The cigar pressed against her shoulder, and the stink of burning flesh flooded her senses once more. She bit back on her scream as fresh tears sprung to her eyes. Jaw locking, she bared her teeth around the gag, forcing her gaze to remain locked about her bare toes. She had lost her shoe what felt like forever ago, and while it was overall rather unimportant, at the moment, it was something to force her attention to.
“Shh, shh, shh,” cooed the beast over her as he studied his handiwork, pulling a drag on the cigar to make the end glow bright. “Never cry over art,” he puffed around the butt, one rough hand twisting her arm just below the scorching burn.
Her head tilted, just enough to glare at him, growling around the gag. Oh, if only she could say-
The burning edge was pressed once more to her flesh, and she couldn’t bite back on the startled shriek of pain mingled with impotent rage as it fought its way from her throat.
The man was huge, beaming proudly as he rolled the cherry of his cigar against her flesh. “My finest-”
A bang echoed through the small storage unit, the metal door shuddering with a tremendous force. In unison, Jo’s eyes turned along with her captor’s at a second thunderous echo bounced through the room. The monster before her pushed to his feet, the cigar butt captured between his teeth as he headed towards that banging, pausing long enough to retrieve the baseball bat from against the wall.
This was not how this was supposed to be going.
Just as his hand was reaching for the lock, the door flew from its hinges with a creak of metal, sliding several feet along the concrete floor in a low groan of acquiesce.
Then silence, stillness.
The brute of a man – Mike. His name had been Mike – stared down at the fallen door as if he couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. He was not alone…
Jo craned her neck, trying to get a better look at whoever her saviour was, but there was only darkness against darkness – no one was there. Then Mike was shifting, changing his stance as he took the baseball bat in both hands, body twisting as he began to swing a strike into the darkness, and at the same time, Jo screamed in warning around her gag, fighting her bonds with all she had.
If someone was there, she had to save them – no one should-
There was a flicker in the darkness, a faint glint of metal, and half of the bat slid neatly to the floor. Her own personal demon paused to stare dumbly for just a moment before he bellowed with rage.
That moment was all it took.
A few faint schick-schick-schick, and the shout was cut off with a gurgle, followed by him falling forward onto his face and out of her line of vision.
None of this was right.
She struggled harder against the bounds, her muscles screaming in protest. How long had she been tied here to this chair? She yelled around her gag, even as she fought to free herself. The chair began to tip, and she felt herself falling…
A hand caught the back just before the seat crashed into the floor, and a man knelt there, staring down into her features. Darkly beautiful, black hair, dark eyes, black suit, but skin so pale, it all but glowed. She could only stare up into this perfect features.
“You’re safe.” The words, while spoken in Japanese, were overlayed with English in her head.
He can’t be here. Why is he here? Just the same, hot tears spilled over her cheeks. Turning her head, she tried to wipe them away on her uninjured shoulder, but instead, it left her trussed and flailing as she tried to clear the tears away.
So she did the only thing she could think of.
She growled at him, jerking her arms, commanding him as best as she could to free her.
Point received, he chuckled softly, righting her seat. Another couple soft schick-schicks, and the ropes loosened their grip upon her, and she closed her eyes as blood rushed back to her extremities. His fingers gentled along her cheeks, removing the gag. “There we are,” he murmured, again in Japanese. “No more tears. There is no one left to-”
“You’re a bloody idiot, you know that?” Jo snapped, her eyes popping open as she glared at him. “He could have hurt you.”
Taken aback, the man could only stare at her, blinking slowly. “I’m a-” he began to repeat, though was sticking with his native tongue even yet.
“Idiot,” Jo growled, pushing violently to her feet. “I had it cov- Oh.” Up too quickly, she swayed and began to fall, crumbling back to her seat.
Except his arms were there, lifting her small frame. The angel smiled down at her, vastly amused. “You have fire.”
“I have a lot more than that,” she growled back as he began to carry her to the door and the darkness waiting without. “I could have-”
“Of course,” he agreed readily, cutting her argument off. “You had him right where you wanted him.”
She curled against his chest, accepting the warmth, the protection it offered. The twelve-year-old girl she had once been was still terrified, clinging to this man who charged into the space and rescued her when no one else would.
He had killed her demon and was even then pulling her from hell.
She peered around his shoulders as he stepped over the body of her tormentor, trying to ascertain for herself that he was not coming back, but a warm hand covered her eyes. “Children do not need to see such things,” he breathed. He had switched to English, the words perfectly enunciated with the slightest of British undertones. “Just know you’re safe.”
“There’s always another monster,” the girl she was whispered.
“I have a sword.”
