Chapter Thirteen

“All I’m saying is that the guy’s a total wuss,” I said, pushing around my home fries on my plate with my fork. I had an accent, something vaguely twangy, as though I was from Texas or something.

Azazel took a drink of coffee. “You only saw the movies. You didn’t even read the books.” She had an accent too.

We were sitting in a booth at a diner. The window next to us was shrouded in slat blinds. The table we sat at was scratched and gouged around the edges. I gestured with my fork. “So, you’re saying that if I spent months of my life reading those damned books, I’d somehow discover that the main character ain’t a complete pussy?”

Azazel rolled her eyes. “Edward is romantic, okay? And he’s not a pussy. I mean, he killed a bunch of people when he first became a vampire.”

I used my fork to cut off a bite of my sausage patty. The food here was greasy, but good. It had that kind of All-American diner flavor you can’t recreate at home no matter how hard you try. “Ooh, he killed people.” I popped the sausage in my mouth and chewed. “That doesn’t make up for the fact he spends the whole time trying to not have sex with that chick. What kind of guy does that?”

“The kind of guy who’s romantic. Besides, he was afraid he was going to lose control and kill her if they did it.”

“So let me get this straight.” I took a bite of sausage and chewed. “Guys who don’t want to screw their girls are romantic?”

Azazel poured ketchup onto her plate. She dipped one of her French fries into it. “He wants to have sex with her. He just can’t because he’ll hurt her. It’s all tense and tortured and stuff. She’s like begging him for it, and he’s holding himself back. That’s romantic.”

“Got it,” I said. “So the next time you’re all hot and bothered, I should say no.”

She threw a french fry at me. “We’re not seventeen, Jason.”

The French fry settled in a fold in my t-shirt. I picked it up and ate it. “But we used to be. Should I have said no then? Would that have made me more romantic?”

Azazel shrugged, picking up her half-eaten burger. “Maybe.” She took a bite.

I set down my fork. “You have got to be kidding me. Do you have any idea how hard it is for a teenage guy to turn down sex?”

Azazel was still chewing her burger.

“And with you, for God’s sake. There is no way on earth I could have ever said no to you.”

She swallowed. “Yeah, but see, Edward is a vampire who’s a hundred years old, so he’s not exactly a teenager. He’s developed a lot of self-control.” She set the burger back down. “And Bella’s not me.” She raised an eyebrow suggestively.

I laughed, spearing some home fries with my fork. “I still think the guy’s a pussy.”

Azazel drank some more coffee. “Yeah, I was always Team Jacob myself.”

“The werewolf? The kid from that Lava Boy movie? No way. He’s even girlier.”

Azazel sat back in the booth, folding her arms over her chest. “You, on the other hand, are the most ungirly man in the history of the universe, I guess.”

I leaned forward. “That a challenge, babe?”

She laughed. “You think saying I’m daring you makes you more masculine?”

I took a swig of my Coke, and turned to survey the diner. “How can I prove my masculinity to you, darling? What if I shot everyone in this diner in the head from right here in less than a minute?” I grinned at her. “That do it for you?”

Azazel ran a finger around the edge of her coffee cup. “I thought we decided not to shoot up any more restaurants, baby. I thought we were going to go for some class. Banks or country clubs or something.”

“We’ll do that,” I said. “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go, sweetheart. I’ll let you shoot anyone you want.”

“But you still want to kill everyone in the diner.”

“Well,” I said, “we do have a slight problem. We ain’t got any money.”

“What happened to the cash we got from that liquor store back in the desert?”

I considered. “I think I forgot to clean out the cash register.”

“Baby!”

“I got distracted carving our initials into the cashier’s chest.”

She sighed, picking up the napkin off her lap and throwing it over her unfinished burger. “Well, I guess we don’t have much choice, then, do we?” She reached into her purse and took out her gun.

I leaned over the table. “I love you, Azazel.”

She kissed me. “I love you too, Jason.” Then she leapt up onto the seat of the booth, her arms outstretched, aiming her gun in a wide circle. “No heroes, okay?” she bellowed. “This is a robbery. Any of you try one fucking thing, I’ll put a bullet straight in your skull.”

That was my girl.

