Chapter Twenty-Five

Paris, France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl said nothing.

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

Again, nothing.

“Taran’s Janie?” she continued.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” she pleaded. “Tell me!”

“He said he’s coming to get you.”

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

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

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

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

Janie smiled through another sob. “He does?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Alex demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harder than that,” Janie ordered.

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

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

“You!” Natalia shrieked, approaching them quickly.

“Alex, go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t go back.

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

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

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

Her echo answered back.

“James!” she repeated.

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

“Alex?” his voice called back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

629 B.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you afraid?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ziba—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, High Priestess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Lord, I—” she interjected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes narrowed. “What?”

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Northern France; June 30th, 2012

Meanwhile, Kierlan and James searched the banks of the River Seine for any sign of the missing girls.

“Check the water, they couldn’t have gotten far!” James ordered, throwing himself to the ground. When searching under the car proved useless, he stood, running in any direction they could have gone.

Kierlan turned away from the dark depths of the waters before him, knowing there was no way in hell he was jumping in there. His eyes fell on Taran first, seated in the passenger’s seat with his legs hanging out the door. He was the picture of ease, twiddling his thumbs while he sat bent over his knees, a smile fixed across his face for the first time since Kierlan had first seen him.

Narrowing his eyes, Kierlan strode toward the car, cracking his knuckles.

Taran didn’t see it coming when Kierlan grasped the front of his shirt, heaving him viciously from the car and off his feet. Suddenly, his back hit the back door, the cold leeching through the fabric of his borrowed shirt. “What the hell—?!” he growled, his pleasant demeanor falling away. The larger man glowered down at him, melting away the last of Taran’s rage as well.

Guilt shone behind Taran’s wide eyes as they ogled up at the thief.

“You know where they are!” Kierlan accused, turning the full force of his rage onto the man in his grasp.

Taran said nothing, shaking him off.

Kierlan let him fall to the ground, running his hands over his shaved head while he fought off the urge to throttle the assassin. “Why?” he bellowed.

James abruptly ran back into view. “What’s going on?”

“He knows where they are,” Kierlan said, shoving Taran into the car.

Taran shook his head vehemently. “I don’t. I don’t know where they are, that’s why I sent them in the first place.”

“What?!” James bellowed.

“Sent them?” Kierlan said. “You sent two teenage girls into a situation where they’d have no way to protect themselves?”

“They wanted to go!” he insisted, narrowly avoiding a punch in the face.

Kierlan’s fist hit the metal of the car. “Of course they thought they did! That doesn’t mean we should let them run into a dangerous situation!”

“You have no idea what you’ve done—!” James roared, crossing his arms. His palms tingled with the promise of blue lightning, a feeling difficult to suppress, especially when he was so angry.

Taran rolled his eyes. “Of course I do! It’s all you talk about. Some things are just more important!”

James scowled, hearing his own words in Taran’s statement. “More important than the welfare of the planet? What could possibly be more important than that?!”

“It doesn’t matter,” he countered through clenched teeth. “Sending them in will serve both our motives.”

Kierlan stepped away, wishing he’d never signed on to this mission. Worse than that, he wished he wouldn’t have to feel what he felt now for the first time in his life. He should have been happy with Taran’s intervention. He’d managed to do exactly what Kierlan was supposed to do. Exactly what he was finding himself unable to do:

Deliver Claire to Natalia.

Now that his job was done, he should be happy. He’d be getting paid soon. But, he didn’t want money. His chest ached, pulled tighter than ever before.

He just wanted to rescue the naïve girl.

He was broken out of his reverie by James’s objection.

“Impossible! All you’ve done since you got here is serve Mainyu’s motive. There’s no telling what he’ll do now that he has them both! What were you thinking?” James couldn’t help but turn away, rubbing the crackling electricity from his flesh.

“Alex—” Taran began, averting his gaze.

The angel spun back in Taran’s direction, his fist pulled back to strike; his palms heated up, glowing blue. “Alex! That’s another thing! Not only did you sell out our last hope of exiling Angra Mainyu, you might have killed the love of my life in the process! You don’t understand the severity of the—”

The shrill cry of a cell phone interrupted his monologue.

The three men glanced quickly across each other’s faces, waiting for the owner to answer. When no one moved to do so, Taran cleared his throat, forcing himself to feel less intimidated by the fury aimed at him. “Answer it,” he squeaked, pulling at his, already-loose, shirt collar. “It’s probably Alex.”

“How do you know that?” James growled, letting the phone in question screech in his pocket.

“Answer it! Before she loses her chance!” Taran snarled.

Needing no other incentive than that, James flipped open the cell phone from his back pocket, seeing an unfamiliar number flash across the screen.

He took the call. “Hello?”

No answer.

“Hello?” he repeated, louder the second time. When he still received no answer but the static, he put his thumb over the button to hang up.

“Citchumns,” a voice crackled between the hisses of bad reception.

“What?” he asked. “Alex?”

“Citchicumbs,” it whispered.

“You’re breaking up,” James said. “Baby? Alex? Are you there?”

After a long moment, her voice screamed through the static. “Catacombs!”

The men looked to each other, already pulling themselves into the car. “We’re coming, baby,” James vowed, throwing himself into the backseat. “Stay on the line with me. Are you alright?”

“Where’s Claire?” Kierlan interjected, throwing the car into drive.

Alex didn’t answer.

Instead, the harsh accent of a woman they were all familiar with met their ears like razorblades. “A phone?! I will kill you!”

The line suddenly went dead.

“No,” James gasped, calling it back several times with no success. “No. No! If she dies, I’ll fry you, Taran!”

“She’s not dead,” Kierlan said. “Natalia wouldn’t take her if she didn’t need her for something.”

“You know Natalia?” Taran inquired innocently.

Kierlan twitched when he realized his mistake.

Unfortunately for him, James realized it too. “How do you know Natalia, Kierlan?”

He couldn’t come up with a lie fast enough. “I—?”

James couldn’t help but give out a harsh chuckle. “I knew it,” he murmured.

“No!” Kierlan interjected. “James—”

“A private I? After Russell?” he mocked, a menacing smile splitting his face. “You’ve been working with them this entire time, haven’t you?”

“No!” Kierlan insisted, keeping his face directed entirely on the road.

“Shut up!” James yelled, his voice painfully loud against the ceiling. “You’re caught! Now tell me how much you’re getting paid to keep us from Claire and Alex!”

“It’s,” Kierlan paused, swerving to avoid an oncoming car he’d drifted into the path of. “It’s not like that.”

“What’s it like, then?” the angel snapped, gripping the seat.

The car raced down the street to the soundtrack of blaring horns, and, though he couldn’t die when he was technically already dead, James urged the driver to go easy on the car, if only to remain unnoticed by the authorities. He didn’t know what would happen if they were brought into custody in a foreign country. He wasn’t eager to find out. “Slow down!”

“You wanna find ‘em or not?” Kierlan challenged.

Taran’s head hit the glass beside him…again. Glowering up at the larger man, he muttered, “What do you care?”

“Alright, listen!” the driver roared. “I’m taking you to the catacombs because I’m going to help you save Claire and Alex. That’s the only reason! And if you have a problem with me, then save it ‘til this is over!”

James’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t care if you believe me or not! I’m here to help and you can’t stop me.”

“Why would you do that?” Taran demanded.

Kierlan gulped. He didn’t know what to say; he could answer it to himself. Finally, after moments of contemplation and in voice that didn’t sound convincing, even to himself, he clarified, “This whole…thing…has just been blown out of proportion. I didn’t sign on to start the apocalypse, I was just supposed to steal from a museum,” Taran’s eye twitched, “and bring Claire to the catacombs. Besides, it’d be pretty hard to spend that money when the world’s come to an end.”

James nodded, biting his tongue. “I…I guess that makes sense. After all this, though, I don’t think I can trust you.”

“What other choice do you have?” Kierlan demanded incredulously. He jerked the steering wheel in the direction of the street they’d occupied this morning.

James nodded. “You’re right.”

Silence passed between them for the rest of the journey. As the entrance of the catacombs came into view, James broke the silence. “Why didn’t you do it?”

“Do what?” Kierlan asked, pulling up to the curb a few blocks down when he noticed guards at the threshold to the underground.

“Why didn’t you bring Claire to Natalia?”

Kierlan shifted uncomfortably. “I tried, but Russell brought us back to the hotel. He wanted to deliver all of you at once.”

“But…” James trailed off. Something still wasn’t adding up. “I left you alone with them for hours,”—internally, he mused, stupid, stupid, stupid—“and you didn’t even try—?”

