God of Destruction

Chapter Twenty-Five

Paris, France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl said nothing.

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

Again, nothing.

“Taran’s Janie?” she continued.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” she pleaded. “Tell me!”

“He said he’s coming to get you.”

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

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

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

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

Janie smiled through another sob. “He does?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Alex demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harder than that,” Janie ordered.

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

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

“You!” Natalia shrieked, approaching them quickly.

“Alex, go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t go back.

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

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

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

Her echo answered back.

“James!” she repeated.

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

“Alex?” his voice called back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

629 B.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you afraid?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ziba—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, High Priestess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Lord, I—” she interjected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes narrowed. “What?”

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Northern France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taran said nothing, shaking him off.

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

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

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

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

“What?!” James bellowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver Claire to Natalia.

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

He just wanted to rescue the naïve girl.

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

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

“Alex—” Taran began, averting his gaze.

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

The shrill cry of a cell phone interrupted his monologue.

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

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

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

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

He took the call. “Hello?”

No answer.

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

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

“What?” he asked. “Alex?”

“Citchicumbs,” it whispered.

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

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

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

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

Alex didn’t answer.

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

The line suddenly went dead.

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

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

“You know Natalia?” Taran inquired innocently.

Kierlan twitched when he realized his mistake.

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

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

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

“No!” Kierlan interjected. “James—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would you do that?” Taran demanded.

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

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

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

James nodded. “You’re right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he barked. “I didn’t.”

“But, you had the perfect chance—?”

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

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

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

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

“The girl with the pictures. Janie.”

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

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

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

“To die.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twenty-Two

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Sasha’s body bucked in protest when Garrett tried to slide his hands under her. “No!” Her fingers probed at the metal strip protruding through her chest. This was bad. This was very bad. Her blood spilled freely to the ground, pooling around her, and Sasha could do nothing to stop it. Even sitting up seemed impossible.

Garrett frantically withdrew his hands. “What do I do? What do you want me to do? Sasha, tell me what to do!”

It hurt to speak. “Garrett,” she moaned. A gurgle followed, rather than the words she had carefully chosen. “Where…where is s…she?”

“Christ, there’s blood in your mouth—”

Sasha shook her head with much effort. “Move, Garrett.”

“Where?”

Sasha did not look up. She gulped, downing the thick, coppery fluid accumulating in her mouth. “Anywhere.”

They were too vulnerable. She was too vulnerable. They needed to get inside as soon as possible, before the Chameleon could wade through the rubble enough to find them. And then they needed to find medical supplies, or Sasha would be dead anyway. Her screaming may have already given them away for all she knew.

“You’re hurt, I can’t lift you,” he reasoned.

Sasha tested the blade driving her in two and steeled herself against another scream. “You…you have to.” She would have said more, but those last few words left her breathless.

“I’ll hurt you—”

“Now!”

He was not gentle, although Sasha assumed he was trying to be. He scooped her up at an inhuman speed, clutching her against his chest to muffle her cry of pain. She kept perfectly still. Her mind was clouded by the agony, but she still searched for a way out. There had to be a way out. There always was.

Garrett sighed with frustration. “There’s people everywhere.”

Her eyes flickered in every direction, taking in the sight of the aghast pedestrians and the construction area they were lucky enough to stumble across. There were three commercial buildings, all in various stages of production, although they all seemed stable enough to hold the two of them. Any workers would have come out to take in the sight of the wreck. Any others could face Garrett for all she cared.

Sasha nodded to the site. “There.”

He did not question her. Holding her close, he ran, ignoring the wails of the onlookers behind them. With every contact between Garrett’s foot and the ground, Sasha’s maimed flesh erupted anew. She felt the blood spilling off of her body.

“Oh God,” he kept saying, looking between her and the door of the building. “We’re leaving a trail.”

“Go.”

Sasha should have cared more that they would easily be tracked by the Chameleon, but her closing window took precedence. She knew what she should have been doing, given the circumstances. She should have been applying pressure to the wound and keeping her eyes open, but there seemed to be some kind of disconnect between her mind and body that forbade it. All she wanted to do was sleep. To give herself over to the peace and quiet that rest offered.

And that was exactly why she refused to do it.

