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I'm completely in love with this book and the characters in this setting. My hope is that you'll love them as much as I do!
KEEPER OF THE WATCH SERIES, BOOK TWO
KRISTEN L. JACKSON
August 8th, 8:00 a.m. The ticking clock echoed in her head. Tick-tick-tick-tick.
Eight minutes left before the jump.
I think we’re ready...
Alyx fidgeted with the zipper on the backpack. Up and down, up and down. Zip-zip. Zip-zip. Everything was packed. She paced the perimeter of the room in circles, a frown wrinkling her forehead. Chase watched her from the middle of the living room.
They were alone in the abandoned house they had been living in since the victory against the hunters here in Dimension 7—one of twelve parallel worlds, the existence of which remained hidden from most people within those dimensions. Here, they had discovered a post-apocalyptic parallel Earth under the tyrannical rule of two hunters hell-bent on finding the remaining watches, and put an end to their dictatorship. The people here were truly free for the first time in years. A gentle sigh hissed between her teeth.
The watches opened a magical door between twelve parallel worlds, but only watch-wearers known as keepers could bond—or couple—with a watch. Since the invention of the twelve watches by Chase’s ancestor, Elias Walker, over one hundred years ago, the two they’d dubbed ‘hunters’ had made it their life-long goal to steal the power the watches provided. Her eyes took on a faraway glint as she recalled the history she’d been taught since she was old enough the listen. In the beginning, the hunters had tried to harness the power of the watches for themselves—the remarkable ability to travel the twelve dimensions. They soon learned that only a keeper’s blood can power the watch itself … and had begun their quest to eradicate all keepers and their watches. Only children born on specific dates (the first day of the first month, second day of the second month, and so on up to the twelfth day of the twelfth month) within specific ancestral lines could jump to a new world each month of their eighteenth year, and even then only if they coupled with the watch after their eighteenth birthday.
Alyx rounded her shoulders, standing taller. It was an honor to be a keeper, and she had painstakingly—calling on all her powers of persuasion—convinced Chase of that when he had his own doubts back in his home world, Dimension 6.
The hunters new goal was clear: to find and destroy all remaining watches … and their keepers.
Keepers. Us. That’s why we have to destroy them first. They won’t stop until they’ve killed us all.
A determined look lit her eyes. Since hunters were nearly immortal, it wouldn’t be easy. Hunters aged at a very slow rate. They had been around since the watches’ invention but looked like they were in their mid-twenties. Although she and Chase had defeated the hunters in this dimension, she knew they would likely continue to battle the hunters’ ‘other selves’ in each dimension they jumped to. Only a keeper was born solely in one world. Everyone else had the potential to exist in multiple worlds.
At least we don’t have to worry about running into our own ‘other selves’ … I don’t think I could survive two of him. Her eyes found Chase and traveled the length of him. His blonde hair with just a slight hint of curls at the tips, cerulean blue eyes that crinkled when he laughed. And those dimples.… At that moment he looked up as if he could hear her thoughts, flashing a smile that showed off that very feature and had her heart skipping in her chest. Her lips turned up against her will. He seemed to have that effect on her. Her shoulders raised with a sigh.
Who am I kidding? He has that effect on everyone.
Breaking her eyes away, she turned and resumed her pacing.
Each event in time caused a shift, creating a ripple effect resulting in a different reality in each world in the multiverse. They had no idea what—or who—they would find in each new world they jumped to. Only the box they’d found hidden in Chase’s home world could guide them on their journey. In it: an ancient journal written by the creator and previous keepers, along with currency and some other trinkets they had no idea how to use.
She knew they had succeeded in this seventh dimension to the best of their ability, but still they had failed to complete a big part of their mission. There just hadn’t been time to search for the last keeper before the next jump. Originally, there had been twelve watches, one originating in each dimension. Now, all but three had been destroyed by the hunters. Hers. Chase’s. And one other. It was their hope to find the last keeper and protect him along with his watch, though they had no idea in which world the third keeper might reside, or for that matter if the next keeper had even been born yet. One thing was sure. If he, or she, resided in this dimension, they would most likely never know it, since this was a one-stop dimension hop. Their time here was up, and they would not return to D-7 again. Even now, they were mere minutes away from jumping to the next world. Dimension 8.
