Link to book on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ANGD4PO
Today was important. The biggest story to ever hit a news desk was about to break. James Edward James, known to everyone as Jim E. Jim, scurried around the studio set. He was producer and glorified gopher of the program. Everything had to be perfect. If it wasn’t, he would hear about it from the “scream’n demon” after the show. The demon was seated behind her desk on the set waiting to be cued.
Ayesha Hall was, of course, not really a demon; instead, she was a stunningly beautiful black woman and was as driven and competitive as any man ever thought about being. She was host of her own local television show, The Ayesha Hall Show, on RFNZ in Roman Falls, Oklahoma. It was a program usually aimed at women and their issues. Ayesha called it her powder puff show and desperately wanted to move upward to a national news program, where the real money was—and the celebrity status that came with it.
The director cued the intro: “Three, two, one.”
While the preprogrammed introduction to the show started, Ayesha laid down her mirror and shuffled papers nervously. Today’s show just might be the most important of her career. When the intro stopped, the director cued her.
“Welcome everyone,” she said as professionally as she could manage. She hoped this would be picked up by the networks. “I’m Ayesha Hall, and this is The Ayesha Hall Show. We’re breaking from our usual format to bring you exclusive coverage of what might be termed, The Story of the Millennium. Ladies and gentlemen,” Ayesha said and leaned slightly forward toward the camera, “this is not a hoax. I repeat: This is not a hoax! The facts in this bombshell story have been triple-checked by RFNZ’s roving reporter, Tiger Torres. We’re going live to Tiger now.”
Tiger’s face flashed across television screens. He was a good-looking Hispanic man in his early thirties, with neatly trimmed hair and wearing an expensive suit, which he had bought especially for this broadcast.
“Tiger, what has happened?” Ayesha asked.
“Thank you, Ayesha,” Tiger said and, like the beautiful host of the show, tried to be as professional looking and sounding as possible. “I want to repeat your words. This is not a hoax.” He took a breath and stood as straight as possible. “Ladies and gentlemen, some of the dead have come back!”
“Tiger, I want you to repeat that in case some of our viewers didn’t catch it,” Ayesha said.
The camera went back to Tiger. “Some of the dead, and we don’t know how many, just yet, have actually come back!” He let that sink in for about two seconds. “Gil, can you get a shot of what I’m talking about?” he asked the cameraman.
Gil panned the camera around and scenes of police cars were flashed across the television sets of Roman Falls.
“Witnesses that I have interviewed, and we have that footage for you, have told me that a large, black stagecoach-looking vehicle drawn by black horses showed up in front of this house about an hour ago. A man got out and went inside. The man is Gerald O’Conner. Neighbors say that Mr. O’Conner was a long-time resident of Roman Falls and was recently deceased last January.” Tiger turned to a woman standing beside him.
“This is Sarah Teller, a neighbor of Gerald O’Conner.” The camera focused on a heavy-set woman about fifty years old. The woman was excited about being on camera.
“Hi everyone,” she said and waved to the viewers.
“Mrs. Teller, explain to us what you saw.”
“I was here in my yard working on my flowers, and there was this big, black stagecoach that pulled up. It was being pulled by six or eight black horses. I’m sorry, but I just can’t remember how many horses there were. Anyway, the horses were snorting fire, and before anyone asks, I wasn’t snorting anything myself!” She glared at the camera as if daring anyone to say she was on drugs.
“Then what happened?” he prompted.
“Well, when the stagecoach stopped, a man got out and walked toward the O’Conner house over there,” she pointed to the house directly across from hers.
The camera again got a shot of the police cars in front of the O’Conner house. “Did you recognize the man?” Tiger asked.
Mrs. Teller’s face came back on camera. “My first instinct was to say that it was Gerald O’Conner, but then I remembered he was dead!” She took a huge breath and laughed nervously. “You’ve got to understand that those fire-snortin’ horses shook me up pretty good.”
Tiger nodded that he understood and moved the microphone closer to the woman.
“Anyway, I figured the guy was Gerald’s kinfolk. You know, someone who looked like him…maybe an identical twin. I went to poor Gerald’s funeral, and it was an open casket. I know he’s dead!”
“Do you know what he died of, Mrs. Teller?”
“He had a heart attack and died on the front lawn there.” Again she pointed to the house across the street. “I know, because I saw it happen and called 911. Those guys in the ambulance did everything humanly possible, but they couldn’t save him. He died!”
“Okay, Mrs. Teller,” Tiger said. “What happened after the man got out of the coach?”
“He just walks up the steps of the O’Conner’s house, opens the door, and goes in—big as you please!”
“Then what happened?” he asked and tried to keep the excitement out of his voice.
“The stagecoach and horses took off.”
“Did you get a look at who was driving the coach?”
She shook her head. “No one was driving that I could see.”
“Go on,” Tiger urged. “Then what happened?”
Remembering what she had seen, the woman swallowed hard. “All of a sudden, all hell breaks loose at the O’Conner house. Joy O’Conner comes running out of the house screaming for me to call 911. She runs into my yard and says that her dead husband, Gerald, is in the house. Well, I figured someone was playing a nasty prank on Joy, so I called the police.” Mrs. Teller suddenly got excited. “Oh, look,” she said and pointed to the O’Conner house. “That’s the guy!”
Gil whirled the camera around in time to get a shot of the police taking a man into custody. He was handcuffed, and a deputy led him to one of the three police cars parked in front of the house.
Tiger and his cameraman ran across the street and tried to interview the handcuffed man. “Sir, are you really Gerald O’Conner? Did you die and come back to life?”
The man didn’t speak; he just stared straight ahead. A deputy put him in the back of the police car.
Tiger turned toward the deputy. His nametag proclaimed that he was Deputy Gunter. He was a young man of about twenty-five, and he looked pale and shaken.
“Deputy Gunter, can you tell us if this is really Gerald O’Conner?” The deputy ignored the reporter, and Tiger tried again. “Can you tell us why you are arresting him? What did he do wrong?”
“Talk to the sheriff,” he told Tiger in a voice quavering with fear.
Three other deputies stood in the front yard of the O’Conner house speaking quietly to one another. After the arrested man was secured in the backseat of the patrol car, Gunter shut the car door and turned around. “I’m not going by myself,” he called out to the others and waited.
The other deputies conferred among themselves. Finally, one of them walked to the patrol car. “I’ll ride shotgun,” he told Gunter. As he opened the passenger door and slid in, Gunter hurried around to the driver’s side.
Tiger continued to ask questions, and Gunter continued to ignore him. Finally, the two deputies drove away with their prisoner.
Tiger and his cameraman tried to go into the O’Conner’s front yard but were escorted back by the two remaining deputies. “Sir,” Tiger asked one of them. “Can you tell us if that was indeed Gerald O’Conner?”
“The sheriff will speak to you when he’s able,” the bigger of the two deputies growled. “Now get back!”
