Afterlife ~ Chapter 4

If you haven’t read the previous chapters, START HERE.

This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.

Chapter Four

Israel landed on the ground with a thud. His eyes felt glued shut and his cheek pushed into the musty-smelling carpet. He let out a groan as he tested his fingers. His body felt stiff.

What a weird dream. Those two strangers, their weird conversation…something about Alyx and labyrinths. Then that terrifying Taser gun thing Jordan had. Israel must have thrashed around so hard he rolled out of bed and was now lying on the floor of his bedroom. He couldn’t remember getting into bed after he got home… Did his bedroom always feel this drafty?

“Where the hell did you come from?” It was a familiar female voice.

Israel started, tearing his eyes open and pushing himself up to sitting. Blood rushed to his head and his fingers gripped into the carpet fibers. No, these weren’t carpet fibers. He was sitting on a rug. But his bedroom didn’t have a rug in it.

That’s because this wasn’t his bedroom.

Israel stared around this cavernous room. It seemed to be a windowless underground vault, made entirely of carved stone, patches of dark moss breathing moist air back into the place. It would be totally dark if not for the dancing flames in iron torches bolted onto the pillars.

There was Alyx, looking very awake and unharmed, standing a few meters away from him and staring down at him with open mouth.

His heart kicked up a notch.

She was just as beautiful here in his dream, her eyes glowing like two emeralds. She was still wearing the same black pants, blouse and jacket as she was at the cathedral but she seemed unharmed.

“Alyx?” He pushed himself up to standing, wobbling lightly as he took to his feet.

He might still be dreaming but his heart wasn’t reacting that way. He could feel the thud of it against the inside of his ribs.

She nodded, her eyes wide. “I know you. You were at the cathedral…you’re Israel.”

She remembered my name. Say my name again.

“Why am I dreaming about you?” she muttered almost to herself.

“Hang on a second. I’m the one who’s dreaming.” Or at least, he thought he was. Israel began to feel the weighty sense that something else was going on here.

“No,” she said slowly. “You’re part of my dream.”

He frowned. “No…you are part of my dream.”

She frowned at him. “You’re really argumentative for a dream.”

“I’m not the dream.”

“At least you’re easy on the eye.”

Israel froze. “Did you just objectify me?”

Her cheeks slightly reddened but she put on an unaffected air and shrugged.

Israel opened his mouth but Alyx interrupted him. “If you make a crack about being my dream guy I will slap you.”

Israel closed his mouth. He was about to say that. “Tough crowd,” he muttered.

He heard a crack from above. It was déjà vu all over again. This time he didn’t even stop to look up. He lunged for Alyx shouting at her to “Move!” His body collided with hers and she let out a scream. There was a crash of rock against the stone floor just where they had been standing.

They hit the ground with an audible grunt and kept rolling. When they stopped, Israel found himself lying partly on top of her. Her hair pooled all about her face as she looked up at him, her plump pink lips parted and her breath sucked in between them… “Israel,” she whispered.

He could do it, he could just lean down and kiss her right now, something he’d been wanting to do since he first saw her. His heart began to gallop at the thought and his mouth went dry.

“Israel,” she said, but louder this time.

“Hmm?”

Kiss me, her hooded eyes seemed to be whispering.

“Get off me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” Those golden flecks in her eyes really were beautiful. Like flecks of gold suspended in an emerald sea.

“Israel.” She arched an eyebrow and glanced down at their bodies. He was still on top of her, the curves of her lean body underneath him making him painfully aware of how he was reacting in turn…like an imbecile.

“Oh. Right.” He rolled off her, heat on his cheeks, his movements feeling thick and clumsy. Flustered. He was flustered. Since when did he get flustered around girls? Even girls as beautiful as Alyx.

She’s different.

You don’t know that. You don’t even know her.

He pushed himself up to sitting and as discreetly as he could, he glanced over to her sitting up, brushing herself down. Her cheeks were flushed or was that just him projecting?

Her eyes darted to his before widening. He’d been caught staring but even then he couldn’t seem to make himself look away.

There had been other girls who were objectively as beautiful, but none had ever had…this ethereal glow about her skin. This pull. There was something about her…that sang to him.

