Jason had called a meeting of the community. He’d told me that he wanted me by his side for this one. He said my presence gave him strength, which made me feel good. I was so head over heels for him. I stood behind him as he spoke, barely hearing his words, simply basking in him. I watched the way he held himself, so confident and sure. I stared at the line of his back, his muscles barely moving underneath his shirt. I was completely and totally focused on Jason and how beautiful he was.
I could see that everyone else was too. The whole community of Jasontown was in awe of Jason and his brilliance. His voice boomed through huge speakers at the edge of the stage. Everyone looked at him, smiles on every face. Peace and joy radiated through the whole gathering.
I was awash in completely different emotions. Rage poured into me. I stumbled, unsteady on my feet. Then the sensation passed, and sweet calm flowed over me. In the next second, the rage returned. My head started to hurt.
I could see that everyone in the crowd was reeling from it too. People had fallen down. Others ran for the river, clutching their heads. The air was suddenly filled with cries and screams.
Jason leapt off the stage, into the crowd. “To me!” he cried.
No one listened.
I saw him, then. A man had broken free of the crowd, his face twisted and ugly. He was striding towards the stage, intensity written all over his movements. He looked dangerous.
I fought against the fluctuating emotions that were racking my body to look at the guards. They weren’t in much better shape than anyone else. Most of them were running and screaming like the others. A few were on their knees, holding their foreheads or hugging themselves.
Only one of the guards was standing and looked at all in control of himself. He had sighted the man coming towards the stage as well. He raised his gun and shot.
He didn’t hit the man, but he did hit someone. A woman with long, curly black hair cried out and fell to the ground.
I gulped. Was she okay? I wanted to go to her. I tried to locate Jason, but he was lost among the rest of the crowd, and I couldn’t see him between the bodies.
I heard the man snarling, and I turned back to see him. He dove into the guard who’d shot at him, sliding right into the guard’s legs. The guard teetered on his feet and fell over. The man and the guard tangled together on the ground, a whirlwind of limbs. There was swearing and punching.
I felt alternately elated and frightened.
The man kneed the guard in the groin. The guard whined.
The man took the guard’s gun. He looked up at the stage and his gaze locked on me. He raised his gun, aiming at me.
He was going to shoot me, I realized. A wave of peaceful joy took me. Fine, I thought. Gunshots are no big deal. Anger crashed into me. Not fine, I thought.
The man squeezed the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot exploded into the clearing.
I hit the floor of the stage.
Mercifully, the man had missed me. But he was coming closer, walking towards the stage, gun out. He was heading right for me, and he was still shooting.
Belly against the wood of the stage, I pulled my body forward, sliding behind a speaker.
A bullet blasted through the speaker, inches from my face. I whimpered. I needed cover, I realized. And I needed a gun. I didn’t know how I knew this. I just did.
In the distance, I could hear Jason’s voice. He was yelling. “Together! Stay together!”
Right next to the stage, I could see a confused guard. He had his hands over his head, like things were falling out of the sky, and he wanted to protect himself from them. His gun was still in holster. I lunged for the gun.
I knocked the guard over. We both landed on the ground, me on top. I felt for his gun holster. There! My hand closed on the gun.
The guard elbowed me.
Ouch! I lost my balance and fell backward, but I managed to keep my grip on the gun.
I heard more gunfire. The guard who I’d taken the gun from made a face. He looked down. Blood was seeping out of his stomach.
The man had shot him.
I didn’t think. Somehow, I knew how to take the safety off the gun, to aim it at the man, to keep my arm steady with my other arm, and to breathe properly. My muscles remembered it.
I shot the man.
I hit his leg. He stumbled.
And sweet, cool peace filled me again. This time, nothing took it away.
