When you compare the sorrows of real life to the pleasures of the imaginary one, you will never want to live again, only to dream forever. – Alexandre Dumas
“Hola, mejita.” My mother turned smiling indulgently at the ever present headphones around my neck and the huge stack of music and fashion magazines I toted into the kitchen with me. “Dinner’s almost ready.” She used a spatula to flip something that sizzled and released a deliciously garlicky aroma into the air. Plátanos. My mouth watered and my empty stomach grumbled. “What’s new in the entertainment world?”
“Not much.” I lifted the Rolling Stone magazine to show her the cover and made a face. “Except Star Angel is breaking up with Brad.”
“Chica doesn’t stay with any one man long does she?”
“I know, right?” I shook my head in disbelief of my favorite diva’s man eating ways. The blunt ends of my straight hair swished against my shoulders. The halter and loose linen shorts I wore weren’t cutting edge fashion like Star preferred and I dreamed about, but it was way too hot in the rainforest for haute couture.
“Didn’t those two have a child together?”Mamá asked returning her attention to the stove.
“Yeah. That’s the saddest part.” I set aside the magazine. I planned to finish the article later. Being an aspiring singer, I was interested in finding out where Star thought her present heartache would take her professionally. For now I followed my nose across the bamboo floors that were smooth against my bare feet. “Mmm, mofongo.” I smiled widely. Plantains mashed with garlic, chicharrones, and olive oil. My favorite Puerto Rican dish. I snatched a pinch from one of the starchy slices on the paper towel lined plate.
“No, Cecilia,” my mother chided, pewter eyes the same unusual moonbeam shade as my own glowing softly. “We’ll eat soon. Your papá should be home any minute.”
“Sorry, Mamá.” I blew on my prize to cool it, and returned to the table my father had built using wood from an Ausubo tree prized for its decay and termite resistant properties. I popped the crispy morsel into my mouth and savored the rich flavor for a moment. “What’s the special occasion?” I asked her before licking the salty garlic residue from my fingertips. Making mofongo was time consuming. It wasn’t an everyday treat. Blue marlin filets were laid out alongside the mortar and pestle she would use to mash the fried plantains. “And when did Papá go to the north coast?” Our home in the El Yunque Rainforest was far from the side of the island where that particular fish flourished.
“So many questions, mejita.” She flipped off the gas burner and turned to face me blotting perspiration from her forehead with a kitchen towel and lifting her glossy ebony hair away from her neck so the late evening breeze would cool it. “Did you and Millie get the herbs?”
“Si, Mamá. They were easy to find once we…after we…” Carajo. Shit “We have all of them. Everything on the list.” I pressed my lips flat, kicking myself for almost admitting how my twin had helped me locate them.
Unfortunately for me, my mamá knew me too well to overlook my verbal stumbling. Her grey eyes narrowed. I nervously shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I swore that woman was psychic. At least she had an unsettling ability to read me, even if that wasn’t her gifting.
“Cecilia Ramirez y Aguilera. You know better! Your papá and I have told you over and over again. No scrying! I…” She snapped her mouth shut as my papá appeared striding into the kitchen wearing only cutoff shorts. His six foot six inch frame overshadowed Millie who stood a full foot shorter like me. Hips swaying rhythmically, blissfully unaware of the trouble I had gotten us into, she was humming some silly tune I had composed for her when we were kids.
“What’s wrong, Panacea, mi preciosa?” My father’s voice had a lilting musical quality similar to my own. Millie had inherited his angelic beauty, not that I was jealous. I doted on my sweet sibling just as everyone else in my family did.
My father’s ruby-red gaze hardened as he glanced back and forth between my mamá and me. I gulped around the growing knot in my throat while twisting my hands together. I knew it was only a matter of time before he found out. He wouldn’t be deterred.
Millie shot me a questioning look. I gave my head a subtle shake cautioning her not to give anything away. I was always treading into troubled waters. I wanted to avoid dragging her down with me for once.
“Raphael. Don’t be mad.” My mamá held his gaze using her most soothing tone. “But I fear the girls were scrying when they went out for herbs earlier today.”
“What?” he roared his displeasure in a deliberately measured volume. If he chose to he could reduce a solid structure to rubble with only the power of his utterance. Nevertheless, Mamá’s colorful Fiestaware dishes rattled ominously on the open shelves. He snapped open his wings, fourteen feet of intimidating span, several inches thick yet as transparent as if they had been fashioned from flawless glass. Dazzling when reflecting direct sunlight, they were most mesmerizing on a cloudless night, when they sparkled with the light of the Creator’s stars.
