Queens, New York; December 10th, 2011
Kierlan Cole had been a simple thief. It was a career he’d perfected over the last ten years, following the sole statute that he was his own boss and always would be. And when he’d started out as a teenager, he never would’ve thought anything would get him to give up that creed, given his short temper and inability to follow orders. However, as it turned out in the past few days, his loyalties were easily swayed by the very thing that got him into his trade in the first place.
He’d barely given the letter requesting his presence a second glance once he’d seen the payment they were willing to give him, and all the zeroes associated with it. The paper his potential employer’s proposal was printed on lacked any and all descriptions of the job, as well as a return address, but it contained detailed directions to a meeting place ten minutes away from his apartment in Queens.
He’d been forced to walk. The instructions had been explicit in the sender’s demand that he was not to give anyone the address; unfortunately, that included his own teammates and cab drivers, so, without a car of his own, it was his only option.
He glided down the sparsely occupied sidewalk like a shadow, hood pulled over his head and face to ward off the biting cold. The first snowfall of the season blew around him. Hands shoved in his pockets, one curled tightly around the letter in his pocket, he walked, face down, toward the destination written on his letter. He couldn’t help but let confusion show on his face when the only building coming into view was casting a hot pink glow on the shops across the street. He wondered increasingly who he was going to meet when he read the neon sign over the front door, his eyes zoning in on two words specifically: Gentleman’s Club.
“Wha—?” he mumbled to himself, staring up at the sign he’d seen many times before. For something so secretive, he mused, this guy had certainly picked an ostentatious place to meet. Running his hand over the stubble on his head, he sighed, pulling the letter from his jeans pocket and reading the address for the millionth time that day. It was the place. Wordlessly, he approached the front door, eyes guarded and flickering around the room for anything threatening. In his line of work, he was accustomed to things going bad quickly.
Once he was inside, nothing struck him as out of the ordinary in the dimly lit room except for the lack of customers around him. The establishment was obviously open to the public, but, aside from the hostess before him and the many scantily-clad girls around the room, there weren’t any patrons watching the poles above them. Hugging himself against the cold he suddenly felt when one of the girls removed his coat, he glanced, startled, up at the hostess. The tall woman didn’t look up from the MadLibs book in her hand.
“Excuse me?” Kierlan asked, approaching the podium.
“Yes, Mr. Cole,” she murmured, eyes still cast downward. She pointed her heavily-chewed pen in the direction of a booth in the corner. “Vilmore’s expecting you.”
“Vilmore?” Kierlan asked. “Wait. How do you know my name?”
She chuckled, looking up so her heavily made-up eyes were boring into him. “Like I said, Mr. Cole, we’ve been expecting you.”
Kierlan nodded, starting toward the booth she’d directed him to. Before he’d gone three steps, he froze. “Uh,” he grunted, “there’s no one there.”
She exhaled loudly in irritation. Snapping the book in her hand closed, she scowled up at him. “Just take a seat, Mr. Cole. Vilmore will meet you in his own time.”
Biting his tongue so he wouldn’t say anything he’d regret, he nodded.
“Follow me, honey, I’ll get you something to drink,” a lilting voice murmured from behind him as a feather light touch trailed over his shoulder. When he turned, his eyes immediately found the enticing stare of a blonde waitress. She pulled him across the room by the thin material of his t-shirt, lightly shoving him into the booth. The girl leaned suggestively over his table, supporting herself with one hand so he could have a better view of the flesh spilling from her tiny shirt, an unused notepad in the other. Like every other waitress standing around the room, she was clad in tight, black jeans and a matching, sleeveless shirt, the hem of which was ripped at the navel. “What can I get for you, baby?” she inquired, smile blinding.
Kierlan had to shake his head to concentrate, tearing his eyes begrudgingly from her breasts. “Uh, ya. I’ll—”
“He’ll have my usual,” a voice from the shadows interjected.
Kierlan jumped, searching for the man who’d spoken. He was unsuccessful until the huge figure separated from the darkness, gold-flecked eyes appearing before anything else. The waitress laughed at his discomfort, but nodded and turned on her heel toward the bar. Left alone with the large stranger, Kierlan stood, offering his hand to the mocha-skinned giant. “Hello, Vilmore, is it? I’m—”
“Sit down, Mr. Cole,” Vilmore curtly said, his thick arms remaining at his sides. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Kierlan sank back into the booth, knowing immediately that he wasn’t going to like this meeting, despite the strippers staring only at him. He looked away He waited for Vilmore to take a seat across from him before he finally asked, in a heated whisper, “So you’re the one who sent the letter?”
The stranger chuckled dryly. “No, Mr. Cole. I’m not. I am merely speaking on behalf of my employer.”
Eyes flickering about the room, Kierlan asked, “Is he here? Your employer?”
“No,” Vilmore countered. “He doesn’t go out much. That’s why I’m here to talk about the proposal he made to you in his stead.”
“Can I have his name, at least?” he pleaded.
Vilmore slowly shook his head. “That’s impossible, Mr. Cole. I don’t know his name. No one does.”
“But…” he trailed off. “What’d you call him?”
Vilmore shrugged. “Sir? Don’t worry about it. It’ll come naturally if he ever calls you. ”
“Calls?” he repeated. “How should I give him my number?”
“He already has it, Mr. Cole,” Vilmore explained, raising his hand when Kierlan went to question him. “Don’t ask. My employer has a lot of connections, so it’s not difficult for him to find things out about you, like your phone number, and how good you are at what it is you do.” He folded his hands on the table, leaning back in the chair. “They also make it very easy for him to know if you do something he doesn’t like. And, just a warning, no one cheats him. Not even a contract thief, like yourself.”
Kierlan didn’t let Vilmore intimidate him, his intentions nothing if not pure. Well, he amended inwardly, toward the employer, anyway.
“Given what that means if you try anything, you still in?” Vilmore inquired.
Kierlan mimicked the other man’s cool posture, though he tingled with nerves under the skin. “If he was serious about that price on the letter, I don’t think there’s anything you could say that would scare me away.”
Vilmore laughed. “Good to know. Now, if I tell you the details of the job, telling anyone outside your team is grounds for…termination.”
Kierlan couldn’t help but shiver. “I understand.”
“Good,” Vilmore replied with a smile. “My boss needs a thief, somebody good, somebody better than anybody else in the business for this job. Somebody who won’t get caught.”
The thief in question grinned smugly. “I’m your man. Never been caught once, what’s the job?”
“It’s not something you’re used to, I’m sure. It’s something he needs from the British Museum, one of the artifacts.”
“I’ve done plenty of grabs on expensive things,” Kierlan said with a small snort. “How much is it worth?”
“Priceless, but it’s not his intention to sell it,” Vilmore vowed cheekily.
“What else would you do with it?”
Vilmore’s strange eyes flickered nervously around the room. “My employer is…for lack of a better word…a suspicious man. I can’t really explain it any better than that. Just know: it’s not something you’ll need to worry about. We have someone else taking care of it.”
“I don’t understand,” Kierlan said.
Vilmore sighed. “I don’t expect you to. Your job is to infiltrate the British Museum, however you feel is best. There should be a place in there devoted to Persia. In that wing, you’ll find a heavily guarded piece of parchment paper. That’s what we need.”
Eyebrow quirked, Kierlan deadpanned, “A piece of paper? You’re paying me obscene amounts of money for some paper?”
“Obviously it isn’t just any piece of paper. I told you it was priceless, remember?”
Kierlan nodded. “So what’s it worth to you? If you’re not gonna sell it, it really doesn’t matter how much it’s—”
Vilmore slammed his hands down on the table. “Stop asking questions. Everything from here on in is need-to-know for you. Your job is to go to the museum and steal the page from the Book of Eternity. That’s it. Then you get paid and you go home. Get it?”
“Ya, ya!” Kierlan nodded fervently. “I get it. But…I do have another question.”
“You…” he gasped when a frothy drink was placed before him. He didn’t look up, picturing the pretty blonde in the back of his mind. “Thanks. You mentioned that there’s someone taking care of the job after me. Why is that person taking over? I have plenty of connections for artifacts, I’m sure I can get you guys what you’re looking for.”
“Oh, Kierlan,” a cool, female voice annunciated carefully in heavily accented English. “You do not understand what we are doing, here.”
Kierlan’s head snapped up, finding another woman in the blonde waitress’s stead. She was fully clothed, but she would have fit in easily with the girls on stage, given her tight, black camisole, leather pants, and impractically high-heeled boots. She didn’t sit, formally outstretching her hand for him to take. He stared for a moment before reluctantly shaking her hand.
“Kierlan,” Vilmore said, “This is our other contracted employee. She’ll be helping you with the heist and taking care of any…unforeseen circumstances. Ms. Petrov, this is Kierlan Cole: thief. Mr. Cole this—”
“Natalia Petrov,” she murmured. “Assassin.”
Kierlan stared up at the woman, who couldn’t be any older than twenty, and immediately sensed that she could, and would, kick his ass if it pleased her. He said nothing, wondering what it was one said in a situation like this. Despite his best efforts at thinking, and common sense, the only words coming to mind were: nice tits.
“Yes,” Vilmore said. “We recently employed Natalia Petrov on a long term basis. She’ll be leading your operation in the museum.”
Kierlan stiffened, fighting the urge to jump to his feet. “What?!”
“Relax, Mr. Cole,” Vilmore ordered, posture as relaxed as when they’d begun.
“I thought I was leading the job! I thought that was the point!” Kierlan continued, slowly climbing to his feet. “I’m the best—!”
“Oh, sit down you silly man,” Natalia taunted, shoving him back on the bench.
Kierlan scowled up at them, face rapidly turning red with his growing ire. He winced at a forceful squeeze to his shoulder, sinking back into his seat.
She smiled slightly, silent irritation oozing from her in waves. “I am not here to ‘steal thunder,’ Mr. Cole. This is an important job. I am merely here to make sure it goes smoothly.”
“If I’m the one doing it, it will go smoothly,” he snapped.
“Enough!” Vilmore growled. “Frankly, Mr. Cole, you don’t get a say in how this will happen. So, if you wanna get paid, you do the job they way we tell you, and you do it well. Do you understand?”
Kierlan’s face twitched, baring his teeth. He sighed loudly, looking away from both of them. “Fine,” he spat.
Vilmore didn’t smile. “Good. We’ll arrange for the two of you to leave the country within the week. Mr. Cole, we’ll be in touch.”
Kierlan Cole stood, disregarding their expectant glances, and strode toward the entrance. The hostess didn’t look up from her book and he didn’t offer any pleasant sentiments. The door swung noisily shut behind him.
Natalia smiled after the vanished thief and sank into the seat he’d vacated. “What a waste,” she murmured, taking a swig from Kierlan’s untouched drink. “He does not know, I presume?”
Vilmore shrugged. “How could he? It’s impossible.”
The assassin chuckled. “I have seen plenty in my line of work to know that nothing is impossible, Vilmore. Despite my personal belief.” She playfully pulled a gold cross necklace from her cleavage, letting it swing and glitter in the meager light.
Vilmore threw his head back, erupting in a loud, deep laugh. “Petrov! You’re not religious!” he reminded her, wrapping his arm around himself.
Her lip twitched, but never became a smile. “It’s never too late to start.”
Lady Ziba of the Temple of Tehran donned the sacrificial white robes with a heavy heart. The cold, stone walls around her burned through the many layers of silk she wore as she waited patiently for dawn to rise over the miles of desert sand laid out before her. Outside her cell’s window, sand blew in the warm breeze and kissed her lightly on the cheek, the only warmth of comfort she had felt in days. It didn’t linger, just like all the other fleeting joys in her life. Her mass of alien blonde curls cascaded down her back, organized for the occasion with priceless gem pins and gold combs, despite the dank dungeon she had spent the last three days in. She had prayed to her patron goddess, Kurshid of the sun, for the entirety of her stay in the prison, pleading desperately for help, but it never came. Now, the only option she still possessed was to wait.
They came to retrieve her when the faintest hint of pink began to paint the horizon. Fatigue had washed all color from Ziba’s alabaster skin and her blue eyes were rimmed with red but she held her head high as she strode toward the stairs between two of her sister’s priests. She felt the burn of the scratchy twine against the delicate flesh of her wrists, but she didn’t let them see any crack in her disciplined face. Nevertheless, it brought on a new flush of shame; in her life, she would never have imagined that she would ever be in this position.
Her head fell of its own accord, her body having abruptly lost all the strength it had mustered to stand. This was the third morning now that she had gone without food while she fasted for the ceremony, per her sister’s demand.
“My lady,” a quiet voice murmured beside her, catching the remnants of her focus. Those words were so agonizingly familiar that it ached in her heart to realize that it was not in the context or the deep timber that she so desperately desired. Her love and lordship had not come to see her. Her love and lordship would not come to see her. As she came to this comprehension, again, a hand, much smaller than the one she wanted to see, reached out to hold a bronze goblet before her face. She took it obediently, not caring to survey the contents before she put her lips to the shimmering cup. She drank the water under the scrutinizing gaze of the priests, but, in truth, her most recent revelation had taken away the entirety of her appetite.
“Thank you, Lord Hosrael,” Ziba replied graciously, emptying the goblet and returning it to the priest. He nodded in answer and the group ascended the stairs, each priest grasping the tops of Ziba’s arms so she couldn’t run. Their display of blatant distrust in her depressed Ziba, as she had been a priestess in the temple for eight years now, since her seventh birthday; everyone trusted her, and with good reason, as she was as guileless as the innocent child she appeared to be. She couldn’t exactly say, however, that she was surprised by this show of loyalty to her older sister. As the high priestess, Shireen was trusted above anyone else in the temple.
The girl abruptly collapsed into the arms of the priests, as they expected, on the way to the altar. The sedative they had slipped into her drink on the way to recover her was tasteless, and the darkness had shrouded the green powder floating in the water. Hosrael lifted the girl easily into his arms, his companion chasing at his heels, and strode toward the sanctuary. Ziba, asleep for the first time since her love’s untimely death, remained blissfully unaware of just how close to her impending doom she really was.
Lady Shireen swept through the marble temple toward the altar like the wrath of God, her blood red robes billowing out and around her. Her face was sallow from many sleepless nights, but it was still one of the most beautiful in all of Persia. Long, black hair was piled around a shimmering, gold headdress atop her head, making her seem all the more tall and ominous than her less than intimidating, elfin stature. The green of her eyes was cold, staring straight ahead and giving away no emotion, but all could tell how she felt. Anger radiated off her very skin. She felt no guilt or regret, only the deepest disgust, and all patrons and priests within the temple hid from the burning rage, praying that it would never, one day, be directed at them.
Inwardly, though, Shireen’s mind was in turmoil. By Sraosa, the god of the afterlife, she’d taken solace in the knowledge that her sister would be protected, but, as anyone in her situation would feel, her faith had been shaken. All those to be brought back from the dead with the Book of Eternity had, so far, failed, and she feared her powers were too weak to preserve her sister’s soul. Regardless of the confidence she lacked, she didn’t have a choice. Her dominant hand twitched with anticipation.
The room was large and completely silent; the various priests scattered across the marble didn’t even dare to breathe. Each man was bedecked in gold robes to stand behind Shireen for the ritual, but it was evident that they were reluctant. Use of the Book of Eternity for this purpose had angered the Gods before and they knew this sacrifice could, and would, bring the wrath of the God of Darkness and personification of evil itself, Angra Mainyu, down upon them. Lady Shireen had warned them all earlier that this was inevitable. Fortunately, the priests were devoted enough to her that they had agreed to help despite the risk.
At the far end of the room, a stone table was organized in the center of a plethora of offerings to the Gods, from flowers to the preserved organs of rams. The table was grey, but stained with the remnants of blood from past offerings, all of which was unseen beneath the long, white silk of Ziba’s robes. The younger girl’s hair, as fair as the glorious desert sunshine, cascaded over the edges of the table in long ringlets, brushing silently against the floor. Her chest rose and fell evenly with each of her breaths and her long eyelashes painted black half moons against her porcelain cheeks. Coal symbols marked her forehead and cheekbones for the ceremony.
The priests in gold advanced toward the altar ahead of the High Priestess, beginning to chant the spell in Old Persian, “Spenta Mainyu who breathes life, now releases you. May our holy sister, Ziba, be held in the safe, merciful arms of the Gods, and be returned to the land of the living anew. Deliver her from the lust of Angra Mainyu. Protect her, your holiest servant. Spenta Mainyu who breathes life…”
Shireen picked up the chanting as she approached the altar and lifted the long dagger on the altar into her hand. She stared down at the petite form with an expression that could freeze the sea, and brought the dagger up into position over her sister’s body. Shireen’s free hand pushed passed page after page of the Book of Eternity beside Ziba’s body until she found the spell to bring a soul back from the dead.
As she flipped through the pages, the body on the stone began to stir and a light voice murmured, “Shireen?”
Ziba’s unusually blue eyes stared up at the High Priestess and filled with tears. Her sister bit the inside of her mouth to keep her own emotions behind closed doors and continued to read. With the words of the blessings on her lips, Shireen lifted the ceremonial dagger above her head while Ziba looked on without any other option. The other men and women standing around the altar inconspicuously closed their eyes and didn’t look again until the screaming had subsided.
It seemed to Lady Shireen that the stain of blood sprung forth from Ziba’s white robes before the damage had even been done. The dagger came down swiftly into Ziba’s chest, bringing forth an ear-splitting screech that would haunt Shireen until the day she died as she watched the life leave her sister’s hypnotic eyes.
But, she knew it was for the best.
Even as she waited, though, she never felt another sting of doubt over her powers until the last moment. She had hoped for a small sign or hint that the ceremony had been successful, but there was nothing. She had expected the white vapor of her sister’s spirit to float into the jar they had set forth for that exact purpose, but it never happened. Instead, the cork tied to the bottle’s neck closed the opening on its own, closing off any sanctuary to Ziba’s soul. The entire building began to shake like an earthquake beneath their feet, and the sound of a man’s cry of pain reverberated through the tense air. All at once, they knew that Angra Mainyu, the immortal lover of the newly deceased Ziba, had found out what they had done to the young priestess.
All at once, they knew they would suffer for it.
Claire Strong bolted upright in bed, skin slick with a sheen of sweat, heart racing. The back of her throat burned with the memory of a scream, a feeling she’d become grossly familiar with in the previous few months, and, just like all those other nights she’d been plagued with this nightmare, she reached blindly through the dark for the glass of water on her nightstand. She downed the entire glass, coughing when she sucked in an accidental breath. The teenager threw her legs off the side of the bed, doubling over to expel the liquid in her lungs. She squinted away the burning tears in her eyes when the light suddenly flickered on.
It was every night, now, that her dreams turned her waking world into a hell. With each passing day, she was becoming more and more exhausted, physically as well as mentally, and she’d been late to school so much that her first hour teacher just taught her after school instead. The administrators didn’t bother with detention, anymore, since her father always called to get her out of it, anyway. She’d been sent to the guidance office so many times, she had a weekly rotation.
They told her it was stress that brought the dreams on. That she dreamt of her best friends in period character because she was dealing with their impending separation in a ‘different’ way. Their graduation would be upon them in a few, short months. They’d have the summer, then, they’d be going to college. Claire would be attending County College. Her best friends would be leaving New Jersey for Columbia in the fall, and she’d be alone until Thanksgiving. She would’ve loved going with them, but her lone parental figure had assured her that it just wasn’t in the budget.
Though it was a concern that weighed on her when she woke, she knew it wasn’t what caused her nightly concern.
“Claire!” the unmistakable voice of her father called above the slam of her door against the wall. She jumped and her coughing fit continued with a new fervor, but she stayed seated on the bed, waiting for him to take a seat beside her. His hand rubbed soothingly up and down her back while he held her inhaler before her eyes. Frantically, she grasped for it, breathing slowly in and out. Her head spun, but, slowly, she regained her grasp on the real world.
“Baby, we can’t keep doing this,” Pierce Strong sighed, watching his daughter breathe unsteadily without her rescue inhaler.
He was a tall man, around forty years old with thin, grayish hair. His blue eyes were filled with concern and rimmed with dark bags, having spent many nights awake with her. He wore a full pajama set; he’d made the switch from underwear when she’d started having night terrors in anticipation of sleepless nights with her.
Claire burned with humiliation, wishing she could go a week without waking him in a panic. She knew as long as they were living together, though, that it would never happen. Worrying her friends and family was what she did best, ever since she was born.
She’d always been sickly, it ran in the family, and it terrified her father, especially since her mother’s death. Her mother had died in childbirth, bringing a four pound, two-ounce baby with asthma, congenital heart defects, and an inferiority complex into the world.
“I…I know,” she stuttered, the shakiness in her voice a product of her speech impediment rather than her struggle for breath.
“I think,” he took a long breath, “maybe, we should look into a psychiatrist.”
“No!” she cried, back suddenly turning erect. “No! I’m n…not crazy!”
He tried, unsuccessfully, to comfort her. “Shh, shh, I know. I know. You’re not crazy.”
She fervently shook her head breathing another puff from her inhaler. “I don’t n…need a doctor!”
He tucked her head under his chin, gently rocking her. “Shh, I know. Shh. It’s not that. You’re not crazy. But, sweetheart, it’s every night now. Maybe a doctor can shine some light on—”
“I don’t need a d…doctor!”
“Alright! Okay,” he murmured, kissing the top of her head. “No doctor, I get it. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” she grumbled, falling over onto her side, though she desperately didn’t want to go back to sleep. Her father stood, crossing the room quickly. He turned in the doorway, flipping the light switch.
“Try to get some sleep, sweetheart.”
She curled up, facing the opposite wall. “You, too.”
The door creaked shut, reminding Claire that she was alone. She didn’t let her eyes close, staring at the alarm clock beside her. She could still feel that knife hitting home in her chest, right in the heart. Three a.m. She’d have to be getting up for school in four hours. Growling in frustration, and giving up on any chance of peace for the rest of the night, she forced herself to her feet and made her way to the bathroom.
She didn’t make sound when she walked down the hall, but, even if she had, she knew her father wouldn’t care. He was a deep sleeper. The first thing she caught in the huge bathroom mirror when she walked in was her haggard appearance. Her face was sallow and her hair was a wild mess on her head. She noted dryly that she looked like the bride of Frankenstein. Shivering with distaste, she turned away from the mirror to turn on the shower.
Steam quickly filled the room, already soothing her tense body. She turned back to the mirror and froze.
A huge stain of red began to mar her white shirt just over her heart and, as she watched, it deepened. Pain split her chest like a knife and, horrified, she clawed at her shirt as it sopped up more precious blood. She screamed, but her body began to sink limply toward the floor, preparing itself for inevitable death.
Claire’s eyes snapped open to the shrill cry of her alarm clock her white shirt flawless and her body curled in the same way she’d fallen asleep. She squinted against the blinding light coming in through the window and realized that she was late for school. Again.
London, England; December 20th, 2011
The timing had been perfect.
Closing had come about an hour before and only two guards remained in the silent building, awaiting the replacements that would be relieving them in another half hour.
Harris and Reyes had worked this shift together every night, excluding weekends, for five years, and the two had become good friends. Both men had been sitting in the security room, eyes flickering between the wall of surveillance feeds and the portable small screen television Harris had brought from home, when the lights and video monitors concurrently died. Cursing softly under his breath, Harris stood in the dark and pulled the small flashlight from his belt, suddenly hyper aware of the limited space around him.
“The back-up generator’ll take care of it,” Reyes assured him, lazily stretching back in his chair and rifling through his pockets for batteries. “Just give it a minute.”
Henry Harris was the older and much larger guard, just shy of fifty and well over six feet tall. Despite his age, he was a burly man with a permanently angry expression on his face, unless you, by a miracle, got him to laugh. His hair was salt and pepper, but only where he allowed it to show. In order to beat impending baldness, he’d shaved his head back in college and had never gone back. Short stubble covered his head and grew longer toward his chin, around which he had organized a neat beard. Small, dark eyes were sunken into his withering face.
Fred Reyes, on the other hand, was comparatively meek. The younger man had only just celebrated his twenty ninth birthday the previous week and was still cleaning up his apartment from the surprise party his brother had thrown him, one Coors Light bottle at a time. Reyes stood above average height but resembled more of a toy soldier than a security guard while standing beside Harris. His long, wiry muscles swam in the extra material of his black uniform. He wore his hat over his head, masking his shaggy, dark hair, and allowing only his dull brown eyes to show. Reyes was clean-shaven, retaining a boyish quality that Harris lacked.
“Do you have any Double A’s?” Reyes inquired, finally giving up on his pockets with a deep, dramatic sigh.
“Just take ‘em out of the remote,” Harris grunted back. “The generator should have come on by now.”
“The rain might’ve blown out the box,” Reyes shrugged, suddenly pointedly interested in his uniform’s broken belt loop.
Harris grit his teeth, pulling back his sleeve to study his watch. Realizing he couldn’t leave the generator for his replacement, he resolved to go, and by the look on Reyes’s face, he’d be going alone. Fixing his hat upon his bald head, he turned on his heel to leave, despite Reyes’s protests. “Harris!” Reyes called as his friend vanished through the door. “The night guy’ll get it! Harris!”
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” the officer vowed with a roll of his eyes. “Find the batteries,” he added.
Navigating through the blackened halls of the museum was difficult with only a flashlight, but Harris had memorized every door and crevice so attentively that he could’ve done it with his eyes closed. The back-up generator existed in the basement and was only accessible through the ward devoted entirely to Greek artifacts and literature on its mythology. The basement was off limits to the public for its dangerous setup, concrete walls, and the boiler, making it a hell of its own making beneath the feet of the many patrons each day. It wasn’t a place necessarily enjoyed by the staff of the museum, but whatever minor incidence had brought them down to begin with was usually enough to make them overlook this general distaste for the hot and unkempt room. Harris was no exception to those who despised the basement, but he’d never been, and never would be, one to follow orders any less than perfectly.
The smooth feel of the ring of keys in his left hand was as familiar to him as the flashlight in his right. He made to unlock the door but, as he turned the handle, his ears caught a light sound. From across the room, he heard the small clink of something small, a binder clip perhaps, or a pen, skittering across the granite floor. Back going rigid, Harris froze, flashlight poised over the basement door’s keyhole. He didn’t dare to breathe as he spun to face the noise.
There was nothing against the wall but a podium devoted to paintings of the Trojan War. Even as he swung the flashlight back and forth across the display, nothing appeared to account for what he’d heard. And so, as anyone in such a situation would, he passed it off as a fluke and went back to work. Hands shaking, Harris slipped through the open doorway as quickly as he could and bounded down the metal staircase toward the concrete floor below.
Behind him, veiled by the dark, a much smaller figure, clad entirely in black, slid purposefully through the doorway, keeping his arms crossed over his chest so the door slid easily back into place. Black leather gloves shoved the broken clip he’d dropped on his way into the building back into his pocket.
The generator was in the furthermost corner of the room where the wires connecting it to the building’s main box were bolted to the wall. Wiping the accumulating drops of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, Harris passed the boiler to find the generator, gasping with the sudden change in temperature. His loud, clumsy footsteps reverberated through the cave-like enclosure like a sad metronome, or a quickening reminder of his impending demise. The fire raging in the boiler cast a red glow over the room, but that was its only source of light. Harris’s black shadow stretched out from toe to ceiling, covering every inch of the floor before him in a shroud of darkness.
The boiler growled with a flicker of the vengeful flames within, spitting out a small surge of glowing embers onto the concrete floor. As Harris approached the generator, everything seemed normal, the large black square, undisturbed. The building’s central power box screwed into the wall seemed untouched as well. The thick black cords connecting the box to the generator were hidden mostly by the shadow of the machine, but one cord was pushed unceremoniously away from the metal strip bolting it to the wall. Narrowing his eyes suspiciously, Harris knelt to its height and trained his flashlight onto the offending wire.
It was cut through.
“What the hell?” he muttered. He rolled the wire between his thumb and forefinger thoughtfully before a movement on the floor caught his attention. His large figure had cast a much larger shadow onto the floor, but while he was kneeling to investigate the generator, the light from the fire was able to illuminate the room much further. His shadow separated, without cause from him, into another being, moving slowly and silently around the room. The unmistakable sound of an exhale coiled Harris’s muscles to spring. He adjusted his grip on the flashlight as he rose slowly to his feet, skin prickling with the promise of looming danger.
Giving no warning, the guard spun around, flashlight outstretched so it would give a satisfying crack against the intruder’s head upon impact.
That satisfaction never came, for when Harris’s eyes eventually adjusted to the quick movements, he realized that the head of the flashlight had fit itself into the gloved palm of the phantom’s hand instead of his masked temple. His brain didn’t get the message fast enough to respond as his opponent followed this retaliation with a blow to the neck. The tips of his fingers shot out like a snake, connecting harshly with Harris’s windpipe, doubling him over. Ignoring the hoarse gurgle of protest directed at him, the intruder placed his hands on Harris’s lowered shoulders and forced his knee into the older man’s gut with a force that knocked him to the concrete ground and sent his hat flying across the room.
Spitting blood through his teeth, Harris let his body slump flat against the ground. His eyes opened with some difficulty and found his much smaller opponent standing mockingly above him, pulling the black ski mask off his head. The face that emerged, however, was not a man’s, but a petite woman’s with lank, strawberry-blonde hair and light blue eyes; she stared down at him with a taunting smile fixed across her face.
She cracked her knuckles once in reminder of his crushing loss and shook her head. “I was truly wishing for a worthier adversary, Mr. Harris. You have disappointed me greatly,” she murmured smoothly, her voice obviously influenced by a thick, Czech accent.
She crossed the room leisurely to retrieve his hat and fixed it onto her head. “It looks better on me, I think,” she concluded, outwardly blasé. He seemed to be down for the count, but she’d been tricked by opponents into a false sense of security before. His accusing eyes had no effect on her, she’d been doing this far too long to feel anything. “Do not feel bad, Mr. Harris, you would not be the first man to be bested by me, and you will most certainly not be the last. It is what I do.”
“W—?” Harris gasped, unable to move, or speak.
“Nothing you need concern yourself with Mr. Harris,” she promised, striding back to him with the brim of his cap pinched between her fingers.
He tried to question her again, but all he could emit was a breathy moan of pain.
“Goodnight, Mr. Harris,” she sighed in contentment, stomping on his cheek, eliciting a sharp crack as his head snapped to the side and his body went slack. The uneven gasps of breath ended.
The mysterious woman circled her prey twice, admiring her work. She pushed the hair that had fallen in her face back behind her ear flirtatiously as she sensed another presence in the room, watching her. “How long have you been watching?” she grinned, biting her lip. She was an attractive woman, as she well knew, and she used it to her advantage, even when her job didn’t necessarily call for it. She kept her back to the visitor, knowing he would speak of his own volition soon enough.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with your food?” the weary voice questioned with a deep sigh.
“I am afraid my mother did not feel any need to remind me of such trivial things. However this hardly constitutes your metaphor. I am many things, Kierlan, but a cannibal does not make the list,” she insisted, eyebrows knit together.
“Ugh,” he replied. “Let’s just get the book and go. If I have to deal with anymore of your…interesting mannerisms tonight, I’ll put a bullet in my head.”
“And then where would we be?” she laughed. “Silly boy, there is no book, only a page.”
Her partner merely shook his head in disappointment. He didn’t care if it was an entire library, so long as he got paid and could go home. “Put on your mask, Natalia, someone might see you,” he ordered.
“No one who will live to tell about it,” she chuckled. “Perhaps you should take care of the other guard. We will need his uniform to leave the building.”
“What happened to the plan, Natalia?” he snapped, knowing immediately what had happened and wondering increasingly why he’d agreed to work with someone so incompetent. Well, he amended reflexively, not completely incompetent.
Natalia Petrov was the best assassin just as he was the best thief to accomplish this job, and, for the most part, she did the job better than he could have hoped, aside from nearly falling into the museum when she broke the clip to her harness. Her only flaw was theatrics. A lifetime of cold killing had taken away every ounce of the humanity born to all men and women, leaving her cruel and frigid. She enjoyed the hunt. She enjoyed the death. She enjoyed the mockery.
“Your team’s equipment is crap, Kierlan! It was by no fault of mine,” she insisted, becoming immediately defensive, as she always was when her work ethic was questioned.
“Or, could it be, that you’ve just become careless over the years, Natalia? You seem to be losing your touch! Dropping your only way out? Letting your target hear you coming?” he made a face under the ski mask he wore as he stared at her in accusation. “When I heard you were the best I was expecting something a bit more professional.”
Natalia’s freckled face turned bright red. Kierlan could hear her teeth grinding together from across the room and inwardly grinned. He loved making her upset. “Do you have the page, then? Since you can stand there and criticize my work! Where is the page?” she growled, trying her best not to shriek at him.
“Killing was never part of this plan, we were just supposed to get the page and go,” he protested, coming to the realization that he would have to end the life of the much younger man upstairs. Kierlan had never done the killing before; he’d always had someone on his team willing to do it for him. Thievery was his game, and he was good at it. That and organization; he could organize a murder, but he would never have the stomach to carry it out himself like Natalia could. He took no joy in killing, nor the chase, nor the mockery that followed.
“Ohh grow a pair! I have been in this trade since I was fifteen, you worthless man! Even you can certainly manage it once,” Natalia snarled. She gathered herself after a moment of peace and softly added, “I cannot wear this man’s uniform, Kierlan. Would you prefer it if I dispatched Mr. Reyes myself?”
Kierlan knew he should’ve said yes, but his mind had warped Natalia’s words into something condescending. Ms. Petrov wasn’t kind, not now, not ever, and even the strange attraction she had developed towards him wouldn’t change that. Feeling the sting of her ridicule reverberate through his brain, he let a moment of silence pass between them before he finally whispered, “No. Don’t worry your pretty little head about me. I’ll do it myself.” His voice was quiet, but steely, and as cold as ice. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode back up the steps, blending easily into the shadows.
Natalia was fully aware that she’d wounded the less experienced man and gloried in it. She was accustomed to being worshiped and sought after for her talent. She was the best in the world. She was paid well every time outside parties hired her, and this time was no exception.
Nevertheless, she was never one to simply overlook a chance for advancement in anything, especially money, so she stooped beside the body she’d turned cold, pulling her gloves tightly against her small fingers, and searched the corpse for a wallet.
Upstairs, Reyes was becoming uneasy by Harris’s extended absence. He’d also been unable to find batteries.
Without company or a distraction, he was officially creeped out and bored. Slapping his hand onto his head to adjust his hat, he pulled himself to his feet without much hesitation and resolved to look for his partner. “Harris!” he called, enjoying the sound of his voice echoing through the abandoned building. Any second now, he told himself, Harris is gonna turn out of some corner that he was, miraculously, able to hide his fat ass in. He’s gonna threaten to kill me if I keep acting like a child, just like he always does.
No such response ever came. No response at all.
“Harris!” he repeated in the same manner as the first time. When he was, again, ignored, Reyes’s tone took on an air of desperation. “Henry! I’m not fooling around!” When Reyes’s latest attempt produced the same result as the first, he pulled out his flashlight and journeyed further into the depths of the museum, focusing his eyes on the ground so he wouldn’t startle himself with the sight of mummies in the dark.
Unlike Harris, Reyes’s death was swift and painless. It was debatable, in fact, whether or not he knew what was happening at all. A hasty kick to his tailbone sent the guard sprawling to the floor, dazed as he flattened himself against the granite. Above him, two legs straddled his back as a pair of gloved hands found either side of his face and swiftly twisted, ending Fred Reyes’s short life.
Kierlan had to swallow back shame, and possibly bile, before he could stand and face what he’d done. It was over now. I don’t need to worry anymore, he reminded himself, but he couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that had overtaken him with his first kill. He stood over the body, still warm under his hands as he pried them from the man’s neck. Still warm. It would be so easy to pretend that he was only sleeping.
“Not bad,” her sultry voice made him want to jump out of his skin when she suddenly appeared beside him. She did that a lot. “Not a drop of blood spilled. Could not have asked for a better job well done, myself.”
For a rookie…
The words were left unspoken but they hung in the air, nonetheless.
Natalia didn’t find her compliments offensive; she’d meant it when she told him how well he’d done. After this job, she hoped that she could possibly convince him to train with her for a time. She wasn’t stupid, and her astute observations as an experienced assassin made her far from oblivious. She knew raw talent when she saw it. And Kierlan Cole definitely possessed that raw talent.
“Take off your mask, Kierlan; enjoy your work!” she suggested cheerfully, pulling the ski mask off in one fell swoop.
Kierlan Cole was a handsome man with chiseled features and closely shaven black hair. He was large, almost as large as Harris, and between the ages of twenty and thirty, though it was unclear which he was closer to. His eyes were the darkest of grey, like a storm-cloud, and were bordered by dark circles, displaying a worry and exhaustion far beyond his years. His face had obviously gone unshaven for the last few days while they stayed in London waiting for their chance, but its ordinarily tan glow was sallow with nausea.
“I’m gonna to throw up,” he informed her, covering his mouth and circling his arm around his abdomen.
“No! They cannot find any evidence!” Natalia snarled, beginning to strip Reyes of his uniform. Once Kierlan had sufficiently calmed down, she continued, “Go to the basement and take the other uniform. The next shift will be here soon.”
Wordlessly, the broken man did as he was told.
Ten minutes later, two uniformed men strode down the long set of stairs toward the sidewalk, passing two other men in similar uniforms as they approached the doors of the museum. The smaller of the two departing guards kept his hand fixed firmly around a fragile piece of parchment paper, knowing it wouldn’t be missed for at least a day. A tendril of blonde hair threatened to fall from the cap, but the guard’s particularly feminine lips blew it out of its owner’s face. Both guards kept their faces directed pointedly toward the ground, obscured by the lack of light. The smaller guard smiled a predatory grin.
“Evening, Reyes,” one of the replacements smiled. “Harris.”
The larger guard merely gave an unintelligible grunt in response, whereas his companion gave no retort at all. The two stepped out into the street, seeing their car at the very end. They never lifted their heads, even when they pulled themselves into the front seats.
They got away.
London, England; December 20th, 2011
Janie Campbell had never been one of those people who involved herself in other people’s business. However, even she knew when it was time to intervene, namely when it concerned the murders of two local men. The twenty-year-old girl had run from her hiding place near the museum until she was doubled over and wheezing back at her hotel, letting her camera swing heavily against her chest. She clutched the pictures in her hands so tightly her fingernails had drawn blood, staining the stiff paper.
Janie was an aspiring photographer from a Texas university, abroad on a school trip with her Creative Arts class. She was of average height and tanned from the Southern sun, a feature that made her stand out in London, where it was often raining. Her face was soft and round with glowing hazel eyes and her hair was long and auburn, tied back in a braid that hung against her spine. Tremors violently shook her body, despite how warm she felt from the run. She was far from stupid, but, after this ordeal, she didn’t credit herself as the most intelligent person she knew; after all, the thought that London was colder than her favorite state had never entered her mind. Therefore, she was clad only in thin leggings, a button down blouse, and a pair of high-top sneakers.
The power hadn’t returned yet, the reason behind her journey to the museum in the first place. Her roommates had fallen asleep hours ago when there was nothing left to do. Janie was bored, but she couldn’t get to sleep. Instead, she’d taken her camera and gone to photograph the beautiful sights around the city. The museum’s beautiful architecture had struck her from the beginning, and she’d innocently only wanted a few photos to bring back to her parents. Now, she’d stumbled upon something that would change her life forever.
“Oh my…God,” she sputtered, erupting in a fierce coughing fit.
As she tried to catch her breath, she realized that her sweaty palms were beginning to sting. Reflexively, she loosened her tight fists, allowing the developed pictures clasped in them to fall clumsily to the floor in crumpled balls. Her hands were crisscrossed with paper cuts from the offending photographs, and she saw that the ooze of red had soaked onto some of the pictures. Trying to push the pain to the back of her mind, she collected the pictures back into her hand, smoothing them out so she could study the faces of the man and woman who’d infiltrated the museum. She clung to them like a lifeline, willing the images trapped inside to become anything else.
The first picture was of the woman with blonde hair and the face made of ice. She stood in the window, watching the man in the mask stalk the guard with a smile on her face.
The next was of the man, unmasked and horrorstruck, staring straight into Janie’s lens without seeing it.
The next three were taken with only a second’s interval. Dressed in their stolen uniforms, the thieves hid under the brim of their hats as they passed the genuine guards with blank expressions. They strode nonchalantly toward a silver car at the end of the street.
The last picture, the most important, was a perfectly clear image of the license plate.
A situation like this was never something brought up when she’d heard the “Right and Wrong lecture” from her parents. Internally, Janie could feel herself losing any shred of calm essential at a time like this, and she feared that she’d be heaving her dinner into the potted plant behind the hotel entrance at any moment. Lips pursed, she staggered through the lobby in search of a garbage can to vomit into. When none could be found, she leaned over the large pot and allowed herself to finally relax. The question she couldn’t answer was always the same: What was she going to do? What do you do when you witness a murder in a foreign country?
Stupid girl, she told herself, you should know this. Her muscles twitched, and she eventually allowed herself to slump into a heap on the ground, finally unable to support her own weight.
It happened so fast, she recalled with a silent whimper, wrapping her arms around herself and shutting her eyes tightly. It didn’t help. The tighter she shut her eyes, the more vivid the image of the guard’s death seemed to be as it replayed itself in her head, over and over again. She wanted desperately to assist the police in the search for the killers. But, at the same time, she really just wanted to forget the whole thing ever happened. Even if she did search for help, where would she go? Other than what her class’s tour guide had showed them, she was entirely ignorant of where help was in this city. More than that, she wished that she could go back to the way things were yesterday, when she didn’t have to think about death.
The sound of quiet footfalls in the ear she’d pressed to the floor hinted that she wasn’t alone in the lobby; she jolted upright, gasping for breath.
“Miss, are you alright?” a male voice inquired from beside her.
Janie wobbled on a weak neck, glancing around the room. She hadn’t stopped to notice before, through her reeling thoughts, that the lobby was lined with bellhops and other workers. It was the manager who stood behind her, concern and annoyance warring behind his eyes as he shot fleeting looks at the pot through the dark. Janie couldn’t find a way to put her situation into words that would express its severity. Rather than stumble through an explanation, she shook her head.
“How can I help, Miss?”
Janie wrung her hands. “The police. Call the police. The museum’s been robbed.”
His eyes bugged, clearly not expecting this twist, but he quickly obliged, pulling a cell phone from the pocket of his uniform. He stepped away from her to make the call, leaving Janie with her thoughts.
Upstairs, her roommates, Sarah and Charlotte, were asleep in their beds, dreaming blissfully of dates and celebrities while she was living what could only be a nightmare. She wanted to go upstairs to her third floor room and sleep. At least, there, she could pretend everything was normal. She could call her parents and beg for advice. Of course, it would be misguided and without prior experience, but she knew her mother’s calm and determined voice would be soothing in itself.
“Miss?” the manager’s voice broke through her thoughts.
She lightly shook her head, but found the real world to be an unpleasant place. It was dark, and it tasted like bile. “Ya?”
“Someone will be here to ask you some questions in a little bit, but we were told to assure you that the museum has not been robbed.”
Janie silently shook her head. Ya, right.
The lights didn’t come back on for the rest of the night. When the flash of the police cruiser appeared out the window it was like the light of God. The manager had pried Janie off the floor earlier and allowed her to lay on one of the elaborate couches around the lobby. She heard, rather than saw, the officer enter the building while she studied the pictures in her hands with disgust. Sitting up, she pulled the blanket given to her more tightly around her shoulders and waited for him to approach her.
“She’s over there, sir,” the manager mumbled from across the room.
“Thank you,” the gruff voice of another man echoed back. “If you wouldn’t mind, sir, if you could move your staff out of the lobby so I can ask her some questions, you’d be making my job a hell of a lot easier.”
“Of course, officer.”
The echo of footsteps died away as the room emptied, leaving her alone with the phantom officer. Janie pulled her knees to her chest, hiding the photos in the folds of her shirt. She couldn’t shake the feeling of impending malice as the officer ominously kept up a steady rhythm of step…step…step.
The shadowy figure cleared his throat. “Ma’am?”
She met his veiled face, silhouetted by the bright flashing lights of his cruiser through the window. “Yes, sir?”
“My name is Officer Smith. I just came from the museum.”
She jumped up, standing in line with his shoulder. “So you saw them?” she gasped.
“Ma’am, please sit down,” he muttered forcefully. Reluctantly, she did. “Now, who did I see?”
Mouth agape, Janie whispered slowly, “The bodies.”
He placed himself stealthily into the chair before her. “What’s your name, Ma’am?”
“You didn’t see them?” she shrieked, bolting to her feet. This time, the pictures came fluttering down from the heavy wool blanket, skidding across the floor in every direction.
He jumped up as they fell around his feet. “What are those?” he demanded, stooping to pick one up.
Janie threw her body to the floor, rushing to pick up her pictures while the officer struggled to see the image in his hand. Without light, he was having difficulty.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Miss…” he trailed off, looking up over the photograph to study her face.
“Campbell,” she hissed, balling the pictures in her fists. “Janie Campbell.”
“Miss Campbell. The museum is completely fine. When we got the call from the hotel, we checked it out first thing, nothing’s out of place and there weren’t any,”—he coughed—“bodies.”
“That’s impossible! I saw th—”
Officer Smith held the picture up to light of the window, illuminating the right half of his face. Janie suddenly couldn’t breathe. Paranoia may have been behind the chills Janie felt run up her spine, or the familiar face she saw in the light from the window, but, whatever the reason, Janie didn’t trust the man across from her. Her eyes burned, flickering around the room as she realized that there was no one around to hear her if she screamed, and there was nowhere to run.
Calling forth any prior experience, she tried to think of a way out, though her options had drastically decreased. She thought fast, pushing away all her doubts of the things that could go wrong, just like everything else that night.
While he was studying the picture in his hand, Janie kept a firm grip on her photos and let her body crumple to the floor in a heap. “Ouch!” she vowed, putting her fists to her ankle. Weakly, she began to pull herself up by the arm of the couch and swayed unsteadily on her feet. She made a show of limping and falling back to the floor.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, rushing to stand over her. “Are you alright?”
“My ankle—” she began, but halted as she recognized that the cold face from her pictures was now in line with hers.
She gasped for breath through the new obstruction in her lungs but resolved to get out of his grasp at any cost. Janie bit the inside of her mouth, scowling into the eyes of “Officer Smith.” Smith wasn’t looking back; he was reaching out for her “twisted” ankle when she leaned backward a few inches and cracked her head swiftly, but violently, into the man’s nose.
The ‘cop’ fell to the floor with a cry, holding his nose and blinking away the sudden moisture in his eyes. Janie ran, but she didn’t know where to go. The thieves had the police in their back pocket! Who else would try to hurt her if she told? She didn’t have time to think on it, as a roar behind her hinted strongly that the man was getting up, and he was out for blood. Hers.
By the time her assailant had peeled himself off the floor, Janie’s legs were carrying her faster than ever before toward the stairs. She didn’t know where the hotel staff had migrated to, but the whole building seemed to be abandoned. Fatigue had already stolen her edge, but she pushed herself to the third floor, knowing that her roommates would still be there. Despite her speed, she could hear, loud and clear, the unmistakable sound of a wooden chair smashing against the step just below her foot. She stumbled once when she felt the splinters become lodged in her thinly-clad calf. Nevertheless, a shriek of fear was her only clever remark in the face of danger.
The photos were crushed in the palm of her hands. Breathing heavily, she reminded herself to hide them once she’d gotten to safety; if she could get to safety. As she watched her room approaching, she pushed harder against the floor, ignoring the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach from emptiness and unadulterated terror. She slid on the carpet when she finally allowed herself to stop before the door, pounding her fists against the thin barrier with a volume that could’ve woken the entire corridor.
“Let me in! Charlotte! Sarah! Somebody, please, help me!” she sobbed into the wood of the door, repeatedly beating her only gateway to salvation. She waited for one of the girls to allow her entrance, but neither did. “Help me!” she repeated, unclenching her fists.
The pictures fluttered to the ground in the dark, and she fell to the floor to save her only lifeline. Three found her fingertips, but the last evaded her. As she backed away from the door, hoping to find the lost photo, her back hit another potted plant. The footfalls of the man in the hall echoed through her head, coming ever closer. She desperately shoved the pictures into the pot and grabbed for the other. Relief spread through her blood like a potent drug when her fingers met paper, but she had no time to seek out the pot again. Concluding that she’d run out of options, she shoved the photo down her shirt and pulled herself to her feet, shaky from the adrenaline. In a last ditch effort, she flattened herself against the wall, praying to God that the darkness would save her. Maybe he wouldn’t see her…. Maybe he would pass her….
Janie’s head was screaming. Around her, the occupants of the other rooms began to stir from the noise. The hall was too dark for her to see when the man caught up to her, she only felt it when he grabbed her and pushed her up against the wall, her feet dangling limply below her as she meet his full height. “Where are the pictures?” he snarled, wrapping one hand around her neck and slamming her skull into the wall once, then twice. Precious oxygen left her deprived lungs.
Her head swam; she couldn’t put together a coherent sentence. “Pictures—” she mumbled in answer. Her eyes began to roll back into her head, but he shook her out of her daze.
“Where are the pictures you took at the museum?” he demanded, shaking her harder by her hair.
She shrieked in protest. “No pictures,” she finally gasped, pulling her head away from him, though it only hurt her worse when his hand held tight. “Only one.” She was aware of how bad a defense she was making, but she said nothing else. She couldn’t see a way out of this. He hit her again and the taste of blood filled her mouth as he split something. Her first idea was to give up the photos before she came to a disturbing epiphany:
This man would kill her. Her only chance at surviving rested with the bargaining chips she held.
“What’s going on out there?” another voice yelled through the dark. “Who’s there?”
Janie didn’t know the voice; it had to be another patron of the hotel. “Help me!” she pleaded. Her voice came out low; a hand was still pressing against her windpipe.
