Forthcoming, Stories

Forthcoming, Chapter Twenty-Two: Leaps of Faith

At least something was going right: I must have slept, for the next thing I remembered was the sound of a clock chiming from some other part of the building.  I had no idea what time it was, nor how long I had lain against the chair, but the room seemed untouched.

     I raised my head, my eyes landing on the notepads and pens scattered across the floor.  My arm gave a painful throb, and I groaned, setting my head against the chair.

     I didn’t move, but stayed perfectly still, begging my arm to stop hurting.  My eyes moved to the gash, my mind barely responding to the mess; I wondered if I was going into the shock.

     Well, it’s about time.

     Where the eye had been carved into my skin, the flesh was still raw.  The dried blood that surrounded it was black and sticky.  Crimson ran along my elbow and down my forearm like red rivers.  That, too, had dried, but my arm was still aching as though Henbane had left only minutes ago.

     The sky seemed darker–though this could have been a result of my fatigue; I could barely keep my eyes open.

     I needed to sleep.

     My eyes returned to the notebooks, all of which seemed strangely devilish in the faint light.

     I didn’t want to move–more importantly, I didn’t want to write.

     I tried to close my eyes, only to be greeted with the image of Henbane above me, the dagger slowly advancing toward my arm.

     I shivered.

     Apparently, the shock wasn’t intense enough for me to fall easily into sleep–that time had passed.

     I needed a distraction.

     I turned my entire body so that I was facing the computer.  I eyed my IPod derisively, mentally willing it travel to me.

     Apparently, being a prophet didn’t include telekinesis. 

     I gave a wan smile that was more of a grimace, and lifted myself.  My arm didn’t ache as much as I’d expected it would, but I tried not to move it as I staggered toward the computer. (My legs had fallen asleep, and they tingled as I moved across the room.)

     I reached the table, grabbed the IPod quickly, and returned to the couch. I lay down, breathing deeply, and placing the earphones in their proper place.

     I glanced again at the notebooks, and my arm convulsively twitched.

     I didn’t think I could write, even if I wanted to. All that made sense right now was escaping into–what I hoped–would be a dreamless sleep.

     I pressed play, waiting for a song to begin.  The familiar “Behind Blue Eyes” began to play, so I relaxed, releasing myself into it.

     And I slept.

#

     I couldn’t remember leaving the elegant room, but I was no longer lying in the chair.  In fact, I was standing.  I felt as though I needed to sit–my head was heavy and my legs were weak–but there didn’t seem to be any furniture in this new room.

     The room was black–there wasn’t any clear boundary between the floor and walls, except that I was surely standing upon something–

     Something wet.

     I lifted my feet.  Though I couldn’t see anything, I could feel the steady dripping of thick liquid as it splashed onto the floor.  I set my foot back onto the ground.  I realized that my shoes were filling with the liquid, and I tried moving–to no avail.

“Riders on the storm,

Riders on the storm.

Into this house we’re born….”

     There was music.  I wondered whether it had been playing this entire time, or if it had just begun.  Numbly, I realized that I liked the song.

     There was a strange smell in the room: it was the heavy stench of no scent at all.  Instead, the air left a strangely metallic taste in my mouth. 

     I reached downward, my arm screaming in protest.  It was a pain that began around my elbow and traveled to my fingertips and up my shoulder.  I frowned.  It was too dark for me to see anything, so I allowed my fingers to travel along my bare arm.

     It was then I realized that I was without a shirt. The air hit my body like punches, sending shivers down my spine.  I crossed my arms over my chest–another jolt of pain spread through my joints, and I let my hand caress the wound.  I scowled as my nails brushed the raw area that Henbane had left.

“Like a dog without a bone,

An actor out alone–

Riders on the storm….”

     The liquid sloshed in my shoes–it was very warm.  My eyes widened, and I clamped my hand around the gash.  How much was I bleeding?

     Because the liquid surrounding me had to be blood.

     I looked at the floor–even in the darkness, I could see the shimmering crimson sea that surrounded me.  I was up to my ankles in the mess.

     I felt like I was going to puke.  My ears were ringing–as though there was a siren in the center of my brain.

     I clutched at the eye-shaped hole in my skin–remarkably, it was dry.

     Then where had the blood come from?

     I didn’t know, nor did I care.  I simply needed to leave.  The fact that there weren’t any doors or windows didn’t stop me from turning sharply.

     I slipped, falling into the blood.  It wasn’t sticky, but it stained my skin and the few clothes that I was wearing.

     “Todd?  Todd!”

     The room began to shake, and I covered my head instinctively as the blood sloshed around my body.

     The ringing in my ears was louder still–echoing against my skull with a strange finality: whee-rheee, whee-rheeeee…..

“Girl, you gotta love your man.

Girl, you gotta love your man.

Take him by the hand….”

     I held my breath; the room was shaking so violently that the blood was sloshing against the walls.  The room somehow became brighter–the crimson stains evident on the walls.

“Our life will never end,

Gotta love your man….”

