Two men towered over a slumbering infant in the nursery of a hospital. The man on the left grit his teeth then chanted a few words. The babe floated out of his warm blanket into the air, hovering inches above the bassinet, and then turned onto his stomach with a flick of the man’s fingers. The pair scowled as they stared at the scars marring the baby’s back — jagged lines that ran down the child’s shoulder blades. They were invisible to humans but to beings such as them, they were wretched. They marked him as the One.
“We must do it. He commands it,” the man on the right said, feeling no remorse as he took over for his partner and began chanting in an ancient tongue. The baby woke with a scream of pain as a red-hot, flesh-searing seal branded the bottom left side of his back, suppressing the powers that soon would have revealed themselves. “It is done. We must return,” he spoke. The first man lowered the wailing infant back into the hospital crib just as a nurse walked in. She passed through the men as if they were ghosts to pick up the child, rocking him and humming quietly to try to calm him down when she couldn’t find an ailment.
The pair watched for a moment longer then unfurled their white wings, ascending back to the heavens from which they came without a glance back.
That beast did not deserve one.
Tremors shook Blair’s body and his heart contracted, waking the teenager in the middle of the night. His eyes shot open with another lurch of his heart. His skin turned a fevered red as his temperature rose, suddenly heating up his body. Sweat clung to his skin and he ripped off his shirt, hurling it to the ground. Then it struck. Pain like nothing he’d ever felt before wracked his body. He thrashed about, turning this way and that as he screamed in agony.
“Blair? Blair!” his mom shouted as she rushed into the room. She froze in place at the sight of her thrashing son then turned and yelled down the stairs. “Matthew, call 911!”
Blair screamed again then gasped desperately as he clutched his chest, as if he wasn’t getting enough air. “It’s going to be alright, honey. We’re going to get you help. Just hold on. I love you,” his mother said, desperate tears brimming in her eyes as she hovered over him, hands out but not daring to touch him.
Blair’s blood boiled inside him, his skin becoming uncomfortably hot as the sweat dripped off of him. He was in too much pain to even scream anymore, his mouth open wide but no sound coming out as he arched his back. Blair’s mother cried as she pulled his hands away from his chest, revealing bloody fingernails in the corner of his vision. In the back of his mind, he thought he must have clawed at his skin, trying to get rid of the pain centered in his heart.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know! All I know is that my son is hurt and he needs help!” Blair’s father yelled into the phone receiver, standing in the doorway and watching on in horror.
What felt like an eternity later, the sound of the doorbell penetrated the constant pounding of Blair’s heart in his ears.
“The paramedics,” Blair’s mother gasped. “Matt, go get the door. Hurry!” His dad’s heavy footsteps stumbled out of the room and his mom shushed Blair when he let out another small cry, smoothing down his sweaty, brown hair. “Shh, Blair, it’s alright. You’ll be okay. Your father’s getting the paramedics now. Just hang on.”
“It’s my son! My son needs help! Please, we don’t know what’s wrong with him!” Blair’s dad shouted, running up the stairs with more footsteps racing after him.
Blair screamed again as his chest tightened even further and he ripped away from his mom to curl into a tight ball. Tears and snot ran down his face as the EMTs circled his bed, pulling Blair’s legs and arms away from his body and pinning them down as another approached with a syringe. Blair thrashed harder, terrified by the sight of the needle, and screamed the loudest he could, trying to wrench his limbs away. Not more pain! A loud sob slipped through his mother’s hand-covered mouth, distracting the teen long enough for the medic to sedate him. Blair let out a gust of air as the pain started to slowly draw away from his heart, leaving a dull ache behind in his back. Blissful blackness overcame him as his body was picked up and put onto a stretcher.
Blair sat alone in a small patch of light, his legs pulled close to his chest with his head resting on his kneecaps. Endless darkness surrounded him. He didn’t know how long he’d been there. A cool breeze blew past and he shivered. He had arrived at this place naked. Blair had panicked momentarily then realized it didn’t matter when he noticed nobody was around to see him. Not a single person. Was he dead?
“How did you get here, young one?” a deep, rich voice asked, his question echoing around the darkness. Blair’s head shot up and he looked around for the stranger but saw nothing.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice trembling.
“It’s not polite to answer a question with another question, you know,” the other man teased, avoiding answering. Blair glared into the darkness only to flinch back when another light turned on, blinding him. When his sight adjusted, he stared at a black bird sitting on top of a short wooden post.
“I just appeared here,” Blair admitted, feeling surprised and a bit foolish to be talking to a bird. The crow cocked its head.
“Interesting,” the voice purred, but the bird’s beak didn’t move. Blair sighed in relief. Thank God. He thought he was going crazy for a moment. The crow unexpectedly puffed up, cawing and flapping its wings wildly. The voice chuckled.
“Ironic choice of words for someone who is visiting Hell,” the voice commented wryly. Blair gaped at the bird whose red eyes gleamed. “Yes, you will be just fine.”
