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Throne of Fire: Celestra Forever After 5 by Addison Moore (1)


The First Woe: Postmortem


In my younger days, before I knew great sorrow, before I knew pain and despair intimately, I would have nightmares of objects, people who were larger than life. Their very presence frightened me into an unimaginable paralysis. I would wake up drenched in sweat, darting from sleep as if I had escaped a fire. But these flames, this new nightmare—there is no waking from it. As much as I refuse to believe what my eyes, my hands, my sticky skin tells me, I know deep down it’s true. The very thing I have feared all along was indeed larger than life, a looming demon with outstretched wings hovering over my existence, ready to plunge me into a deep ocean of despair. It was death.

It had introduced itself in my life before I could properly understand the world when it took my mother, then later when it claimed my father, then Logan, the daughter I never knew, and now it’s taken my precious husband, my life-breath, Gage.

My hands pound over the sticky liquid gushing from my lover’s flesh as the lights above in Demetri’s ballroom glow a sickly hue, washing this entire night in colors of purple and blue. I have no doubt Demetri is responsible for this horror. He has denied his favorite son the right to live out his life. He is denying Gage everything, right down to the color of his own blood.

Faces appear all around me, bodies lining the room like foot soldiers. Someone is shouting as the sea of people drain from the periphery, but all I hear, all I feel are the howling cries escaping my lungs, cutting and painful. My fingers glide over the sanguine liquid pooling around my knees, dripping from my fingers like candle wax as I fall over his chest.

Skyla,” Logan barks. He yanks me off, opening up Gage’s bloodied suit jacket before ransacking the pockets. He pulls out a wallet and produces a phone from the pants. Logan is frantic, robbing a dead man, his eyes darting around the vicinity as he shoves the finds deep into his own suit pockets. There will be no identifying this corpse once he’s through with it.

My body lunges forward to that precious place my beloved’s head once stood proud and an earth-shattering cry escapes my throat, sawing its way from me at supersonic speeds, shredding my vocal cords like razors.

Logan wraps his arms around my waist, plucking me to my feet, but I fall hard to my knees again, my arms diving around that body I know so well. My face glides over his chest one last time. This is the body I love—this body from which we drew three precious beings. In my heart, I know it’s the last time I will ever be near it. This body, this life, is finished.

Logan whisks me into his arms with a violent yank, shouting something to Barron whose face is white as stone. I lock eyes with Emma, her face frozen in a gruesome mask of agony and it should be. She’s done this. Emma was party to the taking of her own son’s life. Emma held the hammer. She nailed her own son to the cross. The way she flinches when our eyes meet assures me of this. The world stills, morbidly lethargic, as my gaze lies over hers, immovable as concrete.

I know what you’ve done. I know who you are. You will pay, pay, pay. You are already paying the price of your misgivings. I hope it hurts. I hope you burn in hell. Yes, I do. I mean every single word.

Logan twirls me to the left as the room picks up pace again. The walls bleed right along with Gage as they stretch out infinitely. Logan moves us at the haunting speed of light, turning the grand room into a morbid impressionist painting—my own husband’s blood the artist’s favorite medium. The Bastard’s Ball had come to a heart-stopping crescendo. And just as we’re about to leave the mouth of the grisly estate, I lock eyes with the bastard himself—Demetri.

But Logan doesn’t blink twice in his direction. He trots us down the stairs toward Ellis and Giselle, shouting nonsensical words, shoving the keys to my minivan at him, telling him to find Mia or my mother to get the kids to the Landon’s—letting them know I would be with him.

Giselle can’t stop screaming at the sight of me, her face the exact representation of her brother’s. Either it was Emma’s genes coming through or it was Demetri’s delight to convince my mother to duplicate his creation. Gage was his creation. He was designed for me, after all. For Chloe and me if I recall correctly.

The icy air of the night is replaced with the sour interior of Logan’s truck. Paragon slices by at dizzying speeds. My voice still lassos itself around us like a noose, tightening its hold on my lungs as I strain to look back at Demetri’s mansion, to the final place that knew my husband while he still had breath in his lungs. My hand glides over the passenger’s window, leaving a bloody print smeared over the glass, but the river of tears, the agonizing cries that my entire existence has reduced to refuse to recede. The flood of grief, the agony of, this, my greatest loss, only seems to ratchet tighter, dangerously coiling around my soul like a vise that has the power to blink me out of existence. And a part of me wishes it would. Wishes it would blink me into eternity right into my husband’s loving arms. I can’t do this without him. The thought is incomprehensible.

My heart is gone. My husband, my lover, my friend—the father of my precious children has been culled from this earth in the most brutal manner known to man.


They say the first time you see a dead body it changes you on an intrinsic level. I contest that. Seeing your husband’s dead body—sans any trace of his precious face, changes you on an intrinsic demonic level.

The truck comes to an abrupt stop, and in a daze I see Whitehorse, the house that Logan built for me out of love, dappled with fog, flickering in and out of reality like a flame. Logan who was ripped from the planet first. There seems no end to the shredding of my heart. It is evident now that my life was meant to exist in pain. Death and all of its infernal devices are the gravity to which my very being is centered. My mother designed it this way. Demetri solidified it.

Logan jerks the passenger’s door open, unbuckles my belt as if I were a child, and carries me into the house. He speeds us upstairs to the bedroom I made love to Gage in not that long ago, straight into the bathroom, and lands me on the floor of that cavernous shower. Gage and I spent time in this very space. Gage said you could have a dance party in it, so we did. We moved our bodies in time to the music of our hearts. It’s what we always did when we were together. We were happy. We were one.

The water peppers us from above—hot, cold, I cannot tell. It burns. It scalds my flesh as if it were trying to disintegrate me, and I couldn’t care less if it were acid pelting me from above. Logan turns a lever, and the ceiling weeps down a torrent over us at once as he glides down next to me. The two of us sit dazed, staring vacantly at the wall, looking right through it as if begging for a glimpse into eternity.

And we weep. We wail and bow our heads toward one another for the one we love. The one we lost so violently.

Logan pulls me onto his lap, his hot breath panting over my neck. It’s indiscernible where his tears end and mine begin. Instead, we watch as the water stains pink, the blood of my husband refusing to wash from our flesh. It screams, remember me. Do not forget what happened tonight. I did not ask for this. I did not welcome it. Avenge me, it pleads. We watch in sorrow as it circles the drain.

Logan and I are lost children, sticky and wet, swallowed in grief.

How could this have happened? How is it still happening?

“Is it real?” I whisper, water and blood mingling on my lips. My tongue does a quick revolution and I taste him there, salty, sweet, so very precious. I want nothing more than to lap up my love, the very last part of him.

“It’s real,” Logan groans so low it’s hardly audible above the roar of the water, the raging of our tears.

Death had swallowed up far more than Gage tonight. It swallowed my future, my will to live. It swallowed the sun, the air, the world from beneath my feet. It swallowed every good intention that has ever lived because everything about Gage Oliver was good. He was my lover, Logan’s brother—our everything in between. Logan and I had sacrificed each other just to have him near us. We gave up on a future of our own so that Gage could have what his heart wanted most, and ultimately that was me. We yielded to his every desire as if he were our king, an irony we know now to be true. We worshipped him first, but Gage Oliver had been destined to rule all along. He had already ruled my heart long before we were made aware of any dark truths lingering above him like a sickle.

Yes, our sacrifices to keep Gage in our lives were great and they were worth every effort. We laid our bodies down, our destinies before his feet, and prayed he would find us worthy. Gage and his happiness were all that mattered to the both of us. Logan and I had poured ourselves out like water, trying to keep him alive, in our midst, tangible, living and breathing for as long as human years would allow and we failed. A hurricane of darkness had danced around Gage since the time of his conception. It was Emma who was drawn to the darkness first. I know this now from the letter that Kate left before she was taken back to eternity. It unlocked the wicked intent of Emma’s black heart, something I was privy to long before I ever read a single word.

A gasp gets locked in my throat as I dip my fingers down between my breasts and come up with a limp envelope, the ink bleeding through, the parchment stained pink as if Gage himself was acknowledging the sins brought to light within it.

Logan pulls it from me, studies it for less than a second before slipping it through the crack in the glass door, easy as mailing a letter. I don’t need it. I’ve tattooed Emma’s sins over the landscape of my heart. Every last word is easily accessible to me to view with disdain over and over again. She is culpable in all of this. She has been from the beginning.

Was it important? he asks telepathically as the water beads us far too lightly to ever wash away Demetri’s crime from our clothes.

My hand cups his neck as I lay my head against his chest. Nothing is important anymore.

The boys, your life, the Factions, he counters.

All at a great loss without him. You and I both know that. A dull breath escapes me and I have no desire to take another. Breathing no longer seems necessary in this dark hole we’ve plunged into. Words are useless. And now so are we.

The pain hits its crescendo, and in doing so it becomes oddly sublime. Logan and I float over our grief as if it were the sky, the sea of grief below us is dangerously thirsty to suck us to the bottom. Its icy arms are hungry for us, and it is ever so patient.

Logan takes up my hand, threads our fingers shyly as if it were the first time, and in a way it’s exactly that. Death had stung like a scorpion and launched us back to the beginning, to a horrible place that neither of us wants any part of. The truth is, Logan and I were content in our shared misery, our shared denial of one another. Gage Oliver usurped our love. We became less so he could be made greater. Gage had become an idol, a god when we weren’t looking, and now we’re left without anyone to properly worship. It seems selfish, childish, improbable to imagine a life without his full presence permeating our every realm.

So many people, entities, beings, had played a part in Gage Oliver’s death. So many people, entities, and beings would ultimately have to pay. My celestial mother and Demetri rounded out the list. My mother and her stone of lies. She gifted us the number seven, and now I’m going to gift that very stone right down her throat and make her choke on it, but not before I coat it in his blood. If I should be forced to drink the sweet wine from his marrow, it’s only fair she should, too. And then there is Demetri. Of course, he had his wicked talons in this. I can see his cloven hoofprints stamped all over Gage Oliver’s demise. He wanted this. He lived for this. Emma was his charge. I won’t forget to gift her a healthy portion of my revenge. It will be my pleasure.

Logan shakes his head, pulling me from the moment, pulling me to my feet. He unzips the back of my dress and pulls off every last stitch of clothing that’s melted to my flesh. We’re standing under the duress of the deluge of God’s own tears as the water washes us clean. Gage disappears from our clothes, our skin, our hair, and swirls down the drain as if he never existed. Logan holds me as tears and pain wrack my body. We engage in a morbid dance, begging the water to heal us, but the tears won’t stop coming. The pain barrels through us like a gunshot over and over. Our agony never runs out of ammunition. Something tells me that it never will.

People will pay for this. Whoever played a part in the destruction of my love will pay a hefty, hefty price.

And when I wake up in the morning—I will only see red.

The entire universe is red with revenge.

All night I toss and turn, moaning, crying out in pain, in ripe agony as Logan struggles to comfort me. The moon slices through the curtain to my left, shining over my tear-stained face as if to highlight it. The warmth of its light singes me. My entire body is on fire as the darkness comes and sucks me down into the murky arms of sleep.

Hours bleed by like minutes. My eyes spring open wide, and the room takes on a purple hue. Nothing has changed, and sleep cannot find me. Logan takes my hand, leads me wordlessly downstairs where the walls, the floors, every room in Whitehorse gleams resplendent, shining, gloriously rich and alive with color as if the house itself were looking forward to this season in my life with breathless anticipation.

Here I am, in my early twenties and twice a widow. I’m the poisoned spider that kills everything she loves simply by encircling my heart around it.

Logan speeds us through the living room, pausing under the doorway before stepping outside and landing a simple kiss to my lips. This is the house that Logan built on the foundation of our love. He’s inscribed his heart over the arch of the entry to our future home with words that read I love you more than the heavens love the sun and the moon. Logan reads the words along with me, and a dull smile curves to my lips.

Loving me is a curse, and we both know it. He leads us down the porch where the signature Paragon fog has mysteriously rolled away, exposing a night full of stars like diamonds tossed haphazardly against a deep violet backdrop.

Whitehorse is built just steps from the water. Logan turned himself inside out financially to build on the last remaining beachfront property that Paragon had to offer. The cool sand hits our feet as we run down toward Silent Cove and sit at the base of the waterline. The waves lap over the damp sand with their incessant clap, the whitewash snowy and glowing ethereal under the strict duress of the stars. The moonlight dances in a broad line across the water, creating a river of silver over the navy Pacific.

“I am a killer,” I whisper into the night as if the world needed to be apprised of this. The words tumble out like a midnight confession, and I can’t help but laugh in the wake of the truth.

“Skyla,” Logan whispers directly into my ear. His hot breath races down my neck, and I shiver trying to maintain my focus on the majesty of the water. And then I see it, a speck of dust growing in size at the foot of the horizon, making its way toward us, tall and stately with the frame of a man, his dark hair shining white in the light.

“Oh my God.” I run. I run past the waterline, over the metallic floor of the sea straight toward the love of my life, the light of my heart, my beautiful, beautiful husband.

Gage Oliver glows resplendent as bright as any heavenly body. His countenance radiates a beauty that makes my heart instantly splatter all over this twisted universe, and he laughs as he joins me in our race toward one another.

Skyla,” he shouts for me, his voice decidedly sounding like Logan’s, and it makes me wonder. But not even that warning pecking away in the pit of my stomach can quench the desire, the extreme drive in me to reach him. We run for miles, for hours, for days, for weeks until he’s upon me, those familiar features so very stunningly beautiful my body demands to collapse in adoration.

