This is the final part, bar the epilogue, if you'd lie that posted. :o) I hope you've enjoyed reading - thank you to everyone who has; you've been utterly fabulous. I've loved hearing your thoughts, your encouragement, your criticism, your questions. Basically -you're stars!

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Ki

Shimmer Part Eighteen

Jepar was unable to look away as his life splintered around him.

Looking into the past, looking onto a window covered by a spiderweb of broken lines. Looking onto his shattered, ugly history and seeing the glass separating it from his safe world fading until there was nothing between that time of blood and now.

Running...

But you couldn't run, you could never run from yourself. It seemed to Jepar like his life had been spent running in one way or another, running from the responsibility of his birthright, from the anger of his parents, from the coldness of his sister, from the searing meteor of a moment's rage.

His anger had made him someone he didn't want to be and even though that creature was subdued, it still lurked hungrily in the back of his mind, waiting with cold purpose and cruel hands. Always waiting for that one moment without control.

And here it was; he was staring at his past, his beautiful, bloodied past and feeling the world around fall away. Nothing else mattered. Nothing when compared to this.

Feeling that anger tight in his chest at the injustice of it all and that awful grief, like standing on the edge of a sheer drop and feeling his stomach lurch dangerously. Looking...hurting...remembering...

...'How do you do that?'

He had asked her that, hadn't he, and she had simply laughed and stretched those swan-sleek arms above her, arched one leg to meet them and balanced perfectly on the tip of her lean, strong foot.

And now her voice came drifting out the mists of a past he had tried to forget, still so innocent and ordinary, full of vigour.

...'I'm very bendy.'

They had both laughed, hadn't they? Two kids, but even kids could play at flirting, imitating the coy glances and meaningful words of their elders. Two kids, looking at life and making their own parody, a parody that in later times would stop being funny and start being merely right.

...'And you aren't human.'

The thickness of that coiling pale brown hair had given it away. And the melted-butter richness of her eyes with their pupils dark as if a drop of black coffee had fallen there. Those eyes, her strongest features against the mismatched strength of her mouth and the square set of her jaw that stopped her being lovely and made her purely astounding.

She had laughed and relaxed, sitting down on one of the sinkably-comfortable leather chairs his elder sister kept in her office.

...'You must be the younger brother.' A sly glance. 'I'm a werewolf. And you are...?'

...'Starving.'

... 'Cats! You're all the same. Roddy - that's my big brother-'

He had interrupted, seeing for the first time her face tighten with annoyance. She had loved to talk, sure enough, and interrupting her was a guaranteed way to wind up with one of those strong feet meeting your shinbone at high acceleration. 'Is he the one who's working out this contract with my sister?'

...'Yeah.' They shared a mutually disgusted glance. 'Grown-ups! They take ages over one simple little thing. Signing paper and talking and arguing over where to put a comma in some sentence.'

...'And they stuff us in some dingy little office,' Jepar had said, gesturing to the exquisitely furnished expanse, 'Forget all about us and expect us to sit around for hours.' He had rolled his eyes, grinned at this unexpected ally. 'I'm Jepar'.

A long hand held out, a strong grip and no-nonsense about her tone. 'Vanira Alhaz. Reckon our sibs are fixing us up for company?'

...'Yeah. Probably think it'll 'keep us out of trouble'.' Jepar mimicked his sister's cool voice. 'I'm never gonna get like that when I'm old.'

She had laughed then, that dreadful gunshot of a laugh that had never ceased to make him flinch, in all the days Gata and Roderick Alhaz shoved him and Vanira into that office to talk, to work, to argue and play-fight, to have the clumsy, sweet beginnings of a relationship, a werewolf and a shapeshifter in an empty, furnished room.

* * * *

It had all gone so horribly wrong. Vanira had died, she had died with a line of rubies blossoming on her throat and Jepar had run away from that room that was as empty as the space in his soul where she had sat.

Yet half a year later, a witch called Chatoya Irkil had arrived, with her sorrowed eyes soft as moss and her smile shy and rare as a kingfisher. And again, he had been drawn by something he couldn't qualify at all, and again, it had gone horribly wrong.

