Dark Heirloom (An Ema Marx Novel Book 1), page 24
“I thought you didn’t want to sleep with me again,” he grinned.
I wrinkled my nose. “Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine. But I’ve never been engaged before. I feel like we should at least toast to it.”
“Very well. I’ll call Maria.”
“No,” I snapped, a little too quickly. I forced my voice to be calm. “No. We don’t need to bother her. I’ll get the drinks.” I smiled as innocently as I could. “I’ll be right back.”
I phased to the kitchen and opened the huge refrigerator. Medical bags full of every blood type in existence stocked the shelves. I couldn’t smell the blood when it was cold and packaged, but the sight of the crimson liquid aroused my inner beast, and I salivated like a starving dog.
I had to resist. If I gave into the thirst, I would end up as Mrs. Korento, and that was not going to happen. Grinding my fangs together, I grabbed a bag of blood, threw it against the counter, and kicked the door shut.
Deep breath. Hold it.
I searched the cupboards and pulled out two glasses. My heart pounded against my ribs. My cheeks burned, and I finally let my breath out as I eyed the bag of blood and thought about the best possible way to pour it.
The air shifted as Maria solidified in the kitchen. She looked me over and stifled a laugh. Her bright smile stretched from ear to ear. “Can I help you with anything, darling?”
“Can you pour that for me, please?”
“Of course, dear.” She glided over to the counter and opened the bag. “I can bring them up if you like.”
I bit my lip. “No, thank you, I’m sure I can manage.” I smiled, but couldn’t tear my gaze away from the flowing blood as Maria filled the glass. “Do we have any wine?”
“I believe we keep some in the cellar. Any preference?”
“No, whatever you can find will work.” Besides, I was sure it would taste like ashes.
Maria nodded and tossed the empty bag into the trash. She phased out of the kitchen to get the wine.
The instant she was gone, I set to work. I pulled out the handkerchief Leena gave me and unwrapped it. Inside were seventeen red nightshade berries. The plant was extremely toxic. I was supposed to trick Jalmari into eating them. Leena explained that seventeen berries was a lethal dose for humans, but for a vampyre, the fruit would only paralyze them for a few hours. She warned me not touch the berries myself. One drop through the skin could cause hallucinations.
I searched for a fork, mashed the berries, and scraped them into Jalmari’s drink, stirring quickly. When I was done, I wrapped the handkerchief around the fork and shoved both into the bottom of a trashcan.
Fidgeting, I waited until Maria reappeared with a bottle of sparkling white wine in a tin of ice. I took half a step forward and casually positioned myself in front of the glass of blood, hoping Maria wouldn’t notice it for any reason. Could she smell the nightshade?
“Thanks, Maria, I can take it from here.” My voice squeaked as beads of sweat formed against my temples. I had to calm down or someone would catch on. I waited a moment for Maria to leave. When she didn’t, I gathered the drinks and left, hoping she hadn’t formed any suspicions.
Jalmari didn’t bother to look up when I entered his office. He sat behind his desk, carefully reading a small stack of papers.
“What are you doing?” I set the glass of blood, and the wine, on his desk. I pushed the blood in his direction, almost fainting from nerves. Even with poison in it, I ached for a sip.
Jalmari answered simply. “Work.”
I nodded. Of course. He practically ran a country. My hands trembled as I lifted my glass. “To… new beginnings?”
Jalmari took his cup and gently clicked it against mine.
“To new beginnings,” he repeated, and took a long sip.
I tried to keep my eyes from bulging out of the sockets as I stared. How long would it take for the nightshade to go into effect? Why hadn’t I ask Leena that before? Without thinking, I took a gulp of wine and choked. It was like licking an ash tray.
“Ugh!” I wiped my tongue with the back of my hand, trying to get rid of the bitter soot taste. “Will things ever taste normal again?”
Jalmari laughed. “No,” he answered, and then pushed his glass in my direction. “But this will make you feel better.”
