Dark Heirloom (An Ema Marx Novel Book 1), page 27
“This is horrible,” I whispered. “I always thought people had some sort of afterlife, even if they were being tortured by demons. But these people are just dead, as dead as their bodies in their grave. Doesn’t something happen to their souls?”
Leena shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”
I was about to say something else when she ducked behind a pile of bodies and yanked me with her.
“Do you hear that?”
The soft mumble of voices and the crunch of careless footsteps drifted into my ears. I sniffed the air. Big mistake. I had to hold my breath and clasp my hand over my nose to keep from gagging. The atmosphere smelled of smoke and rotted eggs.
Leena motioned for me to take a look. I frowned and shook my head. She rolled her good eye and then pointed at the bad eye. I bit my lip.
Being as silent as possible, I stood just enough to peer over the mound of dead people. In the distance was a clearing. It might have been a forest once, but was burned down or something. A few dead tree stumps dotted the dry, lifeless wasteland. The ground was so hot, heat rolled off the land in waves of visible vapor.
That wasn’t what worried me. The hundred or so bone-thin people walking around did. A few wore rags, but most of them were naked. They were all as skinny as skeletons, like they were starving to death. The old woman’s voice replayed in my head.
There ain’t nothing you can eat around here.
I crouched before they could notice me. “There’s a bunch of skinny people walking around,” I whispered. “Are they dead?”
Leena nodded. “Those are the souls you speak of.”
“They don’t look like souls to me. They look like starving zombies.”
Leena wrinkled her nose. “Most humans no longer believe in leaving food out for the dead.”
I had no idea what that meant.
“They probably will not notice us,” she went on. “They’ve been dead a long time, and have probably gone mad.”
Oh, that was reassuring.
She snorted at my thought.
“So, what, we just walk right past them?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
I didn’t. We stood and came around the last mound of bodies.
“Do not stare at them,” she warned.
I shrugged. I couldn’t help glancing at them. What little bit of hair they had was thin and greasy, and stuck flat to their scalps. Their bones and joints popped out. Their skin looked gray, wilted. Their black eyes sunk low in the sockets, and looked as though something was missing, like the person they were before they died was no longer there.
We walked carefully past them. Some of the zombies wandered around and looked beyond us, into the distance. Others sat on the ground hugging their knees, rocking back and forth. Most of them mumbled something unintelligible.
We stepped around fallen logs and scrawny branches as the trees became more numerous. Gigantic spider sacks stuck to several of the tree trunks. The more we walked, the more frequent the spider sacks became. They were the kind of cocoons spiders spun around insects when they wanted to save them for later. Only these were big enough to hold a person.
A new kind of fear took me so completely that I froze in my tracks. “Leena, if there are gigantic spiders here…”
She shook her head. “I do not see any spiders, do you?”
She squeezed my hand. “We should start looking for your grandfather. The crows have landed.”
The big black birds perched on top of the dead trees. There were many more than the original seven we had followed. I scanned the zombies, and realized I had no idea what Apollyon looked like. How was I supposed to pick him out?
“Good point,” Leena grumbled. She let go of my hand. “I’ll do the searching. I’ve seen Apollyon’s face in Jalmari’s memories before. You watch for danger.”
I nodded. “All right.”
To my horror, Leena approached the nearest spider cocoon and began peeling back the sticky webbing. I could feel the blood drain from my face as she worked. After removing several layers, she uncovered a dead man’s face. Really dead. Mummy dead. His skin was paper thin, his eyes and tongue rotted away, and maggots filled the gaping spaces. Bile rose to my throat.
“Not him,” Leena called out. She moved to the next tree. It was unbelievable. I had to turn away and look at something else—anything else.
I noticed a shadow skid across the horizon. It went from the cover of one tree, to another, in one fluid motion. I narrowed my eyes. This wasn’t one of the wandering zombies. This shadow knew exactly what it was doing, to move that way. My hands trembled.
“I saw something.”
The sounds of sticky paper ripping stopped. Leena whispered. “What was it?”
“I don’t know.” I squinted, trying to see the figure again, but it was gone. “Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not dead. It moved fast.”
Leena stood beside me and followed my gaze to the spot where I had seen the shadowy thing last. All I could think was that it had better not be a spider. Not even a little one.
A black figure emerged from the vapor. I gulped in fear. Leena stood silent, studying it with her good eye. The thing stepped closer, fluttering in the heat as if it had wings.
“I don’t think it’s a spider,” Leena whispered.
“Oh, thank goodness. Now everything is peachy again.”
She narrowed her eye at me.
I shrugged. If it wasn’t a spider, then what was it?
The figure drew closer. I realized it really didn’t have wings. It wore a black cloak. The hem of the cloak was what fluttered in the air. A black hood masked most of the face, but I could make out the pale lanky chin and wisps of white hair poking out from under the hood.
Leena huffed as the old woman smiled. I noticed how she walked with a certain grace, gliding over the land. She stood with her back erect and relaxed. Not hunched over or hobbling like she had the last time we saw her.
