Chapter One – Grim Plan
The Grim Reaper’s summons tugged on Deyanira’s soul, signaling the end of her exile. As if to underscore that fact, her Master’s ship-of-bones had arrived soon after to carry her to his Grim Keep.
Growing anxious, Deyanira quickly boarded and glanced up the ship’s spiral stairwell. It led to where the steersman, and her fellow KIN, stood. The steersman’s blood red robe blew in the wind and his hands gripped the large ship’s wheel made of bones.
“Hurry,” she urged.
The steersman nodded and whirled his wheel. The large ship, the skeletal remains of a long dead leviathan, lurched into motion. The vibrations along the hull of the vessel increased until they hurtled over the ice floes of this area of the Afterworld.
Strong gusts of wind buffeted the craft and frigid air whistled through the portals: the eye sockets of the skull. Bits of ice crystals stung Deyanira’s skin, forcing her brilliant emerald eyes to mere slits.
Why would her master call her back into his presence now? Something’s happened. She tilted her slender chin up, letting the bracing wind caress her pale skin and whip her lone red braid around. The cold made her ritualistic scars ache, a pain she welcomed. Better to be alert.
The first signs of the Keep–double rows of towering hooded figures–came into view. The ancient statues were a hundred feet tall and stood facing each other, scythes crossed. The ship of bones was dwarfed in comparison as it zoomed between the rows of silent sentinels.
The bulky shadow of the Grim Keep appeared against the bleak grey of the overcast skies. Its central complex was a mountain of rock towering a thousand feet above the dreary surrounding. The various outer segments were grown from solid rock in twisting patterns like roots jutting out of the frozen tundra.
As the Keep loomed ever closer, the awe-inspiring outline of a huge skull appeared out of the gloom. It was carved out of the rock face and set ablaze with red fire. Only the most powerful could summon that color of supernatural flames. Deyanira shuddered at the display of raw might.
Soon, the bulk of the Grim Keep blotted out the dreary sky. The ship of bones slowed as it entered a natural overhang that created a cavernous opening at the base of the central formation. Turning from the eye-socket window, Deyanira descended the steps to the exit.
A dull, grating vibration reached her feet as the skull’s maw opened. The flowing red carpet, like living tongue, had already extended to the guard house platform and solidified into a shallow ramp. Deyanira breathed in the frigid air, pulled her hood over her head, and marched off the ship.
A Grim Guard waited at the main gate, blocking her path.
“Well?” Deyanira said, gazing into the guard’s bone-white mask. “Our Master has summoned me. Either lead me to him or move out of my way.”
The guard turned and marched through the gate, Deyanira right behind. Once they entered the sheltering walls of the Keep, the sound of wind died away and the cold disappeared, replaced by the warm, moist air of the interior.
She followed the guard through the heart of the mountain until the corridor narrowed and closed in on each side. Adding to the oppressiveness of the place, veins of red rock showed in the natural stone like blood dripping down the surface.
They reached a wide set of shallow steps cut into the rough stone, worn to glassy smoothness by centuries of use. As Deyanira set herself to climb the five stories to the arena, her mind raced.
Convocations of the KIN took place in the arena. A chill traveled down her spine because the arena was also used for special executions. She swallowed, calling on anger to push away the fear. If she would die today, she would stand tall and not cower.
The sky had darkened to a sooty grey by the time Deyanira entered the arena. Black poles lined the outside of the circular area. The surface of each pole was etched with glowing Angel script. On top of the poles rested onyx bowls filled with blazing red fire.
Grim Guards stood in the darkness between each pole like living shadows. Their skull masks gave off a faint white glow and the eerie green illumination of their scythes produced a strange counterpoint to the red glare from the fires.
Deyanira’s escort marched toward the center of the arena, came to a halt, and moved aside. That’s when she noticed a person huddled on the ground, sobbing. He wore the grey robes of a Hunter, an agent of the Grande Oracle. What’s he doing here? Her master would reveal the answer, she decided, and lifted her gaze to a high dais about twenty feet beyond the man.
The Grim Reaper stood robe-less with his head tilted back and arms thrown wide. His bare arms were like corded, barren tree limbs stripped of the bark. The red tint of his flesh had the smeared look of melted wax. It was not a product of reflected firelight, she knew. Something he’d done to himself long ago had marred his skin and turned his complexion a reddish bronze color. Even though he faced away from her, the ritualistic scars were visible like jagged cracks along his bald head.
After a long moment, the Grim Reaper’s back heaved as if he were sated and he lowered his arms. A servant scurried forward with a robe. As soon as the Grim Reaper donned the garment, the hem began to writhe and move as if alive.
He turned. All that was visible of his face was the glow of his angry red pupils beneath the hood.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you, Deyanira?”
His voice curled around her, holding her in place until the guard gripped her shoulder and forced her down onto hands and knees. The mortal in the Hunter robes jerked his head to look at her and Deyanira grimaced because she finally recognized the man. Agent Hunter! The once-arrogant man was little more than an emaciated figure now. The reports said Jonah Blackstone had sucked the very power from him, leaving him this pathetic and frail husk.
Tremors had gone through the Afterworld at that news. Only a Deliverer could wield that kind of power. Hunter’s eyes, once so full of pride, were frightened now. He flinched and squealed at the eerie sound of a scythe cutting the air.
But the weapon came to rest against Deyanira’s throat, not his. The ceremonial weapon’s super fine blade cut into her flesh, drawing blood. She grunted, willing herself to remain still despite the hard, uneven stone cutting into her palms.
Her Master drew closer. When he spoke, his voice was like stone grinding against stone. Anger and fury radiated from him. “Tell me why I shouldn’t banish your soul to everlasting oblivion.”