* * *

We tore out of the parking lot of the diner, tires squealing, dust billowing up behind us. Ahead, the road stretched out flat and straight through the desolate Midwestern landscape. I gunned the engine and off we went.

Azazel fidgeted with her dress in the seat next to me. “Goddamn it, Jason, there’s blood all over this.”

I shot a look over at her. “It’s one stain. It’s hardly all over it.”

“It’s still ruined,” she said. She looked out the window, pouting. “You said that I could get some nice clothes. Something pretty.”

I reached over to rub her thigh. “Hey, sweetheart, we’ll get you some clothes. Whatever you want. Next store we see, we’ll stop. You can have all the pretty things your little heart desires.”

She looked back at me. “Really? You promise?”

“Have I ever lied to you?”

She smiled, throwing her arms around my neck. “No.”

“Don’t I always take care of you?”

She kissed my neck. “Yes.”

Ahead, through the clouds of dust, on the side of the road, I spotted a church. It was small, nothing more than a simple square building, white paint peeling off its walls, with a cross sticking out of the top. I slowed the car. “I’ve got an idea.”

“What are you doing?” Azazel demanded.

I pulled the car in next to the church, screeching to a halt. I turned it off and grabbed both of Azazel’s hands. “Azazel Pandora Jones, will you marry me?”

She squealed. “Oh, I thought you were never going to ask me that!”

“Is that a yes?”

“Of course, it’s a yes.” She kissed me.

I pulled her over onto my side of the car so that she straddled me. The car horn bleated briefly. We kept kissing.

Azazel pulled back. “I am going to be Mrs. Jason Wodden.”

“You surely are,” I agreed. “Right here, right now.”

She climbed off me, a worried expression on her face. “Jason, I don’t have a dress. We don’t have any rings.”

She was right. That was a problem. I stroked my chin, considering. “Well, I guess we’ll have to keep driving until we find a shopping mall or something, then, won’t we? Because you’ve got to have a dress.”

“Well, I can’t get married in this one,” she said. “It’s all covered in blood.”

At that moment, the doors of the church burst open, and as if by divine providence, a man and a woman walked out, arm in arm. He was wearing a suit. She was in a white dress and holding a bouquet of flowers. I threw open my car door. “We are in luck!”

I sprinted in the direction of the church, already firing my gun.

Azazel was behind me. “Jason, don’t you dare get any blood on that dress!”

“Don’t you worry, darling,” I called over my shoulder. “You can strangle her yourself.”

My first bullet drilled into the man’s stomach. He stopped moving, a comically confused expression on his face as he inspected the red liquid seeping out of his body. I pulled my trigger again and hit his neck. He sputtered. His eyes bulged. And then he fell.

Beside him, his new bride was screaming. She fell to her knees next to him, her hands fluttering over his lifeless body.

“Don’t touch him!” I yelled. “You’ll get blood on the dress.” And then I tackled her.

She looked up at me, pinned under my body, her eyes wide. “Don’t hurt me, please.”

More people were coming out of the church, all also dressed up. They surveyed the scene in front of them with horror. There were shrieks from the women, yells from the men. “Azazel, shoot them,” I yelled. I wrapped my hands around the neck of the bride.

Azazel’s gun went off. A wedding guest went down. “I thought you said I could strangle her.”

“Well, get your skinny butt over here, then,” I told her.

She ran over to me, still shooting. A few more wedding guests bit the dust.

“Please,” said the bride. Tears were leaking out of her eyes.

Azazel knelt down next to me.

“Don’t let the bride get away,” I said to Azazel, slowly releasing my hands on the bride’s neck.

“I won’t,” said Azazel. “You never trust me to do anything right.”

I didn’t have time to argue with her. We switched. Azazel started strangling the bride, and I started shooting the wedding guests. There were only about twenty of them. I made short work of the lot of them. When I was finished, bodies lay strewn across the front of the church. Azazel had turned the bride over and was unzipping her dress.

The preacher toddled out of the doorway. He had a bald head with several strands of white hair clinging to it. He held his hands up over his face when he saw my gun.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Reverend,” I said. “We need you.” I took him by the arm and led him back into the church.

