Home > Evanescent (The Countenance #2)

Evanescent (The Countenance #2)
Addison Moore

Prologue

In the eyes of God, the truth is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

The truth lay before us cloaked in the lie of expensive clothing, fine education, dollar bills stacked to the throne of God. The deceivers pulled out all the stops with their sleight of hand, offering a new life, new bonds, forsaking the old, forgetting them entirely. But the metallic scent of blood lingered in the air. The smoke of the past occluded my vision. It burned and stung until I cried out for mercy and found a path of light that offered the clarity and peace only the truth could bring.

True love burns bright in the eye of adversity. It is the heart that nestles the past, cradles and cares for it as if it were a newborn. But wounds drilled craters into those cherished memories. Hurt and pain adulterated all that was once precious and unspoiled. Then a new love came with the power to bind the aching wounds, to stop the bleeding. It healed the heart, the soul, and promised to build a path to the future.

Sometimes you have to say goodbye to the past entirely to ever set foot in the future, but my heart lies in the precarious balance between the old and the new. I walk the tightrope made from adulation and allegiance with no net and no compass, leaving me stranded in the middle without an inkling of which direction to turn.

They say old friends are the best, but life has taught me that sometimes new friends are better. They are the bridge, the safety net I so desire, and it is through them that sanity and reason usher me to the safe haven filled with the answers—the resolutions I long for.

True love. I hold it in my right hand and my left. I cannot breathe without one and cannot survive without the other. In their own way each takes me to those pleasant places, those hazy days of sugared lust and treasured kisses, but in the end only one will remain. I cannot breathe without one or survive without the other. A part of me will surely die.

Just outside the borders of the truth, death waits for me with its open arms, its hasty grin as I lumber toward it like a bird with oiled wings.

I cannot forget the past, I cannot endure the future—either way, it all ends in tragedy.

God is right. The truth is a double-edged sword, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He never said it wouldn’t hurt like hell.

And it does.

1

The Slaughter of Plenty

Laken

The October sky lies, blank and wide, soft as felt with the stars freckling the expanse in a spectacular show of bravado. The evergreens spear into the night like charred daggers, like spirits rooted in bondage, unable to flee to the promise of some unknowable paradise.

“Welcome to the Slaughter of Plenty.” A voice cuts through the dark clearing.

It’s eerie like this, standing in some demonic circle with at least a dozen Counts from the local chapter. I recognize most of them from Ephemeral—the boarding school in which we reside. Wesley and I stand in number, shoulder to shoulder with our long velvet robes. The cool satin that lines the inside inspires my teeth to chatter. I’ve never been to the Slaughter of Plenty before, some mandatory ritual to start the New Moon ceremony off with a bang—or more accurately with a murder.

“Ready the sacrifice.”

I know that voice. It’s Blaine, Wesley’s supposed brother. In the real world, where the Countenance kidnap their victims from, Wesley has no brother. He has a different mother and a different last name all together, but for the sake of sanity and reason, I play along and declare a throaty Amen when the mock prayer comes to a conclusion.

“This isn’t going to be a big deal.” Wesley blows the words hot over my ear, sending a shiver up my spine. “I promise.”

I glance at him. Wesley is sublime in this shadowed world. The reserve light gravitates to his features and illuminates him as some mythological creature, a god who slays women by the sheer heft of his beauty. His dark hair feathers back like wings. His sea green eyes deny the darkness its right to bleed them of all color and they burst to life under these dismal circumstances. He’s so gorgeous it takes effort, on my part, not to bow at his feet. Everything in me yearns to be near him, with him. Wesley Parker is the keeper of my heart whether he knows it or not. He doesn’t remember a thing about our old life in Kansas, where we stole kisses on lazy summer afternoons. He believes he’s Wesley Paxton, some pompous aristocrat in the making with a pocketful of money to prove it. He thinks I fell from a tree and fabricated Cider Plains, and all those sweet memories of who we were—that they were byproducts of my injury. But I know the truth. I didn’t fall from a tree house and end up at the hospital. I dove through a windshield and ended up at Ephemeral. Wesley and I were both dead and now we’re alive as the children of Nephilim descent, belonging to a crooked faction known as the Countenance.

