I am finally posting the first chapter of my first book, No Light, on my blog. I know, I know. Well, at least I have an excerpt of all of my books now. I know not everyone wants to make the trek over to another website just to download the first chapter. I thought it might make things easier to just post it here. :)
Iron and Stone
The staircase twisted down into what felt like the very bowels of the Earth. Wrought iron and spindly, it creaked with each movement. Every irregular step nearly pulsed with hesitation. Some held back by fear, others pressing forward toward something new and terrifying. The bodies swayed in and out of the sparse light, like spirits jumping at the stone walls.
Her gaze dropped momentarily, away from her thoughts, to look toward their destination. The diamond weave of the steps allowed a caged view of what lie beneath. Sarah's hand gripped the railing tightly, jerking her eyes to the back in front of her. Not allowing them to stray to the lonely darkness beneath her feet.
The steady creak and pound of the footsteps seemed to go on forever, as the class followed the trainer. After ten minutes, the hollow sound of the stairwell seemed to swell in volume. Shuffling coats, heavy breathing, and something else. Sarah tipped her head, peering over the railing into the darkness. There was a wailing just under the creaking of the iron and the thuds of the heavy work boots.
"What is that?" she heard one of her classmates whisper.
She narrowed her eyes at the blackness beneath her feet. So far down, the cold of the stone stairwell made her hands nearly freeze to the railing. She did not dare let go.
"Do you hear that?" Another voice whispered.
The noise increased in volume. It sounded like glass ground between two stones. It set her teeth on edge. It was only the settling of the stairs. Nothing to be afraid of, but that did not stop her hand from shaking in her pocket. She stared at the back in front of her, stepping down over and over.
"Is that them?" The voices sounded almost shrill, made high with panic.
The light flickered overhead, and her eyes rose to the line of dusty lamps along the wall. She refused to look at the dark stairwell above them. The darkness made monsters of shadows. She imagined she saw hungry eyes and grasping claws reaching through the iron slates. She quickly returned her eyes to the back in front of her, glaring so her gaze did not stray. Still, her breath caught each time the lights faded.
Ridiculous, but it was not. There were monsters here. Monsters who wore the skins of men. She licked her dry lips, trying to ignore the burst of darkness. The back of the grey work suit in front of her winked in and out of existence with each flash of light. Fear slithered down her back, cold as the air on her face. Not far. It could not be much farther to the bottom.
Sarah peeked over the rail at the opposite side of the stairwell. The wind swirled down from the surface, whipping her hair around her head. It only increased the groan in the air. Her free hand curled into a ball in her coat pocket. The helmet lights of her classmates curled back around to her, and she could just make out the lean form of Robinson at the lead. Two figures began to tussle in the sparse light.
"Oh, my god," a voice said from right in front of her, barely audible over the wind and the groan of the stairs.
She tensed her body to keep from colliding with the boy ahead of her. She turned in time to see two figures topple over the railing. They fell like wounded birds. Their helmet lights spun wildly as they descended, showing terrified faces and flailing limbs. The settling of the stairs sounded like a roar of victory.
Someone prayed ahead of her, fervent whispers for deliverance. She did not see who swayed into her, her eyes still focused on the shadows where her classmates had disappeared. As if their trainer could hear over the noise, the lead light swung in her direction. The prayers stopped.
Robinson's brown eyes glittered in the shadows, and she held her breath. He stared toward her, before he turned away and continued the descent. She stood still, frozen in place, and allowed the others to pass her. Finally, there were no more to come. She joined the end of the single file line.
The stone seemed to hold and amplify the sounds in The Corridor. His gaze moved to the door of the main hall and narrowed. Where he sat at the table, two others regarded him with interest. He saw their gazes follow his as the faint traces of noise filtered through the hallways. Not even the closed doors could block the sound from his keen hearing. The noise combined dull thuds with the clang of boots on metal stairs.
"The handler class," the man to his right said under his breath.
He glanced at him, but did not reply. There had been rumors about the incoming class. A mix of morning handlers and night handlers. The whispers were mostly among the humans, whispers and mumbles of discord. Something about the incoming class was different. He looked away from the door and sat back in his chair.
"Only one day handler in this class," the same man spoke again.
He gave a small nod of acknowledgment, flicking his eyes around the room.
