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Reborn: Experimental Heart, #6

Reborn: Experimental Heart, #6

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Reborn: Experimental Heart, #6

Length:
547 pages
8 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Dec 3, 2020
ISBN:
9781950128181
Format:
Book

Description

Freedom is everything.

 

I should know, I finally have it. After fighting for my deepest desires for so long, it feels more like a dream than reality. But when I start to get comfortable, I'm reminded of one last task that needs to be done.

 

Only, things don't go according to plan.

 

From the shadows, old and new enemies spring forth, bent on destroying what I worked so hard to create. It'll take everything I have, and my unbreakable bond with my life mate, to keep everything from falling apart.

 

And destiny isn't done with me yet.

 

The fate of the timeline is at stake, and at the end of all this, I may never be the same.

---
EXPERIMENTAL HEART (Complete Series)
Destiny (#1)
Pieces (#2)
Secrets (#3)
Exposed (#4)
Surrendered (#5)
Reborn (#6)

---
Note: Like all of Shannon Pemrick's work, the Experimental Heart series contains strong language, violence, substance use, love scenes, and difficult situations.

Publisher:
Released:
Dec 3, 2020
ISBN:
9781950128181
Format:
Book

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Reborn - Shannon Pemrick

Chapter One

A failure… Something I wasn’t. Not anymore.

Dappled light scattered across the worn forest path. Songbirds trilled and insects buzzed. A warm spring breeze rustled the canopy above. We set a steady pace toward the village to meet up with some others for a top secret meeting with the gods—at least it was a secret for me, because no one wanted to tell me what it was about.

Stella’s chattering carried through the air, drowning out Rosa’s grumbling. The succubus and her incubus mate, Zaedrix, trailed behind us. They’d been the ones to collect us for this meeting, as I had a pseudo-contract with them—one that bound them to work for me without costing me my soul.

My and Raikidan’s adopted daughter showed no fear of my contracted demons, and, typical of a fearless seven-year-old, she fired off non-stop questions at the pair. Wasn’t much of a surprise, given she lived with Raikidan and me in the West Tribe, exposing her to all kinds of unusual individuals—ourselves included.

Little one, Zaedrix said, his voice unnaturally smooth. I had to resist the desire to set my full, unwavering attention on him. If incubi couldn’t outright hypnotize you with eye contact, their voice certainly could. And that was if their too-perfect appearance, when disguised, didn’t lure you in first. Thankfully, these two had switched to a half-disguise, only hiding their wings for the sake of convenience. This made it easier to resist them. If you keep asking questions, we can’t answer you.

Stella let out a dramatic sigh and leaned over Raikidan’s head from where she sat up on his shoulders, her dark hair spilling in front of his face before falling to the side. "But I have so many questions! Papa, make them answer me."

You need to be patient, Stella. Allow them time to answer you, Raikidan said, his slightly gravelly, low-pitched voice chasing away Zaedrix’s unintentional pull.

Stella pouted. Fine.

Raikidan chuckled, his stunning blue eyes dancing alongside his amusement, and continued our forward path to the village. His acceptance of these demons’ presence impressed me. He never once reprimanded me for making my pseudo-deal with them in order to deal with Kir, and he never had an issue with them showing up, as long as they weren’t interrupting anything.

Where do you come from? Stella asked the incubus.

Zaedrix ran a talon-like hand through his short, light-colored hair, narrowly missing his single pair of horns. Another plane of existence.

What do you call it?

Its name is not pronounceable by your species’ tongue.

Stella tipped backward to gaze at him upside-down, holding onto the dark sides of Raikidan’s two-toned hair to keep from falling. How did you get here?

Zaedrix’s intense golden eyes danced, seemingly amused by my adopted daughter’s antics. I came here through a summoning Rosa performed… when she was human.

Stella’s brown eyes flicked to the dark-haired succubus. You were a human?

Rosa took a breath and put on a brave face. I could only guess she was either not a particular fan of children, or just didn’t like being probed. Yes, a very long time ago.

Like her counterpart, she, too, had a disturbingly smooth voice. However I noticed, just as with Zaedrix, it didn’t seem to have any effect on Stella. I theorized that their specific demon nature may only affect those who had reached sexual maturity.

The young girl cocked her head. How are you a demon now?

Rosa wrapped herself around one of Zaedrix’s arms, her talon-like hands pressing just enough into his tan skin to show her claim to him and prevent the incubus from pulling away, as if he ever would. A slight purr rolled out of her throat. My beloved turned me into one.

Stella blinked and then looked at me. Momma, what does ‘be-levid’ mean?

