John Myers patted his vest, triple-checking that everything was in place. He checked the time on his watch. Five minutes from the last time he'd checked, but that was all he needed. He pressed a finger to the communicator on his belt. "Blue team checking in. Red team, are we clear?"
There was a loud crackle of static in his ear. He flinched. "Red team clear." Captain Carlisle Anderson's voice sounded like it was being filtered through a blender full of rocks and angry cats. "Blue team, advance."
"You heard the man. Let's go." John bent down and hefted one of the many metallic cases scattered through the clearing. The four soldiers left with them formed a perimeter around the science team as they moved up the long stone stairway to the temple's main entrance.
"Isn't it so exciting?" Jeannine, the newest addition to the team, walked next to him. Her eyes were huge as she tried to take everything in.
He offered her a small smile. He'd been through enough dirty, empty ruins that the excitement had mostly worn off. At least the view was nice. The temple towered over the surrounding jungle. Each step up the stairs brought more of the valley into view. Trees stretched out in every direction, forming a thick carpet of growth that seemed to fill up the valley, cramming it full of life. A good portion of that life was dangerous. They had no idea how long the valley had been here. Long enough that humans weren't the top of the food chain.
Strange birds soared lazily overhead. He recognized two of the kinds they'd cataloged so far. One of the soldiers would shoulder their rifle and track the creatures whenever the birds passed nearby but none attempted to bother the humans. The sounds of the jungle formed a comforting sort of background noise. John wasn't sure what it was about the jungle, but despite the dangers he knew were lurking, he felt comfortable here. The call of birds, the rustle of wind in the canopy, the fragrance of flowers in the air, all felt as much like home to him as baseball and train stations and rustling wheat. The noise faded as they got higher above the canopy, leaving him feeling slightly on edge. When he'd first come here he'd found the constant hoots and animal cries eerie but now, months later, it was like a soothing balm. He'd learned that it was when the sounds stopped that he had to worry.
A thick sheet ice of capped off the valley. It had the unfortunate effect of making even the midday sun feel like twilight, but it kept out the freezing Antarctic air and reflected the moonlight so that the dark winter months weren't completely pitch black. He could live with a little darkness if it meant that he could walk around outside in shorts and a t-shirt. Unfortunately that also meant that carrying several pounds worth of equipment up three stories worth of stairs in full military uniform was less than pleasant. He was looking forward to getting back to base and possibly pulling rank so he could be one of the first in the showers.
There was a long, open courtyard at the top of the stairs. Two rows of pillars lined the wide walkway that ran from the stairs to the arched opening of the temple. John turned to the south. In the distance, about an hour's walk away, rose the imposing bulk of the B.P.R.D. base, the lone bastion of modern civilization squatting amidst the ancient Antarctic ruins. The base was carved out of the side of the mountain range that circled the valley, with a tunnel dug straight through the mountain to the transport site on the other side.
They'd already uncovered four minor buildings between the base and the temple, though they'd found nothing of note in any of them, and no sign of what the buildings had housed. More buildings peeked from the jungle north of them, with three more temples like the one they stood on forming a cross around the huge Aztec-style pyramid that rose from the center of the valley.
As soon as the last of the scientists reached the top, John turned and followed them into the temple. The red team had left flares along the route to light the way. He found it a bit strange that there were no sconces for torches, nor any real sign of how the original inhabitants of the valley had lit the interior of the temple. There was a sense of oddness to the temple that put John's nerves on edge. He'd felt the same sort of oddness in the other buildings they'd explored but it was stronger here. Nerves, he guessed. No one else had mentioned anything. Jeannine was practically skipping with excitement up ahead.
John paused at the edge of the sunlight and pulled a small electric lantern from his pack. It flicked on after a second, filling the hall with bright blue light. The increase in light brought the paintings on the walls into sharp relief. Strange looking people lined the walls. They were all looking inwards, as if drawn deeper into the temple. John leaned in to get a better look. Some had very pale complexions with white-painted skin. They were dressed in bright colors, obvious finery. The rest, the majority, had dark skin, painted black. They were shorter, in rougher clothing, and some of them had their faces slightly turned, as if starting to look back.
All of them had pointed ears.
As they went deeper into the temple, the murals showed the black-painted people turning and walking back. Their features had shifted – faces growing more angular and catlike, eyes brighter, fingers pointed. The white-painted people grew more fanciful. There were lines and symbols running along their skin, like a tattoo only colored close to their skin tone, almost imperceptible. It reminded him of the lines carved on Hellboy's body. Some, the older looking people, had antlers. Others seemed to be growing roots or trailing leaves.
The scientists voices carried back to him, sounding louder, amplified. They'd reached the center. He could see the opening up ahead, like a beacon of light in the dark tunnel.
The main room of the temple was massive. Two short stairways branched off on either side of the entrance, leading up into raised sections that were obviously meant to seat hundreds. The ceiling formed a dome overhead, with a large opening in the center that let in bright light. The light seemed to focus on a huge stone pillar in the center of the room. Intricate carvings covered everything – floors, walls, stairs, pillar. He assumed they went all the way up to the ceiling as well but the roof was too high to tell. The pillar was the most intricate. Every inch of it was covered in carvings and on the front was engraved a long sword, point down.
The carvings had the same sort of design as the markings on the white-painted people.
"I wish we knew what it meant."
He glanced over at Jeannine and smiled. "I'm sure we'll figure it out eventually." They'd come across similar symbols before, in some of the smaller buildings, but those had only been tiny spots of symbols. Decorations, they'd thought, and nothing anywhere close to the expanse of symbols they'd found here. At the very least it would give their linguists something to work on.
Jeannine opened her mouth but John missed her response as he caught the gleam of something bright out of the corner of his eyes. He turned and stared at the pillar. There was something off about it. The light from the opening above made the sword's blade seem to glow. He took a step forward, then another. The blade called to him. He wanted to touch it, to feel its warmth. Why did he want to touch it? He moved without thinking and that in itself was enough to set off warning bells in his head. He stopped himself with his hand inches from the stone. John's shadow fell across the stone. The glow from the blade increased. Now that he was closer he could make out the carvings in the stone clearer. They were lined with a black substance, likely obsidian.
He needed to back away. Rule number one of exploring ancient ruins: Never touch anything, especially things that want you to touch them.
There was a deafening rumble, the only warning John got before the ground pitched and he was thrown forward. He lifted his hands reflexively to catch himself. His palm scraped against a jagged corner of rock, gouging a deep cut in his hand. Blood smeared across the pillar, marring the glow of the sword. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he hit the ground hard.
The carvings on the pillar lit up, spreading out from the blade, first gleaming black and then shifting in color, running the full prismatic spectrum before finally glowing bright white. There was a loud crack. The pillar split in half, neither side falling but instead shifting aside as if to make room. Light filled the room, pouring out from between the two halves of the pillar. It was blinding and John closed his eyes to block it out but it still seemed to burn through his eyelids. There was a shape in the midst of the light, a dark spot against the light, slowly growing larger.
John's skin burned, every inch of it. He sucked in a short breath as faint pain shot through his limbs. It felt like his entire body had woken up from being numb, all at once. His skin crawled with pins and needles. There was something else too. He could feel something happening, magic gathering in the air. It was waiting.
The light died. John opened his eyes and stared at the figure between the halves of the pillar. The figure slowly rose from a crouch and stared back. Amber eyes locked on to John as they studied each other. The figure's head cocked slightly to the side and his eyes narrowed. He looked like the white-painted people in the hallway. He – John was pretty sure it was a he – had long white hair, pale white skin, and pointed ears. His clothing was elaborate, ornate but with a defensive cast, like armor. He was beautiful in an ethereal sort of way, like a marble statue or a masterwork painting.
Movement in the rest of the room drew the stranger's attention. Jeannine approached with a smile and wide, eager eyes. The soldiers that had secured the room – the red team – were slowly shifting into defensive positions around the room. Carlisle was crouched at the top of the left stairwell, his rifle shouldered and pointed at the stranger.
"W-welcome." Jeannine stopped two paces short of the pillar and extended her hand. "My name is Jeannine. It's an honor to meet you."
The man scanned the room, ignoring Jeannine. Her smile started to fade. She pulled her hand away. The stranger drew a blade from behind his back. It was a strange looking weapon, like a long knife but more haft than blade. Guns cocked around the room. John watched the haft extend in the man's hand. He felt oddly detached, calm, almost as if he were in another trance. The small knife expanded into a long spear.
"Filthy humans," the man spat in perfect English. Hatred washed over John, the emotion strange and foreign, like it came from outside of him. It pooled in his stomach, dark and vile. The stranger darted forward, impossibly fast, and slashed Jeannine open from naval to throat. The scientists screamed, dropped their equipment and started to run. John was glad they'd left some soldiers outside to cover the entrance. Hopefully they'd keep the scientists from running into the jungle and getting eaten. He wasn't sure which location had better survival odds, out there or in here.