"Taking the place of James Mackenzie," the dark-haired man continued. His eyes moved toward the door. "A female, if the rumor among the humans is to be believed."
He looked at him sharply. At the others nod, he crossed his arms. He watched the humans move about the room. The wandering of a short and meaningless life. His lips twisted into a sneer. The creak of the stairs rose to a faint roar the deeper the handler class moved. The iron settled into the stone, the screeches and wails like the passing of spirits.
Soft cries of terror whispered through the halls. The same with every new class of handlers. It was quickly followed by the thud of two bodies hitting the floor. He glanced to his right to see his second smirk. The humans milled around the main hall, oblivious to the loss of their own. It was amusing in a dark way, and such a poignant illustration of their lot in life. He could not keep the humor from showing in his eyes, noticing the handlers who glanced at him in suspicious fear.
At half-past, those who had day handlers were herded from the main hall to do their daily tasks. The cavernous room emptied quickly until only a handful of his people remained. He sat perfectly still at the table, watching the morning handlers study him. There seemed to be some confusion among them.
When he surged to his feet, the group flinched back like skittish dogs. He ignored them. After flicking his gaze toward the door to the main hallway, he moved toward the entrance to Corridor One. The humans scattered in front of him. Several hurried to open the doors, most stood in watchful silence behind him. He did not look at any of them, passing through both security shields without a word.
In the corridor, two morning handlers quickly removed his chains and placed them on the bench that ran the length of the room. The irritating scrape of the manacles gave way to a familiar tingle, as his wrists healed. Scabs forming and falling away to litter the clean floor. The humans visibly relaxed once he was locked inside his cell, enveloped in the familiar scent of his own musk and the heat of the energy shields. He turned to face them and his eyes narrowed. They fled.
Eyes focused on the broad back in front of her, she stumbled on the change from stairs to level ground beneath her feet. The nearly deafening noise stopped with their arrival. She looked down, then back up. The grey stone stairwell spun toward a sky that was not visible from nearly a mile below the surface. Her eyes dropped to the floor. The same stone that formed the stairwell and walls. Drab and dull grey in the florescent lighting.
"As I'm sure some of you have noticed by now, there is an elevator to The Corridor."
At her trainer's words, Sarah looked around. The room was small, barely big enough for the twenty people in the training class. She stepped out of the stairwell to see around a blind corner. In the middle of the wall, a sheet of shining metal marked the elevator door. Just to the left of it, a black rectangle the size of a large hand.
"Like most everything else in The Corridor, the elevator will only work with your hand pressed firmly to the scanner. Understood?"
Sarah nodded at Robinson's gruff words, still looking around the room with interest. Aside from the open stairwell and elevator, the room held another doorway. Nothing else. No cheap furniture, nothing on the walls.
"I see your recently departed classmates have already been removed from the stairwell. That's good. The sight would only distract you all."
Her stomach tightened. There was a sound of disbelief from one of the other trainees. Sarah did not check to see who. Instead, she looked toward the floor of the stairwell. It was empty, as if two people had not fallen to their death. She looked away before she could see if any part of them remained, closing her eyes briefly at the thought. The conversation moved on without her.
"I want you all to stay close to me. No touching any hand scanners. Understood?"
Sarah nodded along with the rest of her classmates. Her eyes flicked to the young faces around her. All of them contained some combination of fear and excitement. The same feelings she felt swimming in her head, pressing in her chest. She trailed behind the group, as they herded through the doorway on the left.
"This doorway will lead to the Main Hall and the Corridors," she heard Robinson yell from somewhere ahead of her.
She could not see over the shoulders of her classmates, but she caught glimpses of the hallway between their bodies. Unremarkable stone walls, utterly free of adornments or blemishes. The group parted enough for her to see a door on the right, breaking up the long expanse of blank stone.
"This is the locker room. As you've probably noticed, The Corridor is kept cool. Sometimes, it's downright cold." The trainer pushed open the door after a soft beep. "As I said in the classroom, most every door is unlocked with your hand scan. There are a few exceptions. We’ll cover those later."
Sarah followed the class into the locker room. Her gaze moved around quickly, taking in the rows of lockers. The same grey as the rest of the Corridor. Her eyes dropped to one of the red benches. A pair of beat-up sneakers sat alone on the cheap plastic. She looked at the nearby lockers.
