Chapter Fifteen

Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012

Hours went by seeing Janie against the wall, staring across the room with her knees pulled to her chest. Her wet hair hung in her face, soaking through the jacket wrapped around her bony shoulders. She didn’t know why she was still alive, having given up the photo, and, frankly, she didn’t care. The memory of Taran’s face in the light was fresh in her mind, lit with a determination to get her away from hell.

Now that she was alone, she pictured him in the dark. It was easy to pretend he’d never left when she could see nothing beyond her own eyelids. She took to mumbling to herself, knowing there would be no answer. She didn’t care.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” she whispered, rocking back and forth the way he’d done with her. “It’ll only be a few more hours before he comes back with help. He’ll come back. He promised.”

The pain radiating through her hip had intensified since she’d last been dunked in the tub, this time entirely. She didn’t know what floated in the water around her when she was submerged, but, whatever it was, it was in her gaping wound now.        The newest man to deal with her hadn’t asked questions, merely shoved her to the concrete bottom until she inhaled water, then wrenched her to the surface to expel it, forcing vomit into the water as well. The water had turned immediately red around her when she was forced to sit up, disturbing the cloth around her hip and tearing her wound open anew. Now, she was without it and blood trickled from her skin, uninterrupted.

She’d refused to let herself succumb to sleep, waiting desperately for the feverish steps and fervent commands of police on the other side of the door to take her home. She didn’t dare close her eyes, for fear she would miss the light filtering in when they threw the steel door open. So far, nothing of the sort had happened, and she was beginning to feel the effects of her fatigue and blood loss. She’d snapped awake so many times in the last few—minutes? Hours? She couldn’t tell—she’d lost count. The silence was beginning to scream in her ears, pounding behind her eyes. “I have to stay awake,” she growled, rubbing viciously at her face.

Running out of ideas, Janie kicked around the tray her most recent meal had come on, watching the plastic skitter across the floor, crashing into the wall. There wasn’t a morsel of the slop left on it when she did, since she’d licked the tray clean hours ago. She felt better than any other day in here that she could remember, despite her session in the tub earlier that day. The crippling pain in her stomach had been reduced to a dull ache, aside from the injury she had sustained from the last man’s knife, and excitement hummed through her chest. Taran was coming back. Any minute now…

She hated to admit it, even to herself, but she’d expected help to arrive hours ago. She knew he must have gotten lost, and she comforted herself with the knowledge that, for all she knew, he could’ve only been gone an hour. A minute felt like an eternity in here as it was and she’d stopped counting after one thousand, two hundred, and thirty six. There was also the undeniable chance that the guards could’ve found him. Her heart raced, her mind finally entertaining the thought that help might not have been coming after all.

“He’s coming back,” she chanted, returning to rocking back and forth. “He’s coming back.”

The echo of voices in the hall snapped Janie from sleep before she realized that her eyes had closed. She couldn’t stand but she threw herself on her stomach, scraping her bulbous shin against the floor as she crawled toward the door. She stared up into the abyss where she knew the door would be, waiting for the police to crash through it and whisk her away to a place with food and people who loved her. When the steel portal swung open, her jaw dropped, a wail of joy gathering in her throat.

Two indistinct forms fell into the room, one crashing to their knees on the floor and the other falling in a similar manner onto Janie’s back.  Curling into herself, she rolled away from the new arrivals, coughing away the tightness in her chest. The door swung shut quickly, screeching violently as it locked. Janie visibly deflated, her skeletal figure collapsing in on itself while she fought off the disappointment threatening to drown her. When she’d sufficiently gathered herself, she straightened up and searched the darkness for the people wiggling on the floor. Muffled screams broke the calm.

Janie fumbled for something to hold onto so she could help them, but there was nothing, as usual. Her hand met the rough exterior of a potato sack and the person within shook harder, trying to free himself from his bounds. Janie tore the sack from his head, throwing it against the wall. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you,” she promised, feeling along his face for the tape covering his mouth. “Okay, I lied. This is gonna hurt a little.” She got a good grip under the corner and tore it from his mouse with a riiiiiip. A man’s voice cried out from the sting.

“Who are you?” he rambled. “Where are we? What do you want?”

Janie felt along the floor as she crawled to find the other captive and worked at freeing her in the same way. “I didn’t bring you here. I was kidnapped.” The girl shrieked when the tape came off.

“Hayden!” he bellowed. “You okay, baby?”

“I’m fine,” she sniffled. “My arms are tied.” Janie felt around for a rope, but all she found was a plastic tie around the girl’s wrists.

“I can’t get it off, we’d need scissors,” she apologized, carefully placing herself back on the floor. “My name’s Janie.”

“I’m Hayden,” the girl mumbled, flopping onto her back.

“Scottie,” the man grunted, moving himself into a sitting position. “Where are we?”

Janie hissed as she stretched her leg out, the way Taran had told her, to keep the rebroken bone straight. “I have no idea. They don’t say anything about the outside in here. How did you guys get here? Was it Natalia?”

“You know Natalia?” they demanded in unison.

Janie shivered against the memories. “More than I’d like to.”

“You know about Mainyu, then?” Hayden pleaded. “Are you a…what’d he call it…a Spiritii, too?”

She just stared in the direction the other girl’s voice had come from. “A what?”

“How many others has she got here?” Scottie snapped, trying uselessly to make out Janie’s face as he changed the subject.

Janie frowned, forced to remember once again. “There was one more—”

“What happened?” Hayden interjected, thinking the worst. “Did she…?”

She refused to allow herself to think that that had been Taran’s fate, but the mere insinuation had her wrapping her arms around herself, feeling herself begin to fall to pieces. She wanted someone to hold her like Taran had done while he was here, a luxury she’d taken for granted when he was still beside her. Holding herself could only fill the void for so long.

“No, he got away,” she choked out. “I don’t know when, it might have been today, maybe yesterday. We tried to get away and he got out. I got caught.”

“What happened?” Hayden inquired.

“They dragged me back in by my hair when they found me. I couldn’t fight them, my leg’s broken, among other things,” Janie explained. “He’ll be back, though. He promised he’d get me to a hospital.”

“What did they do to you?” Scottie wondered aloud.

The face of her near-rapist flashed behind her eyelids, forcing tears up to wash it away. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“How long have you been here?”

Janie swallowed her sadness. “Six months.”

“Jesus!” Hayden gasped. “Why?”

“They kept me for something that was recently resolved. I think they’re going to kill me soon,” Janie deadpanned. “I don’t know why they’ve kept me so long.”

They said nothing for a long time. “We have to get out of here,” Scottie finally said, working tirelessly to pull his bound arms under his legs.

“There’s no way you’ll get out,” Janie said. “After Taran got out, they’ll be prepared for it.”

“What do you suppose we do about it, then?” he roared, finally giving up on his bindings.

Janie scowled into the blackness, wishing she could make him feel how angry he was making her. “Why don’t you tell me about how you got here, first?”

“How do I know we can trust—” Scottie began.

“You wouldn’t believe us if we told you,” Hayden explained, the edge in her voice making it clear she didn’t appreciate the way her boyfriend was acting.

“Try me,” she challenged.

Hayden bit her lip, wishing she could drop it so they could think of a way back to Alex, Claire, and the others. “I…I really can’t tell you, Janie. I don’t know how.”

“We need to focus on getting out. If that…monster’s got us here, it can’t be for anything good,” Scottie said. Janie was far from disagreeing, knowing exactly how monstrous Natalia could be.

“Your best bet would probably be to find out why they want you here. They wouldn’t have you here if they didn’t have something to gain,” Janie clarified. “Do you have any idea what it could be?”

The new arrivals shared a look, knowing they could only be there as bait…or worse.

“What’s the matter?” Janie asked when they said nothing.

Hayden choked when she tried to speak. “What do they do to you here?”

“I told you, I don’t…” Janie explained, before halting. She didn’t want to scare them, but she wanted to prepare them all the same for what was to come. “They have this tub, and they try to drown me in it constantly. My leg is broken, and I’m bleeding from my hip from a stab wound. And, above all that, I’m starving to death. How I’ve survived this long is nothing short of a miracle.”

Hayden paled, but Scottie was determined to get out at whatever the cost. “And that other guy—”

“Taran.”

Scottie bit the inside of his mouth so he wouldn’t lash out. He sighed loudly. “Taran, is getting help?”

“Yes,” Janie nodded fervently.

“And you’re sure he’s coming back?” he whispered.

“I know he’s coming back! He promised.”

The door flew open without warning, slamming against the wall with a force that shook the very floor beneath them.

Janie fell back to the floor and froze, hoping it was the police but knowing it was the person who would undoubtedly deliver her inevitable end. When she raised her eyes, she found a group of them standing just over the threshold, led by the woman she hadn’t seen in weeks.

“Ms. Campbell!” Natalia greeted cheerily in her cold, thick accent. “I hope you’ve made our newest guests feel welcome.” Approaching them with slow steps, Natalia stooped to Janie’s level, stepping on Janie’s bad leg as she did. Janie shrieked, praying she would eventually catch a break. “I heard you became very well acquainted with my friend Taran.”

Janie said nothing until Natalia twisted on the ball of her foot, turning the raw flesh of her leg. “Yes! Yes, I was.”

“It’s a shame he left you here. Is it not?” she sneered with a cruel smile.

Janie’s face contorted with rage, realizing exactly was she trying to do. “He’s coming back for me. Don’t worry about that, Natalia.”

She laughed. “I see you’ve been talking about me. I always knew Taran was secretly in love with me.”

Janie said nothing.

“Well, little one,” she continued. “We’re going to send a message to your Taran,” she raised her voice. “A message to all of your little friends. I want them to know exactly where to find you.”

Janie watched helplessly as the men dragged Hayden and Scottie into the light before she was grabbed by the throat and pulled along behind them.

Chapter Fourteen

Location Unknown; June 30th, 2012

The woods had gone on forever, leading only to a silent road, walled in on both sides by trees. The darkness hid Taran when he broke through the brush, falling on his face in the dirt while he caught his breath. His dress shirt had lost its original whiteness, stained by mud, sweat, and blood from Janie as well as the minor cuts he’d gotten from thorns and branches in the forest. The sleeves were practically shredded now and he was shoeless, having taken them off in the cell. But he went on, striding down the road where he hoped he would find a town.

For her.

A long time ago, Taran had been a team player, and a damn good one at that. He’d dropped out of High School at seventeen, escaping a house he’d had no business ever returning to. Enlisting in the Marines had been easy, training as a sniper had been hard, but he’d done it. Had perfected it so well he could stay completely still at his post for days at a time, waiting for his target. And, of course, his shot was the best of his entire platoon.

Then, he’d gone sloppy.

