“We’re walking out of here, baby,” I said, reassuring her when I had very little for myself. “Just be brave for me, for a little longer. Okay?”
I watched her, waiting for her to nod her agreement.
She never did.
“And the legendary, fearless Patrick Hayward, it turns out, has one weak spot,” Troy said, walking the line outside of the shield. Damn coward. “Lucky for me I’ve found it.” Stopping beside Emma, he lifted his hand and weaved it through her hair.
“Take your filthy hands off her,” I spat, surging forward and out of my captors’ holds.
Leaning closer, Troy ran his nose down her neck. “Smells sweet. Pure,” he said, smiling into her skin. “Too good for you.”
“Why don’t you stop telling me things I already know? Take your hands off my girl and take three steps back, or I swear to every god in this universe and the next, I will find a way out of this chump shield and snap your neck,” I said, my hands clenching.
Troy moved back from Emma’s neck, but his hand continued to stroke her hair. “Your idle threats bore me. If you could bust out of there, you would have already, so save me the heroics.” A hand clamped over my shoulder, but before its fingers set, I had the poor sap flying over my head before throwing him to the ground. The rock walls surrounding us quaked as clouds of dust burst around the room.
“I’ve never been one to play the hero,” I said, walking over the downed man’s chest and angling myself in front of Troy. “But your boys are about to find out why my enemies call me the punisher.”
“Because you ‘punish?’” Troy said, arching an unimpressed brow.
I shook my head, wanting to tear Troy’s hand from his wrist as he continued to weave it through Emma’s hair. “Because I don’t show mercy.”
“Fine. You don’t show mercy,” he said, untangling his hand from Emma’s hair. “Neither will I.” Troy’s hand blurred, right across Emma’s face.
The smack exploded around me, deafening in my ears. Emma didn’t even make a sound, but once her eyes reopened, they narrowed at Troy, who stood there, laughing with amusement.
I couldn’t stand here helpless any longer, not while my girl had a red hand print spreading over her face.
Gritting my teeth, I surveyed the shield.
What the hell.
Lunging at it, hoping if I hit it hard and fast enough, I could somehow break through its shell, I found out why Shielders were so damn coveted when an Alliance picked one up.
The impact felt like I was getting plowed down by a 747—a high voltage one—and it knocked me back on my ass ten yards back.
Troy’s laughter continued. “You really are the dumb one of the family,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Come on. Third time’s a charm?” he continued, beckoning me towards the shield. “One more for me? Because that was some comedic stuff right there.”
Hoisting myself up, I tried to pretend my body didn’t feel like it’d just been spit out through a meat grinder. “I can do that all day, Troy,” I said, lifting my arms in the air. “In fact, I can do that until your little Shielder over there passes out from exhaustion. And guess who I’m going looking for first chance I’m free?” I pulled my smile tight and crossed my arms.
“Much to my dismay, I don’t have all the time in the world,” he replied, stepping away from Emma.
Each step farther away from her, the blanket of red blinding me pulled back. “I know the only reason you’re here before the rest of your family is because you foolishly teleported here, which means you’ve got a few hours head start on them. I’m guessing you’ve already wasted a couple hours trying to locate our cozy little lair beneath the earth, and while I do so much enjoy mixing it up with the Hayward clan, I’m not in the mood to lose any more of my men.” Giving his head a nod, the eight men in the shield circled around me. “So we need to finish our business with you and be out of here in the next half hour by my calculations.”
“Wow,” I said. “You really are as dumb as you look.” A few sets of hands grabbed me, but I didn’t fight them off like I so easily could have. I’d witnessed what Troy was capable of and willing to do if I didn’t obey, and I wouldn’t let him take anything else out on Emma.
“And why’s that? You think my calculations are wrong?” he said, his eyes glinting as his men herded me to the center of the shield. “They’ll be here sooner? They’ll be here later?”
“They’ll be here when they get here,” I answered, “but why you’re dumb as the woman who didn’t drop you from the rooftops when you were an infant is because you think if you’re gone when they get here, they won’t come after you.” I let my smile widen with my eyes; the effect made me look crazy when I’d tested it in the mirror. “They’ll come for you. And they’ll find you. And when they do, they’ll take out each and every last one of you.”
Troy shrugged a shoulder. “Doubtful. But even if they did find us and kill every last one of my men, it would be worth it to know I was the one to end Patrick Hayward.” As Troy’s eyes gleamed, his band of Neanderthals grabbed firm hold of me, tossing me to the ground, and I got it. He wasn’t bluffing.
He intended to kill me.
Now that I knew exactly what was going through that demented mind of his, I felt relieved. Despite knowing his goal was my demise, it was freeing to finally understand the reason for Emma and Joseph being taken and stuffed into the bowels of the earth.