Because, even though she had only delivered death to others hundreds of times, she already knew that this was what it had to feel like. Sasha was losing blood too quickly. Death was creeping into her thoughts, whispering that she should sleep. She refused to give in, especially not to something that she had bested many times in her two decades of life. There had to be another way.

Garrett stopped, shaking Sasha from her thoughts. Her eyes had closed against her will. “What do I do? What do I do?”

He placed her on what had to be a table. It was covered in saw dust. Sasha swallowed blood. Something was very wrong.

“Oh my God. Sasha, tell me what to do,” he pleaded.

Her mind was racing, but she could not tell what she was thinking at the same time. Nothing productive was surfacing. “I don’t know.”

“What?” he looked her over with glassy eyes. “I need bandages. And…um…alcohol. This place is too dirty. It won’t be good for you.”

Sasha cracked a little smile. “I’m going to die.”

“No! No, you’re not,” he insisted. “Just hold on a little longer and I’ll figure it out.”

Sasha did not have a little longer. As much as she hated to think it, the fatigue was becoming too much for even her to fight. Oblivion was so close. Too close. And she was afraid. “Garrett…” If she had the strength, she would have reached for his face. She wanted to touch him. She could not even find words to say what she wanted.

“Stop it, you’re not dying,” he snapped. Under his breath, he continued, “Not again.”

She wished she could have known if she had been Poppy once. The thought came out of nowhere. After all, it did no good to wish for impossible things. She knew that. But now, on the edge of death, did it really matter what she wanted or wished or waited for?

“Garrett—”

“What?” he countered, ripping her shirt enough to display the huge red ring around the sharp steel killing her. “What do I do?”

What would it have been like to be her? Sasha imagined it. She saw herself, sitting in a school cafeteria with a boy that was completely bewitched by her presence. She saw a carefree life, without training or fighting or killing. She wondered if she could have enjoyed a life like that.

“Garrett,” Sasha spat through the blood in her mouth. “Am I her?”

“What?” he hissed. “Now’s not the time, Sasha! We have to think—”

“I wish I was her.”

He froze. “You do?”

She nodded. From far away, she could tell that there were tears running down her face. It was already too hard to ignore how tired she was, but she was accustomed to being strong. “I wish I could be what you want.”

“Stop it, stop talking.” He wrapped his hand around the steel and pulled, but Sasha’s body refused to let go. She sobbed. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry.” His face reflected her tears. Garrett grabbed for her hand, holding it tightly between his larger, much warmer ones. “You’re everything I want.”

She smiled. “I want you, too.”

“That’s why we’re going to figure this out. Just stay with me. We need to think.”

“I can’t—”

“You can and you’re going to. Just think. You’re so smart. Help me think.”

It was too hard. Everything was too hard. How could she think when she could not even stay awake? “I don’t—”

“You’re going to live, Sasha!”

He was talking too fast, she could hardly understand him. Her head was too full. “I’m not strong enough.”

Garrett laughed, albeit shakily. “God, who are you?”

She did not know what to say, so she said it again. “I’m not strong enough.”

“No,” the revelation came over his face like a bright light. “No, but I am. I can save you.”

“What?” she slurred. Her eyes slid shut.

He shook her by the shoulders, snapping her back to semi-awareness. “My blood. If I give some to you, it would heal you. It could save you!”

Something about his blood meant something to her, but the rest of his words got jumbled up in her head somewhere. She only looked at him, smiled again, and closed her eyes.

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

Somewhere in the building, a door slammed, sending a ripple of echoes my way. A familiar scream followed, pleading wildly, “Let me go! Please! Please, let go!”

“Oh, relax, my dear, it’ll all be over soon,” Summit replied.

“Poppy?” I called, grasping for anything I could reach. I ran faster around the room, hand still poised over the wall. “Poppy?”

I could tell in the dark that her voice was full of tears. “Garrett!”

“Where are you?!” I yelled.

She sobbed loudly, her only answer.

“Where are you?” I was forced to a halt by something flat and hard, bruising my face. I bounced off. “What—”

The lights abruptly turned on, blinding me. I masked my eyes with my palm and found Summit Freeman holding Poppy just before my eyes.  His arms were wound around the woman’s waist, holding her still against him while she reached for me, kicking and screaming. I reached for her, only for my hands to hit the same hard surface my nose had just met. “Baby,” I whispered, knocking on her face.

