The Dark Calling – Kresley Cole

Do you not know you’re pregnant? Do you not know? Do you not know? I sputtered, “I-I . what?” Tick-tock. Tick freaking tock. I’d been struggling to wrap my head around Jack’s possible survival, trying to decide if Matthew was bent on driving me crazy. Now this? Aric’s blond brows drew together. “You’re carrying our child.” Though he sat beside me on the edge of the bed, he sounded miles distant. “I was wondering why you hadn’t told me. Clearly you had no idea.” This. Could. Not. Be.

I was seventeen, riding out an apocalypse and counting on a one-way trip against Richter. I clutched the sheets as the bed seemed to spin. “I didn’t know—because it can’t have happened. I’m on something. There’s no way.” “There must have been. Paul tested your blood.” “You let him take my blood when I was passed out?” The idea of the two of them administering a pregnancy test on me rankled. My reaction seemed to surprise Aric. “Yes. After my wife lost consciousness, I bade our medic to determine what ailed her.” When he put it like that, I sounded ridiculous to question his actions.

“You were out for an entire day.” “That long?” I glanced out the window. A blizzard raged in the never-ending night. Lightning flashed as brightly as daylight, illuminating the dense shower. Last I knew, we’d been hightailing it away from Richter and Zara’s attack after meeting up with Finn. Then Matthew had contacted me, giving me a blinding headache and a nosebleed, but letting me hear Jack. Matthew could have pulled up an old memory of Jack’s voice, fooling me into believing he lived. But why? “Sievā, when you lost consciousness, I was frantic.” I turned back to Aric. Silvery rays of light shot through the blinds, accentuating how tired he looked.

He obviously hadn’t slept. “Something else must be wrong. I can sense a seed deep in the ground—wouldn’t I be able to tell if something was growing inside of me?” He frowned. “Not necessarily.” “So how far along does Paul think I am?” For weeks, I’d had that ominous countdown feeling in my head. Had I been sensing this? “His test could only confirm positive or negative. I was so stunned that I asked him to run it twice.” Of course Aric would be stunned. He’d longed for a kid. Yet even when he’d wanted to try to start a family with me, he’d doubted Death could help create life.

My heart twisted for him. When he found out he’d been duped . “Paul’s lying to you. I took a shot. Remember? You and I talked about it.” Aric had been delighted that I’d premeditated sleeping with him. “We did. But I have to wonder how you’re pregnant if a contraceptive was administered.” “He must’ve faked the test results.” I knew how insane this sounded, but I still expected Aric to trust my word.

“You believe his story? That he tried to get me on birth control and I refused? Why would I do such a thing?” Seeming to choose his words very carefully, Aric asked, “Why would he lie?” “I don’t know.” Paul had always been the most helpful person in this household. He’d taken such great care of my grandmother that I could’ve nominated him for sainthood. “During that time, you were going through intense stress. And you admitted that things had gotten confused in your mind.” Before the Flash, I’d been programmed by Gran, then deprogrammed in a psych ward. After our reunion, she’d nearly programmed me again. In her last days, I recalled thinking that my brain felt like Swiss cheese. Or a bloody battlefield. “Perhaps they have again?” Aric offered gently.

“Are you so certain of your own memories?” Ugh! I wished I hadn’t admitted my memory issues to him. “I remember the prick of the needle. I remember counting the shots Paul had left, figuring that Lark might want some once she found Finn.” What if Paul had given me a dummy shot? No! I refused to believe that. Because it would mean . Nope. Not going there. God, I didn’t need this right now; I needed to find out if Jack was alive. What if I’d . imagined Matthew’s call? Aric said, “I think you have been through too much trauma and tragedy.

How could it not affect you? Especially during a pregnancy?” I could kill Paul for this! Not because I believed I was knocked up, but because Aric did. This would crush the knight. Though he’d adored his parents, Aric had accidentally killed them—and their unborn child— with his touch. Through one of Matthew’s visions, I’d experienced Aric’s harrowing grief. Even after two millennia had passed, he still carried it. “You told me that you trusted my judgment. I helped save our asses against Richter, but you’re taking Paul’s word over mine? He’s lying, which means he’s dangerous. Yet you’re letting him walk around free!” “When I realized his version of events was vastly different from what you told me two months ago, I asked Lark to monitor his movements with a creature.” Which only worked when she was awake. “I’m going to confront him.

