Heroes of the Horde Series, Book 4: Divided by Jennifer Hartz 2 covers

Heroes of the Horde Series, Book 4: Divided by Jennifer Hartz

Six high school students obtained amazing superpowers from their school’s demonic legend and unleash the demonic Horde. As their new powers grow, they have to find a way to contain what they unleashed before the evil spreads beyond the school.

 

Heroes of the Horde Series, Book 4: Divided by Jennifer Hartz 2 coversWith friend against friend, sibling against sibling, the Heroes of the Horde are divided. One side feels certain the other is under the influence of the demon Horde while the other fears having their superpowers stolen. Old grudges ignite while even older enemies are called upon for aid. In the darkest of moments, new love blossoms. But what can survive a civil war between the Heroes?

Discovering that the leader of the demon Horde survived eradication is the final straw. While the Horde leader has the power to bring all the demons back, his greatest power is in manipulating the divisions separating the Heroes. The only way to bring down the evil is to give their powers willingly over to one member of the team. But, with the group split seemingly beyond repair, joining their superpowers for one last epic clash may prove impossible.

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Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy (Superhero)    ISBN ebook: 978-1-922548-04-7    ASIN ebook: B08ZGCP5MH   Word Count: 76, 064

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Chapter 1

War and Roses

 

~Maggie~

 

There is a deep tissue scar on the pad of my right thumb. It feels like a miniature pellet from a BB gun underneath the skin. I run my fingers over it whenever I think of him…

Zach.

My dead boyfriend.

I don’t know what’s worse. The fact Zach was killed by a demon, or the demon who killed him was possessing one of my best friends at the time. I know Jimmy didn’t have anything to do with Zach’s death–not directly anyway–but he technically shoved Zach over a cliff.

Being around Jimmy is difficult. I’ll look at my most trusted friend and flash back to that moment on the cliff. In my mind, I see Jimmy’s face contorting to an ugly, evil scowl as he pushed Zach to his death. All rational thought zooms out of my head and part of me wants to attack Jimmy for what happened. I want to throttle him, punch him, do anything to release the pain I feel. The other part of me… well…

What’s worse is that it’s not just pain I deal with in those moments. It’s accompanied by suffocating guilt because I know Jimmy isn’t the reason Zach is dead.

I am.

The demon possessing Jimmy made me choose. It forced me to pick between Jimmy and Zach. I picked Jimmy. Now I have to live with that choice forever.

I killed Zach.

Whenever I go down this dark path of self-loathing, I try to convince myself that my choice didn’t actually kill Zach. The demon was going to kill both Jimmy and Zach no matter what I did, but what if I let the demon slash Jimmy’s throat instead? Would Zach still be alive?

At this point in my guilt trip, I’m usually struck with a mental image of Jimmy’s neck being sliced open by the demon’s knife. This brings on a full-fledged panic attack.

A world where Jimmy Macintyre doesn’t exist is a world I don’t want to be in. Even though I can’t bring myself to be around Jimmy right now, I need him in my life.

Dealing with Zach’s death and all the guilt-ridden implications is hard enough, but we’ve been tossed an extra helping of awful. Our group, The Heroes of the Horde, has splintered. We’re divided. The immediate repercussions of this have been minimal, but significant. Poor Shelly has borne the worst of it, but there has not been a conflict between the two factions…not yet anyway.

However, there’s a tension in the air. We’re all on pins and needles. Something is brewing. I feel like any moment our world will explode into all out war. Caitlyn, Mike, and Cooper verses Jimmy, Shelly, Javier, and me. Hero against hero. The anticipation of it happening is more than I can bear.

Everything on top of everything else has pushed me to the brink. I fully admit I’m far from the emotionally strongest in our group. I’m usually the quickest to tears. These recent events have plunged me into what can only be described as depression.

The vast majority of the time I sit in my room doing nothing. My art supplies go untouched, my Bible goes unread, my family and friends go on with very little interaction from me. This pit of nothingness has been my summer.

Everyone says my behavior is to be expected. The common phrase is, “After everything she’s been through.” I guess they’re right.