It should be a sobering thought, but it was the opposite, because I knew Troy didn’t want them. He wanted me. And now that he had me, maybe he’d let them go since they’d fulfilled his master plan.
“Let her go,” I said, looking over at Troy through the space of a pair of legs. I could hear Emma’s sobs, like they were going to rip her in half, and I knew I couldn’t have her here for what was about to commence. “And my brother too. Have someone take them topside first and you can do whatever the hell you want with me.”
Troy chuckled that bloated one of his. “You are in no position, literally, to make demands.”
“You and I both know the only reason I’m in this position”—I ran my eyes down my horizontal length—”is due to choice. If I wanted out of this position, it’d be over before you could turn and run away like the coward piece of crap you are.”
Troy shook his head, marching back over to Emma with determination written on his face. His hand hadn’t even lifted before I cried out.
Troy stopped immediately. Turning towards me, his mouth cut into one side of his cheek. “See? You don’t have a choice, so stop making demands, behave, and shut up.” I rolled my head back, letting the scream of frustration erupt. I’d never found myself in this hopeless of a situation. Where everything I loved hung in the balance. Where the only way for me to ensure those around me survived was for me to stop surviving. It wasn’t death I was scared of—I’d done it once before. Twice would be a cake walk. So it wasn’t the dying that twisted my gut into knots—it was what I was leaving behind.
Emma. My family. The future.
It was all about to be blown out, to be scattered into the wind.
“Then get her out of this room,” I said, glancing at Emma, whose face was stained with tears, her eyes so wide with fear they swallowed her face. “Don’t make her watch this.” Stroking his chin, Troy looked between Emma and me. “No, I think not,” he said at last. “Her screams joining yours ought to make for some sweet music to my ears.”
“You bastard,” I spat, leveling a glare on him that was reserved for few occasions as the eight men kneeled beside me. Their hands affixed to me, wasting no time.
My eyes flew to Emma’s, who was squirming so fiercely against her restraints, blood began to drip from her ankles and wrists. “Emma,” I said calmly, waiting until she stilled. Her eyes locked on mine and she exhaled. “Close your eyes, Em. Don’t watch,” I said, like I was instructing one of my students.
She shook her head, going frantic again.
“Em,” I said, louder. “I love you.”
Biting her lip, her shoulders sagged. She looked as defeated as I felt. “I love you, too,” she whispered with finality. It was a goodbye.
Now I was going to have to start biting my lip to keep composed. “Then don’t look,” I said, more like a whisper because I knew if she listened to me, I’d never see those eyes of hers again. I’d looked my last on them.
I was ready.
Turning my head to stare at the ceiling, I ignored the smirks and smiles of the eight glommed on to me. I’d made it through two lives and one death with courage; I wasn’t going to let that trait escape from me in my second and final death.
Gritting my teeth, I glared at the black ceiling. “Enough stalling already,” I said, my voice strong.
“Get it over with.”
“That’s one demand I can meet,” Troy replied, crossing his arms and watching me through the shield.
Lifting his chin, eighty fingers curled deeper into my flesh.
And then they unleashed the devil.
I clamped my jaw shut, arching my neck to keep the scream contained. I’d felt pain like this before, it certainly wasn’t the first time a team of Immortals was intent on taking my life, but I also knew this was it.
The last time anyone would try, because there’d be nothing left of me to try on later.
Emma screamed, the kind that cut through me and went off like a million tiny explosions inside my body. Her cries, combined with the hellfire the team of monkeys around me induced, lit my body on fire, crushing every bone to powder, while shards of glass cut through my veins.
The pain was so scalding, it stopped registering on the pain scale. It was almost like the intensity of it jolted my soul right out of my body. It was like I was watching everything taking place, floating above the poor sap who was violently shaking in pain below.
Then, when I was sure I was about to make the big float into the sky or towards the light or whatever, I was sucked back into my body. But it was a body that felt foreign. The strength, the power, the ability I’d known for the better part of two centuries was gone. I was a shell. A powerless shell that couldn’t remember my last death feeling this bad.
The hands pulled back from me, leaving me just enough alive. I groaned, rolling onto my side and curling into myself.
Emma was frantic, but her words were muffled. I couldn’t process them, but I still got the gist. I was incapable of offering her any words of comfort because speech was a skill I’d lost several long moments ago. I could barely manage to grunt like a caveman.
Another minute passed and, instead of the pain dulling, it continued to scream through my body at full capacity. I was just dead enough to feel the pain of its onslaught, yet just alive enough to feel every last nerve firing in pain.
“You didn’t really think I’d make it easy on you, did you?” Troy’s muffled voice broke through my shell. I think I managed to raise a brow in response. “Oh, rest assured. You’ll still die,” he said, his smile pulling wider when I tried to lift myself and didn’t make it more than an inch. “You’ll just die slowly.” Of course I would. Should have been expecting this turn in the whole Patrick Hayward extermination plan.