate to carry him across the water. It was like what I had done with Rhuk, asking it to be my elevator. That meant that he hadn’t yet allowed himself to free fall the way Rhuk had encouraged me to fall in the tunnel down to the village. How old was Axel? How long had he been stunted?

“You have a lot of gaps in your knowledge, huh? You know how to manipulate tectonic plates, but not how to order yourself around?”

“I can learn a lot by watching you,” he said, taking his first step into the air. I could see at once that he was not commanding the calcium in his body, but instead the material in the shoes he was wearing.

He looked very proud of himself until he noticed that I was not wearing shoes. Then his shoulders slumped. “What are you doing?”

“I’m commanding the matter in my own body,” I replied.

“Aren’t those parts of your body busy?”

“My bones are not busy. Everything stays with the bones.”

We walked side by side without talking until we arrived at the heart of the Ocean Room. Axel bent to open the door with his hand but abruptly stopped himself before waving it open with a slight motion of his hand.

I glanced at him. The urge to revert back to doing things in a human way was obviously a fight that never ended.

Turning my attention back to the heart of the Ocean Room, I bent my head to look inward. It looked like the inside had been wallpapered in black snake scales. The room was empty, except for an archaic dentist chair.

“I sit here?” I asked curiously.

“You don’t have to. We do it for convenience, but you could lie on the floor or... float in the middle of the room,” he suggested cautiously.

I said that the chair would be fine.

Pricina told me that I was the first immortal since Brandon. Knowing that made me more tolerant of Axel’s adoring glances. He led me around like I was a princess, holding the very tips of my fingers. Axel settled me in the seat like I was an infant getting buckled in for a long ride in a car.

“Are you married?” I asked him suddenly.

“Yes.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s wandering around here somewhere. I check on her periodically and every time I expect to find her dead. She’s been ill for eighty-one years. She probably doesn’t have much time left,” he said sadly. “She doesn’t seem to be improving.”

“Is there anything that can save her?” I asked with tight lips.

“I don’t know. Sometimes Brandon will work with one of them for a while to try to get them to realign their body in a way that makes sense, but after he’s finished, they always make a mess of their Red Forest again. Sometimes, they mess themselves up worse than before. It would take a god with a perfect healing ability to save them. Christian used to have that level. These people only got sick since he broke down and left,” Axel said, an accent of something that wasn’t English surfaced in his inflection. “We’ve tried things, but there may not be a way. My wife didn’t break trying to control the poles. She was doing this.” He bit his tongue, immediately regretting what he said. He looked at me, gauging my reaction. “You don’t look bothered. You’re not worried it will break you too?”

“We’re all buried anyway,” I said, dusting the place with dark humor.

He laughed. “Far from it. Even though we are underground, there are many things happening to give us hope. You became one of us and you’re already a master at the second level. This job will not hurt you the way it hurt Yvette. If Christian comes back and returns to being a fourth level, you and he should be able to flip the poles and save us from that trouble, which once corrected will stay corrected for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s lucky it will need no further monitoring.”

I nodded.

“It’s also good to have people who have lived on the surface recently. If an opportunity presents itself, I would like to return to the surface to find a new wife.”

“Aren’t you going to wait until she’s dead?” I asked.

Axel shrugged. “Our lives are different from human lives. I don’t care about food, air, water, or the sun, but I can’t be alone in my head for much longer. She severed our connection with her last moment of sense. She’s still my wife, but not in the way you are Christian’s wife. She’s my wife by vow, but not by flesh or bone. I shall take another.”

“How many have you had?” I asked.

“She was the fourth.”

“Is it that easy to replace a woman?”

“If it was, Christian would have found his first woman much sooner. He was on the surface for a hundred years before he gave you his heart. It is not easy. I’ll tell you one thing though, I’ll never do a tooth again. She tore that from her mouth like our bond was nothing. I’ll do what Christian did and give her something she can’t rip out. If our connection had stayed intact, maybe I would have been able to save her.”

Suddenly, I knew he was wrong. He said he could have saved her. I had a sword protruding from my chest. I saw it all the time, a reminder that it might not be possible to save the one I love even if I was willing to give him everything.

“Do you want to be strapped in?” Axel asked.

I looked at the seat and thought of all the comatose lying around I had done when I was back in the castle. “You guys should get a better chair down here. This thing is like something in a dental office from a century ago.”

“When you’re working with the elements, the position of your body matters little,” he replied, retrieving a strap like a seatbelt and clipping it around my middle. There were more straps, but he didn’t bother with them and left me alone in the room, slapping the door shut with his mind instead of his muscles.

After he closed the door behind him, my eyes adjusted to the low light filtering in from the door behind me and I saw that the individual surfaces in front of me were not scales but black stones in that shape. They were laid out in perfect order.

One jiggled.

I spoke to it.

It told me that it represented a tectonic plate and that plate was getting pushed around by another tectonic plate.

“That one is touching me!”

“I’m always touching you,” another one replied. “I can’t help it!”

“No, he’s really squishing up against me.”

I stared. This couldn’t possibly be what it meant to control the earth’s tectonic plates. I didn’t answer either one of the squabbling stones. I reached into their molecular makeup and followed the particle streams that led to the real plates under the ocean floor. I saw what they were complaining about. Both of the stones on the wall were attached to larger tectonic plates under the Pacific Ocean by a line of particles that were accustomed to relaying information. The molten iron of the world’s center was hurling itself against the crushing weight of the ocean, and their forces against each other were moving the plates.

Back to the two plates that were fighting. The offensive one wasn’t the only one putting pressure on it. There were many layers putting pressure on it. It was bending. It was  worried it would break, but I saw at once that there was no immediate fear that it would bend far enough for that to happen. It moved too slowly for anything to happen immediately. It was moving the way hair grew. You couldn’t tell the exact day your bangs got long enough to poke you in the eye. These things needed to be watched carefully, but not incessantly.

The problem was that there wasn’t a single tectonic plate that didn’t have an enormous amount of pressure placed on it. Once one of them got the green light that it was okay to complain, all of them started whining together, making a miserable murmur come from the wall.

“Stones,” I said, already tired of listening to them bicker. “Maybe Pricina likes listening to all of you at once, but I’m going to have to ask all of you to be silent while communicating with me. Jiggle a little and that will get my attention. Otherwise, please be quiet.”

After that, there was blessed silence. I could hear the rocks jiggle and clack against each other when something happened. I oversaw it with a mere glance. Everything was fine. Nothing cataclysmic was happening.

When Pricina came to get me, she looked refreshed, like she’d just come out of a bath. We stood on the shore and she gave my hand a quick pump of a handshake before pulling away. “How were they? Did they behave for you?”

“They’re not allowed to talk anymore,” I replied, waving in their direction. “They’re only allowed to tremble in their seats if something is wrong. If you prefer for them to talk, you can give them permission again, but I strongly discourage choosing that.”

She looked at me in awe with her huge black eyes. “ You can  hear their words?”

I nodded, trying not to make a fuss of it.

“I can’t do that. Not exactly. Sometimes I think they’re talking and then I think I’ve been down here too long and I’m going crazy.”

“In that case, you might want to talk to them.” I turned my head toward them and gave them the order to speak again.

“That is a high-level skill. It must have been painful to learn so much so suddenly,” she said, looking at me with pity.

I remembered the pain I felt delivering the sword. She was not wrong. The pain was gone now, but the memory of it filled me with fear-like trauma. I forced myself not to cry. I was a goddess and I could swallow a bullet, but I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling with tears.

She placed her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry. These abilities are not free.”

Even though it felt premature to say it, I turned to her and said, “You have to be my new best friend. You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded and, taller than me, she put her arm around me and leaned me into her brown shoulder. “It’s time to be brave.”

We stood like that for approximately fifteen seconds before she got to the point.

“I didn’t come to get you because I want to take over in the Ocean Room. I came because Rhuk is making a racket. It won’t stop moving.”

In the next second, it had skidded across the sand and thumped that it had news.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Stars Draw Dreams

Rhuk explained that Christian was being held in a minimum-security prison outside Ottawa. “He’s wearing a different face, but he let the facade slip when he was sleeping and the metal bed frame saw him.”

For a second I thought about the cameras and bugs that had been used to spy on me in the past. I had thought that level of surveillance was scary, but what Rhuk was capable of under my direction was a million times worse. Thank goodness it was a million times worse.

“What name is he going by?”

“He’s not. They know he’s Christian, and they’re calling him that. They have photos of his real face, but he tries desperately not to wear it in case they’re filming him, so he doesn’t look like himself. He’s quite ugly. They beat him and his face is freshly bruised and bleeding each night. It’s a minimum-security prison, but they have him locked up and rarely let him mix with the other prisoners. Often they have guards and other people in his cell with him. They ask him thousands of questions. The bed frame says they want him to tell them where they can find ‘the girl’. He replies that he doesn’t know and that’s when they beat him. The bed frame says he seems sick.”

“He can’t be sick. Immortals don’t get sick,” Brandon said, having followed Rhuk into the Ocean Room.

“He’s dying,” I said. “We need to rescue him now.”

“How do you plan to go about that?” Brandon asked.

“Rhuk can tell us where the prison is, where his cell is in the building, and I’ll get him out myself, like opening a tin can and pulling out the meat.”

“I’ll fly her,” Pricina volunteered, stepping forward. “We can’t leave him there even if she makes a mess.”

With transportation settled, my eyes traveled between Brandon and Pricina, but I knew looking to either of them for help once inside the prison would be mishandling things. I couldn’t take either of them into the prison with me. Did I have to go alone? I looked at Rhuk  and thought it was a pity I couldn’t take it with me into the building without causing a ruckus. The dolomite that made up its body was enormous.

Or could I?

I stepped closer and ordered a chunk of it out of the side of a turret. Soon, I was holding a sphere the size of a nickel in my hand. “Can I talk to you through this?” I asked, lifting the severed piece experimentally to my ear.

“Yes,” it whispered inside my ear.

“Excellent,” I said. I snapped a button off my shirt and demanded the plastic to take the shape of a post and back clip of an earring. The button was made out of plastic and adhering to the dolomite wouldn’t normally have been possible, but the dolomite reformed itself around the plastic and I shaped them to fit together like 3d puzzle pieces. I slid the earring through my earhole and wadded more plastic around the back of the post in the most comfortable shape I could mold.

“What are you doing?” Pricina asked.

“I’m making Rhuk into an earring so I’ll have someone to talk to the elements for me.”

The brown goddess looked curious. “Can you turn it into a diamond?”

“Not without heat and pressure,” I replied before realizing completely that I could do that. I could instruct the elements surrounding the earring to give it that amount of pressure. If I did it while the dolomite was still in my ear, what would that do to my body? I felt like experimenting with how quickly King Christian could heal me.

Instead of speaking to Rhuk directly, I spoke to every element surrounding the earring and the pressure came so fast that it aligned all Rhuk’s atoms. In a moment, all the other elements besides the carbon were gone, burnt off, and I could feel the proper grid shape of its molecular structure the way I could run my hand across the perfect stitching of a knitted scarf.

I brushed my hair away from my ear. It had hurt less than when I’d got my ears pierced.

“You did it,” Pricina whispered, obviously aghast.

“You didn’t think I could do it?” I shot back.

“I hoped  you could do it,” she said slowly.

I nodded, appreciating her support rather than her horror. “When can we go?” I asked.

“Soon. I think you should take a little time to rest. So much has happened. I think it might be wise for you to have a nap. It wouldn’t do for  you to make yourself so overwrought that you require a long rest in the Red Forest, and it is a very long flight to Ottawa.”

I was about to refuse her when she added the clincher.

“I’ll take you to Christian’s room.”

“Yeah, you should take me there,” I answered immediately. I wanted to see Christian’s room. I always wanted to see his room: his hotel room, his apartment, his room in his cabin, his room in Scotland, and even inside his prison cell. I shuddered. I should be on my way, but seeing his room in Nhagaspir would only take a second.

Pricina began leading the way.

I wasn’t sure if I needed to rest or not. From what King Christian had told me about his healing, there was no need for me to rest, but I wasn’t positive. Had I already entered a zone where I no longer required sleep? I decided at once that I’d use the time the ‘rest’ afforded me to ask him.

 Pricina led me through a maze of high-ceilinged corridors that were much more like the interior of a fancy hotel than the rest of the village.

“Why is this area different?” I asked her as we walked.

“It’s convenient to have our own rooms, like our own homes. The doors down this hallway lead to private quarters. In the past, such places were necessary if only to find a place where you could hear yourself think. I became immortal during a great rush when over a thousand people found their way to the Red Forest and thrived there. There was a different god here who was the greatest god of all, but he and others like him departed, died, or disappeared. They didn’t really announce it when they were done with us. It made sense. We wouldn’t have let them leave. We didn’t have a greater god living here for many years. Then Damon Christianus came and he was the pinnacle of godhood, everything we wished to become. His skin was like gold and his gaze was like looking into the eye of a storm.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Please don’t mind me asking, Pricina, but you’ve said a few things since I got here that make it seem like you… I don’t know… maybe you once had feelings for him. Did you?”

She laughed and shook her head. “Not the way you’re thinking. I was seduced and married to an immortal before I ever laid eyes on Christian. When Christian went mad, my husband was one of the most powerful gods here. He was one of our brightest hopes that another immortal might be able to control a pole. It didn’t work out,” she trailed off painfully. “When my connection with him was severed and I had the option of choosing a new husband, I didn’t even think of pursuing Christian. I have known him for six hundred years and I have always loved him, but not the way you’re thinking. Whereas Brandon felt new and fresh and… he couldn’t enter the North Iron Room. His skill set isn’t like that… so he was unlikely to go insane trying to do what no one has been able to accomplish. He felt very safe.”

“So you’re happy?”

Her brown eyes flashed. “It’s much better to step through eternity with a partner than without one. It is perplexing to me how Christian could stand to be single, always single, stepping into an Iron Room and shutting the door to keep everyone out. He would never let anyone else in the other Iron Room or attempt to help him control the south pole. He hid the other Iron Room. We don’t even know where it is. Others have tried to find it, but Christian has barred the elements from sharing its location. A god would have to be greater than Christian to get those rocks to obey them.”

We began ascending a staircase that was suddenly grand. It was like the front entrance of a church: a church of night, a church of outer space, and the quiet end of all things. The ceiling suddenly became very high and glorious light lit up the facade of his entrance. Two enormous doors shone like the bells of angels’ trumpets and the feeling of invading a sacred place came upon me.

I stopped moving.

“What are you doing?” Pricina asked. “You have to go inside.”

I touched my chest and the black mark that was the sword. “This is somehow worse than entering his heart. It feels like sacrilege for me to enter his rooms without him.”

“If you think of him as a god the way you have been taught to think of the Lord God, no, you will not be able to enter.” She turned her body half a pace and acted like a girl used as a decoration for a race car or a game show flourishing the doors by spreading her arms. “This is an ancient divinity. It is not representative of a current divinity.” She dropped her hands. “He’s dying and you need to see his rooms… if only for a moment before we leave to get him so you can understand the path he needs to take. Step inside and see what he was.”

She opened the door wide for me and without waiting to see my reaction to the space, headed back down the stairs. “Call for me when you’re finished.”

I stood there stupidly feeling for the rush on my heart I usually felt when I was overwrought, but the feeling wasn’t there. A calmness came over me that should have been unnatural, but somehow wasn’t. Impossibly, I was at ease. I smirked. The tranquility was probably the work of King Christian setting me at ease in almost the same way he’d set a bone.

The entrance to Christian’s room made every church I had ever seen look like a pale, pathetic imitation of this place. My mind drew a sudden comparison to the way his heart looked inside the Red Forest. Anything can look like anything in a place like that. Surely, if Christian had wanted to show how grand he was, it would have been represented there, but in his heart, he was simply a man.

The rooms in front of me were just that… rooms.

I took my first step forward.

I paused once more in the doorway. All my best dreams included Christian’s bedroom. I remembered the room in his manor in Scotland. That room had been scarcely more personal than a hotel room. I had also been in his bedroom in his cabin in the woods. It looked ordinary, rather at odds with him, who I had always found extraordinary. Now I stood at the threshold of his real bedroom. I didn’t even have to fight my way in.

My heartbeat quickened and for a split second, I felt that pinch of pain in my heart. The sword almost throbbed inside me.

I took another step into the darkness behind shining doors.

Tiny lights came on and I found myself in a place I never could have imagined. There were lights of varying brightness peeking out from behind plants. I absently touched a leaf expecting to feel fabric only to feel a real plant growing between my fingers. It never could have grown like that on the surface. Here, it grew perfectly in the dark. Searching for what was keeping them alive, I found little canals of water between the plant pots.

I stepped forward off the marble and onto a golden carpet that spread out before me in a straight line like red carpets were tawdry and gray. The walls were lined with bookshelves filled with his books. I had entered a library and not a chapel. These were the books I wanted to read. Not like the books in Scotland, which I realized now were more like a bank than a horde of his dreams.

Above me, the ceiling was black and navy with an artificial night sky shining above me. Lines marked it like the longitude and latitude lines on a globe.

Beyond the books, I found a transparent curtain hanging in a circle around his rectangular bed. The bed had tall walnut posts and heavy gold brocade curtains. At the foot of the bed, words were carved into the wood. I couldn’t read them. I could see at once that they were in the same language that was tattooed on Christian’s face in the third chamber of his heart. Above, the bedspread was dark velvet plush and inviting. This was Christian—luxury without overstating it. A gossamer throw blanket rested on the bed and I touched the weave with reverence.

This was a place time forgot. The blanket I touched may have been a thousand years old, but felt like it had been woven yesterday because Christian commanded the fibers to never change, like he’d cast a spell on it and everything else in the room. His tongue was so enthralling, everything obeyed him, even the air stayed as fresh as if it had just swept over a white spray of perfumed mist.

I sat on the edge of the bed. A man like this had chosen me for his wife? He wanted me to share this bed with him? This life with him?

It seemed unreal. I would have believed it of the Other Christian. He looked at my face like he wanted to know more. He even stared up at the atmosphere of the Red Forest like he could breathe the air of my body and it was sweetness  itself. Something about me was a mystery to him. He needed more.

I had forgotten myself. I needed to see the King of the Red Forest.

On the bed were shining rose petals scattered, like they waited for lovers to fall on them. They looked so soft and delicate, I thought they were from a real plant, but as I got closer, I realized they were made of gold leaf. Cupping my hand, I started picking them up, when I remembered who I was. I dropped them and commanded the rose petals to gather themselves together in a pile on the table beside the bed.

Then I placed myself on top of his dark velvet blanket and pulled the throw blanket over me. Resting my head on the pillows and looking up, I realized I was in the place where Christian dreamed. Above me was the constellation Cassiopeia, peeking through the sheer canopy over the bed. The corners of the stars gave her knees, hips, ankles, and a saucy tilt of her chin. Christian came here to dream about a woman.

I hoped it was me.

I closed my eyes.

In an instant, I stood on the edge of the Red Forest and saw the work King Christian had been up to. Inside, there was no longer a brown night inside my body. Over the roof of the shrine, the dawn was breaking. The brown of the sky faded from red, then pink, and then orange. It was almost yellow at the place where the sky met the clay roof.

Christian emerged from the shrine and pointed to the light. “That’s east ,” he said.

“What’s east?” I murmured.

“Your esophagus. That’s where the light is coming from.”

I stared in wonder.

He leaned against the door frame, his foot up to turn his legs into the number four. “Do you need something, my beloved?”

“Do I need to sleep?” I replied abruptly.

“Definitely. We’re not at a point where you should abandon sleeping.”

“What about eating?”

He dropped his leg and scratched his head. “That’s less important. If you have an opportunity to eat, you should take it. From now on, if you’re ever on the surface, even if it’s sporadic, eat. Though I won’t plague you with hunger, I’ll give you cravings if there’s a material I could use. By the way, you’re low on iron. The next thing you should eat is a beef spinach salad.”

“That sounds delicious,” I said, almost foaming at the mouth. I hadn’t eaten properly in months. I shook off the thought. “I have news. We found you—the real you. We were just about to get you when Pricina said I should sleep before going. Do you think I need to?”

“You’re asleep now,” he said with a smile that awakened my senses. “Where am I, the real me?”

“You’re in a prison. I’m going to break you out.”

“Do you have plans for how to do that?”

I scoffed. “It should be pretty straightforward. I shaved off a piece of dolomite and turned it into a diamond… uh… but that’s not the important part. I’ve been training it to do matter manipulation in my stead, which seems to be faster than doing everything myself.”

He nodded feigning interest. “I’m sure that has its advantages,” he said with a smile.

“It’s my eyes when I can’t focus on more than what I can see,” I explained.

“If you feel confident, then spend your naptime with me,” he said, clasping my hand in his. “I’ll take you through your body and show you the improvements I’ve made. If the Other Christian is successful, I won’t always be here. Like him, I need to teach you how to control your body completely. Even if you reach the highest level, you need to know how to maintain it.”

My smile fell off my face. “Because a god can fall from any height?”

“Gods die all the time, but you won’t be one of them.” He tapped the tip of my nose.

I clutched his hands. “I’m worried about you.”

He stuck his tongue in his cheek before withdrawing it with a click. “I’d worry about me too if I was less into you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I huffed.

“I’d survive my head being cut off, being gutted and flayed. I’d survive anything to make it back to you. I’m not going to go crazy or die. I have to make it back to you. I have to make you mine and give you everything that’s mine. I have so much to give that it will take a very long time.”

What he said moved me, but what came out of my mouth didn’t reflect that. I shook my head and said, “Still so confident.”

He shrugged. “I want what I want.”


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Motorcycle Helmet

Pricina’s idea of flying was a helicopter with no parts inside. It was a shell. There were no instruments to say how fast we were going or how high we were. She knew all that stuff without being told. There was no compass. In preparation for her learning to control a magnetic pole, she had learned how to sense true north. Granted, it didn’t work very well when the north pole was constantly on the move, but she informed me curtly, that a compass wouldn’t work any better than she would. To complete the emptiness, there was no engine under the hood and she controlled the chopper blades herself.

I was very impressed. But perhaps the coolest thing she was able to do was silence the sound of the chopping blades above us. Inside the helicopter, on comfortable seats, she leaned back, controlled the movement without touching any instruments, and we watched the world go by under us.

“Can I talk to you while you’re doing that?” I asked her.

“Yes. I know this looks quite fancy on the outside, but it’s quite simple on the inside. I make the blades go and when we fly straight there are no other instructions. Just fly. I don’t have to give the same instructions over and over. It’s harder to make the cockpit quiet, but it’s well worth the effort.”

Before we left, we made our plans with Brandon and Axel, though we didn’t plan to bring either of them with us. Brandon helped with our flight plan and made a few phone calls on our behalf.

Since there had been so few immortals going back and forth from the village in recent years, they hadn’t had the right outfits for me and Pricina to wear, so we planned a stop at a motorcycle outfitter in Alberta. Brandon had a credit card we could use, so he gave us that, a phone, kissed Pricina goodbye, and sent us on our way.

Back in the cockpit, I sat next to Pricina as we went up in the air. We surfaced in the Yukon and flew over mountains and forests on our way to Fort McMurray to get the clothes we needed. Then on to Ottawa.

“Are we going to stop for lunch?” I asked her.

“Lunch?” she repeated. “When Christian is in such danger?”

I nodded. “We should go for lunch.”

She responded with a painful swallow. “What for?”

“So we can be better friends and so we can eat.”

“We’re going to become better friends over lunch?” she muttered, completely unconvinced. It had obviously skipped her notice that that was where women bonded.

“Human beings have forged friendships by breaking bread for thousands of years,” I replied.

“You can’t seriously suggest this to me. I am not human and the idea of even doing one thing that a human does scares me. I have to shun human behavior at all costs.”

“So you haven’t eaten anything in hundreds of years?” I asked.

“Maybe not hundreds of years, but definitely one hundred.”

“Your body never needs new matter?”

She didn’t reply. That got her.

“It will be fun,” I said encouragingly. “Think of it as being especially nice to your new best friend.”

She snorted.

“How are we going to land in town with a chopper?” I wondered out loud.

“The people who live around here are very interested in aviation. Over a hundred private planes are housed in an airfield complete with a runway. Brandon already purchased me a place to park the helicopter and gave the club a heads up that we would be arriving. We’ll have to take a taxi to town. He said you would know how to get us a taxi to the outfitters.”

I got the phone Brandon had given us. I called for a cab before we landed, and it was waiting outside the chain-link fence by the landing zone when we touched down.

We ran across the tarmac to the taxi and went directly to the motorcycle outfitter.

It had been a long time since Pricina had been to the surface. Everything she saw interested her from the other aircraft to the taxi to the chain-link fence. There was even an electrical box on the street that she stopped to examine. I had to haul her along by the crook of her elbow.

At the clothing store, she stared at everything with wide eyes and wandered between the racks having no idea what to buy, what to try on, or what to look at.

“These are not like the clothes Brandon brings me.”

“This shouldn’t be that weird,” I said, strolling behind her with my hands in my pockets. “You wear modern clothes back in the village.”

“Because Brandon brings them to me after he’s been on the surface supervising Christian. These clothes look like armor.”

“Fair comparison. Some of them are. Don’t worry about a thing . I’ll be your girl!”

“What does that mean?” she balked. “You’ll be my girl?”

“It means, I’ll help you choose your clothes.” I went around picking things and stacking them on her.

When I was finished pawing around, I pushed her into a change room. When she emerged, she wore a khaki tank top under a black and green motorcycle suit. I planned to make us wear motorcycle gear to hide the fact that we were not going to be wearing sophisticated body armor. At least, the suits would give our figures sensational lines and look like they might  protect us from bullets… even though they probably wouldn’t.

I grabbed her a pair of thick boots and aviator sunglasses. “You should have a pair of these anyway, you adorable little helicopter pilot.”

I turned to the shopkeeper. “She needs a helmet.”

“What kind of bikes do you women ride?” he asked, leading us to the wall of helmets.

I glanced over at Pricina and saw our reflections in a cluster of mirrors. We did not look normal. She looked like Cleopatra and I looked like Eleanor of Aquitaine… or if not that badass, at least we resembled Victoria's Secret angels. We were going to end up causing a riot if we stayed much longer.

“It’s for our Instagram,” I lied.

He bought that for nothing and showed Pricina a helmet so beautiful it would make any biker do a double-take.

I sped up my operations, picking out my clothes double time. I had already scoped the store and done my shopping in my head, so I was quick when piling up my choices. I chose gear that matched hers but was black and blue instead of black and green.

I picked the boots with the heaviest tread and shouted for Pricina to get me a helmet while I tried on the outfit.

I tore off my clothes and resisted the urge to get sentimental. Changerooms did things to me. I tried to remind myself that I had done lots of things with Christian when we had been together, not just played in boutiques. Suddenly, there was a new meaning to him waiting on the other side of the curtain while I transformed into something else. What was he waiting for me to become?

I shook those thoughts out of my head. I had to hurry and find him.

Clunking our purchases on the checkout table, I drummed my fingers impatiently while the man rang us up.

“Are you girls models?”

“She’s discontinued and I’m out of stock,” I replied with a wicked grin, but the man smiled.

“What are the helmets for?” Pricina asked loudly.

“In case I get shot in the face again,” I said nonchalantly. Then I turned to the cashier. “You know the family motto, right?”

“Not the face,” the cashier and I said together as he handed me our bags. I didn’t know what he thought of us, but he was cool enough not to cause a fuss.

Pricina kept talking as we made our way to the door. “You don’t have to get shot in the face if you don’t want to. Just make it look like you dodged.”

I shrugged. “It’s not like I’d be dodging a freaking arrow. I can’t catch it. Normal people don’t catch bullets or dodge them. Helmets are a good idea. They will also cover our faces should we be caught on camera.”

“You could mess those up too.”

“And if anyone saw me? Recognized  me?”

“Then put a different face on.”

I cocked my head angrily and prepared to tell her off. “Can you do all those things at once?”

“No,” she said, biting her lips together. “But I hoped you’d be able to.”

Outside, it had begun snowing. Pricina didn’t notice, standing in the wind and snow with white flakes dusting her dark hair.

“I should have made the taxi wait,” I said, half-annoyed. It wasn’t like I couldn’t pay him to be our slave until we were finished with our errands.

I spotted a pub down the block. I grabbed Pricina’s arm. “That’ll do.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to eat anything.”

“Well, I do. I want to eat something big and sloppy.”

I dragged her down the block, shoved her inside, and I got us a table in the pub.

The server was a good-looking man who looked at us like he’d never had a lucky day in his life before today. “What can I get you?” he asked cheerfully.

“What’s the best thing on your menu?”

“The blue cheeseburger is a favorite,” he said, preparing to list a bunch of other things.

“Get us two of those with fries. Do you have garlic dip for the fries?”

He nodded.

“Do you have shakes? Smoothies?”

“Shakes,” he replied.

“Cool. Get us two strawberry shakes. Whip cream on top if you’ve got it.”

The guy laughed because he’d never seen two women who looked like us order food like that.

Pricina leaned toward me and with tight lips murmured, “I am not eating any of that.”

I rolled my right shoulder like I was preparing to wind up and hit her. “The Christian who rules my Red Forest told me that I should eat whenever I have the opportunity. Even if you don’t need it, I’m positive it won’t do you any harm.”

Pricina fumed. “You’re being…”

I put up a finger. “Seriously, you don’t believe what the crowned King of the Red Forest says? You’re refusing training from him because it’s secondhand?” I waited for her answer.

She exhaled and relented. “Fine. Does he tell you other things?”

“What is the color of your Red Forest?”

She glared at me strangely. “It’s red.”

“It’s not supposed to be. You’re supposed to have accepted new cell formations and they’re not red. Your Red Forest is eventually supposed to be a White Forest. If you’re still red on the inside, you could probably use this food.”

Pricina covered her mouth in horror. Was that a secret Christian had kept from them? She said that Christian wouldn’t train the immortals in the village. Was this tidbit part of that?

At that moment, the food arrived.

I tore the paper off the straw and plunged it into one of the shakes. “It’s okay if you can’t drink the whole thing.” I handed it to her.

She set it down.

I tore off my straw and took a sip from it.

She looked at me funny. “That’s what you’re supposed to do with the tube?”

I nodded.

Instantly, it became more interesting to her.

“Surely, you’re not so out of the loop that you don’t know what a straw is? You can pilot a helicopter, but a drinking straw is weird?”

She sipped her drink and swallowed slowly because she was internally talking herself through the process of eating one step at a time. Finally, she said, “When I come to the surface, I fly. I don’t investigate whatever trends humans are adopting. My dream was to fly, not to drink sweet pink liquids through tubes.”

“How’s it taste?” I inquired.

“It’s weird.”

I dipped a fry in the garlic sauce, just to show her how to do it, then asked her, “Have you ever flown without a chopper?”

She nodded. “It used to be easy to do that sort of thing. Brandon stops me from flying free now. He’s the one who got me the chopper, though this is only my third time using it, and I’ve had it for twenty years.”

“When was the first time?”

“When Brandon told me I couldn’t fly anymore.”

“When was the second?”

“When we kidnapped you,” she replied without the slightest hint of shame. She was watching me eat the fries most carefully. She clearly hadn’t decided whether or not she wanted one.

“They’re good,” I assured her. “Maybe try one without sauce to start with.”

That convinced her. She never tried the sauce, but she ate all the fries.

Soon we were in another taxi heading back to the airfield.

“Do you think anyone would have tried to refuel your chopper?” I half-whispered to Pricina.

She smirked. “They wouldn’t have been able to get either of the gas caps off. They’re welded shut.”

Standing outside the chopper on a blustery March afternoon, Pricina stripped down to her undergarments and put on the clothes I had bought her. It was an unusual thing to do, but as I glanced around, there was no one around to notice.

I looked down at my hands. I should have been colder, but I wasn’t. I felt the way she did, impervious. The cold didn’t matter, so I stripped too.

When we were finished, she put her gloved hand out to me to help me get on board the chopper. We weren’t close friends yet, but I took her hand and thanked her for going to lunch with me. I handed her her helmet and she put it under her arm while I scrambled to collect our empty shopping bags before they blew away.

On the long flight to Ottawa, I thought about what I was going to do. Rhuk was secure in my earlobe like an earring, but it hadn’t said much since we took off. Previously, it had told me all about the building where Christian was being held and which room was his cell. My internet access was spotty as we flew, but I managed to find a picture of the prison on the phone Brandon had given us. A rope with a grappling hook lay in a disheveled heap at my feet.

As we flew, Pricina chuckled a little under her breath. “Would you care for a little advice about how I’d go about doing this?”

I inclined my head. After all, I had nothing better to do, so I listened to her ideas.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Accessory… to Crime

The helicopter hovered over the prison. Pricina did everything she could to shield the people nearby from the chopper’s sound waves announcing our arrival. I was going to make some noise, but I didn’t think I could spare the space in my brain to stop anyone from hearing me, so I whispered to Rhuk to help me. I finished securing my helmet and left the front seat. In the back, I opened the sliding door and was stunned at how little wind I felt. I grabbed the rope with the grappling hook and I jumped.

It was a free fall of ten feet or more to the roof of the building, but I landed nicely. I secured the rope with the hook around a chimney and remembering what Rhuk had told me about the floor plan of the building, I positioned myself above Christian’s room. Grabbing the rope between my fingers, I slid over the edge of the building.

His window was in sight. I bounced with my toes against the side of the building. Gaining some speed and force in my jumps, I prepared to kick the window out. Naturally, I would not be able to accomplish such a thing with my weight alone since the window was barred. I did some work on the matter that made the window, freeing the bars and glass from their holds, by changing their sizes. It was only the slightest difference, a centimeter on all sides, but that was enough. I kicked it and the bars fell to the ground in a grid. On my next leap, I kicked the window again and the glass came out in one chunk onto the floor of Christian’s cell, where it instantly shattered because it couldn’t hold the position I’d asked it to hold for long.

I swung into the room.

It was a larger room than I expected. It had a bunk bed and a toilet, but also places for people to sit. Christian obviously had company often. I rushed to the bed to wake him, but I couldn’t see well. Lifting my visor, I saw that both bunk beds were empty before I got there.

Damn it. Now I would have to tear the whole building apart looking for him.

“Easy girl,” Rhuk whispered in my ear. “Just go quietly. I’ll look for him while you get out of the cellblock. It’s unlikely that he’s here since it’s so quiet.”

I tried the doorknob of Christian’s cell. It wasn’t locked.

The prison hallway did not look anything like what movies had led me to expect. Each cell door was a whole door, except for a window inside. I started looking in the cells. They were dark, doubly dark with my visor down.

“I told you, he’s not going to be in any of these,” Rhuk explained. “They don’t interrogate him during the day. They want to keep the violence of their interrogations a secret from the other prisoners, so he is probably far from the cell block.”

I made quick work of the hallway and headed down a flight of stairs into a large hallway that led to the main atrium. Recalling the map, I pointed to the different passages and labeled them: the woodworking area, the cafeteria, the yard, the showers, and the administration wing.

That was it. The prison didn’t have a solitary confinement area. It was meant for low-level offenders. They had to be doing the interrogation in the administration wing.

“Have you still not found him, Rhuk?” I asked, rounding a corner.

“There are two men who are being interrogated right now in separate rooms. I’m sorry, but the minerals around them are stupid even though I’ve repeatedly shown them Christian’s picture. It seems like neither one of the men has Christian’s face.”

“It’s not a problem,” I replied, picking up my pace. “We’ll rescue both of them.”

Entering the administration wing, it was dark. There was a lot of glass, showing a bullpen where secretaries and security officers had their desks, but further down the hall, the doors didn’t have windows in them.

“They’re in opposite directions,” Rhuk informed me.

“I’ll take this one,” I said, taking the closer of the two choices.

I tried opening the door, felt it was locked, faked unlocking it, and found myself in a bright room where a man was tied to a chair. His face had been pulverized, his eyes and lips fat with swelling. Blood trickled from his mouth, his ears, and gnashes in his dark hair.

It wasn’t Christian. Christian had a particular build and I was used to the way his skeleton looked, and this man, though sitting, obviously had a shorter torso. It was so easy to see after my training on how to manipulate matter.

He was being thrashed by two prison guards. To the left, another man stood… watching, perhaps asking the questions. He wore a suit. The prison guards weren’t important. I focused on the man in the suit.

He was young, under thirty, blond with his face shaved so closely that it seemed like a warning about him. This man knew how to use a razor. Something about his face was vaguely familiar as I examined its corners. He wore thin framed silver glasses that covered his icy blue eyes. My gaze traveled downward and I saw a name tag perched over the pocket of his suit coat. I saw at once that his tag should have been on a white lab coat, but it wasn’t. It read ‘Dr. Bobby Hilliar’. I knew at once that this was Dr. Hilliar’s successor, if not his son, then a relative of some sort. Dr. Bobby had taken on the position and was now torturing immortals in the good doctor’s place. I couldn’t say I was surprised.

Christian was right. Once someone learned that immortal people were in the world, their curiosity could not be satiated. Not by anything.

I stared at the knot of men and they stared silently back at me.

Finally, the man tied to the chair spoke and said, “Is that the next step? A sword through my chest?”

My hand went to cover my mouth, but my helmet was in the way. He saw the sword! He should not have been able to see it. He was a second level.

One of the guards came toward me “Who the hell are you?”

As he spoke, I reminded myself of how Christian and Brandon looked on the roof of Christian’s cottage when the mercenaries took me away. I rewrote the scene. Instead of hiding in a room, I was on the roof too. As we lay on the shingles, my elbow brushed Christian’s. I glanced over and saw the look in his gray-green eyes before he pulled the trigger. He didn’t doubt what he had to do.

At that moment, I gained unwavering conviction, and it was all mine. The burden of eternity stated that anyone could be immortal if they could gain control of the Red Forest. They could do it without hurting Christian or this man. People like Dr. Hilliar were poisonous.

The guard came closer, raising his gun and filling my view.

My eyes became like Christian’s, eyes that showed no fear because there was none. These people couldn’t hurt me. If he shot me, the King of the Red Forest would heal me. They couldn’t do experiments on me or even contain me. I was completely free.

I kicked him in the throat.

The guard fell to the floor in a fit of coughs. The other guard reached for his gun which was in a holster on the other side of the room. I beat him to the gun, undid the safety with my mind, and shot him in the chest.

I aimed at the last man standing—Dr. Bobby.

He put his hands in the air like he was surrendering. “Take him,” he said, indicating their prisoner with a resigned sigh. “I don’t need him.”

I shook my head. I didn’t believe him and kept the barrel of the gun pointed level with Dr. Bobby’s skull. Without speaking to Rhuk, I spoke to the duct tape and zip ties that bound their prisoner and made them go limp. The man shook his arms free and painfully stood up.

