~joan~

Jason rocked back and sat down on the ground. He surveyed Jasontown, looking from the bodies of Garth and Tessa to the A-frame, to his house, to the heads on the sticks that lined the path. Then he settled on me. He nodded. “I am a monster.” He took several long breaths. “All I think about is myself. I’ve only ever…” He stood up. He crossed the path to the first head.

“Who is this?” he called out.

No one answered.

“This person had a name,” he said. “What was his name?” There was no answer. Jason pulled the stick out of the ground. He laid it down on the ground gently. He went to the next one and did the same thing. “And this person? What was his name?”

A woman from the A-frame stepped forward timidly. “He was Neil. I didn’t know him very well.”

“Neil,” said Jason. He stared down at the severed head, now desiccated and rotting. “I’m sorry, Neil.” He looked out at the people of Jasontown who had gathered earlier to see what the commotion was all about when Garth showed back up. “I’m sorry to all of you.” He pulled the next stick out of the ground. “I have to bury them.”

Maybe he did. And maybe he was sorry. I was too numb to know what I felt about that. I stopped paying attention to Jason and turned back to the dead bodies of my friends. Tessa and Garth were dead. Just like that. All it took was the trigger-happy finger of a madman, and they were gone. Extinguished. Turned off. Two minutes ago, they’d both been alive and moving. Breathing. Thinking. Being. Now, they were nothing more than husks of flesh and bone. I could hardly wrap my head around it.

I touched Tessa’s face. Gone.

I sat like that for a long time. I don’t know how long. Maybe it was hours. When flies tried to alight on their bodies, I brushed them off. I cried for a while, but I didn’t cry great, heaving sobs. Instead, I let tears leak out of my eyes as I stared at their ruined bodies. I remembered traveling with them here, not so long ago. I remembered Tessa’s energy, her bright excitement. I remembered how good they’d been to me, even though I was a perfect stranger. And I couldn’t understand how they could just not be here anymore.

Lori came to me a few times. She tried to get me to get up, but I wouldn’t. I didn’t feel like I could function right now. Finally, I let her help me to my feet. My legs were numb and needles of pain shot through them as I tried to get blood circulating into my limbs again. Lori took me into the A-frame and made me more tea. I drank it blankly. I didn’t speak to her.

I couldn’t believe that Jason hadn’t done anything to try to save them. He’d been so cavalier about the entire incident, mocking Cameron, being sarcastic. He’d been ugly. I wanted to blame him, but I knew he hadn’t killed Tessa. He hadn’t stopped it, but he wasn’t responsible. Whoever this Cameron person was had. And Cameron hated me. I might not remember everything I’d done, but I knew who I was. As the OF Witch, I’d sent countless people to their deaths. Hadn’t I given a thought to the people who cared about them? Hadn’t I known what loss felt like? Hadn’t I realized that what I did caused nothing but grief?

I was disgusting. Jason might be a monster, but I was a monster too. I didn’t remember doing any of it. I didn’t think that made me any less responsible.

Late in the afternoon, Jason found me in the kitchen of the A-frame. His clothes clung to his muscular frame with sweat. His skin was streaked with dirt and grime. He looked grim and haggard. I’d never seen him that way before. He’d always been so alive and full of light.

Maybe it was his loss of power. I didn’t know.

“I’m not ready to talk to you,” I told him. We were both horrible, sure, but what was I doing here with him? What was it about this man that made me lose my grip on reality? Why, even as I felt like I hated him, did some part of me want to follow him everywhere?

He stood in front of the kitchen table, uneasy on his feet. I’d never seen him look so unsure of himself before. “I have things to tell you.”

I got up and put my now empty tea cup in the sink. With my back to him, I said, “You buried them.”

“Burying them isn’t going to make up for anything,” he said. “But I had to do it. It was all I could do.”

I turned around to face him. “You killed all those people for no reason.”

He looked at the floor. “I know.”

Wonderful. “Go away,” I said.

“No,” he said. “There are things I need to tell you.”

“Like what?”

“Like about Kieran.”

Kieran. That name again. Maybe I was the tiniest bit curious, still, even though the day had been emotionally draining. I sat back down at the table. “Fine. Who’s Kieran?”

Jason placed his hands on the back of one of the chairs and leaned over the table. “He’s your boyfriend.”

I narrowed my eyes. “My what?”

