Grizzly snorted. "A pitiful replacement." He reached for Ren.
"You’re not taking him," she growled, ready to fight to the death for Ren. Summoning every ounce of her father’s and grandmother’s powers that she could, she blasted Grizzly.
The weight and strength of her attack shocked him. But it was too late. Her powers were too strong now. And by coming for Ren, he’d brought out the grizzly bear spirit in her.
No one touched her family.
Rising to her feet, she went after him with everything she had. Over and over, she blasted Grizzly as her fury unfurled and unloaded. Not just because he dared to come here now. For everything he’d done to Ren, and for going after and killing her father. He had taken or attempted to take everything from her.
And he’d taken enough.
"You’ve done all the harm you’re going to. The Grizzly stops here."
He laughed at her. "What could you ever do to me? You can’t kill me. I’m immortal."
"No, but I can banish you back to the source that birthed you. I’m sure you remember the boiling pain and agony. May you enjoy burning there for all eternity."
He tried to run, but she wouldn’t let him. He’d given Ren and her father no quarter, and so she gave him none in return.
She blasted him harder. Faster. Deadlier.
Grizzly screamed as she sent him to the worst imaginable fate for any immortal being.
"What the hell happened here?"
She turned at Sundown’s thick drawl.
"And what the hell happened to you, buddy?" Setting his shotgun aside, he sank down beside Ren whose skin now had a scary bluish tint to it. Tears filled her eyes as Sundown reached to check Ren’s breathing.
Ren didn’t respond.
Afraid he was already gone, that he had died alone while she fought Grizzly, she rushed back to him. "Ren?"
He opened his eyes, but couldn’t focus them on her. They danced around as if he couldn’t control them at all. "Thank you, Kateri."
"Coming back for me."
That opened the floodgate for her tears. "I would always come for you, Ren," she sobbed. "Through hell, storms, and demons. Nothing would ever keep me from your side. And I can’t lose you. Not like this. Dammit, fight for me!"
He licked his lips. "I’m trying. It’s why I’m still here. But I don’t think they’re going to let me win this one."
Desperate to save him, she started going through his pockets.
Sundown scowled. "What are you doing?"
"I’m looking for his degalodi nvwoti. His medicine bag."
Ren caught her hand. "Osda."
"It’s not all right," she breathed in contradiction. Locating his bag in his front pocket, she pulled it out, then opened the red deerskin pouch, and started going through it, looking for something that could heal him. She wiped angrily at her damn useless tears. I have to save him.
She’d lost everyone she’d ever loved, and if he died, she’d never forgive herself. I’m cursed. She knew that for certain now. Every time she dared to let someone into her heart, they paid the ultimate price for it. I will not lose another! I won’t. Because she knew, that if she lost Ren, she would die, too.
Determined to save him no matter what, she sorted through his stones and feathers … spiritual items he’d spent his life gathering together. Just like her grandmother.
Just like her.
Items that gave him strength and courage. Items that reminded him of who he was, and who he wanted to be. Going through someone’s degalodi nvwoti was more personal than reading their diary.
And when she pulled out a hummingbird fetish that had been secured to a pink heart-shaped rose quartz by the small red Bama hairband she’d been wearing when they met, she started sobbing so hard, she couldn’t breathe.
Ren reached for her. "Please don’t cry, Kateri. It breaks my heart to hear your tears."
But she couldn’t help it. With this one item, she fully understood the depth of his love for her. He had created a personal symbol for her, and placed it in his medicine bag-the one thing she knew he would never be without.
Suddenly, another bolt of lightning shook the room, and sprayed debris over them.
Shit! Furious and needing to draw a blood-heart sacrifice from someone over this, she shot to her feet, ready to battle.
And this time, she was going to enjoy the killing.
But as she dropped into her fighting stance, she hesitated.
Nick stood in front of her in his human form, but he had his black demon wings spread wide. His dark hair was tousled and the bow and arrow mark was so faint, she could barely see it now.
He came forward with a jet crystal.
With a ragged breath, she frowned at it. "What is that? A healing stone?" She reached to touch it.
Nick caught her hand. His eyes burned into her. "It’s Ren’s soul. When I saw he was dying, I went to get it from Artemis. If you restore his soul to his body on his last breath, it’ll bring him back and release him from Artemis’s service."
Hope tore through her. "Really?"
"No!" Ren growled.
Was he insane? Kateri gaped at him. "Why not?"
"Because it’ll burn and scar you. Badly. Tell her, Sundown."
Jess nodded. "He’s right. It’s an awful scar, too. When Abigail released mine, it fused two of her fingers together. Every time I see them, it kills me, and I hate that I caused her that much pain."
"I don’t care." She reached for the crystal again, but Nick caught her hand.
"If the pain makes you drop this before his soul returns to his body, you will destroy it, and condemn him to an existence of unbelievable agony. So before you take it, understand that you can’t let go, no matter how much it burns you."
"I would never, and will never let go of him," she said with the full weight of her conviction. She knelt beside Ren. "And if I don’t do this, I will damn myself to a far worse hell."
Ren’s gaze finally stopped shaking and held hers.
"If you could save my life, would you mind being scarred from it?" she asked him.
"No," he whispered emphatically.
She smiled, then looked at Jess. "I don’t know Abigail, but I’m pretty sure every time she sees that scar, all she thinks about is how lucky she is to share her life with you. And I’m certain that on those days when she wants to beat you over something you’ve said or done to tick her off, it saves your butt, because it reminds her of just how far she was willing to go to have you."
Jess swallowed. "Damn Ren, she’s a keeper."
Ren coughed up more blood.
"Hang on, sweetie." She reached for the crystal, but Nick pulled it out of her reach.
