As promised, here goes episode 2 of “The Executioner”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for episode 3, and every week for much more.
When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian and friends on a winter trip in the Carpathian Mountains – a choice that will change her life abruptly.
When the train derails in high snow, they seek refuge at an abandoned cottage, but soon people of their group start losing their minds and dying. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.
A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. He might save Alice’s life or he might take it. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?
Whispering somewhere close. If I was dead, I wasn’t alone in it. It was true, you still existed somewhere after you died. You don’t see, but you can hear – not an ideal situation, but still something. And it’s warm and so very comfortable, all that whispering, as if somebody’s careful not to disturb you.
Then I must’ve fallen asleep and dreamt, even in death, and it was anything but nice. I was small, so small, like a bee in a jar. And I tried to get out, but the glass was slippery, there was nothing I could grab. Every time I tried to reach up, my palms would leave traces of blood down the jar. Instead of fingernails, I had pus and blood. I screamed, a sharp scream like a train whistle, then a hard push on my hands. And then my eyes were open, though painful, so very painful.
I sat up, sweat trickling down my forehead and neck. The room seemed warped, like in a dream, my skull heavy as if it contained rocks. I dropped back on pillows that smelled of disease and needles stung my arms.
A sweet, pained voice rang close to my ear. “Alice, baby, you’re awake! Thank God, you’re awake!”
English. That moment I knew Mom was leaning over me, her lips pressing on my temple and forehead again and again. I tried to open my eyes, but the lids were swollen and hurt. Everything hurt.
She held my hand, I now felt it, aware again of the life that flowed feebly through me. A slow pulse in my chest, like a lazy clock. Tick – pause – Tock. Tick-pause – Tock.
Among sobs, Mom began telling me the story of the Sleeping Beauty. It had been one of my favorites as a kid, and her voice brought back the oldest and sweetest memories of pink pajamas and Judy the Monkey. Memories as distant as how and why I’d ended up feeling as beaten and finished as I did. My mind was taken only with the prince with beautiful, sculpted face and long raven hair blowing in the wind as he rode his white stallion, the girl slumbering in a high, ivory tower and the taste of cotton candy mingling with that of blood.
The story came to a forced end when two men walked in – I could tell they were men by the low, deep voices that didn’t manage to keep their heated conversation to the mere level of whispers.
“I won’t leave her under your wing alone.” The direct, determined tone was enough to trigger the man’s identity in my head – Dad. The feeling of warmth and peace was now whole – they were here, both Mom and Dad. I was safe.
“You’re being unreasonable, Tiberius,” the other man warned in a pleasant but commanding voice. Probably as commanding as his person, since he called my dad by his first name – The fewest called the great Dr., PhD., A-pile-of-titles-in-biochemistry-I-can’t-even-read Tiberius Preda by his first name.
Suddenly, images of a rusty chain and strings of fur crossed my mind’s eye like sharp lashes. Then the fall, the knock in my head. The conclusion was rapidly reached – I was at a hospital and the man must’ve been a doctor.
“I’ll be her sole guardian.”
“That’s not a good idea,” the doctor stressed.
Among wretched sobs, Mom whispered, “She’s woken up, Tiberius. She was up on her hands, she opened her eyes.”
The shuffle of fabric told me Dad hurried to my side. Hands checked the catheter in my arm. IV lines. Hospital, doctor, catheters . . . Reality caught outline. How on earth could I have survived? A leaden sensation all through my body prevented me from moving or making a sound, but my brain activity took off like a rocket.
“She’s regaining her strength fast,” Dad said, and bent close to my ear, “Alice, do you hear me? Are you awake, sweetheart?”
Regaining my strength felt far from the truth, since I didn’t find enough to moan, let alone answer.
“She fell asleep again,” Mom lamented, as if I were more dead than alive. “She fell asleep, my poor girl.” My temple tickled – She was caressing my hair.
“You should get some fresh air, Jen. You look and sound tragic, and that’s the last thing she needs.”
