C3 Chapter 3 STRANGER DANGER
"Let's put the blame where it belongs, shall we?"
My phone goes dead, so I stick it back into my pocket and stare at the man in front of me. He's dressed as impeccably today as he was yesterday—a tailored Italian suit, this time in grey and silver, with a leather briefcase hanging at his side. Was it just yesterday that he came in to The Roxy? It seems so long ago now.
But this time I'm not daunted by his perfection, by his beauty, by the sheer otherness of him. This time I'm just pissed. I march over to him and slap his face. Hard.
He rubs his jaw, though I have the distinct impression that my palm hurts a lot more than his cheek.
I shake out the pain in my hand as discreetly as I can. "Tell me what's going on before I have you arrested."
His eyes widen in surprise, but he looks more amused than angry. "You really aren't what I expected."
I glare at him, my fists on my hips. "Why were you expecting anything at all? Who are you?" My jaw hurts from gritting my teeth.
"You can call me Asher, and I'm the only one who can save your mother. With your help."
I glance at her still form lying in the hospital bed. "What's wrong with her?"
"Your friend was right, mostly. She bears the Mark of Cain and is in a hell dimension for all eternity." He speaks glibly, as if this is all just a joke to him.
I step back and frown. "Right. Of course. That makes perfect sense. Mark of Cain. Hell dimension. Demons. What happens next?" I hold up a hand before he can speak. "No wait, let me guess. You tell me I'm some kind of chosen one and in exchange for my soul or some such nonsense you will save my mom. There's probably a prophecy involved, and some danger, and you think your sexy charms will overcome all that and sway me to your way of thinking, yes? Sorry, dude. I've seen that movie."
He tries to speak, but his mouth just kind of hangs open, no sound coming out. He has a look of confusion on his face, but he recovers quickly, snapping his mouth closed and staring at me, his eyes unreadable. "What are you?"
"What am I? Are you seriously asking me that? After everything you just tried to sell me?"
His eyes dart around the room and land on my mother. "You have an uncanny way of seeing to the truth of things," he says. He returns his gaze to me. "Be that as it may, you aren't entirely wrong. Your mother's soul is trapped. You are her only hope. And... " he steps closer to me and grins... "I'm glad you at least think I'm sexy."
Now it's my turn to stare gape-mouthed. "I never... "
He winks at me. "You did. You accused me of having 'sexy charms.' Close enough. So, now that we are on the same page, let us get to the crux of this shall we?"
I cross my arms over my chest. "What is the crux of this? What do you want from me?"
"Your soul, of course."
I roll my eyes. "You evil guys should come up with better lines."
He pulls a scroll out of a briefcase and hands it to me. "This is what I want from you, in exchange for your mother's soul."
I unroll the beige, ancient-looking parchment. It's so old I fear it will disintegrate in my hands, the paper crinkled and webbed. It even smells old, like ink and ancient castles from books. I begin to read. It takes me a while, the font is some kind of calligraphy that doesn't exactly encourage skimming. He could stand to learn about font choices and their impact on reading.
When I'm done, I roll it up and shove it back at him. "Am I being tricked?"
He looks down at the scroll in his hand in confusion. "What?"
"Tricked? Or something? Is there some new reality show I'm the star of? I can't imagine my mom would be a part of this, but maybe for enough money she would. Is this a joke? Some plot to make a fool of me or try to sway me to believe in God and demons and the supernatural?" I don't believe my own words. I've seen my mom, and she's well and truly missing from her body, but none of this makes sense. I feel trapped in some surreal alternate reality where nothing is right. Everything is wrong. This is wrong.
"I do not know what you mean by 'reality show' but I can assure you I would never associate myself with such a crass sounding thing. This is deadly real."
My bravado is fading, because he doesn't look like the kind of man who plays pranks, and my mom doesn't look like she's faking a coma, and this hospital is entirely too real. I point to the paper in his hand. "That says my mom made a deal with a devil, that she traded her soul, and now the only way I can free her is to give you... me."
The man nods. "My brothers and I... we are in a bit of a predicament, and you are our only hope." He smiles as if he knows what that word means to me.
"And who are you and your brothers?" I look around for the cameras, for some evidence I'm being pranked. Maybe this guy escaped from the psych ward. That would explain a lot.
"Have you not figured it out yet?" His eyes change colors, becoming brighter. "We are the Princes of Hell. And you will be a Princess to one of us, and ultimately, Queen."
"Of hell," I say.
He nods. "Of hell. Though we have our own names for our world. Hell is a very mundane and human term that does not mean what you think it means."
"You're a demon."
He bows regally. "At your service."
"And this contract I would have to sign. It would be for eternity?"