“Skyla”—he catches me in his arms, and I wrap my limbs around him tight, my face buried in the rock-hard girth of his chest—“I love you. You know that. I love you, and I’ll never stop. It’s impossible for me to stop loving you. No matter what I say or do, you must always know this truth. Do you understand me?”

I nod through tears, my face still embedded against him. My lungs beg for mercy, and I come up for air, my face poised to the angel before me, and a scream gets locked in my throat. Gone is the boy I once knew. I’m met with yellow eyes, scales for skin in shades of moss green and toxic purple—black as pitch. Gone are the features I know and love, replaced with a snout so fierce, cheeks set high, a forehead broad and wide as flint. My body goes rigid. Fear of this monster before me has my every limb in stark paralysis. Can’t move. Can’t breathe. Not a single sound emits from my throat.

The beast catapults us into the sky, embeds us between the stars that highlight how hideous he really is. The great maw of his mouth opens wide, and I slip through his arms as they transform into enormous webbed wings. I fall fast toward the earth, my hands gripping onto his barbed tail, slicing down my arms in suicide tracks as I catch on the thorns. A line of blazing flames shoots from his mouth a mile into the distance, so fierce and horrific, and yet I can’t deny the morbid beauty. Buried beneath the demonic roar I hear his laughter, sharper and far more sinister than ever before. And I feel him here. Gage’s very presence resides in this monster. It has encapsulated him so completely. This is who he has become. An unholy beast.

His eyes flicker to mine as if he heard me gift him the deformed moniker. His tail thrashes from side to side until I’m dislodged completely, free-falling back to a planet that will exist long after Gage Oliver has left me. My eyes remain locked on his as he rises ever so high into the stratosphere, his laughter incessant. His fire lights up the night like noonday.

“You are not evil.” It comes out less than a whisper, unconvincingly as a rush of icy air struggles to cushion my fall. The fog has returned and embraces me. It licks my ears with the remembrance of who I am, who Gage and I were together. This island and its companion of permanent precipitation have borne witness to who Gage and I have been. It reminds me of who we are in the most critical sense.

“You belong to me,” I shout as he grows faint in the distance while gravity does its best to claim me. “You belong to me!” A ripe anger enlivens deep inside of me. My entire body arches to reach him as I let out a mighty roar. Wings rip from my flesh, painfully bursting to life with a span that stretches as far as the east is from the west. And I rise. I rise to the sky at harrowing speeds, my rife anger the fuel I need to propel me to that dragon in the sky. “You belong to me,” my voice echoes with a thunderous power all its own, causing the stars to tremble in its wake. “You are mine, Gage Oliver.” I rise up to meet him, his yellow eyes focused so intently on my own. The beast stills, the flames recede from his wicked mouth as he swoops in close, his darkness only seems to make my light shine brighter. “You are mine forever, and evil will never win. You belong to me.”

The beast bucks softly. His eyes expand as his cavernous beak opens wide and out comes the blast of a furnace—wildly hot, sublimely excruciating, a bite of agony so rich you could rewrite the history of pain in this one spectacular blinding moment. Gage is incinerating my heart, my soul, my flesh, and I am instantly consumed by the flames.

I wake with a start, sitting straight up, panting, drenched in sweat, only to realize it was all a dream. Relief as deep and wide as a river fills me, rushing into my desperate heart as I struggle to catch my breath. My eyes blink rapidly, trying to make sense of the room forming around me. It’s my bedroom in my mother’s house. The Landon house. My hand bats the space next to me, hoping to find the promise of a body, and someone sits up beside me. A girl. I gasp as I swallow down a scream.

“Chloe?” I pant as I struggle to confirm it’s her. Perhaps we had rewound time. Or perhaps the most blessed thought of all—everything that had happened in the last year entirely was just a bad dream.

“It’s me, Laken.” She bounces toward me, pulling both my hands into hers. “Skyla, you had a nightmare.”

“What day is it? Is Gage dead?”

The moon bleeds through the vellum curtain and washes her features blue. Laken is a Count by nature, and yet somehow everything about her warms me at the moment, right down to the icy hue of her skin. I’m so relieved to wake from that nightmare. The last time Laken was in my bed was just after I witnessed Gage at the bottom of Devil’s Peak when Demetri had whisked him away. I thought he was gone forever and Laken was here to comfort me. If that’s the point in time we’re at, then the last two years must have been a dream. Thank God Almighty. I touch my hand to my belly. I must be pregnant with the boys. My God, Sage! I’ll plead with my mother to let her live, and life will be infinitely better than any reality has ever offered me.

“Skyla?” Laken glides her cool palm over my forehead as if checking for a fever. “It’s the night of the boys’ birthday party. I just saw you at Demetri’s. You do realize what’s happened, don’t you?”

Her words sting like a knife in the gut as I crash against my headboard. “Yes.” The word comes out lower than a whisper. “Gage—he’s gone, Laken. Who did this? What animal do I have to kill so I can sleep at night?”

“What are you talking about? Where did Gage go?” Her voice trembles out those last words, but her attention drifts momentarily as she glances over at the wall as if she were afraid someone was about to walk right through it.

I open my mouth to utter the words, and an agonizing cry sails from my lips instead. My spirit groans inwardly as I await my husband, my other half to rouse from the dead. Please, God, let it be so. I cannot fathom the alternative.

“My God.” Laken dive-bombs over me, rocking me steady, with her quiet voice whispering the words it’s okay over and over in my ear. “Tell me telepathically, Skyla.” Laken cups my cheek with her hand, and it feels so loving, maternal even. Laken will make a wonderful mother one day. “What horrible thing happened to you tonight, once I left?”

I don’t bother with words. Instead, I show Laken a play-by-play of the macabre events I was privy to this evening. Once I get to the final scene—my limbs thrashing in my husband’s cold blood, she pulls her hand away and turns her head as if she were about to be sick.

“Skyla, no.” Laken squeezes her eyes shut tight, convulsing with a silent sob. “I’m so very sorry. I didn’t realize. I can’t ask you to help me. I had no idea what hell you were going through. My God, I wish I could be there for you.”

“Laken?” A stillness fills the air, and suddenly it becomes apparent something is very wrong outside of the obvious. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

She sucks in a quick breath, her head tipped back into the moonlight as if she were making an offering to it. Her face shines with tears like a mirror, and I can’t help but admire her beauty even in this gut-wrenching reality. “I’m sorry, Skyla. Coop will be here soon enough. I don’t doubt that.” She glides in close until her knees are over mine, her hands digging into my shoulders.

“Skyla, I need you to really pay attention to me.” She offers me a slight shake until my eyes focus in on hers. “I may not be able to be there for you for a while. Listen, and listen to me good. I may only have one chance to tell you this.” She swallows hard as if it pained her to speak the truth. And on a night built on horrible truths, everything should hurt everybody just a little. It’s only fair. I can’t shoulder all this agony the universe has doled out to me on my own. It’s cold-hearted and twisted to want to make the entire world bleed when the wound is your own, but at the moment it offers a modicum of satisfaction. “I know you will grieve Gage, and I want you to.” She takes up my hand. “But I don’t want you to repeat history and lie in bed for months. I may not be able to help you heal, but I will say this. Be there for your boys. Be there for them, for Gage. He would want you to.” Her eyes darken as she glances to the window a moment. “And don’t you ever forget how it felt to have his blood dripping from your flesh. Somebody did this.” Her speech grows fierce and pressured. “Somebody dared to end his life. It’s up to you, Skyla, to bring him justice. Do it for you, and do it for the boys.”

Her eyes burn with fire, and for a moment I think I see Wesley, Gage’s lookalike brother, flickering in her eyes as if it were him she wanted me to slaughter. Wesley isn’t exactly Laken’s favorite person, and in a sad way I’d venture to guess he’s still pretty high on her shit list. But a love like theirs doesn’t just up and disappear because someone’s heart turns to stone. Wesley’s love is strong as iron, hot as hell, and for the life of her, she can’t escape it. I’m not sure she really wants to.

Laken gasps as she lets go of my hand like plucking it out of a fire—as if she heard my very thoughts. And then it hits me. I just played out the events that unfolded last night like a movie and judging by her reaction she claims to have seen them. She asked me to relay them to her telepathically. That’s strictly a Celestra gift. Laken is a Count. For some reason, unknown to me, Laken is able to listen into my thoughts. The entire world is upside down and a part of me accepts this.

“I’m sorry.” I pull her back, and her flesh feels strange as if my hands were numb. I can’t truly feel her. “You’re right. I have grieved Gage before. I’ve barricaded myself in my bedroom for far too long, and right now I don’t have that luxury. The boys need me, and I need them. But they need Gage, too.” A ripe anger rips through me like a gas line exploding. “I’m going to do everything I can to get him back. Demetri can’t have him. He’s mine.”

“He’s yours.” Laken offers a slow smile, all teeth as her body slowly disappears, and I marvel at Laken as the Cheshire Cat. “Go after him, Skyla. Think of the Factions, Skyla.” Her voice is a distant echo. “Just one more thing. It’s Angel and Tobie they want. They want to mark them and promised they’d let me go. But I won’t give Tobie up.” She gives a tired blink, her eyes disappearing right along with her face. “I don’t know how, but I will survive this. Cooper will make sure of it.” Laken said Cooper, but I heard Wesley simultaneously as if she had the power to say both at once.

“Laken?” I grope the air in her wake, but she’s gone. “Laken?” I scream so loud my throat burns raw, forcing me to sit up straight once again, only this time the room around me looks altogether different. The glare of early morning casts a pall upon the walls, bleaching all of the color out of the world, painting it gray as cinder.

Skyla,” a decidedly male voice lacerates the air beside me, and I startle because I recognize it. My eyes meet up with a pair of familiar bloodshot eyes.

Shit,” Logan and I whisper under our breath as we get a good look at one another. It’s not an insult in any way. It’s more of a confirmation of what neither of us wants to be a part of.

“It’s real,” I pant as I drop my face in my hands.

Logan pulls me to him and holds me there over his chest, his skin searing with heat as if it might actually have the power to scald me.

“It’s real,” he whispers it low, but the words sink into my bones like a sonic boom.

Logan and I cry rivers once again, silent tears, angry shaking tears, exhausted as never-ending streams pump from our eyes.

Mia brings the boys by that afternoon, doesn’t say a word as she passes them to me. She offers a firm hug then leaves in a car I don’t recognize—the driver is obscured by darkened windows. Logan helps me get the boys upstairs, and I hold my husband’s miniature doppelgangers in my arms until the fog ushers away all remnants of daylight and the moon dances over the water at Silent Cove once again.

Nathan Gage Oliver is a calm, sweet soul that has the power to convince you he knows so much more than his one year on this planet allows. And his fraternal twin, Barron Logan Oliver, forever the trickster with that crooked grin and that wily gleam in his eyes. My boys are as different from one another as the moon is from the sun, but yet each shines just as bright. I thought things would feel different once Mia brought the boys by—that their dimpled faces would somehow turn the light back on in the world, but the boys only seem to exemplify how alone I feel in the universe all of a sudden. Gage was our rock. He was our muscle, our protector, the owner of our hearts. He was everything, and now he is nothing more than a question mark. How does one go on with the art of living once you lose your most vital organ? With Gage gone, it feels as if the entire universe is thrown on its axis, and it is.

Ezrina texted an hour after the sun went down and let us know she left a bubbling stew on the stove for us. Skyla must keep her strength up, she added. Ezrina is a new mother herself. Baby Alice is less than a couple months old. Ezrina and Nevermore, Heathcliff as is his proper name, which I still can’t bring myself to use, live in the underground portion of Whitehorse, which spans football fields under Paragon it seems. That’s where she has her lab, and both Ezrina and Nev have their love nest. Alice is proof of the love they share, the love they’ve waited centuries to share, no thanks to the wicked Counts.

But neither Logan nor I have left the bedroom. He still has three cribs in here, the third once belonging to Angel, the child my mother thought it a good idea to pluck from the future and gift me for a time. Not a good idea by a long shot. Especially since the feds ended up essentially kidnapping her for a brief time. Angel would have met a fiery death had not my mother intervened and taken her back to paradise. My heart wrenches, squeezing itself into an unforgivably tight knot. My God, does Angel even exist at all? Logan and I hadn’t exactly made her a reality. And God knows I never allowed myself the proper time to grieve her.

I cry for hours. I weep for Gage, for Angel, for Sage, the daughter my mother ripped right from my womb and is now corrupting with her twisted brand of child-rearing. Sage is in desperate need of a mother, and it’s not Candace Let-Me-Destroy-Your-Destiny Messenger that should be in charge of that precious being. It’s me. A thought occurs to me and stops me cold in my internal tirade. Gage is with her. It should bring me comfort on some level, having them together, and yet it only seems to intensify the pain.

Logan wraps an arm around me in that great big bed of his, the one I made love to Gage on just a few short months ago. The boys sleep soundly, one across my body and the other over his.

“What happens now?” I whisper the words as if nuclear codes were about to be divulged.

“We get life back to normal.” His chest rumbles as the words stream from him, and it reminds me of those endless bedtime conversations I would have with Gage—how I’d love to carry on a conversation with him just so I could feel the acoustics strumming from his chest.

“How do we do that?” I glare at him a moment for even toying with the idea of normalcy.

Logan locks those amber eyes over mine, and they pierce the dim light with their own brand of illumination. Logan Oliver has always been a heart-stopper, but at this moment he hardly looks human. I suppose it’s just the truth exuding from him. Logan is deader than Gage, or at least dead longer than Gage. And yet he’s here, and that alone screams all things are possible.

“We get Gage back,” he says it so plainly, so factually it almost sounds plausible.

