AFTERLIFE: Chapter 1
Kat Dubois Chronicles, #6
*NOTE - This is an unedited excerpt. Please excuse any typos.*
“What is this stuff?” Mari asked, turning in a slow circle as she scanned the dense, shimmering mist surrounding us. Her voice punctured the silence, seeming to float along throughout the mist.
Mari was no longer the glowing, golden, au natural version of herself; her soul had reverted to a normal, non-glowing, clothed appearance the moment we broke through the dark shell surrounding Aaru. A quick glance down at myself told me the same had happened to me.
“I don’t know,” I told her, raising my eyes to continue looking around.
I’d died a few times before, and one time I’d even made a quick trip into Aaru only to be yanked right back out by Nik, courtesy of our soul bond. I may have been the only being to have ever escaped from this eternal purgatory, but that hardly made me an expert on the place. I mean, I’d only been here for a few seconds.
“It was like this the last time I was here,” I added unhelpfully.
“It’s kind of pretty,” Mari said, combing her fingers through the mist, causing it to swirl chaotically.
“Sure,” I said, glancing at her sidelong. I wasn’t a big fan of being blind, and the mist made it so we couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of us clearly. We were sitting ducks, no clue as to what dangers might be closing in all around us. “And it’s kind of creepy, too.”
Mari frowned at my comment, then shrugged.
Deep within the mist, my eyes caught movement. A mere shadow of a person, but undoubtedly human-shaped. Hope made me believe it was Anapa. He’d been thrown into Aaru mere minutes before our entry. He had to be around here somewhere.
Squinting, I waved a hand out in front of me, trying to move some of the mist out of the way to give myself a better view. But that vague, could-be-Anapa silhouette faded, and just like that, whoever I’d seen deep within the mist was gone.
“Kat…” Mari’s voice was low and filled with warning. “There’s something out there.”
“I know,” I said, still searching the place where I’d seen the figure. I pointed in that general direction. “I’d swear I just saw someone over there.” I took a step, intending to find whoever I’d seen.
Mari’s fingers closed around my wrist. “Yeah…this is less of a someone and more of a something.” Her tone sent a chill creeping up my spine, and the tiny hairs all over my body stood on end.
That physiological response struck me as odd, considering I didn’t actually have a physical body anymore—I was a ba, an energy being, now, just like everyone else trapped in Aaru. But the spurt of not-adrenaline making my not-heart pound and setting my not-brain on high alert captured those pesky philosophical thoughts and shoved them away, stuffing them into a corner of my mind for dissection later.
I turned my head, craning my neck to look past Mari. There was something out there, alright. Emphasis on thing.
I couldn’t see whatever it was clearly, but the movement was impossible to miss, even through the thick mist. The thing was huge—not quite as tall as me, but spreading out for dozens of feet to either side—and it shifted constantly, slowly darkening and taking on shape as it lumbered closer. Or rather, taking on shapes. It was still little more than a shadow in the mist, but I could see parts of it winding around and through itself, like an enormous mass of slithering snakes.
“Holy fucking shit,” I breathed, resisting the urge to shimmy in disgust.
I hadn’t really known what obstacles I would face in Aaru, but giant snake monster definitely hadn’t made the list. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I would be spending the few remaining days I had left as me chasing down Isfet, the very being who—if everything went according to plan—would be the instrument of my own destruction…now I had something to run from, too. Fan-fucking-tastic.
I started backing away, and Mari was more than eager to follow. “What the hell is that thing?” I said, voice barely more than a whisper. I didn’t really expect an answer from Mari, which was probably good, because I didn’t get one.
A vine-like appendage uncoiled from the mass and slid out ahead of the thing, almost like it was reaching for us. Or exactly like it was reaching for us. It was a dark, tarnished silver, and its movements were so serpentine that it triggered some instinctive response within me. It was only by sheer force of will alone that I manage to suppress a girly scream.
“Time to run?” Mari asked, fear raising the pitch of her voice.
My backward steps transformed into skips as I picked up the pace. “Uh huh,” I said, my pitch rising to meet hers.
I turned, reaching back for Mari. The last thing I wanted to happen was for us to get separated. If I lost her in the mist, I feared I might never find her again. My hand fumbled to take hold of hers, but finally, I got a solid grip on her wrist, and together we ran away from that horrifying monstrosity as fast as we could.
