It was a long walk back to the church, since Kieran was in a lot of pain. It had been hell just getting him to his feet. I was pretty sure Jason wasn’t going to send anyone after us, but just to be sure, we went through the woods. I stopped to untie the guard we’d tied to the tree. He wasn’t unconscious from loss of blood yet, so I figured he’d be fine.
Kieran winced with every step and his breathing was labored, but he wanted to talk, once we were relatively clear of the park and were certain no one was behind us. “So,” he said, “explain to me again what you saw in this guy?”
That was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Jason. “You’re lucky he didn’t kill you,” I muttered.
“Oh, really?” Kieran coughed and clutched his chest.
I sighed. “Thanks for showing up, though. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of that.”
“Dude just bugs me,” Kieran said. “I don’t like the way he looks at you. Or talks to you.”
“Sometimes, he’s an ass,” I agreed.
I glared at him. “Why did you follow me, anyway?”
“It’s my job to protect you,” said Kieran. “And the other night, what I said about caring about you. I meant that.”
“Don’t,” I said.
“I’m sorry it makes you uncomfortable if I say that, but you’re very possibly pregnant with my child, here, okay?”
“Shh!” I said, glancing around us in the woods to make sure no one was around.
“Seriously?” he demanded, and then winced again.
“Look, Kieran, he was right about one thing. Don’t fall for me. I don’t feel that way about you.”
“Why not? Because your ex beat me up and you no longer respect me?”
“Kieran!” The man frustrated me beyond words.
Kieran put a hand on my shoulder and stopped me. He turned me to face him. I looked up at his face, which was oddly not nearly as bloody or swollen as Jason’s, even though Kieran had taken the worst of the beating. His ponytail was messy. Strands of hair were falling out of it, framing his face. “I’m sorry, Azazel, I can’t help it. I am falling for you.”
I wanted to look away, but I just stared at him, feeling helpless. “Well, you shouldn’t,” I said. “I just leave destruction in my wake. I never do anyone any good at all.”
His shoulder muscles tensed. “Are you talking about what you did to the guard tonight?”
I’d been talking about my powers, but I realized I’d probably been a little hard on the guard. “Did that freak you out?”
He half-shrugged. “You’re a badass. You’re tough. You just shot him in the arm. You didn’t hesitate.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Kieran cast his eyes away, nudging the leaves on the ground with one foot. “I could hardly shoot those guards when Hallam asked me to. I can’t believe I did it. One minute they were alive and the next…”
I took Kieran’s arm.
“Ow,” he said.
I dropped his arm. “Come on. Let’s keep walking.”
“You haven’t killed many people have you, Kieran?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything.
“It gets easier,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, and his voice sounded hollow. “I bet it does.”
Hallam was really pissed off at me, especially when he found out that I hadn’t actually gotten the grimoire. When Kieran and I got back, he called me into his office. I sat on a folding chair. He paced the room and yelled at me for a long time, talking about loyalty and following orders and the importance of people over magic books. I just let him go the way I had when I was a teenager and he was lecturing me about sleeping in the same bed with Jason.
Eventually, Marlena popped her head in and told him to shut up. She turned to me apologetically. “He’s just worked up because the prisoners are back and some of them may have infections from where Jason cut off their fingers.”
Hallam glared at Marlena. “I don’t need your help with this.”
Marlena put her hands on her hips. “Azazel is not your daughter, Hallam. You don’t have to lecture her like a child.”
Geez. Finally somebody else besides me was saying it.
“I know that,” said Hallam, slamming his hands down on his desk. “Some kind of guardian I made anyway. They’re both absolutely out of control. Jason’s cutting off people’s fingers and Azazel’s more concerned with magic books than people’s lives.”
I stood up. “Wait a second.”
Marlena held up a finger at me.
I shut up.
Marlena walked to Hallam. She put one of her hands on his. “This is not your fault,” she told him.
He pulled his hand away from her. “Everything’s falling apart.”
She sucked in a breath through her nose. “Maybe. But that doesn’t mean you have to fall apart too.”
Hallam snorted. “So now I’m falling apart, huh? You sure know how to make a fellow feel better, Marlena.”
Marlena rolled her eyes.
I needed to figure out a way to get out of the room if they were going to argue.
But just then, someone stuck his head in the door. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, but there are two women here with a baby. They’re saying something about dreams?”
Carol and Nancy! Excellent.
“I know who that is,” I told Marlena and Hallam. To the guy at the door, “Take me to them.”
The wounded prisoners were in the sanctuary, along with Kieran. They lounged on pews. A few were lying on pillows. Carol and Nancy were in the entrance. Carol was holding baby Guy. Nancy was especially excited to see me, but Carol looked a little annoyed.
