Diana could hear voices rising and falling in a rhythmic chanting. It sounded almost soothing, and she did what she could to allow the sound to calm her. She wasn’t entirely successful, though, because the chanting was coming from the throats of the people who had abducted her, stripped her naked, gagged and bound her, and then shut her in a rough stone room that counted darkness among its only recognizable features.
Shortly after they’d torn and cut her clothes away, her greatest relief was that they hadn’t violated her. Diana spent perhaps two hours fearing that each time one of them approached her that now, now they would do it. But they didn’t. As the hours crept by and no more of them approached, Diana began to wish that something, anything, would happen. Beat her, rape her, sell her, just get it over with. The time and the darkness eroded her terror; boredom crowded out vulnerability. Eventually, the pain in the joints of her bound limbs began to outweigh every other thought.
After what Diana roughly estimated was an eternity, a panic began a quiet, stately procession into her conscious thoughts. Diana had been bound and gagged in a dark room this entire time. She was hungry, terribly thirsty, all of her joints ached—her shoulders screamed and wailed—from her bonds, and she had lost the hold on her bladder and bowels many hours ago. A few times, the idea that death might be preferable to enduring this skittered through her mind, but each time she viciously thrust the thought away. The thirst, the pain, the flashes of ghostlight that teased the periphery of her vision in the absolute darkness, none of them could diminish her desire to live. She would survive! If only she could move.
Light? She did not notice it at first, but after the complete darkness she’d been in for so many hours, it took her a few minutes to realize that what was dancing in front of her was not her imagination, but rather the glistening of her tears on the floor in front of her face. It was still far too dark to make out anything but gross features, but the fact that she could see anything at all was a welcome change. She’d long ago abandoned her earlier feeling of fortune at avoiding sexual assault. She did not want to die. She would not submit, but she knew that anything was preferable to dying of thirst in the darkness covered in her own filth.
Footsteps sounded from behind her. She could not even turn over to see them enter, for they’d bound her forearms together behind her, her legs together at the knees and ankles, and they’d looped a short length of rope between her neck and ankles, keeping her bent backwards. Her neck was raw and wet; she was sure that some of that wetness was blood from where the rope had rubbed away the skin of her throat.
She heard wood scraping against stone, and then the light in the room lanced painfully into eyes accustomed to many hours of darkness. The rope around her neck was—blessedly, blissfully, wonderfully—cut, and she could breathe more easily, and she immediately arched her back to stretch out muscles long numbed from cramping.
Before her eyes had a chance to adjust to the brightness enough for her to even squint, someone pulled a cloth sack over her head. She felt large, remarkably strong hands on her legs—a pair of hands on either leg—and then the ropes at her knees and ankles also fell away. Tears immediately welled up in Diana’s eyes and she braced herself for what she’d thought, hoped, she’d avoided for hours. I am alive, she cried inside her mind. I won’t die down here, no matter what they do to me. Diana sobbed through her gag. I will live. She tried to struggled against them as they pulled her legs apart, but she was fatigued, her muscles cramped, she was hungry, and dehydrated, and they were large, powerful men.
“Wake! Up!” Vanessa hissed into Gabriel’s ear, each word punctuated with her fingernails jabbing into his chest. Gabriel tried to open his eyes, but sleep still clung to him tightly, gluing one of his eyes partly shut. “What?” he croaked. It was meant to sound irritable, but the firesmoke that gummed his eyes had lined his throat and chest with phlegm. He rubbed the sleep-sewn eye and cleared his throat. He had been in the middle of the weirdest dream he could ever remember having…or would have been, if the memory of the dream had not already faded into an indistinct foreboding.
“Shh!” Vanessa was sitting up on their camping pallet—three blankets, two sleeping bags, and a sheet over an air mattress. Nights are cold out here in October. Gabriel could feel tension in Vanessa’s body. She whispered, “There’s something moving out there.”
