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?!”