The pup tramped in a happy circle. Even with the slap of the surf against the hull, Aidan’s superior hearing distinguished the clacking sound of the dog’s nails over the fiberglass deck. Pup snapped his head around and peered at Aidan with trusting chocolate eyes. After three failed attempts to jump onto Aidan’s lap, the animal finally pawed his way up and was resting on his thighs. He hung his gigantic front feet over Aidan’s arm as it draped over the steering wheel, guiding the sailboat’s passage back to his home on the remote island of Tsuriairando.
“I can’t keep calling you ‘Pup.’” Aidan stared across the thrashing waves, thinking. “Takeshi. You will be Takeshi. Warrior.” He let the name roll over his tongue, pleased with the symbolism. It reminded him of the early days in Scotland, when he and his brothers protected the moors from invaders, a time long before they had become Divine Tree Guardians.
Aidan could use a warrior at his side to help fight the current rise of evil that preceded the Age of Atonement. His brothers had revealed as much during their Guardian Congress last month. All eleven of them had agreed to the monthly meetings following Ian’s recent encounter with a reaper in France. The increased communications would help them stay ahead of their enemies. Hopefully.
Aidan stroked Takeshi’s brindled, salt-dampened fur, allowing his gaze to sweep the ocean as far as the eye could see. His island, the place where his Divine Tree resided, was about six hundred miles east of Yamada, a fishing town in Japan, and he was its only inhabitant. He had to sail a full twenty-six hours to reach his island home from his modest mainland home where his delegato, or assistant, Naoki resided. It was a trip Aidan only made about three times a year. Naoki generally kept him supplied with everything he could want or need. But Aidan had wanted to pick up the Akita pup himself. Naoki had found him as a possible replacement for the dog Aidan had lost in months before. And as always, his delegato had chosen well.
Aidan stroked Takeshi again. He had lost many animal friends over his centuries as Guardian, but he still remembered and treasured every one.
The pup barked at the flap and crack of the sails. A series of storms had been predicted, and it was already clear that a gray and windy day loomed before them. The waves peaked higher the farther he navigated into the Pacific. Takeshi licked Aidan’s face and then wagged his tail with pent-up energy.
“When we get home, I’ll introduce you to the tiger and eagle. Then we can run the entire island,” Aidan told him.
Takeshi barked again, making Aidan laugh. “There are some perks to being a shape-shifter, you will see.”
* * *
It was Wednesday morning, one of the three days a week that Rhianna Mori visited her grandfather at the nursing home. She usually joined him in his exercise routine and breakfast, but unlike him, she was not an early riser. He was worth it, of course, but it took effort to get her butt out of bed most days. And today was one of those days.
“Traffic?” he asked as she came through the door ten minutes late.
She smiled, knowing full well that he knew there wasn’t much traffic in Auburn, Washington. “Sorry, Grandfather.”
Shirō Mori stood near a large window, going through some Tai Chi moves.
She shed her jacket quickly and assumed her usual position alongside him.
Grandfather didn’t miss a beat in his twenty-four form routine. His movements flowed from one move to the next without belying his ninety-six years. Rhia picked up where he was on form eight. She’d done this for so many years it was automatic.
They didn’t speak again until the session was complete. Then he eased into his usual chair at the dinette table as she heated his traditional breakfast of Japanese tea, miso soup, and white rice in the microwave. “How are you today, Grandfather?”
“An old man.”
She laughed. “Not so old.”
He turned his face away and gazed out the window.
“What do you see?” she asked.
Still he stared off. “My journey.”
She frowned and slid his food onto the table. “Here, this will give you strength.”
He looked at her, and his gaze bore into her as if seeing deep inside her. “My time is growing near.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. A man of my age can tell.” He lifted the tea to his lips, sipped, and then set the cup back on the table. “I only wish I knew what happened to my father. Then I could leave this world in peace.”
She nibbled the corner of her lip. He’d said as much many times. The one thing he wanted before he passed was to find out what had happened to his father, her great-grandfather. As far as they knew, he’d just disappeared one day.
She wanted to know, too, and she had been working on it. She had been doing a lot of research, and there was a chance—an extremely slim chance—that she could get an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan where she could really learn more, maybe even find some evidence where her great-grandfather had been buried. She wanted so much to give her grandfather some closure before he died.
Of course, she’d have to go on a reality show to make it happen—as a Pilates instructor, she didn’t exactly make big bucks—and her application was already in. Now all she had to do was wait and hope. While it’s true she’d inherited a nice nest egg when her parents died in a plane crash years ago, that money was earmarked for her grandfather’s care, and they were running out of it besides. Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered the horror of that day. The devastation she had felt was never far from her mind. But she was thankful at least for the money that allowed her to give her grandfather the best care.
