RICOCHET THROUGH TIME
Echo Trilogy, #3
Safe & Sound
The last time I saw Apep, the last time I actually spoke to him, was in the Nejeret Oasis a little over a month ago. He’d been possessing Marcus, dead set on killing me to release Re’s borrowed sheut, a source of unimaginable godlike power. The time before that had also been at the Oasis, just about four thousand years earlier. He’d been possessing Nuin’s daughter, Ankhesenpepi, and was laughing as I lost control of Re’s sheut, destroying the Oasis and nearly killing everyone living there in the process. And the time before that, he tried to tear out my heart to send a message to Nuin but settled for shattering nearly every bone in my foot instead. The time before that, he shot me. And the time before that, he tortured me for months in the At. On and on, he never let up. He never relented.
And he never would, not so long as he was free. Which, according to Genevieve, he was.
After Genevieve dropped the bomb, there was a collective gasp. A full second of what-did-she-just-say and did-I-hear-that-right.
Then the dungeon exploded with sound. Voices and footsteps surrounded me as the guards circled up. It was organized chaos at best, with me at the eye of the storm.
I covered my ears and ducked my head, huddling in on myself.
This couldn’t be happening. Apep’s unhinged soul couldn’t be free from its At prison. It was about as close to impossible as things came in our crazy world. Nik was the only person currently alive with a sheut, a mere shadow of the one I’d borrowed from Re, allowing him to manipulate solidified At, the very fabric of space and time. He was the only person capable of releasing Apep. But he would never, ever do such a thing.
And even if I’d misjudged Nik’s character and convictions horribly, he shared his body with the soul of Apep’s opposite, Re, the Netjer who’d sacrificed his own life and power for the mere chance that Apep might be stopped. There was no way Re would’ve let Nik release Apep. There was no way Apep could be free.
Because if he was, I’d never be safe again.
Apep was a Netjer, a true god of which we were diluted imitations in comparison. He was one of the two original powers in this universe, alongside Re, and together, the two had created everything. Even Apep’s disembodied soul was frighteningly powerful, possessing the ability to take over another being’s body. It was what he’d done to my biological father, Set, and what Re had done to Nik. Only unlike Re, Apep didn’t share; he’d wrested control of Set’s body from its rightful owner and had worn his skin for thousands of years like a favorite suit. The things Apep had done to me, masquerading as my father . . . the ways he’d broken me . . .
All the noise in the dungeon, the moving bodies, the possibility that the impossible had happened—it was too much. I gasped for breath, my lungs desperate to suck in all of the oxygen in the dank room. My head spun, and I squeezed my eyes shut to steady the tilt-a-whirl the world had become.
Apep . . . he can’t be free . . .
. . . I can’t go through this again . . .
. . . I can’t fight him again . . .
As quickly as the cacophony all around me began, it cut off.
“Lex . . .” Dominic’s voice cut through my rising panic, his arm curling around my shoulders. “You are alright, sister.”
He squeezed my shoulders. “You are safe.”
Nik’s voice joined his, close and right in front of me. “You are, Lex. You’re safe.”
Eyes squeezed shut, I shook my head vehemently. I hugged my middle as if that measly effort might protect my children.
“You’re safe,” Nik repeated, his tone even, soothing. “I promise, Lex. Open your eyes and see. Apep can’t get to you now. Nobody can.”
I cracked an eyelid open. Nik’s face was the first thing I saw, his pale blue eyes locked on mine.
Slowly, cautiously, I opened my eyes the rest of the way and straightened to peer around. The Nejerets guards had settled into their defensive postures in a ring around me, but I viewed them through a shimmering cloak of solidified, crystalline At. I followed it upwards with my eyes, where it arched overhead into our own private little dome.
On my next inhale, I found I was able to breathe a little easier. Apep wouldn’t get to me today. More importantly, he wouldn’t get to either of my children, either.
“Thanks,” I said.
Nik nodded once, straightening to his full height.
