Stars of fortune, p.28
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       Stars of Fortune, p.28

         Part #1 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts
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  “A restorative.” He touched her cheek. “Mixed in a little wine.”

  “Well, I feel restored, so it worked. You know this island?”

  “Riley recognized it from one of the sketches I took down. And more, Sawyer’s compass verified it as where we’re meant to go next. It’s Capri.”

  “Capri? Italy?”

  “It seems islands are the heart of the search. You and Sawyer have given us the direction.”

  She wanted to go immediately, to pack up and go, and avoid what they’d face here. But she picked up another sketch, this one of the god who wanted their blood.

  “She’ll be there—she’d come there. What we do here won’t stop her.”

  Even with pencil and paper, the ferocity all but leaped off the page.

  “She looks different here—I’ve drawn her differently. That streak of gray in her hair, and . . . she looks older. Doesn’t she?”

  “She does, and that tells me while we may not stop her, we’ll do some damage.”

  “I didn’t sketch us. None of these are of us.”

  He picked up another. “But there’s this. This house—nothing as grand as this villa, but solid and real. Riley is, as one expects, making calls about accommodations on Capri. And if the time and distance prove too much for Sawyer, it happens Doyle can pilot a plane, and has a few contacts of his own. We’ll go as soon as we can.”

  “But not tonight,” she said quietly. “She’ll come tonight, I know that now. And you’ll bring the storm.” She looked out to the promontory. “We should get ready.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  They spread weapons out under the pergola where they’d shared meals. Bows, guns, knives, and magickal vials and bottles.

  The plan was simple, straightforward—and brutal.

  Doyle had drawn it out with some of her paper. It reminded her of the football plays coaches outlined, which she didn’t understand at all.

  “Positioned here, between the seawall and the house, we draw them in. We stay in the open as long as we can,” Doyle added. “Pulling in what she sends at us, taking them down. If and when we need to fall back, we use the grove for cover.”

  He glanced at Bran.

  “I’ll have the vials placed, as you see. Here, here, here, along here. We’ll drive them toward those positions. I’ll set them off. And the bottles, in these locations—you’ll remember to stay well clear of them. Riley and Sawyer can set them off with gunfire—but not,” Bran emphasized as he had before, “unless all are clear, at least ten feet. Twenty is better. The flash and power from those will obliterate any dark force, but if you’re nearer than ten feet, it’ll be blinding. Nearer than that? You could be burned, and seriously.”

  “We get it, Irish, big boom, big power.” Riley continued to check ammo. “We’ll keep our distance.”

  “Be sure of it. Under the cover of the flashes, I’ll change position, and go to the high cliff above the canal.”

  “We,” Sasha corrected.

  “I’ve explained what I’ll call there, what I’ll loose. It comes from me. I can withstand it. As with what’s in the bottles, you’ll need to be well clear.”

  Sasha merely took the sketch out of her book, laid it out. “I’m there. I’m meant to be. If we question that, we question everything.”

  “She’s right, man.” Sawyer belted on his holster. “I know it’s tough, but she’s right. You’ve got to take her up with you. We’ll cover you. Count on it. But she’s got to go with you.”

  “It’s her purpose.” Gently, Annika stroked Bran’s arm. “Because you love, together you’ll be stronger.”

  “I don’t know about love, but I’m not going to question our resident seer. Sorry, Bran,” Riley added. “You don’t screw with destiny.”

  “Your word. Your promise,” Sasha insisted. “Because you won’t break it to me.”

  “I’ll take you.” The choice was no longer his. “My word.”

  “Now that that’s settled,” Riley put in, “let’s make sure we kick her ass, and her ugly minions—good word—too.”

  “All over it.” Sawyer slid a second knife in his boot.

  “After we kick her ass,” Annika began, and made Sawyer grin at how carefully she enunciated the phrase, “we go here.” She looked at Sasha’s painting. “I know this place, and can swim there. I can get there quickly, and then Sawyer wouldn’t have to take so many.”

  “Nobody’s alone.” Sawyer shook his head. “It’s not safe. We go together.”

  “I can get a plane, but it’s going to take a couple more days.” Like Sawyer, Doyle slipped a knife into his boot. “And I’m thinking getting gone sooner rather than later is the smart move.”

  “I’ve got a place nearly lined up. Friend of a cousin of a cousin’s getting it set up. I might be able to get us a plane,” Riley considered. “I can see if I’ve got some lines to tug.”