The soldiers opened fire as soon as the scientists were clear. The strange man danced through the bullets, dodging every one. It wasn't even a challenge for him. His movements were leisurely, graceful. In another, less-deadly situation, John would have admired the way the man moved. Jeannine stared at him from the ground, a shocked look on her face as her blood poured out, spilling across the stone floor. Every few seconds one of the soldiers would rock backwards as they were hit by one of their own ricocheting bullets. Spots of blood appeared on their uniforms.
He felt calm. Bullets flew overhead. The stranger was only a few feet away. If he wanted to, he could kill John. It wouldn't even be a challenge. John's gun was holstered at his side, a pistol instead of the heavier rifles the soldiers carried but he was close enough that he could take a shot if he wanted to. There was a second strapped to his ankle, far out of reach. He didn't want to shoot the stranger. He should. He wanted to help. He wanted to stop the fighting. He wanted to move. He couldn't. It was like the entire battle, one-sided as it was, was a scene from a movie that John was being forced to watch. He felt disconnected from it all. The amount of danger he was in barely registered.
The soldiers were advancing slowly. Their guns weren't doing anything against the strange man, but guns were often ineffective against the supernatural. John was the closest, half hidden by the pillar, and so far the stranger had ignored him. That was an advantage. The stone floor felt warm beneath him. He couldn't feel the cut on his hand anymore.
Empty cartridges were tossed aside as the soldiers wasted their ammo. Some of them had fallen. He wasn't sure if they were dead or injured. He hoped the latter. The battle was swiftly winding to a close and from the eager smirk on the stranger's face, they both knew how it was going to end.
He needed to move. He needed to do something. There had to be a way to stop the stranger. As soon as the soldiers ran out of bullets, the stranger was going to kill them. Their impending death seemed certain, and once they died... John wasn't sure what would happen to him. He felt safe and attributed that to shock. It didn't feel real so of course he was safe. The stone beneath him felt comforting, like a shield he could use to keep away danger. He could feel the stone, all of it, the entire room, rising around him like a protective bubble. The lines carved in the rock pulsed faintly. After a second he recognized the rhythm of their glow as his own heartbeat.
He was going crazy. He must have hit his head or lost too much blood. That was the only way to explain the odd things he was feeling. He felt the bullets as they whizzed past the stranger. He felt the man's grim mirth, his eagerness to crush the humans who dared invade this sacred space.
John just wanted it to stop. He couldn't think, not with everything crowding in his head. There were too many inputs, too many things going on. It all just needed to... "Stop."
The entire room froze. Bullets stuck in midair. The stranger halted in mid-turn. Everyone stopped. John sucked in a sharp gasp of air. The carvings flashed faintly, a bare twinkle of light, and then everything unfroze. The bullets clattered harmlessly on the stone floor. The stranger's hair fell across his face like a curtain. The man straightened and turned towards John, his eyes piercings. He frowned.
Someone shouted. One of the soldiers – Jack – charged forward. He pulled out a large knife and swung at the stranger. The stranger lifted his blade to strike back. They both froze inches from connecting.
Jeannine coughed and sat up. She stared down at her unmarked chest in amazement, then blushed and quickly zipped up her jacket to cover the exposed flesh.
John used the pillar for leverage as he struggled to his feet. The rock felt warm under his hand, comforting. The soldiers were staring at him. Some couldn't seem to decide whether to focus on him or the stranger. John glanced at his palm. There was blood on his skin but the cut was gone.
"Well, that was odd," he said.
Jeannine stared up at him. "I was dead."
"Yeah. I know."
The stranger and Jack both shifted backwards, lowering their weapons. The injured soldiers were standing up. They joined their teammates in forming a half-perimeter around the front of the room.
"What sort of devilry is this, human?" The stranger's voice had a musical quality to it. "You will pay dearly once I unravel what you have done."
Jeannine flinched. John slowly moved towards her and extended a hand to help her up. "Your guess is as good as mine." The walls were still shining faintly. Jeannine's hand shook in his. "And the name's John, not human. John T. Myers."
The stranger glared. "Your name is of no importance to me, filthy human." John let go of Jeannine's hand and approached. She backed away and started edging towards the exit. As soon as John was a little over an arm's length away, the stranger lashed out with his spear. The blade stopped a half foot shy of John's chest. John stared at it. There were intricate carvings on the blade. It looked beautiful, despite the blood.
Jeannine ran out of the room as soon as she had the soldiers between her and the stranger.
"Drop your weapon." The spear clattered against the stone floor and shrunk back to knife size. The stranger glared angrily and started to reach for it. "Don't." He stopped and straightened.
John glanced at the soldiers. They seemed nervous, all except Carlisle, who rarely displayed any sort of emotion beyond anger and annoyance. "Stand down." Some of the men slowly holstered their weapons. Most didn't move except for lifting their fingers off their triggers. He turned to Carlisle. The large, dark-skinned man had his gun trained on the stranger. "Have your men stand down. Please."
Carlisle looked at John for a long minute, sizing John up. He shifted, pressing the safety on his rifle and slinging it over his shoulder. "Stand down."
John turned back to the stranger. "What's your name?"
Defiance played across the man's face as he spoke, obviously unwillingly. "Nuada Silverlance." The name seemed right, fitting. John wasn't sure how he knew but he knew Nuada spoke the truth.
He took another step closer. "What are you?"
Nuada gritted his teeth. "Elf."
"An elf?" John raised an eyebrow. He'd kind of suspected as much with the pointed ears but it seemed cliché. "Like in Lord of the Rings?"
If looks could kill, John would have been skewered. "No." Nuada spat the word with contempt. "From the Clan of Bethmoora. Sons of the earth." Nuada shifted slightly on his feet. He obviously had mobility so John wasn't sure why he hadn't tried to run for it. That's what John would have done, had their positions been reversed. Maybe Nuada was just as curious as John was about what was going on. John doubted that. "We were your gods once, when humans respected the earth."
"Some of us still do." He wasn't sure if he counted as one of the people who respected the earth but he at least tried to be vaguely eco-friendly. "Look, I'm not sure what's going on, or why you're here or why any of this... weirdness is happening, but I think we got off onto the wrong foot." Carlisle snorted derisively. John shot him a look and continued. "I'd like for you to come back to the base with us and we can talk more there."
"I would rather see your blood spilled across the floor and let scavengers feast on your entrails."
John's stomach rolled at the thought. "Pleasant as that sounds, I'll pass." He shifted on his feet. "Answer me honestly. Do you have to do exactly as I tell you?"
Nuada's fingers twitched towards his sword. "Yes."
"For how long?"
"I don't know." Nuada's mouth thinned into a tight grimace.
John licked his lips and hoped to every god he could think of that this worked. "Then, I order you to do no harm to myself or the other humans in this valley. You will not attack us, directly or indirectly. You will not consciously work towards our deaths. You will not leave the valley without permission. These orders do not expire and hold until directly countermanded. Is that clear?"
Nuada's lip curled. "When I find a way to remove this curse, I will kill you slowly."
"Not the first time I've heard that. Sorry." He shifted closer until he was within arm's reach. He slowly knelt and reached for Nuada's fallen weapon. Nuada tensed but he didn't try another attack. It started to expand in his hand. He thought of holstering it and it shrank back to knife form. John tucked the weapon into his belt and then backed away out of easy reach. Nuada was watching him with narrowed eyes.
He looked at Carlisle. "We should go. Carlisle, lead the way. Nuada, follow him. I'll walk behind and keep an eye on Nuada."
Carlisle hesitated, then nodded. He kept his hand on his rifle as he walked out of the temple. Nuada followed stiffly. The rest of the soldiers filed after John. The hallway wasn't as dark anymore. There were lines carved in the ceiling, intricate swirls and loops that glowed like overhead track lighting. Once they were out of the tunnel, the soldiers fanned out to form a perimeter around the group. Some of the soldiers and scientists were waiting at the foot of the stairs. Several of the scientists were missing.
John shivered as he started down the stairs. Nuada glanced back at him, like he'd sensed John's unease but that seemed strange. Likely he was just looking for a possible opening to trip John down the stairs. John's skin crawled. The same sort of pins and needles sensation from earlier washed over him but it was different this time, darker. He felt like he was being watched. John scanned the surrounding jungle but there was no one there. The valley was uninhabited. He knew that but that didn't stop him from feeling uneasy. The open air felt suffocating. He felt vulnerable, exposed. They needed to get back to the base, back to something familiar and safe. The sooner they got back and got Nuada into a secure containment cell, the better he'd feel.
John collapsed onto his bunk and breathed in deeply. God it felt good to be back in his room. There was a large package waiting for him on his desk. He took one look at the weather-stained shipping label – stamped in Arizona, no return address – and decided he didn't want to deal with it right now. He felt better now that he was alone, secure in his room with several layers of thick concrete around him and a large array of defenses between him and the outside world.
Breathing helped. He focused on his breaths, trying to keep them level and even, to avoid going into the full-blown panic attack that he could feel looming. He needed to stop shaking. Being alone meant that his mind could finally start processing everything that had happened. Disjointed images flashed through his head. Jeannine's dead eyes. Glowing lines in the ceiling. Nuada spinning through a hail of bullets. The carvings on the pillar. The glowing sword. His own blood smeared on the stone. Nuada's barely concealed anger. The stooped figure of one of the black-painted creatures. Elves.
