“Nina!” Jared yel ed, running to me. He slid on his knees and released me from the restraints, and then slipped his backpack from his shoulders, opening it and pulling out supplies.
Before I could speak, the overwhelming spasms engulfed me. I wailed, but I wouldn’t push.
Jared checked between my legs, and his eyes grew wide. “He’s crowning, sweetheart. Push.”
I shook my head. “She’s dead.”
“I know, but you have to push.”
Jared smiled. “Yes, you can. You’ve done so wel .”
I peeked at Kim. “They’re out there. Waiting for him.”
Jared touched my cheek. “I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to him.”
“They abandoned us,” I cried.
“Who?” Jared said, laying out sterile cloths.
“Heaven! Where are they? Where is Samuel?” The pain came again.
“Nina, push!” Jared said.
“They’l kill him!”
Jared grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Look at me,” he said, watching me as I panted. “I won’t let that happen. We wil protect him. Together.”
Tears wel ed up in my eyes. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You can, and you wil . Now, push!”
I nodded and pushed myself up on the heels of my hands. When the contraction came, I pushed through it. My voice was low and gruff and I grunted, using all of my remaining strength.
Claire and Bex jumped through the glass opening, and paused, seeing Kim’s body sitting stil against the door. They walked over to her. Claire gently shut her eyes, and then she rushed over to me. She got on her knees behind me, and hooked her elbows under my arms.
I stared at Kim, but Claire used her cheek to bar my line of sight. “Don’t look, honey.”
I wailed, mourning for my friend. Claire hugged me tight. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she repeated, over and over.
Ryan leaned against the opposite wal , his rifle in hand, tears drawing clean lines down his dirty face.
“Could you grab a cloth and wipe her forehead?” Claire said. Ryan didn’t hesitate, digging through the pack and then patting down my brow. He combed back my wet hair with his fingers and then kissed my cheek. “Doing good, Nigh. Hang in there.”
I began to speak, but the urge to push came again, so I heaved. I pushed so hard that my body trembled. Yel ing seemed to help, so I did. I yel ed, and screamed, and cried out. I cried for Kim, and for the pain, and for fear of what would happen once Bean was vulnerable.
Jared held open my shaking knees. “You’re almost there, Nina.”
Just as he said the words, the baby seemed to spil out of me and into Jared’s arms.
He laughed out loud, in shock, holding his blood-covered child in his arms.
Claire helped me to relax back against the cushion, and then she assisted Jared in cleaning off the infant and cutting the cord.
Bex pushed his back against the door. “We’ve got some nasty ones on the way! They’re boiling up straight from Hel !”
Ryan gripped his rifle, and Claire stood. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “They’ve sent an entire Legion.”
There is a distinct difference between the ability to create life and the innate need to protect it, to cherish it. Appreciating that life is the one being you love most in the universe becomes duty, and as a direct result, one must neglect all else to preserve it.
The mother that throws herself in front of an oncoming car, the mother that eats a can of generic peaches when the last bit of food isn’t enough to share, the mother that wears a ratty dress to work so that she can keep much-needed shoes on those tiny, precious feet…that is the distinction of a mother’s love: self-sacrifice.
The moment I heard the cries of the tiny, gooey baby in Jared’s arms, nothing else mattered. Not even me.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“Uh...yeah. She’s okay.”
“She?” I said, stunned. I had prepared myself for almost everything that could happen when I delivered. A girl was not one of them.
“It’s a girl?” Claire squealed.
“It’s a girl?” Bex groaned.
Jared wrapped her in a clean blanket, and careful y lifted the tiny bundle to look into her eyes. He had no expression except for the smal est hint of a smile. His eyes focused on me, and then put her in my arms as if he were passing on the most fragile, priceless, precious treasure in existence.
I nestled her in the crook of my arm, and until that moment the times I thought I had sacrificed seemed trivial. Everything and everyone in my life was less important, less urgent. My life was simply an extension of the tiny, soft, innocent wonderment before me. I knew how mil ions of other women before me could behave so erratic, be so forgiving, and so courageous. My heart was no longer on the inside of my body. It was in my arms.