  “Let me try it.” Sawyer shrugged. “If I can’t do us all at once, I can take half of us, come back, take the other half. If it doesn’t work, we can try for the plane.”

  “And the boat?” Riley asked, mostly because she got a kick out of seeing it sitting in the yard.

  “No big deal there—but I’ll wait until after midnight, after the area around it’s mostly going to be clear of people.”

  “I’m not sure it matters.” Sasha sighted the bow. “We’ve had three ugly battles, and no one outside of us seems to have noticed a thing. I think what we’re doing isn’t making a ripple on reality.”

  “Maybe, but when I was sixteen and training, I dropped down into a strip club in Amsterdam. It caused a ripple. My coordinates were a little off, and well, being sixteen, naked women were always on my mind.”

  “I like clothes. They’re pretty. But for swimming, naked is best.”

  Sawyer glanced at Annika, then carefully away. “Okay, now that’s on my mind.”

  “Set it aside, pal. I for one don’t want to drop into a strip joint. Sun’s setting,” Riley added.

  And a storm’s coming, Sasha thought.

  With the weapons handed out, they brought the rest of their belongings down. If they had to retreat, they’d count on Sawyer, and leave behind anything he couldn’t transport.

  They ate, for fuel rather than hunger, as the edginess of waiting overwhelmed everything else.

  As the clock ticked toward midnight, Sasha stood.

  “What is it?” Bran demanded. “What do you see?”

  “Hear. I hear her calling to them. Singing to them. She’s gathering.”

  “Let’s saddle up.” When Riley rose, Annika laid a hand on the dog’s head.

  “Apollo. We should shut him inside, safe.”

  “He’ll just bust out. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

  Strange, Sasha thought as they moved into positions—two by two on the verdant green lawn—that she could feel so much dread and so much relief at the same time.

  The combination left little room for fear. The Fire Star was safe, beyond Nerezza’s reach, she thought. If they survived the night, they would begin the search for the next. If they didn’t, someone else would pick up the quest.

  She reached out, took Bran’s hand. “Whatever happens, I’ve had more in these last two weeks than I ever had or thought to have.”

  “A ghrá.” He brought her hand to his lips with a kind of steely defiance. “There’s more yet.”

  “They’re coming.” She released his hand to swing her bow into position.

  They’d come before in swarms, in clouds, but they came now in a tidal wave that blacked out the stars and the light of the waning moon.

  And the sound of them filled the world.

  Bran blasted light up, illuminating them—the sick yellow eyes and fanged teeth, the spread of razor-sharp wings. She thought it was like watching hell roll over the world. Then she shot the first bolt, and stopped thinking.

  They fell like black, oily rain, screamed as they raked the air with claws that gleamed deadly in Bran’s co
njured light.

  Her world contracted into load, aim, shoot with the blasts of gunfire echoing, the horrid sound of steel hacking gnarled flesh, the zing of light snapping from Annika’s bracelets.

  Bran set off the first vial, and in its bloom of light that greasy blood splattered.

  And still more came.

  She held her ground, even as a thin fog flowed over the ground and hissed like snakes, she fought back-to-back with Bran. But the fog bit at her boots, icy teeth, pushing her back.

  “Stay close,” Bran shouted, and swept fire over the fog.

  It screamed, and it burned.

  When her quiver emptied, she used her knife, her fists, her feet to clear a path so she could grab up bloodied bolts and reload.

  Another vial exploded, and again, and still more gushed from the black sky.

  “It’s now.” Bran grabbed her hand, then shouted for Riley to set off the first bottle. “Hold on,” he told Sasha, and wrapped his arm firmly around her waist.

  It wasn’t like flying—somehow she’d thought it would be. It was like riding a rocket, so hot, so fast, all blurred in speed.

  Then she was on the promontory with him, as she’d been in dreams.

  “Stay behind me, or I swear I’ll send you back.” He pulled her against him. “Whatever happens, stay behind me.” His mouth crushed down on hers in a kiss as full of heat as the flight. “I love you,” he said, then turned to call the storm.

  She thought she knew. She’d dreamed it, hadn’t she? Again and again. But she hadn’t known what he could call, what he could rule, what he could risk.

  Power shook the air, the ground, and the sea below as he lifted his arms.

  “In this place, in this hour, I call upon all worlds of power. What you are, bring to me across the land, across the sea, to rise and rage with furious might and rid the world of this blight. Roar the thunder!”

