It would all end here.
Something shattered inside me. I managed to hold back the tears, but I couldn’t stop the sound that escaped me. Agony became breath and broke the silence that had gripped the room.
Then two words slid into my mind, spoken in a whisper that somehow managed to resound through my thoughts.
My eyes bulged. Mencheres was the only person I knew who had the ability to communicate telepathically, yet that hadn’t been his voice.
It was Bones’s.
A sliver of me was awed that he had this ability, but the rest was too destroyed with grief to care. Trust him? He was as helpless as I was to stop this!
Trust me, his inner voice repeated, emphatic enough to drown out my mental railings.
Anger flared through my grief. Trust what, that we’d get through this together? Or that time would heal all wounds? Well, I had no intention of healing. I wanted to feel this pain forever because it was all I’d have left of my daughter—
Thonos’s blade began to descend toward that tiny, vulnerable throat. Katie still stared at me, and for a split second, her eyes changed from the same deep gray as mine to something else.
Katie’s gaze should have only been able to turn one other color. Bright, vampire green. Red was the sign of another race. The only one the child wasn’t supposed to have in her mixed genetic makeup.
Hope blasted through me with enough force to knock me over if I’d been standing under my own power, but I wasn’t. Mencheres still had me in that invisible vise, and in the gut-wrenching instant before that deadly blade met flesh, I saw the boiler room through new eyes.
Four Law Guardians, three council members, and the queen of the ghouls were all present for the execution of the mixed-species child. Everyone from Bones’s line might be considered unreliable witnesses for personal reasons, but no one would question any of them on whether it had really happened. They’d never acted mercifully before when it came to protecting the power balance between the races, and nothing had changed in the centuries since.
Unless there is a public execution, Marie had said, they will keep hunting for her. She’d believed that so much, she’d been prepared to die for it.
And Bones had said, If we promise you that, will you agree to the rest of our terms? I’d been horrified, but before I could voice my outrage, he’d immobilized me much like Mencheres had.
Kitten, trust me, he’d said then.
Trust me, he’d urged me three times now.
I held on to that with all the hopeful desperation in me as that blade cut all the way through Katie’s neck, coming out drenched in crimson on the other side. Her body fell, and the sight of Thonos holding up her head hit me like a wrecking ball straight to the heart. He set it next to her body, flinging the excess blood off his blade, and my own blood seemed to scream in response.
Tears streamed in an unending flow from Tate’s eyes. Marie bowed her head. The other two Law Guardians were stoic except for Veritas, who stared at Katie’s body with an intensity that angered me. Was she trying to memorize the grisly sight?
The council members didn’t look at their handiwork. They shifted almost awkwardly. Now that the deed was done, they seemed far less enthused by it.
I couldn’t stop staring at Katie’s crumpled form, her head resting several inches from the rest of her. Horror, hope, and terror mingled into a nauseating brew within me.
Was I wrong, and was I staring at my daughter? Or was this my best friend, shapeshifted to look like her? And if so, could she come back from this? Nothing was supposed to kill her except demon bone through the eyes, but dear God, she didn’t have a head anymore!
“Leave the body.”
Mencheres’s voice startled me. It seemed to surprise the council members, too. Gandalf look-alike pursed his lips in disapproval.
“We didn’t agree to that.”
“You will.” Quiet steel edged Mencheres’s words. “And you will leave the sword. As the child’s mother, she is entitled to both.”
The other council members glanced back and forth between themselves, clearly undecided.
Veritas stepped forward, grasping Thonos’s hand before he could put his weapon back in its sheath.
“You ordered the child’s death out of necessity,” she said crisply. “Denying this request would be cruelty. Do not begrudge her so little when we’ve taken everything else.”
Thonos didn’t stop her when she took his blade and laid it at my feet. As she rose, for a second, her piercing gaze met mine.
What I saw made me gasp. Without saying a word, she managed to convey both admiration and a clear warning. Unless she knew more than the others did, why would she do that?
