Exciting Sneak Peek: Torched Heart – First Chapter

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Chapter 1 – Scarlett Rescue

I don’t know who I am. Eldra’s memories are dominating my mind. Add in Kendra’s, Lexy’s, and Caradoc’s memories, and I think I’m losing myself.

—Jake

“When I pull this door open, all hell is going to break loose,” I spoke verbally instead of mentally through the Trinity of Mind because Luiz and Ariel had refused to be left behind.

I panted quietly as I hung on the rusty metal handle of the heavy warehouse door. We had parked a half-mile away at a church and ran through alleys halfway here before changing to a stealthy walk. My ankle, partially crushed before sunrise this morning by a voodoo witch’s magic-preventing rope,  throbbed in agony despite my near overdose on ibuprofen. Why was I the only one out of breath? I ignored the obvious answer.

Lexy stood just left of the doorway, red eyes locked onto a thick-but-short Polynesian man who stood guard at the door. She wore a black leather top and pants that, as usual, stuck to her like another layer of skin. Over her top, she wore a leather vest that acted as body armor. She had a blade strapped to each thigh—her runed dagger on her right and a skull-hilted blade on her left that had once belonged to a tall voodoo witch. Wearing thick-soled, knee-high combat boots, she stood much taller than the Polynesian. He wore a button-up Hawaiian shirt, damp at the armpits, gray shorts, and black river sandals. To Alexis, he smelled like he’d been sweating in the heat all day. Lexy’s pumpkin spice allure hid his smell from the rest of us. Her allure—an enticing scent that could short-circuit almost anyone who smells it— had taken control of him and prevented him from sounding the alarm.

Lexy forced the Polynesian’s black eyes to meet hers and read his mind, which proved fruitless as he hadn’t been allowed inside the warehouse. She put a hand on his cheek—the skin contact increasing her allure’s controlling power—and ordered, “Sit down.” Mesmerized by Lexy’s allure, he sat down on the weed-ridden asphalt and leaned back against the brick building.

Ogden used to be the armpit of Utah. Recently, both the city government and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had put deodorant on that armpit by updating certain areas. The abandoned warehouse was not in one of the areas where deodorant had been applied. Rust splotched the doors. The asphalt had crumbled, and tall, dried weeds had popped up in random patches. Weathered-gray plywood boarded over the few windows. The August sky, orange from the setting sun, illuminated the graffiti on the dilapidated brick building.

My legs wavered and almost gave out. My thick denim pants rubbed my road-rashed legs. My new Kevlar armor under my black hoodie weighed me down. Of course, Luiz didn’t even notice the extra weight of his Kevlar. Using both the door and Eldra’s staff to hold myself up, I hoped to hide my physical weakness like I hoped to hide my hideous face. The Trinity of Mind—a permanent mental connection between Kendra, Lexy, and me—prevented me from hiding either. Kendra and Lexy shared my thoughts, so despite my efforts, they knew that I’d grabbed the door not to open it but to stay on my feet.

He is not OK, Lexy thought to Kendra, nodding at me.

He’s tough, Kendra answered, tossing her head as if she still had long hair instead of the boy-cut she’d managed to grow the past week. At least he used to be, she added.

It didn’t matter that I could hear Kendra’s and Lexy’s thoughts. They mentally talked about me as if I weren’t there.

“Why are you wobbling?” Luiz teased under his breath. “Too lazy to work out?” He grinned.

I yanked the door, hoping that opening it would shut all three of them up. Except it didn’t open. Locked.

“If the door is too heavy,” Luiz continued his quiet mocking, “I can help you out.”

Alexis and Kendra each stifled their laughs. I usually enjoyed it when Luiz lightened the mood, but at my expense? Not helping.

I reached out with magic to unlock the deadbolt, but it needed a key on both sides. Eldra’s favorite spell to magically twist the thumb turn on the other side wasn’t an option. That trick had never failed me—er Eldra—before, so she’d never learned to pick a lock with magic. I could magically slide the pins in the lock, but that didn’t mean I knew which key pattern to use when doing so. I made a mental note to research lock picking later.

I’d already filled both my body and Eldra’s staff with magic, and now was the time to use it.

“Can you do this?” I whispered my comeback to Luiz. “Hætan!” Heat. Eldra knew this spell well. Kendra and I gulped, thinking of her sacrifice. She should be with us. Our hearts hadn’t stopped aching since early this morning. None of us were OK enough to be here. But Scarlett—er, Jody—needed us. No, she wasn’t just a stripper. She was Carl’s mom and a good mom, too. Carl needed her. If we had to give our lives for her, she was worth it.

I used the pain of our loss to augment the heat, focusing inside the deadbolt. The red glow of melting metal illuminated the door jamb. The heat radiated outward, warming my hand, but I redirected it back to the deadbolt, not letting it burn me. Alexis had taught me how to control heat with magic. She could touch anything hot without getting burned. The smell of burnt metal, plastic, and paint permeated the air, causing Alexis to wrinkle her nose.

The protector magic had provided me a vision of this moment. In it, local gang members with handguns stood on the other side of the door. I nodded to Luiz and Kendra to step to the right side. I poured magic into my new Kevlar armor, making me double bulletproof. We’d checked all the trunks of the various vehicles in the mansion garage and had found two men’s Kevlar vests. Some of the druids killed on the Day of a Thousand Deaths had worn Kevlar, and it had failed to protect them. Kendra and Lexy pulled at my magic to make their leather body armor bulletproof as well. They weren’t double bulletproof. Earlier, Luiz and I had tried to chivalrously give the vests to the girls, but they didn’t fit well, so the girls refused. Alexis made a call and special ordered Kevlar vests to custom fit their feminine figures, but their order wouldn’t arrive for weeks.

Kendra stepped next to Luiz. Lexy, however, left the Tongan in a daze on the left side of the door and tiptoed to stand directly in front of the door as if to offer an easy target, testing if they dared shoot at the Princess of the New World. Ariel stepped in front of me, dressed in a coral camisole, gray shorts, and Converse shoes that matched her hair. Yes, a seven-year-old girl with lavender hair planned to use herself as a human shield to protect me, which is not something I would normally allow. In fairness, she was thousands—maybe millions—of years old, but doesn’t remember much of it, which is probably good since she used to be evil. We’d only met Ariel earlier this morning. She was Coyote’s hybrid granddaughter, half water baby—a freshwater mermaid thought to be a Native American myth—and half ancient alien shapeshifter. She swore an oath to Coyote to protect me, then fought with us against her own kind—all of whom seemed to have kept their memories. After we survived that battle, she transformed her sea-lion-like mermaid tail into the legs of a seven-year-old girl. She joined our operation, code-named Scarlett Rescue, to fulfill her promise to Coyote. I wasn’t sure if I could trust her, but her willingness to stand in front of me as a human shield was a good start.

We’ve got this, Kendra added, posing motivationally in a half-T position by standing with her shoulders back and pressing her fists together above her chest so that her forearms formed a straight line. She always posed like that and spoke that phrase before her drill-team performances at half-time. Luiz teasingly copied Kendra, first cupping his pecs with his hands as if he were a girl adjusting her breasts, and then mimicking Kendra’s fists-together stance.

I grinned, grateful Luiz could ease my stress, this time at Kendra’s expense. I yanked the door a second time. This time, the red-hot deadbolt collapsed, and the door swung open.