"This is a violation of the rules," Robinson said.
She looked over to see him pointing at the shoes. She slipped both of her hands into her pockets and waited for him to finish his thought. The air was warmer than it had been in the stairwell, but still prickled her skin. She rubbed her thumbs over her fingers. The trainer glared around the room, stopping at a few of her classmates.
"I've read your files. All of you. I know which of you has a problem with rules. Which ones can't seem to follow simple instructions." He crossed his arms over his chest, his thin biceps visible through the coarse fabric. "I see this from one of you, you're out of here. You got me?"
Sarah nodded, and for some reason his eyes landed on her.
"This class has enough worries without adding rule breakers." His watery brown eyes scanned her. After the quick comment, he turned away. "Let's see Corridor One, shall we?"
Sarah did not let her spine relax until the class started to leave the room. Her mind spun over his words. They prodded a wound that was still fresh. Another reminder that she did not belong with the others. Still frowning, she trailed after the class.
"To open the door to the Main Hall, just place your hand in the outline provided," the trainer instructed from the front of the group.
She craned her neck to see his actions, but her much taller classmates obstructed her view. When the young man in front of her turned around to look at her, she shook her head. He gave her a quick smile and turned around as the line moved.
It was not until it was nearly her turn, she got a look at the hand scanner. It was waist high to the man in front of her, chest high to her. The hand print was made for an adult man, it dwarfed hers. Her hand shook when she placed it against the cool glass and the scanner beeped a bright, alarmed sound. Her eyes flicked to the trainer standing to her right. She removed her hand.
"If that won't take your print, you don't get in. You got me?"
Sarah nodded at his gruff words. She rolled her shoulders and pressed her hand to the scanner, spreading her fingers to force them to fit the much larger print. The small bones of her hand screamed, but the scanner let out a pleased purr. She glanced at him, again.
"Good," Robinson said curtly. His gaze moved from her hand to her face. Something unnamed moved between them, a slight hardening in his eyes. It tightened the knot in her stomach. He turned and walked toward the front of the group.
Sarah waited until he was out of sight, before she allowed herself to rub her hand. It continued to ache, as the class started to move down the hallway. The walls seemed to get cooler as they moved closer to the Main Hall, leaking the cold of the surrounding soil. Then, the walls fell away and they were in a massive chamber.
"Welcome to the Main Hall. As you can see, most of the Dems are in their cells between morning shift and day shift."
Sarah vaguely heard the trainer's words, her eyes wandering the huge space. The high ceiling soared overhead, tall enough to fit the city courthouse, and the space far larger than city hall. But the room, the stone furniture, and plain stone walls barely registered. Most of her attention was on the handful of Dems who milled around the room.
All of them so similar, with minor variations in hair color and skin color, but the same impressive height and muscular build. As if they came from a race of warriors. Terrifying and dangerous, in their rough beauty. The lethal grace of a predator within the body of a man.
One of them sat at a table, his head down. Even from across the room, it was possible to see the wide restraints on his wrists. He watched them intently. The eyes did not lie. No mere man had eyes so watchful, so full of darkness. Every word, every twitch, collected and catalogued inside the perfectly unending memory of a Dem. She shivered.
Suddenly, the Dem at the table rose in one fluid movement. Going from sitting to standing between one heartbeat and the next. The tension rose in the room, but the Dem did not make any move toward them.
He turned his head away, a dismissal of their presence. She watched him roll his shoulders, stretching his neck and back in a feline arch, as a thin man walked up behind the Dem. He stopped a couple yards behind the much larger male and spoke.
From her place by the door, it was impossible to make out his words. The Dem jerked his head around to look at the man, his spine straightening. In one quick movement, he whirled around and stalked toward the man. Sarah held her breath, tense even when she was not in immediate danger. Aggression rolled off the Dem, seeming to fill every fiber of his being. He towered over the human handler.
Sarah watched in amazement, as the human spoke and all of the tension drained out of the Dem. The man pointed over his shoulder. Her gaze followed his gesture to a doorway. A large sign labeled it as the door to Corridor Two. The Dem raised his chin, but allowed the human to lead him from the room.
"That was proper etiquette for dealing with the Dems. I'm glad you all got to see that first hand. A firm tone and unflinching commands. Any questions?"
