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Endless Summer Book 2: Catalyst

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Light. White and blinding, it surrounds me, bathes me. A voice speaks to me, seeming to come from every angle.

“You can feel them, can't you, the echoes of all that's come before?”

“I...I remember everything,” I whisper.

“Of course you do. All one ever has is memory.”

My friends are in pieces before me. There is no blood, no sign of violence. They are simply scattered. Like puzzle pieces or broken dolls, rearranged like features on a Picasso. And my task is to reassemble them. Remember their names. Their faces. Who they are to me. I reach out, and begin to gather the pieces together.

Quinn Erin Kelly takes shape before me. Delphinus, the Dolphin. A pale, waifish beauty with bright blue eyes and long copper hair falling gently to her waist. A wide-eyed nymph, sweet, generous, and a bit lusty, she gives out kisses like candy, at least to me. She smiles at me from her seat on a small plane.

“One magical week in paradise, here we come!”

The plane is rocking violently, battered by wind and flashes of orange ball lightning. I put together the pilot, a ruggedly handsome man with shaggy brown hair, crystal blue eyes, and an action-hero beard, wearing military dog tags. Jacob Lucas McKenzie. Lupus, the Wolf. Jake. We spent last night in bed together, a rough, wild tumble that culminated in tender kisses. He shared his secret with me. But now he struggles to keep control of his plane.

“It happens, okay? This is totally normal!”

An Iranian girl with an eyebrow piercing and hair in a purple streaked undercut reforms in front of me. Zahra Yasmin Namazi. Corvus, the Crow. Sarcastic, self-interested...I would have expected her to turn on me when it suited her. But she stayed with me. With all of us. She stares at the lightning outside the plane.

“Yeah...sure. That looks normal.”

A woman with doe-brown skin and dark hair trimmed close to her neck smiles brightly at me. She wears a yellow polo shirt emblazoned with the emblem of Rourke International on the breast. Lila, our tour guide. We have arrived at The Celestial resort on the island of La Huerta. Jewel of the Caribbean. But no one is there.

A mocha-skinned Adonis of a man, towering at 6'7”, broad-shouldered and breath-takingly beautiful. Aquila. The Eagle. Sean Marcus Gayle, star quarterback at Hartfeld University. I kissed him once, but never did so again. He looks around the empty resort. “Where the hell is everyone?”

I reassemble another of my friends in front of me. Even as I do it, I can feel the pain returning, nipping at the edges of my consciousness. Canis. The Dog. A slim, ruddy-skinned young man with a handsome, boyish face. Diego. Diego Ricardo Ortiz Soto. My best friend. My brother in everything but name and blood. He smiles charmingly, with the warmth and complete trust reserved only for me.

“Come on, Allie. We promised we'd make the most of this trip.”

And then Jake is there, taking me in his arms, pulling me into his comforting embrace. He bends to kiss me...

A sabertooth tiger prowls in the jungle. It raises a massive paw, claws unsheathed. My flesh tears, my cries of pain drowned out by an explosion as Jake's plane bursts into flames.

I am burning. Every fiber of my being screams in pain, but there are more to be reassembled yet. Draco, the Dragon. Estela Montoya, a striking, dark-haired beauty, tall and muscular, with a scar over one brown eye. She faces off against a crab three times her size, armed only with a spear.

We were told that ten students from our college had won this trip. Estela makes eleven.

Now Cygnus. The Swan is a beautiful woman with chocolate-brown skin and curly black hair. She is short and plumb, with a sweet, earnest face, and eyes that shine behind her wire-framed glasses. Grace Tamara Hall stands in the central chamber of Mount Atropo.

Then Iris. A blue holographic woman projected from a small drone. We found her at the observatory. She speaks with a voice that is not her own, playing back recordings from a future where the volcano has erupted.

“There's some kind of energy discharge...and it's spreading so fast...burning everything...”

Centaurus...where is the centaur? A massive, gentle giant of Indian descent, with a round belly, soft black curls and a warm, ready smile. Raj Aditya Bhandarkar. Kind, brilliant, all heart, with a penchant for pot-smoking, and a supreme talent for cooking.

“I'm worried about our group, Alodia. If we don't stop this feud, we're never gonna get off this island.”

Our path is blocked by a massive serpentine creature in the sea, with lightning in its teeth and dark horns where eyes ought to be. Jake and Sean face off against the creature, determined to reach a safe haven and bring back help.

Grace stands on her tiptoes to kiss the cheek of a lithe and lanky young man with pale hair and paler skin. Serpens. The Snake. Everett Aleister Rourke the Second. Aleister. A cold and bitter exterior hides a vulnerable core. He is the real Eleventh Winner. Grace is his weakness. The Swan can devenom the Snake.

Aleister looks at me achingly. “Everett Rourke...the man who built this place, the man who brought all of you here...is my father.”

“...What we do know is that they've been watching us a long time,” Jake says. But he is not speaking of Everett Rourke.

Tall, muscular figures in ornate masks with skin that glows impossible shades of green and blue, armed with weapons of amber.

“Whoever these...Watchers are, they're coming for us.” The voice belongs to Ursa. The Bear. Kuan-yu Craig Hsiao, a beefy Asian kid in a Hartfeld letterman jacket. Sean's best friend, on and off the football field. Not book-smart perhaps, but undyingly loyal. It was he who threw the rock that unmasked the leader of the Watchers.

The last of my friends waits to be put back together. I gather my strength and assemble the beautiful Vietnamese woman with the dyed blonde hair and the thick, colorful showgirl makeup applied with such impressive artistry. Pavo. The peacock. Michelle Thuy Nguyen. Smart, ambitious, capable. I thought she hated me, but she had my back when I needed it.

In my hand is a sleek gun. A time travel gun, built to send its target forward in time. Michelle protests my will to use it. “We've got no idea where that thing will send us! Or when!”

But there is no choice. Jake tilts my head towards him and gives me a lingering kiss.

“All right, I can die happy now.”

I squeeze the trigger. We're all swallowed by the void. All but one.

“Diego! Don't let go!”

He and I are suspended in midair, clutching each other's wrists, the rope in a tug-of-war between the portal and the Watchers. And the Watchers are winning.