An unstable lapis coffee cup tumbled to the floor shattering into jagged pieces in front of me. I took a step back and assumed a protective stance in front of my twin, not because Papá would ever hurt us. He loved us, both of us…only unequally. But he frightened Millie whenever he got angry.
Her pretty sea foam green eyes wide Millie pressed closer. She might be his favorite but I didn’t hold that against her. Unlike me, she was easy to love, and she was my twin. We stuck together. No matter what. Mamá said we were sympatico, dos uno, two parts that made up one whole. I took her trembling hand and squeezed to reassure her. I felt our emotions settling the instant we touched.
“Have I not expressly forbidden you from using your gifts?” My father’s angry red gaze skewered me.
I managed a submissive nod.
“I am extremely disappointed in you, my daughter. I don’t make rules to make your life difficult. You know they’re for your safety. I’ve told you countless times how violent our immortal world can be and how critical it is that we maintain our anonymity in it.” The golden skin over his bulging biceps stretched beneath the strain as he crossed his tensed arms across his chest. “Why take such a risk for a handful of herbs, Cecilia?” His gaze narrowed further. “Did you forget? Is that your excuse for disobeying me this time? Or do you think that you know better since you seem so ready to set out on your own?”
My mamá frowned as she rose from the floor where she had been scooping up the broken pieces of pottery. Millie’s fingers tightened in mine.
“I didn’t forget. I didn’t think…”
“That’s the problem. Most of the time you don’t think at all, Cecilia.”
His criticism made my stomach cramp, but I tilted up my chin defiantly. “You’re overreacting. It only took us a moment. It’s unlikely anyone was around to notice.” I didn’t have it in me to back down whenever he laid into me. So I just dove deeper into it.
“I know you think my rules are too confining.” He shook his head disappointedly. “That our home is a cage to you. That you desperately yearn for your freedom. What you fail to see is that everything I do is done out of love for you and your sister and a desire to protect you. I have years of knowledge and experience that you lack. Your mamá and I pray to the Creator daily that you and your sister will never experience what the worst of our kind have to offer.”
I sighed, ducked my head and mumbled, “I’m sorry I disobeyed you.”
“Your apology would be of little consolation to your mother and me if you’re both dead, Cecilia. You know as well as I do that even though it only takes a moment for you to scry, that act leaves behind a unique residue that another foresight gifted immortal can trace even days later.”
I nodded somberly my guilt increasing as I felt Millie shaking beside me. She had an active imagination, one fueled by her voracious reading habit. It didn’t take more than a suggestion of danger by Papá to set it in motion.
“Besides, using your gifts scares the mortals,” he continued. “It’s a delicate enough balance for us living among them and having them accept us as it is.”
“You’re right, Papá.” I nodded obediently.
His anger seemingly spent, his expression softened. He slowly retracted his massive wings. Though powerful enough to launch him and a passenger into the sky within a single heartbeat, they were completely invisible when tucked into his shoulder blades.
My mother set the shards of pottery she had gathered on the counter and tucked her curvy body into her husband’s rock solid side. Throwing his arm around her shapely shoulders, he pulled her closer. They had been married for over a century yet the passion between them remained visibly strong. “You leave me no choice but to punish you, Cecilia,” he declared sternly. “No television. No excursions to town. Not even to assist your mamá with her healings.”
“But Papá,” I began. “I have so much to do before I move…”
“No.” He shushed me with a sharp gesture. “I’ve been far too lenient with you. You need to learn once and for all to use better judgment.” His eyes flared, glowing red embers within a fire. Familiar with that look, I braced. “You will also sleep tonight in the guestroom without your sister.”
A very harsh punishment indeed. I didn’t sleep well when separated from Millie. Tears pricked my eyes, but I curled my fingernails into my palms refusing to cry. I wasn’t going to let on how much his discipline upset me.
“Is that really necessary, Raph? You know neither one can sleep when separated from the other.”