I give a quiet nod as we continue to stare one another down as if this were the ultimate dare in a dangerous game we’ve been playing for the last few years.

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” I say without the enthusiasm or even the hint of a smile to back it up. Logan and I have uttered those words before, and to be honest, they have been quite damning.

Famous last words, I say as I nod to him just once.

Logan closes his eyes for a moment and wraps his arm around me just a little bit tighter. Famous last words.

I wake with a start the next morning as the Paragon mist rolls in thick from the ocean, pressing its hands against the glass as it looks in, worried for the four of us. Even the evergreen branches seem to lean in just a little as if to observe the agony and the defeat Logan and I have exuded.

The boys are sleeping in their cribs, and I jump out of bed filled with fear as I make sure everything is as it should be. I stand stealth over their bodies, watching their backs rise and fall, licking my finger and placing it under their noses, feeling their warm breath just to reassure myself that they’re both still breathing. My God, I couldn’t handle another damn thing. But that dream, those yellow eyes—it screams we are so very damned. I scuff back to bed and Logan turns to look up at me, offering a lazy smile before pulling me back to the warm sheets with him.

Then, as if someone splashed his face with ice water, he takes a sharp breath and sits straight as a pin. That look of horror he’s now wearing says it all.

“It’s still happening.” He closes his eyes for a brief moment as I slide in next to him.

“It’s still happening, and so is something else.” My voice is frantic as I try to recall every last detail of last night’s dream, but it’s fading fast. “Logan, I’ve had these dreams—one was of Laken.” My brows rise as if I can’t believe my mind has shifted its focus from my precious husband.

“Laken?” he moans, tipping his head back a minute. “Don’t worry about Laken. Coop and Wes can handle it.”

“Handle what?” I watch as he pulls his phone off the nightstand and scrolls through his messages. “What’s going on?” My heart thumps to life as I lean to see the bevy of texts lighting up his screen.

“I don’t know exactly. I’ll find out in a bit.” His attention snags across the room, and he gives a lazy smile to Barron who’s now holding onto the crib railing and bouncing up and down with an ear-to-ear grin, those dimples set in deep. Miniature Gage Oliver just as happy as can be. “What do you think, Skyla? Is today the day we get their daddy back?”

Something in me sinks at the thought. Logan paints such a rosy picture, the realist in me is afraid to align myself with his wishful thinking.

“I suppose that’s what we’ll do.” I swallow down the realist in me and get the boys together as quick as possible. I’m wearing Logan’s sweats with Gage’s dried blood still embedded beneath my fingernails. “First stop, the Landon house. I’ll have my mother watch the boys, and then we can go to heaven and hell and back again trying to find him. If he’s with my mother—the other mother—heaven and hell might just be the same place.” My birth mother—Candace Messenger is the infamous purveyor of destinies as it stands. She and her cohorts determine the lay of the lifespan as far as human and angelic factions go. Candace herself is a Caelestis. I suppose that means she’s super angelic, but technically speaking, she’s a power, as are Marshall and Demetri, a Sector and a Fem respectively. Or maybe they were principalities? Hell, I can’t keep it straight. My mind was scrambled that night, and I don’t think I’ll ever keep anything straight again. That demon stains my mind. Demetri’s entire world revolves around toppling the Sectors from their prime power position in the sky and crowning the Fems as the power du jour over the angelic factions. As it stands now, the Sectors reign supreme, and lucky for me they side with Celestra, the most powerful angelic faction, which happens to be my lineage. Sure, we have the basic angelic powers such as strength, speed, but in addition to that, Celestra can hear someone’s thoughts via skin-on-skin contact, and of course, the all-coveted gift of time travel, aka light driving—a Chloe Bishop gifted moniker that has been widely adopted. Most of the Factions have mixed bloodlines at this point in time, but the Factions sway with prominence. It’s majority rules as far as bloodlines go, and then that’s what you’re forced to formally identify with. The next powerful bloodline falls to the Counts, the Countenance if you’re set on formalities. The Counts are nothing special, other than the fact they’re constantly bent on greed and evil. In fact, I’d go as far as to label the aforementioned hostile attributes as their supreme powers, not to mention the fact the Fems—something just this side of demons, side with them. Figures. Then there’s Levatio. The world, my heart stops a moment as I pick up Nathan and catch my breath.

“Everything okay?” Logan gifts my cheek a kiss as he comes up behind me, Barron already in his arms.

“Everything’s great. I was just distracting myself by going over the Factions—reviewing what I stand for.” I jostle Nathan onto my hip. “What we all stand for.” Logan helps me get the boys’ bags together, and we head to his truck where we buckle them safe in the back seat. We get in and Logan starts down the road slowly as we both glare at the newly built, newly bright red bowling alley—correction, the Bowling Barn. Yes, an actual barn has been erected in place of the sweet old Paragon Bowling Alley. Logan is still the primary owner, but Ellis and Giselle had a hand in this barnyard fiasco. Although, I’m secretly hoping it will be anything but a fiasco. The new gym next door to it is shaping up nicely. I crane my neck at the facility as we drive by and catch a glimpse of the farmland in the back that Logan converted to what is now known as Oliver Farms. It started off as just a pumpkin patch, but there are far more moving parts to it. Just like Gage Oliver’s death. So many damn moving parts.

I blow the boys a tired kiss for their father before turning and slumping in my seat. Paragon is veiled in her white wedding gown this morning. So perfectly serene, so perfectly morbid. My God, why did Gage have to die? A single tear singes its way down my cheek, and I fight not to lose it.

Laken’s words come back to me—think of the Factions, Factions, Factions…

Where was I? My eyes squeeze tight as I force my synapses to fire in the right direction. That’s right—Levatio. My entire body begs to evaporate with the memory of that first summer when I first met Gage. He was tall and brooding, but those eyes, those lips, he had me in so many ways. My heart belonged to Logan first, but Gage didn’t play fair. Gage Oliver was—is, hell, I don’t know if he ever really was a Levatio. The Levatio Faction has the strength and speed like the other Factions with the exception they can teleport, levitate, and a select few have the gift of knowing. That was something that deeply attracted me to Gage, the way he fully embraced the fact he was a Levatio. A humble Faction and a humble boy. It seemed perfect in every sense. His gift of knowing tormented him as much as it ever did benefit him, and if you asked Gage, he would most likely say it never really did benefit him in any way. Deorsum, Emma’s Faction, has the usual gifts, along with the power of persuasion. Ironic since she’s never managed to persuade me to care for her all that much. Although, in reality she’s most likely never made the attempt. And now knowing what I do about her, I doubt it will ever happen on my end.

A ragged breath escapes me as we pass West Paragon High and that giant mural of Cerberus, the three-headed mascot the faculty thought worthy to embed in our scholastic history growls silently our way. God, how I miss West. How I miss cheering for Logan and Gage as they obliterated the opposing team on the field. How I miss everything about that time in our lives—the glory days that were a horror while we lived them. Isn’t that life.

My hand falls to the window as the glass steams up and I watch as a couple of ravens—one black, one bone white—glide over the truck as if they were our winged escorts, and they might be. It’s Holden and his Nordic lady friend—now bride—Serena. Holden Kragger was a monster while in the flesh. And after the Faction War, when I managed to have my mother free Nevermore from his feathered imprisonment, she placed Holden into that bird cage as it were. But since Holden has been cloaked in feathers, he’s a changed man, or bird as it stands. He even came back to his natural form for a bit this last year to help me fight off Wesley and his twisted Barricade. But before I skip ahead to that crap-fest... I rub my temples, trying to capture my thoughts and stop them from flying all over my brain at a million miles an hour.

Where was I? Yes, the Factions. Noster. Noster comes next. Noster is better than most Factions, and as they have strength, speed, levitation, teleportation, and a rare portion can also have the gift of knowing. Their specialty is the ability to see through walls. Dr. Booth—my ex-psychiatrist—his son, Revelyn, or Rev as that wannabe biker prefers to be referred to, belongs to Noster. For the life of me I can’t recall if Dr. Booth does, too, or was it his ex-wife? Regardless, Dr. Booth is engaged to marry Laken’s mother. Laken! I take a sharp breath. Laken is a Count and so is her lousy ex-boyfriend, Gage’s brother by another mother, Wesley Edinger. I shake my head at the idea that both Wesley and Gage share the same nefarious father. Good God, Demetri Edinger should never have had the right to procreate.

The boys gurgle and laugh from the back seat as if they heard, and my stomach explodes with acid. Of course, thankfully, Demetri did reproduce or I would have missed out on Gage and then by proxy my boys and Sage. My entire heart would have dimmed, and I would have never known why. I guess something good can come from something so wicked after all.

I pluck my phone from the diaper bag. Mia must have found it and stuffed it inside. I left it at Demetri’s. I’m pretty sure it slipped right out of my hand the minute I spotted that puddle of blood in the grand room. My husband’s blood. It was seconds before I bathed in it. I hold up my encrusted manicure to the light and marvel—the night of the boys’ first birthday party was the last night of Gage Oliver’s life.

“I hate whoever did this,” I whisper. “I’m assuming Demetri ordered it, but he likes to keep his hands clean.” Ironic since my hands are still filthy from his evil efforts.

“We’re going to find them, Skyla. I’m going to make them pay myself.”

“So much bravado.” A dull huff comes from me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Logan has an edge to his voice. He’s trying to hide it, but I’m betting deep down he knows what I’m getting at.

“It means nothing, Logan. It means that you and I should never plan on another slaughter. It leads to a domino effect that kills the people we love.”

The muscles in his jaw tense. Logan doesn’t take his eyes off the road. “Gage would have died anyway, Skyla. His death was bigger than you and me. It was his destiny all along, and we both know it. I didn’t kill him, Skyla, and neither did you. So you can put your bloody finger away.” It comes out with a controlled calm, his anger with me and the rest of the world thinly disguised.

A dull laugh pumps through me, curt and short-lived. The thought of Logan and me arguing just moments after the biggest loss of our lives is mindboggling. And when you get down to brass tacks, it’s Demetri that’s once again the cause of our discourse. Damn Demetri Edinger to hell. If we’re angry at anyone, it should be the biggest bastard of them all.

“Plan of action—what is it?” I ask. “We drop the boys off, and then what?”

His lips twitch as we turn down the familiar evergreen-lined street. The road looks darker here. The fog grows thicker, socked in and blooming between the woods that nestle on either side of the road. The Johnson house sits high on our right. It’s Brielle’s old home, still that of her mother, Darla, and now her sister Brookelynn, too.

Brielle was my instant best friend when I arrived on Paragon. We’ve had a sordid past of our own, but for the most part, Bree has been a rock to me for the last few years. Bree married my stepbrother, Drake, and together they started an empire of Made in Paragon Island apparel. And being the savvy businesswoman she is, she went straight into another endeavor of her own, a line of nail polish concocted in Ezrina’s lab, Spellbound. It’s safe to say, Brielle has showered the world with her entrepreneurial skills post-graduation, and I couldn’t be happier for her. She is a Count, too, but I’ve never held it against her nor has she ever held the fact I belong to Celestra against me. Chloe tried to wedge her wickedness between Bree and me, paying her to be my friend and thus extracting who knows what information from me. But our friendship has proven both genuine and solid. Chloe Bishop, however, remains a wild card—ironic since she belongs to Celestra like me. She killed my father by setting him on fire, she killed Logan by slicing off his head in the Faction War—and now—had Chloe killed Gage? If you would have asked me a year ago, if this nightmare had happened then, I would have screamed yes. But after that covenant we entered into... I shake my head at the idea. Chloe has been pissed at me for the last few months. I used her to feed the Spectators to the feds, and that action landed her at the top of the most wanted list. It’s clear she has given both me and our covenant the finger. Not to mention the fact my mother may have set Chloe up by way of personally landing her at the top of the CIA’s most wanted list. Although, Marshall alluded at the boys’ birthday party that it was my mother who set Chloe up with the feds, which makes me think every move I make has a twisted root system that snakes all the way back to that creature in the sky who bore me. Marshall’s word is gospel as far as I’m concerned.

I take a breath as Logan parks high on the driveway behind Tad’s beat-up sedan and pats his hand over my knee.

“You ready to do this?”

I look up at the Landon house, the only home I’ve really known all these years on Paragon—the first home Gage and I shared. It looks different now without Gage in the world. The island, the sky, even the fog that permeates this overgrown rock looks sallow and empty without my husband’s spirit on this planet.

“This will be hard.” I swallow down the sword forming in my throat. “My mother really loved Gage. I know this must be difficult for her.” This mother—not the other. Not the other by a long shot.

We gather the boys and make our way up the porch. Each step feels laden with the weight of grief, the heft growing rapidly as we hit the door. I turn the knob to find it unlocked, readying for the somber embrace of my family, the weeping and gnashing of teeth that my mother and I will partake in. I steal a moment to bury my nose in Nathan’s hair. His skin holds the scent of cinnamon, of something delicious and sweet as he nuzzles against me.

The lights are all on, a strong peachy glow even this early in the afternoon. On Paragon, you need to run the house lights twenty-four seven unless you want to live like a blind man groping his way around this overgrown cabin. The living room to my left is full of boxes, and to my shock and horror, the artificial Christmas tree we pull out every year has indeed been pulled out and is in the throes of mid-assembly.

“Holy hell,” I say just under my breath while shielding Nathan’s ears from my expletive. Giving up cursing like a trucker has been much harder than I thought it would be.

Logan leans in, allowing Barron to grasp a fist full of my hair. “Maybe they thought it’d cheer you up. Your family means well, Skyla.”

