Sunday, November 24, 2013

Crises Teaser ~ Chapter One

Fires of Providence II
Chapter One
Fanatical Desperation

Bored, wet, and sitting in a tree at midnight wasn’t a traditional birthday celebration, but it suited Rise Hawke just fine. She adjusted her position on the large branch, cursing the knot jabbing her butt, then leaned back against the trunk and ran fingers through her hair. She’d been up there for an hour. 
“C’mon,” she said. “It’s not like I’m hard to find anymore.” 
The metal bracelet on her wrist glowed brighter with every passing moment, announcing her presence to anyone who might be looking and there were a lot looking these days.  Conspicuous as she was, tracking her down should’ve been easy, or at least fast, but the party guests still hadn’t arrived. Fashionably late or directionally challenged; either way, she’d bring a flare gun next time to speed things up.

Rise peered through the leaves, scanning the empty bank lot. She had a clear view of her car, parked in front of the ATM with the motor running, driver’s door open, stereo blasting. With any luck, minions would take the bait and head in that direction, giving her an opportunity to size-up her enemies and initiate a surprise attack.  That was the plan, anyway.
A flash of movement sparked in her peripheral vision. She froze, watching as a wavering shadow took form, solidifying into a male figure. Her body reacted to the threat without prompting, a conditioned response borne from months of similar encounters. Muscles sprang to life, nerves tingled with anticipation, and all stray thoughts disappeared as she moved into a crouch, balancing on the balls of her feet, waiting.

The tree swayed in the evening breeze, and Rise grabbed an overhead branch to steady herself. Drops of rainwater fell from the leaves, hit her face and streaked down her cheeks. Minutes ticked by like taunts, tempting her to confront the lone angel hunter, but she wasn’t that stupid. Cowards never worked alone.

“Where are the others?” She breathed the words, then closed her eyes and concentrated, searching for any deviation in the nighttime sounds. As expected, she heard footfalls and soft voices, coming from a position just outside her field of vision. Two for sure, maybe three, all of them showing more caution than previous groups. Maybe they’d even present a challenge.

Rise slipped to a lower branch, smooth and silent, waiting for the minions to make their move. It wouldn’t be long; hunters were low on patience and suffered from a notorious lack of impulse control. She smiled. Six months ago, the same could’ve been said of her, but much had changed since then. Prudence had become a boring, yet necessary, bedmate.

She placed her hand on the Inferi, tucked into a customized holster hanging low on her hip, like an old-time gunslinger. Hellfire was the best weapon against minions, but she only used it as a last resort, preferring to fight her enemies fairly. Tonight, ‘fairly’ meant four against one.

“Happy Birthday to me,” she whispered, watching the new arrivals join the first.

She could best two minions without much difficulty, three if she was on her game and got the jump on them, but four? That was a stretch, even with the element of surprise and the Inferi. Still, retreat wasn’t an option at this point. Tinted windows on her car helped, but it wouldn’t be long before those minions figured out the ruse and came searching for her.

She slid down another branch, then dropped to the ground, staying low and in shadow. The hunters exchanged words she couldn’t hear, then spread out and headed toward her car, communicating with ridiculous hand signals that looked more like charades than tactics. The taller female appeared to be in charge; she stayed in front, the others glancing her way as though looking for guidance.

“You die first, then.” Rise pulled a knife from the ankle sheath strapped beneath loose scrub pants—a minion blade, slightly modified, filed down to a length better suited for concealment and long distance attacks. She had several more in the small pack flung over her shoulders; they were great help with runners, and there was always at least one.

She steeled her nerves. It wouldn’t be easy at this distance, but with luck, she’d kill the leader in one shot. With more luck, the others would panic and scatter, allowing her to pick them off one by one. She adjusted her grip on the dagger and reared back with her throwing arm, but then a horrid stench arrived on a burst of wind. The smell of death, mark of a minion, and it wasn’t coming from the group ahead.  Shit!

Rise whirled around and ducked, barely escaping injury from the hunter at her back. She spun away, dodging frenzied strikes and berating herself for being a fool. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw the other ones sprinting toward the battle. Her control over the situation was deteriorating by the second.
“Fair fights are overrated, anyway,” she said, then grabbed the Inferi and gave her attacker a blast of hellfire. He wailed as flames consumed him, giving Rise a chance to continue her original plan. She aimed, flung the dagger, and scored a direct hit. The tall female dropped, shattering into shiny black shards of glass.

The remaining three hunters stopped short when their leader fell, and Rise didn’t give them a chance to regroup. She let loose with her most fearsome battle-cry, fired-up the Inferi and held it high with both hand. She charged forward, roaring all the way, leaving an ominous trail of sulfur and smoke in her wake. The display was little more than cheap special effects, but it worked.

