"Damn it!" Jess shouted, throwing the covers off and leaping from the bed. She was late. Again. Rushing to the bathroom she grabbed her uniform off the ladder-back chair sitting in front of the vanity tossing it on top of her black messenger’s bag. Quickly brushing her teeth, she bent forward to toss her waist long hair down and gather the mass of strawberry blonde waves in one hand. Straightening, she wrapped it in a band, making a messy ponytail. After washing her face, rolling on deodorant and dabbing some rose gloss on her full bowed lips, she pinched lightly freckled cheeks while exiting the bathroom. She pulled a white cotton scoop-necked shirt on as she dragged skinny jeans over her legs. Then yanked on white tennis shoes while still managing to grab her bag from the table before exiting the two-bedroom apartment and locking the deadbolt on the door.
Outside the old five floor walkup building in Queens, she began to jog north the three blocks to the subway. She'd probably be on time, if not maybe a couple minutes late if she made the next train. Checking her watch, she had to slow to make out the bouncing numbers. That gave her four minutes to run two more blocks. Inhaling, Jess pushed herself a little harder, wishing she had stretched a little first, knowing she'd have some cramps to massage out in the sub car.
Leaping through the doors just as they closed shut, Jess caught herself on the poll in the center of the car and hung on it as she gasped for breath, waiting for her body to calm. After a moment, she found a seat between two middle aged women, one reading a newspaper, the other a magazine. Pulling out her phone, Jess checked her messages, seeing that her sister had text her around lunch time, while she had been sleeping. Working nights meant you slept while everybody else got to see the sun and have normal lives. Confirming that they were still on to see the latest Marvel movie coming out that Sunday evening, her night off, Jess tucked the phone back in her pocket and waited for her stop.
"Jameson! You’re late. Again," was the first words she heard after getting her time card punched in the machine in the small break room. Her manager, Teigan, sat in his office, with a wall of clear glass, all the better to keep an eye on his flock of misfits, she thought, peering at her from behind his desk.
"One minute, Teigan," Jess argued with a sigh but knew she’d already lost the battle.
"One minute, one hour, late's – “
"Late," she finished for him. "I know. I'm sorry. It won't happen again. I'm getting a better alarm clock today." Maybe. If she wasn’t too tired after she clocked out.
"See that it doesn't," he said with meaning, giving Jess the obvious intended feeling of or else.
The old bar was under new ownership, new menu, remodeled inside and out, with a small stage and sound system for up and coming bands to perform on Friday and Saturday nights. The crowds were crazy, but the tips were amazing so she was thankful for the hellacious chaos when the band was good. After storing her things and slipping on the referee shirt, she went about prepping the bar with the rest of the staff. Making sure the fridges were filled with bottles of beer, juice and mixed drinks. Refilling the ice in the containers behind the bar and cutting up fruit used for garnish. Just as everyone had finished their individual duties James unlocked the doors. The Friday night after work rush wasn't so bad. Mostly just a couple of people looking to blow off some steam after a hard week at the grind to take advantage of the tail end of Happy Hour. It was later, just after the band arrived, that the flood gates opened to the party groups ready to jumpstart the weekend.
Taking the steady crowd in stride, Jess took orders, delivered drinks and food, cleared empties from tables, ran cards and got signatures, all without breaking stride. It all came as second nature to her. This was all that she’d known, serving, working the register, taking orders, running interference when necessary. All things customer service and never batting an eye when the crowd got rowdy. She used the time during one short lived break in the small alley behind the back of the building, taking cover of under the gutter from the light rain coming down, to shoot her sister, Alyss, a message, claiming dibs on the last bit of milk left in the fridge, before heading back inside to do it all over again.
It was well after two in the morning when she walked through the back door, dirty referee shirt stuffed inside her bag once again and holding the last bag of trash to toss on her way out. Lifting the lid to the dumpster to let it bang against the brick of the building, she hefted it up and swung it over the grimy rim and into the foul-smelling bin. As she walked around it to grab the lid with just the tips of her thumb and finger, a strong rush of air made the small curls of hair at the nape of her neck tickle her skin, making her jerk. Losing her grip on the lid, it slipped through her fingers to slam closed with a loud clang, making her jump.
