Author notes: It's time. Yes, my friends, Ruby and Drayvex are back. And I could not be more stoked to offer you this early glimpse into Shadow-Stained's sequel, SOUL-STRUNG! If you enjoy chapter one, let me know in the comments below what you're most excited about. November will be here before we know it.
The dream was always the same. Standing just a few feet away, Drayvex had his back to her. He was exactly how she remembered, and yet, it was all wrong.
Ruby breathed in, ignoring the prickling tension gripping her shoulders and back. “Drayvex. What’re you…”
She trailed off as he turned to face her with a slow and lazy grace. As their eyes met across the space, her entire body tingled in memory-induced anticipation. Dishevelled hair, dark and unruly, with a strong jawline framing the arrogant slope of that perfect mouth. Those piercing eyes, the colour of bright, fresh blood, snared her from across the space. That was when she saw it.
Ruby sucked in a breath as she took in the limp form held loosely in his arms. The familiarity of that shape smacked her in the gut.
Drayvex held Sandra in the same way that Ruby would carry her dirty laundry to the bathroom, parts of her trailing down in careless streams. Her throat had been torn open, with almost every part of her splattered with garish stains; a shocking contrast to the bloodless complexion beneath. Her waxen skin shined under the sticky layers that coated both her and the demon who gripped her.
Ruby swallowed back the bile that crept up her throat. Sandra was dead. This wasn’t possible. She was dead again.
She looked up in dismay and found him, his familiar tone commanding her attention in an almost knee-jerk compulsion. He grinned at her, and his playful smirk peeled back into a sinister smile. His fangs were red.
“Want a bite?”
As Drayvex held the ravaged Sandra out towards her in offering, Ruby’s stomach heaved. No, no, no. This wasn’t happening. She stumbled backwards, holding her arms out in front of her as if she could sweep them both away with a wave of her hands.
“Drayvex,” Ruby begged him, dropping her gaze to the floor in a last-ditch attempt to keep her stomach from coming undone. “I can’t… I don’t under—” There was something on her hands.
Ruby flipped her shaking hands and failed to stifle the scream that ripped from her throat. There was blood on her hands; caked into the grooves of her knuckles, under her nails.
Sandra’s blood was on them both.
The sound of raw terror followed her out of the nightmare.
Ruby sat bolt upright as her dim room snapped into focus. Panting hard, she ran a shaking hand over her face. Damn, that was getting old.
As her brain wheezed through its start-up sequence like an old computer, her heart began to settle. She looked down and blinked. She was on the sofa. She’d never made it to the bedroom.
Heaving herself to her feet, Ruby rubbed the sleep from her eyes and shuffled through her modest flat towards the window. It wasn’t much. It comprised a small open-plan kitchen that merged into a lounge space, a bedroom just large enough to fit one bed and one wardrobe, and a shower room that made the entire room wet. It wasn’t much by anyone’s standards, but it was hers.
Pulling up the blinds, she squinted out into the day. Living in Callien again was a dream. She was in the city's heart, surrounded by concrete and glass, and the many variations of life that buzzed around her night and day. She cracked open the window and embraced the tumble of sounds that entered on the morning breeze.
As fresh air tickled her clammy face, Ruby’s thoughts drifted against her will, lingering on the broken, bloodied form in her nightmare. She squeezed the handle in her grip, rendered motionless for a moment of painful recall. It had been two months since that day. And not one had gone by since that Ruby hadn’t thought of her best friend. Ruby never forgot.
The media were very quick to forget about the demonic showdown at Crichton village. Within days, the terrified speculation had turned into humorous headlines of ‘FOOLED YOU! THE FILM SET HOAX THAT CONVINCED THE NATION’. There were those persistent few that had dug beneath the surface, but their voices were a drop in a loud ocean of noise. And just like that, they swept the countless deaths of those who had died on that day under the media carpet, never to be disturbed again. Because some big shot wiping a tiny village off the face of the Earth for entertainment value was easier to swallow than the bitter truth.
The truth was tragic, and painful. Terrifying. But Ruby clung to it all the same. She would never forget.
Her grandma’s diary lay open on the small desk next to the blinds. Still gripping the window’s cool handle, she lingered on the crinkled pages, the fancy pen that lay in the inner groove, remembering the many sleepless nights she’d had that first month she arrived. The studying of its pages, trying to decipher her grandma’s strange code. Ruby’s results had been mixed, and her headaches many.
