Authors: Christie Anderson
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2012 by Christie Anderson
First eBook edition May 2012
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.
For my husband Beau
You’re like the delicious maple syrup
atop my gluten-free waffle…
You make every challenge bearable and surprisingly sweet
1. ASH RUNS TO SHORE
The sand compressed beneath Ash’s shoes, one after the other, marring the perfect leather finish. He couldn’t care less about the blasted shoes. He stumbled wildly across the rocky seashore, heart about to explode out of his chest. His father couldn’t be dead. There wouldn’t be anyone left.
He spotted the dark, lifeless form crumpled along the rocks and hurled himself forward. Rigid breaths forced their way in and out of his chest.
“Father!” he called.
The body didn’t move.
Ash dropped to his knees, unaware of anything around him. His jaw trembled as he held his father’s pallid face between his hands. “Father, speak to me!” he demanded. “I said,
He shook his father’s head between his palms. “No. You’re not going to do this to me. Do you hear me?”
Ash grabbed the flask of Healing Water from his pocket and flipped the top open, fingers trembling. He yanked on his father’s head, pulling his mouth open, and shook the vial to force the drops down his throat.
Ash’s voice came out strained. “You have the stone in your chest, remember? Nothing can beat you. You’re invincible.”
He shook the small flask frantically, but it took a lifetime for each drop to seep out one by one. Ash snatched a small knife from his pocket and ripped open his father’s shirt. He plunged the sharp tip of the blade into the rounded flask until a slit pierced through the side of the metal. The silvery liquid flowed out as he spilled every last drop over his father’s chest, allowing the Healing Water to absorb directly into his heart.
Ash stared at the lifeless body, desperately waiting for movement. Nothing changed. His own lungs hardly moved as he pushed his fingers to his father’s neck in search of a pulse. It was too late. His worst fears were confirmed. Not even the faintest beat moved beneath his father’s skin.
He plunged his palms desperately into his father’s chest, compressing up and down in quick movements. He pushed and pushed without control or sanity, but life did not return. His father was gone. Ash’s arms gave beneath him and he collapsed over the lifeless torso, losing all strength from within. He had lost everyone. The unwanted tears came in angry streams. Agony and despair tore through his body as the pain erupted from within. Both his parents were dead—and it was entirely his fault.
Ash buried his face in his father’s abdomen, leaving his cheek to press down on the cold skin without moving. There was no reason left to get up, no point to go on.
As he lay frozen in guilt and grief, a small movement pushed up on Ash’s cheekbone. He broke from his self-loathing and sat upright, stunned. Was it possible? Was his father breathing? A tinge of hope emerged and Ash’s fingers fumbled back to his father’s neck. It was faint, but there was definitely a heartbeat. Ash didn’t hesitate, filled with new life. He lifted his father in his arms and hurried over the rocks and sand to carry Voss’s healing body back to their house.
Ash walked down the bright hallway of his family’s beach home and stopped at the entrance of the master suite. After two weeks, Voss’s body still lay in the same exact place on the massive bed at the center of his parents’ bedroom. The only movement was the slight up and down of his chest as oxygen moved through his lungs. His father had a pulse...and he was alive. At least Ash had that much to hang on to.
Ash released a heavy sigh and crossed the plush carpet, the cheerful décor feeling out of place next to his father’s sallow appearance.
“No one has come looking for us here,” he said, as if his comatose father could somehow hear him. “They think you’re dead. The Council has probably announced their
over every news station in Banya by now. I can just picture their ridiculous headlines, can’t you?” He scoffed and spoke in a mocking tone. “Public enemy, Voss Hastings, taken down by everyone’s favorite, perfect little Keeper, Rayne Stevens. A great success for the Ambassador’s surprising rags-to-riches protégé.”
Ash shook his head. “What a joke, right? I can’t believe I was even friends with that scumbag.” He paused at the side of his father’s bed, his tone changing from bitter to sullen. “That’s not the only thing they’re talking about on the news, Father. They all pity me. I’m just a misguided, directionless, son-of-a-criminal orphan. Even the Council has placed me on hiatus for an indefinite period of time. Who knows when I’ll be approved to resume work and go back into the field? Everyone’s just waiting to see if I’ve completely lost it for good this time.”
He moved closer, pulling up gently on his father’s eyelids one at a time, checking for any improvement in color. The black pupils and veins looked just as empty, just as bleak and dead as the day Ash carried him from the beach below the cliffs.