As Tiger walked back out of the yard, he spoke to the camera. “Ayesha, this would have seemed like a hoax to us, except for the fact that Mr. Gerald O’Conner is not the first dead man, or even the second dead man, to show up in the Roman Falls area today.”
Ayesha Hall broke in. “Can you tell us about the other two men, Tiger?”
“Yes. The first man was Nafitz Mohammed, who showed up at his home this morning in the neighboring town of Sallisaw. We were fortunate to have an interview with some of his relatives. Let’s run that, Gil,” Tiger told his cameraman.
The video of the interview ran. Several people, some of them relatives of Mr. Mohammed, stood in front of the camera. The story was remarkably like the tale Mrs. Teller had just told. A black stagecoach, with curtained glass windows in the sides, showed up early this morning. It was pulled by eight black, fire-snorting horses. The vehicle reminded several people of an antique horse-drawn funeral coach, only it was much larger.
Mr. Mohammed got out of the coach and tried to go into his house. The door was locked, and the family thought a burglar was trying to break in. By the time police were summoned, the coach and horses were gone. One neighbor said the horses reminded her of Santa’s reindeers. “They lifted off and flew through the sky,” she said.
The family told police that the man, who stood like a zombie and never said a word, looked exactly like their relative who had died only two months before. He even had the same scar on his cheek! Because the man had been trying to get into the house, the police took him into custody. When the man did not respond to police questions, they took him to the hospital for physical and psychiatric evaluations.
The video interview stopped, and Tiger came on live again. “Ayesha,” he said, trying not to show excitement but failing. “My sources at Sallisaw Hospital have confirmed that the man police brought in this morning was definitely dead. He’s still walking around, but he is dead!” Tiger excitedly stood on one foot and then another like a child just about to receive his long-awaited birthday present.
“They are calling the man John Doe because police didn’t want to confirm that he was indeed Nafitz Mohammed, and my sources said that he had no heart beat and that he was still wearing the white cotton shroud he was buried in!”
Ayesha asked, “Are you sure about this, Tiger? Is the hospital saying the man is dead but still moving about?”
“The hospital is not officially saying anything, Ayesha. But I have two respected and trusted sources in that hospital, and both of them are telling me the same thing. One has told me that DNA samples were taken from the man and sent to the lab for identification purposes.” He tried hard to remain professional but excitement was creeping into his voice.
“What is the Sallisaw Police Department saying, Tiger?” she asked.
“Not much,” he answered. “They did confirm that a man was arrested and then transported to the hospital. That’s all they’re willing to say at this point.”
“You said three men have been dropped off at various locations,” Ayesha reminded. “Tell us about the third man.”
Tiger exaggeratedly nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “The third man lived here in Roman Falls, like Mr. O’Conner. That man’s name is allegedly Aaron Feinstein. As it had done with the other two men, the black stagecoach pulled by eight fire-snorting horses pulled up and let Mr. Feinstein off and then flew away. Like the others, Mr. Feinstein died a few weeks ago.
“Mr. Feinstein was placed under arrest and transported to the hospital. Like the other men, he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak or even acknowledge anyone else—not even his sister-in-law, who was hysterical when police responded to the 911 call. I interviewed Mr. Feinstein’s sister-in-law, who was at the home when he apparently just walked inside and sat down. Run that, Gil.”
The video ran. Ester Mayer, a pretty woman in her twenties, was wiping tears from her eyes. “I was so shook up when I saw him. I was in the kitchen making lunch for my two-year-old niece—Aaron’s daughter—when I heard the door in the living room open. I thought my sister Mischa—Aaron’s widow—had come back. I went into the living room to see what she had forgotten, and there he was, just standing there, staring, and not saying a word.” She wiped at her eyes again. “Well, I can tell you truthfully, I freaked!” She sobbed a little and tried to catch her breath. “I grabbed the baby and ran out the back door!”
“What did he do?” Tiger asked.
“Nothing, as far as I know,” Ester said. “I ran to a neighbor’s house, and he called 911 for me.”
At this point, the neighbor, who was standing next to Ester, broke into the story. “That’s right,” he said. “Ester was screaming that Aaron was back from the dead and all sorts of crazy things. She was pretty hysterical. I called the cops, then got my gun, and went to have a look.” He visibly shuddered. “I wish I hadn’t done that.”
“Why?” Tiger asked excitedly. “What did you see?”
“Aaron Feinstein,” the neighbor said. “It was him, Mr. Torres. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
“Did you speak to him?”
“I could see him sitting in the living room,” the man said. “I opened the door a little and asked him who he was and what he wanted.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Absolutely nothing! He just sat in the chair and stared at the television, which wasn’t even on.”
“Did you go into the house?”
“No, I just stood in the doorway until the police got there.”
“What did they do?”
“They spoke to Ester,” he said. “She told them who he was and that he was dead. The police took him away.”
Tiger shoved the microphone toward the young woman again. “Miss Mayer, did you identify the man as your dead brother-in-law?”
“It was him,” the woman said. “He had the same weird left eye as Aaron. There’s no doubt in my mind. It was my brother-in-law!”
A few more questions were asked and answered and the video ended.
“Remarkable,” Ayesha said. “Tiger, I have to ask this because everyone will want to know. Could this possibly be a hoax? You know, where someone is dressing up as these dead men for some unknown reason?”
“I don’t think so, Ayesha,” Tiger said. “If this is a hoax, the police and hospitals in two cities are in on it.” He shook his head. “I don’t believe either the police or the hospitals of Roman Falls and Sallisaw would want to ruin their reputations, just to pull a prank.”
“Has anyone been by the cemeteries where these men are… or…were buried?” Ayesha asked.
“Yes, while we were in Sallisaw, we swung around by the cemetery where Mr. Mohammed is supposed to be buried,” Tiger said. “Run that footage, Gil.”
Another video popped onto the screen. It showed the grave and headstone belonging to Mr. Mohammed. “As you can see, Ayesha, the grave has not been disturbed,” Tiger said excitedly. “The next scene is that of the gravesite of Mr. Feinstein. It has not been disturbed either. We haven’t yet been to Mr. O’Conner’s gravesite, but my assistant called the cemetery where he is buried, and they told her that his grave had not been disturbed.”
Suddenly, a voice sounded out from the gathering crowd, interrupting the interview. “The bible says that in the end times the dead in Christ shall rise,” an old woman hollered at Tiger.
“What was that?” Tiger hurried over to one of the onlookers. “What did you say?”
The woman spoke into the microphone. “For the Lord himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Thessalonians 4:16.”
“So you believe that we are in the end times?” Tiger asked.
“How else do you explain the dead rising?” the woman challenged him.
“What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Peggy Pyle,” the woman said proudly.
“But two of the dead men aren’t Christians. One is Muslim and one is Jewish,” Tiger argued.
