Book 1 of the Hallowed Realms Trilogy
Authors: Amy Miles and Danielle Bannister
Flatline. The moment when one life ends and the next begins. That’s my cue. And I hate it. Being a banshee is a right pain in the arse. When I’m not ferrying manky old blokes or mental cat ladies through the veil between Earth and Netherworld, I’m training in secret for a war our King denies is coming. But I know better. An army of Lorcan monsters stands ready to breach the walls. If they succeed, the destruction they seek will not be contained to just our world, but to the human world beyond. My only hope is to rely on the aid of a cocky prince with his own agenda. But after a human man captures my interest, will I be able to accept the terms of the prince’s aid?
Our paths were never meant to cross. I’m meant to live my human life, unaware of the world that exists beyond the veil. I know about death, sure. My own sister’s life hangs in the balance, holding my own happiness with it. But when Taryn and I collide, my world flips upside down. Nothing makes sense anymore. There are things I shouldn’t be able to see but now can’t escape from. Logic tells me to run as far as I can from Taryn and the horrors of her world but my heart screams at me to follow her to the literal ends of the earth. Even if it means my own damnation.
FLATLINE. THE MOMENT WHEN one life ended and the next began. That was my cue.
Death was final, sealed with the stroke of a pen rather than left to chance. Baylor, King of the Netherworld, chose who lived and died. Fate and faith had nothing to do with it.
Just once, I would have liked to see a human pull through; that my services as a banshee wouldn’t be needed. There hadn’t been a mistaken death in over a millennium. Fat chance there would be one anytime soon.
I pressed back against the wall and waited as a nurse rushed past me. Her face looked haggard as she steered the crash cart down the hall. This was the fourth death here in the past two hours. The nursing staff was showing definite signs of weariness. Each of the battles had been long fought. They were fights the doctors never stood a chance of winning.
Several more nurses rushed through the closed door up ahead, working to revive the soul I’d come to collect. The steady high-pitched drone of the heart monitor made my skin prickle with unease. I hated this part. Death rarely ended in a peaceful passing.
Though the medical staff’s efforts were noble, they were also wasted. Once I was called in to collect a soul, it was too late for hope.
I glanced at my assignment card as I approached the room at a slow pace. Nora McMillian. Six forty-eight p.m. I had arrived two minutes ahead of schedule.
Glancing back over my shoulder, I checked to see if there were any other banshees within sight. Seeing that I was alone, I slid my hand into the layers of my dress to the leather warrior’s attire I wore beneath. There, pressed against my hip, was a hidden sheath.
I withdrew the dagger and held it firmly in my grasp. My blade helped to ground me when I felt on edge, and ever since I crossed through the veil that morning, something felt off. It was against the law for banshees to wield a weapon. I felt that it was an archaic rule, and as such, chose to ignore it on a daily basis.
My cousin, Eivin, was a reaper, a warrior bred to protect banshees. But I wasn’t the sort who wanted to wait around for a man to protect me. When Eivin realised I was determined to learn the art of war, he began training me in secret to take care of myself. He risked banishment if we were ever discovered but that didn’t stop him. He had always been very protective of me. He knew the truth as well as I did.
Things were not as they seemed.
King Baylor claimed to have sole power to control who lived and who died. But if that were true, how were our soldiers guarding the Wall dying? Was he killing his own men or had a new enemy risen that we were not meant to know about?
Eivin warned me against looking into such things. To speak out against the royals was an act of treason. I couldn’t pretend everything was normal. My friends could all smile and play their parts, but that wasn’t me. I wanted the truth. I just needed more solid proof of my suspicions. Otherwise, I was nothing more than a conspiracy theorist telling wild tales.
As I waved my blade in the air, it glinted against the halogen lights. It was beautiful, forged from a milky white stone mined deep within the heart of the Hollow Lands; an appropriate name it turned out. The Hollow Lands were a desolate place. A prison for the vilest of human spirits. The Lorcan.
