Embers & Echoes LOVER’S QUARREL Monday
Ashline Wilde lay battered on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway and watched her boyfriend emerge from the fiery car wreck, back from the dead.
She heard the sickening crunch as Colt twisted his broken neck back into place.
She waited as he swatted the flames on his jacket until they died away.
She listened to him tell her that he was a reincarnated god—just like her—who had been impersonating a mortal for the last month and a half of their relationship.
As far as breakups went, this had to be her worst.
She thought back to his lips on her lips. To his hands on her body. To his moments of vulnerability and the three separate occasions when she’d thought she was fighting to save his life.
Colt’s smile crumbled as he watched her vomit onto the dusty road. “I don’t get it. I thought you’d be glad that I’m like you.”
Ash wiped the spittle from her mouth and tried to pull herself up onto her knees. Explosion of pain in her lower back. She fell back onto her hands. “Get the hell away from me, Colt.”
“Oh, come on!” Colt shouted. “It’s just dandy for you to be a Polynesian volcano goddess, but we’re going to have a nuclear meltdown because I’m a Hopi trickster?” A queue of cars was slowly forming behind him, obstructed by the blazing wreckage. Several people were rushing toward the scene of the accident with cell phones in hand, and Colt lowered his voice as he reached down to help Ash up. “You weren’t exactly forthcoming with me about having powers either.”
Ash swatted his hand away. “Well, the appropriate time to tell me might have been after I evaporated a tsunami to save your life—a life that apparently didn’t need saving!” She managed to get onto one foot, then the other, and slowly extended her spine until she was completely upright. A reservoir of hurt opened up on the side of her rib cage. “How much of this has been a game for you? Were you pretending to be unconscious when the poachers tagged you with that tranquilizer dart? Did you let Eve catch you and chain you to that rock?”
Colt looked out to sea.
It was all the answer that Ashline needed. After everything she’d learned from dating the wrong guys in the past, how could she have gone and let someone so manipulative into her life? “Was it real?” she whispered. Colt opened his mouth, but nothing came out, so Ash staggered up to him and shoved him roughly by the shoulders. “Was any of it real? Tell me, you coward!”
She went to push him again, but Colt grabbed her by the wrists hard and pulled them into his chest—how had she never noticed his strength before, the power simmering behind his eyes?
“It’s real now,” Colt said quietly. “And that’s what matters.”
Ash tried to break his hold, but his grip held true. “It’s real now?” Ash echoed. “But it wasn’t always? Is that some euphemism for ‘I used you’?”
A man with graying hair lingered near them on his way toward the accident. “Is everything okay here?” He meaningfully eyed Ash, whose wrists were still in Colt’s vise grip.
Colt released her and took a threatening step toward the older man. “How about you go help the dead guy in the crumpled SUV instead of interrupting roadside conversations?”
Ash took the opportunity to flee down the sandy highway embankment, heading for the trees. The sound of sirens picked up from the north. Ash could only hope
that someone from the accident had survived, but there was nothing she could do for them now. She just needed to get away.
Colt’s footsteps trailed behind her. “I needed your explosive little sister,” he explained hurriedly. “I still need her. I can’t explain to you yet exactly how I know this, but the youngest Wilde is capable of creating explosions so intense that they can rip right through the fabric of space and time. She’s barely six years old now and hasn’t mastered her abilities, but with the proper training not only will she able to create a rift between any two places in the world, but she may be able to open a doorway into the Cloak Netherworld as well. With your sister’s abilities I’d finally have a way to destroy the Cloak, on their home turf, where they least expect it, and they’d never be able to take our memories or our immortality from us again.”
“The Cloak Netherworld? Those creatures have a home?” It was hard to imagine what sort of dark underground lair belonged to the Cloak—the oily-skinned, fiery-blue-eyed monsters that had been stalking Ash for months, manipulating her, sending her cryptic instructions on how to prevent the apocalypse.
The same monsters that had swallowed Eve Wilde alive not two months earlier.
Wherever it was, “Netherworld” was probably a fitting term for it. “Couldn’t you have just used my bat-shit crazy older sister for your dirty work?” Ash asked.
Colt laughed darkly. “I tried to use Eve, but in the
end I couldn’t control her, precisely because she was bat-shit crazy. Sure, she shared my hatred for the Cloak, but Eve was a loose cannon. When I found out that she wanted to go all Brady Bunch and run off with you and the little Wilde . . . well, I had to cut her loose and find a new way to track down the little girl.” He paused. “In this case, you.”
“Oh my God.” Ash stopped at the edge of the trees and bent over, preparing to dry-heave again. She had burned her sister and let the Cloak drag her to an oily grave . . . all while Colt had watched from his spot, chained to the rock. She’d done everything that he’d wanted, thinking that she was doing it for her own good, of her own free will.
