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Excerpt

Excerpt

Lifeblood

The light Expands and the darkness Narrows

 

I’ve heard it said your entire life flashes before your eyes as you die. Those words comfort those who have loved and been loved but torment those who have failed and been failed.

I say, when you know where you’re going to spend eternity, celebrate! Death has been defeated. Life forever reigns.

I am proof. My Firstlife is over, but my Everlife is now beginning.

My Light will shine…

The shadows will scatter…and every life will matter…

It’s time to do what I was born to do. It’s time to arise and shine.

Whatever I face—be it war, persecution, hunger, simple threats or my Second-death—I will not be deterred. Night will be replaced by day, and those who cry in the dark will rejoice in the morning.

The day is about to dawn. Time is short. Let the battle begin.

 

 

 

chapter one

 

Present day

 

Sand in the hourglass falls, one grain at a time…time…one second bleeds into two…three… I try to piece together my fragmented thoughts. A difficult task. My mind is hazy, my thoughts blurred. Four…

A fact clicks into place. Numbers are my greatest obsession; they always tell a story, and they never lie.

Five…five…five. The numeral gets trapped in my head, set on constant repeat. Click. Five minutes and fourteen seconds ago, I died.

Whoa. I’m dead?

I must be. My heart no longer beats, and my lungs are deflated. I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. Sweat beads on my nape and trickles down my spine, and yet my limbs remain ice-cold.

Calm. Steady. Though my body is wrecked, my spirit lives on. This is a new beginning. A new life.

Calm? Seriously? From now on, I’ll have zero second chances. Zero do-overs. Everything I do will matter: every word I say, every action I take, every person I befriend and every enemy I slay will positively or negatively affect me. No ifs, ands or buts.

Welcome to the Everlife.

The words whisper on the wind, and a quiet ring erupts in my ears. In seconds, the volume cranks to high. I cringe. My bones vibrate, and a light tap registers against my ribs. Tap, tap. Tap, tap. Bang, BANG!

I gasp, taking my first breath, the real me awakening at last. My chest cools, and my lungs fill. I can breathe again. I’m dead, but still I live.

Arise! Arise and shine!

Another whisper drifts on the wind…or a voice is speaking inside my head.

I’m dead and crazy?

Inside, I wither and return to my default setting: counting. Six…seven…

Click. Seventeen! I’m seventeen years old. I was born on the tenth day of the tenth month at 10:10 a.m., and I died on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at 10:14 a.m.

1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 0 + 1 + 4 = 10

The work of Fate, some would say. Wrong! Fate is a myth, an excuse, a way to cast blame. While we might have a divine purpose, not everything that happens is through divine intervention. Our actions change the course of our lives for good or for ill.

We are the final authority.

My present is the sum total of decisions made in my past—my own decisions, and even those made by the people around me. We are accountable…count…eight, nine… Ten!

Click, click. My name is Tenley Lockwood. “Ten” to my friends.

5 + 5 = 10. A representative of two equal parts.

The last piece of the puzzle snaps into place. Two realms in the Everlife—Troika and Myriad—are currently locked in a fierce, brutal battle.

Troika fought to save my Firstlife while Myriad strove to end it. Myriad proved successful. My body lies on a blood-drenched street in the heart of LA.

Congrats, Myriad. You won a battle. You won’t win the war.

With my last breath, I pledged my allegiance to Troika, evermore, and I have no regrets. I value Firstlife. I like rules and enjoy structure. I understand every punishment is meant to teach rather than harm.

I’m a Troikan now, born anew in blood and violence. A soldier in a war as old as time. I’ve become enemies with people I’ve never met as well as people I know and love.

I’ve become enemies with Killian, a top Laborer in Myriad.

Killian! His name is a ragged cry from the depths of my soul. I’d say we dated, but dated is too mild a word. I craved him like a drug…and yet I still chose Troika over Myriad.

Home sweet home. Something I’ve never really had.

I’m supposed to hate him, but every fiber of my being flinches at the thought. I will never harm him. He means too much to me.

“Is she dead?” A harsh, unfamiliar voice claims my attention. “Did she make covenant with Troika?”

“Aye and aye.” The husky Irish lilt I recognize, and relief is a cool cascade. Killian never left my side!

I want to see him so badly, I shake.

“Sucks to be you,” Unfamiliar continues. In the distance, I hear the clink-clank of dueling swords. “Now that Madame Bennett is dead, you fall under Zhi’s command. When he learns you failed to recruit the Lockwood girl, he’ll mount your head at the end of a pike.”

Relief gives way to distress. Killian is in danger. Because of me. I need to help him, have to help him, but though I try to stand, I’m stuck, walled in. Useless!

