April 14, 2028
Les Crayères, France
“Isn’t there anything we can do? We can’t just wait here like sitting ducks,” Alec asked the room at large as he slammed his personal books into his travelling chest.
The small bunker was narrow. Now, it felt smaller with the five team members’ personal effects scattered and the five hard beds against the walls.
The four enclosed barriers were grey, unpainted, and dull, much like the interrogation room except for the fact that there were no cracks or bloodstains.
“If we disobey orders we will be imprisoned, just like Blackbird,” Chris replied from his bed, laying back with his hands behind his head. The man stared unblinkingly up at the ceiling. “Our best chance is to lay low and not do anything rash.”
The former shook his head in disbelief and looked over at his captain. Ever since they had entered the room, Ira had said nothing. He sat on his bed, the furthest from the rest, and stared at the wall, away from his team.
“Ira,” Alec tried to encourage, “Ira, we need you. You are our leader. We need your help. All of us trust you with our lives, as we have always done ever since you became our friend and captain. We swore under oath to follow and listen to you… Please.”
Before Ira could respond, before he had a chance to turn his head and say two words, a cold chilling voice echoed throughout the room.
“Inspiring words, lieutenant.” Everyone looked over to see Major Wilson looming in the doorway like a dark shadow. “We received orders to return you to the states. You are going home.”
The nasty grin plastered on his gruff features caused every soldier’s spine to shiver. But the words he spoke reverberated within their ears: You are going home.
Ira stood up and faced him, his brow furrowed as he declared, “Sir, the war is not over.”
“It is for all of you. Pack your things. You are leaving tonight.”
“What about Meryl? Is she coming with us?” Alec wondered, standing next to Ira and crossing his arms.
The major’s sneer widened. He declared, “No, she will be retained here, in Les Crayères.”
He left the silent room without another word, leaving the men to their own troublesome worries, wallowing in what the future may hold for them.
“There’s got to be a mistake.” Charlie panicked, his fingers twitched within each other, an unfortunate habit of his when he became nervous, “This can’t be happening…”
His voice trailed off when Ira suddenly strode past them. A grim look on his features seemed to darken their environs. “I’ll go talk to Matthew.”
Against orders from the major, the captain stepped out of the room.
The air in the underground was quieter than usual and heavy like molasses. True, it was only Ira’s team, the general, the major, and Meryl stationed here in the outskirts of Paris. Yet a foreboding sense of fear crept up on the Captain.
Agitated, Ira knocked on the general’s door once he located the room. No answer. He tried several more times. Still, there was no response.
“Matthew, are you in there?” his dread and alarm mounted with each passing moment.
Regretting the action he was about to undertake, there was no other choice. Ira tried to turn the doorknob. It was locked from the inside. Struggling to gain entrance, Ira kicked the door open and was stunned by the sight before him.
Four security video feeds recorded the barren runway, cells, interrogation room, and hallway. Large, topographical maps of America, Europe, and Asia were taped to the wall behind the desk. Red and white tacks meticulously marked six years of major events and bloody battles.
In front of the methodically placed charts, slumped on his desk as if he were merely sleeping, was General Matthew Allen.
“Matthew?” Ira tapped his friend's shoulder. As he brushed against the scruffy cheek, the general felt cold to his touch.
Heart pounding to the point that he could hear it, Ira grasped his shoulders and attempted to straighten the man. However, the General’s limp form fell back in the chair.
Protruding from his neck was a thin, emptied syringe. Cautiously, Ira removed the needle, careful not to touch the tip. Without the time-released anesthetic driven into his cervical nerve, his friend stirred groggily.
Startled by the clanging metal of dying rotors, Ira looked up at the four security screens laid out on the desk. The one screen that was focused on the landing bay recorded Major Wilson saluting a man, flanked by ten armed guards, who exited the helicopter.
Horrorstruck by the men's depravity, Ira watched as two men came in from off-screen. Their guns were directed at the newcomer, but the man whom Wilson had greeted shot them without a second thought.
Another grating sound of metal against metal caused Ira's gaze to shift to the screen marked POW Cells.
Meryl was there.