Only darkness presented itself on the other side of the entry. Lexy could see inside fine, which gave me the quarter-second I needed to dive—more of a fall with my weak legs—to the right side before the machine gun spit bullets that would have ripped me apart. Three bullets hit my pants. I’d tested the bulletproof spell with the expectation that it would stop a few shots, not thirteen massive rounds per second.

Why hadn’t the protector magic showed me a machine gun in my vision?

After taking a couple bullets yesterday, Lexy had dressed more prepared today. But like me, she hadn’t expected an AR-15 illegally modified to be fully automatic. She side-stepped out of the way, but not before a line of five bullets hit her leather body armor, right above her heart. Without magical assistance, the first bullet would have torn through her chest, but the bulletproof spell stopped all five before she’d shifted out of the doorway—actually, four and a half. One of the rounds hit near her right hip. It had stopped, sort of. A half inch of the bullet stuck out of her leather armor. She could already smell her own blood. She pulled the projectile out and looked at it. Her blood dripped down from a very sharp point. Armor-piercing rounds. The scent of honey—Lexy’s hunger—mixed with her pumpkin spice.

“We got ‘em!” a young man’s nasally voice shouted with nervous glee after the machine gun stopped. Then he swore. “We killed a little girl!” his young, nasally voice changing from glee to panic.

I found myself on the asphalt to the right of the door at Luiz and Kendra’s feet. My palms bled, scuffed, again, from diving to the asphalt. Eldra’s staff rolled to a stop a few feet away. I reached for my lower right hip to see why it hurt worse than my ankle and found nothing wrong. Lexy’s hip hurt, not mine. The Trinity of Mind had its flaws, such as the difficulty distinguishing her injuries from mine—both hurt.

Ariel had taken the worst of the bullets. Her seven-year-old body lay mangled on the aged asphalt. Blood oozed from a hole in her forehead. A dozen more holes splotched her chest, coloring her coral camisole in crimson. One of her legs had almost been severed. It bent awkwardly, held together by the outside flap of skin, the separated bone visible. She lay motionless—corpse-like—her lavender-brown eyes just empty glass, staring directly at me. I couldn’t believe she’d died the very same day that she promised to protect me. Her eyes looked so lifeless. A pang of regret that I would never really know Ariel pinched at my heart.

Until she winked at me.

Footsteps padded inside the darkness.

Luiz reached around and stuck the muzzle of the shotgun just inside the doorway and fired, shouting, “You got nada!”

He must have hit someone because a scream of pain wailed from the darkness inside the doorway.

Lexy darted inside with inhuman speed. Through her eyes, I saw one body on the ground and another holding a pistol sideways. They looked like teenagers—neither old enough, Ivy League enough, nor elite ex-military enough to be a Skull Shadow. A tan, Caucasian young man lay bleeding on the dirty, once-white tile floor. He had blond hair and was dressed in black shorts and a black T-shirt sporting a half-naked image of Harley Quinn. The blood on Harley Quinn’s bare legs and abdomen almost looked like it belonged. Next to him stood a Latino, maybe a year older than me. He had black hair and dark eyes over wide cheekbones and was dressed in dark gray cargo shorts and a black shirt with a skull next to a whiskey bottle. Both had tattoos of three letters in a decorative font on their upper left arms—I could only make out the “W”—branding them as members of some local gang. The pair could have been Luiz and me. Well, I wasn’t tan anymore. I was road-rashed and almost albino, and neither Luiz nor I had tattoos or their poor taste in clothes. Still, the similarity hit me.

The Latino teen pulled the trigger. Lexy stepped to the side to avoid the teenager’s erratic shot. The bullet whizzed through the air. He fired again. Lexy angled closer as she dodged each shot, then ripped the gun from his hand before his fourth trigger pull. The first two bullets traveled out the doorway; the last hit the doorjamb with a loud, echoing crack. Lexy put her hand on the Latino’s cheek, and using her allure, short-circuited his self-control. The artery in his neck called to her. Despite being a gang member recruited to be a pawn for the Skull Shadows, his youth still convinced her to push aside her own honey-scented hunger.

As I started getting up, I focused on Lexy’s senses, not just visual, but her heightened hearing and sense of smell, too. The doorway didn’t lead to the open warehouse floor. Instead, it opened into a short, ceilingless hallway that turned left after a dozen feet. The right wall consisted of concrete bricks. New gray-green sheetrock covered the left wall, suggesting the Skull Shadows had recently installed it. The thin sheetrock failed to hide the noise and smell of additional men and the oily, metallic scent of their guns.

Kendra stepped inside the doorway, followed by Luiz, before I could even get to my knees. My mental warning reached Kendra, who stopped and turned to go back, causing Luiz to bump into her.

“Get down!” I shouted, diving into the doorway in a pushup position, my head tilted left, just outside the door while my right shoulder pressed against the doorjamb. I spread my bleeding left palm over the asphalt that went right up to the doorsill, using the blacktop like I used pebbles. I stretched my right arm out and placed my palm flat onto the gray-materialled sheetrock, pouring bulletproof magic into it. A half-second later, the sound of a dozen AR-15s thundered from the warehouse.

If one AR-15 shot thirteen bullets per second, then for a dozen, my magic needed to stop one hundred and fifty-six bullets a second. I didn’t think. I couldn’t. I just converted the asphalt into magic as fast as I could and shoved that magic into the gray-green sheetrock walls.

Not every bullet deflected. A few rounds blew through the wall. One hit Kendra’s leather armor at her right shoulder, the bulletproof magic deflecting it away. Another deflected off the back of my Kevlar vest.

Luiz grabbed Kendra and twisted to put himself between her and the bullets like a best friend should. With a direct hit, the armor-piercing rounds would go right through Luiz’s Kevlar. They needed time to take a few steps to get out—time they didn’t have unless I gave it to them. Lexy dropped to the tile floor, unconcerned about getting the gang member’s blood on her leather armor, instead more enticed by the blood’s coppery scent. She grabbed the young man’s body and twisted, using it as a shield.

The bullets pounded against the sheetrock and my magic like a debilitating migraine throbbing behind my eyes. Every projectile that hit the sheetrock hit me—not literally, but metaphysically—through my magic. The pounding continued along my spine and around my ribs. It spread through my shoulders into my arms and through my hips into my legs. When the pounding reached the tips of my fingers and toes, every part of me shook. Time slowed, and the seconds, like the bullets, dragged on. I should have passed out. No, I should have died. My mind blanked. I couldn’t focus. I’d lost connection to the Trinity of Mind. Only inertia kept my magic flowing. Luiz needed two more steps to exit, his arm extended, shoving Kendra in the lower back to get her out the door. Lexy lay in that hallway. The bullets fired all over, many directly at Luiz and Lexy. Was it possible to save them? Not with that many bullets. I tried anyway.

Why had we not considered that they would have ARs? We’d made what could be the ultimate mistake. We’d placed too much trust in my vision. Well, what good was I as a protector if my visions weren’t accurate? If I couldn’t protect Lexy and my best friend?

My right cheek touched the rough asphalt just as the bullets stopped flying—which didn’t make sense because my left arm still burned with the effort to keep it extended straight below me. How could the asphalt be touching my face? My straight left arm should have kept me two feet off the ground.

