God of Destruction

Chapter Fifteen

Somewhere in Northern France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Natalia?” they demanded in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” Hayden inquired.

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

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

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

“How long have you been here?”

Janie swallowed her sadness. “Six months.”

“Jesus!” Hayden gasped. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try me,” she challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Taran.”

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

“Yes,” Janie nodded fervently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janie said nothing.

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

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

Chapter Fourteen

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha’s feet ached but she put it out of her mind. The thought she could not seem to shake was of those injections. She did not care how much they hurt, as he had said; to be strong and powerful like him would make it all worth it.

How could she get her hands on it?

“That is all it took?”

Garrett raised his head, blinking at her as if waking from a dream. “What do you mean?”

“That seems incredibly easy. They gave you a few shots and you woke up feeling like Superman?”

He stared at her. “What’re you thinking?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“No. You’re thinking of something bad. Tell me, what is it?”

Sasha grinned. “You know me so well, do you? Fine. I was considering how beneficial it would be if you helped me gain your abilities.”

She certainly would not have to worry about being caught by Contagion and the Chameleon. If she had the power he was capable of, she would look for them herself and make them regret every second they spent hunting her down like prey. They would learn to fear her, as they should have.

“What?” He stopped walking, grabbing her by the shoulders.

“We cannot stop—”

“Sasha, are you crazy?” he demanded. “Why the hell would you want that? Do you know what he would get you to do?”

“Nothing I have not already done. And if you gave me your blood and I had your powers, The Chameleon and Contagion would not stand a chance! Please, move.”

“Why could you possibly want to bring this on yourself?” he demanded, shaking her by the shoulders. “Why? Why?”

Sasha shoved him away, but it only served to throw her to the ground. She bristled. It was just another reason that she wanted his abilities; she was sick of feeling weak beside him. “And what is it that is so bad about your life, Garrett? No Poppy? No friends? That seems to be your fault, not my father’s!”

“My head.”

She hesitated. She should have expected he would not make sense. “I’m perfectly aware that there is something wrong in your head. What’s the problem?”

“It hurts.”

“Aww,” she mocked, squeezing his face in her hand, “it hurts?”

“That thing he used hurts my head,” he forced out, though her hand made it difficult. He wrenched himself free.

“I should think you would be used to it by now.”

He shook his head, though she could not imagine the depth of what he was saying. It could not possibly be as awful as he said. It could not possibly be a steep enough price to pay for what he received. He continued, “It doesn’t get better.”

“I would imagine you would be able to put it out of your mind. Think of other things.”

“I wish,” he said. “I can’t put anything out of my mind. And I don’t have anything pleasant to think of, anyway.”

Sasha narrowed her eyes. “What?”

He plopped down on the ground. His fingers grabbed at the grass, pulling it out by the handful. “Whatever they gave me to make me this way has affected my brain just as much as the rest of my body. There’s a lot more space in there these days, and an unfortunate ability to sift through the thoughts I put there like photographs. I can’t forget. I can’t distract myself. There’s just more to think.”

“Is that why you are crazy?” she inquired, stooping into a crouch beside him.

“I’m not crazy,” he was quick to reply. “Not right now.”

Sasha chuckled. “When are you crazy, then?”

“Only sometimes. When I’m alone. It’s hard to keep those bad memories locked up and I don’t know how to function with them. So I can see them. Playing in the dark. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, anymore.”

“That does not surprise me. Do you think I am real?”

He nodded fervently. “I know you’re real.”

“What do you see?”

Garrett frowned. “I see a lot of things. Nightmares. Sometimes, though, I see her, too.”

“Who?”

“My wife.”

She made a face. “Is it me?”

“No,” he said. “Not you. This one remembers. She talks to me and I can touch her. If I let myself pretend, it’s like she never left.”

Sasha stood back up to her normal height. “Well, if she can do all that, I wonder why you waste your time talking to me.”

“I’m not crazy enough to forget that she’s a delusion. As much as I want her to be real, she’s not. You are. And I want you back.”

“Not crazy enough, then? I doubt it.” She quirked a reddish brow. “I wish I could see inside your head, Garrett. I’m sure it’s interesting.”

“It’s bottomless. And unnatural.”

“It could not possibly be so bad. If I had the ability to do the things you can, I would love it,” she annunciated. “I would not waste my time mourning a pathetic human life. I would act like the goddess they sought to make.”

“It’s not like that, Sasha. It’s pain. Constant pain. And I can’t see it, so I can’t stop it.”

“Well, obviously I would not be locked up and suffering. I would be out there, forcing the mortals to their knees.”