She placed her hand over his. If by some miracle she was selected to go on this journey, she needed to prepare her grandfather for her absence. They both knew his days were numbered, but she prayed he could hold on.
“You have something weighing on your mind, Child?”
“I may be traveling . . . to Japan.”
He smiled. “This is wonderful.”
“It’s far from certain, but I should know in a few days. I just wanted to let you know in case I don’t visit for a month or so.”
He sucked in a breath. “A month?”
He glanced down to hide his disappointment, but she had already seen it in his eyes. “I probably won’t get to go. I have to be chosen out of hundreds of applicants. And I don’t even have to accept if they choose me. So don’t worry. We can see how you are feeling and I can stay if you want me to.”
“No. You mustn’t hold up a magnificent opportunity such as this because of an old man. If it is your fate, it’s your fate. It’s not up to us.” He pulled himself straighter.
She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Grandfather.”
* * *
Rhianna lifted out of plank position to discover a handsome, toned man standing in the doorway of her Pilates studio. Her business partner, Terri, wore a giddy smile as she stood beside him and waved Rhia over.
Rhianna tried not to groan. Terri knew Rhia hated stepping out on a class, and she was clearly in the middle of one. Couldn’t they wait? Class was nearly over.
Terri waved more frantically.
“Joy, will you lead the class in a cool down, please?” Rhia asked her assistant.
As Joy came to the front, Rhia headed to the back of the room. She redid the bobby pin holding her hair to the side while she walked, a little irritated. Ugh, she’d never get bangs again. Growing them out was such a pain.
She approached Terri and the stranger, and Terri tilted her head toward the exit. Rhia followed them out to the hallway with a sigh.
Her mind raced to fill in the blanks. The man looked vaguely familiar.
And that’s when she noticed the cameraman.
“Rhianna Mori?” the man asked with a practiced voice. “I’m Dillon Savage from the reality television show If You Dare, and you’re our adventure-trip winner! So drop everything, and let’s go!”
She stared at him, shocked and unprepared. She really hadn’t thought she’d be chosen. But the surprise of it was sort of the point, wasn’t it?
Another cameraman stepped into view off to her right. Here she was, in her exercise garb, and she was expected to drop what she was doing and take off for a dangerous, mysterious locale? In this case, the destination was Dragon’s Vortex off the pacific coast of Japan, an area with more unexplainable incidents than the Bermuda Triangle. Planes and ships passed through that area and the people simply vanished, never to be heard from again.
Just like her great-grandfather.
Her heart thudded in her chest. Now was the time to back out if that’s what she wanted to do.
No, You signed up for this, she reminded herself. She had to do it. She had to find out what exactly had happened to her great-grandfather, to at least try to come home with an answer that would give her grandfather peace.
For a few seconds, she numbly perused Dillon Savage. Funny, he was shorter than she’d expected and, while handsome, he wasn’t nearly as appealing as he appeared on the clips she’d seen. The spontaneous thought caused her lips to tug to one side. He had cropped, curly, blond hair and was dressed fashionably in blue jeans and Ralph Lauren button-down.
Terri bounced on her toes and clapped, bringing Rhia back to the here and now. “This is so exciting.” She grabbed hold of Rhia’s shoulders and gave them a shake. “Go. Go. I’ll take care of everything—your apartment, your plants, the business. I’ll check in on your grandfather. Don’t worry about a thing.” She finished by wrapping her in a big hug.
Rhia squeezed her back, then stepped away, smoothing her hair with nervous fingers. She allowed her gaze to sweep back into the studio space, where Joy and the students were stealing glances toward the hallway. These people and her grandfather were all she had. It wouldn’t be that bad if she never came back. It wasn’t like she had a husband or children.
She lifted her chin, determined to see this through. She’d wanted to travel to Japan for so long, to not only find out about her great-grandfather’s disappearance but to experience her heritage. Her ancestors on her father’s side had been samurai warriors, and she’d traced her line back to the Nabekura Castle in northeastern Japan. And then . . . nothing.
But if she was honest with herself, those reasons were just part of why she’d signed up for the show six months ago. Now, more than ever, striking out on some outrageous adventure would do her good. She needed something new in her life, some excitement. She needed to prove to herself that she was strong and resourceful and her own person. Her ex-fiancé kept saying she couldn’t make it without him. But he was wrong.
And if she peeled back her feelings further, she wanted to do something reckless for once in her life, like stare death in the face and having survival be all that mattered.
She shook her head. That’s how much someone could crush you.
Then there was the million-dollar prize she’d win if she managed to return alive . . . That would certainly lift her worries about making her business work.
She took a deep breath. “Okay, Mr. Savage. Let’s go.”
He flashed his trademark smile. “Great! We must leave immediately,” he said, following her to the entrance while the camera crew trailed behind.
