FEAR THE DARKNESS
#3 of The Dark Series
What if your future is your past...
“It’s no’ as simple as that,” Tom tells me, rubbing the back of his neck. “The keys are dark magic forged by the original seven.”
I stand on the wrong side of the wards in the Rock & Rumbler, my local pub. Dusty sconces emit a soft-blue light over a couple of booths, a pool table, and the bar. Five minutes ago, I strolled into this bar with the sole intention of prizing information away from Tom. Can the stones and the hourglass be used together? Which I suspect they can, I’m just after validation.
I breathe in through my nose and out through the mouth. Controlled and measured. “Simplify it for me.”
His gaze strays away. “The hourglass can be used as a mechanism to rewind time. But”—he wipes at a nonexistent mark on the spotless bar—“That key will nae allow you to change what has already happened. For that, you need the stones.”
Exactly as I suspected. Two keys can be used together to enhance their power.
Except, rumor has it the last person to see those stones was my sister, and she’s dead. No one’s seen hide nor hair of those pebbles for seven long years—the same amount of time I lost travelling through a factory-sized portal before catapulting out onto a giant crimson planet to battle the insane locals.
“Where can I find the other bloodlines of the original seven who created the keys?” I ask because having a walking, talking user’s manual would go a long way to helping me learn how to channel the damn things.
Ruess’s green-velvet ball gown which clashes with her smooth caramel skin, rustles. “All pure bloodlines from the original seven are dead.”
Bam. Just like that she steals my idea of reuniting all the bloodlines. “But what you’re saying can’t be true. Because I’m still here. Which means there’s still one bloodline left.”
Tension between the hot barman, Tom, and Ruess, the dangerous demigoddess, is rife—so much so, it bounces off the walls and into the back of my head. Strong hands grasp me by the back of my neck, scraping me across the bar until I’m on the right side of the wards.
“Then why don’t you tell her?” She smacks both palms onto the bar. Her thin gold bracelets jingle as they clash into one another. “Tell her there are no bloodlines left. Tell her they were all killed off. Ask her why she doesn’t remember this.” She points to me. “You are not one of the original seven. I have seen it.”
A strong accusation. But I’ve stopped listening. I came here to find a way to save my sister. Now the goddess makes my mind whir with contradicting information. I know I’m a direct descendant, I can channel the bracelet…. And the knife. And it seems, the hourglass. That’s three keys under my rule.
What if Ruess is right? What if I’m not a direct descendant, what if I’m something else?
I rub the pressure from my temples. What if two or more of the bloodlines crossed between families, creating a new line of descendants—like a hybrid—one person who can use more than one key? If I’m the said hybrid, then I might not need the others, I can channel those keys myself to tweak a minute in time to save my sister’s life.
Tom slams a palm down on the bar and stares daggers at the demigoddess.
Ruess smirks with delight from across the bar. She looks like she’s put two and two together and come up with forty-two. I’m still unsure how much of the future she sees or how accurate the information is. But if she believes all pure descendants from the original seven are dead, then maybe, just maybe, my hybrid theory is right.
As a direct bloodline, I’m not supposed to be able to channel the power of more than one key. But with mixed blood in my genotype, I can control many. Problem. No one’s game enough to confirm my suspicions. Which leaves half answers, good guesses, and a wild imagination. Time runs too short for me to prove this new theory.
Ruess turns those crazy white eyes my way. “Your future cannot be the keys, little one. You have Khaos in your veins. She alone renders them worthless.”
For a moment, I’d forgotten there’s an insane monster chartering the other half of my mind, unravelling a network of memories she claims belong to me. “Meaning?”
She flicks her wrist in the air. “Eventually, she’s going to burrow out of whatever hole you buried her in, and you will kill us all.”
My breath catches. Khaos, the goddess of all evil, wants out from the other side of my mind, and Ruess just confirmed that between me and the challenging goddess, we destroy about a billion innocents. It’s a pretty big claim to swallow.
But she’s wrong on both accounts.
I refuse to destroy this world, and the keys mean everything. They will bring my sister back from the dead. Along with her unborn child.
And I know just how I’m going to do it, too.
Ruess’s white marble-like eyes watch me with intent. She can probably hear my thoughts better than me—given she claims she can read minds better than a telepath.
“Interesting dilemma,” she murmurs. “Keys, Carla, Khaos.” Her scarlet lips lift but not with humor. Her face dismantles me. She still hasn’t mastered how to smile with genuine emotion. Not human. Never human.
I straighten my spine. “You think Khaos will break me, then this world. You don’t think I can control her. Even though I’m doing a bang-up job so far.” No one has to know the goddess of all death and destruction has somehow managed to chisel a hairline fracture into the two-story-high barricade Black imprisoned her behind. They don’t need to know she converses with me, tempts me with nothing but my own memories. I wonder what her strategy is. If she wants the world totaled, flattened like a pancake, then why waste energy trying to unravel memories I don’t remember. Memories, she reckons, Black knotted into some kind of network inside my own mind. Ruess’s gown shimmers as she moves to stand, regal and tall, dark hair flowing, she leans forward.
“Stay away from the keys, and you might just save us all.”
I don’t back down. To show weakness is to show I’m not in control of Khaos. “Sounds like you’re saying the goddess and the keys are a bad combination.”
“This is not your fight, Ruess,” Tom warns.
The time for warning is over. Tom’s just filling in space, trying to make it look like he doesn’t want Ruess to spill the beans. But we all know if he really doesn’t want her to open her mouth, he can assemble enough menace to support his threat. So far, he hasn’t resorted to that level.
Ruess ignores me, instead, baring her tiny sharp teeth at Tom. “Brandy. Don’t bother with the glass.”
