Immortality is a lie. It’s something the Pijawikas tell themselves to feel godly. Pijawikas and Zao Duhs don’t age like humans, but we do age and we can die. With Pijawikas directing the Zao Duhs to do their dirty work, the lie that they will never die is a lot easier for them to believe.
Not so for Zao Duhs. Death doesn’t just haunt me. It slaps me in the face, then holds my eyelids open as person after person dies. I’ve watched people I have known, loved, and who didn’t deserve to, die. Pijawikas don’t mind. As long as the person dying is only a Zao Duh or a human, nothing is lost to them.
Brooke is part Pijawikan and instead of them adding her to their list of sacred lives among the chosen, they see her as an abomination—a death sentence deserved. One I can’t allow them to make good on. I’ve fought for and against the Pijawikas, but I have never felt as strongly as I do now about not giving them what they want.
Brooke is innocent, and she holds a place in my heart so deep I didn’t think it existed before I met her. Pijawikas have broken my heart, and broken my body and almost my mind, but I can’t let them harm her. Not this girl.
When she ran out of her father’s house, the look on her face sent a cold chill through my limbs and sinking horror in my gut. Whatever we thought we conquered had come back tenfold.
She was tired and battered, barely able to clean the dirt and blood off her face and change into clean clothes. Even her nap on the plane couldn’t replenish her. Although she still had enough fight in her to make sure we went home and not on the run from her father.
“He’d find us anywhere,” she had said. “Please. I just want to go home and see my mom and Kaitlynn.”
She was right, and the bruised and heart-wrenching look she gave me melted any resistance I would have put forth. I wasn’t prepared to fight this battle. Not against the Head of Pijawikas. We needed resources and a plan. Garwin could provide the recourse. I still had to come up with a good plan, but no matter how creative a solution I could find, I knew my time with Brooke was limited. Zladislov would hunt her down and kill her. Realistically, I couldn’t save Brooke from her father, but I sure as hell had no doubt I would die trying. I knew my days were numbered.
Garwin came out the front door as we made our way up his steps. He met Brooke with open arms, and even though she whimpered a little when he squeezed her tight, the relief on her face was palpable.
“I’m glad you’re all right. I have been so worried about you,” Garwin said as he walked us inside.
Garwin had increased his security since the last time I was there. Strange faces littered the hallway, and a burly man stood by the marble statue. I took note to test his reflexes and agility later. We needed more than to look like a strong force. I needed everyone to deliver when Zladislov arrived.
“Where’s Mom?” Brooke asked as she looked around and eyed the security detail.
“She’s on her way,” Garwin said. “She’s been worried about you. I haven’t told her anything yet, only that you were coming home.” He eased Brooke down on the couch and then took a seat in a large chair by the fireplace. Jaren and I sat on the couch with Brooke across from Garwin. Yes, Jaren was still hanging around. I couldn’t seem to get rid of the kid.
“I understand you had to be discreet while talking to me on the plane, but I can’t wait for Brooke’s mom to get here. What’s going on?” Garwin had a calm demeanor, but I could feel the anxiousness stirring below the surface.
“Zladislov’s my father and he wants to kill me,” Brooke said. She didn’t sound scared, but she did sound hopeless and tired.
“Oh, dear God.” Garwin ran his hand along the outside of his mouth and stood. He walked over to his liquor cabinet and dropped two ice cubes in a glass, then poured his favorite brandy in after. He picked up his glass, swirled the liquid a couple of times and then took a swig. The whole time he stared ahead as if looking at something but seeing nothing. Wherever his mind was, it wasn’t in that room.
I had never seen Garwin speechless before. He always had someone to call or a brilliant idea to offer as a solution.
Brooke tensed. “Garwin? Say something.”
I knew our situation was daunting, but I never expected that eerily distant look in Garwin’s eyes, which only set Brooke further on edge. She was scared but fought to stay awake. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier with every exhale.
Garwin stared on for a moment longer before he turned to us. “I have a lot to think about and you need to get some rest,” he said, then looked at me. “Will you make sure she gets to her room all right?”
“Of course.” I stood and gently tugged Brooke up by her arm.
She yelped and guilt sliced through me. She was injured and anywhere I touched her I’d cause her pain. However, she didn’t appear to have the strength to get off the couch, let alone climb the stairs to the bedrooms. I bent over and caught her underneath her knees. They buckled with ease and she rested in my arms.
Jaren rose with a scowl on his face and his footsteps sounded behind us. There was a reason Garwin asked me to take Brooke up to her room and not him; I was best suited to handle her.
Brooke’s breathing was rough and deep, full of both exhaustion and pain. I hoped once I laid her down, she would fall asleep and the pain would subside.
I walked as smoothly as I could and paid attention not to jostle her as I climbed the stairs. “Which room?” I whispered to her.
“It’s the second to last door on the right,” Jaren said. I didn’t like the idea of Jaren knowing which room belonged to Brooke.
