Humanity’s future is at stake. Ready to take on the Sentries, Eden prepares for the ultimate battle. She’s willing to give up everything to finally put an end to the tyranny. As alliances shift and enemies rise, she’ll need to get everything exactly right to avoid a future that’s more horrific than the one she already has.

Chapter 1: Messy


The cold night air hits my lungs, fresh and sweet, tinted with the vague smell of wood smoke.  I step out onto the porch, my head abuzz with the warmth of whiskey, my body gently numb until Matt’s hand lightly touches my waist as he shuffles out of the Rustler behind me.  Now I’m feeling everything.  The sharpness of the air, the rush of blood moving under my lips, my skin tingling, his body heat so near me.  Everything.

I move to the side, away from the light and voices spilling out the door.  A quieter place to talk, to share these fragile words.  How odd to find myself in this moment, this place in the dark saturated with feelings and words of trust… with Matt.  Insane, part of me insists as I turn to him and see who I know he is.  But he’s more things.  Deep things.  He’s the guy who risked his life to help me with an impossible quest.  The one who gave me closure after all this time.  He’s the past three hours of listening and understanding.  He’s the right words.  He’s the encouragement to speak things that I have not been able to speak until now.  The ability to feel pain and begin to release it.  He’s the night and the dark and the heat, and whatever this thing is that rises inside me as he steps toward me.

“Oscar was amazing in so many ways.”  Matt’s voice is gentle as it touches the name of the little boy who meant everything to me.  The main topic of our three-hour conversation.  The thing that I held onto until there was no choice but to let go.  “But there’s one thing that I owe him everything for.”

“What?” I whisper, raising my face to him as his hands stroke down my arms.

He leans closer, his eyes finding mine.  “He brought you back to me.”

I can’t speak at first for the racing of my heart and rushing of my head.  Then all at once I’m against the wall, and Matt’s pressed close against me, his mouth leaning down to mine.  I tip my face up to him, but just before his lips find mine, I whisper, “I’m not staying.”

He stops.  Opens his eyes and gazes down at me, breathing.  A slow smile stretches across his face.  “Really.”

“Really,” I insist, hoping my voice will be stronger and finding it breathy instead.

He just smiles his cocky smile, his eyes searching mine.  Finally, his mouth so close to mine, he says, “I’m sure I can convince you.”  I can taste his words, his whiskey-sweet breath.

I manage to find a little defiance in my voice, my words, but not my body.  “Planning on stuffing me in the VR machine, then?”

He chokes, or laughs, or something in between.  Then he’s smiling again, leaning closer, his mouth to my ear.  His voice, so tantalizing.  “I have better ways.”

My little gasp betrays me.  I’m sliding against the wall and I push with my feet, but more than making myself upright, I press tighter against him, which he clearly likes, and goddamn me, I like it, too.  Especially when he presses back.

His hands are on my waist, his fingers playing under the hem of my shirt, his thumbs stroking my stomach under my waistband.  And I’m not sure my body was made to handle this kind of intensity— an intensity that grows as he kisses my neck, then draws back just enough to look into my eyes, the tip of his nose against my nose.  “Let me convince you, Eden.”  He nuzzles my cheek with his nose— a primal, animal gesture— then close, so close, holding my gaze with his, whispers, “You know you want me to.”

I drag in breath through my parted lips.  The whole world is spinning, now.  My fingers tangle in the sides of his shirt, kneading.  Underneath the material, his body is hard, and against me, his body is hard.  His mouth finds my open mouth.  There’s no waiting.  His tongue presses in, deep into a mouth so open to him, head tilted, back arched, body collapsed against him.  He’s tasting my throat, pressing, seeking, his lips urgent and soft and firm and slipping.  His body against me is just as insistent, his hands tugging my hips, his thighs pushing against my thighs.  I reach up, grab handfuls of hair at the back of his head, and hold him tight against me, kissing back, pressing back, consumed with the sensations in my body, wanting this to never stop and simultaneously wishing that we were somewhere private.

