Death’s Game 23: Maria Sanchez, 4

The stairs behind me are shrouded in darkness, but I can feel the chain of an overhead light dangling in front of my face. My chest is tight. My breaths are quick and barely effective.

The wink. The wink. The wink. It’s all I can think of as I descend the steps. Even now, as I sneak into their lair to escape from this hell I’ve found myself in, she’s still toying with me.

I hesitate at the door at the bottom before going in, steeling myself for what I might find on the other side. Catarina knew I was here, seemed to even expect me, but she didn’t attack me like she had before. A trap. It has to be.

Or is it? Samantha’s words echo in my head. He wouldn’t give you a goal if he just wanted to torture you.

Is he really trying to recruit me? Has this all just been some elaborate exercise? The thought of that is as terrifying as it is infuriating. I look down at my hands and try to squelch the roar that builds in my chest. It doesn’t matter if this started as a game and became a training exercise or was truly just torture like he always said, the result is still the same. Gerard will suffer before this is finished.

The door at the bottom of the stairs opens into another large warehouse, this one better-lit than the one above but still dark and unnatural. It houses rows and rows of industrial-style shelves, which stretch to the ceiling and are full of weapons, narcotics, and various loose objects that may or may not hold any value.

It’s silent, other than the hum of the old-fashioned overhead lights. The nearest row of shelves has handguns, rifles, sawed-off-shotguns. I grab one of each and spend a few precious minutes loading ammunition, acutely aware that I have no idea what I’m in for once I reach my goal.

My search continues. The air is cool and almost damp, and every so often I stop to listen for anyone else in the room. In a way, this is exactly what Victoria used to do, except its easier because I don’t plan on making a return trip. The thought calms me in the moments where the anxiety of ending up like Javier, Vaughn, or Samantha try to strangle me.

Finally, on the end opposite the way I came in, I find another door, the one the guards mentioned outside as always being locked. It’s hanging open on its hinges, with light sneaking in from the other side.

I don’t like this one bit, Isabel mutters. I can’t disagree; they’ve tried to lure us into a trap before, but never with such gaudy flagrancy, and it seems obvious between Catarina and this door that whatever I’m doing is not sneaking around but walking right into whatever they want me to walk into.

Seems like Samantha might have been right, Rebecca says. The thought is as chilling as Catarina’s smile.

For a moment, I’m frozen, trying to decide what to do. Then I hear the door on the other side of the room open. It’s either back upstairs through whoever just came in or through this door into a trap. I choose through this door.

There’s a well-lit stairway on the other side. It looks like new construction, with polished handrails and concrete that shows no signs of wear. The rest of the building might have been abandoned, but Gerard had this built recently. Not in the last few days since he moved in, but probably within the last several months in preparation. I’m kicking myself for not exploring the warehouse he’d moved from any further; if I’d seen something like this, I might have found him much faster.

It’s two flights down before the bottom. There’s another door, which has a small viewing window that shows me a long, narrow, brightly-lit hallway with a door at the other and several others periodically interspersed along the walls on either side. With my pistol in my waistband, my shotgun slung over my shoulder, and my finger on the trigger of my rifle, an unsure calm washes over me. I won’t need my bag for what I’m about to do, so I leave it on the bottom step and venture into the hallway.

My steps are quick but soft. I pass by three open doors, looking inside each room just to make sure no one is inside. They’re eerily quiet and equally as empty. Every light in this place is on, yet there’s not another soul to be found. The back of my neck is tingling and my breaths are so fast I’m almost hyperventilating.

I duck into a room halfway down the hallway to calm myself. There’s a finely crafted wooden table along the length of the wall, a few cabinets with various supplies, and a misshapen burlap sack in the corner that has bulges all over from whatever is inside.

Still breathing heavily, I walk toward the sack, pulled there by what I think I know it holds. The top is tied shut with a leather string. After fiddling with it for a second, I undo the knot and open the top.

My heart skips a beat at what I see. Dozens and dozens of clear, colorless, pulsating glass orbs, practically spilling out of the sack now that I’ve opened it. Crystalline memories of Victoria’s last moments on Earth flood back to me.

