“Yeah. It was terrible. I’m hoping Sophie can come up with an explanation. Roland had no idea why he showed up, but I don’t think it’s a good thing. He called me pathetic.”
“The god of war called you pathetic? Wow. How surreal is that?” Hitting the turn signal, Melanie shook her head in disbelief.
“Well, to be honest, being insulted by a god of war goes a little past surreal. How about insanely ridiculous? He woke me up just to call me names. Not really cool.”
“Most definitely not cool. I wonder what he really wanted.”
“Me, too.” Ree sighed and watched the people walking through the downtown square as she and Melanie made their way to Sophie’s shop. “I really feel like this is a bad thing, but maybe that’s because he seemed to enjoy hurting me.”
“He hurt you? Oh my God. Are you okay?” Melanie swerved the car as she turned to look at Ree in concern.
“Pay attention to the road! I’m fine. Apparently, the reason Brigid didn’t speak to me on the island is because my poor mortal ears couldn’t handle it. Ares, however, didn’t have the same concern.” Ree popped the rest of her muffin in her mouth. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something very wrong was playing out behind the scenes.
“Why would Ares show up at your house? I mean, we haven’t had any contact with other gods. Hecate hasn’t shown up, Poseidon, or anyone else, and they’re related to us. What made Ares decide to pay you a visit?”
“I don’t know. We’re missing too many pieces to this puzzle.”
“Yeah, and Sophie hasn’t really given us much more than the essentials.” Chewing on her bottom lip, Melanie hit the blinker to turn into the parking lot.
“What are you talking about? You know so much more than I do. I feel like everyone knows about things I don’t, and I’m the damn person that’s supposed to save the world!” Ree squeezed the apple juice bottle and gritted her teeth.
“So, why don’t you tell me what’s really wrong?” Melanie pulled the car into a parking spot behind Sophie’s shop and turned to look at Ree. For a moment Ree could only sputter, until her friend cracked and smiled. “I know you’ve been frustrated, frightened, confused, and angry. Every time I’m around, you’re broadcasting one of those emotions. Honestly, I don’t blame you. We’re all feeling that way, but you’re right that you don’t seem to know as much as you should. There is some serious stuff going on and we’re only seeing part of the picture. Which is not good.”
Closing her eyes, Ree leaned back in the car seat and took a deep breath. Once she felt a little calmer she opened her eyes. “Well, I guess we need to go talk to Sophie. And this time, we aren’t bringing any distractions with us.”
“Good deal.” Mel nodded her head as if she was seconding Ree’s statement, and the girls climbed out of the car.
Sophie was in the front with a customer, so the girls went upstairs and changed out of their school uniforms. Ree looked at Mel once they were back downstairs and smiled.
“I feel a little rebellious, skipping school. It’s weird to not be wearing my school uniform during the week.”
“Tell me about it. I almost forgot to bring extra clothes to change into.” Mel sat down at the computer, pulled up her email account, and checked some of the social networking sites. “Oh, the art college is having a special effects event in a few weeks. I wonder if I’ll be able to go.”
“Really? Anything cool?” Looking over Melanie’s shoulder, Ree contemplated what she saw on the screen.
“They have a set-design seminar one day. You might like that.” Mel scrolled down the list of events and gasped. “Oh my gosh. Look at this, Ree. The guest speaker they have talking about designing battle scenes is a total hottie! I’d so like to strategize with him.”
Chuckling, Ree scanned the screen, and her breath froze in her throat. Staring back at her from the computer monitor was Ares. And Melanie was right. Minus the swirling fire in his eyes and angry tilt to his mouth he made an appealing picture, but that wasn’t what had Ree gripping Melanie’s chair—anxiety was making her stomach clench and her heart race.
“Ree?” Melanie looked from the computer screen to her friend and back. “Do you know this guy?”
“That is the very rude and ridiculously attractive Ares.” Ree tried to relax the muscles of her jaw.
“Oh no. That’s bad—and I don’t mean because he’s now off my dateable list. Bad as in, this goes far beyond a coincidence.”
“Yes. Very bad.” Ree pointed at the screen. “Click on the details. I want to see more about his ‘class.’”