I smiled, trying not laugh at her mispronunciation. "Beloved is an endearing term some give their mate."

Oh, okay. Stella may not have been originally raised in an inter-species home, but she’d adapted to our way of life rather quickly. She understood Raikidan and I preferred to call each other mates, over husband and wife—not that we would be seen as such in any modern human legal system. She also understood Papa Raikidan had trouble grasping why he needed to wear pants around the house. Most of the time, she found our squabbling about the subject funny, rather than a tough topic of contention between the two of us.

And of course, she’d adapted well to my connection with Rashta. That may have been the fastest part of her adaptation to her new life with us. She loved spending time with the goddess when she popped out from time to time, and was proud to announce to anyone who would listen that she had the most special momma in all Lumaraeon. The way she said it, I definitely felt extraordinary.

You are special, Rashta said in my mind, our connection stronger than ever, which, according to the goddess, was thanks to Raikidan’s presence continuing to purify her.

Yeah, yeah. A year after Dalatrend’s liberation from Zarda’s heinous grasp, and my subsequent freedom from the darkness, I still struggled, finding it difficult to come to terms with my position with the goddess. Grasping that I was truly free was hard enough. I had a feeling it’d take quite a bit more time before everything felt normal.

Why did you turn into a demon? Stella’s voice cut into my musing. She’d refocused on Rosa.

The demoness didn’t answer, too preoccupied with cuddling up to her mate, her face rubbing on his shoulder like a feline. I was surprised her dual set of horns managed to not gouge the incubus’ skin. Zaedrix spoke for her, though his voice was a bit tighter than before. No doubt Rosa’s actions are causing some weird demonic reaction for him. I turned her into what she is to save her life. After everything we’d gone through, I wasn’t going to allow her to be taken from me like that.

His jaw tightened when Rosa wrapped her tail around his. I rolled my eyes. Either go take care of her needs, or douse her with cold water.

Rosa narrowed her golden eyes at me. You have no room to talk, newly mated.

I at least have some semblance of decency to keep everything behind closed doors.

Zaedrix tossed his chin Raikidan’s way. Unless he has a say.

Raikidan chuckled, unashamed of his behavior, and even Rashta snickered in my head.

Then suddenly, the two demons were gone, their talon-like feet leaving scores in the dirt path, making me aware they hadn’t vanished into thin air. A rush of wind followed their inhuman exit, the last indicator they hadn’t disappeared using some sort of demonic magic—if demons even had magic. Though I did catch Rosa complaining about not wanting a quickie. Their speed is terrifyingly impressive.

So, do we continue on? Raikidan asked. They didn’t tell us where we were ultimately going, just meeting up with others at the crystal.

I tucked my hand into his. They’ll be back. And until they do, I’d like to enjoy a family walk.

A suggestive smile slipped up half of his handsome face, one that made my pulse quicken and a need build in my core. His hand squeezed mine. Or, we could have Stella run ahead of us to Shva’sika.

I calmed my carnal reaction and narrowed my eyes. Raikidan… behave.

Stella cocked her head. Momma Eira, what are you two talking about?

Momma and papa things, I said, trying to dismiss the topic. I wasn’t quite comfortable with Stella learning about such deep relationship intricacies so early. Raikidan, of course, coming from a different background, didn’t understand why I went to such great lengths to keep her in the dark.

Stella smiled brightly. Like when you’re gonna bring home a little sister for me?

A muscle in my neck twitched and Raikidan’s grip tightened. His eyes shifted away. The past month, Stella had regularly brought this up. And unfortunately, it’d become a point of contention between Raikidan and me. No, Stella, we’re not talking about that.

She frowned. How come? I want a little sister. She tugged on Raikidan’s hair. Papa, why can’t I have a little sister?

It’s not the right time, he said, parroting the words I'd said to him. I caught the irritation in his tone that he tried to keep at bay. My hand slipped from his and I crossed my arms. His gaze fell on me, but I wouldn’t look at him.

The last six months with Stella hadn’t been easy for me. It had its nice moments, but it brought back all the things I struggled with when attempting to raise Ryder, which I had sucked at.

You didn’t suck at raising him, Rashta said.

I ignored her. It’d be a waste of breath, given we would never agree on that.

Raikidan lifted Stella over his head and set her feet on the ground. Why don’t you run ahead and meet up with your aunt?

The young girl blinked up at us. Why?

Raikidan’s eyes darted to me before focusing back on Stella. Your mother and I have some things to talk about.

My shoulders tensed, and my fingers curled. I did not want to argue more about this. Stella gazed at me and I forced a smile and a nod. We won’t be long. Promise.