The one I grab pulses with the same frequency as Gerard’s gem, yet I feel less energy within it, as though it’s a hollow mimic of the power rather than the real thing. Holding it up to the light, I can almost see directly through to the other side.

Vaughn asked us to destroy his anchor, didn’t he? Rebecca says.

These all look unused, I mutter, still studying the orb in my hand. I could take it, perhaps, but I have no idea how to use it even if I were to somehow get out of this alive.

Destroy them all, then, Isabel says.

Ally gasps, her voice trembling. Destroy them all? She’s been surprisingly quiet this entire time. No cries of boredom, no urges to go somewhere more interesting, no insults of the rest of us. It seems being down here is too tense even for her.

Why not? Rebecca questions.

What about Albert? Ally says. His could be in here.

Isabel’s voice sounds like she’d be shrugging indifferently. These all look unused, but hell, destroy his too if it’s here.

But he tried to help. There’s desperation in her voice. Victoria, you can’t just destroy all of these, you might kill Albert in the process.

Weren’t you the one who expo—

The door to the stairway opens, cuts us all off.

The footsteps are soft, but when I focus I can just barely hear them above my breathing. Light, relaxed, coming my way. I hold my breath. They get closer. My body tenses. They get closer. I try to force my heartrate to slow. They get closer.

They stop at the room next door, and then I hear them fade inside. Taking one last look at the anchor in my hand before putting it back, I head for the hallway, for the door at the end where I know Gerard must be.

My finger rests gently on the trigger of the assault rifle. The door swings open with only a slight budge. I stop dead in my tracks.

Sitting with his feet up on his desk, peering toward the door from the other side of the room, is the tall, young, well-dressed man I’d seen enter the warehouse earlier yesterday and never leave.

Gerard.

Sitting there on the far end of the room, surrounded by paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance way back to ancient Egypt and before.

Gerard.

Sitting there with a smile on his face.

Gerard.

My feet are moving now. I’m in the center of the room.

He rises and walks toward me, his hands out at his sides, his eyes fixated on my own, grinning from ear-to-ear.

“Congratu—”

That’s all he gets out before I pull the trigger. His body flies back against the desk and slumps to the floor. It’s a bloody mess. Seared flesh and gunpowder waft toward me on a cool, unnatural breeze.

My ears are ringing. I fall to my knees on the unpadded carpet, the rifle by my side. My heart slows. All the pain I’ve been holding back, the torture, the stress, the emotional suffering of me and every other woman he’s killed, it all comes rushing out, a weight off my shoulders. I’m a sobbing mess, but I’ve finally done what I came here to do. I’ve finally killed him. I’ve finally gotten one small sliver of justice, even if I know what’s going to come next.

It takes a minute to hear the laughter. It comes from my side, from an office door along the wall I didn’t even see in the blind rage I had when I came in.

The door slides open. A new man walks out. He’s handsome. A little older than the man I just killed. Clean-shaven. Muscular. There’s an amused look in his eyes.

He walks back to his desk, leans on it. As he’s doing so, he says, “Congratulations, Victoria, you finally made it.”

Of course I knew he’d be back. I knew it’d be pointless to kill him. In the end, though, it’s all pointless. All I could do was inflict an ounce of the pain on him that he inflicted on me. Basically a small kick to the groin that barely even phased him, but it wasn’t ever going to.

He’s laughing now. “Are you satisfied?”

No, I’m not. Not even close. The gun goes off again. A few times.

Maybe half a minute after his second body hits the ground, a new man walks around the corner. He’s shorter and stalkier with a belly hanging out from within a loosely fitting robe. He’s completely bald. His teeth aren’t quite yellow but aren’t white either and there are noticeable bags and dark circles under his eyes. He obviously doesn’t want to lose another one of ‘A’ level hosts.

“Dammit! Why do they always do this? Don’t you understand I can’t die?”

“You can die.” I lower the rifle, a satisfied grin on my face. “That’s why you were so terrified of me.”

