Into Darkness Chapter 1-3
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Read an excerpt of Holly Roberd’s Into Darkness paranormal Romance. Book 3 in the Five Orders Series.
The hands on my watch dangled like limp, floppy arms. We’d already all checked our phones the moment we got here and surprise, surprise, there was no service plan that extended to another dimension.
I kept blinking, still unused to the alien landscape of the Stygian. Spiky rocks up to ten feet high shot up into the sky, tufts of plants muscling their way out of the crevices. Everything here was bathed in a dark blue tint but I could still make out the rocky, black terrain as if there was a bright, full moon out. Except there was no moon, or sun, only dark misty clouds stretching and contracting across a starless black expanse. Something inside me shuddered. I had no idea where in time or space we were. I was only acutely aware of the damp chill that cut right through the thin material of my dark pants and crop top, curling and twisting around my bones like a slimy, cold snake. At least I had Krystan’s fur vest, which helped provide a little warmth.
The scent of sulphur hung in the air, along with some other noxious gas I couldn’t place. Every bit of this place offended my senses. My emotions swirled in a panic to figure out where we were and what to do. Of course, my reaction was natural. I had assumed we would all die when we crossed over. I hadn’t planned on our bizarro little group surviving only to end up stranded together.
Yeah, Emma. This was a great plan. You effectively trapped seven people, most of whom absolutely friggin’ hate each other, in a hell dimension.
Something tiny and reflective skittered across the black ground, causing me to jump. Oh goody, bugs existed in this dimension too.
I reached over and laced my fingers through Calan’s, deeply unsettled and unsure of what was next to come.
Jo spoke, cutting through my absorption with our new surroundings. “Let’s kill him.”
I turned to Jolon, surprised he suggested it first. “What? No.”
Regina was next to step forward, drawing out a pair of knives, ready to deal the killing blow. The way she approached the unsuspecting victim was fluid, deadly, like a jungle cat. I’d seen her son move in the same way.
I threw my hands up. “Whoa, we aren’t killing anyone.”
Calan stepped up behind me. His presence was reassuring, silently communicating he would step in if necessary. Even if that meant stopping his own mother.
If I had to go through hell, there was no one I would prefer by my side more than Calan. And after stepping through the dimensional tear and into the Stygian to literally save the world… that’s pretty much where we were at.
The older, wiry woman paused her advance on the unconscious man. She stared down at Damien. He’d been knocked out cold by Calan’s power blast.
“Why would we spare his life?” Regina hissed at the lump on the ground. “He works for the Dark Order. If it weren’t for him, none of us would even be here, Emma.” Her blue eyes flashed dangerously. Calan’s matching pair were so much softer than his mother’s, though I’d seen the same fire in his on occasion.
I tried to reason with Regina. “Don’t you think we should figure out where the hell we are before we start cutting each other’s throats?”
Hell being the operative word.
I tried reasoning with Regina again. “If we killed Damien, we would be no better than him.”
Master Ylang’s knobby bald head seemed to knot up even more as he stared at Damien with his cloudy blue eyes. “You never know what must be done, do you, Emma?”
“Don’t speak to her like that,” Calan growled at his former Master. “If it weren’t for her, the tear would still be open and dark creatures from this damned place would still be pouring over to destroy all of humanity on Earth.” His grip tightened painfully around mine. I squeezed back until he loosened his hold.
I narrowed my eyes at Ylang. “What can I say? I’m not a fan of the overkill club like you.”
Ylang sniffed, then tilted his head up and away. “The Order of Luxis simply does whatever is necessary to serve the Light.”
Jolon’s focus shifted from Damien to Ylang. A sharp dangerous glint sparked from his black marble eyes. “Do you really want to go into that right now?”
Jo was in his mid-twenties like Calan and I. A strapping guy like that could easily break an old, frail man like Ylang if he wanted to. He usually seemed laid back, but he’d proven he would do whatever was necessary to get his Order, the Order of Terra, back into power. The power that the Order of Luxis stole from Terra. Jo had betrayed us and saved us in equal turns, making it hard to anticipate what he would do next. Beating down a graying elder was not out of the question.
Regina also turned her attention to Ylang now. Anger glittered in her eyes. “Yes, shall we talk about what the Luxis deems necessary?”
Oh boy, as if going to hell with this merry pack of dysfunctionals weren’t enough, we were going to start off with a brawl. I half-expected the three of them to dive on each other to pull hair and scream how the other took their toys away and wouldn’t share.
After a drug-induced, vivid technicolor vision, I’d known the only way to heal the dimensional tear between Earth and the Stygian was for one person from each Order to cross through. A flesh sacrifice from the Order of Luxis, Veritas, Terra, Spiritus, and Tenebrae. Granted, Tenebrae, the Order of the Dark, would never willingly sacrifice one of their own, so we knocked Damien out, chucked him in, and called it good.
As the bickering continued in front of me, I sighed as I reminisced. For one split second I had gotten everyone to stop fighting and get on board with my plan to save the world. Though I had tried to maintain faith in the vision I’d seen of us all coming together, I had niggling doubts at the back of my mind whether or not these dingbats could pull it off.
But they had done it. And I had to be the last ingredient to heal the rift. The Propheros. The chosen one to fight the coming darkness. Calan was a bonus. He couldn’t let me leave him behind, and I wasn’t feeling so bad about having a Knight of the Light along in this creepy-ass place. Plus, having the love of my life standing next to me with strong surety was about all that was keeping me from diving into the threesome to do some hair pulling myself.
