It was strikingly and stunningly quiet.
Twilight had fallen without warning; in one instant, the sun's last fading rays simply disappeared, unrepentant and sweepingly absolute. Cameron pulled her limbs easily from the once restraining bonds, blinking disorientation from unfocused eyes. She gingerly moved aching and bruised muscles. In the silence, her gasp of pain sounded as loudly as a scream.
A few murmured words made her eyesight sharpen until she could see the room in vivid detail. And what she saw was destruction. Furniture lay splintered about the previously elegant room, turned on a twisted side or heaped in disjointed pieces. Shattered glass scattered among those splinters, her newly improved vision causing them to glitter unmistakably, and turned the carpet into a diamond encrusted masterpiece. One wall now bore a gaping hole.
She slipped carefully off the table and into the eerie stillness. The glass crunched softly beneath her shoes. It was quiet, so quiet, and shock made that ever more evident. The soft rasp of her clothing against the table echoed through the room.
She was free.
Elation bubbled inside her. Maybe she could find the twins, make them see reason… Hope filtered through her and she suddenly wondered why she was still standing in the middle of this demolished room. Shaking her head, she stepped lightly forward.
~ Run ~
The voice came from nowhere. Its cold, icy tones held warning and just a touch of anger that tore through her mind, cleaving through guarded secrets and newborn hopes. And instead, she tensed, her muscles immobilizing.
A hand gripped her neck abruptly.
She spun into action, kicking, clawing, twisting… Those actions caused nothing but spinning pain. Slowly, she subsided and her body numbed into hopeless defeat. She forced herself to relax.
A harsh cough rattled behind her. "I hope you didn't think you had won," Giacinta choked out, her body shaking slightly with the effort. She jerked Cameron around to face her. "Next time someone gives you a friendly warning, perhaps you should take it." A tight and brutal smile. "You might have gotten away."
Cameron tried to suppress a gasp as Giacinta dragged her mercilessly back to the table, her hands tangled in long black hair. Strands ripping from her scalp and clinging to the vampire's pale white fingers. Her knees buckled. She fell, catching herself almost as an afterthought.
The voice was emotionless and frigid, just like the voice that had invaded her mind only seconds ago. Had it only been seconds? She shivered involuntarily. Frightening how time could pass so quickly and yet seem to drag so much. How one lifetime could flash by as quickly as lightening or waver through eternity. Mutely, she shook her head.
Giacinta shrugged, turning away. Cameron braced herself. Giacinta's body swiveled and her hand hit Cameron's bruised face with a resounding slap. Despite having prepared herself, her body collapsed to the floor.
"I said, 'get up.'"
Gritting her teeth, she made a valiant effort, but her body would not respond. She propped herself up, trying to push off the floor, but her limbs folded beneath her weight. She glared at the vampire from beneath a fall of tangled ebony hair. "I can't."
"You mean that you won't," Giacinta corrected coldly. She stepped lightly around Cameron's fallen body, leaning against an unsteady dresser, once beautifully carved and finished. Now only a charred mess.
Her black, black eyes raked over the girl who had ruined her life without even realizing it. Who had doomed her from the moment of her birth. Who at this very moment was doing nothing to redeem herself, even as she clung to the belief that she was innocent of any wrongdoing.
How much she hated her! It bubbled caustically in her veins like hot oil, consuming her emotions and leaving her nothing but an empty shell. Abandoned, except for the hatred that gave her only one reason for living. Unworthy, except as a reflection of Cameron, who cared too much instead of not at all.
Giacinta was well aware of her faults. They were etched on her mind in glittering detail, crowding into one another and taunting her with each painful reminder that she was not enough. She couldn't possibly miss any of them, because for one terrifying instant when Cameron injured her, she was thrown into hell.
And oddly, hell was a mirror.
