Chapter XV

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THERE WERE PEOPLE IN my room, talking excitedly. I searched for Mom. She was not in her usual chair by the window. I couldn't turn my head or move, so I was limited to what I could see from my back.

Someone said, "Keep administering CPR. Tell the nurse to get a defibrillator in here now." Silence. Then, "How long has she been like this?"

"I don't know. We check in on the patient once per shift," a woman said.

More commotion. Somebody said, "Clear," several times and there was a thumping sound. Two men came in with a stretcher and bent down. My mom was lifted into place on it and taken out in a big rush as I screamed for her in the silent hell of my own head. I caught a glimpse of her face—it was drawn, hollow, lifeless.

I was alone in the room. I cried and cried, but the tears never surfaced on my face. I cursed my father for not being here. Where is he?

She whispered again, drawing me into safer places where I could find rest. I was tired, alone, and unable to control what was happening to me. "There remains before you your darkest hour, Airel. Your resolve and desire will face their greatest testing." I could feel in She's voice both sadness and solid reassurance that these things were precisely as they should be. "You will yet be brought to the pinnacle of your life. There you must make your last choice between darkness and light. You will need this."

As I looked, it was as if I was watching myself from above. There in front of me appeared the Sword of Light. I would know that blade anywhere.

"It is El's Sword. He offers it freely to you for another season. Airel," She said. "Wake up—awaken!"

I did, but I was no longer in the hospital bed. I was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful. I saw a door hovering before me without handle or frame. I knew this door . . . long ago I'd seen it in my dreams, in my imagination, as I'd read the Book of Kreios.

I held the Sword of Light aloft for the first time in forever. A shout rang out and resonated within the molecules of the blade, which I noticed was different now. At the bisection of the blade and the guard, right at the hilt, there was a perfect circle cutting through, admitting light, air.

I swung it around a few times. It seemed to make the blade faster. Guadagnare. Stocatta.

I walked toward the door, sword in hand, and it opened. My eyes locked onto the burning black globe I beheld through the doorway. A world on fire.

I was going home. I was going back to where it had all started, and I would put an end to what was not meant to be.

Moments later, pain knifed through me. I could feel the extent of my body, the limits of my frame, and it was awkward and weird. My lungs burned—air was being forced down into me through tubes. My eyes opened and I screamed for help.

* * *

Independence, Missouri, Present Day

ELLIE HAD A THEORY she hoped would buy her a little more time. She was already very weak, so it was a last ditch effort even to try it.

As she dissolved from the couch in her father's library and scattered to the winds, she isolated the contagion of the Mark in her body, placing it away from her, in quarantine. She knew it was temporary at best, since—and she could feel this—the source it fed upon was her heart, but maybe she could buy a couple of weeks. The Mark's infection was beyond her powers to overcome. She would do what she could to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Just like any driven human determined to save the world.

She didn't know what would happen. When she gathered herself back together under a tree in the parking lot of the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, Missouri, she had readied herself for anything.

She'd thought it might kill her. But in fact, she felt better than she had in a long time, and she kicked herself for not trying it sooner. I feel like a new woman. Like I've just had the best spa day ever.

She walked inside.

The receptionist looked up at her. "Welcome to the largest facility for genealogies in the world. How may I help y—oh, wow. Can I just say . . . I just love your hair."

"Why, thanks," Ellie said. "I'm kinda partial myself." She gave a mild curtsy.

The receptionist, a round, dowdy-looking woman dressed in the full range of browns, giggled. "We don't get many people around here sporting that look."

"Well, I've stuck with what works. In and out of season." For thousands of years. "So, ah. . ." Ellie looked around for a nameplate. "So, Brenda. Where are the C's? I've got some research to do."

"Oh, of course." Brenda peeled her eyes from Ellie's electric blue mane and shoved a clipboard forward. "Sign in, and then you'll want to take the elevator to level two. You're so dang cute." Brenda giggled again.

Ellie smiled and registered and went to the second floor. After talking to three different people, she was ushered to a small room with no windows and a computer sitting on a simple desk.

As she looked through the boxes of documents that traced the Cross family tree upward from Airel to John, the trail ended. John Cross apparently had no parents, no family. No past. Which meant, "Extremely complicated." Ellie grasped at her pounding chest and coughed. Maybe not two weeks. Maybe two days.

She needed to get moving then.

Airel mentioned grandparents—they must have been on her mom's side.

She thought back to her son. She always wondered what became of him. He must have had children—otherwise, Airel would never have been born. Without angelic blood, the family line would not have been able to continue. But Qiel was lost and assumed dead ages ago. After Ke'elei, she herself had gone off the grid. She'd thought about it a lot, but never so much as she had in the last few weeks.

Wait a minute. What if I'm looking at the wrong parent?

What if it was Airel's mother who carried the bloodline? What do I even know of my own family tree?

Ellie cursed. She had to start over.

She shoved the box aside and moved to the computer. There had to be something here, anything that could give her answers as to who Airel's family were. It had started out as a hunch, an itch that needed to be scratched, but her intuition about John Cross was turning out to be a dead end.

No matter. Maybe Maggie Cross would turn up something.

She didn't even know what she was really after. Maybe she needed to feel connected to her own past by finding out about Airel's. Or maybe the thought of dying—of the Mark taking her once and for all—made her want to see what she'd missed.

All those years in hiding, running from this . . . and now that it's the only thing I want, it's the only thing I can't have.

Ellie sat back, letting the computer do its search again and again. After an hour of digging, she had come up with nothing. Maggie Cross was much easier to trace. Maggie had a past, she had a documented history. Once Ellie had found her maiden name, she was able to rule her out. Her ancestry was clear. Airel's mother was purebred human. And that meant only one thing.

It was down to John Cross again.

What are you hiding, John?

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