Jude could think of only one thing worse than the predicament they were in. And it had horns.
Gargoyles were never meant for Hell. As guardians to the portal between the realms, they live hundreds of years and are powerful beyond measure. But Jude and his sister, Willow, suddenly find themselves prisoner in the hellish Shadow realm, facing demons, fallen fae, and an incubus that won’t take no for an answer.
Dimensions apart, Ian wars with what his heart demands versus what his title dictates. He would cross through Hell and back for Kami, but will he sacrifice everything, including his soul, to be with her?
Fates collide in Her Shadow Demon, and only one side can find redemption.
Frigid air swept over Jude’s face as he gazed toward the musty skyline. Steam puffed from his nostrils, and he swiped at the cloudy mass. Nothing in the barren Shadow Cusp territory brought a chill that icy unless a certain being followed.
As the fifth moon of the Shadow realm appeared, its light added detail to those who neared, confirming Jude’s suspicions. The horde stretched along the horizon like a black band undulating closer at a steady pace. Wings rose above the dark mass, their eyes aglow like Tiny pin lights.
He knew the day would come when the Daemon caught up to him. And it has to be when we’re so close to reaching our goal.
Shifting his breast plate over the wide waistband of his loincloth, Jude made sure he could move freely. Digging the toe of his heavy boot into a thick crack of dried mud, he pressed his lips together and thanked the gods he’d elected to stay midway between Gargoyle and human for the rest of their trek. He considered those who followed them. Though I might need to change for battle.
Swishing his lion tail, Jude called on his gargoyle strength and set his determination.
As he dug the crusty ground with the knuckles of his wings and forearms, rocky soil groaned. Dislodged from its aged rest, the scent of death accompanied the sound. He lurched, but quickly swallowed and used the added energy to shoved harder.
Angling his large wings, they directed the sediment to create a tall barrier. Soil rained around him as he straightened and shook out his long, dark mane.
He glanced at Willow, one hand tucked under her head and the other arm resting before her as she slept. There was a time a cricket could chirp, and she’d jump up, bursting from her gargoyle persona with a roar, sword drawn.
“A vision, isn’t she?”
Jude’s sleep-deprived nerves cringed. “Not now, Bahtish.”
The tall, slender man leaned his head to the side and held his hand toward her. “But you must agree. A true lioness is she. Even asleep in her human form, her stunning emerald eyes glistening behind those supple lids. Oh, that I might kiss them and awaken her passions. Oh, that I…”
“Hush it Incubus! Leave. You won’t receive protection from me against these creatures.”
Bahtish swiveled in the direction of the rubble wall. “Ah, yes. I’ve never seen a demon carry on a search as long as these have.”
“You mean besides yourself?” Jude glowered and then turned to face the oncoming creatures.
“Mmm. I do consider myself a notch above the ordinary.” Jude glanced back at him in time to see him straightened the long panels of his jacket to lay flat on his thighs. His callous-free fingers brushed over his cheeks and the few messy locks joined the rest of his platinum hair at his shoulders.
“They are not demons. They are Daemon. Spawn of the Gods. Spawn of the Fae. And they carry the power of both. Daemon are demi-gods. Never under estimate them.”
Despite himself, Jude nodded. “It’s true when everyone thinks of a demon, they think of a daemon’s likeness. A curse to punish their fathers. Through no fault of their own, they have been outcasts.”
“My dear, gargoyle warrior. I never would have thought it. It sounds like you have a healthy respect for these beings.”
“Guess I do,” Jude said in a low graveled voice. “They are the only creature in this wretched realm who could end us with a pass of their hand. But don’t.”
A streak of grey and white flew before him, and Jude jumped back from the bird, expecting the revolting sensation of warmth plopping on his shoulder. “Ha! Missed me that time, didn’t you, Pig?”
“Ah,” said Bahtish with a hesitant edge. He motioned to Jude’s head. “You might want to check again, mate.”
Jude threw his hands in search of the sticky mess and scowled as he found it seeping into his mane. His sneer muffled his words. “I couldn’t have picked a better name for the filthy pigeon.”
