FIRST CHAPTER: FALLING ASHES

January 5, 2018

 

MENA

 

 

Consciousness and I aren’t friends. Every time I wake up, Iva finds a new way to torture me. I stopped feeling the pain a long time ago, but it’s not just the physical pain for her. She likes to break me down, tear at my mind, my soul – hammering the rock to rubble and starting all over again. I guess I should be proud. I’ve never broken. Not completely. 

 

Except that once, my mind snidely whispers, but I try to ignore it. Losing it just that once was enough to remind me never to break again. But I try not to think about it since dwelling on that once is enough to make me lose what’s left of my mind. I need to keep sharp right now. I keep my eyes closed and pray for a reprieve that I know will never come. 

 

I sense two people in my new cell. 

 

Iva moved me here herself just a week ago. To bring me closer and draw the pain out longer and longer until I smashed my head in on the stone wall just to get a break. If prison taught me anything, it was how easily a skull can be crushed.

 

Even with my eyes closed, I can see the dank, dark stone tomb Iva has me housed in. No windows, no light. Little bigger than a broom closet, these rough walls are different than the cinderblock ones I have grown so used to. They look much older than the rest of the house, or what little I’ve seen of it. I can imagine the visitor’s placement, near the heavy oak and steel door. The people I sense are foreign to me. Iva must be stepping up her game, bringing in new players.

 

I hear a rumble of a man’s low voice and then a pained gasp. Then, I hear a voice I haven’t heard in over one hundred years.

 

“That’s Mena. That’s my sister.”

 

At her gasping sob, my eyes flash open, and I see a small blurry hand hesitate before brushing the crusted hair that is stuck to my cheek. My eyes haven’t quite figured out how to focus.

 

“Mena-girl, can you hear me?” Aurelia asks as she touches my shoulder. She pulls her hand back in surprise; she doesn’t expect me to flinch away from her or scurry in a backward crab walk off the cot, putting my back against the closest wall. But that’s what I do even when I tell my mouth to open, and my voice to say hello. Apparently my body is working independently of my brain on this one.

 

Especially when, instead of the greeting I mean to say, I start hissing at her instead. My breaths speed up, and my eyes roll in my head. 

 

So much for keeping my mind sharp.

 

I hear a thud… thud… thud… my body moves of its own volition, slamming me into the wall, trying to smash its way through the stone, I guess. My body is doing what it used to do in the beginning: flee. And then Aurelia is rushing me. She grips my arms and yanks me away from the wall.

 

“Stop hurting yourself. Please, Mena-girl. No one is going to harm you,” she says soothingly. She cradles me in her warm arms, oblivious to the stink and dirt and dried blood on my skin. She doesn’t seem to care that I probably smell like a sewer. She whispers soft platitudes in my ear and eventually my breaths ease and my eyes focus.

 

And all the while my brain is clear, but my body sings another tune. But my twin knows, she knows what torture is like.

 

Iva bragged about ripping the skin off of her hide so many times. She told me of the cuts she made and the blood she drew. Other than wielding the blade on me — that was her favorite pastime — telling me of my twin and her mate’s torture was a close second. So I know she can feel my pain. She feels that terrible ache along with me.

 

“Mena-girl, I know you’re in there, and I know it’s hard for you to talk. Do you remember the yellow flowers we used to pick when we were kids? I can’t remember their name, but we would pick them for Mama and put them in that green glass pitcher that sat on the kitchen windowsill. And she would sneeze. Remember? She would sneeze the house down since she was allergic to the flowers, but she wouldn’t move them because we gave them to her. Remember, little sister?”

 

That comment seems to be the key to unlocking my lips because I fire back, “You’re only fifteen minutes older than me.” My voice is awful, hoarse and cracking like a chain-smoking grandmother.

 

“There she is. You with me, little sister? It’s just you in there, right?” Aurelia asks, tilting her head so she can see my face. 

 

Most people would shudder at the sight of my twin’s pale pupilless eyes, but they are a balm to me. I’ve dreamed of seeing her for so long, I can’t begin to fathom what her actually being here might mean for me. Her black hair is longer than I remember, and it lies wild and loose around her shoulders. Her skin is decorated with beautiful bright colors and pictures. Maybe when we have time, she’ll show me. 

 

If we have time.

 

I frown for a moment when I contemplate her question before I realize she’s talking about Iva. I’ve heard the whispers in the halls. The Gentry’s quiet, fearful whispering of Iva taking over minds, making Soldiers into puppets, bending once-strong Phoenixes to her will. I’d hate to tell her that Iva tried. She tried so hard to get into my head. 