“No,” he barked. “I didn’t.”

“But, you had the perfect chance—?”

Kierlan threw a withering glance back at James, urging him to let the conversation end with this. “But I didn’t. I was supposed to. I was being paid a lot of money to. But I didn’t. I just…I couldn’t bring that girl to that monster. She was like a kid, and I couldn’t put her in danger like that. Even for money.”

James smiled. “Glad to have you on board, let’s go.” The angel threw the door open, ready to take on the mortals guarding the catacombs.

Taran hung behind, placing his hand on Kierlan’s shoulder to keep him firmly in place. When James was out of earshot, Taran’s dead face met Kierlan’s startled expression. “You put her in that prison, didn’t you?”

“Who?” Kierlan asked, staring down at the hand on his shoulder.

“The girl with the pictures. Janie.”

Guilt washed over Kierlan in a way he’d never felt before, but he didn’t let it show on his face. Breathlessly, he muttered, “Yes.”

If possible, Taran’s face fell further. He paused, mouth opening and closing as he contemplated his next words. Finally, he deadpanned, “She’s dying. Because of you.”

Kierlan shook his head. “No, she’s dying because of Natalia. I haven’t touched her since I brought her into that place.”

“To die.”

“I didn’t have a choice!” Kierlan swore.

“No choice? Unless it’s a cute blonde, right? Then you can do whatever the hell you want, right?” Taran spat venomously.

Kierlan exhaled slowly, clenching and unclenching his fists. “She had pictures I needed. If she’d given them up, I wouldn’t have had to—!”

“I don’t care why you did it!” Taran growled, pushing his door open and stepping out to begin their last adventure. Over his shoulder, he exclaimed, “If she dies, so do you!”

Chapter Twenty-Two

629 B.C.

The sun was just beginning to set beneath the sand dunes when Ziba swept through the temple toward the shrine to Kurshid, the Persian goddess of the sun. A small smile was fixed upon her face, as was common for the young woman. Since her arrival in the temple at seven years old, Ziba was accustomed to a life of luxury in her gilded cage. She was never without food, like others in the city may have been, her clothes were always immaculate and silk, and she had a relationship with the gods that others could only dream of.

It was a life she loved, but frequently found to be…just the slightest bit…lacking.

Ziba had been born in a faraway village to parents who had been frightened of her. The color of her hair was foreign to the dark-haired Persians, and when she had been born with a cluster of sunlight-blonde curls, her parents had immediately kept her hidden from the world. It wasn’t until her sister, Shireen, left to join the temple six years later that it was made clear that Ziba’s only place was with the gods. When she first stepped into that great building, rumors of her peculiar appearance spread like wildfire across the desert. It didn’t take long before everyone believed she was the human incarnate of the sun goddess herself.

Now that she had turned fourteen and was beginning to experience her first taste of womanhood just like every other girl her age, Ziba was beginning to realize how unhappy she was in the temple. Most women in the village were married at this age, whenever they too became women.

It wouldn’t be difficult for her to find a husband, too.

At one time she had been the most sought after woman in most of Persia for her beauty and high standing with the Gods. Unfortunately, a priestess could not marry, lest she wanted to be punished to the full extent of the law, as a lighter consequence. Eternal damnation would be sure to follow. She was supposed to have dedicated herself entirely to the Gods for the entirety of her life. It wasn’t a bad life, just not one she would have chosen if she had known the conditions of it.

In a perfect world she would have wanted a man who loved her; no, she wanted a man who worshiped her like she worshiped Kurshid. Except, it was not a perfect world, and men like that just did not exist. She envied the families she saw passing the temple each day, though she knew they envied her. She wore white silk and gold jewelry like the other priestesses, a symbol of her status, and her only work consisted of praying from dawn until dusk. She led a charmed life, an unwanted life, in her gilded cage.

She knelt before the altar to the goddess and pressed her forehead to the cool floor. “I pray to you, Almighty Kurshid, to give me wisdom and guide me through this time in my life where I fear I may stray. For I am now and always will be your loyal servant,” she prayed under her breath in Old Persian.

With her head bowed, she kept her hands pressed together and her eyes squeezed shut. It was normally silent in the temple, so, with her eyes shut, she could easily hear the quiet sobs echo through the building. Her eyes shot open immediately and searched the room, only to find a man’s shaking figure at the shrine to Sraosa, the god of the afterlife. From behind, all she could see was black armor and robes, as the top of his body was bent over his knee.

Even without seeing his face, she knew who it was. “Lord Bomani?” Ziba whispered once she was close enough. She placed one delicate hand on his shoulder in a sorry attempt at comfort. “Whatever ails you?”

Furiously, he wiped at the tears she knew were falling down his face and spun around, throwing her hand away from him with a fervor that sent her staggering back. Though it was slightly reddened and moist from crying, Ziba had to stifle her gasp at the face she had never seen so close before. Lord Bomani, of the Persian army, was quite famous, almost as famous as she, and she had seen him wander the roads of the village, but he had never entered this temple. He was a brute of a man, exceptionally muscled and well over average height, with wavy, brown, shoulder-length hair around a deeply tanned face, the norm in Persia. His bloodshot eyes were light brown like the desert sand but as cold as ice. His chin and jaw, along with his upper lip, were dusted with hair.

“It is none of your concern what ails me,” he snarled.

She was unaccustomed to be spoken to in such a way, but she knew he was correct. She bowed her head respectfully and murmured a quiet, “My sincerest apologies, my Lord. It was not my place,” as she took slow, measured steps backward.

While her head was bowed, she heard his sharp intake of breath and a loud thump. When she lifted her sky blue eyes, another one of her oddities, she found the great Lord Bomani, bowing to her on the floor.

“It is I who should be apologizing, Lady Ziba, I did not know it was you!” he cried, his voice muffled slightly against the floor. “Forgive me, your holiness. I did not know.”

“Please, sir, rise,” she pleaded. “You are forgiven.”

“I cannot. I may as well have insulted the goddess Kurshid, herself, for screaming at her holiest servant, the Lady Ziba,” he lifted his eyes to stare up at her reproachfully.

“You are forgiven, sir. I frightened you and it was not my place to ask questions. Now please, rise,” she said, this time a bit more forcefully. Reluctantly, he did as he was told and curiously searched her with his eyes.

“Well, Lady Ziba, I see that all of the stories about you are true,” he offered a small smile.

“What stories?” she inquired skeptically.

“You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman in Persia.”

Her face flamed, but she could not bring herself to reprimand him for his flattery. After all, this was exactly what she had wanted. “Thank you, sir.”

“Please, my name is Bomani. Address me as such,” he demanded kindly.

“It would not be proper of me to do so, sir!” Ziba cried.

“When there is no one around to hear it, My Lady, how can you deny me this? Please?” he beseeched.

After a moment to ponder his words, she nodded. “Alright, Bomani. But if we are to be acting in such a way, then you are to call me, Ziba.”

He took her small hand in his very large one and gave it a light squeeze. He placed a kiss in her palm and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ziba.”

“Likewise, Bomani,” she gasped through the sudden obstruction in her throat. Inconspicuously, she attempted to clear it, but it did not help. In fact, she might have made it worse. The man before her smirked, clearly aware of his effect on her. “Are you well, Bomani?” she inquired, unable to meet his eyes again.

His sharp intake of breath in answer told her she should not have asked. Timidly, she looked to his face, waiting for an answer. But, Bomani didn’t look like he would ever speak. With glassy eyes and a face that was obviously contorted by grief, his head whipped to the side, away from her prying gaze.

With movements that were not her own, Ziba cupped his face in her hands and felt a pleasant chill travel up her fingers. She gasped, drawing the attention of some nearby patrons but she was far too reluctant to break contact with the man standing before her to look. Bomani’s startled gaze met hers, and she knew without a doubt that he had felt it too. She stared up into his eyes while he gazed into hers with an indecipherable passion hidden behind his deep brown orbs.

Unfortunately, reality set in quickly.

“Lady Ziba,” a cold, familiar voice hissed behind her.

Ziba swiftly and unceremoniously let her arms fall to her sides as she spun to meet the even gaze of her sister. Shireen’s dark hair was pulled up and away from her face in a large, gold diadem, as was expected for the High Priestess, but it only served to highlight her blazing green eyes. Ziba had always known her older sister to be a tranquil creature, so it came as quite a shock when she found evident rage in Shireen’s face.

Ziba stepped back, only to find that she had flattened herself against Lord Bomani’s chest. “Shireen.”

“What is going on here, priestess?”

