Paris, France; June 30th, 2012
Claire woke to the roar of bullets flying across the room and bodies hitting the floor. While she struggled to catch her breath, the image of the dagger still burning the backs of her eyelids, she clawed at her chest. As usual, the pain from her most recent stab to the heart, or Ziba’s most recent stab to the heart, lingered, claiming all of her attention. Without her inhaler, she curled up on her side and breathed rapidly in through her nose and out through her mouth. Shaking her head rapidly, she opened her glassy, blue eyes and tried to remember where she was and what she was supposed to be doing.
When the burn of tears subsided, the sight before her came into focus, revealing the bare feet of the god of destruction before her. She tried not to make a sound while her eyes flickered around the room, finding Alex on the floor first, not two feet from Mainyu, and staring up into his face with terror while he approached her. Claire blinked and, instead of the knife reflecting back at her behind her eyelids, she saw something infinitely more gruesome. She remembered Bomani lying on the floor, gone and stained with black death; she could feel exactly how Ziba, she, had felt when she found him like that. She didn’t know how she would suffer through it if he did that to someone else she loved.
Not Alex, her Shireen.
Claire didn’t know much anymore; between the warring feelings of Ziba and Claire inside her, she didn’t even know who she really was at this point. On the one hand, Claire wanted to run far away from the threat of Mainyu and never return. She wanted to put her worries in James’s hands and hope that all went well. After all, there was nothing else she could possibly do to help them.
On the other hand, Ziba wanted revenge. She wanted Mainyu sent back where he’d come from like her sister had done once before. She wanted him to pay for what he’d done to her, Bomani, and all these other people.
“I knew you’d come back!” a voice both Ziba and Claire were unfamiliar with yelled from across the room. She looked for the sound for a split second, but wished she hadn’t when her eyes finally fell on someone she thought she would never seen again.
She saw him, her love and lordship, Bomani, standing in the doorway of the room they occupied. Immediately, she couldn’t help but smile enormously, reaching out for him as her lungs prepared to scream his name and tell him she loved him. But, something stopped her.
She let her smile fall when she realized her love wasn’t returning her smile, or even her gaze, as if he didn’t realize she was there in the first place. He grinned down at another girl, an emaciated, average-looking girl. Kneeling to the floor so he could lift her gingerly into his arms, he cradled her carefully to his chest, eyes shooting in every direction in case he walked into the crossfire.
“Bomani?” she whispered, absentmindedly reaching for him. Of course he couldn’t hear her, and it was a far cry from the screaming complaint she wanted to attack him with, but she wanted so badly to say something. She wanted him to look at her and realize that what he was doing was wrong. He shouldn’t be holding that other girl. He shouldn’t be smiling at that girl. Ziba had risked everything to love him, and now, he wouldn’t even look at her.
Claire, somewhere hidden inside the shell that had once been her body, exclusively, felt nothing as she watched Taran lift Janie into his arms and escape into the tunnels. While they looked around the room, she settled their eyes on Kierlan when he ducked in and out of the room’s entryway, the gun in his hand blazing. Claire couldn’t help but think that she had never seen him look as attractive as he did in that moment.
Blue lightning streaked across the room, dazzling anyone occupied in the gunfight, except for Kierlan, who managed to shoot the final three mortals on the other side while they were distracted. The crackling energy crashed into Mainyu’s back with the zapping sound of electrocution. His body convulsed until the lightning had run its course, then, practically untouched by the crippling assault, he turned to face the doorway where James stood with his arms outstretched. His hands still glowed with blue energy, waiting for the god to attack first, but his determined face was marred with concern. Alex lay on the floor, shaking with the terror of Mainyu’s invisible attack and waiting for someone to rescue her.
Temporarily forgetting his target on the floor, Mainyu smiled menacingly at the angel he’d seen only once before. He opened his arms wide, thrusting his chest out while he narrowed his eyes, aiming for James. Instead of the blue lightning he’d been hit with, Mainyu retaliated with a storm of blue wind that exploded from the center of his chest, blowing swiftly and loudly toward the doorway. Eyes wide, James whipped his hands in Mainyu’s direction and winding chains of blue lightning sprung from his fingertips, hitting his own attack that Mainyu used against him.
Sparks spit from the white connecting point of the two energies, fighting back and forth as neither of them gained the upper hand. Eventually, the blue lightning and the blue storm cloud dissolved in a shower of flaming embers. James shielded his face with his arm, backing away from the sudden, extreme heat in the room. Mainyu did the same, stepping backward and, accidentally, stepping on Alex’s leg while she cowered on the floor. Her instinctive cry of protest reminded Mainyu of his first intentions and, smiling once again, he stared down at her.
