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.