Tom hesitates before he snatches a large bottle filled three-quarters full with a dark copper-colored liquid off the shelf.
Ruess takes a large swig then offers the rest across the bar to me. I lean across the wooden bench to accept the liquor. My fingers graze hers. Smart demigoddess.
The second my skin comes in contact with hers, words, smooth, intoxicating, fill my thoughts.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies in your bed. This is the immortal playground, and you are a fish out of a pond.”
I take a large mouthful of the fiery drink which burns the inside of my cheeks and the back of my throat. “Water,” I correct. “Fish out of water.”
Tom glances between us. “Private conversations between two are rude when there’s a third person present.”
The soft jingle of her thin gold bracelets cut through the tension as she lets me go. “I am but a vessel, passing on information formed from the patterns seen when she accidently touched me.”
Accidently? I’m pretty sure she orchestrated the entire event.
Tom grumbles. “Aye, right. Say what you have to say then leave.”
Ruess lifts a delicate eyebrow. For someone who looks like she’s been crafted from china, I get the distinct impression she’s unbreakable.
The skirts of her velvet green ball gown swishes against the floor as the exquisite demigoddess turns her shoulders then, spine straight, saunters from the Rock. The bottle of Brandy tight in her grasp.
I jump over the bench onto the wrong side of the wards.
“You cannae trust her as far as you could throw her,” Tom retorts.
I glance back. “I’ve a bucket load of people I can’t trust, she joined the queue halfway between Black, Dillon, and Marinus.”
He shakes his dark head. “You’re being too hard on the boss. He’s no’ lying to you.”
I glare at him, annoyed he’s coming to Black’s defense. Hell, I’m always annoyed if Tom defends Black. Black is everything that’s complicated in my life. He’s stubborn, brutal, and damn right dangerous.
My temper boils until I remember this paradigm of my existence is about to become obsolete. When I get my hands on those stones, the future will be changed for good. Somehow, someway, I’m going to layer those keys to save my family. The repercussions of my actions will prevent an unknown virus infecting my cells, curing Marinus’s disease after he injected his blood into my neck trying to change me from human to ghoul, Black won’t exist for me, and the chance of Tom ever crossing my path will never occur.
Something close to regret stirs deep within my soul. The dark pit which seems to have doubled in size overnight, rears up to snap its hungry jaws around the emotion. I yank back, shocked at its transformation.
A soft click echoes off the brick walls inside the Rock. A vinyl record is selected somewhere in the depths of the jukebox storage compartment. A whirl and grind before the black disc is pulled vertically through a slot then flipped horizontally onto the turntable before the needle begins its journey across the smooth grooves. A soft intro to one of my favorite tunes bounces through tiny speakers mounted here and there around the bar.
I head toward the jukebox. “You have Cher? On vinyl?”
The singer’s burlesque voice bellows out across the bar. They’d call us Gypsies, tramps, and thieves….
“Aye. Aren’t you a little too young for this song?”
The barn door, which serves as the entrance, bursts apart. Splinters spray wood all over the pub. All over me!
Ghouls follow. Yellow slits for eyes. Yellow needles for teeth, gnashing and hissing, “Death to Summer,” they screech in unison.
“Tell me you have the dirk,” Tom yells as he jumps the bar.
“No.” It’s under the seat in the car on account I’m fed up with stabbing myself.
They run at me, the first ghoul attacking. He lands on my fist which slams into his jaw. Bone breaks, saliva sprays, body fluid flies in all directions, over walls, over the orange-and-green lights of the jukebox, splattering warm wet blood across my cheeks, in my hair.
But every night all the men would come around….
What feels like a rocket double taps me. Once in the face. Again in the stomach. I stumble back. The corner of the pool table catches my hip, spinning me off balance, throwing me over the blue felt.
No, not throwing me over the felt. Tom’s throwing me over the felt. I think he shifted to save my fall before launching back to the entrance, trying to stem the barrelage of ghouls pouring into the Rock. Crunch. My knight in shining armor smashes knuckles and fists into the ghouls who don’t give up scrabbling through the shattered doorframe, one after the other.
I roll to my feet, trying not to break the hourglass in my pocket then slam a five-inch stiletto heel through the gray skull of a ghoul trying to bite my leg. More blood sprays. Damn! The head’s stuck, impaled on my heel. Stamp. Kick. Stamp.
She was born in the wagon of a travelin’ show….
“Either get behind the wards or fight,” Tom bellows, punching his way through minion after minion.
If I have a comeback, it gets lost. Ghouls circumvent the barman, heading menace and murder my way.
Her mama had to dance for the money they’d throw….
At last, the head loosens, flinging off. Madly, I glance around for a weapon, any weapon. There. Mounted on the wall just to my right are two pool cues. Bingo. I reach out to grab one from the bracket, but something snags my ponytail, yanking me backward. A loud crack splinters across the back of my skull as my head makes contact with the solid foot on the pool table. A giant-sized headache punches into my brain, dark spots filter my vision, casting shadows across my sight. A strong arm snakes around my throat. I dig nails into ice-cold flesh.
“Tom,” I gasp for help.
Except I can’t see him anymore. Just a floor full of disgusting gray webbed feet with thick yellow toes.
The arm banding my neck tightens.
But every night all the men would come around and lay their money down….
Shrieks fill the room. A heavy weight to the stomach and another ghoul appears in my face trying to extinguish me. I bicycle kick, managing to get a heel wedged somewhere in his body before flinging him off, only for him to be replaced by another gray skinny freak who lurches both knees onto my chest, knocking the wind out of me.
