THE SHELBY CHRONICLES

BOOK 3: COLD AS FIRE

Part 1

By Shane Lutz

"How much longer do we have?" Shelby asked, risking a glance over her shoulder.

"Not long," Josh replied through gritted teeth. "A minute, maybe two, at most." He tried to ignore the throbbing in his left thigh. Gritty pain stabbed through his nerves, making him wince with every step.

Behind them, in racing pursuit, two clans of Boabhan Sith and Dearg Due dashed towards them, fangs bared while more of their vampiric cousins followed. The ghostly Gabriel Hounds – in wolf form – snarled as they followed their scents, easily tracking the blood that soaked Josh's thigh. Lizard Nathair soared above them, their high-pitched screeches making the two teenager's ears pop and hearts race. There were more creatures following this mass and they, no doubt, were even more deadly than the menagerie of beasts that led the hunt.

Shelby swallowed as she looked away from the army of monsters. "Can you use a spell or something?" She asked nervously but there was a note of urgency in her voice.

He shook his head slightly. "I've used too much of my energy already. In my weakened state, the spell could bounce back on me." Josh bit his lip, holding back the urge to scream as he tripped over a rock, but managed to keep running. "You're supposed to be the best warrior in the Brotherhood. Can't you fight them off?"

Rolling her eyes, Shelby scoffed. "Yeah, I could fight them off…but not an entire army! There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of creatures following us! Standing and fighting would be suicide!" She discovered she had to yell now to be heard over the roars of the impending horde as they bore down closer and closer on them.

"Look! We're close!" Josh said, pointing towards a white stone obelisk that rose into the black sky, a shard of hope in a tempest of doom.

"Thank the gods!" Shelby rejoiced, keeping her eyes locked on the monument. While most obelisks wore Egyptian Hieroglyphics, this monument was much older. What resembled Sumerian and Aramaic was etched into the pale-blasted stone. "What did you say they were called? They're not symbols of power, right?"

Josh blinked. Was now really the right time to discuss this? "Um…no, they're monoliths, built on a conversion of lines of power that criss-cross the globe. Where two or more lines converge, they create a powerful energy spot. Monoliths were often created on them as gifts to the gods, but they can be accessed and used as portals by those who know how to."

"Well, I hate traveling by monolith," she grumbled as they approached the obelisk.

Josh hobbled towards it, glancing over his shoulder nervously before turning back to the monument. He placed his hand on the white stone, muttered something in a language that hadn't been spoken since the White Christ – the New God that the Golden Bloods feared and hated so much because he stole their devoted followers – walked the Earth. The obelisk began to shake and there was a steady thrumming in the air.

"Give me your hand!" Josh shouted over the raucous noise that surged toward them from the army of monsters. Shelby reached out and grabbed his outstretched hand, and then…

Blink.

They sat with their backs against a cold, stone wall engraved with archaic symbols. Three similar walls bordered it, surrounding them in a slightly claustrophobic space. An invisible flickering light pulsed in the air, giving off a dull golden glow. They had made it to sanctuary.

Shelby and Josh slumped, exhausted, their breath heaving in drained gasps. They exchanged a knowing look, turning their heads slightly, barely having the energy to do so. Then they began to laugh. Quiet giggles slowly turning into hysteric cackling as they realized just how close they had been to losing their heads to a pack of hideous monsters from the darkest era of mythology.

"We made it," Shelby sighed, closing her eyes and relaxing, feeling the soothing, cold stone against her back.

"Amen to that," Josh agreed as he gave into the urge to just let his body go limp. It stung at first, and then the familiar tingling of warm feeling returned to his body. He opened his eyes and looked at Shelby who could've been dead for as relaxed as she looked, her eyes still closed, her breathing low and steady.

He bit his lip as he riskily moved his hand, cautiously and gradually, towards Shelby's. His fingers inched across the dusty, gritty floor that was probably older than the Earth's crust and rested his hand on top of hers, holding his breath to see her reaction.

Immediately, Shelby's eyes shot open and she yanked her hand away, giving him a quizzical look.

"What are you doing?" She said, her brow furrowed and her tone tense.

"I was just…" He stuttered, cursing himself silently.

"Josh," Shelby sighed, and he saw genuine apology in her eyes that seemed to tear him apart "You know we can't – as members of the Brotherhood – get close to anyone. It's too dangerous. They could be used against us. It's a weakness that none of us can afford to risk..."

A mask of annoyance and anger quickly concealed the look of hurt on Josh's face. "That sounds like a lame excuse to let me down easy," he hissed bitterly through gritted teeth. Shelby opened her mouth to reply, but he cut her off. "But what about after the Thoth mission? When we stood in the rain together? Or have you blocked that out of your mind to keep you from having any 'weaknesses'?"

