Epilogue

Andover, New Jersey; April 3rd, 2013

But they didn’t see Kierlan again after that and he had no intention of allowing them to find him while he recovered. For months he hid in his hometown, taking up residence in his parents’ home. It was the most obvious place he could think of, and, therefore, the last place anyone would think to look for him, especially Natalia and his mystery employer, whose calls he tirelessly avoided. After a while, he’d thrown the useless cell phone in the lake behind his childhood home, having lost all excuse to use it now.

Each night he slept in vain, tossing and turning against the nightmares and waking in a cold sweat. His mother and father dreamed peacefully in the room beside his, unknowing of all the things he’d experienced last June and the world they didn’t dare imagine. They hadn’t questioned him when he begged to stay with them for a while, too glad to see him for the first time since he graduated high school. He didn’t offer any answers.

Being with them was the best thing he could’ve done, all things considered. He even found that, the longer he stayed in their completely normal world, the more ridiculous his fuzzy recollection of Claire’s death was beginning to seem. Sometimes, he questioned her very existence. He’d come a long way since his first day back to his childhood home.

Now, he only had to worry when he was asleep.

***

Oh, Kierlan, her sweet voice whispered through his deeply unconscious mind.

Why couldn’t you save me?

His eyes snapped open and adjusted easily to the scarce light filtering through the window pressed against his forehead. It was hot in the taxi from the hot summer outside, but a chill ran down his spine, raising goose bumps across his covered flesh. For the first few seconds following his awakening, he remained in the blissful state that always follows sleep, where nothing can bother you because you can’t remember any of it. His stormy grey eyes were frosted over with a confused glaze. Recollection suddenly flickered to life in their depths, and his eyelids slowly slid closed.

All Kierlan could see behind his lids was her face and hypnotically blue eyes staring back at him. With a defeated groan, he forced himself to open them again and focus on anything around the interior of the cab bound for Andover.

It was difficult to keep his mind off of her and the pain reverberating through his stitched abdomen, it always was, and there was only so much to stare at. He fished through his back pocket for the bottle his doctor had issued and popped two pills dry, but it didn’t soothe the pain his mind was pumping into every inch of his body.

Why couldn’t you save me?

It was very obvious to him that the driver was purposely avoiding any conversation with him because of his obvious emotional trauma, but he couldn’t find it in him to think badly of the man. The soreness in the back of his throat hinted at the fact that Kierlan might have been talking in his sleep, or even screaming. Had their roles been reversed, Kierlan thought he might just deliver the lunatic in the backseat back to the hospital he’d picked him up at.

Thankfully, this guy didn’t seem to care much for Kierlan’s mental health so long as he was paid for his services. Kierlan wasn’t entirely surprised; he’d recently lost all hope for human kind when a group of human beings attempted to sacrifice recently graduated children to a ‘fictional’ god. Worse yet, he’d been one of them.

He could tell already that healing would be easier said than done, but at this point his only hope was that he would someday soon regain the ability to breathe correctly. His chest burned with the memory of her face, her smile, and her angry voice when she yelled.

He wanted to scream, but he didn’t think his throat would manage pushing out any kind of speech at the moment, let alone a scream. Instead, he slammed his already throbbing head against the frigid glass and studied the outside world.

It seemed surreal that there’d still be an outside world after his venture through the catacombs and the incarceration he’d escaped from his hospital room.

The sky outside was dark with the heavy purple clouds, spilling buckets of rain down on the world below. It seemed fitting that the weather would be so dark; how could the sun shine down on a world that had taken away someone as bright as Claire? His eyes followed each raindrop as it trailed down the window, thankful for such an effective distraction, but, eventually, his mind began to wander.

He’d prided himself all his life on being the lone wolf, and now he was crawling back to his mother and father like a frightened pup.

Outside, where no one knew that the end of the world had nearly been upon them, life was going on. Ordinary people in the ordinary world were at work now, going about their daily business like they did every day at noon. For Kierlan and everyone involved in the incident back in the catacombs, life would never be the same. It was a secret shared only by them, and no one would ever believe them if they told it.

It was comical, assuming they pretended it had ended with a happily ever after.

After he woke, the remainder of the ride was short, either by distance or because he desperately didn’t want to answer his mother’s inevitable questions. Nevertheless, the taxi pulled up before the lazily crafted wooden fence and the driver demanded payment. He pulled out his wallet to pay and a picture floated to the ground. It was the picture he’d been given by his employer to find Claire: she stood among her friends from the catacombs, dressed in their Catholic School uniforms.

As he handed the money over to the driver, he bent over to retrieve the photo and froze.

Where James should’ve been standing, one arm thrown casually over Claire’s shoulders while the other wrapped around Alex’s waist, his arms were instead holding Alex and thin air. Any trace of the girl in the photo had vanished, even the bags that should’ve been at her feet. He flipped the picture over and caught her name, written there in blue ink, vanish before his eyes.

He stared, openmouthed at the picture in his hand and felt his eyes slide shut over the tears building there. His fist closed around the paper with a quiet crinkle and his fingernails cut into his palms.

“Sir?” the driver demanded.

Kierlan’s eyes shot open and he cleared his throat with a slight shake of his head. “Umm, yes?”

“Are you alright, sir?” he inquired.

“Yes,” Kierlan replied a bit too hastily. “Ya, I’m fine.”

“Well, would you mind…?” he trailed off, nodding his head toward the car door. “I should be getting back to business.”

“Oh, yeah,” he continued, nodding and clearing his throat a second time. “Of course. Sorry.” Humiliation colored his face as he struggled to exit the vehicle with his crutches in hand. His stitched flesh protested violently to movement while he staggered toward the trunk of the taxi and slammed the door behind him. He stared hopelessly at his luggage in the backseat, knowing there was no possibility he’d be able to carry it all the way to the house.

“Would you like help with your bags, sir?” the driver offered, appearing beside him.

He exhaled heavily with relief. “That’d be…great.”

***

Kierlan spent a week alone in his room, avoiding his mother, before he allowed himself to leave the house. He was still in a great deal of pain from the stitches, but it was such a welcome reprieve to feel fresh air that he didn’t mind much, as long as he sat for a while between bouts of exertion. Alex and Janie never searched for him after the funeral; he was grateful to be rid of the reminder.

Since Claire had vanished from the photo, it was all too easy to convince himself that he’d become infatuated with a mere figment of his imagination. And so, his physical wounds healed and life went on.

His twisted form of peace was short-lived.

Kierlan had been alone in the house for days while his parents attended a wedding in Pennsylvania. He was charged with the task of picking them up at the airport that night, an hour drive from the house, and he was already late.

As luck would have it, he didn’t realize his keys were missing until he’d made it all the way to the car.

He cursed softly when he ran his hand through his pockets and found them empty. “Damn.” It was a strange, and inconvenient, chance; he’d never forgotten them before, but he thought himself unstable enough to assume his recollection of grabbing them off the counter was entirely of his own fabrication. With his head hung, he trudged reluctantly back toward the building he’d left, in the dark.

The front door was unlocked, just as he’d left it, but he could sense something was amiss the moment he entered the living room. A cold breeze wafted across the room, effectively slapping him in the face and sending a shock through his system. He couldn’t remember if it had been him who’d opened the window, but he could tell that the screen was gone now, and that wasn’t something he would’ve done. From the light streaming in from the streetlights, he could see a puddle forming on the table closest to the window. Instinctively pulling the door shut behind him, he hustled as fast as he could toward the drenched furniture.

“No!” he growled, pulling it away from the wall and wiping it off with his bare hands and sleeves. It was an attempt in vain; the mail he’d left there stuck to the wood, its text dripped off in black raindrops. Nothing intelligible was left. Groaning pathetically, he flopped down on the couch and held his face in his hands. Nothing ever went his way anymore.

“Serves you right, you ass,” a harsh voice snapped from the darkness.

He immediately dropped his hands from his face, forgetting the frustration that had nearly driven him to angry tears, and jumped to his feet. “Who’s there?” he demanded, catching his fervent breath.

The light abruptly flickered on. Across the room, James Bellman stood against the wall beside the door, his finger poised over the light switch. His face was twisted in a cold scowl. It wasn’t him who spoke, though.

His fiancé, Alex Clove, sat on the kitchen cabinet, one leg crossed over the other and her hands folded so tightly in her lap that her knuckles were white. As usual, the scowl on her face was much more impressive than James’s.

“Ugh, I should’ve known,” Kierlan squeaked confidently, though in actuality the sight of their faces was tearing a hole in his chest so raw there’d be no hope of assuaging it tonight.

“You’ve been hiding from us,” Alex accused, narrowing her eyes infinitesimally smaller.

“Have I?” he sneered. “I’d only intended to visit my family…honest.”

“We’ve needed your help all this time and you’ve been nowhere to be found!” she shrieked indignantly.

“I apologize, Alex,” he rolled his eyes, falling back into the couch. Dampness soaked through his black dress shirt, infusing him with the familiar cold.

Alex stared down at him with distaste. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you went to the funeral,” she deadpanned, dropping to her feet.

He could’ve slung insults at her all night, but he was already late. “Sorry I hurt your freaking feelings, bitch, but I’ve gotta go.”

“You’re gonna need these,” James retorted, swinging Kierlan’s car keys around his middle finger.

Kierlan eyes narrowed into slits. “You took my keys?”

“Right out of your pocket,” James mocked, willing the keys to hover through the air toward him. Kierlan pushed himself back into the couch as far as he could go as they neared him, refusing to touch the charmed chain. His eyes took on a crazed look, like a cornered animal. His pupils flickered between them, ready to run. “Take the keys,” James pleaded with a sigh, allowing them to fall on the cushion beside him.