Matt pulls back suddenly, panting, shivering.  One arm scooped around my waist pulls me tight against his stomach while his other hand cups my chin, his thumb stroking over my bottom lip.  “Let’s go,” he whispers, and I’m sliding past him, catching his hand.  I don’t know or care where we’re going, so long as it’s him and me and no one else.  Our quick footsteps make off into the night.

“Eden!  Thank god!”  The words crash into my spine from behind.  I jerk to a halt in the street, Matt still holding tight to my hand.  I slowly turn around, already feeling my world caving in.

Kill and Tara rush toward us.  “We’ve been looking all over for you,” Tara says as Matt wraps his arms around me from behind and pulls me close—clearly unwilling to give me up to them, though he must already know, too.

I’m too self-focused to do more than spit out the required words.  “What’s going on?”  Please let it be something that can wait a little while.

“It’s Duck,” Kill says, shaking his head.  “She’s freaking out.”

“About what?”  Now the concern seeps into my voice.

“I don’t know,” he says, too fast, raking fingers through his buzz-cut hair.  “We don’t know.”

“She’s just—”  Tara says, her face grave with concern.  She reaches out and squeezes my arm.  “She needs you.  You have to come right now.”


I take a deep breath and extract myself from Matt’s arms.  He makes no protest other than a low growl.

“I have to go,” I say, turning to him, placing one hand on his chest.

He clamps his jaw and says nothing.

Then I’m following Tara and Kill off down the street, trying to breathe, get hold of myself, stop thinking about Matt and start thinking about Duck.  What the hell could possibly be wrong with her?

They lead me at high-speed through the streets of Futtlac and back to the cavern where our people are staying on a temporary basis.  No sooner are we inside than their pace slows dramatically.  They turn off to the side, but before I can follow, someone grabs my jacket by the sleeve.

“What the hell?” I say, turning to Apollon, knowing it’s him before I see him leaning up against the cavern wall, little more than a shadow.  “What’s wrong with Duck?”

“She has abandonment issues,” Apollon says.  “She’s a bit obsessive about aether mining, a little too eager to please, and at times, annoying.”  He pauses, then adds, “She could use a bath and a hairbrush.”

I stop and blink.  A breath later, I say, “Oh no you just didn’t—”

“Stop you from making a big mistake?”

I place my hands on my hips and cock my head.  “You’re the one who told me to find a guy.”

“I told you to sleep with someone,” he says, quite calmly.  “Not fall in love with an evil overlord.”

Semi-evil overlord.”

“I notice you didn’t protest the falling in love part.”

“I’m not in love with him,” I laugh, palms up beside my shoulders.  My voice is a touch too high.

Apollon peers at me through the darkness.

“Look,” I say, trying to make my voice steady whilst filling up the uncomfortable silence, “I don’t do love.  Someone convinced me it’s too messy.”

“It is damned messy,” Apollon agrees.

Not sure what to say to that, so I say, “Right.  No falling in love.  Got it.”  I look back the way I came.

“Are you going to make me bodily restrain you?”

“You’re a crappy bloodsworn, you know.  What did I ever do to you?”

He snorts.  I can just see his smug smile as he peels himself away from the wall and moves toward me.  He throws one big arm around my shoulders and gets me moving down the corridor… in the wrong direction.  “Come on, Eden,” he says.  “Walk it off.”

“You’re so condescending.  Walk it off?  Really?”  But here I am, walking with him.  “Next time you’re snooping around some girl, I’m going to try that.  ‘Walk it off, Apollon.’  We’ll see how you like it when the tables are turned.”

There’s a great big grin across his face when I glance up at him.  But he puts on a serious face and voice, and says, “My snooping days are over.  I’ve seen the light, and her name is Lozzi.”

