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    Volume 7, Issue 1 February 29, 2012
    Message from the Editors
 Seasonal Fruit by Kathryn Board
 Love in a Time of Bio-Mal by Colum Paget
 The Pageant, A Battle Maiden's Cunning Stunt by Krista Wallace
 Stiltskin by Samantha Boyette
 Slieau Whallian by Simon Kewin
 Special Feature: Author Interview with j.a. kazimer
 Editors Corner: Archive of Fire by Betsy Dornbusch


Twins Aidan and Kaelin didn't realize until they got to university that most guys don't learn five ways to kill a man by the age of fourteen. Still, since their estranged father descends from the demon Asmodai, it's probably worth knowing how to defend themselves. But as years pass and threat never materializes, the twins suppose their mom is just paranoid - until she disappears. Their father tells them Asmodai has taken possession of their mother in order to infiltrate Sentinel, a treacherous coalition of demidemon rebels determined to protect humankind from the demon legions. The twins form a grudging alliance with Sentinel to rescue her, but when Asmodai murders their father to incite war, Sentinel starts to implode and Aidan and Kaelin must battle an enemy who wears their mother's face.


Sentinel Book 1: Archive of Fire
~ Excerpt

Betsy Dornbusch

Chapter 1
Cambridge, England
End of Michaelmas Term

         Aidan was just thinking of leaving the pub when the woman who'd been tailing him all day stepped through the door. A curtain of black hair hid her face, but he recognized her well enough. She was the only person he'd ever seen without an aura, besides his mother.
         He turned and headed for the back, pushing through the maze of students celebrating end of term. Erratic colors weaved between them, mixing with the hot cocktail of snow, wet wool, and cigarette smoke. Raucous laughter burst from the buzz of voices and a girl shouted into her cell phone.
         Someone pressed against his side and his heart pumped ice. The student-a guy Aidan vaguely recognized-looked up at him and slurred an apology.
         Aidan ran a shaking hand through his hair, letting the rubber band fall away. Students crowded around every table beneath the graffiti burned into the nicotine-stained ceiling by WWII airmen. Their voices and thoughts pounded through his head. He realized he couldn't escape through the back beer garden. The sleet had driven everyone inside, and the door was locked.
         A girl stood nearby with her back to him, talking to a friend. Her jeans clung to her in all the right ways. Aidan headed her way before he even had a plan.
         "Emma!" he said, deploying a smile.
         Her companion saw him first and nudged her. Emma turned toward him and met his gaze, eyebrows drawn down. He could tell she didn't hate the idea of him approaching her, though. Her colors, a happy lavender just barely tinged with wary orange, edged out from her skin. He blinked them away.
         "I'm Aidan," he supplied. "We met before, didn't we? Here, I think."
         Emma gave a little shake of her head. "No. I'd remember."
         Another nudge and giggle from the companion, who announced she was off to buy a pint.
         "I remember you," Aidan said. "I was, uh, hoping you'd be around so I could get your number before I leave. You know, so I can call you next term. If you're good with that."
         Under the guise of letting someone pass, Aidan shifted so he could keep an eye out for the woman tailing him. A guy distributing drinks blocked his view of her, but the haze of auras still ended where hers should have been. He had first seen her outside a breakfast cafe, then on campus after he'd finished his exam, and again on his way here. He thought he'd shaken her.
         Three more students spilled inside the front door, earning shouts of greeting. The noise of a hundred conversations pressed against Aidan's temples and their emotions flooded his mind. People kept bumping into him as they tried to get by.
         He looked back at Emma, who stood with a vague, polite smile, and it occurred to him he should be saying something. "Are you going to Wargrave for the break?"
         Her brows drew down. "How do you know I live in Wargrave?"
         A patch of heat prickled between his shoulder blades. "I...I remember from meeting you. Before."
         "Impressive," Emma said. But he earned a smile. Her gaze flicked down his chest and back up to his face.
         As he moved aside to let someone else pass, he touched Emma's back. She didn't pull away. But all he could think of was the black-haired woman. Her gaze passed over him, barely stalling at his face. He would have missed it if he hadn't been watching for it.
         "Yeah, um...I try," he said, and tried to come up with some joke or compliment to augment his lies. His mother would be staring murder at him if she was around. She hated when he pretended to know strangers.
         Of course, she wasn't around, and hadn't been for months.
