Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  Gavriil had tried to talk his brothers out of helping him with his plan to eliminate the threat to Lexi. It was his duty. His problem. He knew he could slip in and out of the compound without detection. He'd already done so numerous times, planning out his every move.

  He was no glory hound. He didn't do body counts or notch a piece of wood somewhere. He moved through the shadows and brought death with him. The death reaper was right there, present in the forest, looking out into the gray mist while they spoke in low voices around him.

  "We're going in armed," he informed the women, his voice low and devoid of all emotion. "When we tell you to do something, do it without question. If this goes to hell, it will happen fast, and we have to know you'll cooperate with us."

  Lissa looked around at her sisters. "Of course we will. Immediately. Without questions, right?"

  Blythe nodded. "You're all the experts."

  "But Levi and Thomas know we can protect ourselves if we have to," Rikki said. "Don't worry so much."

  Gavriil didn't look at Lexi. He'd never gone into a situation with baggage. He worked alone and was used to slipping in and out with no one around. "Lexi, more than anything, you do what I tell you."

  He felt her suddenly lift her head. Her sharp glance. She knew. She was very tuned to him. Connected with him. He pressed his thumb deep into the center of his itching palm.

  "I have to know you're safe, do you understand me?" He turned his head and let her see the killer in him. That cold reaper of death who should never be set loose on the world. He'd been that phantom too long and he didn't know how to pull back, not in a situation like this one.

  Her green gaze collided with his. Held his. The soft forest, the secret place he could fall into where there was only peace. Lexi ignored everyone around her and moved straight to him, to stand directly in front of him. She lifted her hand and stroked a caress down the side of his face. He felt her gentle touch right down to his bones.

  "Of course I'll be safe, Gavriil. I'm with you."

  Everything in him settled. He took her hand and brought it to his mouth, his teeth biting gently at the pads of her fingers.

  "Let's get this done, shall we?" he said. "We've got the vehicles covered just in case. Max, you take the lead. I'll take the rear. We'll need to keep sound from traveling."

  "Airiana and Max can muffle sound," Lexi said. "They're not going to let anyone hear us."

  The forest was cool and damp, the fog so thick that even walking in a single line, it was difficult to see the person in front of you, yet Lexi moved with complete confidence. He found himself watching her even as he was alert to any danger that might stalk them. Night was falling, making it even harder to see, but she didn't hesitate in the least. Her hands brushed the leaves of the trees and brush as she passed them.

  He felt as if the plants reached out toward her, the fronds of ferns, the tall bushes, even the branches on the trees. Her long, thick hair was pulled away from her face and braided into some intricate weave only women seemed to know how to do. He'd watched her earlier braiding her hair, standing in front of the mirror without looking into it. Not once.

  Gavriil ran his hand down the long braid. Lexi turned her head to smile at him over her shoulder. Love, he decided, was complicated. Terrifying. Amazing. Love was a woman who could take a man as twisted and broken as he was, and shape him into something far better.

  They crowded into the small clearing beneath the circle of trees overlooking the compound. Gavriil had chosen the spot because he could see anyone coming at them from any direction. The weather would prohibit a sniper from finding them with a bullet, even a particularly good one--and he was certain at least one of Frost's enforcers had been a sniper in his military career.

  They had several good exits away from the compound, so that if they had to scatter quickly, they could melt into the forest and not be seen. Still . . .

  Stay close to me, Lexi.

  The women formed a circle while the men moved into positions to protect them. Max brought the screen into the center of the circle, trying to find the best location to pick up the camera's signals. Eventually he heaped dirt and grass into a mound and pressed the screen into it. At once the meeting hall showed.

  Members of the congregation wandered around, talking in low voices, difficult to hear.

  "Can you clean up the audio?" Gavriil asked. He wanted Frost's reaction to the show.

  "Give me a minute," Max said.

  "Rikki is really good at that stuff," Blythe said. "She doesn't talk about it, but she can fix just about anything when it comes to electronics."