“Shit,” her attacker cursed, moving his hand away from her throat to wrap around her waist. As he lifted her into his side, he was already running headlong back to the staircase. Other patrons of the hotel stepped out into the hall to investigate but they were easily pushed to the side with Janie’s body. Kierlan wasn’t happy to be going against the plan he’d created when he first intercepted the girl’s call; he’d planned on killing her then going to pick up his payment for the job at the museum. All of that was shot to hell, now. He could only hope that their mission could be salvaged by Natalia’s…irrefutable…methods of persuasion.
The next few minutes passed in a blur for Janie before a purposeful collision between her head and the wall drowned her in painless sleep.
The officer, who’d arrived on the scene the previous night, woke at dawn on the sidewalk, stripped of his uniform and his car missing.
Location Unknown; December 22nd, 2011
It had to be the splitting headache that woke Janie an immeasurable time later to blackness and the stench of human excrement. For a moment, she assumed she was lying in bed back at the hotel, until she rolled over to get up and felt only cement beneath her. Feeling along the floor as she crawled, she found that the room was completely empty, aside from a single hole in the floor, the use of which was apparent from the smell. The room was large enough for her to stretch out completely on the floor, her five-foot-six putting her palms flat against one wall and the soles of her sneakers against the opposite. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she noticed that the room lacked windows, and the only way out was through a locked, steel door.
The silence was loud. There was no clock on the wall or the glare of sunlight into the room; Janie couldn’t tell if she’d been there already for hours or days, but the fierce growl of her stomach hinted that she needed to get out as soon as possible. Every cut and bruise on her body and face hurt tenfold with each shiver of her body against the frigid ground, and the ensemble she wore offered no protection. The pounding of her head threatened to push her eyes out of their sockets, and her hunger had become physically painful. Nevertheless, she pushed herself to her feet and grabbed for the door.
It didn’t budge. “Hello?” she called, hoping for an answer, but regretting her outburst almost immediately. “Is anybody else here? Hello?” The silence stretched on.
She slid to the floor in the corner, head spinning from the smell of human waste in the hole across the room and the need to sleep again. It was difficult to decide whether or not she was hungry when her appetite was quickly waning, substituted by her need to vomit. Sweat beaded up on her forehead around bloodshot eyes as the minutes ticked on with no sign of her captors. For a long time, the only sound was the gurgle of her empty stomach. She dozed in and out of sleep.
The shriek of metal on metal woke Janie again from a dreamless sleep. Dazed, she looked around for the noise, but her eyes failed to adjust before a thick cloth sack was shoved over her head. Immediately thrashing against the arms binding her, she managed to elbow a soft piece of bared flesh and the arms around her fell away. Frantically, she threw the sack away from her, glancing over her shoulder at the unfamiliar man with his hands around his throat, gasping for air. Then, she was running again with a fervor she didn’t know a person could possess.
The halls of this unknown place were lit by naked bulbs, but they were the only objects in the room. At the end of the short corridor, there was one door, aside from the one she’d been stolen from, and a metal staircase. She went to the door first, hoping it would lead to the outside world, but it was only another prison. Looking back, though every fiber of her being begged her not to, she caught a glimpse of the man she hit staggering to his feet. With a yelp, she scaled the stairs and threw herself into another diving sprint toward unknown territory.
She didn’t get far.
The moment she reached the floor above the prison, she was met with a room that appeared to be a cross between a living room and kitchen. Everything about it was filthy. However, the scum on the refrigerator doors and the mud caked on the floor weren’t the frightening part of this room. Every kind of gun that she could picture in her mind was leaned up against the wall across the room from her, just passed the table seating six men. Janie entertained the thought of grabbing one of the guns as she ran away, but knew she wouldn’t stand a chance at wielding it even if she could get away with one.
Once the shock of her sudden arrival had subsided, other unfamiliar men sprung up to follow before she could get away. Janie passed through the room quickly before she entered a narrower hallway. There was a door in the room at the end of hall; she could see it. No one was close enough to catch her before she went out that door and she knew it. A wide smile broke across her face as she prepared herself for the homestretch to freedom.
Pain erupted in her chest so quickly she had no chance to see where it had come from. Her body was thrown backwards and crashed to the floor with a force that shook her followers as they ran after her. She gasped for breath but her lungs wouldn’t cooperate. She stared up and through the black dots that shimmered around the corners of her vision, she began to make out a slim arm outstretched like a statue at chest height where she’d just tried to run. The arm dropped, stiff as a board, and a woman stepped into sight. Feeling nauseous again, Janie made the connection between this woman and her photos.
“Poor baby,” Natalia clicked her tongue, clacking against the floor when she walked in her heels. She was like a cat, Janie noted, watching the predatory stride used by the other woman. She was obviously aware of the taunting way Natalia circled her, knowing the younger girl didn’t stand a chance. Natalia gripped the front of Janie’s shirt and lifted her off the ground with little effort. “You were so close,” she smiled, showing teeth.
Janie whimpered, but she couldn’t collect her thoughts well enough to come up with a response.
“Unfortunately, escape is not something we look lightly upon here,” she sang, dropping Janie. Natalia dragged her across the floor behind her by her hair, ignoring the girl’s shrieks of pain, especially as they journeyed back down the stairs. She pulled open a wooden door on her way through the hall of familiar steel doors. “I have been meaning to speak with you, myself, anyway,” she continued, pushing the captive onto her stomach on the cold floor. Taking a pair of stolen handcuffs from the belt loop of her designer slacks, she bound Janie’s arms behind her back. She lifted the girl up by her hair, which had come loose at some point the previous night.
“This is how it is going to go, moy drug,” Natalia ordered sternly. “I am going to ask you questions, and you are going to answer them truthfully, or I will drown you. Do you think you can remember that?”
There wasn’t any doubt in Janie’s mind that this woman was serious. Wordlessly, she nodded, though she had no idea where this water would be coming from.
“Good,” Natalia proclaimed, chipper façade firmly in place. Using the hand that was still entwined in her hair, Natalia yanked Janie toward the large cement trough against the opposite wall and forced her to kneel before it. Janie cried out as her hair was pulled, but could put up no resistance while her arms were cuffed behind her. “And if you even think about kicking me,” Natalia annunciated in her thick accent, making her words all the more cruel, “I will show you just how badly I can maim you and keep you alive.”
Janie decided to listen.
She stared down into the dark water of the trough, seeing her swollen face reflected back at her. A thick gash on her forehead split her skin from hairline to eyebrow, crusted around the edges with dried blood and flaming red flesh. She wasn’t a doctor, but she’d received enough cuts in her lifetime to know that it was most likely infected. It was really no surprise, considering where she’d been forced to live since receiving it. She made a face, testing the skin and found out how tightly stretched over the bone it felt. Her head pounded in protest.
“Now, vozlyublennyy, where did you hide those pictures you took at the museum?” Natalia inquired politely.
Janie debated for a split second whether or not to trust that the assassin would let her live if she told. Either way she went, she couldn’t foresee a positive outcome. With that in mind, her brilliant utterance was, “What pictures?”
Her head had been shoved into the tub before she’d even gotten the entire word out. Unable to catch a breath before she was plunged into the cold, Janie floundered to no avail. Her lungs burned from the lack of air, bringing out her more desperate instincts, eventually leading to the kicking she’d been warned against. Her sneaker connected with the hard abdominal muscles of the older woman, but she was unyielding, keeping Janie from moving an inch under the water. That fact alone was enough to inform Janie that she’d just made a huge mistake.
The force that struck and pierced Janie’s calf was unmistakable: a stiletto heel. Warm blood spilled over her skin and hot agony shot up her leg. Unable to scream when there was nothing in her lungs to expel, Janie, impulsively, inhaled the icy, disgusting water. The pain of her leg was forgotten, however, in light of the ache of deprivation in her lungs. As she coughed, more water forced itself into her lungs.
Her head was abruptly dragged out of the tub.
“That…was not a good idea,” Natalia scolded like a parent to a child.
Through Janie’s heaving, she sobbed. “Don’t put…me back…in the tub,” she sputtered as loud as she could manage.
“Are you going to cooperate?” Natalia asked, jerking her head back to look her in the eye.
Janie nodded once, biting her lip, hoping she couldn’t decipher her lie. Natalia glanced at her captive’s face for less than a second before she found what she was looking for in Janie’s eyes. Unfortunately for the younger girl, the fist that split her lip once she’d falsely agreed was a clear sign that her wish went unfulfilled. Her head was submerged again. Shaking with hysteria, she gasped for a breath and wailed over and over again when her face was brought to the surface, “Don’t put me back in the tub!”
“Tell me where the pictures are, and I will give you something to eat,” Natalia promised sweetly.
Janie licked the droplets of blood and water away from her growing bottom lip, but gave no answer. She braced herself to be submerged again. True to her word, Natalia pushed her under a third time. “Do not be fooled into thinking that you are being brave, Miss Campbell. In my experience, I have found that what others call ‘brave’ is what others, including myself, would consider stupid.”
Janie kept silent.
“Is your own welfare not motivation enough? Would you be willing to assist me if I told you I could track down your parents? Would you condemn them to this so that you could retain your sense of heroism?” she snapped.
Janie’s mind snapped to attention. “How do you know my name?”
“Ah, she speaks!” Natalia cheered, moving to sit on the edge of the tub. “I make it a point to know everything about everyone, dorogoy, especially my captives. And you told my friend from the hotel. It was not difficult to find out, Miss Campbell.”
Janie didn’t understand the word she’d called her, but knew immediately that it was sarcastic. She scowled weakly. “Leave them alone.”
“Tell me the location of the pictures you took.”
Janie stared into Natalia’s face, one that could have been chipped from stone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have any-” She was under again. Don’t put me back in the tub, she begged; don’t let me touch the water.
As Natalia felt the fight in Janie begin to wane, she heard her cell phone shriek. It took very little effort for her to throw the motionless body roughly to the floor and answer the phone. “Petrov.”
“Leave the girl for now. I have another mission for you,” the scratchy voice of her employer admonished.
“Mr. Cole as well?” she requested.
“No,” he replied curtly. “Go alone.”
She obediently agreed and listened to his instructions as she dragged Janie back to her prison. Janie, for her part, had no other option but to be pulled by her ankle back to the room she’d woken in. Natalia threw the limp body into the dark prison, snapping her phone shut when the employer hung up. The hollow thud of Janie hitting the hard floor echoed in the assassin’s ears.
“Please, have a good evening, Miss Campbell,” Natalia bid before slamming and locking the door after her. As the older woman walked away, the sound of quiet sobbing echoed through the corridor around her. She smiled.
Janie lay still and broken on the floor for a long time, enjoying the warmth of salty tears running down her face. She missed everything about her home in Texas, from her messy dorm room to her parents, whom she hadn’t seen since the start of the semester. She wanted to go home, but if she was to be punished in the same way for attempting another escape she would rather rot there on the floor, burning with fever from infection and nursing a gaping wound in her leg from Natalia’s shoe. She was in serious need of medical attention and something to eat, but she knew she would get neither. Rather than run the risk of invoking another session of torture with the cruel Czech woman, Janie remained sprawled out on the concrete floor and begged sleep to overtake her and ward off the pain of consciousness.
Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub.
Newark, New Jersey; June 26th, 2012
The sleek, black BMW raced across the highway toward the nearing line of traffic leading up to Newark Airport. Inside, a young woman sat alone in the backseat, tapping her foot impatiently against the floor, leaned back in her seat so far that she was practically laying on it. Her statuesque figure was bedecked in her high school’s uniform of a dress shirt, blazer, pleated skirt, and knee-high socks in shades of blue and grey, but the once crisp ensemble was disheveled and her shirt hung halfway out of her skirt. Her striped, blue tie lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. The girl’s long, curly hair was as gold as the sunlight and pulled up into a ponytail, bearing her sky blue eyes, porcelain skin, and angular face. The faint pink flesh of the birthmark over her heart peaked out from beneath the collar of her shirt.
Claire stared at the screen of her cell phone as it vibrated in her hand. She didn’t want to answer, knowing it was her best friend, Alex, calling to berate her for being late, again; in the back of her mind, she knew she deserved it, but Claire was getting really sick of apologizing to Alex and enduring her constant scolding. Sighing deeply, she answered the call and held the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
The shrill crow on the other end was a startling contrast to the high-pitched bell voice Claire had answered with. “Where the hell are you, Claire!? If you miss this goddamn plane, I’m gonna break your goddamn neck!”
Claire held the cellular away from herself when Alex’s voice made the phone crackle and shake with static. It didn’t make much of a difference, though, since the voice came screeching out like it was on speaker. “Alex?” she called warily.
The voice on the other end ranted on as if she hadn’t spoken. “I swear to God, you’re late for everything! I knew you should have slept over last night; if I’m not there, you’re always late!”
“Alex,” Claire sang, studying her nails.
“The plane leaves in a half hour! How the hell are you gonna get through security and on the plane in a half hour? You always do this and it’s really starting to piss me off!”
“Alex!” Claire yelled, successfully shutting up her livid friend waiting at the airport and startling her father in the front seat. “I’m s…stuck in traffic outside the b…building.”
“Well you better get out now, otherwise there’s no way you’re making this flight on time,” Alex advised, curtly snapping her phone shut.
In the terminal, the rest of Claire’s group sat around the rows of chairs while the other passengers on the 9:00 a.m. flight to Paris lined up at the doors, waiting to board the plane. In all, there were six of them, sitting in a circle around their baggage. Each of their faces was painted in escalating degrees of irritation as they listened to Alex reprimand their missing friend. They looked up at the annoyed crack of plastic hitting plastic.
“Well?” James demanded.
“She’s on her way in, now.”
Alexandria Clove held her head in her hands, wishing that she’d learned since the last time they’d gone through this ordeal that she couldn’t trust Claire to responsibility. Alex was a short girl, barely passing five feet tall and the floral dress and flats she wore emphasized it, painting her out to look like a doll. Her long, dark hair was loose around her, falling in smooth waves, except in the front where it cut off abruptly over her frosty, green eyes. Her golden skin had turned ashen with exhaustion and worry, but she remained an obvious, exotic beauty.
Alex’s boyfriend, James Bellman, sat beside her. His empty hand sat palm-up on the armrest between them should she decide to relax and take back her grip on it. He had a kind face, marred only slightly by the grimace that had taken over his full lips. Other than that, James was unnaturally beautiful, if not slightly feminine, like an angel face sculpted from marble.
His brown eyes flickered from Alex to his hand as he yearned for her to relax. He clenched his fist when she didn’t so much as look at him, wondering what the hell was taking Claire so long. Though he wouldn’t call himself an impatient man, he was beginning to feel the sting of irritation crawl under his skin. He glanced down at his hand, feeling it grow hot under the weight of his burden. As he did, his eyes fell on the blue gemstone of the ring on his finger. It glowed blue. Inconspicuously, he tucked his hand under his leg, hoping no one would notice the ethereal light he couldn’t suppress.
In a row across from them, wrapped up in each other like the high school sweethearts they were, Alex’s cousin, Hayden Clove, sat on her boyfriend, Scottie’s, lap. While she was blonde-haired and brown-eyed, Scottie Caldwell was her opposite with thick, black hair falling into electric blue eyes. It was difficult to notice much else about him when he was seated and his face was stuck so closely to Hayden’s; close enough that no passersby could tell where one’s face began and the other’s ended. Alex envied them that they didn’t seem to feel any of the negativity surrounding their party in a vicious storm cloud.
Appearing very out of place, the last two people traveling with the close friends were their recent acquaintances, the twins Russell and Natalia Marks. The pair sat awkwardly beside each other, facing apart while they played on their cell phones, Russell nodding his head to the music coming through his earphones and Natalia staring with a pinched face at a Candy Crush screen that she was pretending to play. Russell was rodent-like, with patches of fuzzy, brown hair occupying his scalp. His beady eyes were concealed by thick glasses.
Natalia, on the other hand, was very fortunate looking, if one overlooked the sarcastic gleam in her eyes and ever-present sneer on her face. Her eyebrows were light, too light in contrast to her gleaming, unnaturally straight, brown hair. Her vicious eyes were practically see-through in the light streaming through the window, their lightest blue blending into the whites of her eyes. They flickered up and over the screen of the phone, surveying the room for the first sight of Claire. She desperately hoped that the girl would get in on time; otherwise, her plans, and everything she’d been paid to do, were ruined.
Natalia and Russell had enrolled in their school back in January and had graduated with the rest of them the previous day. Alex wasn’t a huge fan of the twins, but when they’d practically begged to go to Paris with them in celebration of their graduation, the girls had been unable to turn them away. It had only been too perfect for Natalia. She fully intended to use this trip to her advantage, just as her employer had instructed over the phone, when he’d insisted that she tag along on the trip by any means necessary. She’d been all too happy to oblige, anticipating meeting Vilmore there and finding irrefutable proof of a higher power. Aside from the money she’d make from her employer, she’d make millions selling her evidence to the public.
“Last call for nine a.m. to Paris,” the voice over the intercom announced.
“What do we do, Lex?” Hayden whimpered, pulling away from Scottie to glance at her cousin.
“We can’t go without Claire,” Natalia interjected quickly.
Most of the party stared back at her without speaking.
Picking up on where his new coworker had screwed up, Russell scrambled to repair the damage. “How would you all feel if she went on vacation and left you here?”
“I’d be completely understanding if it was because I was the one who was late,” Alex hissed, standing and pulling James with her. She took the handle of her carry-on and sauntered toward the gate doors with James in tow. Looking for reassurance in each other’s eyes, Scottie and Hayden followed silently behind them, while the “twins” shared a look of annoyance.
“Petrov—” Russell whined.
“Shut up, Russell,” she snapped under her breath. “I’ll get her to the catacombs if I have to fly the plane myself!”
“There’s no way you’ll be able to—” he began.
Natalia rolled her eyes, “Christ, Russell, you are as whiny as your boss.”
“Not boss, teammate,” the mousy man corrected. “He’s my teammate!”
“Either way, you and Kierlan are getting on my last nerve, little man,” she hissed.
Their worries were unnecessary. At that moment, a scream over the rabble of the crowd turned everyone’s attention to the girl running headlong through the throng of people in the room. Her blonde hair was falling from its ponytail and she was hanging hunchbacked under the weight of her father’s sea-bag on her back, filled to bursting with her necessities. She dreaded the thought of having to fit it into the compartment over her seat, but there was no way she would have had time to check it in. “I’m here!”
Alex smiled and hid her laugh behind the back of her hand, disguising it as a cough.
Natalia forced a smile on her face and grabbed the back of Russell’s shirt in her claw-like fingers, hauling him to his feet as she stood.
Without hesitation, everyone convened at the gate to Paris gave in their tickets and made their way toward the entrance to the plane. Alex hung back as the rest of them stepped on, waiting for her best friend to come into sight in the long hallway. James gave her a look but shrugged as he continued on his way. With her hand still balled into a fist around the back of Russell’s shirt, Natalia led him to the back of the plane, where they could talk without the worry of listening ears.
Claire approached Alex with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry I w…was late,” she said as she passed Alex. The two girls stepped onto the plane, the last two, and got to work at shoving Claire’s enormous bag into the overhead compartment.
“Push harder!” Alex whined, her short stature keeping her from getting a better grip on the heavy luggage.
“I can’t,” Claire grunted, her frail arms shoving uselessly against the green canvas while the other patrons looked on.
Claire froze when she felt someone touch her shoulder. Giving up on her bag, stuck halfway in the overhead compartment, she spun, a bit too zealously, to face whoever had addressed her. Her swift movement stopped short when her forehead connected harshly with someone’s hard body.
“Ow!” she protested. A goose egg was already forming on her face.
The man before her chuckled; the hand on her shoulder moved up to her face, tracing circles where her forehead ached with a bruise. “Sorry ‘bout that. Guess I don’t know my own strength,” he said.
“Ya, why don’t you watch it, buddy!” Alex growled, tugging Claire away from his grasp.
“Relax, Alex, it w…was just an accident,” the blonde murmured as she opened her eyes.
The first thing she saw when she did was a blindingly bright smile shining down on her, the man’s face unaffected by Alex’s comment. Her eyes traveled up, finding his own stormy grey ones and she was immediately transfixed, seeing a face more gorgeous than she’d anticipated surrounding them. His head was shaved, but, in Claire’s opinion, it only added to his appeal. Her heart hammered in her chest, her shyness turning her face a bright red.
“Sorry I h…hit you,” she squeaked, forcing air back into her lungs.
The other passenger laughed, but rubbed the shoulder she’d hit with mock protest. “You should be! It’ll take months to regain full use of this arm!”
She couldn’t help but give a slight, shy smile.
He awkwardly trailed off in his laughing, realizing that she wasn’t going to join him in it. He rubbed the back of his neck, clearing his throat. “Anyway,” he continued seriously, “I was just coming over to see if you needed any help?”
Claire nodded, her eyes flickering away from his face.
“What’s the magic word?” he joked, trying to make eye contact with her again.
Alex stepped in, as she usually did, when Claire’s shyness stole her voice. It wasn’t the first time Claire had gone silent in the presence of a boy who was, obviously, flirting with her. “Yes, we need help. Please.”
Kierlan’s face fell the slightest bit, but, before Claire could find his smile any less than perfect, he turned to the overhead compartment. He easily shoved the bag into its place, pulling the door back into place. “There ya go,” he murmured, looking back at the beautiful blonde for praise. He liked praise, especially if it was from someone as hot as her.
“Thanks,” Alex said.
“Thanks,” Claire repeated without looking at him.
Kierlan frowned, stepping toward his seat in the row behind them. “Welcome.”
Averting their gaze from the man behind them, Alex and Claire took a seat beside James and waited for the plane to take off. Alex nonchalantly flipped through Sky Mall while the ground disappeared beneath them out the window.
“What happened?” she asked without looking up.
Claire put one earphone into the ear furthest from Alex as it popped. “I s…slept through my alarm clock, again.”
The other girl closed the magazine in her hand quickly as she turned to face Claire. “Did you have the dream again?” she demanded urgently, pulling her friend’s hand into both of hers. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she assured her. “Same d…dream, as usual.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” she repeated. “I must be getting used to it, ‘cuz I didn’t even n…need my inhaler this time.”
Alex nodded as she studied the dark circles under Claire’s eyes. It had been five years since the blonde had started having the recurrent dream that brought on her infamous panic attacks and made her continuously late to school. As she studied her, though, Alex couldn’t help but dwell on her friend’s choice of attire. With a chuckle, she asked, “What are you wearing?”
Claire, startled, looked down at herself and burst out laughing. An older woman a few rows up gave a loud shush and Claire grimaced apologetically. “I f…fell asleep before I could change and I left in s…such a hurry this morning that…”
“You didn’t realize that you were still in your school uniform?”
“I’m t…telling you, Lex, when I have that dream, it…” she struggled for words. “It…takes over. It’s like I’m n…not asleep, at all. It’s like I’m living there, as the girl. When that knife comes d…down into her heart…I can feel it. I can f…feel it and that’s what wakes me up! That pain in m…my chest. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s l…like a past life or something.”
“That doesn’t sound crazy to—” Alex began.
James broke in when he began to feel uncomfortable. “I think you might want to get that checked out, Claire,” he gave a tight chuckle, folding his hands in his lap with a force that turned his skin bone white. “Night terrors aren’t good, and when they start to impact your life, you should probably get it checked out, right? Right.”
Alex raised her eyebrow in question. James wasn’t good at concealing secrets, and he definitely wasn’t good at diverting attention from one. They had been dating long enough for her to know that something wasn’t right. “James—” she began.
“Right?” he asked, his question directed only at Claire.
“You’re probably r…right,” she relented, pushing the other earphone into her ear as she tried to fall back to sleep. She felt like she hadn’t slept in days.
When she was sure Claire was asleep, Alex turned to her boyfriend with crossed arms and a pout on her face. “Alright. Spill.”
The clack of James’s teeth snapping together was audible despite the noise coming through the vents around them and the voices rising up over the rows of seats. Ignoring her question, he looked away, choosing instead to stare silently out the window, into the white mist surrounding the plane. Letting a string of profanity slip through her lips, Alex leaned over him to pull the cover down over the glass.
“Damn it, James, tell me! Please!”
“There’s nothing to say,” he insisted. “B…but recurring dreams aren’t normal. She should see someone about that.”
She scrutinized his face with narrowed eyes. “I don’t believe you.”
Location Unknown; June 27th, 2012
Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub.
The words replayed themselves in her head, over and over again, but she could only rock herself quietly while she shook the water from her hair. It hadn’t been the first time she’d been returned to her lonely cell after another session in that terrible room. The evil woman who’d dragged her underwater the first time, and every time thereafter, had been gone for the last few sessions, but Janie hadn’t been reprieved when there were so many ready volunteers to take her place.
She never cried. She’d been in this cold prison long enough to realize that tears did no good and she couldn’t afford to waste the limited water she was given. After enough time, Janie eventually lost the need for the pathetic process. Now, when she suffered through nightmares of drowning, she only screamed when she woke, and tried to ignore the pain.
Janie was aware that her stay with the assassin and her team had been extended indefinitely, but she didn’t know how long it had been since she’d last seen sunlight. Each minute, hour, and day blended seamlessly into the next since she did nothing but lie on the frigid concrete and nurse the leg she knew was broken at the shin. Long ago, it seemed like forever she‘d lain there, the woman had broken it in one of their sessions; the bone protruding from her skin made any movement she dared another fresh, crippling dagger to her abused flesh.
The infection that followed from her deplorable conditions had been serious enough that a doctor was brought in to help her, but the sessions had begun with a new passion shortly after. Unfortunately, the doctor had been hired only to take care of the infection, and the leg had been left to heal in all the wrong ways. She couldn’t have hoped to stand on it the way it was, let alone try to escape again.
Janie had begun estimating how long she’d been locked down there by the feel of her scarring skin and the growth of hair on her legs. Her wonderful hair, braided to her waist when she’d first arrived, fell below her hips in wild disarray around her horrendously filthy face. The face in question was pressed completely to the floor. Sweat, polluted water, and blood mingled on her emaciated face, outlining her newly concave cheeks. Her once glowing Texas tan was ghostly pale now and brown hair sprouted from her legs like a man’s, pushing through the thin material of her leggings; she could guess that she’d been there for a few months at least. There seemed to be no end in sight.
She felt nothing now, since she’d resigned herself to the realization that she would die there, whether from starvation, drowning, or a particularly cruel blow to the head. The picture she hid was pressed into her flat chest, burning a hole through her skin whenever her interrogator demanded it. She would have given the picture, and the location of the others, if only to bring an end to the infinite suffering, but she’d developed such a deeply rooted resentment of the people holding her captive that she would rather die slowly from starvation than give them the satisfaction.
Her tongue found the abyss in her mouth where she’d recently lost two teeth from a particularly violent encounter with her captor. The total was nearing five now that she’d lost and another two that had chipped and cut up her mouth. Nevertheless, she lived through each day with just enough slop to keep the breath in her body and just enough will to keep swallowing it. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she was losing weight fast.
She wouldn’t be going on very much longer, whether she wanted to or not. Under her shirt, she could feel her ribs pressing out from the rest of her, her breasts having flattened almost entirely, and between her hips the skin sloped inward. The athletic legs she’d once prided herself on back home were crippled and void of all the strength she could have possibly mustered. She was a shadow of her former self, nothing more.
Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub.
Sighing, she rolled closer to the corner of the room, wishing that if she could flatten herself against the wall, she would disappear completely into the darkness. A low hiss echoed through the cell from betwixt her teeth as her leg protested and she collapsed against the ground again. A growl of frustration fell into a tearless sob before she bit her lip to silence it. She didn’t know where the blonde assassin skulked around most of the time, but Janie knew that the woman enjoyed the sound of her cries. The last time she’d heard the captive wallowing in self pity, the older woman had dragged her out of the cell by her hair for another hour in the ‘pool.’ She’d never cried again, even when she felt like her leg was being crushed beneath a steady stream of traffic.
The scraping of metal on metal made Janie scream and reel backward as she pulled herself toward the wall with her hands. Her crippled leg dragged behind her despite the pain. She caught her mistake immediately and threw her hand over her gaping mouth. Her other hand wrapped tenderly around the back of her knee, daintily propping it up to alleviate some of the pain, to no avail, and waited for the invisible force in the dark that would inevitably pull her up and drag her away. Shockingly, the muffled cry filling the room from the shadow obstructing the light in the doorway suggested otherwise. Still, Janie didn’t permit herself to make a sound. A loud thump followed shortly after, and she made out the faintest outline of something writhing on the floor.
She watched whatever it was for another few minutes, as far from it as she could manage, until it finally emitted a bitter snap. “Son of a bitch!” a masculine voice finally screamed, throwing away what could have only been rope; a thin, frayed piece slapped her in the face. Slowly, the figure staggered into a standing position and pulled something from the pocket of his pants. A dull glow flooded up into the face of the newest addition to the cave in an orange halo, blinding her for a short moment. When her eyes finally adjusted to the change, she saw him.
Her first taste of human contact, other than the beatings from people she wasn’t able to see, was a beautiful specimen. He was, perhaps, one of the tallest men she’d ever seen with an average, if not slightly above average, muscular physique. He was dressed well in a classic, black suit, complete with tie, and his brown hair was slicked back neatly with gel to showcase his chiseled face. His eyes were crazed, darting around the room with secret calculation as he surveyed his new surroundings, ready at a second’s notice to pounce. Janie was positive he couldn’t see her.
“Petrov!” the man snarled, scowling furiously at the door. “Kidnapping? I always thought petty theft was beneath you! Where are those morals now?” He waited for a moment, but when he received no answer, he kicked the door and cursed again. Exhaling deeply, he continued a bit softer, this time to himself, “I will get out of here, Petrov, and when I do, I’m gonna kill you.”
The door swung open, hitting the man in the face with a force that should have broken his jaw, and sent him flying into the opposite wall. The orange light fell to the floor, rolling toward the door and the woman’s foot, where it was crushed beneath her expensive-looking shoes. Then, it was merely a glowing liquid on the cement. “I would not sound so sure of myself if I were you,” she laughed. “After all, I am not the one in a cage; you are. I could kill you now if I had a wish to, Taran, but I have something better in mind.”
Janie couldn’t see it when the man, Taran, threw himself at the door, recovering so quickly from his recent head trauma that he had to be superhuman. The sound of a gunshot and a low grunt of pain, however, were difficult to miss. The dull flash of the gun illuminated the scene for the amount of time it took for the bullet to leave the gun and hit home in Taran’s chest, just below the collarbone, and throw him to the ground. Janie suppressed another scream while she shook against the cement wall.
“Pathetic, Taran,” Petrov tsked, shaking her head, “just like I remember.” Then, without another word, she slammed the door behind her, plunging them back into the pitch black, without even help from the glow stick.
The silence stretched on with only his staggered breathing and pained moans occasionally breaking it. Janie didn’t speak to the other prisoner for fear that he would disappear if she acknowledged him. She didn’t dare breathe too loudly.
“Stupid,” her companion whispered breathlessly to himself as he snarled through another wave of agony. “So stupid.”
Knowing that there was absolutely nothing she could do for him, she deadpanned, “You won’t die.” She cleared the hoarseness in her throat from lack of use. “She’ll want to keep you around.”
The gasping halted for a long moment. “Who said that?” the voice inquired evenly. His suit crinkled when he tried to reach his feet.
“Don’t get up!” she pleaded.
“I asked you a question!” he demanded, though his attempt to stand seemed to end. “Who are you?”
“My name is Janie; I swear to God, I was kidnapped, too!” she insisted, hoping this would silence his outburst before the woman came to investigate.
He breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank God. Can you give me a hand with this?”
She gulped and tried unsuccessfully to move. “I can’t move,” she confessed, “my leg is broken.”
There was a crack and another glow stick sprung to life. At first he held it up in the air while he lay on his back, trying to get a better look at Janie’s face. After his first inspection proved nothing miraculous, if only for the amount of dirt smeared across her face, he held it before the bullet wound. “And you wouldn’t happen to have any peroxide on you?” he wondered aloud, chuckling to himself.
She rolled her eyes. “Nah, sorry. You’ll be sticking it out until she doesn’t need you around anymore.”
He gave a kind of grunt in agreement. “How long have you been in here?”
She shrugged, knowing he couldn’t see her. “I have no idea. What month is it?”
“June,” he answered reflexively, pushing his fingers into his shoulder to remove the bullet.
She gasped, staring at the bloody mess soaking through his white dress shirt. “That’s gonna get infected! Stop it!”
“It’ll get infected if I don’t,” he snapped, pulling the offending scrap of metal free. “That bitch!” he mumbled to himself, staring at the bullet between his thumb and forefinger. “Just an inch lower—” he shook his head in mock amusement. “She’s losing her touch; didn’t even lose movement like last time.”
“She knew exactly what she was doing,” Janie whispered. “She always does.”
He seemed unmoved by her palpable fear of Natalia Petrov, the assassin who’d been trying to catch him for years. She was slippery, yes, he could admit to that, but, in talent, she wasn’t nearly as skilled as others he’d met. As a fighter, she’d lost to him many times, but she’d always slipped away by the skin of her teeth. Then, their dance had begun anew. He snorted.
Janie’s eyes narrowed infinitesimally from behind the wet hair hanging in her face, “Something funny?”
“You shouldn’t be so impressed, miss,” he chuckled smugly, unfazed by her sudden venom. “I’ve been beating her in hand to hand for years now. She’s not as good at what she does as you think.”
Janie suddenly wanted to laugh, really loudly, but she resisted. “Then why are you here?” she snapped with dark humor evident in her voice.
Taran held his breath, biting his tongue so hard he tasted blood. “I was…distracted. Otherwise, Natalia,” he spat like a curse, “wouldn’t have had a chance.”
“If you say so,” she rolled her eyes. “How do you know her?”
He didn’t look highly upon a long discussion of their intertwining dark pasts. His face crinkled in distaste. “I guess you could call her a coworker of sorts.”
“Some work you must do together. Do you torture terrorists, bad men, and murderers? Or is it just me? Or do you only partake in the robberies?”
His face pinched, eyes staring down at the wound in his chest in disgust while he, absentmindedly, tore the hem of his suit jacket, looking for any reason not to answer. As he wrapped it tightly around his injured flesh, stopping the flow of blood, he mumbled, “You didn’t answer me.”
“About what?” she whispered, rolling onto her side in an attempt to alleviate the pain in her leg.
“How long have you been here?” he repeated politely, though he genuinely didn’t care much for the rude child.
She did the math quickly on her fingers. “Six months.”
He felt no sympathy, but he put on a brave face for the girl who couldn’t have been any older than thirteen. He estimated by the shape of her body that she had to be pre-pubescent. “Your parents must miss you,” he winced, realizing immediately that it was definitely not the best thing he could have said to a captive child.
“I moved out three years ago,” she confessed. “I hope they don’t miss me too much.”
“Moved out?” he questioned. “Why?”
“College,” she closed her eyes.
Taran began to rethink his assumption. “How old are you?”
“I guess twenty-one now. My birthday was in April,” she shrugged, immediately regretting it when her weakened bones cracked.
“Twenty-one!” he gasped. “You’re so small!” He sat up, with a small amount of difficulty, and crawled closer to her, placing his back against the wall beside her head.
“I don’t know when they feed me, but it’s not much,” she explained, her voice breaking with her effort to sit up.
“Don’t move,” he ordered. “You said your leg was broken?” She nodded. “Let me look at it.” As he moved to the other side of her body, his pant leg landed in something cold under her body. Before he made to move again, he resolved that he would kill her himself if it was piss. “Why are you all wet?”
She visibly flinched, even in the dark. “You don’t need to know what they do to me, here,” she said.
That was all she said on the matter.
A bit perturbed by her disagreeable remarks, he ignored her for a moment and focused on her leg instead. Taran was accustomed to disgusting injuries when on missions, but even he had to give a shudder at the state of her shin. The skin had grown over it in a bulbous, shiny scar, but the bone was clearly split, the bottom half pointing out over the top. He was surprised she could feel the leg at all in the state it was in. It would be a grueling process to fix it, and she would most likely never regain full use, but he wished to help her in any way he could. As unskilled as she was, he was fully aware of how malicious Natalia Petrov could be.
“Hey kid?” he murmured.
“Ya?” she mumbled, too exhausted to even ask him not to call her that.
“Why are you here?” he asked, thinking over ways that he could lessen her pain. Ordinarily, he would have knocked out whatever friend he was helping, but, given how thin the girl was, such a blow to the head could kill her.
“I caught that…Natalia…on camera after she robbed the British museum,” Janie explained, drawing a heart into the dust with her index finger.
“Hm…consider yourself lucky. Anyone in her place should have killed you.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind of that. Except, I still have the pictures. I hid them,” she grimaced unkindly. She hadn’t smiled genuinely since before her captivity and didn’t expect to ever again.
“And you don’t want to die? Even after being with Natalia for so long?” he inquired, prodding her skin while she hissed with each painful touch.
“I think it’s more that I just don’t want her to have them,” she amended quickly.
“She’ll make you suffer,” he warned, tearing the leg of her tights at the knee to prevent the fabric from sticking to the dried blood painting her shin.
“Believe me…Taran, was it?…I’ve been suffering every day since I got here.”
“What did you say your name was?” he inquired after a moment of mentally piecing together her face under the thick layer of grime. He suspected she could have been beautiful at one time, before Natalia’s malice had ruined her. He enjoyed her attitude about her situation and her own martyrdom.
“Janie,” she informed him.
“Well, Janie,” he admitted, “your leg is going to need to be re-broken if you ever want to walk again. I can do it now if you want me to.”
Her eyes shot open with panic. “Is it going to hurt?”
“Yes,” he answered without missing a beat, positioning his hands where he would need to push the bone back into place.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” she whimpered, flailing her arms around for something to hold on to.
“I saw worse as a Marine in Iraq for two years and I have a basic medical training. Besides, I’ve done it a few times,” he vowed, letting his eyes meet hers in the dim orange light, willing her to trust him.
Biting her lip, she nodded reluctantly.
Her bloodcurdling scream echoed off the walls, but Taran could expect no less as he broke her leg and attempted to fit the bone back to where it should be, binding it tightly with his belt and shoe so it would remain flat. He couldn’t tell if Janie was still conscious, her eyes heavy-lidded but glazed over, and the top half of her body was turned to the side. Her abdomen heaved with useless thrusts from the otherworldly pain, but there was obviously nothing in her stomach to expel. She didn’t seem to be aware of his arms sliding around her slim body, wrapping the suit jacket he’d stripped himself of around her shoulders while he rocked her to sleep.
Paris, France; June 29th, 2012
The alarm of someone’s cell phone sang through the hotel suite, waking the sleeping inhabitants to their third morning abroad. James was the first to lurch upright, hands groping for the missing phone in the dark, when the thick curtains suddenly opened, spilling bright light into the room. James, as well as Scottie and Hayden, flinched away with startled yelps, scowling up at Alex while she smiled cheekily in return. She held up the screaming phone in her hand and switched the alarm off.
“Rise and shine, guys!” she sang, skipping around Scottie’s body on the floor to hand James his phone. “Natalia says she wants to see the Parisian Catacombs today. The tour starts at nine so everybody up!”
James rubbed his eyes, flopping back against the couch on his stomach. “Why are you awake?” he grunted as Alex sat on his back.
Claire stumbled out of the kitchen, disheveled hair pulled up into a ponytail and a Starbucks coffee gripped tightly in her hands. “I had a n…nightmare. We went for a w…walk to get coffee and talk about it.”
James pushed himself up, throwing Alex off his back with a squeal. “The same one?” he demanded, staring up at the bags lining her opaque eyes.
She nodded. “Of course.”
James opened his mouth to question her, but silenced when Russell strode from the bathroom, drying his hair with a towel. “Shower’s free,” he mumbled, throwing the towel at Claire when she passed him.
She glared at his back, disgustedly pulling the towel from her face with her thumb and forefinger, before he disappeared into the room he shared with Natalia. She let herself cool while she placed her coffee on the side table and stepped into the bathroom. The sound of running water followed soon after her departure.
Alex frowned deeply at the look on James’s face and consequently punched him in the shoulder when he relaxed into the couch beside her. “Ouch!” he yelled, waking Scottie as he tried to fall back asleep.
“You’re hiding something from me!” she accused under her breath when Scottie shot her a look.
James faked being wounded, leaning away from her to avoid another smack. “I am not. Would you quit hitting me!” he pleaded, holding her by the wrists.
“If there was something important happening, you’d tell me, right?” she demanded, glaring up into his face.
“Of course I would, sweetheart,” he lied, pressing his lips to her forehead. “Don’t worry about it.”
She smiled, despite her reservations, and hugged him tightly. “Okay,” she grinned, placing a chaste kiss on his lips. “Love you.”
“I love you, too,” he replied reflexively, waiting until her chin was rested on his shoulder before he let his guilt show. Natalia stepped out of her room, looking around at those convened around the floor and spurred them into action. She was ready to get the job done.
An hour later saw them sitting groggily in two taxis on their way to the entrance of the Underground. As they approached, Alex could see a line already formed and stretched down the sidewalk. Two green buildings sat beside the sidewalk, an older man in the window of one with a cashbox in his grasp. James and Natalia wordlessly approached him while the others ambled, heads hung and eyes heavy-lidded, to the back of the line.
“I need seven for the tour,” James asked, pulling his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans.
While his attention was diverted, Natalia shared a smile and inconspicuous wink with the man at the cashbox. The old man cleared his throat. “Of course, young man, you and your friends can jump in with the next group.”
James turned to pointedly stare at the line. “But…what about…?”
He smiled. “I always like to help out some friendly tourists.”
James, anxiously, scratched the back of his neck. “T…Thank you, sir. How much will that be?”
The man waved him off. “Nothing. Just go ahead in.”
James’s jaw dropped. “Sir! I can’t possibly…”
“Please, I insist. Take it as a gift for your very pretty friend,” he said, staring flirtatiously at Natalia, who rolled her eyes.
“Thank you, very much, monsieur,” she laughed, turning to return to the group.
James reluctantly shoved his wallet back into his pocket. “Ya. Thank you, monsieur.”
“Do not mention it,” he chuckled, waving him away as the next group of tourists approached the window.
James approached his friends at the back of the line with a small smile.
“Hey, Jimmy, d’ya get the tickets?” Alex asked, interrupting the conversation she’d been having with Claire.
“Uhh, no, he told us to just go in,” he replied, holding out his hand for her to take.
Claire smiled, looking over at the man as he watched them with a similar expression on his face. “That was n…nice of him.”
James led them toward the entrance, ignoring the looks from the tourists who’d been waiting in the line for hours. James’s group stood at the entrance with others who’d go next, but they were too engrossed in their excited chatter to really pay attention to the others. Only Claire surveyed the other tourists, merely out of curiosity, but, when her gaze settled on nothing miraculous, save for a man in sunglasses she swore she’d seen somewhere before, she turned her attention back to her friends. Then, they were inside, following the tour guide through the inner labyrinth of the catacombs.
Fortunately for one, no one in their small party seemed aware of his eyes on them.
The halls of the Parisian underground were lined with walls of neatly piled human remains, separated only by a row of skulls. There were no windows and the room was stuffy with the summer air trapping itself inside. Three spotlights lit up the room from the ceiling above them, their wires bolted carefully to the ceiling. The main room broke off into smaller, circular rooms with walls of the same material, but each space was roped off with yellow tape.
“The Parisian Catacombs is the resting place of over six million people, as you can easily deduce by looking around. You can see around the room that there are other pockets of bones, but, unfortunately, they have been condemned until further notice while we repair them—”
Claire tuned the tour guide woman out while they walked, clinging to Alex’s free arm. She hated thinking about death in every way shape and form and she hated this creepy place. She was ashamed to admit it when she thought about her practically fearless best friend, but Claire had the weakest stomach on the planet and she was the jumpiest of anyone she’d ever encountered. This scene might’ve been the kind of thing that Natalia and Alex loved to see, but Claire couldn’t even sit through an entire horror movie, let alone the real thing, played out right before her eyes. She wanted to go back to the hotel.
“Claire!” Natalia gasped, breaking her from her reverie when she tore her away from Alex. Alex and James spun to ask what the problem was, but Natalia waved them off. “I need to talk to Claire, we’ll catch up.”
Alex’s eyes bounced between them before she shrugged. “Alright. Don’t take too long. God knows you’ll get lost in here.”
Natalia watched them leave earshot. “I can’t find Russell!” she hissed.
Claire jerked back from her grip. “What? Where would h…he go?”
“I have no idea. I need you to help me find him!” she pleaded.
The blonde girl nodded fervently. “Of course! You t…take that side, I’ll take this s…side.” She ran from Natalia, missing the smile that passed across her face.
“Sweet girl,” she shook her head, her accent showing through. “Not too smart, though.”
“Russell,” Claire hissed, turning around the corner, back the way they’d come, peering around the walls of human remains, careful not to touch. Quietly, she sang, “Russell! Where are you?”
“Claire?” his voice called back from the other side of the dividers. “Come look at this, it’s amazing!”
Rolling her eyes, she followed the sound of his voice, watching the tour group vanish in the tunnel far ahead of her. “We have to c…catch up with the tour group or we’ll get i…in trouble,” she hissed, leaning over the rope divider to search the room. “You’re gonna g…get hurt in there. Or, worse, you’ll b…break something! Get out of there.”
The room was circular, unlike the halls, but lined completely with bones in crisscrossing patterns beneath hundreds of skulls and a sign, written in French. The ceiling seemed to be supported by a beam of remains in the same pattern, occupying a great deal of the center of the room. It truly was amazing, she thought; if you were Michael Meyers. It was spooky, she mused, until the rooms started getting mysteriously darker; then it was terrifying.
She looked around, hearing screams from the tour group up ahead when the bright spotlights illuminating the halls started going out with loud shatters.
One. After. The. Other.
“Everyone, do not panic!” the tour guide shrieked over the screams of terror. “We’re just experiencing some technical difficulties. Everyone, please just hold onto someone next to you and we will find the exit, just up ahead.”
“Claire!” Alex yelled.
“I’m over here,” she called back.
Claire didn’t scream when the last light went out. She grasped the rope tightly in her hands, forcing her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and stayed completely still. Another wail echoed through the catacombs and, though she shook with terror, Claire made no move to run, knowing she would never be able to navigate the halls without a guide.
“Russ?” she whispered, her voice loud in the silence. She was greeted with no answer. “Russell, are you okay?”
She’d resolved to step over the divider and find him when a sudden grip on her shirt sent her sprawling into the room, scraping her face when it met the floor.
A phantom hand grabbed her arm, dragging her across the rough floor before it, gently, dropped her beside the ancient wall. She frantically tried to pull herself to her feet, finding a hard body obstructing her path when she made to run. The ground swirled up to meet her again.
“Be careful,” a thick Czech accent ordered as the clack of high heels echoed through the room. “Your instructions clearly said that she was not to be unharmed, did they not?”
“She tried to escape—” the man above her reasoned.
“She weighs one-twenty at the most, Vilmore. I am sure you can handle her without violence,” the woman growled. “Put her next to that one.”
Firelight suddenly illuminated the room. Russell stood at the entrance where the rope divider had been torn through, holding a lit torch in his hand as he walked around the room. Wordlessly, he lit the torches held by the men posted around the center beam. Claire wanted to scream for answers, but she couldn’t make the words come to her. A groan in her ear made her jump, nearly falling over when she turned to investigate.
Alex sat beside her, forehead trickling with blood. Her eyes were closed.
“Oh my God! Alex?” Claire gasped, getting up to help her until the phantom hand, now attached to a human arm, fell onto her shoulder. She fell harshly back to the ground. “What’re you d…doing?” she finally demanded, struggling to shake him off.
“Shut up,” the giant man holding her down spat. “Enjoy the show.”
“Yes,” Natalia repeated, pulling a folded square of yellow paper from her bra. “Enjoy the show.”
“Natalia?!” Claire breathed. “W…what’s going on?”
The older woman laughed, pulling her wig off and letting it fall to the floor as her strawberry-blonde hair sprung free. “You have no idea how difficult it was to orchestrate this plan, Ms. Strong. Getting you here was all too easy, though. You are like a child! So innocent. So easily manipulated.”
Claire’s eyes narrowed. “What do you m…mean?”
Natalia looked over the stolen page, especially the pronunciations she’d been given, though she had no idea what the words meant. She ignored the question directed at her. “Frankly, I do not understand your appeal. You do not seem so important to me.”
“What did you d…do to Alex?” she spat, gesturing to her friend’s unconscious form.
“She was coming to find you, so we took care of her,” Natalia deadpanned, reading over the paper one final time.
“What are—” Claire began, but felt a sting cross her face that sent her reeling, headfirst, to the floor.
“Enough questions,” the gruff voice of the man who’d held her down snapped as he retracted the hand he’d slapped her with.
“Vilmore!” Natalia chastised. “She is not to be harmed! You know that!”
“Sorry, Natalia. You’re right,” he mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.
Claire held her face in her hands, mouth agape as she stared up at the man who’d struck her. She’d never been hit before in her life and the shame of it, coupled with the throb of her cheek, forced tears of indignation to rise to her eyes. She didn’t ask anymore questions, afraid to breathe the wrong way in the presence of these people, led by someone she didn’t seem to know as well as she thought.
“Everyone stand back,” Natalia ordered. “I do not know how this is going to work, but it should happen right here.” She gestured to the beam in the center of the room.
Everyone obliged, moving to stand at the room’s perimeter.
Natalia began to read.
“Claire,” a groggy voice beside her moaned. “Wha’ happened?” Alex’s eyes opened, taking in the room with shock. “Where are we?”
“Alex!” Claire choked, hugging her friend tightly. “Thank G…God you’re awake.”
“Claire, what’s going on?” Alex demanded, wincing when she pressed her hand to her forehead. She held her fingers, coated with blood, before her eyes. “I’m bleeding.”
“I don’t know!” Claire whispered.
Suddenly the drone of Natalia’s voice stopped. “Take flesh from the witch,” she ordered, pointing to Alex.
“Witch?” Alex snarled, pushing away from the men reaching for her. “Who the hell are you calling a witch, Natalia?!”
Natalia smiled unpleasantly. “You have always been more bark than bite, Alexandria.”
