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?”