Shrugging it off, she just rubbed at her hair as she made her way to the street side of the bar. Almost to the mouth of the alley, she felt it again, followed by what sounded like a horse’s snort when it greeted you. Having only heard it at camp one summer with Alyss, it was still very distinct. Turning around to look back, she only saw pitch dark past the meager light from the lamp above the bar's door.
Twisting back around, she hurried out to the fresh Autumn air at the street, heart pounding. Her eyes didn’t see anything but her mind screamed otherwise. It told her not to slow down as she turned right, aiming for the subway. It was a three-block walk but normally there were plenty of people walking around, the party still going strong after getting kicked out of bars and clubs along the way. Tonight, it seemed like the light sprinkle they had gotten earlier in the evening had deterred people from walking and more than likely decided to carpool or hail taxies. When the snorting noise came again, more distinct and closer, she picked up the pace. When she did, the street lamps, dull to begin win, began to stutter, like the bulbs had gone bad.
But Jess wasn't buying it. She'd seen this scary movie before. Girl sticks around as she's being stalked and gets mauled by the freak chasing her. Breaking out in a nice sprint, she was nearly to the end of the second block when the same sound came from ahead of her.
Halting, she banked to the right, going down the next street, rerouting in her head how she would make it to the subway. Halfway down, she realized the lights were off on that street as well. Pushing her legs to a new level of speed, she started to turn left to get back on track. Just to have a rush of air blast her from the front, forcing to go the other direction. Another noise from behind, another turn, and finally she had no idea where she was.
Looking over her shoulder, Jess only saw darkness. Still running from something that she could hear and not see, she questioned her sanity, until she heard it get closer. Immediately, more adrenaline pumped into her blood, adding renewed strength to her steps. Her shoes seemed to barely touch the ground, yet still she felt like it wasn’t fast enough. The steady wooshing, like a pulse in the air, chilling her to the bone as it drew closer. She was slowing, her body wearing down from running full speed for what seemed like forever now. She was a distance jogger, not a sprinter, and her legs and lungs were reminding her of that.
Tired, she stumbled over her own feet and fell, scraping her palms and tearing a hole in her favorite pair of jeans. For a moment, she felt sorry for herself, then felt a rush of air sweeping her hair from the back of her neck. Flipping over, she crab-crawled back as she swung her head left and right looking for an exit, seeing that she’d ran herself into an even darker alley, surrounded by brick walls, dumpsters and filth. Whatever it was, was stalking closer to her now. Her heaving breaths and pounding heart were nearly deafening as she held still, knowing he – it, was still there.
Gusts of air whipped her hair in her face stinging her eyes. After a second she realized the air was coming at her from above. Looking up, she could just barely make out the outline of a figure.
Dear God, it hovered in the air. All she could see was the shine its eyes made reflecting from what little moon light there was and two moving shadows above and behind them. Steady puffs of dust-filled air blew around her, forcing her to squint. As the beats turned rapid, the dirt thicker, the eyes came closer, until it was silent and it stood on solid ground.
When it only stood there for a few strained moments, staring down at her, his prey, looming but not touching or moving any nearer, she cracked.
“What do you want?” She demanded, prepared to be struck down for the brave words. When it didn’t come, she went on to ask, “Who are you?” Perhaps she didn’t want to make demands of a crazy monster that stalked her in the dark.
Still nothing. When enough time had passed for her breathing to regulate somewhat and to sit-up on her knees, back straight, he spoke.
“Are you Jessandra Elizabeth Manahan?” The odd accent and gruff tone forced her to process the words carefully.
Squinting into the darkness at the glimmer that was his eyes, she replied stumbled over the name in her head. “What? No. I'm—”
"Are you Jessandra Elizabeth?" He cut her off, voice thunderous.