Bahtish picked up a stick and seemed to try his best to either scoot the goop off or poke Jude in the head as much as he could before Jude called it quits.
Withholding the reverberating roar from his voice only made Jude want a good bath sooner than later. “Just leave it be!”
Jude turned and quietly walked to Willow. He sank to one knee and gazed at the stub of her left arm.
“Ah, yes. Our poor Willow. Maimed for life.”
“She’d cut out your tongue for saying that.” Jude led his thick fingers along her dark blonde tresses with a feather touch. “If they’d only stuck to nicking away at my claws or mane while I slept.” He blinked, taken aback. Had he just said that out loud? I’m just glad they didn’t try to shatter her head.
Bahtish lowered, resting one arm on his thigh. “You do love her.”
Lowering his brows, Jude looked at the irritant. “Of course, I do.”
“I’m just saying, you’re not the most sensitive guy.” He upped his face in a know-it-all manner. “She deserves much more. Let her rest.”
A rumble shook Jude’s core. “And an incubus knows exactly what my companion needs.”
Bahtish jumped up, hands held before him, palms forward. “Hey now, my big fellow. I happen to believe I do.”
“Of course, you do,” Jude grumbled. “The years in Shadow have worn on us both. We’re unable to reach the deep sleep of our gargoyle. We’re constantly on guard. And whether she wants to admit it or not, she requires more to restore her energy, yet she insists on sleeping in her human form. No deep sleep acquired there.”
Heaving a sigh, Jude anchored his fists at his waist and looked at the wall of rubble. Bahtish followed his regard.
“Come now, do you really think that will protect you from them?” The neat-to-the-T gentleman leaned forward. “They can fly.”
The humor in his voice grated on Jude’s sleep-deprived nerves, and he turned toward him. When had he decided to make himself the third party of the expedition? “Go home, Incubus.” He let his voice turn to a mumble. “If you even remember where that is.”
“But you must see my confusion in understanding your plan. How is that going to protect us?”
A growl rumbled in Jude’s throat, and he scowled at the demon. “It’s not to protect. If you knew Daemon at all, you’d know it’s a line.”
“A line.” The man blinked his silver, iridescent eyes and squinted his tan cheeks.
How Bahtish managed a warm complexion, Jude didn’t know. His own dark golden visage had lightened in this realm where the light of the sun rarely shown. Then again, all demons seemed to have healthy-looking features.
Jude raked his fingers through his dark mane … the only part of him in which he took pride. “A drawn line is a universal symbol.” He turned to stand over Willow as he half-heartedly explained in a quiet voice. “Even with their numbers, they won’t want to cross the line and launch a dishonorable battle. We’d devour them.”
“We would? That paints such an archaic picture. Er …” Bahtish pointed above Jude’s head. “…you might want to let him know though.”
In a flash, Willow slid her sword free of its sheath, supporting the weapon with the palm of one hand, and joined Jude as he turned.
Jude slowly withdrew his sword, allowing the sweet sound of the blade to let the Daemon know exactly what he’d be facing.
The being’s oil-slick skin glistened in the light of four moons, the fifth dipping below the horizon. Eyes glowed red, his male member swung low below his hips, and … no cold air.
Jude scowled again. “Tell me why you’ve come, Daemon. Why have you followed us?”
Bahtish’s brows rose. “Huh.”
Willow slanted her emerald eyes at him.
Jude shrugged. “What?”
Bahtish tossed his hand at the pile of dirt. “He didn’t cross the line.”
The Daemon nodded toward Jude. “And take on battle with the great Gargoyles of Earth? Of Inter-dimensional Court?” He shook his head and then dropped to his knees on the top of the line. “We are not a warring race, Jude and Willow. My name is Fre’shan. I am the Leading Father of all Daemon. I implore you believe me.”
Bahtish waved his hands at the being and tripped up the mound. “Of all that’s holy, man! Do stand back up. Your shaft is … It should never rest in the filth unless it’s after a markedly amazing session of sex. Then of course anything goes.”