Still restrained in her cell, using the unsheathed knife, his knife, the determined woman attempted to break from her confines until she paused. A ringing discharge of a firecracker forced her to look up.
Knowing that she did not have long, she again infiltrated the dead bolt with the sharp weapon in her clammy hands.
Unsure of how to proceed, Ira grasped Allen’s shoulder reassuringly, and then pulled the gun from his wilted friend’s holster.
He ran noisily out of the room, down the hall, and back to his bunker and teammates who were hurriedly preparing for their departure. Breathlessly, he barged through the door. “Forget packing, we need to go!”
“Why?” Alec started but he was cut off.
“Major Wilson, he’s the traitor! I saw him saluting Kai – Phoenix – whatever his name is, on the runway! He shot Gibson and Hart; Wilson tranquilized Allen, and Meryl is in danger!”
A moment’s hesitation befell every man as the truth became apparent. Immediately, they dropped their belongings, pulled their pistols from their packs, and followed Ira down the hall to the lockups. The men quickly passed by the empty cells until they reached Meryl’s.
The door handle was violated, the cell empty, and Meryl was nowhere in sight.
Strands of long black hair wound around a protruding steel nail. It caught Ira's attention just before the fluorescent lights above them flickered feebly and were extinguished. The blackout engulfed the entire underground.
Ira, armed with his pistol, split the darkness with his trusted flashlight in the Harries Hold technique.
Slowly, vigilantly, he led his team through the sinister maze.
They had just reached the armory when a loud crashing noise made the men jump out of their skins. The echo resounded through the halls and through the men. Ira feared the enemy might discover them sooner than he had hoped.
Stealthily, they entered the weapon-filled room and fanned out through the rows of shelves, searching for the intruder, not knowing if it were friend or foe.
However, they had a vague idea.
Three different tiers that reached the ceiling separated the men. Each shelf was filled with supplies, weapons, or spare clothing. It was difficult for Ira to distinguish what was ahead or behind.
As he reached the end of a shelf, he heard a soft exhale out of sight. A breath’s second later, Ira turned the corner.
There was a swift flash of silver; a knife pressed against his throat as he, Ira, poised his pistol under the jaw line of a slender, pallid, figure.
Barely a hair's length away from each other, Ira's elevated heart rate calmed as he lowered his gun. “You’re seriously going to kill me with my own knife?”
Illuminated by the artificial light, Meryl's hardened blue gaze softened as she sheathed the blade.
He felt a small drop of blood on his neck but Ira disregarded it; Blackbird was the only important matter.
“Bastard,” Meryl grimaced, her hair was disheveled as she moved away from him, “Don’t scare me like that, I nearly slit your throat.”
“And I nearly shot you.” He grabbed her forearm and led her to his wandering team. In an undertone, he stated matter-of-factly, “It was Meryl. We need to go, now.”
“Let’s get proper artillery first,” Alec urged his teammates as he pulled down every gun within reach and as much ammo as he could carry.
“Put this on.” Ira placed a bulletproof vest on the struggling woman. He then handed her an M4A1 carbine before arming himself.
“We need to make our way to the osprey, assuming they haven’t destroyed it.” Ira rushed his team.
“What about Gibson and Hart? They were the only pilots who could fly the aircraft,” Charlie asked the room at large.
“As I said, Kai killed them!” Ira’s heavy voice filled them with grief. “I can’t fly an aircraft.”
“We can!” Chris stated excitedly as he backhanded Garth's chest, a little harder than necessary.
Knowing that time was short, the six cocked their weapons as were ready to move when Meryl stopped them.
“Take this.” She shoved the carbine in Ira’s chest.
“No.” Ira pushed it back. “You need it.”
“It’s heavy, I-”
“Hush!” Garth cut them off as deep voices hummed through the dead hall.
“Follow me,” Ira breathed as he shut off the flashlight.
His team obeyed.
“Ira…” Alec murmured as he grasped the captain's shoulder.
The five looked over to see Meryl’s slim shadow lean against the doorframe. The silver, duel-edged weapon held aloft.
