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       Emblaze, p.11

           Jessica Shirvington
 

  Failing. The door burst open and I looked up to see Lincoln bounding over wayward legs and chairs.

  Steph opened her eyes fully and swallowed with difficulty. „Vi/" she murmured.

  „You"re safe. You"re back. I"m sorry, Steph, I"m so sorry."

  She half smiled. „Less sorry, more water."

  Lincoln reached the table. „How is she?"

  „Thirsty!" I said, as if she had bleeding bullet wounds.

  Lincoln smiled, but was quick to grab a jug of water from the waiter"s station.

  He passed me a full glass and straw.

  „Here," I put the straw in Steph"s mouth.

  „Thanks," she said after a sip. „I"m okay. Out of it, but okay." Then her head snapped up.

  „Dapper and Onyx? Samuel and Kaitlin?"

  I exhaled. „Everyone"s okay. Onyx is still in hospital but everyone else is out."

  „They … they tried to stop them. Fought for me."

  „I know, honey, Samuel and Kaitlin are fine."

  She gave me a weak shake of her head. „Not jus them. Onyx and Dapper, too."

  Wow. I wasn"t surprised about Kaitlin and Samuel - they were Grigori - but Dapper and more astonishingly Onyx, who would have known better than anyone he didn"t have a chance against their supernatural strength. I"d just figured they were caught unaware, not that they"d actually been standing in their way. It now made sense why Onyx had been in the hall - he was defending Steph.

  „We have to get her away from here," Lincoln said. He was standing, facing the customers, guarding us. To the other diners Steph had just appeared out of nowhere and was clearly unwell - customers were more than just curious now.

  „Steph, can you walk, just to the street?"

  Lincoln nodded in agreement.

  Steph started to get up. I supported her, putting an arm around her waist as gently as I could.

  „How do I look?" she asked, once we were standing. I couldn"t hold back the laugh, maybe it was delirium. Trust Steph to want a mirror straight away.

  „Nothing a little foundation won"t fix." Actually, it would take several bottles but she didn"t need to hear that right now.

  We walked out, people moving aside for us.

  „Is she okay?" a waitress said. "We didn"t see her come in. should we call an ambulance?"

  „No. Thanks, though, we"re just taking her home now," Lincoln said smoothly.

  Steph hobbled but was stronger with each step. Whatever spell they had her under was clearly lifting and it appeared Phoenix had told the truth. Apart from the bruised, she was in relatively good working order.

  We made it outside and Griffin pulled up to the kerb in Lincoln"s four-wheel-drive. Lincoln grabbed the back door. Dapper was already in there.

  „Good to see ya, girl," he said, looking at Steph, relieved.

  Steph crawled into the back seat with me close behind and Lincoln jumped in the front before we sped off. Steph threw her arms around Dapper and he pulled her close, his hand gently smoothing the bruised side of her face.

  „Thank you," she said before slumping back against me.

  Dapper didn"t respond, just righted himself and looked out the window as if it were nothing. It wasn"t nothing, though. They"d been there and tried to defend Steph when I hadn"t. I realised it wasn"t Dapper who owed me one at all, it was me who owed him, big-time. And Onyx.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  „Generally, it is the tortured who turn into torturers."

  Carl Jung

  Steph fell in and out of consciousness during the drive back to Hades. I was nervous about taking her back there, but we needed to clean her up and although my place was closer, with Dad around, it wasn"t an option. Besides, Dapper insisted.

  Griffin pulled up right outside the glossy yellow doors of the club.

  „Where are Spence and the others?" I asked.

  „They managed to take out of one the exiles at the café, but Phoenix was too fast. Just to be sure, they"re guarding the perimeter. Nothing will get near here tonight," Griffin said, climbing out of the car.

  That"s something, I guess.

  „Steph, are you awake?" I asked, not wanting to frighten her. Despite Phoenix"s assurances, I had no idea how bad things really been for her but I did know, all to well, how awful the aftermath could be. I swallowed back the thoughts, needing to be strong for her, do whatever she needed me to do to help her get through this.