  It boomed like cannon fire.

  “And with your voice rip them asunder. Hot blue flames of lightning spears.”

  It tore out of the sky, electric blue and blinding.

  “To burn all darkness that appears.

  “Whirl wind across their flight and send them spinning into the night. Pour the rain in white-hot flood and drown them in their own black blood.”

  She’d fallen to her knees, rocked by what he unleashed. The wind shrieked around her, tore at her clothes even as the wild rain plastered them to her skin.

  Through the gale she could see flashes below—the bottles with their blinding light exploding, the slashing lights, then sudden strikes of lightning.

  And hundreds, perhaps thousands of those winged bodies spinning, tumbling, falling with screams that rang in her ears.

  And yes, he was the storm. He burned as blue and hot as the lightning he called, arms raised high, that wild light flaming from his fingertips.

  Even through the deluge, she tasted triumph. They were beating back the dark.

  And Nerezza rode through the storm.

  Her hair flew black as the night in the wind. Her eyes glowed through the dark, full of hate and fury and terrible power.

  She rode a three-headed beast with snapping jaws, long, flicking tongues.

  On a peal of laughter, she batted a spear of lightning aside, grabbed another and hoisted it like a lance.

  “Do you think your puny powers can stop me?” Her voice boomed, like the thunder. The taste of triumph iced into fear.

  “I am a god. I rule the dark, and your light is nothing but a dying flame against my power. I will drink your blood, sorcerer, and suck the seer’s mind empty.”

  She glanced down when the light exploded below.

  “And when I’m done, I’ll cut the others to pieces for my hounds to feast on. Give me the star, and live.”

  His answer was to fling another blue bolt, one that singed the scales of the beast she rode. It shrieked and reared up in pain.

  “Then die, and when I feed on you, I’ll simply take what’s mine.”

  The lightning turned black in her hand. When she shot it toward Bran, Sasha cried out, the sound smothered by the storm. He pushed a wall of light against it, and the clash had even the rocks trembling.

  It hurt him. She felt his pain, felt some of the power he wielded drain. One of those tongues slashed out, barely missed his heart. The effort to block it had him staggering.

  “I can’t hold her, Sasha. I need to send you down. Tell Sawyer—”

  “No!” On a sudden burst, she shoved to her feet. Though he burned against the dark, she flung her arms around him. “Take what I have, what I am. Take it, feel it. Use it. I love you. Feel it.”

  Sasha threw herself open, poured everything she was out for him. She knew his power, the breadth and depth of it, and his courage, his fear—but only for her. Just as she knew Nerezza’s contempt, knew what the god would say before the words followed her roar of laughter.

  “Love? Only mortals bow to love. It has no power here.”

  You’re wrong, Sasha thought, and shut her eyes. It has all the power.

  She felt it flood and flash through Bran, clung to him even as she quaked from it. What he hurled out now exploded like the sun. The beast pawed the air as it tried to escape from it. With eyes gone mad, Nerezza tried to drive it forward, but the next blast had it crying out in shocked pain as it tumbled toward the sea.

  Dazed, Sasha saw Nerezza’s hair go gray as the stones, her face as withered as dried leaves before she swirled the dark around herself and vanished.

  Now Sasha’s legs went to water, and she slid bonelessly to the ground. Overhead, the stars blazed back to life, and the moon sailed clear and white.

  When Bran dropped down beside her, power still shimmered around him.

  “I’m all right.” She groped for his hand, and what they’d made together sang along her skin. “Just need to . . . Get my breath back. You hurt her. She’s gone. You hurt her.”

  “We.” He pulled her up, cradled her, pressed his lips to her cheeks, her temples, her mouth. “We. You were right, all along, fáidh. I needed you here. I would have failed without you with me.”

  “The others. We need to see if anyone’s hurt.”

  “Just hold on to me.”

  She linked her arms around his neck. “I will. You can count on it.”

  * * *

  Blood spread like black shadows on the ground, splashed like dirty rain on blooms and blossoms. The scent of it, of sweat, of scorched grass hung in the air. But everyone Sasha cared about stood—battered, but alive.

  Riley, her hand resting on Apollo’s head, holstered her gun. “Was she riding a freaking Cerberus? Three-headed hellhound?” she elaborated.

  “She was—or her own bastardized version of one.” Bran stepped to her, laid a hand on her cheek, on the angry red burns that scored down it and over her throat. “You didn’t keep back far enough.”