Ash collapsed on the stiff armchair at the side of the bed, shaking his head in frustration. What an idiot he was. His father couldn’t
him. Voss was about as conscious as a clump of dirt.
Anger stirred inside him. “Maybe they’re all right about me,” he said aloud. “They’ve even gone so far as to re-air the old footage from my rebellious rampage after we lost Mom; after my own stupidity killed her.”
The terrible memory of that day seethed through Ash’s mind and body like oil boiling through his veins, eating away at his organs and flesh. His nose burned; his eyes clenched into slits, picturing her once angelic face, torn in agony as she took her last breath right before his eyes.
It was his first assignment after graduation, without the direct supervision of a mentor. It was supposed to be his opportunity to prove to everyone—his father, Rayne, the Council—prove to them what he was capable of achieving on his own. He had to show them he wasn’t the misfit everyone made him out to be.
He was angry with his mother that day. Why did she have to come? Why couldn’t she just stay home and cook and clean like she had done since the day he was born? Why did she have to insist on going back to the Academy to be recertified for field duty, just in time to tag along and humiliate him on his first mission?
“I don’t need a babysitter,” he had complained to her in a whisper, as they held their positions in the dark. “The guys at the Academy used to call me Smoky, did you know that? And I used to hate that nickname. I thought it was so stupid. But I’d do anything to go back to that. Do you know what they’ve started calling me now?
… Because it’s just so very
that my mother wants to ride along with me on my missions.”
“I’m not here to babysit you,” Syreen insisted. She moved nimbly and without sound across the field to hide behind the next tree. Ash followed after her, his gun ready in hand.
His mother angled her head back at him. “I’m tired of being stuck at home. It was great being able to be there to raise you, but now that you’re out of the house, I’m bored out of my mind. I need some excitement in my life again.”
Ash spotted a guard and quickly raised his palm to quiet his mother. He signaled for her to hold her position then took a few silent steps toward his target. One of Ash’s greatest strengths in the field was his aim. He was a great shot and everybody knew it. Without hesitation, he raised his gun and fired, taking out the guard in one easy shot through the heart. Ash took out three more guards as they crossed the field covered with junk and debris.
With Syreen close by his side, Ash approached a large metal door installed in the ground. It was supposed to lead to an underground storage bunker owned by a powerful illegal arms dealer.
“Can’t you just take up skydiving or something?” Ash complained as they paced their way down a pitch black flight of stairs. “Or at least request reassignment to another team?”
There was a catch in Syreen’s throat as she spoke. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that working with me was going to be such a punishment for you.”
“Well it is,” Ash snapped back.
His harsh tone left them in silence as they moved swiftly through a winding, underground corridor, guided by the focused beams of light coming from the mounts on their guns, which revealed nothing but dirt and concrete in all directions.
When they finally reached the end of the cryptic hallway, they found a metal wall with a small window at the center and a keypad along the right side. Syreen pulled out the decoder device secured inside her combat belt and connected it to the keypad.
As the device scanned for the code that would open the metal door, Ash turned to his mother. “I want to go in,” he said.
The device blinked and the metal door slid open. Syreen moved toward the entrance. “You can’t change the plan right in the middle of an operation,” she said sternly. “I’m retrieving the weapon. You stay here and watch my back. Those were our orders.”
It was one thing to be bossed around by your mother when she wanted you to make your bed or pick up your dirty socks, but to be treated like a child, on a mission in the middle of Nigeria, was more than Ash could take. His tone was cold. “What are you going to do, Mother? Ground me? Send me to my room? Maybe
don’t think I can handle it, but I know I’m ready to do this. I’m going in.”
But just as Ash grabbed Syreen’s arm to force her back to the hallway, a shot fired from nowhere and grazed Ash’s ear. They both ducked behind the door inside the storage room as more shots fired from across the hall. Ash popped out from the opening to send back a wave of bullets in retaliation. Two guards fell to the ground, but one of them managed one last gunshot before he hit the concrete. The bullet missed Ash by several inches, but it blew straight through the keypad that controlled the large metal door. Sparks flew from the malfunctioning panel, triggering a blaring alarm.
Everything happened in fast forward. The metal door closed in on them. Liquid sprayed from the ceiling. Ash felt the impact of his mother’s force on his back as she flew forward and shoved his body outside the door. He turned, but it was too late. The door was closed behind him and Syreen was trapped inside.