“If you don’t mind, James,” he said, “I think I’ve had just about enough of you two and your weird-ass abilities. It’s done nothing good for me in the past, why would it now?”

“Claire knew what she was getting into when she saved your life,” Alex hissed, crossing the room to face him.

“You don’t know that!” Kierlan yelled. “We have no idea what was going through her head when she did that, so stop pretending like you do!”

She slammed her hands down on the coffee table before his legs. “Shut up, Kierlan! You’re not the only one that misses her!”

“I’m sure as hell the only one acting like it!” he slowly rose to his feet and returned her glare with equal venom.

Alex’s face was turning red with rage. “Shut up!

“It’s your fault she’s dead!” he bellowed, followed by the slap of Alex’s hand connecting with his cheek.

For a long moment, the three of them didn’t speak, and the only sounds in the room were Kierlan and Alex’s slow, heavy breaths. His face stung, but it wasn’t painful enough to make him wince, though his cheek was turning an angry pink over his gaunt complexion. His eyes were losing their fire in exchange for defeat, and he slumped in on himself, using the coffee table for support. “Why are you here?” he whined without meeting their gazes.

“To show you this,” she answered, pulling a picture from the purse in her lap. It was a blue screen, nothing else.

“Wha—” he began, but halted as she held up a restraining hand.

“Claire gave me this picture. It was her senior picture. It was a picture of just her. And now she’s gone!”

“That’s not the only one either,” James added. “All the pictures we have of her, whether she’s alone or we’re in the picture with her, she’s gone.”

“It’s like she never existed,” she finished.

Kierlan had been nodding since James had begun. “She disappeared from my picture, too, like she was never there. It’s like she was never here. Does anyone ask about her? Does anyone notice?”

“No one,” James assured him.

The rain started coming down harder, now, spilling endlessly against the windowsill. The sound drew Kierlan’s attention. His eyes followed the raindrops outside and noticed for the first time through his distracted state that the living room was on the second floor. He didn’t see a ladder outside the window to split the fifteen foot drop.

“How did you get in here?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.

James seemed surprised by the question. “My…as you said before ‘weird-ass abilities’ allow me to transport from one place to another with my mind…but you knew that already?” he mumbled as an afterthought.

“Right,” Kierlan nodded. “Why’d you open my window?”

Alex and James shared a look for a moment before they simultaneously looked back to Kierlan. “We thought you did that?” James murmured.

“It was open when we got here,” Alex added.

Kierlan frowned, growing surer and surer that he wasn’t the one who’d opened the window. There was no way he would’ve removed the screen. “It wasn’t me,” he stated.

“Bu—” Alex began before a strong gust of wind beating against the trees outside silenced her. The breeze was softer when it entered the room, carrying with it the frigid rain. Alex’s back stiffened and her eyes widened.

“Alex? What’s the m—” Kierlan said.

“Shh! Shh!” she snapped, fervently waving her hand. After a few silent minutes of only wind whispering through the room, she looked up at them, losing the glaze that had settled over her eyes. “Do you hear that?” she beseeched.

“Hear what?” James inquired, watching his fiancé intently for anymore odd behavior.

“Listen!” she ordered.

The two men stared at each other first, obviously questioning her mental stability, before another shrill demand came from her lips. Then, they listened intently for anything amiss. At first there was nothing, just a breeze. When they’d just about come to the conclusion that Alex’s grief had finally gotten to her, they started to hear it. The wind…whispering.

Kierlan,” the wind whistled with a voice so obviously hers that it was painful to his fragile mindset. It stopped.

“Claire?” Kierlan called loudly, a contrast so startling to her whisper that it made the other two jump.

Kierlan,” it spoke again, this time the slightest bit louder. “Another page lived.”

“Another page? Claire is that you?” he called out again, trying so hard to believe it was true. Silence followed.

Another voice broke the quiet, but it traveled on the wind as hers had. It was the gravelly, obvious voice of a man, and it was angry. It was threatening. It was Mainyu.

She. Is. Mine.”

“Claire!” Alex yelled. “Get away from him! Do something! Say something! Give us a sign that you’re still there! Please!”

“C’mon, Claire, please!” Kierlan pleaded, his voice cracking. “You have to get away! Talk to me!”

There was no answer to their wishes. Each person in the room looked to each other and slowly deflated. Kierlan was beginning to feel dizzy from the conflicting rush of relief and disappointment warring within him, but he didn’t dare move, for fear she’d speak again and he’d miss it. He steadied himself against the table and slowly breathed in and out through his mouth, as if his concentration would bring her voice back. He gave the floor a withering glare and waited even after the others had given up hope.

In the end, his prayers were answered.

Kierlan,” her sweet voice called, sending their heads shooting upright. And again, they waited. Her final words assured them that their every fear was realized, but there was nothing any of them could do but listen as she, at last, finished:

Help me.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Edison, New Jersey: July 14th, 2012

The alarm clock woke Alex, too early, on Sunday morning beside her peaceful fiancée, the last ray of sunshine in her life. The black dress she’d picked out for the afternoon’s gloomy occasion was folded over the computer chair, more prepared to deal with the tears and the day than she was. Slamming her fist down on the Snooze button, she sat up, begrudgingly, and turned to shake James awake. She’d moved into his large house when they returned from Europe a few days before and the couple had immediately immersed themselves in wedding plans and searching for a way to resurrect Claire.

She hadn’t wanted to go to the funeral in the first place, too stubborn to believe that her best friend was really dead. The only way she’d been convinced was because of Claire’s parents.

“Wha—” James whined, rolling away from her and trying to go back to sleep.

“Janie’s picking me up in an hour, you gotta get up,” she mumbled, hugging him and planting a kiss on his forehead.

Exhaling deeply, he turned his head to meet her lips with his. “It’s today, isn’t it?”

She nodded grimly. “Unfortunately.”

With a sigh, he muttered, “Sometimes I still wake up and think it was a nightmare.”

“So do I.” Her voice cracked. Rather than burst into tears before the man who’d seen her cry more times these past few weeks than she could count, she threw herself out of bed and went through the motions of getting ready for Claire’s ceremony.

Staring into the bathroom mirror at her reflection as she pulled her hair into a bun, she inspected the emphasized blood vessels in the whites of her eyes. Alex would’ve done anything if it meant she didn’t have to cry anymore, but she could never seem to stop.

Inwardly, she was more determined than ever to find a way to retrieve her friend from the other plane. Outwardly, she tried to make herself look upset by Claire’s upcoming funeral, but she only ended up looking really tired. She didn’t want to be sad anymore. She didn’t want to wake screaming from nightmares anymore, only to realize that the nightmare never ended.

She was uncharacteristically putting on make up when James’s body suddenly filled the doorway. If possible, he appeared more exhausted than she did. After all, it had been James who’d been making all the trips from their home in South Plainfield to the protective encampment in Massachusetts where he led other guardian angels in a search for Claire’s return, visiting his new friend in the process.

Taran had been brought into protective custody there and had been all too willing to help. He continued the search in James’s place when he was home with her, but Taran wasn’t an angel; he didn’t have the necessary connections to find spells or past experience that could help them.

Running a hand through his blonde locks, James said, “She’s here.”

Alex nodded. “Send her in.”

He slipped out of the room. For a moment, the only sounds in the whole house were footsteps and Alex’s slow, light breaths. She waited for their new friend to come upstairs, and eventually, her red hair appeared at the top of the marble steps.

The older girl had benefited greatly from an extended stay in the hospital and her first shower in six months. Since their meeting in the catacombs, Janie had gained fifteen pounds and was slowly filling out to what she must have been before her incarceration. The grime that had once layered her face and the hair growth on her legs were both gone now, in favor of a tall, severely thin woman in a clean, black dress and flats. Her frail ankles wobbled as she clacked across the expensive flooring, despite the crutch under her armpit, and her frayed hair had been cut to shoulder length, now arranged in a braid.

She cracked open the door of Alex’s room and cautiously called her name.

Alex said nothing; she gave her friend a polite smile and led the way to the car parked in front. James was waiting there and opened the door for her, but he wasn’t coming.

While the women ventured to the funeral home, James would be venturing up to Massachusetts for a meeting with Taran and the coven. In the meantime, Janie would be staying in the house with Alex, her only means of protection since she wasn’t allowed in the camp and she was without Taran.

Janie drove. Alex stared absentmindedly out the passenger’s side window, searching for color in her dim world.

Meanwhile Janie was becoming uncomfortable. “Alex?” she finally murmured.

“What?” the other girl grumbled, irritated by the sudden lapse in silence.

“Are you okay?” Janie articulated, studying her face for any sign of emotion. Anything at all.

“Fine.”

She returned her attention to the road, leaving Alex to wallow in hidden self pity. She hadn’t expected she would ever have to go to her best friend’s funeral. More than that, she never expected she would have to keep a secret from the world about said best friend. She could be consoled with the knowledge that Claire wasn’t really dead, only banished to another plane, but she couldn’t tell Claire’s father that.

They had yet to arrive at the funeral home, but Alex was already feeling the full force of her burden.

Alex wondered as the building grew closer why funeral homes were always so well-kept when they were full of people whose last concern was the architecture. As if the images of mowed, emerald green grass and always-fresh flowers could soften the blow?

Janie pulled into the parking lot, lining up with the other parked cars while Alex walked off to find familiar, grieving friends and family. The building was small, only one story, and made up almost entirely of windows. Two men in black suits directed her to the appropriate room for the ceremony.