“You’re in love with him,” said Jason. He looked at me, his face drawn. “You and Kieran have been raising my son together. He makes you happy. He’s good and kind, and he doesn’t hurt people. He’s everything that I’m not, and he’s exactly what you need.”

I tried to process this. I was in love with someone who was sweet and kind? I wasn’t in love with Jason? He and I had been sharing a bed for weeks, but I belonged to someone else?

Jason yanked the chair out from the table and sat down. “I knew you chose him, and when you showed up here without any memories of what happened, I used my powers to make you want me. And I didn’t tell you about him. Because I was selfish, and I wanted you for myself. No matter what I had to do to get you.”

I was still too stunned to speak.

“Basically,” said Jason, “I’ve been raping you. Repeatedly. Because if I was controlling your mind, you couldn’t exactly consent.”

I took a shuddering breath. I didn’t like it put that way. “Jason, it’s not as if I don’t find you attractive.”

He smiled wryly. “That doesn’t make it okay.” He fiddled with a placemat on the table. “I could apologize, but it seems like such a stupid thing to do in the face of something so huge.” He rubbed his forehead. “I’ve been doing it to other girls, of course. I have a fucking harem, for God’s sake.”

He wasn’t wrong. He’d been a first-class jerk. So why did I suddenly feel like going to him and comforting him? In the face of all of the horrible things he’d done, some of them today, some of them that made me want to hate him, why did I want to make him feel better? “I guess you were lonely. I guess I hurt you when I left you, and it must have been hard.”

He looked at me, a funny expression on his face. “Why are you making excuses for me? Don’t do it. I’ve been making those excuses for way too long. I was calling Cameron out on being a bastard because he thought he was entitled to it. Just because he’d been hurt. But I realized I’ve been doing the same thing. For way too long. I’ve been making excuses for all the horrible things I’ve done, because horrible things have happened to me. And that’s really screwed up. When he shot those people, and you looked at me the way you did. With your eyes all full of pain. When you did that, something clicked. I looked around at everything around me, and I realized everything I’ve done has been because I was in pain. I was selfish. I was just using anyone I could to try to make myself feel good. I kept you here, because I wanted you around. I protected you, because you made me feel human. But I wasn’t acting like a human. Because human beings try not to hurt other human beings, especially ones they care about. And if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’ve ever placed your happiness above my own.” He swallowed. I watched his Adam’s apple bob. “I want you to leave. I want you to go back to Kieran. I don’t deserve you, and he does. And I won’t… I won’t let you be with someone like me anymore. I really do care about you. And I’m not good for you.”

No. For some reason, I didn’t like that idea. Jason might be telling me that I was in love with this guy, but I didn’t remember him. The idea of leaving Jasontown terrified me. This was all I knew. And sure, Jason was horrible. I knew that. And yes, he’d messed with my head. The first night, I’d been ready to leave Jasontown. He’d turned on his mojo and seduced me. I guess I had been taken advantage of. But I’d just gotten done thinking about all the horrible things that I’d done. Taking off to look for some guy who I didn’t remember didn’t seem like the answer. “Jason, the guy who shot me said that Kieran stole my powers. We don’t know why. Maybe the last time that you saw me, I was happy with Kieran, but that doesn’t mean that I still am.”

Jason dragged his hand over his face. “Why are you fighting me on this? You called me a monster earlier. You realized what I truly am.”

“I was hurt and angry. I still am. But there’s more to you than all the bad stuff.”

He raised his eyebrows. “There’s a lot of bad stuff. You don’t even know all of it. You have no idea all the things that I’ve done to you. This little incident here is just the icing on the cake. From the moment I stepped into your life, I’ve been making it hard for you. Because of me, your entire family is dead. I shot your little brother because I was being a jealous freak.”

“You killed him?” That was pretty terrible.

“No. He died later, but it was my fault that he couldn’t take care of himself,” said Jason. “And there’s more. There’s so much more, beyond just the things I’ve done to you personally. I shot my own mother. First, I cut off her fingers and tortured her. And the amount of people that I’ve killed…” He looked sick.

“Haven’t I killed a lot of people too?” I had to ask him that. “Wasn’t I the Witch of the OF? Didn’t I raise up armies and force them to fight?”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“The point is that I’ve done so many absolutely terrible things, and I can’t do much to make most of them right. This is something I can do. I can stop hurting you. You are the person I want to protect more than anything else on earth. And I can do that. I can give you back your happy ending.”

