Read an extended excerpt below:
Netherworld Series Book I
Varner’s voice cuts through the front door just before three juddering bangs reach me. “I know you’re in there, Amelia. If you’re not gone by eight, I’m coming in.” His voice lowers, probably to avoid wandering ears. My spine stiffens more with each word. “You’d better be ready for me if you decide to stay.”
I’ve already packed my stuff. Pitiful as it is, one beat-up suitcase sits by the door.
I turn up the volume on my MP3 player until it won’t go any higher, clutching Justine’s picture to my chest. “Yeah!” I yell, my voice tight with anger. Hot tears cut a path down my cheeks. I scrub them away before they can slide any farther. To take my mind off the pit in my stomach, I grit my teeth until my jaw hurts. I need more time, but I’m not about to give Varner what he wants for it. “I got it. Go! Away!” I pull one bud out of my ear to make sure he’s leaving.
He says something about not signing leases with old ladies before his voice fades into nothing. The lecher thinks he’s got me.
Ha. No one has me, especially not him. And to think I used to consider him cute.
When I told Varner ‘no’ earlier, he didn’t exactly take me at my word, until I landed a good hit to his jugular. He shoved me down, and I let him go. On his way out he made no pretense about eyeing what’s left of Justine’s china doll collection. The minute he was through the door, I smashed the majority of them rather than have him get his hands on them. I really don’t have room, but I couldn’t destroy her favorite. She said it looked just like me.
I sold everything else to make last month’s rent, but I ran out of time with the dolls. I was hoping for a collector.
It doesn’t matter now.
Even though I’ve tried to pick up extra shifts at the diner, tips have been awful. I have two hundred bucks in my account, which Varner is not getting a penny of. I need everything I have to find a place to live. The reality of the moment sets in. This is my final night in Justine’s apartment.
The shabby place shouldn’t mean anything to me, but it still smells like her. She had this sweet perfume that she liked to slather on. I got used to it after a while. She wasn’t exactly old, either. Varner’s just too strung out to know the difference. He doesn’t even own the place, but he’s way better to deal with than his psychotic uncle, who likes to call me his chipmunk when nobody else is looking. One way or another, I’ll be out of here by six.
Justine used to say, “Stay sharp, kid. No one knows when their time’s up.” Well, she sure didn’t. Justine was my grandma. She died last month at only fifty-eight. She didn’t even get a lousy funeral. They stuck her in a furnace and handed me her remains. I took her up Provo canyon to Sundance and watched her float away on the wind. The cremation was expensive enough that I couldn’t afford a separate plot for her. I couldn’t have brought myself to visit the cemetery anyway. Besides, we all crumble to dust one way or another. She is better off flying.
No matter what my life becomes, Justine saved me from tumbling around the foster system. I had a few years of stable, and I’ll never forget what she did for me. She helped me to see there are other ways of living. Although we didn’t have much to live on, we were never short on love.
I miss her fiercely. If she were here, she’d tell me to get over it, so I’m trying.
Thank my lucky stars she waited until I got my diploma to ditch me; although, I’m not quite sure how it’ll help me now. I’m alone in this world.
My mom only made it to twenty-one before she overdosed on crack. My dad lasted to a ripe old age of thirty. He got killed in some weird accident when I was twelve. I never saw him anyway, so my life hasn’t been much different since he bit it. As far as I know, he was short on family too. If he does have family stashed somewhere on this planet, I probably wouldn’t want to know them. He never did a thing for me, so why would they?
Justine was my ticket to normal, and she left me with no money, no prospects—unless you count the hazy offer I got from Roberto.
I hang out with him when I have nothing else to do. When I told him the news he graciously asked me to share his pad under the viaduct. I gave him a swift ‘no thank you’ even though I should have told him not even if I weren’t half his age and he had most of his teeth. I couldn’t hurt his feelings like that. One day, once I’m settled and he’s still around, I’m going to do something to help him.
If I hadn’t just turned eighteen I might have found somewhere to camp in the foster system for a while. As horrible of a thought as it is, being homeless is probably better than wading through families until one stuck or I got kicked out again.
With nothing else to do, I try to sleep. Try is the operative word. Ever since my grandma went, I can’t seem to stay in slumberland. It doesn’t help that I haven’t seen Jason, either.
