A sound like dripping water greeted Taryn Nightwell into the world of the living after what felt like an eternity of darkness and silence. She slowly blinked open her eyes and stared at what lay overhead, a map of constellations and starlight. The world around her seemed to sharpen into clearer focus as she laid there, willing herself to sit up and determine what was going on and where she could possibly be.
She pulled herself to her feet as she took in her surroundings, surprised to find she was, in fact, in a building. The room she was standing in was very obviously in ruins, due to the fact that the roof had caved in and there was nothing left untouched by the curse of time and dust. Moonlight was spilling in through the many different craters in the ceiling of the room. As she looked around the room she spotted a familiar object laying on the ground not far from her.
Taryn took a step forward, testing her balance on the cracked ground beneath her bare feet. Her hands shook as she neared the mysterious object as she realized it was a sword. And it wasn’t just any sword, but her father’s sword. She didn’t know how she knew who it belonged to, but as soon as the thought entered her mind she knew it was the truth.
She crouched down, her fingers trailing in the dust as they hovered next to the hilt. As her fingers brushed over the grip, an electric shock seemed to travel through her hand and all the way up her arm. She jerked her arm back, gasping at the strange sensation.
“What the…?” Taryn trailed off as she stared at the sword, confused and feeling something like fear. “Why is there a sword here?”
“You’ve got to find some way to protect yourself, don’t you?”
Taryn stood up, whirling around to face whoever had spoken. Instead, she saw nothing but empty air. “Who’s there?” She called out, moving into a defensive crouch. “Show yourself!”
A soft laugh was the only answer she received before she felt a light touch on her shoulder. “Behind you, newbie.”
Taryn swung out with her fist as she turned, only slightly surprised when it connected with someone’s jaw, knocking them back a step. The man staring at her looked surprisingly familiar, his blue eyes the exact same shade as her own. In fact, the only difference in their physical appearance – besides the gender issue – was that his hair was as dark as a raven and hers was dirty blond.
Taryn stared at him, surprise evident in her expression. “Who are you?”
“They call me Seb.”
“Taryn? That’s...” He trailed off, his expression closing off. “You really are new, aren’t you? You don’t know a thing about this place, do you?”
Taryn shook her head, crossing her arms. “No. I don’t.”
Seb sighed. He glanced down at the sword laying between them. “You should take that. Never know when you’ll need something like that around here.” He gestured to where a similar weapon was strapped to his back. “We all wake up someplace or the other with a weapon not far from us. It’s their way of ensuring our survival, I suppose.”
Seb jerked his head in the direction of the sword once more. “Take it and I’ll introduce you to the others.”
Taryn wasn’t sure if she should trust him, this strange man who seemed so similar to herself, but if she wanted to figure out where she was and what was going on it didn’t seem as if she had much choice in the matter. In this place, maybe she would just have to go on instinct alone. Thankfully her instincts were telling her she was in no danger from Seb.
She braced herself as she crouched down, hand wrapping around the hilt of the sword. As she straightened back up the room seemed to change, along with the man in front of her. Everything sharpened into clearer focus, almost clear enough that it blurred her vision, tainting everything with a mystifying blue light.
Taryn almost dropped the sword, wanting to fling it as far away from herself as she could, hoping it would rid her of the strange new sense of this world she seemed to have. Before she could do so, a hand was on her own, pressing her fingers into the leather covering the hilt.
Seb’s voice was apologetic as he spoke, his words gentle. “Forgive me. I really should have warned you about that.”
Taryn glared at him. “What is it doing to me?”
Seb’s gaze slid away from her own as he released her hand. “It’s…Well, it’s sort of preparing you for what you’ll have to face once you leave this place. In this building, you’re safe. Outside, in the forests and surrounding areas you can never be sure what you’ll come across.”
“Why do you care?” She asked, forcing herself to tighten her grip on the sword as she started getting used to the new light at the edges of her vision. “It’s not as if you know me.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“What do you mean?” Taryn asked, watching him with a curious expression on her face. “Either you know me or you don’t.”
“You would think.”
Instead of bothering to answer, knowing it would only lead to another round of infuriating non-answers to her questions, Taryn moved closer to Seb, waiting for him to lead the way out of the building. Seb just nodded, turning and walking towards what appeared to be a tunnel, leading who knows where. Taryn walked just behind him and a little to the left, looking around cautiously.
“You might as well stop, you won’t see anything.”
