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This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
Israel’s stomach twisted into knots. He saw the Elder’s face, open with fear, and the knots pulled tighter.
“Grab your swords then aim for the exit, quick,” the Elder yelled as he began to lumber for the black doorway on the far side of the chamber. “We don’t have any more time.”
Alyx was already moving. She grabbed her weapon and his lying on the floor where they had dropped them. “Israel.” She threw his sword at him and began to sprint for the door, yelling as she dodged a piece of falling ceiling. Without thinking he caught his sword by the handle and sheathed it in one movement.
Then he ran too. “Come on, Elder,” he yelled.
“Curse this tiny body,” the Elder cried as he waddled along up on his squat hind legs.
Up ahead Alyx had reached the exit. There was a huge crack and a groan behind him. Israel turned his head just in time to see a pillar break away and fall towards the Elder.
“Elder, hurry!” Israel skidded to a halt.
The pillar toppled upon the Elder, knocking him down. Israel ran to him, dodging pieces of falling stone and leaping over the cracks that were appearing in the floor. He skidded to the Elder’s side.
“Leave me,” the Elder said. “Go. Get her out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you.” Israel tried to yank the pillar off the Elder’s tail but it was too heavy.
“Israel, there’s not enough time. Get out of here.”
“We’re not leaving you.” Alyx grabbed the pillar too. She’d come back. She lifted her eyes to Israel. “On two.”
He nodded, his eyes fixed on hers. “One.”
He pulled as hard as he could. The pillar was so heavy, sweat was pouring from Israel’s forehead and his hands, making his grip slippery. Alyx’s face was twisted with strain too.
But the pillar wouldn’t move.
“This isn’t working.” Alyx stumbled back from the pillar.
“Go, both of you,” the Elder said. “I’m not important. I just need to tell you before you go…”
“No,” Israel said. “You’re coming with us.” He glanced at the Elder’s tail. It was almost crushed through. “I have an idea,” he said to Alyx. “But it might hurt him.”
“Will it hurt him any more than having a building collapse on him?”
“Good point. You cut his tail. I’ll pull him.”
“We have no choice.” Israel grabbed the Elder under his arms. “Do it.”
She nodded, her lips going pale as she pressed them together, her polished features furrowed with determination. She unsheathed her sword and swung. It cracked through the stone of his tail.
Israel almost fell back as the Elder pulled free.
“Now, silly children,” the Elder said, the gray coloring of his cheeks going almost white. “Run.”
Israel hoisted the Elder onto his back. “Hang on.” The Elder’s arms went around his neck and Israel bolted after Alyx.
A second pillar broke loose and fell towards them. Israel didn’t think, he just moved, leaping off the ground. He felt his body go weightless and he twisted in the air, kicking off the side of another pillar. The Elder’s grip tightened around his neck and his short hind legs dug into his sides.
The falling pillar missed them by inches.
Israel landed on the shaky ground and didn’t miss a beat. He just kept running.
As he reached the doorway, Alyx was standing there, her mouth agape. She must have seen his acrobatics. “How did you do that?”
That was a damn good question. Not one that he could answer. “No time. Go.”
She turned and was swallowed up by the dark stairwell. He chased after her, taking the stairs two at a time, a thunderous crash closing off the chamber behind him with a spitting of hot dust. In the tight stone stairwell he was shaken about like a dice in a cup, his shoulders bouncing and scraping off the sides. He squinted through the blackness and falling grit, aiming desperately for the light coming from the exit somewhere above. Any second now these coffin-like walls would collapse and crush them. Please, hold. Just hold for a few more seconds.
Finally, the exit, a doorway filled with light at the top of the staircase. He burst out into a grand stone church, his breath heaving, his lungs stinging from the dust and effort. He was in what looked like the inside of a cathedral, the gothic ceiling soaring up well above him, the hanging thuribles shaking on their chains, wooden pews clattering against the marble floor. They must be above ground now because light streamed in through the stained glass windows. He knew this place. It was Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Saint Joseph.
He raced after Alyx, already sprinting down the center of the aisle towards the exit, the Elder’s stony body knocking bruises against his spine as he ran.
“Israel, wait,” the Elder said in a hoarse voice.
They couldn’t wait. Before Israel could answer, the Elder’s arms crumbled from around his neck like pieces of dried clay. The weight lifted from him as the stone gargoyle crashed to the ground.
“Elder!” Israel spun around. The Elder was lying in pieces, limbs shattered, his torso cracked in three places.
“Israel…” It came from the Elder’s mouth, still moving. He was still alive. Israel dropped to the Elder’s side.
“Elder, oh my God.” Alyx dropped down next to him.
“It’s fine. I was never meant to be here anyway,” the Elder said, speaking out of the corner of his broken mouth. His eyes in two separate pieces, blinked once, twice.
“We can fix you. We can−”
“No, Alyx. You have to listen.” The pieces of him were still collapsing, as if he was watching a time lapse of the wind breaking down a rock in the desert, the edges disintegrating into sand and dust. “You need to get out of here before winter is over.”
“Find the Mapmaker. He has the map. The map is the key to getting out of here.” If there was anything more that he wanted to say, he lost his chance. The Elder’s last remaining pieces fell away to a pile of sand and dust.
Alyx’s face crumpled. His chest squeezed, a reflection of the loss he could see in her eyes. But there was no time to mourn him. Pieces of the ceiling crashed down around them, smashing apart the fragile wooden pews like unforgiving fists. That would be their bodies in splinters if they didn’t move. He grabbed her hand. “We have to go. Now! This building is going to collapse on us.”
Still holding hands, they sprinted down the rest of the aisle. The large iron chandelier fell from the crumbling ceiling, diving into the floor with a terrible clatter and a shower of metal and sparks. The colored glass in the windows shattered as the walls groaned, then collapsed.
Israel and Alyx burst through the doors − thank god, they were unlocked − and tumbled down the stairs. The cathedral fell in upon itself with a thundering crash and a billowing of dust. Israel fell upon the lawn, rolling until he came to a complete stop beside her, his arms wrapping around her as she gripped his shirt in her fists. They stayed right there as the broken building ceased its spitting and the dust settled. Behind Israel’s closed lids an image overtook him.
She lay naked against his chest, his arms holding her to him, her soft body molding around his hard one, her scent in his nose; of the wind and of sun-warmed jasmine.
There was no end to him or beginning to her. They were one and the same, born in the same breath, pieces of the same star. They were…complete.
He barely knew his own voice when he spoke, so full of raw, swollen reverence, yet so quiet he wasn’t sure she heard him. “Why do you fit so perfectly here?”
His fingers traced her shoulder and she shivered against him. How could an angel-piece fit alongside his dull and roughened edges? How had he managed to capture in his hands the light of a star? How long could he hold it?
He felt an overwhelming ache growing in his heart; he didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve…her.
Israel’s eyes snapped open. He gazed at Alyx’s face, looking almost identical to the Alyx of his mind, his mouth suddenly dry. What the hell had he seen? He searched her face looking for answers. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her lashes coated in dust as if it were snow. She had the most beautiful skin, smooth and pale like polished marble. He raised his fingers to brush her cheek before he knew what he was doing. Her skin was as smooth as it felt in his…fantasy…memory…whatever that was.
Her eyes flickered open and stared at him, surprise clear in them. This close he could see all the specks of gold and pale green in her emerald eyes. Like the leaves when they were just beginning to turn in autumn.
“You had a smudge,” he lied. “On your cheek.”
He brushed her cheek again. It took all the willpower he had not to cup her face and pull her closer, to reach under her clothes for the softness he knew was there. “There,” his voice cracked. “It’s gone.”
“You know,” he tried a joke, “we must stop meeting like this.”
She didn’t laugh. She chewed on her bottom lip and his gaze dropped to her lips.
She pressed her mouth to his, lightly, her finger caught between the corners of their mouths. Her kiss was so light, he could barely believe it was real.
Israel blinked. Alyx hadn’t moved. She hadn’t kissed him.
What was happening to him? What was he seeing? Was he going mad or was the Elder…right? “In a past life, the two of you meant something very special to each other.” He hadn’t realized he had pushed her away until she cleared her throat and scrambled to untangle herself from him. Israel felt the loss of her nearness at once.
He stood, trying to clear his thoughts as he brushed down his clothes, pants and hair. There was dust everywhere.
“Yeah?” So much damn dust.
Alyx tugged his arm. “Israel, look.”
He looked up to where Alyx was pointing. Over the top of the stone wall that circled around the cathedral grounds was a looming purple mountain rising up in the distance. In the sky above the mountain was a shimmering, faded image of Alyx asleep in her hospital bed, just as she had been when he had left her there.
That’s where they had to go. That was their exit.
“That’s me,” she said quietly. “I really am lying in a coma.”
He hated how her voice tightened. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
But he didn’t think she sounded sure at all.
That was fine. He would be sure for both of them.
He glanced around him. In the real world the end of spring was coming, but here the garden was bare, winter’s faded touch clear in the frost on the pale grass and the sun was low in the sky. The stone wall rising up around the perimeter of the now ruined cathedral was covered in a leafless vine like a dried spider’s web. This vine and a few spindly trees planted along parts of the wall were just beginning to dot with pale green tips.
“Look. It’s just coming into spring here.” The Elder had seemed so urgent when he told them that they needed to get out before the end of winter. But winter was still eight or nine months away. “We have plenty of time to get you out.”
“We need to find the Mapmaker, whoever he is. Wherever he is.” She made a face. “We need a map to get to the Mapmaker.”
Israel spotted the wrought iron gate, one of the few discreet entrances set into the stone wall. Through the bars he could see the cobbled street beyond. If this cathedral looked just like Saint Paul’s, what were the chances…?
He strode across the grass and stopped at the gate, aware that Alyx had followed him. Through the gate was a narrow gritty street and a sign reading “Hell’s Fire” in tacky fluorescent flames over a basement bar partly hidden under street level.
“Yes,” he pushed open the gate with a shove. “We don’t need a map.”
“But the Elder said…”
“We don’t need a map because this…” he stepped out onto the street, Alyx following him, “this isn’t just a replica of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, this is a replica of Saint Joseph. And I know this city like the back of my hand.”
* * *
To Alyx walking the streets of Saint Joseph had always felt like walking along giant trenches. It was an ancient city having survived two world wars, some buildings still carrying the scars of bullets and shrapnel, but the largest scars were the deepest, only sensed and unseen, weaved into the culture and into the peoples’ deepest fears, a sense that the next great war was just biding its time and that peace was just a translucent veil.
In the old parts of Saint Joseph the buildings rose uniformly along four stories. Something about not being able to see the horizon unnerved her. Even as a child growing up in Saint Joseph, she had always had the sense that she didn’t belong here. That she had been born in the wrong place. The wrong time…
Alyx walked alongside Israel down another street, their steps fallen into unison without trying. Even with his presence beside her, her eyes darted about, her sword shifting against her thigh, a weighty reminder that in this place she was in danger. Why else would the Elder have given them swords and wanted to teach them to use it? Her nerves tremored under her skin. She had not been able to conjure up her memories like Israel had.
She couldn’t believe it when she had turned around in the doorway of the underground vault to see Israel twisting in the air like an acrobat. Time had seemed to slow as she watched him, even as the ceiling crumbled around them. He was darkly magnificent, his movements so sure and powerful, fluid like water, and her chest had tightened at the sight. At that very moment she thought she had heard Israel’s voice in her head. In this life and the next. But it was just her imagination, right?
