A preview of Tides of Darkness

Chapter 2: Zelda

On the first Thursday in December, the night of her fourteenth birthday, Zelda Ruiz decided she’d had enough with wrestling. It wasn’t the twisting or tumbling or the bruises that followed. Nor was it her record this season: five losses and zero wins. It wasn’t even the crowds filling the gymnasium with cheers for her opponent, who executed a near-perfect single-leg takedown that brought Zelda’s skinny body crashing down onto the mat.

Mostly, it was the armpits.

Clamped between Arianna Chang’s biceps and her ribs, Zelda struggled for air. She tried to calm her thoughts and count each breath as Coach Howard had taught her. One. Two. A deep inhale, then a counter.

Twisting from her hips, her fingers wriggled inside Arianna’s grip, and something loosened. The two girls grunted, sweat-slicked and trembling. Zelda dug her knee into the mat and forced Arianna to adjust her stance. In an instant they were both rising, rising…

And then air—precious, clean air—it filled Zelda’s lungs and sharpened her thoughts. She twisted out from Arianna’s grasp and gathered her bearings.

There was the boundary line mere feet behind her. The referee circled to her left. On her right, Coach Howard gestured to press the offensive. Straight ahead, Arianna closed in, her mouthguard turning her smile into an orange sneer. God she was solid for the weight class.

Zelda-rooni, you got this!” someone shouted from the bleachers. “Go for her left tit, that’s her weakness! Just latch a nipple and twist!”

The boy shouting was Ali Hadid, her classmate. Seven months ago they’d met during summer school and fast become friends. A self-diagnosed verbal learner, Ali was lanky and awkward, a puppy with his proportions all out of whack.

“Shut up before you get her DQ’d.” The big girl beside Ali elbowed him.

“Ah, my ribs,” he moaned. “Why is your love language so aggressive?”

Maura Goodman-Kerns—the big girl—ignored Ali and rose to her feet. “Sweep her leg when she closes in! Use your reach, like we practiced!”

My reach? Zelda’s thoughts crashed through the past three months spent on the mats. All those afternoon practices. All those new words and new moves. Maura, always there to walk her through each pivot and twist.

Yet the moment Zelda stepped into the ring her body forgot it all. Her mind locked. All she could taste was the adrenaline and sticky sweat. And the armpits most of all.

She was certain Arianna had skipped deodorant today.

“Forty-five seconds ladies,” Coach Howard called out from the side. Zelda caught a glimpse beyond, her Uncle Mark and Stacey Layne at the edge of their seats. Her uncle locked eyes with her, nodding and mouthing: You’ve got this.

And that was all it took. She met Arianna’s glare and locked her grip. She used her reach to execute an ankle pick. The floor rumbled as the two girls hit the mat. 

Yeah, Zelda thought, she had this all right.

Until she didn’t.

Whatever move Arianna did, it twisted her in a way she hadn’t anticipated, buckled her feet, and suddenly the world spun on a new axis. She was beneath her again. Pressed against sticky skin and that heaving chest. Arianna’s sharp chin dug into the soft meat of her shoulder. How the hell did she keep losing so fast?

Mmm… There you are,” whispered a frigid voice in her ear.

A voice Zelda hadn’t heard in several months.

First came the stench from Arianna’s mouth, rotting flesh in the cold depths of space. Then the dry taste of mud. And the smokey tang of plastic and hairs, wooden structures and trees all burning around them.

“Look at you, child. Such a weak little thing, all tender muscle and bone. So easily twisted and broken and… bent.”

That voice…

J’harr…

Zelda’s eyes fluttered as each breath grew thick.

Last summer, she and her friends had earned the ire of an entity fueled by torment and destruction. She wasn’t quite sure what J’harr actually was. Perhaps a ghost or a demon, an alien or a curse. Whatever she was, J’harr was outside Zelda’s comprehension. Like an ant trying to understand the workings of a nuclear submarine, Zelda’s mind had simply collapsed.

But not before she stood up to J’harr. 

Helped her neighbors escape from the fire of Raven’s Valley.

Denied J’harr’s pups a feast of pain. 

“Mmm… You could have been more, Zelda Ruiz. Become so much stronger. You could have ascended, like many before you.”

“Shut… up,” Zelda grunted. Over the past several months she had consigned J’harr’s cosmic voice to the back of her mind. Quarantined it, telling herself it would slowly fade.

And for a while, it had.

Now, her heart raced and her body trembled as those words dripped into her ear, sibilant and taunting. “Oh, you tried little girl, yes you did. But your neighbors burned all the same. Eleven screaming and dead. Eleven souls for my forge. I can still help—”

I don’t want… your help.” Zelda tongued her mouthguard aside and shifted beneath Arianna’s grasp. She stretched her left leg out, used it to squirm free. No good. Arianna had a tight hold and pressed her down into the mat.

Little room to move.

Less space to breath.

This was it, loss number six. Hell, it was probably a school record.

Another twist, and she could see the crowd through a gap in Arianna’s hold.

A middle age man sat in the bleachers, his body a cracked map of charred flesh. One row back stood a man in melted joggers, his eyes two smoldering hollows where embers crackled and popped. Two rows behind him, a seared woman clutched an ashen baby to her ruined breast.

“Mmm… there they are. How can you help yourself if you can’t guard your own mind?”

Arianna’s left arm slid over Zelda’s mouth while her right arm squeezed the air from her chest. That arm, she realized, was blackened and smoldering. Flaky skin slid over cooked muscles and bones. Bitter ash bloomed on Zelda’s lips as her mouthguard slid loose.

This town… will watch you… CRUMBLE!”

“I said… shut… UP.”

As Zelda’s world stretched to a pinprick at the end of a dark tunnel, a curdled eye opened within the charred arm. This was it, she realized. No more air. In a panicked twist, she did the only thing she could think of.

She bit down on that burned skin.

There was a loosening and then a scream. Not J’harr’s honeyed murmur but Arianna’s shrill voice, distant and pained. The tunnel filled with light as Zelda’s face hit the mat. A gasping heave, and she sucked in air—sweet, clean air—while the gymnasium lights whirled above.

“What the actual fuck?” Arianna shouted.

Distantly, Zelda realized the referee was blowing his whistle as Coach Howard hurried over. A pair of parents—Arianna’s she suspected—scampered from the bleachers and onto the ring. Maura and Ali, her Uncle Mark and Stacey Layne, they all rose.

“She bit me.” Arianna clutched her forearm as her eyes filled with tears. “That psycho bitch, she bit my arm.”

And Zelda, still on her back, found her tongue tracing circles around her teeth, the salty metallic tang of blood on her lips.