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"Return To Concorde Valley"


Chapter 1
Return to Concorde Valley

By davisr (Rhonda)

 Echo Jones stood in a dense wheatfield watching as men in a red truck sprayed water on her burning farmhouse. She saw them run inside looking for survivors and inhaled slowly. Would they find her parents, the ones that had squeezed her through a narrow bathroom window and told her to run? 

Frozen with fear, she could neither move nor speak. Only her eyes flitted across the scene, her heart alternating between hope and fear. 

She glanced down at the pink dress Mommy bought her to wear to a schoolmate’s birthday party, one she was getting ready for when Daddy ran in to tell them there was a big fire.

A noise drew her attention back to the yard, eyes reflecting ravaging flames like tiny, blue mirrors. 

She watched as two limp bodies were dragged onto the front lawn, followed by a huge crash as part of the roof fell in. One of the firefighters dropped to his knees, large gloved hands shielding his face.

Were those her parents lying there? Surely not, they wouldn’t sleep through this, and why were they covered with blankets? They couldn’t be cold in all this heat.

Echo remained motionless, holding tightly to her stuffed teddy bear, Cindy, a fellow refugee from the inferno.

“Anyone else in there?” a voice called out.

The man who had fallen to his knees stood, his hands still partially covering his face as though to protect himself from horrors this job couldn’t desensitize. He said, “No one I could see.”

“A neighbor said there was a five-year-old girl.”

Another roar of flames and more roof fell in. “I didn’t see anyone,” the man repeated.

The firefighters looked at each other, then down at the bodies on the ground. The search for survivors was over. No one, especially a small girl, could have lived through that. 

Somberly, the workers finished their jobs and left.

Echo had been doing as she was taught; not talking to strangers, and staying out of grown-ups' way. But now, she was completely alone. Not knowing what else to do, she left the wheatfield and slipped into the forest behind the smoldering ruins of her home. 

She had been told never to wander off into the woods, but she instinctively wanted the comfort of trees around her. She wouldn’t go too far, she decided, just far enough to find some soft leaves to rest on. She was so tired.

Echo followed an old trail she and her father used to walk, more out of habit than choice. She could still see his footprints by the fading light of evening and their familiarity gave her solace. 

Once the sun had ended its journey in the sky, and she could no longer see where she was going, she sank to the ground. Cuddling Cindy in her arms, she rocked back and forth like a mother comforting her child.

The rocking motion made her sleepy so she curled into the cool autumn leaves until blessed forgetfulness took her over.

Silent trees watched over the child that night, lending what consolation they could as they swayed gently back and forth.

When morning dawned, Echo sat up yawning and stretching. She hadn’t been afraid during the long night, snuggling close to nature for support, but now it was morning and no one had come to get her. She suddenly realized how hungry and thirsty she was, and how totally alone. Panicking, she rose to her feet and ran.

She cried out for her parents as she fled deeper into the interior of the forest. Low hanging limbs scratched her skin and tore at her clothing. With each new pain, she cried louder and ran with greater desperation.

Finally, her tattered pink dress became so entangled in briars, she couldn't move. With a jagged groan, she leaned against a tree and hugged Cindy close to her heart. Sobs slowly subsided to exhausted whimpers as she gave up trying to get free. She had no idea what had happened to her world, but she lacked the strength to fight it any longer.

“Who’s out there?” the faint voice of a boy called from deep in the underbrush ahead of her.

Echo looked up, the last embers of hope rekindling with the resilience of the very young.

“Help me,” she said softly, then louder, “help me.”

“Don’t worry,” the boy said. “I’m coming. Keep talking.”

Echo called several times and listened for movement. Finally, the rustling drew near and branches before her parted.

A young boy, a bit older that Echo, squeezed through a gap. Dark curly hair framed a kind face, and emerald eyes sparkled from beneath skin tanned the color of golden wheat. He reached out a hand to grasp hers.

“I’m here.”

Echo couldn't say anything at first. She was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions.

As though he understood, the boy gently pulled her out of the thorns without saying anything. Once she was free, he spoke again. “What happened to you?”

“I got lost,” Echo said in a quiet voice.

“I can see that. How did you get that way?”

“There was a big fire at my house and these men came to put it out, and they took my mommy and daddy away. They left and no one came to get me.”

“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “Would you like me to take you somewhere else? Do you have grandparents or something?”

“Yeah, I have a grandma and grandpa. I go see them all the time."

"Why didn't they come help when your house burned?"

"They're gone to visit my Aunt Suzy in another state called Louisiana."

Will they be home soon?”

“I think so. Mommy said they were just going for the weekend."

“Good, then I’ll take you to them. Where do they live?”

“In a big house with horses and chickens,” Echo said. It wasn't very accurate, but was the only description she knew.

“That doesn’t help much. Do you know how to get there?”

“No, my mommy and daddy always take me.”

“Hmmm, okay, best not to go look for it or we’ll both get lost. I have an idea. There's a tree-cave near here where we can wait. I’m sure someone will come looking for you soon. My mother always says that if you get lost you should wait in one spot until help comes.”

“My mommy says that, too,” Echo said. 

“Well, then that’s what we’ll do. What’s your name?”

“Echo.”

“Mine's Anthos.”

“That’s a funny name.”

“I Know. I was named after my mother, Diantha. Both names are Greek for flower. My family is really into gardens. You can call me Theo if you want, that’s what my little brother and sister do.”

“Okay, Theo. Why don’t we go to your house? Maybe we could call the police like they taught us in school.”

“We can’t. I live a long way from here." He took her by the hand and carefully lead her through the underbrush, “and we don’t have phones.”

“Why not?”

“My father says phones create a situation where people isolate from each other."

"What does that mean?"

"I'm not sure, but I think he means people should talk face-to-face. We don’t have TV’s or computers, either. None of our people do.”

“That’s funny,” Echo said, ducking under a limb. “What do you do for fun??”

“We play outside with our friends, we walk in trees and we practice for the Festival Games.”

“Festival Games, what are those?”

“Big contests of bravery and skill where you can win prizes like golden bows,” he explained. “I get to compete this coming year for the first time because I just turned eight.”

“Wow, can I come watch?”

“I don’t think so. I’m not allowed to bring company home. I could ask my parents, though.”

“Well, come get me if I can go, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Can girls play the games, too?” Echo asked.

“Not until they are eight-years-old like I am. Until then they can only come and watch.”

“What kind of games can girls do?”

“They can shoot a bow and arrow, throw a discus or spear, jump over a pole or across a sand pit, race, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Mostly the same thing the boys do. Some of the teenagers and mothers have cooking contests, too.”

“Oh, like the fair,” Echo said. “My mommy put a cake she made in the fair in Dalton. She won a ribbon and was so happy.”

“That's good. Do they have games at your fair like the ones I told you about?”

“I'm not sure, but I do know they have rides and barns full of animals. They also have this cool candy called taffy. It’s really stretchy, and I got to see them make it on this huge machine that stretches and pulls it. They also have cotton candy, and that’s my favorite because it’s so soft and fluffy and tastes like a sweet cloud.”

“Sounds yummy. They have a lot to eat at our festivals, too, but that's not all that's cool. Every four years we have a giant event called the Olympics where people compete from both of the valleys near where I live. The last time we had one I was only five. We’re supposed to have another one next year, and I hope I can be in it. If I win in any of my categories this year, I'll get to compete in that one, too.”

“Wow, I'm pretty sure we have Olympics, too, or at least I heard them talking about it on TV.”

“See, our people are a lot like yours.”

“Yeah, but I’m allowed to bring friends to my home, or at least I could before my house disappeared.”

“I'm sorry that happened to you. I can't imagine what it would be like.”

"I can't either. It's all so mixed-up in my head and it makes me want to cry."

Theo put a hand on her arm and patted it. He knew there wasn't anything he could say to help.

The children said nothing else until they approached a sort of cave-like opening in the trees. Theo pulled a limb aside, and helped Echo climb inside the enclosure. She went in and sat on a soft bed of pine needles and leaves. She laid Cindy down beside her, the little pink satin dress she had on, matching Echo’s.

She then sat with her legs crossed and looked at Theo.  Even though she was a young child, she felt a certain kinship with her strange new friend, almost as though they weren’t strangers at all. Ordinarily she was shy around people she didn’t know, but not this boy who came from a strange world.

“I’m hungry,” she said into a silent moment, “and so is Cindy.”

“You stay here, and I'll go catch some fish,” Theo said. He reached down a hand and ruffled her hair. “That is if you think Cindy would like some.”

“Oh, Cindy loves fish. She eats it everytime my daddy brings some home. Do you have a fishing pole like he does?”

“No, I can catch them with my hands. It's something all kids learn to do where I come from. I can also build a fire and cook them.”

“Wow, that's so cool. My mother let me make biscuits in the oven the other day. She says little girls need to learn to cook early.”

“And she’s right,” Theo said, “but we don’t have any ovens here or any flour to make biscuits. All I can bring you is fish.”

“That'll be fine,” Echo said. She was trying her best to sound more grown up than she felt.

Theo smiled and walked over to a tree where he leapt nimbly up into its branches. He waved at her as he soared from that tree to another one close-by. Echo waved back and then leaned against the sturdy trunk of a tree to wait for her new friend to return.

She tried not to think about the fire or her parents as she waited. Those thoughts made her sad and afraid. She needed to feel good again, and so she just played with Cindy and pretended that she was on a picnic.

Some time later, Theo appeared in the tree he had first leapt into. In his hands were two promised fish and a bunch of wild chrysanthemums he had gathered in the forest.

“My mother always puts flowers on the table when we eat,” he explained as he approached her. He placed the flowers in the middle of what would become their eating area. He took one bright blossom and handed it to her.

“This one is for you,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said, and then stuck it in her hair the way her mother had always done for her.

 


Chapter 2
Respite from Despair

By davisr (Rhonda)

From the last chapter:
 
Summary: Young Echo Jones is overlooked by first responders as she hides in a wheatfield during a house fire. Both parents presumed dead, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.
 
Chapter 1 ends with

She tried not to think about the fire or her parents as she waited. Those thoughts made her sad and afraid. She needed to feel good again, and so she just played with Cindy and pretended that she was on a picnic.

Some time later, Theo appeared in the tree he had first leapt into. In his hands were two promised fish and a bunch of wild chrysanthemums he had gathered in the forest.

“My mother always puts flowers on the table when we eat,” he explained as he approached her. He placed the flowers in the middle of what would become their eating area. He took one bright blossom and handed it to her.

“This one is for you,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said, and then stuck it in her hair the way her mother had always done for her.

 
*******
 
Chapter 2:
 
Theo touched the flower in Echo's hair and smiled. "Very pretty. My mother would definitely approve."
 
Echo smiled back and cocked her head to one side like a curious puppy. She pointed a finger at his chest. "What's that thing for on your clothes?"

Theo glanced down at his green overall shorts. They were simple in form with a plain white shirt beneath, but he knew what drew her attention. On the chest was an embroidered patch. It had several colors intertwined forming a multi-colored background. At the forefront was the depiction of two sticks crossed over each other to form a sort of inverted V.

He looked at Echo thoughtfully, as though trying to figure out the right words to say. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"It has to do with your secret world, doesn't it?" Echo asked. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

"It does, but I can tell you a little bit. The patches are given to children once they turn eight. Sort of a rite of passage."

"A what?"

"Sorry, a sign to show we're growing up. Usually, someone in your home makes it for you based on what you want to be when you're grown, or something you're particularly good at right now. You get the patches sewn into all your clothes afterwards."

"Sounds like a really big deal."

"Yeah, it kind of is."

"So what does your patch mean? Do you like to play with sticks or something?"

"No, silly, I'm an artist. The sticks are paint brushes."

"Ohhh, okay, well, it's nice, but what if you get older and don't want to be an artist anymore?"

"Then I get a new patch, of course."

"Mmmmm," Echo said. "Well, it's pretty."

"Thank you. I just got it three months ago."
 
"Who made it for you?"
 
"My mother. I'll tell her you like it." Theo got a far-away look in his eyes, glancing at Echo as though wanting to say more. He opted on changing the subject. "Are you ready for me to cook the fish now?"

Echo's eyes glanced downward. She would give Theo his space, invoking a child's ability to see what adults are too busy to notice. She allowed the subject change. "Yes, please. Can I help?"
 
"Sure, but let's go outside the cave to make the fire. Here, you can hold the fish."

Echo shuddered as she took the scaly fish in her hands, but was determined to look brave in front of Theo. 
 
Theo squatted on the ground as he carefully built a fire with flint, dry moss and small limbs. Echo knelt beside him and watched.
 
She was fascinated at first, but these feelings quickly transformed into fear as flames grew and licked at the air. Tears ran down her face, and she patted her chest with a free hand.

Theo noticed at once and touched her arm. "This isn't a bad fire like the one yesterday. I'm just going to cook the fish so we can eat them."

"It's scary."

"I know, but I promise it won't hurt you. Why don't you go back inside the cave while I finish?"

Trusting as only a child can trust, Echo nodded, then scooted back inside the enclosure. She cuddled Cindy in her arms and looked around.

She noticed the cave was made of overhanging branches and thick ivy vines, not a true cave at all, but safe and secure just the same. It served as her private room in the vastness of a confusing forest, a respite from despair.

When Theo had finished cooking, the children sat on the forest floor and ate together, the beautiful wildflowers he brought gracing the center. The fish was good, maybe better than any Echo had tasted before, and she wasn't quite sure why.

"How did you learn to cook like a grownup?" she asked. "Do all the kids in your world know how to do this, too?"

"No, not everyone. My father is a pretty famous cook in our town, and he taught me. He came from a country called Greece, and he learned a lot of what he knew there."

"Well, it's very good. Maybe I can taste his food sometime."

"Remember..."

"I know, you aren't supposed to bring home company. I'm just saying, like, maybe sometime."

"Maybe sometime. You look pretty tired, why don't you rest on the cave floor for a bit. I'll keep an eye out for anyone coming to look for you."

"I am kind of sleepy."

She helped Theo clean up their lunch, then snuggled in the soft needles that covered the cave floor and fell into a deep, healing sleep.

When she awoke, she found her new friend still sitting beside her and whittling a stick much as she had seen her father do before. He looked at her and smiled with the warmth of childhood innocence.

"Did anyone come for me?" Echo asked.

"Not yet," Theo said, "but if you wait here, I'll go further in the woods and look around."

Echo picked up Cindy and smoothed her pink dress, her tiny hands stroking the soiled teddy bear.

After a bit she said, "I'll wait, but please don't be gone long again. Cindy gets scared."

"I promise to hurry." Theo patted her head, then bounced into the closest tree as easily as one could step onto a curb.

Mesmerized, Echo watched him go. She had always loved climbing trees, but the way he was doing it was ever so much cooler.

Author Notes Special thanks for the artwork Forest Fire by MoonWillow on FanArt.

Echo Jones: In the beginning of the book, a 5-year-old girl stranded by a fire
Anthos (Theo): In the beginning of the book, an 8-year-old boy who is wise beyond his years, and hailing from a strange world.


Chapter 3
Tree Walking

By davisr (Rhonda)

From the last chapters:
 
Summary: Young Echo Jones is overlooked by first responders as she hides in a wheatfield during a house fire. Both parents presumed dead, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.
 
End of Last Chapter: 
When she awoke, she found her new friend still sitting beside her and whittling a stick much as she had seen her father do before. He looked at her and smiled with the warmth of childhood innocence.

"Did anyone come for me?" Echo asked.

"Not yet," Theo said, "but if you wait here, I'll go further in the woods and look around."

Echo picked up Cindy and smoothed her pink dress, her tiny hands stroking the soiled teddy bear.

After a bit she said, "I'll wait, but please don't be gone long again. Cindy gets scared."

"I promise to hurry." Theo patted her head, then bounced into the closest tree as easily as one could step onto a curb.

Mesmerized, Echo watched him go. She had always loved climbing trees, but the way he was doing it was ever so much cooler.
 
 
*********
 
New Chapter:
 
Echo didn't have long to wait before Theo reappeared in a tree above her head. She giggled as he swung from a branch by his knees then dropped playfully to the ground beside her.

"Kyria mou," he said bowing low.

"What does that mean?"

"My Lady, in Greek."

"Is that the language you speak?" Echo had learned about other languages in school. There was a boy from Italy in her class, and another from Sudan in a class across the hall.

"Just a few words my father taught me," Theo explained. "I don't know many. What about you? Do you know any other languages?"

"No, but I think it's cool when people do. Did you find if my grandparents were looking for me?"

"I didn't see anybody, but I'm sure they'll come soon. Why don't we play while we wait?"

"I'd like that," Echo said. "Do you have any toys?"

Theo pulled out a figure from one of the pockets in his overall shorts and handed it to her. "I have this horse I carved while you were sleeping."

Echo rolled it around in her hand and stared in disbelief. "It's perfect. He looks so real I think I could ride him."

"You like horses?"

"I love them," Echo said. "Do they have many where you come from?"

Theo chuckled and gave her a wink.  "Absolutely there are. You might have to come visit me after all."

"I wish I could," Echo said. "Can you make another one so we can play together?"

"Yes, if we wanted to spend the time, but I've got a better idea. How would you like to learn to walk in trees?"

"You mean up there?" Echo cocked an eye towards the closest tree.

"Yep. You wouldn't be scared would you?"

"I'm not scared of anything... much, but are you allowed to teach me? I mean, you know, your secret world and all that?"

"No one's ever said I couldn't. Come on, let's give it a try."

"Okay." Echo slipped the horse in her pocket and placed Cindy against the trunk of a tree. "Wait here, Mommy'll be right back."

Echo followed Theo to the base of the tree he had climbed earlier.

"The first step," he said, "is to pick just the right tree."

"Like it would have to have low branches?"
 
"That's part of it, but there's more. It has to feel right."

"Feel right?"
 
"Yeah, it'll make more sense later. We'll start with this one. Just watch me and do what I do."

Echo locked her eyes on her new friend, studying his every move. She watched him stand, a bronze arm barely touching the branch above him, and focusing his intense green eyes upward. Then in a movement so fast and so smooth she almost missed it, Theo swooped onto the limb above him.

"How'd you do that?" she asked.

Theo's gentle laugh floated down and tickled her ears. "It's easy. You just have to relax, feel yourself light as a summer breeze, and then move with the energy of the tree. It'll lift you up into its strong branches. If you pick the right tree, it won't let you fall."
 
"And if you pick the wrong one?"
 
"Then you'll never make it up without some serious climbing, and then you're on your own as to whether it dumps you off or not. But for now, don't worry, I'll tell you the right ones."

Theo hopped down gracefully and repeated his tree mount, this time slower, exaggerating his movements. Echo watched with rapt attention. When he came back down, she was ready to try it herself.

"Let's do it together," Theo suggested, putting an arm around her waist. "This is the way I taught my little sister, Rebecca. She's just about your age. Are you ready?"

"Yes."

"Okay, I want you to lean against the tree, touch its bark and feel its texture."

"Texture?"

"How it feels to the touch."

Echo shrugged her shoulders, reached behind her and ran her hand back and forth across its rough surface.

"Good, now let its scent, how it smells, fill your nose and surround your senses."

Echo breathed in deeply, absorbing the aroma of the tree.

Theo looked down at her. "You're doing great, now close your eyes and feel the energy of the tree wash over you like the waves of the ocean. Have you ever been to the ocean?"

"Yes, with my parents."

"Good, feel the ebb and flow of the energy of the tree."

"Trees have energy?"

"Everything has energy. Do you feel it?"

"Yeah, sort of."

"Good, now do what I asked."

Echo closed her eyes and relaxed against the tree. The scent, touch and energy of it washed over her. She imagined this almost intangible energy was water.

"I do feel it," Echo said. There was surprise and delight in her voice.

Theo made no verbal response, but his arm squeezed slightly. "The next time the energy comes, we'll jump with it just like with an ocean wave. It'll push us up."

Echo leaned against Theo's side, and leapt up on his signal. She gasped with excitement as they made a perfect landing on the lowest limb. Instinctively, she tried to sit, but Theo held her in a standing position.

"Don't cower on the branch like a leopard," he said. "You must be an eagle who doesn't fear to move around on its sturdy branches. Trees respect bravery."

Echo stood up firmly beside Theo, determined to be a stately eagle and not a skulking leopard.

"I'm going to tie a handkerchief around your eyes," Theo said, pulling a strangely scented cloth from the pocket on his overall shorts and tying it gently over her eyes. "This is to help you learn to walk on the branches without being afraid."

"I already told you I'm not scared."

"You will be as soon as we get up higher," Theo assured her. "Everyone is in the beginning. My mother says the main reason people fall from trees is because they expect to."

"What does that mean?" Echo asked, as she was wont to do. She pulled the cloth up and peeked from under it.

"It means that when you stop being scared of trees, you can learn to be their friend and then you won't fall. Now stop peeking, that's cheating."

"Okay, I won't, but you were talking to me."

"And I will keep talking to you, but you aren't supposed to look at me, alright?"

"Fine."

"Now close your eyes, even though they are covered, and listen to my voice. I will tell you where and when to step. When I let go of you, come to my voice."

"Is this a game?"

"Yes, and it's my favorite."

For the next hour or so, the two kids made their way around the trees close to the cave-like clearing. Theo would instruct and guide, Echo would follow with a combination of blind trust and an indomitable sense of adventure.

Before long, Theo removed her blindfold, and encouraged her to climb higher and higher in the trees, and to boldly jump from one branch to another. What would have taken an adult weeks to learn, young Echo was taught in one afternoon.

As evening approached, and she grew tired of tree climbing, she realized she was hungry again. The pair got down out of the trees, and Echo sat on the soft leaves to wait for Theo to go fishing again.

"I'll be back as soon as I have food," he promised, his green eyes shining with a light that came from within. "Wait here for me, just like you did before."

"Can't I go with you? I can walk in the trees like you, now. Maybe you can teach me to fish, too."

"You're tired," he said. "I'll teach you tomorrow when you've rested."

"But, aren't your parents getting worried about you? You've been with me all day, and I don't want to be alone again. It's getting dark outside."

"I've sent a message to my parents where I am and what I'm doing."

"But, you don't have a phone."

"I don't need one."

"I won't be gone long," he said, leaning down and kissing her cheek tenderly.

She looked at him in surprise. Why did the simple gesture of one child to another make her heart beat faster, and why did her cheek feel warm long after he had leapt into the tree to go find food?

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork, Jungle Fever by A Crazy Mind on FanArtReview.com

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents

Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leans on for comfort, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her.


Chapter 4
Beyond the Forest

By davisr (Rhonda)

Summary: Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents presumed dead, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

End of Last Chapter:

As evening approached, and she grew tired of tree climbing, she realized she was hungry again. The pair got down out of the trees, and Echo sat on the soft leaves to wait for Theo to go fishing again.

"I'll be back as soon as I have food," he promised, his green eyes shining with a light that came from within. "Wait here for me, just like you did before."

"Can't I go with you? I can walk in the trees like you, now. Maybe you can teach me to fish, too."

"You're tired," he said. "I'll teach you tomorrow when you've rested."

"But, aren't your parents getting worried about you? You've been with me all day, and I don't want to be alone again. It's getting dark outside."

"I've sent a message to my parents where I am and what I'm doing."

"But, you don't have a phone."

"I don't need one."

"I won't be gone long," he said, leaning down and kissing her cheek tenderly.

She looked at him in surprise. Why did the simple gesture of one child to another make her heart beat faster, and why did her cheek feel warm long after he had leapt into the tree to go find food?


*************

New Chapter:

 
A voice called out in the distance. "Echo, Echo..."

Echo raised her head slowly from the soft pine needles where she rested.

She sat up stretching, trying to remember what had brought her to this woodland sanctuary. Her immediate memories were of the boy Theo, of climbing trees with him, of talking with him about the strange land he came from, and of eating delicious fish he cooked over a homemade fire.
 
She remembered he had left again to find more fish to cook and to see if anyone had come looking for her. Where was he now?

Echo shook the remants of a deep, healing sleep from her head. There was something else tugging at her memory, something before she'd met Theo... a fire... great loss... abandonment.

She looked down at her pink dress, torn and stained during a flight from danger. She had lived in a home with her parents and had been loved.

"Echo, Echo..." more voices added to the call, and some of them sounded familiar. She stood to her feet as the rest of the shadows fled her mind.

"Grandma? Grandpa?" The whispered query became a cry of incredible joy. "Grandma! Grandpa!"

"I hear her, Virgil, Oh, I hear her. I knew she was still alive."

"Echo, keep calling," a male voice cried.

Echo screamed and rushed toward the voices, her precious teddy bear, Cindy, left on the floor of the cave behind her.

Theo watched from the trees as Echo collapsed into the arms of an older woman. The missing child was quickly swarmed by a horde of people, some openly weeping and hugging her, others falling to their knees in silent thanksgiving.

He could see vehicles of all sorts storming down an overgrown path, lights flashing and sirens roaring. With great urgency, they were heading for a clearing close to the cave Theo had carefully chosen for its accessibility to the outside world. The help he'd hoped for had arrived, but it was bittersweet.

"Good-bye, my friend, be well." The salutation was almost inaudible, but heartfelt.

Two fish dropped to the ground as Theo turned noiselessly from the scene and left for his own home. He needed to get back and tell his parents the details of what had happened with Echo. More than anything, he wanted to hug his sister, Rebecca.

Before he left, he returned to the cave and retrieved Cindy. For a moment, he embraced the teddy bear, letting tender memories flood his young heart.


*************
 
As though only a moment had passed, 20 years rushed by like a swiftly flowing stream. Echo's thoughts wandered to where they often did when she was troubled. Her happy spot was a small wooden alcove miles away. She lingered there for a moment before being jolted back to the present.

"You're not going to find your serial killer sitting here staring at a blank wall," Claude Baker said as he walked past Echo's desk.

"I'm not just sitting and staring," Echo said. She snapped her eyes over to her imposing boss. Tall and large framed, he cut quite an aura of authority, but Echo had found a tender soul beneath his bluster.

"It happens I'm thinking about the story, plus, it isn't really my job to catch the guy. That responsibility belongs to Atlanta's finest. I just have to tell the story of his criminality."

"Criminality?" Claude repeated.

"It means his criminal activity."

"I know what it means, I was just pondering the word. I like it, make sure it gets into your story. It sounds very smart."

"I am smart, that's why you hired me."

"Two months ago and you're still proving yourself. So, get that story finished."

Echo paused to look around the newsroom at three of her fellow employees looking very, very busy. Heads bent to their own tasks, it was obvious no one wanted to come to the new girl's aide, not yet anyway.

"And how many times do I have to tell you that a good investigative reporter does more than report news?" Claude continued. "She creates news and then writes about it?"

"I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Baker, but I'm pretty sure our serial killer doesn't need my help with his crimes. Besides, I was just getting ready to leave. Remember, I have to cover the opening of the new Super Whatever-it's-called, today?"

Brian, the editor's son, spoke up. "You mean the Super Claude Mart? As much as you've talked about it opening for the past six months, Dad, they might as well name it after you."

"Look, just because you're my oldest son..."

"And your resident photographer and typesetter."

"And my resident photographer and typesetter, doesn't give you the right to have a smart mouth."

"No," Brian said, "that I inherited from you."

Claude couldn't suppress a chuckle. "That's fair. Well, the real name is Super Handyman, Echo, and it promises to be the most brilliant hardware store in the whole state of Georgia. Make sure you get the name right in your story."

"If you feel so strongly about the place, why don't you cover the opening personally?" Echo asked.

"Me? I'm too busy trying to run the universe. That's why I'm sending my best investigative reporter."

"Your only one."

"That, too."

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork "From the Earth to the Sky" by ChuckWaxman

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to investigate a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and is Echo's nemesis.



Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leans on for comfort, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her.


Chapter 5
Story Time

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:
 
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents presumed dead, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.
 
20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town.
 
 
End of last chapter:
 
"And, how many times do I have to tell you that a good investigative reporter does more than report news," Claude continued, "she creates news and then writes about it?"

"I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Baker, but I'm pretty sure our serial killer doesn't need my help with his crimes. Besides, I was just getting ready to leave. Remember, I have to cover the opening of the new Super Whatever-it's-called, today?"

Brian, Claude's son, spoke up. "You mean the Super Claude Mart?" he said. "As much as you've talked about it opening for the past six months, Dad, they might as well name it after you."

"Look, just because you're my oldest son..."

"And your resident photographer and typesetter."

"And my resident photographer and typesetter, doesn't give you the right to have a smart mouth."

"No," Brian said, "that I inherited from you."

Claude couldn't suppress a chuckle. "That's fair. Well, the real name is Super Handyman, Echo, and it promises to be the most brilliant hardware store in the whole state of Georgia. Make sure you get the name right in your story."

"If you feel so strongly about the place, why don't you cover the opening personally?" Echo asked.

"Me? I'm too busy trying to run the universe. That's why I'm sending my best investigative reporter."

"Your only one."

"That, too."
 
 
 
New Chapter:
 
Claude patted her on the shoulder. "Just be sure you make Super Handyman the one place on earth everyone wants to visit."
 
"I'll make it sound like our own slice of Hollywood," Echo said, "Every handyman, kid or dog within 100 miles will be desperate to get there."

"That's the spirit." Claude clapped his large hands audibly.

"Just curious, why are you so concerned about a hardware store, anyway? Are they paying us that much for their ad?"

"Actually, they bought a full-page spread, but there's more to it than that. Taylorville hasn't had a new business of any worth open in 10 years. As a business owner myself, I'm hoping they're bringing commerce to our town that may start a trend."
 
"Of what sort?"
 
"More businesses here means more people in town and that means more newspapers sold. Easy formula."

Echo squinted her eyes as she searched for the simplicity, but gave up. It was a small town where anything new was newsworthy.  "Okay," she said. "I guarantee to give it my all. Also, I'll drop by and interview Bessie Johnson about what she saw the night they found the body."

"That one hit a little too close to home." Frankie Lawrence, Claude's older sister, leaned back in her creaky chair to join the conversation. "Atlanta needs to keep its criminals within its own city limits. We frown on dead bodies in our town."

"I suspect they frown on dead bodies in Atlanta, too, Frankie." Echo smiled at the older woman. Though slight in stature, Frankie commanded a great deal of respect around the newspaper, "but still, I don't like what happened any more than the rest of you."

Sara Beth, the fifth person in the room, squeezed into the conversation. "Why don't you get your Forest Boy to help you find him?  Isn't he supposed to know everything?"

Sara Beth was, aside from being annoying, the most glamorous member of the newspaper staff. Even though her writing ability was lukewarm, she had been raised in Taylorville and her family was well connected. She had an innate sense of fashion and an unnatural zeal for gossip. 

"Lay off her about her imaginary friend," Brian said. It wasn't that he preferred taking up for the "outsider" over a homegrown beauty, but he was always the defender of what was right; that and he loved to argue.

"Well, she's the one who's always going on about her secret boyfriend she met in the woods. I'm not the nutcase here."

"You're the one who keeps bringing it up. I only mentioned him once," Echo said, "and only then because you asked how I survived in the woods for two days alone when I was a kid."

"And the reason why you shared any of that with us in the beginning was...?" Sara Beth continued.

"Because I was delirious from being awake for three days reporting on the bank standoff in Marietta," Echo replied, "and I can't tell you how much I regret having said anything at all about him."

"I think it was a great story," Frankie interrupted. "It almost made me want to be there. I could see you sitting by a fireside with an enigmatic stranger who rescued you from disaster. All very romantic, if you ask me."

"Well, I think it was silly," Sara Beth said.

"And I never said he was my boyfriend, Sara Beth. I was five at the time. Just because you see every encounter with a male as a possible romantic fling, doesn't mean I do."

Brian burst out laughing. "Good one."

Sara Beth snorted in a most unladylike way. "Well, you'll have to admit the possibility of such a person existing is pretty remote. Come on, a boy walking on tree limbs to bring fish he caught by hand. How crazy is that?"

"Forget about Theo." Echo threw her hands up in exasperation. "You're the one who needs to grow up."

"Oh, he has a name now, does he? This is getting better all the time. And what kind of name is Theo?"

Echo shook her head and picked the things off her desk she would need for the interviews. There was no sense trying to reason with Sara Beth. "I'll be back when I get my information."

"Okay, but remember I need the stories by Monday morning," Claude said.

"Both?"

"Yes, and seriously, be careful about the articles you're writing on the serial killer," Claude said. "These guys often fixate on one particular paper and start bringing the story closer to them."

"Are you saying it's my fault a woman got killed here in Taylorville?"

"No, Honey, he's only trying to tell you to watch out," Frankie said. "You started writing that series about a month ago and then next thing we know, there's a dead body in our county. We just don't want you to become his next victim."

"Lots of other papers have been writing about him, too." Echo said. "He's the biggest news for miles around."

"I know," Claude said, "but I think you've probably done a better job of getting inside his head. You know how it kills me to give you a compliment, but you're a very talented writer."

"Thank you," Echo said. Claude was right; he wasn't one to throw praise around needlessly. "I'll be careful, and I'll have those stories to you by Monday morning."
 
"Great."

"Oh and don't forget the Christmas party tonight," Frankie reminded her. "Bring a date if you have one."

"I don't, unless Brian wants to take me."

"Brian has a date," he answered, cutting his eyes over at her and winking, "but I can probably find you an old college buddy if you're desperate."

"I'm not," Echo winked back. "I'd rather bring the serial killer."
 
"You can bring Forest Boy," Sara Beth chuckled.

"Get a new line."

Echo slipped through the office door, letting it close behind her with a bang.

Author Notes A special thanks for the beautiful artwork, The masters of Education! by Renate-Bertodi

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.

Her main assignment is to investigate a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.



Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leans on for comfort, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her.


Chapter 6
Super Handyman Opening

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents presumed dead, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and the opening of a new super store, Super Handyman.



End of last chapter: 
 
"Yes, and seriously, be careful about the articles you're writing on the serial killer," Claude said. "These guys often fixate on one particular paper and start bringing the story closer to them."

"Are you saying it's my fault a woman got killed here in Taylorville?"

"No, Honey, he's only trying to tell you to watch out," Frankie said. "You started writing that series about a month ago and then next thing we know, there's a dead body in our county. We just don't want you to become his next victim."

"Lots of other papers have been writing about him, too." Echo said. "He's the biggest news for miles around."

"I know," Claude said, "but I think you've probably done a better job of getting inside his head. You know how it kills me to give you a compliment, but you're a very talented writer."

"Thank you," Echo said. Claude was right; he wasn't one to throw praise around needlessly. "I'll be careful, and I'll have those stories to you by Monday morning."
 
"Great."

"Oh and don't forget the Christmas party tonight," Frankie reminded her. "Bring a date if you have one."

"I don't, unless Brian wants to take me."

"Brian has a date," he answered, cutting his eyes over at her and winking, "but I can probably find you an old college buddy if you're desperate."

"I'm not," Echo winked back. "I'd rather bring the serial killer."
 
"You can bring Forest Boy," Sara Beth chuckled.

"Get a new line."

Echo slipped through the office door, letting it close behind her with a bang.
 
****************************


New Chapter:

Echo sat in her 25-year-old Impala and surveyed the impossible crowd in front of Super Handyman. She shook her head and subconsciously stroked the steering wheel. This car, her comfort and transportation, had been a posthumous gift from her parents. In it, somehow, she felt a connection to the mother and father whose faces she barely remembered.

A booming voice blared from a speaker on top of the fancy hardware store and stirred Echo from her moment of reverie.

"Howdy Folks, welcome, welcome, welcome! Come inside to view the best prices and values in the state of Georgia. Hardware is only the beginning of what you'll find. Welcome, welcome, welcome!"

The message repeated as Echo eased out of her car. Before closing the door, she grabbed her notebook to jot information she might gather. She resisted the immediate urge to describe the crowd in front of her as terrifying. Instead, she wrote, "eager."

"Welcome, welcome, welcome..."

"I get it, just let me through the doors." Echo wormed her way through the crowd, flashing her media badge like a shield. Why would someone want to open a new store in the middle of Christmas Season? Weren't regular shoppers frantic enough?

Once over the threshold, Echo was hit with a blend of carnival food, tinkling bells, swirling game wheels and lots of loud music. In spite of misgivings, Echo found herself charmed by the festivities.
 
At the center of the store, surrounded by a fence made of tires and shovels, was the most extravagant Santa display Echo could ever have imagined. The Man in Red, Himself, was perched in the middle of a fishing boat full of tools. His charming, yet rotund, bride sat beside him handing out candycanes.
 
Right outside the boat pranced five very live reindeer enclosed in a makeshift corral. They looked happy, the customers looked happy, everyone looked happy. It was all great fun, whether you were a home improvement enthusiast or just a bored Taylorvillite.

Echo took special care to write down the names of employees and volunteers when she had a chance to talk to them. She had learned early on people liked seeing their names in print, and that pleased people bought multiple copies of newspapers.

Is that what her boss, Claude, meant when he said the psychopath she was writing the series on would pick a newspaper to start bringing the story to? It was something to think about while she wandered around Super Handyman.

For another hour, Echo filtered between the aisles noticing and being noticed. Finally, after taking all the fun she could endure, she concluded she had enough information to intrigue the good citizens of Taylorville and the entirety of Taylor County.

With her notebook and purse clutched tightly in her hands, she wriggled her way back out and headed for the Impala. Just before she got there, she happened to notice a man out of the corner of her eye. Was he staring at her?

She lunged into her car and locked the door.

As she started the engine, she took time to write his description in her notebook. Maybe it was nothing but coincidence, but one couldn't be too careful. When finished, she inspected the summery.
 
Tall, dark brown or black hair, light eyes, muscular build, dark clothes. Was that the best she could do? Well, she simply couldn't think of anything else to write. If she saw him again, she would add more. Besides, she was probably just being paranoid. Even if it was the serial killer, wouldn't it be in his best interest to keep her alive, and wouldn't he be doing a better job hiding from her?

She put her car in reverse and pulled out of the congested parking lot. At that time, her thoughts returned to the conversation she'd had with her colleagues in the newsroom, and to the Christmas party invitation from Frankie.

Why had she been so flippant about taking a date to it? She knew Brian wasn't going to ask her, and so did he. She was too standoffish with men to get close enough for an intimate relationship.

Was it the fire from her childhood that prevented her from connecting to people in a personal way? Was she so afraid of losing loved ones that she was scarred for life, or was there something more?

Had Sara Beth been closer to the truth than she wanted to admit? Could the memory of a boy so perfect and complete keep her from finding another man who lived up to his memory? And why was she able to remember his face when she could barely remember her own parents'?

"This is silly," she said aloud. "I've got a real job with a real task ahead of me. I've got to get to Bessie Johnson's to interview her about the body she found. Real, real, real...."
 
By the time she pulled into Bessie's driveway, she had decided to let go of the past and embrace her future. She planned to stop measuring every man she met against an old memory, whether she believed it real or not.

Deep green eyes, a kind smile, an ability to take over and protect a total stranger, even the ability to make toys like a master toymaker, were all to be put away. Nodding with self-satisfaction, Echo parked her car in a very neatly kept driveway and got out.

Author Notes A very special thanks for the artwork, Gonna Hava Rockin Blues Xmas by MKFlood on FanArtReview used with this chapter.

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.

Her main assignment is to investigate a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.



Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leans on for comfort, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her.



Chapter 7
Bessie

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents presumed dead, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.


End of last chapter:

Had Sara Beth been closer to the truth than she wanted to admit? Could the memory of a boy so perfect and complete keep her from finding another man who lived up to his memory? And why was she able to remember his face when she could barely remember her own parents'?

"This is silly," she said aloud. "I've got a real job with a real task ahead of me. I've got to get to Bessie Johnson's to interview her about the body she found. Real, real, real...."
� 
By the time she pulled into Bessie's driveway, she had decided to let go of the past and embrace her future. She planned to stop measuring every man she met against an old memory, whether she believed it real or not.

Deep green eyes, a kind smile, an ability to take over and protect a total stranger, even the ability to make toys like a master toymaker, were all to be put away. Nodding with self-satisfaction, Echo parked her car in a very neatly kept driveway and got out.

New Chapter:

"Come in here, child, or you'll catch your death of cold."

A rather large, gray haired woman stood on the door stoop of a double wide mobile home. One beefy arm held open a metal door and the other motioned inward.

"I'm coming, Bessie." Echo waved as she shrugged into her coat, then hustled toward the welcoming home of the oldest member of the Taylorville Sun family.

"I was wondering when you were finally going to get here." Bessie gave her a bear hug that made Echo wonder if a rib or two had cracked. "You know I have the list of ads I've collected this week for the paper."

"I know, I'm sorry. I was held up covering the opening of Super Handyman."

"Yeah, how'd that go?"

"Not bad for wandering around a crowded hardware store," Echo said.
 
She paused in the foyer and looked around the softly lit living area before her. It was adorned in resplendent holiday decor. A huge evergreen tree stood proudly against the southern wall, tucked into a place that seemed  reserved for it all year. Decorations, most of which seemed made by children and grandchildren, hugged it in a yuletide embrace.
 
Every inch of the room bore silver and gold garland, or bits of greenery, smelling of a mixture of evergreen and spiced apple. Christmas was definitely Bessie's thing. Echo hung her coat on the coatrack in the corner and followed Bessie into the kitchen.

"Did you get enough for your article?" Bessie asked.

"Plenty."

"Good, then I can read about it in the paper, because I'm sure not going in there."

"Why not?"

"Girl child, I gave birth to six boys and if something around here breaks, and not one of them can show up to help their 83-year-old mama, they're off my Christmas list, and they know they don't want that to happen."

Echo chuckled. Bessie's Christmas parties and gifts were legendary. "You've got a point, but you know you could have emailed those ads to Claude. He brought you a laptop over here and I've shown you how to use it several times."

Bessie rolled her eyes dramatically and motioned Echo to a seat at the table.

"I've been delivering these ads by hand for over fifty years. I see no reason to change just because Claude bought some new fangled toy. You'll take them in for me, won't you, sweetheart?"

"Of course, Bessie. I always do."

"Good, now, have you eaten lunch? I have some left-over beans and cornbread from last night. It won't take a minute to reheat."

"No, thank you, I'm on a diet."
 
Echo realized, before the words left her mouth, that she'd slipped up. She braced herself for the onslaught.

"A diet?" Bessie spat the words out like she'd just taken a bite out of a rat's tail. "Why would you want to do that? You're practically a skeleton now. Look at that pretty red dress you're wearing. It's practically hanging off of you."

"Bessie, I wish that was true." she sighed as she let her sentence trail off.

"Now you listen here, young lady...." Bessie pulled a cast iron skillet from a lower cabinet, threw some beans in from the fridge, added half a slab of bacon, and continued without missing a beat. "...skipping meals has never helped anyone.

"Girls think they have to be bone thin for a man to desire them. They have no idea how wrong they are. A man wants a soft woman to cuddle and a strong woman to bear his children. He doesn't want some puny bag of bones he has to constantly take to the doctor. Now you let Bessie make you some decent food, and then we'll talk about the main reason you really came here."

Echo smiled to herself. She remembered Claude's advice before she visited Bessie for the first time.

"Be careful what you say to her, that sweet old bat is smarter than a snake and strikes twice as fast."

He was right. Knowing Echo had come for more than the ads, Bessie was planning to get what she wanted before telling what she knew about the night the body was found. In Georgia there were two very strict rules: you never argue with your elders, and you never, ever refuse offered food. Bessie had both on her side.

"Thank you, I'd love some lunch."

"How do you want your grits today," Bessie asked, "with or without cheese?"

"Grits? I thought it was just left over beans and cornbread."

Bessie looked sideways at her. "Grits can go with all meals, you know that."

Echo gave up. "I'll take them with sugar and butter."

For a while, the only sounds heard were those of pots and pans rattling and the scraping of spoons on metal. Echo watched as the older woman added turnip greens and fried okra to the growing stack of food warming on the stove.

"How's your kitty?" Bessie asked in the middle of stirring. "You used to bring him with you when you came to visit. What's his name, Moonbeam?"

"Kitty Sunshine, but I call him Sunny," Echo said, "and he's doing great, thank you. I didn't want to leave him in the car while I went to the Grand Opening."

"Well, good, good. What kind of cat did you say he is?"

"Russian Blue."

"Well, whatever country he's from, he has a nice color."

"He's from here, Bessie. That's just the name of his breed. They were originally bred in Russia."

Bessie nodded and placed a plate brimming over with food on the table in front of Echo. "I prefer Persians, myself, or at least I did before I developed allergies."

"I hear there's a hairless cat you can get that won't make you sneeze. They're a bit odd looking, but they're supposed to make good pets."

"I'll keep that in mind, honey, but when you're my age, you don't have time for things like you did when you were a young'un."