They walked for a few more minutes, Israel leading the way before Alyx was game enough to ask something that had been bothering her for a while. “Can I ask you something…personal?”
Israel glanced over to her and grinned. “Yes, I’m single.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I was about to ask you.”
“But it’s good to know anyway, right?”
She snorted back a retort. “What I wanted to ask was…why are you helping me?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you heard the Elder back there. He said that if you died in this dream, you’d get to wake up in the real world. Why are you staying in here to help me?”
Israel shot her a look. “Why wouldn’t I help?”
“You don’t know me,” she said, her voice tight. “Why do you care?”
Israel grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him, his gaze boring into hers. “There’s a reason why I was brought here, even if I don’t know yet whether I believe everything the Elder said. I watched you get hit on the head. I watched them pack you into the back of an ambulance and I saw you lying helpless in the hospital bed. Even if I didn’t believe that we…” He swallowed and his grip loosened. “What kind of person, what kind of man would I be if I didn’t stay and help?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve always managed on my own.”
“You don’t have to do this alone.”
Liar. A heat flared inside her. “Let go of me.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Get away. He was too close. Too close. “Why would I let myself rely on you? You’re just going to leave or give up at some point.”
His eyes widened as if he suddenly saw something he hadn’t seen before.
Damn him. He didn’t see anything. He didn’t know anything. She yanked against him again. “Don’t expect a thank you fuck at the end of it. You’re not my type.”
She yanked her arm but he just pulled her in closer, so close his hot breath fanned her cheeks. His nostrils flared even as his gaze remained like molten steel. “I know what you’re doing? It’s not going to work.”
Her breath stuck in her throat. “W-What are you talking about?”
“Be a bitch. Be ungrateful. Throw a tantrum for all the good it will do you. I’m not leaving. Do you hear me? I’m. Not. Leaving.”
A knot tightened in her stomach and the backs of her eyes stung. His stare… She turned her face away. She couldn’t handle the way his stare made her feel…naked. Like he could see her. Like he could see the raw and swollen parts of her with skin like paper. The parts she wrapped in a cloak of anger and guarded behind thick impersonal walls. She hated him for seeing it. Because now she saw it too.
“Fine,” she growled out. “Stay or don’t. I don’t care. We’re wasting time.” She tugged her hand but he wouldn’t release her.
His voice was so pained and resigned that it startled her. She lifted her eyes up.
He opened his mouth then closed it, pressing his lips together. “Fine. Let’s go.” His fingers slipped from hers and she felt a rush of loss.
They began to walk down this slim street again, the empty apartments seeming to stare at them as they walked past.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a bright yellow sunflower facing her from the side of the closest building; she almost felt like it was watching her.
Israel directed them deeper into the oldest part of town and she had the sense that she was being swallowed whole, bones and all, by this city. The eerie quiet of this place was made stark by the clatter of their boots echoing off the buildings that rose on either side of them.
More often than she wanted to, she found herself stealing glances at Israel, her eyes drawn up to his face, almost a head taller than her. His stubbled jaw was set and his chin was high, his eyes alert, scanning the buildings around them. She found her eyes dwelling on his thick lips, found her gaze tracing the curve of his neck and over his broad muscled shoulders.
Perhaps having him besides her wouldn’t be too bad.
He looked over to her and caught her staring. She thought he would turn serious again, perhaps bring up their earlier conversation, the edges of it still raw in her mind. Instead a sly smile teased at the corners of his lips. “See something you like?”
Alyx crossed her arms in front of her. Idiot. Why did she let him catch her looking? Now he thought she was ogling him.
She had been. But he didn’t need to know that. “Are you sure you know where you’re going? I still think we need to find the Mapmaker. The Elder said−”
“The Elder underestimated how much I know about Saint Joseph. The mountain is in the north and I know the quickest way to get us through this city. It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
She had grown up in Saint Joseph too, but there was something about this place that didn’t seem familiar. Sure, it looked the same, the streets were cobbled and the buildings rose, slightly tilted into the street like it was bending over from age, the old ornate Victorian lamps were fixed into the side of exposed bricks, now containing electric bulbs instead of oil burners. But the air smelled different. Saint Joseph smelled like smoke and incense and the sweet caramelizing sugar of the open stalls that sold freshly made pastries. This place had this strange undercurrent of something sharp in her nose. Like disinfectant.
You’re not really here, remember? You’re in a hospital in a coma. This place isn’t real.
This thought didn’t comfort her. This place felt and looked as real as life did. She already knew that pain in here felt real enough. “You must get out before the end of winter.” What if she didn’t?
She shoved that thought aside. There was no time to think about such things. It would only make her start to panic and that would not help them escape.
Israel halted at the entrance to a thin alleyway. “I live here.” He pointed to the tall slim building a few doors down from the corner. “Well…at least I live here in the real world version.”
Alyx glanced around her. The bricks hadn’t appeared to have been washed in years and were turning black with mold. There was graffiti on every surface, a scrawling mess of illegible black tags. One of the windows had been smashed as if someone had thrown a stone through it. “Nice neighborhood.”
Israel shrugged, his mouth pinched slightly. “It’s not that bad.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Forget about it.” But the tightness in his voice begged to differ. “We can go through here and take a shortcut through Tarragon Alley.”
Not Tarragon Alley. Was he crazy? Tarragon Alley was one of Saint Joseph’s bad areas. Over the last few decades it had only gotten worse as the city’s crime seemed to concentrate here. It used to be scattered across several areas including the Valley, but the Valley had gentrified and had become one if the hippest commercial areas stuffed full of cool bars and cafes and avant garde clothing stores, while Tarragon Alley seemed to collect the dregs like a sewerage net. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Come on, Alyx. There’s nobody here. It’d save us time if we cut straight through instead of walking around the area. It’ll be fine. Besides,” Israel touched his sword at his side, “I’m armed.”
Alyx touched her fingers to her own sword sheathed to her hip. She wasn’t sure it would be a great help anyway but it made her feel a little better knowing that she had some sort of weapon on her. She glanced around the street. There did seem to be no one here. She was just being silly, right?
Her gaze fell upon one of the few trees that grew up from the cobbles and gasped. “Israel, look. The branches…the leaves…they were all just tiny buds minutes ago, now they’re larger, bigger.” She spun and stared at another tree farther down the street they had just came from. The green tips were beginning to fan out into leaves. “The seasons here…they’re going faster than on Earth. We’re already weeks into spring.”
Israel’s mouth was a grim line. “It looks like we have no choice. We need to take this shortcut.”
Alyx didn’t like this alleyway. Not one bit. There were too many nooks where people could hide and ambush them. On the sides of the buildings was a series of crisscrossing ladders and haphazardly hung clotheslines. A small breeze floated through the street lifting the corners of the hanging sheets like a ghostly hand. A dark shadow seemed to fall about the alleyway even though the sun was out. She shivered.
Something flashed overhead. She snapped her face towards it but it was gone before she could even be sure that she had seen anything. The hairs on the back of her neck rose.
“Israel,” she whispered.
“Do you get the feeling that we’re being watched?”
He glanced over to her. By the press of his lips she knew that he felt it too. “Stay close, okay?”
They walked deeper and deeper into Tarragon Alley until the entrance in which they came from couldn’t be seen behind them. She walked so close to him that their shoulders kept brushing against each other, sending small sparks down her arm every time it happened. She felt safer with him by her side but this ominous feeling never left her.
“We should be out of Tarragon Alley soon. Just up here,” Israel said as they turned a corner. He skidded to a halt. She did too. The street went for only a few meters before coming to a dead end. “This isn’t right. This dead end isn’t supposed to be here.”
Alyx tried to swallow down the knot forming in her throat and failed.
“I know another way. Come on.” Israel led her farther down another street then another. “We can go just here…and turn this corner and−”
It was another dead end. Another blank wall rising up before them.
“What’s going on?” Israel said.
“Guys and asking for directions,” she muttered. “I told you we need to find the Mapmaker.”
“Where? I don’t remember ever seeing a Mapmaker’s shop in Saint Joseph.”
Before Alyx could answer, something dropped from the sky, hurtling straight for her. Her hand went to her hip and she drew her sword out of instinct. It flew around her in an arc, too far out of her reach.
“What the hell is that?” Israel hissed, his own sword drawn.
The creature swooped around again then hovered at eye level several meters from her, black beady eyes trained right on her, large brown feathered wings beating powerfully, blowing up dust from the ground, the sunlight glinting off a silver bracelet around its leg.
“It’s an eagle!”
The giant bird let out a long cry and soared back up to the sky.
“What did it want?” Israel asked.
“I…don’t know.” Alyx frowned at the space between the roofs where she could see the eagle circling above, its loud cry calling over and over like a siren.
Like it’s sounding the alarm.
Several silhouetted figures appeared over the roof edge and began to clamber down the ladders towards them. The alleyway filled with growls and the clatter of boots on iron rungs.
“It’s an ambush,” Israel cried.
Alyx gritted her teeth and steadied her sword, hoping to hell that she remembered how to use this thing in time. “You take those three, I’ll take the other three.”
“Are you serious?” Israel hissed at her. “Christ, you’re going to get us both killed.”
“What are you so worried about? You’re the one who actually remembers how to fight.”
“Even if we both remembered, we can’t take on six against two.”
“What do you recommend then?” she snapped.
He grabbed her arm and their eyes met. “Run.”
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This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
“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 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.”
“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.”
“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…”
“…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.
Go. It was a lost but familiar voice that had whispered in her mind.
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.
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.
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This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
“Sir, you can’t go in there with her.”
A large burly male nurse stepped in front of Israel, preventing him from following Alyx’s gurney into the operating room at the Mother of Mercy Hospital. Over the man’s shoulder, Israel lost sight of her behind the swinging doors and panic clutched at his heart with cold fingers. In his mind’s eye he saw another set of doors closing on another body. Adere. The memory of another cursed night flashed into his mind, causing him to flinch.
…her open eyes dull and lifeless…
He shook this image from his mind. This was post-traumatic stress. He was reacting like this because of what happened… He was sure that’s what his government-issued therapist would say. If he ever went back to her.
PTSD or not, he was going to make sure Alyx was okay. He was…responsible for her.
Israel grabbed the male nurse by the arm before he moved away. “Please, is she going to be okay?”
Despite his size, the nurse had a kind round face with soft cheeks. “You’ll have to wait ’til she’s been assessed.”
“Then I can see her?”
The nurse eyed him cautiously. “Are you family?”
He considered lying for a second and saying that he was her brother, but no one would believe it. He was dark and tanned as opposed to her porcelain skin, and dark deep-set eyes as opposed to her open round emerald ones. “No.”
“Then I’m afraid we can’t let you in.”
“You don’t understand… I’m going to marry her,” he blurted out.
“You’re her fiancé?”
The lie was out there. He might as well run with it. It wasn’t like there was anyone here to refute his claim. He inhaled deeply and lifted his chin with confidence. “Yes.”
“Wait here and someone’ll get you when she’s ready to have visitors.”
After the ambulance had arrived at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and picked Alyx up, that should have been the end of it for Israel. He should have considered his civic duty done and gone to find the closest bar. No one would have expected anything more from him; he barely knew her. But he found he just couldn’t walk away without knowing she was okay. He just couldn’t.
