My favorite chapter from The Last Descendant
It's chapter 25. It's the first scene that came to me and how the book came to life (cue evil laughter muhahahahaha). And it came to me in a dream, well, a nightmare. The nightmare was different, there was no crypt, I was trapped in a closet and it was dark and I kept hearing scratching noises. So I thought, what would that look like in a novel? I kept the overall mood from the nightmare - feeling locked in a tight space with a creature you couldn't see or control.
The dull pain radiating from the left side of my face was the least of my worries. My restraints had been cut and I had two escorts, one on each arm, and a hood pulled over my face, making it impossible for me to see. They had asked me to remove my clothing and had handed me a white robe. They’d stuffed my mouth full of gauze, that’s when I knew this wasn’t one of Nate’s pranks. I had learned the hard way that screaming wasn’t a good idea. It triggered my gag reflex and I had come close to choking to death twice.
The chill from the cracked tile floor bit my bare feet with each stilted step. They forced me to take a right turn, another right, and then a left. We went down a smaller set of stairs, twelve steps, where the hall had grown narrower. The ground had become uneven and coarse, rich with dirt and deterioration. Wherever we were, it was dark.
The tour abruptly stopped, and my hood was tugged off. I blinked quickly, forcing my eyes to accept what little light they could catch. A large wooden door as old as a monastery and as solid as a chastity belt loomed ahead. Two guards flanked the door. Both males of equal height and build, roughly five-foot-ten and one-hundred-seventy pounds. They wore nondescript black uniforms and they looked remarkably alike, not identical but brothers. Where had these people come from?
Although the odds of me successfully running were slim to none, I turned to assess which direction to go. The only source of light burned from oil lamps mounted on the slate walls of the hall. The glow from the lamps illuminated a two-foot arc and the oil lamps were spaced fifteen feet apart. Eventually, the small cones of light disappeared into an obsidian abyss. I was in an underground tomb, deep in the world of the dead, with an irrevocable invitation.
This was the risk I had not assessed when I agreed to help James. This was the risk of pretending not to be involved in something dangerous. This was the risk of helping the ungodly. I had failed to calculate what was really at risk.
One of my escorts stepped ahead and pushed against the dense wooden door. It opened to reveal a softly lit chamber. Wasps of apprehension buzzed beneath my skin. This wasn’t like what had happened when James was upset. This was the alarm of clearly realizing I wasn’t going to make it out of this room. The same.
Shoved from behind, I stumbled over the threshold, landing on my hands and knees.
My two escorts aligned themselves against the interior doorframe and stared straight ahead. I awaited instructions, but their dark eyes were vacant and empty of life. My unsteady breath clouded from my mouth. I wasn’t sure what to say, what to ask, or what to scream. The full moon shone through a circular opening in the ceiling. It gave the impression of a large eye, watching my every move, even the invisible ones.
The room stretched out twenty feet in all directions and the edges of the room faded into darkness. The room had to be round like a rotunda. At the center of the chamber, a large marble table reflected the moon’s light. It looked large enough to be an altar, definitely large enough to hold a body. I heard something scuttle along the wall behind me like a rat caught in a bucket trying to claw its way out.
“James?” I whispered into the darkness.
I listened with intent, but only heard my staggered breath. My skin didn’t feel the lick of electricity or the hum of discomfort. Maybe I was alone. Maybe it was just a rat. Or maybe James wasn’t in the chamber at all, but someone else. Someone worse. I wasn’t prepared to meet his maker or mine.
I approached the table in the middle of the room, sensed a shift in the air, and turned. Something brushed my left arm. I spun around in panic, reaching out into the darkness in the hopes of grabbing something or someone.
“What the hell am I doing?” I whispered.
I bolted for the door only to run into Padma. She was no longer in her silk purple gown, but a white gown, much like my own. I staggered back but my panic helped me find my footing.
“Do you think you’re going to just run out of here?” she asked. Her backhand came out of nowhere and I fell to the ground.
It took me a few seconds to shake off the shock from the slap and that Padma had delivered it. I stared up at her with rage. She looked different – stronger, less runway model, more menacing. A shadow swam under her skin, lifted from her face, blurring her features. This wasn’t the second-year intern. Oh no. This was hell personified.
“Nice to meet you too, Charlotte.” I wiped my bleeding lip on my sleeve.
“Astute for an American.” Her eyes scanned me from head to toe, calculating something I didn’t want to guess.
I blotted my swelling split lip with the robe. Charlotte extended her hand to help me up. I refused and stood on my own.
“Where is James?” I asked.
“You’re not bleeding enough.” And she slapped me again.
Behind the bright spots flashing on my eyelids, I saw red. I lunged at her. She wrenched my hand back and slammed my face against the marble table. Blood and saliva dribbled onto the slab. I watched it slide down, disappearing into a hole.
