Dark heirloom an ema mar.., p.26
Dark Heirloom (An Ema Marx Novel Book 1), page 26
I rolled my eyes. “That explains why the ancient gods demanded human and animal sacrifices.”
Leena giggled. “Why, yes, that is exactly why.”
Gosh. First Jack the Ripper, then the Holocaust, and now Greek gods. Was there any part of human history that wasn’t laced with vampirism?
“Not really,” Leena answered my mental question.
“So, what happened? Why did humans stop worshiping them?”
Leena wrinkled her nose in disgust. “The Inquisitions.”
We paused and huddled together in the dense fog.
“This isn’t working.” Leena’s voice was hoarse.
I nodded in agreement. I couldn’t see past my nose in the darkness. While trying to think of what to do next, a faint scratching noise, like claws against wood, floated into my eardrums.
“Do you hear that?” I whispered.
Twigs snapped. The scratching sound scraped against stones and ripped bark off the trees as it quickly drew closer. We both scanned the fog for the source of the noise, but the mist was too thick. Whatever it was, it came from all sides, and circled us.
We stood back to back. I could feel Leena’s shoulders tense as she prepared for a fight. My own instincts flared and filled me with adrenaline. I crouched, ready to pounce on the first thing that showed itself.
Suddenly, the forest was silent. Too silent. My heart pounded in my ears. I sniffed at the air, trying to get some trace of whatever was after us, but all I could smell were the trees and the earth. I phased my right hand. The only vibes to brush against my molecules were those of plants. I unphased and swallowed my nerves. Something was out there, something not alive enough to give off energy.
We waited, silent, alert, and as ready as we could possibly be, which wasn’t ready enough. A thin, rope-like substance snatched both of my ankles and pulled my feet out from under me. I shrieked as I fell flat on my face. The last thing I saw was the forest turning upside down.
Someone called my name. I’m right here, I tried to say, but my lips didn’t move. My eyes only peeked opened. Wherever I was, it was dark, and I was glad.
I remembered a rope-like thing pulling my ankles. I remembered falling. I groaned and tried to sit up. The instant my muscles flexed, a thousand tiny prickles constricted and pierced my flesh. I gasped, wide-eyed, as reality smacked me in the face. I was caught in a gigantic briar thorn bush.
Thousands of thin vines wrapped a cocoon of thorns tightly around my limbs and body, holding me prisoner. I screamed in utter horror. The screaming made me tense. Tensing made the vines constrict tighter, the thorns dig deeper into my flesh, like barbwire. I couldn’t stop screaming.
“Shhh… Oh!” Leena moaned.
“Where are you?” I inflicted more pain by trying to turn my head to see her. My lungs erupted in protest until I hardly recognized my own voice. “What the hell is this?” Pain tore into my flesh. A warm liquid seeped down my body, only it was wrong. Instead of dripping down toward my feet, it dripped up toward my face.
I’m hanging upside down?
“Yes,” Leena groaned. “Be… quiet.” Her voice was low, but not calm. The strain in her words showed, and I realized she was making an extra effort to hold her temper. I tried my best not to scream.
What is going on?
“We’re… caught… in… thorns.” Each time Leena spoke a word, the vines snapped and constricted. I heard the sickening rip of flesh, heard her gasp, and smelled the blood as it ran down her body.
“We can… phase.” Fire coursed through me as new wounds were torn open.
“No…,” she whimpered. “I… tried. Thorns… for miles… They… get you… as… soon as… you… stop. No… end.”
“Then how… ” I tried to ask, but was jerked silent by the pain.
I glanced around without moving my head. I could tell from Leena’s voice that she was nearby, but I couldn’t see her. She must have been behind me. Layer after layer of thickly woven branches and vines surrounded us with a gut-wrenching web of torture. The branches lay so thick, light couldn’t reach us.
If we were going to get out of this, I had to be able to communicate with Leena. Of course, I realized all I had to do was think and she’d hear me. Leena, however, would have to go through considerable pain to talk back. I would have to form my thoughts carefully so she wouldn’t have to speak more than necessary.
