“Don’t tell me,” Danielle huffed as Aloisia walked back up, “you have to leave.”
Aloisia paused, unsure of what to say. Her friend read her facial expression and shook her head. “I don’t believe you!”
“First last night…” Tears blinked behind her blue eyes but the anger kept them at bay. “I don’t know what’s going on. You’ve always been…” She sighed. “But never like this.”
“I’m sorry, Dan, I really am.” Her friend didn’t answer. She growled and shook her head again, her curls bouncing like an angry sea behind her. Before Aloisia could stop her, she threw the door to the restaurant open and stormed in. After a moment of bewildered staring, Charlie followed her.
Asher approached her after a moment of awkward silence. “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, my brother Gregory is picking me up.”
Aloisia shrugged, swallowing and clearing her voice. “My Dad needs me. Donny didn’t give specifics.”
“Well, I’m sorry you have to leave.”
She looked at him, knowing he wouldn’t want to speak to her again. It was a shame too, because she already liked him. There was just something so drawing about him, about his personality. “I’m sorry too.”
“You got a number I can call to talk to you?
Aloisia started in surprise and smiled. “Sure.”
“I’ll wait with you for your brother and then go on home. No reason why I should intrude on Danielle and Charlie.”
“He won’t be long.” She watched her black sports car turn sharply into the parking lot. She didn’t even want to know how he got it started since she had the keys in her purse, or where his motorcycle was now that he was driving her vehicle. “Speak of the devil. Damn him, I told him to keep out of my car.”
“That’s your car? Nice,” complimented Asher. “You may be picking me up next time.”
Aloisia laughed. “Sure.” She reached out and hugged him. “Thanks for being so understanding.” She hesitated, then thought what the hell and kissed his cheek.
“It was nothing really,” Asher grinned.
Aloisia patted his shoulder before she ran to where her car was stopped. She got in, slamming the door behind her. She waved as Gregory pulled out and drove off.
“Stop grinning,” Aloisia snapped as her brother glanced at her. He made no attempt to mask the wide, goofy grin that encompassed most of his handsome face. He put a hand through his short blond hair, ruffling the bit of gel he put in it. He had an air of confidence that women loved about him, even though she never quite found the appeal.
“My little sis has herself a honey. How cute.”
“Shut up and tell me where my weapons are.”
“In the seat behind you.” His smile had become a mask and his voice grew stern. She knew the ‘nice guy’ attitude that women found so attractive was a thin illusion that masked a cruel practicality that all Whisperers seemed to possess. “You’ll need to hurry. I know a way behind the building with less people, but after that you’re on your own.”
“What kind of Whisperer are you?” she demanded as she turned around and grabbed the red backpack.
“A damn good one to clean up your messes.”
Aloisia ignored him as she ruffled through the contents of the bag. She slipped on her shoulder holster with her guns and clipped ammo to the rings that ran across the front. She replaced her micro blades with wrist sheaths, slipped two of the knives into her waistband, and slid a belt of throwing knives around her waist. Her weapons were an odd assortment of different blades and metals that prepared her for most that she would face, because it took different things to kill most Bloodbanes. After a moment of debate, she put the rest of the micro blades down her bra where the other was kept.
“Be careful or you’ll cut those things off and then your boyfriend will be so upset.”
“Shove it up your ass,” Aloisia returned, the retort more automatic than thought out.
“Oh, that was such a burn,” Greg muttered, holding one hand to his heart. “How am I ever going to recover from your words?”
Aloisia ignored him again as she dragged out the last thing in the backpack—a pair of thick gloves with the fingers cut out. She fished through her purse and found a small clip to push back the long side of her hair.
Gregory stopped on the side of the road. “Hurry and get out,” he said as he unbuckled and stood from the car.
Aloisia stuck her head out of the window. “Why? We’re at least five minutes until we get there.”
Gregory rolled his dark grey eyes as he walked to her side of the car. He tapped her forehead and explained, “You’re going into a fire right? Well, Shaun sent me this spray for you. It’s the newest stuff that he and Toby developed. It has flame retardant properties and Toby kicked it up with an enchantment. It won’t save you from all the burns, but it’ll keep you well done instead of extra crispy.”
