e-novella written by Vanya D.
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard her voice in the foyer below. At first I thought I was dreaming again, or worse – hallucinating. It had happened before when I'd first gotten here. I'd missed her so much. And still I never for a second regretted my actions. I'd done what I had to do. What any good leader in my place would have done.
Dawn's voice suddenly turned sharper and louder. “You can't write my name in there! I'm. Not. Dead!” She proclaimed, pronouncing each word as if it were a separate sentence. A small smile twitched at the corner of my mouth. She was still the feisty little thing that I remembered her as.
The only question was why was she here? Was she dead? She'd clearly denied it, but newcomers always did. Besides, my death should have secured the life of my Crew. So what was Dawn doing in Spectrum? Had she found out who and what she was? If that were the case, we were threading in dangerous waters already.
I rushed out of my office, taking the ever-changing, restless tree-root stairs two at a time, hoping that I wouldn't accidentally find myself sprawled face down on the foyer's hard floor. Before I knew it, I was standing at the foot of the staircase, staring at the back of the girl that I'd intended one day to marry. The girl I'd denied myself for the greater good of the Crew. The girl who had now followed me unto death.
She was being held tightly in the arms of Reuben, one of the death gate's Sentries. Usually he knew his manners, but apparently this wasn't one of his strong times. Dawn was struggling against him, trying hard to get free from his grasp, but she was tiny compared to him, and none of her elbowing and kicking techniques were successful.
“Let go of me, damn you!” She yelled and delivered yet another elbow in Reuben's stomach. He didn't even flinch.
Tasha, the newcomers' receptionist was looking at the two of them with a deep frown, as if she'd just been robbed of the best portion of her cherry pie. It would've been quite amusing, if not for Dawn's exasperated struggles.
“Reuben! Tasha!” I heard myself say loudly, my words ricocheted by a thousand tree bark surfaces, which made the sound roll around the foyer like an echo. They both turned to look at me with stunned expressions on their faces. Perhaps they were wondering why I was down here, messing with their business. Or perhaps they felt intimidated that I'd caught them in the middle of doing something not entirely by protocol.
Dawn must have waited for just the right opportunity to get herself out of Reuben's grip, because with a sudden move she was free and even kicked him in the shin, setting him to hop around the foyer.
“You asked for it, asshole!” She exclaimed, and even though I could only see her back, I was sure that she was beaming in satisfaction. I agreed with her fully, the Sentry had asked for it.
Yet, when she proceeded to kick him again, I knew I had to intervene. “What's going on here?” I demanded, placing a hand on Dawn's shoulder. She stiffened as if I'd struck her across the face.
Then she suddenly sucked in a breath and in a tiny whisper said my name.
I squeezed her shoulder lightly, and guided her before me toward the stairs.
“But Sentinel, sir, she hasn't signed her name in the book of the dead!” Tasha said with an incredulous expression. “She can't walk around like this! She isn't marked!”
I sighed mentally. This woman never learned, did she? And no wonder – she'd held this position for centuries. “Tasha, we agreed on the new protocol, did we not? You can't sign a person in the book unless I verify first that they are indeed, dead.”
“But, she's here!” The receptionist protested more vigorously, pointing a finger at Dawn. The way she saw it, I was being blasphemous. “She's in Spectrum, she – ”
“You know our realm has guests sometimes.” I said, cutting her off. “But I can assure you that if she is here to stay, then you can sign all of her names in the book and mark her accordingly.” I said dismissively, glaring at the receptionist who didn't look pleased by my words.
She mumbled something indistinguishable under her nose, making me raise my brows in question. “Okay, sir. As you say, sir.” Then she shut the book closed and taking it under her arm scurried out of the building, Reuben following close at her feet.
My eyes went back to Dawn, who hadn't moved or said anything since she recognized me. “Come with me.” I said simply and walked around her toward the staircase, giving her the choice to follow me when she was ready.
“Is it really you?” Her pained voice reached me as I climbed the first stair.
A heavy sigh escaped my lips. I'd never thought it would come to this – me explaining why I was here, why I'd died... why I'd left her. “Yes.”