The air reeked of the cheap flower arrangements, moth balls, and bathroom mints. Every room was packed to the maximum carrying capacity with people, some laughing, others crying. Alex felt almost personally insulted by the humorous exchanges; they were convened there to pay respects and they had the nerve to think anything was funny amongst the grieving family. The girl they were remembering had been eighteen years old and none of them knew anything about where she was or what she was going through.

And, as far as they knew, that girl was never coming back.

Disgusting.

“Oh, hello, Tom,” an old woman addressed a man of equal, if not greater, age. “It’s so great to see you again, if only it was under better circumstances.”

Shove your fake condolences up your old, fat butt, lady, she couldn’t help but muse.

A hand slapped down on her shoulder from seemingly nowhere.

“Can you handle it?” Janie, the owner of the hand inquired, practically reading her thoughts.

No matter how much of a lie it was, Alex nodded, sliding out from under her hand in a gesture of wanting to be left alone. Janie nodded, understanding completely, stepping away from her to find a corner to hide in. Alex lingered in the back of the room, as far away from the empty casket as she could get. And that was where she stayed until a man strode to the front of the room.

“Would everyone please take their seats?” the priest announced from the pulpit. Everyone promptly took a seat while the ceremony began:

There is a time for everything,

And a season for every activity under heaven:

A time to be born and a time to die

A time to plant and a time to uproot,

A time to kill and a time to heal,

A time to tear down and a time to build,

A time to weep and a time to laugh,

A time to mourn and a time to dance,

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

A time to embrace and a time to refrain,

A time to search and a time to give up,

A time to keep and a time to throw away,

A time to tear and a time to mend,

A time to be silent and a time to speak,

A time to love and a time to hate,

A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.”

He went on through the prayers and speeches, bringing up Claire’s father, who gave the most heart wrenching speech Alex had ever heard before their tears forced them to sit.

With a final, “Amen,” everyone stood to go to their cars for the drive to the cemetery. Alex searched for Mr. Strong through the thick crowd but found it nearly impossible. In a break in the crowd, she caught a glimpse of his head and impulsively changed course to get to him, but someone stood in her way, his back facing her. She recognized that back, dressed in the usual black t-shirt and pants, tucked into combat boots.

Trying to gather her words, she reached out for the familiar man.

He spun around, with difficulty, when he felt her fingers on his skin and looked down at the girl who’d become child-like in comparison, despite his being hunched over crutches. His storm-cloud grey eyes narrowed at her, angry he’d been spotted by anyone he’d met in France. Attempting, in vain, to push around her, the crowd began to close in, and Kierlan had to acknowledge her. With a sigh, he grunted, “Excuse me.”

Alex wasn’t at all surprised by his hostility, but she wasn’t a fan. “Where have you been,” she demanded.

He rolled his eyes. “Around.”

“So you’ll attend her funeral, but you won’t help us find a way to help her,” she challenged. “Makes a lot of sense, Kierlan, it’s good to know that you cared about her.”

His face darkened. “I’ve had enough of your magic shit to last a lifetime. She’s dead. And as much as I care for the rest of you, so are you.”

Alex shoved him as hard as she could, but he only stumbled back a step. He gasped, leaning more heavily on one crutch when his stitches pulled.

Growling something unintelligible under his breath, he, one-handedly, shoved her back. Alex staggered blindly backwards, flailing her arms as she very nearly fell to the floor. Someone grabbed her under her arms, but the two of them crumpled to the floor, as Janie wasn’t nearly strong enough yet to keep them both standing, especially not with a broken leg. Janie helped her back up, with some difficulty, before turning to face Kierlan.

Hazel eyes blazing, Janie poked one bony finger into Kierlan’s chest. “You can’t get away from what happened, Kierlan. I’ve tried.”

“Is that what this was?” he grumbled. “Trying to get passed what happened? Believe me, you should try harder.”

Face growing red, Alex stepped purposefully in front of her friend. “You’re here, too, dumbass. Or did you forget?”

“I can’t forget! No matter how hard I try, I can never forget!” he yelled, catching the attention of nearby mourners. Lowering his voice, he continued, “I can’t sleep. Every night I have nightmares. I see her face. I hear her voice, begging for help. She haunts me when I’m asleep, and when I’m awake, and I just want to forget.”

“Don’t even think that you’re the only one here who misses her!” Alex hissed through clenched teeth. “And don’t think that you’re the only one with nightmares.”

“Because of you,” Janie fumed, poking him again, “I was left with a maniac for half a year! I’m scared to be alone. I’m scared she’ll come back to find me. I’m scared that no one can protect me. I’m scared all the time. You wanna talk about nightmares? Don’t whine to me about your nightmares, you…you ass!”

He stared at the two of them, all three red-faced as the last of the mourners filed from the building. Two men in black suits holding the doors watched them suspiciously when they didn’t follow and one approached them cautiously.

“Umm, we’re moving to the cemetery now. If you would please return to your vehicles…?” he trailed off, studying each of their faces.

Janie pried her scowl away from Kierlan’s eyes first, facing the man. Hesitating, she began, “Of course, sir.” She took Alex’s arm and lightly tugged her toward the exit. “We were just leaving.” Pausing her limping, she spoke to the only other in the room, “Goodbye, Kierlan.”

Alex never broke eye contact, promising as they left the building, “We’ll be seeing you, again.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Paris, France; July 1st, 2012

Alex was pulled from a deep sleep by the nagging feeling that she was forgetting something very important. She picked up on the sound of deep, even breathing before anything else, but the incessant beep of her heart monitor was quick to follow. She opened her eyes, wincing when she was blinded by the burning light above her. With a groan, she turned over, instantly freezing when she felt something protest.

“You’re awake,” the unmistakable voice of an angel sighed, yawning through the deep sleep in his throat voice.

She forced her eyes open, searching for him through the sleep crusted in them. Finally, his honey-blonde hair shone out of the corner of her eye. Grunting and adjusting herself, she glared distastefully at the IV in her arm before her gaze settled on James, her face turned up in a smile. Despite how glad she was to see him, she couldn’t help but grimace, wondering how she’d ended up in that unfamiliar room, aching in places she’d never felt before. What did she need to remember…?

It all came back in a flood.

“Don’t move, baby,” James advised, pulling himself onto the bed beside her, careful not to disturb the IV protruding from the inside of her elbow. “You won’t be getting anymore morphine for a little while.”

Alex couldn’t help the tears that formed in her eyes, silently spilling over her cheeks. All she could see in her mind’s eye was Claire’s face, twisted with a small, pleasant smile before she disappeared into thin air, banished to a place she wasn’t sure existed. Her head slumped back into the immaculate pillows, her body finally shaking from violent crying. Every bone in her being objected.

James leapt to his feet, leaning over her to fervently press the call button. “I’m sorry!” he pleaded, continuously pressing the button. “I know, it hurts. I’m sorry! I’ll get you a nurse. I’ll get you pain medication, anything you want.”

“It’s—” she sniffled, trying to hold back her need to wail. “It’s not that!”

He hesitantly retracted his hand, taking a seat beside her on the hospital bed. Planting a kiss on her head, he said, “I know, sweetheart.”

“I just,” she wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand, “I can’t believe she’s…gone!”

“Shh, shh,” he murmured, hugging her tightly into his side. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

“How can you s…say that?” she blubbered. “We…I killed my best friend!”

“Alex!” James demanded, staring hard into her tear-stricken face. “Claire isn’t dead. And she’s not gone.”

Jerking her head up so fast she had whiplash, her sobs suddenly died away. “What do you mean? I saw her disappear, James, just like him,” she spat venomously.

James rubbed his hand comfortingly up and down her back. “We didn’t kill Mainyu and Claire. We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to.”

She shivered, leaning into him. “Then, where are they?”

“They were only banished. To another plane, one of emptiness,” he explained, gauging her reaction.

“She’s trapped in another world with him?” she exclaimed, trying to sit up again. “What are we waiting for? We have to get her back!”

He, gently, restrained her from getting out of bed. “That would be impossible, right now.”

She laughed, letting herself fall back onto the mattress. “Impossible? I don’t believe in that anymore. We just have to use the page again…right…?” she trailed off when he solemnly shook his head.

“They took the page with them,” he muttered. “The last page.”

“Oh.”

“I have everyone…up there,” he gestured sharply toward the ceiling and cleared his throat, “working on it. As soon as we can think of a way to get her back…without bringing Mainyu with her, we will get her back.”

“You mean there is a way to get them back,” she said, gazing hopefully up into his face.

“There is, Alex,” he explained, “but it’s not something we’ll be doing. We can’t risk the world again. Even for Claire.”

“But I thought she was your responsibility to save?” Alex demanded. “Shouldn’t we be doing something…any—?”

“I don’t want to fight with you,” he interjected. “Claire isn’t my responsibility. I had to keep her safe so that Mainyu couldn’t get her and—”

“But he does have her.”

“And take over the world,” he finished as if she hadn’t interrupted.

She bit her lip, feeling tears rise again. “So there’s nothing we can do, then.”

“Not yet,” he confessed. “We just have to wait for my bosses to tell us where we go from here.”

“Bosses?”

He winced, realizing he hadn’t intended to tell her about them. “The people who assigned me to this case in the first place. The other angels. My bosses.”

“What do they do?”

“They deal with all the guardian angels. They make sure that we’re all following the rules,” he said.

She took a deep breath. “You have rules?”

“Of course. And they’re the ones that punish anyone who breaks the rules,” he continued.

“And I suppose bringing Mainyu and Claire back would be breaking those rules, right?” she demanded bitterly.

Jaw dropped, he retorted, “You shouldn’t even be thinking about doing that, Alexandria.”

“So it’s against the rules?”

“Of course it’s against the rules,” he enthused. “That’s probably the worst thing they could possibly make a rule for.”

