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Dr. Larssen Sossnacher, the organization's leader - called "Soulsnatcher" by the remarkable children he abducts and exploits - believes Chaz is the miraculous prodigy who will grant him the immortality he craves... and he'll stop at nothing to get Chaz.
Cody Jackson, a Guardian and martial arts and weapons expert, rescues Jazz and Chaz from Soulsnatcher's hunters and takes them to Homestead, a safe haven where the children learn to use their powers to help others. But Soulsnatcher's hunters raid Homestead and battle the Guardians in a surreal deadly showdown - with the souls of all the children as the ultimate prize.
August �� Helen, Georgia
Chaz Tandy laughed as he struggled to keep up with the other boys while the girls giggled, watching them. They chased Dante around the gently sloping hillside of his back yard. Chaz was celebrating his ninth birthday, which was supposed to be amazing. According to Mother, who didn’t keep secrets from him about his condition, his doctors had said he would likely never see it.
“Well, we’ll just show them, won’t we, Binky?” Mother had said, her pretty smile winning the battle against the tears pooling in her eyes. He loved her so much. He loved Dante too.
Mother said Dante was his guardian angel. Chaz had found the German Shepherd two years ago in the woods, dying from malnourishment and abuse. Dante was his best friend for life. Dante had saved him every bit as much as Chaz had saved Dante.
Chaz looked over his shoulder toward their house to see if Mother was looking. She watched him like a lioness guarding a newborn cub, always worried he was overdoing it, but he didn’t mind. He knew how much she loved him.
He had the best mother of anyone in the entire universe.
She turned, laughing and chatting with the other kids’ mothers, her short, raven-black hair glistening in the afternoon sunshine. She looked so pretty, so free of worry, even though Chaz knew she constantly worried about his frail heart.
But she wasn’t watching him at the moment, and he picked up the pace.
Dante scampered and avoided the boys, the drool-streaked Kong ball clamped in his teeth, his tail wagging. He spun around at the edge of the slope that dropped off into the valley below, slowed down just long enough to tease the boys into believing they could catch him, and darted off again. He dashed past Chaz and leaped at the girls, who shrieked with delight disguised as fear.
Chaz saw Mother look his way, and he slowed to a trot. Sometimes he could actually feel her eyes on him, as if they had some supernatural connection. When she was satisfied that he was pacing himself, she returned her attention to his friends’ moms.
They rarely had guests since they’d moved to the North Georgia mountains�adults or children�but this was a very special occasion.
Dante dropped the ball at Jerome’s feet. Jerome picked it up and ran with it, and Dante growled and nipped at his heels. Jerome laughed and chucked the ball toward the back end of the property. Dante sped after it, and was just about to snag it when it hit a root poking up out of the ground beneath a huge maple tree and bounced high.
Dante leaped for it, twisted in mid-air like a canine acrobat, and missed. The ball hit another root, bounced and flew over the lip of the hill, and careened down toward the valley. Dante sprang after it and disappeared past the drop.
Jerome, Billy, Dale, and Ramon laughed and ran after him, and the girls squealed, hot on their heels.
“Dante!” Chaz called. They weren’t supposed to go down there. “Too far!”
Dante ignored him or didn’t hear, and the boys and girls followed and disappeared down the slope. Chaz glanced back to see if Mother was watching, and hurried after them.
A crash of broken branches and an unmistakable canine yelp ripped a chunk out of Chaz’s heart. The kids started shouting and screaming, Dante let loose an agonized howl, and Chaz’s chest ached as he raced down the hill.
“Chaz!” Mother called, already sprinting toward him.
Chaz reached the others and dashed past them. Dante lay in a partially hidden thicket of broken branches, alternately howling and whimpering. A sharp, pointed branch about an inch thick protruded out of his chest. His fur was covered in blood; some of it spurted out of the fresh hole in his side. Chaz approached him, feeling like his heart was going to explode. Dante’s pleading eyes locked onto his.
“Chaz, hold up!” Mother yelled.
Normally Chaz listened to her. But something broke inside him when he saw Dante’s sad eyes begging him to make the bad pain go away. He got down on all fours and crawled toward Dante, heedless of the pain in his chest or the danger lurking in the thicket of broken branches.