Inside, there were dark wooden pews, narrow glass windows, and an altar covered in white flowers. This would work just fine. The preacher was wearing one of those purple stole things. I used it to tie him up. As I finished, Azazel came inside the church with the wedding dress bundled up in her arms.

“You need me to help you put that on?” I asked.

She shook her head. “You can’t see me in it until the ceremony, you idiot.”

Right. I’d forgotten about that.

“I just need someplace to change.”

I nudged the pastor. “Reverend, is there a bathroom in here?”

While Azazel was putting on the dress, I sat the pastor down and explained what was going on. Gesturing with my gun, I told him he had to marry us, or I’d kill him. I didn’t tell him that after he was done performing the ceremony, I was going to shoot him anyway. Knowing stuff like that tended to make people pretty uncooperative.

Finally, I heard Azazel’s voice outside the sanctuary. “I’m ready.”

I walked the pastor to the front of the church.

“I wish we had some music,” said Azazel.

“You shot the organist,” said the pastor with a shaky voice.

“You hear that sweetheart?” I called. “I’m real sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she called back. And she stepped into view.

I hadn’t paid much attention to that dress when it had been on the other bride, but now that I saw Azazel dressed in it, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

Azazel strolled down the aisle, a serene expression on her face. Her rich chestnut hair was free and unbound, flowing over her bare shoulders. The dress had no straps or sleeves. It cinched around her torso, lacing up in the front, and opened into a full skirt that trailed behind her. The afternoon sun was coming in through the narrow windows of the church, and it lit her up, made the edges of her glow golden. She floated towards me, and she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I was going to spend the rest of my life with this woman. I felt as though my heart was going to burst open. She was too gorgeous.

When she arrived next to me, she gave me a little smile.

“You’re beautiful,” I told her.

She beamed.

We faced the preacher. I had a moment of panic, because, even though I’d had a gun on him the whole time, I’d been so distracted by the radiance of my beautiful bride that I hadn’t been keeping an eye on him the whole time she’d been walking up the aisle. But the preacher was still there, trembling and pale, but not going anywhere.

The preacher didn’t say anything.

I gestured with my gun. “Get on with it.”

He cleared his throat. “Dearly beloved,” he began, his voice shaking, “we are gathered here to witness the union of… uh…”

“Jason Wodden and Azazel Jones,” Azazel said.

At the mention of Azazel’s name, he grew noticeably paler. “In holy matrimony. If there is anyone here who knows of any reason why these two should not be joined, speak now or forever hold your peace.” The pastor paused for a long time.

“There’s no one else here,” I said to the pastor.

“Right,” he said. “Very well, then. Have you a ring?”

Shit. I knew I was forgetting something.

But Azazel held out her hand. She had the rings from the other couple who we’d killed outside. “I don’t think they’re going to fit, but we can get them resized later.”

I took the woman’s ring, and she took the man’s ring, so that we could put them on each other during the ceremony

The preacher’s breath was labored. He was sweating. Poor guy. The sooner he got this over with, the sooner I could kill him and put him out of his misery. “Repeat after me,” he said.

I looked deep into Azazel’s eyes. “I, Jason,” I repeated, “take you Azazel, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” I slid the ring on her finger. It was a little too big, but the look in her eyes more than made up for it.

The preacher turned to Azazel, and she repeated her vows to me. My ring was a little snug, and she couldn’t get it over my knuckle. She put in on my pinky finger instead.

I looked at her, my sweet, wonderful Azazel. She was mine. We belonged to each other now. Forever.

“I now pronounce you—”

“Police! We are armed,” interrupted a yell from outside.

“Goddamn those pigs,” I muttered. “Can’t they leave us alone on our special day?” I shot the pastor in the head. He was just going to get in the way.

“He didn’t get to tell us to kiss the bride,” protested Azazel.

“I know that, baby. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she said, reaching inside the bodice of her dress and fishing out a gun. “It’s not your fault.”

The doors to the church busted open. Two police officers in uniform stepped inside, each with their guns out and ready to fire. Azazel and I faced them, our guns ready as well. We looked at them. They looked at us.

And then I recognized them. “You two aren’t the police. You’re Graham and Polly.” And once that connection had been made, everything started unraveling. We weren’t really in a church in the Midwest. We were inside the Spiritus Mundi. And this wasn’t our wedding. It was some kind of test from the forces of Light to keep us from getting back to the real world.