“TODD!”

               #

     My eyes flew open.  I was breathing heavily, and it took several moments for the room to come into view. I wasn’t in the space of my dream–there was no ocean of blood, no lack of windows and doors.  It was the same elegant area where Cyrus had spoken with me, where Henbane had–

     I fell back into the chair, closing my eyes again. There was the same music–from my IPod.  I turned it off, yanking my earphones off.

     “Todd, wake up!”

     I recognized that voice.  It wasn’t the tone I had hoped to hear, but it was the best one I’d heard in hours:

     “Aislynn?” I whispered, sitting straighter and blinking.

     “Good, you’re awake.”

     Aislynn was standing behind the chair, leaning against the back.  Her hair fell over her face, tickling my forehead.  Aislynn’s eyes were so serious that their beauty was lost to the concern.

     “What are you doing here?” I managed to splutter.

     She frowned.  “Were you listening at all when we discussed the plan, Todd?”

     I sat as straight as I could.  “It’s working?”

     “What did you think?”

     I stood, careful to keep my arm in the same position.  It wasn’t aching as much as it had earlier, but I didn’t want to irritate the sore.

     “Let’s go!”  She grabbed me by my other arm, pulling me toward the door.  She wrenched it open, releasing a tirade of wailing.  Red lights were flashing along the hallway, sending the elegant portraits and statues into sinister shadows.

     So I hadn’t dreamt the sirens.

     “What’s going on?”

     “Todd, act like you have half a brain!” Aislynn snapped, leading me to the right.

     “I–did you set these off?”

     Aislynn sent me a scathing look, and I closed my mouth.  When she spoke, it was through the corner of her lips, yet the sound traveled clearly, “Yes, he is.”

     “Who is?”

     Aislynn grabbed my hand, throwing me down another hallway.  She pointed to her ear, and I understood immediately–she was talking to Derek.

     So the plan hadn’t failed.

     Which meant one thing–I actually had an option I’d thought I’d lost.

     If it wasn’t for the fact that Aislynn was pushing me so harshly, I would have turned around and hugged her.  Instead, I just listened carefully to what she told Derek, trying to fill in the blanks.

     “Yes, I’ve got him.  He doesn’t look like he’s hurt–stunned is a better word.  I know–yes, I’ll look him over more closely when I get the chance.  No, I can’t right now!” She paused, listening intently. “Where now?  Right?  Are you sure?”

     She tugged at my shirt, causing me to a stop.  We’d stopped in front of an ornate door that seemed as though it would be far more at home in a museum.  Aislynn was listening intently to Derek; I eyed her sharply as she allowed her hand to rest above a keypad.

     “Are you sure?  Shut-up, Derek!  Well, why don’t you try coming out here next time?  That’s what I thought, now say it again–”

     “Where’s security?”

     “Occupied,” was Aislynn’s only response as she began to hit buttons.  “Zero, eight…. zero, three…. then what?  Ninety-one?”  She pressed the final keys, holding her breath.  I couldn’t help but notice how the jeans she was wearing complimented her figure, or how the green hoodie made her eyes explode from her face.

     I really had never done her justice in my writing–come to think of it, I’d never done anyone justice.  Inner eye or not, my writing had somehow failed to grasp the full intensity of reality.

     “Come on, Todd,” Aislynn said, leading me into the room.  The door swung closed behind us, and I froze.

     I wondered if it was possible for the door to have transported us to another dimension, rather than another room.  The space we had entered wasn’t just different from the hallway we’d exited, it was downright alien: the walls of this room were made of concrete and void of exotic ornaments–there wasn’t any room for decoration.  Every inch of space was filled with whirring computers and video screens.  They were organized in rows, like super high-tech filing cabinets.  With only two steps, we’d gone from “lifestyle of the rich” to “lifestyle of the nerdy.”

     Aislynn made her way quickly to a computer at the far end of the room.  The screen was larger than the others, and there were more wires, knobs, and buttons surrounding it.  She continued speaking to Derek, swiping a loose lock of hair behind her ear.

     “Okay, I’m in.  Yes, I did that already–just get on with it!”

     I closed the door quietly behind me, edging closer to Aislynn.  I didn’t stand directly beside her, but stayed near a corner.  On the same wall as the main computer, there was a window.  I craned my neck, gazing through it.  It looked out into what appeared to be a factory.  Along the right side of the vast room were more windows, presumably from higher rooms like the one where Aislynn and I now stood.   The factory was dark, but a few lights cast shadows across machinery that I couldn’t describe: the room looked like the carnage-ridden battlefield of some strange machine war.

     “Yes, I hit that button!”

     Aislynn’s indignant shout caught me off guard, and I spun so that I was again facing her.  She had placed both of her hands on her hips, though she hadn’t raised herself from her crouched position.  “Well, just shut-up and start explaining this and maybe I won’t yell so loudly.” She paused, twisting her mouth.  “Stop complaining.  What’s next?”