¡Diantre! Jake!” Luiz exclaimed, looking down at me. His long nose looked twice as long as usual as I looked up at him. He grabbed my torso and pulled me up. My left arm slipped out of a two-foot deep, hand-shaped hole. I’d burned through the multiple asphalt layers into the rocky earth beneath to stop bullets.

Without the vibration of bullets pounding against me through my magic, I sought out Lexy’s mind, latching back onto her senses. She quickly stood up in the hallway, holding the AR-15 from the previously downed gang member in her arms, reloading. The bullets should have riddled the gray-materialled walls with holes, leaving it ready to collapse. Instead, less than twenty bullet holes dotted the sheetrock, most above six feet high. Pungent gun smoke rose into the darkness above the ceilingless wall. The audible clicks of reloading weapons urged Alexis to hurry.

Lexy took three steps toward the wall and jumped up, lithely landing in a sitting position on the exposed two-by-four at the top of the wall, the AR-15 whipping around to point into the darkness of the warehouse. As a dhampir, she could see quite well in the dark. She fired three quick bursts, then dropped back down just before the enemy returned fire. The bullets shot toward the top of the wall where Lexy had briefly sat, but she’d already dropped down. She ran to another part of the wall, jumped up, and fired again.

The bullets now exploded through the sheetrock, but the shooters had lost their form. Instead of spreading out, they all shot at Lexy, but she danced just fast enough to stay ahead of their aim. She leaped to the top of another part of the wall and fired two more quick bursts.

Luiz took one step inside the doorway, put his shotgun into a fresh bullet hole in the wall, and fired, then darted back outside. The ARs turned toward him, which gave Lexy the chance to find a fourth point on the wall to land and fire. Only four ARs returned fire.

I picked up Eldra’s staff and used it to help stay on my feet. Despite the pain, and with most of my weight on the staff, I stumbled weakly into the hallway. The running had left my legs burning. They still felt like Jell-O. Worse, bulletproofing the sheetrock wall had drained me further. Ariel dragged her bleeding form forward after me. I struggled to use magic, too worn out to draw much. I managed four smaller-than-a-marble orbs and used Lexy’s eyes to choose my targets as I tossed them over the wall. I felt them hit the remaining four ARs, not the people wielding them. The micro-magic missiles erased the remaining machine guns. No ecstasy came with erasing the lifeless metal weapons. Every element was sentient in some way, but erasing a living soul provided more pleasure than erasing an inanimate object. I craved erasing a person, but if Lexy could shake off her hunger, I could shake off my own temptation, right? Still, I glanced at possible options. The teenage gang members were no longer options. Both lay on the dirty tile in pools of blood, as glassy-eyed as Ariel had been. Only they weren’t going to wink.

Lexy beckoned the Polynesian security guard to come inside. He lowered his shoulder and plowed through the bullet-shredded wall, taking a pair of two-by-fours with him. The hallway now opened into a large, mostly empty warehouse. The tile ended at the wall, and beyond that, a cement floor receded into the darkness. The shadows of rafters hung viewable through what used to be a high drop ceiling that now had no panels.

Luiz and Kendra went to the door down the hallway, but I followed Lexy through the opening the Polynesian had bulldozed for us.

Four men stood, wearing all-black military armor, surrounded by eight bodies dressed similarly. Lexy could see the far cement wall and the emptiness in between, but I couldn’t.

Princess Alexis released the full force of her allure, filling the room with the scent of pumpkin spice, but the remaining four men standing in the warehouse appeared unaffected. Military-grade gas masks covered their faces. I had known pheromones made up much of her allure, but I hadn’t guessed that modern technology could prevent its effects.

Lexy wasted no time. She sent the Polynesian after one of the mercenaries and charged the closest one, the tallest, herself. Both pulled out handguns and fired. The Polynesian went down. My bulletproof vest took two bullets, which knocked me down. The bulletproof spell on Kendra’s leather deflected at least one round. Lexy dodged any bullets directed her way, then kicked her target in the stomach, and ripped off his gas mask, revealing a middle-aged man with white hair—white-blond, not white-old.

“Stop!” a guttural voice shouted to our right, far in the back of the warehouse.

I followed the voice using Alexis’s eyes because I couldn’t see what Alexis could until a flashlight clicked to life on top of a handgun, blinding my eyes. The light turned from pointing to us to illuminate a woman tied to a chair. The dark-haired woman flinched. Her slightly overweight body trembled despite being tied to a metal folding chair. She was not Jody. Before I could ask where Scarlett was, Lexy spotted her silhouette tied to a chair just a few feet to the right of the dark-haired woman. I now recognized the woman as Jody’s roommate. She helped raise Carl, who waited back at Lexy’s mansion, hoping for both of them to return. Both the dark-haired woman and Jody shivered in fear.

The light reflected enough to show the man’s face. Unlike the mercenaries, he didn’t wear body armor. Instead, he wore a white, button up dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves. The light illuminated the skull tattoo on his wrist. I also noticed his ring and the way it gave off a faint glow of magic. His white shirt matched the color of his short hair. Where was vertical-scar guy? I’d seen him in my vision, not this old guy. I’d also seen dozens of men with handguns and not gang members with ARs. The scene in my vision didn’t match this scene at all.

At his command, everyone but Lexy stopped. Lexy only glanced his way but dashed to the next closest mercenary, breaking the glass in the right eye of his gas mask.

If we stop, we die! Lexy urged us to move.

Luiz fired his shotgun at the mercenary farthest from Lexy. He hit his target, but the pellets didn’t penetrate the body armor. Luiz retreated to the hallway to reload his shotgun.

Kendra, I called mentally. She entered from the hallway to our right. Too tired to use more magic myself, I tossed her my staff. She caught it, shouted, “Lígetu!” and blasted two of the remaining four mercenaries with lightning before they could fire their handguns at us.

The Skull Shadow fired. Jody screamed. The woman she had relied on to take care of her son while she worked slumped forward. The well-dressed Skull Shadow stepped around the dead woman and pressed his handgun into Jody’s red hair.

“I said, stop!” he shouted. “Stop, or you lose the redhead, too!”

Jody’s scream turned into a whimper. I couldn’t help but think that just meeting me had ruined Jody’s life. She’d dealt with Keagan, seen voodoo zombies, been kidnapped by Skull Shadows, witnessed her close friend and roommate get shot in the head right next to her, and now sat covered in her friend’s blood and gore. She would never be the same, and it was all my fault.

This time, everyone obeyed the man, even Lexy. Emotional sadness plowed into me. Kendra froze in fear. He’d just killed Jody’s roommate. We’d failed to stop him. Being a protector meant I’d foreseen Jody getting shot, but I didn’t know how to stop it. With his handgun pressing against Jody’s skull, if he pulled the trigger, how would I save her? Jody whimpered, inches from death. I could blast him with lightning, but that might not save Jody. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think.

While Lexy had stopped, the other woman’s death didn’t faze her at all. She’d only stopped because Kendra’s and my sadness rolled into her through the Trinity of Mind. Our plan had been to come as prepared as we could and use our magic to overcome. That strategy had failed. It had cost Jody her roommate—basically, Carl’s second mother.

Alexis used her calm, emotion-free state to help Kendra and me focus. Cry later.