“So.. so this really is the realm of the dead?” She asked, as if she hadn't believed it until now.
“But everything, everyone feels so... so alive!” You feel alive is what I knew she wanted to say. “How is it possible?”
“Come with me Dawn, and I'll tell you. I'd rather not do this out here.” Yeah, as if anywhere would be a good enough place. But at least I was sure no one would listen in on our conversation if we were in my office.
~ D a w n ~
“So you are dead.” I said as Connor muttered something to the opening we'd just gone through. His words must have had a meaning, because from all sides of the opening, huge vines stretched, twisted and knotted together, until there was no space left to even see through. I imagined the constant moving and shuffling of the leaves muffled any sound that might drift outside of this room, but I wasn't sure that was comforting.
Inside, the room was spacious, with a live desk that constituted a tree trunk that came out of the floor, then merged with it once again. There was a couch and a couple of chairs that seemed to move around of their own accord. I contemplated sitting, but then changed my mind.
“Yes.” He said again, in that sweet voice of his, which would've swept me off my feet if I weren't already annoyed at his monosyllabic responses. I mean, what was wrong with him? Did he know nothing but plain old 'yes'?
Connor was standing in much the same position as me – arms crossed before the chest, feet slightly apart for better balance, face screwed in a deep scowl – with the only difference that he was brave enough to lean onto his tree desk. I could not risk it, because the memory of those hungry vines slithering toward my fingers was still fresh in my mind.
But I couldn't not appreciate the sight that he was. White linen shirt stretched over pure muscle, a glimpse of which I could see because the top of the shirt was lavishly unbuttoned. His pants were made of black leather, sown precisely for the shape of his legs. His feet were wearing comfortable-looking suede boots that reached up to Connor's mid-calf. Perfectly normal garb.
“Are you dead?” He asked then, pulling me away from my visual inspection. Unfortunately, I hadn't paid much attention so I couldn't quite put the intonation of his voice. Was he pleased? Or curious? Or regretful?
My nose wrinkled in distaste. “No. Of course I'm not.” I could feel the steady rhythm of my heart, soft and distant, but nevertheless steady.
He arched a brow, then quickly composed his face. “Then why are you here?”
I rolled my eyes. Same exact questions I'd heard downstairs. “Because you screwed up as a Chief and now the whole Crew is in danger. That's why.”
This time, when his brows shot up in bewilderment it was more permanent, then they dropped down, bringing a deep frown upon his face. “I'm not sure I'm following your thoughts here.”
“Of course you aren't. 'Cuz it doesn't suit your purposes.” I snapped, irritated by his sudden show of concern. I'd nearly expected him to laugh in my face, so seeing his forehead crease with worry almost took me off guard. Almost. “You died, and everything turned bright and sunny for you. You know, being a Sentinel and all that. Now the living have to carry the burden of your disgusting deals with the Seelie court. You didn't care much about it while you were alive, so don't pretend that you do now that you're dead.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Connor said, his face a mask of astonishment.
“Valiant. I'm talking about Valiant. Does the name ring any bells?”
Of course it did. The sudden twist in his features told me so.
“Dawn.” He said calmly, shaking his head like I had missed something quite obvious in the whole sequence of events. “My debt to the Seelie prince was paid in full with my death.”
“Yeah, right.” I said more to myself, but he heard me anyway and scowled.
His eyes hardened on mine. “Yes. That is right.”
“Then how do you explain the debt that Eric-as-Chief is now pursued to fulfill?” I snapped at him, glaring through the lens of kindling anger.
“I wouldn't know, would I? I've been dead for months, remember?”
“Which doesn't mean you didn't leave a deal unpaid for.” I retorted.
He looked at me for a second too long before responding. “But I didn't. I did what I was supposed to do to keep my Crew safe.”
“And look how well that worked out.”
Connor sighed and shook his head in what I could only perceive as remorse. But remorse for what? “So what exactly is going on out there?”
Not so fast, I thought. “I have a few questions of my own, you know.”
