C4 Chapter 4 THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HELL
"There are monsters in the world, Arianna. They are real. I am real."
I'm in my mom's room, watching the machines pump life into her as the doctor explains what's happening.
"Her body is failing," Dr. Cameron says. "She doesn't have much longer, I'm afraid."
"I don't understand." I walk over and hold her hand, my finger once again brushing on the strange mark on her wrist. "Why can't the machines keep her alive longer? Can't people live for years this way?"
"Some, yes," the doctor says. "But not everyone. Sometimes the damage is too great. The body too weak." She's firm, calm, so sure of herself and her diagnosis.
But I can't accept this is it. The end of her story. "How long does she have?" I ask, my voice shaking.
"Hours, at most." She glances down at my mother's chart. "Maybe less." When she looks up, her eyes are compassionate, but in a detached, doctor way. She must see death all the time. "I'm sorry. I wish there was more we could do. I'll leave you alone to say your goodbyes."
Tom, the nurse who has always been so kind to me, squeezes my hand as he follows the doctor out. "I'm sorry, honey."
Once they leave and the door is closed firmly behind them, I sink into the chair next to my mother. I'm not ready to say goodbye. Not yet. Not forever.
My eyes fall to my bag. I still have the file Asher gave me. His note said it would show me the truth. I reach for it and tear it open, spreading the papers out on the edge of my mother's bed. There are newspaper clippings and police reports. I read through them quickly, then again more slowly.
Then once more. Word by word.
Seventeen years ago a fiery car crash in Seattle, Washington claimed the lives of David Stranson and his two-year-old daughter. The mother, Camilla, survived with severe injuries. Attached to the police report are death certificates for both the father and child.
The newspaper article also features a picture of the family. A mother and father smiling over their baby.
It is the picture that freezes my blood. That stops my heart. That shortens my breath.
It is the picture my mother has on her dresser.
The picture of me with my parents.
I study each document carefully. The names are different, but everything else is the same. Dates, birthdays, physical descriptions.
I squeeze my eyes shut as my nightmares flash in my mind. Screeching metal. The smell of burning rubber. Blood everywhere. Screaming. Pain. Darkness.
"You are remembering. That is good."
My eyes pop open and land on the mysterious man—the demon... the vampire—standing on the other side of my mother's bed. "What is this?" I stand and hold the papers in my fist. "How could any of this be true?"
"I have already told you," Asher says, his voice smooth, polished, hypnotic. "You died that day in the accident. Your mother made a deal, her soul to save your life. She was smart. She bargained for more time, time to raise you to adulthood. Then her payment came due, and deals made with devils cannot be broken."
My hand is shaking as I drop the paperwork onto the bed and collapse in the chair. "So it's all true? This is real?"
"It is. And you must decide soon, if you want to save her life." He looks pointedly at my mother. As if on cue, her monitor begins to beep.
"Did you do that?" I ask.
"No. Her body is failing. Make your choice, Arianna. Sign in blood and let this be done. The moment you do, she will stabilize."
I pick up the paperwork and shove it into my bag before the hospital staff come to check on the monitors. "And your contract guarantees her physical safety until her soul is returned to her?" I ask as I pull my bag to me. "She will not die by any means? She will return to her body in full health?"
"As you wish," he says.
I pull the scroll out of my bag and hand it to him. "Write that in. Include that specifically. That she will be restored to full and perfect health when she awakens. That she will not die or be harmed while she is in the coma. That you will make sure she has the best medical care and that all her bills will be covered."
He raises an eyebrow. "Very well." Pulling out a pen, he adds a few lines in neat scroll to the contract.
My mind is spinning. My mother is dying. I have to hurry, but once I sign this, it's over. I have no more room for negotiation. "Also, I want to be able to come back here for one day every week to check on my mom and see my friends."
Asher shakes his head. "You ask too much. This is not as simple as taking a drive to the town over."
I narrow my eyes at him. "You sure seem to get around fast enough when you want. It can't be that hard. I have to be able to check on my mom, to make sure you are holding up your end of the bargain. I don't know why I'm so important to your plans, and I'm sure I'll find out in some mysterious and nefarious way, but in the meantime, if you really do need me, then make this happen."