Considering how deadly Nuada was, John didn't want to think about how monstrous the dark elves would be. Assuming they were real. John really hoped they weren't real. Maybe, if he was really lucky, Nuada was the last of his kind. He knew even as he thought that that he was wrong.
The knock on the door startled him. John jumped and stopped himself before he drew his pistol. He stood slowly and counted out two more deep breaths before opening the door. Carlisle stared back at him. "The Major wants to see us."
John nodded and stepped out into the hall. Carlisle had never been the chatty type. His demeanor bordered on frigid, but it'd been that way since the first day John had arrived at the base. John wasn't sure if he'd done something to piss Carlisle off when they'd first met or if Carlisle just hated everyone who wasn't a soldier.
He always felt like he should apologize when he was around Carlisle, but he wasn't sure what he'd be apologizing for.
This wasn't the first time someone had died on a mission, though it was definitely the first time someone had died and come back to life. Possibly several someones. The soldiers had never mentioned if they'd had casualties or not. John hadn't been here for the initial setup of the base, when the body count had been high as they learned to identify which plants and animals were out for blood. Most of the people from the initial team were gone, save for Carlisle and the Major, and Carlisle had over a dozen scars to show for his service so far.
The Major was waiting for them in his office. The huge bank of monitors that filled up the left-hand wall of the office was currently looping through security footage from outside the base. Two chairs sat in front of the desk. Carlisle dropped into one and threw his boots up on the Major's desk. The Major's lip curled as he glared at Carlisle's boots but he didn't say anything, just shifted the stack of papers near Carlisle's feet closer to the center of the desk.
John sat and clasped his hands in his lap to keep from fidgeting. He'd been running on adrenaline all the way back to the base and he could feel it slowly draining away. When it was gone he was going to crash hard.
The Major looked at him over thick horn-rimmed glasses. He had trimmed white hair and a bushy beard that gave him the appearance of a constantly irate, militarized Santa Claus. "The Captain," he spoke with a thick southern drawl, "has given me a preliminary report on the situation." The Major glanced down at the papers on his desk and picked up a stapled sheaf. "I should remind you that in combat situations, Captain Anderson is to be treated as your superior officer."
Carlisle's lips twitched as if he were holding back a smile. John nodded. "Yes, sir. Won't happen again, sir." Normally he would have let Carlisle take the lead. Normally he wasn't able to command time to stop and maybe bring people back from the dead. He wasn't sure if that was his doing or something in the temple. He hoped it was the temple.
The Major flipped through the papers. John would need to add his own report to the pile on the Major's desk but he was hoping to put that off until tomorrow. "Oh, I'm sure it will, but that's not what I called y'all in here for. That Nuada fellow... Am I to understand you have control over him?"
"Well..." John shifted in his chair. He could feel a headache looming, like a dark storm cloud. "Yes. I think so, sir."
"You think?" The Major raised an eyebrow and shot him a level look.
"I haven't really sorted it out yet, sir. We... I... I mean, I have no clue what happened or how or why."
The Major put down his papers. "Find out."
"Yes, sir." John had no idea where to even begin.
"As you seem to be the only one who can control our guest, I'm making him your responsibility."
John paled. He should have expected that but it didn't make the prospect any more pleasing. This would be ten times worse than when he'd been assigned to Hellboy. At least Hellboy hadn't actively tried to kill him. Much. "Responsibility? But, sir, we haven't tested to see if he'll listen to anyone else. I mean, he might-"
The Major cut him off. "We tested." Carlisle stared at the far wall and frowned, giving John a good idea of who had tested and what they'd likely tried to make Nuada do. "He doesn't respond to other orders." The Major glanced down at his papers. "Now, I hear there was a glowing rock involved. You touched that rock, correct?"
He swallowed nervously. "Yes, sir. Accidentally. There was a tremor of some kind. I fell."
The Major watched him closely. "So I heard. No seismic activity was recorded at the base, but several of the expedition remarked on feeling it, so we're going to chock that up to more magical mumbo-jumbo and let the scientists figure it out. But, what I want to know is what makes you so special that he listens to you? And how you managed to make bullets stop." The Major thankfully left the mass healing and resurrection unspoken.
John paled slightly. "I don't know, sir. It might be because I was the first to touch the pillar he came out of, or because my blood hit the stone. I really don't know, sir."
"Find out. I want you to get any information you can out of that freak. I want to know if there are more like him out there, and where we can find them." John started to open his mouth to tell the Major about the paintings he'd seen and the multitude of figures he'd seen on the walls, but he hesitated. He wasn't sure what the Major would do with that knowledge. The Major didn't stop talking. "And I want him put to use."
Carlisle's boots landed heavily on the floor. "Sir-"
The Major shot Carlisle with a glare. "He's a controlled creature and he could be very valuable in exploration. Besides, he's fodder that no one's going to miss. Hell, he might even be able to take down some of those monsters out in the jungle."
John felt sick to his stomach but forced himself to nod. He didn't like the idea of trusting Nuada as protection against any of the monsters out in the jungle. He wanted to know why Nuada listened to him before he started putting his teammates' lives and his own life at risk.
"Start tomorrow. I want to see daily progress reports of what you can get out of him."
"Yes, sir." John could think of at least fifteen different ways that this could backfire. Hopefully there wouldn't be too many casualties when it did.
John sat down in the rickety metal chair and flipped open his notebook. Nuada stared at him from his bunk, looking just as haughty and grumpy as the day before. If anything, Nuada seemed to get more standoffish with time rather than less. John had been hopeful that Nuada might eventually start to warm up to him like Hellboy had, preferably without needing an almost-apocalypse to make it happen, but so far he wasn't having much luck.
"So..." He pulled his pen from his pocket and clicked it. He was grateful that Nuada didn't start listing off ways he could kill John with the pen, like he had for most of the previous week. "Last time we were talking about..." He flipped a page back. "Sava... Svarti..."
"Svartálfar," Nuada corrected as he rolled his eyes. "Humans. So inarticulate."
John sighed. "Right. So, the dark elves-"
John looked up then back at his paper. "Fuath. They're an off-shoot of your race?"
Nuada shifted into a sitting position and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He looked ready to murder John, but that was typical of every time John visited. "They are opposite. They are not true elves."
At least it was easier to get him to talk. John didn't want to think about how many commands were making Nuada do so but at least he was getting information out of the elf. He didn't like the fact that it was all coerced information but it kept the Major from breathing too heavy down his neck for the time being. He half suspected that Nuada talked to him just so he had something to do, a way to relieve the boredom of being stuck in the cell for so long.
John skimmed his notes again. "But you have the same ancestry?"
Nuada snorted. "Much as you humans share ancestry with apes. Sadly, the apes are the more civilized offshoot."
John ignored the insult and made a note on a fresh sheet of paper. "So they're opposite. The dark to your light." Nuada raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. John remembered the paintings on the temple. "Sort of a warrior/priest distinction." He could feel Nuada's annoyance like a palpable wave. "Hear me out, alright? Back at the temple, there were paintings." Nuada shifted almost imperceptibly and John knew he had Nuada's interest, even though the elf was pretending otherwise. "They showed a progression of people. So what if that was like... like evolution? A progression in genetics as well as time. So the light elves-"
John rolled his eyes but pushed on. "Yeah, Sidhe. So the pictures show them getting more decorative – tree branches, leaves, antlers. They're going towards the temple proper, towards the light at the end of the tunnel that had all the paintings on it, and they're getting more, well, civilized. Cultured. Religious."
Nuada just stared at him. John took the lack of snarky comments as a sign that he was on the right track.
"And in the paintings, the dark ones – Fuath," he corrected himself just as Nuada opened his mouth to do so for him, "they start turning around. Heading away from the temple. And as they do, they get baser, more animalistic. De-evolving, if you will. Turning into grunt soldiers. Fighters."
Nuada leaned back in his bunk. "You are wrong, human. Our fighters are deadlier than any the Fuath could have raised." He smirked. "But then you've seen that. I would love to show you more, to feel your heart's blood drained by my sword."
John's stomach rolled. He shifted in his chair. "Lovely as that sounds, I'll pass."
Nuada stood abruptly and paced the small cell. It took every ounce of John's self control not to turn and track Nuada as he walked behind John's back. "The Fuath were beasts and they died as such."
"So..." He listened carefully for Nuada's footsteps, any sign of Nuada's position, but the elf made no sound as he walked. "You were there when they died? You were here?"
Nuada reappeared to John's right. He felt his back slowly unknot. "No. It was before my time. But the ones who came later carried the tale. The Fuath fell to the jungle, much as your people will one day fall." Nuada leaned close, his long hair fanning out like a curtain on either side of his face. His amber eyes pierced right through John. "I wonder which beast will chose you as its dinner. I can only hope to be there so that I may watch."
John licked his lips. Nuada's eyes traced the motion of his tongue. The elf smiled.
He thought about denying it, but so far he'd had about as little luck lying to Nuada as Nuada had had lying to him. Probably less, considering how good Nuada was at careful omission. "It happens."