Blindly, I panic, fumbling fingers around the base of the pool table, over the engraved feet, up the paneling. Yes! Just as I’d hoped. This is an old table, one which isn’t coin operated—which means the balls are not stored behind a glass pane. Instead, they’re free, easy to access. I grab a ball and smash the solid resin into the temple of the ghoul strangling me. He keels over. I gasp in one quick lungful of oxygen then swap the ball into my right hand because it’s far stronger than my left then crack the ball straight into the teeth of another spitting ghoul about to attack. He shrieks, blood and God knows what else spews from his mouth. I fling myself to the side.
No time to waste. The next wave of aggressors runs straight for me. I belly crawl under the pool table. Something strong locks onto my ankle, dragging me out. Pure terror consumes me until I remember I have ten inches of defense screwed into the bottom of my shoes. I kick like a mad woman, connecting with any part of their body over and over until, at last, the ghoul releases. Digging broken nails into the carpet, I heave myself back under the protection of the table. But there’s no time to stop. I have to either buckle up with a weapon or make my way to the wards.
I roll out and up, snatching at the cues.
What the hell!
Both wooden shafts are snatched off the wall by a pair of wrinkly gray hands.
“Summer,” Tom roars.
“Wards,” I guess.
I jerk just before one of the cues smashes down where my head used to be, the pole breaking in two. Snatching the second piece, I thrust the jagged edge up, catching the offensive in the chest. He goes down like a lead balloon.
I check for Tom across the Rock crammed with ghouls who just keep coming. He’s fighting for his life, blurring at the edges he’s moving so fast.
“Get to somewhere I can grab you!” he yells. “Then I’ll shift us.”
Great plan. If there happens to be anywhere clear.
Fingers tangle in my hair, yanking my head back. Reactive, I jab the broken cue behind me once, twice, and my hair is mine again. Whirling around, I stab the same ghoul in the throat. If I have to choose between them and me, then it’s me, every time.
I turn my spine to the wall. A tactic to ensure anything and everything coming for me has to do so either from the front or side.
“Why won’t you die?” they hiss in unison.
The ghouls don’t hang around for small talk or to listen to my response, if I had one. Instead, they attack.
I swing left, jut the sharp edge of my stick into a blurred face then turn right then bring both arms up sharp with the cue as a barrier between my neck and the ghoul about to throttle me.
“Tom!” I’m the frigging elephant attempting to squash the ants. Yeah, I can take out several, or more, but they just keep coming.
“Need a clear path,” he shouts, but I can’t see him.
I use the body of the ghoul still gripping the cue to take down another four, but I’m not winning the war. Or even the battle. Fear breeds fast.
The weight-bearing ghoul puts strain on my upper arms. Lactic acid builds. Muscles and ligaments shake.
Pain lances into the side of my midsection, fire licks behind my ribs. I scream. The other half of the broken cue—the one I’m not holding—juts out between bones. Oh, God, it didn’t hurt this much when I stabbed myself during a fight with Jacob.
Pain engages my temper. Rage boils. Releasing one hand from the cue, I use that fist to drive the ghoul’s nose through his own skull. He drops to the floor like a dead weight. With grim determination, I grip the broken pole sticking out of my side, grit down, and yank. Hard. Wood saws against bone. Bitter saliva rises halfway up my throat. I spit and pull harder until the wicked end of the cue jerks out, ripping flesh and blood with it. I keep the second weapon in my hand and let my body do the healing. If I have to lose either cue to put pressure on the wound, then I’m already dead.
Time runs short.
My left hand is the weakest, so I swing the cue up and under my arm, the nasty edge pointing backward to cover my back as I charge toward the wards. Shoulders down, I slam into the minions.
One after the other, I keep pushing through until something hard catches the backs of my knees. I roll to break my fall then duck under a couple of long bony fingers, crawling over a couple of injured ghouls who half attempt to pull me back. I kick out, using them as leverage, climbing over them trying to reach the pool table when three more ghouls slam into my legs and stomach, lifting me clean up off the floor. They bowl me shoulder first over the back of a seating bench onto one of the booths.
Sudden impact causes bone to grind against bone in the base of my neck. Panic evades all thought. I ignore my own body screaming at me to stop and recover, instead, rolling through the gap between the cushion and the fixed table to land heavy on a sticky floor covered with beer and soft crisps. Trying not to think about what I’m rolling around in, I fumble out from under the table. Something grabs my jacket collar, dragging me. I slide on all the blood soaking the carpet then shrug off the coat along with whatever’s grasping it.
The safe haven of the wards are too far away. I grab the frame of the pool table and drag myself upright onto blue felt when I smell sulfur. Khaos! “Are you kidding me! You’re going to kill us both!”
“Tom,” I scream, kicking at a couple more ghouls. “I’m on the pool table. Top off. I’m going to pass out!”
If Tom’s still in the room, I don’t hear him. I can’t see him, and I’m at the highest pinnacle.
But not for much longer.
My jelly legs are having trouble keeping me upright. “Tom!”
I check the bar. See if there’s a miracle waiting. No such luck. While there might not be any ghouls behind the bar, there’s about thirty in front. Either guarding the wards to ensure I never make it across or they’re waiting their turn to fight.
“Tom!” I stumble, ten inches of stiletto now work against me. “Tom!”
“You think he can help you.”
My heart all but jumps out of my rib cage. “Stop this before we’re both torn apart.”
“You are no fun,” she sulks.
“When they murder me. You die, too.”
Venom pours over chocolate. “Not quite.”
Long fingers with pointy nails snag my ankle. I plummet to my knees. What feels like concrete punches into my shins. The blackout threatening to conquer me flickers at the edges of my vision seconds before my head hits the felt. I think I see gray bodies spin cartwheels of legs and arms as if someone lifts them like feathers, flinging them left or right.