“What would they do if you…broke that rule?” she asked, barely able to meet his eyes.

“We’re not talking about this,” he snapped.

“Why not?!”

“We can’t endanger so many people for our own selfish desires. Getting Claire back isn’t gonna do us any good if we die!” he explained.

“We’ll just send him back, again,” she challenged.

“And what if we can’t?” he spat. “Nothing good can come from resurrecting Mainyu.”

She glared at him incredulously. “Then why did Natalia do it?”

He shook his head, remembering something else he’d have to break to her. “I have no idea.”

“Well, we can ask her. Where is she? I knocked her out in the catacombs, what’d you do with her?” she inquired.

James ground his teeth. “She got away.”

Alex blinked, hoping she just hadn’t heard him correctly. “What?”

James shifted uncomfortably. “When you passed out, I had to get you and Kierlan out of there before he bled out. The place was collapsing. Taran took the car. So, I left her there while I brought you two here, by…otherwordly means, I guess you could say. I went back to find her when you were under, but she was already gone.”

“Where’s Hayden?” Alex gasped, noting his emphasis on you two.

“She’s fine,” he replied matter-of-factly. “I had her checked out and she’s waiting downstairs while your parents come to see you. She’ll be here ‘til you’re better.”

She breathed a heavy sigh of relief, until she returned her thoughts to more pressing matters. “So Natalia’s just walking around out there?! A dangerous criminal! She’ll kill us!”

“I won’t let her, Alex, relax,” he pleaded. “She doesn’t matter.”

“You say that a lot, James!” she accused stubbornly. “Telling me that some things don’t matter! And when it does matter, you won’t tell me anything!”

“I—”

“I love you, James. That’s why I wish you’d let me in on whatever this…second life is you’re living.”

“There’re just some things I can’t—”

“What do your bosses do when angels break the rules?” she demanded.

“Alex, don’t make me answer! Please,” he said softly. “I need to ask you something—”

“Just answer the question. What would they—?” she halted when a nurse entered the room, a sugary-sweet smile plastered on her face.

“Is everything alright?” she inquired, looking from Alex to James and back again.

“I think we’re ready for some pain medication,” James replied, all evidence of duress gone from his face.

“Alright,” she nodded absently, leaving the room to retrieve the medicine.

“They would clip my wings,” he finally replied. “They’d make me mortal.”

“That doesn’t sound so—” she said.

“Don’t you dare say bad,” he hissed. “I’m an angel, Alex. That’s who I am. That’s what I’ve been for thousands of years. And this is what I was always meant to do, help people. Without that, I have nothing, I am nothing! And I won’t do it, Alex, not even for Claire.”

They sat in silence for a moment, not even bothering to thank the nurse when she returned with the morphine. Alone once again, Alex built up all her courage to meet his gaze. “James, you’ll always have me.”

“I know that,” he said.

“I wouldn’t call that nothing.”

He heaved a sigh, rubbing his hands down his face. “You’re right, Alex. As long as I have you, I’ll never have nothing. And that’s why I have to ask you something.” He knelt beside the bed again, pulling the arm that wasn’t attached to machines down with him.

“What—?” she gasped.

“I didn’t really expect that I’d be asking in a hospital room, but, ever since I told you what I really am, I knew I’d have to ask sooner rather than later.”

Alex openly gawked at him. “James—”

“Alexandria Clove, I love you, and I want to marry you. So, before we go running into anymore dangerous situations, I need to know. Do you want to marry me?”

“Of course I want to, James, but there other things here that we have to think about,” she replied, her words slurred by the morphine hitting her system.

“Like what? Getting Claire back? Saving the world? Don’t you think that would just be a better reason to be married now?”

“I—” she began, shaking her head to clear it.

“I’m not asking you to hop on a plane to Vegas with me, Alex. We don’t have to get married this week, or even this year. We could wait until we get Claire back to be your maid of honor if that’ll make you happy. I’m just asking you: will you marry me?”

A fog rolled into her head, exhausting her. “I…” she yawned, closing her eyes. Her body curled into the soft sheets of its own accord, searching for sleep so desperately that she didn’t even feel her fractured rib protest. Before unconsciousness claimed her, she managed to breathe a low, “Yes.”

James wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. “Yes? Did you say yes?”

The black crescents her eyelashes made against her cheeks didn’t flutter open for the rest of the night. He stared down at her tranquil face, his fiancée’s face, with a smile, wishing he had a ring to give her. Proposing wasn’t something he’d planned on doing for a long time. It was just something he knew he had to do, knowing that she would accept him, whatever he was, and love him for it. Nearly losing her in the fight with Mainyu had definitely had a hand in it, as well.

Looking down at his right hand, at the white gold ring he wore on his third finger, he pulled it off without missing a beat. It would never fit, but he took her left hand in both of his and pushed it onto her thumb, where it would stay until he could come up with a proper engagement ring.

He sat there into the early hours of the morning, watching the even rise and fall of her chest until he started growing restless. Remembering that there were two other patients in the building recovering from the same fight that had injured his beloved, he determined to go looking for the two of them, to make sure they were alright.

He went looking for Janie’s room first.

It was easy to find it, knowing which was hers by the crowd of armed guards standing outside the door. He didn’t bother trying to get in, but as he passed, he thought he saw the slight glimpse of someone in the room that wasn’t the girl. He barely spared another glance, the familiar t-shirt he wore hinting that it was the same man he’d spent hours sitting in the waiting room with. Taran Banks.

He smiled, ready to go looking for Kierlan next.

In the time since they’d arrived there, he’d begun to feel bad about the way he’d treated the man. Kierlan had proven himself to be nothing if not trustworthy since they’d taken on Mainyu, going so far as to nearly have his heart ripped out, literally and figuratively. Knowing he’d been injured worse than the rest of them, James felt like he owed him an apology. Beside that, he was wondering how the spy was taking Claire’s…disappearance. And, if he was being honest with himself, he was hoping Kierlan’s connections could possibly help them in finding a way to bring her back.

He took his time walking down the hall, careful not to disturb the other sleeping patients. He watched the numbers on the doors descend until, finally, he found the bold six-one-one etched into the only closed door in the corridor. He grabbed the doorknob, frowning when it didn’t turn and he walked into solid wood.

Growling under his breath, he pulled harder on the handle, to no avail. He looked down each end of the hall, waiting until the last of the night nurses disappeared out the door of the ICU. Satisfied that he was alone, he stepped back, giving up on the knob. He shoved his shoulder into the door as hard as he could, watching as it easily folded in on itself and exploded into a shower of wooden shards. Stepping over the splinters and shoving the chair that had been put up against the door to the ground, he searched the room for Kierlan. All he saw past the wreckage of his own making was an empty, unmade bed, the white sheets marred by the few odd droplets of crimson.

The window at the far end of the room was wide open, the gauzy curtains blowing in the night breeze.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

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.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

629 B.C.

True to what she had prophesized, Bomani was long gone by the time Ziba returned to her chambers that morning, tired and bloodstained from hours spent tending to the God of Destruction. She peeled her robes from her skin, soaked red, and dropped them on the floor before she crawled back under the blanket and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, all the waking hours in the world could not have lulled her back into a deep sleep. Mainyu’s words replayed in her head as she stared into the darkness behind her eyelids. You are mine. You are mine. You are mine.

She didn’t sleep much for the next week.

Between periods of kneeling beside Mainyu, tending to his wounds alongside Shireen while he absentmindedly stroked her hair, she prayed at the sanctuary to Kurshid, stared up at the ceiling from her bedroll in the night, and pleaded with fate that Bomani not return to the temple. It was all she wanted in the world to be allowed to keep him, but she knew it wasn’t to be. If she didn’t comply with the demands of the God of Destruction, Mainyu had made it perfectly clear that her relationship with Bomani would be revealed to the city, and she, as well as her love, would be killed.

But, she knew she couldn’t send him away.

When the day came that she knew he would return, she spent the morning nursing Mainyu, as usual. Shireen, however, didn’t join them. While she led the temple in prayer for the Persian Army when they returned from Egypt, Ziba stayed behind with Mainyu, cleaning his wounds again and dressing them in fresh bandages. She said nothing while he wound his fingers through her long, strange hair. She didn’t dare protest, but the feeling of his fingers touching any part of her made her skin crawl and her muscles tense.

“So beautiful,” he whispered, staring up at her from his place on the bedroll.

Swallowing back her objections, she bowed her head politely, shoving the bandages she had just unwrapped from his body into the jar in her lap. “Thank you, My Lord.”

His hand moved from her hair to cup her face. “Something ails you, My Love. Tell me what it is that upsets you.” She was forced to look in his face and what she found there made her want to gag: fierce possessiveness.

“You are mistaken, Lord Mainyu. Nothing ails me,” she lied pretending to wipe sleep from her eyes. “I am only tired.”

The skeptical look to come over his face suggested he did not believe her, but his eyes softened as they met hers. “My Love, you need not worry yourself over mere mortal matters. By the end of a fortnight, my strength will have returned and I will bring you back to my world with me.”

Ziba’s heart hung in her throat, choking her. She bowed her head again and prepared to back out of the room.

“Ziba, wait!” he ordered, sitting up.

She halted, but didn’t raise her head.

“Will you not look at me, Priestess?”

She half-heartedly complied. “Yes, My Lord.”

He smirked, looking her up and down. “I expect you to come to me this night. I know of your former lover’s presence in the temple and I want to know, the moment you tell him of your indifference.”

She let her head fall, hiding the tears pricking at her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice cracked. “Yes, My Lord.”