Jude rolled his eyes as a nudge hit his arm.
“Wanna fill me in?” asked Willow. “Why is a naked Daemon kneeling less than twenty feet from us? And why aren’t we freezing from it?”
“I have come without weapon,” said Fre’shan, “without covering, to prove my honest intent. I wish to bid a request.”
Bahtish stepped back and held up his hands, palms forward. Humor laced his words. “Oh, hey, now. When has a demon ever had any kind of honest intent.”
A huff puffed from Jude’s chest and formed as mist before his lips. He darted his gaze to Willow at the same time she looked at him. The cold is back. We’ve angered him.
Both tightened their holds on their swords.
Fre’shan peered at Bahtish, who scrambled down the rubble, and then nodded toward Jude. “Apologies. I did not mean to lower my guard on the curse.”
Fre’shan stood and lowered his hands to his side. Slicks of red and black merged, separated and then flowed side-by-side just beneath his glossy skin. His long, thin tale wrapped around his right leg, the triangle appendage at the end resting at his ankle. Tall leathery wings stretched out, and his tone grew stern. “We are Daemon. We do not harm. Like you, Jude and Willow, we protect.”
Kami’s blouse bunched up her back as she slid down the trunk of the wide oak. She cringed as aged bark grazed her skin and snagged her hair until her bottom hit the ground. Folding her knees to her chest, she buried her face in her arms and welcomed the sharp pangs as punishment. Hurting Ian pained her more than anything she’d done in her life.
Autumn leaves crunched as he paced the woodland’s small clearing. Each stride matched two beats of her heart and crushed the sweet memories they’d made. Dust scented the air as he shuffled through a turn.
“Why are you just now telling me this?” His breath hitched, and he cleared his throat.
Words wouldn’t form as Kami lifted her gaze.
His hazel gaze shifted to the shadows of the young birch trees as he set his hands at his waist and paused. A cloud of insects drifted through the pale trunks, creating soft hums in the air. Ian ran his hand across his jaw and then looked back at her. “You know I love you, Kami.”
Tears seeped beneath her lids, and she blinked to relieve the burn. Of course, she knew. She knew he loved her deeply. But what about devotion? When his status required him to wed three, how much could he be devoted to her?
“I need to be the only one, Ian. I can’t know you might love someone else more than me when you choose another wife.” She stared at the thick roots that surrounded her and then traced the curve of one nearby with her fingertips. They wove into the caramel-colored ground, creating a perfect lounge for two lovers in an embrace. How many times had they sat there and shared their secrets, their love? How many times had he told her she was the one? She cursed the fact that she had been gullible enough to believe it could be true.
Kami forced her voice through her tight throat. “When I first saw you, you were playing in the park with that scruffy little dog. Its hair was so long and matted, I thought you couldn’t afford to pay a groomer. I thought that sock with the knot in it was all you could come up with to be his toy.”
His gaze dropped to the ground. “That stray lives at the park, and I removed my sock to have some fun with him.”
“I know that now. But then I assumed you were poor. And after the third date of peanut butter sandwich picnics by the river, I thought I knew for certain. I mean, who could love peanut butter that much? And what member of the elite class chooses such a simple activity for a date?” She scanned his solemn countenance. His love of nature was one of the things she adored about him, alongside the fact that he didn’t feel the need to flaunt his wealth. But to keep such a fact from her under the circumstances… “I fell in love with you, believing you would make me the one choice you were allowed as a member of the lower class.”
A gust of wind lifted his black hair to dance around his face. The cheery motion mocked his lips as they dipped into a deep frown. “If it were up to me, I’d have only you. Can’t you believe that? I’ve waited, pushed the age limit to wed, looking for the right one to be my first. My first, Kami. The others will never mean what you do to me.”
Frustration bubbled in her chest at her misconception of their love. “If you really love me, you’d want me alone. No other. Period.”