Nuada put his hands on the back of John's chair. He loomed over John, casting an ominous shadow over him. "Are you afraid of me?"
He opened his mouth to answer and then stopped. He wasn't but he should be. Nuada made a daily habit of describing in detail how badly he wanted John to die in the most horrific manner possible. It made John nervous, but he wasn't afraid. Maybe he'd just gotten desensitized too it, all talk with no means of follow through. Maybe he trusted in the weird magic that made Nuada obey him a bit too much.
Maybe he'd gone insane. Maybe he'd eaten bad fruit and had been hallucinating the entire month.
Nuada was watching him intently. This was the closest he'd ever let Nuada get without ordering him to back off. This was also the first time Nuada approached him in something other than a direct assault.
"I'm not afraid of you."
"You should be." Nuada's fingers brushed against John's cheek and he gasped as images flashed through his head.
Snow. Cold. Monsters in the jungle. Broken glass. Shouting. The hell hounds. Tentacles in the sky. Blood red moon. Beer bottles. Blood. Yelling. So much yelling. Liz on fire. A hammer striking him across the face. Hospital emergency room. Getting a cast put on. Television static. Jeannine's wide, dead eyes. Nuada dancing in a flurry of bullets. The fall of silver hair as Nuada turned his head. Delicate pale features. Beauty. Pain. Anger. A child crying. A man's thick beard. Wide, bloodshot eyes. Fear.
John reached out blindly and shoved. His chair fell backwards. He fell with it and rolled to his feet. He trembled. His breath came out loud and heavy. He felt like he'd just run a mile but it'd all been in his head. Nuada had been in his head.
He slowly backed towards the cell door. Nuada stared at him, his expression blank as a slate. He watched Nuada's mouth, waiting for it to open, to mock him. Nuada's mouth stayed closed. His eyes followed John as he backed away. Nuada had proved his point. John was afraid. He wasn't afraid of Nuada hurting him, but he was afraid of letting Nuada get inside his head again.
His back pressed against something solid and he jumped. It took him a second to realize that it was a wall and not a person behind him. He felt along the wall for the door and knocked twice.
"Good?" The guard on the other side called out.
"Good." He was proud of the fact that his voice didn't shake.
The door opened. John kept his eyes on Nuada until he was on the other side of the door. As soon as the metal door clanked shut, Nuada moved. He stepped forward and righted John's fallen chair. The guard – Paul – was staring at John. He tried to smile, hoped it was at least halfway convincing and headed back to his room.
He realized as soon as he got to his room that he'd left his notebook and pen inside the cell. He should go back and get them. The Major didn't want Nuada having access to anything that could be used as a weapon, though John hardly saw the point in worrying about a pen when they let him have a knife and fork at meals. Hell, Nuada could probably gut someone with a spoon if he tried. He wasn't going to stab anyone with a pen, even if the weird magic controlling him let him stab anyone at all.
His eyes fixed on the package on his desk. He shut the door to his room slowly and turned the lock. The package was large, about the size of a human head, though he was mostly certain that wasn't what it contained. The room would have started to smell by now. Yet, somehow the unopened package seemed more sinister than a severed head. He felt sick just looking at it. He'd been procrastinating opening it, too busy dealing with Nuada and research to bother. The box felt like it was mocking him.
He picked up the package and shoved it in the closet. He shut the door and dropped onto his bed. It didn't help. He could still feel the box's presence, like an aura of evil emanating through the room. This must be what the man in Poe's poem felt like, with the heart under the floorboards.
He could open it, get it over with. He wasn't sure he could deal with that right now, not after all the memories Nuada had stirred up.
A knock on the door distracted him. Jack stood on the other side. He didn't look happy. "Major wants to take your little pet out for a stroll. There's something coming through the woods on the east end."
Some days, his life sucked. "Alright. I'll get him."
Jack grunted a response that was vaguely affirmative. "Rendezvous at the north gate in five minutes."
John nodded and turned to pick up Nuada's knife and scabbard from the top of his desk. Carlisle and a few of the others had tried to get it to expand into a spear when they'd first brought it back to the base but it only seemed to work for John and Nuada. He didn't want to think too deeply on why it worked for him. There were a lot of things he didn't want to think about recently. He strapped on his pistols and left the room.
Paul looked surprised when John came back.
"Mission. Need him." John pointed at the door.
Paul took one look at the scabbard in John's hand, paled, and unlocked the door.
Nuada arched an eyebrow and stood slowly. John didn't enter the cell but he held out the scabbard. "Come with me." Nuada's eyes fixed on John as he belted the scabbard on. The guard backed away slightly but Nuada made no move to attack either of them. As the cell door closed, John caught a glimpse of his pen and notebook on Nuada's bunk.
"Follow me," he ordered and started towards the north gate.
They passed Jeannine in the hallway. She paled as soon as she saw them and ducked into the closest room. He felt slightly guilty but there was nothing he could do. She'd been avoiding him since the incident at the temple. John didn't blame her. He wanted to avoid himself too.
"She fears me," Nuada commented offhandedly, as if discussing the weather.
He glanced back. Nuada's face was a blank mask. "You killed her. Duh."
"She fears you, too."
John tensed and forced himself to relax. "Yeah. I know." His tone came out a bit surly.
Nuada's voice dropped into a low, devilish purr. John could feel him close behind his back. "Have you wondered why that is?"
He had. A lot. It was currently number four on the list of things he didn't want to think about. "I brought her back to life. Somehow. Yeah, I'd be freaked out too."
He felt Nuada reach for him and reacted instinctively. John whirled, slamming his back against the wall and stared at Nuada. His heart was racing. "Don't. Touch. Me."
Nuada smiled. It wasn't a kind smile. John felt like he'd just lost something but he wasn't sure what. Control, maybe, or some stupid mind game Nuada was playing with him.
"Are you sure that's what you want?" Nuada shifted closer. His palm pressed flat against the wall next to John's head.
No, he wasn't but he wasn't going to say that. He just wanted Nuada to stay out of his head.
"We're going to be late," he said instead. He ducked under Nuada's arm and started walking again. He could feel Nuada's amusement.
John was slowly coming to the conclusion that he was going insane. That was the only rational explanation for why he thought he could read Nuada's emotions, why the package in his closet bothered him so much, why he felt so connected to the temple and the jungle and everything around him. Given everything that had happened recently, he was fairly certain that he was entitled to at least a little mental breakdown.
It was a relief to step out into the open air. The jungle seemed brighter today, and the air crisper. There was a vague sense of unease in the air. It was distant but approaching, looming like a storm but only he could hear the thunder. John chocked it up to pre-fight jitters. There was a team of four soldiers, all armed to the teeth, waiting just outside the gate. John felt like the odd one out with his pistols, but he wasn't here for fighting. Sometimes he wondered why he was here at all. He wasn't a scientist, wasn't a fighter, wasn't really part of the admin staff though he had a nominal position high on the chain of command.
Jack took the lead. "The creature was spotted in the east. Scanners weren't able to get a good read on it besides large and approaching. We'll follow the fence around the perimeter and wait for it on the east side. My team will take the first assault," he glanced at John, "and elf-boy will attack once it gets closer."
"Will I?" Nuada arched an eyebrow.
John suppressed a groan. He really wasn't in the mood to fight with Nuada. "Please. Just... don't be difficult."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "You can control him, right?"
"He'll help." John wished he could believe that. Nuada opened his mouth, smirk firmly in place. John shot him a pointed look. "You will."
They followed the high metal fence until they reached the east side of the complex. The fence was made from thick steel, with coils of barbed wire lining the top. It was also electrified high enough to knock out anything that touched it. So far it'd been enough to keep the more curious critters at bay, but a large charging beast would likely run right over it. Knowing their luck, the thing was probably resistant to electricity too.
The normal sounds of the jungle were amplified. As minutes passed, John could hear a faint crashing sound, getting louder. Animals shrieked warning, presumably running away. The jungle grew still as the crashing sound approached. John's skin prickled and he wanted to run. Whatever was coming at them, it was dangerous. He watched the tree tops sway and fall as it got closer.
John caught a faint glimpse of the beast just before it broke through the tree line. "There." He pointed, though it was hardly necessary. The beast had left a huge swath of destruction behind it. Broken trees and trampled vegetation stretched back for miles. The soldiers shouldered their guns. Two dropped to their knees.
The beast roared and tossed its head as it crashed through the remaining brush. They'd cleared fifty yards around the base, all the way to where the base merged into the mountain range that formed the south end of the valley wall. It gave them a clear line of sight when anything approached. John could make out rows of thick plates along the beast's back. It had a sloped head that ended in a large horn on its nose. Two gleaming tusks rose from its huge mouth. As it roared, John caught a glimpse of two rows of sharp teeth. A row of spikes ran along the creature's back, with two more running along the base of the armored plates. It charged. The ground shook under its huge hooves. A massive tail ending in a ball of spikes whipped behind it, pulverizing the trees as it passed.
John backed away. The fence hummed ominously behind him. "Oh, shit."