“They would hate you,” he finished. “How could you want that?”

“They would fear me. As they should.”

Garrett whimpered, “How could you want to be so cruel? You’re a person, just like them. A mortal. Why would you punish them for that?”

“I was never like them!” Sasha exclaimed, stomping her foot. “I was born a God. I decide who lives and who dies, do I not? Then why should I be anything else?”

“Are you insane?” he whispered. “You think you’re God?”

“I’m certainly not as low as those creatures out there,” she continued, running her fingers through her strawberry hair. “Crawling around like bugs, just waiting to be stomped on. If I decided that one of them has lived just a day too long there is no way they could stop me!”

“Did Summit raise you like this? To believe that you are invincible?”

“No one needs to tell me that I am invincible. How could you be such a coward? All of the powers you have and you barely show your face in public. Why would anyone choose you for anything? Especially for God-like strength?!”

“I told you. I chose them. They just knew no one else would be crazy enough to go along with it.”

“I am.”

“You wouldn’t be, Sasha. Not if you knew the things Summit has had me do.”

She shot him a wry smile. “Oh, Garrett. Sweet, innocent, Garrett. If only you knew of the terrible things he has had me do, already.”

“I didn’t regret it until he sent me on my first mission.”

Tuesday, December 24, 1985

A single bar on one of these deserted streets in one of the more questionable areas of the city turned black later than it should have that evening for Christmas Eve, exiling three patrons and a bartender to the frigid air and the snow-capped cars lining the roads. The bartender’s feelings of goodwill drastically sunk with the realization that it was going to take him all night to dig out his car; nevertheless, he pulled himself into the vehicle, started the heat, and debated whether or not to offer the men huddled in the snow a ride home. Selfishness and a desperate need for sleep won out and he averted his gaze from them as he fought to pull his pickup truck out of the snow. By the grace of God and the height of his tires, he pulled away from the curb and drove away as fast as the pained engine would allow, leaving three very inebriated customers behind to freeze. With the mental image of his mother and girlfriend waiting for him at home pressed into the back of his eyelids, he did not allow himself to feel very guilty about what they could be missing at their homes; it could not be very much if they had spent their Christmas Eve on a barstool.

One of the more severely intoxicated men inwardly cursed at being left behind, as the bartender’s car had been his last chance at convenience that night. He had left his phone on his desk, so eager to drown his concerns after work, and would not be calling a car service. The customer’s building was not very far; even he could have made it without much trouble. However, he did not relish the thought of walking the ten blocks in the snow, especially today when he was feeling anything but safe. He should not have been out at all, but the meeting he had been forced to suffer though left him depressed and confused.

James Quint was a drunk, but he was a drunk only because, by trade, he was a business man. And not only that, but somewhere between drinks over the last few decades, he was a self-made businessman. The company he had built from the ground up manufactured weapons, a few of which had been picked up by the military of the United States. Along with the help of his long-time partners, Charles and Avery, he had made quite the name for himself and Quint Enterprises. They had been going on thirty years of uninterrupted success.

Charles pulled out of the company two weeks previously. Giving no warning and no reason, he had called a meeting one morning only to tell the staff that he was stepping down as CFO. James desired nothing more than to question his friend on the decision, but he had practically run from the building. He had not seen him since, and the many emails, voicemails, and text messages he sent had gone unanswered. It was all entirely baffling.

James and Avery had discussed over drinks the evening of the meeting that Charles’s resignation was an act of betrayal. Avery was in no way surprised that Charles had left; he was furious. James wished that he could be furious, too. Instead, he was only disappointed. Disappointed, and confused.

He was not so surprised when Avery did the same only hours ago. His face had been black and blue around both eyes, his lip was swollen, and the old man looked to be on the brink of tears when he stood in the board room, issuing his own resignation. James had skulked around the office while Avery cleaned up his desk, waiting for some kind of explanation. Somehow, he had already assumed what had brought his partner to this: a shakedown.

Someone had threatened him.

Naturally, James had ignored the threat, comforted by his hired bodyguards, both of whom had gotten off of work by ten o’clock.  They had been desperate to run home to their families, pockets full of his money. His begging had done nothing to dissuade them, they had better things to do after all, and taking James with them was not one of them. They had advised him to go home, even offered to call him a taxi, but he had refused. He was not nearly drunk enough to go back to that empty penthouse. Besides, at the time he had been fairly confident in the law’s ability to protect him should this threat pursue the matter any further. At least, he had been fairly confident until he was alone.

