Chapter 2: Stupid Brick Wall.
The next thing she knew, Brook was standing over her and gently tapping her on her arm, wavy blonde hair falling around Brook’s face. “Come on, sleepy head,” Brook said, brushing the hair out of her face and pushing it behind her ear. Tessa groaned at the cheery brown eyes and sat up. Time to go back to the land of the living. What fun! Begrudgingly she followed Brook out of the store, back into the muggy heat as she crossed the sidewalk to Brook’s SUV, which was coal black. The air shimmered around the vehicle from the heat, and Tessa was half-expecting some of that heat to have leaked into the car, but when she opened the door and plopped down inside, the air was cool. Well, at least something had gone right today. Now she wouldn’t have to bake during the entire car ride there, like she would have if she’d ridden in the taxi. No, a late taxi with no A/C would have definitely killed her mood, as if it hadn’t already been squashed by everything else that had gone wrong. She slid her seatbelt on and let her head fall back against the headrest as Brook climbed in and started the car.
“Are you okay?” Brook asked, glancing over at Tessa before pulling out into the street. Was she all right? No, of course she wasn’t all right.
“Hmm, let’s see. First I thought I’d lost Kass’ whistle when I knocked it off the sink in the bathroom, trying to squeeze a shower between work and waiting for a taxi. Then I get a call that my rent is late again because the stupid bank didn’t transfer the money. And then I get to stand outside, with the humidity through the roof, and wait for a taxi that never showed. To top it all off, I’m going to be about two hours late to practice. What do you think?” Tessa asked, feeling all the stress coiling back into her. “Oh, and on top of all that, I get to show up late to a group of stuck up misogynists that love reminding me that if I survive all their bias and make it to the dragons’ homeworld, I have to start all over again with people who will hate my guts even more than they do. So I’m simply having a wonderful day. How about you?”
“Easy, Tess,” Brook said, her voice soothing. “That kind of attitude’s only going to hurt you. And I don’t think you’ll be going to practice once we get there.” Oh, right. The Council, again. Honestly this was one habit she was really going to have to break.
“Gee, thanks, Brook,” Tessa said, closing her eyes and trying to shut out the world. Cracking one eye open, she watched Brook open her mouth as if to say more, then Brook shook her head and focused on driving. With the gentle rocking motion of the vehicle and the cool air, Tessa quickly fell back asleep.
“All right, sleepy head, wake up. We’re here.” Tessa snapped wide awake when she felt a soft tap on her shoulder, and immediately jerked upright, grabbing a startled Brook around the wrist. After getting through the grogginess enough to realize where she was and what she was doing, Tessa let go of Brook and said, “I told you not to touch me when I’m asleep.”
“Sorry,” Brook said apologetically. “But why didn’t you react that way in the shop?”
“I was expecting you,” Tessa explained, letting her head drop against the seat’s headrest. Yeah, she should probably work on loosening up some more. “I don’t like being startled out of sleep.”
“All right, I’ll keep that in mind.” Brook opened the driver door and stepped out onto the pavement. Tessa resignedly brought her head up and looked around. The SUV was parked on the side of the brick building, where the entrance to the Underworld was. Behind her, the sand-colored warehouse’s wall was covered in shadows, so that meant it was well after two o’clock. With a groan Tessa opened her door and joined Brook in the alley, walking up to the wall segment below the fire escape. Brook sidestepped a drip of water from an overhead air conditioner and approached the brick.
“So have you thought about what I suggested last time we talked?” Brook asked as she laid her hand flat against the bricks that were at shoulder height.
“Yes, and the answer’s still no,” Tessa replied.
“But why not?” Brook asked, stepping away from the bricks as Tessa came forward.
“I already told you. I’m not staying with those guys. They already want to kill me, and I’m not going to give them the pleasure of cutting my throat while I’m asleep.” Tessa slapped her hand against the bricks and kept her back to Brook. She already had her answer, why couldn’t she just leave it alone?
“But I told you, you wouldn’t have to stay with the other ‘mates,” Brook continued, “You could stay with me, if you want.”
Tessa closed her eyes and sighed, dropping her forehead against the bricks. What harm could there be in saying yes? She wouldn’t have to put up with that stupid job anymore, and she’d be closer to Kass. Then again, she did have a life outside of the Underworld. But Kass…she hardly got to spend any time with him as it was, and he really was the only true friend she had. Brook was nice, but Tessa wasn’t close enough to her to consider her a friend. Finally she said, “I’ll think about it.”
“Okay,” Brook said, putting a reassuring hand on Tessa’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go.”
Brook stepped past her, walking at the brick wall. She vanished, leaving Tessa to follow on her own. Tessa hated this part, hated it with a passion. Why couldn’t they just use normal doors, or at least some kind of visible portal? No, they had to be all fancy and use some kind of ‘reality filter’ that no one could see. Tessa took a deep breath and closed her eyes, and stepped forward. Nothing says stupid like intentionally face-planting a brick wall. Another two steps, and Tessa opened her eyes, once again in the Underworld. She glanced behind her, and saw only a blank wall of sheet metal where the bricks should have been. A shiver ran down her spine, and she turned away to catch up to Brook. Like the last time, she hadn’t even felt it. Nothing, not even a tingle. Oh, she really hated that door.
