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A Kiss Before Doomsday
A Dru Jasper Novel
By Laurence MacNaughton
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2017 Laurence MacNaughton
All rights reserved.
A dark voice inside Greyson whispered that the end of the world was coming. He awoke on a rocky ledge, sprawled beneath a night sky ablaze with alien stars. Burning comets streaked overhead, leaving behind plumes of oily fire. Above, an unearthly sky shimmered with spiderwebs of ghostly light. Below, a jagged cliff dropped away into eternal darkness.
Bruised and bleeding, Greyson lay on the narrow outcropping, unsure whether he was dead or alive. He stared up at the ethereal lights slashed through with falling stars. Were they the spirits of the departed? Was he among them?
Part of him wanted to give up, just lie there on the rocks and close his eyes forever. Surrender to his injuries. Slip away into the darkness. But Greyson had never been one to give up.
Jaw clenched, he tried to ignore the pain as he rolled over. Every part of his body was cut and battered. His muscles felt as if they were on fire. Gritting his teeth, he struggled to his feet and looked around at the dark cliff face. There was no way off this ledge but up.
Steeling himself, he reached overhead, fingers searching for a hand-hold in the cold rock. With a grunt, he pulled himself up and found a toehold. Taking a breath, he reached up and did it again. And again.
It seemed like hours that he scaled the unforgiving cliff, searching for every crevice and jutting rock he could grip. He panted, too winded to give voice to the pain. As he climbed, memories came back to him in broken fragments.
In the desert, he had tried to save Dru from the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but something had gone wrong. He had lost control, become some kind of a monster. Something nightmarish and inhuman. Something fueled by rage.
He remembered seeing Dru's terrified face in the darkness, her long brown hair blowing back in the wind as falling stars plummeted to earth all around them. The anguish in her voice as she called his name. As the monsters closed in around them.
She had fled.
Greyson remembered brief glimpses of a high-speed chase. A bonejarring crash. The car had tumbled end over end. He had been thrown out through the shattered windshield, over the edge of the cliff, where he had hurtled down into the darkness. How far had he fallen?
Not quite far enough to kill him. But almost.
What had happened to Dru?
He had to find out. No matter what it took. He needed to make sure she was safe.
Just when he couldn't climb anymore, he reached the top of the cliff and collapsed there, panting, every muscle in his body shaking. That was when he found Hellbringer.
The demon-possessed black car, a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, lay on its side, smashed. Its pointed nose cone was crumpled inward, revealing one dark headlight. It stared at him like the eye socket of a skull.
Accusatory. Haunted. Lost.
Greyson turned away, unable to face it. He got to his feet and staggered along the top of the cliff, searching for any sign of Dru. Despite the eternal darkness, the hellish skies overhead shed just enough light to see by.
There. Footprints in the dark sand. Dru had circled all around Hellbringer, possibly searching for him, and then headed away. He followed the footprints to the dark mouth of a nearby cave. He recognized it. This cave led out the netherworld through a portal to an abandoned mine in the living world.
If she had searched for him after the crash, there was no way she could have seen him all the way down there. Did she even know he was alive?
He pictured her in happier times, the earnest look in her eyes, behind her dark-rimmed glasses. The integrity in her voice. The slight upturn constantly at the corner of her mouth, as if she wanted to say something funny but was worried it would be highly inappropriate.
A deep need stirred inside him. To get back to Dru. To make things right. To fix things that would otherwise never be fixed.
Beneath a night sky gone mad, he staggered over to the ruined hulk of Hellbringer. The moment he touched the car's hood, a spark jumped between his finger and the steel, connecting them for a split second with a blinding arc of energy.
He jerked his hand away and made a fist, unsure what had just happened.
Like burning coals stirred up from the depths of a dead fire, Hellbringer's headlights began to glow again. Within the cracked, wavy glass, the ruddy glow quickly turned white-hot.
Greyson held up a wounded hand to ward off the blinding glare. This close, he could practically feel the heat from the lights. Brilliant. Searing. But also purifying. Drawing him back to himself, as if a part of him had been missing and he hadn't even known it.