Our only option now was to hope for him to point the gun at us, giving us a window to save Jody. I felt drained, both physically and magically. Had I even recovered from the Lost Rhoades Mine Melee? I had nothing left. My magic wasn’t stopping another bullet.

The two remaining mercenaries raised their pistols. The white-haired one pointed at Lexy while the other, a Middle Easterner with short salt-and-pepper hair, pointed at Kendra.

“Luiz,” Lexy called and shook her head at him. He stood in the doorway to the makeshift hallway, his shotgun pointed at the blond Skull Shadow. He lowered the barrel.

I looked upward. Whether looking toward God or looking at the ceiling for some possible option, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps since we’d parked at a church, I had God on my mind. Well, I—we—needed help. I didn’t know where help could come from. So, yes, I mentally prayed. Kendra approved with her own mental amen.

“We underestimated you,” the man spoke, filling the quiet air. “We came up with six different plans and changed them randomly every hour, but still, you were ready for us.”

Is he monologuing? I questioned. Incredibly stupid, right? How could I joke after seeing the Skull Shadow shoot a woman? Perhaps I’d learned from Luiz to use joking as a tool to hold off emotional pain. I needed that tool now.

“You all need to be put down,” he spat. “We put down so many of you last year.” He grimaced, clearly referring to the Day of a Thousand Deaths. A day that now lived in infamy with Pearl Harbor and Nine-Eleven. “It is unfortunate that we missed you. We’ll remedy that for most of you.” His eyes landed on me. “You,” he started, then stopped speaking. His eyes blinked, confused, looking at something on the floor behind me, where I heard a dragging sound.

That dragging sound came from Ariel. What did he think of a bullet-ridden, seven-year-old girl who used her flat palms to worm her mangled body toward him? Drips of blood marked her face. Black blood oozed from multiple bullet wounds and from her almost-severed leg. Kendra and I shivered at the sight of her. Alexis didn’t shiver, but her breath caught. Coyote’s granddaughter scared the living crap out of Lexy, Kendra, and me—and she was on our side.

“I said stop,” his voice wavered.

“Why?” Ariel asked, her childlike voice soft and high like a piano note. Another drop of blood dripped down the left side of her face. She towed her leg as she slid with her hands toward the man.

“If you don’t stop, I’ll shoot her.” He pressed the gun harder against Jody’s head.

“OK,” her sweet voice replied as she continued dragging herself toward him. “Can’t I eat you either way?” The meaning of her words conflicted with her sweet melodic sound.

The Skull Shadow gulped. I could see his face much better now that my eyes were fully adjusted to the dark, but Lexy could see him quite clearly. White eyebrows pulled down toward the corners of his eyes. His wrinkles and skin spots placed him in his sixties. His blue eyes pinched in fear. A wireless communication device stuck out slightly from his left ear.

The scrape of our mythic mermaid dragging her dangling leg continued.

“Shoot that thing,” the man ordered the two mercenaries.

They hesitated, not obeying him, but then both fired a single shot each. The bullets went right through Ariel’s chest, so quickly she barely flinched. The two new holes oozed as she looked down at them with her lavender eyes.

“Owie!” Ariel frowned and pouted her lip. “That makes me more hungry.”

“The word is ‘hungrier,’ not ‘more hungry,’” Lexy verbally chided the girl with an exaggerated motherly tone. Lexy’s outward appearance gave nothing away, yet inside, her fear had subsided, and she replaced it with mental laughter.

“Shoot her again!” the aged Skull Shadow ordered.

“It didn’t work,” the white-blond mercenary shouted back in a Russian accent.

“Take the freak,” he nodded toward me, “and kill the rest,” he commanded.

I froze. They wanted me. Only me. I couldn’t help but wonder why? All this time, I thought they were looking for potentials and druids, but they didn’t care about Kendra. Why was it about me? I’d done everything I could to stay out of the limelight. Even avoiding being quarterback in high school. I’d switched to running back even though I could throw much better than Mike. O’Brien had faked my death with the very purpose of making me invisible. Yet it hadn’t worked. I remained the primary target. Lexy’s grandfather had sent vampires after me before coming after me himself. The caplatas had come after me on orders of my Darth dad. Yes, I had an evil, magic-wielding father—only without the burned body, robot parts, and labored breath. Now the Skull Shadows had captured Jody to lure me to them, to find me. Did my Darth dad send the Skull Shadows, too?

“The boy, sir?” the Russian mercenary responded.

The aged Skull Shadow nodded, barely moving his head once.

The mercenary proceeded toward me, stepping around a black, armor-clad body and then around the fallen Polynesian.

I shook my head at the absurdity of the situation.

“I like Jake. He gives me beef jerky.” Ariel glanced at me. “Jerky is nummy. If you try to take him, I’ll eat you, too,” our mythic mermaid monster spoke every word with her sweet seven-year-old voice. “I bet you taste better than jerky.”

The mercenary stopped a step from me. Behind him, the white-haired Skull Shadow’s eyes shifted rapidly from his prisoner to Ariel to his mercenaries and back.

“I said take the boy and kill the rest,” the aged Skull Shadow repeated his order. The mercenaries didn’t respond. Finally, his eyes settled in a wrinkled squint on the nightmarish little girl who still slid herself toward him incessantly.

“Damn you, Donaldson,” he muttered between clenched teeth, quiet enough we weren’t supposed to hear. But Lexy heard.

“Kill them all,” he shouted, and he quickly swung his gun arm in Ariel’s direction and fired. Jody flinched, expecting the bullet to go into her skull.

Too weak to use magic, I pulled my last resort backup plan from behind my back. Yes, I brought a gun—a forty-caliber Smith and Wesson. No more running out of magic and being helpless for me. Both mercenaries switched from Lexy and Kendra and put two rounds each into their fellow Skull Shadow’s white shirt. He should have noticed Alexis had removed one gas mask and broken the glass to disable the other. By the time I fired my shot, he’d already spun from the impact and started dropping. My bullet missed just above his left shoulder. It would have hit him had the mercenaries not shot him sooner and if he weren’t already collapsing.

Alexis had urged Kendra to fire a magic missile, but Kendra remained frozen, almost catatonic. So Alexis cast a small, ping-pong ball-sized magic missile herself. Not a soul-erasing one. Her magic missile—glowing red where mine was blue—hit last. The Skull Shadow fired one last erratic shot as he hit the floor. The bullet deflected off a metal crossbar high near the ceiling, redirecting to the cement floor between Kendra’s legs, breaking her out of her fear-caused catatonia and sending her into a drill-team jump. She landed, legs spread, and staff ready.

If the Skull Shadow had survived the two bullets, the magic missile would finish him off. Except its red light warped. The ring pulled the magic into it as if it were a vacuum sucking the light in. Still, he was dead.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Jody had survived. We’d saved her. Kendra, Alexis, and Luiz made it through this battle unharmed. Ariel’s bullet-ridden and gore-covered body still creeped me out, but she would transform herself back to perfect about an hour after a good meal. She just needed food.

I hadn’t forgotten my prayer. Was our little mythic monster girl the answer to my prayer? As I stared at her, I wondered whether God could answer a prayer with such a horror show. “Can I eat him now?” Ariel asked me. “I won’t eat anyone unless you say I can.”

