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His absence races through my veins like a bomb destined to explode if it stops or slows. That's how I feel: that the truth of what happened here yesterday will kill me if I stop moving.
So I don't. I keep dancing. I keep praying. Moments of peace find me, sprinkled like cinnamon onto a poisoned apple.
For the thousandth time I yank my mind away from dark things and back to the Creator, who brought Jake into my life. Back to the beauty of the Celestial. The Celestial that is coloring this grove of trees red. I open my eyes and take it in. Our neglected apple orchard, full of brittle gray wood, snarled leaves, and cobwebs, is lit up around me. Reds of every shade grace the branches and the rotting fruit below. Dead trees are transformed. Light and life expand from their center, reminding me that reality as I know it is not all there is.
Another sprinkle of cinnamon ...
Jake's been gone for eighteen hours now, and still the Sabres sing. Still they fight. Their presence has thinned the terrestrial veil here in the orchard, and it can't be long before their worship tears through. I just ... I don't know what that means.
For me. For Stratus.
My chest heaves with exertion and my body is slick with sweat when a gigantic silver angel comes into view overhead. My celestial vision has been erratic for the last few days, but as I watch, the battle remains visible for a solid minute, if not more. It's long enough to pull me from my dance anyway, to force my gaze through the tangle of branches above.
A Sabre hovers there. I can't tell if it's Virtue; this angel's been fighting for hours, days maybe, so his skin is too bright and his wings too fast, moving like an orchestra of bowstrings. Wings that I know are made of hundreds and hundreds of blades. They blur, sending music—sharp and staccato—into the sky. Tendrils of royal blue fill the orchard—the incense of worship. They wrap around me, lifting my arms. I breathe in the Sabre's worship. It smells of the ocean, of briny wind and sand. The fragrance fills my chest, and I let my body mimic the ribbons of worship.
I try not to take my eyes off the scene above for longer than a second or two, because thirty paces beyond the Sabre a gaggle of demons dodges and leaps, avoiding the shards of white light ricocheting off the Sabre's wings. Like a well-aimed spear, lightning slices through three of them, and they disappear in a burst of ash.
The Sabre's music picks up and I dance faster, yellow incense joining the blue. Smelling of salty sunshine, it wraps around my legs, one after the other. The incense guides me; I stretch and spin, my face craned to the sky, watching. Always watching.
A single demon moves closer, slinking past his brothers. He jabs with his crooked sword, his mouth moving in a strange animal way. But I hear nothing of it. The song of the Sabre drowns his cry. I curl into myself, backing deeper into the grove. The demon is way too close.
The Sabre must think so too.
He spins, ducking and then arching in one swift movement. The demon tries to evade attack, but he's nowhere near fast enough. Wings of blade hack at the fallen monster, and I watch as with a sputter of fire and sulfur the thing is shredded. I turn slowly, embers falling around me as the remaining demons are dispatched with one graceful spin after another.
The Sabre's dancing too, I think.
It's strange. Wonderfully strange to be dancing with an angel.
The Sabre turns toward me, his wings slowing, his music softening. He's wrapped in tendrils of green now and he's still far too bright. I can't make out his features, but when I hear his voice in my head, I know it's not Virtue, but one of his kin. This voice is more bass than tenor.
"Your worship blesses me."
I've done little more than cower and dance. But before I can voice my thought he speeds away, a white smear across the red sky. I roll back onto my heels and stare after him. The green tendrils diffuse as he distances himself from me, the blue separating from yellow. He takes the blue with him, a vibrant tail splashing across the sky. The yellow tendrils are left with me in the orchard. They curl around this tree and that.
My eyes retrace the path of the yellow ribbon as it snakes through the trees. Around the limb of an elm—one of many that are trying to reclaim this orchard—and through the tall grasses that surround me, right into my chest.
I push to my feet and breathe deeply. Virtue said my song had power, that I could use worship against the Fallen. I just ... It's strange seeing it. I shouldn't question what I see anymore. After everything I've witnessed, I shouldn't be surprised.
Still, who knew these skinny arms could fight?
Marco hasn't slept in days, but it's not for lack of trying. Memories sit like sand beneath his eyelids, scratching away at the tenderness there whenever he closes his eyes. He's never been a great sleeper—even as a kid—but once Ali died, sleep lost its appeal entirely.
The worst of the nightmares are the ones that swallow him whole, the ones that make him forget he's dreaming. And since the moment in Jake's house when he put that Tron-disc-looking thing on his head, the dreams have only gotten worse.
Brielle called it a halo, but there's nothing angelic about what it did to him. Since touching the thing, his dreams have grown to include memories from his childhood. Memories that had been long forgotten. Dreams of his and Ali's early days are often interrupted by images of Marco's elementary school burning, Brielle burning with it.
