Hope followed silently after the black-haired, rifle-wielding girl, her toes bumping the stairs with every step. Darkness clung to the damp rocks, hiding everything not illuminated by the key-chain light in front of her. Though Mei was not watching any more, Hope could not run even if she wanted to. With darkness behind her and Mei with the only light, there was nowhere to go.
She rubbed her arms, forcing herself to lift her feet higher. Just a few more minutes, Mei kept assuring her, and they would step through a portal right into Az’s arms. Hope wished she could be sure Mei had meant it figuratively: Stepping into the embrace of a homicidal man called “Az the Cruel” did not seem like a pleasant prospect. Hope rubbed her eyes. None of this seemed like a pleasant prospect.
Mei stopped, and Hope followed suit. Just in front of Mei, blackness that Mei’s light could not pierce swallowed the stairs. It twisted and reached, stretching out toward them like a living darkness, pulling back again as if it dared not pass its bounds. It burned Hope’s eyes until she had to look away.
“Well,” Mei said. The light clicked off in her hand. “Here we are.”
Hope gasped as the darkness fell, wrapping itself around her like a solid hand. “We’re going in there?”
Something brushed against Hope’s hand. Screeching, she jerked away.
Mei’s laugh sounded near her ear. “You are such a scaredy cat. That’s my hand.”
Hope forced herself to remain still. “Oh.”
“‘Oh’ yourself.” Mei grabbed Hope’s hand. “Come on.”
“N- no.” Hope started to pull away, but Mei’s grip tightened.
“You’ve come too far, remember?” Mei tugged her arm. “Now come on. It’s just a portal.”
Hope’s voice shook. ”It’s black.”
“Of course it is.” Mei laughed. “It belongs to Az.”
“But the… The other portal wasn’t black.”
Mei pressed close, caressing the knuckle of Hope’s thumb. Her breath, hot and moist, puffed against Hope’s ear. “I don’t have time for this, Hope.” Her voice was low. “Events are moving into place, and this is the chance I have been waiting for. I’ll not waste it for your sake.”
Her voice was different, and the closeness of her voice startled Hope. Had Mei… Grown taller? Fear constricted Hope’s lungs. “You’ve changed.”
Mei laughed; though it was Mei’s laugh, it was also different. It was deeper, calmer, older. “I haven’t changed. I am still strong enough to push you in, if you’ll not go willingly.”
The thought of this Mei, who was not the little girl with the rifle and yet still was, pushing Hope into the blackness beyond the stairs was enough to make Hope’s feet move. She dragged one foot up onto the next step, her whole mind and body screaming against what she was doing. She could not cast herself into nothing. She could not.
In the utter darkness, Hope could not even tell up from down. As Hope forced her feet to follow Mei’s pull, her heartbeat thrummed through her body. Heat flowed from Mei’s hand up Hope’s arm.
Remember Mom, Hope thought, or maybe she screamed it. She could barely tell in the darkness. Remember why you’re doing this.
Her foot slipped before she thought it would. Gasping, she flailed for something to hold onto, anything to keep her from plummeting into the black hole she had seen. Stone scraped fire across her ankle.
And she fell.
* * *
The voice was soft; too smooth and too recognizable, even through the fog of the dream world. Stori would have tensed, if she could, but when she tried there was nothing. No feeling. Just the low, breathy voice.
Her mind revolted against the thought of answering that voice; she knew it, knew it all too well, and hated it fiercely. Tamal, the Woman-of-the-Cave, the Oracle-of-the-Trees. The witch that could charm any man within sight.
Stori answered it anyway.
“What do you want, witch?”
“Why do you sleep, Woman-of-the-Sword?”
“Why do you haunt my dreams, Poison-that-Never-Kills?”
“You speak the words of my adversary.”
“Get to the point.”
For a moment, the voice fell silent, and the heady scent of Tamal’s flowers swept over Stori. She choked.
“Though you hate me,” Tamal said, softly, her breath tickling Stori’s ear. “Yet will I save you.”
“Witch.” Stori spat the word. “I neither need nor want your help. Get out of my head and leave me alone.”
“The person you think is a friend at your side is really an enemy at your back,” Tamal said, her voice rising with urgency. “Awake, before the knowledge you have is forever lost to this world, stolen by the blade of betrayal.”
Stori’s stomach roiled. “What are you saying?”
“Arise, Warrior Companion, for Hope Hunter plans to kill you this very night!”
