Chapter One – The Fallen
How long have we been enemies, Isaiah?
Isaiah Blackstone didn’t bother to answer the question that had been projected into his mind. He brandished his gleaming Reaper blades—fifteen-inch, doubled-edged weapons made of single pieces of unearthly silver metal. His wife, Janice, stood beside him, her own blades held ready.
They stood in a wide, underground tunnel. The walls, floor, and ceiling were covered in onyx slabs, long since sullied by two millennia of dust and dirt. The normally close air and dank smell was exacerbated by the number of extra bodies currently occupying the space.
At least ten attackers blocked their way. All were dressed in grey pants and matching tunics with bone-white skull symbols on the left side of their chests. Each carried a curved, jet-black scythe with a handgrip. Their eyes were a solid, milky white that was the sign they were possessed by Wraiths.
Isaiah shouted and waded into their midst, blocking the swipes of their scythes with his blades. He ducked low and brought one of his blades into the underside of an attacker’s chin. His long leather Reaper coat whipped around, taking hits on the enchanted fabric as he sliced. The eyes flared as the Wraith and its mortal host died. He stabbed another in the heart, used his augmented strength to kick a third guy into his fellow henchmen while cutting a fourth man across the chest.
Janice fought at his side like a beautiful Nubian princess. Always an agile woman, she’d incorporated acrobatic techniques into her fighting forms. She somersaulted, wrapping her legs around the neck of one attacker while skewering another with a blade. She twisted her body, whirling the trapped attacker into two more.
Isaiah charged straight ahead, cutting down the last two men before reaching an ancient wooden door. The writing etched into the surface was in the Kikongo tongue, one of the languages of the surrounding countryside of central Congo. The inscription translated into conversations with the gods.
On the other side was a hidden underground amphitheater, used by the ancestors to receive enlightenment from the Afterworld. Isaiah and his allies had thought the location a fitting safe haven to train the first Protector in over two thousand years. But it had been compromised.
“You can’t save him. Give up.” Deyanira’s voice penetrated his concentration again.
Isaiah shook his head, trying to ignore her. She was using an arcane enchantment to communicate directly into his mind. It was a holdover from their time together as part of the Kin: the Grim Reaper’s personal guard. They had been friends, of a sort, reaping souls from worthless mortal bodies. But Isaiah didn’t see mortals that way anymore. After all, he had fallen, giving up his station as a Reaper and marrying a mortal.
Reaching deep inside his soul, Isaiah shouted, “Sakoto!” The Yoruba wind evocation stirred the air around him. Within seconds, a torrent of air raced through the outer doors and into the antechamber. The wind slammed into the wooden door, flung it open, and banged it against the inside wall. The sound rolled across the amphitheater.
Isaiah’s breath caught. A large magical shield surrounded the entire stage area. Inside, the current Protector huddled inside his own protective bubble while no less than twenty of the grey-robed attackers surrounded him.
They slashed and sliced with their jet-black scythes but so far, they couldn’t touch him. When the boy turned in Isaiah’s direction, his eyes wide with terror, Isaiah silently urged him to remember the training and listen to the ring. It could do so much more, if the legends were true.
Deyanira stood to the side in her flowing red Reaper’s robes. She conjured a hex and sent it at Isaiah before ducking inside the protection of her barrier.
Kulinda, he thought, evoking the blocking spell with the Swahili word. His Reaper blades glowed brighter in the darkened space. The Angel script covering every square inch of the weapons flared as he brought them down in a crossing pattern to block Deyanira’s attack.
Unlike most Reapers, members of the KIN despised their former lives. As such, they hated frail mortals and even reveled in the more hideous ways humans found to kill each other. Isaiah experienced a bit of shame from his time in the Kin. He’d been full of pain and sadness over his own first Death. Taking advantage of his pain, the Grim Reaper had twisted his mind and recruited him.
But I finally saw the truth to the Grim Reaper’s plan. I rebelled. “Maybe you should fall, like I did, Deyanira. Become a Fallen Reaper. Step into the light.”
Isaiah expected her to laugh, but her tone was sad when she spoke directly to him. “You forget. I was a powerful sorceress in my first life. I have no light to embrace.”
“Then start a new course.”
“You’ve grown so sentimental since you’ve left the Kin. I would never become a mortal again.”
