Oh, God. It was really her.
She was here.
Solid and alive-looking. My eyes filled with tears.
“Fee?” Her face crumpled. “No, baby girl, not you too.”
What? Oh shit, she thought I was dead. “No. I’m not dead. I’m … Fuck!”
Shit. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.” This wasn’t about the swearing. This was more, so much more. “I’m sorry I killed you. I’m so fucking sorry.”
But her arms were around me, and she was squishing me to her bosom in a familiar hug that released the sobs trapped in my chest.
I’d been driving that afternoon. The sun was bright. The sky was blue, a reflection of our mood. Joy to know Aunt Lara was finally in remission from cancer. The two years of pain and the debilitating treatment had paid off. I couldn’t stop grinning as I took the back streets, the scenic route back to Necro. Our song was playing, a nineties track that Aunt Lara loved. We started to sing along, and then something shot into the road. An animal. I couldn’t remember what, but I swerved instinctively. There was a bang. And then the world flipped. When I woke in the hospital days later, Aunt Lara was gone. They said my tire burst, the car flipped. They said she would have died quickly. They said it wasn’t my fault.
They said. They said. But I knew it was my fault. She’d been handed a new lease on life, and I’d taken it away.
I’d killed her.
“Stop it.” Aunt Lara placed a cup of tea in front of me. “I raised you better than this.”
“It’s my fault you’re here.”
She shook her head. “No, Fee. Everyone has a time to die. That was mine. It wasn’t your fault.”
Weeks of darkness. Weeks of being locked in my room, not eating, not sleeping. Weeks of talking to myself. Talking it through and dreaming and then Cora had knocked at the door. She’d pulled me out of the hole I’d been buried in.
“If I’d braked instead. There’d been time to brake. If I’d slowed down before swerving?”
Aunt Lara frowned. “Enough. I’m happy, Fee. This place makes me happy, and when my time comes, I’ll ascend. Things are good here. I’ve even met someone.” She gave me a coy look.
She shrugged. “She’s a wonderful woman, sweet and kind. She’s great with the kids. I’d love for you to meet her.”
“You met someone …” I sat forward. “Fussy Aunt Lara finally met a woman who ticks all the boxes?”
She smiled into her teacup. “And I only had to die to do it.”
“You never blamed me.”
“No, sweetheart. I didn’t.” She covered my hand with hers. “I’m okay. I really am.”
She was okay. She didn’t hate me. She was happy. The weight that had settled on my chest after the accident that Cora has succeeded in alleviating a little melted away.
There was a knock at the door, but before either of us could get up, Mal strode into the kitchen.
God, he was such an ass. What did he think he was doing just sauntering into her home like this? I opened my mouth to give him a piece of my mind, but Aunt Lara’s beaming smile cut me off.
“Malachi, sweet boy. Fee, have you met Malachi?” She gave me the look—the setup look—and horror trickled through me.
“Hell no, Aunt.”
She balked. “Fee, don’t be so rude.”
“Yes, Fee, don’t be so rude,” Mal parroted.
I gave him a narrow-eyed stare. “What do you want, Mal?”
“You said an hour. It’s been an hour.”
Aunt Fee clapped her hands together. “Oh, of course, you two work together now, don’t you?”
She did this. How could I forget how often she did this? It began when Lucas started dating and then intensified when he left town. There was no reasoning with her when she put her matchmaker hat on. The only option was retreat or surrender, and there was no way I was doing the latter.
I pushed back my seat. “Yes, we should go.”
“Oh, we can spare a few minutes for Aunt Lara.” Mal graced Aunt Lara with a charming smile.
She simpered. Like, what the fuck? Was she actually falling for this bullshit? So many questions filtered through my mind, like how did these two know each other, and why was Mal even spending time in Deadside?
A soft beeping interrupted my thoughts. Mal looked at his watch. Wait, it was kind of clunky to be a watch, and I’d seen Conah wearing one too. Some kind of comm, maybe?
He blinked at the comm, and then his mouth turned down.
Panic bloomed in my chest. His panic. “What? What is it?”
“I need to go. Now.” He strode past me and out the door.
I looked from Aunt Lara to the door.
“Go,” she urged.
I ran after Mal, catching up to him at the gate. “Mal, what the fuck is going on?”
“It seems like we have an answer to why Evelyn attacked Conah. She wanted information.”