“They're too strong! They'll just take you, too!”

That terrible moment...realizing what he means to do.

“No, Diego...please...don't do it...”

“...Goodbye, Allie. I love you...”

There is another pile of pieces in front of me. But they are not my friends.

“Who are you, Andromeda?” the voice in the void taunts me. “Can you put yourself together, too?”

I can. I must. Pale skin. Blue-green eyes. An angular chin and a small button nose. Layers of honey-blonde hair falling past my shoulders. All set atop the short, lithe body of a dancer and gymnast.

“There I am. That's me.”

“Is this how you see yourself? Are you ready to face your fate?”

“I'm ready!”

“And what name shall you be known by?”

...My name...what is my name...Andromeda...? ...No... Jake calls me Princess...Diego calls me Allie...what do the others call me...?

...Alodia. ...Alodia Rose Chandler.

“My name is Alodia...”

“Are you certain?”

“Alodia! I am Alodia!”

The light around me brightens impossibly. I throw my arms up to shield my eyes. The voice is fading into the infinite void...

“We will meet again soon, Alodia. All that ever was, is, and shall be depends on your choices...”

 

My hand comes down on the glass desk in Everett Rourke's office, passing through the holographic computer interface projected there. My other hand flies to my throbbing head. I gasp, attempting to steady myself against the sudden wave of dizziness. The vision came on me quickly, the things I saw as I passed through the time portal and emerged on the other side. Neither Aleister, Estela, nor Iris seem to notice my sudden unsteadiness, though. Not that I can blame them, with the sight before them.

Everett Rourke, suspended in a tube of glowing green fluid, concealed inside a hollow marble pillar that rose up and revealed him when we worked out the password to his computer and ran the only program on it.

“...Father...” Aleister whispers.

“Facial match confirmed,” Iris chimes. “That is Everett Rourke.”

I straighten as the floor settles beneath me, looking at the man in the tube. “What on earth is he doing here? Has he been here all along?”

Estela grits her teeth. “You're telling me the whole time we were walking around this office, the man responsible for all of this was just floating here?”

Aleister stares into his father's slumbering face, his eyes ice-cold. “You can't hide from me now, Father. Now you have to face me.”

“Yeah, the rest of us might have some questions for him, too,” I mutter. “Now how do we get him outta--”

Estela is already hitting buttons on the computer. The green fluid in the tube begins to drain out, bubbling and glugging like a water cooler. The various tubes leave Rourke suspended in air.

“I advise against waking him suddenly,” Iris says. “Long periods of suspended animation could prove--”

The glass tube retracts into the ceiling. Rourke slumps out, naked, as the last of the green fluid spills out at his feet. He staggers, collapsing into Aleister's arms. His eyes flutter weakly.

“Y...you...”

Aleister's face quivers, somewhere between a sneer and a sob. “Yes. It's me.”

Rourke feebly pushes himself up, staggering to his feet. He stumbles to the windows and slumps against the glass.

“The...Endless...is...” he slurrs under his breath.

“'The Endless'?” I repeat. “What is that? What are you talking about?”

Rourke turns towards me. Anything he might have said, though, is cut off when Estela throws her fist squarely into his face.

“Estela!” Aleister cries.

Rourke topples backward, falling over his desk chair, and sprawling onto the marble floor. Estela leaps after him.

“Estela, I advise restraint--”

Iris' hologram flickers into Estela's path, but she passes through the projection. I dart in front of Estela, holding up my hands.

“Estela, wait! What are you doing?”

“He's responsible for all of this, Alodia! It's time he answers for it! Stand aside!”

Behind me, Rourke's crumpled form is still moaning nonsense. I wonder if he even realizes that he was just punched in the face.

“I'm not going anywhere, Estela.”

She snarls at me drawing herself up to her full height to loom over me. I only just come up to her shoulder. “Don't make me go through you as easily as I went through Iris!”

Estela could snap me in half if she had a mind to, but I meet her angry gaze steadily. “You won't do that,” I say firmly. “I won't let you sink to his level. You're better than that. Rourke will answer for whatever crimes he's committed. But first we need answers. And we won't get them if you kill him now.”

After a long moment, Estela stands down, crossing her arms and glaring daggers at me. I lower my hands, satisfied.

“Okay. We should get him downstairs to recover. We're not getting any answers until he's lucid.”

Aleister looks gratefully at me, mouthing his thanks behind Estela's back.

The three of us hoist Rourke's body between us. His eyes flutter slightly.

“I'm...sorry...Olivia...” he whispers deliriously. Then his eyes close again as he slips back into unconsciousness.

 

* * *

 

Dawn is breaking, its cool light barely visible through the glass roof above the Celestial's grand atrium. My friends and I gather around the slumbering form of Everett Rourke, tucked under a blanket on a sofa.

“So, that's the guy,” Zahra mutters.

“Mhm,” Aleister grunts.

“Dude, your dad is shredded!” Craig exclaims. “Isn't he in his fifties?”

“I think I see where you get your abs,” Grace says coquettishly, grabbing lightly at his abdomen. Aleister pulls away, laughing, then quickly composes himself.

“Grace, please. You know how ticklish I am.”

“The hope is he can get us outta here when he wakes up,” I say softly. “Maybe he knows what's going on, maybe he's got a helicopter or something. And more importantly...he might know something about Diego.”

There's a general murmur of agreement. After a moment, everyone starts to drift off in different directions. There's not much to be done before he wakes up, and the toll of last night's ordeal is weighing heavily on all of us. Well...it was last night for us. For the rest of the world, it has been two-hundred and four days since the battle with the Watchers.

Six months have passed since I fired that time gun. Six months since I lost Diego. But I'm still bruised and aching from the stress and strain of the battle. ...There is also a particular soreness between my legs from what took place beforehand. The smell of sex is still lingering on me, though thankfully, its masked by the overwhelming odor of sweat coming from everyone, including me. It seems most people chose to sleep these last few hours rather than shower, which I can hardly blame them for. And it seems those few hours rest have not done very much to restore them.

I slump down on a couch beside Sean and put my feet up on the coffee table. He looks over at me.

“Everyone's looking pretty rough, Alodia. Maybe we should get some rest?”