         Their close proximity made Emma tip her head to look into his face, her mouth at the perfect angle for kissing. But something past him caught her eye and made it widen. He sighed, knowing what was coming.
         "Either that's your brother," she said, "or you've been cloned."
         Sleet plastered Kaelin's trimmed blond hair to his head. He spotted Aidan and started toward them, his gaze traveling over the people in the pub. A rare smile emphasized the sharp angle of his cheekbones and deepened the dimple in his left cheek.
         When he reached them, Aidan grabbed his brother's cold wrist. Kaelin held out his other hand to shake Emma's, still wearing that manic grin. "Hi."
         "Don't switch places," Emma said. "I might get you mixed."
         "It's not just you," Aidan said. "Even our own mother can't tell us apart."
         Kaelin pulled away from Aidan's grasp. His smile dissipated. "I need a drink. You have any cash?"
         Old code for wanting a private talk. Aidan turned to Emma. "No need for you to fight the crowd. I'll get you a drink and come find you."
         Close enough their arms brushed, they pushed through the pub, ignoring the stares. The tail had taken up position near the door, blocking their exit and pretending not to watch them.
         "I've been trying to call you all day," Kaelin said.
         "Yeah, my phone's dead."
         "What's the point of having a cell phone if you never charge it?"
         "We have bigger problems than that," Aidan said. "We're blown. Black-haired chick, leather jacket. She's tailing me."
         "Yeah, I saw her when I came in." They reached the bar, and Kaelin ordered two lagers.
         "We should have just waited for our flight instead of changing-" Aidan stopped as his brother gulped half his lager at one go. "What's wrong? What did you do?"
         "The weather wasn't the only reason I wanted to change the flight," Kaelin answered. "I'm hiring Sentinel to find Mom."
         The crowd noise faded away; then it was back, roaring twice as loud. "Why? Why would you do that?"
         "Because Nathanial can find her," Kaelin answered, turning his head to scan the crowd again.
         The name made Aidan wince. "You actually talked to him?"
         "No, I called Sentinel's main line, talked to the receptionist. He left me a message, agreeing to the meeting. Tonight." Kaelin took a breath. "Look, I think Mom is wrong about him. I'm afraid she might even be...I don't know, delusional or something."
         "You're the one who's delusional." Aidan shoved at Kaelin, making him bump into a waitress slipping around the end of the bar. She shot them a glare.
         Kaelin caught Aidan's hands and pushed them down.
         "Knock it off. Hitting me is only going to get you hurt."
         "Nathanial probably does know where she is," Aidan snapped back. "Since he's the one who took her in the first place."
         "You don't know that," Kaelin said. "It's just a theory."
         "It's a pretty good one, I think, since Mom's mentioned the possibility six or seven hundred times."
         "I'm telling you, Sentinel is legit," Kaelin said. "Nathanial is an officer in the company. His picture's online, his email, his phone. He's not hiding. I dug a little deeper and found newspaper articles. They run missions for the CIA, MI5, Six, the Mossad. They bodyguard diplomats and run courier services. They're not evil. They're a business. A legitimate business."
         Aidan grunted his disgust. "Mom would kill you if she knew you were talking to them."
         "No. Listen for once," Kaelin said. "Do you really think Nathanial hasn't found us before now, given what he does for a living? Sentinel takes on missing persons cases all the time."
         "Yeah, when they're not assassinating people, running black ops abductions, and reinstating evil despots."
         "Come on, Aidan. It's not like Sentinel is the only private security firm in the world."
         "Yeah, well, even if they are legit, how are we supposed to afford them?" Aidan asked. "It'll cost thousands."
         Kaelin focused over Aidan's shoulder, his back noticeably stiffer.
         "Oh, I get it," Aidan said. "You want to play soldier for Sentinel. You know, most guys with too much testosterone just get a girlfriend."
         Kaelin's gaze locked on something in the pub, but he leaned in closer. "Keep your voice down. You're making a scene."
         "Oh no! Not a scene."
         "Look. I'm supposed to meet him in twenty minutes at that Italian place on Market Hill. But he said he'd come alone. I don't like that he set a tail on you."
         "Imagine that," Aidan said. "Nathanial lied. Gee. It's almost like you can't trust the guy."
         A snarl bared Kaelin's teeth. "Stop arguing, damn it. We have to eliminate that tail."
         Aidan almost dropped his glass. "You mean kill her?"
         "No, I don't mean kill her. I mean...shake her."