He had flagged down a taxi in the rain by running out in front of it. He leaped into the passenger seat and ordered the cabbie to drive. They’d followed the ambulance through the labyrinth of skinny Saint Joseph streets to this hospital where he was now, sitting in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs in a waiting room on the second level, listening to the clack of footsteps along the laminated flooring, the distant beeping of machines and the occasional adrenaline-fueled chaos of doctors and nurses around a gurney barreling its way through the hallway.
Finally the same burly male nurse came out. “Israel? You can come and see her now.” He led Israel into a small white room smelling of antiseptic, stepping aside to let him through. There in the center of the tiny white room was Alyx, lying like a ghost, almost disappearing into the sheets of the hospital bed, her hair pooling around her looking like the blackest of spilled inks. As he got closer he could see the tube coming out from her arm and into an IV drip. A machine on the far side of her was beeping, a thin green line showing that her heart was still beating, the only sign that she was even alive. Israel’s gut clenched fiercely. He barely knew this woman, but something in him felt tied to that beeping line.
“Is she okay?” he asked the nurse.
“Maybe I should let the doctor talk to you. I’ll go get her.”
The doctor? Israel’s gut churned. That didn’t sound good. He gazed over Alyx’s prone body, her closed eyelashes were so long they almost brushed her cheeks. Her cheeks had gone pale, not flushed pink like they were when they stood facing each other outside the Cathedral. He brushed the pale, fragile skin of her forehead with his fingers. She was so soft. “Alyx, if you can hear me…” What would he say to her? He didn’t know her. She didn’t know him.
Someone cleared her throat behind him. He spun. A woman in a white coat stood there, he guessed in her mid-fifties, gray shooting through her dirty blonde hair, tied back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, a weary look pulling down the jowls of her chin and her eyes a flat dull blue. “Israel, is it?” Her voice was crisp and efficient. “I’m Dr. Novak. You’re her fiancé, are you?”
The doctor glanced past him to Alyx. Following her gaze he realized the doctor was staring at her left hand. Her ringless left hand.
“It was too big,” Israel said. “The ring I got her. We’re having it resized… Will she be okay?”
Dr. Novak walked to the end of Alyx’s bed, where she picked up a clipboard. “She came in with a contusion, a major concussion. Her vitals are sound, but…”
The doctor pursed her lips. “I don’t know why she sank into a coma. A deep coma. She’s not responding to anything. Her pupils aren’t dilating, she’s not responding to verbal cues. No motor responses either. We’ve hooked her up to an IV drip to keep her fluids up and we’re monitoring her heart rate. That’s all we can do for her now.”
“When will she wake up?”
“Israel,” she said slowly. “There’s no medical reason for her to even be in a coma.”
Israel blinked once, twice at the doctor, trying to decipher the meaning behind her words. He didn’t find any answers there. He glanced down at Alyx and his heart fluttered at the sight of her so frail and helpless. It looked so wrong. “What does that mean? Why won’t she wake up?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” The doctor replaced the clipboard at the end of Alyx’s bed and turned to leave. At the door she paused and shot one last meaningful look at Israel. “Are you a spiritual man?”
“No.” He had stopped believing in any of that rubbish a long time ago. Being a cop, seeing the things he had, did that to a man. “Why?”
“Sometime medical science doesn’t have the answers. Sometimes the answers are found somewhere else.”
“Like where?” He was starting to get frustrated because he just couldn’t understand whatever this doctor was implying. “What answers?”
“Maybe there’s a reason she doesn’t want to wake up.”
* * *
Maybe there’s a reason she doesn’t want to wake up.
Israel jammed the key to his flat, the doctor’s voice still ringing in his head. After the doctor had left, he remained at Alyx’s bedside. He couldn’t bring himself to leave. He just sat there for hours in a chair by her bed, whispering at her to please wake up and reminding her of all the reasons why this world was a good place to be in: “chocolate ice-cream and puppies and the first snow of winter and the way the autumn turns the leaves green and gold.” Just like your beautiful eyes. Open those eyes, Alyx. Let me see them. Until one of the nurses kicked him out, letting him know that visiting hours were over.
Israel let himself into his dark apartment and an old Chinese proverb rang in his head. If you save a life, you’re responsible for it. Maybe this responsibility was why he seemed so tied to Alyx, a woman he didn’t even know.
Maybe she’s your penance.
He shut the door behind him, turned on the light. And froze. There were two men he’d never seen before in his living room. One looked like a gypsy, with golden skin and dirty blonde hair that grew over his collar and a strong nose. The other was chocolate-skinned with raven hair.
“We’re not here to hurt you,” the darker one said.
Israel was so stunned that for a second he didn’t react. “Who the hell are you?”
“We’re…old friends of Alyx’s.”
Israel’s body prickled, tensing. Friends of Alyx’s? Why were they here? Had they followed him from the hospital?
“I’m Jordan,” the gypsy-looking one said, “and this is Balthazar.”
“Or you can call me B,” the dark-haired man said with a grin.
How the hell had they gotten in? The door had been locked. He hadn’t noticed any tool marks around the lock.
A cool breeze floated in from somewhere. His bedroom window had been opened, the curtains floating out like ghosts. They must have scaled up all four stories. His skin prickled. They must want something very badly to risk scaling up this high.
“What do you want?” he said, his gaze darting over the intruders, assessing them. The one named Jordan was taller and broader, but the other one looked faster and leaner. Israel wouldn’t win against the two of them in an unarmed fight. Neither of them had guns in their hands nor could he see any bulges of weapons on their person. Not visible ones anyway.
“Don’t be afraid. We’re not here to hurt you,” the one named Balthazar said.
“We just want to talk,” said Jordan.
“Well, Jordan…come on. We don’t just want to talk, do we?”
“We’re going to ask him to do something for us?”
“Are you serious? It was just a figure of speech.”
“I just don’t want to misrepresent us.”
Israel eyed the two men as they bickered between themselves. They were distracted enough. This would be his best chance.
He slammed back up against the door, his hands going for the pistol at his hip. Usually it would be his service weapon, a CZ 75, but seeing as that was taken off him when he quit, he now kept an unregistered Glock 17 that he’d paid for in cash.
“Hands up, both of you,” he yelled, pointing the gun between them.
The two stopped talking and turned to face him.
“Is he pointing a gun at us?” said Balthazar, sounding more curious than scared.
Jordan snorted. “Well, that won’t work.”
Why weren’t these guys scared?
“Get your hands up now.” Israel clicked back the hammer. “I’ll shoot.”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Jordan, as if Israel was being a nuisance.
“Maybe you should give him something to calm him down,” Balthazar said.
“Already on it.” Before Israel could move, Jordan flicked his palm at him. A warm wave of sleepiness smashed into him and almost knocked him off his feet. It drowned him, crashing down over him like half an ocean. He dropped to his knees, swaying. The gun slid out of his fingers and clattered to the floor. The world fluttered in and out of sight as his eyelids refused to stay open. What the hell was happening to him?
He was about to fall the rest of the way when he felt hands on him, preventing him from hitting the threadbare carpet. His head flopped to one side, too heavy to hold up.
“Dammit, Jordan,” he heard from close by. “I said ‘calm him down’ not ‘knock him out’.”
“Relax, B. I didn’t knock him out. Look, he’s awake. Sort of.”
There was a sigh. “We can’t exactly talk to him while he’s like this, can we?”
“Why not? I always liked him more when he was asleep.”
“Still holding a grudge for getting the girl, are we?”
There was an indignant snort. “Of course not.”
None of what these two intruders said made sense. Israel just knew that whatever electrical node or weapon they had used on him was fading a little. He had to fight against it or he’d be dead. Or worse.
Israel fought against the sleepiness, trying to lift it off him as if it were a pile of coats. It was working. Kind of. He was able to struggle meekly as they dragged him to the couch and pulled him onto it. If they were going to hurt him, why the hell would they lie him on the couch?
“See? He’s already fighting the DreamWalker,” Jordan said, sounding amused. “There may be some of his old self left in him.”
What the hell was DreamWalker? Was that a kind of Taser gun?
Balthazar bent down at Israel’s side, his whole face almost taking up Israel’s entire range of vision. For a second he thought he saw a shimmer of blue across Balthazar’s cheekbones. He blinked and it was gone. His eyes must be playing tricks on him.
“Comfy?” Balthazar asked before stepping back.
If they were here going to hurt him, why would they care if he was comfortable? The sleep had slid off enough that his eyes were open now but his body still felt like lead.
Israel tried his best to glare at Jordan as he settled down in one of the armchairs, his eyes steady on Israel’s face. There was something about this guy that irked him. A cocky arrogance about him that made Israel want to punch him right in his pretty-boy face.
Balthazar perched on the far arm of the couch, lacing his fingers together on his knee. “Now,” he said in a tone that made Israel feel like he was seven and about to be lectured. “Jordan’s going to…er, let you up, but only if you promise not to freak out and try to point any more guns at us.” He shuddered. “Lord, do I hate guns. If I wanted to be filled full of little balls, I’d−”
“Wave if you agree, Israel,” said Jordan, cutting Balthazar off.
He knows my name. How does he know my name? Any thoughts that this was just a random break-in were gone. They wanted him for some reason.
Israel channeled all his strength into his right hand and slowly lifted up his middle finger.
“You were always a charming one,” Jordan muttered as he flicked his palm out towards Israel again.
This time the feeling that thundered through Israel was cool and refreshing. He felt the sleep being lifted off him and the lightness coming back to his bones. He kicked himself into the farthest corner of the couch, then swung his legs out so they were flat on the floor and he was sitting. His gun was still by his front door, too far away to be any damn use. He’d have to play along until he figured out a better plan. “You’ve got my attention. What do you want?”
“We need your help,” Jordan said. “That is to say, someone very dear to us…and you, needs your help.”
“This is about Alyx,” Israel guessed.
Balthazar pursed his lips. “How to explain…”
“We don’t have time to sit around being pleasant and recanting history like old school chums at a reunion,” Jordan cut in. “Alyx is running out of time.”
A realization broke through into his mind. Whatever they had done to him, they must have done to Alyx. That’s why she wasn’t waking up. Israel’s fingers dug into the arm of the couch. “You did something to her. You put her to sleep and now she’s not waking up.”
“Settle down,” Jordan said, lifting a finger in a warning. “We didn’t do anything to her. We’re trying to help her. Or at least, help you, help her.”
“You see,” Balthazar said, “Alyx is trapped in a kind of DreamScape and−”
“He doesn’t know what a DreamScape is,” said Jordan.
Balthazar crossed his arms, his dark features snapping to annoyance. “Let’s see you explain it.”
Jordan turned to Israel. “Alyx is trapped in a labyrinth inside her own mind. Only you can get through to her and help her get out before it’s too late…”
“Trapped in a labyrinth?” Israel repeated.
“In her own mind?”
Israel stared at Jordan. He hadn’t picked Jordan as a lunatic, but then again, these days, sometimes you couldn’t tell. “What the hell have you been smoking?”
Jordan threw his hands in the air. “Mortals,” he muttered.
“I knew we should have made Vix come here instead of trying to contact the Elder,” Balthazar said. “She’d know what to say to convince him.”
Who the hell was the Elder?
Jordan snorted. “We don’t have time to wait ’til he’s convinced. He’ll figure it all out soon enough.” Jordan palmed the air again. The wave that hit Israel was like the first, hot and heavy. He fought against it. But it was no use. This time an ocean crashed down over him and he felt himself getting sucked down.
