The sun was rising in Under for the first time in five thousand years.
The chirping insects in the trees had gone silent. In fact, everything went quiet like after a snowstorm. The world itself was holding its breath and waiting to see what might happen next.
Lydia turned and squinted, raising her hand to shield her eyes as she watched the horizon turn ruddy colors of crimson and amber. She had become so used to the dark. She never thought she’d see sunlight again. It was beautiful, and it was horrifying for what it represented.
The Ancients were free. All bets were off.
Aon turned her back around to face him. He held her to him suddenly, hugging her to his frame in desperation. “Forgive me, please, forgive me,” he begged, his voice low and frantic. “I could not let you remain at the bottom of that cursed lake. I could not let you be taken from me a second time. I could not live in this world without you. I…I burned it all down.”
Lydia reached up and cradled his head in her hands and kissed him. Tears were still slipping silently down his cheeks, and his lips tasted salty with them. He leaned into her touch like a man who felt this was goodbye. She had no platitudes to give him. There was nothing she could say to make this better. She had no idea what was going to happen. Saying it was okay would be a bold-faced lie.
“I love you,” she said as she broke the kiss. “No matter what happens, Aon. I love you.” She tilted his head down to rest his forehead against hers. He was still holding her to him like a vise, as if something was about to tear her away. Maybe something was.
His shoulders caved in toward her, as he seemed to be pressed by some heavy emotional weight. “For those words, I would destroy all of creation again and again. I will cherish them until the day they allow me to die. I thank you for that gift, Lydia, my dragonfly. But I know it shall not last. Your heart will change.”
“What?” She tilted his face back to look at her. His spilled-ink eyes were searching hers, flicking back and forth.
“They are coming for me, my love. And when they do—” He cringed, his face contorting in a painful memory. He turned away from her, as if ashamed.
“What? What’ll happen?” She turned him back to her. He was trying to hide from her. The light from behind them—of the rising sun—was growing bright as it peeked up over the horizon. She felt as though it was a ticking clock. The sands of an hourglass were running low.
“I am not human.”
“None of us are.”
“No,” he insisted, as if she weren’t listening. He held on to her, his fingers twisting in the fabric of her wet coat. “I was never human, Lydia. They…they made me. I am their Adam. I am their golem.”
“All of you—all the rest of you, even Edu and the others, were taken from Earth. They were all once human. I never was. I am their only son. They made me. They will come for me. They will never let me be free.”
Like ice, a shiver ran down her spine. That was what they had called him—their only son. “I don’t care. I don’t care what you are.”
He laughed cruelly. “You will. You will when you see what they made. I never wished to rule this world, Lydia. I never wished to be the King of All. I never wanted the throne. I never desired anyone to kneel at my feet.” He was becoming frantic, terrified. She had never seen him like this. Not once.
“Aon, you’re scaring me.”
“Good. You need to run.”
He interrupted her, trying to say as much as he could in the little time they had left. “The royals all hated me and suspected me. They all despise my very nature and have done so long before the Great War. Their passionate hatred ran deeper than any of my misdeeds. Their mistrust was intrinsic. You noticed, surely you did.”
Yes. She had. Everyone hated Aon, and she couldn’t ever figure out why everyone who came out of the lake of blood had a deep aversion to him. She could only nod.
“But they could not remember why they despised me. They could not remember why they would rail against me at every turn. They could not remember the old days. I do not blame them—I chose not to remember either.”
Lydia swallowed the lump in her throat. “Why, Aon?”
A weary kind of acceptance came over him as he looked up at the sunlight behind her. All fear faded away from him. A man on the gallows, accepting the noose even as it slid around his neck. “I did not want the throne, for that is what I gave up so long ago.”
There was an odd sound behind her. It was like a weird, quiet roar. She turned her head, and her eyes went wide.
There on the horizon, creeping closer, was a cloud. Or a wave. It took her a long moment to realize what she was looking at. The shifting gray and beige mass seemed pushed forward or rolling over itself as it moved closer. It didn’t look like it was moving that fast, but it was far away. It was a sandstorm.
“Aon, we have to go.” She twisted in his grasp and reached out to take his hand. He slipped away from her and backed up a step. She turned to look at him, confused and afraid. “Aon?”