Through a gap in all the mayhem, I think I see five glowering men fighting dirty, mutilating, slaying. And somewhere in all the chaos, I think I see silver flash around onyx.
“Keese.” Black’s sonorous voice infiltrates my murky thoughts.
I try to drag myself from the darkness inside my own mind.
“If you tell him about the crack in his wall, he will fill it,” Khaos whispers, desperate. Whatever the goddess of death and destruction is doing with those hidden memories inside my mind, she doesn’t want Black to figure it out.
I try to shake her off.
“He slit his wife’s throat,” her honeyed voice reminds me. “Ask yourself whether you can trust him.” Khaos plays the strings so well.
“You tried to destroy me only moments ago,” I snap.
“Not true.” Her voice takes on a childlike quality. “I would never intentionally hurt my host.”
“You forget too easily. I remember when you took control of my body, killed hundreds of innocents and had sex with Marinus, ask yourself if I can trust you.”
“Don’t make me come inside and get you, Keese.”
Black’s bark is worse than his bite, but either way, I don’t want him in here. I don’t want him knowing Khaos converses with me.
I feel around with my hands. Hard base, soft felt. “You left me unconscious on the pool table?” Didn’t he think to move me? Where did all the chivalrous heroes go?
He growls something deep and resounding in the back of his throat. My breath hitches. My skin tightens and tingles in the most primitive way. His fingers brush against my bare arm. Fire burns my veins. Quick flashes follow in succession—him flipping me onto my front buck naked, my hands tangled in his hair. All man and muscle, he slips over my back, fully aroused with nothing but skin between us. I thread my fingers through the carpet and arch against his ridged chest. His head dips to bite the sensitive part between where my neck creases into my shoulder. I moan.
“Keese,” he growls his warning.
I snap out of the lucid recollection. Eyes of onyx above cheekbones carved from slate, narrow. Light stubble coats his jaw. He is darkness of the wrong kind.
“Stay out of my head,” I demand.
His upper lip curls. “You have the distinct scent of lies and deceit hailing around you.”
“Just lies and deceit. No ghoul guts or blood?”
“What did Ruess want?”
What? We’re surrounded by the remains of Marinus’s minions and he’s sore about the demigod. I eye him. He’s up to something. “You think Ruess is a liar?”
“Hidden agendas for shallow victories. Be careful whom you trust.”
I push up onto my elbows. “Like I can trust you?”
Memories rush inside my head again. My mouth tilts to meet his lips. Sensations spin a heady cocktail of wild pleasure. He bruises me with his demands. I claw at his trousers, letting go of my last thread of self-control, shuddering with excitement.
I knock my head left then right. I just laid those memories to rest under a ton of concrete. Why are they popping to the surface? Conscious fights the primitive. Modern-day intelligence fights Neanderthal wants. Emotions war. What’s wrong with me? Ruess says he’s the puppet master pulling all the strings for his own purpose in a war which Khaos believes ended over a thousand years ago. Yet, all I can think about is what it would feel like to have Black drive all the power and rage into my body. How it would feel if one simple decision changed from no to yes.
“Who are you?” I whisper.
His lips compress. “Beyond your comprehension.”
“She’s a goddamn walking beacon,” a different, booming male voice interjects. “Pulsating with a red neon sign over her head. She needs extinguishing, and I’m more than happy to do it.”
I bolt upright, heart thumping.
Four scowling men, in tight black tees with leather trousers, stand knee-deep in body parts. Leather is a good idea. Body waste doesn’t stick to the slick material.
“Are you going to introduce me?” I ask Black, not sure how to feel about the hostile audience.
“Because he doesn’t want us to kill you for the inconvenience.” The smallest of the group at six foot rumbles at me.
I glance between Black and his pissed-off entourage. “Inconvenience?”
“Yeah. For ruining our night by having to come dig you out of a deep hole full of shit.”
“Aris,” Black warns.
Where have I heard his name before?
“Fuck you, War. Either deal with this bitch or I will.”
Tom slams five shot glasses on the bench followed by a bottle of whisky, interrupting what appears to be a situation about to go bad. He looks like shit, immaculate hair standing on end, crimson streaks across his face. Unperturbed, he free pours the amber liquid into each glass. Liquor splashes up the sides, but not one single drop slips over the lip. Four scowling men grab a glass and knock back the entire contents. Their eyes never leave my face.
I glance to Black. He leans his hip against the edge of the table. I sniff the air. Playing casual. His scent, or the scent clinging to him…. I recognize it. The cogs in my mind take a couple of precious seconds to shuffle information into some sort of order. There, hidden away behind all the other stuff which has happened over the past three weeks, is a single memory. The chemical smell belongs to a night I spent with Black in a nightclub. The very same one where Marinus sank his jaws into my neck.
“You went clubbing?” I ask in disbelief. Although it does explain my primitive response to him. They pump the place full of exotic chemicals to enhance the patrons’ deepest, darkest desires.
He arches a brow.
Aris steps forward. Dark hair shaved close to his head and golden irises flashing with hostility. Testosterone flares off him and bounces into me. “You can smell him?” He grabs my chin, mouth drawn tight into a hard line. “The look on your face says you can smell me.”
I swallow. Danger doesn’t roll off this man in waves, it cascades down like Niagara fucking Falls. Both Black and Aris are hard men, but with Black, when it comes to me, he has this generous side. He might not always have my back, but I don’t truly believe he would kill me in cold blood. Aris on the other hand…I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him. He would snap my neck before breakfast so I wouldn’t spoil his cornflakes.
“Fucking cute, blondie.”