     She gave a curt nod, and began hitting keys again.  She reached into the front pocket of her hoodie and extracted a disc.  It flashed in front of the computer as she inserted it into the drive.   The computer froze for a moment, before changing to a new screen; it was black with white letters proclaiming:

PASSWORD

     Aislynn stood, biting her lip.  “It wants a password.  What do you mean you weren’t expecting that! Even I was expecting that, and I’m not the one who–!”  She paused.  “I’ll be as sarcastic as I want to be.”

     “Aislynn,” I spoke hesitantly, edging closer to her.  “What exactly is this?”

     I made to motion to the factory, but she just shot me a scathing glance.  I closed my mouth immediately, continuing to stare out the window.

     “Well, you better come up with some ideas, Derek!”  She straightened herself.  “Why would he know?”  Aislynn seemed to consider Derek’s next words, before she spun, her hair lashing her face in the process.

     She was again facing me, her eyes turned upon me imploringly.  “Well?”

     “What?” I asked.

     “Password?”

     I came closer, studying the screen.

     (They went to the elevator, typing in a password–42sToke!sIMPos)

     “Try this–” I reached across her.  She stiffened, evidently hesitant to let me anywhere near the computer.

     “Just tell me,” she spat, “I’ll type it.”

     “What’s it matter if I do it?”

     Aislynn grabbed me by the collar, though her grip was incredibly lax.  “Everett, this is complicated enough without you adding any of your teenage whining into the mix.  Now–password.”

     I felt the muscles in my throat tighten. “You sound a lot like–”

     CRASH!

     I jumped backward the same time Aislynn leapt forward.  She elbowed me in the chin (causing me to drop clumsily to the floor) as she rushed to the window, looking frantically into the factory.

     She stared angrily through the window, her cheeks flushing.  “Chay,” she sneered. 

     I picked myself from the ground, walking eagerly to the window.  The mention of the name made my chest feel suddenly lighter–as though rocks had been loosened from my lungs.

     “Chay?”  I asked, standing beside her: the source of the crash was evident.  There was a hole in one of the upper windows, large enough for two men to topple through. The edges were jagged and bits of cloth clung to edges of the glass.

     But I was looking at the lower floor, unaware that a grin was beginning to spread across my face:

     Chay had his fists raised as he and Henbane circled each other.  Chay’s hair was tousled and there was a long tear along his pants, but he seemed–

     My grin turned into a downright beam.

     He seemed like Chay.

     Chay dodged Henbane’s punches, jabbing his own fists in Henbane’s direction.  Even from this distance, I could see the adrenaline fueling Chay’s expression.

     “You’re getting slow, Henbane!”

     Henbane released a growl, jumping out of the way.  “Would you just die already!”

     Henbane’s voice echoed through the entire building as Chay laughed, leveling himself with Henbane.  I couldn’t hear Chay clearly, but his lips seemed to form the words, “you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

     “This is great!”  I turned to Aislynn, smiling so widely that I was practically laughing–

     That was a mistake.

     Her eyes were so icy and her face was so hard that my face fell immediately; in fact, I twitched slightly.

     “Typical Chay,” she muttered, “Always having to make an entrance.”

     She turned roughly on her heel, stalking back to the computer.  I stared after her for a moment, before returning my attention to the fight downstairs:

     Chay and Henbane were each throwing punches so quickly that it was difficult to tell who was winning.  The room below was so dark and they seemed so far away that the only thing that was discernable was who was who was standing and who was on the ground. 

     That position changed quickly: Henbane threw a punch toward Chay, who dodged it quickly, kicking Henbane as he ducked toward the ground.  Henbane fell, but as he did, he reached for Chay.  Henbane was on top of him.  I squinted my eyes, trying to see specifics: injuries, looks of pain, strangled shouts.  It seemed as though Henbane’s hands were trying to find Chay’s throat.  Chay didn’t seem to have any plan of action–Henbane had pinned him against the wall. 

     Henbane’s mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear the word he was saying.  Henbane’s eyes were scanning the surrounding crates, his elbow pinned beneath Chay’s chin.  Chay was struggling against Henbane, his face rounder than usual.

     “Todd, are you paying attention?”

     I spun around.  Aislynn was eying the computer, where the PASSWORD page was still flashing dangerously.  “Derek’s been trying to hack the system.  The virus that was placed in your IPod is only allowing him to do so much.”

     I stared at Aislynn in disbelief.  “Aren’t you going to help Chay?”

     “He can take care of himself.”  Her voice cracked around the shortness of her tone. 

     My gaze shot back to the floor in time to see Chay kick Henbane in the chest.  Henbane seemed to have faltered slightly, reaching for a crowbar (which flew through the air, skidding several feet away).  Chay was now on top of him, holding him in the air slightly.  He threw him into a pile of crates, turning his back.

     The crates fell to the ground with a loud crash–the sound of metal hitting against wood as it smashed into concrete.  I could hear the noise clearly even from this distance.

