M o r t a l i t y
first in the mortal coil trilogy
all rights reserved, copyright 2011
thanks to underglass for being an unofficial beta/cheerleader/grammatical checkpoint for everything I write. I don't know what I'd do without you.
The Cat Goes Missing
The blade of the sword pressed into Aly's throat like a spoon through jelly.
"You have the blood," the girl bit out. Up until this moment, Aly hadn't been able to give a good look to her captors - what more was there to focus on besides the metal cutting through her flesh, the bang of the door as they swarmed through like rats ready to gnaw at carnage - but oddly enough, everything seemed freakishly in perspective: the pounding of her own heartbeat in her ears, the way the girl's chest rose and fell rapidly beneath waves of black hair and…was that a lion skin she was wearing?
Aly swallowed hard, feeling the sword move slightly deeper. Blood ran warm and slick down her collarbone.
"I don't know what you're talking about. Look, take what you want. All of it. Just, please…let go of me."
None of it would have happened if Eli was there. She wouldn't have gotten worried, wouldn't try to take matters in her own hands and - as usual - make a total mess of it. Now, she was up against the wall in her own apartment, her useless legs knocking against the wall, metal braces scraping against plaster, and there was a gang of wild-eyed teenage girls who seemed like they were going to rob her blind and leave her with her throat cut in a pool of her own blood just like in one of those nighttime dramas.
Freaking out would be an understatement when Eli got home.
If he gets home in time.
The girl's eyes hardened.
"You're lying. I can smell it on you. A lying, weak, simpering little mortal."
The blade made a circuit from Aly's throat, to her chin, delicately caressing her cheek. She shuddered. Maybe she should scream, try to struggle, but something about the girl warned her that any type of fight she put up would only make the end result so much more painful.
One thing was for sure.
If Aly survived this, she was never going to disobey anything Eli told her to do ever again.
Up until the point that Aly's home was invaded by weapon-wielding Xena wannabes, she was having a pretty average morning.
…Well, average save for the fact that Eli wasn't home.
Aly hobbled into the living room, slippers sliding effortlessly against the wooden floor as she scanned the small space. The kitchen lights were dimmed, no sound in the air except for the clock slowly ticking away and the hum of the refrigerator. Outside the drawn curtains, she could see the early morning sunlight peeking out over the San Francisco skyline. Even after fifteen years of that same sunrise, Aly was always content to stand out on the balcony and stare out over the city that was her home.
But today, there was something new to occupy her mind: the all-too obvious absence of her elder brother from the neat, untouched couch.
Eli was what people would call a night owl. He slept all day; or, at least, that was what Aly assumed, seeing as the entire time she was going through her morning routine, ending up in front of the TV watching mundane sitcoms until something good came on Discovery, his door was firmly shut.
She knew better than to try and venture in without permission, just like she always knew to keep her mouth shut when he kissed her forehead goodbye as she went to bed and slipped out the front door, warning her to lock all the deadbolts behind him and keep her switchblade ready on her nightstand. Overprotective, as always.
There was another side to their existence that Eli would never share with her. And, up until that morning, Aly was almost sure - almost - that she was content with not knowing.
She stared at the black leather, biting her lip. The fact that he still wasn't back (always sliding into home just before she woke up, cool and collected as he sipped his tea, warding off her questions with one thick black eyebrow raised over the rim of the cup) was…unusual, and, in a life that Eli had built around a perfect, to-the-second schedule, unusual wasn't a good sign at all.
Just to double-check, and make sure she wasn't becoming that clingy, suspicious housewife from some ABC drama that Eli had once teasingly compared her to, she padded to his bedroom door. It was partially ajar, and, after some inner debating, she peeked inside. No Eli. His bed was rumpled from the previous morning, his sneakers missing from beneath the dresser.
A lump started to form in her throat.
"Don't panic, don't panic," she chanted to herself. The fits hit her now and then - just after one of those nightmares, the ones that made Eli (not Eli, not now! He's fine, don't worry about him, don't panic, don't panic) give her one of those worried looks that he thought she wouldn't notice, rubbing her back and slipping the pills into her mouth and telling her that it was fine, it was over, that he would take care of it.