If Dante died, Chaz would die too. His frail heart pounded, way past the critical danger level. He scrambled toward his friend, knowing he had only seconds before it was too late.
With Chaz’s special gift, as Mother called it, Dante still had one chance left.
Fighting tears, Chaz slid and scampered down beside his suffering buddy, breaking rotten branches and scraping his hands and arms on sharp rocks.
“Dante. Hang on, boy, I’m coming.”
“Chaz, slow down!” Jasmine Tandy�Jazz to her father and the few friends she had�called, her heart racing. She ran past the screaming children and scrambled down the ravine, bruising and scratching her arms and legs. She crouched down beside Chaz, who was reaching out for Dante.
Dante’s wails receded as he became weaker. He was definitely dying. The helpless look in his soulful eyes was the third most heartbreaking thing Jazz had ever seen or experienced. She knew how much Chaz loved him. She loved the goofy dog too.
The second most heartbreaking thing was the dying children in the cancer ward of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, which Jazz and Chaz visited once a week ever since they moved here eight months ago.
The first was when Chaz’s doctors told her he had catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia, which basically meant he had an incurable and usually fatal heart disease. Jazz made sure Chaz understood it didn’t mean he had a bad heart; he just had a fragile heart.
In her estimate, especially considering what Chaz did when they visited the cancer ward, he had the biggest, strongest heart she’d ever known. And she made sure he knew it, every day of his life.
She grabbed his arms before he could touch Dante and pulled him to her. He looked back at her, tears streaming down his cheeks. Tears poured out of Jazz’s eyes too, and she swallowed a sob, needing to stay strong for his sake.
“Mother, please. I have to.”
“It’s too soon, baby.”
“He’s dying. I can’t let him die!”
“Binky, it could kill you. I can’t lose you.” She would die without him.
“I can’t lose Dante!” he blubbered, breaking her heart for the umpteenth time.
All the children were crying and shouting. Their mothers came up to join them along with Manny, Ramon’s grandfather.
“Dante!” the children called, a mantra intended to somehow magically spare him.
In Jazz’s mind, no one was there but her baby boy and his guardian angel. On one hand, if she let Chaz do it, it could kill him. It was too soon after the last time. On the other hand, if she didn’t let him do it, the loss of Dante could break his fragile heart, effectively killing him anyway.
She made up her mind. Chaz was her only child, her precious baby, but it was his life, and his choice how much of it to give. She nodded.
“Okay, Binky.” It was probably pointless to ask, but she did anyway. “Try not to give him everything you’ve got, okay?”
“Okay, Mother.” His eyes glistened with hope and tears. “I love you.”
Jazz bit back another sob. “I love you too, Chaz. Stay there while I get him out, okay?”
Chaz sniffled and nodded, and Jazz scrambled down toward Dante. He whimpered, gazing at her with such a meaningful look that she was certain he knew what they were going to do.
After all, they already did it once before, when they found him.
Jazz crouched, wrapped her arms around Dante’s torso, and planted her feet against hard dirt beneath him. With a mighty tug, she grunted and yanked Dante off the wicked branch, smearing her blouse and arms with his blood. Dante didn’t even yelp. He just licked her neck and cheek. Huffing with his limp weight, she carried him up to stable ground. He panted, a hoarse gurgle. She gently set him down beside Chaz.
“Okay, Binky,” she whispered. “It’s now or never, baby. Do your stuff.”
Chaz knelt beside Dante, put his hands on his heaving bloody chest, laid his head against Dante’s, and whispered to him.
“It’s gonna be okay, boy. You’re gonna be okay.”
Jazz looked around at the others. They watched in rapt silence, and she knew that no matter what happened, this was going to come back to haunt them. They might have to move again.
There was no flashing ethereal light from the heavens, no magical glow, no bizarre static crackling in the air, but in what seemed like an agonizing eternity that was merely moments, Dante’s breathing evened out. His tail thumped the ground, and he licked Chaz’s face. No more blood poured or even oozed out of the hole in his side.
