Authors: Theresa Dalayne
Zanya’s scream tore into him. He pumped his hand to encourage the flow of more blood, knelt beside the stone bowl, and laid his wound over the altar. His shoulders slumped forward as blood trickled into the offering bowl.
He’d sworn he would never go back to his old life. He’d made an oath to leave that world behind and fight against every soul that dwelled in the shadows—every force responsible for causing pain. Now he was going to break that promise for her, even though he may lose her in the process.
Zanya clenched her hands on his shoulders. “What did you do?”
He hung his head as low as he could, wishing he could disappear completely. In that moment, his honor had been stripped away. Shame hung like a heavy cloud over his soul, mocking the years he’d spent hiding the truth and forgetting his ancestry. It had all been for nothing.
As his blood filled the cracks of the aged rock, the atmosphere of the cavern shuddered. He wrapped one arm around Zanya’s waist and pressed his forehead against her belly as if already begging for forgiveness. But there was no time for that now. He had to hold on to her or she would be lost in the transport.
A cyclone ripped through the cave. Zanya screamed and grabbed on to him as she fought against the blast. Darkness consumed them, snuffing out any guidance Zanya’s light produced.
His vision blurred. Only the warmth of Zanya’s body kept him grounded. He clenched his jaw while they were sent to the gate, where worse terror awaited.
The wind died in an instant and slapped them down on the cold stone of the isolated cave—the other side of the portal.
The gate to the underworld.
He struggled to push to his feet, but he had no strength left to support his effort. Zanya’s breaths grew louder until her warm hands cradled his cheeks. He opened his eyes, barely able to see past the pain blurring his vision.
She grabbed his hand. “Hold on!” Her voice was frantic. “I’m going to heal you.” Warmth seeped into his wrist from her trembling fingers, and his wound knitted together. She rested her hand over his chest, and he relaxed his muscles as the heat from her body poured over him.
The darkness inside of him thrashed through his gut, curling him into a ball on the floor. He’d managed to keep from changing all these years by staying near the goodness of Riyata, and far from the powers beneath. Crossing through the portal, they were now trapped beside the gate to the underworld. He had to control his darker half, and quickly, or risk it emerging from inside him.
Zanya’s heat was gone, leaving him frozen on the ground. The chilled air prickled his skin, making it impossible to concentrate. He opened his eyes and peered at Zanya through blurred vision, just long enough to see her expression turn to horror.
She leapt to her feet. Her footsteps dragged over the ground with each backward step. “What just happened? You tell me right now what just happened!” Her screech bounced off the stone walls. “Your eyes are black. Completely black!”
He struggled to sit, concentrating to cage the force within him. He’d nearly forgotten how powerful it was.
He didn’t want her to be afraid of him, but the hope she would still want him had faded at the sound of her trembling voice.
It took everything he had, but finally he was able to see clearly, which meant his eyes had returned to normal. For now.
He gathered the courage to meet her gaze, wishing had never come to this damned place. Now he would never be with her like before. Before she learned who he really was.
Zanya stood at least ten feet away; her hands were tucked under her chin while she took more backward steps.
“Zanya—” His voice was cracked and raw.
“Where are we?” she said in a soft whisper. “What happened to you?”
He wanted to answer her questions, but each one was more difficult than the last. He’d start with the first and work his way to the second—if he could just stand. With an upward heave, he pushed to his feet.
The anguish in his heart deepened. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He gripped his ribs, aching from the impact with the stone ground. “Please stop trying to get away from me.”
She shook her head. Strands of wild hair hung around her face. “
.” That single word carried more accusation than he could stand.
He straightened his posture, still holding his side. “I got us through.”
He turned his head and examined the placid cave lake yards away. The mirrored surface reflected the light from the glittering clusters of rocks overhead, glowing like amber stars.
“You better tell me what the hell is going on, and I mean
It wouldn’t be that simple. In order to get through the gate, she’d have to trust him. If he told her everything, there was no way she would.
