Crimson Blaze: Retribution

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Chapter 9

Adonai spat at the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. That last punch split his lip.

He didn’t know where he was exactly. Alec kept him pretty well drugged and unconscious until this afternoon. He couldn’t even guess how long he’d been asleep. A month could have passed for all he knew. And in his hazy state, he couldn’t make out much about his prison. Only that it looked like a generic dungeon. He couldn’t see any identifying details through his fuzzy vision.

He wanted to tap into his fire to burn through the cheap twine that bound him in place. Hell, if he tried, he could probably just snap it apart. But he had no strength, and neither could he gather his senses enough to manipulate his magic. As long as the sedative stayed in his system, he could barely make himself move.

Alec cracked his knuckles and looked them over. He must have found a little blood on his glove, so he wiped it away with a handkerchief. Adonai wondered how such a prissy pants could survive against vampires.

With the cloth tucked away again and his hand nice and clean, the hunter leaned down to leer at him. “You know ... after you and that albino leech left the Guild, I became a laughing stock. Nobody took me seriously, least of all Eleya. I had to work my ass off to get some credibility back. Now that she’s not watching, I plan to pay you back tenfold.”

The phoenix may have been physically paralyzed, but he could clearly make out everything Alec said to him - and he had more than enough clout for a comeback.

He managed a weak chuckle, though his words came out a bit slurred. “Laughing stock, huh? Didn’t need our help for that, did ya?”

The words barely left his mouth before another blow landed. This one hit him square across the jaw, and a sharp pain shot through his neck as his head whipped around. It took a few seconds for his vision to stop swimming afterward.

The idiot hunter felt it, too. He jerked his hand away after the punch, and he began to rub at his knuckles. Adonai would have laughed out loud if he could find the energy.

For now, he settled on a smirk. That seemed to be enough to get under the other man’s skin.

Alec bristled. “I’m gonna enjoy watching you bleed out some more.” He reached down to remove a dagger from his boot.

Adonai didn’t much care what the hunter did to him at this point. He knew Eleya would come down hard on Alec for breaking her rule of not targeting civilians - which the phoenix became after he resigned from the Guild. Besides, the sedative made it so he couldn’t feel most of what Alec did to him, let alone react to it.

His head suddenly snapped upward. The movement left him lightheaded for a moment, and his hazy mind didn’t immediately register what happened.

The other man had a tight hold of his hair, forcing him to meet his gaze. The point of the blade jabbed at Adonai’s throat, although his numbness meant he couldn’t feel nearly as much pain as the hunter wanted.

Alec tried a little too hard to appear threatening. “It’s too bad we can’t get that parasite in on the fun. After a few days of starvation, I bet he’d be more than willing to have a drink. I’d love an excuse to go after him.”

The slur and threat against Lukiel gave the phoenix the urge to rip the other man’s throat out. But he knew it didn’t pay to try in his condition. As it was, he found it hard to talk around the dagger. “Shows how much you know.”

The hunter scowled. It probably irritated him that Adonai didn’t take the bait. But then that frown warped into a sneer, and Alec pulled the blade away and stepped back. He slipped the dagger back into his boot before he turned to walk away. “We’ll see.” He stepped over to his rucksack to rummage around inside.

Beyond that, Adonai couldn’t quite tell what he was doing.

A minute or two later, the hunter returned with something in his hand. A small bottle, maybe? Very roughly, he grabbed his captive by the throat and forced something in his mouth. Some kind of bitter liquid.

Adonai tried to spit it out when he realized it must have been the sedative, but Alec quickly set the bottle aside and clamped a hand over his nose and mouth. Now unable to breathe, the phoenix did his damndest not to ingest the drug. He couldn’t move very much to fight Alec off, but he did what he could.

Finally, as he came close to passing out, his body betrayed him and forced him to swallow. Only then did the hunter at last release him.