She shuffled from room to room, collecting her thoughts as she collected her clothes. She hadn’t seen the real Drayvex since then, and he hadn’t tried to reach out to her. Most of the time, Ruby found this an immense relief, but in quieter moments, she caught herself asking why? If she didn’t know better, she’d swear that the demon had been a figment of her imagination. Except, the scars she’d collected — the crescent-shaped bump on her neck and the indentation on her palm — were very real.
Dressed for the day, Ruby grabbed a jacket and headed for the door, swiping for the keys in the dish. Well, whatever he was doing, she wished him the best. Drayvex had given her a fresh start. And she had no intention of wasting it.
The sound of knocking stopped her in her tracks. She glanced towards the noise, lips pressing together. There was someone at the door. Dropping her coat on the back of a chair, she slipped towards it and without pause, yanked at the handle.
Her keys slipped through her limp fingers as the door swung wide, landing on the carpet at her feet. The figure at the door was tall and thin, with lean muscle clinging to a petite frame. The way she held herself reminded Ruby of carefree days long past, and yet, was almost as a stranger to her. Coiled and on edge, burdened.
A tidal wave of emotion gripped Ruby as Sandra bore into her from across the threshold, her wary gaze holding Ruby in place. “Rube. It’s… good to see you.” As she spoke, Ruby’s eyes were drawn to the pink, puckered scarring on the right side of her face.
They’d both been wounded that day at The Golden Spoke. Sandra substantially more, having knocked Ruby clear and taken a face full for her trouble. But Ruby’s had been healed by Drayvex, the demon who’d abandoned humanity to its fate, shortly after she’d abandoned Sandra to hers.
Ruby fought the urge to squirm in her own skin. “S-Sandra?” She swallowed, a lump sticking in her throat. She hardly dared to breathe as she edged towards the ghost in the doorway. Was this another nightmare?
Sandra’s gaze fell to the floor. “I, uh. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get here. God, I’m a horrible friend.” She looked up, and the corner of her mouth lifted the smallest amount. “Can I come in?”
A single tear slid down Ruby’s cheek. Then, as the realisation finally hit her with full force, she crossed the remaining space between them and threw herself around her best friend.
Sandra was a solid thing beneath her. It was almost too much to take, too much for her poor brain to process. Ruby had grieved for Sandra, was still grieving; had phoned her parents and begged for their forgiveness. Neither had corrected her on their daughter’s life status. She’d spent the past two months thinking she’d left Sandra, alone and scared, to die a violent death. And yet, here she was.
Ruby pulled back, pushing Sandra out at arm's length. “I don’t understand.” She had a hundred questions spinning in her head, and none of them were easy. But right now, crippled by her relief, she knew she would forgive Sandra anything.
Sandra’s gaze was a silent plea. “I brought cake?” She rustled a bag behind her back.
Ruby blinked. Cake. She took a step back, a humourless laugh drifting out under her breath as she let her arms fall. “Well played,” she mumbled, sidestepping to let Sandra through, closing the door behind her. Ruby watched her glide into the flat, unable to shake the odd sensation of being stuck in a dream — or a nightmare. Was this really her oldest friend?
Sandra stood just inside the lounge kitchen, taking in the room. “This is nice,” she said. “You live alone?”
Ruby leaned against the closed door, her heart pounding, unwilling to be pacified. “Where were you?”
It was barely more than a mumble, but at those words, Sandra tensed. For a moment, she didn’t move or speak, and Ruby stewed in a soup of emotion while staring at her back. But after a pause, Sandra turned around to face her. “I thought about you every day, you know. You were my constant.”
Ruby hadn’t meant to linger on such insignificant detail, but she couldn’t help it. Had Sandra been this built when they’d last seen each other? Had Ruby been so absorbed in her own problems, in Drayvex and the stone, that she just hadn’t noticed?
“I wanted to find you. I really did. But Dad wanted me to focus on myself first.” She sniffed and looked down at the bag in her hand. “These past couple of months have been Hell, Rube.”
Ruby’s lungs squeezed as she watched her friend struggle. She dug her nails into the door. All this time.
“The pain was so bad, I wanted to die. I questioned why I was still alive, why that beast didn’t finish me when it had the chance. Nothing in the world made any sense.” She reached up to touch the pink ridges on the side of her face, but pulled away sharply. “I still feel it sometimes.”