“I'm sure you do.” He said nonchalantly. “But you must agree they're of lesser importance if, as you say, the Crew is in danger.”
I was about to tell him that I must agree to nothing, but I thought it better to just close my mouth and listen. So I just nodded. “Okay. What do you want to know?”
A tiny part of me had wished that he'd ask how I was before saying anything else. But he didn't. Connor was all business.
“For starters, just tell me everything you know.”
I rolled my eyes. Yeah, for starters.
“After you died, Valiant had made an appearance before the newly selected Chief.” I began.
“That'd be Eric?”
“Yes.” I almost snapped, but held my tongue at the very last moment. “Valiant had demanded that your debt be paid in the act of accomplishing what you hadn't done.”
“And what would that be? Since I did fulfill my part of the deal.”
I glared at him silently for a long moment. “Perhaps if you just let me tell the story, you wouldn't have to ask.”
He lifted his hands up in surrender. “Stage is all yours, babe.”
I winced, but tried to hide it behind a deadly look. Firstly, he knew that I hated it when people patronized me. He'd suffered for it not just once. And second, calling me babe after all that had happened was just... slightly... well, weird to say the least.
“The Seelie prince had wanted Eric to open the door to a certain house he had purchased. Apparently, the house was somehow sealed, so neither Valiant nor anyone on our Crew had been able to crack its defenses. Not even the witch.”
“But you did.” Connor finished my thought, as if he'd known all along. Or perhaps he just pieced it together right now.
I nodded, but before I could go on with the story, Connor crossed the distance between us and grabbed me for the shoulders, all the while looking at me dangerously and asking a gazillion questions.
“Which gate was it? Did you close it? When is he coming?”
I wasn't sure I was getting all his words in order, because he was shaking my entire body and my thoughts felt jumbled up. I feared that he might damage my internal organs, but then I remembered they were intact outside of Spectrum.
“Connor.” I said, pushing at his chest with both my hands. It was no use. He was in a trance-like state, where all he seemed to care for were the answers to his questions. “F-for good-d-dness s-sak-ke, let-t go-o of me-e!” My teeth made a horrible rattling noise, cutting up my words into pieces and biting down on my tongue in the most inappropriate way. I felt like a puppet, commanded by a wicked puppeteer.
It wasn't until I slapped him in the face that he regained control of himself. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked and slid down to sit on the floor. I held my head with both hands, hoping that my world would grow still sometime soon.
“What's wrong with me? You just told me you'd opened a door to this place from the outside world! A door to which Valiant has wanted access since forever! Do you know how long it took me to seal all gates so that no one could open them from the outside unless they were dead?”
I grunted but didn't shake my head. Talking was my preferred means of communication for the moment. “You're not really listening to me, are you?”
“Of course I'm listening!” He snapped indignant, pacing back and forth from the window to where the door had once been and back again.
“If you were, then you'd know that had I truly opened the door, you wouldn't be talking to me right now.”
Connor froze in his tracks. “What are you saying? Did you or did you not open that door?”
I lifted my head so I could look at him. “Of course not. I just went thru, if that's even possible. I don't have instructions to open the door.”
“Then why are you here?” He said dubious.
“Because...” I began, but felt too small and diminutive while sitting on the floor. So I took my time to stand up, pat my pants dust free, and look him in the face. He was still a head taller than me, but at my full height I didn't feel like a dwarf anymore. “I'm here because Eric ordered me to figure out why Valiant wants to get on this side of the door so much. He thought that perhaps we could find a way to fulfill the debt without giving the prince what he's bargained for.”
Connor nodded, thoughtful. I could see ideas building in his mind, expanding on what I'd just told him. “How long do we have?” He said finally.
I sighed. “I'm afraid that's the problem. We only have until dawn.”
Suddenly, his mouth stretched in a wicked smile. “Then it's a good thing that time is virtually nonexistent here.”
“Does that mean we have forever to figure things out?”
“Not really. But let's say we have enough time to do what we must.”
