Authors: Heather Killough-Walden
She’d had enough sleep, she was pretty sure. Maybe.
ed her eyes and shook her head, trying to clear up vision that was going slightly blurry.
“Are you okay?” asked a small female voice in broken English. She glanced
over her shoulder at the woman and four little girls who clung to their mother like Velcro. The woman was a Hungarian by the name of Dorottya who’d married an African man. Their children were four gorgeous, mocha-skinned girls with thick black hair and large, dark eyes.
“I’m fine,” Rhiannon
answered quickly, then placed her fingers to her lips to signal that the woman should be as quiet as possible. The kids didn’t need to be told again. For some reason, they seemed to know instinctively that silence was required.
They were nearly home free. Rhiannon had managed to get the family out of the apartment building where they were bein
g held without encountering unreasonable difficulty. She’d only had to knock out two men so far. There wasn’t much in the way of guarding going on, as the woman and her daughters were expected to not even attempt to run away, and no one at all expected someone to actually come and rescue them in the middle of the night.
Rhiannon made certain the coast was clear, and then led the rest of the way to the docks, where a boat was waiting to take
Dorottya and her children to a safe house. From there, they would have their identities erased and they would be assigned new ones. The Swallowtail Foundation would supply them with funding so that Dorottya wouldn’t have to work, and the children would be able to attend school somewhere in Maine.
The night breeze caused a clanking
of rigging in the masts of sailboats, and the vessels rocked gently back and forth in the harbor. Rhiannon hastily led her charges to the Fiery Skipper, which was actually named after a type of butterfly.
An anonymous captain waited in the shadows of the boat. He greeted Rhiannon with a simple nod and the code word. Then he saw Dorottya and her children to the lower decks, where they would remain until he’d finished piloting them a safe distance.
Rhiannon accompanied them to their quarters. Once there, she saw them to their individual beds, and pulled some things from the pockets of her jacket. She took Dorottya’s hands and placed in them a credit card, a fake ID, a wad of money.
She was pulling away when the woman gripped her hands more firmly and peered deeply into her eyes. “
,” she said softly.
Rhiannon blinked. She’d heard that before.
She remembered. One of the women she’d liberated from the slave traffickers had whispered the term to her. Carefully, she attempted to repeat it. “
,” Dorottya smiled graciously. “I said,
. In my language, it means, ‘You are my guardian angel.’”
Rhiannon felt a kind of heat go through her. It was almost like the physical manifestation of an epiphany. But it was wrong.
It had to be.
“I’m no angel, believe me,” Rhiannon whispered, shaking her head. An angel wouldn’t
be an orphan, wouldn’t swear like a sailor or have a history of theft and violence. Angels didn’t wear black leather jackets and take pain killers after brawling all night. They didn’t do what she did for a living. Angels had wings. They blew trumpets and blessed babies, and shit like that.
She squeezed Dorottya’s hands back and gave her a tight hug. “Good luck, Dorottya. To you and your girls.”
Dorottya continued to gaze at her, and it was clear from her
expression that she didn’t believe Rhiannon, and that she truly did think of her as an angel, which was admittedly embarrassing to Rhiannon. But the Hungarian nodded acceptingly anyway, and smiled a very gracious smile.
Thank you,” she said.
She left the cabins after waving to the children and exchanged a few last-minute instructions with the captain of the boat. Then she hurried down the docks and out into the city again.
It was very early morning, and the sun was just beginning to edge a twilight to Manhattan’s skyline.
Her boots beat out a steady rhythm through the alleyways and down the sidewalks as Rhiannon made her way toward the lot where she’d parked one of the foundation’s cars on the 5
level of the parking garage.
She was a
block and a half away when men stepped out of the shadows in front of her.
She froze and assessed the situation as quickly as she’d trained
herself to do over the years. Five men. All gargoyles. She could tell because all five were still in the process of transforming from stone to flesh, and three of them still had their wings.
“You should have come quietly,” one of them told her. She gathered he was the leader, as he stood in the middle, and he was the closest to her. “But you had to cau
se trouble. That was bad enough, a female not knowing her place.”
rs clearly agreed, nodding in silent disgust.
“But then you killed Krase
. His death was unwarranted. He was alone. There was no hunt taking place, and it was not a time of battle. ” The man shook his head admonishingly, and his eyes glinted like a cross between Tiger’s Eye and steel. “You crossed the line, Fire Healer.”
It went without saying that Rhiannon had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. But it only went without saying to
, it was all very clear, and she was very clearly
you’ve made some kind of mistake,” she said, making the small talk that they would no doubt expect her to make. It would buy her time to take in details, size up her enemies, and figure out their surroundings.
“We have, you’re
right,” said the leader, who took a step toward her.
She stepped back. She needed just a few more seconds… had to time it just right.
“Our mistake was letting you live. But you’ll be happy to know that because of you, we’re changing our laws.” He smiled, revealing chalk-white teeth.
“Oh?” she asked. S
he was only partly watching him now. Her eyes skirted across the alleyway, gauging distances and times. She had a lighter in her pocket for fire. There were trash cans she could throw, but there was a parked car thirty feet away, most likely with a full gas tank. That would be a better choice. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but that didn’t matter one iota. She could pull lightning out of nowhere; clouds just made it easier.