My mother let out a whimper from where she lay on the ground next to Damien. “Can you feel it?” Her question came out in a ragged whisper.
I gave Calan’s hand one more squeeze, then pulled away to go to my mother’s side. I tried to ignore my proximity to Damien. King Douche of the Dark was what I decided to rename Damien in my head right then. Just because I didn’t want him murdered didn’t mean I wanted to be anywhere near him. He was responsible for reopening the Tear to bring hell on Earth.
Damien believed the only way for humanity to ascend was by some backasswards test of pitting humans against the universe’s worst nightmares. Then everyone would join the Order of Tenebrae, the dark order, and they would all merrily walk into the sunset together.
There was a word for what Damien was.
I lifted my mom’s shoulders to help her sit up. “Are you okay?”
Her face was covered with beads of sweat that rolled down her face and neck. I couldn’t tell if it was the light of this place or if her face truly had a ghastly pallor. My mom’s eyes rolled around in her head as if she were experiencing some kind of episode, or maybe she was having a vision?
I’d only been reunited with her a few days ago. I’d last seen her when I was only a child, before she’d been taken away, reclaimed by her Order.
Her hands came up to cling at my arm. Her voice was raspy with an edge of panic. “Don’t you feel it, Emma baby? It’s too much. It’s all too much. We shouldn’t be here.” She stared sightlessly into the sky, her arms waving back and forth now.
Ylang snorted behind me. “Wonderful. We get to cater to the ravings of a lunatic. This truly is hell.”
I whipped my head around. “Shut it, Ylang. Or I’ll pull out those wispy waterfall whiskers you think make you look so wise.”
The old man’s jaw snapped shut and his cloudy eyes narrowed at me. When I turned back to my mom, I thought I saw Damien shift where he lay. I blinked. He didn’t move again.
My mother went on as if she hadn’t heard Ylang. The whites of her eyes nearly swallowed up her irises as she stared up at me again, clawing at my shoulder. “We shouldn’t be here. The pain, oh gods the pain. Everything is pulsating with pain here.”
I didn’t understand her. Sure, I sensed the severe wrongness of simply being in this place, but she acted like it was ripping her apart.
“Diana’s withdrawal is worsening,” Regina said flatly. “That drug the Order of Spiritus had your mother on is working its way out in a nasty fashion. You need to calm her down or she is going to get us killed.”
“Is she going to get us killed?” Jolon asked.
I didn’t pay attention to his strange question. Instead, I smoothed back the lavender-tinted hair from my mother’s soaked brow. “It’s okay, Mom, I’m here. I’m going to take care of you. You just need to rest.” I already missed the drugged-out woman I’d met at the Order of Spiritus. She may have been high as a kite on ambrosia, but she’d been a helluva lot more coherent than she was now.
“What do you mean?” Calan asked Jo.
Still rocking my whimpering mother, I turned to look at Jo, who had stuffed his hands under his plaid shirt into his jean pockets. Despite his relaxed stance, his black eyebrows dipped low toward his aquiline, Native American nose. “I mean, five minutes ago, dark creatures were pouring out of the Tear, from this very spot, clamoring to get to Earth. Where are they all now? Did they just leave because we fell in?”
Calan’s posture stiffened, as did Regina’s. They both began scanning the surrounding terrain.
Where his mother was barely five-foot-three with the build of a cyclist, Calan was tall like his father, Phillip, at over six feet. Unlike his parents, who were athletically thin, Calan was broad and lined with perfectly cut muscles. That, coupled with the dark curly hair that often dipped onto his forehead, I often found myself likening him to the Greek statues I’d seen in the Denver Art Museum.
I brushed my own long blonde hair back from where it stuck to my forehead. How did he always look so gorgeous in any circumstance, while I probably resembled a half-melted grape popsicle? Sweaty, sticky, and gross.
I pulled off the faux-fur-lined vest I’d been wearing, balled it up and placed it under my mom’s head. She seemed to be nodding off already. I stood up and wiped my hands against my stretchy black pants. My dark outfit was approaching the style of the black catsuit that Regina always wore zipped up to her chin. Was I turning into Calan’s mother? Whoa, nope. Not going there.
I suppressed a shudder and pointed out in a quiet voice, “It’s too hard to see clearly in this light, but there are plenty of places to hide nearby.” I glanced at the black rocks that jutted up from uneven ground, before rising into high cliffs in the distance. Sweat broke out between my breasts and back, instantly sharpening the cold wetness I felt in my bones.
Then my sixth sense exploded with pain. I cried out, and my knees hit the ground with a crack. I dug the heel of my palm into the spot between my eyes as an onslaught of pure unadulterated evil, hate, and pain came at me from all sides in an energetic attack. I couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t feel anything other than danger and hate stinging me like a million sharpened needles.
Calan was at my side in an instant. His spicy masculine scent and warm touch instantly filtered out the brunt of the pain. I grabbed his arm, holding tight as if he were my anchor against a raging ocean. I vaguely heard my mother cry out in pain as well, but she sounded so far away.
“Incoming,” Regina said in growl. I heard the clack and snap of her pulling out and arming her firearm.
“What on earth are those?” Ylang asked. Behind his supercilious tone, fear wavered in his voice.
“We aren’t on Earth anymore,” Jolon said grimly.
