Dana Alexander
Dana Alexander
Dana Alexander

Weaving fantasy, reality, and desire...

Excerpt: Winter’s Labyrinth

Book 4: The Three Keys

Chapter 1

The point of the gun jabbed into the side of my neck, proof that the man holding it was serious about pulling the trigger. Again. Shallow puffs of air were all I could manage. It might have only been a stun as opposed to a bullet, but given the chance, I’d be drawing my breath and his blood at the next opportunity.

“I’ll explain everything later, Sara.” C-05’s familiar voice filled my ears, causing my blood to boil well beyond a low simmer. The rage I was feeling would likely cause me to shift into the hawk, as a means of protection. That was the result since I’d been injected against my will with a serum to alter my DNA. While I didn’t like the result, it had been useful on more than one occasion. “It must be hard to believe I’m here to protect you this time around, given our last few encounters.” He moved beside me.

Or because you’re holding a weapon against my neck?

“I don’t blame you,” he said at my ear. “I’d have a hard time believing me, too. And that I’m no longer working against your effort to recover the last key.” He placed a hand on the top of my head. Rage melded with a new sickening sensation.

Did the stun affect the ability to shift? Can’t move equates to not being able to fly.

“The evil that hunts you has already arrived.” He angled his head so I could see him. “I can’t have them find you. Not now. You didn’t have to open the gateway to this realm like you did in Scotland and in the Yucatan. I gave the dark forces the location this time.” He stood and looked right and left before ducking down again beside me, returning the gun to its original position at my neck. “Oh, it’s true that, given the proper coordinates for the initial passage, it opened an entry point from one realm to another. This one, with its advancements, shall we say, took a bit more effort to track. It didn’t take long for you to find the path leading to the temple.” He glanced around at the trees above. “Egypt. Strange how it resembles more of a jungle instead of a desert, huh?” My stare answered him with imaginary daggers, as the gun slipped down my neck an inch. “It was only a matter of time before the dark forces homed in on your energy and our immediate location.” His gaze flicked back up to the sky.

How exactly are you helping me?

C-05, a man who’d once been sided with me, had put me on my back one too many times and never with my approval. Over the short time I’d come to know him in this life, I’d given him a fair show of strength that ended up drawing blood. A single chance was all I needed to put him down for a good long while. He was, after all, a man who’d turned against the mission to rescue Earth and keep Ardan, the world where immortals resided, safe.

Enemy number one to the immortals, the Dark Lord, Tarsamon, had used every bit of information C-05 held before pinning him to a wall and leaving him for dead. He’d marked his body so his soul would be forced to wander the realms, unable to reincarnate or find solace. On our last quest in the Mayan jungle, I had cut C-05 free from the necromancer spirit drifting over his immobile body, waiting to take his soul. I never thought granting him one last act of mercy would haunt me. The man should be grateful, not repaying me with the element of surprise and a weapon pressed against my neck.

“Where’s that team of yours? They’d never leave you alone for long.” His eyes swept across the landscape and back to the area where the portal had opened up.

Should be here any second to string you back to that wall. For good this time.

“Now, now. Don’t let our past get in the way of me trying to hide you from the evil that hunts you. Both of us now, I suppose,” he said, hearing my thought. “Better keep that mind quiet, too. Can’t risk any of your energy being detected.”

Maybe C-05 was trying to rescue me now. From whom or what, I had yet to actually see. But I’d be damned if I didn’t want him out of my way once and for all, dead preferably, so I could finish this quest. I had enough to worry about with the demons and magic that had met me at almost every turn as I searched for the last two keys.

He crouched beneath an overgrown, leafy bush, further concealed. “Stay quiet,” he said. “They’re near. Feel the shift in the energy around us?”

I couldn’t answer. The initial stun had blocked my vocal cords but not my thoughts that he had already warned me to keep quiet.

Is he hiding from Tarsamon?

The Dark Lord was well into a crusade to consume the life force of humanity and stop me from recovering the third and final key that would put an end to his assault. He’d become as strong as I had in this lifetime, harboring shadows that fed off the negative energy of the humans until they were so weak the wraith-like beings could consume their forms. His faceless demons were set on tracking my energy, often arriving with packs of rabid-like dogs with one mission—hunting me down and delivering me to Tarsamon. To kill me meant he’d release the power of the two keys I’d collected into the world, effectively undoing his efforts to extend his reach into another realm.

