Authors: H.P. Mallory
of the Lily Harper series
Copyright © 2015 by H.P. Mallory
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. Please do not participate in or encourage the piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
ALSO BY HP MALLORY:
THE JOLIE WILKINS SERIES:
Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble
Toil and Trouble
Be Witched (Novella)
The Witch Is Back
Something Witchy This Way Comes
THE DULCIE O’NEIL SERIES:
To Kill A Warlock
A Tale Of Two Goblins
Malice In Wonderland
For Whom The Spell Tolls
Eleven Snipers Sniping (Short Story)
A Midsummer Night’s Scream
THE LILY HARPER SERIES:
Better Off Dead
The Underground City
To Hell And Back
THE PEYTON CLARK SERIES:
Ghouls Rush In
Once Haunted, Twice Shy
THE BRYN AND SINJIN SERIES:
To my son, Finn, for making me the proudest mom in the world!
To my mother for always believing in me.
To the love of my life, Len, thank you for being such a huge part of this journey. You helped me so much with this book and it is so much stronger because of you! Thank you! You mean more to me than you will ever know.
To my beta reader: Evie Amaro, you are always wonderful!
To my editor, Teri, at
: thank you for an excellent job, as always.
“Now onward goes, along a narrow path…”
I was stupefied.
I was so stunned, I was speechless. Staring at Tallis, I wondered if maybe I’d just imagined the last five seconds of our conversation. I must have been having an out-of-body experience, one of those moments where it feels like you’re a spectator of yourself. It was almost as if the situation unfolding before me were on a screen, and I had no personal connection to it whatsoever. But then I remembered I was not only involved, but also one of the main players. Yes, I was the one who was on the receiving end of Tallis’s proclamation that he loved me! But Tallis was completely incapable of loving.
Or so I thought …
“Yoze, Conan, where’s dunch?” Bill suddenly chirped from where he was sitting on the ground. He was leaning against one of thousands of dead trees in the Dark Wood. He was supposed to be sleeping. At least, he was snoring loudly only a few minutes earlier. Now, however, he glanced down at his new iPhone and then back up at Tallis, scowling all the while.
Turning to face my less-than-perfect guardian angel whose sense of timing sucked, I repeated, “Dunch?” It was no big surprise that I had no clue what he was talking about. Bill’s vocabulary, in general, always required translation.
Bill shrugged before pulling his knees into his man-boobs, and the groaning of his hungry stomach became very audible. “Y’know, way past lunchtime, but too soon for dinner? Soze I’m callin’ it dunch,” he explained before facing Tallis again. “Dude, if you’re gonna insist on playin’ the third wheel, ya need to carry your own weight.” Tallis didn’t answer, although his expression told Bill he wasn’t amused. “That means you gotta go get us some grub,” Bill persisted, while Tallis remained rooted in place, standing right in front of us. “Chop-chop, dude,” Bill finished.
Physically, Bill was maybe five foot five, and probably that same distance in girth. If it weren’t for his arms, legs and head, you could have probably bounced him. His thick, dark brown hair had never had the fortune of being introduced to a brush or comb in the time I’d known him.
“You do realize,” I started, using my
tone of voice, which was guaranteed to drive him nuts. Not that I was a mom, but I usually ended up playing that part where Bill was concerned. “That whatever time your phone says, is actually way off?”
After two days and two nights through the Dark Wood, we were happily on our way home. And trekking through the Dark Wood was no pleasure stroll either. Bordering on the Underground City, which was akin to hell, the Dark Wood contained plenty of its own creatures that went bump in the night. Owing to the Dark Wood’s proximity to the Underground City, it existed in perpetual darkness, and eternal night, meaning, it was impossible to tell what time of day or night it was. Besides that, an electric force field around the Underground City caused all electronics to malfunction. Interestingly enough, I noticed my cell phone did stay powered, but I couldn’t rely on the clock function and the service was shoddy … at best. The only way to determine that we’d been traveling for two days and nights was because Tallis was somehow keeping track.
Tallis Black, also known as the Bladesmith, lived in the Dark Wood and knew the haunted forest like the back of his hand. It also didn’t hurt that Tallis was a two-thousand-year-old Celtic Druid who had made the Dark Wood his home for nearly as long.