“So, what do we do now?” I glanced around, gesturing to the otherworldly dome with one hand. “It’s not like I can stay in here until the twins are born, because clearly even a solid wall of At won’t keep us safe . . .”
While I spoke, the color faded from Nik’s eyes until his irises resembled moonstones, a perfect match to the At surrounding us. “What you say is true, my Alexandra,” Nik said. Or, rather, Re said, using Nik’s lips and teeth and tongue to form the words.
Re-Nik raised his hand and brushed the backs of his knuckles over my cheek. “We had wondered how it would come to pass, but it seems so obvious now that the Kin finding a way to free Apep would be the cause.”
I stared at him, my eyebrows drawn together. “What are you talking about? You wondered how what would come to pass?”
During my time in Old Kingdom Egypt, when Re had been residing in his former host, Nuin, I’d had plenty of practice wading through his half-answers and vague explanations. And yet Re was still as confounding as ever. I’d all but given up on attempting to understand the murky motivations behind everything he’d done during his time on earth, let alone his time before it. He was a Netjer, a god, and he operated on an entirely different plane of existence. But he had my trust, unequivocally. In his own odd, godly way, he’d earned it.
Which is why I didn’t freak out when Re-Nik didn’t answer my questions, only stared at me with those secretive eyes.
“Okay . . .” I took a deep breath through my nose. “Next question—what do we do now? Apep’s going to come after me—after the twins—isn’t he?”
Re-Nik nodded slowly. “Without a doubt.”
When it became apparent that those three words were all he intended to say, I ground my teeth together. He knew more, that much was clear. And while it drove me nuts that he wouldn’t share, experience told me that he was holding back for a reason. Probably some preservation-of-the-timeline, fate-saving reason. Fine. I could deal with that. For now.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. I was suddenly exhausted.
Without warning, Re-Nik’s features transformed as the pale blue color bled back into his irises. His eyes tensed and his mouth curved downward in a frown. “Sorry, Lex.” Nik reached out and gave my arm a squeeze. “I know this is frustrating, but it’ll all make sense soon.” He offered me a conciliatory smile. “Promise,” he added with a wink. Somehow, I managed to convince myself I was only imagining the shadow of doubt in his gaze.
Dominic’s arm slid from my shoulders, and he took two steps toward Genevieve and Carson’s cell. “You must remain in here, Lex, but there is no need for me to.” He looked at Nik, his dark eyes determined. “Allow me to pass so I might interrogate them. We must be as prepared as possible for what is to come.”
. . . for what is to come. More ominous words had never been spoken.
Nik agreed, and Dominic passed through a slim opening in the barrier. It closed the moment he was clear of it. I moved to the spot he’d passed through to watch the proceedings.
Minutes passed, and though I couldn’t hear either his or Genevieve’s words, I was able to watch the tension enter Dominic’s body, stiffening his posture and making his movements minimal, precise. He was the third-deadliest man I knew, behind only Marcus and Nik, and was essentially cloak and dagger personified. I actually felt a little sympathy for Genevieve and Carson.
For months, ever since I’d found out who and what I was—the Meswett, prophesied savior not only of our people and our world, but apparently of the whole damn universe, courtesy of the godly Netjer twins I was carrying—I’d felt like a prisoner in a gilded cell. My choices were no longer mine. My future belonged to everyone but me.
My eyes became unfocused as I watched the strange tableau beyond until all I could see was the wall of shimmering At. My not-quite-gilded cage. Worse.
After fifteen minutes of waiting and watching the interrogation from within our soundproof bubble, Nik and I conceded that our presence in the dungeon was less than pointless; really, we were in the way. We made our way out of the gloomy dungeon, Nejeret guards ahead of and behind us.
“Do not be afraid, my Alexandra,” Re-Nik said as we ascended the stairs. The change in cadence and tone of Nik’s voice was unmistakable.
I raised my eyebrows. “You left pretty quickly back there.”
“I wished to consult the At,” Re-Nik said, nodding to himself.
“Learn anything?” I worried the inside of my cheek.
