I will upload The Innocents on January 15th. I apologize immensely for another delay, but I don’t want to put it up until I am confident it’s ready.
Here’s a bonus preview chapter of apology.
The Innocents – Chapter Two
Twenty years of mass, and still Chelsea fidgeted. Even as an adult there of her own accord. Even wanting to believe there was something beyond uncertainty and a worldly life that was frequently less than satisfying. Intention, it seemed, was little defense against a sermon that went on too long, and no one could drag out a short point like the church’s second-rung priest Father Dave.
Watching the two boys in front of her knuckle-punch back and forth until their father at last noticed they were beating on each other in church, Chelsea shifted her gaze to the stained glass rendering of the crucifixion as they settled into relative obedience. Transfixed, for a moment, by the sleet that pelted Jesus on the cross, she forced her eyes to the resurrection instead.
Not everything had to be so hopeless.
So, she had made a few mistakes that added up to a big one, and her means of escape were few. Things could always turn around. More miraculous things had happened.
Staring past the rolled away stone, into the depths of Jesus’ empty tomb, Chelsea saw the shadows shift, like something lurked deep within, and, with an uncertain swallow, she tried to remember if she had taken her meds. She had been pretty good about it lately, keeping herself on an even keel. Responsible, her mother even called her. The changes in her hormones had her brain in an almost permanent fog, though, and, these days, she found herself forgetting more than she remembered.
Shadows moving again, Chelsea looked harder, wondering if Jesus’ impending return was closer than any of them could have anticipated when yellow eyes flashed suddenly her way and she flinched back into the woman beside her.
“I’m sorry.” Reaching out, she found the woman sturdy and real.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked, and Chelsea’s gaze went back to the window. Dark figure darting across the gray cave, she watched as it fell past the browns and greens at the bottom of the stained glass and out of sight.
“I’m fine,” she said.
Heart pounding, her stomach squirmed in response, and Chelsea put her hand over it, comforting or protecting, she wasn’t entirely sure, though it was instinct to do both.
Spilling through the church doors a few minutes later with those members of the congregation devout enough, or in need of guidance enough, to be dragged out in the painful weather, Chelsea shoved her hands into the pockets of her old wool coat, scolding herself for neglecting her gloves again. Not just unusual, the cold was downright unreasonable, making it a challenge to leave her flat for anything and simply refusing to release its grip on the city. Slipping in at both hem and collar, it put haste in Chelsea’s steps as she headed toward home.
As did the lack of fellow pedestrians. Normally, when she left church, be it day or night, there were plenty of others headed the same way. Cold and Christmas preparations keeping them indoors, her footsteps fell louder in their absence.
It was a block from St. Anthony’s, beyond the distance a cry for help might be heard, that Chelsea noticed they didn’t fall alone. Just out of time with her own, a second set of footsteps marched a divergent beat through the gray fog, growing quicker as they grew closer, but Chelsea resisted the urge to look over her shoulder until she felt them right at her back.
Breath stuck in her chest as the man continued past, as anxious to get out of the cold as her, Chelsea let it out in a sputtering laugh as she followed his procession to the door of an old building. Trying to shake free of her overactive imagination as he slipped inside, she started once more down the street, making it only a step before a violent embrace lunged from a dark lane.
First of her scream lost to the unrelenting wind as she was dragged between buildings, the rest was knocked from Chelsea as her back came into painful contact with the brick wall.
“Shu’ up.” Rancid breath pouring from the mouth of her attacker, the hand that curled brown fingernails into Chelsea’s cheek reeked of something equally indescribable, until the man’s face drifted closer and she could see the source of the smell. Flaps of rotting skin hanging from his cheeks and forehead, the man’s eyes floated in murky yellow. It was a level of decomposed Chelsea had been forced to look at in biology class once and never needed to see again.
God, she had forgotten to medicate.
The rotting man growling with something like anticipation, Chelsea knew the danger, at least, was real, could feel it in the punishing grip that held her chin in place. Though, it was danger that was difficult to believe. More like something out of a nightmare than something that just pulled her off the street.
