Smoke clung to her nostrils, now an ever-burning constant. Downtown Albuquerque smoldered in the valley below her, but Emma’s more immediate concern was above.
Marcus stood on the cliff, the element Water in human form. Emma knew the destruction he was capable of causing, but she’d been searching for him, hoping he would be her savior. Instead, he’d just declared himself to be her worst nightmare.
“What the hell?” Will growled, trying to shield her with his body, a difficult task given that they sat on a tree growing from the rock wall. “You told me to save her. Now you’re threatening her?”
Marcus leaned over the edge, opening his mouth as though to speak, but abruptly turned and ran out of view.
“We have to get out of here.” Will rose to a crouch while he craned his neck to see above.
“No kidding,” Emma muttered, searching for an escape as well. The tree trunk they straddled was ten feet down the side of a cliff. The car she had been in lay fifty feet below in the bottom of a ravine.
“Shit.” Will growled.
Emma could only imagine the lengths Will would go to protect her now. He had felt protective of her before, when her son Jake had branded him, binding them together with a mystical mark. But only moments ago they had joined, which bound their hearts and their powers for eternity. If Will felt half the need to protect her that she felt for him, he could be reckless, and that worried her.
He pointed to a tree several feet away but out of reach. “If we can make it to that branch, then I think we can climb up to the ledge.”
“And then what?”
“I guess we’ll find out. I’m going first.”
Grabbing hold of a rock that jutted out of the cliff, Will pulled himself along the wall while Emma looked above. Marcus might have left, but Emma remained doubtful. The Water elemental had shown up for a reason. While she and Will were half-elemental, the experiences she’d had with full elements had proved them to be self-centered and manipulative. She expected no less from Marcus. She’d hoped, while searching for him, to appeal to their mutual hatred for her father, Aiden.
Will’s foot slipped on a small ledge, and Emma’s breath caught. Small rocks tumbled to the ravine as he regained his footing.
“Will, be careful.” The words were wasted breath, yet it gave her comfort to say them.
“I didn’t just find out who I really am to plunge to my death, Princess. Besides, maybe I could whip up a water slide or something.” Of course Will would joke about the power he’d just discovered he possessed.
His right hand reached the branch, but he kept his foot on the ledge as he tested its weight, then pulled himself up to straddle it. “Okay. Your turn.”
Adjusting the backpack slung over her shoulders, she maneuvered into a crouch on the tree branch she sat on. She glanced up and locked eyes with Will. His mouth pinched in determination.
“Do you think he’s still up there?” she asked, reaching for a rock. Her hand slipped on the wet surface. Wet from Will’s recent demonstration of his new power.
Will’s silence unnerved her and she cast a glance at him for reassurance.
He grimaced. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.”
The book and the laptop in her backpack threw off her balance, but the book was more important than she realized when she and Will had stolen it weeks ago. Written in a magical language that humans were unable to read, the book held the details of the looming confrontation between the elements. The final confrontation. Albuquerque had been partially destroyed by Emma, who was half Fire; Raphael, the element Earth; and Alex, the element Air, as they fought for control of the book. She wasn’t about to let it fall down into the ravine, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to go down with it.
When she was closer to Will, he gripped her wrist and pulled her to the branch with him. Their combined weight made the wood creak.
“Now up?” she asked, her stomach tumbling at the thought of what waited for them above.
Worry filled his eyes. “I’ll go first.”
She accepted his decision. For one thing, as an ex-Marine who’d been in the Special Forces, Will was a seasoned warrior. For another, although Will had only gotten his power moments before, he’d managed something that had taken Emma weeks to master. And last, Marcus was apparently Will’s biological father. Marcus had just found Will, and it was doubtful that he’d sought his son in order to harm him. Even her father Aiden, in all his perverse game-playing, had never tried to physically harm her.
“Be careful,” she said again, annoyed at her own redundancy. Yet she couldn’t let him go without saying something.
“Always.” His mouth lifted into his cocky smile, then he kissed her.