What’s the problem? My outer casing is dead, any ties to my spirit now broken. I should be able to ghost out, yes?

“Leave.” Menace drips from Killian’s command. “Protect our kinsmen from the Troikans.”

“So you can kill Lockwood before her spirit escapes her body and collect the bounty on your own? No.”

Bounty?

Buzzing noises erupt. Flames crackle. Smoke fills the air, sharp and pungent.

There’s a pained gasp. A hard thump.

“Stay down,” Killian spits.

He just attacked Unfamiliar?

Why would he harm his brother-by-realm to save an enemy? Why would he risk punishment?

The answer is simple: he wouldn’t, except for me, only ever for me.

I vacillate between melting and rallying. Get free, protect Killian.

When he had the chance to seal the deal and convince me to make covenant with Myriad, he urged me to follow my heart instead. We’d both known I belonged in Troika. To him, my needs had been more important than his wants, a reward or a penalty.

He sacrificed his happiness for mine, but I failed to do the same for him. What kind of maybe, maybe not, girlfriend am I?

My final moments replay inside my head. Sloan Aubuchon, once my enemy, then my friend, then my bitter enemy, nailed me with a poisoned spear.

I hate him more than I love you, she told me.

Him. Dr. Vans, the monster who oversaw every facet of our torture at Prynne Asylum, a “home” for wayward teens.

Myriad vowed to help Sloan punish Vans. If she made covenant with them and murdered me. She agreed to both.

Her treachery cuts as deeply as the spear. Granted, Vans did terrible things to her. Things no one should ever have to endure. But his behavior does not excuse hers. In her quest for vengeance, she became his mirror image, betraying my trust the way he betrayed hers.

Consequences were immediate. Killian yanked the spear out of me and, to protect me from further harm, impaled her.

Another reason he will be punished. I’ve got to help him.

I punch and kick, but even still, I make no progress.

“Where is she, Killian?” A new voice registers. This one is easy to recognize, too. “Where are you hiding her?”

Deacon, a TL. My friend. He’s always reminded me of a die-hard warrior of old, his sense of honor as much a part of him as muscle and brawn.

If anyone can free me, it’s Deacon.

“Over here,” Killian croaks. “She’s already…it’s too late to save…”

Something hard and warm shackles my wrist. Suddenly I’m steady on my feet, and I can see!

I gasp, glimpsing the spirit world in operation around me for the first time. Dappled golden sunlight spills from a sky of sapphire silk. Fat clouds sprinkle the land below with a breathtaking rain of diamond dust.

Realization. They aren’t just clouds, but an array of oddly shaped buildings with armed soldiers marching along the parapets.

A floodgate opens in my mind, releasing a wave of information. They are guard towers, from which humans can be watched and spiritual battles fought. They move between the realms and the Land of the Harvest, and ownership is ever-changing. Winner of every battle determines rights.

I shake my head, my brow furrowed. I’ve never been taught about guard towers, and yet I now know all about them? I shouldn’t—

I have been taught. Years ago. At the age of five, I attended a mandatory realm-history class. I had…had… Oh, wow, I’m being bathed by drugging warmth, my senses fogging with the most delectable scents: wild flowers, fruit trees and newly ripened berries. How am I supposed to concentrate? I inhale deeply, savoring.

“Don’t let anyone near her until she’s hooked,” Killian says, jolting me.

Hooked?

“My men and I will keep the area clear as long as we can,” Deacon says and rushes off.

My gaze finds Killian’s, and my heart thuds. His eyes are gorgeous, soulful gold with flecks of electric blue. In one, there are five flecks. In the other, three. At our first meeting, I compared those flecks to an octave. The fifth and third notes create the basic foundation for all chords. Whenever he looks at me, my blood sings.

Today is not an exception.

A Myriadian soldier breaks through the protective ring created by Deacon and his men. Without disrupting our stare-down, Killian reaches out with a quick jab-jab, a dagger in hand. I gasp. He just killed one of his own. Savagely. Brutally.

Lifeblood coats the weapon, clear and glittering, a macabre but lovely sight. He closes in on me, menace in every step, but I remain rooted in place, unafraid. This boy will never harm me.

“Stop slaying your people on my behalf,” I command.

“I’ll protect you however I see fit, lass.” He sheathes his dagger and cups my face, his palms calloused from years of combat.

Those calluses tickle my skin, creating friction—heat. Such delicious heat. Soon the battle is forgotten. I’m basically on fire for him, my blood steaming, tormenting me—thrilling me. All because of an innocent touch!

I’ve always reacted to this boy, but never this intensely. Maybe because we’ve never before experienced skin-to-skin contact, nothing between us. Not flesh, not a Shell. Not life-or-death stakes.

I lean into his grip like a kitten being petted for the first time.