“Your ignorance misleads you,” he says as he starts pacing, his hands behind his back. “You think I haven’t been ten steps ahead this entire time? Do you honestly think that I, a man who has been alive for over a thousand years, would allow the most important thing in my entire world to be stolen right from under me?”

“If Vaughn hadn’t given us all up, you’d already be dead.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he says as he stifles a laugh. “The arrogance of thinking we see every angle can lead us to ruin.” He stops and turns to me, his eyes shifting from anger to what I can only describe as a malignant benevolence. “You still have much to learn, Victoria.”

Learn? I will not ‘learn’ from this man. “Either kill me or set me free, but stop with this lecturing bullshit.”

“I suppose it’s only natural you’d react this way,” he says, taking a step toward me, his hands still together behind his back. “New recruits typically do, but I thought you might be different.”

Recruits. The word punches me in the gut, sucks the air out of my chest. It’s not that I didn’t think it possible, I was just holding out hope that Samantha would be wrong.

He notices my hesitation. “I see. You figured this out beforehand.” He offers a disgusting nod of approval. “You’re perceptive. I knew I was right about you.”

There’s a lump in my throat. I have a million questions, but I opt with a very eloquent, “Fuck you, man.”

He just laughs and walks back to his desk. “Don’t you realize the power I’m offering you?”

“Why?” I drag myself to my feet. Maria’s body has suddenly grown heavy, and her knee is throbbing even worse than before. “Why would I ever join you?”

“Because I can make your wildest dreams come true, and because if you refuse, you’ll end up just like your partner.”

“My dreams?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “My dreams? You took all that away from me.”

He walks toward the corpses of his previous hosts. “In time, you will forget all about Victoria Simone, and you will grow to appreciate all I’m giving you. If you imagine it, it can be yours.”

My trigger finger is hot. I’m about ready to blow him away for the third time when he reaches into the pocket of the second body I killed and pulls out a pulsating glass orb.

“This here is the key to everything you’ve ever wanted.” He holds it out so I can see it. I can feel its energy from across the room. It resonates with me, yearns for me, and I can feel myself yearning in return. When he moves it side to side, it feels as though it’s pulling me with it.

“With this,” he continues, “you can be anything you’ve ever wanted. Want to be a billionaire? You can. Want to be a celebrity? You can. Want to have power over millions of people? You can. It’s all yours.”

“Why? Why were you recruiting me?” My gun is pointed at his chest. He doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’ll be honest, I was impressed.” He sets the orb—my anchor—on his desk and it rolls a few inches toward the edge. “At first, I really was just torturing you to find out who hired you. But then I saw your resolve. I considered trying harder to break you, but decided against it.”

“Javier tried to obey you.”

“Your partner was weak.” Gerard’s voice is filled with pitiful disdain. “He broke after the second death. Completely despondent by the third. You were different, stronger, more stubborn. I saw potential.”

By now, with his pacing, he’s nearly as far from my anchor as I am. I might be able to get it before he could reach me, destroy it, and put an end to this. Or maybe just shoot it from here. Then again, if I destroyed one anchor, he could always use another from the bag in the other room.

“The Decemvirate of Morta’s Children are also weak.” He stops and peers over at me, sees my reaction. “I see, so you already know about Morta’s Children?” He rubs his hands together as he leans on the wall. I inch ever-so-slowly toward my anchor. “You really are a surprise, aren’t you? No wonder we couldn’t break you.”

I snap my eyes from my anchor to him. “You will never break me.”

“Exactly why I want you in my Family, Victoria.” He smiles and takes a long, deep breath, like simply walking a few steps across the room made his host tired. “The Decemvirate guide us down a path of little influence, when we could command this world to be exactly what we want. With your help, we could get there.”

“And what is that, exactly?” I say, lowering my gun only slightly.

He shrugs and holds his hands out to his sides. “Peace. Prosperity. Protection. Empathy.” He pauses, a knowing smile on his face. “I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Why would I let this world remain on a path to darkness when I could guide it to the light?”

“Empathy? Prosperity? Light?” I believe in all that, but it’s unbelievable coming from him. The butt of the rifle finds itself nested deep in my shoulder almost without me thinking. “Why would a man professing ideas like that torture someone into giving them what they want?”