Although Jason is a figment of my imagination, he’s helped me through some rough times. I’ve dreamt of him every night for nearly four years now, at least I used to. I haven’t had that particular dream in two weeks, and as stupid as it is, I miss him. After Justine died, he held me on the grass while I cried, listening to the beat of his heart and the thrum of the waterfall behind us. I’ve wished him alive or that I could join him in that place for good so many times. I cry every time I wake up without him.
Maybe it’s for the best that he’s gone. Dreams aren’t real, and a dream boyfriend can’t help me find a new place to live.
I shift onto my side, adjusting my pillow, trying not to think about the dingy beige carpet under my arms. It prickles my skin, but everything else is gone. Even if I hadn’t already packed the one I kept, it’s too hot for a blanket.
Focusing on the beat of the music, I sway, Justine’s picture lying beside me, and will myself to sleep. Somewhere between my thoughts about tomorrow and dawn I drift away.
My dreams shift and whirl until my mind rests in the familiar oasis I’ve sought out for years. Finally.
The afternoon sun warms my moistened skin as I take in the jagged cliffs in front of me and the thick jungle that surrounds the pool, trying to locate him. The breeze brings an intoxicating aroma of tropical blooms. Every time I come here, I’m wet, yet I don’t know how I got that way. “Jason?” I call.
Where is he?
My teeth clamp onto the inside of my upper lip. I’ve never been away from the water, but I need to find him. He has to be here.
If nothing else, I’d like to tell him goodbye…thank you. I have no idea if I’ll see him again, and his absence presses in on me. This world is not right without him.
The cool grass bends under my bare feet while a breeze blows wet tendrils into my eyes. I glance up at the falls. Last time I was here, Jason dared me to dive from the top of the waterfall. Here, I can do anything. Fear is meaningless, or is it? Strangely, tension prickles my spine.
A foreign tremor rushes along my skin, leaving a trail of goose bumps in its wake. I scan every inch of the landscape until my eyes meet someone else’s gaze.
It is not Jason.
The man is tall with dark hair like Jason, but everything else about him is wrong. He’s standing twenty feet away from me at the edge of the jungle. The wind picks up, blowing his brown locks around his chiseled features.
As he steps closer, I glance behind me to the pool, judging the distance. I should be able to get away from him if I need to.
When I face him again, he’s standing directly in front of me. My heart explodes and my body coils to run.
He doesn’t move to touch me, but his eyes hold a warning his lips confirm. “We have no time. He’s coming for you. Learn all you can then find me. Prepare yourself!”
I jolt upright, my fingers digging into the carpet. I’m breathing so hard I have to wait a minute to stand up. What the hell kind of dream was that?
Somehow, I always thought the oasis was mine and Jason’s, as if no one else existed but us. That guy violated our sanctuary. A gusty laugh comes out of me from the thought. A dream man violated my dream. His warning still echoes in my throbbing veins.
A bit unsteady, I make my way into the kitchen. My fingers fumble for the light switch, but nothing happens when I flip it. Yeah, I forgot. The power was shut off yesterday. At least the water still works.
Clutching my cup, I fiddle with the sink until I finally get the knob to twist. The tepid water eases my dry throat, but it does nothing for my nerves, or my belly. It groans at me again. I’m going to have to eat soon, even if I have to check the dumpsters behind Fred’s Bakery. There’s no point in checking the fridge. I found the final remnants of food the day before last. For not the first time, I wonder what I’m going to do when tomorrow comes. Two hundred dollars aren’t enough for anything. Even if I use it only for food, it will disappear before I get paid again, and that’s assuming I don’t get canned for not having a mailing address.
Even though it’s three AM, I’m gonna head out. I have a lot to do today, and since I can’t sleep, I might as well get started. When I find the faucet again and shut it off, my ears prickle with an unwelcome noise.
A door creeks open and I stiffen where I stand.
All I’ve got to defend myself are my fists, my feet and my plastic cup. My knife is in my bag. Light from the living room filters through the doorway. He probably thinks he’s gonna blind me with his flashlight so he can get his greedy hands on me. Not in this lifetime.
I inch my way to the doorway and peek around it. What meets my gaze doesn’t make any sense.
A man stands opposite me, framed by the closet. His big body could never be mistaken for that of Varner Walsh.
