Thursday, September 25, 2014

ECHO QUEEN Preview: Chapter 2

Echo Queen (Echo Trilogy, #2)

The Sequel to Echo Prophecy

Did you miss the Prologue and Chapter 1? You can read them here:



Chapter 2
Present & Past


With a flash of smoky colors, the world reappeared, dark and drafty. I fell to my hands and knees on a floor that was both cold and hard, coughing up water on polished black and white marble tiles. I hacked, gagged, and retched until my throat felt raw, inside and out, like I’d been drowning in flames rather than bathwater. Flames seemed appropriate; I’d been drowning in my own personal hell.

Marcus . . . almost killed me . . .

Closing my eyes, I rested my forehead on a dry patch of floor and worked on catching my breath, uncaring that I was naked and had no clue where I’d landed in my panicked flight. Wherever I was, it couldn’t be far from Marcus’s and my suite; in all of my accidental spatial shifts, I’d never moved more than several hundred feet from my starting point.

Which meant I had to catch my breath—and fast—because I needed to get as far away from the man I loved as possible. Before he tried to kill me again.

Dread wrapped around my heart and lungs as a terrifying thought eroded my resolve to flee. If I was out of his reach, what would he do to the people I’d left behind in the palace—to Jenny, my human sister, who just a week ago had learned she was pregnant with Set’s baby, or to Kat, my half-sister, who’d only just started to manifest as a result of being forced in a last-ditch effort to rescue me from Set’s At prison, or to Dominic, my half-brother and closest friend . . . or to Marcus? What would that thing inside of Marcus do to him?

My efforts to catch my breath turned into frantic gasping, and glittering spots floated in front of my vision. I couldn’t catch my breath. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the air. I could barely breathe.

“Lex!” a woman shouted. Her heels clicked hard and fast on the marble tiles. “Lex! Are you okay?” There was something familiar about her voice, about the hint of an accent, but I couldn’t quite place her.



I should have looked up, stood, tried to cover myself—done something—but with the tremors coursing through my body and my lungs’ desperate attempt to suck all the oxygen from the room, I couldn’t manage to do anything besides stare at the floor and take gulping breaths.

“Pick her up! We have to get her out of here before that guard regains consciousness and before Apep realizes she’s with you, and—”

“I know.” The second voice was male and also sounded familiar, but like the woman’s, I couldn’t place it. “Give me your coat.”

Seconds later, I felt rough fabric being draped over my shoulders and my limbs being manhandled as a trench coat was situated on my body. Before I knew what was happening, I was rolled onto my back and lifted off the ground, strong arms supporting me under my knees and behind my shoulders. I probably should have struggled, but I was half-delirious and on the verge of passing out, and the strong, warm arms wrapped around me hardly seemed threatening.

The stranger’s hold on me shifted, and he held me closer against his chest. “It’s going to be alright, Alexandra. I swear, I won’t let—”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” the woman said. “Lex deserves better than lies, especially from you.”

The man grunted, and I could feel the vibration against my cheek. “Apep possessed me,” he said. “I did not choose this.” For the first time, I noticed the man’s accent. It was similar to Marcus’s, with its ancient Middle Eastern notes, but quite a bit thicker. “I have been present during every disturbing moment that Apep is in control of my body, always aware, never able to act. Thinking of how I may one day make amends for all he has done is all that keeps me from ending up as insane as Apep.”

The woman cleared her throat. “I—I apologize. That was unfair of me. It is just hard to forget some of the things you—he—has done . . .”

“I understand.”

I pulled my head away from the man’s shoulder and squinted up at his face. And stiffened.

Even in the dim light of what I now realized was the palace’s grand staircase, his pale, severe Nejeret features were easily recognizable. I could never mistake that face.

Set.

My muscles tensed, and I twisted in his arms, intending to do whatever possible to break free from his hold. But Set had apparently been expecting a struggle, and he tightened his grip on my body.

“Lex! Stop it!” the woman said in a screeching whisper. “You must stop! We’re trying to help you!”

A very unexpected face appeared inches from mine, and I froze, my back arched and one foot pushing on the cool marble banister. “Doc—Doctor Isa?” I had met her only once, in a hospital back in Seattle, after I’d awoken from a coma resulting from a near date-rape. She’d said things—known things—about what I really was, and then she’d disappeared.

“Yes, yes, it’s me,” she said, patting my shoulder. “Long story very short, this Set—who is, essentially, a completely different man from the one who’s been tormenting you most of your life—is your true father.” She frowned, then bit her lip. “But he’s, well, he’s been possessed by a very evil being, who just happens to be the same being who slipped into Heru this evening, and if you remain here much longer he will kill you, and then he will destroy everyone you love.” She scanned me and, once again, frowned. “You didn’t tell me you would be naked.” She tsked. “You should remember to do that.”

