Chapter Seventeen

I stood over the body of Graham in the interrogation room at the police station, exactly at the moment after I’d been taken out of the first test of the Light. Graham’s face was purple from strangulation. His swollen tongue was protruding from his discolored lips. I was wearing handcuffs again. I backed away from his body, stumbling over the chair I’d been sitting in. I got tangled in its legs and fell down. As I managed to get back on my feet, the door to the interrogation room opened, and two uniformed police officers came in. They were carrying shotguns.

One hurried over to check Graham. The other took me by the arm. Their faces were drawn and firm, but I could see the spark of anger and disgust in their eyes. They were handling a monster, they thought. A subhuman prick. I knew what they were thinking. Part of me cared, but another part of me thought it was kind of funny. That part was making me grin. That part was the Darkness. I needed to use it, but I couldn’t let it overtake me.

Where was Azazel? What the heck had happened? One second ago, we’d been kissing, and now we were back in this test. Had we somehow tripped the system? Would we be forced to go through another series of tests? I hated the fact that recently, everything was so darned confusing all the time.

The police officer threw me up against a wall outside the interrogation room. My cheek smashed up against cold concrete. I was still grinning. I felt the hard circle of the barrel of his shotgun in my back. “If I pull this trigger, the world would be a better place,” he said. He had a southern accent.

“Where’s Azazel?” I said.

“Your fucking crazy killer girlfriend?” asked the cop. “If I had my way, you’d never see her again.”

“Wife,” I said, remembering what had happened earlier in the test. “We got arrested on our wedding day.”

The gun burrowed itself deeper against my skin. I could hear him behind me, his breath quickening.

But then the other cop came out of the room. “What are you doing?” he asked his partner. He had a southern accent too.

“Nothing,” said the first cop. The gun barrel was removed from my back. I was yanked away from the wall. The first cop pushed me, and I stumbled forward. We walked down a hallway and through a room that must have been some kind of processing center. There were two people getting fingerprinted. I recognized them. Kieran and Eve. They both looked bleary eyed and confused, as if they’d just been awakened from sleep.

My smile deepened. So it had worked, then. When Azazel and I kissed, we must have triggered the residual power that Dark Agnes had talked about. We’d pulled Kieran and Eve into the Spiritus Mundi. That was good.

Why were stuck in a continuation of this test, I wasn’t sure, exactly. But one thing was for sure. If Azazel and I couldn’t interact with Kieran and Eve, we couldn’t get their power away from them. So I was going to have to break us out of jail.

I stopped walking.

“Move,” said the first cop.

The persona I had in this test was buzzing around in my brain. I liked him. He wasn’t exactly sophisticated; he was all violence and blood. And he loved Azazel. He was me—at least part of me. I had to keep him in check, but there was no reason he couldn’t have a little fun. “I’m sorry. I just started thinking about something, and it struck me kind of funny.”

“Move,” the cop said again.

I raised a finger. “In a minute. I was wondering, are either of you two married? Got girlfriends?”

The first cop gripped his shotgun meaningfully.

I ignored him. “See, my blushing bride, she’s really into them damned vampire books. Either of your girls like them things?”

I noticed that one of the cops taking fingerprints on Kieran had looked up.

I addressed him. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? These women all have their heads buried in those books, reading about men who want to suck their blood dry, and I gotta tell you, I don’t understand it.” I started to walk around the room. “Why on earth would women all over the world be so in love with a man who’s struggling all the time not to kill them? What is so compelling about that idea?”

The guy taking fingerprints smirked.

A few of the other cops who were milling about the back of the room had taken notice. They were smiling too.

“You see, apparently, deep down,” I said, “women want men to be absolutely horrible, ferocious killers.”

A female cop looked up at me with a disbelieving look on her face.

I pointed at her. “No, no. Now, hear me out. I was talking about this with my girl earlier today, before we took this detour into your fine facility. It’s not as if it doesn’t make a little bit of sense, right? It’s a primitive desire. It’s a desire that’s hardwired into female brains from the Stone Age. Because, see, if you find a man who’s violent and brutal and willing to kill, he’s going to be able to protect you, isn’t he?”