"Not every week," he says. "That is too much. Once a month. And only for half a day."
"Fine, once a month, but for a full day."
"Half a day, or nothing," he says, and I can see in his eyes I have no room left with which to negotiate. I swallow and nod.
"Very well," he grumbles, adding in my terms. He hands the scroll back to me as Tom comes in.
The monitor is still beeping, louder now. Tom looks between me and Asher. "Only family is allowed in here," he says.
"I am family," Asher says, smiling.
Tom looks to me as if to make sure this is okay. I nod and he shrugs and checks the monitors, his face paling when he sees the readouts. "I need to get the doctor. Be right back."
He scurries out, and I look down at the scroll, reading through the changes. My mother's body begins to seize and the doctor rushes in with two nurses. They tell us to get out of the way, and Asher and I fall back to give them space. He hands me a quill with a sharp edge that looks more like a knife, and leans over to whisper in my ear. "It takes blood to bind us."
I turn away from the hospital staff and place the scroll on a rolling table, then slice my arm with the quill. The cut stings and my eyes water as the pen's sharp tip soaks up the blood. I find the spot meant for my name, and with my own fresh blood, I sign.
The moment I dot the 'i' in Arianna, the machines attached to my mother fall silent. I suck in my breath as a hot flash of pain burns the inside of my right wrist. I push up the cuff of my sweatshirt and see a raised symbol forming in my flesh.
Asher flashes his own wrist. "You belong to us now," he says ominously. He takes the scroll from my hand and tucks it into his suit, then bows. "I'll give you today to wrap up your earthly affairs. Tonight you will make your new home in hell."
I look over at my mom, who is still lying in bed lifeless, but there is color in her face that wasn't there before. She looks healthier. More alive. The doctor and nurses examine her, perplexed expressions on their faces.
"Your mother has stabilized, against all odds," the doctor says. "I've never seen anything like it."
When I turn to say something to Asher, he's already gone. Instead, I go to my mother and hold her hand, feeling a sickening dread at what I've just done, but also a strange kind of hope. If she lives, if she comes back into her body restored, healed, and no longer in pain, then it was worth it.
I spend the next few hours thinking of a cover story for my impending absence that won't make me sound insane. And I wonder at the logistics. Do I keep my apartment for if and when my mother heals? Pack it up? What are the social protocols for absconding to hell after making a deal with a vampire demon?
When I leave the hospital and head to The Roxy, I'm prepared, but it's still not easy when I tell them I'm resigning.
There are hugs and tears and Shari pulls me aside and stashes an envelope full of money into my bag. "Take care of yourself, girl. And don't be a stranger. Free food for life, right here."
I hug her and kiss her cheek. "Thank you."
Es is at work that day, and she hears the news first. The news being my fake story about how that rich stranger who came into The Roxy the other night offered me a high paying job with his law firm after finding out about my interest in law, but it means international travel and being gone for a long time. "It also means the best health insurance. My mom will be taken care of, and I'll be able to support her when she recovers," I explain.
Es is a sobbing mess, hugging me and making me promise to keep in touch. An idea occurs to me and I smile. "How would you and Pete like to move into my apartment while I'm gone? I know you hate your roommate. This would give you privacy, and I need someone to look after it. You can have my room."
Her eyes light up, even through the smudged makeup. "That would be... amazing. But are you sure? It has all of your things. And your mom's... "
"I'm sure. I don't want to leave it empty while I'm gone. Take it. You'd be doing me a favor." She already has a key, so I just tell her I'm leaving that night, and I'll pack up my room so she has space for her things.
We hug again and I leave, my heart heavy from the goodbyes. Is there Wi-Fi in this hell world, I wonder? Will I ever see my mother and friends again? My contract negotiation skills might have gotten me what I wanted, but that doesn't mean the princes will honor it once I'm in their world. They could do anything they want to me once I'm there, and no one would ever know. My attention is drawn to the strange new mark on my wrist. I don't know if it's just my imagination, but I can almost feel the power in my skin tying me to the princes and my new life, binding me to them for all eternity. The thought that this might be the final goodbye nearly cripples me, but I can't let Es see that. I have to stay strong, just a little while longer.