No burning fires. No depthless black pits. No unbearable heat or ragged pain. Only a smooth, glassy surface with her own face staring back at her and a voice -- that voice like poisoned honey -- murmuring at her back, stabbing through her more painfully than a thousand knives.
You have already lost.
She wanted to scream or rage or wail her anger. She wanted to hurt something or someone as much as she herself hurt. She wanted to shatter that flawless glass until it lay destroyed at her feet, where it could no longer hurt her.
No matter what she did to that hollow reflection, it stared back at her impassively, except for that small smirk of triumph glittering in its eyes. No matter how she tried to hurt her image, so that it reflected not only her likeness, but also her feelings, it only whispered back truths she would rather not hear. It only grew louder as she clawed at it, trying to mar its acrid candor…
But she could not destroy that mirror, could not destroy what she was, and so she would destroy Cameron instead.
With that realization, hell had disappeared.
"If you get up, I might make it easier on you." Her empty black eyes swept over Cameron's huddled form. "But then again, maybe not. Destroying you never was enough. It only made me want more."
"Please don't let me keep you, then," Cameron said brightly. "I'm sure there are plenty more innocent people to slaughter out there."
Giacinta's features twisted into amusement. She knew Cameron was only bluffing. "How generous of you, really."
"I wouldn't want you to waste all your talents on me," she responded sarcastically. She dragged her body a little further from Giacinta's, her legs still refusing to work properly. Her fingers curled convulsively around a thick splinter of wood, the only protection she could offer herself right now.
Giacinta shrugged. "I don't intend to waste them at all." A secretive smile flitted over her full mouth. "But you'll appreciate that more once your dear soulmates join us, which might happen if they ever stop that incessant bickering."
"I'll grow old and die while they're still in that same spot on the street," Cameron sneered. Her blue eyes flamed with what looked like triumph, but was only fear. "And then you won't get your revenge."
Giacinta's smile turned nasty and she leaned forward slightly with glee. "Didn't you say you'd get another chance? If this fails, I will, too." A lengthy pause as they contemplated one another, then Giacinta looked away. "I still get to have my fun. You'll suffer."
"Yeah," Cameron agreed dryly, "all that blood was just a preliminary trial to see if it was worth it, right?"
Giacinta stood abruptly. She sidled around the mess at her feet, passing Cameron as she did so. She noticed the makeshift stake the witch was trying so hard to hide. Instead of kicking it out of her hand, she crushed the heel of her foot down on Cameron's already damaged wrist, smiling as she screamed in pain.
"It's always worth it."
Cameron grabbed her wrist sulkily, trying to crush the bones back into place. The action only made her wrist hurt more and so she let go. Stupid bitch…
"Now, now -- be nice," Giacinta said, with a stunning smile. "You're not holding a weapon anymore."
"Yeah, because I can't," Cameron snapped, scowling. She wished she had a vampire's rapid healing powers or even the strength to heal. A spell. Anything so that she had a fighting chance against this…
Giacinta kicked her suddenly. "Don't you listen?" she asked, her own face twisting into a glower. "If you're not going to think nice thoughts, don't think at all."
"I can say it out loud if you prefer," Cameron offered, instead of subsiding, her glare deepening to dangerous proportions. "You're going to hear it either way, so I might as well."
"Or," the vampire suggested brightly, "I can make sure you can't think about anything at all. Except the pain, of course." Then, so quickly Cameron barely saw her move, the blade she'd been carrying stabbing roughly into Cameron's side, while crimson blood spurted dangerously.
Kian's head snapped back with the sickening sound of flesh striking against flesh and shattering bones. He ducked another blow instinctively. "Are we almost finished?" he inquired cordially, twisting out of the way. "Because this is starting to hurt."
Instead of responding, Kieran smashed his fist into his twin's identical violet eye, hoping that in a few minutes, the skin would match as well. The bruise might not last very long, but at least it gave him some satisfaction. "Almost," he answered cheerfully, following his response with a swift blow to his twin's stomach.