His injured hand, silhouetted in the pure white light, began to heal as he watched. His fingers straightened and strengthened. The swelling shrank away, and the cuts closed, leaving clean, healthy skin.
He lowered his arm and squinted into the headlights, staring back at Hellbringer where it lay sideways among the boulders.
When he summoned up his voice, it came out cracked and gravelly. "Hell of a place to park, buddy."
The demon car flashed its high beams at him.
Gathering himself, Greyson planted both hands on Hellbringer's roof. He had learned from Dru that the speed demon's presence gave him superhuman strength and endurance. But after the exhausting climb up the cliff face, he wasn't sure how much strength he had left.
With a heave that aggravated every complaining muscle in his body, he pushed the car off of its side and back onto its wheels. It landed with a crunch, an eruption of dust, and the rhythmic creaking of steel springs.
Immediately, Hellbringer's dented black sheet metal began to straighten and smooth out. The nose cone uncrumpled. The long spoiler wing above the tail squared up and sharpened to a jet-fighter edge. The smashed windows regrew from the edges of the chrome trim. Hellbringer was healing itself, as it had healed him.
The driver's door screeched open when he pulled on it. He collapsed into the narrow black seat, exhausted, breaths coming hard in his aching chest. But with each painful breath, he could feel his strength returning. As if Hellbringer's very presence made him whole again.
Dru had once explained that his fate was tightly intertwined with the demon car. He never realized just how close that bond really was.
He tilted the rearview mirror and peered at his reflection. Messed up dark hair that could use a trim. Darker stubble. Scratches and bruises that were fading as he watched. That wasn't too strange to accept, considering everything else that had happened to him. But it was his eyes that stopped him.
They were clear and blue. Completely human.
Not the glowing red eyes of a demon.
Hope surged inside him. Dru had done everything she could to break his curse. And here was the proof that she had succeeded. He was no longer one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. No longer a threat to everyone around him.
Now, he was just a regular guy again. Granted, a guy with a demon-possessed muscle car. But at least he was himself again.
He found his leather jacket on the floorboard, where it had apparently ended up during the crash. He slipped it on, feeling more human by the moment as it warmed against his skin. Beyond the windshield, across the rocky plain, the dark cave waited. It was time to find Dru.
The old brass keys were already in the ignition. As he pumped the gas and reached for the keys, Hellbringer's monstrous Hemi engine rumbled itself to life, growling like a wounded animal that refused to die.
Grimacing, Greyson dropped his hand to the gearshift and shoved it home. The pitch of the hell-powered engine dropped to a guttural growl, and the car crept forward. Its headlights shone across the slate-gray rocks as he drove toward the yawning blackness of the cave mouth.
The rocky ground was almost completely flat, but for a machine that was built strictly for devouring highway pavement, it might as well have been the surface of the moon. Every rise and dip in the uneven stone banged through the car's battered chassis.
Greyson steered carefully into the cave, expecting to have to back out at any moment. But the opening was more than wide enough to accommodate the car.
The thudding of the exhaust echoed off the uneven walls, and the impenetrable blackness ahead swallowed up the headlight beams.
This was no ordinary cave, Greyson knew that much. Somewhere inside lay a portal back to the normal world. The last time he was here, when he had traveled through the netherworld with Dru, she had used her crystal magic to open the portal. Without her magic to aid him, Greyson could only hope that Hellbringer's infernal presence was strong enough to carry them through to the other side.
Otherwise, this would be a pretty short trip.
A gusting wind picked up, buffeting the windshield with bits of grit. But the car's aerodynamic form and tall back wing slipped through the wind like a knife. Hellbringer crept onward, deeper into the cave.
Without warning, the car slowed down, as if something was pulling them back. As if the netherworld itself had grasped them with invisible claws, preventing their escape. Gradually, they ground to a halt in the dark tunnel.
An icy spike of adrenaline pierced Greyson. They were stuck. He had to get them out of here, or they would be trapped in the netherworld forever.
