Hleo

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Chapter 33

I was so stunned by the vision in the glass that I came to an abrupt halt, stopping Adam for the briefest moment.

“Come on Hannah, you’re not going to start fighting me now, are you?” He jerked me forward, up the last two stairs, and the image disappeared from view as quickly as it had appeared. I lost my balance, but Adam yanked on my upper arm and pulled me to my feet before I had a chance to fall further down the stairs. His grip was so tight I started to lose feeling in my hand.

We reached the main entrance doors. What could the plan be from here? It was late, hours since the library would have closed, but Adam pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked the front door. In only a moment we were inside, and the lock clicked as the door shut behind us. We wove our way through the main hall, past shelves and shelves of books and beyond the help desk to the staircase.

I finally managed to use my free hand to reach up and push the mask off my forehead. It fell to the ground at the bottom of the stairs. Please let Ethan see it and be led in the right direction.

Adam didn’t seem to notice as he practically dragged me up the four flights of stairs, right to the top level where Ethan and I had run into each other only a few weeks earlier. We headed straight for a door near the back marked ‘personnel only.’ It too was locked, but that didn’t slow Adam down at all. He appeared to have keys for every door in the building.

Adam yanked me down a dark, narrow hallway to the end and pushed open a door. Still gripping my wrist, he tugged me into a room lined with shelves of old books. We strode through the room to the back wall where there was another heavy metal door. Adam opened the door and threw me into the smaller room on the other side. I landed on the old wooden floor in a heap, surrounded by the folds of Ethan’s sister’s now tattered and torn dress.

Adam switched on a light, a single bulb hanging down from the middle of the ceiling. It took me a few seconds to take in my surroundings. The walls were lined with shelves of books and more were piled up on a table in the middle of the room.

“Was that really necessary?” I struggled to rise to my feet but only managed to make it to my knees because of the heaviness of the dress.

“Maybe not, but it was fun.” Adam stood in the doorway, the only exit in the room.

“So, what now?” I tried to keep the growing fear out of my voice as I surveyed the room again. It was, I couldn’t help noticing, just the sort of place a person would be murdered, from the aged look of the books and shelves, to the dim lighting and barred window.

“Ethan appears to have been pretty chatty with you. Did he ever mention our relationship?” Adam tossed the mask he still had on from his forehead to the floor. He leaned against the doorframe, like we were two friends making conversation.

“Um, I’m not sure.” Maybe I could stall, get him to open up and share his past with me. I had to try and give Ethan time to find me.

“Did he ever tell you about a man he trained to become a Hleo with, a man who was like a brother to him in many ways? And did he mention that, years later, he not only betrayed that man for making a mistake on the job, he decided to torture him by burying him six feet underground, alive?” The hatred in Adam’s voice intensified. He wasn’t even looking at me anymore.

I fought the urge to be sick. Adam wasn’t just some random member of the Bana trying to off me as an assignment. He was the one Bana that had made it his mission to go after Ethan, and now he was here to kill me as some sort of act of revenge.

“I thought you were dead.” What had Ethan told me about the man in front of me? It hit me; he’d never actually said he’d killed the Bana member, only that he’d taken care of him somehow. But buried alive? I shuddered. That was so much worse than killing Adam. I stared at his face, twisted with hatred, and thought about how obsessed he was with hurting Ethan. I began to see how Ethan could be driven to do something so extreme.

“Death would have been more than welcome compared to the nightmare I was forced to endure for decades.” Adam glanced back at me, his eyes blazing.

How could Adam be the same dark person that Ethan had described? Why had I not see that in him? How could I have been so trusting?

“I don’t know what Ethan’s told you, but seriously? You guys at the beach, that’s the stuff romantic comedies are made of.” Adam clasped his hands together and batted his eyelashes. I clenched my jaw

“And he appears to have shared a lot more with you than he’s supposed to. Anyway, he may or may not have mentioned this, but our kind doesn’t succumb to death by natural causes the way you would. Through his gracious act of burying me in a coffin six feet underground, Ethan forced me to survive in an excruciating way, with no food, no light, no space, and, most importantly, no air.” Adam’s fists clenched.