“Jared?” Bex said. With one hand he held the door closed, with other, he gently slid Kim’s lifeless body away from the door and against the wal .
A loud bang vibrated the wal , and Bex flew back, skidding across the floor. The door blew open, and creatures filed into the room, immediately attacking. A foul odor fil ed the room, and I held my baby close to me. Jared stayed close, violently fending off any demons that dared get close enough to his family.
Every window on the opposite wal from the door exploded. Jared covered us with his body to shield us from flying glass. When the dust cleared, Samuel stepped into the room, standing next to a familiar face in ful armor.
“Michael,” Jared breathed, stunned. It was Isaac’s father; his entire army of warrior angels behind him.
The demons snarled and shrieked.
“You shal not touch this child,” Michael said, drawing a long sword.
“Come!” Samuel chal enged, raising his arms. “We welcome Hel ’s most terrible wrath!”
The demon that had taken me from the Sepulchre lifted his head and bleated, and then led a charge into the street.
Bex and Claire stood to the side, watching hundreds of demons surge past them, casting off wind like a freight train barreling through the room.
The clash outside between Heaven and Hel was audible, like nothing I’d ever heard before, and then at once, it was silent, crossing planes.
Jared grabbed each side of my face with a broad smile. “We did it, Nina! Heaven wil protect her!”
I sighed with relief and hugged my daughter to my chest. The quiet we shared was frozen in time. The end of the war around us was instantaneous. Bex, Ryan, Claire and Jared all looked in wonder at my little girl. She lay stil , peering around with her big, round, cloudy eyes, blinking at the bright light.
Jared kneeled before me, stil breathing hard, his face red and marked with shades of blood and dirt from his fight to reach us. Ryan and Claire crowded around us, their worried expressions softened by the sight of the child wrapped in my arms.
“You’re amazing,” Jared said. His voice cracked an infinitesimal amount as he spoke, but I couldn’t look away to see his expression. The little girl in my arms was breathtaking.
Claire took a few silent steps until she was next to me. She rubbed her palm on her jeans and then reached out her smal hand, extending her index finger to touch the baby’s pinky. “She’s…here,” she whispered, in awe.
“You did it,” Ryan said with a half-smile.
Jared crawled to the opposite side of Claire, tenderly putting one arm behind my neck, the other touching his daughter’s cheek with his thumb.
He kissed my hair and leaned in to whisper in my ear. “I didn’t think I could love you more than I already did.”
I looked into his eyes and smiled. “You did it, Jared. You saved us.”
Jared’s blue-grey eyes glossed over, and he pul ed me closer, the three of us in a tender embrace.
After a few quiet moments, Jared’s arms tensed, and he looked to the doorway. Claire flipped around, her hands bal ed into fists at her side. Bex stood in front of my makeshift bed, crouched in a defensive stance.
Ryan quickly cocked his gun and aimed at the door, ready for whatever the Hybrids were bracing for. “What now?” he said, his eyes focused at the same point as the others.
Claire shoved Ryan against the wal and then pointed at him. “Stay there,” she said firmly. “Don’t. Move.”
Ryan lowered his weapon, and waited.
The door opened slowly, and a man in a white suit walked, slow and lithe, through the threshold. His hair was shiny and black, his eyes deep-set and calm. He was beautiful and grotesque at the same time; a baby-faced supermodel with eons of hate and bitterness flowing through his veins.
Bex took a step, but Claire held out her hand and flattened it against his chest, restraining him. “Stand next to Ryan.”
“But…” Bex protested.
“Do it!” she growled. I’d never heard her take that tone with her little brother.
The man’s eyes darted to the youngest Ryel, his head unmoving. It was unnatural, frightening. Bex slowly walked to the wal , wary of the pair of eyes that studied his every move.
I pul ed my infant daughter closer to me, turning slightly so that my shoulder was in a position to protect her. I didn’t notice the movement until I realized it had drawn the man’s attention back to us.
“Desecration,” the man breathed. His was more of a hiss than a voice. “Even more than your father.”
“Do not speak to her,” Jared said, his tone low and terrifying.
Ryan looked to Claire. He was confused and worried, but he didn’t move.
