As the sun rose on Monk driving west and Ronan sleeping, it shown in Genesis’ eyes through the heavily tinted windows of the SUV. The dull vibrations of the vehicle numbed her hip and shoulder pressed by her own body weight against the floor in the back. She saw only boots when she looked along the floor line; boots belonging to the mercs who had captured her and Sebastian. Dust covered them. Dust rested in the weaves of the laces and the nooks and crannies of grommets and buckles. Dust from the parking lot. Dust from her vampires.
In a distant part of her mind, a part which the Pain tried to claim, yet she still controlled, she heard Fortunatus burning…burning. As he burned, so did she.
She turned her head up, and saw a patch of tinted blue sky. The Necklace used each vibration, each microscopic bump in the road to send out a new wave of pain. They washed in a monotonous rhythm over Genesis. A numb, numb, slowly insane repetition. Handcuffs pinned her hands behind her and dug into her skin. Her shoulder ached where she laid on it for several hours unable to move. The band of her yoga pants and the straps of her tank cut into her skin. She closed her eyes and believed she bled from thousands of small cuts as her soft clothing turned to a wardrobe of knives.
Sebastian stirred behind her. She heard him take a take a breath and knew he finally woke up. All night long he had wavered back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness. His knee gently bumped up against the back of her thigh. Enriched agony raced up her legs. She bit her lip, tasting blood, to keep from screaming.
“Genesis?” he whispered.
His voice brought tears to her eyes, but they turned to acid and ate through her skin as they rolled down her cheeks. Genesis heard the scrap of fabric as Sebastian moved. The mercs sitting on the bench in front of them did not turn around. She sensed him close to her, leaning over her, and turned her head. The Necklace yanked at her not tolerating her movement. The sensation of being impaled on hooks and dragged down a rock strewn road brought a whimper from Genesis. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her body convulsed. When the lie faded and the hooks disengaged, she opened them to his bloody face. Blood caked in his blond hair and covered one side of his head. He grimaced at her; his eyes moved over her face trying to judge how bad off she was.
Genesis shook her head. The Necklace reprimanded her. Burning ice turned the blood in her veins to a solid which burst and grated on the bones in her body. The bones broke as she screamed. Sebastian gathered Genesis against himself. He held her with his shoulder and knees, and called her name over and over.
As the sun rose, Genesis’ tail of vampires faded away into the deeper shadows and plotted to avenge their mistress. If the men riding inside the SUV had been privy to the thoughts and plans of Genesis’ vampires, they would have died of fear. Instead, they drove towards Mara with the sun on the back of their heads.
The Son of Stan
Ronan rested his head against the cool passenger window. Small homes nestled in the middle of large plots of land raced by. Bare limbed trees caught fire in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun. He sheltered no illusions where Fortunatus was concerned. The vampire would do anything, anything for Jack. Even give up his life.
One of Ronan’s finger nails ripped from the nail bed. Ronan howled in pain and grabbed his hand. He expecting blood, but when he chanced a glance his finger it was fine. Before he could catch his breath the next nail ripped off. Ronan bit down on the scream struggling from his lungs, and turned it into a groan. He panted unable to take a deep breath. The world patiently collapsed in around him. Ronan doubled over, head between his knees, to keep from passing out. Sundance put her hand on his back and leaned in over him.
“She is trying to call me, summon me. She wants me to come hold Jack’s soul.”
“But it’s not midnight. Genesis can’t even be there yet.”
“She, she’s testing the waters,” Ronan stammered.
“Should I pull over?” Monk asked.
“No! Keep driving,” Ronan said.
Three more nails came off in quick succession, and Ronan floated into the room with the candles. Jack lay on one table. Heavy chains carved with runes crossed his bare chest. Blood dripped from one of his hands. Dripped on the floor in a small, but growing, puddle. He clenched his jaw, and stared across the room at Fortunatus. Smoke trailed up from the vampire’s sun burnt hair. It mixed with the candles’ shimmering exhaust. Over half his body suffered from third degree burns. He hung on the wall, half white, half black and ashy. A trap door covered the window to the west and blocked the killing sun. Fortunatus legs gave out, too weak to hold him up. His wrists tightened against the chains as they took his weight. He lifted his gory head. Ronan’s stomach flipped as large chunks of skin sluiced off the vampire. His cheek bone broke through his flaking skin. Ronan thought he saw the vampires teeth. Fortunatus met Jack’s gaze.
“The last time we found ourselves in such a circumstance, you were a wolf, Ja-,” Fortunatus said. He enunciated each word, but pain broke through as he said Jack’s name. He clenched his teeth as more ash fell from his face and dusted the floor.
“Yeah, and you were a traitor,” Jack retorted.