"And I would have to choose one of you to marry?"
I look down at the scroll still in my hand. "And give that prince an heir."
"What happens after I die? In, say, seventy years?"
He chuckles. "Do you not understand? You will never die. By agreeing to this, you agree to take the Blood Oath. You will become one of us."
"One of you? You mean a demon. I would have to become a demon."
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
My stomach quivers with raw nerves at his answers. "And my child? This heir I'm promising... what if I can't get pregnant? Does that negate the contract?"
He steps forward and raises his hand to my cheek, brushing aside a strand of hair. "There will be ample opportunity to work on that. Worry not."
My hands are shaking. My throat is dry. The world no longer makes any sense. This is no longer funny. I place my hands on his chest... and push. "Get. Out."
It's like pushing a boulder. He only moves because he chooses to. I'm under no illusions about that.
"It's an interesting kind of irony that you of all people do not believe in demons." He looks darkly amused, his lips curling into a mocking smile.
When he moves again, it is with such speed I don't even register his movement until he is pressed up against me, my back now slammed against the wall. "But if you want to save your mother, I suggest you surrender your disbelief and embrace the truth. There are monsters in the world, Arianna. They are real." His eyes glow again, this time bright silver, and he smiles. "I am real."
I swallow, but my throat is too dry. I can't breathe.
His eyes bore into me, then drop to the throbbing vein on my neck. His eye teeth elongate until he has... fangs. His hand wraps around my neck and he lowers his mouth to my throat, his teeth brushing against my skin.
I'm shaking so hard, my breathing coming in rapid gulps. I close my eyes, waiting for... something. Death. Him to eat me. This no longer feels like a prank, but my mind can't wrap itself around the reality.
"Your mother will suffer for all eternity if you do not accept this deal," he whispers against my neck. "And I suggest you do not take too long to decide. I smell death on her. Even with those machines, she will not survive the week."
A sob builds in my throat, and I open my eyes, ready to scream, to gouge his eyes out, to do something to protect myself. But the pressure on my throat disappears and when my vision clears, I am alone in the hospital room with my mother. The stranger is gone.
But the scroll is sitting on the table by the hospital bed. Next to it is a manila folder with a note in his scrawl. When you are ready to see reason, read this file. It will answer questions of your past. It will show you this is no trick.
I sink to the floor, shaking, fighting tears, trying to clear my mind so I can think straight. This can't be real. These kinds of things don't exist.
They don't exist.
I wipe my eyes and stand, then take a deep breath. Time to get some answers. I run out of the room and down the hall, to the admittance desk. "There was a man in my mother's room. Tall, tailored suit, dark hair, light eyes. Why was he allowed back here?"
The nurse looks at me in confusion. "No one has been back there but you and the hospital staff."
"Are you sure?" I ask, looking around frantically. "I just saw him."
"This is the only way in and out, and I've been here without a break for hours. I'm sure." She looks more closely at me. "Are you okay? Do you need a doctor? You look pale."
I snort. "I'm always pale. Thanks, anyway." I walk back to my mother's room and sit next to her bed, ignoring the files the man left. I caress her hand, my thumb running over the mark on her wrist. "What's going on, Mom? What did you do?"
The hospital room feels like it's closing in on me. I can smell his cologne lingering, as if he's still here, lurking, spying, waiting to pounce. I've shut my mind down for now. There's no space in my attention to consider the existence of vampires and demons. To entertain the possibility that my mother is under a curse that will entrap her soul for all eternity and kill her body.
When Tom comes in to check on her, he studies me thoughtfully. "You should get some rest, honey. We'll take good care of her."
I've been up for two days. He's right, I should sleep, but I don't know how. "What if something happens?"
"She looks stable, but we'll call if anything changes. I'm on duty all night, so I'll keep an eye out. Rest. You're no good to her if you get sick."
I nod and grab my bag. My eyes fall to the scroll and folder. I haven't looked at them yet, and I'm not ready to, but I don't want anyone else gaining access to whatever they contain, so I shove them in my bag, lean over and kiss my mom on the forehead, and then quickly leave the room.
I can't wait to escape the hospital, and when a winter storm greets me, I smile. I might freeze to death on the way home, but I love snow. I love the way the world looks when it's covered in white powder. Magical.
The sun has already set and the street lamps cast long shadows over the snowy sidewalks. My breath is white as I exhale, and I round my shoulders and hug myself to preserve what little warmth I have.
While walking through the parking lot to the sidewalk, someone calls my name. I turn and see Fen standing by a black and silver motorcycle. He's already straddling it. "You'll catch your death out here," he says.
I shrug. "It's not so bad." Though I can barely feel my toes or my nose anymore, but whatever.