A noise of stone on stone from the crash site caught his attention and he finally tore his eyes away from her. There was a pile of stones lying in the middle of the floor. Israel looked up to the ceiling. Part of the keystone had fallen in…

“Oh my God,” Alyx gasped as the noise sounded again, “it’s moving.”

Israel’s gaze snapped back to the pile of rocks. It was moving. In fact, it was looking less and less like a pile of rocks and more and more like…some sort of creature, with legs it was standing on and limbs it was stretching and a head it was now shaking, dust scattering in a small cloud about him. And a tail?

Israel leaped to his feet and peered at it.

“What is it?” Alyx asked Israel as she moved to his side.

“It’s a lizard,” Israel said. Some sort of stony-skinned lizard, with a beard and a tail and spikes all the way down its spine. “Stay back. We don’t know yet whether it’s dangerous.” Israel stepped in front of her, ready at any moment to push her out of the way if the thing attacked her again.

“He doesn’t look dangerous.”

Most girls would be squealing and climbing all over him when faced with a mouse. This thing with sharp-looking claws and spikes almost crushed her and she didn’t think it looked dangerous? What the hell would look dangerous to her then?

“I’m not a lizard,” a squeaky voice said.

Israel snapped his head towards the creature. Its beady gray eyes looked up at him with what appeared to be a stern look on its face. Did it just talk?

The creature’s mouth opened, revealing a row of very sharp-looking teeth, and its hands flew up to its throat. “Angel’s Breath! Is that my voice?”

Alyx gasped. “It’s a talking lizard?”

“I’m not a lizard.” The thing repeated in its almost child-like voice.

“What kind of lizard talks?” Israel asked.

“I’m not…” the lizard looked down, holding out its arms as if it were inspecting itself. “Hells and devils… Of all the things to manifest as, I had to manifest as a two-foot stone dragon. And not even a very wise looking dragon.”

“He’s an angry talking lizard,” said Israel.

The lizard’s stony foot stamped onto the ground and its arms crashed to its hips. It glared up at both of them. “For Angel’s sakes, I am not a lizard. How do you even command any respect at this height?”

“What are you?”

“I’m the Elder.”

The Elder. That name rang a bell…but just as the recognition came it floated out of Israel’s grasp like mist.

“What’s an Elder?” Alyx wrinkled her nose. Even that tiny movement was adorable.

“Not what, who? I am the Elder.”

The Elder. Recognition rang through Israel’s mind.

“I knew we should have made Vix come here instead of trying to contact the Elder,” Balthazar muttered.

Israel inhaled sharply as the memory of the two strangers in his living room crashed into his mind. That’s where he was before here, wherever here was. He had been in his living room with Balthazar and that annoying Jordan guy. Or perhaps that had been part of this crazy dream, one that was obviously continuing. A dream within a dream.

“I’m here to help you,” the Elder said to Alyx. “I’m not even supposed to be here so I don’t know how long I can stay.”

“Help us do what?” Alyx asked.

The Elder turned his steel gaze on her. “To get you out of here before it’s too late.”

She frowned. “Get out of what? What’s too late?”

“Alyx is trapped in a labyrinth inside her own mind,” said Jordan. “Only you can get through to her and help her get out before it’s too late…”

A sinking feeling began to grip Israel. Somehow he was now in the labyrinth with Alyx. In her mind. He had to help Alyx escape this place before it was too late.

He refused to believe it. It was impossible. This all couldn’t possibly be real…could it?

“What do you remember happening before you woke up here, Alyx?” the Elder asked, continuing to brush dust off himself.

“How do you know my name?”

The Elder made a tsking sound. “Why is the lizard talking? How do I know your name? Why are you asking all the wrong questions? What I know and who I am isn’t important. What was the last thing you remember before you woke up here?”

Alyx frowned, her forehead furrowing.

Israel could remember. He’d never forget it, not as long as he lived. He was about to answer for her but the Elder caught his eye and gave him a shake of his head as if to say, let her come up with the answer.

“I…” she began, “I was meeting…someone. At Saint Paul’s Cathedral.” She turned her eyes up to Israel. “But you were there instead. And we talked but then…” Her eyes went wide. “You called out ‘look out’. I felt a pain. On my head.” Her fingers went briefly to the back of her skull. “Then…I woke up here.” She turned her wide eyes towards Israel. “What did you do to me?”