Flinching back, she hurried to answer him, "Yes! Yes! Oh, my God. What do you want?" Fear mixed with annoyance as her body demanded it run but knowing it was stuck and would be forced to fight. Except something told her it wasn’t going to be very easy to do even that.
It was then she noticed the cool air tickling the small hairs on her arms, sending a shiver down her spine. When he took a step closer, into a brief shine of moonlight, her heart started its erratic tempo again.
Eyes that reflected from what small light there was in the distance, lay starkly set in a face with a squared jaw and sharp cheekbones. That his expression was completely emotionless made him look even more dangerous. Added to his immense height -- six and a half feet, easy – and defined bulging muscles beneath the black short sleeved shirt he wore, she imagined he didn't fit comfortably through doorways. His wings, which lay tucked up against his back, with arches rising nearly a foot above his shoulders, were dark with a soft leather look to them. Though they had the appearance of skin, there was a thickness to it that told her it was something else entirely. A soft wave of long dark hair was held back by a few scattered braids, revealing a prominent brow, while the ends brushed the tops of his shoulders.
Her scrutiny was interrupted when he tossed something in the filth next to her. Seeing what it was, she snatched it up. “This is mine,” she condemned with a glare, digging into the small duffle, checking the contents, shocked at the idea of what its presence meant. “Why do you have my bag? This was in my apartment. In my closet."
“I took it for you. You’re going to need it.” Looking up at something behind her, his expression told her it was a logical explanation that didn’t need to be discussed further.
“Are you kidding me? You went to my apartment. What the hell do you want?” Standing, his gaze went directly back to her, watching her every move. “And who the hell are you?” Circling to her right she searched for a way to run. Though, escaping seemed like a pipe dream right then.
Surprisingly, he didn't turn as she moved behind him, giving her a good look at his wings. Where they met, between his shoulder blades, the – bones? – were thicker and covered with muscle that flexed with his back. Forcing herself to continue, she couldn’t resist peeking at his eyes. Sensing her, he turned to meet her eyes. She just quickly turned her head, not wanting to hold that gaze. Or she thought she didn’t. She shouldn’t. A small part of her told her to dare it and look up, to meet his eyes again. As scary as they were, peering and glowing through the darkness, they were alluring and called to her. Beckoning.
“I am Fallon,” was all he said. Nothing else on what he was or what he wanted her for. But she silently tested the name on her lips. Something in her core thrilled with the movement.
A blush burned her cheeks when she continued her plan of distraction. “So, now what? You're kidnapping me, I take it. Where to? Thinking of ransom? Because, I'll tell you now, no one is going to pay you. Some high-end sex trade?” She came to stand in front of him, hands splayed out to her sides, subconsciously looking for something to grab to use as a weapon. As if belatedly realizing what she was doing, she quickly settled her hands on her hips. There wasn’t anything around her.
He slowly turned, eyes on her hands resting below her slim waist before snapping back up to her face. “You are not being kidnapped.” Jess would have sworn she saw one side of his mouth tick up in a half smile.
“Oh, yeah?” She raised a browed and pinned him with a dagger stare. “Not from my point of view. Rape then? Be sure to kill me when you’re finished because I will kill you if you don’t,” she warned him, seething from the thought. When he remained quiet she went on, “Or do you just get a kick out of chasing women down and knocking them over?”
He had the decency to look contrite, if his skin wasn't in the moon's shadow, she may have even seen a slight blush of his own. Well, one point to me, Jess thought.
“That, well. Hm.” Looking down, he gave her the upper hand for a split second. Surprising herself, didn’t take advantage of it.
“Yes, that.” Crossing her arms now under her breasts, she stared him down when he raised his head again
“I’m afraid that I got a bit carried away with the hunt.” An amused quirk teased the corner of his lips.
Tamping down the reflexive pull of attraction she felt right then, she held onto his words like a badger. “You got carried away with the hunt? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Her breasts raised and rested on her arms as she took a deep calming breath.