Where they were held captive was a realm of torment created solely for those twisted Lorcan souls. Only in the Hollow Lands was this type of glass-like stone found. My blade was forged from their hell. It was the only thing capable of piercing their grotesque hides.
A chill washed over me at the thought of them as I leaned back against the wall. My mind was still uneasy. There were rumours that the Lorcan grew restless. There were whispers of battles at the great Wall that separated our two realms. Eivin dismissed them although I knew he was just trying to keep me from sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. Something wasn’t right. I could feel it deep within my soul. There had to be some truth to the whispers and I was determined to find out.
I had already started digging into the king’s dirty secrets, but I was far from done. It wasn’t like I had a lot of free time. A reaper’s day was unpredictable, dangerous, and suspenseful. Mine was boring and the hours felt endless. While Eivin got to lasso a Lorcan or two, I got stuck ferrying smelly old men whose tickers stopped working while watching football at the local pub. It wasn’t fair, but no one gave a shite what I thought.
“I should have been born a bloke,” I muttered.
I sighed and leaned my head back against the plaster wall. Nothing ever changed. People died. Souls needed help to cross over. I was stuck. I guess in one way that was job security for me. Not that I had a choice in the matter. Banshee for life and all that crap.
“What’s takin’ so long?” I glanced at the clock again.
Six fifty-two p.m.
“That canna be right.” My assignment, Nora McMillian, had been breathing for two minutes too long. Deaths were never late.
Kicking off from the wall, I ducked my head to look at the name printed on the patient’s chart hanging outside the door to make sure I was in the right room. In bold print, I read the name Fergus Fahey.
“Fergus Fahey? That’s Eivin’s soul to collect.”
I only remembered that detail because Eivin hounded me before crossing the veil about pre-planning my exit route. He had insisted I take the back stairs to ensure I wouldn’t cross paths with his Lorcan. Our assignment cards must have been switched. But why?
“If Eivin is upstairs collecting Nora, that means…” I gripped my dagger and planted my feet. “Bloody hell.”
Fergus Fahey had been a horrible man during life. That was why they had sent in a reaper. Souls of the wicked became Lorcan when they passed. That meant that whenever this soul died, I wasn’t going to be ready to handle it. Despite what little training Eivin had given me, coming to blows with a newborn Lorcan could kill me.
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled at the doctor’s call, “Time of death is—”
A split second after that, a new smell hit me. It was like rancid meat left to bake in a desert sun. It was too late to run.
The hulking form of the Lorcan burst through the door, taking me off guard. I had no time to react before a set of sharp nails struck the left side of my face. It hit me with such force that I flew across the hallway and into a wall. The impact of my body slamming into it caused the plaster to crack behind me.
My dagger spun across the tile, rendering it out of my reach. My flesh burned along the side of my face where the claw marks were, making my left eye water as it swelled. With my limited vision I saw the Lorcan crouched at my feet. Its eyes were wide and unblinking. The irises became pale as a milky white veil began to fall over them. He stared at me with the raging hunger of a newborn.
Though the creature still bore some humanoid features, its head appeared to be elongating. Its skin thickened and looked splashed with oil as the black spread along its hairless body. I stared in horror as its fingernails and toenails grew into claws. When its bright red tongue snaked out between pointed teeth, it reminded me of a snake. Bits of skin grew over its nostrils until only a flap of skin opened and closed as it sniffed the air.
Suddenly, I wondered if I’d been set up. Maybe I had asked one too many questions to the wrong person? My da had warned that my nosing around would get me into trouble someday. What if I’d poked too close to one of the king’s secrets and he’d unleashed this demon on me to silence me for good? Only King Baylor had the power to decide who died and who was reaped. He alone controlled the assignments written for us each day.
And he never made a mistake.
I kicked the Lorcan, connecting my boot with its face. The sound of its shattered cheekbone paired with the popping of several boils on its face. Pus leaked over my sole. Smoke rose from the leather sole as it burned through my shoe like drops of acid.