“So to answer your original question, yes, I intended to use you. Yes, I thought the visions of the third Wilde that you and Eve shared could lead me to the little one.” Colt took a step toward her. “But what I never intended . . .” He paused. “Was to fall in love with you.”
She felt his arm slither across her back. For a moment she relaxed at the familiar touch, took pleasure in the solid, masculine grace of his hand and forearm, let his warmth radiate through her road-shredded tank top.
But then it began to feel different, poisonous, like an acid drip to the small of her back. A familiar heat burgeoned in the furnace of her chest.
A siren whooped back in the direction of the highway, and the trees overhead flickered with the pulsing red and blues of the arriving state troopers. “Come on.”
Colt tugged her arm. “We have to clear out of here; I don’t think you want to be around when the police try to figure out whose motorcycle shrapnel is lodged inside that flame-broiled SUV.”
Ash didn’t budge. She had her hands planted on her knees and was watching the thick trail of dark smoke drift down the hillside from the accident. “If you hadn’t orchestrated all of this, Lily never would have killed Rolfe,” she said finally. “He’d still be alive, without a hole in his heart.”
“Lily was a bomb waiting to explode, and it was your crazy sister who lit the fuse.” This time Colt wrapped his arms entirely around her waist and succeeded in pulling her a step, but Ash wasn’t about to let Colt keep touching her. You’ve pushed me around for the last time, she thought. The heat that had been building in her chest started to rise to the surface of her skin, fueled by Colt’s betrayal.
Colt yelped and released her. “Jesus, Ash, you’re burning up.”
“Good to know that you still feel something.” Ash’s hands started to vibrate.
“I’m indestructible, Ash. That doesn’t mean I’m incapable of feeling. I still experience love, and I can still experience pain.”
Ash spread her shaking fingers, a blossom of misery and wrath unfurling its petals. “Good,” she said. A flame ignited in her open palm like a flint catching propane. “I was counting on that.”
Her arm arced around, and her open palm slammed into his cheekbone. The fireball burst on impact, showering the two of them with sparks. The resulting blow sent Colt staggering back into the hillside with a pained roar, where he dropped down onto one knee and covered his cheek. As he removed his hand from his face, Ash saw the blackened, festering welt across his cheekbone. But even as it still seemed to shimmer with heat like pavement on a summer’s day, the wound began to lighten and fade right before her eyes.
“Come near me again, and we’ll find out what else you can regrow.” She pointed at his crotch.
Colt’s expression gradually returned to placid. The gash in his cheek fused back together, and the skin zippered closed over the wound without even the whisper of a scar. “You really want to do this now?”
“Is there ever a right time to break up?” Ash asked. “Good-bye, Colt. And don’t follow me.”
Ash turned on her heel and walked briskly into the copse of trees. She allowed herself just the slightest of last looks over her shoulder as she passed into the forest. Colt was standing, unmoving at the edge of the woods, his chest rising up and down as he watched her go.
As she carved her way through the trees with no particular destination in mind, she reached up and wiped the tears from her eyes. She was leaving behind the only anchor she still had in this world outside of her hometown. What few friends she had left were scattered around the
western hemisphere. Ade, the Zulu thunder god, was down in Haiti rebuilding after the earthquake that had devastated his home country. Raja, the Egyptian protectress of the dead, was off somewhere coming to terms with the fact that she was carrying a child who would never meet his father. And as for Jackie and Darren—her nice, normal, mortal friends—well, they were at some commune farm in Alabama for the summer, and it was kind of hard to explain her situation to them while omitting the “I’m a Polynesian volcano goddess” part.
Back in reality, strong arms seized Ash from behind in a bear hug. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt her, but firm enough to say You’re not going anywhere.
With her arms pinned to her side no matter how much she strained, Ash had never felt so violated. The familiar scent of leather and ginger from Colt’s cologne was so strong, she could taste it on her tongue. What had always smelled sexy to her before was now only repulsive.
“I can’t just let you walk away from me like this,” Colt whispered into her ear. “Everything I’m doing—searching for your little sister, destroying the Cloak—it all comes back to you. You might not see yet where you fall in the big picture, but I promise, in time—”
The fire streamed out of her pores easily this time, just above the elbows and wrapping all the way around her biceps. Colt screeched and staggered back. He held up his hands, which had blistered crimson from the insides of his thumbs all the way across his swollen palms.
Ash took advantage of his distraction and spun 180 degrees. Her foot connected hard with his sternum, with more force than she’d expected. The blow picked him up off his feet and carried him into the trunk of a nearby cedar. His arms shot out to either side as his spine collided with the trunk, and he dropped to the ground, landing with his blistered palms facing down in the dirt and pine needles.
Ash touched the leg she’d kicked him with like she was just noticing it for the first time. Tennis hadn’t toned her legs that much; apparently being a volcano goddess came with some side effects in the muscle department. Even though she’d started coming into her powers weeks ago, it felt like there were other supernatural facets of her godhood that were still waiting for her beneath the surface. . . .