“Yes,” the woman admitted, “and Gerald O’Conner was a lying, thieving drunk. But maybe they accepted Christ as their savior just as they were dying. That’s all it takes, you know. There are no works or good deeds that will get you into Heaven. You must accept Christ as your savior to get through those pearly gates.”
Peggy was the pastor’s wife of an independent Christian fundamentalist church in Roman Falls. She was sixty years old, tall, and slightly overweight. Her blonde hair, graying rapidly with each coming year, was piled high on her head in an old fashion bun. She wore a long sleeve blouse and an ankle-length skirt. And, most importantly, God spoke to her daily, telling her what He wanted her to do. She was fond of saying that she was one of God’s chosen few.
Not wanting Tiger to dwell on religious beliefs, Ayesha changed the subject. “Do you know if the hospital took DNA samples from all the men?”
“They took samples from Mr. Feinstein and Mr. Mohammed,” he answered. “We still don’t know if they are taking Mr. O’Conner to jail or the hospital. But one thing we do know is that none of the three men have spoken a word.”
“No words at all?” Ayesha asked, surprised.
“And what of this black stagecoach?” Ayesha asked. “Where is it?”
“Regretfully, we don’t know.”
“James, put up the station’s phone number,” Ayesha told Jim E. Jim. “If any of our viewers see a black stagecoach, pulled by eight fire-snorting horses, please call in and let us know. And if one of you out there can get a photo of the coach and horses, we’ll put it on the air.”
Jim E. Jim rushed to perform his task, and the number quickly appeared on the screen.
“We are in the end days, people,” Peggy said, as she jerked away Tiger’s microphone. “Repent and get right with God, or you’ll burn in Hell. The Lord just told me to tell you that!”
Tiger wrestled the microphone back and started to say something else, but Peggy yelled out her message. “Repent. A great battle is coming. Armageddon is about to begin. Look for the Antichrist because he’s here on Earth, right now!”
Jax Blizzard took a break from his yard work. He walked over to a small table on the patio at the back of his house and drained the last of the honey-wine. He looked around at his new home and smiled. With the help of Cuneas, Jax had built a small one bedroom cottage in Five-Rivers on land Sounder had given him. The little house had a thatched roof, and natural stone covered its exterior walls. It was about a quarter of a mile west of Sounder and Mystie’s house, next to a river that separated it from North Mountain.
He figured staying in Bottom World, under the surface of the Earth, was the best decision of his life. He was living with the wife he loved, had good friends, and he was a judge on the new Bottom World Court. “I’m almost respectable,” he said aloud and chuckled. “Granddad would be proud.”
The buzzer on his com-bracelet went off. It was time to turn the egg. He walked into the house and over to the incubation basket. The Cunea egg was two feet long and weighed about five pounds. And like any good foster dad, he picked it up and gently turned it over before placing it back into the basket. “How did I get stuck with you?” he asked the egg and smiled.
When a snippet of his last dream swam to the surface of his consciousness, he figured it was because he was thinking of the egg’s daddy, and his best friend, Cat. He thought of how he was forced to let Hel, the Goddess of Death, pleasure herself on him in trade for Cat’s life. He remembered being held down by six cwn annwn hound-men and screaming in horror as Hel’s green scaly body slithered all over him. He shook his head in an effort to dispel the memory and violently shivered.
“Stop it. You’ve got work to do, so do it!” he growled. He thought about calling his wife, Calista, but he didn’t want to appear needy. She was the only one who knew what he had gone through on the Island of Souls. She had held him after the nightmares, speaking softly to him, telling him the attack was over. For hours, she had watched sympathetically as he dry-heaved after a bad dream caused him to recall something new that had happened to him...something even more horrendous than he had previously remembered.
Stop thinking about it, he told himself. He covered the egg again and walked outside. He took a deep breath of fresh air. He loved Bottom World, especially Five-Rivers. For the first time in his life, he felt he belonged somewhere. He was home.
He picked up a garden hoe, planning to dig a place for a rose garden. He stood looking at his yard, trying to decide where to put the flowers. He had built a thirty-inch-high rock wall that surrounded his house and marked the boundaries of his yard. Should he put it next to the wall? Did he want to put the garden in the front yard, so visitors could see it? Maybe, he should put it in the back where he and Calista had parties. He couldn’t decide.
He heard a twig snap behind him. Werewolves or vampires?
He whirled around just in time to see three cwn annwn hound-men grinning at him. He didn’t see the one that slammed him in the head with a club. His head exploded with pain, and he dropped to the ground as unconsciousness overwhelmed him.
Jax moaned as he regained consciousness. Shooting pain throbbed in his head. It took him a couple of minutes to remember what happened. He had been at his house when the cwn annwns attacked him. He sat up. The pain in his head was excruciating, and he lay back down. He closed his eyes and groaned.
“Hel, your lover boy’s awake,” Dung, Hel’s right hand cwn annwn, said.
Someone moved next to him. He felt fabric touch his cheek and knew Hel, the Goddess of Death, was standing over him in her benevolent widow weeds outfit. He was back on the Island of Souls. He felt her kneel down beside him, but he refused to open his eyes.
“You hit him too hard,” Hel scolded. “You idiots nearly killed him!”
“Who cares?” a cwn annwn growled.
He felt Hel rise up quickly and heard a booming sound. A cwn annwn screamed. He opened his eyes a little. The hound-men were scattering to get out of her way. Hel had reverted to her serpent form and was covering the screaming cwn annwn. Jax tried to get up and run but staggered and fell back again.
“Hel, he’s getting up!” Dung hollered.
Hel turned back to Jax. It was the only thing that saved the cwn annwn she was attacking. She slithered back to Jax and morphed into her loving Ancient Mother form. The hound-man who had incurred her wrath crawled away to nurse his wounds.
Hel put out her hand to Jax, but he recoiled from her. She reached out farther and touched him. Instantly, the pain in his head left.
“Is that better?” she asked sweetly.
“What do you want?” he demanded and sat up.
“I have something for you,” she told him. “Come inside and see.”
“I want to go home.” He got to his feet.
“You will,” she said. “I have something for you—presents.”
Is she crazy? After what she did to me, she thinks giving me presents will make everything okay? “I don’t want anything from you!” he growled.
“You’ll want these,” she said as a proud smile crossed her face.
“No, I won’t!” he said savage and raging.
She turned on him, and he could see her start to morph into her serpent form. He knew what she was capable of, and it terrified him. All he wanted to do was go home…get away from her and her minions.
“What do you want me to have?” he asked quickly, trying to placate her.
Her loving Ancient Mother form became more prominent. She calmed and smiled. “I’m so proud of my harvest,” she said in a joyful sing-song manner.
“Harvest?” Jax asked with incredulity thick in his voice. What’s she going to do, give me a bushel of tomatoes?
She opened the door of her home, stepped into the foyer, and beckoned him inside. He had been here before. The house looked regal and immaculate. He knew it was an illusion because the last time he was here he had seen the house as it really looked—demonic and dirty.