My breath caught as the Lorcan uncurled its claws and snarled. They looked sharp enough to tear me in half.
“Shite, shite, shite!”
I rolled away and tried to throw myself towards my dagger but came up short when its claws sank deep into my calf. With a strong tug, I was pulled away from the wall.
“Get off me!”
I tried to kick free, but the beast had shredded several inches of my leg. The pain grew so intense I feared I’d pass out.
My head slammed into the floor when the Lorcan tossed me onto my back and raked its claws over my opposite thigh. Its touch burned like frostbitten skin dipped into warm water. The skin didn’t melt but withered and died. Nausea rolled through me as the scent of my own charred flesh filled my nose.
“Help!” I screeched.
There was no one to come to my aid. None of my kind were scheduled to this floor, which I should have thought suspicious. I tried to escape the humans milled around us. They were deaf to my cries; none the wiser to my battle. My kind was invisible to them until they died. If they felt anything at all it might be a light breeze, easily explained away as a draft. No one was coming to rescue me.
I was on my own.
A growl rose from the Lorcan’s throat as it slashed its claws across my lower abdomen and upper edge of my thigh. I screamed when its nails pierced my leathers and tore through my skin. Tears blurred my vision as I sent a blow to its groin, managing only to bruise my knee on its unforgiving hide. The blasted thing laughed in response. It was a cruel laugh that made me quake with terror.
I’m going to die. This was it. My death would happen right here on this bleach white hallway. It wasn’t exactly the way I thought I’d go out.
The Lorcan paused to sniff the air just when a nurse pushed open the door to my right. She maneuvered the narrow turn to roll the deceased Fergus’ bed down the hall. I tried to reach my dagger while its attention had shifted to the nurse, but a clawed hand pressed against my chest the moment I moved.
Although I was an easy and more desirable meal, a newly turned Lorcan was drawn to any life force within reach. It didn’t matter that the nurse was currently attending to the Lorcan’s former body. That life was gone. All that remained was the monster’s hunger. It cared little what world the life it sought lived in.
Before I could react, the Lorcan pounced on the woman. The nurse’s scream was shrill as it took her to the floor. The hospital bed was sent flying before it careened into the wall. One of the humans was bound to hear her cries.
“Get up, Taryn,” I said through gritted teeth.
Pressing my hand to my stomach, I watched in horror as the Lorcan rolled her over. She tried to fight off her invisible attacker, but she proved too weak. Nothing in the human world could fend the Lorcan off. There was nothing I could do for her in my current condition despite her pleas for help.
Soon more humans came to help, but all they saw was a woman writhing in pain on the floor. They didn’t see the beast on top of her, dismantling her insides. To them, it only appeared as she was losing her mind. And she had. Her brain would soon shut down and her heart would stop. Another death would come today. Had this one been orchestrated by the king too?
With the Lorcan distracted, I found my footing and leaned against the wall. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. I had to find Eivin. He had to know there was a Lorcan on the loose.
With each step I took, pain lanced through my leg. Darkness edged around my already blurred vision. My left eye burned with tears as the nurse’s screams rose and fell. I didn’t look back. I couldn’t.
“Eivin,” I screamed as I leaned heavily against the wall. “Eivin, I need ya!”
The hallway seemed to expand in front of me, becoming a marathon distance to cross. I limped forward, smearing bloody handprints on the wall as I passed. I had to get to the stairwell. I didn’t know how I’d make the climb, only that I had to try.
From around the corner I heard hurried footsteps. My left eye was completely swollen shut by now and tears blurred the vision in my right, but I made out a figure dressed all in black. He was hurrying towards me.
“Eivin, thank the gods.” The cry caught in my throat as I reached for him. Pushed beyond its limits, my leg gave out on me and I collapsed into his arms.