“What do you –?”
“The weapon enhances your senses, but you won’t have control over them or even be able to harness the power it grants you until you’ve fought with it.” Seb’s voice was sure as they walked, moving forward slowly. “Also, as soon as you fight with your weapon the…sharpness you now see everything with won’t go away.”
“How do you know all of this?”
Seb shrugged, slipping his hands into the pockets of his black cargo pants. “You could say I’ve been here awhile.”
“What is this place, anyways?” Taryn asked, wondering what exactly he could mean by that. Surely they were still on Earth?
“That’s a little harder to explain.” Seb glanced back at her as they emerged from the tunnel into a larger area, which Taryn realized was another room. “This was the lobby of this place,” he explained as Taryn looked around, taking it all in.
The room was about as large as two football fields lengthwise, but instead of being in ruins it was all pretty much restored, or as if it had never been touched by nature. There were rows of couches and armchairs off to the left, next to a set of tunnels like the one they had just exited. To the right were several sets of targets with various weapons hanging along the wall nearby. And directly in front of them, but several feet away, at least a hundred, was a large set of double doors.
Seb was smirking when Taryn’s gaze returned to him. “Everyone reacts the same when they see this place. A little bit of wonder, a little bit of curiosity, and a whole lotta suspicion.”
Taryn placed her free hand on her hip. “You’re an ass.”
Seb blinked, seemingly surprised at her reaction. “Well, that’s new.”
“Not really, darling.” A new voice said from behind Taryn. A woman with a head of dark curls walked around Taryn to stand next to Seb. “She isn’t the first to call ya that.”
Seb rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. “Oh, please, Saxa. Like you’re thinking about anything besides how hot she is.”
Saxa raised an eyebrow at him, crossing her arms. “It’s just like you to objectify anyone you see.” Her amber eyes practically glowed as her gaze fell on Taryn. “I apologize for him. He has absolutely no manners.” She grinned as she continued, “I’m Saxare, but everyone calls me Saxa because no one has been able to pronounce it correctly.”
Taryn found herself smiling, albeit somewhat shyly. “I’m Taryn.”
“Oh, I know who you are. Introductions are really a thing of the past here.” She waved her hand passively. “You’ll have to get used to everyone already knowing who you are.”
Taryn stared at her for a moment, debating whether or not she should just make a break for it and hope she was faster than them or if she should stay and try to figure out what the hell was going on. “How is that possible?”
Seb chuckled. “She’s gonna be a runner, Sax.”
Saxa smacked him on the forehead without taking her gaze from Taryn, cat eyes boring into her. “Stop trying to act like you know everything. I’m pretty sure Jal will tell you where you can shove it if you don’t stop.”
Seb muttered something that sounded like a curse as he rubbed his forehead. “I really hate you sometimes.”
Saxa just smiled, taking her eyes off of Taryn for the moment. “You love me.”
“Let’s just introduce her to the others,” Seb grumbled as he headed towards the double doors.
Saxa grinned as she turned back to Taryn. “You’ll get used to him soon enough.” She started walking the way Seb had gone, gesturing for Taryn to walk next to her. “He’s a lot nicer than he’d like you to believe, though. He’s like this to all the newbies, so try not to take it personally.”
“He reminds me of my brother, someone I haven’t seen in a very long time. It’s kind of…refreshing to be around him.” Taryn said fondly, thinking of a boy with kind eyes and curls the color of honey that was hardly more than a memory to her anymore.
“What was your brother’s name?” Saxa asked as she pushed open the doors, a hand on each one, emerging into the soft glow of starlight. “He may very well be in this place. Most of us have family here, though none of us realize it until they wake up here and we see them face to face. I’m actually one of the lucky ones. My younger brother and sister have been here almost as long as I have. It’s –”
Saxa was cut off as someone approached them, his eyes focused solely on Taryn. As she looked up into his bright green eyes she was struck by how familiar he was to her. She staggered back as she realized just who was standing in front of her, the blood draining from her face.
“Taryn? What’s wrong?” Saxa asked, turning towards her with a concerned look on her face.
“Taryn?” The man asked, something akin to wonder in his voice.
Hearing his voice seemed to shake Taryn out of her panicked state. She found herself staring at him with conflicting emotions, from fear to anger to wonder. “You can’t be here!” She shouted, the sword dropping from her hand and landing in the dust with a quiet thump.
