Many thanks to Miya and Ellie, for their encouragement, their assistance, and their beta-reading services. I'm sure this would have made very little sense without them both. And as always, thank you to everyone who's reviewed and/or emailed me and made it abundantly clear that if I ever attempted to abandon this story, there is no place in this world obscure enough, no corner dark enough, where you wouldn't be able to seek me out and demand that I continue.
I've already gotten started on Part 11, but it's a pretty hairy semester this time around and though I am loathe to admit it, school does take precedence. So don't fret if there's a fair gap between updates (although considering my track record, you should probably be used to it anyhow). Of all the stories that I am presently working on, this one takes top priority.
"Oh, wow..." Jenny said softly, gazing up in awe.
They had just emerged from the tunnel, arriving outside--if it could really be called an outside in the Underworld.
And it was quite a sight to behold.
Not the endless, awning darkness that awaited them in the distance, but the view behind them.
When Julian had said they were in a passageway beneath the Palace of Hades, Jenny supposed she hadn't really stopped to consider what it meant. But even if she had, she knew it didn't matter. No image that mere words could conjure would have lived up to the sight before her eyes.
A palace. She'd never seen one before, though there had been a few houses in the past that she'd once thought could live up to the name. She realized now she'd been wrong.
This place puts the Taj Mahal to shame.
Growing up in her parents' Vista Grande neighborhood, Jenny had thought herself immune to opulence and empty decadence. But this... this was just--
"Hades is the king of the dead, but not the god of death," Julian said suddenly, as if she'd asked the question. "Many people make the mistake of assuming the second."
Jenny raised her eyebrows at the abrupt turn in conversation as she looked toward him.
His black clothes seemed to lend him to the shadows. Only the startling contrast of frost white hair, and his exposed face and arms, kept him from disappearing into them completely.
"In actuality, he's the god of wealth, and precious metals," he continued conversationally.
Jenny stared at him a moment longer, then nodded slowly. "Hence, the solid gold walls," she said, smiling slightly as she made the connection.
She should have known better; Julian's seemingly random remarks always came back to the original topic--no matter how unrelated they appeared on the surface.
He gave her an approving smile like she was a student who had just finally grasped a difficult concept. "A lot easier to come by down here than lumber or concrete."
"Alright," she said, taking a deep breath as she gestured to their surroundings. "Since you seem to have some idea of where we are and where we're supposed to go--well, lead away."
Tilting his head slightly to one side, Julian gave her a considering look. "Fine," he nodded after a moment. "This way," he said, with the sweep of an arm.
All Jenny could see in the direction he had indicated was darkness.
"And just out of curiosity, this will take us where?" she asked, joining him as he set out. The flashlight sent out a modest beam of light ahead of them, illuminating the path so they could step around any pockets in the dirt, or rocks jutting out obtrusively from the ground.
"To our eventual destination. We'll have to do this backwards, it seems. Since the dead would travel where we started out--I'd say we follow the same path back to the entrance."
Jenny switched the flashlight to the other hand, flexing the arm that had been holding it. She scanned the blackness, but her attempts to pick apart the more distant shadows seemed almost futile. The darkness was so thick, so heavy, that it felt like something physical weighing against her body.
It was almost something tangible, oppressive, bearing in from all sides. And with no idea of what lay more than a few feet beyond in any given direction, unease settled heavily in the pit of Jenny's stomach.
A small voice inside her head whispered all sorts of unreasonable fears of what might be lurking in the shadows around them, waiting to pounce at any moment--except, given present circumstances, they suddenly didn't seem so unreasonable after all. Jenny nervously thumbed the switch of the slender flashlight, reassuring herself it was at the maximum setting.
But this probably wasn't the best time to be thinking about all that. Julian had always had the uncanny ability to pick out their private fears, and bring them to life; what if this ability was common to all the Shadow Men?
Then again, of course, Julian hadn't exactly required them to be thinking of those fears at the time...or for them to be aware they even existed...
"What's with this thing?" Jenny said in exasperation, speaking mostly to herself as she banged the flashlight twice into the flattened palm of her other hand for emphasis. She'd put fresh batteries in just the other day, but for some reason the fragile yellow beam that filtered out was only enough to barely penetrate the surrounding shadows.