I forced my eyes open. At first my vision swam, but I beat back the sensory overload to focus on what I was seeing. Creatures of all kinds slunk out from behind all tall volcanic rocks that littered the landscape.
“And I believe that would be the locals.” I tried to keep my voice from shaking. “All of them.” I finally recognized where I’d felt this terrible sensation before. The same hot and cold flashes sweeping through me came whenever a dark entity was near, except this was ten times worse. The stench of sulphur was nearly unbearable now, and my guts twisted up with fear and anticipated pain. I was paralyzed.
Calan pulled his broadsword out but was still down on one knee helping keep me upright. I glanced over my shoulder and confirmed my fear.
“Damien is gone.”
“What?” Ylang turned, his ropes whipping around him. “You let him get away?”
“Not helpful,” Regina shot at Ylang.
Every stress hormone screamed its way through my body, pumping overtime. Despite the pain lancing through me, I was slowly becoming accustomed to the ambient horror vibrating through my body.
Fortunately, I was no stranger to anxiety. I’d tried the therapy thing for a short while when I’d had to commit my dad to a sanitarium. The few months of sessions were enough for me to pick up some good tools to keep myself sane when an anxiety attack would strike.
I am safe. I am fine. I am whole. Everything is okay in this second. Now in this second, I am okay, too.
Maybe I wasn’t safe for long, but I simply counted on each second to get me back on my feet with Calan’s help.
“We have to get Damien back. Now,” I said to Calan.
Knobby-limbed, baby-like demons dropped down from the sky on massive bat wings with shrill screams. Regina ducked and rolled before one could grab hold of her head.
The growls of hell hounds neared from a different direction. Jo grabbed a knife sticking out of a holster on Regina’s side before turning back to the approaching beasts.
I pushed away from Calan. “I have to go get Damien. Stay here and protect my mother.” The woman was still on the ground, unmoving, unaware of the danger closing in around us.
Before I got two steps, Calan grabbed my arm and swung me back around. “No.”
His eyes and voice were tight. His fear pulsated within me like an impossibly loud drum. Whenever either of us had strong emotions, the other could feel them. A psychic bond between the Propheros and her chosen
Chevalier. He must have also sensed the tidal wave of anxiety that had crashed over me.
I extracted myself from his hold. “There’s no time to explain. If I don’t get him now, we will all die.”
My mother let out a pained yelp, her arm reaching out to the sky as if asking the heavens for help.
“Protect my mom,” I ordered again.
“No, you are staying here with me,” Calan ordered right back, still holding my arm. He turned back to the advancing creatures.
The hellhounds had backed Jo right up to us. The demon dogs alternately paced and crouched, preparing to attack.
He had always backed me up before, but there wasn’t time to try and understand Calan’s resistance to following my lead.
“Fine then,” I said, irritation in my voice. “Give me your sword, and you go get Damien.”
Calan looked at me out of the corner of his eye before turning his attention back to the fast approaching hellhounds.
Exqueeze me, but did my boyfriend just straight-up ignore me?
Annoyance spread out its wings inside me and boy were its feathers ruffled.
For a moment, I flashbacked to when Calan had no soul. Soulless Calan completely disregarded my lead if he felt inconvenienced. For a wild moment, I thought maybe Calan had lost his soul when we stepped through the Tear. But no, I could still feel his emotions as if they were my own. I hadn’t been able to psychically connect to him when his soul was taken.
“I’d be happy to oblige your request, milady,” Jo said, abruptly pushing the hilt of Regina’s knife into my hands before sprinting off in the direction where Damien had gone.
I grasped the knife, grinding my teeth as I stepped in front of Calan. I desperately wished I had my staff or some other bludgeoning weapon to bash these creatures with, but a short, pointy weapon would have to do.
A demon dog finally leapt, pink saliva trailing from its mouth, fangs aimed straight for my throat. Not that I wasn’t a badass fighting machine since I’d been trained by the Order of Luxis—against my will, I might add—but I wasn’t an idiot. Close-range combat between a kickass chick with a knife and demon dog didn’t bode well for me. I dropped and rolled to the left. A hacking sound, then the creature split into two distinct chunks that thudded to the ground. Calan had cut right through the demon dog.
Before I could utter a thank you, more of them sprang, putting our small group to work. Calan was busy chopping up demon dogs, while Regina was shooting the crib out of the sky with the crack of gunfire. I did my best to cover their backs, but with my short-range weapon, I took deep scratches left and right.
A little girl’s face covered by a stringy curtain of dark hair peeked out from behind a boulder, accompanied by a childish giggle. The She. Before I could even register the fear of being reacquainted with the deranged little girls who enjoyed disemboweling people, more creatures appeared—rotting fur-covered beasts, demons with black sucking mouths, waxy-skinned alien-looking creatures, and more. Every dark entity knew we were here, and they were all coming for us.
Despite the multiple approaching threats, something tickled my mind, drawing my attention to a sharp ridge of rocks about twenty yards away. Out stepped a shadow. White fire danced in its two eye holes. The shadow took on the vague shape of a human, yet it did not come any closer. It stood, staring at me. The shadow’s gaze drilled into my chest the way an endodontist drilled into a tooth for a root canal. Every hair on my body stood up. If someone touched me right then, I would have fallen to the ground in convulsions of panic. My heart boomed in my ears, and I was afraid to take my eyes off it, even though evil creatures were running rampant everywhere.