With his expression turned to one that could only be described as sinister, he prowled closer to her, until, hovering above, his scent surrounded her, the smell of earth and rain tickled her nose. Not the kind from after a storm, but the freshness one could smell during the onslaught. She stood stalk still as he lowered his head to her ear and whispered, “Where I am from, Jessandra, we live for the hunt. Once it starts, it’s hard to recall everything else.” She felt his nose brush the sensitive shell of her ear when he pulled away, sending a quick shiver down her spine.
Stepping back, he had a pleased smile on his face.
When she’d gained some composure, she held her hands out compliantly. “Fine,” she said. “Whatever. You can think whatever, I’m not a shrink.” Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she looked at him exhaustedly. “Now, since you’re done with your game, why don’t you let me go home, so I can forget all about this nightmare? And you.” Trying to get this circus act moving, she started to walk around him, only to stop when he snapped a wing out to the side, blocking her way, nearly causing her to jump out of her skin. Admittedly though, the magnificence of it had her belly tightening with excitement. Again, the temptation to run her fingertips along the tough exterior was so strong she could barely resist.
Moving only his head to look at her, he replied in a cool voice, “I can’t let you go. You have to come back with me.”
She folded her arms over her chest before saying, “What, like, to your leader?” Internally she was aware of the fact that his words jilted her. Not letting me go?
“Something like that.” Withdrawing his wing to tuck against his back once more as he turned his body to crowd her. Again. Damn, what is it with this guy? Every time she’s sure she will wake up in her own bed, safe and sound, it all having been a nightmare, he shows her something that forces her senses to admit something entirely different. It was real. Him. His wings. This whole ridiculous conversation. It was all real, she thought.
When he started to slide his arm around her waist and bend down to gather her legs behind the knees, she panicked. “What are you doing? I thought you said you weren’t kidnapping me.” Her hands went to his shoulders, but, instead of pushing him away she found herself only holding on, tight, as he began to lift her far too high above ground for comfort.
“I must carry you, it is too far to walk.” He had the gall to look at her as if she were dimwitted.
“What about a cab? We can take a cab to…wherever it is we’re going.” No no no no. No way was she going – oh, my god – to fly. Especially not with him.
“Too slow. I can get us there much quicker. Now, please, hold still.” And with that, gripping her even tighter, he simply pushed off with his feet and they were airborne.
Squealing, something she would be ashamed of – and deny later – when she wasn’t hundreds of feet off the ground, was all her body seemed to do. That and hold on for dear life. She wondered if he needed to breath, because she was sure she had a tight enough hold around his neck to cut off some air supply. Air. She was flying in the air!
She felt a rumbling under her ear, which was pressed high on his chest as she heard him chuckle. “If you’d calm down, you may find the view very pleasing.”
“Can’t.” Though she was quiet and muffled against his black cotton shirt, he could still hear her.
Another chuckle. “And why not?”
“Fall.” Suddenly, her vocabulary was very limited.
“Just because you look, won’t mean you will fall. I have you.” He sounded as if he were reassuring a timid animal. Surprising to her, since he was supposed to be her captor. The whole objective should have been to make her fear him, right?
“That’s okay. I’m good without the view.” Concentrating on her breathing and trying to remember the complete square root of pie, she was glad the trip seemed to go by relatively fast. It didn’t got unnoticed by her brain that her body itched to explore the expanse of shoulders and neck that she was currently clinging to, but she tamped it down. This was life or death and she preferred the latter, thank you very much.
When the cool air had stopped blowing upon her cheek and the chill had dissipated, he announced, “We’re here. You can look now.”