The light behind him comes from a roaring fire that somehow spans forever. Orange flames dance and flicker, casting his face in shadow while haloing him in gold.
I’m dreaming. I have to be.
I’ve had some weird ones lately, but nothing has been as real as this. When I dig my nails into my palms, the dream theory disintegrates with the pain.
Maybe he’s a fireman, but where’s the smoke? Why aren’t the flames burning anything? Where’s his gear? He’s wearing a suit for hell’s sake.
His face turns as if he’s scanning the room, so I take the opportunity to scurry to the opposite wall.
My pulse pounds in my ears and sweat drips down my back. From here, the front door is four, maybe five lunges away. If he goes into the bedroom, I might be able to—
“Amelia?” he calls, his deep voice somehow familiar.
That’s impossible. I don’t know him, but even if I did I wouldn’t stick around. Who told this guy I was here? He can’t be with Child Protective Services. I no longer qualify. My mind flits back to the weird fire. I’m not sticking around to figure out his magic act.
I make my move, jetting through the near-empty living room. My fingers fumble with the bolt before I move for the lock on the knob. I’m taking too long. He’s going to—
Arms clamp around me, hauling me up against a wall of muscle. The shock nearly makes me pee myself. My mouth opens on a scream, but he whirls me around and tosses me over his shoulder, cutting off my air.
I kick and punch and bite into cloth. He twists around, making my head spin on delirium.
I scream for help, but my throat thickens immediately. I struggle to breathe. I can’t think.
He bends until my face is right over his rear end, but he stands up before I can sink my teeth into anything substantial. As if he’s getting comfortable, he jostles me around. My pulse quickens while my head hurts from the rush of blood and fear. When he moves toward the closet, I find my voice.
“Help!” I scream, kicking and punching against his hard muscles.
No one answers as he plunges us into the flames.
I expect death, but what I get is deposited on my rear end in a spacious room with a wall of fire at my back. My eyes sweep the perimeter of what looks like an upscale apartment with a bed tucked in one corner and a living area in front of me. The dark paneled walls lend an old world feel that is only mirrored by the heavy furnishings. There are rich velvets and leather. Even the air is different. Instead of Justine’s sweet scent, a dark musk fills the space.
How is this possible? We were just in my hall closet.
The man steps away from me. His chest lifts with each sharp breath he takes.
The flames should have fried me, but I’m here. I have to be dreaming. The only thing is, I don’t quite think I am. It’s absurd to think that, but the heat from the fire wall has intensified now that the guy is standing away from me. Sweat drips down my scalp and my shirt clings to my back. I’m going to have to move soon.
The only thing is I don’t know what this guy will do. I turn my head and look through the flames, but all I see is a huge pendulum, like from a clock, swinging back and forth.
All of the sudden the flames disappear and all that remains is a crevice that runs the length of what should be a wall. The pendulum is easier to see now, at least the lower half. The upper part of it is cut off by the ceiling. Only darkness lies beyond the fire pit, like it opens into a cavern.
This has got to be the strangest place I’ve ever seen.
“I know you must be frightened,” says the man. “I’m sorry about that. I have much to explain to you. Would you please join me on the sofa?”
“As if,” I tell him. Even though I’m still thinking this has to be a dream, I ask, “Who are you? What is this place? Why am I here?”
His voice comes out low, guttural. “You don’t remember me?”
“I’ve never seen you in my life.”
Intense blue eyes latch onto mine. “Things are not always what they appear, Amelia.”
This is a dream. He’s a figment of my imagination.
A smile stretches on his full lips. “In time, all will be revealed.”
He takes a step toward me and I jump to my feet. I move back and back until my feet are near the pit. Even this close, I can’t see what’s beyond it.
“Stay away from me,” I tell him.
He spreads his hands, but his eyes are wild. Veins on his forearms bulge as he puts his hands in his pockets. “Please. Let me explain.”
I nod, taking a seat on the floor again. There is no way I’m getting anywhere near him, dream or not.
Not much surprises me anymore.
This girl does.
She is delicate in every sense of the word, except in her bold stare. Instead of cowering in the corner pleading for her life, she hugs her knees to her chest and watches me.
I watch her in return, hoping she really is the one I’ve been searching for, hoping she can free me from my prison. After a long while she lowers her face, not out of fear or rage; it is indifference I catch in her smoky green eyes. If I didn’t know her, the performance might be convincing.
