The taste of mud in my mouth made me gag. For a second, I wondered if after all the trouble I’d been through to survive, all of the years of pushing myself to the outer limits of what was possible, if I was going to choke to death on some mud, lying flat on my stomach, unable to pick up my head off the ground. My muscles shook from the effort of trying.
Rain pounded on my back, hitting my exposed skin where my shirt had ridden up, leaving me at the unforgiving mercy of the elements as the weather itself seemed to taunt me.
Get up, Aspen. Get up or die here. Get up.
I didn’t speak weather, but if I did, I would swear that was what it said to me. In the not too far distance, the sounds of impending doom, also known as the horde of demon controlled zombies, headed straight for me. I had to get off this ground. I yelled my frustration, finally managing to wrench my head up. I spit, hard, forcing the mud out of my mouth.
I was not dying today.
With another shout, I dragged my body to a sitting position and then to my feet. Sister Krystal had sacrificed herself for me, giving me her powers before she vanished from the world, likely forever. She’d believed that my role as the Warrior was more important than anything she had yet to do, and without so much as asking me what I thought about that, she’d done it. My cells took in the Sisterhood power, the magic that all those like me shared, as I tried to become what I always should have been. I stood in the rain alone wondering how this could be happening.
I lifted my head and bellowed to the clouds, to divinity, to anyone who wanted to listen. How in all that was sweet and good in the world was I supposed to do this? I’d had my powers taken from me before I was born in this body. I’d never had to manage them before as a human, and I didn’t have the slightest idea how to use them.
I couldn’t be anyone’s savior. I couldn’t even stand up straight.
I limped forward, practically dragging my left leg behind me. I’d fit right in with the mass of the dead coming to kill anyone in their path. Things had been slightly better lately in this area, since Krystal had worked her incredible powers and revitalized nature. She’d also taken out Katrina. Why in all things holy would she give up her powers and give them to me when she’d so obviously been the most powerful Sister ever born?
I cried out my frustration as I almost tripped and went down again. I couldn’t let that happen. I might never have gotten up again.
Lightning lit up the sky followed by a crash of thunder. I was so wet I couldn’t get any worse, but I still pulled myself toward the house. I’d been raised here as a plain old human. No Sister had come for me as a baby to take me away to the Sisterhood. The Oracle had not seen my birth; the Prophet saw no futures with me in it because I had no powers.
Or I hadn’t until a few minutes ago. I stared down at my hands. They burned like a million needles assaulted the tips of my fingers. Why did there have to be so much pain? Babies were born powerful. Shouldn’t my body just absorb the powers like I’d always had them?
I didn’t know what caught my attention or stopped my walk to the house, but I turned around. I wiped my hair out of my face, pushing it aside. It sloshed back down, and I did it a second time. I stared at the sky. The lightning flashed again. Then I registered what I saw. Above my head, five black ravens flew through the storm. They came toward me like they were honed to do so and perhaps they were. If I was a Sister then they were my guards.
The trouble was guards weren’t ravens anymore. They didn’t fly. I’d no sooner thought it than, as if on cue with my thoughts and the thunder ringing in my ears, they fell from the sky. All five of them in different directions. As if they’d instantly lost the ability to soar, they plummeted to the ground.
My body went numb a second before my brain stuttered. Breath left my body. I knew those five men. Or I had known them in another dimension. Most people couldn’t remember if they’d ever lived before, had another life. That was normal. In fact, I didn’t know if they had. But Sisters were set up to come here before they were born. With a little help, we could remember that time. When they’d taken my Sister abilities from me, they hadn’t ridden me of those memories.
So I knew who those five birds really were…
I’d known them forever.
I’d loved them. Once.
It had been a very long time since we’d had anything to do with one another. Tears sprang to my eyes. I hadn’t glimpsed them as birds since I’d been born. We hadn’t been allowed to see each other at all. And yet I knew them on sight. As I always would.
Reed… dark like the clothes he’d always worn. He was so adept at fighting that he’d been charged with teaching everyone else. He’d have been number One of my guards if things had gone correctly. He’d taken the blame for what happened, even though it had really been my fault.