Gulping back the bile his body was threatening to heave, the businessman shoved his hands into his thin blazer pockets, the only cover he had troubled himself to bring, and shuffled toward home. His mouth tasted like vomit, which made him feel like vomiting more and the contents of his stomach thrashed like a turbulent sea when he walked. The roundness of his belly protruded from the suit he had finally declared too tight.

He had had too much coke with his scotch. “Merry stupid Christmas,” he mumbled, kicking at the dunes of ice.

His words echoed around him, the rest of the street having emptied out long ago.

“Ah yes,” someone agreed, keeping a few steps behind him. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Quint. I trust you have a great morning planned in combination with this wonderful evening.”

The stranger was blurry and spinning before James’s eyes. He bit his tongue. “Listen, Mister, I don’t have any cash on me.”

Summit laughed, approaching him cautiously. “Are you alright, Mr. Quint? You’re not looking very well.”

Quint nodded. “Super. Just super.”

“If you say so. I’m actually glad to catch you. I have been meaning to discuss something with you these last few days.”

“You can make an appointment with my secretary, Janice.” Quint kept shuffling toward home.

Summit grinned, grasping Quint’s shoulder. “My intentions are a bit less formal than that, Mr. Quint. I’d have to put on a tie to go down to your office and have a meeting, quite undesirable in my opinion. No, I’d much rather talk out here.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

“No need for rudeness. You and I are actually involved in the same business. I have other people make my weapons and I exploit them for my own gain. And I sell them, too.”

“If you’re looking to give me advice, Mister,” Quint slurred, “I’m really not interested.”

“Oh no, not at all. I was actually more interested in making you a little business proposition.”

Quint’s agitation was becoming harder to hide. It was not the first time he had been approached on the street about business propositions and advice and he knew it would not be the last, but remaining polite was something he had never been particularly good at. “Like I said, if you want to make an appointment, you’ll have to call my secretary, Janice. I don’t make deals out on the street.”

Summit frowned. “Oh, well that’s too bad, Mr. Quint. Your friends were a lot easier to talk to.”

“Friends? I don’t have friends.”

“Really? Charles? Avery? They seemed to think that they were your friends. You disagree?”

James was much too drunk for this conversation. “I don’t know what they are.”

“That’s too bad. They seemed to think I had good ideas.”

The drunk said nothing.

“Really, Mr. Quint, how rude. You’re not even going to ask me about my idea?” Summit demanded, throwing his companion a look of mock disappointment.

“Probably not.”

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. You see, I have a lot of friends around these parts, friends who’d really like to purchase your products but who don’t really have the credentials. I think if I was your partner I could broaden your market with them.”

It was James’s turn to laugh. “Give guns to criminals? Yeah, like the press wouldn’t crucify me for that! Why would I do that?”

“I didn’t know I was giving you a choice, Mr. Quint.”

“I don’t need a partner.”

Summit hugged him mockingly. “Well, partner, you’ve got one.”

“Or what?” James demanded, shrugging his way out of the embrace. His back struck a wall of flesh, keeping him frozen in place. His eyes climbed up…and up…and up the giant’s chest before they could find the green eyes above.

“Or, I’m afraid my friend Garrett will have to break your legs.”

Chapter Fourteen

Location Unknown; June 30th, 2012

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

For her.

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

Then, he’d gone sloppy.

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

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

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

Ten dead. Three injured, including himself.

Dishonorable discharge.

Desertion.

AWOL.

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

Then he’d gone sloppy, again.

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

Needless to say, he’d been very wrong.

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

Forced against the brick wall.

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

There, he’d met Janie.

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

Waving his arms, he screamed for them to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He received no answer.

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

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

He took the whimpering below him as his cooperation.

“Did you rape her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone with his thoughts, he let his mind wander.

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

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

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

Then he started passing streetlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was kidnapped—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taran frowned. “What’d you call me?”

“Nothing! We have to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice to meet you, Taran. I’m James.”

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

“Soon, Taran.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha hung her head, leading Garrett onto a different path as they walked. It had been hours since they had left the sanctuary of the bush, but Sasha feared they had not made nearly enough ground toward her father’s house.

Her father.

“Please, Garrett, stop.”

He silenced, looking around. “Did you hear something?”

“No. I need the quiet to think. Something you said…” she trailed off. It could not be the same person. Her father may have had plenty of the money and the staff to procure a super-powered bodyguard, she supposed if he really wanted to, but who would even think of such a thing? How could he make a think like that possible?

“What is it?”

“Tell me more about that man. Summit Freeman.”