Although she has seen me every night in her dreams for the past few years, no recognition lingers in her expression. To be fair, I did not reveal my true form to her, but I somehow imagined she would recognize my energy, our connection at the very least.
Despite the calm exterior she presents, her heartbeat thuds through her chest like a bird trapped in a cage. I stare, fascinated, as a single drop of sweat escapes her dark hair and traces a line down her forehead—the only outward hint of her reaction to her fiery surroundings, or is it to me?
I keep my distance from her, not trusting myself to be close to her at the moment. I haven’t had the pleasure of real company for thousands of years. My body vibrates from her nearness even though she is ten feet from me. My mind can’t stop spinning with wanting her and her intoxicating scent has me flying on a cloud of dizziness. I’ve never experienced a Sibylline this potent.
I cannot take my eyes from her; yet, something about her draws me nearer that has nothing to do with the fine outward shell she dons. Even in her dreams, she was extraordinary.
Unfortunately, dreams do not always represent well the dreamer. I never truly know who I have until the recruit is in my domain. One of my first recruits was actually a man who only appeared as a woman in his dreams. Since that mistake, I have learned to differentiate at least gender. Luckily for me, I was not entombed in this prison and was able to take the man back unharmed.
Everything from outward appearance to perceived character traits can be different than what a dreamer shows me. I curse myself for not showing her my true form in the Dreamscape, but I took what I thought was a necessary precaution.
Amelia hasn’t responded as I hoped she would. She does not recognize me in any way. I could tell her who I am, but would she believe me? In the past, all I had to do was command a recruit and she would obey me. It appears women have changed quite a bit in the last few millennia.
I have to stick to the plan. My team will not think too highly of me if I don’t. Maybell will throttle me for sure. She is my best trainer, yet I will have to find the right way to introduce her to Amelia. Not many mortals have accepted my team in their true form, but we no longer have the option of concealing them. Perhaps Amelia will be different. First, she has to acclimate to me and my reality before I can introduce her.
Pink lips move, but nothing comes out. Is she praying to a god that could never hear her in this place? Is she saying goodbye to loved ones?
I shake my head. Impossible. She has no one. Another reason she is here with me. I could not leave her in the mortal realm a moment longer.
Her body tenses when I step closer. Apart from her initial outburst, she has been calm. Finally, I make out her words: Wake up.
I smile. She thinks she is dreaming still.
I can have fun with this. Fun does not come easily to the keeper of the Netherworld.
When I’m two feet away she shifts back and thrusts out a shaking hand. She speaks at last, and her voice is the sweetest sound that could ever exist, although her words are a harsh command.
“Stop!” she says.
She scrambles backward and jumps to her feet, facing me in a fighting stance. With the stealth of a cat she rocks to her toes and shifts her upper body as if for a quick escape. Eyes wild, body coiled, she might as well be hissing at me.
I want to laugh. There is no escape from hell.
Disregarding my native impulses, I let her thoughts congeal before I destroy her hopes. The giant pendulum behind her punctuates the sound of her pulse. Swoosh plunk, swoosh plunk, swoosh plunk…The sound usually soothes me, but in this moment I cannot countenance another swoosh.
Even though I have no desire to frighten her, she has to see this is real; I only have until morning to make her mine, and I have wasted enough time as it is hoping to calm her before I shatter the foundations of her existence. My mind twists on a dark thought. She will know I am real if I touch her.
Working to still my breath, my senses heighten, slowing time. She is not ready for my fake, and I easily catch her wrists before she can bypass me. She kicks at my shins, and I let her momentum topple us over. Her eyes fly wide while we fall toward the carpet, and I know she expects pain from me. I eat her fear like a fine brulee, savoring each moment. Her emotions drown me until I am overcome.
The instant we crash to the floor, she struggles to get away. Her scent surrounds me, intoxicating me, threatening to steal my focus. It has been too long since I’ve held a woman in my arms. I’ve dreamed of this moment for years, yet somehow I imagined a different scenario. “There is no escape,” I tell her. If there was I would not be here.
For the briefest of moments our gazes merge. She swallows, her eyes searching mine as if she is trying to see my core. My muscles harden in anticipation of her next move. Even though I would never admit it, the words she utters cut me to the soul.
“You’re a nightmare,” she insists. “You can’t hurt me.”
