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“Let us descend now unto greater woe.”
– Dante’s Inferno
Tallis needed me.
That was the only thought in my head.
“Lils,” Bill, my guardian angel, started as he shook his head and a frown contorted his doughy, round face. “There’s no way in hells I’m gonna let you go after that overgrown Scottish ape on your own.” He bit his lower lip like he was about to cry and studied me with narrowed eyes as he shook his head again. Then he sighed. “Not that I’m signin’ up to go after him neither ‘cause I’m not. As I see it, Tido freakin’ took off an’ left us in the dust back there at the tavern so whatever shiznit he’s gotten himself into now, he freakin’ deserves.” Taking a long breath, he faced the third person in our party, Delilah Crespo, who was staring at both of us with wide eyes, shock still obvious in her vacant gaze. Her surprise was, no doubt, based on the fact that she’d just narrowly escaped the third level of the Underground City in which she’d nearly been killed by Plutus, the wolf demon.
“Bill,” I began, having already rejected the notion of taking Bill and Delilah with me to help Tallis out of whatever quandary he was currently in. No, it was imperative that I go to Tallis by myself because I sensed that whatever state Tallis was in, he wouldn’t welcome visitors. He probably wouldn’t even be happy to see me. Yep, knowing Tallis and his less-than-friendly personality, three would most definitely be a crowd.
“No-sir-ee, Billy Bob,” the rotund angel continued, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “We need ta just keep on movin’ an’ get ourselves outta this messed up forest, and get us the hells home. I’ve had enough of this Halloween shit ta last me all…”
“Bill,” I interrupted again, but he immediately speared me with a cross expression. Then he folded his arms over his man boobs. “I have to go back,” I insisted in a tone of voice that forbade any further arguments.
“Nope, Lily Harper, you ain’t about ta convince me otherwise, even with your serious voice. I ain’t fallin’ for it, nips.” Taking a deep breath, he glared at me. “What you’re talkin’ ‘bout is pure craziness, girl.” He glanced back at Delilah who still couldn’t manage to utter a sound. “Nope, this is most definitely a case of chicks before dicks.”
“What?” I demanded, frowning at him as frustration began to gnaw inside me.
“The female version of bros before hos,” Bill responded with a shrug like the answer was obvious. “An’ in this case, Tido’s the dick.” He looked over at Delilah again. “Ain’t that the truth though?”
Delilah just looked back at him blankly.
“Bill, I know it sounds crazy but…” I started.
“Do I gotta remind you of what’s gonna happen as soon as you start walkin’ through this screwed up hate-forest alone?” He continued to nod like he already had the answer to his question. “It’s gonna trick you out an’ make you lose your way. Then, when you’re all good an’ confused as shit, it’s gonna send one o’ them man-sized spiders ta finish you off; or you’re gonna get raped by one o’ those freakin’ trees just like in that Evil Dead movie. An’ if you’re thinkin’ Bruce Campbell’s gonna pull some zombie killin’ super-coolness, think again, Lils, ‘cause this ain’t no classic movie. This here’s real life.” Then he glanced over at Delilah and nodded sullenly. “The struggle is real, yo.”
“Bill,” I said, my tone hinting at my growing irritation.
“For reals,” he said, nodding his head emphatically. “This forest is full of some crazy ass shit that I ain’t gonna be no part of. ‘Specially not for freakin’ Conan who don’t give a rat’s ass about good ol’ Billy.”
“Should I remind you that if it weren’t for Conan, I wouldn’t still be here?” I replied glumly. And that was the truth. Having been so ill-prepared for my first two visits to the Underground City, if not for Tallis, I would certainly have lost my life not once, but twice. “And who knows where you would be!”
Bill continued to shake his head as if the past were of no consequence to him. “Billy’s had just about enough of demons an’ wolf men an’ Alaire an’ haunted, rapin’ trees. An’ I’ve fo sure had more than enough of He-Man an’ his Frankenfood he tries to pass off as real grub!” He faced Delilah and raised his eyebrows. “Dee, we gotta get ourselves the hells outta here and into In-N-Out so’s we can forget about this bad frickin’ trip over some triple-triples.” He faced me again. “An’ you, honey mounds, are comin’ with us.”
“No, Bill, I’m not,” I answered with finality.
Our argument had only been going on for a few minutes, but I was already exhausted. Even though I couldn’t deny that it probably was complete insanity for me to even attempt to make my way back to Tallis alone, I also knew it was the right thing to do. Tallis had stood by me too many times for me not to return the favor. And even though I had no idea where he was now, or what sort of trouble he was up against, I only hoped I could help him.