But the Brielle in his dream is too old, too sickly, too out of place. He tells himself it can't be real, says it again and again, but still the dream comes round like a dark horse on a carousel of pink ponies, blighting everything. And carved into all of it, like it's been branded to his retinas, are the words from Ali's gravestone.
There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
The word frightens him.
Alone, he straddles a chair on Olivia's veranda, his knuckles white as they grip the porch railing. The view from the West Hills is one of the most sought after in Portland, but for Marco it's like looking at snapshots of a funeral. All the bad that happened in his life happened here. In this city. On those streets.
Liv's lawn is an overgrown mess of tangled grasses as it slopes away from the million-dollar home and disappears into the evergreens that separate her property from the world-famous Rose Gardens below. Beyond the gardens, downtown Portland sprawls like a leggy spider, its bridges stretching from one side of the Willamette River to the other, Mount Hood in the distance lording over it all.
Marco grew up not far from here. Not here in the West Hills; even when his dad's pockets were at their fullest, his family couldn't have afforded a house like this one. But the neighborhood he grew up in, the playgrounds he haunted, the elementary school that burned with Liv's mom inside—none of it's far. Just down the hillside, past the gardens. Maybe a five-minute drive.
For hours now he's been trying to figure out why Liv doesn't take her money and run. Her mother died here, in that school. Why not leave? Get away from this cursed town, away from the past that destroyed her family. She could get a job anywhere. Staying makes no sense to him.
It's been a day and night of restless nothing. Olivia's house is by far the grandest place he's ever slept in. Hardwood floors run throughout the residence, and intricate millwork decorates the archways and moldings. Marble accents add an extravagant touch Marco could never get used to, and the state-of-the-art wine cellar pushes the whole thing over the top. Everything is dark and fine and very, very Liv.
He recalls the first time he saw Olivia Holt. It was summer then also, and the city was warm. His dad was perpetually jobless, so his mom had taken to babysitting every stray kid in the neighborhood for extra cash. Marco had escaped the whining and the crying by climbing out the window and settling in on their fourth-floor fire escape. Ten years old, a stack of X-Men comic books on his lap, he stared at his own reflection in the window, trying to imagine what he'd look like if he shaved his head like Professor X. But he was too thin, too gangly, too pale. The squeal of brakes and the idling of an engine pulled his attention away from the dirty glass. A moving truck sat parked in front of the building across the street.
Low-income apartments lined this road, but the one across the street was the nicest: a brick building with little planter boxes full of roses outside the ground floor windows. His building was nothing but a converted hotel with chipping stucco and shaky fire escapes. Neither structure was glorious, not like the homes a few blocks over, but he was very aware that his was the worst of the bunch.
He closed the comic book and watched as a woman climbed from the cab of the truck. Tall, thin, and curvy all at the same time. She reached her arms up and lifted a girl from the cab.
Liv. She was the first beautiful thing he'd seen in a long time. Creamy copper skin and thick brown hair, braided back. Mother knelt before daughter, right there in the street, and spoke something in her ear. Her words were too quiet for Marco to hear, but he shifted anyway, leaning closer. The movement sent a comic book slipping from the pile in his lap, through the iron bars of the fire escape and skittering to the ground.
Over her mother's shoulder, Liv's eyes found Marco's. Embarrassed, he fought the impulse to look away, but even then the actor gene was strong, and with an audience below he couldn't resist. He stood and waved.
"You dropped your book," Liv called, stepping around her mother.
Chivalry attacked him then. Perhaps the first bout of it he'd ever had.
"You take it," he said. "It's a good one. Wolverine saves the day."
With a light shove from her mother, Liv crossed the street.
"Who's Wolverine?" she asked. She was directly beneath him now, picking up the comic.
He knelt, ignored the bars that creased his knees, and pushed his face to the grate. "He's a mutant. He's got retracting claws and a healing factor that keeps him alive even if you shoot him a million times."
"It's not gross. It's cool."
She flipped a few pages. "It doesn't look cool."
"What are you talking about? Now you have to read it."
"I don't have to do anything."
"Sure you do."
She tipped her face to him now. "Why?"
"Because I dare you to," he said.
She shook her head. "Mom says dares are never a reason."
Girls! "I double-dog dare you then."
"You're weird. You know that, right?"
"I triple-dog dare you," Marco said, the grate scratching at his lips. "And now you really have to."
"I already told you. I don't have to do anything."
"But that's how a triple-dog dare works. You can't back down. Not ever."
She closed the book and pressed it to her chest. "All right then," she said. "I'll read it. But it still sounds gross."