"Oh please, Bessie, remember I go shopping with you. I wear out hours before you do."

"Entirely my point, dear, that's why you need to eat more."

"Okay, I'm throwing in the towel."

"About time. How's the food?"

"Absolutely brilliant, as always."

Bessie filled another plate for herself and joined Echo at the table. Echo suspected that wasn't the first lunch plate she'd had that day.

For just a moment, Echo was able to escape her worries and responsibilities as she ate and enjoyed good company. She even forgot about her diet. No problem, she had only started it that morning.

Finally, when the dishes were cleared away, Bessie slapped her hands together definitively.

"Okay, that's taken care of. Why don't you come sit with me in the living room where we can talk?"
 
"I'd love to." Echo left off the word, finally, that she definitely thought.

She rose to her feet and followed her hostess. It was obvious that enough ritual had been observed to allow Bessie to share her story.

Author Notes A special thanks for the brilliant artwork, Laugh With Mouth Wide Open, by seshadri_sreenivasan on FanArt.

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to investigate a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leaned on for comfort as a small child, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her. She left it behind in the forest after her rescue.



Chapter 8
Bessie's Story

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Echo first has to sit and eat a large lunch with Bessie and fulfill the duties of a guest before Bessie decides it's time to tell her story.

End of Last Chapter:

Bessie filled another plate for herself and joined Echo at the table. Echo suspected that wasn't the first lunch plate she'd had that day.

For just a moment, Echo was able to escape her worries and responsibilities as she ate and enjoyed good company. She even forgot about her diet. No problem, she had only started it that morning.

Finally, when the dishes were cleared away, Bessie slapped her hands together definitively.

"Okay, that's taken care of. Why don't you come sit with me in the living room where we can talk?"

"I'd love to." Echo left off the word, finally, that she definitely thought.

She rose to her feet and followed her hostess. It was obvious that enough ritual had been observed to allow Bessie to share her story.


New Chapter Begins:

"Bessie, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk. This is a busy time of year for everyone."

"You're welcome, child. We're both newspaper folks. We gotta help each other out."

"For sure." Echo settled into a rather plush green sofa, her pen and notebook in hand. Ordinarily she would have had her phone set to record, but knew Bessie would refuse to talk if she did so.

"To be honest," Bessie began. She kicked back in her recliner and sipped on hot apple cider. "I didn't actually find Sherry Roe's body, that's the victim's name, you know, but I was one of the first ones on the scene."

Echo was well aware of the victim's name, as was everyone in Taylorville, but what she hadn't known was Bessie wasn't the one who actually found the body. That was worth writing down.

Bessie smiled in approval and continued. "Let me start at the beginning."

Echo swept her hand in front of her. "Please do."

"Sherry had just started working at my daughter, Sylvie's, flower shop two weeks ago. I help out there now and then when it's really busy, and happened to be there with her this past Friday. Poor Sherry was really struggling to get flowers delivered on time as she was still trying to learn the routes. We all tried to help where we could, but had plenty on our own plates."

"I'm sure. Like I said, it's a busy time of year."

Bessie nodded. "I swear, we've got orders for every Christmas party, dance, banquet, and office celebration for three counties. It's all one can do to keep up, and Friday, we were chasing our collective tails like a box full of Spring kittens. Anyway, I didn't see much of Sherry until about noon when we all ate together. She seemed awfully distracted, so I asked her what was wrong. You know how I am about people."

"Oh yeah, you watch out for all of us." The smile on Echo's face spoke volumes about her elderly associate.

"If only I could have stopped what happened to that poor girl Friday night."

Bessie stopped to wipe away tears and to blow her nose noisely in a tissue. Echo reached out and patted her hand. "You did what you could. What did she say about why she was out of sorts?"

Bessie sniffed a few more times. "She'd been delivering poinsettias to the police department for their award ceremony. A man met her in the parking lot before she could get inside. She said she never remembered seeing him there before, but described him as tall with olive skin, dark hair and blue or green eyes. He was dressed in dark colors, which seemed odd to her for morning attire.

"Was that the only description she had of him?" Echo asked, a chill running down her spine. The man Bessie described could very well have been the one she had seen earlier that morning.

"Well, that's all she said and I didn't question her further. I had no idea he might become a murder suspect." Bessie shook her head from side-to-side and shrugged large shoulders.

"Of course not. I was just hoping for more." Echo shrugged as well and shook her head in frustration. It was so important to know details, details that could save future lives.

"Anyway," Bessie said, "Sherry said the man told her to just set the plants on the ground and he would sign her delivery form. She told him she would rather have someone sign for them she knew, but finally gave in when he became insistent.
 
"Later, she called the police chief to make sure he had gotten everything okay, but he said he hadn't. She told Sylvie what happened, who intervened at this point and assured her and the police chief she would take more out there personally."

"Wow, that was weird." Echo raised her eyebrows and cocked her head to the side like a curious puppy.

"I know, right? Well, later that evening, we sent Sherry with another big order to the police department, as it seems they wanted some cut flowers this time, and were willing to forget the mess-up from earlier. Sylvie told her to be sure to go all the way inside the building to deliver them. Sherry agreed and took off with the Suburban loaded down.

"We waited several hours for her to return so we could close up and go home. We tried her cell phone and got no answer, so we called the police station and asked if she'd made it there. They said they hadn't seen her all day, and that they didn't order any additional flowers, either. That's when we got worried and asked if they would send a squad car out looking for her. They said they would, but didn't seem too concerned, or at least not in my opinion.

"We decided we weren't going to just sit around and wait for the police to handle it since they were having their awards ceremony and if they sent anyone, it would probably be the new rookie, Officer Bradley. He's only been working at the station for a few weeks, and since he isn't from around here, we were afraid he'd just get lost and they'd have to send someone to search for him, too."

"What did you do, then?"

"The only decent thing we could," Bessie said. "We took off in my car to go look for ourselves."

"Well, that was smart."

"I don't know about smart," Bessie said, "but we were determined, and we hadn't been gone long before we saw flashing lights by the lake."

"Was it the police?"

"More-or-less. It was that rookie, Officer Bradley, kneeling over something. We jumped out of the car and ran over to him. He looked up at us with a strange expression on his face, and then the poor thing just burst out crying. He was cradling Sherry's head in his arms and rocking her back and forth. If I hadn't been scared half out of my mind, I would have found the scene pitiful."

"Had she been shot?"

"No, she looked liked she'd been strangled and beaten," Bessie answered like that sort of thing happened every day. "Haven't you heard already?"

Echo shrugged her shoulders. "Parts here and there, but no real facts."

"You can go by the Coroner's office and get more details if you need. Talk to Chancy, that's my grandson. He's one of the Medical Examiners."

"I will, Bessie, thanks. Was there anything else you noticed about the crime scene, or anything Sherry might have said earlier, you think would help us find her murderer?"

"Well, I don't know if this means anything, but the flowers Sherry took in the Suburban were nowhere to be found, not in the van, nor near the body."

"That is strange. Where was the van found?"

"There at the lake close to the body."

"Was there any sign of violence in it?"

"Oh, yeah," Bessie said. Her lips curled up in disgust. "It was pretty torn up inside. The police figure she was killed there and the body dragged out by the lake."

"Why not into the lake?"

"That's a good question. Maybe he got scared off by someone coming up."

"If so, someone might have seen what happened, or at least part of it."

"That's a good point, though no one has come forward that I know of. In my opinion, that rookie cop knows more than he's saying. You know, he's kind of tall and has dark hair and green eyes. He was crying and everything, but he might have felt bad afterwards. I think you and the detectives should look into his background."

"At this point, we can't afford to count anyone out, that's for sure. Well, thanks for the information and breakfast, Bessie. I've got to get back to the office and type this up."

"You're quite welcome. If I think of anything else, I'll call you on your cell phone. I have the number in my desk drawer."

"Good, now you said you have your list of the ads you took for the paper?"

"Oh yeah, wait right here, I'll go get them."

Echo waited on the couch for a few minutes while Bessie went to get the stack of papers where she sketched out the advertisements she gathered from businesses around town. 

"Here you are, honey." Bessie handed a folder over to Echo. "You'll find them all in here, along with the checks they gave me to cover the fees. Some said they would send the money in the mail, or electronically, whatever that means."

"Thank you, Bessie, as always, you do great work."

"I've had many years to practice it, sweetheart. And one way I lived long enough to get the cushy job of gathering ads is that I know how to stay out of trouble. Be careful, young lady, the man who killed our Sherry is probably the same one who has been on that killing spree in Atlanta, and I know you've been writing articles on him."

"I have been. Do you think I might have drawn him to Taylorville?"

"That's possible, but he may actually be one of our own. Just make sure Sherry is the only young lady we have to find beside the lake."

"That's kind of what the others said at the paper," Echo said, "but I can't just walk away. This guy needs to be stopped."

"Listen, you're not working for some high-falutin' newspaper out here," Bessie reminded her. She shook her finger at her like scolding a child. "You don't have to impress anyone. Just do what I did. Write normal, feel good articles where you end by saying 'a good time was had by all'. That's safe and it's entertaining."

"Okay, Bessie, I'll do my best to be more careful, but I don't always want to work for a small town newspaper, you know. Someday I want to work in Atlanta."

"Well, good luck, but don't mess with this serial killer guy, or the only article you'll have in the Atlanta Journal will be your own obituary."

"Understood. I'll do my best to be careful."

"Please do, you're still so very young. Take hold of your life and someday we can talk about your young'uns instead of your cat."

Echo couldn't help but chuckle as she watched a bright smile crease the old face.

"Alright, Bessie, see you next Tuesday for your ads."

"See you." Bessie rose slowly from her recliner to follow Echo out.

Echo thought about her conversations with Bessie as she drove off and finished several errands. She was a strange old bird, but was more perceptive than anyone she knew. If she was worried about her involvement in the serial killer articles, maybe she should be, too. But, like all young and ambitious people, Echo didn't pay much attention to warnings or choose to exercise prudent caution.

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork Maelstrom by avmurray on FanArtReview.

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to investigate a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leaned on for comfort as a small child, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her. She left it behind in the forest after her rescue.


Chapter 9
Reckoning

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Echo first has to sit and eat a large lunch with Bessie and fulfill the duties of a guest before Bessie decides it's time to tell her story.
 
End of Last Chapter:
 
"Okay, Bessie, I'll do my best to be more careful, but I don't always want to work for a small town newspaper, you know. Someday I want to work in Atlanta."

"Well, good luck, but don't mess with this serial killer guy, or the only article you'll have in the Atlanta Journal will be your own obituary."

"Understood. I'll do my best to be careful."

"Please do, you're still so very young. Take hold of your life and someday we can talk about your young'uns instead of your cat."

Echo couldn't help but chuckle as she watched a bright smile crease the old face.

"Alright, Bessie, see you next Tuesday for your ads."

"See you." Bessie rose slowly from her recliner to follow Echo out.

Echo thought about her conversations with Bessie as she drove off and finished several errands. She was a strange old bird, but was more perceptive than anyone she knew. If she was worried about her involvement in the serial killer articles, maybe she should be, too. But, like all young and ambitious people, Echo didn't pay much attention to warnings or choose to exercise prudent caution.



New Chapter:

By the time she made it back to the Taylorville Sun, Echo had all but decided the series she was writing was quite safe and that she had a divine calling to finish it.

With a smile on her young face, she climbed out of her silver Impala, and headed toward the building. Her eyes danced as she thought of the prospects of working for an Atlanta newspaper. This series was her chance to get noticed. Mind, she wasn't glad Sherry Roe had been killed, far from it, but she was happy to be part of the process of getting her and the other victims avenged. If she gained notoriety in the process, so be it.

With a sort of skip to her step, Echo approached the front of the building. She heard the sound of festive Christmas music vibrating through the old wooden door and it made her smile in anticipation. She hadn't had time to go home and change since she'd run those errands after leaving Bessie's. She still wore her pretty red dress, though, which would have to serve as party attire.

Just before she went inside, she noticed an envelope resting on the porch. On the front was a typewritten label. Curiously, she picked it up and strode inside.

Brian was sitting in his swivel chair, a plate loaded with holiday goodies on his desk. He looked up when she entered. "What've you got?"

"I'm not quite sure," Echo said. She sat on the edge of his desk, not far from his plate. She reached over and took a pickle and popped it in her mouth. "I found this envelope on the ground outside. It has my name on it."

"Well, tear it open and let's see what your secret admirer has left you."

Echo cut her eyes over at him in an attempt to stem his sarcasm. She wasn't sure if it worked, but, after opening the envelope, she simply didn't care.

Inside were three color photographs. Two were of Sherry Roe, one before her murder and another after. The third picture was of a young woman in a bright red dress, a coat draped over her arm and looking at a display in Super Handyman. There was a scribbled note at the bottom... Nice legs. Echo let out a scream.

Claude dropped the plate of food he was carrying and rushed over to where Brian now held the pictures, his face displaying pure horror. "What's going on?"

Silently, Brian held up the photos. Claude took them and walked over to a lamp. He thumbed through the set, his eyes opening wide in disbelief. Finally, he dropped them on the table and shook his head.

After a pause, he said, "I'm calling the police."

Frankie rose from her seat and joined him. With a gasp, she clamped a hand over her mouth.

"That's Sherry... and... and...you, Echo. Oh, Echo, we need to get the Atlanta police involved, too."

"Who sent those?" Sara Beth asked. She peeked over Frankie's shoulder and cocked her head like a little blonde puppy. Her lavishly attired body exuded expensive perfume, her carefully coiffed hair, opulence. "Is that from the serial killer guy or something?"

Echo nodded and sank into her chair. Her heart was beating so hard it was physically painful. Dark questions pranced a macabre rumba in her head as she tried to sort things out. Maybe, just maybe she had misjudged the danger of her series.

A loud knock on the office door jolted the entire staff, and at least one of them screamed. Claude looked dramatically around the room, then went to answer it.

"Who is it?" he asked.

"Uh, Junior," a voice answered. "Frankie invited me to your office party. I'm afraid I'm a bit late."

"Oh my gosh, I forgot." Frankie leapt to her feet. She swept her brother aside with a diminutive arm and opened the door. A tall young man with dark, wavy hair walked through.

Echo's eyes flew to the man's face. His eyes were brown, not green. She let out a sigh that would have been audible but for the Christmas music vibrating the air. Everyone in the room relaxed.

"This is my neighbor, Junior," Frankie explained. She looked pointedly at Echo. "He happened to be free tonight, so I invited him to join us."

"A pleasure to meet you all," Junior said formally. "I've heard so much about you." Like Frankie, he looked straight at Echo.

"All good things, I hope," Echo said. She cringed at the euphemism that flowed automatically. Normally, she was more eloquent than that.

"All good, I promise," Junior said. He reached out to shake Echo's hand.

Sara Beth slipped deftly between them. She took Junior's hand and guided him toward the buffet table. "Here, let me show you where the food is."

With a backward glance at Echo, Junior followed the usurper where she led. With all she had been through, Echo decided to yield the battle and its spoils to Sara Beth.

~~~~~~~~

"They're sending an officer over," Claude said. He replaced the phone on his desk and, at long last, headed to the buffet table for a new plate. "It's not Atlanta, but our guys can take a statement and get a description of the man you saw watching you today."

"Thank you," Echo said. She joined her boss at the buffet. It had been a long time since the lunch Bessie had fed her, and telling everything she had learned that day had been hungry work.

"I see Sara Beth stole your boyfriend," Brian said when Echo returned with a loaded plate. He pointed at Junior, who was seated at Sara Beth's desk. Echo shrugged and rolled her eyes.

"She's welcome to him."

"Are you sure you don't want me to call one of my old college buddies?"

"Not if my life depended on it," Echo said. "And, I don't see you with anyone. Did your date cancel at the last moment, or did she have to be back at the Nursing Home by 8:00?"

Brian just laughed, forgoing the chance to strike back. Sara Beth wasn't so nice.

"Where's your forest boy?" she asked. "I thought he might, at least, show up."

"Why do you care?" Brian asked. "Do you want to take him from Echo, too?" He got a round of chuckles from everyone except Sara Beth and Junior.

"I'm not saying I want the forest boy," Sara Beth said. "I was just looking out for Echo."

Echo popped another dill pickle in her mouth. "I'm not the one worried about him."

Sara Beth sort of grunted a reply, and then began playing up to Junior again, hoping to drive Echo into a jealous fit. It didn't work.

Echo finally relaxed enough to look around. The office had been transformed from a normal everyday newspaper room into a warm holiday extravaganza.

The artificial Christmas tree sitting unadorned in one corner of the office for nearly a month, now sported shiny bulbs of all imaginable colors. Lights danced about the imitation limbs inviting eyes to linger and hearts to stir.

Garland hung off every structure in the room, twinkling lights gracing their shiny frills. Echo's heart was moved beyond the worries of the day and she felt content. She may never get the job in Atlanta, but she had friends and that truly meant something to a child who had grown up without parents and siblings.

Another dramatic knock on the door shattered her euphoria. Once again, Claude answered it, and once again, he let in a stranger.

"I'm Officer Tony Bradley," the stranger said. He was tall, muscular and wore dark clothing. A woolen hat was pulled down to his ears.

"You're the man who found Sherry's body, aren't you?" Echo blurted out. Enough was enough for one day. First, the pictures and now, the very man Bessie suspected of murder.

The officer hesitated, his head bowed, his face hidden in shadows. He turned slowly toward her. Blue green eyes bore into hers.

"It wasn't my finest moment," he replied.
 
"Why, because you found a dead body," Brian asked, "or because you got caught?" He reached out a hand and touched Echo's. Her skin felt clammy and her face was as pale as snow.
 

Author Notes A special thanks for the absolutely perfect artwork, Memories by cleo85 on FanArtReview.

A note: This book targets young adults and is fantasy. The crime element I try to keep surface as its leading to the fantasy realm and not a study of the criminal mind. I avoid the darkest parts for a reason.

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.

Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.

A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party.

Man in dark: A man Echo saw watching her the day of the Super Handyman Opening. Presumably the serial killer.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leaned on for comfort as a small child, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her. She left it behind in the forest after her rescue.


Chapter 10
From Danger to Danger

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.
 
Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.


End of last post:

Another dramatic knock on the door shattered her euphoria. Once again, Claude answered it, and once again, he let in a stranger.

"I'm Officer Tony Bradley," the stranger said. He was tall, muscular and wore dark clothing. A woolen hat was pulled down to his ears.

"You're the man who found Sherry's body, aren't you?" Echo blurted out. Enough was enough for one day. First, the pictures and now, the very man Bessie suspected of murder.

The officer hesitated, his head bowed, his face hidden in shadows. He turned slowly toward her. Blue green eyes bore into hers.

"It wasn't my finest moment," he replied.

"Why, because you found a dead body," Brian asked, "or because you got caught?" He reached out a hand and touched Echo's. Her skin felt clammy and her face was as pale as snow.
 
 
New Chapter:


Officer Bradley lowered his eyes, then slowly removed his hat and coat. He placed both on Bessie's vacant desk. His dark wavy hair, though not untidy, looked in need of a proper trim.

Without the coat, Echo noticed he had on a light colored vest woven of a fibrous plant or wool. Beneath was a white shirt, accenting olive skin. His slacks were police blue. The visage of a killer? Who could tell?

He took a deep breath and looked pointedly at Brian.

"Sir, have you ever been responsible for another person's life?"

"Directly?" Brian asked with a shrug.

"Yes."

"Not really, I don't suppose." Brian was known for being honest as well as direct.

"Well, when such a day comes, you can ask me that question again. Until then, I repeat, it wasn't my finest moment. As far as your implication I might have committed the crime, do you really think if I was the perpetrator, I would be stupid enough to walk in here around all of you?"

"People do foolish things." Brian maintained eye contact. "Like, coming over here on official business and not being dressed for duty. How do you think that makes you look?"

"Tired," Officer Bradley said. He stroked his face absentmindedly. "I was about to leave for the night when the Captain asked me to come over and take a statement about photos one of you received. His eyes flicked over at Echo and then away. He knew it was her, Echo thought, but how?

"We appreciate you showing up on your own time," Frankie said. She stood and walked over to the pair of combatants, leaving her husband munching on food and talking to Claude's wife. "How about something to eat?"

Frankie deftly guided him away from the simmering Brian and toward food. Sara Beth cut her eyes over as he walked by, but, for once, didn't try to intervene.

Slowly, things went back to normal. Family and friends of the office personnel chatted, laughed, danced and ate lots of catered barbecue. Even Brian and the officer seemed to relax, though in separate corners.

Just as the party was wrapping up, Officer Bradley took Echo's statement, bagged up the photos and headed for his hat and coat.

"Echo," he said. "I want you to be very careful. These pictures aren't a threat, they're a promise. Get someone to follow you home."

"Like you?" Brian asked, rising to his feet.

"Or you," he replied; "someone who cares about her safety. This might be a perfect opportunity for you to be responsible for another person's life."

"So I can re-ask my question?"

Officer Bradley lowered his head. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

"We know why we care about Echo," Claude said, raising his eyebrows, "but why do you, Bradley? You two had never met before tonight."

Frankie started to protest her brother's rudeness, but stopped when Officer Bradley shook his head at her.

"It's a fair question," he said. "Echo belongs to Taylorville, Mr. Baker, and I'm sworn to protect its citizens. It's my job and calling to do so. Echo has been targeted, so here I am."

Brian squinted his eyes as though he felt the explanation a bit trite, but held his tongue.

"It's my own fault this guy is after me and everyone knows it," Echo said. She glanced down at her hands. "I'm the one who started writing those articles. I drew him here."

This time, Officer Bradley looked directly at Echo, turbulent eyes drawing a shiver. "Yes, you attracted him, but not because of your stories. I suspect you were his target all along."

"Seriously?" Echo folded her arms across her chest. "Why me? I'm not special."

"That's a very long story."

"And how would you know it?" Brian asked. He took a step forward.

Officer Bradley held up a hand as though in peace. "Just follow her home, and if you can't, I will."

"We'll take care of her," Claude assured him. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight." Officer Bradley headed for the door. He paused as he heard a voice behind him.

"I'll go with her," Junior said standing.

Sara Beth looked at him in shock. "I thought you'd take me home. I might be a target, too, you know."

"Is your house on the way to hers?"

"Sort of."

"Okay, we'll follow you first, then Echo. How does that sound?"

"Great," Claude agreed. "Brian, are you okay with it?"

"Sure, as long as I'm in the procession. But what about when she gets home? Will there be police protection around her apartment?"

"Yes," Officer Bradley said. "It's taken care of."

"By who?" Frankie asked. "We don't have that many people on our force. Is Atlanta getting involved?"

"Among others." Officer Bradley said vaguely. He opened the door and went out. The stage was set and he knew what he had to do.

~~~~~~~~

The first vehicle to fall out of line was Brian's Ford Explorer. Snow had started to fall while they were at the party and his SUV slid on a slick spot and hit a pot hole. His tire blew out, forcing him to swerve off the road. He texted the others to go on without him; he'd call AAA. So much for his opportunity to protect another person's life. He guessed he'd have to wait to ask his question.

The next to leave was Sara Beth. The group pulled over and watched her park her car and go to the door. She hesitated a bit, then with a wistful look, turned and went inside. Echo figured if it hadn't been snowing, Junior would have escorted her in. She could tell Sara Beth thought he should have anyway.

Next to go was Claude and his wife, and Frankie and her husband, who had all ridden together. They lived next door to each other, and down the street from Junior.

That left only Junior and Echo to brave the elements and any murderous villains that might attack. They drove until Echo felt a bump on the back of her car. She looked into the rear-view mirror and saw only Junior. He raised his hands like he didn't know what happened. She sped up to get more distance between them in case he skidded again.

And, it did happen again, and then again. Echo increased her speed as she glanced into the rear-view mirror. She saw glowing red eyes where there had been brown. The shock made her hit her accelerator pedal a little too hard, spinning the car out of control.

Around and around the Impala whirled until it hit the shoulder and flipped over. The rear-view mirror flew off and hit Echo on the forehead, cutting a gash just above her left eyebrow. She could feel warm blood trickling down her face.

Even though her head was reeling and she hurt all over, she managed to crawl from the driver's side window onto muddied snow. She heard a car pull over and a door creak open, and then another car did the same.

"Are you okay?" the clear voice of Junior called out. "What happened?"

"You ran me off the road," she said. Her whole body was trembling.

For a moment, neither one of them moved. Echo had set her eyes on the edge of the forest a few yards away and planned to run there as soon as she could.

"You look injured. Let me help you," Junior said. He started moving forward, the sound of his feet crunching in the snow. "It was an accident. I was hit from behind."

Echo didn't reply. She knew what she had seen, and no amount of gaslighting from Junior could convince her otherwise.

She bolted toward the trees, slipping and sliding precariously as she went. Her thick coat and high heeled shoes were impeding her progress, so, cold as she was, she shed both.

When Echo was almost to safety, she noticed two dark figures approaching from the side. They must have been in that second car. Red eyes glowed from beneath dark hoods. She tried to twist out of their reach, but to no avail. She felt cold hands clamp her arms and vile nails dig into her skin.

"Where're you going, honey?" one of them drawled. Putrid breath oozed out of his mouth and bathed Echo in filth.

Again, Echo didn't answer, but instead, relaxed against him. A ploy of the hunted.

The second man spoke up. "Not talking, hunh? You've sure had a lot to say in your newspaper about our work."

"Your work?" Echo spat out. "What do you mean?"

The second man leaned forward, adding his foul breath to the mix. "You thought what we've been doing was accomplished by one man? What an ignorant fool."

"There were three of us," another voice said. Junior had joined the group, his party clothes now covered with a black cloak.

Echo turned her head and glared. "I guess I'm going to be the next victim. Nice. So, where are you going to dump my body?"

"Nowhere," the first man said, his red eyes starting to fade to a light hazel color. "We're taking you with us. Our boss wants to meet you."

Echo was stunned. Officer Bradley had been right. The attacks were aimed at her all along. But why?

Echo lowered her eyes as though in submission, leading the minions to relax their grip. Their mistake.

With a burst of adrenaline, Echo employed another tactic of prey. She dropped to the ground and lunged between one of the men's legs. Just before she was through, she lurched upward toppling the creature over.

Energized by her success, she ran, barefooted and bleeding, to a towering tree at the edge of the forest. She paused a fraction of a second, then, mustering resolve, reached a hand out to grasp the closest limb. Everything Theo had taught her about walking in trees came flooding back. She leapt upwards.

A huge clawed hand caught her ankle just as she landed on the lowest limb. She grabbed another branch above her head and pulled. She felt nails rake her exposed leg as the hand yanked her back. She kicked and squirmed, but knew she was losing the battle. The culmination of weeks of research and journalism had come to this. Once and for all, her young voice would be silenced.

And then from above, a strong, gentle hand grasped hers. She gazed upward and recognized the face of a young man. Could it really be Officer Bradley? He had the same dark, wavy hair, and the same olive skin, but his eyes were a brilliant shade of  emerald green. Those she'd seen only once before in her life.

"Who are you?"

"I think you know who I am." He pulled her closer even as the specter let go of her leg and fled from beneath the tree.

"But your eyes?"

"They were a different color earlier, I'm sorry. I wore contacts because I figured you'd recognize me, but we can talk about it later. We need to get you out of here now."

"To where?"

Theo looked down at her gently. "My home."

"You mean I finally get to meet your family?"

Theo gave her hand a squeeze. "It's time."

For one hurried moment, Echo melted into the arms of her Forest Boy, a boy who had since grown into a man. As years before, Theo arrived when she needed him most. What challenges lay ahead were forgotten in a brief, beautiful reunion.

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork, Green by simonka on FanArtReview.

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.

Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.

A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party.

Man in dark: A man Echo saw watching her the day of the Super Handyman Opening. Presumably the serial killer.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Three men who confront Echo.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for the boy Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leaned on for comfort as a small child, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her. She left it behind in the forest after her rescue.


Chapter 11
Echo's Diversion

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.


End of last chapter:

For one hurried moment, Echo melted into the arms of her Forest Boy, a boy who had since grown into a man. As years before, Theo arrived when she needed him most. What challenges lay ahead were forgotten in a brief, beautiful reunion.

New Chapter begins:

"It's hard to believe you're really here," Echo said. She stepped back and looked into Theo's remarkable eyes, eyes highlighted by the near full moon. She was grateful for its brightness, and grateful for the snow that reflected it. She wanted to enjoy this moment.

"To be honest," she continued, "I doubted if I'd ever see you again."

Theo gazed back with adoration, holding her hands tenderly in his. The visage of the bumbling rookie was replaced with the face Echo had compared all other men to her entire adult life.

"But you never doubted I existed," he said. "Your friends at the office Christmas party revealed as much."

Echo tilted her head to the side and smiled. "Yeah, they have big mouths, but they were right, and I can't tell you how many times I sat on the ground at the edge of the woods and talked to you. I'd imagine you could hear me. I cried with you, laughed with you, and even felt you hold me in invisible arms. You were my comforter."

Theo drew her close again, rocking her side to side like a father would his child. He rested his chin on her head. "I know you did, Echo, and I did hear you."

"You did?"

"Yes, I was close-by in the trees, as often as I knew you needed me. I even left you a gift once, after your first broken heart. The guy's name was Stephen and he stood you up for a school dance. I left a carving to let you know you weren't alone."

Echo reached into her pocket and pulled out two carved horses. One Theo had given her in the forest cave right after her parents died in the fire, the other she found in her special clearing. She always kept both with her.

"I knew it was from you! But why didn't you show yourself? I longed to see you so much."

"I'm sorry, but I was forbidden by my father."

"Your father? But why would he do that? Did he dislike me that much?"

"It has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the rules that govern my people. I don't have time to explain it all now, but I promise I'll make everything clear once we get to my home."

"Which is where?"

"Concorde Valley."

Echo cocked her head. "I've never heard of it."

"No, not many have. You either have to belong there or be taken there by someone who knows the way... or be a horse."

"A horse?" Echo repeated. She raised a doubtful eyebrow.

Theo chuckled at her dubious look. "Our people have a saying. All horses know the way to Concorde Valley."

"Interesting. Why so?"

"Because their master is there."

Further conversation was halted by the obvious sign of movement below.

"We gotta go," Theo said. Sparkling emerald eyes turned to turbulent sea green.

"But the bad guy people are gone, aren't they? I mean, you chased them away."

"You mean the Specters?"

"I suppose, if that's what you call them, but aren't Specters ghosts? These guys are real. Look at the gashes on my leg."

Theo nodded. "Oh, they're very real. The term is a sort of generic for the minions of the enemy of my people."

"Who is...?

"Remember, I will explain it all..."

"When we get to your home. I know."

Theo gently squeezed her arm. "If not for the danger, I would answer now."

"I get it. Can Specters climb?" She pointed to a tree behind them, the limbs of which were beginning to shake.

"Some can. Let's go." Theo grasped her hand and they leaped together to the next tree, then the next, and so on until they had put some space between them and their pursuers. Echo hesitated when they finally landed and placed a restraining hand on his chest.

"Look, before we get too far, I have to go by my apartment. I need to grab my cat and some things I'll need for the trip. I could, also, use some antiseptic and bandages. I was hurt in the wreck, and by those Specter people, not bad, but still. While I'm there, I need to call my job to let them know I'm okay and that I'll be away for a while...."

"And what are you going to tell Mr. Baker, that you're with the rookie cop they all think is a serial killer?"

"Okay, that's fair, but can I at least tell my grandparents? They'll believe me, and I don't want them on TV begging for me to be returned."

"That's fine, call them, but ask them to keep silent about who you're with."

"I can do that."

"The bandaging will have to wait if you can keep going like you are. My father is a doctor and can treat you once we get there."

"I can make it. Adrenaline is a great analgesic. I just don't want anything to get infected."

Theo pulled his flashlight from the loop on his police belt and looked closely at the wounds on her face and leg, all of which had stopped bleeding.

"We can wash these off in a stream after we lose our followers, but you should be okay for now. My father will get you fixed up where there will hardly be any scars."

Echo shrugged her shoulders. What else could she do? They had to prioritize.

"And, Echo, your apartment isn't the safest place for you right now. Whatever you do will have to be done in haste."

"You told my friends it was guarded."

"Yeah, I was planning on being that guard, me and some of my buddies, but things changed when Junior decided to follow you. I didn't know he was a Specter until he revealed himself tonight, but I did know he was watching you at the opening of Super Handyman, and I did know he meant you harm."

"How?"

"I was on undercover duty for the police department watching for stalkers."

"And you discovered Junior."

"Yes, but just him. I didn't see the others."

"If you suspected he was a killer, why didn't you tell anyone at the party?"

"No one would have believed me. Everyone thought I was the murderer, but I decided to follow all of you when you took off. That's why I left first."

"And I'm glad you did."

"I'd have gotten to you sooner, but I stopped to check on Brian when he had a blowout."

"He let you help him?" Echo asked. Surprise was evident in her face and voice.

"Not exactly. He told me where to go, but he did let me call it in to the department. AAA wasn't responding."

"That sounds like Brian, but why do you think my apartment isn't safe? It's not like anyone knows I live there."

"Besides the fact you've been stalked for a while, I heard Sara Beth telling Junior exactly where you live. She made it sound as though apartment dwellers are beneath her."

"My apartment complex is in a great neighborhood...."

"Sara Beth's opinion isn't the issue right now, she's nothing but a jealous person who knows she outclassed by you on all levels. What we need to worry about is the Specters, and it's my belief they're waiting at your place right now."

Echo's tired, wounded face registered concern, but not worry. Afterall, Theo was there. "What's your plan?"

Theo looked at her with a mixture of adoration and respect. She was as brave now as she had been as a child escaping a fire. He tapped his forehead against hers.

"I have friends who can meet me there, the ones I mentioned earlier. If we hurry, and are really careful once we get there, you should be able to get your cat and make your phone call. The rest is going to have to wait."

"But what about a coat and shoes? I had to shed mine while running from the Specters."

Theo peeled off his own vest and slipped it over her head. "This will keep you warmer than a coat and is easier for traveling through the trees. Shoes you'll have to grab quickly."

Echo felt a gush of warmth envelope her from the vest. Combined with Theo's own personal scent, she had a momentary respite from the chaos. After hugging herself for a few seconds, she looked up.

"But how will you stay warm?"

Theo winked at her. "Allow me to be gallant, would you? It's the least I can do after letting the Specters reach you first."

Echo winked back.

Theo offered a hand. "Let's fly."

Echo grasped it and they soared through the trees like a couple of spider monkeys. But for the gravity of the situation, she would have enjoyed their rapid journey through the canopy. The moonlight was a definite help, but she had a feeling Theo could have done it blindfolded.

Just as Echo thought she couldn't jump to another branch, they made their way to a clearing she recognized. It was the vacant lot behind her apartment complex where the tree line ended.
On a good day, she could have sprinted across the space with ease, but it wasn't a good day. It wasn't even a day at all. It was nighttime and it was a very cold one, indeed.

Even though the snow had stopped falling, the ground was covered in slippery white and the only illumination came from the sky and a single security light shining across the field.

All seemed still and quiet, until it didn't. One at a time, about a dozen Specters crept into view, red eyes glowing in the dark.

"There's more of them." Echo stated. Subconsciously, she leaned against her companion. She was exhausted and dispirited.

"Apparently so," Theo said as he put his arm around her.

"What are we going to do?" Echo asked.

"Not let them get their way. I'll distract them so you can get in, but use what time you have wisely."

"What are you going to do, kill them with kindness? I see you don't have your service revolver with you."

Theo cut his eyes over. "We don't need my kind side right now."

"You have another side?"

"I have another side."

"But you don't have your gun," Echo pointed out again.

"Bullets wouldn't phase these guys."

As easily as an ordinary man might step out of bed, Theo dropped to the ground, ending their conversation.

Tossing his head back like a fiery stallion, he cried out in a strange language that sounded as ancient as the earth itself. The sound was loud and piercing and seemed to visibly shake the Specters. They quaked, but didn't flee.

Moments later, his cry was answered by other, softer calls. Echo looked around and noticed a number of men on horses waiting just on the inside of the forest edge. She could see a glint of metal tracing the shape of swords in their hands. They sat quiet and pensive like living statues perched on coiled springs. Theo's friends had shown up.

"Cool!" Echo said, a bit louder than she had intended.

Theo glanced up at her. "Not cool," he said. "Blood may be shed here tonight."

"I thought you couldn't kill the Specter guys."

"Not with bullets. Now be quiet and wait for my signal. When I give it, walk, not run, to your apartment. You don't want to stumble in the dark."

"I'm not sure I could run if I wanted to. What's your signal?"

"You'll know." Theo looked around at his men, and then the enemy.

Echo heard a sharp intake of breath followed by a slow, whistling exhale.

Everything around them grew quiet as though nature, itself, listened and waited. With an audible whoosh, Theo's arms flung upward and a green mist flowed from somewhere inside him. It pulsated outward, permeating the field with a glowing green fog.

A pathway pierced the haze, leading to the stairs outside her apartment. Echo was filled with new energy and resolve. With a deep breath of her own, she dropped from the tree. As she passed Theo, she couldn't resist, "I don't care what you say, that was cool."

He acknowledged with the hint of a grin and the slightest nod of his head.

Each step she took toward the apartment building was echoed by the sound of hooves escorting and guarding her. Though she couldn't see or hear them, Echo was aware of the Specters drawing in as well. She continued on.

As she reached the stairs, a roar of action could be heard behind. In spite of what she was advised, she ran the rest of the way up.

She didn't have her purse, which was in the wrecked car along with her cell phone, so she had to dig under the doormat for her spare key.

She slipped in the door, locked it, and braced herself as Kitty Sunshine jumped into her arms. He was clearly terrified.

"I know the feeling," she said.

On the coat hanger beside the door was the backpack she used when visiting her grandparents. Luckily, It contained a blanket she always took with her and a spare pair of tennis shoes.

"Sunny, you'll have to ride in here," she said. Before putting her precious companion inside, she pulled out the shoes to put on.

Sunny curled into the soft blanket and gave a quick meow. Somehow, he understood he would be cared for.

Echo glanced over at the phone and made a step toward it. At the same time, a face appeared at the window. Glowing red eyes told her it was a Specter. There would be no time for the phone call.

With a wistful glance around the apartment, Echo bid it, and her belongings, good-bye. She and Sunny slipped into the fray, the sound of crashing glass reverberating in her ears.

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork, Shade of emotion by Jessie <3 on FanArtReview.

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party.

Man in dark: A man Echo saw watching her the day of the Super Handyman Opening. Presumably the serial killer.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Three men who confront Echo. Minions of the Dark Lord

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Cindy: Echo's teddy bear she leaned on for comfort as a small child, the only belonging that made it out of the fire with her. She left it behind in the forest after her rescue.


Chapter 12
Georgios

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Summary of the book so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.


End of last chapter:

With a wistful glance around the apartment, Echo bid it, and her belongings, good-bye. She then slipped into the fray, the sound of crashing glass reverberating in her ears.


New Chapter:

Was it her window smashing, or her past that Echo heard shatter? How many times would she have to lose everything she owned to start anew? She drew in a deep breath and looked ahead.

Before her eyes could adjust to the soft glow of the mist, a flood of odors overwhelmed her. The heavy air seemed infused with sea scent. She felt as though she was standing on a pier overlooking a foggy ocean. The sounds of battle became the crashing waves.

Also evident, was a sort of damp earthiness like the smell of something you might find buried in your backyard. It wasn't an unpleasant odor, just reminiscent of something else, something normal but otherworldly at the same time.

All of these individual aromas were infused with something less pleasant, something stomach wrenching. It was the stench of blood, sweat and metal.

After her eyes began to adjust to the green glow, figures took shape like images in a Rembrandt painting. She tried to find Theo in the mix, but there was just too much going on for much clarity. She would have to head for the closest trees, hoping to climb her way to freedom. She knew Theo would find her as soon as he was able.

She reached out and touched the railing for balance, then took a step. Before her foot landed on the wooden plank, a face came into focus inches from hers, causing her to reel in surprise.

"Junior! What are you doing here?" Echo's grip on the railing tightened as she tried to regain composure. Not at all who she wanted to greet her as soon as she left her apartment.

"I came to check on you," he explained. "You really should get somewhere safe."

The Junior looking at her was not the one with red, angry eyes she had last seen, but the handsome guy from the office party. He looked hurt, almost vulnerable. His hazel eyes were probing hers as though looking for compassion and companionship. For one brief second, she hesitated.

"Come with me to my father's," he said. His enticing voice was an invitation to safety, acceptance, maybe even pleasure.

Echo's head began to swim. What should she do? Had she been wrong about Junior? Was Theo the real interloper? He was, after all, making her leave her home and job.

Then, she remembered the sound of smashing glass, first in the car she'd rolled over in, and then in her apartment. She remembered, also, a child barely older than herself cooking her fish in the forest. A warm glow surrounded her that cast off doubt.

She looked Junior straight in the eyes. "Please move."

Junior returned her intense gaze, his deep eyes ripe with apparent concern. "You really don't know why we want you, do you?"

Echo refused to take the bait. "I know you're in my way."

She put out an arm to brush him aside. Confusion and doubt were the tools of the enemy.

Quick as a feral cat, he grabbed her wrist. With a dizzying twirl, he spun her around and pinned her arm painfully behind her. Gone was the facade of the rejected lover. She could feel his muscular body press against her back and his putrid breath ooze down her neck.

Whispering in her ear, he said. "You're coming with me and, maybe, just maybe, we can both earn the respect of my father."

Before Echo had a chance to respond, she heard a whistling sound followed by a thud. Junior's hand and body fell away from hers as he was thrust to the ground. She could see an arrow sticking out of his shoulder, effectively pinning him to the wooden step. He turned and glared, obviously still alive.

"Echo, jump!" She heard a deep voice cry out beside the staircase. The shadows were too dark for her to see who it was, but she could tell it wasn't Theo.

Echo leaned over the edge of the railing, her blue eyes trying to pierce the shadows. She could barely make out a head of dark hair, an enormous chest covered in a sort of silvery mail, and a horse beneath.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"A friend of Theo's." The man reached his arms upwards and repeated, "Jump!"

Echo heard Junior cursing and trying to pull away from the wooden step. She figured arrows didn't kill Specters, either, and so she jumped, cat and all, into the arms of a stranger.

"Where's Theo?" she asked as those strong arms encircled her.

"He's across the field keeping the Specters busy."

The man indicated the direction with a flick of his head. He lowered her to straddle the horse just in front of him. She could feel the rough, sweaty skin of a muscular steed and smell its distinctive horse odor. She adjusted her backpack with Sunny inside to where it sat in her lap. She heard a reasuring mew from within.
 
"My cat," Echo said by way of explanation. The man gave a soft grunt, a sound somewhere between a horse's whinny and a cat's purr.

"Is Theo okay?" Echo asked. Her heart was beating rapidly from exertion and stress.

"He's doing fine. He's the one who nailed Junior with the arrow. He sends his regards, but asked me to get you out of here."


"And you are?"

"One of his captains, Georgios."

"Thank you for helping me, Georgios."

"You're welcome. Look, I'm sorry you're having to leave this way, but we don't know if the enemy is planning on sending bigger weapons than these guys."

"He has more than Specters working for him?"

"A host of others. We might have to face them someday, but now is not the time for that battle."

Echo nodded. She was convinced battlefields were not her thing, but she had a feeling Theo and her rescuer were well versed in combat. It was no chance shot that had taken Junior down. She couldn't help but wonder what Theo's life was like in his own world. She had an idea he wasn't a rookie cop.

As though in tune with her emotions, the large man turned his horse and thundered away.

He quickly closed the distance to the edge of the woods on the left of the apartment building. A group of horsemen stood as sentinels over Echo's escape route, guaranteeing her safe passage.

Georgios stopped just within the forest's edge. "I'm sorry, but I'll have to leave you here. Theo says you can walk in trees."

"Yes, I can. I had a great teacher."

Georgios gave her a knowing wink, then lifted her upwards as easily as she would have Sunny.
 
"Georgios?" Echo looked down at her new friend. He looked back with golden brown eyes that seemed to look through you, rather than at you. His face, which she could now see distinctly, didn't seem quite human. She started to ask him what he was, but decided against it. Whatever he was, it was obvious human had the upper part.

Georgios smiled knowingly. "I'm Theo's half-brother on our father's side.Try not to let all of this get to you, okay? Trust Theo. He'll get you through this alive, and he'll explain it all in good time."

Echo nodded as she rose to her feet on the solid limb, carefully slinging her backpack, with her precious kitty inside, firmly onto her back. She patted him reassuringly through the fabric. "Yeah, I keep hearing that."