I hear the desperation in my voice; however, stopping my impetuous reply is impossible. “Nightmare I may be, yet I assure you I am as real as the blood that flows in your veins.”
Doubt flickers across her face. She still does not believe this is her new reality. I glance over my shoulder toward the fiery pit that abuts this room with no end—my prison.
Flames burst forth at my bidding, rushing toward us. She gasps, and her face contorts with fear the moment she feels the heat. I take pleasure in her realization and let it go too far. The inferno consumes the carpet, the sofa, even my prized hound succumbs. She is unaware everything will reappear at my command—everything except her.
Her expression morphs into one of utter terror. My own terror crushes my chest as a fierce cry escapes her throat. A few seconds more will find me holding a pile of ash. My blood freezes in my veins. Why have I done this?
The instant I sever my connection with the flames, they plummet into the abyss until the next time I call them.
Her voice rushes out on a gust. “What are you?”
I should be used to this question, yet it pierces me. She will not accept the entire truth at this time, so I offer her a slice of it. A muscle in my jaw jumps, and she stiffens. “I am the darkness, and you are now mine.”
A shudder finds me as I lie in the darkness, remembering the last thing my captor said before he plopped me on his bed and left through the only door in this massive room.
He thinks he is the darkness.
No doubt he’s a monster, yet the world has never seen a more beautiful horror. Neither have I. An angel pales in his shadow—with his dirty blond hair and blue eyes that are deep as the darkest ocean one second and the next the color of a morning sky. Add a strong jaw and towering height to the mix and what you have is a man that should grace the cover of a fashion magazine.
Yet in those beautiful, terrifying eyes I see my death. I’ve been telling myself to wake up for hours. Unfortunately, the burn that covers the majority of my left arm keeps me from sleeping. Where his body shielded mine, the flames didn’t touch me. Unfortunately, the rest of me aches from the contact. It’s the idea of his actions as much as the pain that freaks me out. What a psycho.
I still don’t know what he is or, worse, what he wants from me. I have to find a way out of here. I have to find a way to escape him. This can’t be real.
This can’t be real.
My eyes blur with unshed tears. What the hell is happening to me? Justine tried to prepare me for life, but she could have never prepared me for this.
The lights flash on, making me stiffen. I wipe my eyes and squint against the sudden glare. Not waiting for him to speak, I spin toward the wall, even though his quiet approach tells me there’s no way he’s gonna leave me alone. A soft touch hesitates then rests on my shoulder. I shrug his hand away as if it’s acid.
His grunt makes my muscles bunch. If he were an ordinary man I might have a chance in combat. I’m quick when I need to be—even held my own with some of the roughest thugs in Seattle, Vegas, and recently the hopping metropolis of Provo, Utah.
It doesn’t matter where you go. There are always people hoping to bring you down with them.
My captor’s hand flits over my arm, rubbing in some sort of salve that takes the sting away but singes my nose. I would thank him, but he did this to me so he doesn’t deserve it. My jaw clenches against the velvet strokes of his fingers. I’m gonna ignore his soft touch if it’s the last thing I do. There’s something seriously wrong with him. There’s something seriously wrong with me. Have I totally lost my mind?
His dark voice fills the room. “I—”
His hesitation trips me up, and I almost turn around. Before I can move, though, he continues, “I have so much to explain to you. I’m sorry for…what happened earlier. I haven’t been around people in a while, and you surprised me.” He pauses, his hand still resting on my arm, but only for a moment. “I can hardly believe I finally have you here. In time, you will adjust, even come to love this place.”
I face him in a nanosecond. “Did you really just say that to me? Hello, you seriously can’t be that wacko. I mean, come on. You stole me in the middle of the night and brought me to your lair like the freaking Phantom of the Opera then you set your living room on fire, torch your dog, not to mention almost me, for what?
“Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those girls who thought Christine should have ended up with the Phantom, so you might as well let me go now. Save us both some trouble.”
He smiles, which makes me clench my jaw again. With a tight flick of his head, he motions toward the hallway. “You want to go?”
I jump to my feet, ignoring the sting of his hand sliding down my arm. I’ve seen weird. I’ve even seen freakish. But I’ve never seen something like him.
A weird sense of recognition wants to take hold of me, but I’m not going to let it. “Where’s the front door?”