Gabriel rose up on one elbow and was about to speak, but his attention was caught by the silhouette of Vanessa’s small breast against the faint glow of the campfire’s embers. Her erect nipple gave silent witness to how chilly it was outside their blankets. He cleared his throat again—more quietly. “O’ course ‘ere’s somethin’ movin’ out there,” he murmured. “We’re inna woods, Ness.”
Vanessa shot Gabriel a withering look, which was completely lost in the dimness. She could tell Gabriel was grinning, because his teeth flashed in the darkness. He put his arm around her and started to kiss her breast.
He stopped short and both of them held their breath as something howled very, very close.
Vanessa hissed, “That can’t be more than a hundred yards away!”
Gabriel swore under his breath and rolled out of bed. He yanked jeans over his legs while trying to simultaneously ignore the cold and concentrate on the sounds around them. The howl sounded again, running lower in pitch and turned into a sort of roar at the end.
Gabriel stopped moving. Wolves don’t howl like that. Do they? He didn’t even know there were any wolves in this park. Nessa would probably know. He’d ask her later. He quickly felt his way to his backpack, off to the side of the tent’s doorway. Down at the bottom was a heavy object wrapped in an oily cloth. Gabriel pulled it out, unwrapped it, and began to make metallic clicking sounds. He swore again, this time in frustration.
“What’s wrong?” asked Vanessa.
“I never…” he murmured distractedly, “…loaded this…inna dark.”
“You never loaded—? You have a gun?” Vanessa hissed.
“Shh!” Gabriel didn’t stop carefully pushing bullets into the chambers of the .38 revolver. He’d debated keeping it loaded, but decided in the end that in the event that he was caught with it that an unloaded pistol would probably be slightly less damning. “Stay here,” he whispered, and slipped outside on silent bare feet.
The shot glasses pounded the table, and Ran said very seriously, “Take heed, my maties, for thar be mischief afoot.” She had leaned in and placed one hand to the side of her mouth to lend the sentence an air of conspiracy, but the music, laughter, and raised voices gave the background a noise soup that forced Ran to use a conspiratorial yell to be heard by the other three at the table.
“If you’re going to try to talk like a pirate, that should be, ‘me maties,’ Ran.” Emily lounged back into her chair, a form-fitting pristine white mohair sweater accentuating her generous bosom. The white of the sweater created a deliberate contrast with her poker straight nearly-black hair. Her bangs were cut to artfully brush the tips of her eyelashes, and the entire effect made her already remarkable eyes into blue-white stars emerging from the nightfall of her hair. Her lips had the full, plump quality that other women pay to gain, and even wearing a self-satisfied smirk, they invited a languid, sensual kiss, particularly when sporting bright red lipstick. Every inch of her 5’4” form was composed of curves and the hints of motion that invited losing one’s mind to the body’s passions.
Ran thrust her finger into Emily’s face and continued to abuse her terrible movie-pirate accent. “Under normal circumstances, I’d keelhaul ye fer yer uppity ways. It’s not a wise sailor what corrects her cap’n.”
“Even when she’s a punk,” grinned Reese.
“Aye, First Mate and stalwart sister of the Distillery Sea,” answered Ran. She draped an arm over Reese. “Especially then.” Ran punctuated the sentiment with a loud belch. “Now. Where was I be?”
Roland laughed. Reese didn’t spend much time around Roland anymore, but she didn’t recall hearing him laugh very often. The rest of the time, he wore a scowl, a frown, a pout, or some other form of displeasure or melancholy. Reese didn’t personally know anyone who was more unpleasant to be around, and couldn’t imagine how he and Gabe had become best of friends. Both were in their mid-30’s, and that’s where Reese’s estimation of their similarities ended. Gabe was a tall, powerfully-built force of nature that attracted the attention of a room. Roland’s 5’8” body had already started its expansion into the rotundity of middle age. His short, tightly-curled brown hair was still free of gray, and a couple years ago, Roland’s receding hairline had made a miraculous recovery. (Reese had to admit that in Roland’s case, it was a marked improvement.) Reese recalled a good-looking self-effacing warmth to his face when she’d met him in college, but his youth had sagged with the emotional distance of the last fifteen years. When he wasn’t surprised out of his raincloud by Gabe or Ran, he injected sarcasm and biting, acerbic wit into conversations. Reese didn’t know what direction his obvious affection for Ran took, but she was happy that her sister was able to dispel his miasma of gloom. “You ‘be’ed’ at ‘mateys,’” he offered.