I got up from the table and went to him. “By kicking me out?”

He stood up too, backing away from me. “I’m not kicking you out. I’m setting you free.”

I reached for him. “Jason, this is more complicated than that. I still care about you. These last few days, it hasn’t been about your mind control, you know. I chose to stay here with you.”

He grasped both my wrists and held me back, keeping me from touching him. “If you don’t want to leave, it’s only because you don’t remember. I’ll do that, then. I’ll do whatever I can to help you remember. But whatever was going on between us is over. For your own good.”

“Jason—”

“Shh,” he said. He dropped my hands and walked out of the kitchen.

I stood alone in the late afternoon sunlight, feeling confused and alone.

***

~kieran~

I awoke in a dark room filled with black candles. They were burning and dribbling on every available surface, from the floor to several tables that sat against the walls. The candles were the only light source and the walls looked red and flickering. I was lying on the floor on my back, wrapped in a blanket. I peered around the room. I was surrounded by a circle of people in black robes with hoods that obscured their faces. In the scant light from the candles, I couldn’t make out exactly where I was or who I was with. The gunshot in my side still hurt, though, so I probably wasn’t dead. Otherwise, I would have wondered if I’d gone to goth heaven. I tried to move, and someone who knelt behind me put hands on my shoulders, holding me still.

“It’s okay, Kieran,” whispered a voice.

I craned my neck back to see who it was. The person holding my shoulders had a robe and hood like the rest of them, but I could see that it was Eve. I wanted to ask questions, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

Around me, the people in hoods began to chant in a language I couldn’t understand. Azazel’s memories flared. This was a Satanist ritual. It was exactly like the night they’d tried to give her the power of Azazel. What were they doing to me? I stole a look up at Eve, but she was intoning with the rest of them. I guess I could try to escape, but I really wasn’t going to get very far with a hole punched in me. Whatever was happening, I was kind of at the mercy of the Satanists. And I trusted Eve. Hopefully everything would be okay.

The chanting stopped, and Eve’s voice rang out. “Great God of Chaos, Azazel, we invoke thee.”

The rest of the group echoed her, speaking together in one voice. I remembered something like this from Azazel’s memories again. Maybe all Satanic rituals began in the same way.

But suddenly, there was a whoosh of air in the room, even though there were no windows or openings. The candles all flickered for a second, and then they burned brighter. A cloud of smoke rose in the room, drifting though the air.

Eve squeezed my shoulders. “He is among us.”

That was the spirit of Azazel making the candles weird? That was creepy. Really creepy. And from what I remembered from Zaza’s memories, that hadn’t happened before. Were things different now because of the solar flare? Because all the things we’d believed in had actually gotten stronger? And I’d thought that the Satanists had put the spirit of Azazel into the vessel—Zaza (or me, I guessed). Why was he floating around the room making it smoky now? Everything was confusing. What was going on?

“Infernal Majesty,” Eve said, “we beg for you to heal your Vessel. Fill him with your power and knit his body back together again, so that he may continue to perform your service.”

All of the smoke in the room converged, forming itself into a tight ball in the middle of the room. I felt the power inside my body become uncapped and free, but I hadn’t freed it. My heart sped up. I was seriously starting to freak out now.

The ball of smoke darted through the air towards me, as if it were a live thing. I cringed, trying to scoot backwards and get away from it, but Eve held me in place, and the power inside me rushed up to meet the smoke, welcoming it. The power in me surged out, and I brushed the minds of everyone in the room. I didn’t force them to hurt themselves or anything. It was as if the power was caressing these minds, patting them on the head, like they were good dogs.

The smoke ball collided with my face, prodding its way into me, through my nose and eyes and mouth. I felt acrid warmth scrape against my insides as it pushed its way in. I wanted to struggle, but I couldn’t move.

Abruptly, my gunshot wound began to burn. It hurt worse than it had before. It felt like it was on fire, like it was being poked by thousands of fiery needles. I yelled in pain, my back arching up and lifting off the ground. For several excruciating seconds, it was all I could feel or think about. And then the pain stopped.

My body relaxed. My power floated back to me, seeped leisurely into my body, and back into the container I kept it stored in. I capped it back up. I was out of breath.