He tilted his head and bit his lips together. “I can’t help that I was born an elite. If it were possible—”
“If it were possible, what? You’d give up your birthright and join the ranks of the vagabonds who can’t afford food for the one wife and child they’re allowed? Or you’d buck the system and refuse to wed the other two? That would only land you grounded, unable to sync with space. Not to mention exiled to a foreign dimension and stripped of everything but the clothes you wear. And while you’re considering it, I’d advise you to wear a thick coat and heavy boots, because I hear they choose some pretty rough climates for those who refuse to live by this law.” The sarcastic response rolled off her tongue before she realized it, but she didn’t care. It wasn’t right. None of the counsel’s decisions on eliminating poverty were. Lower class men wedded one spouse and fathered one child, while the elite had to choose three wives and produce as many offspring as they could.
Find another way to spread the wealth than through inheritance.
She looked at him, and her voice rose. “I can’t stay here and conform to the laws of this dimension. Not when I know there are other places that don’t require such things. I need the freedom to love whomever I want, whoever they are, without the stipulation of a quota. And if that means transferring, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“If I could trade places with anyone in this universe and have only you, I would in a heartbeat.” Frustration puffed from his lips. “If your mother was alive—”
“Well, she’s not.” Kami scowled. She had expected him to bring her mother into the conversation, but it hurt just the same. “But I can’t believe she wouldn’t want me to be happy. She was one of a quota, Ian. One that had only one child. Father’s attention stayed on the others.”
His broad shoulders lifted as he took a deep breath and then looked back to the trees.
“I’m leaving for a six-month stay in Three-Two-Three.” There, I said it. No turning back now. “With me gone, you’ll be free to start your family before you turn twenty-five. I won’t stand in your way to fulfill your obligation. You’ll have time to find a woman who will happily live by the law.” She lowered her voice to a murmur. “And I won’t have to see you do it.”
Ian’s heavy brow furrowed, and his dark lashes narrowed. “Of all places you could choose to go, and you chose Earth? It’s one of the few that touch…”
Kami lifted her gaze in time to see his jaw roll as if he didn’t want to say the word. “Yes, Three-Two-Three … Earth, is in a strategic position, one of five dimensions that edged the realm of the unspeakable. Well, I can say it. Shadow.” She drew her hand in a large circle around her. “The enormous home of all things fallen. And the fallen are criminal, aren’t they? Beyond grace, pure evil.”
Saying her thoughts out loud gave her a surge of power, the added strength to push her way through with her decision to leave. “And that is one of the reasons I chose it. I know how the elite view the fallen, and whether you want to admit it or not, Ian, you’re no different.”
He rolled his jaw again and looked to the side.
That’s right. Don’t deny it. Kami nodded. Just like the other elite, aren’t you?
But, with the years she’d spent studying, memorizing the myriad of realms at their reach, she’d learned one thing. Nothing was pure anything, and Three-Two-Three promised more for her than the other four possibilities that sat at the cusp of Shadow.
As if he tried to erase the topic, Ian waved his hand through the air. “And what will happen if you find someone while you’re there? That realm doesn’t know we exist, Kami. To travel there, you take an oath of secrecy. What will you tell him when you leave every six months to come back to renew your travel rights?”
“When I choose someone, it will be because our love is true. He’ll understand I need some time away.”
His mouth dropped open, and he shook his head. “What love that’s true has those kinds of secrets?” A scowl crossed his face as he drew his hand through the air again. “And what makes you think a love there would be truer than my love here?”
“There are places there where they choose only one. They pledge their hearts, and it lasts a lifetime.”
“Promises can be broken, whichever realm you’re in.” Orange and yellow leaves scattered as he marched across the small tract and then sank to the ground before her. He took her hands in his as he looked into her eyes. “Stay here. Marry me. Be my elite choice. There can be only one elite choice and one first time, and I want it to be you. Let it be enough.”
Heat seeped from her heart, melting away her resolve. His warm hazel eyes called to her soul, and something deep within told her she would never find another to touch her so deeply. Her hands tightened around his. No. She closed her lids to catch herself. If I don’t leave now…
It took all of Kami’s strength to look away. She clenched her jaw to control the hiccup that would surely release a sob.
