First they took Calan’s soul. Then they kidnapped me for their cause
After I was tortured and brainwashed by a secret Order, they sent me back to kill the man I love.
But instead of killing him, I grabbed Calan and we ran.
There’s just one problem. Soulless Calan is an entirely different animal from the man I knew and loved.
Evil spirits are wreaking havoc on the world, and it’s up to us to close the dimensional tear to the Stygian.
If we can get Calan’s soul back. If I don’t descend into madness first.
Sure. No big deal.
I blinked. I must have blacked out because the truck was now right side up again, except I was staring into the ditch and the roof of the cab was smashing down, brushing against my hair. My hands were braced against the dashboard and it took another moment to register the trail of hot tears on my face. If Calan and I had still been in the truck bed, we would have been instantly killed.
“Emma,” Calan murmured next to me. His large hand closed around mine.
Despite the tear trails, and the ringing in my ears, I was eerily alert. “I’m okay. Are you?” I turned to see blood trickling down his temple from his dark curly hair, but other than that, his ridiculously handsome face was unmarred. His deep blue eyes anxiously searched me, too. His eyes slid past me, and alarm tensed his features. “Travis.”
Travis was slumped over, his face smashed into the steering wheel. Blood poured from his nostrils, dripping onto his pants. I put my hand on his back, panic constricting my throat. It took a second but then I felt the rise and fall of his ribs. He was still breathing. Relief was brief as I was hit in the face with the overpowering odor of gasoline.
“We need to get out of the truck. Now,” I said. My face tingled and cooled. As the blood rushed away from my head, my lips tightened.
After a few tries, Calan wrenched the door open. He lost his footing when he got out of the rusted, forest green truck, sliding down the ditch. He grabbed for the half-broken handle, catching himself before he went down.
The cicadas chirped mercilessly in an emphatic chorus. Orange light streaked through the coiling gray clouds. A chilling breeze swept in through the open door, penetrating my clothes and my already stiff, sore body. I shivered. Though we’d escaped with our lives, the twilight felt unnatural… foreboding. The looming pine forest lining the road seemed darker than before, as if they had been waiting for something.
When Calan tried to stand up, he slipped again. Normally, Calan was a tireless machine, but he was still depleted from using the entirety of his powers to kill the demon lord who had tried to eat my soul. Between that and the car accident, he now seemed as weak and helpless as me. Fear pulsated through me.
Calan closed his eyes, frustration creasing his brow, and took a steadying few breaths before successfully standing. His blue eyes settled on me, worry lines gathered all around them. He held out a shaking hand to me to help me out of the vehicle. As I was about to take it, Calan retracted the offer, his head snapping toward the road.
Perhaps it was the car accident that left me woozy, but with his profile in view all I could think of was how this man was my own personal superman. Clark Kent had nothing on Calan’s chiseled jaw, cerulean blue eyes, and sculpted warrior body. Since I’d met him, he had shown me a series of dashing heroics, defending me from evil spirits and demons. I almost forgot I needed to get away from the gasoline leaking car.
Yep, probably slightly concussed.
“Stay here,” he said before stalking off to the road.
Ignoring his warning, I slid across the bench seat and gingerly stepped out of the truck onto uneven ground, careful not to slide down the ditch as Calan had. Again, I pushed myself out of the open passenger door, grateful the truck hadn’t landed upside down. Lumbering up the ditch to the road, I followed Calan. When I bumped into him and my vision stopped spinning, I saw the serious shit we were in.
“Did you really think you could run, dark one?” Master Ylang’s voice was even, but the knuckles wrapped around his staff were white with rage. The ends of his thin, waterfall whiskers brushed the golden rope that cinched the middle of his black, velvet robe. He reminded me of an evil wizard from a fantasy book I’d once read. Except he wasn’t a made-up fantasy character, and in his eyes, we had been the ones to open the gate to hell.
The two Masters behind him shared the same sour-faced displeasure. Masters Ilsa and Violetta also wore ornate black robes and carried the same staff as the one Ylang held— a long, twisting, ancient piece of wood topped with a murky, green gemstone.
“Pretty much. That was basically our plan,” I supplied, peeking over Calan’s broad, muscled shoulder, even though the question wasn’t directed at me.
Calan shot an exasperated look back at me, but he should have known better than to think I’d let him go into any fight alone.
“Emma,” Calan’s low voice cautioned before he moved to put himself between me and his former Masters from the Order of Luxis. “You failed,” Calan announced to them. “Emma is of no use to you now. Leave us be.”
Though I’d only spent two months with the Order of Luxis, I knew enough about Master Ylang to see that the dude was seriously pissed. His bald, knobby head looked likely to start pulsating any minute, and his strange, foggy blue eyes pinned us like needles.
A muscle in Master Ylang’s jaw jumped as his eyes narrowed at Calan. “You failed us. If the demon lord had feasted on the soul of the Propheros, the demon would have perished, and the gate between dimensions would have closed with her sacrifice. You have defied your Order and the Light. With the gate open between our dimensions, dark creatures from the Stygian are escaping onto our plane. You’ve unleashed hell on Earth.”