 

She never could manage it, though. That’s one victory at least.

 

“It’s just me in here, and my mind is clear, I just can’t always control what my body decides to do. No telling when it will choose to go haywire again. I take it that this is a rescue?” I say, my voice threaded with hope.

 

“Absolutely. How ya doing, Mena?” Rhys asks. 

 

Rhys is the same but different. He looks the same, same tall stature, same dark hair, same dark eyes. But he is lighter than I remember, happier. So many years ago, I tried to talk my sister out of seeing Lucien, but by that time our relationship had deteriorated long past amicable. Lucien, while a good man, was too weak for my brash and strong-willed sister. He was soft and slightly petty. In fact, his infatuation with Aurelia began out of spite. He was too worried about the life he did not get as opposed to the life he could have made. He was simply not enough for my big sister. 

 

Rhys is enough, more than enough. 

 

“I suppose that depends on your definition of crazy. Where is Iva and what year is it?” I return, getting right to the point. I know I’ve been here a long time, just how long, I’m not certain. 

 

“She’s been neutralized for the time being, and it’s 2015,” Aurelia whispers, trying to soften the blow but tightening her body, bracing herself. It has to be obvious to her that I’ve been here for a very long time.

 

I shudder thinking of the dark – always in the dark. I hated living in the blackness, but so much more, I hated being in the light. The light was when the pain began – when she would come to cut me, drain me dry, and try to break into my mind. She would rip away my flesh and smear dirt in the wound. And then one day, the pain stopped. I guess a body can only feel so much before the mind turns it off. But she would leave me to my silent oblivion – letting the voices of my regrets claw at my mind. I feel the pull of a snarl yank at my mouth. I have been here far too long – longer than I ever thought possible. 

 

Who did I have to look for me? My sister? My only sibling had been cast out of our family ages ago. What friends did I have in my old life? I’d had no one. No wonder it took half a century to find me.

 

I was a ghost already.

 

I am simultaneously relieved that Iva is no longer a threat – no more daily visits, no more soul-sucking agony, no more barbed taunts, no more of that cloyingly sweet voice whispering in my ear – and enraged that I’ve been here for so long. 

 

“Welp. I’ve been stuck in this hell-hole for fifty years. I’m a wee bit pissed off.” I’m furious, but my anger is nothing compared to the wall of white-hot fury I feel coming from Aurelia. 

 

“Fifty years? Fifty. Five-zero?” she screeches. 

 

Oh shit. 

 

Her eyes blaze white, and she looks to Rhys. She goes from me leaning on her to standing so fast, I almost fall on my face. 

 

“Guard her. I’m going to find that bitch and rip her head off with my bare hands. There is no fucking way she didn’t know about this,” she says as she stalks out of the room.

 

“Who is she talking about?” I ask Rhys.

 

“Nicola,” he says with a growl, his fingers tightening into fists that look like they’re aching to tear into someone.

 

“Stop her! Nicola is the only reason I’m alive!” I yell as I try to pull myself to standing. My legs don’t seem to want to work right, though, because they crumple beneath me almost instantly. 

 

Rhys goes to catch me, and I shudder back. The electricity rises in me before I can stop it, and as his fingers make contact with my shoulder, his body goes rigid. I try to shut my shield down as fast as I can, but I’m not fast enough to prevent damage. Aurelia’s pained scream ricochets through the stone room just beyond my door. 

 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I mumble as I cover my mouth and nose with my hands. I didn’t mean it. It has been a long time since I’ve shocked someone by accident.

 

Or even on purpose. 

 

Rhys looks a little worse for wear, and his nose is bleeding, but he hasn’t lost consciousness, so I didn’t shock him too badly. 

 

Still.

 

“You all right, Gorgeous?” he calls to my sister as he recovers from his doubled-over stance and his compassionate coffee-colored eyes meet mine. In an instant, understanding dawns on his face, and then his compassion is gone, flipping like a switch. His expression wipes clean of emotion so quickly, it’s easy to see he’s trying to keep the pity off his face. 

 

He knows. 

 

He knows what happened to me, or at least he has a good idea. It’s not too hard to guess what can happen to a woman in captivity when torture is the name of the game. I could give him two guesses, but he’d only need one.

 

“Yeah. Don’t touch the Aegis, spaz. I said guard her, not touch her,” she yells back. My body turns cold, and my eyes feel like they are about to bug right out of my skull.