“I know, my love. That’s why I’m doing it.” He gently tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear as he peered down at her. “The lesson must sink in for both of them. They need to look after each other. One day soon, they will be on their own. I’ve tried my best to prepare them for the world they are so set on experiencing but obviously there are lessons yet to be learned.” His gaze returned to me. “There will be no more talk of you moving out, not until I see proof that you are maturing.” I knew his tone meant his decision was final, but he had been right when he said I was desperate to be out on my own. To be so close and to have that taken away…I couldn’t, I wouldn’t let it go.
“Papá, no,” I pleaded feeling my hopes and dreams drifting away. “We are nearly twenty one. You promised.”
“Nevertheless.” His expression grew sterner. “Your questionable judgment puts you and your sister at undue risk. You know she is your shadow forever looking to you for direction. I can’t permit it.”
I lowered my gaze my eyes stinging with the burn of bitter disappointment.
“Papá.” Millie moved forward placing her platinum locks on his shoulder. The light color matched his exactly, so rare for Dark Immortals. “Por favor.” She reached for his hand. “Please, don’t take this away from Cici. She has an apartment already and a waitressing job at the Blue Parrot.”
“I’m sorry. It’s no longer open for discussion, little one, maybe in time I will reconsider.” His expression troubled, he shook his head and his crystal clear wings emerged slowly forming sharp peaks over each shoulder. His focus shifted to the open window. His chin tilted toward it and his nostrils flared as if he had scented something unpleasant. He turned to my mother. “I’m going to make a quick pass above the trees to make sure everything is safe.” He placed a kiss on the top of her head and gently squeezed my sister’s shoulder before turning to me. “Set the table for your mamá . I will return shortly.”
“¡Ándale!” I hissed low setting the heavy backpack stuffed with my belongings at my feet. “If you’re going to come with me, honey, then come. Otherwise stay and get back in bed with your book. And don’t tell them anything until tomorrow.” Hopefully by then it would be too late for Papá to drag me home. I tapped my flip flops against the spongy mat of decomposed vegetation outside our guest bedroom window, my impatience leaving squishy indentations on the forest floor.
I loved my parents but lately I chafed daily under their authority. I refused to stick around the undetermined period of time it would take for Papá to change his mind. If it had been up to me I would have left home right after high school. If I had maybe I would already have saved up enough money working in Old San Juan to hop on a plane to Miami or Los Angeles, somewhere less isolated than the island, somewhere my singing career might actually have a legitimate chance to take off, somewhere full of the excitement and drama I craved.
Anywhere but slow-paced and boring here.
“Of course I’m coming with you, as if I’d let you leave me behind,” Millie huffed throwing her own backpack out the window a moment before her narrow butt poked through it. “You’re such a pain in my rear, Cici.” She threw one tanned leg over the wooden sill, then the other, shimmying her torso toward the ground.
I reached up to help her, placing my hands on her hips. She dropped gracefully onto the rain softened soil beside me and retrieved her pack. Our bungalow style home was higher off the ground than stateside ones, a practicality to keep it above the floodwaters during the rainy season.
“Do you always have to wear white?” I complained with just enough volume to be heard over the chorus of nighttime insects and the ‘Couqui’ cries of the tree frogs. I didn’t want to wake our slumbering parents. They had both gone into their room after dinner, but being Dark Immortals whose internal clocks were set by the moon they would arise as soon as it reached its pinnacle. “Would it kill you to choose some color for a change?” The brighter and more contrasting the better in my opinion, something like the fushia top and indigo shorts I had changed into for our escape. Plus, though I often complained about Papá’s constant lessons in self-preservation, they hadn’t been entirely lost on me. White stuck out in the dark.
No one gets hurt if they are invisible to their enemies, Cecilia.
“It’s a long walk to the falls where Ernesto is meeting us,” I told her. “You’re going to get dirty and you’re going to stand out like a pale faced tourista in the market.”
“But white’s my best color.” Flip flops just like mine clicked against the loam on the well-worn hiking trail as she trotted to keep pace with me. Our shoes were the only thing that matched tonight. If we let our mamá have her way she would still be dressing us exactly alike, even though we were way too old for that type of thing. Besides we were fraternal, not identical twins.
“Do you think Ernesto asked Jaime to come along?” Her eyes sparkled brightly with excitement. I think she would have bounced on her toes but her pack was too heavy. I bit back a grin. Jaime was a cute boy, sweet and a dreamer like she was. She had been crushing on him for months. Their feelings seemed to be reciprocal though neither had been brave enough to make a first move.