“Aye!” Ran winked at Roland. “An’ a matey do I spy over at yonder bulkhead.” Ran waggled eyebrows and chucked her head exaggeratedly toward the bar behind her.
“A ‘bulkhead’ is a wall,” corrected Emily, ignoring the tongue Ran stuck out at her. Emily’s eyes scanned the bar behind Ran, and Reese thought that Emily’s eyes widened in surprise for a split second before she quickly resumed her accustomed look of casual disdain. “That’s just the bar. But I think I ‘spied’ the same ‘matey,’ and I think he looks yummy no matter what you call what he’s leaning against.”
“Well, eyes off! I spied ‘im first! That thar’s my Moby Dick.” Ran placed extra emphasis on the second word of Captain Ahab’s folly and waggled her eyebrows again, which drew a guffaw from Reese. “And besides, you be married to a man, already!” Most of the faux pirate accent had faded from Ran’s voice, leaving just a sprinkling of the vocabulary. Emily was beginning to get to her.
“Who’s sitting right here,” Roland said.
“Oh, come on!” Emily said. “He’s cute. I noticed. So what?”
“‘Come on,’ yourself. Seems like ‘noticing’ is becoming your favorite pastime.” Roland sounded much more like himself when speaking to his wife.
Emily rolled her eyes, ending the roll on Ran’s “matey” at the bar. She was obviously baiting Roland—and Ran. Did Emily honestly think there was something between them? Reese smiled inwardly. Not a chance. Not that Emily had a leg to stand on in that department, anyway.
Roland’s face flushed. It wasn’t from his half of one drink. “I am trying to—!”
“Get a room, Slugbirds!” Ran cut in loudly. She was showing a toothy grin that was at odds with the fire in her eyes. “You’re killing my buzz.” Ran put her hands on the table and smiled tightly, her eyes still flashing. “Tonight is my 21st birthday, and I will not put up with the jib-jabs and the bickering.”
“Miranda—” Emily started.
Ran drew her hand through the air between them. “Zip it. No apologies, no excuses. Either pretend you actually like each other, don’t speak to each other, or call it a night.” Ran finished with a close-lipped stretched into a predatory smile. Ran’s personality could fill any room she occupied, and right now, she put all that presence into her gaze. No one said a word.
Reese’s mouth was twitching and could barely keep from laughing. Ran was remarkably self-possessed and headstrong for her age—and often a pain in Reese’s ass—but at times like this, Reese loved to see it.
“Now,” Ran’s smile completely transformed and she flashed it around the table as though nothing had just happened. Any tension evaporated under the warmth of her grin. “Onto mischief. I am going to the bar for another round—and to harpoon Dimples McGreatAss, over there. Who’s buying?”
Roland smiled in spite of himself and shook his head slightly as he pulled out a couple of bills. Ran refused any help with carrying the drinks, (“No, I’m bringing my extra set of hands back with me,”) and sashayed over toward the bar accompanied by quite a few gazes from the males around the pub. She squeezed her curves in between “Mr. McGreatAss” and the seat next to him. She wasn’t half as drunk as she acted—yet—but was having a great time with it anyway.
Reese winked at the “Slugbirds,” but they missed it. Their heads were together, and they were obviously having a heated argument, not quite audible over the din of the pub.