Positioned in Iraq and staring at the barren ground for two whole years had grown monotonous, even to him. As the dirt and sand swirled behind his eyelids from his high perch, he’d allowed himself to doze off, gun held securely against his chest.

He’d been woken suddenly by the screech of his commanding officer, pleading for his attention. His memory of the mission clouded by sleep deprivation, he searched the area for anything suspicious. By the time he realized the commotion echoing through the city was coming from the building he was posted above, it was too late.

The floor beneath him collapsed with the explosion he hadn’t expected.

Ten dead. Three injured, including himself.

Dishonorable discharge.

Desertion.

AWOL.

Realizing he could never go back to the military career he’d left behind and without an education, he’d run out of options. His life was killing and it was what he was good at. That was when he’d started his life as a murdered for hire. It paid well and he’d made a good life for himself in the city because of it.

Then he’d gone sloppy, again.

A week ago, when he was sleeping soundly in his posh, New York City penthouse, he hadn’t foreseen anything like this in his future. At the time, his only plans had been in carrying out his latest hit at the Mayor’s Charity Gala the next day. Then, he would return home, alone. It had been at least a year since he’d seen Natalia and five since his desertion from the military. Natalia, who’d once tried to carry out a hit on him, seemed to have long since given up and he’d allowed himself to stop worrying about her lurking around every corner.

Needless to say, he’d been very wrong.

As the CEO of a company he didn’t care to remember fell dead at his feet, after a long effort at coercing him into the dark alley, he’d been bound from behind.

Forced against the brick wall.

All his years of training couldn’t get Natalia off him as she tied his wrists behind his back, this time with a desperation that was unlike her. She took him and left him locked up and sedated for three days. Then, when he’d finally woken, it was to Natalia shoving him into a cell. He staggered to keep his balance.

There, he’d met Janie.

He was forced out of his thoughts by bright headlights breaking the uninterrupted darkness, speeding in his direction. His body warred with the decision to throw himself in its path, pleading for help, or throw himself into the cover of the trees. It could have very well been one of the men back at the prison searching for him. He’d be useless to Janie if he was captured again and desperately didn’t want to risk it. Before his brain had come to a complete decision, his legs carried him into the center of the road.

Waving his arms, he screamed for them to stop.

The vehicle came to a screeching halt mere inches before his knees and Taran breathed a heavy sigh of relief, running to the driver’s side door. Whatever he might have hoped as he looked through the window, he didn’t find anything positive on the other side.

He didn’t recognize the man behind the wheel, but his eyes could definitely recognize the gun in his hand.

The heavy door swung open, colliding with Taran’s face and chest. He went sprawling to the pavement while the driver stepped slowly out of the car.

“I’m surprised you got out at all, Taran,” he muttered, stepping around the young man as he wiped the blood from his lip. His voice was familiar, the voice of the man who’d last taken Janie from him. “You’re completely tactless. It’s a wonder you evaded Natalia for so long.”

He used the butt of the gun in his hand to hit Taran in the face, shoving his head into the ground so hard he saw stars.

Taran wished he could fall asleep, right there. His head lolled back, eyes closing of their own accord. When he could see only a sliver of the greenery between his cracked lids, he glimpsed salvation.

A thick branch protruded from the dirt, heavy, sharp, and just within his reach.

He barely needed to stretch, wrapping his fingers around the limb. He hit the other man in the eyes.

Wailing, Vilmore fell backwards, dropping his gun as he clawed at the stabbing pain in his eyes. Taran saw red as he staggered to his feet, wobbling when he tried to approach him.

He knew the man’s voice, mocking when he’d earlier stolen Janie from his arms to do God knows what. He’d tried to break her, returning her to him sobbing, bleeding, terrified, shirtless…

Taran had never wanted anyone dead so badly, not even Petrov.

He dropped to his knees on the man’s chest, enjoying his gasps between cries of pain, blind and bleeding. “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer. If you do, I might not kill you! Get it?”

He received no answer.

Rather than exert any unnecessary force to make him cooperate, Taran wrapped his hand around the branch again and tore the sharp edges from his eye sockets, ripping unmentionable gore from his face. He gave a shriek that could have woken the dead, arching his back off the pavement while blood spilled over his face.

“Now, before you die, I wanna know something.” Taran doubted he could hear him over his screaming. “Shut up, you sick bastard!” he roared. “I got a question.”

He took the whimpering below him as his cooperation.

“Did you rape her?”

His face twitching around a sob, the man growled, “Ya. I did.”

Taran shivered, his stomach twisting into knots. He took him by the hair, pinning him to the ground, though he knew there was no way he’d be going anywhere in his condition. “Oh yeah?” he demanded.

“Ya. It was great,” Vilmore scorned, baring his teeth.

Taran smashed his head back into the road. “Where’s her tattoo?”

“She doesn’t have one,” he spat. “You got a crush on her or something, little boy? You jealous I rode that before you could?”

Relief washed through Taran while he viciously bashed the man’s head into the ground, repeatedly.

When he was sure he was dead, Taran stood, grabbing the dropped gun as he walked to the car. The keys were already in the ignition, inviting him forward. “It’s on her hip,” he almost laughed, ducking into the driver’s seat. Shoving the car into gear, he stomped on the pedal, bouncing over the body in the road. Then he continued down the road.

It became clear to him as he drove that wherever he was, he wasn’t in New York anymore. The signs littering the road offered no help, being that they were in something other than English. He was forced to drive down the solitary rode with only the hope that he would find civilization. He couldn’t be sure he would make it anywhere, but when he found another rode veering off this one, he realized it had to go somewhere with people. He took it, continuing on another solitary rode toward nowhere through the dark.

Alone with his thoughts, he let his mind wander.

Images of what they could be doing to his fellow captive back in that prison cell haunted his foremost thoughts. The last of the men he’d dispatched hadn’t done it, but there were so many others. Nothing was stopping them from taking her from the cell and….

It was hard to believe he’d only met her four days ago when he’d already adopted a protectiveness for her, fierce enough to make him tear that man’s eyes from his skull. Killing was no stranger to him, but he’d never done it for himself before.

He supposed he should feel bad; he didn’t even have money as an excuse this time. But, the memory of her, broken and sobbing on the floor, only made him wish he’d made that pig’s death last longer.

Then he started passing streetlights.

After another few grueling moments, the lights became buildings, and he whispered his gratitude to the wind that he found anything. Unfortunately, he was still in an unfamiliar place and had no idea where to go from here, so he searched the streets for someone who could help him, except the streets were relatively empty aside from the odd jogger. The first he spotted was a man of about his age, sprinting headlong down the sidewalk a short ways behind someone wearing, what appeared to be, a dark bathrobe.

Taran pulled over just in front of the running man, parking halfway on the sidewalk so he was forced to acknowledge him. The blonde man jumped backward, out of the way, as the man in the bathrobe escaped around the block. Taran threw himself out the door, reaching forward to clasp the other man’s shoulders.

“Help me! Please! I need help!” Taran begged as James tried to run again. “Do you speak English?” he continued, putting his face between James and the end of the block. James found Taran’s face. His arms, trying to push past him, went slack.

“Oh my God!” he enthused, backing away from Taran like he was a ghost. His eyes fell on the gun in his hand for a split second.

Taran waited for him to jump into action, but when nothing of the sort happened, he growled, “Didn’t you hear me? I need help!”

“Do you recognize me at all?” James asked, holding his gaze for a long moment.

“What?” Taran flinched. “Never mind! I’ll find someone else!” He made to turn and get the attention of someone walking by.

“Wait!” James yelled, clamping his hand down on his shoulder. He turned back to face the other man with a scowl. “I’m sorry. What happened?”

“I was kidnapped—”

“Do you know by whom?” James demanded, glancing around for the threat he’d set out to find.

Taran couldn’t help but feel suspicious as he backed away from him. “No,” he lied.

“You have to get inside,” James said, pointing back the way he had come. “The hotel my friends are staying at is just back there. It’s not safe for you out here!”

“You don’t understand!” Taran yelled, shaking him by the shoulders. “My friend is still there, she couldn’t get away. She’s hurt, bad!”

James pursed his lips, wondering if he also knew this other friend that Bomani was speaking of. He didn’t get the chance to ask anymore questions when movement caught his eye just over Taran’s shoulder. “Please, we’ll look for her later, you have to come with me. Now!”

“I’m not going anywhere with you unless it’s back to Janie!” Taran snapped.

“Bomani, I will explain—” James accidentally said.

Taran frowned. “What’d you call me?”

“Nothing! We have to—”

An otherworldly snarl ended James’s final attempt at escaping peacefully. “You!”

James shoved past Taran to come between him and the fast approaching Mainyu

Palms buzzing with blue energy, James yelled, “Get out, you can’t touch him!”

Taran jumped away from his protector. “What is that?”

The sight of James’s illuminated palms was nothing, though, in comparison to the walking corpse that shoved James to the ground.

The flesh of his hands was hanging from the whole as the corpse reached out to grasp Taran’s neck in his hand. He didn’t expect the choking hand to be so strong, since its owner appeared to have one foot in the grave already, but he was easily held up against the wall while his throat was crushed. Once Taran realized that this wasn’t a part of his imagination, he flailed his legs out at his attacker.

The gun in his hand exploded into Mainyu’s abdomen, blowing a hole through him that didn’t bleed. Taran’s face contorted with shock but the corpse laughed.

“Your efforts are useless, Bomani! I killed you once, and I will easily do it again!” he vowed, his breath, the stench of decay, fanning across Taran’s face as he struggled to breathe. The gun fell from his hand, clattering at Mainyu’s feet.

“No!” James yelled, throwing the ball of energy in his hand at Mainyu’s back, singeing his robes. The God cried out an animal shriek, dropping Taran to the ground.

The young man coughed, feeling the breath of the corpse burn in his lungs. James formed another crackling weapon in his hand to throw at Mainyu, but he was already running and turning out of sight.

“What…was…that?” Taran gasped, struggling to his feet.

James bent to help him up, supporting him as they limped back to James’s hotel. “I swear, I’ll explain everything when we get back to the hotel. What’s your name?”

He wheezed, rubbing the soreness from his throat. “Taran.”

“Nice to meet you, Taran. I’m James.”

“From what you said before, this isn’t our first meeting,” Taran accused, trying to infuse some kind of intimidation into his face. He failed. “What the hell is going on?”

“Soon, Taran.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

Paris, France; June 29th, 2012

“Where are we going?” Kierlan demanded from the back of the taxi, his face flattened against the window as he pleaded with the people flying by outside to call for help.

There was no hope of that now; the driver hadn’t even caught on to his desperate looks for help and any rational onlookers on the sidewalk were whizzing by too fast to see. Beside him, Russell held the cold metal barrel of the gun pressed firmly into his ribs, hidden beneath the loose material of Kierlan’s shirt. The rat scowled forward.