Ziba could not think of any way to cover up her indecency. “Bomani…I mean L…Lord Bomani…”

Bomani fell to his knees behind her. “My apologies, High Priestess. I distracted the Lady Ziba.”

“Did you, my Lord?” Shireen asked with a predatory grin. “Surely Ziba had some part in your little…tryst?”

Bomani rose to his feet, a self-satisfied grin on his face. “It was hardly a tryst, my Lady. This priestess was attempting to console me over the death of my brother.”

Ziba masked her shock well, but Shireen looked visibly embarrassed. “My apologies, my Lord. And my condolences. Lord Fehrer was a good man and a great warrior.”

“Thank you, High Priestess.”

Shireen pursed her lips as she scrutinized Ziba’s face, but she gave each of them a curt nod before she swept gracefully out of the room.

Ziba kept her hands folded tightly behind her, anticipating and preventing another mishap. She turned back to Bomani when she was sure Shireen was gone. “I am very sorry for your loss, my Lord.”

“What happened to calling me Bomani?” he inquired; the mirth on his face did not meet his eyes.

Ziba scowled at the floor. “I think it would better, sir, if we kept to formalities.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Lord Bomani,” she found his face again.

“Yes, my Lady?”

“Tell me about your brother?” she pleaded. He bit the inside of his cheek and wordlessly shook his head. “Please?”

Taking a moment to ponder her question, he offered his hand to her. “Come with me.”

“Sir, I cannot leave the temple!” she whispered, warily appraising his hand.

“Then somewhere we can be alone?” he beseeched.

“Sir!” she gasped, just a little too loudly. She slapped a hand over her mouth. Recovering enough to lower her voice, she searched the faces of anyone who might have caught interest. “I cannot risk such an improper thing being seen. If Shireen were to find us…”

“My Lady, I bear you no ill will. I only wish to tell you what you have asked for.”

The girl knew that nothing good could possibly come from following Bomani, a man she had met only a few minutes prior, but, for some strange reason, she trusted him. And so, it was without any further reservations that she took Bomani’s hand and led him into the corridors deep within the temple, away from any prying eyes.

When she passed the final window and arrived at the darkened sanctuary, she dropped Bomani’s hand and began lighting the candles around the small niche in the wall. “Please, my Lord, take a seat,” she gestured grandly to the single wooden bench against the wall.

“Thank you…Ziba,” he muttered as he took a seat.

“My Lord…”

He narrowed his eyes at her harmlessly. “I will tell you nothing, Ziba, if we continue in this manner.”

They glared at each other, waiting for the other to break. Ziba sighed. “If you insist, my l…Bomani.”

He grinned. “Thank you.”

When he did not delve into an explanation, she said, “Do not keep me waiting another moment, Bomani. I will surely be missed.”

“My apologies,” he took a deep breath. “My brother, Fehrer, was killed in battle this past month. It was a way he would have wanted to go, Ziba, and I am happy that he was able to die in a blaze of glory and in the protection of people he loved, but…but…” His eyes brimmed with tears and he shook with the effort to hold them back.

Ziba rubbed her hand along his back. “Bomani?”

“But I cannot accept that when I know that I will never be happy again without him!” he bellowed. “He will never fight by my side again. I will never see him again. I do not know what to do without him.”

Then, the giant of a man broke into sobs.

Ziba pulled her hand back from his massive shoulder and let it fall in her lap. “Bomani.”

He seemed unable to hear her, or, merely, unable to respond.

“Bomani,” she repeated, hoping he could hear her over his monster-like wails. “Sraosa will keep your brother safe and watch over him until you meet again. Life is only fleeting. You will meet again.”

His sobs died down slowly after that. “Thank you, Ziba…thank you for trying to help.”

She stood. “It was no trouble, Bomani. And…I know that Fehrer has everything he could possibly wish for now. He received the greatest honor a warrior can desire, and now he watches over you in a world much better than our own.”

His bloodshot eyes burned into her face for a short second. Suddenly, she found herself pressed into the material of his armor, forced to inhale the pleasant odor of his neck.

 She loved the feeling of his embrace as he held her. All too soon, however, he jerked away from her. She stifled her disappointment enough to smile up at him.

“I am glad to have helped, Bo—”

She was silenced when an almost painful force impacted her face. She couldn’t move, held in place by some unseen strength around her neck and waist. Her eyes blinked open, only to find herself pulled flush against Bomani.

His lips were moving over her bruised lips, and she didn’t know how to react, other than to push him away with the hands she had placed on his chest.

He staggered back shamefully, letting his eyes fall to the floor. “M—my apologies, my lady. I did not…I was not…”

Ziba let her fingertips prod her sore lips. A kiss. Bomani had kissed her…Bomani had desired her. She had finally gotten a taste of the other side of life that she had wished for so badly.

There were so many things that could go wrong, so many people that could catch them, and they could be stoned if they were found.

But she had wanted this so badly.

“Bomani,” she said, halting the stammering mess that the great hero, Lord Bomani, had become.

“I should not have,” he finally mumbled.

“Bomani!”

He couldn’t meet her eyes after what he had done, so she closed the distance between them herself.

Ziba kissed him back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Northern France; June 30th, 2012

Claire had never run so fast in her life when she heard the unmistakable sound of James realizing finding them gone. As she sprinted headlong for the bridge coming into view, through the fog clouding her mind, she expected her asthma to act up, or for her legs to get sore, but it wasn’t so.

Her lungs didn’t burn like they usually would, and her body had never felt better than it did in that mile dash. She could’ve continued like that for the rest of the night, until she saw a car come into view, parked against the wall overlooking the dark waters below. The headlights illuminated them as she and Alex came closer.

“Claire, wait for me!” Alex screamed, struggling to catch up.

The blonde couldn’t tell what had come over her, but she knew that, whatever it was, she liked it. She never wanted to feel her normal weakness again.

“Claire!” Alex repeated, not knowing who sat in the waiting car and having her doubts on whether she really wanted to know, after all. “Stop! Wait!”

Claire didn’t want to stop. She wanted to be in the catacombs, facing Mainyu and saving the day. If that meant she had to go through a couple guys to get there, she didn’t foresee a problem. She reveled in the feeling of invincibility for another moment as she slowed to a stop, watching for whoever sat in the van to make the first move. As she did, Alex joined her, shaking with a struggle to catch her breath.

They stood, mutely, in the glare of the headlights for a long moment, Alex’s legs wobbling while she wondered what their next step would be. “What’s your plan?” she asked, squinting to see through the shadowy windshield.

Claire stood proudly erect, ready to take on the world. Her black eyes slanted to Alex to tell her so, but, when their eyes met, Alex remembered the odd color in her friend’s eyes. “Your eyes.”

Claire’s face twitched, a single word roaring in her ears. Witch!

She was suddenly overcome with the urge to strike Alex across the face, to cause her pain like Alex had done to her….

She shook her head, remembering. It was just Alex, her best friend. When her eyes met Alex’s startled stare again, she was breathing heavily, the effects of her asthma beginning to claim her from the run. Just like that, she suddenly wasn’t feeling so fearless anymore.

The hands she’d poised over the knives in her pockets fell limply to her sides.

“Claire!” Alex gasped, winding an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Breathe. In through your nose, slow.” When the blonde looked up into her face, Alex was pleasantly surprised to see the glimmer of blue irises sparkling back at her.

The sound of slamming car doors and a van door rolling open forced Alex’s eyes upward. She didn’t get the chance to fight before a bag was pulled forcibly over her head, along with Claire beside her.

The two of them were thrown unceremoniously into the back of the van. Claire struggled harder to catch her breath, given the obstruction of the thick sack.

No one spoke until the car engine roared to life beneath them. Even then, it wasn’t a voice they wanted to hear that broke the silence.

“Welcome back,” the thick Czech accent greeted coldly, too close to Claire than she would have liked.

Alex mumbled a few choice profanities into the thick material of the bag over her head. Claire heard the distinct smack of bone on bone when Natalia’s fist struck Alex’s cheek.

“Perhaps you need to see what is at stake if you act up,” Natalia murmured pleasantly, tearing the bags from the captives’ heads.

The first sight that greeted Claire when her eyes opened was the face of an unfamiliar man, a gun fixed in his arms. Finding the real world a much darker place than she recalled, she closed her eyes, breathing in the fresh air and waiting for the van to stop. She was painfully aware of the weapons she hid on her person for the entirety of the journey.

After an immeasurably long trek, the van slowed to a stop. She opened her eyes when she felt a fist clench the back of her shirt into its grip, the roar of the sliding door snarling in her ears. Suddenly, the floor of the van fell out from beneath her. Her body soared through the air.