I could have kept it up longer. Once I felt Jason’s power and knew he was there, I felt my rage unfurl. I really didn’t like Jason. I’d only fought him once before, and he’d completely kicked my ass. It was nice to have the playing field leveled a little bit. I could tell that I was causing him trouble, wherever he was, and it was pretty satisfying. There were so many minds he was controlling, and I’d ripped them all away from him, made them confused. Good. Served that bastard right for doing that to people. He was tearing away their free will. I really liked the way it felt, using my power on a huge scale like that against Jason. I could see why Azazel hadn’t wanted to give this up. Why she’d kept the grimoire a secret.
Let me out, said the power inside my head.
My dream! Startled and frightened, I slammed it off, yanking the power back into myself and capping it inside the container I kept it in. Was I fooling myself into thinking that I could control this power?
I took several deep breaths and looked around, trying to reorient myself with my surroundings. I was outside Bramford. I wasn’t playing mind games with Jason. I realized the man on the porch was staring at me, slack jawed.
I furrowed my brow. He couldn’t know what I’d just done, could he?
The man felt to his knees, a look of adoration on his face. “You are the Vessel of His Dark Majesty,” he said.
His Dark Majesty? Oh, right. Azazel’s memories clued me in to the fact that everyone in Bramford was a Satanist. And that they’d done some ritual to fill her with the power of Azazel. She was supposed to be his vessel. I guessed that if I had Azazel’s powers, then she wasn’t the Vessel anymore. I was. But that didn’t make sense, did it? Azazel remembered that she’d discovered her powers were inherited from her maternal grandmother, not that they’d come from some Satanic ritual. Of course, I also remembered some discussion we’d had back in Columbus, Kentucky about how the Order of the Fly believed that power came from those who believed in that power. So if enough people believed, the power existed. Still…
There had to be twenty things that people had believed Azazel was at one point or other. Did that mean she was all of them? That I was all of them?
I went back over to the man who’d sold me the gun. He was rocking back and forth on his knees, whispering, “My gift for the darkness. My gift for the Dark Lord.”
Yeah. That wasn’t creepy.
“Are you going to kill me?” he asked. “Sacrifice me to the dark power?” He sounded excited at the prospect.
“No,” I said. I gestured with one hand. “Get up.”
The man looked confused for a second, but then he got to his feet. “I’m sorry I witnessed your power, Anointed One.”
Anointed One? Seriously? “Not a big deal,” I said. “Um, how exactly did you witness my power?”
“Ever since the lights went out,” he said, “we’ve all been sensitive to the powers. Each and every one of us in Bramford has been blessed with the ability to feel the movements of His Infernal Worship.”
“Really,” I said. So that was weird. Because Azazel’s powers had gotten stronger after the solar flare and so had Jason’s. Had the solar flare done something to the world? And would that explain why there was some kind of big, powerful guy here in Bramford? Was the big, powerful guy a Satanist? It stood to reason. I went out on a limb. “Take me to your leader,” I said to the guy.
His eyes lit up. “Of course. Of course. I’ll take you there right away.”
Jason was pacing. “Here’s the question.” He paused to wag his finger in my face. “Could you have reacted the way you had if I’d been controlling your emotions?”
We were standing outside the shed that I’d been taken inside the first day. The guards had the man who’d shot at me inside. I didn’t know how to answer Jason. I knew he seemed upset. I didn’t know how to comfort him. “I don’t know how I reacted. I somehow knew how to do that stuff with the gun.”
Jason resumed pacing. “I need you sharp. I do. But I can’t have you leaving either. I need you here. What should I do?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“I know you don’t know.” He stopped pacing again and glared at me.
I recoiled. He’d never seemed angry with me before. Was this what Lori had been talking about before, when she’d said Jason had bruised her? Did he sometimes get angry?
Jason’s shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry.” He touched my cheek. “I’m not angry with you. I’m just worried. I don’t know how that happened earlier. Someone else has your power.”
“Azazel’s power,” he said. “You used to have it, but you don’t have your memories or your power anymore. Someone stole it from you. Whoever it was is using it against me and it almost got you killed.”
I used to have power? But then, maybe I’d kind of known that. The Witch of the OF had the ability to force people to fight for her or something. I’d heard people talk about it.