On Russell’s other side, Claire stared forlornly down into her lap, her hands hanging behind her. Tears ran silently and shamelessly down her reddened face.

Since they’d left the basement, Russell had shoved them into the cab with the warning that kept them quiet in the face of the ignorant driver. The second either of them begged for help, Kierlan would get a bullet in the side, followed by Claire, who’d get one in the mouth.

Kierlan hadn’t bothered to remind him that he couldn’t produce Claire in any less than the perfect condition he’d found her in, unless he welcomed the inevitable, painful, punishment that Natalia would bestow upon him. The instructions had been clear about that. The crazed look in the gunmen’s eye, however, clued that, unless he had a death wish, that wouldn’t be something he should say. If today had taught him anything, it was that Russell had tipped the scale toward psychopathic.

Whatever happened in the catacombs must have made him this way. Kierlan had worked with Russell for years and, though Russell had never been what anyone would necessarily call a ‘team player,’ he’d never blatantly gone against orders. Something must have happened in the underground that morning, he reasoned. Something bad.

Without his mind’s accord, his eyes stared, over Russell, at Claire, catching the drip of tears falling into her lap that she was unable to wipe away.

Claire tried not to think of where they were going or what Russell planned to do. Despite the effort she made, she failed.

“We’re missing someone important,” he replied, sharply prodding him with the gun. It was all he said on the matter.

Moments later, the taxi pulled up in front of the all too familiar hotel. Russell tossed a wad of bills into the front seat, receiving a heavily accented, “Thank you,” in response.

The passengers didn’t stay to listen. Heaving Kierlan to the sidewalk first, Russell pulled Claire along behind him by her arm, letting her fall unceremoniously to the ground when she stumbled out the door. Kierlan looked over, his cheek scraping against the cement, to find her in the same position, though her joined arms left her powerless against the ground that had rushed up to meet her. Blood surfaced and oozed to the ground from the new cuts on her face.

She averted her eyes, as he’d expected.

“Get up,” Russell ordered, hauling Claire to her feet by her wrists. Kierlan slowly lifted himself into a standing position and, of his own free will, strode through the entrance. Claire and Russell followed.

The first thing Claire saw when she staggered into the lobby was the back of Alex’s head across the room.

She faced her boyfriend, but the two of them were the only people she recognized in the room. James was the first to look up at them, gasping something unintelligible that made Alex spin around, finding them easily amongst the crowd. Her eyes bugged and her jaw hung silently while she tried to speak. Claire couldn’t help the pathetic look that overcame her when she glanced at her, and her heart dropped into her stomach when she realized, with startling finality, that Hayden and Scottie were missing. She knew immediately that something terrible had happened.

“Russ—!” Alex shrieked. She took one step forward, body poised to sprint across the lobby, eyes focused intently on the trails of tears streaking down Claire’s cheeks.

“Ah,” he warned, unveiling the gun pressed into Claire’s back, only slightly. Alex froze, flailing her hand uselessly against James’s chest, whimpering. A smile twitched onto Russell’s face as he looked between the two of them, noting with immense pleasure that Hayden and Scottie were nowhere to be found. Baring his teeth like the Cheshire cat, he continued, jabbing Claire in the back so she gave a startled sob, “Maybe we should take this upstairs. I think we have some things to talk about.”

Alex narrowed her eyes, subconsciously melting into James’s side. He wrapped an arm around her and nodded. “Ya. Maybe that would be best.” He, reluctantly, peeled himself away from her, leading the way toward their room. Alex ran to Claire, barely hindered when Russell tensed as she neared them.

“Back up!” he ordered as she shoved past him and the silent Kierlan, throwing her arms around her friend.

“Cool it, you freak!” she screeched. “What did you do to her?”

“I…I’m fine, Alex,” she whispered under her breath. “And I’m s…sorry. I d…didn’t mean what I said earlier.” She chuckled darkly. “T…Turns out I can’t protect myself after all.”

“Oh, honey, it’s okay,” Alex hummed, hugging her again. “I don’t mean to smother you, I swear.” She pulled skillfully at the ropes around Claire’s wrists, glaring up at Russell in challenge when his palms slapped against her hands. They remained in a deadlock for a few silent seconds.

“Fine,” he growled, pulling away from the pair to grip the back of Kierlan’s neck. He pushed him forward. “Follow him!”

“Where’s Scottie and H…Hayden?” Claire asked.

Alex shook her head sadly. “Don’t know. They never came back after we split up. We kinda thought they were with you.”

“If I hear either of you talk again, I’m blowing somebody’s head off,” Russell vowed as Alex felt the cold tap of metal against her shoulder. She bit her lip, holding back all the profanity she wanted to sling at him. Self preservation took over and she let her head hang, sharing an angry look with Claire.

Kierlan walked up the stairs beside James, keeping his gaze downcast to avoid suspicion. “When we get to the room, you get Claire away from him and I’m sure we can take him.”

James scowled over at him. “What did you do to Hayden and Scottie?”

The other man finally met his eyes with shock. “I didn’t touch either of them. I’m not responsible for any of this!”

James gave an unintelligible click of his tongue; obviously not believing him.

“What do I have to do to prove to you that I want to help?” Kierlan demanded, whipping his head toward Russell when he was promptly hushed with a smack to the head.

James whispered, hiding his words from Russell when the gunman stood close behind them, “I don’t know how you fit into this, but I will find out.”

“I—” he began.

“I don’t think you know the extent of what happens if I fail,” James interjected. “You don’t seem to understand what’s going on.”

Kierlan snickered humorlessly. “What’s to get? I’m dealing with crazy people who think they’re reenacting some movie or something.”

James didn’t laugh. “Who hired you?”

“No one hired me!” he enthused quietly. “I’m a private party.”

As they came to the third floor, the pushing against each of their backs became more insistent.  James was the first to near their door, but he halted before he could open it, feeling a disturbance in the air. They couldn’t go inside.

“What’re you waiting for?” Russell demanded. “Move!”

James shook his head, listening intently for any sound on the other side of the door. “We can’t go in there.”

“Why not,” Russell growled, pulling his respective key card from the pocket of his sweatpants.

“There’s somebody in there.”

Shaking his head, Russell pushed the card into the slot, shaking James’s hand away from him when he tried to protest. He flung the door open, letting it creak to a halt against the wall.

They didn’t see him at first, but, as Russell forced them inside, each of them passed the room divider. Claire was the first inside, catching herself against the doorway when she tripped over the edge of the carpet.

Then, she saw him.

Rather, she saw what was left of him. The others followed shortly after to investigate the reason behind Claire’s quickly changing face.

Angra Mainyu was alone as he stood in the suite’s living room, bedecked in the same tattered robes he’d materialized in earlier that day, but the God himself had significantly changed. While much of his skin remained intact, Mainyu’s face was rapidly becoming a scene directly from a horror movie. Cracks ran through the skin around his nose like a shattered mirror, oozing blood that ran down his face. Claire’s hand immediately flew over her mouth.

“What the f—” Russell began as he rounded the corner, coming into Mainyu’s view. Dropping his jaw, the meager man shook when he raised his gun.

“Jesus,” Kierlan gasped. “What are you?”

The God barely spared him a glance, every fiber of his otherworldly being focused on Claire. “Ziba,” he breathed, relief coloring his tone. “I have longed for this day for eternities.” He reached for her.

Kierlan snapped out of the trance his shock had cast over him enough to step infinitesimally closer to her. “What do you want?” he demanded, breaking their uninterrupted stare. He easily snatched the gun from Russell’s trembling hands. Gesturing to the distance between the god and the girl with his chin, he said, “Back off, Ugly.”

Mainyu slowly met Kierlan’s determined, and absolutely terrified, face as if he was a bug on his windshield. “Step aside, mortal. Your earthly weapons are of no use against me.”

“We’ll see about that when I blow a freaking hole in your head. What do you want?”

The god looked away again to step closer to Claire, who matched his step backward. “I want my love incarnate. She is to come with me.”

James stood beside Kierlan, blocking Claire completely from view, his palms crackling with blue sparks. Kierlan and Russell stared dumbly at the energy dancing across his hands, failing to come up with a rational excuse for it. “She’s not going anywhere.”

Mainyu laughed. “I have waited for her too long to bow to a mortal, or any lesser being. Try to stop me.”

He moved fast, hands gripping Claire, too tightly, around the arms before they could blink. Kierlan’s reaction was faster around the trigger and, with a twitch of a finger, the flesh surrounding Mainyu’s left eye blew away with the bullet. The God snarled at the human man, but kept his grip on Claire, dragging her toward the window.

“Help me!” she shrieked, using all her weight to resist him.

James said nothing as he thrust his arms out, letting bolts of lights spring from his flesh to Mainyu’s chest with the deafening screech of static.

The God flew across the room like Kierlan had done earlier, hitting the wall and landing in a jumble of limbs around his robes. Unlike the mortal who’d suffered James’s powers, Mainyu bounced back easily, face twisted with rage. He looked for a weakness among them, but he didn’t stand a chance without his powers.

With another gut-wrenchingly yearning look at Claire, he growled, in the voice of the devil, “You will realize soon enough, young one, that now and forever, you are mine!”

Gathering his robes in his hand, Mainyu inconspicuously looked toward the darkened window before he took off running, crashing through the glass and vanishing into the night. Gun-less and practically helpless, Russell went to follow, standing on the windowsill. He stared down, down, down and wondered how the last guy had managed a landing that hadn’t left him flat in the sidewalk. Unfortunately, his wish to be away from the freak with lightning hands took precedence over his fear of heights. He readied himself to jump.

James was already running headlong toward the door to pursue Mainyu when the thought struck him that Russell might actually do it.

“Stop him!” he threw back over his shoulder.

Kierlan ogled at the scorch marks on the wall, courtesy of the lightning that had… materialized in James’s hand. There had to be some kind of explanation. “What the hell,” he whispered, turning his head every which way, as if seeing the black ash in a new light would make it appear more plausible. It didn’t change the fact that he’d just watched a man shoot bolts of lightning from his skin.

“Cole!” James shrieked, disappearing into the hallway.

Kierlan shook his head, entering reality once more. He reacted quickly, shoving the gun into his waistband and pulling the rat out of the window by the back of his shirt in one movement, letting him fall clumsily onto the coffee table. He couldn’t help the wicked smile that formed on his face with the taste of revenge, especially when the flimsy wood collapsed under Russell’s weight, leaving him stunned on the floor. Kierlan stepped over the splinters, stooping down beside the body on the floor.

Frightened eyes stared up at him.

“I think we have some things to talk about, Russell,” he sang, weaving his fingers through the man’s hair and smashing his head into the floor.