A mirror.

I looked around, only to find the same picture surrounding me in every direction. Mirrors stood in every direction, reflecting the nightmare before me hundreds of times. The walls were made up of mirrors, the door was covered by mirror, the ceiling, the floor, and everywhere I looked. All I could see was Poppy and Summit. Each one looked the same, but only one would be the real thing. “Pretty isn’t it?” Summit asked over Poppy’s desperate pleas.

I was not in the mood. “What do you want?” I weaved through the mirrors, knocking on each one I passed to be sure that was what it was.

“I want you to stop moving.”

I did not stop, just kept investigating the glass. “You know I can’t do that.”

Summit smiled. “Fine, then she dies right here!”

Poppy’s unintelligible sobbing turned to a series of “No! No!”

I simultaneously froze, finding one reflection to stare at and entreating it to sympathize. “Please, she has nothing to do with this.”

“I think she does, Garrett,” Summit continued. “After all, she’s here isn’t she? You told her about us didn’t you? You made her a part of this!”

I shook my head. “She doesn’t know anything about you, I swear.”

Summit laughed. “Oh. Well, isn’t this awkward. I suppose I shouldn’t have told you all about it, my dear.”

“Just let her go—”

“I’m afraid that would be impossible.”

Poppy was still screaming.

My head was feeling light from the rush of adrenaline in my system. I struggled to speak clearly, wanting nothing more than to run to my wife and leave. Dispatching the weak, mortal man should have been all too easy. “What do you want?”

“I thought you’d realized by now,” the villain hissed, groping the love of my life. “I want you to suffer.”

“It’s done. I’m suffering. I’ll do anything, Freeman,” I swore. “Just give me my wife.”

Summit appeared to consider this for a second. “I suppose I could be persuaded. But I want you to do something first.”

“Anything. Anything.”

“Beg.”

My pride evaporated into thin air. “Please, Freeman—”

“Sir.”

I winced. “Sir, I’m begging you, don’t hurt my wife. I will do anything, if you don’t hurt my wife. Have mercy.”

Summit stood silently, thinking it over. “If you want her, Garrett, come get her.”

I didn’t move. “I did what you told me.”

“And now I’m telling you to come get her.” Summit bowed theatrically. “Now, Psionic Soldier. Do it now or she dies!”

It was all I needed to hear. I spun in every which direction, searching for the flesh and blood image of Summit and Poppy. I could have sworn the scream she released was close, even beside my ear. I swung out at the nearest man, only to imbed my fist and wrist in glass. “Garrett!” she cried, tears marring her face. Her mouth was covered by her captor’s palm.

“Garrett, Garrett, Garrett!” he mocked, shaking his head. “Yeah, Garrett, hurry up, or I might do something you regret.”

Despite the obstruction over her mouth, I could hear her sobbing freely.

I briefly thought that I could use his mind to shatter the mirrors, leaving only the true image in the room with me, but it was too dangerous. The shards would hit Poppy, and that was the last thing I wanted. I could not try anything with Freeman, the slightest hint of funny business would mean certain death for Poppy. Without option, I walked the hall of mirrors, hunting.

I continued to swing, striking another mirror behind me. “Coward, where are you!?”

Summit’s laugh echoed through the facility. “I’m with Poppy, Garrett, you know that. If you work a little harder, I might let you see her again.”

“Let go of her!” Another mirror crashed to the floor.

“I don’t think I will,” the man’s face twisted deeper into a sneer, all anger in his expression turned to dark glee.

My eyes only widened. Summit’s hands were moving, sliding from Poppy’s mouth down to the underside of her jaw and yanking her up to face him. “Get off me!” she whimpered, shoving uselessly at the monster holding her hostage.

Summit placed a kiss on Poppy’s lips, to which she fought and cried in protest. “I can see why you like this one, Garrett.”

“Don’t touch her!”

My plea was useless. “It really is a shame, though.”

I struck another dead end, finding myself buried in another pane of cold glass. “Don’t hurt her.”

“Or what?” Summit got a better grip around Poppy’s head.

I choked when I tried to swallow. Poppy was still screaming my name, scared, and it was making it hard to think. Garrett, Garrett, Garrett.

“I’ll come back to work for you!”