“Come with me,” I said, without raising my visor.

He didn’t know me, but he stumbled over all the same, ready to deal with the devil he didn’t know. I offered for him to use me as his crutch and he fell onto my shoulder. At his full height, the man was only an inch taller than I was, which made him easier to move about than if he had been a man of Christian’s height. Together, I maneuvered us to the door.

I noticed the other guard that I’d kicked in the throat. He had mostly recovered and was waiting to make his move.

I shot him in the leg and without pausing to even listen to him scream, I moved to take aim at Dr. Bobby. To my dismay, he had ducked down behind a desk and I saw the tails of his suit coat as he slipped out a back door.

I turned away. There was nothing he could do.

I pulled the man I had captured out into the hall. “Which way, Rhuk?”

“Straight down the hall. At the end,” Rhuk answered in a quiet hush.

The man in my arms was straining to move at all. I pushed him through a set of doors on the way to Christian, but I couldn’t take him with me. I lowered him against a wall. One look said he wasn’t strong enough to heal himself instantly.

“I know what your problem is,” I said without showing him my face. “I can’t take you all the way out just yet. I have to get the other man who is a prisoner like you. I came here to free him and my freeing you is just your luck. If you can make it outside to my helicopter, I’ll take you with me.”

His eyes looked dead as he regarded me through my helmet. He didn’t trust me at all. He was going to run as soon as my back was turned. My gaze fell on the bruises on his hands. The bruises indicated not only that he had been tied, but also that he had done a lot of punching. He was probably faking how immobile he was so I would leave him as dead weight.

His wish was granted.

I stood up, gave him a little salute, and ran down the hall.

When I got to the last door, I jiggled  the handle, when thirteen bullets went through the door before I could open it. Four of them hit me. Just like King Christian promised me, I barely acknowledged what happened before I couldn’t feel it anymore.

Dr. Bobby had obviously called his friends and warned them I was coming.

Unconcerned, I opened the door. This was unlike the last room. Christian was not in a chair but strapped down on a hospital bed. I couldn’t observe more than that before the bullets started flying. I hit the floor and took cover behind a line of hospital crash carts.

“Rhuk, I thought they were only interrogating?”

“It escalated quickly,” it replied.

“Whatever. Jam their guns,” I said with my mouth while I spoke with my mind directly to the straps binding Christian. I didn’t ask them to undo themselves. I asked them to snap in half.

Peeking over the crash carts, I counted seven figures surrounding Christian. None of them were wearing guard uniforms. These guys wore splatter gear. There was blood everywhere—sprayed everywhere. Their guns had stopped firing and they worked feverishly trying to fix the problem, screaming and swearing all the way.

One of them noticed Christian’s restraints had fallen away and was stupidly holding a broken strap.

I stared at Christian. He hadn’t fluttered an eyelash. Was he so messed up that he couldn’t move?

I let the expression on my face go dead as I stood up and deliberately shot everyone who hadn’t taken cover. It didn’t matter if my aim was good or not. The bullets did as they were told and adjusted themselves slightly to make me hit my marks better, which meant I shot four people in the head without hesitation. I should have shot everyone in the last room.

Three of the scientists huddled behind Christian’s hospital bed. They were pleading for mercy, yelling insults, and screaming. It was so noisy, that I wondered if there were only three of them back there.

My gun was out of bullets, but that wasn’t a problem. I picked up a new gun and instructed Rhuk to unjam it.

Without saying a word, I approached the bed and saw Christian. He was cut everywhere. What had they been doing to him that they had been randomly cutting him everywhere? They can’t have been trying to collect his blood. It was all over the walls and the floor.

He was also naked, except for a blue sheet that covered his groin. He was just like the Other Christian, lying naked on a raised bed with something tying him down.

The three remaining scientists were making so much noise that I remembered what I was supposed to be doing. I went around Christian’s hospital bed and shot all three of them in a row without blinking, execution-style.

“I suppose there are locks on the wheels to stop this bed from moving,” I said to Rhuk. “Undo the locks.”

“Aren’t you going to fall all over him and cry, Beth?” Rhuk asked softly.

I turned my back on Christian, still bleeding, and leaned my bottom against the edge of the bed. “Nah. I can’t touch him. His blood circulates but the heart in his chest doesn’t pump his blood. He has no pulse, even when he’s fine. I can’t check to make sure he’s okay and I can’t see this. Let’s just stay calm for a minute. Can you search the area to see if any of his organs are in bottles nearby?”

“Sure thing,” Rhuk said.

I breathed and wished I could remove my helmet. It was very hot and I was feeling like I couldn’t stand another minute with it on. I glanced around the room and spotted two cameras. I immediately killed the wiring inside them with two angry blinks. That was an easier thing for me to do than search the area for organs.

I pulled my helmet off and, using my mouth, I asked, “Are there any freezers nearby? I especially want you to check those.”

“Who are you talking to, darling?” Christian asked from over my shoulder.

Whirling around, I saw he wasn’t on the bed. He was standing beside it with the blue sheet tied around his middle like a sarong. Was the Other Christian already there?

The cuts in his chest and arms were already vanishing. The blood spilled from a particularly vicious cut in his throat was diving back into his body like a slasher scene in a movie played in reverse. And his eyes, those gray/green eyes, had that look in them like he knew exactly what he had to do. He didn’t say anything to me, just pushed the bed so it was no longer between us, and pulled me into his arms.

“Kiss me,” he said, right before he did so.

His lips were cold as they came down on mine. I loved him so completely, and yet it very much felt like I was kissing a dead person.

I pulled off. “We have to get out of here,” I said, hefting my helmet back over my head. I grasped Christian’s hand in mine and started pulling, ever so relieved that I didn’t have to wheel him out of the prison on a gurney.

Speaking in my helmet, I said, “Rhuk? Did you find any organs?”

“None.”

“Where’s buddy?”

“He’s outside, cowering around a corner,” Rhuk replied.

“Who are you talking to?” Christian asked as he allowed himself to be pulled around by me.

I didn’t answer him. I just needed to get him out to the yard. Pricina could pick us up from any place that was nearby.

“You should use the same exit the other man used,” Rhuk advised.

Immediately, I saw what Rhuk was talking about. That guy had broken off an entire door handle, security pad, and all. He could see my sword and he could move matter.

I used the door. Christian and I stepped out into the yard.

Pricina wasn’t shining any of the helicopter’s lights, but she saw us when I waved and stopped the movement of the blades. Without them moving, she could drop the chopper down in an area as small as a parking space. The chopper didn’t fall heavily. She lowered it softly with her mind.

Moving to the back of the chopper, she helped Christian and I climb aboard and then returned to the pilot’s chair. She didn’t need to be there to move the helicopter. It was just a good seat.

After I covered Christian with an emergency blanket, I looked around for the man I’d rescued. I spotted him across the yard. I waved to him.

He frowned and shook his head. We must have freaked him out when our chopper blades stopped moving, but still landed slowly. Shouldn’t he have known what that meant? That we were like him? That we were allies instead of enemies?

Who knew what he thought?

With mild regret, I slid the helicopter door closed and Pricina lifted it off the ground. What did that guy matter anyway?

I sat next to Christian in the back and took my helmet off.

I put my arms around him and struggled to explain my relief that he was safe. Whatever had happened, he was not dead. He had kept himself alive! I felt like I’d been given a new life too.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The Place He Hates

On the long flight back to the Yukon, Christian eyed Pricina wearily and kept touching my face, like he wanted to make sure I was who I looked like I was, but he didn’t know how to check other than just to look at me. He lifted my hands and laced his fingers between mine like if he looked at my hands long enough, he would see the real me.

Pricina removed her motorcycle helmet.

Upon seeing her, Christian’s expression soured. I suddenly wondered if he would have been willing to get on board the helicopter in the first place if he’d known she was the pilot. “You’re Pricina?”

She nodded. “It’s a pleasure to see you again,” she said brightly. “Do you remember me?”

“I remember something about you. Where are we going?” he questioned, turning abruptly away from her and giving me his attention.

“Nhagaspira,” I answered.

The expression on his face was crushed. “Those people from the village are the whackos that kidnapped you?”

I nodded.

“And now they’re helping us? This couldn’t be more suspicious.”

“Brandon is there. He’s one of them. I believe he has your finger.”

Christian looked down at his pinkieless hand. “I don’t like any of this, but I suppose I have to get that back. Doubtless, he’ll ask me for something in exchange for it. Any idea what he wants, Pricina? Tell me so I can get ready for it. Does he want another one of my fingers? That’s the only thing I can think of that has exactly the same value.”

Pricina sniffed and turned her whole body to face forward in the pilot’s seat. I couldn’t see her face, so I couldn’t read her, but Christian was obviously ten kinds of uncomfortable. Usually, anything he felt was hidden. If he wasn’t hiding his unease, how disturbed was he?

“Rhuk?” I asked, thinking of how Christian and I could have some privacy in the enclosed space. “Can you make me a sound barrier the same way Pricina makes one so that we don’t hear the chopper blades?”

“Yes,” it whispered in my ear. “What sound would you like to block out?”

“I’d like it to block out the sound so Pricina can’t hear what Christian and I are saying.”

“Who are you talking to?” Christian interjected. “You were talking to someone in the prison as well, but there was no one there.”

“Done,” Rhuk said.

I patted Christian’s hand. “Princina won’t be able to hear us now. Look, at first, I was angry with them for kidnapping me. I got over it quickly once I saw what they are really like. She and her friends are desperate and pathetic. I have no doubt that she and the other immortals who live underground have done a lot to annoy you over the last six hundred years. You don’t need to talk to her about your grievances now. You must be exhausted. If you want to sleep while we fly, I’ll watch over you. You can even use me as your pillow,” I offered, attempting to sound tantalizing.

“Right. You’ve lost thirty pounds and you’re offering yourself as a pillow? They didn’t take good care of you if you’re so slim.”

“They didn’t have anything to do with it,” I refuted him. “You did this to me yourself.”

He gawked at me. “ I  made you lose thirty pounds? Darling, you didn’t have thirty pounds to lose.”

If he wanted to tease me, he should have said that I wouldn’t be comfortable to lean against because of the black sword protruding from my chest. He couldn’t see it. The Other Christian had failed. I tried not to be discouraged. Maybe he’d remember more if I talked to him more.

I pulled my hair aside and showed Christian the huge diamond in my ear. “This is Rhuk.”

“You’re naming your jewelry? How unlike you.”

“I’m trying to answer your question. This huge diamond is who I’ve been talking to when I’ve been handing out orders. I have a larger version of it in the village. I’ll show it to you. It’s my pet rock. It’s very helpful. Sometimes I move matter alone and sometimes I use it to help me interface with many different pieces of matter at once. Do you remember that about yourself? That you used to be able to move mountains?”

His jaw hung open for a moment before it snapped shut. “I don’t remember.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d been pumping him for information for under a minute and I was already fed up with it. If he knew about the village in the mountains, maybe he knew something much more meaningful. “Who was your mother?” I demanded.

“Huh?”

“Who was your father? Do you remember them?”

“N-not really,” he stuttered. “It was a long time ago.”

“Yeah, a long time ago. Not a few years since you last saw them. Not a dozen years since you left home. Not thirty years since you were a baby. It was thousands of years ago. It wasn’t even on this planet. You slashed and burned your own brain. It sounds like you meant  to do it, but now it’s time to get all that back again. We have to restore you to who you were.”

“Why?” he barked, squirming like he wished there was somewhere to flee in the tight compartment of the aircraft.

“Because this world is falling apart and you and I might be able to fix it. If you could remember, you’d know that a part of you used to be able to control matter and when you gave me your heart, you gave me the ability to manipulate matter too. Do you know everything that our heart switch meant?” I grabbed his hand and placed it under my collarbone.

His teeth chattered against each other. He couldn’t answer me.

My voice was steady. “I know you wanted to marry me after you rescued me from my father and Dr. Hilliar and then it would have been easy to draw the line. Before that ceremony, I had been a child in your care, and after the ceremony, we were a couple. You would have liked it if I thought of that ceremony as the thing that cemented us. That way, you could say we were married from that point on, but that’s not true, is it?”

I had never seen a person look more uncomfortable as he jerked his hand away and covered his face with both hands.

Clearing my throat, I continued. “Eternal laws are different from human laws, aren’t they? And you and I have already been married for seven years. Haven’t we?”

He turned and grabbed both of my wrists and held me in place so that our eyes met. “It was the only way to save you.”

“Yes!” I cried. My whole being lit with intensity. “I’m glad you saved me. I’m glad that we’ve been bonded together in this way and that it’s something that can’t easily be undone. I want you. I’ve always wanted you. I’m not angry if that’s what you feared,” I said softly, but deliberately. “You were enough of a gentleman for me. I just don’t want to play any more games about what we are to each other.”

His grip on my wrists slacked. “Stop playing games?”

“Yes.”

Letting go of me, he leaned back in his seat. “This isn’t a good time to stop playing games, Beth. That woman, Pricina, is one of the people I’ve been hiding from all these years. What do we owe her for her help tonight since she brought this chopper out of hiding to spring me from jail?”

I ground my teeth together. “Brandon and the others want you to get better.”

“Maybe. From my memory of her people, they’re crazy… in a bad way.”

“They’re not going to try to cut you apart,” I said, feeling that the friendship I had received from Pricina was real and ought to be defended.

He sniffed in reply. “Might I remind you that they are holding a part of my body? You’re right, the people from Nhagaspira have never cut me apart that I can remember, but that hasn’t stopped them from engaging in all kinds of terrible tricks to try to trap me and make me do what they want when I can’t. I can’t do what they want. We’re not safe with them. Nhagaspira is not a good place to have a honeymoon. It’s a disaster. I can’t go there to be with you. You must know that.”

I felt completely choked as he said those words. What had I been expecting? What had I been hoping for if everything went well at the prison? That I would retrieve him and he’d still be a five-engine fire, burning with love for me? I felt like a child all over again as I listened to him explain that the immortals were only a shade less terrible than the people I’d murdered half an hour ago.

“Beth, I love you, and I’d love to believe what you clearly believe about these people, but I’m fighting a terrible urge to throw your girl out of the cockpit and hijack the helicopter.”

“You can’t do that!” I hollered.

Luckily the soundproofing Rhuk had put up was working well. Pricina didn’t flutter an eyelash at the harsh sound of my voice.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I can pilot a helicopter and she won’t die. Believe me.”

I lowered my voice. “That’s not the problem. There’s no engine in this helicopter. She’s operating the blades with her mind alone. Can’t you see that none of the instruments are working? I don’t know if I could control this machine in her place and right now she’s taking us to the village where, hopefully, you can get your finger back.”

“Okay. Okay. Okay,” he said, pulling himself together. “I’m panicking and it isn’t helping. We have to go to the village, so I can get my finger back. I do need to talk to Brandon about what game he’s been playing all these years and I can’t do that if I’m pounding my fist like a caveman who refuses to understand. I’ll calm down.”

He took a few measured breaths, blinked a few times, and then breathed some more.

I waited.

Finally, he started moving his tongue. He didn’t talk at first. He just moved his tongue around in his mouth like he wasn’t sure which way to move his tongue to produce which sound. “You wanted something from me a minute ago and I became evasive because… I never wanted to have that conversation with you. You asked me if I switched hearts with you knowing that it was a marriage ceremony.”

I nodded.

He looked around uncomfortably before turning to meet my eyes. “I knew. But I also knew that it wasn’t a real marriage unless you proved yourself to be immortal too. So, from my perspective, we weren’t married until you opened your eyes after your father shot you. So, no, I haven’t been married to you for seven years. I’ve been married to you for six months. Before that, I guess we were engaged for all those other years.” He wetted his lips with the edge of his tongue. “I asked you to marry me that day. Does that explanation satisfy you?”

I kissed him, locking his lips with mine and keeping him pinned until he pushed me off.

“I can’t do any of that stuff with her here. I can’t let my guard down enough to do a hundredth of the scenarios I see playing behind your eyes.”

I smiled, though it was through teeth gritted in frustration.

***

Pricina landed the chopper in a cave in the frozen north.

The hangar for the chopper was a secret room inside a larger cave. When Pricina got out of the helicopter, she closed up the entrance.

We got out onto the cold cave floor. Christian’s feet were bare and he was frozen as we hurried to a more civilized part of the village.

“This place is freezing,” he complained.

“Rhuk? Warm up the air around Christian and keep it warm all the way to his room,” I said aloud.

“Yes,” it replied.

Immediately, Christian stopped shivering and the muscles in his shoulders relaxed. “That was very handy,” he conceded as we walked.

The orientation of the village was strange, almost like the whole thing could spin on an axis.

Pricina pointed down a corridor. “His room is that way,” she said before she disappeared without further comment.

When we arrived at the facade to his bedroom, he dropped the blanket that he had been clutching  around his shoulders and let it fall to the floor. His eyes were wide as he took in the sight of the shining doors. “I do remember this place. Did she say this is my room?”

“She did.”

He rested his forehead against the gold. “I have bad memories here,” he said grimly. “This was a bad place for me.”

“What happened here?”

“Nothing,” he denied, cracking the door open and stepping inside.

I followed behind him into the room I had gained a sudden familiarity with. “Whatever happened in the past, it’s over now.”

I ran my hand across his shoulder blades possessively as I knocked the shining doors closed with a corner of my mind. How I had longed to touch his bare skin like that when he used to take me swimming.

He caught my slim white hand in his square brown one, a suspicious look in his eyes as his gaze darted around the room.

“This place isn’t safe,” he said.

“There’s no bugs if that’s what you’re worried about. I was just in here before I came to get you. We are completely alone.”

He didn’t budge, not in looks or in movement. He held my hand like it was a snake that might bite.

I narrowed my eyes, “You don’t trust me? Do you think I might be someone else wearing a face like mine?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Then you should kiss me,” I said, putting myself directly in front of him. “I bet you know exactly what a girl with my face is supposed to taste like.”

He shook his head in resigned abandon. “That’s how my girl talks to me,” he said as he jerked me toward him.

It was a good kiss. He felt warm like  he still knew how to drop his guard when he really wanted something, and like his time in prison hadn’t scrambled his brain so bad  that he didn’t know how to handle a woman.

“Sorry,” he said, once he’d finished having a good taste. “I didn’t have those weird doubts when you picked me up from the jail or when we were in the helicopter. This place gives me the creeps and sets off all my alarm bells. We can’t be together  here.”

The way he said ‘together’ was as intimate as if he’d whispered it in a line down my throat, but the word itself meant the opposite of what his tone implied. He was blowing me off, stepping past me, looking for clues about what kind of space we’d just entered.

My mouth hung open. The matter in this room wouldn’t dare disobey him. The complex forms of matter in his bedroom were his slaves even more than I was.

But his guard was up as he stepped further into the room. “If I remember correctly, my bathroom is in this direction.” He swiftly moved that way.

I shut the door and scrambled after him. I had not explored the adjoining rooms.

The bathroom was a splendid room of white marble. Plants grew everywhere, even ivy and roses. There were enormous baths sunk into the floors.

“There are no faucets,” he observed dryly.

“Oh,” I said, waving my hand and without words, I opened the valves to let in the water, while at the same time ordering that water to a reasonable temperature.

Christian saw it with his eyebrows raised. “I thought you had to talk to your pet rock.”

“No. Rhuk can’t do anything I can’t do. It’s just nicer to get someone else to do what I don’t want to do myself. Sometimes Rhuk is faster than me. That’s all.”

Christian put his hand under the stream of warm water and pointed with his other hand. “If I’m not entirely mistaken, there’s a dressing room in that direction. Find something else to wear. Anything is fine. We can’t stay here and once we get back to the surface, I don’t want you being recognized for the prison break.”

“You don’t want to meet the other immortals or hear their side of the story?” I asked slowly.

“Beth, I don’t understand this. I don’t understand how you got connected to a place I tried so desperately to escape. I don’t understand how being here is allowing us to be together. From what I remember, these people are not like your father and Dr. Hilliar, but they’re not good. I have been blowing them off for decades. I didn’t know Brandon was one of them, though I guessed he might be when you said you were contacted by someone to help rescue his head. If I’d known he was in so deep with them that he’d kidnap you, I would have left his body and his head with Dr. Hilliar.”

I was surprised by his discomfort. As far as I knew, there was no reason to stay in the village if our connection wasn’t forged. It wasn’t like we could pop down the hall and work the poles when Christian couldn’t manipulate matter.

“We can leave,” I said easily.

“And we will,” he said, cutting the air with the harshness of his words.

Rhuk stopped the water when the bath was full.

“But for now,” Christian said. “Go play in my closet. I need to wash up.”


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

All the Things Hidden in Christian’s Closet

Christian’s closet was magnificent. As long as I’d known him, he had been obsessed with how he looked, how I looked, and how to present the image of a person that had such a firm identity, wearing something different could change who they were.

To my astonishment, his closet was only half men’s clothes. The other half was for women. I glanced around frantically like I was afraid an old wife of his was going to pop out from behind a clothing rack.

I looked over the space, far larger than a room. Inside, I walked past mirrors, bureaus, seats, shoes, bags, belts, everything a person would need for a thousand years of dressing up. I started to wonder if other immortals used this space like a shopping mall and looked for other entrances or exits.

After I had walked for what felt like forever, I realized the dressing room was supposed to look like a forest. Clothes hung like leaves from center poles. Jeweled rings sprouted from flowers made of silk handkerchiefs. Pants hung in panels like layered blades of thick grass.

Above me was a ceiling painted a startling shade of blue. It was almost luminescent like the sun was shining but merely hidden behind a cloud.

There were too many clothes. There were too many places for a person to hide. There were mannequins like people walking the paths of the forest. More than once, I ducked, believing that a stranger had seen me.

Unhappy, I backtracked in my leather motorcycle pants, searching with my feet for the path that returned to the entrance. With every step, I knew I was getting more lost.

“Rhuk,” I said, losing my patience. “Can you see how to leave this place?”

“It’s a labyrinth, intended to destroy anyone who enters,” Rhuk replied. “The clothes have been ordered deliberately to move in a way that is not noticeable to the visitor. They form a maze that becomes incomprehensible to anyone who enters. No one can leave without having the power to tear the trees up by their roots.”

“I’ll have to destroy it if I want to leave?” I asked, concerned. I didn’t want to ruin something Christian obviously loved.

“Yes.”

“I don’t want to.”

“No one wants to. That’s part of the reason it works so well.”

I huffed.

Rhuk made the same sound. “I know it's not my place to offer opinions on a space a god has created, but Christian isn’t well enough to heal it and so if you don’t–” Rhuk paused as I gasped.

I found a dead body.

It was a man. He lay on the floor unmoving, wearing the finest clothes I had ever seen with a top hat clenched in one hand.

I stared at him and tried to figure out what had happened. Was he one of the immortals that lost their immortality because of the poles? Perhaps not. They said those victims were disfigured. This man looked dapper.

Rhuk began to explain. “The material of the shirt he’s wearing says that this man came to see Christian a long time ago. The man demanded that Christian give him the secrets to the higher levels of godhood. Christian agreed that this man should have everything he wanted and told him that the first thing he needed to do to become a greater god was to change into clothes more fitting the status of a higher-level god. Then Christian sent him off to choose new clothes in his private closet. The man chose them and got dressed in the clothes you see him in now, but he could not control matter  well enough to leave. The shirt heard  the story of how the little god was tricked many times before he lost control of the Red Forest and died.”

“Why hasn’t he decomposed?” I asked.

“Because nothing here rots. Everything in this room is under strict orders not to show any aging. The clothes are as immortal as you are. There’s not a single microorganism in this room that could eat his body. He’s better preserved here than if he was frozen in ice.”

I glanced around fearfully. “How many dead bodies are in this room?”

“As many as if this was a cemetery and not a dressing room. The clothes move to hide the dead bodies.”

“No wonder Christian hates  it here. Anything I miss, Rhuk, you have my permission to flatten.” I waved my hand and forced the clothing trees down. Things cracked and broke. Then I stepped on the clothes, forcing them to stay down even though they twitched and squirmed like the corpses I trod on were trying to rise from the dead.

I spied the exit. I had walked far from that original point. It felt like it took forever to get there. When I finally escaped, I turned and instructed the clothing forest to resume obeying its previous instructions. I didn’t want to leave it the way it was, but I was also not prepared to make decisions regarding the dressing room’s fate.

Everything popped up and began to sway as if blown by an unseen wind. I was now a master of this forest. Like Christian, I didn’t like it at all.

I headed back toward the bedroom and saw a light shining from a room that was not the bathroom. I stepped inside and saw it was a different dressing room. I’d gone to the wrong room. This was the real place where he stored his clothes.

It was a space more like a Parisian boutique with circular closets, delicate furniture, plush carpet, and mirrors everywhere. Christian stood in front of one of the closets with a mirror positioned in front of him. He wore only trousers as he rifled through a selection of collared shirts.

He turned to me with a winning smile. “You haven’t changed your clothes. I wondered where you’d gone.”

“Oh, I was in the ‘other’ dressing room.”

“I have more than one?” he laughed. Then his smile abruptly fell. “There’s something wrong with the other one. What was it?”

“It’s full of clothes and jewels, silks and satins, cravats and corpses. Ring any bells?”

He groaned. “I hate this place. I’m sorry, I didn’t remember. I should have warned you.”

I put on a fake, cheery smile. “I’ll lock the door to it,” I said, sealing the door to the frame of the clothing forest with strict instructions. “It’s good you didn’t walk in there. It would be a shame if you died in a trap you used on others.”

He shook his head. “I don’t remember any of that stuff. I didn’t even remember that room existed.”

“I’m not mad at you,” I said, working my way out of my motorcycle jacket. “Before we left the prison, I asked Rhuk to make sure there weren’t any organs in jars or freezers. Those scientists cut you a lot. What were they trying to accomplish if they weren’t stealing your organs?”

His eyes went glassy and his tongue scraped the roof of his mouth. “You want to talk about that?”

“Yeah. I killed the people who were working on you. There’s still blood splatter on my coat,” I observed as I tossed it aside. “But I don’t think I cut off all the serpent’s heads, so perhaps you could tell me what they accomplished by carving you into bits.”

He looked away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I took a knee and began unlacing my boot. “Fine. Perhaps we can talk about the Red Forest.”

“I don’t go there. It’s unnecessary.”

I kicked off my boot and started on the second one. “I go there. I go there all the time.”

“I see you’ve been carving yourself up,” he said, placing his fingers on my individual ribs like they were piano keys.

I brushed my curls out of my face in irritation. “It is not knowledge I gained myself that has caused me to lose this much weight. Your heart has awoken and this is the work of your heart in my body.” I paused and tossed my other boot  aside. “I know what this is,” I said with sudden clarity.

“What?”

“You hate it here. You want to forget everything that is here, everything that happens here, but this is the body immortals choose to make—slim, skeletal, efficient. You don’t want me to look like the immortals you sent to die. Do I look like just another one of them to you now?”

He took a step away from me and grabbed a shirt off the rack with a snap. “I don’t know. All I know is that we’re not staying here. I’m getting dressed and I’m going to find Brandon. I want my finger back.”

“Wait for me to change and I’ll come with you,” I said, making my voice soft. “Why don’t you pick something for me to wear?”

He put his shirt on and started doing up his buttons as he moved around the room. “I’m going to have to give you something weird. I probably didn’t have a practical thought in my head when I made up the female side of this collection.”

“Rhuk,” I whispered as Christian disappeared from view behind a cabinet. “Order all dirt, grime, blood, and oil off me. I’ll work on my hair while you’re doing that.”

My hair would do exactly what I asked as far as form was concerned. If I tried to make it a different color, that would not work at all. I could chop hair off, but I could not grow hair spontaneously without the proper chemicals in my body to provide the materials.

“I’m amazed you’ve got something so practical for yourself to wear if it’s been a long time since you’ve been down here,” I said, undoing my pants and peeling them off.

“These clothes are funny. They changed a few times when I was looking at them.”

“Ah,” I said, knowing exactly what he meant. They were clothes that were ordered to take the shape someone wanted, even if they didn’t have a command of the elements. “Did you tell them they looked awful?”

“I did. I told them exactly what they should look like and they changed to look that way,” he replied like he didn’t want to act like there was anything unusual about that.

“Why not just have a conversation with a piece of clothing that has material you like? I’m sure you’ll be able to make something suitable for me to wear.”

He came around the corner. “Put that on.”

It was a black dress. I whipped off my shirt and did as he commanded, standing there in my bra and panties.

“Good grief, Beth, you didn’t even go around a corner to change. What has happened that you’ve lost all modesty?”

“I haven’t lost any modesty,” I said as I pulled my head through the neck hole. “You are my husband and I plan to behave like you are.”

He led me to a pavilion with a semicircle of mirrors surrounding it. “Cinch in at the waist,” he ordered the fabric, before turning to me. “So, you’re saying you’re not interested in the civil wedding I promised you, or a bigger wedding at a church or a hotel?”

“Yes!” I clapped my hands in mock applause. “Who shall we invite? All our friends? All my family? Your parents?”

He grimaced. “I wanted to make you a bride. My bride.”

“I wasn’t going to have much of a wedding dress if we were only getting married at a courthouse.”

“Yes, you were! I was going to get you the grandest thing anyone had ever seen.”

“And these magic clothes that turn themselves into whatever you desire are not good enough?”

He gave me a quick glare and shook his head. “We need  to get out of here,” he emphasized. “A legal wedding is probably out of the question because of how difficult it would be to get you a fake ID, but we could do something privately… just the two of us.”

“We’re already married,” I said.

He looked at me blandly. “I need to hear you say it. If you knew what gibberish came out of your mouth before we cut you open all those years ago, you’d want to put a fresh memory in my head.”

I nodded my acceptance. “I see. We’ll do something ourselves once we’ve left here.”

He glanced at me twice in quick succession. “Your dress is fine for now. It doesn’t need to be glamorous. It just needs to not call attention to us. Grab a pair of boots.”


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The North Iron Room

All dressed, we stepped into the bedroom. The first thing I saw was Rhuk sitting by the door. It had been waiting for us.

“Christian,” I said, tugging on his sleeve. “This is Rhuk. One part of it is my earring and this is the other part.”

Rhuk hadn’t moved and for all the world, it looked like I was introducing Christian to a very ornate chair, but a chair nonetheless.

Christian looked at it and then back to me. “You sculpted it?”

“Yes.”

“Huh. It’s very beautiful. Am I supposed to speak to it?” he asked casually.

“Can you hear me?” Rhuk attempted.

Christian made no sign that he could hear the chess piece.

“Um,” I said, thinking of ways to reduce the awkwardness. “I can hear it talk to me. It’s very helpful. It’s trying to talk to you too, but it seems like you can’t hear it.”

He just stared blankly.

“Do you want to ride it?” I offered.

“I suppose any mad thing is possible here.” He straightened and headed toward the door.

I patted my thigh in a silent command for Rhuk to come along with us and ignored Christian’s snobbery.

“You can’t mean to bring your pet rock with us while we’re on the run. It’s huge,” he said, eying the moving rock wearily.

I rolled my eyes. “Relax. My pet rock has charms beyond your wildest dreams. It doesn’t bark or mew. It doesn’t shed, scratch up the furniture, pee, or poop. It doesn’t need to be fed and if you want it to bend reality, it can do that really well.”

Christian held the door to the bedroom open for Rhuk and watched it as it hopped down the steps making the echoing sounds of someone winning at chess.

I cocked my head to the side. “Tell me you don’t love it.”

“It is very cute,” he conceded. “I’m just unhappy about being here, and I just emerged from a prison where they tortured me for months. Yet this place still makes me unhappy, even with you here. It’s just one prison for another.”

He followed Rhuk  down the stairs and into an ornate hallway with fine carpets, wallpapers, and molding. I chased after him and matched his pace.

It was quiet in the hall as Christian slowed down. He was looking up at his ceiling, hearing the sounds of distant instruments, like the unnatural beauty meant something more to him than it did to me.

“Do you remember this place?” I asked him.

He rested his hand against a column. Then he pressed his ear against it. “They’re moving the village, spinning it on its axis.”

“You can hear that?”

He nodded and crushed his thumb to his forehead. “We need to leave. Can your pet rock tell us where we can find Brandon?”

I tapped my earring and was about to issue Rhuk a command when it whispered in my ear. “Brandon is talking to Pricina. He knows Christian wants to find him. He’s hiding. Christian is right. They’ve been manipulating the way the village is organized. Brandon wants Christian to see the North Iron Room. Once that has been accomplished, he’ll return his finger.”

“Is that the price for his finger Christian was talking about?”

“From what Brandon is telling Pricina, I guess so.”

I sighed, hooked my arm around Christian’s, and started off down the hall. Tugging him along with me, I explained that he had been right and that the price had been set. If he saw the North Iron Room, Brandon would give him back his finger and we could leave.

“I’ve never been to the North Iron Room before,” I said cheerfully. “I went to the Ocean Room. That was very interesting. Hopefully, this will be interesting too.”

“What do they do in the North Iron Room?”

“From what I’ve been told, you were the only one who could use it. It was used for manipulating the molten iron core of the world and thus--”

“The magnetic poles,” he finished, whispers of his memories finally forming into words.

“It’s up ahead,” Rhuk said, turning to show us the way.

The North Iron Room, like the Ocean Room, was a cave. The only light in the room came from the floor. Large stone slabs made up the flooring, and red light like lava came up between the cracks and lit the room in a scarlet glow. At once, I was confused. If the village moved, how would we safely be able to see lava without huge messes happening everywhere? Looking closer at the matter, I saw that we were not seeing actual lava. We were seeing a trick. Just like the Ocean Room did not contain an ocean, this room did not contain a passage to the Earth’s volcanic veins. However, there was a particle line for relaying instructions, so in a way, there was.

Since the room was nothing but cardinal light and charcoal shadow, it was difficult at first to see exactly what was in the room. As we moved further in, I felt hot breezes like I had in the Red Forest when I approached Christian’s heart. Finally, I saw the iron lung-like room positioned deep inside the cave. It was red like an antique fire engine. It must have been painted that color hundreds of years ago. Now the red paint looked baked, cracked and dry, like blood.

At the door, there was a figure. I heard him before I saw him. It was a person banging their fists against the door to the core of the Iron Room. The low moaning he emitted suggested it was a man, or once it had been.

“Do you know who that is?” Christian asked me.

I shook my head negatively. “I have only met three people down here.”

Christian twisted his head, searching for recognition.

We couldn’t see a face, for it appeared that the man had a bag over his head. The height and build suggested strength, though anything else about him was difficult to pinpoint with his head covered.

“I forget his name,” Christian said, snapping his fingers in rapid succession. “He was the worst. Orli? No. It was Orlen. On the surface, after I left, wherever I was, he was always hunting me down using an incredibly beautiful woman for me to fall in love with as bait. He promised those women untold riches and eternal life if they could get me to fall in love with them. They never loved me. They only loved whatever he’d promised them. When he stopped sending women, I thought he’d died, or he’d be captured by someone even greedier than he had been.”

“You said you didn’t know any other people who were blocked from death besides Brandon.”

Christian gave me a flirty smile. “If that guy is who I think he is, I last saw him before World War II. I thought he was dead. I hoped all these people were dead.”

“Why?”

“They are the lowest quality immortals heaven has ever seen. This project failed. I don’t remember how or why. I only remember that it failed. It failed. I failed them. I had to leave this Iron Room and if they still haven’t been able to accomplish what I couldn’t, they never will. This place used to be crawling with people. I remember that. They’re dead and this place has become a tomb. Even my closet is a tomb apparently,” he said grouchily. He took two steps forward. “Have I come far enough to satisfy Brandon or do I have to pry that… person off the front door and go inside?”

“I don’t know, but I’d guess they want you to go inside,” I said.

“What Brandon wants is obvious. He wants to show me this Iron Room to see if I can control it again and he wants me to see this person to make me feel responsible for his condition.”

I hesitated as Christian stepped ahead of me to get a better look at the man, Orlen.

Christian approached him and said his name, but the man did not notice.

“Christian,” I called. “He’s crazy. Whoever he was before, now he’s one of the immortals who lost his mind trying to control the poles. You have to leave him alone.”

“Do I? I want to see what’s become of him.” Christian put his hand on the bag and began lifting it.

The tiles in the  floor started jiggling. They weren’t talking to Rhuk. They were talking directly to me.

“Don’t take off the bag!” I called in alarm .

Christian paused. “Why not?”

“The floor tiles say taking it off would be bad.”

Christian looked at me incredulously and then at the floor tiles—hexagons and pentagons which had stopped trembling under his gaze. “Am I supposed to take advice from floor tiles?”

I put my hands out feebly. “I have never known floor tiles to be wrong.”

He laughed, before straightening and saying with all seriousness, “I actually do need to see this.”

I couldn’t say another word before Christian snatched the bag off Orlen’s head. The man had taken a few steps away from the iron sphere in the center of the room and caught a good ray of red light. Looking at his face, it was hard to look at him for long enough to understand what I saw. My impulse was to hide my face and run from the room. Christian had to do what he had to do, but did I have to stand by and watch? I thought no. I was about to turn away when the grotesque figure in front of me suddenly started making sense.

Orlen’s hair was not growing out of his head like it was supposed to. It was growing out of his cheeks, under his eyes. It was disconcerting seeing hair grow out in a line under his milky eyes until I realized his eyebrows had moved. They were now growing below his eyes. It was easier to look at as soon as I understood it. His face was more disfigured further down. His teeth were growing out of the sides of his nose and unless I was completely confused, his jaw was upside down, so his bottom teeth were wagging against his throat. Whatever was wrong with him, his eyes were not flawed and he recognized Christian.

“Loooorrrdddd,” he gurgled.

I pursed my lips and strode up to the two of them. Allowing my tongue to bite, I explained, “This is what happens when someone who doesn’t know enough tries to control the force of the whole world. He tried to swap the poles himself and concentrated so hard on making down up that he unintentionally reordered things in the Red Forest, and turned himself upside down. Put the bag back on his head.”

Christian did as he was told. “And you don’t think that will happen to us?”

I sat on Rhuk  like it was my throne and started levitating toward the exit. “If I tried to do it today, by myself? No, I doubt that would happen, but if I tried to do it every day for a decade? Maybe. From what I understand, it is not a one-person job, which is why you were never able to do it by yourself. You need someone to control the South Pole. Do you remember where you hid the other Iron Room?”

Christian opened his mouth to tell me that he didn’t know where it was, but he never finished.

Dddaaaaammmmooonnnn !” Orlen called. He’d remembered Christian’s name.

I turned around to see him pull the bag from his head and start after us. At first, it was a slow amble and I did not bother to increase my speed on Rhuk, thinking the fallen god wouldn’t be able to catch up to us. I turned my attention forward, only to see Christian suddenly sprint past me at top speed. I stole a glance over my shoulder and in the motion, I accidentally kicked Rhuk, who thought that was an indication that I wanted to go faster. It was a good thing Rhuk reacted that way as Orlen almost caught the collar of my dress.