My lip quivered. “How did you get here?”
“Same way you did. Ain’t those thorns a bitch?”
I knew better. Leena and I had hardly made it out alive, and we had the bruises to prove it. The woman looked as though someone carried her over on a gold chariot, and even gave her an energy drink along the way.
She grinned. “I see you two made it.”
“You didn’t come through the thorns,” I yelled. I might regret it later, but I didn’t care. If there was an easier way to get to this point, I wanted to know about it.
The hag frowned. “No?”
She peeled off her cloak and flung it to the ground in one motion. I really wished she hadn’t. I could have lived without seeing her body.
She was naked underneath, and her body was nothing but flesh and bone. She didn’t have any skin from her wrists to her collarbone, to her ankles. Maggots crawled around and burrowed under her organs and muscle tissue. I fell to my knees and vomited. Leena merely looked away.
The woman put her cloak on. “That’s what happens when ya go through them damn thorns too many times. They rip all your skin off, they do.” She said this like a grandmother warning her granddaughter not to go out at night. The boogie man will get you, he will. I wiped my mouth with my hand and stood.
Leena spoke, her short temper evident. “Why are you here?”
The crone wrinkled her nose and pointed a bony finger at me. “I’m here to help that one find her grandfather.”
“Why?” Leena demanded.
The woman pulled something out from a pocket in her cloak and held it up for us to see. It was an apple core.
“Not every day someone does somethin’ nice for an old crone, but when they do, this place requires I do somethin’ nice back.” She turned the apple core around and looked at it. “You wouldn’t happen to have another apple, would you child?
I shook my head.
“Ain’t that a shame?”
“Do you know where Apollyon is?” I asked.
The woman nodded. “I do.”
Leena leaned in and whispered. “She said she didn’t last time. How can we trust her?”
I whispered back. “It’s either that, or search this entire place by ourselves. Do you know how long that will take?”
“She’s a smart one,” the woman croaked. “Now then, child, your grandfather is right…” she turned and extended her entire arm to point, “…there.”
Leena and I turned toward the direction she pointed. I half expected a satanic-looking vampyre to be staring back, but there was nothing other than more mindless zombies and spider sacks.
“Where?” I turned to face the old woman, but she was gone.
“Humph,” Leena crossed her arms.
I faced the direction the woman had pointed and started walking. “Come on. Maybe she’s right.”
Leena rolled her eye, and then started peeling away at the first spider sack we came to.
Seven spider sacs later, I sat on a fallen log with my chin in my palms. I watched the zombies wander around. They changed directions randomly, like ants.
Leena shrieked and I jumped to my feet. “What now?”
“I found him! I finally found him!” She bounced in excitement.
I went to her side and examined the man who was my great grandfather by twenty generations. His pale face slumped against his chest, his chin hung in a peculiar way. He looked like another mummy. “Are you sure this is him? How can you tell?”
“I am sure. You don’t easily forget King Apollyon.”
“With a face like that, I can see why.”
She snorted. “Well, don’t just stand there, we are on a mission, remember? Jalmari is still in the dungeon, if the nightshade hasn’t worn off yet.”
Actually, I had forgotten about Jalmari. Suddenly, I hated this man for forcing his son to kidnap me and take advantage of me. Being tied to a tree and sucked dry by time didn’t do enough justice.
We dug our fingers into the sticky spider silk and ripped it off, chunk by chunk. Eventually his limp, dead body fell to the ground. For a second, I thought the other zombies would come running in protest, but they didn’t notice us. I looked at Apollyon, and saw a man’s entire life flash before my eyes.
It was as though I had always known him. I saw him as a gangly boy, restless with energy. I saw him as young warrior, filled with passion. I saw him again, as a man of stature; powerful, and surrounded by riches, but unsatisfied. Unfulfilled.
But, he was just a dead man, lying on the ground next to my feet. A dead man with an ugly mole on his neck. His tongue was swollen, chapped, and had bled a little.
More images flashed in my mind. He was young again. He was a baby. He could be my son. He was my son.
His fingers swelled.
He was a teenager with broad shoulders and lean muscles. He looked like me. Then, he was an old man with white hair, thin and falling out, regret written in every wrinkle of his forehead. He looked like me, only dead.
I heard a voice, but it took my spinning head a moment to register it.
I almost asked who, but, glancing at the body, I could see that Apollyon was choking. His soul, or whatever it was, gasped for air. His chest heaved as he clawed at his throat with bony fingers. Leena dropped to her knees and started giving him mouth-to-mouth. I cringed in disgust. She couldn’t have loved Jalmari that much.
She reached into the man’s gaping mouth, despite his incredible fangs, and pulled out an apple core. We exchanged horrified glances. Leena flung the core aside. The man, Apollyon, coughed up dust as he struggled to sit up. It dawned on me that this creature was coming to life.
Leena spoke to him, asked him questions in a language I couldn’t understand. Apollyon blinked several times before finally focusing on Leena. His eyes were red. Not bloodshot, but red. Red irises that encompassed two inky-black pupils.