“Right.” No sooner do I swallow that fact than I look up to see Mia and Melissa hauling in large plastic crates that house more of my mother’s holiday décor—if you can call it that. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Emma call it kitschy. I hate that word, and a part of me hates Emma. I know that’s harsh. And it feels childish because she’s grieving, too—or perhaps Emma, too, has unleashed her inner home decorator instead. I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore.

“Skyla!” Mia drops her plastic bin and bubbles over with a grin as she extricates Nathan from my arms.

Lizbeth!” Melissa barks. “Skyla’s back, and she’s got the kids!” Melissa is my stepsister, Drake and Ethan’s full-blooded sister. My stepsiblings all have the same sinister look about them. The older Melissa gets, the more she looks like Drake in female skin. Same dark hair, same plunging widow’s peak you could poke your eye out with if you get too close, same waxy pale skin. She’s pretty, though. She has those signature villain brows all the girls are looking to tattoo onto their face these days, only with her it’s natural. “Can I watch the boys?” Melissa takes Barron from Logan, and I lose a lock of hair in the process. “I’ve decided I’m not going to college after I kick West to the curb. I’m going to be a nanny. Carly Foster is doing it, and she’s making money hand over foot.”

Mia smacks her. “Hand over fist.” Mia is my exact representation with a few minor adjustments. My biological mother, the worthless wheel in the sky, wanted to keep her celestial cogs spinning down on planet Earth. Not only did she cast me in her mold, but she threw in my sister for good measure. I’m guessing that line of thinking has something to do with the fact Giselle looks so much like Gage, although they do share the same birthing center. A dull smile begs to crack after that internal swipe I just took at Emma.

“I don’t know what either of you is talking about. And yes, you can watch the boys. I might be gone all day.” All month, all year. I’ll be gone as long as it takes to pull my husband back from the heavenlies. I narrow my gaze on Mia. From Melissa I wasn’t expecting much, but Mia? She must know the level of pain I’m in and hasn’t even bothered to politely skirt the issue. Assaulting the house in garland is a full-on dismal of my husband’s death. And really? Carly Foster is eking out a decent living while watching other people’s children? Carly Foster shouldn’t be trusted with a live chicken, let alone a human child.

“Skyla!” Mom’s voice booms from the family room as she speeds her way over in a bloated dress with a peacock print on it, and something about that feathered look sends a chill down my spine. The Counts are notorious for their new moon sacrifices. Laken once told me they slaughtered an entire herd of peacocks at the event. Idiots. The Counts, not the birds. “Hello, Logan!” Her eyes are bright, her hair neatly coifed, and if I were to guess freshly dyed a deep shade of henna. Mom has always reminded me of a classic beauty in the sense she’s wide-eyed with wonder half the time. Her nose naturally sits a smidge crooked on her face—and is that mascara, eyeliner, foundation, blush—and Emma-inspired orange lipstick she’s wearing? My mother isn’t known to pay extra attention to cosmetic details, but this day she looks as if she’s about to walk the runway in Milan. And dear God, there’s not a trace of grief on her face, not in her affect, certainly not in her cheery tone.

“There are my little monkeys!” She scrunches her nose, holding her hands up like claws while pretending to attack the boys’ feet, and it sends them into a fit of husky giggles. “Come to Mee-Maw, my sweet angels. My, how I’ve missed you.” She takes both boys at once and presses an orange lip print to each of their foreheads, causing Barron to fuss and kick. “Thank God you’re here.” She rolls her eyes my way. “Tad just called a family meeting. He’s got a very big announcement!” She dances a little jig when she says that last part, and my heart plummets. Something is off. Something is very fucking wrong if my mother can’t grasp the fact that Gage Oliver is dead.

“You got this.” Logan takes up my hand as we follow my mother into the family room. The family room flows right into the dining room and kitchen, so naturally it’s where everyone spends the most time. You could reference it as an open concept, but in truth, any way you slice this log cabin, it’s a misshapen architectural defect from the seventies.

Emily Morgan and my stepbrother, Ethan, are sitting at the counter with Ember—Emily’s daughter that she has with Drake. Of course, Drake and Brielle are present and accounted for looking as if someone kicked in their teeth, sullen and angry. Thank God Almighty someone sees the grieving light—or darkness as it were. I was beginning to get a little pissed. Sure, none of them were all that close to Gage, but he was my husband, for God’s sake. The father of my children. He’s been in this house for as long as I have if you count all that quasi-dating we did back at West. And strangely, my family’s non-reaction to his death has somehow made me feel numb to it myself for a moment as if their cold hearts were the exact Novocain I needed.

Little Beau Geste, Drake and Bree’s son, is currently playing tug-of-war with Misty’s pigtails. Misty is my little sister. Mystery Landon’s DNA is sort of just that, a mystery. I’m a thousand percent positive that Demetri is the father, but my mother has never fessed up to the fact—most likely because I’ve never pegged her with the question. I glare over at her as she jostles the boys in turn, so happy, floating around the family room like a helium balloon while I wallow in misery.

Tad limps up from his usual post, hiding behind a stack of newspapers at the head of the dining room table. Tad Landon is everything my father was not, perennially grumpy, dull-eyed, finger pointing, mocking, and sardonic. He’s a bit shorter than Drake, stockier, working on his beer belly, which is mostly sponsored by Emily’s vegan baking at this point, and his thick hair is more salt than it is pepper these days. Tad had the misfortune to nearly burn alive right before our eyes last Christmas Eve, no thanks to Demetri, but he’s healed relatively well. His left arm is still pretty much useless, as he likes to point out, but then which part of Tad isn’t?

My mother looks to Tad with jaw-dropping awe. “My God, I don’t know where to begin. This family has so many things happening at once.”

Finally, I give Logan’s hand a squeeze. Although it’s odd that Tad is leading the discussion of Gage’s untimely demise.

Logan shakes his head. I doubt that it’s even crossed his mind.

Tad clears his throat while leaning heavily on his gnarl wooden cane. It’s so crooked it looks as if it needs a stick itself to maintain upright. “Now that all the important members of the family are here, it is with great pleasure and pride for me to announce”—he thumps his cane over the ceiling three times fast, and I’m secretly hoping it’ll fall in on him—on us all, minus the children, of course. How dare Tad say the words all of the important members of this family. Gage was this family as far as I’m concerned. “Thanks to good old Demeet, I’ve once again landed myself in the cradle of employment.”

The room breaks out into a celebratory whoop, and I openly glare over at each and every laughing, clapping fool. I am beyond irate. I am most certainly taking names and kicking ass—later, of course. Em is the only one remaining stone-faced, but then it’s sort of her go-to look.

“Demetri?” Logan forces a smile over at Tad. I’m so thankful Logan is here holding me upright.

“Yup. That barnacle buster went right over to Althorpe on my behalf and knocked their heads straight. Tad Landon is a talented and trusted guy.”

My God, he’s talking about himself in third person. I give Logan’s hand another firm squeeze.

Logan clears his throat. “And they agreed?”

Tad’s arms flex in some form of a Kung Fu move gone wrong. “Those old farts can’t agree who should pick up a bucket of water during a fire!” His face turns an instant shade of purple. “Of course, they didn’t agree.”

Mom takes a step toward Tad with that calm down look on her sweet face while both boys do their best to recoil from him.

“No, Tampon!” Barron gives Tad a swift kick, and my mother backs them up a notch. Tampon is the sorry moniker my mother and Tad saw fit that their grandchildren reference him as. It’s sadly a bit fitting.

Mom clears her throat. “Demetri landed him a much more lucrative position with another company. It’s top secret, so, of course, we can’t share all the juicy details, but all you kids need to know is that we’re getting back into the financial swing of things.”

Both Drake and Bree grunt and moan—and look decidedly devastated. It warms my heart to see them so emotionally tattered for Gage.

Logan gently rubs his shoulder to mine as if to say I’ve got this. “So if not Althorpe, where? Is it here on the island?”

Tad straightens like a pin, that snarl still secure on his face. “Are your ears stopped up with bowling pins? The job is top secret. And it’s not on the island.” His voice softens as he turns to my sisters with pride. “It’s on a neighboring island called Raven’s Eye.”

“Oh shit.” I close my eyes and tip my head to the ceiling at the lunacy Demetri is about to sponsor. “No. I’m sorry. You cannot take that—job, that thing he’s handed you.” A serpent to the heart is more like it. My stomach churns because just the thought of a serpent plunges me into the depths of incendiary pain once again.

Tad gags as his response bottlenecks in his throat. “Don’t you shitake mushroom me, young lady! You have no right to tell me which career path I can and cannot take.”

“Career path?” I balk at the ludicrous term. “More like assisted suicide by way of that demon that spawned my newly defunct husband!” My blood boils at the audacity Demetri Edinger has—the audacity this entire family has.

Skyla.” Logan’s voice slices me, sharp as an arrow.

“Don’t you Skyla me.” I snatch my hand away from his grip. “This is my family, and I’m not going to sit around and watch it burn to nothing.”

Mom trots over with the boys in tow, and they giggle up a throaty storm. “Skyla, what in heaven’s name has gotten into you? Would you please mind your manners?” She leans in. “We have another very special announcement, and I don’t want to taint the memory of this moment with your sour mood.”

“Oh my God.” I stagger backward as if I were just shot in the chest. A crackle of lightning goes off outside, causing the window to illuminate as if someone flipped a switch and turned the sun up full volume before a comfortable darkness collapses over us again. The incessant drumming of rain clamors over the glass, sounding as if a thousand madmen were thumping to be let in. Mother Nature is just as pissed as I am. She is unleashing holy hell over this haunted island, and I’m about to do the same in the Landon living room.

The lights cut out and the room lets out a collective hush, leaving us all in the dim light of a Paragon afternoon.

Someone on the sofa mimics the howl of a ghost, and Brielle actually screams as if an entire army of poltergeist were in the room.

Oh”—Mom lets out a prolonged growl of frustration—“mothersmucker!” In truth, neither Tad nor my mother has ever cursed like sailors. I’m embarrassed to say it’s a bad habit I picked up after my father died and my mother married Tad. It was only then I realized how fucked I really was. “Mia, just get on with it. We’ll have to make do.”

“I’m engaged!” My sister spikes up out of her seat and spastically parades around the room showing off what appears to be a thin yellow ribbon.

I frown at the spectacle as she speeds by Logan and me. Technically, I knew Mia was engaged because she shared the news with me and my father—who was a guest at the boys’ birthday party, aka the Bastard’s Ball. The bastard portion of the evening was held in Gage’s honor. God, I hate Demetri.

Anyhow, Mia’s ring finger seems to have received a much-needed upgrade. The ring in question the other night was a bread tie, and this appears to be a much more elegant addition.

Melissa snorts as Mia shoves it so far up her face she might as well be picking her nose. “A yellow ribbon means you forgot something, you dunce.” Melissa wastes no time in bopping her over the head, and a part of me demands to join her on this bopping spree.

Drake and Ethan stomp over with their chests puffed out like a couple of gorillas.

Logan takes up my hand again. Should we be worried?

Oh, honey, I was worried five minutes after we walked through the door. Did we slip down a rabbit hole on the way over?

Before he can answer, Drake does an odd little dance as if he were entering a boxing ring and were about to obliterate Mia. “Who’s the dude? Let me at him. Nobody proposes to my kid sister while she’s still in high school.”

My heart melts a little at the sight of both Drake and now Ethan making an ass of themselves in the name of Mia’s virtue.

“Well, who is it?” I hear myself demand. I can’t even believe I’m entertaining this conversation.

Mia offers a sly grin as she pans the room, rapt at attention. “It’s a surprise. I’m doing the big reveal at my engagement party. Mom and I are working out all the details—venue, time, and place.”

Melissa pretends to gag. “Venue and place are the exact same thing. Grow a brain, would you? And by the way, revealing who your groom will be is the stupidest thing in the history of ever. I can promise you, nobody on this twisted planet has ever done that before.”

“And that’s why I’m doing it!” Mia barks back.

Tad limps up and points his staff in her ribbon wearing direction. “Don’t you dare cost this family a hard-earned dime. I am not laboring in the fields for nine hours a day so you can parade around with a diamond tiara, running up a tab on a party nobody can afford to throw.”

Laboring in the fields? Now I’m curious as to what Tad’s job description might entail—other than Spectator feed. On second thought, plunging Tad into a field sounds about accurate.

I hate you all!” Mia riots so loud, everyone under five in the room proceeds to wail on cue. “Maybe we’ll just elope like Brielle and Drake! Like Skyla and Gage!”

His name spears me in the gut like a heated knife. Every last part of me craves to shout my husband’s name with just as much vigor, at far higher decibels until all of heaven is aware of my pain.

“Mia Landon!” my mother riots back with a vengeance, and the windows rattle in her honor. “You will not speak of such evil. Eloping is not in the cards! You will do no such thing. I strictly forbid it.”

My mother will tolerate a lot of things, but deny her a good party and you will have hell to pay.

Tad barks like a Doberman a few good times, and now I’m certain I’m having one of those waking nightmares. “For crikey’s sake, let her run away with the moron.” He turns to her. “And I’ll let you borrow the sedan for a quickie honeymoon, too! Don’t ever say I never gave you anything.”

A round of groans circles the room as Melissa takes Barron from my mother, but the cries of the children only seem to grow.

I whip out a bottle for both my boys, and soon enough they’re soothed. The crying coupled with the dim lighting and the dizzying drumming of rain has lulled them perfectly to sleep.

Mia lets out a cry of frustration before gifting everyone in the room her middle finger in a slow yet circular fashion before fleeing the scene.