"It's the realm of pure darkness--the Underworld." Julian's voice seemed to slice through the silence, making Jenny start--and feel somewhat foolish for her jumpiness. She shot him a mild look of annoyance.
"No sun, no moon, no stars," he continued patiently. "No light penetrates this place."
No light--just pure night and shadows.
It was no wonder why the Shadow Men had chosen this particular setting. If there was any place they felt at home, it was in the darkness...though there was Julian, who had always seemed obsessed with getting a taste of the light.
"And you're sure we're going in the right direction this time?" she said, recalling their previous experience in the cavern.
Julian shrugged, an easy roll of his shoulders. "Only one way to find out," he said.
Catching Jenny's unappreciative look, he gave a long-suffering sigh before sidling up close and draping an arm over her shoulders. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Jenny had the thought that the weight of it was surprisingly comfortable.
Outwardly, she fixed him with a glare.
"There's really no two ways about it," he explained, ignoring the look. "At least not at this point. Really, if you stick to the path you should be fine. It's just that people so often seem to have trouble sticking to the path."
"Why's that?" she said curiously, her gaze riveted on his profile, which she could make out from this close up even with the flashlight directed at the path before them.
His face looked so smooth, carved from marble. She wondered if it felt that way too. Or would it be roughened slightly, from stubble, the way Tom's always was, except for that first little while after he shaved.
Julian's mouth curled up slightly at one corner, though there was little genuine amusement there. "What makes people do things they know they shouldn't, Jenny? Act in ways they know they ought not to?" He turned toward her, their faces so close together she could see herself reflected back in his pupils.
"What?" she said tentatively. Though suddenly Jenny couldn't seem to recall what they'd been talking about in the first place.
He leaned in toward her-they had stopped walking sometime, without her realizing--and Jenny found herself angling around until they were almost facing one another.
"Temptation," he answered, warm breath brushing over her lips.
Oh, and he had that mastered, didn't he? Right from the beginning, when she'd walked into that store--More Games--he'd tempted her even then, seemingly without trying. Making her forget all about Tom, and about his birthday party, about the two thugs lingering outside.
If she had to pick one word to describe Julian--once, she would have picked "dangerous". Now that she knew better--not that by any stretch of the imagination, he wasn't dangerous-but that she'd pinpointed what it was about him that made him that way--"tempting" would have to be it.
Jenny leaned back slowly and gave him what she hoped was an innocent look. "Then we'll just have to resist it, won't we?"
Julian smiled in return, looking utterly unperturbed. "We'll try." His eyes, midnight blue in the dim light, glimmered.
Jenny suppressed a shiver and forced her thoughts in a different direction.
"Where are we going?" she asked once they'd resumed walking and it seemed like a good time to return to the original subject.
If Julian knew this place as well as he seemed to think, then unlike her previous experiences, they wouldn't have to stumble about blindly and wait for each clue to take them to the next step. Although...that made her wonder--why would the Shadow Men pick a setting that Julian was familiar with? Wouldn't they rather catch him off-guard...or was it simply that there wasn't any game they could have chosen that he wouldn't already know?
Jenny frowned, but shook her head. If there was really anything to worry about, she was sure Julian would have already considered it...
"That would be the Plain of Judgment," he said, cutting off her train of thought.
"What?" Jenny glanced toward him. "The Plain of--"
She stopped mid-sentence, as she stumbled suddenly. Julian caught her by the upper arm, keeping her upright.
"Careful," he said, but Jenny's attention was still focused on the ground. Her foot had caught on something--something that looked oddly like--a floor. A gleaming marble surface, some two inches thick and rising up out of the dirt trail they'd been following.
"That definitely wasn't there just a second ago," she observed with quiet certainty.
It was then that Jenny realized there seemed to a lot more light all of sudden--far more than her single flashlight could have managed.
She looked up.
Gazing at her surroundings--which had changed drastically from moments earlier--she knew they had indeed arrived at the Plain of Judgment.
It was a square-shaped area, marked by the smooth polished floor of marble. Each of the four corners was punctuated by tall ornate pillars, carved from the same material. In between, at equal intervals every few feet, stood torches. Extended from long thin iron-wrought poles, they jutted up out of the floor, their flames flickering in a nonexistent wind, and casting shadows that danced across the ground and over the three unmoving shapes in the center of the clearing.