“Fine.” She got out and allowed him to spray her from top to bottom. The spray came out in spurting mists that were cold and sticky and left an oily, slimy feeling. It smelled old and musty, like her attic. “Yuck, I don’t even want to know what’s in this. I’ll never get it off my skin.”
“Poor baby. Don’t be such a girl.” He winced as she punched him in the shoulder, the bone popping. “Come on, get in,” he said, rotating his shoulder and rubbing it. “We’ve wasted enough time.”
They got in and he revved her car up and sped down the road. Taking one hand off the steering wheel, he pushed a button and opened the dashboard. “This is for you.” Aloisia got out a slim face mask attached to a small oxygen tank. “It’s small so as not to hinder your fighting capabilities, but Toby concentrated it so that it’ll last longer. You have an hour—two tops. Don’t turn on the oxygen until you have to.”
“Thanks, Greg,” Aloisia said, relieved. That was one problem solved. “I was wondering how I was going to get through the smoke.”
“Now one last thing is missing,” she said. She turned around and lifted the hidden catch on the floor board behind the front seat, revealing her most prized possession. It was her mother’s sword. Fashioned from various sword styles, both sides were sharp and had blessings and incantations entwined around the blade. The hilt was thin and solid, made for the small hands of a woman, and was covered with the Zâintili’s Blood Tear. The blade was long and slightly curved, and the sheath was black with red roses and gold thorns embroidered into it.
“You and that sword,” griped Greg.
“Hey, don’t dis the sword.” She felt calmer just handling it. “It’s saved my ass more times than I care to count.”
“It’s just...well it would be hard to explain a sword if you’re caught.”
Aloisia rolled her eyes. “Oh, and the guns and knives wouldn’t be.
Gregory ignored her as he bypassed a squalling ambulance and turned onto a back street. “I won’t be too far from here. Just get out as quickly as you can and I’ll take care of the rest. The side of the road is lined with high grass. They’ve been trying to make sure it doesn’t catch as well, but it’s your best bet to start. I’ll drive by slow so you can get out and maybe try to get the attention of some of the firemen, but then you’re on your own.”
Aloisia strapped her sword on and slipped the mask over her head, letting it hang around her neck. She put the oxygen on her back and was surprised by its light weight. “In the end, that’s how it always is,” she said.
“Yeah, it is,” Gregory agreed grimly. “Bring Dad home safe, alright?”
Aloisia looked at the imposing wall of fire and tried to swallow the rising wave of fear that threatened to overcome her. She had fought hard not to think about entering the burning building on the trip here. Now, her nerves bore down on her; it would be the first time she encountered a fire like this since her mother died. Her mother’s words from her dream echoed in her head. “Not today, Aloisia, you cannot face him today. Run, my strength, flee this nightmare.”
It had only been a nightmare, she knew that. Nothing more than unconscious fears that were brought about by her increasing responsibilities of being the main Avenger. Still, despite the fear, there was something about the fire that made her think she should know what was going on. What was this niggling suspicion at the back of her head? God, it was annoying. “I’ll try.”
Gregory slowed the car down to a crawl. “Avenge the might of good, little sis.”
Aloisia opened her car door. “Keep forever our secrets silent,” she replied before jumping out and running into the high weeds. She dropped to the ground immediately and crawled army style back to the edge of the weeds, peeking her head out to watch her brother drive further on. As her Whisperer, it was his job to make a distraction and insure that she wasn’t caught. She wasn’t as good as her father yet; she’d had a lot of close calls of being discovered.
“Hey, hey, you can’t be around here!” a fireman yelled. For a wild moment Aloisia thought she’d already been discovered, that would be so embarrassing, but then he ran out to the car with his arms out.
Gregory rolled the window down as he stopped the car. He flashed a dazzlingly friendly smile and said loudly, “I’m sorry sir. I don’t know my way around this part of the city and thought this road might lead away from the fire. I guess I was wrong.” He looked around his surroundings and pointed backward. “Now I’m trying to find a way to turn around.”
“Well you’ll have to back up into those weeds. I can’t let you go any further. This entire building could go down at any moment.”
“Was anyone left inside?”