Think. Think, think, think! The old woman. She warned us this would happen. She also told us how to get out. What had she said to do again?
“Dig… down,” Leena groaned.
Of course, that involved moving. But if it meant we’d get out of this bush faster, then it would be worth it.
I tried to wiggle loose, but I felt light-headed as blood rushed to my brain. When I tried to bend, a dozen thorn-covered vines shot out and rolled me up like a burrito. Thousands of thorns tore my clothes, ripped my flesh open, and jerked strands of hair off my scalp.
I screamed and struggled as blood ran down the length of my body, until I couldn’t move another muscle, hostage to a pain far worse than anything I’ve ever felt before. A mixture of sweat and blood rolled down my face as my muscles gave out, and I hung there, panting. It was then I realized Leena hadn’t made a sound. Was she all right?
Oh really? I couldn’t tell.
“Straight… doesn’t… go… forward.” She cried out in pain, then clamped her jaw shut. The old woman’s voice flashed through my mind.
Paths don’t go straight here.
Suddenly, I understood. To go forward, we had to turn around and backtrack. So, to go down, we really had to climb up.
Leena huffed. “Yes.”
But, why would the old woman tell us not to climb up, if up was actually up this time, and down was down? Unless we were somehow hanging right-side-up and the gravity was upside-down? I was confusing myself.
Never mind, just go with it.
I tilted my chin to look up at my feet. Nothing happened, which was a major improvement. I tensed my stomach and tried to do a sit-up. The thorns that were already latched onto me poked deeper into the folds of my stomach, but no new ones shot out, and nothing constricted.
This seems to be working, I thought for Leena’s benefit.
“Yes,” she agreed, though her voice was small.
I attempted to do another sit-up and some wiggling. The vines began to loosen their grip. A few layers fell off and receded into the darkness. After several minutes of slow progress, my hands and arms came free. Pieces of plant material still clung to my biceps and forearms, as the thorns were in too deep.
I worked quickly to untangle the rest of my body, but then realized my mistake. If I completely undid the vines, I would only fall deeper into the web. I stopped unwrapping myself and focused on figuring out a way to climb through the mess. It wouldn’t be easy. The vines were no thicker than rose stems, but with triple the amount of thorns. Grabbing a hold of them to pull myself up would be impossible without inflicting more pain.
Leena called out. “Give me your hand.”
I twisted my neck to look at her. She hung from a handful of vines like it was a thick, prickly rope. Blood ran down her arm as she gripped it. That wasn’t the worst part. Quite a bit of plant and thorn material was embedded in her sides, her arms, and her bare legs. One length of vine stuck to her collarbone, wrapped around her neck, and slashed across the left side of her face from jaw to forehead. Her left eye was forced closed by a couple of the thorns that dug through the lid into the eyeball.
“Oh, God, Leena.”
Her right eye glanced down self-consciously. “It’s not that bad, now come on.”
I took her outstretched hand. She pulled me to her, and I grasped the vines, wincing as the thorns dug into my palms. Every last fib
Leena huffed and puffed below me. She had to be every bit as sore as I was, and with only one eye to use. Guilt wracked at my heart even though I knew there wasn’t anything I could have done.
“How are you holding up?” I asked.
“Fine,” she grunted. “Can you see anything yet? The sky, perhaps?”
I looked up. The web of vines was thinning, thank goodness, but what I saw beyond the end of the briar bush wasn’t what I expected.
Leena gasped as she saw the image in my mind. “Tell me you are joking.”
“I wish,” I said as I glanced up at the ground. This couldn’t be right. I was sure we had climbed up the vines, yet the ground stared back at me, the vines ended just before the cool brown earth.
“No,” Leena spoke. “This is exactly right. Up goes down, and down goes up. We went up, so we really went down to the ground, just like the old crone said to do.”