She was a memory reader like him… Oh, fuck, of course. “Mal, what has she done?”
“The Academy is under attack. I’ll have to go. You’ll be safe here.”
Wait, what? “Like fuck.” I bridged the distance between us and wrapped my arms around his neck. “I’m coming with you.”
He looked down at me with an annoyed frown. “You’re not fully trained.”
“I took out four vamps. I have my dagger, let me help.”
Indecision skated over his chiseled face. “You don’t know how to use it.”
“I’ll fucking stab the bad guys. For fucksake, Mal, those kids are in danger. We need to go. Now.”
He grabbed my hips and hauled me up so I could wrap my legs around his waist. Our mouths were inches apart, and a stab of heat shot through me, unexpected and primal, and then we were shooting up into the night sky.
There were young children at the Academy, children aged seven upwards. Defenseless. What time was it? It didn’t matter because Conah said many of the children were residents of the Academy. It was, after all, a boarding school.
They were in danger.
Dread, like Evelyn, soul-sucking monsters were attacking them.
I squeezed Mal’s hips with my thighs. “Can’t you go faster?”
“Do I look like a fucking horse?” Mal snapped.
Shit, he never snapped. He was cool and sarcastic and drawly.
“We need to ride a different river,” he said a moment later.
I tucked my head into the crook of his shoulder as we accelerated upward, his wings flapping hard, pushing air to take us higher, and then we were gliding. It was going to be okay. The Academy had sounded an alarm, and other demons would have gone to assist. Reapers in the nearby vicinity. It was going to be okay.
But I needed to be there. I needed to make sure it was okay. The conviction was a burning in my veins that was almost painful.
“Hold on,” Mal warned, and then we were surrounded by color.
We were in the river.
My breath was tight in my lungs as we exited into the night sky.
“Fucking hell!” Mal’s wings beat the air as we hovered above the world. I looked down at the massive Academy building surrounded by fire. Smoke billowed up into the night air and gathered in a gray cloud. Tinny screams drifted up to greet us, and bodies were visible, running to and fro below. Tiny, frightened bodies.
My vision zoomed in on a child running from a loping pursuer. Vampire. My blood bubbled in my veins as rage exploded in my chest.
“Get us down there. Now.”
Mal didn’t argue. He tipped forward, and then we were shooting toward the ground. I remained locked on the child being chased by the vamp. The boy was fast, but the vampires were faster. I’d seen them in action, so why was he moving so slowly. My gaze flicked away from the boy to follow his trajectory toward a squat building he was headed for. An outbuilding of some description? No, the halls of residence accessed only by resident biometrics. I caught movement in the shadows beyond the shrubbery bordering the building. More vampires? Dread? It was a trap. They wanted the boy to open the doors. They probably didn’t know how to get in and didn’t want to risk fucking shit up if they hurt the boy.
My gums ached from how hard I grit my teeth, and then Mal was pulling up, slowing down to land. But we were too far from the boy.
We hit the ground, and I was off, sprinting full pelt toward the outbuilding. I needed to get there first, to stop the boy from letting in the monsters.
Was Mal with me? I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. My objective was clear. I needed to save the children. Fredrin, Palin, and Clayna. I had to save them.
My boots pounded earth, my thighs screamed at me to slow the fuck down, but my heart carried me forward, pushing adrenaline around my body for that extra rush of invincibility.
I cut across the grass and skidded to a halt on the gravel a few meters in front of the door.
The boy running toward me screamed and faltered.
I knew that face. Those gray eyes. “Run, Fredrin. Run!”
I held out my arms for him.
Relief flooded his features, and he ran toward me. Shadows stirred to my left. Shit.
I grabbed and slashed at the vampire, the blade caught and dragged, and his scream was a symphony to my ears. But there were more. Two more.
“Fee, watch out,” Fredrin cried.
He was looking out for me while being chased by a vampire who was speeding up.
I ran toward the boy, almost there.
But the vampire was closer, faster. I wasn’t going to make it. A huge shadow swept in from the right and knocked the vampire off his feet.
Mal. Oh, thank God.
Fredrin ran into my arms. “The monsters are real.”
Yeah, they were real, and they were right behind me. I needed more than a dagger. Come on, scythe. Come on.
My arm lit up with heat, and then the staff of the scythe settled in my hand. The blade glowed, and the vampires behind me hissed. Their bootfalls came to a halt.