I bet you all thought I'd abandoned this, huh? After all, I haven't updated since August! School's been a major pain in the ass, and now I have something else to worry about, too: I just got my first book published, and I've been bloody busy trying to get people to buy it! Anyway, as an apology for my absence, I've made this chapter longer than the rest, but I assure you, it's nowhere near over yet!

He'd been in this world for more than a week, searching everywhere he could for the children. He gave their descriptions, or what he thought they would be, to the police, but so far nothing had turned up. He was most often seen during the day, keeping his store closed more and more often once night had fallen. He had just been about to close for lunch one day when a young woman came in, looking lost.

"E-Excuse me," she said nervously. Her eyes strayed everywhere, as though she were trying to avoid making contact.

"Yes," he said quietly. "Can I help you?"

She blushed, sighing timidly. "Oh, this is going to sound bad…"

"Is something the matter?" he asked, coming a step closer. He recognized her as the girl he had saved the night of the fire. Now, besides a few scorched spaces on the trees out back, you couldn't tell there had even been one. She sighed again, and he could have sworn he saw tears forming in her tightly closed eyes.

"Will you go out with me?" she blurted suddenly, then turned away and covered her mouth. She groaned softly in embarrassment. "Oh, I cannot believe I just said that, even after you told me you were engaged!" she ran to the door, tears streaming from her eyes, fingers still locked on her lips. Justin stood, watching her in confusion, hearing faint laughter. Apparently she had been dared to speak with him. He swept a minute more, then switched to restocking the shelves. He knew people often hired others to do those jobs, but he had never seen the point, especially since his store was small as it was. He had just finished when the bell rang, saying someone had entered. He could sense the person approaching behind him.

"I'm sorry," he said, turning. "But I'm about to close for…" he trailed off, eyes growing wide. Standing before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She had long, fine hair that was the same shade as her sultry black eyes. Her full scarlet lips curled into a grin; apparently he wasn't the only one who liked what he saw. She ran a nail down his arm, bringing him from his trance. He shook his head, barely remembering the half-full box in his grasp.

"I know," she whispered. Her voice was music to his ears. "And that's why I'm here," she blushed, twirling her hair through her fingers. "I was wondering if I could treat you to lunch at the café, to thank you for saving my sister."

"That was your sister?" his voice was unfamiliar, almost like someone else's.

She nodded. "I asked her to do it first, since I was so nervous, but apparently I only embarrassed her."

He laughed. "Though I don't get what's so hard for you," he said. He knelt down to place the box on the floor. "After all, I'm no different than any other guy out there."

She giggled. "You're cute, and most girls get nervous around good-looking men."

He smiled, giving a small shrug. "Just let me close up," he told her. "It shouldn't take long."

Teresa coughed, holding her stomach as she weakly stared at the person above her, the one who'd been abusing her since her capture. Her siblings were tied and gagged, huddled in one corner of the tiny room, forced to watch as their sister was brutally raped and beaten, unable to do anything to help her. They weren't even sure how they had ended up in their prison.

They had been kidnapped, one by one, and transported to the human world, where shadowed forms had proceeded to torture them daily, as though trying to extract information. They never asked questions, they rarely even spoke, the only sounds being whimpers and frightened screams.

"Please," she whispered. Blood trickled from the corner of her lip, tears dripped from her eyes. "Why are you doing this to me?"

Her question went unanswered, but the man stopped in his torture. He looked blankly down at her, unsure of how to feel. His orders had been to kill them, oldest to youngest; tossing their remains into the valley they called home, as a vile warning to Justin and his kind. But he knew they didn't deserve it, having seen them grow up, having been nearby on the day their father was murdered. He wanted to stop, but found he was unable.

Don't even try to disobey, a dark voice snapped in his head. It was that of his master, the one who had ordered their capture.

But they are mere children, he replied. They do not deserve such a fate.

A sharp pain filtered past his skull, but he remained on his feet. I'm going to break free, he vowed. The pain made the beating last longer than usual, but he fled from the room once it had faded, completely ashamed. He had never wanted to live this way, but fate had forced him. He just hoped fate would also offer him a way to escape. He ignored the mocking laughs that followed him, shoving open a rusted door, fleeing into the forest. The dappled light made him feel cool and warm at the same time, but he wished to feel nothing, for the life to be ripped from his veins. But he knew that, so long as he stayed beneath his master's control, death was impossible.

I have to get away, he thought. The sounds of the city began to filter through his head, blocking out any connection his leader had with him. He'd thought often of staying, but every hour he was gone made him feel weaker, and besides, there were always people after him, and they always brought him back.

This has to end soon, he thought desperately. Otherwise, I fear I may lose the last of my sanity.

