I cleared my throat, wetting my lips, forcing myself to speak. Just because I’d never felt weaker didn’t mean I had to show it.
“Sounds like a killer good time,” I managed, my voice sounding like static coming over a walkie talkie.
“Still making jokes,” Troy said, looking down on me with every bit of intention. “Let’s see if you still are after round two.”
One more tilt of his chin, one more ear splitting scream from Emma, and eight sets of hands got back to work.
This time, my soul stayed firmly planted inside my body. This time, I actually found myself wishing for the release death would bring.
There wasn’t a light where I headed. It was black. The kind of dark where my Immortal vision was useless. If I was someone prone to being frightened, I would be scared out of my wits.
But I wasn’t. It also helped that somewhere deep in the recesses of my consciousness, I knew this wasn’t what the afterlife was made of for me. This wasn’t the hereafter, this was the stuck-in-between.
The wrinkle between life and death.
If there was a hell, I couldn’t imagine it being a fraction as stifling as this place.
“Enough,” a voice called out, breaking through my land of limbo.
I was sucked out of the black void, tossed back into my broken body, the sights and sounds of the world I both wanted to stay in and be released from inundating me.
I’d lost track of what number this was. I lost track after the fourth time those fingers drilled into my body and pulled out whatever life was still firing inside of me. I shouldn’t still be alive. It was a physical impossibility. But as every molecule of my makeup cried in agony, I understood why men begged for death. I hadn’t begged yet, but I knew I was getting close.
Emma had stopped crying out a few rounds ago. Somehow, every time I resurfaced, I held on to enough mental fortitude to remember her face and what we shared. She was now the veneer of the Emma I knew. That mask to disguise what she felt was back on. The mask I’d worked months to remove and the one I was responsible for sliding back over her face.
“Em,” I whispered, the exertion like razor blades slicing up my throat. I couldn’t get anything else up. The last word of the billions I’d said in my multiple lifetimes had just been uttered. It was the perfect one to cap things off.
Her eyes slid to mine, but they weren’t the same eyes. They were one sheen of glass above lifeless.
If it was possible, I yearned for death even more.
I noticed Troy give another tilt of his chin, but it was lost to the much more impressive sensory stimuli breaking through my limp shell.
A roar. A deep, loud, unmistakable roar. One I’d heard regularly since Nathanial passed through puberty.
They were here.
For the first time since we’d started, Troy’s smile fell. Surveying the members of my family charging through the tunnel, he flicked his chin once more at the eight men scrambling up around me.
“Finish the job,” he ordered, giving me one last smirk before he blurred away, running in the opposite direction of the Haywards coming for him. A coward to the end.
And there was no debating it was his end. Especially with William, Nathanial, Abby, and Cora, helping Joseph along, so hot on his heels he’d be lucky if he made it to the mouth of the cave.
The eight men surrounding me first looked at each other, then down at me, before their gaze shifted on where Father and Bryn waited just outside the shield. I knew exactly what they were thinking when their faces fell when they focused on Bryn’s face.
They knew they were one shield and two seconds away from ending up in the same position I was, although if Bryn got a hold of them, they’d be one degree the other direction.
Bryn lunged forward, making her way towards us, when Father snapped his arm in front of her path, stalling her.
“Don’t go in there until the shield is down,” he warned, glancing back at the Shielder, who was slowly backing into the shadows again. “Your gift will be rendered useless.” Bryn’s eyes fell on me, her face twisting like Emma’s had earlier, before her sapphire eyes flashed black. “I won’t need it,” she said, breaking past Father’s arm and bursting inside the shield.
Several things took place in the same instant Bryn lunged inside of the shield. I cursed, knowing I couldn’t even lift a finger to fight with her, the eight Inheritors faces eclipsed from fear to anticipation as each one realized Bryn was nothing more than an Immortal inside the shield, and Father’s gaze shifted towards the Shielder crouching in the shadows.
Bryn’s fist had just exploded into someone’s jaw when Father lunged across the room. He didn’t have to kill the Shielder, he just had to distract him enough that he lost his concentration and the shield went down. Then that impressive little palm to the throat I’d shown Bryn would kill the Immortal instead of just throwing him back a few yards.
I tried pushing myself up. I couldn’t even support the weight of my upper half.
“Stay down, Patrick,” Bryn warned, driving another fist into the gut of one of the more burly ones.
I tried lifting myself again with about as much success. “Staying down isn’t really my thing,” I replied, panting from the exertion. A person shouldn’t be able to feel this bad and still be alive—there was something metaphysically wrong with that.
Sweeping her foot to the side, she took out the legs of another one. He crashed to the ground, vibrating the earth beneath me. “Well, there aren’t enough here for the two of us,” she said, ducking as another one threw himself at her. He sailed over her back, torpedoing into the man behind him. “So stay down and shut up.”