  "The problem could be with the mike or in the receiver," Max said, as he bent over the screen, looking at lines of code.

  Rikki looked over his shoulder to peer at the screen.

  Airiana lifted her hands into the air and moved them in a complicated pattern, weaving and binding the fog to her. She began to send it out slowly, long trails within the veil heading down the mountain for the compound. She let it drift, pushing it along with a gentle breeze, so that thin streaks like bony fingers reached toward the building where Frost's congregation was meeting.

  "Keep it slow," Blythe cautioned. "We don't want the weather to stop anyone from going."

  "It wouldn't stop them. You went to those meetings even if you were sick, or about to give birth. No one ever dared miss them," Lexi said.

  A little shiver ran through her, memories crowding close--too close. Lexi knew she needed to do this--to find a way to face her past and defeat it. She was gifted with being bound to earth. She had her sisters who loved and protected her, who had given her a home. She had Gavriil, a man who loved her in spite of her inability to give him everything she would have liked. She needed to feel powerful and in control of her life again.

  She knew Gavriil was giving her this gift despite the fact that he wanted them all as far from Frost as possible. He didn't agree with the idea of scaring the others away. He didn't need them gone. He would hunt down the enforcers and Frost one by one and dispose of the danger to Lexi without all the drama. But for her, he was willing to step back and give her this moment.

  Lexi intended to show Gavriil just how powerful the women were. He'd never seen them in action. He had no idea what they could do when they were together, and she wanted to show him so that he wouldn't worry so much about her safety. She knew he saw her as fragile. She couldn't blame him any more than she blamed her sisters. She didn't look that strong when she was always having panic attacks, but she had a core strength that had never failed her.

  That strength had allowed her to endure Caine's punishments and abuse. It had allowed her to plan her escape knowing he might kill her if he caught her. That same strength had been there when the marshals had told her Caine had murdered her entire family.

  Gavriil's palm cupped her face, his thumb sliding over her neck. "We can still go home, Lexi. If this gives you too many bad memories."

  She shook her head. "I want to do this, Gavriil. I think it will help. I tried to strike at them using the law. That didn't work. I'm hoping this will at least give the opportunity for those who have become disillusioned to get out while they can. To escape. They need a chance."

  He nodded, his jaw tight, eyes cold. She recognized that look for what it was, but he stepped back, giving her room, and she was grateful. She didn't want to have to argue with him. It wasn't really in her nature, and she knew if Gavriil believed in something strongly enough, he would never back down. She absolutely needed to do this.

  "We've got audio," Max announced. "Thanks, Rikki. That helped."

  "Everyone's taking their seats, Lexi," Judith reported.

  Lexi turned back toward the screen and studied the congregation. She could almost feel the tension from where she was. The women sat very close to their men--or very far away, a telling sign she recognized from her days of sitting and waiting for Caine to go in and speak.

  She moistened her lips. "He'll walk in after he allows the tensi
on to really stretch out. In about four minutes he'll send in the enforcers. If anyone has grown a little restless, you'll see them stop fidgeting immediately. Those men will walk around and just stare at everyone. Sometimes they'll stop and target someone, but they won't say a word."

  "It's all about intimidation," Levi said, disgust in his voice.

  Lexi couldn't stop from twisting her fingers together. She knew that would upset Gavriil more than anything else right now. He didn't want her distressed over Frost and his threats. On some level, she knew if she got too upset, Gavriil would sling her over his shoulder and carry her right out of there. She shouldn't have been grateful that she could rely so much on his strength and protection, but she was.

  "His enforcers make certain their weapons are visible." She made a major effort to keep her voice from shaking. "They told us it was so we would feel protected from outsiders, but it only made us feel threatened."

  Lissa put her hand gently on Lexi's shoulder. "That was the point, right?"

  Lexi let her breath out slowly and looked around her at the other women. Each of them had a past--someone they loved murdered and they felt responsible--just as she did. Still, they worked. The six of them just fit together and became something so much more. They empowered one another. Just being with them gave her the courage she needed to see this through.