One look at the poisoned blood sobered me. Biting my lip, I decided to sit quietly in the rigid chair in front of his desk. “No thanks, I’ll be okay in a minute.” I gulped down my nerves and prayed he wouldn’t get suspicious.
When I glanced in his direction again, I gasped. His pupils dilated to double their size. Only a thin line of his green irises remained. He cocked his head, blinking rapidly. His pale lips pursed, and his brows pulled together in a tight furrow.
I debated whether or not to speak.
Beads of sweat formed on his pallid skin, matching my own perspiration as a tense silence lingered between us. In slow motion, Jalmari rose from his chair. His face and hands glistened in clammy sweat.
My voice came out as a high-pitched squeak. “Is everything okay?”
Yeah, I should have kept my mouth shut.
Perspiration drenched his clothes. The color drained from his already pale face, and his voice was hoarse. “What did you do to me?”
Panic wracked my brain, only this time it was because I worried Jalmari might die. He looked like he was having a heart attack. This couldn’t be right. The berries were supposed to paralyze him, and he didn’t even drink much. Leena didn’t say anything about profuse sweating. I swallowed hard, and tried to make my voice even.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You. Bitch.” He took two steps, and then fell face-first against the floor. Seizure-like tremors overtook him. I gasped and leaped to my feet, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Had I mixed the berries wrong? Did I use too many? Shit, I didn’t mean to kill the bastard.
Jalmari twitched uncontrollably for several minutes until, finally, his eyes rolled back, and he was as still as a corpse.
For a brief moment, I wondered how I would signal Leena, but I didn’t have to. She materialized in the office, and stood near Jamlari. She sneered and kicked the toe of her shoe against his side, however gently.
“How did you…?”
She pointed a finger at her temple. Right. She could read my troubled thoughts and see exactly when Jalmari fell over.
“It took you long enough,” she barked.
“Well excuse me, I’m not an expert assassin like the rest of you.” I crossed my arms. She rolled her eyes, and then crouched low to examine the body.
“But he looks so—”
“You can hear his heart beating, can’t you?”
I could. His pulse thumped, and his chest rose and fell evenly, though a little slower than normal.
“You didn’t warn me about—”
“My apologies. I should have told you it would be a small fright.”
“Small? He nearly perspired to death.”
Leena ignored me. She placed her left hand on Jalmari’s chest, and extended her right hand in my direction.
I jumped back and shook my head. “No way, I’m not doing that again. I’ll just follow behind you.”
She grumbled. “Fine, but keep up.” She and Jalmari phased and flew out of the room. I phased and followed the vibrations of her energy. We hadn’t gone very far when her molecules pull tight as her body solidified. I did the same and found the three of us in the dungeon.
“Why are we in the dungeon?”
“It is easier to open the gate to the underworld when you are, technically, already underground.” She spoke matter-of-factly as she laid Jalmari’s paralyzed body on the floor in the center of the dungeon. She pulled out the tiny red candles from the knapsack and placed them in a perfect circle around Jalmari’s body.
“Don’t just stand there.” She tossed a lighter at me. “W
I started lighting candles. “Won’t a few hours be long enough?”
“How should I know? I’ve never been to the underworld before, have you?”
I rolled my eyes and ignored her sarcasm.
She unpacked more things from the knapsack, and set them down near Jalmari’s feet. “Here, put this on.”
She tossed a bright cherry-colored shawl at me. I hadn’t seen a shawl since the last time I saw pictures of my grandmother. I frowned at the ugly thing. “What for?”
“You have to wear red to enter the underworld.” She produced a sporty red jacket for herself, looking much more hip than I did with my granny shawl.
Leena took the small pots of red and yellow face paint and smeared some across her cheeks and forehead. She held the pots out and motioned for me to do the same. “For the same reason as the shawl,” she explained.
After I smeared the paint across my face, she handed me a red apple. “Hold this. Guard it with your life. We will need it in the underworld, unless you want this entire effort to be a failure.”