“Leena, I don’t know about you, but I am positive that I am not hanging upside-down right now. If I let go of the vines, I’m positive that I will fall down… or up… whatever. My point is, I won’t land on the ground, I’d land in the briar bush again.”
“You’re right, gravity is not going the right way.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Well, the crone has been correct so far… so, the next step would be to eat the earth.”
I rolled my eyes and pulled my weight up the vines until I was within arm’s reach of the ground. I dug my fingernails into the soft dirt and broke off a fistful. I expected bits of debris to shower down, but nothing happened. The loose dirt stayed on the ground above my head. Apparently, some form of gravity worked here.
I lowered my arm and offered the dirt to Leena. She took one look and then smiled coyly. “You first.”
I grumbled and wrinkled my nose. With a deep breath, I stuck out my tongue and touched the tip against the dirt. It tasted the same way everything non-bloody tasted to a vampyre. Like ash. I waited a moment, expecting some big revelation of the real hell, a neon sign that pointed to Apollyon’s grave, or something. But nothing happened.
“I don’t feel any different,” I announced. “And, I don’t see any dead people.”
“You probably have to eat more than that.”
“Well, why don’t you go right ahead and show me how it’s done.” I dumped the pile of dirt into Leena’s palm. She frowned, then took a large bite.
The ground began to tremble. I tightened my grip on the vines, even though the thorns cut deep into my skin. The earth parted and a deep black canyon ripped opened just feet from my head. A gust of wind blew from beneath us, and I realized we were being sucked into the ground. I held on with all my might, blood running down my forearms and legs, as I tried in vain to resist the sucking vortex.
Leena screamed. “I can’t hold on!”
“You have to.” It took all my strength to glance at her, because the motion went against the direction of the wind. Her hands and legs were entwined around the vines, holding on for all she was worth, but her torso was lifted by the wind, and she flapped around like a flag in a storm. I had to help her.
“Take my hand!” I reached out, but she only looked at me.
“I can’t. If I let go…” Her eyes widened to say the rest.
“I’ll climb down.”
But, before I could reach her, she shrieked as she lost her grip. I reached for her hand, and she fumbled for mine, but we both missed. I screamed in horror as I watched her fall deeper and deeper into the pit.
When I could no longer see her, but still hear her screams, I decided that I was extremely pissed-off, and sick of the underworld.
“Hey,” I shouted to no one. “Hey, screw you, God damn it!”
I must have gone crazy, but I didn’t care. My blood boiled. As if the devil himself could hear me, the ground quaked, and the briar thorn bush was ripped by the roots as the earth crumbled into itself. Before I knew it, I was falling into the canyon right along with a huge chunk of the bush. Fear erupted from my core as it dawned on me that I might not live through this, but the feeling was quickly replaced by a surge of adrenaline.
“What, you want me too? Fine!”
I gulped, squeezed my eyes shut, and let go of the vines, diving headlong into the pit.
Bile burned the back of my throat as gravity righted itself, but I wasn’t falling. I was being sucked down into darkness at a speed I couldn’t possibly survive. I tried to fly against the vortex, to no avail. The gust was too strong. It forced me down farther, until the little bit of light that came from above quickly shrank to the size of a star, and then disappeared.
I flailed my arms around, trying to find something to hold on to, something to break my fall. There was nothing, but the sharp wind whipping my hair, tugging my clothes, rippling my skin.
I thought of Leena. How much distance was between us? Was she still falling, or had she already hit bottom? I called out Leena’s name, but was dropping so quickly, the air muffled my voice. The space smelled like wet dirt. An omniscient type of fear bubbled in my stomach. I had only felt this way once before, when Jalmari pointed his dagger at my heart. I wished the end would hurry up and get here.
The darkness stretched on forever. I fell for so long, that I no longer knew if my eyes were open or closed. When the air began to shimmer, I couldn’t tell if it was real or just my imagination. The blackness slowly divided itself, and I blinked.