He followed her into the room where she had previously drugged him. He could no longer see the skulls on the mantle, but he knew they were there. Instead, the image of the Faberge eggs was back. The paintings by the old masters were back also, but Jax had seen the reality of the room and knew the real paintings could only have been made by demons.
“Bring them in,” Hel told a waiting cwn annwn.
The hound man walked over to a door and opened it. He said something Jax couldn’t hear. Jax glanced over at Hel. She was beaming with pride. He looked back at the cwn annwn and saw he was ushering in children!
“Aren’t they beautiful, Ophiuchus?” Hel asked excitedly.
Ten children, seven boys and three girls, timidly walked into the room.
Hel pointed to Jax. “Children, this man is your father.”
“What?!” He was stunned. He stared at Hel. “What are you talking about?”
“Yes, Ophiuchus,” she said in a warm and loving voice, as if they were best friends or lovers. “These children are the product of our lovemaking.”
Lovemaking? Was that what she called her attack? Jax stared at the children. They all looked about twelve years old. They seemed shy and even scared. One of the little girls looked as if she would cry at any moment. “You’re saying I’m the father of these…” He counted the children. “These ten kids?”
Hel smiled sweetly. “Yes, Ophiuchus.”
He remembered that she had spawned the Gamers from an encounter with Prince Bekker, in return for Pisha’s life back. “Oh my god,” he said. His brain was reeling. “I have ten children?”
He suddenly remembered Siblaclaire’s letter. Take ALL the presents Hel offers you. Don’t leave any behind. They are the world’s only hope. They can defeat her! Stunned, Jax sat down hard on the couch.
“Let me introduce them to you,” she said and eagerly motioned for the first boy to step forward. “This is our first born. His name is Crotalus.” The boy had thick brown hair and bright green eyes. He smiled timidly at his father.
“This is our second son, Thunder,” Hel said. The boy looked curiously at him but didn’t seem afraid. “This is our daughter, Harmony.”
Jax flinched. Harmony looked exactly like his mother. The girl smiled, and he forced a smile in return.
“This is Shadow,” Hel said.
“Hello, Dad,” Shadow said and stuck out his hand confidently.
The boy was black. He had green eyes and short blond hair. He got his black skin from Hel. Half of her body was white, and the other half was black. Jax was just glad that Shadow was all one color and not two. He leaned forward on the couch and shook the boy’s hand. “Hi, Shadow.”
“This is Beryl,” Hel motioned for the girl to come forward. The frightened child stepped to the left not forward.
The awkward movement caused him to feel sorry for the girl, and he smiled at her. “It’s nice to meet you, Beryl,” he said gently. She kept her head down and refused to look at him.
Hel motioned for another girl to step forward. “This is Panther.”
“Hi.” The girl seemed shy, but she looked him in the eyes.
She was a black girl, with shoulder-length black hair and large, intelligent green eyes. Jax stared at her for a moment. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. “Hi, Panther,” he said, trying to put her at ease.
“This is Congelo,” Hel said and motioned a boy to move toward Jax. The child clearly had Down syndrome...a form of mental retardation. Hel chuckled. “I’m afraid Congelo has brain freeze.”
Jax blanched. How could she make fun of her own son’s condition? Jax stuck out his hand for the boy to shake and smiled. “Hi, Congelo, it’s good to meet you.”
The boy just stood, staring at him. He was a cute kid with curly blond hair and brown eyes.
“Shake his hand, dummy,” Hel said irritably.
Jax cringed at her insult. He reached over and took the child’s hand and pumped it.
“Are you my father?” Congelo asked. His voice sounded as if he didn’t use his tongue to pronounce words, probably a condition brought on by his Down syndrome, Jax thought. Clearly, no one had worked with the boy.
“I guess so,” Jax said and smiled at him. He had no idea what he would do with the boy, but he made up his mind right then that he was not going to leave the child with Hel any longer.
The rest were boys. Hel introduced the next two as Payne and Dante. He shook hands with each of them.
Hel motioned for the last boy to come forward. He marched confidently up to Jax, looked him in the eyes, and smiled broadly.
“This one looks the least like you, so I named him after you,” Hel said with pride in her voice and smiled.
Jax stuck out his hand and said, “Hello, Jax.”
The boy’s smile instantly turned to a frown. He tightly scrunched his lips together, and his whole body shook with rage. His temper was obviously hot and quick. “My name’s not Jax,” he growled. “It’s Ophiuchus!”
Jax laughed. “Sorry,” he said. He glanced at Hel. “I guess it’s the thought that counts.”
Hel came forward. “Do you like them?” she asked and looked at the children.
The children looked anxious. They glanced at each other worriedly, and Jax felt sorry for all of them. He knew what their mother was. “I think they’re all beautiful, and I’m very happy with them.” He watched the children relax with relief, and they all smiled.
“Great,” Hel said. “Now you can meet the rest.”
“The rest?” he exclaimed and stood up. “There are more?”
Hel took his arm and guided him to the glass doors in the side wall. “This is the rest of my harvest.” She opened the doors for him. “See?”
There was a long line of children, all waiting to meet him. Jax felt faint. “How…uh…many are there?” he mumbled.
“Ninety-nine.” She stood, looking at her “harvest” with great ecstasy seemingly etched on her face.
One of the cwn annwns ran and pushed a chair to Jax. He sat down hard on it. “Oh, my god!” he moaned.
It took a few hours, but he was introduced to all of his children. They all looked like they were about twelve years old, and all but Ophiuchus and Thunder seemed shy and reserved around him.
“Now we must talk about their new living arrangements,” Hel said.
“Their new living arrangements? What does that mean?” Jax began to feel sick again. He held his breath, but he knew what was coming.
“They can’t live on the island anymore,” Hel explained. “The island is for the dead, not the living. I have raised them so far, but now it’s their father’s turn to assume responsibility for them.” She smiled her sweet Ancient Mother smile, and he wondered if the children knew what their mother really looked like.
“I can’t…where will they live?” he asked, horror growing in his voice. “I have no place for them.” Jax could see Hel slightly turn serpent. He glanced at the children, who were playing now that the introductions were over.
“Are you saying I should murder them?” Hel hissed.
“No!” Jax exclaimed. “Are you out of your mind?” He glared at her.
“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to murder all of them.” She hissed again. “Make up your mind, human. Do they live or die? It’s your choice!”
Jax stared at her in disbelief. Then he turned toward the children. They were so innocent, and they had no idea what their mother was capable of. He sighed heavily. Ninety-nine children? He looked back at Hel. “Okay, I’ll take them,” he said quietly. He knew, without a doubt, that she would murder every one of them if he didn’t take them. What else could he do?
“Good,” Hel said.
“I’ll have to call for some transport vehicles,” he said. He tried his com-bracelet, but he couldn’t get a signal. He started walking toward the small bridge that crossed over the river at the back of the island.