“And we will. However, I believe I need my passport,” she said with a wink. “Which is at home.”
He laughed. “Ah yes. That’s right.”
She traipsed into the parking lot with Savage and the cameramen following behind her. Terri, Joy, and some of their students followed, too, and they hurried forward to line the walk.
“Be careful,” Terri called out.
Rhianna raised a playful eyebrow. “Hey, I’m a second-degree black-belt. I know how to handle myself.” She pulled her shoulders back. Before she’d moved to Auburn, she’d even volunteered at a college in Bellevue, teaching a women’s self-defense class.
Terri tugged a hand through her hair. “Yeah, but still . . . Anything can happen.”
“Have fun,” one of her students shouted with a wave. The others joined in.
“I will!” She blew kisses to them with both hands and then slid into the back of the designated black SUV.
Her hands shook a little as she settled into the seat and watched her support group fade from view out the window, wondering if she’d ever see them again.
* * *
Aidan’s stomach growled, and he glanced at his watch. 6:42. He’d gotten home later than he’d expected and now was late for an inner tree meeting with his brothers. Crap.
He turned and hurried up to the main house, Takeshi at his heels. Moving through the kitchen, he grabbed a peach from the fruit bowl and exited into a passageway on the other side of the room, which led to the tree.
At the subterranean entrance to his Divine Tree, Aidan paused for acknowledgment of his inner tiger and eagle. A drop of sap penetrated his extended wrist in recognition, and he scooped up Takeshi as the tree allowed them entrance.
“Benison,” Custos welcomed.
Aidan nodded. “Benison.”
“Your brothers have been summoning you,” the Divine Tree went on.
Aidan sighed. He wasn’t used to rushing. There were few things that required urgency when one lived alone on an island. Still, he hurried to meet his brothers, heading down into the catacombs deep within the tree. Custos had already engaged his special link with the other ten trees throughout the world, each of the brothers appearing on a screen so the others could see him.
“It’s about time,” his brother Venn said when Aidan came into view of the group.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Aidan apologized.
Ian, another of the Hearst brothers, chuckled. “Had your nose is some book, did you?”
Aidan had expected the ribbing. He, more than any of his brothers, enjoyed math, science, and philosophy. Which seemed strange since he was married to this island off the northeastern coast of Japan where his Divine Tree resided. But by studying every book he could get his hands on—and there were a lot with the age of computers—the world had opened to him.
He may be confined to an island, but it had all the comforts of any modern establishment, and then some. His delegato was his connection to the outside world, and he did a fine job of getting him everything he needed when he couldn’t build it himself.
“I just returned from my journey to the mainland,” Aidan explained.
“You left your tree unguarded?” Venn asked.
Aidan shrugged. Each of their Divine Trees was positioned in a special place with some near rare portholes into another universe, and as Guardians, they were to protect the trees of life from any intruders. He folded his arms over his chest. “There hasn’t been anything happening here. No sign of anyone who shouldn’t be here. And things have been quiet with Theodora. I’m sure Custos would know if anything was up.”
Venn pressed his lips together and shook his head slowly, clearly disappointed in Aidan. But they didn’t understand what it was like to be all alone at all times.
Nonetheless, worry seeped into Aidan’s chest. He swallowed. “What? Has there been action with you guys?”
“If you were on time, you’d know we’ve already been through that,” Lachlan growled.
Aidan clenched his teeth. Had he known his brothers were going to be so testy, he might have skipped the meeting altogether.
Ian sighed. “There has been much going on in all the worlds, Brother. Even if there is no clear danger at present, it may be the calm before the storm. With the Age of Atonement—”
“I know,” Aidan interrupted. “We must be diligent.”
“So then why were you traveling to the mainland?” Ian inquired.
Takeshi barked, as if he knew Aidan was about to mention him.
Brandt’s mug came closer to one of the screens, filling the entire thing. “What was that? Did you get a new pup?”
Aidan smiled as his brother’s all leaned toward their screens. “That’s why I was on the mainland.”
“What breed?” Lachlan asked, his earlier frustration falling from his voice. Then they all started asking him questions. They knew how hard Aidan had taken the loss of Sora, and it meant a lot that they were trying.
“Akita,” Aidan answered, picking up Takeshi again and showing them.
“Uh, umm, very cute.” Ian cleared his throat. “Now can we get back to our meeting?”
Takeshi barked again and wriggled out of Aidan’s arms, only to start pulling on the leg of his pants. Aidan laughed and then shrugged.
“I guess that’s a no,” Ian said, resigned. “Well, keep your eyes open and reach out should anything change.”
“I will,” Aidan promised. “Be careful, Brothers.”
They each nodded in turn, and Custos disconnected them one after the other.
“Now,” Custos grumbled, “get that creature out of my tree.”