He shook his head. “The building was empty, thank God. It’s too dangerous to send our men in now.”
“So you’ve not had any luck putting the fire out?”
“Luck?” The fireman snorted in amused laughter and wiped at his sweaty face. “Hell, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the fire restarted itself and had a mind of its own. Every time we think we’ve got it all out, it just starts again.” He blinked, as if surprised he’d told her brother that much. Aloisia wasn’t surprised. Greg never had problems finding out what he needed to know. Whisperers seemed to have abilities of their own that made Rationals trust them, and Aloisia couldn’t help but be reminded of predators that could look like their surroundings. The prey never knew they were dangerous until it was too late.
The random thought made her shiver despite the massive wall of heat that was assaulting her.
“Well, that’s odd,” Greg said, scratching his chin. Aloisia realized that was a sign for her to start moving. She glanced at the firemen up further on the road, but they were too busy fighting the fire. She looked around for a place to hide near the burning building. The bushes that lined the walls were strangely untouched. She found that odd and way too convenient for herself. She couldn’t help but feel like she was walking straight into a trap. Still, she couldn’t leave her father and she knew she was backed into a corner.
Wasn’t that how it always was?
Aloisia glanced back at her brother to see him getting a map out. He was pointing at it and asking the fireman something, but Aloisia tuned him out. She watched closely as the fireman bent over the map as she rose up into a low crouch and steadied herself to run. She launched herself forward, sprinting across the road in an inhuman blur. Aloisia stopped herself against the wall and slid her back down the brick wall until she was completely hidden by the bushes. She breathed in and fought the urge to cough as smoke filled her lungs. After a moment of controlled breathing, the feeling passed and she could breathe normally again.
Sweat already beaded across her forehead and waves of heat from the fire assaulted her. The wall against her thin shirt was warm. Even though the summer air was cooler because of the coming evening, it was still hot and this made it nearly unbearable. She wished her brother would hurry so the fireman would join the others and she could slip into the building. Her brother was turning around awkwardly in the weeds. She winced as she heard a branch slap the back end of her car.
“If that car is scratched, he is so getting it fixed,” Aloisia muttered to herself. The fireman was walking back to his spot, and she waited with bated breath as he passed her hiding place. When she knew he was far enough not to hear, she unsheathed her sword and used the hilt to break the window out, shirking back as glass shards rained down on her head. After she had made sure the noise hadn’t attracted the firemen’s attention, she stood up, sheathed her sword, and pushed herself through the window, falling heavily onto a desk and rolling onto the floor with a thump.
The smoke hung in the air and she began coughing immediately. Her struggled to get her mask onto her face as her breath strangled and strained past her constricted lungs. She turned on the oxygen tank and took deep breaths before she could calm her breathing down and stand up.
“Stupid amateur mistake,” Aloisia groaned to herself, her voice muffled by the mask. She looked around and was surprised to see that there were no flames—just heavy black smoke that hung low to the ground like a dark fog. The walls were blackened, along with everything else, but other than that, the room seemed fine. There was no excessive amount of wreckage or damage and that struck Aloisia as the oddest thing she had seen yet. She looked around the small, office like room and couldn’t understand it. If there had been a fight between a Bloodbane and her father there would have been signs of a struggle—blood or something. There had been a fire, that much was evident, but there was nothing left of it.
It was eerily quiet, and Aloisia thought that she should hear something else, but the silence was oppressive and pressed down on her more heavily than the heat did. Her footsteps crunched in a layer of ash and broken glass as she took small steps. The sound echoed across her surroundings contrasted by a slight crackling, no louder than a campfire. The roar of the flames had been audible from the road, and they should have been louder in here. Her surroundings were hot, but no hotter than it had been outside. The fire that caressed the outside of the building...had it only been an illusion?
A loud thump from above her head shook her back to attention. The ceiling shook as footsteps sounded. Aloisia barely had time to roll out of the way as a tile fell and crashed to the floor.
“Did I hurt you, young Avenger?” Aloisia froze as the voice boomed down at her. It was distinctly male, loud and crackled like a flickering blaze. There was power in the voice and it stirred something within her. She didn’t understand why, but the voice terrified her beyond anything she had ever experienced. “I hope not. Who else would save your father? He’s not got much time left, you know, and you took such a long time getting here.” The laugh was dark and warm and terrifying and horrifically familiar. “You’d better hurry up.”