     I tried to keep my eyes on Henbane, but I lost him as the mess spread across the floor.  Many crates had split, the contents spilling across the ground.  Yellow straw sprawled the area.  I squinted, trying to determine what the straw had been cushioning.  All I could see for certain was that they were metal objects–long and lethal.

     My eyes widened: guns.

     Chay turned, staring directly at the window where I stood.  The glass must have been tinted, for he made no indication that he saw me. 

     “Future-boy!”

     I flinched, glaring at Aislynn. “Did Derek suggest that nickname?”

     She smirked.  “In case you forgot, Everett, we’re here to confiscate contraband, not enjoy the show downstairs.  But if you’d rather watch, I’ll get you some popcorn.”

     I scowled; only Aislynn could be sarcastic and professional simultaneously.  “What do you need?”

     “Password.”

     “T42sToke!sIMPos.

     Aislynn didn’t wait any longer.  She turned harshly, typing quickly and carefully.  Her expression fell, her eyes wide when she said, “It worked.”  For the first time since I’d met her, her tone was void of any spite. 

     I didn’t watch her any longer–she was getting exactly what she needed.  I turned back, looking for Chay–

     And I found him.

     My optimism completely abandoned me, leaving a section of me feeling hollow.  I felt like half of my body had jumped off a cliff and the other half had remained in this spot.

     I didn’t know where Henbane had come from, but he’d obviously been able to avoid the crates.  He had a gun held firmly in his hands, his head cocked to the side.  Chay was perfectly still, the gun pointed at his chest.

     And all I could do was watch.

     Suddenly, I was wishing that this was one of my stories–a real story, not the twisted reality that had decided to adopt the guise of my chapters.  If that would only be true, then Chay would have already won and we’d be on our way home.

     But I could only just grasp the ledge of the window, the sounds of Aislynn arguing with Derek fading into the background as I watched the battle (because it was a battle, after all–a test of will) below me.  I was the audience rather than the director.

     And I had no control over it, no way to alter what was happening as the seconds dragged.

     That thought made me sick: my mind actually seethed because whatever happened next would change my life forever.

     The thought was selfish, but absolutely true. I didn’t care about the prophecy that I knew would change the world.  I cared about what would happen to me….

     What would happen to Chay.

     I gritted my teeth–when had I started liking Chay?  When had I started to feel as though our fates were intertwined?  When had I stopped thinking he was this stubborn, smartalec jerk who just needed to get out of my life?

     Probably the minute my life had completely left my authority.

     I was powerless.

     I don’t know why that statement caused me such sudden fury.  It wasn’t anything new–I’d never been in control of anything, let alone my own life.  I’d never had any sort of reign over Virgil, or school, or….

     Dad’s accident.

     I gulped.  There were some things I would never be able to change, but there were others that could be altered.

     But I still hadn’t changed; I was still waiting for a backbone, even now as I watched Henbane advance closer to Chay, his mouth moving in quiet words that I couldn’t hear.  Even as I saw him cock the gun and his finger float dangerously beside the trigger, the only thing I could think about was how pathetic I’d allowed my life to be.

     Power and control–

     Cyrus was right: everybody wants them; everybody needs them.

     And it was about time I’d gotten some of my own.

     I backed away slightly, eyeing the buttons.  I wondered if a backbone could develop in a matter of seconds–only moments had passed since Henbane had first raised his gun.  It had seemed like much longer, but my thoughts had been racing so swiftly that I’d been thinking of several different things at once: my future, my past–

     What I could do to help.

     The latter was the most important, and the only thing on my mind as I scanned the buttons, knobs, dials, and wires around me–it was a metallic mess, a digital disaster.

     I closed my eyes, hitting the button nearest to me, hoping that “self-destruct” buttons were reserved only for Saturday morning cartoons.

     At first, nothing happened.

     But Henbane heard it before I did.

     He stopped suddenly, stiff and listening.  He didn’t let his eye leave Chay, but his face had tightened.

     Chay didn’t alter his gaze either, but I knew he could see the movement from his perirhinal vision.  He was smirking, the corners of his lips perking.

     I smiled as my eyes found the source of the noise:

     Whiiiiirrrrr-cha-clunk!

     A crane–dark and foreboding, but so tall that it even toward above the room where I stood–had begun to spin.  There was a long cord, at the end of which was a hook.  I wondered what such a large crane could be used for, then saw that there were some smaller floors above the ground floor where Chay and Henbane now stood–it must have been used to move finished products.

     But it’s use meant very little to me.  What did matter was that the hook was moving towards Henbane–

     And that Henbane had moved in response.

     Chay grasped the opportunity.  He kicked the gun out of Henbane’s hand, reaching for a weapon of his own.

     Henbane turned harshly, knocking Chay to the ground.  They were battling with their fists again, each trying to grab a weapon.

     “What did you do!”  It wasn’t a question, but I answered Aislynn as though it had been.

     “Saving Chay’s life, not that you’d care!”

     I eyed something that looked like a joystick from a video game, and clutched it, moving it forward.