I came up beside sprinting Christian, putting on speed.

“Can I ride on that thing too? I’m pretty sure Orlen can run as fast as I can.”

“Jump on my lap,” I urged. “If you can.”

He could not. He gave it a few running leaps before abandoning it. With Orlen still hot on our trail, Christian made one final attempt to join me on Rhuk. He ended up propping his feet on the molding at the bottom of Rhuk’s cylinder and holding onto the ridges of Rhuk’s crown.

Taking the turns swiftly and holding on tightly, we were soon back in Christian’s room. We shut the door tightly and locked it. Except now, Orlen wasn’t standing outside the North Iron Room crying and beating his fists against the door. He was standing outside our bedroom wailing and kicking.

“I guess we can stay here a little longer,” I said with mock cheer.


CHAPTER NINETEEN

The Woman with the White Heart

Christian and I sat on the floor and leaned against the door to our bedroom. I blocked the sound of Orlen pounding his fists against the gold finish. I didn’t need to count the fist falls to know that Orlen was no longer alone. His wails had alerted other disoriented immortals, and every few minutes a new one would amble up, whip the bag off of their head, and join in the thumping and blubbering.

“I want to apologize for all this,” Christian said slowly, letting his words fall off his tongue like he’d never moved his tongue in that particular way before.

“Mmm-hmm,” I replied. “Wanna give up on getting your finger back? I could make a hole in another wall and we could leave the village that way. I’d seal it up so smoothly, no one would ever figure out how we left.”

Christian rolled his eyes. “I want my finger back. It’s too much of an identifier to have it gone.”

I closed my eyes and tried to do what Rhuk did when it used other matter to see things at great distances. Where was Brandon? What was he doing? I didn’t see him exactly. I had to listen to what the matter around him told me.

I whispered to Christian, “Brandon is on his way down here. He has your finger.”

“Marvelous,” Christian said, getting to his feet and beginning to pace.

Rhuk rubbed up against the side of my arm. I jumped because for a moment, I thought it was a cat.

“You don’t have to take me with you in this form,” it said. “Hauling around this humongous chunk of dolomite won’t make what you have to do any easier. Just keep the earring in and that will be enough for me.”

I realized at that moment that I was hearing two voices talk. One was the dolomite next to me and the other was the diamond in my ear. I petted its side like I was stroking the back of a cat and whispered my appreciation.

I turned to Christian. “Brandon is rounding up the immortals on the other side of the door. He has to take them away one at a time. I don’t think it’s a wise idea for you to try to help him, but do you mind if I go? After all, he can’t come in until we clear the door.”

Christian mumbled something like agreement.

I stood up and turned myself toward the door. Dipping into the realm of matter manipulation, I saw that there were twenty-four disoriented immortals on the other side.

“How long will it take Brandon to clear the hall at his current rate?” I wondered aloud.

“Hours,” Rhuk replied. “They’re not very compliant.”

“How’s he doing it?”

“He’s covering their heads with bags, then tying a rope around their necks and leading them to a room designed to hold them.”

Searching the room, I found a twisted rope from a curtain that had only been decorative and pilfered a pile of pillowcases. “I’m going to help him,” I said, opening a semi-circle hole over the door and leaping up to the sill.

Looking down, twenty-four deformed immortals were a lot more than it had seemed in my head when I was recognizing their matter. Not only that, but they were uglier than the extras in a zombie movie. Orlen had been one of the less deranged. No wonder they kept bags on their heads.

I caught sight of Brandon coming down the hall, rope in hand, looking very much the way he had looked when I saw him coming out of the woods with a shotgun.

He saw me. “What did you do? Couldn’t you read what it said on the bag, ‘Do not remove’?”

“So that’s what it said. No. I couldn’t read it.”

Brandon shrugged. “It’s the language of the immortals.”

“They have their own language?”

“Obviously. It’s a language that speaks to all people whether they’re speaking English or ancient Tittish. It’s the language of cells. You can never learn to heal another person if you don’t know it. I guess I hoped you’d learn it easily because of the shortcuts in your heart, but not yet, eh?”

“Are you speaking it now?”

“No. It’s not a spoken language… exactly. What are you doing up there?”

“I was going to come down and help you.” Using my ankles as springs, I rocketed myself to the other side of the hall. Landing on my feet next to Brandon, I took the cord in my hands. “You don’t lasso them, do you?”

“Nah. Just get the bag over their head and the rope around their neck like a leash. Then you can cart them off, as long as they aren’t too determined. It should get easier as we thin the crowd.”

I watched him do one and then, following his lead, I caught one. Putting the bag over her head made the whole thing more doable. Having to look at a woman with her fingernails growing like scales on the sides of her face was jarring.

“This is what happens to people who try to move the poles?” I asked numbly, walking beside Brandon.

“No. This is what happens to immortals who think they can do what they can’t. Our numbers have dwindled so seriously that no one tries to move the poles anymore. Pricina says that the iron magma does not listen to commands the way other types of matter listen. She says it’s similar to giving the same orders to a dog and a blue whale. The two creatures understand very differently. Christian built the two chambers for controlling the poles, so people have tried in pairs on many occasions.”

“I thought the South Iron Room was hidden.”

“It is.”

“How did people try in pairs, then?”

“During the five hundred years where Christian was healthy and still holding the north pole in place, he encouraged immortals to try to control it with one in each room. He would secretly take the female part of the team to the South Iron Room. No one ever learned the way and no one was ever able to work with their partner well enough to correct the problem. Christian would bring them back and they had a tale to tell about the South Iron Room.”

“What kind of stories?” I asked, interested.

“They said there was a plaque over the door that read that it was for the woman with the white heart. Does that make any sense to you?” He chuckled darkly. “The Red Forest is red. Who has a white heart?”

I pondered that as we walked. Did Brandon not know that the Red Forest is not supposed to stay red? I told Pricina that. Didn’t she tell him? Did he and the other immortals live through one tiny thing, like a bullet through the brain, and think that they were home free? Did they think they were invulnerable, ready to control the cosmos and eat the whole of eternity just because they had managed to clear one hurdle?

The arrogance was unfathomable.

I eyed the ring of scar tissue around his throat and then involuntarily glanced at the sword in my chest.

The woman I was leading pulled on her leash like she wanted to return to the door and wail for the greater god, Damon Christianus.

“He’s not coming out,” I said soothingly. “After all, when was the last time he came through that door?”

Then she whimpered under her bag until we made it to the room designated for the deformed immortals. Peeking inside, it was a beautiful room, designed to look like a dragon’s horde, all sparkling with gems and treasure.

“And there’s nothing we can do to heal them?” I asked as Brandon settled them, giving each of them a golden goblet. There was nothing in the cups for them to drink. The gold itself seemed to soothe them like a baby being given a rattle.

Brandon led me out and locked the door behind him.

He sighed. “I wouldn’t like  to say that anything is impossible. What I can  say is that nothing is likely to change. There are immortals who are much closer to eternal gods out there in the universe. I have often wondered why they don’t help us if they can see us and know of our needs.”

“Do you think they’ll come here if the problem with the poles spins further out of control?” I wondered.

He frowned briefly. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen any of them. Christian is supposed to be the god of this world for now.”

“He says he’s not THE god.”

“What?”

“He says he’s not the author and finisher of this world. At least, that was what he told me inside my heart.”

“Oh… I hoped he was one of the greater gods Pricina worshiped when she was young. If he’s not one of them then this world is another god’s creation, and he’s here for another reason. Then Christian’s the one who was sent to save us from our problem with the poles. I’m afraid that means that no one is coming. Christian is the only one who can repair the planet.” Brandon looked down the hall toward Christian’s bedroom like nothing in the world made sense to him.

If what he said was true, his faith had cracked like an egg to reveal his fear.

“Give me Christian’s finger,” I said suddenly. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense.”

He hesitated, knowing he was giving up his last bargaining chip.

I glared at him, and then sucked the air out of his lungs the way the Other Christian told me I could. He fell to his knees. He wasn’t even strong enough to suddenly deal with the lack of oxygen. I crouched down next to him and put out my hand.

He retrieved Christian’s finger from his pocket. It was wrapped in a white handkerchief.

I took it from him and let the air flood his lungs.

He sputtered and coughed. “How could you have opened a vacuum in my trachea? It was like having outer space in my throat,” he groaned, falling on his back and sucking in air.

“Do shut up,” I replied. “You got everything you wanted. Stretching this out any further is too selfish for me to endure. You’re lucky I didn’t do worse. Now get up and help me. You must know that Christian is itching to leave. I need to take him somewhere comfortable and unravel all of this.”

“You’re still going to help us?” he asked, forcing himself to his feet.

I rolled my eyes. “It’s hardly helping you. It’s just that helping you is a side effect of helping everyone.”


CHAPTER TWENTY

Christian’s New and Terrible Secret

Back on the surface world, Christian was feeling much more like himself. He took me to Vancouver swearing that no one would recognize us there. I wore my hair stick straight. It was longer than it had ever been in my life. I wore shades over my eyes and a long coat, hoping to pass for his plaything. It worked… after a fashion. Everyone looked at Christian and me as if we were movie stars.

When we arrived, I gazed at him across the white tablecloth of the hotel restaurant where he took me for lunch.

He ordered a long list of dishes like he was planning on eating enough to make up for all the lackluster meals that had been fed to him in the prison… if they had fed him at all.

“Didn’t they feed you?” I asked when the server had gone.

He shook his head at me with such grave disapproval, I might as well have asked him if he was circumcised. “I don’t think about that stuff after it’s over. If you think about the captivity, the torture, your brain forms neuropathways and it becomes hard to think of anything else. You have to forget about it completely.”

I doubted he would forget about it immediately.

In any case, he ordered lobster off the dinner menu and I ordered calamari and strawberry shortcake with whipping cream.

Our room upstairs was not ready yet, so Christian proposed we go shopping to fill the afternoon. After all, being together in this way was new to both of us. He wore his own face, so he was not Christian Henderson who was out with Beth Coldwell. Instead, we were Beth and Christian. He just happened to have the same first name as my guardian. We were together. We were on vacation. He didn’t have to treat me like his daughter or keep me at arm’s length. Though, it did still feel like he was keeping me at arm’s length. He preferred to hold my hand rather than tuck me under his arm as we toured the shops.

The sunglasses were meant to keep strangers away, but more than once, talent scouts approached us. I thought they were after Christian because people like that had attempted to recruit him when we were on vacation before. In those cases, I was relegated to being the awkward child he was babysitting. Now, the talent scouts look past him, at me. It was a bit of a thrill when I realized the dollar signs in their eyes were for me. Christian allowed them their compliments before brushing them pleasantly aside.

He was on cloud nine as he passed me gown after gown over the top of the dressing room door. He wanted me to have a white wedding dress and frankly, I didn’t care what it looked like as long as he was satisfied.

Except, nothing satisfied him.

I tried on every dress he asked me to in four shops and the afternoon was wearing on. How perfect was he trying to get? I realized the core of his dissatisfaction. Most of the designs were boring and nothing was wowing me either, but what I wanted wasn’t a perfect moment. I just wanted him to look at me in the dress, say I was his, and rip it off.

I considered seriously exaggerating how much I liked one of the dresses, just to get him to stop… when I suddenly realized what was wrong.

In between the curves of the sweetheart neckline I was wearing, a black sword protruded. He knew why he couldn’t pull it through, why he couldn’t align the poles, why he couldn’t speak inside my heart the way Brandon spoke to Pricina, and he was going through this ridiculous dress search because he was powerless to change it. He was doing the wedding to compensate for being unable to forge the connection between us.

I opened the door to the change room, tilted my head to the side, and looked at him. He was talking to one of the shop girls. She was smiling at him and confused that he was the groom helping the bride choose her wedding dress. Grooms were not supposed to see the bride before the wedding.

I wanted to hurry him, but if I wasn’t sensitive and patient, he might not tell me what was wrong. I had already waited so long and I steeled myself to wait a little while longer. I’d get his secrets eventually.

“I don’t want to try on any more dresses with his neckline,” I said.

Christian smiled his winning smile and I tried to smile back.

***

Back at the hotel, I asked the woman at reception to give us a second room. I turned to him, imitated his fakest smile, and said, “It’s really important to you to get this wedding right, so I’ll stay in my own room for the time being. I’ll join you in your room after the wedding.”

His expression was unfathomable. At the least, he was a man in control of himself.

I took my keycard from the receptionist. My room was on the other side of the hotel. I thought that was perfect, as I sent him with the one sad bag of clothes he had taken from Nhagaspir off to another part of the hotel.

I had a bag too. I dropped it off in my room and went straight up to the lounge on the top floor of the hotel.

I took a seat at a small table that overlooked the city lights. A waiter came up and asked me what I was drinking.

I turned to him, floppy and tired, and said, “I want the prettiest drink you have. I want it to be so pretty, I won’t want to drink it.”

He nodded and disappeared.

Strumming my fingers on the table, I waited. When my cocktail finally arrived, the waiter was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Christian brought it. The drink was pink and it was presented in a shallow bowl goblet with a pink cloud hanging over its head.

He smiled his least fake smile as he placed the glass in front of me. “It’s called a Turkish Delight. It’s made with rose water and topped with fairy floss.”

I returned his sincere smile and pulled the drink toward me. “Thanks. It’s nice of you to hit on me in a bar. That was on my bucket list.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked patiently.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can go back to living in this world. Do you know what happened to me when you were in prison?”

He looked at me with intent, caring eyes. “Tell me.”

I opened up to him as I had when we went on vacations before. “You know, I don’t know what vision I had of our lives before I found out that you were immortal. I wanted to be with you, but what were we going to do together? I didn’t have a clear picture. I think I may not have had anything more complex on my mind than crawling into a hole with you somewhere and never coming out. You were so rich, I never needed to worry about what else I wanted other than you.”

“And now?” he said evenly.

“Everything has changed. I killed seven--possibly nine people last week. I want to crawl in a hole with you more than anything, but you’re saying you want to have a wedding.”

“I thought you wanted a wedding?” he said softly.

I scoffed and tore at the fairy floss on the lip of my drink with my fingertips. “I don’t care much for the vows everyone else makes. I want our hearts knit so close together I can feel you breathe when you’re on the other side of the world. When was the last time you strolled through your Red Forest? If I zone out for a moment, I can skip down a lane beside the dark hedge that makes up my liver. I’ll arrive at a clearing, leap across a mote of blood, and step inside a building. It’s a small building and it’s yours. You have your own nook inside me. All at once, a version of you is there to greet me. He wears a crown on his head and he’s determined to turn me into the best version of me.”

Christian looked around uncomfortably. This conversation was filled with things he did not want to talk about.

But I went on. “If I ask him to, he’ll kiss me.”

Christian glanced up, alarmed.

“Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t like you, but it’s warm and peaceful. It feels like we’ve accomplished a love so deep that it is almost complete. You have all kinds of access to my body and I have all this access to your mind. In the past, you worked so hard to keep your secrets from me and when I go there, you tell me everything. You don’t hesitate. You give me everything.” My voice turned slow. “No one else who is married has this kind of access to their partner. I’ll do the wedding if you want. It’s what you said you wanted, but I thought you were going to slap a dress on me, slap a ring on me, and you were going to show me how much you loved me by ripping that dress off. Why does the dress matter so much if it’s going to be torn to shreds? Why are you hesitating?”

Christian frowned and licked his lips. He brought his mouth close to my ear, “It is all my fault.”

“What is all your fault?” I hissed back.

“I let myself get too weak. I forgot too much… and I have spoiled everything.” Looking at him again, his playboy look was completely wiped from him. He was so good at playing that part, he could do it even when he was utterly miserable, but now, the mask was down. He was a man who had been secretly living in hell. “I have to tell you something.”

I nodded for him to go on.

He opened his mouth, shut it, and then downed my drink in one gulp. He paused and he gave the empty cup a dirty look. Buying a woman a drink and then drinking it himself was so unlike him that he did a double-take.

I buried my fingers in his hair and redirected his focus back to me. “What is it?”

He groaned. “My heart started beating.”

I nodded. “It was supposed to start beating.”

“No,” he said, impatiently scratching his eyebrow and pulling away from me. “It was not supposed to start beating. When those crazy scientists were doing operations on me, they tried a lot of things and failed to accomplish them. I would heal fast enough that they couldn’t extract any of my organs. As a point of note, they never tried to take my heart. It wasn’t beating and it was behind a ribcage. They couldn’t even get a kidney. My heart was worthless, but during one of their surgeries, one of the doctors found my heartbeat and when they realized it was healed, they cut it out immediately. I fought them as hard as I could, healing as quickly as I could, but one of them got the bright idea to saw off my leg at the same time and I was so overcome with pain that I lost your heart. They gave me my leg back when they were finished because they already got what they wanted.”

“Do you have any idea where it is?” I asked, realizing immediately that Christian would not be able to pull the sword through to his body if my heart was somewhere else.

His mouth hung open as he prepared to tell me the terrible truth. Finally, he shook his head and admitted the worst. “It’s inside Charles Lewis.”


CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

Half Married

Christian hung his head miserably. “Are we married if I haven’t got your heart?”

I paused and licked my lips. “I see now why you wanted a wedding. You don’t know the answer to that question and neither do I.”

The waiter returned, and while Christian spoke to him, I put my hand to my ear and whispered to Rhuk. “I need you to find Charles Lewis.”

“What does he look like?” the diamond asked.

I transmitted a collection of my memories of Charles. “Do you think it will be harder to find Charles than it was to find Christian?”

“Yes, harder. Christian is a god of this world. Quite a lot of matter has received instructions from him over the last six hundred years. The molecules know him, his face, his voice, his very being. He’s their prince, but this man, Charles, is nobody and your heart is hidden deep within him. I can begin by finding the doctor who escaped the prison, but if he doesn’t have any immediate contact with Charles, it may be difficult. It could take months, if not longer.”

“So what you’re saying is that you’ll work on it, but I might as well relax with Christian while we wait?”

Rhuk puffed a little air into my ear. “It grieves me to see a greater god fall as far as he has. Do you think there’s anything you can do to lift him up?”

I pursed my lips and thought about it. Rhuk was right. We shouldn’t just wait around.

Turning back to Christian, I saw his conversation with the waiter had made his outward calm return, though his inner turmoil undoubtedly remained unchanged.

“I’ve got Rhuk looking for Charles,” I said once the waiter was gone.

“What do you think?” he asked, strumming his fingers on the table and glaring at the rest of the room. “Will I be your ex-husband until I retrieve your heart?”

I almost snorted. “Not at all. Let’s get married the way you want. Spare no expense. Do whatever you need to do. Put a veil on me. A garter belt. Something old, something new, something borrowed and blue. I’m game. I want to choose a wedding ring for you. Can we do that tomorrow?”

When his gaze returned to me, he looked at me like I was an alien. “All that is really fine with you? You weren’t fine with it ten minutes ago.”

“There’s a lot going on you can’t see. For instance, are you aware that I have two and a half feet of a pitch-black sword piercing your heart inside me as we speak?”

He made a show of looking at my chest. “I can’t see anything that’s not supposed to be there.”

I directed his eyes back at my face with a chuckle. “It’s not made out of matter, but it’s real and there is this constant pinching at my heart like I could die every a hundredth of a second and then live again just because you told me to.”

He hesitated in his reply. He didn’t want to say the wrong thing. “I don’t understand. Are you confessing to a similar problem? Did you mess up somehow in the realm of immortals in a way that’s too advanced for me to understand just now?”

I patted his hand. “Not in the least. I’m telling you that I am uncomfortable and if my heart was in your chest the way it is supposed to be, I would be coaching you on how to fix me because only you can. However, if you don’t have my heart then you can’t. If you can’t, then we may as well get as close together as we can by having our own wedding because there’s not much more we can do at the moment.”

“And you’re not mad?” he asked cautiously.

“I am mad, just not at you. Brandon told me that I would be frustrated as an immortal because immortality is something everyone can have if they want it. If they’ll just stop, think, believe, actualize and achieve. The opening steps are nothing. For those scientists to be so bloodthirsty that they cut out your heart in order to satisfy their greed and curiosity, I want to go to war all over again. I’m relieved I killed so many of them.”

“I don’t like killing, Beth. It has consequences in the real world that can be really complicated to dodge.”

“Yeah, and I was going to be able to retrieve you from that prison with blonde hair and tight pants? You know that the act we put on when I retrieved Brandon’s head would not have worked at the prison.”

He groaned in agreement. “I’ll start working on making you a fake identity.”

“Was my blood bath in the news?” I suddenly asked. I hadn’t bothered to care before that moment.

Christian pulled out his new phone and started searching for information. After spending a decent amount of time researching, he put his phone away. “There’s nothing. They hid the deaths. They know it was you and they’re searching for us. You can’t stay in a different room, after all. We need to stay together. Tomorrow, we’ll need to change hotels.”

“No wedding?” I blurted. I didn’t give a rip about the celebration itself, but I wanted to make the vows.

“We can fake it,” he said. “We’re in more danger with every person we speak to.”

My face fell.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I wanted real love like the way I had felt when I listened to the Other Christian, not a superficial shower of confetti, but maybe I just wanted everything when it came to Christian. ‘Till death do us part’ was more than nothing.

But I wasn’t thinking well. He had taken my hand in his brown, lean one, and led me from the table. His other hand was on the small of my back as he executed the ritual of paying and leaving the restaurant.

He wasn’t taking me back to my room. He had done that a lot over the years. Escorting me to my room, putting me inside like a jewel being placed in a case, before closing the door on me like it was a lid. In those days, I had to stay where he placed me, but now he was leading me to his room like I was a treasure so valuable he couldn’t let me out of his sight.

***

I let my head fall on the pillow next to Christian. What did it mean exactly to be half married? I was married to him, but he wasn’t married to me? I should have been angry as I settled into bed next to him, but instead, a familiar giddiness took over.

I was getting in bed with Christian. I could have squealed.

He was pulling me close under the blanket and letting me rest my head on his shoulder. It was magical. He let me feel his warmth, breathe his scent, and slip my hands around his middle.

“You’re sure this is safer?” I asked as I nuzzled my nose into his arm.

“Yes,” he said, sounding confident and controlled. “It’s nicer because I no longer have to hide my nonexistent heartbeat from you.”

“You know, I’m not the least bit scared that someone could hurt me. If someone picked a fight with me, I’d pull the air from their lungs, pull the carpet out from under them, make the ceiling fall on them, and find something to pound the life out of them.”

“I’m not worried that anything will happen to you . You’re here to protect me . I’m the one who is all weak and whiny,” he said, keeping his voice light, like what he had just admitted to didn’t bother him.

Except, it did bother him.

“Do you really have no idea why you gave up so many of your skills? If you lied to me before… if you toned your explanation down so that I wouldn’t ask any more questions… or whatever you said to cover yourself, I’ll understand. Do you know what happened to you so that you stopped being a greater god?”

“What makes you think I was ever capable of more than what you’ve already seen me do?”

“Because of the versions of you in my heart.”

He cocked his head.

I told him about King Christian in more detail and explained his immense power inside my body, detailing how many times I had been shot and how I couldn’t feel the bullets. Then I told him about the Other Christian who had given me the power to manipulate matter.

“There are two more versions of you in my heart. One is hanging by a rope with weird words written all over his face.”

“What do you think he can do?”

“I think he’s the power to manipulate living things. I couldn’t have healed you when I found you in prison. You had to do it yourself. Brandon says he can heal others better than he can heal himself and he can speak the language of the gods. I think the words written on your face are the way you need to speak to a living thing to make it obey you. It was odd. Brandon said it wasn’t a language you can speak. I don’t understand it. If I could understand it, I probably would have been able to unlock that version of you and learn everything at once.”

“What have you done to try to wake him up?” Christian asked.

I scoffed. “Nothing. King Christian has been very busy working on my body. I didn’t think it would be good to have too many of you running amok inside me. I thought I’d let him finish before I tried anything much.”

“Sounds wise. And the last one?”

“He’s gagged and bound and tied to a mast.”

“What do you think he can do?”

“The only hint I’ve had is that it could be matter creation. That’s not supposed to be possible, but what could you accomplish if you could make new  matter from nothing?”

Christian looked contemplative. “I don’t know. It sounds dangerous. Here’s what I think happened. I don’t know it, but from what I remembered and sensed when we were in Nhagaspir, this is what I have pieced together.”

I waited anxiously.

“All those people, all those immortals, are walking corpses. That’s why I thought they were all dead. They were people who had managed to take their first steps into immortality, but they should be dead. All of them. I think I abandoned them, hoping that they would all die. I was getting tired of covertly killing them. I have no idea how many people I’ve killed, Beth. Once I came to live on the surface, I tried so hard to live a normal life and stop killing people.”

“You seemed pretty confident when you killed the soldiers who took me captive,” I reminded him, thinking of the one he had shot through the neck.

“Oh, I was. They were nothing. I think I thought that Brandon was a new god. That was why I trusted him. I thought he was from an entirely new batch. It is a shame he is just another one of them. They’re less awful than the scientists we’ve dealt with so far and they’re right about wanting to heal the poles, but they’re not going to make it.”

“What about you? You came so close to death.”

“There’s something I want. Something I couldn’t have unless I brought myself down low.”

“What was it?”

He shrugged his shoulder  and bounced my head with it since I was resting on him. “I can’t say. I can’t think of anything I want except you.”

Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? If he did all that so that somehow he could be with me?

As I pondered that, his breathing regulated and I realized that he had fallen asleep. At least, he finally felt safe enough to sleep. Odd that I had been the one to give him that.


CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

Red Hair, Red Heart, Red Forest

Standing on the stone path that led to Christian’s heart inside the Red Forest, I saw something I should have expected but didn’t. The sky above me no longer had a speck of brown. Now it radiated a dazzling blue. There was no sun, but there was light everywhere and it made everything in the Red Forest look less red. Even the shrine looked pinker than it had before.

I approached and let myself inside. King Christian was draped over his throne with one leg crooked over the armrest.

“You’ve been busy, I see,” I said, pointing with my thumb to the world outside.

“Simply changing corruptible for incorruptible. I see you’ve got back together with the real me. I should congratulate you, but…” he trailed off.

“I know. He hasn’t pulled the sword through,” I finished for him.

I told him about the missing heart.

“What do you think? The Other Christian got my heart beating and they cut it out immediately and gave it to Charles Lewis. What would have happened inside Charles?”

He closed his eyes and put his fingers to his temples. “If I imagine I’m him, the Other Christian, I fall through the mirror in the second chamber. If you didn’t intentionally implant versions of yourself in your heart before it was cut out, then there’s no one there, just the cells of the organ. He would have had your permission to correct the heart, so your cells would have received the permission and immediately begun the healing process. It would have started beating.” He breathed out and continued roleplaying. “When your heart was cut out… that would have shaken the Other Christian. He may not have been aware of what was happening exactly, but from that point on, the Other Christian will have very few options.”

“What kind of options?”

“He can try to stop your heart and kill Charles. If he does that, what will happen? Charles is dead, but what will happen to your heart? Will they bury him with your heart inside? Will they cremate him and see your heart unspoiled in the midst of the ashes? Will they cut it out of his corpse, put it back on ice, into storage, and eventually into someone else? If I was the Other Christian, I wouldn’t try to stop your heart from beating. I’d think of you and the real Christian looking for it and I’d know that it would be easier for you to find if I didn’t kill the host.”

“Rhuk is looking for Charles right now,” I said doggedly.

“You don’t think that’s enough, so you are headed back to Ottawa to try to find it yourselves?”

I groaned. “Would I be able to find it? Could I use some magical King Christian method to find it?”

He rubbed his jaw in contemplation. “You know who would be really good at looking for it?”

“Who?”

“Number three,” he said, pointing to the chambers deeper inside his heart.

“Not you?” I asked, wishing King Christian could help me.

He flicked his crown. “Do I look like the type of guy who can do anything about things outside my own body? If I looked like that to you, you’re wrong. I can’t do anything with stuff outside your four corners.”

I griped louder. “Isn’t there anything you can do to help me, my sovereign?”

He smiled, suddenly showing all his teeth in a dazzling array. “You do know how to talk to me, little subject.” He moved his position on the throne. He had been sitting sideways, but hearing my pleas, he moved forward and leaned his elbows on his knees. “There are two things you can do.”

“What?” I pleaded, holding my hands together.

“The first thing you can do is see if you can control the matter in another living thing. I’d try a plant, to begin with. If you can start to see inside other people’s bodies, then you won’t need Rhuk to spy for you. You can scan the city and find your heart yourself. You don’t need that third me, Doctor Christian, to tinker in other people’s bodies. Just like you entered the Red Forest of your own body yourself without any help from Christian, you can gain this ability yourself if you’re studious enough.”

I stared at him. It felt like he had given me an assignment that would take more than Charles’ lifespan to master. The gap between tinkering inside an aloe vera was on a completely different scale than scanning an entire city for body parts. I knew I’d mastered moving matter according to the other immortals in Nhagaspir, but from my perspective, I still had a long way to go. Rhuk did tons of things for me because I was lazy and I didn’t want to spend my whole life in a trance.

“The other thing you can do,” King Christian said, stroking his chin thoughtfully, “is learn how to speak the language of the gods and use the words to awaken Doctor Christian.”

“How can I do that? Brandon said it isn’t a spoken language.”

King Christian gave me a cute smile. “I don’t know how to speak it, so I can’t help you.”

“Then why are you smiling?” I asked suspiciously.

“Because the real Christian just finished dying your hair. You were using the time that he was making you over to talk to me? Well, he’s finished. He’s just drying your hair now.”

“Is it awful? Is that why you’re smiling?”

His grin was amazing. “Red, huh? Want curls? Want me to make your red hair curly? It’s already kind of curly, but I would do a stunning job. With such perfectly sculpted curls, you would stop trains with your beauty.”

I waved my hand. “Do whatever. I entrust my leg fat to you, so why not my curls?”

He snapped his fingers. “Done. Though I really freaked myself out. The real me was heating up a straightening iron. He turned around for one second, then turned back around, and boom! Your whole head was done with exactly seven-centimeter ringlets.”

Rolling my eyes, I said, “I think he chose red because he’s hoping that if Charles Lewis sees me, he’ll think of the two percent of people who have red hair and strike up a conversation. No contact lenses though. He actually left my eyes the color they really are.”

King Christian tapped the edge of his crown irritably. “Are you planning to go around Ottawa with your actual face, or do you need me to give you a facelift?”

“That’s actually what I’m supposed to be talking to you about. I could do it, but it would take forever and you’re so handy.”

“Sure. I can help you sculpt your face, but once I get it in place, I want you to practice holding it.”

I nodded.

He stood up. “Who do you want to look like?”

“I don’t want to look like anyone. I think things have gotten too dangerous to steal someone’s identity. I told Christian all that when we were making our plans. I know you heard me.”

“I heard you… I just wasn’t sure if you were being completely honest with him.”

I scowled. King Christian was right. “I was thinking of a few ladies it would be nice to look like, but it wouldn’t do any good to look like a famous actress. I am not supposed to draw that much attention to myself and your disguises are so good, people might think I was  her .”

“What about a dead actress?” he suggested cagily.

I whined, “I can’t be the spitting image of Vivian Leigh. People still know what she looked like.”

“Makes sense. Tell you what. I’ll have you look like someone who has been dead so long, no one will know you look like her.”

“You remember something that intricate? I thought your memory was clouded.”

“It is, but I remember a few faces. I deal in faces , and I remember a few doozies.”

“Like whose?”

“There was once a very evil emperor of Rome, Nero. He loved a woman so much that he had his first wife beheaded so he could be with her. When his second wife died too… Some say he killed her… he married for the third time, but she was not who he loved. I arranged the release of a lot of people from prison with the promise that I would make another woman look like his second wife. I rearranged her features and he married her immediately.”

“And you could do that?” I grimaced.

“I didn’t do the deed. Doctor Christian down the way did it, but I remember what he did and I don’t need his powers to give you her face.”

“You can’t make me too pretty. I am not supposed to stand out,” I balked.

“You are supposed to stand out. Has the real Christian ever been ugly?” he suddenly asked me.

“Huh?”

“When Christian changes his face, is he ever ugly?”

I lowered my gaze, recalling how different Christian had looked when he wore hazel contacts and pretended to be Christian Henderson, then later when he played Rogan Cormack with blue contacts. They were both heartthrobs. “No.”

“Then stop complaining. Besides, Beth, she will not be prettier than you because you are heaven itself. She will only be different from you, and you’d better remember forever that it is you that I want, not her, or anyone else.” His voice caressed my ear and whispered reassurance to my soul.

I agreed and he began twisting my features to make me into someone new.

He smiled and I knew he was pleased.

When I woke up in the real world, my face felt pinched. It felt like parts of my face were stretched. Other parts felt like they had been folded over themselves and stapled. It wasn’t exactly painful, but it was enough of a sensation that I was never likely to forget that I was not wearing the face I was born with.

Looking around, I was in a hotel room in Ottawa. We were stopping there to get our faces on before we went to a townhouse Christian owned. We wanted to show up with our disguises in place.

Christian was in the bathroom, dying his hair and singing softly. The sound of his casual song filled me with pleasure. Every moment we were together was a moment to stop and relish.

I slowly raised myself to my feet. “I’m finished.”

“One sec,” Christian replied. A moment later, the bathroom door was open and he came out with a towel wrapped around his shoulders. He looked at my face from the front, then circled around to the side, and then the other side. He crouched and looked up at me and then stood on tiptoes and looked down at me. “I wouldn’t recognize you on a crowded street, or alone in a hallway,” he admitted, pulling his towel off his bare shoulders with a slap.

I scooted around him to get to the bathroom, so I could see myself in the mirror. I looked at my face and gasped. Then I smiled. Christian tiptoed up behind me while I made all sorts of grotesque faces in the mirror.

“That good, eh?” he whispered playfully.

I groaned. “I’m never going to get used to this. My forehead is tiny, my bottom lip is huge and my upper lip is non-existent. I have never had cheekbones like this… and…” I said helplessly, “I don’t look like me.”

 Christian kissed the back of my hand. “The first time is the most jarring.”

I turned to him. “What are you going to do with your face?”

“I was thinking of something plain.”

“How plain?”

“I began by dying my hair brown. When have you ever seen me with brown hair?”

I chuckled. Actually, I had never seen him with brown hair. It was naturally blond and when he dressed as Christian Henderson, it was dark blond. As Rogan, it was black. As I went through all the disguises I’d seen him wear, none of them had brown hair.

Well, his hair was brown now as he had already finished dying it. The exact shade of brown he’d selected was like walnuts and cinnamon. I liked it.

“What about your face?” I asked.

“I thought I’d leave my eyes their natural color. I’m tired of messing with contacts. I might as well have a break. But I’ll have to do a lot of work on my eye shape.”

Christian’s eyes tilted up in the corners, so he began by making them level. Then he smoothed out the sharp angle in his nose. It turned out that the widow’s peak he had as part of the whole Christian Henderson look was real, so he did some work on his forehead. Soon, he had a square hairline. Then he thinned out his lips and changed the shape of his jaw.

When he was finished, I chuckled. “That’s plain? You look like the cover of a romance novel.”

He must have used that face before as he knew exactly what to do with his eyes when they cut across to me. “I can’t look too plain for my new wife.” He kissed the knuckles on my hand and I squirmed.

Nothing had changed between us. We weren’t married legally or eternally, and I was fast learning that one of the finest upswings of having control over your body meant you never got too hot.

I pushed him away. “Put a shirt on.”


CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

Hardly Holly

That afternoon, Christian and I went shopping. It was a good experience because I needed to get used to seeing Christian’s new face in a crowd and conversing with him naturally instead of letting my heart jump into my nose every time he turned to face me. On the other hand, he could B.S. his way through a snowstorm, so I wasn’t sure if he needed to practice with me. Even with his experience lying and my experience seeing him with different faces, we were not completely convincing as a married couple. We had a shop clerk ask us if we were on a blind date to go shopping and another one assume we were married. Both were true.

At lunch, we decided on our new names. I would be Holly and he would be Tremaine.

At dinner, I leaned over my salad and asked, “How are we going to find Charles? Rhuk has been struggling. There are a lot of people in this city. What more can we do?”

“We’re going to learn about all the people who died in the jail.”

It was nice of him not to say, ‘We’re going to learn about all the people you killed at the jail.’

As time put distance between me and that night, I felt less and less bad about it. Those people were cutting out someone’s heart without their consent. Would anything ever seem wrong to them again? I also felt less human by the moment, like I had less to do with them and their world where they were afraid of death and the unknown. Every moment was a new unknown for me.

“They may not have reported the deaths as a bloodbath at the jail,” Christian continued, “but I bet they didn’t bury their identities. We just need to research everyone who died, find the ones I recognize, and see where those leads take us,” he said smoothly, like this kind of investigation was the order of the day. “As for finding Charles, we might get lucky, and someone might see that sword in your chest who can lead us to him.”

He was talking about the other man who had been held captive in the jail. Christian was hoping he would see me around, approach me and join our cause.

“What should I say if he approaches me?”

“Ask him questions about our scientists and Charles Lewis. He is probably a better source of information than anyone else. Otherwise, we play dumb about ourselves and act like you’re 21 and I’m 25.”

“Such a big stretch for me. I’m 22.”

He chuckled before lapsing into thought. “You know, I wish I remembered exactly what was wrong with the immortals in Nhagaspir. If I knew why I wanted them dead, maybe I’d know if killing them is still the cure. Maybe the worst of the rot died out. If I knew they could be trusted, I could send that new man there, but I don’t know.”

“Do you think we’ll be able to find him?”

Christian shrugged. “I wasn’t aware we were looking for him. It really is best to leave him alone if he doesn’t want to be found. If we see him again it was meant to be. If we don’t, it doesn’t really matter. He can decide how he wants to use his own knowledge.”

I nodded.

***

“Holly,” Christian called out to me as he stood on the porch of the townhouse. “The key doesn’t work.”

“Are you sure we’re at the right address?” I called back, practicing being called Holly.

“Yes,” his long-suffering voice bellowed back at me. “Come have a look at it and tell me if it’s the right key.”

It was a Saturday. A cab had brought us to Christian’s townhouse with our suitcases. I had lifted the first suitcase out of the back before the cab driver had unloaded anything. Christian had jumped ahead to open the door. Proving unsuccessful, he called out to me.

I gently opened the half-gate in front of me and carefully stepped in Christian’s footsteps in the snowdrift that covered our walkway. I took the key from him.

“Are you certain this is the right house?”

He cocked his head. “You tell me.”