“I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Garrett insisted. A dark look came over her face. “That scum, that monster, destroyed everything for me. Just the mention of his name makes me…”

Sasha felt a rock against her hip. She looked around, only to find that the stones and sticks from the forest floor were rising into the air.

“I can’t even put words to it. If he were here I would snap his neck like one of these twigs,” he finished, breaking the sticks with only his mind’s influence.

“Watch what you say, Daniels,” she growled, shoving him backward.

The things he had been holding in the air fell around her. His confusion showed plainly on his face. “What?”

“You will watch your tongue when you speak of him. Now, tell me, what did this man look like?” she demanded.

“Tall. Dark hair. Umm…I don’t know! It’s been years.”

“I think you are lying. You do not remember every detail of the man who ruined your life, as you put it?”

“During our last meeting, my attention was on something else.”

“What does that mean?” she inquired, searching his face for clues.

He looked skyward. “I don’t even know anymore.”

Sasha rolled her eyes. “Hmm. How cryptic.”

“He did ruin my life.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that he did. I know what he does. What he is capable of.”

Garrett stopped walking. “You know Summit Freeman?”

“I do.”

He waited for her to go on, but she did not. “How? Well, I guess that would make more sense. You would have to have met him if he made you into this.”

“I was born this. Sasha Freeman.”

His sharp intake of breath preluded the string of profanity he released. He stomped in circles, kicking at the objects scattered around the ground. A tree groaned as it was nearly uprooted.

“You will give away our position!” she hissed, standing between him and the next tree he would victimize. “Get a grip!”

“Sasha Freeman. He gave you his name?”

“He is my father.”

“That’s a lie, Sasha. I know your father. He walked you down the aisle and mourned you when you were lost. To think that man stole you and took his place is insulting.”

“My God, Garrett, do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” she hissed. “Are you really so diluted that you cannot see reason?”

“There’s no other way—”

“How is it that you can insist that without proof? There is no basis in reality for what you are implying. I grew up this way. I remember being a child.”

He went through his pockets, producing the picture she had destroyed in the bathroom. It was crumpled up, he seemed to have painstakingly flattened it, and it was stained by droplets of water, but the faces were still visible. “Then how do you explain this?”

“This,” Sasha said, pointing to the bride’s face. “Who is this?”

That’s you. Christ! I wish I could shake you. Make you remember.” Under her withering scowl, he amended, “My wife. Poppy.”

Sasha took it from him gently, squinting at it. “She looks very familiar.”

He said nothing. There was nothing he could say that she would believe.

“She looks like me.”

He nodded. “She does.” Sasha did not look back up for a while, too entranced by her doppelganger in the photo. “Will you show him?”

“Summit?” She caressed the rips in the photo with the back of her index finger and nodded.

“What would he say?”

“He will say the photo is manipulated,” she explained.

When she did not go on, he inquired, “And what do you think?”

“I think,” she dropped the photo, “that there is something going on that I do not yet understand. Something strange. But that does not mean that I believe that I could be Poppy. I could not be Poppy.”

“You can’t trust him. He’s going to hurt you; you should stay away from him.”

Sasha smiled, a pathetic sort she did not usually allow to grace her face. Not as Sasha and definitely not as Poppy. “I trust no one. My father, on the other hand, is the only exception.”

“You mean Summit.”

“Yes,” she replied. “My father.”

“He’s lying to you.”

Sasha’s entire body went even more rigid than usual. “Excuse me.”

“He’s lying to you. He’s not who he says he is.”

She stared him down, burning him with her eyes. “How dare you?”

“Po…Sasha—”

“Stop,” she held up a hand, dropping the picture. “You know nothing about me. Not what I do. Not who I do it with. And definitely not about my father.”

“You don’t think he’s hiding something from you. He’s just an open book nowadays?”

The young woman spoke from experience. “Everyone hides things.”

Garrett turned away to retrieve the photo. “I don’t hide anything from you.”

She laughed at him. “You’re out of your mind.”

“Then why did you ask me to tell you?” She saw his eyes fill with tears before he whipped his head in the opposite direction.

Silence.

“I have questions.”

He did not acknowledge her statement.

It did not matter, she went on anyway. “I want to ask him about you. Your past. Your wife. But, he does not trust me anymore. He will not answer my calls. So I will have to ask you. I want to know more about her. What happened to her?”

“Oh, where to begin? My wife was taken from me.”

“What happened to her?”

Garrett narrowed his eyes. “What you must understand is that Summit has a way of making things happen that you would think is impossible. And he doesn’t care about the cost.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Has he ever asked you to partake in any of his experiments?”

She shook her head. “As far as I know, he does not have experiments.”