The familiar sight of completely black eyes told Claire and Ziba exactly what he was going to do to the girl on the floor. He opened his mouth, showing the buzzing cloud gathering in the back of his throat.
“No!” James yelled, crossing the room quickly as he prepared to dive between the god and the one he couldn’t live without.
If there was anything the battling consciousnesses of Ziba and Claire could agree on, it was that Mainyu wouldn’t be given the chance to hurt anyone else ever again. No matter the cost. Defenseless, cowardly Claire was speechless in the face of danger, but, thankfully, Ziba’s vengeful spirit could think faster. Without Claire’s consent, her hand snapped swiftly out in Mainyu’s direction, her fingers closing around his ankle.
“My Lord,” she whispered timidly.
Instantly, the black in his eyes dissolved and the room went silent, everyone’s attention focused completely on Claire as she pulled herself to her feet. Kierlan held his gun outstretched toward Mainyu, ready to shoot when he so much as touched Claire, but he was taken aback by the familiarity in her voice when she addressed him. Despite his reservations, the gun in his hand faltered.
Mainyu turned slowly to face his mortal love with a smile on his face. When his scarlet eyes met her porcelain face, he leaned infinitesimally closer, pulling her hands into his. He assumed it was shyness that prompted Ziba to avert her eyes. “Yes, my love?”
In actuality, Ziba had found the unmistakable hint of white paper peeking out from the pocket of his robe and she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the wonderful glimmer of salvation. In the time it took for her to drag her gaze up to meet Mainyu, she was already contemplating how she was ever going to take it without him noticing. Beside that, she had no idea what she was going to say to him now that she’d gotten his attention. She highly doubted her true feelings, that she wanted him dead and burning in hellfire, would help her in her current venture.
Rather than try to sweet talk him to his face, the image that was already making her sick to her stomach, Claire wrenched her hands free from him, disregarding the look he gave her that warned her to cooperate. Her arms curled around his neck in a crushing hug.
“Lady Ziba—” he began, shock evident in his voice.
“You have been gone from me so long, My Lord.”
While her cheek was pressed against his chest, she felt him rumble with a deep chuckle. “I know, my love. It feels like eternities I have waited to find you.”
Inwardly, Claire gagged at the line and the feeling of his arms circling her back. Nevertheless, she made no move to suggest she protested to Ziba’s actions, though she couldn’t understand how the priestess could let him touch her, feeling the deeply rooted resentment in their shared heart. She sank back to the back of their consciousness, letting Ziba, the more courageous and clever of the two, take the wheel for the rest of this adventure.
Ziba stared up into blood-red eyes, craftily hiding her shudder of disgust at the lust she found hidden there. She maintained eye contact. “What happens now, my Lord? Now that we have found each other, once more?”
He smiled, tilting her chin further up so that he could pull her face into a kiss. His eyes closed before their lips met, but Ziba didn’t bother with the useless show of emotion she didn’t possess. Her skin crawled, her eyes narrowed, and her eyes flickered downward, finding the pocket containing the page she needed. Purposefully, she trailed her hands down his sides as lovingly as she could fake it, fingers poised to snatch the paper from his dirty robe. All was nearly lost when she felt his tongue slither masterfully into her mouth.
“Claire, what are you doing?” Alex demanded as James lifted her easily off the floor. She wasn’t entirely surprised when she was ignored.
Rather than pull away from the disgusting superhuman, Ziba pictured her first life, of her first kiss with Bomani. When her fingers were confidently fixed around the thin, weathered parchment, she closed her eyes, picturing Bomani’s lips beneath hers and sank into the thin, hard body before her. Getting a better grip on the page, Ziba went to shove it into the back pocket of Claire’s strange clothes. The distinct crackle of old paper being crumpled up broke her out of her illusion. Suddenly, her wrist was captured in the grasp of long, wiry fingers.
Kierlan was beginning to feel sick, as were the others in the room, as the less-than-innocent kiss between the beautiful girl and the god turned into a full blown make out session. By this point, his gun was held entirely at his side while he looked to James for instruction. Taran was long gone by now and he was feeling entirely out of sorts by this recent twist. He couldn’t tell if Claire’s sudden change of heart was planned, but he knew he didn’t like it either way. The sting of jealousy stirred in the pit of his stomach.
