I Am Not Junco Omnibus: Books Four – Six, page 30
I squeeze my brows together. "No."
"Yes," he says with a soft conviction that makes me hesitate. "Please, listen. I'm not asking you ta do anything other than enter that Pillar alone, ya hear me? I'm not asking ya to give it to Lucan, even though he wants it. Or Sera, even though she wants it. I'm just asking that ya go in alone. Please do not take Gideon in there with ya."
My gaze drifts out and tracks Irin's Pillar as it makes its climb into the sky. She might be dead. They might all be dead. The thought of losing Esta and Moju just makes all the fight go right out of me. But I know one thing for sure. When I enter my Pillar I will absolutely not be dead. I will live and there's something so wrong and so right about that at the same time.
I just shake my head and take a deep breath as I count a few heartbeats to bring me back down to a manageable level of insanity. "Do you know the story of the Magpie Bridge, Tier?"
He stares at me with a very strange look on his face.
"It's a story Gideon used to tell me about the swan and the eagle." I stop and point up to the canopy of rainforest trees. There are no stars on the forest floor so there is no way to see them now.
I have Tier's undivided attention all of a sudden. "How's it go, darlin'? Tell me, quick!"
I take a long breath and try to make my point as efficiently as possible. "Well, you know. It's the same old story. Forbidden love and all that. Cygnus and Aquila want to be together, but they've got to overcome impossible obstacles. Cygnus can't cross the Milky Way to be with Aquila because the little fox Vulpecula will eat her. And Aquila can't cross the Milky Way to be with Cygnus because Jupiter will shoot him in the heart with his arrow and break his love."
"Is that it?" he asks.
"No, it's got the proper unhappily ever after. They find a way, the magpies make a bridge that allows them to cross the Milky Way. But the doomed lovers only get one night a year." I stop again and picture it up in the sky one more time. Cygnus diving down, Aquila soaring up. And the freaking Milky Way that separates them for eternity. "Every time Gid told me that ending I always thought about that one night and it isn't enough, ya know? It's just not enough. I need more than one night of happiness a year. I'm just greedy I guess, because that won't satisfy me. It's not worth it." I look up at him and stare in his eyes.
"What's not worth it, Junco?"
"All the hurt that comes with that little bit of love." I shrug out an apology. "That's just how I feel. It's not worth it. And really, that ending is the total happy version, because in the one Gid told me for years, they never got to be together at all. Ever." I look over at Tier and feel so freaking tired, I want to lie down and sleep for eternity. "But when I saw Gideon that last time, back in the Stag before I really went insane, I was so upset at our goodbye he told me a new version of the story's ending."
"What'd he say?" Tier is gripping my arms so tight I think he might squeeze the life out of me.
"He said that the swan was God's princess and the eagle was Jupiter's favorite and they were blessed and got to live together for eternity. And how would he know to soothe me with that new ending if that wasn't my Gideon, Tier?"
He shakes his head and loosens his grip.
"He's still my Gid. I know it. He told me that new ending for no other reason than to make me happy."
"Maybe," he concedes. "Maybe he is, but you cannot take him in the Pillar with you, understand? He's a Seven, he will fuck everything up if he enters, Junco."
He waits for me to say something, but I stay silent.
"We have to go now, Junco. We have to go. Will ya do what I ask?"
I take a deep breath and nod my head. "Yeah, OK. I won't take Gideon into the Pillar."
He watches me, reads my mind probably, looking for any inkling that I am lying. But I'm not, so he straightens up and lets out a long breath of air. "Thank you. When this is all over, Junco, I swear, I'll make it up. I will make it up, OK?"
"Don't forget about my HOUSE," I say. "She's just a little girl. Don't leave her there to die alone. I couldn't stand it if she had to die alone."
"I won't, Junco. I promise. She's not gonna die. I won't let her die."
I try and hide my surety of her approaching demise, but I fail miserably and Tier picks up on it. "I will not let her die, Junco. OK?"
"Just do your best. That's all you can do. Take me, I'm ready." He holds me close in the timeshift and my prayer from the Fallen Archer church back in Fledge comes rushing back. Please let me accept my fate with courage. Let me be brave in the end.
It might've worked this time as well, except for one small detail. The time for fate is over.
Because this is destiny.
We exit the timeshift on another mountain, only this time it's not covered in climbing rainforest vines, but the tundra grass that blankets the Rockies at high altitudes. The wind is fierce and there is plenty of snow on the ground.
The valley below is a mess of charred landscape left over from the nuclear blast that marks our last foray into this land. There are no dead and smoking soldiers here—the entire perimeter of the valley is flanked by a bubble of transparent blue light that comes from several dozen avian ships that hover over the top of us.
"It's freezing," I say as my teeth start to chatter.
"Sorry, Juncs. I just gotta see who's down there first."
I zoom in my avian vision and scan the area around my light column. It looks empty until I find a solitary figure.
He's waiting for me.
Tier jerks me. "Listen, Junco, don't go down there, OK? Just fly straight into the light. Do not let him have his say."