He blinked, staring at her with the same expression as before. “I… It wasn’t…”
“No!” Taryn shouted again, her hands starting to shake. “They told me you were dead!”
At that he took a step forward, but the expression on her face kept him from trying to touch her. “In a way,” he said softly, eyebrows drawn together in an expression of pain, “I was.”
“No,” Taryn repeated in a whisper, shaking her head as she backed away. “You can’t be here. I can’t…” Her legs gave out and she crumpled to her knees, hands palm down in the dust. “You can’t possibly be alive. I saw your body when it happened. There was no way you could have survived.” She tilted her head back so she could look up at him with teary eyes. “They said there was no way to save you.”
Saxa crouched down next to Taryn, a hand on her shoulder even as she kept her calm gaze on the man. “What’s going on? How do you two know each other?”
Taryn took a deep breath as she turned her head towards Saxa, catching the woman’s gaze. “He’s my dead brother, the one I told you about.”
Seb had watched as everything went down with Jalin and Taryn, but he hadn’t intervened, hadn’t exactly known how to. When she had revealed what he himself had known all along in the worst way possible and he had seen how Jalin broke, that was when he stepped in between them. He had placed a hand on Jalin’s chest, giving him a look that clearly said they would be talking about this later. Jalin didn’t argue, just as Seb knew he wouldn’t. They were far too close to need words to exchange them.
Instead, Jalin sighed and turned away, taking several steps away as he fought to regain his composure. Seb sighed, watching the man for a moment to ensure he wouldn’t do anything stupid before he turned back to Saxa and Taryn. Saxa was glaring at him as she got to her feet, pulling Taryn up with her.
Seb was just glad he knew she wouldn’t actually hurt him. She had far too much respect for him to go that far. “You knew, didn’t you?” She practically growled out. “You knew, and you didn’t even tell him!”
Taryn looked at them both in confusion and it took Seb longer than it should have to realize that she didn’t know what he was to her brother. He exchanged a worried glance with Saxa, neither of them knowing how she would take the news. They hadn’t known her long enough to be able to get a reading on her emotional state and the fact that she thought her brother had been dead was definitely messing with it.
“What is it?” Taryn asked, her expression closing off.
She was smart, Seb had to give her that. The girl was definitely smart enough to figure it out, if only she had seen Seb and Jalin interact more than she had. As it was, he knew he had to tell her.
Seb sighed, running a hand through his hair. “It’s… Well, I’m just going to come out and say it.” Saxa snorted at that, though managed to mask the sound with a cough. Seb shot her a look that was only halfway amused, the other half being annoyance. “Your brother…Jalin, he’s my fiancé.”
Taryn just stared at him for a moment before she spoke. He couldn’t divine her thoughts by her expression so he was entirely surprised by the words that came out of her mouth. “I knew you were gay.”
At that Saxa started laughing, doubling over with her hands braced on her thighs. Seb just rolled his eyes as he crossed his arms. “Ha ha, hilarious.”
Taryn managed to crack a smile. “I can’t believe any of this. How is he alive?”
“It’s a bit of a long story, better told by the man himself,” Seb said, glancing around the clearing they were standing in, though Jalin was nowhere to be seen. “He’s likely gone off to find Tali.”
“Tali?” Taryn asked, her eyebrows furrowing in confusion. “Who’s that?”
Seb chuckled as Saxa straightened, her ears perked up as she listened for Jalin. “You’re such a cat, Sax.”
Saxa glared at him. “Well, duh. I am Bound to the goddess Bast.”
Seb rolled his eyes. “A fact you like to make well known.” He glanced at Taryn. “Sorry about the confusion. I promise we’ll explain everything in due time.” He shrugged in a nonchalant manner. “If it helps, you’re probably Bound to one of the goddesses, too.”
“It’s… Well, it’s actually kind of a difficult process to explain.” Seb stiffened as a burst of psychic energy assaulted him. He glanced at Saxa. “Did you feel that?” At her nod, he asked, “Was it Jal?”
Saxa shook her head before glancing at Taryn. “I apologize, but I need to remove the glamour from myself so I can locate Jalin.” Without waiting for a response, a slight shimmer began to weave in the air around Saxa, revealing what she really looked like.
Her skin was the same shade of mocha as it had been before, but now Seb could make out the tips of her cat ears peeking from her intensely curly hair, as well as the tail that curled around one of her ankles. She wore almost the same thing Seb did, a black tank top, cargo pants, and fingerless gloves. The only difference was, she didn’t wear the combat boots, mostly because her cat claws tended to tear them to shreds whenever she wore them in battle.