“We need to pass through the gate to enter the underworld, Zanya.”
Her eyebrows pushed together and she let out an exasperated breath. “So you’re just going to pretend like nothing happened? Like you didn’t just slit your own wrist!” She raked flyaways out of her face and then rubbed her heaving chest.
She hadn’t suffered an anxiety attack in a while, but if anything was going to set it off, this was certainly worthy. He stepped toward her and rested his hands on her arms.
“Listen to me. Now that we’ve crossed from the middleworld to the gate, we need to pass through.”
“Why aren’t you answering me?” She pulled away from him and squared her jaw. He recognized that look. She wasn’t going to back down. “You’ve been lying to me.” It was a matter-of-fact statement, and there was no truthful way to respond. Not at the moment at least.
“I never lied to you, and I swear I’ll tell you everything when we get out of the caves.”
. You said you would tell me if I wanted to know.” She hugged herself, now shivering. “I want to know.”
“We can’t do this right now, and if you’d just listen to me for a moment, you’d understand why.”
She continued the facade of being fearless, but he could see she was freezing cold and on the edge of breaking down. Every muscle in his body ached to hold her and ease her shaking, like he’d done at the coffin house in London, when she still wanted him. He could almost feel the warmth of her bare skin from the dressing room just a day ago—something he’d be lucky to experience ever again.
Her silence dragged on another moment before she hung her head, and her shoulders dropped. “It’s not like I have much of a choice now, so
His gaze flickered from her to the lake, dread spreading deep to his bones. “The water is the portal.” He swallowed and braced himself for her reaction.
“The water? I thought the blood…” Her gaze flickered to his wrists.
“It was, to the Mayan underworld realm.”
Zanya carefully analyzed their surroundings. “So…we’re…”
“No longer in the middleworld.”
Zanya’s expression turned frantic. “And that…” She looked at the lake.
“Is the entryway to the underworld.”
She sucked in a ragged gasp. “We have to swim? We’ll die from the cold. You know that, right? It’s suicide.”
He clenched his fists. “Exactly.”
“We have to drown. Water is the portal. It always has been. Only the dead can enter the underworld. We have to die to get through. It’s the only way.”
She inched away from the water, staring into the murky depths. “No.” She glanced at him. “I can’t…” She rushed to the farthest wall, where she frantically pried her fingers between every seam in the stone. “There has to be a way out of here.” With every word, her voice rose in pitch until it cracked as she searched more of the cave wall.
“I asked if you were sure you wanted to continue. I told you there was no way out.”
She spun, opening and closing her fists. Electricity sparked over her skin, and the light in her chest flickered to life. But its color was dark, and deep shadows crawled over her face—the same kind of shadows he would expect to see on someone from his native realm.
Zanya took a bold step forward. “You did
tell me we would have to drown in a freezing-cold lake to get there.” A bead of sweat ran down her temple and her lips parted. She clutched her chest. “Wha—”
She dropped to her knees and doubled over on the ground. Arwan hauled her up and cradled her against his chest. Something was wrong. Maybe Sarian’s hold on the stone was affecting her. In that case, her situation was worse than he thought.
Her body trembled, silence weighing heavy in the air. He’d do anything to make her unafraid, but death was so profound, and it brought even the most courageous men to their knees.
“If you want to get Jayden back, this is what we have to do. We can’t go back the way we came. The water is the only way out.”
With her forehead rested on his shoulder, she shook her head. “I can’t.” She twisted her fingers into the front of his shirt. “I’m scared.”
“I know.” It spent every ounce of willpower he had not to kiss her softly. “It won’t last.” He buried his face in her hair. “It just takes a second, then it’s over.”
He scooped her into his arms and stepped toward the gate. She clung to him tighter as he walked into the lake.
The freezing water flooded his shoes. His feet immediately tingled with frostbite, and his muscles recoiled from the chill of the water inching up his body. His lips quivered.
