Whitewood Journals 3 Sneak Peek

[Here’s a very rough, completely unedited sneak peek at the first chapter from the final installment of the Whitewood Journals. Enjoy!]

CHAPTER ONE

It sounds insane, but I’m relieved now that we know when Cain will attack. The thing I’m dreading most is no longer a mystery and I feel as though a burden has been lifted. I can go about my business. Get ready. Sure, a demon has me in his crosshairs, but strangely, that doesn’t bother me. I’m only eighteen. Dying bloody should terrify me. Have me tearing out my hair. But I feel calm. Does that make me a freak?

~from the journal of Eleanor Whitewood, the last Whitewood Caretaker

Dying wasn’t so bad.

Heaven—not that I’d seen much of it—felt like home, but unlike any I’d ever lived in during my short life. Softness and peace replaced the ache of sadness and the sting of pain. Contentment instead self-doubt and guilt. All the negative emotions melted away. Even the temperature felt perfect, neither too hot nor too cold. In heaven, I could swat away unpleasant thoughts and memories, and just be.

Everything—from the loose gown I wore to the cloudy walls around me to the air itself—felt soft. Comforting. Welcoming. Somewhere in heaven, I’d find Grandpa Wendell. Everything in me begged to reunite with him. Forget the past. Leave everything behind. Ignore the memories pinging in my brain. Stop thinking about my friends’ deaths and how they could’ve been prevented.

All my fault.

“You must choose, Eleanor.”

I thought I had.

Wait. What choice? My brain felt fuzzy around the edges, like I was being pulled into a deep sleep and if I relaxed for a second, I’d drift away.

“You’re forgetting,” the man said. No, not a man . . . an angel, merciless and indifferent. “You must decide whether to stay here or return.”

On the contrary, I hadn’t forgotten a thing, which made heaven’s promise of oblivion, a tender memory wipe, so alluring. Unfortunately, as long as I resisted that gentle heavenly pull, I still remembered everything. The battle and its scorched scent. The death and destruction. Bodies of those I loved, people who counted on me to protect them, sprawled out like broken dolls. Playing underneath the memories like a disjointed tune was my agony and guilt.

All my fault.

I’d fallen for Cain’s tricks. Handed myself, and everyone depending on me, over to him on a silver platter. My stupidity got my allies killed and gifted me with a sword in the stomach. I rubbed at the spot, though there was no mark, no blood.

You’re my very own skeleton key.

The memory of Cain’s words made my guilt twist on itself, grow twice its size until I thought I’d choke. He never would’ve been able to breach the wards without my help. The second I crossed Whitewood Manor’s barrier in my demon form, he was able to do the same, thanks to our blood tie. My foolishness and our connection ensured that no Caretaker would ever be safe again. No lock could keep him out, and he’d brought his armies with him.

I closed my eyes, but the faces of the dead were burned into my brain: Ms. Nichols, the housekeeper; Lucas, my tutor; Townsend, the house steward; Mr. Conrad, the chauffeur; Mr. Petrie, the chef . . . Grandpa Wendell. Most of them were my employees, but they’d become allies. Friends. Family even. How many others were lost? How many Caretakers survived? What of the Sentinels?

Worst of all, I remembered the angel’s first words to me upon my arrival in heaven, when he said I could go back. If I returned to the living, I’d have to do it with my demon half. Balance, he’d said. There had to be a price.

Hadn’t I paid enough?

“Your choice, Eleanor?”

Right, my choice. Remain in heaven, far from Gabriel and the others but no longer burdened by my Caretaker duties, or return to Earth, back with those I loved but very much responsible for the fates of the survivors from Cain’s attack—if there were any—and bringing along with me my demonic half. The real decision came down to the easy path or the hard one. I could stay and forget, or I could go back, where everyone surely despised me for my foolish actions.

The decision would seem obvious.

I opened my eyes, wishing tears would come, but the all-consuming guilt dried them up. What right did I have to weep?

“What’s your name?” I asked.

His forehead twitched, as if to wrinkle in thought, but no lines appeared. “Eleanor, you must decide soon, or the choice will be made for you. The longer you stay, the more you’ll forget, and you won’t be in any condition to go back. I’m powerful, but not all-mighty.”

“What makes you think I want to go back? There’s nothing left for me.” I shivered despite the pleasant temperature in the room.

“You know that’s not true. Your people need you. The Sentinels. Your fellow Caretakers. Without you, they’ll be lost.”

“They’re already lost.”

He simply stared at me, his eyes telling me his patience was nearly at an end.

“Your name?” I repeated.

“Silas.”