Ernesto on the other hand was bold to the point of being aggressive, as different from his brother in personality as I was to Millie. I actually enjoyed the thrill of danger she only liked reading about in her books. Ernesto appealed to my impulsive rebellious nature. Thus this impromptu late night rendezvous at the falls. Mamá wouldn’t approve. She would never allow a boy with a reputation like Ernesto take me into town. I didn’t really like the idea of owing him a favor. But he had a truck and I had no other option for the long drive into Old San Juan.
There weren’t many guys willing to defy my father. He was a legendary Dark Immortal, and though mortals like Ernesto didn’t suspect that, they could sense his power. He was an Ancient after all, one of only four who had guarded the four gates of the Great City on the Otherside. Beautiful and brilliant, their curiosity had lured them to the above ground world. Once angelic, they turned vampiric the moment they had risen from the earth to partake of its temptations and pleasures. Papá was completely immune to the sun, unlike the legions of vampires he inadvertently spawned before he learned to regulate his thirst. He was the strongest of the four Ancients, which was why with Papá as his first lieutenant, Apollyon had easily defeated his challengers to establish his throne far beneath the city of New Orleans.
Though not really as powerful as our father, Millie and I shared a rare talent, one disconcerting to humans and immortals alike. My family was not the only Dark Immortals who found the isolation of the rainforest to be an excellent refuge, but we were definitely the most feared. Outcasts among outcasts. Our own kind even shied away from us.
We were tolerated and sheltered because of my mother. She was a healer. A bruja. A witch doctor. Unparalleled in her craft, loved and revered because of it. The Creator’s magic was stamped into every cell of her marrow, an aftereffect from when her parents had done the unthinkable, partaking of the forbidden water of the Spring of the Afterlife while yet living. Assisting her over the years I had seen her heal grievous wounds of both mortals and immortals. Although our blood was much less potent, that same gift of healing had been passed along to Millie and me. But our chief gifting was the ability to predict the future of a person if we touched someone or something important to them. In some cases we could even catch glimpses into their past. We also had an advanced ability to scry for lost people or items like those missing herbs.
Millie reached for my hand and held it as we continued down the narrow path to the waterfall. I smiled at her appreciating her ready affection. I wasn’t as confident about leaving tonight as I was pretending to be. But I couldn’t hide anything from Millie, especially my emotions. She knew I wished I could be more sensitive and caring. Easier to love. Like she was. Like Mamá . No surprise that after only one meeting with my mother, our father had insisted upon her release as a final reward for his long and faithful service to Apollyon. Then he had resigned his commission and walked away from all the privileges his dangerous but powerful position had once afforded him.
Millie had my father’s looks and my mother’s inner spiritual beauty.
Me? I was a compilation of my parents, too, just a confusing, jumbled one. Mamá fussed at me whenever I bemoaned the less than fortunate mixture
“Cecilia Ramirez y Aguilera,” she was fond of telling me, “los árboles no están dejando ver el bosque. You can’t see the forest for the trees. You are different si, but muy bonita in your own unique way if only you would realize it. Believe in it and accept yourself the way the Creator intended you to be.”
I tucked a strand of my soft as silk but unsettling two toned platinum and ebony hair back beneath the black bandana I usually wore scarf style to conceal it. If only I had a demon’s ability to cloak it or a shape shifter’s talent to take a whole other form. If only I could I would get rid of the patrician nose I had inherited from my father. If only I could make my hair one uniform shade instead of pitch black superficially with underlying layers of platinum that reflected the sun during the day and sparkled with the illumination of the stars at night like my father’s wings.
The fact that my silver eyes glowed like the new moon whenever my emotions were heightened added to the freak show of my appearance. I was not surprised that people from our small town in the rainforest kept their distance from me, but it still hurt that they did.
If we had been born into a different time, my sister and I would have been honored, like the oracles of old who predicted the future in a time when immortals had walked openly upon the earth and had been worshipped by men as gods. But there was no honor for our talents in a modern society where everything supernatural had to be explained scientifically. These days we had to hide our gifts as carefully as I concealed my hair.
Millie and I stepped out from beneath the shadowed shelter of the tropical trees and entered the moonlit rocky clearing surrounding the base of the falls. An icy prickle of awareness made the fine hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I felt like someone was watching us. I darted a quick glance back at the dark forest. I didn’t see anyone. The nighttime sounds remained undisturbed. Chastising myself for being overly paranoid like my papá, I carefully picked my way over the uneven surface with my twin.
