Jack sat outside the winery’s warehouse, watching the occasional patrol saunter lazily by. Renaud may inspire fear in them when he was present, but the moment he left, all desire excel in their duties left with him. They would do the work – would probably be sacrificed to the council leaders’ murderous appetite if they failed – but not happily. Jack planned to use that.
Now he was convinced his mentor was in there. Yes, he had heard Victor say as much, but only half believed him. It was clear Luanne was close, filling Jack with a confidence and comfort he hadn’t felt since they’d been separated months ago. Julia had helped him cope at first, but now it was up to Jack to save his mentor. Especially since he had failed his fiancee.
No. Victor had failed her. And Sarah. And again, Jack was left to clean up the mess. What he could, anyway.
As the minutes ticked by, Jack kept an eye on not just the warehouse, but the roads surrounding. A foolish part of him hoped Victor would come to his senses and barge in, hell-bent on rescuing Luanne and Sarah alike. No such luck, though.
Jack was on his own.
There was a gap in the patrol. Every ten minutes or so the group as a whole would reverse direction. It was probably meant to look unpredictable to the casual observer, but it allowed a little extra time between cycles to come at that side door. Locked? Jack couldn’t tell until he pulled on it. If it didn’t yield to him, he’d be trapped with maybe thirty seconds before the next patrol came around.
The closest door would put him face-to-face with the incoming patrol, but if he spaced himself properly, he could keep to the gap between the pair and ride it all the way to the front door. They had already proven that one was open to visitors, assuming those people had been cleared by the security down the road.
Jack’s backup plan led him through the front door. He shook his head at the audacity of his own plan, but didn’t have the luxury of time to think of a better one. He needed to move. They needed him now. Luanne first, then she could help in finding Sarah. Now, before the council had drained the last bit of life from his mentor just out of spite. Now, before they crushed every beautiful part of Sarah’s playful spirit. Now, before they found the flaw in their security and remedied it.
Now or never.
The handle to his car’s door warmed as his hand rested on it, waiting for the perfect moment. When it came, he pulled, sliding into the tall grasses and leaving it close to the cab but not closed. Unlatched. Quieter. The brush offered the last feasible cover Jack would see for this quest.
Jumping fences had been easy ever since he had that growth spurt in Year 9 of his schoolboy days. This one was no different. The moment his shoes slapped the asphalt, Jack transferred all his strength to his calves, launching himself at the exposed side door. Two strides. He didn’t dare slow himself enough to look around. Five. Knowing if he’d been spotted wouldn’t help him either way now. Nine steps. Thirteen. Jack turned his momentum at the last possible moment, stalling his feet only enough to let the flat of his back land against the hot metallic outside of the tallest building on site. A gentle thump greeted his landing, but he could barely hear it above his own gulped breathing. The rough landing only served to tell him he had chosen a fraction of a second too late to slow himself.
The handle of the metal door had been in direct sunlight for hours. Jack ignored the blazing pain, instead steeling himself and twisting. He couldn’t help holding his breath as he pulled, knowing someone could have eyes on the door from the inside and there was no way to know until they had already shot him. The moment of truth.
It gave. Jack could barely believe it! Glancing inside the slender crack showed him only an inky black darkness, so he assumed the warehouse was unoccupied and therefore safe. He slipped in, holding the inner and cooler part of the handle torqued so the door wouldn’t latch audibly until he allowed it.
Silence reigned the moment Jack shut out the world. The air was shockingly cold against his throat, though moist enough to be pleasant after the summer heat. It tasted like the underground library he’d called home as of late. In that dark, he had to turn until he was nearly facing the center of the vast room to see anything at all.
The narrow shard of clean white light was some ten meters away, illuminating little besides some medical equipment and a hospice bed. For a split second, he dared to hope that the prone figure was his mentor, but he only needed as long as it took his eyes to adjust to recognize the truth. It wasn’t the feeble old woman who was the first goal of his quest, but the opposite. Jack’s instinct confirmed the conclusion his eyes had come to: Luanne was somewhere else, deeper in the “office space” of the building.
The muscular young man that instead occupied the bed didn’t move in response to Jack’s obvious and grandiose entrance. Stepping Jack recognized the figure: Marcus. What was he doing? Just laying there. He wasn’t strapped in, but rather his hands tightly gripped the table he rested on.
No, rested wasn’t the right word. The man’s eyes were open, staring – not at Jack – but straight into the lamp. Foam was building up at the corners of his mouth, and he was making no effort to wipe it away. Was – was he dead?
Jack dared a step closer – into the aura of light reflected off the polished concrete and close enough to see the eyes flicking rapidly around the beam’s source. Not dead. The movement of the iris was closer to sleeping. Trapped in some living nightmare. As if to make that idea come to life, Marcus jerked, hands unclenched for a mere moment before finding a tighter grip on the table.