Ian’s voice lowered to a plea. “Please, Kami. Don’t go.”
She pinched her lips together, but the hiccup forced its way to her throat, snatching her breath. She kept it silent, but it jarred her into action. “The consort has already granted my leave. I’ve taken the training, and temporary employment is waiting for me. If I can make it work, I’ll arrange to stay longer.” The frank tone of her voice gave her strength as she stood. “Good-bye, Ian.”
His hands slowly released her as he rose and then stepped back. His square jaw flexed. “Never say good-bye. This isn’t the end.”
Kami squeezed her eyes shut and focused her thoughts on the Inter-dimensional Courtyard. A wave of heat sizzled through her veins as her elements prepared to shift through space. The scent and sounds of the woodland distorted and a soft buzz filled her ears as she synced into the atrium.
* * * *
Air rushed from Ian’s lungs as if it held his very soul. “No,” he uttered with his remaining breath. How could she believe another woman would mean more to him than she did? Mustering his remaining energy, he clenched his jaw, spun, and then punched at the tiny insects in the shadows behind him. “No!”
Birds quieted overhead, and the sparkles scattered as if to scoff at his harsh behavior. A brash breeze whipped through the clearing and blew the odd phenomenon away. Only in their secret grove had he ever seen them, and he scowled, scorning them for the memories they brought. Dried leaves scattered. He kicked at the animated foliage and then raked his fingers over his scalp.
She had to realize I wasn’t one of the needy. Everyone knows the Belrose name is synonymous with wealth and elitism.
He caught sight of the bandana tied around his right bicep and lowered his arms. Surely, she had known he hid the family emblem inked on his skin to make it easier to move among the poor during his service to them. He rolled his shoulders to dispel the chill traveling up his neck.
He bunched his fingers into fists and launched into long strides. Ten paces carried him to the edge of the patchy ground to face the birch trees that separated him from her housing tower. They needed to talk this out … really talk before she went through with it.
“This isn’t the end,” he said aloud as if his words could reach her. “I refuse to give up on us.”
Heat sizzled through his veins as their grove faded from view. Pausing before he attached his elements to the atmosphere near the entrance of her suite, he considered his tact. If she was to the point of throwing their love away, he would need all the help he could get.
I’d better get backup.
Jude crossed his arms over his broad chest, waiting for some kind of explanation.
Fre’shan held out his hand as in askance. The Daemon’s stubby horns flushed deeper black as his complexion softened to a peachy gray. “I know we have no right to involve you in our world’s struggles. But we were cast here because we have a great role to play in what’s unfolding there. A prophecy cometh forth, and, Great Gargoyle Warriors, there’s a favor we need from you.”
Jude caught the definite pride in the being’s tone as he spoke, and he believed they held the power of their ancestors. So, what could they possibly want from gargoyles? “What is this favor you need?”
Willow tsked, and in his periphery, he caught her mouth a curse word.
“Only to allow me to accompany you on your journey. We believe you seek the Shilo Manor that stands in Shadow. May we also sojourn there to—”
“No!” Willow stepped before Jude and stood as if the naked being caused no threat. Her sword tipped the dried mud, and she swung her short arm through the air. “We’ve searched for years … centuries and have made it this far on our own. We don’t need—”
“Um…” Bahtish held up his forefinger and sidled her way. “I did have a bit to do with it, love. Our last encounter…” He rolled his eyes with a flare. “… I easily seduced and led away. But neither of you would have even considered what needed to be done.” Folding his arms, the Incubus made it clear his talents were an asset to whatever team they’d become.
Jude paused and considered the thought. Were they a team? And if they were, what was in it for Bahtish?
A scowl overtook Willow’s features. “Oh, get lost. We’ve been trying to ignore you the sum of the journey.”
Bahtish’s face lost color and then recovered just as quickly.
Did she just really hurt the incubus’ feelings?
Willow looked back at Fre’shan. “And we’ve tried to stay warm since your lot started following us years ago. Even in the cusp where heat is unbearable, we’ve had to wear furs or shift to stay warm.”