"Get on," he says, looking at the seat behind him. "I've got an extra helmet."
"Um. I can't. I don't live far. I'll be fine walking." I can feel the hives lurking under my skin at the thought of being on a motorcycle. That's even worse than a car. I take a deep breath.
He cocks his head, but instead of arguing, he takes his trench coat off and hands it to me. "If you insist on walking, at least wear appropriate clothing."
"You're wearing a t-shirt," I say. "That's less than what I'm wearing."
He chuckles. "I'm used to the cold. We get much worse where I'm from. Wear it."
I want to argue, to hand it back to him, but honestly, I'm freezing, and he's already starting his motorcycle. "Be safe, Ari."
Before I can thank him or say goodbye, he's gone. I look down at the trench coat and then pull it on. It's warmed by his body heat and smells like him, a musky woodsy scent that makes me think of tall trees and wind. I luxuriate in the thick wool as it falls to my feet, bringing warmth back into my body.
The walk home is a lot more pleasant now that I'm not freezing to death. I'm lost in thought, enjoying the feeling of the snow crunching under my feet as I walk the familiar path home, when something makes me stop.
It's not a sound. Not really. More that sense of impending doom. Someone is following me again. Is it the man from the hospital? The... I can't even bring myself to call him what I saw him to be. I just need to keep calm and get home. I'll be safe there.
Maybe it's just my imagination playing tricks on me. I haven't slept in so long, I'm probably starting to hallucinate or something. Maybe it's nothing.
But as I walk past the alley next to my apartment unit, someone grabs me and pulls me into the shadows.
I try to scream but a hand covers my mouth. "This will go better for you if you stop fighting."
I bite the hand and hear the man curse, but he doesn't let go. My eyes search around frantically for a way out, for a weapon, for anything. But all I see are two more people dressed in black approaching me. Winter masks cover their faces, and I know they are here for me.
One of them pulls out a needle.
Why not a gun? I slump in my attackers arms and slam the heel of my shoe into his knee. His grip loosens, and I spin in his arms and bring my knee up to make contact with his groin. He slumps over in pain, but it doesn't stop him from pulling me back.
I'm waiting for the others to attack me, but they are distracted by something else. No, someone else.
The two in black are thrown aside like dolls, and I feel the needle jab into my neck just as my eyes lock onto the person who attacked them.
Recognition dawns just as my consciousness fades.
My head is pounding and my mouth feels like someone filled it with cotton balls and told me to swallow. I try to keep my breathing steady, and I keep my eyes closed. I don't know where I am yet, and I don't want my captors to know I'm awake.
Why am I even still alive? No good reason, I'm sure.
I don't hear anything at first, but then small sounds trickle in. Someone is in the room with me, pacing. They have heavy boots that aren't muffled by the carpeting. I'm laying on something lumpy and made of corduroy. Something I recognize.
I listen more closely and I hear it: the faint hum of my refrigerator. It started working again. I'm on my couch.
A phone rings and a man answers with a deep, gravelly, British voice. "I have her. She's safe."
"No, I do not."
"There were three of them and my priority was protecting the girl."
He stops talking, and I wait a few moments before I take a deep breath as if just waking up. I try to open my eyes next.
I moan, raising my hand to shield my face.
The lights go out and someone walks closer to me. "Do not move too quickly. You are still recovering from the sedative they gave you."
Large hands hold my back and head and help me into a sitting position. When I finally pry my eyes open, I look up and see the man who rescued me from my attackers.
"What happened?" I ask, rubbing my head.
He hands me a glass of water and sits across from me. "You were attacked. I intervened and brought you home. The effects of the sedative should wear off soon. You'll feel tired and out of sorts but you will be fine."
I reach up to rub the spot on my neck where the needle entered me. It's covered in a bandage. "Thank you." As my brain wakes up, I have so many questions, but I start with the most obvious ones. "Who are you? And how is it you happened to be around when I was attacked?"
"My name is Fenris Vane. My friends call me Fen. When I saw you leave the hospital to walk home alone, I worried something might happen."
I narrow my eyes at him. "Really? Did you see someone following me? Why do you even care what happens to a random stranger?"
"Stick to being grateful, girl. Asking questions only leads to trouble."
"It appears I'm in trouble no matter what I do. First my mom mysteriously falls into a coma, and now I'm being attacked and drugged. And you show up, all rugged and viciously protective. Does that seem like a coincidence to you?"
"It seems to me like you need to be more careful." He sits there, so arrogant, so full of himself. I just want to slap him.
"I need to be more careful? How about other people need to stop attacking me? How about that? Let's put the blame where it belongs, shall we?"