In fact, the hole was no longer visible. The only evidence that he’d been mortally wounded was the drying blood matting his coat.
Chaz keeled over.
“Chaz!” Jazz reached down and scooped him up. The trees and the hillside and the people spun around her as she listened to his chest. She detected the faint beat of his heart. She put her face next to his and felt his breath against her cheek, coming shallow but steady. He was unconscious, but alive. For the moment.
Gasping and praying to a God she often cursed in the dark nights when hope seemed forever lost, Jazz struggled to her feet, her baby boy cradled in her arms.
“Chaz, Binky, come on, come back to me. You can’t leave me.” She hustled up the hill, her legs suddenly powerful pistons endowed with superhuman might. “I need you. Dante needs you.”
The whole world needs you, baby.
Chaz didn’t move.
Dante kept pace with Jazz, wobbly but determined. They passed the others, who stood silent and frozen, bug-eyed with their jaws hanging open as if they had just witnessed a miracle.
Jazz had no time to worry about what the future would bring once the rumor mill got cranked up. Nothing mattered now but Chaz. He was far too precious to her and this world�and to suffering children he had yet to meet�to leave it so suddenly.
Jazz didn’t pay attention to the other kids and adults as they followed her. At the house, she climbed the wooden deck steps, Dante right beside her. She tugged the storm door open, rushed into the living room, and gently laid Chaz on the couch. Dante sat on the floor beside Chaz and pushed his snout against Chaz’s face. He let out a little whine and looked up at Jazz, who ignored him.
The children, their mothers, and Manny straggled in, gaping like zombies. Jazz sniffled, knelt on the floor, and brushed Chaz’s dark, sweaty locks out of his eyes. Jerome’s sister Janelle leaned over Jazz’s shoulder and handed her a cool, damp washcloth.
“Is he going to be okay, Ms. Tandy?”
Jazz took the cloth. “I hope so. Bless you, sweetie.” She brushed Chaz’s sweat-soaked brow with it, willing him to wake up. He seemed to be breathing okay. Dante whined.
Chaz finally stirred, blinked several times, and opened his eyes. He saw Jazz hanging over him and Dante panting beside her, and smiled.
“Dante. Good boy.” Dante’s tail thumped the floor as he licked his master’s face. Chaz giggled and rubbed Dante’s neck.
Jazz wrapped her arms around Chaz and squeezed him, kissing his cheeks, eyes, lips, and neck. “Oh, Binky, don’t ever scare me like that again. I thought I was going to lose you.”
“Don’t worry, Mother. I still have some things left to do, remember?”
Fresh tears flooded her eyes. “Yes you do, my special boy.” She squeezed him tighter, oblivious to the others crowding around them, to what they had witnessed.
If they had to move again, then so be it. At least they would do it together, their little family intact. The room seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and everyone started talking at once.
“Chaz, my man!” Jerome smiled and stuck an open palm out. Chaz lifted a shaking arm and high-fived his friend.
“It’s a miracle,” Billy’s mother said, and the others echoed her.
“Praise God,” Manny said, and crossed himself.
“How did you do that, Chaz?” Dale asked, his eyes bugging out.
Their buzzing voices transformed into the comforting hum of a hive hoarding a treasure, and Jazz’s heart finally started beating again. There was no way they were going to keep it a secret this time. She looked back at the others and her eyes met Manny’s, and he nodded.
“Come on, folks. Party’s over,” Manny said. “Ms. Tandy and Chaz need to rest for a while.” He waved his arms and started ushering the small crowd out.
“Thank you, Manny,” Jazz whispered, not certain if he heard her. She picked up Chaz and carried him into his bedroom. She stretched him out on his bed, took his shoes off, and lay down beside him. Dante jumped up on the bed and nuzzled them.
Jazz dared to hope they would be okay this time. She snuggled against Chaz and just held him and watched him for a while, afraid that if she took her eyes off him, he would drift away and leave her.
Thirty minutes later, her eyelids drooped and closed, and as she nodded off she prayed that Chaz would still be here when she woke. Then she let the dreams take her�along with the recurring nightmare where sinister, shadowy figures stole her son and left her to die.