Alex cried out when one of the men took a knife to her palm, her voice reaching new heights when a square of skin separated from her hand. Red streamed easily from her hand into the cup they held out to her, collecting halfway to the top before they allowed her to tear her hand away from them. They handed the cup to Natalia.
“Are you okay?” Claire asked, watching Alex struggle to stop the bleeding.
“I’m fine,” she growled, scowling at Natalia as she poured the contents of the cup over the bones collected around the center beam.
The room went still.
Claire’s hair picked up as a sudden gust of unnatural wind blew through the room. Alex covered her nose and mouth, making a face at the stale smell it carried with it as it blew harder and harder around the room. The bones piled around the center beam pulled unceremoniously from the walls, crashing to the floor. Claire and Alex leaned into the wall as the gust threatened to push them over, becoming so strong that they could see it spin bones around the room. A tunnel of wind formed just inches from their feet, collecting bones in it until, finally, it abruptly ended.
“Claire! Alex!” James’s voice carried into the room before he did, standing straight as he watched the scene unfolding with wide eyes.
As the tunnel subsided, a man, bedecked in dark, ratty robes stood in its wake, searching the room for evidence of where he’d landed. He was tall and well-muscled beneath the robe, his skin gold from the sun and his hair grown out into a long, dark ponytail at the top of his head. For a moment, his eyes were entirely soulless and black until they dissolved into their ordinarily red irises.
He took pleasure in his first few breaths, his first in thousands of years.
His head swiveled in each direction until he found Natalia, his summoner. Finally, he spoke, in a voice like gravel. “What place is this?”
Alex went limp beside Claire, losing consciousness.
The man turned to them, his eyes glowing red. His jaw dropped when his eyes met Claire, gravity suddenly too strong under his feet, rooting them in place.
“Mainyu,” James gasped, drawing the attention of the others in the room.
Angra Mainyu’s attention, however, was fully transfixed on Claire. “Ziba,” he breathed through a smile, reaching for her. “Do you remember me?”
Claire could do nothing but shake her head as her body inclined toward him without her mind’s permission.
James shook his head to clear it and threw himself into action. “Get away from them!” he demanded, easily shoving past the weakened Mainyu. “Claire, run!” he ordered, lifting Alex effortlessly into his arms.
Claire couldn’t move while she was caught in the mysterious man’s gaze.
“Claire!” James yelled, shifting Alex to one arm while he pulled Claire up with the other. Mind still foggy, she stared back into Mainyu’s eyes as her friend pulled her away. As the distance between them grew, she watched Mainyu’s look of shock fall into something like rage, fists clenching at his sides.
“No!” a voice like a monster’s bellowed, shaking the floor beneath them. “NO!”
Claire snapped out of the haze clouding her mind enough to move out of the way when chunks of the ceiling fell where she would have just stepped. “James! I can’t see!” she shrieked, pulling her pant leg out from under the boulder that had nearly crushed her.
“Neither can I!” he yelled back over the sound of destruction.
A hand touched James’s back as he reeled in every direction, looking for an exit. “Come with me!” a man’s voice ordered. “I’ll get you out of here!”
James knew he couldn’t trust that voice from the start, but he had no other option. “Get us out!” he begged, allowing the man, invisible in the dark, to lead them away.
Kierlan had no idea it would be so easy.
Paris, France; June 29th, 2012
As her ethereal face left his sight, and the shock of her sudden departure subsided, Mainyu smiled pleasantly. She looked exactly like the last time he’d seen her.
Weakness overcame him and he slumped against the mortal woman beside him, searching his new residence for some sign of familiarity. He could find nothing that reminded him of the last time he’d walked the mortal realm. Human bones lined the walls in neat patterns and the hall was lined with torches as its only means of light.
Through the dimness, he’d seen her face, a mirror image from the last time they’d met; only this time, she was alive and well, if not a bit terrified. He’d so hoped that when he returned from his banishment, he would find her this way, as her sister had hoped to make her. He was glad that the High Priestess’s power had proven itself in the end. He was not, however, glad to see Shireen, alive but unconscious, as she took part in stealing his love away yet again.
Her face reminded him of his last day walking the mortal plane before his unfortunate banishment at the hands of Shireen.
He’d been hidden beneath the sand, waiting for his last spiteful blow to Ziba’s life to sink in. After this, she would have to finally realize that a life with him was her most prudent option. Before he knew of her intentions to be rid of him, he’d been foolish enough to think that it was her only option. When Bomani’s life had slipped through his vicious claws, Mainyu had never felt so fulfilled. By the end of three days time, when he felt her mournful period should come to a close, he would come to her in the night, assert the full extent of his feelings for her, again, and bring the young priestess back to his home in the netherworld, where they would live as man and wife. It never occurred to him that the mortals in that temple would take fate into their own hands. That his plans would never come to fruition.
He could feel it like a stab to his own heart when he sensed the life leave his mortal love. He’d greatly underestimated Shireen, and he’d learned since then that it was something he would never do again.
As he left to intercept her soul en route to his dwelling, he’d laughed, relishing in the stupidity of the humans. If they’d thought her worldly death would keep her from him, they’d been entirely wrong, but, again, he’d misinterpreted their intentions. The High Priestess, Shireen, had cast a spell from the Book of Eternity, a collection of writings that shouldn’t have ever been seen by a human. He’d played a part in its making, as well as the other Gods, and so the Book should have only been used by them. That Shireen had spoken a word from it was the blackest of blasphemy.
A mournful, inhuman snarl escaped him as he clutched at the chest of the earthly man he’d possessed. Pain was foreign to him, but he found that its elevating degrees were anything but friendly these past weeks. The physical agony he’d dealt with while his self-imposed abrasions healed was nothing in comparison to the absolute anguish that poisoned him, tearing through his veins like fire. His screams grew louder and louder, shaking the ground like the wrath of nature itself. He didn’t concern himself with a worry that if he screamed loud enough he would split the Earth in half, too selfish to look past his own suffering.
He spun once on the spot and erupted suddenly into a cloud of thick, black smoke. Blowing like hurricane winds, he shot toward the Temple of Tehran.
Shireen stood beside the stone altar still, staring down at her sister with tears flowing freely down her face. Her fingers clutched the knife that took Ziba’s life, but her free hand reached forward to push her sister’s eyelids over her flat, blue irises. Color was fast leaving Ziba’s cheeks, but her face was still the most beautiful in all of Persia. The more Shireen stared down at the face she’d grown up with, the more difficult it was becoming to tell herself that Ziba wasn’t sleeping.
One of the priests shrieked, pointing to the door as it dissolved under the black vapor closing in around them. “Shireen!”
Shireen tore her gaze away from the body on the slab to prepare for the attack she’d been anticipating. “Get away from the door!” she ordered, pulling the Book of Eternity into her arms and backing away from the altar.
The priests obeyed, collecting in a line before Shireen so they faced the impending threat.
“Take the hands of those beside you. If we die, we died saving one most dear to us,” Shireen announced, whimpering toward the end as her gaze unintentionally fell, once more, on the faithful departed.
The cloud that had once been Mainyu ate through the door before it materialized into a man they’d all become familiar with over the last few days. He stepped slowly toward them, muscles flexing under the weight of his rage. He wore a single, tattered, black robe, loosely tied over his human body but his bare feet crashed against the ground, dissolving the flooring in footprint-shaped burns. His once-crimson irises were black now, swallowing up the entirety of his eyes. The full force of their startlingly powerful gaze was set on Shireen.
“High Priestess,” he sneered, bowing deeply, mockingly.
As Mainyu straightened up, he outstretched his arm and darkness blocked out the sunrise behind the temple. A cold wind swept through the temple, all at once blowing out the torches that had illuminated the temple. Plunged into near complete the darkness, the humans gathered in the corner could see only by the grayish glow emanating from Mainyu’s skin.
“Do you realize what you have done?!” he snarled, shoving through the line assembled around Shireen.
“I have saved my sister from you!” she retorted, flipping through the pages in her arms until she found the page labeled with a bold, swirling Banishment. Mainyu’s hand struck her throat, lifting her from the ground as easily as if she weighed nothing at all. In her shock, Shireen dropped the book, but her fingers remained pinched on the corner of the page she’d been holding, tearing it noisily from the rest with a ghostly wail.
She choked on the air trying to force itself into her lungs. Had the situation not been so dire, Mainyu would have laughed. As it was, however, he only smiled viciously. “You have taken away from me the only creature I have ever loved…”
“You cannot love,” Shireen gasped.
The grip around her throat tightened and Shireen grimaced, letting the page in her hand fall weightlessly to the floor below. “Hosrael,” she coughed, gesturing vaguely toward the fallen sheet as she kicked uselessly at Mainyu’s torso. His hand on her flesh was beginning to burn as it dissolved like everything else he touched. Unlike everything else, however, blood began to seep through the space between his fingers, down his arm, and to the floor. Helplessly, the noises coming from Shireen’s throat turned to gurgles as she drowned.
The man behind her dropped to the floor to retrieve the paper and fell back into step beside the other priests. “Angra Mainyu, you have no power here, no power over us, and no power over her. You have no power here,” he read.
As the other priests picked up the chanting, Shireen fell to the floor. Mainyu’s eyes fell on his hand as it became translucent. He swiped at Hosrael, in vain, causing the young man to jump and drop the paper, though he continued to lead them in the chant. Shireen clawed at her throat. Her efforts were futile as the burning didn’t subside and neither did the bleeding.
“I will kill you all!” Mainyu roared as he realized that he couldn’t physically threaten them. The temple shook on its foundation, sending bits of the ceiling falling around them.
With the last bit of strength left in her body, Shireen crawled to the paper lying just out of reach. A beam from the ceiling fell to the ground with a hollow roar, just across the backs of Shireen’s knees, pinning her to the floor.
Blood spewed from the once-glorious High Priestess’s mouth as she shrieked in pain, fisting the broken page from the book in her hand. The ceiling came down harder and faster as Mainyu screamed, “I will make you suffer for this, Shireen!”
Filled with a newfound determination, she unfolded the paper and coughed out the obstruction in her throat. Her eyes were growing dim, but she was just able to make out the words on the page before she murmured, over the rhythmic chanting of the priests, “Mainyu, I banish you from this world.”
With another snarl, Mainyu vanished into thin air as the temple collapsed around the priests standing in the temple.
Mainyu wasn’t about to let Ziba slip through his fingers again, he swore as the mortal beside him led him toward the exit, where he’d seen the girl in question escape with Shireen. This time, though, he knew he wouldn’t fail. He was the one with all the power now, which had been proven by the unconsciousness of the High Priestess when he came into being. He wouldn’t allow the witch to corrupt his plans, no matter what force had brought her into this world with Ziba.
“Mortal!” he roared, halting her as they stepped into the light.
Natalia stopped, knowing already that she and this meathead weren’t going to get along well. She cooperated, knowing nothing of the damage he was capable of and not wanting to find out. “Yes, sir?” she asked. Her head had whipped fully to the side before she felt the pain against her cheek. Her body crumpled to the floor.
“Damn it!” she yelled, looking around for what could have hit her.
Mainyu retracted the hand he’d struck her with. “You, vermin, will address me as My Lord. Understood?”
Natalia stared up at him for a long time, wishing she could show him who the vermin was here. She held her tongue, cautiously pulling herself to her feet. “Yes, My Lord,” she spat through clenched teeth.
“Good. Now, bring me to her, mortal, I wish to see my love,” he ordered, starting back into the light.
“My Lord!” she called, catching his arm and pulling him back in. Another strike to her face resounded through the tunnel.
“You are not permitted to touch,” he hissed as Natalia picked herself up off the floor. Her lip burned, swelling around where he’d hit her. She pressed her fingertips to her face, finding blood on her lower lip. She saw red, jumping up to throttle the man before her.
His hand reached, grabbing her neck with a crushing strength.
She kicked to no avail, trying to find the ground with her feet.
“I will not say it again, human, take me to her.”
Natalia fell to the floor in a heap. “But,” she coughed, “My Lord, you are still weak. We must perform the sacrifice before you walk out in the open.”
Mainyu chuckled to himself. “Leave the witch to me. I know exactly how to dispose of her.”
Helplessly, Natalia obliged, and began directing him to where she knew the group would have taken Claire. Mainyu smiled to himself, thinking of all the things he would do once he had his power back. Before anything else, he resolved, he would tear Shireen apart with his bare hands.
Oh, yes, he’d underestimated Shireen before. It wasn’t something he planned on doing again.
Location Unknown; June 29th, 2012
“Oh, me too. Favorite movie?”
“I have a lot.”
“Umm…anything Jane Austen, and anything with zombies in it.”
“I can see the connection.”
Janie laughed at his sarcasm, feeling her entire being lift with her smile. Of course, rotting away in a prison cell wasn’t something to smile about, but Taran’s company had made this nightmare livable for the first time in six months.
During his three day stay in the cellar, she hadn’t found out anything of great importance, like why he was there, but he’d entertained her with trivial anecdotes about his life for hours. She knew that his favorite color was green, he was allergic to bee stings, and he’d broken his left elbow three times in his life. He loved the Die Hard movies, but West Side Story was his guilty pleasure.
“What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” he inquired.
“Umm,” she thought it over quickly. “Oh! When I was seventeen, I got a tattoo and didn’t tell my parents.”
“Really?” he chuckled. “A tattoo?”
“Ya, on my hip. Why? Think I couldn’t handle it?”
“No! I just…I wouldn’t peg you for the type. Besides, you’ve proven well enough that you can tolerate pain since you’ve been here for so long.”
Janie’s smile abruptly fell. When she was talking to Taran, it was so easy to forget where they were and what she was waiting for: another visit from Natalia. Sometimes, though, he would say something that forced her to remember that she hadn’t left hell. She’d only postponed it for a while.
“I don’t have a high pain tolerance,” she mumbled. “I cried the whole time.”
Taran snorted. “You’re hopeless.”
“Well, what about you, ya jerk?” she giggled. “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?”
He didn’t get the chance to answer, though, because the sound of metal on metal screeched through the room. Light filtered in as the door opened.
Janie’s arms instinctively wrapped around her companion’s waist, wishing it could make the difference between staying and leaving. Janie’s eyes squeezed shut, dreading the image in her head of Natalia’s face as she dragged her back to the tub.
“The warden’s here for Ms. Campbell,” an unfamiliar voice sneered as he stomped into the room.
A hand grabbed the front of Janie’s shirt, easily separating her from Taran when it hauled her to her feet. Screaming in protest, she collapsed to the hard ground when her legs couldn’t support her. Her knees crashed to the cold floor first, sending pain pulsing through her broken shin. Moisture welled up in her eyes as she screamed, reaching for her leg as the bindings Taran created came undone. While she was curled up on the ground, a warm body gently fell over her, hiding her from the man who’d put her there.
“Leave!” Taran snarled above her, the owner of the body covering her. “She’s not—”
A hard oomph interrupted Taran.
Janie assumed it was him since he instantly fell away from her, hit by a force she could only imagine as the intruder’s foot. At the man’s mercy once again, Janie tried to push herself away with her good leg, succeeding only in moving an inch before she was hauled back up and thrown over his shoulder.
“You’ll die in your own time, pretty boy. But, you know what they say! Ladies first.”
Taran scrambled to his feet, still catching his breath from the steel-toed boot he’d taken to his ribs. He threw himself at the door as it closed with a bang.
“No!” he screamed, slamming his fists against the cold steel, to no avail. He didn’t want to think about what life would feel like, trapped in there alone. He didn’t want to think about what they were doing to his new friend when he couldn’t help her. He didn’t want to think about what he was going to do if she didn’t come back. He sunk, dejectedly, back to the floor.
Janie swung against her captors’ back with each step he took, robbing her of breath. She tried to think of anything, anything, but what lay ahead of her in that room, but her only thought was of the tub. The familiar door opened silently and light flooded the room before it slammed shut behind them. It was the first time in months she’d seen such a bright concentration of light and her eyes screamed for a reprieve. Janie’s head twisted to find her captor’s face, but she only caught a glimpse of short, black hair before she was thrown into a wooden chair. The unstable seat swayed back on its legs before, finally, settling haphazardly on all four.
She met the face of a giant man with shaved hair and beady, golden eyes while he duct taped her wrists to the arms of the chair. He gave her an unsettling smile and she averted her eyes, finding the concrete trough of water that haunted her dreams, now empty, under the harsh light of a naked bulb.
Her mind screamed her fears like a mantra don’t put me back in the tub, don’t put me back in the tub, don’t….
Her reverie was broken by his cruel laugh as he followed her gaze.
“We won’t be using the tub if you behave,” he promised, patting her on the head as he strode toward the trough. He stepped over a hose lying on the floor, wrapped hastily around the concrete steps leading up to the tub. The faucet it attached to was set into the wall behind her chair, preventing her from seeing it. She could hear it, though, when he allowed the water to rush through the rubber tube. “My friend couldn’t be here today for this, but she sends her regrets, Ms. Campbell.”
Janie twitched away when water spurted from the hose’s end and pooled on the floor, inching toward her holey sneakers.
“She also told me that you have so far remained disagreeable to her questions. But I know that we won’t be having the same problems, will we?” he demanded.
Janie remained silent.
He leaned down to her level, close enough that she could feel his breath fan across her face. His expression twisted with distaste, his body jerking away to match it. “Ugh,” he groaned. “You stink.”
Despite where she was and who she was in the presence of, Janie couldn’t help but feel self-conscious. Taran had sat beside her, sometimes keeping his arm slung over her shoulder while they told stories to pass the time, for three days. He’d never once complained about the smell. Now that this guy had said it, she wondered why Taran had kept such a close eye on her since his arrival.
“You’re filthy,” he continued, bending to pick up the hose on the floor. Closing his thumb over most of its end, he pointed the tube at her, letting water spray in every direction.
The arctic water melted the dirt from her face, dripping from her chin in dark droplets. She turned her head away from the spray, feeling the water drown her as she sat there, and coughed when he moved the spew down the rest of her body. He stepped closer her, clutching her chin in his free hand so she was forced to make eye contact while he poured the hose directly into her face. Janie spluttered, jerking her neck every which way to escape him. After a long moment, he released her, tossing the hose in the trough.
“A little better,” Vilmore noted, closing the distance between them once again.
Janie scowled up at him, shivering without constraint as the room’s frigid temperature passed easily through her wet clothes.
“Now, I’m gonna ask you a few questions, and you’re gonna answer them, ‘kay? If you don’t…” he trailed off, pulling a glinting, silver pocket knife from the back pocket of his jeans. “Get it?”
She stared thoughtfully up at the knife and realized I’m going to die….
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he mumbled. “Now, how many pictures did you take at the museum?”
Janie turned her head away from him to gaze at the wall. Behind that thin wall, Taran was waiting for her to come back, he had to be.
She was drawn out of her thoughts when his hand squeezed her cheeks together, puckering her lips and forcing her to meet his eyes, again. “I’m going to pretend you just didn’t hear me. How many pictures did you take?”
Unable to look away, Janie slumped, soundlessly in her chair.
She was subsequently struck across the face with a force that threw the chair on its side.
“I don’t think you understand how this works,” he murmured, putting the chair back to rights. He opened the pocket knife, pointing the business end at her. “You have to answer, Janie,” he sneered, using the knife to pop off the top button of her shirt.
“I’m not telling you anything,” she whispered, ignoring the sting of her cheek.
He pursed his lips. “Well, that’s too bad.” He popped off a second button, then a third. “You’re putting me in a terrible place.”
Janie watched his hand as it easily made her shirt come undone, the buttons scattering across the floor.
“It’s not like I wanna do you when you smell like a goddamn sewer.”
Her head whipped up to face him as the last button fell, revealing her emaciated upper body, covered only by a once-white bra.
He forced his knee onto her upper thigh and grabbed her face with his free hand, pressing the blade of the knife into her neck. His lips pressed firmly to the hollow between her jaw and ear, allowing his teeth to graze the skin.
Janie writhed beneath him. Her unscathed leg wormed its way up to keep him away, but he only budged a short ways back, gathering himself quickly when he stumbled off of her. “Get away from me!” she shrieked, pulling against the tape tied around her wrists.
He smiled as he came back. “You don’t call the shots,” he growled, plunging the knife into her torso between her leg and hip.
Red hot agony exploded before Janie’s eyes.
Her scream could have woken the dead as she pushed herself back in the chair, forcing it to crash against the floor and the knife to drive further into her flesh.
“Maybe you’ll be more cooperative now,” he scorned, reaching over her legs while they were forced up by the seat of the chair. Getting a firm grip on the handle, he ripped the knife from her with a purposeful twist.
Her shrieks reached an otherworldly level but death still stood far away from her. In the back of her mind, she consoled herself with the knowledge that it couldn’t get much worse than this.
“Let’s get right to the point: Where are the pictures?” he snapped, straddling her waist while he held the red blade to her throat.
Breaths shallow as she avoided the blade, she glowered at the man above her and spat in his face.
He reeled back, wiping his face with the back of his hand. When his eyes met hers again, they were murderous.
“You bitch! You bitch, I’m gonna kill you!”
Janie closed her eyes when the knife sailed down to meet her.
When neither pain nor death met her, she opened her eyes the slightest bit and found her shirt in shreds about her. Her wide eyes traveled up, finding him as he stripped himself of his shirt and let himself fall on her.
She couldn’t breathe, his body crushing her chest.
As he fell, the legs of the chair snapped, throwing her completely on her back. Her legs lay frail and straight beneath him.
“Get off,” she shrieked, shoving uselessly at his chest.
Wood splintered in her calves while he forced her legs open with his knee, ignoring her shrill pleas.
“Stop it!” she implored, flailing her fists at him until he pinned them to the floor. “Stop it, please! Please!”
His hand traveled toward the edge of her pants, his intent clear in his face.
“Stop it! I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you!”
The man’s hand froze just below her navel but he didn’t move from his place on top of her, watching her expectantly as she turned on her side, hiding her tear-streaked face from him. Janie bit her lip, reaching into the cup of her bra for the distorted image she’d hidden there that awful night. It felt like an entire lifetime had passed since then. She held the picture, crinkled from sweat and water, out to him.
“Now was that so hard?” he asked, standing. He picked up his shirt and dressed before turning back. He grinned, watching her as he jutted out his hips. “It really is a shame, though. You’re missing out.”
Sobs exploded from Janie’s mouth. She curled up tighter around herself, closed her eyes, and imagined that she was anywhere else. She didn’t want to live if she was going to be subjected to this brand of torture for another six months.
When his arms lifted her off the floor, she screamed again, nailing him in the face with her elbow in her struggle. He didn’t stumble. If he hadn’t pinned her arms down, she would’ve thought she hadn’t hit him at all. He easily carried her through the doorway, back to the room she’d called home for so long now. “Welcome back,” he chuckled, unlocking the door and throwing her into the darkness. The door slammed ominously behind her.
Before her eyes adjusted to the dark, the silence fooled her into thinking that Taran wasn’t there at all.
She felt alone.
Her cries broke the quiet, especially when she prodded her newest wound.
“Janie?” his voice murmured.
She didn’t speak, knowing she could never get the words out.
She flinched when his hands searched for her through the dark, landing harmlessly on her shoulder. He didn’t ask questions when he collected her in his arms, cradling her against his chest while she sobbed into his shirt. He hushed her quietly, brushing his fingers slowly, comfortingly, through her hair. After a few moments, her cries quieted to whimpers, though he continued to rock her back and forth in his arms.
“The stupidest thing I ever did was cliff dive with my older brother. That was the second time I broke my arm. I was six and I got in soooo much trouble with my mom!” he chuckled.
Janie blurted out a pathetic half-laugh as she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. She wrapped her arms around him while he rocked them, forgetting how bad she smelled. Taran didn’t move, even when he felt her fall asleep.
He softly looked down into her sleeping face. “We’re gonna get you out of here.”
Paris, France; June 29th, 2012
Claire, blinded by the sun, stumbled through the door of the catacombs, falling haphazardly into someone’s arms. The girl’s arms floundered for something to hold onto, finding nothing but, what she didn’t know, was the stubbly back of her savior’s head. His grunt when she, unintentionally, pulled him down to her level didn’t faze her. She hardly noticed him while she watched the backs of her eyelids replay the unnatural scene she’d just experienced, over and over again. The way that thing had looked at her, clouding her mind with his hypnotic, red eyes would be forever engrained in her mind.
Claire didn’t dare look up for a moment, focused entirely on catching her breath while her legs hung, unused, over the ground. When she realized her compromised position, her face slowly tilted up, eyes following the arms, thick with muscle, wrapped around her up to a broad chest, covered in a tight, black t-shirt. Gasping lightly, she followed his sharp jaw, pausing momentarily on his lips, and slowly her jaw fell. She met stormy grey eyes for a split second and the world around her fell away. Her entire body suddenly felt like dead weight.
“Wow,” she breathed, trying to find her footing when the ground had fallen out from under them.
Kierlan was unmoved, having already seen her picture hundreds of times now on the way to Paris. Nevertheless, he pretended to be as struck by her beauty now as he was when he’d first seen her picture on the plane. “H…hi,” he mumbled, placing her on her feet while he stared into her gorgeous eyes, keeping his hands placed innocently on her arms, steadying her.
“Claire!” James yelled, loping down the sidewalk toward the two taxis sitting against the curb. He shoved Alex into Scottie’s waiting arms and turned back to face the girl, now in the arms of a man who may have very well been the enemy. “Get away from him!” he yelled, catching the attention of pedestrians collected on the street as he ran to her.
Claire looked away from her knight in shining armor only when forced by the strong grip on her waist, wrenching her away. James pushed her behind him, shoving Kierlan a step away when they came face to face. “Who are you?” he demanded, holding his hand out, palm forward. Claire couldn’t see it, and Kierlan didn’t believe it, when a faint, blue light danced across James’s outstretched palm.
“James—” Claire began in a reprimanding tone.
“Claire, get in the car,” he snapped without taking his eyes off Kierlan.
“Go, Claire! I asked you once, I won’t ask again. Who. Are. You?”
Kierlan wanted to laugh at the smaller man, knowing if it came down to a fight, his opponent wouldn’t stand a chance. He didn’t though, knowing his humor wouldn’t be appreciated by the screaming boy. He kept a straight, albeit mean, face when he stood up to James.
“I’m Kierlan Cole,” he said, puffing out his chest the slightest bit. “I’m a private investigator here for—”
“I don’t believe you,” James spat, backing away, forcing Claire to back away, too.
“James, stop—” Claire shoved uselessly at his back, barely budging him.
“Scottie!” James called.
Seconds later, Claire felt herself being pulled away from James and toward the empty taxi. She thrashed against the hands under her arms, but, eventually, she had to give up the fight when the taxi door slammed in her face. Without the worry of his friend hearing, James scowled up at Kierlan’s face with malice. Unimpressed by the show, Kierlan scowled back.
“I know what you’re doing, and I’m not falling for it,” James growled.
Kierlan didn’t show the anxiety the remark created in him. He was a professional. “I would tell you what I was doing here, but you haven’t been listening.”
“Just stay away from us,” James retorted, turning his back on the man to throw open the cab door. Kierlan followed close behind; he had to get in that cab. When James reached to pull the door closed behind him, he caught it before they could lock themselves in.
“Sorry, I thought that I was the guy that saved your lives! You would’ve been crushed if I hadn’t led you out.” Kierlan dragged James out of the car by his shirt, letting him stand on his own when he closed the door again. “I think you’re hiding something, and I want to ask you a few questions.”
“I think you know exactly why I can’t trust you with her,” James bit back. “You weren’t in our tour group, I would’ve seen you. What were you doing down there? How did you know that we were going to need help?”
Kierlan bit his tongue and hissed, through clenched teeth, “As I was explaining to you, already, I have been following Russell Marks for some time. I have found reason to believe that he has been participating in cult activities. They worship a fictional deity and have been known to take part in human sacrifice in their attempt to resurrect this deity.”
James’s eyes narrowed, not so sure anymore in his original resolve. “I can’t stay. We have to get back to the hotel.”
Kierlan moved into his way. “I wanna go with you.”
Taken aback, he held the door as it came swinging toward his gut. “I saved your lives. Let me come with you. If they tried to get your friends before, they’ll come after them again.”
“I know they will. That’s why I have to get them back to the hotel,” James growled. “Let go!”
“I can help you, I have experience in—”
Claire leaned over, holding her head out the door. “James Bellman!” she chastised, getting out of the cab.
James heaved a sigh. “Claire, get back in—”
“Please, stop telling me w…what to do, first of all! Second of all, can you please treat this guy less like a prisoner and m…more like the guy that just saved us? Both of you, please get in the car, now. We have a lot of things t…to talk about!” she hissed, sounding more like a kitten than the lion she was trying for.
James and Kierlan tore their eyes from hers to stare each other down. James was the first to back down. “Fine.”
James pulled himself into the cab, followed by their newest addition, who internally congratulated himself. Claire leaned against the window, feeling the sudden pounding in her head dull when it touched the cool glass. They said nothing while they followed the taxi in front of them toward the hotel. James didn’t look back; he just felt it when Mainyu left the catacombs in search of Claire, just like he knew he one day would. The day had finally come, and now James was without anyone to help him get rid of the, newly-resurrected, God of Destruction.
“Does anyone wanna talk about w…what we just saw? James? I feel like you know something,” Claire mumbled, looking down at her hands in her lap.
James shook his head, wondering where the hell he was supposed to start.
As they approached the hotel, Kierlan made a mental note of the address. The car came to a halt against the curb and Claire was the first out, running headlong toward the other car. Scottie was careful to carry Alex as she woke, muttering incoherencies under her breath. “James!” he called, readjusting her light body. “She’s not doing so good.”
“Who’s he?” Hayden asked, glaring at Kierlan while she pulled herself out behind Scottie, combing Alex’s hair with her fingers. “James, what the hell is going on?”
“We’ll tell you everything when we’re back in the room,” James explained. “We all just need to get out of the open.” He waved his arms as he looked down the sidewalk in both directions, gesturing toward the door. “Go upstairs.”
Kierlan reached for Claire, leading her by the small of her back into the lobby and toward the elevator. In return, Claire’s heart beat the frantic rhythm she walked to in order to keep up with his long strides. His touch made her skin prickle like an electric current; she leaned infinitesimally closer to him, feeling the warmth radiating off his body chase away the last of the misty cold left in her mind by the man in the catacombs. James held Alex’s head, whispering soothing words while he shot short glances back at Claire over his shoulder.
When they’d safely installed themselves in the suite, Scottie and James carried Alex to the master bedroom, laying her on the comforters while she babbled into the pillows. James closed the door when they left her there to collect herself.
“What happened to Alex, James?” Hayden demanded. “And where’s Natalia? And Russell?”
“Russell and his sister are under investigation,” Kierlan said, crossing his arms. He leaned against the wall beside the dining room table where Claire sat. James stood on her other side, biding his time until Kierlan made his move.
“For what?” Hayden shrieked from her position on the couch, beside Scottie.
“Cult activity. He’s affiliated with a group that has been known to partake in things like human sacrifice.”
Scottie chuckled. “Not surprise. That guy always did seem like a rat.”
Hayden didn’t seem as amused. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
He nodded to her in greeting. “Kierlan Cole, P.I.”
Claire raised her hand.
“Uh,” Kierlan pointed to her. “Claire?”
“Is that w…why you were on the plane with us?” she inquired. “For Russell?”
James’s eyes bugged. “You were on the plane with us?” he demanded shrilly.
Kierlan absentmindedly scratched the back of his neck. “I—”
“He helped me with my bag, r…remember?” she said.
Kierlan nodded, suppressing the urge to cover her mouth before she said anything else. “Of course.”
“And what about Alex? What’s the matter with her?” Hayden inquired.
James ran his hand through his hair. “She’s in shock. Claire and her went through…quite the ordeal this morning,” he concluded.
“What?” Scottie asked.
James nudged Claire’s shoulder. “Go ahead, Eclair, tell ‘em what happened.”
She glanced up at him nervously. “They’re not going to believe me.” Nevertheless, he gestured for her to explain. “During the tour, Natalia grabbed me from the rest of the group, begging me to help her find Russell…” she began.
By the time she’d finished, she’d already had to silence her friends several times when they tried to interrupt. She nodded to them to acknowledge that she was done. “Then Kierlan showed up and helped us out when the catacombs started collapsing.”
Suddenly, they were all tongue-tied.
“Wait,” Hayden said, putting a hand to her head. “This guy just…appeared out of thin air?”
Claire nodded, smugly glaring at James.
“Alex saw that and that’s why she fainted?”
“Wouldn’t you?” James snapped. “I saw him. I have to tell you guy’s something. Something that you’re definitely not going to believe.”
“At this point I don’t think there’s anything I w…won’t believe now,” Claire laughed.
Kierlan hadn’t moved during Claire’s fantastic tale, but he pushed himself off the wall now to approach her. As he walked, he searched his pocket for the metal instrument he needed.
“And you really believe all that?” he asked, wondering how someone so beautiful could be so crazy.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” she insisted.
Claire felt the cold metal slap across her wrist before she’d finished speaking. A snarl of protest caught in her throat when her eyes met the glare of the handcuffs binding her to her chair.
Kierlan pulled a cell phone from his pocket. He made eye contact with her for half a second before the look on her face stung his, already shaken, determination. How could he give her over to Natalia, now, knowing she was unbalanced and so unbelievably meek? “Just a precaution, miss. I wouldn’t want to run the chance of you hurting yourself.”
“Who are you calling?” James demanded, reaching for the phone in his hand.
He didn’t look up, but he ducked easily out of James’s reach. “My office. And a hospital. Your friend needs help.”
“Give me the phone!”
Kierlan finally looked up with a disgruntled frown. “And apparently so do you.”
“I already warned you, Kierlan, put down the phone and get Claire out of the handcuffs,” James murmured with deadly calm.
Kierlan leaned forward, contemplating whether he should confess his reason for being there and who he was really calling, but he didn’t. “Or what?” he challenged, making the call and putting the phone to his ear.
James pursed his lips, looking around the room at his friends convened there, silently watching, and Alex in the next room. He sincerely didn’t want it to go this way, but they would have to find out either with Mainyu on the loose. Kierlan waited for someone on the other end to pick up.
James raised his hands, keeping his palms forward.
Blue energy danced across them, tingling against his skin and crackling like static while his eyes focused on Kierlan’s chest, their depths turning completely white as a bolt of blue energy lurched from his hands.
The blue lightning crashed into Kierlan’s chest with all the strength and awe of nature. His body flew backward, smashing into the wall of the suite while electricity surged through him.
He fell to the floor, chest stained with scorch marks, eyes closed. Claire screamed.
“Oh my God!” she shook as she stared at James’s smoking palms, coherent sentences evading her. When nothing came to mind, she shoved herself out of the dining room chair and crossed the room quickly.
Her knees collapsed under her; she fell beside the still body. Stammering through the sudden obstruction in her throat, she managed to choke out, “James…you killed him!”
Scottie, reluctantly, tore his eyes from James to join her a moment later. Hayden’s attention, however, was focused entirely on her friend. They’d been friends for years, they’d hung out constantly since he started dating her cousin and she hardly knew him. And, after Claire’s speech, she couldn’t tell if her other friend was crazy, or if there were a lot of things she hardly knew anymore. She didn’t like wondering.
Though the electricity that had spontaneously generated in his hand was gone now, black smoke radiated from his clenched fists, reminding them all of what they’d just seen. His face was painted with deep guilt. He hadn’t meant to kill Kierlan. He hadn’t meant to…
Scottie watched the new arrival’s chest begin to rise and fall anew and breathed a short sigh of relief. “He’s not dead. He’s breathing.”
James didn’t dare to share in his friend’s relief, knowing he was going to be thrown to the dogs when they regained the ability to speak. Claire was too fixated on Kierlan’s face to question what she’d seen, yet, eyes roaming over the sweat-slicked skin down to the scorch marks disrupting the fabric of his t-shirt. The smooth flesh of his chest was blackened between the singed edges of the hole in the shirt. As her eyes trailed down, she noticed the gun handle peeking out from the waistband of his pants.
His body convulsed once with the electric current coursing through him before he fell slack in her arms. Claire couldn’t put her finger on it, she would’ve been content to sit there and stare at him forever, memorizing every facet of his face. So beautiful.
She was brought out of her admiration by a bloodcurdling shriek.
Alex stood in the doorway to the master bedroom, mouth closed over the scream, head held in her hand. Dark hair fell in disarray around her shoulders and her hand was crusted with blood. “What happened?!”
James’s mouth went dry.
She didn’t leave the doorway but her eyes slanted to find the unfamiliar man in Claire’s arms. Personally, Alex hadn’t thought her boyfriend of three years was capable, morally, of hurting another human being, since he’d declared himself a pacifist before they’d met. However, hearing the noise in the suite’s living room, including the accusations that followed, she’d been forced to awareness, staggering out of the bedroom to investigate. She could remember nothing of how she got there, only that she’d had the strangest dream: Natalia was blonde and had cut a chunk out of her hand, making a demon materialize out of thin air. Seeing what the room had become, she wondered how badly she might have misjudged James, or any one of them.
She slowly left the bedroom, approaching James like a frightened animal. “James,” she murmured soothingly, hesitantly reaching out for him. He leaned into her when her hands wrapped around his arms, relishing in the warmth she offered that he would never feel again. “What happened?”
Looking around at their faces, he wished they could return to the time where being James Bellman meant being normal. He hadn’t needed to use his powers in lifetimes, not since that first time, before he knew that the inevitable couldn’t be stopped, even by his otherworldly means. This time would be different, he could feel it with Mainyu’s return, but for better or for worse, he couldn’t tell. Gingerly, he gripped her wrists and peeled her away from him.
“He was going to expose us,” he explained softly. “No one can know what happened today.”
“Y…you electrocuted him!” Claire interjected. “With your hands!”
James forced himself to look away from the hurt in Alex’s eyes and turn in Claire’s direction. Rather than tell her to shut up like he wanted to, having interrupted his time with Alex, again, he nodded. “You all saw what I did. Now you know that I’m not like you.”
Alex reached for him again, wincing when his hands met hers, disturbing the slice in her palm. “Baby, you’re scaring me,” she said. She didn’t dare question herself on where the vicious gash, the same from her dream, had come from.
Seeing the painful cut, he studied her palm for a second before he pressed their hands together. Alex tried to pull her arm from his grasp with an objective snarl, but it wouldn’t budge.
“You’re hurting me!” she snapped before she realized it wasn’t true. Her hand was fine and feeling better by the second, wrapped up in a pleasant, cool sensation emanating from his skin. She stopped thrashing only long enough to watch their hands and the soft, blue light glowing between them. Eyes wide, she stood frozen in place until he released her, stepping away when she held her hand to her face.
The skin there was smooth, the only evidence of the gash being the crusted blood.
She flipped her hand, back and forth, searching for the missing cut, but there was nothing on either side. “What? What the—?” she gasped. “How did you do that?”
He pursed his lips against the grimace on his face. “I’ve been keeping a secret from you guys. You’re not going to believe me, so just…sit down and I’ll explain everything that’s going on.”
No one moved.
“James, you need to explain this shit right now, cuz I’m this close to a breakdown,” Scottie growled, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
Alex crossed her arms, though her hand was left palm up. Her eyes occasionally flickered down to it, watching for any chance that the illusion would shatter. They waited.
“I’m an angel.”
Alex scoffed, giving him a look. “Now’s not the time to be cute, Bellman…”
He held up a hand to silence her, to which she begrudgingly obliged with an indignant expression. “I’m not being cute. My name is Hosrael and I am a guardian angel. Your guardian angel,” he concluded, gesturing with his chin to Claire.
Suspiciously, she pointed to herself. “Me?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been your guardian angel for almost three thousand years now.”
Claire pulled herself from beneath Kierlan, standing and rubbing her temple with her fingertips. “This…this is too bizarre. Four thousand y…years? I’m eighteen, James…Hosrael…whichever!”
“You’re only eighteen this time, but I’ve been watching you for more than just this lifetime.”
She blinked away confusion. “Wait. Like…reincarnation?”
“I’m…I’m Catholic! I don’t believe in rein—”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe, Claire, I’m telling you the truth,” he spat. “You all saw what I can do, what else would I have to lie about?”
Claire went silent.
“Are there a lot of…your kind…walking around?” Scottie asked, collapsing on the couch under the weight of his shock.
“Not too many, the humans grossly outnumber us,” he replied with a shrug. “Only very important humans have us trailing them, protecting them from dangers that would impact them and affect others.”
“Important?” Claire laughed. “I can’t think of any r…reason why you’d need to protect me. Are y…you—?”
“Don’t you dare ask me if I’m sure,” he snapped. “Of course I’m sure; I’ve been following you for three thousand years.”
She ran her hand through her hair as she searched for the answers to life’s great questions in the carpet. “Why?”
James placed his hand on the small of Alex’s back to lead her to the couch, but she flinched away, taking her place beside Claire instead. He masked his pain well. “You are, what my kind calls, a Spirii. It means that trauma in your original life causes you to be reincarnated over and over again until that trauma gets resolved.”
“A…And you know what that trauma is?” she inquired.
“Oh, come on, Claire,” Scottie exclaimed, “don’t tell me you believe any of this!”
“I…” she trailed off, rubbing her forehead. “I have such a bad headache.”
James shot a scathing look at Scottie. “You have to believe it, Claire. Your dreams? They’re not dreams at all! They’re flashbacks. The same flashbacks you’ve had since you were first reborn.”
Claire’s lip quivered. “I don’t…I don’t know.”
His face darkened. “Whether you believe me or not, I need you to trust me and cooperate when I tell you that we need to leave Paris, today. You need to hide while I find a way to fix—”
“Leave?” Alex blurted out, pushing Claire behind her. “Why would we have to leave?”
“Because that man in the catacombs is gonna come after the both of you,” he announced, rendering the room silent.
“Me too?” Alex inquired realizing, finally, that her dream today hadn’t been a dream at all. “Why don’t I have a guardian angel?”
“Because my bosses decided that you were able to protect yourself,” he said. “That man from earlier wasn’t just any man. His name is Angra Mainyu, known by some cultures as the God of Destruction—”
“So now you want us to believe in mythology shit, too?” Scottie erupted.
Hayden placed a calming hand on his chest. “Ya, James. I’m sorry but this is all starting to seem a little too far fetched.”
“You don’t have to believe me,” James growled. “Frankly, I don’t care if you do, but Natalia is—”
“Ya, where is Natalia, James?” Scottie snarled. “Russell, too. Did you zap them with that weird parlor trick of yours, like this guy?”
“Natalia isn’t anything like we thought she was,” he began. “When I found Claire and Alex after the lights went out, that snake had already read the spell and brought Mainyu back to this world. I should have known it was her…I’ve been worried about this since I found out about the robbery at the British Museum.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he countered.
“Back in December, the British Museum was robbed of one artifact. Two guards were killed to get this thing and everyone thought it was unusual because they only stole a piece of paper from the, extinct, Book of Eternity, an ancient spell book from Persia. The page was relatively worthless except to scholars and anyone who knew how to use it!”
“And you think that spell can resurrect mythical beings?” Scottie accused.
“It did,” Claire murmured softly. “We saw it. What does the s…spell call for?”
James rolled his eyes to the ceiling, thinking. “A structure for him to materialize on, preferably human remains, though there are some substitutes.”
She nodded. “There are plenty of those in the underground. W…What else?”
“Blood. Any blood. The stronger the blood, the more ideal.”
Alex absentmindedly searched her palm. “Stronger? You mean…like you?”
He shrugged. “Mainyu’s human body can’t sustain all the powers he possesses, so it will deteriorate at a faster rate than a normal human until he, eventually, falls back into the original components that made him. Whose blood did they take?”
“Mine,” Alex whispered.
He exhaled loudly, hopelessly. “I don’t know how Natalia knows all that she does, but she knew exactly what to do to bring Mainyu back. Alex’s blood will only slow his deterioration a little bit, but long enough to prepare a sacrifice.”
“Why my blood?”
“Claire isn’t the only Spirii I’ve met since her first life,” he murmured, folding and nervously unfolding his hands. “You, Alex, are the reincarnation of a very powerful priestess, the sister of Claire’s original incarnation. By today’s standards, I guess you would call yourself a witch.”
Scottie scoffed, turning away from them in disgust. When he faced them again, it was with disgust in his voice. “You guys can’t seriously be buying all of this shit, are—?”
“Shut the hell up, Scottie!” Alex yelled. “This is serious! Me and Claire saw that guy piece himself together right in front of us.” She gave James a look of good faith. “James, or Hosrael, or…whoever he is, is telling the truth.”
He glowered into each of their faces, probing for something in them that wasn’t there. He sighed. “Alright, assuming that I believe you—and I’m not saying I do!—what happens now that this…god is resurrected?”
James frowned deeply. “Alex’s first manifestation, Shireen, banished him to another world to prevent the destruction of the entire planet. Now that he’s back…”
Scottie chuckled darkly. “Great. What does he want?”
James pointed at Claire. “He wanted her then, and he’s definitely going to want her now. And now that he knows that Shireen is back, too, he’ll want Alex dead.”
Claire couldn’t help but sit down when her head started spinning. Hyperventilating, she gasped, “I…need…a bag…”
They ignored her when a scream from outside made them all turn to the window. “Everyone, get back,” James ordered, inching toward the glass.
Far below their room, Mainyu stood on the sidewalk, roaring demands into the faces of passersby. By the time James looked down, the god was holding a woman over his head. Despite the glass between them, the words he bellowed were as clear as day.
“Where is the woman with the hair of sunlight?! The eyes of daylight’s sky?! Tell me: where is Ziba?!”
James turned back to his friends. “Stay here. I’m leaving; I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Alex stepped toward him as he neared the door, prepared to go with him. “Is it him? The guy from the catacombs?”
James nodded. “Stay here. I don’t know how strong he is, or if they proceeded with the sacrifice, yet. I don’t want you to get hurt.” He held her at arms length, pressing his lips quickly to hers before he vanished out the door.
She stood there, watching the door slam shut behind him. It took her a moment to move. “We have to go after him.”
“Are you crazy?” Hayden breathed, leading her away from the door. “You heard James, Alex. He’s a god! You don’t stand a chance.”
Alex shook her head stubbornly. “But he also said my blood is stronger than a normal person’s! I’m a witch! I can help.”
Hayden grasped her shoulders and lightly shook her. “He told you that you were a witch two minutes ago! You have no idea if he’s telling the truth and if he is than you have no idea how to do anything remotely magical! Think this through for a minute.”
Alex scowled up at her cousin with tears brimming in her eyes. “I trust him, no matter who or what he is! Whether he’s an angel or a human or a freaking leprechaun, he’s still my Jimmy.”
Hayden let her arms fall when Alex shook her away, allowing the smaller girl to stride toward the door.
“Alex, wait!” Claire pleaded without standing.
Alex turned, eyes nearly shut while she blinked away the hot tears. “Claire, please shut up, I can’t take anyone else’s begging right now. I’m going and that’s—”
The blonde girl interrupted, albeit in a voice too meek to match up with her words, “I’m going w…with you.” She held Kierlan’s gun in her raised hand.
“Where did you get that?” Alex demanded.
Claire pointed at the body on the floor.
“What was he doing with a gun?” Alex whispered, more to herself than her friends.
Scottie held a stubborn expression while he rolled his eyes, keeping his arms crossed tightly around himself. Under the expectant eyes of Claire and Alex, he shook his head to clear it. Growling a string of profanity under his breath, he managed to finally glower at Alex as she backed slowly out of the room with Claire. He groaned. “Us too.”
Location Unknown; June 29th, 2012
“It was awful,” Janie finally murmured, digging her nails into his back to keep him closer.
Taran obliged, pulling her flush against his chest, wishing he could take away the painful memories as easily as he’d taken away her tears.
“What did he do?” he asked, though he was completely positive he wasn’t going to want to know the answer. As he gazed down at the broken girl in his lap, he felt something stir in his chest.
Janie was far from wanting to experience the horror all over again. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Are you hurt? Do you need me to fix anything?” he pleaded, looking her over, though the dark obstructed much of his view.
She nodded. “My hip.”
He lifted her gently off his lap, placing her on the floor. When his hands met her cold flesh he flinched and noticed for the first time that she was shirtless. “Where’s your—?” he began but caught himself. “Never mind.”
“He tore it up.”
Taran nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see him.
“I thought he was going to kill me, but when I opened my eyes, he was tearing up my shirt…I gave him the picture; as far as he knows, there’s no reason to keep me alive anymore.”
Taran squinted in an attempt to find whatever ailed her in her hip area, but when he began to prod, he found her skin slick with fresh blood. His pants were soaked with it after the night she’d spent sitting there, bleeding out without his knowledge.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, finally finding the wound with his fingertips. “You should have told me about this when you came back!”
Janie couldn’t help the look of confusion that passed over face. “Sorry.”
“You’re lucky he didn’t pierce any organs, or I would’ve woken up with you dead in my lap!” he enthused, tearing a strip of cloth from the hem of his dress shirt to wrap around her.
She hissed as the cloth stuck to her open slice, but didn’t fight him, even as he applied pressure to the raw flesh. “You’re so cold,” he said, handing his suit jacket to her. She donned it thankfully.
“I’m always cold,” she countered, viciously clenching and unclenching her fists against the pain when he went back to work.
“That’s deep,” he mocked, tying the ends of the cloth together to ward off the dust itching to infect her. “Janie, what did you mean about the pictures?”
She sat up and against the wall beside him, leaning heavily against his shoulder. “I had one of the pictures on me. I gave it to him. I have two others stashed, but he doesn’t know about those. They’re gonna kill me, they don’t need me anymore.”
Taran bit his tongue until he tasted blood. “You need to go to the hospital.”
Janie snorted despite herself. “Ya, let me know when you see one.”
Taran ground his teeth together, carefully thinking over his words before he whispered, “What I’m saying is, I’m getting you out of here.”
“How do you plan to do that?” she asked.
“We’ll have to run,” he explained, pulling himself to his feet. “We’ll run! I’ll fight them off while you get out and we can find a—”
“Taran!” she interjected. “I can’t run, look at my leg!”
Truth be told, he’d forgotten about that. “Right. Stand up.”
