GUARDIAN CIRCLE, BOOK #2
Copyright © Isabelle Santiago, 2012
All Rights Reserved.
OPEN YOUR EYES.
Black lashes lifted. A rich, sapphire gaze took in the expanse of uninhabited land. The swift breeze stirred around large marble and stone ruins, danced within wavy strands of raven hair. Blue silk hugged her body, rippled with the zephyr above the wild grass.
The air smelled familiar. Crisp, clean, sweetened by that special something that existed only on the Holy Grounds. All similarities ended there. She turned her head to the right. A line of statues and pillars appeared in the distance, hazy and warped, separated by a wall of invisible fire.
She struggled to her feet, her attention held by oddly foreign surroundings. Weeds choked out the flower beds, once vibrant with the large petals of the hibiscus flowers Hana had tended so lovingly. Paths she’d walked a million times led nowhere, overgrown with shrubbery and moss.
Her eyes widened. The courtyard, once canopied in willows, no longer existed. All that remained of an ancient society was a vast, desolate space.
She blinked, willed away the warped image in exchange for reality. Nothing moved. She spun, taking in the view from every angle.
Only one path was well worn. A city lay at its end. Tall, dark buildings sweltered under a burning red sun. She frowned. A haze of heat blanketed the metropolis, distorting the image, like something out of a dream.
It didn’t make sense. Out in the open field, she barely felt the sun’s warmth.
This must be death, she realized. But it had not come with the sweet promise of heaven as she had expected. Instead, she’d awakened lying on a cold, stone slab, drenched by the morning dew.
Do you remember?
Amaya twirled, startled by the sound.
A ghostly figure materialized before her. Half man, half angel. Broad white streaks spread from his temples into the rich, glossy black of his hair. Sorrow deepened the age lines on his strong, regal features. Ancient wisdom shone in the endless mahogany depth of his eyes. Her chest tightened. It was the face of her mentor, her father, in more ways than she could number.
Do you remember? He asked again.
She looked toward the sky, struck by the vision of a half-remembered dream. Echoes of the past hung like impressionistic paintings upon the white-washed walls of her memory. They sped past her subconscious, a reel of moments that defined her. Festivals full of music and laughter. Days spent under a canopy of trees. Six stones that pulsed with the steady heartbeat of a nation.
Something tugged her further, deeper into the well-guarded recesses of her soul. She saw the vibrant smile of a boy’s youthful face. Felt hot lips, electric against her skin. A broken vow, whispered on a rainy night. Tears blurred her vision. Her throat tightened against a lifetime’s worth of regrets.
A dagger appeared above his hand. It hung mid-air, its tip pointed toward his palm. He extended it toward her. For a moment, she caught her reflection in its steel blade. Haunted, unfocused eyes met hers before she realized they were her own; a broken indigo gaze that said too much about her inner struggle. Her fingers wrapped around the handle.
You understand what must be done. He spoke clearly, his face aglow with blessed light.
A cracked female sob disintegrated Amaya’s torturous vision. It echoed against the cement walls of her tiny prison. Claws scratched and pricked as they rushed past her bare toes, warm, furry bodies scared away by the foreign timbre of a human voice. She pressed grimy hands against her eyes and called out to the heavens. “Why? Why didn’t you just let me die?”
The vivid memory warped, faded until the field of ruins became a cobblestone path that smelled of urine and stale alcohol. Street lamps flickered, too weak to stand against an ever-present darkness that stretched from the alleys and bled into the looming shadows of jagged buildings. Hot, humid air created beads of sweat on her forehead. Beneath it, evil crawled along her skin like fingers, making her shiver.
“No,” she cringed, crawling back on her hands. “Please, please no.” Her power hummed with something dark and inhuman, something that came closer with every passing moment. She felt its hunger and sank beneath its prevalent emotions as they mangled with her memories, warping them. Bringing them to terrifying life.
Clammy hands appeared, closer, as though reaching for her. She felt them everywhere, large and bruising against her skin. They held her. Pulled, pushed, and pinched without sympathy or mercy. She cried out. They laughed, traced the dark lines of her mark with intrusive, intimate fingers.
They called her a monster, pressed her cheek into the cold, smooth cobblestones of the street. Five of them full of adrenaline and lust. They stroked her hair, whispered the old myths into her ear. Rain fell, a torrential downpour matching the frantic sobs that escaped her.