Alexander… blond hair, dark eyes—so dark they were almost black—that fell in direct contrast to the lightness of his hair. He was in a constant battle with himself about the right thing to do and was often falling into arguments with Reed. They almost never agreed. He’d been set to be my number Two.
Stone… so blond, he was often called pretty because of the gentleness of his features and the light blue of his eyes. His personality negated anyone using that term for very long. Like his name, he had lots of sharp edges and he could wound. He never acted that way with me. There had never been anyone more careful with my feelings than Stone. I was the only one left out of his temper when it rose.
Jamie… black haired, strong, bulky. He was like a sweet battering ram. The only of my guards I had ever seen cry, he was never afraid of his emotions. He wore them on his sleeve. He was gallant, believed in true love. He’d been the one who liked to cuddle, to hug. But he was lethal. He cut down demons without thought and never looked back or questioned his role in the fight.
Gage… red-headed with green eyes. Clever to a fault. He was often the reason anything got done, quietly seeing to it. I used to think I couldn’t get through a day without making eye contact with Gage just to see to it that the world was settled. I’d know in his eyes that all was okay. Now I knew that I could, but it would be miserable.
I shouted at the sky. They’d all fallen, losing their ability to fly all at once. The first time I’d seen them with my human eyes. Twenty-four years of silence. And now… they were just dead? Why do this to me? Why give me these powers my body obviously couldn’t manage and make me watch my loves die?
Part of me considered just sinking into the mud, just letting this all go. Enough was sometimes enough. Except I wasn’t built that way. At my very core, I was a fighter, always had been, and I couldn’t give up now. I just had to get my legs working.
A sound caught my attention. What now? I tried to spin around and almost fell over again. I was worse than a toddler learning to walk. At this rate, I was getting nowhere fast. Those five men had once meant the world to me. There were too many misunderstandings and things said in anger to take back at this point. We’d never have our forever in love that some of the other Sisters got. Still, I wouldn’t leave them to die alone on the ground any more than they’d have done that to me.
If only I could physically get there.
A horse ran to my side. I blinked. A silver-gray horse, fully saddled, stared at me like I should know her. That was a strange thought. I didn’t really know what the horse was thinking. Did I? I didn’t really know what powers I had. Damn it, this was all really confusing.
Did Sisters communicate with horses?
She neighed at me before stomping her feet.
I touched her side. She was silky, not at all how I’d expected her to feel. She pushed against me. Okay, she must not have hated that I’d touched her. I hadn’t even given it any thought, and I was lucky I didn’t get my hand bitten off. I’d never been this close to a horse before.
She made a sound that resembled a huff and got down on her knees. I stared at her. Did she want me to get on her back? I couldn’t have mounted her if she’d stayed upright. This was… odd. I wasn’t sure I’d figure out how to stay upright.
The sounds of the zombies in the distance increased. My thoughts were a jumble as I tried to process everything that had happened.
“You can’t be just a horse. You’re somehow related to all of this, aren’t you? I mean, the guys are birds here. You’re something. I just don’t know what. The question is are you a good horse or a bad horse?” I had to speak aloud. I had to hear my own voice to center me. “Or maybe that’s a dumb question. Why would the demons send me a horse when they have a mob about to descend on me and I’m helpless?”
I managed to wrench myself forward and somehow get onto the saddle. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t hurt the horse, I didn’t think. She stood, me on her back. How did I even know she was a she? Is this what happened to Sisters? Did random things just take place with them? I’d been so busy trying to help from the sidelines I’d failed to pay any attention to these kinds of details.
I held onto the reins—I at least knew enough to do that—and she took off running. I didn’t know what to call her. Did horses have names?
The rain pelted us both, and it might have been my imagination, but it seemed to get harder. The horse ran, and I held on for dear life. My already hurting body jolted with every step, and I cried out, hoping I didn’t fall off and make the situation worse.