Her hands continued to toy with the zipper as she spoke and her brow creased again. “I think we can assume we’ll both jump to Dune Harbor, I just wish we could jump together to the same coordinates.”
Chase reached for her hand. “What if we hold hands? Anything we’re wearing or holding goes with us, right? If we hold hands, maybe we’ll end up in the same place this time.”
She tilted her head. “But what if our touching throws everything off? This hasn’t been done before, we have no idea if our two transports will be compatible, or if combining them will have disastrous consequences. We could end up anywhere, or worse, not survive the jump. Maybe we should just take our chances and hope to find each other quickly once we get there. Maybe make a meeting point?”
“Easy for you to say. You didn’t have to see me executed. I don’t want to risk something like that happening again, Alyx.”
She blew out a breath. “Okay. We’ll try holding hands. But just in case that doesn’t work, meet me at Uncle Charlie’s house as soon as you can.”
She glanced at her watch.
“Ready?” She said.
They stood side-by-side, backpacks on, fingers intertwined. Chase absently rubbed his thumb over Alyx’s palm as they waited.
“Three minutes seems like an eternity when you’re waiting,” he said.
Both pairs of pupils dilated as the watches began glowing, then pulsing brightly, bathing the room in unnatural light.
“Good luck, Chase.”
“I love you, Alyx.”
She inhaled a deep breath and looked into his glowing blue eyes. “I…”
All at once electricity filled the room and both of their bodies hummed with power of it, causing the hair on their arms to stand on end. Dual silver ever-changing pools appeared above each of their heads, taking on a life of their own. When they emerged, they were about the size of a coin, hovering over each of them, and then grew before their eyes to the size of a full-length mirror in the blink of an eye. The wavering shapes writhed in anticipation of the passing minute, fluctuating in constant motion as if agitated.
Chase looked at Alyx questioningly. “What?”
“I…” Suddenly, she launched herself at Chase, wrapping her arms around him and holding on. He caught her, stumbling back a step, and returned her embrace, folding her in his arms and hugging her body to his. As always, their bodies fit perfectly together. His hard lines meshed with her soft curves. Alyx squeezed her eyes shut, her head tucked under Chase’s chin, so close she could feel his heart beating against her body in perfect unison with her own.
And she waited.
A bolt of lightning streaked through the room as the two shimmering pools bounced off of each other like opposing magnetic forces. His cobalt light joined with her iridescent magenta glow, combining to create a deep mulberry color that ignited their veins and traveled throughout their bodies, as if they had become one unit.
Anticipation turned to attack. The writhing pools above them continued to bounce off of each other, as if engaged in a deadly battle, until a final crash when, accompanied by another bolt of lightning, the two energies united, creating a single shimmering mercurial pool that hung above their heads.
At once the cosmic war ceased, and the mass moved peacefully, as if there had never been discord. A second after the discrete entities joined, the now single larger mass dropped from the air. Both Alyx and Chase were consumed from head to foot in one heartbeat, disappearing instantaneously. The house where they had been present just seconds before stood suddenly vacant. The only trace that anyone had been there was the electrical hum and a faint burning smell left in their wake.
And that’s when the pain began.
It encompassed his body, saturating every pore; every blood cell pumping through his veins seemed to be screaming in anguish.
There was no pinpoint of space within or without left untouched by the violent pain that burned through to the core of his being. It was as if his heart had burst out of his chest in flames, his body gasping to breathe through the inferno raging inside him.
He clenched his teeth against it, jaw grinding, hands fisted even as his eyes remained clamped shut. Coherent thought was just out of reach, so he turned into himself, searching for some kind of solace, sinking farther into a pool of never-ending blackness. Sanity knocked on the outskirts of his consciousness, but he turned it away, preferring the nothingness. Flames licked along the edges, searching for a crack in the mortar, a tiny hole to find its way deeper inside the well.
Can’t. Give. In.
Clawing toward the surface, Chase pushed with every ounce of energy inside him to beat back the burning that threatened to consume him.
