Chapter 26

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Victor's head shot up from the frozen dirt, and a sequence of raw emotions passed over his face at the sight of his wife—shock, excitement, amusement.

Pain and uncertainty.

Time planted its feet as the two lovers locked eyes, and Siren halted in her red cloak and fur lined leathers, her stomach protruding from her waist, her brow crinkling with recognition.  It was like watching someone douse an exuberant, dancing fire in ice water—killing all life, color, and movement, save for the eerie steam rising from the coals.

Beckett was the first to disrupt the stillness of the moment.  Wielding twin blades, the seasoned soldier took off toward the Pans surrounding the portal, seemingly determined to shut off the beam of shadows before an explosion of Pots rained down upon us. Tom followed after him with rage in his step, the unscarred half of his face spouting black ash from the arrow wound.

Dread chewed at my stomach tissue as I watched him go.

Be safe, Tom. 

Please.

Meanwhile, Jo fired arrow after arrow at the approaching demon soldiers—shooting, nocking, shooting, nocking—providing cover for Fudge and Siren as they ran to help us.

"Hello, love," Victor greeted weakly, and the female warrior bent to help him out of his confines.

"Victor," she murmured. "Still breathing I see."

"Good set a'lungs."

A Pan started toward the duo, but Jo instantly shot the demon in the spine. He burst into black smoke a foot away from Blaze, sprinkling his peach-colored braid and beard in ashes.

I winced at another life taken. How many soldiers had I slaughtered and indirectly killed by venturing into Rhean territory?  How much blood had been spilt in my attempt to save lives?

Was any of this justified?

Victor glanced back at Siren, those brown eyes flicking to her pregnant stomach and back. "You look lovely, darling."

She glared down at him, clearly not in the mood for his flirtations.  She moved aside to free his subordinates, and the man's hopeful smile deteriorated.

I turned away from the awkward exchange just as Fudge arrived, a trailing point blade at the ready.  The teen crouched behind us and began sawing through the rope linking Mason's hands.

"Patrons, Nicki.  What are you doing here?" Mason demanded, shooting a confused and startled glance over his shoulder.  I'd never heard him call Fudge by his first name, let alone his nickname, and I wondered if I'd ever stop being perplexed by their friendship.

Fudge huffed and slapped the back of Mason's head.  "Saving your frozen butt, dummy. What else?"

He freed the ungrateful welt and moved on to untie my deadly hands.  The moment the bonds vanished from my wrists, I spun on my knees to face my rescuer.

A face of freckles and dirt. A winter-kissed blush. Wavy brown locks damp with sweat and mountain mist.  A leather satchel overflowing with rolled documents instead of travel supplies. And of course, a pair of beautiful blue eyes more colorful than anything I'd encountered in the last ten years.

He shot me that warm, dimpled smile, and I yanked him in for a proper hug, closing my dampening eyes. My arms completely enveloped his small frame, and that fact alone had me all choked up. For that brief moment, I didn't care about the demon soldiers racing toward us from all directions.  I didn't care about the portal growing skyward like the world's most horrifying tornado, filling the world with static and something colder than any temperature known to the human race.   No, in that moment, I just needed to know that Fudge was real and tangible, that he was really here at the Gorge with me, 100 miles from a cabin full of blueprints.

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