Bryn was asking for the impossible and she knew it. Staying down was beyond me, but shutting up?
That was like asking me to stop being so damn good looking.
At least I hadn’t lost my sense of humor in the eradication efforts.
Heaving myself up, I locked my elbows beneath me, managing to hold the weight of my upper half. I had to grit my teeth to keep from screaming, the pain was that intense, still firing through me like it was trying to singe every last part of me.
“I’ll stay down and shut up the day you stop being so bossy,” I said, which she didn’t hear because it wasn’t any louder than a whisper.
Bryn was fending off four at the same time, while the other four were recovering themselves from where she’d knocked them across the room. I’d never felt prouder of a student of mine, and I’d never felt like such a putz. It was an odd mix of emotions.
One of the fallen four was righting himself, shaking his head to clear whatever Bryn had knocked loose, before barreling for her. Murder was written on every plane of his face. Bryn was too distracted by the other four to notice the rhino sized man looking like he wanted to grind her into powder he could scatter into the wind.
He would pass right by me, the wounded, worthless wonder. I couldn’t let him get past me. I wouldn’t let him.
Inching to the side, I hooked my arm out right as he was racing by, catching his leg. He crashed to the ground face first, hollering in surprise. Demanding my leg to obey me, I managed to lift it high before driving it down into the man’s back. It landed with a thud. Not the usual sound my hits made when they connected with the steel like surface of an Immortal, but I’d take it given I’d seen toddlers with better coordination than I had right now.
Bryn had managed to knock two of the four on their asses, so she caught my pathetic, but I was still-proud-as-hell, take down. She just smirked and rolled her eyes before driving another palm into one of their jaws.
But this man’s eyes went lifeless before he collapsed to the ground. This one wouldn’t be getting up.
The shield was down.
Glancing around, I couldn’t see the Shielder or father anywhere. A couple of the Inheritors who were lucid enough to realize their fallen comrade was dead began to back away from the fight.
Unlike their leader, they were smarter than they looked.
Bryn’s face was lined with apprehension, twisted with regret, but she didn’t stop. She kept fighting, taking another down who would never rise again.
Nathanial suddenly emerged back into the cavern, no one else with him. His eyes landed on me.
“Father said you all might need some help in here,” he hollered, rushing over. “But it looks like Captain Destructo has it covered,” he added, watching as Bryn charged a third man.
“Get Emma out of here,” I said, looking back at her. Her face was still locked behind that anesthetized expression. “Get her somewhere safe and we’ll meet up with you once we’re finished here.” Looking around the room that was getting quieter by the minute, I added, “We shouldn’t be long.” Pulling a pair of nail clippers from his back pocket, he snapped them open in front of me. “The situations my little brothers find themselves in,” he said, shaking his head. “Saving your asses is a full time job.”
“You being a pain in my ass is a full time job too,” I muttered as he burst up, heading for Emma.
He snapped through her restraints immediately, pulling her into his arms.
“It’s all right, Em,” I said when she flinched against him. The nothing expression was fading from her face and she looked like she’d just woken up from a dream and couldn’t remember what she was doing here. “Nathanial’s going to get you some where safe, and then I’ll meet up with you in a few.” She nodded once, her eyebrows coming together when she took me in.
I smiled. I’d gotten to see those beautiful green eyes again.
“Sure you don’t need a hand?” Nathanial asked as he started heading for the tunnel.
“Brother,” I said, shifting so I could watch them go, “I could use a brand new freaking body right about now.”
“Good luck with that,” he chuckled, disappearing into the black tunnel with Emma safely in his arms.
“See you on the other side.”
As soon as I stopped being able to hear his footsteps, I collapsed back to the ground. My energy wasn’t coming back. Instead, it seemed to be fading away, like a flame blowing in the breeze. I felt one more gust away from being extinguished.
Turning my head, I watched Bryn feint around the last man who hadn’t either ran away when all her Taker qualities returned or wound up in a lifeless, crumpled up mess on the ground. It was over before the man even knew Bryn moved on him. He fell to the ground, his face blank and eyes dead.
Bryn scanned the room once, her chest rising and falling with exertion and adrenaline, before her eyes dropped on me. Her eyes narrowed with worry as she rushed towards me, falling on her knees at my head.
“Patrick!” she hollered, grabbing my shoulders and shaking them. “Damn it, you’re not doing this.” I managed a lopsided smile. “Doing what?” I said, my throat burning with the words. “Dying?” She bit at her cheek, looking away. “You can’t die,” she said, shifting my head into her lap, still unable to look at me.
“Because I’m Immortal?” I said, realizing how much Bryn had mastered her gift these past months.