Taryn gasped, but to her credit didn’t back away. Seb had to give her kudos for that one; even he had freaked out when he first saw what Saxa truly looked like. The only person that Seb knew of that hadn’t even reacted when Saxa showed herself was Mandy, and that was only because she was Bound to the god Anubis and sometimes took on a very jackal-like appearance.
Saxa closed her eyes as she turned towards the forest. Seb knew she was expanding her senses to get a feel for the danger and what exactly they would be facing if they ran to the rescue. Seb glanced at Taryn, pressing a finger to his lips to indicate she should stay silent until Saxa had finished. The worst thing they could do would be to break her concentration, considering that would send Seb running blindly into danger.
“He’s not far from here. Near the Nightstar clearing. He’s being tracked by several of the Psyhounds.”
Seb nodded, glancing over at Taryn. “If you intend to follow me, I suggest you keep up. You’d never stand a chance against a Psypup, let alone a full grown Psyhound. They’re vicious and they fight in packs, coming at you from all sides. They can attack without even coming into your line of sight. Stick by my side and maybe you’ll make it back alive.”
Without waiting for her response Seb took off into the surrounding forest, weaving expertly around trees and bounding up onto a large pile of boulders and an old hollowed out tree. He crouched down with one knee touching the rock beneath him, a hand braced on it as the other wound around the hilt of the sword strapped to his back. He glanced back to see Taryn scrambling up onto the rock behind him, noting that she barely seemed to be breathing hard and had left her sword behind. In a way, that was smart, since when Psyhounds saw a weapon they attacked immediately, not that she should have known that.
“It isn’t far now,” Seb said as Taryn crouched next to him. “I want to warn you, in just a few seconds, when we jump down over the cliff we’re going to be attacked. I could handle all of these beasts by myself, but I won’t risk Jal’s life. I don’t know the specifics of your issue with him, but if you’re going to stand back and let him get killed, stay here.”
Taryn turned her head to stare at him, eyes wide in what could only be abject horror. “I would never leave him to die.”
“Good.” Seb drew his sword as he spoke. “Let’s go.”
As he dropped down into the Nightstar clearing he spotted Jalin standing in the middle of a pack of Psyhounds, seven of them, to be exact. “Shit,” he cursed, trying to catch Jalin’s gaze before he attacked.
Jalin glanced in his direction, a wild look in his eyes. Seb knew that look all too well. It meant Jalin was about to draw on the power of the object he was Bound to, and every single time he was forced to do so bad things happened and lots of people died. The only people in the immediate vicinity were Seb, Taryn, and Saxa – three people in this world that Jalin definitely didn’t want to kill.
“Don’t,” Seb whispered, knowing Jalin would catch the word on his lips.
Jalin’s only response was a slight nod of his head, his honey blond hair falling down over his eyes. Seb took that as his cue to charge forward, slashing at the back of one of the Psyhounds and embedding a dagger in the throat of another. Jalin tackled one of them to the ground as it lunged towards Taryn, quickly getting his hands around its throat and snapping its neck.
Before long, they stood in the midst of seven dead Psyhounds, their bodies melting into nothing but wisps of smoke and then dissipating. Seb wiped his sword off on the grass before he straightened, sliding it into the sheath on his back. His gaze moved around the clearing, checking to make sure there were no more immediate threats. Once he was satisfied that they were safe he walked slowly across the clearing to where Jalin was staring at a spot on the ground that wisps of smoke still drifted across. It was something not many people knew that Jalin did, but after every battle he would go back to the spot where he had made his first kill and keep watch over it until there was no trace of the body to be found. Seb had never questioned him on it, knowing it was something his fiancé felt he had to do.
Seb placed his hand on Jalin’s shoulder as he moved to stand in front of him, their gazes meeting. “Are you okay?”
Jalin nodded, his hand coming up to cup Seb’s cheek. “Fine. I’m fine.”
He wasn’t, but neither of them were going to dispute that fact.
Jalin was about an inch or two taller than Seb, but that didn’t stop him from sliding his hand from Jalin’s shoulder to his neck, thumb sweeping over his collarbone. Their lips met in a brief kiss before Seb stepped back, shoving his hands into his pockets as he tried to hide that he had been injured, knowing it would only worry Jalin more than he already was.