When the man’s mouth yawned wide, baring fangs that were not the sharp points Chelsea would have expected, but a few jagged edges that looked as if they had broken down over time, or from overenthusiastic gnawing, Chelsea’s own mouth opened on a scream, but she only choked on a mouthful of putrid hand.
“Well now, what do we have here?” The voice that poured through the darkness brought instant reprieve. Eyes snapping open, Chelsea tried to follow the sound to its source, but could see no further than a body width in the thick haze.
“Looks like a rodent at a feast,” a deeper voice responded.
“That never ends well for the rodent,” the original speaker declared, and, at last coming into view, the woman who possessed the voice proved every bit as hypnotic as her tone. Adorned in black from neck to toe, hair and eyes a near match, they served as marked contrast to her skin, which was almost ethereal in its porcelain glow. Aside from the dark brows and lashes that cloaked her gaze, soft pink lips were the only color on her face, and they turned upward with some amusement, as if the entire situation was a novelty for her.
“Fuckah, Der’ph.” The rotted man’s grip on Chelsea only grew tighter, and Chelsea groaned at the bruises being pressed into her cheeks.
“The dross speaks.”
Pain still present as the woman in black’s eyes met hers, the corresponding fear released its grip on Chelsea.
“So, it does,” her female companion said.
Slightly shorter than the other woman, the blonde’s skin was several shades darker. Golden hair falling just past her shoulders, her deep blue eyes cut to the mocha man with the close-cropped hair and dark brown gaze who stood on the woman in black’s other side.
“It’s almost a working vocabulary.” Dimples pushed into his cheeks as he looked back to the blonde.
Though the woman in black smiled along, her eyes never strayed. Nor blinked. Nor did they, for even an instant, lose the feral glint that did nothing to alter Chelsea’s tangled feelings. Knowing somehow that the woman, and her equally alluring companions, was every bit as dangerous as the man holding her against the wall, Chelsea was still soothed at their presence, though her position had little changed.
“Impressive,” the woman in black uttered. “But now it’s time for you to slink back through the cracks in the wall where you belong.”
“Go ‘way,” the rotted man cursed. “Let me eat.”
“The world is full of leftovers, Rat,” the woman said. “This feast is not for you.”
Producing a decidedly rodent-like twitch at the statement, the rotted man stared for a prolonged beat, as if he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Then, with a swiftness that took her by surprise, he turned on Chelsea, decayed mouth flapping wide, and Chelsea rediscovered her fear as the jagged edge of a tooth scratched her skin.
Jerked back before the bite could sink deeper, the rotted man howled at the mocha man’s grip on his hair, and the woman in black bent, coming up with a shard of split wood that she sank into the rotted man’s chest. The action having little apparent effect, when the woman in black gave the makeshift weapon an upward twist, the rotted man’s eyes rolled back and he dropped to his knees. Tottering there for a moment, he at last keeled forward, and Chelsea could see the orange glow in his eyes as he stared out at the light from the street, spasms moving through him like a fish tossed to a boat’s floor.
Placing a heavy boot on his head, the mocha man held the rotted man down as the blonde pulled a small packet from inside her coat. Ripping it open, she tossed it on the rotted man, and he screamed as flames erupted down his back. Completely engulfed in the time it took the mocha man to pull his leg out of harm’s way, an instant later the only thing left of Chelsea’s assailant was an outline of ash on the ice-covered ground.
“Don’t be afraid.” Chelsea’s instinct for self-preservation raging back up at the sight, it warped again as the woman in black came closer, and, though she knew it was exactly what she should be, the request stole the desire to run from Chelsea’s body, making way for it to long for other things.
Unable to move as the woman untied the scarf from her neck, Chelsea felt no cold when the wind slid down her collar, but only warmth, a warmth that wanted something from the woman, from all of them, she couldn’t entirely define. Burning low and irrepressible in her belly, it woke the sleeping thing within that kicked in equal anticipation.
Hands moving to the top button of her coat, Chelsea watched the dark gaze intent upon the task, red tongue slipping out to wet pink lips, and she realized how much she wanted that which she feared only moments before, to be taken by a stranger in a dark alley. Three strangers, in whatever manner they so desired.