That was the instant when I knew what he wanted. I put my hand on the knob and with my mind, I looked into the mechanism. “There’s something stuck in the lock. Some kids tried to open it with a stick and a tiny piece of branch is still stuck inside.”

“Can you move it?”

“U-huh,” I said.

We watched as flakes of bark fell out of the keyhole. When it was clear, Christian tried the key a second time. It opened without a problem.

Looking inside, I saw immediately that this townhouse had undergone Christian-style renovations.

“Turn on all the lights, Rhuk,” I instructed.

They came on and there were strings of globe lights everywhere, casting radiance on white furniture, fur rugs, and gold trim. Wild plants added color and would have filled the air with oxygen if they had been real. The whole place was dreamy with macrame and glass.

“How did you find the time to do this?” I asked incredulously.

“I bought this place months ago and hired an interior decorator to redo every room for me. I gave her too much money. That’s why it looks so fancy.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I told her that I was marrying a woman who was too young for me and the place needed a young woman vibe. I told her I needed a little closet space for myself, but that was my only requirement. The rest of the place was for you,” he said, giving me a peck on the lips.

I smiled at him. Unlike his attempts in Scotland, I was utterly charmed by this place.

I turned back to the cab. The driver had lined up our suitcases on the frozen sidewalk. I just about ordered all of them to float into the townhouse, when I stopped myself and headed back out to pay the driver. The man looked like he had utterly no intention of carrying our things to the door, for which I was grateful. I paid him and he drove off at the exact same time the people in the townhouse next to us pulled up in their car.

If I had logged into Facebook, what I saw would not have surprised me. If I had read my email, I would not have been surprised. If I had talked to even one person I knew in the last six months, I wouldn’t have been surprised when Trinity and Brighton drove up and stopped their car. Instead, I stood there like an idiot and watched them get out. Trinity sat in the passenger side, while Brighton rushed to open her door for her. She got out with a little difficulty and I wondered if she was alright. She seemed a little short of breath.

Brighton noticed me staring and greeted me. “Hi! Are you our new neighbors?”

I nodded stupidly. Christian rushed down the path and shook hands with Brighton. “Nice to meet you! I’m Tremaine and this is my wife, Holly.”

Trinity introduced herself and Brighton and said how lovely it would be to have neighbors again. “How long have you been married?” Trinity asked.

“A little over three weeks. We just got back from our honeymoon,” Christian replied.

“Really?” Trinity exclaimed, still short of breath. “Where did you go?”

“Whitehorse.”

“In February?” Trinity asked, confused. “Isn’t that one of the darkest places on the planet?”

Christian looked at me longingly. “We dreamt of nights that would never end.”

That snapped me out of my stupor. I laughed and smacked him across the chest. “He’s teasing, but yes. The northern lights were beautiful.”

It was cold out and the frigid air reminded Brighton that Trinity should not be outside. He started pulling her toward their front door.

“You should come over for tea,” Trinity said, pushing Brighton back.

“That would be nice,” I replied. “Someday.”

“No,” she said, getting insistent. “As soon as your things are inside, you should come over for tea and stay for dinner. Naturally, you’ve had a hard day of moving, and not having to worry about supper would be good, right?”

I remembered Trinity and her constant need for people in our apartment when we were roommates. The invitation was an extension of that mentality. It was not because she had noticed anything particular about us. It was clear she did not recognize us.

I hesitated, but Christian piped up, “We’d love to come. We’ll be over as soon as our things are organized.”

Brighton nodded, told us to take our time, and helped Trinity inside.

Christian and I lugged our bags inside. Well, he lugged the bag he was carrying and I made my bag float in a less obvious way and then ordered it down on the floor like a dog once we were inside.

“Did you buy this townhouse knowing that it was next door to Trinity and Brighton?” I asked suspiciously.

His grin was enormous. “Of course. I also bought a house three doors down from their place when they were still living in Alberta.”

My eyes filled with tears and I put myself inside his arms like I was stuffing an envelope. “This is so nice of you!”

He stroked my cheek. “It doesn’t feel like it’s very nice of me. It feels like it’s a nice coincidence. If they weren’t here now while we are searching for your heart, we wouldn’t have met up with them regardless of the houses I bought.”

“Whatever. I’m so grateful,” I breathed into his coat.

He gave me a final squeeze before holding me at arm’s length. “Holly, are you going to be able to behave yourself? You’re not going to burst into tears and tell Trinity who you really are and what you’ve been through?”

I covered my mouth with my hand. “Right. I have to be Holly. I have to go over there and act like you: like I don’t care, I just met them, and it’s an ordinary first meeting.”

“Exactly. You can’t forget that you’re Holly,” he said sternly. “Remember our cover stories. We have to stick to our cover stories.”

“I can do this.” I reached for the door, but then I stopped and dropped my hand. “Well, maybe I should take a few minutes to center myself.”

He nodded. “Sounds wise.”

***

Over at Trinity’s, she had tea ready and dinner half-finished when we rang the bell. Her apartment was decorated even more beautifully than the apartment she and I had together back in Edmonton. I almost commented about it. I only caught myself because I noticed the clumsy way she was moving around her kitchen.

I shoved off my coat and hat, threw them at Christian, who elegantly caught them, and put them up on the guest hooks.

“Do you need any help?” I asked, leaning against her kitchen counter.

She turned around. The swelling of her stomach had been completely hidden by her coat when I met her outside. Measuring the size of her belly and doing a little math, she and Brighton had been married for only two months when she conceived.

I was about to say, ‘What does your mother have to say about this?’ Luckily, I managed to bite my tongue on the unwanted words as she brought me around to the stove to stir her sauce while she collected the ingredients for a salad.

“I’ll make it for you,” I volunteered once as she had everything stacked beside the cutting board.

“I don’t know if you can cut it the way I like,” she protested, short of breath.

“I’ll grate the carrots, dice the cucumbers, rip the lettuce apart and slice the radish so fine you will be able to see individual cells without a microscope.”

Trinity looked at me funny and then broke out in a laugh that had no guts because of her reduced lung capacity. “That’s so odd. That’s exactly how I make my salad.”

“Please sit down,” I said, pointing her to a stool.

She almost sat down, before standing up again. “I need to get the buns. They’re in the freezer.”

“Ch--Tremaine will get them,” I said, almost saying exactly the wrong thing. “Darling, ask Brighton where their freezer is.”

He gave me an encouraging wink before disappearing.

“So,” Trinity said, preparing to make small talk with her new neighbor. “You’ve been married for a month. How do you like it so far?”

“It’s been a really big adjustment. I spent a lot of last year living in the Yukon and before that, I lived in Alberta. Out here, I really don’t have any friends or family.”

“I came from Alberta too,” she cooed. “I lived in Edmonton for a few years. Then I was living in St. Paul, but I only lived there for a few months before we decided to move here. Brighton is a lawyer and he was offered a better job at Federal Justice than at the little law firm he got his first job at. Moving here has been really good for me. I went to boarding school not too far from here and I know a lot of people in the area.” Her face glowed. “I should introduce you to everyone!”

I nodded in fake agreement and watched her carefully as I cut the vegetables. I bet she did know a lot of people in the area. She had probably already had multiple outings with our former classmates and made friends with all her neighbors. I wanted to tell her how cool she was for having such an expanded set of acquaintances, but I just nodded dumbly.

Instead, I turned my back to Trinity and finished the salad.

At the table, Brighton and Trinity told us the story of how he got his job at Federal Justice, how happy they were to move to Ontario, and asked us about our plans.

“I’m a consultant for a web development company,” Christian answered as smoothly as if he had said those words every day for years. “Most of my clients are based in Ontario, so for me, this is a great place to be.”

“And what do you do?” Trinity asked me.

I swallowed. “I’m planning to open a wellness clinic,” I answered stiffly. It was a stupid cover story. Trinity was better qualified for such a thing than I.

“Really? What sort of treatments would you offer?”

“Well, we’d teach people how to meditate, offer counseling services, massages, and other specialty therapies.”

“That sounds thrilling. What made you interested in that?”

“I’ve taken a sudden interest in healing,” I replied, thinking of Doctor Christian hanging by his last thread.

Trinity put a loving hand on her belly. “Maybe you could help me relax.”

“I’d love to help you with some guided meditation or yoga. That might be particularly helpful when you’re in labor.” I said the words brightly, but I didn’t know the first thing about motherhood. Trinity was practically my sister. I knew she was more stressed by her pregnancy than she was admitting. Neither of us had spoken about having babies much and we had been inseparable for seven years. I continued, “I have a lot to do before I can open my wellness center, but I’ll have time to spare for you whenever you need me. I’d love for you to be my first client. Free of course, since we’re neighbors.”

“Can I come over tomorrow?” she asked, clearly excited.

I was startled by her enthusiasm, though I should have known she would be enthusiastic. “Of course.” I nodded and took another bite of salad.


CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

Killing Him Softly

When we got home, I turned to Christian. “Was I as awkward as I felt?”

He inclined his head. “You just need to catch the magic of being Holly.”

“What do you mean?”

He pulled me into his arms. “Holly is not like other women. She’s sophisticated, stylish, educated, but she also believes in the power of the wind through your hair.” He blew a puff of warm air into the red tendril by my ear. “She believes in things no one can see, not even through a microscope, but are there nonetheless.”

I smiled. “That wasn’t what I used to be like, was it?”

“Not at all. It shouldn’t be hard to trick Trinity into believing that you’re Holly instead of Beth. Since that is who you have become so thoroughly, it isn’t tricking her at all.”

“You change yourself effortlessly. How do you do it?”

“I have been trying to tell you. You have changed anyway. You just have to be the new you. You’ve grown so much. The old you   was  so pouty. Even with your bottom lip bigger now, I have seen you pout once.”

“I’m pouty?” I cried, suddenly provoked.

He smiled, deflating my anger with his charm. “Yes. You were very pouty. You even got poutier as the years went on. You were much poutier at Trinity’s wedding than you were even when you were dying in your early teens. I could never figure out where you learned to be that way. Trinity isn’t like that. She’s caustic when she’s mad. You used to pout like if you  could make me stare at your lips long enough, I’d cave and give you what you want.”

I dropped a shoulder and gave up. “It never worked.”

“On the contrary,” he said, taking my hand and twirling me. “It worked very well. I was your slave… as far as I could be.”

I put my hand on his chest to stop spinning.

“Remember not to pout,” he reminded me. “Remember that Holly doesn’t do that sort of thing to get her way. No sulking either. You used to sulk like an offended empress. You need to put your old mannerisms aside and embrace new ones. You need to come up with some bench-mark moves to fall back on.”

“Is that why you were always folding yourself into angles like the iron bars in a stained glass window?”

He turned away. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I put my index finger between my eyebrows, my middle finger on the tip of my nose, and looked at him through the angular shape I’d created.

“Oh, that?” he muttered, trying to sound nonchalant. “No. That’s what I do. If I’m doing that, I’ve forgotten to hide my true self.”

“You’ve done that a lot around me,” I said, feeling a pleasurable flip inside my stomach.

He kissed me, drawing me close like he couldn’t stand even an inch between us.

When he let up, he said, “It might take some time. Imagine with me that you’ve just come home from a dinner party. What is the first thing you’re going to do?”

“I’m going to sit on this pouf and make you take my boots off me.” I lowered myself onto it.

He shrugged and dropped to his knees. Sensitively, he felt up the side of my leg for the zipper just below my knee. “Maybe you haven’t changed as much as I thought. This is a Beth move, not a Holly move.”

“I don’t understand why both women wouldn’t enjoy having a man’s hand between their legs.”

“You are totally sticking out your bottom lip,” he laughed.

“I can’t help it. This girl’s bottom lip is enormous.”

“All the more reason not to do it,” he said as he rubbed my feet through my stockings before he placed my boots on the drying rack.

I leaned forward into him. “We’re alone. I want to let my guard down, go find the bedroom, and fool around with you.”

He leaned against the wall. “Do you really feel like that would be right with that sword sticking out of your chest? Do you feel like everything is right between us?” he asked somberly.

“Can you see it?” I mouthed urgently.

He nodded. “A little bit from time to time. It looks like two and a half feet of black onyx that’s been sharpened into a blade. It reminds me of ceremonial knives priests used to use to kill sacrifices in the old days, except it’s longer and crueler.”

“One of the little gods in the village, Axel, said he had seen many objects used in the process of forging connections. He said the sword was elegant.”

“It is elegant,” Christian conceded bitterly. “The path to eternity is as narrow as a sword’s edge.” He sighed. “Do you not understand? I’m not a god anymore. I’m not even a lesser god. I’m merely immortal, and I have fallen so low that it’s not ridiculous that I could die at any moment. If I somehow forget to make my blood cells move, collect oxygen and move again. I will die… immediately. You’ll roll over in bed next to me and I’ll just be dead. The shame I feel is so bitter it’s toxic. If it weren’t for your little pet there, Rhuk, I would have left you already.”

“Left me? Why?” I blurted, angry and flustered in an instant.

“Because I can’t stand to face you like this. I don’t want to do this together with you. I want to leave, find Charles the way I find things, and cut his heart out, but I am tragically afraid I can’t do this by myself. I need Brandon to help me with the surgery once I find it… and I think it will be faster to find Charles if Rhuk  helps. If I can give your rock a direction to search, it would be much faster than anything I could do by myself.”

“And me?”

“I adore you so completely that I feel sick that I’m not your equal. If you ask me to fool around with you, I’ll drop dead on the spot.”

I let out the breath I had been holding in and took a fresh breath to stop myself from ripping at the seams. He needed to concentrate on keeping his blood pumping. I was so furious, impatient, and desperate that I could hear my own blood pumping in my ears.

“Well,” I said, evil and manipulative in the same blink of an eye. “Instead of that, I guess I can practice being Holly?”

“Excellent idea,” he said brightly, happy to move the subject to anything else.

“Wonderful. I need to change. I don’t think Holly would engage in guided meditation therapy dressed in a houndstooth print. “Does that fireplace work?”

“I think so.”

“Great. Get a fire going while I get changed.”

Ten minutes later, I sat on the floor cross-legged with my half-husband and told him to close his eyes. Then, with my eyes like a predator’s, I told him to see the veins in his eyelids and imagine for a moment that they were the limbs of trees being swayed by an unseen wind.

“Beth, I don’t want to go there,” he said, almost like he’d cry.

“I understand,” I said soothingly, stroking his hands with mine. “Going there, you will see your palace in decay, your once-grand insides withered and worn. I know something of what the inside of you once was. It wasn’t red at all, was it? It was white… dazzling. It made your gold rooms inside Nhagaspir look tawdry and faint, didn’t it? The white was white against white upon  white. Impregnable. Unbreakable. Immortal. And now? What is it? What do you see?”

He fainted on the rug.

I snatched at his wrist to check his pulse before I realized that he wouldn’t have a pulse one way or the other. I’d have to think of another way to test his vitals. Deciding quickly on an old method, I fetched a compact mirror from my purse and slipped it under his nose. It fogged up. He was breathing.

I heaved a sigh of relief.

I remembered all the time I spent in the Red Forest back in the castle. I had laid in my bed for days with my only action being opening my eyes once a day. How long would he stay in the Red Forest?

I would have to watch him all night, like a nurse, whose only tools were a mirror and a diamond. “Rhuk, can you tell that he’s breathing?”

“Of course. The air is moving in and out of his lungs.”

I closed my eyes and through that second sight, I could see it too, but it took so much effort to always be jumping into that world where matter could be manipulated. “This is hard, Rhuk. I gained all that knowledge, but I’m too dumb to use it.”

“You’re just getting used to not being a human anymore. The truth is, you don’t need a mirror. You’ll never need one ever again. If you want to see how you look, look at yourself through the lens of matter manipulation. Through it, you’ll be able to see if your makeup is perfect, if your hair is out of place, and anything else you’re curious about. You would never need a mirror to look over your shoulder. You can see anything in any direction. Certainly, you wouldn’t need one to make sure Christian is still alive when he’s this close.”

 I had been thinking about how tired I was and how I would love to sink into the warm, comfortable bed that had been prepared in the master bedroom on the second floor. Suddenly, going to sleep seemed reprehensible.

“Is it asking too much of you to ask you to keep an eye on Christian as well as look for Charles?”

“If either one of those things is important to you, you should give it to me as my full-time job,” Rhuk replied.

“I need another one of you,” I said, getting up.

“Finding another fresh chunk of dolomite isn’t easy,” it said with a nervous chuckle. “You wouldn’t replace me, would you?”

“I’m not replacing you,” I scoffed. “I need to do some work and I can’t sit here like an idiot and count Christian’s breaths. Obviously, I need help.”

“I want to be your most important servant,” Rhuk said, sounding sulky.

Was that what I sounded like?

“You’ll always be my most important pet,” I reassured it .

“Okay, if you promise,” it said. “In that case, there’s a package of pencils over there if you want to make more diamonds.”

Indeed, there was a little fold-away desk in the corner by the window. I opened it and let the table fall forward. There was a package of pink and gold chevron pencils there. I cracked the box open. It was as good a place to start as any.


CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

Shaping Diamonds

At four in the morning, I ordered Christian’s clothes to take him up to bed. Having him lay on the living room floor was charming in its way, but he was a better man than a rug. Besides, what if Trinity stopped by? I had given her an open-ended invitation to pop by whenever she wanted and she said she would come over the very next day.

The seams in Christian’s shirt came close to breaking as a person’s clothes are not made to bear all the weight of a person’s entire body. I walked behind the strange procession and held his head, reminding the cotton blends of his trousers to keep him well off the floor. His face had changed. He no longer looked like made-up Tremaine, and instead, he looked like himself. It was strange. He used to still look like Rogan, even when he slept. Now he couldn’t keep his face on.

Once in the bedroom, the blanket and sheets curled back far enough for me to lay him directly in bed. Then the blanket hopped over him like it had been waiting all its life for someone to tell it what to do.

I kissed him as he lay motionless in the bed. Then I rested a prayer rock on his lips. The townhouse was full of mystical knick-knacks. I found a wooden bowl with rocks in it that had words carved into each stone. I found one that had the word ‘Silence’ on it and adopted it to be my favorite. That was the stone I placed on Christian’s lips. More specifically, I put it under his nose and that just happened to be where his mouth was. Once it was there, I ordered it to tell me if his breathing changed.

“Remember to scream if anything happens,” I told the rock.

It nuzzled its round side into the raised curve of his lips.

Then I went back to work on the graphite in the pencils. I was going to need more of them if I was going to make an earring the size and shape I had been thinking of.

***

Days passed. Christian didn’t wake up. I went shopping and bought groceries because I was finally away from those starved lunatics in Nhagaspir and with Christian out cold, I might as well eat what I wanted. Besides, I had access to Christian’s finances. The man had so much money, there was no such thing as expensive cheese. With perfect matter manipulation, there was also no such thing as undercooked or overcooked. Doing dishes or housework was a thing of the past. Everything was taken care of, except the act of going to the store and buying whatever I was craving. I had to do that myself.

I also bought pencils.

Lots of pencils.

A suspicious number of pencils.

They were so fun to play with. I used the graphite inside each of them to make diamonds. Then, like a careful girl, I made them into long hexagonal prisms and attached them to Rhuk. It was insane because diamonds weren’t mined that large or cut in that shape. I made a mini chandelier that hung from my one ear. I didn’t even think of making a second one. Talking to two different groups of servants on different ears would have been nothing but a pain, and Rhuk wanted to order around the smaller diamonds.

Once I had made seven large diamonds and nine smaller diamonds, I thought that was enough. They chattered in my ear like the thrum of children whispering and the tinkling of bells. They were all sent to look for Charles Lewis.

The computers in the townhouse were all set up before we got there, so I got on the internet and searched for information about the people I’d killed at the jail and Dr. Bobby Hilliar, who had escaped. I knew Christian had been planning on doing it himself, but he was grooming his Red Forest. At least, I hoped that was what he was doing.

I tried to do the research by myself, but I ended up having to ask Rhuk for help. I showed Rhuk pictures and in turn, it showed  them to different groups of matter in the prison, but the atoms didn’t know what they’d seen. They weren’t used to keeping track of who was coming or going. The scientists had been wearing masks, goggles, and hairnets. All those items had already been thrown in the garbage and had long since been carted away. The matter in the jail: chairs, walls, doors, and anything else were given instructions to keep an eye out for Dr. Bobby, but he hadn’t been back to the jail.

I tried to find a lead, but I felt like I needed to wake Christian if I was going to get anywhere.

And he wouldn’t wake up. He was worse than the Other Christian and just as bad as the third and fourth versions of himself in the last chambers of his heart. I couldn’t wake him up no matter what I did.

To pass the time, I made friends with an aloe vera plant.

I say I made friends with it, but that is a dirty lie. I put it on a stool in the living room. I crossed my legs and sat down in front of it. I took out a knife, cut it, then closed my eyes and tried to repair the cut.

I spent so much time with the aloe vera that it took some energy to remember that my real best friend was still Trinity.

She had been angelling to include me in her group of friends. Instead, I told her to come to my place any morning she liked at ten and I would give her a private pregnancy yoga class. In order to give her the best care possible, I read everything I could get my hands on about yoga while pregnant. I ended up reading everything about pregnancy in general. I didn’t want to shoot my mouth off and tell her something that wasn’t a hundred percent true.

It ended up being a normal, gentle, yoga class that I could have taken my grandmother to… if I had a grandmother.

The high point of the yoga classes was that sometimes Trinity would ask me to do a difficult pose. It was like she wanted to test me, but she also wanted to see a circus act.

I did them all: crow pose (holding my entire body with only my hands on the mat and my knees tucked over my elbows), firefly pose (because the backs of your knees are supposed to touch the backs of your shoulders), and a lotus headstand (because she had more interest than a normal person in hanging upside down).

I could have sworn I could hear King Christian sniggering in the back of my head as he molded my body to match the picture in the yoga book the interior designer had left on the coffee table.

I even did a scorpion pose while I was doing a headstand and Trinity shrieked with laughter.

It was good to hear her laughter.

It was good to see her face.

After all, I had no idea how long we could be neighbors before the entire world flipped upside down again.

Trinity dropped by one morning. She was sans yoga mat, so I knew she just wanted to talk.

“Hi, Holly,” she said with a flash of a smile as she stood on my front porch. “I hoped you were home. Is everything okay? You and Tremaine haven’t cleared the snow since it snowed two days ago.”

I offered a lame explanation about how we hadn’t needed to go anywhere so we’d had a few snow days in a row. Then I invited her inside.

“I can never get over how cool your place is!” she gushed, but she had always been interested in interior design. “Did you decorate this yourself?”

“No. Tremaine hired an interior designer. You know, I’m surprised you didn’t meet her. She probably came and went all the time.”

“She did, but I wasn’t sure if she had been the one to decorate it with the current arrangement. This place was left vacant for months.”

I helped Trinity with her coat and brought her into my living room to sit down. “Can I bring you some tea?” I offered. “Something herbal, without caffeine?”

Trinity nodded.

In the kitchen, I called a lie to her immediately. “I already had some water boiling, so it’ll be fast.”

A minute and a half later, I had tea and cookies out on a tray for her.

“I don’t mean to pry,” she asked gently. “But why do you have a plant on a stool in the middle of your living room?”

She didn’t miss a beat. If I wasn’t careful, she was going to see or hear something she shouldn’t.

“I was using it as a focal point for my meditation. I know a lot of people want to meditate with their eyes closed, but that’s not always necessary. Some Buddhist monks like to use metal objects as a focal point for their mediation. I like to use plants. I find they have very positive energy.”

“You know,” she said kindly. “You remind me of someone.”

“Really? Who?” I asked, blowing on my tea.

“A girl I grew up with. I knew her very well, and then one day she fell off the map.”

I leaned back and said wistfully, “I’d like to fall off the map. I wonder what I’d find. However, something like that is nothing compared to the journey you’re embarking on. Tell me again, how far along are you?” I asked, pointing at her baby bump with my eyes. I had to get her to stop talking about me.

She explained that, as she was seven months pregnant, she had eyes larger than her stomach. “Ugh,” she moaned. “I take too much food, wherever I go. I’m so hungry I think I can eat a horse, but my baby is crushing my lungs. Why did I think she wasn’t crushing my stomach too?”

“You’re pretty young to be having a baby. What inspired it?” I asked since I had never once heard Trinity say she wanted to have a baby.

“It wasn’t an accident or anything. I have always wanted to have a family of my own. I don’t know if I can be a good mother,” she admitted. “My parents weren’t very interested in whether or not I turned out okay.”

I desperately wanted to ask her if her parents were suddenly as interested in her pregnancy as they had been when she was a bride, but I wasn’t supposed to know any of those things, so I waited.

“Do you talk to your mother much?” she suddenly asked me.

I hesitated. Christian warned me not to make up a whole big lie about having parents, and then get caught in my lies afterward, so I told her the truth. I was lying about the speed with which I could boil water, but being completely candid about the deaths of my parents. I was grateful the truth was different from when my name was Beth. “My mother died when I was fourteen and my father died last summer,” I said, trying not to sound pathetic.

“That’s awful,” Trinity said sympathetically.

“Part of the reason we moved was so I could have a different life. I’m not exactly grief-stricken about my father, but ever since the day he died, I have felt like my whole world has changed. Everything is different. Tramaine has been so lovely, giving me space to recover and to figure things out, but I feel awkward and hungry.”

“Hence the cookies… so many cookies,” she said, looking at the uneaten mounds.

I laughed, and Trinity’s face suddenly looked pinched.

Did she recognize my laugh? I covered my mouth with my hand, instantly realizing my mistake. Someone’s laugh was so personal that not even Christian had been able to hide his laugh from me.

I grabbed one of the cookies and bit into it with gusto.

“You know,” she said, taking a sip from her tea. “You sound so familiar.”

“Do I?” I asked with my mouth half full.

She was nodding and saying things, but I couldn’t pay attention to what she said. I was suddenly overcome with vertigo, like an invisible line in my head was being pulled like a fishing line.

“Did you feel that?” I asked her.

“Feel what?”

I had been about to say something about the earth’s poles when I promptly shut up. She couldn’t have felt it. Humans didn’t feel it. I looked around the room and out the window. Outside, a dog was throwing up on the sidewalk outside my townhouse. He felt it.


CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

Chance Encounter

A man was staring at me.

Normally, I wouldn’t have been very open to the idea of a man staring at me from across a train car. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t sticking my nose in the air and allowing someone to look at me without acknowledging their importance. Before now, people who stared at me were not interesting. Now I was searching for people who were staring at me. I had been randomly riding trains, searching. I didn’t have much hope that I would find Charles, but I might find the man I had rescued from the jail. Maybe he was still in the area. Maybe he was on the run.

I raised my eyes to meet the stranger’s gaze.

It was not the man from the jail. This man had tawny, blond hair, hazel eyes, and a smooth smile. He looked at me like he was amused by something about me. He may have thought he was something special, but all the good looks in the world might be hiding a terrible secret. In fact, they probably were.

I was living proof of that.

I shouldn’t have felt anything when a man favored me with such blatant interest, but I was feeling something. As I looked at him, I suddenly felt desperate, lonely, like I had been stretched too thin and not stretched far enough at the same time. Something about him made me feel completely insane like nothing in the world made sense.

The man, dapper as a cat, slid his phone into his pocket and moved to take the seat next to me. In a faint British accent, he said, “You remind me of someone, have we met?”

“I don’t think so,” I said stiffly. “I’m new to the city.”

“That’s some accessory you’ve got going on,” he intoned.

“Don’t you like it?” I asked purposefully, wondering if he saw the sword.

“Did you lose the other one?”

I smacked my lips in disappointment. He was talking about my lone earring. Yes, it was massive and I only wore one. If it was only my looks that drew him to me, I was going to be unsatisfied. I hoped against hope that there was some other reason he was completely enthralled and enthralling.

The train stopped and for a moment, the man next to me shifted in his seat. I thought he might get off the train and I was filled with an intense feeling of dread if he should leave before I had sorted out the mystery.

“What’s your name?” I asked, full of hesitation.

“Graham. Yours?”

“Holly.”

He looked into my eyes. “You remind me of someone, Holly.”

When he said that, I realized that he reminded me of someone. Someone I found very interesting. I was practically on the edge of my seat as I prepared to play the game with vicious audacity—holding back nothing. “You remind me of someone too. Maybe we have met. Did you used to have a goddaughter named Beth Coldwell?”

He looked startled. “No. I’ve never heard that name.”

“Really? You look exactly like Christian Henderson.”

It was completely true. The man next to me had done everything he could to mimic the whole Christian Henderson persona. His hair was the same——color and style. His eyes were the same. I wondered if he was even wearing exactly the same brand of contact lenses. He even wore the same ridiculous tailored suits Christian used to wear that pulled your eyes away from his face and down to the neat line of his waist. The vests he wore made him look like he wore wrapping paper that was begging to be unwrapped. Except this man didn’t possess the same gorgeous lines.

The man beside me turned slightly pink. He liked hearing that. “How do you know these people?”

“I used to go to school with Beth,” I lied. “It was always the best day of the year when Christian would come to pick her up. Everyone took notice. I bet everyone takes notice of you, too. You look like his hot younger brother. Hey, do you have somewhere you have to be?”

“Why?” he asked, leaning back in his seat and looking like the world was his.

“I’d like to take you out for coffee,” I said smoothly like I asked men out for coffee all the time.

“Coffee?” he reiterated.

“Or a drink?”

“Or a drink?” he repeated. “I do have someone I’m meeting at the next stop. If you gave me your number, I could call you, and maybe we could meet up on a different day.”

I nodded and scratched his number into the palm of his hand with a ballpoint pen.

At the next stop, he got off with a flirtatious wave at me. There was someone waiting for him on the platform. Thin silver spectacles framed his blue eyes in metal shaped like surgical tools. It was the man who wore the suit the night I broke into the jail—Dr. Bobby Hilliar.

“Rhuk,” I muttered to my earring. “Chase him. Chase them both. Don’t let them out of your sight. Learn everything. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

“Do you think that’s Charles in disguise?” Rhuk asked.

“If he’s taken it into his head that it’s poetic justice for him to steal Christian’s face because Christian stole his, then it’s possible. What’s more important is that I recognize the man he met as the only person who walked out of that jail alive. Don’t you?”

“Of course. I was there, but I didn’t have any luck tracing him.”

“Well, neither did I. I had his name, but I found nothing. An internet search for Dr. Bobby Hilliar  came up blank. Dr. Robert Hilliar yielded nothing. Dr. Robin Hilliar wasn’t it. Roberto, Bob, and after a few more attempts I couldn’t think of anything else to try. Not only could I not find anything for him, but I couldn’t find anything about the original Dr. Hilliar who sewed my back up. They must use the name Hilliar as an alias or a keyword. It seems like there is no Dr. Hilliar with a license to practice medicine in the area. You’re following them, right?”

“Yes.”

“If the man who called himself Graham has my heart, they’re probably on their way to perform a test. Probably level one, the cutting test. No one would look that chill if they were on their way for a higher-level test.”

At that moment, someone took the seat next to me. “Holly, what are you doing?” a voice asked cuttingly.

I turned around and saw Trinity. She had two shopping bags with her and a disapproving look on her face.

“What are you carrying in your condition? I hope those bags are light. I took one from her hands and let the other sit on the floor at her feet. “I’ll carry them the rest of the way home for you.”

“That man?” Trinity said. “From over there, it looked like he was hitting on you and you gave him your number.”

“Are you asking me if I completely forgot that I’m a married woman?”

Trinity nodded.

I didn’t know how to respond, so in an act of desperation I put out my left hand. “Do you see a wedding ring on this finger?”

She looked at me quizzically. “Are you saying that you and Tramaine are separated?”

I decided it was in my best interest to act hazy on the subject. I shrugged. I could not explain to her that we were in Ottawa only to find the man I was talking to so we could murder him and desecrate his corpse. Nor could I explain that not only would my husband be overjoyed that I had spotted him, but doubly pleased that I had flirted with him well enough that he took my phone number and promised to call.

Reformed Trinity grabbed me by the shoulder. “Are you married or not?”

I hated lying. “We’re half married.”

“What the frick is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that there was a technical problem with our wedding. It happened, but it was annulled because of a technicality. Right now, I’m sitting on the side of not being married. Not because I don’t love Tramaine, but because he needs to get his ducks in a row so that we can get remarried.”

“That sounds bizarre,” Trinity said, letting go of my shoulder.

“It is. I’m pissed off and I gave a man my number. Relax. Nothing motivates Tremaine more than competition.”

“You’re going to try to make him jealous?”

“I’m hoping to drive him to a murderous rage,” I said flippantly, but truthfully. “Tell him everything you saw me do the next time you see him. I’ll thank you if you make it seem like the sparks were flying and juices flowing. Whatever sounds more disgusting. Your word will be more powerful than anything I could say since I have no proof and that man is not going to call.”

“What makes you think he won’t call?” Trinity asked indignantly.

“How long were you single? How often did you date as a teenager? How many times did a guy call you after taking your number?” I puffed a laugh.

“Okay. Hardly ever, but I didn’t look like you. He’s a raging moron if he doesn’t call.”

I turned my head to look at her. No matter who she was friends with, she was such a loyal friend. I smiled. “That’s really sweet of you to say, but it’s a moot point either way. I’m not going to stop loving Tramaine, but if he can’t get his act together, he’ll leave me when the guilt overwhelms him. I’m doing this for him.”

“Flirting with another man to solve your marital problem doesn’t make any sense,” Trinity complained.

“It’s okay if it doesn’t. It’s an impossible situation, and you won’t understand it until your husband suddenly isn’t your husband anymore. Few people experience an involuntary divorce in this bizarre way. You know what that’s usually called?”

“What?”

“Death.”

Trinity frowned. “You two haven’t been married that long.”

“How long do you need to be married before losing your husband makes you less of a widow?”

She scowled some more. Righteous indignation was Trinity’s thing and now it was being directed at me. In all the years we’d been friends, it had never been directed at me before. “I will  tell Tremaine,” she said, grinding her teeth together angrily.

I let out a slow breath. “The first chance you get,” I advised her.


CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

Rings that Ring

Hours later, I listened to Rhuk’s report while sitting in the living room of my townhouse. I sat on the white couch and stroked the leaves of a potted plant that was propped up behind the couch.

“After they left the station, Dr. Bobby didn’t call him Graham once. He simply called him Charles.”

I felt everything in my chest heave. So, I had that incredible reaction to him because he had my heart and not because I had suddenly developed a taste for terrible men. The whole thing was an enormous relief.

Rhuk continued. “He inquired after Charles’ health, asking if his heart had been acting up. Charles whistled and said that everything was normal. He felt better than ever and he was excited to see the results of the tests they were running that night.”

I frowned, wishing I had someone to look at rather than just hearing Rhuk tell me the sad truth in a voice close to my ear. If only Christian was awake. I drummed my fingers against my forehead and waited to hear more.

The whole story of Charles Lewis made me heartsick in more ways than one. He had been a normal young man. He got a job working at Christian’s home in Scotland. He got to know Christian and Brandon. Without being told the exact details, I knew he came across information regarding Christian’s identity theft. He was contacted by the scientists who Christian called the Argonauts and because he had seen Christian, a grown man, kissing his adoptive daughter, Charles thought Christian and Brandon must be depraved monsters. He exchanged Brandon and allowed their scientists to do anything to him believing that if he did as they told him, he'd save me from a fate worse than death.

Charles hoped he would get together with me since it was my father who was offering me in exchange for immortal blood. It didn’t go the way he hoped and the last time we’d heard of him, he was grappling with a gunshot wound Christian had gifted him.

Even after something like that happened, it seemed that Charles was ever ready to be used by the Argonauts. If not them exactly, then scientists just like them.

I shuttered  my eyes closed in pain, pain for him because he believed their lies. Because he didn’t come to my rescue when he could have. And because now the only future that lay ahead of him was one where he got his heart cut out and there was no heart to replace the one we’d take.

I breathed through the pain.

He had made his choices.

“They went to an old hotel called The Lazy Hammock Hotel,” Rhuk said, pulling me away from my thoughts. “It’s not open for business. There are four people being held hostage there. One man and three women. Charles is supposed to be staying there too, but his room is close to the lobby and the security on him is lax enough that it is possible for him to sneak out occasionally. Bobby didn’t show how angry he was at Charles until they were back at the hotel. Then, he really let loose. They had an argument about Charles slipping out when he’s their most important test subject. Charles has been taking the train to a library to do research. He’s trying to find you, Beth. Bobby keeps telling him that the woman who broke into the prison is you, and Charles denies it. He says you could never do any of the things that person did. From their research, immortality does not make people invulnerable in that way. People heal quickly, but they don’t take four bullets to the chest and then immediately move on as if nothing happened. Bobby thinks the person who rescued Christian was human and wearing body armor because the bullets they found were crushed like they’d hit a brick wall, not like they’d hit a person.”

When Rhuk paused, I asked, “You said they had prisoners in the hotel. Did the man I rescued get recaptured?”

“No,” Rhuk said. “Three of these people are not immortal and Dr. Bobby and the other scientists know it. They are people they’ve captured in order to find the man they lost when you set him free from the jail. They say his name is Max and they’re torturing his brother, his wife, and his sister in order to force him to come in. They aren’t even asking them questions about him. It’s just that they told him they’d torture them every day until he turns himself over—voluntarily.”

“Who’s the other person? You mentioned four people at first.”

“She’s a nurse named Indra. She’s very confused about what’s happening. She’s a new addition. They did the cut test on her last night and today they uncovered her wounds. They were inconclusive. Luckily, they are not going to move on to waterboarding. Instead, they’re going to ask her to try to heal the wounds of one of the other women. Goodness knows they all have enough cuts and bruises that they don’t need to hurt any of them afresh, but they will. Then they plan to ask Indra if she can heal it.”

“Are they suggesting that someone can skip controlling the Red Forest, skip matter manipulation and go straight to controlling another living being?” I asked, thinking of Doctor Christian that hung from the rope in the third chamber. That is his skill.

Rhuk shook slightly. “I don’t know, but they’re about to find out.”

“It must be possible,” I said with an irritated shake of my head. “Brandon hasn’t learned to control himself perfectly, he knows nothing of matter manipulation, and yet, he claims he heals others better. Christian corroborated the story. He said he needs Brandon to help him when he gets my heart back. He doesn’t want to do the surgery alone, and frankly, I’m glad he wants someone else’s help. I don’t want to cut him open myself. However, it is interesting that Dr. Bobby has found such a person. Skipped the first two levels and went straight to level three? If they’ve found subjects like that to experiment on, who knows how much information they’ve been able to uncover?”

Rhuk stayed silent while I thought.

“What else do we know about Indra?” I asked. “What kind of person is she?”