Eventually, we entered the woods closest to my house. As a child I’d run here to get away from my brutal mother. When divinity sent me down as a human they hadn’t given me an ideal childhood. Not that anyone had one, it was the end of days after all, but my mother had been a raving lunatic. She wasn’t even possessed. I couldn’t blame her brand of nasty on the demons. She’d just been a horror show all on her own.
The horse came to a sudden stop, and I managed to stay upright. Where were we? I looked around. Lying on the ground, in his human form, was Reed. He was out cold. In his signature black, he almost blended into the ground. All the guards wore all black, but Reed had chosen to do it even when he didn’t have to. Between the rain, the upcoming night, and the trees, we were surrounded by darkness.
I stumbled off the horse. She needed a name. I was going to have to come up with one. But that didn’t matter right then. My legs buzzed with every movement, but they worked. Was he dead? I got over to Reed with just that thought in my mind. I touched him. He was warm and his pulse steady. I let go of the breath I held. He could still be very hurt, but he wasn’t dead. Where were the others?
Not far from Reed, Gage lay in a similar position. I did my best to rush to him. He was also alive. Then Alexander. Stone. Jamie. They all breathed. I needed them to be closer to one another if I was going to help them. Moving was hard but adjusting them without making things worse? Could I do it?
I tugged on Jamie to see if he would go. He wouldn’t. I slumped down onto the ground, finding a middle spot between them. This was going to have to do. Drops of rain still came through the trees, but I didn’t care. I looked up at the horse.
She seemed to nod. Was she going to stay here with me? The world tilted left then right. I grabbed onto my head. What was happening? Dizziness assaulted me before darkness took me under.
I woke as a strong hand touched the side of my face. I blinked awake. Everything hurt and the entirety of the day hit my consciousness before I’d fully opened my eyes. Reed cupped the side of my face. His eyes were red rimmed, and smudges of dirt marred the beauty that had always been the sheer masculinity of Reed’s face.
Desire to throw my arms around him warred with the knowledge that the last time Reed and I saw each other—hell, the last time I’d seen any of them—we’d said things that could never be taken back. There were some things that once uttered could never be unheard.
I’d thrown as many barbs at them as they had at me.
I breathed heavy, like I’d just run a great distance.
“Aspen.” His voice was so low. I’d forgotten the sound of it. “You’re okay. I thought… you were so still. I thought maybe you were dead.”
“I…” I struggled upright. “I hurt everywhere. But I didn’t fall from the sky so… yeah. I have no room to complain right now.”
He sucked in a breath. “How are we all here? I don’t…”
He didn’t get to finish his question. Alexander was suddenly right next to him. He shot Reed a look I couldn’t read before turning to stare at me. “You okay, baby? Are you hurt? It worked.”
“Worked?” Reed shook his head. “What worked? What is happening?”
“We fixed it.” Alexander took my hand and kissed it. “Right before you were all sent down we tried to set a plan in motion. It wasn’t working. There was one last chance. It happened.”
Reed reared back. “Why didn’t you tell me about this plan?”
“Because you’d have stopped it.” Stone elbowed into my vision on the other side of Reed. “You’d already made yourself clear where you stood on following the directive. We weren’t going to let you report it. Aspen, you’re okay? Thank divinity. I wasn’t sure I’d see this day.”
I blinked at Stone. His beautiful, usually pretty face, was scarred. One jagged line marred the skin on the left side. “What happened to you?” I tried to sit up more. It took more effort than I’d have liked. I wasn’t better yet.
“Demon.” He shrugged. “It’s dead. I’m scarred. I don’t care unless you do.”
“How did you engage with a demon?” The birds never did. “And…”
Jamie arrived in the picture. He let out an audible breath. “I had started to not believe it. I was losing hope. When Krystal wasn’t falling into play, I thought for sure we had lost our last best hope at this happening.”
His words jarred me back into reality right as Gage came over, not squatting down but looking at me from above.
“Krystal?” I had to ask. I was as confused as Reed.
“That’s right.” Gage put his hands on his hips. “We pushed Krystal to do what she had to do. To be where she had to be. To be in the path of those who would give her a second chance at life so she could turn her powers over to you. There was one remote path where that happened. We took the vision away from those who might see it and made sure that happened. We did that. For you.”