“Uh-huh.” I muttered, having no idea why he thought things were so fortunate for us. After all, if Eric didn't have that door open up for Valiant before dawn came... No, I can't think like that. “What are you planning to do exactly? You don't know how Valiant has managed to trick Eric with a Chief debt that's already been paid.”
“I don't need to know. I know what the original debt was, and I know that it was paid. Now I only need to call on justice.” Only it seemed like he meant Justice, as in a proper noun.
With that said, Connor stepped toward the vines where the door had been and spoke to them once more. When they pulled aside, he went out of the room, leaving me to stare at the place where he'd been just a moment ago.
“You coming or staying, Challenge?” Connor said with a smirk, as his head suddenly poked back in the room.
I couldn't resist smiling at the invitation. Especially since he used my middle name. I loved being called Challenge. When he offered his hand, I didn't hesitate to take it, and he pulled me close to his body, where I could feel each muscle constrict, every breath he took, every beat of his heart. How could he be dead? I wondered, because everything about him screamed 'alive'. In fact, he seemed more vitalized than I'd ever seen him in our realm. Like this place had somehow revived him.
“Where are we going?” I asked, because one, I had to distract my mind from the closeness of his body, and two – he was leading me in the opposite direction of the stairs and foyer that I'd already been to.
“You'll see.” He said mysteriously, tugging me deeper into the tunnel of intertwining vines.
“Connor?” I blurted out suddenly, the question that I'd been dying to ask forming on my lips.
He looked at me sideways, a strange sparkle playing in his eyes. “Yeah?”
“Don't look so smug, or I swear I'll – ”
“You'll do what?” He cut me off abruptly, and with one swift motion pinned me to the wall. The vines seemed to have been waiting just for the slightest contact, because instantly, my hands were bound securely to the network of leaves and branches that made up the walls and ceiling.
Luckily, my legs were unbound and I knew pretty well how to use them. Gathering all my strength to my upper body, I bounced on my heals and swung both my legs in the air where Connor's head was. But the bastard was fast. He moved aside just before impact, then caught my legs in midair and slowly lowered them to the floor, where the hungry vines circled around my ankles, rendering me practically immobile.
“Tsk, tsk. You've not changed one bit, sweetheart. Still so passionate, so feisty. I love it when you get that vengeful gleam in your eyes.” Connor said, moving dangerously close into my personal space. He lifted a hand and placed it on the side of my face, then he traced down my cheekbone and chin, and somehow ended at my lips.
And the worst part of it was that my entire being was waiting, longing for him to come even closer, and to seal our reunion with a kiss. My mind knew it was wrong, that he was dead while I was still alive. That he belonged to this world, while I didn't. But I didn't care. All I wanted was to be in Connor's embrace again. To feel his skin on mine, his heart pumping hard inside his chest, as if he'd run a marathon just by looking at me.
When his face descended toward mine, my eyes closed of their own accord, in anticipation of the sweet kiss that was sure to follow. Only it never came.
“Sentinel!” Somebody's panting voice disrupted the moment, leaving me furious and longing and thoroughly frustrated.
“What is it, Gabriel?” Connor said, suddenly alert. My heart felt empty as he pulled away, but his words seemed to dispel whatever silent command the vines had been following, and I felt my wrists and ankles go free of all binding.
I opened my eyes, so I could look at the intruder and glare at him. He was a boy of sixteen, perhaps seventeen. But something about his posture and the look in his eyes told me that he was much much older than that. He wore much the same kind of clothes that Connor did, except they didn't look so good on him. His figure was tall and lean, and the linen shirt hung on his frame freely. By the looks of it, it was at least two sizes larger. And the pants were sky blue instead of black, held to his waist by a massive belt. The only item of clothing that didn't differ from Connor's were the suede boots.
Gabriel looked at me, accusation plainly written on his face. I knew well what that expression meant, but I wasn't about to acknowledge it. After all, I wasn't an intruder. I was a Hunter on a mission. So what if I'd sort of sidestepped it a little?
“The stinkin' Seelie hogs, my Lord.” Gabriel said, bowing slightly in Connor's direction, while all I could think of was Lord? Seriously? “They've found a weak spot in the barrier and are ravaging the land!”