“Uh, from the questions they are asking her, she was once interviewed to be one of the medical personnel who performed the operations done on Christian. She didn’t agree to help them once she understood what they were asking for. If she had agreed, she would have been one of the people you gunned down in the prison. She’s been under hostile questioning and she’s shown remarkable resilience, refusing to give them what they want. Now they’re cutting her.”

“I like her,” I declared, knowing that a lot of people break, tell things, and agree to anything once they’re threatened.

Rhuk nodded and I felt that the gem agreed with me. We’d have to fetch her out of the hotel, once we’d made a plan.

“What’s Charles doing now?” I wondered aloud.

“Dr. Bobby is performing a cut test on him. He has failed every cut test they’ve given him. They’ve given him one a week since he took your heart. They’re doing them on his upper arm and he has a line of scars.”

“Where is the hotel they’re using?” I did a search on my phone and found the address. The image search showed the plainest building I’d ever seen. No one would wonder what was going on in a dull beige building. I doubted people noticed it when they walked by it.

“I don’t know if you should go there, Beth,” Rhuk said. “I mean, you could go and you and I could move enough matter that we could accomplish everything you want, but the place is rigged with so many explosives, it feels like there must be an easier way.”

“What do you mean, it’s rigged with explosives?”

“Dr. Bobby has a bomb guy he calls The Incinerator. Well, he makes everyone call him that, even though they all gag on it. He’s unstable and they’re all aware that if they anger him, he’ll burn them all alive. After what happened at the jail, Dr. Bobby is terrified someone will sneak in and lay waste to his team for the third time. There is an explosive rigged to every door. When I say every door, Beth, I mean every door. Only the doors from the bathrooms to the bedrooms have nothing on them, but those doors themselves have been removed. Every other door has to have a code typed into a cell phone to open it, and it is armed again after it’s closed. The Incinerator is in the process of rigging the windows the same way now, except there’s no code to open those.”

“It would be so much easier to pick off Charles if he simply called me and agreed to meet me somewhere… anywhere,” I fumed. “Was I charming enough that he’d call me?”

Rhuk swung a little on my earlobe. “I think he’ll call.”

“Why?”

“You are very beautiful Beth, much more beautiful than a diamond, but that isn’t why he’ll call. He’ll call because you mentioned Beth Coldwell and Christian Henderson. He will call you just to ask you questions about them. He’s very curious.”

“He might not be very free to call me if he’s under lock and key at Dr. Bobby’s hotel. Charles isn’t immortal yet. Even if he was, he probably wouldn’t risk the bombs on the doors for something like a phone call to me. It sounds like they’re rigged to start a chain reaction to bring the entire building down if even one of them goes off.”

“Exactly.”

I leaned back and put my feet on the coffee table. “I’ve got to hand it to Dr. Bobby. The bombs are ever so clever. They’ll keep everyone where they’re supposed to be without the need for full-time monitoring. If anyone tries to escape, it will kill all of them without killing an immortal. If they torch the whole place, no one will be able to tell what they were doing in that building.” I smiled wickedly. “No one will be able to tell if a woman wrote ‘help me’ in her own blood all over the walls.”

“Why would someone do that?” Rhuk asked innocently.

“Yeah, tell us the story,” one of the other diamonds asked.

I rolled my eyes. The other diamonds in my earring still thought they were pencils. They wanted to write everything down like it was for a school project. Well, they didn’t need to hear about my dumb escapades, but if they felt that way, I could help them along.

I popped my earring out, then I got a piece of paper and an inkblot. I freed the diamonds from their settings and dropped them in a pile on the piece of paper.

“Draw me a blueprint of The Lazy Hammock Hotel, boys.”

Hopping to, the diamonds raced to the inkblot and rolled their angles in the ink. Rhuk was more spherical in shape, so it couldn’t make such a fine point with the ink. Instead of drawing, it ordered the others around, which I knew it enjoyed.

I watched as the lines came into place and the shape of the building started to develop into something that made sense.

At that very moment, Christian sauntered into the room.

“Now, if I remember correctly,” he said with his award-winning charm and his gray-green eyes twinkling. “I fell unconscious on the floor over there. I was dressed impeccably. Why, praytell, am I now wearing nothing but briefs and a housecoat?”

“Yes, but darling,” I said in a joyfully condescending tone. “That was March 23rd. Today is April 11th.”

His face fell, but at that moment, he noticed what I had my attention on. The tiny diamonds skittered across the paper like insects while the hexagonal prisms wrote like floating pencils.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m having my earring draw a schematic of The Lazy Hammock Hotel. Charles Lewis has a room there on the first floor.”

“If he’s on the first floor, why do you need a map of the whole place?” he asked as he slid his arms around me from behind and kissed the side of my neck.

“Because it’s not a normal hotel. It’s a mess. Full of explosives and other hostages. This is all based on information I got tonight. Isn’t that why you woke up? Because you sensed a change in the air?”

“Actually, I woke to the sound of Trinity speaking to Brighton in their bedroom. Did you know their bedroom shares a wall with ours?”

“No. I didn’t. I haven’t been over to their place much.”

“Why not? You’re supposed to be enjoying the companionship of your friend.”

“I know, but she’s busy. When we lived together it was exactly the same. She’s always had people over and I don’t like to be surrounded by that many people. I just didn’t have the luxury of retreating to the house next door. Don’t worry. I’ve been seeing her a lot. I’ve just got her to come over here. The whole thing has been luxurious.”

“Except, she’s white-hot mad at you now.”

“I know. Charles has been pretending he’s Christian Henderson, except he’s calling himself Graham and he hit on me on the train. Of course, I let him. I gave him my phone number. I even asked him if he was Christian Henderson because you’ve got to put good bait on your hook if you want to catch the big fish. Or a snake, in Charles’ case. Trinity saw me and her temper is like a rocket. She thinks I’m cheating on you.”

“Yes. The sound of such a thing would have raised me from the dead, but I’m relieved. Not just because you aren’t cheating on me, but it is a huge weight off my chest that you found that wormy piece of trash.” He shrugged his shoulders. “The word snake is still too good for him.”

I nodded and brought myself closer to him, hooking my arm around his. “How did it go in the Red Forest?” I asked softly.

“Well, I’m a mess. My cells did whatever they wanted without me disciplining them. Your cells are probably doing the same thing since you aren’t wearing your face.”

“Honestly, I just don’t like looking like someone who isn’t me. I keep my Holly face on during the day, but at night, when I’m not expecting anyone, I just want to relax and be myself.”

He grabbed the ties on his housecoat and tied them up. “You still haven’t explained why I’m dressed like this.”

“Oh, I just like playing dress-up with you. I put you in all your clothes, tried on different styles, and eventually landed on black briefs as my favorite outfit for my Christian doll to wear.”

He yawned and rejected my explanation immediately. “I don’t believe you.”

“Fine. I stripped you the second day to see if it would wake you up. It didn’t and I never bothered to re-dress you. You look good naked.”

“That’s more like it. Did you sleep next to me in the bed ?”

“Sometimes. Mostly, I fell asleep on the carpet down here. I’ve been trying to figure out how to control another living creature. I’ve been practicing with an aloe vera. It’s shocking how quickly I fall asleep attempting it. And the carpet in the living room has such a thick pile, it’s almost as comfortable as the bed.”

“And you’re still in love with me, darling?” he asked, trying to sound like his question was an after-thought rather than his primary focus.

I stalled, making him sweat as long as possible. Then I looked up, down, to the sides, and finally at him. “If I was going to fall out of love with you, I would have done it when you ditched me when I was seventeen. Since then, I’m not sure if I could fall out of love with you even if you told me to get lost, even if you told me you could never love me back, even if you got together with someone else and rubbed it in my face. I know you’re not supposed to love someone that much. Everyone will tell you it is a mistake to pin all your hopes and dreams on one person, but I’m not actually sure if it’s all my hopes and dreams that are pinned on you. It’s all your hopes and dreams. I want to help you with whatever you need. Whether that gets me anything or not is really beside the point. I’ll love you forever.”

He kissed me and for a moment he lost himself, opening his robe and pulling me against his bare chest. It was beyond thrilling until he realized his predicament and withdrew himself, replacing his housecoat.

“I have to get your heart back,” he looked down at the recently completed map of The Lazy Hammock Hotel.

The diamonds sat in a line like tiny soldiers behind Rhuk  with the long ones in the back.

“Good job,” I complimented. “Rebuild the earring.”

Christian watched the diamonds  skitter and stop  to obey me and the look on his face was as delighted as if he were watching a ballet on Christmas Eve. The gems stacked themselves, tumbled, and fell, aware a greater god was amused by them. They wanted to give him a show and he could see them, even if he couldn’t hear the cute sounds they made. Rhuk allowed the show for a full minute before bringing the smaller diamonds to heel and allowing us to get back to more serious matters.

“I’m impressed you can command all that,” he praised.

“Nah. I have only given them my permission to do as they please.”

Christian looked at the blueprint like he’d looked at so many blueprints over the course of his long life that he was sick of them. “There are too many bombs for anything. Who have they got rigging them?”

“He’s called The Incinerator. If we end up having to go in, and there’s a good chance we will, I think we should cut the electricity to the building, so no one can film us, and drop down through the ceiling,” I suggested. “Once we’ve got everyone out, we should set off the explosives ourselves.”

Christian didn’t say what he thought of that plan and only asked, “And if Charles won’t come with us?”

“He can stay inside and burn up with the rest of the building. We’ll pull my heart out of the ash and be done with it.”

Rhuk made a quiet ahem sound that only I could hear. “I may not have mentioned that every person has an explosive attached to their person.”

I groaned.

Rhuk continued, “They’re wireless rings that have been put around their necks. All four prisoners, except Charles, have them. We can deal with them, but you need to hear all the information first.”

I picked my reassembled earring off the table and secured it in my earlobe. “Please continue, Rhuk.”

“What’s it saying?” Christian begged, hating to be left out of the information drop.

Rhuk was about to tell me more when my phone rang. I put up a hand to stop Rhuk  from continuing as I answered the phone. “Hello.”

“Is this Holly?” the deep voice on the other end asked.

“Yes. Is this…” I had been about to say Charles, but I paused and filled in the space with “Graham” in a way that was almost natural.

“Yeah. What are you up to?” he asked.

“I’ve been playing with my chess piece, trying to plot my next move.” It wasn’t exactly true, since I’d left dolomite Rhuk back in Nhagaspir, but it was a good line.

“Are you playing chess alone?” he asked.

“Why? You wanna play chess with me?”

“I was thinking we could meet for coffee tomorrow. Are you busy?”

I frowned. A coffee date wasn’t good enough for my purposes. Meeting him in the middle of the day would make it harder for him to go missing unnoticed. Not only that, but I couldn’t guarantee that I could seduce him hard enough for him to want a second date with me. If it wasn’t now, I might be picking my heart out of a pile of ash after I burned down the whole building. I actually didn’t want to risk the fire. It was better to do things one at a time.

“I’m busy in the afternoon,” I lied, using my best rich-girl voice. “Can’t we meet for dinner?”

A chuckle sounded low in his throat. “Where?”

I almost heaved a sigh of relief. He thought I was so impressed by him that I wanted to skip a stop on the dating roadmap. Straight to dinner.

I suggested a steakhouse and said I’d make a reservation for eight o’clock.

“All right,” he said, sounding satisfied. “I’ll meet you there.”

I ground my teeth together and refocused myself. There would have been no need to murder him if he hadn’t been so eager to jump down Christian’s immortal throat and take whatever he could grab.

“I can’t wait,” I said, my voice threatening to crack, but I licked my lips and my voice came through clearly.

“Until later,” he said and hung up.

I tossed my phone across the counter with a crack and tried to focus on my breathing.

Christian knew my discomfort. He came up behind me and placed his hands gently on my shoulders. “That was Charles? Should I call Brandon?”

I nodded.

“If he can make it here by tomorrow, that would be great.”

Christian rushed to reassure me. “You don’t have to kill him yourself. If you can lure him somewhere, I can take care of it for you.”

I smiled weakly. “How can I let you do it when you’re so very tired of killing?”

“This is different. It will be over in a snap. It’s my fault anyway. I should have shot him in the face instead of in the leg.”

“They would have just gotten someone else.”

“Okay. Not only that, but we wouldn’t have to cut his heart out if he hadn’t been willing to cut mine out first.”

I leaned over. “Rhuk, during my date, I want you to keep a sharp eye on Trinity. I don’t want her seeing anything and coming at me with accusations of what an unfaithful wife I am. Can you watch her for me?”

I felt the earring brush smooth and cold, like a cat’s nose, against the side of my face. “Absolutely.”


CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

Date with the Devil

The dress Christian chose for me for my date with Charles was less scandalous than I expected. He chose a dress that put all the emphasis on my shoulders and none on my chest. It was a pale apricot and flattered my red hair. He painted my lips and eyelids a red that was almost an orange and arranged my curls into a low bun, allowing ringlets to spill around my face. While he worked on my hair with a curling iron, I told him the story King Christian had told me about the Roman emperor’s wife.

“He’s made you prettier than she ever was… or I have. Whatever. In a lineup, Nero would have fallen for you before any other woman. So, do it tonight. Make Charles fall for you. There’s a hotel one block from the restaurant. I booked a room for you there.”

“When Pricina told me that my life with you would be rotten, I didn’t really believe her. I thought we’d always be on the side with clean hands. We’ve never plotted murder before,” I whispered.

“Having regrets, little Bethie?” he asked, doing a bad job hiding his feelings. However he normally felt about killing, this was an exception where it didn’t bother him at all.

Stubbornly, I didn’t answer.

“Real women kill spiders, rats, and scorpions when there’s no one around to do it for them. This isn’t different because he’s a human. I’m sorry I can’t be the bait.”

I snickered uneasily. “If we had a different plan, you could be the bait.”

“There’s nothing wrong with this plan. It’s convenient and available. It’s a hundred times more deceptive than a normal plan because Charles thinks this was all his idea. He phoned you . Besides,” Christian said, letting a completed ringlet fall against my neck. “I need you to do this for me. If even the smallest part of you wants to keep your heart from me, now is the time to admit it.”

My mouth fell open, aghast. “What are you saying?”

He minced no words. “If you refuse to do this for me, our marriage will never be real because you will be refusing to give your heart to me. Your heart will be in another man’s body. How can we be married then?”

I stood up, turned, and met his eyes in an angry sweep. I expected his expression to be threatening and intimidating, but it wasn’t. Even though he was wearing Tremaine’s face, he was still wearing the expression he wore when he tried to give me my freedom on that miserable Christmas Eve. I relaxed. He was not trying to coerce me. What he said was a fact, not a threat.

I looked him over, searching for more information about how he felt. I started with the backs of his square hands that I loved so much and moved my way across his heavy-boned elbows to his collarbone, to his lips (that contained no trace of amusement or scorn), to his eyes that only showed concern and longing for this to be over. Everything was fine… I was only being squeamish because I had time to think about what we were doing. If everything was happening at once, in my face, I wouldn’t hesitate. What I did at the prison showed me that I was willing to get bloodied up for his sake.

“If you don’t want to do it when the time comes, don’t worry. I’ll do it.”

I let out a breath that had been in me too long. “Will Brandon make it to perform the surgery?”

“Yes. He just texted me from the airport. He’ll be here in an hour. ”

I nodded and adjusted my earring. “And Rhuk, don’t forget to watch Trinity for me. I can’t stand for her to see this.”

The stone kissed my cheek, while Christian brushed his lips against my other cheek so he wouldn’t ruin my lipstick, and though I didn’t feel like I was ready, it was time to go.

***

I stood across the street spying on the steakhouse with Christian by my side. I wore a long coat over my dress and Christian stood towering over me with his magnificent height shielding me from view. We watched Charles emerge from the passenger side of a car and head into the restaurant ahead of me exactly one minute before I was set to meet him. The car dropped him off and drove away.

“Is anyone following him, Rhuk?” I whispered.

“No. Charles told Dr. Bobby that  he was going on a date and Bobby was wise enough to realize that if he didn’t go, he might rebel in a more disastrous way. The good doctor has a man coming by in a half an hour to check on him.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to get him to leave the restaurant with less than half an hour to work,” I complained.

“What we want is for the man to see you at the table, think the two of you will be there all night, and leave. Let them research you,” Christian advised, kissing my fingertips. “It’s not going to matter. No matter how this goes, we can make you a new identity every time we need to.”

“This is gross,” I lamented with bitterness between my lips.

“Get going. I’ll see you at the hotel after I meet up with Brandon no matter what happens.”

I slipped away from him and feeling the need to assert my dignity, I made my back straighter, my step lighter, and my smile better as I stepped into the steakhouse with the air of a woman who only had naughty things on her mind.

Charles was in line to speak to the hostess, looking more like Christian Henderson than he had any right to. I tugged on his elbow and he turned to see me.

“Holly,” he said, slipping his hands into his pockets. From a distance, I would have thought he was Christian. Up close, the effect was lost. He was dressed as a sad imitation. He didn’t know how to choose his suit and he didn’t wear it as well as my man did. However, it was a vast improvement from the beer-stained t-shirts that had been wrinkled on the floor.

“Looking good,” I lied, smacking my tongue against my teeth.

Our turn in line came up and we were shown to our table. The server pulled my chair out for me and handed me a menu. Ever since I had become immortal, my relationship with food had changed. Now I could eat anything I wanted. Anything King Christian didn’t have a use for, he discarded.

King Christian said my insides were becoming like diamonds. I knew what he was talking about, the beautiful and incredibly strong ties between carbon atoms presented one of nature’s strongest bonds. That was what he meant when he said he was trading corruptible for incorruptible.

Among other things, the king also told me, “When you’re out, go ahead and order wine. I won’t let a drop of it touch your bloodstream. It’ll be like bullets to you.”

It was strange that I found his words more comforting than anything the real Christian had said to me since he woke up.

I turned to the server and talked to him about red wine, while Charles looked over the menu. He wasn’t interested, so I ordered a bottle for us hoping it might loosen Charles up. “It’s a special occasion,” I said, a flirty grin playing across my features like a melody.

“Is it?” he asked. “Why?”

I didn’t like any of this, but if I failed, what mess would I make?

Ready to play, I leaned forward, absently tracing an invisible pattern on my bare shoulder. “You’re exactly my type.”

Charles smiled. It was a sick little smile. It was a smile that said that he knew he was attractive. He had been doused in makeup, wigged, and dressed to imitate the man I loved best in the whole world. He thought this was what a woman wanted because I had wanted Christian instead of him.

“Tell me about your type,” he said, flapping his menu shut as though he didn’t care if he had a single bite to eat.

“I like a man who isn’t afraid to take what he wants. Very few men can call a woman up and just ask her on a date the way you did. Most men beat around the bush and say stupid things. They are either begging to be put in the friend zone or begging to be replaced with a stronger man. You didn’t do either of those grotesque things. I don’t feel like your buddy. I like that.”

“Usually a woman orders one tiny glass of wine to drink, not the bottle.”

“We needn’t drink it if we don’t like it,” I said like wine wasn’t a tenth as interesting as the man in front of me.

The server came back. Charles ordered a steak and I ordered a salad.

“Don’t you want a steak to go with your red wine?” Charles asked, sitting at an angle that would have looked good if he had been dressed well.

The idea of eating a steak made me feel sick. “I only suggested we come here because I thought it would make you more likely to agree to meet me. It’s not often I get asked out by a man of your quality.”

The server left, but returned a moment later and poured the wine.

“What do you do for a living?” Charles asked me.

“Whatever I want,” I said haughtily.

Charles liked that. Immediately, he warmed up to me in a way that was more genuine than before. “You’re that rich, are you? That you can do whatever you want?”

“Aren’t you?” I asked in a challenging tone.

“Maybe I am… when you put it like that. Should we have a toast?” he asked, raising his wine glass.

I raised my glass to match his. “Yes. What should we toast to?”

He thought for a moment. “A new woman to get my engine running.”

I wasn’t sure if he sounded cool or horrible. It was a thin line.

I clinked glasses with him and took a sip. “So,” I said, leaning forward. “Who were the old models who used to get your engine running?”

“I’d rather not say. You went to boarding school around here, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

Suddenly, he decided to put his cards on the table. “You mentioned Beth Coldwell before. Were you friends with her?”

He was having dinner with me because he was hoping I would give him a lead after all.

I sucked my breath in and acted a little jealous that the conversation was not about me. “No. She was friends with Trinity Powell, not me. I only remember two things about Beth and both of them revolve around the men she had in her life. She had that really handsome guardian, Christian Henderson, and one time she made out with this ridiculously hot redhead outside the school gates, Charles Lewis. It almost made her look cool.”

Charles was neither of those men, but he liked hearing both things because he was dressed like Christian at the moment and the other man had been Christian dressed to look like him. I understood in a moment that he was bent on becoming Christian. This wasn’t even about me. He wasn’t obsessed with me. He never had been. This was all about Christian and Charles’ obsession with him. He wanted to take everything Christian had and take his place. He was out to dinner with me not because he wanted information exactly. He was with me because he wanted to use me, to help him feel like he was Christian.

Now I knew how to direct the conversation. I knew exactly what he wanted.

“Was Beth an old flame of yours?” I persisted, unable to hide the disgust mingling with my conviction.

“You sound like you don’t approve,” he observed.

“She was fat.” I made my ridicule sound musical and harmless. It was on the edge of what I had always believed to be possible with intonation. I sounded as innocent and beautiful as a songbird, even though I was introducing maliciousness into our conversation.

“She was a little fat. I saw her undressed often enough.” He was unable to make his voice as harmless as mine.

“You did?” I squealed.

He met my eyes and grinned. “She was always taking her clothes off.”

Even though the only times he had seen me undress were through spitefully obtained video surveillance, my smile didn’t slip.

“You should see me take my clothes off,” I said, laying my hand palm up on the table and running a finger along the veins in my wrist. “I would blow your mind.”

He was about to say something about that when our food was brought. I speared a cherry tomato on my plate and wondered if eating it would ruin my enjoyment of tomatoes eternally.

“Were there many other women besides Beth?” I asked, curious about what else he had been up to since I had last seen him.

He spilled a bit of sauce on his lapel. “She was the only one that mattered.” He tried wiping the stain with his napkin. I tried to look away but still saw him lick the stain before abandoning any attempt to clean it. I almost gagged but I somehow managed to act like I didn’t notice.

“What about you?” Charles asked me.

“Have I had a lot of lovers?”

“Yeah?” His steak knife grated across the plate in an ear-splitting screech.

I did not want to say what I planned to say next, but I had been biding my time with my conversation so far. Now was the time to make my move. He didn’t love me as Beth. He wasn’t even interested in me. I had to give him what he was really interested in and I had to spin it in a way that made him want to accompany me to the hotel after we were finished eating. That was the goal.

I leaned forward and whispered, “Well, the first man I did it with was Christian Henderson.”

Charles’ head popped up like he had a spring in his throat. “How is that possible?”

“Didn’t Beth complain to you about how he was never around and he didn’t give her a tenth of the attention she wanted? He’d be at parties at the school and slip out for a few minutes. It was so funny because everyone suspected he was having sex with Beth on the side, but he would never touch her. She was way below his standards. A man like that could be with anyone he wanted and he could not keep his hands off me.”

Charles looked at me sideways and I wasn’t sure if he believed the wild story that just came out of my mouth.

“Do you want to hear what he used to do to me?” I whispered in a conspiratorial tone.

Charles’ mouth hung open. He had never been more interested in anything anyone had ever said before, not even when they offered to cut my heart out of Christian and give it to him.

I continued, “I have a hotel room down the block. How about if I show  you what he used to do to me?”

Charles dropped his fork.

Before he could answer, the server noticed we were no longer eating and approached the table to ask how we were doing.

“Please pack everything up and prepare us the bill as quickly as possible,” I said, rising from the table. “My date isn’t feeling well. I need to put him to bed.”

The server was almost as seduced as Charles as he swished our plates from the table.

“Holly… I…” Charles stuttered.

“You started this,” I said firmly, “talking so freely to me about what Beth Coldwell looks like undressed. You clearly have not been with a real woman and only a pathetic, entitled, fat, little orphan. You deserve this. I wasn’t lying about the hotel. We’ll finish eating there.”


CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

Bleeding From More than One Place

Charles carried the food and I hooked my arm around his elbow as we walked down the street. I glanced at my watch. It had been almost exactly half an hour since I entered the restaurant.

“Has the man who was supposed to check on Charles come yet?” I asked Rhuk without making a sound.

“He’s already come and left. He saw you, and unless I was mistaken by his body language, he thought Charles would have his hands full with you for the whole night. I don’t know when he’s planning to return, but your timing for leaving the restaurant was impeccable. No one will notice he’s missing for the longest amount of time possible.”

We entered the lobby of the hotel. The floor was red and the walls were black with reddish-brown swirls. Christian had got us a room near the top of the hotel, one of their finest rooms. It was the longest walk of my life from the desk to the elevator. The longest ride inside an elevator, and somehow it was an even longer walk from the elevator to the room.

“Where’s your flirty mouth now?” Charles asked roughly on the way to the correct room number.

“Be patient.” I let go of his arm and put the keycard in the slot, opening the door for him.

He turned on the lights and went in.

I followed him inside, turned around, and locked the door. Quietly, I went up behind Charles, put my arms around him, and began unbuttoning his coat. I had to see something before I called Christian to join us. I had to make sure that we were not making a mistake and this man had really had a heart transplant recently.

I tossed his coat aside and was about to follow suit by taking mine off, but Charles was all over me before I got the chance. I almost ripped the air from his lungs as his hands groped me in places Christian hadn’t even touched yet.

“Wait,” I said, putting a hand up to stop him. “Don’t you want to hear about me and Christian Henderson?”

He had been ravaging my throat. “You still want to do that?” he asked. “I can hear about it after.”

I chuckled, holding him at bay. “Christian had a good sense of timing. He knew how to make me want him so bad I was foaming at the mouth before he gave me anything.”

Charles dropped his hands and straightened. “Oh?”

“Yeah. He’d make me undress him. I don’t think he ever once undid a button or a zipper on his own clothing, or mine. He made me undo it all. Don’t you want to see how he did it? Don’t you want to hear the words he would say as he forced me to uncover him with his tongue?”

Charles’ mouth was watering. He had to put his lips together and swallow twice while I was talking.

Of course, I was making everything up. This was just an excuse so he would let me unbutton his shirt so I could see if he had a heart transplant scar down the center of his chest.

“Sit on the bed,” I commanded.

Charles did what I said immediately and waited. “So… what did he say?”

It was time to get creative. Christian had never treated me like a piece of meat and I was scraping my brain to imagine what he could say that would accomplish everything I said it did. I started with the biggest stall I could think of… a compliment. I began, “He’d start with a look. The one you’re giving me right now is perfect, just like him. That look that said he wanted me, but I was a minor, so he wasn’t going to lay a finger on me. I’d have to crawl down his pants myself if I wanted him.”

“Do you really think he wasn’t doing Beth if he was doing you? I bet he was doing you both,” Charles said darkly.

“He told me he thought she was gross and needy. Why would he have bothered? He could get anyone. Why bother with Beth?” I answered haughtily.

“I think that because…” Charles said slowly. “I walked in on them. He was definitely doing something with her. And you’re right, it was gross.”

I crawled on the bed next to him and absently ran my fingers across his chest, fingering the buttons before undoing them. There was suddenly something that made me curious, so I hesitated in getting what I had come for. “It was okay for him to nail someone like me, but not for him to nail someone like Beth?”

“Nah, he can nail both of you as far as I care,” Charles said, trying to put his hand between my legs.

I moved out of the way. “Get control of yourself. Christian would never touch me before I touched him.” I wanted to ask Charles more questions, but if he was going to attempt something like that, then I needed to put an end to all of this. I resumed unbuttoning his shirt.

Three buttons down, I got the answer to my question. He had the same scar I once had down my chest.

The bed frame was made with beautiful iron-wrought posts and intricate ironwork between them. I looked at the metal swirls, considering the possibilities. Feeling the curse of Lady Macbeth, I took control, ordered matter, untangled the design of the wrought iron from the headboard, and used the vines to pin his wrists beside his head and wrap another around his neck. He struggled, but the iron moved as fast as pythons and pinned him.

It didn’t choke him, but he screamed.

I blocked the sound so no one heard it.

“Enough of this nonsense. You  have something I want.” I approached him and ripped the wig off his head. “You aren’t Graham anything, Charles. Stop pretending.”

His eyes went wide and he screamed again, but no one could hear him. Angry, I blocked the sound waves from hitting me either, took a chair from the desk, and placed it beside the bed. I sat on the chair with ladylike grace and crossed my legs. “Do you know who I am?”

He couldn’t answer. He was coughing, since his thrashing had constricted his trachea against the iron around his neck.

Putting everything aside, I wondered how much of the operation I could accomplish on my own. I closed my eyes and tried to do what I did with all matter I could control. I tried to command the cells in my heart, inside his body, to come to me. They wanted to obey. I could feel them under his skin, but his body was blocking them. The problem was that I didn’t have the power to control the cells in another person’s body. All the cells in Charles’ body were stopping me from taking what belonged to me. Brandon would have to cut him open.

I opened my eyes and waited for Charles to stop sputtering.

He was odious, ugly, and awful. I had been forced to let him touch me in private places after I was already so disgusted about him seeing me naked.

Obviously, I already knew we were going to kill Charles, but would that give me any satisfaction? I could call Christian and Brandon to cut my heart out at any moment, but I needed a minute.

His throat, arms, and hands were held down by iron. His legs flailed. I noticed a few decorative iron loops at the foot of the bed and let them bring his feet into circlets. I knew all about that. It was very effective.

I told my chair to scurry over to the side of the bed and I asked the iron to bring Charles closer to me like dark obedient snakes.

Once he was close enough, he stopped fighting, and instead, he began searching my face for answers.

I gave them, allowing my face to relax into my own features.

He let out a gasp of recognition.

“Was everything the scientists told you true?” I asked with a crooked grin.

He nodded and tried to angle his chin so he could wipe his spittle on his collar. He couldn’t reach it and it collected in a nauseating droplet at the point of his chin.

“Charles,” I said slowly. “I’m going to kill you tonight. I’m sure you know why, you little thief,” I said as I walked my fingers across his chest.

“What are you going to do with it?” he sputtered. “You’re already immortal. What use could you possibly have for Christian’s heart?”

My expression went sour. “You get lied to a lot,” I said as I ripped a dirty blond eyebrow off his face.

He winced.

The adhesive clung to my fingers until I ordered the line of hair to fall away and float slowly downward like a feather until it met its end in the trash can. Charles’ eyebrows were now blonde and red. “These don’t suit you. Did someone say they did? That you deserved them? You deserved to look like him? To look like the version of him that I fell in love with? I ripped off his other eyebrow.

He gritted his teeth that time, expecting it.

“They told you they gave you his heart and you believed them because they cut it out of his body?” I dropped the other eyebrow and it joined its partner in the garbage. “Except Charles,” I said, scraping his hair net off to reveal his natural red hair. “It wasn’t his heart. It was mine.”

“What?”

“I only want to make one thing clear to you before I call the men in who are going to murder you. What you saw that morning in the conservatory… that kiss you found so offensive… it was none of your business. Christian and I had already traded hearts years before and absolutely everything you think you know about him and me is bullshit that someone told you so they could control you.”

The look on his face was exactly what I needed to see so that I would be able to move on from this after he was gone. Finally, he understood that there was no way out. The tragedy hit Charles and a single tear ran down his cheek. It was especially poignant for me because he was still wearing Christian’s hazel contact lenses… probably the exact ones Christian used to wear. His whole kit had probably been taken from his cabin in the woods and given to Charles as a gift.

Even still, with his spittle glistening down his face, the steak sauce staining his cheap suit, and his stare that was unreasonably like my Christian’s, I still didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t chase Christian for years to become a murderer. It was tempting to blame Charles, to tell him that none of this would have happened if he had not sold Brandon out. Everything would have been fine if he hadn’t become a goon and followed my father in his twisted schemes. It didn’t matter what I wanted to yell at him about how wrong he was. It was too late for him to correct himself now. I’d already said what I needed to say. He’d be dead in ten minutes.

I took out my phone and texted Christian that I was ready at the hotel.

“Beth,” Rhuk whispered in my ear, interrupting all that flamed and froze inside my mind. “Trinity is alone at home.”

I waited. There’s no way Rhuk would have told me that for no reason.

The diamond continued to explain, “She’s just begun contractions. They’re stronger than she expected. She’s called Brighton, but he is in a meeting and has his phone off. She’s not yet at full term and he’s not expecting her to need him.”

“Do you think she’s in trouble?”

“If she doesn’t get to a hospital soon… she’ll be in big trouble,” the stone admitted.

“Where’s Christian?”

“He’s in the lobby with Brandon.”

I went down the hall to meet him.

“They just got in the elevator,” Rhuk warned me before I got on one going in the wrong direction.

I waited, paced, controlled the sound waves coming from Charles, and waited. The elevator door dinged and the two men emerged.

When I saw Christian, I skipped the greetings and told him the situation. “Rhuk says Trinity went into early labor and she’s alone.”

Christian reached out to me. “What should we do?”

“We’re not far from her. I could be there in ten minutes if she needs me to help.”

“What about our guest?” Christian asked, pointing his chin toward Charles.

I pinched my lips together. “I’m blocking the sound waves, so no one can hear him scream.”

“I suppose Rhuk could order the matter to continue doing that until you come back. Do you want to take Brandon with you?” Christian offered, walking with me into the room.

Christian momentarily forgot what he was talking about as he entered the hotel room and saw Charles entangled in the bed frame. “Nice bed,” he said, as he made room for Brandon and me to follow him inside.

Charles heard Christian say that.

“Brandon?” Charles had stopped coughing and was now able to talk. He looked up and saw the man whose head they cut off. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

Brandon didn’t answer him and unrolled a collection of surgical tools on the desk and muttered, “It will make a huge mess.”

“I’ll be back in time to clean it up. Even if I’m gone all night, you guys can keep housekeeping out of the room until morning, can’t you?”

Charles began yelling at the top of his lungs.

“Oh, shut up!” I insisted. “No one can hear you. No one will know you died in this room and anyone who asks a single f-ing question about what happened to you will be inexplicably strangled by their necktie. Shut up!”

Brandon stood aside for Christian to choose a blade from his tools. Christian selected a knife from the collection. Holding it between his hands, he turned to me. “I’m not asking you to do this, Beth, but I won’t do it unless you ask me to. All my life, I’ve killed people. I’ve let people die. It’s part of the life cycle and as we live forever, we see a lot of death. If you can’t bear for me to do this, you have to say so now.”

He stopped talking and waited for me to reply.

I thought of saying something to Charles, something more about how wrong he had been, but I closed my mouth without saying those words. They didn’t matter now. Even if Christian had shot him in the face instead of the leg when we left the compound, Dr. Bobby would have found someone else to put Christian’s heart into.

I said it. “Kill him.”

Christian sliced the blade clean across Charles’ throat without hesitating. The blood was everywhere and on everything. I should not have been proud of the way he accomplished it, doing it with determination and no visible satisfaction. I felt that moment was not a moment where the two of us should have bonded, but it was.

He wiped the knife and returned it to its place among Brandon’s tools. He turned to me and started undoing his coat. They were going to do the surgery and I had hoped to stay for it.

“We can manage this part alone,” Christian insisted. “Come back when you’re finished helping Trinity.”

I took his hand in mine and kissed the knuckles. His other hand was in my hair.

“Everything will be fine. Go to Trinity.” He let go of me.

I took a few steps away from them. “Neither of you can leave this room before I come back,” I said before I locked the two of them inside.

Whatever I felt about seeing Charles murdered before my very eyes would not be analyzed. I needed to get to Trinity.


CHAPTER THIRTY

The Third Christian

When I got to Trinity’s townhouse, she was on the floor in the living room. Her phone was out of her reach. Suddenly, I was grateful that I’d sold myself as a person with a medical background.

“Sorry, Trinity. I know this is awkward, but I need to help you.” I checked her eyes, checked her pulse, pulled her skirt up, and pulled her panties down.

“Holly,” she groaned. “I… wasn’t expecting this.”

I checked out the situation between her legs. I was not a doctor, but I had read about the process (and many others) out of curiosity. She was already ten centimeters dilated and completely ready to give birth, but there wasn’t enough room. The pressure of the baby’s head was going to make her tear. If she tore badly… I needed to cut her in order to control the tear. If she bled too much… How much blood could she lose?

It looked terrible.

“I’ll get a knife,” I said, snapping my head up.

“A knife?” Trinity screamed.

I grabbed her hands in mine. She crushed them in hers. “Have you called an ambulance?”

She shook her head and screamed. “No!”

“We can’t wait for an ambulance. You need an episiotomy. Where’s your candle lighter?”

She pointed to the fake mantle and the box on top. I rushed to gather supplies, but when I dropped to my knees, she had already begun to tear and the amount of blood leaking from her took my breath away.

She’s going to die, I suddenly realized. How could I stop the bleeding and deliver the baby at the same time? I didn’t know. What I’d read on the subject wasn’t enough to cover this moment.

I stripped a pillowcase and even though I had practiced meditating with my eyes open, I had never dived into the Red Forest with my eyes wide open, but I had to try. Just like that, one half of me treated Trinity and the other half entered my Red Forest. Part of me stood at the door of Christian’s heart while another part soothed Trinity and blotted her blood.

King Christian stood in the doorway that led to the second chamber. Holding onto the top of the door frame, he said, “Call an ambulance.”

“There isn’t time!” I wailed.

“I can’t order her cells any more than you can. It’s not just that she’ll bleed to death, her baby could die too if you don’t get some help. You should have called one yourself while you were on your way over.”

“I should have,” I shouted back, “but I thought she would have already called. I thought it wouldn’t be this bad. I didn’t think at all!” I pushed past him. “Get out of my way!”

He stepped aside and I ran ahead to the chamber where Doctor Christian was strung up by his fist.

Trinity was screaming, her tear was  ripping deeper.

I burnt the edge of the knife in my hand. Her baby wasn’t coming out without more room.

In the third room, Doctor Christian hung the way he always did, over the water with his fist tight around the rope. With my toes on the edge of the pool, I could reach him. I had tried prodding him before, but not like this. I was screaming too, I was shouting that I needed help, that Trinity needed him, that I needed him. Soon, he was swinging like Tarzan over the pool, but his eyes were still closed. When he got close enough to me, I grabbed his hand and tried to pull him down.

Nothing was working: not my screams, not what I said, and not my pulling.

I jumped on him.

I nicked Trinity in three places as carefully as I could.

She screamed and cried like Death himself had arrived in the room. I muttered soothing things to her, while internally I screamed like I’d die at Doctor Christian, who couldn’t hear me.

The cuts weren’t enough. Her baby was not coming through. Had she stopped pushing?

Trinity’s cries faded as she fainted.