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“You’re getting married?” Elysia squealed in a pitch that was just a tad too high for Alyx’s ears to handle, her light brown curls bobbing around her head as she vibrated with shock.
“Yup,” Alyx said, rubbing at her ears. She wondered if there’d be any permanent damage. “Getting married.”
Elysia’s deep-set eyes fixed on Alyx and she suddenly felt like she was about to be dissected. “You’re getting married.”
“That’s what I said.”
Alyx snorted. “The last time I checked, he was my boyfriend of over a year.”
Elysia’s mouth gapped open as if she wanted to say something, actually lots of things, but she just kept closing then opening it.
Why was everyone having this reaction?
Alyx let out a huff and leaned against the wall, her legs outstretched across her bed. They were both sitting on her bed in their shared apartment in the West End area of Saint Joseph. West End had once been a mass of industrial warehouses but it had gone through a gentrification in the last twenty-odd years, new apartments sprouting up among the old buildings like snowdrops among gravestones.
Her bedroom was simply furnished, the aged wallpaper of pale roses now peeling in places, dating the room, but she liked it. She liked anything old. Opposite her bed was a large bookcase filled with books that took up an entire wall. Her study desk sat under her casement window. Across another wall was a series of posters all showing various medieval swords and daggers with intricate handles and bejeweled sheaths. A light warm breeze wafted in through the window causing her wind chime to tinkle, promising a lovely summer to come.
Elysia’s voice finally cut through. “Are you…sure you want to marry him? I mean, he’s nice and all but…”
Alyx stared at the replica eighteenth century Chinese saber she had mounted along the back of her desk. How much easier life would be if she could just fight her way out of everything rather than having to justify herself? “Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come across that way.” Elysia scooted closer to her. “It’s just, are you sure you’ll be happy marrying…him?”
“Why wouldn’t I be happy?”
“Alyx,” she said softly, “we’ve been friends since middle school. I understand how hard it’s been for you since−”
“You don’t know anything.” Anger flared though her body.
Elysia’s face fell and the hurt was clear in her glossy gray eyes. “I’m just trying to be your friend.”
Alyx squeezed her lids shut and cursed herself for lashing out. “Sorry,” she muttered. “It just still hurts, you know…”
“I just don’t want you to do something you’re not sure of, that’s all.” Elysia leaned her head against Alyx’s shoulder. The familiar touch was a small comfort to her. She wanted to lean back into Elysia, to pull Elysia in for a hug, but she didn’t.
“Well, I’m sure. I’m marrying him, okay? I already said yes.”
“You just…don’t seem very excited.”
“I’m excited,” she protested. But even she couldn’t deny that her excitement was a thinly worn veil. She sighed. “Why does it have to be about the excitement? All that stuff fades anyway, right? Daniel is smart and kind, he has a stable job, makes good money and comes from a good family. He doesn’t have any major issues or skeletons in his closet or−”
“A personality,” Elysia muttered.
Alyx glared at her.
Elysia lifted up her hands. “I’m just saying, I don’t think your heart’s really in this.”
Alyx snorted. “My heart. Hearts are stupid things to make decisions by.”
“But Alyx, you’re not even wearing the ring.”
“I…” she trailed off. The small red velvet box was burning a hole in the back of her desk drawer. “It’s too big,” she lied. Gods, why was she lying? She shouldn’t be lying to Elysia, her oldest friend. But as much as the guilt tugged on her, she couldn’t bring herself to admit the truth.
“Really? Mr. Must Have Everything Perfect didn’t get your ring sized exactly before he gave it to you?”
Elysia gave Alyx a don’t give me that crap look. They had been friends for too long and Elysia knew when she wasn’t saying something.
Alyx let out a long breath. Maybe talking about it would help her figure out exactly what she was feeling. Or not feeling. Damn confusing feelings. Why couldn’t she just go through life without them? “I am happy. I am. I care about Daniel.”
“I just feel…” It felt like there was a void in her heart. She felt…hollow. And she didn’t know how to fix it. “I feel like…something’s missing.”
“Move over. I can’t see a damn thing.” Vix nudged Balthazar.
The three of them − Jordan, Balthazar and Vix − were sitting in the tree right outside Alyx’s second floor bedroom window. They were hidden under a Mirage, Balthazar’s inherent magical ability, and the only reason Vix had agreed to let him come along.
Balthazar no longer looked like his demon self. He had “borrowed” a local’s body, as there was no way, not even through Purgatory, for demons to physically cross over into Earth anymore, the gates between Hell and Earth having been shut over two thousand years ago, locking everyone on their respective sides. The remaining true demons on Earth had long since gone into hiding as, due to a twist in the story, all of the Seraphim of Heaven, the demons’ natural enemy, had been locked on Earth.
The only way demons could come through to Earth now was to take over a mortal’s body. Balthazar had managed to convince a male with dark hair, milk-chocolate skin and very white teeth to give up control to him; Vix didn’t want to know how. She could still see his demon face shimmering underneath. Thankfully any mortals that looked at him couldn’t.
Balthazar begrudgingly let Vix have some more space on their shared branch. “Have you put on weight?”
“I have not put on weight.”
“The branch is practically bending.”
“That’s your big mouth weighing us down.”
“Shut up, both of you,” hissed Jordan, sitting on Vix’s other side. “I can’t hear what Alyx is saying.”
The three of them fell silent and leaned closer to Alyx’s open window to watch and listen.
“There is something else…” Alyx trailed off. For a moment she seemed to look right through the window at Vix, with her bright emerald eyes. For a moment, Vix could almost forget that this incredible warrior who she’d had the honor of fighting beside more than once, remembered nothing about her. After all, Alyx looked just the same as she did when she was an immortal; same pixie face with marble-pale skin, same midnight hair that dropped like a curtain, except now it fell down past her shoulders. Vix was almost overcome with the urge to fly through her old friend’s window and pull her into a hug.
“What is it?” Elysia asked Alyx.
“It’s…nothing.” Alyx glanced away and Vix felt her heart sink a little.
Elysia sat up, her eyes gleaming wide with interest. “You’re holding out on me.”
“Really, it’s not even worth talking about.”
“Don’t you dare hold out on me or I’ll get out my deadly torture weapons that no man or woman has managed to survive.” Elysia lifted up her hands like claws and wiggled them at Alyx.
Alyx clutched her sides as if she was protecting them, her face breaking out into the first smile that Vix had seen all morning. “Alright, alright, I’ll tell you.”
Balthazar pressed even closer to the window so he was leaning slightly in front of Vix and obstructing her view. She glared at the back of his head before nudging him aside and pushing herself in front of him.
Through the window Elysia and Alyx sat with their heads together like co-conspirators. “Don’t say anything to anyone,” began Alyx, “especially not to Daniel.”
Elysia’s eyes widened. “You’re having an affair.”
Alyx shook her head. “Oh my God, Elysia, it’s not anything like that. I just haven’t told Daniel yet. I’m not sure how he’ll react. Besides I’m not sure if there’s any point in even telling him.”
“Go on. What is it? I’m dying here.”
You said it, thought Vix. Hurry up and tell us.
“A few months ago I saw a job advertised at the National Museum of Prague. It was to curate their small European War and Weaponry collection.”
“That sounds perfect for you! I mean, after finishing valedictorian in your Ancient History degree and what you already do for the Saint Joseph Museum.”
“I know. So, I applied for it and somehow got an interview.”
“Somehow? Please, any fool could see that you’re perfect for the job. When was the interview?”
“About month or so ago.”
Elysia frowned. “Really? I didn’t even know you went to Prague.”
“Nobody did. Viktor wouldn’t even give me a day off. So I rearranged his schedule so that he had back-to-back meetings during the day and I snuck off to Prague mid-morning, did my interview and was back at the Museum before he realized I was gone.”
Elysia laughed. “You didn’t! I don’t believe you.”
“I did. I even got Tomas to help me set up my work email on my phone. I sent Viktor a bunch of emails while I was on the train to make it look like I was still at work.”
“But your security card… If he checked the logs…”
Alyx grinned. “I left my card with one of the guards I’m friends with. He swiped me out at lunch time and back in at the end of lunch. Then he snuck me in when I returned and handed me back my card.”
Outside, Vix couldn’t help but grin. That was our Alyx, alright. Hidden there underneath it all this…boring mortal-ness.
Elysia shook her head at Alyx, eyes brimming with blatant admiration. “You sneaky, smart, sneaky−”
“You said sneaky.”
“Thanks, I think.”
“Okay, so you went to this interview ninja-style, and then what?”
“I thought I did well. But then I didn’t hear anything for weeks…until yesterday.” A smile crept across Alyx’s face and her eyes lit up. “I got the job.”
“Oh my God, congratulations!”
“Thanks.” Her face fell. “But I can’t take it.”
“What the hell are you talking about, you can’t take it?” Elysia screeched.
Vix screwed up her face at the sound. That girl could give a fire siren a run for its money.
“I mean…I would have to relocate to Prague. And it’s a big step in my career, lots of responsibility, very little time off initially. But Daniel just proposed and I said yes and his job is here.” Alyx inhaled and let it out in a huff.
“Well, sure, it would be hard with you guys living in two different cities. But Prague is less than two hours away by train and you and Daniel could visit each other on days off. I mean, distance can be good for couples, right?”
Alyx shook her head. “Daniel would never go for it. He wants me to move into his place next week.”
“Alyx, this is your perfect job. You’ve been slaving away for that asshole Viktor for almost four years. You practically do his job for him. This is your chance to shine.”
“But Daniel’s older than me and I know he wants to have kids soon. There doesn’t seem to be any point in taking a career job if I’m just going to have to give it up soon. Right?”
Elysia frowned. “Why would you have to give it up? Mothers can still work too, you know?”
“That’s not how Daniel sees it.”
“He wants you to quit work?”
“But just until the baby’s older, right?”
Elysia’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head. Vix could tell that she had so much she wanted to say but she was biting down on her lip hard as if she was trying not to. “So…” Elysia said finally, “what are you going to do?”
Alyx sighed and her head fell back against the wall. “It’s a lovely dream, living in Prague, working on my own collection, but…I guess it just has to be that.”
Vix’s fingers were clawing the window sill so tightly that she thought she might break through the old brittle wood. This is not right. The Alyx I knew would never just shrink back and live a life that someone else laid out for her.
If anything had convinced Vix that they needed to break Alyx and Daniel up, this had solidified her convictions. This wasn’t just about separating two people who were wrong for each other or getting Alyx and Israel back together, this was more than that. This was about the rest of Alyx’s life. This was about letting Alyx live out her potential as a mortal. And it appeared that being with the wrong guy would be enough to stifle her very soul.
“So you turned the job down?” Elysia’s voice floating out the window sounded as heavy and disappointed as Vix felt.
“I haven’t yet,” Alyx said. “I didn’t have the heart to turn it down when they called. I guess I just wanted a few days of knowing that my dream job was mine. I’ll call first thing Monday morning.”
“No,” hissed Vix.
“Be quiet,” Balthazar whispered, nudging in front of her again, ratcheting up the anger that was already swirling around inside her.
I’ll teach him. Vix shoved him aside so she could lean in closest then waited. Sure enough, it only took a few seconds before Balthazar tensed so he could ram his shoulder forward in front of hers.
But she wasn’t there. Vix leaned aside just as he moved, letting him throw his own momentum into mid-air. She held back a smile as he teetered. Then fell straight off the branch to the sidewalk below with a thud. Vix felt their mirage shatter around them with a pop to her ears. A groan drifted up to them.