Georgios patted her on the foot and looked at her with affection. "Fly, little sparrow. I'll see you on the other side. Theo will see you sooner." Then, the mail clad warrior slipped off into the mist.

With the sounds of war in the background, Echo did what her strange, new friend asked. She flew from branch to branch by what moonlight managed to filter through the great trees of the ancient forest. Carefully, she listened for signs of friend or foe as she sought to distance herself from the battle. Theo, she knew, would be along soon. When she felt safe enough, she and Sunny would sit and wait.

Author Notes A special thanks for the excellent artwork, Kirth Ninoxis by Elena Whittaker on FanArtReview

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer.


Chapter 13
Setting Out For Concorde Valley

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of last chapter:

Georgios patted her foot and looked with affection. "Fly, little sparrow. I'll see you on the other side. Theo will see you sooner." Then, the mail clad warrior slipped off into the mist.

With the sounds of war in the background, Echo did what her strange, new friend asked. She flew from branch to branch by what moonlight managed to filter through the great trees of the ancient forest. Carefully, she listened for signs of friend or foe as she sought to distance herself from the battle. Theo, she knew, would be along soon. When she felt safe enough, she and Sunny would sit and wait.
 
New Chapter Begins:

Echo's senses adjusted to her environment more quickly than she had imagined possible. She wasn't sure if it was a natural process or whether adrenaline played a factor, but was grateful for the awareness it afforded.

She could hear the sounds of night birds hunting, insects chirping, and even the movement of leaves and branches in the brisk air. In spite of her situation, she felt a sense of peace in the midst of undisturbed nature.

So in tune was she with her surroundings, she wasn't taken offguard when she heard movement in the branches beside her. She halted on a sturdy limb and listened. The movement stopped, but a familiar scent gave her pursuer away.

"Theo," she said, more a statement than a question.

Another rustle of branches and the one person she most wanted to see stood on the thick limb beside her. It was Theo, her Theo, his dark features dirty and blood stained, but Theo all the same. Soulful eyes drooped from fatigue, tender features illuminated with a smile. He reached one hand and stroked her cheek, and with the other, took her backpack and carefully placed it around his shoulders. He felt Sunny shift in response, then settle.
 
Echo stroked her cat through the coarse fabric of the pack until she heard a reassuring mew.
 
"Is the fighting over?" she asked. Her dark blue eyes betrayed concern, her short hair glowed amber in the moonlight. An ever curious head tilted to one side as though searching for meaning beyond spoken words.
 
"Yeah, it mostly broke up as soon as you left."

"I'll bet the news media will have a field day with the mess y'all left."

Theo shook his head. "There's nothing for them to find. We know how to clean up after ourselves. Even the Specters have need for stealth and anonymity."
 
"So they helped?" Echo's voice came out a bit as a squeak. It was certainly surprise news to her. From her experience with Specters, they didn't seem capable of doing anything cooperative.
 
"In their own way. We each took care of our own."

"What about security cameras?" she asked. "I know there had to be some outside the apartment building recording everything. Did you magic those away?"

Theo let out an explosive laugh, as though needing the release of tension. Sunny meowed in protest from his nest inside the backpack, and Echo crossed her arms in a bit of a pout. She had been serious.
 
"We didn't magic anything away," he said. He tapped his forehead against hers affectionately, "and cameras can't penetrate my green mist."

"Yeah, speaking of the green mist, that was way cool. Can you explain, please?"

"At this moment, I'd rather not. You deserve better than a quick explanation in the dark. I will say it had the added benefit of blocking anyone trying to take videos on their phones."
 
"Well, that covers the next question I was going to ask. Did anyone call the police while you were there?"
 
"Yeah, and they showed up, but not before the cleanup. I explained there was some sort of gang violence and it had dispersed."
 
"Did they believe you?"
 
"For the most part. People usually believe what they expect. If I had told them the truth, they would've had me checked for a head wound."
 
"Looking at you right now, they would have believed it possible. You're a mess."
 
"Thank you so much, and I think you're lovely, too. They did offer to call me an ambulance, but I told them I could drive myself."
 
"Which you didn't do because your car wasn't even there."
 
"Exactly, but they didn't seem to notice. While they were interviewing witnesses, I slipped off into the woods, and here I am."
 
Echo smiled and patted her cat again. She was infinitely glad he had found her, and wasn't even going to ask him how he had done it, but she did have another question. "What will we do when your story falls apart and they come looking for us?"

"Under the circumstances, we can't do anything but distance ourselves from the conflict. In spite of my people's unique abilities to conceal our presence, there are just some things that either have to work themselves out, or remain a mystery."
 
"I understand, or at least I do in part, but my grandparents need to be told something. I wasn't able to call them from my apartment."
 
Theo reached into an inner pocket of his police jacket and pulled out his personal cell phone. "Make a quick call, then drop the phone on the forest floor so they can't locate us past this point. We're about to head in a different direction."
 
"What do you think I should say to them?"
 
"What were you going to tell them at your apartment?"
 
"That I was with you and safe."
 
"Then say that. Tell them I'll reunite you as soon as I can."
 
Echo nodded. Considering their plight, it would have to do for the present. For whatever reason great danger had found her, she knew she must let go of her dogged nature and trust. The time for answers would come later, for her and for her grandparents. 
 
She made her call, one of the most difficult she'd ever made, then dropped the phone to the forest floor.  She looked at Theo, who nodded approval. He leaned his shoulder against the tree and looked at her somberly. In spite of everything, her heart skipped a beat.
 
"Are you still fearless?" he asked.
 
Echo squinted and put her hands on her hips. "I'm not quite sure how to answer that."
 
"Do you remember your response long ago when I asked if you wanted to learn to climb a tree?"

Echo couldn't help but grin. That day was etched in her mind forever. "I remember," she said. "I told you I wasn't afraid of anything, but I've become a bit jaded since then. Still, I'm an investigative reporter and we're a pretty brave bunch."

"Just more paranoid?"

"If you're referring to me thinking you were the serial killer," Echo said, "remember I was being stalked at the time. The only description anyone had of a possible assailant fit you."

"But now you've seen the Specters, you know why."

"I only know that you look like them," Echo said, "not why."

"They share Greek roots with me."

"And a mysterious nature?"

"I'm not a mystery anymore, am I?"

"Let me consult my list of things you won't talk to me about and get back to you on that one," Echo said. She wasn't going to let that comment go by without challenge.

Theo gave a slight bow. "That's fair. Please be patient for a little longer. As I said, you deserve a proper explanation, and for now, we've got to get going. We need to distance ourselves from this phone and head for Concorde Valley. Destiny awaits."
 
Echo looked him square in the face. "That's a bit dramatic." Theo winked back, then gestured with his hand towards the trees ahead. It was time to go.
 

Author Notes Artwork is a photo I took from my sister's yard.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

Characters:
Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.
Ends up being Theo, Echo's mysterious childhood rescuer

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer.


Chapter 14
A Time to Rest and Reveal

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of Last Chapter:

"I'm not a mystery anymore, am I?"

"Let me consult my list of things you won't talk to me about and get back to you on that one," Echo said. She wasn't going to let that comment go by without challenge.

Theo gave a slight bow. "That's fair. Please be patient for a little longer. As I said, you deserve a proper explanation, and for now, we've got to get going. We need to distance ourselves from this phone and head for Concorde Valley. Destiny awaits."

Echo looked him square in the face. "That's a bit dramatic." Theo winked back, then gestured with his hand towards the trees ahead. It was time to go.
 
 
New Chapter Begins:
 

As time ticked by, Echo began to feel more comfortable traveling through trees. The horrors of battle faded with each mile traversed, and as human nature dictates, mind, body and soul began to mend. The two companions fell into a steady pace, occasionally chatting for company.

After one particularly long pause in conversation, the reporter inside Echo reared its head and drove her inquisitive nature. She reached out and rested a hand on Theo's.

"Can we rest a moment?"

"Sure, are you okay?"

"Besides the obvious bruises and scrapes, I'm fine. I'd just like to take a break."

"There are more than bruises and scrapes on you, my dear. You've been through a lot of trauma. I want you to know I'm aware of it, and proud of you for persevering."

Echo nodded her head, but didn't comment.

Theo sat on a limb and patted the space beside him. "We can afford a few minutes, besides, I think Kitty Sunshine needs to get out for a bit. He's starting to squirm."

Echo lowered herself stiffly to the branch. Theo turned his shoulder so Echo could unzip the backpack and lift Sunny out.

In the moonlight, the Russian Blue looked more black than gray, and if not for his bright green eyes, might have faded into the shadows.

At once, Sunny started stretching and meowing ever so softly. He rubbed his soft fur against Echo's face as though lending and receiving comfort.

"Good boy," Echo said. She stroked his face and back. You don't complain a bit, do you?"

Sunny gazed at her as though he understood and concurred.

"He's a smart cat," Theo said, "and a good traveler."

"I wish I had something to feed him. I didn't even have time to grab a can of food."

"We can give him a few minutes to hunt some bugs. Once we get to my home, there will be plenty to feed him."

They both watched as Sunny scampered off into the night. Every once in a while, he gave a meow to let them know he was close.

"Do you have cats?" Echo perked up at the thought of something familiar ahead in the unknown valley.

"Sort of. I have this little sister, Hannah, who has about every animal you can imagine, cats included."

"Oh, is she the one you said would love Sunny?"

"The very one. She's a sweetheart."

Echo cleared her throat. "Will you answer a few questions for me?"

Theo raised an eyebrow. "You know there isn't much I can talk about until we get where we're headed."

"I get all of that, but I have a right to know some things. I trust you, but curiosity and worry are getting the better of me."

Theo responded with a guarded nod. "Ask, and I'll answer what I can."

"Let's start with Georgios," Echo said. "What's the deal with him?"

"He's my father's son from a previous marriage. His mother was killed in a fire when he was a child and he's lived in his own home since way before I was born."

"Can you share with me why he doesn't look quite human?"

"Not without a lot of explanation we don't have time for, plus I think he would rather tell you himself."

"I completely understand. Do you two get along with each other?"

"Absolutely. We work together, and he visits now and then at the family home." Theo leaned against the tree trunk and looked at Echo. "What else?"

"Why are your eyes the same color as my cat's?"

Theo laughed the same explosive laugh he had earlier. Echo liked the way it made her feel. Sort of like a thunderstorm clearing out fog.

"I've no idea, but I have my father's eyes, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a cat in his lineage."

Echo laughed, too. "Sorry, that came out of nowhere. I just guess I'm trying to figure you out, and am afraid if I had a lifetime to do it, I couldn't."

Theo's eyes twinkled just before he looked down. Hanging in the air was the word, lifetime. Echo hadn't really meant to throw it out there, but there it was, the one word they had both contemplated for twenty years, but feared to consider.

Echo quickly changed the subject. "Tell me about your parents. What are they like?"

"My mother, Diantha, is beautiful. She has red hair like yours, and comes from your world. My father, Phoebus, is ruggedly handsome. He has black hair like mine and, of course, cat green eyes. Which, incidentally, he got from his father."

"Who is?"

Theo gave her a sideways glance. "A very long story."

"Got it." If Echo had expected the nut to crack so soon, she was destined to be sadly disappointed.

"Look, I know you're tired and sore," Theo said. "You've been through a lot, and have untreated wounds, but we have to get moving. Sunny is back from bug foraging. The sooner we get to Concorde Valley, the better we'll all be."

"Are you wounded, too?"

"No, just worried."

Echo nodded. Somehow she felt comfort in their shared concern. Theo looked at her with such compassion she felt encouraged to ask another question weighing on her mind.

"Who are the Specters really? I know you don't want to talk about them, but they are haunting my thoughts. Some things are better to know about then to develop your own theories."

Theo's eyes darkened as he bent his head in thought. He sighed and looked back up.

"Are you sure you want to know here in the deep shadows of the forest?"

"As I said, I need to know."

Theo bobbed his head in acknowledgement, then chose his words carefully.

"I told you Specters are some of the many servants of our enemy," he began, "but what I didn't tell you was who the enemy is."

"Right, you said that explanation would have to wait."

"I know." Theo reached out and took one of her hands in his. "And it looks like this is the time for it. I would have chosen to wait until we got to Concorde Valley, but your need to know has become greater than my desire to conceal."

"Thank you. Who is he?"

"He goes by many names, but we call him Hades."

Echo's eyes widened and she gave a little snort. "Hades? You mean, god of the dead, Hades?"

"Yeah."

"Come on, Theo, he isn't real."

Theo looked back at her with raised eyebrows. "Do you want me to explain, or go back to promising to tell you later?"

"No, I'm sorry, go ahead."

"As I was saying, Specters work for Hades. And just in case you've heard he's really a nice guy with a tough job, think again. He's wicked to the core. As for the Specters, they're beings part living, part dead, and are sent out on Hades' bidding to fulfill his dark purposes."

"And what was his dark purpose with me and those women they killed?"

"To be honest, I'm not completely sure. I didn't know he was behind all of this until I saw Junior."

"You know him?"

"Unfortunately, we've met before."

"And he's really Hades' son?"

"Yeah, one of several. His mother is a Specter, which makes him only half. He has some of their powers, but is fully living."

Echo didn't respond right away. She knew her time for questioning had to be drawing near to a close.

"One more thing," she said. "I smelled an earthy odor outside my apartment door just before I saw Junior."

"Yeah, I smelled it, too. What do you think that means?"

"You don't know?"

"I have a good idea."

"Was it because his father is head of the Underworld?"

"That's a pretty good guess, I'd say."

"And," she pressed on, "You said you and Junior have common Greek roots. Just how close are those roots?"

Theo visibly cringed, but as he didn't protest, Echo went on.

"I also smelled the ocean," she said. The reporter in her was beginning to make connections so fast her head spun.

"The ocean?" Theo repeated. "That's odd."

Echo folded slim arms across her chest. "Smell of dirt, Hades, scent of the ocean..."

Theo blinked his eyes a few times in an attempt to distance himself from the inevitable onslaught. "Echo, I really don't think this is the time or place."

Echo ignored him and pressed on. "That's Poseidon, if my mythology is correct."

Sighing deeply, he turned his face. "It's only a myth until you learn the truth."

"Then tell it to me, Theo. If Hades had Junior, who was Poseidon's pony in the race?" Echo's breathing came faster as she pressed in.

Theo turned back. In his deep eyes, Echo saw the truth. Truth she had somehow known most of her life, but hadn't understood. "You're a god, aren't you?"

Theo shook his head. "I'm no god, Echo. None of us are. We're just members of a race of immortals once thought to be supreme beings. There's only one true God and we serve Him, just as you. Most of us claim the title of Guardians. We use what we're given to protect humanity."

"I'm not sure Hades subscribes to that line of thought."

"No, Hades serves only himself." Theo broke off a twig and threw it into the darkness beneath them.

"Who is Poseidon to you?"

Theo took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. "My grandfather."

"The one with the green eyes?"

"Yes, Ma'am, the one with the green eyes. Sea green, by the way, not cat."

Echo let the comment go for the moment. "You were his pony in the race, weren't you?"

"In more ways than one." Theo tapped her head with his in a way Echo was beginning to think was somewhere between a hug and a kiss.

"You're being mysterious again."

"It's as much my nature as digging the truth out of a person is yours."

Echo couldn't help but smile. "I know and respect that. Thank you for leveling with me as much as you could."

"You're welcome. Can we go now?"

Echo handed Sunny to Theo, then stood up as gingerly as she had sat down. She knew moving through the trees hurt less than sitting still, so braced herself for the journey. She took Sunny, gave him a hug, and placed him in the backpack. Theo took the beloved burden and carried him on broad shoulders.

Echo nodded to Theo her readiness to go on. She knew, with the instincts of her profession, she'd pushed as far as she could for information. She was certain Theo would reveal more as the need arose. For now, she was satisfied. The nut had cracked, even if just for a moment.

Author Notes Artwork from dreamstime.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, and undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:
Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.
Ends up being Theo, Echo's mysterious childhood rescuer

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer.


Chapter 15
Edge of Destiny

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:

Echo handed Sunny to Theo, then stood up as gingerly as she had sat down. She knew moving through the trees hurt less than sitting still, so braced herself for the journey. She took Sunny, gave him a hug, and placed him in the backpack. Theo took the beloved burden and carried him on broad shoulders.

Echo nodded to Theo her readiness to go on. She knew, with the instincts of her profession, she'd pushed as far as she could for information. She was certain Theo would reveal more as the need arose. For now, she was satisfied. The nut had cracked, even if just for a moment.

New Chapter Begins:


As they labored through the night, Echo wondered how much longer she could keep pace. The muscles in her extremities ached, and the wounds covering much of her exposed flesh burned like fire. Still, she continued to press on, drawing strength from her resilient companion.

As the night grew old and daylight replaced moonbeams through the canopy, Theo called for a break. They sat together on a limb and ate nuts he had collected as they traveled. Since Sunny was resting comfortably in the backpack, they left him alone to sleep.

Without embarrassment or discomfort, Echo leaned against Theo's shoulder. It felt as natural now as it had been so many years ago when they were children.

For a moment, neither spoke, but rested in the comfort they drew from each other. When he was ready, Theo leaned back and pointed to Echo's leg.

"How are those gashes doing from the Spectre's scratch?"

Echo lifted the slashed material on her pants leg and showed him three angry red lines. Until that moment, she hadn't realized just how bad the wounds were.

Theo touched the skin beside the concentric gashes. From his gentle caress, she felt warmth radiating and providing relief to damaged tissue.

"That feels good," she said. "Do you think your father can fix this mess?"

Theo nodded and pulled her pants leg back down. "I've seen him heal worse. You're doing great, just be strong a little longer. I know this has been a long trip, especially for one not accustomed to traveling through trees."

"I had a good teacher."

Theo smiled. "I think you've been practicing since I taught you."

"I did off and on. It was relaxing, but what were you doing this far from home when you were little? This is a long journey for an 8-year-old."

"I was far from home, but not from my parents. They were in a cave near where I sheltered you."

"Are they the ones who caught the fish you brought me?"

Theo feigned offense. "I'll have you know, I caught them myself. It's against the rules for them to have helped."

"Rules for what?"

"My Primary Journey."

"What's that?"

"A coming of age ritual for 8-year-olds in Concorde," he said. "They participate in an individualized task designed to help them discover what we call their horse name. The kids spend time alone in the woods running the periphery of Concorde Valley. It's all very safe, but they live off the land and take time to think about their goals and talents. They return once they've discovered their secret name."

"What happens if they don't?"

"They can have family members discuss their experiences with them. If they still can't figure it out, then they try again the next year."

Echo nodded. "There are several cultures with similar customs, but I don't get the horse name piece."

Theo looked around as though searching for words to explain the unexplainable.

"You see," he began, "we believe all people have a secret name that has to do with their greatest personal characteristic, which is what our people call their horse name."

"Why horse?"

"It's the animal we feel most connected to."

"Are there that many in the valley?"

Theo shrugged. "It's more the quality than the quantity, but that's not the real point. It's more finding that inner focus and direction to help guide a person that's important."

"I can understand that. What happens after the name is settled on?"

"They get a patch to wear representing the name and character quality it embodies."

"Do you mean like the one you had on the bib of your shorts when we first met?"

Theo cut his eyes over at her in surprise. "Yes, but I'm surprised you remember."

"It caught my attention. The patch was very colorful and had two sticks crossing each other. What  did it all represent?"

"My horse name, Artist. The sticks were paint brushes and the color, well, color."

"That's really cool, but since you had it on your bib when we met, you must have already known your secret name. So, what was the purpose of your journey?"

"To go beyond the valley, something normally forbidden, and seek my destiny there."

"That sounds a bit vague."

"Maybe, but I found it."

"You found me, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the destiny you sought."

"I found more than you, Echo, though I'm eternally grateful I did so. I also discovered a rare second name."

"That's amazing, what is it?"

"The same as my father's, Guardian."

"And how did learning that shape your destiny?"

"Take for instance my job in your world. I was a police officer, hence, guardian, and I was also their sketch artist, expressing my first name of Artist."

"Oh man, I didn't even think about you losing your job. I guess I've lost mine, too. Looks like we messed up both our destinies."

"Echo, a job is just a manifestation of your destiny, not the destiny itself. We can always find other jobs."

"In my world?"

"Sure, wherever your world ends up being." Theo grinned at Echo.

"Oh." Echo was at loss for words, a rarity for her.

Theo laughed and handed her some more nuts. It felt good having her off-guard for a change.

Echo smiled, too. She realized, once more, that Theo was as clever as he was handsome.
 
"So, do I have a horse name?"
 
"As I said, our people believe everyone has at least one. Most in the outside world just don't know how to find it."

"What's mine, then?"
 
Theo considered her question and how to answer. He knew she was trying to understand his culture, but telling wasn't nearly as satisfying as discovering. "You'll have to figure that out for yourself," he said.

"But I'm not a little kid and it's been a long time since I came of age. I'm not sure a Primary Journey would work for me."

"And I'm not certain it's necessary. There are people in my world you can ask who would know more about it. Either way, you'll discover your horse name if you truly want to know it, and Concorde Valley is an excellent place to do so."

Echo gave a slight nod. "If I guess my name, can I have a cool patch?"

"Of course, but you mustn't guess. When you're sure in your heart what the name is, you can come and discuss it with me or someone else you come to trust. Then, you go to my father for confirmation and he will enter it into the rolls of the valley."

"So, he already knows what it is?"

"He will listen to your thoughts, then weigh it in his heart."

"I know he's Poseidon's son, but does that make him a wizard or something?"

"No, my dear, he's the king of Concorde Valley and a very wise man."

 
"And a doctor?"
 
"Yeah. He's a really good one. He's also a warrior and gardener."
 
"Nice. How many horse names does he have?"
 
"Who knows?"
 
"Is your mother the queen?"
 
"Yes, her name is Diantha."

"Which makes you..."

"Hungry, so let's get going again, if you please."

"How much further do we have?" Echo was finished trying to dig information out of Theo and, like him, she was hungry.

"Not much, we're on the outskirts of Concorde Valley right now."

"Are you kidding me? Why did we stop when we were so close?"

"I figured you needed to rest and learn a few things before going in."

"I need to learn more than a few things, buddy, and it's not like you told me that much."

Theo gave her a quick side hug. "Follow me."

Echo resisted the urge to tell him that's what she'd been doing all night. Rather, she walked through the trees until they parted to reveal a looming mountain that had been invisible until now.

Theo took her hand and gave it a squeeze. With the other hand, he gestured at an outcropping in the mountain.

"Welcome to the Portico of Concorde Valley."

Something in his voice stirred Echo to experience a deep wonder. It was as though all the magic and joy she'd ever felt from Theo radiated from somewhere beyond the cliffs ahead. She squeezed his hand back.

"I'm a little scared," she said.

"Don't be. You'll love it and the people will love you."

"They don't even know me."

Theo laughed, then turned and winked. "You'll be surprised to find just how much they do know. It seems I've talked about you a lot over the years."

It was Echo's turn to laugh. "I guess I've talked about you a lot, too."

"I truly am glad we've reconnected," Theo said. Echo responded with a tilt of her head and a smile.

Further conversation was halted by the appearance of an enormous black stallion on the outcropping ahead of them. He raised his magnificent head and let out a piercing scream, punctuated by a series of neighs and grunts.

Echo glanced at Theo to see his reaction. To her surprise, he stood perfectly still, his face calm and pensive. Golden skin, glowing in the light of the rising sun, gave him the appearance of an ancient prince returning from afar. Several more neighs and cries from the noble steed heralded that son home.

After the horse grew quiet, Theo turned to Echo and spoke. "We've been given permission to enter. He told me that all is well and my parents await. They give leave for you to enter as well."

"I didn't quite hear all that."

"That's because you don't speak the language of horses."

"And you do?"

"Of course."

"Of course," Echo repeated. "Who taught you?"

Theo grinned and looked her straight in the eyes. In that moment, Echo knew the nut was about to crack wide open and that her life would never be the same.

"My father," he said. A sparkle danced in his sea green eyes. "He used to be a Centaur."
 
Echo was beyond disbelief at this point. She simply stated, "Well, that explains the horse connection."

Theo tilted his head forward. Echo responded by tapping her forehead on his.

Pulling her into a hug, Theo took a pinch of powder from his jacket pocket and blew it into her face. At once, she grew sleepy and slumped into his arms. She was vaguely aware of being carried out of the tree by strong, gentle arms. After that, she knew nothing more until she awoke in a strange, beautiful world.
 

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork, Red Fury by cleo85 on FanArtReview.com. Thank you for your addition to my work.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:
Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.
Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.
Ends up being Theo, Echo's mysterious childhood rescuer

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer, Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather


Chapter 16
King Phoebus

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:

"Of course," Echo repeated. "Who taught you?"

Theo grinned and looked her straight in the eyes. In that moment, Echo knew the nut was about to crack wide open and that her life would never be the same.

"My father," he said. A sparkle danced in his sea green eyes. "He used to be a Centaur."

Echo was beyond disbelief at this point. She simply stated, "Well, that explains the horse connection."

Theo tilted his head forward. Echo responded by tapping her forehead on his.

Pulling her into a hug, Theo took a pinch of powder from his jacket pocket and blew it into her face. At once, she grew sleepy and slumped into his arms. She was vaguely aware of being carried out of the tree by strong, gentle arms. After that, she knew nothing more until she awoke in a strange, beautiful world.



New Chapter Begins:

The first sensation Echo was aware of when she awakened was the scent of flowers, trees, earth, and even horse, yes, she thought, horse. How did she know that? Her recent memories were steeped in shadow.

The next sensation to arrive was hearing. There was someone moving around the room. She could hear heavy footfalls and the scraping of something, maybe stone on stone. And, she could hear purring.

Her sense of touch became distinct as she felt a soft muzzle rub against her cheek. A rough tongue licked and tickled her face.

"Sunny," she said. She touched a warm body she knew to be gray, but only appeared as a blur. A soft meow welcomed her to her new world.

"Who else is here?" Echo tried to sit up, but felt too weak to do more than wriggle under soft covers. The scent of the blanket was familiar, like Theo's vest she had worn in the woods.

"I'll be right there," a man said. Like the vest, the voice sounded familiar.

Echo heard the tap and scrape of footsteps draw near. She wasn't sure who they belonged to, but for some reason, wasn't afraid. Through the mist, she was able to see the man lean in. He was large with dark hair, and, yes, green eyes that penetrated the fog.

"Let me wash your eyes," he said. "I have medicine on them."

Echo felt a warm rag brush her eyes. The material was scented, something she might never have noticed before her senses became so acute. It was some flower, she thought, but wasn't sure which one, maybe Jasmine.

"Open your eyes," the man said.

When she did, she was overwhelmed by the most striking colors she had ever known. It was as though a dirty lens she had been looking through just disappeared.

Echo blinked a few times and looked at what had to be her doctor. A mere shadow before, he was now visible as a statuesque man with dark curls falling to strong, scarred shoulders. Echo couldn't tell his age as he appeared young and old simultaneously.

The green eyes that had pierced her fog, now regarded her with tenderness.

"You're King Phoebus, aren't you?" she asked, "Theo's father?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he said. He sat on the edge of her bed and reached an arm across to lean on the mattress. "Noticed the resemblance, did you?"

"Hard to miss, but you don't look much like your other son, Georgios."

Phoebus seemed nonplussed. He was either used to direct questions, or was good at hiding annoyance. He answered her without hesitation.

"You're right," he said, "Georgios looks more like his late mother. She and our daughter were killed in a fire long before Theo was born."

Echo's eyebrows raised in surprise. She wasn't expecting an answer without fighting for it.

Phoebus's eyes sparkled in response. "How are you feeling?"

Echo put a hand on her head. "I'm a little woozy. What happened? The last thing I remember is your son blowing something in my face, and me collapsing."

Sunny meowed and nestled against her face. He looked suspiciously at the large doctor, mewing a few more times. Phoebus muttered something in a strange language and the cat settled down.

Phoebus winked at Echo. "Theo warned me about you and your inquisitions."

"I'm sorry. It's my way of whistling in the dark. Ordinarily I'm not this nosy, though I'm not sure Theo would agree."

"That's okay. You've been through a lot. Theo told me about that, too. Can you describe what you're experiencing right now?"

"It's hard to explain. I mean, I'm sore from the wreck I was in."

"How so?"

"Just a general aching, not bad like it was in the forest."

"How about the gashes from the Specters?"

Echo reached down to touch her wounds and found them covered in gauze. "They feel better, too."

"Very good. How weak are you?"

"That seems to be my biggest problem. I can hardly move."

"Oh sorry." Phoebus pulled a weighted pad off her. "That was to keep you warm and still. You don't need it now."

With the pad gone, Echo sat up. "Better, thanks. But, I've got something weird going on. My senses are strangely heightened. What's with that?"

Phoebus leaned back and crossed his arms. "Just a byproduct of a society where there's no pollution. You'll get used to it. My wife did."

"Diantha?"

"Yes. I see your memories are intact."

"Like the one where Theo blew something in my face without my consent."

"My son is young and awkward. I'm sure he didn't mean to take you off guard. He just knew you were facing a long journey through tunnels and that you were in no shape to ride a horse."

"Tunnels?"

"Yeah, there's a pretty complicated maze through the mountains meant to protect Concorde Valley from outsiders. No one's allowed in without being blindfolded."

"Or drugged."

"There was more in that powder than sedative. It contained herbs with healing properties to antidote Specter poison."

"How did Theo get it?"

"I flew it to him with a sparrow when he told me how bad you were."

"A sparrow?"

"Yes, a sacred bird to our people. They're one of our main means of communication since we don't use electronics."

"That's funny, Georgios called me a little sparrow."

"He must be very fond of you."

Echo smiled at the memory of the large man with unusual features. Phoebus smiled too, then grew serious.

"You were very sick when you got here," he said. "Theo knew how dangerous the wounds of Specters can be. He'd watched you closely. As you neared our valley, the poison from it had spread to dangerous levels. He communicated that to a sparrow, who told me. That's when I sent the powder."

"None of which I noticed."

"You weren't aware because you were sick and because you didn't know our ways. There will be much new to you. Try to suspend disbelief and it will help you adjust. It's one reason strangers aren't often welcomed to our land."

"Theo was reluctant to bring me here."

Phoebus just nodded.

"If Theo knew I was so sick, why did he push me hard in the woods? Shouldn't I have been resting so the poison wouldn't spread?"

"For these injuries, the best antidote in the short term is to keep moving and stay distracted. Often, the worst damage of Specter wounds is the despair they spread."

"And in the long term?"

"Get you to me, which is what Theo did. Once you reached the outer gates, he administered the powder. Theo is a wonderful leader and a brilliant artist, but a very poor doctor."

"Where is he now?"

"At our family home. He'll come get you in the morning."

"Why isn't he with me now?"

Phoebus looked at his patient with mild surprise. "Why would he do that? I told you he's not a doctor."

"But he could visit and make sure I'm okay."

Phoebus smiled. "I get this must be a tradition where you come from, but here, if a person is to recover, they have to have time to do so. Entertaining takes the energy you need to heal."

"But what if I get lonely?"

"Talk to your cat. He's very knowledgeable and terribly devoted to you."

Echo took a deep, exasperated breath. "I don't speak cat."

"That's unfortunate. He understands you." Phoebus stood up and walked to a small table nearby.

Echo placed a hand on Sunny and stroked his soft fur. He responded with an utterance she swore was, "I love you." What was it about this place? Was she really learning to speak to animals?

Listening to her cat's purrs and the tap of mortar and pestle, Echo grew drowsy, but couldn't resist another question.

"Did you really used to be 
a Centaur?"

She heard a soft chuckle. "I'd hate to be interviewed by you when you're not sick."

"Is that a yes?"

"Is asking questions how you relax?"

"Not at all, but getting answers is."

Phoebus nodded and turned around. He knelt beside the bed with a cream he'd been mixing, and spread it on her scratches and wounds. They tingled, but didn't burn.

"If answers will help you rest, I'll assist you. To start with, I am Phoebus, King of Concorde Valley, son to Poseidon, god of the sea. I once made my Uncle Zeus angry so he turned me into a Centaur. I lived that way for more years than I care to share. It wasn't a terrible existence, but it wasn't the life I was born for. In the end, love set me free."

"That's the short version?"

"Very."

"And Georgios?"

"His mother was a Centaur, a true one, who was never my mental or physical equal. When Georgios was born more human than horse, he hung around me most of the time. I taught him to ride a horse so he could be like the rest of us.

"Later, we had a daughter. She was a Centaur. Even though she was more intelligent than her mother, there was something wild about her that never quite tamed. Still, I loved her with all my heart.

"When she was little, the house we lived in was burned to the ground. My wife and child were unable to escape."

Echo's eyes fluttered open. "I lost my family in a fire, too."

"So I heard."

Echo yawned and stretched. The wounds on her body barely protested. Turning on her right side, she looked Phoebus directly in his eyes. "If I was so sick, why didn't you come to me rather than make me travel through trees to get here?"

Phoebus placed a hand on her arm. "No outsider ever comes straight here. They must be invited, and they must fight their way in."

"Like a journey?"

"Like a mission."

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork, on Bing.com

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:
Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.
Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.
Ends up being Theo, Echo's mysterious childhood rescuer

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer, Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather


Chapter 17
New Beginnings

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:
 
"If answers will help you rest, I'll assist you. To start with, I am Phoebus, King of Concorde Valley, son to Poseidon, god of the sea. I once made my Uncle Zeus angry so he turned me into a Centaur. I lived that way for more years than I care to share. It wasn't a terrible existence, but it wasn't the life I was born for. In the end, love set me free."

"That's the short version?"

"Very."

"And Georgios?"

"His mother was a Centaur, a true one, who was never my mental or physical equal. When Georgios was born more human than horse, he hung around me most of the time. I taught him to ride a horse so he could be like the rest of us.

"Later, we had a daughter. She was a Centaur. Even though she was more intelligent than her mother, there was something wild about her that never quite tamed. Still, I loved her with all my heart.

"When she was little, the house we lived in was burned to the ground. My wife and child were unable to escape."

Echo's eyes fluttered open. "I lost my family in a fire, too."

"So I heard."

Echo yawned and stretched. The wounds on her body barely protested. Turning on her right side, she looked Phoebus directly in his eyes. "If I was so sick, why didn't you come to me rather than make me travel through trees to get here?"

Phoebus placed a hand on her arm. "No outsider ever comes straight here. They must be invited, and they must fight their way in."

"Like a journey?"

"Like a mission."
 
Beginning of new chapter:
 
Echo slumbered through the night, unencumbered by any night terrors or dreams. She was vaguely aware of occasional movement and application of cream.

When morning dawned, she was urged awake by her doctor.

"How's the patient this morning?" Phoebus asked. He offered a hand to sit up.

Echo rubbed her eyes and looked around, as though just aware of where she was. The room was simply furnished with a few beds, one of which she occupied. She saw several IV poles in a corner, currently unused. There were cabinets beside each bed Echo assumed contained medical supplies. It looked a bit like a normal hospital ward, but absent were any electronic, beeping machines.

She glanced at Phoebus, King Of Concorde Valley, Son of Poseidon, father of her beloved Theo, and, currently, her physician. He was dressed simply in a white shirt and dark slacks. Covering his shirt was an open lab coat that looked the worse for wear. Emerald eyes were tired, and black curls hung limply. He looked to have been awake for some time.

"I'm better, thank you," she replied. "Am I your only patient?"

"At the moment, yes. On the whole, we're pretty healthy people. Just wait until the Summer Games, though. This place will fill to overflowing."

"There are only 4 beds."

Phoebus pointed with his eyes to a door in the back.

"Oh, sorry. More there, I guess."

Phoebus nodded. "Are you ready to see Theo?"

"I'd love to. Does this mean I'm well?"

"It means you can finish healing on your own," Phoebus said. "My son is waiting outside. I've laid out some clean clothes on the bedside table. When you're dressed, you can join him. Theo will take over from there. I have some cream you can take with you. It's on the table beside the clothes."

"Thank you," Echo said, "and I mean for everything. I think I feel better now than I did before the Spectre attack. What do I owe you?"

Phoebus cocked his head as though thinking about his response. He sighed deeply. "I'll take a gray cat for payment."

"What?"

"Just kidding. Sunny's outside with Theo, and you don't owe me a thing. We're just glad to get you here in one piece. I'll see all of you later. I have a few things to wrap up before I go home."

Echo had a feeling she was going to like Theo's dad, god or no god.

***************

"Look at you," Theo said. He watched as Echo walked out of the hospital. She was dressed as one of his people, wearing a simple soft green tunic made of flax flower and cotton with warm leggings beneath. Crowning her strawberry blonde hair was a garland of freshly woven winter flowers. That part he was responsible for. He had taken great care to make the wreath while waiting.

"Do you approve?" Echo attempted a pirouette, but was only able to pull off a bit of a stumble.

"Of your clothing or dance?" he asked back.

Echo flashed him a grin. "I guess both."

Theo rose from the bench he had been sitting on and took her hands. "I approve of all, especially the look of health on your face."

"Your father's a good doctor."

"I told you he was. He's had a lot of years to practice." Both laughed.

"How old is he?"

"I have no idea," Theo answered. "I've never asked, and he's never offered."

"How old are you?"

"I'm what I appear to be, 28, and you're 25."

"You know, the age difference doesn't seem that great now. Back when we first met, you seemed so old."

"I'm still older than you, and don't forget it. Hey, do you feel up for a bit of a ride?"

"In a car?"

"You know we don't have any here."

"On a horse?" Echo's voice squeaked. "Until I sat on the horse with your brother, I'd never been on one in my life. Can't we just do the tree walking thing? I'm getting pretty good at it."

"I noticed, but there are some things I would like for you to experience up close," he explained. "Besides, horses are a huge part of our culture."

"As big as tree walking?"

"Bigger. Remember what I told you about my father once being a Centaur."

"Yeah. He and I talked about it, but it still seems a bit far-fetched."

"Lots will seem that way here."

"Yeah, your father suggested I suspend disbelief, just like you did when we first got started on this journey."

"It helps."

"I suppose I could ride a horse if you could find an old broken down nag that would slowly tiptoe around with me on her back. I'm just really scared of falling off. I knew this little boy in Dalton once who got his head busted open when he fell off one."

"All the horses in Concorde Valley are careful," Theo explained with a bemused look in his eyes. "Few are broken down and none are slow, but they won't let you fall off and neither will I. We can ride double if it makes you feel better and I'll hold onto you."

"I would like that," Echo agreed. "Where are the stables?"

"We have very few in Concorde Valley. Most of our horses roam free," he replied. "My stallion is one of those. I'll call for him and we can wait until he gets here."

"Just like that? You call and he comes?"

"Yep, that's how we do it."

Echo raised her eyebrows as though to say, "prove it".

Theo nodded and cupped his hands over his mouth. He let out a piercing scream that seemed somewhere between a cry of pain and a yodel. He repeated the sound several times, and then paused to listen. Somewhere in the distance was an answering cry.

Echo's eyes flashed a quick surprise. "You taught him that?"

"Not at all, his mother did. The call is in horse language."

"Excellent. You'll have to teach it to me." She cut her eyes over to Theo who returned a grin. They both knew that would take a lifetime to do.

"I know you realize all of this is strange to me," Echo said. She looked in Theo's turbulent eyes. "I'm okay with that by now. I know the benefits far outweigh the weirdness, and I appreciate the patience you and your father have shown me. I want you to know I'm sorry for having acted ungrateful. I haven't even thanked you for saving my life back in Taylorville, let alone for leading me to safety through the forest."

"There's no need to thank me," Theo replied. He returned her gaze, causing Echo's heart to skip a beat. She had forgotten the vastness of those depths. "I'll always watch over you, or for as long as you'll let me."

There was that forever statement again, dropped so easily, but carrying such meaning. It didn't make her feel uncomfortable, but it did give her pause for reflection. Was forever what she had dreamed about since she had met an 8-year-old child in the woods when she was alone and afraid? Is it what consumed her now, or mere infatuation born of circumstance?

Breaking through her reverie was the appearance of a great sorrel stallion who pranced up to Theo and arched a noble neck towards his master. The light of the early morning sun lit up his cinnamon coat like tiny shimmering diamonds. Thick muscles rippled as he walked, giving him the appearance of a great, chestnut battle tank.

Theo stroked the refulgent face and spoke softly in a language that sounded as old as time itself. The horse nickered back and bobbed his head.

Echo watched in fascination. Not only was this display so remote from anything she had ever observed, but she was suddenly aware of a change in Theo's countenance.

No longer did he appear the bumbling police rookie she'd met at her office party, but a royal prince from some by-gone era.

He held his head high and pulled back shoulders that accentuated both height and powerful physique. His body moved almost like a flowing stream.

Even his face appeared changed. What before had seemed passive, was now commanding and learned. It must have been hard for him to pretend to be something he wasn't while in Taylorville.

Theo looked over at her, a beautiful smile illuminating his face. His eyes sparkled with life. He tilted his head a little to the side like he was studying her, too. "You okay?"

Echo nodded. "Just a little bewildered."

"You may find this hard to believe, but I felt the same way at first in your world. You're not the only one who has found themselves out of their element."

"I thought about that a moment ago. Here, you're a prince. There, you were just like all the rest of us."

"Worse. I didn't even understand your culture, and I had to learn as I went. I had no coaches except what animals I could get to talk to me, and they weren't too forthcoming. It seems they aren't used to talking to humans. I've never been hissed and growled at more in my life."

Echo couldn't resist a chuckle. She imagined him sitting and trying to talk to spoiled housecats and chubby dogs, only to have them treat him like he was crazy.

"Speaking of animals, what about Sunny?" Echo asked. "Your father said he was out here with you."

By means of reply, Theo held up the backpack Sunny had traveled in earlier. From the top zippered pouch, a gray head poked out and looked her straight in the eye. He meowed pointedly and pawed the air with his right foot. Turning, he looked at Theo as though waiting for him to translate.

Echo cocked an eye at Theo, who cleared his throat. "Uh, he says he'll ride in the backpack with you until you get to my house."

"Sunny isn't afraid to talk to you?"

"Not at all. We've become good friends."

Echo raised her eyebrows. "How many animal languages do you speak?"

"Not that many, really, not like my little sister, Hannah, but, aside from horse, I can make my way around dog and cat talk quite well. Or at least I can when they'll speak to me. Anyway, what do you think of my horse?"

"Beyond the fact his coat is the same color as my hair, he's the most gorgeous beast I've ever seen in my life," she said, "but where's his saddle and bridle?"

"We don't need any with our horses. We use the natural way to ride, gently guiding with words and pressure from our knees and hands."

"Cool, what else can you tell me about him?" In spite of her trepidation about horses, Echo couldn't help but stroke the beautiful animal.

"He's the son of my father's horse, Eternal, and my mother's mare, Champion." Theo continued to stroke the sorrel's neck as well. "They are my father's two most prized horses in his considerable herd. He was their firstborn foal, just like I am my parent's firstborn child. That's why they gave him to me."

"Wow, that's too cool. What's his name?"

"Magnificent," Theo replied, "but I call him Nifty. My father doesn't like me shortening the name. He thinks it's disrespectful, but I think it makes us cozier."

"Well, I like the name and the horse," Echo stated.


Theo smiled approval, then leapt onto the horse's back in one swift, fluid movement. In the next movement, he pulled Echo along with Sunny inside his backpack.

"And what about the horse's owner?" Theo asked. "What are your thoughts about him?"

Echo paused to think. "I'm glad to see you again, for sure, but I'm also still confused."

Theo nodded and placed his arms around her as he nudged Nifty forward with his knees.

"If it makes you feel any better, my life is not usually this bizarre, in spite of the things I have yet to tell you. But you aren't still scared of me are you?"

"Not any more," Echo replied. "Although I have to admit you had me going when I thought you were the serial killer back in Taylorville."

"Yeah, that was a little intense for all of us. Please know, no matter what you learn about me or my weird family, you'll never have to fear me. You have my undying promise."

Theo looked so concerned, Echo couldn't help but feel for him. "Okay, I get it."

Echo grew uncharacteristically quiet as the horse began to take them down a wooded path. She couldn't help but wonder about Theo's shrouded warning. What was she going to learn he was concerned would frighten her, and, more importantly, was it going to? She decided to be as open minded as she could when she met the rest of his family. After all, if they had produced Theo, they couldn't be too bad, could they?

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick Marquette for the artwork. The cat in the picture is a Russian Blue, which is the breed of Echo's cat, Sunny.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:
Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.
Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.
Ends up being Theo, Echo's mysterious childhood rescuer

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer, Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather


Chapter 18
Concorde Valley

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of Last Chapter:

Echo grew uncharacteristically quiet as the horse took them down a wooded path. She couldn't help but wonder about Theo's shrouded warning. What was she going to learn he was concerned would frighten her, and, more importantly, was it going to? She decided to be as open minded as she could when she met the rest of his family. After all, if they had produced Theo, they couldn't be too bad, could they?

