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“What?” exclaimed Jasmine.
I didn’t share her concern. “Damn it. I should have banished you the first time I saw you. I don’t have time for this, not with everything else. You should be in the Underworld by now. Kiyo isn’t going to kill me.”
“I’m serious!” said Deanna, as frantic as a ghost could get. “You’re in danger!”
I shook my head. “Look, I’m sorry about your husband … really, I am. But not every guy is homicidal. Don’t transfer this to me.”
“I’m not! This is real. I was going to move on after … after … well, after my husband was arrested….” There was a mournful pause. Her story had come to a close, but it hadn’t had a happy ending. “I wanted to say good-bye formally and went looking for you … but found Kiyo instead …”
I put my hands on my hips, wishing I’d brought my wand. I did not need a delusional ghost, not with everything else right now. “And then he said he was going to kill me?”
“No. He told that other queen he would.”
That cut off my snark, leaving me speechless for a moment.
“What other queen?” demanded Jasmine.
“The blond one. The Willow Queen.”
Jasmine and I exchanged looks. Suddenly, Deanna’s crazy statements had become slightly less crazy.
“What exactly did you overhear?” I asked quietly.
“He told her you were pregnant and that you’d have an abortion if it was a boy … but that he was concerned. He was worried because you hadn’t just done it already.” Deanna looked back and forth between our faces, desperate for either of us to believe her. “He said it was probably just shock and that you’d ‘do the right thing,’ but that if you didn’t … well, Maiwenn said they’d have to make you lose the baby. Or … if that didn’t work … that Kiyo would kill you.”
“That’s insane,” I said. “Kiyo wouldn’t kill me.”
“Kiyo doesn’t want the prophecy to come true,” said Jasmine. “It’s not that insane.”
I turned on her. “He loves me. This whole idea … it’s ridiculous.”
“Why would I lie?” said Deanna. “You helped me. I’m helping you by warning you before I move on to the next world. I’m telling you, I heard them. Kiyo swore he’d make sure the prophecy couldn’t be fulfilled.”
“Kiyo. Loves. Me.”
“Dorian loves you too,” pointed out Jasmine. “And look what he did. When you think about it, Kiyo’s the type who’d think one tragic loss of life was worth saving many. Or something stupid like that.”
“He would.” Admitting it surprised me, and yet … as the meaning of Deanna’s words sank deeper and deeper, I remembered my first meeting with Kiyo. He’d found me on Maiwenn’s orders. They hadn’t known what kind of person I was, if I’d wanted to fulfill the prophecy or not. He’d never said so explicitly, but my impression had been that both were willing to go to extreme means to stop Storm King’s heir from being born. Our relationship had obviously changed since then, but maybe … maybe some things hadn’t….
“But he wouldn’t go that far,” I finished.
“Do you want to take that chance?” asked Jasmine softly. “Maybe he wouldn’t really kill you, but you heard what he said about Maiwenn’s ‘magic’ abortion.”
What had Deanna claimed? That Kiyo and Maiwenn had planned to make me terminate the pregnancy if I wouldn’t willingly?
“We just need to talk,” I said, hoping I sounded convincing. My next words gave me away. “Somewhere I know I’m safe.”
“Kiyo’s in the waiting room,” said Jasmine, seeing that I was finally taking this seriously. “Is this a safe place?”
“Probably not.” I had finished getting dressed. “There must be a back door. There’s always a back door. We’ll go … we’ll go home. I’ll get my weapons, and then we’ll go to the Otherworld. He and I can talk about this reasonably in the Thorn Land. I’ll be safe there.”
“You’ll never make it there,” said Deanna. I’d practically forgotten about her. “He can follow you. As soon as you leave here, he’ll know and come after you.”
“How could he – “
I lightly touched my upper arm, the spot where Kiyo’s nails had barely dug in the other night. I took a deep, shaking breath. “He marked me,” I said. He’d scratched me the first night we’d met too, leaving a long-healing wound that allowed him to track me wherever I went. This one was smaller but would work just as well.
