~kieran~

I was dreaming. I was sitting on a hill in a cemetery, the sun sinking in the sky. Next to me there was a skeletal tree. One brown leaf clung to its bare branches. The wind tore at the leaf, but it didn’t let go. A group of bats careened over my head, fluttering in haphazard patterns. I wrapped my arms around my knees. I was cold.

In the distance, a figure approached. The figure wore a hood that obscured his or her face. But I remembered from my other dream. I scrambled to my feet.

The world stretched—skipped a beat—and the figure was standing in front of me, lowering the hood. Agnes.

“I thought I told you not to mess with me,” I said to her.

“Where is Azazel?” she said.

I glared at her.

“I may have had it wrong,” Agnes whispered. “Not a sacrifice of death. A sacrifice of power. The Hanged Man. My tarot reading.”

I remembered the tarot reading Agnes had done, or rather Azazel did. She also remembered that Agnes had appeared to her in Columbus last year, begging Azazel to kill herself and kill Jason, because it was the only way to save the world. Azazel had been convinced that it couldn’t really have been Agnes, because Agnes had always been kind to her.

“She gave in to the Devil Card,” Agnes continued. “She let it consume her. You must have seen.”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Maybe it can be salvaged,” said Agnes. “Maybe. The lovers. Maybe it wasn’t Jason and Azazel. Maybe the lovers—”

Her voice stopped. Her hands went to her throat, and her eyes bulged. She held out her hand to me, as if she wanted me to take it.

I stepped away from her.

The wind came up and blew Agnes away from me, back into the distance from where she had come. The wind blew in the darkness. The sky was blood red. The moon was a bloated black disk in the sky. I shivered.

I looked around and realized I was surrounded by severed heads on sticks. They were all covered in flies. Jason was standing in front of me.

“Kieran,” he sneered. “You stole her power.”

“And you shot her little brother,” I responded. “Which of us do you suppose she’d hate more?”

He turned on his heel and walked away from me, winding through the heads.

I followed him.

“Do you remember what she tastes like?” Jason said as he walked, not turning to look at me. “Do you remember the soft curves of her body? The way she sighs when you stroke her? The look in her eyes when she’s completely satisfied? Do you remember any of that? How long has it been, Kieran?”

I was flooded with Azazel’s memories of making love to Jason. I couldn’t stand them. I felt angry. I poured my power into Jason.

It didn’t faze him. He just laughed and turned back to me. “I have her every night. To you, she’s nothing but a memory. To me, she’s reality.”

“Shut up,” I growled.

“Give her back her powers,” Jason said. “How else are she and I going to rule the world, Kieran? Hmm?”

I dove for him, but Jason calmly sidestepped me. I landed face first on the dark, damp ground, dirt in my mouth. When I looked up, I was staring at a headstone in the cemetery. Jason was lounging behind it. “She’s always been mine, you know. She always will be.”

“She doesn’t belong to anyone.” I spit dirt out of my mouth, pushing myself to my feet. “She’s her own person.” I dusted myself off.

“Fight me for her?”

I was seething. I hated Jason. I wanted to kill him, tear off his head right then.

Jason got into a boxing stance, his fists in front of his face. He laughed as he danced lightly on his feet. “Come on, Kieran. Just a little fist fight. The best man wins.”

I tried to rush him, but I couldn’t move. I was frozen in place, my anger boiling in my veins, anchoring me to the ground. “She already chose,” I told him. “And she chose me. She left you. She hates you.”

Jason shook his head. “No, don’t say that. She loves me. I make her love me. If that’s what I have to do, I make her.”

“Sounds healthy,” I said. “You don’t sound like a creepy, abusive psycho at all. Congrats.”

“I’m not psycho,” said Jason, even more defensive. “You shut up. I hate you. If she hadn’t met you, she’d have come back to me. You ruined everything.”

“Whatever Jason,” I said.

“Shut up!” said Jason. He started crying. He crumpled up on the ground of the cemetery, wrapping his arms over his head, and he sobbed.