He started to lean back, but she put her hand behind his head and brought his face close to hers. “I love you, Will. If you get yourself hurt, I’ll kill you. Got it?”
He grinned again. “I’ve got quite the honeymoon planned later. I won’t be letting anything get in the way of that.”
Honeymoon. She guessed technically they were newlyweds. While they might not have gotten married in the eyes of the state or a church, she and Will had just pledged themselves to each other eternally. Their souls had been supernaturally bound with no possibility of breaking it, even through death.
“Does it include the honeymoon suite at the Ritz?”
“No, but it does include a hot shower.”
His smile fell away as he glanced to the edge of the cliff. “I don’t know what I’m going to find up there, so stay put until I tell you it’s safe.”
“I should be with you.”
He shook his head and determination hardened his eyes. “Marcus just threatened you, not me. It doesn’t make sense that he wants to harm you when he was the one who told me to save you. Let me go talk to him and see what that was about.”
“If it sounds like you’re in trouble, then I’m coming up.”
Pausing, he looked up, then back into her eyes. “Okay, but watch yourself in case I’m wrong.”
He turned to face the cliff wall, scaling the rock with little effort. When he reached the top he gave her one last look before he climbed over the edge.
Emma strained to hear any conversation, but was met with silence. It struck her that this had become a habit, Will going off to face their enemies while she hung back to wait. It made sense when he was facing armed men—she barely knew how to fire a rifle with accuracy—but the game had moved to another plane. Even though her power might not match the power of the others, it was better than nothing. She could defend herself and possibly Will if necessary. For all they knew, Raphael and Marcus had teamed up to ambush them.
Shifting the backpack, Emma took a deep breath. She wasn’t as confident about scaling a rock wall as Will had been, but if he could do it, so could she.
She stood on the branch and grabbed for the handhold Will had used. Her heart pounded. The cliff was wet and she doubted she could survive a fifty-foot fall. Still, she had to shove aside her trepidation and get to the top.
She heard a shout above, and urgency bolstered her courage. A couple of feet from the top, one of her hands slipped, and she fell several feet, releasing a shriek as she grabbed hold of a tree branch at her side. Her body dangled over the ravine.
Marcus’s face appeared at the edge, and he reached a hand toward her. “Grab hold.”
“Where’s Will?” Shifting her gaze to the side, she searched in vain for an escape route or even a foothold.
“Emma, I’m not going to hurt you. Take my hand and let me pull you up.”
“Why should I trust you? What have you done with Will?”
“Will ran after Raphael.” Marcus released a sigh. “I realize that I sounded confrontational, and I’ll explain later. But I assure you that it’s in my best interest to keep you alive. Let me help you up, and I’ll tell you and Will what I can.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I thought you said Will ran off after Raphael.” Her hands were wet from the rocks and she shifted her hold to hang onto the branch, her breath catching. A rock stuck out from the wall about a foot, enough for her to stand on if she didn’t plunge to her death getting there.
“Trust me, he did, but there’s no way he’ll go very far from you, especially now that you’re joined. He’ll be back and then I can explain a few things before I have to go. But all of this will be for nothing if you fall to your death.” His voice became more insistent.
Her fingers slipped and the tree branch shook.
Marcus’s hand reached down farther, his fingers extended toward her. “Emma, let me help you. Please.”
She hated to trust him, but the only way was up and there was no way around him. What if he grabbed her hand and let go?
“I swear to you on the book that you can trust me.”
She sucked in a breath and looked up into his face. “You know about the book?”
“Yes, and once you get up here, I’ll explain that too.” He eyes softened. “Emma, trust me. Will is worthless to me if you die.”
What if this was a trick to get the book? What if Marcus had done something to Will?
Will? Where are you?
I took off after Raphael.
Marcus is here.
She felt his worry, then his anger. I’m coming back.
The branch she held onto jerked, coming loose from the wall. To her irritation, she released an involuntary shriek.
Marcus plopped onto his stomach, stretching his hand closer. “Emma, please. I understand your concern, but I swear to you I won’t hurt you tonight. I only want to help you.”