There was no helping him, and Jack frankly wasn’t in the mood to. He wasn’t about to risk the mission – and all the lives that hung in the balance – for some man who had chosen to align with those that would do this to any one of them.
As silently as he could, Jack backpedaled into the darkness again. He’d spent too much time there already. Once his eyes adjusted properly, they landed exactly where he’d go next: a low, thin, horizontal line of light about ten meters to his right. Under a door, to another room, or perhaps a hallway. Either way, this one was lit. Jack didn’t even consider another option; his heart and mentor called him that way.
There was no knowing what was on the other side, not from here. Pressing his ear against the cool faux wood, Jack at least couldn’t hear anything. Annoyance flared that the door’s handle was a crash bar – as loud as its name implied.
Fortune, fate, the Force. They were all just words to him. No luck but that which we make for ourselves, his mentor once told him. Whatever it was, though, it seemed to be favoring him in that moment. The hall was empty. The Force was with him, as Julia might have once said.
Left or right? Left. Jack kept his step light and back to the wall in hopes of buying that vital fraction of a second to react if someone came down the hall.
Jack knew the moment he laid his eyes on Luanne’s room. That office door looked exactly like the rest – it was all that stood between him and his mentor. For that offense alone, he wanted to take a battering ram to the barrier, to reduce it to splinters and construction dust. Better to try the handle first.
It turned in his palm. For whatever reason, that fact didn’t sit well with him. His journey had all been easy. For all their fighting and arguing with the council, Jack had expected… more.
No – take the win. It would only make the council’s own lives difficult to have that level of security this deep into their base of operations. Still, he was aware the thought was more of a justification than a fact. Never mind. His opinion of their security flaws could be formed later, from the comfort of their library or a couch at coffee shop. Not now.
He slid in.
The mere sight within paralyzed him. Luanne was there, mere centimeters away from him. Finally! She was unconscious, as expected, and hooked up to some IV that presumably kept her that way. She didn’t acknowledge his presence – didn’t even move apart from a small twitching in her hand that wildly reminded him of a dog chasing rabbits in a dream. Overwhelming emotions – everything he had kept tucked away since Julia died – crashed over Jack at seeing his mentor this way. Joy at being with her clashed against the horror of seeing her that way. Regret at his own incompetence opposed his relief at her ability to hold on. Fury, peace.
He’d waited long enough – too long – to be with her. But there was nothing between them in that moment. Jack sprang the last few steps to be by her side. Her hand was cold, almost clammy.
He could have wept at hearing her voice in his head once again. I’m here.
Jack was shocked to hear mistrust from her, not the delight that choked him in that moment. It is really you?
He was glad he didn’t have to speak aloud; he wasn’t sure he could manage it. Yes. Of course. What had they done to his mentor to make her suspect it wasn’t actually him to come rescue her?
Jack had spent his whole life with her, being adopted just before he turned thirteen and rarely separating until the council had torn her from him. He should be able to think of something – anything – that would prove himself to her, but his mind blanked of everything logical in that moment. Think!
No. He hadn’t come this far and suffered this long without her just to abandon her now.
We found your library! It’s beautiful, and not far from here. Relatively speaking.
The rapier! That had recovered memories in him. It should have some effect on her. Jack let go of her hand, mind suddenly drenched in uncomfortable silence again. Pulling the weapon from his hip was second nature, and far easier than releasing his grip on it. She needed it more than he did, he reminded himself.
Jack didn’t know what he expected as he watched her twitching form, disconnected. He wanted an angel choir to burst open the ceiling or at least Luanne to miraculously sit up, tear the IV from her arm, and stand, once again ready to take on the world. Nothing. The weapon only rested in her hand, elegant blade along her thigh without even her grip to keep it in place.
Jack only allowed her ten second with the weapon before putting it away again, sliding it home with one hand and taking her cold palm with the other.
The instant he did, she linked fully, joining him in his mind. Jack! Her tone had shifted from suspicion to desperation. We need to go. Now.
What happened to you?
I’ll show you later. What they find out I’m with you –
The door clicked behind him. Jack wasn’t sure if it was his own or his mentor’s will that interrupted her order to spin toward the new sound, drawing the rapier again mere seconds after putting it away.
Guns – a lot of guns – greeted his aggression. Jack swept the rapier low, landing parallel to his leg, ready to swing up and slash at the first human who came in and threatened them. Two meaty men blocked the doorway, with at least another three behind them in the hall.
Jack was trapped. Most of him knew he should be panicked, but his mentor was linked with him now. Nothing could stop them both.
Take over, he asked, letting go of himself to make her job easier. It’d been months since she did this.
Luanne was surprisingly fluent, quietly stretching his muscles as they watched the doorway, waiting for his captors to make the first move. “What are you waiting for?” she asked the armed men through Jack’s voice. They were just standing there.
“Me,” a new voice answered. The men in sight stepped backward, moving in such a way to clear a path for the speaker to come in without allowing any escape route.