Summit grinned victoriously but did not loosen his grip. “Too late.”

“Garre—” Poppy was cut off by the sharp crack of her breaking neck.

Time stopped around me. My head pounded along with the harsh beat of the heart in my chest and then stopped altogether, just like hers. Each inhale was like a scream in my ears, but it was the only thing I could hear at all. It was the only thing that assured me that I had not somehow ended up underwater. Or in molasses. I could not move.

The sound of the crack replayed in my head. Or was that really happening? I could hardly stand to see. Could hardly stand at all. No, no, no, no, no… Was I speaking out loud or in my head? The ache in the back of my throat told me I might have been screaming.

Summit, or one of his many reflections, released Poppy. She crumpled to the floor unnaturally, limp limbs flailing out and around her. I did not see where Summit left to, only that he was there one minute and the next I was alone with the shell of my wife. The world slowly came back into focus around me I shook myself to awareness. “Poppy?”

She did not answer.

I approached her slowly, only to smack my face against the cool surface of another mirror. I turned to another Poppy and hit another mirror. “Christ!” I shrieked, flinging my fists wildly into mirror after mirror. There were so many. Sweat beaded up on my face, tears welled up in my eyes, and I shoved the final standing mirror to the floor. Glass erupted around me, tearing my clothes and skin, which frantically scrambled to heal itself. It didn’t stop me.

I faced the true image of my love on the floor. Her face was still, eyes shut like she had fallen asleep, a sight I was all too familiar with. Her hair was splayed in every direction, covering her mouth and nose. Her legs were bent underneath her. Her chest had abruptly ceased rising long ago.

My knees gave out beneath me. Words failed me. I just shook her shoulder lightly at first, then harder when she still gave no sign of waking. “Baby?” I whispered, just as I would to get her up in the morning. Still ignored, I grew annoyed. “Baby.”

The tears in my eyes made it difficult to see, and they only fell harder and faster. I lifted her up by her shoulders so her face would be in line with mine and studied her. Poppy’s head lolled back and away from me, too heavy for her broken neck to support. She still looked like she was sleeping.

It was there, holding her on the floor, that I came to the realization. She was still warm, but that would be short-lived. Her face would never light up. Eyes would never open. Smile would never shine on me again.

I did not care about where Summit had gone or what he would do next. All that mattered in the world was that I loved Poppy. And now she was gone.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered. My heart felt like it had dropped to my feet. My entire body must have been falling to pieces. “I’m so sorry.” The ceiling of mirrors shattered under the weight of my mind’s influence, raining glass bits down on me.

I embraced her tightly, hoping it would hold me together like she never would again, but it did not help. Nothing would.

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

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

“Don’t drop me!” Poppy shrieked, flailing her legs.

I rolled my eyes, clutching my new bride closer while I carried her toward the house. The place was not very impressive, it was all we could afford with the money I had snuck from Freeman’s account and her relatively small income, but it was big, enough for the two of us and, eventually, a few kids. For the down payment, we had needed a little help from her parents. But, no matter the way it had come into our possession, it belonged to us now.

“I’m not going to drop you,” I vowed, shifting her to one arm so I could throw open the front door. As so many other couples had done before us, I carried her over the threshold, placing a wet kiss to her mouth. She squealed, wrapping her arms around my neck. I kicked the door shut.

The living room had been filled with furniture while we had been gone on the honeymoon. Photos of the wedding hung, framed, around the room, along with a few others Poppy’s father had chosen. The man had done too much; he had even paid for the honeymoon to Cancun, an experience I hoped to recreate one day, when I made the money on my own. I looked around the room for a moment before I broke away from Poppy, lowering her to the floor. “Wow.”

She looked around for the first time. “Yeah, he really outdid himself.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, looking around the room with a sense of inferiority.

“It’s a wedding gift, Garrett, enjoy it.”

She took my hand, leading me further into the home. The walls were desperately in need of a fresh layer of paint, it was clear that the previous owners had not taken good care of the place, but I could easily complete that task within the hour. “A number of wedding gifts. I’ll never be able to pay him back.”

“He doesn’t expect you to,” she insisted, embracing me and forcing me through the room. Her meek, mortal strength was nothing in comparison to what I was capable of, but I allowed her to shove me around.