He had thought he could make it right; that he had been on the verge of stopping this moment's madness. And then she had thrown this black sorcery at him, painting Vanira in front of him with dark magick. Reading his mind as easily as Gata had always been able to; but then, with this sort of magick, what difficulty could his feeble mental shields pose?

And there she was.

Vanira, with her head tipped back, pale brown hair shining in the light of a sun long set and those melted-butter eyes glowing as bright as the blood necklacing her throat. Stepping forward as if running through the endless routines of complex dance movements she learned each week. Arms too white, dead-white and bleached.

"She's gone," he said forcibly, blinking, turning from that grotesque twin of Vanira. "Don't throw my past back at me! Yes, I loved her and she died, but she is *gone*."

He raised his eyes from that horrible visage and stared at Chatoya, her green eyes defiant and cruel, glowing with unearthly lights. But in them, like the tiny fractures on ice, the first shattering.

This is her last defence, he realised. She's scared because even a little while without emotions is enough to make her forget how hard the world is. It's a long road we all walk, it's a lonely road and she's as scared as everyone else that the end will lead to darkness.

"Stop it, Toya," he said very gently and stepped towards her, ignoring the stark mirage that smiled and moved and even whispered words in Vanira's voice.

The fright in those green eyes overwhelming in its intensity, overlaid by a veneer of ferocity and madness.

He stepped closer, unaware of holding his breath as those moss-soft eyes filled his world, as he took hold of her outstretched hands, hands that held the threads of a storm to break a world, and understood what had been done to her.

Sonj's death, playing over and over in her head, locked there by a boy who had no compassion and no comprehension of love, hurting her so much that the fierceness and the flames was the only way to stop it.

"I just want it to stop," she said softly, the pain in her face beyond her years, beyond belief.

"I know," he said, still seeing that arching throat dotted with crimson. "So did I."

He tugged on her hands and pulled her closer until she was close enough to kiss, this alien creature who seemed to have stepped from a world of swords and sorcery, this grieving girl who didn't understand why her sorrow was breaking her.

"Let me help," he entreated, meeting those wild, crushed eyes with his own. "You're not meant to be this way. You know that."

"I know it," she answered, while the rain fell soft as fingertip touches. "But I can't help it, I can't!"

"I can," he said, not knowing if he could, but only knowing that stopping her from destroying herself in the throes of a storm was more important to him than anything. Than any crime, any sorrow, even the chimera of a lithe dancer with ruby blood on her neck. "You just have to trust me."

And while she stood in his arms, two figures through a gauzy grey curtain of water, the chimera of that dancer girl rippled and faded. But on the ground, on the place where her feet had stood, lay two footsteps, as if a giant lizard paused to rest a breath.

And like dragon's breath, the lightning tumbled across the skies.

* * * *

"No, not now!" Lisa muttered as they ran along the main path that led past the ghost roads.

Shadows were separating, separating into the spectral softness of wolf pelts, the hard gleam of green eyes drifting towards them in idle motion.

"Out of my way," Cougar snarled as they blocked their way. "I don't have *time* for a dog-fight!"

"You can't disturb them," the brazen voice of Donna Ares stated. She stepped out from the disputable shelter of the trees and slumped against one. "Our hunt-brother is stopping this...hex-born storm."

"Could you *please* put some clothes on?" Lisa said. Cougar glanced over to see she had both hands clapped over her eyes. If it had been any other day, he would have been amused. Her values were oddly old-fashioned for someone born in the sixties. "I'm sure that can't be healthy."

"Actually," he murmured, gold eyes flashing, "she looks pretty healthy to *me*."

"Would you turn your libido off and your brain on?" Donna said coolly, but Cougar noticed she let the Pack encircle her, possessive and growling. "Listen to me, vampire boy. Your witch girl is losing herself. Pack knows that."

Soft growls and glimmers of cool wolf eyes. Grey fur slinking and shaking as they moved closer.

"We need to find them, please!" Lisa said. Her face was drawn tight with strain, its lines hard in the light. Not a tribal warrior, but a statue moving, all carven lines and calm stillness. "We have to help her."

"Leave it to the hunt-brother," Donna ordered. "He is only the only one who can catch her soul."

