I don’t know if I screamed when Travis slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the man who appeared in the middle of the road. I’m not even sure if I made a sound when the truck flipped. Time slowed as every cell in my mind and body dilated to take in each individual second. My stomach zoomed up like the carnival game where you smash a mallet into a board to make the ball go as high as possible.
I reached for Calan, who sat next to me, but then time sped up again as the truck crashed back onto the road. We rolled, and bone crunching sounds exploded around me. The momentum of the vehicle threw my body and arms any which way it pleased, and away from Calan.
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 in Tajikistan 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.