“Of course not, he’d have hired someone new to handle those for him. And he will. When he does, you have to say no.”

She kept very serious. “Why should I?”

“They destroy lives, Sasha. I played into it a long time ago, and I want to warn you. They have you here for a reason. They made you for a reason. And now that they have you, they would not hesitate to pump you full of drugs. Make you more efficient. So you could take my place.”

She laughed again. “Take your place. Mr. Daniels, I have long since surpassed you in every way—” She would have liked to be more efficient. She had yet to hear anything bad in his warnings.

“It wasn’t a jab. It’s because of Summit and one of his doctors that I can do the things you have seen me do. That’s what they’ll do to you if you let them.”

“Hmm,” she pretended to consider it. “Supernatural strength, the ability to heal myself instantaneously…what a world you must live in, Garrett. I apologize if I do not sympathize.”

“They’ve only brought you back to hurt me.”

“Well which is it, Garrett,” she spat. “Are they hoping to keep you around or me? Answer me that.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

He sighed. “I know you think I’m crazy. I’m sure you think it’s impossible, but if anyone could find a way to do it, it would be the…the monster you call ‘Father.’”

“I am sure I will not believe it, as well.”

He pleaded with her through his eyes. “I think you’re my wife. I think they found a way to bring you back.”

She grinned. “Oh, Mr. Daniels, I do so enjoy our talks. It’s like listening to a fairytale.”

“I mean it. Please hear me out!”

“I have been hearing you out. Please, go on. When did the horror all start?”

Monday, January 21st, 1985

It took only eight injections.

The first time was agony; they had clearly shot white hot, liquid fire into my brain. Within seconds, it had spread to the rest of my body, filling me with the same pain. They would not give me pain killers or even some of mom’s booze. It could affect your medication, they had said. Medication. That was how they always referred to the shots. My normal, frail body was sick with regularity, and they were fixing me.

After a day, my mind was clearer, able to process more at once. I heard the sound of birds chirping down the block, the slight wheeze in my alarm clock that I realized meant needed replacement batteries soon, and my mother’s snoring downstairs. She had passed out in the living room again, in case I needed the reminder.

The best part was the muscles in my arms, they protruded like throbbing coils. My head ached from the shot, but I did not really care. The muscles, the extra three inches in height. If the kids from high school could see me now.

Summit and Doctor Hartl could not have been anymore thrilled the day I came back for my injections. I was not sure what they had put in the drugs they were pumping into him, all I knew was that it was working. And it was working well.

By the time the eight weeks were up, I was a staggering 6’8”. My shoulders had grown too wide to fit through most doorways, a fact that startled mom, the only one I had seen in the last few weeks. I had been excused by the doctors from school, citing the flu or something.

Doctor Hartl picked up my homework and delivered it to my teachers when it was done while I was told to stay out of sight and eat as often as I liked to keep up with my changing metabolism.

I had not seen Poppy for two weeks. We talked on the phone almost every night, but I missed her face. I missed her smell. I missed her hand brushing mine while we walked side by side down the street toward the pizza parlor. I wondered if she did that on purpose.

The final injection was scheduled for early in the morning. I had not left myself much time to be there, but Summit sent a car after seeing the atrocity I had been driving around in before. The sun was barely rising over the trees when I pulled up to the familiar lab and spoke the same words to the intercom.

“Garrett Daniels, ready to go.” My voice had grown deeper. Sexier. Even Poppy liked it.

Doctor Hartl buzzed me in as usual.

Unlike the first day, no one was there to greet me, but I did not expect them to. They would be standing in Lab 5, tightening the new straps they had needed to replace now that his strength had increased. A pile of chains had been placed in the corner of the room. I tried not to think about them needing to tie me down with those.

I shoved a granola bar into my mouth, almost satiating the sudden starvation that seemed to be a constant in my gut, kind of like my school days at lunch time. I entered the lab.

“Morning, gentlemen,” I flexed my biceps to show him the progress.

“Good morning, Garrett,” Doctor Hartl said.

Summit only nodded. “Let’s get this one over with.”

“I’m with you.” I pulled myself onto the gurney wondering what effects this next treatment would have on me. I could not possibly get bigger, could I? The last cot needed to be replaced the one from before. It had collapsed under my new weight.

Hartl went to work at tying my wrists down. “How are you feeling?”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m hungry,” I grinned.

Hartl laughed. Summit cracked an amused grin. “I’m sure you are. Hartl, do you have anything for him?”

The doctor produced a large muffin from the pocket of his coat. “I wanted to be prepared for the worst. You can have it after the treatment, you’ve got no hands.” He indicated the restraints, now buckled tightly around my wrists.

