An early Thanksgiving “gift” for all of you, my lovely readers: the first full chapter of Reclaim!
No one has read this yet (so…feel special? lol), and this is of course before the final copy edit. And I guess it could still change a little bit between now and January, but probably not drastically since it’s mainly set up and reminding you about things that went down in Relapse. (And, if you haven’t read the first two books, spoilers abound.) In any case, hope you enjoy!
(You can read another excerpt here.)
“Lower your elbow,” Alec says. Placing one hand on my waist, he gently coaxes my elbow down with the other. I stiffen under the intimate contact, and he pulls away quickly, taking a step to the side. “You were never going to hit any with your arm sticking out like that.”
Smiling, I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. “It’s just balloon darts, Alec.”
He sighs, crossing his arms. “I know. Sorry. I have a bit of a competitive streak, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I haven’t.” Returning my gaze to the wall of brightly colored balloons, I align the tip of the dart with a red one in the upper right corner. With a flick of my wrist, I send the dart whizzing toward my target—and straight into the empty patch of corkboard next to it. The next two meet the same fate.
“Fudge,” I say, throwing my arms up in defeat. “There goes my career as a professional darts player. Your turn.”
Alec scoops up three additional darts from the counter and assumes a wide-legged stance, expertly lining up the first dart with the board. He pulls his arm back and snaps it forward again, the dart a silver and black blur as it flies through the air. It bounces off the board, dropping to the ground.
“I may have used a little too much force,” he admits.
I nod in agreement. “Just a little.”
His second dart doesn’t fare much better, getting lodged in the corkboard like all three of mine did. “Maybe you should just stick to football,” I tell him.
As if to prove me wrong, the third successfully punctures a blue balloon with a loud pop that makes me jump, even though I saw it coming.
Alec pumps his fist. “Score!”
Rolling his eyes, the attendant turns to check the tag underneath the shriveled remains of the balloon. After rummaging underneath the counter, he tosses a neon orange bouncy ball in Alec’s direction. Alec catches it in one hand, promptly dropping it into mine. “I was hoping to win you a giant stuffed animal, but I guess this will have to do.”
“I will cherish it always,” I say, stuffing it into my pocket.
“Another round?” the attendant asks us, looking hopeful as he holds up three more darts. Alec and I glance at each other, then back at the attendant, shaking our heads politely. Heaving a sigh, he turns his back to us, moving to replace the broken balloon.
“Let’s go on some rides,” Alec says to me as we walk away from the game booth.
I shake my head. “Not tonight. I should probably get going,” I realize, checking the time on my cell phone.
“Come on. One ride. How about the Iron Demon?”
“I hate roller coasters…in case you’ve forgotten,” I add with a smirk.
He gives an apologetic shrug. “I kind of did. The haunted house, then,” he suggests, pointing behind me.
“No way. It’s too creepy,” I tell him, shivering at the mere thought of it. The haunted house consists of five or so dark, eerie rooms where an assortment of hideous characters lurk in the shadows, waiting to jump out and scare you. From the outside, it looks like an old, black clapboard house where an evil witch might live. I picture her inside, hunched over a large cauldron filled with a bubbling green potion. She kicks back her head and cackles, and I can almost hear the maniacal sound of it spilling from the windows, echoing in the empty alley beyond.
Alec sounds exasperated when he says, “It’s meant to scare little kids. Not us.”
“There’s a room full of clowns, Alec. Clowns. I’m not going in there.”
“Never mind. Sorry I mentioned it.” I catch him rolling his eyes before he turns away from me. “So, no roller coasters, and no haunted houses. Then how about the…”
His words become background noise as I stare into the alley next to the house—looking for what, I don’t know. The lights from the rides don’t seem to reach this corner of the park, where shadows gather like a thick, dark fog. But if I look hard enough, I can almost see the faint silhouettes of two people through the haze. Another shiver runs down my spine, but this time it’s not from fear, or even the cold autumn air. Anticipation coursing through me, I take a reflexive step toward the alley.
“Carly?” Alec puts a hand on my shoulder. “You okay?” His concerned voice breaks the trance. Shaking myself, I look up at him, smiling.
“I’m fine,” I insist. “It’s getting late. Let’s just go.” As we walk away, I take one last look at the alley, but the figures I thought I saw in the shadows are gone. Feeling strangely disappointed, I turn back around.
“I’m sorry about before. At the dart game,” Alec says. I assume he’s talking about that brief, awkward moment when he tried to adjust my throwing arm. “It was habit. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s okay,” I assure him. “I can understand that. It hasn’t been that long since…” I trail off, watching our shoes hit the pavement in sync as we walk through the amusement park. Waves of patrons stream past us in the opposite direction, talking and laughing loudly, cotton candy in hand.