     “Don’t touch any–”

     Aislynn didn’t have time to finish.

     I’d managed to lower the hook.  It was rushing toward Henbane; Chay lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, where Henbane had tossed him.

     Henbane was laughing, brandishing another gun–

     But all I heard was a loud “rah!” as the hook banged against him, sending him flying across the factory.

     “Yes!” I shouted, watching as Chay righted himself.

     I heard Aislynn groan dramatically, before turning back to the computer.  I pushed against the joystick, trying to find Henbane again.

     I pushed too hard.

     The crane moved more quickly than I’d thought was possible, the hook raising drastically.  I tried to fix my mistake, but all I did was cause th crane to begin to spin again.  The hook was level with the control room–it was level with me.

     I had enough time to see the hook and act on instinct.  I fell to the floor, covering my head with my hands and closing my eyes.  The crash that followed was loud–the glass broke easily.  I was reminded of a time when I was five–I’d been playing baseball in the backyard.  One of my hits had gone terribly awry and had hit a window.

     My stomach had seemed to sink straight to my toes.  It was the ultimate form of trouble–I’d broken something; Mom and Dad were going to be furious.

     I had the same feeling now–the sense that I’d broken something very important and that I was going to be grounded for life.

     Except that–now–the emotion had multiplied itself by one-hundred.

     I lifted my head carefully, some glass falling from my hair.

     Aislynn was staring at me furiously.  Her cheeks matcher her hair and her mouth was hanging open.

     Great, she was so angry that she couldn’t even shout.  Now I knew I’d done something terrible.

     I stood, careful to make sure that glass didn’t fall into the cut that Henbane had left on my arm.

     “Whoops,” I managed to mutter weakly.

     “Predictable!”

     I jumped.  The voice was louder than I would have expected.  I hear it clearly, and averted my gaze back to the floor.

     Henbane looked as though he’d swallowed a bee.  His Adam’s apple quivered in his throat; his face became more twisted the longer he glared at me.  When he spoke it was strangled, unintelligible yell.

     Chay was halfway to the stairs, any sort of weapon completely forgotten.  He was running toward us–his features suddenly vehement.

     “Todd, run!”

          Aislynn’s frantic voice caught me off-guard.  For a moment, I’d forgotten that she was there.

     “Run!”

     Her voice was suddenly closer and I fell forward; I hadn’t even heard her approaching, nor realized that she was close until she’d given me a rough shove, hurling me forward.

     I fell into the glass, cutting my hands copiously.  The blood eased through my fingers as I struggled to right myself.

     “What was that–”

     BANG!

     I lurched, reflexively balling my hands into fists.   I winced in response, looking toward the door; Chay had suddenly appeared in the room, slamming the door against the metal frame.

     “What’s Todd still doing up here?” he spat at Aislynn.

     “Why’d you lead Henbane straight to us?”

     His face stiffened and he opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted as Henbane crashed against the door–it reverberated against the weight, echoing around the small space.

     Chay threw himself against the door, motioning toward Aislynn. “Gun!”

     “Where’s yours?”

     “Long story–”

     BANG!

     Henbane hurled something against the door–it was far heavier than Chay, and his face grew red from exertion.

     “You tryin’ to be Superman, Chay?” Henbane scoffed between grunts.  “That leg about to wear out?”

     “Aislynn!”

     “Idiot, you could have grabbed one down there!”

     “GUN!”

     Aislynn sneered in his direction, breathing through her nose as she reached into the pocket of her hoodie.  She threw a small pistol in Chay’s direction and he caught it easily.  He eyed it for a moment, before positioning it between his fingers.  “How dainty,” he mumbled to himself.  He didn’t budge as he aimed the handgun at the door.

     “Chay–” I began, walking forward, ignoring the stinging of my palms.  “How–”

     “Are you still here?” Chay finished, staring furiously at me.  “Todd, go!”

     My eyes widened slightly.  “You want me to go through the door?” I spat, though the statement didn’t hold the sarcasm it normally would have; after all, at this moment, the only person I felt any true annoyance  toward was… me.

     I grimaced at how easily I’d allowed my imagination to get the best of me.  How I’d nearly been able to–almost–talk myself into surrendering to Cyrus. 

     But I wouldn’t do that again.  I had power–the exact thing that everyone in the world desired.

     All that changed was why we wanted it.

     And that made all the difference.

     Chay gave an aggravated groan that sounded remarkably like my name.  He pushed more harshly against the door as it opened slightly, revealing a haggard-looking Henbane.  It closed quickly, but I still took a few panicked steps backward.

     A round of bullets hammered against the door–none of which penetrated the thick metal–though Chay ducked slightly, stiffening as the sound ricocheted around the factory.  He shot me a strange look, jerking his head toward the window.

     “Chay, are you crazy?”

     “Do you want to live til morning?”

     Henbane gave another mighty heave, and Chay nearly toppled over.  He barely maintained his stance as his leg buckled beneath him.  Pain passed so quickly across his face that it was almost unrecognizable.  “Go,” he mouthed, struggling against Henbane’s force.