Thanks to ma’at still being out of whack—something that wouldn’t return to proper balance until my children were born—the At was unstable to the point of being unusable. Nejerets hadn’t been able to view more than a few seconds in the “echoes” for months now. But Re was different. Or rather, his connection to that plane of existence was different, because his was the soul—the ren—of a Netjer, rather than the lesser ba of a Nejeret. While we were all but locked out of the At, Re could still transcend to that other plane at will to view the reflections of past, present, and future possible events.
“I learned little of value,” Re-Nik said, shaking his head. “The At is currently misaligned in this location . . . a time anomaly, it would seem.”
I frowned. I’d been a time anomaly once, my presence in an ancient, foreign period masking all that was truly happening, leaving the echoes of Egypt during that time grossly misshapen in the At. My presence had inadvertently led to the fall of the Old Kingdom. How many people can say that? It was quite the accomplishment.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
Again, Re-Nik shook his head. “Only time will tell.” His words were far from comforting.
Once we were aboveground, following the trail that led back to the main house, I felt less and less safe with each successive step. Even within the impermeable At shell, even with the gang of guards stretching out ahead of and behind us and stalking through the woods on either side of the trail, it became glaringly obvious that any sense of safety was an illusion.
“Re,” I said hesitantly, “if someone was able to free Apep, wouldn’t the same someone be able to get through any other barrier of At, too?”
“Indeed.” Re-Nik walked along beside me, hands clasped behind his back.
I inhaled and exhaled deeply, and some of the rising panic abated. “And considering Apep’s penchant for possessing the most powerful being he can find, wouldn’t it also be safe to assume that he possessed whoever released him?”
“Yes,” Re-Nik said with a thoughtful nod. “That seems like a logical assumption to me.”
I clenched my jaw so hard my teeth ground together. His blasé attitude was becoming irksome. “And since I think we’d all agree that Apep’s headed straight for me—for them,” I amended, pointing to my belly, “there’s not really anywhere or way for us to hide.” I rapped a knuckle against the thin sheet of solidified At. “This won’t even be able to protect us.”
Finally, Re-Nik stopped and faced me. He placed his hands on my shoulders and leaned in, just a little, opalescent eyes searching mine. “I know you are afraid, my Alexandra. Just as Nik and Dominic and all of those bound to you by oath are afraid.” Compassion filled his alien eyes, and his lips curved into a gentle smile. “I, too, am afraid. But we must not let it get the better of us. We will acknowledge our fear, then set it aside and do what must be done, regardless.”
Ever so slowly, I shook my head, eyes stinging with the strength of my frustration. “But what’s the point? There’s nothing we can do!”
“Rubbish,” Re-Nik said in response to my hysterics. “This shield of At might not keep Apep out, assuming Apep has indeed possessed the mystery Nejeret with a minor sheut enabling him or her to manipulate At, but it will warn us of Apep’s arrival, and—”
“You mean when Apep breaks through the shield, kills the Nejeret he’s possessing, and comes after me and my children?” I clarified, eyebrows raised. “Fat lot of good that two-second warning will do.”
“Ah, but you didn’t let me finish.” Re-Nik moved his right hand from my shoulder to my belly. “The children you carry and the Netjer sheuts interwoven in every fiber of their beings—they will sense the danger, and this warning will give them the time they need to defend themselves and you.”
“But—but—but,” I stuttered. “I’m barely a month along! They’re just fetuses! How could they possibly do anything to defend themselves, let alone me?”
Re-Nik sighed heavily, his hands falling away from me. “Your children may still be forming, but their sheuts are as old as time and more than capable of acting on instinct.”
My slow headshake continued. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It most certainly does. And more importantly, it is what is. When they sense that your life is in immediate danger—and there is no doubt in my mind that once Apep shows up here, you will feel that very thing—their sheuts’ innate survival instinct will kick in and you will be carried away to safety.”
I stared at him, mouth agape, and hugged my belly. My kids weren’t just going to be gods whose very existence would restore balance to our failing universe. They already were gods. And they hadn’t even been born yet.