Finally, I did something I’d never tried before, I leaped onto Christian. I grabbed onto his waist, and keeping my toes just above the water in the pool, I climbed up onto his shoulders. With my legs wrapped around his head and all my weight bearing down on his shoulders, I could finally reach his fingers that held the rope.

I was through with panicking . I was through with screaming . I needed his help and I was going to get it. I was going to make him give me his help. What he wanted wasn’t important anymore. He couldn’t stay asleep and withhold his help from me any longer.

I reefed on his fingers and one by one, under the pressure of my will, they came loose.

Before I got the last one free, his eyes opened all white with no iris in them at all. He was blind.

And then we fell.

The baby cried.

We fell together into the pool. I hit the water and was thrown out of the Red Forest just as I had been when I delivered the sword.

The baby’s head was out. I grasped at it. Holding its neck and head as carefully as I could, I eased its shoulders out.

Trinity had stopped bleeding. I knew without a doubt that Doctor Christian had done it. The terrible tear and all the knicks I had made were healed.

I grabbed a throw blanket that was hanging over a chair and wrapped her baby in it. It was a girl. I set her down between Trinity’s legs, the umbilical cord still leading the way to the undelivered placenta, and checked Trinity’s pulse with my bloody fingers.

Everything was fine. All the hard parts were finished.

I put a hand over my mouth and tried to steady my breathing. I found my phone and called 911.

After I hung up the phone, I saw Trinity was awake—only just. “Beth?” she mumbled as she looked at me.

The pinched feeling had left my face, which meant I had forgotten to keep my face like Holly’s. I hadn’t even noticed. I had been so caught up in delivering her baby. Immediately, I pulled my face back into the shape of Holly’s.

“It’s a girl,” I said, refusing to answer her question. “Hang on. I’ll bring her up, so you can see her.”

Trinity didn’t ask any more questions about me, since I was placing her first-born daughter in her arms.

Luckily, Brighton made it home three minutes before the ambulance arrived. I spoke to the paramedics and saw Trinity and her baby bundled off in the ambulance before I went back to my townhouse and washed up.

My apricot dress was toast. I didn’t even think about ordering the matter to clean itself off me. Instead, I tied my hair up and got in the shower. After a good scrubbing, I changed into some comfortable clothes: jeans and a long-sleeved pullover. Putting on a coat and very sensible shoes, I prepared to go back to the hotel.

I was reeling from the night’s excitement. I had assisted in murdering someone and birthing someone on the same day. The word conflicted  did not even begin to describe my feelings. I had wanted to go to the hospital with Trinity, but I could not as I had promised to return to the hotel and clean up the murder scene. I had forfeited my simple life as Trinity’s best friend. I knew Christian was pleased I got to have this grace period, living next to my best friend. I felt like I was being teased. Why couldn’t I have both?

An hour later, I crossed the hall of the hotel and pondered a way where Christian and I could continue living next to Trinity and Brighton… at least until they moved somewhere bigger. I would probably have a few years. They had a two-bedroom townhouse. Trinity wouldn’t have another baby for a few years at least, so they wouldn’t need a bigger place.

That was what I was thinking about when I opened the door to the hotel room and the bloody remains of Charles after they had dug my heart out of him.

No longer a little girl wondering who would live where. I closed the door behind me with a thwap.


CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

Our Kindred Immortal

After acknowledging the bloodbath that had taken place in the hotel room, the first thing I saw was Christian and Brandon’s ashen faces. The second thing I saw was a Tupperware container with the lid on tight.

I pointed to it. “My heart is in there, isn’t it?”

Christian nodded.

“Is there a reason you haven’t started the surgery?”

“Well, with all this twisted metal, there isn’t room for Christian on the bed. We would have gotten another room but we thought it would be best to guard Charles’ body until you returned,” Brandon explained.

I nodded in agreement.

“How’s Trinity?” Christian asked, rushing me like we’d been parted for a year. It probably felt like a year for him, being forced to hang out in a hotel room with Brandon and Charles’ corpse.

“She’s fine,” I assured him. “I delivered her baby and she’s at the hospital getting checked. It was amazing. You were amazing, but we’ll have to talk about it later. How about you two go downstairs to the lounge and leave me alone to handle the cleanup?”

Christian and Brandon both protested that plan.

“It’s bad enough that four of us have come in here and only three will leave,” Christian said.

“The video footage of the hallway will be very damning,” Brandon cut in. “We don’t need to give them extra footage of us.”

“Our faces are ruined after having done this, and might I remind you, we’re also covered in blood.” Christian put up a bloodied cuff and showed me the blood splatter on his shirt.

“Okay,” I said, sticking my hands up. “The only reason I made the suggestion is because this is going to be disgusting and I thought it would be better if neither of you was here for it. No one is even going to connect Charles’ disappearance with this hotel. For starters, he was wearing all that makeup to hide who he was.”

Christian looked at me like I was fourteen again because my naivety hadn’t worn off. “It’s amazing what people can piece together. In this new tech era, we haven’t got a hope that we can erase all the footage, some information will be preserved. We need to finish, abandon our identities, and get back underground.”

“Okay. You two go stand by the door and don’t come near me or him… or the bathroom,” I said breathlessly.

They did as they were told, standing like delinquents in the corner because neither of them could rearrange matter .

I took the lone chair in the room and sat on it. I closed my eyes and started moving matter . If Charles had been a living being, I would have needed Doctor Christian from the third chamber to help me, but now that Charles was dead, what the Other Christian had taught me was enough.

The first task was to take every drop of liquid from Charles’ body and pour it down the drain in the bathtub. I chose the tub because I didn’t want to flush the toilet too many times in case someone in the hotel could hear it. Absolutely no one could investigate. In the end, I turned the shower water to cold and let the majority of his blood, urine, digestive juices, and various fluids go down the drain.

When I opened my eyes, Charles was a husk on the bed, like he’d been mummified on the spot. For convenience, I found a pair of scissors in Brandon’s bag and started cutting his clothes off. Christian and Brandon jumped to life and started untying his shoelaces.

“We could have done this part before you got here,” Brandon complained.

“Yes, because having a naked bleeding corpse is so much better than just a bleeding corpse. Don’t be silly. This job is so much less grotesque this way. He hardly looks like himself, and doesn’t it seem like it all happened so long ago that his death could not have been inflicted by us?”

Christian stopped and stared at me. I noticed him and moved to meet his eyes. “This is part of it,” he said. “I never would have laid a finger on him if he hadn’t stolen my most precious thing.”

“I know. I’m just trying to put this very far behind me.”

“What about the bedding?” Brandon asked, staying on target.

“I’ll be able to clean it very efficiently, but first, we need to get his clothes out of the picture and then his ashes.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“It may not look like it, but there is actually quite a lot of moisture still in his body. I’m going to take it out and then I’m going to carefully turn the rest of his body to ash.”

“Are we going to sweep it up?” Brandon asked.

I shook my head. “No. Just watch.”

As soon as I started involving bones in what I was doing, the world slowed down dramatically. I could have gently run the ashes down the tub drain as I had with the liquid, but I wanted to do something else.

When he was nothing but ash, I crushed small handfuls of him into diamonds the same way I had with the graphite I took from the pencils, except I had so much material that I didn’t bother cutting the stones into diamonds. By five o’clock in the morning, the bed was completely free of even a speck of his DNA and I had a pile of diamonds.

Rhuk sounded in my ear, suspicious of my plans. “What are you going to do with those?”

I picked one up and looked through its brilliance. “Did you used to be a person, Rhuk, with all your calcium in calcium magnesium carbonate? You know, a long time ago?”

“I used to be part of the seafloor. A lot of things live in the mud at the bottom of the sea.”

“Do you remember what it felt like to have tiny living beings make their home inside you or what it was like to be part of them?” I asked, wondering what would happen if I tried to talk to one of the diamonds I had made from Charles’ corpse.

“Are you asking if individual atoms remember what larger beings used to make them up? Maybe you should try asking your own bones. They belonged to other things once.”

My bones didn’t know.

I whispered to the diamond in my hand. “Are you there? Who’s home?”

In reply, I got a cheery little chirrup, almost like the sound of a bird or a bell.

“His spirit is gone,” Christian said. “If that’s what you’re wondering. That was the piece of information that made Charles a human. Now you are talking to the atoms that used to make him up and they do not provide the matter that makes him anymore. He’s gone.”

“Gone where? Where do spirits go?” I asked.

Christian shook his head. “That’s not a path we take. Most people want to take it though, so there must be something about it that appeals to them.”

I smiled. “That’s a relief. I don’t want anyone to ever find out where these came from. Ever.” With that, I ordered my lesser diamonds to clean up Brandon and Christian.

When the two men saw the blood fly off them like butterfly wings as thin as the skins of onions and flutter into the bathroom, they were both in awe.

“You didn’t make it look like this when you washed Charles,” Brandon observed, trying his best not to fall on his face in order to worship me properly.

He didn’t know that I wasn’t the one making the artistic display. My little diamonds had so much creative potential that hadn’t been unlocked. I smiled wanly and didn’t answer him. Besides, Rhuk was talking to me.

“Beth,” Rhuk said in my ear. “I don’t mean to be rude. I know you’re feeling tired after all the work you’ve done, but I have to tell you that I found Max.”

I put a finger pad on Rhuk’s largest facet. “Where is he?”

“He’s at The Lazy Hammock Hotel. Three of the hostages there are part of his family. I heard him explain everything to someone on the phone. Dr. Bobby has his wife, sister and brother locked up. He knows that they’re being tortured daily. He’s desperate to save them.”

“Does he know about the explosives?”

“I don’t know. He may only be scouting the place out, but that seems unlikely. He’s holding a crowbar.”

“We have to stop him before he does anything stupid,” I insisted. “If he’s approaching the building now, we won’t make it in time. Can you do something to stop him?”

“Like what?” Rhuk asked, aware that we didn’t want to show off matter manipulation to any bystanders.

“Something quiet. Make a hole in the ground. Pull him into that hole and keep him there until we can get there. Do it subtly. Come on. It’s still dark out. It’s possible no one will see your handiwork.”

“Do you want to go get him before or after Christian’s surgery?”

I thought about it and weighed my options. “We have to go now. If I don’t have the sword in my chest, it will be hard to convince Max of anything, and the surgery will not just give Christian my heart, but it will also free me of the sword. The sword is the best tool we have to convince Max we mean no harm.”

“He’s on the west side of the building. That’s the side with the fewest cameras,” Rhuk said, giving me the play-by-play. “He’s just stepped into a blind spot… and I fused the sole of his shoe to the cement. That should give me some time to make the hole. I pushed up the cement of the sidewalk in chunks, and the dirt is flying everywhere. It’s all he can do to keep it out of his eyes. Okay. The hole is built. I am taking control of his clothes and pulling him down. He’s screaming…”

“Muffle the sound waves,” I instructed.

“Done, and now I’ve replaced the concrete. I don’t know how he’ll manage down there. He does know something about matter manipulation. Maybe he’ll be able to break out if he can shout at the material that makes up the sidewalk louder than I can. You should hurry in case he’s stronger than me.”

I stood up and explained the situation to Christian and Brandon while my little diamonds reconstructed the bed frame. They were fast. All they had to do was tell the frame to go back to being the way it was before I’d started ordering it around.

It took longer to explain to Christian and Brandon what we suddenly had to do at The Lazy Hammock Hotel when they were so set on getting started on the surgery. They listened, but with increasingly unhappy reactions. Christian hated being behind, being incapable. It made him crazy. I knew he wanted to get on the bed and get his chest cut open, but he knew the recovery time might be instantaneous, or it might be days where he lay messed up and shell-shocked like I had been after I delivered the sword.

In the end, he read my look, said nothing as we finished up in the hotel room, and went down to the lobby. He and Brandon went out to the car while I checked out.

It was still dark out as we drove to The Lazy Hammock.

“Is Max putting up much resistance?” I asked Rhuk as we drove.

“He’s shifted the cement blocks a few times. I just keep moving them back, but he’s getting stronger and smarter by the second.”

“Sounds promising,” I said to Rhuk privately.

Out loud, I spoke to Christian and Brandon, “Do you think we’ll be able to take Max directly to the village?”

“No,” Brandon said without hesitation. “Most people want to be with their loved ones. They haven’t let go of their family. Since Rhuk told you that three members of Max’s family are chained up in the hotel, he’s there to save them. Probably, he will eventually give up being immortal to die with them when they die naturally. This happens more often than any of us realize. Lots of people show potential, but they give up. That’s why you’re so special, Beth.”

I remembered Brandon, advising me early in his fake Scottish accent to let go of everything. He really rode the line between friend and foe like a champ.

Outside The Lazy Hammock Hotel, Rhuk whispered which way to go, but I didn’t really need the help. The cement blocks that made up the sidewalk were wiggling.

I bent over the concrete blocks, acting like I was lifting them when I was merely ordering them around with my mind. I was stronger than Max and Rhuk put together when I concentrated. I removed one of the blocks and looked down. “Hey, are you trapped?” I called down in a cheerful tone. “Do you need some help?”

“Yeah,” Max’s voice called from the shadows.

It was dark and neither of us could see each other well, but I dived into the world of matter and saw his face. He was definitely the man I left behind in the prison.

Christian and Brandon crouched down, each taking one of Max’s arms, and pulled him up to the surface. He brushed the dirt off himself. The dirt on his face disguised him as much as the cuts and bruises had before. He was dark-haired, shorter than Christian or Brandon, and meatier with larger muscles.

“Thanks. It’s really lucky you were passing by,” Max said with a smile, flashing white teeth.

“Yeah. Really lucky,” I repeated with a saucy drawl. The predawn street lights illuminated us as I spoke.

Max turned again to thank me but stopped abruptly when he saw the sword that went straight through my chest.

“Are you?” he said, unsure how to finish his question. “Are you?” He turned to Brandon, who he did not recognize, and then to Christian, who he looked at longer.

“You know me?” Christian asked. Ever since we left the hotel, he hadn’t bothered with Tremaine’s face.

“I saw you… being pulled onto the helicopter at the jail,” he said slowly.

“Your name is Max?” Christian asked.

He nodded.

“Great, then you know that we are people who have also been imprisoned by these wackos. Let’s cut to the chase, Max. If you get hurt, can you heal yourself quickly?”

He took a step backward. “Why?”

“I’m not asking because we’re going to hurt you. I’m asking because there is an explosive rigged to every door and window in that building and if you are not excellent at reassembling yourself, you’re gonna have a bad time.”

Max’s round shoulders sagged in defeat.

Christian took over. “And not to be overly rude, but you couldn’t even fight this girl’s earring when it trapped you in a hole. Dr. Bobby and his people are monsters and you’re no match for them all by yourself.”

“An earring?” Max sputtered, confused. “She uses a mineral to control other minerals? What am I supposed to do? These wackos have my family. They’re hurting them.”

“Your wife and your siblings?” I confirmed.

He took another step back. “How do you know that?”

“Let’s not worry about that now. Instead, let’s have a conversation. We are five seconds off of going underground and you need to make a couple of decisions before we go inside the hotel because after we leave, your options are going to shrink,” I said conversationally. “You need you to answer our questions. Do you heal?”

“Only at the same rate as everyone else,” he answered stiffly.

I looked at Brandon, who was already bored with talking to Max. He had seen this play out enough times that he wasn’t as curious as I was.

“Do you have a plan to protect your family should they be kidnapped again?” I asked.

He nodded. “They’re not going to get kidnapped again. We’re going to move.”

“All of you? Are there more? Do you have aunts, uncles, cousins, or friends? Can you make all of them move?” Christian asked. “Have you been chased much?”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that there’s a very real chance that this whole hostage thing will happen over and over again until they’ve killed every last person who’s precious to you. There are people like Bobby in every country of the world. It’s going to be a tough haul, but in the meantime, we’ll help you rescue your family.”

Max looked skeptical. “How will you do that?”

Christian inclined his head toward me in a gesture of confidence. “She’ll do it.”

I spoke to Rhuk silently, “Make breaks in the circuitry, so the bombs won’t go off.”

“Front doors are disabled,” Rhuk said, beginning a narrative to explain which doors and windows were safe.

I turned toward the hotel. “Walk behind me, stay together, and don’t touch anything.” At the front door, I moved like I had a keycard when I was merely snapping circuitry and moving metal.


CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

Bomb at Every Door

Inside The Lazy Hammock Hotel, two guards tried to attack us. I mean they tried  to attack us. I told Rhuk to fuse their shoes to the floor so they couldn’t come after us. As soon as they realized their predicament, they tried to reach for their guns or their cell phones. I jammed their firearms while Rhuk melted their phones.

Striding further in, I cut off video surveillance every time I noticed a camera. I probably wouldn’t be able to find them all without the Other Christian in the same way I couldn’t stop every hair from growing out of my forearm without the help of King Christian. When I felt the circuitry in my mind, it was too complex. There were a lot of wireless devices too. It was a shame the Other Christian was unavailable.

I smoothed out the concern lines on my face. I should have come in alone. One of those bombs was going to go off and I might not be able to protect Max, Brandon, or Christian for that matter.

I turned to the guards and spat, “How have you guys survived in this place?”

I hadn’t noticed at first, but both of them had minor burn wounds on various parts of their visible skin.

“The pay is really good,” one of them explained.

I hummed and hawed, looking at the guards like I wished they were dead, but not quite owly enough to make them dead myself. “Okay, security guards…” I started. “Uh… I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I know it was your job to stay here and mind the fort, but if you stay, I’ll kill you. If you leave here and try to tell anyone about what happened here, I’ll kill you.”

While I gave that meandering speech, I spoke to my tiny diamonds. They weren’t up to much, so I assigned them a few jobs. First, they had to cancel any alarm either one of the guards might have triggered. When the guards left, they had to follow them around for the duration of our visit to The Lazy Hammock Hotel, and if they tried to talk to anyone about our visit, they were to pull the air out of their lungs. I wasn’t too concerned if the little diamonds killed them.

“What if they try to write something about it?” one of the tiny diamonds wondered noisily.

“Then have a firm conversation with whatever they’re using to write with. I’m sure you know how to do that. You’re a bossy little diamond, aren’t you?” I said in my head.

The diamonds in my earring heard me and clamored against my throat as I finished telling the guards to stay out of our way.

The two guards stood there stupidly for a few seconds before one of them dropped his gun. Rhuk unstuck his shoes and he walked out. A second later, the second guard followed him.

As I watched them go, I thought of how different this situation was from the receptionist with the shotgun at the compound when I had been imprisoned there. Everything was different now.

Thinking of the old compound, I suddenly made the connection. I said my thoughts out loud. “The obstacles in this place were designed to show how good Max is at his matter manipulation. If he can’t defuse the bombs, they intend to measure his healing abilities by watching him heal his burn wounds. Except, this place is beyond his skill. Christian, take Max and Brandon out. I’m going to bring this building down.”

“What about my family?” Max shouted as Brandon started pushing him toward the door.

“I’ll get them out. Get ready, Max. I may throw one or two out a window.”

I got to have one glance at Christian as he was the last one to leave.

“This isn’t what I wanted from you,” he said, his expression igniting with delight. “But it’s more beautiful than I expected. Rip this place to the foundation.”

I smiled, but the confidence wasn’t there.

Christian closed the door, leaving me behind and I prepared to wield the power of a god. “We need to cut off all the power in the building. We need to cut the circuitry.”

“That isn’t going to disarm all the bombs.”

“I know. I’m not trying to disarm the bombs. I’m trying to kill all the cameras and audio equipment.”

“There is way more equipment in here than makes sense. There are multiple audio and video feeds in each room. Some of it is wireless, but a lot was hardwired in case there was a problem with the wireless equipment. I’ll have to melt each wireless device individually. It’ll take forever. And it will be hard to do without setting anything on fire. The whole place is flammable,” Rhuk warned.

“Do your best and try not to burn the prisoners.”

While Rhuk did that, I felt the place out. It was empty of guards. There had only been the two guards at the front door. Dr. Bobby didn’t need guards with explosives set at every step. Without moving from my place on the floor, I found the instructions that had been left for the guards. Max’s siblings and wife had been beaten by the guards when they arrived, but after that first meeting, that wasn’t their job. The prisoners were given their complete rations for the day at dawn. It was too difficult for the guards or Bobby to navigate the building. The Incinerator delivered meals and accompanied any visitors because he was the only one who could move from room to room safely.

All the prisoners were kept in separate rooms in order to make them as difficult as possible to rescue. Max’s brother, Carl, had blown up his door once and had been burned quite badly. Max’s sister, Mara, and his wife, Sabrina, were both in better shape.

“I’ve prioritized the surveillance equipment in the prisoners’ rooms and in here,” Rhuk said. “I think doing the rest might be a waste of time if we’re in a hurry.”

“The Incinerator should be here soon. He’s bringing breakfast with him. Hungry?”

Rhuk laughed.

I licked my lips. “I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have prioritized the surveillance equipment. You said before that each prisoner has a ring around their neck with an explosive attached to it. I should have sent you to kill those first.”

“If I could do that, I would have done it already, but I don’t think I can,” Rhuk said slowly.

As soon as I heard the explanation, I knew Rhuk was unhappy. It wanted to be able to do everything I asked it to do.

“I have to do it?” I said the words like they were obvious.

If I was a real god, I would have been able to do it from where I stood in the lobby, but I didn’t feel confident. If I could see the mechanisms, I felt like that would give me the edge I needed to disarm the bombs.

I stood up. “So, now the best thing is just to go to their rooms, open the doors, and hope that nothing terrible happens?”

“Something terrible might happen. I don’t understand everything I’m seeing. The parts of the neck cuffs don’t understand what they’re a part of either. A god needs to interpret them.”

That was kind of a slap in the face. I took it on the chin. It was true, I could see how elements could work together for certain things, but it was complex and for me to see how it could all work together would take ages, like reading War and Peace . I could do it, but it would take forever.

I was just so young and so new at all this, but there was no one else. I had to try.

I decided to start on the third floor, disabling every kind of explosive I could sense on my way, but it was terrifying because there were too many. I had a very real fear rolling in my belly that I was going to miss one. It wasn’t for me that I feared. If anything happened to me, King Christian would solve my problem in the twinkling of an eye. It was for the prisoners.

I worked on Sabrina’s door for a full ten minutes before I got it open, realizing that it absolutely would not have taken The Incinerator that long to open the door when he delivered her morning meal. Maybe it would have been faster just to wait for him and make him do the work for me.

When I opened the door, Sabrina was asleep in bed. I approached and before I realized what was happening, she kicked me in the stomach. I recovered quickly. “Do you not want to be rescued?”

She was on her feet, ready to fight me when she realized I was not who she expected. She was very pretty, but she had bruises up her arms and legs.

“Has The Incinerator been visiting you with a little more than food?” I asked.

She stared at me like she didn’t know what to do with me.

“Can you hold still for a minute? I want to try to remove your necklace.”

Very amenable to that, she sat with me on the floor. I sat behind her and she held her hair out of my way.

“Who are you?” she asked while I looked at the bomb.

“I don’t have a name today, but you’re lucky I’m the one rescuing you. There is no one better qualified.”

I said that to make myself feel more confident, and to a certain extent, it worked. The bomb itself looked like a metal ring, very like the one that had been around my ankle. As I examined the parts in greater detail, I understood why Rhuk and the parts inside it were confused. What was around her neck was not a bomb. It was almost  a bomb. A few of the chemicals were mysteriously missing.

Once I was convinced it was completely harmless, I ordered it to snap off her throat and fall to the floor.

“Max is waiting outside,” I told her.

She gasped and rushed to the window.

Her window would work as well as any other. “Come away from the window,” I said. “Stay near me and don’t run off.”

As soon as she was behind me in the hall, I told Rhuk. “Light it.”

The window in her room burst into flames. Shards of glass shot into the room. I brushed the crumbs that reached me off me like water droplets. The curtains had been soaked in something combustible and instantly caught fire.

“It would be easier to put the fire out if everything in this room was not intended to burn,” Rhuk complained as it smothered the fire by removing all the oxygen in the air around the flames.

“Do what you can to cool it,” I told him. I turned to Sabrina. “Are you afraid of heights? Big jumps?”

She looked horrified.

“Max is waiting outside with some friends. They’re standing under the window. If you jump, they’ll catch you.”

She backed away. “I can’t see my husband like this.”

“That is the safest way out,” I advised her before I headed toward Indra’s room.

Sabrina chased after me and stood by me while I concentrated on Indra’s door. This was why I wanted her to leave via the window. I didn’t want her to watch me work. I disabled one explosive in my head while she stared at me. “Don’t lean against the wall,” I said as she continued to follow me. “I can throw you out the window if you don’t have the nerve to jump.”

“Don’t throw me out the window. Who are you?” Sabrina asked again.

“Stop asking,” I told Sabrina while simultaneously speaking to Rhuk about the explosives attached to the hinges of the door.

“Do you know my name?” she asked.

“The people who were holding you captive had you on their lists as Sabrina. Is that right?”

She nodded.

Her clothes were blood-stained, though not ragged. I remembered my time at the compound with a smirk. “What does a girl have to do for a fresh set of panties? Am I right?”

“What?”

I pushed my joke aside. “If you don’t want to jump out the window, why don’t you tell me about The Incinerator while we pass the time?”

“I’ve been here for four months,” she admitted, trailing off.

“You need to see a doctor after you leave here,” I advised.

“I’ve seen one almost every day.”

“Not every day?”

“I don’t know.” She looked at me suspiciously. “What are you doing? You’re just standing there. How is that supposed to help?”

“Is someone there?” Indra called from the other side of the door.

I glared at Sabrina. “Stay away from the door,” I called back to Indra. “I’m working on disarming the explosives, but I might trigger one by accident.”

“Like you did in the other room?” Indra asked.

“That was the only way to open the window. You were supposed to jump through it,” I replied. “I’ve almost got the door open.”

“But you’re not doing anything!” Sabrina hissed.

“Don’t be annoying!” I hissed back. “I’m waiting for something. You’re going out the window with Indra once I get this door open.”

She said something in protest, but I didn’t pay attention to her.

“It’s clean,” Rhuk said.

I thanked my rock internally and opened the door to Indra’s room.

The ring around Indra’s neck did not look like Sabrina’s. Were they different?

My eyes went up to Indra’s face, her fine features, dark hair, eyes, and skin. Indra was the nurse who had unlocked level three healing. She was a brunette, half Middle Eastern and half Filipino. She was also tiny and barely came up to my shoulder.

“Hi,” I said. “We’re in a hurry, but I got her necklace off. Mind if I have a whack at yours?”

“Please!” the little nurse replied noisily. She collected her hair to the side.

I got behind her and looked at the cuff around her neck. There were exposed wires and one glance at it showed me that it was not a fake, but a real bomb that could literally blow her head off.

I was about to snip the wiring with my mind when Rhuk spoke up. “I don’t know what you did to disarm the last bomb, but this one is easy. If you’ll allow me, I’ll do it.”

I nodded and Rhuk broke it apart.

“Let’s go,” I said urgently.

“Who are you?” Indra asked.

“I’m the rescue team.”

“All by yourself?” she asked, incredulous.

“Uh-huh,” I muttered, knowing it sounded unreasonable.

I led the two women back into Sabrina’s room and showed them the window and the men waiting on the ground. “Jump,” I said to them.

Indra glanced at the sword in my chest. Without a doubt, she could see it but was wise enough to say nothing. She got up on the ledge, saw the men waiting to catch her, and leaped instantly like a cheerleader who was used to being caught—she fell back-first. Christian and Brandon caught her together and neatly placed her on the ground.

“Can you believe that girl?” I shouted down. “Amazing jump!”

The men on the ground congratulated her.

Indra probably fell with no fear because she could heal herself if the guys on the ground failed to catch her.

I turned to Sabrina. Obviously, she still did not want to jump. One of her hands was on her pelvis. I suddenly realized that she’d been abused.

I put my hands on her shoulders and said, “I get it. Something’s wrong with your body. You don’t want to see your husband like this. You want to see a doctor, have treatment, and time to heal before you see him.”

“Please don’t throw me out the window,” she pleaded.

The men on the ground and Indra were calling her that it was safe to jump. Max’s voice rang out above the sound of the others. “Jump, baby!” he shouted.

I couldn’t heal her myself, but I felt a surging like a ripple beginning from my heart that spread through my whole body. Doctor Christian could use me to heal her. He wanted to heal her.

“I can heal you,” I said, allowing the white lie to slip off my tongue. She didn’t need to know the mechanics of how the healing would take place. Someone greater was going to heal her through me, but there wasn’t time to explain. “If you agree, I’ll heal you the same way your husband moves matter. Can I?”

She bit her lip and nodded.

I didn’t have to dip into the Red Forest to access his power. I didn’t have to do anything. I felt his energy pulse through me and he healed Sabrina the same way he had healed Trinity.

She exhaled pleasantly, feeling the change in her body instantly. She blinked away the tears in her eyes. “Who are you?” she asked again.

I didn’t know how to speak to her after I did that because it wasn’t like I was the one who had done anything. I had merely opened myself up to the part of Christian inside me who could perform that miracle.

I smiled and answered, “I’m the person who pushed you out a window.”


CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

The Incinerator and The Doctor

Sabrina screamed as she fell and I watched to see Christian and Max catch her. However, the sun was rising in the sky and I didn’t have all  day before someone noticed that something weird was going on at The Lazy Hammock Hotel. I had to get a move on.

“When you were spying on this place, did you ever see The Incinerator?” I asked Rhuk.

“Yeah,” it whispered in my ear.

“Is he nearby?”

“That will take a minute to calculate.”

I went to the second floor. I had asked Rhuk to focus on The Incinerator. I did not expect Dr. Bobby to be waiting for me in the stairwell.

He was very blond and wore a suit instead of a lab coat the same way he had in the prison. He had a scar through his eyebrow and another one on his lip, but he didn’t have any burn marks that I could see. He couldn’t be very much older than Charles. He was Dr. Hilliar’s heir. It was like that joke where the old lady offers everything she has to her granddaughter, but it’s nothing but plastic bags filled with other plastic bags. Nothing but emptiness because his inheritance was nothing.

“Hello,” I said to him cheerfully, bouncing my red curls. “The locks on your doors stick a bit. You should call someone in to get that fixed.”

He took out a handgun and pointed it at me. From the look on his face, he didn’t know who I was. He was confused and angry, but he was the sort of man who thought before he spoke. He blocked the door to the second floor with his body while he took a full ten seconds to voice his conclusion, “You are the woman Graham went out to dinner with?”

“Don’t you mean Charles? Those words are a bit strong to describe our meeting. We didn’t eat and I’m already bored. Do you want to get out of my way?”

“Don’t you see my gun?” he rasped, pitting his rage against my audacity.

“I see it, but it seems sort of childish after all the explosives. Doesn’t it make more sense for you to back off and let me try my luck with them? They’re more threatening than you are.”

He pulled his mouth into an ugly line and aimed the gun at my head.

I yawned. It was quite a good one as it stretched on to accentuate my boredom. It was several seconds before I was ready to respond. “Okay, you’re pointing a gun at me. You have the power. What do you want me to do?”

While he thought, I got Rhuk to rearrange the matter in the barrel of the gun so that the bullet wouldn’t be able to fire. Rhuk finished before Dr. Bobby was able to formulate a plan.

I dropped my hands. “While you’re thinking, I’m going to go get Carl and Mara.” I stepped forward and as I got close to him, I whispered, “I wouldn’t fire that if I were you.”

I got one step down the second-floor hallway when he pushed the gun against the back of my skull and demanded, “Where’s Charles?”

“Didn’t he come back?” I prattled, playing innocent.

Dr. Bobby cocked his gun. “Where is he?”

“I don’t exactly know where people go when they die. Would you care to join him? Figure out the mystery?” I flashed my hazel eyes at him in a warning.

He went to hit me in the back of the head with his gun. “Why aren’t you scared?” he shouted as he swung.

I kicked him in the gut. When he fell to the floor, I strode down the hall like he didn’t matter to me and approached the room Mara was kept in.

On the floor, Bobby pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. The back of the gun exploded in his face. He had been using the sights to aim, and several pieces hit him in the face. An especially large piece got him just over the eye and he bled in horrifying red lines.

“I told you not to fire that,” I said as I finished with the bomb on the door. I was getting faster at it.

Inside, Mara had been listening at the door. When I opened it, she was terrified. “Who are you?” she wheezed.

I ignored her question.

The doctor had risen from his feet and was limping toward the stairwell he and I had just vacated. Dizzy, his feet moved awkwardly as he tried to walk in a straight line. He went down the stairs by gripping the handrail.

“Are there any bombs on the rail?” I asked Rhuk in my head.

“I disabled them,” Rhuk answered silently.

“Can I help you get that gaudy necklace off?” I offered.

Mara was confused as I went behind her and looked at the bomb.

“This one and the one around Carl’s neck are the same as the one that was around Indra’s neck. I can disable them. I’ve actually already removed Carl’s. He won’t remember when it came off,” Rhuk whispered.

It fell off Mara.

“Thank you,” she said, perplexed.

“Mara. I’m going to get Carl and I need you to wait here.” I left her there, gaping and confused.

I made it to Carl’s door when Rhuk told me, “The Incinerator has arrived. He’s outside. The doctor managed to come in without me noticing, but The Incinerator is talking to Christian outside.”

“Christian…” I repeated quietly. My darling was not perfectly invulnerable. He didn’t even have a heart inside him. “We have to hurry.”

I opened Carl’s door faster than any of the others. He was in the bed and he was recovering from burns just as Rhuk had said. I approached. I wasn’t going to be able to get him to move. He was burned everywhere. His injuries were not invisible like Sabrina’s. If I healed him, that would be something visible that everyone would see and know about for years to come. It would be more proof that there were people in the world who defied nature. There would be more people like Dr. Bobby, and more hostages like Carl. More.

I knelt on the floor next to the bed.

“Carl? Can you hear me?”

He rasped a breath through swollen lips. He made a sound, though it did not contain any recognizable words.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t let any more chaos happen outside. If The Incinerator was there, anything could happen. Max and Sabrina could be hurt. Brandon might lose his bag with my heart inside. Immortal people were not always invincible, Christian was outside and he was more vulnerable than he had ever been. If he died, I would not be able to do a thing about it.

But the angry burns on the man in front of me could not be whisked away without a lot of notice. I was uncertain what to do,

Rhuk noticed my dilemma and whispered in my ear, “Even if you decide to heal him, he won’t accept it. He told them everything he could about Max. He is very ashamed. Throw him over your shoulder and walk him out.”

“Rhuk, can you see into his soul?” I asked.

“No. I just watched this place for a while and learned a few things. He mutters about it constantly, both when he is asleep and when he is awake. He needs much more than physical healing.”

I got Rhuk to tug on Carl’s clothes to lift as much of his weight off me as possible as I hoisted him over my shoulders.

“Mara, come into the hall. I have your brother. We need to leave now.”

She joined me in the hall and we retraced my steps down the stairs and out the front door. All the bombs on that path were already disabled and we came out the doors of the hotel just fine.

I dropped to my knees and called 911 for the paramedics to collect Carl from the front of the hotel. Mara knelt and put his head in her lap.

I hung up the phone when I was finished talking to the operator. That was the second time I had called for an ambulance in the last twenty-four hours.

Everyone else was on the other side of the building, where I had broken the window. They couldn’t see us and I needed to join them.

“The ambulance should be here soon. Please go with him to the hospital, Mara, and get yourself checked out as well.”

“What about the others?” she squeaked.

“They’re out. They’re just on the other side. I’ll send them over, but if they don’t make it for some reason, please leave and go with Carl to the hospital.”

“Who are you?”

“No name today,” I called over my shoulder as I rounded the corner.

When I met the group, everyone stood stock still in front of a man who had enough explosives attached to his chest to blow up half a city block. Everyone, even Dr. Bobby, stood with their hands in the air submissively as The Incinerator yelled things at them.

“Rhuk, cut the wiring,” I instructed.

With that done, I approached slowly in a sidewinding walk. “Hi,” I said noisily.

“Get your hands in the air!” The Incinerator shouted threateningly, but rather than being repulsed, I was enchanted. He was insanely good-looking. Brown hair, striking blue eyes so blue they made the morning sky look white.

I whistled a catcall at him before calling to Christian. “Are you seeing this guy’s face? I hope you’re taking notes.”

My lover rolled his eyes and kept his hands in the air with the others.

I whistled at The Incinerator again. “Could you turn around for us? I think we’d all benefit from a really good look at your bone structure.”

The Incinerator looked like he was going to explode without the benefit of any of the bombs strapped to his chest. “Shut up!” he snapped, but I kept walking forward.

“Is that your real face?” I asked, getting almost close enough to touch him. “Or is that a show? Very good show if it’s fake. How old are you?”

He looked aghast. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re interrupting.”

“Oh? Are you telling them your demands? Go ahead. I’ll wait here.”

“No, you’ll get back or I’ll blow myself up and all of them.”

I stood my ground. “I’m not moving, but I’m very interested in what you want. Please continue.”

“I want Sabrina to come with me. I don’t care about whatever Dr. Bobby has been doing, but I want Sabrina. Come here,” he called, “or everyone dies.”

He was in love with her! That’s why there had been no working bomb on her collar.

I put a hand on my hip and motioned for her to stay put. “I’m fine with the second option. Go ahead and press your detonator.”

“You think I’m bluffing?” he hollered at me so hard he blew spit at me.

“Not at all. You seem like a very serious guy to me. I want you to have the satisfaction of killing all of us if that’s what you want. A guy as good-looking as you should have everything he wants.” My tone was so sugary it made me a bit sick, but I stuck to it.

“You don’t know anything about me!” he howled.

“Sure, sure,” I agreed.

“I haven’t gotten what I want very often.”

“Yes, but did you come by that face naturally or what?”

“Why do you keep asking about my face?”

I took another step closer to him. “How desperate have you been to change your fate? Desperate enough that you… maybe  made a few discoveries Dr. Bobby didn’t make? Have you been spying on him? Maybe you have been working on all that facial perfection for a while and we’re just getting to see the final version?”

He recoiled slightly. “Why are you asking me about my face? I’ve always looked this way.”

“Press the button,” I said, getting even closer to The Incinerator and meeting his eyes dangerously.

He hesitated, so I reached over and pressed his accursed button for him. Something did go off, but a mild explosion compared to what could have happened. He flew backward and landed on his back a few feet from me.

“Rhuk,” I complained. “I said to disarm it.”

“I know. I was supposed to disable it, but you want to know if he’s immortal, don’t you? A little injury is just what the doctor ordered.”

I wanted to facepalm myself. Rhuk had performed the cut test.

At least, The Incinerator was hurt. I had to deal with things in the correct order. I turned to the others. “Max, your brother and sister are out front. He’s badly hurt and an ambulance is on the way. If you want to see them before they go to the hospital...” The sound of the sirens interrupted us. “Better hurry.”