Justin was shocked to hear laughter come from his lips. He was in the middle of a frightening search, and here he was, enjoying himself with a woman he barely even knew. She was telling him about the town, what went on, who belonged where. She'd just finished her explanation when he noticed something, a flash of movement from the corner of his eye. He turned, seeing a group of people loitering near a dark alleyway. There were seven of them, each one different in appearance, yet they seemed to be siblings. Standing closest to the wall was a young girl, probably eight or nine years old, with long white hair and pale blue eyes. Though she was the youngest, she appeared the most mature. Her skin was very fair, almost ivory. The second was a tall, obese man with a large Coke, a hungry look in his pale grey eyes. His skin was darkly tan, shirt pulled tightly across his wide shoulders and enormous belly. A slim trail of saliva was trailing his chin from the corner of his lower lip.

The third was just as tall, but he was slender and agile, dressed in light brown with tan skin, green eyes wild with mischief. But what caught his gaze most was the female standing beside him. Her violet eyes seemed to glide over every man that walked by, lips curling in a seductive grin whenever they looked back. She wore a tight dress that showed off her smooth curves, the low neckline barely held her chest. Leaning against the wall with the child, hands shoved in his pockets, was a large man in a long jacket, his dark brown eyes nearly hidden by the wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face. He looked dangerous, yet seemed frightened of the woman leaning on him.

Her long black hair hung loose on her smooth shoulders, blending with her dark dress and emphasizing her pale skin. Her glaring eyes were narrowed and red, lids and nails painted to match. Men speaking with her sister quickly shed away when their gaze met hers. The last of them was also male, leaning back against the wall with his arms folded over his wide chest. His yellow eyes flashed at whoever dared pass them, especially if they jeered at his siblings. His perfect tan only seemed to add to the air of command that surrounded him.

"Who are they?" he turned to the woman beside him, who only shrugged.

"They're trouble," she said quietly, fear in her voice. She shivered slightly before finally revealing their name. "They're the Sins."

"The Sins?" he asked.

She nodded. "Their parents were strange," she explained. "They never went to church, and could more often be seen in bars around the city."

"What happened to them?"

Her curls bounced as her head shook. "They disappeared soon after their last child was born. Many of the people here think they committed suicide because they couldn't handle their children," she looked around, lowering her voice to a whisper. "But I think it was Pride. He's the oldest. I think he killed them, or got his siblings to do it."

He thought about it, glancing back to the group as they wandered off down the street. It seemed likely. He felt her slim fingers curl through his, her hair brushing his neck as she sighed in his shoulder.

"Do you have somewhere to stay?" she asked. "I really don't like being alone at night. I've been frightened for my life ever since my fiancé left."

He gazed at her, seeing genuine fear in her perfect face, feeling pity well in his heart. He knew he had something else to do that night, but he couldn't help when he nodded. She smiled gratefully, moving closer to him. Neither noticed the dark pairs of eyes glaring in their direction.

Her apartment was on the first floor of a lower middle-class complex, with two small potted plants flanking the front door. On the ground was a thin mat with the words "Wipe your Feet" printed in faded blue letters. The door was plain white with a small peep hole carved in the wood. Her keys rattled loosely in the lock as she pushed the door open. The interior looked strangely familiar.

The floor was grey tile spattered with tan, the walls swirled to match. The front room contained simple furniture; a couch and chair colored dark blue. A rusty red rug covered the floor, curtains dyed to match. A slightly open door near the back revealed a glimpse of a wooden bed with a dark green cover. He realized that it was very similar to his apartment back in Thorn Valley, but how could she know such things?

"Are you hungry?" she asked. She poked her head out of the kitchen, which held the appearance of a set in an old movie. He shook his head, instead becoming lost in nostalgia as fragments of memory washed through his mind. The pain was enough to bring tears to his eyes, but he fought to suppress his emotions. He barely saw her slim form reenter, holding a small tray in her nervous grasp. She set it down on the low table, wiping her hands on her skirt.

"How long have you lived here?" he asked. She shrugged.

"I actually don't know," she began. Her fingers twirled through the loose curls of her hair. "My boyfriend worked for NIMH," she continued. "We moved here soon after it was shut down. He vanished a short while later."

"Did anything strange happen before then?"

"Well, shortly before he disappeared, he began going out at night and wouldn't come back until dawn, and one of the children-"

"You have children?" he asked quickly.

She nodded. "But I had to put them in a home because I couldn't properly care for them; and now that I can they're nowhere to be found…" her voice broke. She buried her face in her hands; Justin led her to the couch, sitting beside her, trying to comfort her. He wrapped his arm loosely around her, running his hand through her soft hair. She gazed up at him, seeing his dark eyes, his perfect smile, suddenly feeling her heart race in her chest, recalling how long it had been since he'd held her. The sky darkened in the silence that passed, and a small yawn slipped from her lips.