What is taking my team so long to arrive?

Another press of the gun at my neck reminded me of the previous instruction to remain quiet.

A shadow crept over the daylight as if the sun had been blanketed in a full eclipse. The graying of stones and trees swept the landscape with all the speed of clouds in a windy, storm-filled sky. I prayed that in that blanket wasn’t the deadliest of Tarsamon’s forces, the dark angel . For the first time I could remember, I felt fear as though I was vulnerable prey, hiding from her predator above. The safety of the immortals and the lives of billions in the hands of a traitor. C-05 would pay for that, too.

The dark pattern shifted direction, its veil lifting as it glided beyond the two stone-carved faces I’d almost run into before being caught by C-05’s grip at my throat. His approach had been a perfectly timed attack, as my hand slipped through the faces to discover they were only an illusion. I watched as the darkness coasted farther away toward a building in the distance.

“They’re scanning the territory for you,” C-05 said, letting the gun fall away. “They’ll be back.”

I made an effort to shift to my side and found that I’d recovered some movement in my legs. The stun was wearing off but still left me without all motility.

“Why are you helping me?” my voice scratched out. Sweat started racing down my back, despite the cooler temperatures one might expect any place other than Egypt. A reaction to the stun?

“Let’s just say I was able to convince the Soltari that you needed my help.” He glanced up to the sky. “I made a deal with them.”

“And let’s say I don’t believe a damn thing you have to say after what you’ve put me through. I don’t need anything from you.” He’d gone against the Soltari, the all-powerful entity that governed the balance of good and evil in the realms, the Alliance who made decisions to carry out that leadership, and he’d stood in the path of me and my team at every turn. “You have zero credibility.”

He huffed out a breath but didn’t move to strike again. “I fully expect that.”

“Why would the Soltari, who gave you to Tarsamon, listen to you, much less believe anything you had to say?”

“Because I gave them the coordinates of the portal that led you here, to where the last key is hidden. I helped them get you to the key. The Soltari shared the location with the small group you left in New York.

The Inner Society. Leahnan, their director. The group of thinkers, telepathic introverts who protected the remaining light of Earth in a high-tech underground city in the heart of New York. The base of which had been carefully crafted to hide such energy beneath a fully charged metropolis above ground.

“You gave the Soltari the coordinates?” Sheer disbelief sounded as the words fell out.

“Yes, before I shared the location of the key with Tarsamon. There was no choice in that.”

“There’s always a choice and you made the wrong one.”

He let out a breath of frustration. “Look, there’s no time to explain and even less time before the shadows circle back this way. The real question is why the darkness didn’t sense your energy when they passed overhead.”

I shook my head. “Wish I knew.”

He was assessing whether my reply was a truth or a lie. The ring I wore, made of chiastolite, had been strengthened by the elves on the quest for the last key. It was meant to block my energy from the keen detection of any one of Tarsamon’s forces, including the dark angel . But I hadn’t seen her flying in the blanket of evil that had crossed our path to test it, and I sure as hell wasn’t sharing any information with C-05 on the matter of my energy. At his suggestion to keep quiet,  I’d blocked my thoughts from his perusal since the shadow passed over us.

“We’re going to have to start moving soon.”

“I’m not leaving without—”

A crack of electricity signaled the opening of the portal and I turned my attention to the open space, barely visible in the daylight. My team.

C-05 took a couple of steps back.

First to come through was Kevin. Better known in the immortal realms as Cerys, and the Last Great Warrior. We’d spent lifetimes fighting alongside each other and loving one another. Most of the memories of said lifetimes, however, had been withheld from me by the Soltari. They were believed to be a distraction to completing the mission, and a point of contention I harbored with the Alliance.

Kevin took two steps forward, his eyes meeting mine before drifting to C-05. His brows closed over his gaze and he charged.

Had he read my thoughts that quickly about the events that brought C-05 and me together here? Was there time to find a wall to pin C-05 to before the shadows returned?

I’d managed to get to a standing position and waited, finding some satisfaction in allowing Kevin the chance to release the frustration he’d been holding toward C-05. He’d put me in harm’s way with Tarsamon by giving up our locations after he’d decided to side with him. His efforts had nearly cost the lives of the team more than once, and had caused me to be consumed with an illness that only the elves could cure, after being held by him in the Dark Lord’s realm for too long.