“...I don't think I'm gonna sleep very well until we find out what happened to Diego...” I murmur. Fresh tears spring to my eyes. Sean covers my hand with his.

“I know I won't. Maybe we oughta rally the troops and come up with a battle plan.”

“I guess I could make the rounds and--” A strange choking noise catches my attention. I look up, and leap to my feet with a cry. “Oh my god! Quinn!”

Quinn has suddenly dropped to her knees and doubled over on the floor. Her hands, pressed to her mouth and nose, are smeared with blood. Blood has stained her shirt, her jean shorts, her bare knees, and the tiles beneath her. I drop to my knees beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. She looks up at me, and I see that the blood is flowing from her nose in bright red gushing rivers.

The others are clustering around us. Michelle kneels on her other side, pressing a wad of tissues to her nose.

“Keep your head forward,” she says firmly. “Try not to swallow any blood. Alodia, help me get her to a couch.”

I brace Quinn against me and help her upright. Together, Michelle and I guide her over to a sofa.

“Everyone else get back,” Michelle orders. “Sean, get some more tissues.”

Sean hurries off to do as she says. Michelle keeps the tissues positioned over Quinn's nose, pinching her nostrils closed.

“Okay, just sit up straight and lean forward a little. Breathe through your mouth. That's it...you're okay...”

I sit silently on Quinn's other side, rubbing her back. I cannot help but appreciate Michelle's beside manor. She's definitely going to be a good doctor someday.

It takes about fifteen minutes for the flow of blood to dry up. Sean has brought us a damp washcloth. I take it and gently wipe the blood from Quinn's face and hands.

“You can lean back a little, Quinn,” Michelle says. “But don't lie flat yet. Keep your head above your heart for at least the next hour.”

“Oh, I've never been good at that,” she quips with a feeble smile.

“Here, Quinn. Lean against me.” I position myself with my legs around her on the couch and let her lean back against my chest. I look up at Michelle. “...What happened?”

“What do you mean what happened?” Quinn asks. “It was just a little bloody nose. No big deal.”

“It was a bad one,” Michelle says. “But I think we're okay now.” Still, the concern in her eyes doesn't escape me.

“...Is she really okay, Michelle?”

Michelle purses her lips. “Well...”

Iris, hovering nearby, projects at Michelle's shoulder. “Quinn's blood pressure: sub-normal. Weight loss detected. White blood cell count--”

“Guys, come on!” Quinn protests. “I'm fine!”

Michelle sighs. “...I think going through the portal just had a bigger effect on her than it did the rest of us. Lemme just take a look at--”

Quinn recoils, pushing Michelle's hand away.

“I said I'm fine!” she snaps, startling both of us.

“Quinn,” I say gently. “Listen to her. Please.”

Quinn hesitates for a moment, then exhales slowly and settles into me.

“...Okay, Alodia. For you.”

Michelle rolls her eyes. “Won't do it for me, no,” she mutters. “Gotta be for Alodia.”

She does a quick examination, looking in Quinn's eyes, nose, and mouth, checking her pulse and her temperature. I keep my arms cinched loosely around Quinn's waist until Michelle sits back.

“All right. I think you're fine for now. But I've gotta keep an eye on you. Are you gonna let me do that?”

Quinn covers one of my hands with hers and squeezes it lightly. “Yes. I will.”

I stay where I am for a moment, but as it registers that the immediate danger has passed, my mind is once more filled with another purpose.

“...I think we need to get moving on a plan to save Diego,” I say after a minute. “Think you guys are ready?”

Michelle purses her lips, regarding Quinn tentatively.

“I think we can handle it,” she says slowly. “But let Quinn get a little rest first.”

“Much as I don't want to delay, I'm not going to suggest we go charging out immediately as we are with no plan at all,” I say grimly. “I want Diego back alive. ...Anyway, I'm gonna go check in with everyone else. See what they're thinking.”

I ease out from behind Quinn, piling pillows behind her in my place. Michelle drapes a blanket over her legs.

I wander over to where Grace and Aleister are sitting, watching over his sleeping father. Aleister's expression is stoic. Grace rests her hand on his knee.

“How're you holding up, Aleister?”

Aleister doesn't answer immediately.

“He's...okay,” Grace says uncertainly.

“Knowing my father's alive is...” He swallows. “...Part of me wished he were dead. At least then, he'd have the excuse to never see me.”

“Aleister, I know how you feel. My mom is more similar to him than you'd think. But I know how much I'd miss her if I lost her. And how much I miss her now.”

Aleister hums noncommitally.

I sigh. “Aleister, you told us that you came here to face your father. To show him the kind of man you are. Right now, you have that opportunity.”

Aleister finally looks up and meets my eyes. For the first time, it seems he is letting me see the hurt, scared, and lonely little boy behind the bitter mask.

“How, Alodia?” he asks softly. “How do I show him the person I've become?”

I meet his gaze steadily, returning the favor. I let him see my own hurt. My own fear. “...By helping me save Diego.”

He takes my hand and stands up.

“...That should suffice. Also, I suppose it is the moral choice.”

“That's my Aleister,” Grace says with a grin.

Aleister smiles back at her. Then he looks at me again.

“...Diego...he is...important to you.”

I am quiet a moment. “...I don't have a father,” I confess softly. “Or a mother. ...Diego is the only family I've got.”

To their credit, neither of them press me for details. Then Grace says, “...I think you have more family than you realize yet.”

“...Take a wild guess who is leading this pack,” Aleister adds. “Half the people here would throw themselves to the wolves for you.”

“...I don't want anyone to throw themselves to the wolves,” I say softly. “I just want Diego back.”

Laughter from across the atrium catches my attention. Raj, Zahra, and Craig stand around the marble statue fountain at the center of the atrium, giggling wildly.

“Oh my god, you're right! It is!” Zahra squeals

“It so is!”

“Who's what now?” I ask, wandering over.

Raj grasps my shoulders. “Alodia. Alodia...Alodia, this is ridiculous! You're gonna love it. Look!”

He points to the fountain. A marble statue stands on a pedestal in the center, depicting a man in a toga wearing a crown of laurels. Engraved in the bottom of the pool is a circle of Roman numerals.