Anger surged in Stori, but before she could spit out the words on the tip of her tongue, she realized the witch was gone. Stori was awake.
Her eyes snapped open. Staring up at the sky, now covered in clouds, she forced herself to breathe calmly. Tamal was a liar. She was a liar, and next time Stori saw her in person, she was going to…
She clamped down on the thought before it finished. Though Tamal was despicable, she had not, to Stori’s knowledge, done something that would warrant death. Stori refused to be a murderer.
Why would Tamal say something like that? Surely, telling such a lie would not benefit her in any way. And Hope would not kill Stori. Could not.
Stori saw movement out of the corner of her eye and pinned it with her gaze. Hope’s silhouette was clearly visible against the moonlight filtering through the clouds, her arms pressed close to her sides as she stood ram-rod straight a few feet from Stori.
Without realizing she had been tense, Stori relaxed. Though she could only see Hope’s outline, she could easily paint the face in her mind’s eye: the round eyes, the thin eyebrows, the wide nose over a large mouth. This was the girl who had left everything behind to save Stori’s life, and ended up losing her Mom in payment. Hope Hunter was trustworthy.
And Tamal was a liar.
Stori forced a bare whisper through her lips. “Hope?”
The statement was flat, almost disappointed, certainly not forced. Not like the laugh Stori squeezed into the night air. “Maybe I should take first watch.”
Grunting, Hope twisted and lurched forward. Light glinted on something in her hand, and Stori was moving before the sight had a chance to register.
Stori rolled to a crouch, breath caught, and stared at the blade plunged inches deep into the ground where she had been lying a moment before. Hope’s hand gripped the hilt, but Stori could barely make the two things connect.
No. Stori shook her head, following the line of Hope’s arm to the round face she knew so well.
Hope’s mouth curled in a thin smile. “You weren’t supposed to ever wake up.”
Stori shook her head, tensing for a fight even as she silently denied the possibility that this was happening. Not Hope. Oh, God, not Hope, too!
This was a dream. An illusion. It had to be.
“As it is…” Hope jerked the dagger out of the ground. “I’m going to have to do this the hard way.”
As she stood, Hope seemed to grow taller. Her legs lengthened, her face thinned and grew longer, and her torso thickened. In the space of half a breath, a broad-chested man stood in Hope’s place, his face obscured by shadows.
Stori eased herself to her feet, trembling in spite of her efforts to steel herself. It was not Hope. It was a shape-shifter.
Relief drained all the strength out of her limbs.
The shifter lunged. Stori reached for her sword and grasped empty air; She was unarmed. How could she be unarmed?
Dodging the blade, she back-pedaled, trying to regain the ground she had lost by her split-second mistake. As she regained her footing, adrenaline rushed through her. This had been her life for too long. She was used to this.
She ducked under the shifter’s dagger, driving her fist into his stomach. Dancing away, she felt the blade slip through her hair.
The shifter’s advantage was in his strength.
Dodging his grasp, Stori darted behind a tree. Normally her strength was in speed and agility, but the wound in her shoulder limited her. In spite of the cool air, sweat beaded on her brow. Without a weapon, she could dance out of his grasp all she wanted, but she would tire sooner than he. She would be dancing with death.
* * *
Dropping to her knees on the hard ground, Hope rubbed her eyes, her hand finally freed from Mei’s grasp. Beyond crying, she just shook as she tried to scrub away the darkness lingering in her eyes. She did not know where they were. She did not know, and she did not care.
She never wanted to go through a portal again.
Even with the heat from Mei’s hand, Hope felt like she had been lying in a frozen grave. Death reigned in the black thing Mei called a portal, and Hope had felt it claw for her body and soul during the eternity they fell. No. It had only been a few minutes, though it felt like forever. Hope knew with sick certainty that, had it been as long as it felt, she would never have come out.
“Well,” Mei said, her voice as cheery as ever. “Come on, then.”
Hope forced herself to her feet. Behind her, she could still feel the dead cold of the portal. Even walking into Az’s headquarters could not be as bad as that.
A brick floor spread out under her feet, meeting at a right angle with slick stone walls. Hope drew a breath, blinking away the last shreds of darkness. One door stood to her right, a decrepit, wooden thing with massive hinges. The air reeked of mildew and rot.
Mei pushed her from behind. “Go on.”
Hope stumbled forward a step. “Where am I going?”
Sucking in a rot-tinged breath through her teeth, Hope closed her eyes and took another step. “Remember Mom,” she whispered. “Remember Mom.”