“It must’ve cost so much.”

“Oh, relax,” she laughed. “That armchair was in our garage. It’s not all new.”

I suspected she was lying, but I could not call her on it. “If you say so.” She clutched one of my large hands in both of hers, yanking me toward the stairs.

“I do. Come look at the upstairs. It’s gorgeous!”

I grinned, bounding up the staircase. “I know you are. I don’t need the reminder.”

As usual, her face pursed, her eyes rolled, but her smile remained completely intact. “The rooms,” she reminded me unnecessarily. “They’re gorgeous.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry, I forgot.”

She stopped me for only a second to peck my lips. “Love you.”

“I love you, too,” I sang, teeth bared. She did not let me finish before she was dragging me up again. I tripped, catching her foot on the way down, and sent us both sprawling across the floor. She laughed first, shrieking, and I followed, curling her into a hug before I helped her to her feet.

It was amazing to me what difference a single person and a few years could make. All of my life had consisted of misery, responsibility, and caution while he lived with my mother. Before my father had left, I had suffered through the nightly fights, screaming, and cursing between my parents, keeping me awake, giving me nightmares, and ostracizing me from his classmates. Misery was a term I knew well. And that was only before my mother had given up.

Given up on work, given up on sobriety, given up on life, and given up on me.

Becoming a hero had given me a sense of purpose I did not know I would ever feel in my lifetime. Marrying Poppy had made me happy.

It was something so many people took for granted, to be able to feel perfect contentment all day and every day. To look forward to the future. And I could finally say that I was among one of those who could say that I longer looked forward to the end of the day, when I could finally sleep. My waking dream, my life with Poppy, had become so much better than unconsciousness had ever been. And I was loving it, every minute of it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that life with her would only get better.

“I’m sorry,” I said, carrying her to the landing. “Completely accidental, I swear.”

“Sure, sure,” she muttered, tapping my nose. “Put me down!”

I obliged, daintily placing her on her feet. “Fine! Lead the way, baby.”

She did so without a word, bringing me to the first door. “Are you ready for this one?”

“Yes.”

“Are you absolutely sure about that? It’s pretty intense.”

I rolled his eyes, a mannerism we seemed to share. “Yes, Pop, I can handle it.”

She smiled. “Good. Brace yourself.” She struck the door with her shoulder, opening it with more effort than was probably necessary. “It sticks.”

The room was clearly a nursery, and a heavily furnished one at that. An oak crib was front and center, sitting below a colorful mobile of butterflies. Matching dressers, a changing table, and a foldable playpen lined the walls. The walls, again, needed paint, but the place was beautiful. I looked from Poppy to the room around us, halfway between the point of smiling and crying.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” I inquired.

She stroked my face. “I’m not pregnant.”

The disappointment that filled my stomach was a shock. “Okay.”

“But I want to be.”

Words did not come easily, but the look on my face said everything I knew she wanted to hear. I wanted it, too.

I lifted her easily up to my level, peppering her with kisses. She giggled and returned each one with equal fervor. “Bedroom?” she gasped. “Should we move into the bedroom?”

I nodded. “Lead the way.”

She held my hand, bringing mw across the hall to another door. She did not hesitate with another dramatic entrance, we were both beyond that point, and shoved her way in. I was quick to follow, holding her by the waist until we had made it to the bed. I looked up for only a minute through my efforts at removing her clothes and froze.

“Honey?” she whispered, reaching for my face. “You okay?”

“What’s that?” I demanded, pointing to the black box on the dresser.

“A television.”

“Does it work?”

She laughed, sitting up so her shirt would open and fall around her. I kept my mouth closed, but it was a losing battle. “Of course it works,” she said. “Why would I get you a television that doesn’t work?”

“I’ve just never had one in my room before.”

She smiled in such a way that I felt like a kicked puppy. “Well, now you do. I promise it will be the least of the wonderful things I’ll force on you. Now, where were we?”

I loved her enthusiasm. It was contagious. “Can I turn it on?”

“If you’d like. Go ahead!”

As much as I did not want to move away from her, I stood, going to the television. A single button brought it to life. The voices of whatever was playing in that moment greeted me before the picture did, and, whatever it was, it was screaming.