Deyanira gulped, feeling the scythe bite into her neck, followed by a stinging wetness. “I helped you kill the traitor, Isaiah Blackstone.” She paused. “I found the ring…”
“And you lost it.”
Deyanira wanted to protest. It wasn’t her fault the Grim Reaper had allowed Jonah to defeat him.
Gliding closer, the Grim Reaper traced a circle in the air with the index finger of his right hand. The hem of his robe reacted, reaching out to touch her face. “There are some who would have me kill you.”
“That’s easy for them to say,” Deyanira replied while resisting the urge to recoil from the robe’s touch. She spoke through a clenched jaw. “They hide in the shadows, throwing stones. Could they do any better?”
The Grim Reaper stepped past her, balling his hand into a fist. The hem of the robe curled back on itself. A moment later, the scythe was withdrawn, leaving a line of blood across Deyanira’s throat. She risked a glance and found the Grim Reaper watching her.
He gestured. “Stand up. I called you here because I also wondered if someone else could do better than you have done.”
Obeying at once, she stood and scanned the arena. They were still alone with the mortal, the servant, and the Grim Guards–until a single KIN entered the space. It was custom that KIN had to expose their faces to their master. The newcomer didn’t follow the protocol and that alerted Deyanira. Her lipped curled in disgust.
The Alliance mole bowed to the Grim Reaper. When he straightened, he threw back his hood to reveal a masked face. Deyanira noted that his form wavered from an enchantment that concealed his general features and made identifying him more difficult.
When he turned toward her, his filtered voice carried clear disappointment. “It’s good to see you in one piece.”
Deyanira didn’t bother to acknowledge the taunt. She held her own chin high as she addressed the Grim Reaper. “Master, you were saying?”
“We are ready to proceed with my plans for the Wraiths, a little ahead of schedule.” The anger evident in his voice permeated the very air. “Our person within the Alliance is concerned you’ll interfere again.”
“What’s this?” Deyanira overcame her caution and whirled on the mole.
The man crossed his arms and even through his masking magic, Deyanira could feel his smugness. “You prevented me from capturing the courier and ending the Afterworld rebellion.”
Fury caused Deyanira’s ears to ring, but self-preservation stayed her desire to protest. If the Grim Reaper had allowed this fool to say these things, she’d risk instant death to belittle it now. “Master, it’s not true. I stopped Hunter from taking Blackstone to the Grand Oracle.” She pointed a slender finger in the mole’s direction. “This fool had lost control of Hunter by that point.”
“And because of your feelings for the dead father, you helped the brat escape,” the mole said. “Tell me, witch, is young Blackstone the son you always wished you had?”
Before she could stop herself, Deyanira had conjured green flames. “I warned you about calling me witch.”
“Enough!” The sky crackled overhead and the Grim Reaper’s voice rolled over Deyanira and the mole like a tidal wave.
He made a hissing sound as he began pacing around them. “That isn’t our most pressing problem. The half-breed has the Deliverer’s Tales. That ancient book should have been locked away in the Central Archives.”
A shudder went through Deyanira. If Jonah Blackstone had that book, he would be able to find the rest of the rings and… the Medallions. She wondered if the universe was playing a cruel trick on them. After more than two thousand years, this young boy burst on the scene and no one had been able to stop him.
The Grim Reaper spoke just over Deyanira’s shoulder, startling her out of her dire thoughts. “Now you understand the urgency. The mole has informed us the boy’s friend is a Seeker! We must move ahead with our plans before they can grow stronger.”
Even though Deyanira had a feeling deep inside that the plan would fail, what choice did they have? Well, she reasoned, clutching at a ray of hope, she could eliminate the troublesome mole when they returned in shame.
As if sensing her thoughts, the mole pointed at her. “Master, I request Deyanira be forbidden from interfering this time.”
The Grim Reaper’s glowing eyes bored into her very soul and his will smashed against her mind. When he spoke, his voice was pitched in his most dangerous tone. “You will remain in my Keep until the mission is over.”
Deyanira sucked in a ragged breath. “Yes, Master.” The oath wrapped around her body, binding her to the Grim Keep. To try and leave would mean instant, painful death.
The Grim Reaper gave a satisfied nod and turned to the mole. “If you fail, the leeway I showed Deyanira will not fall on you.”
The mole bowed.
“Either we control the boy,” the Grim Reaper said while making a slight gesture with his left hand. The scythe whistled through the air again, followed by a heavy thud and then several wet splats. Deyanira turned, staring at Agent Hunter’s headless body and the trail of blood leading to his head as it rolled a few feet away.
“Or you will bring him to me so I can witness his head roll.” The Grim Reaper chuckled as he strode toward the exit, taking his Grim Guards with him. The mole paused long enough to glare at Deyanira in triumph before he followed.
Cold air wafted through the empty space and Deyanira breathed it in, calming her apprehension. After a backward glance to be certain she was alone, she held out her right hand toward the closest pole.
With a muttered counterspell, the pulsing amber etchings faded to black. From the moment she saw the glowing symbols, she knew the Grim Reaper had found a way to prevent young Jonah from eavesdropping on their meeting. Now that she’d broken the protection, Jonah could see, or at least hear her. Stepping close to the ancient pole, Deyanira focused her thoughts on the source of all their fears.
Far away, in the mortal world, Jonah Blackstone jerked awake in his bed. Despite the throbbing in his temple, he was sure he’d dream-walked again. Well, almost. This time, he’d been blocked until the very end, when he saw an open arena under a dark, clouded sky, lots of red flames and… Deyanira.
Jonah’s Death Sense spiked as one sentence hammered into his mind. Beware, young Blackstone.