“No, it hasn’t,” he agrees. “Carly, I…” When I look over at him, he’s avoiding my gaze, kicking a chunk of gravel along as we walk.
“Alec.” I stop in the middle of the street, forcing a couple of kids to go around us. “Why did you ask me here tonight?”
Alec pauses and holds my gaze steady. “I…I guess I just thought that maybe…” He takes a step closer to me. “I still care about you, Carly. I want to get back together. I—I thought you might want the same thing.”
At first, I’m too stunned to speak. I shake my head slowly, sounding apologetic but firm when I finally say, “No. I’m sorry, Alec, but I don’t.”
“No,” he echoes sadly. “Well, I guess I sort of expected that. But I have to ask—why?”
“Why?” Feeling flustered, I try to remember why I even agreed to meet Alec at Playland in the first place. I should have realized when he “wanted to talk,” it was about getting back together. Instead of thinking it through, I had jumped at the opportunity to get out of the sorority house, which I hadn’t left in days. Hot, angry tears sting the backs of my eyes, ready to burn their way down my cheeks. “You can’t be serious. You dumped me in front of the entire Greek Quad—then had the nerve to ask for your lavalier back.”
“Carly, I was trying to—”
“And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, your fraternity sacrificed me to bring one of your brothers back!” I didn’t know it at the time—didn’t know why the Sigma Iota brothers lured me to their basement and forced me through the portal that took me to Pandora, the space between universes. It wasn’t until later that I found out it was an exchange, a way to bring one of their leaders back from Olympus while maintaining the balance between our worlds.
“Yes, my fraternity! Not me!” He takes a step closer to me. I remember a time not so long ago when he would come up to me and scoop me into his arms, and I would rest my head on one of his broad shoulders. Now, he leaves a sliver of space between us, a few feet that feel like a mile. His golden skin looks paler than usual, pulled tightly across angular cheekbones. He lifts his hands as though to reach for mine, then brings them back to his sides. His dark eyes fill with tears. “I tried to stop them, Carly.”
“What about afterwards? You didn’t come after me or even try to get help. You weren’t at the ritual when the others came to rescue me—”
“I had no idea they were going after you—”
“Stop it!” I shriek. A few of the people standing in line at the rubber duck game look over at us curiously. “Stop making excuses,” I say, lowering my voice. “There’s nothing you can say to make this better.”
Alec nods, seeming to accept this. “I get it. I do, and I’m…sorry. I really am sorry.”
“Me, too.” I shudder as a biting wind blows through the park, cutting through my denim jacket. It whips a lock of Alec’s black hair across his forehead. I dig my hands into my pockets, resisting the impulse to smooth it back.
“I shouldn’t have asked you out tonight,” he continues. “I should have known…plus, if my brothers find out…” He glances over his shoulder as though expecting one of his Sigma Iota brothers to appear behind him.
“I won’t tell if you won’t. Well, I guess I’ll see you around,” I say, turning to go.
“Just tell me,” Alec says, and I turn back around to face him, “there isn’t someone else.”
I roll my eyes. “Because the only possible reason I could have of not getting back together with you is that I met someone.”
He sighs in frustration. “That’s not what I meant.”
I open my mouth, entertaining, for a moment, the idea of telling him everything about my time in Pandora—about the other prisoner, my only companion in that dark, never-ending abyss. Then, the final words he spoke to me resurface, piercing through me all over again like a flurry of tiny darts.
“I’m a liar, Carly. You said so yourself. And you were right all along…I tricked you. I wanted to play with you a little while longer. And you let me…”
I shake my head. “No. There’s no one else.”
Alec looks relieved. “There’s no one else in my life, either.”
“I hope you find someone, Alec,” I tell him, my voice small. “I hope one day you find her—the woman of your dreams.”
“I hope you find the woman of your dreams, too,” Alec says in a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood.
I laugh despite myself. “And I hope one day we can be friends. You know, when our houses stop this whole mortal enemies thing.”
He nods. “No matter what happens, I consider you a friend, Carly.”
“Goodbye, Alec.” Unsure of what else to say, I leave him standing next to the booth with the rubber duck game, feeling his eyes on me as I walk away.
I head back toward the park entrance, passing other game booths and rides along the way. Lights flash all around me, brightening the night sky in brief bursts of color. The late night crowd at Playland is mostly composed of people on dates and cliques of rowdy teenagers. Like the group currently loitering off to one side of the arched entryway. The boys are wearing shirts with band or beer logos on the front, pants hanging loose over their boxers. The girls have on shiny tops that don’t come down quite far enough over their form-fitting leggings. None of them are wearing jackets, preferring to look cool over appropriately dressed for the middle of October.