  She hitched a shoulder. „Mmm … Kind of …"

  I opened the door. „I"ll carry her in," I said to the others.

  Lincoln took hold of the door, careful not to touch me. „I"ll do it."

  „No, I"m fine. I can do it!" I snapped, feeling the strain of everything that had happened earlier. I worked so hard not to be vulnerable around him and now, after what happened with Phoenix, I felt completely exposed again. It made me sick, the power Phoenix had over me, but at least it didn"t grind into my heart and twist till I couldn"t breathe.

  Lincoln looked at the ground. „I know you can. But it might look a little strange - you carrying her through a busy bar. We"ll have enough attention as it is."

  I braced my hand on the car, pressing down hard. I was so angry now. With him, with Phoenix … with me.

  Steph stirred. „Vi, it"s okay. Let him take me" She gave a faint smile.

  I sighed and stood aside. Lincoln didn"t look at me, he just kept his head down and reached in for my friend.

  When we walked inside, Hades was, as always, full of activity. I had to do a mental count to figure out it was Thursday, one of the club"s busiest nights. Once again, I worried coming here had been the wrong decision.

  People were looking as we marched through the middle of the bar, not bothering with discretion for once. I saw someone moving quickly from a corner, then coming closer.

  „Oh no," I said to myself. The floorboards suddenly felt like quicksand, sucking me down, holding me in place.

  I hadn"t" even considered it. I should have, but with everything … I didn"t think to check with Dapper if Steph"s brother was working. He was pushing through the crowd, calling out our names. First Steph"s, then mine.

  „Steph, Jase is coming over here. We can"t tell him what happened. We can"t bring him into this, too," I said urgently, all of my guilt at already having brought her into this world rising to the surface.

  She looked at me, pausing to consider, and then nodded even though her eyes were still semi-closed. „I"ll talk to him."

  That was all we had time for before he broke through the crowd and was right there.

  Dapper melted back, obviously not wanting Jase to know he was mixed up in any of this.

  We weren"t the kind of friends Dapper would brag about.

  „Hey, man! What the hell are you doing with my sister?" he yelled at Lincoln.

  His hands were balled into fists and he looked like he was getting ready to throw a punch. He shot a look towards me.

  „Violet! Are you okay? What"s going on?" but he didn"t wait for my answer. „Give her to me!" he said, moving in on Lincoln, trying to get his hands under Steph and wrangle her away from him. Steph was trying to swat at him, but it just made him try harder. I could understand why. She looked completely out of it.

  „Jase!" I yelled over the music. His head swung in my direction, eyes fierce.

  I felt like smiling at him, proud to see he would step up like this for his sister. But a pat on the back was not going to help.

  „Jase, she"s okay!" I yelled again. „We"re taking her upstairs." Then I remembered that Dapper wouldn"t want any involvement. „To the staff flat," I emphasised, looking at Lincoln.

  No one else would have noticed the small nod he gave me.

  „You"re not taking her anywhere!" Jase yelled. „Give her to me!" He tried again to pull her out of Lincoln"s hold.

  Good luck with that.

  Lincoln hitched Steph a little higher. „She"s not as light as she looks. I"ve got a good hold on her. How about I get her upstairs and then you
can help her all you want?"

  But Jase wasn"t having it and while his persistence was irritating. I felt a certain pride.

  Griffin chose this moment to intervene. He put a hand on Jase"s shoulder and looked right at him. I knew what he was going to do. Griffin"s strength rests in his ability to find and deliver truth. If truth exists he can see it in a person and also give it to them wholly.

  „We are helping her. We haven"t harmed her."

  I saw the shimmer, the slight dusting of Griffin"s power as it moved from him and into Jase, whose eyes went wide and then, unable to deny the truth forced onto him, softened.

  Griffin nodded Lincoln on.

  Lincoln led the way upstairs, taking Steph into Onyx"s flat and putting her down onto the sofa bed.

  Jase barged in behind them and sat beside his sister. He might believe they weren"t trying to hurt her, but he needed to see for himself that she was okay.