She hit the ground, narrowly avoiding the knives in her pockets as she did. As the wind was knocked out of her, Claire was unable to speak her protests, her lungs caught up in a vicious bout of coughing.

“No!” Natalia snapped, throwing Alex out of the van to join her. “You idiots! Pick her up. She is not to be harmed!”

“Ya, boss,” a man’s voice countered from the door of the van as the henchmen stepped off the edge of the trunk. Claire was abruptly lifted by one of the men from the van and set on her feet, though she was far from free. Hands like iron wrapped around her upper arms, holding her firmly in place when she tried to move in any direction but where they were leading her. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she found the entrance to the Parisian Catacombs glaring down at her, partially collapsed and ominous.

Claire watched as Natalia roughly tore Alex off the ground and led her into the catacombs ahead of her.

“W…wait!” Claire pleaded, sliding against the ground as she tried to fight against the arms binding her.

“Get moving,” the man holding her ordered, placing a well-aimed shove against her shoulders. Claire could do nothing but stumble into the doorway, catching herself on the splintered, wooden frame. It creaked under her weight. Instinctively, she cringed away, falling back into the arms of her captor.

Moments later, she was immersed in the darkness of the tunnels, stuck between Natalia and the remaining henchmen while they journeyed into the unknown. For a while, that was all she saw: darkness. It seemed like an eternity they spent ambling carefully through the underground to the sizzle of faulty electrical wiring in the distance. Finally, the first hint of light glowed at the end, the illumination stemming from the circle of torches she and Alex remembered all too well.

“My Lord!” Natalia called as she and Alex broke through the final step of pitch blackness. Claire and the others quickly followed, entering the circular room. If there’d been any sound being made before their arrival, their presence ended it completely. Silent. Painfully silent.

If Claire’s eyes hadn’t found him immediately, she never would have known he was watching them. Mainyu didn’t breathe, the mortal process unnecessary in sustaining his supernatural body.

Claire was startled to find his eyes already on her when she arrived, their gaze flickering immediately to her face like magnets. She writhed in her captor’s grip, fighting to run in the other direction. When she couldn’t, and her feet slid ever-closer to the god, she shook with terror, sinking further into the chest of the man holding her.

Soon enough, they stood toe-to-toe, the deity towering forebodingly over her.

“My Lord?” Natalia asked, yanking Alex forward by the arm. The younger girl fell helplessly to her knees, sneering up at the god with disdain. “What do you want me to do with this one?”

Mainyu barely spared a sideways glance at the mortal girl, his eyes only for Claire while she cowered before him. He brushed his fingertips up and down her bare arm, gritting his teeth when she cringed away from him. Narrowing his eyes, he demanded, “Why do you fear me so, young one? I mean you no harm.”

The emphasis he added made it clear that Claire couldn’t trust him. Rather than answer, she stared at Alex, fear evident in her eyes. She tried not to give him any reason to suspect her next move as she inconspicuously ran her hand over the knife handle protruding from her pocket. “I’m n…not afraid of y…you,” she gasped, her stammer revealing itself once more.

He threw his head back in a barking laugh. “Your voice would say otherwise!”

While his eyes were directed away from her, she pulled the knife from her pocket with a flourish, forgetting her reservations for the split second it took to plunge the blade deep into Mainyu’s chest.

He didn’t move, but his laughter abruptly dying.

Claire leapt away, waiting for his body to fall in a heap at her feet. When that didn’t happen, she studied his face. Many emotions flickered across it, not one of them being pain, while he stared down at the wooden handle jutting from where his heart should’ve been. Painfully slowly, he dragged his eyes upward, finally meeting her horrified gaze.

“My Lord?” Natalia repeated, unmoved by the mortal wound. She gestured to the human girl beside her expectantly. Alex couldn’t take her eyes off the kitchen knife, buried deeply in the god’s flesh, wondering, hoping, if this was the end of their adventure.

Mainyu didn’t look at them. “Put her with the others.”

Alex knew immediately that her hopes had gone unheard. “No!” she bawled, diving in Claire’s direction. Natalia looped her arm around the younger girl’s waist, effortlessly dragging her toward the other captives while she kicked and screamed.

She’d promised to keep Claire alive. She’d promised. As she felt the cold steel of a shackle close around her ankle, she knew she might fail.

A groan on the floor distracted Alex from the scene unfolding before her eyes. Remembering Hayden and the girl Taran had sent them to find, she struggled to turn, instantly finding the two bodies crumpled on the floor. Her cousin lay across the room, shackled as well and watching her with weary eyes. A bruise swelled her cheek, but that was the extent of the damage she could see on Hayden’s person. Alex breathed a sigh of relief.

Much closer to her, however, was the small form of a red-headed girl, curled up against the wall, as tightly as she could with an obviously mangled leg. She was bedecked in a tattered pair of black leggings and a thick suit jacket at least five sizes too big for her. In the light of the torches around the room, she could see the patches of blue, grey, and green staining her swollen face and, also, that the tiny girl was unshackled.

Mainyu wrapped his hand around the knife and, with one swift tug, pulled the offending blade from his flesh. Claire gasped, turning to run when she saw the blade bubbling with thick black tar. Before he left her sight, she watched the hole in his flesh close, none of the… ‘blood’ he’d spilled remaining on his chest.

“Jesus!” she screamed, taking off in the other direction.

She made it two steps before the back of her shirt caught in someone’s claws, sending her plummeting to the floor with a grunt of protest. Her back smacked against the cold ground, her skull soon to follow. She stared up at the ceiling, her head spinning with the ache radiating through it. Suddenly, her view of the dark ceiling was obstructed by the last person she wanted to see.

Mainyu glared down at her, searching her face for something that wasn’t there. “You seem to have forgotten the lesson I taught you during our last meeting.”

He wrenched her to her feet by the back of her neck, dragging her easily to the stone slab on the center of the floor. Claire’s eyes widened substantially when they took in Scottie’s limp body splayed there, eyes open and unseeing, and his last moments of terror forever replaying on his face. She tried unsuccessfully to look away when Mainyu reached out a bare foot and kicked the body easily off the slab. Her stomach roiled with nausea as she heard Scottie crash loudly against the wall of human remains.

Mainyu weighed heavily against her back, forcing her to her knees. “I think it’s time to remind you,” he bellowed, placing his hands on either side of her face.

“No!” she mumbled, her cheeks pushed together by his rough palms.

“What are you doing to her?” Alex demanded, throwing herself toward the slab. Each time, the shackle caught on her ankle and she fell back to the floor.

Natalia, leaning heavily against the wall, kicked her into stillness without a second thought.  “Silence,” she challenged, smirking down at Alex when she scowled in objection.

“Don’t t…touch her!” Claire yelled, hearing the struggle behind her.

Natalia tore her pleasant face away from Alex’s glare, fixing instead on Claire’s back. “Do not worry yourself, My Lady,” she said, as she’d been directed to address her. “They are here merely as…insurance.”

Mainyu whispered something under his breath, his eyes going black with the buzzing mass inside of him. Claire fought against him, her efforts in vain against his otherworldly strength. She didn’t see him when his jaw dropped, the buzzing black oozing off his tongue like a snake. She did, however, see the snake-like mass crawl up her arm and try, fruitlessly, to force entrance through her mouth.

Groaning in objection, she pursed her lips, viciously shaking her head.

Finding no sanctuary through her lips, the buzzing snake split in two, slithering up into her nostrils.

“No!” Claire said, squeezing her eyes shut. Her nose burned as she inhaled quickly, her breaths becoming slow and even. The seconds ticked on without change.

When they reopened, the depths of her eyes were completely black, her touch with reality broken. She remembered.

 

Chapter Twenty

Paris, France; June 30th, 2012

Hayden screamed a strangled sob when she was forcibly pried away from Janie, squeezing her eyes shut when she glimpsed Scottie’s limp body.

Janie anticipated her own manhandling; she didn’t make a sound when she was dragged across the circular room. She didn’t know when Natalia and her team brought in the chairs they were, again, being tied to, but she noticed that, this time, there were only two. Soon enough, there would only be one, and she knew, very well, that she may not be the one sitting in it for another video. She wanted to reassure Hayden; to do anything that would make cease her wailing, but she couldn’t come up with anything remotely positive to say. She didn’t think she’d be able to manage a smile if she tried.

“You know the drill,” Natalia grumbled, pulling the final knot taut around Janie’s chest. “If you speak, I will kill you. Well,” she chuckled, “sooner.”