Cougar narrowed his eyes, watching the Pack leader with new respect. "How do you know that?"

"Pack listens and Pack learns, nightwalker," that husky, dry voice told him while her white teeth gleamed briefly. "Pack has more wisdom than the wise ones who make us outcast."

"That ain't all, is it though?"

Iry Lupine stepped out of the trees with his usual lazy smile, though it was somewhat dimmed. He was as thoroughly soaked as all of them, water trailing down his damp, creased clothes and shining on his blunt-cut face and tousled hair that even the rain couldn't quite flatten.

The Pack froze as one, and turned to face the new threat. Cougar could hear their mental voices, more animal than human, echoing one another.

~ Lone wolf...not-of-us...Pack-hater...not-of-them...ancient one...lonely walker...never-of-us. ~

"Oh, leave it out," Iry told them, cracking his knuckles. "'Less Jubatus gets his act together, we're all goin' to be lookin' at the business end of an apocalypse." His careless gaze brushed Donna. "What that charmin' creature ain't tellin' you is that they tried to stop Jubatus goin' through earlier an' didn't succeed."

"You watched us?" Donna Ares' savage eyes as flickeringly green as the light beneath sea water. Beautiful in their own way, Cougar decided, but drifting below them, hidden riptides. "You were told to keep away from Pack."

"Well, if your mangy Pack strolls past where I'm takin' a moment's break from my busy schedule of gettin' pneumonia an' hypothermia, I ain't the one who's goin' to leave." Iry raised an eyebrow, the effect spoiled by the water cascading down his face. "'Sides, if you didn't notice me, ain't no harm done. 'Cept to your pride, maybe."

This has to be one of the oddest situations I have ever been in, Cougar concluded, as he gazed around him. Pack, lone wolf, made vampire and lamia, all four enemies in other places, in other times, shivering and soaked in the unnatural torrent of a storm, united by what came down to curiosity.

"So what are we supposed to do?" Lisa asked, settling herself by a Pack wolf who snapped at her half-heartedly until she backhanded it across the muzzle. "Wait?"

"Guess so," Cougar said and sank beside her. "Think he's got a hope in hell?"

"In hell?" Lisa laughed, but there was no humour to it. "I think this is hell, Cougar. Having to stand by and watch while friends and family die. Having no control. That's what hell is."

Her face was drawn. With his preternatural vision, Cougar could see a muscle flickering in her cheek.

"Nah," he said, leaning back. "Hell is colder than this. Haven't you ever been to Britain?"

That elicited a laugh from her at least. The Pack however, stared at him with baffled eyes. Cougar ignored the young wolf - little more than a pup really - who huddled under his bent legs and watching the water dripping through the leaves above him, trying to guess which way it would fall. Silver drops, murky drops, dropping like stars and oil.

He was never right.

And that was it. No one could guess the future. No one could predict the twists of another's heart, the tides of relationships that could warp into storms. He didn't know if Jepar could bring Chatoya back from this half-world she had thrown them into. He didn't even know if Chatoya wanted to return.

I guess this is what they mean by blind faith, he thought glumly. I have to trust some sentimental shapeshifter to stop a witch who's not so much lost the plot as rewritten it and expanded it into a trilogy. To top it all off, she's my little brother's soulmate, and though he might be playing with a full deck, it's a marked one. And what the hell is Jepar going to do if he finds out?

"Got a question," he mumbled to Lisa. The monotonous drip of the rain was faintly soothing, once you ignored the gripping cold and sliding damp.

"Go ahead." She was idly scratching the pup under its chin, receiving an indifferent growl.

"Suppose Jepar does bring her back. You think she's going to tell him about her and Blue?"

He looked over to see the African girl frozen in thought. "No," she said finally. "I think secrets run in her family and she has nothing to gain by telling him. If all this works out. And that's a big if, Cou."

Cougar Redfern recalled a night when he had wondered if he would survive, and knew that if really didn't mean much. In the real world, if was practically a certainty.

"But if she doesn't tell him," he persisted, "...do we?"

She raked her hands through her hair, the neat plaits separating easily and the beads wound into them clicking. "I think we should respect her wishes, Cougar. If she and Jepar can be happy..." she shrugged. "There's so little happiness. Who are we to destroy that?"

