And a ghostly wind rushed past her.

The rounds burned into Robert’s chest as he threw himself between the woman and the weapon, blocking her fully with his broad body, a wall before a flower. The pain was a small thing against the enormity of what might be lost if he failed.

Then Gray was there, sliding into the room with the automatic rifle from the dead guard in the hallway. He fired on full auto, blasting Petra back—and he never stopped shooting until the clip emptied.

Only then did he whip around.

“Seichan …” Gray said, sliding to her side.

Robert knew the man loved her, saw it in his eyes.

He had loved a woman as much as that once, too. He met her while he was a young ambassador to Southeast Asia. He pictured her sweet face aglow under the moonlight in the garden, lost in the drift of cherry blossoms, her lips as soft as the whispery song of thrushes in the branches and the tinkle of a fountain.

But it was always the emerald of her eyes he returned to, the intensity reflecting all inside her, never dimming. Her love, a reflection of his own, was forever frozen in jade.

He ran the edge of his thumb along her cheekbone, letting his adoration shine—and at that moment, time shifted, but not those eyes.

Never those eyes …

He didn’t know he had fallen into Seichan’s arms. His hand was raised, touching gently, something forever forbidden him.

Knowing then it was right he die here.

In his daughter’s arms.

Seichan held the man, not understanding, baffled by the sudden tears in her eyes. The barrage of bullets had knocked him back into her arms. She caught him, the man who had cast his life aside for her, the same man who had imprisoned her.

Why?

He stared up silently at her as if drinking her in, raising a hand to touch her cheek. And strangely still, she let him, seeing something in his eyes that she could not deny.

Gray returned to her side, dropping next to her.

The assassin was dead.

The woman had a name, but those five letters held no meaning.

In the end, she was nameless, just purpose in human form.

Seichan stared at the bloody ruin, then turned away again, suddenly freer.

I will not be you.

And I’m stronger for it.

Gray slipped an arm around her. “Seichan …”

And there was the simple answer. She had a name, spoken by someone who gave it weight, depth, meaning, and substance.

But in that moment, she learned she had another name, one forever unknown. The man dying in her arms told her. His arm dropped, too weak now, his breath a whisper.

“You have your mother’s eyes …”

Trembling fingers found hers, perhaps sensing her shock.

“I tried to protect you, to hide you … to keep you from them.” His eyes never left her face. “But after your mother was taken … it took so long to find you. When I did, I couldn’t let you go … selfish … but to acknowledge you would have been your death. So I hid you in plain sight within the Guild, close but forever apart. I was blind, naïve to the cruelties that would be inflicted on you, would be asked of you later … I’m sorry …”

Seichan did not know how to respond, drawn into the past, remembering that night, hiding under the bed, terror-stricken, as her mother was dragged away.

Fingers squeezed one last time, trying to hold on.

Seichan stared down at him, at the impossibility of her father.

“Your mother …” he said, his eyes wide with the urgency of those last words, the last gasp of meaning all sought during that final breath. “Escaped … still alive after … don’t know where …”

With his message sent, he sagged, hollowed out by his escaping life, relaxing into death. His eyes drifted closed. His last words were oddly clear and sad.

“No father should lose a daughter …”

With that, he was gone.

Gray pulled Seichan to him, holding her as she held her father.

Then the world quaked, booming with the thunder of gods.

41

July 4, 3:00 P.M. EST

Blue Ridge Mountains

Painter hovered high as the world exploded below.

Seconds earlier, his parachute canopy had burst wide, becoming a wing of fabric overhead, jolting him in his harness—then the entire plateau bulged upward, reaching toward him with the heavy bass note of buried warheads.

His teammates hung in the air to either side. Monk and Kowalski headed toward Kat’s position at the cliff’s edge. Tucker was several yards lower, skimming toward Lisa’s ledge beside the waterfall. He carried Kane strapped to his chest in a tandem harness.

Between Painter’s legs, the entire landscape fell away, shattering apart, vanishing down into a growling pit of churning rock, fire, and steam. Entire sections of forest dropped into the hellish gorge. Smoke and rock dust blasted upward, swallowing his group. Twisting thermals wreaked havoc. Painter’s chute swung wildly and sailed higher on a column of superheated air.

Choking, Painter held his breath and covered his face with an arm, protecting his eyes.

He fought his chute’s toggles to stabilize his spin, losing sight of the others. He had experienced this level of destruction once before. He recognized the superheated signature of thermobaric weapons—only never on a scale strong enough to raise a significant chunk of the earth’s crust.

The initial plume whirled higher, dragging the worst of the smoke and superheated air away, clearing a glimpse to the ongoing destruction. Below, a gateway to hell opened: a gaping, steaming hole, breathing fire and stinking of brimstone.

At its edges, more of the landscape succumbed. Hillsides slid, dragging trees and boulders. Rivers and creeks poured down that black throat, only to belch back out as clouds of steam. Down deeper, a heavy flow flooded the giant pit, boiling and stirring everything into a toxic soup.

Painter stabilized his chute, sweeping out, catching a glimpse of twisted steel beams and honeycombed sections of concrete, fossilized hallmarks of man-made construction.

The remains of a massive subterranean base.

Even these structures slowly vanished into the roiling mire at the bottom. Painter tore his gaze away, searching around him. The three other parachutes floated lower, managing the thermals better than he did. The curve of the cliff that was their destination remained intact, taller now, looming over that steaming sinkhole.

“Going for Kat,” Monk reported.

“Crapping my pants.” That was Kowalski.

The pair dropped fast toward Kat’s position, angling into as much of a glide as possible, still fighting the unpredictable thermals. If they missed the cliff’s edge, they would go plummeting into the churning maw below.

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