Dark Heirloom (An Ema Marx Novel Book 1), page 25
Don’t do it. Fly, like you said.
I could tell she heard my thoughts, because she glanced up.
A child’s voice startled me. “Who are you?”
I looked around for the speaker, but didn’t see anyone other than the seven wolves baring their teeth.
“Well?” asked the child.
“Leena,” I whispered. “Did you hear that?”
She stared at the wolf with the white paw, her eyes wide with shock. “You can speak?” she asked the wolf.
“Well, of course I can,” said the animal.
I now realized the snapping jaws weren’t meant to be threatening. They looked that way because the wolf didn’t have lips to speak with. It continued to speak in the toddler voice.
“You two are funny looking wolves.” Her voice rang like a tiny bell, and I realized she was laughing.
Leena cleared her throat. “That is because we are not wolves.”
“Really? That one smells like a wolf to me.” The wolf trotted over, and scented me without fear or timidity. I frowned. I did not smell like a wolf. Did I? When was the last time I showered?
“Oh her? Well, she is half a wolf.” Leena gave me a meaningful glance.
“Um, yeah. Watch.” I transformed myself.
The others gasped and faltered back a few paces, where they became giddy and bounced. The wolf with the white paw sniffed me and then backed up.
“Well then, half-wolf, what are you doing outside of your pack?”
I transformed back into a vampyre and adjusted my clothes a bit. “Ah, well, I’m looking for a friend of mine. A family member, actually. My great grandfather.”
“Be he wolf, or be he half?”
I looked at Leena and raised an eyebrow. She shrugged.
“Um… he be… like her.” I nodded at Leena. The wolf scented her. I wondered if the wolves realized they were in hell. I wondered if they were some kind of demons.
“I’ve never smelled anything like this before,” said the canine.
“Have you seen anyone that looks like her?” I tried.
“No, but maybe one of my comrades has. Comrades?”
The other six wolves bounded forward. They looked us over, and sniffed. Three of them said they had seen another that looked like us, but smelled very different, and therefore could not have been the same.
“Could you please tell us where you saw them anyway? This place is very confusing for a… half-wolf… and it’s very important that I find my grandfather.”
“Very well,” the white-pawed canine said. “Fenrir, Wulfric, and Lupa will show you where they are.”
A black wolf, a gray one with a white tail, and a sandy-colored one stepped forward from the pack. They eyed us as suspiciously as we eyed them.
“Well,” said White-Paw. “The rest of us must go. There is a rabbit that runs through here about this time. It’s much fun chasing it. You should join us after you find your grandfather.”
“I might do that,” I smiled enthusiastically, feeling as though I dodged a bullet with these creatures.
The five of us walked in silence for some time. Leena carefully unraveled the yarn as we went, her eyes down, her lips pressed in a hard, stubborn line. I didn’t think she trusted the wolves, but what choice did we have? At least they knew where they were going and we weren’t wandering aimlessly.
Fenrir, the black one, and Wulfric, the one with the white tail, would run ahead and then come back to make sure we still followed them. Lupa, the sandy-brown one, walked by my side. She was two sizes smaller than Fenrir and Wulfric, and walked with her head bowed. If she could, she never said a word.
Fenrir and Wulfric, on the other hand, wouldn’t shut up. They talked on and on about the rabbit they wanted to chase with the rest of the pack. Apparently Ulfa, the white pawed wolf, was the alpha female, and she was looking for a new mate. Whoever caught the rabbit would be the lucky dog.
I wondered why the heck hell had talking wolves.
Fenrir and Wulfric started growling, and then dashed ahead of us. Lupa glanced at me with wide eyes, and then ran after them. Leena and I glanced at each other, shrugged, and then ran to catch up with them.
We only went a few yards when they suddenly stopped. Fenrir and Wulfric barked and snapped at the air. Leena and I looked to see what caused their unease.
A thin stream, not more than a foot wide, ran down the length of the forest. On the other side of the stream, an old woman sat on top of a very large boulder. A black cloak covered her body, the hood shielded her head. Little wisps of thin white hairs peeked from under the hood and curled around the frame of her withered face. Her eyes were downcast and focused on something in her long, bony hands.
The ancient woman kneaded the object. She didn’t seem to notice us, or the wolves that growled at her. I thought I recognized her. I couldn’t remember where I had seen her before, or what her name was, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew her.
I took a step in her direction. Leena held her arm out, blocking me, and slowly shook her head.
“It’s okay, I think I know her.”
“Ema, you do not know anyone here,” she hissed. “This is the underworld, or hell, as you call it. The people here are dead, they are not who they used to be. They are not real, or sane. They exist only as an extension of their minds’ imaginary utopia.”
I glanced at the woman. If she realized she wasn’t alone, she made no attempt to acknowledge us. I didn’t think she was oblivious, though. I also didn’t think she was dead.
I pushed past Leena and came between the wolves. I patted Fenrir and Wulfric on the head. They stopped their fussing and fell back to stand with Leena. Lupa stayed by my side, quiet and obedient.