The marble table had a slight concave surface with random quarter-sized holes drilled into it. I traced the rim of a hole and pushed a finger through. The holes were strategically placed to collect blood from all major arteries like an autopsy table.
“Oh God.” I barely got the words out.
Charlotte whipped me around, pinching my face in her hand. Flecks of excitement and anticipation lit up her deranged eyes. She drew a knife and held it to my neck.
“Enough.” A voice pleaded from the darkness. It was hoarse, desperate, and hauntingly familiar.
Charlotte smiled and pulled away the knife, keeping the tip extended at my face. If I ever saw her again, I would land the first punch.
A guard turned a large wooden dial on the wall next to the door. The chamber rumbled with loud grinding noises. The ceiling rotated and I planted my feet, expecting the ground to open beneath me.
Dust rained down and more moonlight poured into the chamber through smaller openings in the domed ceiling. The grit of decay coated my throat and I rubbed my eyes clear of debris. Charlotte stood motionless and watched like a hungry predator.
“I was hoping we would get to this much sooner, Abigail.” She blotted dust from my cheeks and I held still, afraid of her touch, afraid of her excited smile. “But I wasn’t sure if you were important or just a decoy. We love our games.”
The tips of her cold fingers pulled at my bottom lip and she ran them inside my mouth. I pulled away, trying to dredge up any clue to as to what was about to happen. But all I saw was Padma. And her hijacked body.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“I want to watch you die.”
An electric current whipped up the length of my spine, causing me to stand painfully tall. James had confirmed his presence. Maybe I had a way out?
I shoved passed Charlotte, ran into the dark, reaching out like a blind woman hunting for a wall. With blackness encroaching and the current reaching a violent pulse, I whined for air.
“Let me see you, James.” I wasn’t going to die without seeing he was okay.
“I’m sorry.” His breath caressed the back of my neck.
I turned but he wasn’t there. “Don’t be sorry. You haven’t done anything.” I kept palming the blackness. “Just come out of the dark, where I can see you.”
“This isn’t going to end well,” he whispered into my right ear.
I spun around and was welcomed with more darkness. “You won’t hurt me.” I said it with conviction, but the knot in my lungs didn’t believe a word. A hand snatched my hair and pulled me back toward the light.
“He isn’t going to hurt you. He’s going to kill you,” Charlotte said. “And I’m going to love watching you die. At least this way, he’ll finally fuck you.”
I spat in her face.
Her hand reared back for another strike, but someone grabbed it. She looked over her right shoulder into the dark. “You do this now.” Charlotte released me. “Or I’ll ensure you watch her die an agonizing, slow death. Another ghost to chase along the river, my love.” She wiped the spit from her cheek.
“We have an agreement,” James said. His voice caught between a promise and a prayer.
I froze in terror. I didn’t even take a breath.
“I’ve always wanted to play an American,” Charlotte said with a wicked smile. “The poison will take affect in ten minutes.” She walked out the door. The last guard followed and shut the door to the chamber. The clang of metal sliding into metal sealed my horrible fate. I walked to the light for its warmth.
James’s trembling hand emerged from the darkness. I wanted to run to the door and bang on it until my hands bled, but I couldn’t move. His hand was multiple shades of purple, like he’d sustained bruises from a fight. Cuts lacerated most of his knuckles and his nails were torn, jagged or completely missing. Mesmerized, I watched him emerge from the dark. Once his face stepped into the moonlight, my chest constricted with pain.
Never in all my life, could I have imagined his beauty would be reduced to such degradation. If I were religious, what stood in front of me was unholy. Blasphemous.
His body was riddled by violence. Deep blood-caked divots slashed his chest and abdomen. His flawless porcelain skin was translucent like the fine, dry layers of an onion. Streams of old blood pulsated through his veins, thick and dark as molasses. His once icy blue eyes were jet black and sunken into his skull. I had never feared looking into those eyes, until now. There wasn’t an ounce of his civility left.
The tips of his fingers landed on my cheek. A tear caught and rolled over his fingertips.
There would be no escape.
There would be nothing after this exchange, only death.
He hadn’t fed in a very long time. The control of his most basic instincts was at bare minimum. His eyelids pulsated in rhythm with my heartbeat. I prayed he was no longer taking the time to listen to my thoughts. I prayed my fear was a resistible aphrodisiac. For the first time since being a frightened, disappointed child, I prayed.
“You don’t have to do this,” I pleaded.
He reached out to cup my face. Millimeters from my skin, he examined his mangled hand, and dropped it to my shoulder instead. The corners of his eyes twitched at the physical contact. His touch emitted no heat, no secret signal, no friendship. And I made the mistake of gasping.
“Whatever you do, please don’t run.” James ran his trembling thumb over my injured lip. His eyes pulsed with hunger. Time was expiring, and my options were dead on arrival.