I swallowed and hugged the apple to my chest.
She took out the skein of wool and tied one end securely around Jalmari’s ankle. She put the rest of the wool down and then opened her spell book. I watched in silence, in doubt, in disbelief, in a million other pessimistic ways, as Leena chanted words in a language I never heard before.
She moved her arms through the air in a rhythmical way as she danced around Jalmari and the candles. Her hips swayed slowly, arching her back as her torso rolled in fluid, drawn-out motions. She looked very graceful and sure of herself.
Then, her pace quickened. She chanted faster. The movements became wild and rigid. She slashed at the air. She jumped, and whooped, and made all sorts of screeching sounds. Her coal-black hair puffed in frizzes about her triangular face, and her eyes glowed like green fire. Her lips moved quickly as she chanted faster and faster, until her ringing voice became a sharp buzz of consonants and vowels.
I clung to the apple. I clung to the apple good.
The tiny flames on the candles flickered. I could swear there was a peculiar rhythm to it. The flames seemed to dance to the sound of Leena’s voice. They grew with her voice, too. Each little flame enlarged to the size of a blazing torch. Together, the flames created a bonfire so high, the tips brushed against the ceiling. My feet automatically moved me back so I wouldn’t catch fire.
Leena continued dancing and chanting like a savage. The bright orange light grew uncomfortable, and I squinted to see. Suddenly, I remembered Jamalri was in the middle of the fire.
Holy shit, is he burning?
I opened my mouth to voice my concern, but before I could speak, Leena stopped and looked straight at me.
“You still have the apple?”
I glanced down at the fruit firmly pressed against my breast.
“Good. I have the wool.” She held it up, as if I knew why either mattered. “Time to go.”
“What? Now?” I felt myself take a step back. Leena pressed a hand against my shoulder, and shoved me into the fire. I shrieked in terror as I stumbled into the flames, and fell down a black pit.
I squinted in the bright, white light. Brighter than the sun. I pushed myself up and looked around, but couldn’t see anything other than the white void surrounding me.
Something touched my shoulder and I screamed. Leena shushed me. I breathed out a sigh of relief, but when I turned to face her, I gasped at what I saw.
Her red jacket floated in midair. Red and yellow flecks of paint floated above the jacket, where her face should have been. The rest of her was invisible. Yet, I could feel the weight of her hand on my shoulder, and could hear her even breathing. I wondered if I looked the same.
“Yes, you do.”
I shuddered. “Please don’t do the mind reading thing right now. This is creepy enough.”
The jacket shrugged.
“So this is the underworld?” I glanced around at the nothingness.
“I guess so.”
“I hate it already.”
“So, what now?”
“We need to move. We need to walk until we find something.”
“Like what, exactly?”
“Anything. Just hold onto me so we don’t lose each other.”
I nodded and grabbed the waist of the jacket.
“Forward,” she breathed, sounding very business-like. I wanted to comment on the contrast from earlier, when she sounded absolutely insane, but I held my tongue. The flecks of paint snorted to show she had heard my thoughts anyway. I sighed. This was going to be a very long trip.
We trod carefully with slow steps. Everything was fine for the first few feet. Then, I stepped on something that poked through my shoe and shot pain into the base of my foot. I shouted profanities while trying to balance on one leg.
Leena suffered the same discomfort and muttered. “I think I stepped on a fucking nail.”
“Or glass,” I added. Blood dripped from the bottom of my foot. “Oh crap. Hold on, I need to balance against you for a sec.”
“Oh sure, go right on ahead,” she grumbled. While holding onto the jacket’s shoulder for balance, I felt around for my invisible moccasin and removed it from my foot. Three hair-thin pins stuck to the flesh of my heel.
“They’re pins.” I yanked them out and held them up for Leena to see. “Gosh, they’re so thin. I never would’ve seen them if not for the—”
“Blood,” Leena finished.