“Damnation…” Ira cursed under his breath, holding the carbine against his chest as he and his men took cover behind the racks of guns and ammunition.
With their hearts hammering traitorously, the men hoped the guards would pass the arsenal.
However, fate was against them as four Russian guards marched into the darkened armory. Small flashlights were attached to their weapons as they searched for the source of the sound and possibly for their prey.
One of the guards turned and was about to expose Meryl's hiding spot.
Not intending to give herself away, she instantaneously covered the man's mouth and slit his jugular, preventing him from alerting the other guards with an ear-piercing scream.
Before the other soldiers in league with Kai knew what had happened, Blackbird craftily collected their souls as well.
The guards crumbled to the floor, dead.
Even though Ira could not see the killings, the flashlights illuminated her shadow. The cat-like skill and ruthless manner was that of an assassin who killed without regret.
“How heartless are you?” Ira surveyed the lifeless bodies before them.
“Six years of captivity changes your outlook on life, Ira.” Meryl scowled as she wiped the enemies’ blood off her cheek and knife. She stowed the weapon in her boot leg and salvaged any useful items from the dead men’s pockets.
“I have an idea.” Ira stripped the jackets off the deceased and gave them to his team. “Put these on, if any of the guards see you, they’ll think you're on their side.”
“What about you two?” Alec asked as he slipped on the bloody jacket with trepidation.
“We’ll be fine.”
“Ira I have to tell you something,” Meryl said suddenly, “Wilson-”
“Is the traitor,” he finished, “I know. He tranquilized Allen.”
His dismal statement hung in the air.
“He’s alright. I removed the syringe; he's alive,” Ira repeated as if stating that fact would lighten the maelstrom he and his team were thrust into. “As long as he is in his office, he should be safe.”
A sudden thought struck Alec, he looked over at Meryl, “How did you know that Wilson was the traitor?”
“The limp in his right leg,” she responded with delight, clearly not sorry for his pain.
“What about it?” Chris questioned further.
“To be perfectly frank, when Kai revived me, I killed the guards and the doctor, but only wounded Wilson. That is why he was so keen to kill me, or wound me gravely. He wanted payback.”
“You just love to piss off everyone don’t you?” Ira rolled his eyes and shook his head.
She shrugged with a sly smile like that of the Cheshire Cat; satisfaction was a gleam in her eye. “It works to my advantage.”
Unnerved by the woman’s truly inhumane charm, he motioned everyone out of the armory. “C’mon, we need to get out of here.”
“What about Matthew? We can’t leave him. They will kill him,” Meryl alleged.
“He’ll be fine. He knows when to keep his head down.”
“He’s your friend,” She affirmed incredulously. Grabbing the heavy carbine weapon from Ira and a pistol off the wall, she darted in the opposite direction, away from the entrance to the underground.
“I’m going to get him; you all head to the osprey and start it up,” She ordered over her shoulder.
“Meryl,” Ira tried to stop her, but she was already gone. “Damn that woman. Come on, and stay quiet.”
They cautiously crossed the runway, regretfully passing by the lifeless forms of Gibson and Hart.
Relieved that there was no sign of the enemy in sight, they loaded the osprey with ease.
Sitting uncomfortably in the cockpit, Chris and Garth started up the bird without trouble, however that was the easy part; they had been out of practice for four years.
Out of character, they prayed for luck to be on their side.
Meryl found Matthew’s office without bumping into any unwanted company. She gently shut the door behind her.
“Matthew,” she whispered to the unconscious man, shaking his shoulder when she approached him hastily.
“What?” his eyes opened wide, but she quickly covered his mouth and held a finger to her lips.
He nodded and drowsily stood up, momentarily seeing stars. Fully aware of his woozy state, she took her chances and handed him the carbine gun while she unholstered her pistol.
With vigilance, they escaped the confined underground.
The others were already on the aircraft, standing guard for signs of their companions, or their enemy.
As they stepped out into the fresh air, both Meryl and Matthew were blinded by the bright sun. Shielding their eyes, they sprinted towards their only escape, hoping, begging all would go well.
