April 19, 2028
Palace of Versailles, France
“Igor, it’s good to finally meet you in person.”
President Avery Bullard was, so far, the youngest president in United States history. He had wavy light brown hair, a boyish grin, and a strongly built figure. While he was handsome, he had a slightly weak chin and a scruffy look as if he had not shaven in weeks. At the moment though, he looked exhausted, dark circles formed under his dark auburn eyes.
The Russian president, Igor Ozerov, was different in every way. He had salt and pepper hair, a short goatee that complimented his lighter skin, and his fur coat made him look bigger than he actually was. “Avery, it is good to meet you too, my friend.”
The two leaders shook hands warmly. Assembled in the War Room, they watched each other at little too fixedly. While they had spoken over the telephone many times, meeting in person was much different.
After a prolonged, awkward silence, Avery spoke first. “Now, I received word from General Matthew Allen almost a week ago. He informed me that an asset he had ordered his men to find had given them the information they needed regarding the man responsible for starting this war.”
“And you trust this General Allen?” Igor questioned as he sat in the cushioned dining chair. His hands were clasped together, resting on his knees.
“Implicitly. Although I have not heard from him since his last message. I must admit, I am worried about him and the team he assembled. I heard Les Crayères, where they were staying, had collapsed.”
“And you think my men did this?”
“No!” Avery, who sat in the chair opposite the man, responded quickly, “No, Igor, I do not think it was your men. The general told me the man who started the war was born in Russia, but his last known whereabouts was in the United States… just before the nuclear missile attack. General Allen also said that the informant they rescued is related to our enemy by blood.”
“What if this asset was the whole cause of this? What if he was the one who sent the missile? He could have blamed it on his relative to avoid persecution.”
“I don’t think so,” Avery contradicted. “Matthew said that this asset, who is a woman, is a U.S. citizen. In fact, he knew her in his school days.” Avery ended with a short smile. “Allen told me that she was one of the first casualties after the attack in Colorado.”
“Really?” Igor quaked. He, like the rest of the world, remembered the damage that had been done. “I saw on your news after that dreadful incident, that homes and lands were destroyed. Awful.”
“It is,” Avery agreed. “Matthew said that she is brilliant. She gave them information on our mutual enemy. I couriered a copy of his report to you; it tells of the man and his history. The general said that he murdered her family and left the woman to perish. However, she survived by the skin of her teeth and he knew that she could not talk, so they kidnapped her.”
“What a tragic life this woman led, I do question why our enemy kept her alive, why did he not kill her, like the rest of their family.”
“Matthew never answered why; I assume he wanted to protect the woman, to make sure she was not condemned for war crimes or humiliated because of her… unfortunate relation.”
Learning about this new, horrifying information, Igor felt restless. He stood up and paced the length of the room.
Avery, too, stood, “Shall we discuss this in the hall? I could use a walk.”
The two men stepped lightly into the Hall of Mirrors and copied each other’s slow, deliberate pace. They were a foot away from each other. Around them, the clouded sunlight seeped like water through the windows, reflecting in the mirrors and illuminating the hall as if ablaze in candlelight.
In recent years, the little upkeep revealed itself. Cobwebs were visible in the corners and on the vases. The looking glasses were stained with age and grime and the windows were frosted with dust and dirt.
However, the leaders took no notice of it as their full attention was on each other.
“I do have to ask, Avery, if we are to end this war, what must we do to capture the enemy?”
“We must find and execute him,” he stated blatantly. “An enemy this dangerous must not be allowed to live.”
Silence followed. Only the tapping of their heels could be heard as they paced the hall.
Igor was about to speak again. He was going to ask, “What is our next move?” when a struggle could be heard downstairs, followed by the sound of gunfire.
“Did you hear that?” Avery asked in a strained whisper, his form went rigid with fright.
The Russian leader nodded. “Did you have any men with you?”
“Yes, downstairs. Did you?”
“Da, they too were downstairs.”
Dread escalated as the two presidents watched the door on the opposite end of the hall swing open and hit the walls.
Three security guards stumbled in, blood covered their once neat, stark white button down shirts and black blazers. Bullet wounds were embedded in their chests.
“They are here…” one of Igor’s men said before three gunshots were fired again. Each bullet hit the guards cleanly in the head. They fell as their fresh red blood splattered, trickled, and stained the floor and mirrors.
“That’s our signal!” Ira ordered. He and his team burst out of the chamber and into the hall. Their sudden appearance surprised the presidents, who both backed up against the wall behind them, fearing that they were surrounded by the enemy.