“Who knows if sacrificing my soul to that demon would have worked anyway,” I shot back, still trying to meet Ylang’s eyes over Calan’s shoulder, but I was too short. I brushed my fingers against Calan’s lower back, taking comfort and strength from the contact.
To be fair, after the demon lord sucked out a generous swath of my soul, he seemed a bit wobbly on his feet. Maybe if he’d finished the job, gobbling up the rest of my soul, he would have died and the tear between dimensions would have closed back. But I sure as hell wasn’t about to admit that to these douche nozzles.
“Besides, Chuckles,” I added. Ylang’s foggy eyes still managed to flash dangerously with ire. “You guys lied about ninety percent of everything else. You snatched Calan from his crib and then lied to him about not having a soul so you could make him your slave. You didn’t teach him to read, then filled his head with whatever convenient fictions best served you. Who knows what you people really want? Maybe the Order of Luxis wanted the gate of hell open.”
It was then I noticed another man off to the side. He had been the one who appeared in the middle of the road—probably by using a portal—and sent us flying off into the ditch. If he could make a portal, it meant one thing. He was a Chevalier, a Knight of the Light. Basically a lap dog for the Order of Luxis, just like Calan had been before I came along.
This Chevalier was as herculean-looking as Calan. His pale, almost translucent green eyes bore a striking contrast against his cocoa skin. Those near colorless eyes made him appear cold, calculating, and as indifferent as a brainwashed soldier. Even when Calan had been playing the obedient son, there was desire, warmth, and nobility in those soulful eyes, which I found ironic, since the Chevalier were told they were soulless beings so they could be more easily controlled by their Masters.
Master Violetta’s black and gray streaked hair was pulled back into a tight bun, giving her hawk-like features a makeshift facelift. “We seek to serve the light. That is our only purpose.”
Calan squared his shoulders. “You wanted to sacrifice the Propheros to save the world, but if you knew this woman for any amount of time, truly knew her …” his deep, soulful blue eyes slid over to me and my breath hitched under his intensity. “… you’d know there is no possible way this world could be saved by her demise.”
It was strange to hear these guys talk as if they were in ye olden day, but as Calan described it, they lived in a world between worlds. I had to explain to him that a growing up in a hidden temple didn’t exactly count when there are literally other dimensions.
I glanced back to where Travis was still unconscious in the truck. At least he wasn’t awake and dissolving into horror-movie-proportion hysterics like we’d learned to expect from him. Then again, he’d grown a lot since fighting off a number of demons. When the world split, and the gate to hell was open, he’d swooped in to help me get Calan in the truck and got us out of there.
“Can’t you just make a portal for us?” I murmured to Calan.
Calan gave a slight shake of his head. I couldn’t tell if that meant no, or not right now, but I clamped my mouth shut. We’d been through worse, and I had every bit of faith in him that he would get us out of this. I just needed to trust Calan’s lead.
Like the other Chevalier who had been molded since birth, Calan’s powers stemmed from his unerring belief. The Luxis basically created zealots who developed magic powers and did their bidding. When Calan watched a soul eater break all the rules he knew about dark and Light by becoming corporeal, Calan’s belief was rocked and he’d lost his powers for many days.
Calan’s powers were still depleted, but what could the Masters do? Calan was far more powerful than them, even without his magic. It was the other Chevalier I was worried about. But we’d been through worse before, and we’d get through this, too.
Master Ilsa, who sported two large white-blond braids that trailed down her back, leaned in toward the cold-eyed Chevalier, and said something I couldn’t hear.
Immediately, he did an about face and walked away across the road, disappearing into the woods on the other side.
I should have been glad to see him go, but why did he leave? What was happening?
Master Ylang closed his eyes, as if in pain. “I must admit that I am experiencing a great deal of disappointment,” he said to Calan. “You were one of the most promising Chevaliers we had ever seen, which makes your fall all the more tragic.” When he opened his eyes, remorse seemed to drain away from him until someone devoid of mercy stood before us. “But you have made your choice, and now you both will face the consequences.”
Out of the corner of my eye, Calan’s palms lit up, and my heart took off at a gallop. He’d activated his supercharged powers and was ready to blow these bastards away.
I wished I could help, but the reality was, I wasn’t the one with superpowers. I’m sure I had other things going for me.
I stopped breathing and clutched at my chest, wanting to loosen the invisible grip of a hand that squeezed around my heart. It took me a moment to realize I was experiencing Calan’s anguish. We shared a psychic connection that transmitted our heightened emotions to the other.
Calan was about to fight Ylang, the closest thing he had to a father, and it caused him pain.
I briefly touched Calan’s back, letting him know I understood, and he wasn’t alone, then I stepped back. It really sucked not being able to help.
As Calan raised his arms, taking aim, all three Masters thumped the base of their staffs into the ground and everything seemed to stop. No, not everything, just Calan. His arms had frozen, aimed toward the ground at Ylang’s feet. The same murky green of the gemstones glowed around Calan’s body.
“Calan?” I reached out to touch his back but as my hand dipped into the light I recoiled with a hiss. It was white-hot. Sweat beaded under Calan’s dark curly hair and began to streak down his face. His jaw was clenched.