“They have already come for me.” His voice was a horrified whisper. He winced, as if something had stabbed him. “Of course, they have. You must run.” His face warped in pain again, and he shuddered. He put his hand to his face, as if an icepick had been driven home through his temple. “They speak to me, even now.”
Lydia took a step toward him, reaching out. No, they couldn’t take him too. He growled and with both hands snatched her by the shoulders. His eyes met hers, and she watched as he changed. Nothing about him warped. His face was the same. But like an actor playing a role…
Aon was gone.
The fear drained from his face, and he was smiling down at her. Faint and gentle. Like a slow cloud passing over the moon, she watched another man take his place. There was no wicked glee in his eyes. No twisted smirk. This man was looking at her, awed and amazed, as if he had never seen her before.
He lifted his metal hand to touch her face, and he recoiled from the sight of his own clawed gauntlet as if it were foreign to him. His face suddenly drew up in agony, and he grabbed his head with both hands. “No! No! Leave her be. Do not touch her! She is not yours!” he howled at the voices that must be wracking him.
“Aon, please—what’s happening?”
“Run, my dragonfly. Run. You must go!”
Lydia took another step toward him, and this time he pushed her away with both hands. She staggered and nearly fell to the ground. He was looking at her with such twisted agony and fear, her heart shattered in her chest. “You do not know what the royals had come to hate. You have come to love a shattered, broken thing. A mirror with so many pieces missing—so many shards that I thought I had lost. I did not lose them. They were never there. They could not make me whole. They tried. But even they cannot make a soul. So instead, they hold me together. They plug the pieces. They will possess me to make me whole, Lydia. You must run to the farthest, darkest corner of this world!”
“Hide from the Ancients? This is their world. There’s nowhere I can go!”
Aon took another step away from her, toward the oncoming sandstorm. Even as she watched, it was as though he were struggling to keep hold of himself. That someone else was surging forward to take control. He placed his hands over his face, let out a low moan of pain, curled in on himself, and then stilled. As he straightened, he let his hands calmly fall to his sides.
The look on his face was unlike any she had ever seen from him. It was dark and regal. A small, cruel smile decorated him as he watched her with a calm fascination. It was sinister, but it wasn’t devilish. This man promised a very different kind of pain. This man had a face of stone, free of the fast and vivid expressions she had known from Aon.
Whoever he was…this was not the warlock she knew.
He took a step toward her slowly, and she found herself rooted to the spot. She felt so small in front of this man, whoever he was, whatever had become of him. The feeling of his power filled the air around him and left her stunned.
“No, you must not run from them.” His voice was cold. He closed the distance between them and lifted his flesh and blood hand to run the backs of his fingers down her cheek. She shuddered at the touch. “You must run and hide from me.”
“Aon—” His lips against hers silenced her. Her stomach fell off a mountain at the embrace. She had kissed him a hundred times, but he felt like a stranger. Aon was passionate, a fiend with an insatiable hunger. What she felt now was…control. Cold and hard and demanding. Bending her to his will, even as she felt her stomach twist in an excitement and fear she knew quite well.
He slowly broke the kiss, his lips still curled into a smile as his warm breath washed against her. He drifted his face slowly to her ear to whisper to her. She was shivering, trembling, and overwrought.
His voice was like cold water down her spine.
“Run and let me chase you…”
With that, he stepped away, pacing backward. She had been so frozen, so afraid, so caught up in what had happened to him, that she hadn’t noticed that the storm was on top of them now. She looked up at the wall of sand as it threatened to break over them like a wave.
Aon—or whoever he was now—lifted his arms at his sides as if to accept it. As if calling her to him. Lydia didn’t even have the time to scream before the storm hit her.
Bits and pieces of tiny rocks sliced at her skin as she did her best to hide her face. She threw her arm over her eyes and felt the wind and sand whipping at her. Lydia had never experienced anything like this. It was painful—it was disorienting. She felt tossed around in a washing machine, the sudden blast instantly removing any sense she had of left and right, up or down. It felt like a cheese grater was running against every piece of exposed skin she had.
“Q, help!” she screamed into the roar of the wind, burying her face in the collar of her coat to try to keep the sand out of her mouth. It didn’t work. The grit was instant, and she tried not to cough and inhale more.
There was no answer.
The storm knocked her off her feet, sending her tumbling to the ground. It wasn’t grass that she met; it was more sand. It was already inches deep, judging by how far her hands sank into the surface as she tried to push herself back up to standing.