     There was no point in disagreeing, no matter how rapidly my brain was yelling arguments.

     I turned to the window, my breath catching in my chest as I suddenly realized that I was afraid of heights.  I hadn’t judged the distance well–I was easily five stories from the factory floor, but–somehow–the machinery below seemed to be a million miles away.  I felt suddenly dizzy and wondered if that was because of my acrophobia or loss of blood.  Either way, it didn’t matter–if I could just pass out now then my life would be so much easier.  I closed my eyes–urging unconsciousness–but all that I accomplished was the easing of my vertigo.

     Dang it.

     “Todd!”

     This time it was Aislynn’s voice , and I turned to notice that she, too, was no angled against the door, staring ruefully at Chay as he attempted to remain upright.

     I shook my head–it wasn’t fair for me to desire such an easy escape when everyone else was working so hard to protect me.

     Stupid new backbone.

     I took a deep breath, stepping onto the frame of the window.  I barley avoided the shards of glass as I steadied myself, using balance that I hadn’t known I possessed.

     I eyed the crane ahead of me; it looked very much like a noose that I was going to use to hang myself.

     Henbane released another shout behind me, and Aislynn retorted, her voice high from struggling.  I couldn’t make out words, just the steady beating of my pulse pounding against my skull as I held my breath and jumped.

     Every instinct in my body screamed for me to close my eyes as the air rushed around me, but–miraculously–they remained open.  My bloodied hand reached in front of me, grappling for the chain.  My hands slid along the cord, staining the iron crimson.  I began to slip and I clenched my fists more tightly against the wire, my palms screaming in response.  My arm was also burning–I could hear skin breaking around the sore.  The entire upper half of my body–even the muscles that were unharmed–begged me to let go.  But my brain….

     I felt suddenly nauseous.

     My brain reasoned that the drop from this height would hurt far more than any cut ever would.

     I crossed my legs around the cord, gulping audibly.  My vocal chords seemed too shocked to realize that they should be screaming.  The world felt like it was pressing against my ears–the surrounding noises were muffled.

     (So maybe I was screaming–I just couldn’t hear anything except my heart.)

     There was a terrible clanging sound behind me.  I heard it, but my mind couldn’t make any sort of connection as to what it was; for all I knew (or cared) it could have been a pot falling in a kitchen.

     The sound was followed by the subtle sparking and buzzing of destroyed computers–

     Henbane had gotten inside.

     My brain came back to my body, situating itself into place as I continued to swing back and forth.  I kept my eyes wide, focusing on the room.  I couldn’t see anything, just listen to the shouts:

     “Aislynn, take it and run!”

     “Where do you think you’re going?”

     BANG!

     The gunfire blew a hole through my eardrums and I cringed.  There were more shots, and the sound of a door being swung open.

     Henbane appeared suddenly in the window, his gun still aimed toward a corner I couldn’t see.  He’d withdrawn a small radio and was speaking into it.

     “Security to level 5, section B.  Subject is female–red hair.  Confiscate anything on her person and–” He paused, firing the gun again. “You can’t hide there forever, coward!”

     He cocked his gun, firing again.  Henbane groaned, turning back to the radio.  “Confiscate or kill, whichever is easiest.”

     He tossed the radio the side, cocking his gun again and moving out of view.  “CHAY!”  His voice was shrill despite it gravelly texture. 

     There was another shot.  Henbane backed up slightly, his eyes wide and his features loose.  His chest heaved as he spat, “Where’d you store the prophet, Chay!”

     I held my breath and closed my eyes. He didn’t see me?  I was hanging here like an apple ready to be picked, and he didn’t even see me?

     Maybe I really hadn’t reached the cord.  Maybe I’d fallen to the ground and was having some sort of strange out-of-body experience.  Why not?  Heck, if I could believe that I was a prophet, then I could believe I was a ghost.

     I tilted my head slightly, casting a quick look to the ground.  There was nothing except neglected weapons and machinery–no bodies.

     I sighed slightly, closing my eyes again.  I felt like a little kid playing hide-and-seek; if I can’t see Henbane, maybe he can’t see me.

     It was worth a try.  What else was I supposed to do?

     A crash.  More shots.  Swearing. 

     I listened, waiting for any hint that I should start thinking of an escape plan.

     “Comfortable, prophet?”

     And there it was.

     My eyes flew open.  Henbane was staring at me, his patch removed.  Where his eye used to be was nothing except a hole–black and empty.  His right eye was working overtime to make up for its fallen twin. I had never seen so much hatred–

     Nor so much triumph–

     In one person’s gaze.  His iris seemed to encompass the valor of a million revolutionaries at the end of a war.

     “It would be in your best interest not to move.” Henbane sneered.  He jumped upward, standing easily atop the ledge of the window.  “But you have a habit of doing the very things you shouldn’t.”