"Fire!" Jack ordered. The soldiers opened fire. The creature shuddered as it was pelted with bullets. There was a repeated tink-tink as the bullets hit the metal plating and bounced off. The creature stopped and blinked a few times, appearing more annoyed than hurt. It didn't seem to be taking any damage. After several minutes of barrage, the creature roared and turned around.
"Fuck. Get down." John threw himself to the ground as the creature's tail whipped overhead. One of the soldiers was too slow. There was a spray of blood as he was skewered. His body flew off, landing somewhere in the trees.
"Fall back," Jack ordered. The remaining soldiers had broken into two groups, each on one side of the creature. Jack grabbed John by the back of the shirt and hauled him out of the way as the tail smacked into the ground inches from where John had been. "Get that damn elf going."
Nuada stood off to the side, his arms folded, and a smug smile on his face. "Nuada," John shouted. "Kill that thing. Please."
Nuada's smile faded as he pulled his knife from the scabbard and extended it into a spear. He leapt forward and landed on the beast's tail as it swiped past. The two soldiers that had ended up on the opposite side of the beast turned and fled back towards the front gate. John and Jack were cut off. They could either retreat towards the mountain or attempt to run past the creature while Nuada distracted it. John wasn't fond of either option.
The creature bucked and turned wildly as Nuada ran along its back. He grabbed onto one of the spike ridges and swung along the beast's side as it turned. His spear slipped in between armored plates. Black liquid oozed out and Nuada moved on to repeat the action again and again as he progressed up the creature's side.
A sound in the forest caught John's attention. He made sure the safety was off on his pistol and edged toward the tree line.
"Myers, get back here." Jack looked like he wasn't sure whether to fight or retreat.
"I'll be right back." John dodged another swipe of the spiked tail and then dashed towards the tree line.
"Get back here!" Jack shouted after him. "That's an order."
John ignored him and disappeared into the vegetation, not slowing down until he was out of sight of the fight.
The jungle was quiet. Faint light filtered through the canopy, making John wish he'd brought a flashlight. As he went deeper into the trees, the sound of the creature's thrashing grew distant. After a few minutes his eyes adjusted to the light though everything seemed muted in shades of twilight – dark browns, soft reds, deep purples. He moved cautiously. It was stupid to go into the jungle alone but most of the predators would have been scared away by the giant rhino-armadillo thing crashing through the woods. He stopped and listened. The cry came again, near where the creature had crashed through.
John found the creature's path fairly easily. It was lighter there with most of the canopy destroyed. John followed the sound – a mix between a cat's cry and a child's – to a pile of rubble in the center of the trail. With one hand holding his gun in front of him, he reached forward and moved back a piece of rubble.
There was a small animal trapped under the debris. It looked up at John with wide eyes and tried to scramble away but the debris still covering it prevented it from moving. Its mouth opened and it let out another cry. Long black fur covered the animal. Most of it was hidden beneath the debris but John could make out a monkey-like face with long ears. It had tiny hands, shaped like a monkey or a human but with only one knuckle.
"Shh. It's okay." John switched the safety back on his pistol and set it on the ground next to him, in easy reach. "I'm not going to hurt you." He didn't completely discount the idea of the animal trying to attack him, but it was more likely that it'd just try to flee as soon as he got it free.
John pulled off pieces of debris and tossed them aside. Most of it was toppled plants – some vines twisted in with fallen plants, branches, and broken logs. The animal's left foot was trapped under a large log. It scrambled at the ground, trying to crawl away and mewling in pain as its foot got twisted.
"Almost there." John bent and wrapped his arms around the log. He lifted, barely able to get it more than a few inches off the ground but that was all the creature needed to pull its foot free.
His back was going to hate him tomorrow.
The creature scrambled a foot away and stopped. It cocked its head at John and trilled softly.
John smiled. "Yeah, you're welcome."
There was a crash behind him. John and the animal both turned to stare as the beast came crashing back along the debris trail. They let out similar shrieks and dived in opposite directions. The animal disappeared into the trees on the other side of the clearing while John stumbled into the cover of the jungle. He ducked behind a tree as the creature's tail smashed into a tree at the edge of the clearing, sending shards of wood whizzing through the air. The creature roared. John heard it stumble. There was a loud crash and then silence.
He waited a minute and then peaked out from behind the tree. Nuada hopped off the creature's back. John froze, still hidden behind the tree. He wasn't sure if Nuada had seen him or not. Maybe he'd been too distracted. Nuada looked around, surveying the jungle. If John kept his mouth shut, if he said nothing, then Nuada could just walk away. He could say that he lost Nuada in the fight. Nuada still had orders not to try and harm them. He wasn't a threat to them.
Nuada stopped and picked up John's gun. He scanned the forest once more and stopped to stare directly at John. Apparently he wasn't hidden as well as he'd thought. Nuada made no move to leave. He seemed to be waiting, though John wasn't sure if he was waiting for him or something else.
"Myers! Where the hell are you, Myers?" Jack's voice rang out in the distance, getting closer.
John stepped out of the trees. He held his hand out for his gun. Nuada handed it over. His eyes stayed on John.
"Thank you." John checked the safety and holstered his gun, snapping the strap over it to secure it in place. He could hear Jack shouting for him. "I'm sorry about the way things are, but thank you."
Nuada opened his mouth. Jack interrupted him.
"There you are. Finally." Jack ran over and smacked John on the back of the head. John winced. A strange look crossed Nuada's face and he frowned. "Don't ever do that again. I thought that damn elf was gonna come back and murder us all."
John glanced over at Nuada. "That wouldn't happen."
Both Nuada and Jack snorted. They stared at each other. John swallowed heavily.
"Right. Back to base?" Nuada fell in step beside him without being ordered. John wasn't sure whether to be pleased or nervous.
Jack fell into step on his other side. "What the hell was so important that you had to go running into the jungle?"
John flushed. Nuada stared ahead, appearing disinterested though John could feel his curiosity. "Therewasananimal," he mumbled.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
He could feel Nuada watching him. He sighed. "There was an animal trapped in the debris."
Jack stared at him. "Idiot."
"Agreed." Jack and Nuada shared a glance. It figured that the one thing the soldiers and Nuada could agree on was making fun of John.
Some days, his life sucked.
Decent sleep had become a luxury for John. Ever since the incident at the temple, his sleep had been restless, fitful. He dreamed. The package was partly to blame but there was more to his dreams than anything that box could dredge up. He dreamed of his childhood – of cartoons viewed through static because the TV was always on the fritz, of being warm all the time, sweating more days that not. He dreamed of beer bottles, peeled wallpaper, and dirty dishes piled in the sink. He dreamed about Hellboy and Liz, about what their life might be like now. In one dream, they were having a baby and he hoped that one came true.
More often than not, he dreamed about Nuada. He dreamed about Nuada fighting. Sometimes, it would be him fighting Nuada, which always ended in John dying in one of the many graphic ways Nuada described during the daytime. Sometimes it was Hellboy fighting him, and damn if that wasn't a fine battle to watch. Sometimes he dreamed of Nuada with other elves – an aged king, a woman with downcast eyes and a kind face.
Once he dreamed of Nuada leading an army of golden machines to destroy humanity. He blamed that dream on poorly cooked chicken.
He'd hoped that he would have had a dreamless sleep tonight, after the adrenaline rush of battle had worn off, leaving him feeling washed out and used. He had, for a little while at least. Exhaustion had dropped him into a deep sleep. He surfaced from it slowly, pulled up by dreams too persistent to be ignored. There was something else too, some vague sense of unease that made his mind restless but he was too tired to care about any more of the weird feelings and senses he got. He just wanted to sleep. Just one night, that's all he wanted. Just blissful sleep.
No. He was lying to himself. There was more he wanted. Humans are greedy by nature and each one carried with it its own particular brand of greed. He just wasn't sure what his greed was. Money, maybe, but that's something every person wanted. He dreamed of being surrounded by piles of money, a vast fortune spread around him, but it just didn't hold appeal. What would he do with that kind of money? He lived in a jungle. Sure, if he was back in America, he could spend the money, though it was more likely that he'd just give it to others, maybe send it to his relatives to help them out. But he didn't want to go back to America, at least not yet. He used to. When he first came here, all he wanted to do was leave, but now... Now things were different. He wanted to stay.
So what was his goal? What greed kept him here? Greed to conquer? No, he liked the jungle the way it was. He could do with a few less things trying to kill him, maybe some better coworkers. He remembered Ryan. Ryan, who'd had blue eyes and an easy smile. He was a former marine, still had the body for it. He'd talked to John. They'd hit it off early on, first with baseball, then with tales of home – Kansas City for John, St. Louis for Ryan. They'd grown up so close and met in Antarctica. How weird was that? He hadn't thought about Ryan in months, not since... Blood. Screaming. Falling rock. Loud, feral roar. John's stomach turned and he forced the memory away.
The way Ryan would hold him, it felt just like this. John smiled as he remembered. One strong hand pinning his over his head. Heavy weight on top of him, pressing him into the mattress. Warm breath against his skin and Ryan's other hand, light and gentle, brushing against John's cheek. He was always gentle like that right after they'd both found release.
The weight on top of him felt too real to be a dream.
John gasped and opened his eyes. Ryan was dead and his door had been locked. He stared up into golden eyes. White teeth flashed in the darkness, curving into a wicked grin. A hand covered his mouth the second he thought about shouting. His voice was muffled beneath Nuada's palm.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.
John struggled but he could barely move. Nuada was like a rock above him, heavy and immovable. John's hands were pinned above his head and Nuada's body held the thin sheet covering John down, trapping him against the bed. He twisted beneath Nuada, tried to buck him off, but Nuada didn't even budge. All the while he kept smiling. John was afraid. His body slowly stilled as he realized exactly how helpless Nuada had him.
Nuada leaned towards him. "I see you're afraid now."
John stared. It was hard to breathe with Nuada's hand covering his mouth. The hand shifted slightly, still covering his mouth but not obstructing his breathing as much. Nuada had a large hand, with long fingers that ended in slightly pointed nails. His palm was cool against John's lips, almost chilled, like Nuada had been out on the ice. Maybe he was just naturally that cold.
"Now, what is it you're hiding?"
He could feel Nuada pushing at his mind. He knew what the sensation was this time but that didn't make him any more prepared for the memories that flooded his mind. They came sharper this time, more focused and more vivid, like he was reliving them.
He was a boy, alone at home, only it wasn't his home, not the one he'd grown up in but the one he'd had before, in Arizona. He'd spent so much time alone. His mother... his mother was dead, died years ago when he'd been smaller. He'd been two, he remembered. Two when his mother died. Two when his father started drinking. He didn't mind being alone. He wandered the house barefoot. Sometimes he'd pick at the peeling wallpaper. Sometimes he'd watch TV and make up the bits that static ate. Always, he cleaned.
His father liked a clean house. It made him less angry. There was little he could do when he was small, little that would make his father less angry. As he got bigger he learned to do more things. He didn't always do them right the first time but he learned fast. He learned to always dry the floor so that no one would slip. He learned to do one dish at a time, to take care so he didn't drop any more dishes, didn't break anything again though accidents happened.
He counted days by the colors of his bruises – black to purple to brown to tan to yellow then back again, starting all over, sometimes even before they'd reached the end. He counted the bottles he found, scattered around the house, collected them and put them outside in the bin. He counted trips to the hospital and learned the right things to say. He'd been playing outside. He tripped down the stairs. One of the kids at school did it, but he couldn't say who.
He learned fear and what it was like to be truly afraid. He learned that monsters weren't always strange creatures in comic books. Sometimes they looked just like us, walked and talked and lived beside us. Sometimes they were us. There were no heroes, like in the books, no white knights that came riding in to defeat the bad guy. Sometimes people suffered without anyone to save them.
Sometimes they didn't.
He remembered the day his uncle came. He was ten. He could never remember what day it'd been, never brought it up because he didn't want to talk about the home he had before if he could avoid it. He was good at avoiding it. There were people with him. People in suits, with papers and big words. People with badges and handcuffs that they'd put on his father. John thought they were going to put them on his too but then his uncle had scooped him up and they'd walked outside to his uncle's car. His uncle put him in the front seat, kept talking at him though the words had gone right over John. He was too confused. He had no idea what was going on or why they were taking his father away. That was the first time he'd ever ridden in the front seat of a car and that more than anything else had stood out in his memory.
Then he'd gone home, to Kansas City where he learned that his middle name was the same as his uncle's name. He'd met his cousin for the first time. She was younger than him by a year. Her name was Susan and he liked it when she smiled. She was his first friend.
High school. Sports. The locker room with the boys. They talked about what girls they liked, envied him because of how popular Susan was, how pretty. He'd never noticed until they'd mentioned it. To him, she was his closest friend, the one he told everything to. Well, almost everything. He would joke with the other boys, go along with the crowd and like whoever everyone else liked but girls never caught his eye in the hall. He never even noticed them unless they were right in front of him. No, his eyes strayed to the boys. He liked the way some of his teammates moved, the play of muscles under skin, of strength and power.
He took Susan to prom. She danced with Billy from his basketball team because he couldn't. That night they lay awake in his room and talked about which boy he had wanted to go with and which girl she had wanted.
They drifted apart in college, to different parts of the country. Letters turned to emails and IMs. Quantico. He followed her Facebook, congratulating or commiserating on each relationship status change. They shared pictures. His uncle checked in once a week, calling him, then her. It was harder now. Phone calls were routed, delayed. They were in different time zones. They played phone tag, leaving messages and responding in kind. He hadn't talked to either of them in real time in far too long. He hated having to lie to them about what was really going on but he made it work.
She'd known about Ryan. He'd sent her an email about it. They thought he was at one of the research stations on the coast. He wasn't officially allowed to explain but if he ever got out of this alive, if he ever got back home, he would. He wanted them to understand. He wanted them to be safe.
The box had arrived a month ago, two weeks after he'd gotten the phone call. His father was dead, gone. Heart attack. Too much unhealthy living. Susan and Uncle Thaddeus had gone to the house. Not much could be salvaged. They'd mentioned in the message that they'd send down some things. He wanted to burn the box and every last reminder of his father, but he knew that even if he did, the fear would always remain.
Ghosts were real and if there was ever a supernatural creature that John didn't want to meet, it was the ghost of his father.
The memories fell away abruptly. John arched against the bed and gasped for air. His eyes opened wide but it was a long time before he could see. His cheeks were wet, his heart racing. Amber eyes pierced through him. They saw straight into the core of him and he felt naked beneath them.
It took him a minute to realize his hands were free. He shoved Nuada off of him and slid back along the bed until his back pressed against the wall. He pulled his legs to his chest, wrapped his arms around them as if that would protect him. His trembling was obvious. There was no way Nuada didn't notice it, didn't notice how afraid John was. He felt like an idiot for letting Nuada get that close. He couldn't move, couldn't speak. He'd lost. Nuada had seen inside of him, seen inside his head, and now he knew how weak John was. He knew how to make John afraid.
The cement felt cool against his back, soothing. It reminded him of Nuada's hands. He closed his eyes and let his head fall on his knees. God, he was so messed up. His entire life was messed up and this was just one more extension of it. He was a failure. Worthless. Nothing.
The bed bounced as Nuada stood. John listened to his footsteps, knew Nuada was stepping deliberately so that John could hear him. It helped ease his fear, a little bit. A door opened but it wasn't the one John wanted. He didn't think he could deal with anything else. Not tonight. He'd break if he tried. The door shut and Nuada returned. The mattress dipped. Nuada set something at John's feet. He didn't have to look to know what it was.
He was breaking, crumbling. He wanted to believe that he was going insane but he knew that wasn't the case. His mind held too much clarity. More than it should.
John looked up. Nuada's eyes shined in the darkness. The only light in the room came from the thin crack under the door, and even that didn't given off enough light to explain why he could see so clearly. He was changing. He had changed. It had been happening since the first day he'd come here, but he was only just now realizing it. What had happened at the temple had just accelerated it. He still had no idea what it meant.
Nuada tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow.
Okay, so maybe he did know what it meant. That didn't mean he had to like it.
He could feel Nuada's exasperation like a layer of film against his skin. It was like the emotion was just outside of him, surrounding him and enveloping him. They were connected. He could feel what Nuada felt and he knew that Nuada could feel him.
John licked his lips and shifted slowly, tucking his knees beneath him as he leaned forward. He reached forward. His hand trembled. He was still shaking but he forced himself to move closer. He had to know how far it went. Nuada stayed still. John hesitated with his hand next to Nuada's face, waiting for Nuada to hit him, to hurt him. The expected strike never came. Nuada waited. John laid his hand against Nuada's cheek. Nuada's flesh was cold. He sighed and his breath tickled John's wrist. Then John pushed, just a little bit and it was like stepping into another room, albeit a tiny one with walls closed tightly around him.
He felt Nuada's annoyance, exasperation, resignation. Further, at the edge, there was anger, but that was fading, along with a heavy bit of indignation. He saw himself like Nuada saw him – an annoyance at first, a target for frustration, and more recently a faint bit of respect mixed with something else. He saw himself lying on the temple floor with blood on his hand. He saw himself in the chair in Nuada's cell, lost in thought as he stared at his notebook. He saw panic in his face as the beithéide – the armadillo-rhino thing - bore down on him, before he and the puca – the long-eared animal – ran in different directions. He saw the way he'd curled at the end of the bed, terrified, and felt Nuada's regret. He hadn't meant to push that far. No, he had, but he hadn't liked the result.
Nuada disentangled them, gently pushing John back into his own mind. What he'd seen had only been what Nuada had let him see but the fact that he could do it at all, that they were connected that deeply, was astounding. It was part of his blood. Nuada had known all along. Somewhere, way back in John's ancestry, there was an elf. That had been the goal of this colony. Life blossomed here at the same time as life blossomed to the north, in Eden, and they'd never been meant to live apart. Both sides had lost track of that goal.
By some strange twist of fate, he'd ended up here, in Antarctica and woken Nuada, brought him back from death. He wondered who else in his family shared that blood. He wondered if Susan did.