The still surface rippled, and the amber glow of the rocks reflected off the silken waves, absorbing the color, painting the lake scarlet.
When the water touched Zanya’s skin, she gasped and clung tighter to his neck. He paused for a moment. If there were only another way. “It will feel like you’re dying…” He took a moment to contemplate his words. “And you will be. But we’re beyond the middleworld now, and death means something different here. Once we leave the underworld, we’ll return to the middleworld unharmed.” His words didn’t seem to offer her any solace, though he could do little to remedy that.
It would be better to get this over with as quickly as he could. She would fight. It was human instinct to run from death.
Heavens help him.
He’d have to hold her under.
The water crawled over Zanya’s shoulders and up her neck. Her entire body succumbed to numbness, overwhelming her with panic. “I can’t do this.” She slashed at the water in a desperate effort to get back to solid land.
Arwan tightened his grip around her.
She searched his face. “Let go of me, Arwan.” Her voice trembled, though she tried not to let it show. His eyes saddened. With a powerful lunge, she struggled to break free, but his grip was like iron. “Let me go!” The water turned white, churning from her pounding fists.
“Zanya!” The tone of his voice shocked her. Her muscles went rigid. She’d never heard him shout in anger before. He pulled her back to his chest. “Wrap your legs around me.” Her toes couldn’t touch the bottom anymore. His legs pumped, holding both of them above the surface. “Please. I’m freezing.” His quivering lips were tinted blue.
Hot tears filled her eyes and stung her skin when they slipped down her cheeks. Shit. She really had to do this. “You’re sure we’ll be okay when it’s over?” As much as she loved Jayden, she didn’t want to sacrifice ever seeing Renato again. Her memory of her uncle’s pleading tone when he begged her not to go jabbed at her heart. If she didn’t get out of this, he’d be crushed. And Tara. “Oh my God.” Her eyes widened. “I never called Tara. What if we don’t make it out? What if I never see her again?”
“You will.” He hugged her closer. “But we have to drown, not freeze to death. So wrap your legs around me and I’ll hold you the entire time.”
She swallowed, more tears slipping down her face. “Promise?”
He nodded, and then kissed her. His mouth was the only warmth and the only comfort to be found. So rather than running away from her yearning, she dove into it. Hopefully the warmth of his lips would distract her until it was too late to turn back.
She wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. Her hands were numb, but she could still feel the texture of his hair as she ran her fingers through it. He dragged his hands up her back and hooked them over her shoulders, locking her against him.
Arwan brushed his lips against hers. His hot breath made her skin tingle and her heart race. She parted her lips and deepened their kiss, running her tongue over his mouth. He tasted like earth and herbs; hot and tantalizing. Before she could take in her next breath, they were underwater.
Instinctively, she locked her breath into her lungs. Arwan pulled away from their kiss and she forced open her eyes.
The water was so cold she could barely manage, but she had to see him. He watched her with a mask of serenity as if nothing were wrong. As if they weren’t submerging themselves into a black hole of death.
The light from her chest wavered over his face, dancing shadows over his features. He blinked slowly, and tiny air bubbles escaped his nose and rose toward the surface.
Her hair floated around them. The sight was almost beautiful, until her lungs began to burn.
She swallowed the urge to pull in a breath. The urge intensified, and the need to find air gripped her throat. She wriggled, and squinted toward the surface. A surface that was no longer there. They had sunk down what must have been a hundred feet, away from any hope or chance of escape.
Panic streaked through her while instinct and logic battled inside her. She didn’t want to die.
Not even if it didn’t last.
Not like this.
Arwan’s fingers dug into her shoulders as they sank into the darkness.
Finally, the need to breathe was too much to bear. She parted her lips, and water flooded her lungs.
Bright lights tore through her closed eyelids. Zanya coughed and sputtered water from her nose and throat. She rolled to her side and clawed at the scalding stone beneath her while her frozen body jerked back to life.