He didn’t do anything. It was the consequences of messing with fate,” he muttered sadly and shook his head.

“Fate?” Israel said. “What are you talking about?”

“There’s no such thing as fate,” Alyx said.

The Elder sighed, disappointment clear in his stony face. “If only we had more time…” he muttered. Louder, he said, “Alyx, a bolt of lightning struck the cathedral, breaking off one of the gargoyles. It struck you, knocking you out. Israel rushed you to the hospital, where you still are, in a deep coma.”

“What do you mean ‘where I still am’? I’m not in hospital. I’m here,” she frowned, “wherever here is.”

“You’re both there and here.”

Alyx shook her head. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

Despite this weird, strange logic, Israel knew that the Elder did make sense.

“He’s right.” Israel said, his voice quiet. “I spoke to the doctors, I…” He wasn’t going to admit that he pretended to be her fiancé to get access to her room. He cleared his throat. “Dr. Novak. She said that you were in a coma. That you weren’t waking up. Then these two guys showed up at my place, told me I needed to help you escape from your coma, and they put me under. That’s when I woke up here.”

“You’re both nuts,” she said, stumbling back from them. “I can’t be in a coma, I…”

“Alyx,” the Elder’s voice was low and calm, “this might sound crazy but you know, deep down inside you, you know this is the truth. Now, even if you didn’t completely believe me, would you take that risk? Do you want to die?”

“Wait, what?” Israel said, his skin breaking out into a panic-rash. “Why would she die?”

“Alyx is somewhere between life and death right now. A human being is not supposed to be here for too long.” The Elder turned to Alyx. “If you don’t wake up soon, then I’m afraid you’ll pass over to the other side.”

Fear gripped Israel. He knew that it would be nothing compared to what Alyx was feeling at the threat of her own death. Israel looked over to her, ready to comfort her, to catch her if she fell in a broken heap. She was standing there with her chin up, stoic and calm. She was unafraid at the prospect of her own death. Unbelievable. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met before.

“Why can’t I just wake up?” she asked the Elder.

“Have you tried just waking up?”

“No.”

The Elder cocked his head, pieces of tiny stone scattering from his horny skull. “Go on then.”

Alyx frowned as if in concentration for a few tense seconds. She snapped her head towards Israel. “Scare me.”

“What?”

“People wake up if they’re scared.”

Israel frowned. Scare her. That didn’t sound so hard. He lifted his hand into claws and revealed his teeth and tongue, all while growling.

Alyx stared at him for a second, then snorted. “I said scare me not act like an idiot.”

Israel lowered his hands, a touch of heat coming to his face. That didn’t work. What would? He got an idea. He reached out and pinched her.

“Ow.” She yanked her arm back. “What was that for?”

“Pain can wake you too.”

Alyx glared at him as she rubbed her arm.

“Sorry. I thought it might help.”

“Well it didn’t. Wait a minute…” she said, her eyes going wide. “I felt pain. You can’t feel pain in a dream…”

The Elder was nodding his head.

“Oh my God.” She stumbled back. “This isn’t a dream?”

The stone gargoyle let out a long-suffering sigh. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say.”

“Not a dream…but where…? How…?”

“Stop asking the wrong questions.”

“Okay…” She blinked at the talking creature. “Not a dream. The right questions. Which is… W-what do I do now?”

“What do we do?” Israel corrected.

Alyx caught his gaze. He smiled at her and hoped it came across as reassuring. She bit her lip and turned back to the Elder. “Why is he here?”

“It’s not like I planned it,” muttered Israel.

“No offense,” Alyx said to him. “But I don’t even know you.”

“Yes, you do,” the Elder said. “Or at least, you did.”

“What?” Alyx and Israel both said together.

“I’ve never met him before today,” Alyx said.

The Elder’s eyes were serene as he stared first at Alyx, then Israel. “Before the two of you were the two of you, you were…the two of you.”

Israel snorted. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

The Elder narrowed his eyes at Israel. “You still need it spelled out for you, don’t you? In a past life, the two of you meant something very special to each other. You were bonded then. As you are bonded now.”

“Are you talking about…reincarnation?” Alyx said, her voice betraying her incredulity.

“I don’t believe in reincarnation,” Israel said.

“Don’t be silly,” the Elder said. “There’s no such thing as reincarnation.”

“Then what was it?”