I survived this once before. I can do it again.
Willing his body to move, he was again denied. It was as if a tractor trailer was parked on his chest, and he was powerless to do anything but lay here, every breath a struggle. The roaring in his ears made his brain hurt, but he shoved back at it, forcing it to retreat with the strength of his will alone.
Alyx. Are you here?
That one thought gave him the push he needed to fight. He cracked one eye, letting the searing light pierce like a dagger into his cerebrum. He lifted his head and looked down. Chestnut hair tinged with purple tips fanned out across his chest.
Not a truck. Alyx lay sprawled on top of him. His head fell back and he closed his eyes again. He willed his arms to move, gingerly wrapped them around her. Second by second, the pain was receding. Now he could die peacefully.
“Ch-Chase?” the muffled voice broke down the rest of the wall, and he rolled to his side carrying her with him. His breathing evened out, and he savored the feel of doing that one simple act.
“I’m here,” he croaked through his tortured throat.
“You’re ... hurting me.”
“What?” He forced his eyelids open, and realized he was squeezing her to him in a vise grip.
Loosening his arms, he moaned. “Always complaining.”
The sound of her labored breathing broke through the fog, and he pushed his body upright.
“You okay?” he asked, watching her eyelids flutter open, her lavender eyes meeting his.
“Better now. It’s getting better.” She, too, gingerly pushed her body into a sitting position, arms resting on her knees, body hunched over.
“Thank God.” He rubbed his hands over his face then into his hair, making it stand on end. “At least we’re together this time.”
“Two jumps down. How many more times do we have to do that? I can’t think.”
The corners of her mouth lifted, though her eyes remained strained. “You have ten more jumps. I have eight. I’ve got three down, and I skipped a dimension, remember?”
He scowled down at her, then looked up for the first time taking in his surroundings.
“Whoa. Where are we?” He slowly got to his feet, taking in the scene before him. “Uh, guess we didn’t land at the beach this time.”
“No, definitely not the beach.” Alyx pushed to her feet, bent over with hands on her knees, breathing erratically. Her eyes traveled the area around them, squinting through patchy shade broken with bursts of sunlight, creating a kaleidoscope of colors.
A myriad of green hues invaded her senses. Juniper bled into olive and basil creating an explosion of mossy color interspersed with various browns. Vertical slants in shades of mocha as far as she could see.
The smell of pine made her nostrils flare. A musty scent saturated her senses, and she stood straighter.
“A forest. Do you think this is the same place we camped in Dimension 7? The one near that town? Apple Blossom?” She turned in a full circle. “I think I can find my way out, if it is. I spent a lot of time there,” she added.
Chase scanned the area. “Don’t know. We’re not in the clearing. And I don’t hear a stream, at least not close by. It feels … different.” His head tilted as he met her eyes. “I thought we’d always land in the middle of Dune Harbor. I didn’t expect this. Where’s the beach?”
“We have no way of knowing where in Dune Harbor we’ll land. It’s different each time. Let’s check this place out. We’ll have to find our way out of the woods if we’re going to look for the hunters and begin our search for the last keeper.”
“Yeah, and we need to find food. Jumping makes me hungry.”
Alyx rolled her eyes. “You’re always hungry. Food’s the least of our worries. Didn’t you stuff your backpack with every packaged food you could fit before we left?”
“And yours is stuffed with weapons.” He winked, flashing those dimples. Alyx sighed, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
She shook her head, continuing her inspection.
“Never know when we may need to use the Inferno Ray to incinerate something, or the Spark Gun to incapacitate someone for a while. You were happy to use them in D-7.”
Both heads jerked toward the sound. They held their breath and stilled their bodies, heads cocked.
Alyx positioned herself back-to-back with Chase, hand inching toward the set of blade discs she always carried in a holster under her shirt. The small weapon could, if thrown correctly, sever limbs or even decapitate a target. Her hands went clammy as she remembered a hunter meeting just that fate in D-7. Alyx could almost hear the sound of the woman’s head thumping to the ground; see it launching into a wobbly roll as her body remained standing. At least temporarily. She shook her head to clear the image.