She can’t know! my mind raged. Could she?
Then Veritas turned around. “The child and the sword will remain, but I will have some of the demon’s bones.”
It wasn’t a question. I sucked in a breath out of sheer terror. What if she wanted it to plunge into Katie’s—Denise’s?—eyes?
Mencheres went over to the demon’s body, snapping off one of Trove’s arms as though it were nothing more than a dry twig.
“Sufficient?” he asked, holding it out.
Veritas took it, eyeing it critically. “It will do.”
Then, to my vast, relief, she walked past Katie’s crumpled form without a single glance to join the other Law Guardians.
None of them looked at me. That was fine. I never wanted to see any of them again.
“We are finished,” the white-haired leader stated. “Your cooperation will be remembered, Mencheres.”
“As will his betrayal,” Bones immediately replied, speaking the first words he’d uttered out loud since Thonos had grabbed Katie.
Then he stared at Mencheres.
“I swore by my blood to co-rule our lines. For my people’s sake, I won’t rescind that, but my wife and I are leaving, and you won’t see us for a very long time.”
Mencheres bowed his head. “I understand, and once again, I am truly sorry.”
“Too bloody right you are,” Ian said in disgust.
He went over to Trove, stripping the demon’s jacket off his bony remains. Then Ian took it and wrapped Katie’s body in it, head and all. From how small she was, it covered her entirely.
Marie, the Law Guardians, and the council members left without saying anything else. For several moments, the clatter of their footsteps echoed on the ruined floor of the book depository; and then there was silence. The oppressive power they’d given off dissipated as well, until nothing remained except the energy that radiated from Mencheres.
With a tangible snap, the cocoon I’d been encased in disappeared. So did Bones’s and Tate’s. Both of us rushed to the hump of clothes in front of Ian, but Tate went straight to Mencheres and punched him so hard, I heard the bones in his hand shatter.
“I’ll kill you for this,” he swore in a strangled voice.
The pulse of power I felt was probably Mencheres putting him back in an invisible restraint, but I didn’t move away from the small humps in front of me. My hand stretched out, and then I stopped. I was afraid to pull back the cloth and afraid not to. Would I find everything I’d hoped for, or realize that everything I’d feared had come true?
Mencheres knelt next to us. When he stared at the lumps beneath the coat, resignation flickered across his darkly handsome features.
“Charles will kill me once he hears of this.”
“Only after he’s finished frying my arse,” Bones replied in an equally grim tone.
“Charles?” Ian sounded irate as well as confused. “What does he have to do with any of this?”
“Plenty,” Bones replied, carefully scooping up the coat and clasping the bundle to his chest. “I’ll explain later. Grab Tate and try to keep up. Mencheres?”
“I’ve got you,” his co-ruler replied, flashing me one of his rare smiles. “All of you.”
I didn’t get a chance to respond. Or to ask if the bundle that Bones cradled was Denise, then where was Katie? Mencheres grabbed the bloody sword and the rest of Trove’s skeleton, then all of us were catapulted into the air. Before we reached the roof, a hole blasted open, allowing us to pass through without impact. Then the empty windows on the first floor changed, the metal frames splaying outward like bare limbs reaching up to the sky.
We rushed through them and into the night, leaving nothing behind in the ruined building except blood and the smell of sulfur.
Mencheres whisked us back to Chicago, but not to the large estate he shared with Kira. Once we reached the outskirts of the metropolitan area, we dropped down at the back of a two-story church.
It was well after midnight, so no lights were on inside. All the noise from the surrounding buildings made it impossible to discern if it was empty, though. It might be late, but parts of Chicago were still very much awake, and we were right outside the busiest district of the city.
Bones shifted the bundle he held and followed Mencheres to the side door. With how fast Mencheres had propelled us here, I hadn’t been able to confirm who was in the coat because the wind had snatched away my words. Now, the question fired out of me like a bullet from a gun.