Take care of what?
The TV was on mute, flashes of foreign armies and outbreaks of war on the screen as a solemn-looking man seemed to be explaining the dynamics of a rebellion in Greece, whatever that was about. Aly hardly paid attention, padding over to the window and yanking the curtains open. Her initial assumption was wrong; it was a bit later into the morning. She could see the streets below, a couple walking hand in hand towards the café on the corner, cars and businessmen and tourists with garish visors snapping pictures of anything that moved.
Always from the inside out. It was almost like living inside a fishbowl. For the majority of her life - at least as long as she could remember - it'd just been her and Eli, in the same apartment: two bedrooms, one closet, a small kitchen and a living room where Eli's head scraped the ceiling. She wasn't sure why, but Eli's absence made the four walls seem only so much more small and abandoned.
Aly closed her eyes and rubbed her fingers over her temples.
"What to do, what to do?"
The "Circumstances of Emergencies" list that Eli always left hanging on the refrigerator, a little old now and bedraggled with age (don't turn on the stove, check the expiration before you eat anything, don't sleep with a window open, avoid this, shun that, don't breathe) pretty much covered the basics, any sort of situation that would require interaction with the world outside.
Summed up: just keep the door shut and pretend no one's home.
Or, if all else fails, use the fire escape.
As if she'd be able to carry that off.
She dragged herself into the kitchen, where the handset sat on the edge of the countertop, shoved next to the toaster, some empty bean cans from last night's dinner and a bag of bread. There was no way she was thinking about her stomach right now, though. She tentatively lifted the phone off the hook, and held it.
To call or not to call?
On one hand, this was Eli. Eli came and went as he pleased. Sometimes, Aly was reminded of that stray cat from one summer, who climbed up and down the stairs and scratched at random doorways looking for food. Eli was a cat with no master, and as his sister, Aly knew very well how he'd lash out if she tried to keep him confined within the apartment.
That was her job in their life. Not his.
Then again, the fact that he still wasn't home still worried her. From the looks of the place, it wasn't as though he'd come home, checked on her and left again. It might've been a mistake on Eli's part to show her America's Most Wanted profiles as a way to deter her from opening the door to strangers - or anyone, really - because now, different horror stories about the "kid who didn't come home" were flashing through her mind.
Forget about the rules. If her brother was lost or hurt, she'd want to know.
She tightened her hold on the phone as she carefully clicked in the three familiar digits.
There's something strange about how things always go wrong when you're doing exactly what you shouldn't; the way Fate seems to wag its finger at you with a high-pitched, wicked chuckle: "Oh, no you di-dn't!" For a minute, as she waited for the answer to be called, her heart somewhere lodged between her empty stomach and her tightening ribs, Aly was almost expecting Eli to leap through the door, divine wrath on his face as he snatched the handset out of her hands.
She almost wished he would.
Don't panic…keep breathing…
"San Francisco Police Department."
"H-hi," she squeaked, and then cleared her voice. "I…how do you report a missing person?"
The woman's voice was brisk and disinterested.
"Has the person been missing twenty-four hours?"
"I - I think so."
She sighed, with obvious exasperation.
It was at that moment that Aly first felt it. It was a subtle sort of change in gravity, like the building itself had shifted. She could vaguely remember one of the rare times Eli had taken her out - she must have been a child, her legs slung awkwardly over his shoulders as they walked down the street, and as the train passed beneath the pavement, Eli had wobbled slightly, nearly losing his grip on his sister.
What was that?
The voice was more friendly, deeper and definitely masculine in a way that instantly soothed Aly's nerves. It had gotten oddly quiet outside. The hum of the city was almost muted. The sun no longer streamed so brightly through the curtains.
Or maybe she was just getting a little too paranoid.
"Um…hi. Do you handle missing people?"
"Yes, ma'am. Now, tell me exactly what's going on."
Oh, great. She hadn't thought of that.