“What are you doing?” I screamed. “Stop it.” I couldn’t get to Calan, so I had to stop whatever it was they were doing. I charged past Calan toward the Masters, not caring anymore if I didn’t have superpowers. I would beat their asses.
Hands grasped around my arms. I jerked back to find two plain-robed Luxis servants holding me back. How the hell did they sneak up on me?
I flailed and kicked, but I couldn’t break free. Unlike Calan, the only combat training I had was from reactively fighting off demons the last couple months.
Master Ylang and the rest of the Masters closed their eyes and chanted together in a slow, haunting, ethereal echo. When Ylang’s foggy orbs snapped open, they were illuminated with the same green color that encircled Calan’s body. Master Ilsa and Violetta continued to chant and sway.
All I could do was continue to yell at them to stop. My next cry died in my throat when Calan’s feet lifted off the ground, and his frozen body was held mid-air by whatever force they were using. His teeth were clenched shut, but the muscles in his jaw twitched and jerked like he was trying to scream.
Ice cut through my stomach as I realized more and more how screwed we were. Maybe Travis would come and interrupt whatever creepy spell this was. Maybe the other Chevalier would change his mind and come back and save his brother.
Master’s Ylang’s voice was harsh, reverberating from the throes of concentrated energy. “You see, Calan,” he said the name Calan had chosen for himself like it was made of acid. “You’ve only been in possession of your soul through the grace of our will. Just because you have a soul, it does not mean we are incapable of taking it from you.”
I realized why they had sent the other Chevalier away. They wanted him to maintain the belief that Calan and all the Chevaliers had no soul. This sure would blow that lie wide open.
The Masters thumped their staffs against the ground in unison once more. “So now, we shall take the soul you have used to serve the dark, and then we shall take the Propheros and repurpose her into something useful by the same means in which we shaped you.”
Though Calan could not move, his face contorted, his eyes sparkled with rage, and his mouth curled into what looked like a soundless snarl. He looked like a trapped, feral beast ready to rip out their throats.
What did that mean? What were the means in which they’d shaped Calan? I knew little about Calan’s upbringing, but what I did know, I wouldn’t describe as warm or fuzzy. Again, I whipped my arms about in a frenzy trying to get free.
Ylang’s head fell back and the rest of the Masters followed suit. They pursed their lips and emitted a low-whistle in unison. It was simply a whistle, but the organs in my body shivered as if someone had dragged a gigantic nail down a chalkboard.
Calan’s limbs snapped out to his sides, and his jaw unclenched. His eyes went wide, and the dark circles hanging under them deepened until his eyes looked hollow and haunted. It as if he was looking into the Stygian itself.
“Calan,” I screamed, trying anything I could to break the Order members’ hold, but I was utterly useless.
White, smoky light tunneled out from Calan’s eyes, nose, and slackened mouth. I screamed. Something was ripped from my own being. I didn’t remember falling to the ground, but I vaguely noticed my knees digging into dirt as I convulsed against the pain.
I had seen this before. When a soul eater had attacked a motel, it sucked the souls out of people, leaving behind putrid bags of decaying flesh. It sounded like an inverted wind-tunnel as Calan’s soul continued to funnel out of his body and toward the gemstone set in Ylang’s staff. They were killing Calan, and a part of me was dying with him.
This couldn’t be. Even as I lay writhing on the ground, I knew something was going to stop this. Something or someone always showed up to save us. Maybe Calan’s other brother, Gatsby, would pop out of somewhere to protect Calan. Maybe Travis would wake up and provide a distraction. Maybe Calan could break their hold. He was the strongest person I’d ever known.
Those deep blue eyes managed to turn toward me and time seemed to stop. In an instant, I read all Calan’s agony and regret. Even as he died, he was still worried about me. Tears streamed down my face as my balled-up hands dug into my gut.
As abruptly as it started, the pain ceased, the green light disappeared, and Calan hit the ground. I sucked in a deep, desperate breath. It no longer felt like I was undergoing surgery sans anesthesia, but an aching emptiness remained in its stead.
The Order members had released me so I could roll in agony on the ground. Taking advantage of the freedom, I scrabbled forward, the asphalt scraping the skin off my hands and knees. When I got to Calan’s still form, I pushed him over until he faced the sky. The dark circles remained etched under his closed eyes. I shook his shoulders, flashing back to only a few hours ago when I thought he’d died saving me from the demon lord. Everything was surreal, like a dream of a dream. I shook his shoulders and called for him to wake up. To give me any sign he was alive.
My heart could do nothing but howl inside my chest. I was barely aware of my hysterical sobs.
Knobby fingers touched my shoulder and nausea slithered in my stomach. “He will live,” Ylang said gently in my ear. Getting ahold of my sobs, I wiped my face and looked closer. Calan’s chest rose and fell with each breath. My sobs renewed with relief this time.
The fingers tightened on my shoulder, digging in painfully, until I grimaced. Swallowing hard, I looked for the last time at the face of the man I loved. I knew Master Ylang’s grip on me would be the least painful touch I would know for a long time to come.
I had found the enemy.