“Balthazar,” Jordan cried. Vix could see him preparing to swoop down. Vix grabbed his arm, holding him back and whispered, “Mortals are watching.”
In other words, Act human. Humans don’t fly.
“Right,” muttered Jordan. He proceeded to climbed down the tree like an agile cat.
Vix sighed. Act human, not like Spiderman. Unlike Vix, Jordan had never lived among mortals. He couldn’t act human if his life depended on it.
She followed him to the ground pretending to struggle climbing down the tree like a real mortal would, then pretending that gravity was affecting her when she jumped down the last short distance.
She felt a twinge of guilt when she came to stand beside Balthazar lying on his back blinking at the sky. It hadn’t been that long of a fall, right? And besides, Balthazar was immortal.
Balthazar let out another groan. “Why the hell didn’t He make these mortal bodies with wings?”
“You alright?” Jordan held out a hand. Balthazar took it and Jordan helped pull him to his feet.
Balthazar brushed himself down and inspected each part of himself carefully. “I don’t appear to have damaged my host human.” He waved off a concerned passersby with assurances that he was fine.
Now that she knew he was okay, Vix couldn’t help herself. “Try not to be so clumsy, B.”
Balthazar whipped his head around and narrowed his eyes at her. “You did that on purpose.”
“I didn’t do anything. You’re the one who shoved forward so hard you threw yourself off the branch.”
Balthazar snorted. “If I didn’t know any better I’d think you didn’t want me here, my dear.”
“Feel free to go back to Hell.”
Balthazar gave her a pearly grin that seemed almost too big for his face. “And miss out on your fabulous company? Never.”
Vix sighed internally. Seems like she would have to put up with him for a while longer. “I don’t have time to argue with you. Alyx is turning down that job on Monday,” she said, looking between Balthazar and Jordan expectantly.
Jordan raised an eyebrow. “Which means?”
“Which means we have about thirty-six hours to break Alyx and Daniel up.”
* * *
An arm was flung like a lead pole across Israel’s chest. He frowned and squinted open one eye to look down at the offending limb, tanned and skinny and attached to an unmoving body with wild blonde hair that seemed to grab at him like vines.
Oh, right. Tarryn… Tallie. No, Tatiana… I think? Whatever her name was, she had convinced him to stay the night last night. Admittedly, he hadn’t protested too hard.
He slipped out of her grasp without waking her, something he was embarrassed to realize he was a little too good at. He slipped on his clothes and shoes gathered from all about her tiny studio, splashed water on his face, found the least girlie deodorant to spray under his arms, and slid out of her walk-up apartment into the late morning Saint Joseph light, a soft palette of dusty white and gray thanks to the clouds overhead. His mouth was dry and his head pulsed but it wasn’t anything that a little breakfast wouldn’t fix.
The el Souq square, the city’s main marketplace, was between here and his own apartment and on Sundays especially the place was bustling. He loved coming here. The hustle and bustle of sellers and hagglers, the well-to-do rubbing silk-encased elbows with the grimy poor, the piles of dried beans in sacks like mountains of pebbles, the flower stalls bursting with vibrant blooms and the heady scent of nature’s perfume, the trays of honey cakes being sold out of hand-pushed carts, a paparazzi of bees buzzing about them. And more importantly…
He followed his nose, the smoky, mouth-watering scent of grilling meat guiding him.
Vix, Jordan and Balthazar trailed behind Israel as he slipped through the el Souq markets. He was tall enough that it wasn’t hard to do, his wide muscular build standing out among the crowd. The boy hasn’t lost his grace, that’s for sure, thought Vix.
She had felt a pang when she had seen him again. He looked just like he had twenty-five years ago when he was part of their supernatural community, same golden skin and dark hair, heritage from his Egyptian roots, and wide deep-set eyes that seemed darker than their true hazel color because of the intensity in which he stared back at the world.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Jordan out of the corner of his mouth, his thick light brown brows down over his eyes like mint tea. “Criminal in a past life. Police officer in this one.”
“I don’t know,” said Balthazar, speaking from Jordan’s other side. “The two professions aren’t so dissimilar.”
“Israel wasn’t a criminal,” argued Vix. In Israel’s past life she had come to see Israel as a kind of…brother and that fierce protectiveness rose up in her even after all these decades that they hadn’t seen each other.
“In his past life he used to run with Mason’s street pirates and used his gifts to climb up buildings so he could steal things,” said Jordan, distaste clear in his tone. “I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of a criminal.”
“It’s called survival.”
“It’s still stealing.”
Vix opened her mouth to argue further but Balthazar interrupted. “Regardless, he’s not an officer anymore.”
“What? Why?” She had wondered after a day of trailing Israel when he was going to get to his job. All Israel seemed to do these days was drink and kiss strange girls, girls who were definitely not Alyx. “And what is he now?”
“He was involved in…an incident six months ago,” said Balthazar, his voice seemingly tinged with sadness. “After that, he quit.”
“An incident?” Vix watched as Israel stood at the side of one of the wooden stalls stuffed with fistfuls of ornate iron and colored glass lamps hanging like fat grapes, the once desert-orange vibrancy of the stall’s cloth roof now faded to a dusty brown. He had his hands in his pockets, appearing to wait for someone as he eyed the crowd. “What incident?”
Balthazar smiled brightly at her. “Are you going to admit that you need me and my information?”
“I don’t need you.”
“Oh really? Then perhaps you care to tell me why our old friend here decided to jump from one side of the law to the other?”
“If you don’t−”
“Shh, both of you,” said Jordan. “Look.”
Vix watched, peering around the stalls, as Israel slid into the crowd and bumped into a rotund man. There was a flash of his hands at the man’s hip pocket. After making his apologies Israel skirted down the side of a stall.
Vix’s eyes widened. “He didn’t.”
“Oh yes, he did,” said Jordan.
They followed Israel and found him standing at a stall that sold grilled meat kebabs, the barbequing smoke wafting towards them, making Vix’s stomach rumble. But the smoke wasn’t thick enough to hide the small leather purse Israel held in his hand.
Vix inhaled a sharp breath. “He did. He just pickpocketed that man,” she hissed. She couldn’t believe what she had just seen. She shoved down the urge to run over there, slap the back of Israel’s head and give him the lecture of his life. Or at least, this life.
“What did I say?” Jordan sounded a little smug. “Once a criminal−”
“Oh, shut up, Jordan.”
They watched as Israel bought three beef kebabs on skewers with his pilfered coins. The stall keeper wrapped them in thin greasy paper and handed it to him along with several cheap napkins.
They continued to follow Israel through the crowd and out of the el Souq markets, eating his kebabs as he walked with the air of a man without guilt.
“So…” Balthazar said, “aren’t you going to ask me what happened to our dear boy?”
Vix gritted her teeth as pride warred with curiosity. “I don’t need your help. I don’t even know that whatever information you’ve supposedly got isn’t an outright lie.”
Balthazar shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Israel finished his two kebabs and left the last wrapped in the paper. When he rounded the corner to his apartment block, Petr was already leaning against the bricks waiting for him. Petr was a slip of a boy, no more than eleven years old, but with sharp eyes that missed almost nothing. The young boy straightened up and brushed down his rags as he caught sight of Israel.
Israel had caught Petr trying to steal from him when he was an officer. Instead of clipping him around the ears or carting him off to the nearest police station, Israel had bought him a hot meal and convinced him to helping Israel carry some of his groceries home. Israel then handed the boy the exact amount of euros that he had been trying to steal. Since then Petr was always waiting for him most mornings, ready to perform whatever errand Israel had for him, often giving Israel leads and valuable street gossip that he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. Even after Israel had left the force, he’d still found ways to “employ” the young Petr.
“Hey, Petr.” Israel patted his belly. “I bought too many skewers for breakfast and now I’m so full I’m going to burst. You want my last one? I’d hate to throw it away.”
Petr’s eyes widened and the tip of his small pink tongue poked out of his mouth. A low growl emanated from his stomach. Petr grabbed the package that Israel offered him and tore the paper apart trying to get to the juicy meat inside.
Israel ruffled his hair as Petr pulled the last piece of beef off with his teeth. “If you’ve got time, I need a paper from down the news stand. Just slip it into my mailbox as usual.” He dropped one of the stolen coins into Petr’s palm. “You keep whatever change there is, okay?”
There would be change. More change than the paper was worth, and Israel could have picked up a paper at any number of stands on his way here. But he didn’t.
Petr saluted him and ran off. Israel watched him leave before trudging up the steps to his tiny shitty apartment. Hey, at least it was cheap.
* * *
“Are you sure this will work?” asked Jordan.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Vix watched the door to Israel’s apartment building. Based on a phone conversation she had overheard through Israel’s open window, she knew Israel would be coming out soon into the early afternoon to meet an old school friend who was back in town. “Alyx and Israel are meant to be together. All we have to do is get them to meet and true love will take care of the rest.”
“Well I never,” said Jordan. “Vixen Demetri, you are a closet hopeless romantic.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said, her cheeks heating up.
“And this has to happen in less than twenty-four hours?” Balthazar snorted. “Twenty-four hours. That’s not love, that’s pheromone-induced lust.”
“He’s coming,” Vix said as the lobby door swung open and Israel stepped out. She shoved Jordan and Balthazar back behind the wall. “Get out of sight.”
Balthazar saluted and the two of them disappeared under his Mirage magic.
Vix may not have magic of her own, but that wouldn’t stop her. She had more than enough bloodink, distilled blood from a Seraphim with inherent magic, tattooed onto her arm to do what she needed to do. She walked out onto the sidewalk moving towards Israel and loosened the scarf around her neck. As she approached she drew upon the AirWhisperer bloodink tattoo, the shape of a circle with wavy lines cutting across the center, hidden under her jacket. It rushed through her veins like a sharp icy wind, causing her heart to beat faster and her fingertips to tingle like she was about to grab a live wire. God, she loved using magic. It could be addictive. To some of their community of angels…it was.
Vix sent out a controlled gust of Air that picked up her scarf and blew it straight into Israel’s face, wrapping it around his head. He skidded to a halt on the sidewalk, letting out a short cry and his hands flew up.
“I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed as she reached up to help him pull the scarf off. She brushed her fingertips against his forehead and, using magic drawn from her MemorySong bloodink tattoo, she implanted a tiny memory. Earlier she had implanted a corresponding memory in Alyx’s mind by using the same trick.
She fought the urge to pull him into a bear hug and slap his back affectionately or to punch him for forgetting her.
“The wind today. It’s just crazy,” Vix said to Israel, trying to look as apologetic as possible as she wound her scarf back around her neck.
He no longer had a scar cutting across his top lip. He probably wouldn’t even have those three silver knife scars across his torso anymore either. Of course he wouldn’t. As a mortal he didn’t have half the supernatural population trying to use him and the other half trying to kill him.
Israel was frowning, his eyes slightly glazed. “Oh, it’s fine,” he said almost absently.
Vix smiled as she watched Israel walk away. Her plan was going to work. She knew it would. Alyx and Israel were meant to be together.
An unwanted worm of unease wriggled its way through her excitement. She knew she wasn’t supposed to mess with fate. But if fate wasn’t doing its job properly, then she had no choice, right?
Besides, what was the worst thing that could happen?