I don't know what to expect, or what to bring. I pack up my room, put the boxes in my mom's, and shove a few things into my own bag to take with me. Mostly the sentimental items I can't replace, plus my favorite jeans and shirts and a sweatshirt.
My thoughts drift to Fen as I wait for Asher to arrive. I would have liked to say goodbye, but I have no way of contacting him. I tried looking for him last time I was at the hospital, to no avail. I consider leaving a note for Es to give him, just in case he pops back around while I'm gone, but what would it say? Sorry I missed you. Living in hell now. Wish you were here?
That probably won't work. So I just send a silent message out to him, thanking him for his help and wishing him well, wherever he might be.
I pace my living room for another hour, waiting, when finally the doorbell rings. I wasn't sure if the vampire would actually knock or just magically appear as he's wont to do.
I open the door and Asher is standing there, smiling, looking like he just stepped out of a GQ magazine. "Let's go to hell, shall we?"
I'm not ready. Not at all. But he leads me to a limousine parked in front of my apartment, and I freeze. "Can't we... I don't know... walk?"
He frowns, staring at me. "Walk? You think we can walk to where we are going?"
"Well, I don't think we can get there via limousine either," I say. "So you must be taking me someplace... human... where we will then use whatever black magic you wield to enter your world. So can't we walk to your human place at least?"
"No. Get in."
I sigh and slide in, clutching my bag to my lap as I sit awkwardly in the plush leather seats. I've never been in a limo before, but Asher looks like this is something he's quite used to.
He offers me a glass of champagne as the driver pulls out of the parking spot, but I shake my head. "I'm good, thanks."
"You look terrified. How is it that when I expose you to the monsters of nightmares, you respond with sass, but when I put you in a vehicle, you tremble with fear?" It only takes a moment for the proverbial lightbulb to go off in his head. "I see. The accident. You are still traumatized. Pity. You're much too fierce and clever to live under the weight of that one moment your whole life. You really should move on."
I snort. "Sure thing, Prince. I'll get right on that."
He scowls at me and we don't talk again for the rest of the drive. It takes us about twenty minutes to pull onto a large property full of tall trees that block out the sky. When we pull up to an elaborate gate designed into a beautiful tree with roots, the driver rolls down his window to enter a code into the security system. The gate opens, splitting the tree in half as it does, and we drive through. It's then that I see the house... or rather, mansion. "I didn't think we had anything like this in Oregon," I say.
"No one knows it's here, and we like to keep it that way. This is our home when we are in the mortal realm for business. It will be your home when you come here, under guard of course, for your monthly visits. You are never to bring anyone here. No one must know about it."
"You guys must be the life of the party," I mutter.
He ignores me as we pull up to the front door.
"Will I be meeting all of you now?" I'm nervous at the prospect of being in the same room with seven demonic vampires, one of whom I'm supposed to choose as a mate. I think that's a reasonable fear, at this point.
"No, the rest are busy at the moment. I'll take you to our world and bring you to High Castle."
A castle? "What's it like? Hell?"
"You'll see soon enough."
I'm still clutching my bag tightly when we enter the mansion and he gives me a ridiculously fast tour. I try to keep track of it all in my head. Tall ceilings, beautifully polished furniture, tapestries and paintings hanging from the walls, a huge stone fireplace in the living quarters with deep couches and chairs in red and gold fabric. Wall sized television in another room with surround-sound speakers. The kitchen is a dream, stocked with everything a gourmet cook would need to make a masterpiece. "Do vampires eat?"
"We do," he says. "The living on blood alone is a myth. We need blood, but we need food too."
At least, once I'm turned, I won't have to give up food. That's good news.
"What about the sun?"
"We cannot be in the human sun. It burns us. But our world has its own sun that does us no harm."
"Why any of it? The blood. The sun. Why would our world be so inhospitable to you at the same time as it is so necessary for your survival."
"Curses aren't meant to be pleasant," he says, snickering.
"Who cursed you?"
"Our uncle, of course. Really, it's like you know nothing." I try to argue, but he continues. "Come on now. We have to hurry." He walks me through the halls and shows me door after door, explaining which prince they belong to. He stops in front of the last door in the hall. "This is your room."
I open it and see a four-poster canopy bed with cream and gold bedding. A fire roars opposite the window, and a small couch, chair and table are set to one side. An armoire and dresser with a vanity are set on the other.