The first hurdle would be navigating the haunted forest, known as the Dark Wood, in order to find him. That might not sound like much of a feat, but Bill was right, the Dark Wood was almost as dangerous as the Underground City, itself. The forest was alive in its own right and seemed to have a vendetta against travelers; i.e., if you were unlucky enough to find yourself lost in the Dark Wood, you were as good as dead.
“Tallis needs me,” I continued. “And I can’t tell you why or how, but as far as this forest is concerned, I know my sword will protect me and keep me safe.” My voice began to waver since my statement sounded ridiculous even to my own ears.
“Your sword is gonna protect you and keep you safe?” Bill repeated, in a tone of obvious disbelief as he stared at me with both eyebrows reaching for the dark sky.
“Yes,” I insisted.
“Nips, I hate ta break it to ya, but no magical Care Bear is just gonna show up and break out a can of demon whup ass with a rainbow, some hearts and a super annoying song.”
I decided to ignore his comment. “When I touched my sword just now, I received the distinct impression that Tallis was in trouble and needed me. It was almost like he was using the sword to communicate with me.” Tallis had forged my sword with his own hands and since he also possessed Druid magic, I figured it wasn’t much of a stretch to believe that he’d also endowed the sword with some level of mystical capability, or even magic. “And along with the information that Tallis needs me, I also am pretty sure that I’ll be safe if I go after him.”
“This sounds like crazy talk, yoze,” Bill said as he shook his head before cupping the back of his neck with his sweaty palm, looking as if he were frustrated beyond belief. He glanced over at Delilah and sighed heavily. “Nips has lost her damn mind!”
“Oh,” Delilah said as her eyebrows knitted in the middle of her forehead and she looked like she was about to cry.
“I know it sounds crazy,” I admitted with a nod, hoping my admission would remove all doubt as to whether I still possessed all my marbles. “But I know what the sword showed me and how it made me feel.” Of that, there was no doubt in my mind. “I know that Tallis is in trouble and I have to go to him.”
Bill sighed again. “Then I guess it’s three for the road.”
“No,” I almost snapped as I interrupted him. “Bill, I have to do this alone.” I took a deep breath. “I have to… go alone.”
“Lils, as you know, I’m your guardian angel, but I can’t do much guardin’ if you’re here in this horror forest an’ I’m not!” Bill argued. Truth be told, he wasn’t much of a guardian in the first place. It was strictly his fault that I’d been killed in a car accident several weeks earlier. Apparently, Bill had been paying more attention to seducing some random woman than he had been to ensuring that I was safe. Consequently, I’d died.
Because Bill was employed by Afterlife Enterprises, the company responsible for sorting out the recently dead and sending them on to the Kingdom (think heaven) or the Underground City (think the opposite of heaven), they were the ones who were ultimately responsible for my untimely passing. Since the manager of Afterlife Enterprises, Jason Streethorn, realized I’d basically had him between a rock and a hard place, he’d offered me the option of living again. The only alternative available to me was spending the next hundred years in Shade, which was a holding area for souls before they could move on to the Kingdom. In Shade, there was nothing to look forward to, although there was also nothing to not look forward to. Shade just was. To me, though, Shade sounded like my own personal hell, so I’d opted to live again. But as with most things involving the afterlife, nothing was ever what it seemed…
Due to a glitch in the Afterlife’s computer system during Y2K, souls that were meant to go to the Kingdom ended up in the Underground City, and vice versa. The whole thing ended up being one giant cluster f#$%. Hoping to avoid numerous afterlife lawsuits, Jason Streethorn employed a team of “Soul Retrievers.” Their main responsibility was locating misplaced souls and returning them to their proper location. So where did I enter into this happy little equation? When Jason offered me the chance to live again, admitting that my death was indirectly the fault of Afterlife Enterprises, he offered me life with one condition—that I become a Soul Retriever. At first, I thought I’d gotten the better side of the deal, and I readily agreed, only to discover I was assigned to retrieving souls in the Underground City, which was basically hell by another name. Even though I did have a guardian angel along for the ride, in the grand scheme of things, that didn’t amount to much.
Why? Because Bill wasn’t exactly what anyone would imagine when it came to angels. Instead of a beautiful, glowing entity with white wings, Bill looked more like the love child of Jack Black and Zack Galifianakis. After my whole untimely death episode, Bill was put on probation. Because Jason Streethorn wasn’t sure what to do with him, he decided to send Bill to me. Even though Bill wasn’t much of an asset, since he couldn’t protect me in the Underground City or the Dark Wood, he had quickly become my best friend. So on that front, I was grateful for him.