Kian fought the urge to vomit. Through rapidly clearing vision, he saw his twin straighten and step back, the smirk on his face growing ever wider. Everything turned vaguely red around the edges of his vision. He lunged forward and hit Kieran so hard that his twin found himself heaped inelegantly on the broken concrete sidewalk.
"It's finished now," he snapped, and turned away.
Kieran's eyes flared like pulsing shadows, danger brimming in their depths, and he scrambled to his feet only long enough to tackle his twin to the ground. Kian's jaw cracked against the unyielding concrete. "I don't think so." One knee pressed Kian flat and immobile, while one hand felt blindly for anything potentially sharp. The other held him locked firmly in place.
Jessa sighed. She was definitely going to check the contract for a bonus clause. This was not in her job description and she did get hazard pay. If this didn't count as a hazard, she wasn't sure what did.
She stepped forward to grip the back of Kieran's shirt firmly. He half-heartedly tried to throw her off, but his attention was focused on his twin's raging temper, evident even though his cheek pressed firmly into the ground. It only took a moment and quite a bit of strength to tug him away.
"Now apologize to your brother," she said in her most maternal voice. Kieran kicked him instead. She tightened her grip until his air supply was almost nonexistent. "I said, 'apologize.'"
His reply was sullenly sarcastic. "Do I have to sit in the corner if I don't?"
Quick and troubled resignation washed over her features. "I'm done making idle threats," she answered quietly. "If keeping your soulmate alive isn't incentive enough, nothing I can say will make you cooperate." She continued to talk despite the stricken expression flashing on his face. "Are you nearly finished trying to kill each other?"
"For now," Kieran conceded, after a moment's pause. Jessa released her grip on his shirt, but her eyes warned him not to provoke her further.
Kian echoed his sentiments quietly. He brushed bits of gravel from his skin, then pushed himself into a sitting position. A moment later he was standing. "We should get out of here soon," he suggested in Jessa's general direction, "while Giacinta still believes the act."
But then sharp pain rocketed through his body. He clutched blindly at his head, vaguely aware that his twin mirrored his movements, gasping as the pain transferred itself to his side. Almost as if he'd been stabbed deeply.
Jessa caught him as he stumbled backwards. "Are you okay?" she asked anxiously, but the pain was too overwhelming for him to realize that she'd spoken.
Kieran shook his head savagely, unaware that she had asked the question of Kian. And really, did it matter? "It's Cameron," he managed through gritted teeth. He glanced up briefly, toward the curtained window, then his eyes dropped and his mouth drooped. "Giacinta isn't paying attention to us anymore."
Her arm still circling Kian's waist, Jessa guided him toward the house. Her heart went out to Kieran, who suffered alone -- who chose to suffer alone -- but she could only help one of them through the pain. Something told her Kieran wouldn't let her help anyway, and so he stumbled slowly behind in silence.
It only took seconds to cross the dark and deserted street, but it seemed like an eternity; the steps leading to the antique stained glass door a mountain to be climbed. The eaves of the porch cast eerie shadows where the fluorescent porch light did not reach, emphasizing the haggard planes of each twin's face.
Swallowing her pity, she disentangled herself from Kian's heavy weight, reaching for the ornate door handle. It refused to turn so much as an inch. She jiggled it, frowning, but nothing happened.
Kieran sighed heavily and edged her out of the way. "She's got a witch helping her," he explained. "Only certain people can even get into the house. Or rather, open the door."
Jessa watched him expectantly. "Would you happen to be one of them?"
"I lived here for two months. What do you think?" He wrenched the door handle open so violently that it squealed in protest. Swinging the thick oak slab inward, the empty hallway opened cavernously before them. She inched forward cautiously.
One of the twins grabbed her arm, halting her progress. Kian shook his head and continued to hold her back. "She probably has traps rigged all over the place," he murmured. "If one of us goes first, nothing should explode."