The handle of Regina’s knife slipped in my sweaty palm. Yeah, I needed a different weapon for this shit. A bazooka, or a missile. Anything atomic, really.
Without realizing it, I had been backing away, leaving Regina and Calan vulnerable to attack.
“There are too many,” I shouted, finally able to come back to the present moment. “We need to run.” I shot a glance at my mother, who was still writhing on the ground. “Calan, grab my mother.”
This time, he obeyed without question. He strode over to Diana, lifted her from where she clutched my faux fur vest against her chest on the ground, and threw her over his shoulder as if she was nothing more than a bag of potatoes.
Regina pushed Ylang along. “Move, you old coot, before you get us all killed.”
He scrambled to keep up, falling over lose rock and tripping over crevices. “I didn’t know you cared.”
She pushed past him, running ahead.
Even after I turned to run, every instinct screamed at me to look back and see if the shadow was still there. I forced myself to move, making sure I protected Calan, who was carrying precious cargo. I’d only just gotten my mom back, and I didn’t plan on losing her now.
Ylang yelped. When I looked back, I saw the creature he’d spotted. My mouth dropped. I was all variants of not okay. The demon was at least eight feet long and humanoid-looking except for the fact it ran on all fours. Its spindly, stick-thin arms and legs were as disturbing as the greasy thinning sheet of black hair on its balding crown. The demon wasn’t just sprinting toward Ylang, it was galloping. It reminded me too much of a human spider by the way it moved. Metallic eyes glinted at us, and its mouth was a shriveled, lipless black hole.
A second one leapt out and joined the first creature in its pursuit. Then there were three, seven… shit, twelve of them hurdling straight at us, and I didn’t care to find out what they wanted.
“Faster,” I urged Calan while grabbing Ylang’s scrawny arm and dragging him along.
My own salty sweat found its way into my mouth, mixing with the acrid taste of fear already present. We weren’t going to make it, but I kept dragging Ylang along anyway.
The shrill squeaks and galloping feet neared. My heart beat so fast, I thought it was going to break right through my chest and continue ahead of us.
Something brushed against the back of my neck—cold fingers. I pushed Ylang out in front of me. The cold lumpy fingers grabbed hold of my neck, yanking me back and down to the ground.
Emma cried out behind me. Before I could even turn around, Regina was by my side, giving me a push. “Protect her mother. I will go.”
Frustration pressed around me. Emma was in danger, but I couldn’t turn around to help her because I had to protect someone for her. I wanted to drop Diana right there and run to the woman who meant more than anything to me, but I knew I couldn’t. She would never forgive me, nor would I be okay with leaving a helpless woman behind to die.
The terrain had been rising, slowing my speed, but there was no other clear path. One wrong step and my foot would catch on the uneven rocks. Yet I could not slow down. I tried to listen for Emma. All I heard was my heart thundering in my ears.
Just as I was about to chance a look backward, I skidded to a stop to keep from colliding into Jo. A dark bruise was forming on his cheekbone and his lip was split, dripping blood onto the collar of his white undershirt, but he was smiling. Jo was dragging a lump behind him—Damien.
“Wanna see a cool trick?” he asked. Jo didn’t even stop as he patted me on the shoulder and continued to haul Damien back to where Emma was.
What was he doing? Was going to use himself or Damien as bait? I turned around and yelled for him to stop, though a dark part of me wanted to let him go. Maybe his sacrifice would give me a chance to save Emma.
Instead of watching Jo hurtle toward a gory demise, what I saw utterly baffled me.
As Jo dragged Damien’s body back toward Emma and Regina fighting off the spindly-limbed demons—Ylang crouched behind a rock, covering his head with his arms—the horde of creatures began to back up. They created a perimeter that continued to retreat as Jo neared.
The monsters Emma and Regina were fighting suddenly stopped. Regina was able to lop off the head of the one in front of her. Emma didn’t take the killing blow; instead she watched the demon in awe as if she’d also been stunned. Then, as if it realized it had somewhere to be, the monster turned around and lumbered back the way it came, along with the rest of its pack.
I took two steps down the steep hill, trying to understand what I was seeing. Ten meters. Damien’s body created a null space of ten meters.
Emma turned around and looked up at me, her mouth in a small ‘o’ of amazement. We shared an unspoken moment of incredulity.
I moved as quickly as I could back down the steep terrain to where Jo had dropped Damien. Hands on his hips, Jo grinned. “He’s a nasty bastard, but I took him down and brought him to you, Emma. Just like you asked.” He shot a sideways look at me.
Displeasure rippled through me. He reminded me of a dog dropping a dead mouse in front of its owner in an attempt to please them.
Jo had made it plenty clear he believed the Order of Terra’s prophecy that stated the Chevalier and Propheros would birth the solution to the coming darkness. When I’d been separated from my soul, Jo stole it and tried to shove it in his own body to fulfill the prophecy with Emma using a Chevalier’s soul. Of course, his body couldn’t contain my essence and it soon exploded out of him. Despite his grand scheme having gone awry, I saw the spark of interest in his eye that went beyond serving his Order or any prophecy. He desired her.
When I reached them, I delicately set Diana back down. Her eyes were shut, as if trying to ward off something unseen. Her arms curled into her body.
Jo nudged Damien in the ribs with a brown boot. “He’s tough, but he’s still a bit off balance. It’s the only way I was able to knock him back down. I suggest we take another approach if we want to keep him around.”