I had been stalking him unnoticed for six days. Of course, it was unlikely he would recognize me. I barely remembered what I used to be, but I knew where I had once been soft and weak, I was now as sharp as a knife’s edge in both mind and body. I moved without sound or shadow. I crept along the rooftops, watching my target below.
Birds greeted the dawn with their exuberant songs while the sun quickly climbed the sky, heating the concrete of the industrial district where I stalked my prey. The smell of crude oil and smog mixed into an unforgiving stench. Soon enough I would complete my mission and return to the fold of my Order.
I had failed as Emma the Propheros, but I would not fail as Master Ilsa’s ward. It had taken a long time for her to believe I was fully ready to fulfill my destiny.
The enemy walked with purposeful strides in the direction of the rubber factory. His dark pants were spattered with even darker grease stains, and a white tank top showed off his muscular arms and shoulders. He dressed the part of any rough laborer, and rough labor he had at the rubber factory, moving large vats of chemicals and operating heavy machinery.
I’d been mapping out his schedule, biding my time to make my move. I watched him all day. I took in every bead of sweat, every vein that bulged on his cut arms as he wrestled his way through the hard, dirty day at the factory. His body was as lithe and deadly as ever. He’d foregone shaving for some time, building a base of scruff over his sculpted face.
Suddenly he slowed his gait, slumped his posture, and swung his arms more in a strange, forced manner. I dropped into a crouch, fearing I’d been found out until I spotted his short, balding co-worker rounding the corner to join him on their way into the factory. I should have known. The dark one attempted to appear as one of the sheep when he was near the herd. Yet he stuck out to me as starkly as a blazing torch in a snowstorm.
The shorter man in the overalls must have sensed, on some level, he was next to a predator.
I reached the edge of the four-story building. Taking a few steps back before running forward, I launched myself off the edge. I flew through the air before soundlessly landing on the neighboring rooftop. I sprinted to the other side of the roof in time to see the dark one hold open the door for his stout co-worker. The dark one looked up in my general direction. I dropped below the ledge and waited a few beats before chancing another look.
Despite the smoke and oil emanating from the factories and lingering in the air, I reveled in the feel of the sunshine and wind caressing my face. Being able to come and go as I pleased had my muscles singing.
Master Ilsa’s instructions were to strike quickly, but I was certain a week of observation was worth it to ensure my success. I was certain she would applaud the consideration I gave my mission. I would serve the Order of Luxis better than any other member, and then I would finally earn my Master’s approval.
When I stood again, the heavy steel door was slowly closing, both men had gone to work now. No matter. Tonight was the night.
It was time to restore the divine sequence.
I waited until the dead of night before slipping in through the open window. The target had foolishly left it gaping open, no doubt to encourage a breeze to waft into the muggy, pressing heat of the apartment that was hardly bigger than a matchbox. A half-broken ceiling fan limped along in pathetic circles with a whine.
The light from a streetlamp cut in through the window and threw itself across the bed, illuminating my target. The face of the enemy had long dark eyelashes that fell across defined cheekbones as he slept. The black curly hair on his head was tousled, and he slept in the nude.
I had been trained for this moment for what I felt was my whole life, though I knew it was less. Had it been decades, or maybe months since I’d last seen the dark one? Where I’d been, time had little to do with anything.
His body glistened in a sheen of sweat, and his scent permeated the cramped quarters. The room should have smelled rancid but instead my senses were entrenched in soap, spice, and pure man. It was a strangely heady mixture I couldn’t help but breathe in deeply.
Sheets tangled around his legs in a near strangle, framing his half hard penis. He was completely exposed, and I took my time observing my target. I had followed him for some time, but I had never been this close to him before. Anticipation shivered through me. It must have been for the kill. What else could it have been? His muscles were clearly defined, like cuts a sculptor made into clay. Awake, and he would strike without pause, mercy, or remorse.
I repositioned my grip on the serrated blade I carried. Where the handle was first cool to the touch, it was now hot and slippery from the sweat of my palm. It was strange to be in the heat of summer when where I’d come from was so cold. Always cold…
Master Ilsa said we had interfered with the divine sequence which resulted in the tear between dimensions. I was here to rid the world of the dark one as an offer of penance to the Light and hopefully restore the divine sequence. Then a way to heal the tear would present itself.
It had taken a long time to prove my fealty to the Order of Luxis after failing to sacrifice myself as the Propheros. Only then did they send me on my mission. I wished to please my Master. Wished to right the wrong the dark one and I had committed.
This creature of darkness was responsible for all my pain, and the man in front of me had blinded me into aiding the Stygian in their dark designs.
Was that right? Was that why I was here?
I touched my collarbone, just left of my neck, and pressed at the mottled skin, a scar from a previous life. The image of a door sprung to my mind’s eye. It was an ornate, old-fashioned wooden door painted maroon with white trim, like one on a quaint, old historic house. It was locked. But I knew this door. I had used it before.
The target’s eyes snapped open and I crashed into a stormy blue ocean in their depths. I had waited too long, but it would still take only two moves to easily slit his throat and return to my Masters with the head of my prize. Yet looking into those eyes, a molten warmth spread in my chest before pouring downward. My breaths came in shallow pants.