There was a groan and a strangled yell that jolted Aloisia back into action. She found her voice with difficulty and yelled, “You leave my father alone, damn it!” Somehow, the sound of her anger was comforting. She clung to the emotion, knowing she would need that more than the paralyzing fear to get her and her father away from whatever was speaking.
“Oh, such language,” the horrible, crackling voice mocked. “What would your mother say?”
Aloisia knew he was trying to goad her, and she tried to ignore him as she searched for the stairs that had to lead the way up. Her training took over as she studied her surroundings, swallowing each detail of every darkened corner with experienced eyes. She was thankful of the mechanical process; anything to keep her mind from what could wait her. The silence after she heard her father’s pained yell was worrisome.
The stairs were narrow and barely noticeable in the left corner of her sight. She slid a gun from its holster, clicked the safety off, and made for them, skirting the debris as quietly as she could. She put her back to the edge of the wall and slid to a crouch before turning quickly, gun pointed along the arch of the stairs.
They were empty.
Aloisia stood and pointed the gun to the ground. She stepped on the first step, careful not to creak and kept her eyes on the top entrance. The stairs were long, dark and narrow, and there was a blue glow under the door at the top. She ghosted up the stairs and paused as she reached out for the metal handle of the door.
“How stupid does he think I am?” she whispered to herself as she held her hand inches from the handle of the door. Heat radiated off of it, warming her surroundings with the smouldering metal. She aimed her gun, turned her head, and fired, blowing the handle off. She kicked the door as hard as she could, breaking it inward.
Aloisia ran in and dropped to the ground in a crouch to make herself a smaller target as her eyes scanned the room. Her sight fell briefly on the suspended form of her father, but she forced herself to keep her attention on the surroundings like she had been trained. Small fires burned in the corners of the room, but other than her father, the room appeared empty.
“I have a professional on my hands.” Aloisia watched a wall of bright blue fire form feet in front of her. It rushed toward her and she dropped her gun and jumped up, grabbing onto a light fixture and pulling herself parallel to the ceiling. She bit back a pained sound as the flames licked her back and passed by her. There was a crack and she crashed back to the ground as the light broke from the ceiling.
Aloisia pushed the light away from her and stood, looking at where she had dropped her gun. It was melted into an indistinguishable glob. “Damn,” she whistled, “that was my favorite gun.”
She unsnapped the strap that held her other gun in place and clicked the safety off but didn’t draw it as the thing spoke again. “Nothing less than what I would expect of a Zanadel. Why did I not start my search here? Most of the other young Avengers run to check on their fellow Heart members, but not you. Survival settles too well for you to care as much.” Aloisia kept scanning the room as she stood up but couldn’t find whatever was speaking. The voice seemed to come from the walls and she couldn’t distinguish any particular direction. She started to make her way to her father. “You won’t be so easy to kill.”
“Well, Bloodbane, if you’ve realized that much then you’re not as stupid as I thought you were. Still, that’s not saying much.” Aloisia felt a breath breeze past her neck and she spun around, pulling blades from the sheaths on her wrists. Her right slashed forward, meant to catch a neck while her left curved up and inward, meaning to find the Bloodbane’s equivalent for a stomach. Neither of her weapons succeeded; the blades passed through the flame and came back melted. She dropped the now useless enchanted silver blades before they could burn her.
“Tell me, is it your soul that sings to me?” he asked as Aloisia stumbled backward. She choked back a scream as what she was fighting stepped out of the wall of blue flames, towering over her. Pale, transparent skin stretched tautly over its muscled body, and screaming faces writhed in flame pressed beneath the flesh, swirling in churning shades of blue and black.
She drew her gun, backing away. The room seemed to elevate in temperature as he smiled at her, his pearl white eyes staring at her dark green ones. Horns curved down his face, shining like poised black snakes.
Stay calm, she told herself even as every muscle screamed for her to run. There was nothing like that, nothing that could have prepared her...Aloisia didn’t allow herself to finish the thought as she shot at him, clipping three shots as fast as her finger could squeeze the trigger. The bullets passed through him, melting before it could hit the wall behind him.