His thick brows hit his hairline. “Even if I could tell you that, you have nowhere to go. Do you not wish to know why I brought you here?”
How can he not know how to get out of his own pad? “No.”
I’m lying, but I’m scared. He knows too much about me. How? I don’t want to acknowledge the shiver that travels over my skin. I nod in his direction. “Exactly how long have you been stalking me?”
His eyes come alive, yet he gives me a casual shrug. “Quite some time, although stalking might not be the best description.”
I send him a disgusted frown. If I do figure out a way to ditch this place, will he find me again? “Well, you’re not exactly offering me a better explanation. Don’t you know how creepy this whole thing is?”
A slow smile covers his mouth. “Creepy isn’t the worst thing to be.”
His world must totally suck.
I smack my lips together before I lock eyes with him. “So—are you ever going to tell me why you brought me here? I figure if you wanted to kill me I’d be dead.” I try not to let hope or fear show in my eyes. Who knows just what is going to set off this freak?
In the amount of time it takes me to process what he’s doing, he’s at my side. This sudden burst of speed sends panic to my veins, but his calm voice stills my pulse.
He leans over, his lips a breath from my ear. “I’ll tell you what,” he says. “If you can find a way out, I’ll let you go.”
My heart stutters then speeds like a racecar toward the finish line. There has to be a way out—he came and got me for the love of bald eagles, and since he’s offering… “I’ll take that deal,” I say, sending him a cocky glance I’m not feeling at all.
He smirks a challenge at me. “Go ahead.”
I open the door and glide into the hallway, puffing out my chest, getting my swagger on. Other than frying my arm, he hasn’t made a move to hurt me, so oddly enough I’m almost comfortable around him, like it’s okay to be myself. It’s just a matter of time before I discover the hidden latch to my freedom. He doesn’t know how tenacious I am. He’s also right behind me, and I’m hyper aware of his every move. My skin tingles from his nearness. We’ve got something weird going on between us, but heck if I know what it is.
I’m tempted to check his face to see if I’m headed the right way, but I keep my back to him. Flickering tapers set into curly candelabras drape the space in a caramel glow. Although extremely cool, it’s not much light to go by, which, makes it twice as hard to see where this hallway leads. The super strange part is there are no other doors or even windows, just a dingy corridor that seems to stretch on forever. I stop to tug every sconce, thinking one will give under the pressure and unlock the door to my freedom. No such luck. I bristle at my captor’s dark laugh but keep going.
After a few minutes of getting nowhere, I sprint forward, running as fast as I can on the uneven surface. His feet thud against the stone behind me. While my lungs ache so badly I’m worried they might burst after only a few minutes, his breathing is even.
The hallway stretches forever in front of me like an endless highway to Nowheresville. One thing’s for certain: I’m getting nowhere, so I slam to a stop and bend over, sucking in wind.
This is the worst shape I’ve been in. I got kind of lazy when Justine took me in five years ago. At first, after she found me, I made life pretty difficult for her, thinking she was just going to ditch me too. Wouldn’t you know it, the minute I thought I’d have her forever is when she died. Being with her was the only time I’ve felt safe in my whole life. I should have known it wouldn’t last.
Psycho dude inches closer to me, and I snap up, turning to face him—the door is right behind us. It looks different from this side, as if it is ancient. The wood is splintered and pitted and the huge doorknob seems oddly out of place. There’s a slot big as a wallet, maybe for a skeleton key, but I’ve never seen a keyhole that big. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is a different door entirely.
No way. There is no freaking way. I blink a couple times just to make sure my eyes are working right. When the effort yields the same result, I lower to my haunches to check the cobbled floor. If this thing’s a conveyor belt, I’m a red banana.
Something is wrong with this place, with this man. I swallow, fear trickling to my gut. With as much composure as I can muster I say, “You’d better start giving me explanations, buddy. Why am I here? What is this place? Who are you? I don’t even know your freaking name!”
Deep blue eyes flit toward the door. When he looks up again, he holds out his hand.
I shake my head. I’m not touching him on purpose. He’s not far from me. He could snatch me up like he did when he barged into my living room and grabbed me like I was some sort of errant livestock, but he doesn’t.
His voice is barely audible. “Come with me. If you’re ready now, I’ll explain everything.”