Adonai inhaled sharply on a reflex - which sent him into a violent coughing fit. He hadn’t swallowed all of the liquid, and what remained tried to go into his airway. For what felt like several minutes, he thought he might hack up a lung. His chest and throat hurt by the time he settled down, and his breathing turned into raspy wheezing.

A smug grin crept across Alec’s face. “As much as I’d love to continue this, I have other things to do. If I’m gonna squash that pesky mosquito, I’ve got to keep pushing his buttons.”

The phoenix couldn’t work up any kind of response. When he tried to speak, his raw throat almost made him cough again. He did manage to sit straighter and keep his head up, though. He knew he would pass out soon, and he intended to defy his captor as much as he could for as long as he could.

Alec didn’t catch on. Rather, he returned to his rucksack to toss the bottle back inside. “Taking you didn’t seem to do the trick. Must not care as much as he says he does. Perhaps losing his brother will finally push him over the edge.”

Wait ... No. He couldn’t have heard that right. The sedative must be messing with him already.

The hunter beamed at the look of confusion on his former comrade’s face. “Yep. The kid’s here, too. Little twerp’s a pain in the ass, though. I might just end you both when this is done.”

A rumble of thunder echoed in the distance. Alec grinned to himself, and then he turned to leave.

As soon as he heard the door close, Adonai mustered what energy he could find to try to break free of his ropes. If Lucien was locked up somewhere in this hellhole, he had to find a way to get to him and get them both out. Feisty though the boy was, he couldn’t defend himself against a trained vampire hunter - idiot or not. If Alec decided he wanted to kill him ...

It took a few tries, and the drug nearly got the better of him more than once. But finally, he felt the heat in his hands that came with his fire magic. He couldn’t tell whether he managed to work up a flame, but he could smell the twine burning. It would be slow going, but if he could just focus and keep at it long enough -

His concentration broke when Alec slapped him hard across the face. The heat instantly faded away, and Adonai couldn’t get it back. He’d been so fixated on burning the ropes that he didn’t hear the hunter return.

Rookie move. The sedative had begun to dull his senses.

Alec scowled as he yanked the phoenix upward by his collar. “None of that now, pal. I think you need a nice cold shower to clear your head.”

Adonai wanted to fight back. If he’d had all of his faculties, the asshole hunter would be laid out in the dirt right now. But he couldn’t even get his legs to support any of his weight. His vision swam again, and everything around him began to spin.

He heard another crack of thunder, closer this time, and he felt himself being dragged across the cold stone floor before he blacked out completely.

* * * * *

A quiet plunk disturbed the relative quiet of the surrounding woods. A school of minnows scattered away from a small rock as it sank to the bottom of the river, adding to the ripples that muddled the water’s surface. After a moment or two, all was quiet again.

Valyrna leaned back where she sat in boredom along the bank until she lay in the grass. She’d heard a few distant rumblings in the sky, and the building clouds confirmed an oncoming rainstorm. Probably should find shelter soon. But her mind refused to focus on anything other than her so far fruitless search for Adonai.

It took her about a day to locate the old water mill. And to her annoyance, she saw no signs of anything suspicious anywhere on the grounds. In fact, she’d been so sure she wouldn’t find anyone that she just walked inside to look around.

The place appeared to be in serious disrepair from the outside, and it looked even worse on the inside. Broken windows, vines growing along the walls, weeds poking through the floorboards ... Clearly, no one had been to the place in ages. Possibly years. A thick layer of dust and dirt caked everything, too, and it eventually sent her into a sneezing fit. She could only take so much before she needed to leave.

That was last night. She spent the next morning wandering back in the general direction of Clorenthia, all the while trying to come up with another option.

She had to be missing something. Alec couldn’t possibly have dragged the phoenix away any more than a day’s walk from town. To take him any farther would be too risky. Adonai would dropkick the hunter’s ass into oblivion the second he had the chance.

They had to be someplace close to the water. But where?

