Chapter III

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Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, Present Day

ELLIE LAY SHIVERING UNDER several blankets in the library before the fire. She was not well, not at all. She felt fatigued at all times lately. She lacked the strength to do much of anything for herself. Even getting up to use the loo was a trial. She had been camped out on the couch in the library by the never-ending fire for the past week, and she couldn't get warm.

She pored over books searching for an answer, something to tell her what Michael could do, if there was a way to destroy the Bloodstone and who John Cross really was. She was about to give up when she came across a marriage license through an online tracking service. Airel's birth certificate, documents from the hospital, and even vaccination records—it was all there, everything but what happened before Mr. and Mrs. Cross were married.

This aborted paper trail concerned Ellie. Everyone left a mark. She knew this because she was so good at leaving just the right amount of information in her wake. If anyone looked into her, they would see enough to satisfy their curiosity, but John Cross was invisible. It was all too clean.

One of her hobbies was hacking. Her years of experience made her elite. She remembered when the Web had first launched, how she was one of the first to realize its true potential. Now like a bloodhound on a scent, she dug into the national database for missing persons and hacked through CIA and FBI firewalls—and not just those, but the shadow companies who served them—to see if there was anyone matching John Cross's profile who had gone missing or been found. She limited her search to the twenty-year span before John had married his wife.

There were a few thousand John Does missing within that time frame and a few hundred found. But all of these records were either hard copy or microfiche and not available online. She did learn that John Cross worked freelance for the CIA off and on. What kind of man freelances for the CI-freaking-A?

He owned a company—"Revolutionary Technologies, LLC"—and used it to move tech like weapons and guidance chips. If a "sensitive" piece of equipment needed to get from point A to point B, it seemed John Cross was your man. But like most entrepreneurs untrained and unchecked by the Company—the CIA—he was a risk. He could always cut and run. The CIA didn't like loose ends, and John Cross was potentially a big one. So, Johnny boy. What have they got on you that's keeping you in line? She wondered if it had an expiration date and how desperate that might make him.

Ellie could see now why he was so secretive. But that didn't explain his empty past.

She shut her laptop and stood with great effort.

"You are not well," Kreios said. He was standing by the fire, quietly watching her.

"You scared me." She wore long sleeves to hide the Mark, but he could read her thoughts. So what's the point in hiding it from him? "The Mark is back, Father. I fear it has bonded to me in ways beyond what we first imagined."

Kreios did not betray any surprise. "When I took it from you, I saw that what I was taking bore Michael's signature. Of all people. It was noble of you to try to save one of them."

"Yes, well. I have much to pay for."

"Something distinct remained, though, something old. It was too entangled within you for me to try to remove it. I might have killed you."

Ellie thought of her past and the Bloodstone that consumed her, the one that also took her son from her. "That wasn't the first time I'd been marked."

"I know. That became clear over time."

"I'm sorry, Father. So many times, I . . . I wanted to come to you. I wanted to explain everything." She sat back down, exhausted.

"A father bears his burdens."

"I guess some sins are never forgiven," she said.

Kreios folded his arms across his chest. "Sins can be forgiven, but scars remain. And neither is forgotten."

Ellie knew that if she stayed, she would die a slow death—it would be painful. She had little time left to her. She wanted to be of further use before it was too late. "I have somewhere to be."

"Other than in your father's house?"

"And you have war on your mind."

Kreios shrugged. She could see his eyes darken to full black. "The world is thin, and yes, war is coming. You should stay here, daughter. Rest."

Now Ellie folded her arms. "I told you—I have large debts. I intend to pay them."

"With your life?"

"I spent my life racking them up. How else can they be paid?"

"You confuse your scars with your sins. They are not the same thing. You do not have to go."

"You know better than that, Father. I must go. Airel is slipping, Michael is fighting a battle he may very well lose, and you—you I can no longer read." She narrowed her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could on him. "No . . . no, darkness hides your mind from me."

He walked toward her, his eyes blazing. For the first time in her life, Ellie was scared of him. "I will not lose you again. You will stay. I am not asking."

"Nor am I." Ellie thought of the place she wanted to go and disappeared.

* * *

I COULD SEE MICHAEL crying, standing over my bed, looking at me as if I were already dead. I could hear him, see Mom sitting there trapped inside her own mind. But I couldn't move, couldn't express how I felt. My flesh was a prison.

The demon I now knew as Dirk Elliott thought I was dead. Or did he? Maybe he wants me alive, and he's going to come back for me.

Fear tore through me. I struggled to get back to my body, but nothing worked. Dirk had damaged me badly, maybe permanently. I was so tired. I dreamed, remembered, and wept for the life I might never experience. Michael was standing right there, but I would never get to tell him I was sorry, that I loved him.

Ellie said something to him and then they left the room. My heart broke. What if he never comes back? What if I don't?

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