I tried not to pout and closed my eyes instead, readying myself for the procedure. “All the more reason to finish up.”

“You’re gonna feel a little pressure.”

When the medication was ejected from the syringe, the “pressure” felt like liquid fire burning and raping my flesh. I tried to be quiet but the heat grew intense. . My eyes welled up with tears. “Stop.”

“Just another second, Garrett. It doesn’t last forever.”

“I’ve had enough. Get it out.”

“Almost done,” Hartl sang. The ache would not stop, the burn erupted through my body, forcing sweat from my pores. I stayed perfectly still, trying hard not to disturb the serum coursing through my body. Pins and needles replaced the fire, unpleasantly numbing him. Was I moving? Was I breathing? I could not tell.

“Take it out.”

“I’m trying.”

Tears spilled from my eyes, I couldn’t stop them. The pain was persistent. “I said take it out!”

Hartl sounded near panic. “I can’t, it’s stuck!”

I opened my eyes and found Hartl too close, grabbing at the syringe with one hand and readying a scalpel to cut my temple open with the other. Summit did not seem to care.

“Get off me!” My new muscles pushed against the restraints. They creaked but did not break.

Hartl quaked. The scalpel in his hand shook. “Freeman, the chains!”

Summit did not make a move.

I kept pulling until I could lift my arms, tearing the shackles to pieces, and I pushed Hartl away. I reached up and pulled the syringe from my head, finding barely any resistance. Why couldn’t the doctor pull it out then?

I bent down, holding my head in my hands, waiting out the ache I knew would leave me any second. The room was deadly quiet.

“God, that one hurt,” I wiped the stupid tears and stood up. “That one was the worst one, yet.”

“It’ll be the last one. I think you’re ready,” Summit replied, a smile in his voice.

“Thank God.”

“It was marvelous. Your skin healed around the syringe. And you just pulled it right out.”

I was confused. Did he say my skin healed? The pain was gone. I felt my temple for a raw hole in my skin, but there was nothing. “I didn’t have to think about it. I just did it. I’m starving, can I have that muffin now?”

“Sure,” Summit said. He tossed the muffin at me. I caught it easily.

“Thanks, Hartl, I’m starving.”

“He can’t hear you.”

I laughed, taking a quite bite of the fluffy blueberry muffin. “Why’d he go deaf?”

“In a way.”

I looked up mid-bite. Hartl’s body lay, upside down, against the wall. The upper corner of his skull had collapsed in on itself, spilling red goo down the wall and along the floor. His lab coat was nearly off and stained with the stuff. I looked at my hand and saw that the muffin had just a bit of it staining the wrapper as well.

“Oh my God,” I looked at Summit and dropped the food. “You killed him.”

The older man grinned. I will never forget that evil grin. “No, I didn’t, Garrett. You did.”

“What?” I backed away from the body. “No. I didn’t.”

Summit laughed. “It was brilliant. You pushed him and he flew. Dead on arrival.”

“That’s impossible, I barely touched him.”

“Tell that to Hartl,” Summit snorted. “Don’t beat yourself up about it, Garrett. I heard a little rumor about how he got to this point in his experimentations. It was quite grotesque.”

“No,” I shook my head, not wanting to believe it. Is this why they had done this? To create a monster? A killer? “No, I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t have killed him!”

“Get used to it, Garrett, I’ve got plenty of plans for you.”

Chapter Thirteen

Paris, France; June 29th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She averted her eyes, as he’d expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—” he began.

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

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

James didn’t laugh. “Who hired you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s somebody in there.”

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

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

Then, she saw him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frightened eyes stared up at him.

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

Russell cried out.

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

Chapter Twelve

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha knew something was wrong. She had only intended to sleep for a little while, until noon at the latest, but she had the feeling that she had slept for too long. It was too warm. Too dark. Her eyes jerked open and she flailed, but she was surrounded on all side by walls. They were closing in on her, crushing her.

A hand slapped over her mouth. Her mind flashed with images of the Chameleon and Contagion. They had found them. She would be feeling the agony of poison burning through her flesh in a matter of seconds. Vaguely, she swore she could hear them, close and angry. Her whole body thrashed against the arms holding her back.

“Sasha, Sasha, Sasha,” Garrett hissed in her ear.

She froze. As she adjusted to the waking world, she realized that she had been incorrect. She was still under the bush, pulled tight against Garrett’s chest. One of his arms was wrapped around her waist, the other around her chest. His hand covered her mouth.