“Bill, you know you can’t protect me here; so you being my guardian angel is really a moot point,” I said with a glance at Delilah who was becoming paler by the minute. I faced Bill again. “You need to get her out of here and back to the earthly plane, before she goes into real shock.” From the looks of it, Delilah was maybe no more than a couple steps away from a complete breakdown. Not that I could blame her. This was Delilah’s first mission into the Underground and she was as unprepared as I was my first time around. “Take her to our apartment and teach her everything you know,” I continued. “Then, both of you just wait for me. As soon as I make sure Tallis is okay, I’ll head home.”
“How long is that gonna be, Lils?” Bill demanded, his lips turning down into a worried frown.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.” It was an uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t know what was wrong with Tallis, or how long he needed me to tend to him. “Give me a week,” I finished, hoping a week would be enough time. For all I knew, Tallis could already be dead, in which case, I’d be home a lot sooner…
No, don’t even think that! I said to myself. Tallis isn’t dead, you know that. He can’t die.
It was true. Tallis was immortal due to the spirit of the warrior, Donnchadh, who resided inside him. But Tallis’s immortality was both a blessing and a curse. It promised his ongoing health and vitality, but it couldn’t offer him absolution, which was what Tallis yearned for. “I will try to contact you if I’m able to,” I finished, wondering how that would even be possible as soon as I said it.
“Here,” Bill said as he fished out his cell phone from his shorts pocket and handed it to me. “You’ll need this more than I will,” he finished. I nodded and accepted the phone, which was currently held together by duct tape. I unzipped my fanny pack and pushed the phone in, re-zipping it as I faced my friend.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I said in a soft voice as I smiled at Bill and then at Delilah. I could only hope I was speaking the truth.
“Don’t you go dyin’ on me,” Bill replied in a cracking voice as he opened his arms wide and I fell into them. I forced myself to hold my tears back, while banishing the idea that there was a very good chance I might never see my best friend again.
Be strong, Lily, I told myself.
“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled while pasting on a big smile. “The only thing we have left to fear is fear itself,” I finished, quoting FDR.
“I knew your inner nerd was in there somewhere,” Bill said with a sad smile, his eyes shining.
I nodded as I pulled away from him, and thought I should probably hug Delilah, but feared I might succumb to the wave of emotion that was already cresting inside me. I waved to her instead. Then I picked up my sword, and turning on my heel, headed back into the haunted wood.
For as bad as the Underground City was, the Dark Wood was no walk in the park. It was a haunted forest with a mind of its own, which was usually bent on making you lose your way so you could fall prey to one of the many hideous creatures that lived inside its perimeters. But, luckily for me, I’d already experienced the Dark Wood, and I also had my sword to help lead the way.
I’d been walking for maybe an hour, holding my sword out in front of me like it was some sort of homing device. Ridiculous as I might have looked, it did seem as if the sword knew its way around the forest. Every now and then, it would incline itself in either an easterly or westerly direction, and so I walked in whatever direction it indicated.
The wind picked up and now blew its icy breath through the leafless branches of the dead forest that surrounded me. “Dark Wood” was an appropriate name for the forest because it was far removed from anything light and airy. The Dark Wood bordered the Underground City, so it existed in perpetual darkness, which made traveling through it difficult because I never knew what time of day or night it was. I also never had any idea of how long I’d been walking because there was no sun moving in an arc through the sky, and signaling the onset of the afternoon or dusk. There was only the darkness of night. The most off-putting part about the Dark Wood, however, was the nothingness. No birds were singing, there was no foliage or greenery to speak of, nothing but dreariness and seemingly never-ending dead tree branches that obscured the sky like myriad sharp spears.
I felt something buzzing from my midsection, and my breath caught in my throat. Seconds later, I realized it was just Bill’s phone vibrating with what I imagined was an incoming text message. I paused and glanced around myself to make sure I wasn’t about to be waylaid by some hideous creature. Not finding anything suspicious in the immediate vicinity, I unzipped my fanny pack, and pulled out Bill’s phone. I flipped open the top and noticed it was, indeed, a text. It read:
I have not heard from Ms. Harper. Am I to believe that she is thus declining my dinner invitation? By nature, I am not a patient man. Please advise.