A guttural laugh garners my attention from across the expansive flat rock. It’s Fletcher, my true brother both in the real world and this quasi-fictional one in which we’re wealthy, healthy, and supposedly wise. His blond hair glints like a threat as he brays in the night like a donkey.

Fletch comes around and hands us each a long, silver blade. The metal handle sears the palm of my hand like a branding iron as if it had sat in the freezer, the oven.

“You don’t need to kill,” Wes whispers. His dimples tremble as if he were sorry I had to experience any of this to begin with. “We just need to puncture them for a sprinkling of their blood. Each of us makes a private decision on whether or not to kill.”

I try to process his words as a pale blue fog drifts into the vicinity. It puffs around the stone, around our bodies as if it were a presence that came to join us—a form of wickedness in disguise. The Countenance themselves profess to be angels, minus the harp, and wings, and overall notion of righteousness.

Cooper blinks through my mind—my angel in the truest sense. He’s the blond god of Nordic descent who is more than ready and willing to take on this rogue Viking—this Philistine that Wes has morphed into.

But Wesley is my only hope of freeing my mother and my little sister, Lacey, from the demons who stowed them away to have their blood drained—their Celestra blood—as a means to enrich their own demonic breed. Of course, I’m not lucky enough to be a Celestra. I’m a full-blooded Count—a purported enemy of the aforementioned faction, and how I came to be a spawn of pure evil is still a mystery to me. It’s one of the many things I’d like an answer to, but for now, rescuing my family is top priority. The questions I have, the answers I seek, will all have to wait.

“Wes, would you kill for me?” A tiny smile hedges on my lips as I clutch the blade like a threat.

“You bet I’d kill for you.” Wes dots the homicidal intention with a kiss, and my insides rip with fire. Wesley has far too much power over me. All of the headiness of first love resides with him. He creates a buoyancy in my spirit whenever he’s around. I wish he didn’t. I wish I hated Wesley with everything in me. That would make being his enemy a hell of a lot easier.

A series of childlike screams erupt from an overgrown crate that Blaine and Fletch haul over—the sacrifice of the evening, no doubt.

A ragged breath escapes me as I cast a glance at the forest that skirts the vicinity. Cooper is out there somewhere, amidst the creatures that roam these woods, in an effort to watch over me.

“You don’t have to kill for me, Wes.” It comes out soft like a dream. Everything feels like a dream in these nocturnal woods tonight.

Kresley licks her lips while glaring right at me. Her fingers curl around her knife like a promise. She’s the one Wes spent his time with, surrendered the most intimate part of himself to while we were apart, and now she wants him back with a fervor.

Wes picks up my hand and gives a gentle squeeze.

Forget about killing the damn birds. I’ll be too busy making sure Kres keeps her weaponry the hell away from Laken.

A dull laugh rattles from me as I free myself from his fingers. I still have enough of Cooper’s Celestra blood satiating my cellular structure, enabling me to read anyone’s thoughts through the simple act of touch. Of course, Wes can read my thoughts, too, but for far more nefarious reasons. I wonder if Wes would be so eager to kill for me tonight if he knew I was playing him. That I was onto his little game and was determined to take him and the entire lot of our vermin breed out of the celestial picture?

I’m pretty sure the repercussions would be huge. Cooper Flanders would wind up dead—or worse. He would disappear from the planet if Wes knew he was working with me to dismantle the network of body snatchers I bore my allegiance to.

“State your lineage.” Blaine howls it into the wind like a battle cry that carries for miles.

He points to the person on my left and progresses from Count to Count as each of the hooded entities state their father’s name and pledge themselves as a member of the Countenance.

“Conrad Paxton.” Wesley sounds off with the lusty cry of a soldier reporting for duty. “I bear the blood of the Counts.”

I’m thrown for a moment. Who the hell is Conrad?

A beat of unnatural silence ticks by, and suddenly all eyes are on me—the last and final inquiry of the evening.

“Laken,” Fletch hisses. “Wake up.”

Crap.

I give Wes a nervous look.

“Say your father’s name and state the Countenance.” Wes seems irritated that I haven’t been paying attention.

The smooth scent of the evergreens wafts in with a chilled breeze. The cries of the peafowl scream into the night like small children begging for mercy.

My father?

Shit.