New Chapter:

Echo tried not to think about anything confusing or stressful as she let the hypnotic footfalls of the great stallion wash over her. She suspended fear of horses for the beauty of the experience. It was a technique learned in college while studying for exams and trying to get over the tragic fire that had taken her parents' lives.

As she rested against Theo, she was surprised to feel palpable energy flowing out of his body and enveloping her like a blanket. She had a similar experience when she put on his sweater in the woods outside Concorde Valley.

Subconsciously, she leaned into his warmth. He responded by giving her a tender squeeze. How could she know how much he relished this moment?

When it passed, Echo sat up as though shaking herself out of a dream. She absorbed the wonder of the woods surrounding them. After her night flight through miles of dense forest, she didn't know if she would ever want to see trees again. But here she was soaking in the atmosphere of a world so similar to her own that she felt at ease, yet different enough to excite her. Another mystery of Concorde Valley?

Great oak and evergreen sentinels loomed above, stimulating imagination. Were these behemoths guardians to this secret valley, or were they participants in the mystery of a place so remote no one but horses and the invited could visit?

She felt comfort from them and from the man who held her in his arms. Suddenly, she wasn't full of questions to ask, just an overwhelming sense of wonder; wonder that heals the body and soul.

"Where are we?" she asked.

"In the upper level of Concorde valley," Theo said. "From this area, we get most of the lumber and some of the metals we use in the city. There are some homes here, but most people live in the third level down, which is the residential district. It's all like one big spiral with plateaus at various points."

Echo raised her eyebrows. "You have mines here? I thought it was all natural and no pollution."

"We have a few, but mostly we trade for metals from the next village, called Karack. We're primarily agricultural with a few associated businesses."

"I see."

Theo nudged Nifty forward with his knees. He began a sort of slow descent down a well-worn path.

"It's all very organized," Theo explained. "Each level above, supports the one beneath. Take our second level, which harbors our factories. It is found directly above the residential area so that it's close enough to be easily accessible to workers, but situated to allow fumes produced to be carried out of the valley by air currents.

"The housing area is right above the fields and pastures for easy access to farming. The business district is found at the bottom. There are gardens interspersed between each level for aesthetics and air cleansing."

"Wow, someone spent a lot of time planning it out."

"Yes, they did," Theo said. "And we both know who that was."

"Your father."

"Yes, my father, long ago."

Echo nodded, and reached out to stroke Nifty's neck. "You know, this guy seems like a nice fellow. He almost makes me less scared of his kind."

Theo chuckled and gave her a tap on the back of her head with his forehead, the virtual kiss. Echo was delighted at how innocent the gesture was, yet how infinitely satisfying.

For a moment or two longer, the pair traveled in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts, each watching the ground turn from loamy forest undergrowth to stone.

Ending the silence, they stopped on a crest overlooking the valley below. From this vantage point, Echo could see the tiers Theo had described. It looked like a storybook etching of a mythical village.

The levels were situated on plateaus connected by paths like the one they just traveled. Each was clearly defined and very characteristic for the functions Theo had described, the most distinctive sporting a colorful row of cottages.

"Where are the factories?" Echo asked. She looked around for the tell-tale signs of billowing smoke and acrid air.

Theo pointed to several adobe structures scattered around the tier directly beneath, and barely visible among flowering gardens. There was activity, people scurrying around pushing carts, animals wandering in and out with burdens on their able backs, and moving water wheels manned by men and women.

"Where's the smoke you were talking about?"

"We don't produce much. Our extractions are done without burning many hydrocarbons."

"What do you use for energy?"

"Mostly water and wind, all of which we have in abundance."

The next level down from the housing district, and forming the floor of the valley, was the businesses. They, like the rest of the buildings in the valley, were richly colored. The streets were teeming with horse drawn wagons and carriages. Even from where she sat above the valley, she could tell the city was clean and skillfully tended, almost as though it was a well kept garden itself.

"I don't know what to say." Echo sighed as her eyes continued to peruse the landscape. "This is beyond words, even for me. Is this really where you grew up?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. "At least when I wasn't in the woods looking out for a special friend."

"Why did you ever leave to come to my world?"

"At first my mission required me to leave," Theo explained, "and then later because you needed me."

Echo gasped, her head snapped around her eyes caught his. "And not just when you rescued me from the Specters. I knew it. You came off and on ever since the fire, didn't you?"

Theo returned her gaze, but didn't answer.

"I used to go to the edge of the forest when I was troubled and just talk to you. I would sit there for hours pretending you could hear. You were there, weren't you?"

Theo looked away. "To wander in your world is forbidden without express permission."

"But you did it. I know you did, and not just the one time when I was stood up for the dance. You were there each time."

When Theo looked back, there was a hint of tears in his eyes, turning emerald eyes to bright green. "Probably not every time."

"Thank you," Echo said, and then changed the subject. "Which one of those houses down there belongs to your family?"

"They don't live in the residential section," he answered. "Their home is here in the wooded zone. My father lived in a small cottage before he met my mother. After they married and started having kids, he built a huge addition. They have the most magnificent garden you can imagine behind it."

"Oh, I would love to see it, do you mind?"

"Of course not, my parents would be disappointed if I didn't take you on a tour. In fact, my mother says she fell in love with my father in that very garden."

"How romantic."

"Yes, it's a story they are most eager to tell. I'm sure you'll hear it several times."

"Stories are my line of business."

Theo laughed. "Then you'll love my family."

"Are you going to take me to their house now?" Echo asked.

"I think that's the best idea," he replied. "My family is dying to meet you, and you need better rest than what you had at the hospital. I'm sure you could use something to eat, too."

Theo urged Nifty back around and headed down a different path.

"This place is so unusual," Echo said, "There are some trees here I recognize, and others I don't."

"That's because the valley is isolated from the rest of the world. There will be many things you see here in the valley that you won't see anywhere else."

"Wow, it's like waking up in a different world."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Theo said.

"I get it now, so how far is it to your house?"

"My own isn't far from here, but I'm taking you to my parents'."

"Oh, you moved out?"

"I felt it was time, so I built a house a few years back. I've even started a garden with clippings from my father's. It has quite a ways to go before it rivals his, but at least I'm starting."

"What do you do for a living here?"

"I work part time as a soldier in my father's guard, but I also have a shop in the business district where I'm an artist."

"What kind of artwork do you do?"

"Oil paintings, mostly, although I also dabble in sculptures and carvings."

"What about toys? Do you ever make them like you did for me when I was little?"

"Occasionally," he replied, "but mostly for my siblings and niece."

"How many kids are there in your family?"

"Seven in all. My brother, Georgios, is the eldest by many years and lives on his own not too far from my house.

"I'm the oldest of my mother and father. Next in line is my sister, Rebecca. I told you about her when we first met. She's your age. Then there's Adam, who's twenty, Phillip seventeen, Helen ten, and then there's the baby, Hannah, who speaks a plethora of animal languages. She's seven going on 30."

Theo's eyes glowed with pride as he talked about his family. It wasn't that such an attitude made Echo jealous, but it did make her long for the sense of connection she saw in him. Her grandparents tried to be everything to her after her parent's tragic death, but it wasn't the same as what she saw in Theo's face.

"I remember you mentioning her," Echo said. "She sounds adorable, and I'm sure you enjoy them all."

"I do, but I'll gladly share them. Just don't blame me if they drive you crazy."

"Why would they?"

"They make it hard to find solitude."

"Solitude is overrated!"

"Hold that thought, because as soon as we round this curve, we'll be there."

"Oh, no," Echo unconsciously leaned against Theo again for support, "I'm nervous all of a sudden."

"Don't be, remember what I said, my family is friendly."

"Yeah, but they're all royalty."

"So's my father who was your physician, and, I might remind you, you're leaning against the Crowned Prince."

Echo turned around and looked him in the eyes. In them she saw ages of history and tenderness. She saw a young boy who had rescued an abandoned girl in the forest, a rookie cop who protected her from Specters, an agile guide who walked her through trees, and, mostly, she saw her Theo.

"Come, my dear. Time to face the music."

Echo gulped as Theo lifted her off the great stallian and set her on wobbly feet. She steadied herself, lifted her chin and headed down a garden path. She was ready.

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick Marquette for the artwork. The horse in the picture depicts Nifty, Theo's sorrel stallion.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:
Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.
Her main assignment is to look into a serial killer that has struck in their small town in Georgia, just out of Atlanta.
A side assignment is to cover the opening of a fancy hardware store in Taylorville, Georgia.
Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest.

Claude Baker: Editor of the newspaper, Taylorville Sun. Younger brother of Frankie, one of the editors.

Brian Baker: Claude's adult son who works at the newspaper as a typesetter and photographer

Frankie Lawrence: Claude's older sister and co-owner of the newspaper

Sara Beth: Works at the newspaper as a columnist. She specializes in fashion and gossip and is Echo's nemesis.

Bessie Johnson: 83-year-old columnist that works for the Sun and gathers ads from local venders. She has knowledge of the attack on the local woman killed by the serial killer.

Sherry Roe: A local victim of the serial killer Echo has been writing a series on.

Officer Tony Bradly: Rookie officer for the Taylorville Police Department. He's the one who found Sherry Roe's body after the murder. Also, the man Bessie feels is the killer.
Ends up being Theo, Echo's mysterious childhood rescuer

Junior: Frankie's neighbor who comes by the office Christmas party. Found to be a Specter, or minion of the enemy.

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Theo's Captains, and Echo's rescuer, Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather


Chapter 19
A New Life Begins

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last Chapter:

"Yeah, but they're all royalty."

"So's my father who was your physician, and, I might remind you, you're leaning against the Crowned Prince."

Echo turned around and looked him in the eyes. In them she saw ages of history and tenderness. She saw a young boy who had rescued an abandoned girl in the forest, a rookie cop who protected her from Specters, an agile guide who walked her through trees, and, mostly, she saw her Theo.

"Come, my dear. Time to face the music."

Echo gulped as Theo lifted her off the great stallian and set her on wobbly feet. She steadied herself and lifted her chin. She was ready.

New Chapter Begins:

Echo's first impression of Theo's childhood home was one of complete wonder. As they emerged into the clearing where the house stood, she was delighted by the change of fragrance in the air. What had previously been a woodsy scent, now carried the delicate aroma of winter flowers. 
Not a gardener, she wasn't able to distinguish individual flowers but did recognise quality.

The next detail she noticed was the enormous woodland mansion before her. It was not just tall, with its towering three stories, but also sprawling. Echo wasn't good at gauging sizes but guessed it to be about a city block in dimension.

The building wasn't constructed in the manner of traditional castles, something she more-or-less expected, but was ornate with a hint of practicality.

Appearing at the edge of the massive house was an enticing flower garden, providing the source of the unique aroma. A cobbled path led from where they stood to about half-way through the yard. There it split into two branches, one leading to the front door and the other to the flowers.

Echo pictured the path intertwining the garden itself. She longed to feel the cobblestones beneath her feet and to throw herself into the cornucopia of blossoms she imagined to be nestled within.

Theo watched Echo's face as her gaze lingered on the garden access. "It's remarkable, isn't it?"

Echo took a deep, healing breath. Her voice, when she could find it, came out as a whisper. "It's amazing and seems to beckon to me."

"It has the same effect on me, no matter how many times I see it. Maybe, later, we can answer that call together."
 
"I'd love that."

Theo took her hand and led her to the front door. "Are you ready?"

Echo squeezed his hand in response.

Giving her a reassuring nod, Theo turned the knob. As the wooden door swung outward, a small girl bolted through and jumped into his arms.

"Theo! You're back. Mommy said you were coming, but I wouldn't believe it until I saw you myself."

"This is Hannah," Theo said. He pivoted with his youngest sister to face Echo. "She's the resident skeptic of the house."

"I am not," she said defiantly, "I just don't believe everything people say."

Theo gave Echo a wink as he placed his sister's feet on the hardwood floor. "Hannah, this is Echo."

"Hi, Echo, are you the lady Theo is always talking about?"

"Hannah!" Theo covered his face with his hand.

"Well, I only wanted to know," she said.

"I can't tell you if I'm the one he's been talking about," Echo said, "but I'll bet he'll talk about me now. I've put him through quite a lot over the last few days."

"Well, I like you," Hannah said, "and if you want, I'll show you my rabbits."

"You have rabbits?" Echo asked. She leaned down to make eye contact with Hannah.

"Yes, Ma'am, twelve."

"At least," Theo said.

Hannah put her hands on her hips and scrunched her face into a grimace. "Okay, there are a few more, but my parents will only let me keep my favorite twelve in the house."

"And none in the garden," a woman's voice said.

Echo looked up to see a woman approaching from the foyer and wiping her hands on a pink dish towel. In a habitual way, she slung the towel across her right shoulder.

"Hi, my name is Diantha, Theo and Hannah's mother."

Diantha was a little taller than Echo, with thick auburn hair falling freely about her shoulders and back. She had a striking face with hazel eyes and a warm friendly smile that was reminiscent of Theo's. 

There was a regal air about the Queen of Concorde Valley, but she was dressed in a simple blue bibbed jumper. Stitched on the front was a patch with the image of a woman on the back of a rearing white horse. Beneath she wore a plain white blouse.

Echo held her hand out to shake. "Nice to meet you."

Diantha brushed aside the proffered hand and embraced Echo in a hug.

"I'll tell you the same thing I was told when I first got here," she said. "Concorde Valley women don't shake hands, they hug."

"And so do sisters," Hannah said. She jumped back in Theo's arms and gave him a huge squeeze.

"This may sound cliche," Echo said, "but you don't look old enough to have a child Theo's age, let alone all the other children he mentioned. You seem to be about my age."

"I hold my age well," Diantha said dismissively. She smiled, then turned toward Theo. 
 
Echo shrugged. It was, apparently, another subject they weren't ready to discuss.

"Where's Father?" Theo asked. He sat Hannah back down and ruffled her hair.

"He's waiting in the parlor, and your other brothers and sisters are in the game room," she said. "We didn't want to make Echo feel bombarded as soon as she walked through the door."

"I see that plan fell through." Theo made a face at his youngest sister, which got him kicked in the shin.

"Ouch, and I was just going to ask a huge favor of you."

"What?" Hannah's face lit up in anticipation.

"This." Theo took Sunny's backpack off Echo's shoulder and handed it to her.

"There's a very bored kitty in here named Sunny, and he needs a place to run and play. Would you and your friends please make him feel welcome?"

"Oh, we'd love to," Hannah said. She resisted the urge to squeal when she saw Sunny peak out of the bag. If anyone was sensitive to animals' needs, it was Hannah. "Do you mind, Echo?"

"No, I'd be happy if you'd let him meet your rabbits."

A beautiful smile brightened Hanna's cherubic face as she lifted the large cat out of the backpack. One moment she had been an energetic, bouncing child, now she was calm and in control. Echo smiled at the transformation.
 
Hannah whispered something in Sunny's ear, then hugged him to her chest. Sunny purred and put his legs around her small neck the way he often did Echo's. With a backwards glance, Sunny allowed himself to leave with his new friend. Wise beyond his species, Sunny seemed to understand Echo needed time with the humans.

"Now that takes care of two of our prominent issues," Theo said. "Mother, we're all yours."

"Good, please come with me to the parlor." Diantha motioned for them to follow with a dramatic wave of her hand.

As they walked, Echo was surprised to find the hall filled with row after row of bay windows. The natural light they provided illuminated the space with a bright, soul lifting glowEach room leading off from the main hall seemed to be full of the same picture windows, adding their rays to the mix.

"How unrestricting," Echo said.

"The windows?" Diantha asked, looking back at Echo.

"Yes, they make me feel like I'm outside, but warm and safe in here at the same time. Who was your architect?"

"Just my husband and myself," Diantha replied. "We love the outdoors, and wanted to give our home the feel of being part of nature."

"Well, you certainly achieved it."

Diantha smiled, then stopped by an ornately carved door. Carefully she swung it inward. "Here we are."

Echo took a tentative step into a modestly decorated room. There was a set of matching sofa, loveseat and chairs taking up much of the space. They were upholstered with expensive fabric, but looked lived on, like belonging to a welcoming family. In an enormous fireplace, burned a roaring fire. Echo felt at ease. Her heart, which had been beating as fast as one of Hannah's rabbits, returned to normal.

Phoebus stood up from a chair as she entered. "Do come in and sit down."

"I thought you were still at the hospital," Echo said.

"No, I said I had some things to take care of, and those happened to be here at the house."

"How did you beat us here?"

"I'm guessing Theo took you on the long route."

"I did," Theo said. He walked over and embraced his father.

"Well, I'm glad to see you again," Echo said.

"And under better circumstances," Phoebus added. "Last we met, I was your doctor. Now I speak to you as Theo's father. I want you to feel most welcome in this home. Please have a seat."
 
Once they had all found a spot, Phoebus went on. "For many years our son has been a part of your world. First when you were a child and he rescued you, then later when he would slip into the woods to keep an eye on you."

"You knew about that?" Echo and Theo asked at the same time.

"My son, you should know by now nothing much gets by me. Echo, we feel you're a part of our family. In what capacity, only time and circumstances will determine. I'm sorry for what you had to go through to get here, but am pleased beyond words you got here in one piece."
 
Echo bobbed her head in agreement to what he said, and in deference to his position. "Thank you for the welcome and the protection, though I'm sure I don't know the half of what that involved. I appreciate your roles of doctor and patriarch, but now I want to address the king."
 
Phoebus leaned forward, a slight nod of his head acknowledging her statement. "How can I help you?"
 
"How did our worlds collide?"

"In reality, there is only one world, one my race used to have a greater influence over, but our power has since faded."

"Tell that to the Specters," Echo said.

Phoebus looked directly into Echo's eyes. "They shouldn't have been there. It is a serious breach of protocol I'll have to report to the Council."

Echo's eyebrows raised. "The Council?"

"The Twelve," Phoebus said. "They are our governing body."

"As in the 12 gods on Mount Olympus?"

"The same, but not nearly as glamorous as myth might portray them."

As Phoebus settled back to give a long narrative on the coming and goings of the gods, Diantha cleared her throat and lay a hand on her husband's arm.
 
"Dear, I think the kids need some time alone. Echo, you mustn't try to take it all in at once. I had to have time to adjust, myself, when I came here. Why don't you and Theo take a walk in the garden and talk? That's where Phoebus and I had our first heart to heart chat. I'll finish making lunch, and when it's done, I'll call you in to eat."

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick Marquette for the artwork. The bunny in the picture represents Hannah's, Theo's baby sister's, favorite animal, the rabbit.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.


Chapter 20
The Garden of Phoebus

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:
 
As Phoebus settled back to give a long narrative on the coming and goings of the gods, Diantha cleared her throat and lay a hand on her husband's arm.
 
"Dear, I think the kids need some time alone. Echo, you mustn't try to take it all in at once. I had to have time to adjust, myself, when I came here. Why don't you and Theo take a walk in the garden and talk? That's where Phoebus and I had our first heart to heart chat. I'll finish making lunch, and when it's done, I'll call you in to eat."
 
The New Chapter begins:
 
"My dear, give me your hands and close your eyes. We're about to enter into another dimension."

Echo raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "You're just being figurative, right?"

Theo flashed a quick smile. "Yes, relax. It's just a garden, but it will seem other-worldly."

Echo couldn't help but chuckle, though it came out more as a snort. She hadn't seen anything in days that wasn't other-worldly. Still, she didn't voice her opinion openly, opting instead to close her eyes and reach for Theo's hands.

He took them and walked backwards, leading Echo with the ease and skill of a master acrobat. Just as he stopped, he said, "We're here, b
ut, before you open your eyes, describe what you smell."

Echo allowed herself a moment to absorb the bouquet of aromas before responding. "To me it seems a wonderland of sensations."

Theo squeezed her hands. "That's good for a start, Investigative Reporter, but you can do better."

"Fine." Echo inhaled, letting the fragrance permeate her mouth and nose. Slowly she let it out.

"I'm experiencing the ultimate in olfactory luxury. There's an explosion of exquisite sensations beginning at my nose, traveling through my senses and ending with a tingling in my fingertips and toes. Can I open my eyes now?"

"Not yet," Theo said. "That sounded a bit stuffy. Try again, but this time tell me what you smell, specifically."

Echo sighed. She took another deep breath and relaxed into the moment.

"The first thing I can identify," she said, "is something fruity, almost like there's a tree close-by with ripe fruit on its branches just waiting to be picked, but that makes no sense. It's winter-time."

Theo didn't respond to her last statement, but said, instead, "Go a step further. Tell me what kind of fruit."

Echo concentrated harder, letting her memories join her senses. "Hmmm, I'm guessing peach or apricot?"

"Very good," Theo said. "It's Concorde Valley Peach. This variety is unique to our area, which I'm sure doesn't surprise you."

"Right now, nothing does. Is there really fruit on the branches?"

"No, it just carries the scent all year round. If you think it smells good now, just wait until Spring. Now, what else do you smell?

"Wow, this is hard. I'm really no expert on gardens. I do smell something resembling either gardenia or magnolia, though. I never can tell the difference."

"You're close," Theo said. He dropped her hands. "It's actually winter jasmine, but they do have similar aromas. You've done great for an amateur. Go ahead and open your eyes. I've teased you long enough."

Echo took another deep breath, not to analyze the air this time, but out of excited anticipation, and then she opened her eyes.

"Oh, my gosh!" she exclaimed. She put her hands to her mouth and took in the world around her.

Everywhere she could see, plants grew in a rainbow of colors and a myriad of forms. Some were vine-like and crept up arching trellises that bent over and shielded the snaking cobbled path.

Other plants grew straight from the ground, leafy appendages reaching toward the heavens. These fragrant sentinels of the garden swayed with each stir of air, bowing one moment and shaking arms high the next.

Lining the lanes were a variety of colorful blossoms, some large and spectacular, others so tiny you had to examine closely to see them.

In clusters around the space, sprawled several varieties of bushes shielding the ground from winter's frigid blasts. Intermingled, were low growing plants filling in any empty space that might try to occasionally peep through.

"There are so many flowers," Echo was finally able to say. "How could there be this time of year?" 

"There are many plants that flower in the winter," he explained. "You just have to know which ones, and where to plant them. It takes a lot of time and energy to keep up a garden like this."

"I'm sure it does. How many of these plants originate outside the valley?"

"More than you would think. My father has gathered samples from all over the world."

"It's exquisite. How long did it take him to get the garden like this?"

"As you can guess, longer than any of us can imagine, but he says it's not complete. No garden ever really is. Would you like to see more?"

"Of course. This is very healing."

"Yes, and I think we could both use a healthy dose of that."

Echo paused for a moment and cocked an eye at the man standing beside her.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I've been so focused on my own injuries, I forgot you've just been through a battle, too. Are you okay?"

Theo took Echo's hand as comfortably as if he had been doing it for years. He gave it a quick squeeze.
 
"I'm fine. My father treated me while you slept. I'm more used to war wounds."

"How can it be that you've ever known pain? You said you're part of your father's army. In this peaceful valley, what do your people know of war?"

"Peace never comes without sacrifice," Theo said, "not even in Concorde Valley. Mankind's day of a perfect garden passed long ago."

"You mean the Garden of Eden?"

"I do. Hey, why don't we sit on a bench? I have a feeling this conversation is going to take a while."

Echo sank into the depths of Theo's green eyes. For once, she saw a man inside with more responsibilities than just being her personal hero. She saw the son of a warrior king. Nodding, she let him guide her to a concrete bench and sat down.
 
He looked her in the eyes again, this time with an aura of frankness. He simply said, "Ask me."

After a moment of breathing deeply, she gave her mind a chance to catch up with her words and spoke.

"There is much I remember of the stories I've heard about the Greek gods," she said. "They're probably ancient history to you and your family. I also realize I've walked into a living tale of people the world accounts as mythological."
 
Theo nodded. "You're doing good, please go on."
 
"You've told me you come from a race of immortals the world calls gods, but you've chosen to call guardians." Echo paused for response.
 
"Yes, semi-immortals, anyway. We do age and we can be killed under certain circumstances, but point made. What else?"
 
Echo decided to lay it all on the line. "Let's face it, Anthos, son of Phoebus, son of Poseidon, your people were once worshiped in ancient Greece and Rome as real deities."

Theo nodded and motioned for her to continue.

"There were wars fought over these beliefs, and the Jewish people were persecuted for their faith. Jesus, Himself, was put to death by the Romans, people who believed in your family members."
 
Theo's eyes grew grim, but he still nodded for her to continue.
 
"So, how do you account for the Christmas decorations in your home and the crosses on your walls?"

Theo's eyes wandered around the garden as though he was searching for the right words. Echo had noticed that he seldom spoke without thought, unlike her, who was the blurting before thinking type. Finally, he returned his gaze.

"Many wars have been fought in the name of God or gods, and most, if not all, have nothing to do with religious convictions."

"Why do they fight, then?"

"There are many reasons. For some, it comes from innate evil, a perverse desire to kill and conquer. For others, it's a desire to acquire power. Even now, you find Christians fighting Christians, and Muslims fighting Muslims. It's not at all what Jesus or Mohammad taught, but I won't go into doctrine, I'm no theologian. However, I'll own the point you're making."

Echo nodded.

"My father and his people once had greater influence in the world than they have now. I get that, and many basked in the glory of adulation. But, we are still created beings, just like humans, and we still serve the one and true God. I just think some of them forgot that for a while."

"What changed it?"

"A man who died on a cross for all our sins, and who rose again because of the love of His father. Eventually that changed the world, even ours."

"But not all were changed, right?"

"Not in my world and not in yours. As long as evil exists, those who believe must take up arms."

"So Concorde Valley isn't paradise?"

"No, my dear, but it is pivotal and it is worth fighting for."

He took both of her hands and pressed them against his heart. He leaned forward and tapped his head on hers. A warmth spread throughout her body she suspected had little to do with his powers and a lot to do with his love.

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick Marquette for the artwork.

Also special thanks for Helen for encouraging me to reconcile Greek gods and my own Christian faith. I loved adding in this element to the story.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.
After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.


Chapter 21
Lunch with a King

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:

"So Concorde Valley isn't paradise?"

"No, Echo, but it is pivotal and it is worth fighting for."

Theo took both of her hands and pressed them against his heart. He leaned forward and tapped his head on hers. A warmth spread throughout her body she suspected had little to do with his powers and a lot to do with his love.


Start of New Chapter:

"What do you think of my little garden?" Phoebus asked. He laid his fork on the oaken table and leaned forward in an attitude of attentiveness.

"I've never had an experience equal to it," Echo said, her posture matching his. "Your garden is a living work of art. It made me feel like a small child snuggled in the embrace of a loving adult. I wanted to remain there, protected from the cares outside its borders."

Phoebus nodded in appreciation of her assessment. "I've always said gardens aren't for hiding from the world, but they are good places to retreat to when the world overwhelms you."

"And that's exactly what life has done," Echo said, "...overwhelmed me. It has since I was a tiny girl, but your garden has gifted me with peace."

"Which is part of the magic my father weaves through it," Theo said.

Echo arched an eyebrow. "Magic?"

Diantha smiled, amber tresses gracing the neck of the queen. "It's said a true gardener is more magician than cultivator, Echo. The garden is amazing and begs you to stay, but there are no supernatural powers at work, just skill and love."

Phoebus tilted his head in acknowledgement. "I've found nature has magic of its own."

"My grandmother has a vegetable garden you could describe that way," Echo said. "She calls it her own piece of Heaven."

"Your grandmother must be a beautiful person," Diantha said. Her eyes lost focus as though searching for something in the distance.

"She is," Echo said, "do you know her?"

Diantha paused, still lost in thought, then turned to Echo. "I simply see her in your eyes and in the way she raised you after your parents' accident."

"She is special, as is my grandpa, and I don't know what I would have done without either of them. I really need to let them know I'm okay. They must be terribly worried."

"That's already been taken care of," Phoebus said. "I sent them, and your boss, a message as soon as you made it here safely."

"How? I thought you don't use phones or other electronics, and I know they don't speak bird."

"I have an uncle who's a talented courier. He delivered the message personally."

"And they were okay hearing the news from him?"

"Yes, rest assured. He's a great communicator."

Echo could only guess who the uncle was, but decided not to interrogate. For the moment, she just wanted to relax and enjoy her experience. How many opportunities does a simple orphan get to enjoy lunch with a king?

For a moment, there was a comfortable silence as everyone tucked into the delicious meal Dianatha had prepared. Echo wondered why a queen would make her own food, but was beginning to get the idea this royal family set their own standards.
 
After a bit, Hannah looked up and cleared her throat.

"Beautiful gardens aren't the only things Concorde Valley is famous for," she said. Large gray eyes accented fair skin and rosy cheeks, giving her the appearance of an innocent, fair haired kitten.

"Really, what else is there?" Echo asked. She smiled at the seven-year-old, ignoring the dark looks of her parents.

Hannah stopped twirling the food in her plate and focused on Echo. She seemed to be ignoring their looks as well. "How do you like the weather here?"

"It's great," Echo said. She squinted her eyes as the reporter inside arose and squeezed past contentment.

"Are you warm enough?" Hannah asked. Her eyes flicked up and made contact with Echo's, trying to transmit meaning beyond words.

Echo flashed her an encouraging smile. "As a matter of fact I'm quite warm, thank you. I have been ever since I got to Concorde Valley, which I find unusual for this time of year."

"Very unusual," Hannah said. She sighed dramatically. "Or so I've heard... almost magical."


Phoebus intervened with the patience given to fathers of precocious daughters. "That will be enough, Hannah. And, what's this I hear about you interrupting Theo and Echo's walk with your rabbits?"

Hannah's eyes widened as she dropped the subject. "It wasn't my fault, Táta. Mama sent me to get herbs for the spaghetti she was making and Neptune ran after me."

"Just Neptune?" he asked.

"No, Saturn and Venus followed, too."

"And that's it?"

"Yes, Sir, I promise."

"Did you try to call them back?"

Hannah looked down at her lap as though in disappointment. "They ignored me," she said, then turned and looked at Echo. "Rabbits aren't very obedient."

"And neither are daughters," Phoebus said. He drummed his fingers on the table and looked straight into her big eyes. "I know good and well those rabbits wouldn't think of disobeying you. Out with the truth."

"I only wanted to see Echo," Hannah said, "and tell her Sunny was doing fine...uh, he still is."

"Thank you," Echo said. "I'm so glad you're taking such good care of him, and thank you for the weather report." She winked at Hannah and Hannah winked back.

The momentary awkwardness was broken by the appearance of four young people, who, by their looks, had to be Theo's siblings.

Phoebus rose to his feet. "Ah, here you are kids. Echo, these are my other children, Rebecca, Adam, Phillip and Helen."
 
Each greated Echo with a warm smile and a word of welcome. They were a handsome bunch, she thought, strong and healthy. She wondered if they really were immortal like Theo told her, and if so, what might such people do with their time when time was no longer an issue? She would have to ask later.

"I'm sorry we're late." One of the children, tall and dark haired with the family trait of green eyes, walked over to his father. "We were detained. When I got to Mary's house to collect Rebecca and the others, I was met by a messenger."

"From whom?"

"Georgios. He sends his regrets to Echo and to you, Father, for his absence. He says he'll see you both later."

"It must have been important or he wouldn't have missed." Phoebus said. "What about Henry?"

"Georgios called him in for duty, which is why Rebecca is here without him."

"Thank you, Adam. All of you sit down and eat, please."
 
One by one, the royal offspring took their places at the table. Two empty spots stood as mute reminders of the ones called away.
 
"Where's Caitlynn?" Diantha asked. "I'd hoped to show her off to Echo."
 
"I left her with Mary," Rebecca said. "She was sleeping and we didn't want to wake her. Plus, I think Mary wanted an excuse to come visit Echo."
 
"Mary is Rebecca's mother-in-law," Diantha explained, "and a very dear friend of mine. She needs no excuse to visit. I suspect her true motive was to spend more time with the baby."
 
"I agree," Phoebus said. "She does love children and it's been a long since her own were that young."
 
"I know it makes me sound terribly overprotective," Rebecca said, "but she's only three months old, and I don't like leaving her with anyone, not even her grandmother. She’s my first child and I feel lost without her.”
 

“I was that way with Theo,” Diantha said. “It’s a wonder any firstborn survives new parents.”

“And visa versa,” Phoebus said. “Anthos hated being a baby and often expressed his frustration by crying. He wanted so much to be grown, I think it physically hurt him. That's when we started calling him Theo, which means, gift from God. It was clear the boy had an important mission and was anxious to get busy doing it.”

"What does Anthos mean?" Echo asked.

"Blossom," Diantha said. Giggles erupted around the table. "My own name came from the flower Dianthus," the queen continued. "I asked Phoebus to give him a strong name that had something to do with flowers. I mean, there are gardens everywhere here. It seemed fitting at the time." The giggles grew louder.

“Well, I think his name is great, and that he’s the best big brother in the world,” Rebecca said. She reached over and ruffled his hair, “Even if he is way too serious.”

“I am not,” Theo said. With the speed of a whirling Dervish, he spun around and thumped an English pea at his sister's face.

For just a moment, everyone froze, and then Rebecca thumped one back. It landed on his forehead with an audible splat!

“Food fight!” Seventeen-year-old Phillip sailed a piece of garlic toast at his ten-year-old sister, Helen.

“Stop it right now,” Phoebus ordered. He raised a dark eyebrow. “We have company and besides, your mother spent a long time cooking this meal. You should appreciate her hard work.”

“That’s right,” Diantha said. She picked up her bowl of spaghetti for dramatic effect. “You see, it’s important to never waste... at least not until you can get a clear shot.”

Diantha tipped the bowl, dumping the entire contents into her royal husband’s lap. His eyes widened in surprise.

“Oh, I'm so sorry, dear,” she said. “Are those your good clothes?”

“Not any more,” he said. He countered with an herbal drink down the front of her dress. 

Echo sat with her mouth agape as a full scale food war broke out. She watched and wondered what to do. She had grown up as an only child and had no experience with such behaviors. It didn't take long before she figured it out, though. Helen, a child she has just met, nailed her on her shoulder with a bread stick.

Echo laughed and counter-attacked with part of her antipasto salad, then ducked as Phoebus, reigning god of horses, threw a meatball at her from the spaghetti dumped in his lap. She hesitated just a moment before throwing it back. He grinned and the melee went on.

Echo wasn't sure how long the foodfight continued, but she had fun, they had fun, and then it just stopped. As though on signal, they arose and cleaned the mess. Once they were finished, they returned to their seats and ate what food was left in dishes. 

A deep smile welled up inside Echo's heart and spread onto her face. She guessed she knew the answer to what immortals do with their time when time is no longer a factor.


 
 

Author Notes A special thanks for the artwork, "Sorting Fruit" by Daphne Oberon on FanArtReview.

tata: Ancient Greek word for "daddy"
pater: Ancient Greek word for "father"

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.


Chapter 22
Bath of the gods

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of Last Chapter:

Echo sat with her mouth agape as a full scale food war broke out. She watched and wondered what to do. She had grown up as an only child and had no experience with such behaviors. It didn't take long before she figured it out, though. Helen, a child she has just met, nailed her on her shoulder with a bread stick.

Echo laughed and counter-attacked with part of her antipasto salad, then ducked as Phoebus, reigning god of horses, threw a meatball at her from the spaghetti dumped in his lap. She hesitated just a moment before throwing it back. He grinned and the melee went on.

Echo wasn't sure how long the foodfight continued, but she had fun, they had fun, and then it just stopped. As though on signal, they arose and cleaned the mess. Once they were finished, they returned to their seats and ate what food was left in dishes. 

A deep smile welled up inside Echo's heart and spread onto her face. She guessed she knew the answer to what immortals do with their time when time is no longer a factor.

 
New Chapter begins:
 
Echo ran her hand along the textured surface of an ornately carved archway. She could only reach about half-way up the portico, but every inch of it depicted a different scene from the sea.

At the bottom, and on either side of the arch, was crafted rocks and shells like you might see in a primordial sea; living fossils.

Echo followed the carving upwards as deep sea fish, with huge sightless eyes swam about, trying to attract other fish into their open mouths.

Still higher up, more familiar fish came into view. These were at the level Echo could touch. She felt fish with crusty scales, long whiskered fish with sharp fins, large mouthed fish, and some that looked more dog than fish.
 
As her eyes followed the carving, she noticed the wood grow lighter, and the fish become more colorful, more playful, and more identifiable. 

At the crest of the arch loomed a mighty being etched into a patchwork of blended woods. One thick arm thrust a metal trident skyward, the tips of which glistened in the natural light of the hallway. The symbol of his authority dripped silver droplets into the raging waters below.

The other arm reached down, palm pointed outward, grasping the remnants of the helm of a ship. A colossal head full of white, billowy curls flowed around a potent face. A bare, muscular chest, denoting power, ended at his narrow waist.

Where Echo had expected a green, scaly tail, she was surprised to see evidence of hips and legs deftly disguised by waters below. Compelling, handsome, stalwart... he was the epitome of the Greek god he represented.

Only glistening green eyes seemed soft and compassionate. Now, where had she seen those eyes before?

"Your grandfather, I presume?" Echo said. She looked at Theo, who still bore the signs of an epic food fight on his face and clothes.

Theo glanced down as though lost in thought. He subconsciously brushed crumbs off his shirt and trousers. When he looked up, she saw him as never before. His face was set in a living guise of the man in the carving above them.
 
Though shorter, his curls were no less prominent. Glistening eyes lit up with an inner power that surprised and thrilled Echo. Who was this man she thought she knew?

He slowly removed his shirt, revealing rippling muscles she had only imagined before. Surging from his body was a wave of energy that took her breath away. From it, she felt both radiant warmth and a brutal force intense enough to froth water into a raging sea.

Without answering her question, Anthos, Grandson of Poseidon, aptly nicknamed, Theo, swept her into his arms and carried her through the archway.

"Welcome to the bath of the gods," he said.

Echo tore her eyes from Theo's transformed face and beheld a pool of churning water spread out like a small lake before her. In one swift move, he tossed her into its welcoming embrace, then joined her with a noiseless dive. When he emerged a few feet away, he was the normal Theo she had come to know. The only evidence of the god-like being she had seen, was a remnant of fire in his eyes.

Behind their brother, the rest of the children splashed in. Giggling and playing, the family removed evidence of the food fight they had left behind. Only the parents retired to another area.

Just as abruptly as the food fight had ended, the swimming party was over, too. Echo wondered what secret family signal these people had that let them know when one event ended and another began.

After emerging from the pool, Diantha took Echo aside and led her to a changing room to take a shower and put on fresh clothes.

When she had finished, Echo joined the queen on a bench overlooking the pool.
 
"Let's sit a moment before joining the others," Diantha said.

Echo nodded and sat with her. For a moment, neither woman spoke. Finally, Echo was driven by enough curiosity to break the silence.

"Queen Diantha," she began.
 
"Please, just Diantha."
 
Echo self-consciously batted her eyes. "Diantha, then. Theo told me you came from the outside world, too, right?"

Diantha gave her warm smile. "Yes, I lived in a rural community near the southeast border of Tennessee and Georgia."

"What brought you here?"

"Actually, my horse," Diantha said. "I was riding with a friend when a man tried to kidnap me, which is a long story for another day, but my horse, Champion, ran off with me on her back and brought me here."

Echo's eyes widened in surprise. "Now, that must have been a very long ride."

"Oh it was, and I was so sore I could hardly walk for days."

"I know that feeling." Echo sighed.

"I'll bet you do, but there was a deeper reason she brought me here, or I never would have stayed. It had to do with a prophecy they had here in the valley."

"The same one that involves me?"

"No, this one preceded you, and because of it, I ended up becoming a key figure in a war against evil."

"And why am I here?"

"As I'm sure you've figured out by now," Diantha said, "You're expected to figure that out on your own."

"Just like my horse name?"

It was Diantha's turn to look surprised. "Yes, although I didn't know Theo had told you about that yet."

"We talked briefly, but I don't know much."

"It's a name you came to this world with," Diantha said, "and you spend most of your early childhood trying to figure it out. The discovery process helps to build and define your character."

"But I don't have a childhood to do it in," Echo said.

"Neither did I, but when you really need to know, it will come to you."

"What's yours?"

"Champion, just like my horse's. It's supposed to be a rare and important name. It's why Phoebus said I came to the valley."

"This is all so confusing, but it's fun," Echo said.

"It can be fun, but it can also feel overwhelming. Just hang in there, and know there's a reason you're here."

Echo looked down at her hands, then nodded. "Actually, I wish Anthos had brought me here when he found me as a child. I was so lonely growing up. My grandparents did the best they could, but just couldn't replace what I'd lost."

"I don't understand it all, either," Diantha said, "but I do know that for some reason, the time wasn't right. There was something in your world you still had to learn, or events you needed to be a part of. Maybe it was us who weren't ready yet. Whatever the reasons are, you're here now and that's all that's important. Besides, and you can take my word on this, there will be times when you'll wish you'd never heard of Concorde Valley."

Echo laughed softly. "That might very well be, but I don't think I'll ever feel that way about Theo. He's been so much a part of my life, albeit a secret part, I can't imagine life without him."

"I felt the same way about Phoebus and he was a Centaur at the time. Imagine how confused I was."

"Wow, that would be a hard one. Did you really fall in love with him while he was still part horse?"

"Oh, I fell hard," Diantha said, "and I was torn between my sensible nature and a heart that cried out for the man I loved."

"Did you know he was immortal when you met him?"

"Not at first, but I found out after a short time."

"Did it bother you?"

"Of course it did, just like it's bothering you right now. When you've spent your entire life as a mortal, it's hard to think in longer terms. It's like standing on top of a mountain and looking into the valley floor below."

"Sort of disorienting, right?" Echo asked.

"Very much so," Diantha agreed. "You'll get used to the idea if you don't spend too much time trying to process it. Just let it seep in."

"Thank you," Echo said, "I'll try."

"Good, let's go out on the veranda, Phoebus wants to speak with you and Theo."

"Is there something wrong?" Echo asked. Apprehension, set at bay by the meal and swim, flooded back in a dizzying rush.

"Nothing he didn't know before lunch, but it may alter our plans so Phoebus wants to discuss it with us."

She reached out and squeezed Echo's hand. "My dear, what was once legend must become your reality. Just do what I do every day. Take a deep breath, put on your best face, and charge on out there."

"Which would be a lot easier if I could wear makeup."

"It's the one thing I miss most about our old world," Diantha said laughing, "and something I'm working on introducing to this one. Maybe we can start a campaign together, you and I."

"Maybe so, and what about electricity?"

"I've given up even trying to talk Phoebus into that one. He says electricity is a tool of Zeus, and he wants to keep the king of the gods out of his realm."

"That's funny."

"You think so, but I'm serious; he's adamant about it."

Echo joined the queen in a laugh. Only people who had grown up in the world outside Concorde Valley could truly relate.

"Are you ready?" Diantha asked.

Echo cut her eyes over apprehensively, but nodded. "Ready as I'm going to get."

Diantha nodded approval, then linked arms with the younger woman. She led her down a spirilling staircase that emptied onto a veranda where the men sat sipping lemonade. They stood up until the women were seated. Echo thought it great that chivalry wasn't dead in Concorde Valley, even if modern amenities were.

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick-Marquette for help with artwork of Poseidon.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.


Chapter 23
Hard Decisions

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:

"Are you ready?" Diantha asked.

Echo look apprehensive, but nodded. "Ready as I'm going to get."

Diantha nodded approval, then placed her hand on the shoulder of the younger woman, indicating approval and growing affection. She led her down a wide, spirilling staircase that emptied onto a veranda where the men sat sipping lemonade. They stood up until the women were seated. Echo thought it great that chivalry wasn't dead in Concorde Valley, even if modern amenities were.

New Chapter Begins:

Phoebus offered a terse smile to the group seated with him on the veranda. Surrounding them was a fragrant aroma radiating from the garden, but was no more reassuring than the monarch's smile.

The carefree father, who had engaged in a food fight with his family an hour earlier, had been replaced by a king managing a crisis.

"Diantha, do the other kids know not to disturb us?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied. "I put Rebecca and Adam in charge. I think they're having a croquet match upstairs in the gym."

"And Hannah knows to stay there as well?"

"Yes, but she is Hannah, after all. Who knows when she'll pop up?"

"Yes," Phoebus said with a nod. His voice betrayed an attitude half indulgent, half concerned.

Looking at the others, he took in a deep, ragged breath. As he let it out, he met each set of eyes with directness, and each person sat up straighter in response.