” I leapt from the bed. Aric swiftly rose to assist me. “In time. You need rest.” I grabbed my robe, pulling it over my nightgown. “Because of my alleged ‘condition’? I feel fine.” “Can we not discuss this first? I am asking you to wait. Can you do that for me?” When I hesitated, he said, “Let me draw you a bath. We can talk. You can relax and contemplate things.

” “A bath?” Not a murder? “You can confront him later; he isn’t going anywhere. Come, love.” If I was pregnant, I would definitely eviscerate Paul, and the red witch—my homicidal alter ego —would want to savor the kill. Maybe I should wait for my powers to recharge a bit. As my adrenaline waned, my weakness increased. “Fine.” For now, I would cooperate with Aric. I allowed him to lead me from the bedroom, shuffling along docilely—just as I had whenever the nurses had steered me around the mental ward. As Aric filled the tub, the winds roared outside. “What’s going on with this weather?” “A blizzard blew in not long after we arrived back here.

We’ve had nothing but snow and lightning.” “What happened with Joules and Gabriel after I passed out? I’m sure you were all politeness when you kicked them out of the truck.” A stray thought: Where’s the wedding ring I had in my pocket? I’d vowed to give it to Aric after we’d returned home with Finn. “Alas, I managed zero politeness when I ejected them.” He added my favorite bath crystals to the water, bubbles forming. “In my haste to get you medical care, I drove directly here, taking no pains to elude them. I have little doubt that they followed us. Circe confirmed that she saw something land on the next mountain over, just in advance of this blizzard.” I tied my hair into a knot above my head. “Will they attack?” Had we bonded with them enough when all of us had worked together to survive? At the edge of the tub, Aric helped me undress.

“If they get hungry enough, they will. But should they somehow make it past Lark and Circe, they’d be thwarted by our home’s defenses. Not even the Flash could overcome our blast-proof doors and bulletproof windows. We’ll keep the castle on lockdown.” He took my hand and assisted me into the water. “In you go. Is the temperature acceptable?” No. I wanted to scour my skin. I reached for the hot water lever, but he stayed my hand. “Too warm isn’t good right now.

” He rose to switch on the bathroom heater, then returned to sit beside the tub. “What are you talking about?” “While you were unconscious, I did some reading. I have few books on the subject of pregnancy, but I scanned them all. Excessively hot baths aren’t recommended.” Oh, yeah. That. “I’m not knocked up.” “Then why do you think you lost consciousness?” He dipped a cloth into the water. As he ran it over my back, my lids went heavy. “Why do you think your nose bled? I read that both can be symptoms of pregnancy.

” Should I confess to him that Matthew had communicated with me? That Jack might have? Or would Aric take that as proof that I was mental? I had more than one reason for confronting Paul. I needed to know if my mind was right. Chain of logic, Evie. If Paul convinced me that he was telling the truth about the shot, then I’d know I was whackadoodle enough to imagine other things—like Jack’s voice. If I decided that Paul was lying, then why should I not trust my own mind? Why should I not believe Jack lived? Reason told me that I’d gotten everything confused. History told me I’d had problems before, and I’d heaped tons of stress on myself. But I needed to believe. I told Aric, “That truck window exploding in my face might’ve had something to do with my symptoms. Or anxiety. Even Paul said I probably had PTSD.

” That asshole. I dunked my hands under the bubbles, hiding my purple thorn claws. “Have you spoken with Lark or Circe about this?” “They’ve both heard you’re with child, of course. There’s little they do not hear.” Lark spied through her creatures, Circe through water. We didn’t have a lot of secrets here at Castle Lethe, a.k.a. the castle of lost time. “Then they might’ve picked up on my conversation with Paul.