Then, he saw the movement that made watching the wet, sloppy kiss worth it. She pulled the paper out of his pocket, and he knew it had all been a ruse, even without knowing what she’d endured in her previous life. He couldn’t help but grin, waiting for her next move in their newest plan.
Until, of course, the god’s eyes opened when he realized her intentions and he grabbed her hand. It took Kierlan a fraction of a second to raise his gun, aiming it immediately between Mainyu’s eyes, high enough above Claire’s head that he didn’t worry. He waited.
“Treacherous snake,” the god hissed.
Ziba uselessly pulled against him, her wrist caught so tightly in his vise-like grip that she could barely take a step. “Let go,” she ordered, shaking his arm.
“I should have known you would betray me like this, you stupid mortal!” he growled, turning swiftly so she went flying through the air. She crashed against the dusty floor with the page, thankfully, still in her hand and her hair wrapped messily around her face.
Shaking her head to get the annoying curls out of her face, she scowled up at his approaching figure, anger radiating through her body with a fervor that startled Claire.
“I think it is time I taught you another lesson, young one. I do not think you fully understand the extent of this arrangement,” he taunted, stopping before her. “Who would you like me to destroy this time?” he inquired, raising his hand. Suddenly, as James, Alex, and Kierlan screamed in objection, they lifted off the ground by the invisible force he’d already displayed once before. In his shock, Kierlan’s gun fell from his hand, landing with a crash that thundered through Claire’s brain. Between her and Ziba, she was the only one who knew what the modern weapon could do.
“No!” Kierlan yelled, reaching for it as he ascended higher and higher.
Mainyu pointed James, letting his body fall back to the earth. “Will it be your guardian angel?” he sneered. Kierlan dropped next, trying to recover his breath before he scrambled for the gun. “Your mortal savior?” Alex danced in the air, her body rocking and spinning as he played with her. “Or will it be your witch sister?!”
Ziba crushed the page in her fist. “You have taken everything from me! I will not let you do anymore harm to the people I love! Burn in hell!”
Simultaneously, a loud boom shook the foundation beneath them when Kierlan was finally able to squeeze the trigger, opening a hole in the back of Mainyu’s head. He jerked forward slightly, rage evident on his face. The god turned, displaying the thick mess of unmentionable gore that had once been the back of his skull. Before her eyes, his flesh stitched back together like a cobweb of skin. In his distracted state, the force holding Alex in the air let her fall back to earth, unharmed.
Kierlan’s eyes widened, the gun falling from his hands when he realized it was useless to him. Rather than use his godly powers, Mainyu bent down, easily lifting the man up by the front of his shirt. Kierlan could make no sound before his body was hurled backwards toward the skeletal wall. All the breath in his body escaped as his back connected with the remains, his body going limp before it even touched the floor.
When James had safely restored Alex to her place behind him, he outstretched his palms, prepared to defend her with everything he had. “Claire!” he called, emitting a long, bright streak of lightning from his skin when Mainyu turned to face them.
Ziba vaguely recalled that he was addressing her through the cloud of pent up fury she descended from. Breathing heavily from her most recent monologue, she looked up.
Fully engrossed in the distraction he was creating, James continued, “Read the page!”
Kierlan coughed when his chest flattened against the floor, all the will to stand leaving him as his breath did. His head spun and he wondered what had happened to put him in this state. It didn’t take long before he realized why he was there.
The ringing in his ears eventually subsided and he could finally hear the battle he was missing while he lay splayed on the floor. Blinking away the dirt and blood in his eyes, courtesy of the gash splitting his face from eyebrow to eyelid, he studied his surroundings. He couldn’t help but notice as he did that his gun was completely out of reach.
“Claire!” James screamed, ducking when a surge of the buzzing black mass exploded from Mainyu’s mouth. Where his head had just been, it crashed into the wall, shaking the entire room with the force of the assault. Curling his body protectively over Alex, he outstretched his arm and blindly threw a bolt of his signature lightning. Mainyu roared when the attack scorched his face, momentarily collapsing to his knees as he cradled his head in his hands.
Taking the opportunity, James shoved Alex toward Claire and waited for Mainyu’s next move. “Read it now!”
Ziba easily deciphered the markings on the page, but she knew that the ancient parchment was useless in her hands. She’d never possessed the same affinity for the ancient powers that her sister had. Even if his terminology was crude, Angra Mainyu was correct in calling her a witch. Without Shireen, the last remaining page from the magical Book of Eternity was as useful as a blank sheet. Unless, of course, they could find a proper substitute, she amended mentally, gaze shifting over the girl beside her.