Ah, yes. Banker angel. During my tense meeting with the Council, he’d ignored me and when he finally looked my direction, sneered and insulted me.

Our current encounter wasn’t going much better. He seemed frustrated with me, like he’d expected something different. Maybe he thought I’d jump at the chance to return to the living. Most people probably would. Of course, most people left behind loved ones, jobs, family, and a million other reasons to go back. What did I have?

A burned out manor, a pile of dead bodies, and a string of broken promises.

Silas sighed deeply, closing his eyes as if praying for strength.

“I can tell by your expression that you remember our first encounter. I won’t apologize for my behavior, because it was necessary. If I tell you everything, will you truly consider returning?”

I nodded, hoping that lying to an angel wouldn’t get me tossed out of heaven.

He continued. “You see, I was the one who gave Philippa her visions. As my brother Alexander explained, each angel has a gift. Mine is seeing the future, particularly people. Potential, so to speak. I saw you, or rather, the possibility of you. Your place in time and your promise. I saw you ushering in the Sentinels’ salvation.

“To ensure I had assistance from the humans involved, I planted the prophecy in Philippa’s head. If the humans around you thought you were there to save them, to save humanity, they would do anything to protect you. I spent hundreds of years investing in your creation, but if my brother angels knew of my interest, they would’ve destroyed you. As much as we hate to admit it, jealousy is very familiar to our kind and I fear we excel at it. My brothers are vehemently against any redemption for your Sentinels, even while they are entrusted with assuring it.”

While his little speech was chock full of new information, one thing in particular jumped out at me.

“You have got to be kidding me. The prophecy is fake?”

He pursed his lips. “Yes and no.”

I rubbed my forehead, wondering if a person could get a migraine in heaven. “Explain.”

“The problem with the future is that it is fluid. Any number of occurrences, no matter how small, could put the possibility of you off course. I had to work diligently to ensure that you were born exactly as you should be. Your potential depended on specific circumstances.”

“So, I’m really the Caretaker Queen?” I clasped my hands together to keep them from trembling, not sure which way I wanted him to answer.

“Again, yes and no.”

I groaned in frustration and kept myself from throttling Silas. “I really hate your doublespeak. What do you mean yes and no?”

He pursed his lips again. “As I said, I only saw the possibility of you. Other elements had to be in place for you to come into existence as you should. I made them happen,” he replied.

“You know, that’s incredibly vague. What things did you make happen?” Getting details from him was like pulling teeth. From a rampaging rhino. While blindfolded.

“Most importantly, I made sure each Whitewood descendant since Philippa procreated with the right person.”

Okay. Ew. “You’re saying you . . . what . . . genetically engineered me?”

“In a fashion. I ensured that each Whitewood in your family line had a child with a descendant from another Caretaker line. They didn’t know, of course. Each Whitewood descendent, and therefore each Caretaker in your line, since Philippa has had angelic heritage on both sides of their family tree . . . including you.

“Your mother, for instance, was related to Caretaker lines in England, Spain, Greece, and Romania. She had enough angel in her to qualify as a Caretaker herself even though you technically come by that status through your father’s side of the family. Your father, though he was male and therefore would never have been a Caretaker, possessed enough angelic ancestry to be quite adept at magic. Frankly, I’m surprised he never exhibited the aptitude. By the time you arrived, I’d manipulated the Whitewood line so much that your angelic make-up was strong enough to make you appear like one of us. Except for the fact that you’re female, of course.”

Even though my science-loving brain was boggled at the intertwining lineages that had to have taken place, the way he spoke—like a mad scientist overjoyed at the results of his experiment—made me want to punch him. Angels really were the coldest bastards I’d ever met.

With all his genetic intervention, was I even human?

“So, my parents married because you forced them?”

How many people’s lives had he manipulated? If destinies were real, and everyone’s life had a purpose, how many of my relatives had their futures sacrificed for me? What terrible effects did his genetic manipulation have on people? Could the angelic DNA—courtesy of their Caretaker heritage—have been responsible for my parents’ problems? And how could Silas think telling me he bred me like a prize show dog would convince me to take up his cause? If Silas’s goal was to convince me to go back to the living, knowing my existence was built on angelic meddling wasn’t the way to accomplish that.

“You know quite well that marriage isn’t a requirement for procreation. But in your parents’ case, they did marry. All I did was help them meet. Gave them small nudges. I can’t override free will. You know that. They truly loved each other.”

It sounded like a lot of double talk to me. Excuses. Thanks to my parents, I knew all about excuses.

There’s always next year, Ellie.

I’m really tired, sweetie.

It’s the last time, honey. I swear.

You know how much stress I’m under.