My finger pressed harder against the scar. In my mind, I reached out and touched the cold metal of the long door handle with the thumb latch on the top of it. A voice behind it urged, Remember, remember. Two people on a blanket.
The enemy blinked. “Emma.” His voice was roughened with sleep, but it wasn’t a question. He’d been expecting me.
“No,” I said in a cool, flat voice. “Emma’s dead.” That wasn’t my name anymore. I was Master Ilsa’s ward.
Why had I waited? I should have already spilled his blood and disappeared. The dark one was without his powers, but he still bore the body of a warrior and could potentially overpower my newly found strength. That’s why Master Ilsa had told me to slit his throat in his sleep.
Why wasn’t I claiming the head of my enemy? I needed to restore the divine sequence. His blood by my hands was the only way. I willed myself into action, but my index finger dug at my scar, somehow short-circuiting my brain. I pressed down on the door handle in my mind, but it didn’t open. I needed to open it. I needed to open it now, but I couldn’t remember why.
He propped himself up on his forearms. “You are here to kill me,” he said in a clearer voice, but it was still flat, devoid of emotion. Adrenaline trilled through me, and my nipples hardened under my black racerback tank top at the rumble of his low voice. It didn’t seem like he was going to put up a fight. It was almost as if he had been waiting for me to end him.
I clutched the knife, preparing to spring, but my mind was steadfast on the door.
Kill him. Kill the dark one, I heard in Master Ilsa’s voice.
Then I remembered how to open it. Closing my eyes, I willed the door to unlock. Click. I pressed down on the handle and it swung open slowly. I had been here before.
“No,” I said to the enemy.
No, not the enemy… Blood welled up around the crescent shaped cut I dug into my scar using my nail. “I’m here to save us.” My eyes were still clenched shut as I shook my head regaining a modicum of clarity. Not clarity of my mission. Clarity of the sanity I’d hidden away since the Order of Luxis took me.
They’d dragged me away from the still-breathing body I was crying over.
The secret door in my mind was now open, and I walked through it. A barrage of visions flashed by. No, not visions. Memories.
…my breath exploded in white puffs as we ran away from the liquor store into the ice frosted forest…
…I inhaled Calan’s scent as we stood close together in the small confines of my bedroom. He didn’t know it yet, but I was going to kiss him…
… Warm, strong fingers threaded through mine and I knew everything was going to be okay……standing over his still sleeping form, I knew I had to leave. Part of the prophecy had come true, which meant I was the only one who could stop the darkness. He’d understand one day…
My eyes snapped open and I dropped my finger from where it marred my scar. The memories and emotions rushed in so hot and fast they clogged up my throat and landed thickly in my stomach making me feel heavy and tired. This wasn’t the enemy. This was the man who gave me his coat without a second thought when it was below freezing. The man who grinned at me, proud as a boy scout of the dumpster fire he’d made to keep us warm while we were hiding from the soul eater. I found him adorable when he blinked at every pop culture reference Travis and I made in his presence, unfamiliar with the modern world. I loved him even more for his old-fashioned sensibilities. His quiet reassuring presence soothed my soul, and when he went to battle, he was like a glorious, sunlit lion, casting all darkness out.
Trying to keep my face a mask of calm and grab hold of my wild emotions, I strode over to a puddle of clothes, picked up a pair of pants, and threw them onto the enemy’s chest.
I mean…Calan’s chest.
“We need to go. Now. They are watching.”
Calan was right behind me, scaling up the piping attached to the side of his crumbling brick building. He’d thrown on dark pants and a gray, waffled shirt that sported tears in several places.
On the roof of Calan’s apartment building, I paused, my ear out for any unusual sounds, but I only heard a distant siren. The streets were abandoned this time of night. Like a shadow I slipped along the rooftop. Calan’s following footsteps made no sound.
“Where are we going?” Calan asked quietly from behind me.
“Somewhere they can’t find us.” I stopped at the edge of the roof; the industrial district of northern Chicago laid out for my consideration.
The distance between Calan’s building and the neighboring one was a risky jump, even for me. My options were to take the hurdle or return to face the Order of Luxis. I could go back to Master Ilsa who did complicated painful things to my mind and body. Taping my eyelids back and strapping me to a chair, she’d force the Luxis agenda down my throat until I could repeat it back to her without pause or hesitation. Should I mess up my lines, she would rap my bare thighs so hard I would be unable to stand after our sessions. One time she broke my collarbone then was irked with my inability to heal faster. When I did well, I was blessed with water, food, and maybe a couple hours of sleep. The bitch hardly ever let me sleep.
Backing up a few paces, I took several long strides then launched myself with all the strength and power I possessed. My breath caught as my stomach soundly flopped over before my heels crashed onto the roof. I’d barely straightened from my landing crouch before Calan was next to me.
“So where won’t they find us?” he asked. It was then I noticed his voice was flatter than it used to be. Like it was an empty jar where it was once full of warm honey. For that matter, his face seemed emptier than I remembered.
I was still digesting the reconnection with my own sanity. I couldn’t yet bring myself to analyze Calan. The disconnect between us, as well as with my own identity, created a rising swell of panic I fought to keep down.