“Hmph,” I huffed, and Brooke stirred slightly. I wouldn’t make any more of that. Brooke needed to rest, not worry about Jaren and me.
Jaren’s footsteps sped up as he went around us and then turned the doorknob. I paused for a second before entering. A part of me didn’t want to put Brooke down and that side struggled with the part of me that wanted her to be in a painless sleep. The selfish side lost and I moved forward and set her on top of the bed. A content sound escaped her lips, telling me she needed the rest as much or more than I assumed.
“Thanks for carrying her up,” Jaren said, as if I were doing him a favor.
“I didn’t do it for you.” A fuzzy blanket lay at the foot of the bed. I grabbed it and covered Brooke’s arms. She seemed to calm and her breathing became more relaxed.
I kissed her forehead, comforted because she was.
I walked away, but Jaren stepped around me and kissed Brooke on the cheek. Anger and possession flared up inside me. She had yet to choose me, but she was mine. My days with her were numbered and I wasn’t sure how many of them I could deal with this kid trying to one up me. I focused on Brooke to read her response to Jaren’s sign of affection, but there wasn’t one. I expected at least some sort of reaction, even in the slightest, but there was nothing. Almost as if he kissed the cheek of a corpse.
I had seen this before, but I had to make sure. I strode back over to Brooke’s side and shook her shoulder. “Slatki.”
She was still as a stone. My fears were confirmed.
“What’s wrong?” Jaren asked from behind me.
“She’s in a sleep.” Not even her eyes fluttered from behind her lids.
“And that means what?”
I turned to face him so he knew exactly how serious I was. “It means no one comes into this room alone. When she wakes up, she’s going to be ravenous for blood. Anyone in here when she comes to will not be you, or her mother, or anyone else she recognizes. Until she feeds, she will be completely controlled by that hunger. You are not to call Kaitlynn, and no one is to come in here without me with them. Is that clear?”
He glared at me and his jaw tightened but he nodded.
I smirked and waited at the door until he cleared it, then I shut it, letting him see that I alone controlled the access to Brooke. I wanted it clear that my commands went deeper than any boyish possession over her. Lives were on the line.
He marched across the hall, opened a door to another room and then closed it behind him. Did he think he was going to stay in the room across the hall from Brooke? I shook my head and looked to the doors next to Brooke’s. I moved to the one on the left and opened it. Furnished but bare of any personalization. I’d talk to Garwin about taking that one.
Brooke being in a sleep complicated things. It wouldn’t be easy to move her in her condition and any plans we made would have to be implemented without her input. We couldn’t wait for her to wake, though.
I descended the stairs two at a time and stopped at the burly guy standing at the stairs’ base. I didn’t need to ask Garwin his thoughts on him as the guy’s mere presence told me everything I needed to know. “Zao Duh?”
“Good. Don’t let anyone go inside her room. She’s in a sleep, but if you hear her come out, grab her.”
His nostrils flared. He knew what that meant, but I wasn’t sure if he’d seen it or just heard about it. “Are you Mirko?”
“Yes. And you are?” I was familiar with many Zao Duhs, but this one was unknown to me. That would normally make me unsettled, but I trusted Garwin’s judgment. Especially when it came to Brooke. He did hire me at the onset, which was the best call he could’ve made for her.
“Rorik.” He struck his hand out and I shook it. His grip was firm and assertive, a good indication he was confident in his stature. “I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s a pleasure to finally meet the infamous Mirko.”
I grinned. Damn right he’d heard of me. I lead some of the fiercest and most sought after group of Zao Duhs on the planet. “I’d like to say the pleasure is mutual, but I need to know a few things first.” Business before anything else. That’s the way I worked, which was what kept people alive. I wasn’t about to let my guard down because some guy was impressed with my name and told me so.
“I assume Garwin filled you in on why you’re here?”
He frowned. “Zladislov is after the girl.”
“And you care because?” His answer was crucial in gaining my trust.
“I had a sister about her age who was killed by Pijawikas. I aim to protect the innocent. No matter who the perpetrator is.”
“Do you understand if you get caught, you’ll be arrested for treason?” Not only was that a loaded question, asking him if he knew the full implication of his actions, but I wanted to see the look on his face when the idea of his death became fresh in his mind.
He didn’t even flinch. “Yes, sir. I do.”
I shook his hand again. “Good. I think we can work together.” That was one down. I only needed about one thousand more to call it a fair fight.
To get a few more, I went to the rental car for my phone and dialed Ace.
“Hey, man. How’d it go?”
“Jelena was neutralized—by Brooke, actually.”
“No shit? How’d she do that?”
“That will have to wait for later. I need a favor and what I’m about to ask you is huge. I’ll understand if you can’t do it, but I need you.”
“Bro, you know whatever it is you need, I’m there. What’s up?”