* * *
“Vix…if you get caught,” warned Jordan. Vix, Jordan and Balthazar were standing on the roof of one of the office buildings in the Saint Joseph finance district. Up here the city looked like an uneven patchwork of steep slate roofs and orange brick, the city’s thirteen cathedrals piercing the gray sky with their spires like sets of black or copper fangs. The locals had even taken to jokingly calling them “demon’s teeth”.
“Stop being such a worry wart,” Vix said. “We won’t get caught. It’s a Sunday. Hardly anyone except for Mr. Uptight Accountant is in the office today.” She slipped over the edge of the roof and hung upside down mid-air, her fingers curling under the grimy top sill as she peered into the window of the top floor of Peterka, Jezek & Ferret and into Daniel’s office. This was an old brick building built pre-war which meant solid, imposing walls and columns, tall, slim windows shaded by overhanging sills where gray vines twisted around crouched stone monsters that sometimes spat rainwater from their mouths. Jordan and Balthazar leaned over a low decorative wall that hid the rainwater drains at the edge of the roof, behind which was a steep slope of slate tiles.
“What do you see?” Balthazar hissed down to her.
She waved at him to shut up.
Inside the office Daniel was in a suit − crisply-ironed dark pants, white dress shirt, no jacket − and sitting at his desk tapping away at his keyboard. It was ridiculously tidy, all the book spines neatly lined up in the bookcase, the piles of paper on his desk in neat piles, his jacket on a hanger on a coat rack by the door. Even his coffee mug had a coaster underneath it. Alyx is marrying this guy?
She watched him work, methodical tapping of keys and studying of sheets of paper. She thought she might fall asleep hanging there when Daniel pushed back his chair and exited his office. A rush of adrenaline surged through her body. Now was her chance. “I’m going in,” she called up to her two waiting friends.
The window was locked from the inside. But luckily they still had the old-fashioned metal latches. Vix pressed her fingers to the window frame closest to the lock and reached out with Alchemist magic from the corresponding bloodink tattoo on her arm to feel the lock. Her blood warmed from the magic and there was the tang of metal in her mouth.
The lock was made of iron. Here goes nothing. Using the Alchemist magic, she shifted the molecules in the metal and felt it changing.
A long time ago, before Vix was kicked out of Urielos, one of their hidden Seraphim cities, she had a special and forbidden friendship with a Castus, a higher-ranking Seraphim with inherent magic. In secret they would meet and Danielle would often try to teach Vix about her Alchemist magic, letting Vix practice with her undistilled blood-magic, a highly intimate and very taboo practice, especially between a warrior and a Castus. Should Vix be thankful that Danielle had taught her how to manipulate Alchemist so well?
The ghost of pain flashed in an old wound. Being thankful for anything Danielle had given her felt like a betrayal all over again.
“Come on, Vix. What’s taking so long?” Jordan asked.
She was out of practice and she was performing a reversal of what she used to secretly practice with Danielle’s blood-magic. Plus she was thinking about Danielle again. And that was something that made her blood simmer even now, after all these years. Even now after she’d fallen in love with someone else.
“Stop distracting me,” she muttered, unsure of whether she was talking to Jordan or the memory of an old love.
Vix focused on the molecules in the lock, shutting out all other thoughts, coaxing them with a calm yet firm magical push.
Almost got it. Almost…there.
Finally the iron lock completely dissolved, defrosting like ice into a liquid that dribbled down the inside of the sill. Vix made a tiny noise of victory as the window opened on its hinge for her.
She heard Balthazar sniffing loudly. “Did you turn that into…wine?”
“It’s the reversal of part of the Alchemist Challenge,” Vix said as she pushed the window open wider.
“The Alchemist’s Challenge is a contest we hold at fairs and festivals,” she heard Jordan explaining to Balthazar. “Each contestant starts with a bowl of water. They have to turn it into wine, then wine to iron, then…” she stopped hearing him when she slipped inside.
Her eyes darted to the partially open door that showed part of the interior office space, a jumble of open desks and other offices. There was still no sign of Daniel. She flew to his desk and grabbed his cell phone. She opened up a new message and began to type one out to Alyx.
“I have something different planned for tonight…”
* * *
As dusk was staining the Saint Joseph sky like spilled wine and casting the city’s “demon’s teeth” into silhouettes, Israel and his friend Anton sat on one of the benches in Remembrance Park, a park originally built to commemorate those fallen in World War II. It hadn’t changed in all the years Israel had lived here, although most of the sections of the tattered iron fence had been repaired. The air still held the slight acridness of smoke, and underneath all these solemn, ancient trees it never seemed to get warm no matter how hot the summer got. The lights stationed at regular intervals along the paths had already come on, creating sickly pools of watery light. In the distance Israel could see a thick rolling army of gray clouds racing across the sky towards them.
“I don’t know why you’re still here,” Anton said, cigarette smoke spitting out from his lips.
Israel leaned back into the cool metal bench to avoid the waft of smoke. “We’ve had this conversation.”
“And you still don’t have a good answer for me. There’s so much more outside of this forgotten city for you.”
Israel knew he didn’t have a good reason for wanting to stay in Saint Joseph. How could he explain it? Even he didn’t really understand it. He knew he would leave one day but for now it felt like…like he was waiting for something.
The small familiar figure hurrying up one of the paths towards them made Israel sit up. It was Petr, his ill-fitting rags flapping against his skinny limbs.
“Hey, Petr,” Israel called out. “Where’s the fire?”
Anton gave Petr a look, then raised an eyebrow at Israel, but he didn’t say anything. Anton was probably used to his bleeding heart ways.
When the boy reached his bench he grabbed Israel by the hand and tugged. “Israel, hurry.”
“Whoa, Petr.” He grabbed Petr’s arm to stop him from rushing off. “What’s going on?”
Petr turned his dirt-streaked face towards him. “You have to come with me. Now!”
Petr stopped tugging and pursed his lips. “You just have to come with me,” he repeated.
“I’m not coming with you until you tell me why.”
Petr paused. He spoke slowly and carefully. “A lady told me to bring you to her. She said she had a surprise for you, one that you’d really really like.”
“A lady?” Anton snorted beside him, which Israel ignored.
Israel raised an eyebrow. “Does this lady have a name?”
“She said her name was Alyx.”
Alyx. Israel frowned. The name seemed so familiar. Like he should know this Alyx. “What’s Alyx like?”
“She’s real pretty and real nice,” said Petr with a smile and slightly dazed look in his eyes. Israel hid a grin. Little Petr might just be discovering girls. “She gave me one hundred Euros to come get you.”
Pretty, nice…and had money to burn.
Anton laughed and nudged him. “You lucky dog. How come you always get all the good ones? One of your lady friends must have figured out some kind of…” he cleared his throat, “naughty surprise for you.”
Petr’s face suddenly went all serious again. “Will you come?”
Naughty surprise. Well that sounded…more than nice. “Sure.” Petr’s face dissolved into relief. Israel turned to Anton and said his goodbyes.
The instant that Israel stood Petr was tugging on his hand again. Petr led him back along the path and out of Remembrance Park. “Where’re we going?”
Israel grinned. The boy’s enthusiasm was rubbing off on him. This must be some surprise.
Petr dragged him along in silence, through the streets of Saint Joseph until they came to the gates of a familiar cathedral. Israel raised an eyebrow. What kind of lady friend wanted to meet at a church?
Mass was only led on Sunday mornings so St. Paul’s Cathedral was still and silent by Sunday evening. The clouds that had been so far away before were now above, casting a dull light like a misty blanket over his vision.
The clock struck, startling him, and the bells rang out to signal six o’clock. He had always loved the sound of the bells. They’d always vibrated through him with a clear, loud tone. Petr led him right to the top steps of the cathedral. “You have to wait here.”
Israel chuckled. “Okay…what for?”
Petr’s look turned serious. “Your destiny.”
* * *
Alyx frowned as she read Daniel’s text again. Meet me at six o’clock…
The text seemed so mysterious and spontaneous. Daniel was never mysterious or spontaneous. When they met for dinner they only ever went to the Mercantile Club for drinks − two brandies neat for him − before going across the road to the Green Olive where he always ordered a green salad and rump steak, no sauce.
Now he wanted her to meet him…here?
With the thick clouds closing in overhead, she knew a storm was coming. She’d tried to call Daniel to ask him to meet somewhere else, somewhere inside and dry, but his phone just went straight to voice mail. That was strange too. Daniel never had his phone off.
There was nothing to do except to hurry up and meet him and hope that the rain didn’t start before they got inside.
She felt a little flutter in her stomach as she approached Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Old and grand, it was a latticework of spikes and carvings and carved spires and towers. Of soaring stained glass windows, of thick, giant iron-studded doors. Of a single looming bell tower that pointed to the heavens and the wrinkled, golden-faced clock, keeping the time and the movements of the planets and watching over the whole city. She loved this ancient cathedral. She crossed under the stone arch, past the lacework iron gate, and into the grounds through the back. She knew it was silly. But as she stepped through the threshold she felt transported into another world. Where magic could happen.
The sitting dragon gargoyles watched her from above as she walked across the soft carpet of grass around the building towards the front door. When was the last time she even came here? She used to come here often…on Sunday mornings with her mother before−
She shoved that thought away. She turned the corner and spotted Daniel on the steps waiting for her in front of the familiar opposing angels holding swords hammered lovingly into the giant gray doors. At least, she thought it was him. His partial silhouette in this dusky light seemed wider than usual. Had he been working out more? As she ran her eyes over the outline of his rounded shoulders and wide torso, an unfamiliar heat rippled through her. That was odd. Good, but odd. Maybe this would turn out to be a lovely surprise. She wondered if Daniel would appreciate her ogling him and hid a smile. Ogling him at a church, no less. He would not be amused.
Why here? Why at a church?
Oh my God. Did he actually take what she had said on board and decided to just elope without the fuss of a large wedding? She felt sick, like someone had punched her in the lower gut. He hasn’t seen you. Go. Turn around. Run. Now!
What do you think that means, Alyx?
Daniel lifted a hand to her and waved.
He’d seen her. It was too late now. She’d just have to figure out some excuse not to get married right here and right now. She leaned into the wind, which had picked up, and kept walking towards him. Her turbulent thoughts swirled to a stop as she neared the small platform around the entrance.
This wasn’t Daniel.
Who was he? Why did he wave at her? Why was he looking at her as if he was expecting her?
He must be a friend of Daniel’s? But where was Daniel?
As she reached him, his face came into view and her stomach began to jumble. At least a head taller than her, taut golden skin over defined muscles, his stance was wide and confident, and his chin was tilted up as he looked back her. He was gorgeous. But there was an edge to his beauty, his dark clothes, the stubble shadowing his cut jaw, and a mischievousness to his eyes which, in this light, looked as gray as the metal of the doors. His dark hair was messy and fell over his forehead. Strangely, her fingers itched to push it back, an urge that seemed so familiar, and she just knew his locks would be as soft as they looked.
I know him.
But how do I know him?
A disjointed image floated up in her head. It was an image of this very same man, smiling at her…smiling at her as if…as if she was his whole world. In her mind’s image he seemed younger, and his hair was longer, curling at his collar. But there was no mistaking him. Was this a memory? If it was she couldn’t place it. Where had it come from? And this was strange…in her memory he had a pale scar that cut across his top lip that the man in real life didn’t have. They couldn’t be the same man.
“Hello?” she said tentatively. “Have you been waiting for me?”
There it was. That smile that shone brilliantly across his face. The same smile from that strange shard of memory, except in her memory his smile made his scar pale to silver.