“Do I have to come up with everything?” I shrugged, irritated. Being this close to the man I had been watching for days, blood rushed to my face and a throbbing sensation in my lower body distracted me. “Isn’t it enough I kept myself from going all Manchurian Candidate on you?”
I was met with a blank stare.
“Of course, you don’t know what that is.” I sighed, reminded that he had never understood my references. It was amazing how much of myself I had locked away from Master Ilsa’s influence; but even as my memories emerged, I recognized how different I was from the girl I used to be. Who was I now?
I’d figure that out later, though. I had imprinted and held onto one message that I could follow after all this time. Get to Calan. Get away from the Luxis. There would be time later to make sense of what I was now.
I ran a hand over my smoothed hair. The tight ponytail reached the bottom of my lower back. I knew I had been away, but I didn’t believe I’d been away long enough for that kind of hair growth. There was a lot of lost time where I’d fallen into the red and black abyss of pain and confusion. I also didn’t need glasses anymore, either, which I’d been a slave to since I was nine years old. I suspected it was something the Order had fed me.
Calan’s blank stare moved over my shoulder. Before he could motion or say anything, I grabbed the robed man who thought I hadn’t detected him sneaking up behind me. Flipping him over my shoulder, he landed hard on his back with an audible grunt. I punched him twice in the head before he lost consciousness.
Part of me rebelled against fighting members of my own Order. I mean, members of the Order of Luxis. Internally berating the slip up, I reminded myself I didn’t belong to Luxis. I refused to be their pawn any longer.
I stared at his body as I remembered a time I stayed in bed all day reading an urban fantasy book, snuggled up with a large bag of Cheetos. I desperately wanted to be like the heroines in the books I read—able and capable to kick ass. With my freed memories, part of me reveled in excitement over having the ability to defend myself, while the other part of me was too close to the pain I’d endured to get here. I was split in two.
Despite calling on my sanity in the needed moment to not kill Calan, I realized the brainwashing was still rattling around inside of me. I had to keep it together. I had to cling to that part of me I’d worked so hard to shelter and protect. I needed to focus on the hope and the plan I’d long kept silent, sleeping deep underneath Master Ilsa’s violent, invasive conditioning.
The hairs rose on the back of my neck, and the sharp instinctual feeling of danger zipped up my spine before another Order member came at me on my left. He pulled a Luxis, standard-issue, claymore sword from under his robe and swung at me. I bent backward, missing his swing and twisting at the last moment to catch his hand clutching the sword. Yanking his wrist was followed by a crack of bone, and his low groan. The blade dropped to the roof with a clang.
Gray peasant robes fluttering in the wind drew my eye, and another shot of adrenaline zoomed through me. An Order member had crept up behind Calan, who stood impassively watching me fight my attackers. Before I could warn Calan, my attacker swung into my twist. With another several cracks, the Order member had broken many more bones in his hand, but the move managed to get him out of my hold. Even with a broken wrist and forearm, he charged at me with all the conviction of a true believer. In killing me, he would serve the Light. He threw a punch which landed in my open palm. I swept my leg out, connected with his knees, and he went down. His head banged with a loud clang against a standing vent. I waited for him to get up again, but he stayed down. I hadn’t killed him, but he’d have one hell of a headache when he woke up.
When I looked back to Calan, he held the third Order member, a woman, by the neck. She clawed at his hands. As he continued to tighten his fingers around her throat, his face remained as impassive as a man who was clipping his toenails. When her struggle ceased, her arms and legs going limp, Calan still didn’t release her.
“Calan, stop,” I ordered, trying to keep the alarm from my voice. Her neck would break any second under his unrelenting grip. Calan’s head swiveled back to her as if noticing his hand was wrapped around her throat for the first time.
In that moment, I was afraid. Not of the Order of Luxis, or the horrors of the Stygian, but rather the soulless shell of the man I loved. He was going to break this woman like a walnut and then toss her aside without so much as blinking. Nausea somehow managed to spike in my empty stomach. This wasn’t Calan. Calan would never kill a human when he could put them down. Whoever this was, I didn’t know him.
As if Calan didn’t have a better idea than what I suggested, he let her go. She dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
“I told you we were being watched,” I said, eyeing the still breathing woman. “We need to move. Now.” I hadn’t thought out a plan beyond grabbing Calan and running. I didn’t have the bandwidth while I was busy trying to stay alive and appear compliant while I held on for dear life to my sanity.
Calan gave a sharp nod. “Right.” Grabbing my hand, he ushered us on. Despite his new, ruthless demeanor, I longed to interlace our fingers. The warm, calloused hand wrapped around mine, further grounding me to the girl I used to be with each passing moment. But now was certainly not the time to relax and do some soul searching.
Dropping his hand, I swallowed past a lump of disappointment at losing his touch, and followed him. We traveled three blocks via the rooftops before we slunk back to ground level to take the alleyways.
My heart pounded in my chest, but my head was clear. I watched the shadows, sniffed the air for the cloying scent of patchouli I’d come to associate with Order members, and moved as quickly as possible. Despite my keen attention to our surroundings, my gaze continuously returned to the man keeping pace with me. I wasn’t sure if it was my instincts warning me of danger, or if I was drawn to him by the power of our past passions. It had been a lifetime since I’d known a loving touch.