“Mr. Presidents, we need to go!” Ira directed as he forcibly led them back.
“Who are you?” Avery asked, panicked with his heart hammering loudly against his rib cage.
“We are General Allen’s men! We will explain later. Sirs, we must leave now!”
Shots fired towards the group and rooted into the plaster and mirrors. Behind them, a vase on a pedestal shattered into a million pieces and spiders from within fled. Quickly, Charlie and Alec grabbed the leaders’ shoulders unceremoniously. They half dragged them out of the room and away from plausible danger.
Ira noticed something was wrong and turned, “Meryl, come on!”
“No Ira. Go, I’ll hold them off!” She fired at the many advancing guards. Around the entire room, ancient mirrors and windows shattered and distorted the area like a living nightmare.
“This is no time to be a hero!” He too shot at the men who stormed over the dead bodies.
The two continued to fire at any man who entered the hall. They were all part of Kai’s reign and they were all out for blood.
“I’m not being a hero, Ira. I’m saving your skins!” she yelled back, firing at more of the oncoming soldiers. Their corpses littered the hallway. Their gore merged on the ground, creating a pool of red. The air, thick and restraining, smelled musty and metallic.
Ira could not move. He wanted to stay with Meryl, but he also wanted to drag her out of the palace before anything worse could happen.
The gunfire suddenly ceased. Kai and William made their entrance.
Without a word or hesitant thought, Kai shot and killed his men, the ones who had failed to retrieve the presidents.
As they strutted across the mass graveyard, he and Wilson stepped on top of the bodies of their own supporters, even those who were only wounded. In Kai’s mind, hearing the suffering groan out of pain and agony was his addiction.
“Oh Blackbird, when will you ever learn?” Kai said, his voice echoed unpleasantly throughout the dead hall. “William, go and retrieve Captain Byrne but do not kill him yet. I want to hear my dear Blackbird beg for his life to be spared.”
Unsure of his intentions, Wilson stepped into no man’s land.
Meryl, whose gun was aimed at Kai, had an impulse to shoot Wilson then and there. However, she knew if she changed targets, Kai would have the opportunity to fire at her captain, the man she loved.
Wilson strode over to Ira. With a sneer towards Meryl, he seized Ira’s arm none too gently; Ira thrashed, resisted, and finally punched Wilson’s jaw. A cracking noise rang, followed by an angry outburst.
Wilson’s bones were broken.
In the brutal hand-to-hand combat, the two men brawled as the cousins watched, hoping her friend or his pawn would be victorious. Ira’s eye swelled to a blackish-blue pulp as Wilson cringed from a few broken ribs.
The former was clearly stronger.
“If he will not come quietly then you may kill him, slowly. Let him bleed out,” Kai threatened almost as if he were bored. “He is to suffer for standing beside a traitor.”
“Traitor?” Meryl burst out angrily as Wilson pulled a large, edged blade from his boot, and slashed through the heavily scented air.
Meryl quickly backed away, evading the flying fists and the blurred gleam of sharpened silver. For half a heartbeat, she remembered the horrific moment when Kai had snapped and taken his revenge almost seven years ago.
The murderous expression in Wilson’s eyes were more than apparent as he managed to slice Ira’s arm. He grunted as drops of his blood scattered but Ira would not give in.
Terror clung to Meryl’s every breath, as though Death were near and ready to collect more souls. Although she wanted to fire, to help, her stationary body refused to move. All she could do was watch as Wilson continuously attempted to slaughter Ira.
Just as he was about to slice through again, the captain trapped the edged weapon in his palm and gripped it tightly. Even though warm, red blood seeped through his glove, slid down his arm and stained his clothing and flesh, he did not care. Ira managed to wrench the blade out of Wilson’s fingers, at no small cost.
Before the defect could attack again, this time unarmed, Ira drove the blade all the way to the hilt in to Wilson’s stomach.
“This is for Matthew, you bastard,” Ira snarled as he again stabbed Wilson for the damage he had done, for Meryl, for Matthew. The furious gaze in Ira’s green irises frightened Wilson.
White as a sheet, eyes bulging with fear, red saliva seeped through Wilson’s lips. With one last look, he sneered and collapsed like a stack of cards. Gis dead soul joined the other countless departed.
Bullets fired through the hall. Two hit Ira’s shoulder and arm. He dropped the knife and quickly clutched his wounds. Meryl, returning to her body, quickly shot through the air, back at her cousin. Her bullets hit both of his legs and Kai fell on top of the dead. He struggled to get back up but his wounds were too painful.
There was no time left for Meryl.
