He walked over to the wall behind Dawn and ran his fingers along a gruesome display of opened ribcages. “Two birds,” he said. He pulled a rib bone out of the wall. “One bone.”
Suddenly the room reverberated with a low rumble. Bones began to come loose from the walls, falling onto the ground and splintering in half. Dust began to rise, obscuring my view, and the clatter of breaking bones filled the space.
And Dawn, Dawn stood in the middle of it. For one beautiful but terrifying moment she looked up, snapping out of her daze. She saw me. She tried to run but only got a step forward before the bones above her head broke loose and tumbled onto her, bringing her to the ground.
I screamed, trying to get up and run, but Max had me by the throat and was pulling me back, pulling me away from Dawn.
“Let go!” I screamed, trying to fight him off, kicking him in the knees, elbowing him in the stomach, but he was strong here and now. He was so much stronger, and I was wasting my breath and my time.
The last thing I saw before the cavern collapsed entirely was Jacob, looking at me through the dust.
“I won’t fail this time. I’ll take her of her,” he said, raising his hand in sad salutation. “You take care of yourself. I loved ya, boy.”
Then he looked up and the ceiling of skeletons collapsed on him.
I could barely move, think, breathe, but Max could. He hauled me up the ladder just as the walls of the passageway started to give in, too. His feet slipped on the rungs a few times, but somehow we made it out into the church. He pulled me out onto the ground, and my lungs filled themselves with the fresh night air.
Max dragged me out of the church and the ruined graveyard to a grassy patch by the street. We watched in horror as the ground around the church began to jostle and shake and the remainder of the building finally fell, the ground swallowing it whole. The whole area above the crypt sunk in as well, the tombstones sinking further into the earth.
Dawn. Dawn was in there. She was being buried alive.
I got to my feet, not noticing, the sharp pains in my heart, the panic and the terror that had its cold fucking grip on my throat. Max pulled me back. He kept me in place. Soon ambulances had arrived, and rescue workers and throngs of people had gathered around the area, watching the scene, shaking their heads. None of them noticed us off to the side. They probably thought it was some kind of sinkhole.
“They have to know what happened,” I choked out to Max. “We have to tell them she’s down there. That Jacob’s there. They might be still alive.” But I could see in his expression that there was no point. They weren’t alive.
I still waited, though. I wouldn’t give up hope. I wouldn’t just forget that the two most important people in my life were ripped away from me by Lucifer himself. So I waited and I waited, all through the night, until one rescue accidently fell down through the earth and landed in the cavern, on top of a pile of bones. He saw a female hand sticking out of it.
Dawn was brought out of the rubble at dawn, just as the sun was breaking pink over the river. Her body was lifeless. Her soul somewhere else. Even in death, she was beautiful.
I’d never wanted anything more than to see her take a breath, to see her eyes open, to see her come to life. But no matter how hard I stared at her, even when they took Jacob’s body out of the ground, it never happened.
They were both gone.
So much death in my life over the years, and I still couldn’t handle how finite it was.
The concept of forever. The concept of never.
Max put his hand on my shoulder. It took all my self-control to not lose it on him, to not scream at him for screwing up and putting her life in danger. I wished he fucking left me in that crypt to be buried with her.
“If I know Jacob,” he said gravely as we watched them put the bodies in the back of the emergency vehicle, “he’ll try and make her suffer less.”
“I wished he’d taken me.” I swallowed painfully. “I would have given them my soul for hers.”
“We all knew that,” Max answered. “But that shouldn’t have been your choice to make.”
And so it was. Real, terribly real and not real all at the same time. I knew I was numb, in shock, as much as I could be. I knew that the reality would soon sink in. The truth. That they were dead. And when it did, it would take over my life. It would reduce me to grieving until the end of time.
I closed my eyes to the scene. I turned around. Max and I went back to the hotel.
I left my heart somewhere in that crypt.
When I was thirteen years old and really getting into barrel racing, I had a pretty bad accident. I fell off Moonglow just as we were making our final turn during a training session. She lost her footing and pitched to the side. I went flying into the barrel, my shoulder cracking against it, Moonglow falling onto my leg. I felt no pain at the impact, but I wasn’t unconscious. I just went to another place. A place of white light and weightlessness and euphoric thoughts. A place where nothing bad could happen, even though it seemed the worse already had. I always looked back on that moment and thought I had a near-death experience, that I went to some sort of heaven or afterworld and that I was sent back because my time wasn’t up yet. Apparently it was just my brain, trying to save itself from damage, trying to repair itself and protect me. That place did not exist.
I knew that now, because where I was was not like that place. There was no weightlessness, no white light, no feelings of love. Where I was had grey skies and grey earth and a world devoid of color. It was a place where giant bats with veiny, transparent wings flew overhead, where the ground at your feet had teeth and roaming eyes, where your body felt like it was weighted with a ball and chain.
This was the Thin Veil. I had guessed that much.