My parents have asked me to see a councilor, but I’ve flat out refused. They were relieved when I agreed to meet with Pastor Alex once a week. I go along with these meetings because Pastor Alex is the only person outside of the Heroes of the Horde who knows what truly happened. However, when I meet with Pastor Alex, I don’t talk. There’s nothing to say. What happened to Zach cannot be undone and Caitlyn, Mike, and Cooper have deserted us. What’s the point of talking about it?

Although talking about it is exactly what Jimmy wants to do in a few minutes. He wouldn’t take no for an answer even when I tried to make up some sort of lame excuse as to why I couldn’t see him. I’m sure he doesn’t realize how hard it is for me to be around him. How I want to blame him, hurt him, hate him.

But I can’t hate him.

I can’t hate Jimmy because… well…

What I feel for Jimmy Macintyre is the exact opposite of hate. It’s why I picked Jimmy over my own boyfriend who I loved. I will never confess these thoughts to anyone–not even Shelly. I refuse to even think the word in my head, but the fact remains. I picked Jimmy over a boyfriend I loved for a very simple reason and I’m surprised it took me so long to come to terms with it because I think I’ve felt this way about him for years.

Swallowing hard and forcing myself to focus, I run the brush through my hair one more time. Jimmy should be here soon and I’ve actually taken the time to get ready. Something that didn’t happen much this summer.

I place the brush on my dresser and return to sitting on my bed. As I wait for Jimmy to get here, I try to focus. Jimmy is my friend, my Heroes teammate. I need to be around him and he did not kill Zach.

This last thought brings me full-circle back to the scar on my thumb. I run my forefinger over the BB-like bump and my mind flashes back to the memory of how I received the scar.

 

***

 

“Today we remember a young man with a big heart and a genuine spirit. I don’t want to talk about Zach in the past tense. ‘Zach was this’ and ‘Zach was that’. No. Zach is… because he is in the Father’s house right now.” Pastor Alex paused in the middle of his eulogy, obviously holding back tears. “I’m reminded of John 14:2-3, ‘In My Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.’ I can only imagine the glorious place Jesus has made for Zach.”

Pastor Alex paused again and looked directly at me, his eyes full of compassion. I had to look away, feeling guilty.

The young pastor continued speaking, but I found it hard to focus on his words. Instead my gaze fixed on a fly that had landed on Zach’s sleek black coffin. I numbly stared at the winged insect, vaguely wondering how it could possibly have the audacity to rest on the vessel housing Zach’s lifeless corpse.

I registered the presence of my parents sitting on my left, and Shelly sitting on my right who was quietly crying. Somewhere in the back of my mind I appreciated their support, but didn’t really care if they were with me right now.

The bright sun beaming down on us as we sat around Zach’s gravesite angered me. Shouldn’t the weather respect Zach’s death with a hurricane or torrential downpour?

I was bothered by the long-stemmed white rose I held in my hand. Maybe because I was going to place it on Zach’s coffin, or maybe because one of the petals was bent and Zach deserved better than an imperfect flower

As my mind bounced between my parents, my friend, the weather, and the rose, all I could truly focus on was that disrespectful fly hopping around Zach’s coffin. It turned in a little circle so it was facing me, staring at me. I could almost see the judgment on its little fly-face. It taunted me, mocked me, but why? What did those ugly fly-eyes know?

Someone behind me cleared their throat and I tore my gaze away from condemnatory-fly. Turning my head, I spotted Jimmy sitting directly behind me. He offered me a depressed, sympathetic smile. My eyes locked on his handsome face for a moment and suddenly my vision went wonky.

I had felt these effects before. The last time I felt them, I was with Zach at prom and I had an overly realistic vision of the past. Back to 1927 and the great Equitable Gas explosion. I wondered where my powers would take me this time.

I didn’t have to wait too long to find out. Once the bright lights whooshing passed me settled into place, I recognized a scene which had been frequenting my most recent nightmares.

Demon-possessed Jimmy held Zach at the edge of a cliff. Mike, Caitlyn, and I stood before them, unable to do anything.

“Choose, prophet,” the demon said, glaring at me–well, not at me exactly. It glared at past-me. In this vision, present-me stood several paces away from the action while past-me was right in the thick of it.