Russell cried out.

“And if you even think about telling them about me,” he continued in a hush, “I’ll make you wish you were dead!”

Chapter Twelve

Paris, France; June 29th, 2012

Thinking back on their adventure to “help” James, Claire thought that there were a lot of things they should’ve done differently before they ran off to follow him. One of those things was to tie up Kierlan before they left.

When the four of them had run from the hotel room, shoving past the others in the hallway that screamed back in French, they’d been unable to find James or the man he’d been following. And, as they left the hotel room for the second time in the previous half hour, they realized how careless they’d been.

Alex led them through the lobby, Claire following with Kierlan’s gun, shaking but hidden, in her shirt. Scottie looked around the room for any sign of the escaped man, but, so far, they’d been unsuccessful.

“He can’t have gotten far, we were only gone for ten minutes!” Alex complained, pushing open the glass doors.

Scottie shielded his eyes to block out the intense sun streaming through the sudden cover of clouds closing in. “That doesn’t matter, if he’s not in the hotel than he could be anywhere in Paris by now.”

Alex grunted in frustration. “How the hell are we gonna find him?”

“Well,” Hayden noted, “your boyfriend fried his cell phone, Claire has his gun, and he’s gotta be a little slow since he was just electrocuted. He’s gotta know that no one on the street would believe him, so who would he have gone to?”

Claire readjusted her hold on the gun, clutching it away from her body. “W…wait a minute, before…” she pointed up to the third floor, “When James t…took care of him, Kierlan said he was calling his office. He probably w…went there.”

“But where is there?” Hayden demanded.

“His accent wasn’t French,” Alex growled. “That office could be anywhere in Europe, maybe the world. There’s no way we’ll find it, Claire.”

“And we’re right back where we started,” Hayden grumbled.

Scottie rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. “This is too weird. Why do you guys care? If this guy tells, all it means is he’s going away to the nuthouse for the rest of his life, it doesn’t affect us. We should just go home!”

Alex shoved him. “We are not leaving without James, Scottie! So stop being an asshole and help us! James didn’t want this guy exposing him so we gotta find him before he tells. If you can’t pretend to be helpful, then shut up. Any advice?”

Scottie narrowed his eyes. “Maybe we should split up.”

Alex scowled back. “That would probably be best.”

“Good. Me and Hayden’ll take this way,” he gestured behind him with his thumb. “You guys go that way. We’ll meet back here in an hour. Maybe he’ll be back by then.”

“Fine,” she grumbled, pulling Claire down the sidewalk by her arm. “C’mon, Claire.”

They went their separate ways for a long time, Claire and Alex keeping completely silent while their eyes scanned the crowds for a man in a holey, black t-shirt. Claire was the first to break the silence with her recurrent stammer. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”

Alex shrugged, “Maybe you are. Maybe we both are.”

“I just…I can’t believe that all t…this time…” she began.

“I know. But…you need to think about his reasons for lying,” Alex murmured. “His kind obviously has rules about human exposure, and, I’ll be the first to admit it, we never would have believed him.”

Claire stopped walking, forcing Alex to halt as well. “You…You’re taking this awfully well, Alex.”

“I’m just trying to understand this from James’s perspective before I judge him,” she explained. “And…I love him. I don’t want to make him the bad guy. There are too many real bad guys around for us to turn on him.”

Claire nodded, though she didn’t know if she could be as forgiving. “I h…hope you’re right about him.” She took a step, eyes raised for their search once more.

Then, she found him.

Kierlan stood against the wall of a building across the street, arms crossed leisurely over his chest while he watched them smugly. Claire tried to say something, anything, while she pointed uselessly in his direction, but her stutter held her back while he disappeared behind the flash of a moving car. Blinking feverishly, as if it would make him reappear, she finally managed to yell. “Over there!”

Startled by her outburst, Alex jumped, following Claire’s gesture with her eyes. “What? I don’t see anything!”

“I…It was him. He’s across the s…street!”

Alex squinted in the hope that she would see what Claire did, but she had no such luck. “Claire, I don’t…” she trailed off, watching her friend take off running through the traffic, gun held threateningly over her head. “Claire!” she shrieked.

The sound of her voice was drowned out by the blare of a horn and the screech of tires as the cars nearing Claire came to a screeching halt. Waving apologetically at the people exiting their cars, Alex went tearing after her, screaming her name.

It wasn’t difficult for Alex to catch up when Claire’s asthma started acting up, but by then they’d already gathered a significant amount of attention. Women screamed when they saw the gun in Claire’s hand and everyone parted like the red sea when she came close. Alex made a grab for her shoulder, spinning her around to meet her eyes while they both breathed heavily. “What are you doing?” Alex demanded through deep gasps.

“I—” Claire shouted.

“You could’ve been killed! You could’ve killed someone else with that thing!” Alex interjected.

“Alex—!”

“Do you even know how to use that gun? If he’s here, he definitely knows we’re close, now!”

“Can I talk, please—?” the blonde demanded.

“You can’t attract so much attention, Claire! It’ll lead Natalia straight to us, or worse!”

Claire felt tears pricking at her eyes, recognizing that her friend would never take her seriously while she was still the innocent one…the baby…the liability. Her speech impediment only made it worse when she wanted to voice her concerns. After all, everyone always felt the need to protect the poor, stuttering Claire Not-So-Strong. And she was through with being protected now that James had admitted to his true place in their lives.

To protect the defenseless Claire Strong.

Just like everyone else.

“I…If we wanna find him, we’re gonna have to s…split up,” she deadpanned. “I’m going this way. You go that way…”

“No, Claire,” Alex replied. “We have to stay together. What if we run into—?”

“I don’t need you to baby sit me, Alex!” she growled, jerking away from Alex’s grip on her shoulders.

Alex’s eyes widened. She’d never seen her friend like that. “I’m not here to baby sit you, Claire. But if we find that guy, he’s gonna go after you—”

“Then I can take care of myself. Y…you’re not my mom and you’re not my protector. I…I’m sick of people treating me like the baby!” she shrieked. “Now take that side of the sidewalk. I…I s…saw him over here and we’re not helping a…anything by standing around.”

Alex’s jaw gaped. She backed away slowly. “Are you okay? Is something the matter?”

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “James’s l…little confession today was j…just the last straw. I don’t n…need to be protected.”

“You do, Claire. He’s a god! If he finds you, he’ll take you!” Alex protested.

“A…And what difference is it gonna make i…if you’re with me? ‘Cuz you found out that you’re a witch ten minutes ago? I…I don’t wanna be your sidekick anymore, Alex!”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. Meet us back at the hotel in an hour. I mean, if that’s alright with you, your highness.”

Claire watched her stomp away before she turned in the other direction, storming off in a huff with the gun clutched in her hands. The civilians continued to dive out of her way while she searched uselessly for Kierlan.

He watched from the shadows.

He couldn’t help but be amused by what she said, having told her friend that she could protect herself when she most certainly couldn’t. And he would prove it.

Even more entertaining was that she was looking for him. Ever since he’d woken on the floor with a massive headache and a pain in his chest, he’d had one objective: to do the job. Now, she was not only close enough to touch, she was away from any potential witnesses. Easy pickings.

Claire had a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach as she walked further and further away from the crowded street. She passed it off as ire, especially since the thought of her friends in that moment made her sick to her stomach. She wanted to turn back toward the hotel, but she didn’t dare return empty-handed. After the breakdown she’d had in front of Alex, she needed to be right. She needed to prove she could be a valuable asset like everyone else.

A noise up ahead caught her attention.

Keeping her forefinger poised over the trigger, Claire ran headlong toward the disturbance. She passed an alleyway in her haste.

Then, she realized there was something in there, doubled over in pain.

She let her weapon hang against her leg, her arm going limp. With her head cocked to the side, she watched the shadow fall to its knees. He groaned loudly, releasing her from her trance as she waited for any hint of its identity. She jumped. She didn’t dare take a step.

“K…Kierlan?” she called, trying to sound confident. She failed…miserably.

He groaned again, clawing at the place in his chest where she knew Kierlan had been electrocuted. She held the gun out again when she started walking toward him, knowing it could all be a trick. “P…put your hands on the ground! I’m t…taking you with m…me!” she faltered, biting the inside of her mouth.

He didn’t answer, or do as she’d asked. He groaned again.

“I…I said, put your hands on the ground!” she repeated, barely two steps away now.

He gave a pained moan, like a wounded animal.

“O…Oh God, are y…you okay?” she inquired, ducking closer as she reached for him, hoping to help. “L…let me see—”

She missed the quick movement of the foot that connected with her hand.

She gave a piercing shriek when the gun flew away from her. She fell back on her behind, feverishly pushing herself away from him with her heels while she probed the ground for the gun. She wasn’t helpless, she told herself. She could protect herself. She could take care of this and get him back to the hotel with her.

Something grasped her ankle, viciously yanking her in the direction of the shadow. Kicking and clawing to get away, she repeated her newest mantra in her head. She was not helpless. She was not helpless. But when a bag closed over her head, obstructing her view of the alley, and the shadow, she knew that she’d made a huge mistake when she’d yelled at Alex.

She was helpless.

Her body was swept up and off the floor, still thrashing against her captor, in vain. It wasn’t a moment later, however, that she felt a new floor rush up to meet her. She grunted, prepared to jump back up and run, but when her fingers stretched outward, they met cold metal in every direction.

The whir of an engine under her sent her falling back to the floor.

Without a plan and without help, she could only cling to the hope that when she didn’t meet them at the hotel in an hour, they would go looking for her. James would find her, it was his job. And she could only hope that Alex would disregard her earlier complaints and come looking for her as well.

But Paris was a big city, and they wouldn’t have any idea where to start.

She comforted herself with the knowledge that the man from the catacombs would want her alive, but when the car stopped again and she was removed from the trunk, the first thing she heard through the bag’s thin barrier was a hoarse, female voice, screaming for help. She couldn’t see the room, but she knew that the other captive was far away, through walls. Nevertheless, her words shook Claire’s outward composure and made her think: they wouldn’t kill her, but there were so many other things they could do.

“Don’t put me back in the tub!” the invisible girl screamed.

The force of the sack being torn from Claire’s head made her chair rock back on its legs; her arms, bound behind her, were useless in steadying herself. When she feared the precarious swing would finally land her on her back, it stopped and she was set to rights. She feverishly blinked her eyes against the brightness overhead from a swinging, bulb until a shadow fell over her, the owner’s face hidden by the glow framing it from behind.  She squinted up, the demands she’d been prepared to spit dying on her lips when her eyes met the steel-gray orbs above her. As usual, caught like a mouse in the eyes of a snake, she froze, incapable of thought.

“K…Kierlan?” she breathed, her stammer due more to his presence than her speech impediment.