In a flash, heat rose from the arid ground and took Jude’s breath away. Willow stumbled as she leaned forward, gasping.
“If you prefer the heat, I’ll keep my nature at bay. But realized this cooler air has been a gift in preparation of our arrangement.”
A hoarse cough flew from Willow’s lungs. She circled her arm in the air. “Can we compromise on the temperature? A nice seventy-two degrees would be good.”
Fre’shan lent his head toward them. “Does this mean we are comrades?”
Jude huffed. “You and I must have a different understanding on the meaning of comrades.” He turned, grabbed his satchel, and then swung it over his shoulder. “We won’t beat you away, but you travel alone. Keep your distance.”
“Hold on, now…” Bahtish trotted down the rest of the rubble and then over to Jude. “You’re not just letting him come along, knowing he could yield the powers of the Fae and the Gods, are you?”
“My intentions are noble, sir,” said Fre’shan.
Jude looked back at the Daemon. He hated to admit it, but the Incubus was right. Perhaps he didn’t think of it because he didn’t feel threatened by the being. “I suppose you have a suggestion?”
Am I really asking an incubus his opinion?
Bahtish reached within his ankle-length jacket, much further than should have been reasonable. With a satisfied grunt, he tugged an odd contraption free. “Ah, here we go.” He tossed it up to the Daemon’s feet with a clunk. “Try that on for a fit.”
Fre’shan’s brow furrowed, and he tapped the thing with his bare foot. A spark flew, and he jumped back, eyes wide. “That’s iron!”
“That would be correct,” said Bahtish as he lifted his chin.
Fire flared in the Daemon’s dark eyes. “You dare try to put iron on me?” He sneered as he looked at the odd shaped item. “What is that?”
“Mmm.” The Incubus tilted his head. “A chastity belt.”
Willow and Fre’shan spoke the same time Jude did. “What?”
They all looked at the rusted thing, and Jude had to ask. “Why would you be carrying that around?”
“A little momentum. The lad was right happy to shed it, so I did him the favor. And…”
Jude shot his hand toward Bahtish, knowing how the Incubus loved to share his escapades. “Don’t say it! Just don’t.”
Whether out of humor or defiance, the Daemon kicked at it again. Sparks danced around his big toe. “That thing would never hold my member.”
Humor forced a snort past Jude’s nostrils.
“Mmm-yes,” said Bahtish as he gazed upon the Daemon, and Jude couldn’t help imagining where his dirty mind went.
He scrubbed the back of his neck and turned to erase the thought.
“But I had to try. My duty as part of this team and all.” Bahtish looked at Jude. “Iron is the only thing to control a Daemon’s power.”
“I knew that,” Jude murmured with a scowl. While Jude had to agree it would be wise to constrain the Leading Father of Daemons, the Incubus had never encountered the true wrath of Jude and Willow. Earth’s Gargoyle Protectors from Inter-dimensional Court could wield a sword—in Willow’s case, with one hand—while shifting to whichever form suited the situation. They had yet to meet a being who could best granite, obsidian, and the nimble grace of a flying feline. Top it with humanity, and they couldn’t be beat on any level.
Let’s just get this underway. Jude extended his long fore claw, and with a quick swipe at the air, he flicked his finger. As if he’d struck a match, sparks flared. The strike grew as if liquid fire oozed downward. Chills flew up his neck and swept over his part-human, part-lion skull. His giant wings twitched with excitement.
This is it. The rip in the Ether is getting stronger. Either we’re almost there, or we’re daft for believing we can ever find Earth’s magical estate from Shadow.
The fiery spectacle slowly shifted to the left and Jude nodded, satisfied with the new direction they should take.
“Incubus. Get rid of that contraption.” Jude turned and led the way through the dead brush at a heavy pace. Willow fell into step behind him. “And, Daemon, by the gods, put some clothes on.”
Willow jogged the few steps to walk beside him. “What are you doing? You’re not seriously letting a Daemon travel with us.”