And I was dead. I figured that out, too, when the bones came crashing down on me, taking the image of Sage away from my eyes and filling them with dust and bone and blackness.
I looked beside me to see Jacob in grainy black-and-white, like we were in a vintage movie. He looked grim. I’m sure I looked grim, too.
“The Thin Veil?” I asked him.
Yes, he answered, and I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t have to open his mouth for me to hear him. The infamous veil. Isn’t it lovely?
I looked around us. It looked like we were still in Prague, but the streets were completely empty. The gargoyles on the buildings were living creatures, fluttering their wings and sharpening their claws on the stone around them. Like the horrific faces coming out of the ground, the tiny finger that was wriggling up out of the soil near my foot, they all seemed focused on me.
You’ve been here often, I noted. Does anything actually live here? Is this where I have to be? Forever?
He gave me a loaded look. Some beings do live here. Those who don’t move on to where they are supposed to go. You could try to stay here. But I don’t think they would let it slide. Other people, who cares. But you? Dawn, they want you more than anything. They want that beautiful life force, that soul of yours. They will drag you to Hell if they can.
Even though I was dead, I still felt fear. Endless fear. The finger at my foot was now becoming a hand of rotting flesh, reaching for me. As calmly as I could, I stepped out of the way. I don’t even think I could stay here if I wanted to.
Oh, believe me, love, Jacob said. Hell is much worse.
So where do you go? I asked. I noticed a few of the giant bats had landed on the rooftops nearby, their giant wings folded. They stared at me with shiny button eyes.
Go? He asked. I suppose I’ll find out.
You don’t have to stay here on account of me, I said.
Dawn, he said with a smirk. As much as I wouldn’t leave you, I don’t have a choice in this matter. I’m dead.
I jerked my head in shock. Dead?
He nearly rolled his eyes. Well, I’m not bloody immortal, am I? Though now I’m thinking the whole going-rogue thing was a really poor choice for me.
I couldn’t have felt worse. I’m sorry.
He shrugged, though I could tell it pained him. It’s not your fault, love. You are worth the sacrifice.
Well, I was worth it.
He shot me a look. No, you still are. This isn’t over yet.
You’re right, it isn’t, came the rough and oozing voice of Lucifer from behind us.
Jacob and I slowly turned around until we were facing him. Now he didn’t look like the man I saw before on earth. Now he was a naked old man of all lean muscle and no skin. He had sharp spikes coming out of the bottoms of his feet and palms, and it was these spikes that he walked on all fours, his body sinking down so that he carried himself like a spider. Long straggly hair was growing out of his thinning head, and his entrails were hanging out of his rib cage. His glowing neon eyes were still there, now white instead of yellow, and boring into me like a drill.
The spider thing walked toward us, guts swaying like udders, his movements jagged and sporadic.
There was nothing more terrifying. I wondered if this is what he really looked like or if he could just look like whatever would make you afraid. If so, he was winning.
Why are we here? Jacob asked, apparently unfazed by this thing that seemed conjured up from my own nightmares. Why didn’t you take her straight to Hell?
Perhaps I wanted to tease her, the spider thing said. Make her think she has a way out.
She’s already dead, Jacob said, and I could hear the frustration in his voice. What more can you give her?
I can bring her back, he said. Jacob cocked his head at that, and the spider thing went on, no strings attached. I can give Dawn life again, free from me, free from the contract. If you do something for me, Jacob.
No! I automatically said, but Jacob raised his hand to shush me.
What do you want? Jacob asked calmly.
All this time that you’ve been around, Jacob, you’ve been a real thorn in my side. All of you Jacobs have been, since the dawn of time. But you? You’re persistent. You’ve put me to shame more times than I care to recall.
Because I’m a damn good manager, Jacob said.
That you are. I’m not so small as to not admit that. But, really, my job, my role in this world is a lot easier without you around.
Well, as you can see, I’m dead, you bloody twat. I’m not really around, am I?
Any other time I would have taken some joy, whatever joy remained in my life, at the fact that Jacob just called the Prince of Darkness a bloody twat.
Suddenly the building in front of us erupted into orange flames, and in the middle of the flames, a black swirling hole slowly formed. The bats flew up from the roofs and flew into the flames, disappearing. It looked to be a whole other world in there, an infinite one of death and darkness.
You may be dead, he said, words sounding like scuttling insects, but your soul is not coming with me. However, I’m open to an exchange. You come with me to Hell and I’ll let Dawn go. She’ll wake up back in Prague in fine form. And so as long as she doesn’t call on me again, she won’t see me again.
No, no, no, no.
I didn’t even have time to voice this. Jacob was already taking my hand in his and squeezing it. This is what I wanted, love, he said. And if it hadn’t been me there first, it would have been Sage giving himself for you. No one should have to give their life for you, but if it’s going to be anyone, it’s going to be me. I had a good run. I had many good runs. I have had a lot to…make up for. This time I won’t fail.
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