He smirked at her, easily catching on to her attraction to him. A twinge of guilt nagged at the back of his mind, though, and he desperately wanted it to go away. He didn’t want to hear the proclamation she’d made to her friend running through his head, begging to be recognized as someone they could take seriously. He didn’t want to feel the full scathing regret burning through his chest when her wide, innocent eyes fell on him. He didn’t want to recall her unnatural beauty and feel the unmistakable need to free her from her bindings. And, more than any of that, he didn’t want to want her.

He shook away his traitor remorse, recalling the fat check that had been left on his doorstep months earlier, with the promise of another after he finished the job. In comparison to the other tasks his employer had demanded of him, keeping this weak girl in his sight and in ropes was nothing. Despite his reservations, he let a menacing smirk materialize on his face. “Claire,” he purred, rounding the chair with his hand planted firmly on the back, holding it in place.

So close, she couldn’t help but muse, luxuriating in the touch of his breath fanning across her face. Seeing the corner of his lip twitch ever higher, she snapped out of her girlish fantasies and managed to plaster a scowl on her face, searching the bare, crumbling, cement walls around her for any hint of her location.

As she’d dreaded since her abduction, there was nothing.

The rage she’d painted on her face fell momentarily only when she caught the stain of blood on the floor out of her peripheral vision.

“God,” she gasped, her head whipping forward to face him again. “W…what’s going on?”

He knelt before her legs so that her eyes were in line with his. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, stroking her face with the back of his hand. “You’re just here to answer some questions.”

She winced when sparks tingled through her cheek. Determined to realize that the object of her recent attraction had kidnapped her, she jerked away from his touch, openly glaring daggers at him. “You’re not r…really a PI, a…are you?” she growled, snapping her gaze from him with disgust.

He, wisely, refused to answer. “You don’t need to worry, Claire—”

“Oh n…no? Why not, Kierlan? You kidnapped me and brought m…me to this place! Is that blood on the f…floor?! It’s blood on the floor, isn’t it?!”

Kierlan didn’t look to the floor, cursing the men who’d used this room last for their carelessness. The water in the concrete hole behind him was left as well, filled with unmentionable bodily fluids. He, calmly, let his rejected hand fall, bracing himself on his knees instead. “You can still believe me when I say that my intention isn’t to hurt you,” he vowed with, what appeared to be, a genuine smile.

Claire relaxed back into the chair, but she didn’t believe him. The hidden meaning behind his words wasn’t lost by her, either. Her mind unwillingly went back to her arrival, wondering where the other girl was being kept. What had they done to her? Was she even still alive?

He chuckled. “Does that mean you’ll be cooperating now?”

She narrowed her eyes, visibly pursing her lips.

He hummed in distaste. “Right. Either way, you’re stuck here, Claire. You may as well answer my questions.”

She remained unresponsive.

“I want you to answer me honestly,” he ordered, returning to a standing position so he could tower ominously over her. “What happened in the catacombs today? Why’d you make up such a ridiculous story?”

Meeting his eyes indignantly, she crowed, “I didn’t m…make it up! Everything I said about M…Mainyu in the catacombs was the truth!”

“Mainyu?” he demanded.

She hissed in a breath through her clenched teeth, testing the bindings around her wrists.

She’d played straight into his hands.

Her ropes were too tight to slip out of, but she realized then that she wasn’t held to the chair at all. When he turned away, she resolved, she would stand and run for the wooden door across the room. How she would get it open when she got there, however, was a work in progress.

Kierlan was patient when he spoke again. After all, he had all the time in the world to spare while he waited for his team to come for her. “Who’s Mainyu, Claire?”

She tasted blood as she bit harshly down on her tongue. “Why s…should I tell you?” she grumbled, pulling vainly against the ropes cutting into her wrists, imagining the doorknob between her palms.

“What?” he snapped, leaning closer.

“You didn’t b…believe me the first time I told you!” she reminded him. “Why should I t…tell you now?”

He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Claire, what you said today was completely impossible. Tell me who Mainyu is. Truthfully.”

She bit the inside of her mouth. “He’s a God.”

He laughed darkly, balancing her on the back legs of her chair again while he held her face in suspense before his own, her cheeks pressed together between his fingers. “Are you doing this to spite me, or are you just…insane?”

She kicked him weakly, unsurprised when he didn’t wince. Rather than repeat his question, he stared expectantly down at her.

He sighed heavily. “Let’s try another one, then.”

Claire thought she could predict what that question would be.

“What happened at the hotel?” he demanded. “James did something, I know he did. What happened?”

She chuckled, though it sounded strange while he forcibly pursed her lips. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

He scowled down at her, eyes trailing from her crystal eyes to her puckered lips, then to her more desirable attributes. The look on her face hinted she wasn’t fooled, but he took his time in wrenching his gaze upward. “Try me,” he grunted.

She said nothing. She didn’t move for a while.

Fiercely shaking his hand away from her mouth, she said “So, if you’re not a r…real private instigator, w…what are you?”

He was taken aback, but, outwardly, showed no sign of shock. “It doesn’t matter what I am, Ms. Strong. Answer the question.”

“I….I have a few questions of m…my own,” she countered. “Like why I’m h…here. What do y…you care if I’m insane?”

He groaned, stepping around her chair to lean over her. “I don’t, you see. If it were up to me, personally, I’d let you go home right now, but it’s not. I’m just here to ask the questions and keep you from running away.”

She frowned, letting her gaze fall again. “W…who’s it up to, then?”

He chuckled, leaning into her face. “You ask a lot of questions, Claire.”

“You a…avoid a lot of questions,” she challenged. “W…why is that?”

He knelt closer, his forehead practically touching hers. “I’m just biding my time. I only have to watch the others come to pick you up. And you’re stuck with me until then. You’ll answer my questions…eventually,” he added, his mouth a mere breath away from her ear.

Something in the back of her mind finally clicked and she exhale sharply, like she’d had the breath knocked out of her. “H…How did you know my last name?”

She never got an answer.

The wooden door flung open, crashing against the wall and sending the pair flying away from each other.

Kierlan’s hand reached for the gun in his waistband but felt nothing but the material of his shirt and jeans. Cursing Claire and her shameless theft, he waited for the new arrival to show his face. Before he saw that, however, he felt the cold barrel of a gun hit his face between the eyes.

His back met the floor quickly after that, eyes finding the bare ceiling and the rat responsible standing over him.

Claire screamed. Seeing the man in the doorway, she sighed in relief. “Russell! T…thank God!”

Kierlan tensed to spring at the intruder, knowing Russell was about to ruin everything, but the gun in his face kept him frozen on the floor. He slowly raised his hands, palms forward. “What are you doing?” he whispered, eyes flickering to girl a few feet away.

“You’re not taking the credit for this,” Russell hissed, pushing Kierlan’s head to the floor with the gun. “I’ll use her to get all of them. The boss is going to want all of them.”

“You’re gonna screw it up!” Kierlan enthused.

“Shut up!” Russell stomped, getting off his knees. “You’re both coming with me! And I’m not gonna screw it up!”

Claire floundered for words, unaware of what had transpired between the men. Her mind entertained the thought that, maybe, he’d had nothing to do with what Natalia had done that morning. Obviously, if he was saving her from Kierlan, he couldn’t have been in on it, right? “R…Russell—?”

“Shut up, Claire, your freaking stutter is driving me crazy!” he ordered.

Her eyes bugged. “W…wha—?”

“Getting close to you these last few months was a nightmare. Oh,” he shrieked in a whiny voice, “I’m freaking Claire Strong and everything in the freaking world revolves around me, just shut up!”

The girl could do nothing else but obey, appalled by his confession and terrified by the gun he thoughtlessly swung around. Well, she thought to herself, whatever his reason for being there, it definitely wasn’t to save her.

Russell looked between the two of them for a moment before he finally yelled, “Get the hell up, both of you!”

With his free hand, he hauled Claire to her feet, keeping her arms tied tightly behind her back. Roughly, he shoved her forward and gestured for Kierlan to follow, striking his face when he didn’t immediately comply. “Move!”

Kierlan flexed his jaw, testing the ache from the punch he’d just received. “Where’s Natalia?” he growled under his breath, grunting when he felt Russell’s shoe hit him between the shoulder blades. “Does she know that—?”

“She’s busy,” he mumbled, leading them to the stairs out of the basement. Claire hung her head, inconspicuously tuning into their conversation.

“With what? The real work?” Kierlan countered before he felt cold metal bash the back of his skull again. He didn’t fall, but, while he was doubled over, his murderous gaze fell back on Russell. He resolved there and then that he was going to kill Russell, and he wouldn’t feel bad about it in the least.

“You don’t know anything, Cole!” the rat snarled. In a softer voice, he said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

After another shove from the dumbass trailing them, Kierlan stepped faster up the stairs toward Claire, steadying her by the small of her back.

The venom in the look she gave him turned the air cold.

For the first time that day, when she jerked herself away from his touch, she meant it.

“Don’t t…touch me!” she growled under her breath.

He stepped away, dejected but ready to catch her if her bound arms threw her off balance.

“No talking,” Russell ordered.

Chapter Eleven

Location Unknown; June 29th, 2012

“It was awful,” Janie finally murmured, digging her nails into his back to keep him closer.

Taran obliged, pulling her flush against his chest, wishing he could take away the painful memories as easily as he’d taken away her tears.

“What did he do?” he asked, though he was completely positive he wasn’t going to want to know the answer. As he gazed down at the broken girl in his lap, he felt something stir in his chest.

Janie was far from wanting to experience the horror all over again. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Are you hurt? Do you need me to fix anything?” he pleaded, looking her over, though the dark obstructed much of his view.

She nodded. “My hip.”

He lifted her gently off his lap, placing her on the floor. When his hands met her cold flesh he flinched and noticed for the first time that she was shirtless. “Where’s your—?” he began but caught himself. “Never mind.”

“He tore it up.”

Taran nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see him.

“I thought he was going to kill me, but when I opened my eyes, he was tearing up my shirt…I gave him the picture; as far as he knows, there’s no reason to keep me alive anymore.”

Taran squinted in an attempt to find whatever ailed her in her hip area, but when he began to prod, he found her skin slick with fresh blood. His pants were soaked with it after the night she’d spent sitting there, bleeding out without his knowledge.

“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, finally finding the wound with his fingertips. “You should have told me about this when you came back!”

Janie couldn’t help the look of confusion that passed over face. “Sorry.”

“You’re lucky he didn’t pierce any organs, or I would’ve woken up with you dead in my lap!” he enthused, tearing a strip of cloth from the hem of his dress shirt to wrap around her.