“This is the test,” murmured Azazel, letting me know she was right there with me.

So, what was the test, exactly? If the forces of Light thought we weren’t going to shoot Graham and Polly, they had another thing coming. We’d killed everyone else we’d ever cared about in the test for the Darkness. Graham and Polly were meaningless. Hell, I wouldn’t mind putting a bullet in Graham’s head just for kicks.

Graham sauntered up the aisle. “So, you remember us from when we picked up you back in New Mexico for killing all those people when you two shot up that department store.” Okay. Apparently, he was staying in character. “We are cops, though, Jason. Surely you haven’t forgotten that. And the two of you are going away in the slammer for a long time.”

“Should we play along?” Azazel whispered to me.

I shrugged. “I guess so.” I raised my voice. “Well, you’re going to have to catch us first. And from the sounds of it, you haven’t done a very good job of that thus far.”

“We did catch you,” said Polly. “Or hadn’t you noticed we’re waving guns in your ugly faces?”

“We got guns too,” said Azazel. “We start shooting, who knows who’ll live and who’ll die.”

Graham laughed. “Oh, you didn’t think it was just us here, did you? Because when we heard about what you two did in that diner a mile back, we sure as hell brought reinforcements.”

Police poured into the sanctuary of the church. There had to be fifty of them. They all had assault rifles.

Azazel sighted one man, then another, a terrified expression on her face.

But I knew we were outnumbered. I lowered my gun. “Drop your weapon, honey,” I said. “They got us.”

“But, does that mean we don’t pass the test?” she asked me. “I mean, can we even die in the Spiritus Mundi? Maybe we should take our chances.”

Graham was already beside me, cuffing my arms behind my back. “You listen to your boyfriend, there, Zaza.”

“Husband,” I said.

Polly was wrangling Azazel into cuffs too. Azazel’s eyes filled with tears. “I love you, Jason.”

“I love you, too,” I said.

* * *

I sat in an interrogation room in the police station downtown. They’d separated Azazel and me, and I hadn’t seen her since we’d been taken in. Graham had just come into the room. He sat down opposite me. “Jason, Jason. Can’t believe the two of you were so damned sloppy. You’re losing your touch.”

“We were getting married,” I said. “You had no right.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Married. Of course. Tell me, Jason, how’s it feel to know that your new wife there spent the last five years slutting it up with the entire Resistance?”

I was confused. That didn’t make sense. Graham couldn’t reference things that had actually happened in the real world while staying in his cop persona, could he?
“It wasn’t only me boning her, you know,” he said.

All right. Apparently, he could. “Don’t talk about her like that,” I said. On top of all the confusion, the bastard was pissing me off.

“Like what?” he asked. “I’m simply telling you the truth here. You should know what a little tramp she was while you were gone. She couldn’t get enough.”

“This supposed to make me want to rip your face off?” I asked. “‘Cause it does. I hope you don’t think spreading lies like this is actually going to make me angry at Azazel.”

“They aren’t lies,” said Graham. “You can ask her yourself. I wasn’t the first guy she picked up. I just happened to be the one who was doing her when you showed back up again.”

I didn’t say anything. What did this have to do with our being arrested for murder, anyway?
Graham leaned back in his chair, resting on the back two chair legs. “So, you popped her cherry, right? Tell me, when you fucked her on those steps outside, was her pussy still as tight as it was back then?”

I stood up, the chair I’d been sitting in clattering to the floor. I slammed my handcuffed hands on the table. “I think I told you not to talk about her like that.”

Graham smirked. He rocked forward on his chair. “Sit down, Jason.”

I glared at him. There had to be some way to get my hands on him. The room was relatively empty, and I was handcuffed, but I was also Jason Wodden. This kind of stuff had never stopped me before.

“Sit down,” he said again.

Shaking my head, I did as he asked.

“Sorry to get you riled up,” he said. He inspected his fingernails. “They tell me jealousy is the biggest problem the two of you have. They tell me that it’s kind of funny, because you both keep going off and doing things that would definitely make the other person jealous. So.” He looked at me. “How jealous are you, Jason?”