The old woman mumbled to herself. Something about it not being soft enough. It must have been the object she kneaded. I opened my mouth to speak, but my breath caught as Leena placed a hand on my shoulder.
“We shouldn’t speak to the dead. We have no business here. This place… the rules are different.”
Everyone jumped as the old woman’s voice croaked loudly. “I ain’t dead, but that is very wise advice, very wise. You don’t wanna be speaking to no dead, child.”
I gawked at the old woman. The entire time she spoke, she never looked at us. Her gaze focused twice as hard on the small object in her hands. Her thin white eyebrows drew together, and her pale lips frowned in concentration.
I cleared my throat and tried for politeness. “Please, who are you?”
“Just an old crone is all.”
“What is your name?”
Lupa pressed her wet nose against my hand and spoke. “Please, miss. She is not like you, or the other one.” Lupa’s eyes darted to Leena, and then back to me. “She smells different, miss.” Lupa’s voice was like a shy ten-year-old’s and her politeness surprised me.
The old woman snorted. “Of course I smell different, dimwit, I ain’t no vampyre either.”
Did that mean she was human? I missed simpler times, like when humans didn’t have babies with Nephilim.
I patted Lupa’s head to reassure her, and then looked at the woman. “Can you help us? I’m looking for a…” I almost said man, but that was wrong. “A vampyre named Apollyon. He’s my great grandfather, twenty times removed.”
The crone’s hands stopped fidgeting and she faced us. Chills ran down my spine from the look of her ice-blue eyes and white lashes. She glanced at me with something like surprise, and concern flashed across her features. Then, she scowled at Leena and each of the wolves.
She looked at her hands again, and set back to work on the object. “I’m afraid you won’t ever make it to your grandfather.”
Leena spoke up. “So you know where he is?”
The crone frowned at Leena for a moment before glancing at her work. “Of course not. There ain’t no making sense of this place.”
Leena and I sighed. She whispered into my ear. “This
Ignoring her, I wracked my brain for the old woman’s name. It irritated me that I couldn’t recall how I knew her. “What are you working on?”
Her cold eyes flashed like lightning, and then she glanced at the object in her hands like she’d never seen it before.
“Oh, this?” She held up a smooth, round stone the size of her palm.
I cocked an eyebrow. “Um, yeah. What are you doing with it?”
“Oh, just tryin’ to turn this here rock into an apple. I haven’t eaten in days. Not much down here you can eat.” She looked at the stone and frowned. “I used to be able to do it so simple like, but I’m old now and my memory ain’t what it used to be.”
“I happen to have one with me.” I glanced at the apple in my hand and paused, realizing I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Leena said we’d need it for something, but she didn’t say what. “Actually, it belongs to my friend. Let me ask her if she can spare it.”
I jogged to catch up with Leena. She had stopped some distance away, waiting for me. “Leena, what do we need the apple for?”
She looked at the fruit in my hand. “Apples have a number of uses when dealing with magic and the dead. I thought it wise to bring one.”
“Well, the old lady back there said she’s been trying to turn a stone into an apple so she can eat, and I think—”
“No! We are not giving it to her.”
“There is something not right about her.”
I rolled my eyes. “Like anything about this place, or being in it, or the fact that it even exists, is right?”
Leena narrowed her eyes. “We may find a better use for it. We may need it for something far worse than a little old lady.”
She was right, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to help the woman. Repay her for some good deed she did for me long ago, even if I couldn’t remember it now.
I took a deep breath. “The way I see it, if she is evil, then we should try to keep her on our good side. She said she wasn’t dead, and she’s not a vampyre. I don’t think she’s human, either. I don’t know what she is, but if she’s evil, then I want her to think of us and the small act of kindness we did for her. Then, maybe, she’ll spare our lives.”
Leena pursed her lips, and then nodded her agreement.
“I’ll go a step further than sparin’ your life and tell ya’ how you can find your grandfather.”
Leena and I jumped. The crone stood right next to us. Leena took several steps back and braced herself. The wolves kept their distance and whimpered. I couldn’t decide if I should apologize, or run for my life. Instead, I swallowed hard, held out the apple, and said nothing.
“Why thank you, child.” She snatched the fruit with her long bony fingers and took a very large bite. Juice dribbled down the corners of her ancient mouth. I bit my tongue to keep from cringing in disgust.
She turned and made her way back to the boulder in slow motion, carefully calculating each step so she wouldn’t trip over a root or loose pebble. Basically, she walked the way I would expect any slow senior to walk. So how did she sneak up on us?
The crone took her time heaving herself up the large rock. Once comfortably perched on top, she took several more minutes to finish the apple. Then, she neatly tucked the core into a pocket in her cloak.
“Now then,” she started. “First thing ya wanna do is be rid of them dimwitted wolves.”
“Why?” I demanded.
“‘Cause, all them wolves do is get people lost. They don’t know where they’re goin’. They don’t think proper. In fact, they probably already forgot where they’re supposed to be takin’ you.”
I glanced at Fenrir and Wulfric, who were rough-housing and talking about the rabbit. My search for Apollyon was the farthest thing from their minds. I glanced at Lupa. She whimpered and her eyes darted around nervously. I could tell she was uncomfortable without her pack.