He looked at her, his eyes reflecting a condescending look. “Did you really think that would work?” The ground flamed beneath him and the air became unbearably hot. She holstered her gun as she scrambled up and turned to run toward her father.
Aloisia screamed as it grabbed the back of her shirt. Heat seared her shoulders and she could practically feel her skin blister and peel away. She tried to fight, but her feet passed through insubstantial fire and were burned for their efforts. No amount of her supernatural strength stood against the Bloodbane as he tied a loop of rope to her hands and hung her on a hook beside her father.
After a moment, Aloisia stopped fighting, breathing heavily. The Bloodbane stared at her from inches away, the flames licking against his curious and eager expression. She studied everything about him and her surroundings, but there was nothing that she could use. The room was empty except for her, her injured father and the monster that had so easily overcome her.
“Now, to see if you’re the one that got away.” He touched her cheek with a clawed finger that had cooled and become cold enough to hurt. She shivered but struggled not to make a sound. He trailed the claw in a long line that followed the edge of the mask she wore. She began to bleed immediately, trailing a slow, lazy line down her sweat streaked face.
“I’d better not scar,” she muttered. Sarcasm. It was her only defence...she would not start screaming. She wouldn’t stop. Sarcasm was the only thing that was going to save her sanity for now. She had to be able to think clearly so she could get her and her father out.
Don’t think about the fire. Don’t think about the fire. The thoughts did nothing for her. There was no denying the flames that licked against his skin, or the flames that leaped around her as he taunted her.
He ignored her comment as he cut deeply into her, following her jaw line, down her neck before pausing at the beginning of her cleavage. “You’ve got a beautiful body,” he said.
“Yeah, well, wish I could say the same for you,” she replied as she fought back a groan.
“Ah, you’re spirited. Nice change from the begging I so often hear,” he said, winking as he took his nail away and licked the blood from it. His tongue was long and forked, like a snake’s. “I really do hope it’s your soul that sings to me. I’ll enjoy its song.” Aloisia struggled not to react as he patted her body for weapons. He took her belt of knives, the gun, and the dagger from her, casting them to the ground below her. His hands paused over the sword and he took it off with care
“Impressive,” he said. “There’s nothing like the Heart’s craftsmanship.”
“You leave my sword alone,” she growled.
“Your sword? I think not,” he said after a moment longer of staring at it. He strapped it to his back.
“The only way you get to touch that blade is when I shove it in your heart.”
“I really tire of your words,” he said, his voice bored. He ripped a long hole down her cargo pants at her right thigh. “I think I’d rather hear you begging after all.” He looked at a spot on her thigh and smiled widely, revealing a row of razor teeth. “Especially since it’s your blood that calls to me. Scream for me and I’ll let you die quickly.” He dug his nails into her thigh, and she threw her head back in pain. She gritted her teeth, but didn’t cry out. If she was going to die, by God, she wasn’t going to give the fiery Bloodbane reason to disrespect her name later.
“Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t beg for anyone,” she said breathlessly.
“Really? I wonder if you’d say the same thing when I take your mask off.”
Aloisia shirked back, shaking her head. There was no sarcasm to save her from the almost paralyzing fear threatening to engulf her. This was her worse fear—worse than the fire that had claimed her mother’s life—smothering to death. Though she knew there were much more painful deaths an Avenger could endure, to her this was the worst. There was no battle, only betrayal. Her body would be what killed her, and the last thing she would hear was coughing and silence as her heart failed.
Her fear went deeper than a phobia; it was primal.
Aloisia was ready to fight anyway she could to keep the mask on when the monster paused and looked down. “We have company,” he hissed. Crashes sounded from below and hurrying footsteps quickly followed.
“Police! Put all your weapons down and come down the stairs slowly with your hands on your head.”
The Bloodbane turned his attention back to her and smiled slightly. “Ah, what fun. How much would you like to hear them scream, Avenger? Since you can’t beg, they’ll do it for you.” He began to melt away in small droplets of vivid blue flames until he bled through the floor beneath them, leaving them alone.
Then the policemen begin to scream.