Her blood is warm as I drink. Acrid and syrupy, it burns my throat like strong whiskey and leaves me buzzing with an incredible high. I pass Gjinna the rawhide flask and she tucks it back into a compartment in her loops of belts.
“How do you feel?”
I stare at her for a moment, her words sloshing around in my pounding skull. It takes me a second to register her question.
“Yes--yes. It’s working.” Already my hearing has improved. The worse of my aches ebb. Her blood strengthens my reflexes and coordination. Power washes over me, transforming the opaque shadows of my prison into sharp relief. Thousands of complex shades in colors that have no names glitter before me.
Gjinna straightens from her squat and motions for me to follow. For once, my movement is like hers: quick, agile, and silent.
The secret passageways, located in the bowels of the Andhakar’s fortress drift pass us, their dark, arched entrances like broken ribs. Gjinna takes us down into the very intestines of the earth until we round a corner and are confronted by a spherical room the color of alabaster. Its tiered floors slant towards its middle. In the center of the room hovers a plinth upon which a gemstone of pure quartz spins. An eerily silent waterfall that stretches from floor to ceiling surrounds the gem. I crouch beside Gjinna as she peers at the crystal. Something in her tense posture tells me the jewel makes her uncomfortable.
“What’s it do?”
“It is the negation of the crystal he wears,” she whispers. “It is the thing that can make his powers nearly ineffective. For a time.”
“How do I get it? Maybe we can use it to escape.”
She glances at me, her dusky face unreadable and cold as always. “You cannot go in there. He senses any who try. When the time comes, I will use what power I can to block his sense so that the crystal can be removed. It must be brought to Divine.”
“You speak of him often. Who is he?”
We creep through the multitude of underground passages until we come to the last place I ever want to be, the one place I know not to be.
Unlike the first time I saw it, the audience chamber is filled to capacity with his followers. As a general rule, the Aterians’ fur, skin and scales are a spectrum of slate, bone and basalt. Their dead bodies sport the look of emaciation and disfigurement. Limbs too long and sinewy, mouths crammed with too many teeth. On their foreheads they all bear his brand as if they are chattel.
Each group ostracizes itself into informal sections of the receiving hall. Vampires and other such human-shaped creatures, their sneering faces twisted and grotesque, lounge on plush couches that rest against milky white pillars that jut from the ground like cracked fingers. Keeping guard and yet segregated according to pack, wolves stand on their hind legs, looming over all others. Their dull fur is matted and rotted from the inside out. Their eyes, like all eyes of the Aterians save a few, are a blue-white shade. No pupils, no irises, just sockets of icy, glowing malice. Lining the shadows lurk wraiths, their chill causing the hair on my flesh to freeze, even though I hide safely in the rafters. The wraiths’ wispy bodies blend in with the darkness, and they would be unnoticeable if not for their green-tinged aura and the heady smell of decaying flora.
The sissing chatter pauses as ornate granite doors swing inwards, their hinges groaning like a tortured creature. Three servants with torsos like humans but the lower half resembling a snake slither inside. Bowing to the Andhakar, they speak, but the hiss of their voices escapes me. In their wake follows a human male.
He looks at no one but The Darkness-That-Hunts and I suck in my breath at the sight. In a room full of creatures that lurk in assorted states of undeath, this mortal is color and vitality. Beauty amidst horror.
The lean muscles ripple beneath his brown skin as The Darkness-That-Hunts, who slouches on a throne positioned high upon a dais, leans forward to watch the newcomer. I try not to look into my captor’s hypnotic gold eyes or listen to his soft baritone. His body and his voice are tools for entrapment. A snake’s hypnotic sway before its deadly strike.
“You summoned me from the Onyx, Lord Andhakar?”
My attention locks on the man so distinctly human in a swamp of monsters. The brand glimmers on his neck but he shows no signs of the demon’s taint. His sandy hair hangs in matted locks across his broad shoulders. His beard, a curious russet shade, is braided with animal bones, beads, and feathers. Human and alive. Even healthy. With Gjinna’s blood pounding in my veins, I can hear his heart pumping. From the rapt expressions of all those creatures who are dead, I know they hear it also and fantasize about feasting on the rare delicacy of living flesh.
“Have you linked the bridge yet?” Andhakar’s voice haunts the chamber, sliding across my body like a maggot.