“I—what?” Nothing she’d said made any sense to my stunned brain. If not for her knowing about Marcus’s so-called possession, I would have been screaming my head off. Instead, I was working on not hyperventilating . . . again.

Sighing, Dr. Isa shook her head and continued down the pale, elaborately carved marble staircase. “Never mind. We don’t have time now. I’ll explain what I can on the road . . . and you should slow down your breathing, or you’ll pass out.” She glanced down at her wrist, then shifted her attention higher, focusing on Set. “Pick up the pace. According to what Nik saw in the At, we’ve got less than three minutes before Apep returns.”

Set started moving at a quick jog, and I wriggled in the cradle of his arms. “I can . . . walk. Put me . . . down,” I said between heaving breaths. Whatever Dr. Isa claimed, I definitely wasn’t comfortable with Set carrying me.

“No.” Set managed to lace the single syllable with so much heavy emotion that I stilled. “You can barely breathe as it is, and beyond that, this may be the last chance I ever have to hold my little girl.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that I was a full-grown woman. Likely because I really was having a hard time breathing. I stared up at Set’s face, and with each consecutive glance he flicked down at me, some of my more tightly wound bundles of hatred and disgust loosened. There was just so much concern, so much warmth in the depths of his rich brown eyes—brown, not black, like the eyes of the Set I knew.

“W—where are we going?” I finally managed to ask as we reached the bottom of the stairwell.

Set glanced down at me again, his eyes lingering on my neck, where I assumed some pretty nasty bruises were taking shape. It didn’t really matter; thanks to my Nejerette regenerative abilities, they’d be gone soon enough.

“To safety,” he said.

“Come, come,” Dr. Isa whispered. “Hurry.” She held open a gracefully carved door and ushered us into a dim hallway. It was one of the many parts of the palace I’d yet to explore.

We quickly made our way down a set of stairs, along another hallway, and through an exterior door, me in Set’s arms and Dr. Isa hustling along beside us. When we reached a squat black car parked crookedly on the side of the street nearest the almost-hidden door we’d exited through, Set hugged me closer to him. I tensed immediately.

“I am so sorry for everything, Alexandra.” He set me in the front passenger seat. “And I am so proud of you—of everything you have already done and of everything you are about to do.”

“Wha—”

He leaned in closer and pressed his lips against my cheek, stunning me speechless, then straightened and shut the door.

I was absolutely and completely baffled, not to mention totally freaked out. Set . . . kissed my cheek. He helped me . . . and Marcus-who-wasn’t-Marcus had tried to kill me. It was like I’d slipped into a mirrored version of the world, where everything was reversed: up was down, good was evil, sane was not . . .

Seconds later, Dr. Isa slid into the driver’s seat and stuck the key into the ignition. She guided the little car out onto the street, glanced at me sidelong, catching my eye, and returned her focus to the way ahead.

I took a shaky breath, appreciative that my urge to hyperventilate had passed now that Set was no longer close by. “What’s going on? Is Marcus okay? Is this . . . oh God, is whatever’s wrong with him—this possession thing—is it permanent?”

“No, no, Lex, it is not,” Dr. Isa said. “If all goes as planned, he will be fine.”

“As planned? What plan? And what kind of being can possess people?” I’d experienced a lot over the past seven months, and my eyes had been opened to an entirely new, unbelievable world of mythical, practically magical beings who could step out of time to observe the past, present, and possible futures, but I’d never heard anything about possession.

“I can’t tell you much—to do so would invalidate the timeline, but . . .” She paused, shifting in her seat to pull something out of the pocket of her pale linen pants. “This will hopefully help to convince you to believe what I can tell you.” She handed me an antiquated, almost disintegrating folded-up piece of paper and reached overhead to turn on the dome light. “Careful with that. It is ancient.”

I did my best to contain the overwhelming need my body still felt to shiver and unfolded the piece of paper. I sucked in a surprised breath. The paper was, in fact, not paper; it was pressed papyrus and, from what I could see of both the craftsmanship and level of deterioration, thousands of years old. The age, however, wasn’t the most surprising thing about it; the language and handwriting were. The former was English, and the latter was, well, mine.

Swallowing in an attempt to wet my suddenly parched throat, I shook my head. “That’s my handwriting.”

“It is.”

“This isn’t possible.”

“Read it,” Dr. Isa said.

So I did.


Lex,

First off, Marcus will be fine. Well, not fine, exactly—he’ll be really upset about what Apep almost made him do—but he’ll be okay, really. Jenny, Kat, Dom, Alexander . . . they all will.

I know you’re confused, but it will all make sense soon. Or, at least, most of it will. Okay . . . some of it will.