Jasmine was already moving toward the door, so full of tension and purpose that she seemed much older. “We’ll just go straight to the Otherworld then. You’ll be safe there. Where’s the nearest gateway?”
I racked my brain, thinking of our location. “By Morriswood Park. Farther than I’d like.”
“Well, we have to go soon. If we stay here any longer, the doctor’ll come ask what’s wrong,” said Jasmine. “And we can’t let Kiyo find us in the parking lot.”
“You’ll never make it to the park in time,” wailed Deanna. I scowled, but she was right. Jasmine looked at me questioningly. For a moment, I considered calling Volusian, but he might happily kill Kiyo and claim it was in my defense. I wasn’t ready for that.
“I know where we can go,” I said. “Come on.”
We left the exam room, stepping out into the hallway. I turned with purpose, opposite the direction of the waiting room we’d entered from. This took us deeper into the clinic, past more examining rooms and their lab. A couple staff members passed us, but we walked confidently enough that no one stopped us. They probably assumed we’d been directed somewhere. Meanwhile, my eyes were searching for an exit sign. There had to be a back door. Surely hypocritical health professionals had to go somewhere to smoke.
I nodded toward an exit sign, praying it didn’t lead to a fire door, which would be of no use to us. Nope. It was just an ordinary door, one probably used for maintenance or shipments. Someone did notice us then and start to ask what we were doing, but by then, we were outside and behind the building.
“Eugenie, where are we going?” asked Jasmine anxiously. Deanna had faded away, perhaps now finally leaving this world after fulfilling what she believed to be her last duty. As we walked briskly toward my car, some part of me kept wanting to think she’d lied. But why? As she’d said, she had no reason. She’d held true to me before.
And with every passing second, I grew more and more conflicted, wondering what I should believe. Kiyo loved me. He’d gone out of his way to win me back … but he was firmly set on protecting the human world. At any cost? We’d see. Deanna was mistaken; she had to be. My worst fate was probably going to be Kiyo’s talking me to death.
We got in the car, and I did briefly consider trying to make a break for Morriswood Park and its Otherworldly gate. After all, what was Kiyo going to do? Get in a high speed chase with us? The thing was, with that mark, he would be able to track me. He could probably feel me moving away now. If we headed anywhere near the park he’d figure it out. He’d either try to beat us there or just catch up with us on the other side. No, I had to go somewhere else. Somewhere with protection. Somewhere I could be sure I was safe until all of this madness was settled.
Jasmine’s face grew increasingly troubled as we drove away from the doctor’s office. She kept glancing back, as though expecting to see Kiyo right on our bumper. When we turned into a suburban neighborhood, her worry shifted to confusion.
“What is this?”
“Home,” I replied, pulling into the driveway of a well-kept house surrounded by trees and flowers. A fence enclosed the backyard but couldn’t hide the efforts someone had made to turn a Tucson backyard into something lush and green.
The gate in the fence was unlocked as I’d known it would be. The yard was unoccupied, save for birds and insects. The house’s patio door had its glass open, covered only by a screen that let in the afternoon air. It too would be unlocked.
“Kiyo won’t really do it,” I muttered, as I jerked the door open. “Maybe he’s upset … but we can talk this out. Deanna overreacted. We’re overreacting.”
We stepped into a small breakfast nook, and in the adjacent kitchen, a man spun around. My heart leapt when I saw him. The familiar, kind face. The graying hair. The tattoos of whorls and fishes. It felt like a lifetime since our last meeting.
I’d gone to my parents’ house.
Roland’s reactions were those of a man who’d spent years fighting and training, but even that didn’t prepare him for the sight of us. Astonishment filled his features, quickly giving way to outrage.
“Eugenie! What are you – “
“Get your weapons,” I ordered, casting an uneasy glance behind me. Jasmine followed as I strode toward him. “Whatever you’ve got in the house.”
He didn’t move. “You know you’re not – “
“Get them!” I exclaimed. “We don’t have time for this!”
I don’t know what look I wore on my face, but it was enough to pierce the walls of hurt and anger he’d built between us since learning of my involvement in the Otherworld. I’d taken a risk coming here, a gamble that no matter what happened, Roland would protect me. And I was right. He transformed before my eyes, suddenly the concerned and caring stepfather I’d grown up with.