“It’s gotta be dunchtime somewhere,” Bill insisted with a shrug. Staring at Tallis, who stood beside me, stone-faced, Bill glared at the much larger man for a good few seconds before shaking his head and sighing as he faced me. “I’m like so freakin’ over Tido’s Nicholas Cage Syndrome.”
“What?” I asked, even though I knew better.
“Dude has the same facial expression no matter what! If he’s angry, happy, sad, bein’ a dickhead … shit, the list goes on, but the face never changes!” Bill explained as he eyed Tallis again. “Yo, He-Man, smile a little bit for fuck’s sake!” Shaking his head with a dramatic sigh, Bill made several efforts to change Tallis’s expression, but Tallis only raised his eyebrows toward the black sky. “You must be really fun at parties.”
I looked over at Tallis, and soon found myself admiring him. Physically, Tallis was extremely intimidating. At nearly seven feet tall, the guy was almost as broad and could only be compared to a wall. Well, that is, if the wall was the most chiseled and muscular wall you could ever imagine. Wearing nothing more than a dark blue and purple kilt, he was somehow regal in his near nudity. Even though Tallis’s body was, no doubt, the first thing women noticed about him, it was his face that always captivated me and kept me spellbound.
Tallis was a very good-looking man, but I couldn’t consider him “handsome” because that word was entirely too feminine to describe him. There was nothing soft or innocent about Tallis’s face. Instead, his was the face of a warrior. A courageous fighter, he was also a survivor, as substantiated by the huge scar that bisected his cheek. Running from the tip of one eyebrow and ending at his jawline, it once was very obvious to me. Now, however, after knowing Tallis for as long as I had, his scar never even registered in my mind. All I found in the broad planes of his face were his square, chiseled jaw and his high cheekbones. They were even more accentuated by his hair, which was as black as his heavy eyebrows and very short. The olive tone of his skin contrasted nicely with his midnight blue eyes.
“Are ye hoongry, lass?” Tallis asked in his heavy Scottish brogue. It was the second time he’d asked me this question in the last twenty minutes or so. He continued to stand there, looking strangely uncomfortable as he loomed above me.
“Yes,” I admitted before inhaling deeply. I wondered if things between Tallis and me would mellow out or continue to be so uncomfortable and strained. The problem was a lack of communication. I wanted to start a conversation … but not in front of Bill. Yes, I thought about excusing ourselves, but when I remembered that Tallis wasn’t much of a talker, I assumed he would try to avoid having anything that resembled a conversation at all costs.
“Then let’s get this show on the road, Tido!” Bill called out cheerily. Slapping his thigh, he started rubbing his back against the trunk of the hulled out tree, trying to scratch an itch. “Before the damn fire goes out,” he added while inclining his head in the direction of the fire Tallis ignited only moments earlier.
Tallis’s only response was a nod at me before turning on the heels of his “Jesus shoes” as Bill affectionately termed them, and disappearing into the blackened remains of the forest. That was the other thing about the Dark Wood—nothing could live in it for very long. That was excluding, of course, the nightmarish creatures that called it their home. As far as trees, grass and any other plant life were concerned, there was none, since photosynthesis was impossible.
“You know, you might try being a little more polite when you address Tallis again,” I advised Bill as I glanced over at him, raising my eyebrows in an expression of disapproval. Pulling myself further up the fur pelt, which Tallis had laid out for me, I pressed my back firmly against the tree trunk behind me and planted myself there. But even such a small movement exhausted me. Barely forty-eight hours ago, I’d had a close call with death that I’d scarcely escaped.
I’d been bitten by a Hanuush demon while traveling in the fourth level of the Underground City. The bite of such a demon was renowned for inflicting a painful death on its victims. Luckily for me, though, I didn’t become another statistic. Instead, I was fortunate to receive antivenom from the Master of the Underground City, which saved my life.
Now, you can probably see why I was understandably exhausted.
Bill faced me with a penetrating glare. “I don’t give a flyin’ shit about Conan an’ his damn feelin’s!” he grumbled at me.
“Bill,” I started, but he adamantly shook his head.