Reed winced, dropping back on his behind. “You can’t just go around fucking with divinity.”
He so rarely used profanity. Or at least that used to be the case. I rose on shaky legs. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Four of you schemed to undo what divinity declared in order to get me powers? To the point that Krystal and her guards are now dead?”
Reed rubbed his eyes. “I was suddenly compelled to shift and come to you. To fly. Then I lost the ability. It was all very… primal.”
I addressed Gage when I spoke. He was the schemer. I knew this about him. “Gage?”
“Yes, we did, my love. We did because having your powers taken from you was a huge mistake. Ours, not yours. And only you can save us all. Even if Reed is too pigheaded to see it. Also, we’re selfish. I’m not going through eternity without you. If you’re a Sister, I’m one of your guards. That’s how it works.”
My temper flared. It had always been brutal and probably my worst trait. “Krystal is dead.”
Power surged out of me, skirting a tree across from us and exploding a rock. I gaped, slipping backward and falling into the tree. Everything hurt. What had happened? I wasn’t a crier, I really never had been, but I wiped two tears from the corners of my eyes before I could stop myself.
“You okay?” Stone touched my forehead. “She’s burning up.”
“Her body isn’t used to what’s happening to her.” Reed grabbed me. “We have to get her cooled down. Sisters take years to adjust to their powers. They come in segments, not all at once, and they do it in Sisterhoods with experts around them to help. This has to be hell on her.”
Alexander nodded at Reed, taking my hand. “This way.”
What did they propose doing? Cooling me down wasn’t exactly an easy task, and we weren’t near any herbs that might help with that.
“Raise your arms,” Jamie told me, and even though that seemed an odd request, I did as he asked. He slipped my shirt over my head, exposing me to the elements. Rain pelted down at me from a space in between the trees. It wasn’t pleasant.
“Pants,” Gage told me, and I let them pull them off of me. I was in my underwear, getting soaked, and I didn’t care at all. My long black hair stuck to my body, too wet to do anything but just let it be.
The guys were all so tall. I’d always been tiny, in every existence. Tiny but strong. I didn’t feel that way now. Weakness was my middle name or maybe my only name. I’d always been fine with tolerating it in other people, never myself. My own worst enemy, Sister Superior, had told me once about myself.
My knees quaked. “I can’t stay upright.”
“Sshh,” Reed whispered. “We’ve got you. We’ll keep you upright. The rain is just cooling you down so you don’t take out any other unsuspecting rocks.”
I laughed, despite the circumstances. He was funny. I’d forgotten that. Alexander ran a hand down my back. “Krystal was already dead. Had been a long time. She’d never have found her guys if we hadn’t helped direct Beelzebub toward her.”
That didn’t make this better. “I don’t know if I even want to know what the four of you did, how far into the hole you went on this. That woman didn’t deserve to have her life or death messed with for me. The planet is coming back to life because of her. She should still be here.”
“Aspen,” Reed spoke again. “I didn’t know about it either. What’s done is done. We can debate what they should and shouldn’t have maneuvered another time. For now, why don’t you just let us take care of you? We were never going to get to be your guards. It’s been an ache for all of us. An emptiness. Our love for you continues to be the driving force behind why we exist. I don’t have to have spoken to them in twenty-four years to know that all five of us feel that way. Just be. For a few minutes. Calm down.”
I really wished I could. “Reed, there is so much that can’t be undone. You know that, right? We can’t take any of that back?”
“I wish you’d let me.” Gage’s voice shook. “I need to offer you my deepest apologies, Aspen. Not for Krystal. She’d never have gotten to do any of that stuff if she’d just been left to die at the hands of the Darkness. No, for the Before Time. For what happened and the role I played. Reed did what he did but none of that could have happened if not for me.”
He spoke of the moments when we’d all fallen apart, when thinking to save me, to save all of us, Reed had sacrificed himself. When he’d left us. And I’d become a Sister without five guards and therefore not a Sister at all.
My body was officially cold. Not from the rain. From the memories.