“Maybe our providential rescue will come again.”
“Wouldn’t count on it ol’ boy,” Jack said in a mocking British accent.
Mara waved her hand and another two finger nails tore from Jack’s other fingers. It caught him off guard and he screamed into the high ceilinged room pressing against the chains. The scream echoed off the walls, bouncing back and forth. Mara sighed and bent down to examine the space around the table. Ronan noticed the magical lines crisscrossing Jack ready to sound the alarm when he came to hold the kid’s soul. Lord knew he wanted to fly to Jack’s soul and pull him away from the pain racing through his nervous system. But, Ronan knew that would play right into Mara’s hand. He had a sneaking suspicion if he went near them, the magical lines would trap him in Jack’s soul until Genesis arrived.
Ronan could not do it. Even with all the pain, he could not hold Jack’s soul. He had to resist.
“Guess this is only going to have to get worse, Jack. I wish your friends cared about you more. But don’t worry. Everything I do to you is only to get to Ronan. It’s not to hurt you. I’ll heal you in the end.”
“Fuck off,” Jack said.
“No. I won’t abandon you. I love you.”
“You love me? You brought me here, and now you are torturing me,” Jack said, incredulous.
“Love hurts Jack, you’re still too young to understand that, pain is as much a part of love as romantic feelings are…”
Ronan gasped for air. He doubled over in the back seat of his truck retching and coughing.
“Should I pull over now??” Monk said.
Ronan nodded and Monk drove over to the shoulder. Ronan spilled out and threw up the food he ate earlier. His body ached, and he trembled all over. Resisting the demand to hold Jack’s soul, now that he knew how to do it, took far more control and exertion than it ever had to try to not hold a soul. When he could stand up straight, he took a deep breath of cold, crisp autumn air. The chill filled his lungs and cauterized his heart.
“Here,” Ash stepped out and handed him a mint.
Ronan took it. He let the cool spearmint infuse his mouth and calm his pulse.
“Thanks, hon,” he said when he could talk again.
Ronan put his arms around her and hugged her.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
He climbed back in the truck, back to Sundance’s waiting arms. Ash followed behind him and Monk headed back into the road. A vicious cycle trapped Ronan in a hamster wheel of watching other people in pain, or dying, and then trying to physically recover. As soon as he finished one part, he started on the other. Rinse and repeat.
Sleep overcame Ronan as the sun sank on the horizon. The others listened to music and whispered together, younger witches asking an older witch questions. Ronan half listened to them until he fell asleep. He dreamt dark dreams, but when he battled to wake up the dreams faded into mist, unlike reality…
Jack’s damaged hand had been healed, but Fortunatus’ face and body still bore the ravages of the sun. Ronan could not see the bones of Fortunatus face, and he had regained his feet, but a crazed light gleamed in his eyes. Skin stuck to bone. Ronan could count his ribs through his burnt away shirt and his pants hung from hollow hips. Ronan remembered images of Holocaust victims with more meat under their skin. He wondered what happened to a vampire when he needed blood this badly.
Ronan turned his focus on Jack. Blood poured down his chest. Several wicked lines cut across his skin. The crack of a whip broke the silence. A leather strip snaked out of the darkness and opened another thin line on Jack’s upper body. Tears rolled down his white face. Blood leaked from the corner of his compressed mouth where he had bit his lip to keep from screaming. Ronan saw hunger in Fortunatus’ eyes as blood poured from Jack’s many wounds. The kid’s tortured soul pleaded with Ronan though he made no greater noise than a moan. Ronan could see it through his skin.
The once whole soul hung in shreds around him. Every cell in Ronan’s being longed to gather it together and make it whole again. Out of all the humans Ronan had worked with for the last few days, Jack’s soul remained one of the few whole ones. Jack had a strong core. For a kid his age, he had been through a lot, but he had a family who loved him, he had Zephyr, and he had Fortunatus. Jack had had a whole soul.
Mara destroyed it. She took purity and ripped it to shreds with no regard for the person it belong to. The sight of Jack’s ruined soul ate at Ronan. It gnawed at the back of his mind. It dragged dull claws across a chalk board promising an end to the noise if he just held Jack’s soul. Ronan clenched his fists. Incorporeal he could do nothing, but some day, sometime soon, he would face Mara and charge a little revenge with his justice.
“They still haven’t come, Jack. Ronan could end your pain right now, if he would just come.”
Jack stared up at the ceiling and did not respond…
Ronan rolled over and moaned in his sleep. Sundance kept her arms around him, holding him close. Ronan could sense the worry invading the truck from Monk, Ash and Sundance, but Monk kept driving west and Ronan tried to sleep. The nightmares returned as soon as his eyes closed.