I feel wistful as I watch them talking and laughing, passing a large bag of kettle corn back and forth. I missed out on those carefree years, my adolescence filled with secrets and silence instead of friendships and laughter. Back then, I felt older than my sixteen years, already jaded. Now, watching this group of teenagers, I realize just how young I really was.
“BOO!” a voice bellows in my ear. I jump, letting out a scream to rival those coming from the Iron Demon, and spin around to find a figure in a black, hooded cloak looking just as startled as I am.
“Someone’s a little jumpy,” a muffled male voice says from behind the hood. Shaking his head, he walks away to join the zombie smoking a cigarette over by the ticket booth. The teens with the kettle corn are pointing at me, laughing. Heat rises to my cheeks, and I look away from them. I had forgotten Playland was in the midst of Scarefest, its month-long Halloween event. The zombie and the grim reaper must work at the haunted house.
Glancing around for an escape route, I spot a dark purple tent across the way, the signpost outside of it advertising:
Divines your future for a $10 donation
I crack a smile at the word “donation.” Nevertheless, I hurry in that direction, avoiding the amused glances and mocking laughter still being thrown my way. For ten bucks, I’m not sure Madam Moira could tell me all that much, but maybe she could at least tell me if I’m going to ace the Concepts of Math midterm I haven’t studied for.
I slip inside the tent to find a hunched figure, draped in a midnight blue cloak, sitting at a foldout table littered with flickering black candles. Directly in front of her is a crystal ball mounted on an iron stand, seeming to emanate a light of its own.
“Who dares to disturb the meditation of Madam Moira?” a dramatic voice says from beneath the cloak. A hand rises to knock back the hood, revealing a tumble of black curls and two dark brown eyes set in an olive-toned face. Madam Moira gestures for me to sit, her large gold hoop earrings swaying from the movement. I take the other chair quickly.
“Ten dollars for a basic reading,” Moira says, holding her hand out expectantly. Her nails are fake, painted a glittery black with a clear gem adorning each tip. I get some money out of my purse, laying the bills in her outstretched palm. Her fingers close immediately over them, cramming them into the velvet pouch on her lap.
“What is your name, child?” she asks me, full, red lips curving into a tranquil smile. I try to hide my amusement at the question. Some psychic she is.
“Carly.” I shift uncomfortably in the chair. The seat is covered with a lumpy gold cushion that makes me feel like I’m sitting on a Jell-O mold.
“Carly,” she repeats thoughtfully. “Daughter of the true gods.” I go still at the words, forgetting the cushion situation. “Tell me, Carly. What has brought you to seek the guidance of Madam Moira?”
“Carly,” I begin, mocking her use of the third person, “would like to know what the future holds.”
Moira nods knowingly. “Before we proceed, I must warn you: I do not sugarcoat my readings,” she says, arching a thick, well-shaped eyebrow. She has a faint, unfamiliar accent—must be another part of her act. “Many think they want to know what the future holds. But you may not like what you find there. Would you still like to proceed?”
Of course—I just paid you ten dollars, I think to myself, but all I do is nod, encouraging her to continue.
“Very well.” Moira’s piercing eyes shift to the crystal ball. She stirs the air above it with a flourish of her hands. “You have recently returned from a perilous journey,” she continues, glancing up at me. I give her another nod. “Journey” is pretty vague, even a perilous one. That could mean anything. It could refer to my trip to the grocery store this morning and the truck that almost backed into my car in the parking lot.
Creases burrow across her forehead as she peers into the ball. “I see a field. An endless field with tall, green grass. A great wall surrounding a city. An elderly man, standing guard.” Madam Moira pauses for effect. My heart starts to pound, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
“I also see a…forest.” I don’t know if I’m imagining it or not, but it looks like the light inside the glass ball is starting to swirl. “And a creature—a gorgeous creature with a shining mane and a glittering”—she squints as though even she doesn’t quite believe what she’s seeing—“horn. A great, gaping pit of fire, mountains looming in the distance.” Moira blinks a few times, wavering in her chair. “I’m sorry. I’m only getting snapshots—everything is so jumbled and disjointed. Now, there’s a room—a dark room with stone walls and an iron throne—”
“That’s enough,” I say, standing up so quickly I almost knock the chair over. Concentration broken, Moira shifts her gaze to me, looking taken aback. “I mean…that’s okay. None of that matters, anyway. It’s in my past…not my future.” I turn to go, unable to listen to this a moment longer—to her abbreviated version of everything that happened in Pandora, an adventure that turned out to be nothing more than a fancy trick.