Blair opened his mouth to ask what the voice was talking about but the crow left its perch, flying straight toward him. The words froze in his throat when the bird let out a terrifying shriek as it spread out its giant wings. Blair ducked his head just as the bird reached him then gasped as he was encompassed in soothing darkness, flowing like waves over his bare skin. He sighed in relief, wanting to settle into that feeling for eternity. The voice chuckled again, making his cheeks burn with embarrassment, and a blinding light soon interrupted the peaceful darkness.
“You are mine,” the voice whispered, sounding so close to him. Blair whimpered, struggling to go back into the darkness, but the light surrounded him, dragging him further away. “We will meet again soon,” were the voice’s parting words, and then Blair woke up.
Blair blinked open his eyes, groaning at the bright lights surrounding him.
“Blair? Blair, sweetie?” a concerned voice questioned softly and a hand touched his bicep.
“Mom?” he asked, his vision finally adapting. His mom appeared in his view, a gentle smile on her face though her eyebrows were knitted with worry. “Where are we?”
“We’re in the hospital, sweetheart,” she replied, running her fingers through Blair’s hair. He leaned into her comforting touch and she chuckled tearfully. “I’m so glad you’re alright. You’ve been out for three days. The doctor couldn’t figure out the cause of your pain and after you were sedated, you—you wouldn’t wake up,” she finished, her voice cracking. Blair rose as she burst into tears and buried her face in her palms. He pulled her into his arms, hugging her tight.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m okay,” he said as she clutched his hospital gown. Blair looked up as his father came in with a doctor and grinned when he gave his son a crooked smile.
“What a way to start your eighteenth year, huh, kiddo?” his dad joked weakly. Blair let out a forced laugh as his mom whipped around and glared at the older man. Blair was surprised his dad had stayed long enough to witness his weird, painful attack, since he had only been at the townhouse for the night to celebrate his birthday.
“Hello, Mr. Whitaker, I’m Dr. Ikram. Would you please describe what happened to you?” the doctor asked, picking up a clipboard from the foot of the bed. He had dark brown skin and eyes, and he sent Blair a warm smile as he moved around the bed.
“Um, well, I woke up and it felt like my heart was burning. There was so much pain. It was really weird. It felt like my blood was boiling inside me. Like, literally boiling. It just wouldn’t stop,” Blair explained, shifting his eyes down to the bed to avoid the doctor’s gaze. Echoes of the pain began as he talked about it and he rubbed his chest. His parents shared a worried look then turned to the doctor, who watched Blair carefully.
“Interesting,” he said, his eyes narrowing on him before he turned to his clipboard with a sigh. “Well, there were no signs of a heart attack, but we’d like to keep him one more night for observation,” he said, turning to Blair’s parents who eagerly nodded.
“What? No way! I’m perfectly fine!” Blair exclaimed, sitting up straight. He hated hospitals.
“Blair, you’re staying here,” his mom ordered.
“B-but what about school?” Blair tried weakly, grimacing at the thought. His mom cocked an eyebrow, pinning him with a scrutinizing look.
“You can make up all your schoolwork on Monday,” she replied tersely. “Now stay in that bed or so help me God, I will tie you to it.”
“Alright, Hazel. I think that’s enough for the day. Let’s go home and get Blair a change of clothes or two. Sound good?” Blair’s dad interrupted, throwing a sheepish grin to the chuckling doctor.
“Fine,” his mom relented, standing up and giving Blair a kiss on the forehead. Blair’s dad gave him an encouraging smile — one that looked more like a grimace — then led his mom out the door, giving his thanks to the doctor on the way.
Once the door closed behind the pair, Dr. Ikram turned to Blair. “Would you like something to eat?”
The teen looked at him, suspicious. “That depends. Are you going to give me real food or hospital food?” That elicited a small laugh from the doctor.
“I’m afraid only our food is available. Perhaps you can convince your parents to bring you some ‘real food,’ as you say, when they return. I happen to find our food quite delicious,” he replied as he settled into the seat Blair’s mom had vacated beside the bed, slouching his back and kicking his feet up on the bed rails.
Blair laughed, more shocked by his casualness than by his words. “I think you need to get your taste buds checked, buddy. There’s probably something wrong with them if you find this stuff good,” he commented, grinning when the doctor chuckled again.
“You might be right.” Dr. Ikram ran his fingers through his hair with one hand as he clicked the button resting beside Blair’s pillow with the other. “Bring some food in for Mr. Whitaker, please,” he ordered then lounged back in his seat as he had been before. “I don’t suppose you have anything else to talk about? Any dreams, maybe?” Dr. Ikram asked, a teasing glint in his eyes that made Blair blush. Then his skin drained of color, registering what the doctor asked. How did he know?
“No, no. No dreams,” Blair said, laughing nervously. He cringed as his voice cracked. Dr. Ikram sighed but nodded, murmuring something under his breath that Blair didn’t catch.
“Well, as you know, you’ve been unconscious for three days, so we just wanted to make sure that there was nothing else awry with our diagnosis. I’m sure you’ll be happy to know several of your friends visited and left gifts for you during that time,” he changed the subject, gesturing to the table in the corner of the room. Blair blinked, stunned by the set of balloons, cards, and the bouquet of roses placed on top of it.