 

“So noted,” he mumbles. 

 

How she knew I was an Aegis is baffling, but so is the whole of Aurelia. It makes me want to scream at how much she knows, how hard it is to hide from her. It makes me shudder to think of another psychic pawing on my brain. I try not to think that of my twin, but a girl needs her secrets.

 

“Don’t tell her,” I whisper, thinking if I could just clutch one thing, one tiny shred of dignity in this whole mess, I would feel better.

 

“Don’t tell her what?”

 

“Whatever you thought that made that look on your face. That’s mine. Don’t tell her.”

 

“You realize you’re asking me to keep a secret from a psychic, right? From my wife? About her sister, her twin? You know how that’s going to go,” he explains softly, and I feel sorry for the guy. I do, but not enough to let that cat out of the bag.

 

“And what right is it of yours? To decide for me when and who with I share my life, share what happened to me?” I spit at him.

 

“I have no rights, nor am I telling you what to do. What I’m saying is, if she asks me what happened, I will tell her. I will tell her my assumptions, my thoughts, and nothing more. It is your decision when and what you tell her, but it is mine as well,” he says diplomatically. It’s really hard to fault the guy when he uses facts and logic. 

 

It ticks me off.

 

“It’s difficult to be mad at you when you speak rationally. Stop it,” I grouse at him.

 

That makes a deep, rumbling laugh spill out from the wide, white smile that blooms on his face.

 

“Get your mate, Rhys. You might hate Nicola, but I owe her my life. Keep her intact, will you?”

 

“I won’t ask about the other, but you will explain Nicola to me,” he levels a stare at me. 

 

After all I’ve suffered, he doesn’t scare me. I feel the Aegis rise in me for the first time in a long time. More than that minuscule blip from before. My hands glow an icy pale blue as the electricity crackles across the skin of my palms. I feel the heat warm my chest, as the light hits my eyes. I know from experience that they bleed from a muddy green to luminescent amber.

 

“No,” I say, my voice lowering to a growl, “I won’t.”

 

Rhys raises his hands in surrender with a look of utter confusion on his face. My anger may seem irrational, but they would never understand what Nicola did for me. Hell, I wouldn’t understand if I didn’t live it. She saved me. Even if she had to hurt me to do it, she saved me. Even on the days I was begging for death, I still had gratitude for Nicola. She told me this day would come. I just had to stay strong.

 

I just never expected it would take this long.

 

“Okay, Mena. No questions. Can I help you up or do you think you’ll shock me again?” he asks in a soft, soothing voice. He sounds like he’s trying to charm a venomous snake. He’s not far wrong.

 

“Let’s stay on the safe side. Get my sister. She can help me.”

 

The last thing I want is to hurt anyone, but that’s all I seem to be capable of. The lives I have already taken will stain my soul for the rest of eternity.

 

“Okay, kiddo. Whatever you need,” he murmurs. “Hey, Gorgeous?” he calls.

 

“What?” she yells back sounding mighty irritated. We hear a large shuffle and a heavy thud. 

 

“Stop trying to kill people and get in here!”

 

Aurelia stalks back into the room, her clothes ruffled, rubbing the knuckles of her right hand and muttering expletives under her breath.

 

“I wasn’t going to kill anyone, just permanently maim them is all,” she shrugs and flashes an evil ghost of a smile.

 

“Why don’t you help your sister get out of here instead?” Rhys suggests.

 

“Stop being logical. It’s annoying,” Aurelia returns, and she crosses the room to press a kiss on his lips. Her quick peck is foiled when he latches onto her hips and keeps her there so he can kiss her better. 

 

“Dear God, now there are two of you,” he mutters against her lips.

 

“Umm… I hate to break up this little love-fest, but I’d like to get the hell out of here sometime in the next century. Is that possible or are you guys going to make-out some more?” I ask getting a bit of my snark back.

 

“Sorry, little sister. You’re right, though,” she says as she reaches down to haul my whole body up like she’s cradling a small child. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

 

Emerging from that small, stone room is not the balm to my soul I thought it would be. I seem to have been in captivity too long because I want to crawl back to my cell once I see all the people gathered in that room. 

 

So many people. 

 

Too much space. Too much light. Too much... My breaths come too fast. Too fast. 

 

I can’t seem to catch my breath. And even as the light dims and my heart races, I hope I don’t wake up back in that tiny stone room. I hope that this isn’t a dream. I hope I am really free. 

 

At least for a little while.

 

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