"To make a very long story short," he began, "I sent messengers to my family at Mount Olympus concerning the Specter attack on Echo and her community."

Phoebus paused when he noticed Echo flinch. He glanced at Diantha, who nodded for him to continue. She, more than anyone, would be able to gauge how much Echo could take.

"They returned with the news of a concerning event taking place on the Mountain of the Gods, but weren't sure of its scope. They said they couldn't get through to talk to Zeus or Hera as I had instructed, but were able to speak with a Page that explained there was a Council meeting in session involving 10 of the ruling gods. He went on to say that Apollo and Hades were absent.

"Apollo, we've known for a while, has gone to Earth on some sort of midlife sabbatical, and Hades, it seems, was the subject of their meeting."

"Is Hades in some sort of danger?" Diantha asked.

"I don't think so," Phoebus said. "From what my messengers gathered, he is the danger. Zeus has had trouble controlling him for many years, maybe even from the very beginning, but it has gotten worse lately.

"Echo, it's the duty of our kind to watch over and guide the citizens of this planet. Most of the time, we do a good job, but at others, we mess up worse than the humans we shepherd. This is one of those times."

"What's changed?" Echo asked.

"I'm not sure, but according to the Page, the Council believes Hades is in open rebellion."

"And the Specter guys we met were part of his group?" Echo said.

"Yes, they are, and why I was so concerned when you said you had encountered them. It's not that they aren't always at work in your world, but are usually better concealed and their actions covert. I've seldom heard of them openly attacking your people. They are drawing strength from somewhere."

"And what do you have on your mind to do?" Diantha asked. She could tell from his body language he had decided something.

"I'm going to Mount Olympus," he said. "My messengers might not have been able to speak with the Council, but I can."

"Do you think that's prudent? If Hades is on the warpath, I would think you'd rather stay completely away from him."

"Why? I don't have anything more to fear than the others. We had a war with his twin sons a few years back, but Zeus declared it self-defense, and even Hades agreed they had acted without his approval."

"That's not what I mean," she said.

"You mean the prophecy? I don't think Hades puts much stock in my visions."

"What prophecy?" Theo asked, drawing raised eyebrows from Echo. She thought she was the only one who didn't know what was going on.

"It was the one received by your father when you were born," Diantha said, "and was further reaffirmed in your childhood trial."

"Oh, that one. I've heard nothing but vague hints since I was a child. What light does it shed on the current situation?"

"Nothing specific," Phoebus answered, "and nothing we need to discuss right now."

"I can leave if you would like," Echo offered. "I'm really good at croquet and could join the others."

"He means he doesn't want to discuss it in front of me," Theo said. "Immortal youth are given an adult trial by the Council of Twelve when they feel we're ready. Once successfully completed, we're given our position in the Olympic hierarchy."

"Like Hercules' 12 labors?"

"More-or-less." Phoebus said. "Hercules got in trouble with Zues and had to do extra tasks, but that's the gist of it. There are a lot of responsibilities that come with leadership, Echo. Trials, or labors, prove a person's constitution and help determine what they're capable of handling."

"Your people sure have a lot of trials and visions," Echo said.

"Yes, but remember the level of our responsibilities and the length of our years."

Echo nodded. She couldn't really comprehend either, but was willing to concede it took training. "What about the childhood trials you spoke of before, the one eight-year-olds go on?"
 
"That's what all the kids in Concorde Valley complete, mortal or otherwise. I introduced it to reflect what the gods do, and to help them discover their horse names, but they don't participate in the adult version unless they are immortal."
 
"I see. Thank you."
 
Phoebus offered her a smile. "You're a quick learner."
 
"I have to be with my job."

"Can't you divulge the complete vision to me?" Theo asked. "I'm grown now, a leader in your guard, and have proven myself in the outside world. What more do I need to do?"

"Receive a calling from the Olympian Twelve. Your mission, if we can call it that, you must receive from one of them."

Theo looked away. Echo had a feeling he wanted to say more, but in deference to his father and the authority of the rulers, he held his tongue. His mother did not.

"Husband," she said. "I've expressed my concerns about you throwing yourself into the lion's den and you've answered to that, but shouldn't you, at the very least, wait for an official summons?"

Phoebus turned his great head her way. There was kindness in his eyes, but authority in his voice. "I do not need a summons from my leaders to realize they need me. My father's heart cries out, and the creatures of the ocean look to me for help. Please understand I'm my father's only son, and that's all the summons I need."

"If you must go, then take me with you," Theo interrupted.  "Since I'm part of the prophecy, I should be a participant in its resolution."

"We've already discussed why you can't go, plus I need you here in my absence. What's happening now wasn't part of the original vision, and I'm not sure what I'll be facing. I need to know Concorde Valley is in safe hands."

"You can leave Adam in charge," Theo said. "He's old enough."

"Adam's not ready for that level of responsibility," Phoebus replied.

"I was at his age."

"You were when you were ten," Phoebus said, "but Adam is still a child becoming a man."

Diantha cleared her throat. "Take me. I've been by your side through danger before."

"You have children to take care of," Phoebus said, and then cringed. Perhaps he hadn't chosen his words wisely.

Diantha folded her arms across her chest and blew air out of her mouth dramatically. "I'm not just your wife, Phoebus, I'm a goddess as well. If Hera and Demetris can fight, so can I."

"I know you can," Phoebus said. "You were an important part of the war that freed our valley when you first got here, and you've been an integral part of its rehabilitation. Neither of those were easy tasks, but my heart doesn't want to take you into a battle of the gods. Immortals can only be killed by other immortals. Here you can get hurt, there you might be killed."

Diantha didn't bother to repond to his remark. She had been given power by Hera that lent her authority when she needed it. She'd fought immortals before and knew the danger. Phoebus knew this as well.
 
"Rebecca and Mary can watch the younger ones," Diantha said, "and the boys can help Theo. This is their war, too."

Phoebus blinked a few times in thought, then stood and placed his hands on the table.

"Very well. Diantha, please make arrangements for the kids, then be ready within the hour to go. Theo, you're in charge of the valley while we're away. Echo, you're not mine to command, but I recommend you listen to Theo and do what he asks. Diantha and I will return as soon as we're able."

"Yes, Father." Theo stood to his feet along with his mother. He looked at Echo with a raised eyebrow.

Echo rose to her feet as well. She nodded at the looming figure at the head of the table. "I'll do what is needed, Sir."

"God be with you all." Phoebus walked over to Theo and gave his son a hug that seemed more a passage of authority, than an embrace of affection.

With no further word, Phoebus and Diantha disappeared into the house.

"I think your father's worried," Echo said.

"He is."

"Should we be?"

"Aren't we?"

"I am," Echo said.

"So am I."

Theo took her hand and led her inside. He had a feeling, one he didn't share with Echo, that it would be a very long time before they saw his parents again.

Author Notes A special thanks to Karen Cherry Threadgill for her help with the image of Diantha, Queen of Concorde Valley.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.


Chapter 24
Hermes' Missive

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of Last Chapter: 
 
With no further word, Phoebus and Diantha disappeared into the house.

"I think your father's worried," Echo said.

"He is."

"Should we be?"

"Aren't we?"

"I am," Echo said.

"So am I."

Theo took her hand and led her inside. He had a feeling, one he didn't share with Echo, that it would be a very long time before they saw his parents again.
 
 
 
New Chapter: 
 
Echo took in her surroundings as she rode on the back of Nifty, Theo's great, sorrel stallion. She still wasn't comfortable riding alone, so she rode behind the enchanting Crowned Prince.

As usual, the air smelled of winter flowers and evergreen trees. The beauty of the valley still enveloped her in wonder, but there was an unusual chill to the air that foreboded peace in jeopardy.

It had been days since the royal couple left for Mount Olympus. During this uncertain time, she had still gotten to know Theo's siblings and extended family members. Since the kids were on Christmas Vacation, there were many fun activities, like swim parties, croquet games, wrestling matches and lots of eating. Each person, in his or her own way, formed a relationship with Echo, one that would be tested and refined by adversity.

Thinking of Rebecca, she stroked a golden necklace around her neck. On it was a flower shaped charm with an engraving of her name. Rebecca told her Theo had found it in the ashes of her home after she'd gone to live with her grandparents, and had left it with her for safekeeping.

Echo had no memory of the necklace, but figured it must have been an intended gift from her parents - a gift that had survived a fire unscathed.

In her backpack was tucked another item eight-year-old Theo had saved for her - Cindy, her teddy bear, a toy left behind in a clearing long ago. Cindy had, also, been kept in the safe-keeping of Rebecca.

Snuggling in the backpack with the toy, was her Russian Blue cat, Sunny. He had spent most of his time running around the castle with Hannah's cats and rabbits, but had insisted on going on the journey with Echo now.

Theo leaned his head back and touched Echo's cheek.

"You're being awfully quiet. What's on your mind?"

"Just thinking about your brothers and sisters."

Theo chuckled. "They're a mess."

"Yeah, but a good one. I think I've caught up on having siblings all in three day's time."

"The worst one is the oldest," a voice said. Echo turned to see a rider approach on her left.

"Georgios!" she cried out.

"Hi, Sparrow," the large man said. He reached beside Theo to give her a warm, hairy hug.

"I wondered when I'd finally get to see you."

Georgios roared with laughter. "I didn't think you'd ever want to. Our last meeting wasn't under the best of circumstances."

"You saved my life."

Theo cleared his throat. "To be precise, I saved your life by pinning Junior to the step with an arrow. Georgios just took you to the trees."

Georgios responded by plucking Echo off Nifty and placing her in front of him on his palomino stallion. Once more, Echo was impressed by his strength and agility. With a gentle nudge from his mighty legs, Theo's older brother urged his horse forward.

"Hey, bring her back," Theo said.

"Catch me."

The two brothers raced in what Echo assumed was a frequent contest. It ended with Georgios in the lead at a cottage near the end of the path.

Laughing, he gave her another hug, and placed her on the ground with surprising gentleness. He dismounted and joined her.

Theo arrived a few seconds later and dismounted as well and embraced.

"It's good to see you, you old goat," Theo said.

"Horse, but you're close."

Echo felt this greeting was repeated as often as the race.

"How are things going in the field?" Theo asked.

"We're ready for battle if it comes to the valley," Georgios replied.
 
In the light of day, Echo could tell the animal features Georgios bore, did, indeed, look like horse. It made sense. His mother had been a real Centaur and his father one by circumstance.

Theo nodded as though the news was expected. "Good, good. I hope it doesn't come to a war here, but, as dad said, we must stay vigilant."

Georgios nodded. "Always. Have you heard anything from Mount Olympus?"

"Nothing directly," Theo said, "but I received instructions to meet a messenger here today."

Georgios nodded. "Same here."

"And I just wanted to tag along," Echo said. She unzipped the backpack with Sunny inside.

The tall, gray cat leapt out and shook himself. He gave both men a nasty look expressing his opinion of being unnecessarily jostled about. To emphasize his point, he hissed and mewed. Georgios laughed and patted Sunny on the head. He mewed back at the incensed cat.

"Sorry, old buddy," Georgios repeated in human-talk.

"You speak cat?" Echo asked.

"I speak many animal languages," he replied.

"Like Hannah?"

"Yeah, who do you think taught her?" Georgios laughed again. "Hey, brother. Do you have anything inside to eat? I'm famished."

"Sure, there are plenty of jarred goods in the cabinets. Help yourself. You know you needn't ask."

Georgios glanced at Echo as though he'd been polite in deference to her. She graced him with a smile.

Just as he reached for the door, it swung open. Out strode a man so handsome, it made Echo shudder. He was tall, well over six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and chiseled muscles that bulged from beneath a leather vest. Light brown hair flowed down his neck, giving him a youthful look Echo had a feeling didn't reflect his true age.

Beautiful white wings flowed behind him, lending an angelic quality to a man whose eyes betrayed a most non-angelic glint.

On his feet were golden sandals, the straps of which wound around his calves and crept up to his knees.

"You've got to be Hermes," Echo said once she could catch her breath.

The man reached her in a few steps and took both her hands in his. He raised them to his lips and brushed them with a tender kiss. He smelled of spices and lavender as though they emanated from his body.

"At your service," he said. The sparkle in his eyes became more pronounced as a saucy grin played about his lips. "And you must be the charming Echo I've heard so much about."

Echo blushed and glanced at Theo, whose face bore its own grin.

"Echo, meet my second cousin, Hermes. Hermes, my beloved, Echo."

Hermes held Echo's eyes for a moment, then stepped back. "My pleasure, my dear."

"Hermes, I assume you've brought the instructions we were expecting," Georgios said. He slapped the taller man on the shoulder. "What tidings do you bring?"

"Both good and bad."

"Par for the course for you," Georgios said.

"That's fair." Hermes had grown somber, but still radiated a childlike quality. "Bad news is, your parents are being held hostage on Mount Olympus along with the other gods. Hades has undertaken a revolution with his minions, which your parents were aware of when they left."

"How did you get away?" Theo asked.

Hermes shrugged. "You know how I am. It would take more than Hades to pin me down. Zeus gave me a missive to present to you containing your trial for godhood, which is the good news portion of this meeting."

"Thank you, Hermes. I appreciate the lengths you must have gone through to get it here," Theo said. "I was aware it would arrive soon, and that it had to be delivered by one of the Twelve Olympians. You aren't going to try to go back now, are you?"

"Nope, not me. I might act foolishly, but I'm no fool."

"I hear that," Theo said. "So, why don't you stay with us until we can figure out a plan?"

"Where will you be?"

"At my parents' house. I can't stay here, alone, with Echo. We aren't married."

"What's this, a god with a moral compass?" Hermes chuckled. "Don't let the others know, you might start a dangerous trend."

"It would take more than me to change their wicked ways, but I'll keep trying."

"Your father has always tried to whip us into a better bunch, but to answer your question, I would prefer to stay here at your house in case anyone comes looking for me. They'll know I entered your world here."

"Sounds great," Theo said. "I'll see if Adam would like to come and keep you company. You can help him with his archery."

"I'll be happy to," Hermes said, "although I hear he wants to be a dancer not a fighter. I can help him with that, too, if you'd like."

"Stay focused on his fighting skills," Georgios said. "We want him to defend himself, not sweep maidens off their feet."

"I can be responsible," Hermes said. "Your brother is absolutely safe in my hands. Send the lad over."

Theo and Georgios exchanged doubtfull glances, but as it had been Theo's idea to begin with, they nodded.

"Good," Hermes said. He brushed his hands together to indicate finality. "Now, let's get down to my second reason for being here.

"I present to you, ahem, a letter with your official godhood trial inscribed within. In case you didn't know, it's called a Summons, and you're bound by its contents if you open it; all very formal, you know. Good luck, dear cousin, and may the God who rules us all, be with you. You'll need all the help you can get."

"Do you know its contents?" Theo asked. He took the envelope from Hermes and turned it over in his hand. The back was embossed with a lightning bolt, the official seal of Zeus.

"Are you kidding? I helped write it. You'll find my signature at the bottom along with most of the other gods. The only ones missing are Hades and Apollo, for obvious reasons."

"Well, thanks," Theo said. "Go inside and make yourself at home. There's food in the cabinet."

"I am a bit hungry," Hermes said. He turned to walk in the house, but before he left, stopped and looked directly at Theo. "This quest of yours involves more than a coming of age ritual. The other gods need you, cousin, and I want you to seek my help as needed. It's allowed."

"Thank you, Hermes."

"Don't thank me yet," he said darkly, "I'm not much of a soldier. If you really want help, find my brother, Apollo."

"Do you know where he is?"

"Yes, on Earth," Hermes said grinning. He had been serious for about as long as he could take it.

"So that's Hermes," Echo said as he left. "He's not what I would have expected, "but I'm glad he's on our side."

"Yeah, me, too. I have a feeling if he went bad, he'd make Hades look like a pussy cat," Theo said.

Sunny growled in protest.

"Present company excluded," Theo added.

"Well, are you going to open that package now, or wait until all three of us die of old age?" Georgios asked.

"I guess so, but I really hoped father would be here for the official reading. We've waited so long for it to come."

"I completely understand," Echo said. "I grew up wishing my parents were there to see my important milestones. Sometimes I would even pretend they were there watching."
 
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," Theo said, "but I'm eternally grateful you made it out of the fire."  

"And I'm grateful you were there to rescue me."

"Theo?"

"Yes, Georgios?"

"Open the envelope."

"Fine."

With eyes wide, he slipped a finger under the seal and broke it. He reached inside and pulled out a piece of parchment that had handwriting scribbled across it in a foreign language. Echo looked at it and squinted her eyes.

"What's it say? I can't read it."

"It's all Greek to me," he said.

Echo rolled her eyes. "It really is Greek, isn't it?"
 
"Yes," Theo said. He smiled at Echo.
 
"And you can read it?"

"Yes, my father taught it to all of us. Basically, the letter says I'm called to perform a trial, the successful completion of which will give me a spot, and I can't believe this at all, on the court of the Twelve Olympians. That can't be. I guess Apollo has officially resigned. I had only expected to take over some minor duties, not replace anyone."

"That's exciting," Georgios said. "So what will you have to do to get that spot?"

"I don't know, I haven't gotten that far."

Finally, he looked up, a bleak look in his emerald eyes.

"What is it?" Echo asked.

"They're asking me to defeat Hades and rescue the other gods. How can they possibly expect me to undertake something none of them were able to do?"

"My guess is they're out of other options," Echo said, "and you're their only hope."

"But I'm hardly more than a child."

"Isn't that what your trial is for, to become a man?" Echo asked.

"No," Georgios answered for him, "This trial is about becoming a god. Does it say anything about how to do it?"

"There are no suggestions," Theo said, "just the quest, itself. It says to seek help wherever I can find it, and to use my friends and family members according to their abilities."


"I'm not even sure what that means," Echo said. "Maybe you should go in and ask Hermes."
 
"He won't explain," Georgios said. "He can provide help if asked, but can't interpret the meaning."
 
"Even if you do figure out how to fight him, how will you get everyone to Mount Olympus to do it?" Echo asked.

"I won't have to," Theo said. "It appears the battle will be fought here in Concorde Valley in one week's time."

"That doesn't give you long to get ready," Echo said.

"As I said," Georgios said, "our troops are prepped and ready to fight. This is news, but not surprising news."

Echo looked thoughtful. "Do you two really think this fight can be won by strength of arms?"

"What do you mean?" they asked together.

"Well, if fighting would end the conflict, wouldn't Zeus' men have stopped him already? I'm just thinking you'll have to use other methods to overcome this guy. You know, find a weapon they haven't thought of."

"That's a good point. But we're still going to have the soldiers ready," Theo said, "besides, when did you start learning war strategy?"

"When I played Capture the Flag with your siblings. Seriously, though, I did a series of articles about one of the local men in Taylorville who was a war veteran. You'd be surprised at some of the stories he'd tell."

"Sparrow has a point," Georgios said. "This battle may well be fought by unusual means. I say we find Apollo and see what insight he gives."

Theo's eyes suddenly lit up. "I have an idea that'll allow us to stay here and prepare troops, and find Apollo at the same time. Follow me."

"Hermes," he called out as they walked towards his house. "I've got a job for you."

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick Marquette for her help with the image of Hermes.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.


Chapter 25
Hermes' Quest

By davisr (Rhonda)


End of Last Post:


"Sparrow has a point," Georgios said. "This battle may well be fought by unusual means. I say we find Apollo and see what insight he gives."

Theo's eyes suddenly lit up. "I have an idea that'll allow us to stay here and prepare troops and find Apollo at the same time. Follow me."

"Hermes," he called out as they walked towards his house. "I've got a job for you."



New Chapter Begins:

Hermes crunched his food. For a moment, he didn't respond to Theo's suggestion. A deep breath later, he looked at those seated at the table.
 
"What you're saying is that you want me, the guy with a 14-foot wingspan, to go to the outside world and look for Apollo, a god who has chosen to recuse himself from his duties as one of the Twelve, and convince him to join us here in Concord Valley to fight Hades."

"It was your idea to find him."

"No, Theo, it was my idea for you to find him. He doesn't like me very much. There was a little misunderstanding about his former girlfriend and me in a garden."

"Hermes!"

"It was a misunderstanding," he said. "I was merely helping her find a lost kitten or something. It was perfectly innocent. I can't help it if Apollo took exception to my presence. I'm the victim of an erroneous reputation."

"Which we don't have time to discuss."

"Of course we don't, Theo, but, really, I don't see how I can be of much help on this."

"I need you to go find Apollo so Georgios and I can finish preparing the army for battle, and so we can get the citizens of Concorde Valley to a place of safety."

"I can't imagine such a place exists, Cousin," Hermes said. "Hades is the god of the Underworld. There aren't many places to hide he can't find."

"That's true, but we can at least shelter them long enough to give us a chance to fight him."

"It's possible you might pull it off, but why don't you give me the job? I'm very clever at hiding things."

Theo shook his head. "While I don't doubt what you're saying is true, time is, as they say, of the essence. I don't have wings and Georgios is harder to disguise than you are. We need you, buddy."

Hermes put his head in his hands and shook it so hard the table vibrated. With a deep sigh, he looked up.
 
"You'd think it was enough for me to risk life and limb to deliver your summons. Now, you want me to seek the one person I fear more than Hades."
 
"You're being dramatic, Hermes."
 
"Yes, Theo, and you're being unfair."
 
Echo broke in by clearing her throat. When everyone looked at her, she reached over and patted the reluctant immortal on his hand.
 
"You don't strike me as the sort to be afraid of much, and if truth be told, I don't buy your story about slipping through Hades' minions undetected to deliver the missive. I've encountered Specters, myself. Not much gets by them."
 
She ran her fingers across a fresh gash on his arm. "And I recognize their work."
 
"Investigative reporter, right?"
 
"Right."
 
"Not much gets past you, either. Go with me, Echo. Apollo wouldn't think of yelling at me with you there."

Theo's eyes and nostrils flared. "No, Hermes, she's not going anywhere with you."

Hermes laughed and gave Echo's hand a squeeze. "He's probably right. How about Hannah, then? Apollo is sure to like her."

"No, Hermes. You can't use Echo or my little sister as shields. Please go face your brother and come back with him to help."

Hermes stretched his hands out in front of him and cracked his knuckles. "In all seriousness, how about if I take Adam with me? He's 21 and old enough for a trial of his own."

"He doesn't want one. He has no aspirations to be a god of power at all, not even a minor one."

"Sometimes those who don't seek leadership are the ones best suited for it."

"Like you?" Theo asked.

"Exactly," Hermes said. His clear blue eyes sparkled in acknowledgment of the comment, "and in other cases, serious, determined people work out fine, too. So, what's your decision on Adam? I require your permission to take him, as he has not been summoned by the Twelve, or Ten, as it were."

"I give my permission in absence of our father," Theo said. "But whether or not he chooses to go is entirely between you and him. Either way, I'll meet you back here in the garden when you return."

"That works for me. I'll send a message when I'm on my way." Hermes stood up and took his empty plate to the sink. The others stood up with him. "Echo, it's been a pleasure to have met you. I'm sorry the circumstances weren't better. Later, when all the dust has settled, I'd like to get to know you."

"I don't think so," Theo said.

"What? Surely you don't think I was flirting with Echo? Why does everyone always assume I'm up to no good?"

"We don't have time to discuss that topic, either," Theo said.

"You're as boring as my brother." Hermes grinned and winked at Echo. "Work on him while I'm gone, would you?"

"I'll do my best," Echo said. She smiled in spite of herself. Hermes truly was just a little boy in a grown-up body.
 
Hermes squeezed the back of Georgios' hairy neck. "Take care of them, old friend. And while you're at it, take care of yourself. This will be a clash of Immortals, and I don't need to tell you how perilous it is for all  who bear that distinction."
 
Georgios uttered a sound very like the neigh of a horse. 
 
"Peace be with you, too." Hermes said, then left through the front door. The sound of beating wings, 14-foot by his account, let them know the messenger god had departed.

"As I said earlier, you've now met Hermes," Theo said. "My father once told me that, in spite of his nonchalant attitude, he's one of the most deadly of the gods. He's reported to be an absolute master in archery and can outlift even Zeus in the gym."

"I think he's charming," Echo said, "but don't worry, I prefer the serious, moody type."

Theo squinted his eyes and frowned. "I'm not a bit moody, but the serious part I'll own."
 
Georgios laughed and shook his head. "Brother, I'll head back to the barracks. Meet me there?"
 
"Sure. I'm going to show Echo around the house before taking her to Mary's."
 
Georgios gave her a warm hug and the gentle neigh he had uttered to Hermes. 
 
"Peace be with you, too," Echo said.

She watched as the door closed, then turned to Theo. "I'd love to look around. I'm glad you suggested it. I've already noticed the fine cabinetry in here. Did you do the carvings on them?"

Theo nodded, a smile brightening his face.

"And are those chrysanthemums in the pattern?"

"Yes, they're my favorite flower."

"Mine, too. They've always reminded me of you. You brought me a bunch of them that morning in the clearing. Do you remember?"

"Of course," Theo said. He touched her hair in a light gesture, "and you put a sprig of them right here. I thought you were the prettiest thing alive."

Echo blushed. "Thank you, and I thought you to be the most exciting. In spite of all I'd been through that day, my experience with you was like an oasis in the desert."

"Pretty deep thinking for a five-year-old."

"I've had more time to think about it since."

"I'm flattered you did. Some day, when all this is over, we'll have to revist that day."

"Isn't that why you brought me to Concorde Valley?"

"Partially."

"Why else?"

Theo looked at her fondly, but didn't answer. She already knew there was much he couldn't yet discuss.
 
"Have you thought any more on your horse name?" he asked.

"Some. I'll figure it all out sooner or later."

"Aren't you curious?"

"I'm an investigative reporter," Echo said. "Curiosity is my normal operating condition. My mind has just been overwhelmed with so much else. For a beautiful valley, I've found little so far that's peaceful."

"You aren't exactly catching us at our best."

"Nor you, me. The funny thing is, we've only known each other when things were out of sorts. Do you think we'll like each other when they're normal?"

"I'm counting on it," Theo said. "Now, let me show you the rest of the house."

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick Marquette for her help with the image of Hermes.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo√??√?¬¢??s 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes√??√?¬¢?? elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.


Chapter 26
Echo's Mission

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of Last Post: 
 
"Have you thought any more on your horse name?" Theo asked.

"Some. I'll figure it all out sooner or later," Echo replied.

"Aren't you curious?"

"I'm an investigative reporter," Echo said. "Curiosity is my normal operating condition. My mind has just been overwhelmed with so much else. For a beautiful valley, I've found little so far that's peaceful."

"You aren't exactly catching us at our best."

"Nor you, me. The funny thing is, we've only known each other when things were out of sorts. Do you think we'll like each other when they're normal?"

"I'm counting on it," Theo said. "Now, let me show you the rest of the house before I take you to Mary's."
 
 
Beginning of new post: 
 
"Is there anything else you need before I go to bed?" Mary asked after Echo was settled into the guest room.

"Not that I can think of," Echo said. "I'll probably be asleep before you close the door."

"Well, don't rush out of bed tomorrow. I usually take my grandkids to school, but they're out for Christmas break this week."

"What time do you normally get up?" Echo asked.

"Daybreak."

"Daybreak? That's pretty non-specific."

Mary leaned against the door frame. Her hair, once dark and full, now framed a warm face with graying waves. Always slightly plump, her skin was beginning to wrinkle and her hips widen.

"We aren't slaves to clocks around here. There are a few in the village, but most folks rely on the sun to judge when they're supposed to be somewhere."

"Y'all don't care about time?"

"I didn't say that, we just aren't imprisoned by it."

Echo sighed deeply. "Mary, thank you for taking care of me tonight, and thank you for letting me stay after Theo rushed off in such a hurry, but I'm too tired to even take that conversation further."

"Good idea," Mary said. She sat on the bed beside Echo and stroked her hair.
 
"I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest this to you, but try not to overthink things. If what Theo said about you is true, you're where you belong, even if our ways seem odd to you."

"You're not the first, but I appreciate the advice. I guess I'll see you at daybreak."

"Or later..."

"Or later."

Echo closed her eyes, and true to her word, was asleep before she heard Mary's footsteps lead off to her own room.

For the first part of the night, she didn't dream at all. The restorative power of sleep granted healing and rejuvenation to ward off fatigue.

As night deepened, though, dreams began to trouble her mind. At first they were just odd, with strange mythical beings dancing about an enchanted garden until a tall blonde guy with huge wings came to chase them away.

Once the whimsical dreams ended, she found herself standing in a cave under the earth. She was emotionally despondent and physically cold, so cold she shivered violently. A man approached and touched her arm. She instantly warmed, but didn't feel comforted the way she had done when she put on Theo's sweater in the woods.

The stranger was tall and broad, with the same powerful look in his eyes as Phoebus, but without his compassion. He had wavy black hair and strong, distinct features. If his appearance weren't so sinister, he might have been considered handsome.

"Who are you?" she asked the dream figure.

"Do you need ask?" he said. He stroked her face like a lover. "I thought we knew each other well."

"I don't know you," she countered, trembling at his touch. She was simultaneously intrigued by the powerful man and disgusted, and the trembling a mixture of the two emotions.

"You'll come to know me well," he said.

He grabbed Echo by the hair and pulled her head back violently.

"Now the question is, whose side will you be on?"

Echo jerked up in bed, squelching a scream. The room was dark and there were no sounds of movement in the house. For a while she leaned back against her pillow and stared at what shadows she could make out.

Her heart thundered painfully and her breathing grew shallow and rapid. She wanted to get up and run, but didn't know where to go. Rest was what she really needed, and so she eventually closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.

This time, she dreamt she was in a huge room full of light. There were several people milling about and looking anxious. They were muttering about something worrisome and would occasionally stop and talk to one another.

She wandered around the room with them until a man approached with familiar green eyes. He had a distinct smell Echo couldn't quite pinpoint, but found it pleasant and calming. It reminded her of a cool night on the beach watching the sun set over the ocean.

The man drew near to her, so close she could feel his breath on her face. "I am Poseidon," he said. "Are you the one who was sent?"

"I'm Echo," she said, "and I don't know how or why I came to be here."

"Yes, you're the one," he said. "I can see it now. An Echo is a reflection of sound."

"I'm not sure what that has to do with anything."

"I knew the nymph after whom you were named. She got herself into a bit of trouble with Hera."

"For what?"

"For asking too many questions."

"So, I'm not supposed to question things?"

"Oh no, indeed you should. The nymph, Echo, was a chattering little thing with a beautiful voice. You have to be you."

"Why must everyone in this place talk in riddles?"

The large man shrugged. "You're here to fulfill a vision and a prophecy," he answered. "Now go and do what destiny calls you to."

"I don't know what that is. No one will tell me."

"Seek the one who will," Poseidon said. He waved a large hand over her head.

In a flash of light, she found herself in Theo's garden. She walked around until she found a secret path near the back. It felt dark and lonely, but she was compelled by some secret power to explore it. Logic told her to run and hide, curiosity drove her forward.

How did she know that the menacing man from her dream stood waiting at its end? Why did she care that he wanted her to come to him, and why was she tempted to give in and go?
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~

A ray of morning sun found its way through the bedroom window and tickled Echo's nose. She left her nightmares behind as she woke to a new morning. With relief to have escaped the dreams, she sat up and stretched.

After dressing, she walked into the kitchen where she could smell bacon frying and the aroma of freshly baked biscuits.

"Well, good morning," Mary said. She smiled at Echo. Her gray hair was pulled up in a loose bun. "How'd you sleep last night?"

"Pretty good, except for some really wacky dreams," Echo replied.

"That's to be expected," Mary said. "You've been through a lot, but do you feel more rested?"

"A bit, and I'm ready to start a new day."

"That's the spirit, now sit and eat so you can be prepared for it. How do you like your eggs?"

"Still in the chicken," Echo said. "I'm on a diet."

"Not in my house you aren't. You're much too skinny as it is."

"Theo likes me this way," Echo said.

"Did you ask him?"

"No."

"Then how do you know he does?"

"I don't guess I do know," Echo answered. "All men like thin women, don't they?"

"You know, honey, I've found men aren't as shallow as we think they are. Sure, they can see a pretty girl and think she looks good, but the woman they love always looks beautiful to them. Don't starve yourself or you'll be weak, and the men you and I are attracted to prefer strong women."

"Good point. I know Theo's going to need my help soon, but I don't know what good I can possibly be. I can't do anything special. I can't even ride a horse by myself."

"You'll be fine," Mary chuckled, "but not if you don't eat right. So, how do you want your eggs?"

"However you want to fix them," she replied.

Once they had eaten heartily and talked long, they got up and washed the dishes. Afterwards, they went outside to hitch up a team of horses to a wagon. Mary had promised to take Echo shopping for Valley clothes.

Before they finished lacing the leather straps onto the harness, they were interrupted by an animal scampering from the garden. It was a plump, auburn rabbit who seemed to be on a holy mission.

"Neptune!" Echo called out as the rabbit drew closer, "Mary, this is one of Hannah's babies."

"What does he want?" she asked.

"I don't know," Echo said. She stooped down to touch the chattering animal. "I don't speak rabbit."

"Me neither," Mary said.

Neptune raised up on his haunches, his legs crossed in front of him, and chattered even louder.

"What is it?" Echo asked. "What are you trying to tell me?"

Neptune looked her right in the eyes and then let out a piercing scream. Echo fell back on her bottom in surprise.

She touched the rabbit on its head. "Is it Hannah?" she asked.

Neptune leaped straight up in the air and turned around facing away from Echo. He looked back over his enormously fuzzy shoulder, seeming to plead for her to follow.

"I think he wants me to go with him," Echo said.

"I think so, too," Mary agreed. "Echo, it has begun."

"What has?"

"Your mission," she answered. "Why you came here. I'm too old to go with you as I did with Diantha long ago, and we don't have time to find anyone else. You'll have to follow the rabbit on your own and seek your destiny. Good luck, child."

Echo froze for a moment in indecision. What was she to do? She was a mere orphan, standing in the shadow of gods. What difference could she possibly make?

And then the rabbit screamed again. This was little Hannah's rabbit. The sweet little girl with a grown-up mind. Theo's baby sister.

"Come on Neptune, at least you aren't a horse."

Author Notes A special thanks to Debi Pick-Marquette for finding a cute, yet fierce, rabbit picture.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.


Chapter 27
Echo's Mission Part 2

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of last chapter:

"Neptune!" Echo called out as the rabbit drew closer, "Mary, this is one of Hannah's babies."

"What does he want?" she asked.

"I don't know," Echo said. She stooped down to touch the chattering animal. "I don't speak rabbit."

"Me neither," Mary said.

Neptune raised up on his haunches, his legs crossed in front of him, and chattered even louder.

"What is it?" Echo asked. "What are you trying to tell me?"

Neptune looked her right in the eyes and then let out a piercing scream. Echo fell back on her bottom in surprise.

She touched the rabbit on its head. "Is it Hannah?" she asked.

Neptune leaped straight up in the air and turned around facing away from Echo. He looked back over his enormously fuzzy shoulder, seeming to plead for her to follow.

"I think he wants me to go with him," Echo said.

"I think so, too," Mary agreed. "Echo, it has begun."

"What has?"

"Your mission," she answered. "Why you came here. I'm too old to go with you as I did with Diantha long ago, and we don't have time to find anyone else. You'll have to follow the rabbit on your own and seek your destiny. Good luck, child."

Echo froze for a moment in indecision. What was she to do? She was a mere orphan, standing in the shadow of gods. What difference could she possibly make?

And then the rabbit screamed again. This was little Hannah's rabbit. The sweet little girl with a grown-up mind. Theo's baby sister.

"Come on Neptune, at least you aren't a horse."



New Chapter:

Echo followed Neptune with great care and questionable agility. She ran behind him when the terrain was smooth, picked her way carefully across rocky areas, and even crawled by his side through underbrush. The rabbit was patient with her inability to cover ground efficiently and would stop and wait when she fell behind.

Echo was glad for the sweater she wore as it helped protect against the winter chill... the winter chill! It suddenly dawned on her that the weather had grown cold. What had Hannah said to her about it always being mild in Concorde Valley?

King Phoebus and Queen Diantha were captives on Mount Olympus with the other gods. Did their absence remove the magic that protected this valley?
 
She had something new to contemplate as she traveled cross-country after the paunchy bunny.

At one point, Echo flopped to the ground. "Neptune, please stop. If I don't rest a minute, you're going to have to send help for me."

Neptune returned to Echo and rested bloody paws on her leg. She looked down and stroked his head. This was no wild, field rabbit. Neptune was a pampered pet, one of Hannah's 12 closest babies. In spite of who he was named after, this gentle rabbit was no warrior.
 
"I'm sorry, buddy. You're hurting as bad as me, probably worse."

He looked at her with what appeared to be a mixture of sympathy and anxiety.
 
Echo understood what she probably never had before about sacrifice. It made what Theo had done for her when he fought Specters make more sense. He was a hero, yes, but he didn't fight the enemy for glory. He did it because he loved her. Had she really been so selfish she'd focused only on her own anguish? Was this a character flaw? No more, she decided.
 
Echo stood up and shook off discomfort and apathy. "Come on little buddy. I'll run with you until my feet are bloody." Neptune seemed to nod as he turned and faced the path again.
 
Before long, they were forced to pick their way through very thick undergrowth, a task much easier for the cinnamon-colored rabbit, than Echo. They made very little progress, which seemed to make Neptune more nervous than ever.

"Wait," she called out. "I'm going to the trees. I can travel quicker there than on ground. Just don't lose me, okay?"

Neptune actually nodded and got a new light in his brown eyes. Echo smiled back, an expression she assumed he understood, then found a low lying branch to leap into a tree.

Still tender, but choosing to ignore it, Echo moved quicker through the trees than she had on ground.

She lacked the gentle grace of the Concordians as she leapt from branch to branch, but she did it with an ease that would have surprised her own people. She laughed when she thought about what her old office nemesis, Sara Beth, would say if she could see her now.

How she longed for Theo's comforting presence to tell her what to do and to let her know that everything was going to be okay. But he wasn't there and she had to do it alone.

About the time Echo was reaching exhaustion, the woods ended at the base of one of the mountains that framed Concorde Valley. She sighed with relief when Neptune trotted to her tree and reared up on its trunk. She slipped down to him.

"What is it, boy?" she asked.

He chattered a response, which she wished she could understand.

"You'll have to show me," she said. She gestured with her arms like he was deaf rather than speaking a foreign language.

Neptune made eye contact, then turned and headed towards the mountain. Echo followed. She had gone her whole life without ever communicating with an animal, besides giving orders to her cat, and now she was doing it with relative ease. It was so simple, why hadn't she known it possible? She guessed either the animals were different in Concorde Valley, or she had, in some elemental way, changed.

They didn't have to go far before they arrived at the entrance of a cave. There in front of it, was a variety of agitated forest animals, the greatest population of which was rabbits. Echo had never seen so many diverse creatures in one spot in her life.

"What's going on?" she asked the odd crowd, not sure what answer she thought she was going to get.

"They are waiting on your instructions." A ginger-haired youth emerged from the cave.

"Phillip!" Echo exclaimed. She grabbed Theo's youngest brother with both hands and pulled him into a hug. "What's happening?"

"I don't really know," Phillip said. His bright red hair and freckles showed up distinctly in the morning light, as did the blush from her embrace. "I was in the garden practicing archery when Saturn came running up to me."

"The god or the rabbit?"

Phillip smiled in spite of their situation. "The rabbit. He grabbed my pants leg and started pulling on me. I followed behind him thinking Hannah was playing a game, but before I knew it, I was here."

"Wow, do you speak rabbit?"

"Passably."

"Can you talk to any of the other animals here?"

"I understand a little deer, as their language is so similar to horse."
 
"Which you speak?"
 
Phillip nodded. "We all do."

Echo returned the nod. The question had been rhetorical. "Have these deer told you anything?"

"They said a squirrel watched Hannah following a strange woman through the forest. The woman was singing an alluring song and Hannah followed her with a peculiar look on her face. You see, animals communicate almost as much by body language as they do sounds, so they noticed her behavior distinctly.

"The deer said the squirrel followed them here to this tunnel where Hannah seemed to come out of the trance-like state. She tried to run away, but two other women appeared from the cave and carried her inside. The animals could hear her crying out for help. Well, one thing led to another, and Hannah's babies were notified. Neptune went looking for you and Saturn for me."

"Why didn't they go get Theo? He would be much better at this than me."

"He's gone to the valley beside us, called Carack. They used to be our enemies long ago, but are friends now. They were once ruled by Hades, and so Theo's trying to see if there are any old priests around who could find a way to defeat him."

"That's smart."

"That's what Rebecca said when he came by late last night. Oh, and he said to tell you, hi, when we saw you, and that he loves you."

"He said that?"

"Actually, no, but Rebecca said he should have," Phillip said. "He did say to look out for you and keep you safe."

"Which we aren't going to do."

"Not if we go in that cave after Hannah."
 
"Which we will."
 
"I plan to."

Echo took a deep breath and leaned against the cave entrance. "I still don't know why I was sent for. I would think anyone in your family would be more qualified to help than me."

Phillip shrugged. "You're the one spoken of in the Prophecy and the animals know it."

"Seriously? The animals know and I don't?"

Phillip looked her straight in the eyes in a manner Echo was starting to recognize as either a family trait or an Immortal thing.

"I think you do."

Echo glanced away. By now, she guessed she did. There had been enough hints for anyone, especially a woman trained to look for hidden meanings, to be able to interpret.

"Okay, we don't have time to argue the matter," Echo said. "What do you suggest? Should we send for more help, or go after her ourselves?"

"I'm afraid we don't have time to get anyone else. Most of the warriors are off preparing for battle. Rebecca needs to stay with the kids, Adam's gone with Hermes on some quest or other, and I'm the oldest boy at home. No one besides our family speaks rabbit."

"Then I guess it's just you and me."

"And all these animals. What do you think we should do with them?"

"Leave them here," Echo said. "I have a feeling we'll need to sneak up on whoever is holding Hannah."

Phillip nodded agreement. "Except, I think we should take Hannah's babies. Rabbits are relatively quiet and might help once we find her."

"That's fine, but only the main twelve, please."

Phillip nodded and knelt next to Neptune. There was an exchange of chattering noises and then Phillip stood.

"He says he'll tell the others. It'll only take a few minutes. He's a pretty good speaker of other languages."

"Good thing for us."

"Yeah, it never hurts to have a translator." Phillip chuckled, his hazel eyes smiling with him. "Oh, and he said to tell you that you did a good job of following him here and that he thinks you're pretty."

"Well, tell him thanks for being a good leader and I think he's, I don't know, what's a good compliment for a bunny?"

"You can tell him he has a beautiful coat. Rabbits are very proud of their fur."

"Fine, tell him that for me, please. He really does have a unique coloring."

"It's not far from the color of my mother's hair," Phillip said. "I wish mine was more cinnamon than fire red."

"Why? I think you're quite handsome just like you are.

Phillip's face turned as bright a shade of red as his hair. It was obvious he thought Echo was pretty, too.

Neptune suddenly reappeared in front of them with eleven rabbit companions, each looking ready to go on a Hannah hunt. Echo thought the dichotomy strange. These beasts were cute and fuzzy, the picture of charm, but bore a fierceness in their eyes that would have frozen an eagle in flight.

Echo decided there was much about the animal world she didn't know. She also had a feeling she would soon be schooled on the subject.

Neptune scampered in front of everyone and headed into the dark tunnel. Phillip grabbed a torch he had lit earlier and followed behind. Echo went next and then the rest of the rabbits.

Echo glanced over her shoulder to make sure the other animals weren't following. To her surprise, she saw a  bluish-gray cat with a smooth streamlined body rushing after the group. Sunny had joined the party. Sunny, who was supposed to be waiting at Mary's. Oh well, she was glad he had disobeyed.

"Sunny," she called, "get up here with me."

Sunny complied, easily gaining a lead on the rabbits, which were forced to go slower than they wanted. It wasn't long before he was loping calmly beside his owner as though it was a normal thing for the two of them to chase their way down a cold, dark tunnel in winter. He looked over at her and made a mewing sound that seemed almost human.

Echo looked at her cat dubiously. "Don't tell me they're teaching you to talk."

Sunny made a snarling sound and looked forward. Humans could be so arrogant. Just wait until later when she wanted him to speak. He would pretend he had no idea what she was trying to say. In fact, he thought he would do that now.

"Don't pout," Echo said. "We've got to save Hannah."

Sunny grunted back, but looked like his mood had improved just a bit. He was glad to be close to Echo again, and he sure wanted to rescue Hannah. After all, she could speak cat language.