Jude huffed. “Never said he could. Just can’t stop him from doing it.”
A wry grin lifted her right cheek. “Suppose he keeps his concubines handy?”
“Act of war if the rest cross the line.”
A hot drop plopped onto Jude’s head, and Willow stifled a snort. Jude glowered as the large helping of bird poop inched toward his forehead. The pigeon dipped into a deep dive and then flew westward.
With a sharp twist of her wrist, Willow’s sword found the sheath on its own. A wild roar ripped through the air as she lunged forward and shifted mid-jump. Her beautiful, feathered wings stretched, beat the air, and then lifted her skyward.
Looks like the perfect plan to me. Jude swiped the mess from his head, stretched his battered, leathery wings wide and jumped skyward. Electing to keep his half-human, half-gargoyle form for travel, he kept the irritating pigeon in sight. Willow might shift like a swift strike, but he preferred the strength of a hulk to bash Pig’s brains against a rock.
“Miss Keagan, you’re late.”
The voice of Kami’s transport advisor surged through her senses as she solidified in the spacious atrium. She drew a deep breath to settle her nerves. The scent of antiseptic and lavender wafted beside her from the fountain that spiraled upward as if to reach for the crown of steel beams and glass ceiling. Sprays of water fell from the golden structure and glazed the goblin gargoyles supporting the clear bowl-shaped base with a fine mist. She cleared her throat against the disinfectant ambiance coating her airways.
A horde of travelers bustled by her, and Kami placed her hand on her chest to calm her heartbeat. She hadn’t meant to form in front of the crowd — the spot had been empty when she selected it. Attempting to brush the incident aside, she looked around the spacious court.
Narrow runways glowed within the burnished rock floor and created a web from the fountain to the depot arboretums that bordered the round arena. A few Inter-dimensional advisors, appearing as three-dimensional images along the illuminated paths and conversing with their charges as if they were there in person, guided travelers through the maze. She flexed her fingers and tried not to ogle at the extensive hologram network. Visioneers can be complex, but this is surreal.
She turned to her own advisor’s image. The man’s head reached her shoulders at best, giving her a perfect view of his cheap toffee-colored toupee. If he’d gone a shade lighter, it might not be so bad. “I’m sorry Henson. I needed to say goodbye.”
He nodded and pushed his black-rimmed glasses up his narrow nose. They obviously didn’t fit right, and Kami wondered if he didn’t have the money to purchase better ones or if it wasn’t on his list of priorities. Regardless, he held himself with a confident demeanor. “Well, they’re on standby at transport Three Firestone. Your baggage has been sent and placed in your temporary accommodation. Escorts are waiting to show you around.”
Kami blew a long stream of air through her lips and then confirmed her readiness with a nod.
He motioned toward the northeast facility, and she followed as he led the way via the glowing runway. His starched lab coat swung like a bell as he leaned into his steps. She imagined his black trousers as a clapper, banging against the sides of the bell with a deep bong. The white glow that pulses on the platform with each of his steps can serve as a drumbeat. A nod anchored the illusion her mind concocted. Seeing it all as a musical interlude, lightened her mood and made it easier to keep pace on her way to her life-changing decision to leave.
A squirm wriggled through her stomach. To leave this part of my life behind. “To leave … Ian,” she whispered to herself.
As she entered the depot arboretum, the squirms disappeared, and a sense of new beginnings blossomed. Amaryllis lined the right side of the path in shades of red and pink. A three-tier fountain stood among a spray of green and yellow ivy, the trellis wall curved to enclose the setting in a cozy nook.
Statues graced the other side of the room, and if the artist had a theme in mind, they failed. Gorillas, mini elephants, lions, and goblins with long snouts all in different shades of rock posed in unrealistic stances. Kami could pull together few commonalities. They were animals, except the goblins, they all wore a form of breastplate, and they looked as if they were caught mid-morph as they leaned toward the path. Mid-morph into what though?
She cocked her brow and led her gaze further along Henson’s walkway. Tree ferns slumped and blocked much of the light from the few bobbles beneath the foliage. Not that they were needed. Henson’s runway highlighted the walkway plenty.