"You have your own private washroom," he says, pointing to a door by the dresser. "I'll leave you to freshen up and then we venture forth. I've taken the liberty of providing suitable clothing for you. Please use them."
I look down at my jeans and t-shirt. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
"You are being presented to our people as the future Princess, and Queen. You cannot arrive looking as you do."
When he leaves, I drop my bag on the floor and look through the dresser and armoire. It is filled with silks and satins and shoes I'm not sure I could walk in. There's a knock at the door, and before I can answer an older woman enters. She's dressed in a long black dress that is entirely functional. Her hair is greying and pulled into a tight bun. "My name is Mrs. Landon, and I've been sent to help you dress," she says in a British accent.
"I'm quite sure I can dress on my own, but thank you."
"Nonsense," she says. "I'm here to help." She opens the armoire and pulls out a sleeveless white satin gown. "This goes well with your complexion. Now off with your clothes."
While I undress self-consciously, she hands me lace panties and shoes that match the dress. Once I've put on my undergarments, she has me step into the dress, then she buttons up the row of satin buttons on my back. There are no zippers, and I wonder how I'll ever get this off. Once she is done, she pulls my hair into a French twist and then directs me to sit in front of the vanity while she does my makeup. I barely recognize myself when she's done.
She hands me a long coat of soft white fur—faux I hope—and nods her head. "That will do well. Be off with you now. The Prince is waiting."
"Where am I to go?" I barely remember the layout of this place.
"Down the stairs. Just keep going down. You'll find a door at the bottom. Knock and he'll let you in."
I reach for my bag but she shakes her head. "You're not to bring anything with you. Just what you're wearing."
"Fine, but I want my necklace." I put the pendant on before she can protest, then pull the coat around my shoulders and leave the room. I find the winding stair case and follow it down. It stops at different levels in the mansion, but I keep walking until I find myself standing in front of an elaborate door carved from a very rich wood. I knock and wait. Asher opens. He's dressed formally, in a tuxedo of sorts, but not a modern one. It looks custom made and like something royalty would wear before clothing was mass produced.
He raises an eyebrow when he sees me. "You clean up quite well."
"I wasn't dirty," I say, stepping into the room with him.
It's nothing grand. A small room—relatively speaking—with stone walls, bookshelves lining them, a lone desk with a chair in the corner, and a mirror.
The mirror is the most remarkable piece. It's tall and smooth, made from a golden wood carved into beautiful images around the glass. Mermaids and dragons and fairies and all manner of fairytale scenes play out in the designs. I run a hand over the rich wood and shiver.
"That is our door to your new home," he says.
"Like a portal?"
I can see myself in the mirror, my red lips and white dress, pale skin and black hair pulled up. Asher stands next to me, but he is invisible in the mirror. "So it's true? Vampires don't have reflections?"
"We can," he says. "Just not in mirrors. We'll show up in film and water reflections. But mirrors, all mirrors, are doorways to us, and thus do not allow reflections, but rather glimpses into another realm."
"So we could have gotten to your world through any mirror? Even one at my house?"
"We could get there using a pocket mirror if we so choose, though that manner of travel is a bit... pinched."
"Then why all this?" I ask, waving my hand at the extravagant mirror before us.
He shrugs. "What can I say? We have a flair for the dramatic. Are you ready?"
"If I'm not, would that change anything?"
"No. Not a thing. I was just trying to be polite."
"It doesn't suit you," I say.
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Why can't I bring my own stuff?" I ask. I'm mostly missing my phone. My one life-line back to my friends and my mother.
"You will see soon enough. Modern technology does not work in our world. We cannot bring anything with us that was made with machines or advancements our world doesn't have."
I frown at that. "Why?"
"It's part of our curse."
He offers me his arm, and I take it, trying not to let my hand shake too much.
And then he pulls me into the mirror.
I close my eyes, half expecting to crash into glass, but instead I sink into thick liquid. It doesn't feel wet, and I can still breathe.
My head spins, and lights and shadows play against my eye lids. I'm scared to open my eyes, to see what I've committed my soul to.
"You can look now, Princess," Asher says. "You're home. Welcome to hell."