“Yep.” Mei said. “And while you’re at it, remember that I have a rifle.”
Hope opened her eyes and forced herself to take the last few steps to the wooden door. An unrecognizable symbol marred its surface at eye-level. Hope wondered if it meant, “Keep out.”
Mei prodded her shoulder. “Open it.”
Hope stood frozen in place. Was Az in there? Was her Mom? She was not sure she wanted this, after all. Staying outside with the insane six-year-old seemed safer.
Yet if she was going to die, would it not be better to get it over with?
Almost against her will, her fingers found the doorknob. Grimacing at the slime that met her skin, she gripped it tight and slowly, slowly turned it. The hinges complained softly.
She saw him first.
The source of the rotting smell, she realized. Dead skin hung from his skeleton, held together by the massive chains that wrapped around both arms and bound him to a chair. Blood red hair laid limp against his skull.
But his eyes… Endless black orbs that pinned her in place. He said nothing, his blue and black lips curling in what might have been a smile.
Uniformed soldiers stood motionless, shoulder to shoulder, all the way around the room. Eyes set straight ahead, sweat gleaming on their forehead’s, they stood like painted statues awaiting the command to come alive. A single column stood off center in the room, supporting the sagging roof.
Hope turned to see if Mei was coming in, but the little girl was gone.
Az took a rasping breath. “Hope Hunter.”
Starting at the sound of her name, Hope pivoted toward the chained man. Beside him stood the large-bearded, red-eyed man she had seen in the video, what seemed like ages ago. He was shorter than she had thought; a stocky torso with head and arms too large for his body. Draped across one shoulder, clenched in one fist, a glowing white chain fell to the floor and formed a pile at his feet.
Az’s mouth dipped at the corners, his shoulders heaving. “Doesn’t have it.”
The dwarf grunted.
Hope squeezed out the question, rolling both hands into fists. “Where’s my Mom?”
Az took a breath, the skin on his forehead stretching upward. “Here.”
Trying to ignore the rotting skin dropping from Az, trying to ignore the armed men surrounding her, trying to ignore everything, Hope stepped forward. “I’m here, like you said.” Her voice squeaked. “Let her go.”
Az tipped his head to the side, glancing toward the dwarf.
The dwarf shook his head, sliding back a step. “We can find it.”
Az shifted and leaned forward as far as he was able, his chain clinking against itself. His eyes turned to her again.
A spark of anger flared in Hope. Locking her gaze on the black orbs, she stepped forward. If she was fast, would she be able to get to Az before the soldiers stopped her? Did it matter?
Before she could decide, Az inclined his head. The line of soldiers closed behind her.
Stepping away from the soldiers, trying not to get near Az, Hope looked back and forth between Az and his men. “What are you doing? Where is my Mom?”
“Hope Hunter.” The dwarf’s voice boomed.
Hope spun, her heart skipping a beat. Az’s lips were curled in his dead, dead smile. He was not going to… No.
Hope focused on the spark of anger and fanned it into flame. “Where is my Mom?”
Az breathed. “Doesn’t matter.”
Anger surging to raging flame in her chest, Hope lunged toward Az. Four hands clamped on her arms before she could move a foot, the two soldiers flanking her staring with blank-faced nervousness toward Az.
Hope let an angry squeal escape her, thrashing against her captors. “Az!”
“Hope Hunter,” he said coolly. “You are a fool.”
Angry, desperate tears pushed at her eyes. “You’re a liar! You never meant that you would let my Mom go!”
He shot a glance at the dwarf.
“I’m a dwarf,” the red-eyed creature said. “Dwarves cannot lie.”
“I don’t care if you can lie!” She struggled, ignoring the pain as the soldiers tightened their grasp. “I want my Mom back!”
Az raised himself, straining against the chains. “Hope Hunter, be still.” Sparks arced from one link to another.
Hope stopped, heart banging against her ribs.
The dwarf cleared his throat. “We will return your Mother, as promised. She is of no use to us.”
Hope sagged, a sob rising in her throat. She desperately wanted to believe that he had been telling the truth when he said he could not lie. Yet how could she? A man who would work with a murderer, a cruel dead thing like Az? How could that be trustworthy?
“Then…” Hope’s voice cracked. “Let her go. What do you want from me?”
As he sucked in a breath, Az’s shoulders quivered. “The chain…” Breathe. “… Wants its prey.”