“Hmm. Says it’s a one-day deal. Two hours long, and it’s the last class for the entire event. That sounds ominous now that I know who he really is.” Melanie looked at Ree with large eyes.
“Yeah. Always bad to end an event with a battle of any sort. Especially when it’s being taught by the God of War.”
“Good morning, girls! Anyone hungry?” Sophie walked through the door, looking chipper. “Guess what, Ree—I just sold that blue settee, the one that’s been in here for over a year. I told Roland someone would buy it!” Looking at the girls, her smiled drooped. “That isn’t a good look. What’s going on?”
Moving away from the desk, the girls gave Sophie an unobstructed view of the computer screen. As if a light switch was flicked, the older Guardian’s face went blank. Walking swiftly to her desk, Sophie picked up her cell phone and sent a message to someone. Melanie moved out of the computer chair and let Sophie sit down. The woman’s eyes scanned the page carefully, scrolling to the bottom and then clicking on all of the other links. A couple of times she frowned and carefully studied a few pictures. Exchanging a look, Ree and Melanie stood silently. When the door chimed out front, Sophie made no move to go and see about the customer, so Ree took over.
An older woman who had entered the shop was a regular, only wanting to pick up a lamp she’d had refinished. Attempting to not seem rude or rushed when dealing with the ancient lady left Ree feeling snappy. Watching the senior citizen count out the tax in dimes, nickels, and pennies pushed Ree’s patience to the snapping point. After helping the customer out the door, Ree practically sprinted to the back of the shop. Sophie was still looking at the website, her attention so focused that she didn’t even lift her head when Ree came running through the shop door.
Raising an eyebrow in Melanie’s direction, she tried to figure out what she had missed. Melanie shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. Apparently, the older Guardian had not divulged any of her thoughts while Ree had been counting change out front. When Sophie’s cell phone chirped, breaking the silence, Ree almost jumped. After reading the message and sending a quick reply, Sophie leaned back from the computer and looked at the girls.
“Ree, I think you need to come back to the island.”
“Why?” Trying to keep her calm, Ree sat down and looked at her mentor. “I need a good reason to leave my parents.”
“I don’t think you are safe at your house anymore.”
“And what about my parents? Are they safe? And how am I supposed to explain to them that I’m moving to an island?” Ree shook her head in annoyance. “There’s no way I can do that. I can’t just leave them and hope they’ll be okay.”
“Look, I know this isn’t easy.” Sophie sighed and steepled her fingers in front of her face.
“You know what? I’m getting tired of everyone telling me that. It isn’t easy, and you telling me you understand doesn’t help, so stop. What I want is an answer to make it easier. I’m not leaving my parents; I’m not leaving them without protection.” Ree felt her eyes grow hard and her jaw clench.
“Ree, there is more at stake than just you and your parents.”
“Trust me, I’m well aware of that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I owe my parents more than running away and letting them be Tristan’s next dinner. As long as they’re in danger, I’m staying with them.” Ree leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “Now, tell me why you want me to hide on the island and just what Ares is doing as a speaker at that convention.”
“I’ve called in more reinforcements to help. I was going to ask for the gods to send some, but now I feel that might be a mistake. Something is happening, and I have no clear idea as to what is going on. I can tell you that Ares is not the only god in the pictures on that website. Loki is also listed as a speaker. This cannot be a coincidence. If those two are working together, it spells nothing but trouble.”
“Like we need any more of that.” Leaning back in her chair, Ree crossed her arms over her chest. “Who did you call to come help us?”
“There are several Guardians I know personally that have agreed to come help patrol the city so I can spend more time with you and the others. I think you will be safer on the island, where some of the other gods can keep a better eye on you.”
“You think these gods might hurt me? Why?” Ree raised her eyebrows in confusion.
“Yeah, you would think that would be counterproductive.” Grimacing, Melanie looked from Ree to Sophie.
“I have no explanation.” Shrugging, Sophie straightened some of the papers on her desk. “Ares is bad enough, but even more troubling is Loki’s involvement. All bets are off when he shows up.”
“What do you mean?” Melanie asked.
“He is contrary for no reason other than to be so. It is worrying that he has shown up in the middle of the last battle. I can’t understand why a god would not want us to win. However, it could be completely possible he is here to cause trouble.”