I attempt to step toward my mother, but Logan insists on holding my hand as if it were a leash. I shake him loose before landing right in my mother’s face. “You do not let her get married,” I say, stepping in close to my mother’s face. “I do not care how freaking great you think her engagement party will be. This isn’t about making your paper wedding bells dream come true.” My speech comes out pressured and harsh. “And why the hell hasn’t anyone said a single word about what happened to my husband?” I glare at the remaining faces in the room. The sallow light offers everyone a ghoulish glow, their features lost in elongated shadows, and I’m right back to believing I’ll wake up at any moment. If this is truly a dream, Marshall and his horse-like penis will stride in and take me from behind. I’d welcome it at this point.

Geez!” Logan drops my hand like the hot mic it is.

“Sorry.” I wince over at him a moment.

Tad waddles over. “What the hell is she rambling about now, Lizbeth?”

“Skyla?” Mom shakes her head. “What’s happened to Gage? He was just here a moment before you arrived.” She’s still shaking her head in disbelief, and I’m suddenly moved to join her.

“Who was here?” I lean in, unsure of my footing in this world anymore.

“Gage.” She juts her head like a chicken as if to insinuate my own shortsightedness. “He swung by with Demetri.”

“Detective Edinger,” Tad is quick to correct. “That’s right. He’s donned his badge again after that bloody birthday fiasco. It looks like they’re in hot pursuit of the monsters who put a hit on that poor man.”

Melissa leans in while rocking Barron. “I still can’t freaking believe there was a murder at the boys’ first birthday party! How the hell are you going to top that next year, Skyla?”

“Oh, shush!” Mom is quick to nudge her away with her elbow. “Don’t you worry one bit, Mr. Spicy Pepper.” She tickles Barron under the chin.

“What?” I’m not sure which elephant to tackle first. “Please don’t call him that.”

“Oh, Skyla, everyone knows Barron is fussier than Nathan. I’m just calling a spade a spade.”

“That’s labeling, and I won’t have it. And do you know what else I won’t have?” My voice curdles to the ceiling, inspiring both Emily and Bree to step forward as if they were about to initiate a takedown. “The outright denial of my husband’s—”

Logan lunges in and grips his hand over my arm. They don’t think he’s dead, Skyla.

I pull back and gasp into the epiphany. “Oh my God.” I turn to my mother. “You really saw Gage?”

“Yes.” Her eyes bug out. “He came by with Demetri to fill Tad in on the good news.”

My gaze darts around the room, trying to piece together what this might mean. “You mentioned they left—something to do with the murder investigation? And Demetri is in charge?”

Mom gives a sober nod. “He insists on handling this one himself. Isn’t that brave? And, of course, Gage is going to help him, I’m sure. He’s very brave, too.”

“He’s also very dead,” I say under my breath.

The lights blink on and off, and Tad yanks my mother toward the kitchen “Never mind, Gregory. We’ve got appliances that need to be disconnected. I may have landed a steady income, but one useless refrigerator will land us nothing but a box of dead meat.”

I hate to break it to him, but Tad Landon is about to become exactly that, dead meat.

I turn to Logan and shake my head as our fingers interlace once again.

It was probably Wes, I say.

Logan winces. We can’t be sure. But I’m betting it wasn’t. Demetri has an entire army of shape-shifting Fems at his disposal.

Before he can elaborate, Bree wraps her arms around me, her chest bucking, her entire body weight falling over me to the point I stagger back to keep from toppling over.

“Oh, Skyla!” she howls so loud there’s a release in me as if I’ve been waiting to hear my name shredded in that exact manner all day. “What are we going to do? We’re ruined! Ruined I tell you!”

“I know.” My own tears sprint to the party. Finally. Brielle has always been someone I could count on. “I don’t know how we’re going to fix this, but we are,” I rail against hope.

“We are?” Bree pulls back, her speckled green eyes sprayed with crimson tracks. “I don’t know, Skyla.” She looks to Em, destitute with grief, and I could just kiss her face for it. “This is pretty big. The attorney said we could go away for a long, long time. And all the money we lost. God, the money!” she wails, falling to the sofa, inconsolable.

Logan and I look to Emily for an explanation, both our faces locked in horror. This entire visit has been a nonstop mindfuck, and the fact it’s most likely going to end with an exchange with Emily I-See-a-Very-Unfortunate-Event-in-Your-Near-Future Morgan does not bode well.

“It has something to do with Landon Enterprises,” Em grunts. “You know, the conglomerate they tied all their subsidiary companies to like the Made in Paragon line, Drake’s Weed farm, and Bree’s nail polish business. They’ve essentially screwed themselves big time. Something to do with tax evasion and a class action lawsuit. I think there was an incurable rash involved.”

I nod, trying to absorb it all, and in doing so marvel at the fact Emily Morgan has spoken the most words to me than she has in a year. Usually, she’s all about brevity. Come to think of it, Em and Ezrina really do have a lot in common.

“And here I thought she was mourning Gage.” I turn to glance at Bree, still in the throes of a full-on tantrum, balled fists, feet kicking wildly in the air. Little Beau Geste heads over and takes advantage of the moment by yanking at her hair, and she pops him on the bottom.

Em nods to me. “I know Gage is dead.” Em’s morbid tone may be typical but, for God’s sake, this time it was warranted.

I lunge over to her and offer a barbaric embrace. “Thank you for that,” I sob silently into her neck as she dutifully plucks me off.

“And I have a message for you.”

“Oh no, you don’t!” I jump back as if a wild current just unleashed from her. “Under no circumstances are you to utter a word of prophecy in either of our directions. I’m sick and tired of living under a dark cloud once you unleash those horrors on me.”

Em shakes her head as if dismissing my tirade. “They’re bound to happen.” She gives a quick blink with that perennially bored look on her face. “But that’s not what this is about. I was just going to say—”

Stop.” I hold a hand to her face, just shy of clamping over those flapping lips. “I’ll spare you of the energy. I’m not interested.” I look to Logan. “Let’s get out of here and head to Marshall’s.”

“What about Demetri and Wes?”

“I have a feeling we’ll see all of the above in descending order.” I track down my mother and let her know we’ll be back later this evening while dotting a kiss to Nathan’s forehead.

Melissa walks us out, and I gift Barron a kiss as well.

“Thanks, I really appreciate this,” I tell her as I gently comb Barron’s dark hair from his forehead. My heart breaks looking at this miniature replica of my gorgeous husband. “I wonder who they think died that night of the party?”

Melissa shrugs. “Some guy named Ichabod Travers. Goofy name.” She tsks at the thought. “But he’s headless now. What are you going to do about it?” At the moment, Melissa reminds me more of Tad than ever before.

Ichabod Travers? I look to Logan as if asking the question.

Ichabod Travers!

Logan and I suck in a quick breath at the same time. Ichabod Travers happens to be someone I killed myself back when I was pregnant with the boys. Logan and I were light driving in South America, and things went very fucking wrong as usual. Ichabod was responsible for the equator phenomenon as it was known—aka teaming up with the Steel Barricade to make the world feel as if it were going mad. And sadly, Wesley’s scare tactics are only increasing around the globe despite the fact the Spectators have been greatly culled. Several renegades outside of the Barricade agreed to help Wesley’s wicked cause in order to secure safety for their families by way of sacrificing themselves.

Logan and I met up with Ichabod in a bar, and he and Logan got in a tussle. My hormones kicked in—and, well, I kicked a boot right through Ichabod Travers’ skull for even thinking about hurting my favorite fair-haired Oliver. Yet another body in the tally of the dead that Logan and I seem to rack up whenever we leave the country. Logan and I should definitely instate a homeland-only clause in our relationship. Leaving the borders of this great nation only seems to pique our murderous intentions. But my mother—the biological one—thankfully, reversed Ichabod’s oxygen-deprived state of being, and luckily I wasn’t charged by the Justice Alliance for booting him right into eternity. Now there’s a country song for you.

We say a quick goodbye to Melissa as I grab an umbrella from the foyer and pop it open as we head onto the porch.

“Why Ichabod?” I ask as the rain gushes down in a torrent, each drop hurtling to Earth with the precision and speed of a missile.

Logan glances toward the woods, that long dimple I gifted him years ago by way of a root beer bottle depresses as he considers this.

“It’s a message,” he concludes.

My mouth falls open. “Ichabod Travers was dead, and then he was alive. My mother brought him back herself.”

Logan and I lock eyes as we stare straight into one another’s weary souls. We’re far past telepathy. We don’t need to touch to know what the other is thinking.

Resurrection,” we say in unison.

My heart explodes with relief as we speed to Logan’s truck.

Gage Oliver himself—Demetri—somebody just gave me hope.

Logan speeds to Marshall’s estate as if our feet were to the flames and my favorite Sector himself held the last bucket of water, and sadly that might be more literal than I’d like to think. Ironically, the rain stops abruptly as if letting us know that in no uncertain terms it will not aid us. We can burn to cinder for all this damn island and its nefarious cohorts care.

Paragon flies by in a blur as the mist, the evergreens, and the peek-a-boo view of the rocky crags, the Pacific Ocean itself spin in marbled hues. Marshall lives behind the gates in a wealthy area of the island known as Paragon Estates. It’s where Barron and Emma live.

“My God—Barron and Emma.” I’ve been so immersed in my own black hole I forgot they’ve landed in one, too.

“I’ve spoken with them.” Logan’s fingers fan out as he grips the wheel even tighter. “Barron said not to worry about anything. They’re a mess—they just don’t want us worrying about them.”

“Are they a mess?” Emma blinks to mind. That note Kate left for me replays in my mind word for word. Is Emma stricken with grief or with joy? At the moment, I’m not all that interested in the answer.

We pass the Olivers’ home, then the home Gage and I newly renovated for ourselves, the old Walsh home. The red door catches my eye. Above it Gage had the words Always and forever, you will be mine. You have all of my heart. Our love is eternal painted in beautiful script. The entire house is so beautiful now. It took a year to renovate. I even teamed up with one of my least favorite members of the old West Paragon cheerleading Bitch Squad, Lexy Bakova. I overlooked that obsession she has with my first husband, and we worked elbow to elbow making sure every material, every appliance was well-thought-out. My God, Gage and I only spent one night there.

I glare up at the sky, right past the heavens and into that nebulous place where my biological mother sits. Surely Candace the Great could have done something to avert this horrific tragedy. Warned me in the least, for God’s sake.

A thought comes to mind, and I’m thunderstruck.

“Oh God.”

“What’s wrong?” The truck glides over the median as he turns my way.

“My mother—she said she’d grant me a wish for my birthday.” A horrid cry rips from my throat. “She said I could spare almost anyone from the grave. She gave me till midnight, and I didn’t bother waiting until we got to the finish line. I chose Giselle and Emerson. Emerson Kragger. She gave me both as a bonus. I’ve deposited yet another Kragger on this planet and had I waited—”

Skyla,” Logan winces into the road. “You had no idea what the night held, and at that moment you were too preoccupied to have thought of it. Don’t beat yourself up. Let’s zero all of our energy on the here and now. You and I have a mission.”

“And what’s that?”

“Getting Gage back on this planet—back in your bed.” He glowers out the windshield as if it were the very last thing he wanted, but I know Logan’s heart as well as I know mine. He means it with every ounce of his nonliving being.

My mother gave Gage an out. If I had only waited. If I could have kept my wits about me instead of splashing around in my husband’s blood as if I were at a water park. I did this to Gage. And if I’m not careful, in the future, I will do this to every single member of the Factions. Whoever thought it a good idea to let me lead the celestial pack had better think again—heed the warning I’ve afforded them. But I know who put me in charge—the same person who’s pulling my strings, making me dance as the bullets land near my feet. My mother.

A wave of nausea rips through me. Logan races to the front of Marshall’s estate, and I eject myself from the passenger’s seat without offering him the privilege of coming to a full stop.

“Marshall!” I pound over the door before struggling with the handle, only to find it locked. Marshall lives in an outright castle, and his home security system is enough to keep any well-seasoned criminal at bay. Without giving it a second thought, I muster my angelic strength, kick my foot against the deadbolt, and the door swings open, taking a piece of the doorjamb with it.

“Geez, Skyla, you have a key,” Logan muses, albeit a bit heated and for good reason. I’ve just destroyed Marshall’s beautiful mahogany double doors. “But I like where you’re going with this.” He strides out in front of me and kicks over a recliner. “Dudley?”

The piano starts in on one of those keyboard smashing hyper tunes that they specialize in the Transfer, something akin to ragtime if ragtime were having a very unfortunate day, and I run over to it.

Sitting on top of the heavily lacquered concert grand is a bright yellow legal pad with something scrawled over it. I snatch it up and begin to read out loud.

Skyla, if you’re reading this, then you stubbornly refused to listen to Ms. Morgan. Do refrain from all rash decisions and histrionics as I am unable to assist you at the moment. I left detailed instructions with Ms. Morgan, and it doesn’t behoove me to repeat them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a soul to tend to.” I look up at Logan, and I can practically feel the color draining from my face. “A soul.” It comes out weak. “Gage is that soul.” A small part of my shredded heart is warmed at the idea that Marshall is with him. As terrified as I am for Gage, I now see that he is safe and sound. Ironic, considering he had his head lopped off and is deader than a doornail.

Logan immediately sends a text to Emily, and within a nanosecond she pings right back.

“You should have listened to me,” Logan reads, incredulous.

She sends another quick text. “Go to Demetri’s,” I read as Logan and I race back to the truck. “Why do I get the feeling I’m going to learn a hell of a lot of lessons dealing with patience and hysterics.”