“Claire!” James snarled.
“Alex!” Claire countered, grabbing her friend’s hands in both of hers. Wordlessly, she let the ball of paper fall into Alex’s hand.
Alex looked from her hand to Claire’s face. “What do you want me to do with this?”
James opened his mouth to voice his demands again, but he was suddenly propelled backwards, the black particles spilling off him like water. Claire cringed away from the mess, pulling Alex with her when the smaller girl tried to grab for her boyfriend.
“No!” Claire shrieked, shoving her away from James and diving away from the tidal wave behind them. She knew all too well what it did to mortal people and that they could only hope that he would be alright. “Don’t touch it!”
Alex didn’t even look at her. “Let go! James!” she screeched, shoving against Claire.
“There’s nothing you can do to help him now!” Claire insisted, shoving back as hard as she could.
Tears welled in Alex’s eyes. “I can’t let him die!”
Ziba knew the feeling. Love. Helplessness. Her stomach roiled with nausea when she thought of her initial sense of unadulterated…anguish when she found Bomani, lying cold and unnaturally still on the floor of the temple. If Alex was suffering through even half of that, it could destroy her. Ziba had to put a stop to it.
“There is something you can do to help!” Ziba exclaimed, straightening out the page in Alex’s hand.
Alex sniffled, blinking away hot tears. “What?”
“Ziba!” Mainyu bellowed, nearing the two girls with murder coloring his face.
The blonde didn’t look back at him, keeping her hands closed around Alex’s wrists. “You have to read it.
Alex glanced quickly down at the scrawl on the parchment. “But…but Claire, I can’t read this.”
“We have a few things to discuss!” he continued tauntingly, waving his hand.
Claire screamed as her feet left the ground, but she managed to recover enough to form words. “Alex, you have to remember!”
Grinding her teeth as she looked from Claire’s floating body to the black, tar-like mass hardened around James’s body, Alex tried to think of what she was supposed to remember. Wincing when she realized that he had to be suffocating in there, Alex glared impatiently at the faded characters on the yellowing paper. When no miraculous remedy arrived, she let the paper hang at her side. “What, exactly, am I supposed to be remembering?” she growled.
Claire flailed through the air, trying to swim into a better position. Her body smacked harshly against the wall, once, twice, a third time until she went slack, the slight drip of blood trailing down her chin. Mouth curled in a grimace, she sobbed under her breath, spitting red. “Stop,” she mumbled, above begging, for the time being.
“You can make the pain stop, Ziba,” the god said. “You know what you have to do.”
She shook her head, bracing herself for the impact with the wall. Her head spun, thoughts muddled.
“Hey!” a voice suddenly yelled, breaking her daze. Ziba’s head slowly lifted, vaguely recalling the deep timber from the memories of the girl she shared a body with. The man who’d yelled stood behind Mainyu, the shiny black weapon he was so fond of held tightly in one hand. The business end was pressed firmly to the back of the god’s head.
“The arrogance of you mortals knows no bounds,” Mainyu chuckled. “I have already proven to you that your earthly weapons cannot injure me.”
Kierlan ignored him, squeezing the trigger in retaliation.
Just as he expected, Claire fell to the floor as the back of Mainyu’s head exploded in a bloody mess. The god collapsed forward, the remnants of his head stitching together while he lay, corpse-like, in the dirt.
Ziba rubbed her shoulder as agony exploded through her upper body. She scrambled to her feet, getting some help from Kierlan when he ran, panicked, across the room. “What are you doing?” she demanded hoarsely. “You know it just makes him angry!”
Kierlan pulled her face abruptly to his, crushing her lips to his in a bruising kiss. It only lasted a second, but the heat that traveled up into her face burned eternally. His fingers twisted into her long locks while her hands caressed the back of his shaved head. She was familiar with the elation coursing through her veins.
She’d felt it before.
By the time he, reluctantly, pulled away, Ziba was pleasantly surprised to realize that she hadn’t needed to visualize Bomani. Claire could only lay in wait in the back of their mind, enjoying exactly what she’d wanted for so long.
“Wh—?” she gasped, breathing heavily as she recovered from the searing kiss.
Kierlan shook his head. “Get rid of him. You said she could do it, so tell her how!”