Even though there was no name associated with the text, I immediately knew who it was: Alaire, the Master of the Underground City.
“Ugh,” I said to myself out loud as my heart joined my stomach in dropping down to my feet.
Alaire had texted Bill a few hours earlier, inviting me to dine with him. I wasn’t sure why, but Alaire harbored some sort of odd fascination with me. Tallis made it sound like Alaire was more enthralled with my innocence than he was with me, but I couldn’t be sure where my innocence ended and I began. It seemed we were one and the same. As to Alaire, he was the very antithesis of anything wholesome, which was probably the chief reason he seemed to be so taken with me—being, as he was, so unaccustomed to innocence in the Underground City.
Regardless of the reasons why Alaire was interested in me, the important factor was that he basically had me right where he wanted me. He’d threatened to report me to Afterlife Enterprises when I’d offed one of his demon wolves during my last trip into the Underground City. Truthfully, I was just defending myself against the wolf’s attack, but Afterlife Enterprises wasn’t much concerned with the reasons why certain events took place. Instead, it seemed like Jason Streethorn had his nose stuffed right up Alaire’s, ahem, backside because whatever Alaire wanted, Alaire got. Which meant if Alaire pressed charges, and I was convicted of murdering one of his employees, I would be punished by an infraction. And two infractions were a ticket to Shade for the next hundred years.
I inhaled deeply and texted back:
This is Lily. I thought you said I had until tomorrow night at ten p.m. to respond to your invitation?
I flipped the phone closed just as it hummed again, alerting me to a new text. I flipped it back open and read:
I have since changed my mind. I expect a more prompt response.
I was surprised by Alaire’s quick reply, but then figured he probably didn’t have much else to do in his high-rise office building, manned by no one save himself.
How about I respond by tomorrow at nine p.m.? I texted back as a smile curled my lips. Even though I knew I had to accept Alaire’s dinner invitation, or run the risk of earning my first infraction, I wasn’t about to let him off the hook so easily. Alaire, as Master of the Underground City, expected to get his way, which made him cocky. And those were two attributes I found incredibly irritating in any man.
Very funny, Ms. Harper, he texted back a few seconds later. I expect your response immediately.
As in post haste? I responded.
I find your sense of humor vexing, to say the least, he replied. Shall I remind you of the infraction that awaits you?
So now he was going to threaten me?I swallowed hard and felt my eyes narrowing as irritation began to spiral through me. Should I suppose that dinner with you means the infraction is no longer on the table? I typed back hurriedly, then added: No pun intended. The thought that I should be more aware of my surroundings flashed through my mind, and I glanced up and scanned the perimeter, although I found nothing untoward or suspicious. I returned my attention to the broken phone screen. Alaire hadn’t responded so I continued. Because if the infraction is non-negotiable, then my reply to your dinner invitation is no.
If you agree to be my dinner guest, you have my word you will receive no infraction.
I sighed before typing my next message. Should I trust the word of the Master of the Underground City? I confess you don’t strike me as being very trustworthy. I knew it was a risky thing to say, and it definitely wasn’t a good idea to incite his anger, but I was worried that he wouldn’t keep his end of the bargain. Not that asking him if he was trustworthy would prove otherwise, but anyhow…
Indeed, you should. I value honesty, Ms. Harper, and as such, you will always know where you stand with me.
And there it was. I didn’t know what I was expecting from him, but hoped his word was truly his bond. Okay, I wrote back. Next Tuesday evening at eight p.m. I shook my head and wondered what I was getting myself into. But having already made my bed, there was no turning back now. Am I still to meet you at the gates of the Underground City?
Yes. He texted immediately. I will send a car to ensure you are unharmed by my employees.
I found it somewhat ironically eerie that Alaire referred to his demons as his employees, but c’est la vie. Okay, I texted back before something occurred to me. One last request…
And what request might that be? he replied. I realized he was flirting with me, a realization that made me sick to my stomach.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will be stuck in the Dark Wood for a while, and as I’m sure you’re fully aware, it’s impossible to tell the day from the night. Well, as long as I was in the middle of the Dark Wood, anyway. The sun did shine where Tallis lived, on the periphery of the Dark Wood, but I wasn’t sure how much time I’d be spending there, if any time at all… Right now, I have no idea what day or time it is… I accidentally clicked the “send” button even though I wasn’t finished typing.
It is Friday at midnight.
Just as I started to type my response, the phone suddenly rang. I jumped in surprise as soon as the shrill ring met my ears. “Hello?” I answered in a dubious tone, having a good idea of who might be on the other end.