Brandon was talking quietly to Indra. She was nodding and bouncing slightly on her toes. In the next moment, she was throwing her arms around his neck and still jumping.

Christian had grabbed Max by the sleeve and said a few choice words to him. Christian had spoken to him while I pulled apart the puzzle that was The Lazy Hammock Hotel. He said his final words to Max before the man went to check on his siblings.

I turned to The Incinerator. The explosion had been in the middle of his chest. He lay on his back, laboring with his breathing. I dropped to my knees and unbuckled the straps holding the explosives to his chest.

“Rhuk,” I said silently. “As soon as the area around the building is clear, I want you to blow it up. You don’t need to reattach any of the bombs that you disarmed. Just set off whatever is remaining. I don’t know how much harm it will do, but I like to be annoying.”

Once I had The Incinerator’s chest exposed, I saw his skin mend itself at an electric speed. However, he had yet to see the sword in my chest.

Christian approached, a grim expression on his face. “Our people are rarely ugly.”

“What do you normally do with someone like this?” I asked, still bending over the passed-out arsonist.

“I don’t normally do anything. Whatever. We have to go.”

“Are we going to leave him?” I asked, rising to my feet.

It was then that I noticed Dr. Bobby, lying on the ground. He wasn’t dead. He had lost a lot of blood from his head injury and he still had broken bits of the gun in his hand.

“Yeah…” I said. “It is time to go.”

The Incinerator’s eyelashes fluttered open just as I was turning away.

I leaned down and said, “If you keep this face, I’ll come to find you in a year. I’ll give you a chance to explain then. For now, you should run.”

I raced to the car, to catch up with Brandon and Indra. Once inside the car, Christian drove us away from The Lazy Hammock Hotel. When we’d put a bit of space between us and the scene of the crime, Rhuk set off the remaining bombs and the hotel went up in flames. I didn’t know if the ambulance staff noticed Dr. Bobby on the ground, bleeding.

I glanced back at him and unless I was mistaken, I saw him breathe his last breath.


CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR

Newborn Diamonds

“Normally, we wouldn’t go back to the townhouse, but I think I need to let you say goodbye to Trinity,” Christian said, pointing the car back to our place.

I groaned. “She won’t be home. She just gave birth last night. The hospital is going to want to keep her for longer.”

“Not at all,” Christian said, refusing to change the car’s route. “I got a text from Brighton saying that she’s in great shape. She was released from the hospital before ten this morning and you’re invited to an impromptu baby shower starting in exactly thirty minutes at her house. That’s just enough time to change.”

I groaned louder. “I don’t have a present.”

“You do,” he said, looking meaningfully at the bag of diamonds from the hotel room. “You may as well go to the baby shower while Brandon works on me.”

I shook my head rebelliously. “We don’t need them to do it. I unlocked the third level. I can do the surgery just fine with the help of Doctor Christian in the third chamber.”

Brandon whistled in the backseat. “No one has moved through the levels that fast in thousands of years, Beth.”

Christian took his eyes off the road and cupped the side of my face in his hand. “I don’t want you to do it. I don’t want you to see how far I have fallen.” He didn’t take his hand away from me and directed his gaze back to the road. He turned back to me to say one word, “Understand?”

“I already saw all your blood when I picked you up from the prison,” I reminded him. “It was all over the walls.”

“Yes, and I would have preferred it if you hadn’t, which was another reason for me to call for Brandon.”

The last time I was in my Red Forest, my blood had been disappearing. Christian’s heart was turning white, and the Red Forest was losing its blush. He knew his insides were not supposed to be red if he was a level four god.

“It will kill two birds with one stone if we do it this way,” Christian continued.

I didn’t answer. I glanced into the backseat where Brandon and Indra were sitting. What Brandon thought was as clear as day. He wanted to show Indra the surgery. She would love the way immortal bodies worked. She already knew quite a lot about it and the bait to learn more would lure her down to the village. Surprisingly, Brandon did not share Christian’s attitudes about hiding knowledge.

I nodded. “I’m just annoyed that I can’t have a hand in everything.”

“Gotta watch that god complex, darling,” Christian said with a smile, finally letting go of me and driving with two hands.

***

Back at the townhouse, I took Indra to my closet and told her she was welcome to any of my clothing.

“Whatever you choose won’t fit,” I said with a wave of my hand, showing her my clothes that would definitely be too large for her. “But if you come to me, wearing it, I’ll adjust it for you.”

“How will you do that?” she asked curiously.

“In exactly the same way I diffuse bombs with my mind. It’s pretty simple, once you know how to do it.”

She chose something at random. “Doesn’t matter too much,” she said. “Sounds like it’s going to get very bloody.”

I looked at her. I had not been certain when I left The Incinerator back at the hotel if leaving him there was the right thing to do. It seemed a very real possibility that he was working on the problem of the Argonauts from a different angle. Doing his own kind of recon, but still… he hadn’t seen the sword in my chest or if he did, he didn’t mention it. Indra seemed to see it, like it was  a  shadow she couldn’t understand being there. Max had disappeared and I didn’t know what Christian had told him before they parted ways. I guessed that the difference between Max and Indra was that Indra was already separated from her family because she was an immigrant from the Philippines, she explained as much in the car, so her desires were not rooted in staying where she lived. She was more than happy to leave with us for a whole other world.

She put on a shirt with very short sleeves, trousers that were too big for her in every direction, tied her hair back, and went to find Brandon.

“Do you want me to fix those?” I called after her.

“You can fix the next set of clothes I wear. These ones are about to get bloody,” she replied.

“Maybe not!” I called after her. “He’s good at hanging onto his blood.”

Christian came in just as she was leaving. “Do you like her?” he asked.

“She’s a nurse. She’s efficient, and talented, with nerves like copper wiring. She likes surgery and she’s overdosed a few  long-term care patients,” I said slowly, not entirely sure where I got that last bit of information about her, until I realized I could hear her discarded clothes talking in a heap on the floor and I was merely repeating what they said.

“Is that so? Well, I won’t fault her for it,” Christian said as he shut the door behind him. “Gods make those sorts of decisions all the time.”

I shook my head. “Don’t say things like that right before she’s about to help operate on you.”

“It’s only because Brandon needs another set of hands and Brandon would never let anything happen to me. He may seem young and inexperienced next to the guides you have in your heart, but he’s more than enough to both finish the operation and kill her on the spot should she try something funny. Someone on level three can disable someone else’s red forest and kill them as surely as they can heal them.”

“Really? How do level-three gods duke it out?”

“They don’t. She would never try anything like that. She’s a healer, not a killer. It’s just that sometimes, the only way to heal someone is to kill them.” He exhaled heavily. “Don’t worry. I’m safe. Even though this is a very important moment for us... I still want you to go to Trinity and give her your congratulations.” He handed me the bag of diamonds.

It was heavy.

I bit my lip. “I’m going to show her who I really am,” I said, expecting his wild disapproval.

He only smiled. “Of course, you are.”

“And then say goodbye?”

“My wife has to make all kinds of sacrifices.”

***

At Trinity’s, I was horrified by the onslaught of women who thronged me as soon as I arrived. I was thrown headfirst into the bedazzled, ballooned, festooned living room, where a dozen women rushed to congratulate Trinity.

Among the guests, there were two of my old classmates from boarding school, Rebecca and Liz. The word ‘classmates’ was applied to them very appropriately. They had certainly never been my friends, but neither had they been friends with bad-girl Trinity. To see them making nice at an early-afternoon luncheon was wholly surprising.

They were also completely impressed with me and my Holly face. To be seen and not be seen by such people was as jarring as an out-of-body experience.

There was one detail I had not expected. Trinity treated them all to a play-by-play of how I had delivered her baby in her living room… not three feet from where her chair sat. They’d thrown a throw rug over the blood, which I had not cleaned up before I left as I feared it would look unnatural.

“How did you know she needed help?” one woman asked.

“We have a shared wall. I heard some troubling sounds. She was clearly struggling, so I went to check on her,” I replied modestly.

“Do you have medical training?” a waspish woman to my left asked.

“In a way. I’m opening a wellness center.” I was beginning to lie as smoothly as I told the truth.

“It sounds like you didn’t call the ambulance until you had finished delivering Grace. Why didn’t you call them first?”

I glanced at Trinity as if to ask her for her permission to explain.

Trinity left out the fact that I had given her an episiotomy. She took over the conversation. “Paula, don’t ask. There was a lot of crazy stuff going on, and the paramedics were very happy that things went as well as they did. I gave birth to Grace very quickly. I don’t think there was time for Holly to do anything more than exactly what she did.”

They passed baby Grace around from lady to lady. When they had all had turns, they had a few baby games, then they opened presents, and had snacks. I sat still, tried not to talk to people, and refused to leave.

Uncomfortable noises were coming from our shared wall. I was cutting off the sound waves, which meant that the ladies didn’t hear the groaning, the rushed orders that were given, the clacking of tools, or the breaking of bones. The fact that an overly violent operation was taking place next door was of no concern to the ladies at the baby shower.

Finally, the guests started to say goodbye. Soon, half of them were gone, but there were a few stragglers who were determined not to leave before me, but I wouldn’t budge. The late afternoon sun was casting horizontal shadows over the room. Trinity was tired.

There were two women left, Rebecca and Liz. I turned to them like a mother duck. “Rebecca, Liz, I’m sorry, but can’t you see that Trinity is tired? She needs a rest, but she’s being too polite to tell you that she’s going to have to visit with you on a different day. Will you head out without a gushing, drawn-out farewell if she promises to call you next week?”

They were surprised by my outspokenness, but as neither of them had given birth, they supposed that I was kicking them out because I was her midwife, and had every right to do so. Trinity, on the other hand, knew differently and gave me a quizzical look. I followed them to the door, thanked them on Trinity’s behalf for their presents, and closed the door behind them.

I turned around. Trinity sat in her new rocking chair with her baby. Brighton came in and started clearing out the mess. He kissed Trinity on the side of her head and rubbed his brand new baby’s cheek.

“I won’t stay long,” I said, coming back into the room. “Brighton… could you give me a moment to talk to Trinity alone?”

“Sure.”

Trinity saw my expression and her face mirrored my discomfort. “What’s going on?”

“Uh… I’m moving today. Tramaine and I are–” an uncomfortable pause. “We’re moving today. All our things will still be there, but we won’t be… and I don’t think we’ll ever come back. I wanted to give you my present without anyone else around.”

Brighton probably heard that much of the conversation before he disappeared up the stairs. I watched until his socks were out of sight.

I sat down in a chair next to her. “Everything was okay when you went to the hospital?”

“Were you thinking it wouldn’t be?” she asked with a nervous giggle.

“I have never delivered a baby before,” I replied evenly.

She patted my knee because that was the only part of me she could reach while she held her baby, and the moment she touched me, my face became mine again.

“Beth,” she gasped when she saw me. “It’s you.”

I nodded.

“It’s been you this whole time? Why didn’t I recognize you?” she wondered in amazement.

“Because I didn’t want you to.” I licked my dry lips.

“I thought you ran off with Christian?”

“I did. Tramaine is Christian.”

“How is that possible? What did you do to your face that I couldn’t recognize you? And you’re married now?”

I wheezed a bit of a laugh. “As I said, there was a little hiccup with that. I have never been more in love, but loving him means that I have to go, and go, and go. And this moment between you and I has to be a secret. You can never tell anyone you saw me. You can’t say you saw Christian. You have to forever say that I disappeared in Edmonton and you heard I was fine, but you didn’t see me.”

“All this is Christian’s doing? Your face? Your hair? What did he do that you have to live like this?”

I smiled and felt the tears prick my eyes. “I would have died that day when I was fourteen if he hadn’t saved me.”

“You know what he did?”

“Yes.”

“What?” she questioned, eyes wide.

“I can’t tell you. Now that I know what happened, it’s completely understandable why he didn’t tell me. I was a child and I would have stepped into the world of liquid darkness, but he held me back. To do that, he paid a heavy price… a price no one else could have paid. He loved me enough to break all the rules and save me. I’m telling you this because I used a little of that love to save you last night.”

Trinity didn’t understand. I could see it in her eyes. She was chalking my feelings up to some strange peculiarity inside me. No matter what I said, she wasn’t going to understand. She was a human, who could only feel things so much before exhaustion overtook her.

I reached into my purse. “This is my gift. It’s a weird gift, but it’s something I happen to have. One life is extinguished and another one lights up.”

She took the bag sloppily in one hand.

“What is it?”

“It’s a bag of uncut diamonds.”

She dropped it.

I let it sit on the floor.

“I’m quite serious. They weren’t obtained illegally. No one is looking for them. Sell a few of them whenever you have money problems or want something specific, and think of me kindly whenever you do.”

She retrieved it, tugged open the drawstring, and looked inside. “Beth, I didn’t tell you Grace’s middle name.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Bethany.”

I shook my head. The version of my name I was obligated to love from now on. “Thank you for not giving it to her as a first name. I wouldn’t want people to be extra curious about our relationship because you gave your daughter my name.”

“Beth, I…”

I didn’t hear the rest of what she said because, at that moment, the sword was pulled through to the place behind my heart.


CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE

The Bridges We Burn

Finally, the sword was pulled through my heart. I felt it move, the sharp sting of lost breath traveling in a lightning streak between my lungs. I watched as the harsh black hilt disappeared in my chest. Without seeing what he did, I knew exactly what had happened. The Other Christian had taken the bare blade in his hands and pulled it through the mirror in the real Christian’s body. For a moment, in my mind’s eye, I could see the red drip from the blade as he let his blood drop onto the floor of my heart.

“Are you okay?” Trinity asked me in alarm.

“He’s done it,” I grinned when the discomfort left me.

“He’s done what?” Trinity asked, curiously.

I put a hand to my chest and for the first time in months, King Christian was not healing me every one-hundredth of a second. I breathed easily and suddenly I wanted to leave. I needed to join Christian. I didn’t belong here, with Trinity, looking at her baby and taking a peek at a life that could never have been mine.

“I have to go,” I said, a smile unconsciously spreading across my face. “I’m happy you named your daughter after me. If I ever have a daughter I’ll name her after you.”

“Wait. I don’t understand why this is feeling so final. You’re acting like you’ll never see me again. We will surely see each other again,” she insisted.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle that we met each other now, and I’m more grateful than I can say that I was there for you when you needed me.”

A knock came at the front door.

I stood up. “It’s Christian. I have to go with him.”

Trinity put Grace in her baby swing and waddled after me to the door. I opened it and Christian stood on the step, looking like Christian Henderson with darker hair and lighter eyes, but it wasn’t very noticeable in the late afternoon light. It was a concession intended to please Trinity. So her last memory was of Beth and Christian leaving together.

Her eyes lit up when she saw him.

She hugged him and he gave her a little swing around, to which she immediately protested.

“Stop. My insides will fall out!”

He put her down and listened to her pout. “Can you come in and see my baby?”

Christian followed Trinity into the house and cooed over her baby like he’d never seen one before, told Trinity she was very lucky, and cradled baby Grace like baby girls were the best things in the world. I found the whole thing quite moving like love was everywhere. Finally, he placed Grace into her swing and made his way back to the door. In a moment, he was back on the porch, and I was aware that he had given Trinity all the time we had left.

“Beth says she’ll never come back. That can’t be true,” Trinity asked mournfully as she followed us out.

“It is,” he said, not allowing his face to become too hard. “She decided to run off with a man who can’t stay in one place, so remember to blame her and not me.”

“But surely you can come by once in a while the way you used to when Beth and I were in school.”

He reached for me and pulled me next to him. “I don’t know what the future holds, but it would probably be better if you forgot you ever knew us. I’m sorry, but it’s time to say goodbye. There’s a helicopter waiting for us.”

We had a little three-person hug, and afterward, Trinity watched us get into the car waiting for us. She waved to us with a look on her face that was all confusion and unhappiness.

All those years ago, I hadn’t realized that Brandon’s advice to drop the people in my life included her. I thought he meant just family. I should forget about my family and hope they forget about me.

For the first time, I realized how lucky I had been to have been rooming with Felicity-Ann before I had to leave the first time. I might not have been able to leave Trinity if she had not gotten married first and left the apartment. Felicity-Ann had been easier to leave.

Now I knew that Trinity had everything she needed with Brighton and her new baby.

Actually, we both had everything we needed. I hooked my arm around Christian’s and watched Ottawa flash by me as Brandon drove the four of us to meet Pricina.

***

In the helicopter, we could finally talk about the operation. Brandon and Indra placed Christian on a table, Brandon put him to sleep with a level three ability, and cut him open. Christian’s body was so accustomed to sealing up after it was cut that they weren’t able to keep him open long enough to insert my heart, even clumsily. All the screaming and groaning I heard through the wall was Brandon trying to wrench Christian’s ribcage open. Eventually, it became clear that Brandon wasn’t going to be able to keep Christian’s chest open with only Indra to help him. Even in the prison, it had taken seven people to do an operation on Christian traumatizing enough to open his chest. In the end, Brandon took my heart out of the Tupperware container and placed it on Christian’s chest.

“It feels vulgar to say,” Brandon elaborated. “But as soon as I did so, his chest opened and practically grew hands to pull your heart in. I didn’t even close him up. He did it himself.”

“I’ve always been a fast healer,” Christian said, looking at me, and for the first time, I realized that his expression was different.

Inside, he had corrected more than he wanted to admit. He couldn’t help showing a bit of it on his face. For one thing, he had been reunited with the Other Christian, and all of his ability to manipulate matter had returned to him. With that knowledge, it looked like he saw so much more than what was in front of him. Was he counting atoms with his eyes?

He wanted to talk to me, but he didn’t want to have that conversation in front of Brandon, Pricina, and now Indra. He still liked keeping his secrets, but finally, I would be on the inside of them.

I was about to close my eyes and slip into my Red Forest. I was sure that if I went to the mirror in the second room, I would be able to talk to him through that mirror, which would have become a window.

I blinked, about to go meet him there, but seeing my intention, he grabbed my hand and kissed it. “Not yet,” he whispered, his eyes filled with a dangerous kind of longing.

There was another way for him and me to have a private conversation and I tried it immediately. “Rhuk?” I asked my earring  silently. “Can you talk to Christian now that the Other Christian is inside him?”

“I’ll try,” came the steady reply.

Soon Rhuk replied. “I can. He’s very concerned about the magnetic field. Most of the time, it protects five-fourths of the earth’s surface, but he says it has divided badly and now there are seven magnetic norths and ten magnetic souths. Now the field is only covering two-thirds of the earth's surface. Most of the hole is over the Pacific Ocean, so it’s not causing as much damage as it might otherwise. Still, he says you have to get to the South Iron Room designed for controlling the poles and fix it together. Christian says you can finish forging the connection between the two of you there. Now is not the time, nor the place. He’s asking you to stay out of the Red Forest until you go into the room for the woman with the white heart.”

“How’s he feeling?” I asked Rhuk.

“He’s so excited, he’s practically feverish.”

“Brandon, put Beth to sleep,” Christian suddenly said out loud.

“Why?” I asked.

He answered Brandon, “She won’t stop talking to Rhuk, who is telling her all sorts of things that are guaranteed to overwhelm her.” He turned to me and kissed the corner of each of my knuckles. “Beth, it’s a long trip and you need rest. You have been busy. You tricked a man, kidnapped him, let your husband murder him, delivered a baby, disposed of a dead body by converting it to diamonds, rescued four prisoners from a bomb-infested building, attended a baby shower, had two and a half feet of black blade pulled through your heart, and had to say good-bye to your best friend. In a few hours, you’re going to have to save the world. Brandon, knock her out.”

“I don’t need to be…” I said, just before I passed out. In that last second, I realized Brandon could not have done that if King Christian and Doctor Christian in my heart had not allowed it so completely.


CHAPTER THIRTY SIX

The South Iron Room

I woke up in the luxurious bed in Christian’s room in Nhagaspir, which meant that I opened my eyes to a ceiling full of the pin-pricks of night’s glory. It was the same room as the last time I had been there, but it wasn’t. Something was irrevocably different. Before, the feeling had been like the wind blowing across your skin at night. The room was underground, but it didn’t feel like it. It had been a place waiting for the dawn, waiting for the master of the house to return. When Christian had been here before, anxious to leave and angry, he was the master and at the same time, he wasn’t.

Opening my eyes wider, I saw that the dawn had come. All the sleepy parts of the room were alive with light. The stars were overhead, brighter than ever, but so was the golden glow of morning. What did it mean if you saw the dawn break when you were underground? What had cracked open to let in the light?

I rolled onto my side and through my drowsy eyes, I saw a tray that had been left for me on the nightstand. There was a teacup with a lid and a stack of three saucers on a stand. The bottom one had a cookie sandwich on it. The second layer had a lemon tart. The top layer had an enormous chocolate strawberry on it. I reached for the tea and removed the lid. It was honey milk and one sip sent me to heaven.

“There’s my bride,” I heard Christian say from across the room. He came striding toward me with an energy in his walk that I had never seen before.

“Feeling better?” I asked with a grin.

“I have the dress,” he gloated with a smug smile on his handsome face as he approached the bed. Looking at him more closely, I saw that he had taken charge of the Red Forest inside him. He had wiped out any imperfection, not only on his face but throughout his whole body. He had never looked so good. The dark hair dye had been washed clean and his fair hair was cut in a style I’d never seen on him before, all sideburns with his longish hair slicked back. Had  his hair grown since our helicopter flight?

He threw the white dress he had been carrying across the footboard with most of it draping over the edge of the bed. Once that was discarded, he came to me, kissing me lightly on the lips before snuggling in next to me on the bed, careful not to jostle me in case I spilled my drink.

“I thought humans couldn’t live down here because there isn’t any food?” I asked with a smack of my lips.

“There isn’t any food when the only gods here are weak. I can turn water to wine, or in this case, a dainty tea service,” he said with another kiss.

The kiss felt different. As he felt my lips with his, I wondered if you could turn water to wine with matter manipulation. My thoughts muddied as he kissed me and derailed my train of thought.

“Are you really Christian? My Christian?” I asked when the kiss ended.

He scoffed. “To answer your first question, this may be the first time in eight years when my chest hasn’t hurt. Yes, I’m feeling much better. It’s amazing for the clock inside me to keep proper time. I keep checking my pulse, though hopefully, soon it will no longer need to pump blood. There’s still a lot of work to be done inside me.” He changed gears. “I took the red out of your hair while you were asleep. You’re back to caramel curls. Do you want to see your wedding dress?”

I took a sip of the honey milk and it almost made me forget that Christian was acting strangely. The only difference inside him couldn’t be my working heart. It had to be more than that, but whatever was going on, he was still a fashion fanatic.

The dress he presented was little more than a white slip with a stupendous ruffle at the hem. I took it, examining it. It was a sundress. My brow furrowed as it puzzled me. Wasn’t Christian an expert on fashion? Why had he brought me a slip with a crinoline instead of a real gown?

Christian had searched for a wedding dress like he was possessed when we were in Vancouver and he finally admitted that he didn't know if our marriage was valid if he didn’t have my heart. Now that he had my heart back, did we need a wedding? Was this dress going to be my wedding dress whether I liked it or not?

I looked at Christian’s clothes. He was wearing suit trousers. They were dove-gray and paired with a crisp white shirt and matching vest. The contrast between what he was wearing and the dress he presented to me was very sharp.

I suddenly thought of what all the different versions of him wore in his heart: the King of the Red Forest wore a red tailored shirt and trousers, the Other Christian wore nothing but a bedsheet, Doctor Christian wore something like scrubs, and the last Christian… What did he wear? Did any of those outfits match my dress?

“Why am I going to wear this dress? It doesn’t match your clothes. Why can’t I match your clothes?”

“Because you’re going to go into the chamber for the woman with the white heart. What happens to you there will destroy your clothes, no matter what you wear,” he explained heavily. “This dress is only symbolic… I’m presenting it to you to show you that I know who you are when you’re alone in your head. I’ve been there with you.”

I knew what he was talking about immediately. This was the Other Christian speaking to me with my Christian’s lips. They were the same man, and the dress was proof of that. Then it came clear. This was the dress I wore in my head when I ran through the Red Forest, except that it wasn’t black like the one I wore inside myself. It was white. Was I going to be a girl running through a White Forest in a black dress? I couldn’t imagine King Christian allowing it once my body was changed. It was a dress to indicate the change from impure to pure. It was not a wedding dress.

“You’re really hot when you talk about mercury and iron,” I said softly, hoping he would understand what I meant when I said that.

“I’m hot when I talk about anything,” conceited Christian replied.

“Hmm…” I said, leaning my lips onto my knuckles, giving the other part of what he said some thought. This dress would be ruined when we flipped the poles?

That all sounded quite sacrificial. Why go to all the trouble of making me such a meaningful dress just to destroy it?

If King Christian had not worked like a slave to change my insides from corruptable to incorruptible, I’d be afraid that more than my outfit would be ruined. I wondered if the ordeal of flipping the poles would be something like when I delivered the sword, immeasurably painful, but the thought was hard to believe. Ever since King Christian had taken over my Red Forest, I had felt the pressure on my chest that the sword inflicted, but not pain. Pain was a memory.

“Is this a test?” I asked gravely.

“A test of what?” he laughed.

“Me?”

His eyes were all gray like polished steel. “Maybe,” he said reflectively. “If it’s a test, then it is testing me as well as you. I was sent here to fix the Earth’s polarity and have not completed my task.”

“Do you remember everything about your past then?” I asked with a wry smirk.

He scoffed in reply. “I remember that I wanted to get this issue with the poles sorted before I start acting like your husband.”

“Oh?” I laughed.

“Yeah. I mean, I remember all sorts of things, like how weddings used to be in the old days. Once upon a time in Egypt, if a woman crossed the threshold into your house, she was your wife. In Japan, if a man ate cookies in your home and stayed the night, he was your husband. In a dozen other cultures, if her father signed over her guardianship to you, she was your wife. I’ve been slowly checking off the boxes. I’ve been married to you at least half a dozen different ways, but today if we finish forging our connection and fix the poles, I’ll finally stop being your guardian and start being your partner. Then it will be permissible if I undress you, tell you you’re mine, and kiss you in all the places your clothes covered  before.” He pushed my hair over my shoulder and kissed me, his warm lips on mine and the scent of him, his breath, his closeness messing with my brain and making me forget that there were people who…

KNOCK! KNOCK!

We broke apart and I glared at the door. “We have to take care of them first, right?”

“We can block the sound,” he offered, and instantly the sound of the knocking at the door was killed. With the Other Christian inside him, he was a master of all the elements. “Except, if we do that, we won’t get our connection forged. I wanted to do it at the same time we correct the poles. Of course, we could forge our connection right this second and do the poles later, but that’s not very efficient… And I want to leave Nhagaspir and never come back.”

“Are you sure?” I questioned softly.

“Oh, yes. If we flip the poles, I will have done everything my friend requested of me. My reasons for being here will be gone and the little gods here will not be able to ask anything more of me.”

“Where shall we go?” I asked, my mind abuzz with possibility.

He smiled and evaded. “Put the dress on. It will make a nice memory for those little gods who are lining up to watch me take you to the room made for the woman with the white heart. It has somehow become a legend in a place that is a legend for people who are little more than–”

“Legend?” I finished for him.

“Yes, but first, let me feed you this strawberry.”

I obediently bit off half before I pushed the other half in his mouth. He was surprised, but he bit into it. “Is this what we’re going to be like?” he asked, as he shoved the half-eaten strawberry into his cheek.

“Yes. I want you to love me… all the way.” I licked the melted chocolate off my fingers.

He stood up. “Get dressed. I’ll be over here, thinking about what I want to dress you in because that’s all I think about anyway.” He went down the hall to one of my closets.

But I was in no rush. I leaned back in his softer-than-soft pillows and ate the lemon tart.


CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN

The Earth’s Heartbeat

I slid the dress off the bed and changed into it as a giddy girl who was changing in Christian’s bedroom. As if such a thing made me closer to him.

When the dress was on, I no longer needed to stand in front of a mirror to see what I looked like. Dipping into the world of matter manipulation, I could see myself in a way that was far more detailed than what you would see by looking into a mirror.

The dress was all wrong for this place. It looked cheap and flimsy. It was a dress I had worn in my head thousands of times when I was a child in the hospital. I was supposed to go to sleep, but the restlessness of being a person who doesn’t know her future always made me itch in the small hours of the night. I’d close my eyes and in that place behind my eyelids, I could become anyone. I usually chose to wear that dress because that was what I imagined an older version of myself would want to wear as she ran through the fields with tall grass that brushed her fingertips. The flat land turned into the forests of the lower mountains. One day the trees would break and nothing would stop my view of the sea and the dawn.

It all seemed like an exercise intended to get me to sleep in those days. Now it was real because I knew that just because a place wasn’t made with the one hundred and twenty-five elements, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t real.

Christian came up behind me and put his hands on my bare shoulders. “Ready?”

I breathed heavily and opened my eyes. “How am I supposed to do this great thing?”

He kissed my neck from behind, before saying softly in my ear, “I’ll take you to the South Iron Room. Once you’re inside, all you have to do is enter my heart in the Red Forest. There, you’ll find further instructions.”

I knew what he was talking about. I had to go in and talk to him through the mirrored glass in the second chamber.

Rhuk piped up. Christian had been whispering into the ear that had Rhuk  and the other diamonds in it. “Please don’t take me out when you go into the chamber,” Rhuk begged in my ear.

“Do you know what he has planned?” I asked the  diamond.

“I have no idea. The only way to control a magnetic field is with a larger one, but where do you find a source of magnetism strong enough to control the iron stream for a whole planet? Take me with you!”

“Rhuk wants me to wear the earring into the room,” I told Christian.

“I could hear it. Rhuk, you can talk to me now.”

“Can I go with her into the South Iron Room?” it begged.

“No. Stop being so greedy,” Christian replied firmly.

Rhuk swung mournfully from my ear and all the diamonds chimed like sad bells.

“Just be happy she’s taking you with her to the room at all even if you’re not allowed in the inner chamber. It’s a dangerous place to be, even for a diamond. Let’s go,” he said, taking my hand and leading me out of the bedroom and into the hall.

The immortals were waiting for us. They stood in a desperate line with worried expressions. For them, everything rested on this moment. They had been waiting for it for hundreds of years.

Pricina stood with her jaw clenched and her eyes hard. She had never tried to control a pole and she was over ten thousand years old. This was what she wanted, but sending me into the South Iron Room was insane, like sending a child to defuse a bomb. She didn’t like it one bit, but she didn’t have any better solutions, so she clenched her jaw and her fists together as we walked by.

Brandon was next to her, trying to touch her in some way to comfort her, but she brushed him off. His expression when our eyes met was easy to read. Every doctor who operated on me had that look on his face before he gave me the drugs that turned out my lights. This, like every operation, was a coin toss to him. Fate would say how it would land.

There were other immortals I’d never met lined up to see us. They looked at me with awe, like I was the answer to all their prayers. If I succeeded with Christian, no one would go crazy trying to control the poles again. The problem would be solved. If only that were the only way to lose your immortality.

Axel stood next to Indra, a hulking figure next to her. Apparently, he had decided that he didn’t need to go to the surface to find a new wife. One had been brought to him.

I wondered if Indra felt the same way. Her eyes were on me like she wasn’t aware of him.

We reached the end of the line of immortals who had been waiting to watch us begin our journey to the South Iron Room.

Christian squeezed my hand in his, kissed it, and proceeded down the hallway. “Keep the others off us,” he said to Axel, mentioning the deformed ones

“Already done,” Axel assured him as we left the cluster of people and went a way I’d never been before.

Once out of sight, the carpeted hallway we moved through started moving. Moving faster than anything I’d thought was possible in Nhagaspir like we were standing on the gears of a pocket watch.

“Are you doing that?” I asked, concentrating on holding myself upright through the inertia.

“Yes. I built this place, but I don’t like it.”

“Why? I know you haven’t liked the immortals or the things they do, but none of that is your fault. The rooms you created are more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen. I can’t even imagine where you plan on taking me from here. Where could we go?”

His expression was dull like he was more changed by the flood of knowledge he’d experienced than I understood. “Well, parts of this place are meant to look like my real palace, to help me feel less homesick, but they fail. It’s like I was a prince and taken to an unfamiliar place for the day. Abandoned on a beach, I took a stick and drew the blueprint for my palace into the sand, but I got bored drawing it and stopped. This place is not like one-thousandth of my real home. Why bother drawing the house in the sand when you only plan to be on the beach until the end of the day?”

“Where is your real home?” I asked, intrigued by the answers he could finally give.

“A place of impossibility. Holy chimes, voices like Rhuk’s singing, many stars close enough together to turn the sky white. All the colors human eyes have yet to see. Where all the sounds they have yet to discover meet. Where do the staircases lead you in your dreams? What do the voices sing about?”

“Why aren’t you asking hard questions?” I laughed. “All those things are about you. That’s what the little angels in my mind sing about: living in a world where you love me… finally.”

I thought he might bend to kiss me, but he hesitated.

I heard something in the walls, like footfalls, or the ticking of a broken clock.

“What is that?”

“It’s the sound of the earth’s heartbeat,” he whispered. “It’s one of those sounds that are yet to be discovered.”

The hallway stopped moving like an elevator that didn’t move up a premade trail, but one that was making a trail for itself. The whole village had been spinning on an axis, rising and falling, taking us to a part of the village where the others were not invited. The end of the hallway found an opening and I saw a space beyond us like a cave, but a place carved out of the middle of a mountain, like stepping inside the hollow of a peach pit.

We had arrived.

It was nothing after the other rooms I had been to in Nhagaspir. Inside, I expected the inner chamber for the South Iron Room to look like a copy of the North Iron Room, but it didn’t look anything like it. The cave was just that, a dark cave. The control room inside was a giant golden ball, lit by a strange indirect light, like gold dust falling in the air. A plaque was carved over the door, and though it was not English, I read it clearly. ‘For The Woman With The White Heart’.

“Where’s the door?” I asked because I couldn’t see one.

“I feel like I have waited for this day forever,” Christian said slowly. “I have waited.”

I gazed at him trying to understand what he was saying.

He loosened his tongue. “It’s the last moment. I should be certain, but I’m at war with myself. The governor of my Red Forest, the one you call King Christian, says he’s been working on you. He says he has put all but the very last pieces into place. His work is finished and there’s nothing left that he can do for you. He says it’s time for the tempering process. The connection is ready to be forged.”

“Are you worried?” I asked slowly. “Because I am. It feels like this whole adventure has been like the first experience over and over again.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since Pricina told me that the fruit was rotten. She said that if I went to rescue Brandon, it would change everything. It has. She told me that she couldn’t tell me exactly what would happen, exactly what all this would feel like. The only thing she could tell me was that all of this would be painful, difficult, and treacherous. I believed her, but I didn’t understand. I thought I was willing to endure anything to be with you and I have endured so much.”

He listened carefully, so I continued, “This is going to be like that, isn’t it? Like getting kidnapped three times in a row, delivering the sword, rescuing you only to have your heart gone, and another trap to unravel before we could be together. I said goodbye to everyone I cared about twice. I don’t know what is behind that door. At this point, I understand that whatever it is, even if you told me, I wouldn’t understand. Once this is finished, will we finally be able to be together?”

Christian nodded. “This is the last gate. When you come out, we'll say our wedding vows in front of those idiots, go inside our room, and never come out.” He kissed me.

It was awful to stand at the threshold of change and not know exactly what would happen. How would the world change if the poles flipped? How would I change if I gave up the last shreds of my mortality and utterly gave up being a human? What color was my heart that beat inside Christian? Red? White? Did it matter? There were so many questions, but there was one certainty.

Christian was there. Finally. He was with me.

His kiss was comfort itself and I put all other thoughts out of my head. He was soft and warm. His kiss, which I had longed for so desperately, was finally mine.

He ended the kiss and said gently, “In a second, I’m going to walk back to the North Iron Room. Rhuk can tell you when I get there. Once I’m there, take Rhuk  and the little diamonds off, and go inside. Here’s the door.” He pushed on a panel that popped the door to the inner chamber open.

A magnet had been keeping it closed.

“When did you build this?” I asked. “It looks fancy.”

“Over five hundred years ago.”

“Did they have magnets like this five hundred years ago?” I questioned.

“It doesn’t matter what humans have. I can make anything I can imagine.” He swung the entrance open.

Inside, the room was lit by lights under the floor. They illuminated a chair made of yellow metal. It was not anything like the chair in the Ocean Room. This chair was a wave of gold designed to fit the curves of a woman’s body and support her head.

I didn’t need to say what I thought of a room he created five hundred years ago to suit the curve of a woman’s body. He could tell from my expression.

“It doesn’t matter what it looks like,” he deflected. “It is merely a place for you to think.” He smacked his tongue. “When Rhuk  tells you I’ve made it to the North Iron Room, take the earring out, go inside, close the door, sit in the chair and enter the Red Forest. You have to wake up the fourth version of me.”

“I thought I had to go to the mirror that would have become a window,” I retorted.

“You don’t understand. I am merely going to the other room as a formality. You don’t need to speak to me to correct the poles.”

“If you don’t have to be in the other room, then I’m doing the pole flip alone? I thought you said we needed to do it together?” I asked, suddenly feeling deceived.

He bit his lip and favored me with a playful expression. “You misunderstand. I’ll be there, but it is the fourth version of me in your heart who will play the final role with you. I’m going to the other room because I don’t want those idiots upstairs getting the tiniest inkling as to what we’re doing. It would give them hints on how to jump forward and I’m not sure they’re worthy. If they were worthy, they would understand what is necessary to accomplish this without hints. Wait for me to get to the North Iron Room.”

He turned, thought twice, and turned back to me to elaborate. “You’re nothing like them, you know. During all this, all your thoughts are about love. How to love me. How to be with me. You’re not doing this because you want to control the world, be a savior to the whole world, and have the whole world worship you. You’re only doing this because I’m asking you to do this for me. You’re not even greedily wondering what the fourth version of me knows, so you can get the shortcut to being a fourth-level god. Someone with your priorities is the most worthy. I’ll give you everything I am.” He pulled me close, laid his lips on my forehead, and breathed his scent into my hair.

Suddenly, I understood that all those times he dared me to be something more had all been for this moment. This moment was what he had been thinking of whenever he dared me to be fearless and to go ahead and do something that didn’t make sense.

“You won’t be alone. I’ll be with you.” He kissed my head, my lips, my palms, and then swung around to leave.

I felt terrible as I watched him leave. Watching him leave made me feel like I was doing the rest by myself. I wasn’t. He was going to be there with me in my heart, so I was not alone. Why did I have to go through certain parts alone?