That was weird. I’d never seen Jason show any kind of weakness. Of course, Azazel had. She remembered him crying more than once. But I watched him sob like a baby, and instead of feeling sorry for him the way Azazel had, I despised him. I went over to him and kicked him as hard as I could.

He cried out, a high-pitched shriek. He lifted his face so that I could see it. And it wasn’t Jason anymore. Instead, it was Eve. She was bleeding from her mouth, and there were tears in her eyes. “Kieran,” she whispered. “Why won’t you help me?”

I shook my head, stumbling away from her. “You were Jason.”

“Was I?” she said. “Help me, Kieran.” Her teeth were stained red with blood.

I turned and ran. Ran towards the crimson sky, dodging gravestones and severed heads on sticks. I wanted to get away. I wanted to be safe. And as I ran, I roared out my rage at the top of my lungs.

I roared so loud that I woke myself up.

I sat up in bed in the room Eve had been letting me stay in for the past week and a half, sweating and out of breath. I really did not like those dreams. The power of ultimate destruction could be kind of cool. But the dreams were miserable.

There was a soft rapping on my door. “Kieran?” said Eve’s voice. “You okay?”

I shoved my covers off and went to the door. I pulled it open. “Hey. Sorry if I woke you. I had a bad dream.”

“No kidding.” She was wearing a clingy tank top and pajama bottoms. Her curly blonde hair was pulled into a sloppy ponytail on the top of her head. “You wanna talk about it?”

I opened the door wider so that she could come in. “I was fighting Jason. I was kicking him while he was down. And then he turned into you. You were bleeding. It freaked me out.”

She sat down on my bed, crossing her legs and grinning. “You were upset because you hurt me?”

I sat down next to her. “Just one of the annoying things that come along with having Azazel’s powers. These stupid dreams. Sometimes they mean something, but most of the time I can’t figure out what it is. I freaking hate them. If I have one more dream about severed heads on sticks, I think I’m going to go insane.”

Eve made a face. “Eew.”

“Yeah. I had no idea what Zaza went through with these powers. No wonder she hated them so much.”

“You really want to find her, don’t you?” she asked.

I nodded. “Have any of the teams you sent out looking had any luck so far?”

“No. She’s had enough time to get farther away from D.C. than this area, so it’s possible that she’s simply long gone. I know you said you wanted to find her before we tried to get Cameron back, Kieran, but we might never find her.”

I knew she was right. It had been a long shot, anyway. I’d been trying to buy time, figure out some way to keep from going back to the OF. I was frightened that if we went back to rescue Cameron and things went badly, I’d lose Azazel’s memories forever. I wanted to give them back to her. Eve said that the Satanists had ways of doing that. We only needed to find her. “Can we keep looking for just a little longer? Maybe another week or so?”

“We can,” she said. “But we can’t look forever. I don’t know what the OF is doing to Cameron right now. They may already be forcing him to work for them.”

“You’re worried about him, aren’t you?”

She bit her lip. “Really worried.”

“How long have you two been together?”

She studied her fingernails. “We aren’t exactly… I mean, he’s not my, you know, boyfriend or something.”

Oh. That was weird. I’d totally assumed she and Cameron were a couple. “I thought because you guys lived together that, you know, you were a couple.”

“A lot of people thought that,” she said. “But not really, no. I really would have liked it to be true, but Cameron…” She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. You and Azazel, though. I mean, you guys were like raising this child together and everything. You guys were forever.”

I grimaced. “I don’t know about that. I have her memories, you know. It’s pretty easy to see that I’ve never really made her feel the same way that Jason did. I think she was only with me because I was safe.”

Eve took my hand. “Oh Kieran. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not a big deal. Towards the end of everything, she wasn’t really herself anyway. The power had sort of consumed her.” I considered. “No, maybe it wasn’t the power. Maybe it was Jason. She was always obsessed with him, whether she was trying to keep him safe or trying to kill him. She couldn’t let it go.”