“What was that?” she whispered.
Chase held up a hand, palm out.
“Don’t move,” he breathed. His finger slowly pointed toward the distant left. “Keep quiet and don’t move.”
She froze, except for the hand that continued creeping toward her weapon of choice, just barely breathing as she slid one of the blade discs out, grasping it between her fingers. Her legs spread in battle stance and she rolled her shoulders. This is what she’d trained for since birth.
Her eyes followed the direction Chase indicated, and at first she saw nothing. Then she heard it. A low rumbling, like an engine idling, continuous and fierce.
When she pinpointed the spot from which the sound originated, her quick intake of breath gave away her surprise. Two eyes glowed out of the shadows as the thing peered from behind a tree, a mixture of light and dark shades of gray camouflaged the creature perfectly in the dark patches of shade. As she made eye contact with the thing, it slinked from behind the tree, snarling. Its dagger-like yellow teeth were bared, lips curled in warning. She saw that the fur on its back stood on end, and its tail was raised and straight.
“A wolf?” she murmured.
“No. Too small. Shh.”
She began raising her arm, ready to launch the blade disc toward the animal, but felt Chase’s hand on her forearm holding her back. She looked at him over her shoulder, raising a brow.
His hushed words barely reached her ears, “Don’t kill it unless you have to.”
She gave a slight nod. Her arm relaxed by her side, blade disc in hand and ready if needed.
They remained at a stand-off, no one moving, their breathing amplified in the stillness. Sweat trickled from beneath her hair down the base of her neck causing a shiver to run along her spine, despite the heat of the day. She resisted the urge to swipe it away. Continuously glancing down at her watch’s gentle violet glow, she could see the the blood-red minute-hand move notch by notch. They stood as still as the trees surrounding them for what seemed an eternity, though she knew only minutes had passed.
Alyx took one step toward the small wolf-like beast. As she drew her arm back, another set of eyes appeared behind the animal. The pup crouched behind its mother, mimicking her stance, though it lacked her size and dominance. The high-pitched growl had one corner of her mouth lifting. The small body seemed disproportionate in its awkward adolescent stage, lanky hind quarters larger than the front. It was covered in fuzzy fur, much lighter in color than its parent. The copper color of its head bled into a gray flank and tail. Its winsome appearance belied any attempt at intimidation.
Once again, she lowered her arm, even before Chase’s hushed words reached her ears. “It’s just a mother protecting her baby.”
He inched his hand toward his jeans pocket, and pulled out a stick of beef jerky. She rolled her eyes.
Of course he has food in his back pocket. Probably in every pocket.
His soothing words filled the silence, spoken softly, making the mother’s growl gain volume. “It’s okay. We’re not here for your baby. Here, I’ll share.” Gearing back as slowly as possible, he tossed the jerky in the creature’s direction, and the treat landed a few feet in front of it with one bounce on the soft turf.
The animal’s trembling body lurched at the sudden movement, lips pulling back to reveal dark gums, saliva hanging from its jowls like shoestrings. The pup hid behind its parent, only its head and eyes visible from around her hunched back. The mother’s nostrils flared as it picked up the scent of food. It leaped forward in one swift move, snatching the snack and disappearing into the shrubbery, the pup right on her heels.
“Thanks. For not killing them,” Chase said.
“I’m not heartless.”
He nodded. “Just practical.”
“Could have solved your food problem. Wolf-burgers might be good,” she teased, returning the blade disc to its holster.
Arms gesturing, he retorted, “I’m not eating a …” His words trailed off. “Wolf-burger. Good one.” He looked back to where the pair had disappeared. “I wonder what that thing was? Not a wolf, exactly. I was thinking coyote because of its size, but its features were wrong. The snout was too blocky. Maybe some kind of a dog?”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s gone. Now, we can get on with finding our way out of here.”
Chase nodded. “We ought to find shelter before nightfall.” His eyes scanned the area. “You hear anything?”
She shook her head.
“Shouldn’t we hear birds? Leaves rustling? Crickets chirping? An airplane overhead? Something. Anything. It’s creepy that there isn’t another sign of life.”