A silent horror washed through her, Sandra’s words cutting into her like a knife. All this time, Ruby’d been oblivious to Sandra’s pain, to her very existence. She should have been there. She swallowed and pushed off the door. But how could she be, if she wasn’t considered ‘need to know’?
Ruby walked over to where Sandra stood and put a hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, Sand.” She squeezed, and after a moment, Sandra looked up. “I’ll stick the kettle on. And you can tell me everything.”
Sandra stared at her, motionless for a lengthy pause. Then she smiled.” That’s actually why I’m here.” It didn’t touch her eyes.
Ruby made herself smile in return. She took the bag from Sandra’s hand.
“Need a hand with anything?”
Ruby shook her head. “Nope. Go make yourself comfortable.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Sandra slipped her a smile with genuine warmth, and then wandered off to find a seat. As Ruby watched her take in their surroundings, she struggled to break the surface for air. The only way out of this was through. It was time to go back to Crichton.
The sound of the kettle boiling was a soothing balm. Ruby bustled about in the open kitchen, listening to its steady rumble fill the immediate space. Her head was spinning, but there were now some things that she could say with absolute certainty. One, Sandra was alive and well, but not unscathed. Two, her demon hunting dad was the reason that she hadn’t got in touch to say, ‘I’m alive and in good hands,’ these the past couple of months. And three, soon, she and Ruby would finally be on the same page.
Ruby pulled two small plates from a cupboard and placed a wedge of chocolate cake on each one. It’s not that she wasn’t happy to see her dead best friend arrive on her doorstep out of the blue. Ruby was ecstatic. If she had a faith, she’d be thanking her God right about now for sending a miracle her way. But it took seconds to make a phone call, or send a quick text. Was Sandra really so scared of letting her Dad down that she’d leave Ruby in the dark, grieving and guilt-ridden for months on end at his say so?
Hearing the kettle click, she poured boiling water straight into the tea-bagged cups and went for the milk. It didn’t matter. Right now, Sandra needed her to understand. Ruby would do her best.
Ruby navigated the laden tray around the counter and over to the sofa, where Sandra had placed a small table she’d found just in front. She stood up to help as Ruby approached, and Ruby supported the tray as it got steadily lighter.
“I’ve missed this,” Sandra sighed, retaking her place on the sofa.
Ruby gripped the empty tray, her mind dredging up unwanted memories of using one as a shield at the Spoke, glass shards pelting them both as a demon screamed in fury. She squeezed her eyes shut and shoved them away. “My amazing tea making skills?” She put the tray on the floor and kicked it under the sofa.
Sandra’s lip twitched. “Yes, your tea skills. That what I’ve missed.” She reached for a cup and cradled it against her, half-smile slipping. “How’s your mum, Rube? I heard she was in a coma.”
Ruby’s heart lurched at the mention of her mother. She’d heard? Then her parents must have told her. Lowering herself down onto the sofa, she angled herself towards her guest. “The same. No changes.”
“I’m — sorry.”
It was a medical mystery. She was in a coma, but no one knew why. Ruby had her suspicions. It was possible that a certain demon had tried to resurrect her, for reasons she didn’t dare think about, and had failed. Because of this, her mum was now alive, but missing her most vital element. Her soul.
It was farfetched; she had to admit. But it was far easier to think this way than to allow herself to hope, to believe that one day, her mum might wake up and say her name again. Ruby had watched her die. Had looked on helplessly as her mother was torn open in front of her.
Ruby couldn’t help but feel that, as usual, she was giving him too much credit. But who else but Drayvex would have such a power, could even consider raising a person from the dead? Ruby herself had been on the brink of death. And he’d found a way to save her.
Could she really allow herself to believe that everything would be okay? Ruby sucked in a breath, remembering Sandra. “Yeah. Its tough, but at least I get to see her every day.”
Sandra looked away, her features hardening in a way that was a hundred miles from the bubbly, cheerful person Ruby knew and loved.
Unnerved, Ruby looked down at the little table. Her own tea was untouched, little wisps of steam rising from its surface.
“Those creatures that wreaked havoc that day in Crichton have a name.”
Ruby held her breath. She made herself look around to her left, to where Sandra sat with her tea. Demons.
“They’re called demons. And my dad hunts them for a living.”
Ruby’s skin prickled. This was her cue to say, I know more than you think, Sand. But her tongue was dry, stuck to the roof of her mouth. She reached for her tea and took a gulp.