Mom took offense, it was obvious in her higher-than-usual pitch.
“I’m not going anywhere. This is my baby, barely out of a cold ditch.”
“No, Tiberius, your tone. I’m not one of your sluts.”
“That’s it, Jenna, you need fresh air.” Dad was now severe – that kind of severe that used to sew my lips together years ago. Now it shut Mom up and strengthened my decision of playing asleep. I sensed her linger in the doorstep, as I did her crying eyes on my face before her steps faded down an echoing hallway.
“I’ll leave you with her,” the doctor said calmly.
“No, don’t. Close the door, we need to finish our talk.”
“Not here. Not now.”
“I won’t leave her with you, lad, and I don’t want you doing anything behind my back to force my hand.”
He can force Tiberius Preda’s hand?
“I won’t take action without your knowledge”, the doctor said, “But I won’t back off.”
“I won’t have her in your custody. That’s my final word.”
“Let’s talk about it later, some other place.”
Dad seemed not to hear him. “There’s something else that can’t wait, though. Have you seen her blood count? It’s so good it’s frightening. After hours in the cold and everything she’s been through, not even a bladder infection. She fell down a precipice and not a broken bone. This is not normal. Besides, she’s always been a fragile kid.”
There was a trace of discontent in Dad’s voice that baffled me to my stem cells. If I was doing better than ever, what was there to be so urgent about? And why was I hooked to IV and felt like shit? And why ask my own doctor if he’d seen my blood count?
Thank God my face was too stiff to express anything. The slightest sign that I could hear them, and false smiles would greet me, then the discussion would be taken somewhere else, leaving me with no clue as to my own situation and Dad’s distress.
The doctor wasn’t as surprised, though. “She won’t remain this strong. But either way, she remains in danger.”
Oh, please talk sense!
“What if she doesn’t come back to normal? Ruxandra Ignat, her blood count looks just as staggering, there’s still no change …”
“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”
He knew about BioDhrome? And Dad did, too?
I strained to pinpoint the doctor’s voice. I knew him, I surely did. Deep, composed and pleasant to my ears like thick, flowing honey. My mind searched and searched, until recognition hit – my unattainable barbarian, Damian. He was alive, thank God he was alive, thank God for learning it before I was aware enough to go nuts with the uncertainty!
I was tempted to open my eyes, but the effort equaled lifting bricks only with my eyelids, giving me the necessary seconds to reconsider. The conversation would come to an end at the first sign I was awake. I stayed still as a corpse, but inside excitement, joy and curiosity strained to pump my pulse. For whatever reason, they failed, my body wouldn’t respond. IV lines. What am I on?
“Especially if their values don’t come back to normal.” Dad’s voice broke.
“They will. Those values were only triggered by the gas. It raises the adrenaline up to that particular level that regulates all functions of the body so that it can become a fighting machine, the best version of itself, this is no secret to you. But the effects will fade eventually, and Alice will be the fragile kid you knew again. But that won’t stop BioDhrome.” There was scorn in Damian’s tone, as if he suspected Dad of wishing weakness on me. It didn’t throw Dad off his distressed track, though.
“The effects of this experience might not wear off after a while, and you know it damned well. I don’t want her . . . Forgive me, but I don’t want her ending up like you either. An Upgrade is as doomed as a target.”
“They did much more with me than they did with Alice, you know this. She’s far from an Upgrade yet, and her values will normalize. You’ve seen George Voinescu’s results, his liver’s already a wreck again.”
Permanent experience effects, Upgrades, what the fuck?!
“What you had was inclination, Damian, talent, if you will. That played the most important part. Their procedure came second. Blood and spirit are connected, make no mistake about that, and don’t listen to small minds with a degree in science. Alice might not be talented, she may not be as strong and angry as you were, but she is on that path. She is . . . not well, lad.”