My eyes never leave Gideon and I watch as he turns in a slow circle, searching. He can feel me. When his line of sight passes over me he does a double-take and smiles, then cups his hands to his mouth and yells. His faint words echo off the mountainside and my heart warms.
He's calling for me.
I look up at Tier and shake my head. "I have to see him, Tier, but I promise, I will not take him in the Pillar, OK? I won't."
I feel him searching me for lies, like he's dropped all the pretenses that he can crawl into my thoughts and just doesn't give a shit if I find out. I might be dumb sometimes, but I'm not stupid.
He watches my face as I wait, then finally accepts this promise as truth and we port once more and them I'm standing next to him.
He comes over, completely oblivious to Tier, and takes me in his arms. "You had me worried, Snowbird."
"I'm here," I say, hugging him back. "I'm ready."
"She's not takin' ya in with her, Gideon."
I pull away to watch the exchange and catch Gideon smiling. "No, she's absolutely not taking me in there with her, Tier. You got that part correct. I have no interest in that Pillar."
"What?" Tier is confused. I put my arm around Gideon's waist as my eyes make the slow migration up to Tier's face.
I expected anger, but all I see is hurt and I have a wave of hesitation, but Gid's hand reaches out and squeezes. It says, Be brave. So I put on the brave face.
"I've sold this spot to someone else, friend. Someone who will make more of a difference than I ever could."
Tier is shaking his head when Inanna appears. His incredulous look shoots back to me and I can only shrug. "Yer not serious, Junco!"
I pull away from Gideon and walk towards my mother's outstretched hand and take it in my own. She throws her head back and laughs, a cackle that sends shivers up and down my spine like electricity, and then she turns me around like a prop and shows me off to the man I love.
The man I am about to betray.
"She is mine! I told you all that."
Lucan appears and folds his arms against his chest, watching my face for the ruse.
But this is not a ruse, this is real, and just to make sure we're all on the same page I enunciate it clearly. "I choose Inanna."
I have no idea how long it takes to cover that distance. Minutes? Tens of minutes? I can't tell, I hold my truth in my head, just on the verge of exploding, but in check. You can't ever trust the mind-reading skills of these aliens, that's for sure. You gotta hide that shit, but good, and if there's one thing I'm fucking spectacular at, it's hiding secrets. I can tuck a secret away like nobody's business.
But it percolates there, just on the edge, and I feel Inanna's hesitation as the heat goes from inviting, to hot, to painful, to flames. But I squeeze her hand this time, just like Gideon did to mine. I squeeze and feed her the lie. "It's fine, Inanna. It's fine."
And she calms down, her mind too wrapped up in her success to see my hand slip under my shirt and pry my weapon from the dock.
And then the flames overtake us and we pass through the light and into the Pillar.
She lets go of my hand and we twist and maneuver in the emptiness until we are on opposite sides.
"Junco, please. Do you think I am this easy to trick?" She laughs.
I smile, and I'm telling you right now, this is the biggest fucking smile. The happiest fucking moment of my entire existence. "Not at all. I knew damn well you'd put up a fight. I've been looking forward to it actually. I had a lot of time to think in that tank. Watching the hair drift across my face as you mutilated me, ripped my flesh from my bones, flayed my skin into shreds, sent the electricity into the gel to make me writhe in pain and then buckle up into the cold air and attempt to scream, only to find that tube was still down my throat and the only sounds I was capable of making were a half-hearted series of pathetic grunts."
I pant hard just thinking about it. But the terror is gone now. I put it in the dark place, lock it there until I need it. I will need it, but not today. Today is easy.
"You cannot kill me, Junco. Just as I cannot kill you. Those are rules that cannot be broken."
I power up my SEAR knife and she does the same to hers. Inanna and I are both yellow. Yellow hair, yellow eyes, yellow light coming forth from our weapons. Gid told me rest of story about the SEAR knives. The part Lucan conveniently left out. One is as good as the next for killing any other Archer and the one I have now might not be able to dissipate Lucan, but it’ll work just fine on Inanna.
That was probably not what he was referring to out in the desert when he said I could kill her because I’m her daughter, but oh well. That’s how I took it. And really—he should know me better by now. I take orders, not suggestions.
"You're right,” I say. “We're like Laelaps and the Teumessian fox, aren’t we? What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object?"
"Nothing," she whispers.
Her smile falters.
"In a perfect world, that's exactly what happens, you stupid fucking bitch." The words are seething with hate and I feel the change coming on. The itch starts slowly in my hands just like it did back in the Vegas lab. Then my mouth is on fire as the fangs come out.
She's looking at me in horror but forces herself to continue the conversation. "The Laws of the—"
"Universe, right. I got that part back when Sera told me about the loophole. I'll be honest, I was skeptical, since it was supposed to be an unsolvable riddle. Impossible to negate those conditions—not only impossible, but improbable as well. But we're not in that universe anymore, are we, Mother? We're in Pillar Seven now, a doorway, a portal, whatever you want to call it. Either way, we're not in that Universe right now."