How could she argue with that logic as the shadows enveloped them?
His hand slipped from her eyes, but still there was only darkness and the sounds of their mingled breathing. She shifted uncomfortably in his grip, adjusting her grip on him. “Are we there yet?” she whispered in Japanese.
There was a hesitation in his next step, and he cleared his throat. “No.” Succinct of him.
The fact that she managed to wait two whole beats before asking “How ‘bout now?” should have given credit to her patience.
The sigh that escaped him next was anything but, and her question was ignored entirely. Probably the best course of action, all things considered.
Between one step and the next, color returned to their world, and it was not the one they had just left. They stepped into a clearing, tall hedges rising up all around them, taller even than her saviour. In this space, a fountain rested in the middle, triple tiered with water pouring from what appeared to be a tipped vase at the top. It was night, the crescent moon smiling wickedly down upon them as the stars winked. The edges of the sky just above the line of the hedges were dyed a deep red, as if the sun had just set, but in all directions.
It was the fountain her saviour took her, setting her carefully on the edge. His pocket square was drawn, and he dipped the black silk into the water behind her before dabbing at her injured shoulder. “Why would he do something like this to a child?” he murmured to himself in his native tongue, the translation echoing in her mind.
It was Jo’s turn to sigh as she looked away, studying the burning horizon. “Because monsters don’t always have to have fangs and claws. Sometimes, people are just evil with no reason,” she returned distantly in Japanese.
It seemed only fair to speak his language as he had just saved her, even if he was getting the translation regardless.
The cloth was withdrawn momentarily for him to rinse before returning it to her tortured flesh. “No one this your age should ever have to go through something like this.”
She had been twelve when she had been taken, and that was what he was seeing now. “No one any age should have to go through this,” Jo corrected, unable to scrub the acid from her tone.
One corner of his mouth flitted upwards in a faint, humorless smile. “Fair,” he breathed. He sat back on his heels, studying her shoulder before nodding to himself before turning his attention to wiping her face clean. It was a small gesture, and not the worst of the mess, but greatly appreciated just the same. Once done to his satisfaction, he then rose to his feet and pulled his jacket free, wrapping it gingerly about her shoulders. Hands gentle, he helped her get the jacket on, even taking the time to roll the sleeves so that her hands were free then buttoning the front to afford her some privacy.
Oh, what she would have given for this kind of treatment those five years ago when the event had actually occurred.
Taking slow steps back, his gaze raked down over her from head to toe only to pause, head canting curiously before he looked up to meet her eyes. “Your shoe is missing.”
That was the part he noticed. One corner of her mouth flitted upwards in faint amusement. “Nah, I left the house like this.”
He nodded to himself, features entirely too serious.
Though it was a serious situation, just not the shoe.
“I suppose now is as good as any other time,” he said at last with a sigh as he drew his katana.
She still had no idea where he drew the blasted thing from. It’s just suddenly, the blade was in one hand, the wooden sheath was in the other, and he was settling back into a comfortable, practiced stance.
She tried to step back, but the fountain was there, and ended up tumbling into the water instead mid “Woah!” Sputtering, her head came back up, and she shoved tangled hair back from her face as she struggled backwards. “Woah!” she repeated, one hand held up to stave off the attack.
Because an empty hand would do such much against a katana.
“What the hell?” she squeaked, forgetting to be grateful enough to speak Japanese.
He paused, frowning at her reaction. “Why did you do that?”
Her back hit the far side of the fountain, and only then did she scramble to her feet and climb over the far side, coughing again to clear her lungs. “I don’t know, because you pulled out a freaking sword?”
His gaze flicked towards the bare blade then back to her, head canting curiously to one side. “I tended to your wounds.”
“Doesn’t mean they vanished,” she snapped, and suddenly, she was feeling not only every ache and pain from being strapped to that chair for so long and burned, but on top of it, the cold was seeping into her very bones and her teeth began to chatter. “Great. Dehydration now hypothermia,” she growled under her breath.
Confusion darken his features, furrowing his brow. “But this is where you attack me.”
Yanking his jacket off, Jo muttered something distinctly unladylike (and Russian) beneath her breath, flinging the soaked material aside – if he was going to attack her, she didn’t need it weighing her down. Fortunately, she made a much smaller target at twelve than she did at seventeen, and that was really saying something.
Never thought I’d be so grateful to be so small…
The blade swooshed softly through the hair as he spun it over the back of his hand, creating a graceful arch. Fancy. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand? You saved me and now you want to make a kebab out of me?”