He led the way to a small clearing in the middle of the indoor garden, and Kami couldn’t hold back a gasp of awe. The depictions used during training hadn’t come close to showing the beauty of Firestone, the Inter-dimensional Transporter. A silvery glow rose at the center like a magical globe sliced in half by a pool of achromatic liquid.
Henson halted before the Firestone, and Kami’s heart skipped. She pinched her lips together and ran her hands down her stomach to settle her nerves again. This is it, Kami. You’re doing this!
He turned to face her and then clasped his hands in front of him. “Miss Keagan, you’ve been found deserving of this transfer to plane Three-Two-Three for the requested six-month leave. Keep the laws of this privilege at the forefront of your mind at all times.” He shoved his glasses up his nose and lifted his chin to look at her through the spectacles. “You’ve been through briefing. Do you have any final questions?”
Kami sighed and then shook her head, looking back at the argent transporter.
“Very well.” At the little man’s nod, a thick pillar of blue and gray light issued from the base. Silver sparks danced through the beam, and as if it held power of them, snake-like carvings along the base came to life. The slithering didn’t help the squirming in Kami’s stomach, and she turned a one-eighty, ready to throw-up.
He held out his hand for her to proceed. “Should you wish to return before your allotted time, come back to the arboretum and hail dimension Two-Eight-Five-Henson. Be certain it is what you want to do. Not fulfilling your obligation set by the consort will blacken our credibility. And you do not want to be the cause of that. I believe you understand the consequences.”
She flexed her fingers and then bunched them into fists. Right. So, no bolting. She swiveled to face Firestone again and avoided the creatures along the base. “Don’t worry, Henson. Nothing’s going to get me grounded.” She inched toward the glowing cylinder. “I’m late enough to everything already. Can you imagine if I couldn’t sync with space? I’d have to walk everywhere.”
A nervous chuckle followed her words, and she caught his slight grin in her peripheral vision. Something in the expression told her he knew a stall when he saw one.
“Remember your training. There will be pressure. Accept it. Allow it. Stay calm and let the Firestone do its job. Fighting the procedure will only cause more discomfort and possible harm.”
Was that his version of a pep-talk?
“Whenever you’re ready, Miss Keagan,” he said softly, but it was clear to Kami he meant it as encouragement to get her moving. “And do enjoy your stay.”
Kami’s thumbs trembled as she stepped onto the stage and then eased into the pillar of lights. As if she’d entered a vat of honey, a syrupy substance enveloped her. Warmth drenched her arms, face, hair, and soaked her clothes until the hidden parts of her bathed in Firestone’s solution.
Tingling swept over her skin as her pores opened and fluid seeped in. Hot waves rushed at her, waking all the nerves in her body. Perception sharpened with each pass, and she registered her senses in acute detail.
Sinews loosened as if starved for relief, throwing weakness across her in a sickening flourish. Muscles soaked in Firestone’s honey quickly swelled.
She gasped for control.
The lessons in no way prepared her for the complete takeover of her senses. Panic rushed every hyper-charged nerve as she lost balance, ramming her shoulder into the side of the beam.
Abandoning her instructions, she focused on the barrier beside her with blurred sight. Confusion warped her thoughts.
Anxiety hit high alert, and she scrambled along the side until she found someone watching. The man’s calm expression mocked her. There was no way out, and he knew it. No! I’m trapped. It’s a trap!
Fear threw tears to sting her eyes. Airways thinned. She gasped, but nothing entered. Her bloated limbs stretched into distorted phantoms as she clawed at her neck to tear the thickness away.
“Stay calm, Miss Keagan. You must stay calm.” Henson’s voice came to her in clips of static. How did she even understand it?
The urge to scream fought for life but wouldn’t form. Terror bolted through her. The world dimmed to blotches. As a heavy hum threatened to overtake her senses, Henson’s voice came to her in the form of hisses and clicks.
“Alert the escorts. Have medical at the ready.”
Read more in Wings of the Wicked Collection.
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