Realizing what I was watching ignited a fresh round of sobs. Of course Caitlyn, Mike, Zach, past-me, or the demon-Jimmy couldn’t hear the sobs coming from my mouth. My flashback-vision made me very much like the ghost of Christmas Past.

“Choose?” past-me asked in a hysterically high voice.

“Ma–” Zach tried to talk, but the demon quickly tightened its chokehold, cutting off his voice.

“Choose!” the demon yelled.

“I can’t… I don’t… why? Why are you doing this?” past-me sobbed.

“Because I want you to suffer.” The demon pressed the tip of the blade into Jimmy’s throat.

Even in this vision, seeing Jimmy’s imminent death made my heart scream in agony. I rushed forward even though there was nothing I could do in my ethereal form.

“No please…no, no please not Jimmy. Please don’t kill Jimmy,” past-me begged and at the exact time I yelled, “Don’t kill Jimmy! I love him!”

Of course, no one heard what I said. They only heard past-me, but the gravity of my words slammed home in my own mind.

I was in love with Jimmy Macintyre.

I loved Jimmy Macintyre and I picked him to live over my own boyfriend.

The rest of the scene played out with demon-Jimmy pushing Zach off the cliff. I stood there and watched in absolute horror because this time I saw it. I didn’t notice it when I was living this moment in real time. Everything had happened so fast, but this time I could clearly see the look in Zach’s eyes as he toppled backwards off the cliff.

Betrayal and broken heartedness flashed through Zach’s bright green eyes. He knew what I had done. He knew I loved Jimmy more than him. It was the last thought he had right before he died.

“Maggie! Maggie! Are you okay?” a voice asked. The voice sounded far away and distant.

I couldn’t think about the voice. All I could see etched to the inside of my eyelids was the betrayal on Zach’s face.

“Maggie?” a different voice asked.

“Jimmy?” I muttered.

“I’m here, Maggs.”

I snapped my eyes open to discover my mom, Shelly, Jimmy, and several others surrounding me. They all wore concerned expressions and it took me a moment to realize we were still at Zach’s funeral and I was lying on the grass in front of the metal chair I had been sitting on.

Almost as if they had a mind of their own, my eyes found Jimmy’s face. He looked so worried about me as he brushed some hair away from my eyes.

“Are you okay, Maggs?” he asked.

He wasn’t the only one asking. My parents, Shelly, Pastor Alex, Zach’s mom all hovered over me like a protective umbrella, but the only person in my sight was Jimmy.

I shut my eyes and Zach’s betrayed face flashed into my mind again. It made me want to rip my own heart out just to stop the flood of guilt washing over me.

“I’m fine,” I muttered.

“Are you sure, honey? You fell out of your chair like a ragdoll and cried out,” my mom said.

“Did I say anything?” I asked, panic rising in my gut. What if everyone heard me profess my love for Jimmy right here in the middle of Zach’s funeral?

“No, you were just crying,” my dad answered.

I fixed Shelly in a hard stare. Please, help me, I said with my mind, knowing she would be able to hear me with her powers.

Help you how?

Get them to stop asking questions.

“I’m sure you just got a little dizzy from the heat and everything,” Shelly said, jumping to my rescue.

“Yeah, I think that’s it,” I said, wiping my brow for good measure.

“Are you sure, Maggie?” Pastor Alex asked as my mom and dad helped me back to my seat.

“Yes. I’m so sorry I disrupted the service,” I said, looking at Zach’s parents.

They nodded with nothing but compassion on their faces and I felt even guiltier than before.

“Here Maggie, you dropped this,” Jimmy said.

I looked at him and noticed he held the white rose I intended to give to Zach. The one I wanted to place on his coffin. As I moved to take the rose, Jimmy grasped my shoulder and gave me a gentle squeeze. He locked his deep brown eyes on me, his face holding care and compassion.

As much as I hated it, as much as I wanted to squelch it, a strong feeling of love grew in my chest from this simple interaction. I loathed myself for even feeling such an emotion because my love for Jimmy is the true reason Zach died.

I grabbed the rose from Jimmy and clutched it in my hand. The sharp thorns bit at my palm. I rearranged the flower so I could drive one of the thorns into the pad of my thumb. A spike of pain registered in my mind and I relished it. I deserved this pain and so much more. And as I pushed the thorn deeper and deeper into my flesh causing blood to trickle onto my fingers, I vowed never to even think about my love for Jimmy ever again.