“Why? Why would he want to make it more difficult? That’s crazy.” Shaking her head, Ree tightened her arms around her chest.
“That’s because you are thinking like a human and not like a god. They don’t value good or bad, right or wrong, the same way humans do.”
“Roland said the same thing last night.”
“He would know. Ares took a personal interest in him when he decided to join our fight.”
“What do you mean?” A chill ran through Ree as she recalled the fire in the god’s eyes.
“The god of war thought Roland would make the perfect warrior. In a lot of ways, he was right. Roland is dangerous, deadly, and he can be ruthless. However, Tria returned his humanity. She couldn’t return his soul, because that was destroyed. I also think that’s why—” Sophie stopped and looked at the girls, her eyes wide as if she had said something she hadn’t meant to. “In the end, Roland wasn’t quite what Ares wanted in a warrior. He refused to do things the god demanded, and Roland was sent to work with me instead.”
“That’s terrible.” Ree’s anger spiked and she didn’t care that the others could tell. “I can’t imagine Ares being nice about that.”
“No. It’s safe to say that Roland is a strong man to have not caved to Ares’s demands.” Sophie spoke quietly, and Ree could feel the older woman’s affection for Roland. Ree knew that feeling; it was the same way she had felt about Tristan when he was alive. They were family, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t wanted to strangle him over the years.
“Back to the gods. Why would being on the island help protect Ree from Ares and Loki?” Melanie looked uncomfortable, as if she needed to change the subject.
“There are gods that would protect Ree from the others. They can do so better on the island, where the other gods would be aware of what was going on. Out here, where things are not monitored in the same way, they could run the risk of starting an internal battle. The gods of this planet are not known for their cooperation. The last thing we need is for them to start fighting.”
Understanding how important it was for the gods to work together did nothing to change how she felt about staying with her parents. They needed her, and she wasn’t going to abandon them.
“I get it, Sophie, but I’m not leaving yet. I can’t do that to my mom and dad.”
Sophie looked at her for a minute and jerked her head in understanding. Ree knew she wasn’t happy about it, but didn’t really care. She stood up and started straightening clutter on the desk. Not wanting to continue arguing, Ree went to the front of the shop and straightened the sales desk out there, as well. Once that was finished, she went back to where her friends were still sitting and busied herself with a reading assignment. Eventually, a yawn pulled her mouth open and she looked at the others in embarrassment. “Sorry, I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Why don’t you go grab a nap for a little while? I have a few leads to check into tonight.” Sophie nodded toward the stairs.
“I think that might be a good idea. My sleep schedule hasn’t been normal since Christmas.” Ree stood up and stretched. “Wake me up if anything happens.” She looked at Melanie and raised a brow.
“Sure. I think I might try to get some homework done while you’re taking a nap.”
Ree groaned and looked at her backpack. She really should try to stay caught up with schoolwork, but at the mention of a nap, her eyes had begun to burn. “Ugh. It’ll be there when I get up, and I really do need some sleep. The whole ‘being mortal during an immortal battle’ thing pretty much sucks.”
“Yep. Being immortal does have its advantages. Not needing much sleep is one of them.” Melanie opened her calculus book and grimaced. “Of course, super brainpower would be handy. I really hate math.”
Laughing as she went up the stairs, Ree threw open the door to what she considered her room and flopped onto the bed. She stared at the old ceiling for a while, tracing the cracks with her eyes. I wonder if Sophie is going to refurbish this old building or if she’ll just move on after everything is finished, Ree thought. Then the reality of everything slammed into her, and she realized it was very likely that none of them would live through the battle. Closing her eyes, she counted to ten slowly and concentrated on slowing her heart rate. At some point during the process, her tired body took over and she fell asleep.
Voices and laughter drifted up the stairs, waking Ree from the first sound sleep she had experienced in days. Groping in the dark, she found the old windup clock on the nightstand and squinted at the numbers. Looking from the clock to the window, she rubbed her eyes before looking back to the clock. She had slept until almost six o’clock. Sitting up, she pushed off the bed and stretched. She had missed most of the day, but at least she felt better.READ MORE >>