She couldn’t help but keep her head hung as she sauntered toward her room, feeling the heavy moisture in her eyes roll lazily down her cheeks. Her chest shook with hidden sobs, and she could not see where she was walking when she abruptly smacked into someone else’s body. She could not look up, for fear she would reveal her sadness to the patrons of the temple. She just wanted to hide in her room.

“My Lady?” the all too familiar voice gasped as he recognized her fair hair.

Ziba’s sobs suddenly cut off with a sniffle as she squinted up into her Bomani’s face. Her arms itched to throw themselves around his neck so she could kiss him and know that everything would be alright. It was so easy to believe that when she was wrapped in his arms, safe from anything that came her way.

Regrettably, he could hold her in his arms forever and it still was not going to change Mainyu’s ultimatum. As he went to embrace her, she held him at arm’s length.

“Ziba, what is the—” he inquired, reaching fruitlessly for her shoulders as she fought him off.

“I cannot see you anymore, Bomani,” she confessed, peering up at him through drenched eyelashes.

It took a moment for shock to register on Bomani’s face. “Z…Ziba, you cannot mean that.”

Gulping back the sudden bad taste in her mouth, she said, “I do.”

“Why?” he demanded, grabbing her by the shoulders and pulling her to him, despite her quiet pleas that he release her. “If this is about the consequences, it does not matter, Ziba! I will…I will…will take you away from here! We will leave! The temple…the army…all of it!”

“And where would we go, Bomani?” she cried. “Where could we go where we would not be recognized?”

He thought for a moment before he gave a loud laugh, “I do not care! We could live anywhere, Ziba, and never see anyone else ever again and I would not care! As long as I have you, I would not care what else happened.”

“Bomani!” she whimpered. “You would do that?”

“Of course, My Love, anything!” he insisted, kissing her neck while he held her to him. “I cannot lose you.”

Ziba easily succumbed to her wish to pull his face to hers and kiss him. “Then we have to run now!” she enthused, holding his head between her hands.

“Ziba, is that what has you so frantic? Have we been discovered?”

She briefly debated whether to admit that she had been confronted by a God, but, in the end, she decided that she did not want to worry him over it. “I fear we may have. I cannot live with this worry anymore, we must leave tonight!”

“My Love, relax,” he pleaded. “We need time to put together means of escape. I promise you, we will leave by daybreak tomorrow. I must return to the men now. I will come for you at dawn to take you away. Be ready, then.”

Ziba reached up on the tips of her toes to kiss him. “I will be ready.”

With a smile, he disappeared around the corner, out of Ziba’s view.

She felt like the world had been taken off her shoulders as she strode toward the sanctuary to Kurshid and prayed. It may have been wrong of her to do so, seeing as she would be abandoning her position soon enough, but she wanted to appear normal. However, all day, out of the corner of her eye, she searched the room for Bomani. Several times she found him looking back and the two shared secret smiles. The only storm cloud over Ziba was the reminder that she would have to visit Mainyu that night.

As the sun set behind the temple, Shireen swept through the temple with a sour look marring her visage. Ziba stood in the center of the room, putting off the inevitable as long as she could, when her sister stepped up to her. “Sister,” she greeted with a curt nod. “Lord Mainyu requests that you join him in his chambers. He sounded…quite urgent.”

Ziba grunted an inaudible groan but nodded nevertheless. “Thank you. I suppose I should see what he needs, then.”

Shireen hummed in the affirmative, but her face suggested otherwise.

Ziba’s stomach dropped. “What is the matter, Sister?”

“There is something about that man, Ziba. I do not trust him and I do not like that you are seeing him alone. It completely lacks propriety and it is wrong of him to ask it of you when the consequences are so dire,” she explained, crossing her arms.

“I would never risk such a fate, Shireen, you need not fear,” Ziba lied, inconspicuously clenching her fists.

“I trust you, Ziba,” she amended. “I fear for you, though. You are so young…so naïve. It makes me nervous when men show such an instant attraction to you. You do not know yet what they are capable of.”

“I do know,” Ziba said. “I do. I do not risk harm, I assure you.”

Shireen bit the inside of her mouth. “What is it that he speaks of when you are alone?”

“Nothing of consequence, Shireen.”

Shireen nodded suspiciously but stepped out of Ziba’s way. “Then I will not keep you away any longer.”

Ziba walked to Mainyu’s bedchamber like any other would walk to their death. She cast aside the curtain separating his room from all the others and slipped inside with the quiet grace of a cat. She found him sitting up for the first time since they found him, his abrasions all but healed, and his expression twisted with rage.

“Lord Main—” she bowed.

“Do you think me a stupid mortal, Ziba?” he demanded, turning the full force of his scowl on her.

Ziba staggered back like she had been struck. “O…of course not, My Lord.”

“Then do you think me blind or deaf?”

Dread festered inside her and sweat beaded up on her forehead. “I…I think n…nothing of the sort, M…My L…Lord.”

“Your fear gives you away,” he snapped.

“Gives what away?”

“Do not test me, young one!” he snarled, pulling himself to his feet. “I am a God! I heard everything of your plans to leave with that mortal!”

Ziba’s gasp was the loudest sound in the room for a long moment. She fell into a deep bow on the floor. “My Lord, please forgive me! I was foolish to think of such a plan and I was foolish to disobey you—!”

“You test me, yet again! I am not a simpleton, Ziba. I know you are only sorry that I was able to catch you.”

“No, My Lord, I swear—” she sobbed.

“But you would be unable to betray me ever again if he were gone!” he growled.

Ziba went silent when he did. “What do you mean?”

Mainyu smiled slightly. His jaw dropped as low as it could as he gave a long, inhuman growl.

He erupted into a cloud of buzzing, black smoke.

Ziba fell backward as the explosion sent the dark vapor blowing into her face, leaving a slight burn on her cheeks. Then, the smoke flew out the door, into the hallway, and out of sight. Ziba sat there in the silence for only a moment before the sound of bloodcurdling screams brought her flying to her feet.

The hallway was empty as she ran headlong toward the sanctuary where she had last seen Bomani, smiling back at her. As she entered the main room, she halted mid-step when Shireen’s arm caught her around the waist, keeping her from seeing past the circle of people standing around the room. She heard sobbing from some and screaming from others, and though she could not see what they surrounded, she had a good idea of it and fought against the arms binding her.

“Ziba, you cannot go in there,” Shireen snapped, pulling her sister down the hall the other way.

Ziba slid easily through Shireen’s arms and crawled toward the crowd before she pulled herself up. “Ziba, don’t!”

Ziba ignored her sister’s warning and fell through the wall of onlookers into the emptiness within where only one body lay on the cold floor.

 All the sound around her melted away as Ziba tried to recognize her love in the corpse that lay before her. Black veins protruded from his grayish skin and his mouth was hanging open, full to the brim with dark fluid. His eyes, wide open and unseeing, had become the same shade of inky blackness.

Arms wrapped around her body, pulling her back to her feet and away from the gruesome scene before her. Shireen’s voice whispered comforting words in her ear, but she couldn’t understand them. Any hope of escape was now gone. Any hope of a life was now gone. Any hope of love was now gone.

“Ziba. So young. So naïve. I’m so sorry you had to see that,” she whimpered, hugging her sister to her as hard as she could.

A sob wracked through Ziba’s body and only a wail escaped her lips. “He killed him. My love! My Bomani!”

Shireen froze. “Ziba?”

“He knew I was going to run away with Bomani and he killed him!”

“You were not! Ziba! The Gods will damn you!” Shireen shrieked, holding Ziba at arm’s length.

Ziba shoved Shireen away. “The Gods have already damned me, Shireen! He killed Bomani!”

“Who killed Bomani, Ziba?” she demanded, forcing her sister to look her in the eye.

“It was Angra Mainyu,” she confessed. Realizing that there was nothing else to lose, and nothing else to hide, she told her sister everything.

Shireen’s ire only grew as Ziba told her of the ongoing affair she had had with Bomani without anyone knowing and cooled only when Mainyu came into the story. By the time Ziba had finished her tale, tears were falling swiftly down her face. She clung to Shireen while the older sister tenderly rubbed her back, waiting for peace to return to the room. Silently, she thought over some way to help Ziba’s situation.

When the sound of sobs subsided into hiccups, Shireen mumbled, “I am so sorry you had to go through all that you have, little sister.”

Ziba curled up into Shireen’s shoulder, taking deep breaths.

“I will not pretend that this is any better than it is, Ziba. You are in trouble in the mortal realm and damned in the afterlife. You do not have any options—”

“I will do anything, Shireen, just save me from him, please!” Ziba interjected, begging Shireen with her glassy eyes.

Shireen felt her own sadness coming to a point as she realized what she would have to do to save Ziba from eternal fire. “Very well then, sister. I will save you from Angra Mainyu. Just remember that I am doing what I must because I love you.”

“I understand.”

Shireen supported Ziba with her shoulder and led her to the dungeon below to await her impending sacrifice.

Knowing where Shireen led, Ziba squeezed her eyes shut, biting her cheek until she tasted blood. “Oh.”

They came to retrieve her when the horizon turned pink with the morning three days later. Fatigue had washed all color from Ziba’s alabaster skin and her blue eyes were rimmed with red but she held her head high as she strode toward the stairs between two of her sister’s priests. Feeling the burn of the rope against the delicate flesh of her wrists brought on a new flush of shame; never in her life had she imagined that she would ever be in this position.