She hesitated, then took several steps down the path before looking back. I motioned with my hands for her to keep going. A few more hesitant steps and then she ran off beyond the bend.

A tense silence fell between us. I wasn’t going to start this conversation. In my mind, there was nothing to talk about.

When do we want to tell Stella about Es’tla? Raikidan finally said.

I stumbled on an answer. Es’tla was an early-teen half-elven boy who came into the care of Sha’hiri, the North Tribe leader, and the North Tribe as a whole after years of neglect and abuse at the hands of his father. The despicable man justified his unmentionable behavior because he had blamed his son for the death of the boy’s mother.

I’d had the chance to test Es’tla’s skill near the end of the rebellion. I’d gotten along with him, once I broke through some of the trauma his father caused. It sparked a recent request from Sha’hiri—one I hadn’t expected Raikidan to want to talk about. What about it? We haven’t come to a decision.

His brow furrowed. I thought you did.

I stopped walking. I told Sha’hiri I’d be happy to train him. But when she told me I’d have to take him in and raise him, too, given his specific circumstance, I brought it up with you, and you weren’t keen on the idea, so I told her we’d have to put it on hold.

Raikidan stared at me for a moment. I didn’t say I wasn’t okay with it.

I crossed my arms. You didn’t have to, Rai. It was the way you acted when I brought it up. You were apprehensive about taking in Stella, but after seeing her again, you changed your mind. I understand the concept of adoption is difficult for you; that’s why I didn’t press.

His gaze fell to the ground. After a few moments I dipped my head to catch his attention. Rai?

This was a strange reaction from him.

I squeaked when he reached out suddenly and wrapped me up into his arms, resting his face on the top of my head.

I’m sorry, he murmured.

My brow quirked up. Um, for?

He inhaled deeply into my hair, tangling his fingers into long violet strands I’d been having a go at growing out. For being selfish. You’re taking the time to understand and be tolerant of the differences I struggle with, and I’m not doing the same for you.

I’m selfish, too, ya know. And I haven’t been willing to talk about my stance in all this. I’ve pushed against a hard wall without explaining why, expecting you to just accept it. I pressed my face into his chest, taking in a strong inhale of his musky scent. There isn’t a need to rush this kind of decision. I’m not going to die from old age on you any time soon.

Raikidan snickered, though he allowed me to continue without any further interruption.

I want more time with you, just the two of us. Stella was a surprise. She’s a bump in that plan I’m still struggling to maneuver around. Parenting isn’t coming as naturally to me as it is for you. And adding Es’tla to our odd family unit won’t exactly make it easier, but I’ve been around older children and teens more than I have infants.

I exhaled. And don’t get me started on the complexities and risks of pregnancy.

Raikidan’s grip tightened. I get it. You’re asking me to understand the human side of this and live in the moment of what we have right now. He kissed my head. I’ll do my best to try. I want everything with you. That includes the dragon desire for a large brood.

I shook my head. "If we come to that path, there’s only so many children I’ll be capable of bearing before my body stops being able to handle it."

Raikidan pushed me to arm’s length, gazing down at me with his typical intensity. We need to talk more about how that all works for you. Risks? Wearing down your body? This is all foreign to me, and frankly it’s not settling well.

I pressed my lips into a thin line. Yes, we are going to have to teach you all that. Though, that’s something for another day. I think I hear Stella and Shva’sika coming our way. I listened closer. And my uncle.

Raikidan framed my face with his strong hands and leaned in for a soft kiss. We’ll tell Stella about the brother she’s getting.

I grasped his hands tight with mine. Are you sure? There’s no pres—

He kissed me again. "Even when you don’t think I am, I’m learning a lot from you. Stella is ours even if she didn’t start that way. Ryder has become mine as much as he is Rylan’s. And now Es’tla will be the same."

I smiled at the mention of Ryder. I hadn’t gotten the chance to see him often in the last year, between my and Raikidan’s agreement and him off doing his own special research with the scholars. But when he was around, Raikidan did the same as he had with Stella, taking my son under his wing, so to speak. I was so proud of him.

Stella’s voice carried through the forest. She was yammering on so fast, it was difficult to figure out what exactly Shva’sika and my uncle had to endure listening to. Tangling my fingers with Raikidan’s, we met the trio halfway.

Stella skipped alongside Shva’sika, the alluring, tall elven woman focused on the nu-human girl, her long, wrapped and beaded dark blue hair framing her porcelain, angular face. Zane walked beside her, their hands entwined. A large rock of a diamond ring sparkled around Shva’sika’s left ring finger. The sight brought a smile to my face.