The two men rolled off the path and into the brush, as the other members arrived. Before being called to this mission, Juno and Matt had been Special Forces commandos. They glanced at me and to the brawl, assessing what was happening. After determining no intervention was necessary, they stood silent, waiting for the guardians of the last two keys, Mac and Topetine, who would lead us to the location of the next key. The small, older woman arrived first, carrying with her all the grace and strength of the jaguar she could shift into. Once Aria, Elise, and Jade arrived, the scuffle was nothing more than several heavy puffs from both men as they glared at one another. C-05 had come out on the bloodier end of things with a split lip and abrasion on the side of his head.

“I had that coming,” he said, swiping the back of his hand below his lip and shaking it off.

“You have a lot more due,” Kevin replied.

For someone who’d taken an oath to save lives and had done so for a living as the director in the ER at a top New York hospital before this quest began, Kevin’s eyes and pulsing veins suggested for one man, he’d gladly set aside the pledge to do no harm.

“He hid me from the shadows that scanned overhead moments before you arrived.” Why I’d decided to mention the fact at that moment escaped me. It certainly wasn’t to protect C-05. But if he was indeed planning to help us, my team needed to know that he already had.

“Tarsamon’s forces shouldn’t be here,” Juno said. “Something went wrong.”

I looked at C-05 and back to Juno and Matt. “It seems he gave them the coordinates to this location.”

A tic at Juno’s jawline twitched and his eyes centered on C-05.

“Why are we wasting time with him then?” Aria asked. Her flaming-red hair caught a breeze and lifted before resting on her shoulders again.

“They’re coming back.” Matt pointed a gloved finger in the direction I’d last spotted them. “That way.” I couldn’t see any indication of the shadow, but that didn’t mean he was wrong. Matt and Juno carried the unique ability to see coming events. And they’d been right on too many occasions to doubt either of them now. “Our entry must have signaled a break in the energy.”

“Head for a large building about a mile or so that way.” Topetine lifted her head in the direction we should go. “We’ll be safe there.” She shifted into her black jaguar form.

“Jade,” Kevin said. “Take Sara.”

“I can’t trace her to the location without an energy path to follow,” he said. “It would’ve already had to have been set by one of us.”

Topetine growled out a call. Her emerald eyes looked over her shoulder before she bounded off.

“Let’s move,” Juno said. He turned to me. “Don’t give any indication of your energy by lighting that ball of fire you use for protection. We’re going to have to hope the ring will hide you, even though they may be drawn to the rest of us. Use the shield if you must and run like hell.”

“We don’t have to run,” C-05 said. “I have two vehicles over here.” He started to move but Juno pulled the gun slung over his shoulder and aimed it at him.

“How’d you manage two?”

“I could explain it, or we could get the hell out of here.”

“Stay in front of us,” Juno said. “Keys.”

“Don’t need them here.”

Kevin gripped my hand in his and, with his other, wiped away a bead of sweat. His eyes, every sensation from him reflected concern, but with no time to assess further.

“I know,” I said. “Stay close.” I’d learned to squelch my instinct to lead and follow direction from him when it came to safety. Not having done so in the past had led to putting myself and my team at risk.

C-05 took off into the brush, with the rest of us close behind. Juno lowered his gun but still kept it pointed forward. Kevin and I, along with Mac, piled into the back of an open-roofed Humvee camouflaged to match the trees and lower-level green scrub, instead of the expected desert oasis. The remaining five fit snugly into the main cabin and headed in the same direction as Topetine. There was no way Matt and Juno were going to break us into two vehicles with  a man we didn’t trust and the storm of evil moving our way.

I shed the jacket I’d arrived with, feeling the sweat beginning to soak the back of my cotton tank and wishing I could trade out the heavier pants for the shorts I’d had in the Yucatan. No sooner than I had the thought and with only Kevin taking notice, the wish became a reality.

Our thoughts are that powerful? Is that how this beast of a car drives without keys?

The skies clouded again in the ominous gray, denying the light of the sun and hinting at the masking of good over the approaching evil, as the shadows drew closer.

We’ll lose her.

“We’re not going to lose Topetine,” Jade said, hearing my thought. Commander himself of what was left of a small army of men purposefully left behind to keep our pace faster, he had the skill to trace anyone’s energy path. “I can track her. I already see the pattern ahead. Right turn at the clearing,” he called out.

Clearing? Wide open for…

The screech I’d prayed not to hear earlier cut through the sound of the engine.

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