“Unless that was the point,” Jason said. He took my hand and led me with him into the shed. “You come in here with me during the interrogation,” he told me. “I want him to see you.”
I remembered the whips on the walls. What was this interrogation going to be like, anyway?
Inside the shed, it was stifling hot and mostly dark. The man was tied up on a chair, just like I’d been. There was a gag in his mouth. He was sweating. He looked terrified. Two guards stood behind the man, both holding whips from the walls. They nodded at Jason when he came in. Jason walked around the man, his arms folded over his chest. I stood in the corner, feeling out of place.
Jason ripped the gag out of the man’s mouth. “Who are you? Who do you work for?”
The man stammered. “My name is Dawson. Terry Dawson.” He looked pleadingly at Jason. “Where did the good feelings go? Why does everything feel so awful again?”
“Dawson,” said Jason. He leaned in, his face directly in front of Dawson’s face. “Who do you work for?”
“No one,” said the man. “Well, you, I guess. I’ve been living in Jasontown for nearly a month. I love it here.”
Jason chuckled, shaking his head. “You love it here, so you attacked my guards and tried to kill Joan? Come on, Dawson. Do I look stupid to you?”
Dawson eyed the guards beside him, the ones that were holding whips. “I’m sorry. Everything was so confusing. Please, I want to feel it again. Can you make it feel good again?”
“Feel good?” Jason asked. “You mean like this?” He gazed at Dawson.
Dawson immediately relaxed in his chair, a smile spreading across his face. “Yes. Exactly like this.”
Jason turned away from Dawson.
Dawson let out a whimper. “It’s gone again.”
Jason looked back at him. “If you want to feel that feeling ever again, then tell me who you work for.”
Dawson hung his head. “But I don’t work for them anymore. I want to stay in Jasontown.”
Jason inclined his head at one of the guards.
The guard snapped his whip against Dawson’s neck. Dawson cried out.
I bit my lip. I didn’t like watching this man suffer. Everything with Jason was usually so sweet and good. This was hard to take. I trusted Jason, though. He would have to do what was necessary to protect the community. For Dawson’s sake, however, I wished he’d just tell Jason what he wanted to know.
There were tears in Dawson’s eyes. “I got confused. I didn’t think about it. I was following orders, but I don’t want to follow them anymore. Please forgive me.”
“Orders from who?” Jason said, his expression severe.
Dawson didn’t say anything.
Jason nodded at the guard again.
The guard brought the whip down again. Dawson shrieked, shying away from the guard.
“Who do you work for?” Jason asked again.
“I don’t work for them, not anymore,” said Dawson. “I used to work for the OF, but I want to be here. I want to be with you.”
“I knew it was the OF,” said Jason. He advanced on Dawson, slapping him hard on the cheek.
Dawson’s head flew to one side with the force of it. He let out another little cry.
“How dare you?” said Jason. “How dare you try to kill Joan?”
“She’s not named Joan,” said Dawson. “She’s Azazel Jones. I was sent here to kill her. That’s why I did it. I was only confused. Usually I feel so happy here, but suddenly, I didn’t, and I remembered that my orders were to kill her, so I tried. But I didn’t mean to. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to follow their orders. You have to believe me, Jason. You’ve set me free. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it!” He started to sob.
Jason wasn’t moved by Dawson’s tears or his begging. “Azazel Jones? The Witch of the OF?”
“Yes, some people call her that,” said Dawson, still crying.
“She works for the OF,” said Jason. “Why would the OF want to kill her?”
“Jason, please. Do you believe that I didn’t mean it?” sniffled Dawson.
Jason smiled reassuringly at Dawson. “Tell me why they would want her dead and all of this will go away. I’ll bring back the good feelings.”
“You’ll forgive me?”
“Of course. Simply tell me what the OF is up to.”