“—at a standstill. Ten blocks have been evacuated on either side of the building and police have diverted traffic away for the public’s safety. The police have advised that everyone in the Newark and Trenton areas please stay inside until the alert has passed.”

The picture appeared, displaying a younger man at a desk, reporting the news. The live footage of a Newark street played in the corner of the screen. Police milled about, setting up barriers at intersections. I stood up straighter, recognizing the news I’d been watching religiously since I had taken on my vigilante responsibility. “How do I make it louder?” I asked.

Poppy threw herself off the bed, running to turn up the volume.

“It is unknown at this point whether this mystery criminal has left bombs anywhere else, but we have been assured by the police department that every effort is being made to locate and end this threat,” the anchor went on.

“Bomb?” I repeated.

“Garrett,” Poppy mumbled pointing to the screen. A building had appeared in the center of the footage, marked off by crime scene tape. The corner of the brick walls was destroyed toward the bottom, ruining the foundation with what must have been a previous explosion. Beside the hole, scrawled in black spray paint, read, Psionic Douchebag.

“Well, I’m sorry to cut our evening short, my dear,” I said, kissing her cheek.

Poppy pulled her shirt off the bed. “Garrett, no! Please, stay.”

“They’re calling me, Poppy, I’ve got to go.”

“Exactly,” she whimpered. “There’s a bomb, and they’re calling you. They’re trying to hurt you, please don’t go.”

I combed her hair with my fingers, hugging her to my side. “They can’t hurt me. No one can hurt me but you.”

“You don’t know that.”

I kissed her nose. “I’ll be back before you know it.” When she tried to protest, I kissed her lips, softly. She kissed back, holding my head in the hopes that it would keep me from leaving. I pulled away only to breathe. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

This time, she said nothing. She could only nod.

“It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at. I’ll be okay.”

She bit her lip. “You were never okay. You’re always perfect.”

I said the same for her, but maintained my statement nonetheless. I dressed quickly for the event, took the car, and made my way toward Newark.

I had hidden the car in a parking garage a few blocks away, as the police had blocked off anything closer than that. The chief of police stood behind a series of blockades and a wall of cars before the building I was searching for. I went to him first, masked face to face.

“Was wondering when you’d show up,” the man said. “Long time, no see.”

I shrugged. “I’ve been on vacation. What’s the story?”

“The first bomb went off at eleven, killed two. Police investigated, found another, a bigger one, in the basement. Bomb squad’s not due for another hour. I take it you saw the message?”

I chuckled, nodding to my mock name above. “It’s pretty hard to miss.”

“I figured you would. What’s your plan?”

“The building’s trash and it won’t survive, but I want to check out the basement. Whoever it is obviously wanted me here. I want to see what they left for me. I’ll wait for the professionals to deal with the bomb. I wouldn’t want to cause any more damage.”

“By all means.”

I left it at that. I strode, head high, passed the ranks of officers surrounding the building and through the opened door. Dust littered the walls, the floors, and the furniture, all having fallen from the ceiling in the explosion. I ignored the destruction as best I could, wading through the garbage on my way to the basement.

The bomb was easily recognizable against the furthermost wall.

“Damn,” I whispered, approaching the box cautiously, preparing myself to lunge at it, and wondering if I would heal as I normally did if my limbs were torn from my person. I really hoped so; that was likely to be my fate down there. I didn’t regret the decision yet; I took a few calculating steps in its direction. So far, no tricks. It almost wasn’t worth tearing myself away from my wife for.

A fierce beep erupted from the bomb, startling me into stillness. Then, a cell phone rang.

It was easy to find, the light it emitted broke the darkness, but it was an unknown number that was calling. When I did not answer, a voicemail notification surfaced in its place, the next in a line of six. I opened the phone, searching for the voicemails that had been left, all by the same number. I played the first.

An unintelligible scream broke the silence. A scream I knew well. “Get off me! Don’t touch me!”

Poppy.

“Oh my God,” I said as it ended.

The next was of someone else. “Good afternoon, Mr. Daniels. I think you know where I am, and I think you know who I have with me.”

Next. “You should hurry, Garrett.”

Next. “I hope you’ve enjoyed my diversion, Garrett, but you should really get moving.”

There was a loud boom from the box before me. In an eruption of flame, I was propelled across the room and the building collapsed.

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.