The woman rolled her eyes, but the guy taking fingerprints actually laughed out loud.

I continued ambling about the room, heading for the back where the cops were gathered against one wall, each casually gripping a shotgun. “Protection is important. We can dress ourselves up and civilize ourselves and make up facilities like this fine one.” I gestured around at the processing room. “But deep down, there’s something savage in all of us. Now the key for women is not that you’re some kind of indiscriminate killer, who will lay into anything in your path. No, the key is that you’re a raging psychopath, but you would never hurt her .”

There was an eruption of laughter from throughout the room.

“I’m serious,” I said, crossing to the back of the room. I was now standing next to one of the men with shotguns. He was leaning against the wall. One hand held his gun loosely. The other held a cup of coffee. “That’s what all women want deep down. They want a man who’s sweet as molasses pie when he’s alone with them. Who will do anything to make them happy. And when he’s away from them, they want him to be a monster.” I turned to the man next to me. “I mean, don’t you think?”

He laughed, shaking his head.

“What can I say?” I said. “People might ask me why I lived my life the way I did, or why I committed all those crimes. But I got to tell you, boys. I’m just a romantic at heart.”

And before the laughter had died down, I’d wrenched the shotgun away from the cop beside me, put a bullet in his head, and had wasted three other men standing next to him. From there, it was too easy. They were confused. They had guns, but they didn’t have a chance to aim them. I had them all dead and on the floor in a matter of seconds. I was pretty darned proud of myself for accomplishing the whole thing while still wearing handcuffs. The only two people left alive were Kieran and Eve. They peered at me with frightened eyes.

“Get up,” I said. “This is a jail break.”

“Um, Jason?” said Kieran.

“Get up,” I said.

“Behind you,” he said.

I whirled right as the gun shot echoed through the processing room. A female cop was shooting with one arm and wrangling Azazel with other. The bullet whirred past me. If I hadn’t turned at that precise moment, it would have hit me. Too close for comfort.

But I didn’t waste time worrying about it, I simply raised the shotgun I held and blew the cop away.

Azazel stepped away from the body, looking around at the carnage I’d caused. “You work fast, baby.”

I winked. “Sometimes. Other times, I take my time.”

“Kieran and Eve,” said Azazel. “So when we kissed it must have kicked in the Darkness and pulled them here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure why we’re Bonnie and Clyde again, but it looks as if it worked.”

Azazel got the gun from the police officer who’d been escorting her. She nodded at Kieran and Eve. “You two make yourselves useful and try to find some keys for these handcuffs.” She jingled her wrists.

Warily, Kieran and Eve got to their feet.

Azazel was searching the belt on the cop she’d taken the gun from. “So I know we have to get out of here and all, but I thought we were trying to stay balanced.”

“Balanced?” I went over to the cop who’d brought me in here and hunted on his belt as well. I came up with a small set of keys which I fitted into the lock on my handcuffs.

Azazel had made a similar discovery. She contorted her hands to free herself. “The Darkness is riding us, Jason. We have to be careful. You have any idea how many people you just killed?”

I managed to get my handcuffs off as well. “They aren’t really people. And I don’t think you can really die here. If Graham’s right, this is where people come after they’re already dead.”

Kieran and Eve were huddled together against a wall.

“Are we dead?” said Eve. “Is this Hell?”

I sauntered over to them. “You know,” I said, taking Kieran by the arm and leading him towards the door, “I think it’s really interesting that we all keep assuming we’re in Hell and not Heaven.”

Azazel grabbed Eve. “This isn’t Hell,” she told her, “and you’re not dead.”

Towing Kieran along with me, I thrust through the door out of the processing center and into a corridor lined with gray concrete blocks. But the minute we stepped into the corridor, a group of police officers appeared at the end. “Back up!” I called.

We hurried back into the processing room and shut and locked the door behind us. Now we were stuck. There were two ways out of the room. One led to the interrogation rooms, and one was the way we’d tried to leave. What now?

There was a groan from one of the bodies on the floor. It was the woman who’d looked at me like I was crazy when I’d been talking about women and vampire books. I couldn’t believe our good luck. I let go of Kieran and went to fetch her from the floor. She was wounded, but still alive. “Very nice,” I said. “We got ourselves a hostage.”