Sarah looked around the room at the other Dems, her mind filled with questions. Each one seemed massive and immovable. She looked back at her trainer to see him staring at her.
"I hope you’re all up to the task." He turned away and led them across the room.
As they passed the first security door and the walls of Corridor One closed around them, the atmosphere changed. It felt charged, like the very air was filled with electric currents. The static feeling tickled her skin through the suit.
"That feeling you are experiencing is normal," she heard the trainer announce.
"What is it?" one of her classmates questioned.
It was impossible to see who in the claustrophobic space. The question went unanswered. She felt the moment the corridor widened, more than she saw it. The electric crackle in the air increased, but the wider space seemed to make it easier to breathe.
"Time for you to get your first look at a Dem up close."
As the trainer spoke the words, another sealed door blocked the way. The class shuffled into a single file line. Sarah found herself sandwiched between two tall boys. The one in front, a blond with a ruddy complexion, and the one behind, a brunet who was almost too pale.
She turned her head to look at the boy as the line moved forward. His freckles stood out in harsh relief. She gave him a tentative smile. After a moment, he gave her a quick nod. She turned around when it was obvious he would not look at her again.
The line moved quickly. She watched the blond straighten his spine and walk to the scanner. Without any hesitation, he placed his palm against the glass. Sarah's gaze flicked from him to the trainer. The older man watched closely. When the scanner let out a quiet whir, a pleased look crossed his face. He stepped aside to let the boy pass through the doorway.
The metal door slid closed behind the blond. Sarah looked away to see the trainer watching her with an unreadable expression. She swallowed hard and stepped up to the scanner. Again, she pressed her hand to the hand print. Unlike the first time, the scanner immediately purred.
She glanced at Robinson, but he stayed silent. He did not smile. His dark gaze was heavy on her as she hurried through the doorway. The air was cooler on the other side. She imagined she could see her breath hanging in the air before her face. She looked around, moving to stand among her classmates. No one spoke.
More of the boys joined the huddle, the closeness of the bodies bringing a small amount of warmth. She looked down the long corridor. Ten feet wide, it seemed to stretch on forever. But from the manual, she knew it only held seventeen cells. Seventeen Dems. A rustle of fabric drew her attention from the long, stone hallway. She looked over her shoulder.
The brunet who had stood behind her in the line, shivered violently. When he noticed her gaze, he quickly looked away. She watched him eye the cells. Every few seconds, he licked his lips nervously. His jittery behavior made her look around at her other classmates.
She noticed twitches and flinches she had missed before. Her eyes widened in realization. Her classmates were terrified. An instinctual fear, like the terror a rabbit feels toward a fox. She looked toward the cells. The silence took on a maliciousness it had not held before.
"Alright! All of you pay attention, now!"
The trainer's voice jerked her attention from the corridor. She turned with the rest of the group to face him. He covered them all with the same no-nonsense look.
"By now, you all should know what happens when you don't follow the rules. Two of your classmates were unlucky enough to demonstrate in the staircase. I hope this has served as a warning and lesson to you all." He paused to sweep them with another look. When no one spoke, he turned to look down the length of room.
Sarah followed his gaze. A stone bench cut the room in half, empty except for a pile of what looked like metal chains. She frowned and looked back at the trainer who had moved from his place by the door. He strolled casually toward the bench. Just short of the restraints, he spun on his heel to face the class. Their eyes met.
She froze, feeling the attention of the group fall upon her. She licked her lips and stepped forward.
"Come here!" Robinson barked. His gaze left her to glance down the hallway. "You will be our first lucky handler. As the only day handler, it’s fitting, I think."
Muscles tense, she forced herself forward, tuning out the cold, the scrape of the rough work suit, and the quiet murmurs of her training group. She stopped in front of him and straightened her spine.
He looked at her, his smile cool. "Recite the definition of the Dem Classification System, Handler Mackenzie."
Sarah dropped her gaze. Staring hard at the floor, she searched her mind for the answer. It was just on the edge of her memory. Chapter one, the beginning of the book. She wiped her damp palms on her suit.
"Anytime, Handler Mackenzie!"
She flinched at his sharp tone, but the jolt seemed to shake the information free. She looked up at him. "The Dem Classification System is a color coding system created to indicate violence level among the Dem population."
