God of Destruction

Chapter Twenty-Three

Northern France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taran said nothing, shaking him off.

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

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

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

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

“What?!” James bellowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver Claire to Natalia.

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

He just wanted to rescue the naïve girl.

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

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

“Alex—” Taran began, averting his gaze.

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

The shrill cry of a cell phone interrupted his monologue.

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

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

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

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

He took the call. “Hello?”

No answer.

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

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

“What?” he asked. “Alex?”

“Citchicumbs,” it whispered.

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

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

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

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

Alex didn’t answer.

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

The line suddenly went dead.

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

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

“You know Natalia?” Taran inquired innocently.

Kierlan twitched when he realized his mistake.

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

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

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

“No!” Kierlan interjected. “James—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would you do that?” Taran demanded.

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

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

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

James nodded. “You’re right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he barked. “I didn’t.”

“But, you had the perfect chance—?”

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

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

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

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

“The girl with the pictures. Janie.”

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

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

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

“To die.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twenty-Two

Monday, December 14th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll hurt you—”

“Now!”

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

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

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

Sasha nodded to the site. “There.”

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

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

“Go.”

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

And that was exactly why she refused to do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Garrett—”

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

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

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

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

“I wish I was her.”

He froze. “You do?”

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

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

She smiled. “I want you, too.”

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

“I can’t—”

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

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

“You’re going to live, Sasha!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

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

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

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

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

“Where are you?!” I yelled.

She sobbed loudly, her only answer.

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

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

A mirror.

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

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

“I want you to stop moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just let her go—”

“I’m afraid that would be impossible.”

Poppy was still screaming.

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

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

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

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

“Anything. Anything.”

“Beg.”

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

“Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t touch her!”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll come back to work for you!”

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

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

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

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

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

She did not answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twenty-Two

629 B.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What stories?” she inquired skeptically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, reality set in quickly.

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

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

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

“What is going on here, priestess?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, High Priestess.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh. I see.”

“Lord Bomani,” she found his face again.

“Yes, my Lady?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Lord…”

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

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

He grinned. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

Then, the giant of a man broke into sobs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am glad to have helped, Bo—”

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

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

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

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

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

But she had wanted this so badly.

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

“I should not have,” he finally mumbled.

“Bomani!”

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

Ziba kissed him back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It must’ve cost so much.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Right. Sorry, I forgot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want to be.”

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

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

I nodded. “Lead the way.”

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

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

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

“A television.”

“Does it work?”

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

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

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

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

“If you’d like. Go ahead!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Bomb?” I repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By all means.”

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

The bomb was easily recognizable against the furthermost wall.

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

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

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

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

Poppy.

“Oh my God,” I said as it ended.

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

Next. “You should hurry, Garrett.”

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

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

Chapter Twenty-One

Northern France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Twenty

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Sasha looked away from the road for the fifth time in the last two minutes to place a silencing hand on Garrett’s chest. “Quiet, Daniels.”

“What’s wrong?”

That truck. Sasha recognized that truck behind them as it got closer and closer to their bumper on the long stretch of road. Still, it was not close enough for her to make out the digits on the license plate. She said nothing as she searched for a turn in the road. For as far as she could see, the only obstruction in the brush on either side of the street was a single construction complex on her right. “I think we are being followed.”

Garrett immediately spun to look out the rear window. “Where?”

“Do not look back. If they see we are aware of them, they will attack.”

Garrett returned to his seat. “Pull over.”

“Absolutely not. If Contagion is with her, we are both in grave danger. Our best chance is to lose them on the road. If it is them.”

Garrett placed his hand on the door’s handle, coiled to jump. “I could throw them off the road before them come close. You wouldn’t have to worry about them—”

“Do not leave this car!”

Sasha jerked the wheel, turning into the construction site without warning. She practically stood, bracing herself against the window. Garrett held tight to the door, but he still managed to fall partially into her lap. “Christ! Slow down.”

Sasha stared into the rearview mirror. The truck made a similarly uncalled for turn into the complex at speeds that brought it closer to them. Her foot had already floored the gas; there would be no speeding up. They were still coming closer. “Hold on.”

“I can’t hold on any tighter.”

The screech of metal on metal preluded the crash. Sasha’s stolen car quaked and her control over the wheel was lost. The world around them spun before her eyes, turning the world on its side, upside down, and then right-side up again. Sasha felt her heart jump into her throat as she realized that the car was flipping into the air.

“Sasha!” Garrett screamed, undoing his seatbelt to grab for her.

The car landed on its wheels, but only just barely. It idled on its side for a moment before settling, rattling its occupants. Sasha held her head. Everything was moving too fast. Her heart beat wildly in her chest and she felt dizzy.

“Are you alright?” Garrett demanded.