He laughed softly, almost like a playful growl. Then he spoke, “Apparently so.” His voice was deep and smooth like a running bass guitar riff and it trickled into her pores and plucked at her skin. Her heart went aflutter.
* * *
You’re here to meet your destiny.
Israel didn’t believe in destiny. Destiny is not what he thought when he saw her approaching around the side of the cathedral. What he did feel was one hell of a mule kick in his chest.
This must be Alyx.
His senses all snapped to attention, his peripheral dimmed so that she was the only clear thing in his eyes. Something about her caught his deepest instinctive attention. Perhaps it was the hints of her slim body under those black tailored pants and a white blouse under a matching black jacket. Or in the way she moved, sleek like a gazelle. Maybe it was the wind tousling her long dark hair around her pale face, letting him catch only glimpses of her pouty red mouth.
As she got closer he began to make out more features on her heart-shaped face. She was stunning, sharp cheekbones like smooth china, and a pair of cat-shaped eyes trimmed with dark lashes and set with brilliant jade. She met his gaze without blinking.
An image of her flashed across his mind but with different hair, shorter at the back but with two long blades framing her face, and her body donned in a tight black leather jacket with a stiff raised collar. It was a far cry from this outwardly conservative woman before him. Or was that just a veil? Something in the way she held herself told Israel that she wasn’t as conservative as she appeared.
He caught her scent…something sweet yet spicy. Something warm but sharp, like he knew she would be. It was intoxicating. And familiar.
I know her from somewhere.
Something inside him woke, rising, fluttering to life, opening its long-closed eyes.
At the same time her chest and shoulders hitched, as if she just took in a sharp breath. He, on the other hand, had stopped breathing. Everything slowed to the silence between heartbeats.
“Hello.” She beat him to it. Her voice was clear and soft. She had a slight accent that told him she was local but she had been educated in a way that had refined it. “Have you been waiting for me?”
All my life.
Nerves tickled his belly, making him laugh, and he smiled so broadly that it almost hurt. “Apparently so.”
Her shoulders relaxed in apparent relief. She smiled back at him and it reached up to her sparkling eyes. His heart began to beat against his rib bones as if it wanted out so it could get as close to this perfect creature as possible.
For a few moments he just looked at her. And she looked at him.
He felt this strange familiarity with her and yet he couldn’t place her. How embarrassing. Where had he meet her before? He better figure out where he knew her from and quickly.
Say something, dammit.
“Hi,” he found himself saying. His mind wasn’t working so well.
A slight flush colored her cheeks. “Hi,” she said back.
She looked surprised that he knew her name. That was odd. “Yes? And you are?”
“I’m Israel.” Before he realized what he was doing, he was holding out his right hand, reaching for her.
She didn’t hesitate in sliding her small soft hand into his. The touch of her sent his blood thundering around his body and roaring in his ears. He never wanted to let go.
* * *
“Well, will you look at that?” Balthazar said.
Through the dusty window of the nearby garden shed, Vix watched Israel and Alyx standing before each other on the top steps of the cathedral, still holding hands. They were just standing there, staring mutely at each other, despite the fierce wind that whipped up leaves around them.
Vix’s chest swelled with pride and she could not contain the happiness from bursting from her face in a grin. “Told you it would work.”
Balthazar nudged Vix. “Do you think we’ll get invited to their wedding?”
Jordan, standing on Vix’s other side, was the only one who was watching the mortal pair solemnly, his arms folded across his chest. “It takes more than an initial connection and two minutes of making googly eyes at each other to forge a lifelong commitment.”
“True,” said Vix, “but we already know that these two can make it. I mean, look at all they did for each other in their past lives. Look at all they went through.”
Jordan turned towards her. There was barely any light in the shed but Seraphim eyes worked like cats’. She didn’t need light to see that his eyebrows were furrowed and his normally thick lips was pressed thin. “If they were meant to reunite in this life, why hasn’t fate brought them together herself?”
She tried to laugh this off. “You’re just bitter that you didn’t come up with this genius plan.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Vix. It’s not right to mess with fate.”
“We weren’t messing. We were just…helping fate along.”
Jordan turned back towards the window. Israel and Alyx were still standing there. “Look at the sky.” The sky had become a dark gelatinous carpet, blocking out the remains of daylight. “It just doesn’t feel right. This incoming storm…”
“You’re being silly and superstitious.”
He shook his head. “I just feel like something’s going to go horribly, horribly wrong.”
* * *
Israel could stand here all night just holding her hand, storm or not. But she pulled her hand from his and he regrettably let her go.
She cleared her throat. “So, Israel… Are you one of Daniel’s friends?”
“Daniel?” Who the hell was Daniel? Was he a boyfriend? He better not be a boyfriend. “I’m not friends with Daniel.”
“A work colleague, then. Where is he? He said six o’clock.”
What was she talking about? He frowned. “Didn’t you ask me to meet you here?”
Her eyes widened. “No. I don’t even know you.”
What the hell was going on?
Overhead the heavy clouds that had been holding back the rain finally broke, rain showering down upon them, the cold drops making him flinch. “We should get inside. Wait out the storm.” Israel grabbed for the front doors of the cathedral but they didn’t budge. That was odd. They were never usually locked.
Lightning flashed above them and a horrible cracking sound split the air before thunder boomed, reverberating like a gong.
What was that crack?
He spotted a shadow dropping along the door, highlighted by the tall floodlights that had suddenly come on above them. Something was falling.
The crack. Something had broken off this building.
He spun, raising his eyes, spotting the tumbling piece of stone and fear lashed through him. “Look out!” he screamed at Alyx and threw himself at her.
Everything went into slow motion. He could see his own face reflected in her eyes, wide with fear. He seemed to be launching towards her as if through a sticky glue.
He wasn’t fast enough. The tumbling piece of stone, no larger than his head, clipped against her skull and her eyes rolled back into her head.
Israel grabbed her as she fell. His knees jarred on the flat stone but he didn’t care; he barely registered the pain. He was too focused on her. He lowered her head onto the ground. Her hair was matted and sticky with her own blood, and her eyes were shut. Dear God, please don’t let her be dead.
He pressed his fingers into her neck and was relieved to find a pulse, a weak pulse, but it was there. He called to her to wake up as he wrapped his arms around her limp body, pulling her into his lap. It was no use. She was out cold.
He slid out his phone from his pocket and dialed.
A sharp female voice coupled with static called into his ear. “Emergency, how can we help.”
“This is officer Israel Kader. Badge number 362922.” He stuttered as he spoke his badge number. He shouldn’t even be using it, seeing as his badge was currently sitting in one of the drawers in his captain’s desk along with his CZ 75 piece, or perhaps the captain had given up on his ever returning? He just knew that emergency would respond faster if there was an officer calling it in. He was desperate to do anything, anything, to keep Alyx from dying. Even if it meant he might get in trouble. “There’s been a woman knocked unconscious. She was hit by a falling…” he eyed the villainous stone, “gargoyle from one of the buildings. She’s losing a lot of blood. Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The front entrance. Please hurry.”
Israel slid his phone back in his pocket and repositioned himself on the ground, cradling her head into his lap so he could hold his jacket to her open wound. He bit his lip. Blood was pouring out of her.
“Don’t die,” he commanded her. “Don’t you dare die on me.”
He brushed the ebony strands of hair from her cheek; he couldn’t help himself. She didn’t move. “Hang on, Alyx,” he said to her. Her name felt so familiar on his tongue. “Help is on the way.”
* * *
Darkness filtered into Alyx’s eyes and every crease of her skin. She slipped further back towards the edge of the precipice. She was so tired of trying to hang on. She could just let go. She could just…let go.
“Don’t die,” a deep familiar voice crashed into her consciousness. Deep and comforting. “Don’t you dare die on me.”
I won’t, I promise. Just don’t leave me.
“Hang on, Alyx,” the voice vibrated into her.
Everything solid crumbled from underneath her. Her arms windmilled backwards, desperate to grasp at something but only finding air. She was swallowed up by the darkness; the only thing she could hear was his voice. “Help is on the way, Alyx. Hang on…”
And she fell
And she fell
She landed on her front on something hard. She let out a groan and let herself lie on the ground, too full of pain to move just yet.
She mentally catalogued the parts of her body, moving them slowly and testing them. Her toes wriggled. Her fingers scratched some kind of material. She was lying on a carpet. No, it must be a rug because she could feel the rough fringed edge of it cutting along under her thighs and the coldness of stone seeping up through her knees.
She tested her eyes, squinting before she opened them fully. Wherever she was, it was a room cast in flickering fire-light and shadows. How long she could lie here before someone made her get up?
How did she even get here? Her mind was fuzzy. And her head throbbed like a heartbeat. She remembered going to meet someone…at the cathedral…then…
How could there be nothing?
She had to get up and figure out where she was. She pushed herself gingerly to sitting. Her muscles were stiff as if she hadn’t used them for days.
She was in a large room, soaring vaulted ceiling with stars carved into it, several pillars holding up the structure. Directly above her was a large piece of carved stone that dripped down from the ceiling with a diamond-shaped end. The keystone. But the keystone of what?
How did she get here?
And where was here?
She pushed herself up to her feet. She touched the back of her head, the source of the fading pain, and was relieved to see there was no blood on her fingers when she pulled them away. Her black pants and jacket were scuffed but otherwise she seemed fine.
She gazed around the walls, undulating from the stone carvings set in every inch of them, and frowned. There was something odd about this room. Something…missing.
There were no windows here. None at all. She spun, scanning the walls, peering into the shadows that fell about the room from the flames set in ornate iron torches bolted into the pillars, the only source of light. There were no doors.
Her heart began to pound just a little faster. She walked around the perimeter, trying to find a door, a way out, her bootsteps echoing in the space.
She traced her fingers across the relief carvings across the walls. There was a huge tree with gnarled roots and fruit on the ends of its branches like bruised eggs. There were three men facing each other, flowing cloaks about their shoulders and all wearing a matching amulet at the end of a chain around their necks.
There was a horrible scene where limp bodies hung upside down from trees, the ends of their hair soaking in the pool of blood that trickled down from their fingers. Alyx shuddered, pulled her fingers from it and kept moving.
She stopped before a battle scene in a desert valley between figures seemingly clashing in mid-air, mountains and a huge mosque in the background. It flowed into a scene of a couple within the remains of the mosque. Alyx leaned in closer and frowned. He was lying on the ground, his head in her lap, the broken bones of the structure littering the sand around them, stars seeming to hang in the air around them.
It ended here.
What ended here? Where did that thought even come from?
She traced the boy’s face etched in stone and her heart squeezed in her chest. Something about this scene…something about this boy. He was familiar. And…the girl… Or perhaps she was projecting herself onto these walls.
A darkness blurred in the corner of her eye.
She spun around, the only sound the twist of her heel on the stone and her heart beating in her throat.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed off the cavern walls, her eyes trying to pierce into the shadows the pillars made. She wasn’t sure she was alone in here anymore.
Hope you enjoy this little sneak peak into The Afterlife of Alyx & Israel. I’ll be posting up 1-2 chapters a week til release day ~ 3 July!
This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
Somewhere on Earth, two souls, made of the same ethereal substance, were pulled into two separate soon-to-be mothers. Later they would be born, a girl named Alyx, the other a boy named Israel.
They would have no memory of who they were and who they had been or how their sacrifice saved an entire people. They would have no idea of the angels that would sometimes come to their window to watch them as they slept. But on quiet nights they would find themselves staring up into the vast sky and feel the pull of something greater out there, and they would feel that they were inextricably part of it.