Zane noticed us first, waving in greeting. Shva’sika’s gaze shifted up, and she greeted us with a smile, her captivating crystal-blue eyes sparkling. Afternoon, you two.

I returned her greeting and then honed in on Zane’s attire. A dark green tunic with gold embellishments covered his torso. A black belt cinched at his waist, and tall, black leather boots hugged his feet. He’d even forgone his bandana, showing off his shaved head.

Rashta snickered. We both know he shaves it to hide his balding issue.

Uncle, did you lose your work clothes again?

I couldn’t help but tease him. For as long as I could remember, this man only wore his mechanic jumpsuit or some grungy t-shirt and old, worn-out pants. Then in came Shva’sika, and his wardrobe practically changed overnight, including more traditional elvish styles.

He smoothed his long red mustache. I won’t dignify that quip with a response.

I snorted, rolling my eyes. It also made him pretend to be more sophisticated than he was.

Shva’sika rested her hand on Zane’s chest. I think he looks handsome.

Bias, I coughed out into my hand. Raikidan snickered. Shva’sika shook her head, her eyes narrowed in a silent scolding.

I noticed Stella hiding behind Shva’sika’s legs, clinging to the woman’s dress. I cocked my head. Stella? What’s wrong?

My daughter’s eyes fell to the ground and I frowned.

Shva’sika patted the little girl on the head. Seems, from the grand story she was telling me, she thinks you’re mad at her.

My brow furrowed. Huh? Stella, no one is mad at you.

But… but you sent me away when I asked too much for a baby sister…

I let out a quiet exhale and exchanged a glance with Raikidan before kneeling down and holding out my arms. Come here, sweetie.

Stella hesitated and then ran into my waiting embrace. I pulled her close and she snuggled deep. We’re not mad, Stella.

Are you sure? she mumbled into my neck.

I rose to my feet with her held close. I promise. Papa and I just needed to talk about when to tell you some big news.

Stella lifted her face to gaze up at me with wide eyes. News?

I smiled and brushed a strand of hair out of her face. I know you really want a little sister. But we can’t promise that right now. However, we want to know how you’d feel about having another older brother.

Shva’sika’s bright expression caught my peripheral. She knew exactly what this was about.

Stella blinked. A big brother? Like Brother Ryder?

I rocked my head back and forth. Sorta. He’s younger than Ryder; a few years older than you. He doesn’t have a mom or dad, and Papa and I thought we’d change that.

Stella pursed her lips. Can I have an older sister instead?

All of the adults laughed. While most of us agreed that Valene was my adopted daughter unofficially, Stella saw her as a cousin. No. Older brother is the only option right now.

The little girl let out a dramatic sigh. I guess so, since he doesn’t have a momma or papa.

I kissed her on the forehead. I promise, his addition to our family won’t be painful.

Raikidan rested his hand on her head and smiled.

Stella wrapped her arms around my neck. I love you, Momma.

I love you, too.

Raikidan’s hand found purchase on my lower back, but I noticed it was a little firmer than usual when he made the action. I stole a glance, and caught the lingering traces of disappointment in his face.

You know, you’ve still not said those three special words to him, Rashta said.

My stomach tightened. She was right. I hadn’t even thought of that. The whole year we’d been together, I’d not come out and said those words to him, even though now, I could honestly say I believed them. Shit. I’d need to be more conscious about making an effort to use that phrase finally. He deserved to hear it, but I wasn’t going to just say it randomly to him. That’d be silly.

No, you’re overthinking things. Come out and say it. There doesn’t need to be any context.

I set Stella down on the ground to address Shva’sika and Zane. So, were you two on your way to our place when you ran into Stella?

Shva’sika home wasn’t too far away from ours, but not close enough for Stella to get there and back so quickly.

My elven friend nodded. Maka’shi asked me to fetch you two.

Maka’shi? If our tribe leader was sending Shva’sika, that meant Rosa was telling the truth. This secret event was a big deal. I had wondered why she insisted I choose my shaman attire for this mystery event. What exactly is this event with the gods going to entail?

That was really all I knew, and only because I forced Rashta to spill that much. I didn’t know why the goddess was being just as cryptic, but I could only assume it was for kicks.

But, from the way you’re dressed, Shva’sika continued, and Stella’s mention about demons, I suspect you’ve already been informed.

I caught the tension in her voice at the mention of demons.

The familiar voice of Rosa chuckled near my ear. Yes. We were told to fetch her by another important individual.

My eyes darted to my right, where the succubus now stood. Zaedrix was also with her. They both looked rather pleased.