“My lady,” a quiet voice murmured beside her, catching the remnants of her focus. Those words were so agonizingly familiar that it ached in her heart to realize that it was not in the context or the deep timber that she so desperately desired. Her love and lordship had not come to see her. Her love and lordship would not come to see her. As she came to this comprehension, again, a hand, much smaller than the one she wanted to see, reached out to hold a bronze goblet before her face. She took it obediently, inconspicuously surveying the contents before putting her lips to the shimmering cup. She drank the water under the scrutinizing gaze of the priests, but, in truth, her most recent revelation had taken away the entirety of her appetite.

“Thank you, Lord Hosrael,” Ziba replied graciously, emptying the goblet and returning it to the priest. He nodded in answer and the group ascended the stairs, each priest grasping the tops of Ziba’s arms so she couldn’t run. Their display of blatant distrust in her depressed Ziba, as she had been a priestess in the temple for eight years now, since her seventh birthday; everyone trusted her, and with good reason, as she was as guileless as the innocent child she appeared to be. She couldn’t exactly say, however, that she was surprised by this show of loyalty to her older sister. As the high priestess, Shireen was trusted above anyone else in the temple.

The young priestess abruptly collapsed into the arms of the priests, as they expected, on the way to the altar. The sedative they had slipped into her drink on the way to recover her was tasteless, and the darkness had shrouded the green powder floating in the water. Nevertheless, as detailed to them by Lady Shireen, the priests had come to do a job and didn’t allow Ziba’s inert body to slow them down. Hosrael lifted the girl easily into his arms, his companion chasing at his heels, and made his way to their destination. Ziba, for her part, remained blissfully unaware of just how close to her impending doom she really was.

Lady Shireen, swept through the marble temple toward the altar like the wrath of God, her blood red robes billowing out and around her. The green of her eyes was cold, staring straight ahead and giving away no emotion, but all could tell how she felt. Anger radiated off her very skin. She felt no guilt or regret, only the deepest disgust, and all patrons and priests within the temple hid from the burning rage that they didn’t want directed at them.

Inwardly, though, Shireen’s mind was in turmoil. By Sraosa, the god of the afterlife, she’d taken solace in the knowledge that her sister would be protected, but, as anyone in her situation would feel, her faith had been shaken. All those to be brought back from the dead with the Book of Eternity had failed, and she feared her powers were too weak to return her sister to the land of the living. Regardless of her lack of confidence, she didn’t have a choice. Her dominant hand twitched with anticipation.

The room was large and completely silent; the various priests scattered across the marble didn’t dare to breathe. Each man was bedecked in gold robes to stand behind Shireen for the ritual, but it was evident that they were reluctant. Use of the Book of Eternity for this purpose had angered the Gods before and they knew this sacrifice could, and would, bring the wrath of the God of Darkness and personification of evil itself, Angra Mainyu, down upon them. Lady Shireen had warned them all earlier that this was inevitable. Fortunately, the priests were devoted enough to her that they had agreed to help despite the risk.

At the far end of the room, a stone table was organized in the center of a plethora of offerings to the Gods, from flowers to the preserved organs of rams. The table was grey, but stained with the remnants of blood from past offerings, all of which was unseen beneath the long, white silk of Ziba’s robes.

The priests in gold advanced toward the altar ahead of the High Priestess, beginning to chant the spell in Old Persian, “Spenta Mainyu who breathes life into you, now take it away. May our holy sister, Ziba, be held in the safe, merciful arms of the Gods, and be returned to the land of the living anew. Deliver her from the lust of Angra Mainyu. Protect her, your holiest servant. Spenta Mainyu who breathes life…”

Shireen picked up the chanting as she approached the altar and lifted the long dagger on the altar into her hand. She stared down at the petite form with an expression that could freeze an entire ocean, and brought the dagger up with one hand into position over her sister’s body. One of the priestesses held the silver Book of Eternity open in her arms for Shireen to read. Shireen’s free hand pushed passed page after page until she found the page to bring a soul back from the dead.

As she flipped through the pages, the body on the stone began to stir and a light voice murmured, “Shireen?”

When Ziba opened her eyes, she saw immediately that tears were falling down Shireen’s face without her knowledge, and Ziba’s face began to match. She so desperately wished it could have ended differently. She wanted to tell Shireen that she loved her. She wanted to apologize for all the trouble she had caused. She wanted to turn back the hands of time so that Shireen wouldn’t have been forced to kill her. All she could do was try to infuse her gaze with as much love and forgiveness and bravery as she could as the dagger pierced her heart.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

Paris, France; June 30th, 2012

“A phone?! I will kill you!” Natalia shrieked, kicking the phone out of Alex’s hand. Alex heard the crack of splintering bone before she felt the pain, but even that was only temporary. She cried out when the agony set in, cradling her injured hand against her chest. “Shut up, you worthless girl!”

Alex glowered up at the assassin through tears, wincing when she felt the throbbing radiate through her arm. “Go to hell, Natalia!” she hissed through her clenched teeth, biting the inside of her mouth.

Natalia only smiled, throwing her head back in a barking laugh. Alex suppressed the overwhelming urge to smack the condescending grin off her face, but she tested the limit of the chains binding her ankle, nonetheless. Natalia finally let her head hang, facing Alex once again.

“Oh, Alexandria,” she chuckled before her face went serious. Alex fell back onto the floor when she felt the woman’s heavy shoe hit her ribcage, rolling her over onto her side. Over the sound of Alex’s hacking cough, she deadpanned, “I’m already in hell.”

Alex felt the burning trails of saltwater run down her face, but she kept quiet, her eyes squeezed tightly shut, until she heard Natalia’s steps echo further away. She choked on a whimper, her mind dancing with the switch between her hand and her ribs. She bit her lip against the ache, finally opening her eyes to assess the situation they’d gotten themselves into. Before she could look, however, her sight was interrupted by a mud-caked leg, curled up to support another, broken, one.

Scrambling to sit up, Alex leaned over the unbound girl, resisting the urge to poke the girl to awareness. By the state of her being, she couldn’t find an inch on her that she thought would be safe to touch. And, upon closer inspection, Alex found that the girl wasn’t asleep, as she had previously thought. Her eyes were open, staring blindly at the wall while she breathed evenly, in, out, in, out.

“Janie?” Alex whispered, getting as close to the girl as she could without touching her.

The girl said nothing.

Clearing her throat, wincing when the sharp breath made her ribs protest, Alex tried again. “Are you Janie?”

Again, nothing.

“Taran’s Janie?” she continued.

The broken captive didn’t move. Alex was losing hope that she would ever get a response, and, slowly, she sank back to her place by the wall.

“You know Taran?” a hoarse voice croaked, spurring Alex back into motion, though her body begged her not to.

“Ya!” she exclaimed. Remembering where they were and who could be watching, she lowered her voice. “He sent me here.”

Janie carefully rolled onto her back, groaning as she did. The slightest hint of excitement emerged in her voice. “Why’d he do that?”

Alex’s smile faltered when she finally saw the prisoner’s swollen face. “He wanted me to tell you something.”

“What is it?” she pleaded. “Tell me!”

“He said he’s coming to get you.”

A grimace erupted on Janie’s face, the best she could do with her face in its current state. “He is?” she asked, her voice an octave higher.

Alex nodded fervently. “He’s on his way now.”

Moisture gathered in Janie’s eyes, trailing down her face. “I knew he’d come. I knew it. He promised.”

“He misses you,” Alex continued, loving the life refilling the girl.

Janie smiled through another sob. “He does?”

“Ya. And him and my boyfriend are coming to get us right now. I’m Alex.”

“How are they gonna find us, Alex?” Janie asked.

Alex said, “I called them and told them. But, I need your help.”

Janie’s face abruptly went serious. “I don’t know how much I can help. My leg’s broken. I’m really messed up.”

Alex’s jaw clenched. “Janie, I need to get out of this shackle. When the boys get here, there’s no way they’ll be able to find us in the dark. The only way we’ll ever get out of here is if I can somehow show them the way. Do you know how to get out of here?”

Janie knit her brow, looking around the room for any sign of sanctuary. She flinched when her eyes landed on the back of Natalia’s head, remembering all the times they’d met; times they would hopefully never have again. “All I can think is that, if anyone’s got a key, she does. And there’s no way either of us can get it,” she whispered.

Alex sighed, pursuing her lips. “There’s gotta be a way. Think! Our lives depend on it. And maybe more.”

Determined to keep herself from the hopeless pit she’d waded in for so long, Janie stared tirelessly at the chain connecting Alex to the wall. After a long moment of silence, her head finally whipped back into place. “Quick question!” she gasped.

“What?”

“Was this place ever used as a prison?” she demanded, eyeing the shackles.

Alex narrowed her eyes suspiciously, grabbing the chain. “Obviously,” she mumbled, glancing pointedly at the metal in her hand.

“Maybe not,” Janie challenged. “Maybe they brought the shackles in just for us. You said you called your boyfriend, where’s your phone?”

Quirking an eyebrow, Alex pointed to the shattered phone a few feet from the other girl’s head. Gasping, she let her arm fall. She didn’t have medical experience, but she thought it was safe to assume her rib was broken. “Natalia,” she breathed through the pain, “kicked it. It’s gotta be broken.”

Janie hesitantly rolled onto her less-painful side and reached for the phone. “Maybe not,” she hissed, scraping her long fingernails across the floor. “Maybe it still works.”

Alex didn’t understand what they needed the phone for, but she couldn’t help but feel victorious when Janie grabbed it. When the cellular was safely held in both of Janie’s hands, she handed it to Alex. “Turn it on.”

“It’s not gonna work,” Alex insisted. “It’s destroyed.”

“It’s our only hope. Just do it!” Janie begged.

Alex pressed the button that would turn it on, but she barely looked at it, knowing she would find no change. To her surprise, light shone up into her face around a spider web of cracks. “It worked!” she said, shock coloring her voice.