I‘D WALKED DOWN THE same stretch of tile in the cancer wing so often that I didn’t even need to look up anymore to know where I was. Two rights, a left, pass the nurses’ station, turn right to room 417. My eyes focused on the scuffs on my work boots, so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact with the nurses. While they all knew me and my folks by name, they avoided greeting us as well. By now, they had run out of encouraging things to say.
Even though I knew my sister’s odds, I couldn’t help feeling anxious as I walked towards Alana’s room. I was still holding out hope that today would be the day the doctors discovered some miracle cure.
My fingers fidgeted with the edge of my jacket as I walked. The leather was thinning along the cuffs where I’d rubbed my thumbs against it so many times. The canary yellow scarf Alana made me two birthdays ago was wound tight around my neck. The wool itched, but I didn’t loosen it. It served as a constant reminder of the pain she was likely in. I was sure her first attempt at knitting looked foolish against the rest of my all black attire, but she had made it, and I clung to that.
The scarf reminded me of her. Bright and cheery. So full of possibility.
That colour defined Alana. Hopeful. In that way the black defined me. I felt like nothing these days. I mean, what did I do besides fix broken cars and throw clay around for the masses to gawk at? I didn’t even hit the gym as much as I used to, though time with the clay kept my muscles defined. My days felt wasted while we waited on news of Alana. That damn yellow scarf forced some of her positivity on me.
She couldn’t die. Twenty-one was just too damn young.
Since discovering her heart cancer three years ago, I’d had to go through my own round of tests. Because we’re twins, and her type of cancer being so rare, I had to be screened. They had no idea if it was a genetic mutation or fate dealing her a piss-poor hand. My blood work had come back normal; an unpleasant fact that I had to grapple with daily. It wasn’t fair. She was the one worth saving. Not me. She had spark and spunk, a thirst for life.
No. Not had, has. She wasn’t dead yet.
I let out a breath and picked up my pace. There was no point sulking. There wasn’t time for that. Every day counted now. Every hour. Every minute.
As I walked, I pulled out my mobile and texted Seamus. Even though we barely spoke now, I still kept him up to date on her condition. It was foolish. He never responded, but the texts made me feel better. It felt like a way to remove some of the pressure off my chest. Seamus had become my unwitting journal recipient.
I had just hit send when I felt something, or rather someone, crash into me. My mobile fell to the floor as my head whipped upwards. A girl stood in front of me, covered from head to toe in blood, yet her eyes held a look of relief before they rolled back into her head. She started to sway just as my arms reached out to catch her before she could fall.
Her body was like a dead weight against my chest as I held her upright.
“Mate, are you alright?” I asked already knowing the answer. She was covered in blood. Lots of it. Her body lay limp in my arms.
“I need a doctor!” I shouted as I eased her onto the ground. Her body was limp, and her skin was cold. My heart began to beat faster, wondering if she had already died. It wouldn’t be surprising considering the state she was in. But how did she get like this? I looked around for help, or for some madman on the loose who might be attacking people, but there was no one to be seen. I cursed. It wasn’t a very travelled stretch of hallway as it passed by the morgue. It was part of the reason I used this route. The less people I saw the better. Bad luck for this poor woman.
I knelt down beside the girl, trying to see if there was anything I could do. I had no medical experience, but I felt like I had to try. My fingers found her neck and checked for a pulse. If there was one, it was faint. Lowering my head to see if her chest was still rising and falling, I noticed that this girl was roughly my age. She had blond hair that was now soaked with blood.
I’d never seen anything like the marks on her. It was as though she’d lost a fight with a bear. There were literal claw marks on her body. Blood was seeping out of deep gashes along her legs. An angry series of black and bloodied markings covered the left side of her face. The cuts appeared to have missed her eye by a fraction of an inch but exposed the skeletal bone beneath. It was all I could do not to hurl.
What the hell happened to her?