I violently smashed down the reactions and emotions I had about reuniting with Calan and put them behind that door where I kept everything that mattered to me. Later I would pull out my feelings for him, spread them out like blankets and examine the jumbled mess. For now, I would fall back on what Ilsa taught me. Would she see the irony, if she knew? That smug bitch had been so proud when she believed she’d finally broken me.
“Here.” Calan motioned me into the back door of a large factory. Rust ate away at the door and walls, but I darted in. He locked up behind us with a shrill squeal that I felt at the back of my teeth.
He hit a switch and a few golden lights came on, not enough to flood the place with blinding white fluorescents, but just enough low light for us to walk around without tripping over anything. It smelled like steel with remnants of oily exhaust. The huge factory’s looming machines stared down at us, reminding me of something, but my brain couldn’t relax enough to remember what.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“A makeshift safehouse,” Calan said as he walked over to a panel of controls. He pulled down a large lever and the sound of dozens of locks closing echoed throughout. The one locking the bay doors was loudest. For a moment, I panicked. I didn’t want to be locked in anywhere ever again, but I kept my arms fast against my sides and took steady breaths. We hadn’t been followed, so we were safe for a time. Breathing through the logic, panic unwound its tight tentacles that had wrapped around my chest.
I huffed a dry laugh as I realized what this place reminded me of. The factory from the movie Terminator. Except instead of machine crushing pistons and distracting, loud machinery, this place was almost ghostly. I could easily imagine the place full of activity, blinking lights demanding attention, and noise as the machines pumped out cereal boxes, or brake pads, whatever this place was good for. Now, the factory was like a wide yawn of silent, dead space. I rubbed my arms, though it was even warmer in here than outside.
I dropped my hands and straightened with a nod. “We can figure out the rest of our plan here.”
Calan crossed the distance between us. The way his muscles moved under his shirt reminded me of a lion. His new rough style made him coarse in a way that was far too appealing, making my mouth water. Without even trying, he looked completely confident and in control. Yet behind his eyes, I spotted an edge that didn’t use to be there. Like if I pushed the wrong button, he would lose this false façade of serenity and lash out, fangs first. A ripple of fear went through me, mingling with the excitement at being near him again. If I hadn’t said something, he might have killed that woman. Sure, she was a crazy zealot who wanted to kill us first, but Calan had never resorted to lethal force before.
Even with my fears of what Calan had become in my absence, how could the Luxis think they stood a chance of erasing what I felt for this man? That’s what I told them in the beginning, laughing in their faces when they explained Calan was the true enemy and they would remake me into something useful for the Light. It didn’t take long for them to wipe the smile off my face.
Calan drew closer, his steps slow and measured until I could feel his breath. I looked up into those deep ocean depths, his face only inches away. Heat and that heady scent radiated off him, wrapping around me. I locked my knees to keep my legs from turning to Jell-O.
“So, the plan isn’t to kill me?”
I didn’t answer. I wanted to reach out and touch him. Instead my fingers curled away into my palms.
“Emma?” he asked again. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was disappointed I hadn’t killed him.
“I know they sent you.”
“How have you been?” I asked, walking by him to inspect a machine about my height that did god only knew what. I traced my fingers across the rows of miniature lightbulbs, dodging his questions.
He raised an eyebrow. He knew I was stalling but went along with it. “I have been working.” Taking another step in, he towered over me, and I wanted to melt into him. I wanted those arms to wrap around me and tell me everything was okay now, but we weren’t close to okay, not even a little.
“I’d forgotten the color of your eyes,” I said, just above a whisper. A corner of my mouth quirked up. “They tried to make me forget. Tried to make me associate words like dangerous, evil, and dark with you…” I trailed off. “They tried to rewrite my memories.” My gaze flitted away. “Master Ilsa was best at that, re-writing the stories you’d lived until you didn’t know what was real or not.” I gave him a wry smile, not sure what response I even wanted from him.
He didn’t respond. Searching his face, I wanted visible proof, some indication, some understanding that his soul was really gone. Despite the glimpse I got of his new nature when he was choking that Order member to death, I couldn’t digest what I was dealing with now. All I saw was the same devastatingly handsome man with a dark curl dipping over his forehead.
I caught my breath when I found my proof. It was stamped in his blue eyes. I was wrong. This man no longer resembled a noble, strong lion. Where there was once earnestness, desire, and fire in him, he now possessed the cold, predatory look I’d seen in the black, marble eyes of sharks.
“Are you?” I finally asked, afraid of the answer.
“Are you evil?”
Calan’s expression hardened. “If that’s what you thought, why didn’t you just kill me?” He turned away so he could lean an arm against a low beam. Rust sprinkled to the ground along with a few chips of yellow paint from where his arm settled. His blue eyes were flat, bored. My chest constricted.
“Jesus, Calan, the last time I saw you, they were dragging me away from your unconscious body after they ripped your soul out. I don’t know what it did to you.”
He stared off at the ground. For several minutes, I wasn’t even sure he had heard me but finally he said, “I don’t know what it did to me. It just made me different.”
“Did you even try to find me?” My words were soft to my own ears.