"That's a very precise definition, Handler Mackenzie." He turned away from her to look down at the bench again. "Explain how the DCS works."
Sarah stared at him, wondering at his motives. She paused long enough that he looked at her again.
"Was there something about that order you didn't understand?" His eyes narrowed.
"No, sir," she said quickly. Her eyes widened when he took a step toward her.
"Then, I suggest you answer the damn question, Mackenzie." He looked down at her, jaw visibly clenched. "Now."
"Yes, sir," she said quickly. "The colors are red, orange, yellow, green, and blue."
"That's real helpful, Mackenzie," he interrupted, voice almost hateful. "That's really going to be useful. Much more useful than say, what the different colors mean."
She shrunk back from his glare. "Of course, sir. I mean, no, sir." She tripped over her words, flicking her gaze to her classmates. None of them met her eyes.
"Alright, I can see this is too hard for you, Mackenzie. I'll make it easy. What does blue mean?"
Sarah did not look up to see what expression went with the condescending words. "Blue is the lowest of the levels and means the Dem has not been violent in at least five centuries."
"Green?" he barked.
Sarah kept her head down. "Green is the second lowest level. It means the Dem has not been violent in at least a century." She looked up quickly to see if she should continue.
"Go on," her trainer ordered, stepping away and giving her some space.
She let out a quiet sigh, watching him carefully. "Yellow is the third lowest level. It means the Dem has not been violent in at least fifty years." When he did not look at her, she continued. "Orange is the second highest level. It means the Dem has not been violent in at least ten years."
"And Red?" he asked offhandedly, busy with the chains. She watched him rearrange the stack until wrist and ankle restraints were separated from the rest.
"Red," she said quietly, watching as he lay a chest harness next to the restraints, "is the highest level. It means the Dem has not been violent in at least a year."
"Explain why there is no color for Dems who have been violent in the past year." He finished sorting and laid the connecting chain beside the rest.
Sarah stared at him blankly. "I…" She looked at her classmates. All of them looked equally confused. "Sir?"
He straightened and tucked his hands in his pockets. "A new level has recently been added." He looked at the closest cell. "Black." He turned around and his gaze landed on her. "Handler Mackenzie will be the first to experience a Dem with a DCS of black."
"What is a DCS of black, sir?" she whispered, following his gaze to the first cell.
"Violent in the past year or violent on a regular basis. In this Dem's case, both." He turned to face the class and the look in his eyes was enough to make her shiver. "Handler Mackenzie will be demonstrating proper Dem handling technique."
Sarah stared at him. When his expression hardened, she took a step forward. "Yes, sir."
"What is the first step, Handler Mackenzie?" He stared at her expectantly.
Her eyes moved to the panel on the wall next to the cell. "Observation, sir."
"Do it, then." He stepped aside to give her a clear path.
She walked toward the cell. She had to do this. For herself. For her family. She forced herself not to move faster when she passed him, her muscles tense, and her body poised for flight. His gaze was a cold weight. Each step toward the cell was a struggle, until she stood just a hand width from the barrier.
Her breath hit the shield on every exhale, a small crackle across the field of energy. The cell appeared pitch black through the Dark Screen. Her eyes strayed to the glass panel just to the right.
"Take off the DS, Handler Mackenzie."
Sarah twitched at the sound of the trainer's voice from just behind her. She looked over her shoulder. The class stood against the wall across from the cell. All of them stared at her expectantly. She looked at her trainer.
"Yes, sir." With courage she did not feel, she touched a glowing square at the bottom left of the panel and the cell flooded with light.
"Handler Mackenzie, start observing."
His words seemed distant and fuzzy. Most of her attention focused on the inside of the cell and the Dem who was less than two feet from her, staring with obvious irritation.
"I said, observe!"
Sarah flinched at Robinson's words. She watched the Dem's gaze move past her and darken. His mouth opened and he said something, but the Sound Screen was still engaged. She moved to turn it off.
"Leave it," her trainer ordered. "Do your observations. We don't have all day."
Sarah dropped her hand from the wall panel. "Yes, sir." She stepped back to stand in front of the cell bars.
The Dem's dark gaze moved over her classmates, before landing on her again. His eyes narrowed. She watched his lips move, as he came closer to the bars. She tensed.
She flinched. Again, the Dem's gaze flicked past her. She swallowed hard and forced herself to calm. "Dem is tall," she said softly. She heard a derisive snort from behind her.