She was still shivering, and the sudden change in temperature made her head spin. Her palms burned from pressing against the sun-beaten ground.
She pried open her eyes as chanting from what sounded like thousands of people drummed in her ears.
Then it hit her. The stench. Bitter and noxious in the intense heat, it burned her throat like venom. It was the same scent Sarian carried. Now it was obvious why. After he’d roamed the underworld, the stink of the place clung to him.
She pushed herself off the ground, peering at waves of people jumping in place, all of them with their backs facing her. Her vision blurred, stacking the scene two and then three times over itself before her sight finally settled in the middle.
She swayed like a drunkard as she stared at an entire city of people gathered in that very spot. None of them had on more than a simple loincloth to cover their genitals. It couldn’t have been much of a shield against the elements.
Stone ruins littered the cracked ground, but none of them offered shade from the unrelenting sun.
Air had never been so hot.
She shielded her eyes and squinted to the top of a great temple. The air danced, making the structure shimmer like a mirage.
She slowly drew her gaze up to the sky, and realized it wasn’t a sky at all, but soil with coils of roots writhing above them. The realm seemed endless, and whatever sun was there, however it existed in such a place, scorched everything below it.
There was no doubt. She stood under Yaxche, the tree of life.
The people chanted in unison, bobbing on the balls of their feet with their fingers stretched toward the sky.
She tore her attention away from the scene and searched for Arwan, but he was nowhere to be seen. There weren’t many places to hide, except behind a few sun-scorched boulders or maybe one of the ruins, though he couldn’t have gotten far without her noticing.
A chorus of shouts rose from the crowd. Her attention darted back to the peak of the temple where something resembling a man stood with his hand raised in the air, blood coating his forearm.
A human heart throbbed in his clenched hand.
Zanya stumbled back and fell to the ground with a slap. Her eyes widened. The sacrifice…it couldn’t be Arwan. She shook her head, willing herself to believe it wasn’t true. She would find him. They would get Jayden’s soul back and then hightail it out of there. That was the plan. As long as he was still alive.
Drums pounded all around her, and the crowd continued to chant and dance. Another sacrifice had been made. The roar of the people was deafening. She did her best to block them out while she collected her thoughts.
She crawled along the dusty ground in search of somewhere to hide and a place to scout for Arwan. She squatted beside a large rock but didn’t dare to touch it. The rock would scald her, and she had no idea if her healing ability would work here—or if any of her abilities would, for that matter.
Dust that was once caked mud between her fingers flaked off and fell to the ground. Her skin, already burned underneath, was now an angry red. The sting in her eyes worsened when she squinted at the far sides of the city. There were no hills. No trees. No shelter of any kind. Just more temples, all smaller than the one in front of her.
Was it possible Arwan hadn’t made it through? He had kept some serious secrets from her already. What if one of them meant the difference between life and death?
The shouts from the crowd fell silent. She froze. The quiet hissing of their breaths were the only noises, as if they were all standing like statues, watching her.
A single drum pounded in a slow, rhythmic beat. She didn’t want to look—maybe because she knew what she would find. But she didn’t have much choice. She lifted her head to find thousands of people watching her with bloodshot eyes.
She slowly stood. There was no use trying to pretend she was safe. She was an unwelcome guest in the first layer of hell, and everyone knew it.
The unforgiving sun scorched their faces. Strips of flesh hung from their necks and foreheads. Boils bloated their skin, oozing liquid and pus. No wonder the underworld’s stench was so vile. Death and rot loomed in the unrelenting heat, only magnifying the stink of their infected wounds.
They were all seething, their teeth bared from under dry, cracked lips. They looked as though they hadn’t had a drink in years.
They looked thirsty.
Up hundreds of narrow stone steps, on the peak of the temple stood a man, his bony index finger pointing directly at her. The skin on his arm was stripped away, and his esophagus showed through a gaping hole in his throat. His entire bottom jaw was completely gone.