Her glare was sweltering as she sat there, not bothering to dignify his demand with action. “I can’t stand either, dumbass.”
“Then, I’ll…I’ll carry you! I’ll carry you…while I fight them off. Then, when we get to the door, I’ll let you down and you’ll crawl away while I cover the door. You’ve seen around the building more than I have, have you seen any way out?”
“Ya, but my last attempt didn’t go so well. That’s kinda why I can’t walk.”
Taran stared thoughtfully at the floor. “If you can point us in the direction of the way out, you won’t have to walk. You won’t last much longer here without medical attention.”
She bit her lip. “I know.”
“And when we’re out there, we’re gonna hang out after the hospital. We’re gonna go cliff diving, so I can break your arm, too. Then we can split some KFC chicken and live happily ever after. Y’know, normal stuff.”
Rolling her eyes, Janie mumbled, “Normal stuff. We’re really gonna do this?”
“You don’t know what they’ll do to you if it doesn’t work out. They haven’t taken you for that, yet.”
“We have to risk it,” he swore.
“I…I…” she pulled her damp hair away from her face, staring warily up into his face. “I’m gonna trust you on this, Taran.”
He released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “Good.”
“So, when are we doing this?”
He reached over and pulled her, bridal-style, into his grasp. She wrapped her arms securely around his neck in return, ready at a moment’s notice. “Now. You’re dying. Act like it.”
“This is crazy, we need to plan this better, Taran!” she objected. “You’re gonna get us killed!”
“Just do it!” he hissed.
“Uhh…” she closed her eyes and let her head loll over his forearm.
“Very good. Help! She’s bleeding out! Somebody help her!” he screamed, waiting for the door to open.
Janie could foresee a tragic flaw his plan, but remained silent anyway. There was no reason for them to want her alive, anymore, so what did it matter if she was dying? She’d given them what they wanted.
As far as they knew, anyway.
Which was why she was incredibly surprised by the screech of the opening door.
“What’s going on?” the man’s familiar voice snarled as he entered the room.
“You cut her too deep! She’s bleeding out! She won’t wake up!” Taran insisted, pulling her closer to him as he neared them.
“Where all the blood’s coming from, shithead!” Taran screamed. Janie could feel his hand gently fold over her wound.
“She’s breath—” he began.
The sharp smack of Taran’s head colliding with the man’s silenced him.
“Hold on tight,” Taran ordered, his voice thick as he recovered from the blow to his head. Janie could feel it when he ran headlong toward the exit and adjusted herself until she feared she had to be choking him with her death-grip. “Not that tight.”
She looked around as he barreled down the hallway, taking in the sights she’d seen only once before, when she’d failed in her original escape attempt. Just like before, she watched the door come into view once he reached the second floor landing. She pointed in its direction. “That’s it!”
“Hey!” a voice called as someone’s hand closed around her ankle.
It tore her from Taran’s arms just a few feet from the door.
She toppled to the floor, rolling until his grip on her leg kept her from moving further.
Taran stopped only when his body hit the door. “Janie!” he yelled, turning back as more men ran toward them.
Janie clawed at the hand binding her but her bleeding hip hindered her. “Taran!” she cried, reaching for him.
Her friend’s foot stomped on the windpipe of her captor, releasing his hold on her easily. “Janie, go! You have to go!” he yelled, shoving two men to the floor as they ran for her.
“But what about y—”
“Go! I’ll catch up,” he hastily replied.
Janie rolled over, with much effort, and crawled toward the door, crying out as her leg protested to the hard ground. She reached up, gaining leverage with the push door handle, and, painstakingly, wobbled to her feet. After several failed attempts at standing on her good leg, her shoulder pushed the handle into place in the door.
She fell out into the open.
The world was beautiful, just like she remembered, but she couldn’t stop to admire it while she was still vulnerable. Looking around, she spotted an armed guard patrolling the grounds not fifty feet from where she knelt, but his eyes were diverted from her, focused on the woods at the edge of the yard. Without a plan from this point on, she realized that the woods were her only chance without Taran. There was nowhere else to hide.
Taran would find her there.
She crawled silently toward the line of trees separating her from freedom, marine-style, so she wouldn’t attract the attention of the guard.
She was so slow.
Her heart pounded in her head to the soundtrack of her fevered breaths as she pulled herself across the short grass.
“Stop!” a male voice called from where she assumed the guard was standing, watching her. She could do nothing but continue pulling herself toward the woods with a renewed determination.
Taran separated his throat from the grasp of one of the men inside, throwing him away and into another man that ran toward him.
He didn’t wait for any others to come his way. Throwing himself outside, he found the edge of the forest easily and nothing else. Janie must have gotten into the woods, he realized, she couldn’t be hiding anywhere else.
He was impressed, he was worried she wouldn’t get far without him, but he’d obviously underestimated her. Hearing the door open behind him, he loped toward the trees, searching for Janie as he went.
But, he didn’t find her.
He went back to find her, where she must have been hiding low to the ground.
He stopped to catch his breath, knowing they wouldn’t be pursuing him anymore. Janie would need to take a break to nurse her most recent injury soon, anyway, and he needed to find her to stop the bleeding. He bent over his knees.
“That was…exciting?” he chuckled, more to himself than her, though he yelled to get her attention. “We need to find a hospital. Are you bleeding, again?” He looked around again by the very edge of the woods, hoping to see her lying there, holding her breath, waiting for his return. “Janie?”
He was alone.
“Janie!” he called.
His useless scream received only its echo in response.
Movement back in the yard caught his attention, and he turned behind a tree to investigate. His heart dropped.
As he stood safely in the shadows, he watched his Janie writhe in the arms of an unfamiliar man as he walked toward the door of the building.
He dropped her, and Taran briefly debated whether it would be wiser to go in after her or get help. When the guard reestablished a hold on Janie, this time on her hair as he pulled her, screaming his name, into the building, Taran’s options had run out. Now, whichever way he spun it, he could think of only one thing:
He’d escaped the prison cell, but he’d left Janie behind.
When the door slammed closed, he turned on his heel, running as fast as he could toward where he thought he would find civilization. He didn’t think he would have to do this alone, now it was all he thought.
He was alone.
Janie was alone.
Janie could die without him there to help her; as if he’d been such a great help when he was there. He forced himself to run when he realized the only help for her now would be to get the authorities. If they hadn’t already been corrupted by Petrov and her goons.
Janie wailed as she was pulled back to the room of her nightmares by her hair, now without a single person to buoy her when she was returned to the cell. She could only pray to whatever God would listen that Taran would come back for her. That hope was all that got her through the next hour, while her head was wrenched to and from the concrete trough. But, in all honesty, what else could she do?
Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub.
Paris, France; June 29th, 2012
Thinking back on their adventure to “help” James, Claire thought that there were a lot of things they should’ve done differently before they ran off to follow him. One of those things was to tie up Kierlan before they left.
When the four of them had run from the hotel room, shoving past the others in the hallway that screamed back in French, they’d been unable to find James or the man he’d been following. And, as they left the hotel room for the second time in the previous half hour, they realized how careless they’d been.
Alex led them through the lobby, Claire following with Kierlan’s gun, shaking but hidden, in her shirt. Scottie looked around the room for any sign of the escaped man, but, so far, they’d been unsuccessful.
“He can’t have gotten far, we were only gone for ten minutes!” Alex complained, pushing open the glass doors.
Scottie shielded his eyes to block out the intense sun streaming through the sudden cover of clouds closing in. “That doesn’t matter, if he’s not in the hotel than he could be anywhere in Paris by now.”
Alex grunted in frustration. “How the hell are we gonna find him?”
“Well,” Hayden noted, “your boyfriend fried his cell phone, Claire has his gun, and he’s gotta be a little slow since he was just electrocuted. He’s gotta know that no one on the street would believe him, so who would he have gone to?”
Claire readjusted her hold on the gun, clutching it away from her body. “W…wait a minute, before…” she pointed up to the third floor, “When James t…took care of him, Kierlan said he was calling his office. He probably w…went there.”
“But where is there?” Hayden demanded.
“His accent wasn’t French,” Alex growled. “That office could be anywhere in Europe, maybe the world. There’s no way we’ll find it, Claire.”
“And we’re right back where we started,” Hayden grumbled.
Scottie rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. “This is too weird. Why do you guys care? If this guy tells, all it means is he’s going away to the nuthouse for the rest of his life, it doesn’t affect us. We should just go home!”
Alex shoved him. “We are not leaving without James, Scottie! So stop being an asshole and help us! James didn’t want this guy exposing him so we gotta find him before he tells. If you can’t pretend to be helpful, then shut up. Any advice?”
Scottie narrowed his eyes. “Maybe we should split up.”
Alex scowled back. “That would probably be best.”
“Good. Me and Hayden’ll take this way,” he gestured behind him with his thumb. “You guys go that way. We’ll meet back here in an hour. Maybe he’ll be back by then.”
“Fine,” she grumbled, pulling Claire down the sidewalk by her arm. “C’mon, Claire.”
They went their separate ways for a long time, Claire and Alex keeping completely silent while their eyes scanned the crowds for a man in a holey, black t-shirt. Claire was the first to break the silence with her recurrent stammer. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”
Alex shrugged, “Maybe you are. Maybe we both are.”
“I just…I can’t believe that all t…this time…” she began.
“I know. But…you need to think about his reasons for lying,” Alex murmured. “His kind obviously has rules about human exposure, and, I’ll be the first to admit it, we never would have believed him.”
Claire stopped walking, forcing Alex to halt as well. “You…You’re taking this awfully well, Alex.”
“I’m just trying to understand this from James’s perspective before I judge him,” she explained. “And…I love him. I don’t want to make him the bad guy. There are too many real bad guys around for us to turn on him.”
Claire nodded, though she didn’t know if she could be as forgiving. “I h…hope you’re right about him.” She took a step, eyes raised for their search once more.
Then, she found him.
Kierlan stood against the wall of a building across the street, arms crossed leisurely over his chest while he watched them smugly. Claire tried to say something, anything, while she pointed uselessly in his direction, but her stutter held her back while he disappeared behind the flash of a moving car. Blinking feverishly, as if it would make him reappear, she finally managed to yell. “Over there!”
Startled by her outburst, Alex jumped, following Claire’s gesture with her eyes. “What? I don’t see anything!”
“I…It was him. He’s across the s…street!”
Alex squinted in the hope that she would see what Claire did, but she had no such luck. “Claire, I don’t…” she trailed off, watching her friend take off running through the traffic, gun held threateningly over her head. “Claire!” she shrieked.
The sound of her voice was drowned out by the blare of a horn and the screech of tires as the cars nearing Claire came to a screeching halt. Waving apologetically at the people exiting their cars, Alex went tearing after her, screaming her name.
It wasn’t difficult for Alex to catch up when Claire’s asthma started acting up, but by then they’d already gathered a significant amount of attention. Women screamed when they saw the gun in Claire’s hand and everyone parted like the red sea when she came close. Alex made a grab for her shoulder, spinning her around to meet her eyes while they both breathed heavily. “What are you doing?” Alex demanded through deep gasps.
“I—” Claire shouted.
“You could’ve been killed! You could’ve killed someone else with that thing!” Alex interjected.
“Do you even know how to use that gun? If he’s here, he definitely knows we’re close, now!”
“Can I talk, please—?” the blonde demanded.
“You can’t attract so much attention, Claire! It’ll lead Natalia straight to us, or worse!”
Claire felt tears pricking at her eyes, recognizing that her friend would never take her seriously while she was still the innocent one…the baby…the liability. Her speech impediment only made it worse when she wanted to voice her concerns. After all, everyone always felt the need to protect the poor, stuttering Claire Not-So-Strong. And she was through with being protected now that James had admitted to his true place in their lives.
To protect the defenseless Claire Strong.
Just like everyone else.
“I…If we wanna find him, we’re gonna have to s…split up,” she deadpanned. “I’m going this way. You go that way…”
“No, Claire,” Alex replied. “We have to stay together. What if we run into—?”
“I don’t need you to baby sit me, Alex!” she growled, jerking away from Alex’s grip on her shoulders.
Alex’s eyes widened. She’d never seen her friend like that. “I’m not here to baby sit you, Claire. But if we find that guy, he’s gonna go after you—”
“Then I can take care of myself. Y…you’re not my mom and you’re not my protector. I…I’m sick of people treating me like the baby!” she shrieked. “Now take that side of the sidewalk. I…I s…saw him over here and we’re not helping a…anything by standing around.”
Alex’s jaw gaped. She backed away slowly. “Are you okay? Is something the matter?”
“I’m fine,” she snapped. “James’s l…little confession today was j…just the last straw. I don’t n…need to be protected.”
“You do, Claire. He’s a god! If he finds you, he’ll take you!” Alex protested.
“A…And what difference is it gonna make i…if you’re with me? ‘Cuz you found out that you’re a witch ten minutes ago? I…I don’t wanna be your sidekick anymore, Alex!”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. Meet us back at the hotel in an hour. I mean, if that’s alright with you, your highness.”
Claire watched her stomp away before she turned in the other direction, storming off in a huff with the gun clutched in her hands. The civilians continued to dive out of her way while she searched uselessly for Kierlan.
He watched from the shadows.
He couldn’t help but be amused by what she said, having told her friend that she could protect herself when she most certainly couldn’t. And he would prove it.
Even more entertaining was that she was looking for him. Ever since he’d woken on the floor with a massive headache and a pain in his chest, he’d had one objective: to do the job. Now, she was not only close enough to touch, she was away from any potential witnesses. Easy pickings.
Claire had a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach as she walked further and further away from the crowded street. She passed it off as ire, especially since the thought of her friends in that moment made her sick to her stomach. She wanted to turn back toward the hotel, but she didn’t dare return empty-handed. After the breakdown she’d had in front of Alex, she needed to be right. She needed to prove she could be a valuable asset like everyone else.
A noise up ahead caught her attention.
Keeping her forefinger poised over the trigger, Claire ran headlong toward the disturbance. She passed an alleyway in her haste.
Then, she realized there was something in there, doubled over in pain.
She let her weapon hang against her leg, her arm going limp. With her head cocked to the side, she watched the shadow fall to its knees. He groaned loudly, releasing her from her trance as she waited for any hint of its identity. She jumped. She didn’t dare take a step.
“K…Kierlan?” she called, trying to sound confident. She failed…miserably.
He groaned again, clawing at the place in his chest where she knew Kierlan had been electrocuted. She held the gun out again when she started walking toward him, knowing it could all be a trick. “P…put your hands on the ground! I’m t…taking you with m…me!” she faltered, biting the inside of her mouth.
He didn’t answer, or do as she’d asked. He groaned again.
“I…I said, put your hands on the ground!” she repeated, barely two steps away now.
He gave a pained moan, like a wounded animal.
“O…Oh God, are y…you okay?” she inquired, ducking closer as she reached for him, hoping to help. “L…let me see—”
She missed the quick movement of the foot that connected with her hand.
She gave a piercing shriek when the gun flew away from her. She fell back on her behind, feverishly pushing herself away from him with her heels while she probed the ground for the gun. She wasn’t helpless, she told herself. She could protect herself. She could take care of this and get him back to the hotel with her.
Something grasped her ankle, viciously yanking her in the direction of the shadow. Kicking and clawing to get away, she repeated her newest mantra in her head. She was not helpless. She was not helpless. But when a bag closed over her head, obstructing her view of the alley, and the shadow, she knew that she’d made a huge mistake when she’d yelled at Alex.
She was helpless.
Her body was swept up and off the floor, still thrashing against her captor, in vain. It wasn’t a moment later, however, that she felt a new floor rush up to meet her. She grunted, prepared to jump back up and run, but when her fingers stretched outward, they met cold metal in every direction.
The whir of an engine under her sent her falling back to the floor.
Without a plan and without help, she could only cling to the hope that when she didn’t meet them at the hotel in an hour, they would go looking for her. James would find her, it was his job. And she could only hope that Alex would disregard her earlier complaints and come looking for her as well.
But Paris was a big city, and they wouldn’t have any idea where to start.
She comforted herself with the knowledge that the man from the catacombs would want her alive, but when the car stopped again and she was removed from the trunk, the first thing she heard through the bag’s thin barrier was a hoarse, female voice, screaming for help. She couldn’t see the room, but she knew that the other captive was far away, through walls. Nevertheless, her words shook Claire’s outward composure and made her think: they wouldn’t kill her, but there were so many other things they could do.
“Don’t put me back in the tub!” the invisible girl screamed.
The force of the sack being torn from Claire’s head made her chair rock back on its legs; her arms, bound behind her, were useless in steadying herself. When she feared the precarious swing would finally land her on her back, it stopped and she was set to rights. She feverishly blinked her eyes against the brightness overhead from a swinging, bulb until a shadow fell over her, the owner’s face hidden by the glow framing it from behind. She squinted up, the demands she’d been prepared to spit dying on her lips when her eyes met the steel-gray orbs above her. As usual, caught like a mouse in the eyes of a snake, she froze, incapable of thought.
“K…Kierlan?” she breathed, her stammer due more to his presence than her speech impediment.
He smirked at her, easily catching on to her attraction to him. A twinge of guilt nagged at the back of his mind, though, and he desperately wanted it to go away. He didn’t want to hear the proclamation she’d made to her friend running through his head, begging to be recognized as someone they could take seriously. He didn’t want to feel the full scathing regret burning through his chest when her wide, innocent eyes fell on him. He didn’t want to recall her unnatural beauty and feel the unmistakable need to free her from her bindings. And, more than any of that, he didn’t want to want her.
He shook away his traitor remorse, recalling the fat check that had been left on his doorstep months earlier, with the promise of another after he finished the job. In comparison to the other tasks his employer had demanded of him, keeping this weak girl in his sight and in ropes was nothing. Despite his reservations, he let a menacing smirk materialize on his face. “Claire,” he purred, rounding the chair with his hand planted firmly on the back, holding it in place.
So close, she couldn’t help but muse, luxuriating in the touch of his breath fanning across her face. Seeing the corner of his lip twitch ever higher, she snapped out of her girlish fantasies and managed to plaster a scowl on her face, searching the bare, crumbling, cement walls around her for any hint of her location.
As she’d dreaded since her abduction, there was nothing.
The rage she’d painted on her face fell momentarily only when she caught the stain of blood on the floor out of her peripheral vision.
“God,” she gasped, her head whipping forward to face him again. “W…what’s going on?”
He knelt before her legs so that her eyes were in line with his. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, stroking her face with the back of his hand. “You’re just here to answer some questions.”
She winced when sparks tingled through her cheek. Determined to realize that the object of her recent attraction had kidnapped her, she jerked away from his touch, openly glaring daggers at him. “You’re not r…really a PI, a…are you?” she growled, snapping her gaze from him with disgust.
He, wisely, refused to answer. “You don’t need to worry, Claire—”
“Oh n…no? Why not, Kierlan? You kidnapped me and brought m…me to this place! Is that blood on the f…floor?! It’s blood on the floor, isn’t it?!”
Kierlan didn’t look to the floor, cursing the men who’d used this room last for their carelessness. The water in the concrete hole behind him was left as well, filled with unmentionable bodily fluids. He, calmly, let his rejected hand fall, bracing himself on his knees instead. “You can still believe me when I say that my intention isn’t to hurt you,” he vowed with, what appeared to be, a genuine smile.
Claire relaxed back into the chair, but she didn’t believe him. The hidden meaning behind his words wasn’t lost by her, either. Her mind unwillingly went back to her arrival, wondering where the other girl was being kept. What had they done to her? Was she even still alive?
He chuckled. “Does that mean you’ll be cooperating now?”
She narrowed her eyes, visibly pursing her lips.
He hummed in distaste. “Right. Either way, you’re stuck here, Claire. You may as well answer my questions.”
She remained unresponsive.
“I want you to answer me honestly,” he ordered, returning to a standing position so he could tower ominously over her. “What happened in the catacombs today? Why’d you make up such a ridiculous story?”
Meeting his eyes indignantly, she crowed, “I didn’t m…make it up! Everything I said about M…Mainyu in the catacombs was the truth!”
“Mainyu?” he demanded.
She hissed in a breath through her clenched teeth, testing the bindings around her wrists.
She’d played straight into his hands.
Her ropes were too tight to slip out of, but she realized then that she wasn’t held to the chair at all. When he turned away, she resolved, she would stand and run for the wooden door across the room. How she would get it open when she got there, however, was a work in progress.
Kierlan was patient when he spoke again. After all, he had all the time in the world to spare while he waited for his team to come for her. “Who’s Mainyu, Claire?”
She tasted blood as she bit harshly down on her tongue. “Why s…should I tell you?” she grumbled, pulling vainly against the ropes cutting into her wrists, imagining the doorknob between her palms.
“What?” he snapped, leaning closer.
“You didn’t b…believe me the first time I told you!” she reminded him. “Why should I t…tell you now?”
He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Claire, what you said today was completely impossible. Tell me who Mainyu is. Truthfully.”
She bit the inside of her mouth. “He’s a God.”
He laughed darkly, balancing her on the back legs of her chair again while he held her face in suspense before his own, her cheeks pressed together between his fingers. “Are you doing this to spite me, or are you just…insane?”
She kicked him weakly, unsurprised when he didn’t wince. Rather than repeat his question, he stared expectantly down at her.
He sighed heavily. “Let’s try another one, then.”
Claire thought she could predict what that question would be.
“What happened at the hotel?” he demanded. “James did something, I know he did. What happened?”
She chuckled, though it sounded strange while he forcibly pursed her lips. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
He scowled down at her, eyes trailing from her crystal eyes to her puckered lips, then to her more desirable attributes. The look on her face hinted she wasn’t fooled, but he took his time in wrenching his gaze upward. “Try me,” he grunted.
She said nothing. She didn’t move for a while.
Fiercely shaking his hand away from her mouth, she said “So, if you’re not a r…real private instigator, w…what are you?”
He was taken aback, but, outwardly, showed no sign of shock. “It doesn’t matter what I am, Ms. Strong. Answer the question.”
“I….I have a few questions of m…my own,” she countered. “Like why I’m h…here. What do y…you care if I’m insane?”
He groaned, stepping around her chair to lean over her. “I don’t, you see. If it were up to me, personally, I’d let you go home right now, but it’s not. I’m just here to ask the questions and keep you from running away.”
She frowned, letting her gaze fall again. “W…who’s it up to, then?”
He chuckled, leaning into her face. “You ask a lot of questions, Claire.”
“You a…avoid a lot of questions,” she challenged. “W…why is that?”
He knelt closer, his forehead practically touching hers. “I’m just biding my time. I only have to watch the others come to pick you up. And you’re stuck with me until then. You’ll answer my questions…eventually,” he added, his mouth a mere breath away from her ear.
Something in the back of her mind finally clicked and she exhale sharply, like she’d had the breath knocked out of her. “H…How did you know my last name?”
She never got an answer.
The wooden door flung open, crashing against the wall and sending the pair flying away from each other.
Kierlan’s hand reached for the gun in his waistband but felt nothing but the material of his shirt and jeans. Cursing Claire and her shameless theft, he waited for the new arrival to show his face. Before he saw that, however, he felt the cold barrel of a gun hit his face between the eyes.
His back met the floor quickly after that, eyes finding the bare ceiling and the rat responsible standing over him.
Claire screamed. Seeing the man in the doorway, she sighed in relief. “Russell! T…thank God!”
Kierlan tensed to spring at the intruder, knowing Russell was about to ruin everything, but the gun in his face kept him frozen on the floor. He slowly raised his hands, palms forward. “What are you doing?” he whispered, eyes flickering to girl a few feet away.
“You’re not taking the credit for this,” Russell hissed, pushing Kierlan’s head to the floor with the gun. “I’ll use her to get all of them. The boss is going to want all of them.”
“You’re gonna screw it up!” Kierlan enthused.
“Shut up!” Russell stomped, getting off his knees. “You’re both coming with me! And I’m not gonna screw it up!”
Claire floundered for words, unaware of what had transpired between the men. Her mind entertained the thought that, maybe, he’d had nothing to do with what Natalia had done that morning. Obviously, if he was saving her from Kierlan, he couldn’t have been in on it, right? “R…Russell—?”
“Shut up, Claire, your freaking stutter is driving me crazy!” he ordered.
Her eyes bugged. “W…wha—?”
“Getting close to you these last few months was a nightmare. Oh,” he shrieked in a whiny voice, “I’m freaking Claire Strong and everything in the freaking world revolves around me, just shut up!”
The girl could do nothing else but obey, appalled by his confession and terrified by the gun he thoughtlessly swung around. Well, she thought to herself, whatever his reason for being there, it definitely wasn’t to save her.
Russell looked between the two of them for a moment before he finally yelled, “Get the hell up, both of you!”
With his free hand, he hauled Claire to her feet, keeping her arms tied tightly behind her back. Roughly, he shoved her forward and gestured for Kierlan to follow, striking his face when he didn’t immediately comply. “Move!”
Kierlan flexed his jaw, testing the ache from the punch he’d just received. “Where’s Natalia?” he growled under his breath, grunting when he felt Russell’s shoe hit him between the shoulder blades. “Does she know that—?”
“She’s busy,” he mumbled, leading them to the stairs out of the basement. Claire hung her head, inconspicuously tuning into their conversation.
“With what? The real work?” Kierlan countered before he felt cold metal bash the back of his skull again. He didn’t fall, but, while he was doubled over, his murderous gaze fell back on Russell. He resolved there and then that he was going to kill Russell, and he wouldn’t feel bad about it in the least.
“You don’t know anything, Cole!” the rat snarled. In a softer voice, he said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
After another shove from the dumbass trailing them, Kierlan stepped faster up the stairs toward Claire, steadying her by the small of her back.
The venom in the look she gave him turned the air cold.
For the first time that day, when she jerked herself away from his touch, she meant it.
“Don’t t…touch me!” she growled under her breath.
He stepped away, dejected but ready to catch her if her bound arms threw her off balance.
“No talking,” Russell ordered.
Paris, France; June 29th, 2012
“Where are we going?” Kierlan demanded from the back of the taxi, his face flattened against the window as he pleaded with the people flying by outside to call for help.
There was no hope of that now; the driver hadn’t even caught on to his desperate looks for help and any rational onlookers on the sidewalk were whizzing by too fast to see. Beside him, Russell held the cold metal barrel of the gun pressed firmly into his ribs, hidden beneath the loose material of Kierlan’s shirt. The rat scowled forward.
On Russell’s other side, Claire stared forlornly down into her lap, her hands hanging behind her. Tears ran silently and shamelessly down her reddened face.
Since they’d left the basement, Russell had shoved them into the cab with the warning that kept them quiet in the face of the ignorant driver. The second either of them begged for help, Kierlan would get a bullet in the side, followed by Claire, who’d get one in the mouth.
Kierlan hadn’t bothered to remind him that he couldn’t produce Claire in any less than the perfect condition he’d found her in, unless he welcomed the inevitable, painful, punishment that Natalia would bestow upon him. The instructions had been clear about that. The crazed look in the gunmen’s eye, however, clued that, unless he had a death wish, that wouldn’t be something he should say. If today had taught him anything, it was that Russell had tipped the scale toward psychopathic.
Whatever happened in the catacombs must have made him this way. Kierlan had worked with Russell for years and, though Russell had never been what anyone would necessarily call a ‘team player,’ he’d never blatantly gone against orders. Something must have happened in the underground that morning, he reasoned. Something bad.
Without his mind’s accord, his eyes stared, over Russell, at Claire, catching the drip of tears falling into her lap that she was unable to wipe away.
Claire tried not to think of where they were going or what Russell planned to do. Despite the effort she made, she failed.
“We’re missing someone important,” he replied, sharply prodding him with the gun. It was all he said on the matter.
Moments later, the taxi pulled up in front of the all too familiar hotel. Russell tossed a wad of bills into the front seat, receiving a heavily accented, “Thank you,” in response.
The passengers didn’t stay to listen. Heaving Kierlan to the sidewalk first, Russell pulled Claire along behind him by her arm, letting her fall unceremoniously to the ground when she stumbled out the door. Kierlan looked over, his cheek scraping against the cement, to find her in the same position, though her joined arms left her powerless against the ground that had rushed up to meet her. Blood surfaced and oozed to the ground from the new cuts on her face.
She averted her eyes, as he’d expected.
“Get up,” Russell ordered, hauling Claire to her feet by her wrists. Kierlan slowly lifted himself into a standing position and, of his own free will, strode through the entrance. Claire and Russell followed.
The first thing Claire saw when she staggered into the lobby was the back of Alex’s head across the room.
She faced her boyfriend, but the two of them were the only people she recognized in the room. James was the first to look up at them, gasping something unintelligible that made Alex spin around, finding them easily amongst the crowd. Her eyes bugged and her jaw hung silently while she tried to speak. Claire couldn’t help the pathetic look that overcame her when she glanced at her, and her heart dropped into her stomach when she realized, with startling finality, that Hayden and Scottie were missing. She knew immediately that something terrible had happened.
“Russ—!” Alex shrieked. She took one step forward, body poised to sprint across the lobby, eyes focused intently on the trails of tears streaking down Claire’s cheeks.
“Ah,” he warned, unveiling the gun pressed into Claire’s back, only slightly. Alex froze, flailing her hand uselessly against James’s chest, whimpering. A smile twitched onto Russell’s face as he looked between the two of them, noting with immense pleasure that Hayden and Scottie were nowhere to be found. Baring his teeth like the Cheshire cat, he continued, jabbing Claire in the back so she gave a startled sob, “Maybe we should take this upstairs. I think we have some things to talk about.”
Alex narrowed her eyes, subconsciously melting into James’s side. He wrapped an arm around her and nodded. “Ya. Maybe that would be best.” He, reluctantly, peeled himself away from her, leading the way toward their room. Alex ran to Claire, barely hindered when Russell tensed as she neared them.
“Back up!” he ordered as she shoved past him and the silent Kierlan, throwing her arms around her friend.
“Cool it, you freak!” she screeched. “What did you do to her?”
“I…I’m fine, Alex,” she whispered under her breath. “And I’m s…sorry. I d…didn’t mean what I said earlier.” She chuckled darkly. “T…Turns out I can’t protect myself after all.”
“Oh, honey, it’s okay,” Alex hummed, hugging her again. “I don’t mean to smother you, I swear.” She pulled skillfully at the ropes around Claire’s wrists, glaring up at Russell in challenge when his palms slapped against her hands. They remained in a deadlock for a few silent seconds.
“Fine,” he growled, pulling away from the pair to grip the back of Kierlan’s neck. He pushed him forward. “Follow him!”
“Where’s Scottie and H…Hayden?” Claire asked.
Alex shook her head sadly. “Don’t know. They never came back after we split up. We kinda thought they were with you.”
“If I hear either of you talk again, I’m blowing somebody’s head off,” Russell vowed as Alex felt the cold tap of metal against her shoulder. She bit her lip, holding back all the profanity she wanted to sling at him. Self preservation took over and she let her head hang, sharing an angry look with Claire.
Kierlan walked up the stairs beside James, keeping his gaze downcast to avoid suspicion. “When we get to the room, you get Claire away from him and I’m sure we can take him.”
James scowled over at him. “What did you do to Hayden and Scottie?”
The other man finally met his eyes with shock. “I didn’t touch either of them. I’m not responsible for any of this!”
James gave an unintelligible click of his tongue; obviously not believing him.
“What do I have to do to prove to you that I want to help?” Kierlan demanded, whipping his head toward Russell when he was promptly hushed with a smack to the head.
James whispered, hiding his words from Russell when the gunman stood close behind them, “I don’t know how you fit into this, but I will find out.”
“I—” he began.
“I don’t think you know the extent of what happens if I fail,” James interjected. “You don’t seem to understand what’s going on.”
Kierlan snickered humorlessly. “What’s to get? I’m dealing with crazy people who think they’re reenacting some movie or something.”
James didn’t laugh. “Who hired you?”
“No one hired me!” he enthused quietly. “I’m a private party.”
As they came to the third floor, the pushing against each of their backs became more insistent. James was the first to near their door, but he halted before he could open it, feeling a disturbance in the air. They couldn’t go inside.
“What’re you waiting for?” Russell demanded. “Move!”
James shook his head, listening intently for any sound on the other side of the door. “We can’t go in there.”
“Why not,” Russell growled, pulling his respective key card from the pocket of his sweatpants.
“There’s somebody in there.”
Shaking his head, Russell pushed the card into the slot, shaking James’s hand away from him when he tried to protest. He flung the door open, letting it creak to a halt against the wall.
They didn’t see him at first, but, as Russell forced them inside, each of them passed the room divider. Claire was the first inside, catching herself against the doorway when she tripped over the edge of the carpet.
Then, she saw him.
Rather, she saw what was left of him. The others followed shortly after to investigate the reason behind Claire’s quickly changing face.
Angra Mainyu was alone as he stood in the suite’s living room, bedecked in the same tattered robes he’d materialized in earlier that day, but the God himself had significantly changed. While much of his skin remained intact, Mainyu’s face was rapidly becoming a scene directly from a horror movie. Cracks ran through the skin around his nose like a shattered mirror, oozing blood that ran down his face. Claire’s hand immediately flew over her mouth.
“What the f—” Russell began as he rounded the corner, coming into Mainyu’s view. Dropping his jaw, the meager man shook when he raised his gun.
“Jesus,” Kierlan gasped. “What are you?”
The God barely spared him a glance, every fiber of his otherworldly being focused on Claire. “Ziba,” he breathed, relief coloring his tone. “I have longed for this day for eternities.” He reached for her.
Kierlan snapped out of the trance his shock had cast over him enough to step infinitesimally closer to her. “What do you want?” he demanded, breaking their uninterrupted stare. He easily snatched the gun from Russell’s trembling hands. Gesturing to the distance between the god and the girl with his chin, he said, “Back off, Ugly.”
Mainyu slowly met Kierlan’s determined, and absolutely terrified, face as if he was a bug on his windshield. “Step aside, mortal. Your earthly weapons are of no use against me.”
“We’ll see about that when I blow a freaking hole in your head. What do you want?”
The god looked away again to step closer to Claire, who matched his step backward. “I want my love incarnate. She is to come with me.”
James stood beside Kierlan, blocking Claire completely from view, his palms crackling with blue sparks. Kierlan and Russell stared dumbly at the energy dancing across his hands, failing to come up with a rational excuse for it. “She’s not going anywhere.”
Mainyu laughed. “I have waited for her too long to bow to a mortal, or any lesser being. Try to stop me.”
He moved fast, hands gripping Claire, too tightly, around the arms before they could blink. Kierlan’s reaction was faster around the trigger and, with a twitch of a finger, the flesh surrounding Mainyu’s left eye blew away with the bullet. The God snarled at the human man, but kept his grip on Claire, dragging her toward the window.
“Help me!” she shrieked, using all her weight to resist him.
James said nothing as he thrust his arms out, letting bolts of lights spring from his flesh to Mainyu’s chest with the deafening screech of static.
The God flew across the room like Kierlan had done earlier, hitting the wall and landing in a jumble of limbs around his robes. Unlike the mortal who’d suffered James’s powers, Mainyu bounced back easily, face twisted with rage. He looked for a weakness among them, but he didn’t stand a chance without his powers.
With another gut-wrenchingly yearning look at Claire, he growled, in the voice of the devil, “You will realize soon enough, young one, that now and forever, you are mine!”
Gathering his robes in his hand, Mainyu inconspicuously looked toward the darkened window before he took off running, crashing through the glass and vanishing into the night. Gun-less and practically helpless, Russell went to follow, standing on the windowsill. He stared down, down, down and wondered how the last guy had managed a landing that hadn’t left him flat in the sidewalk. Unfortunately, his wish to be away from the freak with lightning hands took precedence over his fear of heights. He readied himself to jump.
James was already running headlong toward the door to pursue Mainyu when the thought struck him that Russell might actually do it.
“Stop him!” he threw back over his shoulder.
Kierlan ogled at the scorch marks on the wall, courtesy of the lightning that had… materialized in James’s hand. There had to be some kind of explanation. “What the hell,” he whispered, turning his head every which way, as if seeing the black ash in a new light would make it appear more plausible. It didn’t change the fact that he’d just watched a man shoot bolts of lightning from his skin.
“Cole!” James shrieked, disappearing into the hallway.
Kierlan shook his head, entering reality once more. He reacted quickly, shoving the gun into his waistband and pulling the rat out of the window by the back of his shirt in one movement, letting him fall clumsily onto the coffee table. He couldn’t help the wicked smile that formed on his face with the taste of revenge, especially when the flimsy wood collapsed under Russell’s weight, leaving him stunned on the floor. Kierlan stepped over the splinters, stooping down beside the body on the floor.
Frightened eyes stared up at him.
“I think we have some things to talk about, Russell,” he sang, weaving his fingers through the man’s hair and smashing his head into the floor.
Russell cried out.
“And if you even think about telling them about me,” he continued in a hush, “I’ll make you wish you were dead!”
Location Unknown; June 30th, 2012
The woods had gone on forever, leading only to a silent road, walled in on both sides by trees. The darkness hid Taran when he broke through the brush, falling on his face in the dirt while he caught his breath. His dress shirt had lost its original whiteness, stained by mud, sweat, and blood from Janie as well as the minor cuts he’d gotten from thorns and branches in the forest. The sleeves were practically shredded now and he was shoeless, having taken them off in the cell. But he went on, striding down the road where he hoped he would find a town.
A long time ago, Taran had been a team player, and a damn good one at that. He’d dropped out of High School at seventeen, escaping a house he’d had no business ever returning to. Enlisting in the Marines had been easy, training as a sniper had been hard, but he’d done it. Had perfected it so well he could stay completely still at his post for days at a time, waiting for his target. And, of course, his shot was the best of his entire platoon.
Then, he’d gone sloppy.
Positioned in Iraq and staring at the barren ground for two whole years had grown monotonous, even to him. As the dirt and sand swirled behind his eyelids from his high perch, he’d allowed himself to doze off, gun held securely against his chest.
He’d been woken suddenly by the screech of his commanding officer, pleading for his attention. His memory of the mission clouded by sleep deprivation, he searched the area for anything suspicious. By the time he realized the commotion echoing through the city was coming from the building he was posted above, it was too late.
The floor beneath him collapsed with the explosion he hadn’t expected.
Ten dead. Three injured, including himself.
Realizing he could never go back to the military career he’d left behind and without an education, he’d run out of options. His life was killing and it was what he was good at. That was when he’d started his life as a murdered for hire. It paid well and he’d made a good life for himself in the city because of it.
Then he’d gone sloppy, again.
A week ago, when he was sleeping soundly in his posh, New York City penthouse, he hadn’t foreseen anything like this in his future. At the time, his only plans had been in carrying out his latest hit at the Mayor’s Charity Gala the next day. Then, he would return home, alone. It had been at least a year since he’d seen Natalia and five since his desertion from the military. Natalia, who’d once tried to carry out a hit on him, seemed to have long since given up and he’d allowed himself to stop worrying about her lurking around every corner.
Needless to say, he’d been very wrong.
As the CEO of a company he didn’t care to remember fell dead at his feet, after a long effort at coercing him into the dark alley, he’d been bound from behind.
Forced against the brick wall.
All his years of training couldn’t get Natalia off him as she tied his wrists behind his back, this time with a desperation that was unlike her. She took him and left him locked up and sedated for three days. Then, when he’d finally woken, it was to Natalia shoving him into a cell. He staggered to keep his balance.
There, he’d met Janie.
He was forced out of his thoughts by bright headlights breaking the uninterrupted darkness, speeding in his direction. His body warred with the decision to throw himself in its path, pleading for help, or throw himself into the cover of the trees. It could have very well been one of the men back at the prison searching for him. He’d be useless to Janie if he was captured again and desperately didn’t want to risk it. Before his brain had come to a complete decision, his legs carried him into the center of the road.
Waving his arms, he screamed for them to stop.
The vehicle came to a screeching halt mere inches before his knees and Taran breathed a heavy sigh of relief, running to the driver’s side door. Whatever he might have hoped as he looked through the window, he didn’t find anything positive on the other side.
He didn’t recognize the man behind the wheel, but his eyes could definitely recognize the gun in his hand.
The heavy door swung open, colliding with Taran’s face and chest. He went sprawling to the pavement while the driver stepped slowly out of the car.
“I’m surprised you got out at all, Taran,” he muttered, stepping around the young man as he wiped the blood from his lip. His voice was familiar, the voice of the man who’d last taken Janie from him. “You’re completely tactless. It’s a wonder you evaded Natalia for so long.”
He used the butt of the gun in his hand to hit Taran in the face, shoving his head into the ground so hard he saw stars.
Taran wished he could fall asleep, right there. His head lolled back, eyes closing of their own accord. When he could see only a sliver of the greenery between his cracked lids, he glimpsed salvation.
A thick branch protruded from the dirt, heavy, sharp, and just within his reach.
He barely needed to stretch, wrapping his fingers around the limb. He hit the other man in the eyes.
Wailing, Vilmore fell backwards, dropping his gun as he clawed at the stabbing pain in his eyes. Taran saw red as he staggered to his feet, wobbling when he tried to approach him.
He knew the man’s voice, mocking when he’d earlier stolen Janie from his arms to do God knows what. He’d tried to break her, returning her to him sobbing, bleeding, terrified, shirtless…
Taran had never wanted anyone dead so badly, not even Petrov.
He dropped to his knees on the man’s chest, enjoying his gasps between cries of pain, blind and bleeding. “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer. If you do, I might not kill you! Get it?”
He received no answer.
Rather than exert any unnecessary force to make him cooperate, Taran wrapped his hand around the branch again and tore the sharp edges from his eye sockets, ripping unmentionable gore from his face. He gave a shriek that could have woken the dead, arching his back off the pavement while blood spilled over his face.
“Now, before you die, I wanna know something.” Taran doubted he could hear him over his screaming. “Shut up, you sick bastard!” he roared. “I got a question.”
He took the whimpering below him as his cooperation.
“Did you rape her?”
His face twitching around a sob, the man growled, “Ya. I did.”
Taran shivered, his stomach twisting into knots. He took him by the hair, pinning him to the ground, though he knew there was no way he’d be going anywhere in his condition. “Oh yeah?” he demanded.
“Ya. It was great,” Vilmore scorned, baring his teeth.
Taran smashed his head back into the road. “Where’s her tattoo?”
“She doesn’t have one,” he spat. “You got a crush on her or something, little boy? You jealous I rode that before you could?”
Relief washed through Taran while he viciously bashed the man’s head into the ground, repeatedly.
When he was sure he was dead, Taran stood, grabbing the dropped gun as he walked to the car. The keys were already in the ignition, inviting him forward. “It’s on her hip,” he almost laughed, ducking into the driver’s seat. Shoving the car into gear, he stomped on the pedal, bouncing over the body in the road. Then he continued down the road.
It became clear to him as he drove that wherever he was, he wasn’t in New York anymore. The signs littering the road offered no help, being that they were in something other than English. He was forced to drive down the solitary rode with only the hope that he would find civilization. He couldn’t be sure he would make it anywhere, but when he found another rode veering off this one, he realized it had to go somewhere with people. He took it, continuing on another solitary rode toward nowhere through the dark.
Alone with his thoughts, he let his mind wander.
Images of what they could be doing to his fellow captive back in that prison cell haunted his foremost thoughts. The last of the men he’d dispatched hadn’t done it, but there were so many others. Nothing was stopping them from taking her from the cell and….
It was hard to believe he’d only met her four days ago when he’d already adopted a protectiveness for her, fierce enough to make him tear that man’s eyes from his skull. Killing was no stranger to him, but he’d never done it for himself before.
He supposed he should feel bad; he didn’t even have money as an excuse this time. But, the memory of her, broken and sobbing on the floor, only made him wish he’d made that pig’s death last longer.
Then he started passing streetlights.
After another few grueling moments, the lights became buildings, and he whispered his gratitude to the wind that he found anything. Unfortunately, he was still in an unfamiliar place and had no idea where to go from here, so he searched the streets for someone who could help him, except the streets were relatively empty aside from the odd jogger. The first he spotted was a man of about his age, sprinting headlong down the sidewalk a short ways behind someone wearing, what appeared to be, a dark bathrobe.
Taran pulled over just in front of the running man, parking halfway on the sidewalk so he was forced to acknowledge him. The blonde man jumped backward, out of the way, as the man in the bathrobe escaped around the block. Taran threw himself out the door, reaching forward to clasp the other man’s shoulders.
“Help me! Please! I need help!” Taran begged as James tried to run again. “Do you speak English?” he continued, putting his face between James and the end of the block. James found Taran’s face. His arms, trying to push past him, went slack.
“Oh my God!” he enthused, backing away from Taran like he was a ghost. His eyes fell on the gun in his hand for a split second.
Taran waited for him to jump into action, but when nothing of the sort happened, he growled, “Didn’t you hear me? I need help!”
“Do you recognize me at all?” James asked, holding his gaze for a long moment.
“What?” Taran flinched. “Never mind! I’ll find someone else!” He made to turn and get the attention of someone walking by.
“Wait!” James yelled, clamping his hand down on his shoulder. He turned back to face the other man with a scowl. “I’m sorry. What happened?”
“I was kidnapped—”
“Do you know by whom?” James demanded, glancing around for the threat he’d set out to find.
Taran couldn’t help but feel suspicious as he backed away from him. “No,” he lied.
“You have to get inside,” James said, pointing back the way he had come. “The hotel my friends are staying at is just back there. It’s not safe for you out here!”
“You don’t understand!” Taran yelled, shaking him by the shoulders. “My friend is still there, she couldn’t get away. She’s hurt, bad!”
James pursed his lips, wondering if he also knew this other friend that Bomani was speaking of. He didn’t get the chance to ask anymore questions when movement caught his eye just over Taran’s shoulder. “Please, we’ll look for her later, you have to come with me. Now!”
“I’m not going anywhere with you unless it’s back to Janie!” Taran snapped.
“Bomani, I will explain—” James accidentally said.
Taran frowned. “What’d you call me?”
“Nothing! We have to—”
An otherworldly snarl ended James’s final attempt at escaping peacefully. “You!”
James shoved past Taran to come between him and the fast approaching Mainyu
Palms buzzing with blue energy, James yelled, “Get out, you can’t touch him!”
Taran jumped away from his protector. “What is that?”
The sight of James’s illuminated palms was nothing, though, in comparison to the walking corpse that shoved James to the ground.
The flesh of his hands was hanging from the whole as the corpse reached out to grasp Taran’s neck in his hand. He didn’t expect the choking hand to be so strong, since its owner appeared to have one foot in the grave already, but he was easily held up against the wall while his throat was crushed. Once Taran realized that this wasn’t a part of his imagination, he flailed his legs out at his attacker.
The gun in his hand exploded into Mainyu’s abdomen, blowing a hole through him that didn’t bleed. Taran’s face contorted with shock but the corpse laughed.
“Your efforts are useless, Bomani! I killed you once, and I will easily do it again!” he vowed, his breath, the stench of decay, fanning across Taran’s face as he struggled to breathe. The gun fell from his hand, clattering at Mainyu’s feet.
“No!” James yelled, throwing the ball of energy in his hand at Mainyu’s back, singeing his robes. The God cried out an animal shriek, dropping Taran to the ground.
The young man coughed, feeling the breath of the corpse burn in his lungs. James formed another crackling weapon in his hand to throw at Mainyu, but he was already running and turning out of sight.
“What…was…that?” Taran gasped, struggling to his feet.
James bent to help him up, supporting him as they limped back to James’s hotel. “I swear, I’ll explain everything when we get back to the hotel. What’s your name?”
He wheezed, rubbing the soreness from his throat. “Taran.”
“Nice to meet you, Taran. I’m James.”
“From what you said before, this isn’t our first meeting,” Taran accused, trying to infuse some kind of intimidation into his face. He failed. “What the hell is going on?”
Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012
Hours went by seeing Janie against the wall, staring across the room with her knees pulled to her chest. Her wet hair hung in her face, soaking through the jacket wrapped around her bony shoulders. She didn’t know why she was still alive, having given up the photo, and, frankly, she didn’t care. The memory of Taran’s face in the light was fresh in her mind, lit with a determination to get her away from hell.
Now that she was alone, she pictured him in the dark. It was easy to pretend he’d never left when she could see nothing beyond her own eyelids. She took to mumbling to herself, knowing there would be no answer. She didn’t care.
“I can’t wait to get out of here,” she whispered, rocking back and forth the way he’d done with her. “It’ll only be a few more hours before he comes back with help. He’ll come back. He promised.”
The pain radiating through her hip had intensified since she’d last been dunked in the tub, this time entirely. She didn’t know what floated in the water around her when she was submerged, but, whatever it was, it was in her gaping wound now. The newest man to deal with her hadn’t asked questions, merely shoved her to the concrete bottom until she inhaled water, then wrenched her to the surface to expel it, forcing vomit into the water as well. The water had turned immediately red around her when she was forced to sit up, disturbing the cloth around her hip and tearing her wound open anew. Now, she was without it and blood trickled from her skin, uninterrupted.
She’d refused to let herself succumb to sleep, waiting desperately for the feverish steps and fervent commands of police on the other side of the door to take her home. She didn’t dare close her eyes, for fear she would miss the light filtering in when they threw the steel door open. So far, nothing of the sort had happened, and she was beginning to feel the effects of her fatigue and blood loss. She’d snapped awake so many times in the last few—minutes? Hours? She couldn’t tell—she’d lost count. The silence was beginning to scream in her ears, pounding behind her eyes. “I have to stay awake,” she growled, rubbing viciously at her face.
Running out of ideas, Janie kicked around the tray her most recent meal had come on, watching the plastic skitter across the floor, crashing into the wall. There wasn’t a morsel of the slop left on it when she did, since she’d licked the tray clean hours ago. She felt better than any other day in here that she could remember, despite her session in the tub earlier that day. The crippling pain in her stomach had been reduced to a dull ache, aside from the injury she had sustained from the last man’s knife, and excitement hummed through her chest. Taran was coming back. Any minute now…
She hated to admit it, even to herself, but she’d expected help to arrive hours ago. She knew he must have gotten lost, and she comforted herself with the knowledge that, for all she knew, he could’ve only been gone an hour. A minute felt like an eternity in here as it was and she’d stopped counting after one thousand, two hundred, and thirty six. There was also the undeniable chance that the guards could’ve found him. Her heart raced, her mind finally entertaining the thought that help might not have been coming after all.