“Do I gotta remind you that Conan the Dickarian agreed to turn you over to Alaire?!” Conan was another one of Bill’s pet-names for Tallis, along with Bubba, Tido, He-Man and Asshole.
“I’m very aware of that, Bill,” I replied, too tired to lose my temper. Alaire was the Master of the Underground City and as shady a character as they came. I’d never understood why, but Alaire harbored a bizarre fascination with me. Tallis surmised his enthrallment was for my innocence and his lecherous interest in perverting it. As far as I was concerned, I hoped to never find out. “Although Tallis might have initially intended to turn me over to Alaire, you know as well as I do that he refused to go through with it,” I argued. “Which is why I’m sitting here right now, having this scintillating conversation with you.”
Bill shook his head, heaving his stomach up and down with what I could only imagine was indignation. “So what if he couldn’t go through with it?” he argued. “Don’t you think Bubba pretending to be our bro while planning to pass you over to Alaire is bullshit?! And all just soze he could go an’ kill himself?” He started to shake his head. “I’ll tell you what, I’m about to save him the effort! I’ll do the job myself!”
Bill hadn’t exactly gotten all of the details right. It was true that Tallis
made a deal with Alaire, whereby Tallis was supposed to bring me to Alaire and leave me in his charge. In return, Alaire was to provide Tallis with absolution. Tallis requested absolution in order to be freed from the warrior spirit, Donnchadh, who possessed him. Donnchadh was the reason for Tallis’s immortality. Without his presence inside Tallis, Tallis would be vulnerable and would die … just like every other mortal.
“The point is, Bill,” I began, hoping to enlighten my guardian angel, “that Tallis did the right thing in the end.”
“Just ’cause Tido decided to go all
on us don’t mean he gets my vote!” Bill yelled at me. “Freakin’ hardcore asshole goes all goody-goody, but that don’t mean shit in my books. Next, he’ll be volunteerin’ at the soup kitchen an’ pickin’ the kids up from school!”
“Since I have no clue what kids you’re talking about,” I replied in as even-keeled a tone as I could muster, “may I remind you that I could have taken the same hard line with you that you’re adopting with Tallis, and where would that have gotten us?”
“You? Take a hard line with me?” Bill doubled back on himself, looking affronted, while adding, “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”
“Should I remind you that it was due to your own failing that I even became a Soul Retriever in the first place?” I asked. No, I really didn’t want or intend to play that card, but at the time, it seemed justified. Furthermore, arguing with Bill wasn’t a pastime I could enjoy by any stretch, so I had to bust out the big guns.
Bill’s fault that I’d been killed in a car accident a couple of months ago. Had he been paying more attention to me instead of seducing some tramp, I might still be alive today. Not that I wasn’t alive now, I was, but I was making my life in a completely different body, living in a different country and doing a completely different job. All because of my guardian angel, Bill.
Because Bill was employed by Afterlife Enterprises (AE), the company responsible for dispatching the recently dead either to the Kingdom or the Underground City, they were the ones ultimately responsible for my untimely fate. The manager of Afterlife Enterprises, Jason Streethorn, negotiated at length with me to avoid yet another afterlife lawsuit. Apparently, due to a general lack of violation enforcement, this sort of thing wasn’t as uncommon as it should have been.
My only other option was spending the next hundred years in a place called Shade. Shade was a holding area for souls waiting to move on to the Kingdom. That might not sound so bad, but to me, Shade would have been a personal hell. Why? Because Shade just existed in mundane blandness. It was neither a good place to be, nor a bad place. It just was a place. While there was nothing you had to fear, you also had nothing to enjoy or look forward to. Faced with one hundred years, day in and day out, of the same boring, monotonous existence, of course I’d immediately opted to live again. But as with most things, so too with Afterlife Enterprises: be careful what you ask for …
Due to a simple computer glitch in Afterlife Enterprises’ computer system during Y2K, a good number of souls that were meant to go to the Kingdom erroneously ended up in the Underground City, and vice versa. The response by Afterlife Enterprises was a special team called “Soul Retrievers” whose only responsibility was relocating souls to their proper destinations. That’s where I unwittingly found myself …