The Chosen Ones
Only beloved storyteller Christina Dodd could deliver such explosive paranormal excitement with Aleksandr Wilder’s story of finding redemption…and love…
As a young man, Aleksandr Wilder abandoned his duty—and for that lapse, he has been tortured, tormented … and transformed. Now he prowls the tunnels beneath the city, fighting on the frontline against the forces of hell, never daring to dream that he can live as a man again.
After seven years fighting the world's ultimate evil, Chosen One Charisma Fangorn has become a tough, strong warrior without illusions or joy...even her gift of hearing the earthsong has faded. Deaf to her own instincts, she never suspects that a monster lurks in the dark underneath the streets.
When Aleksandr finds Charisma under attack, he rescues and cares for her, and hope stirs once more in his heart…and in the world. But in the secret recesses of his soul, he knows the truth. A woman so exceptional could never love a beast…could she?
Deep Beneath the City of New York
Charisma Fangorn was so busy shaking the heavy plastic grip on her flashlight, trying to eke another minute’s worth of illumination out of the wavering bulb, she never noticed the abrupt drop-off—until she stepped out into nothingness.
Her flashlight went flying, a brief glow of light that twirled away from the hot, close air of the tunnel and into the void. Then the glass shattered, plunging Charisma into bleak darkness. She landed on her feet, on the sharp stone edge of . . . somewhere. Her foot slipped off. She fell again. Landed on her hands and knees, irretrievably off balance. On a stair. Stone stairs. She tumbled, curled into the fetal position, protecting her head with her arms, hitting each step, bruising each rib, her hips, her knees, her elbows. She hit bottom face-first, felt her chin split and her eye blacken, and something snapped in her shoulder.
Pain crashed through her, overwhelming her.
She tried to scream. Tried to move. Got her breath. Screamed, except . . . it sounded like a whimper.
Oh, God. Oh, please. Please, God . . .
No, don’t pray. They’ll notice you. Down here the mouth of hell lurked too close and yawned too wide.
She rested there, gasping, getting control, subduing the agony, praying—not praying—wanting to be well and whole. And knowing that, even if she escaped alive, she would never be whole again.
Without moving, she tried to look behind her.
Where was behind? The dark was . . . blacker than anything she had ever seen.
Except for the eyes, glowing eyes, dozens of eyes, that followed her, moving, shifting, circling.
She needed to get up. Get moving. Find her way out. Now.
But . . . agony. Pain everywhere. Agony . . . her collarbone was broken.
She breathed again, in through her nose, out through her mouth, as her yoga teacher had taught her, controlling her mind, soothing her nerves. . . .
Every time she broke a bone in her battles alongside the Chosen Ones, the pain blistered her. Usually, though, she got hurt during a fight, and adrenaline kept her going. This time . . . she had nothing except a warm, flat stone surface under her body, a darkness so thick it smothered her, and fear. So much fear.
She tried to remain still, to allow the agony to subside. But it didn’t, and she could no longer stay still.
How could she have been so unwary? She knew the treacherous passages down here. In the last three days—or was it five days?—she’d been all over, looking for the way out. But she was as lost as the first day that she’d lost her way in these underground tunnels.
There was no way out.
Just as there was no end to the pain. Or the fear.
So hungry. So thirsty.
That was why she’d fallen. She’d been down here for days. Three days. No, more, because she’d been without food for at least three days, had drained the last of her water more than forty hours ago.
Four days. Probably. Maybe. Her phone was dead—not that it did her any good, so far underground.
The stones in her bracelet hummed softly, warning her.
She wanted to snap at them. Which made no sense. They were stones. Although they spoke to her, they did not live.
They warned her that danger lurked, but what good did that do? She knew she was in trouble. She was dying of hunger and thirst, her body was broken and bleeding, she was half-insane with the need to sleep, and she kept thinking she would gladly die of any of those causes . . . because when she looked behind her, or in front of her, she saw those eyes, glowing eyes, in the dark.