"Everyone is tall compared to you, Handler Mackenzie. I want a better observation."
Sarah's gaze moved to the panel on the wall, where the Dem's vital statistics were listed. She narrowed her eyes to read the small print. "Dem is six feet, seven inches tall." Her eyes flicked to the imposing figure who had fastened his gaze on her, as if he could hear her.
"And?" her trainer questioned impatiently.
"Dem is of the mesomorph body type," she continued hurriedly. Her eyes skimmed the loose suit that could not hide the broadness of his shoulders. "Hair is dark blond, eyes are green." She looked away from the Dem's narrowed gaze.
Sarah looked at the Dem, frantically searching for what she had missed. "And…" she looked at the panel on the wall. Suddenly, she realized what she had missed. "Dem is called Farran." She looked over her shoulder.
Her trainer nodded. "Do the second step of the technique," he told her, before turning to face the rest of the class. "I hope all of you have watched Handler Mackenzie. You will be expected to do the same."
"Yes, sir," the class chorused behind her.
"Yes, sir," she said quickly.
"I expect you to follow the schedule for the day." He gave the cell a quick glance and walked toward the door.
Sarah stared in confusion, as the class followed the trainer from the corridor. When the last of her classmates had passed through the doorway, she turned to face the cell.
Her eyes swept over the Dem's face, avoiding his eyes. A straight nose, thin lips, and a strong jaw below high cheekbones. It was a pleasing face, she thought. Almost beautiful in its ruggedness, but as the lips twisted into a mocking smile, her eyes rose.
The Dem stared at her. His mouth moved slowly, forming words through the sharp smile. Sarah tipped her head in confusion. She watched him look toward where the panel was embedded in the wall.
"Oh!" She hurried to the panel and tapped the glowing square at the bottom center of the screen. Immediately, the Sound Screen dropped. She stepped back to look into the cell. "Can you hear me?" She tucked her hands into her pockets.
The Dem leaned against the bars. He stared at her silently, pupils dilated until they nearly swallowed the green of his irises. He followed her every movement.
"Dem, can you hear me?" She took a step closer to him. When he stayed silent, she frowned. "Maybe, I did it wrong." She turned to look at the panel in confusion. "Maybe…" she pressed the only remaining square. The Containment Screen fell. "Can you hear me, Dem?"
Still, he did not answer.
She wondered at the look on his face. She took a step forward. "I am going to open the cell so you can hear me, Dem." She shook her head at herself. "Never mind. You can't hear me."
She glanced at the restraints on the bench. The panel held the schedule for the day, and it made it obvious she was already late. She bit her lip. After a quick look at the Dem, she walked over to retrieve the restraints.
They were lighter than they looked. Certainly not as heavy as an Earth metal. She draped them across her left arm and approached the panel. She saw the Dem from the corner of her eye. He had not moved from his position.
The panel purred almost the moment her hand touched the glass. A loud click made her jump. Her eyes quickly moved to the door of the cell and she let out a breath. The bolt had disengaged. She let out a nervous laugh.
"Dem, can you hear me?" She stepped to the door and gasped.
"Yes, human. I hear you." The Dem pulled open the door and reached for her. "Rule one. Do not disengage the locks when the prisoner is not restrained." His tone was full of dark amusement.
Sarah stared at him with wide eyes, too terrified to move. His fingers circled her arms. He jerked her forward and a choked gasp left her throat, as her toes skimmed the floor before it fell away. Her mind raced, but she forced herself still as he lifted her until they were eye to eye.
"Name?" he demanded.
"Sarah Mackenzie." She swallowed hard. She would be like the ones who had fallen, her remains something to be cleaned from the floor.
She tried not to tense when he brought his face to her neck and inhaled deeply.
"Twenty-two." The lie tried to stick in her throat.
He pulled back and gave her a dark look. "Try again."
"Eighteen," she whispered, tensing when his lips pulled back from his teeth in a shark smile.
"A lie, Sarah? How nice that you are not as innocent as you look." His smile faded. "Pick up the restraints. I have a schedule."
When he put her down, her knees wobbled, threatening to give out on her. He could grab her, shake her, kill her. She stared up at him, waiting for the violence to begin. Prepared to stand strong. He stepped back.