“Renaud,” Luanne spat the name before Jack had time to recognize the voice of the newcomer.
“Yes.” The dark figure stepped around the corner, a silver and white gun in hand. Jack didn’t recognize it, but Luanne told him by recalling memories of the weapon that it had been the villain’s favorite for more than a century.
“Let me go,” Luanne ordered.
Before Jack knew what he was doing, he had tossed his own weapon to his left hand and dropepd the blade to the neck of Luanne’s empty body next to him. “I’ll kill her.”
“It’s what she wants.” Jack felt sure on that point, considering she was the one using his voice to say it.
“Okay.” Renaud lifted the gun – not at Jack – but to Luanne’s wrinkled form. Before the muzzle even stopped to let his threat sink in, Renaud had pulled the trigger.
The shot rang loud in the sterile room. Jack couldn’t comprehend what just happened. He was aware of the details: he had jumped at the sound, along with the armed men behind Renaud; without a person inside to fight for survival, Luanne’s body didn’t lurch at the impact, but simply oozed; a ringing was starting to overwhelm every other sound; a flicker of a smirk from Renaud as he swept the barrel of the weapon around to him. Jack was keenly aware of every bit of information his senses could gather, but his mind didn’t know what to do with the information.
Luanne had been shot. Right there. Right in front of him. He hadn’t moved to stop it. Couldn’t move even now. He could only stare as his mentor’s blood started to trickle silently to the floor. There was no way that frail body could have survived the trauma.
It’s okay. I’m not there anymore.
Renaud was saying something, but Jack couldn’t hear him.
The sound of his mentor saying his name sent the world rushing back to him.
“Your real name,” Renaud was insisting in a dangerous whisper.
“Jack.” It was his own voice that spoke his name, but compelled by his mentor. He was barely able to observe the situation.
Renaud glared at him, adjusting his grip as a repeated threat. “I know you’re in there, Luanne. You can’t go back.”
“My name is Jack,” he responded for himself. It was the basis of what separated his kind from Renaud’s: in the world Jack had chosen, the student was at least as important as the mentor. The pride that answered and warmed him told Jack that Luanne agreed.
For a moment he was sure Renaud was going to repeat his question with a bullet for punctuation. Instead, the ancient evil man lowered his gun with a smug smile.
What was he planning? Alarmed, Jack held the rapier aloft between them again. “What’re you doing?”
The men behind Renaud filled the door. Each one held at least one gun strapped on his shoulder, and likely a handgun tucked away too. All Jack had was the thin melee weapon. He’d never been a gambling man, but if he were, he wouldn’t put money on his side. Still, there was no way out of the room except through the lot.
With his mentor, Jack could do it. Together, they’d be enough. They had to be.
Renaud’s eyes never left Jack as the man turned his head, speaking over his shoulder to the waiting goons beyond. “All the way down to the wrist, I think.”
What? What did that mean?
Not one, but three men crowded their way into the room, closing in on Jack like juggernauts. His mentor swept the rapier expertly between them, but Jack knew it would do little against their Kevlar. The moment he made connection with the center croonie, the man wrapped his muscular elbow around the thin blade, trapping it. Trapping him.
Jack knew without recalling why that trying to wrest it away would only serve to bend the precious but thin metal. For the sake of the weapon’s future, Jack had to let it go. For now.
The instant he did, the other two lunged at him. Jack met the first – on his right – with an elbow to the face. Before he could unleash his wrath on the other, or better yet slip between them, a meaty hand from the one on the left found Jack’s throat. With more force than a bat to a pinata, Jack was slammed against the flat of the wall, choking on his own tongue.
The trio paused, but Jack didn’t dare to hope it was out of mercy. His thumbs found but couldn’t separate the fingers squeezing his neck in order to break one, and therefore break himself free. His captor easily twisted Jack’s wrist away, slamming his knuckles against the drywall he was already pinned to. The center goon whipped out a penknife, spinning it around his own knuckles until he held it backward. Taking his time, the man stepped and stabbed in one smooth motion, landing the blade point-first in the center Jack’s palm. Choking, and now tacked to the wall, he couldn’t even scream in his agony.
“All the way to the wrist?” the croonie to Jack’s right asked with a smile, wiping blood from under his nose. He produced his own considerably heartier blade. Even reflexively recoiling sent new spasms of pain down Jack’s arm. Assuming it had ever been sharpened, the new knife in the right hands could have gutted him like a fish or chopped off a foot. In that man’s hands, it found the gap between Jack’s third and fourth finger, gently biting the tender flesh above the palm.
Renaud seemed to be enjoying Jack’s painful predicament. “All the way,” he confirmed with a grin.
Jack’s voice was far, but his mentor wasn’t. Do something!
His terror mounted when she answered with her own.
The knife sawed down, catching on the knuckle before continuing its gruesome work, tortuously separating the smallest finger from the rest of the hand.