She had to find the wall, to get her back against it, to prepare her weapons for a fight to the death. The wall . . . was not too far. A few feet, perhaps. She could move a few feet.
Cradling her useless arm, she sat up.
Her head swam. Her face was swelling. The darkness had already blinded her. She hoped . . . she hoped her eyes didn’t swell shut before she had taken out some of those eyes.
With her free hand, she reached, groped, found a wall. A stone wall. Yes! Triumph!
“Yes, Samuel, it’s a crappy triumph, but I take what I can, you asshole. All right?” She didn’t think she’d actually said the words out loud. She thought that, with her swollen lips and dry mouth, she only mumbled.
But for a moment, the gibbering quieted, and she felt the intense stares as she inched her way to the wall and propped herself up. There. Now all she had to do was stand up. Easy. Nothing to it. Soon.
New York City was one of the world’s great cities. It bustled. It roared. It created fashion. It made money. It sold knockoffs.
It covered one of hell’s doors to the world.
Like their kin, the rats, the demons would wait until she was unconscious, near death, and then they would take her, bite by bite, tearing her flesh, consuming her while she still lived. . . .
The demons had appeared in the world about four years ago.
Charisma had seen them first. She had been patrolling, and she got the itchy feeling of being watched. She saw glowing lights out of the corners of her eyes, swung and faced them. The lights blinked out. She told herself she was imagining things.
In her business, it was easy to imagine things.
In her business, sometimes she would rather go crazy than have to face the truth.
She hadn’t said anything to the other Chosen. After all, she’d never really seen anything. But finally the Chosen Ones’ seer, Jacqueline Vargha, had pronounced, “Hell is bubbling like a cauldron, and creatures are escaping, with scaly skin and teeth and claws and ravenous appetite and little glowing eyes. . . .”
Then every one of the Chosen Ones admitted to glimpsing at least one flash of a demon in the dark. Even Samuel said he’d seen something peering at him from beneath a grate in the street. Of course, being Samuel, he jabbed it with the sharp cane he now carried. The thing had screamed and slithered away.
Being Samuel, and a mind controller, he also said the things had no mind of their own. They were simply eternally hungry creatures that hunted and ate and hated everything who lived in the world.
Most of the time, Charisma could barely tolerate Samuel. He was a boor, and only his wife, Isabelle, could keep him in check.
But now Charisma wished Samuel and his stupid cane were here, because the eyes had moved closer, and for the first time she could hear the demons’ low gibbering.
They were excited. They smelled blood. They were salivating over the idea of fresh meat.
Charisma shuddered. She always carried a gun, a small pistol. It was loaded. Full of bullets. She needed to get it in her hand and take aim, and shoot them one by one. . . .
No, wait. She’d lost her pistol somewhere. Where had she lost it?
Oh. She remembered. She’d fallen down before, on the very first day, before she’d been lost . . . or before she had admitted to herself she was lost. She’d heard something, something that sounded like a child wailing. She’d been running, trying to catch up. She’d turned a corner, saw a demon, squat and scaly, loping along ahead of her, its head thrown back, its lipless mouth open and imitating a human baby’s cry. Furious, exhausted, ready to kill, she had pulled her handgun, tripped on a loose stone, landed on her hands and knees.
The pistol fell, skidded toward one of the cracks that yawned so unexpectedly in the ground. She’d flung herself after it. Missed.
The demon cackled and kept running.
The pistol fell off into the void. Charisma waited, listening for it to land, thinking that perhaps she could go and get it. At last, long moments later, she heard a faint, far-distant thump.
She didn’t want to go down that far.
Here in the tunnels she was too close to hell.
She hadn’t come down here to look for hell. She’d come down because . . .
Because she’d witnessed a kidnapping. A human child snatched from its parents and carried below the city. She had fought the demons, rescued the baby, returned it to its parents, and realized that somewhere during the battle, she’d lost her crystal bracelet.