My heart pounds against my chest. This is it. All I have to do is stay calm and she won’t know; she won’t figure it out. If she opens the door first, she will have a choice to leave and, given her history, she will. There is no way I am letting her go now, no matter what the rules are. Even if she manages to see through my bluff, I’ll figure something out to keep her with me. I motion for her to move ahead, but she refuses like I want her to.
For her to be tied to me, this has to be her decision—her mistake. I reach for the handle with controlled movements, hoping I don’t give anything away. A smile spreads on my lips when I face the door and block her access. The cool metal knob twists, and I push the door away. With practiced movements, I lead her into my shrine.
My whole body sighs once she is over the threshold. This girl might just have what it takes to break my curse. She is determined enough, bright enough, lovely enough, so why does the heaviness of fear still linger in my heart?
Like an unpracticed youth, I am not sure how to start the conversation. After a while she grunts, so I dive in. “You are of the blood.”
Her face pales, and I’m lost in her confused eyes. “Blood?” she asks before she visibly gulps.
Maybe not the best thing to start with. I offer her a smile, yet she flinches. Am I that frightening? Disheartened, I drop my gaze and pace the room, attempting to make myself less obtrusive. “Long ago…”
Despite the wildness in her eyes, she chuckles before she speaks, and the sound startles me. I could stare at her for hours, days, years, but we have work to do. “In a galaxy far, far away,” she says, still smiling.
I like her smile. It brightens my mood as well as a full moon on a cloudless night. That aside, I still don’t know what she means. “To what are you referencing?”
Dark brows furrow, making me want to smooth the lines on her forehead. Her mouth opens on a quick breath as if she is going to tell me something important before her eyes harden. “Nothing. Go on.”
“Have you ever heard of the Oneiroi?”
She tries out the word. “Oh-near-ee?” I nod. She considers this for a moment before she says, “Um, no.”
Explanations will be difficult. If there was one thing I used to be able to count on, it was the passing on of legend within a community. What has happened to her world? I take a deep breath and hold it, attempting to solidify a plan. Best to start with something she will understand. “Where do you think dreams come from?”
She sits on the couch, her movements waiflike. Confusion narrows her eyes as she takes in her surroundings. “Hey, how did you get another sofa so…” She makes a brief sweep of the room as if to be certain, and her gaze settles on Baltek. Her hand covers her mouth before she points at him. When she speaks, her voice cracks. “Oh my gosh, that dog looks just like the one you fried earlier.”
It takes all my will not to laugh. “I’ll get to that, but please, answer my question.”
Her head bobs in a decisive nod. “Subconscious, right?”
I smirk at her surety. “Not quite.”
She gives me a belligerent stare and cocks her head. “Next you’re gonna tell me they come from you.”
She is smart. “Actually, they do.”
She scoffs and stands up. “Right. So you think you’re the darkness and that you control dreams.”
Not wishing to confuse her further, I keep my answer simple. No doubt clarification will have to be addressed later. “Yes.”
Not the response I expected. I am encouraged. “Very good question. I have limited access these days, and I need your help.”
Her raucous laughter startles me, while her open body language entices me to join her on the sofa. With regret in my throat, I make myself stay where I am. “Good one. You want me to control people’s dreams?”
“No? But I thought you just said—”
This is the trouble with the young, they do not listen. “What I said was I need your help.”
More scoffs before she says, “You have a funny way of asking for help, buddy.”
She’s right. I may have gone overboard with the drama, but her nearness has befuddled me. “Are you willing to listen?”
Her eyes remain guarded. “Listen, sure, but I’m not committing to anything, just yet.”
“Very well,” I relent. “I will try to give you the shortest version I am able. I only ask that you not interrupt me. Agreed?”
She fidgets in her seat, flicking out a dainty hand as if she is swatting away a gnat. “Yeah, sure, get on with it already.”
Her impatience astounds me, but I continue as if it does not. One of these days, she will present her true self to me, not this mask of indifference she wields like a sword. “You come from a bloodline of gifted clairvoyants. Sibylline, to be precise. Your mind is capable of reaching into the minds of others around you, which is especially useful to me.” I get a raise of the brows, yet she stays silent. I am further encouraged. “I should clarify one very important point for you. The Oneiroi do not control dreams, we send them. Once released, they are for the dreamer to control or reject.” When I take my usual chair opposite her, her eyes follow my movements. “There are legends about us, but legends have faded in your world. We used to be called upon for assistance when war or famine plagued the land; however, in recent years humans hardly pay attention to their dreams.”