He snorted, tossing his head so the black strands tumbled from his face. “Only because you’re going to turn into a monster,” he countered. “With that burn on your shoulder, I’m guessing some kind of dragon or something.” He sounded utterly disgusted by the very prospect. “It’s how things work here.”
And that suddenly made a great deal of sense.
Jo looked away from him, studying the surroundings. This was the same place they were at last time, though in a different part of the maze. She closed her eyes, lifting her face to scent the air, and distantly, she could pick up the faintest undertones of burning wood. The village in the distance…
“I understand,” she said at last, opening her eyes to look at him. And she did. “Nightmares suck, huh?” she asked, gentling her tone. “But you don’t have to worry about that from me.” Hands held from her body to show they were empty, she began to circle the fountain back to his side. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Amusement brightened his eyes. “I’m aware.”
Ah, that’s right – he had all the confidence in the world, and then some. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” she asked carefully, brows arching high in askance.
The merriment faded as he studied her once more, this time more intently. “We’ve never met…”
“Not like this,” Jo allowed, gesturing to herself. “You managed to invade my nightmare. Brynhildr?” Unless that was something he literally called all the girls, but it was worth a try.
Those perfect features smoothed, though the sword point didn’t so much as waiver. Because that wasn’t at all intimidating.
“We’re on the same side,” Jo added, taking another small step forward. “And I have the feeling you’re dealing with your own personal-”
A roar in the distance cut her off, and Jo stilled, her lips pursing to a thin line. A crashing could be heard, something very large moving through the hedges, and not in the ‘figuring out the maze’ sort of way. Nope, whatever that was happened to be crashing through the shrubbery, and unless she missed her mark, it sounded as if it were heading right for them.
“What is that?” she managed in a whisper.
“Probably the dragon I was worried about,” he answered on a sigh, his gaze flicking away from her face towards the charging beat. “If I were to hazard a guess.”
“Dragon,” she murmured to herself, working on wrapping her mind around that one. “Maybe we should run?”
A flash of amusement graced his features before he jerked his head behind him. “After you.”
“You’re the one who knows where you’re going…”
“It’s a maze,” he reminded her.
“But still, you’ve been here longer.”
“I have the sword?”
Why was she arguing when there was a dragon? Jo shook herself, bolting in the direction indicated. An archway – one of the many exits – loomed, and she didn’t so much as pause as she dashed through it. On her heels, she could feel the heavy steps of her savior.
The dark angel? Brynhildr? What was she supposed to call him anyway?
“What do I call you?” she called back, dashing around a corner. There wasn’t much thought – simply the need to go.
“Is that really important right now?”
“Just trying to – oof!” She leapt over a stone bench in the path. Who the hell put stone benches in a maze? “- trying to start conversation.”
“Just call me Bryn.”
“… as in – root! As in Brynhildr?”
She heard him leap with her warning, landing with a faint grunt. A moment later, an arm wrapped about her waist, lifting her into the air. She dangled there, blinking down at the ground as it was eaten up under his much longer legs.
It was a precarious position to say the least.
And considering what was on their heels, she wasn’t exactly going to kick his legs out from beneath him as her gut was screaming at her to do. “I’m not a child!” she bellowed instead.
“Your legs are short,” he huffed, shifting his grip on her. Where did the katana and sheath go? A moment later, she was dangling over his shoulder, staring back behind them as the hedges edging the narrow path crumbled away.
And there went another bench.
Something tugged at her consciousness, a distant whisper trying to pull her away, but she buckled down, clinging to his back as she fought to stay right where she was.. She couldn’t leave him, not like this.
Just in case that dragon really was here because of her.
A sharp left almost sent her tumbling, and she grit her teeth, trying to focus on her balance. “Hold on,” he breathed, and a moment later, he took another sharp left followed by an almost immediate right.
The hedge fell away, leaving them in wide hallway, white columns of marble rising up on all sides. Interspersed were alcoves with old statues, marble Grecians, wood Norse, stone Japanese, gold Egyptian. His heels clicked desperately along the stone gray and white square tiles, ringing through the room as he continued to run at full speed, though not in a straight line – he was instead, heading towards the wall.
The crashing had ceased, at least for the moment.
Turning sharply sideways and widening his stance, he slid several feet to come to a full halt before a particularly fierce statue of a samurai. Jo was set on her feet and shoved back behind the wideback of the old gray stone. “Stay here,” her angel hissed. “Do. Not. Move.” He looked back the way they had come, neck craning as he searched for whatever was hunting them.
“Yeeeeeaaaah, that’s really not going to work for me,” Jo pointed out, peering around the statue as well. “You’re stuck with me, buddy.”
“You’re safer here,” he snapped, dark eyes flashing as he glared down at her.