“He’s coming back,” she chanted, returning to rocking back and forth. “He’s coming back.”
The echo of voices in the hall snapped Janie from sleep before she realized that her eyes had closed. She couldn’t stand but she threw herself on her stomach, scraping her bulbous shin against the floor as she crawled toward the door. She stared up into the abyss where she knew the door would be, waiting for the police to crash through it and whisk her away to a place with food and people who loved her. When the steel portal swung open, her jaw dropped, a wail of joy gathering in her throat.
Two indistinct forms fell into the room, one crashing to their knees on the floor and the other falling in a similar manner onto Janie’s back. Curling into herself, she rolled away from the new arrivals, coughing away the tightness in her chest. The door swung shut quickly, screeching violently as it locked. Janie visibly deflated, her skeletal figure collapsing in on itself while she fought off the disappointment threatening to drown her. When she’d sufficiently gathered herself, she straightened up and searched the darkness for the people wiggling on the floor. Muffled screams broke the calm.
Janie fumbled for something to hold onto so she could help them, but there was nothing, as usual. Her hand met the rough exterior of a potato sack and the person within shook harder, trying to free himself from his bounds. Janie tore the sack from his head, throwing it against the wall. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you,” she promised, feeling along his face for the tape covering his mouth. “Okay, I lied. This is gonna hurt a little.” She got a good grip under the corner and tore it from his mouse with a riiiiiip. A man’s voice cried out from the sting.
“Who are you?” he rambled. “Where are we? What do you want?”
Janie felt along the floor as she crawled to find the other captive and worked at freeing her in the same way. “I didn’t bring you here. I was kidnapped.” The girl shrieked when the tape came off.
“Hayden!” he bellowed. “You okay, baby?”
“I’m fine,” she sniffled. “My arms are tied.” Janie felt around for a rope, but all she found was a plastic tie around the girl’s wrists.
“I can’t get it off, we’d need scissors,” she apologized, carefully placing herself back on the floor. “My name’s Janie.”
“I’m Hayden,” the girl mumbled, flopping onto her back.
“Scottie,” the man grunted, moving himself into a sitting position. “Where are we?”
Janie hissed as she stretched her leg out, the way Taran had told her, to keep the rebroken bone straight. “I have no idea. They don’t say anything about the outside in here. How did you guys get here? Was it Natalia?”
“You know Natalia?” they demanded in unison.
Janie shivered against the memories. “More than I’d like to.”
“You know about Mainyu, then?” Hayden pleaded. “Are you a…what’d he call it…a Spiritii, too?”
She just stared in the direction the other girl’s voice had come from. “A what?”
“How many others has she got here?” Scottie snapped, trying uselessly to make out Janie’s face as he changed the subject.
Janie frowned, forced to remember once again. “There was one more—”
“What happened?” Hayden interjected, thinking the worst. “Did she…?”
She refused to allow herself to think that that had been Taran’s fate, but the mere insinuation had her wrapping her arms around herself, feeling herself begin to fall to pieces. She wanted someone to hold her like Taran had done while he was here, a luxury she’d taken for granted when he was still beside her. Holding herself could only fill the void for so long.
“No, he got away,” she choked out. “I don’t know when, it might have been today, maybe yesterday. We tried to get away and he got out. I got caught.”
“What happened?” Hayden inquired.
“They dragged me back in by my hair when they found me. I couldn’t fight them, my leg’s broken, among other things,” Janie explained. “He’ll be back, though. He promised he’d get me to a hospital.”
“What did they do to you?” Scottie wondered aloud.
The face of her near-rapist flashed behind her eyelids, forcing tears up to wash it away. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“How long have you been here?”
Janie swallowed her sadness. “Six months.”
“Jesus!” Hayden gasped. “Why?”
“They kept me for something that was recently resolved. I think they’re going to kill me soon,” Janie deadpanned. “I don’t know why they’ve kept me so long.”
They said nothing for a long time. “We have to get out of here,” Scottie finally said, working tirelessly to pull his bound arms under his legs.
“There’s no way you’ll get out,” Janie said. “After Taran got out, they’ll be prepared for it.”
“What do you suppose we do about it, then?” he roared, finally giving up on his bindings.
Janie scowled into the blackness, wishing she could make him feel how angry he was making her. “Why don’t you tell me about how you got here, first?”
“How do I know we can trust—” Scottie began.
“You wouldn’t believe us if we told you,” Hayden explained, the edge in her voice making it clear she didn’t appreciate the way her boyfriend was acting.
“Try me,” she challenged.
Hayden bit her lip, wishing she could drop it so they could think of a way back to Alex, Claire, and the others. “I…I really can’t tell you, Janie. I don’t know how.”
“We need to focus on getting out. If that…monster’s got us here, it can’t be for anything good,” Scottie said. Janie was far from disagreeing, knowing exactly how monstrous Natalia could be.
“Your best bet would probably be to find out why they want you here. They wouldn’t have you here if they didn’t have something to gain,” Janie clarified. “Do you have any idea what it could be?”
The new arrivals shared a look, knowing they could only be there as bait…or worse.
“What’s the matter?” Janie asked when they said nothing.
Hayden choked when she tried to speak. “What do they do to you here?”
“I told you, I don’t…” Janie explained, before halting. She didn’t want to scare them, but she wanted to prepare them all the same for what was to come. “They have this tub, and they try to drown me in it constantly. My leg is broken, and I’m bleeding from my hip from a stab wound. And, above all that, I’m starving to death. How I’ve survived this long is nothing short of a miracle.”
Hayden paled, but Scottie was determined to get out at whatever the cost. “And that other guy—”
Scottie bit the inside of his mouth so he wouldn’t lash out. He sighed loudly. “Taran, is getting help?”
“Yes,” Janie nodded fervently.
“And you’re sure he’s coming back?” he whispered.
“I know he’s coming back! He promised.”
The door flew open without warning, slamming against the wall with a force that shook the very floor beneath them.
Janie fell back to the floor and froze, hoping it was the police but knowing it was the person who would undoubtedly deliver her inevitable end. When she raised her eyes, she found a group of them standing just over the threshold, led by the woman she hadn’t seen in weeks.
“Ms. Campbell!” Natalia greeted cheerily in her cold, thick accent. “I hope you’ve made our newest guests feel welcome.” Approaching them with slow steps, Natalia stooped to Janie’s level, stepping on Janie’s bad leg as she did. Janie shrieked, praying she would eventually catch a break. “I heard you became very well acquainted with my friend Taran.”
Janie said nothing until Natalia twisted on the ball of her foot, turning the raw flesh of her leg. “Yes! Yes, I was.”
“It’s a shame he left you here. Is it not?” she sneered with a cruel smile.
Janie’s face contorted with rage, realizing exactly was she trying to do. “He’s coming back for me. Don’t worry about that, Natalia.”
She laughed. “I see you’ve been talking about me. I always knew Taran was secretly in love with me.”
Janie said nothing.
“Well, little one,” she continued. “We’re going to send a message to your Taran,” she raised her voice. “A message to all of your little friends. I want them to know exactly where to find you.”
Janie watched helplessly as the men dragged Hayden and Scottie into the light before she was grabbed by the throat and pulled along behind them.
Paris, France; June 30th, 2012
The rat in the chair cried out as the final rope burned against his wrist, recoiling when his protest was followed by a sharp slap to the face. The rat, immensely proud of himself only moments ago, trembled so hard against the dining room chair binding him that it shook with him. His shoulder blades were pressed flush against the back of the seat, trying fruitlessly to melt further into it and away from the ashy smell of Kierlan’s breath. Perfectly straight, yellowing teeth grinned at him, barely two inches from Russell’s nose.
Claire hugged Alex tightly, holding herself together and her emotions at bay. She grasped a brown paper bag in her hand, breathing deeply into it to the point of lightheadedness. She felt fragile, seeing herself now as what everyone else seemed to see; a glass figurine. She was shattering.
Blowing away like dust in the wind just as the last remnants of her grasp on reality did. James hadn’t returned since Mainyu’s escape, leaving them to wallow in Kierlan’s vengeful threats as well as their worry for Scottie and Hayden. If not for the unnatural abilities he’d freely demonstrated that day, they would’ve worried that James had been lost to Mainyu as well.
And, of course, there was the case of Kierlan and where he fit into all of this.
She’d tried to explain what had happened before they’d come back to the hotel when Alex asked. She couldn’t form the words. Rather than sit through a long bout of stammering, the two girls sat in silence, trying to tune out Kierlan’s voice and think of nothing. The cries of pain from behind them brought images to their minds of Scottie and Hayden and all the things that could possibly be happening to them.
Alex stared longingly out the broken window, seeing the God jump through the glass behind her eyelids. She wanted to sleep, to receive some reprieve from the worry and the world they seemed to know nothing about. Every time she came close to falling under, another shriek erupted from the other side of the room, dragging her back to the surface. While she was entrapped in consciousness, she put on a brave face for her best friend beside her, but, in truth, she was nearing a mental break.
The suite’s door swung open and closed so quickly, it was almost too fast to be humanly possible.
Claire was the first to her feet, along with Alex, who, at the sight of James, ran headlong toward him, throwing her arms around his middle. The blonde man hugged her back for a split second before he stepped away from the guest she hadn’t noticed. With a gasp, Alex flinched away from him. “Who’s he?”
Sighing warily with a roll of his eyes, Kierlan pulled his newly acquired gun from the waistband of his pants. He said nothing as he directed the barrel in their direction.
“Wait!” James pleaded, standing in front of the silent addition.
Taran’s breathing was labored from running, otherwise he would have said something. Or, more likely, he would’ve tried. He wanted to beg for help or, at the very least, demand an explanation for the horrific sight he’d just seen, but neither reached his lips.
“James,” Alex snapped, standing behind the man with the gun. “Who is he?”
The angel gestured calmly to Taran. “Just somebody else Mainyu will be looking for. He’s no threat to us.”
“I don’t really care about him,” Kierlan growled, keeping his gun trained at the doorway. He gestured pointedly to James. “I’m more worried about what I saw you do. With your hands!”
James ground his teeth; he didn’t have time to explain again. “Ya, I understand you have a lot of—”
“Hell ya I got a lot of questions,” Kierlan said. “Questions I want answered. And if I don’t get them now, I’m gonna put a bullet in your skull.”
“I’m sure we can explain everything when the situation isn’t so extreme,” James mumbled, taking a step further into the room.
“Don’t take another step!”
James froze, humoring him. “Now’s not the time.”
“Perfect time,” Kierlan challenged.
He rolled his eyes. “I swear to God, Kierlan, I’ll explain later, just put the gun down!”
No such thing happened, everyone caught in a deadlock.
Skeptically, Alex watched the two of them. Sighing dramatically, she pushed Kierlan’s arm back to his side. “Oh for the love of God!”
Kierlan cast her a withering glare.
She nodded to Taran. “It’s just…James, it’s getting a little crowded in here.”
Taran looked around for the first time, finally seeing the man tied to the chair fervently mouthing pleas for help. When their faces met, Russell paled, letting his head fall. He stared at the floor.
“You?” Taran growled, crossing the room despite the gun that suddenly smacked his face. Whatever he’d thought of these people originally, he felt immediately safer knowing that they were obviously on the same side.
He definitely recognized the captive from when he’d been abducted from New York. His face appeared in Taran’s drug-altered memory of those days before he’d met Janie.
He spun to face Kierlan. “Is Natalia here, too?”
Kierlan shook his head, but it was James who answered, “She’s in league with the man who attacked us on the sidewalk.”
Taran snorted. “Man? That thing was a monster!”
James nodded. “He is a monster. If you’d let me explain, you’re in danger—”
“Don’t explain,” Taran interjected, rolling his eyes. “We don’t have time for that now. I need your help.”
“H…How do we know he’s not working with R…Natalia, too?” Claire mumbled, eyes glued on Russell and Kierlan.
“I know,” James said. “He’s…like you, Claire.”
“Oh,” she muttered. “Oh!”
“I’ve been starved and kept in a dark room by Natalia for days,” Taran explained.
Claire and James shared a knowing look. “How’d you get away?” he asked.
“I had a friend there; she’s been there since December. She showed me the way out and we ran, but she was injured. She couldn’t get away.”
“What happened to—?” Alex began.
Looking toward the window and wondering how long it had taken him to reach this point, he begged. “I need your help to get her out of there. She needs a doctor, badly. If she stays there much longer, she’ll die!”
“Would you be able to find her, again?” James asked.
Taran nodded zealously. “Yes! We have to go now!”
James looked around, his eyes falling scathingly on Kierlan’s back. He couldn’t take them all to go looking for this girl, the consequences could, and would, be dire. On the other hand, he couldn’t leave the girls alone or, worse, with Kierlan.
He’d done nothing to prove himself trustworthy and James still had his doubts.
But, he had no choice, knowing Taran wouldn’t stand a chance when Mainyu, inevitably, came for him.
“You all stay here,” James instructed, striding toward the exit.
“Wait!” Alex begged. “What if Mainyu comes back? You can’t leave us here alone!”
“I have to side with her on this one,” Kierlan announced. “The last time he showed up, my gun didn’t do anything. What are we supposed to do if he comes back?”
“He won’t come back,” James assured them. “If anything, he’ll send Natalia or another mortal. With all the damage he’s sustained, he won’t risk going out in the open again.”
“Even if you’re right, I think we have some things to discuss,” Kierlan added, feeling the severity of the situation crashing down on him.
“Like what?” James asked, ignoring the look on Taran’s face, urging him to follow him out the door.
“Your weirdo parlor tricks for one thing. Besides, we should probably think of a plan,” Kierlan said, gesturing broadly to the girls behind him. “One that doesn’t involve anymore of us getting taken by these…people.”
“What did you have in mind?” James grunted through his forming headache.
“I have connections that can have us out of the country in an hour.”
“We can’t all leave. A blood sacrifice is the only thing separating Mainyu from God-like power,” James explained. “We need to kill him now, while he’s still vulnerable, otherwise we won’t be able to kill him.”
“My team will handle it in your absence.”
“I can’t trust that responsibility to you and your team. I’ll stay behind to help. You’ll need my powers to kill him. No mortal weapons stand a chance against him, even in his vulnerable state.”
“Woah, woah, woah,” Alex snapped, crossing her arms, “we are not leaving without Scottie and Hayden.”
James nodded along with her. “I know, baby, but…I think…we should do as he says.” As the first protest left Alex, he put his hands up in silence. “I don’t mean leave Scottie and Hayden. I’ll go out myself and get them. But, you two, at this point, are a liability, and we should send you home.”
Claire shook her head while Alex gave a resounding, “No!”
James had expected such a reaction. “Alex, baby—”
“No,” she repeated, lip quivering. “I wanna help, you can’t send us back! What if—?” she halted abruptly.
James narrowed his eyes. “What if what?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she sighed.
“What if what, Alex?” he said.
She didn’t answer. Beside her, Claire, thinking in the same direction, ran her fingers roughly through her hair, dropping the paper bag in her hand. “W…Why did they take Scottie and H…Hayden, James?”
His eyes flickered momentarily to the blonde, but the only response he gave was the shake of his head.
“Is it because they want a trade?” Alex added.
“James!” she continued. “If you send us home, you know they’ll kill them! Don’t you care?”
He exhaled deeply. “Of course I care, Alex. Some things are just more important now.”
Alex gasped, stepping away from her boyfriend. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
“It’s the truth, Alex,” he insisted quietly. “My job is to protect you and Claire. Scottie and Hayden’s lives just aren’t as important.”
They hung suspended in the silence for a long time, the girls glaring at James while he, guiltily, averted his eyes. The only sound in the room was breathing, and some of them didn’t dare to do even that. Kierlan looked away, focusing on his captive while they dealt with their issues. On the other hand, Taran was quickly losing his patience.
“Are you going to help me or not?” he snarled, walking backward toward the door. “I can’t afford to lose anymore time.”
“I will, we’ll go now—” James replied, eyes flickering to Kierlan.
“So,” Alex growled, nearing him dangerously. “Is this ‘friend’s’ life more important than Scottie and Hayden’s too?”
“I’m not saying that, Alex,” he groaned.
“What are you saying, then?”
“Look,” he annunciated. “He says that they were kidnapped by Natalia. Scottie and Hayden were kidnapped by whoever Natalia works with. Maybe, wherever this girl is, Scottie and Hayden are there, too.”
Alex’s eyes lit up. “We’ll go, too.”
“No,” he reflexively shot back. “You stay here. I can’t find them and protect you at the same time.”
“I don’t need you to protect me, James, I’m coming with you.”
“No,” he repeated with finality.
She smiled a knowing grin. “You can’t keep us here, James. We’ll find a way to follow you, whether you want us to or not!”
“Can’t I?” he taunted, returning her smirk. Scratching the back of his neck, he made a quick decision as he looked up to Kierlan. “They do not leave this room!”
“Hey!” the thief snarled. “I’m no babysitter!”
James closed his eyes, silently willing everyone to stop being a pain. “Kierlan, please,” he said.
Grunting in distaste, Kierlan curtly nodded, stepping away from Russell’s chair.
“James, you can’t be serious!” Alex shrieked.
“D…Don’t leave us with him,” Claire pleaded.
“We’ll only be gone a few hours,” he promised, following Taran out the door. “They do not leave this room!”
“James!” Alex reached uselessly for him, hindered by Kierlan’s massive body stepping between them.
“I’ll bring them back, I promise,” James vowed before the door finally separated them.
Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012
Janie hit the floor in a tangle of limbs. She didn’t dare make a sound, knowing exactly what followed when she did.
No one there would help her anyway.
Janie wasn’t sure where Natalia had brought them, but she knew they had left her personal hell at least an hour ago. Since their arrival, she’d been dragged across concrete floors, down stairs, and finally thrown into a heap with the other captives. She’d learned long ago that, in Natalia’s presence, she shouldn’t make a sound, but Hayden and Scottie, unprepared and terrified, hadn’t shut up since they got there. Scottie spouted empty threats at anyone who would listen while Hayden sobbed into his shoulder, ignorant of what was to come.
The room was brightly lit, displaying Janie’s horrifying deformities for all to see. Even Janie wanted to avert her eyes from her body’s gruesome flesh. She exhaled a dark chuckle, wondering how Taran could have stomached touching her, but she stopped that thought in its tracks. Thoughts of him were strictly forbidden even in the most harmless degree. They raised too many questions of where he was, what he was doing, and, most importantly, if he was coming back. The sound of someone’s skull hitting the floor pulled her from her reverie.
Then it was quiet.
Not a foot away, Scottie’s mouth lay open in a frozen scream and his eyes stared up at the woman leaning over him. The arch of her boot encased his throat, the heel pressing into the side closer to her. Janie’s eyes followed the path of the boot trailing higher up its owner’s body, finally finding the familiar, strawberry blonde locks falling around the nape of her neck. A tranquil smile remained on her face, but her eyes were narrowed into slits, one eye twitching with irritation.
Scottie coughed as she stepped more forcefully onto his neck.
“That is better,” she murmured. “Now, I need you all to be good children.”
“What’re you gonna do to us?” Hayden whimpered, wiggling away from Natalia’s other boot.
Natalia bit the inside of her mouth, unimpressed at being interrupted. “I will not have to do anything if you and your friends cooperate.”
Janie had learned well enough that the woman was not to be trusted. “Then why are we here?”
She didn’t have time to prepare herself before the toe of Natalia’s shoe met her cheek, shoving her onto her side. Hayden gasped and burst out in tears again, reaching for Janie’s shoulder. She recoiled instantly with a shriek when Natalia, mercilessly, stomped on her hand.
“You see, this,” she announced, stepping over them, “is not cooperation. If you will all be silent and do as I tell you, none of you will be hurt!”
Janie’s lip quivered against the ground. Taran, she thought.
“Is that understood?” Natalia continued.
They said nothing.
“Good,” she grinned. “Now, we are going to make a little…movie. I think it is time we sent a message to your friends.”
“We have to help them! What if there’s too many for them to handle? What if they need help? What if they get lost? What—” Alex ranted, pacing before Kierlan’s stubborn body. He hadn’t moved from his place by the door, watching the girls for any sign of a brewing scheme. By this point, he didn’t think either of them was capable of such a feat.
Since James and Taran had made their dramatic escape, Claire hadn’t left the couch, too engrossed in the self-loathing thoughts he knew nothing about. Alex, on the other hand, hadn’t shut up, or strayed from the path she was making in the floor. He was feeling less like a dangerous criminal and more like a babysitter by the minute.
Little did he know Claire had finally hit rock bottom. Her thoughts revolved around her absent friends, knowing they’ been taken because of her. She tortured herself with the mental image of what they could possibly be enduring in Natalia’s hands, bloody, beaten…dead? She envisioned impossible scenarios in her head, visions where James and his new friend brought Hayden and Scottie back safely.
After that, she didn’t know what they were supposed to do to send Mainyu back where he’d come from. She could only imagine that James would refuse any help, as usual, and hide her while he dealt with the god in his…supernatural way. She wanted to help, it was her, or Ziba’s fault he was after them in the first place. But she didn’t know how.
“Jesus Christ, will you please shut her up!” Russell snarled, writhing against the chair he was tied to.
Kierlan rolled his eyes. “Sorry, girly, I can’t let you out.”
“Why not?” Alex snapped, crossing her arms to mirror his stubborn posture.
“Your boyfriend told me not to.”
Alex rolled her eyes. “Oh please, what do you care if we go out there? Last I checked, none of this concerns you!”
“Trust me,” he muttered through clenched teeth, “you don’t wanna go out there with that thing.”
“Like I said: Not. Your. Problem! If we wanna go out there and get killed, that’s our problem!”
Kierlan said nothing, but his eyes flickered over to Claire on the couch. She was curled up so tightly into herself that she looked smaller than the petite girl standing up to him.
Incapable of scheming?
Though it was a foreign concept to Claire, being as innocent as she was, she would have done anything in that moment if it meant protecting her friends. For once, she wanted to be the hero, instead of the damsel in distress. Just once.
Somewhere in the suite, three cell phones simultaneously shrieked.
“Who the hell is calling me?” Alex snarled without tearing her eyes from Kierlan.
Claire looked up to find Kierlan’s gaze centered on her. She gulped and averted her eyes. “M…Mine, too. Maybe it’s James?”
“I don’t think he’d be calling me,” Russell mocked, gesturing with his chin to his singing pants pocket.
Eyebrows knit, Alex reached into the front pocket of her jeans and glared down at the screen. Astonishment colored her face when she read the name: Natalia. Instantly, she accepted the Facetime request.
“You bitch,” she gasped when the assassin’s face on her phone. “You bitch, where are you? What did you do to them?”
“Alexandria, this is not a time for you to make demands,” the lilting voice replied, her face unaffected by the name calling.
“What did you do to Hayden and Scottie?” Alex growled, narrowing her eyes.
Natalia grinned, showing teeth. “Tell your friend to accept the call.”
Alex pursed her lips but finally whispered, “Claire, answer the phone.”
The blonde complied. She winced when Natalia’s face came into view. “Natalia, w…what do you wan—”
“I am glad I have all of your attention,” Natalia laughed. James’s voice mumbled something in the background as his picture appeared in the corner of the frame. Taran scowled down at the screen over his shoulder.
“What’s going o—”Claire began.
“I am here to make a deal you cannot refuse,” she taunted, her entire face filling the frame. “I have a few people here that I am sure you are all missing.” The screen jerked away from her face, and spun to display the illuminated faces of Hayden, Scottie, and Janie.
The three captives sat in a line of three chairs, their arms wound behind them. Janie sat forward, the ropes wrapped around her supporting her frail body. The latest kick to her face had swelled her cheek to epic proportions, forcing one of her eyes shut. Hayden’s makeup streaked from her glassy eyes and her lip quivered; her chair shook with the tremors of her body. Beside her, Scottie’s mouth was covered by duct tape, but his muffled shrieking was still audible to them. As they watched, a man appeared in the frame, striking Scottie’s temple with the butt of his gun. The girls standing in the hotel room gasped, Claire’s hand flying to her mouth. Blood trickled from Scottie’s face and his yelling abruptly cut off as he swayed precariously toward Hayden.
“Scottie!” Hayden shrieked, erupting in tears.
Janie said nothing; it was hard to believe she was even conscious.
“Oh my God,” Taran murmured, yanking James’s phone away. “Janie?”
The girl’s head jerked upward like she’d been slapped, her eyes darting every which way in search of something that wasn’t there. “Taran?” she mumbled under her breath. When she didn’t see him, and her eyes found Natalia instead, she winced and let her body fall slack against the ropes again.
“D…Don’t hurt them!” Claire pleaded.
“You know what we want, James,” Natalia snarled.
“Anything!” Alex exclaimed, staring at her friends, wherever they were. Despite all her effort, her eyes couldn’t help but wander to the grotesque face of the girl she’d never seen before. Her heart twisted, wondering how old the girl was: fourteen…fifteen? Nausea roiled in her stomach, watching Taran’s face fall further and further into anguish. “What do you want?”
Natalia’s teeth glimmered in the light. “Bring Claire and Alex to the River Seine in one hour, or we will kill your friends. One. By. One.”
The line abruptly disconnected.
Alex stood frozen with phone still in hand. “We have to go.”
“Wait,” Claire whispered. “W…what if they find them? Maybe we should w…wait for James to come b…back?”
Alex shoved uselessly at Kierlan’s chest. “And what if they don’t?! If we wait for them to come back, James will never let us go.”
“I know that!” Claire said. “But we can’t just walk into a dangerous situation like this because they say they’ll let Scottie and Hayden go. What if they’re lying?”
Alex’s hands pulled at her hair. “We don’t have a choice, Claire! They’ll kill them. And it’ll be all our fault!”
Claire stood, hesitantly enveloping her friend in a hug. “Alex, James has powers, r…remember, if anyone can stop them—”
“If he can find them,” she breathed. “And what if they’re waiting for him to try that? We can’t assume that they know less than we do, they brought a God back to life!”
“No. You listen,” Alex whimpered. “I’m going back to the catacombs whether you go or not. I’m not going to let Scottie, Hayden, or that girl die because we’re scared. I won’t make you go with me, Claire,” she continued, holding Claire at arm’s length, “but I want you to remember what’ll happen if you don’t go.”
“I know what’ll happen,” Claire muttered. “I can’t go.”
Alex retracted her hands like she’d been burned. “Claire!” she gasped, eyes widening. “For once in your life, try to be a little irrational.”
The blonde’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.
Irrational? Her mind was made up before she gave herself the chance to weigh the outcomes again. After all, she’d always wanted to be a hero, and now she finally had the chance to do right by her friends. Now was her chance to prove she wasn’t the baby in their group. Her eyes flashed to Kierlan, standing against the door with his scowl focused on Russell.
She approached him slowly, looking up to meet his full height, until her chest nearly touched his. Confusion colored his face when he finally met her gaze. “Claire?”
“Please, we need to leave,” she murmured begrudgingly.
His eyebrows knit together and he chuckled darkly. “I told you, I’m not letting you through. You’re both safer here.”
“Please,” she pleaded. “Our friends’ lives depend on it.”
He cringed, guilt shining in his eyes. He leaned down to her height, ignoring her shiver when he placed his lips beside her ear. His breath tickled her neck. “Believe me, Claire. That woman isn’t going to let your friends go if you run to help them. Stay here. Stay safe.”
He leaned away from her, crossing his arms and becoming cold once again. Claire bit her tongue, glancing from the door to his face and back again. Irrational? She didn’t want to weigh the possible consequences of her actions, especially when she wanted it so badly. And the door was just a step away.
She didn’t think about it when she reached up, ignoring his startled protest when she pulled him down to her level by his neck, and slanted her lips over his, her free hand curling around the doorknob.
Alex took the opportunity Claire presented and ran for the door.
Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012
Janie swung back and forth over someone’s shoulder as they strode into the unknown.
She didn’t know the answers to the major questions she’d asked herself since her incarceration, but the feeling of the breeze against her face was unmistakable, as was the sight of the sidewalk below. Tape covered her mouth and her arms were forced under her, bound tightly at the wrists. In her opinion, it was unnecessary, given the severity of the injuries around her body; it wasn’t as if she could fight them off.
It wasn’t as if she could run away.
The man carrying Hayden walked behind them, his captive’s blonde hair brushing against the ground while she helplessly swung, bound and gagged. Janie could only assume Scottie was being carried ahead of her while they were led away by Natalia. The sound of her signature heels clacking against the concrete sidewalk was the only sound in Janie’s ears, other than her own heartbeat as the blood rushed to her head.
She wished that she could talk to Hayden and Scottie, to ask them what they knew and if they had any idea where they were going. Unfortunately, since they’d been placed side by side in the trunk of the car that brought them here, their mouths had been taped. Hayden had rested her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder, wondering which of them would die first while they waited for salvation.
Janie had no one to turn to for comfort and now she was sure there’d be no help coming for them. Even if Taran did come back with help, there’d be no one back at the prison to save after tonight. Given the contents of the message they’d sent to Hayden and Scottie’s friends, she was sure that, by the day’s end, there wouldn’t be anything to save at all. She didn’t cry, didn’t try to resist, and swung back and forth, waiting for what they had planned for her.
She could immediately tell that they’d stepped inside when the pleasant breeze on her face turned stale and the light of the streetlamps went dark. They stopped once they were fully immersed in the dark tunnels of catacombs, giving Natalia the chance to light a match. She pulled one of the torches from the wall and let it burst into light, illuminating the group.
They continued through the tunnels seeing Natalia light the torches on the wall as they went deeper and deeper underground. The air grew cold as they went and the quiet drip of water echoing through the cavern warred with Natalia’s footsteps.
“Where’s Russ?” the guy carrying Hayden asked, adjusting her so he wouldn’t step on her hair.
Natalia didn’t turn to face him. “Russell knew what was at stake if he did not get here on time. We cannot postpone the sacrifice waiting for him anymore.”
“What about Vilmore?”
“I have no idea where Vilmore has gone.”
“How much further?” the other demanded, grunting under the weight of his captive, Scottie.
“Look for yourself, you idiot! I can see it from here.”
Sure enough, brightness lit the rest of the tunnel as they neared their destination.
A room lined with the torches was suddenly upon them, and Janie was dropped to the floor like a bag of trash. She let herself flop against the ground, completely relaxed. She didn’t curl up to nurse what hurt, which, at the moment, was everything. Her flat eyes glanced around the room, briefly finding the walls of human remains and realizing: this was it. This was the place where she would find her end, just like all the other unnamed people in the walls.
Then her eyes landed on the center of the room.
A stone slab was being slowly lowered to the floor by three men. They exhaled loudly as it landed with a crash, rubbing their hands together when the heavy rock was out of their hands. Her tied hands were pulled over head, her body dragged to the wall where she was forced to sit up against the skeletal remains. A cold shackle closed around her ankle, chaining her to the floor. Her hands fell into her lap.
“Mortal!” a voice roared. A figure bedecked in tattered robes stood across the room, his face hidden from her as he scowled mercilessly at Natalia.
“My lord,” she bowed deeply, placing her forehead to her knee.
His hand sliced through the air, backhanding Natalia hard enough to send her falling to the floor. “You promised me Bomani!” he bellowed.
She pulled herself up with some difficulty, chest heaving as she gasped for air. “My…” she swallowed, shaking her head. “My apologies, my Lord. He escaped yesterday. All efforts to recover him have, so far, been unsuccessful.”
The man turned away from her, finally revealing his face. “You mortals are useless!”
Janie pushed herself back into the wall with a bloodcurdling shriek, muffled by the tape over her mouth. She tried to flee but fell short when her ankle caught on the shackle. Her fingernails scratched against the floor as she tried to crawl away, succeeding only in painting the floor with blood she couldn’t spare. His eyes were burning through her, glowing red through the firelight. The flesh of his face was freely hanging from his jaw, the other parts completely bared bone or nothing at all, revealing the remnants of a decaying tongue. The same went for his abdomen, where a hole was blasted clean through him. His legs were more skeleton than living man.
While Janie cowered on the floor, Natalia returned to bowing before Angra Mainyu, her face stinging like fire. “I apologize again, My Lord. I was not there to stop him. But you may take your pick of anyone else here…”
“This will not be satisfactory! I cannot have Bomani walking around when I am so close to taking Ziba,” he snarled, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and skeletal index finger. “I should kill you for this, mortal scum.”
Natalia closed her eyes tightly, still bent over her knee. “We can find him, My Lord. We will bring him to you if you would just remain here.”
He scowled down at her. “No.”
“But, My Lord, you are still weak—”
“No. The angel has him now.”
Natalia didn’t show fear. She said nothing. Mainyu watched her for another moment before his eyes fell on the other two captives slung carelessly over the other men’s shoulders.
“Who are these humans?”
Natalia jerked up, looking back at the others who may have turned out to be her saving grace, after all. “These are Ziba’s friends. We’re using them to lure her here.”
A Cheshire cat grin slowly broke out on Mainyu’s face. “Excellent.”
Hayden groaned into the tape as her back hit the floor beside Scottie. Her eyes fell on Janie across the room and knew exactly who was in the room with them. The look of terror on Janie’s face could tell that better than the unmistakable sound of Mainyu’s voice. When she finally tore her gaze from the older girl, her eyes fell on Scottie as he was hauled off the ground.
“We will use him instead, then,” Mainyu ordered. “I think it is time I remind Ziba why she should come to me.”
Natalia straightened up. “Yes, My Lord. What would you like us to do with them?”
Mainyu pointed to Janie. “Leave her with that one. I am sure we will think of something to do with them. Him. Put him on the stone.”
Hayden wanted to scream and curse in protest, but she couldn’t get anything past the gag. As she was pulled to the wall beside Janie and locked into a shackle at her ankle, she screamed into the tape, begging them to put her love back beside her, where he belonged. The only response she received was a swift kick to her beautiful face, and a gruff, “Shut up.”
Otherwise, she was completely ignored, everyone’s complete attention focused on Scottie.
They tore the tape from Scottie’s mouth.
“Shit!” he yelled, his head jerking up as the tape came off. “Get the hell off me! Help!”
“Do not waste your breath, Scott,” Natalia advised, kneeling on his one side and gesturing for one of the others to mirror her. “No one can hear you down here.”
Scottie didn’t listen. “Help!” he shrieked, trying to roll off the slab. Natalia caught him by the shoulder, pinning him down while the man on the opposite side did the same to the other. Hayden watched, horrified, as Mainyu pulled a dagger from his robes and the flesh of his hand simultaneously slip off. Scottie had done the same, and struggled to escape their grasp as the God of Destruction neared him. “Jesus Christ! Somebody help me!”
Mainyu mumbled under his breath as he walked toward the stone slab, feeling the dagger grow hot with anticipation. “Grant me all the powers of my birth through this sacrifice, that I may smite those who resist me. With the taking of this mortal’s life, I will live again.” Slowly, he raised the dagger over his head, stepping closer to Scottie’s body.
Scottie didn’t move, knowing it was useless to fight at this point. His head lolled to the side, waiting for Hayden to look at him. “Baby,” he almost squeaked, traitor tears trailing down his face. “Hayden, look at me. Please?”
Hayden didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want to see what grisly things they planned on doing to him. She couldn’t deny him this, though. Her eyes found his through the moisture obstructing her view. “What?” she whimpered.
He smiled, despite the circumstances. “I love you,” he mouthed.
Hayden sniffled, keeping her eyes fixed on his, even when she knew the knife had found its mark in his chest, and he never looked away, even when he felt the pain. “I love you, too, Scottie, always,” she vowed, just a short second before his head fell back, the life leaving him.
She crumpled backwards, hugging Janie when she saw that the older girl had watched their final exchange. They felt the stifling wind as it blew from Mainyu’s body, rendering him fully intact like they had never seen him. A grayish glow lit him from within, his eyes completely black and a smile on his face.
Hayden and Janie held onto each other, wishing that this nightmare would end.
“Are you sure this is how you get there?” James asked, shoving through branches behind Taran as he ran through the brush.
Taran stopped for a moment, finding a shred from his shirt stuck on a thorn. “Positive,” he snapped, throwing the cloth back at his companion.
James fumbled to catch it, eyeing it closely, and then threw it to the ground. When he looked up, Taran had taken off running again. He struggled to catch up. “And what’s your plan when we get there?” he called.
Taran broke through the tree line and hid behind a bush, looking out for guards. “You zap people with your energy…things…and I’ll punch ‘em. We get Janie, we run.”
James had barely knelt down beside him when Taran took off toward the back door of the building, the door he’d escaped through just yesterday. “Good plan,” James muttered, standing and following dutifully, ready to strike.
Taran threw the door open.
He wasn’t expecting to be faced with an abandoned room. James fell into the room behind him, knocking Taran off balance and startling James into a scream.
“Shhh!” Taran panicked, looking around for any sign of the armed men.
Nothing. There wasn’t even a whisper throughout the whole warehouse.
“Taran, I don’t think…” James said, eyeing for a gun, a man, anything that hinted there’d ever been human existence there.
“She’s here. They kept her downstairs. Come on!” Taran urged, bounding down the steps to the basement. James followed slowly behind, knowing the worst was to come. Then, he stopped.
A sour breeze swept the room, the air unmistakably stained with gray. James had seen it, dreaded it for hundreds of years. Staggering backward, he knew exactly what had happened. The sacrifice.
Inhaling deeply as the wind blew heavily through the room, the stale air caught in his lungs, burning him like he’d breathed in fire.
“God help us,” he coughed under his breath, falling to his knees under the weight of his failure. “He’s back.”
Blissfully unaware in the corridor below, Taran ran headlong toward the familiar door, slowing only as he noticed it was already open. Looking silently around the corner, he felt the breath leave him when he saw that Janie was gone.
Paris, France; June 30th, 2012
It wasn’t a long time later that Taran and James returned to the hotel room, rightfully deflated from their failed attempt at finding the captives. James’s head hung as he reached for the handle, his free hand fisted in his shirt while he prepared himself to tell Alex that he was returning unsuccessful. He shoved the door open.
Alex jumped away from the door as it opened, jumping back to cover Claire and Kierlan while they, reluctantly, broke apart. Her heart jumped into her throat when she saw James stroll over the threshold. It was clear by James’s weary look of defeat that they’d returned from their journey empty-handed.
Taran, on the other hand, was lit with a fire from within as he stomped purposefully toward Russell, who sat, bored and restless, right where they’d left him. Taran blindly grabbed for one of the knives Kierlan had been playing with from the dining room table and pressed the business end threateningly against the rat’s throat.
“Holy sh—” Russell breathed, leaning helplessly away from the blade.
“What are you doing?” Claire shrieked, her fists still curled into Kierlan’s shirt. Beside them, Alex hadn’t even noticed their newest addition’s emotional break, her eyes still focused on James’s look of defeat.
After today, she knew the feeling.
Noting their compromised position and Kierlan’s soft eyes staring down at her in confusion, Claire shoved away from him before the others could notice.
“Where are they?” Taran roared, pushing the rat’s chair back onto its hind legs so Russell couldn’t move. Red pearls beaded up around the blade pressed to his throat.
“Taran!” James gasped, pulling the blade from the assassin’s hand. Taran spun to face him, jaw dropped to protest while he let the chair, and Russell, fall noisily to the floor.
“What’d you do that for?” Taran demanded.
“We can’t do this,” James insisted.
Kierlan shut the door slowly, having been squished against the wall when they’d burst into the suite. He cleared his throat, eyes flickering to Claire, who was noticeably avoiding his gaze. “I take it you didn’t find them, then.”
“What was your first clue?” Taran snarled, scowling distastefully down at the rat groaning on the floor.
Kierlan held his hands up in surrender.
“Give it back!” Taran snapped, reaching for the knife in James’s hand.
James easily ducked away from him. “No. That’s not how we’re going to do this. It’s not right.”
“Why not?” Kierlan inquired, pushing away from the wall to take one of the other knives off the table. “You wanna know where they are, he knows where they are. I don’t see a problem with it.”
James narrowed his eyes. “I bet you don’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kierlan countered towering over the other man when they stood chest-to-chest.
“Only that we know nothing about you. I mean, what are we supposed to do here, Cole? Welcome you with open arms when, for all we know, this is all just a part of a plan of yours? For all we know, your in league with Natalia! Your opinion doesn’t matter here at all! How did you end up in the catacombs when we were in trouble? And don’t feed me that line about tracking him! I think that’s bullshit!”
Kierlan shoved him away. “Let’s not forget about you, either! You electrocuted me! You’ve been lying to all your friends for God knows how long! You’re a freak, and a dangerous one! Why should we trust you?”
“Guys, s…stop it!” Claire pleaded, pushing against their shoulders to get between them. “James!”
“Don’t make this about him!” Alex enthused, crossing the room and scowling up at Claire when they finally stood toe-to-toe. “He’s our friend! Whose side are you on, Claire?”
“Side? Th…there are no sides, Alex,” Claire murmured. “There’s only us a…and them. You’re not helping the situation this w…way.”
“Put those weird-ass powers away and watch me put you in the ground, little man,” Kierlan snapped, balling his hands into fists at his sides.
Taran, fuming, turned away from the bickering group and took one of the many knives from the table. With his free hand, he put Russell to rights, returning the blade to the sweaty flesh of the rat’s throat. Russell’s chest immediately picked up a quickening rhythm, the sound of his breaths louder to Taran than the screaming behind him.
The captive gulped. “Woah, woah, woah!”
“I’m only going to ask you once before I pop one of your eyes out of its goddamn socket, so listen really carefully. Where is she?” Taran demanded.
“W…who?” he replied.
Taran kept very still, a pleasant smile forming on his face. His teeth glimmered between his taut lips. “Wrong…freaking…answer!” He pulled the blade away from the man’s neck for a short moment, only to grip it savagely in his entire palm. Russell had no time to brace himself before Taran swung it downward, butchering Russell’s thigh with a single swing.
Any problems the others had with each other were immediately forgotten when Russell’s shrieks echoed through the hotel. James was the first to turn, already moving to stop Taran. He froze helplessly when he saw all the blood pooling in the carpet.
“What’re you doing!?” he yelled.
Kierlan moved easily around him. “What does it look like he’s doing? He’s getting answers. Something you were too scared to do yourself. Claire, I think you and Alex should sit in the bedroom.”
“No way,” Alex said, barely casting a glance in Claire’s direction. “I want to hear what that bastard has to say.”
Claire looked between them before her eyes settled on Kierlan. She didn’t want to regret kissing him, but she finally came to the conclusion that her timing had been less than ideal. She winced, eyes shooting back to the floor. “M…me, too.”
Kierlan nodded, studying her averted face with narrowed eyes.
“We can’t do this,” James repeated. “If we do, how are we any better than Natalia and what she’s doing to—”
“Screw you, James,” Taran interjected. “I’ve dealt with these people before, and all I can tell you is that they won’t talk for anything less than this. If we won’t be using them as bait, what do you say we do? Do you want to find them or not?”
James’s eyes guiltily appraised the remnants of his friends around the room, lingering on Alex when she crossed her arms, waiting for his answer. “There’s something you all should know.”
Kierlan chuckled darkly. “Is there? Why am I not surprised?”
James scowled at him out of the corner of his eye but, otherwise, ignored his interruption. “When we went to the prison to find Scottie and Hayden, I felt…something.” He paused, taking a long, shaky breath.
“Felt…what, James?” Alex asked, all the anger in her face replaced by something vulnerable. Her crossed arms fell, reaching for him like he would ward off the inevitable, impending pain.
He stepped backward, avoiding her touch. “This doesn’t mean anything for sure, but there is a possibility that, when we find them…Scottie and Hayden…and Janie,”—he added with a pointed look at Taran—“…we won’t find them all.”
“What do y…you mean?” Claire inquired.
“When we looking for them, I felt something in the air, something evil. I know it means that Mainyu has gotten his powers back.”
“So we’re screwed?” Alex finished. “There’s no hope?” She kicked Russell when his screaming continued with fervor. He bit his lip, tears rolling down his bright red face.
He shook his head. “There is hope, there’s always hope.”
“Then I don’t understand, James. What’s going on?” Alex demanded, childishly stomping her foot.
“There’s only one way he would’ve been able to regain his strength, and that’s with a human sacrifice.”
The wheels started turning in their heads, but it was Claire who finally spoke what they were all thinking. “S…so you think they s…sacrificed Scottie or Hayden?”
Taran hid the sting of fear in his chest well, but it fueled his rage, nevertheless. “One way to find out,” he said, glaring disgustedly down at Russell’s face. Russell’s eyes were glued to the knife handle protruding from his leg, having tuned out their conversation long ago.
Taran’s hand wrapped around the handle while the other supported him on Russell’s unmarred thigh.
James clapped his hand down on Taran’s shoulder. “Wait.”
“Get off me,” the unstable man ordered, shaking him off. In one fluid movement, Taran yanked the blade from Russell’s leg, opening the floodgates anew. They were sure his screams could be heard through the entire city.
“Someone’s going to come looking for that noise,” James muttered condescendingly.
“Shut up,” Kierlan snapped. “I think we should start asking some questions.”
Taran nodded. “Go ahead. After that, I’m sure he’s in a much better mood to answer them, aren’t you, you piece of shit!”
Russell breathed deeply through his nose, blinking away the moisture in his eyes. His pursed lips muffled his dying screams, but, after a long moment, he nodded.
“Good,” Kierlan grinned. He continued in a voice like an amused parent, “First of all, did your friends kill their friends?”
Russell opened his mouth to speak, but, instead of words emerging, he spat in Kierlan’s face.
Kierlan held his breath, repressing the urge to kill him before they could make him talk, and, dramatically, wiped his face with his shirt. No one dared to breathe, waiting for his retaliation.
Kierlan said nothing, balling his massive hand into a fist. Rearing back a few inches, knowing Russell couldn’t move to avoid it, Kierlan threw his fist at the rat as hard as he could, hitting him in the cheek with a strength that claimed a satisfying crack.
“Shit!” Russell screeched, his chair leaning precariously to the right. Taran caught it easily, settling it back into place on the floor.
“Now that we’ve gotten that over with,” Taran mocked, his words hissing past Russell’s ear, “let’s get down to business.”
“I won’t tell you anything,” he insisted, bracing himself for the next bout of pain.
No such thing came.
“Yes, you will,” Taran challenged, playing with the knife in his hand.
Russell’s eyes flickered open. “Why would I do that?” he demanded, watching the blade glint in the light, tinted red with his own blood.
“Because you have no loyalties,” Kierlan added. “You’ll sell out anyone and anything if it meant saving your own ass.”
Russell glowered up at him. “You’re right, Kierlan. I would sell out anyone if it meant saving my own ass. Anyone.”
“Good,” he grabbed Russell’s hair tightly, yanking his head back so he was in position to cut his throat. “Now, answer the question.”
“What was the question? What was it?!” Russell pleaded.
“Who did your people do the sacrifice on?” Taran repeated, praying to the God he didn’t believe in that it hadn’t been his Janie.
“I don’t know,” the prisoner mumbled.
Kierlan pressed the burning metal further into Russell’s neck. “You’re lying!”
“I’m not! I’m not! I swear to God, I’m not lying! I swear, I don’t know!”
Claire watched the line of red bead up around the knife and immediately felt her stomach flip. Forgetting momentarily why she was there, she jumped to her feet, already running toward the bathroom attached to the master bedroom. James stole her seat on the couch beside Alex.
“Then you’re useless,” Kierlan said, ready to kill him in that instant.
“Wait!” Russell shrieked. “Wait!”
Kierlan held his hand still, hoping he wouldn’t regret it. “Ready to tell us?”
Russell gulped, trying, unsuccessfully to make his neck thinner. “It was supposed to be him,” he explained, glancing pointedly at Taran.
“Me,” he stated, cocking an eyebrow.
“Ya,” he affirmed, unable to nod. “The boss had a problem with you or something, said that we were supposed to kill you. That some guy would show us how. If it wasn’t him, they could’ve used anyone. Natalia bought it, but I thought he was a lunatic, but he was paying us a shitload of money, so we—”
“So that’s why they kept me alive,” Taran added, finally putting the pieces together.
“Wait,” James ordered. “Someone hired you to do this? Who?”
“We never saw the guy. He only left letters, no return address, and by phone with Natalia, on a disposable phone. We tried to find out, but it was like he didn’t exist at all!” he explained desperately.
“When did he hire you?”
“I don’t know. December? A week before we stole that stupid piece of paper from the British Museum.
James gasped, seeing Russell in a new light. “That was—?”
“I thought he just wanted to sell it. Then he got us to do stupid shit, like go to high school with you guys and follow Claire around. Be friends with her. That’s all. Until last month when he told us we had to go with her to Paris and do all this! I swear to God if I’d known this was what he had in mind, I wouldn’t have done it! I swear!”
Then Russell sobbed like a baby.
Everyone else convened in the room looked from face to face, at a loss as to how they would proceed from there. Kierlan shoved the knife into his pocket, kneeling so they were at eye level. “Russell,” he murmured soothingly. “Where are they?”
“Please don’t kill me,” he begged, squinting through the tears in his eyes. “Please! I don’t wanna die!”
James was the only one in the room who noticed the black mist forming outside the window, buzzing like a swarm of angry bees. He sprang to his feet. “Get away from the window!”
Kierlan and Taran jumped at the sudden outburst. “James, what’s—?” Kierlan muttered.
“Get away from the window!” he growled, yanking Alex up by her arm. Before he faced the other men again, he pushed her toward the kitchen, “Hide somewhere, anywhere.” Noting the urgency she’d never heard from him before, she quickly obliged, searching for a cupboard to hide in.
Finally hearing the noise outside the window, Taran turned to the window. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed, pushing Kierlan toward the opposite wall. “Go! Go!”
“Don’t leave me!” Russell begged, unable to turn and watch the impending doom. “Come back! Please take me with you!”
Kierlan’s chest tightened, moved by the pathetic man while he cried louder than ever.