I just miss her so much.

Anything to explain away their addictions, their neglect. As I grew older, I came to understand more about their illnesses. I tried to sympathize with how hard their lives must’ve been, how they probably felt remorse. None of that could soothe the little girl inside me who wished her parents cared half as much about her as their drugs, alcohol, depression, and each other. Of course, perhaps their addictions and mental health struggles came about thanks to an angel who played with their lives, right down to their very DNA. Maybe they say glimpses of what they could do—the magical aptitude Silas mentioned—and thought they hallucinating. Going insane.

“So you say, angel. Excuse me if I don’t believe you.”

“Your belief in me is unnecessary. You only need to believe in yourself. I did everything in my power to make you the strongest Caretaker ever. Then, I protected you by covering my tracks. Pretending you were nothing more than a troublesome teenager, nothing special, a false savior, despite you being one of the most unique creatures on Earth.”

“If you spent all this time investing in me, why would you leave me to twist in the wind, not knowing until Sofia died that I had this whole heavenly duty thing going on? How could you let Cain kidnap me? Why leave me, and everyone around me, in the dark?”

Something about the look in his eyes pricked my senses. Before I could name the emotion that flared across his face, it disappeared and was replaced by his usual placid expression.

“You can choose to be the Queen, Eleanor. It isn’t a made up title if you live up to it. You’re powerful and a natural leader, but you have to exercise your free will. I can’t make you take up the mantle of your destiny. I can’t force you to save the Sentinels,” he insisted.

“Does this mean I’m the last Whitewood Caretaker?”

“If you succeed, you’ll be the last Caretaker ever. No others will be called on because the Sentinels will be redeemed.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Lead the remaining Caretakers and Sentinels. Defeat Cain once and for all, and the Sentinels earn their redemption.”

“Why do you care so much about that?”

“About what?” Silas asked.

“The Sentinels being redeemed. Aren’t they disobedient angels? Aren’t you jealous they get forgiven? It isn’t as though the Council has done anything for us in the past.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand. The Council was created to aide Caretakers, to help our brothers find redemption. We ignored that mission out of petty jealousy. That meant ignoring the Divine. The Council members themselves are in danger of losing their heavenly grace.”

I thought about the harsh expressions on the angels’ faces, how they didn’t care about my pleas for help when I told them about Cain. They were heartless, pitiless. Nothing I said moved them. After meeting them, I’d described them as cold, but really, they were full of emotion . . . disdain, indignation, even hatred.

I noticed one glaring omission from his version of the Queen prophecy. “What about all that saving the world bit? I seem to remember something about the end being nigh.”

Silas blushed. I didn’t realize angels could do that. He almost seemed human with pink staining his cheeks.

“I’m afraid that was, how do humans say it? Artistic license. Whenever a prophecy mentions the end of the world, people tend to pay attention. I had to ensure your human handlers took your safety and training—truly, took you—seriously. The world isn’t ending, Eleanor, but it could be for your Sentinels if you don’t go back.”

A memory rose up. Stone. My Sentinels would return to stone if I stayed in heaven.

“They’re vulnerable, Eleanor. To Cain, who could smash them to bits, and to oblivion. If they die now, unredeemed, they simply cease to exist. There’ll be no heaven or hell for them. They’ll simply be gone.”

My heart burned in my chest. I couldn’t let that happen to my guys.

“What about any who died so far?”

“Lost forever, I’m afraid.”

“But why? That’s not fair,” I protested.

“They’ve been given nothing but second chances. And in the end, they must pay for what they’ve done. With the first rebellion, the Divine cast the wicked angels down into the pit as a warning to the rest of us. What you’ve never been told is that action was a mercy. Those angels could’ve been cast out into oblivion, where they would cease to exist, lost to both heaven and hell. At least in hell, they’re allowed to live on. Not anymore. Now, when an angel disobeys the Divine, the offender is tossed into the abyss, the blackest emptiness you can imagine.”

Silas’s motivation finally became clear. He and his fellow angels on the Council were in as much danger of being cast out into nothingness for disobedience as the Sentinels were. Grandpa Wendell would snort and say Silas was covering his own ass. While that was true enough, but I couldn’t let his selfish motives sway my decision.

Fear for the remaining Sentinels gripped me. How many had died? What of Kia, Isabel, and Aimee’s Sentinels? I’d failed them most of all. Out of everyone, my three friends believed me. Supported me. How had I paid them back? By letting our enemy in. I practically rang the dinner bell for the demon horde.

“Eleanor, I can’t force you to go back, but I must stress how important it is that you do . . . and quickly.”