So here’s the deal—when Marcus tried to drown you/me/us, he wasn’t actually Marcus. Which is the reason you can’t stay in our native timeline . . . you know, YOUR time. You have to come back to go back to Nuin’s time to learn how to use your borrowed power—it’s the only way you and Marcus and everyone else will ever be safe. If you don’t do this, everything and everyone we love will be destroyed. But if you do, we’ll have a real, fighting chance. I promise you, it’s the only way.

Okay, I’ve thought long and hard about how to convince you, my former self, that what I’m telling you is actually coming from me, your future self . . . in the past. It’s confusing, I know. Anyway, this is what I’ve come up with, the thing that only we know:

Marcus died. We changed the timeline, we fixed it, but for a few horrible seconds, he was really, truly dead.



“Oh my God . . .” Nobody else knew about that road-untaken timeline, because I’d reversed time and set our paths on a different course, one where Marcus was still alive. This ancient note really was from me.

It was the second piece of evidence I’d come across in the past two weeks that suggested that I would eventually tap into the time travel aspect of Nuin’s power, the other being a Renaissance sculpture that Marcus had commissioned Michelangelo to create in my likeness some five hundred years ago. I’d been skeptical when there’d been only one piece of evidence, but now, with this note added to the mix, I could no longer deny the truth. I would access more of the alien power flowing through my veins, entwining with my ba—my soul—and I would travel back in time. It was impossible . . . and apparently inevitable.

Pressing my lips together, I continued reading.


Now listen—you have to trust Dr. Isa. Do everything she says, and I mean every single thing. Go ahead and ask questions, but don’t expect too many answers. She holds back things from me, too . . . things that must be from my future, but her past . . . so don’t get too frustrated with her. It won’t do you any good anyway. Trust me, I know. Just do what she says and try to keep calm and break a leg and use the force and all that . . . and try to enjoy at least some of it.

I’d wish you luck, but I don’t think you’ll need it.

Lex



I cleared my throat and gently set the ancient piece of papyrus on my lap. “How—” With a dry laugh, I shook my head. “Where did you get this?”

“From you.”

“I know, but—”

“A little over four thousand years ago.”

Mouth hanging open, I stared at her, waiting for some sort of an explanation. “But—but . . .” I shook my head. My brain seemed to have transformed into something akin to gelatin, incapable of processing complex thoughts. Four thousand years ago . . .

“Marcus will be fine, Lex.” When I didn’t respond, Dr. Isa added, “When you return—and you will return—you will find him healthy and whole. This I swear.”

I blinked several times, then inhaled deeply and turned to look out the window. I didn’t understand. This—Marcus, Set, the ancient letter from myself—all seemed so impossible, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fit the puzzle pieces together. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. I wouldn’t fight it, not when my own words claimed that this path was the only one that would keep the people I loved safe, but accepting that didn’t make the whole situation any less convoluted or any more fathomable.

As Dr. Isa drove south along the Nile’s east bank, I stared out at the river and attempted to reorganize my chaotic thoughts into something that resembled coherency, or at least logic. The lights of Cairo glowed on the water’s surface, creating an ethereal reflection of the city. It was normal . . . logical . . . expected . . . unlike the tornado that had ripped through my orderly, if slightly fantastical, life.

After a few minutes, I asked a question that seemed relatively easy, one that couldn’t possibly be answered with another impossibility. “Where are we going?”

“Memphis.”

Memphis was the ancient capital of the northern half of Egypt—what had come to be known as Lower Egypt, due to the north-flowing Nile. Considering that the ancient city of Memphis didn’t exist anymore, Dr. Isa had given me a region, not a specific location.

“Care to elaborate?” I said.

“You’ll see soon enough.”

“Okay . . .” I shifted my attention from the midnight view of the Nile to the woman who seemed to be part rescuer, part abductor. “Can you at least explain what’s going on with Marcus and Set and this whole ‘possession’ thing?” I shook my head, my heart clenching. “I mean, last I checked, Set was the one hell-bent on ruining my life, and Marcus was the one equally determined to protect me.”

As the reality of what had happened sank in—that Marcus’s hands had almost ended my life—hysteria bubbled out of my throat in the form of a shrill laugh. It quickly turned into something that sounded and felt a lot more like muffled sobs. Marcus being “healthy and whole” was one thing, but he would hate himself for what he’d almost done to me. He would obsess about it . . . punish himself for it. I wrapped my arms around my middle, attempting to hold my disintegrating composure together. I ached to comfort him.

Dr. Isa reached over and gave my arm a gentle squeeze. “It wasn’t Heru who tried to kill you, Lex . . . not technically.”

“That’s what he said.” As my sluggish, oxygen-deprived mind finally registered the name she’d been using to refer to the man I knew as Marcus, I narrowed my eyes, scrutinizing her delicate, feminine features. “You’re Nejerette.” The last time I’d seen her, more than half of a year ago, I hadn’t even known I was Nejerette; I’d had no way of recognizing her as such.