Their hatred pulsed through her veins, a vicious, violent windstorm of emotion.
Call out to Them, one breathed into her hair. See if the Beings will answer your call.
“Don’t do this.”
Her screams echoed in the endless silence.
It’s no use, another laughed. They don’t listen. They never listen.
Lips, hot and wet, pressed against her mark, right above her cheekbone.
Not even to you, Guardian.
“Enough!” Amaya pressed sweaty palms tight against her temples. She breathed deep, fought to steady the frantic beating of her heart. Pebbles trickled alongside her, shaken from the old cement by the echoing vibration of her screams. They went on forever through the endless labyrinth of tunnels underground. Tunnels that housed more than rusting pillars of metal and brick, more than scurrying rats and endless species of vermin.
There were monsters.
In the dense darkness, she couldn’t see past her knees, but she sensed them. They hungered for human flesh with barbaric desperation, moved so fast, that most victims hardly managed a scream before they were torn to pieces.
No matter how much she tried, she could never wipe those screams from her memory. She struggled to breathe. The crushing, putrid scent of rotting flesh engulfed her. Her frantic gasps for air only worsened the nausea. The scorching acidic taste of bile lingered on the back of her tongue. Amaya pressed her lips shut tight, clutching her knees closer to her chest.
She shuddered. Sweat beaded her brows, her hairline, drenching the thin fabric of her hava. It didn’t diminish the chill that racked her body. That made the hair on the back of her neck stand straight. Quiet, she willed, when her breathing became a crescendo in the silence.
Their hunger intensified, feral in nature. Fresh blood walked the tunnels. Intruders. Unknowing victims moving toward their death. She pressed her eyes shut tight. A terrified sound died on her lips.
It was only a matter of time.
The world stirred around her. She pressed her back as close to the wall as humanly possible. Jagged edges dug into her spine. She didn’t care. The monsters would feed tonight and she would retreat to the numbness of her mind to escape the pits of hell.
Footsteps shuffled closer. Hushed male whispers spoke muffled sentences she couldn’t understand. The underground creatures hissed. She knew she’d see their blood red eyes if she opened hers.
“Her scent trail ends here,” a young male voice spoke.
Close. Too close. Amaya didn’t move. She held her breath, forced herself to be as still as the stone that surrounded her. A red glow filled her closed eyelids. She pressed them tighter.
Her heart skipped a beat. The raspy, deep timber of a male voice forced her eyes open. She blinked several times. Two beams of light pointed at her face blinded her. She turned her head away.
“Is that her?”
“It’s her. She’s in shock. Hand me a blanket, Jonah.”
She flinched at their quick, precise movements, pressed farther back into the wall, palms flat. A pained wail ripped from her lips. The slow trickle of blood pressed the fabric of her hava against her spine.
“Amaya, it’s all right. It’s me. It’s Phoenix.” His name stirred a familiar fire in her soul. “Lower the flashlight.”
“But the Shadow Walkers…”
Slowly, the colored dots disappeared from her vision. She let her eyes readjust to the darkness. Calloused fingers grazed her chin. Familiar russet eyes pinned her with a loving stare. He lifted a thick, pierced eyebrow in worry. “You’re hurt.”
“There’s not enough room,” the young man spoke in hushed whispers. “The foundation here isn’t solid. If she struggles it’ll crumble. Give me your backpack. I’ll attach the flashlights to my belt. You’re going to have to carry her out.”
Amaya ignored the foreign voice and grasped at the familiar. “Phoenix,” she croaked, tasting his name on her lips. Her white-knuckled grip on the wall slacked. She reached forward, eager to touch him, to make him real.
“It’s me, Amaya. I’m here.” The gritty note of his voice held her captive.
She’d known that voice, some other place, some other time. He took her hand and pressed it to his face, warm and soft beneath a ticklish layer of stubble that covered his jaw. Soft lips pressed against her open palm.
“You have no idea how long I’ve been looking for you.”
Her knees gave way. She fell forward, right into his waiting arms. His scent consumed her; a woodsy mix of smoke, sulfur, and male musk. She crumbled in his grasp and for the first time since her rebirth allowed herself to mourn the past they’d left behind.
“I’ve got you now,” he whispered into her hair. “I’ve got you.”
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