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Some things I remembered.
Some things I couldn't.
Like who I was.
Or why I was sitting naked on a beach next to a dead man.
And yet I knew why I was here. I was waiting for the dawn to give him a final kiss good-bye before she guided his soul on to its next life.
The breeze that curled around me was cold, as cold as the sand was harsh. And yet these sensations were a fleeting thing. Goose bumps might tremble across my skin, and sand might grate against my buttocks and thighs, but both failed to register on anything more than a flesh level. I felt no cold, no pain, no sorrow.
It was as if I were dead inside. As dead as the man lying beside me. Yet, for some reason, I was still breathing and he wasn't.
That was a question that haunted me, teasing the frozen edges of my thoughts and memories.
Why him and not me?
I didn't know, I just didn't know, and yet I knew it was a question that was important. I knew my life might well depend on the answer.
I drew my knees close to my chest and studied the distant horizon. Though dawn had yet to stain night's cover, it was coming. Already its warm power vibrated across the air, an eager humming that was both familiar and alien. I didn't understand the sensation, didn't know the reason behind it, and yet the mere fact that I could feel it had relief sweeping through me.
It was frustrating, this not knowing. Not remembering.
I let my gaze move across the ocean, watching the waves roll lazily toward the sand, seeing nothing out there in the vast expanse of white-capped blueness. No ship. No boat. No pursuit.
But I didn't bother questioning why I was expecting any of those things, because the past remained hidden under a blanket that was almost absolute.
I rubbed a hand across eyes that felt like they'd cried a thousand tears, then glanced down at the body of my friend. I might not remember my own name, but I knew his. Egan Jamieson. Not only my friend, but also my guardian, my lover, and a man to whom I owed a debt more important than life itself.
He'd saved me.
He'd given me freedom at the cost of his own.
The need for revenge welled deep and fast and furious, until I was all but shaking with it. They would pay for this. Whoever they were, they would pay.
For all of us.
And it was a vow that was useless unless I could damn well remember who, exactly, I needed to take revenge upon.
I grimaced and returned my gaze to Egan. In the fading moonlight, his skin seemed to glow with a rich warmth, as if the sun itself still burned beneath his flesh. A birthmark marred his back, a snakelike stain that seemed to dive into his skin and out again, until it almost seemed coiled around his spine. In the night, it took on a reddish-gold appearance and contained a sheen oddly reminiscent of scales.
I shifted and ran a gentle finger down the mark. It was cool and leathery compared to his skin, as if it were indeed scales. Mine was all blues and greens and silvers, as if the brightness of a sunlit sea danced upon the surface of my skin. An inheritance from my mother, not my father.
I blinked at the thought, then grabbed it hard and tried to follow it back. But the fog of forgetfulness snapped in place, and all that was left were questions.
Yet more fucking questions.
I blew out a breath, then stretched out my left leg as the throb of pain finally began to impinge on my senses. There were scrapes across my kneecaps, and deeper cuts down my shins, accompanied by darkening patches that indicated bruising. But none of the wounds were currently bleeding, and there was no blood dried against my skin.
I glanced at the sea. No footprints marred the pristine sands. Not for as far as I could see. Nor were there any vehicle tracks of any kind. Though I guess with the tide coming in, none of that was really surprising.
But still, I had a feeling we'd come from the sea, that my skin bore no stain of blood because it had long since been washed away. That the wounds themselves were clean and healing rather than festering because of the saltwater.
I let my gaze follow the gentle curve of the beach until it reached the distance point. No lighthouse, no buildings of any kind, no indication of movement or life. Nothing to say where we were.
Maybe we were both dead. Maybe this was nothing more than the dream of waiting that came before the soul moved on to the next life.
I glanced down at Egan. I knew if I rolled him off his stomach, I'd see the bloody stain in the sand. See what remained of his chest after those bastards shot him.
I closed my eyes and pushed the resulting images away. There were some things I didn't want to remember, and the way he'd struggled to survive and remain free was one of them.
And yet, while he might have fought them to the very end, he'd done it for my sake. He'd once said that for all intents and purposes, he was a dead man, so why did anything matter? I didn't understand it at the time he'd said it, and now I never would get the chance to do so.
The hum in the air intensified. Energy danced across my skin, a crazy tingling that warmed the chill from my soul. I studied the horizon, waiting, as the hum of power crescendoed and slivers of red and gold suddenly broke across the sky. Warmth began to flood through my body, as if the rising of the dawn was also a rebirth of my emotional and sensory centers. A stupid thought, really, when I was just at home in deep, dark waters that had never seen the sun, never known warmth. . . .
God, it was so damn frustrating getting little snippets and hints here and there but never any real, definitive answers or memories.
I drew my knees close again, ignoring the slivers of pain and the blood that began to trickle down one leg, watching as the sunlight spread, smothering the stars and warming the night from the sky.
Watching as the growing light gradually flushed across Egan's unmoving body.
The warmth still radiating under his skin seemed to stir as the daylight caressed him, growing brighter as the day did, until the intensity made my eyes water and forced me to look away.
Still the heat and the brightness grew, until my own skin glowed under its radiance. But flesh was not designed to contain such heated iridescence for long, especially when that skin no longer belonged to a living, breathing soul. As the light broke free, reaching skyward with exuberant fingers, tears began to trickle down my cheeks.
"May the Gods of sun and sky and air guide you on your journey, my friend," I whispered, my voice croaky, hinting at long disuse. "And may you find in the next life what you could not in this."
Then the radiance caressing my skin began to die, taking with it the underlying hum of energy. Day had broken. It was only those in-between times—first light or twilight—that held the moments of great power.