Colt wrenched his back roughly, and Ash swore she could hear one of his discs popping back into place. “Even despite your attempts to maim me, I have to point out how much better you’re getting at controlling your abilities. Last month you practically needed oven mitts just to make out with me, and you barely summoned the fire in time to stop that tsunami.”
Ash shrugged. “What can I say? I guess kicking your ass comes more naturally to me than saving it.”
“What is your flawed logic?” Colt snarled, and clapped the debris off his healing hands. “Would you have preferred that I’d been mortal and died in that motorcycle accident?”
“I wish you hadn’t pretended to be some creepy cartoon Prince Charming in the first place, and I definitely wish you hadn’t swept me off my feet while you were really just looking to kidnap my little sister for whatever weird quarter-life crisis you’re experiencing now,” Ash said. “Come to think of it, I wish I’d just never met you at all.” Even as the words twanged between them like a bowstring pulled taut and then released, Ash wondered whether she really meant them.
This time as she walked up the hill away from him, she kept her gaze trained on him over her shoulder the whole time, lest he get the jump on her again. He remained at the base of the cedar, slouched with defeat and melancholy. Gradually the forest thickened, until Ash lost sight of him altogether, his face disappearing behind a curtain of cedar and dusk.
Forty yards later she crested a hill and started down the opposite slope. Here a floor of rock emerged through the soil, cascading down the hillside like a waterfall of stone.
And then she heard the chord.
She stopped to listen.
It was neither entirely human nor instrumental, but a composite of the two, like breath passing over the lip of a bottle, with a deep male voice lingering somewhere beneath it. The virile chord was dissonant yet beautiful. She found herself turning and relaxing, despite the nagging sensation that she should continue down the hill,
away, away, as far away as she could go. Somehow that urge to flee was slipping under the tides of warmth and security that washed over her.
Standing at the summit of the hill, backlit by the sun so that its rays trickled around his silhouette, was Colt. His mouth was agape, letting the strange and gripping chord fill the forest.
He closed his mouth finally, but the music continued to echo in Ash’s ear, swimming in circles and keeping her feet rooted to the ground.
“In the myths about Kokopelli,” Colt said without moving from his perch atop the rock, “he wasn’t just a trickster. He was a tempter as well. A seducer. He would sweep into a village and impregnate whomever he desired.”
Ash somehow found the resolve to reach down and grab hold of her leg. Move, she willed it. Move! But her legs might as well have weighed a few metric tons apiece. Besides, it felt so good just to stand here, not to have to run anymore. . . .
“He also had a flute,” Colt continued. “I didn’t have to join a choir to discover that the ‘flute’ was just a figurative reference to my voice.”
Ash managed to get her foot to move a fraction of an inch, but Colt must have noticed, because he opened his mouth again. The chord doubled in her ears, and suddenly she’d forgotten why she’d attempted to flee in the first place.
Colt gazed directly into her eyes. “You should know—and this is very important—that my voice isn’t total mind control. It can’t make you do anything your subconscious doesn’t already desire. It just strips away logic and inhibition. Which means that when I say, ‘Come to me . . .’”
The weight lifted from Ash’s feet, and she marched forward up the rock. One step, two steps, over the fallen branch.
“Deep down you want to come to me. Deep down you don’t want to run away from the man you still carry a torch for.”
The distance between them closed until she had joined him on the summit, half an arm span apart.
“It means that when I say, ‘Put your arms around me . . .’”
Ash edged closer until her breasts just barely touched his chest. Her arms rose up from her sides, delicate and light like the fronds of a fern. They slipped around his charred shirt and onto the muscular small of his back.
“Deep down you want to put your arms around me. And when I tell you, ‘Kiss me . . .’”
Her grip on his back tightened. She raised herself up onto her toes. Her head tilted back and her lips parted in anticipation.
Colt leaned his head down to meet her. His fingers found their way to either side of her cheeks as he cupped her head in his hands.
He kissed her.
As their noses touched, as his rough stubble scratched against her satin skin, and his tongue slipped into her waiting mouth, the echo in her ears faded just enough that she slowly began to see everything around her for what it was.
The way the light peeked out around him like the aura of an eclipse.
The impossibly tranquil expression on his face.
The way it would be easier just to shelve her reservations, forgive the past, and follow this familiar stranger into the north on whatever crazy errand he really had in mind.
But beneath the house of lies that he’d constructed, she saw all the cracks in the foundation.
That he had used her.
That he had just hypnotized her into forgiving him.
That she’d had to scatter a sixteen-year-old’s ashes at sea because of the games Colt had played and the webs he had spun.
A scream erupted in Ash’s throat and poured out into Colt’s mouth. It broke whatever spell she was under, and Colt took a shocked step back.