The sound of the Chameleon and Contagion’s voices, bickering again, was not as close as she had originally thought. She could not see them from beneath the cover of the leaves, but the sound of the sticks nearby cracking underfoot informed her that they were growing closer.

“They’re coming—” Garrett began.

Sasha squeezed the hand over her mouth, silently urging him to be silent. The footprints would lead them right to the bush and that would be the end of it. If they heard them, it would only bring them faster.

“Wait,” the Chameleon hissed. “What happened?”

Contagion replied. “This is the end.”

“They could not have evaporated into the air, Contagion, they have to go somewhere!”

“If they do, they covered them up.”

Sasha debated running. Hiding could only keep them safe for so long, until their pursuers listened hard enough to hear breathing and checked. They were backed into a corner. Running could at least give them options.

“Garrett,” she whispered under her breath. “Get ready to run.”

He held tighter to her, despite her insistence on getting away.

“What are you doing?”

He released her enough to roll onto her other side, forcing her to face him. He vehemently shook his head, placing a finger to his lips. She stared questioningly back at him, forcing her eyes not to linger on the way his lips molded to his finger.

Get a grip, Sasha.

“They could not have covered all of their tracks. They would have to start up again somewhere,” the Chameleon snapped.

“Have you forgotten who we’re following? I’m sure they could manage to cover up tracks. You know he would have trained her in it.”

She sighed theatrically. “Assuming she can remember it. She seems to have forgotten much. She is careless now. It is really no surprise that—”

“Stop.” Contagion hesitated. “She could be anywhere.”

“Who cares? She will be dead within the hour anyway.”

“You will have to find her first.”

Sasha stopped breathing. It was too quiet and her breaths sounded so loud in the silence. Garrett’s too.

“Try this way. The forest is not big enough for them to hide forever.”

“I have an idea.”

No more words were spoken. The sound of breaking twigs got closer. And closer. And closer. Sasha held tight to Garrett’s hand, rearing back into him as if it would mean not being seen.

The sound of their steps passed, moving further away. Sasha released the breath she had been holding.

Garrett squeezed her, hugging her. “I covered over our prints when I heard them. You’re safe, Sasha.”

Safe. She liked to feel safe. Her axe made her feel safe, her apartment made her feel safe, and her father made her feel safe. Garrett did not make her feel safe.

He made her confused.

“How long have I been asleep?” she demanded.

“Long time. The whole day is gone.”

She pulled away from his embrace and crawled out of the cover of the brush. The sky was black, dotted with stars and a little sliver of moon. The air was cold without the comfort of Garrett surrounding her. She could see her exhales puff into clouds of smoke. “It is dark outside! Why did you not wake me?”

“You seemed really tired,” he replied, pulling himself out after her.

Liar. She knew that he had let her sleep so long because she could not push him away if she was asleep. He could pretend anything he wanted if she was not disputing it in his face. She did not say as much. “We lost too much time. We have to move.”

He nodded. “Okay. Lead the way.”

She stretched as she crawled out from beneath the shrubbery, preparing for the long journey. Garrett watched her, studying her, ogling her. His eyes roved over her body for a long moment. “Let’s go,” she snapped, snapping him out of whatever trance she held over him.

Wordlessly, he followed.

As they started off the path, Sasha chanced a few looks at her silent friend. He was already watching her with the strangest look on his face. A small, smug smile. Heavy-lidded eyes. He walked forward but the top half of his body was turned to face her.

She did not want to ask. It would only bring on a torrent of his proclamations of love. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. He might even touch her wear her shirt rode up and she would be confused again.

She would not allow such things to happen again. She did not like to feel confused. He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. “What happened next?”

“What?”

“You were telling the story. What happened next, I want to hear more.”

Monday, November 26th, 1984

We walked down a hallway of closed doors, each as completely nondescript as the last. I swore that I could walk down this hall a million times and still have no idea which door held what. Eventually we stopped at one. There was nothing remarkable about it, only the number 21.

“I will warn you, Garrett,” Hartl began, “he’s not the nicest of men. Speak only when spoken to. Don’t ask too many questions.”

“Aren’t you going to be doing the interview?” Hartl Laboratories did insinuate a certain amount of power in the man himself.

The doctor in question shook his head, jotting something else in his notepad so he would not have to make eye contact. “I’m afraid not.”

Keeping Doctor Hartl’s most recent piece of advice in mind, I did not ask why.

“Ready?”