” He shook his head. “Regrettably, no.” “You asked them? Why couldn’t you simply accept what I’d told you?” “Can you say without any doubt whatsoever that he lied?” After a hesitation, I said, “No. But I don’t trust him.” Unfortunately, I didn’t trust myself completely either. Aric washed one of my arms, then the other. “Until you have decided with absolute certainty, I will lock Paul in his rooms. Will that make you feel better?” “Why are you being so understanding with him?” “Not everything is black and white in this situation.” He paused with the cloth. “This pregnancy does not strike me as lamentable.

Nor worthy of a murderous rage. Yet your hair was turning red earlier.” “So, Paul will be acquitted because you don’t think this is lamentable? He’s screwing with our lives.” With my mind. “He has been a loyal servant to me since not long after the Flash.” Aric had once told me that the medic had grown up in this area. After the apocalypse, he’d found Paul in the nearest town, treating others’ injuries, sharing his supplies with them. Aric had hired him, inviting him back here to do anything and everything—castle maintenance, vehicle repairs, cooking, cleaning. “Well, he hasn’t been loyal to me.” I pulled my knees up to my chest.

“And where’s your loyalty? I told you that I wasn’t ready to have kids, that I didn’t want to bring a child into a world like this.” For a split second, I wondered if Aric had conspired with Paul. My resentment simmered hotter and hotter. I understood why the Fury Card spat acid. I wished I could right now. “You can’t truly want a kid.” Seeming to tread carefully again, Aric said, “I don’t not want it. Maybe your pregnancy was inevitable. After all, a fertility goddess imbued you with powers. For ages, the Empress Card has been associated with motherhood.

” And with wrath; I’d been imbued by the goddess Demeter as well. When she’d gotten enraged enough, she’d laid a curse on the entire earth. I remembered the red witch saying, “Demeter withholds viciously—and gives lavishly. GIVE,” right before I’d euthanized a colony of plague victims. Matthew had told me, “Power is your burden.” Not lately. Aric continued, “When you wanted to use contraception, I agreed. But for whatever reason, this is our situation now. And I, for one, welcome it. After all the death I’ve caused—” “I’m seventeen!” “Your current incarnation has lived that long, but over your lifetimes, you’re much older.

” Equal frustration showed in his expression, but he stifled it. “Can you not see why this could be a good thing, sievā? We will change history. Overturn the game. Perhaps even end it.” That prospect called to me. Before I’d lost Jack, I’d wanted to end the game more than anything. But the fact remained: I wasn’t pregnant. Aric cupped my cheek. “Talk to me. I need to know all the thoughts in your beautiful mind.

” Jack’s possible survival. Paul’s lies. Aric’s coming disappointment. Claws. Poison. Punishment. “I’m done.” With my bath. With waiting to vent this rage. I stood in the tub, glaring when Aric used his speed to lift me and wrap a robe around me.

“I can walk.” “As you wish.” He slowly set me on my feet. Back in our room, I passed the full-length mirror, pausing to take in my appearance. My eyes were glassy, my cheeks pale. I didn’t look pregnant. In the reflection, I spied the white bloom in a vase beside my bed, the rose plant Aric had grown from a seed after we’d had sex for the first time. Over the millennia, he’d always carried a white rose on his standard. I’d painted one on the wall that overlooked our bed. Was that budding rose one of those memory waypoints my grandmother had told me about? If so, what else did it signify? Aric stood behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.

For everyone else who’d ever lived, contact with his skin was lethal. For me, his touch was warm and pleasurable. Together we were different. If Paul had given me a dummy shot, why wouldn’t I have gotten pregnant? After all the times Aric and I had had sex? Potentially unprotected sex. I swallowed thickly, then closed my eyes to take a mental inventory of myself, using the same power I’d used to find seeds deep in the earth. Sensing, sensing . I opened my eyes, staring into my own hollow-eyed gaze. Oh, dear God. Something felt fundamentally off with me. Another glance at the white bloom.

Aric had planted more than a rose seed two months ago. I was . pregnant. “You perceive something, do you not?” Life and Death had gotten together—how could I think there’d be no repercussions? Realization struck: I was always going to get pregnant by him. He was right; it did feel inevitable. Didn’t mean Paul would escape my wrath. Over the last several months, we’d been puzzled why my powers had grown weaker. Aside from the global destruction of plants, I’d blamed the Bagman bites I’d sustained or the weather—cold and lack of sunlight in the endless night. Aric had blamed my bottled-up grief over Jack. Whatever the cause, a pregnancy couldn’t be helping things.