“I don’t really do ‘safe’. Sorry.” Her hand found his wrist, and she pulled him sharply back into the shadows to join her. “You’re not that big. Just hide here for a moment and catch your breath.” Pause. “Quietly.” In case that needed to be added.
There was room for the both of them, but it was a tight fit. Again, Jo was momentarily grateful to be even smaller than her usual at the moment, creeping as close to the edge as she could manage to peer around the corner.
“This is ridiculous,” he whispered. “I don’t hide. I’ll draw it away from you.”
He started to move again, and Jo shot him a dark look. “I swear, you leave me alone, I’m going to go give that damn dragon a big ol’ hug the second it shows up.”
Now that threat gave him pause.
“It’s a dream,” Jo pointed out. “Not like it’ll hurt all that long. Now hush. It’ll hear you.”
It took another few moments, but he finally settled back against the wall, shoulders hunched as he pulled in on himself to try to appear like just another shadow, his head bowed. His katana was in hand once more, though the blade encased by its black sheath. Eyes closing, he worked on his breathing, ears straining.
He really was quite good at this.
“So what bad memories do you have of this place?” Jo asked, keeping her gaze focussed outside of the little alcove. She may have told him to be quiet, but there was no way she’d be capable of following that rather intelligent bit of advice.
His gaze came up sharply, staring at her from the fall of his hair. “Besides everything that’s happened here?”
“Sarcasm is not attractive,” Jo pointed out lightly. “What I mean is you keep dreaming of this place. Just wondering if there was a reason. All of it, though,” she added quickly. “The hedge, this, the blue room, the burning village…” she gave a small shake of her head. “There’s got to be-”
“There isn’t,” he snapped, cutting her off. “I’m trapped.”
She turned her head just enough to study him. His jacket was gone, left in the clearing where he had tried to doctor her wounds, but otherwise, everything was precisely the same, down to the creases in his slacks.
What an awkward thing to notice…
“So you’re-” Jo started, but there was the sound of a heavy footstep, a click of nail on marble.
Her attention swiveled back to the hall. Shadows were billowing forth from the far side of the room, black, rolling smoke. Something hide within, large and fierce. A huff, and two streams of pale gray swirled forth from the larger mass.
“Stay here,” Jo whispered, “pulling” the back of the wall up several inches to cover where he reclined. “It won’t find you…”
“What are-” he started, but she was already gone.
Small, but fast – there had to be some balance, afterall. It was only fair. She whistled sharply as she gained the center of the room, waving her arms overhead. “Hey!” she bellowed. “Big bad and… boring. Actually.” She dropped her arms to the side, tilting her head as she studied the nothingness that they had been running from. “I mean, seriously. Get me a smoke detector, and call it a day. Maybe if there was a bit of fire…”
Another chuff from whatever hid within that shadowy smoke, and a jet of blue flame seared the ceiling. It took a step forward, and she could hear the mass slithering over the floor.
“Yeah, ya missed,” Jo drawled out.
Taunting a dragon was probably not her best idea ever…
The next bout of flame hit her directly, and oh, was the fire was hot.
As if that wasn’t the understatement of the year!
Her arms lifted, crossing protectively over her face as if to ward away the stream of flame as it swept over her, burning away the visage of the girl she once was. The aches of her confinement were gone, seared away even as that young girl. Yet the flames kept going, even as she leaned into the barrage, gritting her teeth. She slid inch by inch backwards, but she wasn’t giving up. Her skin reddened, blistered, yet she held her ground, leaning into the blast rather than retreating from it.
Her own personal angel hid nearby, afterall, and it was her turn to save him.
Only she wasn’t going to tell him that.
At last, the flames abated, and labored breathing rang in her ears. The flames had been so hot, the white marble had been scorched black, and fires flickered from all around her. The pain was there – in her arms, her face, curling in her stomach – but it fed her anger, her frustration.
Her arms dropped to her sides, and she drew herself to her full height, glowering at the mythological serpent before her. The red beast filled the two-story room, its head arched gracefully to make her seem that much smaller. Hands balled into tight fists, she glowered up at the thing, her anger fury building.
The scream came billowing forth, and she shoved all her anger, hate, pain, and resentment into that cry. It was a challenge, open defiance of everything she had been through, everything that was yet to come.
And as the shriek rebounded through the room, glass shattered inwards from either side and the skylight above.
Everything slowed down except for her scream, and while she felt her breath dwindling, her rage would not be stopped, and it continued on.
The beast recoiled back, head bowing in an attempt to avoid the flying shards that were being sent directly into its hide. Even its roar of pain was no match for her protracted scream.