The black smoke entered the suite easily through the shattered window, filling the space from wall to wall as it entered, claiming Russell. They watched the dark vapor enter him through his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth, and, finally, his mouth when he screamed. And, for the last time, Russell’s screams echoed through their brains.
The smoke settled quickly, crawling across the floor, most of it toward the window. A small cloud, however, crept across the carpet toward the door to the master bedroom, slipping easily, and silently, through the crack under it. Once it passed the threshold, it expanded into a thick, overwhelming cloud once more.
“Oh my God—” James breathed.
“Claire!” Kierlan roared.
Claire never saw it coming when she finally opened the bathroom door, wiping the last drop of bile from the corner of her mouth with her sleeve. The buzzing mass hit her full on, flying effortlessly up her nostrils when she inhaled and into her mouth when she gasped. Suddenly seeing nothing but darkness, she staggered on weak legs in the direction she hoped the bed would be. Blind, deaf, and unable to scream for help, Claire caught her foot on the carpet and sprawled out on the floor.
Before she gave into terror and exhaustion, she heard his voice in her mind hiss:
Come to me, my love.
Paris, France; June 30th, 2012
Hayden screamed a strangled sob when she was forcibly pried away from Janie, squeezing her eyes shut when she glimpsed Scottie’s limp body.
Janie anticipated her own manhandling; she didn’t make a sound when she was dragged across the circular room. She didn’t know when Natalia and her team brought in the chairs they were, again, being tied to, but she noticed that, this time, there were only two. Soon enough, there would only be one, and she knew, very well, that she may not be the one sitting in it for another video. She wanted to reassure Hayden; to do anything that would make cease her wailing, but she couldn’t come up with anything remotely positive to say. She didn’t think she’d be able to manage a smile if she tried.
“You know the drill,” Natalia grumbled, pulling the final knot taut around Janie’s chest. “If you speak, I will kill you. Well,” she chuckled, “sooner.”
Hayden freely let more tears pour down her face. “Please. Natalia, just let us go. Please. If there’s any shred of humanity left in you, please—”
“And what if there is none left?” Natalia demanded without facing her. “You know nothing of me or what I have done. Believe me, Ms. Clove, if there was ever any shred of this humanity in me to begin with, it is gone, now.”
Hayden bit her lip, praying her next attempt would be met with better reception. “Natalia—”
“Believe it, Hayden,” Janie deadpanned through the swelling in her face. “There’s nothing left.”
Natalia grinned, pulling harder against the ropes constricting around Janie. “You will be next my dorogoy. And I will enjoy, very much, having your blood on my hands. When I slowly cut off each and every one of your limbs. Then, I will kill you.”
Janie wished she could summon up any infinitesimal degree of fear after all this time. Rather than suffer through any mental image of her impending doom or, worse yet, hope for her rescue, she let her head hang and waited for the newest hostage video to begin. She could have fallen asleep if not for the mental picture of the monster’s face replaying in her head to the soundtrack of Hayden’s cries.
“Claire!” Kierlan yelled, throwing open the bedroom door and bolting inside. He barely made it three steps before he tripped over Claire and went sprawling to the floor. He groaned as he bit the carpet, reaching blindly for something to support himself with. He let Taran pull him to his feet.
James knelt beside the girl on the floor, holding his palms over her forehead and torso while he felt for the pleasant thrum of life in her body. Such a feeling tingled in his hands, assuring him that she was alive, but there was definitely something else. Something else pushed back at him from within her, something dark and potent holding her hostage just under the surface of consciousness.
“Is she dead?” Kierlan asked, brushing the dust off his shirt from the fall.
James shook his head. “No, just sleeping.”
“On the floor?” he asked.
“It’s definitely not natural,” James countered. “He did something to her.”
Kierlan looked her over for any sign of damage, finding nothing but a noticeable paleness. Her skin was lightly graying, like a corpse. “What’d he do?”
The angel shook his head. “I don’t know. Whatever it is, he wouldn’t hurt her.”
“How do we know that?” Kierlan demanded, kneeling on her other side. He stared down at her, noting with satisfaction that her chest was rising and falling with steady rhythm. Absentmindedly, he brushed a tendril of blonde hair from her face.
James cocked an eyebrow at the display. “He’s waited too long. He’s wanted this for thousands of years now, since the first time she was born. He wouldn’t hurt her now, not when he’s so close to getting what he wants.”
Taran fell to his own knees. “What does he want?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” James said. “Her. And I’m sure he wants a few other choice people dead; like you,” he gestured to Taran, “and Alex.”
Below them, a slight moan emerged from Claire’s lips, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. “What’s he doing to her?” Kierlan said.
“I don’t know,” James breathed.
A sudden shriek pierced the air, one that didn’t come from Claire. They jumped to their feet. “James! Get in here!”
The three men went running toward the sound of Alex’s voice, leaving Claire on the floor. The blonde whimpered once, her head whipping from side to side. Her eyes flickered open as she gasped.
Their depths were entirely black.
Claire plummeted through an endless, gray fog, waiting for her feet to hit solid ground, but no sensation ever came. Her hair whipped into her face, the sound of wind echoing in her ears until, suddenly, it stopped. Nothing touched her but the stale air, stinking heavily of decay. The fog rolled around her as if she stood on the ground.
The silence screamed through her brain.
“Hello?” she called, wondering momentarily if she was dreaming. “Is anyone there?”
She received no response.
“Where am I?” she asked, more to herself than anyone hiding around the limbo.
A sudden, otherworldly scream broke the silence and the fog swirled upward, disturbed by something she couldn’t yet see. Then, someone, something broke the wall of mist before her, arms flailing above its head while it ran ahead.
Claire couldn’t help but emit a startled shriek as she recognized the face before her, hidden somewhere in the depths of unfamiliar cuts, bruises, and gore.
She tried to leap out of the way of whatever her friend had become, but she had no idea how when her feet wouldn’t touch anything solid. Her body went slack, sinking like a feather when his body smacked, hard, into her.
“Scottie!” she shrieked, though her cries fell on deaf ears. “Stop!”
His body was like a lead weight on top of her, scratching and clawing at her exposed flesh, while he shrieked half-words at the top of his lungs. His face was too close to hers, breathing that decaying stench into her face through browning teeth. His cheeks were grey and falling apart, peppered with specks of dried blood in the places where his skin was peeling away. His once vivid eyes were pearl-grey like the mist.
Claire tried to shove him away, but her arms had become rubber tubes, floating toward whichever way was up at this point. Her chest was collapsing, the breath leaving her as she drowned in nothing but air.
Then her back hit the floor, a sharp crack sounding when the back of her skull was quick to follow.
“Selfish!” Scottie finally screamed. “Coward! Whore!”
“Stop it!” she wailed. “Stop it!”
“Bitch! Bitch! Witch! Bitch! Witch! Bitch! Witch!”
She leaned away from his nails when they clawed into her neck. Red stained his bony fingers. “Get off me!”
“How could you let me die?!” he roared, snapping his teeth just a breath away from her nose.
“I didn’t!” she challenged. “They wouldn’t let us go after you! James left to find you!”
“It’s all your fault, Claire!” he continued.
“Stop it! You’re not dead! You’re not dead.”
“It’s all your fault, Claire.”
The voice that spoke wasn’t Scottie the second time, or even a voice she was very familiar with. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, however, who it belonged to when Scottie’s face moved out of her line of sight, replaced, instead, by the face of a fortunate-looking, older man. His face was completely bland, the sharp edges of his jaw locked. A dark ponytail cascaded down his back, over his ancient robes. His chest was bared, the muscles impressive under smooth skin.
“Your friend is dead, now, and it’s all your fault,” Mainyu murmured in a pleasantly musical voice.
Claire viciously shook her head, the only movement she was able to make. “No. I didn’t! You’re not here, this is a dream! You’re not real!”
“I’m real enough. That’s all you need concern yourself with, my love.”
Claire’s lip quivered; internally her body writhed with her effort to move, flight instincts finally overwhelming her, but, in reality, she lay completely motionless. “Why me? Why did you have to come after me?”
The god laughed darkly. “How can you even ask that? Of course I would come after you. I’ve always come after you. And I always will!”
“Just leave me alone,” she pleaded. “I’ll do anything, just please leave me alone—”
Mainyu smiled, his face nearing hers. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’ve been waiting for this day since I was first banished, my love. I will not let you slip through my fingers again.”
“I’m not her!” she shrieked. “I’m not the girl you love.”
He reached out to cup her face. “Oh, but you are. You just don’t remember.”
“No!” she sobbed. “No.”
A dark look came over him when she wrenched her face from his grasp. Slowly, he stood. “Come to me, or another of your friends will die.”
“Please, don’t do this!” she cried.
“You have one hour.”
He snapped his fingers and the ground opened up beneath her. Then, Claire was falling again.
Claire jolted upright on the floor, the blackness in her eyes washing away. Sweat slicked her forehead and she gasped, re-inflating her deprived lungs. Blood stained her neck, the claw marks marring her flesh burning an angry red. “No!” she yelped, hands flying to her throat when the sting finally registered in her conscious mind.
“Oh, thank God you’re awake!” Alex whispered, hugging Claire from her kneeling position beside her.
“Alex?” Claire murmured, eyes flitting around the room, landing on Taran while he sat silently on the bed.
“Ya, Claire it’s me,” she heard her friend sniffle. “I’m so glad you’re awake! When I saw the blood I thought he got—” It was easy to deduce that she was crying, despite her face being hidden while she embraced Claire tightly.
“Where is everyone?”
“James and Kierlan are cleaning up the blood in the living room,” she explained. “We’ve gotta move Russell’s body soon.”
“What?” Claire bellowed, struggling to her feet. “They killed him?”
Alex urged her to relax, trying, unsuccessfully, to hold her down. “No, Claire, Mainyu did.”
“Alex, you wouldn’t believe the dream I just had,” Claire said as she wobbled on her feet.
“That was no dream, Claire; that was him! Look in the mirror,” Alex ordered, gesturing frantically to the attached bathroom.
Claire didn’t move, finally noticing the blood on her fingertips. Eyes bugging, she looked between Alex and the red on her hands for a long time. “It happened while I was asleep.”
Alex nodded dumbly.
“What’s he doing in here?” Claire asked, finally gesturing to Taran while he glanced uncomfortably around the room.
Alex followed her gaze and automatically let her eyes fall to the floor. “He’s going to help us get out of here, to save Hayden.”
The single name didn’t go unnoticed by Claire. “Hayden?”
Alex looked up, her gaze meeting Claire’s for a split second before they filled with tears. Her chest shook with sobs harder than any Claire had ever seen her best friend cry. Alex doubled over, unable to say anything, but Claire had gotten the message clear enough. She didn’t want to believe it, and, instead, waited mutely for Alex to say the words that would make it real. Every time Alex tried to speak, though, she was overcome by another vicious wave of anguish.
Taran, unnecessarily, cleared his throat. “Natalia sent us another video today.” He ran his hand through his hair, agitated beyond reason and willing to deliver them to death’s door himself if it meant saving Janie. “Scottie is…” he cleared his throat again.
Claire shook her head, feeling a familiar fog roll through her brain. He mind cleared for a split second. She mumbled, “What?”
Taran shrugged, eyes falling to the floor, “Because I escaped, Angra Mainyu had to do his sacrifice on someone else. Scottie was just unlucky.”
The sound of Alex’s whimpers died down, but, for a long time, they were the only sound in the room. Claire knew that she should be feeling the same, but all she felt was a vague confusion muddling her brain. A voice in her mind hissed Mainyu’s parting words over and over again, Come to me. Come to me. Come to me!
A dull ache began at the base of her skull before her legs suddenly gave out.
“Claire!” Alex gasped, reaching for her fallen friend. Claire knelt on the floor, holding herself up on the footboard while she pressed her other palm to her forehead, massaging away her forming headache. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head, waving off Alex’s concern. “I’m fine, just a headache.”
“Are you sure?” Taran inquired as he bent over to assist her.
“Ya. It’s not a big deal,” Claire insisted. “We have more important things to talk about before they come back.”
“You’re right,” Alex agreed, wiping away the last of the dampness on her cheeks. Standing, and pulling Claire unsteadily to her feet, Alex turned to face Taran. “You said you’d help us. What’s your plan to get away?”
Taran’s eyes narrowed in Claire’s direction. Something was off about her, but he couldn’t tell what.
“Taran?” Alex snapped.
His eyes jerked toward the other girl in the room. “They’ve decided already that they’ll be sending you back to the US, but they’ll have to drop the body somewhere before we can go to the airport. I’ll tell them where to drop the body, close to the pick-up point Natalia established. I’ll distract them while you guys run.”
Claire’s brow furrowed. “Why would you do that?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Why are you helping us in the first place?”
Janie’s face flashed in his mind. “My friend is badly injured and being held hostage with your friend. I promised her I would get her out, and I don’t plan on breaking that promise.” He gulped, swallowing his emotion. “I need you two to get in there. I’ll give you my cell phone so you can tell us where they’re keeping you.”
Alex nodded, holding her hand out expectantly. Immediately, he placed the phone in her palm. “What happens if they kill us?”
“They won’t,” he countered immediately.
“You don’t know that,” Claire interjected.
Taran cocked an eyebrow in challenge. “Then they’d be going through a lot of goddamn trouble just to kill you, don’t you think?”
Claire blinked, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to think over the mantra replaying in her head. Come to me. Come to me. Come to me! She shook her head, wiping her hands down her face.
Alex lightly shook the blonde’s shoulder. “Claire?”
Shivering while she struggled to get control of herself, Claire managed to make eye contact.
Claire swiftly nodded. “We gotta go, we gotta go now.”
“We can’t go now,” Taran said. “We have to wait for them to clean up the living—”
“No!” Claire snarled, her hand smacking down on his shoulder when she spun to face him. “We have to go now, before anybody else dies because of me.”
Taran glared at her silently, their eyes locked. He barely registered that her eyes were no longer their normal blue when she turned and swept out the door.
He and Alex stood in the room, wondering the same thing.
Finally, he broke the silence.
“Didn’t she have a stutter?”
Alex nodded, giving a shaky hum in agreement. “Something’s not right.”
Immediately, the two of them followed her out the door. They found her in the kitchen. A long, silver chef’s knife had already found itself in her hand, the blade reflecting her tired, black eyes back at her.
“Claire!” Alex shrieked, shoving past Kierlan while he scrubbed the red out of the carpet on his hands and knees. She grabbed for the knife. Claire swiftly ducked out of the way, shoving it into the pocket of her jeans. The sharp point sliced easily through the material, hanging at her hip in its makeshift holster.
“Relax, Alex!” she said, holding her friend at arm’s length when she went for the knife again. “It’s for later,” she added in a whisper, catching the glance Kierlan was throwing their way.
Alex made an incredulous face. “You think you’re gonna use that against a god? Something’s up with you and I want to know what it is, Claire!”
“It’s wrong now to want to protect myself?” Claire demanded, shoving Alex away from her so she could take another knife.
Alex didn’t move, watching her with guarded eyes. “It’s wrong that you’ve gone from being too scared to go after Hayden and Scottie one minute to arming yourself for war the next. I think he got to you. What’d he do?”
“Nothing!” she replied, though she was startled to admit that the words hadn’t come of her own volition.
“You’re lying!” she insisted. “Give me the knife, Claire!”
“No!” she growled, pulling the blade from her pocket and pointing it threateningly in Alex’s direction.
Alex barely bat an eyelash.
Realizing what she was doing, Claire let her arm fall, her shoulders collapsing inward as she cried loudly. “I don’t wanna die, Alex!”
Alex sighed, watching her pitiful friend fall slowly to the floor. “Claire.” The other girl gave no hint she’d heard her. “Claire?” She knelt beside her, embracing her tightly while she soothingly combed through the golden hair with her fingers. “We’re not gonna die. I promise. I won’t let them kill us.”
Claire chuckled dryly. “As if you’d have any say in it.”
Alex laughed along with her. “I know. But I mean it. We’re going to get out of this, Claire, alive. Maybe not unscathed, but I think we can stop him.”
“How’re we supposed to do that?”
Alex shrugged, her shoulders feeling heavier now than ever before. “I don’t know. But, according to James, we did it before.”
“Do you remember that first time?” Claire demanded. “’Cuz I definitely don’t.”
The brunette exhaled deeply, wishing she could come up with something comforting to say. Unfortunately, nothing came to mind. “No,” she said, releasing Claire and looking her in the eye. “But we’ll figure it out. We have to.” A thought suddenly struck her, looking into Claire’s face. “What’s the matter with your ey—?”
“Alex! Claire!” James called from the living room just before he fell into the room.
They immediately looked to him. Alex cleared her throat, momentarily forgetting the change in Claire’s eyes. “What’s the matter?”
He shifted uncomfortably on his feet, expecting a less than pleasant response. “We’re going to the airport, now. Kierlan got you two on a flight out of here in the hour.”
Alex twitched with sudden rage. “Alone?”
He nodded. “We decided it would be best if we stayed in Paris. Mainyu’s not gonna stop unless we send him back where he came from.”
She bit the inside of her mouth, holding back all the nasty things she wanted to say. She knew where they’d be going anyway if Taran held up to his part of the deal. She spat out through clenched teeth, “And Russell?”
“Taran said he’s going to show us place to dump the body. We’ll just have to wait until we have you guys safely on a plane to do it.”
Claire snapped to attention. “After? Why after?”
“We don’t have time to dump the body and bring you two to the airport. He can wait,” James explained.
Taran stepped into the room behind him. “I’ve been telling him it’s on the way, but he won’t listen to me.”
“I can’t risk it,” James said with a note of finality.
A thought suddenly struck Claire through her muddled state. “How’re we gonna get to the airport?”
James ran his hand through his hair, casting a begrudging look toward the living room. “Kierlan has informed me that we will need to steal a car. With the body needing transportation, we wouldn’t be able to take a taxi.”
“Steal a car…” Alex trailed off. “And what’re we gonna do if we get stopped in this stolen car with a body in the trunk? Oh, sorry, Officer, this is all just a misunderstanding. We didn’t kill him, Angra Mainyu did,” she mocked in a poor impression of James’s voice. “That’ll go over great with the police. And we’ll be sitting ducks in prison! We have to drop the body first.”
Behind James, Taran gave Alex an appreciative nod. “She’s right, James. This is our best shot.”
James’s jaw locked. For a long moment, he contemplated her reasoning. “Fine. We’ll drop the body first. But we’ll need to leave now, or we won’t make the flight. Claire, empty your bag.”
“What? Why?” she asked.
James reasoned, “It’s the biggest. We’ll need it to get Russell to the car undetected.”
Claire nodded, shivering with the mental picture of Russell’s body curled up inside her father’s sea-bag. “I’ll be right back.”
“Wait! Wait.” He gestured to her pockets. “What’re those for?”
Claire tested the knives, making sure they were secure. Her face appearing graver than any of them had ever seen it, she replied, “In case Natalia comes back.” Then, she disappeared to retrieve her bag.
Alex and James watched each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. It was Alex who broke their uninterrupted stare first, turning to the counter for a moment to pull two smaller knives from the block. She shoved them into her pockets like Claire had done. At James’s questioning look, she shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”
Not ten minutes later, the group, save for Kierlan, stood in the elevator while they waited anxiously for the ding of the first floor. Taran stood in the corner behind the girls, eyes completely guiltless when he looked over at James. The angel stood in the furthermost corner, his back slightly hunched with the weight of the green canvas bag slung over his shoulder. Some kind of black liquid stained through the bottom, but, whatever it was, they knew no one would assume it was blood. Claire and Alex hung their hands awkwardly over the knives in their pockets, concealing them from the public.
Kierlan had left them earlier in search of transportation, something they hoped would be available when they reached the street. Their worries were unnecessary in that regard. They noticed the gleam of a black BMW against the curb the moment they stepped out of the hotel lobby. Kierlan stood against the front door, watching for any sign of a threat on the street.
James was the first to get to the car, throwing the body easily into the trunk before he pulled himself into the passenger’s seat. Taran and the girls sat in the backseat while Kierlan drove in the direction Taran explained to him, conveniently leaving out the name of their destination. Ten minutes later found them pulling into an empty parking lot.
“This the place?” Kierlan inquired gruffly, trying not to look at Claire while she stared absently out the window.
Taran pointed to the river not twenty feet away. “Ya, this is the place. We just have to throw him in and the water will take care of the rest.”
“Okay,” James nodded. “Let’s get this over with. The plane leaves in…” he briefly checked his watch, “forty minutes.”
Kierlan and James stepped out of the car, slamming the doors behind them.
Taran was instantly upon them. “Alex, call me as soon as you get there, even if they’re watching. Or take a picture. Just send us a clue, any clue, of where you are and we’ll find you.”
Alex nodded ardently. “Ya. I will.”
The two of them reached for the door opposite the River Seine. “Wait!” Taran yelled.
The girls abruptly froze.
“If Natalia was telling the truth then they’ll be waiting for you about a mile that way.”
“Okay,” Claire said, reaching for the door.
“What?” Alex demanded.
Taran gripped Alex’s hand tightly in both of his. “When you see Janie, tell her I’m coming to get her.”
A smile broke out on Alex’s face. “I will.”
“Thank you,” he sighed. “I’ll hold them off. Just go.”
They nodded, throwing open the doors and sprinting out into the night.
“Where the hell is Taran?” Kierlan grunted, throwing the heavy bag into the water with a huge splash.
“Right here,” he said, approaching them. “Need any help?”
“No, I think we’re good,” James replied. “Let’s get back; I don’t like leaving them alone.”
Taran snickered. “I don’t think they would’ve had the chance to do anything reckless by now.”
“I was talking about Natalia and Mainyu being on the loose,” he amended. “I’ll take the backseat this time, just in case.”
Taran simply nodded, smiling genuinely for the first time all day when he envisioned Janie being safe with him in the next few hours. He didn’t stop smiling even when he got in the passenger’s seat, waiting for the impending shock.
He wasn’t disappointed.
James was the first to notice the empty backseat. “Where are they?!”
Northern France; June 30th, 2012
Claire had never run so fast in her life when she heard the unmistakable sound of James realizing finding them gone. As she sprinted headlong for the bridge coming into view, through the fog clouding her mind, she expected her asthma to act up, or for her legs to get sore, but it wasn’t so.
Her lungs didn’t burn like they usually would, and her body had never felt better than it did in that mile dash. She could’ve continued like that for the rest of the night, until she saw a car come into view, parked against the wall overlooking the dark waters below. The headlights illuminated them as she and Alex came closer.
“Claire, wait for me!” Alex screamed, struggling to catch up.
The blonde couldn’t tell what had come over her, but she knew that, whatever it was, she liked it. She never wanted to feel her normal weakness again.
“Claire!” Alex repeated, not knowing who sat in the waiting car and having her doubts on whether she really wanted to know, after all. “Stop! Wait!”
Claire didn’t want to stop. She wanted to be in the catacombs, facing Mainyu and saving the day. If that meant she had to go through a couple guys to get there, she didn’t foresee a problem. She reveled in the feeling of invincibility for another moment as she slowed to a stop, watching for whoever sat in the van to make the first move. As she did, Alex joined her, shaking with a struggle to catch her breath.
They stood, mutely, in the glare of the headlights for a long moment, Alex’s legs wobbling while she wondered what their next step would be. “What’s your plan?” she asked, squinting to see through the shadowy windshield.
Claire stood proudly erect, ready to take on the world. Her black eyes slanted to Alex to tell her so, but, when their eyes met, Alex remembered the odd color in her friend’s eyes. “Your eyes.”
Claire’s face twitched, a single word roaring in her ears. Witch!
She was suddenly overcome with the urge to strike Alex across the face, to cause her pain like Alex had done to her….
She shook her head, remembering. It was just Alex, her best friend. When her eyes met Alex’s startled stare again, she was breathing heavily, the effects of her asthma beginning to claim her from the run. Just like that, she suddenly wasn’t feeling so fearless anymore.
The hands she’d poised over the knives in her pockets fell limply to her sides.
“Claire!” Alex gasped, winding an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Breathe. In through your nose, slow.” When the blonde looked up into her face, Alex was pleasantly surprised to see the glimmer of blue irises sparkling back at her.
The sound of slamming car doors and a van door rolling open forced Alex’s eyes upward. She didn’t get the chance to fight before a bag was pulled forcibly over her head, along with Claire beside her.
The two of them were thrown unceremoniously into the back of the van. Claire struggled harder to catch her breath, given the obstruction of the thick sack.
No one spoke until the car engine roared to life beneath them. Even then, it wasn’t a voice they wanted to hear that broke the silence.
“Welcome back,” the thick Czech accent greeted coldly, too close to Claire than she would have liked.
Alex mumbled a few choice profanities into the thick material of the bag over her head. Claire heard the distinct smack of bone on bone when Natalia’s fist struck Alex’s cheek.
“Perhaps you need to see what is at stake if you act up,” Natalia murmured pleasantly, tearing the bags from the captives’ heads.
The first sight that greeted Claire when her eyes opened was the face of an unfamiliar man, a gun fixed in his arms. Finding the real world a much darker place than she recalled, she closed her eyes, breathing in the fresh air and waiting for the van to stop. She was painfully aware of the weapons she hid on her person for the entirety of the journey.
After an immeasurably long trek, the van slowed to a stop. She opened her eyes when she felt a fist clench the back of her shirt into its grip, the roar of the sliding door snarling in her ears. Suddenly, the floor of the van fell out from beneath her. Her body soared through the air.
She hit the ground, narrowly avoiding the knives in her pockets as she did. As the wind was knocked out of her, Claire was unable to speak her protests, her lungs caught up in a vicious bout of coughing.
“No!” Natalia snapped, throwing Alex out of the van to join her. “You idiots! Pick her up. She is not to be harmed!”
“Ya, boss,” a man’s voice countered from the door of the van as the henchmen stepped off the edge of the trunk. Claire was abruptly lifted by one of the men from the van and set on her feet, though she was far from free. Hands like iron wrapped around her upper arms, holding her firmly in place when she tried to move in any direction but where they were leading her. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she found the entrance to the Parisian Catacombs glaring down at her, partially collapsed and ominous.
Claire watched as Natalia roughly tore Alex off the ground and led her into the catacombs ahead of her.
“W…wait!” Claire pleaded, sliding against the ground as she tried to fight against the arms binding her.
“Get moving,” the man holding her ordered, placing a well-aimed shove against her shoulders. Claire could do nothing but stumble into the doorway, catching herself on the splintered, wooden frame. It creaked under her weight. Instinctively, she cringed away, falling back into the arms of her captor.
Moments later, she was immersed in the darkness of the tunnels, stuck between Natalia and the remaining henchmen while they journeyed into the unknown. For a while, that was all she saw: darkness. It seemed like an eternity they spent ambling carefully through the underground to the sizzle of faulty electrical wiring in the distance. Finally, the first hint of light glowed at the end, the illumination stemming from the circle of torches she and Alex remembered all too well.
“My Lord!” Natalia called as she and Alex broke through the final step of pitch blackness. Claire and the others quickly followed, entering the circular room. If there’d been any sound being made before their arrival, their presence ended it completely. Silent. Painfully silent.
If Claire’s eyes hadn’t found him immediately, she never would have known he was watching them. Mainyu didn’t breathe, the mortal process unnecessary in sustaining his supernatural body.
Claire was startled to find his eyes already on her when she arrived, their gaze flickering immediately to her face like magnets. She writhed in her captor’s grip, fighting to run in the other direction. When she couldn’t, and her feet slid ever-closer to the god, she shook with terror, sinking further into the chest of the man holding her.
Soon enough, they stood toe-to-toe, the deity towering forebodingly over her.
“My Lord?” Natalia asked, yanking Alex forward by the arm. The younger girl fell helplessly to her knees, sneering up at the god with disdain. “What do you want me to do with this one?”
Mainyu barely spared a sideways glance at the mortal girl, his eyes only for Claire while she cowered before him. He brushed his fingertips up and down her bare arm, gritting his teeth when she cringed away from him. Narrowing his eyes, he demanded, “Why do you fear me so, young one? I mean you no harm.”
The emphasis he added made it clear that Claire couldn’t trust him. Rather than answer, she stared at Alex, fear evident in her eyes. She tried not to give him any reason to suspect her next move as she inconspicuously ran her hand over the knife handle protruding from her pocket. “I’m n…not afraid of y…you,” she gasped, her stammer revealing itself once more.
He threw his head back in a barking laugh. “Your voice would say otherwise!”
While his eyes were directed away from her, she pulled the knife from her pocket with a flourish, forgetting her reservations for the split second it took to plunge the blade deep into Mainyu’s chest.
He didn’t move, but his laughter abruptly dying.
Claire leapt away, waiting for his body to fall in a heap at her feet. When that didn’t happen, she studied his face. Many emotions flickered across it, not one of them being pain, while he stared down at the wooden handle jutting from where his heart should’ve been. Painfully slowly, he dragged his eyes upward, finally meeting her horrified gaze.
“My Lord?” Natalia repeated, unmoved by the mortal wound. She gestured to the human girl beside her expectantly. Alex couldn’t take her eyes off the kitchen knife, buried deeply in the god’s flesh, wondering, hoping, if this was the end of their adventure.
Mainyu didn’t look at them. “Put her with the others.”
Alex knew immediately that her hopes had gone unheard. “No!” she bawled, diving in Claire’s direction. Natalia looped her arm around the younger girl’s waist, effortlessly dragging her toward the other captives while she kicked and screamed.
She’d promised to keep Claire alive. She’d promised. As she felt the cold steel of a shackle close around her ankle, she knew she might fail.
A groan on the floor distracted Alex from the scene unfolding before her eyes. Remembering Hayden and the girl Taran had sent them to find, she struggled to turn, instantly finding the two bodies crumpled on the floor. Her cousin lay across the room, shackled as well and watching her with weary eyes. A bruise swelled her cheek, but that was the extent of the damage she could see on Hayden’s person. Alex breathed a sigh of relief.
Much closer to her, however, was the small form of a red-headed girl, curled up against the wall, as tightly as she could with an obviously mangled leg. She was bedecked in a tattered pair of black leggings and a thick suit jacket at least five sizes too big for her. In the light of the torches around the room, she could see the patches of blue, grey, and green staining her swollen face and, also, that the tiny girl was unshackled.
Mainyu wrapped his hand around the knife and, with one swift tug, pulled the offending blade from his flesh. Claire gasped, turning to run when she saw the blade bubbling with thick black tar. Before he left her sight, she watched the hole in his flesh close, none of the… ‘blood’ he’d spilled remaining on his chest.
“Jesus!” she screamed, taking off in the other direction.
She made it two steps before the back of her shirt caught in someone’s claws, sending her plummeting to the floor with a grunt of protest. Her back smacked against the cold ground, her skull soon to follow. She stared up at the ceiling, her head spinning with the ache radiating through it. Suddenly, her view of the dark ceiling was obstructed by the last person she wanted to see.
Mainyu glared down at her, searching her face for something that wasn’t there. “You seem to have forgotten the lesson I taught you during our last meeting.”
He wrenched her to her feet by the back of her neck, dragging her easily to the stone slab on the center of the floor. Claire’s eyes widened substantially when they took in Scottie’s limp body splayed there, eyes open and unseeing, and his last moments of terror forever replaying on his face. She tried unsuccessfully to look away when Mainyu reached out a bare foot and kicked the body easily off the slab. Her stomach roiled with nausea as she heard Scottie crash loudly against the wall of human remains.
Mainyu weighed heavily against her back, forcing her to her knees. “I think it’s time to remind you,” he bellowed, placing his hands on either side of her face.
“No!” she mumbled, her cheeks pushed together by his rough palms.
“What are you doing to her?” Alex demanded, throwing herself toward the slab. Each time, the shackle caught on her ankle and she fell back to the floor.
Natalia, leaning heavily against the wall, kicked her into stillness without a second thought. “Silence,” she challenged, smirking down at Alex when she scowled in objection.
“Don’t t…touch her!” Claire yelled, hearing the struggle behind her.
Natalia tore her pleasant face away from Alex’s glare, fixing instead on Claire’s back. “Do not worry yourself, My Lady,” she said, as she’d been directed to address her. “They are here merely as…insurance.”
Mainyu whispered something under his breath, his eyes going black with the buzzing mass inside of him. Claire fought against him, her efforts in vain against his otherworldly strength. She didn’t see him when his jaw dropped, the buzzing black oozing off his tongue like a snake. She did, however, see the snake-like mass crawl up her arm and try, fruitlessly, to force entrance through her mouth.
Groaning in objection, she pursed her lips, viciously shaking her head.
Finding no sanctuary through her lips, the buzzing snake split in two, slithering up into her nostrils.
“No!” Claire said, squeezing her eyes shut. Her nose burned as she inhaled quickly, her breaths becoming slow and even. The seconds ticked on without change.
When they reopened, the depths of her eyes were completely black, her touch with reality broken. She remembered.
The sun was just beginning to set beneath the sand dunes when Ziba swept through the temple toward the shrine to Kurshid, the Persian goddess of the sun. A small smile was fixed upon her face, as was common for the young woman. Since her arrival in the temple at seven years old, Ziba was accustomed to a life of luxury in her gilded cage. She was never without food, like others in the city may have been, her clothes were always immaculate and silk, and she had a relationship with the gods that others could only dream of.
It was a life she loved, but frequently found to be…just the slightest bit…lacking.
Ziba had been born in a faraway village to parents who had been frightened of her. The color of her hair was foreign to the dark-haired Persians, and when she had been born with a cluster of sunlight-blonde curls, her parents had immediately kept her hidden from the world. It wasn’t until her sister, Shireen, left to join the temple six years later that it was made clear that Ziba’s only place was with the gods. When she first stepped into that great building, rumors of her peculiar appearance spread like wildfire across the desert. It didn’t take long before everyone believed she was the human incarnate of the sun goddess herself.
Now that she had turned fourteen and was beginning to experience her first taste of womanhood just like every other girl her age, Ziba was beginning to realize how unhappy she was in the temple. Most women in the village were married at this age, whenever they too became women.
It wouldn’t be difficult for her to find a husband, too.
At one time she had been the most sought after woman in most of Persia for her beauty and high standing with the Gods. Unfortunately, a priestess could not marry, lest she wanted to be punished to the full extent of the law, as a lighter consequence. Eternal damnation would be sure to follow. She was supposed to have dedicated herself entirely to the Gods for the entirety of her life. It wasn’t a bad life, just not one she would have chosen if she had known the conditions of it.
In a perfect world she would have wanted a man who loved her; no, she wanted a man who worshiped her like she worshiped Kurshid. Except, it was not a perfect world, and men like that just did not exist. She envied the families she saw passing the temple each day, though she knew they envied her. She wore white silk and gold jewelry like the other priestesses, a symbol of her status, and her only work consisted of praying from dawn until dusk. She led a charmed life, an unwanted life, in her gilded cage.
She knelt before the altar to the goddess and pressed her forehead to the cool floor. “I pray to you, Almighty Kurshid, to give me wisdom and guide me through this time in my life where I fear I may stray. For I am now and always will be your loyal servant,” she prayed under her breath in Old Persian.
With her head bowed, she kept her hands pressed together and her eyes squeezed shut. It was normally silent in the temple, so, with her eyes shut, she could easily hear the quiet sobs echo through the building. Her eyes shot open immediately and searched the room, only to find a man’s shaking figure at the shrine to Sraosa, the god of the afterlife. From behind, all she could see was black armor and robes, as the top of his body was bent over his knee.
Even without seeing his face, she knew who it was. “Lord Bomani?” Ziba whispered once she was close enough. She placed one delicate hand on his shoulder in a sorry attempt at comfort. “Whatever ails you?”
Furiously, he wiped at the tears she knew were falling down his face and spun around, throwing her hand away from him with a fervor that sent her staggering back. Though it was slightly reddened and moist from crying, Ziba had to stifle her gasp at the face she had never seen so close before. Lord Bomani, of the Persian army, was quite famous, almost as famous as she, and she had seen him wander the roads of the village, but he had never entered this temple. He was a brute of a man, exceptionally muscled and well over average height, with wavy, brown, shoulder-length hair around a deeply tanned face, the norm in Persia. His bloodshot eyes were light brown like the desert sand but as cold as ice. His chin and jaw, along with his upper lip, were dusted with hair.
“It is none of your concern what ails me,” he snarled.
She was unaccustomed to be spoken to in such a way, but she knew he was correct. She bowed her head respectfully and murmured a quiet, “My sincerest apologies, my Lord. It was not my place,” as she took slow, measured steps backward.
While her head was bowed, she heard his sharp intake of breath and a loud thump. When she lifted her sky blue eyes, another one of her oddities, she found the great Lord Bomani, bowing to her on the floor.
“It is I who should be apologizing, Lady Ziba, I did not know it was you!” he cried, his voice muffled slightly against the floor. “Forgive me, your holiness. I did not know.”
“Please, sir, rise,” she pleaded. “You are forgiven.”
“I cannot. I may as well have insulted the goddess Kurshid, herself, for screaming at her holiest servant, the Lady Ziba,” he lifted his eyes to stare up at her reproachfully.
“You are forgiven, sir. I frightened you and it was not my place to ask questions. Now please, rise,” she said, this time a bit more forcefully. Reluctantly, he did as he was told and curiously searched her with his eyes.
“Well, Lady Ziba, I see that all of the stories about you are true,” he offered a small smile.
“What stories?” she inquired skeptically.
“You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman in Persia.”
Her face flamed, but she could not bring herself to reprimand him for his flattery. After all, this was exactly what she had wanted. “Thank you, sir.”
“Please, my name is Bomani. Address me as such,” he demanded kindly.
“It would not be proper of me to do so, sir!” Ziba cried.
“When there is no one around to hear it, My Lady, how can you deny me this? Please?” he beseeched.
After a moment to ponder his words, she nodded. “Alright, Bomani. But if we are to be acting in such a way, then you are to call me, Ziba.”
He took her small hand in his very large one and gave it a light squeeze. He placed a kiss in her palm and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ziba.”
“Likewise, Bomani,” she gasped through the sudden obstruction in her throat. Inconspicuously, she attempted to clear it, but it did not help. In fact, she might have made it worse. The man before her smirked, clearly aware of his effect on her. “Are you well, Bomani?” she inquired, unable to meet his eyes again.
His sharp intake of breath in answer told her she should not have asked. Timidly, she looked to his face, waiting for an answer. But, Bomani didn’t look like he would ever speak. With glassy eyes and a face that was obviously contorted by grief, his head whipped to the side, away from her prying gaze.
With movements that were not her own, Ziba cupped his face in her hands and felt a pleasant chill travel up her fingers. She gasped, drawing the attention of some nearby patrons but she was far too reluctant to break contact with the man standing before her to look. Bomani’s startled gaze met hers, and she knew without a doubt that he had felt it too. She stared up into his eyes while he gazed into hers with an indecipherable passion hidden behind his deep brown orbs.
Unfortunately, reality set in quickly.
“Lady Ziba,” a cold, familiar voice hissed behind her.
Ziba swiftly and unceremoniously let her arms fall to her sides as she spun to meet the even gaze of her sister. Shireen’s dark hair was pulled up and away from her face in a large, gold diadem, as was expected for the High Priestess, but it only served to highlight her blazing green eyes. Ziba had always known her older sister to be a tranquil creature, so it came as quite a shock when she found evident rage in Shireen’s face.
Ziba stepped back, only to find that she had flattened herself against Lord Bomani’s chest. “Shireen.”
“What is going on here, priestess?”
Ziba could not think of any way to cover up her indecency. “Bomani…I mean L…Lord Bomani…”
Bomani fell to his knees behind her. “My apologies, High Priestess. I distracted the Lady Ziba.”
“Did you, my Lord?” Shireen asked with a predatory grin. “Surely Ziba had some part in your little…tryst?”
Bomani rose to his feet, a self-satisfied grin on his face. “It was hardly a tryst, my Lady. This priestess was attempting to console me over the death of my brother.”
Ziba masked her shock well, but Shireen looked visibly embarrassed. “My apologies, my Lord. And my condolences. Lord Fehrer was a good man and a great warrior.”
“Thank you, High Priestess.”
Shireen pursed her lips as she scrutinized Ziba’s face, but she gave each of them a curt nod before she swept gracefully out of the room.
Ziba kept her hands folded tightly behind her, anticipating and preventing another mishap. She turned back to Bomani when she was sure Shireen was gone. “I am very sorry for your loss, my Lord.”
“What happened to calling me Bomani?” he inquired; the mirth on his face did not meet his eyes.
Ziba scowled at the floor. “I think it would better, sir, if we kept to formalities.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Lord Bomani,” she found his face again.
“Yes, my Lady?”
“Tell me about your brother?” she pleaded. He bit the inside of his cheek and wordlessly shook his head. “Please?”
Taking a moment to ponder her question, he offered his hand to her. “Come with me.”
“Sir, I cannot leave the temple!” she whispered, warily appraising his hand.
“Then somewhere we can be alone?” he beseeched.
“Sir!” she gasped, just a little too loudly. She slapped a hand over her mouth. Recovering enough to lower her voice, she searched the faces of anyone who might have caught interest. “I cannot risk such an improper thing being seen. If Shireen were to find us…”
“My Lady, I bear you no ill will. I only wish to tell you what you have asked for.”
The girl knew that nothing good could possibly come from following Bomani, a man she had met only a few minutes prior, but, for some strange reason, she trusted him. And so, it was without any further reservations that she took Bomani’s hand and led him into the corridors deep within the temple, away from any prying eyes.
When she passed the final window and arrived at the darkened sanctuary, she dropped Bomani’s hand and began lighting the candles around the small niche in the wall. “Please, my Lord, take a seat,” she gestured grandly to the single wooden bench against the wall.
“Thank you…Ziba,” he muttered as he took a seat.
He narrowed his eyes at her harmlessly. “I will tell you nothing, Ziba, if we continue in this manner.”
They glared at each other, waiting for the other to break. Ziba sighed. “If you insist, my l…Bomani.”
He grinned. “Thank you.”
When he did not delve into an explanation, she said, “Do not keep me waiting another moment, Bomani. I will surely be missed.”
“My apologies,” he took a deep breath. “My brother, Fehrer, was killed in battle this past month. It was a way he would have wanted to go, Ziba, and I am happy that he was able to die in a blaze of glory and in the protection of people he loved, but…but…” His eyes brimmed with tears and he shook with the effort to hold them back.
Ziba rubbed her hand along his back. “Bomani?”
“But I cannot accept that when I know that I will never be happy again without him!” he bellowed. “He will never fight by my side again. I will never see him again. I do not know what to do without him.”
Then, the giant of a man broke into sobs.
Ziba pulled her hand back from his massive shoulder and let it fall in her lap. “Bomani.”
He seemed unable to hear her, or, merely, unable to respond.
“Bomani,” she repeated, hoping he could hear her over his monster-like wails. “Sraosa will keep your brother safe and watch over him until you meet again. Life is only fleeting. You will meet again.”
His sobs died down slowly after that. “Thank you, Ziba…thank you for trying to help.”
She stood. “It was no trouble, Bomani. And…I know that Fehrer has everything he could possibly wish for now. He received the greatest honor a warrior can desire, and now he watches over you in a world much better than our own.”
His bloodshot eyes burned into her face for a short second. Suddenly, she found herself pressed into the material of his armor, forced to inhale the pleasant odor of his neck.
She loved the feeling of his embrace as he held her. All too soon, however, he jerked away from her. She stifled her disappointment enough to smile up at him.
“I am glad to have helped, Bo—”
She was silenced when an almost painful force impacted her face. She couldn’t move, held in place by some unseen strength around her neck and waist. Her eyes blinked open, only to find herself pulled flush against Bomani.
His lips were moving over her bruised lips, and she didn’t know how to react, other than to push him away with the hands she had placed on his chest.
He staggered back shamefully, letting his eyes fall to the floor. “M—my apologies, my lady. I did not…I was not…”
Ziba let her fingertips prod her sore lips. A kiss. Bomani had kissed her…Bomani had desired her. She had finally gotten a taste of the other side of life that she had wished for so badly.
There were so many things that could go wrong, so many people that could catch them, and they could be stoned if they were found.
But she had wanted this so badly.
“Bomani,” she said, halting the stammering mess that the great hero, Lord Bomani, had become.
“I should not have,” he finally mumbled.
He couldn’t meet her eyes after what he had done, so she closed the distance between them herself.
Ziba kissed him back.
Northern France; June 30th, 2012
Meanwhile, Kierlan and James searched the banks of the River Seine for any sign of the missing girls.
“Check the water, they couldn’t have gotten far!” James ordered, throwing himself to the ground. When searching under the car proved useless, he stood, running in any direction they could have gone.
Kierlan turned away from the dark depths of the waters before him, knowing there was no way in hell he was jumping in there. His eyes fell on Taran first, seated in the passenger’s seat with his legs hanging out the door. He was the picture of ease, twiddling his thumbs while he sat bent over his knees, a smile fixed across his face for the first time since Kierlan had first seen him.
Narrowing his eyes, Kierlan strode toward the car, cracking his knuckles.
Taran didn’t see it coming when Kierlan grasped the front of his shirt, heaving him viciously from the car and off his feet. Suddenly, his back hit the back door, the cold leeching through the fabric of his borrowed shirt. “What the hell—?!” he growled, his pleasant demeanor falling away. The larger man glowered down at him, melting away the last of Taran’s rage as well.
Guilt shone behind Taran’s wide eyes as they ogled up at the thief.
“You know where they are!” Kierlan accused, turning the full force of his rage onto the man in his grasp.
Taran said nothing, shaking him off.
Kierlan let him fall to the ground, running his hands over his shaved head while he fought off the urge to throttle the assassin. “Why?” he bellowed.
James abruptly ran back into view. “What’s going on?”
“He knows where they are,” Kierlan said, shoving Taran into the car.
Taran shook his head vehemently. “I don’t. I don’t know where they are, that’s why I sent them in the first place.”
“What?!” James bellowed.
“Sent them?” Kierlan said. “You sent two teenage girls into a situation where they’d have no way to protect themselves?”
“They wanted to go!” he insisted, narrowly avoiding a punch in the face.
Kierlan’s fist hit the metal of the car. “Of course they thought they did! That doesn’t mean we should let them run into a dangerous situation!”
“You have no idea what you’ve done—!” James roared, crossing his arms. His palms tingled with the promise of blue lightning, a feeling difficult to suppress, especially when he was so angry.
Taran rolled his eyes. “Of course I do! It’s all you talk about. Some things are just more important!”
James scowled, hearing his own words in Taran’s statement. “More important than the welfare of the planet? What could possibly be more important than that?!”
“It doesn’t matter,” he countered through clenched teeth. “Sending them in will serve both our motives.”
Kierlan stepped away, wishing he’d never signed on to this mission. Worse than that, he wished he wouldn’t have to feel what he felt now for the first time in his life. He should have been happy with Taran’s intervention. He’d managed to do exactly what Kierlan was supposed to do. Exactly what he was finding himself unable to do:
Deliver Claire to Natalia.
Now that his job was done, he should be happy. He’d be getting paid soon. But, he didn’t want money. His chest ached, pulled tighter than ever before.
He just wanted to rescue the naïve girl.
He was broken out of his reverie by James’s objection.
“Impossible! All you’ve done since you got here is serve Mainyu’s motive. There’s no telling what he’ll do now that he has them both! What were you thinking?” James couldn’t help but turn away, rubbing the crackling electricity from his flesh.
“Alex—” Taran began, averting his gaze.
The angel spun back in Taran’s direction, his fist pulled back to strike; his palms heated up, glowing blue. “Alex! That’s another thing! Not only did you sell out our last hope of exiling Angra Mainyu, you might have killed the love of my life in the process! You don’t understand the severity of the—”
The shrill cry of a cell phone interrupted his monologue.
The three men glanced quickly across each other’s faces, waiting for the owner to answer. When no one moved to do so, Taran cleared his throat, forcing himself to feel less intimidated by the fury aimed at him. “Answer it,” he squeaked, pulling at his, already-loose, shirt collar. “It’s probably Alex.”
“How do you know that?” James growled, letting the phone in question screech in his pocket.
“Answer it! Before she loses her chance!” Taran snarled.
Needing no other incentive than that, James flipped open the cell phone from his back pocket, seeing an unfamiliar number flash across the screen.
He took the call. “Hello?”
“Hello?” he repeated, louder the second time. When he still received no answer but the static, he put his thumb over the button to hang up.
“Citchumns,” a voice crackled between the hisses of bad reception.
“What?” he asked. “Alex?”
“Citchicumbs,” it whispered.
“You’re breaking up,” James said. “Baby? Alex? Are you there?”
After a long moment, her voice screamed through the static. “Catacombs!”
The men looked to each other, already pulling themselves into the car. “We’re coming, baby,” James vowed, throwing himself into the backseat. “Stay on the line with me. Are you alright?”
“Where’s Claire?” Kierlan interjected, throwing the car into drive.
Alex didn’t answer.
Instead, the harsh accent of a woman they were all familiar with met their ears like razorblades. “A phone?! I will kill you!”
The line suddenly went dead.
“No,” James gasped, calling it back several times with no success. “No. No! If she dies, I’ll fry you, Taran!”
“She’s not dead,” Kierlan said. “Natalia wouldn’t take her if she didn’t need her for something.”
“You know Natalia?” Taran inquired innocently.
Kierlan twitched when he realized his mistake.
Unfortunately for him, James realized it too. “How do you know Natalia, Kierlan?”
He couldn’t come up with a lie fast enough. “I—?”
James couldn’t help but give out a harsh chuckle. “I knew it,” he murmured.
“No!” Kierlan interjected. “James—”
“A private I? After Russell?” he mocked, a menacing smile splitting his face. “You’ve been working with them this entire time, haven’t you?”
“No!” Kierlan insisted, keeping his face directed entirely on the road.
“Shut up!” James yelled, his voice painfully loud against the ceiling. “You’re caught! Now tell me how much you’re getting paid to keep us from Claire and Alex!”
“It’s,” Kierlan paused, swerving to avoid an oncoming car he’d drifted into the path of. “It’s not like that.”
“What’s it like, then?” the angel snapped, gripping the seat.