“But you said their relationship wasn’t very healthy. I mean, she wanted to be with you because you were better for her, right?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know if love should really be rational like that. I mean, shouldn’t there be some kind of passion? Something that you feel, but you can’t really explain?”

Eve snorted. “Maybe in romance novels. But in real life, that’s silly.”

“Is it? I adored her.”

“And you still do.”

“Of course I do,” I said. Why had I said it in past tense like that?

Eve leaned forward. “Everything’s going to work out.”

I nodded. I didn’t say anything because when she leaned forward, her tank top slid down really low on her chest, and it was kind of distracting.

“We’ll find her, and then we’ll rescue Cameron, and then things will go back to normal.”

“Huh?” I wrenched my gaze away from Eve’s cleavage and back to her face. She was really sort of cute after she’d been sleeping. “Um, right. Normal.”

Eve looked down at her chest. She blushed and sat up, an embarrassed smile stealing over her face. She picked up a pillow and smacked me with it. “You were totally checking me out while I was trying to make you feel better about your girlfriend.”

I couldn’t look at her. “I was not.”

She hit me with the pillow again. “You totally were. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I put my hands up to protect myself from being hit from the pillow, laughing. “It’s not my fault. You’re the one wandering around in skimpy pajamas. I can’t help it if you’re pretty!”

Eve hugged the pillow to her chest. She tucked a wayward curl behind her ear, looking shy. “You think I’m pretty?”

Why are girls always like that? Like it’s some kind of revelation that they’re attractive? “You have looked in mirrors, haven’t you?”

She whacked me with the pillow again. “Shut up.”

“Seriously,” I said. “Cameron was clearly being an idiot if he didn’t want you.”

Eve got up off the bed. “Augh.” She tossed me the pillow. “Why is that the only time guys say things like that to me, they’re either already taken or gay?”

I felt bad. I didn’t know what to say.

Eve went to the door. “Anyway, right back at you, Kieran. If Azazel didn’t see you for being awesome, she was obviously insane.” She ducked outside and closed the door after her.

I lay back on the bed, feeling confused. Had I been flirting with another girl? Did that make me a really horrible person?

***

~joan~

The trial that afternoon had been different. Heck, everything today had been different. Things felt a little bit less right than they usually did. Jasontown was still my home. Jason was still a brilliant and wonderful leader. But it wasn’t as…intense as it usually was. I didn’t know why. Maybe other people felt it too. Maybe that’s why, when Jason asked what should be done with the latest man on trial for colluding with the OF, the crowd hadn’t seemed quite as enthusiastic. Instead of screaming for his death, someone had tentatively suggested that perhaps he could be rehabilitated. One of the women there, who was apparently pregnant with this man’s baby, had been sobbing uncontrollably throughout the entire proceeding. I didn’t know if I’d ever seen someone sob like that in Jasontown.

To his credit, Jason hadn’t pushed for execution. He told the community that he’d followed their advice in punishment, and if the community didn’t feel that killing this man was warranted, Jason wouldn’t have him killed. Instead, the man was put back in custody, imprisoned under the guards’ lodgings.

Someone else spoke up that it was getting difficult to attend these trials and see to the crops, and that we were going to starve in the winter if we didn’t change something. Jason seemed perturbed that the suggestion was brought up, but he agreed that people could attend the trials in shifts for the next week. He said we’d almost purged the community of menace anyway, and that soon, we’d be done with the trials permanently. We could live without fear again.

Afterwards, I went for a walk along the river, trying to collect my thoughts. I was beginning to feel unsettled, and, for some reason, I couldn’t handle looking at all those human heads stuck on poles anymore. Not to mention the fact that they smelled bad. Why had Jason done this? Wasn’t there a way to execute people without making it so disgusting and unsanitary? I trusted Jason. I thought he knew how to run Jasontown perfectly. He was a spiritual leader. A great man. But I couldn’t help but feel like he was going too far. It frightened me, because I didn’t want to be without him. I liked trusting him. If I had to question him, it would make everything so much harder.