“Go Ira, now!” She lifted him up under his arm and pushed him through the only escape door. He grasped her hand, determined not to leave her behind.
“Meryl, no!” Ira’s cold gaze turned warm, and worried. “Come with me!”
Shaking her head, she released his grip. “There’s no time left, Ira!”
Those last words caught him. There’s no time left. He vaguely remembered another scenario where someone else had said those words.
With a final push from his thoughts, and from the room, Meryl nearly threw Ira out. The woman slammed the door shut and slid her gun through the elegant golden handles. Fists pounded against the wooden panels as Ira cried out to her. However, the doors were too heavy for him to burst through, wounded as he was.
He had no choice but to leave her.
“Goodbye,” Meryl whispered as she backed away from the threshold.
The two family members were the only ones left alive among the field of the deceased. With the shattered and warped mirrors around them, it felt as if there were more bodies than they could count.
Shutting herself from all emotion that was not hatred, Meryl faced her cousin as he, with all his strength, stood up and snarled, “You really think I was going to arrive with just these weak, useless pawns?”
“Yeah,” Meryl shrugged as if they were discussing the weather. “I did think that, Phoenix. You want to know why? Because you are a deranged psychopath and you never learn from your mistakes.”
“Oh no, my dear one, you are mistaken. Do you know why I kept you alive? Why I revived you?” He pulled out a small device from his jacket pocket. It looked strangely like a detonator.
“No, I have wondered that. Why did you keep me alive? Was I of less worth than my parents or your siblings to be honored with death?”
He grimaced as he took a step closer to her. “You were stronger and smarter than our dear family. When you were suffering in Limbo, after I caused that wretched farmhouse to bury you, I had my doctor inject a serum that I had created. Living in the house of a nuclear physicist had its advantages. Why do you think wounds do not affect you as much as they should? Why do you think you survived six years, living only on gruel? Why do your scars heal more quickly? This particular serum did that. It strengthens us more than your men. We are invincible.”
It all made sense, why she couldn’t die, but something still troubled Meryl. “But why? Why me?”
He slowly approached her. His legs still bled but he showed no hint of pain now. “I had Wilson shoot you at point blank, three feet apart to see how you would react. Bloodied and wounded as you were, you still managed to wield a knife. Not only that but you were able to get the bullet out before it poisoned you to death. I did that to you. Even though you were still snarky, you taught me how to read your mind. This was payback. I created your strength. I thought since I gave you this generous offer that you could join me; but you were too good. Now, I will kill you. I will be victorious and you will be dead after six years of clinging to your pathetic existence.”
Meryl unsheathed Ira’s Celtic knife from her boot and glared at her cousin. “Why would I ever join you? You murdered my family because you were shunned!”
“They deserved it. They were weaklings and had no place in this world.”
Gazing at him with nothing but disgust, Meryl shouted, “You are crazy!”
He laughed wickedly, the cry of delight sent shivers down the woman’s spine, “Of course I am, Blackbird. Why do you think my own kin scorned me from the day of my birth?”
“So why keep me alive now? You have no more pawns, no more plans.”
“Oh, I have plans, and I can easily gather more pawns who will die believing me to be their savior. It is so easy to trick and seduce the mind, as you taught me.” He pressed the switch. “Send my regards to the Devil for me.”
“Tell him yourself!” Meryl yelled as she sprinted towards her cousin.
The knife in her hands was raised high above her and she sliced across his heart but he only sneered and punched her hard across the cheek.
A loud explosion made the room quake but Meryl would not give in as she again stabbed the man she feared, the man she loathed.
She knew what was about to happen and welcomed her destiny. Meryl was ready to destroy her cousin; she was ready to send him to the grave and perish in the process.
The ground beneath them began to tremble. Forgetting guns and bullets, the two battled with their fists and daggers. Their black hair whipped around as their actions became more ferocious. They wanted to cause dire pain to the other. They fought, punched, kicked, and wrestled again and again. Years of hating each other burned and fueled their angry passion to fight and be the victorious one. The adrenaline to kill, the thrill of driving the blade into each filled their thoughts, pushing all others out.
Clashing with their edged weapons, they felt wounds form and blood seep as the blades cut into them. Nevertheless, the serum that pulsed in their bloodstream repaired their damaged flesh creating a never-ending wave of bloodstained torture.
Ira stumbled through the halls and caught himself on the wall. Panicking, he felt the ground beneath him quake, trembling as if frightened.
Faltering, he finally managed to escape the palace just as a large explosion detonated in the wing farthest from the aircraft.
As he crossed the royal courtyard, the horrid memory of New York City, four years earlier, reignited.