The minions exchanged near-comic looks of confusion, then two of them backed away and almost tripped over one another as they fled. The third—an unarmed, petite female—stood rooted in place, eyes wide and focused on the approaching flames. Rise ignored her and ran after the deserters.
One got away, but she closed distance on the second, whipped a blade from her pack and heaved it with all her might. It spun through the air and hit hard, striking the minion’s upper leg. He staggered and fell, then tried to crawl away.

Rise walked the final distance, catching her breath and cursing her aim. Moving targets were a bitch. She approached with caution; injured didn’t mean helpless, a lesson she’d leaned the hard way.
Sure enough, her fallen enemy pulled the dagger from his leg and pushed off the ground, wobbly on his feet, but now holding a weapon in each hand.  She stopped dead in her tracks, placed her hand on the Inferi, but didn’t remove it from the holster.

“Come on,” he said, making a few stabbing motions in her direction. “If you think you can kill me, give it a go!” His eyes and tone projected confidence, but the slight shake in his voice betrayed fear. “What are you waiting for, Herald?”

Rise smiled. “You’ll find out in two minutes or so.”  She could’ve finished him off right then, but didn’t want to exert unnecessary effort.  If more hunters showed up, she’d need every drop of energy, and a blast from the Inferi would lead them right to her. No, she’d have to do this one the long way.

She stepped backwards as he advanced, stumbling and swinging away. Blood poured from his leg, leaving a dark trail as Rise led him around in circles, staying just out of reach and easily avoiding his weakening attempts to inflict damage. Two minutes came and went, but the blood loss finally took its toll; his eyes glazed, his arms dropped, and he fell to one knee.

“Sorry about the leg,” she said, moving behind him. “I intended this to be quick and painless.” She bent over and whispered into his ear. “A courtesy you wouldn’t have afforded me.” She slammed the Inferi into his head, splitting his skull in one shot.

She waited until he was nothing but shards, then retrieved both weapons and headed back toward her car. She kept her eyes moving, watching for any sign of trouble, but saw nothing except the petite female. The frightened little mouse stood in the same spot, eyes focused on the scattered glass shards at her feet.
Shock, fear, or a ballsy trick to lure her in, Rise couldn’t tell. It was unusual, though. She made one more sweep of the area, then headed over to investigate. The minion backed away, but made no move to attack or escape. Her wide-eyed stare could’ve rivaled any deer.

“Are you going to kill me?” She little more than mouthed the words.

“I should,” Rise said, stepping to within an arm-length. “I let you go, you come back, we end up right here all over again. Mercy only delays the inevitable.” She took another step and raised the dagger. “Why are you here? Tell me and don’t lie.”

“I did… terrible things during my lifetime,” she said, shaking. “I was condemned to the fires because—”

“Did I ask for a stroll through your failings? I know why you’re a minion, but most minions don’t hunt angels and the ones who do have a certain look about them; a look of fanatical desperation you don’t possess.” She held up a finger. “So, I ask again: why are you here?” She pointed to the ground, slow and deliberate.

“I don’t really know.” The pathetic little thing looked as though she would burst into tears at any moment. “I guess I just wanted to see for myself if the rumors were true, if there really was a new Herald.”

Rise pressed the tip of the dagger against the minion’s chest, exerting enough force to threaten but not injure. “You have your answer. There really is a new Herald, one with a dangerously low tolerance for bullshit.” She hardened her eyes and infused her voice with warning. “If you come after me again, I’ll turn you into glass, melt you down, and wear you as a necklace.” She flipped the weapon into a salute, then turned and strode away. After a protracted silence, a surprised voice called after her.

“You’re not going to kill me, then?”

Rise kept moving and didn’t look back.  “I don’t kill minions. I kill minions who hunt angels, specifically this angel, and you don’t qualify. You’re just an idiot living on borrowed time.” She flung a hand in the air and waggled her fingers. “If you’re still here when I get to five, I might change my mind. One…two…”

She only got to three. She tossed the Inferi into the car, then leaned against the door and ran fingers through her hair. Five minions—her personal best—and she came through without a scratch. Under normal circumstances, that would’ve been a good thing, but Rise wouldn’t know a normal circumstance if it had her in a chokehold. Not anymore.

She stared at her palm, the one bearing a cross-shaped scar. She had two others—a crescent moon framing her right eye and a six-pointed star on the back of her shoulder—all of them thick, raised, looking more like intentional brands than battle wounds. 

She’d earned those marks with blood, each one a badge of honor bringing her one step closer to the black wings of a Herald. Her wings, ones stripped from her shoulders long ago, in another life she remembered only as disjointed images in a fractured dream. She’d fight any battle, kill every adversary, suffer whatever indignity she must to reclaim her rightful position. She needed only the opportunity.

Rise clenched her fist and punched the car, denting the metal and bruising her knuckles. She’d been waiting six months for another trial, another chance to prove her worthiness. Each day that passed without one, siphoned off patience and replaced it with anger.

She knew where she belonged, and it sure as hell wasn’t up a tree in Indiana.

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