When I got back, Jason was completely freaked out. He hadn’t known where I was and had been extremely worried about me. I apologized, but Jason said that to ease his mind, I’d be escorted by a guard everywhere I went.

For some reason, I didn’t like it. I knew Jason was only trying to protect me, because he cared about me. But it almost felt like he was trying to keep me from going anywhere. And that kind of freaked me out. I decided I was going to talk to him about it, so as we were going to bed, I said to him, “I think the guard is a little bit overkill, Jason.”

“You think so?” he said. He was already half in bed, covers pulled over his legs. “You’re not really supposed to be thinking at all.”

What the heck was that supposed to mean? “I can think,” I said, feeling defensive. “I’m not an idiot.”

“My power isn’t working,” said Jason. “Is it?”

His power…? Oh wait. Jason was always talking about this, wasn’t he? “What is your power, anyway, Jason? What exactly does it do?”

He rested his head against the headboard of the bed. “Well, that answers my question, I guess. If it was working, you wouldn’t have asked something like that. I guess you’ll probably leave now.”

I sat down the bed. “Is that why you want me to take a guard everywhere? So he can stop me from leaving?”

He looked at me, his eyes sad. “Do you want to leave?”

I didn’t, actually. I did care about Jason. At least I thought I did. Maybe if he used his powers to keep me here, I didn’t. “Does your power make me want to stay here? Does it make me feel in love with you?”

He ignored my questions. “I don’t understand what’s wrong. Someone’s blocking me. Someone’s dismantling my power. It’s got to be Kieran. He and the OF are screwing with me. I had a dream about him last night. He called me names and kicked me.”

“Who’s Kieran?” I said.

Jason grabbed my hands. “Joan, I really did mean for this place to be a good place. I really did just want people to be happy and free. Do you believe me?”

I looked into his big dark eyes. I felt like I was drowning in them. I smiled. “I do believe you. I think you do want to do good things, Jason. But I don’t think that rows of severed heads on sticks are doing any kind of good for anybody.”

He yanked his hands back. “Those trials are for you. I’m trying to protect you.”

“Do all those people have to die? Can all of them really be after me?”

Jason got out of bed. “Well, I can’t chance it. If there’s any possibility, I have to be sure—”

“Jason, are you saying that some of those people you killed might not have been guilty?”

He gazed at me from the foot of the bed. “I did it for you. I love you more than life itself. Do you understand that?”

“You don’t have to kill people to show me you love me.”

“I have to keep you safe.”

I patted the spot next to me on the bed. “But who’s keeping you safe? What is killing all of those people doing to you? And who’s keeping the families of all of those dead people safe? What are you doing, Jason?”

He sat down next to me, hanging his head. “It’s hard,” he whispered. “I told them all that I would lead them. That I knew what I was doing. I made them surrender to me. But sometimes I’m not sure what the best thing to do is.”

“You need advice.” I put my arm around him and snuggled close. “You can’t get advice if you’re controlling everyone’s minds.”

He pulled away. “My power isn’t completely gone, you know. I’m still controlling your mind. That’s why you’re being nice to me.”

“So stop,” I said. “Don’t control me anymore.”

“What if you leave?”

“What if I don’t? We won’t know unless you let me decide, Jason.”

He pulled me close. “One more night together,” he said. “If I’m losing my power anyway, it can’t hurt to exhaust myself.” His fingers eased under the hem of my shirt.

I gasped at the sensation of his touch on my bare skin. It had been a while since we’d made love.

***

~joan~

It was dark outside. Jason was snoring gently next to me. And something had woken me. I struggled to open my eyes. Above me was a shadowy figure. My first inclination was fear, but the figure whispered, “It’s just me.”

I sat up. “Tessa?” I whispered. “What are you doing here?”

“I need to talk to you,” she said.