She hissed as the cloth stuck to her open slice, but didn’t fight him, even as he applied pressure to the raw flesh. “You’re so cold,” he said, handing his suit jacket to her. She donned it thankfully.

“I’m always cold,” she countered, viciously clenching and unclenching her fists against the pain when he went back to work.

“That’s deep,” he mocked, tying the ends of the cloth together to ward off the dust itching to infect her. “Janie, what did you mean about the pictures?”

She sat up and against the wall beside him, leaning heavily against his shoulder. “I had one of the pictures on me. I gave it to him. I have two others stashed, but he doesn’t know about those. They’re gonna kill me, they don’t need me anymore.”

Taran bit his tongue until he tasted blood. “You need to go to the hospital.”

Janie snorted despite herself. “Ya, let me know when you see one.”

Taran ground his teeth together, carefully thinking over his words before he whispered, “What I’m saying is, I’m getting you out of here.”

“How do you plan to do that?” she asked.

“We’ll have to run,” he explained, pulling himself to his feet. “We’ll run! I’ll fight them off while you get out and we can find a—”

“Taran!” she interjected. “I can’t run, look at my leg!”

Truth be told, he’d forgotten about that. “Right. Stand up.”

Her glare was sweltering as she sat there, not bothering to dignify his demand with action. “I can’t stand either, dumbass.”

“Then, I’ll…I’ll carry you! I’ll carry you…while I fight them off. Then, when we get to the door, I’ll let you down and you’ll crawl away while I cover the door. You’ve seen around the building more than I have, have you seen any way out?”

“Ya, but my last attempt didn’t go so well. That’s kinda why I can’t walk.”

Taran stared thoughtfully at the floor. “If you can point us in the direction of the way out, you won’t have to walk. You won’t last much longer here without medical attention.”

She bit her lip. “I know.”

“And when we’re out there, we’re gonna hang out after the hospital. We’re gonna go cliff diving, so I can break your arm, too. Then we can split some KFC chicken and live happily ever after. Y’know, normal stuff.”

Rolling her eyes, Janie mumbled, “Normal stuff. We’re really gonna do this?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t know what they’ll do to you if it doesn’t work out. They haven’t taken you for that, yet.”

“We have to risk it,” he swore.

“I…I…” she pulled her damp hair away from her face, staring warily up into his face. “I’m gonna trust you on this, Taran.”

He released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “Good.”

“So, when are we doing this?”

He reached over and pulled her, bridal-style, into his grasp. She wrapped her arms securely around his neck in return, ready at a moment’s notice. “Now. You’re dying. Act like it.”

“This is crazy, we need to plan this better, Taran!” she objected. “You’re gonna get us killed!”

“Just do it!” he hissed.

“Uhh…” she closed her eyes and let her head loll over his forearm.

“Very good. Help! She’s bleeding out! Somebody help her!” he screamed, waiting for the door to open.

Janie could foresee a tragic flaw his plan, but remained silent anyway. There was no reason for them to want her alive, anymore, so what did it matter if she was dying? She’d given them what they wanted.

As far as they knew, anyway.

Which was why she was incredibly surprised by the screech of the opening door.

“What’s going on?” the man’s familiar voice snarled as he entered the room.

“You cut her too deep! She’s bleeding out! She won’t wake up!” Taran insisted, pulling her closer to him as he neared them.

“Where?”

“Where all the blood’s coming from, shithead!” Taran screamed. Janie could feel his hand gently fold over her wound.

“She’s breath—” he began.

The sharp smack of Taran’s head colliding with the man’s silenced him.

“Hold on tight,” Taran ordered, his voice thick as he recovered from the blow to his head. Janie could feel it when he ran headlong toward the exit and adjusted herself until she feared she had to be choking him with her death-grip. “Not that tight.”

“Sorry.”

She looked around as he barreled down the hallway, taking in the sights she’d seen only once before, when she’d failed in her original escape attempt. Just like before, she watched the door come into view once he reached the second floor landing. She pointed in its direction. “That’s it!”

“Hey!” a voice called as someone’s hand closed around her ankle.

It tore her from Taran’s arms just a few feet from the door.

She toppled to the floor, rolling until his grip on her leg kept her from moving further.

Taran stopped only when his body hit the door. “Janie!” he yelled, turning back as more men ran toward them.

Janie clawed at the hand binding her but her bleeding hip hindered her. “Taran!” she cried, reaching for him.

Her friend’s foot stomped on the windpipe of her captor, releasing his hold on her easily. “Janie, go! You have to go!” he yelled, shoving two men to the floor as they ran for her.

“But what about y—”

“Go! I’ll catch up,” he hastily replied.

Janie rolled over, with much effort, and crawled toward the door, crying out as her leg protested to the hard ground. She reached up, gaining leverage with the push door handle, and, painstakingly, wobbled to her feet. After several failed attempts at standing on her good leg, her shoulder pushed the handle into place in the door.

She fell out into the open.

The world was beautiful, just like she remembered, but she couldn’t stop to admire it while she was still vulnerable. Looking around, she spotted an armed guard patrolling the grounds not fifty feet from where she knelt, but his eyes were diverted from her, focused on the woods at the edge of the yard. Without a plan from this point on, she realized that the woods were her only chance without Taran. There was nowhere else to hide.

Taran would find her there.

She crawled silently toward the line of trees separating her from freedom, marine-style, so she wouldn’t attract the attention of the guard.

She was so slow.

Her heart pounded in her head to the soundtrack of her fevered breaths as she pulled herself across the short grass.

“Stop!” a male voice called from where she assumed the guard was standing, watching her. She could do nothing but continue pulling herself toward the woods with a renewed determination.

Taran separated his throat from the grasp of one of the men inside, throwing him away and into another man that ran toward him.

He didn’t wait for any others to come his way. Throwing himself outside, he found the edge of the forest easily and nothing else. Janie must have gotten into the woods, he realized, she couldn’t be hiding anywhere else.

He was impressed, he was worried she wouldn’t get far without him, but he’d obviously underestimated her. Hearing the door open behind him, he loped toward the trees, searching for Janie as he went.

But, he didn’t find her.

He went back to find her, where she must have been hiding low to the ground.

He stopped to catch his breath, knowing they wouldn’t be pursuing him anymore. Janie would need to take a break to nurse her most recent injury soon, anyway, and he needed to find her to stop the bleeding. He bent over his knees.

“That was…exciting?” he chuckled, more to himself than her, though he yelled to get her attention. “We need to find a hospital. Are you bleeding, again?” He looked around again by the very edge of the woods, hoping to see her lying there, holding her breath, waiting for his return. “Janie?”

He was alone.

“Janie!” he called.

His useless scream received only its echo in response.

Movement back in the yard caught his attention, and he turned behind a tree to investigate. His heart dropped.

As he stood safely in the shadows, he watched his Janie writhe in the arms of an unfamiliar man as he walked toward the door of the building.

He dropped her, and Taran briefly debated whether it would be wiser to go in after her or get help. When the guard reestablished a hold on Janie, this time on her hair as he pulled her, screaming his name, into the building, Taran’s options had run out. Now, whichever way he spun it, he could think of only one thing:

He’d escaped the prison cell, but he’d left Janie behind.

When the door slammed closed, he turned on his heel, running as fast as he could toward where he thought he would find civilization. He didn’t think he would have to do this alone, now it was all he thought.

He was alone.

Janie was alone.

Janie could die without him there to help her; as if he’d been such a great help when he was there. He forced himself to run when he realized the only help for her now would be to get the authorities. If they hadn’t already been corrupted by Petrov and her goons.

Janie wailed as she was pulled back to the room of her nightmares by her hair, now without a single person to buoy her when she was returned to the cell. She could only pray to whatever God would listen that Taran would come back for her. That hope was all that got her through the next hour, while her head was wrenched to and from the concrete trough. But, in all honesty, what else could she do?

Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub. Don’t put me back in the tub.

 

Chapter Ten

Paris, France; June 29th, 2012

Claire, blinded by the sun, stumbled through the door of the catacombs, falling haphazardly into someone’s arms. The girl’s arms floundered for something to hold onto, finding nothing but, what she didn’t know, was the stubbly back of her savior’s head. His grunt when she, unintentionally, pulled him down to her level didn’t faze her. She hardly noticed him while she watched the backs of her eyelids replay the unnatural scene she’d just experienced, over and over again. The way that thing had looked at her, clouding her mind with his hypnotic, red eyes would be forever engrained in her mind.

Claire didn’t dare look up for a moment, focused entirely on catching her breath while her legs hung, unused, over the ground. When she realized her compromised position, her face slowly tilted up, eyes following the arms, thick with muscle, wrapped around her up to a broad chest, covered in a tight, black t-shirt. Gasping lightly, she followed his sharp jaw, pausing momentarily on his lips, and slowly her jaw fell. She met stormy grey eyes for a split second and the world around her fell away. Her entire body suddenly felt like dead weight.

“Wow,” she breathed, trying to find her footing when the ground had fallen out from under them.

Kierlan was unmoved, having already seen her picture hundreds of times now on the way to Paris. Nevertheless, he pretended to be as struck by her beauty now as he was when he’d first seen her picture on the plane. “H…hi,” he mumbled, placing her on her feet while he stared into her gorgeous eyes, keeping his hands placed innocently on her arms, steadying her.

“Claire!” James yelled, loping down the sidewalk toward the two taxis sitting against the curb. He shoved Alex into Scottie’s waiting arms and turned back to face the girl, now in the arms of a man who may have very well been the enemy. “Get away from him!” he yelled, catching the attention of pedestrians collected on the street as he ran to her.

Claire looked away from her knight in shining armor only when forced by the strong grip on her waist, wrenching her away. James pushed her behind him, shoving Kierlan a step away when they came face to face. “Who are you?” he demanded, holding his hand out, palm forward.  Claire couldn’t see it, and Kierlan didn’t believe it, when a faint, blue light danced across James’s outstretched palm.

“James—” Claire began in a reprimanding tone.

“Claire, get in the car,” he snapped without taking his eyes off Kierlan.

“No, James—”

“Go, Claire! I asked you once, I won’t ask again. Who. Are. You?”

Kierlan wanted to laugh at the smaller man, knowing if it came down to a fight, his opponent wouldn’t stand a chance. He didn’t though, knowing his humor wouldn’t be appreciated by the screaming boy. He kept a straight, albeit mean, face when he stood up to James.

“I’m Kierlan Cole,” he said, puffing out his chest the slightest bit. “I’m a private investigator here for—”

“I don’t believe you,” James spat, backing away, forcing Claire to back away, too.

“James, stop—” Claire shoved uselessly at his back, barely budging him.

“Scottie!” James called.