Taking a deep breath for courage, Echo picked up her pace to close the distance between her and Phillip. 
 
There she was in the middle of a rescue line, in the middle of a dream... a dream. She suddenly remembered her dream of the night before. She had been underground and cold. There had been a man, tall, broad and chillingly handsome. He said he knew her and that she knew him.
 
"Phillip, wait," she called out. "I think I know who's holding Hannah."

Author Notes A special thanks to Sally Law for finding an awesome Echo pic.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.


Chapter 28
The Sorcerer's Hut

By davisr (Rhonda)

Last Chapter:

"Why didn't they go get Theo? He would be much better at this than me."

"He's gone to the valley beside us, called Carack. They used to be our enemies long ago, but are friends now. They were once ruled by Hades, and so Theo's trying to see if there are any old priests around who could find a way to defeat him."

"That's smart."

"That's what Rebecca said when he came by late last night. Oh, and he said to tell you, hi, when we saw you, and that he loves you."

"He said that?"

"Actually, no, but Rebecca said he should have," Phillip said. "He did say to look out for you and keep you safe."

"Which we aren't going to do."

"Not if we go in that cave after Hannah."

"Which we will."

"I plan to."

Echo took a deep breath and leaned against the cave entrance. "I still don't know why I was sent for. I would think anyone in your family would be more qualified to help than me."


New Chapter Begins:


Theo trudged down an overgrown path in the valley of Carack. He clutched an inadequate torch, trying to fend off the moonless night. The closer he advanced to the hut of the sorcerer, Mageia, the darker it appeared to get.

As he drew to the door stoop, he detected a putrid odor emanating from the house and surrounding yard. He hoped Georgois had been wise when he recommended he visit the old magician. His brother seemed certain Mageia would have advice on how to defeat Hades, a god who had once ruled Carack.

Shuddering from the cold and his own dark thoughts, Theo knocked on the aging door. Even this brief touch made him shiver.

Theo heard shuffling and then a voice.

"Who approaches the home of Mageia?"

"It is Anthos, son of Phoebus, King of the Two Valleys."

"By what authority do you come?"

"That which was given to me by my father."

"Then enter."

The old door creaked inward of its own volition.

Theo took a deep breath and stepped inside. He must appear self-assured with this former minion of Hades.

"What brings you to my humble home?" Mageia asked. He motioned with a withering hand for Theo to sit across from him at a table, the only furniture visible in the small hut.

Theo took the offered seat, trying not to stare at the roaches scampering about.

"I came for your assistance, old one. Our valleys are about to be attacked by your former master, and I seek a way to defeat him."

Mageia narrowed his eyes and stroked a stubbly chin. "He's a very powerful enemy, son of Phoebus, one you should think carefully about taking on at any level."

"The decision was not mine." Theo dropped formal address and fell into the common language. "To be frank, I'm not the one who picked the fight."

"You always have a choice, young man," Mageia said. He, also, chose to drop formalities. "And there are others who might be more qualified to take on this battle."

"You know, I'd love to leave it to people older and more experienced," Theo said, "but I've received a mandate from Mount Olympus to either find a way to defeat him, or surrender both our valleys."

"And you think you can do this?"

"Not alone. I know enough to realize I need help."

"My help?" the old man asked. He gestured with feigned helplessness. "What can I possibly do to help a strong man such as yourself?"

"I only need information you might provide." 

"And what makes you think I have anything worthwhile to tell you?" Mageia leaned back in his creaking chair as though distancing himself from the conversation.

Theo noticed the gesture and leaned in. His voice grew calm, almost a whisper, forcing the curious magician to listen closely. "I was told by my father's captain, Georgios, that you're on our side. He asked me to mention him by name."

Mageia slowly eased the chair back to the table. A gentle light began to glow in the old man's eyes. "Georgios and I have worked together for years to help rebuild Carack after the destruction Hades left behind. He's a good man."
 
"He's my brother."
 
"I know, but not all brothers work as a team."
 
"We do."
 
"I see that, but why are you standing in your father's place and not him? He's the eldest."
 
"Yeah, by a longshot." Theo couldn't help but chuckle. "But, he doesn't want the position. He was truly glad when our father started having more children."
 
"I can see that in him. He's the type to work hard and let others take the credit."
 
"That and he says he doesn't like politics."
 
"Do you?"
 
"Not really, but I do want to be a leader, so it goes with the territory."
 
"Well, I don't know much about you, but Georgios' name gets you credit in my books."

"Then you'll help us?"

"I might," Mageia said, "if I think there's something I might get out of it."

"I would be willing to pay you handsomely," Theo said.

"Riches are what Hades always offers, young man." Mageia looked sternly at Theo. "If that could have bought me, I would still be with him. It was the desire for material things that led to the destruction of this valley. You'll have to do better than that."

"What do you want then?" Theo asked.

"Legitimacy," he replied. He leaned his elbows onto the table. "I want to be recognized for my wisdom and to have a chance to be heard by kings and princes."

Theo nodded understanding. From what Georgios had said, Mageia was held in high esteem in the former regime. "What position do you think would give you recognition?"

"I want to be a member of the King's Council," he replied.

Theo's eyebrows raised as he shook his head. "That's my father's closest advisors. I'm not free to choose his councilors."

"But you told me you're here with his authority, didn't you?"

"I did, but it's only temporary."

Mageia responded quickly. "You don't know that for sure. He's gone and we don't know when he'll return. As far as I'm concerned, you're the king, and if you want my help, you know the price."

"Let me explain what I need from you first."

"I know what you want," Mageia said. He shook his head impatiently. "Hades has taken control of Mount Olympus. He did it two days ago and he's holding your parents along with the other gods.  You want me to tell you his weaknesses so you can defeat him."

"How did you find out about the revolt?"

"Wisdom belongs to the aged, young prince, as do contacts. It's why you came to me, isn't it?"

"I came because I was desperate."

"Desperate men don't come alone to a sorcerer's house in the middle of the night. You came because someone you trusted sent you here."

"That's true, and I apologize if I've made you feel misjudged," Theo said, "but how do I know you don't still serve Hades in secret?"

"You don't, nor do I know if you weren't the one behind the coup. There are enemies on both sides of Concorde Mountain."

"I guess we'll have to trust each other."

"That we will. Now, what about my position on the council?"

"I'll grant it, if you give me useful information."


Mageia stood and began pacing the room. With withered hands and bent legs, he leaned heavily on a cane. Suddenly he stopped and pierced Theo with a glance.

He drew in a chestful of air and began to speak in a voice so clear and strong, it took Theo aback.

"There are two brothers, twins. They're the sons of Nyx, Queen of the Night. Their names are Hypnos and Thanatos."

"Sleep and Death," Theo translated. "Are they gods?"

"No, they're above the gods," Mageia said. He waved his arms wildly. "And they're very dangerous beings."

"Then why should I ask for their help? They sound worse than Hades."

"They have no love for the god of the underworld, for personal reasons."

"Aren't they on the same side?"

"Not at all, but you'll have to ask the twins what enmity lies between them and Hades. For now, it doesn't matter. They're the only ones powerful enough to end his reign. He's always been terrified of them."

"How can I find them?"

"I don't know. Only the Twelve Olympians have that information. I just know of their existance and what they can do."

"I have Hermes helping me," Theo said. "He's one of the Twelve."

"Yes, a good ally, that boy," Mageia agreed. "How did he manage to escape the rebellion?"

"From what I understand," Theo said, "he has his ways."

"Then get him to tell you where they are. Better yet, take him with you."

"I'll try," Theo said, "but if they're as dangerous as you say, how will I approach them?"

"The same way you do any beings of power you need a favor from. You must bring a gift."

"What kind?"

"Something so precious it hurts to give it away," Mageia replied. "In that way, you'll always remember they helped you."

"I don't have much that would fit that category," Theo said. "Like you, I'm not very materialistic."

"On your journey, you'll think of something. To go empty handed will incur wrath rather than aid."

Theo sized Mageia up. He looked old and frail, but his words were strong and his mind clear. There was something, in spite of his past associations and the condition of his home, that drew Theo to him.

Mageia spoke. "I want you to know, I never completely served Hades and for that he hated me. He still does. Now, what about our deal?"

"In absence of my father, I'll take the chance and grant you a position on the council. You've been more than helpful. Is there anything else you need?"

"Just for you to be successful, King-son," Mageia said. "Our valley has not completely healed from the damage done it under Hades' reign. Dawn has broken while you were here. On your way out see what has become of our land. If you fail your mission, this is the fate of all Earth."

"Then I must not fail." Theo bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Thanks for your help."

Mageia nodded his gnarled head and opened the door for his prince to leave. Theo patted him on his filthy back as he passed.

Climbing on the back of the great, roan stallion, he headed towards the pass in the mountain that would lead him home. As he went,Theo let out a call to the wild horses in the area. Several responded with their own piercing reply. He instructed them to get a message to Hermes to meet him in the garden outside his house, that is if he was back from his own mission.

Theo did what Mageia suggested and took a good look at Carack Valley in the growing light of morning. As always, it was desolate and depressing. Once a valley as beautiful as Concorde, it was brought to ruin by an abusive society.
 
As the last view of Carack filled his eyes, Theo spotted life returning to the ruin. Hope had begun to refill a valley long devoid of light. He had to make sure that hope had a chance to flourish, and that such destruction be kept from the whole of Earth.

Author Notes A special thanks to Sally Law for the artwork of Theo.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.


Chapter 29
Adam's Trial

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter: 
 
Climbing on the back of the great, roan stallion, he headed towards the pass in the mountain that would lead him home. As he went,Theo let out a call to the wild horses in the area. Several responded with their own piercing reply. He instructed them to get a message to Hermes to meet him in the garden outside his house, that is if he was back from his own mission.

Theo did what Mageia suggested and took a good look at Carack Valley in the growing light of morning. As always, it was desolate and depressing. Once a valley as beautiful as Concorde, it was brought to ruin by an abusive society.
 
As the last view of Carack filled his eyes, Theo spotted life returning to the ruin. Hope had begun to refill a valley long devoid of light. He had to make sure that hope had a chance to flourish, and that such destruction be kept from the whole of Earth.
 
New Chapter Begins:

As soon as he returned to Concorde Valley, Theo pressed Nifty to top speed. He had less than a week to get soldiers prepared for battle, find Hypnos and Thanatos, and make plans to defeat the lord of the dead.

Nifty complied with his master's urgency and ran with the speed he was bred for.

His sire was the immortal black stallion, Eternal, born on Mount Olympus and once a part of Phoebus' own Centaur body. When asked to fly like the wind, Nifty was equipped to oblige.

The great horse slowed to a stop at Theo's house and knelt for him to dismount.

Theo led his steed into the garden where he found Hermes seated at a table, munching on fried chicken. His younger brother, Adam, was sitting beside him looking frazzled.

"I'm glad to see you've made yourself at home," Theo said. He walked over and affectionately slapped his cousin on the shoulder.

"Searching for lost brothers is hard work," Hermes said. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and glanced up, "Your brother is a great cook."

"It was simply fried chicken," Adam said, "Given time, I could have done more."

"I'm sure you gave it your best. You always do," Theo said. He patted his brother on the back with a little more tenderness than he had his cousin.

"So what did you two discover? Did you locate Apollo?"

"We did," Hermes said. His answer came quickly and a bit rehearsed.

Theo crossed his arms across his chest, his green eyes narrowing in suspicion. "That didn't take long."

"Well, it helps that I already had a pretty good idea where to look."

"I knew you knew where he was," Theo said. He threw his hands up in exasperation.

Hermes shrugged and went back to eating chicken.

"And where is he?" Theo asked.

"Actually, not too far, as the messenger god flies."

"Can you be more specific?"

"I'd rather not."

"Okay, we'll skip the location for now," Theo said. He didn't have time or patience for cajoling the evasive god. He could always pump Adam for information later.

"I don't care where you found the guy as long as he's headed here."

"Well, there might be an issue with that," Hermes said. His eyes shifted nervously.

"What issue?"

Theo placed his hands on the table and leaned close enough to pin Hermes with his eyes.

"Tell me you were able to talk him into helping us."

"I did talk to him," Hermes said, "and he said he's heard about the issue on Mount Olympus, but I'm not quite sure he appreciates the gravity of the situation."

"Didn't you explain it to him?" Theo drew closer to Hermes' face.

"Of course I did," Hermes replied, visibly squirming.

"And what did he tell you?"

"Verbatim?"

"If you remember everything he said, yes."

"Yeah, well, he was quite to the point. He told me to kiss off."

"That's it?" Theo asked. "All he said was to kiss off?"

"Well, he did add a bit more about how he didn't care what the gods on Mount Olympus did. He indicated he was sick of us all, and me in particular."

"But what about his twin sister, Artemis? She's being held captive, too. Surely he cares about her."

"I tried that angle. He said, She's the goddess of the hunt, let her hunt for help. I thought he was being  entirely flippant about it, completely out of line. His father would be furious."

"He has the same father you do, Hermes."

"True, but he seemed to have forgotten that fact."

"So he's not going to help us?"

"He never really came right out and said he wouldn't," Hermes said. "I think the kiss off remark was directed at me, personally."

"I don't have time to play political games with your nutty relatives."

"They're yours, too," Hermes said.

"For the moment, I would prefer not to think of them that way. The point is, it appears we can't count on Apollo. I have a bigger project I need your help with, anyway. We'll get back to the sun god later."

"Works for me."

Hermes pushed his plate aside and leaned forward.

"I traveled last night to Carack Valley and spoke with one of Hades' old priests, Mageia," Theo said.

Hermes made a face like he had just taken a bite of Amazonian ants. "Why would you do that, boy?"

"I needed to find out if there was anything he knew about stopping Hades, since he used to work for him. Unfortunately, I had to promise him a spot on the King's Council before he'd talk."

"I wouldn't want to be you when Dad finds out," Adam said.

Theo shrugged. "If he gets mad, he gets mad. I had to make a hard decision and Father put me in the position to do so. It's not like I was happy about it."

Adam nodded. "A king's choice. It was yours to make, and one reason I never want to be king."

Theo ruffled his brother's dark hair. "Be careful what you claim never on."

Adam gave him a dark look. "Not funny."

"I hate to break up the brother-bonding thing here," Hermes said, "but what did the old guy say?

Theo instantly became serious. "He suggested I get help from two brothers, Hypnos and Thanatos, to whom even the gods must answer."

"Ouch!" Hermes said. "Why those guys?"

Theo rolled his eyes. "You've ticked them off, too, haven't you?"

"Absolutely not. Even I wouldn't mess with the sons of Nix."

"That's a relief. Do you know where to find them?"

"Of course. I can find anyone, it's my gig. But, Theo, I'm not sure they're any safer than Hades."

"Mageia said the same, but he feels they'll help if I bring them a sacrificial gift."

Adam cringed. "Like a lamb or something?"

"No," Hermes said. "For a group of people with unlimited power and time, desired gifts are ones that involve a personal sacrifice of some sort."

"What do you have in mind?" Adam asked.

"I don't know for sure," Theo said. "I thought I might offer to design them a garden, or, maybe, paint a meaningful picture. To be honest, I don't know what I have to offer anyone of such stature and power."

"It'll come to you before you get there," Hermes said, "or you can ask them directly. They aren't rash. They'll usually listen before lulling you to sleep and killing you."

Adam let out a sound somewhere between a squeak and a gasp.

"Theo, don't go. There's got to be a better way."

"That was all Mageia could come up with and he knows Hades best."

"But Father..."

"Is being held captive along with Mother, Adam. It's not a good plan, but it's all we've got and we're running out of time."

Adam's downcast eyes spoke volumes about what he wanted to say. But, as he had no other plan to offer, kept silent in deference to his brother and cousin.

"So, can you take me to them, Hermes?"

"I can and will. I'm not terribly fond of the guys, but they're probably the only thing left Hades fears."

"Why does he fear them?" Adam asked. "I thought all three work together. Doesn't Hypnos put people to sleep, Thanatos kill them, and Hades rule them in the Underworld."

"That's how it's supposed to work," Theo began.

"But, the old boy threw off the balance of power," Hermes interrupted. "He's trying to do everybody's jobs. The twins have been letting him get away with it because, like Apollo, they'd just as soon let us stew in our own juices."

"So, if Theo brings this gift you're talking about, will they put a stop to it?" Adam asked.

"It's worth a shot," Hermes said, "unless we want to just roll over and let him take control of the world."

"You don't strike me as the rolling over type," Adam said, "and I know Theo isn't."

Hermes was about to respond when he paused and pointed to the edge of the garden. "Hey, that rabbit looks like it's trying to get your attention."

Theo's eyes followed his cousin's gaze. "That's one of Hannah's pets."

He walked to the fence and pulled it up by the scruff. "It's not one of her main twelve, but definitely part of the herd."

"Theo, put him down," Adam said with alarm in his voice. "He's trying to say something."

Theo sat the rabbit on the ground. It instantly drew up on its haunches and began to chatter frantically. Adam leaned in close and listened. He chattered something back, and then stood up.
His mouth gaped open in shock, while tears vied with fury in his eyes.

"Hannah has been taken by three Sirens," he said. "Echo and Phillip have gone after them in a tunnel under Concorde Mountain. Hannah's twelve babies and Echo's cat, Sunny, are with them."

"How long ago?" Theo asked. His voice was clear and calm. Only his eyes showed signs of alarm.

"Since early this morning," Adam said. Building beneath the tears was a determination Theo had never seen in his brother's eyes before. "We have to go after them."

"Tell the rabbit to lead us to wherever he last saw them," Theo said.

Hermes stood to his feet. "No, Theo, it's just a distraction to keep you from completing your quest. Don't get drawn into it."

"A distraction?" Theo thundered. "It's more than that. I can't leave my girlfriend and family to the Sirens."

"It's exactly what I said it is," Hermes said. In the place of the playful god was the authoritative ruler that made him so dangerous an enemy. "It's a typical tactic. You must go for the sons of Nyx. It's the only hope we have of defeating Hades. Don't fall into this trap."

"But Hannah and the others need me. I have to save them first."

"What they need is for you to defeat the man who holds Hannah captive. The Sirens might have taken her, but you know who they work for."

"I'll go after them, Theo," Adam said. "You go get those guys you told us about, and leave Hannah and the others to me. I won't let you down."

"It's not that I don't trust you, Adam, it's just that I feel like I would be abandoning them when they trust me to come."

"You don't love Hannah and Phillip any more than I do, Theo." Adam's jaw was set, his eyes now blazing with green fire. "I know I've shirked my duties for years. I've always said I don't care about being a god, but the true desire is inside me, just like it's in you."

Theo nodded in understanding. He touched his younger brother on the arm. "Okay, Adam, but don't do anything stupid. You aren't going there to sacrifice your life to prove something to all of us."

"I have nothing to prove," Adam said. "No one's ever expected much from me. I know it's my own fault, but I'm different now. Maybe we can consider this my godhood trial."

"That sounds like a good idea, but I don't have the authority to grant you one," Theo said. "I stand in the place of the King, not one of the 12 ruling gods."

"Which is where I come in," Hermes said. "Adam, I officially assign you the task of rescuing Hannah, Phillip and Echo. The successful completion of which will earn you the position of my apprentice on Mount Olympus."

Adam turned to Theo for approval.

"Go now with our blessing," Theo said. He nodded his head at his younger brother.

Adam nodded back. He dropped his cloak and finery, and raced off after the rabbit messenger, his thin, nimble body weaving gracefully through the flowers and plants. 

 

Author Notes A special thanks to Sally Law for the artwork of Adam.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: On of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nix: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 30
The Tunnel's End

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of Last Chapter:

"I have nothing to prove," Adam said. "No one's ever expected much from me. I know it's my own fault, but I'm different now. Maybe we can consider this my godhood trial."

"That sounds like a good idea, but I don't have the authority to grant you one," Theo said. "I stand in the place of the King, not one of the 12 ruling gods."

"Which is where I come in," Hermes said. "Adam, I officially assign you the task of rescuing Hannah, Phillip and Echo. The successful completion of which will earn you the position of my apprentice on Mount Olympus."

Adam turned to Theo for approval.

"Go now with our blessing," Theo said. He nodded his head to his younger brother.

Adam nodded back. He dropped his cloak and finery, and raced off after the rabbit messenger, his thin, nimble body weaving gracefully through flowers and plants.


Beginning of New Chapter:

Echo watched the tall, ginger youth disappear around a bend in the tunnel. She drew in rapid, shallow breaths as she thought of the frantic miles spent powering through the twisting tunnels of a complex labyrinth.

Her overwhelming emotion had been one of anguish, gut wrenching, heart twisting anguish. Hannah was in the hands of evil, that much was certain. The air was as thick with it as it was darkness.

Ahead of her, Phillip's torch burned as a beacon of hope, always ahead, always drawing her to it. Behind her scampered eleven rabbits and one tall gray cat. All were bent on one purpose, rescuing Hannah.

At one point, the glow of the torch grew more distinct as the group came upon Phillip, quiet and pensive, one arm thrust out to stop them.

"We're almost to a gathering of people," he explained.

"Did you hear something?"

"No, Neptune doubled back to tell me."

"What next?"

"I think just you and I should go ahead to see what's going on."

"I think that's a good idea," Echo said, "But what if we meet up with someone? Do you have any sort of a weapon?"

"Just a knife, but I'm not sure how much good it would be against a bunch of people."
 
"It's more than I have."
 
"Well, I'll keep it put up for the moment. Best they think we don't have anything, and it's best you stay behind me. I'm from around here. I can pretend to be lost. Don't show yourself unless there's no other choice."
 
Echo softly agreed as they trudged onward.

Finally, Phillip placed his torch on the ground and pressed his body to the side of the tunnel wall. Echo responded by leaning against the wall as well. Phillip turned and put a finger to his lips. Echo nodded, her heart and breath racing as before.

Slowly, they crept around a bend and gazed into a huge cave-like opening. There were hundreds of people seated on the floor around a raised platform, listening to a speaker with rapt, almost hypnotic, attention.

The speaker was arranged in the center. He was tall and muscular, with wavy black hair and powerful brown eyes. He strode around the stage like a stalking lion.

Echo gasped, then held her breath. This man, the very one she felt would be present, had haunted her dreams the night before. He bore the same handsome features and wielded the same commanding presence. He exuded a mixture of terror and seduction.

Echo grabbed Phillip's arm. "Who's that?"

Phillip's grimace in the wavering light of the torch spoke more than his one simple word, "Hades."

"Himself?"

"I'm afraid so."

"But he's so, uh, handsome."

Phillip cocked an eye at her. "What did you expect?"

"I don't know, maybe a giant Specter with horns and a pitchfork."

"All the gods are beautiful... beautiful and deadly."

"But the others are nice."

Phillip, the youngster who aspired to be a teacher, gave her an upraised eyebrow.

"Read your history books."

Echo flashed a quick smile. "That's fair."

Phillip blinked his eyes in mute acknowledgment of her discovery, then leaned back into the shadows, pulling her with him.

"Did you see Hannah?" she asked.

"I think so. There was someone sitting in a sort of indentation in a rock behind him. Did you see, too?"

"No. I was watching Hades."

"Be careful of that. He can draw you in with his voice and eyes. Try to focus on his evil, not his appearance."

Echo nodded. "Could you tell if she was okay?"

"I'm not sure. She's sitting up, but not moving. It was just a quick glance, but she looked drugged or something."

"We've got to get to her," Echo said.

"Any ideas?" he asked.

"Ummm, don't you?"

Phillip thought for a moment while Echo looked on with jaded hope.

"We could send Neptune in," he said. "I'll ask him to sneak up and talk to her while no one's looking. If she has any wits about her, she'll answer. In the meantime, we can just wait here and listen to my dear Uncle Hades rant."

"Sounds good to me," Echo said, "but I can't understand a word he's saying."

"That's because he's speaking Greek," Phillip explained. "After I talk to Neptune, I'll translate for you."

"You speak Greek?"

Phillip chuckled. "That and several animal dialects. In Concorde Valley, you end up learning lots of languages."

Phillip knelt on the floor and chattered to the concerned mammal.

Echo peeked her head around the corner to look for Hannah. She noticed the child sitting motionless and her heart went out to her. Their plan just had to work.
 
Before she could look away, her attention was drawn, again, to the charismatic Hades. Even though she couldn't understand a word he was saying, she could feel the allure in his voice.

With sudden realization, she knew the greatest danger she faced with this Olympian god was not in direct combat, but in resisting temptation.

For just a moment, she imagined him pulling her into his strong comforting arms. She thought of his warm touch in her dream and the stroke of his hand across her flesh. She began to glow with warmth, the cold of the cave fading in his energy. She closed her eyes and let the feeling wash over her.

"Echo." She heard a soft voice calling her name. 
"Remember what I said about his voice. He'll hypnotize you like all those men out there."

"You're the one that said we should listen to him rant," Echo said.

Phillip flinched. "Yeah, I'm not so sure that's a good idea for you. In fact, if we can help it, you shouldn't have any direct contact with him at all. He's an expert at this game."

"You're right, Phillip. You know him way better than I do. So, what's he saying?"

"He's giving the guys a pep talk, saying that before the week's out, they'll attack Concorde Valley and take it by storm just like they did Mount Olympus. He says within a month, they'll take control of the whole world and there will be no one left to resist him. Then, he says, the dead will rule the world and the living will be their slaves."

"A bit of an egomaniac, wouldn't you say?"

"A bit, only I think he truly means to accomplish it. He's been planning this take-over for years."

"How do you know?"

"He just said it to the troops, plus I heard my parents talking about him before they left."

"Oh, so are those dead guys out there listening to him?"

"I don't think so, not yet anyway. He seems to be encouraging them to become that way if required."

"Like Kamikazes?"

"I don't know what those are."

"Japanese suicide pilots in World War II," Echo said. "They would ram their planes into enemy ships at the cost of their own lives."

"Sounds pretty close to what he expects out of these. He doesn't seem to care whether or not they die. They're his servants either way."

"Good point."

"What's he saying now?" Echo asked.

Hades had just finished a particularly ardent tirade.

Phillip gulped as he fought back tears. "He says they'll begin their assault with the sacrifice of a child; one who is pure in heart and strong in spirit. He says for the job they're embarking on, no ordinary one will do. Then he pointed to Hannah and said that it would require the blood of an immortal."

"I thought immortals can't die."

"Not by ordinary means, but there are a few ways we can, like by fire or by the hands of another immortal." Phillip took several jagged breaths as he fought for self-control.

"We won't let that happen," Echo said. She placed a hand on his arm. "That's why we're here."

"Echo, he says he's going to do it right now," Phillip said. "We don't have time to wait for help, or come up with a strategy, or any of those things. Like all the boys in my family, I'm trained to be a warrior, to fight other soldiers, but what can I do against this kind of horror?"

Echo grew quiet, and then spoke. "How well can you throw your knife?"

"I'm pretty good, but not accurate enough to kill Hades."

"You won't have to," Echo said. "You just need to sting him badly enough to break his spell. Leave the rest to me."

"But you aren't a soldier."

"No, but like I keep saying, that's not what's needed. Tell the other rabbits to get ready to lead Hannah off with you on my signal. I have an idea."

"You aren't planning to be one of those kamikaze people you told me about are you?"

"Maybe, but I don't think he'll kill me. He needs an immortal for his sacrifice and I'm human. If anything, he'll use me to bargain with your brother."

Phillip's voice took on the same serious tone she'd heard Theo and his father use. "Don't do it, Echo.Trading yourself for Hannah isn't going to solve anything."

"Yes it is," Echo said. "Without an immortal to sacrifice, his plans will be set back. Tell Theo not to give into any of his demands to rescue me. I'm just one person and he has to save the world. Maybe it's why I was brought to this valley to begin with."
 
"You mean the prophesy?"
 
"Yes."

"You don't know what's in it and neither do I," Phillip said, "but I don't believe dying at the hands of my uncle in this cave is a part of it. Look, I'll distract Hades, like you said, but you're to follow behind us. Do you understand? Hades won't leave this cave yet. He's bound by the agreement he made to confront Theo in one week."

"I promise to do my best. Now throw that knife."

Phillip glared a warning at her one more time, reached inside his shirt and pulled out a very threatening looking weapon. In one swift movement, he flung it with a strength and speed she was surprised to see in a 17-year-old.

They both held their breaths as the knife whistled through the air, then sank into the elder god's chest.

In surprise, Hades grasped the spot where the knife had disappeared to the hilt. Pain and shock broke the spell of his voice. The crowd began to murmur as black blood oozed out of their leader's wound and dripped onto the floor. A little more to the left and the immortal youth might have ended the whole ordeal himself.

"Good shot," Echo said. She patted Phillip on the back. "Now send out the rabbits."

Author Notes A special thanks to Sally Law for the artwork of Phillip. In the story, he has red hair, but this one was too cute to pass up.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: On of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nix: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 31
Hades

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

 
End of last post:
 
"I promise to do my best. Now throw that knife."

Phillip glared a warning at her one more time, reached inside his shirt and pulled out a very threatening looking weapon. In one swift movement, he flung it with a strength and speed she was surprised to see in a 17-year-old.

They both held their breaths as the knife whistled through the air, then sank into the elder god's chest.

In surprise, Hades grasped the spot where the knife had disappeared to the hilt. Pain and shock broke the spell of his voice. The crowd began to murmur as black blood oozed out of their leader's wound and dripped onto the floor. A little more to the left and the immortal youth might have ended the whole ordeal himself.

"Good shot," Echo said. She patted Phillip on the back. "Now send out the rabbits."



New Chapter:

Phillip cupped his hands over his mouth and issued a battle cry understood by humans and animals alike. With a great burst of righteous indignation, the rabbits flew out of the tunnel and charged into the crowd fueling fear and confusion. Echo was certain she saw rats and mice join in, living things that could no more endure his presence than she could.

Even Sunny was present in the fray, screaming, scratching and biting at the enemy. Echo was shocked at her pet's transformation. She guessed Concorde Valley had given him, like it had her, a deeper sense of purpose than that which they had upon arrival.

In the semi-darkness of the cave, the army of Hades stumbled around tripping over each other in an attempt to get away from the unseen menace tearing at their feet and legs.

Meanwhile, Phillip and Echo slipped along the side of the cave until they made their way to the back of the stage. There they found Hannah nestled in a hollow of the stony outcropping. Neptune arrived ahead of them and was found pawing at her arm.

Philip brushed the concerned animal aside as he lifted his sister into his arms. Without stopping to try and wake her, he crept into the shadows, clutching her to his breast. Echo followed on his heels.

"Is she okay?" she asked.

Phillip shrugged his shoulders. "Not entirely, but she's moving."

Echo touched the child's dangling arm. 
"She's hot, Phillip."

"I know. They'll figure out how to help her back in the valley. Let's get out of here."
 
He called for the rabbits and Sunny to follow. As a unified group, they raced down the main tunnel. Before they got far, a thunder voice stopped them.

"Not so fast, you fools."

Echo felt a palpable power pulling her back. Her steps grew slower and more labored. She fought to break free, but soon found she could barely move her legs.

In her periphery, she watched Phillip ease to a stop.
 
"Get out of here," she shouted.

Phillip shook his head. "I told you I won't leave you behind."

"You have to," she pleaded. "Please get Hannah out of here. I can't break free."

Phillip hesitated, then decided to do what Echo asked. He had begun to feel the power of his uncle pulling at him, too. He would get Hannah to safety, then come back for his brother's girlfriend. Like she said, Hades wasn't going to kill her.

Before they took off, Hannah stirred. Her diminutive blue eyes flew open, and in a hoarse voice, blurted out, "Echo, your Horse Name is Perseverance. It will help you."

She made eye contact with Echo before relaxing back into whatever trance she'd been in.

Phillip's eyebrows raised, but he said nothing. There was no time. He headed away, his precious burden clasped tightly to his chest.

Echo didn't know what prompted Hannah to disregard the rules of her culture to reveal the horse name, or even how she knew it, but was glad to finally have one mystery solved. She would have to think on it later as there were more pressing issues competing for her attention. 


A commanding bellow broke through the sounds of combat and hung in the air with a power of its own.

Echo, suddenly freed from restraint, turned and glared defiantly at the dark god. If she was forced to face him, she would do so under her own terms.

Once again, she was struck by Hades' physical appearance. Even with the front of his leather tunic stained with black blood, he was a striking figure. Tall and muscular, with deep irresistible eyes, he presented a mesmerizing visage in the glowing torchlight. Dark wavy hair fell to his shoulders, adding to his singular charm.


Echo hesitated as she took him in. He was, afterall, a celebrity, but, as she was used to interviewing famous people, she recovered her composure almost at once. She decided to choose something disarming to say to take him off guard. She pointed to the wound on his chest.
 
"I didn't do that," she said.

Taken aback by the incongruity of her statement, he gave an indulgent chuckle. "No, I didn't think you did. I doubt if you could hit me with the side of a sword at point blank range. This is the work of my ridiculous young nephew. Painful, but ineffective."

 
Echo shrugged. The fact was obvious, but she was still trying to buy time for her friends to escape. Conversation, the greatest stall tactic she knew, was her forte.

"Look, I'm sorry all this happened." She motioned with one hand around the enclosure. "I'm sure you were having a moving discussion with your employees, but you had to have known that what you did to Hannah was not okay."
 
Hades crossed his arms across his expansive chest, effectively covering the mark the knife had made. Vulnerability wasn't the image he wanted to project. He focused his eyes on the object of his affection.
 
Echo averted her face so she wouldn't be tempted to make eye contact, per Phillip's warning.
 
"Look, Hades, I'm just an outsider who got mixed up in a family squabble. If you let me go, I'll take a message to the others, then y'all can straighten out your differences without involving strangers and innocent children."

Hades raised his eyebrows, his eyes betraying amusement. "Miss Echo Jones from Taylorville, you're presence here is certainly no accident, and I have no intention of letting you go. It took too much effort to get you here to begin with. You're right about one thing, though, I never planned to hurt little Hannah. She served her purpose, which was getting you here."
 
"You drugged her, Hades, and that's not good for a growing child, Immortal or otherwise."
 
"She'll be fine. They have plenty of good doctors in Concorde Valley."
 
"The best of which you're holding hostage on Mount Olympus."
 
"Phoebus?" Hades guffawed. "It's not my fault he decided to show up and get involved. He should've stayed where he belonged, besides, there are others who can heal what ails the child."
 
"Which is?"
 
"The Breath of Aidoneus."
 
"Aidoneus?
 
"One of my many names."
 
"Okay, so what's so important about your breath?"
 
"It's a bit paralyzing when I intend it to be. A tool in my line of work."
 
Echo folded her arms across her chest in mimicry of Hades. "I'll bet. So, are you going to use it to make me stay?"
 
"Not if I don't have to. For now, I'll treat you as a guest. Besides, I have a nasty knife wound you're partly responsible for. You can help me treat it."

"I would love to do that," Echo said, "but I'm not much of a nurse. I can't even bandage my own injuries properly, and I practically faint at the sight of blood."

"That's a pretty tired phrase, Echo. I know you can do better than that. I've read your work." Hades' indulgent grin was turning into a smirk. "Besides, You don't really strike me as the delicate type."
 
"That's fair, but I still don't want to treat your wound."
 
Hades laughed a disarming laugh that might have been enticing under different circumstances.
 
"It's not that big a deal, Echo. I have plenty of others who can do it, besides, I need you to start preparing for our wedding."

"Excuse me?" It was Echo's turn to be surprised.

"Our wedding," Hades repeated. "I've waited years for this event to be fulfilled. If you had just gone with my messengers, we could already be married and have skipped this whole charade."

"You mean the Specters?" Echo asked. "Pretty poor messengers, if you ask me. They tried to kill me."

"No, they didn't. They only meant to scare you."

"They said they were offended by my newspaper stories and were going to kill me to teach the world a lesson."

"Merely theatrics, darling. If you hadn't attacked them first, they would've explained everything nicely, and brought you here like I asked. Since it didn't go that way, I had to set up another strategy to induce you to come to me. I really am sorry to have frightened sweet little Hannah, but you're a slippery one."
 
"Only when I'm being stalked by psychopaths."
 
Hades swept his hand dismissively. "All that's behind us now. We're free to continue with the wedding you were destined for."

Echo let out a most unattractive snort. "I'm not marrying you. In case you haven't heard, I'm Theo's girlfriend."

It was Hades' turn to sneer. "Theo is small stuff, a mere half-breed with little to no power. It's your destiny to become the wife of one of the Olympian Twelve, or didn't they share that news with you?"

"No-o-o," Echo drew out the word as she sought to regain composure. Hades had hit a vulnerable spot and knew it. She was determined to not let him take her down that rabbit hole. As with his eyes, Echo knew Hades' words were dangerous to entertain.

Realizing her tactic, Hades drew nearer and touched her arm. "Of course they didn't tell you. They always keep so many secrets."
 
"I know enough."
 
"You know what?"
 
"I know I'm not interested in you."

Hades ignored her remark. "You're destined to become an immortal, my darling, and to sit on Mount Olympus beside your husband. That was the Prophesy given at your birth. Of course, Theo doesn't know about it, the simpleton, but Phoebus does and so does your little friend, Hermes. How's that for keeping secrets?"
 
"I'm sure if they had thought it important to tell me, they would have. They want me to figure things out on my own."
 
"I would say you just did. With my help, that is, and because I care enough about you to not make your destiny a guessing game."
 
Echo turned her back. She was not going to get drawn in. She was the one trying to buy time by talking. Hades moved in closer and put his hand on her shoulder. She could feel the energy running down her spine. He leaned in and whispered in her ear.
 
"He hasn't kissed you yet, has he? He can't. It's my job to make you immortal. When I'm king of the gods, you'll be my queen."

"Is that written as well?" Echo asked, careful not to believe anything Hades said that hadn't been substantiated by Theo's family.

"Not specifically, but it does say one of the 12, and to be honest, I'm the only one available."

"That's not what I've heard. You're married to what's her name, Persephone? I'm sure she wouldn't appreciate me stealing her man, or her place on the throne."

"Not true," Hades countered. "I only see her for six months of the year, and between you and me, it's pretty awkward. She hates my guts."

"No way!" Echo said. "I can't imagine why."

"I'm glad you feel that way," Hades said, "because Persephone promised me, just this morning, she wouldn't fight our marriage. In fact, she said something about being so happy I had found someone else that she would dance at our wedding."

"Too kind," Echo said. "So what are you going to do, put me in some sort of trance and force me to marry you against my will?"

"No, Echo, you'll marry me willingly."

"I don't see how you figure that. If anything, I feel worse about you than Persephone."

"That may be true for now, but your views will change, especially when it gets to the bargaining stage with your boyfriend. We don't have to get married tonight. I may be an impatient man, but for such a wonderful prize, I can wait until the right time. Besides, I don't care whether or not you hate me. I'm rather used to it by now."

"Theo might not give me up as easily as you hope."

"Oh, that's what I'm counting on. There's nothing like irrational emotions to weaken a man. I do hate to put you in the middle this way, my dear, but I need your help. You'll thank me for it later."

"I have a distinct feeling I won't."

Hades smiled wickedly. "That's okay, too. Now, if you'll come with me, I need to get this wound sewn up since you don't seem to want to help me with it."

"I hope you bleed to death," Echo popped back nastily.

"Yes, that would work in your favor, wouldn't it?"

"It would be a nice start. So, if you do die, where does your soul go? The underworld with all the poor unfortunates you guard, or would it just disappear like vapor?"

Hades' face grew even darker. A cold shiver enveloped his body. "That would be up to Thanatos."

"Who's that?"

Hades' face showed horror beyond horror for just a fraction of a second. A fraction lasting long enough to give Echo an idea that there was someone even the gods feared. 
 
"He's my boss," Hades said. "The twin  brother to Hypnos."
 
"Sleep and Death," Echo repeated. "I've heard of them."
 

Author Notes Artwork created by IZEA.

Thanks for the question by Robert about what happens to Hades or the Specters if they die.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: On of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nix: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 32
A Battle of Wills

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

End of Last Chapter: 
 
"Oh, that's what I'm counting on. There's nothing like irrational emotions to weaken a man. I do hate to put you in the middle this way, my dear, but I need your help. You'll thank me for it later."

"I have a distinct feeling I won't."

Hades smiled wickedly. "That's okay, too. Now, if you'll come with me, I need to get this wound sewn up since you don't seem to want to help me with it."

"I hope you bleed to death," Echo popped back nastily.

"Yes, that would work in your favor, wouldn't it?"

"It would be a nice start. So, if you do die, where does your soul go? The underworld with all the poor unfortunates you guard, or would it just disappear like vapor?"

Hades' face grew even darker. A cold shiver enveloped his body. "That would be up to Thanatos."

"Who's that?"
 
Hades' face showed horror beyond horror for just a fraction of a second. A fraction lasting long enough to give Echo an idea that there was someone even the gods feared. 
 
"He's my boss," Hades said. "The twin  brother to Hypnos."
 
"Sleep and Death," Echo repeated. "I've heard of them."
 
New Chapter:
 
"Enough small talk, follow me," Hades ordered. It was obvious his mood had changed.

Echo complied. He no longer drew her with his energy, but neither was she in any position to run. It was important to keep his attention focused on her rather than on Philip and Hannah.

For a few, uncomfortable moments, neither spoke. The only sounds heard were their footfalls on the cave floor. His minions had stayed behind, and for that, she was grateful.

Finally, curiosity got the best of her.

"What could you possibly want with me?" she asked. "I'm not special enough to go to all this trouble. I'm just an orphan child from a tiny town in Georgia. I have a simple job at a local newspaper. That's it. I'm no one to put up such a fuss over."

"We're not judged by our jobs or where we're from," Hades said, "but by the strength of our spirits."

"I've got absolutely no idea how that applies to my situation."

Hades glanced over his shoulder. "When Immortals are born, their inner strength is assessed to determine position in our society. The system works well, but our people suffer from an unfortunate lack of genetic variety. Because of this, we occasionally look outside our society for Gifts."

"Gifts?"

"Humans born with exceptionally strong spirits. They're rare and prized by both worlds. We use some of them to maintain diversity within our people."

Echo couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Are you serious? What do you have, some sort of spirit detector that stalks babies?"

"You're not too far off. It's like this, when a person is born, regardless of their origin, they emit what we call a spirit signature. Most of these are average in strength, but occasionally, a birth is accompanied by a huge wave of energy that catches the attention of our scouts, a kind of energy storm."

"Let me guess, mine was a downpour."

"An absolute tempest, my dear, and it drew us to you."

Echo stopped in the middle of her stride, her head spinning. "That's just creepy."

Hades stopped as well, but didn't approach her. "Our people do a lot of what you might call creepy, but the point is, your spirit burst attracted the attention of Zeus, himself. He came to visit you, as did most of the rest of us. A Prophecy was proclaimed at once, declaring you to one day marry a member of the 12 ruling gods and become a queen thereof."

"Also creepy."

Hades nodded. "I get what you're saying. It's different from what you're used to, but it's our way. When I first saw you, I was drawn to your power and purity. I decided then and there I would be the one to add you to our ranks."

"And now you've taken it beyond creepy to criminal. I was just a baby, Hades. You can't lust after an infant."

"I'm not a pedophile, Echo. I chose you for later when you were older. The spirit is timeless and I'm a patient man."
 
Hades drew closer, placing a tender hand on her arm.

Echo wanted to recoil from his touch, to jerk away and declare eternal revulsion, but her body responded with quickened pulse and respiration. Her whole body tingled in anticipation.

Hades placed his hands on both her arms. "Now you're ripe for becoming Immortal and taking your place amongst your equals. Theo knew it. That's why he brought you to Concorde Valley and placed you under the protection of his parents and Poseidon."

Echo took a deep breath and averted her face from the tall handsome god. She was a reporter, a strong woman not easily swayed by charm and good looks. What had Hannah said her horse name was, Perseverance? She would persevere. She fought to regain control of her wayward body.

A shuddering breath later, she said, "I'm not sure I believe all the stuff you're saying, but even if it's partially correct, and if I must become Immortal, then it will be Theo who will make me so, not you or any of your nutty relatives."

Hades tilted his handsome head to the side and squinted his eyes, "And therein lies the problem, Echo. Theo isn't one of the 12. The Prophecy says...."

"Screw the Prophecy." Echo spat the words out like bitter wine. "Your gods, as you call them, don't determine my destiny."

Hades uttered a deep throated laugh and tried to draw Echo closer.
 
"Now that's the spirit I remember at your birth. Yes, the same spirit you showed later as you stood in the field outside your burning house. You had a toy bear clutched in your arms and a light burning in your eyes brighter than the flames before you."

A queasy feeling oozed into Echo's guts. "You were there?"