Dawson took several shuddering breaths, trying to stop his tears. “I always worked the perimeter of Jasontown. The OF employed us to keep people out, so they couldn’t join you. It wasn’t hard back then, because the OF had Azazel to counter your power. But then, one day, it stopped. Her power.” He looked at me.
“Don’t look at her,” Jason said. “Her name is Joan, and she is mine. And if you ever hurt her—”
I stepped forward, putting my hand on Jason’s arm. He was getting upset. I wanted to reassure him. He turned to me and looked into my eyes.
“I’m okay,” I said.
Jason turned back to Dawson. “Go ahead, Dawson. Tell me everything. It’s almost over.”
Dawson nodded. “We got reports that Kieran Westerly had used something to transfer Azazel’s powers to himself. The OF was pleased with this development, because they could use Kieran better than Azazel. She was sort of a loose cannon.”
“Kieran stole your powers?” Jason said to me, his brow furrowed.
“Who’s Kieran?” I said.
Jason shook his head. “No one.” He turned back to Dawson. “So why kill Azazel? Wouldn’t they want her back?”
“No,” said Dawson. “They wanted her dead. That way she could never get the powers back. Kieran would have them, and he wouldn’t cause as much trouble as Azazel had. If I saw her, I was supposed to kill her. But then, it got hard to watch the perimeter, because I kept feeling a longing, like someone was calling out to me to go to Jasontown. So, I did. I abandoned the OF and came to you. And everything is bliss here. I never meant to hurt anyone. I was just confused. I hadn’t felt so bad since getting here. I saw her, and I remembered my orders, and I didn’t think, I just—”
Jason held up his hand to stop Dawson. “It’s okay, Dawson, I understand. That’s enough.”
“I’m done?” said Dawson hopefully.
“You’ll bring back the good feelings now?”
Jason nodded. He took me by the arm and led me out of the shed. On the way out, he stopped one of the guards and said to him softly, “Kill him.”
Jason threw himself into a chair in the living room of his house. “It’s not good, Joan. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I stood across the room from him. I felt hesitant. I didn’t like it when Jason was upset, especially because there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to make him feel better. “Why did you tell the guard to kill Dawson?”
He looked at me sharply. “You’re questioning me?”
I shook my head. “No, I was only curious. You told him it would be okay, and then you told the guard to kill him. Why?”
“I couldn’t risk it. If Kieran is out there with your powers, then he could do what he did today at any time. He could break down my power, and then I couldn’t be sure that Dawson wouldn’t go nuts again. I couldn’t risk his hurting you.”
That made sense. But it was kind of sad. Still, Jason knew best. I nodded. “Who’s Kieran?”
“He’s just a guy,” Jason said. “He and I don’t get along very well. If he’s got your powers, then… well, I don’t know what he could do.” Jason lay his head back on the chair, sighing. “And if what Dawson said is true, then I could have more former OF workers here. I wouldn’t even know it.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Your power—Azazel’s power—and mine are equally balanced. Two sides of the same coin, I guess. When we were fighting against each other, her power cancelled mine out. So it meant that when I was sending out my call for people to come to Jasontown, she kept them from coming to me. Once no one was using that power anymore, my call could go out to everyone.”
“That’s why so many people have been showing up at Jasontown.”
He nodded. “Exactly. And some of those people could have worked for the OF. Maybe they’ve all been ordered to kill you. If my power falters for just a second, they could try to do it again. I can’t let that happen.”
I didn’t particularly want to be killed either. I was touched that Jason wanted to protect me.
“But how can I do that?” he continued. “I can’t guarantee that Kieran won’t attack again. Hell, who knows what he’s planning? Who knows what the OF is trying to do? If I could figure out who was working for the OF, who among us was a traitor, then we’d be safe. But how can I figure that out?”
I went to him. “Jason, you don’t need to waste this much energy on me. I’m not important. You’re Jason. I’m nothing—”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re very important.” He pulled me down into his lap and stared into my eyes. “I will protect you. You believe me?”
“Do you believe me?”
I nodded. I believed everything he said.
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.