Hayden freely let more tears pour down her face. “Please. Natalia, just let us go. Please. If there’s any shred of humanity left in you, please—”

“And what if there is none left?” Natalia demanded without facing her. “You know nothing of me or what I have done. Believe me, Ms. Clove, if there was ever any shred of this humanity in me to begin with, it is gone, now.”

Hayden bit her lip, praying her next attempt would be met with better reception. “Natalia—”

“Believe it, Hayden,” Janie deadpanned through the swelling in her face. “There’s nothing left.”

Natalia grinned, pulling harder against the ropes constricting around Janie. “You will be next my dorogoy. And I will enjoy, very much, having your blood on my hands. When I slowly cut off each and every one of your limbs. Then, I will kill you.”

Janie wished she could summon up any infinitesimal degree of fear after all this time. Rather than suffer through any mental image of her impending doom or, worse yet, hope for her rescue, she let her head hang and waited for the newest hostage video to begin. She could have fallen asleep if not for the mental picture of the monster’s face replaying in her head to the soundtrack of Hayden’s cries.

***

“Claire!” Kierlan yelled, throwing open the bedroom door and bolting inside. He barely made it three steps before he tripped over Claire and went sprawling to the floor. He groaned as he bit the carpet, reaching blindly for something to support himself with. He let Taran pull him to his feet.

James knelt beside the girl on the floor, holding his palms over her forehead and torso while he felt for the pleasant thrum of life in her body. Such a feeling tingled in his hands, assuring him that she was alive, but there was definitely something else. Something else pushed back at him from within her, something dark and potent holding her hostage just under the surface of consciousness.

“Is she dead?” Kierlan asked, brushing the dust off his shirt from the fall.

James shook his head. “No, just sleeping.”

“On the floor?” he asked.

“It’s definitely not natural,” James countered. “He did something to her.”

Kierlan looked her over for any sign of damage, finding nothing but a noticeable paleness. Her skin was lightly graying, like a corpse. “What’d he do?”

The angel shook his head. “I don’t know. Whatever it is, he wouldn’t hurt her.”

“How do we know that?” Kierlan demanded, kneeling on her other side. He stared down at her, noting with satisfaction that her chest was rising and falling with steady rhythm. Absentmindedly, he brushed a tendril of blonde hair from her face.

James cocked an eyebrow at the display. “He’s waited too long. He’s wanted this for thousands of years now, since the first time she was born. He wouldn’t hurt her now, not when he’s so close to getting what he wants.”

Taran fell to his own knees. “What does he want?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” James said. “Her. And I’m sure he wants a few other choice people dead; like you,” he gestured to Taran, “and Alex.”

Below them, a slight moan emerged from Claire’s lips, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. “What’s he doing to her?” Kierlan said.

“I don’t know,” James breathed.

A sudden shriek pierced the air, one that didn’t come from Claire. They jumped to their feet. “James! Get in here!”

The three men went running toward the sound of Alex’s voice, leaving Claire on the floor. The blonde whimpered once, her head whipping from side to side. Her eyes flickered open as she gasped.

Their depths were entirely black.

***

Claire plummeted through an endless, gray fog, waiting for her feet to hit solid ground, but no sensation ever came. Her hair whipped into her face, the sound of wind echoing in her ears until, suddenly, it stopped. Nothing touched her but the stale air, stinking heavily of decay. The fog rolled around her as if she stood on the ground.

The silence screamed through her brain.

“Hello?” she called, wondering momentarily if she was dreaming. “Is anyone there?”

She received no response.

“Where am I?” she asked, more to herself than anyone hiding around the limbo.

A sudden, otherworldly scream broke the silence and the fog swirled upward, disturbed by something she couldn’t yet see. Then, someone, something broke the wall of mist before her, arms flailing above its head while it ran ahead.

Claire couldn’t help but emit a startled shriek as she recognized the face before her, hidden somewhere in the depths of unfamiliar cuts, bruises, and gore.

She tried to leap out of the way of whatever her friend had become, but she had no idea how when her feet wouldn’t touch anything solid. Her body went slack, sinking like a feather when his body smacked, hard, into her.

“Scottie!” she shrieked, though her cries fell on deaf ears. “Stop!”

His body was like a lead weight on top of her, scratching and clawing at her exposed flesh, while he shrieked half-words at the top of his lungs. His face was too close to hers, breathing that decaying stench into her face through browning teeth. His cheeks were grey and falling apart, peppered with specks of dried blood in the places where his skin was peeling away. His once vivid eyes were pearl-grey like the mist.

Claire tried to shove him away, but her arms had become rubber tubes, floating toward whichever way was up at this point. Her chest was collapsing, the breath leaving her as she drowned in nothing but air.

Then her back hit the floor, a sharp crack sounding when the back of her skull was quick to follow.

“Selfish!” Scottie finally screamed. “Coward! Whore!”

“Stop it!” she wailed. “Stop it!”

“Bitch! Bitch! Witch! Bitch! Witch! Bitch! Witch!”

She leaned away from his nails when they clawed into her neck. Red stained his bony fingers. “Get off me!”

“How could you let me die?!” he roared, snapping his teeth just a breath away from her nose.

“I didn’t!” she challenged. “They wouldn’t let us go after you! James left to find you!”

“It’s all your fault, Claire!” he continued.

“Stop it! You’re not dead! You’re not dead.”

“It’s all your fault, Claire.”

The voice that spoke wasn’t Scottie the second time, or even a voice she was very familiar with. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, however, who it belonged to when Scottie’s face moved out of her line of sight, replaced, instead, by the face of a fortunate-looking, older man. His face was completely bland, the sharp edges of his jaw locked. A dark ponytail cascaded down his back, over his ancient robes. His chest was bared, the muscles impressive under smooth skin.

“Your friend is dead, now, and it’s all your fault,” Mainyu murmured in a pleasantly musical voice.

Claire viciously shook her head, the only movement she was able to make. “No. I didn’t! You’re not here, this is a dream! You’re not real!”

“I’m real enough. That’s all you need concern yourself with, my love.”

Claire’s lip quivered; internally her body writhed with her effort to move, flight instincts finally overwhelming her, but, in reality, she lay completely motionless. “Why me? Why did you have to come after me?”

The god laughed darkly. “How can you even ask that? Of course I would come after you. I’ve always come after you. And I always will!”

“Just leave me alone,” she pleaded. “I’ll do anything, just please leave me alone—”

Mainyu smiled, his face nearing hers. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’ve been waiting for this day since I was first banished, my love. I will not let you slip through my fingers again.”

“I’m not her!” she shrieked. “I’m not the girl you love.”

He reached out to cup her face. “Oh, but you are. You just don’t remember.”

“No!” she sobbed. “No.”

A dark look came over him when she wrenched her face from his grasp. Slowly, he stood. “Come to me, or another of your friends will die.”

“Please, don’t do this!” she cried.

“You have one hour.”

He snapped his fingers and the ground opened up beneath her. Then, Claire was falling again.

***

Claire jolted upright on the floor, the blackness in her eyes washing away. Sweat slicked her forehead and she gasped, re-inflating her deprived lungs. Blood stained her neck, the claw marks marring her flesh burning an angry red. “No!” she yelped, hands flying to her throat when the sting finally registered in her conscious mind.

“Oh, thank God you’re awake!” Alex whispered, hugging Claire from her kneeling position beside her.

“Alex?” Claire murmured, eyes flitting around the room, landing on Taran while he sat silently on the bed.

“Ya, Claire it’s me,” she heard her friend sniffle. “I’m so glad you’re awake! When I saw the blood I thought he got—” It was easy to deduce that she was crying, despite her face being hidden while she embraced Claire tightly.

“Where is everyone?”

“James and Kierlan are cleaning up the blood in the living room,” she explained. “We’ve gotta move Russell’s body soon.”

“What?” Claire bellowed, struggling to her feet. “They killed him?”

Alex urged her to relax, trying, unsuccessfully, to hold her down. “No, Claire, Mainyu did.”

“Alex, you wouldn’t believe the dream I just had,” Claire said as she wobbled on her feet.

“That was no dream, Claire; that was him! Look in the mirror,” Alex ordered, gesturing frantically to the attached bathroom.

Claire didn’t move, finally noticing the blood on her fingertips. Eyes bugging, she looked between Alex and the red on her hands for a long time. “It happened while I was asleep.”

Alex nodded dumbly.

“What’s he doing in here?” Claire asked, finally gesturing to Taran while he glanced uncomfortably around the room.

Alex followed her gaze and automatically let her eyes fall to the floor. “He’s going to help us get out of here, to save Hayden.”

The single name didn’t go unnoticed by Claire. “Hayden?”

Alex looked up, her gaze meeting Claire’s for a split second before they filled with tears. Her chest shook with sobs harder than any Claire had ever seen her best friend cry. Alex doubled over, unable to say anything, but Claire had gotten the message clear enough. She didn’t want to believe it, and, instead, waited mutely for Alex to say the words that would make it real. Every time Alex tried to speak, though, she was overcome by another vicious wave of anguish.

Taran, unnecessarily, cleared his throat. “Natalia sent us another video today.” He ran his hand through his hair, agitated beyond reason and willing to deliver them to death’s door himself if it meant saving Janie. “Scottie is…” he cleared his throat again.

“Dead.”

Claire shook her head, feeling a familiar fog roll through her brain. He mind cleared for a split second. She mumbled, “What?”

Taran shrugged, eyes falling to the floor, “Because I escaped, Angra Mainyu had to do his sacrifice on someone else. Scottie was just unlucky.”

The sound of Alex’s whimpers died down, but, for a long time, they were the only sound in the room. Claire knew that she should be feeling the same, but all she felt was a vague confusion muddling her brain. A voice in her mind hissed Mainyu’s parting words over and over again, Come to me. Come to me. Come to me!

A dull ache began at the base of her skull before her legs suddenly gave out.

“Claire!” Alex gasped, reaching for her fallen friend. Claire knelt on the floor, holding herself up on the footboard while she pressed her other palm to her forehead, massaging away her forming headache. “Are you okay?”

She shook her head, waving off Alex’s concern. “I’m fine, just a headache.”

“Are you sure?” Taran inquired as he bent over to assist her.

“Ya. It’s not a big deal,” Claire insisted. “We have more important things to talk about before they come back.”

“You’re right,” Alex agreed, wiping away the last of the dampness on her cheeks. Standing, and pulling Claire unsteadily to her feet, Alex turned to face Taran. “You said you’d help us. What’s your plan to get away?”

Taran’s eyes narrowed in Claire’s direction. Something was off about her, but he couldn’t tell what.

“Taran?” Alex snapped.

His eyes jerked toward the other girl in the room. “They’ve decided already that they’ll be sending you back to the US, but they’ll have to drop the body somewhere before we can go to the airport. I’ll tell them where to drop the body, close to the pick-up point Natalia established. I’ll distract them while you guys run.”

Claire’s brow furrowed. “Why would you do that?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Why are you helping us in the first place?”

Janie’s face flashed in his mind. “My friend is badly injured and being held hostage with your friend. I promised her I would get her out, and I don’t plan on breaking that promise.” He gulped, swallowing his emotion. “I need you two to get in there. I’ll give you my cell phone so you can tell us where they’re keeping you.”

Alex nodded, holding her hand out expectantly. Immediately, he placed the phone in her palm. “What happens if they kill us?”

“They won’t,” he countered immediately.

“You don’t know that,” Claire interjected.

Taran cocked an eyebrow in challenge. “Then they’d be going through a lot of goddamn trouble just to kill you, don’t you think?”

Claire blinked, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to think over the mantra replaying in her head. Come to me. Come to me. Come to me! She shook her head, wiping her hands down her face.

Alex lightly shook the blonde’s shoulder. “Claire?”

Shivering while she struggled to get control of herself, Claire managed to make eye contact.

“You alright?”

Claire swiftly nodded. “We gotta go, we gotta go now.”

“We can’t go now,” Taran said. “We have to wait for them to clean up the living—”

“No!” Claire snarled, her hand smacking down on his shoulder when she spun to face him. “We have to go now, before anybody else dies because of me.”

Taran glared at her silently, their eyes locked. He barely registered that her eyes were no longer their normal blue when she turned and swept out the door.

He and Alex stood in the room, wondering the same thing.

Finally, he broke the silence.

“Didn’t she have a stutter?”

Alex nodded, giving a shaky hum in agreement. “Something’s not right.”

Immediately, the two of them followed her out the door. They found her in the kitchen. A long, silver chef’s knife had already found itself in her hand, the blade reflecting her tired, black eyes back at her.

“Claire!” Alex shrieked, shoving past Kierlan while he scrubbed the red out of the carpet on his hands and knees. She grabbed for the knife. Claire swiftly ducked out of the way, shoving it into the pocket of her jeans. The sharp point sliced easily through the material, hanging at her hip in its makeshift holster.

“Relax, Alex!” she said, holding her friend at arm’s length when she went for the knife again. “It’s for later,” she added in a whisper, catching the glance Kierlan was throwing their way.

Alex made an incredulous face. “You think you’re gonna use that against a god? Something’s up with you and I want to know what it is, Claire!”

“It’s wrong now to want to protect myself?” Claire demanded, shoving Alex away from her so she could take another knife.

Alex didn’t move, watching her with guarded eyes. “It’s wrong that you’ve gone from being too scared to go after Hayden and Scottie one minute to arming yourself for war the next. I think he got to you. What’d he do?”

“Nothing!” she replied, though she was startled to admit that the words hadn’t come of her own volition.

“You’re lying!” she insisted. “Give me the knife, Claire!”

“No!” she growled, pulling the blade from her pocket and pointing it threateningly in Alex’s direction.

Alex barely bat an eyelash.

Realizing what she was doing, Claire let her arm fall, her shoulders collapsing inward as she cried loudly. “I don’t wanna die, Alex!”

Alex sighed, watching her pitiful friend fall slowly to the floor. “Claire.” The other girl gave no hint she’d heard her. “Claire?” She knelt beside her, embracing her tightly while she soothingly combed through the golden hair with her fingers. “We’re not gonna die. I promise. I won’t let them kill us.”

Claire chuckled dryly. “As if you’d have any say in it.”

Alex laughed along with her. “I know. But I mean it. We’re going to get out of this, Claire, alive. Maybe not unscathed, but I think we can stop him.”

“How’re we supposed to do that?”

Alex shrugged, her shoulders feeling heavier now than ever before. “I don’t know. But, according to James, we did it before.”

“Do you remember that first time?” Claire demanded. “’Cuz I definitely don’t.”

The brunette exhaled deeply, wishing she could come up with something comforting to say. Unfortunately, nothing came to mind. “No,” she said, releasing Claire and looking her in the eye. “But we’ll figure it out. We have to.” A thought suddenly struck her, looking into Claire’s face. “What’s the matter with your ey—?”

“Alex! Claire!” James called from the living room just before he fell into the room.

They immediately looked to him. Alex cleared her throat, momentarily forgetting the change in Claire’s eyes. “What’s the matter?”

He shifted uncomfortably on his feet, expecting a less than pleasant response. “We’re going to the airport, now. Kierlan got you two on a flight out of here in the hour.”

Alex twitched with sudden rage. “Alone?”

He nodded. “We decided it would be best if we stayed in Paris. Mainyu’s not gonna stop unless we send him back where he came from.”

She bit the inside of her mouth, holding back all the nasty things she wanted to say. She knew where they’d be going anyway if Taran held up to his part of the deal. She spat out through clenched teeth, “And Russell?”

“Taran said he’s going to show us place to dump the body. We’ll just have to wait until we have you guys safely on a plane to do it.”

Claire snapped to attention. “After? Why after?”

“We don’t have time to dump the body and bring you two to the airport. He can wait,” James explained.

Taran stepped into the room behind him. “I’ve been telling him it’s on the way, but he won’t listen to me.”

“I can’t risk it,” James said with a note of finality.

A thought suddenly struck Claire through her muddled state. “How’re we gonna get to the airport?”

James ran his hand through his hair, casting a begrudging look toward the living room. “Kierlan has informed me that we will need to steal a car. With the body needing transportation, we wouldn’t be able to take a taxi.”

“Steal a car…” Alex trailed off. “And what’re we gonna do if we get stopped in this stolen car with a body in the trunk? Oh, sorry, Officer, this is all just a misunderstanding. We didn’t kill him, Angra Mainyu did,” she mocked in a poor impression of James’s voice. “That’ll go over great with the police. And we’ll be sitting ducks in prison! We have to drop the body first.”

Behind James, Taran gave Alex an appreciative nod. “She’s right, James. This is our best shot.”

James’s jaw locked. For a long moment, he contemplated her reasoning. “Fine. We’ll drop the body first. But we’ll need to leave now, or we won’t make the flight. Claire, empty your bag.”

“What? Why?” she asked.

James reasoned, “It’s the biggest. We’ll need it to get Russell to the car undetected.”

Claire nodded, shivering with the mental picture of Russell’s body curled up inside her father’s sea-bag. “I’ll be right back.”

“Wait! Wait.” He gestured to her pockets. “What’re those for?”

Claire tested the knives, making sure they were secure. Her face appearing graver than any of them had ever seen it, she replied, “In case Natalia comes back.” Then, she disappeared to retrieve her bag.

Alex and James watched each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. It was Alex who broke their uninterrupted stare first, turning to the counter for a moment to pull two smaller knives from the block. She shoved them into her pockets like Claire had done. At James’s questioning look, she shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”

Not ten minutes later, the group, save for Kierlan, stood in the elevator while they waited anxiously for the ding of the first floor. Taran stood in the corner behind the girls, eyes completely guiltless when he looked over at James. The angel stood in the furthermost corner, his back slightly hunched with the weight of the green canvas bag slung over his shoulder. Some kind of black liquid stained through the bottom, but, whatever it was, they knew no one would assume it was blood. Claire and Alex hung their hands awkwardly over the knives in their pockets, concealing them from the public.

Kierlan had left them earlier in search of transportation, something they hoped would be available when they reached the street. Their worries were unnecessary in that regard. They noticed the gleam of a black BMW against the curb the moment they stepped out of the hotel lobby. Kierlan stood against the front door, watching for any sign of a threat on the street.

James was the first to get to the car, throwing the body easily into the trunk before he pulled himself into the passenger’s seat. Taran and the girls sat in the backseat while Kierlan drove in the direction Taran explained to him, conveniently leaving out the name of their destination. Ten minutes later found them pulling into an empty parking lot.

“This the place?” Kierlan inquired gruffly, trying not to look at Claire while she stared absently out the window.

Taran pointed to the river not twenty feet away. “Ya, this is the place. We just have to throw him in and the water will take care of the rest.”

“Okay,” James nodded. “Let’s get this over with. The plane leaves in…” he briefly checked his watch, “forty minutes.”

Kierlan and James stepped out of the car, slamming the doors behind them.

Taran was instantly upon them. “Alex, call me as soon as you get there, even if they’re watching. Or take a picture. Just send us a clue, any clue, of where you are and we’ll find you.”

Alex nodded ardently. “Ya. I will.”

The two of them reached for the door opposite the River Seine. “Wait!” Taran yelled.

The girls abruptly froze.

“If Natalia was telling the truth then they’ll be waiting for you about a mile that way.”

“Okay,” Claire said, reaching for the door.

“Wait!”

“What?” Alex demanded.

Taran gripped Alex’s hand tightly in both of his. “When you see Janie, tell her I’m coming to get her.”

A smile broke out on Alex’s face. “I will.”

“Thank you,” he sighed. “I’ll hold them off. Just go.”

They nodded, throwing open the doors and sprinting out into the night.

“Where the hell is Taran?” Kierlan grunted, throwing the heavy bag into the water with a huge splash.

“Right here,” he said, approaching them. “Need any help?”

“No, I think we’re good,” James replied. “Let’s get back; I don’t like leaving them alone.”

Taran snickered. “I don’t think they would’ve had the chance to do anything reckless by now.”

“I was talking about Natalia and Mainyu being on the loose,” he amended. “I’ll take the backseat this time, just in case.”

Taran simply nodded, smiling genuinely for the first time all day when he envisioned Janie being safe with him in the next few hours. He didn’t stop smiling even when he got in the passenger’s seat, waiting for the impending shock.

He wasn’t disappointed.

James was the first to notice the empty backseat. “Where are they?!”

Chapter Nineteen

Paris, France; June 30th, 2012

It wasn’t a long time later that Taran and James returned to the hotel room, rightfully deflated from their failed attempt at finding the captives. James’s head hung as he reached for the handle, his free hand fisted in his shirt while he prepared himself to tell Alex that he was returning unsuccessful. He shoved the door open.

Alex jumped away from the door as it opened, jumping back to cover Claire and Kierlan while they, reluctantly, broke apart. Her heart jumped into her throat when she saw James stroll over the threshold. It was clear by James’s weary look of defeat that they’d returned from their journey empty-handed.

Taran, on the other hand, was lit with a fire from within as he stomped purposefully toward Russell, who sat, bored and restless, right where they’d left him. Taran blindly grabbed for one of the knives Kierlan had been playing with from the dining room table and pressed the business end threateningly against the rat’s throat.

“Holy sh—” Russell breathed, leaning helplessly away from the blade.

“What are you doing?” Claire shrieked, her fists still curled into Kierlan’s shirt. Beside them, Alex hadn’t even noticed their newest addition’s emotional break, her eyes still focused on James’s look of defeat.

After today, she knew the feeling.

Noting their compromised position and Kierlan’s soft eyes staring down at her in confusion, Claire shoved away from him before the others could notice.

“Where are they?” Taran roared, pushing the rat’s chair back onto its hind legs so Russell couldn’t move. Red pearls beaded up around the blade pressed to his throat.

“Taran!” James gasped, pulling the blade from the assassin’s hand. Taran spun to face him, jaw dropped to protest while he let the chair, and Russell, fall noisily to the floor.

“What’d you do that for?” Taran demanded.

“We can’t do this,” James insisted.

Kierlan shut the door slowly, having been squished against the wall when they’d burst into the suite. He cleared his throat, eyes flickering to Claire, who was noticeably avoiding his gaze. “I take it you didn’t find them, then.”

“What was your first clue?” Taran snarled, scowling distastefully down at the rat groaning on the floor.

Kierlan held his hands up in surrender.

“Give it back!” Taran snapped, reaching for the knife in James’s hand.

James easily ducked away from him. “No. That’s not how we’re going to do this. It’s not right.”

“Why not?” Kierlan inquired, pushing away from the wall to take one of the other knives off the table. “You wanna know where they are, he knows where they are. I don’t see a problem with it.”

James narrowed his eyes. “I bet you don’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kierlan countered towering over the other man when they stood chest-to-chest.

“Only that we know nothing about you. I mean, what are we supposed to do here, Cole? Welcome you with open arms when, for all we know, this is all just a part of a plan of yours? For all we know, your in league with Natalia! Your opinion doesn’t matter here at all! How did you end up in the catacombs when we were in trouble? And don’t feed me that line about tracking him! I think that’s bullshit!”

Kierlan shoved him away. “Let’s not forget about you, either! You electrocuted me! You’ve been lying to all your friends for God knows how long! You’re a freak, and a dangerous one! Why should we trust you?”

“Guys, s…stop it!” Claire pleaded, pushing against their shoulders to get between them. “James!”

“Don’t make this about him!” Alex enthused, crossing the room and scowling up at Claire when they finally stood toe-to-toe. “He’s our friend! Whose side are you on, Claire?”

“Side? Th…there are no sides, Alex,” Claire murmured. “There’s only us a…and them. You’re not helping the situation this w…way.”

“Put those weird-ass powers away and watch me put you in the ground, little man,” Kierlan snapped, balling his hands into fists at his sides.

Taran, fuming, turned away from the bickering group and took one of the many knives from the table. With his free hand, he put Russell to rights, returning the blade to the sweaty flesh of the rat’s throat. Russell’s chest immediately picked up a quickening rhythm, the sound of his breaths louder to Taran than the screaming behind him.

The captive gulped. “Woah, woah, woah!”

“I’m only going to ask you once before I pop one of your eyes out of its goddamn socket, so listen really carefully. Where is she?” Taran demanded.

“W…who?” he replied.

Taran kept very still, a pleasant smile forming on his face. His teeth glimmered between his taut lips. “Wrong…freaking…answer!” He pulled the blade away from the man’s neck for a short moment, only to grip it savagely in his entire palm. Russell had no time to brace himself before Taran swung it downward, butchering Russell’s thigh with a single swing.

Any problems the others had with each other were immediately forgotten when Russell’s shrieks echoed through the hotel. James was the first to turn, already moving to stop Taran. He froze helplessly when he saw all the blood pooling in the carpet.

“What’re you doing!?” he yelled.

Kierlan moved easily around him. “What does it look like he’s doing? He’s getting answers. Something you were too scared to do yourself. Claire, I think you and Alex should sit in the bedroom.”

“No way,” Alex said, barely casting a glance in Claire’s direction. “I want to hear what that bastard has to say.”

Claire looked between them before her eyes settled on Kierlan. She didn’t want to regret kissing him, but she finally came to the conclusion that her timing had been less than ideal. She winced, eyes shooting back to the floor. “M…me, too.”

Kierlan nodded, studying her averted face with narrowed eyes.

“We can’t do this,” James repeated. “If we do, how are we any better than Natalia and what she’s doing to—”

“Screw you, James,” Taran interjected. “I’ve dealt with these people before, and all I can tell you is that they won’t talk for anything less than this. If we won’t be using them as bait, what do you say we do? Do you want to find them or not?”

James’s eyes guiltily appraised the remnants of his friends around the room, lingering on Alex when she crossed her arms, waiting for his answer. “There’s something you all should know.”

Kierlan chuckled darkly. “Is there? Why am I not surprised?”

James scowled at him out of the corner of his eye but, otherwise, ignored his interruption. “When we went to the prison to find Scottie and Hayden, I felt…something.” He paused, taking a long, shaky breath.

“Felt…what, James?” Alex asked, all the anger in her face replaced by something vulnerable. Her crossed arms fell, reaching for him like he would ward off the inevitable, impending pain.

He stepped backward, avoiding her touch. “This doesn’t mean anything for sure, but there is a possibility that, when we find them…Scottie and Hayden…and Janie,”—he added with a pointed look at Taran—“…we won’t find them all.”

“What do y…you mean?” Claire inquired.

“When we looking for them, I felt something in the air, something evil. I know it means that Mainyu has gotten his powers back.”

Claire gasped.

“So we’re screwed?” Alex finished. “There’s no hope?” She kicked Russell when his screaming continued with fervor. He bit his lip, tears rolling down his bright red face.

He shook his head. “There is hope, there’s always hope.”

“Then I don’t understand, James. What’s going on?” Alex demanded, childishly stomping her foot.

“There’s only one way he would’ve been able to regain his strength, and that’s with a human sacrifice.”

The wheels started turning in their heads, but it was Claire who finally spoke what they were all thinking. “S…so you think they s…sacrificed Scottie or Hayden?”

Taran hid the sting of fear in his chest well, but it fueled his rage, nevertheless. “One way to find out,” he said, glaring disgustedly down at Russell’s face. Russell’s eyes were glued to the knife handle protruding from his leg, having tuned out their conversation long ago.

Taran’s hand wrapped around the handle while the other supported him on Russell’s unmarred thigh.

James clapped his hand down on Taran’s shoulder. “Wait.”

“Get off me,” the unstable man ordered, shaking him off. In one fluid movement, Taran yanked the blade from Russell’s leg, opening the floodgates anew. They were sure his screams could be heard through the entire city.

“Someone’s going to come looking for that noise,” James muttered condescendingly.

“Shut up,” Kierlan snapped. “I think we should start asking some questions.”

Taran nodded. “Go ahead. After that, I’m sure he’s in a much better mood to answer them, aren’t you, you piece of shit!”

Russell breathed deeply through his nose, blinking away the moisture in his eyes. His pursed lips muffled his dying screams, but, after a long moment, he nodded.

“Good,” Kierlan grinned. He continued in a voice like an amused parent, “First of all, did your friends kill their friends?”

Russell opened his mouth to speak, but, instead of words emerging, he spat in Kierlan’s face.

Kierlan held his breath, repressing the urge to kill him before they could make him talk, and, dramatically, wiped his face with his shirt. No one dared to breathe, waiting for his retaliation.

Kierlan said nothing, balling his massive hand into a fist. Rearing back a few inches, knowing Russell couldn’t move to avoid it, Kierlan threw his fist at the rat as hard as he could, hitting him in the cheek with a strength that claimed a satisfying crack.

“Shit!” Russell screeched, his chair leaning precariously to the right. Taran caught it easily, settling it back into place on the floor.

“Now that we’ve gotten that over with,” Taran mocked, his words hissing past Russell’s ear, “let’s get down to business.”

“I won’t tell you anything,” he insisted, bracing himself for the next bout of pain.

No such thing came.

“Yes, you will,” Taran challenged, playing with the knife in his hand.

Russell’s eyes flickered open. “Why would I do that?” he demanded, watching the blade glint in the light, tinted red with his own blood.

“Because you have no loyalties,” Kierlan added. “You’ll sell out anyone and anything if it meant saving your own ass.”

Russell glowered up at him. “You’re right, Kierlan. I would sell out anyone if it meant saving my own ass. Anyone.”

“Good,” he grabbed Russell’s hair tightly, yanking his head back so he was in position to cut his throat. “Now, answer the question.”

“What was the question? What was it?!” Russell pleaded.

“Who did your people do the sacrifice on?” Taran repeated, praying to the God he didn’t believe in that it hadn’t been his Janie.

“I don’t know,” the prisoner mumbled.

Kierlan pressed the burning metal further into Russell’s neck. “You’re lying!”

“I’m not! I’m not! I swear to God, I’m not lying! I swear, I don’t know!”

Claire watched the line of red bead up around the knife and immediately felt her stomach flip. Forgetting momentarily why she was there, she jumped to her feet, already running toward the bathroom attached to the master bedroom. James stole her seat on the couch beside Alex.

“Then you’re useless,” Kierlan said, ready to kill him in that instant.

Wait!” Russell shrieked. “Wait!”

Kierlan held his hand still, hoping he wouldn’t regret it. “Ready to tell us?”

Russell gulped, trying, unsuccessfully to make his neck thinner. “It was supposed to be him,” he explained, glancing pointedly at Taran.

“Me,” he stated, cocking an eyebrow.

“Ya,” he affirmed, unable to nod. “The boss had a problem with you or something, said that we were supposed to kill you. That some guy would show us how. If it wasn’t him, they could’ve used anyone. Natalia bought it, but I thought he was a lunatic, but he was paying us a shitload of money, so we—”

“So that’s why they kept me alive,” Taran added, finally putting the pieces together.

“Wait,” James ordered. “Someone hired you to do this? Who?”

“We never saw the guy. He only left letters, no return address, and by phone with Natalia, on a disposable phone. We tried to find out, but it was like he didn’t exist at all!” he explained desperately.

“When did he hire you?”

“I don’t know. December? A week before we stole that stupid piece of paper from the British Museum.

James gasped, seeing Russell in a new light. “That was—?”

“I thought he just wanted to sell it. Then he got us to do stupid shit, like go to high school with you guys and follow Claire around. Be friends with her. That’s all. Until last month when he told us we had to go with her to Paris and do all this! I swear to God if I’d known this was what he had in mind, I wouldn’t have done it! I swear!”

Then Russell sobbed like a baby.

Everyone else convened in the room looked from face to face, at a loss as to how they would proceed from there. Kierlan shoved the knife into his pocket, kneeling so they were at eye level. “Russell,” he murmured soothingly. “Where are they?”

“Please don’t kill me,” he begged, squinting through the tears in his eyes. “Please! I don’t wanna die!”

James was the only one in the room who noticed the black mist forming outside the window, buzzing like a swarm of angry bees. He sprang to his feet. “Get away from the window!”

Kierlan and Taran jumped at the sudden outburst. “James, what’s—?” Kierlan muttered.

“Get away from the window!” he growled, yanking Alex up by her arm. Before he faced the other men again, he pushed her toward the kitchen, “Hide somewhere, anywhere.” Noting the urgency she’d never heard from him before, she quickly obliged, searching for a cupboard to hide in.

Finally hearing the noise outside the window, Taran turned to the window. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed, pushing Kierlan toward the opposite wall. “Go! Go!”

“Don’t leave me!” Russell begged, unable to turn and watch the impending doom. “Come back! Please take me with you!”

Kierlan’s chest tightened, moved by the pathetic man while he cried louder than ever.

The black smoke entered the suite easily through the shattered window, filling the space from wall to wall as it entered, claiming Russell. They watched the dark vapor enter him through his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth, and, finally, his mouth when he screamed. And, for the last time, Russell’s screams echoed through their brains.

The smoke settled quickly, crawling across the floor, most of it toward the window. A small cloud, however, crept across the carpet toward the door to the master bedroom, slipping easily, and silently, through the crack under it. Once it passed the threshold, it expanded into a thick, overwhelming cloud once more.

“Oh my God—” James breathed.

“Claire!” Kierlan roared.

Claire never saw it coming when she finally opened the bathroom door, wiping the last drop of bile from the corner of her mouth with her sleeve. The buzzing mass hit her full on, flying effortlessly up her nostrils when she inhaled and into her mouth when she gasped. Suddenly seeing nothing but darkness, she staggered on weak legs in the direction she hoped the bed would be. Blind, deaf, and unable to scream for help, Claire caught her foot on the carpet and sprawled out on the floor.

Before she gave into terror and exhaustion, she heard his voice in her mind hiss:

Come to me, my love.