“...What am I looking at?”

“The statue, bro!” Craig laughs. “In the toga! Can you tell who it's suppose to be?”

I look again. My jaw drops as the face registers.

“It's...Rourke!”

My reaction is apparently hilarious. They burst into fresh peals of laughter, nearly falling over each other, half-delirious with exhaustion.

“I can't believe I didn't notice before!” Zahra howls. “The guy put a statue of himself in a toga in the middle of his own hotel! I'm cocky as hell, but I'm not even in this guy's league!”

I can't help smiling. “Doesn't this guy know how the Roman Empire ended? With the Sack of Rome!”

“Oh my God, Alodia just said 'sack'!” Craig gasps. “I'm dying! I can't breathe!”

Raj scoops me up and hugs me against his soft, round belly. “I don't know if what you said was funny. I'm probably just crazy right now. But you're the best and I love you.”

Zahra throws an arm over my shoulders. “Let's get real for a second. I know things are sucky right now, especially for you. But sometimes people gotta laugh to stay alive.” She ruffles my hair affectionately and wanders off.

I drift off myself, over to where Jake and Sean are talking intently with Lila.

“What's happening over here?”

“Just trying to figure out who could've been here this whole time,” Sean replies

“Who are you talking about?” Lila asks.

“We've been gone six months, Lila. And somebody's been spending a lot of time here.”

“Iris says she didn't detect anyone coming to the hotel after the Watchers left, though,” Jake says.

“Just because she didn't notice them doesn't mean they weren't here. Stuff's been moved all over the hotel.”

“How can you tell?”

“Photographic memory. It's how I'm able to read defenses. Point is, it's like someone's been living here. Looking for something.”

“Princess did find that crazy note of instructions ranting about the Hadean Zodiac.”

“Those notes led us to Rourke,” I say thoughtfully. “Maybe they came looking for him.”

“I'm just thinking...did people come to rescue us? Did we miss our window while jumping through time?”

“Trust me, Q.B., if anyone came to this island looking for us, it's to silence us. Permanently.”

“Is that your idea of a silver lining? That we missed getting killed?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“I don't understand what you're asking me, though,” Lila says.

“Schedules, timetables, shipments...anything you know about arrivals to La Huerta long term. We've only been thinking short-term up till now, but it's been half a year.”

Lila looks at Sean like a deer in headlights. “I...Lila doesn't know these things off the top of my head! Lila's a tour guide!”

“Woah, easy there, Dimples. He's just bouncing ideas around.”

“What if it's Diego? I mean, if I escaped, I would have come here.”

Jake sighs. “Honestly, anything is possible.”

“It wasn't him,” I say flatly. “I wish it were, but it's not. That note wasn't his handwriting. Besides...I know him. If he'd escaped, the first thing he'd do would have been to leave me a sign. Something I couldn't mistake. ...We can't waste any more time. We have to get him back.”

“Of course!” Lila says cheerfully. “No man left behind. That's my tour guide motto.”

“I should friggin' hope so,” Jake mutters. “Well, let's go rally the troops then.”

We gather everyone together in a circle of sofas and armchairs. Sean nods at me to take the lead. I take a deep breath.

“Thanks to the portal, we've left Diego out there with the Watchers for six months now. We need to get him back. Now.”

“Easier said than done,” Zahra says, not unfairly. “How are we supposed to pull off a rescue like that?”

“We hunt down some Watcher ass and make them regret the day they ever messed with us!” Craig answers. From his place on Craig's lap, Murphy trills in agreement.

“We don't even know where they are, Rambo,” Zahra counters flatly.

“I vote for an expedition,” Sean says. “Something to get a read on our new situation and pick up the trail.”

“Any trail will be six months old,” Jake says grimly. “Ice-cold.”

“Then what do you think, Jake?”

“...I think he's dead.”

My heart drops into my stomach. For an instant, hurt and anger boil up in me like magma. How can he say that to me now? When only hours ago, he was holding me while I wept and vomited on the rooftop? When he was guiding me to lie in his lap so I would get an hour's rest? When he seemed to care so much before, how could he now be so heartless? But my rage quickly cools when I rememebr the secret he told me last night when we were entwinded in bed together. Mike, his wingmate, his best friend, his brother. The two of them framed for treason and ambushed in the sky. Jake ejected in time. Mike did not. Jake knows. He knows the depth of love I have for Diego. ...He knows the pain of separation. And every day, he lives the nightmare of knowing that separation will never end. ...He is trying to protect me from unnecessary pain, not by filling me with false hope, but by making sure I am not blindsided if the worst happens. It's misguided. I wish he wouldn't say it. ...But I appreciate his intentions. But Sean doesn't know what I know.

“Shut up, Jake,” he growls.

“It's a possibility,” Jake snaps. “At this point, it's a likely one.”

“Clearly it's easy for you to quit on people. How long before you decide we're as good as dead, too?”

Jake glares at Sean. “Honestly, man, that happened as soon as we walked into this damn building.”

Sean opens his mouth to reply, but I catch his eye and shake my head. He shuts his mouth.

“We will be as good as dead if we go out there without a plan or a destination,” Estela points out.

“That is a fair point.” I look over at Quinn, still propped up on pillows, a blanket draped over her legs. “Quinn? Any thoughts.”

“I'll follow your lead, Alodia. ...But...I am worried about losing more of us.”

At those words, I cannot help but be struck at how pale she looks. I know she's Irish, but usually she has that sweet flush in her cheeks and nose. But...maybe I'm worrying too much. I nod.

“Okay, then. I think the best thing to do is try to find answers here, first. Something that will tell us where the Watchers took Diego.”

Sean gets up. “Okay, people. I know it's been a long, long day, but Diego's counting on us now. Freshen up a little, but then we gotta search this place up and down.”

“What about him?” Zahra asks, jerking her head at Rourke.

“...Don't think he's going anywhere.”

We all rise and split up. I head towards the elevator to go up to my room. Sean follows me in. When we're alone, he turns to me.

“Hey...Alodia...about what Jake said...don't take it to heart. I'm sure Diego's okay out there.”

“No, you're not,” I say gently. “Neither am I. We can't be sure. Jake's right. It's possible he's dead.”