The sun sank in the west filling the truck with brilliant orange light. Monk started to nod. The kid needed sleep like the rest of them. Ronan suggested they pull over and find a hotel to stay in after getting a bite to eat. His stomach flipped over at the thought of food and bubbled.
“I don’t think I’ll be eating, but y’all need to.”
“You’re not hungry?” Sundance asked. She ran a warm hand through his hair.
“No, but I need to think. I need to figure out how I’m gonna keep from holding Jack and Genesis’ soul. She’s taunting me. Mara. She wants me to come and do my thing.” Ronan waved a hand at the empty air. “Whatever my thing is.”
“I’m hungry,” Ash said. Monk agreed and they pulled off the highway at the next descent looking restaurant. Monk and Ash climbed out of the truck stretching and moaning after the long drive. Ronan looked out the door at the cheerful place full of food. He wondered if anyone would be offended if he stayed in the truck. He was not in a mood to be happy. Not when his heart told him things were only getting started.
“You look horrible,” Sundance said. She reached up and turned his face towards her to look him in the eye.
“Thanks,” Ronan said with a half-smile.
“You do,” Sundance said. “Your eyes are surrounded with dark circles.” She kissed them. “Your cheeks look hollow.” She kissed them. “And your mouth looks sad.” She kissed his lips.
Ronan put his arms around her and kissed her back. A whole, undamaged soul sat right by his side. So he kissed her again and again.
An iron band passed around his neck and Ronan gagged as it clamped down.
“What the hell,” he gasped clawing at it.
Something or someone behind him yanked him from the truck. He crashed down on the asphalt. A sharp pain cut up through his arm and back as his elbow and tailbone connected with the hard surface. He saw stars. Struggling to get a grip on the situation, Ronan tried to find his TrueSelf and the butt of his gun. His fingers fumbled as his body screamed for air, but the band allowed only a small whistle of wind down into his lungs.
“What are you doing?” Sundance screamed.
“Our mistress has need of his services,” Ash and Monk said in unison.
“Well, damn,” Ronan hissed. He had not planned for this. He was an idiot. Did he think he could evade Mara while running around with two of her servants? Did he really think she would not exploit that? Did he think, after all she had done, that she would respect their autonomy? He was a fool.
The world faded around the edges of his sight forming a tunnel of vision. With one last attempt to free himself, the tunnel collapsed to a single pinprick of light. He moved that light to Sundance’s tear streaked face, and then blacked out.
“There. Now let’s see if you behave, SoulDefender.” Someone spoke in the darkness.
A large rush of air filled Ronan’s lungs bringing life and sight with it. He opened his eyes and wished he had kept them shut. He reached out with his powers, but this was no vision. Candles surrounded him. The flickering light moved the room’s contents in and out of shadow. A dizzying wave of motion sickness washed over Ronan. He closed his eyes for a moment to let his stomach settle. When he looked again, he saw walls of thick cold stones forming a room with a high ceiling overhead, shrouded in darkness. Fat candles sat all over the walls, on a desk off to the side, and around two tables. On one table lay Jack, chained, bound, and bleeding. The other table waited for its guest, still empty. A sense of relief pass quickly through Ronan’s dread. At least Genesis had yet to arrive; maybe she would escape. On the wall opposite the desk, Ronan saw a group of cages. His heart thudded against his ribs, pumping out the little relief it had felt with a resurgence of oily dread. In one cage, Fortunatus sat. A wild hunger burned in his eyes. It screamed for human blood, the damned need for something he once was. In the next cage, Sundance, bruised and bloody, stood alone. She held onto the bars and stared out at him. The look of pity in her eyes broke his heart. He mouthed her name. Zephyr hung off to the side in a small, ugly bird-cage dripping with moisture. The unstable light drew a luminescence from her white moth wings. She whispered to Jack, but Ronan did not know if the boy heard her.
Ronan jerked his head from his friends and down to the voice. A short woman in a cropped jacket fastened with a row of off-set buckles, cigarette trousers and ankle boots stood at attention in front of him. White streaks in her dark hair framed her small face. For the life of him, Ronan did not know who she was. His brain struggled to bring up a name.
She reached up and slapped him. Hard. His head snapped to the side. Reeling back, he lunged out at her. Manacles on his arms and legs held him up against the damp stone wall and immobilized him. Movement behind the short woman caught Ronan’s attention. Monk and Ash stepped out of the shadows like the first two children to see night fall. Hand in hand they looked on with fear and awe filled faces.
“Ronan!” the little woman said, again.
Everything came back to Ronan in an instant. He looked down at her.
“Mara,” he growled.
“Oh good, you remember,” she said and walked away.