He pulled the parking brake tight to keep them anchored, then floored the long-traveling clutch and fed the gas. The diabolical engine roared, and the white tach needle swung up past 3,000 rpm, but it was no good. The tires let out painful squeaks as the netherworld jerked the car back out of the cave, bit by bit.
He kept the gas pedal down. The tach swept past 4,000 rpm.
The invisible forces of the netherworld continued to pull at them like a hungry creature trying to draw them back in. Trying to devour them.
At 5,000 rpm, the entire car shook. Hellbringer's deep reserves of infernal power strained to be unleashed. Greyson knew the demon car so well that he could feel the right launch moment approaching, the sweet spot in the bell curve of torque that would break them free.
But before they reached it, the invisible force of the netherworld yanked them back. It wouldn't let them go.
At 6,000 rpm, the wailing engine shuddered through the car, drowning out all other sounds. All other thoughts. There was nothing left except the burning desire to go. Greyson kept the clutch planted, waiting for the precise moment to release. The white needle strained forward.
"Steady, buddy." Greyson's feet ached to move. Still, he held on.
Now deep in the red zone, the trembling needle fought its way higher. The engine crackled like an endless peal of thunder. Just when he thought the launch moment would never come, he felt it happen.
Now. Greyson dropped the emergency brake and simultaneously lifted his foot from the clutch.
Hellbringer blasted all of its horsepower into the rear wheels, dragging a howl of tortured rubber from the tires. Clouds of white smoke curled out of the wheel wells. But the car went nowhere.
Fear washed over Greyson. Had he miscalculated? Was all of their torque going up in smoke as the tires burned down to molten rubber? Would the netherworld hold them prisoner forever?
"Go!" he yelled at Hellbringer over the deafening engine noise. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
At his command, the shimmering red glow of hellfire pulsed up around the edges of the long black hood, reflecting off the chrome tie-down pins near the nose. The car's front end glowed like iron in a hot forge, as if the engine itself had become a boiling cauldron of unholy power.
The air in front of the windshield shimmered with heat waves. Hellbringer was a car with the heart of a demon. Greyson felt from the gearshift knob a searing connection directly to its infernal power. It pierced through his body like a needle spiking a nerve, connecting to his very essence and making him one with the machine.
With that, the superheated tires found traction. They bit into the cave floor, breaking the car free of the netherworld's grip. Hellbringer launched down the tunnel at mind-bending speed.
Greyson's head snapped back. The acceleration crushed him into the seat. It took everything he had left to slam through the gears and keep the steering wheel centered as the demon car rocketed toward freedom.
In the darkness ahead, a pinpoint of light exploded into a blinding flare of pure whiteness, painfully intense. Greyson squinted against the glare.
When his vision adjusted, he caught a glimpse of the tunnel walls. They seemed different, somehow. Just as dark, but the texture of the rock had subtly changed. In the blue-hued shadows, the tunnel looked less nightmarish and more real.
Ahead, the tunnel ended in bright sky. The exit was ringed with jagged wooden planks.
Hellbringer smashed through the remains of an old wooden blockade hung with skull-and-crossbones danger signs.
They blasted out of the abandoned mine shaft into broad daylight. Hellbringer's nose went airborne for a moment, then tipped sharply downward. Greyson's stomach dropped as they sailed through the air.
They landed with a tooth-rattling bang on a dry slope broken by craggy brown rocks, wildflowers, and tufted green bushes. Instantly, the car began to skid.
On instinct, Greyson pumped the brakes, trying to bring them to a controlled stop. But they headed down the steep slope too fast. He steered around boulders and pine trees, power-sliding through the dirt. Tree branches scraped and banged off the car's long body.
He got their speed under control just as they burst out of the trees over an old gravel trail that had once been a dirt road. Obviously, no one had driven it for years, and now it was overgrown with hardy grass and cactuses. Greyson brought Hellbringer around in a long, gently slipping curve that landed them safely in the middle of the trail.
With a sigh of exhaustion, he rolled the car to a stop, and only then took his sweaty hands off the steering wheel.
"Let's never do that again," he said.
The car defiantly revved its engine, clearly disagreeing with him.