“Where are you going, Dad?” Ophiuchus asked, as he and Thunder ran up and walked with Jax.
“To the edge of Gameland, so I can get a signal,” he explained. “I need to call for transportation.” They came to the edge of the mushroom forest, and Jax put in a call to Calista.
“Oh, Jax,” Calista exclaimed. “Where are you? There was blood in the yard. Are you all right?”
He grimaced. “Bring four of the big transport vehicles to these coordinates.” He punched a button and his coordinates were sent.
“What’s going on, Jax?” Calista asked worriedly.
“I can’t talk about it right now,” he said. “You’ll find out when you get here.” How could he tell his new wife he just became a father to ninety-nine children?
Jax, Ophiuchus, and Thunder walked back to the island. “Thanks, for not letting her kill us, Dad,” Thunder said quietly.
Jax blanched. “You knew?”
“Yes,” Thunder said and Ophiuchus agreed. “She said if you wouldn’t take us, she would kill us like she did our Claire sister?”
Jax stopped. He was stunned. “She killed one of you?”
“Yeah,” Ophiuchus said, “just before you got here. She was a little Claire.”
“Where’s the Claire at?” Jax demanded. He was more angry than he would have thought possible.
“Over there,” Thunder said and pointed to a compost heap of mushrooms stalks and dead twigs.
Jax walked over and squatted down. There was a little red gelatin Claire in the compost heap. “Oh no,” he moaned. “I bet she killed you for the same reason she murdered Siblaclaire—to keep you from talking.” He closed his eyes in disgust.
Suddenly, he felt something touching his wrist. He opened his eyes. The little Claire wasn’t dead! She had wrapped one of her many tentacles around his hand.
Jax looked around. No one seemed to be watching him. Hel was speaking and laughing with some of the children, and the cwn annwns were busy with their chores. He quickly shrugged off his jacket and wrapped the Claire inside it. Her little gelatin body jiggled with the movement.
“Here, Thunder,” he said, handing the bundle to his son. “Take this. Don’t let anyone see what’s in it. Go stand at the edge of the forest where I made the call and wait for the transport vehicles. Put her up front in the first vehicle. Don’t let anyone see her!”
Thunder looked at the bundle. He could feel the little Claire squirm around inside his father’s jacket. “She’s alive!” he exclaimed.
“Don’t let anyone know that,” Jax ordered. “Now go!” The boy hurried toward the little bridge at the back of the island.
“Hurry,” Ophiuchus urged. “We need to get away from this spot before we’re seen.” He grabbed his father by the hand and pulled him along to the other children.
“What do you think of your ninety-nine children?” Hel asked, smiling.
Jax felt like knocking the crap out of her for what she had done to the little Claire. There weren’t ninety-nine children, there were one hundred.
All the children looked at him expectantly. “I think they’re wonderful,” he said. “I’m happy with all of them.” Several of the girls clapped and giggled, and the boys looked relieved.
Soon, the first of the transport vehicles arrived at the edge of the Gameland forest. Calista was in a vandico. She got out and walked to meet Jax. She looked at all the children. “What’s going on, Jax?” she asked. “Where did all these children come from?”
“Remember I told you what I had to do to get Cat’s life back?” he asked.
Her eyes widened. “Are these your children, Jax?”
“Yes,” he said and wondered if she would divorce him.
“This is like Prince Bekker and the Gamers,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed. She at least understood that.
He ordered the children into the transport vehicles for their trip to Bottom World. Each awaited their turn and scrambled inside. There were no seats in the back, so the children sat on the floor. They all seemed excited to be leaving.
“Where are they going to live?” Calista asked. “Our house is too small for all of them.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” Jax said. “I’m going to put them in Serpent House behind East Mountain.”
“Where Cat was killed?”
Jax nodded. “What do you think? It’s deserted. No one has lived there for hundreds of years.”
“It’s pretty dark back there,” she said, unsure about the idea.
“It’s in perpetual twilight,” he agreed. “But they’re Hellions. They’ll probably love it back there as soon as we clean it up.”
Calista thought about that. “Hellions,” she muttered. “Jax, what do they eat?”
Thunder answered the question. “Blood!”
Jim E. Jim ran down the corridor of the television studio, RFNZ. “Hold the elevator,” he yelled. His big black briefcase bounced against his leg as he ran.
The new production assistant, a young woman of twenty-two, held the door open with her hand.
Jim E. Jim bounded into the elevator. “Thanks,” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “You’re a lifesaver. Third floor.” The new girl watched him heave in a huge breath and then let it out loudly and chalked him up to being a drama queen—which he was.
The elevator came to a halt on the third floor, and Jim E. Jim left it running. He sped past several secretaries and burst into the office of Ayesha Hall. “A. H.,” he said, breathlessly. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it!”
“Are you out of your mind, boy?” Ayesha asked, looking at her flawless dark complexion in her ever-present compact mirror.
“Yes,” Jim E. Jim said and hurried to her desk. “You will be too when you see this.” He placed his briefcase on her desk, opened it, and drew out a computer disc. He ran to the computer on a table across the room, placed the disc in a drive, and waited for it to load.
“Do you think I should add more highlights to my hair?” she asked, ignoring his drama. After all, there was no other drama than Ayesha.
Jim E. Jim hurried back to her. He took the compact out of her hands and ordered, “Watch this!”
“This better be good, fool,” she pouted and looked up at a large monitor on the wall.
Just then, Tiger Torres ran into the room. “I got your text. Where’s it at?”
“Are you two out of your minds?” she huffed.
“Watch!” Jim E. Jim ordered.
The computer started to play the disc, and the monitor on the wall showed the scene of any standard parking lot…cars coming and going, and people walking. All of a sudden, a large black stagecoach, pulled by eight black fire-snorting horses, pulled up in front of the building’s security camera.
The black curtained glass door opened, and a man stepped out. He neither looked left nor right, nor did he say anything to two amazed women standing nearby. He walked straight into the building and past the camera.
“Holy crap!” Tiger exclaimed. He hurried to Ayesha and picked her up, swinging her around. “We’re going to the big time, babe!”
Ayesha threw back her head and laughed. Then she got serious. “Okay, get everything together,” she ordered. “I want to know who this guy is, where he was dropped off, and get it to Bobby. Tell him to make sure this thing hasn’t been photoshopped...or whatever. Make sure this is real before I go on the air with it.”
“Everything’s been done, except for Bobby’s part,” Jim E. Jim said. He handed her a paper. “The guy is Rick Ramos. He’s fifty-six years old. He died about six months ago. Unlike the others, he didn’t go home. He went back to work. I spoke to the guy’s supervisor a while ago. It seems old Rick was a workaholic. He died of a stroke in his office.” Jim E. Jim laughed. “Old Rick just got out of that coach and walked into his office late yesterday afternoon. He stood at his desk until the guy who replaced him got up and ran out of the room screaming! Then old Rick just sat down at his desk and did nothing.”