“What’s – “
Before he could finish, the screen door flew open. Kiyo stood there, face dark and stormy.
“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. “Why did you take off?”
“You first,” I said, taking a step back toward Roland. “What are you doing?” Jasmine moved to my other side. My eyes were on Kiyo, but I could sense Roland bracing for battle. Maybe he didn’t know what was going on, but anyone could have seen how dangerous Kiyo was.
“I wanted to talk to you, and you disappeared!” Kiyo moved forward a little but stopped, recognizing the united front that Roland and I – and yes, even Jasmine – presented.
“Talk? Is that all you wanted to do?”
“Yes. Of course.” Kiyo glanced between all of us. “You promised, Eugenie. You promised if it was a boy, you’d get rid of it.”
“There’s a girl too!” I exclaimed. “You can’t get rid of one without the other.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The consequences are too big.”
“I can’t kill an innocent. She hasn’t done anything.”
“Not directly. Letting her live means he lives. And there’s nothing innocent there. He can’t live. Eugenie, you know that. I’m not trying to be cruel. Please. Do what’s right.”
Jasmine and Roland remained silent as this drama played out. Meanwhile, I realized how sickened the language of this whole matter continued to make me. Get rid of it. He can’t live.
“You’re so quick to kill your own children,” I said in disbelief, echoing what Jasmine had said a few days before. “Don’t you feel any remorse? You know better than me what it’s like to be a parent!”
“Yes,” he said, clenching his fists. “I do know. And it’s amazing. I wish you could know what it’s like….”
“But I can’t? I can’t have the same chance you and Maiwenn had?”
Kiyo shook his head. “You aren’t the same as Maiwenn. You can’t ever be.”
It was like a gut-punch. I was stunned into silence, and a bit of his fierceness eased. I think he read my reaction as acceptance.
“Look, I don’t get this,” he said. “I don’t get why you’re resisting all of this after what you’ve always said! You never wanted a baby – any baby. If you’ve changed your mind, then … well, try again. You just can’t have these.”
“And what then? I just keep having abortions until a girl comes along? What kind of a sick bastard are you?” I moved forward without realizing it, my anger exploding. Roland put a hand on my arm, keeping me back. It wasn’t affection. It was a warning. It was defensive strategy, keeping us together.
“I’m trying to protect the human world,” Kiyo said. He hadn’t come any closer, but he was as ready as we were, his reflexes even faster. “And you should be too.”
“And what happens if I don’t do what you want?” I asked quietly. Here it was, the moment of truth.
He sighed. “I don’t want it to come to that.”
“To what?” My voice rose sharply, the anguish in me ready to explode. “What will you do?”
“I’ll take you to Maiwenn – by force. And then … and then she’ll take care of it.”
“The hell you will,” I said. Goddamnit, I wished I had a weapon. I almost always traveled with them – but not to the doctor’s office. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Roland’s hand rest on the counter and wrap around something. A wand. He’d had his wand in the kitchen. But of course he would. Unlike me, he hadn’t become careless. “I’ll never let that happen. You guys aren’t going to experiment on me!”
Kiyo’s face displayed a mix of emotions. There was sorrow and disappointment. He did care. He didn’t want this fight between us – but he also believed in his greater good. He believed he had to do anything to stop the prophecy, and I knew then that Deanna had spoken the truth. Ideally, he just wanted the pregnancy to end. If that wasn’t possible, then I was what needed to be eliminated.
“How can you do this?” he asked, his voice both a threat and a plea. “How can you risk all this – just to save one life?”
It was only in that moment, as the words left my lips, that I learned the truth about myself, what I’d been holding deep inside. The girl and boy thing didn’t matter. Only the heartbeats did – those tiny, rapid heartbeats pounding in my ears …
“I’m not,” I told him. “I’m saving two lives.”