Even now, he can feel his face stretching like it did that day. She crossed to her side of the street and sat down on the curb. Her mother was busy sifting through the cab, dropping blankets and pillows and bags onto the sidewalk. Liv turned her eyes on the neighborhood then, examining it, twisting the comic book in her hands. Even from his perch on the fourth floor, Marco could see the disappointment on her face. He couldn't blame her. She looked like she was used to something better. She deserved something better.
Something just like this place, he thinks.
She had a bedroom made up for him when they arrived yesterday. He was tired. Frustrated at his last encounter with Jake and Brielle. Angry at them for reasons he had trouble naming. So he didn't argue when Liv insisted he rest. Shades of burgundy and brown, deep and rich, filled the room with warmth, but when the French doors were closed behind him and Marco climbed into the gigantic bed, the sheets felt like shackles, the lavish room a cell.
He could think of nothing but Henry Madison. A pedophilic old man who was directly involved in the child trafficking operation that got Ali killed. The last time Marco laid eyes on him, the monster was disappearing into thin air. It's something that continues to plague him. Just days ago he learned that Henry was Liv's grandfather. Her grandfather! After her mother died, he was made her legal guardian. The thought of what she suffered at his hands is enough to turn Marco's stomach.
But Liv promised to take him to Henry. That's why he'd followed her here. That, and the need for distance. Just a few short days with friends had proved too much for him. After the psych hospital, Stratus was filled with too many loving, caring people. Too many pats on the head and hugs from less tortured souls.
Her scrutiny was all too knowing. "You're not going after Henry?" she'd asked, but she couldn't understand how badly he needs this.
According to the authorities, the investigation is still ongoing. Several traffickers have been arrested, including the madam and the child pornographer who were found at the warehouse. But Henry disappeared that night and has not been pursued by law enforcement. Marco is determined to make him pay for the part he played—not only in Ali's death, but in the pain inflicted on those children.
Marco needs this.
He needs revenge.
But it's not the only reason he followed Liv. Ever since he'd tried on the halo at Jake's house, the nightmares have been coming. He thought putting some distance between himself and the halo would bring a reprieve, but the opposite seems true. Since leaving Stratus, the images have grown. They arrive with more frequency and in more detail. And even more content.
It's not just Brielle disappearing into the fire anymore.
He's reliving memories of Ali. His precious Ali. Good memories. Their first date, spent wandering the very Rose Gardens that sit beneath him. In his dreams the memory is recreated in staggering detail, conjuring moments he'd forgotten. Like Ali hopscotching down the brick walkway honoring the Rose Queens crowned at the yearly Rose Festival. Tiger's blood snow cones from the snack shack, sugary juice staining their lips red. Ali standing on a bench in the Shakespeare Garden reciting sonnets in her mother's British accent. Laughing so hard at her effort that he almost impaled himself on the sundial there. The memories slice into a heart that's not yet healed.
Even thinking about the dream now turns his blood cold as it races through his body. His hands shake, and all he can think about as he stares at the city below is that he wants to murder one of its residents. If distance from the halo won't stop the dreams, perhaps avenging Ali's murder will.
Guilt flickers in his stomach, but he snuffs it by repeating aloud the only words that seem to calm him: "Henry deserves to die."
And if anyone deserves to serve him that death, it's Marco.
His hands slip against the banister as he turns that thought over once again. The truth is Liv deserves it more. He wipes his clammy hands on his jeans. It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Liv brought him this far. She'll make sure he gets an audience with Henry.
At least that's what he thought last night. Image after image attacked him as he lay in that sumptuous bed—Brielle consumed by flames, Ali laughing at his Sean Connery impression, ten-year-old Liv being hauled away from the burning school on a stretcher. Henry disappearing from one nightmare and reappearing in the next. Over and over they'd played on the insides of his eyelids, on the ceiling of the room, on the underside of the thick, stifling comforter. He'd flipped and turned, fighting the images as best he could, but he was helpless against the onslaught. He couldn't avoid them in the darkness. He needed light.
He'd crawled from the bed and onto the stone hearth of the fireplace in the corner. His bag was there, in the way, so he pulled it into his lap, holding it to his chest like a toddler with his favorite stuffed toy. He slammed his fist into a button on the wall, and the fireplace sparked to life. And then he curled sideways on the stone, his bag beneath his head, and stared into the fire.
He wished his seeing eyes would blister and scar, but all the brightness did was fan the memories into a frenzy. The emotion they evoked held him there, staring, unable to move as they played out before him.
Ali's blood on his hands, her scent in his nose. Accusations ringing loud that he'd killed her, that he'd pulled the trigger. And then memories of his time in prison rose from the flames. Memories of the night he escaped. Of his last appointment with the prison doctor and the unconscious guards at the checkpoint, of his armed escort passing out mid-step.
Excerpted from DARK HALO by SHANNON DITTEMORE. Copyright © 2013 Shannon Dittemore. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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