“Are you talking to me?” I snap back. “Because last time I looked, I had red hair.” No thanks to the psychopathically engineered goddess taking up space in my head.
Thick fingers yank my ponytail.
“Hey!” I shout.
Since my scalp happens to be attached to my hair, I follow until he has my head hanging off the frame of the pool table.
“Whoa, what are you doing?” I attempt to keep my body on the table instead of face planting into sticky ghoul remains. “Let me go!”
“You’re right,” he snarls. “I would break your neck, but not before breakfast. Creatures like myself, we don’t wake that early.”
I still happen to be clutching the second part of the snapped pool cue. Without fully weighing the consequences, I bring it down sharp onto the wrist holding my hair tight. The light-brown wood spears, splintering through his skin, exploding out of his palm.
He yanks his hand away. Silence fills the room. A pulse beats just under his right eye. “Any time you want to go to war, princess.”
He folds his other fingers around the cue on the inside of his palm then drags the weapon through muscle and anything else it pierced. I shudder. He laughs. His three comrades crack up. Tom shakes his head. I scuffle into a sitting position. Black frowns. He turns to Aris—who stops laughing.
Tension, thicker than double-whipped frozen ice cream, pours into the room. Even Tom looks uncertain. Two alpha’s about to go head-to-head. Time to make a move.
I roll off the pool table. No one notices. Except Tom, who shifts blurred lines over to me. His firm arm bands my waist. He nods at Black then we displace from the Rock in a gust of high winds and darkness. Seconds later, I’m a solid atomic composition of flailing arms and legs waiting for the world to stop spinning at the speed of light.
Two dark gargantuan doors, guarding the entrance to Black’s house, fall into focus. Ominous.
I take a couple of moments to get my stomach under control because shifting with Keepers is like being on a roller-coaster without those specially designed safety harnesses, the ones which come all the way over your head and lock into place over your shoulders.
For the second time tonight, I keep the limited contents of my stomach where they should be before I hit Tom with a one-line sentence. “Take me back.”
He reels. “Lass, do you have a death wish? We are nae going back.”
I get what he’s saying. Only a fool would saunter back in there. But I dumped my coat when the ghouls had used it as a means of restraint. “The hourglass is in the pocket of my jacket.”
“Feck!” He kicks at the gouge in the road courtesy of my Draco. “You really know how to balls things up.”
I feel his pain, but either way, I’m going back. “You can shift me. We can be in and out without them ever knowing.” Stupid words to come out of my stupid mouth. Those men aren’t human. The second we step anywhere near the place, they’ll know about it. But I can’t leave one of the keys in the Rock. Those men…beings, if they get their hands on my key, I’ll never see it again. “I’m not afraid of them. Either you shift us or I walk.” Since the car is parked out the front of the pub.
He scrubs a hand over his face. “How about we bargain.”
“Like a deal?”
“Aye, I’ll get the hourglass. You stay here. Safe.” His crystal blues fill with worry. “Away from Aris. Away from Black’s men.”
My jaw drops. “That’s where I’ve heard the name Aris before.” The memories Khaos shared are still a little vague, but when the psychotic goddess unpicked the boundaries and stole my body for six days, Aris the man…being…creature transported her from the club to the second level of this house.
“You’re not going on your own,” I urge. “I’m going with you.” It’s not that I don’t trust Tom…. I don’t trust anyone. “Take me to the car. I’ll do the rest.”
He caves, his conscience battling the young woman asking for help.
Strong hands span my waist. “If Black asks, you walked. Got it.”
“Loud and clear.” I brace for the ride.
Seconds of being blasted like a freefalling skydiver, the scarlet lit sign for the Rock and Rumbler swings dangerously over my head. Tom’s hands slip away. He doesn’t say anything. Just stares the words your self-destruction, your grave.
“What other choices do I have,” I whisper. “Let the Famous Five walk away with my key.”
“You’re too young to know about the Famous Five.”
“So you keep telling me.”
“You’re too young to go in there on your own. They will destroy you. Aris, the other men, they’re not like Black. Black has this special connection with you. The others don’t.”
“This is my idea. My plan.”
“Lass, if this were my idea, I’d wait till every single one of those men vacated the building then I’d ventured on in there.”
Wise words, I might just accept.
A breeze kicks my hair. The bartender disappears, leaving me alone.
All of the sudden, any blazing urge to storm the pub, snatch my coat with the hourglass, and give Aris my two-pence worth dies a miserable death. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. Who am I kidding? This is a terrible idea. But I can’t risk the key landing in someone else’s lap. Be that Black, his men, or any ghoul who happens to survive.
Nerves frayed, I tiptoe to the splintered doorframe then peer inside.
Every ghoul dead or dying has been removed. Any remnant of there ever being a fight to the death is the blood which soaks the carpet. Five men stand, gathered around the bar, their backs to me. Attitude rolls off their shoulders in sheets.
I shiver. Honestly? There’s no way I’m going in there. Best choice, bunker down and wait them out.
Then I spy my coat slung over the jukebox. A good guess says I can get to it in three steps, four at the most. Eight, there and back. I glance over my shoulder, but the car is the issue. The second I turn the ignition, all five specimens of brawn and brute will know where I am and what I’ve done.
Looks like I will be walking back to the house.
Keeping a close eye on the men slamming down drinks faster than a pub full of students on Friday night, I put my back to the brickwork then edge closer to the jukebox.
“I’m telling you, War, you don’t know what the fuck she is.” Aris’s voice booms off all four walls. “She waltzes back through the goddamn portal after seven years without a fucking mark on her body.” He slams an empty glass down in front of Black who fills it. “Khaos breaks the barriers, and the chit survives. Not one of them survived Khaos. None!”