Yearning forward in submission, she moaned as the woman in black’s nose and lips brushed her neck.
“It only hurts for a second, I promise.” Fingers trailing the column of her throat, Chelsea clutched the leather of the woman’s jacket, staring into eyes tinted deepest red, like garnet, as the woman pulled back, wanting nothing more than to believe whatever she said.
Hand on the side of her neck, Chelsea’s eyes drifted shut as supple lips slid against her throat, sob escaping and fingernails etching into leather at the burning stab through skin and vein. It did hurt, more than she was expecting, but, as promised, only for the briefest of moments. Discomfort rapidly pushed out, the recesses left behind were filled with something utterly alien and undeniably euphoric. Blood rushing through her, it converged at the spot where the woman in black sucked at her flesh, as a reciprocal, penetrating sensation tightened her lower abdomen.
Every cell in her body seeming to produce pure, potent pleasure, the climax came so fast and hard, Chelsea couldn’t stay on her feet. With a shout of all but pain, she gripped more tightly to the woman’s jacket until she could no longer think, no longer feel, no longer hold on.
Body going limp against her, Haydn pressed the woman back against the wall to help support her weight, nursing at the spot until she got every last delectable drop. Or until she thought she did. Well run dry, she could still smell a small reservoir as she pulled away, and, when she listened for it, she detected the trace of a heartbeat making a last, valiant effort at survival. Hand pressing to the woman’s stomach, Haydn could feel it there too, weak and fluttering, before the new life came to a sudden, inevitable end beneath her palm.
Realization dawning too late, she lowered the woman to the ground as the sleet turned to snow around them. Eyes rising to the sky with some wonder, she watched it fall in huge, magnificent flakes. The sleet all too frequent, she couldn’t remember the last time she was actually in the city for a snowfall. 1795, was it? No, it had to have been 1847, during the famine, when the food supply had withered for them all.
At the snap of a flash fire capsule, she took a step back, feeling something curious, almost melancholy, as the body – both bodies – went up in flame, leaving ashen angel within ashen angel in the lightly falling snow. Hard edges softened by the two distinct outlines, she didn’t perceive a threat until she turned and felt the sinew jerk inside her chest. Blood spattering Gijon’s white scarf, it took a moment for Haydn to recognize it came from her, and, pain setting in with a vengeance when she did, she cast her eyes to the steel bolt embedded beneath her sternum.
Spinning head tearing her muscle into pieces, Haydn yanked the bolt free, turning her head too late to prevent the sting of shrapnel against her cheek as the triangular head detonated.
Hearing the latch of the crossbow release again, she spun out of the way, glancing toward the adjacent roof to see a glint of platinum before Slade’s satisfied grin retreated from the edge.
Bounding onto the nearest balcony, Haydn scaled the five stories, hearing Gijon and Auris at her back as she vaulted the roof’s edge. The sound of a hammer dropping, she rolled to avoid the bullet Sean fired to cover Slade’s escape, and looked up from a crouch as Gijon and Auris rushed past in pursuit.
Watching Slade and Sean drop over the far edge, she pushed up to follow, making it as far as standing before weakness overtook her. Hand pressing to her chest, the blood surged between her fingers, like water springing through the weak spots in a dam. Just making it to the other side, she dropped onto the roof’s ledge. Below, she could see Slade and Sean jump into their flashy jeep, as their minions fired silent rounds from the back seat, forcing Gijon and Auris to take to higher ground as the jeep peeled away.
Kneecap striking stone, Haydn twisted around to fall back against the ledge as her legs gave out, staring across the rooftop at the trail of blood she’d left behind, none of it hers, but still all she had to give.
She should have heard them coming, but the sleet and snow whisked the hunters’ footsteps away in a flurry. She should have smelled them, but the stench of the scorched dross and the savory flavor of the woman’s blood filled her senses. She should have detected their presence. Instead, she detected the tiniest of heartbeats.
It was distraction for which she would pay.
Relinquishing to her frailty, the only frailty she still possessed, Haydn closed her eyes, seeing darkness, not all that different than the darkness that had been her domain for a thousand years.