The car raced down the street to the soundtrack of blaring horns, and, though he couldn’t die when he was technically already dead, James urged the driver to go easy on the car, if only to remain unnoticed by the authorities. He didn’t know what would happen if they were brought into custody in a foreign country. He wasn’t eager to find out. “Slow down!”
“You wanna find ‘em or not?” Kierlan challenged.
Taran’s head hit the glass beside him…again. Glowering up at the larger man, he muttered, “What do you care?”
“Alright, listen!” the driver roared. “I’m taking you to the catacombs because I’m going to help you save Claire and Alex. That’s the only reason! And if you have a problem with me, then save it ‘til this is over!”
James’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care if you believe me or not! I’m here to help and you can’t stop me.”
“Why would you do that?” Taran demanded.
Kierlan gulped. He didn’t know what to say; he could answer it to himself. Finally, after moments of contemplation and in voice that didn’t sound convincing, even to himself, he clarified, “This whole…thing…has just been blown out of proportion. I didn’t sign on to start the apocalypse, I was just supposed to steal from a museum,” Taran’s eye twitched, “and bring Claire to the catacombs. Besides, it’d be pretty hard to spend that money when the world’s come to an end.”
James nodded, biting his tongue. “I…I guess that makes sense. After all this, though, I don’t think I can trust you.”
“What other choice do you have?” Kierlan demanded incredulously. He jerked the steering wheel in the direction of the street they’d occupied this morning.
James nodded. “You’re right.”
Silence passed between them for the rest of the journey. As the entrance of the catacombs came into view, James broke the silence. “Why didn’t you do it?”
“Do what?” Kierlan asked, pulling up to the curb a few blocks down when he noticed guards at the threshold to the underground.
“Why didn’t you bring Claire to Natalia?”
Kierlan shifted uncomfortably. “I tried, but Russell brought us back to the hotel. He wanted to deliver all of you at once.”
“But…” James trailed off. Something still wasn’t adding up. “I left you alone with them for hours,”—internally, he mused, stupid, stupid, stupid—“and you didn’t even try—?”
“No,” he barked. “I didn’t.”
“But, you had the perfect chance—?”
Kierlan threw a withering glance back at James, urging him to let the conversation end with this. “But I didn’t. I was supposed to. I was being paid a lot of money to. But I didn’t. I just…I couldn’t bring that girl to that monster. She was like a kid, and I couldn’t put her in danger like that. Even for money.”
James smiled. “Glad to have you on board, let’s go.” The angel threw the door open, ready to take on the mortals guarding the catacombs.
Taran hung behind, placing his hand on Kierlan’s shoulder to keep him firmly in place. When James was out of earshot, Taran’s dead face met Kierlan’s startled expression. “You put her in that prison, didn’t you?”
“Who?” Kierlan asked, staring down at the hand on his shoulder.
“The girl with the pictures. Janie.”
Guilt washed over Kierlan in a way he’d never felt before, but he didn’t let it show on his face. Breathlessly, he muttered, “Yes.”
If possible, Taran’s face fell further. He paused, mouth opening and closing as he contemplated his next words. Finally, he deadpanned, “She’s dying. Because of you.”
Kierlan shook his head. “No, she’s dying because of Natalia. I haven’t touched her since I brought her into that place.”
“I didn’t have a choice!” Kierlan swore.
“No choice? Unless it’s a cute blonde, right? Then you can do whatever the hell you want, right?” Taran spat venomously.
Kierlan exhaled slowly, clenching and unclenching his fists. “She had pictures I needed. If she’d given them up, I wouldn’t have had to—!”
“I don’t care why you did it!” Taran growled, pushing his door open and stepping out to begin their last adventure.
Over his shoulder, he exclaimed, “If she dies, so do you!”
Deep in her mind, Ziba thought their first kiss would be enough. Once she knew what it felt like to be loved, she fully intended to denounce any of her deepest, selfish wants and desires. She would go back to the endless hours of prayer she was accustomed to. She would beg Kurshid for forgiveness. She would never stray again.
Unfortunately, as time went on, she realized that it was virtually impossible for her to go on with her life as expected.
Bomani had left for his army’s base camp a day’s journey outside the city just a few hours after their tryst in the temple, giving her one last kiss before he said his goodbyes. It had been a bittersweet affair, but Ziba tried her hardest to forget about him. It consoled her that even if he could stay, she couldn’t keep him. Sadly, the memory of his sweet words haunted her dreams when she slept and lingered in her mind when she woke. The feeling of his lips, even sweeter still, burned hers.
For days she had walked around as a shell of her former self, going through the motions of praying in the temple, but she was feeling lost. The sight of her goddess’s sanctuary didn’t bring her the same joy and fulfillment as it once had, before Bomani stepped into the temple. She feared she would never feel the innocent contentment that had gotten her through the days ever again. If it was so, she didn’t know how life in the temple could ever satisfy her.
Those two weeks without him had been the longest of her life.
After those long days Bomani had returned to the temple in secret, hiding around a corner in the corridor she had seen him. On her way to her chambers that night, Ziba had been dragged into the niche with a hand clasped over her mouth, muffling her shrill scream. Once his face had come into focus against the faded light of the dying candles, she’d thrown all her reservations away and kissed him like she had wanted to since their last rendezvous.
He’d done the same with abandon, kissing her senseless. They had stayed there for hours, sharing the occasional kiss between brief periods of talking about meeting more often.
Six months went by with these visits brightening the lives of both the warrior and the priestess, despite their worry that they would be caught and shamed. When they thought about life alone, it did not matter the risk. Nothing mattered more than the nights he would find her again. After those six months, Ziba could easily claim Bomani was her newest worship, greater even than the Gods she had sworn years ago to hold above everything and everyone else.
They had been living in sin for so long, and it only seemed to get better as the days went on.
At least it was, until the Gods themselves decided to protest to their blasphemous love.
It had been late in the night during the greatest heat wave in years that Ziba was woken from a deep sleep by a peel of thunder. Rain hit the ceiling in torrents for a long time after she opened her eyes to darkness, exhausted but unsure of why she had woken. Another crash of thunder reminded her and she jolted into a sitting position, wrapping her blanket around herself. It did not happen ordinarily that the sky produced such a violent storm. Ziba had never really gotten used to the noise and bright lightning.
“Are you alright, my love?” the groggy voice of her lover asked from his place beside her on the bedroll.
Ziba wiped the sleep from her eyes with the back of her hand, pulling her knees to her chest as she tried to tone out the noise outside. “I am fine, Bomani. I cannot sleep with that noise outside.”
“Are you afraid?”
She looked down at Bomani’s face as he held it up with his hand, supported by his elbow. His brown eyes melted when they met her blue ones, all the love he felt for her swimming in their murky depths. Feeling safer than she had when she woke, Ziba laid back down beside Bomani with a content smile on her face. “Not with you here beside me, My Lord. I could never feel afraid with you beside me.”
One massive arm wrapped itself around her waist, pulling her against his bare form. “I should hope not, my love.”
Ziba pushed her face into the hollow of his neck, inhaling his scent as she fell slowly back into a deep sleep.
The unmistakable knock against the temple doors echoed through the building, sending Ziba, as well as most of the others asleep in their chambers, sprawling off their bedrolls.
“What is going—” Bomani began, sitting up to roll Ziba back onto the roll, but she was already standing, reaching for another robe to pull over her nightdress, knowing it would be inappropriate to run to help the way she was, wearing only one thin, white robe.
“Do not move,” Ziba ordered, placing a light kiss against Bomani’s lips. “Do not make a sound. I will be back.”
“Shh!” she hissed as she opened the door, throwing a final glance his way.
He smiled and pulled the blanket over his head through the dark, hidden again, like he had been when she found him there earlier that evening. She hated to leave him, especially after such an extraordinary night, but she desperately needed to know who was knocking at this hour. As she threw herself out the door she crashed into her sister as Shireen sprinted down the hall. She pulled the other robe on as they walked, padding after Shireen.
“Ziba,” her sister greeted in disapproval. “Go back to bed.”
Her blonde counterpart narrowed her eyes. “No. I have just as much of a right to see who has come than anyone else here, High Priestess. What if the poor soul needs help?”
“What if they do?” Shireen challenged, arms outstretched toward the door.
As she pulled it open, the weight of a body leaned against the doors gave way and a man fell before their feet, bleeding from cuts across nearly every inch of his body, bruised, and broken.
“Goddess!” Ziba cried, falling to her knees beside him. Her hands prodded lightly across his skin, looking for some kind of clue as to what could have injured him in such a way, but she was afraid to touch him. “Shireen, surely you do not expect that you will be able to attend to him on your own! Look at him!”
A moan from their guest drew the eyes of all those convened in the room to his face. Ziba’s attention, however, became suddenly ensnared by his hand as he lifted it off the floor, with great difficulty. Delicately, his palm touched the back of her hand where it rested on his chest, but the shock that coursed through her veins when their flesh met burned her.
Instinctively, she withdrew her hand as fast as she could, but his was faster, reaching out to grab her forearm and hold her in place. Ziba gasped as she trailed her eyes up his body, appraising his exposed skin, stretched taut over his wiry muscles, his numerous open wounds, gaping like screaming mouths, to his pointed chin. As she glanced over his pinched lips and sharp nose, she found his open eyes, glowing red like a demon’s.
Terror caught the young priestess in its fierce gaze, willing her to stay completely still while it searched her soul.
“Hosrael!” Shireen called, spinning around to turn her frosty gaze on the fatigued priests standing in a line behind her.
One priest straightened up to face her. “Yes, High Priestess?”
A small, infinitesimally small, smile turned up Shireen’s lips as she gestured to the man on the floor, practically cradled in her sister’s arms. “Please, take your priests and find something to clean this man’s wounds. The rest of you, help him to a room. He will catch his death laying out here in the rain.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
Two of the priest’s stooped down to lift the man into their arms; still, he didn’t relinquish his hold on Ziba. She followed closely beside the priests as they carried him toward the corridor of bedchambers, but she tried fruitlessly to free herself the entire way. Even as they placed him on an empty bedroll at the end of the hall he held her hand captive. His grip was merciless and, as the moments went on, she began to lose feeling in her fingers.
“My Lord,” Shireen said, breaking his eye contact with Ziba as she knelt between them.
Taking advantage of his distraction, Ziba viciously tore her hand away from him and relished in the sudden relief flowing through her hand. She deeply regretted going to the door now. Bomani was waiting for her in her bedchamber and she had a horrible foreboding that she would not be seeing him again before he slipped out of the temple at daybreak.
“What is your name?” the High Priestess finished, pulling his hand into both of hers.
Ziba could feel him looking in her direction as he answered, in a clipped voice, thick with an oncoming groan, “Mainyu.”
“What has happened to put you in such a state, Mainyu?” she continued as the priests strode into the room with a rag, a pail of water, and a stack of robes. “Thank you,” she said as she turned to them. “Return to bed, now, the Lady Ziba and I can take it from here.”
“Yes, High Priestess,” they chorused, bowing deeply before they backed out of the room, leaving behind a quiet room.
Ziba submerged the rag in the water as Shireen continued to stroke the hand of their visitor. She placed it gingerly to the gash cutting across his chest. He hissed and his back arched against the sting, but Ziba gave comforting hums in the hope that he would calm down. “Mainyu—?” Shireen trailed off.
The man in question chuckled darkly as his back slumped unceremoniously back onto the bedroll. “I must admit: I am unaccustomed to mortal pain. It is not something I will take for granted ever again.”
Ziba and Shireen exchanged looks of confusion before he spoke again:
“High Priestess, I would like to speak to the Lady Ziba…alone.”
Shireen’s back went rigid and Ziba jerked her hand away from Mainyu’s chest. He arched his back again as she opened the gash with the rag, and blood stained her already soiled robes along with it. Panicked, she pressed the cloth in her hand back against his chest. Shireen looked down her nose at Mainyu’s face, though he was far from taking back his demand, even through the pain that had him hyperventilating below them. “I am afraid that would not be appropriate, Mainyu.”
“It is imperative, High Priestess that I speak to her.”
“Whatever you have to say to me, Mainyu, I am sure you can say it in the presence of my sister,” Ziba said, wishing to diffuse the situation. It did not seem to work, since the look passing between her sister and the visitor was making her physically uncomfortable.
He shook his head. “I must speak to you.”
Shireen gave a heavy sigh as she stood. “I will return soon, Mainyu. I hope what you need to say can be said by then.”
Mainyu scowled at her back until she disappeared over the threshold. A lighthearted grin took its place. “I cannot describe to you how glad I am to finally be in your presence, Lady Ziba.”
“Thank you, Mainyu, but this cannot be what it is you needed to speak to me about,” Ziba countered.
“I have been watching you for so long. You seemed to be something ethereal. You were untouchable for so long that—” he pressed his fingertips to her arm. She shivered. “—the thought that you are here, so close and so tangible, fills me with joy.”
“S…Sir—?” Ziba began, but couldn’t find the words to ask what he was trying to tell her.
“My name is Angra Mainyu, Priestess,” he confessed. “I have been watching you for some time and have decided that I needed to tell you of my feelings for you.”
Ziba sat, flabbergasted, for a long moment before she threw herself into a bow on the floor. “My Lord, how can I serve you? Who has done you such damage? Surely the God of Destruction could not be injured by a mere mortal!”
“You need not worry yourself,” he promised. “My mortal injuries were done by myself. I had to take this body from a human so that I may walk the Earth as a human. He was not willing to give over his body, therefore I took it by force. Unfortunately, I seem to have done great damage to it. I had only hoped to tell you of my feelings and take you with me back to the nether-plane. But it seems that I have been stranded on the mortal plane until I can recover.”
Ziba kept her forehead pressed against the cold floor. “What feelings do you speak of, My Lord?” she squeaked.
His cold fingers tilted her chin up to look into his grimace when the movement caused him pain. His thumb rubbed circles into her cheek and emotion swam in his crimson eyes.
“I have been in love with you for quite some time, Ziba.”
A lump formed in her throat and she tried desperately not to jerk her head away from his touch.
“I am sorry, My Lord. My position as a priestess stops me from succumbing to mortal love. I made a promise.”
Neither spoke for a while; Ziba did not dare breathe.
A low chuckle rumbled in the back of Mainyu’s throat before it emerged as a guffaw from his lips. The priestess stared up into the eyes of the hunter as he mocked her with only his wild laughter.
“My Lord, I—” she interjected.
He snapped to attention. “Ziba, you and I both know that your promise means absolutely nothing at this point.”
Ziba’s heart beat in her ears like a drum. She begged any Gods that would listen, excluding the one before her, that he not speak what she thought he would, that which could end her life and her love’s, but it was not to be.
“That man in your chambers is not to return again.”
She gulped. “My Lord, please do not tell anyone of Lord Bomani. If you did, I would be killed!”
“You have nothing to fear, young one, if you send him away. If you never see him again, you will be safe.”
“And what of him?” she demanded, sitting up straighter so his hand fell away from her face.
His eyes narrowed. “What?”
Ziba knew immediately that she had said something wrong. “Will he be safe?”
Many emotions passed across Mainyu’s face as he scowled at her. His hand reached up and circled the back of her neck, pulling her face down to his level. “You will think nothing of him, or his safety, ever again, Ziba. You will realize soon enough, young one, that now, and forever, you are mine!”
Paris, France; June 30th, 2012
“A phone?! I will kill you!” Natalia shrieked, kicking the phone out of Alex’s hand. Alex heard the crack of splintering bone before she felt the pain, but even that was only temporary. She cried out when the agony set in, cradling her injured hand against her chest. “Shut up, you worthless girl!”
Alex glowered up at the assassin through tears, wincing when she felt the throbbing radiate through her arm. “Go to hell, Natalia!” she hissed through her clenched teeth, biting the inside of her mouth.
Natalia only smiled, throwing her head back in a barking laugh. Alex suppressed the overwhelming urge to smack the condescending grin off her face, but she tested the limit of the chains binding her ankle, nonetheless. Natalia finally let her head hang, facing Alex once again.
“Oh, Alexandria,” she chuckled before her face went serious. Alex fell back onto the floor when she felt the woman’s heavy shoe hit her ribcage, rolling her over onto her side. Over the sound of Alex’s hacking cough, she deadpanned, “I’m already in hell.”
Alex felt the burning trails of saltwater run down her face, but she kept quiet, her eyes squeezed tightly shut, until she heard Natalia’s steps echo further away. She choked on a whimper, her mind dancing with the switch between her hand and her ribs. She bit her lip against the ache, finally opening her eyes to assess the situation they’d gotten themselves into. Before she could look, however, her sight was interrupted by a mud-caked leg, curled up to support another, broken, one.
Scrambling to sit up, Alex leaned over the unbound girl, resisting the urge to poke the girl to awareness. By the state of her being, she couldn’t find an inch on her that she thought would be safe to touch. And, upon closer inspection, Alex found that the girl wasn’t asleep, as she had previously thought. Her eyes were open, staring blindly at the wall while she breathed evenly, in, out, in, out.
“Janie?” Alex whispered, getting as close to the girl as she could without touching her.
The girl said nothing.
Clearing her throat, wincing when the sharp breath made her ribs protest, Alex tried again. “Are you Janie?”
“Taran’s Janie?” she continued.
The broken captive didn’t move. Alex was losing hope that she would ever get a response, and, slowly, she sank back to her place by the wall.
“You know Taran?” a hoarse voice croaked, spurring Alex back into motion, though her body begged her not to.
“Ya!” she exclaimed. Remembering where they were and who could be watching, she lowered her voice. “He sent me here.”
Janie carefully rolled onto her back, groaning as she did. The slightest hint of excitement emerged in her voice. “Why’d he do that?”
Alex’s smile faltered when she finally saw the prisoner’s swollen face. “He wanted me to tell you something.”
“What is it?” she pleaded. “Tell me!”
“He said he’s coming to get you.”
A grimace erupted on Janie’s face, the best she could do with her face in its current state. “He is?” she asked, her voice an octave higher.
Alex nodded fervently. “He’s on his way now.”
Moisture gathered in Janie’s eyes, trailing down her face. “I knew he’d come. I knew it. He promised.”
“He misses you,” Alex continued, loving the life refilling the girl.
Janie smiled through another sob. “He does?”
“Ya. And him and my boyfriend are coming to get us right now. I’m Alex.”
“How are they gonna find us, Alex?” Janie asked.
Alex said, “I called them and told them. But, I need your help.”
Janie’s face abruptly went serious. “I don’t know how much I can help. My leg’s broken. I’m really messed up.”
Alex’s jaw clenched. “Janie, I need to get out of this shackle. When the boys get here, there’s no way they’ll be able to find us in the dark. The only way we’ll ever get out of here is if I can somehow show them the way. Do you know how to get out of here?”
Janie knit her brow, looking around the room for any sign of sanctuary. She flinched when her eyes landed on the back of Natalia’s head, remembering all the times they’d met; times they would hopefully never have again. “All I can think is that, if anyone’s got a key, she does. And there’s no way either of us can get it,” she whispered.
Alex sighed, pursuing her lips. “There’s gotta be a way. Think! Our lives depend on it. And maybe more.”
Determined to keep herself from the hopeless pit she’d waded in for so long, Janie stared tirelessly at the chain connecting Alex to the wall. After a long moment of silence, her head finally whipped back into place. “Quick question!” she gasped.
“Was this place ever used as a prison?” she demanded, eyeing the shackles.
Alex narrowed her eyes suspiciously, grabbing the chain. “Obviously,” she mumbled, glancing pointedly at the metal in her hand.
“Maybe not,” Janie challenged. “Maybe they brought the shackles in just for us. You said you called your boyfriend, where’s your phone?”
Quirking an eyebrow, Alex pointed to the shattered phone a few feet from the other girl’s head. Gasping, she let her arm fall. She didn’t have medical experience, but she thought it was safe to assume her rib was broken. “Natalia,” she breathed through the pain, “kicked it. It’s gotta be broken.”
Janie hesitantly rolled onto her less-painful side and reached for the phone. “Maybe not,” she hissed, scraping her long fingernails across the floor. “Maybe it still works.”
Alex didn’t understand what they needed the phone for, but she couldn’t help but feel victorious when Janie grabbed it. When the cellular was safely held in both of Janie’s hands, she handed it to Alex. “Turn it on.”
“It’s not gonna work,” Alex insisted. “It’s destroyed.”
“It’s our only hope. Just do it!” Janie begged.
Alex pressed the button that would turn it on, but she barely looked at it, knowing she would find no change. To her surprise, light shone up into her face around a spider web of cracks. “It worked!” she said, shock coloring her voice.
Janie finally breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”
Still skeptical, Alex kept still. “Ya, that’s great. What do you want me to do with it, now? The cops’ll think I’m nuts!”
“No,” Janie replied. “It’s not to make a call. Go on Google. Look up if the Catacombs were ever used as a prison.”
“Why?” Alex demanded.
Janie rolled her eyes. “’Cuz if the Catacombs weren’t a prison, how are there shackles in here? And my guess is that they’re not supposed to be here. These chains look way too clean to have been lying here for hundreds of years.”
Alex quickly typed her question into the search engine and waited; she hid the phone under her when Natalia looked over, casting flickering glances down at the massacred screen until, finally, her answer popped up. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s a burial place, not a prison. I assume you know a way that this can help us?”
Janie nodded. “They would’ve needed to bolt the chains into the ceiling, sometime recently. The catacombs are hundreds of years old, so there’s no way the ceiling’s prepared to support the weight of heavy chains, a metal bolt, and a human being.”
Alex’s wide eyes had been glazed over from the beginning. “In English, please?” she sneered.
Janie pursed her lips. “Just pull on it.”
Alex gripped the chain in her hand and tugged. A slight shower of dirt sprinkled over them, but she made little to no leeway.
“Harder than that,” Janie ordered.
Ignoring the pain burning through her torso, Alex readjusted her grip with both hands and, using all of her weight, yanked the chain from the ceiling, along with the huge chunks of dirt that had been packed around it. Janie covered her face, but she still felt the dirt fall into her mouth while it was cracked in a huge smile. “Go,” she pleaded, noticing when Natalia turned to face the noise.
Alex stared dumbly at the chain in her hands, barely hearing Janie’s plea while she contemplated her luck.
“You!” Natalia shrieked, approaching them quickly.
Realizing she had to move quickly, Alex lurched to her feet, chain still gripped in her hand. Without looking back, she ran into the tunnels, praying the way she was going was the right one.
“Alex!” Natalia shrieked, following closely behind her. “Do not make this harder than it has to be!”
The only responses Alex gave were her heavy grunts of exertion.
Alex could hear that Natalia was quickly gaining, even in the less than practical shoes she wore. Dread filled her as she realized it was more than likely she would be caught soon, especially since she had no idea where she was going and the metal constricting her ankle was weighing her down so heavily. She pushed herself harder, but it was far from a surprise when she felt herself being torn backward.
Fueled by the hand fisted in the fabric of her shirt, Alex’s body soared through the air before it finally landed with a harsh thud against the ground.
She stared up the ceiling for a moment, trying to catch her breath. Unfortunately, in the gap between action, Natalia was suddenly upon her, the barrel of a gun even closer still. Alex didn’t bother to breathe and, slowly, she lifted her hands, her bindings clasped tightly in her hand.
“Woah,” Alex breathed, tilting her chin up and away from the weapon. “Just…just take it easy.”
Natalia chuckled, letting the barrel rest against the flesh of Alex’s neck, a threatening reminder. “No, Alexandria, you take it easy. We are going back to that room now, where you are going to behave yourself, or I will put a bullet in your head. Understood?”
Alex nodded, but, internally, desperation roiled inside her. She couldn’t go back there. She couldn’t.
Natalia hauled her newest captive to her feet, shoving her back where they’d come from while she thrust the gun back into her waistband. Hearing the click of Natalia’s designer slacks snapping into place around her waist, Alex took a deep breath, prepared to run again.
She couldn’t go back.
Slowly, inconspicuously, she swung the chain and, turning, let it fly into Natalia’s face.
“Der’mo!” she shrieked, grasping at her face as it rapidly turned red with blood from her broken nose. She fell with a heavy crash against the floor, both hands grasping at her nose and mouth. An imprint already began to show in her normally flawless face from the patterns of the chain, but Alex sent the heavy metal down again, crashing against Natalia’s eyes with a strength that made her go still.
Alex knew she shouldn’t care, but she studied Natalia’s body for a moment, just long enough to notice the even rise and fall of her chest. As she looked, however, she noticed the gun’s handle protruding from the assassin’s clothes. Seizing the opportunity, Alex grabbed the gun and sprinted headlong down the tunnels, screaming, “James!”
Her echo answered back.
“James!” she repeated.
After some time, she was graced with the voice of an angel.
“Alex?” his voice called back.
“Over here!” she begged, blind in the dark. “James, I’m over here.”
Suddenly, he turned the corner of one of the tunnel walls, nearly smacking into her, Taran and Kierlan in tow. Noticing the other, despite the lack of light, the couple embraced tightly. “Thank God,” he whispered into her hair, rubbing his hand up and down her back. “Thank God.”
Alex leaned away from him, urgently pointing down the tunnel behind her with the gun. “I know where they are! C’mon!”
James nodded, running down the hall after her. Taran and Kierlan followed closely behind, wordless; the air between them was still tense from their recent spat. Alex led them through the underground, pausing only momentarily to step over Natalia when they neared the room. Kierlan hung back while the others ran ahead, stooping down next to Natalia, searching for something that could help him. Knowingly, he pushed up one of the legs of her pants, displaying the top of her boot, and the gun handle emerging from it.
Grinning, he grabbed it. “Thanks, Petrov,” he whispered, continuing through the dark to join his party.
Alex was the first to see the light, picking up the pace when she recalled the way Mainyu had held her friend, barely conscious and caught up in some kind of trance. As she passed over the threshold separating the circular room from the rest of the underground, her eyes flickered to the mortal men posted around the perimeter, watching Mainyu rape Claire’s mind with his powers. Janie seemed to be the only one aware of her presence, a smile on her face.
Alex kept silent, studying the gun for anything that could go wrong.
Taran almost fell into the room in his haste, head shooting in every direction while he searched for one person in particular. He kept quiet as well, noting the guns strapped to each of the men in the room. His eyes fell on Janie only after hers fell on him. Ecstatic beyond any feeling she’d ever had in her life, Janie’s jaw dropped.
She gasped, slightly louder than a breath, “Taran!”
She realized her mistake too late. Each man in the room, excluding Mainyu, whipped around to face the entrance, already fumbling for their weapons, but, thankfully, Alex was first. Despite the break in her abdomen, she raised both hands, the gun held amateurishly between them, and let the first shot ring out through the room.
Alex thought it a little surreal when one man fell, bleeding, to the floor, but the next was quick to follow.
When Kierlan arrived to pick up the slack, she looked to the god who seemed completely unaware of the commotion around him. She had no snappy one-liner to shoot at him, or a mocking demand. All she had was a gun in her hand. As she raised it, she kept both eyes open and focused on the side of his face closest to her. Without missing a beat, she squeezed the trigger, waiting for the unmistakable spout of blood to shoot back at her.
He jerked precariously away from her when the bullet met his temple.
Claire fell from his grasp and sprawled out across the floor in an unconscious heap. Alex would have run to help, if not for Mainyu’s slow movements when he fell back into his previously kneeling position. Pulling himself to his feet, he stood, looking away from her for a moment.
No sound or change in stature revealed that he was angry.
Suddenly, the god spun, arm outstretched and fire burning in his eyes. “Witch!” he screamed waving his palm from her direction to the wall.
Alex couldn’t see what it was that it hit her, but, as he turned, her body flew out of his path, connecting forcefully against the human remains. She vaguely heard someone, probably James, call her name when she fell to the floor, sending the gun skittering across the room.
True to what she had prophesized, Bomani was long gone by the time Ziba returned to her chambers that morning, tired and bloodstained from hours spent tending to the God of Destruction. She peeled her robes from her skin, soaked red, and dropped them on the floor before she crawled back under the blanket and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, all the waking hours in the world could not have lulled her back into a deep sleep. Mainyu’s words replayed in her head as she stared into the darkness behind her eyelids. You are mine. You are mine. You are mine.
She didn’t sleep much for the next week.
Between periods of kneeling beside Mainyu, tending to his wounds alongside Shireen while he absentmindedly stroked her hair, she prayed at the sanctuary to Kurshid, stared up at the ceiling from her bedroll in the night, and pleaded with fate that Bomani not return to the temple. It was all she wanted in the world to be allowed to keep him, but she knew it wasn’t to be. If she didn’t comply with the demands of the God of Destruction, Mainyu had made it perfectly clear that her relationship with Bomani would be revealed to the city, and she, as well as her love, would be killed.
But, she knew she couldn’t send him away.
When the day came that she knew he would return, she spent the morning nursing Mainyu, as usual. Shireen, however, didn’t join them. While she led the temple in prayer for the Persian Army when they returned from Egypt, Ziba stayed behind with Mainyu, cleaning his wounds again and dressing them in fresh bandages. She said nothing while he wound his fingers through her long, strange hair. She didn’t dare protest, but the feeling of his fingers touching any part of her made her skin crawl and her muscles tense.
“So beautiful,” he whispered, staring up at her from his place on the bedroll.
Swallowing back her objections, she bowed her head politely, shoving the bandages she had just unwrapped from his body into the jar in her lap. “Thank you, My Lord.”
His hand moved from her hair to cup her face. “Something ails you, My Love. Tell me what it is that upsets you.” She was forced to look in his face and what she found there made her want to gag: fierce possessiveness.
“You are mistaken, Lord Mainyu. Nothing ails me,” she lied pretending to wipe sleep from her eyes. “I am only tired.”
The skeptical look to come over his face suggested he did not believe her, but his eyes softened as they met hers. “My Love, you need not worry yourself over mere mortal matters. By the end of a fortnight, my strength will have returned and I will bring you back to my world with me.”
Ziba’s heart hung in her throat, choking her. She bowed her head again and prepared to back out of the room.
“Ziba, wait!” he ordered, sitting up.
She halted, but didn’t raise her head.
“Will you not look at me, Priestess?”
She half-heartedly complied. “Yes, My Lord.”
He smirked, looking her up and down. “I expect you to come to me this night. I know of your former lover’s presence in the temple and I want to know, the moment you tell him of your indifference.”
She let her head fall, hiding the tears pricking at her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice cracked. “Yes, My Lord.”
She couldn’t help but keep her head hung as she sauntered toward her room, feeling the heavy moisture in her eyes roll lazily down her cheeks. Her chest shook with hidden sobs, and she could not see where she was walking when she abruptly smacked into someone else’s body. She could not look up, for fear she would reveal her sadness to the patrons of the temple. She just wanted to hide in her room.
“My Lady?” the all too familiar voice gasped as he recognized her fair hair.
Ziba’s sobs suddenly cut off with a sniffle as she squinted up into her Bomani’s face. Her arms itched to throw themselves around his neck so she could kiss him and know that everything would be alright. It was so easy to believe that when she was wrapped in his arms, safe from anything that came her way.
Regrettably, he could hold her in his arms forever and it still was not going to change Mainyu’s ultimatum. As he went to embrace her, she held him at arm’s length.
“Ziba, what is the—” he inquired, reaching fruitlessly for her shoulders as she fought him off.
“I cannot see you anymore, Bomani,” she confessed, peering up at him through drenched eyelashes.
It took a moment for shock to register on Bomani’s face. “Z…Ziba, you cannot mean that.”
Gulping back the sudden bad taste in her mouth, she said, “I do.”
“Why?” he demanded, grabbing her by the shoulders and pulling her to him, despite her quiet pleas that he release her. “If this is about the consequences, it does not matter, Ziba! I will…I will…will take you away from here! We will leave! The temple…the army…all of it!”
“And where would we go, Bomani?” she cried. “Where could we go where we would not be recognized?”
He thought for a moment before he gave a loud laugh, “I do not care! We could live anywhere, Ziba, and never see anyone else ever again and I would not care! As long as I have you, I would not care what else happened.”
“Bomani!” she whimpered. “You would do that?”
“Of course, My Love, anything!” he insisted, kissing her neck while he held her to him. “I cannot lose you.”
Ziba easily succumbed to her wish to pull his face to hers and kiss him. “Then we have to run now!” she enthused, holding his head between her hands.
“Ziba, is that what has you so frantic? Have we been discovered?”
She briefly debated whether to admit that she had been confronted by a God, but, in the end, she decided that she did not want to worry him over it. “I fear we may have. I cannot live with this worry anymore, we must leave tonight!”
“My Love, relax,” he pleaded. “We need time to put together means of escape. I promise you, we will leave by daybreak tomorrow. I must return to the men now. I will come for you at dawn to take you away. Be ready, then.”
Ziba reached up on the tips of her toes to kiss him. “I will be ready.”
With a smile, he disappeared around the corner, out of Ziba’s view.
She felt like the world had been taken off her shoulders as she strode toward the sanctuary to Kurshid and prayed. It may have been wrong of her to do so, seeing as she would be abandoning her position soon enough, but she wanted to appear normal. However, all day, out of the corner of her eye, she searched the room for Bomani. Several times she found him looking back and the two shared secret smiles. The only storm cloud over Ziba was the reminder that she would have to visit Mainyu that night.
As the sun set behind the temple, Shireen swept through the temple with a sour look marring her visage. Ziba stood in the center of the room, putting off the inevitable as long as she could, when her sister stepped up to her. “Sister,” she greeted with a curt nod. “Lord Mainyu requests that you join him in his chambers. He sounded…quite urgent.”
Ziba grunted an inaudible groan but nodded nevertheless. “Thank you. I suppose I should see what he needs, then.”
Shireen hummed in the affirmative, but her face suggested otherwise.
Ziba’s stomach dropped. “What is the matter, Sister?”
“There is something about that man, Ziba. I do not trust him and I do not like that you are seeing him alone. It completely lacks propriety and it is wrong of him to ask it of you when the consequences are so dire,” she explained, crossing her arms.
“I would never risk such a fate, Shireen, you need not fear,” Ziba lied, inconspicuously clenching her fists.
“I trust you, Ziba,” she amended. “I fear for you, though. You are so young…so naïve. It makes me nervous when men show such an instant attraction to you. You do not know yet what they are capable of.”
“I do know,” Ziba said. “I do. I do not risk harm, I assure you.”
Shireen bit the inside of her mouth. “What is it that he speaks of when you are alone?”
“Nothing of consequence, Shireen.”
Shireen nodded suspiciously but stepped out of Ziba’s way. “Then I will not keep you away any longer.”
Ziba walked to Mainyu’s bedchamber like any other would walk to their death. She cast aside the curtain separating his room from all the others and slipped inside with the quiet grace of a cat. She found him sitting up for the first time since they found him, his abrasions all but healed, and his expression twisted with rage.
“Lord Main—” she bowed.
“Do you think me a stupid mortal, Ziba?” he demanded, turning the full force of his scowl on her.
Ziba staggered back like she had been struck. “O…of course not, My Lord.”
“Then do you think me blind or deaf?”
Dread festered inside her and sweat beaded up on her forehead. “I…I think n…nothing of the sort, M…My L…Lord.”
“Your fear gives you away,” he snapped.
“Gives what away?”
“Do not test me, young one!” he snarled, pulling himself to his feet. “I am a God! I heard everything of your plans to leave with that mortal!”
Ziba’s gasp was the loudest sound in the room for a long moment. She fell into a deep bow on the floor. “My Lord, please forgive me! I was foolish to think of such a plan and I was foolish to disobey you—!”
“You test me, yet again! I am not a simpleton, Ziba. I know you are only sorry that I was able to catch you.”
“No, My Lord, I swear—” she sobbed.
“But you would be unable to betray me ever again if he were gone!” he growled.
Ziba went silent when he did. “What do you mean?”
Mainyu smiled slightly. His jaw dropped as low as it could as he gave a long, inhuman growl.
He erupted into a cloud of buzzing, black smoke.
Ziba fell backward as the explosion sent the dark vapor blowing into her face, leaving a slight burn on her cheeks. Then, the smoke flew out the door, into the hallway, and out of sight. Ziba sat there in the silence for only a moment before the sound of bloodcurdling screams brought her flying to her feet.
The hallway was empty as she ran headlong toward the sanctuary where she had last seen Bomani, smiling back at her. As she entered the main room, she halted mid-step when Shireen’s arm caught her around the waist, keeping her from seeing past the circle of people standing around the room. She heard sobbing from some and screaming from others, and though she could not see what they surrounded, she had a good idea of it and fought against the arms binding her.
“Ziba, you cannot go in there,” Shireen snapped, pulling her sister down the hall the other way.
Ziba slid easily through Shireen’s arms and crawled toward the crowd before she pulled herself up. “Ziba, don’t!”
Ziba ignored her sister’s warning and fell through the wall of onlookers into the emptiness within where only one body lay on the cold floor.
All the sound around her melted away as Ziba tried to recognize her love in the corpse that lay before her. Black veins protruded from his grayish skin and his mouth was hanging open, full to the brim with dark fluid. His eyes, wide open and unseeing, had become the same shade of inky blackness.
Arms wrapped around her body, pulling her back to her feet and away from the gruesome scene before her. Shireen’s voice whispered comforting words in her ear, but she couldn’t understand them. Any hope of escape was now gone. Any hope of a life was now gone. Any hope of love was now gone.
“Ziba. So young. So naïve. I’m so sorry you had to see that,” she whimpered, hugging her sister to her as hard as she could.
A sob wracked through Ziba’s body and only a wail escaped her lips. “He killed him. My love! My Bomani!”
Shireen froze. “Ziba?”
“He knew I was going to run away with Bomani and he killed him!”
“You were not! Ziba! The Gods will damn you!” Shireen shrieked, holding Ziba at arm’s length.
Ziba shoved Shireen away. “The Gods have already damned me, Shireen! He killed Bomani!”
“Who killed Bomani, Ziba?” she demanded, forcing her sister to look her in the eye.
“It was Angra Mainyu,” she confessed. Realizing that there was nothing else to lose, and nothing else to hide, she told her sister everything.
Shireen’s ire only grew as Ziba told her of the ongoing affair she had had with Bomani without anyone knowing and cooled only when Mainyu came into the story. By the time Ziba had finished her tale, tears were falling swiftly down her face. She clung to Shireen while the older sister tenderly rubbed her back, waiting for peace to return to the room. Silently, she thought over some way to help Ziba’s situation.
When the sound of sobs subsided into hiccups, Shireen mumbled, “I am so sorry you had to go through all that you have, little sister.”
Ziba curled up into Shireen’s shoulder, taking deep breaths.
“I will not pretend that this is any better than it is, Ziba. You are in trouble in the mortal realm and damned in the afterlife. You do not have any options—”
“I will do anything, Shireen, just save me from him, please!” Ziba interjected, begging Shireen with her glassy eyes.
Shireen felt her own sadness coming to a point as she realized what she would have to do to save Ziba from eternal fire. “Very well then, sister. I will save you from Angra Mainyu. Just remember that I am doing what I must because I love you.”
Shireen supported Ziba with her shoulder and led her to the dungeon below to await her impending sacrifice.
Knowing where Shireen led, Ziba squeezed her eyes shut, biting her cheek until she tasted blood. “Oh.”
They came to retrieve her when the horizon turned pink with the morning three days later. Fatigue had washed all color from Ziba’s alabaster skin and her blue eyes were rimmed with red but she held her head high as she strode toward the stairs between two of her sister’s priests. Feeling the burn of the rope against the delicate flesh of her wrists brought on a new flush of shame; never in her life had she imagined that she would ever be in this position.
“My lady,” a quiet voice murmured beside her, catching the remnants of her focus. Those words were so agonizingly familiar that it ached in her heart to realize that it was not in the context or the deep timber that she so desperately desired. Her love and lordship had not come to see her. Her love and lordship would not come to see her. As she came to this comprehension, again, a hand, much smaller than the one she wanted to see, reached out to hold a bronze goblet before her face. She took it obediently, inconspicuously surveying the contents before putting her lips to the shimmering cup. She drank the water under the scrutinizing gaze of the priests, but, in truth, her most recent revelation had taken away the entirety of her appetite.
“Thank you, Lord Hosrael,” Ziba replied graciously, emptying the goblet and returning it to the priest. He nodded in answer and the group ascended the stairs, each priest grasping the tops of Ziba’s arms so she couldn’t run. Their display of blatant distrust in her depressed Ziba, as she had been a priestess in the temple for eight years now, since her seventh birthday; everyone trusted her, and with good reason, as she was as guileless as the innocent child she appeared to be. She couldn’t exactly say, however, that she was surprised by this show of loyalty to her older sister. As the high priestess, Shireen was trusted above anyone else in the temple.
The young priestess abruptly collapsed into the arms of the priests, as they expected, on the way to the altar. The sedative they had slipped into her drink on the way to recover her was tasteless, and the darkness had shrouded the green powder floating in the water. Nevertheless, as detailed to them by Lady Shireen, the priests had come to do a job and didn’t alllow Ziba’s inert body to slow them down. Hosrael lifted the girl easily into his arms, his companion chasing at his heels, and made his way to their destination. Ziba, for her part, remained blissfully unaware of just how close to her impending doom she really was.
Lady Shireen, swept through the marble temple toward the altar like the wrath of God, her blood red robes billowing out and around her. The green of her eyes was cold, staring straight ahead and giving away no emotion, but all could tell how she felt. Anger radiated off her very skin. She felt no guilt or regret, only the deepest disgust, and all patrons and priests within the temple hid from the burning rage that they didn’t want directed at them.
Inwardly, though, Shireen’s mind was in turmoil. By Sraosa, the god of the afterlife, she’d taken solace in the knowledge that her sister would be protected, but, as anyone in her situation would feel, her faith had been shaken. All those to be brought back from the dead with the Book of Eternity had failed, and she feared her powers were too weak to return her sister to the land of the living. Regardless of her lack of confidence, she didn’t have a choice. Her dominant hand twitched with anticipation.
The room was large and completely silent; the various priests scattered across the marble didn’t dare to breathe. Each man was bedecked in gold robes to stand behind Shireen for the ritual, but it was evident that they were reluctant. Use of the Book of Eternity for this purpose had angered the Gods before and they knew this sacrifice could, and would, bring the wrath of the God of Darkness and personification of evil itself, Angra Mainyu, down upon them. Lady Shireen had warned them all earlier that this was inevitable. Fortunately, the priests were devoted enough to her that they had agreed to help despite the risk.
At the far end of the room, a stone table was organized in the center of a plethora of offerings to the Gods, from flowers to the preserved organs of rams. The table was grey, but stained with the remnants of blood from past offerings, all of which was unseen beneath the long, white silk of Ziba’s robes.
The priests in gold advanced toward the altar ahead of the High Priestess, beginning to chant the spell in Old Persian, “Spenta Mainyu who breathes life into you, now take it away. May our holy sister, Ziba, be held in the safe, merciful arms of the Gods, and be returned to the land of the living anew. Deliver her from the lust of Angra Mainyu. Protect her, your holiest servant. Spenta Mainyu who breathes life…”
Shireen picked up the chanting as she approached the altar and lifted the long dagger on the altar into her hand. She stared down at the petite form with an expression that could freeze an entire ocean, and brought the dagger up with one hand into position over her sister’s body. One of the priestesses held the silver Book of Eternity open in her arms for Shireen to read. Shireen’s free hand pushed passed page after page until she found the page to bring a soul back from the dead.
As she flipped through the pages, the body on the stone began to stir and a light voice murmured, “Shireen?”
When Ziba opened her eyes, she saw immediately that tears were falling down Shireen’s face without her knowledge, and Ziba’s face began to match. She so desperately wished it could have ended differently. She wanted to tell Shireen that she loved her. She wanted to apologize for all the trouble she had caused. She wanted to turn back the hands of time so that Shireen wouldn’t have been forced to kill her. All she could do was try to infuse her gaze with as much love and forgiveness and bravery as she could as the dagger pierced her heart.
Paris, France; June 30th, 2012
Claire woke to the roar of bullets flying across the room and bodies hitting the floor. While she struggled to catch her breath, the image of the dagger still burning the backs of her eyelids, she clawed at her chest. As usual, the pain from her most recent stab to the heart, or Ziba’s most recent stab to the heart, lingered, claiming all of her attention. Without her inhaler, she curled up on her side and breathed rapidly in through her nose and out through her mouth. Shaking her head rapidly, she opened her glassy, blue eyes and tried to remember where she was and what she was supposed to be doing.
When the burn of tears subsided, the sight before her came into focus, revealing the bare feet of the god of destruction before her. She tried not to make a sound while her eyes flickered around the room, finding Alex on the floor first, not two feet from Mainyu, and staring up into his face with terror while he approached her. Claire blinked and, instead of the knife reflecting back at her behind her eyelids, she saw something infinitely more gruesome. She remembered Bomani lying on the floor, gone and stained with black death; she could feel exactly how Ziba, she, had felt when she found him like that. She didn’t know how she would suffer through it if he did that to someone else she loved.
Not Alex, her Shireen.
Claire didn’t know much anymore; between the warring feelings of Ziba and Claire inside her, she didn’t even know who she really was at this point. On the one hand, Claire wanted to run far away from the threat of Mainyu and never return. She wanted to put her worries in James’s hands and hope that all went well. After all, there was nothing else she could possibly do to help them.
On the other hand, Ziba wanted revenge. She wanted Mainyu sent back where he’d come from like her sister had done once before. She wanted him to pay for what he’d done to her, Bomani, and all these other people.
“I knew you’d come back!” a voice both Ziba and Claire were unfamiliar with yelled from across the room. She looked for the sound for a split second, but wished she hadn’t when her eyes finally fell on someone she thought she would never seen again.
She saw him, her love and lordship, Bomani, standing in the doorway of the room they occupied. Immediately, she couldn’t help but smile enormously, reaching out for him as her lungs prepared to scream his name and tell him she loved him. But, something stopped her.
She let her smile fall when she realized her love wasn’t returning her smile, or even her gaze, as if he didn’t realize she was there in the first place. He grinned down at another girl, an emaciated, average-looking girl. Kneeling to the floor so he could lift her gingerly into his arms, he cradled her carefully to his chest, eyes shooting in every direction in case he walked into the crossfire.
“Bomani?” she whispered, absentmindedly reaching for him. Of course he couldn’t hear her, and it was a far cry from the screaming complaint she wanted to attack him with, but she wanted so badly to say something. She wanted him to look at her and realize that what he was doing was wrong. He shouldn’t be holding that other girl. He shouldn’t be smiling at that girl. Ziba had risked everything to love him, and now, he wouldn’t even look at her.
Claire, somewhere hidden inside the shell that had once been her body, exclusively, felt nothing as she watched Taran lift Janie into his arms and escape into the tunnels. While they looked around the room, she settled their eyes on Kierlan when he ducked in and out of the room’s entryway, the gun in his hand blazing. Claire couldn’t help but think that she had never seen him look as attractive as he did in that moment.
Blue lightning streaked across the room, dazzling anyone occupied in the gunfight, except for Kierlan, who managed to shoot the final three mortals on the other side while they were distracted. The crackling energy crashed into Mainyu’s back with the zapping sound of electrocution. His body convulsed until the lightning had run its course, then, practically untouched by the crippling assault, he turned to face the doorway where James stood with his arms outstretched. His hands still glowed with blue energy, waiting for the god to attack first, but his determined face was marred with concern. Alex lay on the floor, shaking with the terror of Mainyu’s invisible attack and waiting for someone to rescue her.
Temporarily forgetting his target on the floor, Mainyu smiled menacingly at the angel he’d seen only once before. He opened his arms wide, thrusting his chest out while he narrowed his eyes, aiming for James. Instead of the blue lightning he’d been hit with, Mainyu retaliated with a storm of blue wind that exploded from the center of his chest, blowing swiftly and loudly toward the doorway. Eyes wide, James whipped his hands in Mainyu’s direction and winding chains of blue lightning sprung from his fingertips, hitting his own attack that Mainyu used against him.
Sparks spit from the white connecting point of the two energies, fighting back and forth as neither of them gained the upper hand. Eventually, the blue lightning and the blue storm cloud dissolved in a shower of flaming embers. James shielded his face with his arm, backing away from the sudden, extreme heat in the room. Mainyu did the same, stepping backward and, accidentally, stepping on Alex’s leg while she cowered on the floor. Her instinctive cry of protest reminded Mainyu of his first intentions and, smiling once again, he stared down at her.
The familiar sight of completely black eyes told Claire and Ziba exactly what he was going to do to the girl on the floor. He opened his mouth, showing the buzzing cloud gathering in the back of his throat.
“No!” James yelled, crossing the room quickly as he prepared to dive between the god and the one he couldn’t live without.
If there was anything the battling consciousnesses of Ziba and Claire could agree on, it was that Mainyu wouldn’t be given the chance to hurt anyone else ever again. No matter the cost. Defenseless, cowardly Claire was speechless in the face of danger, but, thankfully, Ziba’s vengeful spirit could think faster. Without Claire’s consent, her hand snapped swiftly out in Mainyu’s direction, her fingers closing around his ankle.
“My Lord,” she whispered timidly.
Instantly, the black in his eyes dissolved and the room went silent, everyone’s attention focused completely on Claire as she pulled herself to her feet. Kierlan held his gun outstretched toward Mainyu, ready to shoot when he so much as touched Claire, but he was taken aback by the familiarity in her voice when she addressed him. Despite his reservations, the gun in his hand faltered.
Mainyu turned slowly to face his mortal love with a smile on his face. When his scarlet eyes met her porcelain face, he leaned infinitesimally closer, pulling her hands into his. He assumed it was shyness that prompted Ziba to avert her eyes. “Yes, my love?”
In actuality, Ziba had found the unmistakable hint of white paper peeking out from the pocket of his robe and she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the wonderful glimmer of salvation. In the time it took for her to drag her gaze up to meet Mainyu, she was already contemplating how she was ever going to take it without him noticing. Beside that, she had no idea what she was going to say to him now that she’d gotten his attention. She highly doubted her true feelings, that she wanted him dead and burning in hellfire, would help her in her current venture.