He sighs and stands. "You are exhausting, and I have stayed here longer than I should. I made you something to eat in the kitchen. If you start to feel nauseous or dizzy, see a doctor. And try not to get yourself killed."
He walks to the door and my heart rate spikes. Suddenly I'm terrified of being left alone. My bravado drains out of me like water from a leaky glass. "Wait."
He stops and turns to me, his hand on my doorknob.
"Don't go. Please. I'm..." I swallow, hating to admit this to anyone, let alone this man. "I'm scared." My voice cracks and a tear leaks out. "I don't know what's going on. I don't understand why anyone is trying to hurt me or my mom, and I... I don't want to be alone tonight. Will you stay?"
I can see he is battling with himself, and I'm honestly not even sure why I think this is a good idea at all. He's a stranger I know nothing about. He could rob me, kill me, rape me. But, he saved me. He took me home and looked after me until I woke up. If he was going to hurt me, he would have done it by now.
"Fine. I shall stay for a few hours, but I must leave before dawn. I have somewhere to be."
I smile and sink back into the couch, suddenly exhausted. "Thank you."
He sits down again and watches me in silence.
After a few moments, I feel entirely too self-conscious. "Want to watch a movie?"
"A movie?" he asks.
"Yes. Comedy? Romance? Drama? Action?" I reach for the remote and click the TV on, then pull out my case of DVDs. "What are you in the mood for?"
"Hunting," he says, under his breath.
"A movie about hunting?" I'm confused.
"Action," he clarifies. "Something with action."
"Of course. But you should try a good romance sometime. You might find you like it."
He scowls at me, and I just laugh and put in something with a lot of guns and fighting and car chases. He has to sit next to me to see the television, and so we are close, our legs and arms touching, as we watch the movie. I find it boring, and Fen honestly doesn't seem that interested either, so half way through the movie I start to ask him questions about himself. His answers are vague, and I realize he's a private man, hard to get to know.
I give up and focus back on the movie, but I'm still so tired and my eyelids become so very heavy.
When I wake up again, my head is on Fen's lap, and his large hand is on my head, fingers tangled in my hair. I can hear him breathing deeply. He's sleeping.
His leg is like a log under my head, all muscle. I smile and lay still, enjoying the sound of his breathing.
When he finally wakes, he moves me gently. "I must be off," he whispers in the dark, as he repositions a pillow under my head to take the place of his lap.
I'm still exhausted, and too tired to protest or get up, so I just watch him leave and wonder if I'll ever see this mysterious man again.
The next time I wake, I feel stronger, more rested. I stretch, use the bathroom, then head to the kitchen for food. True to his word, Fen cooked. Chicken stir fry with vegetables and rice. I heat a bowl in the microwave and sit to eat, my mind wandering to last night and everything that happened.
I take my time eating, because the next thing I have to do will be hard. I text Es and ask if she and Pete can come over. As much as I hate to admit it, I'll need a ride to the hospital later. I don't want to walk after what happened last night. Part of me thinks I should report the attack to the police, but I don't. Because as much as I don't want to admit it, this has to have something to do with vampires and demons. And how could I possibly explain that to the police?
Es and Pete arrive a few minutes later. They bring food, but I'm full and let them have at it. "Thanks for coming over. I'm going to pack a few of my mom's things to make her more comfortable at the hospital. Will you hang out?"
They agree, and I leave them downstairs as I head to my mom's room. This is the hard part.
There are clothes piled on a chair in the corner that she meant to put away. Her dresser drawer is still ajar. I walk over, running my hand over the faded faux wood until it lands on an 8x10 framed picture of my mom and dad smiling over me when I was just a baby. We all looked so happy. So free. I pick up the picture and study it, looking for hidden secrets. If what the man in the hospital said is true, how would my mom have even known how to make a bargain with a demon? None of it makes sense.
I put the picture down gently and move to her bed, which is still a slept-in mess. I can see the impressions of her body from where she was laying when I found her.
I sit on the bed and then lay my head on her pillow. It smells like her shampoo. When I close my eyes I can almost imagine she's still here, humming as she folds laundry or cleans the house.
The tears I've been fighting so hard to keep at bay finally unleash themselves, and once they start, I can't stop them. It's a tidal wave of emotion that demands its time. My heart breaks, my grief pouring out of me as I clutch her pillow and wish for a different outcome.
I'm drowning in the sea of my emotional waste when my cell phone rings. "Miss Spero, this is Tom, your mother's nurse. You need to come quickly. Your mother is showing signs of distress."
I jump up, my heart hammering. I want to ask more questions, but I can't waste time. I grab my bag and run downstairs to where Es and Pete are watching television. "Something's wrong with my mom. We have to go back to the hospital."