Black drains the bottle of whiskey. “Times have changed.”
Glass smashes. “You have to destroy her.”
Without warning, Black’s fist slams through the bar, shards of wood shower the broad chests of all four men. “She belongs to me,” he barks.
None of them move. Air charges with static to the point my hair almost crackles with it. But them arguing is exactly what I need. They’re too busy fighting to notice me creeping into the room, arm stretched out.
Just a little bit farther and my fingers will brush the material….
“You can’t keep her alive any longer, War,” a different voice interrupts. “We’re long past the destroy date without a road map.”
I stop dead still. I recognize that voice. It’s the same exotic tone which conversed with Black when I had the skin flayed from my body after Marinus and his ghouls tried to kill me. For a second, I’m screaming for my life again, transported back to the alley beside the shop where I got my sister’s camera film developed.
Cyrun is one of Black’s men? Figures.
Torn between wanting to grab my coat then run all the way back home, or wanting to see what Cyrun looks like, I shuffle around to get a better view.
I realize my stupid mistake the second the exotic stranger spots me.
Eyes slightly widen—his, not mine. Because I bet mine are like dinner plates. A rabbit in headlights. Frozen to the spot, waiting for the inevitable.
The man most women would die just to touch, chucks a handful of peanuts into his mouth, snaps his jaws around the shells then chews.
Pulse pounding, I think he’s given me a reprieve. I don’t waste it. I take the last step to the jukebox, grab my coat then backtrack. Fast. All while gawking at the man I think might be Cyrun.
He never breaks eye contact. I keep my pace. Hoping the raucous confrontation between Black and Aris covers the sound of my footsteps, not to mention the shortness of my breath.
Fingers grasping the jacket, I edge just a little bit farther, one more step and I’ll be out, home free. I’m almost there….
“Going somewhere, Keese.”
My heart misses a whole beat.
“Just getting my coat,” I squeak.
“Where’s the leash, War?” Aris snaps. “Because if you don’t clip the bitch, I will.”
The next thing, Black’s fist clouted Aris in the face, knocking muscle and mouth flying into tables. The room becomes saturated with violent belligerence. Like a fool, Aris staggers to his feet. Bodies collide, strength and power.
Time for me to make a very fast exit.
And I would. If I could. But all of a sudden, Cyrun appears at my side, leaning Egyptian decadence up against my body and a forearm across the top of the damaged doorframe. I’m trapped.
“Funny thing,” I squeal, babbling to conceal frazzled nerves. “I never expected you to look so….” Daunting. Beautiful. Deadly…. “Big.”
Straight white teeth snap at me. “Gorgeous, I could eat you up as an entrée.” He slips desire over my shoulders.
I shrug him off. There’s no way I look gorgeous with splatters of ghoul blood smeared across my face, matted in my hair.
Sounds like Black and Aris are fighting for supremacy to lead the pack.
“No one leads the pack, gorgeous.”
Not another one. “Stay out of my head. I don’t grant Black permission. I don’t grant you permission.” I swallow. Hard.
Cyrun’s arresting gray eyes shimmer with controlled anger. “Permission is a human restraint.”
“Permission is our right,” I argue with the Egyptian prince. Then stop. I stare into his irises and do what I should have done seconds ago. I read minds, it’s my thing. I make the connection.
Ice fills my soul, freezing me inside out. Nothing but hollow darkness and snowflakes greet me. Shadows howl from every angle, their torment crawls along my flesh.
“Get out!” a booming voice bellows.
Shaking with fear, I hack through the bond. Fast.
Cyrun’s lips curl with distain, teeth bared. “Think you can peel back the tiers which make me?”
I shake my head.
He leans in closer. “You don’t have the strength to walk among the lies and treachery hidden away in here.”
His sugar-coated tone doesn’t fool me. I don’t miss the barely veiled warning. I have no doubt if I try the stunt again, he won’t be so patient next time.
I change the subject to save my neck. “Thank you for the fix.”
He nods once. “War found you in a bad way.” He runs his forefinger down the side of my cheek. “How are the repercussions?”
I turn my face away, trying to compose myself. I suspect the repercussions are my superior eyesight and enhanced hearing. “I can live with them.”
Grays gleam. “That so, gorgeous. Tough little alley cat can live off scraps.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “More of a lioness feeding off elk,” I counter, making sure he knows I’ve got claws. I tilt my chin. “Those repercussions, they permanent?”
He shrugs, nonchalant. “A question without a simple answer. Who knows? I could be therapy for a sick woman or an antidote for a virus.”
Virus? I stop my jaw from dropping. “You’re the virus killing off my blood cells?”
He chuckles. “Killing, enhancing, evolving.”
Panic overrides astonishment. “Am I going to die?”
“We all die in the end, gorgeous.”
He’s right. I was dying then, and I would have accepted any help. At any price. “I’m grateful.”
Self-indulgence leans closer. “I’m not Black. I don’t have a soft spot for you.”
I haven’t forgotten, right before he knitted me back together, he strongly advised Black to let me go. “Yet, you still did as he bid.”
One side of his mouth lifts. “I’m a complicated creature.”
I smile all sugar and candy. “Thanks for the advice.”
He peers at my face, watching with intent. “War is a hard man. But I’m with Aris. You walk out of a portal seven years later, somebody somewhere needs to ask questions.”
My spine straightens. “You think Black should be asking those?”
He eyes me. “He’s got his hands full.”
The battle in the background comes to a stop. I don’t wonder who’s won. I’ve been with Black for several weeks, I’ve seen him fight. Aris should be pummeled into the floor by now.
“Keese. Get your arse in the car. Now!”
