Never alone. Never apart.
They are the Awakened, a unique breed of people in a remote corner of the world. Faith is one of these gifted carriers of the Seraphim; and in return of her unconditional love, her Seraphim grants her powers of incredible potential.
But not all carriers embrace their blessing.
Jack loathes being an Awakened. He never asked for it, his Seraphim keeping him alive even in spite of his desire to die. Not even a great war could rid him of this curse.
Now a magician of incredible ability and a walking dead man must find a way to work together to save the Seraphim. Someone covets the power of the Awakened, and will not stop until that power belongs to him.
Fate shot upright in her bed, on instant alert as she looked around the dark room. Something had woken her, she was sure of it. But there was nothing there. Her room, seemingly the whole house, was dead silent, yet she knew she had to have heard something.
While her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she climbed out of bed and put on a thin robe over her tank top and shorts. She crept towards the door to her bedroom, treading lightly while still listening for anything out of the ordinary. Her hand froze on the doorknob as she remembered Matthieu’s whispered plea to keep the door locked.
She’d planned on obeying—but what if their pursuers had made their way into the house? What if they’d taken out Matthieu? Fate wasn’t about to wait in her bedroom for them to come and get her, the perfect gift-wrapped sitting duck.
She had to make a quick decision. Turning the lock, she stepped out into the hall and listened. Finally, she heard it…a pained moan coming from somewhere in the living room. It was barely audible, yet excruciating—as if someone were gasping out their last breath. Matthieu.
Fate hurried into the open living room which was washed in pale moonlight from the large picture windows. She didn’t see anything at first so she started to turn toward Matthieu’s bedroom, when she heard the sound again, much more faint.
It came from the couch. Panicked, she rounded the end of the overstuffed sofa and looked down; sure she was going to find Matthieu bleeding out on the supple leather. He was there, but with no physical injuries that she could see.
His body was completely tense, back bowed off the couch but arms and legs straight, as if they were bound. But his face…his face was screwed into a twisted mask of indescribable pain—jaws clenched, teeth bared, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
She watched as he seemed to struggle against the invisible bonds, and he let out another one of those death-moans. The sound tore at her and she was drawn to it, helpless to do anything but try and stop his pain. Yes, he’d made her promise never to wake him—but maybe she didn’t have to. Maybe she could soothe him, ease his pain, while he still slept. It was worth a shot.
Climbing onto the couch over him, she straddled his hips and stared down at his pain stricken face. “Here goes nothing,” she whispered, and grabbed his thick wrists, one in each of her hands.
She felt her body convulse as she was violently ripped from her own consciousness and thrown, head-first, into Matthieu’s.
I’m in the dream, Fate thought. She was in Matthieu’s nightmare and, more than that, she was Matthieu. For that moment in time, she had his thoughts, his memories. She was inside him.
She found herself strapped down by the arms and legs to a metal table, surrounded by men chattering in a language she’d never heard, but somehow understood—because Matthieu did. Looking down at her body—Matthieu’s body—she saw that it was covered in blood that oozed from dozens of open wounds. They were too shallow to be fatal, but enough to cause immeasurable pain. No wonder he’d cried out.
Finally, the men stopped yelling, and one who seemed to be the ringleader—Patang—approached her. He gestured to one of the other men, who opened the door of the dank, dungeon-esque room. A third man came through tugging a bound soldier, an American, and pushed him to stand in front of them.
Fate felt Matthieu’s stomach constrict and his heart begin to pound. A name flickered through her mind, just a whisper – Striker, one of Matthieu’s team members—a brother in arms. Striker’s captor kicked at the back of his knees, forcing him to kneel in front of the leader, before taking out a wicked looking knife.
“Last chance, Sergeant,” he said in that guttural language. “Who sent you? Who’s pulling your strings?”
Matthieu hesitated, and the man holding Striker pressed the knife closer to his jugular. Fate could hear Matthieu’s thoughts racing as he stared at his friend in what could possibly be his last moments alive. Striker knew that Matthieu wouldn’t give up his unit—in fact, as Matthieu’s eyes connected with the other man’s, Striker stared him down and gave him an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
You were trained for this, Rousseau, he told himself. They couldn’t sacrifice the entire unit, the entire mission, for two men, and they both knew it. Slowly, with his heart clenching in his chest, Matthieu turned his face to the leader and glared, then looked back at Striker.