Thinking fast, I took my belt off and used it as a tourniquet around her thigh, trying to stop the bleeding from where it seemed to be gushing the worst. I had no idea what I was doing. Every movie I had ever seen did something like this, so I could only pray it might help until someone with more knowledge than me came along. When I touched the darkened blood on her thigh I felt a sudden jolt of heat. Almost like a burn. I pulled my hand back and wiped the black sludge off on my jeans. It must be some kind of poison? That didn’t make any sense, though. Then again, neither did a woman who looked like she’d been attacked by a wild animal.
Being careful not to touch the black stuff again, I tied off the belt. I couldn’t help but notice the clothes she wore. She had on a silver dress that was now cut to shreds and covered in blood, but underneath the dress, she seemed to be wearing leather pants…or what used to be leather pants. It was hard to tell where the leather ended and the open flesh began. Was she wearing a costume? I was so confused.
Whoever she was, she was going to die if I didn’t get her some help.
“I need a nurse or a doctor. Someone!” I shouted. “This woman has been hurt!”
Far down the hall, an older man with an IV poked his head out. He was dressed in a hospital gown and had oxygen tubing under his nose.
“Oh, thank God. I need a doctor. Can you press your call button?”
The old man looked over at me, then down at where my hands were. He gave me an odd look then quickly shuffled back into his room, closing the door behind him.
“Hey. Wait! I need help.”
Frustrated, I looked back down at the girl. She was so peaceful, even as broken and bloodied as she was. That was when I heard her cough.
“Jesus!” I yelled, sitting back on my legs.
One of her eyes opened. A gorgeous blue eye searched mine. It was a colour I’d never seen in another person. It was like a tropical sea. Both green and blue at the same time. The colour was mesmerizing.
“Eivin?” she gasped.
“Eivin? No. I’m not Eivin. Is he here? Where can I find him?”
She was so pale. I knew she didn’t have much strength in her.
“What? Yes, you’re still alive.” For how much longer, I had no idea. “Look, let me go for help.”
She reached out her hand and grasped my own harder than I would have imagined she’d have the strength for in her condition.
“No. Get Eivin,” she gasped.
I looked up, trying to find who she was referring to, but the hallway was still deserted.
Her eyes blinked several times in rapid succession as she fought to stay awake.
“He needs to know—the king lied…not safe. None of us…safe.” Blood trickled out of the corner of her mouth and her eyes closed.
That could not be good.
I was going to have to find a physician on my own. Scrambling to my feet, I broke out into a run down the hall to find help. Luckily, I knew right where to find some.
“Shelia!” I shouted as I practically crashed into the head nurse who tended to Alana’s wing.
“What’s the problem, Mr. Gallagher? Is it Alana?” Sheila asked. She was a no-nonsense kind of woman. Exactly the sort of person I needed.
“Oh, thank God it’s you, Sheila. No. It’s not my sister, but I was on my way to visit her when…there was this girl.”
Sheila raised a hand to stop me.
“Yes. I know. She’s been tended to.”
I gave her a blank look. “She has?”
“No need to worry. Nurse Childs will be right as rain.” She turned away, dismissing me, and began chatting to the nurse beside her. “I told you she was pulling too many overnighters. They had to sedate her. Took four of us to hold her down.” She shook her head as she opened a patient chart. “She just kept screaming.”
I knew who Nurse Childs was. She was one of Alana’s night nurses.
“No. It’s not her!” I shouted, regaining her attention. “There’s a girl…she—she’s covered in blood. I think she might die. She’s in the hall near the morgue.”
I was sure I must have looked insane after what I had witnessed because she raised one hesitant eyebrow.
“I promise I’m not sleep-deprived again,” I assured her. Well, I was, but not so much so that I didn’t know what I’d seen.
Sheila didn’t look convinced.
Not that I blamed her. When Alana was first diagnosed, I had a hard time sleeping. I had to use sleeping pills to stay sane. Back then she probably thought I had a bad dose or something. This was different.
“Please,” I begged. “She’s going to die!”
Sheila let out a short sigh then tugged on the sleeve of the nurse’s scrub that was standing beside her. “Frank, come with me.”