In the cutest gesture I have ever seen, she holds up her hand.
“Yes?” I say.
“I think I’m following you here, but why does it matter if people don’t remember their dreams?”
For a moment, my thoughts distract me. Will she remember her dreams? When the time comes, will she remember me? More importantly, will she remember what she promised me?
For someone so young, she pays attention more than I’ve given her credit for. “Since your world was new and the inhabitants simple, we focused on directing the leaders of nations. This is one form of divine guidance. At first, we only gifted good dreams, but as time went on it was clear warnings were also needed. You see, if left to their own conscience, most mortals will choose the easiest path. It takes a brave soul to stand up to tyranny or bigotry, yet it takes an equally brave soul to become a tyrant or a bigot. It was only later that we delved into the minds of everyday man.”
She raises her hand again. I smile. “But what does this have to do with me?”
The most important question of all. “I shall make this simple; however, if you have further questions, you may ask.” She nods. “There used to be many of us, now there are only four…including myself that have not converted to Erobos, or those that call themselves the dark ones.” She is right to shudder, but to my surprise, she does not interrupt me. “Essentially, my brothers and I accrue enough energy to leave the Dreamscape every so often.”
“How often? And what’s a Dreamscape?”
“Every dreamer has his or her own dream world. The Dreamscape is where those worlds are housed. My realm is part of this network, but not exactly the same. Unlike other worlds, my realm has a protective barrier around it that is meant to shield us from the Erobos. What was once a great accomplishment for my people was turned into an impenetrable barrier that keeps me tethered to this place. And as to when I am able to leave, it depends on how much energy I can save. Erobos interaction depletes my kind. My three brothers have a slightly different situation than I do, but we are all basically trapped in the Dreamscape.” She frowns but does not interrupt. “When we have accumulated enough energy, we are able to open a portal to the mortal realm. Our power does not last long, and there are dangers there for us. Suffice it to say, we do what we need to do and leave as quickly as possible. We seek humans with the ability to aid us, and I have chosen you.”
She tucks her legs under her and leans further into the cushions. A very good sign, yet her pulse remains elevated and her complexion hasn’t recovered. “Why?”
She is hiding her true emotions from me. In an attempt to calm her further, I lift my shoulders in a casual shrug that I do not feel. “You are gifted with the sight, you are of the blood, and, most importantly, you have no complications to distract you.”
Her brow creases as she studies me. She folds her hands in her lap, still staring. She’s good at controlling body language, which will be a great asset for her in the Dreamscape. “What if I don’t want to help? Do I get to leave?”
No matter how much I wish I could give her a different answer, I cannot. “I have no way of letting you go, Amelia. My power is now spent. With the interaction I face with the Erobos daily, it would likely take six hundred years to accrue enough power to enter the mortal realm again. You see, I’m trapped here, just like you. I was hoping that you would be willing to help me. When my prison was constructed, the Erobos created a portal that requires a key to open. I’m sure you noticed the elaborate doorknob.” She nods, frowning. “Although I have located the portal, I have not been able to find the key. In fact, I have discovered no matter how much I search, I will likely never find it. You, on the other hand, may be able to discover the key and in the process free us both.”
She cocks her jaw to the side, riffling her fingers through her dark hair. What follows is a swift smile. “For a while there I was pretty sure Cryptic was your middle name.”
Despite my efforts, a soft laugh escapes me. “I haven’t a middle name.”
She smiles completely now. “Ha. All right, do you have a first name?”
“You may call me Seth.”
Her smoky eyes lock onto mine. “What if I take the job and don’t like it, Seth?”
My fingers curve along the plush velvet armrests of my chair. Her skin is softer.
My pulse quickens with the thought of touching her, of loving her like I’ve dreamed so many times. I swallow, and make my body relax. “My offer stands. If at any time you can find the key, you may leave.”
I barely have finished speaking when she blurts, “What about time off?”
“You will not require time off.”
She gives me a once over. “Everyone needs time off.”
When I stand, she startles. Instead of moving toward her as I had planned, I take a step back. “Are you agreeing?”
She shrugs and joins me on the carpet as she says, “It’s not like I have anything better to do. Who knows? It might be fun.”