“Mamacita,” Ernesto greeted, pushing away from the woody trunk of the Banyan tree where he had been leaning. Prowling confidently toward us, his tight jeans hugged his athletic form and the thick rope chain around his neck sparkled in the moonlight. My heartrate kicked up louder in my ears than the roar of the falls as he leisurely scanned me. He looked at me as if I were his dinner, his lips slowly lifting into a cocky grin. “I wasn’t expecting your sister,” he purred stretching out his arm to me. I placed my hand in his, feeling all warm and shivery when his fingers closed tightly around mine. His gaze flicked to Millie his expression darkening with displeasure he didn’t attempt to hide. “I thought you said she wasn’t coming until tomorrow.”
“Change of plans.” I shrugged. “Why don’t we pick up your brother and make it a double date?”
“He’s working late.”
My sister’s face fell. She wore her emotions out in the open for all to see.
A calculating glint narrowed Ernesto’s eyes. “But I can call and ask him to meet us at the apartment. By the time we arrive he should be done with his shift.” He slid his cell from the pocket of his pressed jeans.
“Thank you,” I mouthed to him as he placed the call.
“Anything for you, mi bonita.” He pulled me tighter to his side, his smooth fingertips tracing distracting circles on my skin.
I was sure he hoped Jaime would occupy Millie while he got me alone. I knew he wanted to take things to the next level. In theory, I agreed. Almost twenty-one and still a virgin, I took it as proof of my unattractiveness. Not only that, it was a hindrance to writing sexy lyrics when I had no frame of reference. It was just another way Millie and I differed. She was holding out for true love, like Mamá and Papá had found, like characters in the British Classics she preferred to read.
Tugging me along, Ernesto guided me along the path to his old truck. His free hand slid to the small of my back the tips of his fingers resting on the swell of my ass. Yeah, he was definitely expecting some action in repayment for his assistance tonight. If Millie noticed where his hand lay, lower than I was comfortable with truth be told, she didn’t say anything. She remained a silent chaperone on the trail beside us.
Ernesto opened the passenger side door for me. I tossed my backpack inside, stepped onto the muddy running board and scooted to the middle of the bench seat. Millie followed. The hinge creaked and slammed as Ernesto shut us in. He flashed a suave smile as he rounded the hood. My stomach fluttered with nerves. For some reason I couldn’t summon any anticipation, even as I tried imagining receiving one of his slow kisses.
I tensed as he twisted the latch on the driver’s side. Suddenly, a shadow denser than the dark night fell over him. A harsh clanging filled the air. Face lifting, his expression turned into one of terror. My blood chilled as he gasped throwing his body backward against the vehicle so hard it rocked. A moment later clawed feet tore into the skin of his shoulders. Blood welled before he was ripped away up into the air. Panic froze me in its icy grip until Millie shattered it with her scream.
I turned and saw the stone face of a gargoyle with saggy eyes and a horn in the center of his forehead peering into the window on her side. My panic morphed into heart slamming full blown fear. We knew from Papá’s lessons that gargoyles were Apollyon’s preferred envoys.
“Lock your door!” I shouted, quickly jamming my body into the vacant driver’s seat. I turned the key and started the ignition. Motor roaring to life, I yanked the shift stick into drive and slammed my foot down on the gas pedal. The truck wheels spun in the mud for a terrifying moment before we finally lurched into motion.
My teeth rattled as the vehicle bumped in and out of potholes on the way down the mountain. Before I could catch a breath, a heavy form crashed onto the hood. It rocked the truck frame creasing the metal. Blood splashed across the windshield before it rolled off. Millie and I screamed in unison at the sight of what I knew to be Ernesto’s headless body. I flipped on the windshield wipers to clear the glass. I didn’t have time to process. I had to drive. I had to get somewhere safe fast. I had to protect my sister.
The steering wheel vibrated in my clammy hands. It was hard to hold onto because of our speed and the jarring surface of the road. I gripped it tighter and rammed the accelerator to the floorboard. Shoulders hunched, I concentrated on the path in front of me, scraping my bandana out of my eyes and peering into the night. Every muscle was tense, anticipating the gargoyles’ return. The old truck engine screamed in protest as I taxed it. My heart beat so hard it made my chest hurt. Millie pressed closer. I could feel her shaking. I opened my mouth to tell her to get back to her side and put on her seat belt but my vision started to cloud.