His strange, shark-like gaze fixed back on me.
I got my answer. Something in me buckled, so I turned away, acting as though I was observing the rest of the factory. We used to share a psychic bond that allowed us to intimately know each other’s fear and lust. Our connection was severed, but I now wondered if he felt anything at all.
I wanted to ask him if he still loved me, but I already knew the answer to that, too. My jaw clenched as I fought back the rising tide of emotion. I wouldn’t break. Yet again, I ironically had Ilsa to thank for that. Even though I didn’t let my emotions spill over, the pain cut through me like a knife.
If our connection meant nothing to him, I would have to use another means of motivation. I suddenly realized taking my time stalking him for days on end, observing his nature was to my advantage. Appealing to his emotions wasn’t going to work, so I was going to have to show him this was strictly business. My heart whimpered while making grabby hands, but I cleared my face of emotion.
“They have it, you know,” I offered. “They have your soul.” For the first time in a long time I desired to pick at my nails. Though the long, thin dark purple bruises had long faded away, my hands remembered the lesson brought down on them for fidgeting. Ilsa said I lacked focus.
He didn’t even blink. More than ever, I wished I could detect even a ghost of his emotions.
“Okay,” he finally said, but the word was as empty as his face.
“Don’t you want your soul back?”
Remembering no one would strike my hands again, I allowed one hand to reach to the other and push back a cuticle. Step one to reclaiming my life—move however the hell I wanted to move, whenever I wanted to.
He looked away again and I let him think in silence. “No,” he said finally. “The way I see it, if I get my soul back, I’ll get pulled back into all the nonsense I came from.”
I kept my face a mask of unflappable calm, though panic threatened to flare up. Did I risk everything for nothing? “So you’re happy then?”
His eyes narrowed for just a second. “Sure, happy.”
I laughed and shook my head, doing a great damn job of appearing nonchalant. “You are still the absolute worst liar. You aren’t happy, Calan. Hell, you hardly seem to know what to do with yourself. You’re barely passing as one of the civilians.” I said, parroting the word he used to describe regular people not of his Order. I used to be a civilian, but now, I, too, knew the thin yet unbreakable wall that separated me from ever being a normal girl again.
I walked over to a shorter machine and hopped up to sit on it. The cold of the machine seeped through my dark, stretchy pants. I crossed my legs, reveling in the feel of such a casual posture. My legs had also endured the wrath of their staffs.
I eyed him knowingly. “Every day you go to work, you exert yourself physically until you can’t think. Then, if you must, you follow the guys you work with to a bar afterward and sip on a cheap beer you don’t even like and never finish. When you come home, you train in your little matchbox room until you pass out from exhaustion. And even then, you hardly sleep.” I looked up at him under my lashes.
A scowl darkened his face. He didn’t know I’d had been following him.
“Oh, don’t worry, you haven’t lost it.” I assured him. “You’re still good.” My lips curled in a feral grin. “I’m just better.” The grin stuck to my face like plastic. “They made sure of that.”
Take that. Everything they did to me, they said it was because of your sins. They believed they could beat, burn, and brainwash away my love for you. It only made me love you more.
“Did you get powers, too?” he asked, and I detected a hint of alarm. No concern for how I suffered, or what happened to me in his absence. I pretended that didn’t slice right through me.
I rocked forward, leaning into my arms which were braced against the machine below me. “No. I wasn’t molded from birth. They said it would never happen. Their one regret.” I rolled my eyes before looking down at my lap. “Though now that I’ve run off into the night with the man I was supposed to kill, I’m sure they’re thankful now that I didn’t develop any.” He’d gotten me off topic. I sat up straighter, “The point is, whether or not you want your soul back, I know you miss the mission. You miss having purpose, a drive toward one single point of execution.”
My arms looked steady to the naked eye, but a tremor of desperation ran through them. I pressed them harder against the machine under me, but it only served to intensify my inner ache. Didn’t he know I needed him to love me? This instant? If he didn’t, would I fly apart into pieces? If I couldn’t get him to follow along with my logic, I might never get his soul and the man I loved back. I squashed all that desperation down and continued to play it cool.
“I have a job,” he supplied, lamely.
I shook my head, impatient with his façade. “You have nothing. You are nothing.”
He dropped his arm and shifted his weight to the other leg. “Then why don’t you kill me? If I’m such a nothing and no one, why don’t you just kill me, drop my corpse in front of the Luxis so you can prove yourself, and save yourself all the goddamn trouble of running?” He’d been picking up lingo from his fellow factory mates. I’d never heard a curse word emerge from his lips, and even if he knew swear words, his old-fashioned sensibilities would have forbid using them. More than ever, I was reminded I was dealing with someone entirely different. This Calan played it cool and aloof, and if I wasn’t careful, he’d melt away into the night where I couldn’t find him and bother him again. I had to convince him he needed me.
“Calan, shut up,” I said sharply. “You’re not getting an easy way out of this.” I allowed myself to run a hand over my hair again. “I need you.” I hoped he didn’t notice the tremor in my voice or my hard swallow as I jumped down from my perch. Taking several steps toward him, my chin was set, daring him to defy me. “I need you to help me close the tear to the Stygian.”
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