Seconds later, Claire felt herself being pulled away from James and toward the empty taxi. She thrashed against the hands under her arms, but, eventually, she had to give up the fight when the taxi door slammed in her face. Without the worry of his friend hearing, James scowled up at Kierlan’s face with malice. Unimpressed by the show, Kierlan scowled back.

“I know what you’re doing, and I’m not falling for it,” James growled.

Kierlan didn’t show the anxiety the remark created in him. He was a professional. “I would tell you what I was doing here, but you haven’t been listening.”

“Just stay away from us,” James retorted, turning his back on the man to throw open the cab door. Kierlan followed close behind; he had to get in that cab. When James reached to pull the door closed behind him, he caught it before they could lock themselves in.

“Sorry, I thought that I was the guy that saved your lives! You would’ve been crushed if I hadn’t led you out.” Kierlan dragged James out of the car by his shirt, letting him stand on his own when he closed the door again. “I think you’re hiding something, and I want to ask you a few questions.”

“I think you know exactly why I can’t trust you with her,” James bit back. “You weren’t in our tour group, I would’ve seen you. What were you doing down there? How did you know that we were going to need help?”

Kierlan bit his tongue and hissed, through clenched teeth, “As I was explaining to you, already, I have been following Russell Marks for some time. I have found reason to believe that he has been participating in cult activities. They worship a fictional deity and have been known to take part in human sacrifice in their attempt to resurrect this deity.”

James’s eyes narrowed, not so sure anymore in his original resolve. “I can’t stay. We have to get back to the hotel.”

Kierlan moved into his way. “I wanna go with you.”

“No.”

Taken aback, he held the door as it came swinging toward his gut. “I saved your lives. Let me come with you. If they tried to get your friends before, they’ll come after them again.”

“I know they will. That’s why I have to get them back to the hotel,” James growled. “Let go!”

“I can help you, I have experience in—”

Claire leaned over, holding her head out the door. “James Bellman!” she chastised, getting out of the cab.

James heaved a sigh. “Claire, get back in—”

Please, stop telling me w…what to do, first of all! Second of all, can you please treat this guy less like a prisoner and m…more like the guy that just saved us? Both of you, please get in the car, now. We have a lot of things t…to talk about!” she hissed, sounding more like a kitten than the lion she was trying for.

James and Kierlan tore their eyes from hers to stare each other down. James was the first to back down. “Fine.”

James pulled himself into the cab, followed by their newest addition, who internally congratulated himself. Claire leaned against the window, feeling the sudden pounding in her head dull when it touched the cool glass. They said nothing while they followed the taxi in front of them toward the hotel. James didn’t look back; he just felt it when Mainyu left the catacombs in search of Claire, just like he knew he one day would. The day had finally come, and now James was without anyone to help him get rid of the, newly-resurrected, God of Destruction.

“Does anyone wanna talk about w…what we just saw? James? I feel like you know something,” Claire mumbled, looking down at her hands in her lap.

James shook his head, wondering where the hell he was supposed to start.

As they approached the hotel, Kierlan made a mental note of the address. The car came to a halt against the curb and Claire was the first out, running headlong toward the other car. Scottie was careful to carry Alex as she woke, muttering incoherencies under her breath. “James!” he called, readjusting her light body. “She’s not doing so good.”

“Who’s he?” Hayden asked, glaring at Kierlan while she pulled herself out behind Scottie, combing Alex’s hair with her fingers. “James, what the hell is going on?”

“We’ll tell you everything when we’re back in the room,” James explained. “We all just need to get out of the open.” He waved his arms as he looked down the sidewalk in both directions, gesturing toward the door. “Go upstairs.”

Kierlan reached for Claire, leading her by the small of her back into the lobby and toward the elevator. In return, Claire’s heart beat the frantic rhythm she walked to in order to keep up with his long strides. His touch made her skin prickle like an electric current; she leaned infinitesimally closer to him, feeling the warmth radiating off his body chase away the last of the misty cold left in her mind by the man in the catacombs. James held Alex’s head, whispering soothing words while he shot short glances back at Claire over his shoulder.

When they’d safely installed themselves in the suite, Scottie and James carried Alex to the master bedroom, laying her on the comforters while she babbled into the pillows. James closed the door when they left her there to collect herself.

“What happened to Alex, James?” Hayden demanded. “And where’s Natalia? And Russell?”

“Russell and his sister are under investigation,” Kierlan said, crossing his arms. He leaned against the wall beside the dining room table where Claire sat. James stood on her other side, biding his time until Kierlan made his move.

“For what?” Hayden shrieked from her position on the couch, beside Scottie.

“Cult activity. He’s affiliated with a group that has been known to partake in things like human sacrifice.”

Scottie chuckled. “Not surprise. That guy always did seem like a rat.”

Hayden didn’t seem as amused. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

He nodded to her in greeting. “Kierlan Cole, P.I.”

Claire raised her hand.

“Uh,” Kierlan pointed to her. “Claire?”

“Is that w…why you were on the plane with us?” she inquired. “For Russell?”

James’s eyes bugged. “You were on the plane with us?” he demanded shrilly.

Kierlan absentmindedly scratched the back of his neck. “I—”

“He helped me with my bag, r…remember?” she said.

Kierlan nodded, suppressing the urge to cover her mouth before she said anything else. “Of course.”

“And what about Alex? What’s the matter with her?” Hayden inquired.

James ran his hand through his hair. “She’s in shock. Claire and her went through…quite the ordeal this morning,” he concluded.

“What?” Scottie asked.

James nudged Claire’s shoulder. “Go ahead, Eclair, tell ‘em what happened.”

She glanced up at him nervously. “They’re not going to believe me.” Nevertheless, he gestured for her to explain. “During the tour, Natalia grabbed me from the rest of the group, begging me to help her find Russell…” she began.

By the time she’d finished, she’d already had to silence her friends several times when they tried to interrupt. She nodded to them to acknowledge that she was done. “Then Kierlan showed up and helped us out when the catacombs started collapsing.”

Suddenly, they were all tongue-tied.

“Wait,” Hayden said, putting a hand to her head. “This guy just…appeared out of thin air?”

Claire nodded, smugly glaring at James.

“Alex saw that and that’s why she fainted?”

“Wouldn’t you?” James snapped. “I saw him. I have to tell you guy’s something. Something that you’re definitely not going to believe.”

“At this point I don’t think there’s anything I w…won’t believe now,” Claire laughed.

Kierlan hadn’t moved during Claire’s fantastic tale, but he pushed himself off the wall now to approach her. As he walked, he searched his pocket for the metal instrument he needed.

“And you really believe all that?” he asked, wondering how someone so beautiful could be so crazy.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” she insisted.

Claire felt the cold metal slap across her wrist before she’d finished speaking. A snarl of protest caught in her throat when her eyes met the glare of the handcuffs binding her to her chair.

Kierlan pulled a cell phone from his pocket. He made eye contact with her for half a second before the look on her face stung his, already shaken, determination. How could he give her over to Natalia, now, knowing she was unbalanced and so unbelievably meek? “Just a precaution, miss. I wouldn’t want to run the chance of you hurting yourself.”

“Who are you calling?” James demanded, reaching for the phone in his hand.

He didn’t look up, but he ducked easily out of James’s reach. “My office. And a hospital. Your friend needs help.”

“Give me the phone!”

Kierlan finally looked up with a disgruntled frown. “And apparently so do you.”

“I already warned you, Kierlan, put down the phone and get Claire out of the handcuffs,” James murmured with deadly calm.

Kierlan leaned forward, contemplating whether he should confess his reason for being there and who he was really calling, but he didn’t. “Or what?” he challenged, making the call and putting the phone to his ear.

James pursed his lips, looking around the room at his friends convened there, silently watching, and Alex in the next room. He sincerely didn’t want it to go this way, but they would have to find out either with Mainyu on the loose. Kierlan waited for someone on the other end to pick up.

James raised his hands, keeping his palms forward.

Blue energy danced across them, tingling against his skin and crackling like static while his eyes focused on Kierlan’s chest, their depths turning completely white as a bolt of blue energy lurched from his hands.

The blue lightning crashed into Kierlan’s chest with all the strength and awe of nature. His body flew backward, smashing into the wall of the suite while electricity surged through him.

He fell to the floor, chest stained with scorch marks, eyes closed. Claire screamed.

“Oh my God!” she shook as she stared at James’s smoking palms, coherent sentences evading her. When nothing came to mind, she shoved herself out of the dining room chair and crossed the room quickly.

Her knees collapsed under her; she fell beside the still body. Stammering through the sudden obstruction in her throat, she managed to choke out, “James…you killed him!”

Scottie, reluctantly, tore his eyes from James to join her a moment later. Hayden’s attention, however, was focused entirely on her friend. They’d been friends for years, they’d hung out constantly since he started dating her cousin and she hardly knew him. And, after Claire’s speech, she couldn’t tell if her other friend was crazy, or if there were a lot of things she hardly knew anymore. She didn’t like wondering.

Though the electricity that had spontaneously generated in his hand was gone now, black smoke radiated from his clenched fists, reminding them all of what they’d just seen. His face was painted with deep guilt. He hadn’t meant to kill Kierlan. He hadn’t meant to…

Scottie watched the new arrival’s chest begin to rise and fall anew and breathed a short sigh of relief. “He’s not dead. He’s breathing.”

James didn’t dare to share in his friend’s relief, knowing he was going to be thrown to the dogs when they regained the ability to speak. Claire was too fixated on Kierlan’s face to question what she’d seen, yet, eyes roaming over the sweat-slicked skin down to the scorch marks disrupting the fabric of his t-shirt. The smooth flesh of his chest was blackened between the singed edges of the hole in the shirt. As her eyes trailed down, she noticed the gun handle peeking out from the waistband of his pants.

His body convulsed once with the electric current coursing through him before he fell slack in her arms. Claire couldn’t put her finger on it, she would’ve been content to sit there and stare at him forever, memorizing every facet of his face. So beautiful.

She was brought out of her admiration by a bloodcurdling shriek.

Alex stood in the doorway to the master bedroom, mouth closed over the scream, head held in her hand. Dark hair fell in disarray around her shoulders and her hand was crusted with blood. “What happened?!”

James’s mouth went dry.

She didn’t leave the doorway but her eyes slanted to find the unfamiliar man in Claire’s arms. Personally, Alex hadn’t thought her boyfriend of three years was capable, morally, of hurting another human being, since he’d declared himself a pacifist before they’d met. However, hearing the noise in the suite’s living room, including the accusations that followed, she’d been forced to awareness, staggering out of the bedroom to investigate. She could remember nothing of how she got there, only that she’d had the strangest dream: Natalia was blonde and had cut a chunk out of her hand, making a demon materialize out of thin air. Seeing what the room had become, she wondered how badly she might have misjudged James, or any one of them.