“Thank God you’re here,” I said to Nancy.
“You need me, don’t you?” she asked, grinning at Carol. “I told you the dreams meant something.”
“We have five wounded people,” I said. “They might have bad infections. And I think Kieran has broken ribs.”
“Oh God,” said Carol. “What happened to your boyfriend?”
I sighed. “He’s not my boyfriend.” Why did everyone keep calling him that?
Nancy got to work right away. She sat with each of the wounded people, putting her hands over their wounds. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her body shook. Then the healing would begin to happen. The wounds would begin to shrink. New skin would inch its way over the blood and exposed muscle. The skin would knit itself back together, and the person she was with would be whole again. I watched the injured as they stared in wonder at their healed bodies, twisting themselves to test if they were really unhurt. It was astonishing.
While this was going on, I filled Marlena and Hallam in on how we’d met Carol and Nancy and about Nancy’s particular abilities. Hallam was intrigued. He wanted to be sure of the details. It had started after the power outage? She hadn’t been able to do it before? I told him to the best of my knowledge that was true.
Now that Hallam wasn’t screaming at me, I also told him about my run-in with Jason, and that he had the grimoire. I explained that Jason said he had powers and that he thought I wanted the grimoire in order to purge him of them. Hallam appeared even more thoughtful.
Afterwards, he gathered me, Kieran, Marlena, Nancy, and Lily in his office to talk. Nancy was exhausted, but exhilarated. She’d never healed so many people. She told us that she’d never felt quite so important or helpful in her life. It was wonderful to be able to make people feel better. We could all tell though, that it had taken a lot out of her. She was a little pale and her eyes looked a little too wide.
Hallam thanked her. “We’re blessed to have you among us,” he told her. “We can’t express our gratitude enough. Is there anything we can do for you and your partner?”
Nancy just laughed. “Oh, I love his accent. Sure, hon, you and your wife can just keep talking English to me like that.”
Lily laughed too. “It always did strike me as odd that the two of you were here and working for the American government. There’s a story there, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I’ve always been an expatriot,” said Marlena. “I was born in America, but my parents were both British. That’s why I talk this way. Hallam was just on the run from the Sons of the Rising Sun.”
Lily and Nancy both raised their eyebrows.
“Evil secret society,” I said. “Enough said.”
“You’re probably wondering why I called everyone in here,” Hallam said. “It’s just a little odd. There seems to be a sudden explosion in extra-normal abilities.”
“Explosion?” said Lily.
“Well, we’ve got Nancy, Azazel, and then Azazel told me that Jason claims he can do things too,” Hallam said. “Did you witness anything like that while you were in the camp, Lily?”
Lily considered, then shook her head. “He was just very interested in the grimoire. And Azazel, of course.” She studied her hands, the two stumps where her pinkies used to be. “He’s very compelling, I suppose. He got me to give him information. I mean, he was torturing me, but I got the impression I would have given it to him anyway, even if I hadn’t been threatened.”
“Hmm,” said Hallam. “Maybe he’s bluffing.”
“We never did figure out how he came back from the dead,” I said.
“He came back from the dead?” Kieran asked. “Like Jesus?”
“The bullet didn’t cause as much damage as we thought, obviously,” said Hallam.
“He stopped breathing,” I said. “You couldn’t find a pulse.” I still remembered the way I’d felt in the attic of Jason’s mother’s house. Jason’s brother had shot him in the head, and I’d been sure Jason was dead. But when I’d put my lips against his, Jason’s eyes had fluttered. He’d been okay. Had he come back to life? Healed himself? I used to think it wasn’t possible, and that, like Hallam was saying, we’d overestimated the damage Jason had sustained. But in light of what Nancy could do, maybe Jason was capable of healing himself.
“The more I know about this guy, the more I don’t like him,” Kieran said.
“Well, at any rate,” said Hallam, “it got me thinking about the nature of power and the nature of magic. Some of you know that I was trained by the Sons of the Rising Sun. They had very interesting ideas about power—sort of an amalgamation of all religious traditions. They believed it all described essentially the same thing and that the culmination of all of this would be in the Rising Sun—who they thought was Jason, of course. According to the Sons, all power was ancient and prophesied. Power was passed down along blood lines. It wasn’t very democratic, I suppose.” Hallam smiled.
“That’s why my power doesn’t make any sense,” said Nancy. “I didn’t inherit it. It just showed up.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Hallam. “Well, I first started working with the Order of the Fly immediately after the destruction of the Sons, when the American government was in shambles. Azazel was working through her own issues with her powers with their help. I thought I would find out a little about their philosophies.”