They were only five feet from the loading ramp when the remaining guards charged from the underground and started firing upon the escaping pair. One bullet made its mark in Allen’s calf and he stumbled to the ground with a grunt.
Meryl, who was already in the aircraft, sprinted from the cargo bay to aid Matthew. Wrapping her arm behind his back, she struggled to pull him up.
Through gritted teeth, she panicked and encouraged, “C’mon Matthew, I’m not giving up on you!”
“Meryl, go!” he yelled and pushed her off him, falling back to the ground. “Go!”
Rolling on to his back, Matthew fired his assault rifle at the oncoming enemies while the woman grabbed him, again, under his arms and dragged him towards their only transport. “I’m not leaving you, you stubborn ass!”
Just as she was about whip out her pistol and fire, she froze; even her heart seemed to stop at the sight before her.
A man, tall and thin with shoulder length black hair and sea blue eyes exited the compound and stepped on the runway. His steel heeled boots clicked lightly with every slow, menacing step he took. He too had many scars on his pallid flesh. Dark circles were under his eyes from years of little sleep. This man, this monster, with the air of wicked, bloodthirsty cruelty was the cause of this war.
This was Kai.
“Ah, Blackbird,” he said mockingly in a tone of casual malice, the same tone he spoke right before he killed her family, “It is so wonderful to see you again, dear cousin. Your escape from Vallø Sløt was very amusing. My, my, my, you can be a cold-blooded one when you want to be. You killed fourteen of my men, not including the four here. And all this time I thought you were a docile bird. I guess the Grigori’s violent blood does run through your veins, as it runs through mine.” He cackled a high pitched laugh.
Every inch of her feared him and the terror he emitted. It felt as if she was back in her sitting room, bleeding out and petrified as she watched him kill their family.
“Why did you keep me alive Phoenix? Why didn’t you kill me like your brothers, like my parents?” Meryl choked up with fear.
“Why?” he leered callously as a flash of dangerous triumph swam across his eyes. “Because you never tormented me for Bluebird’s death. You were always so kind, so gullible. It was sickening. You were loved wherever you went by whomever you met. You never knew what it was like to be hated from the moment you were born.” Composing himself, he grunted. “But no matter, I will kill you in time.”
His nefarious smile sent shivers down her spine. She was unaware that she clutched Matthew’s chest tightly. Her terror had mounted.
Major Wilson appeared next to Kai. In his natural Russian accent, he suggested, “Phoenix, enough chat. Let’s kill them all.”
“No, no.” The corners of Kai’s pale mouth spread into an evil grin, “They must stay alive and watch as I continue to burn this world. Their precedence are needed. Besides, I am sure they will not stop me. They are better off alive. They can watch. That way, they will see that they failed to save this disgusting world. Go ahead, Blackbird.” He casually waved a gloved hand at them. “Take your general and leave. I will not harm you.”
Untrusting and unsure, Meryl quickly lifted Allen off the ground with surprising ease. Unwisely, she turned her back on them and hurried Matthew onto the osprey. She thought Kai would keep his word when…
“Meryl! Watch out!” Alec called from their transport.
A loud cracking noise echoed throughout the air.
Stunned in place, Meryl glanced down, expecting the excruciating pain and the splattering gore. Instead, the red plasma stained the general’s uniform.
The shocked, white face of her closest friend would burn in Meryl’s mind for as long as she lived.
“No, no, no!” she cried out as she looked back. Wilson stood with his hand outstretched, clutched tightly around his gun.
Grey smoke billowed from the recent discharge.
Quickly recovering from the attack, Alec and Charlie ran to their friend’s side and helped Allen on the bird. Alec yelled at Ira and the others to go.
The aircraft lifted off the ground and flew into the late afternoon sky.
As Meryl closed the loading dock, she held onto the strapped handle next to the storage compartment, gazing down at her cousin while his stare fixed on her. It was as if he, himself, could see through her. His smirk made her uneasy.
After a moment of standing in place, he and Wilson disappeared into the underground and the cargo bay door closed.