The restorative effects of crossing through a portal had reduced Deyanira’s ritualistic scars to faint lines on her pale face. A full head of red hair that spilled down to her shoulders helped her look mortal despite her claims, and that hypocrisy galled Isaiah.
“You cross over into the mortal world more than any other Reaper. I wonder what that says about you?”
He wanted to goad her, but again, she came across as sad. “I miss our arguments, Isaiah.”
Deyanira broke the mutual gaze to focus on the struggle inside the shield. “We all have our parts to play.”
Isaiah mounted the stage, keeping his blades ready in case Deyanira attacked again. He moved back and forth along the outside of the barrier, unable to help.
The young man had lost his own protective bubble and had started to phase around, moving from one location to another in a blink of an eye. It was unfortunate, Isaiah mused. The boy had never known about the supernatural world or the After Life and didn’t fully understand how to listen to the ring. Isaiah groaned, wondering how much could have changed if someone with training had activated the ring.
That was the catch: only certain mortals could access the power of a Protector’s Ring. This young man had been one of them, maybe the last. Now it was all lost because of a traitor in their midst.
The would-be protector continued to phase around, but he couldn’t avoid the attackers. There were too many, swarming around him like killer bees. Each time he appeared, he received a cut. Blood sprayed across the floor creating a macabre design.
Finally he dropped to his knees, unable to phase anymore. The attackers charged in cutting and opening new wounds. One held a scythe aloft and brought it down, intending to slice him open from left shoulder to right hip.
The boy’s bloodied hand trembled as he held the ring close to his mouth and spoke to it. As the scythe bit into his body, he screamed out in agony. At the same time, the ring flared, engulfing him and the closest executioners in a brilliant light.
Isaiah blinked in horrid surprise. He snapped into motion and rolled off the lip of the stage. He pulled Janice with him against the stage’s side. They huddled there, Janice curling herself into a ball so his larger body could cover her. Isaiah made sure to pull his long coat over them both.
The storm of power erupted overhead. The sound of stone hitting stone, and occasionally his back, was deafening. When the roaring decreased and the pressure relented, Isaiah peeked from under his coat. Half the amphitheater seats had been blasted to ruins by the release of power.
He lifted his coat away, gaping at the smoking spots where the blood had been baked on it. Except for a few rips, it was whole. He stood, slipped on the coat, and offered his wife a supporting hand. “You alright?”
“Yes.” Janice stood.
He leapt up to the stage.
When Janice followed, her jaw dropped. “Oh my God.”
It was like a bomb had gone off, Isaiah thought.
As the dust settled, a green bubble became visible on the far side of the ruined stage. Deyanira crouched there, the release of power having stripped away her human guise. Her face was more skeletal, her head bald except for a single red ponytail in the back. Most striking was the fully visible scars on her face.
Isaiah strode to the center of the stage and found the ring, gleaming and undamaged on the scorched floor. He crouched and scooped up the source of devastation.
“Give that to me, Isaiah.” Deyanira had lowered her shield and stood facing him. Her frayed and smudged red robe swished as she gestured to the ring.
Isaiah rose to his feet. “I don’t think so.”
Deyanira’s brilliant green eyes bore into his as she raised her right hand. Instead of casting a spell, she opened a vortex.
Isaiah didn’t wait to see if more of her henchmen would swarm through. He reached back, and Janice clamped her hand in his. He nudged himself and phased from the amphitheater. He used his power to enter the aether, the stuff of the supernatural realm. It allowed him to bridge the gap between his starting point and destination in seconds.
The mortal world snapped into existence around them as they reappeared seven thousand miles away in a secluded courtyard. The closely packed brick surface, surrounding shrubbery, and the Lacebark pine at the center of the space reassured Isaiah. This was the sanctuary of Isaiah and Janice Blackstone.
He paused to take a deep breath of Georgia air. The sound of chirping birds and gently rustling branches was at odds with the death they’d just witnessed. But Isaiah had another reason for taking his time. He needed to let the dizziness pass. As a Fallen Reaper, phasing was second nature to him. But the distance, after expending energy fighting and carrying someone with him, took its toll.
Janice pressed a piece of hard candy into his mouth. The sweetness gave him an instant surge of energy. “Thanks.”
A tall young man had been sitting on a nearby bench. He shot to his feet and hurried over, his own undamaged long coat swaying.