How would I contribute in the battle against Richter like this? I was now effectively benched— and would be for months to come. Aric caught my gaze in the mirror. “Love, all will be well if you trust me.” Paul had garnered my trust. The doctors in the mental ward had wanted me to trust them. Gran had. Matthew had. The Hermit had. Just tell me your story. I was tired of trusting, could barely bite back that acid rage.

The Empress didn’t get caged or contained. Or compromised. Aric had seen me as a bloodthirsty red witch in the past and must fear I’d return to form. He should. If Paul had screwed with me, he’d die. I told Aric, “I am pregnant.” His eyes glittered with emotion. “So you are, little wife.” I smiled into the mirror. “Which means I’m going to kill Paul.

” 2 “This can’t be undone,” Aric told me as I laced up my boots. “If you’re wrong, you will have murdered an unarmed mortal who’s been of great service to everyone here. Guilt for things in the past already eats at you.” “Paul gave me a shot and told me it was a contraceptive. This happened.” Almost positive about that. I finished with my boots. “I believe it’s a woman’s choice when to start a family. Paul has robbed me of my choice. I’m going to punish him for it.

” “Who will deliver our child? After working as an EMT, he attended two years of medical school. He’s the only one with medical experience. When I prepared this castle for any foreseeable future, I never imagined that you and I would have a baby—I have no other doctor for you.” “That’s a problem I shouldn’t even have to consider.” More blame going to Paul. “If not for your sake, then think of the Magician.” Finn had gotten his leg mangled in a cannibal’s bear trap. Then he’d rebroken it fighting the Lovers. The bone had never healed properly. “Paul believes he can reset the boy’s leg.

” I tensed. “He won’t touch Finn.” My happy-go-lucky friend might be a trickster, but the Magician was no match for Paul’s scheming. Aric looked taken aback by my tone. Changing tack, he said, “For two thousand years, I’ve rewarded faithful service from the mortals I employ, providing protection and guidance. Do we not owe Paul some consideration after his care of your grandmother?” I recalled the medic’s gentle expression as he’d tugged up Gran’s cover, and a nagging doubt surfaced. I quashed it. “Paul saved your life,” Aric pointed out. “He dug bullets out of your heart.” “I can regenerate.

” “Not when you had a contagion in your veins. His quick work could have been the difference between your surviving or not. I owe him my eternal gratitude for that alone.” “You think that contagion ran its course?” I tapped my chin. “Or maybe this spawn of ours will be part Bagger.” After all, it’d only been a few months since four Bagmen had bitten me, per Sol’s orders. With friends like that . “I’m confident it ran its course. Remember how hard you were able to push yourself dancing? You were blooming with health.” Except for my powers.

“But that brings to mind an important point: You somehow found a way to trust the Sun Card after his betrayal, and he redeemed himself. I fear that if you suspend your trust of Paul, you’ll hate yourself. Especially if he’s innocent of malice.” “He’s not. For whatever reason, he’s lied to you about me. You told me you don’t let vipers slither around in your home. Either he goes, or I go.” Go. Out into the wastelands. Was the game calling me forth? At that moment, I yearned to leave.

To find out if Jack lived. To forgive Matthew if he did. Maybe I wasn’t hearing anything more from them because I was too deep in this castle, too far behind Circe’s watery boundary. Out in the Ash, I might have a better chance of getting to the bottom of Matthew’s message. But Aric would never let me go. Especially not now. Yet more blame to lay at Paul’s feet. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Aric said, right on cue. “You’re not going anywhere.” He hadn’t said that Paul would be leaving instead.

With a roll of my eyes, I headed toward the door. Aric followed. We started for the east wing, wending our way among the numerous animals tromping, waddling, and skittering through the castle hallways. He scowled when a family of porcupines simply gazed at us, refusing to budge. As we edged around them, I said, “It’s freezing in here.” My breaths smoked. The vines and roses I’d grown along the ceilings were already withering. “I’ve started conserving fuel. Only our wing and the occupied rooms will be heated from now on.” “You told Jack we had fifty years of fuel.