 

***

 

“Yeah,” I mumble after a soft rap at my door pulls me from my memories.

“Hey Maggs,” Jimmy says as he enters my room.

I usher a weak “hi” and I look him over carefully. His expression is determined, but there’s compassion behind his eyes. He’s worried about me, he cares about me. This does not make the mantra of ignoring my feelings for him any easier. Neither does the fact that he looks undeniably handsome. Jimmy has always been the heartthrob of our school, but he’s eighteen now, a man. Every bit of him is grown up and gorgeous.

His wavy dark brown hair flows to the collar of his shirt. He carelessly runs his fingers through the thick locks, pushing them away from the tan skin of his forehead. He sports a casual, but attractive amount of scruff along his jaw. And his dark brown eyes, flecked with verdant, could melt Antarctica. I’m in big trouble and so is my mantra.

Not only has he grown in stature, but his personality growth is what I think makes him so very attractive to me. Way back in freshman year, before all this Heroes stuff started, he was callous and downright rude. Now he’s kind, caring, sympathetic, and epically trustworthy. It took a few years of growing up for him to get to this point, but he truly has become a man any girl could crush after…especially me.

“Come on,” he says grasping my hand and pulling me to my feet. His voice is authoritative and I know it’s no use disagreeing with him. I begin to mutter a protest, but he cuts me off. “Don’t bother arguing, Maggs.”

He tugs on my hand a little harder. I wordlessly follow him out of my room, out of my house, and to his shiny, decked out Escalade. Once I’m in the passenger seat and he’s behind the wheel, I dare to open my mouth.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Where we go really isn’t that important, but we need to talk.”

He drives his car out of our neighborhood and towards the highway. I know he’s heading out of our little town of Zelienople and toward the bigger city of Cranberry. We travel in silence, I guess he doesn’t want to discuss things while he drives. This is fine by me.

It doesn’t take us too long to get to Cranberry, and Jimmy heads straight for a little locally owned coffee shop hidden back off the main drag. This place is usually deserted compared to the much bigger chain coffee shop up the street, but its way better. It even has a cute–albeit cheesy–name, Mocha Me Crazy.

Without saying a word, Jimmy exits the car. I sigh and follow his lead. Moments later we’re sitting at a tiny table in a darkened corner of Mocha Me Crazy.

I take a sip of the café latte Jimmy bought me and look up to find his dark gaze fixed solely on my face. Placing the cup down, I give him a questioning look.

“Are you going to tell me?” he asks, his tone very serious.

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me why you’re avoiding me.” His stone hard stare makes me flinch.

“I’m not…”

“Don’t lie to me, Maggie,” Jimmy says sternly. The spark of fire I see flashing through his eyes is not metaphorical. Jimmy’s superpower is fire conjuring so the fire in his eyes is actually real. “Ever since I got back from visiting my mom this summer, you won’t even see me. I can barely get you to talk on the phone. What’s going on?”

I don’t say anything. What’s there to say? Yes, I’m avoiding him, but I certainly can’t tell him the truth. I can’t tell him how I truly feel and how those feelings make me so horrifyingly guilty and how those feelings killed Zach.

“Why are you avoiding me?” he asks again, the hard edge in his voice diminishing, the fire in his eyes dimming. Now he sounds compassionate and there’s a sadness in his stare.

“I can’t talk about it,” I reply.

“Look,” Jimmy says, reaching across the table to hold my hand.

A million different thoughts race through my head at this contact and I hate myself for every single one of them.

“Something occurred to me this summer and I want to tell…I need to tell you…no, never mind. I can’t tell you,” he shakes his head for a second and I feel really confused. What the heck is he talking about? What occurred to him?

He stops shaking his head and starts again. “What I want to say is how very sorry I am for what I did to Zach. It’s my fault your boyfriend died and I am so sorry.”

This time I shake my head. I’m about to tell him it’s not his fault, but he cuts me off.

“Come on, Maggs. I know that’s why you hate me. I certainly don’t blame you. You have every right to hate me.”

“I don’t hate you. I could never hate you.” I slap my mouth shut after this declaration, afraid my traitorous tongue will say more than I intend to reveal.