“We can't give up on him.”

“I will never give up on him,” I say more sharply than I mean to. “Not until I know he's dead. ...But it is possible.”

Sean sighs. “...Doesn't mean he should have said it.”

“He wasn't being malicious.”

“Just cold-hearted.”

“No. Not that, either,” I say gently. “Don't be too hard on him, Sean. ...If you knew what I knew, you'd understand why he said it.”

“What do you mean?”

“...I can't go around blabbing things he told me in confidence.” I am silent for a moment. Then I say, “He wanted me to be prepared. In case the worst happens. He doesn't want me blindsided.”

“...I wish I understood him like you do,” Sean mutters. I can't tell if he's being bitter, sarcastic, or sincere.

“I don't understand him,” I reply in a clipped tone. “I hardly know him. But I do know he wasn't being cruel or coldhearted.”

“...All right. If you say so.”

Sean steps off the elevator at his floor. I continue up to the penthouse floor, to the rainforest-themed suite where I have lived for the last four days. I open the door, and I am hit by a cool breeze and the smell of saltwater. The room is still trashed, some of it from my wild night with Jake, some of it from the Watchers searching through my belongings. One of the windows is shattered from where the Watcher leader rappelled through.

“Oh, right,” I mutter aloud. “That happened.”

A few leaves have managed to blow in over the last six months. A seagull is perched comfortably on the window sill. It squawks at me. I wave it away.

“Go on, get outta here! Shoo!”

The gull flaps off over the sea. I walk into the bathroom, turn on the sink, and throw several handfuls of ice-cold water over my face. I raise my eyes to the mirror and freeze.

...Diego is there. He's smiling over my shoulder.

“Man, Allie! And here I thought I looked like hell!”

I gasp, whipping around to face an empty space behind me. My chest goes tight with the threat of fresh tears. Guilt hallucinations. Not a great sign. I turn back to the mirror. ...Hallucination!Diego was right, though. I do look like hell. Smell like it too. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to freshen up a bit. At the least, a hot shower would help me clear my head.

I strip off and wash my mountain climbing outfit in the sink, scrubbing it with shampoo and hanging it to dry. I climb into the shower, where I let the next wave of tears fall freely as I scrub off the sweat and soil of the last twelve hours. The hot stream soothes my aching muscles, though it does little for the tenderness at my pubis. Under normal circumstances, I love the slightly bruised feeling after a night of wild, just-slightly-rough sex. And I suppose I am not unhappy about spending last night with Jake. ...No...I am far from unhappy about it. ...But the scattered glass on the carpet reminds me that the night almost ended with Jake dead in my arms, until I grabbed the blue stone around the Watcher's neck.

God, I have to get out of this place...get out of this room...

I brush my teeth and go to hunt down some clean clothes. The Watchers dumped out my duffle, but they left my clothes in a single pile at least. I pull on some socks and underclothes and a pair of old jeans. A pale green T-shirt on the top of the pile catches my attention. I pick it up and unfold it. Kenna&Dom&Val&Raydan, it reads. I feel my breath catch in my throat again.

The Crown and the Flame. Diego and I are superfans. We read all the books together, played all the games. The only video games I'm any good at are the ones where I can play as Queen Kenna Rys. When the current season is airing, Sunday nights are set aside for viewing. We order sushi and sake and green tea ice cream from Sakura's and curl up under a blanket on his bed to watch. We are both convinced that Kenna and Dom are endgame. Soul mates. It's true love. Maybe Val will be Kenna's mistress though. Or maybe she'll finally hook up with Raydan.

Diego got me this shirt for my last birthday. Our favorite ships in the right order, and no other explaination. If people got it, he said, we'd know other fans right away.

I pull it on. Like Queen Adriana's signet ring, I'll wear this shirt as a reminder of what I'm fighting for. Maybe there's no romance between us, but Diego is still the Dom to my Kenna. My oldest friend. My partner in crime. I run a brush through my hair and venture back out, heading down to the atrium.

...I'm not sure where to start looking for answers. But there's someone else I want to find, too. And I'm pretty sure I know where to look.

I have to search a few different bars, but in the country-themed bar on the eighth floor, the lights are on. I don't see anyone right away, but a country ballad plays on the jukebox.

“...Jake?” I call out.

The sound of a hard smack and shattering glass behind the bar answer me.

“Ow!” Jake grunts. “Damn, that hurt...”

“...You okay back there?”

Jake stands up, wincing and running a hand through his hair.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Just about gave myself a concussion bumping my head, but I'm great.”

“That's what happens when you get a big head about everything.”

“What can I say, Princess? My ego is a gift and a curse.” His eyes fall on my T-shirt and he grins. “Crown and the Flame, huh? You more of a Kenna or a Dom?”

“Me? I'm totally Kenna.”

“Pfft. Figures.”

“...Jake, what are you doing behind the bar, anywhere. We're supposed to be looking for clues about where the Watchers took Diego.”

“Yeeeah...I think they left their address at the bottom of one of these bottles. Only one way to find out which one.” He smirks at me, but there's a helpless fear in his eyes that I can't mistake. I know what he's thinking. I know what memories this is bringing back for him. I touch his hand.

“...Jake...”

He shudders, recoiling from my touch just a little. “Ya know, did somebody steal some of this booze? Used to be a bottle of Raleigh DeWitt Gold whiskey sittin' here. Been sayin' I was savin' it for when things really went down the crapper--”

“Jake--”

“--and well, I think it's about time. But look! Somebody guzzled the whole thing! It's empty--”

Jake!” He shuts up, staring at the floor. I take a deep breath. “...I know you're worried about him. Whatever you pretend, I know you're worried. ...But you can't do this to me right now. I need you to get your act together if we're going to save him.”

He sighs. “You're right. Like always. Look at me. I'm pathetic!” I startle as he suddenly picks up the empty whiskey bottle and hurls it into the wall. It shatters in a rain of glass. ...Like the window in my room last night...

I shiver. When Jake drops out of sight behind the bar, I rush to walk around the corner and find him. He's sitting on the floor, his head buried in his hands. I scoot in beside him, sitting close. ...I need to feel him beside me. I need to know that he's here. I almost lost him, too...