“Magic,” the Elder whispered.

A chill went down Israel’s spine. Magic. But he didn’t believe in magic. Or fate. Or labyrinths inside a person’s mind.

And yet…here he was.

He glanced over to Alyx just as she looked at him, and their gazes locked together. Could it be…that they knew each other in a past life? The Elder said they had been bonded then…bonded now. Could it be why he had felt this…connection with her, a stranger? And yet…he felt on some soul-deep level that Alyx wasn’t a stranger to him.

“Now.” The Elder smacked his foot down on the ground like a gavel and broke the spell. “No more questions. You’ve got a long road ahead of you. But first we need to get you prepared. And this is where I come in. Are you both ready?”

Without thinking Israel reached over to grab Alyx’s hand, warm and soft and felt like a small dove in his palm. Her eyes widened at him but she didn’t pull away. Then her fingers curled into his.

“We’re ready,” she said, her gaze still locked with his.

“Follow me.” The Elder began to scuttle across the room on his hind legs. It looked quite awkward. Israel tilted his head at Alyx as if to say, shall we?

She dropped his hand but remained at his side as they followed the Elder, falling into step together. He kept glancing over to her profile, to study the thickness of her lashes, the elegant slope of her neck, and the way her top teeth dug into her bottom lip. She leaned into him and his stomach did a flip at her proximity and the feeling of her sweet breath against his cheek. “Don’t lizards walk on all fours?” she whispered.

“I heard that,” snapped the Elder. “I’m not going to walk on all fours like some kind of animal.” His backside and tail swayed like a penguin as he waddled to the head of the vault.

“How do you even know where to go?” Israel asked.

“It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with someone in a coma. Although,” he turned his head and gave Israel a meaningful stare, “some of us have more…imaginative minds than others.”

Israel frowned. He sensed there was some kind of double meaning to what the Elder had just said, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what.

They stopped before a wall with an engraving that Israel recognized as Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The Elder pressed the door of the cathedral, the tiny opposing angels recognizable from here, and it sank back into the stone. There was a dull thud, then the ground began to rumble as a stone slab swung aside revealing a dark doorway, a cloud of dust billowing out from the dank-smelling entrance.

The Elder sneezed. Then shook himself, dust scattering off him. He looked down at himself, his stony face shifting into a frown as pieces of his arm and shoulder crumbled off him.

Alyx gasped. “Elder, are you crumbling away?”

Over his shoulder the Elder pinned her with a serious stare that answered all her questions. “Let’s move. I don’t have a lot of time.”

* * *

The tunnel was only wide enough for them to walk one by one. Alyx followed the Elder into the dark tunnel, Israel behind her. It was so dark she couldn’t see anything, using her fingers against the moist, grimy walls to keep her moving in the right direction, picking up her feet carefully so as not to trip. She could feel Israel’s presence heating up her back like a bonfire. Her entire body seemed to snap into a sharp awareness when he was around. No one had ever commanded her senses like this before. Ever.

Not Daniel. Not any of the boyfriends she’d had before him.

And when he touched her − when he had pushed her out of the way and fallen on top of her, when he grabbed her hand − her body burst to life with some kind of wild, savage feeling. It felt like soaring above the Earth, wind in her hair, fire in her blood.

This feeling was dangerous. What the hell did this mean anyway? Why was she reacting to Israel like this? She barely knew him. How did she make it stop? Nothing good would come out of feeling so damn much.

By the time she stepped out into a larger tomb-like space, she was tense and annoyed, her nerves pulled tight. This room had a ceiling so high she had to crane her neck to look up as she walked across it, held up by several towering pillars, so wide she wouldn’t be able to get her arms all the way around. It was lit with by several monstrous black iron chandeliers that hung more than halfway down towards the smooth stone floor. In a corner of the ceiling, tree roots as thick as grown men had broken through and were clawing their way down the wall. That confirmed it. They were underground. There were still no windows. But a dark doorway stood in the far wall.

The Elder stood in the center of the room. “Come now, we don’t have all day.”

Israel jogged past Alyx. With a snort of annoyance, she sprinted past him, her arms pumping in time with her legs. He sped up. So did she.

Alyx skidded to a halt before the Elder, her breath heavy from the exertion. But she won, just. She sent a smug look over to him. “Guess you’re not as fast as me.”