  “Tell me about it. Your nuclear holocaust shot me back a good twenty feet. I’m not overly vain—okay, maybe I am. Either way, I’m hoping you can fix it. Hurts like a bitch,” she began, then let out a long breath. “Or did. Thanks.”

  He’d used what he could to ease the pain, and would do more once they’d regrouped. “I have potions that will make your face as pretty as ever.”

  “While you’re at it, you could give me a little boost there. Anyway.” She looked around the battlefield. “I’m hoping you can fix this, too. I’m not going to score us another place if we leave things like this.”

  “I’ll see to it. Other injuries?” Bran asked, though Sasha was already examining a nasty bite on Annika’s shoulder.

  “Minor.” Doyle spoke up. “Once we lit those charges, they went down by the hundreds. And after she focused on you, what came at us was more a suicide squad to keep us busy.”

  “You kicked her ass.” Sawyer pulled a bandanna out of his pocket, wrapped it around his bleeding forearm. “It was one hell of a show.”

  “Don’t get cocky.” Riley gave him a hip bump.
“We’d better square everything away here, and get gone. Any sense she’s coming back at us tonight, Sash?”

  “She was shocked, and in pain. Enraged, but stunned Bran could not only hold her back, but hurt her. No, I can’t believe she’ll come back tonight. I can’t feel her at all now. She’s closed in, closed off.”

  “Licking her wounds.” Riley gave Apollo’s head a rub. “Let’s do that, too. I’m going to give Apollo some water, and a great big treat.”

  “I’m getting a beer.” Doyle headed off behind her.

  “Still some of your bolts scattered around. I’ll police as much brass as I can in the dark, find the bolts.”

  “I’ll give you some light for that,” Bran told Sawyer. “We’ll get this cleaned up after I’ve seen to Riley’s burns. They seem to be the worst of it.”

  They turned as one at Doyle’s shout.

  It bulleted out of the sky, wings spread, talons curled, straight at Riley. She reached for her gun, pivoting to shield the dog. Before she could clear the holster, Doyle shoved her aside.

  Though he drew his sword, the creature buried fang and claw into his chest before he could strike.

  It screamed in triumph as he fell, as the hilt slipped from his lifeless hand.

  As the others charged forward, Riley yanked the thing away from Doyle with her bare hands, heaved it away. And drawing her gun with a hand sliced and gashed from its wings, emptied her clip into its body.

  She dropped down beside Doyle, uselessly pressed her hands on the tearing wounds on his chest.

  “No, no, no, no! Get me some towels. We need to put pressure on this, stop the bleeding. Bran, you have to do something.”

  “Ah, God.” Like her, Bran knelt by the body. “Ah, God,” he said again. “It’s too late. He’s gone.”

  “Then bring him back!”

  “That’s beyond my power.” Gently Bran touched her arm, but she yanked away. “I can’t turn death, darling.”

  Weeping, Annika sat, cradled Doyle’s head in her lap, stroked his hair. “Can we do nothing? Sawyer, take us back, even a few minutes, before . . .”

  “Yes!” Eyes full of tears and rage, Riley jerked up her head. “Do it. Do it now.”

  “I can’t.” He crouched, and though she shoved against him, wrapped his arms around Riley. “Death can’t be changed. If I took us back, it would happen again, no matter what we did. I can’t.”

  “That’s bullshit. This is bullshit. He’s not supposed to be dead.” She looked at Sasha now, who stood, tears gleaming on her cheeks. “It’s not right.”

  “I don’t know. I can’t see. I . . . only know we all risk our lives for this. But—”

  She broke off, shaking her head. She felt something, but didn’t understand it. Struggling to, she knelt beside Bran, took Doyle’s limp hand in hers.

  “No one dies for me. We try something, anything, goddamn it, before it’s too late.” Riley shoved Sawyer aside, once again pressed her hands on Doyle’s chest. “She doesn’t get to take one of us. She doesn’t get to win.”

  There was a movement—a ripple—under her hands. Doyle drew in a deep, harsh breath.

  “He’s alive!” On a stunned sob, Riley grabbed Bran’s hand, pressed it to the wound. “Do something.”

  “He doesn’t need to,” Sasha murmured as life—and pain—flickered back into Doyle’s eyes.

  “Christ,” he said in a voice as raw as the breath. “Stop shouting, and get all the bloody weight off my chest. It’s bad enough.”

 
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