Ylang’s cloudy eyes were fixed on me, from where he still cowered behind a boulder. I shrugged my shoulders back, pretending I didn’t notice his scrutiny.
Long strands of dark hair with grey streaks running through it had escaped my mother’s tight bun. With her mouth set in a determined line, she threw a leg over Damien, standing over him. She pulled something from her utility belt with a quiet hissing sound. It was a rope dispenser. She wrapped the cord around Damien’s wrists and ankles.
Emma looked my mom up and down. “Way to go, MacGyver.”
Regina smoothed her hair back. “If I was MacGyver, I would have found a way to tie him up using a pile of grass and a lollipop. I consider myself more Mission Impossible.”
A smile played at the corner of Emma’s lips. “I should have caught that from the catsuit. My bad.”
I could only guess they were using yet another pop culture reference I wasn’t privy to. Master Ylang had raised me in the confines of the Temple where there was no socialization with other Order members, much any less access to television. I tried not to let it bother me, but my lack of connection on such a level irked me. Especially since Emma enjoyed making so many references.
Then I realized it wasn’t often I was irked, and almost never with Emma. Perhaps the uneasiness roiling around inside me wasn’t due to this place, or an echo of Emma’s distressed emotions. Could there be something else inside me, poisoning my thoughts?
“How did you know?” Ylang asked Emma, but his gaze returned to me after he posed his question.
“‘Cause she’s the Propheros,” Jo said with an impish grin.
“I felt him leave,” said Emma, a strange faraway look in her eyes. “When Damien walked away, it was as if some safety bubble had disappeared, and all the evil outside it was magnetized to us. We are like a gigantic fireball of deliciousness to all the shadows here.” She looked down at Damien, who began to groan as he came to. “I think because he has been working with the dark, it doesn’t recognize him as a threat. His darkness essentially makes the creatures here blind to the energy around him.”
“Nine meters,” I said, having seen it with my own eyes. “He created a perimeter of safety of approximately nine meters.”
Jo raised his hands. “Not European, somebody math for me.”
“Thirty feet,” Regina said, holding the end of the cord that had Damien tied up. “We have thirty feet of safety.”
“Well, that’s a pretty cushy amount of space,” Jo said, slipping his hands back in his pockets before putting one foot on Damien as if he were the spoils of a hunt.
I met Emma’s eyes and knew we were thinking the same thing. With this group, thirty feet wasn’t nearly enough distance.
Diana was now sitting straight up, staring at Damien. One hand grasped at her heart, as if she were in pain looking upon him.
Damien jerked under Jo’s boot. “Get off,” he growled, and his hands jerked and twisted violently as he strained against the binding around his wrists. The restraints were as tight as Regina’s ass. I stifled my own chuckle when I realized that comparison worked on two levels.
“Oh wonderful, sunshine is awake now,” Jo joked, removing his boot from the prisoner.
“Did you hear me?” Damien growled. “I said, let me fucking go. Right. Now.” The twin scar-lines running from above his brows down Damien’s eyelids and ending at the tops of his cheeks were a shade redder than his flushed, angry face.
Regina tilted her head at Damien, her face arranged in a disaffected, placid expression. “No, I don’t believe we will do that.”
Damien’s brown hair lay flat against his head, the shade matching his bulky brown jacket. It reminded me of the jacket I used to wear on missions. I’d since abandoned the coat that had been issued by Ylang and the Luxis, not wanting any item of my old life to follow me into what I had hoped would be a more normal existence.
I sighed. Our current situation had certainly not been an improvement toward normal.
Ylang finally straightened from behind his hiding place. He brushed off his blue velvet robe. “Whether we keep him with us or not, how are we going to survive this place? Are we to stay here indefinitely, living amongst the demons? Perhaps we should let him go and embrace a swift death.”
“Yes,” Damien said, hunger evident in his eyes. “Let me go and surrender yourself to the Stygian. Your fate is inevitable.”
Without a word, Emma pulled off her boot, then her sock. She shoved the fabric into Damien’s mouth until he couldn’t talk anymore. “Shut it, scar-face. The grownups are talking right now,” she said, despite the fact they were both in their mid-twenties.
Damien’s shouts of protest were muffled through her sock, but the hatred in his eyes broadcasted all manner of murderous things he would do to her once he was free.
Regina snorted, her arms crossed. “I didn’t see you embracing a swift death, Ylang. You ran, or what you would call the closest thing to running, with your tail tucked between your old shanks.”
Ylang sniffed. “Instinctually, I wish to survive, of course. But we are without food or water. Perhaps it would be better to accept a quick death than slowly waste away.”
Emma met my gaze. From the look on her face, she hadn’t considered that yet.
I had. I didn’t believe it was prudent to bring up the issue of food and water when we were still trying to get our bearings in the Stygian. What did sustenance matter if our group tore itself apart or murdered each other first?
Jo propped his hands on his hips. “Water and food? Eh”—he waved his fingers—“I got that, we’ll be fine.” He threw a wink at Emma, who suppressed a smile.
I suddenly wondered why Emma and I were standing so far away from each other. I walked around the hogtied Damien to stand by Emma’s side. I put my hand at the small of her back. She stiffened under my touch. She glanced up at me, a tight unnatural smile on her face. Instantly, I realized closing the physical distance only made me more aware of the distance between us.
What was this place doing to us?
“You have food and water enough in your pockets for all of us?” Regina asked Jo drily.
Jo’s mouth twisted into a frown. “Obviously not.”