This was the test? Me sitting in a room with a man Azazel had been with? How did I pass? By killing him?

“She used to talk about you sometimes,” he said. “She talked about what kind of lover you were.”

“She didn’t do that,” I said. “No one does that. No one tells the person they’re currently with what sex was like with their previous partners.”

“They do if their current partner is better than their previous one.”

I clenched my jaw. “You’re trying to get me angry.”

“I’ve already gotten you angry, Jason,” said Graham. “Getting you angry is easy. But the question is whether or not you’re angry at the right person.”

“What do you mean?”

“Is it me you’re really pissed off at, or is it Azazel?” he asked.

“Why would I be mad at her?”

“For forgetting about you. For kicking you out of her life. For trying to move on beyond you. For sleeping with people like me.” He grinned. “For kissing Jude.”

I looked down at the floor. None of those things mattered. They were the past. I wasn’t angry about any of them anymore.

“You want to know what she said about you? She said you were clumsy with her. She said you were very…energetic, very sincere, but that you had absolutely no finesse. She said you were never as interested in making her feel good as you were in making yourself feel good. She said she faked half of the org—”

I shoved the table between us into Graham. I dove over it, landing on top of him. We struggled on the floor for a few minutes, but it was clear I had the upper hand. I wrapped the chain of my handcuffs around his neck. I pulled it taut.

The world went white.

* * *

When I could see again, I was standing inside a room with stone walls, right next to a doorway. Azazel was beside me.

“I think we passed the test,” she said.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I killed Polly,” she said. “You?”

“I killed Graham.”

“She was saying things,” Azazel said. “Things about you. She said you said things to her, things you used to say to me. I know she was lying, but I had to shut her up.”

I felt uncomfortable. “Like what things?”

“It was stupid. It was from that Guns N’ Roses song. Something about taking you away to a special place or something, but when we were kids, you used to say that to me.”

I shut my eyes. “I never said that to her,” I lied.

“I didn’t think so.”

We were quiet. Did she know I was lying? “Graham said things to me too. He said you told him you faked orgasms with me.”

Azazel turned away. “Of course not.”

Of course not. I smiled bitterly. “When? When did you do it?”

“Jason, I didn’t,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “Was it only when we were younger, or did you always? When we made love on those steps in Georgetown, was that real?”

“Jason, they’re trying to get to us,” she said. “Remember what Agnes said?”

I took a deep breath. She was right. Of course she was right. But I couldn’t look at her. “I just think we need to be honest with each other.”

“So, did you say that to Polly?”

I still couldn’t look at her, but out of shame. “I thought you hated me back then. I thought I’d never see you again.” I stole a glance at her. “I wanted her to be you. I wanted to be over you. If I said those things, it was only because I thought if I did, it would banish you from my heart and my memory. But nothing I did ever wiped you out. Ever.”

She chewed on her lip. “I know that. I do.” Her gaze darted away from me. “And it only was when we were younger. It took us a while to figure things out, but that wasn’t a bad thing. That was what made us so close.” Her gaze darted back. “We were clueless. We were learning together. When I said that stuff to Graham, I thought maybe if I convinced myself that things between us were always bad, it wouldn’t hurt so much that you were gone.”

I wrapped my arms around her, pulling her tight against me. “Things were bad. A lot of the time. I did things that—”

“I did things too.” She hugged me hard. “Nobody has a perfect relationship, Jason. And we’re not remotely normal. I’ve never doubted how much you loved me. You’ve always made that clear. And I don’t think I’ve done that. I think I have tried over and over to convince the both of us that I hated you.”

“Tried, maybe,” I said. “But never succeeded.” I kissed her forehead. “We’re going to be okay. We’re strong together.”

She looked up at me. “I believe it. Are you ready to walk through that doorway and face the next test?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Arm in arm, we stepped through the next stone doorway. I squeezed my eyes shut as the world went bright white again.

* * *

I shut the door to the house, shrugging out of my jacket and setting my briefcase on the hall table. “I’m home,” I called.

There was a chorus of muffled whoops, followed by the sound of shouted, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” getting louder along with the pound of feet on the floor.