Sure, if I fail, all of the surviving Sentinels will be lost forever, along with Silas and his not so merry band of angels. Nothing like more pressure to make a girl want to run.

“Won’t bring back the dead,” I murmured.

“No, but there are still others you can save if you go back now, before it’s too late.”

A beautiful tune broke through my turbulent thoughts, distracting me. Was that . . . singing?

“You hear that?” I asked.

Silas’s eyes narrowed. “Hear what?”

No, not singing, more like a giant wave of sound. I couldn’t separate voices from instruments or even one instrument from another, but the melody warmed me from the inside out, reminding me of hot chocolate on a cold autumn day.

The music stirred up a wild tangle of emotions in me. Love—something I’d expect in heaven—but acceptance and forgiveness too. Reminded me of that sweet, cherished feeling I got when Ms. Nichols combed out my hair after a bath or when Mr. Petrie and I gossiped over fresh-baked scones and tea. Called to mind the smell of Grandpa Wendell’s shirts and how his whiskers rasped my lips when I kissed his cheek. The sounds and sensations melted into me and healed the cracked spaces in my heart.

Best of all was the sense of being finished. Done. I’d run my course and the time had come for me to rest. Everything inside me cried out to follow the music and not look back. Forget Silas. Forget the decision before me. Focus on the sound calling me home.

“You have to fight it, Eleanor,” Silas warned.

I had trouble paying attention to his words. “Fight?”

No, I was done fighting. Had my fill, thanks very much.

“That’s heaven calling you. I can’t hold you here much longer. With every passing minute, the pull to move on grows stronger.”

“Because I’m dead?”

“No, because you’ve passed on. Dead is nothingness, which is what your Sentinels will be if you don’t snap out of it. You’re moving on, unless you take up my offer to return.”

The music swelled, and I struggled to pick apart the meaning behind Silas’s words. If heaven was anything like the music, I knew it would be wonderful. Everything I ever wanted. Maybe I’d see my parents. Would they know me? Could we finally be a real family, free from the weight of our problems and full of joy like we should’ve been? Hope blossomed in my chest and I swayed, moving in time to the heavenly music and the bittersweet thought of reuniting with my loved ones.

“Eleanor!” He grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard. “Are you forgetting Gabriel? Your other Sentinels?”

Silas spoke the only name that could cut through my foggy brain: Gabriel. My love for him obliterated everything else. He had to be alive. Silas wouldn’t be so cruel as to use Gabriel’s name in order to convince me to return if my chosen was dead.

At least, I hoped the angel wasn’t that cruel.

“Can I come back? When it’s all over, can I return?”

Once I’d heard heaven’s music, I knew I’d miss it. The warmth and love. How could anyone hear the sound and not want it more than their next breath?

Silas smiled. “Of course.”

“Then, I’ll go back.”

The angel reached out, touched my shoulder, and then everything around me went blazing white until I could see no more.

***

I first noticed the cold. The chill hit me like a physical blow. A sudden ache split my head in two. I fell to the ground, clutching my forehead as the memories that had begun to turn fuzzy in heaven came into sharp focus, forcing me to relive each one in horrible detail.

Crossing the barrier in my demon form with Cain.

Waking up to the smell of smoke and death.

Battling my way through the manor.

Stumbling over Mr. Petrie’s body.

Turning demon in front of my friends.

Thomas injured.

Gabriel and Cain fighting.

Then, Cain and I locked in combat.

Finally, Cain’s sword through my stomach and meeting Silas in heaven.

When I thought of heaven—the absolute tranquility, music, and tender warmth—and what I’d given up, I broke down. Sobs shook my body. Leaving heaven behind felt like losing a loved one. It opened up a hole in my chest that even Gabriel’s love and the hope of redeeming the Sentinels might not fill. I retched, but nothing came out.

Freezing wind swept through the birch trees. I took in my surroundings, realizing I was just outside the property bounds. Too far to see details of the manor, my body nonetheless reacted to the sight of its stone facade, and I shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the cold. My gaze flitted over the damage, not wanting to acknowledge it, and my eyes watered. I didn’t know if the tears were from the chilly weather or the painful yearning growing in my chest.

I had to see Gabriel. To know he was safe.

If only I could get my legs to work. My muscles were cramped and stiff, like I’d been sitting too long. Another blast of wind whipped through the trees, rattling whatever shriveled leaves remained on the brittle branches.

I finally looked down at my body, noting I wore the exact clothing I’d died in, complete with dried blood staining the front. My hands were filthy and caked with blood. Reaching up with a shaking hand, I passed my fingers through my long hair, finding tangles and things trapped in it. I didn’t want to think about what the bits of stuff in my hair were. I probably looked like a survivor of a zombie apocalypse.