“For that you have only yourself to blame,” Damian said, calm but cold like a judge in court. “She gave up your inheritance, she ran away from everything you represent, she went desperate enough to want and marry a loser, so she could be rid of your name. Of your indifferent, frosty shadow. And things got worse and worse.”
Pause. Both in Dad’s breathing and mine.
“Put like this it strikes you, doesn’t it, Tiberius? Quod erat demonstrandum. With all due respect, you can only hurt your own daughter. And you surely won’t be able to protect her now, with BioDhrome’s eye on her.”
“How deeply did you two bond, boy, that she told you all this?” Dad sneered. He’d virtually bowed his head and gulped down all Damian’s scorn, however veiled in a detached tone, but it was easy to imagine him pointing a rifle at my handsome barbarian now.
“I asked. She talked. I listened.”
“Did all that listening get her in bed with you?”
Oh, no, no, no, Dad, please don’t!
“Have I not proven my loyalty and respect?” Damian’s voice went a frequency deeper, sounding like insulted bass. This time emotion was clear, making my stomach prickle with both butterflies and embarrassment. “I only got close to her when the situation turned ugly, returning the favor you once did me. I owe you much, Tiberius, and this is my opportunity to repay you. You’re powerless now, but I can and will protect Alice until we track down BioDhrome’s head and chop it off.”
“You’re the one who put her in danger when you embarked on this trip, knowing she’d be on it.”
“I didn’t expect a hit, there hasn’t been one in years. Not to mention that the people on board would be missed by many, unlike the wretches BioDhrome usually targets.”
“So can I rest assured that you haven’t taken a special liking to my daughter, Damian? That you weren’t on that trip because of her?”
Another pause, this time in Damian’s response and in my breathing again. He hesitated. Good God, he hesitated . . . Was it a good sign? Was he reluctant to admit that he liked me? Or was he unsure of how to tell Dad his baby wasn’t worthy of attention?
“Why don’t you prove your respect once more, and keep as honest as I know you,” Dad demanded. I struggled to control my breath as expectation built up – virtually, but the pulse stayed steady. The strangest sensation.
Damian’s reply lagged for seconds, but when it came, it was velvety and clear. “Alice is a gem, I must admit. Sweet in appearance, sharp in wit and loving as an angel. But she’s your daughter.”
Expectation popped like a balloon stung with a needle. The refined barbarian that was Damian Novac had found the perfect words to avoid a direct answer, but there it was, between the lines. It may have been his way of saying I was the little sister of Shitty, since “amazing”, “stunning” or at least “attractive” hadn’t as much as touched his description of me. To save a bit of face, I prayed my playing asleep had worked the first night at the cottage as it did now.
After tormenting moments Dad spoke again, low and careful, “Don’t take this the wrong way, lad. It’s just . . .” Awkward pause. “You’re dangerous, Damian. It’s not your fault, they did this to you, yet . . .”
“I get it,” Damian cut him off.
The air was so laden, that I could almost hear Dad nod. “I can’t risk them doing the same with Alice.”
“Then let me take over. Will you tolerate my wing over her?”
Long pause. Apologetic, maybe fearful answer.
“I won’t, lad. Your wings are black and thorny. One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons.”
Damian lingered in silence for moments, but his anger filled the room, heavy as his presence. I could feel it as I did my own strange anxiety lacking the frantic heartbeat.
“You leave me no choice, Tiberius.” – Urging. Low.
“Respect and loyalty, Damian, if I may remind you.” – Dignified, determined, yet pleading. “Just don’t do anything behind my back.”
“As I said. Not without your knowledge.” With that, Damian closed the door behind him.
A chair raked the floor as Dad pulled it close to the bed and sat down. He stroked my forehead with long, lab-man fingers for a long while, a while that I used to calm my rage at destiny, to quench the curses that burned the tip of my tongue, and to ensure I’d look innocent and unknowing when I’d open my eyes. Yet the first sentence that came out when Dad’s tired face appeared through the blurry shield my eyelashes made was,
“What did BioDhrome do to Damian Novac?”
To be continued.
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