He grinned back at her, his breath also a little short. He shrugged. Shrugged¸ as if to indicate that he had let her win.

“Alyx,” the Elder said. She turned to face him, pushing her annoyance down. In the Elder’s hand, looking incredibly oversized, were two gleaming swords in their sheaths, simple in design, the blades about the length of her arm. He handed one to her and the other to Israel. “Buckle the sheaths on your hips and draw your sword.”

“Swords?” scoffed Israel. “Who are we going up against? The Knights of the Round Table?”

“The journey you will take will be filled with Shadows,” said the Elder, “manifestations of your subconscious. If you fear them, they will come for you.”

“I’m not scared of anything,” Israel said.

The Elder turned to him with a scowl on his face. “Everybody fears something.”

Alyx buckled the leather belt around her waist, the simple sheath hanging from her left side, then drew the sword with her right hand. She turned it over and fingered the blade. “Um, Elder…these feel real.”

“They are.”

“They feel sharp.”

He raised an eyebrow. “They are.”

“And we’re going to have to fight off these…Shadows with these?” Impossible. Alyx swallowed down a gulp.

Israel spoke up. “Not to be a party pooper here, Elder. But what exactly happens to us in here if we, um…die. In here, I mean.”

The Elder paused before he spoke. “Remember that this is Alyx’s subconscious. So if you died in this dream, Israel, I think you’d just wake up in your body in the real world.”

“You think?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Pretty sure?” Israel’s voice rose.

“And if I die in here?” Alyx asked.

The Elder met her eyes and she knew the answer wasn’t one that she wanted to hear. “We don’t have any more time to waste,” he said softly. “Let’s begin your preparations.”

With his sheath fastened, Israel drew his sword, then stared at it with disdain. “Elder, give me a gun, not a useless stick of metal.”

“Only an idiot would called swords useless,” Alyx said. “Swords just happen to be the most beautiful, most refined weapon known to man. Only tasteless brutes resort to guns.”

Israel raised an eyebrow at her. “Really? Have you ever even held a real sword?”

“Yes. All the time. The ancient khopesh of Egypt, the Seven-Branched Sword of Korea, a Masonic-made Knights Templar sword. I’ve had my hands on some of the most exquisite pieces of weaponry in all the world.”

“Do you work in a museum or something?”

“Well, actually…the Saint Joseph Museum.”

Israel managed to look impressed for all of two seconds before the smug look was back on his face. “So you know something about swords. But have you ever fought with one?”

She shuffled uncomfortably. “Not exactly.”

“Give me a gun and you can keep your sword. You’d be dead before you could take one step towards me. I can shoot a bullseye on the move from a hundred yards.” He turned to the Elder and waved his sword about. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Alyx rolled her eyes and muttered, “You could start by shoving that up your−”

“Alyx!” the Elder snapped.

“Elder,” Alyx turned to him, “with all due respect. It can take months for people to even learn the basics of sword fighting.”

“You two don’t need to learn anything. You just need to remember.”

Well, that didn’t make any sense. “Remember what?”

Before the Elder could answer the room shuddered as a tremor went through the earth. Almost as soon as it started, it stopped, the falling speckles of stone and the swaying of the chandeliers the only remaining signs.

“What was that?” Israel asked.

“Enough questions.” The Elder stomped his stony foot with a crack and a piece of his toe crumbled away. “We’re running out of time. Show me your stance.”

Alyx moved into what she thought might be a fighting stance. As did Israel. She tried not to look over to him and compare their positions.

The Elder walked around them adjusting them by tapping parts of their bodies with his tail until he was happy. He pulled Alyx’s arm down closer to hip height with her sword tip point at an upward angle. She felt the immediate relief in her arm. “As I said,” the Elder walked back and forth as he spoke, “neither of you need any training. Fighting is in your past. It’s in your bones, in your DNA, it’s embedded in your soul. Deep down you know all this and more. So…fight.”

“Each other?” Alyx said.

“This is ridiculous,” Israel said. “I’m not going to hit a girl.”

“Hey!” Fury flared through Alyx. “Just ’cause I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass.”

“I never said that,” Israel said. “I’m just saying, I’m not going to hit you.”

The Elder, standing to one side, lifted up an eyebrow at Alyx. “Are you really going to take that from him?”