Nuada's fingers closed around his wrist and removed his hand from Nuada's face. Oh. He opened his mouth to apologize but Nuada rejected it before John had time to speak. There was something John was missing and that annoyed Nuada. He tugged on John's wrist, pulling him off balance. John fell forward but he didn't have far to fall. Nuada's lips closed over his, hard and possessive. He could feel emotion rising up in Nuada, felt it mirrored in himself. Want, desire, relief, need, all of that and more rolled into a wave of emotion that threatened to drown John. It chased away the last of the lingering fear. John felt like he was shedding skin, like he was becoming something new. He wasn't sure which of them started feeling for the other first, or who felt what, but he ended up with both sets of emotions and it was more than he could handle. He moaned against Nuada's lips and felt an answering sort of triumph in Nuada.
John reached out blindly and shoved, pushing the box off the bed as Nuada pushed him down towards the mattress. The box hit the floor with a loud thunk. Something inside the box broke. John didn't care. Nuada rolled them until he was on top once more, an almost mirror reverse of their earlier position but this time John's hands were free and there wasn't a blanket between them. Nuada's tongue was deep inside John's mouth, taking control of him after weeks of being the one controlled. John let him willingly. He didn't want control, couldn't handle the responsibility of it right now. He'd never wanted that responsibility to begin with.
Cool hands spread across John's stomach, pushing his shirt up and out of the way. He shivered under the touch and moaned again. The sound was muffled by Nuada's mouth. He felt Nuada's frustration as the shirt bunched around John's neck and refused to move higher.
John shivered as Nuada pulled away. His mouth felt empty and wanting. Nuada smiled smugly and pulled John's shirt up over his head. It fell beside the box, forgotten as Nuada stripped his armor off piece by piece. John had never seen Nuada remove his armor, though he knew it happened. They'd given him spares to match his shirt and pants but he'd always kept the rest of the pieces on. John had never realized how complicated it was. He wanted to touch them, to see what they were made of but there would be time for that later. For now, John watched. His body responded to the show. His excitement grew as Nuada got closer and closer to revealing flesh. Nuada's stomach muscles rippled as he pulled his shirt overhead. John had always known Nuada was strong but it was much different seeing proof naked against Nuada's skin. It made him hard just thinking about having all that strength on top of him, coupling with him.
He could feel Nuada's amusement as Nuada settled back on top of him. They were a strange pair – elf and mostly human. Unlikely. At odds. But John had been attracted to Nuada from the first time he'd seen him and Nuada... Nuada's appreciation had come later, once he'd seen inside John's head and into his soul, at the purity there and the pain. The connection... Nuada had felt something like it before but John couldn't read who it had been with. Another. Long lost. He'd thought the connection lost with it. He was surprised to find it again in such an unlikely place. John was surprised to find it at all.
Hands roamed over newly exposed flesh. Warm and cold, white and tan. John marveled at the firmness of Nuada's skin. He could feel Nuada's muscles beneath his skin, the way they bunched as he shifted his body, turning to give John room to explore. There was less give in his skin than John's. It felt more like a rock, no, like bark. Thick but with a faint suppleness to it beneath the hardness. Nuada's hands ran along John's sides, feeling how soft his skin was compared to Nuada's, how pliant and tender. John smacked Nuada as he compared John's skin to the plumpness of a female's. Nuada laughed softly and a sense of teasing came with it. John had never heard him laugh before, not like that, without any mocking in it. He liked it.
They shifted, growing closer. One of Nuada's hands ran under John's thigh. He parted his legs to give Nuada room. Nuada lifted John's leg, hooked it over Nuada's back. He shifted, pressing closer. Nuada's hand ran down his leg then between and pressed against the bulge in John's pants. He moaned and lifted his hips to press into Nuada's hand. Nuada smiled. They moved together, shifting until their pants joined the rest of their clothing on the floor. There was a similar hardness between Nuada's legs, larger and thicker than John's and he ached to feel it inside of him.
John's legs wrapped around Nuada's waist, inviting. Nuada smiled slightly and shifted, leaning back so he could grab the bottle of hand lotion from where John kept it hidden at the head of the bed. John watched as Nuada squeezed a generous amount of lotion into his palm, then dropped the bottle to the floor. He felt impatient and calm at the same time. Nuada leaned back over John as the hand with the lotion closed around Nuada's erection. John whimpered. He could feel Nuada's pleasure as if it was his own. He shivered and wrapped his legs tighter around Nuada.
A slender digit pressed against John's lips and he opened his mouth to let it in. He sucked in time with Nuada's hand, imagining it was Nuada's erection inside of his mouth. Two more fingers pushed in alongside the other. Nuada grunted softly, the only outward indication of the wave of want that filled him as John imagined sucking Nuada in his mouth. They both shivered. Something for later, maybe. For now, there were other places John wanted Nuada to fill. Nuada released himself and slid slick fingers against John's entrance. He shifted against the mattress, lifting his hips as Nuada's fingers pressed inside, three at once.
John gasped against the fingers in his mouth. His body tensed and Nuada stopped. The fingers inside of him started to withdraw. John shivered and moaned loudly. After a second, Nuada pushed his fingers back in. It felt so good. John sucked at the fingers in his mouth. Here was his greed, showing up in full force. He wanted Nuada inside of him, wanted anything and everything he could get. He felt filled with Nuada's fingers pressing against his tongue while his other hand thrust inside of him, fingers spreading and stretching his flesh, making room for what John really wanted.
He whimpered as Nuada pressed against John's prostate, sending a wave of pleasure spreading through him. He was completely pliant beneath Nuada's hands. Nuada watched him, eyes intent on John's face, occasionally raking down John's body as Nuada made him writhe against the sheets with just his hands. He could feel Nuada's pleasure at controlling him, at making John surrender to him. Nuada had never found humans attractive, had always thought them vermin, but John was proving to be different, proving to be more. He curled his fingers, nails pressing against his insides. It would be so easy for Nuada to hurt him but John knew he wouldn't. John whimpered again and tightened his legs around Nuada, trying to urge him forward. There was one piece of the connection missing and he needed Nuada to bridge the gap, needed it more than he needed air or food or warmth.
Nuada's hands pulled away. John panted, his breath sounding too loud in the quiet room. The bed dipped as Nuada shifted forward. His hands closed on John's hips and lifted. He felt Nuada press against him, felt both of their anticipation. His hands fisted in the sheet. Nuada pushed forward. John moaned. His head rolled back and he arched up, pushing himself against Nuada. Skin slid against skin at an agonizingly slow pace. He could feel Nuada inching into him. It was exquisite torture. Nuada stopped, his hips pressed tight against John's. The only sound in the room was John's heavy breathing.
Then Nuada started to slide out, just as slow as before and John knew if Nuada kept this up, stayed at this pace, he was going to go mad. Madder than he already was. He was so close to breaking completely. He felt fragile, nerves china-thin from stress and worry and too much emotion, too many memories. It would be so easy for Nuada to shatter him, to break John past repair.
Hands tightened on his hips and he felt a wave of comfort wash over him. He was safe. If he fell, Nuada would catch him. If he shattered, Nuada would put him back together.
Nuada pulled out until only the tip remained inside of John. He stayed frozen there for a moment and John wondered if it was over, if he'd done something wrong. Then Nuada shifted his hands, adjusting the angle of John's hips just slightly before he slammed forward. It wasn't as hard as Nuada could go. That much force really would break him, but it was hard enough to make John see stars. He bit his lips, trying to hold back sound but it still carried through the room, too loud for John's liking. The last thing he needed was for someone to hear them. He thought about asking Nuada to move, to turn them so that John could muffle his voice in the pillow. Nuada's smile widened a fraction and he repeated the same thrust, making John whimper. He could come from the feel of Nuada's cock inside of him alone.
He quickly pulled one of his hands free from the sheets as Nuada pulled out. Nuada was enjoying it, enjoying watching John lose control. He didn't care if anyone found them, not if he got to watch John's composure dissolve under wave after wave of pleasure. John clapped his hand over his mouth just in time to muffle another loud moan. It wasn't enough. He brought his other hand up and closed his eyes as Nuada rocked into him. It was like a tidal wave of pleasure, his and Nuada's, mixed together in a constant loop, building off of each other and amplifying. He'd never felt anything like it, knew no human could ever compare, not after this. He was ruined for anyone but Nuada and that fact pleased Nuada to no end.
Release built inside of him, coming closer with each thrust, each muffled scream of pleasure, each wave of pleasure from Nuada. He could feel the way Nuada enjoyed watching him, the way the sounds John kept trying to hold back increased Nuada's desire. Nuada liked how tight he was, how pliant and eager, how he responded to even the slightest touch.
Then Nuada shifted, letting go of John's hips to wrap his arms around John's back and lift him at the same time as he thrust forward. John was pulled upright. He sank down on Nuada's cock, felt Nuada push deep inside of him and it was too much. He screamed as he came, trembling against Nuada's chest. Nuada's hands found his hips again and lifted him, giving Nuada room to thrust up into him once, twice, then he felt Nuada tense and a second wave of pleasure washed over him as Nuada came inside of him.