At the instant expression of pain and regret on Shelby's face, Josh knew he should've felt guilty for saying those words. But the truth was that he didn't. He meant them. He wasn't afraid of what would happen to either of them. It was worth the risk. Why couldn't she see that?

"Josh, you know I…" She began, choosing her words carefully.

"Ahem, ahem," a voice coughed in front of them, and the two teenagers' heads snapped up instinctively, glancing at the source of the sound.

Standing in front of them was a woman, wearing a shimmering silver gown in the style of the ancient Greek noblewomen. But yet they could see that she wasn't just a person: she was flawless. Perfect, white teeth framed by pink lips, lightly tanned, smooth skin, heart-shaped face, flowing, and radiant golden hair that reached down to the base of her spine. A small nimbus of light even surrounded her, a halo for an angel. She looked no older than twenty, but her crystal blue eyes betrayed her be revealing lifetimes of knowledge, memories, and pain. She had lived through a lot, it was obvious, and Shelby and Josh had no doubt in their mind that this was a goddess, one of the Ichor, the Golden Bloods.

The goddess regarded Shelby indifferently, giving her little more than a nod of the head to show that she acknowledged her presence. But when she turned to Josh, her face broke out in a beautiful smile that seemed to light up the small, dark room. He returned the gesture with a goofy, uncomfortable grin. She obviously made him nervous.

"Joshua Newman," she said softly, her voice like liquid moonlight. "It is always a pleasure to see you."

"And you, my goddess," he replied quickly, bowing like an elegant dancer before he took the hand of his partner and dazzled the entire audience.

Shelby snorted in annoyance. Who was this goddess? Could it be Hekate, Josh's godly master? No, it couldn't be. She knew very little about mythology, but the rumors she had heard about the terrifying goddess was that she had black skin the color of midnight and golden eyes that bore into your soul. This wasn't the goddess of magic. She silently regretted never learning more about the history of the Golden Bloods like Josh had.

"To what do we owe this pleasure?" He said lavishly, and Shelby suddenly realized that he was flattering this goddess…and she loved it.

Beaming, she replied nonchalantly. "I have come to reply to you about your...questions," she said, giving Shelby a you-don't-know-what-we're-talking-about look. Then, suddenly, her tone changed, becoming icy and cold. "It is time."

Josh's face paled, his eyes growing wide. "What? Now? But that's impossible! They can't be ready! They would need more time..."

She shook her head. "Our calculations were wrong. They plan to release the Devourer of Corpses soon; very soon."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Shelby interrupted, waving her hands. "Can someone please fill me in here? Starting with who this so-called goddess is?"

The Golden Blood scoffed, flipping her hair in her direction. Shelby was about to retort to her in some modern words that the goddess wouldn't be familiar with, but Josh cut in, taking her attention off of her.

"She is known by many names. The Greeks knew her as Aphrodite, the Babylonians as Ishtar, the Norse as Freyja, the Egyptians as Hathor, and to the Celts she was Cliodhna. But she is known most by the same people as her, er, lover, Mars. Shelby, this is Venus, goddess of love and beauty."

Venus giggled, her laughter high and light. "Oh, you flatter me too much."

"Wait, did you say Hathor? That name sounds familiar…" Shelby said, racking her brain for where she knew the name from.

Josh licked suddenly dry lips. "Um…yeah. She is the twin sister of Sekhmet, one of the Destroyers that we released on our last 'mission'."

Venus nodded grimly, her eyes filled with a brief note of pity and sadness, before flooding with sharp, bitter fury. "Yes, Sekhmet is my sister. She was known by many names, but before all of the cruel titles she gained, I knew her as Artemis. But that was before she became what she did. That was when she still cared; when she could still love…" Her voice trailed off in a pool of memories.

Shelby was less touched by her story. "So that was your fault? Great. Nice to know who I we can blame for the world's destruction..."

"Shelby!" Josh exclaimed. This was a goddess they were in the presence of! Not just any goddess, either, one of the most powerful ones in all mythology. Also one of the most temperamental.

Fixing her stone-cold gaze on Shelby, Venus spoke with a voice that was dark and bottomless. "I have not come to be accused of my sister's crimes by some…mortal," she spat the last word. "She chose her path, and what fate held for her at the end of that road was a cruel destiny, but it was what she chose. I have come to warn you. The enemy is rising. The Devourer of Corpses stirs. And you alone, Josh," she continued, turning to face him, "can raise the Cold Goddess to defeat him."

"The Cold Goddess?" Shelby butt in, raising an eyebrow. That name did not sound good.