I only nodded. My nerves were tying my stomach up with knots already. Hartl threw the door open for me; I was glad for it, my history with the steel doors was not a good one. Unlike my first time entering the building, this room was brightly lit, the walls all an iridescent white. A single chair occupied the center of the room. In it sat a middle-aged man with closely shaven salt and pepper hair. His dark eyes pierced me from our very first meeting, making me nervous.

“Mr. Daniels,” the man said, “glad to see you could make it.”

He waited for a response. I managed to mumble back, “Pleasure to meet you.”

My companion laughed lightly. “I rarely find pleasure in anything.”

This time, I did not speak.

“Anyway, my name is Summit Freeman. I put the ad in the paper you’re here for. I suppose my first question is…why are you here?”

I knew the answer very well. “I’m a dedicated worker. I am very proud of my work and would like to be as valuable as possible as soon—”

“No, Garrett,” Freeman interjected. “What’s the real reason? What made you desperate enough for work that you drove all the way out here?”

I hesitated. “I need the money.”

“A young man like you?” he went on. “What could you possibly need money for so badly?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “My mom,” I replied, cracking my knuckles. “She can’t work.” She won’t work.

“Surely there are other, closer places that could fill that need.”

“No one would hire me.”

Summit’s stern face displayed the slightest bit of curiosity. “Oh? Why?”

I bit my lip, wondering whether I should give away my record. My guilt ate at me. “I…I was arrested fairly recently.”

“Hmm, do tell.”

“I was involved in a fight at my last job. The other guy was taken to the hospital.”

The older man perked up. “Really? What did you do to him?”

Encouraged by his obvious interest, I went on. “I threw a few punches. When he didn’t go down, I hit him with a bottle.”

“Can’t say it was wise for you to do it at work,” Summit chuckled. “Why’d you do it?”

Poppy’s face surfaced in my mind. No glasses. Hair down. Halo completely visible. “He was bothering my friend.”

“A protector. I must say, Garrett, you’re so much better than I could’ve hoped for.”

Forgetting the instructions I had been given by the doctor to not try this man’s patience, I asked, “For what?”

“I’m trying to do an experiment, and I’d like your help. I think the two of us can be very beneficial for each other. You need money. I just so happen to have it in spades. I need a willing subject, and you’re perfectly willing to help. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

I nodded. “What’s the experiment?”

Summit stood, offering me the chair. I took it gladly.

“I’m a very important man, Garrett,” he paced the small room. “I require protection. Naturally, with the kind of people I face, I need someone strong, someone smart, someone who can scare my enemies into staying away.”

I looked down at myself. In the smarts department I was average at best, and much less so when it came to strength. I should be the last person to be considered for a security position.

“I’m looking to make this kind of person. With the help of Doctor Hartl, I think we’ve found a way to manipulate the human body into becoming bigger, stronger, and faster than would be naturally possible.”

What? I had assumed working in a lab would consist of some time as a lab rat, but this was a bit more than I had bargained for. Bigger? I had always wanted a better body. If what he said was true, I could not believe he would be paying for it, “What does that mean for me?”

“Just a short series of injections into your head,”—Summit stilled, probably because of the look of horror on my face— “it’s the control panel for your entire body. We can do anything there, change anything there. Over a period of a few weeks, you’ll get between ten and twelve injections, depending on the results, and we’ll closely monitor you. Eventually, once you’ve been trained and prepared, I’ll take you on as a bodyguard.”

I quirked a brow. Well, the man was out of his mind, but the promise of money was too good to pass up.  “Okay. Just assuming that this works, what’s in it for me?”

“It will work,” Summit leaned in. “Once we’ve manipulated your body into forming muscles and producing enough adrenaline to constantly flow on its own, no human will be able to stand up to you.”

To be strong. Intimidating. Powerful. It was more than I could have hoped for. “I’ll believe it when I see it. What am I getting out of it, though?”

“Exactly what you wanted. As long as you’re under my employment, I will pay every bill you could possibly have. You will have more than enough for anything you could possibly desire. My riches are completely at your disposal.”

Chapter Twelve

Paris, France; June 29th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But where is there?” Hayden demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, she found him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—” Claire shouted.

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

“Alex—!”

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

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

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

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

To protect the defenseless Claire Strong.

Just like everyone else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He watched from the shadows.

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

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

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

A noise up ahead caught her attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He gave a pained moan, like a wounded animal.

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

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

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

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

She was helpless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She narrowed her eyes, visibly pursing her lips.

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

She remained unresponsive.

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

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

“Mainyu?” he demanded.

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

She’d played straight into his hands.

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

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

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

“What?” he snapped, leaning closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire thought she could predict what that question would be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She never got an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes bugged. “W…wha—?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No talking,” Russell ordered.