My mind felt groggy, like I just woke from a very strange dream. My vision spun from what I assumed was the impact of the fall. I rolled onto my back, laying on something lumpy. I wanted to get up, but forced myself to stay still until the vertigo passed. Thick red storm clouds drifted past a crimson sky. The air reeked of blood. Human blood, animal blood, and the blood of other things I couldn’t name, all rolled into one. For the first time, I did not desire a drop of it, and I took a moment to bask in that simple pleasure.
I ached all over, but forced myself to sit up and inspect my surroundings. I sat atop a large, lumpy, brown hill surrounded by identical hills. The land between the mounds was flat and barren. Phasing my right hand, the air felt uncomfortably dry and hot against my molecules, but not a single trace of energy vibrated. I sighed and surveyed the land more closely, looking for any sign of Leena.
There was something odd about the hills—they moved, they moaned. They were piles of something live, piles of bodies. I gasped as I became aware of the lumpy hill I sat on. Someone under me groaned and I jumped in terror.
Just then, a body fell from the sky and landed a few feet from me. I screamed and leaped back, tripping over a limb. I landed on my hands, coming face to face with a young girl. She looked dead with her eyes closed. Mud caked her hair and face, and the rest of her body was buried under the mound of flesh. Then her eyes opened. I clasped a hand over my mouth to keep from screaming. She didn’t speak, instead she looked past me, as if she could only sense my presence and not actually see me.
Before I could find my voice, a dozen bronze hands reached out and grabbed me from all directions, trying to pull me into the pile.
“Oh no you don’t!” I wiggled and kicked them. The hands let go and shied away. I pushed myself to my feet.
“Who are you?” I meant to ask the girl, but she was gone, sunken into the pile. I didn’t think the bodies were alive or aware of themselves. They seemed more like sluggish zombies piled on top of each other. In that case, I couldn’t help them.
I climbed down, being careful not to step on anyone’s head. As I reached the bottom of the hill, Leena’s voice called out.
“Ema? Ema, is that you? I’m over here.” Her hand waved from just around the side. She was half-buried under bodies. I rushed to her and
A layer of reddish-brown dust coated her matted hair. Streaks of dried blood and mud stained every inch of her skin. Perspiration wrinkled her clothes beyond recognition. The vine that held her eye shut was still just as gruesome.
I winced, knowing I must have looked just as bad, but at least I had both eyes. Would pulling the vine off be better or worse?
“Maria can take care of it later,” she breathed. “Please, help me up?”
Nodding, I gently pulled her to her feet. When she was able to stand steady, I asked, “What is this place?”
She glanced around and then whispered. “These people have recently died. They have no idea.”
Another body fell from the sky and landed with a thump nearby. I cringed. “Is this where we find Apollyon?”
Leena looked thoughtfully at the piles of zombies. “No, but we’re close. King Apolloyn has been dead a long time. His soul will be somewhere else. We should move.”
“Which way do we go?” Mounds of bodies surrounded us for as far as one could see. The effect sobered me as I realized how many people died each day, and I thanked God I was still alive.
“I’m not sure,” said Leena. “Actually, I doubt it matters, if directions are still backward here.”
She glanced around, and then pointed as seven crows flew overhead. “We follow the crows.”
“They favor the company of the elderly, and Apollyon is ancient.” She began walking. I couldn’t think of a better idea, so I followed her.
The underworld began to look more like hell with every mile. The farther we went, the larger the pile of dead zombies became, until they were mountainous heaps of bronzed skin and soulless faces.
I shuddered and kept my eyes down, which wasn’t much better. The earth bled beneath my shoes. I knew, as nausea knotted my gut, that the seeping blood came from the massive piles of dead.
At first, hands reached out, and muffled voices called for us. Their grasps were so weak; a simple swat sent them recoiling back into their pile. It was difficult not to scream. It was worse to look at them. However, the farther we went, the quieter they became, until all was still and an eerie silence stiffened the air.
by J. D. Brown have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes