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.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012

Janie swung back and forth over someone’s shoulder as they strode into the unknown.

She didn’t know the answers to the major questions she’d asked herself since her incarceration, but the feeling of the breeze against her face was unmistakable, as was the sight of the sidewalk below. Tape covered her mouth and her arms were forced under her, bound tightly at the wrists. In her opinion, it was unnecessary, given the severity of the injuries around her body; it wasn’t as if she could fight them off.

It wasn’t as if she could run away.

The man carrying Hayden walked behind them, his captive’s blonde hair brushing against the ground while she helplessly swung, bound and gagged. Janie could only assume Scottie was being carried ahead of her while they were led away by Natalia. The sound of her signature heels clacking against the concrete sidewalk was the only sound in Janie’s ears, other than her own heartbeat as the blood rushed to her head.

She wished that she could talk to Hayden and Scottie, to ask them what they knew and if they had any idea where they were going. Unfortunately, since they’d been placed side by side in the trunk of the car that brought them here, their mouths had been taped. Hayden had rested her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder, wondering which of them would die first while they waited for salvation.

Janie had no one to turn to for comfort and now she was sure there’d be no help coming for them. Even if Taran did come back with help, there’d be no one back at the prison to save after tonight. Given the contents of the message they’d sent to Hayden and Scottie’s friends, she was sure that, by the day’s end, there wouldn’t be anything to save at all. She didn’t cry, didn’t try to resist, and swung back and forth, waiting for what they had planned for her.

She could immediately tell that they’d stepped inside when the pleasant breeze on her face turned stale and the light of the streetlamps went dark. They stopped once they were fully immersed in the dark tunnels of catacombs, giving Natalia the chance to light a match. She pulled one of the torches from the wall and let it burst into light, illuminating the group.

They continued through the tunnels seeing Natalia light the torches on the wall as they went deeper and deeper underground. The air grew cold as they went and the quiet drip of water echoing through the cavern warred with Natalia’s footsteps.

“Where’s Russ?” the guy carrying Hayden asked, adjusting her so he wouldn’t step on her hair.

Natalia didn’t turn to face him. “Russell knew what was at stake if he did not get here on time. We cannot postpone the sacrifice waiting for him anymore.”

“What about Vilmore?”

“I have no idea where Vilmore has gone.”

“How much further?” the other demanded, grunting under the weight of his captive, Scottie.

“Look for yourself, you idiot! I can see it from here.”

Sure enough, brightness lit the rest of the tunnel as they neared their destination.

A room lined with the torches was suddenly upon them, and Janie was dropped to the floor like a bag of trash. She let herself flop against the ground, completely relaxed. She didn’t curl up to nurse what hurt, which, at the moment, was everything. Her flat eyes glanced around the room, briefly finding the walls of human remains and realizing: this was it. This was the place where she would find her end, just like all the other unnamed people in the walls.

Then her eyes landed on the center of the room.

A stone slab was being slowly lowered to the floor by three men. They exhaled loudly as it landed with a crash, rubbing their hands together when the heavy rock was out of their hands. Her tied hands were pulled over head, her body dragged to the wall where she was forced to sit up against the skeletal remains. A cold shackle closed around her ankle, chaining her to the floor. Her hands fell into her lap.

“Mortal!” a voice roared. A figure bedecked in tattered robes stood across the room, his face hidden from her as he scowled mercilessly at Natalia.

“My lord,” she bowed deeply, placing her forehead to her knee.

His hand sliced through the air, backhanding Natalia hard enough to send her falling to the floor. “You promised me Bomani!” he bellowed.

She pulled herself up with some difficulty, chest heaving as she gasped for air. “My…” she swallowed, shaking her head. “My apologies, my Lord. He escaped yesterday. All efforts to recover him have, so far, been unsuccessful.”

The man turned away from her, finally revealing his face. “You mortals are useless!”

Janie pushed herself back into the wall with a bloodcurdling shriek, muffled by the tape over her mouth. She tried to flee but fell short when her ankle caught on the shackle. Her fingernails scratched against the floor as she tried to crawl away, succeeding only in painting the floor with blood she couldn’t spare. His eyes were burning through her, glowing red through the firelight. The flesh of his face was freely hanging from his jaw, the other parts completely bared bone or nothing at all, revealing the remnants of a decaying tongue. The same went for his abdomen, where a hole was blasted clean through him. His legs were more skeleton than living man.

While Janie cowered on the floor, Natalia returned to bowing before Angra Mainyu, her face stinging like fire. “I apologize again, My Lord. I was not there to stop him. But you may take your pick of anyone else here…”

“This will not be satisfactory! I cannot have Bomani walking around when I am so close to taking Ziba,” he snarled, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and skeletal index finger. “I should kill you for this, mortal scum.”

Natalia closed her eyes tightly, still bent over her knee. “We can find him, My Lord. We will bring him to you if you would just remain here.”

He scowled down at her. “No.”

“But, My Lord, you are still weak—”

“No. The angel has him now.”

Natalia didn’t show fear. She said nothing. Mainyu watched her for another moment before his eyes fell on the other two captives slung carelessly over the other men’s shoulders.

“Who are these humans?”

Natalia jerked up, looking back at the others who may have turned out to be her saving grace, after all. “These are Ziba’s friends. We’re using them to lure her here.”

A Cheshire cat grin slowly broke out on Mainyu’s face. “Excellent.”

Hayden groaned into the tape as her back hit the floor beside Scottie. Her eyes fell on Janie across the room and knew exactly who was in the room with them. The look of terror on Janie’s face could tell that better than the unmistakable sound of Mainyu’s voice. When she finally tore her gaze from the older girl, her eyes fell on Scottie as he was hauled off the ground.

“We will use him instead, then,” Mainyu ordered. “I think it is time I remind Ziba why she should come to me.”

Natalia straightened up. “Yes, My Lord. What would you like us to do with them?”

Mainyu pointed to Janie. “Leave her with that one. I am sure we will think of something to do with them. Him. Put him on the stone.”

Hayden wanted to scream and curse in protest, but she couldn’t get anything past the gag. As she was pulled to the wall beside Janie and locked into a shackle at her ankle, she screamed into the tape, begging them to put her love back beside her, where he belonged. The only response she received was a swift kick to her beautiful face, and a gruff, “Shut up.”

Otherwise, she was completely ignored, everyone’s complete attention focused on Scottie.

They tore the tape from Scottie’s mouth.

Shit!” he yelled, his head jerking up as the tape came off. “Get the hell off me! Help!”

“Do not waste your breath, Scott,” Natalia advised, kneeling on his one side and gesturing for one of the others to mirror her. “No one can hear you down here.”

Scottie didn’t listen. “Help!” he shrieked, trying to roll off the slab. Natalia caught him by the shoulder, pinning him down while the man on the opposite side did the same to the other. Hayden watched, horrified, as Mainyu pulled a dagger from his robes and the flesh of his hand simultaneously slip off. Scottie had done the same, and struggled to escape their grasp as the God of Destruction neared him. “Jesus Christ! Somebody help me!”

Mainyu mumbled under his breath as he walked toward the stone slab, feeling the dagger grow hot with anticipation. “Grant me all the powers of my birth through this sacrifice, that I may smite those who resist me. With the taking of this mortal’s life, I will live again.” Slowly, he raised the dagger over his head, stepping closer to Scottie’s body.

Scottie didn’t move, knowing it was useless to fight at this point. His head lolled to the side, waiting for Hayden to look at him. “Baby,” he almost squeaked, traitor tears trailing down his face. “Hayden, look at me. Please?”

Hayden didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want to see what grisly things they planned on doing to him. She couldn’t deny him this, though. Her eyes found his through the moisture obstructing her view. “What?” she whimpered.

He smiled, despite the circumstances. “I love you,” he mouthed.

Hayden sniffled, keeping her eyes fixed on his, even when she knew the knife had found its mark in his chest, and he never looked away, even when he felt the pain. “I love you, too, Scottie, always,” she vowed, just a short second before his head fell back, the life leaving him.

She crumpled backwards, hugging Janie when she saw that the older girl had watched their final exchange. They felt the stifling wind as it blew from Mainyu’s body, rendering him fully intact like they had never seen him. A grayish glow lit him from within, his eyes completely black and a smile on his face.

Hayden and Janie held onto each other, wishing that this nightmare would end.

***

“Are you sure this is how you get there?” James asked, shoving through branches behind Taran as he ran through the brush.

Taran stopped for a moment, finding a shred from his shirt stuck on a thorn. “Positive,” he snapped, throwing the cloth back at his companion.

James fumbled to catch it, eyeing it closely, and then threw it to the ground. When he looked up, Taran had taken off running again. He struggled to catch up. “And what’s your plan when we get there?” he called.

Taran broke through the tree line and hid behind a bush, looking out for guards. “You zap people with your energy…things…and I’ll punch ‘em. We get Janie, we run.”

James had barely knelt down beside him when Taran took off toward the back door of the building, the door he’d escaped through just yesterday. “Good plan,” James muttered, standing and following dutifully, ready to strike.

Taran threw the door open.

He wasn’t expecting to be faced with an abandoned room. James fell into the room behind him, knocking Taran off balance and startling James into a scream.

“Shhh!” Taran panicked, looking around for any sign of the armed men.

Nothing. There wasn’t even a whisper throughout the whole warehouse.

“Taran, I don’t think…” James said, eyeing for a gun, a man, anything that hinted there’d ever been human existence there.

“She’s here. They kept her downstairs. Come on!” Taran urged, bounding down the steps to the basement. James followed slowly behind, knowing the worst was to come. Then, he stopped.

A sour breeze swept the room, the air unmistakably stained with gray. James had seen it, dreaded it for hundreds of years. Staggering backward, he knew exactly what had happened. The sacrifice.

Inhaling deeply as the wind blew heavily through the room, the stale air caught in his lungs, burning him like he’d breathed in fire.

“God help us,” he coughed under his breath, falling to his knees under the weight of his failure. “He’s back.”

Blissfully unaware in the corridor below, Taran ran headlong toward the familiar door, slowing only as he noticed it was already open. Looking silently around the corner, he felt the breath leave him when he saw that Janie was gone.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012

Janie hit the floor in a tangle of limbs. She didn’t dare make a sound, knowing exactly what followed when she did.

No one there would help her anyway.

Janie wasn’t sure where Natalia had brought them, but she knew they had left her personal hell at least an hour ago. Since their arrival, she’d been dragged across concrete floors, down stairs, and finally thrown into a heap with the other captives. She’d learned long ago that, in Natalia’s presence, she shouldn’t make a sound, but Hayden and Scottie, unprepared and terrified, hadn’t shut up since they got there. Scottie spouted empty threats at anyone who would listen while Hayden sobbed into his shoulder, ignorant of what was to come.

The room was brightly lit, displaying Janie’s horrifying deformities for all to see. Even Janie wanted to avert her eyes from her body’s gruesome flesh. She exhaled a dark chuckle, wondering how Taran could have stomached touching her, but she stopped that thought in its tracks. Thoughts of him were strictly forbidden even in the most harmless degree. They raised too many questions of where he was, what he was doing, and, most importantly, if he was coming back. The sound of someone’s skull hitting the floor pulled her from her reverie.

Then it was quiet.

Not a foot away, Scottie’s mouth lay open in a frozen scream and his eyes stared up at the woman leaning over him. The arch of her boot encased his throat, the heel pressing into the side closer to her. Janie’s eyes followed the path of the boot trailing higher up its owner’s body, finally finding the familiar, strawberry blonde locks falling around the nape of her neck. A tranquil smile remained on her face, but her eyes were narrowed into slits, one eye twitching with irritation.

Scottie coughed as she stepped more forcefully onto his neck.

“That is better,” she murmured. “Now, I need you all to be good children.”

“What’re you gonna do to us?” Hayden whimpered, wiggling away from Natalia’s other boot.

Natalia bit the inside of her mouth, unimpressed at being interrupted. “I will not have to do anything if you and your friends cooperate.”

Janie had learned well enough that the woman was not to be trusted. “Then why are we here?”

She didn’t have time to prepare herself before the toe of Natalia’s shoe met her cheek, shoving her onto her side. Hayden gasped and burst out in tears again, reaching for Janie’s shoulder. She recoiled instantly with a shriek when Natalia, mercilessly, stomped on her hand.

“You see, this,” she announced, stepping over them, “is not cooperation. If you will all be silent and do as I tell you, none of you will be hurt!”

Janie’s lip quivered against the ground. Taran, she thought.

“Is that understood?” Natalia continued.

They said nothing.

“Good,” she grinned. “Now, we are going to make a little…movie. I think it is time we sent a message to your friends.”

Save me…

***

“We have to help them! What if there’s too many for them to handle? What if they need help? What if they get lost? What—” Alex ranted, pacing before Kierlan’s stubborn body. He hadn’t moved from his place by the door, watching the girls for any sign of a brewing scheme. By this point, he didn’t think either of them was capable of such a feat.

Since James and Taran had made their dramatic escape, Claire hadn’t left the couch, too engrossed in the self-loathing thoughts he knew nothing about. Alex, on the other hand, hadn’t shut up, or strayed from the path she was making in the floor. He was feeling less like a dangerous criminal and more like a babysitter by the minute.

Little did he know Claire had finally hit rock bottom. Her thoughts revolved around her absent friends, knowing they’ been taken because of her. She tortured herself with the mental image of what they could possibly be enduring in Natalia’s hands, bloody, beaten…dead? She envisioned impossible scenarios in her head, visions where James and his new friend brought Hayden and Scottie back safely.

After that, she didn’t know what they were supposed to do to send Mainyu back where he’d come from. She could only imagine that James would refuse any help, as usual, and hide her while he dealt with the god in his…supernatural way. She wanted to help, it was her, or Ziba’s fault he was after them in the first place. But she didn’t know how.

“Jesus Christ, will you please shut her up!” Russell snarled, writhing against the chair he was tied to.

Kierlan rolled his eyes. “Sorry, girly, I can’t let you out.”

“Why not?” Alex snapped, crossing her arms to mirror his stubborn posture.

“Your boyfriend told me not to.”

Alex rolled her eyes. “Oh please, what do you care if we go out there? Last I checked, none of this concerns you!”

“Trust me,” he muttered through clenched teeth, “you don’t wanna go out there with that thing.”

“Like I said: Not. Your. Problem! If we wanna go out there and get killed, that’s our problem!”

Kierlan said nothing, but his eyes flickered over to Claire on the couch. She was curled up so tightly into herself that she looked smaller than the petite girl standing up to him.

Incapable of scheming?

Though it was a foreign concept to Claire, being as innocent as she was, she would have done anything in that moment if it meant protecting her friends. For once, she wanted to be the hero, instead of the damsel in distress. Just once.

Somewhere in the suite, three cell phones simultaneously shrieked.

“Who the hell is calling me?” Alex snarled without tearing her eyes from Kierlan.

Claire looked up to find Kierlan’s gaze centered on her. She gulped and averted her eyes. “M…Mine, too. Maybe it’s James?”

“I don’t think he’d be calling me,” Russell mocked, gesturing with his chin to his singing pants pocket.

Eyebrows knit, Alex reached into the front pocket of her jeans and glared down at the screen. Astonishment colored her face when she read the name: Natalia. Instantly, she accepted the Facetime request.

“You bitch,” she gasped when the assassin’s face on her phone. “You bitch, where are you? What did you do to them?”

“Alexandria, this is not a time for you to make demands,” the lilting voice replied, her face unaffected by the name calling.

“What did you do to Hayden and Scottie?” Alex growled, narrowing her eyes.

Natalia grinned, showing teeth. “Tell your friend to accept the call.”

Alex pursed her lips but finally whispered, “Claire, answer the phone.”

The blonde complied. She winced when Natalia’s face came into view. “Natalia, w…what do you wan—”

“I am glad I have all of your attention,” Natalia laughed. James’s voice mumbled something in the background as his picture appeared in the corner of the frame. Taran scowled down at the screen over his shoulder.

“What’s going o—”Claire began.

“I am here to make a deal you cannot refuse,” she taunted, her entire face filling the frame. “I have a few people here that I am sure you are all missing.” The screen jerked away from her face, and spun to display the illuminated faces of Hayden, Scottie, and Janie.

The three captives sat in a line of three chairs, their arms wound behind them.  Janie sat forward, the ropes wrapped around her supporting her frail body. The latest kick to her face had swelled her cheek to epic proportions, forcing one of her eyes shut. Hayden’s makeup streaked from her glassy eyes and her lip quivered; her chair shook with the tremors of her body. Beside her, Scottie’s mouth was covered by duct tape, but his muffled shrieking was still audible to them. As they watched, a man appeared in the frame, striking Scottie’s temple with the butt of his gun. The girls standing in the hotel room gasped, Claire’s hand flying to her mouth. Blood trickled from Scottie’s face and his yelling abruptly cut off as he swayed precariously toward Hayden.

“Scottie!” Hayden shrieked, erupting in tears.

Janie said nothing; it was hard to believe she was even conscious.

“Oh my God,” Taran murmured, yanking James’s phone away. “Janie?”

The girl’s head jerked upward like she’d been slapped, her eyes darting every which way in search of something that wasn’t there. “Taran?” she mumbled under her breath. When she didn’t see him, and her eyes found Natalia instead, she winced and let her body fall slack against the ropes again.

“D…Don’t hurt them!” Claire pleaded.

“You know what we want, James,” Natalia snarled.

“Anything!” Alex exclaimed, staring at her friends, wherever they were. Despite all her effort, her eyes couldn’t help but wander to the grotesque face of the girl she’d never seen before. Her heart twisted, wondering how old the girl was: fourteen…fifteen? Nausea roiled in her stomach, watching Taran’s face fall further and further into anguish. “What do you want?”

Natalia’s teeth glimmered in the light. “Bring Claire and Alex to the River Seine in one hour, or we will kill your friends. One. By. One.”

The line abruptly disconnected.

Alex stood frozen with phone still in hand. “We have to go.”

“Wait,” Claire whispered. “W…what if they find them? Maybe we should w…wait for James to come b…back?”

Alex shoved uselessly at Kierlan’s chest. “And what if they don’t?! If we wait for them to come back, James will never let us go.”

“I know that!” Claire said. “But we can’t just walk into a dangerous situation like this because they say they’ll let Scottie and Hayden go. What if they’re lying?”

Alex’s hands pulled at her hair. “We don’t have a choice, Claire! They’ll kill them. And it’ll be all our fault!”

Claire stood, hesitantly enveloping her friend in a hug. “Alex, James has powers, r…remember, if anyone can stop them—”

“If he can find them,” she breathed. “And what if they’re waiting for him to try that? We can’t assume that they know less than we do, they brought a God back to life!”

“Alex, listen—”

“No. You listen,” Alex whimpered. “I’m going back to the catacombs whether you go or not. I’m not going to let Scottie, Hayden, or that girl die because we’re scared. I won’t make you go with me, Claire,” she continued, holding Claire at arm’s length, “but I want you to remember what’ll happen if you don’t go.”

“I know what’ll happen,” Claire muttered. “I can’t go.”

Alex retracted her hands like she’d been burned. “Claire!” she gasped, eyes widening. “For once in your life, try to be a little irrational.”

The blonde’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.

Irrational? Her mind was made up before she gave herself the chance to weigh the outcomes again. After all, she’d always wanted to be a hero, and now she finally had the chance to do right by her friends. Now was her chance to prove she wasn’t the baby in their group. Her eyes flashed to Kierlan, standing against the door with his scowl focused on Russell.

She approached him slowly, looking up to meet his full height, until her chest nearly touched his. Confusion colored his face when he finally met her gaze. “Claire?”

“Please, we need to leave,” she murmured begrudgingly.

His eyebrows knit together and he chuckled darkly. “I told you, I’m not letting you through. You’re both safer here.”

“Please,” she pleaded. “Our friends’ lives depend on it.”

He cringed, guilt shining in his eyes. He leaned down to her height, ignoring her shiver when he placed his lips beside her ear. His breath tickled her neck. “Believe me, Claire. That woman isn’t going to let your friends go if you run to help them. Stay here. Stay safe.”

He leaned away from her, crossing his arms and becoming cold once again. Claire bit her tongue, glancing from the door to his face and back again. Irrational? She didn’t want to weigh the possible consequences of her actions, especially when she wanted it so badly. And the door was just a step away.

She didn’t think about it when she reached up, ignoring his startled protest when she pulled him down to her level by his neck, and slanted her lips over his, her free hand curling around the doorknob.

Alex took the opportunity Claire presented and ran for the door.