“Zladislov knows about Brooke and he’s going to kill her. I need reinforcements. I know it’s as close to a suicide mission as you can get, and I’d never ask this of you, but I have to put up some resistance for her—something to make Zladislov’s men think twice when they come for her. I can’t let her go down without a fight. I’m sorry, Ace, but I love her. I can’t not ask this of you.” Ace knew how deep my feelings for Brooke went. I’d made them clear when he and Brooke talked me into using her as bait for Jelena.
“Whoa. That’s pretty steep.” Silence hung in the air, and I almost regretted asking him. “But you know I’m with you. Where are you? Are you guys on the run?”
Relief the strength of something unnatural washed over me in waves. The kinship Ace offered was unlike anything I could’ve asked for in my life. Sure, I’d been there to save his ass more than I could count on two hands, but every time I was in a bind, he was there. Just like the time we met.
I was on a mission to save a kidnapped Pijawikan girl from a rogue Zao Duh. He’d captured her and threatened her life in exchange for money. Life as a Zao Duh is tough, but you don’t use a child like that. Ever. Let alone a Pijawikan child. They’re rare and almost revered within Pijawikan culture. It wasn’t just a recovery mission, though. It was a rescue and assassination. Things went wrong and when I thought my life was over, Ace came out of nowhere and rescued me. Bros ever since.
“I couldn’t talk her into running. And this might be her final days, so she should get to spend them the way she prefers. But she’s in a sleep right now, so any persuasion I would normally use to get her out of here won’t work, and I can’t just take her. No matter how bad I want to, it’d be wrong, and she’d never forgive me. I can’t do that to her.”
“A sleep? Talk about worst-case scenario.”
“God, you have no idea.”
“So where are you now?”
“Lexintgton, Virginia. Garwin Johnson’s home. Come and bring everyone who’s willing. Tell them what’s at stake and ask anyone who’s willing to please come. I can’t thank you enough for this, Ace.”
“I’m with you. Just hang tight. We’ll be there soon.”
I hung up the phone and smiled, an unexpected happiness started to take root within my chest. I may not be able to stop Zladislov completely, but I was one step closer to delaying him.
The next step was a plan and I needed Garwin for that, so I went back inside to find him. My phone rang before I reached the den. When I pulled it out of my pocket, Unknown read across the display. “That was quick,” I told Ace when I answered.
“Yes, I do pride myself on my efficiency.”
Acid rose in my throat. “Dikan.”
“It really is heartwarming to find you remember my voice. We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?”
The bastard taunted me. His idea and my idea of good times were not even in the same hemisphere. “How did you get this number?”
“A little birdie from The Base gave it to me.”
“Ah, now don’t take it out on the little birdie. I’m a hard one to resist, as I’m sure you’re well aware.”
I knew exactly how hard it was to resist him. Resentment took hold of me so swift and strong I heard the phone creak as I squeezed it. I forced myself to release some of the tension in my fingers. I couldn’t afford for the phone to break and end the call. Dikan called for a reason beyond taunting me. Everything he did had ulterior motives. I had to hang on long enough to figure out what they were this time.
My jaw clenched beyond my control, so I had no choice but to speak between my teeth. “What do you want?”
Dikan chuckled. “I’m calling out of consideration for you, old friend. I saw how much you were taken by the young melez. It’s sweet really. And disgustingly fitting for you. Too bad it won’t last.” His smirk was layered within his tone. “Jelena’s death will be avenged. Your time with Brooke should be well spent as it will end soon.”
“You come near her and I’ll kill you. You have nothing to use against me this time.”
Dikan’s maniacal laugh filled the line. “I’m afraid that’s not so. But until then, I bid you farewell and a pleasant time spent with your lady friend.”
The call ended, and hatred I had long ago conquered swelled up inside me. Its tentacles took hold around my heart, in my gut, and possessed all possible thought within my mind. I rode it for a flurry of a few minutes until I realized I could no longer allow myself to be controlled by hatred and resentment. I had a purpose beyond revenge and bloodthirsty justice for a past so ugly and wrong. Brooke was my focus now. I pushed harder and harder on the hatred, trying to quell and lock it up enough to clear my mind and get a handle on the proper move I needed to take.
I concentrated on Brooke: her laughter, her blush, the smell of her hair, and the memory of her velvety skin as I stroked her cheek. The acute memory helped ebb the anger, but what replaced it was less satisfying.
I looked down on the phone and hit redial. Ace answered on the second ring.
“I know I said warn the others and to ask those who are willing to come. But I need more than that,” I said, hopelessness thick in my words. “Offer them money. If they won’t come for me, or for Brooke, or because protecting the innocent is what we stand for, offer them money. I’ll split everything I have with those who will be persuaded by it. Just get anyone and everyone you can.”
“Sure, sure. What happened?” Ace knew me and he knew it was unusual for me to sound like that—desperate.
“Dikan called. He’s up to something and I don’t think it has anything to do with Zladislov.”
“Oh, shit. I’ll see what I can do.”
Oh, shit was right.