What land? I thought, remembering the wild, desolated vastness outside of the city. If that's what they were ravaging, then I'd certainly leave them to it.
“Where?” Connor inquired, stepping into his Sentinel role swiftly.
Gabriel was pointedly staring at me, as if he preferred not to tell the news with me standing in earshot.
Connor followed his gaze, one brow lifted in bewilderment. When his eyes locked on mine, I knew that I had permission to stay. I didn't know I'd been holding a breath, but the heavy sigh I released was all the proof I needed.
“But sir, she's not marked. She's an outsider.” Gabriel said, astonished, which made me think that me being there as I was, may have been a precedent.
“I know.” Connor replied sturdily. “But when I say that she's safe, that's exactly what I mean. Besides, she will be of more help if she knew what was going on around here.”
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. But my mind was twirling with questions. Like, what was going on around here? Was this place truly what I was told it was? Would this problem with the Seelie hogs deter my mission here? Would we have enough time to figure out Valiant's plans and get him for his forging a fake Chief's debt on Eric?
While I was preoccupied with my own thoughts, Gabriel stared at me for a long moment, making it clear that he didn't approve of his Sentinel's decision. Apparently though, he wasn't given much choice.
“Well?” Connor prompted, growing slightly impatient.
“The Seelie have used those disgusting hogs to find and tear up the veil that separates their world from ours, and now they – ”
“Yes, you already said that.” Connor interrupted irritably, waving his hand in a motion implying he wanted more. “I want to know where. Is it the pastures? Is it the wilderness? Or the forest?”
“It's near the palace, my Lord.”
Suddenly, Connor's back grew stiff, as if a large boulder had just fallen on his shoulders. Perhaps it had. At least it sounded that way. “What of the Queen?” He snapped, unable to hide neither the worry, nor the rage that had suddenly sprung up inside of him.
“She'll be here any moment now.”
“Assemble the Hunt.” Connor barked out, the order bouncing off of every surface it reached.
Up until that moment I'd followed the conversation with interest, but at the mention of a Hunt, my heart leapt for joy in my chest. Would I really have the luck – after months of idleness – to be a part of an actual fairy Hunt? I sure hoped so, even though a little part of my mind wanted to remind me that I was expected home with answers and a solution to a very tricky – perhaps even fatalistic situation.
“They're all ready, my Lord. Waiting for your orders.” Said Gabriel, and I saw a smile of satisfaction play on his lips. He knew he had thought ahead and the Sentinel would be pleased with him.
Apparently though, he hadn't anticipated what was to come next, because his eyes grew wide when he heard Connor's words, and his mouth dropped open like a medieval fortress's drawbridge. “You are to lead the Hunt in the pursuit. I need to speak with Her Majesty first. Then I'll join you.” The Sentinel instructed in a somewhat calmer tone, and I couldn't not be proud of him. He was Chief material alright. “Make sure two hounds are saddled for me and Challenge, and that they know where they'll be going. This time we're getting to the bottom of it.”
Gabriel didn't object, nor did he hesitate in his movements. He promptly closed his mouth and bowed before Connor. He didn't even look at me as he passed by.
Two seconds later, Connor and I exited the live building through a different door-opening than the one Reuben and I had used earlier.
And we found ourselves face to face with a tall, lean woman with crazy hair the color of the greenest grass, and sharp, large blue eyes that sparkled like diamonds in the sun. Her nose was slightly longer and thinner than normal, and her skin was a bit pale. She wore a purple gown that covered her from chest to toe in an elegant manner, and her straight, slightly arrogant posture screamed only one word: regal.
I found myself staring at the woman, just as Connor was pulling me down in a weird, unbalanced curtsy. His head was bowed low, but the serious expression had been almost wiped off his face, replaced by a brilliant smile. It felt as if this woman here had brought a new spark of life to him.
Then Connor straightened, and turning to me, said: “Dawnielle Challenge, I want you to meet Justice – Queen of the Unseelie Fey, and my Mother.”
Chapter 2 To be continued next month :)