“...Did you really drink that whole bottle just now?”

“...Nah. There was only about a quarter left. Been nipping away at it since my plane blew up.” He draws in a shuddering breath. “Thing is, I ain't given a damn about people in a long time, Princess. Then you came along and pretty much blew that whole plan straight to hell. Now thanks to you, I'm all torn up inside over your gang of Little Rascals. And it's all your fault.”

“My fault?” I echo wryly. “How do you figure that?”

Jake snorts a laugh and looks at me, our faces close. Strands of his sandy hair fall across his bright blue eyes, shimmering with unshed tears.

“Not sure if you noticed last night, but you kinda blew my mind.”

I can't hold back a smile. “...I definitely noticed.”

His face is so close now that I can see the light catching on his damp eyelashes. As if drawn in by a magnet, I lean in and let my lips brush softly against his. I feel him lip me back. We pull apart, just an inch, our eyes meeting. Then we collapse into one another in the same frenzied, needful passion that consumed us the night before. Jake picks me up as if I weigh no more than a feather, sitting me down on the edge of the bar. I yank off his green bomber jacket. He pulls my shirt from the waistband of my jeans and lets his hands roam underneath. He breaks the kiss for a moment.

“Does this mean we're--”

“Yeah,” I reply quickly, recapturing his lips with mine.

“And it's not like--”

“No.”

“Cool.”

He pulls my shirt off over my head and kisses down my neck to my chest, pausing at the hollow between my breasts.

Hey!” Zahra's voice, echoing from somewhere outside, makes us both jump. “You guys are gonna wanna see this!”

We pause, pulling apart reluctantly. I struggle to put the breaks on my racing heart. Jake groans.

“Zahra must hate me. She must really, really hate me.”

“I'm sure she does,” I agree wryly, pulling my shirt back on. “Come on. We should see what's up.”

Outside the bar, we look down into the atrium and find Zahra waving at us from the first floor.

“Get down here! You guys aren't gonna believe this!”

We head down, catching up to her just about the same time as the others do. She leads us down a hall to a massive set of ornately carved wooden doors. ...Which would not be unusual in The Celestial. ...Except that between us we had searched the entire resort top to bottom while we were searching for entrances to barricade before the attack. And I can tell looking around at my friends' faces that none of them recognize these doors.

“...Uh...was this always here?”

“...What in heavens?” Aleister breathes.

“Definitely never seen those before,” Sean confirms.

Quinn kneels to examine the edges. “Look here. See how the wall is chipped where it meets the doors? And there's some plaster stuck to the carvings.”

“...These doors were hidden,” I conclude. “Like they were drywalled over.”

“Seconded,” Jake says. “Done some construction in my day, and I can pretty much guarantee it.”

Michelle rolls her eyes. “Is there anything you haven't done?”

“Not really.”

“If these doors were hidden, who found them?” Sean asks. “How'd they even know they were here?”

“Somehow, I doubt it was Diego,” Estela says flatly.

“There are some words engraved here,” Aleister remarks, squinting. “My Latin is rusty, but I see the Roman numerals for 79 A.D.”

“Have you guys looked at these carvings in the door?” Zahra asks, eyeing them with distaste. “They're kinda messed up.”

“It does not appear messed up to me,” Iris chirps. “It's a clear depiction of humans turning to ash in a volcanic eruption. The craftwork is in excellent condition.”

“Pompeii. It's a carving of Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and wiped out the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny the Elder was killed when he attempted to rescue his family in Stabiae.” Seeing the others staring at me, I shrug. “What? I'm a history major. I know things like this.”

“Alodia is correct,” Aleister says. “Mount Vesuvius did erupt in 79 A.D. The depiction fits the date on the engraving.”

“It's still pretty creepy,” Zahra mutters.

“Enough stalling,” Craig says. “You gonna open 'em or what?”

“I'm not scared!” Zahra snaps.

“Didn't say you were.”

“You thought it,” she says accusingly.

Craig grins. “Yeah, I did.”

Zahra pushes on the massive doors. They swing slowly open, revealing a sprawling, majestic library that puts the one in Beauty and the Beast to shame. Worn, leather-bound books fill the rows upon rows of shelves towering over us. Tapestries adorn the bare spaces on the walls. Cherubim and Seraphim with serene, beautiful faces are painted on the ceiling in soft, heavenly shades.

“Okay, this is my new room!” Grace declares.

“This is one hell of a library, that's for sure,” Sean agrees. “But don't forget why we're here.”

“Cap's right,” Jake says. “If our mystery guest came here sometime in the last six months searching for this place, maybe it's got some answers for us.”

We split up and start searching.

“There's gotta be a million books in here,” Michelle moans. “What are we even looking for?”

“Just gotta hope we know it when we see it,” I reply.

Our footsteps echo on the marble floor as we wander the library. Morning light seeps through stained-glass windows in the upper arches, colorfully illuminating the frescoes painted on the ceiling.

“Analyzing...” Iris' voice echoes. “This mechanized celestial globe dates to 1594, one of the first produced. A first-edition text by Athanasius Kircher, circa 1662.”

“Everett Rourke's entire personal collection!” Lila breathes. “I'd always wondered what had happened to it.”

“But why would he stick this in a damn beach resort of all places? And then why seal up the entrance?”

“He had a lot to hide,” Aleister says flatly.

“Like father, like son,” Estela mutters.

Aleister ignores her, but I see his jaw tighten. Just past him, I notice Murphy, curled up beneath a book display. His tail is curled tightly around his body, and frost clings to the wall behind him, shedding from the tips of his blue fur. I go to kneel beside him.

“Hey there, fella. Why are you trembling? What're you scared of?”

Murphy whines at me, his eyes fixed on something on the wall. I follow his gaze to where a strange scepter is mounted within. I go over to examine it. Two hissing snakes twine in a double-helix around a third snake with wings framing its head.

“What the hell is that monstrosity?” Jake asks.

“Three snakes,” I say. Then, seeing where they join at the bottom, I correct myself. “No...a hydra. In the shape of a...”

“A caduceus,” Iris finishes. “The symbol of medicine used worldwide, originally the icon of Mercury, the gods' messenger.”

“So the scepter's as Roman as Pompeii,” I remark.