Janie finally breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”

Still skeptical, Alex kept still. “Ya, that’s great. What do you want me to do with it, now? The cops’ll think I’m nuts!”

“No,” Janie replied. “It’s not to make a call. Go on Google. Look up if the Catacombs were ever used as a prison.”

“Why?” Alex demanded.

Janie rolled her eyes. “’Cuz if the Catacombs weren’t a prison, how are there shackles in here? And my guess is that they’re not supposed to be here. These chains look way too clean to have been lying here for hundreds of years.”

Alex quickly typed her question into the search engine and waited; she hid the phone under her when Natalia looked over, casting flickering glances down at the massacred screen until, finally, her answer popped up. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s a burial place, not a prison. I assume you know a way that this can help us?”

Janie nodded. “They would’ve needed to bolt the chains into the ceiling, sometime recently. The catacombs are hundreds of years old, so there’s no way the ceiling’s prepared to support the weight of heavy chains, a metal bolt, and a human being.”

Alex’s wide eyes had been glazed over from the beginning. “In English, please?” she sneered.

Janie pursed her lips. “Just pull on it.”

Alex gripped the chain in her hand and tugged. A slight shower of dirt sprinkled over them, but she made little to no leeway.

“Harder than that,” Janie ordered.

Ignoring the pain burning through her torso, Alex readjusted her grip with both hands and, using all of her weight, yanked the chain from the ceiling, along with the huge chunks of dirt that had been packed around it. Janie covered her face, but she still felt the dirt fall into her mouth while it was cracked in a huge smile. “Go,” she pleaded, noticing when Natalia turned to face the noise.

Alex stared dumbly at the chain in her hands, barely hearing Janie’s plea while she contemplated her luck.

“You!” Natalia shrieked, approaching them quickly.

“Alex, go!”

Realizing she had to move quickly, Alex lurched to her feet, chain still gripped in her hand. Without looking back, she ran into the tunnels, praying the way she was going was the right one.

“Alex!” Natalia shrieked, following closely behind her. “Do not make this harder than it has to be!”

The only responses Alex gave were her heavy grunts of exertion.

Alex could hear that Natalia was quickly gaining, even in the less than practical shoes she wore. Dread filled her as she realized it was more than likely she would be caught soon, especially since she had no idea where she was going and the metal constricting her ankle was weighing her down so heavily. She pushed herself harder, but it was far from a surprise when she felt herself being torn backward.

Fueled by the hand fisted in the fabric of her shirt, Alex’s body soared through the air before it finally landed with a harsh thud against the ground.

She stared up the ceiling for a moment, trying to catch her breath. Unfortunately, in the gap between action, Natalia was suddenly upon her, the barrel of a gun even closer still. Alex didn’t bother to breathe and, slowly, she lifted her hands, her bindings clasped tightly in her hand.

“Woah,” Alex breathed, tilting her chin up and away from the weapon. “Just…just take it easy.”

Natalia chuckled, letting the barrel rest against the flesh of Alex’s neck, a threatening reminder. “No, Alexandria, you take it easy. We are going back to that room now, where you are going to behave yourself, or I will put a bullet in your head. Understood?”

Alex nodded, but, internally, desperation roiled inside her. She couldn’t go back there. She couldn’t.

Natalia hauled her newest captive to her feet, shoving her back where they’d come from while she thrust the gun back into her waistband. Hearing the click of Natalia’s designer slacks snapping into place around her waist, Alex took a deep breath, prepared to run again.

She couldn’t go back.

Slowly, inconspicuously, she swung the chain and, turning, let it fly into Natalia’s face.

Der’mo!” she shrieked, grasping at her face as it rapidly turned red with blood from her broken nose. She fell with a heavy crash against the floor, both hands grasping at her nose and mouth. An imprint already began to show in her normally flawless face from the patterns of the chain, but Alex sent the heavy metal down again, crashing against Natalia’s eyes with a strength that made her go still.

Alex knew she shouldn’t care, but she studied Natalia’s body for a moment, just long enough to notice the even rise and fall of her chest. As she looked, however, she noticed the gun’s handle protruding from the assassin’s clothes. Seizing the opportunity, Alex grabbed the gun and sprinted headlong down the tunnels, screaming, “James!”

Her echo answered back.

“James!” she repeated.

After some time, she was graced with the voice of an angel.

“Alex?” his voice called back.

“Over here!” she begged, blind in the dark. “James, I’m over here.”

Suddenly, he turned the corner of one of the tunnel walls, nearly smacking into her, Taran and Kierlan in tow. Noticing the other, despite the lack of light, the couple embraced tightly. “Thank God,” he whispered into her hair, rubbing his hand up and down her back. “Thank God.”

Alex leaned away from him, urgently pointing down the tunnel behind her with the gun. “I know where they are! C’mon!”

James nodded, running down the hall after her. Taran and Kierlan followed closely behind, wordless; the air between them was still tense from their recent spat. Alex led them through the underground, pausing only momentarily to step over Natalia when they neared the room. Kierlan hung back while the others ran ahead, stooping down next to Natalia, searching for something that could help him. Knowingly, he pushed up one of the legs of her pants, displaying the top of her boot, and the gun handle emerging from it.

Grinning, he grabbed it. “Thanks, Petrov,” he whispered, continuing through the dark to join his party.

Alex was the first to see the light, picking up the pace when she recalled the way Mainyu had held her friend, barely conscious and caught up in some kind of trance. As she passed over the threshold separating the circular room from the rest of the underground, her eyes flickered to the mortal men posted around the perimeter, watching Mainyu rape Claire’s mind with his powers. Janie seemed to be the only one aware of her presence, a smile on her face.

Alex kept silent, studying the gun for anything that could go wrong.

Taran almost fell into the room in his haste, head shooting in every direction while he searched for one person in particular. He kept quiet as well, noting the guns strapped to each of the men in the room. His eyes fell on Janie only after hers fell on him. Ecstatic beyond any feeling she’d ever had in her life, Janie’s jaw dropped.

She gasped, slightly louder than a breath, “Taran!”

She realized her mistake too late. Each man in the room, excluding Mainyu, whipped around to face the entrance, already fumbling for their weapons, but, thankfully, Alex was first. Despite the break in her abdomen, she raised both hands, the gun held amateurishly between them, and let the first shot ring out through the room.

Alex thought it a little surreal when one man fell, bleeding, to the floor, but the next was quick to follow.

When Kierlan arrived to pick up the slack, she looked to the god who seemed completely unaware of the commotion around him. She had no snappy one-liner to shoot at him, or a mocking demand. All she had was a gun in her hand. As she raised it, she kept both eyes open and focused on the side of his face closest to her. Without missing a beat, she squeezed the trigger, waiting for the unmistakable spout of blood to shoot back at her.

He jerked precariously away from her when the bullet met his temple.

Claire fell from his grasp and sprawled out across the floor in an unconscious heap. Alex would have run to help, if not for Mainyu’s slow movements when he fell back into his previously kneeling position. Pulling himself to his feet, he stood, looking away from her for a moment.

No sound or change in stature revealed that he was angry.

Suddenly, the god spun, arm outstretched and fire burning in his eyes. “Witch!” he screamed waving his palm from her direction to the wall.

Alex couldn’t see what it was that it hit her, but, as he turned, her body flew out of his path, connecting forcefully against the human remains. She vaguely heard someone, probably James, call her name when she fell to the floor, sending the gun skittering across the room.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

629 B.C.

Deep in her mind, Ziba thought their first kiss would be enough. Once she knew what it felt like to be loved, she fully intended to denounce any of her deepest, selfish wants and desires. She would go back to the endless hours of prayer she was accustomed to. She would beg Kurshid for forgiveness. She would never stray again.

Unfortunately, as time went on, she realized that it was virtually impossible for her to go on with her life as expected.

Bomani had left for his army’s base camp a day’s journey outside the city just a few hours after their tryst in the temple, giving her one last kiss before he said his goodbyes. It had been a bittersweet affair, but Ziba tried her hardest to forget about him. It consoled her that even if he could stay, she couldn’t keep him. Sadly, the memory of his sweet words haunted her dreams when she slept and lingered in her mind when she woke. The feeling of his lips, even sweeter still, burned hers.

For days she had walked around as a shell of her former self, going through the motions of praying in the temple, but she was feeling lost. The sight of her goddess’s sanctuary didn’t bring her the same joy and fulfillment as it once had, before Bomani stepped into the temple. She feared she would never feel the innocent contentment that had gotten her through the days ever again. If it was so, she didn’t know how life in the temple could ever satisfy her.

Those two weeks without him had been the longest of her life.

 After those long days Bomani had returned to the temple in secret, hiding around a corner in the corridor she had seen him. On her way to her chambers that night, Ziba had been dragged into the niche with a hand clasped over her mouth, muffling her shrill scream. Once his face had come into focus against the faded light of the dying candles, she’d thrown all her reservations away and kissed him like she had wanted to since their last rendezvous.

He’d done the same with abandon, kissing her senseless. They had stayed there for hours, sharing the occasional kiss between brief periods of talking about meeting more often.

Six months went by with these visits brightening the lives of both the warrior and the priestess, despite their worry that they would be caught and shamed. When they thought about life alone, it did not matter the risk. Nothing mattered more than the nights he would find her again. After those six months, Ziba could easily claim Bomani was her newest worship, greater even than the Gods she had sworn years ago to hold above everything and everyone else.

They had been living in sin for so long, and it only seemed to get better as the days went on.

At least it was, until the Gods themselves decided to protest to their blasphemous love.