Careful not to wake Jason, I eased out of bed and led her out of the bedroom. We padded down the steps and into the living room. I lit a kerosene lamp and had her sit down in one of Jason’s easy chairs. I sat down opposite her, on the couch. “What’s up?”

“It’s Garth.”

Garth. Jesus, I’d completely forgotten about him. How could I have done that? Was that more of Jason’s mind control powers? Making me not think about an entire person? “What about Garth?”

“He’s going to be on trial in two days.”

“But why?” I couldn’t figure it out. There was no way that Garth had ever worked for the OF. Why would Jason think that he had? I remembered the fact that he’d said that some of the people he’d killed might have been innocent. I shuddered.

“Why are any of those people on trial, Joan?” Tessa dug her fingernails into the arms of the chair. “They can’t all be trying to kill you.”

I swallowed. “I know. I tried to talk to him about it.”

Tessa laughed hollowly. “Did it work?”

“I don’t know,” I said. Were his powers completely not working right now? Last time he’d been…exhausted, they’d turned off. That would mean that I was completely in my right mind right now. If he trusted me to stay with him, then maybe Jason was ready to listen to my advice. “I hope so. I want the trials to end.”

“You have to save Garth.” Tessa chewed on her lip. “He’s my brother. I can’t let anything happen to him. And for the life of me, I don’t know why I haven’t even given him a thought in weeks.” Her face twisted, like she was going to start crying.

I went to her, giving her a hug. “It’s not your fault. It’s Jason. He has this power over our minds. He makes us happy and at peace all the time. Anything that might upset you, you just haven’t been thinking about.”

Tessa pushed me away. “He’s controlling our brains?” She sounded horrified.

“Well, how else did you think you felt so perfectly happy all the time?”

“I thought…” She shook her head. “I didn’t think I was being brainwashed.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “How come I can think about Garth now?”

“Someone’s doing something to Jason’s powers. He’s weakened. He can’t give everyone peace and joy right now.”

Tessa folded her arms over her chest and hugged herself. “I don’t think I want to feel peace and joy when there are severed heads lining the road to my house. I think there’s something really fucked up about that.”

I nodded. “I know.”

“He’s not really a very nice person, is he?”

“Who?”

“Jason. He’s kind of insane, isn’t he?”

I sat back down on the couch, rubbing my neck with one hand. “Maybe that’s a little harsh. I mean, he is doing good. He’s created this community where everyone works together and—”

“And you’re cock whipped.” Tessa looked disgusted.

I cleared my throat. “We haven’t really been intimate all that often, actually. It’s not really like that.”

Tessa shrugged. “He cares about you. You’re important to him. So you can make him not hurt Garth. Promise me you will. You’ll save Garth.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Not good enough. Convince Jason not to hurt my brother. I can’t lose Garth. I just can’t.”

“Look,” I said. “I’m sure once Jason realizes that Garth isn’t working for the OF, he’ll let Garth go. Jason isn’t unreasonable, you know.”

“He’s killed like thirty people in the past week,” said Tessa. “That seems kind of unreasonable to me.”

She was right. Could I trust Jason? Furthermore, what if when I woke up tomorrow, Jason’s powers were back, and I couldn’t convince him of anything? What if Tessa and I watched Garth be executed and didn’t even feel bad about it? The thought of that made me feel sick to my stomach. “I’ll make him understand. He won’t hurt Garth. I won’t let him.”

Tessa stood up. “You better not let me down.”

I stood up too. “I’ll do everything I can.”

Tessa started out of the living room, towards the door. Then she paused and turned back to me. “Joan, did we do the right thing coming here? Is this place a good place?”

I didn’t know what to say. “Jason’s a good man. I feel it. Inside him, deep down, he’s good.”

Tessa raised her eyebrows. “Maybe it’s down too deep to be of much use to us.” She swept out the front door, yanking it closed behind her.

I hoped she wasn’t right.

This book is being posted on Mondays and Thursdays between 7/4/2011 and 9/5/2011. To access other chapters, check out the Between Posts Archive, here.