     I released my grip, sliding further along the cord.  It was a reflex–I didn’t realize what I’d done until I was falling, the only things stopping me from splattering against the floor were my legs and my hands, wrapped loosely around the wire.

     I wasn’t playing hide-and-seek with Henbane any more.  This was like a pole on a playground.

     Except that–instead of landing on pavement–I was going to fall.

     The wire shook, swaying back and forth so quickly that I couldn’t focus on anything except the hook at the bottom.  I eased my hands from the wire, letting myself drop.

     And then I clenched my fists tightly, grappling for the hook.  The sharp point poked my hands, opening the cuts slightly. I grimaced, swallowing to stop myself from screaming.

     I looked up: Henbane was sliding along the cord, just as I had done.  He was graceful though–there was no reason to fear falling, not when he was so close to his prize.

     My legs dangled below me, writhing in the air. My shirt was raised, the breeze spilling around my bare abdomen as the hook swung.

     “Todd!”

     Chay’s voice shocked me, and I nearly let go searching for his voice.  I didn’t find him, but did hear the bang, then the sound of snapping metal.

     The wire dropped, whistling as it flung itself toward the ground.  I curled my legs upward, holding onto the hook desperately. 

     And then it was over.  The cord jerked, and I fell the rest of the distance.  I landed against the concrete ground, though the fall had been no more than a few feet.  I looked up, desperately searching for Henbane. 

     “Todd!”

     I jumped upward.  My back protested against the sudden movement.  “Chay?”

     I found him quickly.

     He was running down the stairs, toward the factory floor.  He was taking the steps two at a time, despite his heavy limping.  I looked him over: his shirt was torn and bloody; his face was white.

     I ran closer to him, but his voice stopped me.

     “Todd, there’s another door.  Go through it.  Security shouldn’t be anywhere near there.”

     He was pointing and I followed his finger.  “Door” was an understatement: it was large enough for a truck to fit through.

     “I’ll get it open for you.  Then you run.”  Chay was still sprinting down the stairs.  “You are to call the number we gave you, then go where we told you.  Understand?”

     He had reached the floor.  Chay grabbed the nearest gun he could find, scanning the area as quickly as I did.  “I said, do you understand?”

     “You’re hurt.”

     Chay gave an aggravated groan.  “I’ll live.  You on the other hand….” He ran toward a control panel near the center of the room, pressing buttons expertly.  “Get out of here, now, Todd.”

     I didn’t hesitate.  I ran for the door as it opened, watching as Chay retreated toward another set of stairs. 

     Bang, bang, bang!

     Three clear shots rang around the factory, so deafening that I stopped where I was, spinning around.  Henbane was running towards Chay, firing his gun so rapidly that there was a shot for every step he took.

     Chay hit the ground, hiding behind crates.  I followed his lead, ducking behind a conveyor belt.

     “You think it’s that easy, Chay?” Henbane snarled.

     “Only when I’m fighting you!”

     There was another round of bullets, and I saw Chay run for better cover.  He found it behind a large machine.

     “You use humor when you’re scared, don’t you, Chay!  You laugh at everything so no one knows what you’re really thinkin’!”  Henbane released a crazed laugh, firing into the air.

     I ran further, trying to hide from Henbane; I didn’t even realize I was retreating farther from the door (I was beyond dazed and confused) until my back brushed against the railing of a set of stairs.

     I could see Henbane perfectly from this angle–there was a cut behind his left ear, the blood trickling down his neck as he continued to cackle.  “I know what you’re thinkin’, Chay!  You’re thinkin’ it’s over.  We’ve won and you know it.”  The last sentence was several octaves lower: deathly and final.  “You’re putting on these theatrics for your own good–letting yourself know that you at least tried.” 

     Henbane growled, the sound ripping from his throat.  “You want to go out with a bang.”  He cocked his gun.  “I can give you that much, Chay.  That’s the one thing I will do for you.”

     He fired again into the air, the bullet striking the florescent lights.  Sparks showered around the factory, Henbane directly in the center of their downward spiral.  He was laughing insanely, his lone eye resting on the place where Chay was hiding.

     I could say Chay’s shadow.  His gun was raised against his chest, and he was breathing heavily.  I’d been writing as The Man In The Shadows far too long–I could see (even from this distance) what he was considering. 

     I knew what he’d decided even before he jumped out, gun raised.

     “Prove it to me, Henbane.”

     Henbane smiled–it was an expression of pure and honest glee.

     “About time, Chay.”

     They stepped closer to each other, shadows dancing across their faces.  All that I could see clearly were their eyes; they sparkled in the dark, like jaguars preparing themselves to pounce.

     I felt a lump form in my throat–it wasn’t a fair fight.  Chay seemed to have grabbed the smallest weapon available–I wondered if he had been flustered.

     It was an emotion that I never would have expected from The Man In The Shadows.

     But it was something that seemed possible from Chay, because he was human–he was real.

     And so was the gun that was pointed at his chest.  So was the man that held his finger above the trigger as he said, “Is this the best you’ve got, Chay?  I’m really disappointed.”