She ran down the metal catwalk, pipes hissing above her as she went. Below her was dark, and she’d never found out why they needed a catwalk in a tunnel. The sides of the corridor were carved stone, and when Tessa had dropped a pebble over the thin guardrail on her last visit, it had plunked on the ground a mere two inches beyond the bottom of the metal causeway. The stone itself was speckled like granite, and small flakes of luminescent crystal sprinkled throughout the rock lent enough light to see by, but just barely. The corridor was at least ten feet wide, but the rattling pipes strung overhead were a foot above her at best, giving Tessa the feeling that the tunnel was being pulled wider as the roof was being crushed. That would be such a pleasant end, if she didn’t have Kass. Thinking of her friend, she hurried to the end of the catwalk and sped down the metal stairs at the end of it, taking them two at a time. The hollowed out diamond grips on the bottom step snagged her shoe, and she had to grab the handrail as she regained her balance. Steady, girl. Kass isn’t going anywhere. She pulled her shoe out of the step and went on, glad to have the polished stone underfoot. Up ahead, a lone light bulb glowed, reflecting off the glassy surface of the granite. Good, that meant Brook had already gone through here, but where was she? Tessa raced ahead to the thick metal door and pulled it open, then pulled up as it swung outwards. Where was Brook? The metal balcony was empty, and even the stairs were bare. Fluorescent light bulbs glowed overhead, revealing the rough stone walls that surrounded her. This place definitely felt like an Underworld no matter what the others said. They were crazy. Tessa slipped around the door and pulled it shut, then raced down the flight of stairs to the concrete floor below. After jumping the last three steps, she strode over to the dense, metal double-doors that led to the main foyer of the Underworld and pulled them open. A blue blur, a spinning world. Someone was glad to see her.
“Kass, get off me! I love you too, goober.” Tessa untangled her dragon’s spindly limbs and tail from her body, and held him at arm’s length in front of her. Kass nuzzled her under her chin with the tip of his snout, and gave a contented purr before wriggling out of her hands and gracefully plopping on the ground. Crazy dragon. Tessa danced around him into the main lobby of the Underworld as he tried to entwine himself on her legs. After getting across the threshold, she stumbled and fell with a laugh. “Kass, can I walk please?” Kass snarled a playful protest but unwound himself from her ankles. “Thank you, I really need to…oh, hi.”
“Hey, Tessa. Late again,” Max said, helping her to her feet. Tessa cringed but forced a smile. Talking with the whole Council was not fun, but having Max take all the heat felt even worse. Max was a nice guy, and as part of the Council usually came to Tessa’s defense. Like when Kass had ‘inducted’ her into the Dragonmates. Now that had been a fun 2 hours staying on her toes. Kass scampered over and clawed at Max’s jeans, getting his tail firmly wrapped around the pant leg he wasn’t attacking. “Your dragon has been a little hyper while you were gone.”
“Wait, there’s a time when he’s calm?” Tessa asked as they walked into the open space of the antechamber. The circular room stretched fifty yards wide, its walls filled with giant wooden doors that opened into various departments of the Underworld. A donut-shaped, ebony colored desk sat in the middle of the room. Seated behind the desk was a trim, brown-haired woman, her hands a flurry of movement as she typed on several keyboards, spun around to shift stacks of papers behind her, and then picked up where she left off at her computer. Perhaps two dozen papers fluttered above her head, battered about by unseen winds as she fought to keep control of her station.
“Transfers keeping you busy, Zoie?” Max called out as they walked towards the desk. Kass’
claws clicked on the polished marble floor, since he’d released Max to follow Tessa. She shook her head. Why they’d chosen to put marble flooring in this place was beyond her. As they neared the desk, the brunette looked up briefly, then plunged back into her work. It never ceased to amaze Tessa that with all the wind whipping around her head Zoie could keep her hair styled perfectly.
“More or less,” Zoie said without glancing up from her work. “Stations 35 and 63 are down, 47 keeps throwing out random jumps, and 88’s filter seems to be phasing out.” She paused long enough to look Max straight in his different colored eyes. “When you see your grandfather next, tell him I would appreciate him staying out of the code. The Forest Temple model was difficult enough to replicate, and with him meddling…”
“Got the message,” Max responded, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Anything wrong with 105?”
“Not at the moment,” Zoie said, her eyes skimming the various screens under glass segments of the desktop. “But with your family, you never know.”
Max’s grin broadened as he stepped away from the desk. “See you later, Zoie.” She flicked one hand in the air, her standard dismissal. They left the secretary behind, Kass’ claws clicking across the floor in time with Zoie’s typing. Click. Click. Click. He scratched desperately for a few moments before he got going and started sliding across the floor. Chuckling, Tessa followed her little sapphire dragon to the stained wooden doors with large golden handles. Carved across the top panel of each door was the number 105, and below that the word ‘Dragonmates,’ spanning both doors. Max ran a hand through his sandy brown hair and blew out a breath as he put his other hand on the doorknob.
“Dad’s going to want to talk to you,” Max said, studying the grain of the door.
“Max, you know you don’t…” Tessa began, but Max held up his hand.
“Worry about yourself, not me,” he said, and then added with a grin, “I can take care of myself, you know.” Tessa stuck out her tongue at him. Her own words, thrown right back at her. Well, she’d get him for that later. She cringed at the thought. Yeah, he’d get it all right, from his dad. Max smiled once reassuringly, then turned to face the doors and pulled them open.