Not until one heavy claw snapped out, wrapping about her torso, and began to squeeze the very breath from her like a vise. Then the scream was gone, but so was all air. It squeezed harder, slithering closer, maw opening wide. She fought – kicking and hitting – with everything she had as she was lifted into the air. Red and black spots clouded her vision, and the world fuzzed along the edges of her consciousness, but still, her lungs were refusing to work.
From the corner of her eye, she saw her dark angel dart forward from the shadows. The katana was in hand, the edge barely skimming the ground beneath him as he came darting in from the side of the dragon. So very fast… The blade hissed through the air as he swung it around, driving it-
Sputtering, Joe sat up in bed, gasping desperately for breath.
Why the hell was she soaked?
Breathing hard, she stared down at herself, arms extended to either side as she realized she was sitting in a puddle on her bed. Flames flickered all about her room, licking up the walls towards the ceiling, the heat intense,but starting to die away. Her lungs screamed with pain, as did her throat, and her ribs were definitely bruised – she knew that feeling all too well.
Ah, and the burn along her skin. It was like a bad sunburn, blisters already developing along her forearms and, if she were correct, the sides of her face and ears.
She forced herself to take deeper breaths, despite the pain, realizing, slowly, that Richard was at her side, gripping desperately to one of her hands. He was dressed for bed for bed – PJ bottoms and a tee – and was awfully pale as he stared up at her. She could feel the tremble in his hands as he refused to relinquish his group.
And Dirk stood over them both, wearing nothing but a pair of purple sweat pants, and holding a bucket.
An empty bucket.
“I got the ice!” Hunter declared as he came charging into the room with the ice packs in question, a towel, first aid kit, and a couple bottles of water – a bit more than simply ‘ice.’ He stumbled to a halt as he saw her there, head canting to the side for a brief moment before continuing forward. “You didn’t have to dump the whole thing on her, Dad,” he muttered in an aside, nudging first Dirk aside and then Richard.
At least he was fully clothed.
Jo looked from one to the other, wetting her chapped lips. “Someone mind telling me what’s going on?”
She looked to her brother first, but Richard remained utterly silent not to mention still wasn’t letting go of her hand, even though he did shift over enough to give Hunter some room to work. Gingerly, the dark haired man began examining the burns on her arms, working quietly.
She tried clearing her throat, but didn’t get so much as a grunt of response.
The end of her bed shifted as Dirk lowered himself, gripping his pail tightly to his chest. “You stopped breathing, Jo,” he whispered. “We heard you scream, and everyone came up here. I thought…” he trailed off, coughing. “There was fire. Everywhere.” Sadly, that wasn’t the first time her dreams crept into the real world, and Dirk was peering around the room as if he were searching for those vanished sparks. “Then you stopped. Just… just stopped…”
“Breathing?” She again looked to her brother who at least nodded this time, his hands squeezing her own.
“We couldn’t wake you,” Hunter supplied as he finished lathering aloe over her arms. “Nothing we could do. You scared the hell out of your brother,” he added, looking up to give her a dark, meaningful look.
Which meant she scared him, too.
She looked away first, and he started wrapping the ice packs into the towels.
“Let’s get you downstairs,” Dirk interjected, his voice a gentle rumble. “Dry clothes first, but I think it’d make everyone feel better if you were somewhere we could keep an eye on you…”
“Because you can protect against dreams now?” Jo lilted, a humorless smile tugging at her lips. The large bodyguard blanched, mouth opening as if in search of answers before dumbly shaking his head. “It’s ok,” she added. “I’ve had nightmares for years.”
“Not like this,” Rich whispered at last. “They’ve never hurt you before.”
That statement was mostly true. Ish. Jo gave her brother a reassuring squeeze. “Psh. I’m fine. A bit of water, and I’ll be right as rain.” She held up her free hand so he could inspect her skin, giving a small push of her mind to make the red seem several shades lighter. “I bet it’ll be gone by morning.” That was a boldface lie, but a pretty one.
Her brother’s smile was weak, but at least it was a start, and he bobbed his head. “Living room. After you change.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” she agreed readily. “Now out. All of you.” She rose from her soggy bed, ushering the trio of men from her room.
Door closed, she leaned heavily against it, forcing her breathing to remain regular.
It wasn’t just the pain from the burn, or the bruises on her ribs. She peeled away her t-shirt, twisting in the dim light of her room to study the old cigar burns on her shoulder. They had closed up years ago, the marks healed over to leave puckered white flesh.
Only now they had opened again, blood oozing down over her shoulder.
But if the dream did this to her… what was it doing to Brynhildr?
Stupid, fricking dragons…