“I am,” she said.

“You could have told me back in the hospital. It would have saved me a lot of trouble.” And saved me from thinking I was losing my mind . . .

“You know I couldn’t have done that. I was already teetering on breaking Nuin’s rules by telling you what little I did.” She shrugged. “But it had to be done.”

“Why?”

“To preserve the timeline, to get us here . . . to set you on your current path.”

“Which is leading me to where exactly?”

She smiled, and the warmth contained within the expression muffled some of my unease. “I already told you—Memphis.” Before I could respond, she added, “But you really should be more concerned with when.”

I took a deep breath, exhaling a heavy sigh. “Fine, I’ll bite. My current path is leading me to when?”

“Approximately 2180 BCE.”

My mouth dropped open, and for a few minutes, all I could do was gape at her. Remotely, I registered that we’d driven onto a bridge and were crossing to the west bank of the Nile. But really, the direction our car was traveling was small potatoes compared to the doctor’s proclamation that I would be heading back a good four thousand years. Which, I realized somewhere in the very back of my mind, had to be when I’d given her the note.

“You will learn much,” she added, like that explained everything. Or anything.

“Okay . . .” I frowned, my mind racing. “So I’m supposed to somehow find my way back to the end of the Sixth Dynasty?” I paused. “Even if I could somehow manage that, I’d be popping in at a really volatile time. That was the end of the Old Kingdom. I’m pretty sure an ancient civil war isn’t really the safest place for me right now.”

Dr. Isa chuckled. “You have no idea.”

“But—”

“You were attacked tonight by what is essentially a ‘spirit.’” She shrugged. “Nuin will explain it better, I’m sure . . . but anyway, this spirit just happens to be the same thing that’s been possessing Set for over four thousand years, turning him into, well . . . an evil bastard.”

“Wait—what?”

“Its name is Apep, and it is the original owner of the power now split between Marcus and Set. For some reason that I don’t fully understand, sharing part of that power opens Marcus up to being overtaken by Apep for short periods of time.”

I mulled her words over. Apep was one of the ancient names for Apophis, the ancient Egyptian god of chaos and darkness, commonly associated with a serpent. Was his possession of Set the reason that, over time, the mythological Set had become associated with chaos as well?

I breathed in through my nose, then exhaled slowly. “So . . . while this Apep thing was possessing Marcus, I take it that Set was free to, well, be Set—the old Set?”

Dr. Isa nodded, a tiny, sad smile curving her lips. “He was, though Apep has undoubtedly returned to him by now. That vile creature has had more than four millennia to gain an unrelenting foothold in Set’s body. It would seem that even with the inroad he now has into your Marcus, Set is the more comfortable fit, like a favorite pair of boots.” She wrinkled her nose. I was getting the impression that she hated Apep just as much as I did.

My eyebrows drew together. “So Set, my father, isn’t actually evil?”

Dr. Isa glanced at me. “That is correct, Lex. He is not evil.”

Unexpectedly, a tension I’d been carrying ever since learning that the Nejerets’ most-loathed and most-hunted villain was my father lessened. It felt like a corrosive iron wire had been wound too tightly around my heart, but had suddenly disintegrated. Set was my biological father, but it was Apep who’d been tormenting me all these years. It was Apep who’d deceived, kidnapped, and impregnated my sister, abducted and tortured me, killed Marcus, and intended to take over the world with Nuin’s power. Apep was the evil one, not Set.

I laughed, and this time, there wasn’t a single trace of hysteria in the sound. “That’s just . . . wow.” I shook my head. “That’s fantastic.”

“For you, maybe. Less so for Set, I think.”

My laughter died as I considered Dr. Isa’s meaning. “Oh . . . oh God . . .” I couldn’t imagine the sheer avalanche of horror and despair Set must have felt over the long stretch of time he’d spent as a prisoner in his own body. What he must have watched his own hands do. The orders he must have heard given in his own voice. The lives he must have felt himself extinguish. He’d had a front-row seat to all that destruction, all that terror, and he’d been incapable of doing anything to stop it. “How is he still sane?”

I glanced at Dr. Isa in time to see a single tear roll down her cheek. She wiped it away with a quick swipe of her hand and swallowed loudly. “I’m not so sure that he is.”

“I’m sorry. Did you know him . . . before—”

“No more,” Dr. Isa said. She shot me the briefest of glances. “I’ve already told you all I can. Revealing too much could alter the timeline irreparably, and that is something none of us can afford.”

~~~~~

Echo Queen is now available! You can buy it on Amazon or continue with the final preview chapter: Chapter 3.

No comments:

Post a Comment