Whatever camaraderie those two had before, when ganging up on Ylang, seemed to have dissipated.
Jo went on. “But as I am from the Order of Terra, aka the Order of Earth, I have innate senses about our surroundings. I can easily find us clean water, edible plants, and the like. Plus, I’m betting big warrior man here could catch and cook up some of the lizards I’ve seen slinking around this place.” Disdain dripped from his words when he spoke of me, like I was some lumbering dog.
I dropped my hand from Emma’s back. Did he really think I would tolerate his attitude?
I started forward but Emma put a soothing hand on my shoulder, stopping me. “I think if we need food, we should all work together on that front. But that is good to know, Jo.”
Ylang sat down on a boulder, spreading his robes around him. “I will absolutely not be catching lizards.” He puffed out his cheeks with a sigh.
I used to revere my Master. He seemed to know all, and I obeyed him and the Order of Luxis without question.
But it had been some time since his mask had been removed, and I no longer saw him as an all-knowing Master. He was just a man. Seeing his continued displays of arrogance and fear was like meeting an entirely new person. The loss of idolatry was still unsettling, deep in my heart.
“And so is this our story?” Ylang went on. “Are we to stay here for eternity?”
“Or until I kill you,” Regina muttered.
“Get in line,” Jo said, baring his exceptionally white teeth at Ylang.
“You both may try it,” Ylang shot back, standing while whipping his robes back as a bird fluffs its feathers to appear larger in the face of a predator.
All three of them broke into a shouting match about who would kill whom first. Emma jumped in, holding her arms out to keep everyone separated, declaring no one would be killing anybody. Jo started for Ylang but Emma stepped in between them, holding Jo at bay.
Diana began to moan and wail as she swayed back and forth from where she sat on the ground. Damien also tried to join in, his shouts still muffled through the sock.
I shut my eyes and covered my ears. Their frequency—it was so loud. They were matching the vibration of the dark energy of this place. The fighting was creating a biofeedback loop, and everyone was getting louder and angrier. If this continued unchecked, everyone was likely to resort to murdering each other on the spot.
Emma was still pushing Jo back from lunging at Ylang. Regina’s grip was too tight on the blade in her hand. The veins bulged on Ylang’s head in the same way the red scars over Damien’s eyes became bloated and even more flushed.
I was about to jump in and bodily separate everyone, but I realized I would only be adding to the fray.
“There is a way out,” I yelled, my voice booming over theirs.
Everyone stopped fighting. Jo ceased his advance on Ylang but Emma didn’t remove her hands from his chest. Something twisted in my chest, but I forced myself to focus on the moment at hand, not on where Emma’s were.
“As a Chevalier, my job was to fight the dark forces of the Stygian,” I said. “Monsters and spirits have been crossing over to Earth’s plane for hundreds of years. There was no tear between dimensions until a couple years ago. How then have they been crossing over all this time? There must be a way.”
“Like a door,” Regina said, her face an expression of wonder as she thought of the implications.
“I don’t know what the way is,” I said, “but there is a way. If we find it, we can return home.”
“Would that open up the Tear again, though?” Regina asked, turning to Emma.
Emma finally dropped her hands from Jo’s chest. She opened her mouth, then closed it. She looked at me, as if finding refuge in my eyes to sort out her thoughts. The twist in my chest unwound as she took a step away from Jo.
“I don’t think so.”
My mother closed her eyes, letting out a sigh of relief, before muttering something that sounded like a prayer of gratitude.
“So all we need is to keep demon repellent here around until we can find a way out of here?” Jo nudged Damien with his boot again.
Damien jerked and tried to lunge in Jo’s direction, but ended up falling back onto his side in the dirt. His curses were lost to Emma’s sock.
“Looks like,” Emma said.
Jo grinned and clapped his hands before rubbing them together. “Then I say while the coast is clear, let’s find some cool clean water and maybe a bit of grub.”
“Yes,” Regina nodded. “We will have to stay close together.”
I swallowed over a lump that had formed in my throat.
Nothing will go wrong, nothing will go wrong, nothing will go wrong.
I chanted the mantra, but I could not wrap my belief around so blatant a lie.
Ylang walked by me, interrupting my thoughts. “Why didn’t you use your powers?” he asked under his breath, without breaking his stride.
“I forgot,” I replied automatically.
He continued walking.
I hadn’t given my powers much thought in the fray of battle, but then I remembered a pivotal moment in the battle. At one point, I had indeed attempted to blast a creature away. I couldn’t call my power up to aid me, so I automatically switched to using my sword. I hadn’t had time to think through the meaning of not being able to call my powers forth at that time.
Fear roiled inside my gut with a new fervor.
The first time I’d lost my powers, I’d lost my belief in the word of my Order. I’d regained them and increased my power tenfold by finding my love in Emma.
Was my lack of ability to use my powers a result of being in this place?
Or was it a loss of something else?
When I asked Calan to light up a fire with those superpowers of his, a strange look crossed his face. He said it would be dangerous, a fire would attract attention. Before I could protest with the point that Damien was clearly the key factor in keeping hell beasties at bay, he stalked off to discuss the best direction for scavenging with Jo.
Emotion bubbled up in my chest. It had been a long time since I’d felt this measure of rejection. Not since I had dated Danny Smith in the tenth grade.
I used to joke in earnest that I wouldn’t even have to change my last name for him, so it was meant to be. Danny had shot me the same look Calan just had.