A sharp crack of thunder startled her out of her thoughts. That one sounded too close for comfort. Better get a move on.

She tried to push her frustration aside as she stood and quickly crossed the bridge. She knew there weren’t any homes or huts in the area, but maybe building a lean-to to guard against the rain would help clear her head. After the storm passed, perhaps she could think more clearly.

A short while later, she came upon the main road. In the interest of not getting lost - or struck by lightning - she wanted to stay in a visible spot as far away from trees as she could manage. Not an easy task in the middle of the woods, but it would have to do.

She glanced around and began to gather the materials she needed to throw together a crude shelter. As she did, she spotted what appeared to be tracks from a set of wagon wheels and a single horse. Any other day, she wouldn’t give it a second thought. This road was a common trading route, after all.

Except ... wagons didn’t often come this direction. The nearby river and surrounding hills meant it took next to nothing for Mother Nature to turn the trail into a muddy slosh pit. Flooding was common here. She knew firsthand that sometimes simply walking became a challenge after a heavy rain. Another road nearby provided much safer passage for vehicles and animals.

She spent a few minutes debating what to do. It could be nothing, but ... Illano’s wagon still hadn’t been found. And the tracks looked relatively fresh.

Alec knew water was Adonai’s biggest weakness. If the man had any sense, he would be able to identify the flood risk. This would be the perfect area to hold the phoenix ... especially with a storm about to roll through.

Valyrna dropped the branches and foliage she carried and followed the tracks. She had to work fast to find the source before the rain washed them away.

They soon led to a lesser-used side trail that really couldn’t accommodate much more than a small cart. The erratic hoof prints made it clear the horse hadn’t been keen to travel this way, and the wheel tracks barely stayed on the road. But eventually, they made it to a clearing - and to the entrance to a building she recognized.

Some years back, when she first became a hunter, the Guild had been established in a much smaller stone structure than the one where it resided now. The organization moved when it expanded enough to require a larger and more accessible space.

The tracks went right up to the front door of the building that had served as Rothstaff’s first headquarters. The place sat tucked away in a dense part of the woods, hidden well enough that a person could pass by and never realize it. She didn’t think Alec would have known where to find it, and yet, there sat Illano’s missing wagon with the hunter’s horse tethered to the yolk.

Her ear twitched when she picked up a new sound. Footsteps. Not from outside. Someone was moving around inside the old HQ.

She quickly ducked down to hide in the thick foliage - and not a second too soon. The sudden rustling noise caused the horse to react, and it hadn’t settled by the time a familiar figure emerged from the building a few seconds later. For a moment, Valyrna worried she might be discovered.

But good old Alec ... oblivious as always. Nothing if not predictable.

He didn’t even think to locate the source of what may have stirred up his horse. Rather, he simply tugged on the rein to get its attention and spoke to it to calm it down. The animal did eventually stop fussing, and the hunter stepped away to wander a short distance down the footpath.

He passed so close to the elf’s hiding spot that she could have reached out to trip him. She held her breath and watched closely for any sign that he sensed an intruder.

Again, in true Alec form, he noticed nothing. His attention seemed to be focused on the approaching storm. He paused for a moment to look up through the tree branches, and he mumbled something to himself that she didn’t quite catch. The smug grin on his face, though, indicated he was up to something.

He eventually wandered back to the wagon to grab a length of rope. Then he headed back inside without the slightest hint of having been spotted.

The second she heard that door latch closed behind him, Valyrna crept backward out of her hiding spot and away from the old HQ. She made sure to keep herself hidden until she reached the trail - and then she spun around and broke into a run.

She wanted to go inside and find Adonai. If Alec was here, the phoenix had to be, too. But she didn’t dare face off against the other hunter without backup and a solid plan of attack. He could be clueless - but he could also be a lot of trouble in a fight.

To hell with the lean-to. She could handle a little rain. Right now, she needed to get back to Lukiel as fast as possible. If she hurried, she could be back in town by late afternoon.

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