” “That was before I knew we would have a child. Resources must be managed differently now.” “What else has changed?” I slowed to a stop. “Maybe our plan to go out in a blaze of glory together?” He and I had agreed on a one-way ticket to fight Richter and save mankind. “I know you, Aric. I know you’ve already been puzzling out these new moving pieces . ” Suddenly I couldn’t get enough air. “One of us will have to live to raise a kid. You’re going to make me win the game!” I’d be forced to endure his demise, then later our child’s. I’d have to endure life alone as an immortal for centuries.

In the meantime, I’d be separated from all the fighting, helpless to have a say. “No,” he said firmly. “Lark informed me she has no interest in immortality without the Magician, so I spoke to Circe.” About being our Arcana patsy? “She has agreed to win the game, at a time in the far distant future. For now, we will defeat Richter and survive the battle. We will fight hard to live. Both of us.” “How? What’s different?” “I wish I had a specific answer for you, but I don’t just yet. I learned that we’re having a child less than a day ago. For eons, I’d envisioned a certain existence, then I altered my plans to have a life with you.

Now everything is in flux once more.” He took a step closer. “But I do know that we must be stronger, smarter, and more adaptable. We’ll call on allies as never before. We’ll do whatever it takes to survive long enough to raise our child together.” I must’ve looked unconvinced, because he said, “I have prevailed against the Emperor before.” By using Richter’s rage—his strength and his weakness—against him. “We can do it again.” “And if we fail? If we die?” “With your consent, Circe will be our child’s godmother.” Though our options were slim, I probably would’ve chosen her above anyone.

She adored children. In a rare moment of trust, she’d once confided to me that she and her fiancé had planned on three of them. “I agree. She’s a good choice.” “I also entreated her to do that memory spell for us.” In future games, we’d be able to remember our shared past—so we didn’t kill each other. “She said it is demanding to perform, but she will try.” Then he wasn’t planning to crown me the victor. My relief was short-lived. I still had Paul to deal with.

Aric reached forward and cupped my nape. “I know what I want in the future. I know what I will work toward. And step one is making my wife believe me when I tell her this baby is a good thing.” I wanted to be more understanding with him. Yet I couldn’t manage it at all. “Step one is getting rid of the man who betrayed me.” I shrugged out from under Aric’s grip and continued down the hall. As we neared the den, I heard Lark and Finn laughing at some movie. The scent of buttery popcorn hit me, and my stomach lurched.

Aric said, “The Magician’s appetite is equaled only by his use of incomprehensible slang. While you slept, he must have eaten a year’s worth of rations.” Rations. I’d never heard Aric speak about food in those terms. So we were conserving everything? He’d been prepared to feed Ogen; I had to believe Finn would eat less than a demon/troll. We reached the den entrance. Inside, the lovebirds were snuggled up on the couch. Lark paused the flick. “Look! It’s the mama bear, up from her nap!” Between mouthfuls of popcorn, Finn said, “Blondie’s baking a bun!” I grated, “Apparently.” Lark scanned my face.

“Uh, where’re you headed?” “To confront Paul. Seems he gave me a mock contraceptive shot. Then he lied and told Aric I refused to get one.” Finn set aside his jumbo bowl of popcorn. “Uncool! What gives?” Good question. “I’m trying to figure that out myself.” Lark sat up straighter. “What happens if he did screw you over?” If? “Are we talking exile?” She waved at the window. Snow fell in a torrent of white. “’Cause that’d pretty much mean killing him.

You ready to do that?” “That, and so much more.” Could she not comprehend what he’d done to me? “Finn needs that leg operation.” She pointed a claw-tipped finger at the Magician. “He tries to hide the pain he’s in, but you can’t hide things from a girl who can see through an insect’s eyes.” “I’m chill, babe.” Finn took her hand. “All in all, I’m not stoked to get my leg cracked again. And if Paul dicked Evie over, then he’s got to vacate.”


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