Josh shook his head, thoughts swarming, ignoring Shelby. "But what about my other question? About being able to…"

"Yes," Venus interrupted sharply. "I believe it can be done."

"You believe it can?" Josh said, feeling his heart sink at the uncertainty of her words.

"I know it can. I have seen what she was, long ago, before she was morphed into…" Venus shuddered, and then quickly got back on topic. "If you can release her, you can return her to the merest echo of what she once was. That will be enough. I have faith in you, Josh," she finished softly, her voice barely above a whisper.

He beamed, ecstatic about having a goddess speak to him so passionately. Shelby felt a pang of jealousy, but quickly shook the emotion. No way. Not in her lifetime would she ever be jealous of such a stuck-up, self-righteous, narcissistic, egotistical, superficial Golden Blood who was no better than a high-school cheerleader!

Venus glared at Shelby, as if she had read her thoughts. Her cerulean eyes reflected icy fire that told her that if she wanted to, this Ichor could blast her into nothing more than a pile of ash. This was a being that was much older than the myths and legends said she was. This was a true goddess: primal, powerful, and pitiless.

And then, immediately, she was back to her beautiful self, smiling at Josh with the face of an angel. Shelby suddenly saw the terrifying resemblance between Venus and Sekhmet.

"Well," the Golden Blood said, clapping her hands together. "It is time for you to save the world."

The way she said it, so casual and indifferent, made Shelby snort. What did this goddess know about saving the world? How many times had she saved the world like she herself had? How dare this self-proclaimed goddess – whom she had just met – tell her what to do and give her orders!? Who did she think she was?

Venus cast Shelby a glance that hinted that she knew what she was thinking, but she didn't say anything about it. "I trust you know how to use this monolith to get to your destination?" She asked, turning to Josh.

"Yes," he replied. "I do. But that's so far away. Isn't there another way that wouldn't leave me so…exhausted?"

"Are you saying I can't protect us?" Shelby snapped, breaking off their conversation.

He swallowed uncomfortably. "No, it's just that, uh, sometimes magic can be useful, and I'd hate to be without it. And you can't defend both us, and…"

"Uh huh, whatever," she grumbled, folding her arms across her chest, signaling the discussion was over…for now.

"Um, no, Josh," Venus said, returning to the topic at hand. "The monolith will be your best bet." She took a step forward, bending down to place her hand on Josh's thigh. Light glowed faintly around the wound, but when she removed her hand and stepped away from him, the blood and gash was gone. He had completely forgotten about the wound when Venus had appeared. "I am sorry that I cannot be more of a help to you. I hope what I have told you and the secrets we have uncovered will be enough to succeed." She nodded her head at Josh, and then went on. "You, both of you, are truly, once and for all, out last hope."

Shelby and Josh averted their gaze from the blazing light that the goddess emitted after her final, chilling words. When the black spots that seared their eyes had faded, they found themselves alone in the chamber with only each other and the weight of the world resting on their shoulders.

"Ready?" Josh asked, rolling up his sleeves as he prepared himself to activate the monolith to take them to their destination.

"Um…yeah, but one question first," Shelby said, biting her lip as she thought.

"Just one?" He laughed, brushing his hands together, sending golden sparks flying.

"Oh, we'll get to the others later," she promised. "But about something you said earlier. You said that Venus was the lover of Mars. Mars Ultor? Like, one of the leaders of the Militia Tribunal back at the Brotherhood?"

"The very same."

"Wow," she said, genuinely astonished. "I never thought he had the capacity for love."

Josh chuckled. "I don't know if I'd call it love. They once had a sort of…fling, I guess, a while ago, but it's been a long time since they've even spoken a word to each other. Venus isn't as shallow as you might think. Mars and all his power and strength were only entertaining for so long. She moved on to more…intellectual waters."

"Oh."

"Yup," he said. "Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "Just curious. The myths say that Venus was married to someone…Vulcan, I think?"

He smiled, and Shelby was really beginning to feel that he was getting too much fun out of knowing so much about this goddess. "Shelby, she's the goddess of love. She's married to a lot of people." He cleared his throat and faced the wall to their left. "So, are you ready to face the biggest threat to our world you've ever seen?"

Now it was Shelby's turn to laugh. "Hah! Please, magic-boy, you have no idea what I've faced."

Josh, grinning uncontrollably, activated the portal with a mixture of his own reservoirs of power and a careful order of words from a language that belonged to the place that worshipped the Cold Goddess, just as they worshiped Venus, only they called her Freyja, the White Goddess.

"Hold on tight," he said, grabbing onto Shelby. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."

And then the blazing light from the portal in the monolith swallowed them, taking them to a place far from the world, where nothing lived, and the dead fear to tread.

To a place where the fate of the world hung in the balance.