There was nothing left of Egan. Nothing except the stain of blood on the sand and an odd glint of silver. His ring.
I reached out and carefully plucked it free from its resting place. In the growing sunlight, the rubies shimmering in the coiled serpent's eyes glowed like fire. It had always sent a shiver down my spine, this ring, despite the obvious workmanship and beauty.
When I'd asked him about it, Egan's golden eyes had grown somber. "It belongs to a man who once took something very precious from me," he'd said, and in his normally calm tones there'd been an undercurrent that was an odd mix of anger and heartache. "So I took something very precious from him." And then he'd given me a cold, hard smile and added, "But I will return it. When the time is right."
I closed my fingers around the serpent, pressing the cold metal into my palm. I might not be able to do anything else for Egan, but I could do this. Find the ring's owner and return it. And perhaps along the way discover its history and the reasons why Egan had murder on his mind.
Because it was an odd desire for a man who claimed nothing mattered anymore.
I pushed upright. A dozen different aches came to life, and weakness trembled through my limbs, the sort of weakness that came from long hours of constant activity. My gaze went to the ocean, leaping across the waves to the distant horizon.
Somewhere out there lay the answers.
Somewhere out there lay my home.
But until the fog encasing my memories cleared, I could not blindly walk out into the sea and just start swimming. The ocean was a vast and often angry being, and I could not tempt her waters without a destination in mind.
It was a thought that raised my eyebrows. I might not be dead, but madness was surely a possibility. I mean, what sane, rational mind contemplated swimming oceans?
Because I could. Because I had.
I rubbed my forehead wearily, aware for the first time of the slight ache behind my eyes. Maybe when it went, my memories would fully return. Maybe then I'd know what sort of creature contemplated swimming the oceans as easily as a bird might fly.
Because whatever I was, it wasn't human. That was a belief I felt deep in my bones, deep in my soul.
But until memory resurfaced, one thing was certain. I couldn't stand here naked and exposed on a beach. The mere fact that someone had blown a hole through Egan's chest suggested that someone would rather see us dead than free. And that, in turn, meant they'd surely be looking for me.
I turned around. Rugged cliffs ranged high above the pristine sands, lining and isolating the long sweep of beach. There were trails—paths made by the passage of feet over time, meaning this place, wherever it was, was at least reachable. Which meant there surely had to be some sort of city or town or at least a dwelling nearby.
The first thing I needed was clothing—simply because the last thing I needed was to attract attention.
I glanced over my shoulder, studying the rolling waves for a moment, then resolutely made my way to the cliffs and the nearest trail.
No one but goddamn goats had been using that particular trail, let me tell you.
I was sweating, shaking, and wheezing by the time I finally got to the top. I leaned my hands on my aching knees, sucking in great gulps of air as I studied the surrounding countryside.
The slope rolled down to a small cottage. The area around the cottage wasn't fenced, and a blue car sat out front, indicating that someone was home. Beyond the house, the slope rose again, and the tops of pine trees were evident behind it.
I glanced back at the house. The cottage didn't look big enough to be a permanent residence, so maybe it was one of those places vacationers rented out short term. I hoped so, because vacationers were more likely to go out for the day, leaving their possessions—or, more particularly, their clothes—unprotected.
Of course, to steal their clothes, I first had to get there. Right now, collapsing in a heap seemed a much better option.
I blew out a breath and forced my feet down the grassy slope. My legs protested the activity, and warmth began to trickle down not only my shin but the side of my face as well. I swiped at it with a hand, and it came away bloody.
Maybe Egan wasn't the only one who'd sustained serious injury. And a decent blow to the head would certainly explain the gaps in my memory.
I rubbed my hand down my thigh and kept on walking. What else could I do? I was in the middle of goddamn nowhere, with no idea who I was or how I'd gotten here. And no idea who I could trust. If I could trust.
As the slope flattened, the grass became long enough to brush my butt. Which in turn made me wonder if the grass was actually long, or if I was short. I felt long—long and rangy—but self-perception is an odd thing when the memory can give no references. I held my hands out and studied them critically.
Dirt-covered as they were from scrambling up the goat trail, they were still somewhat elegant—all long and slender. Neither my fingers nor my palms had calluses of any kind, so I obviously didn't do anything too strenuous for a living. A fact backed up by the length of my nails—or at least what remained of them after the climb.
I glanced down at my feet. There was nothing elegant about those. Given their length and width, they could be described only as paddles. Getting shoes had to be hell.
The thought intrigued me for some reason, and I stopped to lift a foot. Thick, hardened soles. Obviously, I didn't wear shoes all that often, if that foot was anything to go by.
A door slammed, and laughter ran across the meadow. I dropped to my knees, my bruised left leg hitting a rock and making me wince. Two people emerged from the cottage, the woman still laughing and touching her companion. Newlyweds, I thought, for no particular reason.
They climbed into the blue car sitting in the driveway, the man opening and closing the door for the woman before getting into the driver's side and driving off.
On the right-hand side of the road. And though three quarters of the world drove on that side, I was suddenly sure that I was in America. Which in itself wasn't much help, because America was a damn big country, but at least it was a starting point.
I waited until they were out of sight, then rose and made my way quickly toward the house. The front door was locked, as was the back. But a window along the side was open enough to slide a hand in and push off the screen. After that, it was a simple matter of pushing up the window and sliding in.
Which I did. I hit the floor with an awkward thump and sat there listening, waiting to see if there was anyone else in the house. Which is something I should have done before I started breaking in.
Obviously, I could cross "thief" off my list of possible past professions. Unless, of course, I was a very bad thief.