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Exciting Sneak Peek: Torched Heart – First Chapter | J. Abram Barneck

Exciting Sneak Peek: Torched Heart – First Chapter

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Chapter 1 – Scarlett Rescue

I don’t know who I am. Eldra’s memories are dominating my mind. Add in Kendra’s, Lexy’s, and Caradoc’s memories, and I think I’m losing myself.

—Jake

“When I pull this door open, all hell is going to break loose,” I spoke verbally instead of mentally through the Trinity of Mind because Luiz and Ariel had refused to be left behind.

I panted quietly as I hung on the rusty metal handle of the heavy warehouse door. We had parked a half-mile away at a church and ran through alleys halfway here before changing to a stealthy walk. My ankle, partially crushed before sunrise this morning by a voodoo witch’s magic-preventing rope,  throbbed in agony despite my near overdose on ibuprofen. Why was I the only one out of breath? I ignored the obvious answer.

Lexy stood just left of the doorway, red eyes locked onto a thick-but-short Polynesian man who stood guard at the door. She wore a black leather top and pants that, as usual, stuck to her like another layer of skin. Over her top, she wore a leather vest that acted as body armor. She had a blade strapped to each thigh—her runed dagger on her right and a skull-hilted blade on her left that had once belonged to a tall voodoo witch. Wearing thick-soled, knee-high combat boots, she stood much taller than the Polynesian. He wore a button-up Hawaiian shirt, damp at the armpits, gray shorts, and black river sandals. To Alexis, he smelled like he’d been sweating in the heat all day. Lexy’s pumpkin spice allure hid his smell from the rest of us. Her allure—an enticing scent that could short-circuit almost anyone who smells it— had taken control of him and prevented him from sounding the alarm.

Lexy forced the Polynesian’s black eyes to meet hers and read his mind, which proved fruitless as he hadn’t been allowed inside the warehouse. She put a hand on his cheek—the skin contact increasing her allure’s controlling power—and ordered, “Sit down.” Mesmerized by Lexy’s allure, he sat down on the weed-ridden asphalt and leaned back against the brick building.

Ogden used to be the armpit of Utah. Recently, both the city government and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had put deodorant on that armpit by updating certain areas. The abandoned warehouse was not in one of the areas where deodorant had been applied. Rust splotched the doors. The asphalt had crumbled, and tall, dried weeds had popped up in random patches. Weathered-gray plywood boarded over the few windows. The August sky, orange from the setting sun, illuminated the graffiti on the dilapidated brick building.

My legs wavered and almost gave out. My thick denim pants rubbed my road-rashed legs. My new Kevlar armor under my black hoodie weighed me down. Of course, Luiz didn’t even notice the extra weight of his Kevlar. Using both the door and Eldra’s staff to hold myself up, I hoped to hide my physical weakness like I hoped to hide my hideous face. The Trinity of Mind—a permanent mental connection between Kendra, Lexy, and me—prevented me from hiding either. Kendra and Lexy shared my thoughts, so despite my efforts, they knew that I’d grabbed the door not to open it but to stay on my feet.

He is not OK, Lexy thought to Kendra, nodding at me.

He’s tough, Kendra answered, tossing her head as if she still had long hair instead of the boy-cut she’d managed to grow the past week. At least he used to be, she added.

It didn’t matter that I could hear Kendra’s and Lexy’s thoughts. They mentally talked about me as if I weren’t there.

“Why are you wobbling?” Luiz teased under his breath. “Too lazy to work out?” He grinned.

I yanked the door, hoping that opening it would shut all three of them up. Except it didn’t open. Locked.

“If the door is too heavy,” Luiz continued his quiet mocking, “I can help you out.”

Alexis and Kendra each stifled their laughs. I usually enjoyed it when Luiz lightened the mood, but at my expense? Not helping.

I reached out with magic to unlock the deadbolt, but it needed a key on both sides. Eldra’s favorite spell to magically twist the thumb turn on the other side wasn’t an option. That trick had never failed me—er Eldra—before, so she’d never learned to pick a lock with magic. I could magically slide the pins in the lock, but that didn’t mean I knew which key pattern to use when doing so. I made a mental note to research lock picking later.

I’d already filled both my body and Eldra’s staff with magic, and now was the time to use it.

“Can you do this?” I whispered my comeback to Luiz. “Hætan!” Heat. Eldra knew this spell well. Kendra and I gulped, thinking of her sacrifice. She should be with us. Our hearts hadn’t stopped aching since early this morning. None of us were OK enough to be here. But Scarlett—er, Jody—needed us. No, she wasn’t just a stripper. She was Carl’s mom and a good mom, too. Carl needed her. If we had to give our lives for her, she was worth it.

I used the pain of our loss to augment the heat, focusing inside the deadbolt. The red glow of melting metal illuminated the door jamb. The heat radiated outward, warming my hand, but I redirected it back to the deadbolt, not letting it burn me. Alexis had taught me how to control heat with magic. She could touch anything hot without getting burned. The smell of burnt metal, plastic, and paint permeated the air, causing Alexis to wrinkle her nose.

The protector magic had provided me a vision of this moment. In it, local gang members with handguns stood on the other side of the door. I nodded to Luiz and Kendra to step to the right side. I poured magic into my new Kevlar armor, making me double bulletproof. We’d checked all the trunks of the various vehicles in the mansion garage and had found two men’s Kevlar vests. Some of the druids killed on the Day of a Thousand Deaths had worn Kevlar, and it had failed to protect them. Kendra and Lexy pulled at my magic to make their leather body armor bulletproof as well. They weren’t double bulletproof. Earlier, Luiz and I had tried to chivalrously give the vests to the girls, but they didn’t fit well, so the girls refused. Alexis made a call and special ordered Kevlar vests to custom fit their feminine figures, but their order wouldn’t arrive for weeks.

Kendra stepped next to Luiz. Lexy, however, left the Tongan in a daze on the left side of the door and tiptoed to stand directly in front of the door as if to offer an easy target, testing if they dared shoot at the Princess of the New World. Ariel stepped in front of me, dressed in a coral camisole, gray shorts, and Converse shoes that matched her hair. Yes, a seven-year-old girl with lavender hair planned to use herself as a human shield to protect me, which is not something I would normally allow. In fairness, she was thousands—maybe millions—of years old, but doesn’t remember much of it, which is probably good since she used to be evil. We’d only met Ariel earlier this morning. She was Coyote’s hybrid granddaughter, half water baby—a freshwater mermaid thought to be a Native American myth—and half ancient alien shapeshifter. She swore an oath to Coyote to protect me, then fought with us against her own kind—all of whom seemed to have kept their memories. After we survived that battle, she transformed her sea-lion-like mermaid tail into the legs of a seven-year-old girl. She joined our operation, code-named Scarlett Rescue, to fulfill her promise to Coyote. I wasn’t sure if I could trust her, but her willingness to stand in front of me as a human shield was a good start.

We’ve got this, Kendra added, posing motivationally in a half-T position by standing with her shoulders back and pressing her fists together above her chest so that her forearms formed a straight line. She always posed like that and spoke that phrase before her drill-team performances at half-time. Luiz teasingly copied Kendra, first cupping his pecs with his hands as if he were a girl adjusting her breasts, and then mimicking Kendra’s fists-together stance.