It was dark. The street lamps flickered feebly. There was no conflict, for the time being; but how long would that last?
Thinking they would have had a better chance to get to higher ground and flank their enemies by surprise, Ira led his team of nine through the empty, torn and battered Wall Street. The October air was nippy.
As the soldiers huffed, panting. Their breath hung visibly in the air; another cold winter was on its way.
They had just reached the intersection when gunfire hailed down upon them; they were keeping watch for signs of this.
Pirate, who followed the men in the streets, was killed instantly; he fell to the paved ground, breathing his last.
Hunter, Omega, and Shadow returned fire towards their enemies on the roof of one building. The men immediately hid behind barriers, destroyed vehicles, anywhere they could take cover.
Cyan, who was next to Raven, happened to look upward in the cloudy, starless night. It was then he spotted a bright red flame firing across the sky; it looked like an asteroid, if not for the fact that it headed straight for them.
Cursing to the heavens, the men ran as hard and as fast as their legs could carry them.
Ira, who had stayed behind, tried to call the others.
Hunter, however, had told him that there was no time left.
Approaching an abandoned manhole near the street sign, Ira jumped in, the last one to enter in an encrusted, stench ridden, rat filled pipeline; their boots splashed in the garbage water that reached their ankles. However, none of that mattered.
As the missile hit a skyscraper, shards of metal, glass, plaster, and concrete tore away and stormed down throughout the streets. The bright fires illuminated the sky like an everlasting lightning strike.
Ira jumped back from the hole as rubble fell through. He felt the blasting heat hit him like the hottest sun.
Shielding his eyes and mouth, he turned toward his men in horror. Distress and pain clutched his heart and soul; Hunter, Shadow, Pirate, Omega, and Titan were not with them. He heard screams outside and could not tell if it was from his friends, or the enemies hidden on the rooftops.
Hunter’s last words bit and gnawed into his memory.
Shaking violently, Raven hyperventilated and leaned against the grimy wall. His limbs ached with fear. His bones rattled with fright. He failed to save them. Because of his foolish decision to move, five of his men had perished.
Another explosion shook Ira out of his retrospective. He stumbled to the ground next to four bodies.
Recoiling, he nearly regurgitated. The secret service soldier’s throats were cut from ear to ear and covered in the slow drying plasma. Their hazy eyes gazed up at the sky, seeing everything and nothing.
“Ira!” Alec called out to his captain.
He sprinted from the osprey and helped the wounded man onto the aircraft.
President Igor, who was closest to the mouth of the machine, held out his hand and Ira took it. Alec followed behind and closed the hatch.
“Where’s Meryl?” Charlie asked, strapping a belt around Ira and stabbing his arm with a concentrated shot of morphine.
Shaken from the sudden and uncalled for sting, it took nearly five minutes for the palliative to take effect.
Ira shook his head dolefully. “She stayed behind.”
“We have to get her,” Alec cried out. He reached out to open the metal door.
“No!” Ira’s sharp tone stopped him. “Garth, Chris, get us out of here. Our priority is getting the presidents safely to the States.” Tears biting at his green eyes, his whole figure shaking violently, Ira suddenly shouted with an ear-splitting yell, “MERYL IS DEAD!”
The aircraft took off just as a large explosion shattered through the east wing of the palace. Many more followed on the west side. One after the other set off until it finally reached the Hall of Mirrors. The palace caught fire as more explosions caused glass and plaster to shatter into rubble.
Soon, the entire building collapsed, burying Meryl and Kai.
Because of the aircraft’s distance, the men could no longer see nor hear the outbursts. Nor could they witness the centuries of history lost under the flames and its own, once beautiful architecture.
Having no idea what had happened, Ira could not bear to think of the destruction and what lay behind.
Through the sound of the aircraft’s blade slicing through the air, he heard something more. It took him a moment to realize that what he heard was the explosions from inside the palace in his earpiece. And he was not alone. Ira watched as Alec and Charlie put their hands to the sides of their heads; they too could hear it.
There was the cry of alarm and anger as well as metal meeting metal. There was an ear piercing scream that rang throughout the soldiers’ headsets.
The transmission cut out.
“Meryl…” Ira whispered with a cracked voice. Tears stung his eyes. He wanted to break down for failing to keep her alive.
However, in the presence of his men and the two presidents, he wiped his eyes and shooed his weakness away. His team bowed their heads quietly. They did not dare look at their captain. They couldn’t bear to see the pain in his eyes, and he did not want them to.
The bands on the chain around his neck became heavier and he knew, again, because of his failure, he would carry that burden for the rest of his waking life.