No great power surges from my hand to make toxins appear inside him and burn him inside-out the way it did the others.
“Several groups of quads survived the night, I see,” a woman with bright red hair states in an almost muted tone as she joins him at his side, smiling graciously at the people around.
I smell a snake.
I hate snakes.
“It appears so,” Manella says with a cold smile. “I heard there was a hit for some of them.”
“Lamar has been taken into custody. Rumor has it he attacked an Elder last night.”
Manella stiffens, his hands closing into fists.
“One said he might be recycled,” she goes on.
I’m assuming their version of recycling is a little less green and a lot gorier than the human definition.
My eyes keep moving to the guys, worried they’ll leave and I’ll lose sight of them.
Before I can hear Manella’s response, I’m suddenly surrounded by the quad once again.
“What the hell?” Kai hisses.
“Seems like I can move places if I think a little too hard about it,” I tell them on a shaky breath. “And it makes me dizzy, just for the record, so I’m going to try really hard not to do it again until I can work my powers and kill him. But he’s definitely the one who wants you dead. I think.”
“That much we already know. Manella has been the one holding us back from the trials for some time,” Gage states in a whispered tone.
“What happens if you win the gauntlet today?” I ask.
“We go back home, continue to reap souls, and wait for the last of the trials,” Jude answers with no emotion.
“And the soul reaping is your job?”
“We’re surface guardians,” Kai tells me as more and more people crowd in, the stadium getting louder as the obstacle course goes eerily silent, a slight fog creeping over it to hide things.
“What just happened? And what are surface guardians?” I ask, staring uneasily at this unnatural fog.
“They’re moving the obstacles around and don’t want us seeing where they’re going,” Kai explains.
“And surface guardians stop the breaches so the damaged souls can’t possess a human and run around freely. When demons expose us, then we run into a lot of issues between us and the other side.”
“I’m going to pretend you don’t mean heaven,” I say with a nervous laugh, looking up at Gage.
He just stares blankly at me.
“There has to be a balance. Yin and yang. Good and bad. But there are rules constantly being broken by both sides to keep things tilted instead of balanced. It’s something that happens from time to time, but never this often. Lately, more and more souls are breaching the surface. The escapes are becoming so frequent that we’re possibly on the verge of being purged.”
“Purged?” I ask, looking at Jude since he’s the one who said that.
“It means someone is setting these breaches to force our hand. If it looks like Lucifer can no longer control the underworld, he’ll lose his crown and his six heirs will battle to see who takes control.”
I swallow thickly as my gaze shifts to Ezekiel. “Lucifer? As in the devil?”
He smirks. “They’re breaching from hell’s mouth. We’re the main thing holding the purge at bay, because we’re sending the souls back before they can possess a human or before they can expose us if they do manage to possess one. But if we can get underground, we can get closer to proving Manella is the one doing all this. He knows we’re trying to out him to his father, so he’s trying to eliminate us before we can get below and meet the devil.”
“Life goals, I guess,” I state uneasily.
“Better the devil you know than the one you don’t,” Jude says with a shrug.
“In this case, quite literally. If Manella takes the crown, he’ll release the souls into the world himself, and life as we know it will cease to exist. Hell on earth will become very literal, and from what I’ve heard, the non-royal areas of hell are quite distasteful,” Gage goes on conversationally.
A hand passes through my hip, like Ezekiel is trying to get closer but can’t.
“Now you know why we’re questioning your timing,” Ezekiel says so close to my ear. “Are you part of the problem or the solution?”
Rolling my eyes and not letting him know how much his proximity affects me, I answer, “Considering I’ve kept you jerks alive, I’d say I’m helping you save the devil. Though I admit, now even I have reservations. I didn’t sign on to save hell. Maybe we should discuss you lot finding healthier life goals.”
“The first twenty to emerge will go onto the final round in one month,” the weird little troll guy announces.
If he’s the same thing as my guys, he has to be hating life, because life has certainly not been fair to him in the attractiveness department. His face looks like the inside-bend of an elephant’s leg. I’m not even sure where his eyes are, if I’m being honest.
“He’s an angel?” I ask dubiously.
“He’s a form of angel,” Jude states absently as the man drones on.
“He totally got gipped,” I say on a sympathetic sigh.
Gage chokes down whatever sound just tried to escape him.
“The rules are written in the devil’s blood. No competitor may use lethal force against another competitor while in the gauntlet,” the elephant man goes on.
I glance around, seeing a lot of really hard, nasty people also around us, all of them glaring at the four guys surrounding me. Apparently they don’t like that rule, since it looks like they want to break it.
The guys don’t notice the angry glares or just simply don’t care.
“No competitor can use any form of teleportation to get from one area to another. Doing so will have you immediately disqualified,” the man states, facing one woman in particular before dropping his eyes—well, the area where I think his eyes are—to the scroll he’s holding.
“No competitor may leave the gauntlet until they’ve completed it, or they forfeit their chance at ascension and go back to the surface to complete their tasks until someone comes to reap them.”
“What?” I hiss, jerking my gaze to Jude.
“The trials are to thin the crop of the weaker links, so that only the strongest guard the surface,” Ezekiel answers at my back. “Getting reaped puts you back at the throat to grow stronger again.”
I’m not sure I want to know what the throat is.
“Your teams, as you know, can change, should you decide to shift alliances. But only if the other team accepts you.”
There’re only two other four-man teams. Judging by the groupings, everyone else is solo or in twos, I notice.
I suppose if you can change teams mid competition, it’d be hard to trust someone who might stab you in the back. Unless you’re as close this quad.
“If one member of your team is left behind, your team forfeits the thirty bonus points, and that member is disqualified for not crossing the line with you.”
“Glad I’m not part of the team,” I grumble. They’d totally leave me behind if they could.
Kai snorts when he hears that.
The man rolls the scroll up very slowly, staring up at the stands over our heads as he does so.
I follow his gaze, seeing him look up to the box where there are six people in ornate, golden chairs, set up like royalty. Manella is among them.
“Is Lucifer here?”
“Never. It’s too risky for him to leave the underworld. He’s untouchable there. Not so much here,” Jude answers.
So those must be the six heirs.
The woman with red hair who spoke to Manella is sitting down, her hand on her chin as she smirks down at the world with her red-painted lips and scarlet red dress.
Manella is beside her in a black suit, his long black hair tied back.
A blonde woman is dressed in a sparkly silver dress on the other side of Manella. And to the right of her are two men dressed like they’re here to slay. And lastly a man with such dark hair and eyes that black isn’t black enough to describe them.
All of them are stunning. All of them look pure evil too.
Which, obviously they’re the devil’s children, so that makes sense.
“Manella, you already know. He’s the one who has evaded history, and has the most discretion. Hence the reason he’s the trickiest to deal with and the reason we need to get underground to learn more about him,” Jude explains.
“The redhead who looks like she can’t wait to see blood being spilled is Lilith,” Gage tells me.
“As in the vampire?” I hiss.
“As in the devil’s firstborn,” Jude tells me as though he’s exasperated. “After announcing herself to the world as Lilith, she made a few other appearances as women you might have heard of.”
“The twins are the Gemini twins—Collin and Marcus,” Gage goes on. “They prefer the second round of the trials, since that’s when mortal combat comes into play.”
I hate these damn trials.
“There are two hundred competitors here today,” the man goes on, his eyes staying fixed to the evil royalty in the stands. “The horn of Jericho will blow every time the gauntlet claims a life.”
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