         The crowd noise thrummed in time with the ache behind Aidan's eyes. He knew he was being a pain in the ass, knew it wasn't helping, but he couldn't stop himself. No good would come from Sentinel, or Nathanial. He spotted Emma watching them and her aura blurred into those around her. The black-haired woman was on the move again, crossing the room. She made a hole in the colors, an eerie void. He got nothing from her, even when he concentrated, not a name, not one shred of feeling.
         Aidan tried to remember if the bathroom had a working window, but couldn't. His mother had trained him to find escape routes from every building he'd been in since he was a small child, but this was the first time he ever thought-really thought-he'd need one. He felt fingers touch his back, and he glanced behind himself. No one there, but it chilled his spine.
         "This is insane," he said to his twin. "You can't do this."
         "I am doing this." Kaelin drained the last of his pint. "Are you coming or not?"
         Kaelin slammed his empty glass down on the bar. "Fine. I'll handle it on my own. As usual."
         "That's not fair, damn it. You're the one who said to stop looking for Mom."
         "I said we should come back to school. I didn't say we should stop looking." Kaelin glanced at his watch. "The least you could do is keep her from following me."
         "I thought you were handling it." Aidan turned away and leaned on the bar top, scowling at himself in the mirror over the taps and whiskey, sour fear burning a hole in his stomach. He felt Kaelin's fury emanate from him in waves and almost cringed. He might've pushed Kaelin too far this time.
         But without another word, Kaelin turned and left, shoving back through the drinks queue. He was tall and built enough everyone let him pass without protest, as usual.
         Aidan resisted the urge to lay his aching head down on the bar. When he closed his eyes, a thousand stars sparked behind his lids. He felt his brother still moving away, but he also felt Kaelin's misgivings, like an itch he couldn't reach. He'll come back in a minute, he thought. And they'd ditch the tail together.
         Someone touched his arm and he jerked back.
         "Sorry." It was Emma. She gave him a close look. "Are you all right?"
         Behind her, Kaelin walked through the door without a backwards glance. The scent of sleet cut through the cloud of beer and wet wool. The tail turned her head to follow Kaelin's progress and then looked back at Aidan.
         "We, uh, had an argument. That's all. Happens all the time. He'll get over it. He's just-" Aidan realized he was rambling and stumbled to a stop. The tail still watched him openly. He broke their gaze and scanned the crowd for the best path to the exit.
         The tangle of conversation and energy made him sweat. His headache settled behind his eyes, igniting bolts of pain whenever he stared at something too long. The weaving colors and flow of noise ached in his bones. He shook his head and the bar whirled around him. He gritted his teeth against the sensation.
         "I thought...well. I'm ready to leave, unless you're staying? I thought maybe we could go somewhere quieter and talk." Emma flushed, making her even prettier.
         "I'd like that," Aidan said, and he meant it. "You don't know how much I'd like that." He gave Emma his untouched pint. "But I can't. I have to go. I mean, though, not with you. I'm really sorry."
         She caught his arm, a golden hue of attraction haloing her. "I'll give you my number, and next term-"
         "I'm sorry. In another life, maybe." Panicked laughter caught in his throat. He drew a breath and wished it were steadier. "I really wish I could. I just can't."
         He stepped away from Emma's confusion and disappointment and headed for the front door. Since Sentinel had sent only one asset, maybe they thought Aidan couldn't handle himself.
         I'm about to prove you wrong, bitch, he thought.
         Or, they had the pub covered from the street.
         Someone bumped into him from behind. Aidan's heart skipped as he waited for a blade to press against his ribs.
         "Sorry-oh, Aidan. Should have known you'd be here. All right, mate?" Ian, a student from the painting restoration lab. Beyond him, the tail struggled between tables and students.
         "Yeah," Aidan said. "Have a good holiday."
         "Ah, but you can't leave yet." Ian slapped him on the back. "The group is having a round, celebrating getting out from under old Hortense. She's retiring; did you know?"
         The tail had freed herself from a group of guys huddled between tables.
         "I heard," Aidan said. "Look, Ian, I really have to go. We'll catch up next term or something."
         If there was a next term.
         A hollow feeling filled his chest. The stale air in the pub made it hard to breathe.
         "Only a pint. I'm buying." Ian pulled Aidan's arm as the tail, two bodies away now, let a smile flicker across her face. He couldn't see her hands. Would it be a knife or a gun?