She slowly left the bedroom, approaching James like a frightened animal. “James,” she murmured soothingly, hesitantly reaching out for him. He leaned into her when her hands wrapped around his arms, relishing in the warmth she offered that he would never feel again. “What happened?”

Looking around at their faces, he wished they could return to the time where being James Bellman meant being normal. He hadn’t needed to use his powers in lifetimes, not since that first time, before he knew that the inevitable couldn’t be stopped, even by his otherworldly means. This time would be different, he could feel it with Mainyu’s return, but for better or for worse, he couldn’t tell. Gingerly, he gripped her wrists and peeled her away from him.

“He was going to expose us,” he explained softly. “No one can know what happened today.”

“Y…you electrocuted him!” Claire interjected. “With your hands!”

James forced himself to look away from the hurt in Alex’s eyes and turn in Claire’s direction. Rather than tell her to shut up like he wanted to, having interrupted his time with Alex, again, he nodded. “You all saw what I did. Now you know that I’m not like you.”

Alex reached for him again, wincing when his hands met hers, disturbing the slice in her palm. “Baby, you’re scaring me,” she said. She didn’t dare question herself on where the vicious gash, the same from her dream, had come from.

Seeing the painful cut, he studied her palm for a second before he pressed their hands together. Alex tried to pull her arm from his grasp with an objective snarl, but it wouldn’t budge.

“You’re hurting me!” she snapped before she realized it wasn’t true. Her hand was fine and feeling better by the second, wrapped up in a pleasant, cool sensation emanating from his skin. She stopped thrashing only long enough to watch their hands and the soft, blue light glowing between them. Eyes wide, she stood frozen in place until he released her, stepping away when she held her hand to her face.

The skin there was smooth, the only evidence of the gash being the crusted blood.

She flipped her hand, back and forth, searching for the missing cut, but there was nothing on either side. “What? What the—?” she gasped. “How did you do that?”

He pursed his lips against the grimace on his face. “I’ve been keeping a secret from you guys. You’re not going to believe me, so just…sit down and I’ll explain everything that’s going on.”

No one moved.

“James, you need to explain this shit right now, cuz I’m this close to a breakdown,” Scottie growled, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

Alex crossed her arms, though her hand was left palm up. Her eyes occasionally flickered down to it, watching for any chance that the illusion would shatter. They waited.

“I’m an angel.”

Alex scoffed, giving him a look. “Now’s not the time to be cute, Bellman…”

He held up a hand to silence her, to which she begrudgingly obliged with an indignant expression. “I’m not being cute. My name is Hosrael and I am a guardian angel. Your guardian angel,” he concluded, gesturing with his chin to Claire.

Suspiciously, she pointed to herself. “Me?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been your guardian angel for almost three thousand years now.”

Claire pulled herself from beneath Kierlan, standing and rubbing her temple with her fingertips. “This…this is too bizarre. Four thousand y…years? I’m eighteen, James…Hosrael…whichever!”

“You’re only eighteen this time, but I’ve been watching you for more than just this lifetime.”

She blinked away confusion. “Wait. Like…reincarnation?”

He nodded.

“I’m…I’m Catholic! I don’t believe in rein—”

“It doesn’t matter what you believe, Claire, I’m telling you the truth,” he spat. “You all saw what I can do, what else would I have to lie about?”

Claire went silent.

“Are there a lot of…your kind…walking around?” Scottie asked, collapsing on the couch under the weight of his shock.

“Not too many, the humans grossly outnumber us,” he replied with a shrug. “Only very important humans have us trailing them, protecting them from dangers that would impact them and affect others.”

“Important?” Claire laughed. “I can’t think of any r…reason why you’d need to protect me. Are y…you—?”

“Don’t you dare ask me if I’m sure,” he snapped. “Of course I’m sure; I’ve been following you for three thousand years.”

She ran her hand through her hair as she searched for the answers to life’s great questions in the carpet. “Why?”

James placed his hand on the small of Alex’s back to lead her to the couch, but she flinched away, taking her place beside Claire instead. He masked his pain well. “You are, what my kind calls, a Spirii. It means that trauma in your original life causes you to be reincarnated over and over again until that trauma gets resolved.”

“A…And you know what that trauma is?” she inquired.

“Oh, come on, Claire,” Scottie exclaimed, “don’t tell me you believe any of this!”

“I…” she trailed off, rubbing her forehead. “I have such a bad headache.”

James shot a scathing look at Scottie. “You have to believe it, Claire. Your dreams? They’re not dreams at all! They’re flashbacks. The same flashbacks you’ve had since you were first reborn.”

Claire’s lip quivered. “I don’t…I don’t know.”

His face darkened. “Whether you believe me or not, I need you to trust me and cooperate when I tell you that we need to leave Paris, today. You need to hide while I find a way to fix—”

“Leave?” Alex blurted out, pushing Claire behind her. “Why would we have to leave?”

“Because that man in the catacombs is gonna come after the both of you,” he announced, rendering the room silent.

“Me too?” Alex inquired realizing, finally, that her dream today hadn’t been a dream at all. “Why don’t I have a guardian angel?”

“Because my bosses decided that you were able to protect yourself,” he said. “That man from earlier wasn’t just any man. His name is Angra Mainyu, known by some cultures as the God of Destruction—”

“So now you want us to believe in mythology shit, too?” Scottie erupted.

Hayden placed a calming hand on his chest. “Ya, James. I’m sorry but this is all starting to seem a little too far fetched.”

“You don’t have to believe me,” James growled. “Frankly, I don’t care if you do, but Natalia is—”

“Ya, where is Natalia, James?” Scottie snarled. “Russell, too. Did you zap them with that weird parlor trick of yours, like this guy?”

Natalia isn’t anything like we thought she was,” he began. “When I found Claire and Alex after the lights went out, that snake had already read the spell and brought Mainyu back to this world. I should have known it was her…I’ve been worried about this since I found out about the robbery at the British Museum.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” he countered.

“Back in December, the British Museum was robbed of one artifact. Two guards were killed to get this thing and everyone thought it was unusual because they only stole a piece of paper from the, extinct, Book of Eternity, an ancient spell book from Persia. The page was relatively worthless except to scholars and anyone who knew how to use it!”

“And you think that spell can resurrect mythical beings?” Scottie accused.

“It did,” Claire murmured softly. “We saw it. What does the s…spell call for?”

James rolled his eyes to the ceiling, thinking. “A structure for him to materialize on, preferably human remains, though there are some substitutes.”

She nodded. “There are plenty of those in the underground. W…What else?”

“Blood. Any blood. The stronger the blood, the more ideal.”

Alex absentmindedly searched her palm. “Stronger? You mean…like you?”

He shrugged. “Mainyu’s human body can’t sustain all the powers he possesses, so it will deteriorate at a faster rate than a normal human until he, eventually, falls back into the original components that made him. Whose blood did they take?”

“Mine,” Alex whispered.

He exhaled loudly, hopelessly. “I don’t know how Natalia knows all that she does, but she knew exactly what to do to bring Mainyu back. Alex’s blood will only slow his deterioration a little bit, but long enough to prepare a sacrifice.”

“Why my blood?”

“Claire isn’t the only Spirii I’ve met since her first life,” he murmured, folding and nervously unfolding his hands. “You, Alex, are the reincarnation of a very powerful priestess, the sister of Claire’s original incarnation. By today’s standards, I guess you would call yourself a witch.”

Scottie scoffed, turning away from them in disgust. When he faced them again, it was with disgust in his voice. “You guys can’t seriously be buying all of this shit, are—?”

“Shut the hell up, Scottie!” Alex yelled. “This is serious! Me and Claire saw that guy piece himself together right in front of us.” She gave James a look of good faith. “James, or Hosrael, or…whoever he is, is telling the truth.”

He glowered into each of their faces, probing for something in them that wasn’t there. He sighed. “Alright, assuming that I believe you—and I’m not saying I do!—what happens now that this…god is resurrected?”

James frowned deeply. “Alex’s first manifestation, Shireen, banished him to another world to prevent the destruction of the entire planet. Now that he’s back…”

Scottie chuckled darkly. “Great. What does he want?”

James pointed at Claire. “He wanted her then, and he’s definitely going to want her now. And now that he knows that Shireen is back, too, he’ll want Alex dead.”

Claire couldn’t help but sit down when her head started spinning. Hyperventilating, she gasped, “I…need…a bag…”

They ignored her when a scream from outside made them all turn to the window. “Everyone, get back,” James ordered, inching toward the glass.

Far below their room, Mainyu stood on the sidewalk, roaring demands into the faces of passersby. By the time James looked down, the god was holding a woman over his head. Despite the glass between them, the words he bellowed were as clear as day.

“Where is the woman with the hair of sunlight?! The eyes of daylight’s sky?! Tell me: where is Ziba?!”

James turned back to his friends. “Stay here. I’m leaving; I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

Alex stepped toward him as he neared the door, prepared to go with him. “Is it him? The guy from the catacombs?”

James nodded. “Stay here. I don’t know how strong he is, or if they proceeded with the sacrifice, yet. I don’t want you to get hurt.” He held her at arms length, pressing his lips quickly to hers before he vanished out the door.

She stood there, watching the door slam shut behind him. It took her a moment to move. “We have to go after him.”

“Are you crazy?” Hayden breathed, leading her away from the door. “You heard James, Alex. He’s a god! You don’t stand a chance.”

Alex shook her head stubbornly. “But he also said my blood is stronger than a normal person’s! I’m a witch! I can help.”

Hayden grasped her shoulders and lightly shook her. “He told you that you were a witch two minutes ago! You have no idea if he’s telling the truth and if he is than you have no idea how to do anything remotely magical! Think this through for a minute.”

Alex scowled up at her cousin with tears brimming in her eyes. “I trust him, no matter who or what he is! Whether he’s an angel or a human or a freaking leprechaun, he’s still my Jimmy.”

Hayden let her arms fall when Alex shook her away, allowing the smaller girl to stride toward the door.

“Alex, wait!” Claire pleaded without standing.

Alex turned, eyes nearly shut while she blinked away the hot tears. “Claire, please shut up, I can’t take anyone else’s begging right now. I’m going and that’s—”

The blonde girl interrupted, albeit in a voice too meek to match up with her words, “I’m going w…with you.” She held Kierlan’s gun in her raised hand.

“Where did you get that?” Alex demanded.

Claire pointed at the body on the floor.

“What was he doing with a gun?” Alex whispered, more to herself than her friends.

Scottie held a stubborn expression while he rolled his eyes, keeping his arms crossed tightly around himself. Under the expectant eyes of Claire and Alex, he shook his head to clear it. Growling a string of profanity under his breath, he managed to finally glower at Alex as she backed slowly out of the room with Claire. He groaned. “Us too.”