Rather than try to sweet talk him to his face, the image that was already making her sick to her stomach, Claire wrenched her hands free from him, disregarding the look he gave her that warned her to cooperate. Her arms curled around his neck in a crushing hug.
“Lady Ziba—” he began, shock evident in his voice.
“You have been gone from me so long, My Lord.”
While her cheek was pressed against his chest, she felt him rumble with a deep chuckle. “I know, my love. It feels like eternities I have waited to find you.”
Inwardly, Claire gagged at the line and the feeling of his arms circling her back. Nevertheless, she made no move to suggest she protested to Ziba’s actions, though she couldn’t understand how the priestess could let him touch her, feeling the deeply rooted resentment in their shared heart. She sank back to the back of their consciousness, letting Ziba, the more courageous and clever of the two, take the wheel for the rest of this adventure.
Ziba stared up into blood-red eyes, craftily hiding her shudder of disgust at the lust she found hidden there. She maintained eye contact. “What happens now, my Lord? Now that we have found each other, once more?”
He smiled, tilting her chin further up so that he could pull her face into a kiss. His eyes closed before their lips met, but Ziba didn’t bother with the useless show of emotion she didn’t possess. Her skin crawled, her eyes narrowed, and her eyes flickered downward, finding the pocket containing the page she needed. Purposefully, she trailed her hands down his sides as lovingly as she could fake it, fingers poised to snatch the paper from his dirty robe. All was nearly lost when she felt his tongue slither masterfully into her mouth.
“Claire, what are you doing?” Alex demanded as James lifted her easily off the floor. She wasn’t entirely surprised when she was ignored.
Rather than pull away from the disgusting superhuman, Ziba pictured her first life, of her first kiss with Bomani. When her fingers were confidently fixed around the thin, weathered parchment, she closed her eyes, picturing Bomani’s lips beneath hers and sank into the thin, hard body before her. Getting a better grip on the page, Ziba went to shove it into the back pocket of Claire’s strange clothes. The distinct crackle of old paper being crumpled up broke her out of her illusion. Suddenly, her wrist was captured in the grasp of long, wiry fingers.
Kierlan was beginning to feel sick, as were the others in the room, as the less-than-innocent kiss between the beautiful girl and the god turned into a full blown make out session. By this point, his gun was held entirely at his side while he looked to James for instruction. Taran was long gone by now and he was feeling entirely out of sorts by this recent twist. He couldn’t tell if Claire’s sudden change of heart was planned, but he knew he didn’t like it either way. The sting of jealousy stirred in the pit of his stomach.
Then, he saw the movement that made watching the wet, sloppy kiss worth it. She pulled the paper out of his pocket, and he knew it had all been a ruse, even without knowing what she’d endured in her previous life. He couldn’t help but grin, waiting for her next move in their newest plan.
Until, of course, the god’s eyes opened when he realized her intentions and he grabbed her hand. It took Kierlan a fraction of a second to raise his gun, aiming it immediately between Mainyu’s eyes, high enough above Claire’s head that he didn’t worry. He waited.
“Treacherous snake,” the god hissed.
Ziba uselessly pulled against him, her wrist caught so tightly in his vise-like grip that she could barely take a step. “Let go,” she ordered, shaking his arm.
“I should have known you would betray me like this, you stupid mortal!” he growled, turning swiftly so she went flying through the air. She crashed against the dusty floor with the page, thankfully, still in her hand and her hair wrapped messily around her face.
Shaking her head to get the annoying curls out of her face, she scowled up at his approaching figure, anger radiating through her body with a fervor that startled Claire.
“I think it is time I taught you another lesson, young one. I do not think you fully understand the extent of this arrangement,” he taunted, stopping before her. “Who would you like me to destroy this time?” he inquired, raising his hand. Suddenly, as James, Alex, and Kierlan screamed in objection, they lifted off the ground by the invisible force he’d already displayed once before. In his shock, Kierlan’s gun fell from his hand, landing with a crash that thundered through Claire’s brain. Between her and Ziba, she was the only one who knew what the modern weapon could do.
“No!” Kierlan yelled, reaching for it as he ascended higher and higher.
Mainyu pointed James, letting his body fall back to the earth. “Will it be your guardian angel?” he sneered. Kierlan dropped next, trying to recover his breath before he scrambled for the gun. “Your mortal savior?” Alex danced in the air, her body rocking and spinning as he played with her. “Or will it be your witch sister?!”
Ziba crushed the page in her fist. “You have taken everything from me! I will not let you do anymore harm to the people I love! Burn in hell!”
Simultaneously, a loud boom shook the foundation beneath them when Kierlan was finally able to squeeze the trigger, opening a hole in the back of Mainyu’s head. He jerked forward slightly, rage evident on his face. The god turned, displaying the thick mess of unmentionable gore that had once been the back of his skull. Before her eyes, his flesh stitched back together like a cobweb of skin. In his distracted state, the force holding Alex in the air let her fall back to earth, unharmed.
Kierlan’s eyes widened, the gun falling from his hands when he realized it was useless to him. Rather than use his godly powers, Mainyu bent down, easily lifting the man up by the front of his shirt. Kierlan could make no sound before his body was hurled backwards toward the skeletal wall. All the breath in his body escaped as his back connected with the remains, his body going limp before it even touched the floor.
When James had safely restored Alex to her place behind him, he outstretched his palms, prepared to defend her with everything he had. “Claire!” he called, emitting a long, bright streak of lightning from his skin when Mainyu turned to face them.
Ziba vaguely recalled that he was addressing her through the cloud of pent up fury she descended from. Breathing heavily from her most recent monologue, she looked up.
Fully engrossed in the distraction he was creating, James continued, “Read the page!”
Kierlan coughed when his chest flattened against the floor, all the will to stand leaving him as his breath did. His head spun and he wondered what had happened to put him in this state. It didn’t take long before he realized why he was there.
The ringing in his ears eventually subsided and he could finally hear the battle he was missing while he lay splayed on the floor. Blinking away the dirt and blood in his eyes, courtesy of the gash splitting his face from eyebrow to eyelid, he studied his surroundings. He couldn’t help but notice as he did that his gun was completely out of reach.
“Claire!” James screamed, ducking when a surge of the buzzing black mass exploded from Mainyu’s mouth. Where his head had just been, it crashed into the wall, shaking the entire room with the force of the assault. Curling his body protectively over Alex, he outstretched his arm and blindly threw a bolt of his signature lightning. Mainyu roared when the attack scorched his face, momentarily collapsing to his knees as he cradled his head in his hands.
Taking the opportunity, James shoved Alex toward Claire and waited for Mainyu’s next move. “Read it now!”
Ziba easily deciphered the markings on the page, but she knew that the ancient parchment was useless in her hands. She’d never possessed the same affinity for the ancient powers that her sister had. Even if his terminology was crude, Angra Mainyu was correct in calling her a witch. Without Shireen, the last remaining page from the magical Book of Eternity was as useful as a blank sheet. Unless, of course, they could find a proper substitute, she amended mentally, gaze shifting over the girl beside her.
“Claire!” James snarled.
“Alex!” Claire countered, grabbing her friend’s hands in both of hers. Wordlessly, she let the ball of paper fall into Alex’s hand.
Alex looked from her hand to Claire’s face. “What do you want me to do with this?”
James opened his mouth to voice his demands again, but he was suddenly propelled backwards, the black particles spilling off him like water. Claire cringed away from the mess, pulling Alex with her when the smaller girl tried to grab for her boyfriend.
“No!” Claire shrieked, shoving her away from James and diving away from the tidal wave behind them. She knew all too well what it did to mortal people and that they could only hope that he would be alright. “Don’t touch it!”
Alex didn’t even look at her. “Let go! James!” she screeched, shoving against Claire.
“There’s nothing you can do to help him now!” Claire insisted, shoving back as hard as she could.
Tears welled in Alex’s eyes. “I can’t let him die!”
Ziba knew the feeling. Love. Helplessness. Her stomach roiled with nausea when she thought of her initial sense of unadulterated…anguish when she found Bomani, lying cold and unnaturally still on the floor of the temple. If Alex was suffering through even half of that, it could destroy her. Ziba had to put a stop to it.
“There is something you can do to help!” Ziba exclaimed, straightening out the page in Alex’s hand.
Alex sniffled, blinking away hot tears. “What?”
“Ziba!” Mainyu bellowed, nearing the two girls with murder coloring his face.
The blonde didn’t look back at him, keeping her hands closed around Alex’s wrists. “You have to read it.
Alex glanced quickly down at the scrawl on the parchment. “But…but Claire, I can’t read this.”
“We have a few things to discuss!” he continued tauntingly, waving his hand.
Claire screamed as her feet left the ground, but she managed to recover enough to form words. “Alex, you have to remember!”
Grinding her teeth as she looked from Claire’s floating body to the black, tar-like mass hardened around James’s body, Alex tried to think of what she was supposed to remember. Wincing when she realized that he had to be suffocating in there, Alex glared impatiently at the faded characters on the yellowing paper. When no miraculous remedy arrived, she let the paper hang at her side. “What, exactly, am I supposed to be remembering?” she growled.
Claire flailed through the air, trying to swim into a better position. Her body smacked harshly against the wall, once, twice, a third time until she went slack, the slight drip of blood trailing down her chin. Mouth curled in a grimace, she sobbed under her breath, spitting red. “Stop,” she mumbled, above begging, for the time being.
“You can make the pain stop, Ziba,” the god said. “You know what you have to do.”
She shook her head, bracing herself for the impact with the wall. Her head spun, thoughts muddled.
“Hey!” a voice suddenly yelled, breaking her daze. Ziba’s head slowly lifted, vaguely recalling the deep timber from the memories of the girl she shared a body with. The man who’d yelled stood behind Mainyu, the shiny black weapon he was so fond of held tightly in one hand. The business end was pressed firmly to the back of the god’s head.
“The arrogance of you mortals knows no bounds,” Mainyu chuckled. “I have already proven to you that your earthly weapons cannot injure me.”
Kierlan ignored him, squeezing the trigger in retaliation.
Just as he expected, Claire fell to the floor as the back of Mainyu’s head exploded in a bloody mess. The god collapsed forward, the remnants of his head stitching together while he lay, corpse-like, in the dirt.
Ziba rubbed her shoulder as agony exploded through her upper body. She scrambled to her feet, getting some help from Kierlan when he ran, panicked, across the room. “What are you doing?” she demanded hoarsely. “You know it just makes him angry!”
Kierlan pulled her face abruptly to his, crushing her lips to his in a bruising kiss. It only lasted a second, but the heat that traveled up into her face burned eternally. His fingers twisted into her long locks while her hands caressed the back of his shaved head. She was familiar with the elation coursing through her veins.
She’d felt it before.
By the time he, reluctantly, pulled away, Ziba was pleasantly surprised to realize that she hadn’t needed to visualize Bomani. Claire could only lay in wait in the back of their mind, enjoying exactly what she’d wanted for so long.
“Wh—?” she gasped, breathing heavily as she recovered from the searing kiss.
Kierlan shook his head. “Get rid of him. You said she could do it, so tell her how!”
Ziba nodded dumbly leaning forward in an attempt to kiss him again. Before her lips could meet his, he backed away, pointing his gun at Mainyu’s head so he could shoot him repeatedly each time he tried to regenerate.
Shaking her head to clear it, Ziba strode back to Alex while the brunette tried to decipher the words before her. Ziba cleared her throat, snatching the paper away.
Hearing Claire approach her, Alex mumbled, “I can’t read this!”
Ziba looked between Alex and the page, trying to find some hint of her lost sister in the human before her. “You’re the only one who can use this page, Alex. Shireen’s powers are still inside you, and if you can read the spell three times, he’ll be sent back to limbo.”
Alex spat through clenched teeth, “Which is useless information if I can’t read the goddamn thing!”
Ziba glanced down at the paper, easily reading the words in her native language. “Just repeat what I say three times. Everything will go back to normal.”
Alex’s eyes flashed to the dome surrounding her boyfriend. “What about James? Will that thing let him go?” she pleaded.
A click behind them echoed through the room. The silence following it seemed louder than the roar of the bullets that had greeted their ears moments ago because they all knew what it meant.
The girl’s spun to face Kierlan, whose terrified gaze was turned exclusively to the worthless gun in his hand. Watching Mainyu’s skull knit together, he dropped the gun, backing away from the body on the floor.
Out of bullets.
“Claire?” he whimpered, wondering how the god was going to kill him when he finally stood up. “Anytime now.”
“Yes!” Ziba gasped. “Everything will be back to normal! Quick, before he gets up!”
“Say it, say it!” Alex said, her back finally pressing the jagged edges of the wall.
Ziba watched Mainyu pull himself slowly to his knees, his arm reaching out to support himself on Kierlan’s shoulder. The mortal man instinctually backed away. “Elle ot bill ogg nah ooh tna wah ee.”
In a questioning tone, she repeated the words.
Mainyu’s head snapped up, recognizing the words. “No!” he growled, immediately forgetting Kierlan and striding toward the girls.
Kierlan followed his path with his eyes, realizing immediately where Mainyu was heading. “Say it again!” he ordered, running to catch up with the god. He grabbed Mainyu’s shoulder, trying to spin him off his path, but he barely budged. “Stop! Leave them alone!” He continued to uselessly pull at Mainyu’s shoulder, but his efforts were in vain. “Son of a bitch!”
Abruptly, Mainyu stopped and Kierlan knew immediately that he was in trouble. Mainyu placed his hand on Kierlan’s shoulder, forcing him erect while he pulled his other arm back. Ziba and Alex watched in horror as Mainyu’s free hand shot out like a spear, stabbing Kierlan cleanly through the stomach. Kierlan, doubled over and breathing harshly, made no sound but a strangled cough as he fell onto his back, tearing Mainyu’s arm from his flesh.
Ziba felt like she was watching history repeat itself. Horrorstruck, she stared down at Kierlan on the floor.
“Kierlan!” she cried, wishing she could run to help him. Unfortunately, her cry made Mainyu turn quickly on his heel to face them. Narrowing her eyes, she whispered, “Say it again.”
As Mainyu swiftly approached them, Ziba swept across the floor toward him, propelling herself at his body. Behind her, Alex spoke the line again, watching Claire. She couldn’t pinpoint the cause but, whoever the blonde in front of her was, it was not her best friend.
Ziba curled her legs around Mainyu’s face, frantically flailing her fists into his face.
“How could you? You are a monster! You have killed everyone I love! Now, you will die!” she screeched, clawing at his eyes as he shook his head pathetically away from her nails. “Alex, one more time!”
Confidently, Alex said it a final time.
“Now banish him!” Ziba shrieked.
Alex stared incredulously at the blonde. “How do I do that?”
“Just say, ‘Angra Mainyu, I banish you!’” she ordered.
No sooner had Alex obliged that Mainyu cried out, outstretching his arms. A light began in the center of his chest, growing larger and brighter while he screeched louder. Ziba closed her eyes, a pleasant smile on her face while she enjoyed the radiant warmth shining off him.
Alex covered her eyes, backing up as the light mixed with an unnatural wind that blew her hair back. Beside her, the shell covering James began to chip away and his flesh showed through the darkness.
Mainyu’s yelling abruptly ended with a final explosion that sent Alex flying into the wall, again, and crashing to the floor. However, it wasn’t that that forced her into her second fainting spell in two days. When she peeled her face from the floor, looking up to find Claire in Mainyu’s place, she found an empty space.
Both Claire Strong and the god of destruction had vanished.
Paris, France; July 1st, 2012
Alex was pulled from a deep sleep by the nagging feeling that she was forgetting something very important. She picked up on the sound of deep, even breathing before anything else, but the incessant beep of her heart monitor was quick to follow. She opened her eyes, wincing when she was blinded by the burning light above her. With a groan, she turned over, instantly freezing when she felt something protest.
“You’re awake,” the unmistakable voice of an angel sighed, yawning through the deep sleep in his throat voice.
She forced her eyes open, searching for him through the sleep crusted in them. Finally, his honey-blonde hair shone out of the corner of her eye. Grunting and adjusting herself, she glared distastefully at the IV in her arm before her gaze settled on James, her face turned up in a smile. Despite how glad she was to see him, she couldn’t help but grimace, wondering how she’d ended up in that unfamiliar room, aching in places she’d never felt before. What did she need to remember…?
It all came back in a flood.
“Don’t move, baby,” James advised, pulling himself onto the bed beside her, careful not to disturb the IV protruding from the inside of her elbow. “You won’t be getting anymore morphine for a little while.”
Alex couldn’t help the tears that formed in her eyes, silently spilling over her cheeks. All she could see in her mind’s eye was Claire’s face, twisted with a small, pleasant smile before she disappeared into thin air, banished to a place she wasn’t sure existed. Her head slumped back into the immaculate pillows, her body finally shaking from violent crying. Every bone in her being objected.
James leapt to his feet, leaning over her to fervently press the call button. “I’m sorry!” he pleaded, continuously pressing the button. “I know, it hurts. I’m sorry! I’ll get you a nurse. I’ll get you pain medication, anything you want.”
“It’s—” she sniffled, trying to hold back her need to wail. “It’s not that!”
He hesitantly retracted his hand, taking a seat beside her on the hospital bed. Planting a kiss on her head, he said, “I know, sweetheart.”
“I just,” she wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand, “I can’t believe she’s…gone!”
“Shh, shh,” he murmured, hugging her tightly into his side. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“How can you s…say that?” she blubbered. “We…I killed my best friend!”
“Alex!” James demanded, staring hard into her tear-stricken face. “Claire isn’t dead. And she’s not gone.”
Jerking her head up so fast she had whiplash, her sobs suddenly died away. “What do you mean? I saw her disappear, James, just like him,” she spat venomously.
James rubbed his hand comfortingly up and down her back. “We didn’t kill Mainyu and Claire. We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to.”
She shivered, leaning into him. “Then, where are they?”
“They were only banished. To another plane, one of emptiness,” he explained, gauging her reaction.
“She’s trapped in another world with him?” she exclaimed, trying to sit up again. “What are we waiting for? We have to get her back!”
He, gently, restrained her from getting out of bed. “That would be impossible, right now.”
She laughed, letting herself fall back onto the mattress. “Impossible? I don’t believe in that anymore. We just have to use the page again…right…?” she trailed off when he solemnly shook his head.
“They took the page with them,” he muttered. “The last page.”
“I have everyone…up there,” he gestured sharply toward the ceiling and cleared his throat, “working on it. As soon as we can think of a way to get her back…without bringing Mainyu with her, we will get her back.”
“You mean there is a way to get them back,” she said, gazing hopefully up into his face.
“There is, Alex,” he explained, “but it’s not something we’ll be doing. We can’t risk the world again. Even for Claire.”
“But I thought she was your responsibility to save?” Alex demanded. “Shouldn’t we be doing something…any—?”
“I don’t want to fight with you,” he interjected. “Claire isn’t my responsibility. I had to keep her safe so that Mainyu couldn’t get her and—”
“But he does have her.”
“And take over the world,” he finished as if she hadn’t interrupted.
She bit her lip, feeling tears rise again. “So there’s nothing we can do, then.”
“Not yet,” he confessed. “We just have to wait for my bosses to tell us where we go from here.”
He winced, realizing he hadn’t intended to tell her about them. “The people who assigned me to this case in the first place. The other angels. My bosses.”
“What do they do?”
“They deal with all the guardian angels. They make sure that we’re all following the rules,” he said.
She took a deep breath. “You have rules?”
“Of course. And they’re the ones that punish anyone who breaks the rules,” he continued.
“And I suppose bringing Mainyu and Claire back would be breaking those rules, right?” she demanded bitterly.
Jaw dropped, he retorted, “You shouldn’t even be thinking about doing that, Alexandria.”
“So it’s against the rules?”
“Of course it’s against the rules,” he enthused. “That’s probably the worst thing they could possibly make a rule for.”
“What would they do if you…broke that rule?” she asked, barely able to meet his eyes.
“We’re not talking about this,” he snapped.
“We can’t endanger so many people for our own selfish desires. Getting Claire back isn’t gonna do us any good if we die!” he explained.
“We’ll just send him back, again,” she challenged.
“And what if we can’t?” he spat. “Nothing good can come from resurrecting Mainyu.”
She glared at him incredulously. “Then why did Natalia do it?”
He shook his head, remembering something else he’d have to break to her. “I have no idea.”
“Well, we can ask her. Where is she? I knocked her out in the catacombs, what’d you do with her?” she inquired.
James ground his teeth. “She got away.”
Alex blinked, hoping she just hadn’t heard him correctly. “What?”
James shifted uncomfortably. “When you passed out, I had to get you and Kierlan out of there before he bled out. The place was collapsing. Taran took the car. So, I left her there while I brought you two here, by…otherwordly means, I guess you could say. I went back to find her when you were under, but she was already gone.”
“Where’s Hayden?” Alex gasped, noting his emphasis on you two.
“She’s fine,” he replied matter-of-factly. “I had her checked out and she’s waiting downstairs while your parents come to see you. She’ll be here ‘til you’re better.”
She breathed a heavy sigh of relief, until she returned her thoughts to more pressing matters. “So Natalia’s just walking around out there?! A dangerous criminal! She’ll kill us!”
“I won’t let her, Alex, relax,” he pleaded. “She doesn’t matter.”
“You say that a lot, James!” she accused stubbornly. “Telling me that some things don’t matter! And when it does matter, you won’t tell me anything!”
“I love you, James. That’s why I wish you’d let me in on whatever this…second life is you’re living.”
“There’re just some things I can’t—”
“What do your bosses do when angels break the rules?” she demanded.
“Alex, don’t make me answer! Please,” he said softly. “I need to ask you something—”
“Just answer the question. What would they—?” she halted when a nurse entered the room, a sugary-sweet smile plastered on her face.
“Is everything alright?” she inquired, looking from Alex to James and back again.
“I think we’re ready for some pain medication,” James replied, all evidence of duress gone from his face.
“Alright,” she nodded absently, leaving the room to retrieve the medicine.
“They would clip my wings,” he finally replied. “They’d make me mortal.”
“That doesn’t sound so—” she said.
“Don’t you dare say bad,” he hissed. “I’m an angel, Alex. That’s who I am. That’s what I’ve been for thousands of years. And this is what I was always meant to do, help people. Without that, I have nothing, I am nothing! And I won’t do it, Alex, not even for Claire.”
They sat in silence for a moment, not even bothering to thank the nurse when she returned with the morphine. Alone once again, Alex built up all her courage to meet his gaze. “James, you’ll always have me.”
“I know that,” he said.
“I wouldn’t call that nothing.”
He heaved a sigh, rubbing his hands down his face. “You’re right, Alex. As long as I have you, I’ll never have nothing. And that’s why I have to ask you something.” He knelt beside the bed again, pulling the arm that wasn’t attached to machines down with him.
“What—?” she gasped.
“I didn’t really expect that I’d be asking in a hospital room, but, ever since I told you what I really am, I knew I’d have to ask sooner rather than later.”
Alex openly gawked at him. “James—”
“Alexandria Clove, I love you, and I want to marry you. So, before we go running into anymore dangerous situations, I need to know. Do you want to marry me?”
“Of course I want to, James, but there other things here that we have to think about,” she replied, her words slurred by the morphine hitting her system.
“Like what? Getting Claire back? Saving the world? Don’t you think that would just be a better reason to be married now?”
“I—” she began, shaking her head to clear it.
“I’m not asking you to hop on a plane to Vegas with me, Alex. We don’t have to get married this week, or even this year. We could wait until we get Claire back to be your maid of honor if that’ll make you happy. I’m just asking you: will you marry me?”
A fog rolled into her head, exhausting her. “I…” she yawned, closing her eyes. Her body curled into the soft sheets of its own accord, searching for sleep so desperately that she didn’t even feel her fractured rib protest. Before unconsciousness claimed her, she managed to breathe a low, “Yes.”
James wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. “Yes? Did you say yes?”
The black crescents her eyelashes made against her cheeks didn’t flutter open for the rest of the night. He stared down at her tranquil face, his fiancée’s face, with a smile, wishing he had a ring to give her. Proposing wasn’t something he’d planned on doing for a long time. It was just something he knew he had to do, knowing that she would accept him, whatever he was, and love him for it. Nearly losing her in the fight with Mainyu had definitely had a hand in it, as well.
Looking down at his right hand, at the white gold ring he wore on his third finger, he pulled it off without missing a beat. It would never fit, but he took her left hand in both of his and pushed it onto her thumb, where it would stay until he could come up with a proper engagement ring.
He sat there into the early hours of the morning, watching the even rise and fall of her chest until he started growing restless. Remembering that there were two other patients in the building recovering from the same fight that had injured his beloved, he determined to go looking for the two of them, to make sure they were alright.
He went looking for Janie’s room first.
It was easy to find it, knowing which was hers by the crowd of armed guards standing outside the door. He didn’t bother trying to get in, but as he passed, he thought he saw the slight glimpse of someone in the room that wasn’t the girl. He barely spared another glance, the familiar t-shirt he wore hinting that it was the same man he’d spent hours sitting in the waiting room with. Taran Banks.
He smiled, ready to go looking for Kierlan next.
In the time since they’d arrived there, he’d begun to feel bad about the way he’d treated the man. Kierlan had proven himself to be nothing if not trustworthy since they’d taken on Mainyu, going so far as to nearly have his heart ripped out, literally and figuratively. Knowing he’d been injured worse than the rest of them, James felt like he owed him an apology. Beside that, he was wondering how the spy was taking Claire’s…disappearance. And, if he was being honest with himself, he was hoping Kierlan’s connections could possibly help them in finding a way to bring her back.
He took his time walking down the hall, careful not to disturb the other sleeping patients. He watched the numbers on the doors descend until, finally, he found the bold six-one-one etched into the only closed door in the corridor. He grabbed the doorknob, frowning when it didn’t turn and he walked into solid wood.
Growling under his breath, he pulled harder on the handle, to no avail. He looked down each end of the hall, waiting until the last of the night nurses disappeared out the door of the ICU. Satisfied that he was alone, he stepped back, giving up on the knob. He shoved his shoulder into the door as hard as he could, watching as it easily folded in on itself and exploded into a shower of wooden shards. Stepping over the splinters and shoving the chair that had been put up against the door to the ground, he searched the room for Kierlan. All he saw past the wreckage of his own making was an empty, unmade bed, the white sheets marred by the few odd droplets of crimson.
The window at the far end of the room was wide open, the gauzy curtains blowing in the night breeze.
Edison, New Jersey: July 14th, 2012
The alarm clock woke Alex, too early, on Sunday morning beside her peaceful fiancée, the last ray of sunshine in her life. The black dress she’d picked out for the afternoon’s gloomy occasion was folded over the computer chair, more prepared to deal with the tears and the day than she was. Slamming her fist down on the Snooze button, she sat up, begrudgingly, and turned to shake James awake. She’d moved into his large house when they returned from Europe a few days before and the couple had immediately immersed themselves in wedding plans and searching for a way to resurrect Claire.
She hadn’t wanted to go to the funeral in the first place, too stubborn to believe that her best friend was really dead. The only way she’d been convinced was because of Claire’s parents.
“Wha—” James whined, rolling away from her and trying to go back to sleep.
“Janie’s picking me up in an hour, you gotta get up,” she mumbled, hugging him and planting a kiss on his forehead.
Exhaling deeply, he turned his head to meet her lips with his. “It’s today, isn’t it?”
She nodded grimly. “Unfortunately.”
With a sigh, he muttered, “Sometimes I still wake up and think it was a nightmare.”
“So do I.” Her voice cracked. Rather than burst into tears before the man who’d seen her cry more times these past few weeks than she could count, she threw herself out of bed and went through the motions of getting ready for Claire’s ceremony.
Staring into the bathroom mirror at her reflection as she pulled her hair into a bun, she inspected the emphasized blood vessels in the whites of her eyes. Alex would’ve done anything if it meant she didn’t have to cry anymore, but she could never seem to stop.
Inwardly, she was more determined than ever to find a way to retrieve her friend from the other plane. Outwardly, she tried to make herself look upset by Claire’s upcoming funeral, but she only ended up looking really tired. She didn’t want to be sad anymore. She didn’t want to wake screaming from nightmares anymore, only to realize that the nightmare never ended.
She was uncharacteristically putting on make up when James’s body suddenly filled the doorway. If possible, he appeared more exhausted than she did. After all, it had been James who’d been making all the trips from their home in South Plainfield to the protective encampment in Massachusetts where he led other guardian angels in a search for Claire’s return, visiting his new friend in the process.
Taran had been brought into protective custody there and had been all too willing to help. He continued the search in James’s place when he was home with her, but Taran wasn’t an angel; he didn’t have the necessary connections to find spells or past experience that could help them.
Running a hand through his blonde locks, James said, “She’s here.”
Alex nodded. “Send her in.”
He slipped out of the room. For a moment, the only sounds in the whole house were footsteps and Alex’s slow, light breaths. She waited for their new friend to come upstairs, and eventually, her red hair appeared at the top of the marble steps.
The older girl had benefited greatly from an extended stay in the hospital and her first shower in six months. Since their meeting in the catacombs, Janie had gained fifteen pounds and was slowly filling out to what she must have been before her incarceration. The grime that had once layered her face and the hair growth on her legs were both gone now, in favor of a tall, severely thin woman in a clean, black dress and flats. Her frail ankles wobbled as she clacked across the expensive flooring, despite the crutch under her armpit, and her frayed hair had been cut to shoulder length, now arranged in a braid.
She cracked open the door of Alex’s room and cautiously called her name.
Alex said nothing; she gave her friend a polite smile and led the way to the car parked in front. James was waiting there and opened the door for her, but he wasn’t coming.
While the women ventured to the funeral home, James would be venturing up to Massachusetts for a meeting with Taran and the coven. In the meantime, Janie would be staying in the house with Alex, her only means of protection since she wasn’t allowed in the camp and she was without Taran.
Janie drove. Alex stared absentmindedly out the passenger’s side window, searching for color in her dim world.
Meanwhile Janie was becoming uncomfortable. “Alex?” she finally murmured.
“What?” the other girl grumbled, irritated by the sudden lapse in silence.
“Are you okay?” Janie articulated, studying her face for any sign of emotion. Anything at all.
She returned her attention to the road, leaving Alex to wallow in hidden self pity. She hadn’t expected she would ever have to go to her best friend’s funeral. More than that, she never expected she would have to keep a secret from the world about said best friend. She could be consoled with the knowledge that Claire wasn’t really dead, only banished to another plane, but she couldn’t tell Claire’s father that.
They had yet to arrive at the funeral home, but Alex was already feeling the full force of her burden.
Alex wondered as the building grew closer why funeral homes were always so well-kept when they were full of people whose last concern was the architecture. As if the images of mowed, emerald green grass and always-fresh flowers could soften the blow?
Janie pulled into the parking lot, lining up with the other parked cars while Alex walked off to find familiar, grieving friends and family. The building was small, only one story, and made up almost entirely of windows. Two men in black suits directed her to the appropriate room for the ceremony.
The air reeked of the cheap flower arrangements, moth balls, and bathroom mints. Every room was packed to the maximum carrying capacity with people, some laughing, others crying. Alex felt almost personally insulted by the humorous exchanges; they were convened there to pay respects and they had the nerve to think anything was funny amongst the grieving family. The girl they were remembering had been eighteen years old and none of them knew anything about where she was or what she was going through.
And, as far as they knew, that girl was never coming back.
“Oh, hello, Tom,” an old woman addressed a man of equal, if not greater, age. “It’s so great to see you again, if only it was under better circumstances.”
Shove your fake condolences up your old, fat butt, lady, she couldn’t help but muse.
A hand slapped down on her shoulder from seemingly nowhere.
“Can you handle it?” Janie, the owner of the hand inquired, practically reading her thoughts.
No matter how much of a lie it was, Alex nodded, sliding out from under her hand in a gesture of wanting to be left alone. Janie nodded, understanding completely, stepping away from her to find a corner to hide in. Alex lingered in the back of the room, as far away from the empty casket as she could get. And that was where she stayed until a man strode to the front of the room.
“Would everyone please take their seats?” the priest announced from the pulpit. Everyone promptly took a seat while the ceremony began:
“There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.
He went on through the prayers and speeches, bringing up Claire’s father, who gave the most heart wrenching speech Alex had ever heard before their tears forced them to sit.
With a final, “Amen,” everyone stood to go to their cars for the drive to the cemetery. Alex searched for Mr. Strong through the thick crowd but found it nearly impossible. In a break in the crowd, she caught a glimpse of his head and impulsively changed course to get to him, but someone stood in her way, his back facing her. She recognized that back, dressed in the usual black t-shirt and pants, tucked into combat boots.
Trying to gather her words, she reached out for the familiar man.
He spun around, with difficulty, when he felt her fingers on his skin and looked down at the girl who’d become child-like in comparison, despite his being hunched over crutches. His storm-cloud grey eyes narrowed at her, angry he’d been spotted by anyone he’d met in France. Attempting, in vain, to push around her, the crowd began to close in, and Kierlan had to acknowledge her. With a sigh, he grunted, “Excuse me.”
Alex wasn’t at all surprised by his hostility, but she wasn’t a fan. “Where have you been,” she demanded.
He rolled his eyes. “Around.”
“So you’ll attend her funeral, but you won’t help us find a way to help her,” she challenged. “Makes a lot of sense, Kierlan, it’s good to know that you cared about her.”
His face darkened. “I’ve had enough of your magic shit to last a lifetime. She’s dead. And as much as I care for the rest of you, so are you.”
Alex shoved him as hard as she could, but he only stumbled back a step. He gasped, leaning more heavily on one crutch when his stitches pulled.
Growling something unintelligible under his breath, he, one-handedly, shoved her back. Alex staggered blindly backwards, flailing her arms as she very nearly fell to the floor. Someone grabbed her under her arms, but the two of them crumpled to the floor, as Janie wasn’t nearly strong enough yet to keep them both standing, especially not with a broken leg. Janie helped her back up, with some difficulty, before turning to face Kierlan.
Hazel eyes blazing, Janie poked one bony finger into Kierlan’s chest. “You can’t get away from what happened, Kierlan. I’ve tried.”
“Is that what this was?” he grumbled. “Trying to get passed what happened? Believe me, you should try harder.”
Face growing red, Alex stepped purposefully in front of her friend. “You’re here, too, dumbass. Or did you forget?”
“I can’t forget! No matter how hard I try, I can never forget!” he yelled, catching the attention of nearby mourners. Lowering his voice, he continued, “I can’t sleep. Every night I have nightmares. I see her face. I hear her voice, begging for help. She haunts me when I’m asleep, and when I’m awake, and I just want to forget.”
“Don’t even think that you’re the only one here who misses her!” Alex hissed through clenched teeth. “And don’t think that you’re the only one with nightmares.”
“Because of you,” Janie fumed, poking him again, “I was left with a maniac for half a year! I’m scared to be alone. I’m scared she’ll come back to find me. I’m scared that no one can protect me. I’m scared all the time. You wanna talk about nightmares? Don’t whine to me about your nightmares, you…you ass!”
He stared at the two of them, all three red-faced as the last of the mourners filed from the building. Two men in black suits holding the doors watched them suspiciously when they didn’t follow and one approached them cautiously.
“Umm, we’re moving to the cemetery now. If you would please return to your vehicles…?” he trailed off, studying each of their faces.
Janie pried her scowl away from Kierlan’s eyes first, facing the man. Hesitating, she began, “Of course, sir.” She took Alex’s arm and lightly tugged her toward the exit. “We were just leaving.” Pausing her limping, she spoke to the only other in the room, “Goodbye, Kierlan.”
Alex never broke eye contact, promising as they left the building, “We’ll be seeing you, again.”
Andover, New Jersey; April 3rd, 2013
But they didn’t see Kierlan again after that and he had no intention of allowing them to find him while he recovered. For months he hid in his hometown, taking up residence in his parents’ home. It was the most obvious place he could think of, and, therefore, the last place anyone would think to look for him, especially Natalia and his mystery employer, whose calls he tirelessly avoided. After a while, he’d thrown the useless cell phone in the lake behind his childhood home, having lost all excuse to use it now.
Each night he slept in vain, tossing and turning against the nightmares and waking in a cold sweat. His mother and father dreamed peacefully in the room beside his, unknowing of all the things he’d experienced last June and the world they didn’t dare imagine. They hadn’t questioned him when he begged to stay with them for a while, too glad to see him for the first time since he graduated high school. He didn’t offer any answers.
Being with them was the best thing he could’ve done, all things considered. He even found that, the longer he stayed in their completely normal world, the more ridiculous his fuzzy recollection of Claire’s death was beginning to seem. Sometimes, he questioned her very existence. He’d come a long way since his first day back to his childhood home.
Now, he only had to worry when he was asleep.
Oh, Kierlan, her sweet voice whispered through his deeply unconscious mind.
Why couldn’t you save me?
His eyes snapped open and adjusted easily to the scarce light filtering through the window pressed against his forehead. It was hot in the taxi from the hot summer outside, but a chill ran down his spine, raising goose bumps across his covered flesh. For the first few seconds following his awakening, he remained in the blissful state that always follows sleep, where nothing can bother you because you can’t remember any of it. His stormy grey eyes were frosted over with a confused glaze. Recollection suddenly flickered to life in their depths, and his eyelids slowly slid closed.
All Kierlan could see behind his lids was her face and hypnotically blue eyes staring back at him. With a defeated groan, he forced himself to open them again and focus on anything around the interior of the cab bound for Andover.
It was difficult to keep his mind off of her and the pain reverberating through his stitched abdomen, it always was, and there was only so much to stare at. He fished through his back pocket for the bottle his doctor had issued and popped two pills dry, but it didn’t soothe the pain his mind was pumping into every inch of his body.
Why couldn’t you save me?
It was very obvious to him that the driver was purposely avoiding any conversation with him because of his obvious emotional trauma, but he couldn’t find it in him to think badly of the man. The soreness in the back of his throat hinted at the fact that Kierlan might have been talking in his sleep, or even screaming. Had their roles been reversed, Kierlan thought he might just deliver the lunatic in the backseat back to the hospital he’d picked him up at.
Thankfully, this guy didn’t seem to care much for Kierlan’s mental health so long as he was paid for his services. Kierlan wasn’t entirely surprised; he’d recently lost all hope for human kind when a group of human beings attempted to sacrifice recently graduated children to a ‘fictional’ god. Worse yet, he’d been one of them.
He could tell already that healing would be easier said than done, but at this point his only hope was that he would someday soon regain the ability to breathe correctly. His chest burned with the memory of her face, her smile, and her angry voice when she yelled.
He wanted to scream, but he didn’t think his throat would manage pushing out any kind of speech at the moment, let alone a scream. Instead, he slammed his already throbbing head against the frigid glass and studied the outside world.
It seemed surreal that there’d still be an outside world after his venture through the catacombs and the incarceration he’d escaped from his hospital room.
The sky outside was dark with the heavy purple clouds, spilling buckets of rain down on the world below. It seemed fitting that the weather would be so dark; how could the sun shine down on a world that had taken away someone as bright as Claire? His eyes followed each raindrop as it trailed down the window, thankful for such an effective distraction, but, eventually, his mind began to wander.
He’d prided himself all his life on being the lone wolf, and now he was crawling back to his mother and father like a frightened pup.
Outside, where no one knew that the end of the world had nearly been upon them, life was going on. Ordinary people in the ordinary world were at work now, going about their daily business like they did every day at noon. For Kierlan and everyone involved in the incident back in the catacombs, life would never be the same. It was a secret shared only by them, and no one would ever believe them if they told it.
It was comical, assuming they pretended it had ended with a happily ever after.
After he woke, the remainder of the ride was short, either by distance or because he desperately didn’t want to answer his mother’s inevitable questions. Nevertheless, the taxi pulled up before the lazily crafted wooden fence and the driver demanded payment. He pulled out his wallet to pay and a picture floated to the ground. It was the picture he’d been given by his employer to find Claire: she stood among her friends from the catacombs, dressed in their Catholic School uniforms.
As he handed the money over to the driver, he bent over to retrieve the photo and froze.
Where James should’ve been standing, one arm thrown casually over Claire’s shoulders while the other wrapped around Alex’s waist, his arms were instead holding Alex and thin air. Any trace of the girl in the photo had vanished, even the bags that should’ve been at her feet. He flipped the picture over and caught her name, written there in blue ink, vanish before his eyes.
He stared, openmouthed at the picture in his hand and felt his eyes slide shut over the tears building there. His fist closed around the paper with a quiet crinkle and his fingernails cut into his palms.
“Sir?” the driver demanded.
Kierlan’s eyes shot open and he cleared his throat with a slight shake of his head. “Umm, yes?”
“Are you alright, sir?” he inquired.
“Yes,” Kierlan replied a bit too hastily. “Ya, I’m fine.”
“Well, would you mind…?” he trailed off, nodding his head toward the car door. “I should be getting back to business.”
“Oh, yeah,” he continued, nodding and clearing his throat a second time. “Of course. Sorry.” Humiliation colored his face as he struggled to exit the vehicle with his crutches in hand. His stitched flesh protested violently to movement while he staggered toward the trunk of the taxi and slammed the door behind him. He stared hopelessly at his luggage in the backseat, knowing there was no possibility he’d be able to carry it all the way to the house.
“Would you like help with your bags, sir?” the driver offered, appearing beside him.
He exhaled heavily with relief. “That’d be…great.”
Kierlan spent a week alone in his room, avoiding his mother, before he allowed himself to leave the house. He was still in a great deal of pain from the stitches, but it was such a welcome reprieve to feel fresh air that he didn’t mind much, as long as he sat for a while between bouts of exertion. Alex and Janie never searched for him after the funeral; he was grateful to be rid of the reminder.
Since Claire had vanished from the photo, it was all too easy to convince himself that he’d become infatuated with a mere figment of his imagination. And so, his physical wounds healed and life went on.
His twisted form of peace was short-lived.
Kierlan had been alone in the house for days while his parents attended a wedding in Pennsylvania. He was charged with the task of picking them up at the airport that night, an hour drive from the house, and he was already late.
As luck would have it, he didn’t realize his keys were missing until he’d made it all the way to the car.
He cursed softly when he ran his hand through his pockets and found them empty. “Damn.” It was a strange, and inconvenient, chance; he’d never forgotten them before, but he thought himself unstable enough to assume his recollection of grabbing them off the counter was entirely of his own fabrication. With his head hung, he trudged reluctantly back toward the building he’d left, in the dark.
The front door was unlocked, just as he’d left it, but he could sense something was amiss the moment he entered the living room. A cold breeze wafted across the room, effectively slapping him in the face and sending a shock through his system. He couldn’t remember if it had been him who’d opened the window, but he could tell that the screen was gone now, and that wasn’t something he would’ve done. From the light streaming in from the streetlights, he could see a puddle forming on the table closest to the window. Instinctively pulling the door shut behind him, he hustled as fast as he could toward the drenched furniture.
“No!” he growled, pulling it away from the wall and wiping it off with his bare hands and sleeves. It was an attempt in vain; the mail he’d left there stuck to the wood, its text dripped off in black raindrops. Nothing intelligible was left. Groaning pathetically, he flopped down on the couch and held his face in his hands. Nothing ever went his way anymore.
“Serves you right, you ass,” a harsh voice snapped from the darkness.
He immediately dropped his hands from his face, forgetting the frustration that had nearly driven him to angry tears, and jumped to his feet. “Who’s there?” he demanded, catching his fervent breath.
The light abruptly flickered on. Across the room, James Bellman stood against the wall beside the door, his finger poised over the light switch. His face was twisted in a cold scowl. It wasn’t him who spoke, though.
His fiancé, Alex Clove, sat on the kitchen cabinet, one leg crossed over the other and her hands folded so tightly in her lap that her knuckles were white. As usual, the scowl on her face was much more impressive than James’s.
“Ugh, I should’ve known,” Kierlan squeaked confidently, though in actuality the sight of their faces was tearing a hole in his chest so raw there’d be no hope of assuaging it tonight.
“You’ve been hiding from us,” Alex accused, narrowing her eyes infinitesimally smaller.
“Have I?” he sneered. “I’d only intended to visit my family…honest.”
“We’ve needed your help all this time and you’ve been nowhere to be found!” she shrieked indignantly.
“I apologize, Alex,” he rolled his eyes, falling back into the couch. Dampness soaked through his black dress shirt, infusing him with the familiar cold.
Alex stared down at him with distaste. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you went to the funeral,” she deadpanned, dropping to her feet.
He could’ve slung insults at her all night, but he was already late. “Sorry I hurt your freaking feelings, bitch, but I’ve gotta go.”
“You’re gonna need these,” James retorted, swinging Kierlan’s car keys around his middle finger.
Kierlan eyes narrowed into slits. “You took my keys?”
“Right out of your pocket,” James mocked, willing the keys to hover through the air toward him. Kierlan pushed himself back into the couch as far as he could go as they neared him, refusing to touch the charmed chain. His eyes took on a crazed look, like a cornered animal. His pupils flickered between them, ready to run. “Take the keys,” James pleaded with a sigh, allowing them to fall on the cushion beside him.
“If you don’t mind, James,” he said, “I think I’ve had just about enough of you two and your weird-ass abilities. It’s done nothing good for me in the past, why would it now?”
“Claire knew what she was getting into when she saved your life,” Alex hissed, crossing the room to face him.
“You don’t know that!” Kierlan yelled. “We have no idea what was going through her head when she did that, so stop pretending like you do!”
She slammed her hands down on the coffee table before his legs. “Shut up, Kierlan! You’re not the only one that misses her!”
“I’m sure as hell the only one acting like it!” he slowly rose to his feet and returned her glare with equal venom.
Alex’s face was turning red with rage. “Shut up!”
“It’s your fault she’s dead!” he bellowed, followed by the slap of Alex’s hand connecting with his cheek.
For a long moment, the three of them didn’t speak, and the only sounds in the room were Kierlan and Alex’s slow, heavy breaths. His face stung, but it wasn’t painful enough to make him wince, though his cheek was turning an angry pink over his gaunt complexion. His eyes were losing their fire in exchange for defeat, and he slumped in on himself, using the coffee table for support. “Why are you here?” he whined without meeting their gazes.
“To show you this,” she answered, pulling a picture from the purse in her lap. It was a blue screen, nothing else.
“Wha—” he began, but halted as she held up a restraining hand.
“Claire gave me this picture. It was her senior picture. It was a picture of just her. And now she’s gone!”
“That’s not the only one either,” James added. “All the pictures we have of her, whether she’s alone or we’re in the picture with her, she’s gone.”
“It’s like she never existed,” she finished.
Kierlan had been nodding since James had begun. “She disappeared from my picture, too, like she was never there. It’s like she was never here. Does anyone ask about her? Does anyone notice?”
“No one,” James assured him.
The rain started coming down harder, now, spilling endlessly against the windowsill. The sound drew Kierlan’s attention. His eyes followed the raindrops outside and noticed for the first time through his distracted state that the living room was on the second floor. He didn’t see a ladder outside the window to split the fifteen foot drop.
“How did you get in here?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
James seemed surprised by the question. “My…as you said before ‘weird-ass abilities’ allow me to transport from one place to another with my mind…but you knew that already?” he mumbled as an afterthought.
“Right,” Kierlan nodded. “Why’d you open my window?”
Alex and James shared a look for a moment before they simultaneously looked back to Kierlan. “We thought you did that?” James murmured.
“It was open when we got here,” Alex added.
Kierlan frowned, growing surer and surer that he wasn’t the one who’d opened the window. There was no way he would’ve removed the screen. “It wasn’t me,” he stated.
“Bu—” Alex began before a strong gust of wind beating against the trees outside silenced her. The breeze was softer when it entered the room, carrying with it the frigid rain. Alex’s back stiffened and her eyes widened.
“Alex? What’s the m—” Kierlan said.
“Shh! Shh!” she snapped, fervently waving her hand. After a few silent minutes of only wind whispering through the room, she looked up at them, losing the glaze that had settled over her eyes. “Do you hear that?” she beseeched.
“Hear what?” James inquired, watching his fiancé intently for anymore odd behavior.
“Listen!” she ordered.
The two men stared at each other first, obviously questioning her mental stability, before another shrill demand came from her lips. Then, they listened intently for anything amiss. At first there was nothing, just a breeze. When they’d just about come to the conclusion that Alex’s grief had finally gotten to her, they started to hear it. The wind…whispering.
“Kierlan,” the wind whistled with a voice so obviously hers that it was painful to his fragile mindset. It stopped.
“Claire?” Kierlan called loudly, a contrast so startling to her whisper that it made the other two jump.
“Kierlan,” it spoke again, this time the slightest bit louder. “Another page lived.”
“Another page? Claire is that you?” he called out again, trying so hard to believe it was true. Silence followed.
Another voice broke the quiet, but it traveled on the wind as hers had. It was the gravelly, obvious voice of a man, and it was angry. It was threatening. It was Mainyu.
“She. Is. Mine.”
“Claire!” Alex yelled. “Get away from him! Do something! Say something! Give us a sign that you’re still there! Please!”
“C’mon, Claire, please!” Kierlan pleaded, his voice cracking. “You have to get away! Talk to me!”
There was no answer to their wishes. Each person in the room looked to each other and slowly deflated. Kierlan was beginning to feel dizzy from the conflicting rush of relief and disappointment warring within him, but he didn’t dare move, for fear she’d speak again and he’d miss it. He steadied himself against the table and slowly breathed in and out through his mouth, as if his concentration would bring her voice back. He gave the floor a withering glare and waited even after the others had given up hope.
In the end, his prayers were answered.
“Kierlan,” her sweet voice called, sending their heads shooting upright. And again, they waited. Her final words assured them that their every fear was realized, but there was nothing any of them could do but listen as she, at last, finished:
When a priceless artifact is stolen from the British Museum, its thieves are able to use it to bring about the resurrection of a deity so malicious his very presence nearly split the Earth in two over hundreds of years ago. The only hope of banishing him from the human plane lies with a reincarnated priestess, a witch, a thief, an escaped hostage, and an angel. My fantasy novel GOD OF DESTRUCTION is an 85,000 word, fictional account of the Persian God, Angra Mainyu, and will appeal to older teenagers/young adults, interested in mythology and/or the supernatural.