She scrutinized the area in a 360 degree circle. “Let’s move.” She started moving away from the place where the creature had disappeared and heard the sounds of his footsteps in the underbrush following.
“How do you know which way to go?” Chase asked.
“I don’t.” Her eyes remained alert as she continued moving forward.
Chase grumbled to himself as he stooped to pick up more firewood, adding it to the thick bundle already under his arm. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. What could they accomplish stuck here in the forest?
He’d done his share of camping as a boy, so he knew how to survive in the woods. He could probably keep the two of them alive for the month, until they jumped to the next dimension on September 9th. And if they could find a water source, he could always catch fish to feed them. He looked down as his stomach grumbled.
But finding water here was not as easy as he’d first thought it would be, and his brow furrowed when he held up his nearly empty water bottle, sloshing the liquid back and forth. Food and water. That had become their first mission here in Dimension 8.
August 10th. Two days.
They’d been tramping through these woods in the summer heat for two days, and neither one of them had a clue how to get out of here. And worse, he was beginning to suspect that they’d walked in a full circle. Was that the same tree the animal and its pup had hidden behind when they’d first arrived? It had the same slant to its trunk. Hard to say. All the trees were beginning to look alike.
Forty-eight wasted hours.
He sighed, and continued his task.
When his hands were so full it took both arms to wrap around the stash he began backtracking, following the slashes he’d left on the tree trunks as he walked. He’d begun marking their path yesterday, so if they did circle around again they would know it without a doubt.
When he got back to camp, Alyx was sitting cross-legged on the moss-covered ground between two majestic hemlock trees that had to have been planted sometime in the last century. She had something in her lap, and as she studied it her hair fell forward covering her face from his view. The purple tips stood out amongst the greenery, and her head snapped up when he took a step closer, wild violet-blue eyes softening with recognition.
“Got enough firewood to last us for tonight. What’cha got there?”
She held out her hand, palm up. “Some kind of fruit. Recognize it?”
The berries were the size of grapes, round and translucent, seeds visible deep inside them. At a glance, they looked like frozen dewdrops in solid form.
He dropped next to her to get a closer look. “Definitely not. They’re kinda cool, though. Where’d you find them?”
She pointed. “Over there, growing up the side of that weird tree.”
He turned in the direction she indicated. “Uh, I don’t see…”
And then he did.
The tree was bent sideways, its trunk at an angle reaching toward the sun’s rays. Now that he saw it, he wondered how he had missed it. Unlike the other trees of this forest, its body was smooth and appeared translucent when viewed from any angle except straight on. It blended with its surroundings so well that he had missed seeing it the first time around. The leaves were a pale iridescent lime green, and also seemed to shimmer into nonexistence into the shadows and light of the forest. Like the berries, they were translucent.
Alyx raised a berry to her mouth, and Chase swatted it out of her hand.
“You can’t just eat every berry you find. You didn’t already eat one, did you? What if it’s poisonous?”
“How will we find out if we don’t eat them?”
“Good question. But I’m not comfortable eating those berries until we do. That’s one of the first things you learn in Boy Scouts.”
She huffed. “What’s Boy Scouts?”
“Seriously? I pegged you as a Girl Scout for sure. It’s a kind of a club that kids can join to learn all kinds of survival skills.”
“My parents taught me all of that. My training began on the day I learned to walk. I didn’t need a club.”
His shoulders shook. “Apparently they missed teaching you about poisonous berries.”
She sat up straighter, her head lifting a notch. “They taught me how to survive. To protect myself and others. We each have our strengths.”
He winked, a slow smile spreading. “You’re right. That’s why we make such a good team.” He leaned over, bumping her shoulder with his. “Good find, though. Let’s stash them, and watch the plants and see if anything else comes to eat them. If an animal or bird eats one and doesn’t keel over, I guess we’ll be okay, too.”
Chase reached across her lap to grab his backpack and looked up, meeting her eyes. His smile faded as his expression turned suddenly serious. His eyes focused on her lips, and he leaned forward.
Alyx leaped to her feet.
He looked up at her, crossed his legs, and leaned back on his arms. “I thought…” He looked away.