I dragged the lady with me over to the door where the other police officers were advancing. I pushed her out of the door for a moment and shoved my gun up under her chin.

“One more step, and I blow her head off,” I told the police officers.

They stopped in their tracks.

“Um, baby?” said Azazel. “Balance?”

I glared at her. “I haven’t shot her yet, have I?” To the police officers, “But I totally will if you move one muscle.”

The hostage was starting to cry. She gazed at me with tear-filled eyes. “Please don’t. I have a baby at home. I’m a single mother.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re no such thing. You’re an aspect of the Light. You’re only trying to screw with me.” After all, that was the Light was all about doing. Trying to make us feel guilty and give up.

Wait a second. I turned back to Azazel. “This whole thing is the Light trying to make things tough for us. Think about it. Of course they’d want to protect Kieran and Eve.”

“Maybe,” said Azazel. “So?”

“So,” I said, grasping it more firmly as I spoke, “balance isn’t going to get us out of here. We have to use Darkness to shatter this whole environment.”

“But if we get lost in the Darkness again—”

I interrupted her by putting a bullet in the hostage’s head. Then I leveled my gun at the approaching police officers and blew them away too. I grinned at Azazel. “Darkness, baby.”

“Jason—” she started again.

But I pulled her against me, ran my fingers through her hair and kissed her hard. At first, I could feel the resistance in her body. She was tense against me. But as our lips moved against each other, I felt her soften and open to me. We connected, like before. We weren’t separate beings anymore. We were part of each other, part of something bigger.

When we opened our eyes, we weren’t in the police station anymore. We weren’t even inside one of the strange rooms of the Light’s testing maze. Instead, we were under a canopy of green leaves, our feet on a carpet of soft grass, birds chirping as they flittered through the trees of a lush forest. Kieran and Eve were both sitting on the ground near us, looking around warily.

“It worked,” I said. “We got the hell out of there.”

Azazel smiled at me. “I guess it did. Good idea.”

Kieran got to his feet. “Hold on a second. Someone needs to do some major explaining here. What the heck is going on? Am I having some kind of screwed up dream or what?”

“You’re inside the Spiritus Mundi,” I said. “Now hand over your powers so we can fix the world.”

“What?” said Eve, getting to her feet beside Kieran.

Azazel gave me a look. “This is why I was worried about too much Darkness. We can’t approach them like this, and you know it, Jason.”

“Whatever,” I said. “It’s not Darkness. I’ve just never liked Kieran.”

Kieran snorted. “Well, the feeling’s mutual.”

“Stop it,” said Azazel.

“You know,” said Kieran to Azazel, “I still can’t believe you ended up with this psychopath. Do you have any actual respect for yourself?”

“He’s different,” said Azazel.

“Oh sure,” said Kieran. “He seems different. It’s not as though he recently shot a ton of people.”

“They weren’t real people,” I said. “This isn’t real. You’d think you’d figure that out after you’re immediately transferred out of a police station to the woods.”

“Trying to figure out what’s going on here is exactly what I’m doing,” said Kieran.

“I said to stop it,” said Azazel. She thrust herself between the two of us. “You two are forbidden to speak to each other. Got it?”

Kieran sighed. “I’m sorry. I know things didn’t end up working out between the two of us. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still want you to be happy.”

“Really?” I said. “Because you could have fooled me when you had us locked in that room surrounded by armed men.”

“That was necessary,” said Kieran.

“We had to find out where Chance was,” said Eve. “It’s the only way we’ll ever have anything like a child of our own.”

“We were desperate,” said Kieran. “I’m sorry we took extreme measures. But you two understand the way the power works. Once you’ve had it for long enough, you start acting differently. We thought that if we joined together, we’d eliminate all the evil from it, but it’s hard to determine what’s evil anymore.”

“People are happy,” said Eve. “That’s what matters.”

“Yeah,” I said. “They’re happy right up until the moment you kill them.”

“Jason!” said Azazel. “Don’t talk anymore.”

Okay, so maybe I was provoking them unnecessarily. I folded my arms over my chest, but I stopped talking.