“Analyzing...origin undetermined. This is the only article in the library I cannot identify.” Iris's voice seems to hold real confusion.

“Did you see the inscription on the frame?” Michelle asks. I look to where she's pointing.

 

'Oh Mercury! Herald of that

shining hour when glory's

house stands open...'

  • Homeric Odes, Chapter XII

 

“The Homeric Odes!” Grace exclaims. “I saw a volume of those on the shelves!” She rushes off and returns a few minutes later with the well-worn volume. I take it from her and flip open to the twelfth chapter.

“...'His staff aloft o're glimmering waters, the herald-god marked the height of the day. And lo, the path to the depths yawned open. To conquer the heavens, a man must journey below'.”

“That passage must be important somehow,” Quinn remarks. “I for one am past believing in coincidences on this island.”

“I agree, but what could it mean?”

“Well,” Jake says thoughtfully, “the staff of the herald-god, that's gotta be this thing, right? The ca...cader...cudel...”

“Caduceus,” I finish.

“Right. That thing.”

“Sounds like this caduceus is supposed to open a path below something,” Estela remarks.

“Right. When the scepter is 'held aloft o'er glimmering waters'.”

“Hmm...where could we find water?”

“Sweet Jesus, Craig,” Michelle groans. “We're on an island.”

Quinn giggles. “Okay, but more specific maybe. Where have we seen someone standing over glimmering water?”

I snap my fingers. “The atrium!”

“Right! The statue of Rourke over the fountain's 'glimmering waters'!” Sean agrees.

“ 'Marking the height of the day',” Zahra murmurs. Then her dark eyes widen. “It's a freakin' sundial! We give the staff to the herald, the fountain becomes a sundial!”

“And the sundial opens the path!” Quinn finishes.

“Do we know what time it opens?” Michelle asks.

“Considering everything we know, my guess is noon,” I reply. “ 'The height of the day', remember?”

“My watch says it's almost noon now,” Lila says. “We can make it if we hurry!”

“Quick!” Raj says. “Alodia, grab the Twizzler!”

I grab the caduceus and follow my friends as we race the clock back to the atrium, sprinting out of the library and down the long hallway. The statue in the lobby gradually grows larger as we approach, the sunlight glinting off one pale marble arm, held aloft in front of him.

“There! We have to get the scepter into the statue's hand!”

“How?!” Michelle cries.

“Not much time to figue it out! It's 11:58!”

“I got it!” Sean says. “Pass it over, Alodia.”

I hand him the scepter. He takes a running start, and then launches himself from the rim of the fountain. With a gravity defying leap, he grabs the arm of the statue, pulls himself up with one arm, and slams the scepter into the statue's grip. He swings and vaults off the sundial, landing on his feet on the other side of the fountain.

“Like a boss!” Craig crows.

“Impressive,” Jake admits with a smirk.

“You sure you never did gymnastics?” I ask. “Learn to flip, you'd kill on vault.”

“Show-off,” Michelle mutters.

“Time, Lila?”

“Eleven fifty-nine and twenty-two seconds. We made it!”

We huddle around Lila, counting down the last seconds. At precisely twelve on the dot, the sun shines through the glass roof, the staff casting a slow-moving shadow on the fountain's numerals.

Clunk! We all start as the floor vibrates under our feet.

“Watch out!”

The tiles behind the fountain drop into the floor, falling one after the other into place, each about four inches lower than the next.

“It's a staircase!”

“Okay, that's actually pretty dope,” Zahra admits.

“All right, folks,” Jake says, “guess we're going down into whatever sex dungeon Rourke has set up.”

Aleister shudders. “Was that mental image really necessary?”

“You know, Malfoy? I immediately regretted it. Sorry.”

We head down the narrow staircase, going single-file into the darkness. Jake finds my hand and laces his fingers with mine.

“You're not actually nervous about going down here, are you, tough guy?”

“Nah. Just wanted an excuse to hold your hand.”

In the darkness, I feel the smooth floor even out. We stand together in silence, seeing nothing, hearing only the sounds of each other breathing. I am suddenly very grateful for Jake's hand in mind. I squeeze it tightly, gathering my courage to take another step forward.

With a metallic clunking sound, a floor tile depresses beneath my foot like a button. The lights flicker on around us. For a moment, we all shield our eyes. Then, as the spots clear, I find myself in a room painted totally white. Dozens of illuminated pedestals and wall displays house bizzare trinkets from every era, shining under thick glass domes.

“Dude!” Craig cries. “It's not a sex dungeon! Rourke's got a man-cave! ...No TV's though. Gotta hook up those flatscreens.”

“...What the hell is this place?” Michelle murmurs.

“I think it's some sort of museum,” Quinn says.

“Or a trophy room,” Estela suggests.

Jake runs his fingertip over a shelf. “A little dusty. Don't think anybody's been here in awhile.”

Michelle is lingering by one of the pedestals, admiring the trinket gleaming within. I walk over to look at it. Under the dome stands a figurine that looks like some sort of idol, several inches tall. It depicts a nude woman with arms outstretched, a flowing length of cloth maintaining her modesty. She appears to wear a headdress of peacock feathers.

“Wow...”

“Isn't this gorgeous,” Michelle murmurs appreciatively. “What is it made of? Gold?”

“I think it's...amber, actually.”

Experimentally, I press a green button on the side of the pedestal. The glass dome divides and retracts into the base. Michelle picks up the idol.

“It's so...beautiful...” she murmurs, almost dreamily. She offers it to me. I take it in my hands.

The moment my fingers graze it, my world flashes white, only for an instant.

I am standing in an immaculately tidy, artfully decorated bedroom. A red Hartfeld Knights banner and a tapestry with Greek letters hang on the wall amongst posters and framed pictures. A mild spring breeze drifts through the open window. There is new growth on the trees outside.

...Michelle sits on the edge of the bed, gripping one of the wooden posters.

“What are you talking about?” she whispers. “I didn't--”

Sean, standing in front of her with arms folded, glares down at her. “Yes, Michelle. You did. Your closest friends told me. You cheated. It's over.”

He turns away, towards the door. Michelle stands, stretching a hand towards him.