Her muscles tensed just as Israel turned to say something to the Elder. She lashed out with her sword. Whack. She hit him in the thigh. Hmm…she had been aiming for his side.

“Hey,” yelled Israel as he stumbled back. “What are you doing?”

Alyx hid a grin. That was kinda fun. She swung again. This time Israel ducked. Damn. She missed.

He darted out of her reach. “Come on, Alyx, stop it.”

“Stop being such a wuss and fight me.”

She attacked again and was surprised to see that her muscles seemed to be warming up − she was faster this time, catching Israel on the side of his knee. He stumbled and began to fall. She swung her sword again to get him while he was down and to win this round. He rolled out of the way just in time and sprang to his feet in one swift, graceful move.

Alyx froze, her mouth partway open. “How the hell did you do that?”

Israel faced her this time instead of moving out of the way, the tip of his sword hovering inches from hers. “I was a trained police officer. One thing they do very well is teach you how to fall.”

He was a police officer?

* * *

Israel slapped his sword at Alyx’s and knocked it easily out of the way. He could have struck out while she was defenseless but he didn’t. “How ’bout,” he began, “we assign points to hits. Whoever has the most points, wins.” He ducked aside easily as her sword came for him. “Winner gets bragging rights and to be crowned ultimate champion.”

“That seems juvenile.” He spun aside from her sword again, his body feeling lighter and lighter as he moved. Her glare, on the other hand, was just getting deeper and deeper.

“Come on. It’ll be fun. I’ll even let you have double points for every one of your hits, ’cause, you know, you’re a girl and all.”

Her nostrils flared and he had to bite back a laugh. He didn’t really think that about her. But she seemed to have such a bug about it that he couldn’t help but want to tease her.

“You arrogant jerk. Just because I’m a girl does not mean I’m any less good than you at anything.”

He shrugged and ducked another one of her clumsy swings. “Suit yourself. One hit to one point then.”

“I didn’t say yes.”

“Chicken.”

“I am not chicken.”

“Buck, buck, buck…”

She let out an adorable growl of exasperation. “Fine. But you’re going down.” She lunged at him. But he could see her next move a mile away. She was too tense. Her anger was making her movement too transparent.

He spun aside and tapped the left side of her ass with his sword.

A cry left her mouth and she spun, grabbing her perfect round butt with her hand. “You…you…”

“Wonderful swordsman?”

“…smelly heap of insect turds.”

“Interesting choice of words.”

She lunged again. He spun out of her way like he was dancing, letting his body take over. He lashed out with his sword, smacking her other butt cheek. Both cheeks were perfect. He couldn’t let the other one go without equal attention.

She let out another cry and turned towards him, her face in rage. If she were a dragon, fire would be coming out of her nose right about now.

She swiped at his legs trying to take him out. Israel leaped into the air, kicking off the side of a pillar and flipping over her and out of her way. For the few seconds he was in the air, he felt like he was flying. A familiar feeling surged through him and he felt as light as air. It ruffled his hair like the wind.

He landed, twirling his sword at the ready for her next onslaught. She was just standing there, her mouth open. “How the hell did you…?”

“Well done, Israel,” called the Elder, his hands clapping together sounding like rocks trying to make a spark.

Shock rattled through his body. How the hell had he done that? It had just come to him. He had just moved. It felt as natural as breathing to him. “I don’t know. I just did it.”

“You remembered,” the Elder said, beaming.

Alyx frowned. “Let’s go again.”

They faced each other once more.

“Come on, Alyx. You can get this.” He let her swipe at him without even trying to hit back. Evading her attacks was easy now, her sword barely coming near him. He felt as limber as a cat, as light as a bird and his body moved fluidly like water. It was an incredible feeling. And one he wanted Alyx to experience too. “Just let your body take over.”

“If you spout one more stupid half-veiled cheer, I will come over there and chop your tongue out.”

“At the rate you’re going you couldn’t chop a tree trunk if it stood in front of you,” he teased.

She growled, gripping her sword handle so that her knuckles went white. “Come over here and say that again.”

“Fighting’s in your blood,” the Elder cried out. “It’s in your soul memory.”

“The Elder’s right,” Israel said. “You just need to relax.”

 

* * *

“Just relax,” Alyx muttered. “As if it were that damn easy.”