Rhiannon wasn’t at her best, but she also wasn’t at her worst. Despite her lack of adequate sleep and the job she’d already carried out in the final hours of night, t
hese five didn’t stand a chance. Not against her. Didn’t they know that?
Rhiannon heard something crumble behind h
er. Pebbles skirted away from a brick wall to hit the ground and go skittering. She knew that sound. With a sinking feeling, she very slowly turned around, stepping to the side so she could keep everyone in sight at once. Five on her left now.
two dozen behind her.
They filled the space of the alleyway, a crowd of macho-male maleficence, big and strong and full of itself in a most dangerous way.
“You boys really pulled all the stops for me, didn’t you?” she asked. “I have to say, I’m flattered.”
“From now on,” the leader continued, “a female will b
e given a choice. She can join us,” he said, cocking his head to one side. “Or she can die.” He shrugged helplessly, as if there was just no other way of doing things. This made perfect sense to him. It simply had to be.
“Right,” Rhiannon said, re-gauging and re-figuring.
“Good plan. Simple’s always best.”
Rhiannon was a realist. She always had been. Maybe it was a product of her childhood, or maybe it was in her genetics. Or maybe it was just the only way to be if you had half a brain
these days. And just then, reality was telling her something she really didn’t want to hear. Five men, all in front of her, she could have taken.
a small army?
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Maybe her
mounting fear was bringing the clouds in, but it didn’t matter. There wasn’t enough electricity in those skies to get her out of this one. It was practically useless against gargoyles. What she needed was more small cars.
“My dear, it appears as if you might be able to use some assistance.”
The voice cut through the tension in the alley like a shark’s fin through water. Everyone grew still, breaths were held, and the lot of them turned to find a stranger among them.
How he’d appeared there
without anyone noticing before now, Rhiannon hadn’t a clue, but she was betting his
had something to do with it. Supernatural power radiated from him so extremely thick, it warped the air like heat in the desert. It felt both stifling and promising. Tempting and forbidden. She’d never felt anything like it.
This man was made of magic, itself.
He stood at the center of the crowd of gargoyles like Noah. All around him, the sea of men parted, allowing him an enormous bubble of room. His hands were in his pockets, the very image of nonchalance. He glanced at them all, his eyes skirting casually over the onlookers as if he were simply perusing them – their faces, their eyes, their
. As each man met his gaze, they stepped back or looked away, and Rhiannon felt a foreboding growing in the air like static.
Thunder rolled closer.
The stranger was a very tall white man with thick, shoulder-length jet black hair and equally dark eyes. His chin was strong, his nose Roman, his build broad. He wore a white suit, expertly tailored to fit him like a glove. He moved with absolute confidence and grace. He was beautiful.
entire effect of him was eerily mesmerizing. He was a study in contrasts, not only in his black on white coloring, but in the way his physical appearance was outwardly genteel and refined, yet was so obviously a disguise for something savage.
She wasn’t sure what to say to him. He’d asked a rhetorical question. And though sh
e had little doubt he could get her out of this situation, she couldn’t help but wonder what he wanted in exchange.
The stranger surpassed the crowd an
d came to stand a few feet from her. His magic flailed at her now like silent, invisible floggers. His black diamond eyes sparkled. Rhiannon thought she saw something odd in them. The shape of his pupils… it was different.
“Fire Healer,” he said softly, speaking the name as if it amused him. “
Would you like a ride home?”
Rhiannon blinked. She was beginning to feel dizzy.
“Wh- what?” she whispered.
e smiled, and the smile was brilliant. “Gentlemen, I believe we’re done here,” he said calmly. Then, before she could react, the stranger had her hand in his. He intertwined his fingers with hers, locking her intimately in his grip. His touch buzzed uncomfortably, as if she were making contact with the prongs on a plug that was half-way in a socket. But she didn’t pull away. For some reason, she didn’t even try.
She just stopped breathing.
“Come with me, Rhiannon.” He turned, taking her with him, and the world shifted.
Rhiannon couldn’t have told anyone how it happened. It was just that one moment, she was standing in an alley
surrounded by people bent on her destruction, and the next, she was seated in the plush leather bucket seat of a luxury vehicle, and the car was headed at a steady, easy pace down a New York city street that was strangely devoid of most of its traffic.
Rhiannon turned in her seat. The stranger in white was driving, his attention on the road ahead of them. She looked from him to the dashboard lights, to the street beyond, and then down at herself. He’d even buckled her seatbelt.
“Yes,” she replied. “Surprisingly so.”
She’d had a lot of experience dealing with magical beings. Over the years, she’d learned how to erect walls to protect herself from their influence. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn’t, but almost always, they afforded her at least some kind of buffer against them. Enough to be able to think clearly. She did this now, schooling her own abilities to prepare for whatever was coming.
“Good.” He turned a corner and gestured to the glove box between them. “Ther
e’s a chilled diet root beer in there if you’re thirsty.”
She was. She’d been craving a
root beer, actually, since she’d left the docks.
Rhiannon popped open the compartment to
find a single bottle of Diet A&W inside, so chilled that flakes of ice dripped down the condensing sides of its glass. A&W was almost impossible to find in bottles anymore, to say nothing of the diet version. Without thinking, she took it out, twisted off the top, and gulped down three refreshing swallows. It was wonderful.