Eli might not let her past the front door, but they did have a TV and internet access. Eli was her legal guardian, but regardless, she was sure the law wouldn't look kindly upon his constant nocturnal trips, leaving a minor - and a cripple at that, she thought bitterly - to fend for herself until (if) he returned.
"Um…my brother," she stumbled. "He went out last night -"
She halted abruptly. She could hear the sergeant writing on a sheet of paper, humming under his breath as he waited for her to continue.
Something's not right.
"Miss?" The sergeant cleared his throat. "Is everything alright?"
And that was when she heard it below her. She wasn't sure how she heard it, through several flights of metal stairs and tiled floors, over the sudden din of screaming babies and slamming doors - like a heartbeat, a sound that had always been there, but she had to focus on to hear clearly enough.
The howl of a dog on the scent.
Everything kind of went in fast forward after that.
The sergeant was shouting down the receiver, but she could only stand there, her hand grasping the handset limply, staring out at a suddenly darkened sky - what happened to the sun so quickly? - and listening to scrabbling claws outside her doorway, and then a wild sort of war whoop that made her blood run cold, before the door blasted inwards and there was a blade to her throat.
And there she was.
"There's no sign of the traitor here."
One of the girls kicked at the couch with a disgusted look on her face. She wasn't that pretty, not like the leader, shorter with big eyes and flat lips that oddly reminded Aly of one of those Chihuahuas rich girls on The CW liked to stuff into their Prada purses.
"What a waste of fine skins."
"Mia, you know the rules," the girl holding the blade said absently. "Evidence is Ares' job. We wait until the boys show up."
Another girl was eyeing Aly curiously. Aly flushed, surprised that she could actually feel embarrassment over her Hello Kitty nightshirt and slippers at a moment like this. This was it. She'd seen enough real crime shows to know that "evidence" was meant to be destroyed. As soon as those boys showed up, she was dead meat.
Hopefully, Eli would be back to give her bones a proper burial.
"Who is she?" The girl asked finally, stepping forward to gaze at Aly's eyes. She squirmed, uncomfortable. She knew she didn't look like Eli; where her brother was tall, built and dark, she was light, "just a wispy presence," Eli often called her, and her eyes were a pale shade of green she hadn't seen anywhere else.
"She smells of mortality," the leader said with a disgusted look on her face. "Definitely not one of them."
"You. What's your name?"
Aly raised her chin slightly - don't show them your weakness, don't panic, it's alright, it'll be over soon - gave a slight swallow and felt the metal shift.
"Aly. Look, I don't know what you want, but…I had the Police on the other line. They'll track the signal. They'll find you."
The head girl actually smiled. It didn't make her face look any less dangerous, an unfurling of sharp teeth - a Colgate smile on a vampire.
"Ooh, girl, you have no idea what you've just landed in, have you?"
The way she said it was unpleasantly condescending. Aly resisted the urge to say something smart back, and held her tongue. The girl shifted, and then half-turned to the other one still standing there, murmuring something too low for Aly to hear - and then surprisingly enough, the blade was moved away from her throat, but before she could exult in that welcome change, the leader was up in her face, examining her closely.
"What are you doing?" She gasped, but the girl gritted out, "Don't move," before she seemed to raise up and sniff at Aly's neck.
God, were they really vampires?!
Aly stiffened. Just as she was about to start screaming bloody murder (and maybe make the sign of the cross over herself, just in case) the girl pulled back. She didn't seem as confident as before. Her face had drained slightly of color, and the tips of her ears were reddening beneath the waves of hair.
"Who are you?" She demanded. "Of what relation are you to the Blood of Hades?"
"I - I have no idea what you're talking about," Aly stammered out, and then, as the girl's actions sank into her head, she began to flail. "Who are you? What do you want, you - you freak?"
"Hold still," the girl snarled, and then, in the blink of an eye, the blade was there again, pressing down just so. Aly stilled. "From here on out, I ask the questions, got it?"
She sounded eerily like one of those twenties gangsters, but there was no way Aly was going to open her mouth and share that thought right now. She nodded tentatively.
"Okay. First off, who are you?"
"A-Aly," Aly forced out of her mouth.