I sealed my fate with that. Kiyo moved so fast that I wasn’t prepared for the attack. He sprang toward me, shape-shifting as he did into his giant fox form, fangs out, snarling. A blast of wind slowed – but didn’t stop – his leap, providing enough time for Roland to jerk me out of the way. The wind magic hadn’t come from me. It had been Jasmine, which was why the power hadn’t packed much of a punch. The unaccustomed magic left her gasping, but it had been enough to buy us a brief escape.
Roland pulled me out of the kitchen, out to where we had more space to maneuver in the living room. Kiyo followed without hesitation, all brute strength and speed.
“He can be banished,” I gasped out to Roland. “The same as a gentry.”
Roland gave a brisk nod of acknowledgment. He already knew this, but in the sudden flurry, he didn’t have the necessary pause to do a full banishing. Kiyo reached us, throwing himself on me and pushing me away from Roland. I fell hard to the ground, Kiyo’s weight pinning me there. As quickly as he’d turned fox, he transformed back into a man. Still displaying amazing speed, he pulled me up by the arm. I didn’t know if his intentions were simply to cart me out of the house or to attempt a world-jump then and there, but I didn’t give him the chance. I’d recovered my senses and took hold of my magic. The air grew thick, and a hurricane-worthy gust blasted him away – along with a substantial part of my parents’ furniture.
Kiyo grimaced as he regained his footing and agonizingly took one step at a time toward me.
“Damn it!” he yelled over the roar of the wind. “Stop this!”
“You stop this!” I shouted back. The magic burned in my blood, and no matter how annoyingly weak the pregnancy had made me, my power hadn’t diminished too much. “We don’t even know that this prophecy’s real! I’ve already met one fake seeress. It could all be for nothing.” Roland and my mother had once told me that prophecies were a dime a dozen in the Otherworld, and I’d seen that to a certain extent. Until now, I’d never wanted to take the chance that mine wouldn’t come true.
“But we don’t know!” Kiyo countered. I could see the irritation on his face. I was keeping a storm raging around me, one that held him at bay while hopefully Roland began a banishing. “We can’t risk it. Please. Please come back with me to Maiwenn. We’ll fix this.”
I didn’t answer and instead kept the storm going. My gaze stayed on Kiyo, but I felt the tingle of shamanic magic – human magic – beginning to glimmer. Roland was indeed performing a banishing spell.
Kiyo transformed into a fox again, and with that extra strength, he managed to push through the storm-shield around me and knock me to the ground again. He stayed as a fox this time, holding onto that strength. His teeth bit into my shirt, through to my shoulder, and I yelled out in pain. My magic wavered, and to my astonishment, he began dragging me – slowly – across the living room.
His progress was halted when a small end table slammed into his back. I tell you, those things are lethal. Instinctively, he reared up against his attacker: Jasmine. He shoved her away, and she stumbled back. Snarling, Kiyo returned to me, and I had the uneasy feeling my odds were getting worse as to whether he’d cart me away or just kill me. He could hold on to human thoughts in fox form, but they became increasingly influenced by animal reactions the longer he stayed transformed.
He suddenly looked away from me, gold eyes on Roland, who stood planted firmly across the room with his wand extended. I’d sensed the banishing earlier because of my training. Now, with the spell in full force, Kiyo could feel it too. Abandoning me for the new threat, Kiyo raced toward Roland. I screamed as all that animal power slammed into my stepfather, pinning him against the wall. The wand flew from Roland’s hand. The banishing spell disintegrated.
Kiyo shifted to human form again, still trapping Roland. Roland was strong but couldn’t match Kiyo’s strength. Struggling was useless.
“Stop it,” cried Kiyo. “Both of you.”
His arm pressed against Roland’s neck. Roland managed a gasp as the grip cut off his air. Immediately, I let the storm magic around me drop. As I did, I felt that Jasmine had been lending her strength to me without me even realizing it. She too ceased her wielding and struggled up from where she’d been knocked down, coming to stand with me once again. The room fell eerily still.
“Let him go,” I growled, moving slightly forward. I knew I couldn’t win against Kiyo in a physical fight, but I also couldn’t let him harm Roland. “This isn’t about him. Don’t hurt him.”