“Are you alright?” Jalin asked, telling Seb that he wasn’t doing as good a job of hiding the bite on his left side as he had hoped he was. Jalin’s eyes narrowed when Seb didn’t immediately answer. “You’re hurt, aren’t you?”
Seb shrugged, regretting the movement as soon as he made it. His eyes closed briefly as the pain swept over him, sharp and sudden.
“Show me,” Jalin demanded, leaving no room for argument.
If there was one thing Seb had learned through his relationship with the man, it was that he was fiercely protective when it came to Seb, and even more so when he was injured. It was something he had grown to…not exactly be fond of, but tolerate at the very least. It was also something anyone close to Jalin had to learn to live with.
Seb sighed as he pulled his hands out of his pockets, lifting his t-shirt up enough to expose the wound, a bite from one of the Psyhounds. He watched as Jalin crouched next to him to examine the wound, touch gentle enough that he barely felt it. “Think I’ll live?” He asked jokingly.
Jalin glanced up at him, green eyes serious enough that Seb almost felt bad for getting hurt in the first place. “You should be more careful.”
“And you shouldn’t wander off,” he snapped back, jerking away from Jalin as he pulled his shirt back down and moved away a couple steps.
Before Seb could really get pissed off an arm was wrapping around him, a warm body pressed to him from behind. Seb sighed, relaxing into the touch, though he was still mad at Jalin for being so stupid. “I’m supposed to be the reckless one.”
“You are the reckless one.”
Seb let out a breathless laugh, the pain in his side becoming more prominent now that he was fully aware of it. “Oh, shut up you.”
Jalin turned Seb around so he could look into his eyes. “You know how I can get, especially when you’re hurt.” His free hand cupped Seb’s cheek. “I love you and I know you care about me –”
“I love you, you big idiot,” Seb muttered, rolling his eyes. “Now, we’d better get back before Saxa sends out a search party.”
Jalin nodded, but instead of complying with his request, leaned in and kissed him, for longer than was probably comfortable for his sister to watch. When they broke apart she had a knowing grin on her face. Seb just rolled his eyes and stalked off, muttering something about “stupid, happy idiots”.
Taryn walked next to Jalin – she still couldn’t believe he was alive – as they followed after Seb. He glanced down at her and she found herself looking away, afraid to answer the questions he no doubt had. She hadn’t even seen him since she was five years old and he was ten, when the “accident” had taken him from her and his twin sister, Jennifer.
“Wait,” Taryn came to an abrupt halt, turning to stare at Jalin as he stopped next to her. “Do you know about Jen?”
“Yes. She was transported here not six months before you were.” He watched her with a curious expression on his face as he crossed his arms. “She’ll be happy to see you, as I am.”
Taryn’s eyes narrowed at his words. “What happened to you?”
“After they faked my death, you mean?”
Taryn nodded, crossing her own arms as she waited for his answer.
Jalin sighed, running a hand through his hair. “This really isn’t the place for it, but I can give you a brief run-down of what happened.” He let his arms fall down to his sides as he started to explain. “Well, after the fire, I woke up in a hospital room. No one would really tell me what was going on, mostly because I was only ten and they didn’t think they owed me any kind of explanation. Long story short they did quite a few experiments on me. In the end, I ended up getting Bound to a very powerful object they had located. When they couldn’t control it or me, they teleported me here.”
“So how’d you meet Mr. Grumpypants over there?”
Jalin chuckled, his eyes lighting with laughter. “Come on, I’ll tell you the story while we walk. Saxa really will kill us if we’re gone any longer. Mama bear, that one.”
Taryn smiled as she started walking next to her brother, listening as he told her about how he had met Seb.
“I was about to turn nineteen, his twenty-first birthday was the next day. We had gotten a break from all of the scientists and doctors for the day, though it wouldn’t last long. I had no idea who he was, but he was sitting on top of a bookshelf in the library, sharpening a knife. I’d never seen him before then, but as soon as he spotted me he threw the knife straight at me. I just stood there for a moment before I looked down to see that it was sticking out of the floor next to my foot.”
“He threw a knife at you and you didn’t try to kill him?”
Jalin chuckled. “We’ve tried to kill each other plenty of times. Obviously, neither of us have succeeded.” He glanced over at her, a small smile on his lips. “I don’t think I could really kill him even if I wanted to.”
Taryn smiled back. “I think he would kill anyone who tried to hurt you.”