It had been late in the night during the greatest heat wave in years that Ziba was woken from a deep sleep by a peel of thunder. Rain hit the ceiling in torrents for a long time after she opened her eyes to darkness, exhausted but unsure of why she had woken. Another crash of thunder reminded her and she jolted into a sitting position, wrapping her blanket around herself. It did not happen ordinarily that the sky produced such a violent storm. Ziba had never really gotten used to the noise and bright lightning.

“Are you alright, my love?” the groggy voice of her lover asked from his place beside her on the bedroll.

Ziba wiped the sleep from her eyes with the back of her hand, pulling her knees to her chest as she tried to tone out the noise outside. “I am fine, Bomani. I cannot sleep with that noise outside.”

“Are you afraid?”

She looked down at Bomani’s face as he held it up with his hand, supported by his elbow. His brown eyes melted when they met her blue ones, all the love he felt for her swimming in their murky depths. Feeling safer than she had when she woke, Ziba laid back down beside Bomani with a content smile on her face. “Not with you here beside me, My Lord. I could never feel afraid with you beside me.”

One massive arm wrapped itself around her waist, pulling her against his bare form. “I should hope not, my love.”

Ziba pushed her face into the hollow of his neck, inhaling his scent as she fell slowly back into a deep sleep.

The unmistakable knock against the temple doors echoed through the building, sending Ziba, as well as most of the others asleep in their chambers, sprawling off their bedrolls.

“What is going—” Bomani began, sitting up to roll Ziba back onto the roll, but she was already standing, reaching for another robe to pull over her nightdress, knowing it would be inappropriate to run to help the way she was, wearing only one thin, white robe.

“Do not move,” Ziba ordered, placing a light kiss against Bomani’s lips. “Do not make a sound. I will be back.”

“Ziba—”

“Shh!” she hissed as she opened the door, throwing a final glance his way.

 He smiled and pulled the blanket over his head through the dark, hidden again, like he had been when she found him there earlier that evening. She hated to leave him, especially after such an extraordinary night, but she desperately needed to know who was knocking at this hour. As she threw herself out the door she crashed into her sister as Shireen sprinted down the hall. She pulled the other robe on as they walked, padding after Shireen.

“Ziba,” her sister greeted in disapproval. “Go back to bed.”

Her blonde counterpart narrowed her eyes. “No. I have just as much of a right to see who has come than anyone else here, High Priestess. What if the poor soul needs help?”

“What if they do?” Shireen challenged, arms outstretched toward the door.

As she pulled it open, the weight of a body leaned against the doors gave way and a man fell before their feet, bleeding from cuts across nearly every inch of his body, bruised, and broken.

“Goddess!” Ziba cried, falling to her knees beside him. Her hands prodded lightly across his skin, looking for some kind of clue as to what could have injured him in such a way, but she was afraid to touch him. “Shireen, surely you do not expect that you will be able to attend to him on your own! Look at him!”

A moan from their guest drew the eyes of all those convened in the room to his face. Ziba’s attention, however, became suddenly ensnared by his hand as he lifted it off the floor, with great difficulty. Delicately, his palm touched the back of her hand where it rested on his chest, but the shock that coursed through her veins when their flesh met burned her.

 Instinctively, she withdrew her hand as fast as she could, but his was faster, reaching out to grab her forearm and hold her in place. Ziba gasped as she trailed her eyes up his body, appraising his exposed skin, stretched taut over his wiry muscles, his numerous open wounds, gaping like screaming mouths, to his pointed chin. As she glanced over his pinched lips and sharp nose, she found his open eyes, glowing red like a demon’s.

Terror caught the young priestess in its fierce gaze, willing her to stay completely still while it searched her soul.

“Hosrael!” Shireen called, spinning around to turn her frosty gaze on the fatigued priests standing in a line behind her.

One priest straightened up to face her. “Yes, High Priestess?”

A small, infinitesimally small, smile turned up Shireen’s lips as she gestured to the man on the floor, practically cradled in her sister’s arms. “Please, take your priests and find something to clean this man’s wounds. The rest of you, help him to a room. He will catch his death laying out here in the rain.”

“Yes, High Priestess.”

Two of the priest’s stooped down to lift the man into their arms; still, he didn’t relinquish his hold on Ziba. She followed closely beside the priests as they carried him toward the corridor of bedchambers, but she tried fruitlessly to free herself the entire way. Even as they placed him on an empty bedroll at the end of the hall he held her hand captive. His grip was merciless and, as the moments went on, she began to lose feeling in her fingers.

 “My Lord,” Shireen said, breaking his eye contact with Ziba as she knelt between them.

Taking advantage of his distraction, Ziba viciously tore her hand away from him and relished in the sudden relief flowing through her hand. She deeply regretted going to the door now. Bomani was waiting for her in her bedchamber and she had a horrible foreboding that she would not be seeing him again before he slipped out of the temple at daybreak.

“What is your name?” the High Priestess finished, pulling his hand into both of hers.

Ziba could feel him looking in her direction as he answered, in a clipped voice, thick with an oncoming groan, “Mainyu.”

“What has happened to put you in such a state, Mainyu?” she continued as the priests strode into the room with a rag, a pail of water, and a stack of robes. “Thank you,” she said as she turned to them. “Return to bed, now, the Lady Ziba and I can take it from here.”

“Yes, High Priestess,” they chorused, bowing deeply before they backed out of the room, leaving behind a quiet room.

Ziba submerged the rag in the water as Shireen continued to stroke the hand of their visitor. She placed it gingerly to the gash cutting across his chest. He hissed and his back arched against the sting, but Ziba gave comforting hums in the hope that he would calm down. “Mainyu—?” Shireen trailed off.

The man in question chuckled darkly as his back slumped unceremoniously back onto the bedroll. “I must admit: I am unaccustomed to mortal pain. It is not something I will take for granted ever again.”

Ziba and Shireen exchanged looks of confusion before he spoke again:

“High Priestess, I would like to speak to the Lady Ziba…alone.”

Shireen’s back went rigid and Ziba jerked her hand away from Mainyu’s chest. He arched his back again as she opened the gash with the rag, and blood stained her already soiled robes along with it. Panicked, she pressed the cloth in her hand back against his chest. Shireen looked down her nose at Mainyu’s face, though he was far from taking back his demand, even through the pain that had him hyperventilating below them. “I am afraid that would not be appropriate, Mainyu.”

“It is imperative, High Priestess that I speak to her.”

“Whatever you have to say to me, Mainyu, I am sure you can say it in the presence of my sister,” Ziba said, wishing to diffuse the situation. It did not seem to work, since the look passing between her sister and the visitor was making her physically uncomfortable.

He shook his head. “I must speak to you.”

Shireen gave a heavy sigh as she stood. “I will return soon, Mainyu. I hope what you need to say can be said by then.”

Mainyu scowled at her back until she disappeared over the threshold. A lighthearted grin took its place. “I cannot describe to you how glad I am to finally be in your presence, Lady Ziba.”

“Thank you, Mainyu, but this cannot be what it is you needed to speak to me about,” Ziba countered.

“I have been watching you for so long. You seemed to be something ethereal. You were untouchable for so long that—” he pressed his fingertips to her arm. She shivered. “—the thought that you are here, so close and so tangible, fills me with joy.”

“S…Sir—?” Ziba began, but couldn’t find the words to ask what he was trying to tell her.

“My name is Angra Mainyu, Priestess,” he confessed. “I have been watching you for some time and have decided that I needed to tell you of my feelings for you.”

Ziba sat, flabbergasted, for a long moment before she threw herself into a bow on the floor. “My Lord, how can I serve you? Who has done you such damage? Surely the God of Destruction could not be injured by a mere mortal!”

“You need not worry yourself,” he promised. “My mortal injuries were done by myself. I had to take this body from a human so that I may walk the Earth as a human. He was not willing to give over his body, therefore I took it by force. Unfortunately, I seem to have done great damage to it. I had only hoped to tell you of my feelings and take you with me back to the nether-plane. But it seems that I have been stranded on the mortal plane until I can recover.”

Ziba kept her forehead pressed against the cold floor. “What feelings do you speak of, My Lord?” she squeaked.

His cold fingers tilted her chin up to look into his grimace when the movement caused him pain. His thumb rubbed circles into her cheek and emotion swam in his crimson eyes.

“I have been in love with you for quite some time, Ziba.”

A lump formed in her throat and she tried desperately not to jerk her head away from his touch.

“I am sorry, My Lord. My position as a priestess stops me from succumbing to mortal love. I made a promise.”

Neither spoke for a while; Ziba did not dare breathe.

A low chuckle rumbled in the back of Mainyu’s throat before it emerged as a guffaw from his lips. The priestess stared up into the eyes of the hunter as he mocked her with only his wild laughter.

“My Lord, I—” she interjected.

He snapped to attention. “Ziba, you and I both know that your promise means absolutely nothing at this point.”

Ziba’s heart beat in her ears like a drum. She begged any Gods that would listen, excluding the one before her, that he not speak what she thought he would, that which could end her life and her love’s, but it was not to be.

“That man in your chambers is not to return again.”

She gulped. “My Lord, please do not tell anyone of Lord Bomani. If you did, I would be killed!”

“You have nothing to fear, young one, if you send him away. If you never see him again, you will be safe.”

“And what of him?” she demanded, sitting up straighter so his hand fell away from her face.

His eyes narrowed. “What?”

Ziba knew immediately that she had said something wrong. “Will he be safe?”

Many emotions passed across Mainyu’s face as he scowled at her. His hand reached up and circled the back of her neck, pulling her face down to his level. “You will think nothing of him, or his safety, ever again, Ziba. You will realize soon enough, young one, that now, and forever, you are mine!”