  „Steph, what"s going on?"

  Steph did her best. She was more and more lucid with every minute. I guessed in an hour or so she"d be herself again. She pushed up onto the pillows and tried her hardest to keep her eyes open and smile.

  „I"m fine. I just feel silly," she said.

  „Where are you hurt?" Jase asked, looking her over.

  „Just my face. I was at the library and was leaving to come here, but I fell down the stupid steps."

  „Like I"m buying that!" he said.

  „It"s true," Steph went on, unfazed by her brothers refusal to get on board. „It was dark and I tripped and hit the railing on the way down." Her hand went to her face and she winced a little. „The librarian came out to help me. She gave me a pill, told me it would relax me," she feigned a sarcastic laugh.

  It was actually very believable. Steph was spinning a wicked web while the rest of us remained silent, intently taking in the cover story so we could stick to it later,

  „She gave you a pill that made you like this? The Librarian?" Jase repeated. He had a pretty good bullshit detector.

  „Yeah. Then Lincoln and his friend Griffin walked by and saw me outside on the steps."

  Jase looked at Lincoln, who he"d met before and then over to Griffin, who gave him a nod of introduction.

  „They called Violet and brought me here because they knew you"d be here."

  And there it was. The triple-twist, double-pike with a 5.0 difficulty and Steph had brought it home with a perfect landing. Right in her brother"s lap!

  Jase"s tough façade crumbled. He swallowed back what I was pretty sure was a big dose of brotherly love and put a hand on her forehead,

  „It"s okay, you dope. I"ll get someone to cover for me and take you home." He turned to me. „Thanks for getting her to me, Vi, and I"m … You know, sorry I was agro." He looked down, embarrassed.

  Lincoln shifted in the back corner where he now stood beside Griffin but when I looked over, he was watching the floor intently.

  Steph started to fall back into a slumber.

  „That"s okay. I knew you"d want to help her, I thought this was a better option than just taking her home."

  „Yeah, never know if anyone"s going to be there these days. I take it she"s told you Dad"s taken a permanent sabbatical from parenting?"

  Well, she hadn"t said it exactly like that. I knew things weren"t great and her dad was away a lot. That her Mum was a bit of a … socialiser and pretty erratic when it came to the mothering department. Which reminded me about her irate phone calls the night before.

  „Kind of. Actually, that"s the other reason we came to your Mum called my Dad and was pretty worried. I think she"ll want to see Steph soon."

  Jase looked at his sister dubiously. „How soon?"

  „Like after-a-cold-shower soon."

  „Great," he said, checking his watch. „She"s going to think I got her drunk or something and God knows what she"ll say about her face!"

  I took another good look at her and gasped. The bruised area was definitely smaller and the visible blood vessels had disappeared. If I didn"t know any better … Bu that was impossible, no one could have healed her. Even I couldn"t heal anyone other than Grigori.

  I glanced at Lincoln. He was watching Steph curiously, too.

  „I could put a bit of make-up on her," I said, still staring.

  „Nah, it"s okay. Might be worth it for the look on Mum"s face," he said, wearing a warm smile. „Kind of wish I"d been home last night to see her go off."

  When I didn"t say anything, he quickly added, „I was working, you know, not … I did go home … just late."

  „Sure," I said, joking along. But Jase blushed.

  From the corner of my eye I saw Lincoln shift from one foot to the other again.

  „You think you might be able to take care of that cold shower?" Jase asked me.

  „Maybe you should have one, too," Lincoln said out of nowhere.

  Jase spun around, sending a particularly challenging look in his direction, the wrong thing to do. Lincoln was already in protector mode. I stood up.

  „Why don"t you guys go downstairs and we"ll be down in ten," I said.

  „Won"t you need someone to help you get her downstairs or whatever?" Jase asked.

  Lincoln actually stifled a laugh.

  What the hell has got into him?

  „No, it"s okay. I think whatever she took is wearing off and after a shower I"d say she"ll be much better." Even if she wasn"t I could get her down the stairs more easily by myself.