In the fertility of my imagination, my father is a tall man with broad shoulders as wide as a baseball bat. He speaks seven different languages, is well versed in Shakespeare, and often recites scripture from the King James Bible—words stream from his mouth like a song. In reality, my father was a phantom who bent my mother over at a truck stop and inseminated her with a rush of seed in a heated exchange of lust that could only be classified as primal and dirty. That’s how I came to be, my sister before me at a bar, and the younger one after me in the depressed state of a trailer that still lies on the property. I gleaned this knowledge through one of my mother’s drunken confessions, her midnight murmurs that were often laced with the kind of clarity only 80 proof Bacardi could afford.

“God Almighty,” I say it crisp and clean. My voice echoes through the emerging fog like a siren.

A titter of laughter follows suit.

“Bold profession.” Blaine steps onto the stone and catches the sword in his hand as if he were challenging me to a duel. The whites of his eyes glow from beneath his hood as the only discernable human feature. “Do you think you’re special, Laken?” He cuts the words with a hint of sarcasm.

“I do.” I’m betting the tip of my blade finds its way between his thighs in under thirty seconds.

Wes takes up my hand as the entire group steps onto the Stone of Sacrifice—each with a silver seam of metal erect at the wrist.

Shit. She can’t remember her dad’s name?

Wes sighs and a plume of disappointment explodes from his nostrils. Wes as the fire-breathing dragon amuses me.

Fletch shakes out a barbaric cage comprised of long wooden sticks, and a small flock of peacocks strut out in a flurry. A lone male trots to the center of the stone and fans his feathers in a display of his God-given resplendence.

“Let us begin.” Blaine touches his lips to a ram’s horn, and a dull moan escapes the curved ornament.

The birds scatter in a frenzy.

“God, forgive me.” The words quiver from under my breath.

The cloaked figures come in low and begin jabbing their knives at the feathered creatures.

This is my moment. I won’t let the blood of my mother and sister rest quiet. If I’m going to integrate myself as one of these demons, I’ll need to make a point—dirty my hands with blood. Blood is truly the only language these monsters understand.

I jostle my way into the crowd. My blade hacks its way through the throng of winged creatures with the intensity of a medieval executioner. The serrated edge of my knife dips through the cartilage of one of the unfortunate beasts and sticks, forcing me to step on its body to pull my weapon free. It lets out a scream that carries to eternity, and beneath its painful warble, I hear Lacey’s voice collapsing with fear.

I stare at the blood on my blade a very long time as bodies swarm around me—blood and feathers rise to the sky with the laughter of the Counts intermingled.

We’re hurting them, removing them from the planet in the most hostile manner possible. I never wanted to hurt anybody or anything and here I had become one of them, assimilated, easy as breathing.

My head explodes with a pain so electric my vision blurs, and a wave of nausea rolls through me.

A hand flops over my shoulder, and I look up to find Grayson snarling at me with her perfect bowtie pout, her deep-well of a cl**vage prominently displayed through the plunge in her robe. Those long blonde locks, those wide haunted eyes make her look like the goddess of seduction even in this distorted world of shadows.

The sharp slice of her blade strikes me just above the elbow, and I jump back from her reach.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She brings a perfectly manicured hand to her lips, but I could still make out her smile—hear the glee in her voice. “Did I nick you?”

I could stab her. In this dark chaos, I could gut both her and Kresley and chalk it up to a happy accident.

“Laken!” Wes shouts from the opposite end of the stone.

A hard wallop crashes over my skull, and I drop to my knees. A trickle of warm liquid runs down my temple, highlighting the headache I already had brewing.

The world blinks in and out of focus. The crowd begins to clear from the stone as Wes speeds over, but it’s the birds that hold my attention—dozens of them squawking in pain, their bodies writhing from their wounds. These were far more than simple punctures. These animals were set up to suffer, agonize for hours—days, with inflictions that would prove to be lethal.

There is no truer analogy of the Counts than this right here. The capture of an innocent creature—making it bleed in the name of the Countenance and their false values.

My body quakes as I take in the mayhem. To do nothing would be to yield to the wickedness—to bow to it, become it.

I jab my knife against the stone as I crawl to my knees. I need to do something—I need to help.

The most humane way to kill a beast is by breaking its neck. Death, in and of itself, is sometimes the most sought after respite from suffering.

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