“My fingers were beginning to cramp,” Alaire explained, although I was sure he was exaggerating. “As to your request,” he continued in his slight Scandinavian accent. “I imagine you would appreciate it if I alerted you when you are due to arrive at the gates of my city?”
“Yes,” I answered immediately as I started walking again. I figured I shouldn’t loiter in the haunted forest where God-only-knew-what was probably preparing to ambush me. It was bad enough that my attention was now focused on a phone call. “Otherwise, I have no way of knowing when Tuesday at eight p.m. rolls around.” But then I remembered it would probably take me some time to make the trip to the gates of the Underground. “Maybe you should text me at the beginning of each new day because I’m not sure how long it will take me to reach the gates.”
“Where, exactly, are you in the Dark Wood?” Alaire inquired, sounding bored. I could hear the tapping of his fingernails against his desk.
“I don’t know,” I answered with a sigh as I glanced around myself. “The terrain here all looks the same.”
Alaire tsked me a few times as if he were disappointed with my retort, which I found exasperating. “Not a very wise choice to be lost in the Dark Wood, now is it?”
“Well, it’s not as though I planned to get lost!” I railed back at him. I held my sword out before me and it pointed in an easterly direction. “And for your information, I’m not lost,” I snapped back, not wanting it to sound like I was ill prepared for the trip. “My sword is doing a great job of leading me wherever I have to go.”
“And just where would that be?” he continued, his tone of voice now sounding amused.
“To where I’m going,” I spat back, not wanting him to know that Tallis could be in trouble and I was trying to find him. I had a feeling that information wasn’t safe in Alaire’s hands. Even though Tallis and Alaire appeared to share a long history, well, as far as I could tell from the last time we were in Alaire’s office, anyway, it didn’t seem as if their history was a friendly one. And any non-friend of Tallis’s was a non-friend of mine.
“Is your lover with you?” Alaire asked, his tone of voice going for disinterested, but not quite succeeding.
“He isn’t my lover,” I answered immediately.
“Perhaps not yet, although I daresay he would quite like to try the role on for size?”
I inhaled deeply, then exhaled just as long. “No comment.”
Alaire was quiet for a few seconds until all I could hear was the even cadence of his breathing. “And the angel?”
“What about him?”
“Is he with you?”
“No,” I answered, immediately thinking better of it.
Alaire exhaled slowly. “As I understand it, then, you are lost in the Dark Wood and all alone?”
“No and yes.”
The cadence of his fingernail tapping increased. “As the Dark Wood is not part of the Underground City, I am sadly unable to protect you.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to protect myself,” I responded haughtily. “I definitely wouldn’t want my death to be the reason for missing our dinner date.” I couldn’t help my acidic laugh.
“Nor would I, my lady, nor would I,” Alaire replied.
“And on that happy note, I’m going to hang up,” I said quickly. “I should be paying attention to my surroundings, rather than this conversation.”
“On that subject, we shall agree for once,” he answered. “Please do be careful, my dear, and one word of advice if you will welcome it?”
“What?” I grumbled.
“Enable your phone’s flashlight capability if it has one—the light will keep the creatures of the Dark Wood at bay.”
“Okay,” I answered, thinking his advice was surprisingly sound. “Goodbye, Alaire.”
“Goodbye, my dear Ms. Harper.”
I clicked the button to end the conversation and then clicked on the settings icon and located the flashlight button. I turned the flashlight on and immediately felt more comfortable as soon as the phone brightened the path in front of me. If there was one good thing about the Underground City, it was that it was surrounded by a strong electric force filed that enabled anything electrical which meant Bill’s phone would maintain a full battery. At least, that’s what Tallis had told me. I could only hope the same rule applied in the Dark Wood.
I plopped the phone back into my fanny pack and felt a tug on the end of my sword, which indicated I should make a sharp right. I did as instructed and felt energy beginning to vibrate up the cold metal. I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that I had finally reached my destination.
I held the phone up and in the bright light, I tried to make out the lines of Tallis’s cabin but was only greeted with the remains of a few gnarled tree-trunks. I took a few steps forward and heard the unmistakable sounds of rustling in the undergrowth. And undergrowth, i.e., bushes, could only mean one thing—I had to have reached an area of the Dark Wood which nourished life. I felt elation begin to grow in my gut because the only section of the Dark Wood which boasted anything living was the same place where Tallis lived.
“I’m here, Tallis,” I whispered.