A knock came on the door, peeling Blair’s attention away from the gifts as it opened. A nurse poked her head in, smiling at them. “Mr. Whitaker, your food is here. There’s also a visitor here to see you, if you’re up to it.”
“Ah, well, I’ll leave you to your food and guest then. I hope we won’t be seeing you around anytime soon,” Dr. Ikram said, shooting Blair a small wink and a grin as he shuffled past the nurse laden with a full tray.
“Here’s your food, dearie. Eat up, and I’ll be back in a moment with your visitor,” the older woman said, carefully handing Blair the tray. She placed a glass of water within arm’s reach on the small table beside the bed before she bustled out of the room. Blair dove into his food, knowing that if it were his friends, they wouldn’t mind walking in on him as he ate.
The door creaked open again as he shoveled another spoonful into his mouth, and Sophia Slater walked in. Blair’s jaw dropped and the spoon fell out of his mouth into the creamed corn, splattering it across the tray. A blush rose on Blair’s cheeks as she chuckled, and he grabbed a napkin to sop up the mess.
The red-haired young woman delicately lowered herself into the chair beside him then gave Blair a bright smile. “How are you, Blair? I’ve missed you around school and work these past few days,” Sophia commented, her voice soft and silvery. She was the most popular girl in school and before Blair found out he was only interested in guys, she had become his biggest crush when she transferred to his school almost two years ago. And embarrassing times like these were exactly when those lingering feelings decided to flood back in.
“Yeah…” Blair trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “How’s Mrs. Cassidy holding down the fort? She’s not putting too many of my shifts on you, is she?” he questioned, his eyebrows creasing in concern.
Mrs. Cassidy was their boss at the Illusion Isle Bookstore, the only bookstore located in town. It was quite large for Whitehaven — a small township outside of Detroit, Michigan — but it had a nice café on the first floor that people enjoyed visiting, so it got a decent amount of business. Blair liked working there because he was surrounded by books, and employees were given a thirty percent discount on any they wanted to buy. He usually just read them during his shift, but he had certainly bought a fair amount. Mrs. Cassidy only hired two other workers besides Blair and Sophia, so she sometimes got overwhelmed when distributing shifts during a coworker’s absence.
“No worries. I don’t mind taking on your shifts,” she said, smiling again. “So, I heard your birthday was Wednesday? That’s awful.”
“Yeah, it was a great birthday,” Blair said with a roll of his eyes. “It must have been around midnight or after that the weird, burning pain started. Whatever it was, I missed my entire birthday because of it.”
“How old are you now?” she asked.
“Eighteen,” he replied with a grin. Sophia’s eyes widened momentarily and then she smiled once more.
“Well, we’ll just have to celebrate it together at work!” she suggested, and Blair fought down a blush.
“There’s no need to do that,” he protested, turning to put his empty tray on the nightstand so his hands would be free. He stretched a bit to make sure it wouldn’t fall off, and Sophia sucked in a sharp breath. His face burned when he remembered he was only wearing a hospital gown. She had probably seen his entire backside! He spun around and sat back on the bed, pulling the sheets further up his body as she averted her gaze and smoothed out her expression. Her attention lingered on the table of gifts. “Oh, that’s just a bunch of stuff from my friends. No big deal.”
“I feel like I should have gotten you something too,” she said as she glanced over the gifts.
“No, no, not at all! I have more than enough already. You don’t have to trouble yourself for me.” She gave Blair a brief smile then turned back to the pile, snatching up the card attached to the roses. “What does it say?” Blair asked, and she turned to him startled. “I haven’t had any time to look at them yet,” he explained with a shrug.
“It says, ‘You’ll feel better soon.’ No name,” she replied, but her eyebrows furrowed as she inhaled slightly. “Do you know who gave this to you? A crush, maybe?” she teased, smiling again.
He chuckled sheepishly, shaking his head. “I doubt it. The message is weird, so it must have been one of my friends,” he replied. She nodded again and placed the card back down by the vase.
“Well, I should be getting home now. Think you’ll be at school on Monday?”
“Definitely. Hospitals and I don’t mix,” he said with a wry grin, making her chuckle.
“I know what you mean. It was nice seeing you, though. Have a nice weekend!”
“Thanks. See you at work, Sophia,” Blair replied with an easy smile, waving to her as she walked out the door. He flopped back onto his pillow, sighing in exasperation and burying the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Kill me now.”
He sat there stewing in his embarrassment for a couple more minutes then he turned to look at the roses again. He carefully maneuvered out of bed, grateful the IV was on the side he needed to be on, then shuffled over to the table and picked up the card. A strange jolt of excitement ran up his fingers and through his body as he brushed his thumb over the elegant red cursive letters. He knew his friends. They wouldn’t have dropped off a bouquet of a dozen roses and that wasn’t any of their handwriting, though they could have had the flower shop write the note. But he had a feeling it definitely wasn’t them.
He frowned down at the card then put it back, leaning in and smelling the light perfume of the fresh flowers. Who had sent him those then?
The Infernal King is available for preorder now on Amazon and will be released August 28, 2020.
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