Daniel tried to drag Lily away from the dangerous rim, but she struggled against his hold, staring in shock and horror as her best friend disappeared into the Abyss. Taurin and several of his men also watched, faces tight with dread.
“Daniel,” Lily choked out his name. Turning, she lifted her head to meet the stark disbelief in his eyes that she knew were reflected in her own. “Daniel,” she whispered, as if that was the only word she could manage. He pulled her close, still reeling from the high of surviving the climb to the sudden desolation of seeing long, black talons rip into his brother’s back.
While they held each other, Daniel absently took in his surroundings. The large stone tower rose out of the barren, rocky landscape and perched like a gargoyle on the edge of the Abyss. Black as the midnight wings of evil, it reeked of cruel menace and hopeless despair. Daniel couldn’t stop the shudder that crawled down his spine, remembering a time, long ago, when the darkness had tried to claim him, and if not for Taurin’s intervention for that small boy he once was…
At the thought of Taurin, Daniel turned his head and caught the Warden’s eye. Taurin murmured something to one of his men, then crossed the short distance toward them. Daniel jerked his chin over his shoulder. “Who’s that? The guy talking to the giant?”
“Syrus, and the giant waving his arms around and snarling is the Gatekeeper. Each Toll House has one. They control the minions, devise the various trials for the souls, and do whatever the demon lord asks of them, though—” His words were cut off by an earsplitting bellow from the Gatekeeper, who abruptly turned away from Syrus and stomped into the tower. The sound was still reverberating off the stone walls when the hoard of creatures being contained by the other Wardens began to scream, then run toward the drawbridge as the portcullis began to lower.
“What going on?” Lily asked, pulling away from Daniel to watch the snarling fiends scramble over one another in their frenzy to get inside before the gate closed.
“The Gatekeeper is trying to stay neutral in a brewing power struggle. He doesn't want Wardens anywhere near his tower,” said Syrus from behind them. “And because you and your friend didn’t stay put as I told you, we're here and she’s in the thick of it. Assuming she's still alive.”
“Wait,” Daniel barked, “don’t for one minute blame Lily for this mess. They were trying to save Dom and me.” His eyes narrowed as he took a step forward. “Seems everyone is having to play Warden these days, except actual Wardens.”
Syrus growled and took his own step forward, he and Daniel within an inch or two of butting heads. Taurin pushed between them, then glared at Daniel. “Stand down, Valentine. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What I do know is that Dom will protect Katy until his dying breath, so before that happens, we need to find them.” He saw the two Wardens exchange a quick glance. So did Lily. “You can find them, right?” she asked.
“The Abyss is a vast world unto itself. There are tunnels and caverns and near bottomless pits. They could be anywhere,” Syrus muttered, running a hand roughly through his hair in frustration. “The Gatekeeper told me Razeph and his second are declaring war on each other. Apparently while the demon lord was trapped in your realm, Belrath decided he liked being a lord and now won’t relinquish control to Razeph. Factions are already dividing, taking sides.” His grim look matched the one on Taurin’s face.
Daniel paced back and forth, his mind racing. On one of his turns, Lily stood in his path. “I won’t leave Katy here,” she said softly. “No matter what happens, or what I have to do, I won’t leave her here.” He stared at her for a moment, then something occurred to him. “How did you get here? I mean,” he pointed to the ground, “how did you find your way to this exact spot?”
She told him about the key they’d gotten from Valeria and the map at Headquarters that showed the way, how they had returned her book to the Library, then come to the Abyss. He listened intently, then turned to Taurin. “How were you able to find them after they gave you the slip?”
Taurin opened his mouth, then stopped abruptly. Whirling toward his men, he shouted, “Back to the Seventh!” Before Lily could do more than sputter, he grabbed one of her arms, snapped at Daniel to take the other, and within a breathless heartbeat they stood in the reception area, a startled Valeria sitting openmouthed at her desk as the crowd of people suddenly filled the room.
Syrus and Taurin fixedly studied the map while Lily and Daniel studied them. “What are you looking for?” Daniel asked, his eyes scanning the beautiful display of the entire Ethereal realm glowing on the wall.
“There!” Syrus jabbed a finger at a dot of blue light, falling like a tiny star into the darkness. As they watched, the spark continued to drop, ever closer to the River of Tears, but just when Daniel was bracing himself for Dom and Katy’s imminent demise, the little orb hovered for a moment, then inexplicably darted sideways.
“You’ve marked the location?” Syrus asked Taurin. At his nod, Syrus turned to Lily and Daniel as Taurin gathered his men. “That key Valeria gave you is a tracking device. It’s just pure good fortune that she was wearing it today and not you.”
Ignoring his recriminations and the dark scowl, Lily said, “How quickly can we get there?”
“You’re not going anywhere!” Syrus roared. “And this time you will do as I say!”
Completely disregarding him, Lily turned to Daniel. “How’re we going to do this, Valentine? Because you know I’m not staying behind.” He couldn’t help the grin that spread over his face at her fierce resolve. Taking her hand, he walked over to Taurin and waited until he had finished briefing his men. As they prepared to leave, the Warden turned to speak to Syrus and nearly collided with Daniel and Lily. He took one look at their faces and threw up his hands. “No. No way. Absolutely not. No.”
“We’re going with you. He’s my brother and Katy is as close as a sister to Lily. If you don’t let us in on this, we’ll find some other way.” As Taurin started to argue, Daniel said quietly, “Believe me.”
A hiss from Syrus caused Daniel and Lily to turn back to the man. Looking at the map, he said over his shoulder, “They’re on the move.” Joining him, they watched the blue dot bob down what appeared to be a long, dark tunnel.
“We need to go, now!” Lily said anxiously. “They’re going deeper into the bowels of that evil place just when his freaking demon father is starting a damn war!”
With a sigh, Syrus said reluctantly, “It’s on your heads then. Take them with you, Warden. Time is of the essence.”
“But—” Taurin tried to protest.
“No buts. Let’s go.” Daniel said, reaching out to clamp his hand on Taurin’s arm, just in case the Warden had plans to leave without them.
Barely muffling a curse, Taurin barked an order at his men. Before his command had faded from the room, Valeria and Syrus found themselves staring at each other across the empty silence.