I hear the bones cracking in my back as the wings take shape then push out and unfurl. I push away the pain. This pain is nothing—all this and more already happened when I was in the tank. That's what this bitch did to me for all that time. It didn't all fit together until Tier told me about the programmed memory of the change. Inanna wasn't morphing me up Archer levels in that tank. She was making me practice the demon change. She turned me into a demon, then back into Junco, then the demon, and then Junco. So many times that there is no difference anymore. I am the demon and the demon is me.
And my body remembers who it is. What it is. The change completes and she simply stands there, her mouth agape. I bet that cunt never thought she'd be stuck between worlds with this thing, did she?
Inanna comes back to her senses and makes her own change and my lip goes up in a snarl, like the wild animal I've always been. She charges at me with her SEAR knife because what choice does she have? She knows. She fucking knows she's not leaving here in one piece.
I spin as she attacks, swiping the knives on my free hand across her back and making her scream out.
Oh. My. Fucking. God. That felt good.
She puts some distance between us and extends her SEAR out to full sword length and attacks again. I avoid the heat of her knife by mere fractions, and go crashing across the floor as she lands a kick to my stomach. My body skids to a stop and I'm back up on my feet in an instant. I dial my own SEAR down to a medium-length dagger and stand there to wait her out.
She watches me with a smile but she's farther away than she was previously.
"Not feeling so lucky now, are you?" My voice is not my own. It's a deep throaty voice that fits this monster's body perfectly.
"Junco, I can wipe you off this planet with a swipe of my hand. You're boring me."
"Then do it." I straighten up and drop my metal razor knives to my side. "Do it."
She lifts her chin before she speaks, like she's got the fucking right to look down her nose at me. "You know I need you to work the Pillar, I cannot kill you. And you will not kill me, do you understand? It is insanity to even think you can."
My head is shaking as the grin travels up my face. Again, I watch her expression change. And then I do something that surprises both of us. I walk towards her. "Don't make it too easy, Mother. Please, I expect a fight out of you. I expect—"
She tries to port but her body just blurs into slow motion as she moves. She pops out of this new state, breathing hard and stunned that her powers are so diminished in here.
"You're sad, ya know that? Weak, powerless, ugly, old."
She circles me, her true fighting stance finally appearing as her eyes blaze gold.
My own eyes are blurring the atmosphere with a bright red. I wonder, briefly, if I look like that thing in the Book.
I sure fucking hope so.
She is not as scary as I thought she'd be and I'm not stunned into submission like last time when I had no idea what the fuck these demons things were. I have an urge to speed things up so I play my last card before I fold and walk away. "Lucan never loved you, you know that right? But you wanna know what he told me?"
"Lies?" she says, laughing nervously.
"Maybe," I reply. "I'll let you be the judge. He said, Junco, I'm going to love you for thousands of years." Rikan was dead-on about envy. That shit works every. Single. Time. Because just like that, I've peeled away the armor that guards her one vulnerable spot. "I'm fairly sure he never said that to you, did he?"
She attacks and I raise my throwing arm and hurl the knife straight at her face. I only catch the smallest fraction of a moment when it connects with her skin because her SEAR cuts me in half and I shatter into billions of pieces.
Where am I?
Who am I?
What will happen to me now?
These questions have no answers.
I'm pretty sure Gideon and Sera planned for me to win this fight, but that would require pushing away the possibility that I might lose. And losing a fight with Inanna had such big consequences that it just wasn't possible.
So I embraced the worst-case scenario instead. But I left out one little detail about how this conquers fear when I gave Irin my secret.
You must want the worst-case scenario as much as you want the best.
They are equal partners and fear must be canceled out with accept
And I want this. No matter what you think, I want this.
I want to float in the shower of starlight, empty and alone. Because at least I know that bitch Inanna went with me, I went down fighting, and there is nothing left to be afraid of. Ever. Again.
I am not.
The heartbeat is still there. I am immortal and that will never change—it will never stop so I have no other way out. I can't change much. I have very little power, and I have no hope, or faith, or future.
But I can still count.
My pieces travel up and out like a comet dragging ice across the galaxy. I watch it from every angle, from the inside and the outside. From Earth and from space. I am my own scattered pieces. I am like starlight, I am all of me and none of me at once.
I am like light.
I am not Junco.
I am just light.
I am nothing but my own shattered pieces.
I Am Not Junco, Book Four
By J. A. Huss
Raubtier Aves, 039-1, a.k.a.: Tier
Son of Lucan
Ranking Officer of the Avian military
And devoted to Junco, no matter what.
Tier was left with one specific order and he’s not about to screw it up. He might lose all his allies, his brothers, his shot at defeating the High Order, and his own Eternal Salvation - but he’s willing to risk it all to keep one small girl alive.
The high-altitude wind whips past my face, leaving it raw and dry as I watch the scene play out down below. I cross my arms in front of my chest and ask my pupils to dilate and then contract, trying to keep Junco in focus as she makes the walk to the waiting pillar of light.
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