At the time, I simply told myself Danny was digesting the idea of our destined love. I’d already had a year and a half to fantasize about our wedding, kids’ names, and what kind of dog we would get before Danny finally noticed me and asked me out. It was only reasonable I give him some time to catch up to what I already knew to be our romantic fate.
Our high school romance lasted a mere three weeks. It ended when he discovered that, no, I really wasn’t going to give it up to him, and he lost interest entirely.
Shortly after that, I moved to the safety of book boyfriends. They may have been fictional, but they never tried to use me or let me down. No one came close to being worth the risk of heartache until I met Calan.
Calan was the perfect mixture of strength and compassion. A true hero who’d stepped out from one of my romance novels to sweep me off my feet in real life and defend me from demons. Though our love had been in a chokehold from the very beginning, we continued to risk everything for each other.
He turned me upside down and inside out. Most importantly, he let me be exactly who I needed to be. I never had to change anything about myself to please him, and it allowed me to grow and strengthen in ways I never thought possible.
But now I was unsure of our new dynamic. Something had shifted, and I was uneasy as I tried to identify what.
A voice in my head whispered, maybe he doesn’t think this relationship is worth it anymore. Maybe following me into the Stygian had been the final straw. The circumstances had taken too much from him. Where I thought he was a fathomless well of strength, maybe he’d hit the bottom. He’d finally realized I wasn’t worth the shitstorm we continued to have to press through in order to be together.
No, don’t be an idiot. You both love each other more than anything. You’d never leave the other behind.
Oh. Oh crap.
I wanted to walk over to him and have it out right there. Say I was sorry, ask how I could make it up to him. But Calan and I were trapped in a small circle with his biological mother, his former Master, my estranged mother, a guy who was hitting on me, and King Douche of the dark. There wasn’t a single person here I felt comfortable airing out my dirty laundry in front of.
Despite Jo’s reassurance that thirty feet was more than enough room for us all to coexist, my throat was in a sudden chokehold.
I cast a furtive glance at Calan and tried to send a silent message to him, a bundle of love and apology. My psychic message hit smackdab into an invisible wall.
I sucked in a breath. Was it this place screwing with my energy? Or had Calan cut himself off from me somehow?
The bubble of emotion in my chest doubled in size. The misery of Danny Smith was nothing compared to this uncertainty.
Since I couldn’t do anything about my romantic situation, I decided to distract myself from the unruly emotions and moved to help my mom, who was struggling to stay on her feet.
When I tried to give her a hand, she swatted me away. “No, no, I must do this on my own.”
“You mean standing or walking?” I asked, still trying to be helpful.
She didn’t answer. She just stared at Damien who was tied up, still on the ground across from her. There was a feverish glint in her steel-colored eyes.
My mother was a paradox. The deep lines under her eyes and around her mouth made her look old and worn. The dullness to her skin, hair, and heavy-lidded eyes could have been from the ambrosia, but perhaps it was just signs of age. Yet at the same time, underneath her hard edges, she possessed the beauty and youth of a teenager. Her figure was shapely, and her high cheekbones and the cupid-bow of her full lips were something most women would kill for.
Trying to not take her rebuff of my help personally, I crossed over to Damien. I grabbed the bit of sock sticking out of his mouth and yanked it out.
Damien coughed and spat. I jumped back just in time to avoid his projectile saliva. His dark brown eyes burned with hatred.
“Let me go and you can be the first to die. I’ll even make it relatively quick,” he said.
I tsked him while shaking out my wet sock. I had not thought my choice in gag through. I was not excited to wear his mouth juices on my foot. Blech. “As tempting as that offer is, I’m gonna have to pass.”
He spat again. “I will see you burn along with the rest of these clueless fuckers. I swear to you.”
Regina came to stand next to me, palm resting on the hilt of her knife, which was tucked in the belt at her side.
“Can’t we just kill him and drag his body alongside us to keep the beasts at bay?”
I was tempted to snort a laugh, but I wasn’t sure she was joking.
“No.” Everyone stopped to turn and stare at my mother, who had barked out the word. Her dilated eyes were fastened on Damien. “You will not hurt this boy. Do you understand me?”
Even Damien reared back and blinked at my mother.
“Wonderful, now the hippie is protecting the dark one,” Ylang said with a huff.
My mom’s words came out in a strange warble. “There is darkness in him, but it was put there. We can take it out.”
“Like an exorcism?” I asked, not understanding one bit but trying my damnedest.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Regina said in a sharp tone. Then, as if realizing who she was talking to, she shifted her weight to her other foot and looked anywhere but me. “Sorry, of course you’re not an idiot. It’s just, your mother is clearly out of her mind at the moment. There is no use taking her seriously in this state.”
No one was likely to see the flush in my cheeks in this blue light. Regina was probably right, but I had been without my mom for so long, I was desperate to connect with her. At heart, I was still a child raising its arms up, desperate to be picked up and given attention.
Deciding there was no real danger, Jo went back to facing the opposite direction. He crouched down, touched the ground, then bowed his head in concentration. Rather than join our tiny drama, Calan turned away too, looking off into the expanse.
Ugh, this icky feeling really sucked. It was worse knowing the distance between us was my fault.
My mom’s focus never wavered from Damien. “There was nothing you could have done about Rogers.”
Damien went incredibly still. Then, in a low, even voice he said, “Shut your mouth.”
Tears began to well, as my mom’s bottom lip trembled.