I grinned, grateful Luiz could ease my stress, this time at Kendra’s expense. I yanked the door a second time. This time, the red-hot deadbolt collapsed, and the door swung open.

Only darkness presented itself on the other side of the entry. Lexy could see inside fine, which gave me the quarter-second I needed to dive—more of a fall with my weak legs—to the right side before the machine gun spit bullets that would have ripped me apart. Three bullets hit my pants. I’d tested the bulletproof spell with the expectation that it would stop a few shots, not thirteen massive rounds per second.

Why hadn’t the protector magic showed me a machine gun in my vision?

After taking a couple bullets yesterday, Lexy had dressed more prepared today. But like me, she hadn’t expected an AR-15 illegally modified to be fully automatic. She side-stepped out of the way, but not before a line of five bullets hit her leather body armor, right above her heart. Without magical assistance, the first bullet would have torn through her chest, but the bulletproof spell stopped all five before she’d shifted out of the doorway—actually, four and a half. One of the rounds hit near her right hip. It had stopped, sort of. A half inch of the bullet stuck out of her leather armor. She could already smell her own blood. She pulled the projectile out and looked at it. Her blood dripped down from a very sharp point. Armor-piercing rounds. The scent of honey—Lexy’s hunger—mixed with her pumpkin spice.

“We got ‘em!” a young man’s nasally voice shouted with nervous glee after the machine gun stopped. Then he swore. “We killed a little girl!” his young, nasally voice changing from glee to panic.

I found myself on the asphalt to the right of the door at Luiz and Kendra’s feet. My palms bled, scuffed, again, from diving to the asphalt. Eldra’s staff rolled to a stop a few feet away. I reached for my lower right hip to see why it hurt worse than my ankle and found nothing wrong. Lexy’s hip hurt, not mine. The Trinity of Mind had its flaws, such as the difficulty distinguishing her injuries from mine—both hurt.

Ariel had taken the worst of the bullets. Her seven-year-old body lay mangled on the aged asphalt. Blood oozed from a hole in her forehead. A dozen more holes splotched her chest, coloring her coral camisole in crimson. One of her legs had almost been severed. It bent awkwardly, held together by the outside flap of skin, the separated bone visible. She lay motionless—corpse-like—her lavender-brown eyes just empty glass, staring directly at me. I couldn’t believe she’d died the very same day that she promised to protect me. Her eyes looked so lifeless. A pang of regret that I would never really know Ariel pinched at my heart.

Until she winked at me.

Footsteps padded inside the darkness.

Luiz reached around and stuck the muzzle of the shotgun just inside the doorway and fired, shouting, “You got nada!”

He must have hit someone because a scream of pain wailed from the darkness inside the doorway.

Lexy darted inside with inhuman speed. Through her eyes, I saw one body on the ground and another holding a pistol sideways. They looked like teenagers—neither old enough, Ivy League enough, nor elite ex-military enough to be a Skull Shadow. A tan, Caucasian young man lay bleeding on the dirty, once-white tile floor. He had blond hair and was dressed in black shorts and a black T-shirt sporting a half-naked image of Harley Quinn. The blood on Harley Quinn’s bare legs and abdomen almost looked like it belonged. Next to him stood a Latino, maybe a year older than me. He had black hair and dark eyes over wide cheekbones and was dressed in dark gray cargo shorts and a black shirt with a skull next to a whiskey bottle. Both had tattoos of three letters in a decorative font on their upper left arms—I could only make out the “W”—branding them as members of some local gang. The pair could have been Luiz and me. Well, I wasn’t tan anymore. I was road-rashed and almost albino, and neither Luiz nor I had tattoos or their poor taste in clothes. Still, the similarity hit me.

The Latino teen pulled the trigger. Lexy stepped to the side to avoid the teenager’s erratic shot. The bullet whizzed through the air. He fired again. Lexy angled closer as she dodged each shot, then ripped the gun from his hand before his fourth trigger pull. The first two bullets traveled out the doorway; the last hit the doorjamb with a loud, echoing crack. Lexy put her hand on the Latino’s cheek, and using her allure, short-circuited his self-control. The artery in his neck called to her. Despite being a gang member recruited to be a pawn for the Skull Shadows, his youth still convinced her to push aside her own honey-scented hunger.

As I started getting up, I focused on Lexy’s senses, not just visual, but her heightened hearing and sense of smell, too. The doorway didn’t lead to the open warehouse floor. Instead, it opened into a short, ceilingless hallway that turned left after a dozen feet. The right wall consisted of concrete bricks. New gray-green sheetrock covered the left wall, suggesting the Skull Shadows had recently installed it. The thin sheetrock failed to hide the noise and smell of additional men and the oily, metallic scent of their guns.

Kendra stepped inside the doorway, followed by Luiz, before I could even get to my knees. My mental warning reached Kendra, who stopped and turned to go back, causing Luiz to bump into her.

“Get down!” I shouted, diving into the doorway in a pushup position, my head tilted left, just outside the door while my right shoulder pressed against the doorjamb. I spread my bleeding left palm over the asphalt that went right up to the doorsill, using the blacktop like I used pebbles. I stretched my right arm out and placed my palm flat onto the gray-materialled sheetrock, pouring bulletproof magic into it. A half-second later, the sound of a dozen AR-15s thundered from the warehouse.

If one AR-15 shot thirteen bullets per second, then for a dozen, my magic needed to stop one hundred and fifty-six bullets a second. I didn’t think. I couldn’t. I just converted the asphalt into magic as fast as I could and shoved that magic into the gray-green sheetrock walls.

Not every bullet deflected. A few rounds blew through the wall. One hit Kendra’s leather armor at her right shoulder, the bulletproof magic deflecting it away. Another deflected off the back of my Kevlar vest.

Luiz grabbed Kendra and twisted to put himself between her and the bullets like a best friend should. With a direct hit, the armor-piercing rounds would go right through Luiz’s Kevlar. They needed time to take a few steps to get out—time they didn’t have unless I gave it to them. Lexy dropped to the tile floor, unconcerned about getting the gang member’s blood on her leather armor, instead more enticed by the blood’s coppery scent. She grabbed the young man’s body and twisted, using it as a shield.

The bullets pounded against the sheetrock and my magic like a debilitating migraine throbbing behind my eyes. Every projectile that hit the sheetrock hit me—not literally, but metaphysically—through my magic. The pounding continued along my spine and around my ribs. It spread through my shoulders into my arms and through my hips into my legs. When the pounding reached the tips of my fingers and toes, every part of me shook. Time slowed, and the seconds, like the bullets, dragged on. I should have passed out. No, I should have died. My mind blanked. I couldn’t focus. I’d lost connection to the Trinity of Mind. Only inertia kept my magic flowing. Luiz needed two more steps to exit, his arm extended, shoving Kendra in the lower back to get her out the door. Lexy lay in that hallway. The bullets fired all over, many directly at Luiz and Lexy. Was it possible to save them? Not with that many bullets. I tried anyway.

Why had we not considered that they would have ARs? We’d made what could be the ultimate mistake. We’d placed too much trust in my vision. Well, what good was I as a protector if my visions weren’t accurate? If I couldn’t protect Lexy and my best friend?

My right cheek touched the rough asphalt just as the bullets stopped flying—which didn’t make sense because my left arm still burned with the effort to keep it extended straight below me. How could the asphalt be touching my face? My straight left arm should have kept me two feet off the ground.