A strained hoarse and guttural noise shook Meryl out of her fear and absorbed state. She turned to see Matthew coughing up hot blood on the cold metal floor. Alec rushed around until he finally located the portable first-aid kit. He passed it to Charlie, the medical expert, who hastily pulled out bandages, an empty syringe, and a small bottle of clear liquid.
Apprehensive, tears threatening, the woman quickly fell to her knees and placed Matthew’s head in her lap. Leaning over him, she tore open his uniform to reveal the deadly wound. The bullet hole was two inches from his heart. Meryl quickly tore the cloth until it was rags, then applied pressure to the entrance and exit holes in his chest. She ignored his blood that stained her hands and clothes; all that mattered was saving her friend.
Charlie knelt next to Meryl, and was just about to inject morphine so he could stitch the wounds, when Matthew, wheezing and shaking, held up a bloody hand to stop him.
“I’m not worth it,” he smiled weakly, his breath quickening as if his life started seeping from its shell. “I have no family waiting.”
She glanced at the gold wedding band on his left ring finger, was he just saying that so she would not feel guilty? If so, it only made this worse.
“Matthew, you fool, you have a family. We are your family too. Please don’t do this; it’s not heroic.” Meryl held his forehead with a bloodstained hand as her glassy eyes stung and blurred her vision. Hot tears glistened on her eyelashes as she avowed. “We need you, Matthew.”
“No.” Using what strength he could, the general reached forward and cupped her burning, wet cheek, “Don’t cry for me… Meryl. You need each other. Keep each other safe.” His grey gaze found Alec, “Keep Meryl safe, that’s an order…”
His chuckle was hoarse and weak.
Every word he uttered sounded painful. His quick breathing became more apparent as blood filled his lungs.
Charlie and Alec stood by their general one last time. They watched as Meryl bent low and pressed her lips on his forehead. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.” She bit her lip, struggling to hold back the agonizing sob.
She watched as silent tears slid from his fading eyes and past his temple. There was regret in his glance as their eyes met.
“You already have, Blackb…” The curve of Matthew’s lips turned up one last time, but he grunted. Gasping for breath, his heart thumped rapidly, then slowed.
Unable to look away, Meryl watched helplessly as Matthew’s breathing ceased, his glossy eyes fixed on hers.
Slowly, his stiffening, twitching fingers slid down her jawline and rested motionless, over his limp form.
Throat dry, Meryl watched as the color slowly drained from his weathered features. She huffed a strained wail and clutched Matthew close, not only to her breast, but also to her heart. Rocking him like a lost child, Meryl cried for her friend, her family, and for all those who had lost their loved ones.
Charlie and Alec held her shuddering shoulders. They mourned for their General, and friend.
Minutes later, Meryl stumbled to the cockpit and stood next to Ira who was navigating for Chris and Garth. Her silence and a dried bloody handprint on her cheek disturbed him.
“What is it?” he asked, worried, “What happened?” He noticed that her hands and shirt were also covered with crimson stains.
She shook her head, fearing that if she tried to speak only more lamentations would answer.
Goosebumps crept up his arms as it dawned on Ira what her silence meant. Speechless, he hastily staggered out of the cockpit. He had to see.
Warily, dry lips parted, saline dried on her cheeks, Meryl heard him fall to his knees and cry out in horror and misery.
He was not there to witness his friend’s last moments.
It was a while before Ira reappeared in the small compartment. Like Meryl, he too was just as soundless and close to breaking down.
He, too, had stained hands from his superior, his friend who advised him to enlist, to do great things.
Both Garth and Chris looked at the silent pair, and then at each other. It was clear what had happened. However, as they were the only pilots, they mourned to themselves. They would pay their full respects as soon as they landed.
As grief hung in the air. Meryl held out her bloodied hand to the man beside her, not daring to look at him. Ira inhaled quickly. A hand would not do, not this time.
He grabbed her wrist and pulled the woman close, his arms wrapped firmly around her as he wept silently into her mangled hair.
Fresh tears formed as Meryl returned the embrace. The throbbing pain of losing the one man who had meant so much to them, who brought them together, and their last remnant from childhood, crashed down upon them and they were swept away by rushing tides, drowning forever in grief, yet never dying.
Wilson had broken their spirit.