“Believe me,” said Kiyo, “I don’t want to.” His eyes were dark and human again, but there was still some feral glint in there. “Come with me, and I’ll release him.”
“Come with you,” I said flatly. “To Maiwenn’s?”
“You’ll thank me later,” said Kiyo.
My mind raced frantically. Roland was struggling for breath. How much longer did he have? Would Kiyo really kill him? I wondered if I could get off another blast of magic. Another attack of wind? Lightning? I could create a controlled bolt indoors, but it’d probably kill both men. And if I went with Kiyo … let him take me to Maiwenn … well. There’d be no getting out of that, no escape.
Roland looked ready to pass out. His blue eyes were fixed on me, and then, quickly, he glanced toward my feet. I thought it was him about to lose consciousness, but then I saw the purpose in his eyes. His wand was near my feet, within easy reach. I didn’t let on to Kiyo that I’d noticed. Roland’s eyes returned to me, some message there.
“Please,” I begged, wondering frantically what Roland wanted me to do. “Let him go.” I couldn’t pull off a banishing spell. There wasn’t enough time. Kiyo would release Roland, true, but then I’d be the one attacked again. I honestly didn’t know how long Kiyo would play it safe. He was attempting “reasonable” solutions: force me to go to Maiwenn, blackmail with Roland, et cetera. Sooner or later, if he truly believed the prophecy’s threat, he would simply eliminate me.
Roland was still staring at me, still wanting me to do something he thought would save us. He’d trained me. Surely I could figure it out. I had to. What could a wand do? It cast spells. It banished creatures, sending them out of this world….
I felt my eyes widen. I knew what he was telling me to do. Doing it would save him, I was certain, because Kiyo would release him and come after me … into the Otherworld. Roland wanted me to open a gateway for myself. I could do it. It was a fast spell, one I had the power for. Forcing another being through was what took so much time and effort. But opening the gate and stepping through? That could be done quickly.
If it could be done. Getting in was easy. Passing through the worlds unassisted was hard, and I’d even had trouble going through fixed, physical gates lately in my weakened state. Making a blind, unaided transition might not even be possible for me. I’d done it once before, and it had required a lot of power. And dear God, had it hurt. If I could do it, though … I’d get away from Kiyo, and Kiyo would let Roland go in order to chase me down. This could buy me the time to flee to safety.
The only thing that might make it possible was that I had anchors in the Otherworld to help pull me in. If I jumped with no solid destination, I could end up trapped between the worlds, my essence disintegrated. Hell, that might still happen, but an anchor would reduce the likelihood. I didn’t know where I was in relation to the Otherworld’s layout, but the closest anchor would pull me in if this worked.
Time to find out.
With speed that rivaled Kiyo’s, I reached for the wand and then grabbed hold of Jasmine’s hand. Bringing her only made my task more difficult, but I wouldn’t leave her to Kiyo. With the wand, I summoned the necessary magic and ripped open a gate to the Otherworld. Kiyo realized what was happening and released Roland, trying to reach me – but it was too late. I threw myself into the opening, clinging to Jasmine, and knew it would shut immediately behind us, simply because I couldn’t hold open a personal gate for long.
It felt just as painful as last time, like I was crashing through the floors in a building. Down, down, down. Smash, smash, smash. Each layer was more agonizing than the last, and with each blow, I felt like I was being torn apart. It was likely I was, and I would destroy Jasmine with me, ripping our souls from our bodies.
Then, I sensed a tug. My soul turned toward it, and I felt my fractured self coalesce and become whole, even as that falling, excruciating sensation continued. Then – there was only one impact left: a real one. Jasmine and I slammed into a hard stone floor. My body cried out at the pain. True, physical pain. I had already been hurting from the fight with Kiyo, and now, crashing through the worlds had taken that pain to new levels.
Nausea welled up in me, and I fought hard not to throw up. I could hear Jasmine whimpering, but the sights around us were a blur as my disoriented mind tried to get a hold of itself. Finally, the world came into focus, the colors and lines growing sharp once more. A faint hum of magic in the air, one that was always present, told me I’d made it intact to the Otherworld.
And Dorian was looking down at me.
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