Would it have been too much for that damn angel to bring me back to Earth cleaned up, like I was in heaven?

My stomach spasmed and to my utter embarrassment, I puked and lost control of my bowels at the same time. Fresh tears fell from my eyes and snot bubbled from my nose. Despite the cold, sweat broke out across my forehead and back. In the span of thirty seconds, my body seemed to have expelled everything in it. Wind swept through the trees again, chilling me to the bone because my clothes were soaked with bodily fluids. For the first time since I’d mastered turning into my demon half, I wished I had the strength to do it. Flying up to the manor rather than trudging through the grounds would’ve at least been less tiresome and disgusting. Unfortunately, I had nothing left in me. I was a drained battery.

Putting one foot in front of the other, I slowly made my way onto the property. As I crossed onto the manor grounds, a tiny sting prickled my skin. Was that the wards reacting to my demonic half or my guilt over what I knew I’d find on the other side?

What I saw exceeded my worst fears. Evidence of the battle was everywhere, from the charred remains of the gazebo to the burnt sections of the maze to the trampled rows of lavender and the broken glass of Mr. Simpson’s greenhouse. Being forced to march past the devastation at such a glacial pace only increased my torture.

As I neared the grand sweep of what should’ve been my lawn, but resembled something closer to a pockmarked battlefield, a cry went up, high and feminine. I swung my gaze up to the manor patio and saw an exhausted—and very disheveled—Aimee. Her black hair, normally so shiny and perfectly styled, hung in a limp ponytail. Her pale skin looked chalky instead of creamy.

What I didn’t expect was to see Isabel burst from the barracks door, dagger raised to attack and dressed like a warrior in fighting leathers, her long brown hair cut military short and a vivid scar crossing her right cheek.

“No, Isabel! Wait!” Aimee shouted.

With no weapon and certainly no desire to hurt my friend, I braced for impact, hoping I could avoid getting stabbed to death.

Again.

As Isabel neared, a flaming arrow flew in front of her, startling her enough to stop and look up at Aimee.

“Que haces? Are you crazy?” Isabel cried out. “You could’ve hit me and this creature would’ve finished the job and killed me.”

She quickly recovered, turning on me with her dagger at the ready.

“Stop, Isabel! Don’t hurt her!” Aimee shouted, dashing down the stone steps toward us. “It’s Ellie!”

Isabel finally looked me in the eye, sneering in disbelief. “Ellie’s dead. This is a demon’s trick.”

“No, it’s not,” Aimee replied, stumbling in her hurry to reach us. “We never found her body.”

Isabel rolled her eyes, but didn’t relax her stance one bit. “Do I need to state the obvious, chica? The Sentinels are solid rock. That means their Queen is dead. And you heard what Gabriel said before he succumbed to the stone. Cain stabbed her.”

Aimee smiled, patient and calm in the face of Isabel’s anger. “And he also said she disappeared.”

“You’re delusional. This thing,” she spit out, pointing at me, “is wearing Ellie’s face to gain entry into the manor. It’ll probably kill us all in our sleep. You’re so desperate to have her back that you’re willing to lie to yourself, but I won’t. Ellie’s dead. We’re alive, and I’d like to stay that way. Let’s kill this abomination and finish setting up the wards. Amos is going to have our heads if we don’t get done before sundown. Madre de Dios, I’d like to get real sleep for once.”

Gabriel was stone again. The news devastated me even though Silas had shown me already. But somehow, my stupid heart hadn’t given up the hope that he’d been using the vision of their stone forms to force my hand, that my Sentinels were fine without me.

The desire to give up, to lay down and wish for death, pulled at me even harder than heaven’s music. At the same time, I wanted to chew Isabel out for not recognizing me, but I couldn’t. Shock was such an insignificant word for what I felt. She’d changed. Hardened. Gone was the laughing, lighthearted young woman I’d met, the one who wanted to play sleepover pranks and eat junk food. Seeing her new demeanor pained me, even more than the wreckage surrounding us, and almost as much as the stench of death that still permeated the grounds. Losing the old Isabel was yet another death. One more that was my fault.

My daydreaming nearly cost me my life. Isabel took advantage of my distraction and lunged, the sharp tip of her blade barely missing my torso as I dodged the blow. Aimee used her bow to knock the dagger from Isabel’s hand.

“That’s what I was trying to get out if you’d only let me,” Aimee replied. “I finished the wards. No demon can get through, at least, not the lower ones.”

Which meant Cain very well could. The strongest wards in the magical world probably couldn’t keep him out.