"I’ll give it to you right when it’s time. No need in you being hurt any longer than necessary."
"Okay." Kateri moved to put Ren’s head in her lap so that she could hold him.
Ren reached up to take her hand. "If you drop it, I won’t mind. I’ll know that at least you tried."
She laughed through her tears. "I’m not going to drop it. But when you’re back to normal, I might drop you on your head for thinking I would do such a thing."
He smiled, then tensed.
His hand fell away from hers.
Don’t panic. You’ll bring him back.
But it was hard not to.
Nick tucked his wings down around his body. "You’ll have to place the crystal on the bow-and-arrow mark. That was where Artemis took his soul from. It’s where it will want to return." She tried not to stare at the mark on Nick’s face. Artemis must have been cupping his cheek when she took his.
"It’s on his hip." She looked at Jess.
"Why y’all cutting them eyes at me? I ain’t undoing his pants. I love the man. But I don’t love the man…. That right there’s your job, woman, and I don’t mean that in a sexist or homophobic way. I just don’t want to touch another man’s junk if I can help it. And that’s a personal choice guaranteed by the Constitution."
Shaking her head at Sundown, she carefully placed Ren’s head on the ground, then scooted down so that she could undo Ren’s fly and open his pants enough to expose the mark on his hip without embarrassing him. Of course, that would be easier if he wore underwear, but … Her mission accomplished, she slid a teasing smirk at Jess. "I’m pretty sure Ren doesn’t want you touching his junk either."
With a short laugh, Sundown moved to make more room for her. "Damn straight. Literally."
Nick came closer. She reached for it, but again Nick stopped her. "Wait for his last breath."
It came thirty seconds later. And that was the worst moment of her life.
Ren expelled it, and the light faded from those remarkably blue eyes.
Please don’t screw up. Please don’t screw up….
Nick gave her the crystal. "Now."
To her amazement, she felt no pain whatsoever. None.
Grateful to her adrenaline or whatever spared her from hurting, she placed the crystal over Ren’s mark.
Panic tore through her. Was it the wrong stone? Had she messed something up? "It’s not working. What did I do wrong?"
Nick placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Give it a second."
It still wasn’t working. She wanted to scream.
But then, just as she was about to attack Nick for killing him when they should have been trying to save his life, it happened.
Ren sucked his breath in hard and arched his back. Panic contorted his features as he met her gaze, and held it with those blue eyes that again sparkled with life.
And this time, his soul.
Cupping his face in her palm, she smiled at him. "Hey, baby. Welcome back."
Nick took her hand that held the crystal and pulled it away. "You can let go now."
"Sorry. I didn’t want to take any chances."
Nick frowned as he saw her unscarred palm. "You weren’t hurt?"
She shook her head.
"Well, good." Nick flashed a grin at her. "Mazel tov. He’s all yours now. Take good care of him." And with that, Nick vanished.
Kateri laced her fingers with Ren’s as he came to terms with being human again.
He glanced up at the mural in the ceiling. "Did we make it in time?"
"I’m not sure. I think we did." Biting her lip, she met Jess’s gaze. "Did we?"
He pushed his cowboy hat back on his head and shrugged. "We won’t know for sure until 11:11 A.M., but yeah, I think we did. By the skin of our teeth."
Cabeza yawned from across the room, and Kateri felt bad that she’d been so fixated on Ren that she’d forgotten about them.
"I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need some sleep," Cabeza said. He clapped Sasha on the back. "Either wake me for the Apocalypse or, if the world’s still here and not overrun with demons, I’ll see you at sunset." He saluted them, then vanished.
Sasha duplicated his yawn. "Yeah, I could use some beauty sleep and a masseuse myself. See you guys later. Hopefully under much better circumstances."
"Take care." Kateri surveyed the damage around them that the lightning and fight had caused. While it was an impressive mess, it didn’t look like it’d stopped the end of the world.
Ren tugged her hand to get her attention back on him.
He rose up to give her the hottest, sexiest kiss in the history of humanity.
And when he pulled back to rub his nose against hers, he offered her the sweetest smile she’d ever seen. "So tell me, Kateri. What does the future hold for us?"
That one word and his question filled her with the warmth of a million suns.
Before she could answer, Jess stood and swung his shotgun up to rest on top of his shoulder. "Ah hell, boy, I can answer that one. A whole passel of kids, and a life that’s damn worth living."
July 28, 2061
"Is everything ready?" Kateri asked as she joined Ren beside the largest of the bonfires they’d made.
"I think so." Ren glanced around at what amounted to a year’s worth of preparation for this night.
Actually, that wasn’t true. He’d been waiting for this his entire life.
In more ways than one.
"Waleli!" Ren shouted sharply. "Put your coat on, the desert air is chilly. You could catch a cold."
His youngest daughter rolled her eyes at him. "Dad, really?" She gestured to her four sons, who towered over her slight frame. "I have grown children of my own. I think I know when I need a coat. Besides, it’d be the first time in my life I ever took sick."
Laughing, Kateri draped a sweater over Waleli’s shoulders, then kissed her cheek. "He only fusses because he worries about you."
"I know, Mom." She walked over and placed a kiss on Ren’s cheek. "I love you, too, Daddy."
Those words never failed to make his knees weak or his heart soar.
As Waleli started away, Ren took her hand and stopped her. Without a word, he kissed her knuckles, and took a moment to offer a silent prayer of gratitude for his family. His daughter squeezed his hand before going to see after her husband.
"P-p-p-papa! It’s t-t!" Parker, their six-year-old grandson, broke off into an angry growl as the word refused to leave his mouth.
Ren picked him up and held him tight. "It’s time?"