As her attention settled on these figures--tall and adorned in long robes, hoods drawn and faces obscured--Jenny sucked in her breath and held it unconsciously.
"Where the souls of the departed receive their fate--blessed to an eternity in Elysium, or damned into the pits of Tartarus," Julian spoke up quietly next to her. "Don't worry, though; it's only for the dead," a quick smile in her direction, teeth reflecting brilliantly in the half-darkness, "which neither of us are."
Yet, Jenny thought morbidly. But she kept the thought to herself.
Julian stepped across the marble floor, making his way to the center of the clearing with a casual air Jenny couldn't begin to fathom--not when her own heart was thundering loudly in her chest, and her hands were so clammy the flashlight was starting to grow slippery in her tight grip.
She followed him without prompting, not wanting to be left alone at the edge of the darkness. Her eyes kept shifting between the robed figures and the shadows that danced along her peripheral vision. So she almost missed it completely when Julian stopped without warning.
Her shoe scuffing into the floor sounded painfully loud in Jenny's ears as she came to an abrupt halt behind him.
Not wanting to seem like she was hiding--even when the desire to do so was desperately strong--she took a daring step to one side. Still, she was close enough to him that if she reached out, she could enclose her hand around his arm--but far enough away that she didn't feel like she was cowering in Julian's protection.
Drawing her attention away from him, Jenny focused on the robed figures before them and waited for someone to make the next move.
No more than a moment passed before the one in the center lifted an arm slowly, uncurling its hand until gnarled, inhuman fingers were extended from the long sleeves.
"Come forth and receive your judgment," came a deep voice from the gaping blackness that peeked out from the low hanging hood. Jenny had expected something rasping and ghoulish, like something out of a typical horror movie. Instead it was surprisingly normal, commanding and authoritative--the type of voice that belonged to someone used to being obeyed.
Stepping forward as instructed, Julian gazed up to the towering forms and spoke. "How about I save you the trouble--even if there were need for judgment here," he flashed a genuinely amused grin here in Jenny's direction, "I'm sure we could all guess the outcome of this one without much strain."
It was humor in which Jenny did not share, and she made it abundantly clear with the glare she returned him. Considering the circumstances, she found his lack of concern highly unsettling--not to mention inappropriate. She was reminded a bit of Dee's fearlessness--except even Dee had her limitations.
The judge farthest right of the three--and closest to Jenny--shifted his hooded head in her direction. Tendrils of alarm sparked through her as she felt herself pinned beneath the invisible gaze.
"You are of the living," he stated in a quiet voice. "You do not belong here."
Jenny opened her mouth to reply, but wasn't quite sure what to say. Julian saved her the trouble.
"Yes, that's right. So you understand--we're simply seeking passage through your court."
The one who'd spoken to Jenny was still looking toward her when a noise sounded in the air, above the pair. A heavy whoosh, as a shadow fell over them, made her glance up immediately.
Jenny let out a startled shriek as something--something large and fast--swooped close overhead.
It sent a breeze through her hair like ghostly fingers raking against her scalp. She screamed again, ducking her head in blind panic as she leapt to the side. Her weight landed hard against Julian, who'd jumped into her path and grabbed her arm, steadying them both to keep them from meeting the ground.
She struggled against the hands that held her in place, fighting instinctively.
"Stop!" he demanded. Her head snapped back almost painfully as he shook her to gain her attention. "Jenny!" And then, lowering his voice, he said, "You're fine."
In a dazed sort of afterthought, she raised her head--noting idly that her face was almost buried in Julian's chest by this point, her wrists still gripped in his hands--but she was too distracted to care.
With some surprise, she realized that she was fine. No blood, no pain--nothing.
She glanced up at Julian. Slightly breathless and not daring anything above a whisper, she said, "What...what was--"
But she found herself cut off by a new voice.
Through the adrenaline still surging through her veins, making it difficult to concentrate on anything beside the frightening ordeal of moments earlier, recognition flared at that familiar voice.
And it didn't belong to Julian. Not possible, since Julian was standing right beside her, and that voice had come from over--
Turning slightly in her awkward position, Jenny faced the source--and her eyes widened in disbelief.
Oh god, no. This can't be happening...
But it was. And proof enough stood before her, gazing back with hazel-flecked eyes that shone with betrayal.