“Did he say anything?” Tiger asked excitedly.
“Not a word,” Jim E. Jim said. “And he didn’t do anything either. He just sat there, staring straight ahead.”
“Oh my god,” Ayesha said. “What did the company do?”
“They called the police,” Jim E. Jim said. “The cops took him to the hospital.”
“How did you get the footage of the coach?” Tiger asked.
“I put out the word on the internet,” Jim E. Jim said proudly. “I put a link to Monday’s show on every site I could think of—Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, some of those UFO sites, occult sites…” He waved his hands around. “Everyplace I could think of. I told them to be on the lookout for that coach, and the one who sent in genuine footage would receive a thousand dollars for it if they let us use it on the air. Well, the security guard who worked at old Rick’s company sent it in. He overnighted it to me.”
“The networks have to pick it up now!” Ayesha said happily.
“There might even be a book in this,” Tiger gushed.
“We could all three write it together,” Ayesha said. She knew she would never be able to write a book by herself. She hadn’t even read a book since graduating from college. “Tiger, you could tell what you did, I could tell my part. Jim E. Jim could tell his part.”
“It smells like Pulitzer to me,” Jim E. Jim crowed.
The three of them stood silently in Miss Hall’s office considering what it would feel like to be rich and famous. And not one of them considered what the footage actually meant to mankind as a whole, or how it would start the ripping apart of people’s lives.
Peggy Pyle watched the Ayesha Hall show with her husband, the Reverend Abraham Pyle, and several of their parishioners. “It’s happening people,” Peggy said quietly as they watched the footage of the eight fire-snorting spirit horses pull the coach into the parking lot. “You are witnessing the beginning of the end.”
“Maybe it’s a hoax, Peg,” the Reverend Pyle said. “We shouldn’t get all worked up until we know what’s really going on.”
“Monday, I saw Gerald O’Conner get into that police car,” Peggy said. “The dead in Christ are rising, Abe, and we need to do something about it.”
“What should we do, Sister Peg?” Tom Williams, a parishioner asked.
“Pray,” Peggy said. She thought about that for a moment. “Maybe we should call a meeting, Abe,” she told her husband. “We should make a plan.”
“Will we be raptured, Sister Peg?” Sarah Donovan asked in a worried tone. Her husband wasn’t saved. What would happen to him?
Peggy looked at her husband. “Will we, Abe?” she asked. “And if we’re not, and we have to stay in this mess until the good Lord comes, what will we do? We need a plan, Abe!”
Reverend Abe nodded his head. “We’ll be raptured, all right, but there are two schools of thought about when it will happen. Some say we’ll have to go through the tribulation, and others say we’ll be raptured up first and won’t have to go through it.” He thought about it for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt to call a special meeting,” he said. “But let’s not go getting people all riled up over nothing.”
“Nothing? You call that nothing?” Peggy exclaimed and pointed to the spirit horses on the screen. “The dead are rising, Abe. Look around you!”
“All right, don’t get all in an uproar, hon,” he said calmly. “We’ll call a meeting. But I’m just saying that we should make sure this is not a hoax. Why aren’t we seeing this on the other channels?” He took the remote and flipped through the television channels, looking for more pictures of spirit horses. He found none.
“Because the networks are being run by atheistic Democrats, that’s why!” Peggy growled. “The government’s full of ‘em.”
“Oh, hon,” Reverend Abe said, trying to keep her calm. He had been married to her for forty years, and he knew she had a tendency to get excited.
Peggy turned around. “Sarah, you get on the phone and call everybody. We’ll have that meeting tonight.” She glared at her husband, daring him to object. When all he did was sigh, she turned to Tom. “You get on that silly phone of yours and write to people. Tell them to get here tonight. This is an emergency!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tom said and pulled the phone out of his pocket. “I’ll text them.”
“Get on your computer too, Tom,” she added. “Let the word go out; the end times are here!”
Reverend Abe made sure he didn’t let his wife see, but his eyes rolled toward the heavens.
Each child had a duffel bag made from mushroom skins containing their personal things as they filed into Serpent House two at a time and waited for Jax in the Great Room. The front part of Serpent House was in the shape of a serpent’s head. It had four levels: Three levels were above ground and one was below. A creek passed in front of it, and a drawbridge could be let down so people could cross over the water.
Jax and the kids spent the day cleaning the house, which looked as though it had not been lived in for a thousand years. Temporary makeshift beds were brought from other buildings in the abandoned Serpent City and orders were placed with the Cuneas for new ones. Vats of blood were ordered from the Tribers. Fruits and vegetables were brought in, once the kids demonstrated they could eat solids without problems, which pleased the Tribers who were already wary of vampire Gamers.
Jax stood guard over the basement in his and Calista’s small house while the Cuneas moved his furniture to Serpent House. Once that was done, he and some of the children moved his gold to a more secure place in their new home. He was certain if anyone discovered he had stolen the queen’s gold, he would be hanged. He wasn’t taking any chances. At one time, Jax thought the large amount of gold would last him a lifetime. Now that he had one hundred children, he didn’t know if it would last even a year.
Calista came in at dinnertime. “I’ve got something for the little Claire,” she said. She put a crystal platform mounted on wheels on one of the long cafeteria-style tables in the dining room. She carefully sat the little seer on it.
“What is it?” Jax asked.
“It’s Siblaclaire’s mover,” Calista explained. “Claires don’t have feet, so they need a way to move around. When they’re little, they use their tentacles to pull themselves from one place to another. It makes them strong.” She put a scarf over the seer’s head, which Jax recognized as Siblaclaire’s holy scarepis. The little seer shuddered and then cooed.
“I think she likes it,” he said. “How do we feed her?”
“If she’s like Siblaclaire, she’ll eat twice— once after downtime and once before,” Calista explained.
She put a bowl of blood in front of the seer. One of the Claire’s tentacles moved back and forth over the blood, sniffing it. Soon, she was hungrily sucking up the blood.
“She’s hungry,” Raven said. “Mother didn’t feed her today.”
Jax grimaced. He wondered if the girl knew her mother had tried to kill the little Claire. “Your mother’s name is Hel, call her that,” he ordered. If he had not taken the children, Hel would have murdered all of them. She was not a mother!
Raven shrugged. The little Claire wrapped her tentacle around Raven’s finger, and the girl gently stroked it.
Calista checked her buzzing com-bracelet. “They found one of the vampire’s. He finally showed up at his house. My father wants me at the pyramid for the interrogation. I’ve got to go, sweetie,” she said and hurried out the door.
He leaned back in his chair, watching the Claire slurp the blood and coo over it. One hundred children! How was he going to manage? He could hear the sounds of the children throughout the house. Noisy was how he described them. Very noisy! And he was now responsible for all of them. Would they grow up feeding on people like the vampire anarchists, or would they become responsible adults he could be proud of?