The girl nodded patronizingly, as though Aly were some sort of tame monkey she'd just taught a new trick. "Good, good…and now, please tell me what you're doing here, Aly."
"I live here."
An exchange of glances - quick enough that it almost looked like it was accidental, but Aly caught it, and it made her stomach do a sort of uncomfortable clench. This wasn't a burglary. She figured that out now, and as she saw one of the girls opening a bedroom door (Eli…where are you?) she had the unsettling thought that maybe, just maybe, they were looking for the same thing she was.
"Yes," Aly lied, and then instantly regretted it when the girl smiled, that cruel, cold smile, and deliberately applied pressure to the blade. She closed her eyes. "My brother."
Please be safe, Eli. Please be safe.
This revelation, though, seemed to shock the girl. The blade quavered. The second-in-command, or whoever she was, looked utterly taken aback.
"She's definitely not one of the Sisters," she said, but her voice was unsure. "I mean…she doesn't resemble Lord Eli in any way…"
"She's not," the leader snapped back. "She's lying to protect him." Her hard eyes were back on Aly. "Listen closely, child. You are one stroke away from dying. Do you understand that much? Answer me truthfully: why are you here? Where is Eli?"
"I don't know!" Aly cried out desperately. "I didn't lie to you! Eli is my brother, but I don't know - I can't - what do you people want from me?"
The leader's eyes hardened, and as she felt the blade slowly sink in, Aly knew this was it. She was going to die, in her own apartment, all because of Eli's secret life and God only knew wherever he'd gone when she needed him the most.
Aly wasn't sure where the voice had came from - soft, sibilant, wrapping around her frightened mind like a barely tangible tendril. It was there for just a moment, and then the leader's blade was gone, and she blinked confusedly towards the three girls who had reappeared in the living room, pale-faced and trembling.
"Atalanta," Mia said. "There's a bit of a complication."
The leader, Atalanta, frowned at her companions.
"Well, what -" She began, and then the whole apartment - the entire building - seemed to give a little quaver. Aly was thrown off the wall, bouncing against the couch before she gripped it for dear life. What on Earth…
And then she heard the scream. It was hard to describe, even to herself. It was as though someone had scratched their nails down a wall, like one of those late-night horror movies where she just knew there was a monster waiting behind a locked door, but the heroine's cry of terror still managed to shake her out of her skin. It was terror and misery and a horrible promise all in one.
"The harpies," Atalanta breathed. Her entire face had turned a sickly green. She held her blade before her, and Aly realized the other four girls were clutching theirs as well, stuff that she was sure was illegal like a nasty-looking dagger and a whip with careful, small knots tied in the thin cord of leather.
She didn't even have a can of mace on hand, and Eli expected her to deal with an emergency like this?
Her ridiculous train of thought was cut short by another tremor, and another scream, a whole cacophony of them bouncing off the windows as her hands flew up to block out the horrible noise. Dimly, she could register the TV was still running, hear the excited voice of the announcer as she babbled on about sudden earthquakes and a possible Mothman sighting, of all things, but all she could register was the look of complete, unprepared terror on the group of girls' face as the first creature crashed through the window and into her living room. Glass shattered and flew everywhere. She ducked behind the couch, narrowly missing a large shard that buried itself in the dark leather. From somewhere near her on the floor, she heard one of the girls give a pained cry.
"Warriors, prepare yourselves," Atalanta bellowed, raising her sword above her as she regained her footing and faced down the monster.
It was a bird. At least, to Aly it looked sort of like a bird, like those overgrown man-eating rocs Eli had read to her about once a long time ago in the Arabian Nights, though she was pretty sure he'd edited out quite a bit of the scary details. The first she could see of it was its claws, caked with blood and filth and giving off a stench that permeated the room and made her stomach twist unpleasantly.
The wings looked like large, moth-eaten curtains draped over gnarled bone, spanning the entire room before the…well, whatever it was folded them at its sides. Aly finally brought her gaze up to its head, and gasped. Rather than the bald vulture skull she was expecting, her eyes met those of a wizened old woman, long white hair streaming down her dirty feathered shoulders. She looked lean and hungry, but she didn't spare Aly another glance as her attention went to the older girl currently prodding in her direction.