You’re my very own skeleton key.

“This is really Ellie?” Isabel cast a disbelieving glance at me.

“Should I prove it?” I said. My voice came out scratchy, like I hadn’t used it in weeks.

Aimee nodded in encouragement. Isabel glared.

“Your name is Isabel Alvarez. You grew up on the Yucatán Peninsula. Your chosen Sentinel is Pablo and your mother’s name was Teresa. You wanted to freeze our bras when we had a sleepover in my suite and you cheat at cards. Should I keep going?”

Relief broke across Isabel’s face, fracturing her harsh expression and making her almost look like her old self. With a cry, she flung her arms around me.

“Estupida. Don’t ever do that to me again.”

Aimee joined the group hug. After a moment, she said, “Mon Dieu, Ellie. You stink!”

***

Relaxing in a bubble bath in my old suite felt—well, not heavenly exactly, and I would know—but blissful. I’d first showered off the chunkier bits and scrubbed thoroughly before sinking into the hot, foamy water. Once I was squeaky clean and relaxed, my mind wandered, thinking about Gabriel. Imagining what it would be like to see him again.

Once they knew I was for real, my friends’ first order of business was cleaning me up and feeding me. Aimee and Isabel, while acknowledging my deep need to see Gabriel, insisted I clean up first. I protested for a couple of minutes before the romantic, and maybe a bit neurotic, side of my brain reminded me that Gabriel could see me even in his stone form. I couldn’t have our first meeting take place with me covered in bodily fluids, dirt, and demon entrails. Besides, accommodating them was the least I could do. I’d taken so much from my friends. If fussing over me made them feel better, I could go along with their demands.

Aimee and Isabel broke the worst of the news as they half-carried me up to my suite and prepped my bath. Gabriel and the other Sentinels were in their stone forms, hibernating because I’d died. Not only my Sentinels, but all of them. All over the world, apparently.

I had no explanation for it. When I asked my friends what they thought was going on, Aimee shrugged and said, “They’re yours now. All of them.”

Instead of encouraging me or bolstering my confidence, the thought that I was truly responsible for all the Sentinels left me with a headache and a painful twinge in my stomach. Not wanting to face my responsibilities, and maybe being a little worried over how my reunion with Gabriel would go, I stayed in the tub long after the water went cold, only getting out when Isabel called out for me.

“In a minute!” I yelled, stepping out of the bath.

Normally, Ms. Nichols would be there, fussing over me like I was her daughter and wrapping me in a thick towel. She always mothered me when I got hurt. Thinking of her, of getting revenge on Cain for her death, I swallowed hard and fought my tears.

Grabbing a towel, I dried off and stared into the mirror. I looked skinnier. Faded like an old dishrag that had seen too many washings. As if my celestial trip stripped the meat from my bones and drained me of energy. My skin appeared leeched of color, which was saying a lot for someone as pale as me. The freckles on my face stood out even more. My usually vibrant auburn hair looked like orange straw.

“Ellie?” Worry colored Isabel’s tone.

The way I showed up, the state I arrived in, all of it freaked her out. While she said she believed I was Ellie, there was a hesitancy in her eyes. I couldn’t decide whether she was more worried for me or scared of me. Maybe both.

Before the attack, before my death, she’d been so sure of me. I was the Queen. Her savior. Then, I let her down by dying, something I wasn’t supposed to do. I knew better than anyone the pain of realizing our heroes were nothing more than fallible humans. How many times had I held out hope that my dad would change his ways?

I pulled on a robe, wrapped a towel around my head, and walked into my bedroom. Isabel sat on the bed, a tray of food beside her. With all the destruction around the manor and grounds, I expected my suite to be equally messed up. Surprisingly, it was untouched. I didn’t want to think about why, although I had my suspicions.

You could belong to me and be my queen. Everyone would worship and fear you.

I cringed, thinking about all the times I traveled to Cain’s realm in my dreams. He probably told his minions not to touch my suite. I was his precious pet after all.

“Are you hungry?” Isabel patted the space next to her.

I was, yet I hesitated. Our friendship didn’t feel right anymore. The setup in front of me felt too much like our sleepovers from before.

Before Cain’s attack. Before all the death and destruction. Before I ruined everything.

“Where’s Aimee?”

“In her room.” Isabel pointed at the food. “You should eat.”

I thought of the last meal I’d eaten in my room, cooked by Mr. Petrie. One of the dead. Who’d prepared the meal Isabel offered? I didn’t have it in me to ask. The food was simple. Nothing like Mr. Petrie’s creations. To appease Isabel, I picked up a sandwich and bit into it, tasting ham, Swiss cheese, and butter. That told me who made the meal.