I wasn’t alone in Pandora, although I didn’t know my prison had a name at first. I thought I was trapped in an eerie, dark palace, held captive by a mercurial, white-haired prince. He sent me on what turned out to be a pointless quest to win my freedom. On my journey, I was tested three times. A test of the mind to enter the city. One of strength to get across a burning chasm. A final test of the heart to choose my own freedom and getting home to my sorority sisters over an imposter Alec. As it turned out, the entire journey had been a distraction created by the prince, who wasn’t a prince or my captor at all, but a fellow prisoner.
“I see a boy.” Moira’s lilting voice brings me back to the present. “A boy with two faces.”
“Who told you all of this?” I ask, sitting down again. “Was my roommate here? This isn’t funny, Victoria!” I say loudly, just in case she’s hiding somewhere, watching me make a fool of myself.
“You care about him,” Moira says, eyes sad.
A tear escapes down my cheek. I wipe it quickly away. “It doesn’t matter. He’s gone. He left me.” I’m not really being fair to Dolos, Moira’s boy with two faces. One, the face of the blonde prince holding me captive—the other green-eyed and dark-haired. The real Dolos, the god of trickery and deceit. When we were rescued from Pandora, I returned home, and so did he, as I found out later. Even though I had already suspected as much, it had taken me awhile to truly digest it—to accept I would never see him again.
“He is not gone,” Moira assures me. “He’s just in hiding.”
I shake my head. “But that would mean—”
“You have known so much loss in such little time,” Moira interrupts me, shaking her head gravely. “A sister in jeopardy. Trapped.”
“Yes!” I cry out, nodding eagerly for her to continue, despite the abrupt change of topic. “Siobhan. Is she okay? Is she alive?” My sorority sister, Siobhan, was the one who braved Pandora to rescue us. Once I was safely out, she never came back through the portal, and Victoria and the others ran out of time, forced to close it behind her.
“She is hanging on.”
“Do we save her?” I lean forward into the table. “We have to get her out of there. She’s important.”
Moira’s eyes take on a sudden intensity when she replies, “You’re both important.”
I shake my head. “You don’t understand. She saved me, and I think she’s going to save all of us—the whole world, even. We need her.”
“Siobhan is the sword. You are the shield.”
Her cryptic words do nothing to reassure me. “What the heck is that supposed to mean?”
Instead of answering me, she says, “You need to save the others, first. They are trapped in a different way. Transformed.”
As Victoria updated me upon my return, Hera had spied on our sorority, deeming us unfit to perform our duties as guardians of the wall between universes. As punishment, she turned my sisters into doves.
“Will we be able to save them, too? Change them back?” Moira nods. “How?” I press her.
“Before the day is done, go to the place where three become one.”
“I don’t need another riddle.” I had my fill of them in Pandora. “You’re going to have to give me more than that.”
“You will embark on a dangerous quest.” Moira points a long, manicured fingernail at me. “Sacrifices will be made. Prices will be paid.”
“I think we’ve had to make plenty of sacrifices already,” I say, anger suddenly surging through me.
“You will have to choose.”
“Choose? Choose what?”
“Your sisters or your lover.”
“I think I’ve heard enough.” This time when I stand up, I send the chair clattering to the ground. I was right in the first place. Madam Moira is nothing but an actress. And a mediocre one at that. She got lucky with her guesses. Although I’m not a complete nonbeliever—some people probably are psychic, have “the sight,” whatever you want to call it–but certainly not some ten dollar fortuneteller at an amusement park.
“I warned you,” Madam Moira calls out behind me. “The future isn’t always an easy thing to hear.”
“Neither are your lies,” I tell her without looking back.
“The beast is coming.”
The words stop me in my tracks. Not just the words—Moira’s voice has changed. It’s deep and distorted, like someone or something else is speaking through her. I should bolt from the tent, but fear keeps my feet nailed to the ground. I twist my head slowly to look back over my shoulder, afraid of what I will find when I do, but overcome with an unshakable curiosity.
Moira’s eyes have rolled into the back of her head, leaving only the whites and a spider’s web of red lines. “It rises again,” she bellows. “It returns for the hunt. To devour its prey.”
“What beast?” I ask her, voice quivering. Forcing myself into motion, I back away slowly, unable to take my eyes off of her.
“The beast is alive. It is close. So close.”
“Where is it?” Suddenly, my back hits the wall of the tent, stopping me from going any further. The material gives way as I sink further and further into it. “What does it want?”
Moira fixes her white gaze on me. “You.”