I sighed. “Okay, then what?”
“Then, ya gotta go that way.” She extended a bony finger.
Leena shrieked in protest. “But that is back the way we came!”
“Ya think I don’t know that? I told you, there ain’t no making sense of this place. Paths don’t go straight here. Ya think you’re goin’ straight, and you’re really goin’ left, right, backward, and all ways ‘cept forward, you understand?”
“Ya wanna find your grandfather, ya gotta go backward, you hear?”
I nodded, though I was beginning to think we might be better off listening to wolves than to this crazy lady.
“There’ll be thorns and brambles. That’s how you know you’re goin’ the right way, ‘cause of the thorns and brambles. Now listen good, child, ‘cause you can’t fly over ‘em. They’ll get you, and they’ll hurt like all hell.”
That caught my attention. I glanced at Leena. She looked a shade paler.
“There is a way to beat ‘em, though, the thorns and brambles.”
“How?” Leena and I asked in tandem.
“Ya got to go down. Don’t try ‘n climb up over them, or they’ll get ya. Climb down until ya see the earth. Then, when you see the earth, eat it.”
“I beg your pardon?” Leena cocked her head.
“I said eat it, girl. Eat the dirt and the stones. It’s the only way.”
Leena’s gaze narrowed. Her jaw stiffened, and her hands clenched into fists. I placed a hand on her shoulder and hoped it would calm her down.
“And then what?” I coaxed.
“And then, when the thorns clear, you’ll be among them.”
“The dead, of course.”
“Okay. What do we do then?”
“Ya look for your grandfather, child. What are ya, simple?”
I frowned. “Okay, well, thank you very much.”
I turned to go, pulling Leena with me so she wouldn’t stay to give the crone a piece of her mind. We went back the way we came, toward the fog. I assumed the wolves would follow us, but they didn’t. When I glanced over my shoulder Fenrir, Wulfric, and Lupa had disappeared.
The old woman sat on the stone and concentrated once more on some small object in her hands. I thought I saw the apple core between her fingers. Her lips moved as she mumbled something that sounded like, “Poor child. You can’t kill a dead man.”
We walked for a long time in the thick fog, unable to see more than two feet in front of us, and every tree we passed looked the same. Red and leafless. Leena wore her frustrations on the surface. Her fists clenched as she re-wound the wool, a scowl glued onto her face. Our little adventure must not be going the way she planned.
Although hell was nothing like I thought it would be, at least it wasn’t worse. At least Satan, or Hades, or whoever, didn’t have us chained up in a torture chamber.
“Who said we won’t be?” Leena huffed.
Damn her mind reading ability.
She snorted. “I am frustrated because we’ve been wandering these woods for hours, and if what the crone said is true, we still have a long search ahead of us. I was expecting to arrive in a field of dead people, and begin searching right away. I did not think we would have to find where the dead were kept first.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I did sort of assume we’d be surrounded by skeletons, and ghosts, and little red demons by now. Do you think we can’t get there because we’re not dead? Maybe we’re in limbo or something.”
Leena thought for a moment. “No, I’m positive we are in the underworld.”
That would have to be good enough. I tried to keep my mind clear, but I had too much space to ponder. I wondered if Leena could control her ability. Could she choose to read a specific person’s mind, or did she hear everyone’s inner thoughts all the time? Leena said Jalmari had shut her away from his mind. How was he able to turn her ability off?
She spoke through clenched teeth. “I have to remind myself that people don’t speak their mind out of politeness.”
“You don’t like talking about it,” I stated the obvious.
“It has been a difficult journey.”
“Your father thought you could speak to the gods. That must have been something.”
Leena nodded. “My father convinced the city of Athens that I had been given a gift from the gods. Back then, a gift from the gods made you a little bit more than human, and people started to believe I was a demi-goddess.”
“Are you?” Hey, there are vampyres and Nephilim, why not goddesses?
Leena shrugged. “Nothing seems to constitute as godly anymore. I would simply be a telepath. My struggles came when I met Jalmari.”
I nodded, understanding all too the well the difficulties of becoming a vampire because of him. I felt sympathetic for Leena. She had a bright future ahead of her, before Jalmari took it away.
“Do not blame him,” Leena warned. “I knew what he was, and I still loved him. I wanted him to turn me. I wanted to be with him always. I could not stand the thought of growing old and dying so soon before him.”
That was something I hadn’t considered. “You gave up everything, though.”
Leena snorted a laugh. “Hardly. The world was so different then. It was easy for vampyres to call themselves gods and demigods, and live in temples. It made life very convenient for us.”
My eyes grew wide. “Why would anyone worship a vampyre?”
She laughed. “Why not? Humans didn’t know the difference back then. The pre-Christian world worshiped many different pagan gods. Some of those gods represented death, darkness, destruction. Vampyres fit in with those aspects, and with our powers, who would dare to question our authority?”
“So, you could walk into any Greek city, claim you’re a god, and demand they build you a temple to worship you?”
“To put it simply, yes.”