The leader obviously took it as confirmation that neither soldier was talking. With a stiff nod to his subordinate, Patang stood there, detached, as the man pulled the sharp knife across Striker’s throat and let him drop.
Fate felt Matt’s pain, but also his conviction. He wouldn’t grieve much for Striker, knowing the man had died the way he lived, protecting his country. But he would grieve the rest of his life for Riksa.
She’d had enough. She wanted to be back to herself. I need to be me, she repeated, and concentrated on pulling her thoughts from Matthieu’s. Finally, she felt herself separate, but much to her disappointment, they were still in the dream.
The insurgents had gone and left them alone with Striker’s cooling body. Fate cringed and tried not to look. Instead, she concentrated on Matthieu. She could see him now as she stood beside the torture table. He was strapped down by his arms and legs, covered in blood from the agglomeration of wounds that marred his body.
His face was turned towards her, but his eyes were on Striker. She wasn’t sure if he’d be able to see her anyway—then again, she didn’t really know the rules of invading someone’s dream. It had never happened before.
Matthieu’s body was racked with violent tremors and tears were running down his face, mingling with the blood to create ghastly red streaks from the corners of his eyes. After a few moments of silence, he threw his head back and let out an anguished roar.
Fate had had enough. No one deserved to suffer this much. Heedless of the blood, she stroked his face with a gentle hand. “Matthieu, it’s time to wake up. Let it go, for now.” She was startled when he stopped screaming and grief-stricken eyes locked onto hers.
Fate was slammed back into her own body with the force of a freight train. But it didn’t dislodge her from her perch on Matthieu. Her hands remained wrapped around his wrists. Good thing, too, because he came up swinging.
Well, he would have, but Fate concentrated all of her energy on holding him down. His body raged and bucked beneath her as he tried to dislodge whatever was weighing him down. She just held on as tight as she could.
“Matthieu,” she said in a calm voice that belied her trepidation. She repeated his name over and over until his violent motions stilled and his eyes began to focus. A deep, dark chocolate, his eyes finally rested on her face and widened. While still cautious, Fate let go of his hands but kept her position on top of him.
Matthieu looked disoriented as his eyes bounced around the room, likely trying to get a handle on exactly where—and when—he was.
“Hey. It’s me. You had a bad dream, but you’re here in New Orleans. La Maison de Rousseau, remember?” she asked with a quirk of her lips.
Finally he nodded and threw a heavy arm over his face. She couldn’t see his eyes, but the tears that seeped down his cheeks were clear as a bell. His muscles took up that full body shudder he’d had in the dream, and his big chest began to convulse.
Swallowing down her fear, Fate lifted his arm away from his face and held his head still so that he was forced to meet her eyes. She stroked his scarred cheek—realizing that the injury had to have happened before the torture—and spoke softly to him.
“Matthieu, you have to let it go.”
“How can I?” he said. His voice cracked as his body was shaken with another brutal shudder.
“Tell me,” she answered. Without a thought, she ran her fingers through his hair and found it softer than she would have imagined. He tensed and she was sure he wouldn’t speak, but then he did.
The whole story poured out of him in stuttering gasps and sobs—he told her about the mission, the bomb, the civilians who’d been killed. So that was who Riksa was. He told her about his injuries, to his eyes, ears, and throat—and, yeah, that explained the voice.
He told her about getting captured, and being tortured by Patang and his crew. She was horrified by what they had done to him, but she forced herself to keep calm. Finally, he told her about Striker—SFC Vincent “Striker” Perelli—and how he’d essentially signed the man’s death warrant.
When it was all done, he looked so destroyed, so miserable, that her heart went out to him. She leaned forward and took his face in her hands. “You were doing a job and still, you did everything you could to try and save Riksa. And you did exactly what Striker had wanted—expected—you to do. You have to let this go, and forgive yourself.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Try,” she said, and leaned over to touch her lips to his.
New Zealand born fantasy writer and podcaster Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the author of the Books of the Order and the Shifted World series. She is also the co-author with her husband Tee Morris of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels. Her awards include an Airship, a Parsec, the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice, and a Sir Julius Vogel. She currently resides in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a furry clowder of cats.