Hope’s gaze snapped to the chain the dwarf was holding. He wanted to chain her in that? She twisted, but the soldiers held her firm.
Az nodded. “Bring her.”
The soldiers shoved her forward. Digging her toes into the cracks between the bricks, Hope leaned backward, heart galloping at a dangerous rate. She could not do this.
“No!” Her voice spiked. “Don’t- Please!”
“In exchange for your mother,” the dwarf said.
Hope stopped struggling. If she did not cooperate, what would they do to her Mom? But if she did cooperate? Her shoulders shook with a sob, but she followed the solders leading to the column. A single sentence went in circles around her head, playing itself over and over and over.
Help me, God. Help me, God. Help me, God.
As the dwarf stepped near with the chain, she cringed, stiffening in preparation for the searing pain that would come when the white-hot metal touched her skin. She did not want to do this. She could not do this.
A broken sob escaped her lips. “Mom.”
The dwarf coiled the chain around her, around her arms, her waist, her neck. She waited for the pain, waited for the heat that would melt her skin, but it did not come. The chain was surprisingly cool. Though it tingled against her skin, it did not burn.
The dwarf tightened the chain around her chest. Pulling one end of the chain with him, he walked to the front, where he picked up the other end from the floor.
“No,” Hope whispered. She tried to struggle against the chain, but it held her close to the column, restricting her breathing to shallow gasps. “Please. Let me go.”
The dwarf raised his eyebrows. “And your mother?”
Hope bit down hard on her lip to keep herself from saying what was screaming through her mind. I don’t care about my Mom, I just want to live!
The dwarf started to bring the two ends of the chain together.
A man’s voice boomed out across the room. “Lock that,” it said, “and I will kill you.”
The dwarf froze.
Shifting nervously, every soldier adjusted their grips on their weapons. Hope held her breath. Who had interrupted?
A shadow moved at one side of the room, where the soldiers that had dragged Hope to the column had vacated the doorway. The light from the chain illuminated first a handgun, then a familiar face surrounded by loose red hair: Jed Fullbright.
A cocky smile stretched Az’s lips. “Dear brother.” Pause. “I knew you would come.”
Hope inhaled sharply. “Brother?”
Az took a breath. “What are you going to do? Kill me?”
Jed ground his teeth. “I have thirty rounds, Az. I will kill every man in this room, even the traitor dwarf, if Hope is not freed before I count to ten.”
The men shuffled their feet, handling their guns cautiously as if unsure if they should fire.
Az laughed, a quiet, choked laugh. “My men will shoot you.”
“And doom you to an eternity in your chains?” Jed shook his head. “I don’t think so. One.”
White teeth flashed in a corpse’s grin.
The dwarf shifted his weight from one oversized foot to the other.
Stepping away from the wall, a uniform raised his gun.
Jed swung around and fired. The sound echoed in the room. “Four.”
Hope held her breath, stomach churning. The soldier Jed had shot lay motionless on the ground, shadows covering half of him. Was he dead?
Az’s smile began to fade.
Quickly, the dwarf tossed one end of the chain around the column, then followed it, unwinding the weight from Hope’s body.
The chain fell empty to the floor. Hope breathed.
Jed’s shoulders relaxed. “Thank you, gatekeeper.”
The dwarf glared at Jed, both arms folded across his chest. “Not any more.”
“How long did it take this cadaver to turn your heart?” Jed asked, his voice surprisingly soft.
Lifting his chin, the dwarf turned his back on Jed. “I was smart enough to do what you were afraid to.”
Hope did not even try to follow the conversation. Nudging the chain away with her foot, she took one step away from the column, half afraid someone would order her back. Had she really been saved?
Az slumped in his chair. “Brother…”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Do you fear the truth?” Az whispered.
“I fear the lie that was once the truth.” Jed’s hands shook as he gripped the handgun. “You are not my brother.”
Hope took another step away from the column.
Grunting, the dwarf whirled and grabbed her wrist, snapping her around to face him. Yanking her against his body, he wrapped one arm around her and slapped his hand over her mouth.
Jed jerked forward, aiming at the dwarf. He forced words out through his teeth.”Az, what are you doing? What do you want her for?”
“Brother,” Az whispered. “If I told you, I would lie.”
Stepping silently behind Jed, a soldier raised his rifle. Hope struggled against the dwarf’s crushing grip, screaming in her throat.
The rifle cracked hard against Jed’s skull.