Reese sighed. She would much rather have had Gabe and Nessa here. Reese had never really liked Nessa, but for some reason, she was Ran’s best friend; Reese would have tolerated her for Ran’s sake. Gabe was a lot like Ran in a group: boisterous, infectious, and center of attention. Gabe and Ran in the same group of people provided an almost continuous source of laughter and revelry, as their blazing personalities unconsciously competed for the room’s focus. They had no romantic chemistry—more like a brother and sister, or, hell: like the good friends they were. Plus, Gabe and Ran were the only two people Reese knew who could reliably keep Roland’s spirits raised and Emily’s cattishness in check. In fact, Reese mused that the dynamic between Nessa and Ran was a lot like Gabe and Roland’s: they complimented and balanced each other.
They were all planning to have a bigger party for Ran next week, but when Jaime, Reese’s partner—and ex-husband (which was, oddly, not at all weird for either of them)—surprised Reese by getting them both tonight off, she jumped at the chance to take Ran out for the night of her 21st. Gabe and Nessa were camping, though, so they’d have to do it all again next week. Reese smiled; Ran would certainly not mind getting treated to going out twice for the same birthday, and Reese looked forward to having Gabe’s balancing influence on Roland and Emily.
Whose voices were getting louder. Reese had had enough. She put on her cop face and unpacked her cop voice.
“Break it up, you too.” Reese’s words cut through the noise of the bar, though she barely raised her voice. They both looked at her, along with a few people from surrounding tables. “It’s too bad that you got tired, Em, and that now you have to drive her home, Roland.” Reese’s expression left no room for discussion.
Roland compressed his lips and looked down, chastised. He nodded. Emily tried to look angry or possibly insulted, but it came across as merely petulant. She raised her eyebrows and sniffed. She looked at her purse to avoid eye contact with Reese. “I drive,” said Emily. Petulantly.
“How empowered,” said Reese flatly. “Good night.” She did not take her eyes off the Pierces as they exited the pub. There was not a whole lot of marriage left in that couple, Reese mused.
A breath Diana didn’t realize she’d been holding exploded from around her gag. Cold water! What the hell? They were…washing her? Firmly but not unkindly. Diana was pretty damn sure it would still constitute sexual assault, legally—you really need a woman’s tacit permission before you strip her naked and bathe her—but still, Diana felt relief cascade over her nerves: They hadn’t done anything else to her. Prospective rapists might yet want to bathe you first…but they were so quiet. She had not heard a single word from any of them from her kidnapping up to this truly surreal sponge bath. Still fueled by her will to survive, she also began to again hope that she could come away from this without being fully violated by her captors.
As her bonds had not allowed her any movement at all, she regretfully admitted that she appreciated having her own filth cleared away from her body. She didn’t appreciate it enough to allow them even a modicum of forgiveness for her abduction—she would not allow herself to grow attracted to her captors! Stockholm Syndrome my ass! (OK, maybe that took way longer than a day or so. But still.)
Her captors, still anonymous on the outside of her hood, lifted her up bodily. They separated the ropes tying her forearms behind her back, and—oh my gods, my shoulders! The people holding her didn’t seem to have to work at it at all to raise her up. No grunts, no hesitation. How strong were they? Diana felt cloth going over her head—a shirt? There was a hole for her head, and they deftly threaded her arms through their own holes while never giving her an opening to get a hand free. The garment draped down past her knees in front and behind. They tied something around her waist to keep it closed at the sides, then tied her wrists together behind her back. Having only her wrists bound was monumentally more comfortable than having her forearms bound together. Pins and needles turned Diana’s entire arms into fiery release from their long bondage. The sensation of cloth covering her body made her feel much better, even under the circumstances. Though she had no more ability to overcome her inhumanly strong captors now than a minute ago, at least she was no longer naked in front of them, and clothing over her put the threat of rape that much more distant.
Her hood was yanked off, and the unaccustomed brightness of the room came back to assault her eyes. She blinked quickly, desperate to see who was around her, where she was.
Unless kidnappers could be positively identified by height, sight was not going to do her any good. The four men (or freakishly tall, broad-shouldered, breastless women) were all dressed in hooded black robes. Each of their faces was covered by a black mask over their eyes and mouth. Diana’s first thought was ninjas. Giant ninjas who kidnap girls to give them nude sponge baths. Diana tittered a little at the thought.