Azazel took a deep breath and turned back to Kieran. “I’m really okay, Kieran, but thanks for your concern. I have to be with Jason. I can’t really conceive of anything different. We understand each other. You must know this. You had my memories. You know how I feel about him.”

“I do,” said Kieran. “I guess I sometimes wish you and I could have ended things on a better note. It felt as though we sort of grew apart, but there was never any closure.”

“Watching you and Eve steal my powers was closure enough,” said Azazel.

“You’re pissed,” said Kieran. “Is that what this is about? Are you trying to get revenge on me and Eve?”

“They’re trying to take our powers away,” said Eve. “You heard what Jason said when we first got into the forest.”

“Actually,” said Azazel, “we’re hoping to convince you to give them up.”

“Because you want them back, I guess,” said Eve. “Did you really think you’d just ask nicely, and we’d roll over like dogs?”

Azazel sighed. “I hadn’t actually thought this far ahead. We’re playing it a lot by ear, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Can I talk?” I said.

“Can you be nice?” said Azazel.

I glared at her and didn’t answer. “The truth is that our powers came from people giving up their own individual power. Over the centuries, it’s been stored here in the Spiritus Mundi.” I waved a hand around us. “Azazel and I want to give the power back to individuals. It’s the right thing to do.”

Kieran laughed. “Did you just say ‘right thing?’ You’re going to make an argument that I should do something based on morality? Oh, that’s rich.”

Part of me wanted to throttle him. I reined it back. “You’re right. I haven’t been the poster child for doing the right thing. But that’s why it’s all the more important that I do it now. While I have the chance. And so help me, if you do not give us those powers, I will find a way to take them from you. I don’t care what I have to do.”

Azazel let out a noisy breath. “Now you’re threatening them? I thought you were going to be nice.”

“This is as nice as I get,” I said.

“We’re not giving up the powers,” said Kieran. “Certainly not to you. The two of you have no business with that much power. The things you’ve done to the world…”

“We’re not going to keep it,” said Azazel. “We’re going to give it back.”

“Yeah, I heard that, but I don’t believe it,” said Kieran. He glared up at the canopy of leaves overhead. “Can we wake up now?”

“This isn’t a dream,” I said. “You aren’t waking up. Come on, Kieran. You got Azazel’s powers by accident, didn’t you? You didn’t even want them. You’re not cut out for this. Can you truly tell me you like it, being surrounded by sycophants whose every move you control?”

“They’re happy,” said Eve. “We keep them happy. It’s the responsibility we have to bear for creating paradise on earth.”

“You’ve taken away their choice,” said Azazel.

“And if you give it back?” asked Eve. “Won’t things go back to being awful? Won’t people kill and steal and hurt each other?”

“Probably,” I said. “But things are awful now. I lived in your world. I watched people sleepwalk through their days and nights. Living isn’t worth it if it isn’t on your own terms. Would you consent to it, if you had the choice? Would you let someone turn off all your pain if it meant turning off what made you human?”

Neither Kieran nor Eve said anything.

“The point is,” said Azazel, “the power shouldn’t be this concentrated. Funneled into one or two people, the way it has been with us, it destroys everything. If we break it up and put it back, things will be better.”

“But they won’t,” said Kieran. “They’ll be worse. And besides, once you have our powers, you’ll take over the world anyway, just like we did.”

I shook my head. “Trust me, I’ve been down that path. I don’t want to go back. Nothing was emptier than being worshipped.”

“Maybe it is empty,” said Eve. “But emptiness is all there is anyway.”

“I guess that’s why it’s so important to get a baby,” I said, “to share all the emptiness.”

“No,” said Eve. “Of course not. Having a baby would make things mean something.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I get that. It took me years to realize it, because I was drowning in my own guilt. But when you two threatened Chance, that was the only thing that made me want to fight again.”

“And don’t you see?” said Azazel. “Having a child, passing on your genes, passing on your love, passing on your beliefs? All of that is the simple kind of individual power that we crave deep down. It’s all we really want. We don’t really want to be gods. Do you really want that? If you could pick between the powers or a baby, what would you pick?”

Kieran and Eve looked at each other and then both looked at the ground.