“It does not last, my lord,” the man admits after a moment’s hesitation. “I cannot bend it to my will, even as close to the Rift as I am. There must be stronger ingredients, a way to amplify the links.”
Dawning gnaws on my bones. A mage, more likely a druid. In life, the magic users sought power and domination. In Andhakar’s promise, many sold their souls for better control of the craft, each knowing the exact price the bargain would warrant. But how is he still alive?
“What is it you require?”
The druid does not respond. Instead he glances about the audience chamber as if suddenly aware of his onlookers. His gaze lifts to the rafters where Gjinna and I hide, lost in shadows and skulls that sway from iron chains. My breath catches in my throat when the man’s tangerine eyes lock on mine and he raises an inquiring eyebrow. How could he know--?
Gjinna slips her pencil thin arm around my waist and tugs me against her so that her rough lips lick my ear. Her breath feels cold against my cheek. “Don’t fear, Shari. He can’t penetrate my glamour and even if he did, he is one of the Blood Shield.”
Those who resist Andhakar, even as they serve Him. “That’s Divine?”
“He’s the only one who can open the Rift for you to go home. He is the only one who can help Us escape. Because of his power, he is invaluable to The Darkness-That-Hunts.”
“--Very well then.” Andhakar raises a willowy arm, his fingers tipped with black nails so long they are like talons. “Dismissed.”
Divine bows and exits the audience chamber.
My breath thunders in my ears as Gjinna and I stand in the forest flanked by withered trees that have never seen sunlight. The sky above is red as a blood clot, the drifting clouds like black tar. My eyes see decently in the darkness, though there is not much color to things. A breeze ruffles the dry branches, rattling them like dried beans.
“What do I have to do?”
I meet Gjinna’s dull gaze. She looks awful. Tired. “And what about you? You’ve been so weak lately . . .”
“I’ll be fine. We’ll get to Divine together, but you must hurry, or--”
She goes still, cocking her head to the side much like an animal does when it listens for predators. She moves so fast that I don’t see or feel anything. Gjinna tosses me clear across the trees. I land on the ground behind a row of black thorns. I roll down into a ditch where a broken bough breaks my tumble.
Dazed, I lie in the dirt, my vision swimming before me in a swirl of red sky, black forest and tar-like clouds. I hear snarling and hissing like angry tomcats. There is a yelp and then a triumphant cackle. My heart sinks to my knees and I haul myself to my feet. They don’t quite cooperate, but I manage to stumble up to the thorny bushes. Some eight leagues away I find Gjinna on her knees, her head down and blood spreading in a pool from the center of her back. Before her straightens a lithe woman.
The woman grins, brandishing fangs. “Bitch. Thought we didn’t know?” The blonde vampire slaps Gjinna before drawing a razor thin stiletto from her ankle boot. I recognize the deadly gait. Andhakar’s second-in-command, the vampire general they call the Steel Fang. Using the tip of her blade, she tilts Gjinna’s head back. “No last words? No threats or pleas for your life?” The Steel Fang steps away. Her smile lacks mirth. “How disappointing.”
The vampire removes Gjinna’s arms first, then her legs, methodically hacking her way bit by bit. I want to scream, to run to my friend but I only watch helplessly. Blood that is inexplicably like air rushes out of Gjinna’s severed limbs in a burgundy powder. At last the Steel Fang rams the stiletto straight through Gjinna’s mouth, the sharp tip jutting out of skull and bone.
At last I find my voice and my scream rends the air. The Steel Fang whips her head around, searching. Ice trickles down my backbone as one azure eye and one olive eye narrow.
The Steel Fang grabs Gjinna by the hair, ripping her head from her armless torso with brutish force. Inhaling deeply, she holds the head eye level and purses her lips. “Ugly thing aren’t you? Well. Task one is done.”
She vanishes as quickly as she appeared. The seconds trickle into minutes before I dare to move. I try not to look at Gjinna’s body as I approach. I try not to think of her death, or the blonde vampiress with the weird eyes. The floor is damp with body fluids and already I know every undead in the area will descend to eat and drink from her corpse like carrion.
The rawhide flask lays a few feet from her body. I gulp down the last of its contents, needing the rush of blood and the strength it grants me. A metallic glint catches my eye as I turn away. Taking a deep breath, I reach into the stump of Gjinna’s neck and pull out a copper chain. Fingers trembling and slick with blood, I stuff the chain into my back pocket and sprint deeper inside the Onyx.I must get to Divine. I must get out of here.