         "Sorry, Ian, really," Aidan said, jerking away. He felt Ian's offence, but he shoved through the last few students and hit the sidewalk at a fluid sprint. The cold washed his headache away, but terror made his heart thud. Sleet stung his cheeks, and he'd forgotten his jacket earlier. Great night to fend off the best mercenary soldiers in the world.
         Play it like tag, he told himself. You can outrun her.
         He jogged for two blocks, trying to keep his footing on the slick walk. When he didn't see her behind him, he cut into the first gap between buildings he could find. He needed to breathe, make a plan. A locked gate at the end of the alleyway kept him from the next street. He touched the iron, slick with ice, and then retreated against the wall, into the deeper shadows next to the building, at the sound of footsteps.
         He clenched his chattering teeth as the tail peered down the alley from the sidewalk. No gun silhouetted against the halo of the street lamps. Confidence edited her every motion. A fighter, strong and lean. But he had almost a foot on her, maybe fifty pounds. A blood choke, he thought. Fifteen seconds of pressure, and she'd be out for thirty. He'd practiced on Kaelin. He couldn't imagine doing it to her.
         Her body stilled, turned toward him. "Tag," she said softly, starting forward. "You're it."
         All intention of fighting evaporated with those words. He rushed the gate and she ran after him. His sweating hands froze against the metal, but he scrambled and got a knee on top. She grabbed for his other leg. He kicked her away and flung himself over, a sharp edge gouging his thigh. She grappled for him through the gate, caught his book bag strap, but he broke away and ran.
         His boots splashed icy puddles and rang out in the empty night. His thigh hurt where the fence had ripped through jeans and skin. Cold air stung his lungs, strained with fear. Except for the watery glow of streetlamps, the streets were all dark shops and drawn drapes. He almost fell on the slippery pavement, forcing him to slow. Parked cars lined the street to his right, and an iron fence fronted a small house on his left.
         Back prickling, he glanced back. A man in a long coat appeared half a block behind. Aidan let his eyes glaze. Not a ripple of color surrounded the man. He ghosted without sound or sensation. Another one. Aidan turned his head and walked faster, trying to think through whether to run or confront.
         Ahead, a man and a woman stepped into the circle of light at the corner. Their auras glowed crimson beneath the streetlamp. Aidan slowed and glanced back. The man in the long coat paused, keeping his distance.
         The woman and the man ahead walked forward without hesitation, the man reaching under his jacket.
         Aidan's mother's voice, recalled from countless drills, prompted him: Never meet an opponent standing still.
         Aidan leapt toward the couple, fists aiming for contact. The world went kaleidoscopic, spurring him on. They grappled, Aidan pounding chest, jaw, arms, wherever he could get a shot in. He drove the man to the pavement as the woman grabbed for him, tearing his shirt.
         The man punched back doggedly, but fury deadened the blows. The woman finally dragged Aidan away from behind, one hand wrapped in his hair, the other locked around the strap of his bag, nearly strangling him.
         Aidan scrambled for purchase with his feet, shoved his weight onto her. They fell and her grip loosened as they slid across the icy pavement. He jerked his arm up, slammed his elbow back, into her face. She went ragdoll limp beneath him. The man sprang up and came again. Still on his back, sprawled across the woman, Aidan kicked out hard, heard the crunch of a kneecap, felt his opponent's pain thrust through his psyche. The man slipped and toppled, his head slamming the ground. He didn't move again.
         Aidan scrambled to his feet and bolted toward the man in the suit, who lifted his hand. Something seared Aidan's chest. He collapsed to the slick pavement as lead filled his limbs. Sleet glistened like bullion under the amber lights.
         The man strolled forward, lifting a cell phone to his ear. He stared down at Aidan as the world edged away into blackness.
         "We have the young Seer in custody now, my lord."

Chapter 2
Market Hill, Cambridge

         Kaelin had been on Market Hill a hundred times, but this night every shadow wanted to morph into a man; every passing car tightened his spine. Sleet crept down the back of his neck and dripped into his eyes, but he kept his head up. The muggy bar had left him slicked with sweat, now freezing beneath his jacket. A violent shiver interrupted the steady pattern of his gait.
         He had expected Aidan to argue, but to come in the end and help him work it out. He supposed he should have known. Aidan still wasn't himself. Just the other day Kaelin caught him staring off into space. "I just don't think things are ever going to be right again," he'd said.