They walked the rest of the way back to the clearing where they had left Saxa in silence. Once they stepped out of the trees they saw Saxa arguing with two people that hadn’t been there when they’d left. Seb was standing off to the side, watching them with a scowl on his face.
As soon as Saxa saw them she pushed her way through the two people standing in front of her and made her way over to them. “Thank gods you’re back, Jal. I’m glad you’re alright.” She glanced at Seb. “You should talk to that fiancé of yours. I’m pretty sure he’s about to get into it with Will and Gemma.” She rolled her eyes in annoyance. “Although, the way they’re acting, I’m not sure I really care.”
“Who are they?” Taryn asked, glancing over to where the man and woman stood, staring at Taryn with very different expressions.
The man, Will, she supposed, seemed interested and thoughtful, whereas Gemma just looked annoyed, like she would rather be anywhere else. Taryn wasn’t sure why, but they seemed to be focused on her. She glanced at Jalin. “Why are they staring at me?”
He shrugged. “It’s probably because you’re new.” He turned his gaze back to Saxa. “What did they do this time that has Sebastian so annoyed?”
“Well, you know Will is Seb’s older brother, right?” At Jalin’s nod, she continued, “He’s trying to convince Seb he should go live with him and Gemma in the City of Dreams. It’s a really stupid freaking idea, considering what happened to Seb the last time he was there.”
Jalin’s expression closed off as he glared at Will. “I’ll be right back.”
“Oh, shit,” Saxa muttered as both she and Taryn watched Jalin walk towards Will and Gemma. “This is not gonna end well.”
Taryn crossed her arms, glancing over at Seb before her gaze returned to her brother. “Should we do something? Try to stop him?”
“I wouldn’t,” Saxa said, shaking her head. “He’s far too protective of Seb to just let this go.”
“Damn idiot,” Seb muttered from Taryn’s other side. “He’s going to make things worse.”
She glanced at him. “How did you -?”
Seb just shot her a look. “Not my fault you weren’t paying attention.”
Taryn rolled her eyes as she turned her attention back to Jalin. His back was rigid and his fists were clenched as he glared at Will. Will just stood there, an eyebrow raised as he gave Jalin an appraising look. “Why does it look like your brother is going to hit on your fiancé?”
“Because he always does.” Seb said, shrugging. “We’ve all learned to accept it. Jalin’ll probably hit him for it this time, though.”
Saxa chuckled. “Your brother’s a pretty set-in-his-ways pacifist, but Will has never pushed it this far before. I didn’t even tell Jalin everything the little shit said.” She glanced at Jeb. “You missed quite a bit before you got here, too. Your lovely little brother, the jackass that he is, suggested I let him take the new girl to the City of Dreams, along with you. I’m not sure if he has a death wish or if this is just some weird new way of trying to court Jalin, but either way, he’s going to get hit for it.”
Seb rolled his eyes. “I would never let him take Taryn to that place.” He glanced at her, a grim look on his face. “You’ll have to go through it anyways to get to Nightwell Castle, and that’s not even mentioning Nightwell Forest.” He sighed. “Anyways, I’m sure Saxa, Jalin, and I will go with you.”
“But…it seemed like it was the last place you would ever want to go.”
“It is.” His voice was quiet, as if his thoughts were in a much darker place. “I’ll go through it again…for you, for Jalin. If it were anyone else, I would tell them where they could shove it.” His gaze slid to hers. “I would advise you to be very, very careful around Will. He likely has a reason for wanting to get both you and I into the City. I doubt his intentions are admirable – they seldom tend to be.”
Saxa snorted. “Will wouldn’t know admirable if it walked up and punched him in the nuts.”
“True,” Seb agreed.
Taryn winced as Will suddenly moved, laying Jalin flat out on his back. Seb tensed up beside her, as did Saxa. Taryn leaned forward slightly as she waited to see what Jalin would do. It had been a long time since they had been together for this long, but if she remembered correctly, he had always been a quiet child, never wanting to hurt a fly. This time, though, she had a feeling things would be different.
Jalin slowly got to his feet, letting his arms hang at his sides as he glared at Will. They were close enough that Taryn could just make out what he was saying. “That wasn’t a smart idea.”
And then all hell broke loose.
Before any of them could make a move to stop him, Jalin had swung his fist towards Will’s face, knocking the man back a step. He rushed forward and grabbed Will’s head, bringing his knee up and slamming Will’s face against it, before picking him up by the front of his shirt and throwing him against the nearest tree.