“Aimee makes a mean sandwich,” I said, trying to smile but suspecting it came off creepy.

Aimee loved ham and cheese sandwiches, always on a baguette, of course. Hearing how she put butter on sandwiches instead of mustard or mayo had fascinated me since I’d never left my hometown until coming to Whitewood Manor. She seemed so cultured and worldly-wise with her French accent and tales of traveling all over Europe. It hadn’t been so long ago that we’d laughed over midnight snacks and watched movies. After everything that happened, those memories felt like a dream, like remembering someone else’s life.

“She does it to keep her mind off . . . things.” Isabel ran her fingers over her cropped hair.

The sandwich turned into sawdust in my mouth. Since returning, I’d learned that Luc, her chosen, was dead. There’d be no redemption for him. I didn’t know if the other Caretakers knew what happened to Sentinels when they died before redemption, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell my friends. At least not right away.

For Aimee, there might never be relief from the overwhelming sadness. I couldn’t believe she even spoke to me. If our situations had been reversed, and she’d let a powerful demon past the wards and that demon killed Gabriel, I’d want her head on a pike in my front lawn. At the very least, I certainly wouldn’t welcome her home and make sandwiches.

“I didn’t say that to hurt you, Ellie.”

“I know,” I replied, setting the remains of my sandwich on the tray and gazing out the window. The sunset sent rays of orange and gold through the gauzy curtains.

“It’s not like you killed Luc. Cain got through. We thought you’d died, for heaven’s sake. We’re simply relieved you’re all right.” Isabel’s words sounded reassuring and supportive, but her eyes told me she needed an explanation and I didn’t know if I was brave enough to give it.

How could I tell them what I’d done? It was a betrayal so deep, and of the people who trusted me. People who thought I was their leader. What a sham of a queen I turned out to be.

I sipped my water, looking for a distraction.

The walk through the manor to my suite was enough to show me that my home looked even worse than I’d seen during the battle. To say we needed to hire an army of builders was an understatement. The task was too big for my friends, but they had done what they could. The smaller chunks of rubble had been pushed out of the way and left in piles. Broken glass had been swept up, and the windows boarded up. Still, most of the furniture inside was ruined. Nearly every wall was riddled with pockmarks and charred spots. The beautiful marble and stone flooring had been scarred. Carpeting and rugs were scorched beyond saving. The staircase railing had been ripped away in places. And that was only what I’d seen. I had no idea what the rest of the manor looked like.

The bodies were gone. I didn’t have it in me to ask where they’d been taken.

We hadn’t run into anyone else. I had no idea how many of my staff survived. If I asked, Aimee would be sure to gather everyone together to greet me and I couldn’t do that yet. My mental armor wasn’t strong enough to see whether they hated me or not.

“How long have I been gone?”

Isabel looked away, toward my balcony. “Perhaps Aimee should talk to you about that.”

“Why won’t you?”

I took her hand in mine, but she pulled away and got up from the bed.

“Isabel?”

She rounded on me, fire in her eyes. “What do you want me to say? You left! And everything had gone to hell. We had to recover. Clean the manor as best we could with almost no help. Bury the bodies. Cry over our Sentinels.”

Part of me completely understood her anger, because I shared it. I hated myself for what happened. For how thoroughly I’d let them down. Luc was dead; Pablo was in stone. Our dearest friends were dead.

Another part of me wanted to lash out. I could’ve stayed in heaven and left all the pain behind. I had an out and didn’t take it. Cain tricked me, and I’d died for my mistakes. I knew I didn’t deserve forgiveness, but I’d hoped for understanding. Was that too much?

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked, hating the tremor in my voice. “Apologize for dying? You make it sound like I threw a party and left you with the mess. I was stabbed in the gut by a demon!”

By the end of my outburst, I was shouting. Isabel turned away, covering her face with her hands. Her shoulders shook as she silently cried. I wished I had the patience and maturity to comfort her. The old Ellie would. Isabel was my friend. She supported me when so few did. She’d suffered right alongside me. I owed her. We should cling to each other for support, not tear each other apart.

“Am I interrupting?”

Aimee stood at the door, a bottle of wine in her hand and a shocked look on her face.

“Of course not,” I replied.

Isabel wiped her face and turned around. She didn’t say anything, but tried to smile at Aimee.

“You’re both terrible liars. Come on. Let’s drink this. I know not all of us are legal, but I doubt anyone will deny us some wine while we talk about difficult things.”

Aimee motioned for us to follow her into the living room. Three glasses, a corkscrew, cheese, and crackers were set out. Isabel and I took seats, watching as Aimee opened the bottle and then filled the glasses.