Just let go, Alyx. A faded whispered sounded in her mind.

She saw Israel’s sword coming for her and she spun. A rush of feeling rose up in her. She felt her body being taken over as if from deep inside her. Time seemed to slow, she saw the sword tip passing across her inches from her chest.

Just

Let

Go. It was a lost but familiar voice that had whispered in her mind.

Mayrekk.

Who was Mayrekk?

He had been someone precious to her. Before this life. But she had lost him. She had lost him. And he was gone.

Just like her parents were gone.

The feeling dropped out of her body and she was back struggling for control. She stumbled over her own feet. Israel’s sword clipped her shoulder, leaving a stinging mark. Her own sword went flying as she held out her hands to keep from falling on her face. Pain jarred up her forearms as she landed on her hands and knees.

“Alyx,” Israel ran over to her, his own sword tossed aside. He fell to her side, his hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. She pushed herself up to standing and shrugged his hand off her. His touch scorched her and she hated that she wanted more of it.

“You almost had it,” the Elder said as he waddled over. “What happened?”

“Nothing. Nothing happened.”

“Are my good looks too disarming for you?” Israel grinned.

That’s it. She’d chop his tongue out. Or maybe she’d aim lower. She turned on Israel, swordless, and lunged at him with her fists. Israel knocked her arm out of the way. “Come on, Alyx, loosen up. You’re too uptight.” She struck again, wildly; he grabbed her wrist and spun her around so that her back was against his front. His other arm went around her stomach and she was locked against his warm hard body. “You know what?” he whispered in her ear, the rumbling of his voice sending unwanted tingles down her spine, “you just need to get laid.”

She sucked in an audible breath before she tried, unsuccessfully, to elbow him in the stomach. Her head spun as an unwanted image of them like this, alone and naked flashed through her mind. She broke out in a sweat. She shook her head and hissed back. “I do not need to get laid.”

“You need to get laid and get laid good.”

“I’ll have you know I have a perfectly fine sex life.”

“Perfectly fine?” Israel whistled. “A day can be fine. The temperature of a bath can be fine. Sex should not be fine.” He rolled her out as if they were dancing. She wrenched her arm from his and faced him, her breath coming out in heaving pants. His eyes looked as dark as obsidian as he circled her. In a low voice just for her ears he said, “Sex should be wild and raw. It should tear strips off you. It should be earth-shattering, soul-wrenching, exhilarating and terrifying, but it should never be fine.”

An image slammed into her.

He ran his lips along her neck up to her ear. “You are so…painfully beautiful.”

He pulled her hands to his chest, then dragged her palms down his stomach. He let her touch him, exploring his body, until he couldn’t stand it anymore.

His lips covered hers. This time he was rough with her. His hands gripped at her hair, holding her to him. Her fingertips sought out every knotted scar. He grabbed her, lifting her up and pulling her legs around him. Soon there was no space left between them. Only the exquisite agony of skin on skin.

Alyx slammed back into her body.

Holy hell.

What the hell was that?

She was dizzy, unsteady on her feet, and her body was shaking as the aftershocks of her…fantasy…memory…she didn’t know…trickled down through her.

She stared at Israel before her, his cocky half-smile, his muscled sure body oozing with a deadly masculinity, and her core bloomed with an ache again. Nothing on his face gave away that he had experienced anything like what she just had.

No. She could not want this.

She launched to strike him again, channeling this heat into a kind of fury. Their limbs tangled and they both spun across the floor. Hurt him. Kiss him. Hit him. Have him. Alyx wrestled for control. Over him. Over herself.

She found herself yanked up against him again. She heard a whimper that she realized was her own.

“You know,” he whispered against her hair, his lips brushing her top of her ear, “I’d show you, if you asked nicely.”

She shoved at his chest, hard as granite. “You arrogant little−”

“Alyx. Israel,” interrupted the Elder. She’d forgotten he was even there. “We don’t have time for this bickering.”

“He started it−”

“She started it−”

They both spoke together, fingers pointing at each other.

The chamber began to shake, the chandeliers rattling like chains. “What’s happening?” She glanced up at the ceiling as huge cracks appeared, dirt from above sifting through and showering the stone floor. It wasn’t just a tremor. This whole chamber was going to collapse.

Chapter Five will be posted 2 July, 6am PST/1pm GMT

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