Cleanliness and clothing had returned some of Diana’s sense of humor, at least. That was good. If she had humor, she had her wits. If she had her wits, she still had a hope of finding a way out of this. Whatever this was. Unless the humor was just hysteria, which was a very real possibility. She tried not to give that thought too much air time.
The four ninja-giants led her through a rough door—no, make that a piece of plywood—into a hallway. (Though “led” is speaking generously. Two of them carried her while she tried to remember how to move her cramped and aching legs back and forth.) Wait, this wasn’t a hallway. This was a cave. The floor they were walking over was mostly level, man-made, and worn smooth. On either side, though, there were stalagmites. Diana turned her head up to see if there were stalactites above (”Remember: ‘g’ for ‘ground,’ and ‘c’ for ‘ceiling’; that’s how to remember which is which!” Who taught her that? Mom? Damn it, have to stay focused!), but as she moved her head up, her vision swam and went black.
Diana awoke to the taste of water against her lips. She’d fainted! She tried to gulp it down—so thirsty!—but large hands pulled the water away before she could get more than a few sips. She wanted more, even though the rational part of her mind knew that too much water too quickly would likely make her vomit. The metallic cup came back to her lips once more, and she took another desperate mouthful.
What she supposed were the same two big, hulking hooded ones lifted her back up by her upper arms. Diana felt marginally better with a couple mouthfuls of water. She suddenly realized that her curiosity about where they were taking her had almost eclipsed her fear of what was going on. They’d distracted her with a…crappy beige dress-thing! Without warning, she tried to break away from the men holding her, hoping against hope to outrun, outsmart, out…of the question. Diana didn’t just fail to break away, she failed to move her arms or their hands at all.
She landed one kick on the one on her left. Ouch. She thought her bare foot ended up more hurt than his knee, but another one who was behind her simply grabbed her ankles and held them with the same immovable force as the hands on her arms. They continued on, carrying Diana facedown by her arms and ankles, like a parody of Superman. Diana couldn’t help but laugh.
Once she started laughing, it just kept coming. This Superman was thoroughly resisted by these “immovable forces.” ImmFor, the ImmFor Four! She laughed at the ridiculous image of a foursome of black-clad super-villains, the pain in her shoulders, at being carried like a battering ram though a cave towards a bunch of crazy chanters—
The rising hysterical laugh snorted off abruptly as she choked on her on saliva. Shit, now she had snot dripping from her nose and no way in hell of wiping it off. She hated the thought of facing some unknown doom like a snot-nosed kid. Four men all in black were carrying her towards a…it sounded like a whole room full of people chanting, and now that she was closer, she realized that she couldn’t understand what they were saying. It wasn’t in any language she recognized. It sounded…guttural. Lots of back-of-the-throat consonants, like Gaelic or Yiddish…but yet unlike either.
Diana’s head hung down, and she watched the old, worn stone floor pass beneath her. They stopped. The lead ImmFor stepped to one side, and Diana saw a pair of beautiful, pointed black leather boots enter her field of vision. Diana’s mind was still fixated on the chanting and her own abduction, so she indulged this distraction to walk her eyes slowly from the boots—stiletto heels, nice—up the legs, over the knees and partway up a pair of gorgeous, curvaceous, milky white thighs. The owner’s hips were bare except for a slender leather lace that looped over shapely hips to support a bare triangle of black leather that promised everything it did not reveal. An attractively tooled leather sheath held some kind of ornate, jeweled dagger or short sword on one leg. The chanting faded from her attention completely as Diana saw a piece of a tattoo just barely peeking above what she could only think of as a leather bikini. That tattoo looked…
Diana’s eyes widened, and she stopped her exploration of the incongruously bared female flesh to jerk her eyes up to the woman’s face. The woman’s eyes were behind a black, feathered mask, but Diana knew those brilliant blue eyes as well as she knew the full, lips so frequently pulled into a small, wry smile. As they were now.