Frank closed the chart he was reviewing and followed after her with only a slight eye-roll.
“She’s right over here,” I said, running as they semi-jogged behind me. I was sweating like a pig when I turned the corner to where I’d left her.
“Right where?” Frank asked, coming to a halt.
I froze wide-eyed as I surveyed the hall. The girl was gone. I spun around in all directions, wondering if I’d gotten the wrong corridor. No. Impossible. The blood was still on the floor and along the wall where it looked like she’d dragged herself down the hall.
“She was right here!” I shouted. That was when I noticed a thin trail of blood drops leading down the hall towards the emergency exit. “The thing that attacked her…it must have taken her—”
Sheila and Frank exchanged a glance.
“Taken who, Mr. Gallagher?” Sheila’s voice was kind, yet condescending. The sort of tone you hear nurses use with their dementia patients.
“Don’t you see it?” I asked, pointing towards the door. “The blood! It leads to a fire exit. Why would anyone bring a person who is clearly dying to a fire exit instead of to a doctor?” I could hear myself shouting, but I couldn’t understand why they weren’t doing something.
“Mr. Gallagher, I’m sorry, but I don’t see any blood,” Sheila said gently.
Frank sighed and left to go back to his station.
“What do you mean? It’s right here!” I knelt down and pointed at the mess in front of me. “And, Jesus, look at me! I’m covered in it too!” I gestured to where she had fallen into my arms. I looked a fright but not as horrific as she did.
Her eyes followed to where I was indicating before she gave me a stiff smile. “You’ve been under a lot of strain lately…”
“No,” I rebutted, shaking my head. “No, I’m not crazy. I know what I saw. The girl said she needed to find Eivin. She said something about the king lying…” I paused, hearing exactly how insane I sounded. Ireland was a parliament run government. We didn’t have any kings. So what had she meant?
“You look a little pale,” Sheila said. “Have you eaten today?” The tone in her voice confirmed she thought I’d lost it.
Had I? No. There was a girl. She was blond. She had sea-blue eyes and…she was dying. Right here. Right where we were standing! So where the hell was she now?
“You really can’t see any blood? Not even here on the wall?” I asked. My voice had gone soft. I reached down and felt the pool at my feet; it was warm and wet on my skin. It covered my hands.
She blinked down at my hand then looked up and gave me a worried smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t see anything. Why don’t I get you some water?”
I stared back down at the blood on my hands before I sank onto the floor. “I’m fine. I’m just…I guess I am tired.”
Sheila nodded in such a way that conveyed her worry. “Are your parents here with you?”
“Yeah,” I said absently. “They’re in the cafeteria. They’ll be up in a minute.” I looked up at the nurse as I tried to regain my composure. “Sorry I bothered you.”
“It’s alright. The mind can play some pretty nasty tricks on us when we don’t take care of it. You need to eat and drink and, for heaven’s sake, try to get some rest,” Sheila said.
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
She gave me a kind nod, but I could tell she was annoyed I’d wasted her time. I watched as Sheila walked back to her station. I was hoping that when she disappeared, the blood on the floor beside me would too, but it didn’t. It stayed there, ever-expanding as though trying to reach out and pull me into it.
Swallowing hard, I stood up and took one last look at where the girl had been. Apparently, I needed more sleep. I was hallucinating. That was all. Probably some harmless way for my brain to deal with the horrific reality of my sister’s situation.
My nostrils flared. I was pissed at myself. I had to get my head in the game. This girl…her gnarly gashes…it wasn’t real. My sister’s cancer was, as was the little time she had left on this earth. I couldn’t afford to spend one more minute stuck in delusions. Alana needed me. I had to get my act together for her.
I turned away from the blood and reminded myself to not look back. Stay in the present, Devlin. Stay sane. This is not the time to go bat-shit crazy.
Authors: Amy Miles and Danielle Bannister
Meet the characters