They emerged in the hallway, all three of them, running at me at full force. I knelt down, my arms open, laughing.

Davin bounded into my arms first, nearly knocking me over. His sister Carly was right on his heels. Finally, Aerin, the baby—only three years old—toddled into me, wrapping her arms around my knee, the only part of me still touchable. I kissed all three of their heads. “What did you guys do today?”

“I made a fort out of the couch cushions,” Davin told me. “But Carly tried to turn it into a castle—”

“I was a princess, Daddy,” Carly broke in.

“And then Aerin knocked it over,” Davin finished, pouting.

“It was an accident,” Aerin said. “I just wanted to play too.”

Azazel appeared in the doorway to the hall, looking frazzled. “Thank God you’re home.”

I extricated myself from my children—well, best as I could—and made my way over to my beautiful wife while they clung to my legs. “You look exhausted,” I said, kissing her.

“Your dinner’s keeping warm in the oven,” she said. “How was the office?”

“Oh, you know,” I said. “Same as ever. Sorry I had to stay late again.”

“Lord knows we can use the money,” said Azazel.

“I’ll be home on time tomorrow,” I said. I looked down at the tiny faces gazing up at me in adoration. “You guys better get into your pajamas if you want me to read you a story before bed.”

“Story!” said Aerin. “My turn to pick.”

“You always pick baby stories,” Davin said. “It’s my turn.”

“It’s Aerin’s turn,” Azazel said. “Now do as your daddy told you.”

They scampered off into the depths of the house. I watched them, still not quite able to comprehend how much I loved them. Our children. I put my arm around Azazel. “Our little monsters didn’t run you too ragged today, did they?”

“No more than usual,” she grinned. “They’re so beautiful, aren’t they? Sometimes, out of nowhere, it hits me just how lucky we are.”

I pulled her close. “And you used to think you’d never have any kids.”

She laughed. “I was clearly wrong, and I have the stretch marks to show it.”

I kissed her. “I love your stretch marks,” I growled.

She pushed me away, a teasing smile playing at her lips. “Put them to bed, and you can have me and my stretch marks all to yourself.”

“How can I say no to that?” I took off down the hallway after our kids.

Later, after I’d read three stories to the children and wolfed down my supper, Azazel and I nestled on the couch in the living room. Even after all this time, she still fit perfectly against my shoulder, snug in the circle of my arm. I rubbed her back and reveled in the sweet simplicity of my life. I had everything.

“You know what I never miss?” Azazel whispered.

“What’s that?”

“All the mess of everything before. The violence. The fear. Running all the time. Never being safe. Having to hurt people.”

“I don’t miss that either.”

“Really?” she said. “Even the excitement? The adventure?”

“Keeping up with our rug rats is enough adventure for me these days,” I said.

She laughed. “I know what you mean. You should have seen the fight they got into over that cushion fort today. You would have thought someone had destroyed the world.”

I laughed too. “I’m glad we didn’t do it. Destroy everything. I’m glad we let everything go, found our own happiness.”

“Me too,” she said, snuggling closer.

“Mommy?” said a small voice.

We both looked up. Aerin was standing in the doorway to the living room in her pajamas. She was rubbing one of her eyes with one hand. Her other hand was behind her back.

Azazel got up. “What is it, sweetheart?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Did your nightlight go out?” I asked from the couch. Aerin was terrified of the dark.

“No,” she said. She moved her arm out from behind her back. She was holding a tiny pistol. “It’s only that I know you and Daddy are very, very bad. And I don’t think I can sleep until you’re both dead.”

Azazel froze, her expression beyond shock. “Aerin, honey, where did you get that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Aerin.

“We all have one,” said Davin, emerging from the shadows behind his sister, holding a similar pistol.

Carly brought up the rear, smiling. “Maybe it’s genetics, you know. Maybe we just can’t help ourselves.”

“Or maybe you two are too dangerous to stay alive,” said Davin.

“Have to kill you,” said Aerin, cocking her gun.

“Put that down this instant!” said Azazel.

I started to stand up from the couch.

Davin trained his gun on me. “Don’t even think about it, Daddy. Stay right where you are, and this will be quick and easy.”

“Azazel, it’s the test,” I said, my voice catching in my throat. “They aren’t real.”