Lydia was forced to close her eyes. There was nothing to see in the raging sandstorm anyway. She got back up to her feet. Q, help me! she shouted silently into her mind. There was still no response.
For a second time, the wind and the sand knocked her back down to her knees. The pieces of stone in the air were cutting at her. She knew she was bleeding. This had to stop. She dug her hands into the sand near her knees and did the first thing she could think of.
Lydia was a dreamer.
She was the Mother of Monsters.
Time to make it count for something.
There was a roar and a rumble from next to her, and she felt the biting sand lessen and then stop. Something had burst up from the ground and moved around her. Rather, it moved over her. It was the size of a school bus and had been the first thing she could think of to summon from her mind.
As it reared up over her, she watched as it shifted its body. It was a huge, armadillo-esque creature with large panels that covered it like a suit of armor. It dropped the plates to the ground, warping its limbs to create a shield around them both. It was now a giant…armadillo dome, igloo, thing. Armadigloo? It had made a protective cave around her, with its vulnerable body now inside the shelter of its exoskeleton. The sound of the storm was blotted out as the creature shuffled into the sand a bit further. Its head was over her, and it peered at her curiously, barely visible in the darkness.
The giant creature had appeared in a blink of an eye. She had willed it into existence in a moment of need. She’d be in awe of that revelation when she wasn’t bleeding from a thousand tiny scratches along her face and anywhere that hadn’t been protected from the storm.
“Thanks,” she said to it and put her hand on its leg nearest to her. It merely yawned broadly in response. It was hunkered down to ride out the storm already, and she knew it couldn’t speak anyway. These things were just beasts, like that creature with the lantern she had made. Light that was leaking in through the gaps in the panels of its armor provided her only ability to see. It was incredibly bright outside, even through the darkness of the sandstorm.
Lydia stripped off her coat. It had been soaked, and now it was covered in wet sand. She tossed it to the ground and—oh.
There was writing on her arms.
Turquoise marks traced down from her shoulders in square spirals. They created an almost Aztec-looking pattern out of the esoteric, occult writing. She had worn a low-cut dress to the celebration that had ended so poorly, and she could see a line of the same turquoise writing running straight down the middle of her chest. She peeked, and sure enough, it ran all the way down to her navel. There were two other lines on her torso, running down her sides.
Through the slices and rips in her leggings put there by the storm, she could see more writing on her legs. Where had the ink come from? Why’re these things here now?
The realization hit her like a brick. She sank down to the sand as she felt as though her heart had been ripped out of her chest. Q hadn’t answered her cry for help. In fact, she hadn’t heard from the snake at all since she had gone into the pool that third time because of Rxa. She hadn’t had any time to think about it. Everything was happening too damn fast.
Lydia looked down at the marks on her arms and ran her fingers along a line of them. Q had only ever been inside her head. He was her manifestation of her power, keeping it separate from her own mind. He was an imaginary friend made to help her cope with what had happened after Edu had killed her. A traumatized mind, seeking the only shelter it could.
Something about her visit with the Ancients had changed all that. Rxa had been right. She had been forced to her knees before those horrible creatures, and now…
Q was gone.
Lydia put her head in her hands and felt tears start to form.
Ever since coming to Under, she had always had someone there to help her. Nick, Lyon, Evie, Aon, Q—they had all been there to support her, to offer her solace, assistance, or friendship. But they were all gone now.
Aon. What she had just seen hadn’t been the warlock she knew. Hadn’t been the man she loved. He was cold. Austere. Dangerous, yes. But in a very different way. What had the Ancients done to him? What was he now?
He had told her to run so that he could chase her. He wanted her to be his prey. The thought made her shudder. As terrifying as Aon had always been, it had never been like this before. Even when she had first met him, something told her he had only ever been playing games. This man, whoever he was, whether her Aon was buried somewhere deep inside or not—something told her he didn’t mess around.
Now, even Q was gone. Her imaginary companion. Her voice of reason, her guiding cynical snake. Even if he was just a manifestation of herself—some part of her with the volume turned up—he had become precious to her.
Tears ran down her cheeks, and she let herself cry. She let herself sit there in the sand, with this giant armadillo-gone-cave around her to protect them both from the raging sandstorm outside. The weather aptly reflected how she felt.
Lydia was alone.