  "Four-minute mark," Levi said. "Just like robots, Lexi, there they are."

  Lexi got her first real look at the men Frost surrounded himself with. She didn't recognize any of them. "They have to be from other compounds. The police told me there weren't many left. That they scattered when the arrests began. I'm sure many took the opportunity to disappear, disillusioned by the Reverend's depravity when it came to light."

  "The three on the left"--Maxim pointed to them as they walked down the left aisle, definitely appearing intimidating--"all of them served with Frost. They're tight. These three were the suspects in the killings of those who investigated Frost while he was in the service. They left soon after he did and joined the same mercenary company he worked from."

  "Judith typed up the notes for all of you with the correct spellings of their names," Thomas added. "Just keep that in front of you, Airiana, when you write their names in the fog. You don't want them to think their god can't spell." He flashed a teasing grin.

  "The other three on the right aisle are friends from Frost's mercenary days," Levi explained. "None of them are married, although the one with the beard has been several times."

  Thomas nodded. "His last marriage was to a young woman from Afghanistan. They were married about two years but few people ever saw her. The neighbors said they didn't even realize she was no longer with him until the police made inquiries. Her family asked for news of her. Shelton Edwards claimed his wife had gone back to Afghanistan and her family most likely had disposed of her. It seems more likely that he did."

  "He was married three times," Levi added. "All three wives were from foreign countries, and all three disappeared without a trace when they supposedly returned home. No marriage lasted more than two years."

  "He's a sadistic bastard," Max said. "He had a particular reputation for getting results in interrogation, but there was never a survivor."

  Lexi wasn't surprised that Frost surrounded himself with men such as Shelton Edwards. Caine had done the same thing. They were men who thrived on violence and enjoyed seeing others in pain. The congregation was comprised of men and women who followed them, feared them and tried to please them. The men needed those things, enjoyed the power they held over the others and often taunted and tormented them just because they could.

  She studied their faces. There were several single men. They had probably loved the idea that women were subservient to men. The men had most likely been promised sweet young innocent brides who would do their bidding at any time.

  There were several families, and she could tell which men had joined because they had made honest mistakes and regretted their choices bitterly and those who enjoyed believing their wives were put on earth for the sole purpose of serving their every desire.

  That had been a favorite topic of the Reverend's and he'd preached it often, using fire and brimstone techniques, taking the roof off the meeting room, pounding his fist on the pulpit and calling up the women to confess the sin of not taking proper care of their husbands.

  Husbands gave lists to their leaders. She knew because Caine had happily made up transgression after transgression. She'd been humiliated and punished at nearly every meeting and forced to beg her husband's forgiveness. Lexi wasn't altogether certain she could go through even watching it on camera.

  "Okay, he's walking in," Blythe reported. "Lexi, you might want to give them a little foreshadowing. Nothing big. We don't want them running out of the building."

  "Rikki, bring in the rain. The larger storm is still a distance out over the ocean, but you've got cloud and moisture to make it work," Judith added. "I'll give you a little boost when you get it going."

  "I've got the wind," Airiana said. "I'll drive the rain and fog right at them. The wind is going to do some talking."

  "Not too much rain, Rikki," Blythe said hastily when the clouds above the compound burst open. "We need the fog. Airiana, start moving the fog inside the building, but very slowly so no one notices."

  Lexi sank onto the ground, brushing aside decades of vegetation. The soil beneath was dark with richness. She pushed her hands deep, feeling the immediate connection, the peace that always stole over her when she touched the soil.

  She closed her eyes and concentrated, reaching deep to make that bond even stronger until she could feel the heartbeat of the earth. The heat. The veins of water running beneath the surface. She felt ice and fire. The very pulse of the earth.