The queasy feeling of fear intensified as he talked. His eyes had grown so dark and cold I could feel his gaze brushing over my skin and I trembled.

“I was down there over fifty years, until the remote graveyard Ethan had chosen to dump me in, in the middle of merry old England, was dug up for a new subdivision. Those were some surprised construction workers when they found me down there. I spent several months regaining my strength and staying under the radar so Ethan wouldn’t learn that I was free.

“You see, Hannah, I’ve been planning for a very long time how I could possibly torture Ethan the way he did me, and that’s where you come in. I’ve been observing the two of you together, and I have a feeling that watching you die will be particularly painful for him.” Adam smiled at me as though he was in on a secret I had yet to learn. It made my skin crawl; there was something truly frightening in his gaze. I sank back to the floor, less because the dress weighed me down, and more because my legs quivered so badly I didn’t think they would hold me if I did get to my feet.

A sound from very distantly down the hall brought Adam out of storytelling mode. He stepped backwards, out of the room. “Do you know what the greatest thing about libraries is? There are all these old books that people would do just about anything to protect, including storing them in a special type of room that’s capable of removing any traces of oxygen in case of a fire. You’ll notice that very productive little air vent up there.” He pointed to an average-looking grate at the top of one of the walls just above a bookshelf.

“The funny thing about that vent, when it sucks all the air from the room, it creates an environment very similar to that of being in a coffin underground. Of course, there is a manual override to reopen the door, in case someone were to get caught in here by accident, but I’ve made a few modifications so that won’t be happening. Forcing Ethan to watch someone he cares about suffocate, while he can do nothing to stop it, will be the ultimate revenge. I am going to enjoy that immensely.”

I looked up at the vent and then back at Adam, who gripped the doorknob. I should try to stop him, but I was planted to the floor. I couldn’t get my body to listen to my brain, which was screaming at me to move.

“Good-bye, Hannah. It’s been fun; maybe under other circumstances we could have gone on that date.” Adam started to swing the door shut.

“Ethan will stop you,” I yelled at him.

Adam caught the door just before it closed. There was so much arrogance in his eyes I could barely stand to look at him.

“I’m just vain enough to believe he won’t be able to get past me. Oh, by the way, you might as well have this back.” Adam reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a photograph. He flicked it towards me and it landed right in front of me. It was the missing picture of Katie and me from my locker.

I stared at it for a second, registering what his having that picture meant. “You’ve been here the whole time.”

“Of course. I’ve been watching you, biding my time, waiting for gaps in Ethan’s surveillance to get close to you. Paige and Kim Li made it easy by distracting Ethan with the helium tank and crossbow, the truck and the backboard, but then Kim Li went and got himself killed. Not one of the brightest ones I’ve ever worked with.” Adam rolled his eyes.

“I was worried about getting around Ethan once Kim Li was gone, but that little argument the two of you had last week worked to my advantage very well. And then, as luck would have it, something pulled him and his gal pal Evie away from the gala tonight.” Adam’s smile was smug.

I felt another wave of sickness. “You set it all up; you leaked the information about Paige to draw them away from the dance.”

“Well, I did need a little time alone with you, and Paige was more than willing to help out; she has her own issues with Ethan. But enough talk,” Adam said abruptly, this time pulling the door shut with a loud click.

As soon as it closed, the paralysis gripping me cleared. I launched myself to my feet. Adam’s face filled the door’s window. He held a heavy brass key and turned in the lock. I waited for him to pull it out, but instead, he slammed his hand down against the key and broke it off. I just stared at him through the glass. He would have to be incredibly strong to do something like that. Could Ethan handle him in a fight?