Shva’sika’s eyes darkened. I can’t imagine they’re too important if they consort with the likes of you.

Rosa wagged a finger. Tsk, tsk, watch your thoughts, young elf. Your precious Eira is among those.

Shva’sika’s hardened gaze flicked to me for a brief moment. Shva’sika still hadn’t forgiven me for making my pseudo-deal with the two demons. And when she found out I’d enlisted their help for another matter a few months ago, she’d made her displeasure clear.

I understood demons weren’t liked—I didn’t have a positive opinion about them to begin with, either. But as I’d learned more about their kind, I was starting to see where there was a possibility of everyone coexisting. Even a need to feast on souls could be worked around. But Shva’sika’s hostility toward Rosa and Zaedrix is a new level I don’t comprehend. It was as if her issue was far more personal.

Sure, the two sex demons had attacked the West Tribe about two years ago now, but most of the villagers had let that go, and accepted my dealings with the demons now. So what could possibly cause someone like Shva’sika to continue such hostility?

You could ask her, Rashta said.

I did, remember? And she got uncharacteristically huffy with me.

I’m sure she’ll tell you when she’s ready, Isis, said, startling me a bit. She was the first life my soul had lived, and the reason Rashta and I were bound in the first place, it was still a little jarring having access to her and all my other past soul-lives. They had let me be for the first part of my and Raikidan’s mating rite gig, but the moment things were interrupted more frequently, starting six months ago, they’d made themselves more known. Luckily, they’d still remained respectful of the rites, when Raikidan and I needed time to each other. I attributed that behavior to them being as much dragon as I was, and having full-dragon mates too—Raikidan’s past soul-lives.

We should head into the village. Shva’sika spun on her heels, making sure Zane followed. He didn’t protest, though his eyes were tight with concern.

Stella trailed after them. Auntie Shiva, do you not like them?

A smile tugged at my lips. Stella had struggled with both of Shva’sika’s names, and for some reason didn’t like her human equivalent name, so Me’kunar, a scholar I was close with, had come up with a strong nickname. From what little he mentioned, Shiva was an elven folk hero that supposedly had some relation to Shva’sika. Raina, my fourth life, and the first Shaman Ambassador, revealed she was related to said hero as well, but didn’t go into details.

Shva’sika took a controlled breath. No, I do not like demons. No one should.

My jaw clenched. But before I could step in, Stella spoke up. Well, I like them. They answer my questions.

Zaedrix laughed. Your daughter is growing on me.

My brow lifted. These two never ceased to surprise me. Not saying any more, Zaedrix encouraged the rest of us to follow down the path.

Chapter Two

Stella skipped ahead of everyone, searching for the birds flitting about in the canopy above, only to be distracted by a beetle or spider minding its own business on some plant or rock. A corvid cawed and swooped from a tree branch, winging close to the young girl’s head. It was one of the crows she liked giving food to from time to time. Stella giggled and gave chase for a moment before getting distracted again.

The tension from Shva’sika had lessened, and she was willing to hold conversation with me, though completely ignored the presence of the demons.

Sha’hiri will be happy to hear the two of you changed your mind, she said. Though, we both know Es’tla will be the most excited.

My lip twitched. If he’s forgiven me for rejecting the initial request.

I remembered his reaction when I told Sha’hiri we’d have to hold off on the move. I didn’t know he was nearby. And even though I’d been careful with my wording to Sha’hiri, explaining that it wasn’t because we didn’t want him part of our family, he’d been devastated.

Shva’sika rested her hand on my shoulder. He has. I kept tabs on him, since I figured your and Raikidan’s situation would change eventually. It didn’t take him long to calm down and allow Sha’hiri to explain the situation to him. She laughed. A few days ago, she told me he still hasn’t unpacked his bag, waiting for the news he’d finally be moving.

I inhaled a breath and smiled. Well, then it sounds like he’ll be moving in before I get his room ready.

The corner of her eyes crinkled when a large grin spread over her face. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he’s got a bed before nightfall.

I shook my head, not doubting for a second she would. Even though we weren’t related, and I tended to call her friend, we were more like family. We’d been through a lot together, and even when we had our differences, we still had each other’s backs. I doubted anything could break the bond we shared.

How’s the wedding planning going? I asked, my gaze darting to Zane. His reaction would be better.

He let out a slow, heavy breath through his lips, his eyes wide. You didn’t warn me how involved this stuff is.

I bit my lip, trying not to laugh. Shva’sika patted his arm. I’m trying to be fair and go easy. I’m aware elven weddings are generally far more extravagant than human ones.