         Kaelin hadn't replied. Things had never been right, not since he'd realized normal people didn't learn five ways to kill a man with their bare hands by the age of fourteen.
         Four people turned the corner ahead and approached him on the sidewalk, tearing him from his thoughts. Two more materialized from the shadows across the street, clad in leather jackets and jeans. At first glance they looked like any other students, but they walked toward him with purpose. Economical and confident.
         Kaelin's heart hammered an alarm, but training kicked in. His shoulders dropped, his back straightened, weight equal on both feet. They surrounded him in a loose circle.
         Six against one. Fighting them would be pointless. Kaelin searched their faces and found Nathanial, his heart in his throat.
         Nathanial looked younger in person than in his photograph. His clipped pale hair glistened with sleet, a shock of white-gold against his tanned skin. The low light cast his face into hard planes: straight nose, shadowed eyes, clean-shaven chin.
         "Well?" Nathanial asked. "No hug for your old dad?"
         Kaelin released an inaudible breath and willed his hands to stop shaking. "This isn't a family reunion," he said. "I'm only here to get my mother back."
         One of the men turned to say something to Nathanial. Dreadlocks hung down his back and a pistol made an obvious bulge beneath his jacket.
         "My associate would like to search you," Nathanial said. "In the interest of self-preservation, you might resist making a fuss."
         "Arms up," Dreadlocks said. American accent. Flat, disinterested.
         Kaelin laced his fingers behind his head, but a black fury filled his limbs. He clenched his jaw, beat the anger into a sick knot under his heart, and held still as Dreadlocks patted him down and searched his pockets. He took Kaelin's wrist and boot knives, his cell phone, his wallet, his pen, even his belt.
         "Where is my mother?" Kaelin said, suppressing a shiver as sleet ran down his face.
         Nathanial glanced up at the spitting sky as a black van pulled up to the curb. "We ought to conduct business indoors, don't you think? Such a nasty night and all."
         Dreadlocks gave everything to Nathanial. Kaelin expected him to search for Aidan's number on the phone to try to triangulate his location, but he pocketed all the items without looking at them.
         And he'd been certain which twin Kaelin was.
         Fury at his own ineptitude, and at Nathanial's nonchalance, made his voice shake. "You have Aidan."
         Nathanial's upper lip twitched. "Unfortunately, he decided to fight us."
         Kaelin's stomach threatened to eject the pint of beer he'd had at the pub. "What the hell does that mean? What did you do to him?"
         "Son, surely you want to get out of the weather." Nathanial gestured to the others. "Apologies in advance for the cuffs. No doubt Nicole trained you well, and I can't afford any trouble just now."
         Kaelin started to move, but two men gripped his arms and the woman handcuffed his arms behind his back. The cold metal bit into his wrists. They pushed him into the van, a firm hand on the back of his head to keep him from banging it on the roof. Nathanial slid into the front passenger seat. The others flanked Kaelin, pressed tight against him. They'd feel if he tried to dislocate his thumb to escape the cuffs. They were too tight, anyway, pinching his bones. Nathanial's people knew what they were doing.
         "Where are we going?" Kaelin asked.
         Nathanial didn't even turn around. "Colorado, of course."
         Kaelin stared at his knees. Home.

* * * *

         A halfhour later, he paused in the doorway of a private jet. Dark wood trim. Crystal glassware. Gray leather seats. And Aidan. He lay on a narrow couch against the curved wall of the jet, eyes closed, not stirring. His long hair hung in wet, tangled ropes. Nylon zip-ties bound his wrists, tucked in close to his chest. Blood edged a fresh hole in the thigh of his jeans.
         Kaelin tried to step toward him, but Dreadlocks dug his fingers into his bicep. "Sit," he advised.
         Unable to hold back this time, Kaelin shoved back with his shoulder. There was only a slight scuffle as three of them manhandled him to a seat and cuffed him to the armrest.
         "Aidan's all right." Nathanial gestured to a bearded man stepping aboard and wiping his feet on the rug just inside the hatch. "Saul here shot him with a tranq dart. He'll wake before we land."
         At his name, Saul touched his fingertips to his forehead.
         He wore a close-cropped beard, a good suit beneath his long coat, pale gray, and a discreet tie. He regarded Kaelin with polite interest.
         The guards disembarked, leaving Nathanial, the black-haired woman from the pub, and Saul, who gave a perfunctory nod to the woman, as if nothing were amiss, as if he hadn't shot Aidan, as if Kaelin wasn't handcuffed to his seat.