Like an idiot, he blew me a kiss from the mouth of the tunnel. It was a kiss like one a man blew to his wife before he went off to war, but not exactly… It was the kiss a man blew to his wife before she went off to war.

I heard the sound of the hallway crackling through the rocks to take him back to the main part of Nhagaspir. It sounded like anvils hitting a stone floor, one after another, smashing, breaking, and falling through. It had been quieter when I was inside that section of the hallway with him. It had been quieter when I was in it because he was blocking the sound. The sound of the Earth’s heart beating was the sound of mountains crashing against each other.

“What do you think, Rhuk?”

It sighed. “This must be done. The magnetic poles are fluctuating madly. Three airplanes have crashed because of mistakes in their magnetic guidance systems since you arrived in Nhagaspir.”

I almost choked on something in my throat. “Really?”

Rhuk swung a nod. “Your man must have been dawdling when he brought you here, trying to spend as much time with you as possible. His trip back took a quarter of the time it took to bring you down here. He just stepped inside the North Iron Room,” Rhuk announced. “It’s time.”

I moved to pull the earring out of my ear.

“I don’t like this,” Rhuk complained. “I want to be with you until the end.”

“Christian says no. You have to wait out here.”

Amid the many protests, I dropped the diamonds in the heap on the stone floor. I crossed the threshold, pulled a lever on the inside of the door to lock it, and placed my body in the curve of the chair.

Whatever happened next… would be what happened next.


CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

The Heart of the White Forest

I hadn’t been paying attention before. The last time I entered the Red Forest, I had raced into the shrine to wake Doctor Christian because I had only been thinking about Trinity. I hadn’t noticed the changes that surrounded me. As I entered what should have been the Red Forest, everything surrounding me had changed.

The Red Forest was no longer red. At every turn, I was surrounded by whiteness, light, and prisms reflecting tiny rainbows through every leaf. I didn’t have to chase through my body to see that the redness was completely gone from the Red Forest There wasn’t a single drop of blood left. I wasn’t human anymore. Yet, I felt no panic, no rush to jump back to what I had been before, no rush to instruct my cells to make themselves over again in red. I suddenly realized that King Christian had been waiting. He had been waiting for the moment that the sword was withdrawn from my heart before he added the finishing touches to my white, immortal heart. He did the last bit while I was sleeping in the helicopter.

In front of me, the pool of blood surrounding the shrine was gone, and in its place was a pool of water so clear that it looked like liquid diamonds.

Christian had been embarrassed by his blood. Now I could see why.

The shrine had been pulled apart like it had been peeled like an orange and the peel was spiraling upwards in a grand staircase, white and sprawling. Up the stairs, there were platforms extending from four landings—the four chambers of his heart.

Since the chambers had no walls, Christian’s heart was completely open. I could see the throne King Christian used to sit on. He was gone. He didn’t need to stay. I was never going to get hurt again. Never again would I bleed, take a bullet, lose a tooth or have a period. I didn’t need to eat or breathe. He had rearranged the matter inside me to its largest benefit. My body was powered by something I didn’t understand. He understood. He was the monarch of the body of an immortal being. Others would have taken thousands of years to perfect their body to this standard and I was getting it for free because someone like Christian had married me.

Had the real man, Christian, understood what he was giving me when he decided to switch hearts with me in that hospital room all those years ago?

I felt upended as I took my first steps up the staircase.

That was when I realized my black dress was gone. I wasn’t going up the stairs wearing the identical white dress I wore in the real world as I rested in the chair. I was wearing a white dress, but it was not like the white hospital gowns I had worn before surgery. It was a dress with very simple lines looping over one shoulder, set with a line of gemstones down every seam. The fabric looked like millions of pinpoint crystals but felt like cashmere.

On the first platform, I ran my hand along the back of King Christian’s throne. I would miss him. I pondered how much work he had done inside me before he disappeared through the mirror. It hadn’t been important for him to say goodbye. He had work to do inside his own body and I would see him in the real Christian when I opened my eyes.

I knew Christian had told me to go speak to the fourth version of him, but the second chamber was closer and the mirror hung in the air without walls to hide it or hold it. Taking the stairs, I approached it, touched the altar, and whispered through the mirror to the Other Christian, but nothing happened.

I thought about the Other Christian. I loved him. I had never encountered another person in my whole life who was as patient with me as he had been. I had never had a teacher who wanted me to learn as desperately as he did. When we were together it felt like he ached for me to improve, for me to grow, for me to become. He didn’t even get to see how good I became at his lessons. He was off fighting other battles. I suddenly missed him so much that a wave of pain passed over me.

My skirt wasn’t hefty enough to have to gather it in my arms to get up the stairs quickly, but I hurried up in my bare feet.

The third landing extended again and there was a pool of water there. The pool was clear and I could see the White Forest through the bottom of it. Doctor Christian wasn’t there.

I thought for a moment about him. He hadn’t given me his secrets the way the Other Christian had. We didn’t even talk. The only interaction I had with him had been the moment when he opened his eyes.

I understood something about why I hadn’t been able to wake him when I tried so many times. It was the same reason why I had never been able to heal the aloe vera plant. It was because I had not been able to win over Christian or the plan in a battle of wills. I always lost… until Trinity needed healing. For her, I was willing to fight him. The words written on his face were only readable to someone with iron-hard resolve. He only woke up when I wouldn’t take no for an answer. You couldn’t be a noodle and read the language of the gods. Perhaps one day, I would learn how to give orders so mildly that they couldn’t be ignored, just like Doctor Christian.

I glanced upward. The Christian in the last room had been blindfolded and tied to a mast. I looked up the staircase. I hadn’t been able to see it before, but the final chamber still had walls. Up the stairs, it had a door.

It was where I was supposed to go.

Up the stairs, I took my last steps into red.

Behind the door, there was still red inside me. In the final chamber, the walls were still red. The room looked exactly the way it had before the grand transformation of the White Forest.

Inside, Christian was there as he had always been, blindfolded, gagged, and tied to a mast. I circled him and considered what I ought to do to wake him. I moved to untie the blindfold. The bonds fell off as I touched them. Then the rope that held his arms fell from his wrists. The walls and ceiling of the room fell like the petals of a rose, crashing down to the floor, like five dead bodies tossed from the cliffs to the white sands below.

I peered over the edge, looking downward, confused by the red rectangles.

“Hello, darling,” I heard behind me.

I turned and saw the Last Christian standing in front of me. The look on his face surprised me more than anything. He was so triumphant. He had won and, from the look on his face, he had won big time.

In the next second, I was in his arms and he was kissing me. It did not feel as it had when the other versions of him tried to kiss me. It felt real. I should have felt excited, but suddenly, he was a stranger and I turned away from him.

He kissed the side of my face, but he was in tune with my emotions and he put some distance between us. Undeterred, he laughed. “I have waited for you for far too long. You seem overwhelmed. Is all this too much for you?”

I drew my eyebrows together. “Talk to me. Help me understand.”

He put his hand behind his neck and jutted his elbow out. He was making his body into angles, which always made me feel safe, stirred me with desire, and made me forget my doubts. He was always what I wanted.

He responded to my feelings with his own. “You are the woman I have waited all my life to meet. Me. And you haven’t met me yet. I am the level four god, which means,” he said with a sharp glance at me, “I’m not like the other versions you’ve encountered.”

“What does that mean?”

He put his hand out in a vague gesture seeming to mean everything. “I am the place where all Christian’s memories are housed. I know how I became immortal. I know who I really am, not just the nice bits I put up for show.”

I stood my ground, though a part of me was distressed by the new version of him I was meeting. Never had I met a Christian who was this forthcoming. Hearing him talk was like getting to the final resolution of a book when you’d been reading for volumes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to the end. Maybe I wanted to stay in the middle of the story forever.

He slid his fingers under the strap of my dress and looked in my eyes. “Most importantly, I remember what I do. I orchestrate the creation of solar systems. I don’t just terraform planets. I make galaxies.”

I stuck out my lip. “If you’re so important, then why are you here on Earth?”

He rubbed the side of my arm possessively. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”

I refused to answer but returned his hard stare with one of my own.

“This planet is a mess. I came here as a favor to one of my friends who has gone on to level seven. He wanted me to see if I could fix this planet. It’s one of his favorites because it was one of his earliest projects. I came here.” He paused before explaining, “One of the things I can do easily is see into the future. See around a star for a bit and I can see hundreds of years into the future. I was here. I looked around your star and I saw something I’d never seen before.”

“What?”

“You.”

I gasped.

“It’s time to stop playing games, darling,” he said patiently. “I did not make you a goddess. You were one already on that fateful night I held you in my arms in the hospital. You were in no danger of dying on the operating table if you didn’t want to be. You were letting the people who thought you were ill continue to think you were ill. You were being a little imp who was lying to everyone. At first, you did it because you wanted your parents’ attention. You were just like Trinity. Later, after your parents died, you did it because you wanted me to pity you. You wanted me more than any woman has ever dared to want me before and you were only on the edge of womanhood. It took my breath away. I saw a future with you if I stayed on Earth. I was stunned. You see, most gods are married. I had been on a little mission to prove that I didn’t need to be married to be a god. I could do everything without a wife. When I saw my future with you, I was upset, so I left earth, went elsewhere, and prowled around. When things don’t happen quickly, there’s plenty of time to think. After all, you weren’t born yet. When I was on other worlds, I looked into the future, and soon you were in every future. You were tying me up and telling me that I had to stop fighting you. You were building the most beautiful worlds anyone has ever seen and pushing the boundaries of what matter could do. You were showing me how to think better and how to build things that would last. Not matter, atoms and molecules, because those things can’t last forever in one state. They constantly have to be rearranged, but how things like the sword in your chest could last forever. Eventually, I realized I could never outrun you, and you weren’t even born yet.”

Blinking, I couldn’t respond. I could barely breathe. Was he saying the opposite of what Pricina thought? He hadn’t picked me because he was desperate or because I was convenient? Ge chose me because he had had hundreds of years to think about it and I had been his choice?

Continuing, he went on. “I decided to come here and fix this world, but soon it was obvious that the immortals here were going to push this planet toward destruction. Those deranged immortals with fingers growing out of their faces were not god  material. They were grasping, greedy, hateful men who did not know the lines between creation and destruction. Many people figure out immortality without understanding the ethics that govern it. For my friend, I couldn’t let them ruin His planet. Besides, I had to wait here… for you.”

“What are you saying?” I wanted to hear everything he thought.

“I decided to let this thing with the poles get out of hand.”

My eyes widened. “You did that on purpose?”

“I didn’t command the poles to shift. That was happening anyway. I decided to use it to the advantage of the planet. I worked on holding it still, partitioned my brain, and I let all the immortals in the village think that the enormity of the task had taken me down. If I was the greatest god they had ever known, how would they do my job? The idea that it could break them did break them. Those greedy gods went into the North Iron Room and tried to fix the world. It was arrogant, and it cost them.”

I felt something in my chest fall. Thinking of their misshapen bodies bothered me, and my expression went downcast.

The Last Christian took my hand. “If you could have seen what they were like when they were at their pinnacle, I don’t think you’d be as bothered by this part of the story. They were the type that didn’t want to sacrifice anything. I saw it in myself, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

He took a deep breath and sighed. “I mean, that was why I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to do everything myself, get all the credit for my accomplishments myself, but for what? Glory? Maybe it wasn’t exactly greed. Perhaps it was a desire for independence, and that feeling at one time made me greater and stronger, but it wasn’t serving me anymore. I am friends with a level seven god while I sit as a level four god? There’s a word for that.”

“What is it?”

“Damnation,” he replied with a clear voice. “If I can’t progress anymore then I am damned. It’s just that simple. However, my friend is merciful and he knew what I needed and, better still, where I could get it. He had looked into the future of this world and knew this was where the key to my eternity was hidden. You.”

I felt faint as he tucked me under his arm.

“Do you know what I had to do to be worthy of you?”

“What?” I mouthed.

“I had to risk everything. I had to let myself fall back to level one. I couldn’t offer you a diamond heart for our heart transplant. What was a young woman with red blood running through her veins going to do with a diamond heart? That was the only way to win you.”

“You took yourself to the verge of death so that you could be with me?” I gasped.

He skimmed the tips of my hair with his fingers and looked at me curiously. “You were hurting yourself because you too wanted love. The damage you did to your heart when you were a child was real because you were ordering yourself to break. You were doing it quietly, the way I changed faces, without entering the Red Forest. The damage you did to your heart was so real that even after I exchanged my healthy heart for your broken one, I couldn’t heal it. Without access to the higher levels of godhood, my body couldn’t repair someone else’s cells even if those cells were in my own body. Your heart was told to break and it stayed broken. It hurt  me every day.”

My face twisted in pain. “I’m sorry.”

“I won’t fault you. Whether leading to creation or destruction, everything begins with a wish. You wished for love. You wished for me to love you and I do. I love you now and I’ll love you forever. Already, you mean so much more to me than I suspected when I peered around that star. The excitement you’ve ignited inside me feels like it will burn infinitely. And now, do you know what I wish for?”

I pushed back my pain and asked, “What?”

He put his hands on me. “I wish we had already finished this last thing so I can finally make you my wife.”

I gazed at the intensity of his expression. I had waited for him to say those words to me, and now that he had, I couldn’t hold his stare. I looked away. “What do we have to do?”

“The first thing we have to do is turn those last bits of red to white. Do you know how to do that?”

“I guess I need to order those cells to take on the same structure as those around them.”

“Good,” Christian said. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

The next thing that happened was that those broken bits of red wall that lay on the floor of the White Forest changed. The red was replaced with dots of white the same way a red barn turns white in snowfall.

“Why is it so slow?” I wondered.

“Because you’re doing it and you’re new at this. Don’t let that bother you. Soon you’ll be able to do this and much more in the blink of an eye. I need to be certain that you can maintain your body before we correct the poles.”

“How are we going to do that?” I asked, not understanding the connection. Why would I need to be completely invulnerable to fix the poles? Couldn’t the problem be corrected with matter manipulation by moving the iron staff of the world?

Christian explained. “We don’t need my body in the North Iron Room or the one you call the Other Christian. You and I are all that is needed. Soon you’ll understand why it didn’t work when the immortals in Nhagaspir tried it and why they should have known that it would never have worked. It is very violating to try, not to mention stupid. A magnetic field is not just a river of metal. There are invisible forces at play that need to be taken into account and a person who can only rearrange matter has no business touching it.”

“You did it,” I reminded him.

“Yes, but I really wasn’t doing anything and… I’m always playing a larger game.”

“What are we going to do? The process of changing those cells down there could take days,” I admitted, checking on the progress of the remaining fragments of red.

The Last Christian rolled his eyes. “You’re slowing it down on purpose. Don’t pretend you’re not. Please don’t. This is a simple thing.”

“Then why are you hesitating to give the complete explanation?”

He thought for a moment and then gave in. “Fine. I’m the version who can create and destroy matter. I’m going to open a tear in space inside your perfect body. It will expose a small neutron star on the other side for a fraction of a second. Neutron stars have very strong magnetic fields. It will act as a magnet for our world by uniting our splintering core and flipping the poles all at once.”

“If you could have done that sooner, why didn’t you?” I insisted on knowing.

“I had a lot of people to kill who were very against dying. And you… I wanted to show you the depth of your transformation. It’s true that I could have done that using my own perfectly white body as the shield to protect this world from the radiation of the star six hundred years ago. Neutron stars are where heavy metals like gold and tungsten are formed. It’s a melting pot where matter is stewed at temperatures far above the hottest temperatures felt on a yellow star. When you were human, a sunburn could hurt you. Now, having a star in your chest is nothing. I won’t even need to heal you. You can absorb the radiation, protect your planet from it, and allow the star’s magnetic field to heal the planet.” He glanced down at the fallen walls I was supposed to be correcting. “Did that one just get redder? Beth, are you losing your nerve?”

My fingers trembled at what he was suggesting. “That seems like an extreme solution.”

“It’s okay if you don’t want to do it.”

My swollen eyes challenged him. “Is it?”

“Of course. There will be consequences.”

“Like what?”

“Natural consequences. Airplanes will crash. Who knows what they’ll crash into. Could be mountains. Could be buildings. Animals won’t know where to go when they migrate. They’ll end up in strange places, and miss protecting nesting grounds. Not just birds, but fish and wolves, and who knows what else? I can do it myself, but I’ll need some time to perfect my body. If you go through that mirror and take a stroll through the Red Forest in my body, you’ll see how far I have to go. The poles have been sliding for six hundred years, so they can probably slide a little more if that’s what you want.”

“That isn’t fair,” I complained sullenly.

He smiled, beautiful in the assurances he provided. “All this makes perfect sense and the only part of this that is unfair is how many shortcuts I’m offering. Think about this carefully. On the first level, you must achieve control of yourself. You are not fit to rule anything until you have control of yourself. I planted a mechanism inside you that changed the way you operate. Everything about you is transformed. Your fragile human brain is gone and in its place is a control room where if you want your body to do it, it is done. The gift extends to the second level where you think you were given the ability to rearrange matter. That was never the case,” he said with a somber headway.

“Then what? I’ve been commanding matter  all this time.”

“Darling, what I’m saying is that I gave you the authority to rearrange matter , and then I taught you how to do it. Neither of those things is worth anything without the other.”

“The third level?”

“I didn’t give that to you because that is not something that can be given easily. Not only that, but it is not necessary for this exercise. Truthfully, you came further on level three then I anticipated. I planned to perfect your body, give you matter manipulation and move you directly to level four, which is what we are doing now.”

“You’re very generous,” I said numbly, thinking of the immortals who had been working toward level four for hundreds of years and had fallen pitifully short.

“What I’m suggesting for you is perfectly safe and will take under a minute. I do appreciate that it is a big jump for you, but I want you to learn how to take big jumps. I didn’t come here early to get you, to be with you, to take you to higher places only to let you fall to the same small-mindedness that is killing the immortals of this planet. Trust me.”

I looked in his eyes, the gray-green of his eyes. I didn’t realize before that confidence was green. His gaze went straight through me. “Fine,” I said, waving my hand and transforming the last of the red inside me to white in an instant.

The Last Christian didn’t move at all, but all the pieces that had been the walls of the fourth chamber flew into the air and made the stairs of a staircase up to an even higher level. Though the fifth pavilion was not yet there, there was now space for it.

He brought me close to him and placed his hand on my chest over my heart. “This is the moment when all my promises for us come true.”

What happened next took less than a minute, just as he said.

There was light. It was inside me. There was heat. It was everywhere, beyond me, and into the world outside me. I could feel it in my fingertips and out the ends of my hair. There was pressure. It was like delivering the sword, but the feeling was not concentrated in my throat. It was everywhere, but my body’s reaction to it was completely different. The sword had sliced my body with its edges, burned my insides with its heat, and had come straight through me. The star Christian introduced me to was something so much larger, so much hotter, and so much stronger. It was like knives hitting every cell in my body at once instead of just one attack coming from one direction like the sword. This came from everywhere and when the pain from my insides traveled to my skin, it broke against me. Like you were cutting a tomato that was suddenly made of rock.

In an instant, I learned I could push it back. The pain stopped and the light from the star shone inside me like I had become a lantern. The force of it didn’t even throw me out of the White Forest. Instead, I opened my eyes, saw the Last Christian, and saw his smile. He looked around at the White Forest inside me like he’d never seen it before and beamed.

“I love this,” he said softly. “I love all this. That should do it.” He snapped his fingers and the light was gone.

I leaned into his chest and put his arms around my waist. “It was all fixed, just like that?”

He nodded. “It was easy to fix. It was easy for someone like you to fix.”

“What goes up on that fifth pavilion?” I asked, looking upward.

“I’m not sure. I’ve been held back for so long, I’m not sure I can remember. We’ll have to find out together.”


CHAPTER THIRTY NINE

The Golden Couple

I opened my eyes wide. I was still inside the cave. While my body protected the cave from the radiation, the extreme heat had not all been absorbed by my body. Some of it had leaked out and it had completely melted the spherical inner chamber and the chair I had been sitting on. Actually, it fried most of the cave, but it was very clear that the heat had been contained. Only the magnetism of the star had passed beyond and it had done its job nicely.

Suddenly, I understood that Earth’s south pole had previously been in the northern hemisphere. We had moved it back to the south pole, so now magnetic north was true north. That seemed funny. The reaction was that the core of the world felt stable, and I felt like I had just come out of a very warm bubble bath.

Just like Christian promised, my clothes were wrecked and I had melted gold dripping from my elbows.

I called to Rhuk  and it leaped out of the molten mess, leaving the other diamonds in the cooling metal. Rhuk had to shake the liquid from its facets to look clean. It looked like a tiny kitten shaking off the rain. I saw at a glance that the heat in the room had melted the setting that held my earring together. It only took a moment to create a stud and a superior setting of the remains of what had been the inner chamber. The diamonds cheered as their setting was remade and they danced together as I recreated my earring. The collective lump jumped up to my ear like it was home.

I had been about to inform Christian that I needed more clothes when I glanced at the remains of the golden chamber that had popped like a bubble.

From deep in my past, I remembered an idea I had once cherished. If only Christian could see me in the right dress, he would forget whatever was holding him back and love me. What if that was still true? What if I just hadn’t had the right material?

What if I made a dress out of the gold that was splattered against the cave walls and pooled beneath me? Could I even design something clever enough?

“Is Christian on his way here?”

“He’s coming,” Rhuk announced.

I closed my eyes and wove the cooling gold into a dress. I worked on it with intense dedication while I waited for him to arrive. He walked in, illuminating matter that should not have been able to light up. It wouldn’t have lit up if he was not now commanding level four openly, creating matter that did what he wanted instantly. He looked at me, clutched his chest, and leaned against the wall.

Then he laughed.

Well, I was something to see. The malleability of gold was impressive anyway, and I made it do things that would have been hard for any craftsman. The gold dress had one strap, a thick corset, and ten layers of skirt with gold woven so finely that it looked like tulle. There were splatters of gold on my face in swirls and patterns that sparkled. I shook it out and the whole thing moved almost like fabric because each atom was moving the way I told it to move.

“I bow to your greatness. I don’t know why I expected to find you naked, crying, and on the floor. I got here as quickly as I could, but you were here making an outfit out of the remains of the room. Why didn’t I think of that? You’re a visionary.”

“You came running like that and you didn’t bring clothes for me?”

“I didn’t need to!” he huffed. “At level four, I don’t need to twist gold into thread. I can order a stone to become a housecoat and it does my bidding.”

“Truly?”

“Of course, but what you’ve done is better,” he praised, taking in the sight of me with obvious pleasure.

“Does it look good?” I asked with uncertainty.

“I wanted you to wear a dress I put away in my closet, but I have to forget about that now. Let’s go say our wedding vows in front of the villagers.”

“Are you going to change?” I asked as we left the room. “It wouldn’t be a good wedding if you weren't dressed as nicely as me.”

“On the contrary, it wouldn’t be a good wedding if anyone was dressed as finely as you.”

***

The fashion fanatic changed his clothes anyway. Christian put together a look that made him look like he was a modern-day Apollo and called for the little gods to meet us in the Moon Room, which was the only room he said was fit for us to say our vows. Inside, all the sane  gods and goddesses met together. Christian welcomed them and told them what would happen next.

“Welcome! I am here to announce that my wife has healed me. All my level four powers have returned to me and I have news. There are a total of five immortals on the surface who have not been recruited. The first is a man named Max who has reached level two. He has a family, so you’re unlikely to recruit him for several decades, but I recommend Brandon to keep an eye on him.” He turned to Brandon to give further instructions. “Just have lunch with him once a year for the next forty years or so. Provided he doesn’t fall off the wagon, he will probably only be willing to do stints in the village until he no longer feels comfortable on the surface. Work on him, will you?”

Brandon whined hilariously. “I hate going to the surface.”

“It’s a very understandable feeling. I see the scar around your neck is disappearing nicely though, so I think you’ll be able to manage by next year.” He smiled and moved on down the agenda. “The second one was discovered by Beth. It’s a young man called The Incinerator.”

“His name is Rodrigues,” Rhuk interjected.

Rodrigues ? Great. He’s a level one. He sets a lot of fires but heals himself often and fast. Beth promised to keep an eye on him and apparently, Rhuk is doing it for her. She’ll speak to him in person in a year.”

He then told of a boy in Ethiopia, a girl in Denmark, and another girl in Argentina.

“Should I go?” Indra asked. Looking around the room, it was obvious to her that she couldn’t help them with their level two work and these people were freaks who couldn’t fit in on the surface without help. She wanted to be helpful, essential even.

Christian shook his head. “No. Brandon and Pricina need a holiday and I need you to do something different.”

She waited expectantly.

“There are immortals here whose bodies are corrupted. You can practice your level three work on them. If you can correct their bodies and rework their minds so that they can stay out of the Red Forest, they can be returned to the surface. I recommend that everyone take turns delivering them. If we do it that way, everyone can have a little holiday as the mad ones are integrated back into society.”

“How will we decide where to release them? We can’t release them all in the same place,” Brandon protested.

“No, we can’t,” Christian agreed. “A few of them don’t speak English and never did. We can drop those people in the places they’re most likely to be able to communicate without help from us. We don’t need to make this more complicated than it has to be. After their bodies and gray matter are returned to their proper places (some of these people have their brains in their feet), they won’t be immortal anymore and it’s unlikely they’ll figure it out a second time. We just have to say goodbye. Surely, you all can figure out a sensible way to manage the details without my help. ”

“What about my wife?” Axel asked. “If Indra can heal her, then why can’t I be with her?”

“You can,” Christian easily allowed. “You can take her up to the surface and live with her for as long as you want.”

Axel sat back in his seat with a vacant look on his face. “Christian, you look like you doubt I’ll be back if I do that.”

Christian regarded him kindly. “You’re in charge of your own destiny. I don’t wish to pour doom on your most crucial desires, but you know as well as I do that any choice that isn’t living as a god is living like a human and runs terrible risks if your godhood means anything to you. I did exactly what you’re suggesting. It’s a hard path back.”

“I’m tired,” Axel replied.

Christian did not say what he was thinking. I was glad because it was heartless and heartfelt at the same time. He would have told Axel to go to the surface and live as her husband for as long as he could. It was a very selfish way to treat a woman if he was going to leave her when she got too old because he wouldn’t be able to blend in anymore. Or stay with her and give up his immortality? There was no easy answer to the question.

What Christian did say was, “Beth and I are going to stay for one year to work on the planet and give all of you a break. She needs the practice  and it is as convenient to work here as anywhere else. We will not stay beyond one year. I have kingdoms of my own that need my attention, and I will leave whether you are ready to take control of this planet or not.”

“Doesn’t our planet need fixing?” a god I didn’t know asked.

“That’s why we’re taking control of the planet for one year. Beth is going to fix your planet. She has mastered levels one and two, which is more than any of you. This is her training ground.” He looked at me, giving me a look of pure love, and I wondered if I’d ever get tired of him looking at me that way. He turned back to the group. “I didn’t think any of you would be interested in working on the fallen immortal since if you’d had much of an interest in it, you would have done what you could to save them by now. Still, if you are, I will give a little guidance to Indra and anyone else who is interested.”

Everyone looked satisfied as Christian made that unprecedented, tantalizing offer, except Axel who looked confused. Perhaps it wouldn’t always have been obvious to me what was happening inside him, but it was obvious now. When I first met him, he wanted to meet a new woman from the surface, we brought Indra down, and he spent a bit of time with her. He was perplexed at how disinterested he was in her. He preferred his wife, who was no longer his wife.

“Now, if any of you have any further questions,” Christian said abruptly, “I’d appreciate it if you kept them to yourself. You’re a god. Figure it out yourself. I have a few things of my own to figure out.” He put his hand out to me.

I reached out and took it.

“Bethany,” he said. It was the first time he’d said my name and even though I always hated it when people said my name, I never felt so humbled and happy as when he said it. The word went straight to my core. “In front of all these witnesses, and the greater gods who are not present, I, Damon Christianus, promise to be your husband and to love you more than I love anything eternally.”

Brandon leaped forward and handed Christian a knife. He took it thankfully and eyed the blade.

I understood that was all he had to say. What more would a man who had cut his own heart out to give to me have to say? He’d kept his hands to himself, committed murder, and given me everything he had to the last hair.

I repeated what he had said from my perspective. “In front of all these witnesses, and greater gods who are not present, I, Bethany Estel Coldwell, promise to be your wife and to love you more than I love anything eternally.”

Brandon shoved a blade in my hand. I took it and looked at Christian oddly. What were we going to do with these? It wasn’t like we could cut ourselves.

He lifted his to slice his palm and I copied him. He swiped the knife and so did I, but all that happened was that the blades broke and tiny pieces of the sharp edges fell on the carpet like glitter.

Everyone cheered!

He took me in his arms and kissed me. It was a kiss to let me know that everything was finally all right. We were finally together, and nothing could ever come between us again.

When it was finished, he brought my ear to his lips and said, “I should tell you, that isn’t exactly my real name, but for today, it’ll do.”

I slapped him across the chest and groaned.

“I’ve been using it for six hundred years,” he said defensively. “How long do you have to use a name before it’s yours?”

“You probably have a closet full of them,” I said crossly, as I pulled him to me to kiss him again.

“I have closets filled with everything,” he laughed and kissed me like the other gods were not watching.

I glanced at our guests, allowing them to offer us their congratulations. When I turned to Brandon and Pricina though, I saw the normally distant couple kissing. A wet streak slid down Pricina’s cheek as all her stress and fear were released. He held her close and whispered words about joy and freedom. Christian was right about them… all of them. They needed a break and then perhaps, they could begin again.

The Moon Room melted away in the background and Christian and I were alone in his bedroom with the doors closed and a spell that spun around the room that left us alone, without a sound or a thought entering in or out.

Alone, at last, Christian wrapped his arms around me from behind and jangled my chandelier earring with his nose. “How would you like me to love you?”

“Are there a lot of options?”

“So many,” he said, getting the wet parts of my mouth involved with the wet parts of his.

There was no more talking because I was finally getting what I wanted.

His skin was heaven as more of it came into view. His eyes were on me and above everything else, he finally looked at me the way I always dreamed he would. He touched me the way I wanted him to as if he had learned a lot more about me as King Christian than he let on. He performed like he had scoured all my romantic fantasies and chosen to reenact the one he liked the best.

I had never felt the end before, but being loved by Christian felt like the end. It was a dramatic conclusion to a long journey. I had once been a girl who thought being with him was out of my reach. I had been a teenager who stole a kiss because it was too hard to keep my hands off him. I had been a young woman who pulled her whole life apart because she wanted to sneak into his room after dark and wear his sweatpants if that was all I could get of him. All those parts of my love for him were fulfilled and so in a way, the dream was over.

In another way, I had a greater god tangled up in my limbs. Like a king, he ran his hand up my leg to feel what was his. Like a sacrificial victim, he did what he was told as he looked up at me and waited on his knees. Like a doctor, he remembered to treat me carefully. And like the end had finally come, he looked at me like he never had before, like there was no part of him that didn’t want me.

I knew it would last forever because he knew how to build things that wouldn’t break, dull, or tarnish.

When I fell asleep, I woke up in his arms and realized that there were so many more dreams to come.


CHAPTER FORTY

After the Storm

I sat in a cafe. I ordered a sandwich with bacon and chicken, cucumbers and red peppers. I looked like Holly, red hair and all while I waited for Rodrigues (the Incinerator) and my sandwich to arrive. When they came, one sat on the table and the other sat on a chair.

He looked unapologetically handsome, but he was trying too hard to match my effortless nonchalance.

“Have you ever had this sandwich?” I asked him.

“I’ve never been to this cafe before,” he replied, looking at me over the rims of his sunglasses.

I took my knife and sawed off a bite. “Try it,” I said, offering the slice on the end of my fork.

He fingered his collar uncomfortably. “I’d rather not.”

“I’m not trying to poison you,” I said with a laugh. “Believe me, if I wanted you dead, I am one of the few people on the planet who could actually kill you and I wouldn’t do it with a sandwich. If that was on my mind, I could have killed you last year with your own explosives. I want to show you something.”

He leaned forward, covering one side view with his hand, and ate the corner piece without any more fuss. I liked him better than Charles already. Not that that was saying much.

He coughed a bit.

“Wasn’t very good, was it?” I asked. “It doesn’t smell good. Like something is wrong with it.”

A server was on me immediately. “Is everything okay with your meal?”

“It’s fine,” I replied, shooing him away. Once he was gone, I turned back to Rodrigues. “Are you okay with an interview? I want to ask you some questions.”

His eyes moved shiftily behind his sunglasses.

“Were you trying to kill Dr. Bobby?” I asked. “Did you know that you didn’t?”

He shook his head minutely. “I wasn’t sure. A lot of things happened at once.”

“You didn’t. His gun malfunctioned and exploded in his face. His wounds were serious and he was not equipped to deal with them in the hotel. He probably would have lived if he had been able to exit the vicinity before the hotel went up in flames, but you didn’t set off the detonator. I did.”

“How was that possible?” he asked, gobsmacked.

“As far as you know, it shouldn’t have been. I offer absolutely no explanation for why it was possible. Try this sandwich again.”

“I just tried it. It was not good.”

I cut off another piece. I had been busy fixing it in my head while we talked. “But I can do anything,” I said, offering him another bite.

He bit into it and his face was priceless. “That’s the same ingredients?”

I nodded and set down my fork. “Tell me about the bombs.”

“They were there to separate the prisoners from the guards, and give me a chance to figure out what Dr. Bobby knew.”

“It doesn’t matter what he knew. He’s dead.”

“I have his notes,” Rodrigues gloated, momentarily dropping his guard.

I dismissed it with a wave. “Yeah… I hope you enjoyed reading them because I think I’d find them a bit dry. I’m not the least bit interested in what the dead Dr. Bobby thinks.”

“Who are you?” he asked, looking at me like I was an alien.

I deserved it.

I took a deep breath. “If you’re feeling like you might want to live forever, or if you are afraid that you’ll get caught by other people like Dr. Bobby, and have no idea where to hide, I have a place you can go for fifty years or so.”

He looked at me like he didn’t trust me. His guard was up like he had suddenly remembered himself.

I found I was having a hard time staying interested. I couldn’t yet see into the future the way Christian looked around a star, but it looked obvious to me that this man would get bored if there was no one to fight or outsmart.

“I’ve been scouted by a few military groups,” he admitted.

“Oh…” I said. “Did they like Dr. Bobby’s notes too?”

He was surprised. He hadn’t meant for me to piece together that he’d shared those notes with more than one country.

My gaze hardened. This young man was part of the problem. He didn’t work with Dr. Bobby because he was trying to take him down. He did it because he was trying to become the next Dr. Bobby. Now the cycle would continue with them torturing more people to see whether or not they could do the sorts of things Christian and I could do.

“Are you immortal?” I asked, leaning forward.

He nodded powerfully.

I leaned further forward and said, “I wonder how many of your organs you can live without. Are you already missing a few?”

“They’re not going to use me for their experiments,” he said arrogantly.

“Did they promise that? Did they shake on it?” I asked, mocking him.

That was when I noticed the snipers. There were two guns trained on me from across the street. One was hiding in the greenery by the road. The second was in a window above the street.

“Rhuk,” I said inside my head. “Jam their guns. The bullets wouldn’t hurt me. I just don’t want to make a scene.”

“They’re already taken care of,” it whispered.

Out loud, I said, “So, you promised them that you’ll bring me to them and they can harvest all the organs they want from me? That’s why they haven’t touched you yet. They’re trying to use you to catch a much bigger fish. I wonder though, how deep you are in all this? How much have you learned about your own body?”

“I’m immortal,” he hissed back at me.

“Are you?” I said seductively, before forcing a capillary to burst in his eye.

He didn’t squirt blood, but I saw the blood fill the white of his eye. He felt it and put a hand to his face. If he was able to bleed, he wasn’t very far along at all.

“Your boys won’t be able to take me. I’m not like you, and you will never be like me.” I got up.

He tried to follow me, clutching at my elbow like his hand was a vice grip.

How dare he touch me!

“Heal this.” I caused his femur to break. Snap! I almost felt vicious enough to make it break in three places, but I settled for one.

He fell to the floor, screaming.

I got on my phone and called for an ambulance. Then I crouched down next to him. The server and the host were crowding over him. “The ambulance will be here soon,” I told them as they hovered.

He was making such a fuss, he made the perfect distraction. In a moment when no one was looking, I slipped out the front door. I didn’t even pay for the famous sandwich. I glanced at the snipers. One had fired and his gun had exploded in his face. The second one had not fired. His gun had jammed. Leave it to Rhuk to ruin their firearms in different ways. I blew a kiss at a frustrated sniper. Christian was waiting down the block for me.

There he was.

Impressive, like he had been when he first entered my hospital room, except much more so. Now, he leaned against a stone wall and I felt myself feeling envious of whatever he had his eyes trained on. He flicked a toothpick from his mouth in boredom, creating a delicious angle with one corner as his elbow, another as his wrist, and the last as the point of his chin. His eyes flashed with unspoken interest when he saw me.

The secrets were between us now, and though more secrets would inevitably crop up… we would find the answers to them together.

Two men banged heads behind me as I walked. I twirled, saw them crumpled on the pavement, and looked around for more.

“Ick, how many guys did Rodrigues bring with him?”

“So many!” Christian exclaimed, his eyes still flashing. “I had to cause two car accidents on my way here.” He drew me into his arms. “Shall I open a hole in the alley to take us home?”

“Please. The food here sucks.”

As if he were escorting me into a polished hotel lobby, he led me into a bricked alleyway. Behind a dumpster, he opened a hole in the cement, and together we dropped into it without a sound.

THE END


Dear Ink Drinkers,

Thank you so much for reading my books!  Thank you for reading this book especially.  

In case it is not already clear, I am an independent novelist.  Without the protection or promotion of a larger publishing company, I really need help from readers like you.  All I need you to do is leave a review for this book on the bookseller site.  It would mean all the world to me!

If you really like my books and would like to read my books for free in exchange for leaving a review, then please join my ARC team on my website.  As part of my team, you’ll get invitations to download my newest book for free with the understanding that you will leave a review when you are finished.  I have some really exciting books coming down the pipes in the next few years and it would be wonderful to have you join me.

On my website, you can also subscribe to my newsletter.  It’s free and newsletter subscribers get a free copy of my novelette, ‘Tiny Wishes’.  My newsletter is sent out quarterly, so I won’t cram your inbox full of noisy reminders.  It is just a little update on how I’m doing and how my stories are coming along.

Here is my web address where you can join my ARC team or subscribe to my newsletter: https://tigrix1.wixsite.com/stephanievanorman

If you need to contact me personally, you can always send a note to my email address as well at tigrix@gmail.com .

Happy reading!  Thank you for allowing me the privilege of entertaining you!

All the best!

Stephanie Van Orman

Novelist

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