Adam walked over to one of the bookshelves and pulled four books aside to reveal a small panel. He looked back at me one last time and gave me a small wave, then punched several of its buttons. Right away a hissing sound started from the vent in the room. I turned to look at it, and then back to Adam, who casually placed the books back to conceal the panel’s hiding spot.

Almost immediately I felt a shift in the air, as though it was getting thinner. How quickly could the oxygen be sucked out of here? Would I have five minutes? Less? I scanned the room for anything I could use to smash the window, but there were only books. My glance fell on the table. Did I have time to dismantle just one leg to swing like a baseball bat? A noise from the other room caught my attention. I raced to the small window in the door. Ethan stood in the doorway of the larger room. Adam was nowhere in sight.

“Ethan, help. Please help me.” I pounded on the glass.

He ran over to the door and tried yanking on the handle. “Hang on, Hannah, I’ll get you out of there.”

“I’m so sorry Ethan, I didn’t know; I should never have—”

He shook his head as he examined the broken key in the lock. “It’s okay; let’s just get you out of there.” The sound of the air being sucked out of the room, and the thickness of the door, muffled his voice and I strained to hear him.

Where had Adam gone? Before I could even voice my concerns, he stood in the doorway of the outer room, arms folded across his chest, looking completely entertained by the scene he was witnessing.

Ethan whirled around to face him. Even though I couldn’t see Ethan’s face, the hatred that passed between them was palpable.

“Hey pal, long time no see,” Adam greeted him.

“This is between you and me, Adam. Let her go, and we’ll settle this,” Ethan demanded through gritted teeth.

“Here’s the thing, Ethan old buddy. I am working for some very important people who feel it would be better if Hannah stopped breathing, so I’m making that happen.” He leaned casually against the doorframe. “The perk is I get to torture you in the process. I’ve been waiting for the moment that I would be able to inflict as much pain on you as you did to me, and I see now that she is the perfect way to do it. At first I was just going to kill her. I figured the pain of knowing you’d lost another one of your precious protecteds would be bad enough, but then I saw the way you look at her, and I knew she was the key. I knew that watching her suffer and struggle to take her last breath would be far worse than anything I could do to you physically. You know, I never took you for one to break the rules, especially the cardinal rule, although I’ll admit she is beautiful.” Adam shifted his weight and winked at me.

Without warning, Ethan lunged at him; the crash was deafening as he slammed Adam up against a shelf, breaking it and sending books tumbling to the ground.

I cried out in horror. As the sound escaped my lips, I realized how difficult it was becoming to draw in air. Making my breathing as shallow as possible, I stared helplessly through the small window at the two of them throwing each other around the adjoining room, punching and kicking, struggling to overpower each other. It was clear from their matched ability that they’d trained together, and could anticipate what the other’s next move would be.

In a matter of seconds, Ethan and Adam had managed to rip the room apart. Almost all the shelves were broken, the two tables in the room were in shambles, and books were strewn all around the floor, stepped on, ripped and destroyed. The panel Adam had turned the vent on with was now exposed, but knowing its location was pointless because Ethan was occupied with trying to take down Adam.

I tried not to cry out as Adam’s fist delivered a hard-looking blow to Ethan’s jaw, sending him stumbling backwards towards the window. He regained his balance just as Adam charged at him. He quickly sidestepped out of the way, so fast I could barely see the movement, and Adam hit the wall right beside the window. The jolt to the structure caused the window to shatter and fall to the ground. Adam spun around and lunged again. Ethan caught Adam around the waist and flipped him over his shoulder into the wall behind him with such force that Adam crashed through the plaster and into an adjacent room. Ethan charged after Adam through the newly created hole.

I craned my neck, trying to angle my head to see what was going on, but no matter how I moved I couldn’t catch a glimpse of either of them. My head spun and my lungs burned. If something didn’t happen quickly I was going to run out of air. I checked the room over again, desperate for something I could use to break one of the windows. The table looked too sturdy for me to break apart in the time I had, but a thought came to me, and I looked down at my dress.