Her impassive face curled into a leer.
"Huntressesssss," she spat. "A blight on thosssse who do not bow before the Masssster of the Underworld."
Aly blinked. The way the bird woman had pronounced the words was slow and heavily accented - and in another language. Maybe she was really going crazy, because in the next minute, when Atalanta replied, nothing seemed unusual.
"You weren't summoned." Atalanta's voice trembled. "Return back to Tartarus, where you belong."
The bird woman didn't say anything. Instead, she tilted back her head, and made that odd, creepy screeching noise again. Aly watched, her heart in her mouth, as two more of the giant eagle hybrids flapped behind the broken balcony area, completely blocking out the San Fran skyline.
That was it. She'd definitely died and gone to some sort of freakish limbo state, or else when those girls had jumped her she'd fallen and hit her head the wrong way.
The bird woman gave Atalanta an eerie, yellow-toothed sneer.
"I think you'll find, huntressssss, that you are the one who wasn't sssssummoned. Dispersssse or face the conssssequencesss."
There it was again. Aly closed her eyes, and shook her head to clear it. Not happening, not happening, not happening, not happening -
A crash shattered the silence, and her eyes flew open. In one second, the whole situation seemed to have unraveled. Distantly, outside she could hear the sound of screaming; apparently, one of the huntresses had launched herself at a bird woman, and ended up hovering in the air by two sullied claws, screaming for mercy as her blade dangled uselessly at her side.
None of her sisters were going to her aid. The remaining girls huddled together, seemingly frozen to the spot with fear. Atalanta, though, charged forward towards the first of the bird women, her blade raised as she emitted some sort of crazy war whoop. The harpy easily caught the sword between her claws, and her responding screech clashed with the unpleasant sound of scratching metal.
This is not real. No way is there a nightmare playing out in my living room.
Aly noticed a sword abandoned by her foot on the floor. Instinctively, she gripped it, and grasped the couch for support as she dragged herself upwards. The warrior was obviously fighting a losing battle. Even without her weapon, she still lunged forward bravely, attempting to pummel the bird with her fists, but the harpy easily grabbed hold of her and slung her towards the wall. She hit it like a pillow and slid down, unmoving.
Aly could only watch in horror as the harpy looked at her handiwork with satisfaction, before she turned, and for the first time, eyed the young trembling girl. Okay. This was definitely worse than being butchered with a Gladiator prop. How to avoid becoming bird food wasn't on Eli's list, and at this point, Aly was pretty sure no matter what she did, she was going to end up in some form of splattered remains.
Hold firm, goddess.
Do not show your fear.
Possess what is yours.
What was what? Aly grabbed hold of her head, eyes closed. This was a dream. This was a freaking complicated dream and when she opened her eyes again, Eli would be prodding her with his nasty socked toes and grinning and asking her whether she wanted oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast before he headed out.
When she opened her eyes again, the whole scenario had changed again. Atalanta, staggering on her knees, a triumphant leer on her face, was gripping a sword - blood pouring down the cold steel from the innards of the harpy that she had struck it against. The bird woman screeched indignantly, human head rolling back with rage. The other harpies circled around outside, their unearthly screams mixing with those of their companion.
Atalanta's gaze was focused on Aly. There was a sort of brutal determination in her face, as though she were telling the younger girl, See? That's how you do it. A flicker of movement behind the girl caught Aly's eye, and she only had a moment to cry out, "Look out!" before Atalanta's head swiveled, her expression fading to horror before the harpy's wing flung her backwards out of the window.
"The young goddessss musssst be returned to the Massssster," the harpy hissed. She seemed unshaken by her actions, blood still forming nasty clumps in her dirty feathers. Before Aly could react, the woman was flying towards her, wings scraping against the walls, plaster and paint flecks raining down around her. She shut her eyes, and then she felt the claw around her waist, the screech of the harpy and the whistle of air against her ear.
"Hey ugly!" a voice shrieked. In her frightened confusion, Aly couldn't tell where it came from. "Pick on something your own size!"
And then she was falling.