Logan shakes his head as he jettisons us halfway to Demetri’s haunted mansion at the other end of the Estates. “Do not berate yourself. This is a shit time. And you, my love, are on a shit ride.” He rams the truck up the driveway so fast you’d think we were about to go through it.

I peer out the window at Demetri’s monolithic estate, white and beautiful, ironwork adorning the second level, the windows full of beveled glass. An expansive porch wraps around the front with large fluted columns that create a dramatic entry point. Demetri Edinger claims this was once his grandfather’s estate. Perhaps. But I doubt it. Demetri is a Fem, a created being, a nefarious one at that. As misfortune would have it, he is the biological father of my precious husband—not Barron, the sweet, righteous man who raised him. No, this slithering snake of a creature made a deposit in the bank of Emma and yielded a perfect being, the one who holds my heart and that of my children’s.

“My God, we need to get Gage back.”

Logan and I head up the stairs, landing just shy of the door, and Logan gives a polite ring. He looks to me and nods.

“We’ll catch more flies with sugar than we will with vinegar.”

“Another lesson learned,” I muse. “I should probably be taking notes.” No sooner do the words leave my mouth than an electric blue butterfly dances between us from seemingly thin air. “Oh, wow.” I hold out a finger, and she gently perches herself on the tip before fluttering above us. “I have never seen such beauty.”

“I have.” Logan gives a sheepish grin my way before sighing at Demetri’s monstrous estate. We glance back up at that butterfly and watch in horror as it morphs into a bat. Smooth move, Demetri.

Logan presses on the doorbell again and again, irate and quick—far beyond any sugary bounds, and I turn to study the sky above us. Dark clouds rush in over the estate in haste, rolling, boiling, curling their fingers at us as if inviting Logan and me along for the ride. A psychotic jag of lightning strikes the north lawn, then again over Logan’s truck, and the entire vehicle sizzles and jumps. A peal of thunder follows less than a second later.

“Shit,” Logan hisses as we marvel at the sight. “I’m guessing that’s going to cost me my trani.”

The ground beneath us begins to rumble, and both Logan and I increase our stance to keep from toppling over.

“What’s happening?” The door behind us pulsates in and out while the house bucks and seizes as if it were having a seizure.

Logan pulls me in tight just as a piece of the awning crashes down where I was standing.

“Demetri!” My voice shrills to the heavens, and as if the sound of it angered God Himself, a roar of thunder deafens us.

Logan wraps his arms around me like a seat belt that was set to eviscerate me. Another piece of sheeting falls from above, and I can feel Logan’s chest rumble.

Candace!” he barks into the sky, and the earth gives one final bump before settling. Then, as if we were caught in a vacuum, a violent wind picks up. The debris at our feet flies up where it belongs, finding its home once again, the plaster, the paint, it all falls back into place as day is traded for night, and the lights inside Demetri’s palatial estate burst to life with the ferocity of a bonfire. A heavy murmur of voices comes from inside, and the distinct sound of an orchestra or a band of some sort fills the air with a joyful rhythm.

“Good evening!” a cheery voice calls from behind, and both Logan and I turn around and gasp.

Wearing the most beautiful iridescent gown, glowing from head to toe like some ethereal fairy, my mother, Candace Messenger herself, floats up beside us. A crown is pressed over her golden tresses. Her face is brimming with sharp beauty—I may be her lookalike, but not even on my best day have I achieved that level of beauty-inspired awe.

“My, my”—she scours the two of us while shaking her head in dismay—“you’re not fit to be at such an elegant soiree, now are you?” She waves her hand passively at that, and suddenly Logan and I are dressed to the nines, him in a tux and me in a shimmering baby blue gown that sparkles as if a million miniature stars are trapped within the fabric. This dress is a galaxy of beauty all on its own.

“Where are we?” I pant, looking down at the majesty that my gown evokes.

“Light driving.” Logan picks up my hand like a reflex. Ever since I’ve known Logan, his go-to response is to protect me, and usually the first step in doing so is holding my hand. I would say that I love the way Logan protects me, but he has a history of protecting me with his silence, and for that alone, I can’t love anything about his methods of keeping me safe.

“Yes!” My mother lunges forward and kisses Logan on both cheeks, lingering and slow. She pulls back with tears in her eyes as she bears hard into him, and I wonder if they’re communicating. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if my mother was circumventing me. “My, what a fine man you’ve turned out to be.” She cradles the side of his face with her palm. “I knew you would be.” She says that last part with an anguished fervor. “I had meant you for my daughter all along. Don’t you think I didn’t. Make no mistake about it. I wanted the best. It mattered not what century, what hellscape I needed to pluck you out of.”

A huff of annoyance bucks through me. “You set destinies into place. You could have easily made him my contemporary from the beginning. You could have saved him from nearly burning alive.” Logan was burned significantly in a car fire by the Counts when he was just a toddler. His parents perished in the blaze.

Her mouth opens a notch, her eyes still fully immersed over his countenance—Logan is part Count as fate—aka my mother would have it.

“No, Skyla. I promise you it is not that easy.”

An explosion of laughter comes from inside, and an uneasy feeling comes over me.

“What’s happening here? Where are we in time?” No sooner do I get the words out than in my hand appears an all too familiar rhinestone encrusted mask—the same one I wore the night Gage died.

“Skyla.” Logan holds up his plain black mask, just enough to cover his eyes and give him that bandit appeal. We look to my mother for explanation and she laughs, holding out her arms as the doors burst open on their own.

The sound of raucous music bowls us over, loud and intrusive, far too cheery for my somber heart. A thick mix of cologne and perfume mingles with my senses. Demetri’s overgrown home reeks of dark mystery, and here we are once again, ready to unravel the greatest mystery of them all.

My mother lands between Logan and me as the three of us take in the fashionable shindig that coincided with the boys’ birthday party. It was a ridiculous idea from the get-go, and now I can see how dangerous it was as well.

“There are so many questions you must have for me,” she trills as if this were the night she waited an eternity for, and she may have. “Why settle for words when actions speak much louder? Come, come.” She gives us each a gentle nudge into the massive marble foyer as the Transfer transplants float by, ogling the three of us, wide-eyed and offering their silent approval. Women and men, all dressed in the finest that yesteryear has to offer, each and every one of them a dull illumination, more of an idea than a person. Long dead. All of them in their ghostly forms. My mother pulls Logan and me together until our sides are forcefully pressed. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, have you ever observed a finer couple?” The haunted peanut gallery claps and offers a silent cheer. “My daughter, my heart.”

My own heart stops just hearing the odd proclamation. She strokes her finger along my cheek before waving an arm across Logan’s chest. She steps around her favorite Oliver and runs her finger along his mouth while he remains stiff as a statue.

“A finer man this planet has never known.” Her lips pull into a line as if she were reconsidering this. “A being of angelic order.” She’s quick to make the correction.

My heart sinks and I openly glare at her, pouring out my anger sharper than words. “You know no depths when it comes to insulting my husband.” Gage was a being of angelic order and just as fine as Logan in every respect. In fact, I’m about to push my mother and the ghostly army before me out of my way in an effort to hunt him down. Just the thought of Gage Oliver roaming the premises—alive and well—gets my adrenaline pumping to unsafe levels.

Her dress flashes a brilliant shade of sunset. Her eyes ignite with rage. “This is your husband.” Her words knife through the foyer and whistle right through me. She swoops on over like a poltergeist herself, her face pushed to mine. “You, my dear, have been deceived. The only Oliver you should have ever been with is standing in your presence.” Her features harden to flint. “I pray you see the error of your ways soon and even sooner than that. And when you do, I believe you will rue the day you allowed wickedness to plant a seed in your heart.”

“My boys came from that blessed union.” My voice is hoarse as if I had just wept nonstop and I have—for the exact man she prays I loathe one day.

“And a beautiful daughter. Let’s not leave out my precious Sage.” She gives a sly wink and confirms the fact the more I’m around her the less I understand.

Candace Messenger straightens, chin up, shoulders back, pride shooting out of her eyes at the speed of light as the entry clogs with people. “Fine people of the Traveling Gentry—powers and principalities, thrones, dominions, virtues. I present to you my evergreen and her steed.” She fans her arms our way, and I’m stunned.

A dull roar fills the space around us as if the loudest cheer was coming from the furthest distance.

I lean toward Logan as the crowd grows jovial and begins to disperse. “Did she just liken you to a horse and me to a tree?” The words dumb as a stump come to mind, and I can spit right in her face for even implying it.

Logan winces as he rubs my back. “I believe the symbolism of an evergreen is the ever-presence of a great leader. God Himself compared His being to an evergreen to the Israelites.”

“Oh, that’s a much better explanation.”

“May the Lord bless you and keep you.” Her voice thunders so explosively loud the walls rattle. “May He sanctify you and allow you to prosper in all you do.” My mother curtsies, and this simple action alone stuns me. She nods to Logan and me. “I’ve something to tend to. Mind yourselves in the interim.” She narrows her gaze on mine. “Make the most of your time here. If you’re in need of my company, look to the wicked sky. Welcome back to the Bastard’s Ball, Skyla. Nothing lasts forever.” And with those cryptic words, she begins to dissipate as she walks straight through the stairwell, her hair sparking like stray embers from a bonfire, her very being reduced to a sparkling vapor. My mother holds her beauty, her secrets, her heavenly blessings, her curses, and her spells like a sickle over our heads. Some things never change, and that’s one of them.

Logan and I head deeper in the estate, stealing a moment to peer into the grand room, ground zero where our hearts were yanked from our throats just a few days ago. But the ball is in full swing. The who’s who of celestial society is mingling with the people of Paragon, each dressed so elegantly for the occasion, each identity cleverly hidden beneath a flimsy paper mask.

“You’re already here,” Logan pants as if we just sprinted across time and space to save Gage, and we did. “I recognize this. There’s Brody and Brookelynn. I was speaking to them. In fact, if I’m right, I was just in here looking for the two of you.”

“Then Gage and I are probably out back.” A shot of adrenaline rockets through my veins.

Without hesitating, we rush through the tangle of bodies, pushing, pulling, colliding our way through the crowd. Nicholas Havar comes at me—unmasked—and try as I might to circle around his lumbering frame, he proceeds to walk right through me. An intoxicating rush fills me as he does it, exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. Never in my life would I have imagined that Nicholas Havar would bring me such a thrill, and a laugh gets locked in my throat as I look to Logan.

“This isn’t your ordinary light drive, is it?”

“Not by a long shot.” He looks past me, and his expression darkens. “Why don’t you head out back and find Gage?” He rubs my shoulder, his gaze still locked in the darkness just beyond the stairwell. “Spend some time with your husband, Skyla.” His eyes meet with mine, pained and silently pleased with the idea. “Don’t leave his side, whatever you do. I’ll be out in a minute.” He brushes my cheek with a kiss and takes off for the stairwell.

Normally, this is where I’d accuse Logan of taking off without filling me in on whatever the hell he’s thinking, but I’m over it. Gage is here, and he’s still alive. That’s all I care about right now. A burst of joy buoys through me, propelling my spirit to heights unimaginable. I thrash my way past the masses, crushing through walls of crinoline, men in svelte tuxedos—everywhere you look there’s a burlesque version of a wedding cake topper.

The hall leading out to the back of Demetri’s property is congested with women in full couture, drenched in expensive brocade, men who are their dapper equals. All of them unrecognizable to me with or without their masks. If it wasn’t clear the night of the party, it’s clear now that this disgrace of a ball should never have happened. My boys were just a ruse for Demetri to commence his cruel end game with Gage.

I bump into a body on my way out, and immediately two things startle me. One, I bumped into a body? I was walking through one less than a minute ago, and now I’m something shy of a wall? Second, it’s Bree, mask in hand, her eyes filled with glee at the sight of me. At the sight of me. My mother has played many a head games with me, but hell on Earth, she is reigning supreme in that arena tonight.

“Get out there, girl!” Brielle offers up a hip bump and sends me flying to the porch. “Find your man and pony up on the dance floor.” She gives a hard wink. “I’m sure you’ll be wishing you could later.”

“You’ve seen Gage? Is he…okay?”

“Alive and well.” She kicks her hip into mine once again. “But you know what they say—being alive puts you at major risk of death.” Her eyes ride down my body, forlorn as if she were predicting his demise, and suddenly I’m not nearly as interested in hunting down Gage as I am in Bree’s cryptic words.

I lunge at her, pulling her in by that full skirt, my fists knotted up in the taffeta. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I grit the words out while inspecting her green speckled eyes for an ounce of wicked intent. Brielle is a Count. Perhaps that was my first warning. My husband was murdered tonight—this very night I’m wandering through—and nobody is off the table as a suspect, not even Bree.

“Your boys just celebrated their first birthday.” She shakes my hands off her. “You’re the one forever complaining that they don’t give you an ounce of shut-eye.” She scowls at me a moment while walking backward into the house. “You should have just given them to your mom like I did. I sleep like a baby.” She chortles at her own words. “It’s still not too late! Your mom was just telling me she’s ready for another!” The darkness swallows her whole, and I frown into the hollow space. Of course, she meant the boys. My God, I can’t go around suspecting everyone of slaughtering my husband. A thought comes to me as I speed my way to the dance floor looking for the husband in question.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” I hiss frantically as I scan the crowd for that beautiful familiar face. The back of Demetri’s haunted estate is magically lit with a spray of stars, with tens of thousands of twinkle lights, all competing with one another in an effort to showcase their brilliance. The flowers, the roses in lavenders and blues, the wisteria in sublime royal purple hues dominate with their beauty as they festoon the periphery. It looks more like a regal wedding than it does a child’s birthday party, or a Bastard’s Ball as it were. Demetri is the only bastard around here. And then it dawns on me that perhaps it was a literal title in that sense. It was never about Gage. Nothing ever is when Demetri is involved. It’s always about him.