¡Diantre! Jake!” Luiz exclaimed, looking down at me. His long nose looked twice as long as usual as I looked up at him. He grabbed my torso and pulled me up. My left arm slipped out of a two-foot deep, hand-shaped hole. I’d burned through the multiple asphalt layers into the rocky earth beneath to stop bullets.

Without the vibration of bullets pounding against me through my magic, I sought out Lexy’s mind, latching back onto her senses. She quickly stood up in the hallway, holding the AR-15 from the previously downed gang member in her arms, reloading. The bullets should have riddled the gray-materialled walls with holes, leaving it ready to collapse. Instead, less than twenty bullet holes dotted the sheetrock, most above six feet high. Pungent gun smoke rose into the darkness above the ceilingless wall. The audible clicks of reloading weapons urged Alexis to hurry.

Lexy took three steps toward the wall and jumped up, lithely landing in a sitting position on the exposed two-by-four at the top of the wall, the AR-15 whipping around to point into the darkness of the warehouse. As a dhampir, she could see quite well in the dark. She fired three quick bursts, then dropped back down just before the enemy returned fire. The bullets shot toward the top of the wall where Lexy had briefly sat, but she’d already dropped down. She ran to another part of the wall, jumped up, and fired again.

The bullets now exploded through the sheetrock, but the shooters had lost their form. Instead of spreading out, they all shot at Lexy, but she danced just fast enough to stay ahead of their aim. She leaped to the top of another part of the wall and fired two more quick bursts.

Luiz took one step inside the doorway, put his shotgun into a fresh bullet hole in the wall, and fired, then darted back outside. The ARs turned toward him, which gave Lexy the chance to find a fourth point on the wall to land and fire. Only four ARs returned fire.

I picked up Eldra’s staff and used it to help stay on my feet. Despite the pain, and with most of my weight on the staff, I stumbled weakly into the hallway. The running had left my legs burning. They still felt like Jell-O. Worse, bulletproofing the sheetrock wall had drained me further. Ariel dragged her bleeding form forward after me. I struggled to use magic, too worn out to draw much. I managed four smaller-than-a-marble orbs and used Lexy’s eyes to choose my targets as I tossed them over the wall. I felt them hit the remaining four ARs, not the people wielding them. The micro-magic missiles erased the remaining machine guns. No ecstasy came with erasing the lifeless metal weapons. Every element was sentient in some way, but erasing a living soul provided more pleasure than erasing an inanimate object. I craved erasing a person, but if Lexy could shake off her hunger, I could shake off my own temptation, right? Still, I glanced at possible options. The teenage gang members were no longer options. Both lay on the dirty tile in pools of blood, as glassy-eyed as Ariel had been. Only they weren’t going to wink.

Lexy beckoned the Polynesian security guard to come inside. He lowered his shoulder and plowed through the bullet-shredded wall, taking a pair of two-by-fours with him. The hallway now opened into a large, mostly empty warehouse. The tile ended at the wall, and beyond that, a cement floor receded into the darkness. The shadows of rafters hung viewable through what used to be a high drop ceiling that now had no panels.

Luiz and Kendra went to the door down the hallway, but I followed Lexy through the opening the Polynesian had bulldozed for us.

Four men stood, wearing all-black military armor, surrounded by eight bodies dressed similarly. Lexy could see the far cement wall and the emptiness in between, but I couldn’t.

Princess Alexis released the full force of her allure, filling the room with the scent of pumpkin spice, but the remaining four men standing in the warehouse appeared unaffected. Military-grade gas masks covered their faces. I had known pheromones made up much of her allure, but I hadn’t guessed that modern technology could prevent its effects.

Lexy wasted no time. She sent the Polynesian after one of the mercenaries and charged the closest one, the tallest, herself. Both pulled out handguns and fired. The Polynesian went down. My bulletproof vest took two bullets, which knocked me down. The bulletproof spell on Kendra’s leather deflected at least one round. Lexy dodged any bullets directed her way, then kicked her target in the stomach, and ripped off his gas mask, revealing a middle-aged man with white hair—white-blond, not white-old.

“Stop!” a guttural voice shouted to our right, far in the back of the warehouse.

I followed the voice using Alexis’s eyes because I couldn’t see what Alexis could until a flashlight clicked to life on top of a handgun, blinding my eyes. The light turned from pointing to us to illuminate a woman tied to a chair. The dark-haired woman flinched. Her slightly overweight body trembled despite being tied to a metal folding chair. She was not Jody. Before I could ask where Scarlett was, Lexy spotted her silhouette tied to a chair just a few feet to the right of the dark-haired woman. I now recognized the woman as Jody’s roommate. She helped raise Carl, who waited back at Lexy’s mansion, hoping for both of them to return. Both the dark-haired woman and Jody shivered in fear.

The light reflected enough to show the man’s face. Unlike the mercenaries, he didn’t wear body armor. Instead, he wore a white, button up dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves. The light illuminated the skull tattoo on his wrist. I also noticed his ring and the way it gave off a faint glow of magic. His white shirt matched the color of his short hair. Where was vertical-scar guy? I’d seen him in my vision, not this old guy. I’d also seen dozens of men with handguns and not gang members with ARs. The scene in my vision didn’t match this scene at all.

At his command, everyone but Lexy stopped. Lexy only glanced his way but dashed to the next closest mercenary, breaking the glass in the right eye of his gas mask.

If we stop, we die! Lexy urged us to move.

Luiz fired his shotgun at the mercenary farthest from Lexy. He hit his target, but the pellets didn’t penetrate the body armor. Luiz retreated to the hallway to reload his shotgun.

Kendra, I called mentally. She entered from the hallway to our right. Too tired to use more magic myself, I tossed her my staff. She caught it, shouted, “Lígetu!” and blasted two of the remaining four mercenaries with lightning before they could fire their handguns at us.

The Skull Shadow fired. Jody screamed. The woman she had relied on to take care of her son while she worked slumped forward. The well-dressed Skull Shadow stepped around the dead woman and pressed his handgun into Jody’s red hair.

“I said, stop!” he shouted. “Stop, or you lose the redhead, too!”

Jody’s scream turned into a whimper. I couldn’t help but think that just meeting me had ruined Jody’s life. She’d dealt with Keagan, seen voodoo zombies, been kidnapped by Skull Shadows, witnessed her close friend and roommate get shot in the head right next to her, and now sat covered in her friend’s blood and gore. She would never be the same, and it was all my fault.

This time, everyone obeyed the man, even Lexy. Emotional sadness plowed into me. Kendra froze in fear. He’d just killed Jody’s roommate. We’d failed to stop him. Being a protector meant I’d foreseen Jody getting shot, but I didn’t know how to stop it. With his handgun pressing against Jody’s skull, if he pulled the trigger, how would I save her? Jody whimpered, inches from death. I could blast him with lightning, but that might not save Jody. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think.

While Lexy had stopped, the other woman’s death didn’t faze her at all. She’d only stopped because Kendra’s and my sadness rolled into her through the Trinity of Mind. Our plan had been to come as prepared as we could and use our magic to overcome. That strategy had failed. It had cost Jody her roommate—basically, Carl’s second mother.

Alexis used her calm, emotion-free state to help Kendra and me focus. Cry later.