No, no, no…not now.
The familiar chill of a premonition flooded my veins like ice water. My racing heart seemed to pause between one beat and the next. Millie’s eyes beamed a radiant crystalline green at me. Mine were a ghostly grey reflection in the shiny surface of hers. The outside world disappeared. The only reality in the black void was the warmth of my twin’s fingers interlaced with mine.
Impossibly we were propelled across time and space arriving on the open lawn in front of our cottage. A horrible scream rent the air. My mother. If my spirit form could have gotten any colder it would have turned into solid ice.
I tried to move toward the sound of her voice even though I knew from past experience that it would do no good. My body and Millie’s were back in the truck fleeing from danger while our spirits existed here suspended between breaths as silent witnesses to a future we didn’t want to see.
Smoking flames licked the walls of our home. Dark arrows zinged through the air released from the bows of the green skinned woodland elves who wielded them. Behind them a line of vampires with glowing red eyes and black dusters that skimmed the ground waited at attention, arms crossed over, claw tipped fingers curled into their biceps, ready to enter the action if necessary.
The front door suddenly burst open and flew off its hinges. My papá stepped through the opening, his features fierce and his beautiful wings unfurled. Their brilliant crystal sheen reflected the angry fire that raged behind him. I opened my mouth exhaling a silent scream when I saw all the black arrows that had found their mark within his body. The shafts protruded from his bare chest, from his arms and his legs, all drenched with his blood.
Mamá stood at his back, her ivory sleeping gown adorned with disturbing splashes of red. Papá was shielding her, but her face was pale, too pale.
Another volley of arrows whizzed through the air. Millie’s mouth opened like mine but no sound came out.
My father staggered his body jerking as each new projectile found its mark. My mother sobbed. The sound of her despair shredded my spirit even as more arrows ripped into my papá’s flesh.
Red gaze brighter than the flames, my father turned his head away from the elves. His platinum hair was a halo of pure light but his glare was a dark promise of retribution focusing on an auburn headed figure standing off to one side leaning casually on an ebony staff. The expression on his unhandsome face implied boredom, but I knew that it was a deception. After all, he was the Father of Lies.
“Raph,” my mother wheezed. “Drink.” She lifted her arm up offering him her wrist, and he took it, incisors elongating as he bent his head piercing her delicate flesh. His broken body pulled straighter with each deep pull that he took.
“Enough.” The auburn headed man made a slicing motion in the air with his staff. It morphed into a wickedly sharp scythe. “Step aside, Raphael. I have indulged you long enough this night. I have need of Panacea. She is too valuable as a healer. I have changed my mind about letting you have her. I am here to reclaim what is rightfully mine.”
Even within the spirit realm I swayed beneath the authority of his persuasive voice. Not an Offspring. Not just any Progeny. One of the Favored.
“Over my dead body, Apollyon.” My father’s eyes blazed.
No! I shouted my protest without any sound. Don’t antagonize him, Papá, please. This was the Destroyer. The ruler of the In Between. The one he had continually warned us about. I tried to move again but failed.
“That is assured already, Raphael. It will be my pleasure to send you back to the Otherside. Only this time you’ll pay the toll and cross the Styx the way everyone else does… as a shade.” The demon laughed and seemed to grow in size. “I implore you to desist from exsanguinating from the lovely Panacea as those arrows are obsidian tipped. Even if you drain every drop of blood from her desirable body, you are only delaying the inevitable.”
“No,” my mother gasped. For an immortal obsidian meant permanent injury and death if the wound was severe enough. And my poor papá’s injuries were severe. He looked like a pincushion. Tears leaked from my mother’s eyes. She and my father exchanged a longing look. Mamá slid her hand along my papá’s stubble darkened cheek and he covered it with his own. The love between them, the depth of their pain, the resignation to their fate, witnessing all of that broke something inside of me.
For there was something Apollyon did not know. My father’s impending death ensured hers as well.
My mother inhaled sharply as my father, the legendary Raphael, crumpled. His majestic wings seemed to shrivel. He dropped to his knees. Behind him the walls of the house he had built collapsed inward on themselves as if already mourning his loss. My mamá slid down beside him offering him her wrist again but he refused it.
“Go, preciosa,” he pleaded, his voice still strong but the cost of saying those words to the woman who was his other half was plain to see. The ravaged lines of his face deepened.