She looked at me, her face twisted in fury and pain. “They’re my babies, Jason. I remember giving birth to them.”

I shook my head. “No, you don’t. It’s just a head game. They’re screwing with us.” But even as I said it, I knew that at this moment, those three little people were the most important things to me on earth.

“Daddy gets the prize,” said Carly. “This test is simple. Kill us or let us kill you.” She nodded her head at the coffee table in the living room. There were two guns on it. “Pick up your weapons.”

Azazel was shaking all over. “They can’t make me do this.”

“I’ll do it,” I said, standing up. I picked up one of the guns.

“After all,” said Aerin. “Daddy already killed his other baby.”

“Shut up,” I said, the memory suddenly filling up my head. I’d taken a knife and drove it into the chest of my son. It hadn’t been real, of course. It had been another of these dreadful tests, but I’d done it. And I hadn’t even felt bad about it. I raised the gun at Davin’s head.

“Jason,” said Azazel. “Don’t.”

“They aren’t real, sweetheart,” I said. “They’re made up.”

“No,” she said. “They are my babies. My sweet babies.” She was sobbing. “Don’t you dare do it. Don’t you dare!”

I pulled the trigger. Davin’s head jerked back, an angry red dot blossoming on his forehead.

Azazel screamed.

I pulled the trigger again. Carly’s eyes went lifeless.

“Saving me for last, Daddy?” asked Aerin.

“Shut up,” I said again, my voice thick. I pulled the trigger again.

“Jason!” said Azazel. She flung herself down next to their bodies.

I dropped the gun and looked away. My chest was tight. I was feeling sick to my stomach. I staggered away from the couch, knelt down on the ground and vomited.

“You fucking bastard!” Azazel was screaming. “How could you?”

I sat up, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. Tears were leaking out of my eyes. “They weren’t real.”

The world went white again. We were standing in a different room, outside another stone doorway.

I gestured around us. “See, it was all fake. They only did it to fuck with us.” But I was still crying.

Azazel clenched her fists and began beating my chest, howling in anger. “You killed them. You killed our children. You shot them. You’re a monster, and I hate you. You kill everything I love.”

I stumbled away from her. “They weren’t real .”

“But it’s what you’d do,” she said. “You shot Chance. My baby brother. And he’s dead. And it’s all your fault.”

I ran my hands through my hair. “I know that. Do you have any idea how sorry I am? I can’t ever be sorry enough. I tried to stay away from you, but I…”

“But you came back. And all because of Polly’s son. Who you have never once shown any interest in. Who you’ve abandoned time and time again. Who you didn’t even name . What were you thinking, Jason? ‘Oh, there’s one person on earth whose life I haven’t screwed up? Maybe I should give it a go?'”

I was shaking all over. I didn’t know what to say. Her voice was so ugly. I didn’t know she had so much hatred for me. I turned away from her. I shut my eyes. But when I did, all I could see were the images of my children dying by my own hand. It didn’t matter if it was real or not. I was capable of murdering my own flesh and blood. I didn’t deserve life. I didn’t deserve Azazel’s love. What had happened to me inside this spirit world? How had I forgotten my guilt?

Neither of us said anything for a very long time. The only noise was our shuddering breaths, because we were both fighting off tears. Finally, I looked at her. “Okay, you’re right. About all of it. And as soon as we wake up or do whatever it is we have to do to get out of this place, I will go away, and I will never come near you again. But I think right now, we need to remember that they’re doing this to us on purpose. Agnes said they’d try to force us apart.”

Azazel nodded. “I know, I know. But that felt so real.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I said—”

“No, don’t. Don’t take any of it back. It’s true, and I deserve it. I can’t believe I forgot that.”

“But you’re different now,” she said. “You left me and Chance, but you had to do your penance for what you did. I never…even blamed myself. And I am no saint.”

Am I different? Ever since we got into this place, this spirit world or whatever it is, all I’ve done is kill and maim and stab and shoot, and I have loved every second of it. I think I am pure evil.”

“No,” said Azazel. “No, don’t say that. Because if you’re pure evil, then I’m pure evil. And if we’re pure evil, then…” She swallowed. “Then we should die.”

This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.