* * * *

"I trust you." The words little more than a sigh.

He smiled faintly. This creature who could have torn him into shreds without a thought, with her hands curled around his neck and holding on to him as tightly as he was her. "That's enough," he said as he had but a few days back in the darkness of a cave that seemed not merely miles but aeons away.

He shut his eyes, leaned his forehead against hers and felt that simple, childlike trust that came from the despair, the exhaustion in her soul. She had thrown every part of her into this storm to escape and now there was almost nothing left except that dreadful dark power that fed from her.

And in her head, he could see that scene replaying, each time another lash of the whip stinging blood from her back. Until he wasn't sure which thoughts were his, which Chatoya's.

Sonj Jameson, with her one eye determined and scared, stepping back. How that long cloak of dark red hair had swung and flown around her as she fell, and how her hands had curled and uncurled weakly.

And then that strange little smile as she looked up at her killer; not Chatoya but the boy whose soul had stepped willingly into a cage that kept the world away, that smile bright against the dozens of blood-roses that bloomed from her skin.

Now he understood how it hurt Chatoya, how deep it cut her because in her mind, the silver eye of that girl became the silver sheen of a knife in moonlight; the fell light of fire on her parents burning; the dreadful fear of himself dying, of the others dying. Because Chatoya had found it desperately easy to care for the strange Nightpeople who had looked after her and she was so afraid to disappoint them, to hurt them. And when she had let Sonj die, she had failed-

~ No, ~ Jepar said fiercely, erasing the cruel replay from her head with one mental swoop. Pushing it back where it belonged, into her memories, not in her present. ~ You have not, you have never failed us. ~

~ I must have. ~ Her head dropping to his shoulder. ~ I let Josh die. I let Sonj die. I would have let all of you die if you hadn't come. What else have I done but fail? ~

~ Dear one, ~ he said gently, blinking away blood-roses. ~ If you have failed, we all have. I let Vanira die. I tell myself that all the time. But I know that once she made her choice, nothing I could have done would have made any difference. She made her own choice. ~

~ And I mine. But my choices were wrong. ~

~ Your choices were not your own. Not recently. There has been dragon magick swimming your bloodstream, and where magick walks, dragons follow. But listen to me; your choice cannot change everything. Could you have stopped Blue from deciding to kill Sonj? ~

There was an odd hesitancy in her voice then, but he ignored it. ~ I...don't think so. ~

~ It wasn't your fault, ~ he told her. ~ It never was. ~

A long pause as she heard the truth of that. Then she released that dark magick and he felt it flow away, back to where it belonged. With the spell no longer in place to hold her emotions back, the space that had allowed the dragon magick to grow and spread was gone too.

~ Wasn't it? ~ she said ruefully. There was sadness there, but finally, acceptance. ~ I don't know if I can ever believe that. ~

~ I can believe for the both of us. ~

Those green eyes lifted to his with a semblance of her old serenity. ~ But can you forget your own guilt? ~

Vanira. Toya had taken that from his mind, the terrible picture that had haunted him these past months.

~ That wasn't your fault, ~ she told him and even smiled a little, tremulously. ~ Forgive me and I will forgive you. ~

He stared, astonished by this girl who he thought he knew and yet who seemed to change constantly, like a jewel leaping as the light moved around it.

Maybe, he thought, she had it right. Because he understood that perhaps he needed her, not to take away or to replace the memories of that arching dancer, but to teach him to accept them. And to move on. To live.

We're all running here. I thought I would run forever, that it would never stop. I didn't see that it could. There was always one more ghost sparkling in the sunlight, one more unforgiving memory. And once you started to run, I didn't realise that you could stop. That you could make a new road to walk on, that you could make your own ending.

He laughed, and thought of not the fearful past, not the uncertain future but of a new beginning, a certain *now* with a girl with black hair, a girl he held close and swore never to run from. Her green eyes held an anguish he knew would never fade entirely, a sorrow that was in his own face too.

But despite this, she smiled back, amidst the softness of spring rain. ~ I forgive you. ~

* * * *

Thank you so much! Your thoughts are loved, savoured and worshipped.