With a wave of her hand she sent Monk and Ash off. Ronan did not see a hint of recognition in his daughter’s dark eyes as she left the room. The desire to kill Mara swept over Ronan. His temples throbbed. Blood beat its drum in his veins demanding blood in return. He did not want his daughter serving her, at all, on any level. He wanted Sundance out of the cage. He wanted the chains off his body.
“Ronan, I wish you to prepare yourself. Genesis will be here soon.”
“I won’t hold her soul. I won’t hold his.”
“I’m not too worried about that,” Mara said.
Somewhere far away a bell sounded.
“Company!” Mara stepped briskly from the room.
When the door shut, Ronan turned to the others. “Sundance? Are you okay?”
“I tried to stop them. I tried, but I couldn’t keep them from taking you.” She buried her face in her hands. “I couldn’t hurt them. How was I supposed to hurt your daughter to save you?”
Ronan’s throat constricted. He stood so far from her, unable to comfort her.
“It’s okay, not your fault,” he said again and again.
“Jack?” Ronan called. He turned towards the kid to pull himself from Sundance. He could not worry about her now. She was safe in the cage. He had to look at it that way – safe in the cage.
Jack did not look at him. His eyes focused on something far away.
“Zephyr? Zephyr, can you hear me?”
The small, immortal creature only had eyes for Jack. She ignored Ronan and continued her whisperings.
“I cannot help you, SoulDefender,” the vampire whispered. “I am almost spent.”
Ronan found it a small comfort in knowing Fortunatus had not wholly given into his hunger. He started to test the chains which bound him when Mara reentered the room. With a flick of her wrist she flung Sundance back against the wall of her cell. Sundance crumpled to the floor. Ronan called out, but the witch ignored him. She opened the door of the cell and Monk pushed three people into it. Ronan recognized the tall man from Genesis’ nightmare. Blood and bruises covered his head. Ronan remembered the battle he fought with Dora’s mercs less than a day ago. Much to Ronan’s surprise, Dora stumbled into the cage next. She rushed to Sundance’s side.
“What have I done?” Dora whispered.
Monk had to give a young woman in a dirty track suit and messy hair an extra shove in the back to get her into the cage.
“What are you doing? Why am I in here? You said you would help me get Sebastian back.”
“You’re with him aren’t you?” Mara asked with a sickly-sweet smile.
Sebastian, the tall man, glared at the woman in the track suit, and she backed away from him.
Ash came into the room dragging Genesis behind her by a rune etched collar around her neck. Ronan recognized the Necklace of Pain and knew full well what tortures passed through Genesis’ body. No bruise or blood marred the beautiful, stunning, unique Genesis, but pain twisted her face and contorted her body as Ash dragged her across the room. Candlelight gleamed in her white hair drawing out flashes of green and blue. The flames danced in the moonstone on her nose. Sebastian thrust his arm through the bars as she jerked past him. His fingers caught her hand. He squeezed it. Ash yanked her from his grasp. Ronan watched despair and anger battle across Sebastian’s face as he sank to the floor.
Fortunatus leapt at the bars with fangs bared as the Undead Witch passed by his cage against her will. But the bars were built to hold him. He could not rescue or save his witch anymore than he could save his god-son.
Ronan wept as the room filled with tortured, broken, destroyed souls. Holes decimated the fragile humanity around him. His young daughter, his love, new witches and old, ripped to shreds.
Ash and Monk chained Genesis to the table. A loud ticking filled the room as a large clock appeared on the wall opposite the cages. It tolled out the minutes to midnight. Mara stepped to her desk and picked up a syringe filled with clear, golden liquid. She punctured the muscle of Jack’s upper arm with the needle and depressed it. Jack’s eyes closed and his wounds healed. His whole body relaxed for a few seconds and then he opened his eyes. He saw Fortunatus and Zephyr in their cages. He attacked his chains snarling, growling, and snapping his teeth.
“Don’t worry, my love. Very soon you’ll be able to help him. Very soon you will be able to command him. You’ll be able to stand by him, no longer the inferior human, but as the Undead Witch.”
Ronan’s heart quailed as longing pass through Jack’s eyes. But then the kid shook his head.
“You make me ashamed of myself, Mara. You’re bringing my darkest wishes out in the open for everyone to see.”
“A long misunderstood power of mine. I don’t control so much the absence of light, though that is part of it, but much evil happens during my reign, and that gives me vast knowledge. I control not just the coming of the night, but the darkness opens hearts for me to read.”
Jack spat on the floor. “I do not want this power. I want you to let my friends go!”
Mara indicated the table beside him and Ronan chained to the wall. Jack could not believe it. He looked from Genesis to Ronan again and again, panic just below the surface of his brave veneer.