"My dear," Hades said slowly and distinctly, "I wasn't just there. I was the one who set the fire."

Echo jerked her arms away and took several steps backward. Her heart beat so hard her whole body vibrated. With every breath, she became more and more engulfed by the weapon of the enemy... pure hate.

"Why?"

"To free you from those pitiful mortals who held you back. If not for the intervention of Theo and his parents, I would have taken you into my fold back then."

In one swift motion, Echo snatched up a stone and threw it at his head, landing it with a satisfying thud. In response, Hades grabbed her by the hair, just like in her dream, and jerked her head backwards. He glared into her eyes.

"You can't hurt me," he said. His mouth was just inches from hers. The smell of rotting flesh and sulfur poured out of his mouth and bathed her face.

Echo fought the impulse to retch. "Maybe not, but neither could I ever desire or love you."

"After many years of confinement, you'll beg for even the tiniest drop of my attention."

"Well, as appealing as that sounds, Hades, I respectfully decline. An eternity as your captive, something I don't believe is going to happen, will never erase what you did to me. Give up. I'm sure there are many beautiful women who would die to be with you."

The unintended pun hung in the air for a moment. Hades blinked, with the hint of a smile resting on his lips. Echo tried to make her face impassive, as though not noticing her faux pax.

Finally, Hades broke the standoff. "Those aren't the kind of women I crave. They have no fight, no powerful spirit inside. Women such as you are rare."

"But, according to you, I won't have that for long, since you plan to isolate me until I bend to your will."

"It doesn't have to be that way, Echo. If you'll just pledge yourself to me, our wedding will be joyous, and your place by my side, cherished. I'll hold you above everyone else, mortal or otherwise."

"I can't give you my love, Hades. You destroyed that chance when you burned my home and killed my parents."

Hades nodded his head, ever so slightly. There was a catch in his voice when he spoke. "In that case, I'll break your will, like I have so many others. The memory of what you once were will be enough to satisfy me."

Hades let her hair go and stepped away. "I'll, also, enjoy the fact I was able to use you to defeat the only real threat I had to becoming the head of the gods."

"Theo?"

"Yes, and those pitiful gods he's got helping him. He might be a great leader and a mighty warrior, but he has a weakness, you to be exact, and it's that weakness I'll use against him."

"Well, dead-god. I don't intend to be Theo's Achilles' heel, any more than I plan to be your wife."

"Really, and just how do you propose to stop me? With perseverance? What does that useless horse name mean, anyway? Are you planning to bug me to death? Haha, it will take more than tenacity to defeat me, my pet."

"Then, Sir, we'll have an interesting contest of wills. Before it's over, maybe you'll be the one begging for my attention."

Hades rested his hand, again, on her arm. "I beg it now."
 

Author Notes Artwork created by IZEA.

Thanks for the question by Robert about what happens to Hades or the Specters if they die.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: On of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nix: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 33
Adam's Choice

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of Last Chapter: 
 
Hades let Echo's hair go and stepped away. "I'll also enjoy the fact I was able to use you to defeat the only real threat I had to becoming the head of the gods."

"Theo?"

"Yes, and those pitiful gods he's got helping him. He might be a great leader and a mighty warrior, but he has a weakness, you to be exact, and it's that weakness I'll use against him."

"Well, dead-god. I don't intend to be Theo's Achilles' heel, any more than I plan to be your wife."

"Really, and just how do you propose to stop me? With perseverance? What does that useless horse name mean, anyway? Are you planning to bug me to death? Haha, it will take more than tenacity to defeat me, my pet."

"Then, Sir, we'll have an interesting contest of wills. Before it's over, maybe you'll be the one begging for my attention."

Hades rested his hand, again, on her arm. "I beg it now."
 
 
 
New Chapter:
 

Adam leaned into the shadows as he watched Phillip and Hannah pass within arm's length. The youth held his sister clutched safely in tender arms. Adam wanted to reach out and touch the pair, let them know they weren't alone, but he couldn't.
 
Neptune, Hannah's favorite rabbit, had met him at the entrance to the cave and shared what transpired inside. He told him of Hades' threat to harm Hannah, the bravery of Phillip, and Echo's sacrifice. Adam knew his mission lay ahead. The kids were safe, but Echo needed to be brought home.
 
Adam left the safety of the shadows as soon as it was obvious there was no one following the pair. He moved fast and almost as silent as a passing breeze. 
 
He slowed when he heard voices ahead. They were accompanied by harried noises, as often heard in the aftermath of disaster. Good, he would use their confusion to his advantage.
 
"Clean up this mess!" a voice cried out, "and get rid of those filthy land creatures roaming about. They carry diseases, you know."
 
"They're all gone, Overlord," another voice answered. "They left with the young ones."
 
"Well, check again. You know how Hades hates being sick."
 
"But, sir," the man said, "Hades is Immortal. He can't die."
 
"No, you fool, but he can get sick... very sick. They all can. Now, get rid of the creatures."
 
"Yes, sir."
 
Adam waited just a moment before slipping into the dimly lit enclosure. He could see some of Hades' minions scurrying about, straightening items of importance and looking under things for rabbits. He had to force himself not to laugh as he watched their pathetic antics.
 
He took advantage of their confusion to scoot to the back of the cave. He slipped, unnoticed, into a tunnel going deeper into the caverns. It's where he suspected Hades had taken his captive, and it's where he could hear the echo of footsteps.
 
The tunnel wall was peppered with torches allowing for some visibility, and lots of shadows. It was between these Adam snaked.
 
Finally, the young rescuer was rewarded by the sound of conversation.
 
"We're almost there." The melodic voice of Hades was the first he heard clearly. For a moment, Adam wondered if the comment was directed at him or his companion. Either way, he took it as a warning and slowed his approach.
 
The next voice he heard was Echo's. "It's your game."
 
Adam was thrilled to hear her sound normal, but worried she was being overly sarcastic. He wanted to warn her not to pick a fight in the enemy's stronghold, but figured it was her way of maintaining emotional distance. He just hoped she wasn't overplaying her part.
 
"Yes, it is a game, and one I intend on winning," Hades said. "And, to be honest, the cards are stacked in my favor."
 
"Your hold.. your keep... your rules. I get it."
 
Adam couldn't see Echo's face, but could tell she was conceding ground. The trace of sarcasm still evident in her voice, he assumed, was being ignored.
 
"This is your room," Hades went on. "There's a dress on the bed I'd like you to change into. I'll be back to pick you up in about an hour."
 
"And if I refuse?"
 
Hades' voice rasped back a response. "Then I'll dress you, personally."
 
A long pause, during which she seemed to be considering her options, and then a response. "Where's the bathroom? I'd at least like to take a shower."
 
Again, Echo was choosing discretion over foolhardiness. Again, Adam breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't prepared to take on his uncle yet.
 
"You'll find a bathroom adjoining your room. There you will also find perfumes, mirrors, combs, everything you might need."
 
"All the comforts of home."
 
"I can be a wonderful host if you'll let me," Hades said. Adam was surprised to detect a hint of warmth, perhaps even hopefulness in his voice.
 
The sentence trailed off with no reply. Adam heard the sound of a key turning in a lock, and then heavy footsteps leading away. He took the chance to slip out of the shadows and work his way to Echo.
 
To his right, he saw a tall wooden door fastened to a stone outcropping. Seated on the floor, at the foot of the  padlocked entrance, was a pitiful looking gray cat. He was gazing at the door and meowing softly. Adam walked over and picked him up.
 
"Is she in there, Sunny?" he asked. Sunny responded with a despondent mew.
 
"Don't worry, buddy, we'll get her out."

Adam leaned in and tapped on the mahogany door.
 
"Echo?"
 
"Who is it?" 
 
"Adam."
 
"Adam, what are you doing here?"
 
"I've come to rescue you."

"I'd rather you didn't."
 
"Why? You can't want to stay here."
 
"Of course not, but we're up against a very powerful enemy. Come on, he's Hades, god of the Underworld."
 
"A fact that he's more impressed with than I am. Look, this whole god thing is new to you, but I was raised around it. Hades doesn't scare me."
 
"Well, he does me, so why don't you go back to the others and just see how this plays out?"
 
"Because I won't leave you to the fate that awaits you if I do."
 
Adam's voice betrayed some of his older brother's determination. "I'll wait until the odds are more in my favor and then I'll strike. I saw an area I can hide in on the way here. I'll wait there until the time's right."
 
"I don't know, Adam. If anything happens to you, my sacrifice will have been for nothing."
 
"Have a little faith, Echo. I may have been an irresponsible goof before, but that's behind me. Theo and Hermes believed in me enough to send me here."
 
"You've seen Theo? I thought he'd gone to save Mount Olympus."
 
"By now, he has. He was about to leave when we got word you and Phillip had come here. He wanted to come after you, but Hermes insisted he continue his mission to go get help."
 
"Good. At least one of you boys has some sense. You need to go, too."
 
"I'm afraid I can't. Hermes has even made this my trial for godhood."
 
"I didn't think you wanted a leadership role."
 
"Neither did I. Things changed when I knew I was needed."
 
"Good for you."
 
"Thanks."
 
"Adam?"
 
"I'm still here."
 
"What about Hannah and Phillip? Did they make it out?"
 
"Yes, I passed them on the way in. They'll be fine. Phillip knows how to call for his horse, and there are doctors in town that can help Hannah."
 
"I'm so relieved, and thanks for not leaving me. I wasn't very polite just now."
 
"That's understandable. I'd better go now before King Gruesome comes back."
 
"Yeah, and I need to get ready."
 
"Oh, and Echo."
 
"Yes?"
 
"Don't eat anything. That's how Hades tricked his wife Persephone. As long as she didn't eat, he couldn't force her to stay, but she finally ate six pomegranate seeds."
 
"I've heard the story," Echo said. "That's why she has to stay in the Underworld with him for six months of the year, and then she can return to her mother Demeter for the next six months."
 
"That's right."
 
"Okay, I won't eat. Anything else?"
 
"Yes."
 
"What?"
 
"Don't marry him, not even if you believe it will save us all."
 
There was a moment's hesitation while Adam held his breath. Was she actually considering it? Finally, almost hesitantly, she spoke.
 
"I'll never marry him, Adam. Aside from the many other reasons I don't have time to list, he set the fire that killed my parents."
 
It was Adam's turn to pause as he let the information soak in.
 
"I'm so sorry. There seems to be no end to what that man is capable of. I'll do everything in my power to keep him from harming you."
 
"I don't want to be responsible for your life as well as mine. I don't know why Hades is so fixated on me, but he is, and anyone near me is in mortal danger."
 
"He isn't likely to hurt me, Echo. For starters, I'm his nephew and to be honest, he doesn't really see me as a threat. Which, I suppose, is my own fault."
 
"And a good thing in this situation."
 
"Disregard of duty is never a good thing, but that's a discussion for another day. For now, hang in there. Sunny and I are just a heartbeat away."
 
"Sunny? You have my cat?"

"Yeah, he was sitting outside your door when I got here. I'll keep an eye on him for you."

"Thanks. Sunny, keep an eye on Adam."
 