That was all the time and distance Ash needed.
Ash had spent the last two months feeling like an amateur with her new fiery abilities, but now something snapped inside her, and in her rage she tapped effortlessly into her own raw, seething power. She howled and pointed at the rock beneath Colt.
He barely had time to look, confused, at the quivering ground before the rock under his feet liquefied into molten lava and he plunged all the way down to his thighs.
With his legs steeped in the scalding hot pool, it was Colt’s turn to scream—another dissonant chord like the one he’d used to hypnotize her, but this one reeked of torture and pain and tasted bloody metallic in her ears. His hands fumbled around the lip of the well in an attempt to pull himself out.
Ash drew her hands back. The smoke and lines of heat rising off the lava instantly funneled toward her palms, as though she were the exhaust fan over a stove. The stone cooled rapidly until it hardened around his legs, locking him into place.
When it was all finished, Colt was half-buried in the rock, starting six inches above his knees. His screams had died down to a furious growl, and Ash realized that this was the first time she’d ever seen Colt truly angry.
“You little bitch!” he shrieked. “Do you know how much that hurt?” He twisted violently from side to side and tried to lift himself out of the rock.
“Tell that to the boy who took a mistletoe spear through his heart.” Ash spat on the ground next to him; the ground was still hot enough for her saliva to sizzle on the rock. “You can find Rolfe’s ashes at the bottom of the Pacific and tell him yourself, once someone comes along to jackhammer you out of here.”
Through the look of pain on Colt’s face a lascivious
smile suddenly broke through the gloom. And he began to laugh.
Ash crossed her arms. “What’s so funny? Does the rock tickle?”
Colt snorted. “No. I was just thinking that you’re the second Wilde to chain me to a rock in the past month.”
“I assume that because you heal quickly you can also survive a while without food,” Ash said. “But if you get hungry before help arrives, there are a couple of pine cones within your reach.”
Ash started to walk away. She heard the familiar, dissonant chord as Colt opened his mouth and sang. This time it caused her only to stumble a little, although afterward something felt fuzzy in her brain. Her vision blurred and she had to shake her head to clear it. “You can sing all you want, Colt—I’m not going to free you.”
He shook his head. “I was just leaving you with a last little present for those lonely nights ahead of you.”
She could still feel the echo of the chord, no longer just in her ears but planting itself in a lobe of her brain. She tapped her head a few times with the heel of her palm, trying to prevent it from taking root. Miraculously, the ache in her head quickly faded away.
“What, no good-bye kiss?” Colt goaded her. “Well, chew on this before you walk away: Eve is still alive.”
Ash narrowed her eyes at him. “I watched the Cloak devour her.”
“Not devour,” Colt corrected her. “They transported
her to their Netherworld, where they’re holding her prisoner. She was too dangerous to them topside, but I’m sure they’ve kept her alive. She’s too fascinating for those little pricks to let go of.”
For the first time since Eve’s final betrayal, Ash felt the murmurs of uncertainty, deep in her stomach like a growing, gnawing hunger. In many ways Ash felt as though her sister had died when she’d run away from Scarsdale the first time, and the Eve who’d returned had left behind only a legacy of burned wreckages and body bags. And while Ash had never felt good about letting the Cloak take her sister, in her heart she’d always known it was a necessary tragedy. Eve had nearly drowned her in that cove. If Ash hadn’t stopped her, there was a very good possibility that Ash could have ended up a piece of bloated driftwood in the California tide.
But now knowing that her sister was alive and at the mercy of a dark beast—
Now knowing that Colt had been the real maestro orchestrating the symphony of terror and suffering back at Blackwood—
Well, it may not have changed everything, but it certainly sent a ripple through still waters.
Ash tried her best to mask her inner turmoil. The last thing she needed was for Colt to see that his manipulations had gotten to her. “So let me guess,” she said. “You want me to use my visions to help you find my little sister, so we can open up a portal, save Eve, and destroy the Cloak?”
“You can’t do it alone.” He grunted as he made another futile attempt to pry himself from the rock. “That little girl has more power than all of us combined, more power than a six-year-old can know what to do with. That’s why powers usually lie dormant until our teenage years. She could incinerate even you, her own flesh and blood, if you approach her the wrong way.”
Ash looked out to the eastern horizon, where a menacing cloud mass was gathering over the mountains. “Looks like a storm’s coming,” she said. On cue the sky grumbled. “On the bright side, at least you won’t go thirsty.”
With that, Ash worked her way down the slope with no destination in mind, only to put at least a few miles between her and Colt.
But just like every boy she’d ever known after every breakup she’d ever had, Colt of course wanted to have the final word. It was one sentence, and he screamed it down the hill to her before she was out of earshot:
“I’ll be seeing you in your dreams, Ashline Wilde.”