“Sometimes we need to get our hands dirty to clean away the stains.”

“And then you sent them hunting for me even after I gave you what you wanted!” The sights are lined up directly on the center of his chest. I don’t know if Maria is a good shot, but Victoria sure as hell was.

“Please, please.” He gestures to his other two bodies. “I don’t feel like dressing myself up for a third time.” Then back to me. “Sending Catarina after you yesterday was merely an attempt to get you to come home sooner, that’s all. Apologies for the heavy handedness.”

“Come home? Come home?” It’s taking all my will not to blow him away.

He walks back to his desk, leans on it as he faces me. “And besides, you didn’t give me what I wanted. Ally gave me what I wanted.”

That catches me by surprise. How would he—

“I see you’re trying to find out how I knew?” he says, grinning. “Let me show you.”

He reaches back across his desk to one of the top drawers and pulls out another anchor like mine. Holding it in front of him, his eyes transfixed upon it, he mutters an incantation.

Reditus.”

There’s a sudden, excruciating pain in my head that brings me to my knees, the rifle crashing beside me. A cool wind forms beneath me, pulling me toward the anchor in his hand.

“Posuit.”

The cool wind changes direction. Rather than blowing from beneath and behind me, it blows to the office where Gerard came from. A few seconds after it dies down, the door opens and tall, slender woman wearing nothing but a bathrobe walks out.

Gerard walks to her as slump backward on my knees, pain coursing through my entire body.

He turns to me, his hand on her back, presenting her. “Victoria, allow me to introduce Ally.” A moment later, he turns to her and hands her the anchor. “Welcome to the Immediate Family. Your loyalty is truly appreciated at a time like this.”

She gives a satisfied grin and then turns to me. We glare at each other for what seems an eternity as I process it all.

“You see, Victoria,” Gerard continues, now walking back toward me. “You were too good and I was running out of patience.” He gestures to her, smiling. “Ally here had an idea, one I hadn’t considered but found very enticing.”

“You’d put her inside me and make me turn on Albert,” I say, struggling to my feet and glaring at her, one hand on the barrel of my rifle. “I always you knew she was too cold to be a normal person.”

She smiles, toothless and patronizing. “Victoria, you really should be proud of yourself. We had to go to extreme measures to get what we wanted from you, and with you on our team we could be unbeatable.”

“Yes, we really could be,” Gerard says, “I’m going to need trustworthy Family members once I’ve rid us of the Decemvirate.”

“No.” I don’t know what to say but I feel like I have to say something.

He sighs, disappointed. “You don’t understand. You can have everything you’ve ever dreamed, all the power in the world. All you need to do is obey, something I’ll admit you’ve had trouble with in the past but I’m confident you can learn.”

“Understand?” My hand is throbbing from how hard I’m squeezing the rifle’s grip. “All I understand is that you’re a monster!”

He waves it away, grinning. “You can’t live for over a thousand years without becoming hardened like I am. You’ll be a powerful ally once you strip yourself of your mortal weaknesses.”

“Yet you claim to want peace and prosperity?” I question.

“Indeed, I do. I want that more than anything.” His eyes narrow, his voice suddenly chilly. “And nothing will get in my way, not Oswald, not Albert, and definitely not you.”

There’s a sudden crash down the hallway, followed by gunshots and screams. I jump at the sound, but Ally and Gerard merely walk toward it.

“Right on cue,” he says, passing me, and gently pushing the barrel of my rifle toward the ground.

Stunned and confused, I spin toward the door and start backing away. A crowd of men and women are running toward us, toting a mix of firearms, blades, and crude bludgeoning tools. They flood into and surround the room.

All but one is glaring at Gerard. One is fixated on me, a stunned look in his eyes. Albert. My heart jumps into my chest.

A dark-skinned man walks up from the back of the crowd. His beard is short and neatly trimmed. His muscles are stretching through a tight-fitting shirt. In his hand is the green gem, pulsating in all its magnificent glory. “It’s over, Gerard.”