Are the sensations this potent with all spirits?

I close my eyes and breathe him in. Peat smoke and heather. My favorites. My head fogs all over again, and I know he’s intoxicating me without even trying.

“Look at me, lass.”

I obey. He is studying me, as if he’s memorizing my features. I study him right back, helpless to do otherwise. Shadows cling to him, but they fail to detract from his otherworldly beauty. Ebony silk hangs over a strong forehead and swoops to one side, creating a roguish frame for equally roguish features. His eyebrows are thick and black, his skin bronzed and poreless, as if his flesh has been painted on. His nose is blade-sharp and leads to a mouth so lush, it could be classified as feminine. His triangular jaw is dusted with sexy stubble.

“In the coming weeks,” he says, agonized, “I need you to trust me, no matter what. Can you do that?”

Without hesitation, I reply, “Of course.” I trace a fingertip over the seam of those lavish lips, acting without thought. He might be firm and muscled everywhere else, but he’s soft as rose petals here, and I shiver.

His pupils dilate, a sign his awareness of me is deepening. “There’s no of course about it. The situation will be bleak, but you must trust that I will always have your best interests at heart.” His grip tightens. “Please.”

I want to reassure him, and I totally mean to do so until a burst of wind blows a strand of hair in my eyes. I frown as I hold a lock up to the light. Cobalt blue? What the what? Before I died, my hair was black.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“You should see the other changes.” Killian’s hand brushes mine as he sifts the strands between his fingers.

A sharp lance of pain sends me stumbling back, a cry parting my lips.

Was I just…stabbed?

“You’re tense.” Killian catches me, latching on to my wrists and holding me steady. “Relax.” His obey me or die tone is usually reserved for everyone but me.

I bristle. “You relax! I—” Agony claws at my insides, and it’s too much, far too much. “I don’t know what’s… I can’t…I’m…” Dying for the second and final time? So soon?

“You’re being hooked to your realm’s Grid.”

Grid? “I think something’s wrong with the connection.” I manage to push the words past the barbed lump growing in my throat.

“Nothing’s wrong.” He draws me against him, caresses the ridges of my spine, offering comfort. “Everyone goes through this. Even Myriadians.”

I rest my head on his shoulder, breathing in and out with purpose. Despite our efforts, I feel as if I’m trapped inside a never-ending pit, falling into one sword after another while taking an endless rain of bullets to the brain and torso.

Kill me! Let me die.

But…the pain is fading just as swiftly as it began.

Warmth envelops me, sinks into me and shines…shines so brightly that emotions I’d hidden in dark corners long ago are suddenly exposed. Those emotions scramble in every direction like tiny bugs. Hatred for my father. Rage for circumstances beyond my control. Sorrow over the loss of my mother and little brother.

Nothing can hide. I hiss and sob in unison. The sound a wounded animal must make.

“You’re strong. You’re brave,” Killian tells me. “You’ve got this, lass.”

As the warmth gathers in three distinct places—both hands and an arm—I squeeze him so tightly, I’m sure I bruise him. He never once complains. The warmth…it burns now. I think I’m being…marked?

In the center of each palm, a circle with three leaves appears. The Troikan symbol. They are pale at first but gradually darken. Along my right arm, three sets of numbers emerge.

“Spiritual brands,” Killian says, passing his thumb over one of the symbols without actually touching me. “An outward sign of your inward loyalty.”

Finally, blessedly, the remaining pain subsides, and I whimper with relief.

“A Key.” Killian moves his attention—and his phantom-touch—to the numbers. “I’d heard rumors Troika forces their new recruits to work for their rewards, but no one has confirmed or denied.”

“A Key?” When his thumb strokes my skin, I’m hit with a punch of cold. My jaw clenches, and my teeth chatter.

Fury contorts his features, startling me as much as the punch. He releases me and steps back, increasing the distance between us.

I’m not yet ready to part with him. Lifting my chin, I step toward him and flatten my hand over his precious heart. Another blast of cold hits, this one stronger, unbearable.

“Zero!” My favorite curse escapes, and I jump back. In a blink, the horrible cold vanishes.

“I tried to warn you,” he grates.

As I gaze into his siren-eyes, the truth becomes clear. Physically, our bodies will forever reject each other. Darkness and Light cannot coexist. One will always chase the other away.

By siding with Troika, I doomed our relationship.

Tears well. “Killian,” I say. He did try to warn me. I convinced myself we’d find a way to be together, not yet comprehending the obstacles we’d have to face.

“What’s done is done.” He gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head as he backs away from me. “If I fight for you, I help my realm lose the war. If I fight against you, I lose you. There’s no middle ground. Not with us. Like you, I have to choose.”

Lifeblood
(Everlife #2)
by by Gena Showalter