Of course, he wouldn’t want her to fall. She had the book strapped to her back. But she had no reassurance that he wouldn’t betray her at the top of the cliff, other than his word.
The branch creaked and dropped several inches.
He said he wouldn’t hurt her tonight, which for some reason made his promise more trustworthy. Not that it mattered. She only had two choices: fall to her certain death or take a chance on Marcus. She thrust her hand toward him, worried her other hand wouldn’t support her weight. Her arms were already quivering from the strain.
Marcus’s face filled with relief as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her up with surprising strength—but then, he was an elemental being.
Her stomach scraped against rocks as he tugged her over the ledge. She lay on her stomach, her feet still dangling over the cliff when he released his hold. Panting, she climbed to her feet as Will ran out of a clump of trees toward them. “Get away from her, Marcus.”
Marcus backed away, hands raised. “I pulled her up before she fell. I don’t want to hurt her.”
Will glanced at Emma for confirmation.
She nodded, keeping her gaze on Marcus. “It’s true. I slipped and the branch I held onto was breaking. Marcus promised to not hurt me. Tonight.”
Stepping toward Emma, Will turned his attention to his biological father. “So any other night she’s fair game?”
Marcus shook his head with a scowl. “No, but the time is coming when we won’t be able to trust anyone. The game is ending and it will be everyone for themselves. Everyone.”
Will grabbed Emma’s hand and pulled her away from the edge. “If you’re suggesting that Emma and I will fight each other, you have another thing coming.”
“You may not have a choice.” His grin returned and Emma almost gasped in surprise. She’d seen that grin hundreds of times. On Will’s face.
“Bullshit. Why did you threaten Emma after you helped me save her?” Will tried to push Emma behind him, but she shoved his hand away. She was done hiding behind Will.
“I didn’t threaten Emma, but I was the one who set this all in motion. I was the one who cursed you both.”
Emma lifted her chin. “What are you talking about?”
Marcus sighed. “Years ago, Aiden and I made an agreement. It changed the course of things.”
Marcus’s gaze shifted to Emma for a brief moment, then returned to Will.
Dread knotted Emma’s back. “What kind of agreement?”
Marcus grinned again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Insisting that your father create a new daughter was the second-best idea I’ve had in a millennium.”
Will took a step forward. “What do you mean?”
“I’m the reason there’s a new Emmanuella.”
“What could persuade Aiden to do something you wanted? Aiden’s only interested in himself.”
Sucking in her breath, Emma shot a glance to Will.
Will’s brow furrowed. “What about me?”
“While Aiden created a daughter and reincarnated her time and time again, I never sired a child. You were my first.”
If Will was surprised by this, he hid it, shifting his weight to the side and raising an eyebrow. “So why now?”
“To end this madness Aiden calls a game. To restore the world to balance.”
“What do I have to do with that?”
“Emmanuella’s been reincarnated so many times, her power has faded. As has Raphael’s and Alex’s. By creating you, I’ve tipped the game to my advantage.”
Will shook his head in disgust. “I didn’t think you were part of the game.”
“It doesn’t matter whether I agreed to the game or not. I’m an element. I’m part of it. I’m tired of waiting and I want this done.”
Emma crossed her arms. “So why a new Emmanuella?”
Marcus watched her for a moment, then smiled. “To have a fresh start. Emmanuella had a tie to Raphael, an unfair alliance. Raphael had exerted so much influence over her through the centuries, she would never pick anyone else. I merely wanted to even the playing field.”
“So why hide my true identity and the fact I have control over water?” Will asked. “Why not tell me from the beginning?”
“It was Aiden’s only insistence. I refused at first. How could you enter the game if you didn’t know who you were when Emmanuella gained her power? So that’s how you became The Chosen One. Aiden said he’d make you her protector, which I’m sure he saw as a safe bet. In over two millenniums, Emmanuella never had any feelings for her protector other than fondness. There was no reason to expect otherwise. On either of our parts.”
“So if I was Emma’s protector, when was I supposed to find out who I was?”
“When Emma came into her powers, she would no longer need you. She would release you. Then you would know who you were.”