Zane’s eyes remained wide, as if he’d just returned from his first war. I thought we humans went too crazy as it was. But this…

My lips pressed tight, struggling not to let any of my internal laughter out. I’d only seen a fraction of the frenzy, and I wasn’t sure how all of this hadn’t sent him running for the hills.

You really think she’d let him go now? Rashta said.

Not a chance. But the imagery is fun. I pushed my awareness outward again. You’ll make it. You’ve survived far worse, Uncle.

Stella, not so subtly listening in, turned her attention to Zaedrix. Are you and Rosa married?

Rosa’s tails swished and Zaedrix chuckled. No. Demons have no need for marriage rituals.

Oh, so like Mama and Papa then… okay. Satisfied, she skipped ahead again.

Shva’sika’s lips twitched. Though you should have one.

I rolled my eyes. It’s not necessary.

We’ll see about that.

The forest path widened until we reached the village clearing. The buildings had little pattern to their layout. Some were stacked on top of each other, while others had more room, allowing for gardens or crop patches. Shops had signs hanging above or next to their entrances. And well-maintained cobblestone paths weaved through the throng of structures.

People milled about their day, most stopping their tasks momentarily to wave in greeting. None flinched at the presence of the demons with us. Reaching the rustic building of the inn, I spotted a young, light olive-skinned elven boy with black and red hair around Stella’s age. He wore no shoes or shirt, but he at least remembered pants. He’s picking up habits from his father and older brothers.

The boy smiled wide when he noticed our approach and rush toward us. I opened my mouth to greet him, but the words died on my lips when I saw his focused gaze.

He held his hand to Stella. C’mon, Stel. Everybody is waiting!

Stella grinned and linked her hand with his. Okay!

The two kids disappeared around the inn. I huffed. It’s official. I’ve been replaced.

Zane’s head flew back as he laughed. Well, now that Sethal has his little girlfriend, he doesn’t care about anything else.

Raikidan twitched. She’s too young to be spoken of like that.

Shva’sika and Zane chuckled at his expense. Even the two demons were amused by his reaction.

I squeezed his hand. It’s just a teasing expression. They’re best friends and practically inseparable. It’s cute.

Raikidan shook his head, his jaw tight. I did my best to repress my amused smile. Just another thing for us to work on.

Rounding the corner of the inn, the ice-blue eyes belonging to Valene greeted us. About time you showed up. Everyone’s been waiting!

The laughter of her adopted father, Daren, boomed beyond the front door left ajar. The stout, pot-bellied human man emerged a moment later, speaking with his usual thick accent. Ye need tae be patient, Valene.

The young woman huffed.

I stretched and then jabbed my thumb Raikidan’s way. Between taking care of Stella and him, I need my beauty sleep.

Laughter erupted around me, Raikidan rolling his eyes. Valene latched onto my arm, pulling me toward the center of the village. C’mon, let’s not make everyone wait any more.

I still wasn’t sure what this everyone bit was about, but with Daren joining our small group, I was sure it would be interesting to find out. He didn’t do large crowds or big gatherings. Made him uncomfortable. But if he was willingly tagging along, despite that possibility, this event had to be a big deal.

Weaving through the street, we came to a clearing in the homes. Lush grass carpeted the ground, and tended bushes and flowers dotted the perimeter. In the center, a colossal glowing crystal hovered above the ground in an elegant wooden structure, acting as an accent, rather than a cage or a dais. I’d learned that the crystal defied gravity by the enormous output of spiritual energy it emitted.

Dozens of people gathered in the garden, most from the village, but I recognized a few who were not. Blaze’s familiar face stuck out. He watched Ken’ichi toss Stella high into the air and then catch her with ease. My heart momentarily stopped. Stella shrieked with delight, begging Ken’ichi to do it again. Sethal held up his hand, reminding Ken’ichi he promised his turn was next.

Blaze shook his head. Eira is going to murder you.

I snickered, and spoke up, making my presence known. If I wasn’t so accustomed to what he's doing, you might be right.

Eyes turned my way, much of the current conversation buzzing in the gathering petering out. Blaze crossed his arms. Well, looks like sleeping beauty finally decided to join us.

I flipped him my middle finger and he shrugged, opening his arms. I mean, if you want.

A smirk tugged at his lips, his eyes sparkling. I snorted out a laugh and his smile grew, arms still held open. It’s good to see you, Eira.

We embraced in a quick hug, the spicy scent of his cologne and grease invading my senses. You too, Blaze. You look good. Like most of my friends, I didn’t see him much. While Zane made frequent visits to the village, Blaze was usually stuck working at the shop. I’d maybe seen his face twice in the last year.