  Very slowly she closed her fists around the soil, holding it tight in her palm. She moved her hands quickly, forward and back and then down and up. Not far, only a scant quarter of an inch, but at once the ripple began deep below her, stretching out as it ran in a straight line for the meeting hall--for her target.

  "Get the fog in there, Airiana," Blythe instructed. "Do you need help?"

  "I've got it. I don't want anyone noticing until Lexi's little present arrives. I've got it pouring in through vents, cracks under doors and open windows. I'll have enough."

  They all peered at the screen. Lexi kept her hands deep in the earth. She felt the momentum, the gathering of speed, and then the earth buckled beneath the meeting hall floor directly under Benjamin Frost's feet as he stood, his boots planted shoulder-width apart, staring at his flock with a stern countenance and steely eyes.

  The floorboards lifted without warning, pitching him forward onto his knees. The ground swelled, rising to meet him, so that he face-planted hard. There was an absolute stunned silence. No one else had felt that well-aimed seismic anomaly, could understand what had happened.

  Gavriil dropped his hand on Lexi's shoulder. "I couldn't have placed a more well-aimed charge. Amazing technique."

  She couldn't help the sense of pride, but more, the sheer pleasure at seeing Frost on his knees in front of his congregation. Fog poured into the meeting hall from every direction, up from the floor, through windows and vents, even cracks in the wood. The fog swirled around Frost, nearly obscuring him.

  A collective gasp was audible as the congregation staring in shocked amazement saw the fog begin spelling out Frost's name. Even the six enforcers didn't move, their mouths open and their jaws slack. Over and over from the ceiling to the floor, the same sentence was written.

  Frost does not do God's holy work. Frost does not do God's holy work. Each word was distinctly written, tall, gray block letters, plain for everyone to see.

  Frost got one foot under him, and started to rise. The ground shivered, shifted and went out from under him. This time those inside the building felt the tremor, but very slightly. Frost, however, pitched forward once again, facedown, his forehead cracking on the wooden boards.

sp; The writing slid down as if the slate in the air had been wiped clean, yet the letters descended onto the floor to run down both aisles. The letters ran straight toward the six enforcers as if alive, winding around them, ankles and wrists, upward toward their necks until they appeared to be mummies wrapped in gray bands.

  Still in shock, none of the enforcers moved. They stared into the air where new letters began to form. The wind wailed Frost's name. The sound was high-pitched and haunting, and the rain began to weep all around the building as if those in heaven were crying for the lost souls.

  New sentences appeared in the air. Frost and his enforcers must be punished. Frost and his enforcers must be punished. The sentence, like the first, was in block letters and repeated over and over until those letters slipped onto the floor to begin their climb on the enforcers. The next sentence was a list of names.

  To be punished. Shelton Edwards. Gene Fielding. Daniel Forest. Trey Bridges. Ronald Howard. James Dawkins. Benjamin Frost. To be punished. Shelton Edwards. Gene Fielding. Daniel Forest. Trey Bridges. Ronald Howard. James Dawkins. Benjamin Frost.

  Flames appeared above each name. Red. Orange. Tongues of fire burned in midair over and around each of the condemned names. An eerie glow flickered through the gray mist. Flames shot through the room, danced around the men in the two aisles.

  Shelton fired his gun into the wall of fog and flames. A woman screamed. Several wept.

  "It's getting dicey in there," Blythe pointed out. "You can't let them shoot into the crowd."

  "I've got this," Lexi said. Confidence permeated her voice. She shifted the ground beneath both aisles, hitting her target precisely. The soldiers went down hard in a tangle of arms and legs. "Now, Airiana. Lissa. Rikki. With me."

  Get out. Get out. Get out. The fog rolled the letters fast, galvanizing the shocked crowd into action. Rather than risk the aisles where the enforcers were, they shoved their folding chairs out of the way and rushed the back door.

  Three of the enforcers managed to gain their feet in spite of the shaking of the floor beneath them. The last member of the congregation exited the building. The wind instantly picked up, slamming the doors hard and holding them in place.

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