Softly, Kieran added, "Or cave in or crash on top of us or--"
"I get the point," she interrupted, a weak smile gracing her mouth. She gripped the back of his sleekly muscled torso, fighting not to notice the feel of his firm flesh beneath her hands. He's Cameron's, she reminded herself adamantly.
A corner of his mouth curled seductively. She would have sworn one finger trailed lightly down her arm, but it happened too quickly and she could only guess what it had been. His wicked smile enhanced her suspicions.
She removed her hands hastily. "After you."
The smirk faded as he contemplated the deathly silent entrance. If he were Giacinta, what was the first thing he would do as a precautionary measure? The answer was simple. He would put up barriers to sound an alert when someone entered the house. He wouldn't set them off, because they would have been programmed to accept his presence. Kian and Jessa were a different story…
He had a sudden flash of insight. "Here, grab my hand," he ordered briefly, peering into that immense cavern for any sign of movement. He thrust his arm into their near vicinity so that they could do as he asked.
Kian stared at the appendage scornfully. "I thought you weren't flaming," he challenged, his voice nasty.
A corner of Kieran's mouth lifted, his eyes reflecting lights none of them should have been able to see. "I make an exception for you, brother dear," he answered and his voice was mockingly licentious. Jessa, however, stared silently, clearly questioning his command without voicing any of her curiosity. Kieran's expression became properly abashed and he answered reluctantly. "By touching me, you become an extension of me and not a separate person. It's a way to work around her magic."
Jessa's laugh sounded clear and rich in the silence. "I don't think you were lying when you said you were gifted with a functioning brain. The testosterone made me wonder at first."
Sighing heavily and shaking his head, Kieran reached out to capture Jessa's hand, leaving Kian to hold her other. Despite his taunting comments, he was no more eager for physical contact with his twin. When they were connected, he stepped cautiously over the threshold.
The air remained pleasantly still.
He breathed a quick sigh of relief. Switching his attention to the hallway in front of them, he contemplated the looming staircase. A second later he was moving, bounding up the stairs while dragging the other two behind. Jessa had to jog to keep up, but they were quickly standing at the top of the stairs.
"Which way now?" she asked as silently as possible, her voice only a shade above a whisper, so low that even a vampire would have trouble hearing her.
To her surprise, it was Kian who answered her question. "I think she's in a room to the right… and maybe a little bit above?"
The uncertainty in his voice was mirrored in the unease gracing his twin's identical lanky frame. "I've never seen another staircase in the house. She has an attic, maybe?"
Jessa shrugged. "You two are the experts. I'm sure if you go in the direction you feel her, you'll find where it is."
Kian's eyes narrowed in heated exasperation. "If you can get us through the ceiling, I'd be more than happy to go in the direction I can feel her. Until then, why don’t we look for a staircase?"
"We don't need a staircase," Kieran answered absently, leading them toward what looked to be a solid colonial cupboard. The crystal figures inside sparkled brightly. He bent around one side, his head nearly touching the floor, then he leaned to inspect the other. A small sound of triumph escaped from deep in his throat.
Jessa watched him hopefully. "Did you find something?" she questioned.
He nodded briefly before applying light pressure to a knob on the left side. The cabinet swung open. He turned his head, nodding toward another stairwell hidden behind the antique furniture piece. They both acknowledged his direction in turn.
The stairs wound a precariously twisting path from the place where they stood, longer than a mountain path leading from the very base where rocky terrain met flourishing grass. After a moment's hesitation, Kieran pushed his way past the polished and ancient furniture and up the stairs.
Their height had been deceptive. It took only a few minutes to find the apex of that staircase as the passage became ever narrower and just as steep. And at this highest point stood a door.
He glanced back quickly at Jessa and his twin as if questioning the wisdom of trying the handle. Both nodded, urging him on. He extended his arm slowly, fingers closing gently around the worn handle.
Heat seared painfully into his hand and the knob refused to turn.