I fly down the stairs, breathless, and bump into a familiar body—my true mother, Lizbeth Landon, with her tired, rather run-down looking steed by her side, Tad.

“Skyla!” She inches back while examining me with surprise. “My God, you’ve changed—and what a dress! I must know what costume shop you got that from. It’s simply divine!” Her voice rises to the sky like a battle cry and, believe you me, when it comes to role playing, my mother is all in. Thus her sham of a marriage to Tad.

“It actually is divine.” I have no doubt about it. “Have you seen Gage?”

“Not since that dramatic entrance.” She leans in with a devilish gleam in her eye. “Can you believe how far Demetri has gone for the two of you this evening?”

Tad barks out a laugh. “Damn right. It’s his way of saying thank you for not holing up in his mansion and eating him out of house and home. Trust me, I’d play nice, too, if I knew it would keep the two of you away for the rest of the year.”

“Thaddaeus Thorne Landon!” My mother slaps him across the chest with the gloves in her hand. My God, that middle name gets me every time. “Might I remind you that Skyla and Gage have moved out and are living on their own now?” She turns to me, her features morphing to a saccharine smile on a dime. “I bet last night was very special. I’m sure it’s a memory you’ll cherish for the rest of your life. Oh, the freedom you must have felt, the love, the fits and starts you and Gage have had must have only made those precious hours all the more sweeter.”

The first and last night in our new home was a dream within a dream. Gage and I made love as a thousand cobalt blue butterflies exploded around us in a flurry. The boys slept through the night, and Gage and I kept one another up by way of our bodies. It was bliss. It was heaven, lightning in a bottle, and then death marched right on in and unscrewed the lid, let the butterflies loose, and hacked my beautiful husband to pieces.

“Save it, Lizbeth.” Tad snaps me right back to the present. “My money says they’ll be home by the end of the week. Once the food runs out, they’ll migrate back with their tails between their legs. Face it, they’re our cross to bear for the rest of our days,” he grunts my way as if accepting his lot in life.

Mom’s mouth opens, but before she can utter a word, I lift a finger.

“He’s right.” And I do loathe the fact. “We’ll be back before you know it. It was a trial run and let’s just say things ended badly.” I crane my neck past them and spot a couple of glowing beings, tall and stately, looking every bit like Marshall Dudley as they stomp this way and I gasp. I recognize those starlit Sectors. It’s the bookends to my mother’s destination station. Normally, I’d concede to the fact it wasn’t a good sign to see them running around in the natural, but nothing about tonight is natural—starting with the fact I’m here in duplicate.

“What are you talking about?” My mother’s head is on a swivel as I push her aside.

“Never mind!” I’m about to trot right past them and yet stop cold as I look dead into my mother’s eyes. “I need you to take care of the boys tonight. Mia will bring them to you. Thank you for that.” My voice is smaller than a whisper. If I don’t stop Gage—if I don’t stop his killer, she’ll need to know those words.

“Of course, I will.” She snatches me by the fingertips just as I’m about to disappear. Her blue-green eyes latch onto mine, and for the first time they look vibrant and wicked all at the same time. “Demetri wanted me to tell you he has a surprise for you. One you will never forget, Skyla.” Her voice slithers out like the hiss of a snake, and I draw my hand back as if snatching it from a viper’s nest. “This is a holy night, Skyla!” she shouts after me as I dive into the crowd, trying to escape any thoughts that my innocent mother might actually grasp the wicked underpinnings this night truly holds. “This is his gift to the world!”

To the world…her words echo like a tine through my bones that refuses to die.

I trot over to the somber looking Sectors as fast as my heeled feet will allow. I try to kick off my shoes in an effort to move things along, but they won’t budge. They’re gorgeous, though, and I pause a moment to ogle their glassy diamond glory. I’ve never seen anything like them. The heel looks to be made of pure sapphire. It’s clear my mother has utilized her supernatural prowess to adhere them onto me for the evening. I can hear her now. A person of excellence does not run amuck barefoot at a ball. How about headless? Do they run around headless, Mother? In my eyes, she’s almost as culpable as Demetri.

“Hey.” I come up on the sexy Sectors, breathless. “Look, I need your help. I’m actually time traveling right now.” Those hard, comely, features don’t crack a smile. They look so much like Marshall, it’s breathtaking. “My God, lighten up. I’m on my way to a murder, and I’m in a better mood than you are,” I snap, and yet they choose to remain stoic. They’re like Marshall without the sense of humor. It really does dial down their hotness about ten notches—or up, I can’t decide which. The one to my right raises a brow as if he heard my internal tirade. “Honestly, I have no time for this. If you’re not going to help me, then get lost. Drink the trash can punch that I’m sure Demetri has littered with supernatural roofies because I have a husband to save.” I spin around, only to find yet at third glowing Sector, and I growl at him like a junkyard dog in the event he thinks he can take me. Normally yes, but on a desperate night like tonight, there’s not a Sector in the universe I won’t battle to the death, or extinction. At this point, I don’t have a problem with either.

Skyla.” His head ticks back, and simply by his warm affect, albeit momentarily stunned, I can tell it’s my Sector, Marshall. “Extinction, Ms. Messenger, really? I certainly hope you don’t mean it. I’ve sacrificed—”

“Marshall!” I slap a kiss to his lips, quickly putting an end to his diatribe, and my entire body electrifies with his touch. “I’m light driving.” I pull him in and point to the dance floor where I spot myself dancing with—him? “Oh, wow, you are, too.” I pull back, and he gives the sad curve of a smile. My panting ratchets up, and I can’t catch my breath. “Then you know.” Desperation hitches in my throat. “Take me to Gage. That is an order from your spirit wife.” I pick up his hand and give it a firm tug as if to say go.

Marshall darts a glance around the dance floor, to the edge of the property, to the depths of the forest that lies black in the distance.

His chest expands as he gives a single nod. “He’s inside.”

Marshall and I head up the stairs just as the Sectors that usually flank my mother’s side float right past us as if leading the way.

“What are their names?” I give Marshall’s hand a squeeze, and the one to the left looks at me from over his shoulder, offering up a sultry grin.

“Never you mind their monikers,” Marshall growls at the steamy Sector until his glowing eminence is facing forward once again, the two of them lighting up the darkness as we enter the mouth of the overgrown house like twin beacons. “You wouldn’t understand them. Impossible to say. Too many consonants, not enough vowels.” He’s glowering at them as if it were possible I might actually fall for them. As if. I have one love and his name is Logan Oliver. I stop cold. Gage. I slap my hand to my mouth. My God, where is my mind? It’s GAGE Oliver. “Don’t worry. I love you, too.” I’m quick to put Marshall’s restless spirit at ease.

“I do realize this, Skyla.” Marshall’s illumination dims a notch. “Your words are kind but completely unnecessary. I’m no needy human. I can feel your love permeating my being.”

We pass the kitchen, and there’s not a soul in sight. The darkened hall is littered with ghostly Transfer transplants rutting and giggling like hyenas in every spare orifice the house has to offer.

“Why can’t I see in here?” I bark as I try to push those useless glowing beings out of the way. Instead of lighting up the darkness, they’re blinding me like a traveling sun in my line of vision, creating a dull blur around them. “Out of my way.” I muscle my way past them, dragging Marshall along with me. The house only seems to dim the deeper in we get. The air grows stale with a suspicious brand of silence layered beneath the din of voices filled with glee and muffled laughter. The orchestra left once Demetri demanded they clear the grand room, and now I know why. He needed the space for a blood sport.

The sound of feet pounding their way over speeds up from behind, and before I can turn around, a force so powerful bullets through me. It’s not until I look up do I see a familiar man running for his life.

Laken!” he riots so loud the walls rattle, and it’s then I realize it’s Coop.

“My God, he ran right through me. Second time tonight.” I look to Marshall, quickening my steps through this midnight maze of Demetri’s. “What’s happened to Laken?”

“You’ll deal with that later.”

The glowing Sectors zoom ahead of us as if to say speed it up, and I pull Marshall along as we trail them to the stairwell. I look down the hall that leads to another twisted area of the house and spot the most beautiful face in the world running toward me, moving quick as a bullet. That determined look on his face lets me know he means business, and my chest swells with relief as my heart drums to unsafe levels. I hold open my arms, words eluding me as Gage crashes right through my body as he speeds toward the foyer.

Laken!” he thunders twice as loud as Cooper, and it’s only then I realize that wasn’t Gage at all—it’s his demented brother, Wesley.

“Laken?” I drop Marshall’s hand and hike my skirt up with my fists. Marshall’s right. Whatever it is, I’ll have to deal with it later.

“Skyla!” Logan bolts my way and takes up my hand, pulling me behind him like a kite. We run right through the glowing Sector duo, and as I move through their bodies, a nuclear blast of elation, of orgasmic delight, shudders through me as we come out on the other side. Logan spills us into the grand room, empty save for its blue illumination that washes the room in an ethereal glow, strangling every other color right out of existence.

“There he is,” Logan says it with an ache in his voice as we make a mad dash over.

Gage Oliver stands with his back to us, looking to his right where a shadow lingers.

Gage!” I scream his name as my body moves through time and space. The room only seems to elongate, disrupting the effort to save him. My voice shrills from me hypnotically loud as it spasms from every cell in my body.

A slash of silver glides through the air, and Gage falls to the ground. His body falling one way, his head the next.

“No.” I freeze a moment as my limbs contract with a newfound paralysis, my feet suddenly rooted to the floor. The glowing beings my mother sent stride forward. One of them steps into the shadow that’s still wielding its blade—a spirit sword no less. Gone is the shadow, the murderer enveloped in the Sector’s comely light. And there it is. My mother never meant to expose the killer. That is why she sent them, her dashing minions robed in stars, protectors of evil, the purveyors of my grief.

I stagger forward, dumbfounded, afraid, with Logan taking up my hand once again. I’m so numb, I can’t feel his fingers.

“We’re too late,” I whisper low as if it were a lullaby.

He gives my hand a rattle, both our eyes still fixed on the blood pooling by our feet. “We weren’t going to change this.”

A flash of light so brilliant detonates at the nexus of Gage Oliver’s body. It rises in the shape of a man, in the shape of my beloved.

The earthen sphere recedes as a magnificent wall of light rains down from the ceiling.

“Pardon me.” Marshall strides past us, his body growing lucent as he steps into the tornado of light and looks to Gage with love in his eyes that I have never seen him exude for that man before—for anyone but the boys and me.

Gage rises. An entire array of glowing beings appear and he embraces them one by one, and slowly, ever so lethargically, the heavenlies evaporate like a dream.

“Gage, no! Please!” I run forward, my feet slipping in a puddle of blood, and Logan reels me into him. “Gage.” I bury my face in Logan’s chest, his heart walloping against mine, and I’m morbidly surprised by this. Logan is dead, locked in some super Treble that my mother landed him in. It’s Logan she favors. He is what her heart desires for me. I look up through tear-filled eyes and meet with his somber gaze. “My mother is speaking to us,” I whisper. And I’m afraid I know exactly what she’s saying.

Logan’s jaw clenches as if he were holding back an entire river of words. His eyes flit to the floor before he spins, craning his neck in every direction. “It’s gone. His head is gone.”

“What?” I tap-dance through the sanguine river beneath me just as I spot Logan—the one from that horrible night at the door, the other version of me hot on his heels. “We need to get out of here.” I pull Logan past this screaming version of the two of us without blinking and head to the foyer as my screams begin lighting up the night from the grand room. “Where did they go?” The glowing Sectors, the shadowed figure wielding that spirit sword have all disappeared.

Logan leads us outside, and it’s quiet as a cemetery save for the elevated screams coming from behind. My voice rises to the navy sky and pierces the membrane that separates the here and now from eternity.

There’s not a soul on the expansive porch. Logan and I split up and run to the ends of the enormous frame of the house and nothing. We meet up at the door, both with the destitute look of panic.

“Forget it, Skyla.” He leads me back inside as a crowd begins to surge through the hall. “I’m getting the feeling that’s not the point of this little side trip back in time.”

“It’s not?” I run past him into the grand room as I spot myself splashing in crimson, Logan furtively trying to stop the blood flow from Gage’s neck, pounding on his chest as if trying to revive him. “Then what the hell is the point?” I stop cold as together we watch Logan himself rifle through Gage’s pockets as if he were a thief. The room floods with bodies, Emma, Dr. Oliver—and Logan—the older version of him picks me up, my face, my arms, my dress soaked in Gage’s blood and speeds us out the door.

“Come on.” Logan takes my hand, and we follow along the former versions of ourselves to the exit. So much blood dripping along with us, black splats—nothing but the remnants of Gage Oliver’s existence dotting the pale stone floors like a warning written in blood. My eyes follow the older versions of us out the door, and once we’re gone, my gaze falls right back to those claret prints my husband left behind. His DNA seeping into the floor, the limestone drinking him in without my permission. I’m sure Demetri will call Cerberus himself in to lap up the blood work Gage left behind. Death is messy, and Demetri can stand a lot of things, but a mess is not one of them.

Logan says something about heading upstairs, and I grab ahold of his arm as my gaze follows those blood drops to the right as far as the eye can see.

“Oh my God.” I shake Logan until he’s looking to the floor right alongside me. “They went this way.”