The OF hadn’t been of much help with my powers. They were ridiculously upbeat about everything, thinking that magic was for the good of humanity and everything else. They didn’t understand that my magic did nothing but cause people pain. It was destruction, pure and simple.
“The Order of the Fly believes, quite similarly to some of the ideas spouted by poets and magicians in the early part of the twentieth century,” said Hallam, “that magic can be invoked by certain images and ideas that gain great power—symbols, if you will.”
Kieran leaned forward in his chair. “Yeah, I remember this from my training. The idea is that symbols gain power because they’re recognized by the collective mind, right? Like everyone focuses on a cross for thousands of years, so it becomes a powerful symbol.”
“Right,” said Hallam. “But what if we took this a step farther? Nancy, you said that the people around here shunned you because they thought you were a witch, right? There was a powerful collective belief that you were a powerful being, and… now you are.”
Nancy furrowed her brow. “That’s true, I suppose.”
Hallam looked at me. “Of all people, Azazel, you and Jason have been the focus of so many people. And they’ve all believed you were powerful.”
Wait a second. I turned to Nancy. “You said something like that at your house yesterday. You said that it didn’t matter where the visions come from. If enough people believed them, they were true.”
“Did I?” Nancy said. “What I felt when I took your hand was so intense. There was so much turmoil.”
I turned to Hallam. “Is this true, Hallam? If this is true, then what Jason is saying could be right. He could really be the Rising Sun. Not because the Rising Sun actually exists, but because enough people believed it did. He could have these powers because of that. And I could be…” God. What was I, if Jason was the Rising Sun? Was I the Vessel of Azazel, born to kill him or was I his consort, meant to love him?
Hallam shrugged. “If it’s true, why is it happening now?”
“Maybe because the lights have gone out,” said Lily. “People are much more superstitious now. There’s less belief that the world is rational and safe. People are much more likely to believe in possibilities.”
“Okay, but the people that thought Jason and I were powerful are all dead,” I said. “Do they still count?”
“Symbols are powerful not just because people believe in them now, but because people have believed in them historically,” said Kieran. “According to the OF, anyway.”
Damn it. “But everyone thought something different about us,” I said. “So what are we then?”
“Conflicted,” said Hallam. “And possibly very dangerous.”
“Okay,” I said, “but we can get that grimoire back from Jason. We have to get that. If we can get that, it has a ritual that will teach me to purge all of our power. Both of us. I can wipe us clean. We won’t be a danger anymore.”
“Azazel,” said Hallam, “I don’t think that’s the answer.”
“The Key of Asher is more important as a tool to use magic for the good of others,” said Lily. “The purging ritual is dangerous. It’s not something to be attempted by a novice. I wasn’t aware you even knew about it.”
“Why do you think I wanted that damned book?” I asked.
“I didn’t think you knew about Jason’s power,” said Hallam, confused. “You wanted the grimoire so you could purge his power?”
“No.” I stood up. “No, I didn’t want to purge his power. I wanted to purge mine. Why do you think I came all the way here from Georgia? It wasn’t so I could see Jason again, that’s for sure. I never wanted to see him again. I came so that I could get that freaking book, so that I could get rid of my power. I don’t want it anymore.”
Everyone looked shocked. No one said anything.
Fine. Screw them all. I stalked out of the room, slamming the door after me. I strode out of the church, onto the lawn. I’d walk up the street. I’d walk and walk and walk until I felt the anger seep away.
Great. Kieran. Why was he everywhere, all the time? I kept walking.
He ran up behind me. “Where are you going?”
“For a walk,” I said, not stopping.
“I’ll walk with you.”
“No. Go away,” I said.
He took my arm, and I shook him off. He took it again, harder this time, and yanked me to a stop, forcing me to face him.
“Are you serious?” he said. “That’s why you came here? Because you wanted to get rid of your magic?”
“I’m serious,” I said.
“How could you do that?” he asked. “How could you leave all of us in the lurch like that? We need your magic, Azazel. If we don’t have it, our job is disastrous.”
“Because of my magic, people get hurt,” I said. “They always get hurt.”
“You’re crazy,” he said, arms flailing. “Those are coincidences. Bad stuff happens all the time. And it’s not your fault. You’re not causing it.”
“You have no idea,” I said. I spun on my heel and started walking again. At first I didn’t hear him behind me, but then the sound of his footsteps reached my ears. He was running to catch up.
“This isn’t fair,” he yelled after me. “You can’t do this!”
I walked faster.