“I know the stereotype is that we French are wine experts, but I must confess I know nothing. I only know what I like.” Her grin was a brief flash, gone too soon.

I took the glass Aimee held out. Because of my dad’s addiction, I never did the underage partying thing in high school. At Whitewood Manor, where no one batted an eye at offering wine or champagne to me, I rarely indulged. After the day I’d had, though, I welcomed drinking something that would take the edge off.

“That’s good,” Isabel said, taking another drink.

I sipped my wine, trying to hide the worry pulsing in my veins. I felt a reckoning coming. Chills broke out across my arms. How much of a confrontation was I about to face?

“Now that you’re all settled, I’m sure you have questions,” Aimee said.

Expecting a firing squad, her soft, patient tone threw me off. “What do you mean?”

Aimee placed her warm, soft hand on my arm. “You died and came back to this chaos. I would have a million questions.”

I didn’t know where to start. Was Gabriel all right? What about my other Sentinels? In their stone forms, it would be hard for anyone to tell if they had life-threatening injuries and I didn’t know if they could fully heal in that state. Thomas hadn’t. He still bore scars from a long ago battle and being stuck in stone for an extended period.

Had Aimee and Isabel seen Cain since I left? Any other demons? How did the other Caretakers and Sentinels fare?

Who else died?

I couldn’t form the words. All my body wanted to do was run to Gabriel and throw my arms around his stone body.

“Perhaps it would be better to take you to see him,” Aimee said.

“How did you know?” I asked. A tear fall down my cheek.

“It’s what I would want,” she whispered.

Isabel drained her glass and set it down. “I’m going to talk to Amos.”

Aimee and I watched her stalk from the room.

“She’s angry with me,” I said.

Aimee sighed, a weary sound that seemed to come from deep inside. “We’re all angry, all the time. With each other. With ourselves. Only time will cure that. And revenge on Cain, if we can have it.”

I grabbed her hand. “I’m sorry about Luc.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Ellie. He died in battle, something he was prepared to do.”

“But it was my fault,” I whispered. “I let Cain in.”

Aimee didn’t react to my confession beyond a slight twitch of her mouth. Her silence scared me.

“Say something.”

“We should go up to the roof,” she said.

“Aimee—”

She held up a hand to silence me. “Let’s go to the roof.”

“Why?”

“You need them and that’s where they are. Come.”

***

The stairwell to the roof was exactly as I remembered it, but after the battle, the door leading onto the rooftop looked like it had been blown away. All that remained were jagged pieces of wood.

Stepping out into the twilight, I could almost pretend I’d been transported to early summer when I arrived at Whitewood Manor. I could imagine I was discovering my guys in their stone forms for the first time.

Except the air around me was cold and bit into my skin. The rooftop was littered with pieces of wood and stone. Unlike inside the manor, no one had cleaned up the roof after the battle.

“How many are up here?” I asked.

“All of them,” Aimee whispered in reply. “As soon as they felt the change coming over them, they gathered here.”

She wandered over to a Sentinel I didn’t recognize. He was in bad shape. Even in his stone form, I could see numerous cuts. Some looked life-threatening.

“Who is that?” I asked.

In the build-up to the attack, a handful of Caretakers and their Sentinels had joined us at Whitewood Manor. I hadn’t taken time to get to know all of them. Another failure. Certainly not the behavior of a real leader.

Aimee shrugged. “I don’t know. I think his name might be Aaron.”

I walked among the Sentinels, looking for my guys. I found John first. He appeared unhurt and I breathed a sigh of relief. Next, I found Michael. He had cuts, but none seemed deep or fatal. Finally, I found Thomas and Gabriel. They stood together, as if deep in conversation. Both were beat-up and disheveled. Fresh from battle, yet looking like statues in a museum.

“I still don’t understand. Why did they all go dormant? Unless they have no Caretaker, they should be awake.”

Aimee shrugged. “Like I said, you’re the Queen. They’re yours now.”

What would she do when she heard the prophecy was one big angelic prank, a fake vision to get Philippa and the other Caretakers to take an interest in me? What would she say if she knew Silas was only interested in saving himself and the other Council members? That saving our Sentinels was only a side benefit to his ultimate goal?

Turning my attention to Gabriel, I reached out to trace his brow. Touch his cheek. I would’ve given anything for him to awaken, to speak. I leaned into him, pretending he was holding me. Nothing but unyielding stone met my embrace.

“Come back to me,” I whispered. “I can’t do this without you.”

I finally allowed myself a good, hard cry.

 

[copyright 2019, P.M. Hernandez]

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