I sprinted for the door. His nails slashed my shoulder, sending a hot burn of pain across my back. His arms wrapped around my chest, trapping my arms. He lifted me from the ground before I reached the door. His movements were primal and swift, and mine were clumsy and all too human. My legs kicked in the air, trying to find traction for escape. He wrenched me back toward the slab. All I saw were the pattern of holes and their purpose – to drain my blood.
I planted my feet against the edge of the table but failed to shove him off. The more I struggled, the tighter he squeezed until air became harder to purchase. I stilled but didn’t calm. He loosened his grip, and I swallowed gulps of air. His scent of sandalwood and spice had ripened into something sour and sinister. He nuzzled the back of my neck.
“Do you know how many days it’s been?” he asked.
“Roughly twenty-two days.”
He laughed at my precise answer. But it was no longer the sound of warmth, the only token of his humanity. It was the sound of dark despair. His hands snaked around my wrists and he bent me over the slab. His tongue lapped across my shoulder, searing me with fear. Through the haze of shock, I heard laughter pour into the chamber – a woman’s laughter.
The room darkened and dropped from a heated panic to an arctic paralysis. Something deep purple and lethal slithered in and out of the openings of the ceiling. I heard the clap of thunder, the snapping of bones, the chaos of hell.
“I have to place you onto the altar,” he said. The statement less a warning, more like a bad omen. “Don’t. Struggle.” His eyes darted to the apertures in the ceiling. His haunted gaze acknowledged the audience I couldn’t see through my tears. He scooped me into his arms.
“Please don’t do this.” He wouldn’t look at me. The darkness held him now.
I heard his teeth grind. He wrestled my hands from his neck and placed me across the cold table. He stepped away, the ropes of muscle in his neck tightening like bands of steel. His hands encircled my ankles, and he tugged my body a couple of inches down the slab. The walls amplified my scream.
James jumped atop the altar and straddled me. My hands struck, slapped, clawed but I still remained pinned. He caught my left wrist.
“This is going to hurt.”
He punctured the meat of my palm below the thumb with his fangs. They rubbed painfully against bone, causing me to see white pain. He placed his hand over my mouth, attempting to quell my scream. I snagged his fingers and bit down.
His fangs drilled deeper, causing another blinding burst of pain. I bit down harder and his fingers relaxed. Thick blood coated my tongue and gums like hot syrup. He withdrew his fangs and held my throbbing punctured hand above my chest, watching my blood slither down the length of my forearm and splatter onto the white gown. I thrashed under him and a chorus of hisses poured out of the walls.
He leapt off of me, landing in front of the door. “Stay out! I will do this my way.” He punched the door.
I heard a sharp snap and hoped like hell he’d broken his hand. There was no more time to think. I rolled off the slab. My vision constricted and the room morphed into soft edges. Edges that murmured, breathed, caressed. Sure my hallucinations were the result of his blood, I spat onto the floor but saw no red evidence. I shoved my fingers into my mouth and scraped at the lingering bitterness. What poison had Charlotte rubbed in my mouth? The floor reached out, trying to pull me through. I scrambled to my hands and knees and crawled for the door.
James snatched me into his arms and smiled with the venom of adoration. “You’re only feeding my hunger.” His bloodstained tongue slipped out of his mouth and he ran it along the side of my face. He shuffled me back to the table.
Through my shifting vision, I noticed the streaks. Streaks of arctic blue cracking the black surface of his irises, clawing their way back from oblivion. His skin was taking on color, his bruising lightened, and the divots along his chest were healing. Awed by his transformation, I didn’t notice him leaning in until his lips rested on mine.
“Lay back down,” he whispered.
My body reacted to his voice – the anger blew out of my chest, the fear flew out of my mind, and my limbs went lax. I had no control and my body complied. The warmth of the moonlight danced along my face and gown. I stared through the oculus. The hazy moonlight and the effect of James’s blood made it look like a halo. My childhood angel of darkness hovered above me, but there was no longer the weight of fright between us.
James inhaled the scent of my hair and I closed my eyes. His teeth caressed my jawbone, and I remembered the hot pain of his bite and the consequences of his blood. His arousal rubbed against my abdomen, then rocked down lower.
“Grab it,” he demanded.
I groaned with desperation and my eyes pleaded no. But something had changed. His eyes held no trace of black. Not a hint of menace. They were icy beacons of blue in a sea of darkness. His eyes dilated and he reiterated the order.
A foreign urge coursed through my blood and my hand slipped between our bodies. I felt the tip of something inanimately hard and jagged poking through the waist of his trousers. My hand slid down the shaft, my fingertips fumbling. No skin, no pulse, grained texture. I was holding a stake of wood.
I held onto the end of the stake and he rocked against me, sliding it onto my belly. James captured my mouth and kissed me hard. I felt the smile of approval across his lips. He stroked his nose tenderly along my neck up to my earlobe.
“When things get really bad, you need to use it. But you need to wait until it gets really bad,” he said.
He kissed my forehead, reared back, and extended his fangs completely.