I didn’t like the way she said blood, or the idea that I could tell was forming in her mind.
“Leena, don’t—” I spoke too late. Two puncture wounds formed in mid-air as an invisible Leena sank her fangs into her forearm and squeezed out as much blood as she could.
“It is the only way we can see. Don’t just stand there, help.”
I groaned. I wasn’t sure I could bite myself. Yet, Leena’s idea seemed to work. Every drop of blood painted the ground as it landed, coloring in the white void like a paint-by-numbers assembly.
“Come on,” she yelled. “I cannot do this by myself.”
Swallowing my nerves, I shut my eyes tight and chomped down on my arm.
“Jesus Christ, I don’t even taste good.” Wincing, I pressed against the wound and allowed the blood to dribble down my hand. The effect was incredible and terrifying at the same time. As drops of our blood hit the ground, they penetrated and colored the earth around us. Each drop painted a different item. A tree here, a rock there, until everything around us was colored red. The white void faded away, replaced by a crimson sky.
Leena and I gasped as we took in each other and our surroundings. No longer invisible, we stood in the center of a clearing, in the middle of a forest. A bed of pins and needles circled us, running at least three-feet deep, separating us from the red forest.
Leena rolled her eyes, unraveled some of the yarn, which was now red, and then flew over the giant circle of pins. She landed safely near the trees. Sighing, I did the same, joining her on the other side.
I narrowed my eyes at the skein of wool in her hands. “Don’t tell me that is supposed to help us find our way back.”
She grinned and raised her eyebrows. With a sigh, I glanced over my shoulder at the pins and shuddered. “Whoever made this place doesn’t want anyone going any farther than this. At least, not alive.”
“Of course not. The living are not supposed to be venturing in the underworld.”
“And yet, here we are,” I muttered.
Leena grinned. “Don’t count your luck just yet.”
We waited a moment for our wounds to heal, then put our shoes back on. Leena stepped into the woods. I quieted my mind and kept my instincts on alert as I followed her.
This forest was nothing like the one surrounding Jalmari’s castle. The trees grew thick and twisted. The trunks wove around each other in giant braids. The branches wrapped
The ground was just dirt. No grass. No plants. In fact, I couldn’t see anything leafy for miles; there weren’t even leaves on the ground to suggest there had ever been any on the trees at all.
We walked in silence, both of us examining the red tinted forest very carefully. A thick fog rose from the ground. I couldn’t feel the condensation, but the longer we walked, the thicker the fog became, until we couldn’t see past our noses. We held onto each other so we wouldn’t be separated. Soon, we were soaked from the mist. Our hair stuck to our faces, and our clothing clung to our skin.
“I don’t know about you,” I whispered, “but hell is nothing like I thought it would be. Isn’t it supposed to be hot? And where are the little red men with pitchforks?”
Leena scoffed. “There are demons here, but be grateful we haven’t run into them yet.”
“And the dead? Where are they?”
She shrugged. “I do not know. We should keep moving.”
After some wandering, my fear turned into frustration, which turned into anger. This was stupid. We could’ve been going in circles. We should’ve stopped and waited for the fog to thin instead of wearing ourselves out.
“Shh!” Leena froze mid-stride.
“Don’t shush me, I wasn’t speaking. If you stay out of my head—”
“Shut up,” she hissed. She crouched and yanked me down with her. Her eyes darted around, scanning the fog. I listened with all my instincts on alert.
I noticed the smell first, a scent like wet dog. Wolves. A lot of them, and they were getting closer very quickly. I heard the sounds of their paws hitting the ground, and their lungs panting as they ran.
Wolves, in hell?
Dead wolves, maybe. But if they were already dead, how would we beat them?
“Come on,” Leena muttered. “We need to fly.”
“Fly where? We can’t even see.”
The fog thinned, and seven large wolves crept forth. They scented the air and licked their snouts. A grey wolf with a white paw snapped its jaws at Leena. She looked ready to pounce. I held my breath and concentrated.