"No. But I feel it. I can tell where it's at when it's here." She peered at me beseechingly. "Will you make it stop?"
I had no clue what this Darkness was or what I could do to stop it, but theories were running wild in my head. I kissed her forehead. "I'll do what I can, baby. I promise. I've got to leave now, but I'll see what I can find out for you, okay? We'll make sure the Darkness doesn't come back."
Like the flip of a switch, Kayla's whole demeanor changed. Whereas she'd been sad and withdrawn moments ago, she was now beaming and hopeful. All that faith - in me. With my empty assurance to take on something I didn't understand, she was able to put aside all of her fears and worries. All was right in her world now, thanks to me. She put her arms around me and kissed me back, and I felt like my heart would break when I finally untangled myself from her.
Holiday cheer was calling, as well as a burning need to suddenly talk to Roman. Seeing as how we kept missing each other lately, I sent him a text with a reminder of when I'd be home tonight and that I had important information for him. He was so caught up in his conspiracy theories that I wasn't sure if he'd want to make time for what he'd probably see as a little girl's fantasies. Kayla's perceptions - despite her difficulties in articulating them - had proven accurate before. I didn't know what she was sensing this time, but if there was a force inside the Mortensen household, I intended to stop it.
My brief conversation with Kayla tormented me for the rest of the evening as I corralled kids at the mall. I couldn't shake the image of her eyes as she told me about "the Darkness." It was one of those times I both blessed and cursed her psychic abilities. If she hadn't had them at all, I never would've known anything was amiss in the Mortensen household. But with her imprecise understanding of her powers, I was left with too many questions about what she might have sensed. Erik would've known instantly.
There was another thing for me to worry about.
Erik. Murdered because of me.
And if we were operating on the assumption that Hell had directly acted against him, then what was I supposed to think about Kayla? In the past, any unusual supernatural activity in the area had been the result of rogue forces outside of the Heaven and Hell system. After all, Heaven and Hell had certain rules they were supposed to follow. Milton was proof, however, that Hell wasn't above breaking those. So was it possible someone from my own side had been visiting Andrea Mortensen - coincidentally during the times her condition worsened? And if so, why?
That, as Roman had pointed out, was a question with an answer that would crack all of this wide open.
My only pause in ruminating on immortal affairs came when I tried to coax Walter into doing a house call to the Mortensens. Two mothers had gotten in a fight in line, so we were all on an impromptu break while mall security sorted matters out.
"Santa doesn't do house calls," Walter told me.
"Last time I checked, that's exactly what Santa does," I countered. "Every Christmas Eve."
"Santa can't just be hired out for entertainment. Children must either wait until Christmas morning or come visit the retail wonderland Santa's gazebo is in. Those are the rules."
"Of course you can be hired out," I said. "It's why you're working here to begin with! Come on, I'll pay you. I'll buy you a drink. Both, if you want. These are little girls who need to see Santa. Their mother has cancer, for God's sake. How can you not be moved by that?"
He peered at me through his spectacles. "I'm very sorry for their plight, but I can't do it. Taking on this role is a commitment for the holiday season, a vow to stay true to the spirit of Santa. If I'm outside this mall while playing this role, and Bob is here playing the same role, then what does that say to the children?"
I stared at him incredulously. "Well, unless these children are capable of breaking the rules of time and space, none of them would know there's a Santa here, in Lake Forest Park, or in any of the other thousands of malls in this country."
"I would know. I can't be Santa while Bob is playing Santa. It would break our sacred pact."
" 'Sacred pact?' It's just a job!" I was seriously considering breaking the drinking rule. If I got him tipsy enough, surely he'd agree to what I wanted.
"Not to us, it isn't," he told me solemnly. Security finished up their intervention, and the line began moving again, bringing the discussion to a halt before I could point out that last I'd checked, liters of whiskey weren't part of the "spirit of Santa" either.
I might as well have been Grumpy for the rest of my shift. I appreciated Walter's dedication to the role, but honestly, it was kind of pushing absurdity.
I stayed at Seth's place that night, in spite of my earlier plans to talk to Roman about what Kayla had told me. But when I called Seth on my way home, there was just something so sad and strained in his voice that I knew it was more important to be with him. Andrea's worsening condition had hit him hard. He and I spent the night chastely, but there was a desperation in the way he held me, a sense that I was all that was keeping him going in this madness.
"Oh, Thetis," he whispered, kissing my cheek as we snuggled in bed. "What am I going to do without you?"
"Don't worry about it," I said automatically. "I'm still here for a while."
"I know," he said. "But then . . ."
Silence. My heart lurched.
"I know," I said at last. "I know you can't leave them. It's okay."
"At least until she gets better. . . ."
His words faltered for a moment. I could guess his emotions because I shared them. We were both worried about that looming, unspoken fear. That maybe Andrea wouldn't get better. And the really, really awful thing was that if she didn't, then eventually, Seth might be able to come to me in Las Vegas. But how could I live with myself knowing what the price of my happiness was?
He finally managed to find his words again. "I understand why you get so frustrated with the universe," he said. "I've never wanted anything so much as I've wanted to be with you. I finally got you . . . and now this happens. People talk about throwing everything away for love, but reality doesn't work out that way. And honestly, if I was the kind of guy who could ignore his family for his own selfish wants . . . well, then, I don't think I'd be worthy of you. So here we are."
"It's okay," I repeated, forcing more bravery than I felt. "We'll be fine. They need you. Do what you have to do."
"Seth." I brushed my lips against his. "This is more important right now."
"Than us?" he asked.
It took me a long time to answer. But I did.
The next day I had an early shift at the mall, working with Bob. I attempted the same bargain I had with Walter, in the hopes of arranging a visit to the Mortensen girls, only to be met with the same response. I'd kind of hoped that since Bob wasn't a blatant alcoholic, he'd be more reasonable. No such luck. He was full of the same nonsense about the magic and integrity of the Santa role.
Fortunately, things improved when I found Roman at home afterward. We had bowling practice that night, but I'd wanted to talk to him in private. My other immortal friends could be coaxed on board with a lot, but as Hell's hand became more obvious in all of this, I was hesitant to get them involved. Roman didn't face the same repercussions, and I didn't mind exposing myself to the wrath of my employers. I was less excited about subjecting my immortal friends to that same wrath on my behalf.
"Did she say anything else about this 'Darkness'?" Roman wanted to know, once I'd recapped everything for him. "Greater immortal, lesser immortal, outside deity?"
"She doesn't understand what any of that is," I said. "She's only four. Five now, I guess."
"She needs to understand it," he said darkly. "You should train her up."
"With everything else going on in her life? I think that's the last thing she needs."
"Not if some supernatural creature is making her mom sick!" Roman perched on the edge of the couch, his sea green eyes both thoughtful and angry. "And let's face it, Georgina. If something is, I really can't imagine it's because the powers that be have singled out that family by random. If something's targeting Andrea Mortensen, it's because of her connection to you."
I felt ill. More consequences, laid at my feet.