GABRIEL FILLED THEM in as they strapped on body armor and checked weapons. There wasn’t much else. Daniel had been assigned to watch the former church, but hadn’t seen evidence of anyone throughout the night.
Gabriel stopped the vehicle a block away. “Good luck.”
They got out, holding their weapons low against their bodies. Imoen scanned the surrounding area with her thermo but detected nothing, which did little to dispel her nervousness. From what she gathered, they were further into Iniye territory than she had ventured during her botched surveillance mission. She noticed Seth and Darya scanning around as well.
They cautiously approached the old church. A modest building, it had fallen on hard times. Stained glass had been replaced with weathered plywood. The grass surrounding it was now suffocating under a heavy overgrowth of weeds. There was a stillness to the air that made her wary. Something didn’t feel right. She tightened her grip on her submachine gun.
They crept along the wall to the main entrance. Seth eyed the doors. He tentatively reached out to a knob. It turned readily. The door began to open, revealing a sliver of darkness.
Imoen and Darya raised their submachine guns as Seth kicked the door open, his own gun up. Silence met them as they scanned, finding no heat signatures in the small sanctuary. They entered slowly, their guns tracking the interior. The low illumination from the doorway failed to penetrate the blackness of the enclosed space.
Seth flicked on a flashlight affixed to his submachine gun. The beam probed the room, and then settled abruptly on a thin figure strapped to a heavy chair. Imoen released the pressure she had begun to take up on her trigger as the sight registered on her. She let her breath out in a slow exhale.
Not a figure. Only clothes, barely raised by what remained inside.
Seth’s flashlight swept left and right. Three more chairs like the first, each with heavy restraints still wrapped around empty shirt sleeves and pants legs.
Seth swore under his breath. Darya switched on a brighter flashlight. She played it around the sanctuary before joining it to Seth’s beam. The glow outlined the four chairs arranged side by side.
Seth switched off his light and slung the submachine gun over his shoulder. Imoen stared fixedly at the chairs. A glint reflected from one of them, barely discernible among the ashes. She walked slowly forward and reached down, lifting the object. A chain trickled away like liquid silver between her fingers. Her fist clenched. She closed her eyes. I’m sorry, Daniel. I’m so very sorry.
“Aisus,” Seth said. He kicked hard at one of the chairs, sending up a cloud of ash. The specks played in the beam of light from Darya’s flashlight. He turned to Darya. “We have to find that hive of theirs.”
Imoen stared helplessly at the empty clothes, held in place with heavy wraps of chain around chair arms and legs. She felt sick inside. What had it been like? And how long had it taken? She turned away, slipping the Saint Anthony medallion into her pocket.
“They’re gone now,” Darya said. “They got what they wanted.”
Imoen heard a clink. She looked to see Darya holding up a bottle. Her light played through its interior, casting a ghastly green glow on the far wall. A small residue of dust sifted inside, stirred by the movement as Darya examined it. She tossed it away. The sound of it shattering broke the stillness.
Darya played her flashlight around the sanctuary, settling on two piles of clothes near a side exit. She swung the beam along the ground, revealing the glint of spent brass near the clothes. Imoen walked forward and picked up one of the casings, turning it in her fingers under Darya’s light.
“These Aisus were sophisticated,” Darya said. She played the beam around the room, pausing on clusters of pockmarks low on the plaster walls. “They used an assault team. They were shooting to incapacitate the Iniye who were inside.” The light played eerily around the remainder of the room, casting long shadows as it sought out the dark corners.
Imoen shivered. “How many do you think there were?”
“At least five. Probably more.” Darya’s light probed around the room, stopping again on the empty clothes bound to the chairs. “They were prepared when they came here. Our scout didn’t stand a chance. They must have detected him in the area when they arrived.” She shone her light on the broken fragments of glass. “They sampled some and took the rest.” She clicked off the flashlight, returning the space to darkness.
“Let’s go,” Seth said.
They filed out of the former church. Its silence seemed to hold a new note of chill and menace. Imoen felt the shape of the medallion in her pocket. Did Daniel have parents? Who besides Toby will care that he’s gone?
Gabriel looked at their still faces when they got in. He started the car without a word and pulled away.
Seth spoke up. “Aisus beat us to it. They got three Iniye inside and our scout. They lost two of their own.”
Gabriel pondered that. “Toby hasn’t had any success locating their hive. I’d like to raise it in priority, but we’re stretched thin as it is. The Iniye are the main focus for now.”
“I know,” Seth said. “But they’re getting pretty bold.”
“Or they’re getting desperate,” Gabriel said. “I’ve seen them work before, Seth. They like this war less than we do. They face two factions that don’t tolerate them. They’re outnumbered and they know it.” He looked thoughtful. “Wherever they’re holed up, it must be further away. That helps a little.”
“We can’t underestimate them,” Darya said. “This was an organized raiding party. It means they have older ones running things. Not just the young ones.”
“I agree,” Gabriel said. “But there’s little we can do about them right now.”
Imoen stared out the window, barely listening. Displays of Christmas lights swept past, their brilliant colors competing with the night. She touched the window with her fingertips, feeling the coolness of the glass. What is immortality, when people you care about can die just the same as when you were human? She didn’t fear so much for herself, but she now sensed loss circling at the periphery of her existence. First Casie, and now Daniel. She couldn’t comprehend the depth of heartbreak Isabel lived with and shared with no one, her only solace found in the starry sky above her bed.
She looked at Seth and Darya. Their grim expressions were outlined by the dim glow of the streetlights they passed. Love is brave, the willingness to risk your very heart on someone else. I lost the few who were close to me, and for a year I had only myself. How would I ever begin to deal with losing another? She tried not to think about it. But the idea kept forcing its way back into the forefront of her mind, daring her to confront it once more. She turned back to the window. I can’t lose anyone else. I won’t risk another when I can risk myself instead.
Copyright © 2011 Matthew Lee Adams
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