I turn to Black. Sexuality plows right into my gut. I gulp. There’s not a mark on his striking features. I grip my coat tighter to my body for protection. His eyes narrow, suspicion takes a stroll across his face. He, unlike all the others, suspects I’m up to something. But then again, he would. He knows me.
“I’m going already.” I scramble out from underneath Cyrun’s arm, edging back. All five men stare ice at me. These men fly in the face of convention. Rules don’t exist. Dark men with dark secrets. I’d like to say I’m not caught up with them. Yet, somehow, I get the feeling I’d be very, very wrong.
Freshly showered and wearing a set of clothes from my overnight bag Dillon kept after our Amsterdam trip, I drop facedown on the bed. Everything else I own is either covered in ghoul gunk or destroyed. I glance over to the bag of clothes Amsterdam police returned to me. Carla’s clothes. A week ago, my goal was simple—prevent the sale of Mum and Dad’s house. But then I accidently took a walk in Marinus’s mind and lost three days of my life along with my family home. Then he authorized his blood to be injected into my neck which cost me another six days of my soul to Khaos who broke the barrier. She went on to use my body to have sex with the monster before turning her talents to murdering innocents in Glasgow city. The place I call my home.
I also wanted to hunt down all seven keys and bury them six feet under. But that was before I put two and two together and figured out I’m mixed blood. A hybrid who can use more than one key to change a segment in time to stop my sister’s senseless murder.
The whole game has been thrown out the window, and a new set of rules just got introduced. I wrap cold fingers around the warm hourglass. My desires are simple—I want my sister and I want my parents. I’ve lived through the impossible, and I want those stones to create the possible.
“At what cost, little girl.”
Khaos. “I have no doubt there will be a cost.”
The insatiable goddess uncurls behind her barrier. “Could it be my little host has finally spun her silky cocoon, ready to transform from caterpillar to butterfly.”
“I’m already a butterfly. Five wings, remember?”
Honeyed laughter. “If you did have five wings, you do not anymore. Marinus clipped them.”
Unease creeps over my shoulders. “You think your words cut deep?”
“Little Summer Keese,” she purrs. “Forged from the depths of hell. Bonded at birth, we are inseparable. Indissoluble. Indivisible. I know what cuts deep. I feel it inside of you.”
I jump, slipping off the tangled bed sheets until I crush carpet.
“Was that necessary,” I snap at the mountain of a man towering over me.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Playing cricket,” I retort with sarcasm.
“Then stop frolicking with the ball and get the fuck off the floor.”
“Is there anything in particular you wanted?” I say through gritted teeth as I push up to face him. Holy cow! Did Black just double his sex appeal? I shake my head to loosen his hold on my senses. No, it’s not his hold, it’s the chemicals from the nightclub. But chemicals or not, I’d like to bottle up his allure and sell it for a fortune. Well, that’s the clean version. The unclean version is suppressed on account I don’t want him jumping into my head to know.
“You shouldn’t have returned to the Rock.” His voice slides carnal lust over my shoulders, down my spine, my back arches into his nonexistent touch.
“The chemicals.” I gasp, fighting the sensation they create.
He steps into me. “Are not on my skin.”
Confusion breaks loose. “I don’t understand,” I stutter. But deep down, I do. Black and I share an insane sexual chemistry. Complex. Difficult. He’s my weak point. Except, these new feelings are through the roof. Intense. Not to be trusted feelings. “Stop doing what you’re doing.”
“I’m standing in front of you.” But his smile holds an edge of understanding.
“No you’re not. You’re brushing all up against me.”
There’s a large impatient sigh. He backs off. Powers down his sexual appeal. “I don’t believe Tom would risk my wrath to bring you back to the Rock for a coat.”
Sometimes Black’s too smart for his own good. “Not just the coat but the car.”
“Or the car.”
I rub at the tingles coursing along my arms. “Both the coat and the car have sentimental value.”
“What’s in the coat?”
“I don’t have to tell you,” I defend.
He bares his teeth. “Either tell me or I’ll rip the information from you like the skin from a rabbit.”
His sharp sentence serves to remind me just how dangerous this man can be. He killed his own wife. A woman he was supposed to have deep-rooted feelings for.
“The coat,” he reminds.
“Why did you kill her?”
“Tell me what’s in the coat.”
“You slit her throat,” I push, taking the conversation completely off track, but he knows who I’m referring to—we’ve already had this conversation.
He takes a long slow breath. “She was fucking another man.”
Nothing shuts me up quicker than infidelity. A man like Black? He’s all or nothing. I don’t agree with senseless murder, but recently, even those lines seem blurred between right and wrong.
“He is not lying,” she purrs. “But the truth is not spilling from his lips either.”
Another opportune moment from Khaos.
Honeyed laughter. “Ask your god not why he killed her but why he killed them all.”
“Who he killed before her is none of my business.”
“But you do not know who he killed.”
“If you know, why not just tell me?”
“Because not even I knew how many oceans had washed away the blood of innocents until I unraveled the memories on this side of the wall.”
“I haven’t got all night, Keese.”
I snap out of it. “I have another of the seven keys. Now tell me, how is it you had a wife who looked identical to me?”
“Silly child, always asking the wrong questions. Not how she looked identical, but why? Blood is blood, little girl.”
Blood is blood? Cogs whirl. Jesus! “Are you saying his wife is my ancestor?” That her genetic factor or DNA segment or chromosome skipped a generation—or, in her case, four hundred years—only to resurface again in me? Is that theory even possible? And if it is, Christ, me being here must be like a slap in the face to him. “You married my ancestor?” I accuse. Panicked thoughts pickle my brain. “Are you going to slit my throat like you did hers?”