Logan and I speed down the dark hall, following drops of Gage’s blood like breadcrumbs. Those glowing, see-through Transfer transplants burst into the hall from out of the walls, laughing, swirling, twirling as if the celebration had just hit its zenith. I plow through them, ignoring their drunken fervor, their laughter only seems to get louder by the moment as if it were me they were laughing at all along. I’ll hear those thunderous cackles long into my life as my memory encases this moment in stone. Logan and I all but touch the floor to see where those sooted black dots might lead us. We speed deeper down the hall, past dozens of closed doors, so many nooks and crannies in this house to hide a killer, to hide a disembodied head. We hit the end of the hall and nothing.

“Oh my God.” I can’t catch my breath. “Right or left?”

Logan runs to the left about ten feet and waves me over. “This way.” We follow the blood, although scant at this point, to a doorway that leads to an all too familiar setting.

“The basement,” I grunt as we fly down the stairs. “I’ve been here with Chloe.” I remember this demented place, the strange diorama that Demetri has laid out—a miniaturized version of Paragon itself with all of the houses, schools, even the shopping mall set in its place. My shoulder slams against the door as I attempt to open it, and Logan pulls me back.

“The floor,” he says as he wraps his arms around my waist a moment, and I look down to find a large circle of blood the size of my hand as if someone set Gage’s head down for a moment then snatched it right back up again.

Logan kicks in the door, splintering the wood to pieces. I push past him with the fullness of my oversized skirt squeezing through the skinny frame, dashing down the stairs two at a time.

“The island.” I stop cold at the sight of the miniature playhouses overturned, a nasty swath of blood running down the center of the display, and a breath catches in my throat. It’s evident what’s happened. Someone or something dragged my husband’s head through this mess, obliterating it in the process. “Who did this?” My legs seize as I force them to move, edging carefully to the partition at the end of the room.

Rumpled in a rat’s nest of newspapers lies a very naked, very bloodied Bishop. I walk carefully around the chaos surrounding her and find her closed eyes, that dark hair of hers splayed around her like a demonic halo, a raven-soaked spider web that’s caught her head in the nexus. And then I gasp when I see it.

A low-lying growl works its way from Logan’s chest as we boil in anger.

Nestled tight in Chloe’s arms lies Gage Oliver’s head, bloodied, hair matted to the side, and those sad cobalt eyes looking straight at me as if pleading for mercy.

I don’t let another second go by before snatching him from her, and the girth and weight of him stabs me with shock as I shove him in Logan’s arms as if I were passing a bowling ball—my fingers knotted in his blood-soaked hair—his skin washed in crimson.

“Get him out of here.”

“Hey?” Chloe groans while sloppily brushing the hair out of her face.

I bear hard into Logan’s glossy eyes. “Go.” The word shreds from my throat. “Get out. This is not a request. It’s an order.”

I turn back to the witch before me, still struggling to free herself from her tresses. The blood smeared and dried to her body trails down her torso, right down to that dark triangle, leaving a bloody impression over her inner thighs. A wild pang of nausea rides through me, and something just this side of a roar yelps from my lungs as I piece together Chloe’s perversion.

“I didn’t do it!” Chloe gesticulates as if she were drunk. Her eyes light up a marbled hue of coffee and algae. She staggers to her feet. “I didn’t kill him!” Her voice shrieks to the ceiling as if she were afraid for her life, and she should be.

“Bullshit! What you did was equally egregious.” I lunge at her, digging my fingers into her neck so hard my fingernails cut right through her skin as if it were dough. I thrash her against the wall, and her naked limbs dance, punch, and kick as she struggles to push me off her. But I am focused, determined in accomplishing the task of killing Chloe Bishop. “If Gage gets to die, then so do you!” My voice cuts through my throat like a fire alarm as I pound her head against the wall over and over. My anger surges at the grotesque visual of what she made Gage do—my Gage—my husband. The Celestra strength in me kicks in ten times more lively than before, and I crush Chloe’s head right through the drywall as a plume of powder explodes around her.

Chloe’s eyes invert as her fingernails claw at my arms, eliciting long, bloody streaks in my flesh clear down to my elbows.

Her knee comes up and kicks me in the gut, and I double over, enabling her to wrestle me across the room in a stumbling dance before kicking out my feet and slamming me to the ground. The enormous dress my mother saw fit to stuff me in cushions my fall, but my head bounces over the hard stone floor like a melon.

“You fucking bitch.” Chloe straddles her legs over my chest and lands a violent slap across my face. “I didn’t kill him!” she shrills the words out as blood shoots from her nose to the side of her cheek. “He was gifted to me.” She shakes me as she screams it. “Dropped off like a log by who the fuck knows,” Chloe riots as a cool blue light takes over the room.

I glance back to see Logan gone, in his place my mother, Candace Messenger, glowing with approval as she smiles peaceably down on the two of us. “Rise, children. Have we not moved past the barbarity?”

Chloe leans back, and I steal the moment to pin her to the ground, her naked body encrusted with the memory of my husband’s blood. Chloe and I wrestle like lions, screaming like cats on fire, pulling hair, biting flesh, nails clawing at whatever we can grasp. In one swift move, I roll her over and crash her skull to the ground. Her lids fly wide open, and her eyes roll back as if she were seeing stars.

“I hate you, Chloe. I hate you,” I hiss over her lips, my eyes hardened over those black demonic orbs she sees the world through. “I have hated you since the moment you met me in my dreams, and you have proven to be nothing but a nightmare ever since!” I howl out the last few words as I drill her head into the ground with a morbid satisfaction.

Skyla!” My mother’s voice reverberates through my bones as she calls for me. “Enough! Rise, the two of you. I have words for you both.”

Try as I might I can’t seem to pull my gaze from Chloe’s bloodied face, her own blood mingling with that of Gage’s. “I don’t give a damn about a thing you have to say.” My fist flies hard and fast over Chloe’s face. Her hands grab my wrists in an effort to pull me away, and I claw at her face, taking one last swipe as my nails carve into her cheek three perfect lines that drip from her left eye.

Chloe lands me on my back and returns the favor, scratching my face with her nails, leaving the sting to linger.

“I said enough!” my mother bellows, and both Chloe and I fly backward with a gust of torrential wind, slamming into the wall and adhering to it, suspended several feet from the floor. “I won’t have this.” Her clear eyes cut to mine. “You will mind me, Skyla. I am your mother. And you”—she glowers over at Chloe with her naked body struggling to crawl to the floor—“you will mind me because you owe me everything.”

“Why does she owe you anything?” No sooner do the words leave my lips than Chloe and I slip to the floor as we’re freed from our bondage. I stumble over to my mother with a scrutinizing stare, wondering what in the hell she’s up to this time.

“She allowed me to live,” Chloe sputters, her hand massaging her neck, and I can see the lines I gifted her cheek swelling nicely.

“I didn’t bring her back.” I look to my mother in horror. “You did.” For so long I blamed my blood—hell, I blamed Dr. Oliver and his amped up stupidity to raise the dead, and here it wasn’t either of us. It was her all along.

My mother’s eyes cut into mine like a threat. “I let her live because you killed her. I absolved you of her death.” Her hand touches my left cheek, and she shows me the bloodstains on her fingertips. “I’m allowing you to keep your scars—the both of you. I’m rendering your Celestra healing properties useless,” she hisses the last word out with venom. “That’s what you get for refusing to honor my request. When I say enough, I mean it, young lady.”

My hand rises to my left cheek, and a thought comes to me. “This is a light drive.” I look up at my mother. “I can’t keep these scars.” A breath hitches in my throat. “Just like I couldn’t kill Chloe that day in the woods.”

Chloe strides up next to me, the two of us bloodied and bruised with our eyes fixed on the glowing creature before us as if she was about to unlock the secrets of the universe.

“The Counts”—I shake my head—“they killed Chloe and buried her at the base of Devil’s Peak.”

“You killed Chloe,” my mother counters. “You’ve cradled that fact for so long, Skyla. Why disown it now?”

A viral rage overtakes me. “You allowed me to kill Chloe.” My eyes widen with fright. “My God, why?” I hold out my bloodied hand. “You’re allowing me to keep these scars. I’m not really here, just like I wasn’t really there that night. I was a visitor. There are rules at play, and if it’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of light driving, it’s the fact you can’t—”

“Change anything,” Chloe finishes my thought.

“Oh my God.” I stagger backward, my eyes still focused on the beast who bore me. “They killed Chloe, and it didn’t fit your narrative.” A thousand wild thoughts swim rabid through my mind. “You let me go back—it was revisionist history at its best. You needed me to kill her.” A strangled cry comes from my throat as my breathing grows rapid. “Oh God.” I look to Chloe, her naked torso still stained with a trail of crimson from my husband’s precious body—blood from his beautiful marrow spilling to that demonic passageway at the base of her hips. The things Chloe did with Gage. The things she forced his mouth to do to her. It’s unconscionable. But on par with that is the bone-chilling reason my mother had me knife Chloe down in the forest all those years ago. “You had me kill her so you could justify bringing her back.” The words squeak from my lips lower than a whisper. “It was for him, wasn’t it?” I look to the blood on Chloe’s thighs when I say it.

“Skyla”—my mother takes a step forward, a svelte finger in the air—“why do you suppose the Counts would kill Chloe?”

“I belong to Celestra,” Chloe is quick to interject where she is, neither wanted nor needed. She’s not the point of any of this. She never was. “A powerful Celestra who—”

“Shut up, Chloe.” I stagger back toward the door, my eyes still fixed on this monstrous version of me glittering like a fairy. “The Counts wanted you out of their way—out of my way. They—by proxy Demetri, didn’t want you getting in the way of Gage and me.” I swallow hard at the thought as my voice gives this theory new light. “Isn’t that right, Mother?” I shake my head at her. “But you wanted Chloe there because Gage Oliver is the last person you would have paired me with.”

Chloe looks to my mother with an open-mouthed smile at the epiphany. Finally, it’s happened. Both Chloe and my mother are on the same demented side of the fence.

My mother’s features tighten with rage. “And you, Skyla? You side with the enemy and demand to wed and bed the son of darkness, the one who will topple the Sectors and require the death of the Factions, who will singlehandedly dismantle your stronghold in the Nephilim kingdom. You fell headfirst onto their trap, you dove in like a swan, you were all too eager to spread your legs and bear his fruit.”

I race forward and connect my hand across her cheek so hard my entire arm stings from the effort.

“How dare you.” My voice is locked in a whispering rage. “Chloe Bishop herself is a monument to your impotent prowess. You are powerless. I’ve always known you have played me like a pawn. Logan, Gage, even Chloe herself knows this. But you looked right past the fact I loved Gage and fed me to the lions again and again. You made me kill! You made me fall in love with the enemy!”

“I demanded you choose Logan!” she riots in my face, her teeth elongated like sharpened blades. All of the color has drained from her. Here I am with my unfriendly ghost, this dangerous version of myself who clearly has no handle on what the future holds.

Chloe steps forward, her finger coiling around a lock of her hair, her eyes set to some unknowable horizon. “So it is true. Gage and I belong together.”

No.” It comes out more of a childlike whimper. “You and Gage are nothing. You were just a diversion. Bringing you back was just another way for my mother to ensure I would be with Logan. But she was wrong. Gage and I were unstoppable. Gage never chose you. He would never choose you, Chloe. We both know that.”

“He will choose me.” She slits her eyes at me. “And this is how it ends.”

“This is not how it ends.” I stagger to the door in a blind rage. “This is not anywhere near how it ends.”

But a part of me is afraid it is.

I tear out of the basement, out of those haunted halls, and through the front door. I bolt over to the street, through the woods and come out on the other end, crossing the highway that bisects the island in half. My Celestra strength kicks in, and I run hard and fast for Rockaway, over its dark sand that glistens in the night like black diamonds, and I run straight into the sea. I run until the water saturates my gown like bread soaking in wine, and I howl a cry filled with an inexplicable ache until my shoulder blades surrender my wings, spanning out larger than ever in either direction and my body molts out of the weighted dress my mother gifted me. My feet release from those jewel encrusted slippers, and I float effortlessly into the sky, flying higher and higher, with each stroke of my wings as they glow a strange hue of blue, the same shade of those butterflies Gage pinned to my walls before the room was ever mine, the same intense ocean blue as his eyes.

I speed past the stratosphere, so high up that Earth is but a glowing speck. I fly fast, hard, determined to make it to heaven, to find my husband and bring him back with me, home to our boys, home in my arms where he belongs. But the sky has long given up its oxygen and my lungs beg to burst as I struggle to fill them. My muscles seize up and my wings wrap themselves around me like a useless sheath as I plunge back to Earth heavy as stone.

I watch as the ebony sky highlights its treasure, the beautiful stars sprayed across the universe, and how I envy their beauty, their effortless position in the grand scheme of things. I fall like lead into the cold waiting arms of the sea, my back lighting up with a sharp slap of pain, and I wonder if my mother will allow me to break my bones the way I deserve. I fall hard and fast, crashing through the icy waters like a bullet, my body racing to the pit of this bottomless sea, the light of the moon but a memory as darkness swallows me whole. The sound of rushing water deafens me, and bubbles escape my lips as I attempt to scream, the last breath in my lungs leaving my body in a beautiful spiral as it rushes to the surface without me. So this is how I end, alone and naked, a searing rush of fire in my lungs as I beg for my next breath. I can take in water, give up, go home to God—to Gage. But my boys run through my heart and I cannot bring myself to claim my death the way my body begs me.

A pair of arms wrap themselves around my waist. A mouth finds a home over mine. Strong arms propel us to the surface, and he lends me a breath. I don’t need to open my eyes to see who this blessed being is.


He always saves me. And tonight I wonder why.

We both understand that no good deed goes unpunished. Just how much will my love for him cost?

What exactly is his agenda?

After all, everyone has one.

It’s about time I shore up my own.