Mari and I ran at full-tilt for minutes, legs pumping and lungs burning. The ground was firm but topped with a loose, silty layer, like a hard-packed dirt road. It was almost perfect for speed, but I guessed it would be less awesome for stopping.
After a while, Mari slowed, dragging behind me. But I was willing to slow too much, and I pulled her onward. I wanted to get as far away from that thing as possible, as fast as possible.
“Kat wait,” Mari said, yanking on my arm for me to stop. “I can’t…I can’t breathe.”
I slowed to a walk then stopped and turned to face her, breathing hard. I pinched my waist, attempting to ease the exertion-induced ache stabbing into my side.
Mari was bent over, hands on her knees, practically gasping for breath. “I don’t even…have a body,” she said between heaving breaths. “I don’t know why…this is so…hard for me.”
I frowned. The dead sprint hadn’t been all that easy for me, either, and once again, my seemingly normal corporeal responses struck me as pretty damn odd, considering I was currently very much incorporeal. We didn’t have physical bodies anymore—they were dead, left behind in the physical realm—so why did we seem to still be constrained by our old bodies’ limitations? It didn’t make any sense. This place didn’t make any sense.
I shook my head, dismissing the confusing train of thought. Understanding the rules of Aaru wasn’t exactly my biggest priority right now; finding Dom was. If the rest of Aaru was like this—a big, misty mess—it could take ages. Tracking him down was the primary objective; without him, I doubted we would ever find Isfet.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mars,” I said, scanning the mist for signs of movement. “But we should keep going. That thing—I’m not about to just sit here, waiting for it to catch up to us.”
I reached for Mari, taking hold of her elbow, and pulled her into a quick walk. I’d taken maybe five steps when a shadowy shape took form in the mist ahead, so faint that I wasn’t entirely certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.
My heart skipped a beat, and I froze, eyelids opened wide in terror. If that thing had found us again, we would have to run again. I wasn’t sure how much gas Mari had left.
“What is it?” Mari asked, hand pinching her side and eyes searching the mist. “Do you see something? Is it—is it it?”
I became utterly still, barely even breathing. “I don’t know,” I said, voice barely above a whisper. I raised my hand, pointing in the direction of the shadowy spot. It was a little darker now. There was definitely something there. “Over there,” I said.
I watched, breath held, as the shadow darkened and took on a clearer form. I blew out a breath and relaxed a little when it became clear that this shadow was man-shaped, not mass-of-snakes-shaped. I shook my head, laughing under my breath. This place was making me crazy.
“It looks like a person,” Mari said.
I nodded. “It could be Anapa,” I told her, not taking my eyes off the dim shape. “Or Dom or Re.” Or any other of the thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of immortal souls inhabiting Aaru.
The silhouette was growing dimmer now, like whoever was out there was moving away from us.
“Come on,” I said, once again grabbing Mari’s arm and pulling her into motion.
We settled into an easy jog, and the shadowed silhouette in the mist steadily sharpened. In a blink the person became clear enough to identify, and my lips spread into a broad grin.
“Anapa!” I called out, releasing Mari’s arm as I picked up the pace. “Anapa, wait up!”
Anapa paused and turned part way, his expression one of utter confusion. “Katarina?” his voice was filled with disbelief. “How—” His brow furrowed, and he shook his head, a delayed grin spreading across his face. “You escaped from the Mother of All? How?”
I slowed to a walk as I drew nearer. “It’s a long story,” I said, planting myself in front of him, hands resting on my hips. “But now I’m here, which means the plan’s still on. We need to find Isfet so I can take her out of here with me.” I inhaled deeply, determination driving away the fear of what exactly “taking Isfet out of Aaru” entailed—namely, the sacrifice of everything that I was. “The Mother of All is going down.”
Anapa laughed, still shaking his head. A moment later, his focus shifted past me, and his smile withered.
Dread knotted in my stomach, and I spun around, eyes widening in horror.
Mari was still maybe ten yards out, walking toward us. And just beyond her, the snake thing writhed, its shadowy mass closer and clearer than ever. Several silvery tentacles reached out, slithering toward Mari.
I sucked in a breath. “Mars,” I shouted. “Run!”
That's it for CHAPTER 1! Here's CHAPTER 2. :)
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