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.