Ziba nodded dumbly leaning forward in an attempt to kiss him again. Before her lips could meet his, he backed away, pointing his gun at Mainyu’s head so he could shoot him repeatedly each time he tried to regenerate.
Shaking her head to clear it, Ziba strode back to Alex while the brunette tried to decipher the words before her. Ziba cleared her throat, snatching the paper away.
Hearing Claire approach her, Alex mumbled, “I can’t read this!”
Ziba looked between Alex and the page, trying to find some hint of her lost sister in the human before her. “You’re the only one who can use this page, Alex. Shireen’s powers are still inside you, and if you can read the spell three times, he’ll be sent back to limbo.”
Alex spat through clenched teeth, “Which is useless information if I can’t read the goddamn thing!”
Ziba glanced down at the paper, easily reading the words in her native language. “Just repeat what I say three times. Everything will go back to normal.”
Alex’s eyes flashed to the dome surrounding her boyfriend. “What about James? Will that thing let him go?” she pleaded.
A click behind them echoed through the room. The silence following it seemed louder than the roar of the bullets that had greeted their ears moments ago because they all knew what it meant.
The girl’s spun to face Kierlan, whose terrified gaze was turned exclusively to the worthless gun in his hand. Watching Mainyu’s skull knit together, he dropped the gun, backing away from the body on the floor.
Out of bullets.
“Claire?” he whimpered, wondering how the god was going to kill him when he finally stood up. “Anytime now.”
“Yes!” Ziba gasped. “Everything will be back to normal! Quick, before he gets up!”
“Say it, say it!” Alex said, her back finally pressing the jagged edges of the wall.
Ziba watched Mainyu pull himself slowly to his knees, his arm reaching out to support himself on Kierlan’s shoulder. The mortal man instinctually backed away. “Elle ot bill ogg nah ooh tna wah ee.”
In a questioning tone, she repeated the words.
Mainyu’s head snapped up, recognizing the words. “No!” he growled, immediately forgetting Kierlan and striding toward the girls.
Kierlan followed his path with his eyes, realizing immediately where Mainyu was heading. “Say it again!” he ordered, running to catch up with the god. He grabbed Mainyu’s shoulder, trying to spin him off his path, but he barely budged. “Stop! Leave them alone!” He continued to uselessly pull at Mainyu’s shoulder, but his efforts were in vain. “Son of a bitch!”
Abruptly, Mainyu stopped and Kierlan knew immediately that he was in trouble. Mainyu placed his hand on Kierlan’s shoulder, forcing him erect while he pulled his other arm back. Ziba and Alex watched in horror as Mainyu’s free hand shot out like a spear, stabbing Kierlan cleanly through the stomach. Kierlan, doubled over and breathing harshly, made no sound but a strangled cough as he fell onto his back, tearing Mainyu’s arm from his flesh.
Ziba felt like she was watching history repeat itself. Horrorstruck, she stared down at Kierlan on the floor.
“Kierlan!” she cried, wishing she could run to help him. Unfortunately, her cry made Mainyu turn quickly on his heel to face them. Narrowing her eyes, she whispered, “Say it again.”
As Mainyu swiftly approached them, Ziba swept across the floor toward him, propelling herself at his body. Behind her, Alex spoke the line again, watching Claire. She couldn’t pinpoint the cause but, whoever the blonde in front of her was, it was not her best friend.
Ziba curled her legs around Mainyu’s face, frantically flailing her fists into his face.
“How could you? You are a monster! You have killed everyone I love! Now, you will die!” she screeched, clawing at his eyes as he shook his head pathetically away from her nails. “Alex, one more time!”
Confidently, Alex said it a final time.
“Now banish him!” Ziba shrieked.
Alex stared incredulously at the blonde. “How do I do that?”
“Just say, ‘Angra Mainyu, I banish you!’” she ordered.
No sooner had Alex obliged that Mainyu cried out, outstretching his arms. A light began in the center of his chest, growing larger and brighter while he screeched louder. Ziba closed her eyes, a pleasant smile on her face while she enjoyed the radiant warmth shining off him.
Alex covered her eyes, backing up as the light mixed with an unnatural wind that blew her hair back. Beside her, the shell covering James began to chip away and his flesh showed through the darkness.
Mainyu’s yelling abruptly ended with a final explosion that sent Alex flying into the wall, again, and crashing to the floor. However, it wasn’t that that forced her into her second fainting spell in two days. When she peeled her face from the floor, looking up to find Claire in Mainyu’s place, she found an empty space.
Both Claire Strong and the god of destruction had vanished.