  Jase seemed unsure. Griffin walked towards the door. „Come on, Jase, she"s right. Why don"t we go downstairs and find Dapper? He"s a friend of mine and I"m sure he"ll give you the rest of the night off." He bled just enough truth into his words to get Jase on board.

  Lincoln was already on his way out.

  Steph opened her eyes as soon as she heard the door close.

  „You"re awake?" I said, immediately looking for some way I could help her.

  She slapped my hovering hands. „I knew it"d be easier if he thought I wasn"t available for further discussion. So, we had car trouble last night, huh?"

  „Yeah. I didn"t know what else to say. Dad flipped and your Mum was calling him demanding to know where we were, so if anyone asks we were at a friend of Lincoln"s, in a bad mobile reception area."

  „Got it," she said, starting to sit up.

  I helped her. „How are you feeling?"

  „Better by the minute. I"ll be much fresher after that shower."

  I turned on the water and gave her the change of clothes I"d stashed in my backpack.

  -

  By the time she emerged from the bathroom, Steph looked considerably improved and the damage to her cheek had faded further.

  „Your bruises," I said. „They"re getting better somehow."

  „Did you …?" Steph started, prodding near her eye.

  „No," I looked down, ashamed. „I tried with Onyx, but I can"t heal humans."

  „Oh. Well, you"re right, I think. It"s definitely feeling better."

  „Steph, how bad was it?" I asked tentatively, petrified of what she might say.

  „Other than the initial hit across my face, no one came near me. It all happened so fast.

  Samuel and Kaitlin barely had time to get me to the bedroom before they were here.

  Dapper tried to stop them at the door - he told them it would end the neutrality agreement -

  but they just kept coming. I heard them fighting him and Onyx and one of the exiles yelling at the others, telling them they weren"t approved for kills. Then they came into the bedroom.

  A European-looking one - dark hair and dark eyes - came for me, while the others went for Kaitlin and Samuel. He hit me and that"s the last thing I remember before I woke up in Phoenix"s plane.

  I didn"t know what to say, but Steph kept going.

  „When I came around, I was upstairs but I could hear Phoenix below. He was yelling,"

  she swallowed. The memory frightened her. „I"m pretty sure he was hitting someone. It w
as weird, from what I heard I think it must"ve been the exile who took me. Phoenix was mad that he"d hit me."

  „You were his bargaining chip. He didn"t want you harmed."

  She nodded. „Figured it was something like that. He knew the exchange was bogus, didn"t he?"

  „I"m sorry, Steph." I could barely look at her.

  „Don"t be. It"s not your fault, Vi." She gave me a hug and I held her so tight she had ti start wriggling. „Easy on the human," she said, smiling.

  „I never should"ve brought you into all this."

  Steph stood up, steadily. She really was doing much better, almost back to normal.

  „We"re not having this conversation again." And, like that, she ended it. For now. „Come on. Big brother will get more suspicious if I don"t get down there soon."

  We headed for the bar, Steph letting me keep a supporting arm around her just in case.

  At the top of the stairs she stopped.

  „Did you give it to him?"

  „Yes," I said, quietly.

  „Did we get the Grigori Scripture?"

  „No."

  „Well, that"s …"

  „Yeah."

  „I"ll get back to the translation tomorrow. I"m getting close, a few more days and I"ll have something."

  I didn"t say anything else. I wanted to argue. Tell her to stay in bed for a week or more.

  But there was no telling Steph what to do and the truth was, now more than ever we needed that translation because something was coming - something very bad - and Steph might be the best hope we had. A thought that made me hate myself even more. It was going to be harder to get her out of this nightmare world, in which I"d given her residency, than I"d imagined.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  „ But as for the good things of this life, and its ills, God has willed that these should be common to both."

  Saint Augustine

  My lungs were burning and I relished the feeling, wanting more, even though I was out of time. It had already taken two hours" running to feel the acid build up. Even doing so on empty - from lack of food and sleep - I still had super endurance. I"d wanted to hurt, needed the distraction. Anything rather than lying in bed contemplating.

  Plus … I was avoiding Dad.

 
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