Keeping her death grip, she first cracked open one eye, then the other, finding that they had indeed touched onto solid ground once again. He bent slowly, placed her feet on precious moist grass and straightened with her hands still around his neck. Situation, having changed, had Jess allowing her fingers to stroke the skin there, feeling it warm under her fingers. She couldn’t help but meet his eyes, captivated when he looked down at her. The shine was subtle now, as dawn’s light had started to lift night’s blanket of dark. Closing his own eyes, his nostrils flared as he drew a deep breath. When she opened them again, she saw that the pupils seemed to cover the iris, making them nearly obsidian. It was then she realized that he didn’t miss the intimate press of their bodies either.
“Good morning,” a small voice interrupted.
Dropping her hands, as if burned, they both turned to find a young man in black robes standing in an archway of what looked like Rome’s Pantheon, except it was more modern looking. Black bricks and columns made the exterior walls and supported the rooftop. Jasmine vines crept up the front banisters and onwards along the archway, its flowers hanging down to spread their scent for visitors. Jess noticed that the archway was high and wide. As her captor stepped back from her and started up the stairs towards the robed man, she understood the purpose for the architecture. His wings, opened at half-mast in what looked like a relaxed pose, neither stretched for flight, nor folded away, cleared comfortably through the doorway.
Odd that he didn’t look back to see if she followed. Though, looking around, she found she had no idea where she was, and no way to tell if they were in the middle of nowhere or if she’d die from exposure before anyone found her. The structure was on an old paved road that was littered with holes and empty of cars, even the occasional abandoned broken down one. If she quieted, she thought she could make out some more buildings maybe half a mile down, if she had to guess. But no telling if they were just as abandoned as the street they stood on. And, if he wanted to kill or rape her, she thought, then he would have already done it.
Temporarily satisfied with that, she slowly ascended the steps and followed him inside what looked like a large cathedral with stadium seating along the walls. The ceiling was buttressed and sported a large hole at the top, similar to the original Pantheon’s in Rome. When she cleared the doors, they started to close. Turning, she saw that two other robed figures pushed them as if they were weighted with gold, heavy and precious.
Snapping back around she found him waiting for her at the center of the large room. Empty but for the two of them and the boy waiting for them at another much smaller doorway cut out from the seating on the other side of the room. Ushered by Fallon, Jess followed the kid through the doorway and to the right, into a dark corridor. Sudden unease flooded her, she looked to her escort behind her.
Picking up on her distress, he nodded to her as best he could as he squeezed past the doorway.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” Smiling reassuringly, his eyes began to shimmer in the candlelight up ahead.
When she didn’t move, only watched his eyes dance, he looked to her questioningly.
“You’re not at all human, are you?”
A reserved expression crossed his face as he simply met her gaze. It was answer enough.
Nodding to herself, she broke the connection between them and moved further into the short tunnel-like hall. After a couple feet, they came to a lit torch in the wall, guiding the way to a steep stairway below. Following them and the robed teen ahead, she ran her hand along the cool brick to steady herself on the way down. No way was she going to make it through a flying over the city on the power of some sort of creature of the night to break her neck on some stairs.
At the bottom, she found that she had fallen. Right into her own personal rabbit hole. A swarm of people were spread about, busy doing what looked like everyday stuff, but as if it were frozen in an older age. There were simple things, homemade wears as well as modern stuff. Jess even spotted a large plastic utility trash bin in a corner. Aside from the robed men and what looked like women from their feminine figures, there were more with wings, spread out in a large, dimly lit cavern, adding to the feeling of passing through the Twilight Zone.
The cave chamber was like a town square that allowed room enough for a marketplace where food staples, cloth and tools could be bought or maybe traded, she thought. A freshwater spring gurgled from the rock wall to the left, close to the stairs, and was caught in a brick pool. Sitting on the natural hard floor beside it, were two large clay vases and a plastic milk jug with the top cut off to use as a scoop.
Concrete buttresses stretched out above to hold the ceiling, supported by four large pillars evenly spaced throughout the large area. Other chambers veined off from the main one, though too dark to tell what laid beyond their halls or their size.
“What is this place?” Mouth agape, Jess asked.
“D'ilansis.” Fallon smiled as he looked on. “My home.”