Jalin turned around and walked back towards them, a stone cold expression on his face. “I don’t regret a thing,” was all he said before he stood next to Seb, leaning against a tree with his arms crossed.
None of them dared to say a word to him.
Taryn turned her attention back to Will, who was now standing with the help of Gemma. Seb scowled in their general direction as he turned to talk to Jalin. Taryn turned towards Saxa, trying to give them a measure of privacy. “So, what’s his deal?” She asked, jerking her head towards Will.
“He’s always pretty much had it out for Seb and things just got worse when he found out about Seb and Jalin. I don’t know if the guy even really has a thing for your big bro, but he sure as hell plays it up.” She rolled her eyes. “Frankly, I think it’s really freaking ridiculous. Seb and Will have never really been forthcoming with the details, but from what I gathered Seb went through two years of torture in the City of Dreams because of Will.” At Taryn’s confused look, she explained, “The City of Dreams may sound like a good thing, but it’s really not. It should really be called the City of Nightmares That Will Drive You To Your Breaking Point.”
“Is it really that bad?”
Saxa nodded, placing a hand on her hip. “Everyone that stays in there for longer than a couple hours goes insane. The longest I’ve been in there was about ten hours and everyone in Nightwell Castle was surprised I kept as sane as I did. They’ve long since given up trying to figure out how Seb survived two years in there.”
“Oh, I keep forgetting you don’t know anything about this world. This place is called Amber Awakening. I’m not really sure why, but most believe it’s because this is where everyone starts out and the first person who woke up here was said to have been called Amber. I’m not sure that’s the real story, but it is what it is.” She shrugged. “Anyways, the surrounding land, forest and all is called the Awakening Maze. Beyond that lies the City of Dreams, and once you’ve passed through there you’ll reach Nightwell Castle, which is surrounded on all sides except the front by Nightwell Forest.”
Taryn stared at Saxa, taking it all in. “And that’s where we’ll be going?”
Saxa nodded, smiling. “You’re taking all this fairly well. I’m not really surprised, though, considering I’ve met both Jalin and Jennifer.”
“You know Jen?” Taryn asked, hopeful. “How is she?”
Saxa smiled. “She’s good. She’ll be really happy to see you, I’m sure. How long has it been for you?”
“Well, she’s four years older than Jalin, so that would make her nine years older than me. The last time I saw her was…right before I woke up here, actually. How is that possible?”
Saxa ran a hand through her hair. “Oh, it’s not all that surprising actually. Time is a bit different here. Jen’s been here almost as long as Jal.” She shrugged. “You were probably in hibernation for a while before they actually teleported you here. Plus, the Awakening process usually takes about two to three months. You were a rare case, though. Only took about three weeks for you to wake up.”
“How do you know so much about this?” Taryn asked.
“My father was one of the head honchos on this whole Project Comatose thing.” Saxa shrugged. “At least, I think that’s what they were calling it.”
“Mm, yeah. I don’t know much about it, but I do know someone who might.” She glanced over at Seb and Jalin. “Her name’s Rebekah... It would be quite a walk to go find her, and most of the time you can’t figure out what the hell she’s trying to say.” She shrugged. “She once said, and I quote, ‘the one who holds the key will see my words’. No one knows what that’s supposed to mean, but we take the newbies to see her just in case.”
“Where does she live?”
“See, that’s the tricky part.” Saxa gestured towards the trees next to them. “She tends to stay just outside the Awakening Maze, but she also doesn’t like the City of Dreams or the Nightwell territory, so it can be pretty hard to pin her down.” She glanced at Will again. “There is one person who might know where she is. He used to be engaged to her before she went insane.”
Taryn followed her gaze. “Please tell me it wasn’t Will.”
“The one and only.”
Taryn sighed, running a hand through her hair. “What are the chances we can get him to help us?”
“Not too great, considering your brother kicked the crap out of him.” She shrugged. “Seriously, though? I’m not sure. Why don’t you go try and talk to him? You’re new and he may not know who Jalin is to you. Plus, he tends to have a fondness for newbies.”
Taryn gave her a skeptical look. “You sure that’s a good idea?”
“If you want to find Rebekah it’s likely your best bet. Just try to remember not everyone was a jerkface before they experienced this world. Who knows? In another world you and Will might have been best friends.”