         The woman took a seat next to Aidan and went through his book bag. She produced his hinged butterfly knife. "Just this blade, my lord, and these bits here, besides school things." She displayed some feathers and pieces of metal on her palm.
         "It's for his archery," Kaelin said. "They're pieces of arrows."
         Aidan mostly used the knife to pare down the shafts to fit the points, but he didn't give them that. Let them think Aidan could use it to fight, too. It was true enough.
         "Thank you, Gael," Nathanial said. "Keep an eye on him, will you?"
         "Yes, my lord." She leaned back, crossed her legs, and thumbed through one of Aidan's notebooks. Kaelin didn't know what she hoped to find. He was a jotter and a doodler; no state secrets in there.
         Kaelin rubbed his free hand across his mouth and tried to will away the cold stone in his stomach. He had to think. But then, what good would it do while handcuffed in a plane and headed anywhere Nathanial chose to take him?
         The plane lurched and began a steady trek toward the runway. "You won't find anything at home," Kaelin said. "We searched our house over and over."
         "Ah well, we are the professionals." Nathanial sat on the edge of the chair opposite Kaelin and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm being flip, and I apologize. I understand how you feel, with all your mother has told you of us. But we won't harm her. She is...ill. She needs help."
         After putting the notebook back in the pack, Gael leaned forward, flipping Aidan's hinged knife: open, shut, open, shut. The metallic cadence scraped Kaelin's raw nerves.
         How could Nathanial even know their mom was sick, unless... "You lied to me. You do have her."
         Nathanial didn't even blink. "I swear to you I do not, though I very much wish we did."
         "I don't believe you."
         "Then consider this," Saul said as the plane took to the air and Cambridge fell away. "Your father has known where you were for years. He could have taken her-and you-long ago, if that were his intention."
         Wake up, bro, Kaelin thought. I need help with this one.
         Aidan didn't stir. Gael continued to flip the knife. Snick-snick. Snick-snick.
         "You said my mother is ill," Kaelin said. "What's wrong with her?"
         "I'll let you field this one, Lord Trevet." Saul strolled toward the cockpit and ducked through the doorway.
         Nathanial glanced at Gael. She leaned back and closed the knife, silencing the jarring clicks. "What exactly has your mother told you of me?" he asked. "Of our past?"
         "You're a mercenary with Sentinel Security Services," Kaelin said. "My mother left the firm after we were born, took us from you, and Sentinel has been chasing her ever since."
         Nathanial arched an eyebrow. "And Sentinel-beyond what you read on our website?"
         "You're not the good guys," Kaelin said, his throat tightening with every word. "What else do I need to know?"
         "Not the good guys, eh?" Nathanial said, stroking his chin. "I suppose it's all in how you define 'good.' As we're at war with a demon, you might excuse our behavior."
         Kaelin opened his mouth, not knowing whether to argue or laugh, but Nathanial held up his hand.
         "You're right on most counts," he said. "Your mother defected, she took two valuable assets with her, and she's done what she could to corrupt you. All the evidence indicates she is a traitor for Asmodai."
         He spat the unfamiliar name and Kaelin flinched. "She isn't like that," he said. "She..."
         "She what? Sang you lullabies and kissed your bruises?"
         Bruises they'd gotten from hours of fight practice. Something sank inside him.
         Turbulence rattled the plane. Aidan rolled over onto his back, struggling against the zip-tie around his wrists. He moaned and it escalated into a muffled cry. Gael pushed him toward the wall of the jet so he wouldn't fall off the sofa.
         "Kae? Don't...don't leave me. Not down here." Aidan rolled his head from side to side, barely able to slur out a sentence.
         How many times had Kaelin seen his brother come awake terrified and confused? This was the first time he had a reason. "You're in a jet, bro. We're flying home."
         Nathanial crouched next to Aidan and laid a hand on his cheek. Kaelin tightened, but Nathanial just caressed Aidan's face, cradling his cheek and brushing his lips with his thumb. Aidan's breathing deepened and his muscles slackened.
         "He can't hear you. He's dreaming he's in a pit, underground. He's terrified, and with good reason."
         Kaelin swallowed hard. How could Nathanial know Aidan's recurring nightmare?