“It was my dad that saved me. He found me and killed the demon.”
Ruby felt her tea burn down her throat. Sandra’s dad had come for her, like a badass knight in dark armour. No wonder he’d been distant on the phone. Ruby was the best friend who’d left his daughter to die. “About that. Sand, I can’t—”
“Rube, whatever you’re about to say, save it. I told you to run.” Sandra’s gaze was fierce as she held Ruby’s gaze.” Okay?”
Ruby took a breath. “O-okay.” How much had Ruby missed him by, minutes? Seconds?
Sandra put her half-empty cup back onto the table. “I wanted to tell you everything; that my dad was a monster hunter, that I was training under him at his base. But they swore me to secrecy, and Rube, these people take themselves very seriously.”
Ruby sat and stared at Sandra, trying to process everything she was saying. Ruby had suspected that Sandra was being trained. But to hear her say ‘his base’ in such a casual way tweaked at the back of her mind. “Is your Dad high in rank?”
Sandra froze in the motion of reaching for cake. Chocolate fudge, the Serling signature peace offering. She smiled, and for a moment, she looked like her Sandra. “So you did get my hints.”
Ruby felt her cheeks grow warm. “Yeah, well, I was looking out for you, wasn’t I? You’d have done the same.” If only Sandra knew how much Ruby knew. Could she finally come clean about her relationship with Drayvex?
Taking a plate off the table, Sandra sat back and ran a finger through the sauce on her plate.” Dad is the leader of his base. Which leads me to my next confession.”
Ruby’s jaw dropped. Well, holy hell. “That’s… amazing.”
“Being my dad’s apprentice, I’m privy to a certain level of information that I wasn’t before. Like how, of course, they want to take out the small fry demons that cause trouble for regular people, but also that their prime target is the demons’ ungodly leader. The Lord of all Demons.” Sandra fingered her cake, her jabs into the soft sponge becoming more and more forceful. “He’s the tyrant king of an entire race of demon scum, and a piece of work.”
Ruby had forgotten how to breathe. “Oh?” she croaked, squeezing her cup and burning her hands.
Sandra paused, hesitating. “They recently discovered his other face, the one he uses to blend in around us. And Rube, I’m so sorry.” Sandra dropped her plate back onto the table and swivelled around in her seat. Meeting Ruby’s gaze head on, she reached out and put a hand on Ruby’s arm, just like Ruby herself had earlier to Sandra in comfort.
Ruby fought the urge to recoil in alarm. There was no way out of this. No way to stop their two lives from colliding in a catastrophic way. She had thought her and Sandra being on the same page would be like a weight lifted off them both. But the weight of Ruby’s secrets would crush them both.
“When they showed me his face, I felt sick. Because Rube, I pushed you right into his claws.” She stopped and took a breath. “It’s tavern guy. His other face is tavern guy.”
Ruby could do nothing but stare. How would Sandra react to the truth? What was the truth?
“Please, tell me you’ve left him far, far behind you. Tell me you haven’t seen him since that day, when you rang me and told me he’d stood you up?”
Ruby looked into the fearful eyes of her best friend and found clarity. She’d been wrong. She could never tell Sandra about Drayvex. Not ever. Licking her lips, she cringed inside as her response left her lips. “I, uh — jeez. No, I’ve not seen that guy in a good while. It didn’t work out. Now I know why!”
She was an idiot.
Sandra’s body visibly relaxed, and as she dropped her arm from Ruby’s, she sank back into the sofa. “My God, Rube. That’s good. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I’d encouraged you to date the devil himself.”
For every ounce of guilt that left Sandra’s drooping form, Ruby’s tripled. This was the right thing to do. This was the right thing to do. This was --
“Don’t worry. We’ll get him. And when we do, we’ll make sure that the evil bastard pays for every single one of his crimes on this Earth before he dies.”
Ruby stared at the little scar on her palm, her heart pulling in strange ways. “Great.” And the only person in existence that would give a damn would be her.
Ruby and Drayvex's journey continues on November 2nd in SOUL-STRUNG. Pre-order now to secure your copy and claim your early order BONUSES! Send your proof of purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org and get exclusive extra content (ebook purchases) plus signed artwork (paperback)!
NB: Stopping before we get to Drayvex is really testing my willpower! But he would argue that he's worth the wait. ;-)