“But you’re avoiding me,” Jimmy points out.

I don’t say anything. My gaze fixes to our still-joined hands resting on the table. His tanned skin is a nice contrast to my pale, yellow-hued flesh.

“You might not want to talk about it, but we need to figure this out. We need to be able to work together. I just know things are going to get serious when we head back to school and we need to be prepared.”

I nod, knowing he’s talking about Caitlyn, Mike, and Cooper. Things are already strained, but during the summer break we were separated from them. Now, with senior year starting, we’ll be forced to interact. That’s when I’m sure the poopie will hit the proverbial propellers.

“I need to know if you’re still with me,” Jimmy states.

I finally look up from our entwined fingers and meet his stare. There is more behind his eyes than just a team leader checking on one of his members, but I’m not sure what it is.

“Maggie,” he says, leaning forward. “I can’t do this without you. I can’t face them without you.”

There is such earnestness to his voice that it frightens me more than when he was angry. I furrow my brow and give him a questioning look. None of us relish the idea of facing our friends, but I see honest dread behind Jimmy’s stare.

He takes a deep breath and swallows hard. “Caitlyn and Mike,” he finally confides. “We never told you guys what happened, but Caitlyn and I… well…”

“You love her,” I state, surprised at the cold robotic sound to my voice. I pull my hand away from his and grip my coffee cup. The thought of Jimmy being in love with someone makes my blood freeze over.

“No,” Jimmy answers a little too quickly. “I mean, I thought I did awhile ago, but I really don’t. I realized this summer that I never truly loved her.”

The way he said “her” sounded kind of odd, but I don’t question it. I’m too focused on the change in his expression. He averts his gaze away from me and nervously drums his fingertips on the table. This is strange. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jimmy acting nervous and embarrassed.

“I… um…”

“You don’t have to tell me any details if you don’t want,” I say to him. I certainly don’t want to hear about what he did with our incredibly beautiful blonde friend.

“Okay, no details,” he says, looking relieved. “But you need to know that I almost broke her and Mike up. We worked it out. Obviously they’re okay and I stayed friends with them, but I pulled back. I was too afraid of messing things up with them again. Not to mention Caitlyn being gone and Mike kinda losing it when she was missing.”

I nod, remembering how I had suspected something had happened between him and Caitlyn. Part of me was curious as to what had transpired. Did he kiss Caitlyn? Did she love him back? I remember how he abruptly broke up with Stephanie during our tenth grade year. Was Caitlyn the reason for that?

As curious as I was to know the truth, a much stronger part of me wants to remain clueless. It’s bad enough I have these feelings for Jimmy, slapping jealousy on top of it will not help.

“When I pulled away from them, I realized something was missing. Mike had been my best friend since before we could talk and I cared a lot about Caitlyn. There was a gap in my life, but it was being filled by someone else.”

Jimmy reaches across the table and takes my hand again.

“I’m sure it wasn’t the same for you. I mean, you had Zach. But during the course of last year, you became my closest friend. My best friend. I trust you just as much as I ever trusted Mike and that’s really saying something.” He squeezes my hand and his stare searches my face. He raises a handsome eyebrow and gives me a soft, sheepish smile. “I can’t stand being without you.”

My breath catches in my chest and suddenly I’m thoroughly confused. Friends? Is that what I’m feeling? Maybe I’m not actually in love with Jimmy, maybe he’s just my best friend. I guess it makes sense.

I look down at our joined hands again and then up to his face. His oh so handsome face. As I gaze into his eyes, my heart quickens, my mouth moistens, and my extremities tingle. Nope, those are not solely friendship feelings.

“I can’t face Caitlyn and Mike without you. Maggie…I need you,” Jimmy says adamantly.

With all the strength I can muster, I push down the attraction I feel for him. It’s not easy, but after a second I’m able to focus and see him properly. He’s Jimmy, my friend. And my friend needs me.

I know it will be far from easy, keeping my true feelings for Jimmy suppressed, but it must be done. Not just for the sake of our team, but more importantly he needs me as a friend. I can be what he needs. I have to…for him.

“Don’t worry,” I reply, giving him a real smile for the first time in a long time. “You won’t be alone.”