He took a deep breath. The magical connection to Hellbringer left him drained and shaky. He wanted to get out of the car and walk around, but his legs suddenly felt like lead.
Around them, ranks of snow-capped peaks rose above the rugged green carpet of pine trees, growing bluer in the distance beneath an overcast afternoon sky the color of zinc-plated steel. After the madness of the netherworld's alien stars, Greyson relished the familiar, jagged landscape of the Rocky Mountains.
Ahead, the trail switched back and forth down the steep slope, presumably leading to some cracked blacktop county road, and then eventually civilization.
Greyson realized that he'd been here before with Dru, at this exact spot, after they had walked through the netherworld. Her feet had been red and painfully swollen, and he had made her makeshift bandages with folded-up napkins.
He could picture her sitting barefoot on that boulder, looking up at him with thanks, making some comment about wearing the wrong shoes. But he had been captivated by the beauty of her shy smile, the impish look in her eyes every time she took off her glasses.
The thought of Dru made his breath catch in his throat. Where was she now? Did she even know he had survived? What private hell had she gone through?
He had to find her.
As Hellbringer descended the dirt trail, Greyson reached down to the chrome crank and rolled down the window. A soft June wind whispered through the pine trees and swirled through the car, carrying the tang of a coming storm.
The galvanized sky finally delivered its downpour as Greyson left the winding mountain roads behind and took the highway toward Denver, where Dru had her crystal shop. The endless curtain of rain obscured the city where it sprawled out beyond the rolling foothills at the edge of the grassy plains.
As he drove, the engine let out a constant mournful howl. The windshield wipers slapped back and forth. The highway flattened out and ran straight into the city, and the facts settled on him like an uncomfortable weight. He had just come back from the netherworld. What did that mean, exactly?
Dru would know. She would formulate some kind of potion, do research in some ancient book, or pull a magical crystal out of a drawer. She would be able to verify that he was finally cured. That everything was okay.
Beside him, the passenger seat was conspicuously empty. Without Dru there beside him, nothing felt right.
His heart beat faster as he headed toward her shop. After the long drive, his strength felt as if it was returning, but he couldn't shake a growing uneasiness that something was terribly wrong. The foul taste of danger lurked in the back of his throat, the way it had when the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse pursued them across the desert.
He wrote it off as nerves, telling himself that he was just worried about what Dru would say. After everything they had been through, after all the danger and destruction they'd overcome in trying to break his curse, he wasn't one hundred percent sure she'd even want to see him again.
Excerpted from A Kiss Before Doomsday by Laurence MacNaughton. Copyright © 2017 Laurence MacNaughton. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Driven Apart, 9,
1: If You Leave, 20,
2: Beneath the Skin, 27,
3: The Dead Ride Fast, 33,
4: Hot Metal and Gasoline, 39,
5: The Damage Done, 48,
6: Things That Make You Go Hmm, 57,
7: Wake the Dead, 68,
8: Kick-Ass Shoes, 75,
9: The Way It Never Was, 79,
10: Hello, Mr. Bones, 89,
11: Strange Kind of Love, 98,
12: Love Is a Battlefield, 103,
13: Found in Translation, 112,
14: If You Were Here, 119,
15: Where the Sky Ends, 125,
16: Never Go Home, 132,
17: The Way Back, 140,
18: Darkness Runs Deep, 150,
19: Who's That Lady?, 159,
20: Love Me Like a Bomb, 167,
21: Disco and Doomsday, 173,
22: The Red Death, 180,
23: Behind Door Number One, 186,
24: The Clutter of Our Enemies, 195,
25: The Man behind the Mask, 203,
26: Styx and Stones, 208,
27: Everybody Wants to Rule the World, 214,
28: As the World Falls Down, 221,
29: Next to You, 229,
30: Long, Cool Woman, 239,
31: The Wild Side, 247,
32: Back in Black, 260,
33: Never Let Go, 268,
34: How the Gods Kill, 275,
35: Everything Ends, 282,
36: Kiss Them for Me, 288,
About the Author, 295,