"You must be tired," she said quietly. She stood, gripping his hand, pulling him toward a slightly open door. The lights were off, the lock clicked as they entered. She turned to him, eyes shining, a soft grin playing at her mouth. The sadness faded from her face.

She reached up, clasping his hands on her waist, wrapping her arms loosely about his shoulders. Her sultry black eyes bored into his, making him nearly forget the one he had left behind. Her mouth crushed his, her tongue forcing his lips to part as she ripped the shirt from his chest, running her hands down his smooth skin. Her touch brought Natasha to mind, her kisses that were honey but sweeter, fire yet hotter, how the merest pass of her hands brought his passion to a raging boil. This woman did nothing, but for some reason he had no choice but to comply with her wishes.

She slowly pulled the dress from her shoulders, gazing in his eyes, forcing his hands to curl under her breasts as she pulled him to her bed. He knew exactly what she had in mind, and roughly pulled away. She sat up, bewildered as her silky garment continued to fall. "Do you know who I am?" she asked; Justin turned away, bringing his shirt across his shoulders, though not bothering to button it up. He didn't reply. "Justin, it's me, Natasha."

"What?" he turned quickly, stunned as her eyes returned to a gorgeous blue. He shook his head, trying to keep his thoughts straight. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"I knew you wouldn't believe me," she said. Her face lowered to hands clasped in her lap. In minutes she looked up. "What's happened to us?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know," he said quietly. He did, though. It was yet another side effect of the injections at NIMH. He remembered clearly what had happened, how he'd been able to beat Remington, prevent him from finishing his horrid plan. He remembered becoming human soon after the fight had begun, his wounds forgotten until he'd turned back to his natural form. Then he'd woken up in the colony, feeling the weakest he had in years. But she'd been there that time, helping him through the recovery. Unlike the first girl he'd fallen in love with. Amelia hadn't been his wife, far from it, and she hadn't died in labor.

I killed her, he thought. After finding out the truth about her. Amelia had been cheating on him since the night they first kissed, and the child she claimed to have lost hadn't been his. Instead, it had been Cadrian's. And she hadn't been his only victim. Yet unlike the Estrella asesino, he had left no mark to let them know who he was. He was ashamed to have let the darkness in his heart rule him for that amount of time, even if he had "cleansed the community", as some put it.

"Is something wrong?" she asked innocently. He shook his head.

"Just a stain of the past," he said quietly. "Nothing to care about now." She couldn't miss the shame in his eyes, but knew not to probe. Instead she sat quietly, waiting until he was ready to talk. "Was that you?"

"Hm?" she looked up, confused.

"That girl in my shop the night it burned down. Was that you?"

She stared at him, then suddenly nodded. "Oh, yes, that was me," she said, then added, "Tú me vio más de una vez, pero nunca me pareció reconocer."

"¿Se puede hablar español?" he asked, a bit shocked. She laughed.

"Sí, mi padre llegó aquí en un barco desde España. Él se aseguró de que hablaba con fluidez."

She was shocked by his sudden movement. One moment he was near the door, the next he was leaning over her, hands pressed to the bed. There was a mischievous gleam in his gorgeous dark eyes. His breath was warm on her cheeks as he hissed, "How come I've never heard you speak it before?"

She smiled. "I didn't know you could until now," she pulled him closer, kissing him deeply; but for some reason he was slow to return it. He was worried about the missing children, and wondering where on earth they could be, and if they too had been turned into humans.

"Have you seen any sign of them?" he asked quietly. She shook her head, closing the collar of her dress. Now was no time for such things.

"No, and I've searched everywhere I've been able to."

"The only thing I've found is this," he pulled Teresa's ribbon from his pocket, explaining how he'd discovered it.

"Do you think we'll ever find them?" she asked. Tears had formed quickly, slipping from her eyes as she thought of their situation. It seemed completely hopeless. He sighed, sitting down on the bed beside her.

"I can't say for sure," he said, taking her hand. "But I'm going to do everything I can."

She gazed at him, sniffing quietly, resting her head on his chest. The beat of his heart was an assuring sound. She felt his arm wrap around her, his other hand stroking her cheek. "Natasha," he whispered. She wouldn't look at him, feeling ashamed for a scheme she'd had no part in.

"Natasha," he said again, and gently forced her to face him. Her eyes shone with guilt. "This isn't your fault," he whispered to her. "None of this is."

"Then why do I feel so guilty?" she asked, gripping his shirt. His arms wrapped around her.

"We did all we could to protect them," he assured her. "But I promise you," his grip tightened. "Whoever did this is going to pay dearly, especially if any of the children have been hurt."

She kept sobbing, wishing she could just disappear.