Still unsure, Taryn replied hesitantly, “Maybe.”
“If you’re not sure about it, trying talking to Seb and Jal first,” Saxa suggested. “Seb may very well have some insight on his brother.”
Taryn nodded before she turned around and walked over to where her brother stood next to Seb. Jalin turned a grim smile on her. “I am sorry you had to see that.”
Taryn shrugged. “Seems like he probably deserved it.”
Seb snorted. “Sure did, the bastard.”
Jalin rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Seb,” he said in what was likely a warning. “He’s still your brother.”
“He’s still an asshole,” Seb shot back.
“Why, though?” Taryn asked. “Why is he like that?”
Seb shrugged. “It’s hard to say. We weren’t exactly close, before this place. I hadn’t seen him in years and the fact that I nearly threw him in a river when I saw him didn’t exactly bode well for our relationship.”
Taryn chuckled, before she covered her mouth with a hand. “You would have killed him?”
Seb was grinning. “And you thought what happened with you two was bad.”
Taryn rolled her eyes as she crossed her arms. “Saxa thinks I should talk to him. Any tips?”
“Don’t bring up your brother,” Seb said with a smirk. “Or me, for that matter.”
Jalin rolled his eyes as Seb continued,1* “You should probably just pretend like you don’t know any of us. Probably your best bet to getting any useful information out of him.”
“Maybe.” Taryn glanced over at where Will was standing before she turned her attention back to Jalin and Seb. “After I talk to him, you guys really have to explain more about this place, whatever it is. I don’t even know what those things you guy fought were.”
Seb smirked. “Psyhounds. Little bitches that they are. My lovely brother over there can tell you all you want to know about them. He’s got one as a Protector, after all.”
“Protector?” Taryn asked, arching an eyebrow in confusion. “You all have got to stop using words that have hidden meanings in this place.”
Jalin gave her a reassuring smile, patting her shoulder. “You’ll get used to it. After a while, everything starts to make sense. Once we can determine what exactly you’re Bound to and you find your Protector, it’ll all be a lot less confusing.”
“Really?” Taryn asked skeptically. “I’m beginning to doubt I’ll understand anything you guys say.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Seb commented off-handedly. “But I would be careful about how long you keep standing there. My brother’s watching you and soon enough he’s going to peg you as ‘one of us’.”
“I sense a backstory.”
Seb chuckled. “Maybe you can pry it out of me later.” He glanced over at Saxa. “Right now, there’s a cat lady who wants to talk to us.”
Taryn glanced over her shoulder at Saxa. “She’s probably waiting for me to go talk to Will.” She shrugged, returning her gaze to her brother. “Please try not to do anything entirely stupid while I’m gone.”
Seb snorted. “I’ve been telling him that for years.”
Instead of waiting to hear Jalin’s answer to that, Taryn turned and walked over towards Will and Gemma. She crossed her arms, giving him a hard look. “So you’ve been staring at me for, like, ten minutes. Care to tell me why?”
Will chuckled. “You were talking to my brother for most of the time I was staring at you.”
“I’d like to know what you were talking about.”
Taryn arched an eyebrow at him. “He was telling me what an asshole you are. Care to contradict him?”
Will shrugged. “No, he’s right. I am an asshole.”
“So why does everyone here hate you?” Taryn asked after a minute of them staring at each other in silence, sizing each other up. “I mean, there must be a good reason that guy went after you.”
Will chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” His gaze fell on something just over Taryn’s shoulder and she had to force herself not to turn around and follow it, knowing it would be on Jalin and Seb. “We have a bit of a history.”
“Why are you talking to us?” Gemma finally spoke up. “Unless Saxa sent you, no one is stupid enough to go against Sebastian.”
Taryn turned towards her, shrugging. “I’m new. I’m just trying to figure out who everyone is. The only ones I’ve met are Saxa, Seb, and Jalin.”
“And you’re Taryn, right?” Will asked without meeting her gaze.
“Sure am. You know it’s rude not to look at people when you’re talking to them, right?”
Will let his gaze fall back on Taryn, smirking. “I like you.” He glanced at Gemma then back at Taryn. “Tell Saxa I’ll take you guys to see Rebekah. Should be an interesting trip, anyways.”
“Sure.” Taryn started walking back towards Jalin and Seb, but before she’d taken more than two steps, paused and threw over her shoulder, “Oh, and quit staring at my brother. It’s creepy.”