But she couldn’t give up that bracelet. She’d made it for herself, back when the earth’s stones had first started to speak to her, drilling the stones and threading them on a sturdy chain. She never took them off. This bracelet contained the first crystals that had spoken to her, and she had worn it always. . . .
She was Charisma Fangorn, one of the Chosen Ones, and her gift was that she could hear the earth song.
For almost all of her life, Charisma had been aware of the earth, speaking through the stones at her wrist, crooning like a mother to her beloved child.
As a child, Charisma had reveled in those loving tones, and, believing everyone heard the same song, she had spoken to her mother about the pleasure she felt in hearing it.
One—that mother wasn’t her biological mother, and she was an altogether pretty poor excuse for a human being.
Two—that woman whom Charisma thought of as her mother started farming her out as a healer at markets and street fairs across the western United States. Charisma hated it, hated the nomad lifestyle, where she…
Not important now.
Eventually, there on the site of the demon battle, she had found her bracelet, and now the stones urged her, Wake up. Wake up! That more than anything proved her situation was desperate, for her gift was fading as hope failed in the world, and the voices of her stones had almost vanished.
Charisma’s eyes popped open.
The darkness pressed in on her.
The glowing eyes were closer. A lot closer.
Charisma pulled her shoulder in. In a slow, desperately painful movement she pressed her back against the wall and staggered to her feet.
The glowing eyes surrounded her, but they hung back.
Yes. She tried to smile. They were afraid. Because . . . she was one of the Chosen Ones. She would make them suffer. She would die fighting.
A few levels up, the walls were slimy and cold. Down here, the heat from hell’s fires radiated up Charisma’s back and fought off the chill of death.
Charisma bent, inch by painful inch, down to her boot and pulled her knife. She grasped the handle in her sweaty palm. She wished she could say the blade felt familiar, but no. She lost her knives in fights every day, every week, until Irving bought them by the case and kept them in the hall closet for the Chosen so they would never be without.
God bless Irving. Almost a hundred years old . . . she had never thought he would outlive her.
No, Charisma would fight to her last breath. . . .
She breathed in and out, the sound rasping in her ears.
The gibbering got louder, more excited.
She lifted the knife. Narrowed her eyes. Braced herself.
And staggered when something heavy, cold and slick and silent, fell on her from above.
She screamed, the pain in her shoulder agonizing, then screamed again as that thing sank its teeth into the muscle above her collarbone. She stabbed, impaling it, and heard it squeal and struggle. She lost her grip on her knife. She grabbed, dug her fingers into some body part. A nose. An eye. She didn’t care; she knew only that she suddenly had a handle with which to throw it, and she did, flung it as hard as she could, the way a person threw a cockroach or slug or spider or snake.
A thump. A squawk. Four pairs of eyes went out. She’d knocked them over like bowling pins, and that made her happy. But when she lost the knife, she’d lost her last weapon.
The chattering grew guttural, angry, intent. The eyes slid closer. Closer. Glowed hotter, red and blue.
Her shoulder throbbed. The bite spread cold down her arm and up her neck. Venom. She’d been poisoned. The world wavered. She was going to die. . . .
She heard an unexpected rush of movement from the side.
Driven by instinct, she crouched and turned to fight.
Loud and deep and animal, something roared and threw an object that clattered and rolled toward the demons.
And right before her eyes, a bomb exploded.
The demons screamed.
Light flashed scalding white, showing her the silhouette of a creature that stood between her and the demons. Tall, hairy, misshapen, a creature from a child’s nightmares, with long arms outstretched—toward her.
She tried to cover her light-blinded eyes. The ragged edges of her collarbone scraped together.
The demons scattered.
The beast roared again, closer this time; then like a vengeful god it grabbed her, lifted her, flung her over a broad shoulder, and bounded like a lion up the stairs.
Her arm hung uselessly down the beast’s back.
The pain was excruciating.
She welcomed unconsciousness.
She was going to die.
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