“So Raphael was right.” Emma murmured. “Even if he didn’t realize the significance of his advice.”
“If Raphael told you that you needed to release Will, yes. You obviously did just that before your encounter with Raphael on the cliff.”
Emma didn’t answer.
“Your predecessor had an advantage that you don’t. She had memories of how to gain her power, who she was. Who Alex and Raphael are. Each time she was reborn, she knew all of this —or at least she began to remember before her untimely demises. Aiden stole those memories from you, but then again, perhaps they weren’t yours to remember. They belonged to the original Emmanuella. In any case, in this round you had no idea how to gain your power, nor that you needed to release Will.”
“Nor the joining words.” Which is why Raphael expected her to know them and why she couldn’t remember them.
“Exactly. If you didn’t know that you had to release Will, he’d never know who he was. And if you didn’t know the words, you couldn’t join with anyone. I suspect it was Aiden’s fallback plan.”
Will shook his head. “Okay, that still doesn’t explain how I fit into all of this. Why enter me into the game? How does that benefit you?”
“Because Emmanuella no longer has—”
“Emma,” Will said, taking a step forward. “She prefers Emma.”
Marcus nodded with a slight grin. “Emma no longer had a tie to Raphael, which meant she was free to choose anyone. If you were her protector, I had hoped her fondness for you would overshadow any advances from the other two and she would feel a loyalty to you. That she’d pick you. Then Aiden realized that she loved you, and I’m sure he suspected that would give me an unfair advantage when the whole power balance sorted out. So he changed the rules. Again. He stole your memories of Emma, thinking that would stop you two from joining. None of us expected the two of you to be so committed to one another, especially in the short time you were together. Past protectors had months with her, but Aiden insisted the timetable be expedited this time. Probably in hope of cutting any ties on Emma’s part to you.”
“If you made the new rules, how could Aiden change them?”
“Aiden’s a tricky bastard and he’s always looking for a way out. A loophole. I thought I had the bases covered. Obviously, I didn’t. Let this be a lesson to you: if you enter an agreement with Aiden, think it through very carefully.”
Emma didn’t need that spelled out for her. And there would be no agreements unless they all agreed Aiden needed to die.
“So he changed the rules.” Emma swiped stray hairs out of her face. “Now what? I take it that you have a backup plan.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “I always have a backup plan.”
They watched him for several seconds before Emma groaned. “Care to elaborate?”
“No. Not right now, you’ll just have to trust I have things under control.”
“The only person I trust is Will.”
Marcus laughed. “Then you’re smart. But the day is coming when you may not be able to trust Will either.”
She cast a quick glance in Will’s direction.
Will’s eyes burned. “Why did you tell Emma that you were her worst nightmare if you say you don’t plan to hurt her?”
“Because in the past, Emmanuella had to choose between Raphael and Alex, and with each new generation it became no longer a choice, but a given. But because of the changes I suggested and I confess, manipulated, she faces a much more painful choice this time.” He looked into Emma’s face. “The time is coming when you will have to choose, but your choices will be Will or Jake.”
The blood in her head pooled in her feet, leaving her lightheaded. “What do you mean, choose Will or Jake?”
Marcus studied her for a moment. “I think you know exactly what I mean. I’m sorry.”
A chill shot down her spine. She’d have to choose one of them. But hadn’t her father insisted the same thing? Anger burned in her chest and she shook her head. “You’re not sorry. You’re an element and all an element thinks about is himself. So don’t give me your I’m sorry shit.”
With a sigh, Marcus lifted his hands at his sides. “Fair enough. And while I’d love to give you more answers, I have an errand I need to run. Go stay somewhere outside of Albuquerque. I’ll come find you and we’ll discuss our next move.”
Will didn’t answer as Marcus backed away and then hurried to his car. He opened the door, leaned down and grabbed something, tossing it toward the car parked in front of his. A moment later he drove down the mountain.
Emma turned to Will. “You’re not seriously planning on going back to Albuquerque and waiting for him, are you?”
“Hell, no. We’re going north. To Santa Fe.”