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.