Leena repeated the same question over and over. He only stared at her, breathing heavily. Very slowly, he turned his bald, rotted head in my direction. His fanged mouth curled up in a grin as he hissed two words in a heavy Arabic accent.
Well, heck, the man knows my name.
Apollyon pushed himself up, and then looked at his hands as if realizing for the first time what was going on. He frowned at the sight of his wasted skeleton body. He wasn’t much more alive than the zombies around us, but he was conscious and aware of himself, and angry.
His height towered my own as he stretched his back, the vertebra in his spine popping. Leena stared with both hands clasped over her mouth. She rushed to his side, speaking a million words per minute in her language. Apollyon glanced at her as if she were a tick in his flesh. In a flash, he wrapped one bony hand around her neck and lifted her into the air. In another flash, he sank his teeth into her chest and drank.
Leena’s blood spilled over her body in waves. She screamed in horror and struggled to free herself.
“Phase!” I shouted, but she didn’t. I punched Apollyon in the gut as hard as I could. My fists cracked on contact and pain shot into my knuckles.
Shit! That hurt!
I yelled. “Hey, asshole, put her down! It’s me you want.”
Apollyon tore his face away from Leena and looked at me. Leena made a horrible gurgling noise, and then her body went limp in Apollyon’s hand.
“Oh shit,” I breathed. I pressed a palm against my forehead and tried to think without going hysterical.
Apollyon opened his hand and Leena dropped to the ground. She didn’t stir.
His hand flashed out and snatched my wrist with an iron grip. I tried to phase, but couldn’t. I was too scared to relax. Apollyon yanked me forward so hard, I lost my balance and fell. He lifted me up and swung me over his disgusting rotted shoulder, looked up at the crimson sky, and bellowed in Arabic.
My ears rang and my head pounded as if my skull had been crushed into a million pieces. Someone grabbed my shoulders and shook me. It hurt. Everything hurt. My eyes blinked open, but all I could see were blobs of color. The room spun. I had no idea which way was up, or if I was standing or sitting. Someone shook me again. The ringing subsided and a faint voice grew louder.
I groaned at the sound.
“Ema. Come on, you have to wake up.”
I lifted a hand to my temples as Jesu’s pale blue face slowly came into perspective. He pulled me up, and I murmured cuss words.
“Come on, we have to get out of here.”
I was too dazed to register what was going on. I think Jesu tried to pull me to my feet, but I fell.
We were in a strange room with jail cells made of plastic frames. A bright orange light came from behind, and thick black smoke blurred my vision and choked my lungs. My head rolled forward as Jesu dragged me. Glancing down, the only direction I could look, I noticed that the floor was bleeding. Images of hell flashed before my eyes. Apollyon’s sick face flooded my memory, the way he dropped Leena in a heap…
“Leena,” I moaned.
Just then, Jesu stopped next to a man sitting hunched over the floor, cradling a woman in his arms as he whimpered.
My voice was hardly a whisper. “Jalmari?”
Jesu hesitated. “It is time to go, brother.”
Jalmari mumbled to himself. “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair. I loved her.”
Jesu hesitated a moment, and then turned away. Fatigue overcame me, my eyelids closing as he lifted and carried my body someplace.
When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on the back seat of a car. I glanced up and saw the back of Jesu’s head in the driver’s seat. No one else seemed to be in the car with us. I closed my eyes a moment, wanting more rest, but images of Apollyon and Leena j
“What is it?” Jesu yelled over my voice.
I couldn’t stop screaming. I patted myself, wanting desperately to believe it was all a dream. When I glanced down, though, my hands and arms were streaked with blood.
Oh God, it was real.
The car jerked to the side of the road. Instinct seized me. I flung open the door and ran as fast as I could. Jesu shouted for me to stop, but I ignored him. He caught up and tackled me to the ground. I punched and kicked, but he pinned my arms to my sides and pulled me into his lap. I struggled against him, but he held me tight.
“Calm down. It’s all right.”
“No. It was real.” My chest heaved, and I shook violently as I pressed my face against his shoulder.
He gently rocked me, smoothing my hair down my back, until my breath calmed and was quiet.
“Are you okay?”
“Leena’s dead, isn’t she?”
“Is Jalmari okay?”
He bit his lip. “I do not know. He refused to leave her side.”
I sucked in a deep breath and then exhaled. “I’m sorry for screaming. I think I’ll be okay now.”
“Good. We need to get back in the car.” Jesu helped me stand. I realized it was raining then, but I couldn’t feel the tiny drops on my skin. I glanced up at the navy-blue night sky, looking the way it was supposed to, and sighed as Jesu helped me into the car and then went to the driver’s side.
I waited until we were back on the road, and then asked. “Where are we? What happened? How did I get out of… of hell?”
I was glad to be back, but everything felt surreal. We drove down a country road surrounded on both sides by spruce forest, but I didn’t remember leaving the castle.
Jesu sighed. “Your body never left the dungeon. It was your essence that went into hell.”
I pursed my lips. “You mean my soul? Like, it astral projected?”