“Oswald, nice of you to finally show yourself.” Gerard gestures to Ally and then looks back at Oswald. “I was worried you’d chickened out completely after Ally here gave you away.”

Albert glances at me when he realizes it was Ally and not me who gave him away. “It doesn’t matter how you figured it out,” Oswald says. “We’ve got your anchor. You’re finished!”

“Oh, hush, child, you’re out of your depth. Once I knew you two were involved, it wasn’t too hard to piece together the rest of your crew.” He points at a few in the front. “Amanda, Peter, Evan. You disappoint me. You had potential.” He looks around the whole group. “In fact, you all did, even the ones who were smart enough not to come tonight. I hand-picked every single one of you for the family.” Then back to the dark-skinned man. “Oswald, you were my first recruit. We’ve been together for hundreds of years. Albert, you joined the Immediate Family faster than anyone else who’s ever served me.” He wipes a tear from his eye, which I’m sure is fake. “The knife in my back hurts, and for that, you’ll be punished.”

Gerard snaps his fingers. A cool breeze kicks up in the room and dozens of his soldiers suddenly rush out of the shadows to surround Oswald’s company, appearing through detachable panels in the walls and the office where he kept his host bodies. Catarina saunters in from down at the end of the hall, grinning from ear to ear and taking a moment to flash me another wink as she enters the room. A man who I can only guess is Thomas is by her side.

“I always knew this day would come, but I didn’t think it would be you two who did it,” Gerard says. “I was just explaining to Victoria how I have no patience for weakness. The weakness of you and all who follow you will be eradicated tonight.”

“It doesn’t matter what happens to us here,” Albert says, standing taller and looking as though he’s trying to feign confidence. “We can always be reborn.”

“Oh, but can you?” Gerard says, a cold smile on his face. He walks over to his second body and reaches into the same bloodstained pocket he did before, this time retrieving a pair of gems, one a deep, almost purple red, and the other a bright mixture of pink and yellow.

“What?” Oswald gasps. “No…”

“Oh, you thought you hid them?” Gerard says over a laugh. “It’s only fair if you’ve been conspiring against me for all this time that I’d have a conspirator of my own.” He turns to Albert. “Albert hid his in the apartment he thought I didn’t know about.” He looks to Oswald, murderous loathing in his eyes. “And you, Oswald, you hid it in the grave of your favorite host.”

There’s a sinking feeling in my chest as I watch the disbelief and confusion pass over Albert’s face, over the faces of his entire side of the room. “Bastard,” he mutters.

“We still have yours!” Oswald says, a tremble in his voice.

Gerard’s laughter is sadistic and cruel. It echoes and blocks out everything else. “You fools. Do you honestly think I would hide my anchor in something as obvious as a vault downtown? Or that I would be stupid enough to make it a gem like the rest of you?” When there is no response, he continues. “That entire facility is a decoy, just there to catch traitors like you. No one in their right, goddamn mind knows where my anchor is.”

“No…”

“Yes!” Gerard steps forward. “You’ve lost your touch, Oswald. You never even considered that I might have put an identity mask on the anchor you hold.” Oswald visibly deflates, his shoulders slumping. “That anchor is not mine. In fact, if you dispel the mask you’ll see it doesn’t even belong to anyone in this room.”

“Give it to me,” Albert demands, desperately pulling the gem from Oswald’s hand.

“Augumentarer celare identitatem. Invenient.”

His eyes go wide with disbelief, and he, too, slumps backward. “Samantha…” he mutters, letting the gem fall to the ground and shatter at his feet.

“Yes!” Gerard says through a cackle. “This all started because of her. Now you’ve failed because of her as well.”

Gerard’s laughter seems to suck all the air out of the room when it dies down a few moments later. “Now that you all understand,” he says, pacing once again, “it’s time to end this.” He looks to Thomas, still standing beside Catarina. “As you will.”

The Cruel Man takes a glass orb identical to my own out of his pocket and crushes it on the ground beside him. “It’s about time, motherfuckers!” he yells as he rushes at Albert’s side of the room.