“Never.” Ebony hair skimming the blood splotched skin of her slim shoulders, she shook her head in refusal.
“Leave,” he whispered. “You must. There may be some way to reverse the damage to you.”
“No.” She moved in front of him, hands stroking his cheeks tenderly as she did every day, as if no one else existed but the two of them, as if they had all the time in the world to express their affection. Even among Apollyon’s minions I heard murmured misgivings. She lifted his pierced and bleeding hands to her lips and rained kisses across them. “Where you go, I go. Always.”
Seeming to use the last of his remaining strength my father caught her as she suddenly slumped forward. Slowly he lifted his head and stared at the spot where Millie and I observed. Though it wasn’t possible, it seemed to me that he saw us. A tear spilled from his eye.
A single tear.
A crimson tear.
One of regret?
Or one of condemnation toward me?
Had Apollyon discovered our location because of the scrying Millie and I had done?
Despair superseded guilt as I watched my father wrap his arms tightly around my mother as if to absorb her into himself. Then he closed his eyes, never again to reopen them.
“What is this?” Apollyon roared only just then beginning to realize the truth. That my parents were a Fated couple. When one died, so did the other. Forever together. Never apart.
Flames flickered behind my parent’s forms. Bright sparks lifted into the stars of the black night. Our cottage became their funeral pyre. Blackness suddenly descended over my eyes. I blinked trying to clear it. I wanted to see my parents one last time but it was not to be. I had no control over when the visions came or went.
My spirit slamming back inside my body, I glanced in the truck’s rearview mirror, noticing the plume of smoke billowing above the forest tree line. I knew with dreaded certainty that it was from our burning home. The shadowy branches of the tree line along the road seemed to reach for our vehicle as we barreled by them. Droplets of Ernesto’s blood trickled across the windshield reminiscent of my father’s last tear.
“No, no, no,” my sister chanted. She knew as well as I did that our vision had been a glimpse into a very near and certain future.
I whipped the wheel around without letting off on the gas. My elbow hit the door. Millie slid into me. We had to go back. Back to the cottage. Back to save our parents. The fire had started, but maybe if we hurried we could alter what we had foreseen.
But there would be no awakening from this horrible dream. The dark night became darker still as one of the gargoyles landed hard on the hood of the truck, the weight of his stone form indenting a deeper wedge in the metal than where Ernesto had fallen. Severely damaged, the engine abruptly locked. The vehicle rocked back and forth from the force of impact as momentum carried us forward.
I screamed. My chin smashed into the steering wheel. I bit through my tongue. My body collided with Millie as we tumbled around inside the hard unforgiving confines of the cabin. I blacked out briefly. When I regained awareness the vehicle was deadly still and Millie was slumped in a ball on the floorboard beside me.
Before I could reach for her the crumpled doors of the vehicle were ripped from their hinges. Bloodless concrete hands snatched me from my perch. I kicked and squirmed trying to break loose but to no avail.
“Be still, little girl.” Malevolent statue grey eyes flickering with a fluorescent hue beamed down at me before he snapped his head to the left. The nostrils at the end of his snout flared. “The Master will arrive shortly.” He dropped me to my feet on the ground in front of him. My bandana was lost. My hair was in my eyes. My mouth tasted like copper. Every muscle in my body was sore. And my heart was completely broken.
The saggy eyed horned gargoyle stomped toward us with Millie in his arms. Her breathing sounded shallow. Her eyes were closed. I tried to dislodge the gargoyles’ cold grip from my shoulders but couldn’t. His claws only dug deeper into my flesh.
“Millie, wake up,” I pleaded but she didn’t reply. Precious minutes passed while I was forced to stand alone alternating my tear blurred gaze from Millie to the smoke above the trees knowing what was unfolding only a few miles away but helpless to do anything to change it.
Just when I felt like I was about to collapse, headlights from an approaching vehicle illuminated the wreckage of the truck first, then the horned gargoyle who held my sister cradled in his massive stone arms.
Keep breathing, Amelia. Don’t die on me.
“Kneel.” Marble hands dug unforgivingly into my shoulders. “Eyes to the ground prisoner and the Master may let you live,” the gargoyle hissed though his voice wavered.
I did as he ordered but my heart thumped with dread knowing that his Master was Apollyon, one so feared he made even a creature of impenetrable stone tremble.