Isaiah nodded to him. “We’re fine, Marcus.”
Marcus halted, searching their bruises and raising an eyebrow at the sight of Isaiah’s smoking long coat. “What about the Protector and the ring?”
“He’s dead and I have the ring.” Isaiah released his wife’s hand and strode a few feet away, holding the ring in his right palm.
Marcus stirred behind him. “We have to let the Alliance Council know.”
“There’re traitors in the Alliance. That’s how they found the boy.”
Janice placed a hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “He’s right.”
“Then what are you two planning?”
Isaiah turned. “I’m resigning from the Council.”
“You can’t…” Marcus sputtered.
“Yes, I can, and I want you to take my place.” Isaiah held up a hand to stop Marcus from arguing. “A Council member can step down and name his replacement.” Isaiah removed a golden shield from an inside pocket of his coat and held it out to Marcus. The shield’s face featured three interlocking circles with outstretched wings above the center one. It was the same symbol branded into the left breast of both of their long coats. When Marcus hesitated, Isaiah skewered his fellow Fallen Reaper with his most severe glare.
Marcus’s shoulders slumped a bit and he placed his slender hand on top of the shield.
Isaiah nodded. “Do you pledge to honor the Alliance and what it stands for, abiding by its edicts and rules?”
Marcus gulped. “I so pledge.” Curving lines appeared on their forearms, hands, and the shield. The lines flared for a second before fading away. Marcus sucked in a deep breath, took the shield from Isaiah, and turned it over in his trembling hands. “What are you going to do?”
“The Grim Reaper wants the ring, and Deyanira will tell him I have it. So we’re going to lead them on a goose chase.”
Marcus slipped the shield in an inner pocket while giving Isaiah a hard look. “For how long?”
Marcus furrowed his brow, making his lean brown face more hawkish in appearance. He pointed at the ring. “What about that?”
Janice slipped the ring out of her husband’s hand and held it up. “We’ll hide it.”
Marcus shook his head. “I need to come with you–”
“You have a new job,” Isaiah cut him off. “There has to be three Fallen Reapers on the Council to balance out the Mages and Mortals. You know that.” He waited for Marcus to nod. Isaiah softened his tone. “And you’re Jonah’s godfather. You’ll have to step into that role soon.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m sorry.” Isaiah patted Marcus on the shoulders. “It’s better if you don’t know where we hide the ring.” He looked away. “I have enough blood on my hands.”
“None of this was your fault,” Marcus said.
Isaiah didn’t respond. Instead, he watched his troubled protégé come to terms with the situation. As a lawyer, Marcus had always been cool and calculating. It’s why Isaiah wanted the young man to take his place on the Council. And our son’s godfather.
When Marcus met his gaze, Isaiah sensed the final acceptance and understanding radiating from him. All Fallen Reapers could sense the emotions from others, except those trained to shield their feelings. Marcus didn’t use one of those techniques, Isaiah noted, a clear sign of how close they’d grown.
Heaviness weighed on Isaiah as he stood beside Janice, and he used her nearness to draw strength. A chasm yawned before them, but they couldn’t falter. He clenched his jaw, biting back the frustration. His voice grew tight as he said, “Tell the Alliance Council the ring was lost.” He met Marcus’s intense gaze. “Go.”
A brief flash of uncertainty crossed Marcus’s face. He swallowed and finally shut down his raging emotions. Squaring his shoulders, he gave Isaiah a respectful nod and phased away.
As soon as he was gone, Janice wrapped her arms around Isaiah’s waist, resting her head against his chest. “We won’t have a lot of time.”
“I know.” Isaiah wrapped his arms around her. “Maybe six months.”
Janice sucked in a breath and frowned. “What about Jonah? Shouldn’t we explain everything now?”
“If we do that, the others will focus on our son before he’s ready.” Isaiah tightened his embrace. “We can’t do that.” Janice nodded, rubbing her cheek against his chest. Isaiah shook her. “Are you sure about this plan to hide the ring?”
She tilted her head up to look into his deep brown eyes. He always loved the way her lighter brown eyes sparkled. He saw the certainty in them and knew it was a result of her gift to intuit things.
“Yes, it’ll work,” she said. “It’s the last place anyone from our world would look for the ring.”
The Protector’s Ring
Copyright © 2014 John Darr Books
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