Raikidan drew up beside me, his expression unusually tight. I suspected it had to do with him still fighting his protective instinct. He was getting better each day, especially now that my mate voice—a unique mental sensory input that dragon males received when their time to find their mate came—had disappeared a few days ago, but it would be a while longer before he would act like a semi-rational, non-overly possessive dragon. Or, so my past soul-lives indicated.

Blaze extended his hand, and Raikidan exchanged a firm grip, but to my relief it ended in a friendly handshake. I released the tension building in my shoulders. Raikidan was a little too unpredictable sometimes right now. Must be how he felt with me and my mood swings.

That’s how we all felt, Rashta teased.

I ignored her and reached out to muss Blaze’s short spiky black hair. "I see you have grown your mane out again."

Blaze did his best to hide his wince by running his hand through his hair before shoving them into his pockets, as if his past words embarrassed him now. "Yeah, I still like it this way.

Valene poked out from behind me. The loose curling ringlets of her long brown hair bounced around her shoulders from the movement. She showed me a picture of you with your longer hair, it’s definitely better this way.

Blaze took a step back, as if he’d been startled. Oh, uh, hey, Valene.

A small smile twisted her lips. Hey to you too, stranger.

He wouldn’t be such a stranger if he came with me more often, Zane complained, drawing up next to Blaze and wrapping his arm around our friend’s neck.

Blaze let out a snort. With you prancing off into the woods with your fiancé, and Argus, Rylan, and Ryoko no longer working at the shop, at least not full-time, someone has to keep the projects from going over their deadlines.

Zane rolled his eyes and Shva’sika and Valene laughed. My uncle did do a lot less working these days.

I scanned the gathering for familiar faces. Speaking of the others, where are they?

Blaze leaned back on his heels. Seda and Argus went to get Ryoko and Rylan. They said they’d meet us there. But Ryder and Genesis are here.

My back straightened. Really? They weren’t due back for another few weeks.

I bobbed my head trying to find the pair.

We’re right here, mom, came a familiar voice in the crowd. Not long after, Ryder pushed his way through, Genesis close behind him. His dual colored eyes—one silver-ringed blue, one gold-ringed green—squinted as he smiled. He ran his fingers through his white hair, one of his hands no longer sporting a protective glove.

I rushed over to him and wrapped my arms around his neck. He didn’t hesitate to embrace me back. I missed you.

He chuckled. You saw me a month ago.

Doesn’t mean I can’t miss you, I muttered.

I embraced him for a moment longer, maybe a little too long, before letting go. Genesis took advantage of the moment and swooped in, wrapping her arms around my waist. Don’t forget me now.

I chuckled and embraced her back. Yes, I missed you too. I hope this newest adventure, as short as it was, worked out as you hoped.

She pulled away, her eyes unable to meet mine. You could… say that.

Genesis tucked strands of her long raven hair behind her ear and took a step back, close to Ryder. I noticed a pink tinge to her cheeks. Movement between them caught my eye. My gaze flicked down to find their hands together, fingers entwined.

My brow quirked up and I placed my hands on my hips. When did that happen?

Genesis still couldn’t meet my gaze, and Ryder turned his eyes to her, a smile on his lips. Recently.

Is that so? I pursed my lips, my eyes narrowing.

He sighed and focused on me. Please don’t do the overprotective thing.

My brow quirked up. Overprotective? Did I just hear that out of your mouth?

Blaze took a few steps back and Genesis ducked her head. Ryder, don’t make her mad…

Oh, big brother’s in trouble, Stella egged.

I set firm eyes on Genesis. She flinched. An amused smirk cracked through the faux irritation Ryder thought I was legitimately experiencing. I never expected you’d turn out to be a cradle robber.

Laughter erupted around us, and Genesis’ pale complexion face grew redder. Eira…

I lost myself in laughter, joining the others. I couldn’t help it. It was too fun to tease them. Once I calmed down, I couldn’t keep the smirk off my lips.

So… you’re not mad? Genesis asked, her words tentative. You can get a little overprotective sometimes. And when Seda hinted this might happen last year, you did… well…

I shook my head. I’ve grown as a person. As long as you to treat each other well, I could care less my son is dating a woman twenty times his age.

Ryder’s eyes widened, disbelief crossing his features. Mom!

I laughed some more. Alright, I’ll stop teasing—for now.

Ryder sighed. A familiar bemused voice cut through the crowd. Be happy her parenting instincts aren’t so strong, boy. You’d be in more than hot water if it was.