“Fine,” I say.  “That’s fine.  You fall in love.  But the balance must be maintained.  That leaves me to be the alley cat.  So—”

“Great.”  He stops and faces me.  “Alley cat away, Eden.  I will personally go and fetch you any guy in Futtlac… except that one.  So who’s it gonna be?”  He crosses his arms, a smile twitches on his face, and, damn him, he starts listing them.  “West?”  He must have a thing for West, because he’s always first.  “Ben?  Jacob— how about Jacob?”

My arms are crossed too, and I really want to lash out.  But that won’t get me anywhere.  I sigh heavily and pout at him.  “Why can’t I have Matt?”

After the slightest pause, Apollon says, “Now that’s just pitiful.”

Then he’s snickering, and I’m snickering but trying to hide it, and then it’s all-out laughter, and I’m clutching his arm as we lean on each other, stumbling around, punch-drunk on humor.  I laugh way more and way harder than I need to, and bless him, he laughs along with me.  When I’m done, some of the tension is gone.  My body is drained and numb.  Matt’s kiss is just the slightest, lingering ache in my stomach.

We slump side-by-side against the cool rock of the cavern, staring at our feet.  God, Apollon has big feet.  I kick mine impatiently and mumble, “I don’t want anybody else.”

His head rolls against the cavern wall as his eyes move sideways to my face.  “You’re not thinking clearly.  You don’t want to do this.  You really don’t.”

“But I do,” I moan.  “I really do.”

He sighs, but gives no other answer.

“What’s so bad about Matt?” I ask, immediately following it up with, “Don’t answer that.  I know what’s so bad about Matt.  He’s a semi-evil overlord.  But… I mean… he’s nice, sometimes.  He’s really nice.”

“Nice?” Apollon says, giving me a look.

“He is,” I insist, my hand brushing at the dirt beside my leg.  “He listens to me.  And… and he cares about me.”  My voice drops lower.  “I know he really does.”

“The evil overlord listens to you and cares about you… but you’re not falling in love with him.”

“Where do you get these sarcasm skills?  Did you make a bargain with the devil or something?”

Apollon readjusts himself, sitting up straight and turning half toward me.  There’s no mirth in his blue eyes, now.  No trace of smile on his face.  “Bottom line, Matt is dangerous.  Matt has always been dangerous.  You’re one-hundred-percent screwed up right now, and whether or not you’re falling for him, he’s completely head-over-heels in love with you.”

I open my mouth to protest, but he’s not done.

“A man in love will do all kinds of crazy, desperate things.  You’re making him think he has a chance of keeping you, and all the while, you’re planning on going back to Miami.  You’re playing with fire, Eden.  So unless you really want to stay here and become the Queen of Futtlac…”  Damn him, I knew he would use it against me.  “…then I suggest you avoid Matt like the plague and concentrate on getting us ready to go.”

I grip my knees and sigh.  “It’s not that simple.”

Apollon eyes me, one eyebrow arching.

I turn my face toward him, still bent over my knees.  “We’re not going home.  Not yet.”

His eyebrows climb higher.

“We’re going to do this thing.  We’re going to free the world of the Sentries.”

For once, Apollon has no words.

“I know it’s not a decision to be taken lightly,” I say.  “I’ve thought about it long and hard.  It’s possible that I’ve made the wrong decision.  That the world we create will be messed up.  That things will go wrong.”

In the long silence, he finally asks, “Then why do it?”

“Because I know that this world is messed up.  Things like what happened to Oscar— that should never have happened.  It’s wrong on the deepest level.  I can stop that.  I can prevent it.  And maybe… maybe what comes after this will be better.”

Apollon stares at the opposite wall, thinking and breathing.  His blue eyes are a touch wider than usual, his carefree smile a small, solemn mouth.

I rub my palms down my pant legs.  “It’s not going to be easy.  It’s going to take everything we’ve got and then some.”  I turn and look Apollon in the face.  “I’m going to ask for Matt’s help.”

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