Dark eyes hold me still. “Are you fucking someone else?”
I shiver. “No.” Other than the Marinus incident, which was all Khaos’s fault.
But the possessive way he says those words leaves no room for arguments. I might not be his, but if I so much as think about letting another man sow his seed anywhere near me, then I’m as dead as his wife.
“Did you love her?” I push.
He steps away from me. “If I loved her, would I have cut her open from jaw to jugular? She was a possession, nothing more.” He tries to close the conversation, happy to watch instead of talk, waiting out the silence with those cold onyx eyes of his. But I’ve been around him too long. I see the subtle way he inflicts those actions. So, I think about what he’s not saying. Why is he not threatening Marinus with a slow torturous death? Marinus exposed a deep personal memory of Black murdering his wife. So where’s the flash of hostility or flare of testosterone as he marches off to smoke Marinus’s brain? Suspicion rattles my cage. “How is it our copper-haired troublemaker couldn’t even recall that particular memory until recently?”
His face doesn’t betray him. It’s why I suspect he’s had a hand in this somewhere.
“The blood drinker’s issues, not mine.” He’s gruff, like he doesn’t give two shits. I don’t know Black’s end game. I don’t even know what his intermittent goals are, but I’d bet my last pence he’s wrist deep in Marinus’s mind. The question is, why? Their rivalry goes way back, so far even Marinus doesn’t remember. But then, I get the feeling a certain someone has purged that memory as well.
He moves to leave.
“Before you go.”
“Make it quick, Keese. I’ve places to be.”
Doppelgangers aside, I haven’t forgotten he purchased Mum and Dad’s house right before he trashed it. Although he vehemently denies the accusation, says someone else tore out part of the staircase and slashed up all the furniture. “You were in my parents’ house, searching for one of the seven,” I remind him.
“My key. My belonging.”
“What is the key?”
A loud crash eradicates whatever it is he’s about to impart. Sounds like glass splintering into a thousand weapons. Confused, I glance at Black who moves, half folding into space before disappearing.
“Wait. Don’t leave me here!” I shout, running to the spot where moments ago he stood arguing with me.
More glass breaks at the front of the house, like someone or something trying to break in! Impossible. No way. How could they breach the wards?
I sprint to the hall where both seven-foot-high double doors bend with the weight of whatever’s behind them.
Holy shit! “What the fuck is that?” I scream at Black who shoves against what’s attempting to barrel through the main entrance.
“How the hell did they get through the wards?”
“Good question, Keese. Now where the hell is your knife.”
Uh-oh. I should have learned my lesson from the pub. But I’d been relying on Black’s security. “It’s in the car. Under the seat.” Double shit. I’ve just told anyone within hearing distance where the blade’s hidden.
“Keese. Get your head out of your arse before one of these things kills you.”
One of the doors gives, buckling to the side. Demons charged along the hallway, clearing a straight path for me. Two horns protrude from their foreheads bouncing like scarlet-colored rhinoceros.
The first demon attacks. Crimson eyes gleam behind scales which cover its entire body.
Other than block his slamming blows with my arm, I don’t know how to fight these.
Once, twice, scaly fists crash against my femur, almost cracking my bone under the sheer strength. He dips his head. Shit. Two nasty-looking horns ram me. Straight through the chest.
Ribs crunch, a lung pops, pain explodes. I yell, gurgled blood spilling from my lips, dripping down my chin.
Black turns. “What the fuck! You’re supposed to fight not get nailed.”
I’m surprised I can hear his words through all the burn. The tusks are still wedged scalp-deep, and struggling causes spikes of additional pain to punch up into my heart.
The demon grunts then scrapes his hoof twice over the carpet like a bull preparing to charge. Head down, he swings us both ninety degrees, me still embedded on his head, fingers gripped tight around the base of his warm ivory tusks, then he rushes forward. I shuffle feet over books trying to slow him down. My back slams against empty wooden shelves forcing a low gruff to escape my lips. More pain sears my insides almost breaking me apart.
Black folds out of space, grabs the demon by the hair, and breaks his neck in half, hauling the body along with the tusks out of my chest. I slap both palms over the holes and slide down the shelving.
“I preferred it when you owned pictures instead of shelves,” I splutter. “Hurts less.”
More demons rush into the room, skidding over books, attacking.
Black’s a big man, he’s a warrior of old. There’s no doubt he can fight. But he can’t fight them all, there’s got to be fifty and counting. He slices and dices demons two at a time. I’m dizzy just watching him. But two at a time when there’s ten to replace them is not enough. I need to get back on my feet. I need to help him. But I don’t feel too good. A quick check through the holes in my tee confirms why. I’m not healing. A good guess says my body is just taking its sweet time knitting together. A bad guess says the side effect from Cyrun just wore off.
“Keese. Get off the floor. You want to lay there like a sitting duck.”
It scares me that he’s panting, as in out of breath, overexerting himself. Black is the template, stamped and signed, for a fully automatic functioning military weapon. He is rapid fire, aim, and destroy. He’s not supposed to wear out.
I gurgle some inappropriate response, try to lift myself, but that’s not happening. I glance up. More red scales and horned demons approach.
I panic. As in really panic. My heart rate goes through the roof, two beats per second and counting. I try to make contact with Black who still battles like the Trojan he is, but the demons draw close, long metal bars in each of their claws. One smiles, turning a large bulbous mouth into a red gash across his face.
Shallow breathing from one lung, I dig one arm into the carpet, try and drag myself up. More blood spills from my mouth and out of the two gaping holes in my chest cavity. The demon who smiled lunges, the metal bar in his hand swings straight for my head.
At the last second, I throw an arm up to protect my head then scream from the bottom of one lung.