“Don't say that! You can't leave me! ...Please...”

Sean stops, but he doesn't look back at her. “We built something for two years, and it meant nothing to you. Of course it's over. ...How could I ever trust you again? Once you break that trust, there's no putting it back together.”

He storms out, slamming the door behind him. Michelle sinks down on the bed again, tears forming on her eyelashes. After a moment, someone knocks.

“Aww, Meech? You okay in there? Can we get you some chamomile?”

“...I just need a minute,” Michelle calls back. “Thanks, Anna...”

I count three pairs of footsteps leaving. Michelle sits in silence. The tears in her eyes don't fall. Then, giggles drift up through the open window.

“Sean totally bought it! Oh my god, I can't believe it worked!”

“You know, she probably did cheat on him at some time or another. That total skank. She thinks she's so smart. So much better than us.”

“How does she not get that the whole sorority totally hates her?”

I watch Michelle's face. I know she can hear what they're saying, but she doesn't shout. She doesn't cry. Her eyes go cold.

I'm suddenly yanked forward, pulled as if by my very heart. I'm on a stormswept beach. Rain batters Michelle as she climbs into a rusted sailboat.

“Michelle, stop!” Quinn cries.

“You're going to get yourself killed, you idiot!” Zahra yells.

“No!” Michelle screams. “I'm going! None of you want me here! You never did! You think it's my fault Craig and Aleister are dead!”

Jake graps the prow of the boat. “No! We don't! Of course we don't. Just get out of the boat! We're your friends!”

Michelle shoves him off with surprising strength, tears mixing with the rain pelting her face. Jake stumbles, falling into the shallow water.

“No!” Michelle snaps. “You're not.”

She pushes off. The wind and rough water quickly carry her into deeper water. Jake scrambles to his feet and rushes after her, but he can't move fast enough.

“Michelle! That thing's still out there!”

As her boat shrinks in the distance, I can make out a massive shadow slithering beneath the waves.

“Michelle!” Quinn screams. “Micheeeeeeeelle!”

There is another white flash, and then I am back in the museum. Michelle is right next to me, her hands still on the idol. I look up at her.
“...How long was I standing here?”

“What are you talking about?” Michelle asks. “I just handed you this thing. Do you not want it?”

I look at the peacock-headed figure. She gazes blankly back at me.

“Yo, Alodia!” Craig calls. “Check this thing out!”

I shake my head to clear it of the troubling vision and make my way over to Craig at the back of the room, still holding the idol. He points to a strange crimson glove within a glass dome, ending at the elbow. Something about it gives me deja-vu.

“What do you think this thing is?” Craig asks.

“I don't know. It looks futuristic somehow. But it also seems really old.”

He grins at me. “Wanna check it out?”

I press the button to open it, but it buzzes and flashes red. I frown.

“It's not working.”

“We could always smash it.”

“Yeah...I guess we could...”

“Hell yeah!” Craig winds up a punch and shatters the dome, sending glass sprinkling over the floor.

“Oh, my God, Craig!” I yelp. “With your hand?! Really?!”

“The hell's the matter with you, you maniac?” Zahra shrieks.

Craig points to me. “Alodia told me to!”

“...Yeeeah, this one's kinda on me,” I admit. “I didn't mean for him to use his hand though. ...Thanks, though, Craig.”

I pick up the glove. It looks a little patched together.

“It's so cool-looking! Does it do anything? Try it on!”

It's a crazy suggestion to take, but I slip the glove onto my arm. “...Do you see this at the bottom, around the elbow? It's all torn up and kinda scalded. ...I think this person's arm was cut off!”

Craig doubles over with laughter. “And you put your hand in there! Nasty!”

I hastily pull off the glove, which only makes him laugh harder. Across the museum, Jake picks up a small black device.

“Hey, Craigslist! I think I found the remote to those TVs you were looking for,” he says, pressing a few button. “Think the batteries might be dead or--”

With a mechanical hiss, the wall behind Jake splits in two, making everyone jump. Two panels slide apart, revealing an enormous floor-to-ceiling screen.

“Aww, yeah, baby!” Craig crows. “That's what ya boy is talking about!”

The screen flickers to life, revealing a map. No...not a map, strictly speaking.

“Satellite imagery!” Jake exclaims. “That's La Huerta!”

Crosshairs flash on the screen, pinpointing a location in a small bay on the western side of the island. A label appears beside the crosshairs.

“'Hostiles' Stronghold'?” Sean reads.

“'The Hostiles',” I murmur thoughtfully. “That's what Rourke called the Watchers in that recording at the Observatory!”

“I think we just found where the Blue Man Group took Diego.”

I swallow hard, raising a hand to touch the map. My fingertips graze the spot marked by the crosshairs. He's there. That's where Diego is. Diego...hold on. I'm coming for you. I turn back to the others.

“Listen...I know you've all been through a lot, so I understand if some of you want to stay here...”

Zahra holds up a hand, cutting me off. “Give it a rest, Alodia.”

“What?” I blink, looking around at my friends. Sean has his arms folded defiantly. Michelle is tying back her hair. Jake picks up an ancient hatchet. Despite their exhaustion, despite everything they've been through, they all look at me with their jaws set, eyes afire with resolve.

Zahra meets my eyes. “You already know we're coming with you.”

Craig cracks his knuckles. “Let's go save our friend.”

For a moment, I can't speak, overcome as I am with grateful tears. Then the sound of footsteps and slow clapping behind us makes us all turn. Everett Rourke, now dressed in an elegant brown suit, stands in the doorway, smirking.

“Well done, friends. You found my toys, I see.”

Jake drifts closer to me, not taking his eyes off Rourke. “Figures you'd be the kinda guy who slow claps.”

“Jacob, Jacob, Jacob...to be fair, I understand your hostility. But you're going to appreciate very quickly that we are on the same side here.” Rourke adjusts his jacket and cracks his neck. He turns to me, locking eyes and holding my gaze. I gaze back steadily.

“...You're awake,” I finally say.

“And you exist. Splendid on both counts. The pleasure, for once, is all mine.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Estela growls.

Rourke ignores her, having finally spotted his son, stewing quietly beside me, glaring.

“Aleister. My boy. ...It's been a long time.”