Twenty-five years later…
“Alyx is engaged.”
“She’s what?” Vix blinked rapidly at Balthazar, the blue-skinned demon sitting across from her in a private booth in Purgatory, the supernatural neutral zone set out as a bar. She wasn’t a fan of this place, a dimly lit den of exposed brick, a burbling jazz floating through the mist that seemed to hang just under the steel beams and exposed ceiling. Even with the enchantment over Purgatory that prevented violence of any kind, demons made her nervous, especially this demon sitting across from Jordan and her. But she wasn’t about to let Jordan come here on his own when Balthazar had sent him a message tied to the prickly legs of a large black hell-beetle.
“She’s getting married,” Balthazar repeated. “You know, the mortal tradition where the woman lies about being a virgin by wearing a white dress, the couple then lie to each other by agreeing to a list of promises read out to them by a guy dressed in a robe, sometimes wearing a funny hat, and swap round circles of metal that they then wear on a finger.” Balthazar shook his head, making the downlight from above shimmer across the streaks of small iridescent scales highlighting his cheekbones. “So odd. Where I come from if we want to show an eternal commitment we just swap blood and lick each other’s−”
“Stop!” Vix cringed. “We don’t need to know.”
“So she’s getting married,” said Jordan, leaning his wide muscular frame back into the creaky leather. As usual his long honey and wheat hair was tied back in a messy ponytail, and his strong jaw was shadowed by the beginning of stubble, something that the ladies always seemed to love. Not Vix, mind you. He was not her type. “Didn’t we expect that from them though?”
Balthazar raised an eyebrow studded with tiny horns and gave Jordan a weighted stare, his thin black slits centered in large navy irises unblinking. He finally blinked, then again with his second eyelids. “Let me rephrase that: Alyx is getting married to someone who isn’t Israel.”
The light went on behind Jordan’s pale jade eyes, the rim of his thick lashes forming twin O’s as they went wide. He slammed forward, his palms slapping the top of the thick wooden table, causing a few otherworldly patrons of Purgatory to glance over with mild curiosity. “It can’t be.”
“It can and it is. I heard it from a reliable source of mine.”
“Been keeping tabs on her all these years, have you?” Vix said, unable to hide her sneer.
“Don’t tell me,” Balthazar pointed a long, thin, blue-clawed finger at her, “you haven’t.”
She flinched. Then cursed herself internally for letting that slip of emotion get through. She had been keeping tabs on Alyx. She had known about this boyfriend like she had known about the one before, but she didn’t pay him too much attention. She thought he’d just fade out of her life as the previous one had done, because he wasn’t the right one. “I didn’t think I’d see the day when you’d care about something that didn’t benefit you.”
Balthazar shifted in his chair to face Vix head-on, an indignant look on his face, his tail making an agitated whipping sound across the floor. “I’m shocked you’d say such a thing.”
“Name one time you’ve helped us where you didn’t have a hidden agenda.”
His eyes narrowed and the top of his lip pulled up, flashing a row of very white, very sharp, very pointy teeth. “I don’t remember inviting you here.”
Vix leaned forward in her seat and Balthazar mirrored her aggression until they were almost nose to nose. “I don’t remember inviting you to poke your nose into our business.”
“I don’t need an invitation to care about old friends. You not being one of them.”
“I don’t need an invitation to punch you in the face.”
“Go on and try it. See how far you get.”
“Guys, settle down.” Jordan pushed them both back into their seats with his hands. “You can settle this pissing contest later. We’re going off topic.” His voice was cool and steady, having regained most of his former composure. “Alyx isn’t one of us anymore. She’s mortal, remember? She made her choice all those winters ago. She left the supernatural world. She chose him.”
Vix could hear the slight strain of bitterness in Jordan’s voice. She knew Jordan wasn’t still carrying a torch for Alyx; he was very happy and very much in love now, but it still had hurt that she had given all of them up when she gave up her immortal life.
Vix felt this same thread of bitterness herself. But she understood. If it had been her, and she had to decide between Xiang, the love of her life, and everyone else, she’d choose Xiang. Her heart panged when she thought about Xiang, a mortal, getting older day by day while she would never age, which meant one day…
She shoved that thought away into the very depths of her. Today was not about her problems.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Balthazar. “Now Alyx’s sacrifice will mean nothing.”
Vix shook her head. “We can’t let it happen. We need to do something.”
Jordan snorted and pushed back a wayward strand of hair. “What are we going to do? We can’t exactly show up at their wedding, kidnap her and take her to Israel, wherever he ended up.”
“Saint Joseph,” Vix and Balthazar said together.
Jordan gave her a look. “Now who’s been keeping tabs?” He frowned. “Wait, so they’ve both been living in Saint Joseph and they haven’t met yet? Not in almost twenty-five years?”
“No,” said Vix.
“Have you wondered why?”
“Maybe fate isn’t ready yet.”
“Or maybe they’re not supposed to meet.”
Vix recoiled, her breath sucking in through her teeth. “How can you say that?”
He shrugged. “If fate wanted them together, wouldn’t she have brought them together?”
“Well, fate has been slacking off. But we won’t. We can’t let her marry this guy, this…” she looked at Balthazar for help.
“The fiancé’s name is Daniel Hotham,” he said.
“Daniel Hotham.” Vix couldn’t help wrinkling her nose. “He sounds like an Englishman.”
“Worse. He’s an accountant.”
“Alyx is marrying an accountant? Our Alyx? Our sword-wielding, world-saving, kickass lightwarrior Alyx…marrying a suit?”
“She’s not ours anymore, remember?” said Jordan, his voice low and tight. “She’s not a sword-wielding, world-saving, kickass lightwarrior anymore. She won’t have remembered anything about who she was. Or us.”
“It doesn’t matter if she’s not wielding swords, she’s still Alyx. She can’t marry this…Daniel Hotherfaffle guy.”
“He might be a nice guy, Vix.”
“I don’t care if he’s the Pope. She can’t marry him.”
“I have the perfect solution,” Balthazar said.
“Kill the fiancé.” He beamed at them both. “Problem solved.”
Vix rolled her eyes. “We can’t just kill him.”
Balthazar frowned. “Why not? I could make it look like an accident. A little height, a little slipperty-boo. Splat. Gone. Easy.” He dusted his hands together.
“Because…” Vix glanced over to Jordan with what she hoped was a help me out here look.
He shrugged and sent back a look that she translated as this is your argument, you figure it out.
“Because,” she tried again, “we don’t just go around killing people just ’cause we don’t like them.”
“Demons do it all the time.”
“Yes, but Alyx lives in the mortal world and in the mortal world we play by mortal rules. No killing.”
Balthazar huffed. “What about a little maiming then?”
“You’re no fun.”
“Besides, getting rid of the fiancé still doesn’t get Alyx and Israel together. We just need to get them to meet…” And there were plenty of ways to get that to happen without revealing that they were behind it.
Jordan stared at her. “Oh no.”
“What?” asked Balthazar.
“I recognize that look.”
Balthazar turned to Vix with concern on his face. “Does it hurt?”
“Vix,” said Jordan, “whatever you’re thinking, don’t.”
“You don’t know what I’m−”
“You can’t mess with fate. It’s a bad idea.”
“I wouldn’t have picked you for a superstitious one, Jordan,” said Balthazar.
Jordan crossed his arms. “I’m not getting dragged into this.”
Vix grinned slyly at him. “You know, you still owe me that favor.”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Aww, come on. I need you for this diabolical scheme to work.”
“Schemes. I love schemes!” said Balthazar. “And I’m so good at them, too. I’m in.”
“Who invited you?” asked Vix.
Balthazar snorted. “Puh-lease. If the plan is diabolical then you need someone who is versed in all manners of diabolicaliness.”
“And you think you’d be any help?” she scoffed.
“I am the Master of Disaster. The Schemin’ Demon. I have a Ph.D. in diabology.”
“Sorry, no, you can’t sit at the big kids’ table.”
“You need me.”
“I need you like I need a pair of horns coming out my−”
“Vix,” warned Jordan.
“Pleeeeeease, Jordan.” Vix fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“Yeah, Jordan,” chimed in Balthazar, fluttering his own eyelashes. “We need you to keep her out of any real trouble.”
Vix glared daggers at him. “I’ll show you trouble.”
Jordan rolled his eyes and muttered, “You need me to stop you two from killing each other.” He sighed and Vix knew she had him. “Fine. But I don’t like this. Not one little bit.”
If you haven’t already, enter my EPIC Afterlife giveaway! WIN the entire Dark Angel collection in paperback and 4 of my fav reads! Click on the image below to enter.
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Some of you already know that I pledged 10% of my proceeds of the first month of Paper Dolls to a charity called Sea Sanctuary which assists young people with mental health issues. Quite frankly, I want to raise more money for them. So, 30% of my profits for all my books for the next three days of this sale will also go to Sea Sanctuary. So, don’t just be entertained for dirt cheap, help me make a difference! I’ve included more info about Sea Sanctuary below if you want to know what you’re helping to support. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
|Paper Dolls ~ 99c
My life comes down to this. Two faces. One choice.
Salem is my twin sister. She loved me. She protected me. She forgave me, even after I failed her. I just got her back after searching for three long, lonely years.
Then there’s Clay. Sweet yet intense and nursing a dark past of his own, he’s all the redemption I don’t deserve. He wants to open me up and know the insides of my soul. I want to let him, but I’m scared he’ll run from what he finds.
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Bound by Lies (Bound #1) ~ FREE
Our love is on his terms. He contacts me only through notes − unpredictable and untraceable. When we meet, he can touch me, but I’m not allowed to touch him. When we make love, it’s only after I have been bound and blindfolded. It’s the only time I truly feel alive. Which is why I play along with it. For now.
Caden Thaine is the most sinfully beautiful man I have ever seen. But more than that, his touch sets me on fire. And dear God, do I ache for him. I know he’s hiding something. The deeper I fall for him, the stronger my curiosity becomes.
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|Bound Forever (Bound #2) ~ 99c
The stunning conclusion to Bound by Lies…
Adult romantic suspense. +18 years.
|Girl Wife Prisoner ~ 99c
Drake Blackwell is intelligent, successful, controlling, and hiding a violent family past. He just made his latest investment: Noriko.
Imported from Japan and wed to a stranger, 17 year old Noriko struggles to stick to the rules of a Good Wife. Drake can’t seem to love her, not the way she wants to be loved. She dreams of freedom beyond the gates of Blackwell Manor.
She meets Keir, a passionate young gardener who ignites a fire in her she can’t ignore. In the midst of her quiet desperation she thinks she has found happiness. And a glimpse of hope.
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A tragic love affair told from different perspectives… Girl Wife Prisoner will have you questioning if anyone is truly innocent. Whose side are you on?
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A little about Sea Sanctuary…
Sea Sanctuary was set-up in 2006 by my friend, Joseph Sabien, a survivor who had a violent mother with mental health issues and spent years in foster-care because of it. Their work is recognised by the NHS, and in 2013, they won the Google & Sainsbury’s Award for Innovation, and last year were nominated for the BBC Radio 4 ‘All in the Mind’ Award.
By purchasing one or more of my books during this sale, you’ll be helping to improve the lives of mental health sufferers.
Sea Sanctuary Charity No. 1117038: http://www.seasanctuary.org.uk/