Suddenly, it hit him. Whatever they became would be, in large part, his doing. If he let them run wild with no discipline, they would be anarchists. Bottom World would live in fear of them. The guards would be out hunting them down, killing them. They would bring shame on him. And he would deserve that shame because he had failed his children and his neighbors. But a hundred children! How could one person control that many kids?
He thought about his own childhood. He’d been raised in a household where he was an only child. He thought back to all the crap he’d put his grandparents through and shook his head in dismay. He’d been a horrible, spoiled child, always getting in trouble. He’d hate to raise a child like himself.
Off in the distance, probably on the second floor, he could hear an argument going on…loud words, doors slamming. Somewhere in his brain he did the calculations. He probably had forty children who would be like him and another forty like Hel. That left twenty as a mix of both parents.
He suddenly felt old and overwhelmed. The thought crossed through his head that he could just walk away. Fathers did that all the time—his had. What had their children become, he wondered. Some grew up just fine, he supposed. But prisons were full of those who grew up as predators. Jax’s own father had never publicly acknowledged him.
Could he leave his own children? His life would be a whole lot simpler. He and Calista could escape to the surface and leave the children to Bottom World. He figured they’d grow up fine. Would Calista lose respect for him? Would he lose respect for himself? Could he leave them?
He gave the kids life, and he saved their lives by bringing them to Bottom World. Wasn’t that enough? He could hear another argument break out somewhere in the house…the first floor, he thought. More doors slamming. If he ran away, his world would be peaceful. If he stayed, it would be full of arguments and slamming doors. His days would be spent in endless turmoil. He didn’t know if he could live like that.
A movement to the right of him caught his eye, and he looked over. A girl with short black hair and big brown eyes stood staring at him. He noticed she had tears in her eyes. She looked pathetic. When she saw he was looking at her, she turned to leave.
“Come here,” he told her and held out his hand.
She turned back to him but didn’t move toward him.
Again, he said, “Come here.”
She put her head down as if she was studying her shoes. Finally, she slowly walked to him. She still wouldn’t look at him.
When she got close enough, he reached out and took hold of her arm, pulling her to him. When she still wouldn’t look at him, he cupped her chin in his hand and raised her head up. He could feel her shaking. She was afraid of him, but she needed something from him or she wouldn’t be here.
“What’s wrong?” he asked gently.
“You can tell me,” he said and hugged her close to him. “I’m your dad. You can always tell me anything. I’ll help you.”
She took a deep breath. “I don’t like my bedroom,” she said shyly.
“What’s scary about it?”
“There are those things in it.”
She frowned and Jax realized she was having a hard time verbalizing what she meant.
“Let’s go see,” he said. “Take me to your room.” He rose from his chair and took hold of her hand, mostly because he wanted her not to fear him. He wanted her to like him…be comfortable with him.
They walked out of the dining room and headed for the stairs. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Riley,” she said quietly.
“Riley, I’m going to have to learn one hundred names,” he told her. “That’s a lot of names.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“If I forget your name, you won’t get mad at me, will you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Good, because I’ll probably have a bunch of your brothers and sisters mad at me when I forget their names.”
“If you forget, you can ask me. I know all their names,” she said in a small voice.
He chuckled. “Thank you. That’s very nice of you, Riley. I may have to do that.”
They came to her room. She stopped at the door and pointed to it. “They’re in there.”
Jax opened the door. Immediately, he saw what she was talking about. There were four, six feet tall, marble statues. He walked in and examined them. They were in the shape of people, if the people had square torsos and faceless square heads. Their arms and legs were in a curlicue style.
He looked back at Riley. She had a look of worry on her face. “Wow, I’ve seen some ugly things in my time, but these guys are the ugliest.” He shook his head. “Don’t you think they’re ugly?”
She nodded her head vigorously.
“I sure wouldn’t want these ugly things in my bedroom,” he said and called for a floater.
A couple of the boys stopped in the hall and peered into the room through the open doorway. ‘What’s he doing?” one asked Riley.
“Getting rid of those ugly things,” she said.
One of the boys ventured into the room. “Are you going to throw those away?”
“Yep,” Jax said. “They’re too ugly for Riley. Isn’t that right, Riley?”
The girl grinned and nodded her head.
“I like them,” the boy said. “Can I have them?”
Jax looked at Riley. “They belong to Riley. Ask her.”
“He can have them,” she said and smiled.
“Problem solved,” Jax said. He walked out into the hallway and gave Riley a hug. “Are you okay now?”
“Yes,” she said shyly and clung to him.
“If you ever need me, just ask. I’ll always help you,” he said.
“And I’ll tell you names if you forget,” she promised.
Jax chuckled and left her in the hallway, watching her brothers examining the statues. He walked back toward the dining room. He knew the problem he had just solved was probably going to be the easiest he would have. He figured that’s what parenting consisted of mostly…solving one problem at a time.
As he started down the stairs, he looked back at Riley. She was still standing in the hallway watching her brothers. She had been frightened of him. With just a few kind words and a willingness to be nice to her, they now had a relationship established. True, it wasn’t much of one yet, but it would grow. How many of the others were afraid of him, he wondered.
He started down the stairs. He was going to have to establish a relationship with each one of them…one hundred of them. He was going to have to learn who they were, and they would have to learn who he was. One day at a time, one problem at a time…lots of kind words and being nice to them.
He wasn’t going to run off and be the absentee father. He knew that. He guessed he always knew it. He was going to stay. He heard doors slamming. “I hate you,” one of the children called out to another. “Not as much as I hate you,” the other child responded. Another door slammed.
How much noise could I reduce in the house if I removed all the doors? he mused and headed back to the dining room.
A little later, Mystie and Chaos came in. “Oh my god, Jax,” Mystie said, laughing. “It’s all over the frequencies, but no one knows how many children you have.”
“One hundred,” he said wearily.
“Siblaclaire was right,” Mystie said happily. “Your children will be legion.”
“If I had known she was telling the truth, I would have turned and run back to the surface,” he said.
Mystie happily went through Serpent House meeting the children, leaving Chaos with Jax. The girl couldn’t take her eyes off the Claire. She cautiously moved closer to the Claire and looked at her. She put out her hand and touched her gelatin body. Suddenly, Chaos shook and screamed.
Jax thought the child was having a seizure.
Chaos ran to the other side of the room and continued to scream.
It was then that Jax noticed the bruises on the little Claire. It looked like she had been strangled. So that’s how Hel had tried to kill her, he thought.
Chaos kept screaming. Mystie and several of the children ran to see why she was making such a commotion. “Chaos, what’s wrong with you?” With her mother present, the four-eyed seer calmed a little. Chaos put her hands over her top pair of eyes and moaned.
“I guess my little Claire scared her,” he said.
“You’ve seen a Claire before,” Mystie said and hugged her daughter. “Remember Siblaclaire?” Chaos shuddered in her mother’s arms.