Our only option now was to hope for him to point the gun at us, giving us a window to save Jody. I felt drained, both physically and magically. Had I even recovered from the Lost Rhoades Mine Melee? I had nothing left. My magic wasn’t stopping another bullet.

The two remaining mercenaries raised their pistols. The white-haired one pointed at Lexy while the other, a Middle Easterner with short salt-and-pepper hair, pointed at Kendra.

“Luiz,” Lexy called and shook her head at him. He stood in the doorway to the makeshift hallway, his shotgun pointed at the blond Skull Shadow. He lowered the barrel.

I looked upward. Whether looking toward God or looking at the ceiling for some possible option, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps since we’d parked at a church, I had God on my mind. Well, I—we—needed help. I didn’t know where help could come from. So, yes, I mentally prayed. Kendra approved with her own mental amen.

“We underestimated you,” the man spoke, filling the quiet air. “We came up with six different plans and changed them randomly every hour, but still, you were ready for us.”

Is he monologuing? I questioned. Incredibly stupid, right? How could I joke after seeing the Skull Shadow shoot a woman? Perhaps I’d learned from Luiz to use joking as a tool to hold off emotional pain. I needed that tool now.

“You all need to be put down,” he spat. “We put down so many of you last year.” He grimaced, clearly referring to the Day of a Thousand Deaths. A day that now lived in infamy with Pearl Harbor and Nine-Eleven. “It is unfortunate that we missed you. We’ll remedy that for most of you.” His eyes landed on me. “You,” he started, then stopped speaking. His eyes blinked, confused, looking at something on the floor behind me, where I heard a dragging sound.

That dragging sound came from Ariel. What did he think of a bullet-ridden, seven-year-old girl who used her flat palms to worm her mangled body toward him? Drips of blood marked her face. Black blood oozed from multiple bullet wounds and from her almost-severed leg. Kendra and I shivered at the sight of her. Alexis didn’t shiver, but her breath caught. Coyote’s granddaughter scared the living crap out of Lexy, Kendra, and me—and she was on our side.

“I said stop,” his voice wavered.

“Why?” Ariel asked, her childlike voice soft and high like a piano note. Another drop of blood dripped down the left side of her face. She towed her leg as she slid with her hands toward the man.

“If you don’t stop, I’ll shoot her.” He pressed the gun harder against Jody’s head.

“OK,” her sweet voice replied as she continued dragging herself toward him. “Can’t I eat you either way?” The meaning of her words conflicted with her sweet melodic sound.

The Skull Shadow gulped. I could see his face much better now that my eyes were fully adjusted to the dark, but Lexy could see him quite clearly. White eyebrows pulled down toward the corners of his eyes. His wrinkles and skin spots placed him in his sixties. His blue eyes pinched in fear. A wireless communication device stuck out slightly from his left ear.

The scrape of our mythic mermaid dragging her dangling leg continued.

“Shoot that thing,” the man ordered the two mercenaries.

They hesitated, not obeying him, but then both fired a single shot each. The bullets went right through Ariel’s chest, so quickly she barely flinched. The two new holes oozed as she looked down at them with her lavender eyes.

“Owie!” Ariel frowned and pouted her lip. “That makes me more hungry.”

“The word is ‘hungrier,’ not ‘more hungry,’” Lexy verbally chided the girl with an exaggerated motherly tone. Lexy’s outward appearance gave nothing away, yet inside, her fear had subsided, and she replaced it with mental laughter.

“Shoot her again!” the aged Skull Shadow ordered.

“It didn’t work,” the white-blond mercenary shouted back in a Russian accent.

“Take the freak,” he nodded toward me, “and kill the rest,” he commanded.

I froze. They wanted me. Only me. I couldn’t help but wonder why? All this time, I thought they were looking for potentials and druids, but they didn’t care about Kendra. Why was it about me? I’d done everything I could to stay out of the limelight. Even avoiding being quarterback in high school. I’d switched to running back even though I could throw much better than Mike. O’Brien had faked my death with the very purpose of making me invisible. Yet it hadn’t worked. I remained the primary target. Lexy’s grandfather had sent vampires after me before coming after me himself. The caplatas had come after me on orders of my Darth dad. Yes, I had an evil, magic-wielding father—only without the burned body, robot parts, and labored breath. Now the Skull Shadows had captured Jody to lure me to them, to find me. Did my Darth dad send the Skull Shadows, too?

“The boy, sir?” the Russian mercenary responded.

The aged Skull Shadow nodded, barely moving his head once.

The mercenary proceeded toward me, stepping around a black, armor-clad body and then around the fallen Polynesian.

I shook my head at the absurdity of the situation.

“I like Jake. He gives me beef jerky.” Ariel glanced at me. “Jerky is nummy. If you try to take him, I’ll eat you, too,” our mythic mermaid monster spoke every word with her sweet seven-year-old voice. “I bet you taste better than jerky.”

The mercenary stopped a step from me. Behind him, the white-haired Skull Shadow’s eyes shifted rapidly from his prisoner to Ariel to his mercenaries and back.

“I said take the boy and kill the rest,” the aged Skull Shadow repeated his order. The mercenaries didn’t respond. Finally, his eyes settled in a wrinkled squint on the nightmarish little girl who still slid herself toward him incessantly.

“Damn you, Donaldson,” he muttered between clenched teeth, quiet enough we weren’t supposed to hear. But Lexy heard.

“Kill them all,” he shouted, and he quickly swung his gun arm in Ariel’s direction and fired. Jody flinched, expecting the bullet to go into her skull.

Too weak to use magic, I pulled my last resort backup plan from behind my back. Yes, I brought a gun—a forty-caliber Smith and Wesson. No more running out of magic and being helpless for me. Both mercenaries switched from Lexy and Kendra and put two rounds each into their fellow Skull Shadow’s white shirt. He should have noticed Alexis had removed one gas mask and broken the glass to disable the other. By the time I fired my shot, he’d already spun from the impact and started dropping. My bullet missed just above his left shoulder. It would have hit him had the mercenaries not shot him sooner and if he weren’t already collapsing.

Alexis had urged Kendra to fire a magic missile, but Kendra remained frozen, almost catatonic. So Alexis cast a small, ping-pong ball-sized magic missile herself. Not a soul-erasing one. Her magic missile—glowing red where mine was blue—hit last. The Skull Shadow fired one last erratic shot as he hit the floor. The bullet deflected off a metal crossbar high near the ceiling, redirecting to the cement floor between Kendra’s legs, breaking her out of her fear-caused catatonia and sending her into a drill-team jump. She landed, legs spread, and staff ready.

If the Skull Shadow had survived the two bullets, the magic missile would finish him off. Except its red light warped. The ring pulled the magic into it as if it were a vacuum sucking the light in. Still, he was dead.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Jody had survived. We’d saved her. Kendra, Alexis, and Luiz made it through this battle unharmed. Ariel’s bullet-ridden and gore-covered body still creeped me out, but she would transform herself back to perfect about an hour after a good meal. She just needed food.

I hadn’t forgotten my prayer. Was our little mythic monster girl the answer to my prayer? As I stared at her, I wondered whether God could answer a prayer with such a horror show. “Can I eat him now?” Ariel asked me. “I won’t eat anyone unless you say I can.”

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