Eve helped me sit up, reaching over me to pull aside the blanket, exposing my chest and stomach.

When I looked, my skin was unbroken and perfect. Like there had never been a gunshot at all. I touched the place where I’d been shot, amazed.

“It worked,” said Eve. She raised her voice. “Gratitude and praise to you, Oh Lord of Chaos!”

Eve helped me to my feet. I pulled the blanket close around me. I wasn’t wearing anything under it. Eve led me to the edge of the circle, where we took our place beside the others in robes. They began intoning some other chant in the weird language. I felt amazing, like liquid energy was coursing through my body. One of the men in robes brought each of us a silver chalice, filled with dark liquid. Behind him, another brought a loaf of bread. Each person in the circle tore off a piece. When they came to me, Eve nudged me, and I did the same. I vaguely remembered something like this from Azazel’s memories, but right now, I felt so euphoric and strong, I couldn’t quite connect to them. In the memories, Zaza had been frightened and disgusted. I felt wonderful.

I watched as the robed people left the room in pairs, each holding their glasses and bread. Eventually, no one was left but Eve and me.

She clinked her glass against mine and drank. I followed suit. It was some kind of cheap red wine, nothing to write home about. Right now, however, it tasted pretty good. Everything seemed great. Eve ate her piece of bread. I did too.

She lowered her hood so that I could see her face. Her blonde curls were in her eyes. I reached over and brushed them away. She smiled up at me. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said.

“I’m glad it worked. That you’re okay.”

“I am way better than okay,” I told her, feeling buoyant. “I’m fantastic.” I really felt like I could do anything right now. I could smash concrete blocks with my bare hands or leap buildings in a single bound.

She looked away from me, shyly hiding behind her eyelashes. She was so beautiful. “The last part of the ritual is… well, it isn’t necessary, really. I think it’s more tradition than anything else.”

Wait. I was remembering something about that too, from Zaza. The thought should have made me embarrassed, but instead it excited me. I reached over and caressed Eve’s jaw line. Her skin was like silk. “I think it might be necessary,” I said, surprised at my boldness. But I felt invincible right now. I was sure I knew that Eve wanted it as badly as I did. I was sure she wouldn’t say no.

I traced my fingers lower, following the curve of her neck and dipping inside her robe to brush the edge of her collarbone.

She let out a tiny gasp and looked up, gazing into my eyes. Her lips parted slowly.

I put my lips on hers, and everything felt ten times more fantastic than it had before. The air was buzzing. She felt warm and alive. My fingers went to the top of her robe, where it buttoned up. With one hand, I undid the first button.

Eve tangled her hands in my hair, kissing me harder. I freed my other hand from the blanket so that I could get at the rest of the buttons on her robe. Why in the hell were there so many?

Of course, when I did that, my blanket fell completely off.

Eve giggled, breaking our kiss for a moment. She dragged one hand down my chest, let her fingers linger below my belly button, and then wrapped her hand around me.

I groaned, fumbling at the last button on her robe.

She reached up to help me, then shrugged it off her shoulders and let it fall on the ground. I gazed at her, my jaw going slack. She was perfect. I crushed her soft body against mine, my hands running over the satiny curves of her.

This was perfect.

***

~kieran~

Eve and I were spooning in my bedroom with only a thin sheet covering us, because it was hot inside the house. My arm was slung over her waist. I was barely awake. There was a tapping on the door. Eve stirred next to me, throwing off the sheet. I opened my eyes and made a questioning noise that sounded something like, “Mmph?”

“Stay asleep,” Eve said, slipping on one of my shirts, which happened to be lying on the floor. I’m messy sometimes.

I rolled over and went back to sleep. It felt like I’d no sooner closed my eyes than Eve was nudging me awake. However, when I opened my eyes, it was much lighter outside than it had been, so I must have slept for a while. I yawned, stretching.

“Good morning,” said Eve. She was already dressed.

“Morning,” I said, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. “Is Chance—”

“Fed and dressed,” she said. “I thought I’d let you sleep. I made breakfast.”

“You’re like the perfect woman,” I said.

She kissed me. “Well, you’re not so bad yourself.” She paused. “Not at being a woman, of course.”

I chuckled. I wished she wasn’t dressed. I wished we could burrow in bed for longer, staying close. Last night had been awesome. Eve was awesome. Everything was amazing.