He was behind me, right at my ear. He was out of breath, but he just kept talking. “I was assigned to protect you, because you are important to us. We all depend on you. Every single one of us on the team. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have been able to do all the good we’ve been able to do. And you want to throw it all away. I can’t believe you could be so undeniably selfish.”
I stopped. “Selfish?” I gaped at him. What did he mean?
“Yeah, selfish. You want a life where you don’t have to work for the government and put yourself in danger. You just want to sit back and be out of the action. But that’s not the way it works, okay? You have a gift. You have to use it for the good of humanity. Whether you like it or not. Okay?”
“What don’t you understand about the fact that my ‘gift’ doesn’t do any good for humanity? Even when I try to do good, terrible things happen.”
“You want to see that, Azazel, but it’s not true.”
“It is true! You don’t know what happened with my niece.”
This didn’t faze him. “No. You’re believing a lie. And that’s not all. That’s not the only reason I can’t believe you’re trying to get rid of your power.”
I clenched my teeth. “Okay. What else?”
“Tonight, I had to watch you go into a dangerous situation, where we were shot at. And then I watched that Jason fuck-face wrestle on the ground with you and try to hurt you, maybe try to rape you, I don’t know—”
“Kieran, I’ve been doing dangerous things since we met.”
“Yeah, and you have magic. So I said to myself that you could take care of yourself. And I shouldn’t make an issue about it. But Azazel, you’re pregnant—”
“We don’t know that!”
“—and do you have any idea how scary it would be for me if I didn’t know that you had that kind of power? That you couldn’t protect yourself and our child—”
“God, Kieran, stop talking about it like that!” I screamed. I ran into him at full force and began beating my fists into his chest. At first I hit him hard, but then my punches grew weak. He grasped both my wrists. I sagged against him.
I convulsed into sobs.
Kieran pulled me close. He stroked my hair as I cried into his shirt. One of his arms was wrapped about my waist, and he held me tight against his body as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Right then, he seemed so strong and so powerful, and I felt so helpless and small. I didn’t care if that was actually true or not. For the moment, it was too comforting to be in Kieran’s arms and to let him whisper into my hair that everything was going to be okay. I clung to him, and I cried until I felt spent.
Even then, I didn’t pull away. I snuggled closer against him. My hands wandered over his chest. He had a nice chest. I tilted my face up to look at him. He smiled down at me. The curve of his lips was so tender. He was such a nice, nice guy. What was wrong with me? Here he was, being awesome, and I was running from it. Did I have some block that kept me from being attracted to guys who weren’t actually bad for me?
I slid a hand up around Kieran’s neck, settling it behind his head. I moved his head down towards mine. He didn’t need more encouragement. His lips met mine eagerly.
Kieran was a warm, enthusiastic kisser. His lips and tongue moved against my own. I didn’t feel like the world was breaking apart. I didn’t feel like my limbs were exploding. Instead, I just felt warmth spreading throughout my body, engulfing both of us. He made me feel drowsy, safe, like being wrapped in a blanket on a cold day with a cup of cocoa in my hands. Comfortable. Safe. Happy.
Then he pulled back. “Sorry,” he said. He let go of me.
Suddenly, everything felt very cold. I hugged myself. “What’s wrong?”
“You were upset,” he said. “I shouldn’t have taken advantage of that.”
I rubbed at my eyes, trying to wipe off all my tears. God, I’d been emotional lately. Was that a sign of pregnancy? Jesus. “I wanted you to,” I told the ground. I felt a little embarrassed.
“Sure, you did. When you were crying. But I shouldn’t have kissed you like that. You needed me to comfort you, not jump you.”
I giggled. “It was nice.”
He laughed. “Nice, huh?” He shook his head. “Okay.”
I was confused. “Is it bad that I thought it was nice?”
“No,” he said. “It’s fine. I thought it was much more than nice, though.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “We can just forget that happened, if you want. We don’t ever have to talk about it.” He turned and started back for the church.
I opened my mouth to call him back, but then I closed it. Maybe he was right. Maybe I’d kissed him because I was upset. Maybe we should just forget about it. Did I want a relationship with Kieran? He was gorgeous. He was sweet. He was good in bed. I liked kissing him. He was completely supportive of my possible pregnancy. He’d already told me he was falling for me. Wasn’t that enough?
What did I want anyway? I turned and looked towards the road that led to Columbus-Belmont Park. I thought of Jason’s swollen face. I thought of his large, dark eyes. Did I want to rule the world?
I shook myself and headed after Kieran. I jogged to catch up with him, and when I did, I slid my hand into his. He gave me a startled look.
I smiled. “I thought it was more than nice too,” I said. What was a little white lie in the grand scheme of things? Kieran was clearly the better choice.