The rest of Gerard’s soldiers follow suit, a dozen or so of them drawing pulsating glass orbs out of their pockets and slamming them into the ground before rushing in. Gerard himself hurls both of the gems he holds into the ground at his feet. After only a few moments, the floor is littered with shards of broken glass and gemstones, and a cold wind kicks up that nearly blows me off my feet. Littered, I can only imagine, with the anchors of every person in the room who betrayed him.

Gunfire, blood, and screams of agony and rage. I’m frozen in place. The rifle falls to the ground by my side.

A man across the room takes a knife to the throat.   

A woman takes a bullet to the chest.

Two burly men get what looks to be an antique sword to the back as they’re distracted by someone else.

A bullet whizzes past me into Gerard’s desk.

Victoria! Run! Isabel screams.

No, destroy your anchor first! Rebecca yells, her gruff voice breaking from the fear. Or take it with you, I don’t care but get us out of here!

My eyes dart to my anchor. It’s just sitting there, alone, unguarded in all the chaos.

The act is instinctual. The anchor is in my hand in one breath, and I’m darting to the hallway in the second.

Bodies are flying in every direction. Gerard’s men outnumber Oswald’s at least two to one, and there’s no clear path in the cramped quarters. I’m ducking and dodging, trying to escape as covertly as possible through the chaos.

“Oz!”

The scream pulls my attention from the door. Albert is shrieking as Oswald slumps toward him, a knife buried in his chest. They’re surrounded by Thomas and Catarina.

Albert falls to his knees, his dying comrade in his arms. The hunters take their opening, and the grins on their faces say they do it with extreme pleasure.

Thomas is the first one there. He raises a red-stained blade high over his head. Albert is on his knees, defenseless, overcome, resigned to his fate.

I don’t know what comes over me, but it’s some combination of guilt and anger and stupidity. I plant my foot and draw my pistol from my belt. Two shots. Two bodies on the ground.

Albert snaps to attention. We lock eyes. The smoke from the end of my gun wafts gently between us, blown away by a cool breeze that carries grunts and screams from the periphery.

Go!

I’m off without a second glance. A few bodies and the blood surrounding them are all that stand between me and the hallway.

Run!

“Get her!” Gerard screams. It’s frantic and furious. First, I reject his offer and then I gun down his right and left hands just as they’re about to finish everything off? I might not get away but at least I made him sweat.

I clear the door and I’m in the hallway. It’s a straight sprint from here. The stairway is within sight.

Go! Go! Go!

I’m a quarter of the way there.

Almost there!

Halfway.

Yes!

Three-quarters.

I hear the rifle just before I feel the impact. I’m sprawled out on my face, screeching from an intense pain in my upper back. I can’t feel anything beneath the wound.

My anchor. I’m clutching it in my left hand and can feel the muscles cramping from exhaustion. I gave it a good run, but the only thing I can do to escape my fate is to crush it on the ground before me.

My arm barely budges. A cold shudder passes over the parts of my body I can still feel. The anchor slips from my grasps and gently rolls out in front of me, mere inches from my face.

“No…” It’s the pained realization that I flew too close to the sun. Had I just accepted the end and broken it when I had the chance, I’d be drifting into a restful and endless sleep. I got greedy, and now all Gerard has to do to punish me for eternity is to reach and grab it.

There’s a new hatred now, this time for myself. My eyes are fixated on the vessel. It’s so close to my grasp yet will forever be impossible to reach. God dammit. God dammit. God dammit.

The entire hallway shakes with an explosion from the office, and there’s nothing but silence after that. My eyelids start to close, blackness encroaching from all sides. There’s no point in resisting. The next time they open will be the beginning of infinity, the least sane I’ve ever been and the sanest I’ll ever be from this point on.

A bloody set of shoes hobble up beside me. I can hear broken glass crunching over the ringing in my ears. A red-stained hand reaches down and picks up my anchor before the feet continue toward the stairway, limping and tracking shards of glass and gemstone in their wake. My eyes blur before closing entirely.

Maria Sanchez is dead. She got greedy. She turned her back on the goal she had when she thought she could get more and ended up with nothing. A fitting end for a thief.

Chapter 22 here.

Chapter 24 here.

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