“The baby,” said Eve. Then she smirked. “But you don’t have anything to bargain with there, if that’s your scheme. I already have Chance. You can’t offer him to me.”

“Look,” I said, “we didn’t have to do it this way. We’ve absorbed enough power here that we could have burst back into your lives and killed you both. We almost did. But we didn’t want to turn into you.”

“We weren’t trying to bargain,” said Azazel. “We only wanted to help you to see.”

But wait. The ideas of bargaining and the statement I’d made about how much power we had rumbled around in my brain. There was something… Yes! “Graham said that Michaela Weem created you by petitioning the Darkness, didn’t he?” I said to Azazel.

She nodded. “Yeah, I remember that. It upset me because I thought it meant I was evil, but Graham said that Dark and Light were equally evil. So what?”

“We’re imbued with the power of Darkness, darling. What’s to say we couldn’t create a child for Kieran and Eve.” I looked at Eve. “Your own child. How’s that for a bargaining chip?”

Eve swallowed. “You can’t do that. We took your powers.”

“You did,” I said. “And after you did, you imposed so much order and structure that the Darkness forsook you and curled up here in the Spiritus Mundi. It used Agnes to get all of us in the right position—me back with Azazel, Chance in danger—so that it could give all of the Dark power to Azazel and me. So that we could obliterate you. And obliterate the Light. But Azazel and I want to obliterate all of it. We’ve been slaves to this fight for far too long.”

“We do have power,” said Azazel. “How do you think we got you here?”

“How could you possibly have enough power to make a baby?” said Kieran.

“Graham explained to us that the power is all energy and that matter is all energy and that with enough power you could turn energy into matter,” I said. “Scientists have sort of done it. With light and particles and photons and things. I remember reading this article about it once.”

“But how would you do it?” asked Kieran.

“I don’t really know,” I said. “But if we could do it, would you take the deal?”

“Yes,” said Eve.

“What?” said Kieran. “They’re bullshitting us.”

“What if they’re not?” said Eve.

Kieran shrugged. “If that’s what Eve wants.”

She reached over and took his hand. Their eyes met, and I thought I saw a little of the same kind of togetherness that Azazel and I had. As much as I didn’t care for Kieran, I was glad he’d found someone.

“All right.” I rubbed my hands together. “Why do I get the feeling this isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as the normal way of making babies?”

* * *

“You promised them what?” Graham’s face was red. We’d been pleased to discover that he just popped into existence next to us when we yelled his name. Now he was pacing in front of Kieran and Eve, who were sitting on the forest floor. Azazel and I were standing on the other side of Graham.

“Uh, a baby,” said Azazel. “You said Michael Weem summoned the Darkness to create me, so we figured that we could do it too.”

Graham stopped pacing. He wagged his head side to side slowly. “You have no idea how deep into the Darkness you’re going to have to go to do this.”

“Into the Darkness?” I said. “I thought we had the power of Darkness in us now. Can’t we do it ourselves?”

“As you might have noticed from your little kissing debacle earlier, you don’t really control the power. It’s independent of you, even if it’s within you. You have to all the way into the Darkness, let it consume you entirely.”

“And that’s doable,” I said.

“Yes,” Graham sighed. “But you realize what the Darkness wants from the two of you, don’t you? If you go into the Darkness, summon this power and do this thing, then it will try to steer you off your purpose. You could very easily come out raging killers who mow down Kieran and Eve and their unborn child. And everyone else on earth for that matter. Everyone you care about. Hallam, Marlena, Chance, Palomino. No one would be safe.”

That was bad. After all, succumbing to Darkness was our Achilles’ heel.

Azazel took my hand. “We can do it. We’ll stay focused. Tell us what to do, Graham.”

Graham rubbed his face with his hand. “If you’re sure.”

Azazel squeezed my fingers with her own. “We’re sure.”

“You’ll need to will your bodies to the center of Darkness in the Spiritus Mundi and yourselves. If you concentrate, you should be able to get there easily. There will be a dark tunnel. You descend into it and make your petition of whatever you find there.” Graham shuddered. “I’ve seen the tunnel once. Going into it… I can’t even imagine.”

This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.