I felt horrible because of how special it was, but I had to do something, and I pulled at the hem. Many mangled and ripped strips hung from the bottom of the dress after my trek through the woods with Adam, and I managed to rip a small amount of the fabric off and quickly wrapped it around my hand. I’d seen this done in movies, maybe it would work for me. I walked over to the outside window and took a deep breath, then curled my hand into a fist, swung it back, and thrust it forward, hitting the window as hard as I could. I cried out in pain, and tucked my throbbing hand into my chest. I examined the window to see if I’d done any damage but realized, with a sinking feeling, that the glass was still perfectly intact. It was probably reinforced since this room was meant to be fireproof. I quickly ran over to the window in the door, wrapped my other fist and slammed it against the glass, but again it was a futile effort. I hugged my aching knuckles to my chest as Ethan and Adam came crashing back into the room. Adam had a deep cut above his right eye and fresh blood trickled from Ethan’s lip. Their tux jackets were long gone, and there were bloodstains on their now ripped and dirty shirts.

I had to do something to at least stall on my end. I could barely breathe; my lungs felt like they were on fire. I was so tired, and the desire to just lie down began to overwhelm me, when I had a new thought. If I could block the vent it should at least slow down the removal of the air from the room. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I did have books.

Furiously, I ripped pages out of the closest book to me and placed them over the grate. The vent suctioned the paper immediately and held it in place. This wasn’t going to be a great solution, but if it bought me even a few more minutes maybe that would be all Ethan needed. And if Adam was the victor, then it wouldn’t matter; I wouldn’t be alive very much longer anyway.

I covered the whole vent with paper, and ran back to the door to see what was going on. I pressed a fist to my mouth. Adam was trying to push Ethan out the window, as Ethan grasped at the window frame, struggling to hold on.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Ethan was supposed to win. He was my protector, my Hleo, and the person I loved more than anyone else. My life had so completely changed since meeting him; he made me look forward to what the future could possibly bring.

The grief and hopelessness of the situation overwhelmed me, and I screamed as loudly as I could. Adam flinched, just a little, but that was all Ethan needed. Still grasping the window frame with one hand, he hooked his other arm around Adam’s neck and yanked. Adam tumbled past Ethan out the window, but he held on to Ethan’s arm and pulled him down too. I stared at the now dark, empty hole in complete disbelief and horror. My head slumped against the glass as tears spilled down my cheeks. I closed my eyes and waited for the blackness to overtake me, but a noise in the other room startled me.

I quickly opened my eyes, an arm swung over the bottom of the windowsill, then another. The muscles in the forearms strained as whoever it was struggled to pull himself back up. I held what little breath I had left, waiting to see who belonged to those arms, until a dark head of hair appeared. I exhaled in relief as Ethan struggled but managed to pull himself back up onto the windowsill.

He climbed into the room and raced over to the metal door, ripping at it, desperate to get it open. As he worked, I realized that I could no longer breathe. Ethan fought so hard, and Adam is still going to win. At least Ethan would live; that consoled me a little.

I tried not to let the terror I felt show in my eyes. I wanted him to know that I didn’t blame him. More importantly, if I was going to die, there was something else I needed to tell him.

“Ethan.” I banged on the window, trying to get him to stop feverishly working at the door’s lock.

“Ethan.” I yelled louder, forcing my voice through the intense pain and dizziness. He stopped and looked at me, his green eyes ablaze with worry and anguish.

He pressed his hand to the glass. “I’m so sorry Hannah. I’ll get you out, just hang on.” Desperation cracked his voice. I gazed at my handsome, would-be hero, thankful that his face would be my last memory.

I placed my shaking hand on the other side of the window from his. “Ethan, it’s okay. I just need you to know, I love you.”

My fingers slid down the glass and everything sank into darkness.

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