Meow...
 
~~~~~~~~~
 
 

Phillip hardly felt the weight of Hannah in his arms, but the toll of carrying her was beginning to tell on his body. His side ached so severely it took his breath away... breath he needed to keep running. If not for the physical training that was so much a part of Concorde Valley culture, he probably would have collapsed long ago.

Each step he took away from Echo was emotionally excruciating, but it wasn't something he could help. First he had to get Hannah to safety and then he'd go back for his brother's girlfriend, a young lady a whole valley had all fallen in love with.

Phillip hated that he had been forced to make a choice better suited for older men. Why hadn’t his father been present like he always was, or even Theo or Adam? Why was heroism thrust into the arms of a teen? Also placed there was his baby sister. He could make it. He had to. Just a few more yards.

Finally, he found the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. While longed for, it bored into his eyes like red-hot pokers. He stumbled forward, his eyes spasming with pain. It was odd how his eyes had adjusted so completely to the near darkness of the tunnels as to render him almost blind when he came in contact with natural light.

As he fell to his knees at the tunnel entrance, he was met by a crowd of anxious animals, creatures of all kinds that had been forced to wait behind. His eyes hurt too bad to see, but he could hear their individual voices and feel the press of their bodies.

Phillip placed Hannah gently on the ground in the midst of them. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he let out a penetrating horse scream. The call was answered by a neigh close-by. Phillip cried out again, and a painted horse trotted up, tossing a silky mane.

“Loyal,” he said. “Take me and Hannah home. The rest of you animals, gather your forces and meet me back here as soon as possible."

Author Notes A special thanks to Sally Law for finding the Adam artwork.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: On of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nix: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 34
Journey to Nyx

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:

Phillip placed Hannah gently on the ground in the midst of them. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he let out a penetrating horse scream. The call was answered by a neigh close-by. Phillip cried out again, and a painted horse trotted up, tossing a silky mane.

“Loyal,” he said. “Take me and Hannah home. The rest of you animals, gather your forces and meet me back here as soon as possible."

New Chapter Begins:
 
Theo gazed across unfamiliar territory with exasperation growing in his eyes and heart. He was on a mission to save the Immortals on Mount Olympus, but his heart was in Concorde Valley with Echo and the others.
 
Clad only in simple Concorde Valley attire, a soft tunic and breeches, he sat tall and straight on his steed, Nifty. He had already fought the battle in his heart that threatened to end his mission and destiny. He had to go against his instincts to rescue his girlfriend and family for the greater purpose of defeating Hades.

"Hermes," he said. "We've been traipsing through these rocks for hours. When are we going to find the Nyx brothers?"

The fair-haired god turned his head from side to side, peering at rocks and searching for landmarks. "I'm trying to find something to jog my memory, my impatient cousin. I'm sure something will pop up soon. At least we thought to bring horses to ride while we hunt."

"Yes, which you freaked out when you zapped us here."

Hermes patted his borrowed horse, Discovery, on the neck.

"They're fine. A little magical journey never hurt anyone. Besides, you had a talk with them in whatever language you spoke."

"That was Horse, and I'm not sure there's a word in their speech to adequately explain what we did."

Hermes let out a laugh that might have been charming under different circumstances. "No, but I'll bet there is now."

Theo raised a dark eyebrow. "How long has it been since you were here?"

"In Olympia?"

"Olympia? I thought we were in Greece."

"We're in both. Come on, Theo, don't act like an outsider. You live in a valley so deeply hidden from humanity they don't even know it exists."
 
"That's completely true, Hermes, but I discovered some interesting things when I was living outside Concorde Valley."
 
"Please tell me you weren't looking our world up on the internet."
 
Theo hesitated just long enough to give Hermes his answer.
 
"Theo, you can't rely on electronic information. Who writes all that stuff you read, anyway?"
 
"A bunch of different sources." Theo's responding facial expression was classic for those born in the electronic age.
 
"There's a reason your father doesn't allow computers and cell phones in Concorde Valley. You know that."
 
"Yeah, he says anything electronic is controled by Zeus, who is the god of electricity."
 
"That's part of it, but not everything. All in all, Zeus isn't a bad guy, but there are many sources of information out there that might not have the whole story, or might have ulterior motives."
 
Theo gave the face again that showed the older generation was clueless. "I was curious."
 
"Curious, good... nosy can get you into trouble. I would know. Now what was it you learned about Olympia that has you concerned?"
 
Theo hesitated again. He couldn't believe his cool cousin was siding with his father. When did he start acting responsible?
 
"For one, I learned Mount Olympus is a real mountain cluster in Greece."
 
"It is, but so is the realm of Olympia, which exists within it as a sort of parallel world. I'll bet your internet sites didn't show any pictures of the castles, homes and fields of your ancestral land."
 
Theo chuckled. "None at all."

Hermes turned his horse to splash through a stream running beside them. Theo joined him, glad for the cool water bathing his parched legs.
 
"Well, buddy, I'd skip the internet searches and listen to those who know the real score."
 
"Okay, then I'll ask you. If there are worlds within worlds, how do we move between them? I've never actually done it myself. My father lets people in and out in Concorde Valley." 
 
There are a number of us with the authority to allow access to these dimensions," Hermes said. "There are the 12 head gods, like me, but there are others sanctioned, like your father since he rules Concorde Valley."
 
"Who's in charge during his absence? He didn't mention that responsibility to me."

Hermes didn't hesitate before answering, almost as though he had been waiting for the question. "That would be your brother."

"Adam?" Theo looked quizical. He was glad his little brother had shown signs of leadership when needed, but felt doubtful about him having been given such responsibility from his father.

Hermes shook his head. "No, he's less trained than you are. I'm talking about your older brother Georgios."

"Georgios? He's a great warrior, but I didn't think he had any special powers."

"Don't mistake humility for weakness, young king. There's a lot you don't know about him. Among other things, he's an anchor person. He never leaves the valley when your father's gone. There must always be an authorized Immortal present in the Valley, and he was chosen for it hundreds of years ago."

"Oh wow. I never knew that, though it does explain why it's hard to get him to leave the valley. So, what part do you play in all this adventure?"

"Me? I just happened to be available."

"I see." Theo turned his head to hide amazement. Hermes was such a paradox. He could be mischievous one moment, a mighty warrior the next, and a wise companion at still another. How many sides were there to one of the gods that often got dismissed as a nuisance?

Theo let the plod of the horses' hooves relieve the anxiety of waiting for the pieces of his mission to come together. He took the time, a precious commodity, to think things out.

"What's going on in your head?" Hermes asked. He poked Theo in the side with the dull end of his spear.

Theo smiled. "Not much, just feeling the weight of responsibility and anxious to get on with things."

"Ah yes, with power comes responsibility." Hermes granted a commiserating nod.

Theo returned the gesture. "To whom much is given, much is required?"

"Luke 12:18. One of my favorites."

"You know the Bible?" Theo looked at his cousin with raised eyebrows.

"I know parts, like just about everyone else. Why do you look so surprised?"

"You don't seem the Sunday School type."

"Then you don't know me well. You have to look beneath the surface if you want to be an effective leader. I teach Sunday School, buddy."

"That must make for some interesting discussions."

"Certainly, but my students seldom forget their lessons."


After a genial laugh between the pair, they fell silent, letting the rhythmic splash of the horses' hooves fill the silence. After a bit, Theo guided Nifty onto the stream bank and dismounted. He needed water and a moment to think.

Hermes joined Theo on the bank. "I could use a break, too."
 
Theo nodded and sat on a flat rock that rested against a willow tree. Hermes sat beside him, leaning against the huge tree bowl. 

"When did you last visit Hypnos and Thanatos?" Theo asked.

Hermes squinted his eyes and looked thoughtful. "I guess it was when I was with Heracles. Hercules, in the tongue of Echo's world. He had to get past a Gorgon. We got Hypnos to put him to sleep. It was all quite an exciting adventure."

"I'm sure it was, but how did he get Hypnos to cooperate? I was told neither brother would help unless given a gift of great value."

"Yes, that's customary... required, actually, if you don't want to be put to sleep and have your soul ripped out."

Theo cringed as he leaned over the rock to take a drink from the clear water. "Yeah, that would be a no. What did Heracles offer in return for the service?"

Hermes pulled off his tunic and waded into the creek.

"His strength for a year. The brothers were building a castle of stone, one they wanted to be magnificent, yet unseen from a distance. Poor Heracles had to work lifting and moving rocks for a year before they would help him with the Gorgon. I volunteered, of course, but they didn't see me as a valuable stone-mover."

Theo tossed a rock at his older and larger cousin. "You look pretty strong to me."

"Oh, I am. I'm one of the most powerful on Mount Olympus."

"So I keep hearing. Then why...?"

"To be honest, I think they were trying to get rid of me, but that's just a guess."

Theo nodded his head. He could relate. "The problem is, Hermes, we don't have a year to bargain with. We have three days at most."

"Yeah, and you aren't as nearly strong as Heracles."

"Definitely not."

Hermes chuckled. "One day, when I was in a particularly bored mood, I decided to challenge him to a grappling match. It was all a spur of the moment thing, something to impress the girls and prove my strength, but next thing I knew I was waking up in Olympus General in traction."

"Why would Heracles do that? A man like him has nothing to prove."

"Yes, well, it might have had something to do with my shooting my mouth off right before I challenged him. And then there was the thing with his girlfriend."

"Hermes, do you always have to flirt with other people's women?"

"I don't have to. It's sort of a sport, like discus throwing or archery. Usually it's all in fun and no one gets hurt. That is until you rile the wrong person. Anyway, we made up long ago."

"We should get him to help us on this quest."

"That would be nice, but he's sort of unavailable at the moment."

"You really were the only one who got away from the siege, weren't you?"

"Yeah, a sad truth, my boy. Pretty ironic, isn't it? The freedom of the world rests in the hands of a group of kids, a girl from the outside, and the most flawed god of all."

"I beg to differ on the last part."

"Yeah, I suppose that honor goes to Uncle Hades. Come on Interim King, we've got to get mounted. I've got miles of rock left to examine."

Author Notes Image of Theo from IZEA. He's supposed to be sitting barebacked with no reigns, but I couldn't find a picture like that.

Book Summary so far:
Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 35
Spit-shine on Hell

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of Last Chapter:
 
"You really were the only one who got away from the siege, weren't you, Hermes?"

"Yeah, a sad truth, my boy. Pretty ironic, isn't it? The freedom of the world rests in the hands of a group of kids, a girl from the outside, and the most flawed god of all."

"I beg to differ on the last part."

"Yeah, I suppose that honor goes to Uncle Hades. Come on Interim King, we've got to get mounted. I've got miles of rock left to examine."
 
Beginning of New Chapter:
 
Echo turned and walked to the bed. Tears trickled down her face as she thought of being alone. She hadn't wanted Adam to risk his life and liberty to come for her, but since he was here, the little girl inside wished he would charge to her rescue.

She felt lonely and wretched, and didn't want to be doing what she was, even if it had been to save Phillip and Hannah. For a moment she allowed herself to wallow in grief and self pity, until she thought of what Hannah had said to her before Phillip carried her out.

From the darkness of a trance, Hannah managed to tell Echo her horse name, Perseverance. A horse name, she reminded herself, was a key to one's strongest personal trait, and became their driving force. She had had no time to discover it for herself through time and trial, as was the tradition of Concordians, but it was gifted to her by a very special child.

Perseverance meant tenacity and determination. It was time she started living up to it. She cast away self pity like a tattered blanket. She could and would persevere. She would fight this battle to its uncertain end.

With resolve born of self-awareness, she headed for the bathroom, which she was surprised to find well furnished. There was a standing shower with both hot and cold running water.

Draped on a metal bar beside it, was a flower scented towel, and in a light pink crystal dish, waited a fragrant bar of soap. It was obvious he had been expecting her all along.

Feeling a little weird, she took a quick shower, and headed back to the bedroom to get dressed. The gown Hades had laid on the bed was not typical Concorde Valley attire, which tended towards comfort and practicality. This one boasted opulence.

Echo ran her hand across the white satin bodice, embossed with intricately woven lace and what looked like real pearls. There were rows of dainty ruffles flowing down a billowing skirt that were so soft they seemed made of rose petals.

It looked, for all the world, like a wedding gown, the thought of which made her shudder. She had gotten the impression he planned a wedding after his war with Theo, not before. She almost declined to put it on, but remembered Hades' threat to dress her personally if she didn't.

As she slipped the dress over her head, the material felt as though it melted into her skin, lending comfort where there had only been despair. The fit was perfect. How could he have known her exact size?

After dressing, she approached an ornate dresser with an attached mirror. She glanced at her image, and was shocked to see an elegant young lady reflected back. The dress not only fit her perfectly, but seemed designed to highlight her most attractive features. Hades might be a bad man, but he was fantastic at picking out clothing.

Just as she started to step away, she noticed a most exquisite emerald necklace hanging on the post of the dresser. It was her favorite stone, and it sparkled in the torch light. It was so beautiful she was tempted to put it on. It would look lovely with the gown she was wearing, and she knew Hades must have meant it for her. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she backed away. She couldn't be bought so easily.

A distinct tapping drew Echo's eyes to the huge stone door holding her captive. She almost messed up and asked if it was Adam, but remembered there was another man she was expecting.

"Echo, are you ready?" The distinctive voice made Echo recoil.

"Yes, Hades," she replied. She inwardly winced at how easily the ghastly name slipped out of her mouth. Careful, she warned herself. Familiarity is the precursor to acceptance and acceptance to embracement.

She listened as he placed a key in the lock and turned it. Then the door scraped open revealing the king of the dead standing before her in a black tuxedo.

Involuntarily, she gasped as she saw him. He was cleaned up, obviously having taken care of the chest wound. His dark curly hair was clean and combed, and the tuxedo he wore was tight enough to show off a muscular body.

Beautiful brown eyes sparkled with excitement and accented an exquisite face. How could one so striking harbor such evil?

He stepped back to allow her to join him, obviously aware of the effect he had on his captive. As she walked past, she intentionally reminded herself he had killed her parents. Perspective trickled back in and replaced schoolgirl foolishness.

Ignoring her reluctance, he took her hand in his and spun her slowly before him.
 
"You're stunning," he said. His voice was silky and enticing, "but where are the emeralds I gave you? You really must wear them for our special occasion."

"Oh, and what occasion is that?" Echo asked. Her voice and demeanor betrayed concern.

"One I've been waiting on for years," he answered.

"Please tell me you don't mean a wedding, because that's what this dress seems to suggest."

"The gown you have on doesn't compare to what you'll wear on our wedding day. You deserve much better than this simple garment. But, until we wed, this will suffice."

"Why is it wedding white, then?"

"Ah, it reflects your own purity. You're so clean and untouched, like a delicate ivory rose."

Echo stood and blinked, the reporter in her fleeing for cover. She had no response.

"Forgive me, darling. I'm a hopeless romantic."

Echo let out a sound somewhere between a gasp and a snort. "If I had to give a list of adjectives for you, romantic wouldn't be anywhere on it." The reporter in her had returned.

Hades flashed a devilish grin. "That's just because you don't know me well enough. As you learn more, you'll fall in love, just like you said someone would if given the chance."

"I wasn't referring to myself. You know perfectly well I already have a boyfriend, and that you're not my type."

"So what is your type? A half-grown god that carves you toy horses and bakes fish in the woods? Or, maybe a creepy guy who stalks you at work, then forces you to crawl through tree tops for miles with gaping wounds on your legs?"

Hades paused to gauge Echo's reaction. He wanted to see either anger or passion, but got nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a blank stare. It was time for her poker face.

"It doesn't matter, you'll forget the boy soon enough. Just wait until you see all I have to offer."

Hades headed back into the room, leaving Echo to ponder his words. She watched as he reappeared in the doorway carrying the emerald necklace.

"Let me put this on you," he said. He leaned in where she could feel his breath on her shoulder.

Echo repressed a shudder, but otherwise didn't resist. It was Hades' game right now.

"There, now that's better. You may accompany me to the dinner table, my dear. You're going to be blown away by its splendor and enamored by its luxuriousness."

Echo followed along, not sure what was ahead, but knowing, somewhere, Theo's younger brother, Adam, was behind her. The thought gave her courage.

It didn't take long before they came to an open space lit with jewel encrusted lanterns. Echo stared at those and many other elaborate furnishings. He was right about her being blown away, but enamored? Not so much.

"You like it, don't you?" Hades asked, "and this is but a shadow of my real home... our home if you play your cards right."

"A wise player can be dealt a weak hand and still win the game*." Echo responded.

Hades narrowed his eyes. "I don't know what you think you're going to win, or even how, but weakness won't prevail, my dove. Take a seat beside me at the table. We'll wait for the servants to bring food. Our other guests will be arriving soon."

"What other guests?"

"My colleagues and allies," he said. "All those who have helped me with my successful assault on my brother's kingdom. They are to be complimented and officially awarded today. You get to witness the extent of my generosity for those who support me."

"Thrilling."

"Oh, and you can eat the food."

"What?"

"The food... It's safe to eat. I know you're probably planning to boycott it."

"Well, I am feeling a little nauseous just now," Echo said. She put one hand on her forehead and the other on her midsection.

"What they say happened with Persephone didn't quite go that way. I didn't curse her to come live with me for six months of the year because she ate something at my house. I compromised when she told me how lonely she was for her mother. I let her go of my own volition."

"If you are such a nice guy, why do you keep her captive at all?"

"Because I'm not that nice, so mind yourself or you won't even get six months. You don't have a mother to visit."

Echo flopped on the chair in anger. "That remark was unnecessary, and I still won't eat anything."

"Suit yourself, but you're going to get hungry sooner or later."

Echo tried to smile, but came off looking more like she was making a face, so gave it up.

True to her word, she rejected all the wonderful food that came her way, especially the pomegranate. As Hades didn't seem to notice anyway, she began to wonder if she was suffering from hunger needlessly.

While he and the others ate, Hades chatted with Echo about his home in the Underworld. He carefully brought out all of the attractions, and went on about how she would be revered as his queen, whether they lived underground, or in the palace on Mount Olympus.

He spoke, as well, about how he would become the head god, but generously allowing all the others to keep their positions as long as they acknowledged him as their true king.

"But what about Zeus?" Echo asked when he paused from his tirade. "What will you do with him?"

"He can take my place in the Underworld if he'll swear allegiance to me. If not, he's free to live wherever he wants, but without authority."

"So, you aren't going to kill him?"

Hades looked appalled. "Of course not, he's my brother. I hold no ill will toward him, personally. I just want his job."

Echo raised her eyes in surprise. He was so detached. "When do you expect your takeover to be complete?"

"Very soon, especially with you at my side. Mount Olympus has fallen, and 9 of the 12 gods are contained in the royal palace. One of the other three is me, and the other two are non-factors. Apollo has been out of circulation for a number of years, and Hermes is rather harmless. He tends to keep to himself so long as he can flit about at will."

"Then what else do you need?"

"Concorde and Karack Valleys. They're extensions of Olympia."

"The only ones on the planet?"

"The only ones that count. The others are pretty small and guarded by weak Immortals. Once Concorde falls, they will go down with it."
 
Hades wiped his mouth with a starched napkin and replaced it in his lap. He leaned back and sighed as though the conversation was over. He turned to speak to the man on his right, when Echo interrupted. "So, that's why Theo stands in your way."
 
Hades turned back. "Beg your pardon?"
 
"That's why you're worried about Theo. He holds the keys to both valleys."

"I'm not worried, just annoyed." Hades leaned on his elbow and looked at Echo. "He's a fly that needs swatting."

"But you can't just do that. There's the Prophecy all of you keep going on about that hinders you."

"You know nothing of the Prophecy," Hades said. Amusement twinkled in his eyes. "And you're in it. Would you like to know what it says? As I told you before, I'm not like the others. I won't keep things from you. True love is that way, you know."

"I know enough not to argue love in the stronghold of my enemy," Echo said.

"I only seem to be your enemy now, Echo, because I'm forced to hold you captive until I can convince you of the strength of my love and the power I possess to make you happy."
 
"Spare me your meaningless declarations, and, for that matter, keep your family secrets to yourself. Neither interest me."
 
Hades chuckled. If Echo knew just how attractive her sauciness was to him, she would act more afraid. It also was ineffective against his goals.
 
"The Prophesy was delivered by Poseidon on the day Theo, who was named Anthos, was presented to the Royal Court," he continued. "It went like this:

'This child carries on his father's quest to protect the people of the earth, and to reduce the effects of evil in the world. There will come a day when all we know will be turned upside down, and evil will try to rule. On that day, this child will arise to take on the threat. Only he and his assistants will be able to turn back the tides of darkness. One of these helpers shall be a human girl from the outside, one who bears the approval of the gods from birth. She will steal his heart, and the hearts of his people, with her gentle yet persistent nature. She will find her place amongst the gods. To Anthos, son of my son, I give the same gift I gave his father. Love's first kiss will make a mortal woman immortal like him. Give the gift carefully, grandson, for you may reward it only once. Be strong, be pure, and look to your own heart and to the counsel of your friends when the world grows dark.'

Echo struggled hard to maintain her composure. Mary had told her what she knew about the contents, but certainly not this much. So that was what everyone had been hinting about since she  arrived in the valley. They felt she was the girl in the Prophecy, and, apparently, so did Hades. At first she felt disconcerted, but decided to throw it back at her captor.

"Now I see why you show such interest. You aren't in love with me at all. You just want to remove me from the equation."

"That isn't true," Hades said. He sounded a bit taken aback, which was Echo's intention. "Well, maybe just a little, but not like you're making it seem. I think you're beautiful and would make a wonderful queen."

"But, as we've already discussed, you have a wife," Echo said. She was pleased with the effect she had on his demeanor.

"I can keep you both," Hades said. "As head god, I can change the rules."

"Now that really makes me want you."

"I will still make you head queen. I promise Persephone won't give you any trouble over it."

"Well, don't count on me turning to you. I can be very stubborn."

"Echo, be realistic. You know I'm not just stubborn, but willing to stoop as low as it takes to achieve my goal."

"If that's true," Echo threw back, "why don't you just use your influence to compel Persephone to give herself to you fully?"

"Because she's the daughter of one of the Olympian Twelve, and even I dare not mess with Demeter too much. You, on the other hand, are an orphan with no one to stand up for you."

"Which is your fault," Echo reminded him. "Besides, I have Theo, who, from your own lips, and in keeping with the Prophesy you just quoted, is a realistic threat to your takeover."

"Which he will gladly abandon to save your soul, my dear." Hades glared at her with a sneer on his lips.

Echo gazed down at her hands, which were folded neatly in her lap. He really did have her there and he knew it. She had unsettled the god of the dead but for a moment, but then the moment had passed, and she was back to being a frightened captive. She must fight against those feelings or she would be lost to him forever.

About the time dinner was over, the crowd had grown to a throng. Some had joined them at the table, while others were seated in chairs around the periphery. These people weren't the scraggly type who he had been talking to in the cave earlier. They were well dressed and mannered, seemingly out of place in the underground realm.

Hades stood up and rang a spoon against his wine glass. Everyone stopped talking and looked expectantly.

"I'm so very glad to have all of you as guests in my modest abode," he began. "You've been instrumental in some way to the success of my campaign, and I can't tell you how important that will be to the future of the world."

There was a round of applause, soon followed by lavish gifts handed out to all his supporters. She was shocked at first by his generosity, but figured he would devise ways to get the gifts back from them in the end. When he had finished with all the rewards, he paused and scanned his eyes around the crowd.

"Now we come to the best part of the night." Hades turned to Echo and reached for her hand.
 
"Please, my dear, would you stand and greet my loyal associates?"

Echo resisted the urge to roll her eyes and puke on the table, a feat that would have been hard to achieve considering she hadn't eaten anything all afternoon. Using her best acting abilities, and leaning on her new found perseverance, she stood with feigned enthusiasm. 

"Thank you, my dear," he said, beginning an embarrassing round of applause, "and now for the moment we've been waiting for all night, I shall let you, my loyal friends, become a part of a momentous event. You shall watch as I make the radiant Echo an immortal like myself."

Author Notes Image of Hades from IZEA.

*Quote from Rick Warren, author and evangelist.
"Life is like a game of poker; you have to play the hand you're dealt. A wise player can play a weak hand and win the game."

Book Summary so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 36
The Immortal Kiss

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of Last Chapter:
 
"Now we come to the best part of the night." Hades turned to Echo and reached for her hand.
 
"Please, my dear, would you stand and greet my loyal associates?"

Echo resisted the urge to roll her eyes and puke on the table, a feat that would have been hard to achieve considering she hadn't eaten anything all afternoon. Using her best acting abilities, and leaning on her new found perseverance, she stood with feigned enthusiasm. 

"Thank you, my dear," he said, beginning an embarrassing round of applause, "and now for the moment we've been waiting for all night, I shall let you, my faithful friends, become a part of a momentous event. You shall watch as I make the radiant Echo an immortal like myself."
 
 
New Chapter Begins:
 
"What?" Echo's mouth dropped open. This game had just taken a nasty turn. "If you kiss me, you jerk, I'll break your kneecap."

"My dear, there's no need to be so shy," Hades said. He grasped her arm and pressed her against his chest.

Echo tried reasoning next. "Hades, stop and think. Do you really want to make a scene in front of your nice friends?"

"Haha! If they were nice, they wouldn't be working for me."

"Point taken, but your plan has no chance to work. It has to be love's first kiss to turn me immortal, and I promise I don't love you. I don't think you really love me, either."

"I won't debate the romantic angle, because the rule only applies to lesser Immortals, like your boy toy Theo, not for one of the three head gods. So, it doesn't matter how we feel about each other for my power to work. As a matter of fact, it doesn't even have to transfer with a kiss."

"Good, then let's just shake hands."

"That's not nearly as fun," Hades countered. His handsome eyes sparkled with a light of their own.

Echo fought the temptation to fall for his allure. He was so tremendously handsome, and she could feel the strong muscles of his arms wrapped around her. Giving in appeared much more pleasant than fighting him all of a sudden. What would it hurt to let him kiss her and then take her place by his side as queen? She'd had worse offers.

Then, she remembered Phillip's warning about Hades' hypnotic voice. Is that what the crafty jerk was trying to do, mesmerize her? How dare he. With a tremendous effort, she fought back.

She closed her eyes and let her thoughts seek out memories of the one she really did love. In her mind's eye, she watched as young Theo sat with her in the clearing after her parents' death. She felt the touch of his hand on her cheek, the smell of the flowers he put in her hair.

She remembered the warmth of his sweater around her in the December woods of Georgia, and of the fierce look in his eyes when defending her from Specters. She let his comfort and kindness wash over her like a wave.

What did Hades have to compare to the comfort of his embrace, and to the glow of his emerald eyes... emeralds!

Echo reached a hand through Hades' arms and grabbed the emerald necklace. She tore it from her neck and threw it as far from her as she could. Whatever power he had put in the necklace wouldn't affect her anymore.

Hades reared a hand back to strike her, then stopped. A shadow came across his face, and he pressed his mouth against her ear. "There will be a war very soon," he whispered, "and many people will die, especially in Concorde Valley. I don't want you to be one of those people."

"I'd rather die in battle, than spend forever with you," Echo said. She tried to work an elbow in between them to get a little distance.

"Theo could have prevented all of this by having married you and made you an immortal on his own. Close your eyes and lean against me. I promise to get it over with as quickly as possible, okay?"

"No, I don't think I'll let you do that," a voice cried out from inside the room. "Hades, let her go."

Hades and Echo both turned their heads.

"Adam, is that you?" Hades asked. "Has the wolf sent a cub in his place? Where's your big brother, dancing boy?"

"He's busy elsewhere," Adam answered.

The crowd roared with laughter and pointed at Adam making gestures to indicate they thought him rather puny.

"Echo, my dear, it seems we've overestimated your worth to the young prince. I'd sort of hoped he would come and fight, but I'll take you uncontested, too."

"Let her go," Adam insisted.
 
Echo smiled at Theo's younger, slighter-built doppelganger. Adam, the least aggressive of the siblings, had come through!

With a dismissive wave of his hand, Hades pulled Echo back into the embrace. He nuzzled her neck.

"The necklace was just a gift," he said. "It held no special powers. I'll get you another."


Sunny, who seemed to come out of nowhere, leapt onto the table and sauntered over to the couple. He glared and hissed at Hades' face.

"Who are you?" Hades freed a hand to swat at Sunny.

"That's my cat," Echo explained. "Mortal enemy of anyone who bothers me."

Hades laughed and swatted at Sunny again. The nimble cat scooted out of the way, but remained close enough to strike if needed.

"I've come for Echo," Adam repeated.

"In your brother's place. How useful you've finally become. What did he promise you for doing his work, a place in his cabinet when he's king and you're not? Go on back to your dance hall, boy, I have no quarrel with you. I'll tell you what, I'll make you one of the Olympian Twelve when I complete my takeover. You can even have my post after I leave it."

"First of all, Uncle, there's nothing wrong with being a dancer. It's great physical training and allows me to express a non-violent side of my nature, something you should look into. Secondly, I don't want your job."

"No one ever does," Hades said. He looked at his followers with a tragic smile, then laughed. Wisely, they all laughed with him.

He turned his attention back to Adam. "What do you want then, nephew?"

"Echo."

"Why?"

"Because she isn't yours, Hades. She's free to make her own choices, and from her body language, I really don't think she chooses you."

"That's a fair assumption," Hades said, "but I seldom concern myself with other peoples' choices. It's very tiresome. If you stand there for a few more minutes, you can watch me do what your lazy brother didn't, and make her a goddess."

Hades pulled Echo close again, and she could feel his lips brush her ear. She trembled at his touch, mostly from revulsion, but a little from pleasure.

"That's it," he cooed, "give in and let's make this a delightful moment."

"Hades, I said give her to me," Adam said. He nimbly vaulted across the table, landing directly behind Hades' back. In the same instant, he pulled out a long knife, like the one Phillip had used, and held it to his uncle's throat.

Sunny jumped at his face, leaving a long bloody scratch across his cheek.

"Don't be stupid, Adam," Hades said, wiping blood off his face and trying to kick at Sunny.

"You lack the strength or power to kill me, and I don't want to hurt you. You aren't a warrior like the others."

"I'm not a sissy, either," Adam said. "I've received training from my father and Georgios, just like Theo."

"I'll make you a deal, then, tough guy," Hades said, "and only because I like you, and have already been stabbed by your little brother today."

"What kind of deal?"

"You take the knife away from my throat and I'll send Echo home with you."

"Just like that?" Adam asked. "What's the catch?"

"You'll have to let me give her a kiss first."

"No. It's not your job to make her immortal, or to get your germs all over her."

"Adam, the war will come and she will die with the others in the valley unless we ensure it won't happen. I'm doing everyone a favor, especially her."

"I can't speak for my brother's motives," Adam said, "but I'm guessing that part of it has to do with not having much alone time with her, thanks to you."

"He traveled many miles with her through the trees, boy. I didn't interfere with them during that time, though I was aware of where they were. He had his chance and didn't take it. Now it's my turn."

Suddenly, he thrust himself backwards and pinned Adam to the wall behind. The knife that had been at his throat fell harmlessly to the floor.

"Let me go." Adam gasped for air, turning and twisting like an animal caught in a trap.

Hades pushed harder. "Nope."

While Echo was distracted, he grabbed her by the face and pressed his lips against her mouth. She shuddered at his touch and tried to cry out. She watched as Sunny jumped over and began biting Hades' arm like a dog.

There was no blending of revulsion and pleasure now. It was all pure disgust. When he let her head go, he looked triumphantly in her eyes. Immediately, she felt a stinging sensation emerge in her mouth. It swept around her head, then traveled in waves throughout her body. She began to tremble uncontrollably and Hades had to support her to keep her from falling.

"Welcome to our world," he whispered in her ear as she fought to stand on her own. She hated to have to lean on Hades for support, or to let him hold her helplessly in his strong arms, but she had no choice. "I have now made you immortal, and you are subject to my will."

"Let go of me," she insisted, pushing against his chest. "No matter what you did, my will is my own, even if it's all I have left."

"Adam, come get Echo," Hades said. He stepped forward and let his nephew slip out. "I made you a deal, and I always keep my bargains. You can take her home. But just remember Echo, when I call, you'll have to come."

Adam lifted Echo into his arms. Her head was still dizzy and reeling from whatever power Hades had filled her with, and she couldn't support her own weight.

Adam carried her out of the room, Sunny trotting behind at his heels and hissing wildly. His gray body was arched in a bow. Several rabbits, who had managed to slip past pursuers, joined the flight out.

"Are you okay?" Adam asked.


Echo drooped heavily in his arms. "I don't know. l feel sick. But please put me down. You can't carry me all the way out."

Adam shifted her weight to hold her more securely. "You aren't in any condition to walk, and we have to get out of these tunnels before my uncle changes his mind."

In spite of her words, Echo snuggled closer. She knew she couldn't walk. "Do you really think he'd do that?"

"Who knows? He's an egomaniac."

"But he said he keeps his bargains."

Echo felt rather than saw Adam's shrug. "Haven't you ever heard never to make deals with the devil?"

"Well, yeah, but he's not really the devil is he?"

"Close enough. Over time, he's become just like him."

"Just the same, I feel bad about you having to carry me." The arms she'd had draped around his neck, fell to her side. She couldn't hold them up any longer.

"If anyone should feel bad, it's me," Adam said. "I let you down."

"How do you figure that?" Echo asked. "You got me out of that horrible room and away from your uncle."

"But he kissed you and turned you into an Immortal," Adam said. His voice broke as he fought back tears. "It was my job to stop that from happening."
 
"It was your job to rescue me, which you did. I'm grateful to you. If you hadn't shown up, he would have locked me back up in that room and let me deal with all this alone. Oh, and thanks to you, too, Sunny. Good shot at the big guy's face."

Adam allowed himself a chuckle, "and good job biting his arm. I don't think I've ever actually seen a cat do that before."

Echo returned his chuckle. "He's a superhero, and so are you."

The rest of the way out, they were silent. Adam, because he had to conserve his strength, and Echo, because she was fading. The dizziness that had started with the kiss was now consuming her body and draining it of strength. If this is what it felt like to become immortal, she wasn't sure why a person would want it.

As the pair struggled out of the cave, the scream of an animal rent the air. Beyond exhaustion, Adam fell to his knees, his burden carefully placed on the ground in front of him. He was too tired to figure out what animal was calling or what it said. They both closed their eyes and succumbed to fatigue.
 
There was a rustling of grass and the sound of a horse nickering. A man stepped off and touched first Adam, then Echo.

"I've got you, Little Sparrow," a voice said. Strong arms lifted her like a child and held her against a leather clad chest. She opened one heavy eyelid and squeezed out a smile.

"Twice you've carried me from danger," Echo managed to say. She leaned her head against Georgios and shut her eyes once more.

 

Author Notes Image of Hades and Echo from IZEA.

*Quote from Rick Warren, author and evangelist.
"Life is like a game of poker; you have to play the hand you're dealt. A wise player can play a weak hand and win the game."

Book Summary so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 37
Georgios and Echo

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of last chapter:

As the pair struggled out of the cave, the scream of an animal rent the air. Beyond exhaustion, Adam fell to his knees, his burden carefully placed on the ground in front of him. He was too tired to figure out what animal was calling or what it said. They both closed their eyes and succumbed to fatigue.

There was a rustling of grass and the sound of a horse nickering. A man stepped off and first touched Adam, then Echo.

"I've got you, little sparrow," a voice said. Strong arms lifted her like a child and held her against a leather clad chest. She opened one heavy eyelid and squeezed out a smile.

"Twice you've carried me from danger," Echo managed to say. She leaned her head against Georgios and shut her eyes once more.


New Chapter begins:

Echo was vaguely aware of being carried in the arms of Georgios. She could smell the mixed odor of armor and sweat, virile male and horse. All together, the scent was calming, if not hypnotic. She felt safe, nestled into his warmth.

The air outside had taken on a chill she hadn't noticed before in Concorde Valley. Had the absence of its monarch left it bereft of perpetual summer?

"Hang in there little sparrow," Georgios said now and then. He held her in both arms, using just horse speech and his legs to guide the tan stallion. Thus they traveled swiftly, far from the entrance to the accursed tunnels leading to Hades' makeshift realm.

She could hear Adam close-by as well. His commands to his steed in horse language were weak, but present. The horse had shown up right behind Georgios, and, Echo assumed, the source of the cry she had heard when they first emerged from the cave.
 
How tired Adam must be after carrying her for miles beneath the catacombs. How did he still have the strength to stay astride the bay?

Approaching a hut, both horses halted. Echo could barely open her heavy eyelids, but was able to see shadowy images and hear Georgios speaking to Adam in a brisk, authoritative tone.

"Go find Theo and Hermes in Olympia. They need to know what has happened here, but, please, advise Theo to continue his quest. I can take care of Echo, just like I did Hannah."

Adam looked at his oldest brother with a mixture of exhaustion and determination. "I'll do what you ask, Georgios, but I'm not sure what help I can be to a couple of heavyweights, and in my condition."
 
"You have many skills they can use. Sometimes suppleness wins out over strength. You'll find that out as your journey unfolds. As for your tiredness, you'll now find the true heart of a warrior. Everyone fights well when rested. It's those who push past exhaustion who win."
 
Adam gave him a dubious look. "I've sure had a lot to catch up on."
 
"You have," Georgios agreed. He slapped Adam on the shoulder, "and I'm proud of you, brother."

Adam turned his head so Georgios couldn't see him tear up. As far as he could remember, this was the first time he'd called him brother. The first time he'd looked at him as something besides a clown.
 
"I just wish I'd been able to stop Hades from turning Echo immortal and making her so ill. It was my mission, you know, from Hermes."

"Look at me," Georgios said, "and look at Echo. You succeeded. From what I understood, your mission entailed going after the kids and Echo, and bringing them back. I'm afraid it would've taken more than you to stop that kiss, a fact Theo knew before he left."

Adam's head reeled. "You've gotta be kidding me, then why did he go?"

"Because Hades was using her for bait. He wanted to engage us in battle in his territory where he had the advantage. As hard as it was, Theo had to leave her behind for others to help. Her fate was sealed as soon as she went into the catacombs, anyway."

"But she was trying to rescue Hannah."

"And she did that," Georgios said. Echo felt him give her a squeeze. He was acknowledging her sacrifice. "Hannah was also used as bait."

Adam shook his head in disgust. "What kind of person would do that?"

"One we need to stop. Now, off with you. I'll send you and the horse to Theo."

Echo felt a burst of energy emanate from Georgios' chest. But for him holding onto her, the power pulse might have swept her off to Olympia as well.

Once the energy abated, Echo tried to focus her eyes on Georgios, but everything was fuzzy. She felt him slide off his horse with her, kick a door open and head into the thatched hut. Gently he laid her on a feather mattress.

"Why did you leave the valley for me?" she muttered.

"What?"

"When Theo came to rescue me from the Spectres. You were there and carried me to safety. Why?"

Georgios smoothed her hair from her fevered forehead. "Of all the questions you could ask, you'd ask that one?"

"Well, you, uh...."

"Look different?"
 
"Actually, not that much. I've just heard you're very private and don't like to leave the valley. You've come for me twice now."

Echo's voice fell off and her eyes fluttered shut. Georgios gently shook her shoulders.

"Stay with me, Echo. Once we get this poison out of you, I'll tell you my whole story if you'd like."

Echo's eyelids slid open. "Promise?"

"Promise."

Georgios stroked her face again. "Brace yourself, little sparrow." He let out a lungful of air, then leaned over and put his mouth over hers.

Slowly and methodically, he breathed in, pulling the air from her lungs as though drawing poison out of a wound. She felt panic growing as all air disappeared from her body. She felt her head spin and body cramp. She would have pushed the large man away if she could have moved at all.

She suddenly saw Hades' face in front of her, begging her to be his queen, promising her all the riches of his world and all the glories of royalty.

"Just take my hand," his voice said. "I'll give you strength to fight Georgios off."

She saw Hades reach for her. Still without oxygen, her hallucination grew more realistic. She had only to touch the handsome man's hand.

Her arm lifted from the cot.

"Perseverance... perseverance..." She remembered Hannah's sweet voice revealing her horse name.

Her hand dropped back to the mattress. In her mind, she envisioned turning her back on Hades and his proposal.

Georgios drew his head up and exhaled black smoke. He rose to his feet and staggered out the door. Echo could hear him retching on the ground outside.

As fresh air returned to her lungs, strength returned with it. She sat up on the side of the bed and looked around. The room was sparsely decorated, with just the basic necessities... a typical bachelor's abode.

On the wall over the fireplace, though, stood out a colorful painting of three Centaurs and a boy. Echo, feeling much stronger, stood up and walked over to get a closer look. She felt it was a key to the mystery that was Georgios.

Echo turned when she heard the large man return to the hut. He approached her and laid a hand on her shoulder.

"I see you're feeling better," he said.

"I am, though still pretty woozy. You don't look so hot."

Georgios blessed her with a warm chuckle. "Side effects of pulling the breath of Hades out of you, my dear. I'll be okay."

"I'm glad. Will I be?"

Georgios ran his hand across his chin and stroked his brown beard. It was a stalling tactic he used when trying to buy time in a conversation. "The quick answer would be, yes. I drew the poison out, but there's still something there, a bit of his soul you may have to deal with again later."

"I can sort of feel it, but it's not as strong as it was. Could you tell if I'm really immortal? I mean while you were in there."

Georgios got an amused look in his eyes. "One can't just detect immortality like that, sweetheart, but I can say you probably wouldn't have survived the amount of poison you had in you otherwise."

"Or the removal process," Echo added. "That was pretty intense."

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. There's another way to do it with herbs and teas, but it takes a long time, which we don't have enough of."

"Well, thank you, again. You've rescued me three times now."

"My pleasure. I'm just glad I've always been at the right place at the right time, as the saying goes."

"About that. You told me you would explain why you left Concorde Valley for me. I'm guessing the people in this painting had something to do with it."

Georgios stroked his beard again, but this time in thought. For a private man, such as himself, it was hard to divulge deep feelings. But, a promise was a promise.

"They were my family," he said at last, "and they were immortal, but even Immortals can die, and when they do, their loss is even harder to process."

Echo nodded encouragement. She knew this was difficult for Georgios, but also felt the key to his character rested in this tale.

Georgios bowed his head. "One day, not long after that painting was made, I was with Father practicing archery outside of the valley. It was in an area we occasionally had to defend against the Karack."

"Aren't those the people Theo told me were once your enemies and are now your brothers?"

"The same. Once we were finished for the day and had returned to the valley, we saw billowing smoke rising from the direction of a gully behind our house. We raced back, but were unable to get to them in time."

Echo gasped. "That's how my parents were killed, too."

"I know. The same man set both fires. I felt so badly that I had been neglecting them, I vowed never to leave Concorde Valley.

"And yet you did leave. You came to fight for me in Taylorville."
 
Georgios pulled her into a warm embrace. "Yes, little sparrow, because you escaped a fire as devastating as the one that took my mother and sister's lives. In a way, helping you is helping them."

A single tear slipped through Echo's eye and rolled down her cheek. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"And, I'm sorry for yours. Let's go to Mary's house where she can nurture you back to full health. I think most of my siblings are there as well. If they can't put the fight back in you, I don't know what can."

"And you need to get back to preparing your men to fight."

"Exactly, and Echo, remember, God keeps His eyes on the sparrow."

Echo placed a hand on his grizzled arm. "And, sometimes, he sends an angel to keep watch over us."

Author Notes Image of Georgios from IZEA.

Book Summary so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town, and covers the opening of a new mega-store, Super Handyman.

After gathering all she needs on the store opening, she meets up with Bessie, an elderly columnist from the Sun who has an inside scoop on the death of the woman killed in their town. Bessie tells what she knows about the night of the murder, and sends Echo off to go back to work.

Echo arrives at the Newspaper, where the Christmas party has already begun. Before going in, she finds an envelop addressed to her. In it are pictures of the dead woman and Echo. The newest member of the police department, Tony Bradley, shows up to take her statement. He is, immediately, suspected of being the serial killer Echo is investigating.

At the end of the party, a parade of her friends set out to follow her home and keep her safe. After a series of unfortunate events, she ends up fleeing across ice and snow to trees she hopes to keep her safe. She's confronted by Specters who try and take her hostage. Theo, her childhood acquaintance, shows up to save the day.

After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo have fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

There, she is taken on a walk through a magnificent flower garden Phoebus planted long ago and tends. Afterward, she joins part of the family for a luncheon.
The luncheon turns into a food fight, which Echo enjoys, but thinks is a bit odd for a royal family.
Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

He is also, asked to find the missing god, Apollo, who had joined humanity to live as one of the mortals.

Echo begins her own mission after one of Hannah's rabbits draws her to find the missing child.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 38
Twin Dilemma

By davisr (Rhonda)

End of Last Chapter:
 
Echo gasped. "Georgios, that's how my parents were killed, too."

"I know. The same man set both fires. I felt so badly that I had been neglecting my family, I vowed never to leave Concorde Valley again."

"And yet you did leave. You came to fight for me in Taylorville."
 
Georgios pulled her into a warm embrace. "Yes, little sparrow, because you escaped a fire as devastating as the one that took my mother and sister's lives. In a way, helping you is helping them."

A single tear slipped through Echo's eye and rolled down her cheek. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"And, I'm sorry for yours. Let's go to Mary's house where she can nurture you back to full health. I think most of my siblings are there as well. If they can't put the fight back in you, I don't know who can."

"And you need to get back to preparing your men to fight."

"Exactly, and Echo, remember what the Bible says, God keeps His eyes on the sparrow."

Echo placed a hand on his grizzled arm. "And, it also says, he sends angels to keep watch over us."
 
Georgios chuckled. "That may be the first time I've ever been called an angel."
 

Beginning of New Chapter:

"Have you ever been in love, Hermes?" Theo was lying on the ground staring up at the stars. It was the third night since they had received news Hades would attack Concorde Valley in seven days. It seemed like a year, felt like not long enough.

"Oh, many times," the larger, and more famous, god replied. He was resting on his back as well, also gazing heavenward.

"I don't mean the girlfriends, or whatever you want to call them. I mean true love." Theo tossed a rock in the air and caught it inches from his nose. "You know, the kind that keeps you awake at night and makes you do crazy things. The kind that lets you patiently wait for years for someone, then leave them in danger when they need you most."
 
"Theo, Echo had a good idea of what she was doing when she entered the caves. She also knew you had a task to perform to save everyone. Relax. Trust your family base. There are strong warriors and gentle healers among them, and some that are both."
 
Theo tossed another rock, then another. "I know. But, you still didn't answer my quesiton."

"About love, please! I tend to be a pretty shallow person. You know, love 'em and leave 'em, and all that."

Theo turned over on his side and raised up on one elbow. "You'll have to do better than that, Hermes. You like to pretend lack of character, but here you are with me on the precipice of disaster, willing to face the two scariest beings in the universe, for something. What is it that motivates the roguish messenger god?"

Hermes' eyes still focused heavenward. "It's simple, Theo. I don't want Hades in control of the world. I've known him my entire, long life. He's not a pleasant guy."

"Come on, you're Hermes, the untouchable god. Everyone loves you, and no one feels threatened by you. What pony do you have in this race?"

"Boy, turn over and go to sleep. You'll need your rest."

"Not until you tell me who she is. Who is the one woman Hermes fell in love with? The one worth doing all this for? The one worth, possibly, dying for?"

Hermes tossed a few rocks upwards and caught them with practiced ease. Just as Theo thought he wasn't going to tell, he spoke up. "There was this one."

Theo resisted the urge to pump the air with his fist and declare he knew. Discretion bade him keep quiet until Hermes finished.

"I first saw her standing in the most exquisite garden. She wasn't classically beautiful, not my usual type, but she wasn't unsightly either. She had long brown hair that sort of flowed down her gown and caressed her curves."

"Curves?"

"Well, yeah, she had curves."

"Like overweight curves?"

"A bit, and she carried them with the grace of an angel. Her face was garnished with a scattering of little delicate freckles, and her eyes danced with pure joy when she smiled. It was the joy that caught my attention. I approached her, and we developed a deep friendship."

"You're risking your immortal life for a good friend?"

Hermes hesitated again. Delivering messages and causing a bit of mischief were easy. Revealing emotions was quite another. "She was engaged to someone else."

Theo grinned in spite of himself. "Did you ever tell her you loved her?" Theo looked into Hermes' face and found it troubled. "You didn't, did you? Hermes, you're the god of love!"

"I am not. That's Eres, or Cupid as he's sometimes known. I'm just a flirt."

"Is she still alive?"

"Of course." Hermes' voice cracked, and Theo caught the meaning.

"Oh my gosh, she's mortal, isn't she? That's why you haven't gotten with her, and she's your pony in this race."

"Go to sleep." Hermes tossed one of the rocks at Theo, then turned on his side in dismissal. Theo caught the rock before it struck and let it fall harmlessly to the ground. A sudden drowsiness overcame him and he fell instantly asleep.

Moments later, it seemed, the interim king awoke to find his cousin on his feet looking at a parchment. The sun was up and about half-way to noon. Theo couldn't believe he had wasted so much of his precious time in sleep.

"What's that?" Theo asked. He rose quickly to his feet and approached Hermes.

Hermes held the brown paper for Theo to see. "I found this wedged under the rock beside my head, which is a little creepy considering I'm usually a light sleeper. I suspect Hypnos' work."

"Yeah, I suspect it, too. I never sleep this late. What does the letter say?"
 
"It's written in an ancient tongue, a precursor to Greek and Latin. Look at it. Can you read it?"
 
"Nope, not a word. Can you?"
 
"Of course, Theo, I speak all languages, past and present. I'll translate, but you really must learn your ancestral texts. I'll talk to your father about it."
 
Theo shrugged. He figured if Phoebus had thought it important to teach him, he would have done so already. This was just Hermes showing off.

"Dearest Hermes and Anthos. My brother and I know of your mission, and that, to you, it is of the utmost of importance. We respect your integrity, but you must understand Thanatos and I function under different motivations than the rest of the world. You seek to free your people, a noble endeavor, but we tend to feel all of you are flawed, so whoever is ruling is of no consequence to us.

"However, we do honor valor, and are willing to reward you if it's sincere. Bravery can only be proven if there is something more tangible at stake than power or loss of position. Hades has promised you'll all be freed and given a post in his regime if you will acknowledge his sovereignty. You may not like him, I don't particularly, but what he's proposed is fair.

"If you want our help, you will have to complete a test of bravery. Its terms are dictated by us, as are the events involved. Your part is to do your best to survive.

"These are our stipulations:
 
1. You will traverse the canyon beneath you, cross the river that splits it, and climb the cliff to our castle on the other side.
 
2. While doing so, you will have to be as any other men, or there is no true bravery involved. You will temporarily forfeit your immortality and all gifted powers, including that of flight, until you reach me and my brother at the castle.

3. Once there, each of you will grant us a gift. These are non-negotiable, and unrevealed until your mission is complete. At that point, we will return your immortality and powers, and put our abilities at your service.
 
"If you choose to continue, burn this letter. When the smoke clears, our castle will appear across the valley. 
 
"To add flavor to the project, you must rescue Adam. He entered our territory unbidden this morning and is tied to a tree on the banks of the river. I've already removed his immortality, and a formidable storm is approaching. Let virtue be your shield and heroism, your sword."

Sincerely,
Hypnos, and by proxy, Thanatos
 

A cold chill ran down Theo's spine. What had he and Hermes gotten themselves into? He glanced sharply at Hermes, who shot his eyebrows upward. Hermes gripped the letter as though the wind might whip it out of his hand. With closed eyes, he dropped to his knees. Theo joined him.

"And now you know why they are so feared," Hermes said. He turned his eyes to an ashen Theo. "Shall I burn it and seal our fate?"

"Mine is already sealed, Hermes. That's my little brother down there. You're the only one with a choice."

"I don't know how it will feel to lose my immortality, or my ability to fly, but the only woman I've ever loved is in Concorde Valley with Echo."

Theo's emerald eyes grew dark. "Burn the letter, cousin."

Author Notes Image of Hypnos and Thanatos, the twin brothers Nyx from IZEA.

Book Summary so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town.

After being stalked by enemies intent on stopping her investigation, Theo, now a man, returns to rescue her from a demonic force. After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

With the help of family members, some of Greek Mythological fame, Theo sets out to save the world.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat

Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.


Chapter 39
Mortality

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of Last Chapter:
 
A cold chill ran down Theo's spine. What had he and Hermes gotten themselves into? He glanced sharply at Hermes, who shot his eyebrows upward. Hermes gripped the letter as though the wind might whip it out of his hand. With closed eyes, he dropped to his knees. Theo joined him.

"And now you know why they are so feared," Hermes said. He turned his eyes to an ashen Theo. "Shall I burn it and seal our fate?"

"Mine is already sealed, Hermes. That's my little brother down there. You're the only one with a choice."

"I don't know how it will feel to lose my immortality, or my ability to fly, but the only woman I've ever loved is in Concorde Valley with Echo."

Theo's emerald eyes grew dark. "Burn the letter, cousin."
 
 
Beginning of New Chapter:  
 
 
Theo gripped his sides while the remnants of smoke swirled around his cramping body. The stench of death filled his nostrils as he felt his body dying around his ageless soul.

He wanted to cry out like a small child calling to his mother in the night. He opened his mouth, but all he could manage was a tortured groan.

Spasm after spasm wracked his body, until the onslaught began to subside. Exhausted, he glanced around for Hermes.

On the ground beside him, the messenger god writhed in pain. Gone were his beautiful white wings and in their place, grotesque stumps. Theo watched as his second cousin took a deep breath, braced his knuckles against the stony ground and rose to his knees in obvious agony. After a brief pause to catch his breath, he stood firmly on his feet.

Theo couldn't help but admire the fortitude of a god most people took for a fool, yet accepted as a mighty warrior. He was a living paradox, and, at the moment, his greatest ally.

"Come on, boy, get up." Hermes pulled Theo to his feet, and pointed to the darkening sky. "We've got to get the horses down the bluff before the storm hits."

Theo didn't feel like rescuing anyone. He was disoriented and in pain, but the king inside the boy fought for the upperhand. Finally, he met Hermes' eyes as the internal battle was decided . He managed a smile he didn't really feel and said, "You look like crap."

Hermes simply nodded. "This is the part about being a soldier they don't teach you in training. Mount up, buttercup."  He 
thumped Theo affectionally on the chest, then swung onto his borrowed sable horse, Recovery. The massive steed shook his long black mane and stamped. Who was this man on his back? He didn't look like the one who had ridden him earlier.

Calming the horse with a word, Hermes stared across the valley at the castle on the other side of the divide. The formidable structure sent a chill down his spine. The last time he'd seen the building, he'd been working on it with Hercules... one of many held captive on Mount Olympus.
 
"There it is, my boy, the house of the Brothers Nyx and their illusive, but beautiful mother."

"Whose name is Nyx...?"

"Yes."

"And you've seen her?"

Hermes raised an eyebrow. "Everyone gets messages. And, in answer to your next question, yes, she's beautiful, but even I wouldn't mess with her."

"Understandable." Theo mounted Nifty, who was not at all happy with his master smelling of death. "Steady boy." Theo patted his crimson neck and stroked his ears. "It's just me and I'll need your strength today."

Soothed by the sound of the familiar voice, the great steed stood quiet and ready.

For a moment, neither man spoke. They rested astride their horses and gazed across the valley, seeing danger and adventure in a way they never had before.

Theo drew in air, tasting its life-giving flavor, then, with his knees and words, urged Nifty toward the embankment that led to their collective destiny.

Step by sure step, the horses picked their way down a fairly innocuous slope. The winter breeze, mild in the way Greek winters tend to be, was refreshing. The sun graced them with warmth and helped ease the discomfort of mortality.

The cloud in the distance forewarning the storm, was still far enough away as not to garner undo alarm. Theo breathed in life and exhaled anxiety. 

Hermes glanced at Theo and flashed him a quick smile. "I see you've relaxed."

Theo grinned back. "It's not as bad as I had imagined."

"Mortality or this cliff?"

"Both."

"Hmmm." Hermes nodded. This time his expression was more sobering. "Don't let your guard down, pal. The hosts of this adventure are crafty and unforgiving."

"Yeah, but as long as we're brave, they'll be on our side."

"The twins aren't on anybody's side but their own. They're only entertaining our request because they want something and because they're enjoying the game."

Theo nodded and the green of his eyes took on the look of his grandfather Poseidon's. How proud his father and grandfather would be in this moment if they could see him, and how he prayed they would all live to discuss it.

At the foot of the great slope, the horses and their riders were able to rest. The first third of the journey was over with nothing to have braved but minor slips and skids. Theo's zealous roan stallion pawed the ground to announce his arrival unharmed.The giant black concurred with a cry of victory.
 
Across the valley, a very alive and relieved Adam waved encouragement with fettered hands.

"Hang tight, we'll be right there," Theo cried out. He glanced at Hermes for confirmation, but in his cousin's eyes, he saw horror. "What is it?"

Hermes pointed overhead at two circling birds.

Theo shrugged. "They're just buzzards. Adam's still alive and wiggling around. He can fend off two carrion birds."

"Those aren't vultures, they're the Stymphalian Birds," Hermes clarified. "They're man eaters with talons of razor and beaks of solid bronze."

"Never heard of them."

"Go!"

Hermes slapped Recovery on the rump and kicked him in the ribs. Unused to such treatment, the horse leapt forward with the might of one of Zeus' own chariot steeds. Nifty, the only Immortal left in the lot, joined him as one beast.

The Stymphalian Birds saw they were discovered and lunged toward Adam. Sunlight reflected off metallic feathers, accenting saber-like talons. Their beaks snapped like the jaws of a crane.

The sky darkened and the land with it. Lightning tore across the sky in rabid anger. The determined men raced across the open plain with legendary birds swooping down, and the promised storm roaring in like a firey dragon.
 
Adam was barely visible in the swirling tempest, but Theo could still see the white of his Concordian shirt. He bore down on him with all Nifty had to give. The warrior horse was a streak of red in the gathering darkness, and Recovery, concealed by the darkness, was close on his heels.
 
They were almost to the swelling river when hail joined the deluge of rain. Although only about the size of grapes, the little chunks of ice burned where they were driven into the skin by powerful winds. Leaves and branches flew through the air in a rotating pattern, hitting everything in their path. 
 
A scream from Adam and an illuminating flash of lightning brought the attention of the warriors to where a Stymphalian Bird had landed and was snapping and clawing at Theo's younger brother. 
 
"Nifty, fly," Theo cried in the horse's ear.  He drew his sword as the great beast responded with a magnificent burst of speed. A mighty leap followed, which landed them beside Adam and the bird of prey. Nifty flew into a frenzy as he lashed out with hoof and teeth at the offending bird.
 
Theo dropped to the ground and began to hack at the bird with a practiced sword. Seconds later, the other bird landed, its feral cry piercing the violent storm.
 
Without thinking, Hermes stood on the back of his horse and leapt into the air as though he could still fly. Of course, he couldn't, but still landed like a cat on his feet. His feet! He looked down and saw the glow of quicksilver. So, he thought, the twins didn't realize he was the fastest god in Olympia for more than one reason. It wasn't just about the wings. Hermes was back in business. He had speed, agility, and a very powerful sword.
 

Author Notes Shout out to Debi Pick-Marquette for the image of the rearing stallion

Book Summary so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town.

After being stalked by enemies intent on stopping her investigation, Theo, now a man, returns to rescue her from a demonic force. After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

With the help of family members, some of Greek Mythological fame, Theo sets out to save the world.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat


Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.

Stymphalian Birds: Monstrous creatures from Greek mythology, often depicted as large, carnivorous birds with metallic feathers and razor-sharp beaks and talons. (Quora)


Chapter 40
Battle of Nyx Valley

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

End of the last chapter:
 
Theo dropped to the ground and began to hack at the bird with a practiced sword. Seconds later, the other bird landed, its feral cry piercing the violent storm.

Without thinking, Hermes stood on the back of his horse and leapt into the air as though he could still fly. Of course, he couldn't, but landed like a cat on his feet. His feet! He looked down and saw the glow of quicksilver. So, he thought, the twins didn't realize he was the fastest god in Olympia for more than one reason. It wasn't just about the wings. Hermes was back in business. He had speed, agility, and a very powerful sword.

 
 

New Chapter begins:

Theo became aware of Hermes joining the battle and was relieved to see him fighting with amazing speed and agility. This renewed his own strength and resolve. Though difficult work, he gave more damage than he received.
 
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his cousin brandishing his sword like an avenging angel. In and out, in and out, he alternately dodged and attacked the second bird.

For a brief second, Theo allowed himself to be astounded by Hermes the warrior. Gone was his playful guise and whimsical nature. This, Theo decided, was what made his cousin a ruling god.

In that moment of distraction, Theo violated one of the cardinal rules of engagement, and paid dearly for it. An immediate and excruciating pain tore down his left shoulder and arm.

He stared at the bird as it lifted upward, and watched it swoop around like a tarantula stalking a lizard. He could almost imagine a smile in the skin that pulled back its copper beak.

The paralyzing pain caused him to drop his shield into the raging water. As he watched it float away, he shook his head and grasped the sword with both hands. Resolute before this mortal danger, Theo waited for the bird to dive in again.

When it did, he stared into the creature's dark, beady eyes. It was a universal challenge and denial of fear. At the last second, he darted to the left and stabbed with his sword straight into the bird's right eye. A second stab in the same spot sent the beast screeching into the air.

Theo turned his attention back to Adam. Terrified, he watched as the swollen river covered his brother.

"Noooo!" Theo cried. He slid his sword back into its scabbard and dove into the water. Immediately, his heavy armor pulled him under. He reached into a sheath on his thigh and pulled out a serrated hunting knife.

In a few swift movements, he cut through the straps that held his armor. His body protection then joined his shield in the river. Lighter now, but less protected, Theo bobbed to the surface. For the moment, he sheathed his knife and treaded water to assess the situation.

He made out the Cyprus tree ahead of him, the tether still jerking about as though attached to a giant fish. Theo swam for the spot, oblivious to the wound in his shoulder and arm.

Once to the tree, he grasped the rope, and followed it hand over hand until he felt two responding hands grasp his.

He braced himself against the tree and jerked up until his brother's head, sputtering and coughing, cleared the water. Theo pulled his knife again and slashed through Adam's bonds.

"Thanks, brother," Adam said. He fought the current to stand upright. "Now, give me a sword and let me fight these bastards."

"I have only mine," Theo said. They both looked at Hermes, who had managed to work his way closer to them.

"You two get on Nifty and get out of here," he ordered. "Make for the cliff ahead. They won't attack next to a wall of stone."

"We can fight," Adam insisted.

"You're weak from the water and your brother is about to bleed to death."

Theo hesitated, so Hermes let out a cry in the language of horses. Nifty galloped to Theo's side. Hermes responded with more horse talk, and Nifty bent to his knees.

"Of course you speak horse," Theo said as much to himself as anyone.

Hermes ignored Theo's remark and bellowed again. "Go!"
The look in the elder god's eyes carried the authority of one of the ruling twelve that even the removal of his immortality couldn't take away. Theo acquiesced. The rescue mission Theo might be in charge of, but Hermes outranked him in battle.

"Come on Adam."

Without another word of protest, the brothers climbed onto Nifty's back. The great roan stallion plunged into the engorged river.

Adam tore off his shirt and tied it around the deepest part of Theo's lacerated arm. He wasn't Phoebus' son for nothing. He had spent as much time in his father's hospital as in his training field.

Theo glanced over his shoulder at his brother and nodded thanks. How the lad had changed since the siege on Mount Olympus first began!

Stroke after perilous stroke, the great stallion strove against the rapidly flowing water until they made it to the other side. By that point, all three were exhausted. Had they not been in such dire conditions, they might have rested on the shore. But they weren't safe and so they pressed on until they reached the steppes of the cliff beneath the Styx castle.

There, the brothers dismounted and left Nifty to find grass to replenish his strength. They sat on the ground and leaned against an outcropping that partially shielded them from the storm.

"I feel like a deserter," Adam said. He tapped his head against the stone wall behind him. "Just like I felt helpless tied to a tree while you and Hermes fought."

"You're a soldier following orders from your commander," Theo responded. "Hermes can fight easier without worrying about rescuing the two of us."

"Can you see him?" Adam asked.

"No, but I hear the sounds of battle. That means he's still alive. We'll wait here until he shows up."

Adam nodded, but didn't seem convinced that just sitting and waiting was the bravest course of action. He closed his eyes and rested his head.

Theo did the same, and his eyes grew heavier and heavier in spite of the growing pain in his arm. He opened thick eyelids and saw a shadowy figure standing in front of him. The man gazed as though sizing him up. Satisfied, he winked and blew dust in Theo's face.

"Seriously, Hypnos?" Theo nodded off to dreamland.

"Immediately, he found himself standing in a cave lit by torches and candles. There was a group of men and women seated in a semicircle around a rather handsome couple dressed in formal dinner attire. The man was tall and muscular with handsome features. He wore a black tuxedo and exuded an air of authority.

The woman, vaguely familiar, had auburn hair that flowed around a white gown. She was beautiful in all senses of the word, and seemed self-assured. While she didn't look particularly happy, she didn't come across as scared, either.

Theo drew in closer, apparently invisible to the couple seated at the table. The man rose to his feet, pulling the girl after. There was a scuffle with another person, and then the man kissed the woman on the lips. She looked revolted and tried to squirm away. He held her tightly for a dramatic moment and then released her.

This same scene played over and over in his head until another took its place.

This time, the young lady was asleep in bed, her head resting on a feather pillow. She looked so serene and innocent. He wanted to lean over and kiss her on the forehead. He knew this girl, it was the woman betrothed to be his bride.

As he watched her sleep, a breeze blew the curtains above her head. Echo twitched and her face grew troubled. A wispy silhouette of the god of the dead materialized before her. Hades bent over and kissed her in her sleep, causing Echo to wince and cry out.

"Echo, come with me," Hades whispered in her ear.

"No, go away," Echo muttered.

Hades' ghostly hand touched her forehead and his voice grew louder. "Come with me."

"I will not!" Echo sat upright in her bed. "I don't belong to you, no matter what you did to me. I'm going to marry Theo and you know it."

Theo reached out dream arms to take her, but they fell helplessly to his side.

"Echo, Echo," he cried out, the words of his dream leaking into the real world.

********

Adam gazed at his brother sleeping fitfully on the ground. His brow was furrowed with worry and his lips called for his beloved. His words reverberated off the canyon wall mocking her name.

Adam felt he had failed them all. He hadn't been able to stop Hades from kissing Echo, and he had endangered Hermes and Theo by getting captured. All of these failures began to boil inside him until they became an inferno of rage.


Across the plain, he heard Hermes scream out in pain. He glanced back down at Theo, blood now soaking through his makeshift bandage. "Brother, forgive me. Hermes is your captain and you have to take his orders, but I don't."

Adam cupped his hands over his mouth and called out for the black stallion, Recovery. The horse pranced to his side and bowed. Adam grabbed his brother's sword, then jumped on the steed's back and urged him toward the battleground. It was time to earn his own respect.

 

Author Notes AI Image of the Stymphalian Birds By

Book Summary so far: IZEA

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town.

After being stalked by enemies intent on stopping her investigation, Theo, now a man, returns to rescue her from a demonic force. After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

With the help of family members, some of Greek Mythological fame, Theo sets out to save the world.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat


Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.

Stymphalian Birds: Monstrous creatures from Greek mythology, often depicted as large, carnivorous birds with metallic feathers and razor-sharp beaks and talons. (Quora)


Chapter 41
The Gift

By davisr (Rhonda)

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

End of last chapter:

Across the plain, he heard Hermes scream out in pain. He glanced back down at Theo, blood now soaking through his makeshift bandage. "Brother, forgive me. Hermes is your captain and you have to take his orders, but I don't."

Adam cupped his hands over his mouth and called out for the black stallion, Recovery. The horse pranced to his side and bowed. Adam grabbed his brother's sword, then jumped on the steed's back and urged him toward the battleground. It was time to earn his own respect.

Beginning of New Chapter:

Theo struggled to a sitting position and leaned against the stone embankment. His head was still murky from the trance he had been put into by Hypnos. His arm, unfortunately, was full of blistering pain. The rest of the aches and pains from battle arrived bit by excruciating bit.

He looked around for Adam, but found he was alone. He could see across the valley, something he hadn't been able to do before because of the storm. It had abated, though the battle had not.

He watched his brother swinging a sword on the two swooping birds. He alternated between being proud of the young man for his prowess, and worrying for his safety.

Beside Adam, Hermes, son of Zeus, fought with a fiery blade embossed with wings at the handle and intertwining serpents about its blade. He was fast, efficient and fearless. Together, the cousins were a powerful team, but the tide of the battle still vacillated.

For a moment, Theo allowed worry to flow over him like the coursing of a brook . What had happened to his quest? So much rested on its success, and here he sat on the brink of disaster, wounded and separated from his companions. He pounded the ground with his fist.

"Giving up, young king?" A voice said. Theo jumped in surprise.

"You're wound a little tight, aren't you?

"I'm just fine," Theo said. He rose to his feet before one of the shadowy twins. "Are you planning to blow more dust in my face and send me off on another hallucination?"

"Nope, and that wasn't a hallucination, it was a view of something my brother felt you needed to see."

"So, you're Thanatos?"

The twin gave a slight nod and tilted his head to the left in a habitual manner. "But don't worry, I'm not here to take your life, just to point you in the direction of the last leg of your journey."

Theo acknowledged with a nod of his own and waited for Thanatos to continue. "Your path will take you up the cliff." A shadowy hand pointed upward.

Theo glanced in the direction he indicated, then back toward the battlefield.

"They aren't coming with you," Thanatos said in answer to his unspoken question. His eyes never left Theo's face.

"I can't leave them in danger."

"Then you'll have to let them go. As soon as you start the end of the journey, I'll call off the birds."

"We can't just go off and leave them like they are."

"Hypnos and I will tend their wounds, and take them to our home. They'll be perfectly safe. I'll even send the horses."

"And what happens if I fail?"

Thanatos didn't answer. He pointed again to the summit, then shimmered out of view.

Theo raised his eyebrows to no one in particular and sighed. He looked at the battle and back upwards. He had no choice

"Nifty, my boy, come here." He motioned to the roan stallion. He stroked his long muscular neck and placed his forehead against his. "I'm going to have to leave you here, buddy, but I'll see you at the top."

Nifty nickered in response. If the great horse was anxious for his master, he didn't show it. He stood stoic and trusting. The immortal gift of Poseidon to the Immortal son of Phoebus... indelibly linked since birth.

Theo grabbed a bag from Nifty's shoulder. He opened it and removed rope and hooks. He grew up climbing mountains. This part of the adventure, he looked forward to.

********

For a while, the climb was challenging, but not impossible. After the intensity of the earlier stages of the trial, it was actually satisfying. He wasn't naive enough to believe the whole thing was going to be this easy, and he refused to allow overconfidence to deter him, but he did let relief steal in to heal injuries and offer encouragement.

He longed to look over his shoulder and see if Thanatos had kept his word about Adam and Hermes, but resisted. Distraction had plagued him since Concorde Valley when he knew Hades held Echo, and later when he was injured by the Stymphalian Bird.

With renewed focus, he pressed on. His hands found the ledges he needed to grasp, his feet the outcroppings on which to step. He was in his element.

And then the storm returned. Wind and hail beat against him making the stone slippery and the view ahead nearly impossible. He pressed on.

It was as though his entire childhood had trained him for this moment. Tree walking had taught him patience, balance, and a feeling of oneness with nature. Rock climbing and warrior training had given him confidence and physical strength. Even rescuing Echo in her world had built resolve in the face of danger.

Theo allowed himself no thought outside of climbing to the summit. He didn't require the help or support of anyone, and yet he knew it was there. He let his family's love surround him, and the memory of his mentors guide him, but the summit was his alone to reach.

The storm came and went, and the sun eventually set. Still, he climbed. Finally, as the sun rose again, his hand touched flat ground. He pulled himself to the top and rested. He resisted the urge to fall into a deep healing sleep.

He was a king with two valleys and a captured group of gods relying on him. He drew to his feet and stepped away from the edge.

******

In the shadows beneath a towering oak, stood the two identical brothers. Their hands were clasped behind their backs, their faces impassive.

"You made it here on your own," they said together.

Theo faced them. "Never alone, just by myself."

The twins nodded. "Then, your journey is complete. Come with us." Their voices and steps were in synchrony.

Theo followed the two men who in their own realm, were fully materialized. They were tall, even according to Theo's standards, with short blonde hair, wizened faces, and dressed in simple tunics.

A magnificent castle rose before them, the tops disappearing into the misty clouds. Birds, Stymphalian to be exact, circled around it as though giving protection where it was probably least needed.

"Wow, it's stunning," Theo said, "and not just because it's enormous, but it's beautiful as well."

"An infinite project, young friend," one twin said. "You have a great eye for architecture."

"It's a family passion," he responded. The word, friend, had not been lost on Theo. Immortals, such as these two, didn't throw the term around freely.

"Come with me, please," the other twin said, and motioned. Theo recognized him as Thanatos because of the way he tilted his head slightly to the left.

Theo followed until they reached a stable beside the main house. Within were the two stallions, Recovery and Nifty. They were cantering around and kicking up their heels like colts.

"They look happy to be out of the battle," Theo said. "I can relate."

"Yes. Forgive our trials."

"It's a Greek thing," Thanatos said. "I get it. I'm just glad I passed."

"They really are magnificent, these two stallions... good breeding."

"Thank you, my father..."

"Yes, Phoebus the Centaur, son of Poseidon, who, by the way, is one of the only gods we like. He created horses, you know."

"Yeah, I've heard him talk about it at length."

Both men chuckled.

"I'm glad your father was transformed back to a man."

"You knew about that?" Theo was surprised. "I didn't think you and Hypnos cared about any of us."

Thanatos shrugged. "You never know what entertains us."

"Are my companions safe?" Theo asked.

Thanatos cocked his head like a curious puppy. "I told you they would be. They're safely inside eating from the table of the Lady Nyx. I'll take you there shortly. We have business to attend to first."

"The gift?"

"Yes."

Theo leaned against the wooden corral. "I have very little to offer one such as you, but I'm guessing you have something in mind."

"I do. You know I asked for something from Hermes as well."

"Really? Can you share what it was?"

Thanatos leaned against the coral as well. "I wanted a single feather from his wings."

"Okay, why?"

"My brother and I can do many things, but we can't fly. With his feather, we can soar like a bird. Sometimes, it's the simple things that can satisfy the soul."

"I don't have a feather to give you," Theo said.

"No, but you have something else, something I've wanted for years." Thanatos nodded his head toward the paddock.

Incredulously, Theo's gaze followed the Master of Death's. It landed on the copper stallion who was still frolicking around the pasture.

"You have one of the only immortal horses in the world," Thanatos continued. "He's fast, strong and beautiful."

Theo's blood ran cold. He whirled and faced Thanatos. A million thoughts ran through his head, but it always came back to one thing. He had agreed to give the brothers anything they asked, and one simply doesn't try to cheat sleep and death!


Author Notes The Advanced Editor is acting weird, so I had to post this in Basic Editor. Sorry for the plainness, but it's better than the alternative. Thank you!


Book Summary so far:

Young Echo Jones is overlooked by First Responders as she hides in a wheat field during a house fire. Both parents killed in the fire, she escapes into an ancient forest behind her home. Alone and afraid, she meets up with a young boy, Anthos, nicknamed Theo, from mysterious origins that tends to her while searching for help.

20 years later, Echo is working for a newspaper called the Taylorville Sun. Among other duties, she investigates a serial killer who has now struck in her small town.

After being stalked by enemies intent on stopping her investigation, Theo, now a man, returns to rescue her from a demonic force. After a battle outside Echo's apartment complex, Echo and Theo fled through the trees toward his homeland, Concorde Valley, an undisclosed place near or within the Great Forests of Southern United States.

Theo takes Echo into Concorde Valley where she is tended to by Phoebus, Theo's father of many roles. He patches her up and sends her with Theo to meet the family.

Theo receives a missive from the 12 gods, via the rascally Hermes, instructing him to free the gods being held captive on Mount Olympus and defeat the enemy Hades.

With the help of family members, some of Greek Mythological fame, Theo sets out to save the world.

Characters:

Echo Jones: Young girl left stranded by a fire that took her home and parents in the first part of the book, then as an adult, she's an investigative reporter for a small town newspaper.


Theo: Named Anthos by his parents. Protagonist of the book, and Echo's love interest..

Specters/men in dark clothing: Minions of the Enemy. Have eyes that turn red when they're angry. Can appear as normal humans, serve the Enemy.

Kitty Sunshine, aka Sunny: Echo's Russian Blue cat


Theo, A nickname for Anthos: An 8-year-old, of mysterious origins, who finds young Echo in the forest and tends to her needs. We see him later as a grown man who rescues Echo once again.

Georgios: One of Phoebus' Captains. Theo's half brother

Phoebus: King of Concorde Valley, Theo's father
Diantha: Queen of Concorde Valley, Theo's mother
Poseidon: god of the Sea, Theo's grandfather
Hermes: messenger god, warrior, boyish charm; Theo's 2nd cousin, one of the ruling 12.
Apollo: Hermes' elder brother, sun God, and more. One of the ruling 12. Currently on sabbatical.

Rebecca: Theo's 25-year-old sister. She's married to Henry and has a baby Caitlyn
Henry: Rebecca's husband.
Adam: Theo's 21-year-old brother
Phillip: Theo's 17-year-old brother
Helen: Theo's 10-year-old sister
Hannah: Theo's 7-year-old sister who loves animals and can talk to them in their own language.
Mary: Rebecca's mother-in-law and a woman who is like a grandmother to the kids.

Mageia: Old Sorcerer who lives in Carack Valley. Used to work for Hades.
Thanatos: One of Nix's twin sons. He supersedes Hades as controller of death.
Hypnos: One of the twin sons. He lulls people to sleep
Nyx: Female personification of the night. Mother to many primordial beings, feared even by Zeus.

Stymphalian Birds: Monstrous creatures from Greek mythology, often depicted as large, carnivorous birds with metallic feathers and razor-sharp beaks and talons. (Quora)


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