On the outskirts of caldwell, in the temperate summer night, the Brotherhood was gathered together under a fat, heavenly moon¡ªand wondering what the hell was going on. As the Escalade pulled up next to their tight group, John was amazed to be among them. Popping his seat belt free, he got out as Rhage shut the SUV down. Blay and Qhuinn fell in side by side, and together, the three of them walked over to the Brothers.
The meadow up ahead stretched out between a collar of pine trees, the grass marked by stands of goldenrod and the occasional frothy-mopped milkweed.
Vishous lit one of his hand-rolls, the scent of Turkish tobacco drifting over. "Fucker is late."
"Easy, V," Wrath said under his breath. "I will relieve your ass if you can't stay tight."
"Fucker. Not you, him."
"Butch, chain your boy, would you? Before I muzzle him with a goddamn pine tree."
The glow came from the east, starting out small as the flick of a lighter, then growing big as the sun. As it gathered in the forest, the light was filtered by trunks and branches, and John thought of the nuclear bomb test films he'd seen in school, the ones where the trees and everything were leveled flat after the great burst of illumination.
"Please tell me that shit isn't radioactive," Qhuinn said.
"Nah," Rhage replied. "But we're all going to have tans in the morning."
Butch put his arm up to shield his eyes. "And me without my Coppertone."
Except none of their weapons were drawn, John noted. Although they were tense as cats.
Suddenly, from out of the trees came a man... a glowing man, the source of the light. And there was something draped over his arms, a tarp or a rug or¡ª
"Son of a bitch," Wrath breathed as the figure stopped twenty yards away.
The glowing man laughed. "Well, if it isn't good King Wrath and his band of merry-merry happy-happy. I swear you boys should do kiddie shows, you're so fucking cheery."
"Great," Rhage muttered, "his sense of humor's still intact."
Vishous exhaled. "Maybe I can try to beat it out of him."
"Use his own arm to do it, if you can¡ª"
Wrath glared at the two of them, who shot him back a pair of who-us? stares.
The king shook his head and addressed the lit figure. "Been a while. Thank God. How the hell are you?"
Before the man could answer, V cursed. "If I have to hear all that Keanu Reeves, Matrix, 'I am Neo' kind of shit, my head's going to explode."
"Don't you mean Neon?" Butch shot back. " 'Cause he reminds me of the Citgo sign."
Wrath's head turned. "Shut the fuck up. All of you."
The glowing figure laughed. "So do you want your early Christmas present? Or you going to keep dissing my shit until I decide to take off."
"Christmas? I believe that's your tradition, not ours," Wrath said.
"So, is that a no? Because it's something you've been missing for a while." With that, the glow dissipated, like someone had unplugged the light source.
Standing in the clearing now was a man like any other... well, sort of like any other, given that he was draped in gold chains. There was someone in his arms, a bearded male with a streak of white running through his dark hair...
John's whole body tingled.
"Don't recognize your brother?" the figure said, then looked down at the male he held. "How soon they forget."
John was the one who broke ranks and ran through the long grass. Someone shouted his name, but he wasn't stopping for anyone or anything. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him, the wind roaring in his ears, his blood pounding through his veins.
The meadow lashed against his jeans, and the cool August night slapped at his cheeks, and the straining fists his hands had cranked into beat at the air.
Father, he mouthed. Father!
John bounced to a halt and then covered his mouth with his palm. It was Tohrment, but it was a shrunken version of the Brother, as if he had been left out in the sun for months. His face was gaunt, the skin hanging loose from the bones, the eyes sunk deep into the skull. The beard was long and dark, the shaggy hair nothing but a black tangled nest except for the brilliant, snowy white stripe at the front. His clothes were the exact same ones he'd been wearing the night he had disappeared from the training center, all tattered and filthy.
John jumped as a hand landed on his shoulder.
"Easy, son," Wrath said. "Jesus Christ¡ª"
"Actually it's Lassiter," the man said, "in case you forgot."
"Whatever. So what's the price?" the king asked, reaching out to take Tohr.
"I like how you assume there is one."
John wanted to be the person who took Tohrment back to the car, but his knees were knocking so badly he probably needed to be carried too.
"Isn't there a price?" As Wrath accepted his brother's body, the king shook his head. "Shit, he doesn't weigh a thing."
"He's been living off deer."
"How long have you known about him?"
"Found him two days ago."
"Price," Wrath said, still looking at his brother.
"Well, here's the thing." As the king cursed, the man, Lassiter, laughed. "It's not a price, though."
"What. Is. It."
"We're a two-for-one deal."
"I come with him."
"The fuck you do."
The man lost any levity in his voice. "It's part of the arrangement, and believe me, I wouldn't choose this either. Fact is, he's my last chance, so yeah, I'm sorry, but I go with him. And if you say no, by the way, I'm going to level us all like that."
The man snapped his fingers, a brilliant white spark flaring against the night sky.
After a moment, Wrath turned to John. "This is Lassiter, the fallen angel. One of the last times he was on earth, there was a plague in central Europe¡ª"
"Okay, that was so not my fault¡ª"
"¡ªthat wiped out two-thirds of the human population."
"I'd like to remind you that you don't like humans."
"They smell bad when they're dead."
"All you mortal types do."
John could barely follow the conversation; he was too busy staring into Tohr's face. Open your eyes... open your eyes... please God...
"Come on, John." Wrath turned back to the Brotherhood and started walking. When he came up to them, he said softly, "Our brother is returned."
"Oh, Christ, is he alive," someone said.
"Thank God," someone else groaned.
"Tell them," Lassiter demanded from behind. "Tell them he comes with a roommate."
As one, the Brothers' heads snapped up.
"Fuck. Me," Vishous breathed.
"I will so pass on that," Lassiter muttered.