I turned my attention to the familiar elf faces of Del’karo and Alena. In Alena’s arms, Vanya, now just over a year old, babbled away.

A teasing smile was plastered on Del’karo’s face. Our eldest daughter is a special one, after all.

I rolled my eyes and scoffed, though I struggled not to smile. I had always had a strong relationship with Alena and Del’karo. More like they had treated me like family from the start, Del’karo not only taking on a mentorship role as my shaman teacher, but surrogate father. However, it wasn’t until this past year did they start to refer to me as such. It was honestly nice hearing the words come from their mouths. Has nothing to do with my parenting instincts. I’m just not some crazy psycho.

Sometimes, Blaze muttered.

I shot him a sidelong glance before holding out my hands for Vanya. Alena happily handed over her daughter. I held her close and tickled and cooed at the tiny elf girl. She smiled and giggled, showing off the few teeth she had.

So, Mom, when you’re done playing with the baby, can you explain why are we all gathered here? Ryder said.

I stopped mid-tickle motion. Um…

My son hung his head as he sighed and the others around us laughed. Isn’t this event important? How do you not know what it’s about?

Strong energy welled up inside my body and then shot out, Rashta taking form beside me. Many people backed away or bowed, even though this wasn’t a new occurrence. She enjoyed her freedom when it was appropriate for her to separate from me. And I preferred it too. She deserved that.

She does know what’s going on, Rashta said. Her lips twitched, her eyes giving away her amusement. She’s just been so preoccupied this past year she’s forgotten.

I barely heard her jest, my attention focused on her presence. Her dark wings flexed, the light breeze wisping strands of her black and red hair. Her form is more corporeal today.

Over the last year, we’d noticed her physical state would change when she was projected out of me. Some days, she could be mistaken for a semi-corporeal spirit, while other days, you could mistake her presence as being free of our bond—god-like aura and all. The running theory was that it was related to her level of lingering corruption.

Corruption… I pinched my nose. I remember now.

Rashta braced her hands on her hips as she belted out a hearty laugh. I knew it wouldn’t take you too long.

Raikidan rested his hand on my lower back. I’m not caught up.

I smiled up at him. It has to do with the corruption that still lingers in Rashta that I told you about. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing at Rashta suspiciously. Though I can’t figure out why it’s become such a spectacle.

Blaze nodded. Same. Not complaining, if it’s getting all of us together to catch up, but still…

Rashta smiled. In order to purify me, the other gods need to perform a special ritual. As a result, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for mortals will occur. We thought it would be appreciated if we allowed you to witness the event.

That’s why we were so quick to return from our expedition, a raspy male voice said.

I turned to see two older elven men approaching. They dressed in thick robes with various chains, pouches, books of different sizes, quills, and parchments hanging off them. Both had intricate designs painted on their weathered mocha-tan hands. The younger of the two had long black hair, smattered with bits of gray. The older man had long silver hair and gripped a gnarled staff to help him walk. An unusual glow emitted from etchings carved into the dark object.

I smiled. Me’kunar, Lo’shen, good morning. You’re both eager, as always.

Lo’shen, the older of the two, gave a toothy grin. We receive a personal message from a god to attend an event involving you, and you expect my old scholar heart not to jump at that chance? Before I could answer, he whipped up one of his hanging books and pulled out a quill. Now, how to write this beginning…

I shook my head and Me’kunar laughed. Did you expect anything different from him?

Not at all. I turned to Rashta. Should we get going?

In a moment—we need to wait for one more.

I’ve brought it, a new female voice said.

Eyes turned to Maka’shi as she approached. Trailing behind the small, blue-haired half-elf was a tall humanoid figure with a shadowy appearance. The Guardian? I’d never known it to ever step foot in the village. One time over the last year, when I had been trying to learn more about it, thanks to my last encounter with it after my temporary banishment, it refused to get too close. What is going on here?

Rashta nodded at Maka’shi. Good. Bring it here so I can remove the binding.

Maka’shi hesitated. Is that really necessary?

You knew this day would come, Rashta said. It was told to you when you became Va’len’s wife. His vision of the guardian’s unbinding became your responsibility upon his death.

Unbinding? I wanted to ask for clarification, but I suspected, with the way Rashta was wording herself so carefully, she wouldn’t answer me. The goddess hadn’t been too forthright with a lot of information over the past year. Raina theorized it had to do with the corruption, as she’d never been so reluctant to discuss things with my soul in the past. But she wasn’t the only one who had issues. I had a lot to catch up on learning about my past soul-lives, but in the moments I had to myself, they also struggled to tell me

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