“That’s Denise, isn’t it?”
The side door opened, and Mencheres went inside. Bones glanced back at me, hesitating.
Relief turned my knees to jelly. Joy kept me upright, and anxiety caused my stomach to lurch. I could still see two distinct pieces beneath the coat Bones held.
“That’s Denise?” Tate said incredulously.
Ian let out a low whistle. “You’re right; Charles will kill you, and that’s only if she comes back from this. If she doesn’t, he’ll keep you alive so he can torture you for decades.”
Fear for my best friend caused my voice to tremble, not concern over Ian’s prediction.
“Can she come back from this? Sure, other demons said only bone of the brethren could kill them, but decapitation kills a hundred percent of the rest of the population.”
“Reckon we’re about to find out,” Bones muttered.
Then he disappeared inside through the same door Mencheres had. I followed them, too worried about Denise to comment about the irony of choosing a church to see if someone branded with demonic essence could resurrect herself.
The back section had a small kitchen, three offices, and a restroom. Mencheres and Bones passed by all of them, entering the main sanctuary by a side door. The scent of candles, incense, and wood polish perfumed the air. Stained glass bordered the upper perimeter of the sanctuary, transforming the ordinary light from the street into beams of mauve, blue, amber, and emerald. The colors illuminated the empty pews, the choir area, and the cross that hung front and center above the altar.
Katie stood below it, flanked by Gorgon, Kira, and a human man who looked vaguely familiar. I didn’t spare any of them a second glance because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from my daughter. She was alive. Whole. Unhurt. As I stared, I was seized with the desire to hug her while spinning in deliriously happy circles—and the urge to drop to my knees while sobbing out my thanks to God.
Both actions would alarm her. She’d already made huge strides by standing there instead of running or trying to stab anyone, and seeing me break down in hysterics would hardly be reassuring.
Instead, I smiled as I approached with slow, measured steps.
“Hi, Katie. I see you’ve met my friends.”
Those colored hues danced over her face as she took a step toward me, her head cocked to the side.
“I stayed with them like you ordered,” she said in her high, musical voice.
Like I ordered? Before I could ask what she meant, Tate shouldered past me, stopping when he saw Katie. From his thunderstruck expression, he hadn’t believed what we told him about Denise until that moment.
“Katie,” he breathed in the same reverent whisper most people used when they were in church. Then he sank to his knees, his broad shoulders starting to tremble with sobs.
Her eyes widened, and she glanced behind her. Yep, alarmed, just as I’d figured. I nudged Tate, whispering, “Get it together, you’re freaking her out,” while keeping the smile on my face.
Bones provided ample distraction when he set the bulky coat on the nearest pew. As he peeled back the blood-sodden fabric, I wasn’t the only one who gasped at what was underneath.
An exact replica of Katie’s head rested against the tiny, slender body. Small, pale arms folded over it, almost making it look like the headless doppelganger was hugging it to her chest.
As disturbing as the sight was, I was more upset that there wasn’t a hint of regeneration in the exposed tissues. Denise wasn’t healing from the horrific injury.
Bones had the same concern.
“Nathanial,” he said tightly, “why hasn’t she grown a new head yet?”
Nathanial. Now I remembered; the gangly redhead was Denise’s much-older relative. He’d once been branded by demonic essence, too, which is why he hadn’t aged in the century since then.
“How long’s it been since this happened?” Nathanial asked, sounding more quizzical than concerned.
“Nearly two hours,” Bones said.
Logically, I knew he was right, but it felt like only minutes since we’d left the book depository. Emotions acted as their own sort of time machine, slowing it down or cranking it into fast-forward, depending on the circumstances.
“Why does that look like me?” Katie asked in a very calm tone.
I stifled my groan. I’d been so anxious about Denise that I hadn’t thought to shield her gaze. One day on the job and I was already a terrible mother, letting my child stare at a decapitated body.