     My eyes darted to the side.  I moved my hands over my ears, not wanting to hear what–inevitably–would happen next. 

     And I saw it.

     I stared at the weapon carefully.  Calling it a gun was a crime: it was too beautiful, too definite.  It was a small and shone brightly despite the limited light.  There were designs etched into the handle–which was made of deep mahogany–that resembled the crest of an ancient clan.  There was gold finely slipped along the barrel, sliding around the curves like a snake. 

     And it looked so innocent.  I didn’t know who it had been made for–because a work of art like this must have been specially designed–but I did know one thing–

     I knew what would happen if I pulled the trigger.

     “Drop it, Chay.”

     I didn’t allow my gaze to waver from the gun.  I didn’t need to see Henbane to know that his smile had widened: Chay was as good as dead, but Henbane wanted a complete victory, a full victory.  He wanted Chay disarmed and helpless when he made his–

     When he won.

     But he couldn’t win if Chay had some help.

     I had never fired a gun in my life.  I didn’t know how to aim, but I knew that Henbane was very close.

     Surely, I wouldn’t be able to miss him.

     I swallowed.  The impact of how much that little gun was capable of tore through my veins.  It could end a life, and save one at the exact same time.

     But was I capable of the former?  Could I really stop a heart from beating, force someone to take their final breath?

     Even someone like Henbane?

     “I said drop it, Chay.”

     I reached for the gun.  My brain felt like it was running a fever; my body seemed strangely detached from the rest of the world.  My fingers brushed the metal of the handgun; it was cool and slick.

     “I wouldn’t, Todd Everett.”

     I froze.  The voice as soft–so quiet that I was positive that Henbane and Chay were oblivious to the new arrival.  I gulped, slowly straightening myself as I raised my eyes, looking directly into Cyrus’ face.

     His features had completely drained of the little color they had contained.  Purple veins tightened along his neck and his breathing was slight and even; I could barely see the rise and fall of his chest.  He had never looked more like a statue than now–Cyrus was perfectly still, his anger becoming so tangible that any sort of shouting would have ruined the moment.

     I was sure no one else could master the type of energy he was radiating.

     And I’d been afraid of Virgil?

     It seemed silly that I would ever have considered mundane Virgil to be frightening.  He seemed very laughable right now.

     If it wasn’t for the intensity that Cyrus was layering upon me, I would have laughed at the memory.  His gaze was so heavy against my skin, that I began to wonder how I’d justified a fear of Henbane.  Sure, Henbane’s entire persona leaked brute force, a complete coolness toward death or pain.

     Cyrus held the same nonchalance, but beneath that raw emotion was something more terrifying: purpose.

     Cyrus eyed me, his skin tight around his would-be handsome features.  He continued in the same soft whisper, “Forgive me for assuming you would be a quick learner, Todd Everett.  I’ve underestimated your… recklessness.  But I can assure you that I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

     He withdrew a gun from inside his suite.  It was very similar to the one on the floor.  He raised it slightly so that it was pointed directly at my chest.  My heart began to beat faster; it felt as though a hummingbird was trapped in my chest and was trying to break through my skin.

     Cyrus took a step closer, the barrel inches from pressing against my shirt.

     “Drop it, Chay!” Henbane’s shout made my ears ring, and my eyes darted to the side.  Their positions hadn’t changed: Henbane was still triumphant and Chay was still adamant.  They were still unaware that Cyrus had entered the room.

     Chay didn’t lower his eyes, nor did his expression change as he heaved one, giant breath.  His fingers loosened and the pistol fell to the floor.  It clattered against the concrete as Chay raised his hands, never once breaking eye contact.

     “Perfect,” Henbane hissed, cocking his own gun.  The sound (a deathly, final click) seemed to break the strain on my vocal chords.  I forgot about the gun pointed at my chest, about the injuries covering my body.

     “Chay!” I shouted, my voice cracking on the syllable.

     Henbane twisted slightly.  Surprise flitted across his face as he saw us, quickly replaced by an even fiercer exultance than before.  Chay tilted his head slightly, shock slowly forming across is brow as he registered the scene.  His eyes widened only slightly, but he paled as though he was suddenly ill.  Chay turned back to Henbane without speaking his hands still raised.

     “Why so surprised, Chay?  How long did you honestly think it could last?”  Henbane raised his gun so that it was level with Chay’s temple.  He pressed the metal against the skin.  He didn’t have any other sarcastic comment, nor another snide offense.  The gleam in his eye was enough as he set his finger more firmly upon the trigger.

     I didn’t want to see what came next; I didn’t want to hear the shot, or smell the blood.

     I didn’t want to be here.

     Cyrus seemed to read my mind.  “Start walking, prophet.”

     But I couldn’t move. 

     Cyrus pushed the gun the final centimeters to my chest. “I said walk.  Henbane–”

     “Of course.”

     I closed my eyes.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

*I do not own “Riders on the Storm.” (But it is an awesome song!)

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