“Fine.”

Sasha tested the steering but the wheels would not move. She stomped on the gas, eliciting a roar from the engine, but the wheels spun deeper and deeper into the loose dirt beneath them. Power steering was lost. They were stuck.

“What’s wrong?”

Sasha shook her head. “We have to get out of here. Now, Daniels.”

Garrett threw his door open with a speed that could only be described as inhuman. Sasha grabbed for her door, but was temporarily captivated by the sight that met her through the windshield. The truck was stopped a few hundred feet before them, lights on and glaring into Sasha’s face. Through the windows, she could see amber eyes in a lizard-like face. The Chameleon.

“Sasha, come on!” Garrett cried.

She was not paying attention. Her head was reeling with all the possibilities of escape routes. None that came immediately to her mind boded very well for either of them. To stay in the car meant death. To get out of the car meant death. She knew her skills to be unmatched by mortal men, but she was not so conceited that she thought herself able to outrun a car.

“We are stuck,” she mumbled.

The truck’s engine bellowed a similar roar.

“You’re about to be worse if you don’t get out of the car, Sasha!” he snapped.

The truck lurched into motion. Sasha’s choices were evaporating into thin air. To leave meant to be chased down like a dog and crushed under the wheels. At least, in the car, there was a metal barrier between her and the Chameleon. Keeping that in mind, she pulled the seatbelt tighter against herself, gripped her chair in both hands, and braced herself for impact.

“What’re you doing!” Garrett growled.

The Chameleon steered for her, pushing the vehicle to speeds that made it cough and creak. Garrett looked between her and the car coming for her. Cursing loudly, he reached through the passenger’s side door to fumble for her seatbelt. She slapped his hands away. “Go, Daniels!”

She could not have braced herself for the impact between the two cars. The windshield shattered in a split second, showering her with glass, and the hood of the vehicle folded like a tin can. She covered her face with both arms. Each glass bit clawed at her like a knife, shredding her forearms. Something stung around her midsection.

Garrett was thrown from the door upon impact. Sasha’s face struck the steering wheel. Dazed, she laid there, tallying the injuries she could feel popping up along her flesh. The airbag deployed, throwing her back into her seat. She stifled her groan. Blood trickled along her nose and cheeks. Her legs felt compressed by the crushed front of the car.

Then, finally, all was quiet.

Sasha did not dare to make a move. The Chameleon would come for her at any second, or maybe she would not, she seemed much more interested in Garrett anyway, but if she came, Sasha was committed to making herself as inconspicuous as possible. All she could hope was that the creature would not have a gun and put a bullet in her head while she laid there. A car door slammed shut, too close. Sasha slowed her breathing, stifling her desire to search outside for Garrett.

She heard it against the car’s frame when the Chameleon’s claws rested near her head. Sasha kept very still. She held her breath. After ten seconds that felt like an eternity she sensed that she was alone. As time rolled on seeing her so still, the pain her midsection began to nag. Her fingers prodded at her stomach, searching for the problem.

“Sasha.”

She held in her scream. Jerking her head toward the window, she relaxed at the sight of Garrett, grabbing at her seatbelt. “Where is she?”

“Looking for me. Have you lost your mind? You could’ve been killed, you should’ve been killed. Why would you stay—?”

The pain was becoming more insistent by the moment. It took her breath away. “Daniels, she’ll hear you.”

“Get out of the car, we have to move.”

The door was crushed. “It will not open…” She trailed off, clutching his shoulder for support.

“Are you okay?”

“It hurts.” Garrett pulled at the door, yanking it off its hinges with a shriek. She could not hush him, her lungs would not allow for it. As he fought back the airbag, she shook her head back and forth. She repeated, “It hurts.”

“Oh my God,” he gasped.

Well, she mused, that cannot be good. She let her gaze fall into her lap, but she could not see that far. A metal shard protruded from her abdomen, drawing blood into the black material of her sweater and pinning her to the leather upholstery.

Chapter Twenty

Paris, France; June 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“On the floor?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” James breathed.

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

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

Their depths were entirely black.

***

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

The silence screamed through her brain.

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

She received no response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop it!” she wailed. “Stop it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s all your fault, Claire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” she sobbed. “No.”

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

“Please, don’t do this!” she cried.

“You have one hour.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Where is everyone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex nodded dumbly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Taran?” Alex snapped.

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

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

“What do you mean?” he asked.

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

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

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

“They won’t,” he countered immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

“You alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, he broke the silence.

“Didn’t she have a stutter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex barely bat an eyelash.

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

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

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

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

“How’re we supposed to do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex twitched with sudden rage. “Alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex nodded ardently. “Ya. I will.”

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

The girls abruptly froze.

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

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

“Wait!”

“What?” Alex demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t disappointed.

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