Deep lines creased under her steel-colored eyes, and now that Ylang mentioned it, she did resemble some kind of sixties love child all grown up, especially in her flowy white dress.
Everyone from the Order of Spiritus wore white, breezy clothing. The outfits, coupled with their mandatory drug use, made me wonder how they resisted starting all conversations with, “Hi, hate thinking for yourself? Join our cult.”
Would I look or act like my mother when I got older? I cringed at the thought. I tried to remind myself she was completely unhinged because she had been under the influence of an Order that had her completely under its power. And she was going through major withdrawal from the ambrosia they’d forced her to take.
She went on speaking to Damien. “There was nothing you could have done for Bell.”
“I said, shut your mouth.” His voice rose slightly, but his voice was dangerously even.
She shook her head as a fat tear rolled over her lower lid. “Grant and Fraizer, there was nothing you could have done.”
“I said shut your mouth,” Damien roared. His nostrils flared and though his eyes were brown, I expected them to turn red any moment.
She didn’t even blink. “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
The rest of us were stunned, holding our breaths, and watching the bizarre interchange.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Damien yelled again, but his words broke at the end. He was up on his knees now. “Of course I fucking know that.”
My mom took a few unsteady steps toward Damien. I began to reach out to stop her when Ylang caught my elbow. “Let’s see where this goes, shall we?”
I shot him a dark look, but I had to confess I also wanted to know what the hell was happening.
Diana’s arms stretched out wide as if she were threatening to hug him. Damien’s bloodshot eyes went wide and wild as she neared. He resembled a horse ready to kick anyone who got near him.
“You poor, poor boy,” she cooed. “And I am so sorry about Tiana.”
Her compassionate consideration for Damien was like a slap in the face. Here I was desperate to connect with my long-lost mother, and she was trying to mother some psychopath who was the reason we’d all ended up in a hell dimension.
A strangled sound came out of Damien’s throat as he cowered back from my mother. His brown eyes were round with the terror of a child.
Just as Diana got in arm’s reach of Damien, Regina caught my mother’s hand and led her back and away. “Okay, Diana, that’s enough. You’re better off staying away from him, alllll the way over here.”
“He’s been cut open, and he doesn’t know how to put himself back together again,” my mom explained to Regina, who I caught suppressing her usual critical eyebrow raise and instead went for a placating nod.
The delicious scent of Calan rolled over me before I detected the warmth of his body. His presence helped ease the wounded child in me. At least someone else here loved me. I attempted to reason with myself.
Your mom is still going through withdrawal. Before you know it, you’ll be braiding each other’s hair and catching up on all the missed years.
The vision I’d made of our future was comforting, but I still hurt in the present.
“Jo says we need to start walking in that direction for water,” Calan said, pointing to the distant mountains Jo had just been facing. The black volcanic rock loomed ominously, and I shuddered at the thought of what dwelled in the mountains.
“Okay,” I nodded. “And Calan, while we have a minute, I need to talk to you about something.”
Ylang’s bald knotted head appeared between us. “Are we going to stand here and chitchat until we die of thirst?” He walked on with a sweep of his robes.
If the words chop-chop had come out of his mouth, I would have killed him on the spot. I certainly possessed the ability. After all, the Order of Luxis had abducted me and trained me to be a killer. They had wanted me to kill Calan. Fat chance.
Before I could say anything else, Calan walked away to reconfigure Damien’s constraints so he could stand up and walk.
I blinked. The world turned red.
I don’t mean I underwent a rage blackout; I mean where there was once a layer of dark blue light covering everything, the landscape was now illuminated by bright red light. My skin burned and itched as if placed under a heat lamp.
I blinked again, and something smashed into me with all the ferocity and vivid color of my last vision. Except when I’d had a vision the last time, I’d taken Salvia, a mild hallucinogen, to kickstart my ability to receive divine messages. This time the psychic message slammed into me from out of nowhere.
A stream of colors raced through my mind so fast and hot, I would have done anything in that moment to stop it. Downloading messages from the gods was exactly how my mother had described it—like being struck by lightning. My teeth ground into each other so hard I thought they would break.
When I opened my eyes, I didn’t know where I was. Had I been transported to another place? My nails dug into my palms, until I broke skin and blood welled around them.
A couple minutes of blinking and I recognized I was still standing in the same spot, with the same group. The grim look on everyone’s faces matched my trepidation as they observed the landscape. No one seemed to notice I’d just gone through an episode. They were too focused on taking in the environmental changes.
The color and climate change had been so instant and jarring, I told myself I had simply lost my bearing. Yeah, that must have been what it was. I had been thrown off-kilter, and experienced something resembling a vision, but no actual vision had come of it.
If there was a natural cadence to this place, we sure as hell didn’t know what it was. Not knowing what to expect made my palms sweaty and my stomach do backflips. Maybe in the next moment the sky would open up and rain fireballs down upon our heads. From the moment we’d arrived, a shakiness persisted at my core, leaving me deeply unsettled and off balance. I wouldn’t be feeling grounded anytime soon.
“The climate here is unpredictable. We must move quickly before it changes again to who knows what?” Ylang pointed out.
Yeah, and go where?
I didn’t share my fear of raining fireballs. Instead, I hurried over to my mother, who had protectively thrown her arms over her eyes like a small child. I guided her behind everyone else as Jo led the way to what we hoped was water. In this heat, we wouldn’t last long without it.
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