         Nathanial kept his voice low. "Despite the evidence against your mother, she is no traitor. Kaelin, you and I share the same goal. I mean to keep her safe. I want you and Aidan kept safe as well. But we must do things my way." He rose and leaned in the cockpit. "Saul, prepare the brand. It will be easier on Aidan if we do it before he wakes."
         All thoughts of demons and nightmares were swept away with that one word. Kaelin pushed to the edge of his seat. "What do you mean, brand?"
         "I'm going to make certain Sentinel will always protect him." Nathanial rolled up his sleeves and cut through Aidan's zip ties, releasing his limp arms. Gael and Nathanial pulled the damp sweatshirt from unresisting limbs. He rolled his head in vague protest. Nathanial hushed him with tender noises.
         Gael flicked Aidan's knife open.
         Kaelin stood and thrust toward them, as much as the cuffs would let him. "What's that for? Leave him alone."
         The others didn't even look at him. Gael used the knife to cut Aidan's damp t-shirt away from his skin.
         Saul appeared from the cockpit, carrying a narrow wooden box. He knelt before Nathanial and opened it. "The Council won't be pleased, my lord."
         "Remember your place, Saul," Nathanial said. "And mine. Gael, if you would."
         Gael took Nathanial's wrist in her hand and held Aidan's knife over it. Nathanial braced himself against the curved wall of the jet and looked at Kaelin. "Prepare yourself, son. This is an unpleasant necessity."
         Kaelin couldn't catch his breath, much less speak. With his arm cuffed to the seat, he couldn't even stand up straight. He gave the cuffs a futile tug.
         Gael stabbed the blade into Nathanial's wrist. He fell against the wall, knees locked against buckling. His lips tightened into a thin white line. Saul held up a small bowl to catch the blood surging from his vein.
         "It's quite a lot, my lord," Gael said. "I must halt it."
         "For both," Nathanial whispered, as his blood threatened to top the edge of the bowl. Without warning, Gael flicked open a silver lighter and lowered the flame to Nathanial's cut. The scent of scorched flesh clogged the close air on the plane. Nathanial staggered back and sank to his knees, cradling his arm, chest heaving.
         Kaelin couldn't think, couldn't speak. Bile stung his throat.
         Saul took a blackened cattle brand from the box, a round Celtic Knot, six inches across. Grasping its scarred wooden handle, he dipped the brand into the bowl and lifted it. Blood dripped over the intricate curves. Gael touched the flame to the metal. The blood flared, and she jerked her hand back. Heat swept across the cabin from the flame, drawing tears from Kaelin's eyes.
         Aidan didn't move, even when Gael stretched his arm out and Saul pressed the brand against the tender skin on the inside of his bicep. The reek of burning flesh and blood filled Kaelin's lungs as the brand sizzled against Aidan's skin. Kaelin's knees buckled and he sank down. Violent trembles coursed through him. He could barely draw breath through his closed throat.
         Saul spoke softly. "Fire is our birth, water our life, earth our home, air feeds the fire, and so the circle is complete, our paths interlocked with duty, blood binding us to one another. This marks your oath."
         At last he pulled the brand away, leaving a bleeding, blackened smudge on Aidan's arm. Gael fixed a new ziptie around his wrists, looser this time, and she and Saul lifted him back to the sofa. With a soft whimper, Aidan curled himself around his knees.
         Nathanial struggled to his feet. His wrist had stopped bleeding...it was clear skin, not even scarred. And then Kaelin realized Saul was dipping the brand in the blood again.
         "A moment of pain, Kaelin," Nathanial said. "A small price to pay for a lifetime of Sentinel's protection."
         Gael flicked open her lighter.
         Kaelin pressed his back against the seat and shook his head, wordless.
         "Asmodai knows you," Nathanial said, leaning closer. "He knows how to trap you, how to hurt you. You need Sentinel's protection. The only way to secure it is to make you one of us."
         Kaelin pulled against his handcuffs until his wrist bled, as he was trying to climb over the seat. He flailed with his free arm to keep them away. Gael's fist found its way through his defenses and slammed into his jaw. The plane whirled around him as he fell back. They cut his shirt from his body, Gael suppressing his struggles with startling strength, and stretched out his arm, holding it steady despite his best efforts to pull away. They pressed the brand into his skin and the world went white hot. Saul began his chant again, but Kaelin's screams drowned it out.

Sentinel Book 1: Archive of Fire can be found at Whiskey Creek Press, Amazon, and fine bookstores everywhere.

© Electric Spec