Jax looked at the Claire’s bruises. “What would you have divined?” he asked her quietly. “What did Hel not want you to see?” Because of the letter, he knew Hel had gotten Princess Destiny to kill Siblaclaire. Whatever Hel’s reason, she was killing Claire’s to stop their prophecies. He figured Chaos had psychically seen the murder attempt on the Claire, and that’s why she was shaking violently in her mother’s arms.
“What in the world is wrong with you, girl?” Mystie asked. “She’s not scary.” Mystie tried to pull Chaos toward the little Claire, but Chaos started to scream again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with this girl, Jax.”
He shrugged and moved the scarepis to cover the wounds. “Okay, kids,” he told the curious children. “The show’s over. Go make sure you have all your things in your rooms.” They filed out of the room.
“Well, I better get going,” Mystie said. “Hel has invited me and Chaos for a visit.”
As soon as she had gotten the words out, Chaos started screaming again. “I’m not going. I’m not going!”
“Are you out of your mind, girl?” she asked. “What is wrong with you?”
Mystie thought of Hel as Ancient Mother—a warm, loving woman. Jax hadn’t been going to say anything to her about what Hel had done, but with Chaos shaking in terror, he thought maybe he had better tell her.
He sat and reminded Mystie about Siblaclaire’s letter and showed her the little Claire’s bruises. He told her Thunder’s story about how Hel had tried to kill his sister.
“That’s just crazy talk, Jax,” Mystie said. “I know Hel. She would never do that.”
“Look at your daughter,” he urged. “Why do you think she’s screaming? She saw what was done to the Claire.” He watched Mystie frown and study her daughter. “And if Hel is killing seers, is Chaos next?”
Mystie gasped and hugged her daughter tightly. “Why would Hel do such a thing?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s up to something big, and she’s not taking any chances that a seer will warn people.”
“Do you think she would kill Chaos?” Mystie asked, suddenly fearful. “Sounder is Hel’s favorite. Surely, she wouldn’t kill his daughter.”
“I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “Are you willing to take a chance and put Chaos in danger?”
“No!” Mystie exclaimed. She bent down to Chaos. “We’re not going to Niflheim, darling.” Chaos relaxed. “We’re never going again!”
Crotalus, Jax’s first born, came into the room. “I found this in my room. What do you want me to do with it?” he asked his father. He held a small serpent figurine in his hand.
Jax looked at it. “Do whatever you want with it. I don’t want it.”
Chaos immediately left her mother and rushed toward the boy. She looked up at him and smiled. “You’re Crotalus, aren’t you?”
The boy smiled and nodded.
“You and I are going to spend a lot of time together,” she said cryptically.
“Why do you have four eyes?” Crotalus asked, examining her forehead.
Chaos pointed to her lower, normal pair of eyes. “These see the present.” She pointed to the top pair. “These see the future.” She smiled at him. “I’ve been seeing you my whole life.”
“Do you want to see my room?” he asked. “Or have you already seen it?”
She giggled and followed him to his room.
Mystie watched her go and then turned to Jax. “Do you have any idea what Hel is up to?” she asked worriedly.
“No,” he said. “All I know is that she’s murdered one Claire and tried to kill another.” He turned back to his little seer and frowned at her bruises. “What is it that Hel does not want you to divine?” he asked the child. She merely cooed at him.
Mystie sat down at the table and sighed. “How am I going to tell Sounder? He loves Hel.”
“Just tell him the truth, so he’ll know to protect her from Hel.”
Mystie nodded and examined the little Claire’s bruises. Suddenly, she asked, “What’s her name?”
“The kids say she doesn’t have one,” Jax said. “I guess Hel thought she wouldn’t live, so she didn’t bother naming her.” He looked at the little seer’s three eyes. “Divinaclaire,” he said to the girl. “Do you like the name, Divinaclaire?” The little seer wrapped her tentacle around Jax’s finger and cooed. He laughed. “I think she likes it.”
Mystie fussed with Divinaclaire’s scarepis. “Let me cover your two eyes,” Mystie told the seer.
“She has three eyes,” Jax said.
“She’s only got two in the back,” Mystie corrected.
“She’s has two in the back?” Jax exclaimed. He stood up and bent over Divinaclaire. For the first time, he saw the two eyes in the back of the little seer’s gelatin-like red body. He laughed. “Do all Claires have five eyes?”
“Siblaclaire had five eyes,” Mystie said. She was silent for a few moments, thinking. “What are you going to do with all your kids, Jax?”
He shrugged. “Raise them, I guess.”
“Wow, a hundred kids,” Mystie marveled. “I thought I would go crazier than I already was, when I had three at the same time.”
He frowned. “Why did they put you in a mental hospital, Mystie? You seem perfectly normal to me.”
Mystie laughed. “Yeah, like you would know what is normal.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “You don’t belong in a mental hospital. Why did they put you in there?”
“I saw monsters,” Mystie said and smiled wanly, thinking of those terrible times.
“Oh,” he said and laughed. “No wonder you seem normal. Everyone sees monsters down here. Let’s see, what have we got? Vampires, werewolves, bigfoots—or is it bigfeet? You know, the Tordrods. Oh yeah, let’s not forget alien queens and demons.” He pointed to Divinaclaire. “And fortune tellers, hound-men, goddesses. Anything else?”
Mystie laughed. “How can you forget the bird-people?” She pointed to Donner’s egg in the corner. “You know, I actually saw a Tordrod kidnap a girl and take her into that cave. That’s how I knew which cave to go in to rescue Cat’s sister.” She was silent for a moment. “I guess all the other monsters that came out of my closet weren’t real. But they sure seemed real at the time!”
“When I was a little boy I had monsters in my closet…and under the bed too,” he said.
Mystie laughed. “I bet they weren’t like mine.”
“What were yours like?”
“They were black, leathery serpent people.”
Jax wondered if the monsters in Mystie’s closet were the same as Hel. “Do you remember that first day we came to Bottom World?”
“How could I forget?” Mystie shuddered. “We were nearly hanged.”
“Ah, the good old days,” he said and laughed. He suddenly got quiet and said, “When I was in that mind-lock with Siblaclaire, she warned me to beware of the serpent people. She also wrote about them in that letter she left me.”
Mystie stared at him. “Do you think she was warning you about the kind of people who were in my closet?”
He shrugged. “Who knows?”
Divinaclaire gurgled a little, and Mystie turned to look at her. “Why did Hel want her dead?”
“Simply because she’s a seer.”
Chaos ran into the room and hugged her mom. “I’m so happy,” she gushed in her small growling voice. “I now have someone who will help me fulfill my destiny.”
Jax frowned. “What does that mean?”
She turned, looked at Jax, and stopped smiling. “Nothing,” she growled coyly. “It means nothing at all.” She glared at him for a moment and then suddenly gave out that insane little laugh of hers.
Jax shivered as he felt chills run down his spine.