The man took another step.
Jared stood, and lifted his hand, pointing at the black-haired man. “She belongs to Him. You can’t touch her. You may kill us all , but He’s commanded that she live.”
The man took in a deep breath through his nose, his eyes rol ing back into his head. His lids shuttered, and then popped open, focusing on the baby. When he spoke, his voice was many; distant and loud simultaneously. “If you’ve noticed, I quite enjoy doing things He forbids.”
“Should I shoot?” Ryan whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
“No,” Claire said, her voice strained. “Don’t move.”
Ryan frowned, clearly unsettled. “What is it?”
“The Devil,” Bex said.
The man’s pupils bled into the whites of his eyes, the darkness inside them glistening from the light of the fire outside. He took another step.
A large vein bulged from his pasty forehead as his calculating eyes targeted my daughter.
Jared didn’t wait for him to take another step. He charged, stopping abruptly when the Devil grabbed him by the throat. Claire immediately reacted, attacking him with astounding speed. Her smal body flew against the wal , and Ryan reacted.
She held up hand. “Don’t,” she said, standing.
Jared managed to pul free, and then he attacked him again with a series of punches. They traded blows, and suddenly Jared was struck to the ground. Claire rushed Satan again, but she was blown back, this time held by an unseen force high against the wal . She screamed in agony as dozens of deep, bloody gashes formed across her face, neck and body. Blood oozed from her wounds and down the front of her clothes, dripping from her shoes onto the floor beneath her.
“No!” Ryan yel ed, raising his weapon.
Bex reluctantly stopped him.
Ryan grabbed Bex’s col ar. “Help her!”
Jared crawled to all fours, and then attacked the King of Hel again. He groaned and grunted with each heavy blow Satan dealt him, and soon he was overpowered, and thrown to the floor. The man in white jerked his hand, commanding Jared’s body against the wal under Claire. Her blood flowed from her wounds and dripped in a steady stream onto her brother’s shoulder.
Claire closed her eyes, her lids fluttering. “Help us,” she whispered. “Don’t you see? Help us,” she begged.
The Devil took another step. He was just a few feet from my makeshift bed. I held my daughter’s tiny head in the crook of my neck and touched my lips to her white, wispy hair. She smel ed like her father, but softer; more pure. I looked up at her assassin from under my brow, terrified and hopeless; cowering in his presence.
Jared took off once again, his form obscured by the speed. They crashed together, and with barely visible movements, they blurred from one space in the room to the other, stopping momentarily, and then moving again. Soon they were back where they started, and Jared was on the floor, his blood spil ing from his wounds.
Satan leaned in slowly, relishing my terror.
“Help her,” Claire begged in a tiny whisper.
Ryan moved toward me with desperation on his face, but Bex grabbed his shoulder. “Let me go!” he said, struggling. Bex wrapped both of his arms around my friend, forbidding him to step in.
Bex and Ryan were going to watch us all die. If Bex could somehow escape with Ryan, Claire could be saved, but that would leave my child vulnerable. A mil ion thoughts ran through my head, hopes that even if I were kill ed, Jared would survive long enough to get our baby to safety.
In that moment, anger replaced my fear. I remembered Eli’s words, and courage I never knew I owned swel ed inside of me. “You can’t have her,”
I seethed, lifting my chin in defiance. “I am not afraid of you.” My eyes fil ed with angry tears.
He smiled. “And what wil you do?” he said, looking over to Kim’s lifeless body. In one blurry moment she was in his arms. He cradled her, looking almost paternal as he brushed her cheek with his blackened fingers. He scanned her face with a somber expression, and then leaned down to smel her hair. “She had a heartbeat not an hour ago. Dreams. Aspirations. And now,” he said, tossing her limp body across the room with one hand, “nothing.”
I closed my eyes, unwil ing to let fear rob me of rational thinking. Before I was a mother, I might have run from the room, but I had carried her inside of me for the better part of year, and I had survived Hel before. Something inside of me whispered that my child was safe in my arms. I would have faith in what Eli had told me, and I would stand my ground. Nothing was stronger than a mother’s love for her child…not even Satan.