“I have something I have to tell you,” she said. “Come to the kitchen.”

I sat up straight. “That sounds bad.”

She picked at the sheet.

“Is it bad?”

She shrugged.

“Is it because of what happened?” I said, feeling suddenly self-conscious about the fact that I wasn’t wearing anything under the sheet. “What we did last night? Because I thought that you were into it.”

She laughed. “I was into it, Kieran.” She gave me a mischievous look. “I was into it quite a few times in fact.”

Yeah, okay, that was probably the sexiest thing a girl had ever said to me. I had the strong urge to grab her, throw her down on the bed, and make breakfast and whatever she wanted to tell me wait.

But she kissed me on the forehead and then got up off the bed. “See you downstairs.”

It sounded ominous, so I got dressed as quickly as I could. When I got to the kitchen, Chance was playing with blocks on the floor. When he saw me, he broke into a big grin and lifted his arms to be picked up. I obliged. How could I resist that anyway? “Hey big man,” I said. “You seem chipper this morning.”

Eve beamed from the table where she was setting down plates. “I did okay? With getting him up and going and everything?”

I surveyed Chance, who was gurgling and happy. “You did great.”

She smiled. “Good. Sit down.”

I sat at the table in front of one of the plates. “You want any help with anything?” Eve had been cooking since I’d been here, but she’d hardly been waiting on me like this. I’d been pulling my weight. Was she going to turn into a Stepford wife just because we’d had sex?

Wait. Was there a bad side to Stepford wives? I mean, from the husband’s perspective, anyway?

Eve set down a bowl with scrambled eggs on the table. I was glad she hadn’t heard that last thought. She probably would have killed me. A plate with sausage followed.

“This looks amazing,” I said.

“The sausage is from the Sanders’ farm,” she said. “They slaughtered a pig, and they sent some over. It’s fresh.”

“Cool,” I said.

She sat down across from me.

“So, what do you need to tell me?”

“You don’t want to eat a little first?”

“I’m dying of curiosity here,” I told her, but I did dip some eggs onto my plate.

She handed me the platter of sausage. “Well, I got a message from Cameron.”

I took some sausage. “Cameron, huh? He’s sending messages? He escaped the OF?”

She took the sausage platter back and put some onto her own plate. “Well, it turns out that he was able to use his power to manipulate them into letting him, I don’t know, do whatever he wants. He’s not a prisoner. He’s using their resources. He’s fine.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “You were so worried.”

“I probably shouldn’t have been. Cameron’s good at stuff like that.”

I took a bite of my eggs, chewed, and swallowed. They were good. “So, um, what? Does he want you back as his beard or something? Am I going to have to share you or pretend we’re not together?”

She gave me a funny look and then looked back at her plate. “No. Nothing like that.”

“Well, something bad happened, didn’t it? What’s bad about Cameron being okay?”

Eve took a bite of her food and chewed slowly. She set her fork down on the table and stared at it. “Well, he knows where Azazel is.”

I suddenly found my own silverware kind of interesting. “Where is she?”

“She’s with Jason.”

I snorted. “That figures.” I ate some more scrambled eggs.

“Without her powers, she would have been sucked into his energy. He sends out like this beacon, calling people to him. She couldn’t have resisted.”

I absorbed this. “So you’re saying that it’s not her fault, then. That she didn’t choose to be with him.”

Eve toyed with her fork. “You’ve wanted to find her this whole time. I want you to know that just because we got a little carried away last night doesn’t mean that I think anything’s changed.”

Oh. I got it. She was worried that I wanted Zaza back. I didn’t. I was sure of that now. “Of course things have changed, Eve. Things have changed a lot.”

She raised her gaze to meet my own. “Things don’t have to have changed.”

I felt a little uncomfortable. “You don’t feel it?”

“I…” She looked back at her plate. “I feel something. I definitely feel something. But it’s…”

“Don’t worry about Azazel. Things between us have been screwed up for a very long time.”

“Are you sure? Because Cameron wants all the Satanists to meet him at Jasontown, and if we go there, we’ll probably see her.”

“Well,” I said, “I’d like to give her back her memories. If the coven can heal me of a gunshot wound, do you think they could do something like that too?”

“I’ll work on it.” She moved her food around on her plate. “I really do like you, Kieran.”

“Good,” I said. “Because I think I’m smitten.”

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.