Zanya clutched her chest. There was nothing she could do. She definitely couldn’t run. Not if there was even a possibility of leaving Arwan behind. Who was she kidding? There was no way out even if she did run. She’d probably just die in the—
Zanya froze. She
dead. Her gaze slowly dropped to her hands, outstretched in front of her with her fingers spread. Even with her skin red and tender, they looked normal enough. Like
hands. Her normal, everyday hands. Tendons and veins buried under skin. Long, thin fingers. A scar on her left thumb from where she’d cut herself in the kitchen when she was a kid. Was that how the hands of a dead person looked? Just like normal hands?
The tempo of the drum grew faster, and Zanya’s attention was pulled back to the scene in front of her. She searched the peak of the temple, but whoever, or whatever, had been there was gone.
The people turned back toward the temple and parted like the Red Sea as the creature glided across the ground toward her. Blood coated one of his arms, dripping from what was left of his fingertips, leaving a trail of gore upon the ground.
The chants were too low to understand at first. Zanya strained her ears to figure out what they were saying. The entire city mumbled in unison to the beat of the drum until the chants grew louder, and the word they repeated was clear enough to make out.
Houn. Houn. Houn.
They repeated his name in a low, ominous tone as if trying to provoke him. This was the deity they had come to see.
The bearer of souls.
Houn reached out to Zanya with his bloodstained hand. A thick drop of scarlet plumped on the curve of his knuckle and swelled until it fell to the dusty earth. Zanya swallowed.
Standing eye-to-eye with a god was a lot like standing eye-to-eye with your worst nightmare. Maybe she should have been used to it by now, but Houn’s tattered body and foggy eyes turned her stomach and stalled her breath.
Physically he wasn’t much larger than she was, but what he represented made him seem ten feet tall. His power radiated over her, the weight of his energy nearly pushing her back.
Houn slowly dropped his hand. He hadn’t spoken a word. She figured he couldn’t with no jaw, though by now anything seemed possible.
He turned and looked at the top of the temple, and she noticed the leather sack strapped to his back.
was where he carried the souls.
Houn pointed to the top of the Mayan ruin. A man appeared behind the altar with a book. She immediately recognized the shine of his tailored suit and the gloss of his black hair. After everything, she shouldn’t have been surprised Sarian had followed her to the underworld. The anticipation of
made her hands tremble.
Her light burst to life, churning with white and blue. A cool rush of relief washed through her. Her powers were intact, which meant she might have a chance of getting out of here as planned.
Sarian opened a large book and ran his hands over the pages. His lips moved, though she couldn’t hear what he was saying. When Sarian’s eyes met hers, a sick heat crawled through her veins, and dark hues of violet blotted the light that shined from her chest. The dark magic Sarian conjured coiled around her, tearing the strength from her legs. She clung to the boulder, scorching her skin.
Sarian descended the stone altar, following the path of Houn to where she stood. The closer he got, the weaker Zanya became. The rest of her limbs shook with fatigue, and she sank to the ground. Her head bowed, and a pair of shined dress shoes appeared before her knees.
Her gaze swept up his creased slacks and stopped on a two-button jacket. His skin was completely intact. Her lips twisted at the sight of Sarian leering down at her with a heinous grin, leaning on his brass cane.
Houn bowed and backed away, as if giving allowance to the general of the realm.
Sarian took Zanya’s hand with an iron grip. She struggled to pull away, but he pinched her fingers together, making small circles over her skin with his thumb.
She wanted to scream, though it would be useless. Sarian tugged up on her hand, leading her to her feet. She stood with shaky legs, forced to lean on him for support. His eyes morphed through shades of purple and black.
He was enjoying this. That much was obvious by the way he held his head high, his chest pushed out and chin tipped up. “You are in my kingdom now, young guardian. There is no safe haven for you here.”