John couldn't move. He was going to be so sore tomorrow but it was worth it. He gasped and trembling involuntarily each time Nuada's hands ran over him, brushing against over-sensitized skin. Nuada kept doing it, amusement mixing with contentment. John couldn't move. He didn't want to move, content to lean against Nuada and feel strong arms surrounding him. He felt boneless, worn-out. Fucked-out would probably be a more apt description.
There was a knock on the door. John tensed. Oh god. Someone had heard them. Someone had found out that Nuada was missing. They were going to find them. They'd take Nuada away from him, order them apart.
Nuada's arms tightened around him, pressing him against Nuada's chest.
"John? You okay in there?" It was Aaron, one of the scientists. His room was next to John's. He could hear the handle turn and stick. Thank god Nuada knew how to use a lock.
Words came to John's mind, words that weren't his own but he said them anyways. "Yeah." His voice sounded hoarse. "Yeah," he repeated, this time with a bit more strength behind it. Nuada mentally prodded him. "Just a nightmare. Sorry if I woke you."
"No problem. Don't blame you with that thing you fought earlier." Aaron paused. "Well, try to get some sleep. Let me know if you need anything."
"I will. Thanks."
He stayed frozen, half expecting Aaron to go call the guards. Nuada's hand ran up his spine and John jumped.
"He's gone back to his room."
John let out a sigh of relief. His head fell back against Nuada's shoulder. He didn't want to move but he would have to soon. They'd figure out that Nuada was missing at some point and come looking for him.
"Not for a little longer. The guard sleeps soundly for another two hours."
John leaned back and winced as the movement made Nuada shift inside of him. He lifted himself up on his knees until Nuada he was able to slide Nuada out of him, then dropped to sit gingerly on Nuada's lap. He was definitely going to need painkillers if he wanted to walk anywhere tomorrow. It'd been far too long since he'd had someone inside of him, especially someone who took him with that kind of vigor.
"Yeah, yeah. I suppose you have good reason to be proud of yourself."
"I look forward to watching you squirm as you try to sit in your chair tomorrow."
John blushed. He wondered if he could ask Paul to take a walk for a while.
"Such a filthy mind," Nuada chided as his hands squeezed John's ass, pulling him tight against Nuada's chest. He could feel echoed desire in Nuada. There was a touch against his mind and he was flooded with images of things Nuada wanted to do to him. Nuada had John on his knees, mouth filled with Nuada's cock, and pressed down face-first into the mattress so that the pillow muffled his screams as Nuada took him from behind. Nuada pictured taking John in the temple, with John spread out naked in the middle of the circle of light that shone down from the ceiling, his voice unmuffled and echoing through the room. He pictured taking John in the jungle, watching his hands furrow the earth as he was rendered wild with pleasure.
John shivered and debated seeing if he could get Nuada up for a second round. It wasn't a good idea, not if he wanted to get out of bed at all tomorrow.
He carefully moved off the bed and stooped to pick up his clothing. His backside ached as he stepped into his boxers, but he felt better with a layer of clothing on. Not that it would help him at all if Nuada decided he wanted John again. Not that he would resist. Fingers brushed against John's hair and he looked up. Nuada had shifted to sit at the edge of the bed but had made no effort to retrieve his clothing.
"You should open it."
"Now?" He raised an eyebrow.
Nuada nodded. John looked down at the box with its worn shipping label and newly dented edges. He bent slowly, feeling the burn of overworked muscles, and carried the box over to his desk. The lamp flickered on at a touch and John closed his eyes tight, waiting a moment until his eyes started to adjust to the brightness before opening them again. He pulled a small knife from the drawer and opened the box.
Inside were things he remembered from his father's house in Arizona. He pulled out a framed photo of himself from second grade, the glass now shattered, and carefully set it aside. There were three tiny plastic dinosaurs that he remembered playing with. There'd been a fourth but it had gotten lost at the playground at school. Two picture books followed, and an old baseball cap and a mitt. He ran his fingers along the leather of the glove. Half the stitching was gone. He remembered playing catch with his dad when the weather was cool. He'd inherited his love of sports from his father. It was one of the few times they'd ever gotten along.
John turned and opened his mouth, though he wasn't sure yet what words were going to come out. Most likely thanks. He stopped and turned further, his eyes sweeping a full circuit of the room. Nuada was gone. John shook his head and turned back to the desk. He stopped. Nuada's knife was gone too.
He carefully packed everything back in the box and folded the lid closed. There was a slim possibility that Nuada would leave. He'd just proven he could by breaking into John's room. It would be just as easy for him to break out, but John didn't think he would. He crossed the room and checked the door. It was locked. He left his pajamas on the floor as he crawled under the covers. The sheets were still warm from Nuada's presence. They smelled like him. John curled into them and felt like it was Nuada wrapped around him.
He slept without dreams for the first time in weeks.
John moved stiffly through the halls. Four Advil and a cup of coffee had helped get him moving this morning but they only made his body feel moderately better. His mood, at least, was vastly improved. He felt a bit like his old self again. He'd slept in until almost noon. At least his soreness could be blamed on the fight yesterday, or at least that's what people had been assuming and he'd just gone along with it.
He ran into Jeannine on his way to Nuada's cell. He offered a smile and waited for her to duck away. She surprised him by letting him approach and offering a shy sort of smile.
"Can I talk to you?"
John nodded and kept smiling. He supposed seeing Nuada could wait a bit longer. "Yeah. Did you want to take a walk?"
She relaxed visibly and turned to follow him to the gate. They stayed silent as they walked. The guards at the gate let them through without question. There was a path running from the gate towards the temple. They'd cleared it of threats and few things came this close to the base anymore, the beast from yesterday aside, so John assumed it'd be safe to head that way a little bit. He had his pistols if anything did attack, and the guards would be in shouting range. This way they could have a little privacy for whatever it was Jeannine wanted to talk about. That and it just felt good to be outside. It felt right, and John now knew that was part of the change taking place inside of him. He was connected to the valley and that connection was only going to grow the longer he stayed here.
"Thank you," she blurted as soon as they were out of easy earshot of the guards. She stared ahead of them, occasionally glancing over at John and then quickly looking away. "For at the temple. I mean, I think it was you that brought me back. It sounded like it."
"Sounded?" John looked at her but she wouldn't look at him.
"I... well, when I... I heard a voice. Yours. Telling me to come back." There were birds singing in the trees. Leaves rustled as a breeze blew overhead. "And then I did. There was a girl there too, a woman I'd never met, and she..."
John stopped a few feet from the edge of the clearing around the base. He looked back at the fence and the sprawling complex behind it.
"Never mind." Jeannine stared down at the ground. "But, the thing is, I keep feeling like... well, like it's all going to go away, you know?" She glanced up at him and John could see dark circles under her eyes. "I keep thinking that I wasn't supposed to come back. That I was meant to go when I did, and..." She reached out quickly and latched onto his arm. "I don't want to die, John. I don't. But I-"
Leaves rustled nearby and Jeannine cut herself off. They turned and stared as a large man covered in black fur stepped from the trees. John could make out three more shapes behind him, advancing through the trees. Jeannine's hand tightened on his arm. John slowly reached for his pistol and popped the strap off the holster.
"You should run."
He pulled his gun as she took off. He shot but the target he was aiming for was suddenly not there. A fist connected with his face, hard enough that he worried his jaw had broken. John fell. He held onto his pistol but then a clawed foot stepped down on his hand. His wrist snapped audibly. Jeannine screamed. John tried to turn to help her but the largest of the men was on him. A large, meaty paw closed around his throat and squeezed. Up close he noticed that the man had amber eyes like Nuada's and pointed ears. He laughed, revealing two rows of sharp fangs. They weren't men. They were the dark elves from Nuada's stories. Fuath. Not dead after all.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw two of the others pounce on Jeannine. She screamed. There was a spray of blood and then she fell. They went down with her, blocking her from view. The scent of blood filled the air. The gate was open. One of the guards ran forward. John heard gunshots but they sounded distant, like they were miles away.
He couldn't breathe. His good hand closed around the arm holding him down and tried to push it off but he was as ineffective as a baby trying to shove an adult away. His vision swam. He heard the guard scream then everything went black.
He came to consciousness in short bursts. The jungle floor sped by beneath his head. He was being carried over one of the Fuath's shoulders. His chest banged against the creature's shoulder, knocking the wind out of him every few strides. Then there was a cave, dark and damp and smelling of mold. There were voices, their words little more than growls but he could make out bits that sounded like words Nuada used sometimes. One of the Fuath noticed he was awake and kicked him until he passed out again. The next time he woke up he was alone, or at least he thought he was until something scrabbled against the rocks. He wasn't sure why they'd kept him alive if they were just going to let an animal eat him. Maybe they wanted to watch, like Nuada used to threaten.
His eyes searched the darkness. He couldn't move to defend himself. His hip holster was empty. He wasn't sure if they'd found the other one. The scrabbling sound came again and John waited for the animal to attack him. It stepped forward into his field of view and cocked its head, long ears dragging against the ground. John stared. There was no way that was the same animal from yesterday. It moved closer, limping slightly on one foot.
"Oookay," the puca trilled in an eerie imitation of John's voice. It hobbled up to him and placed a paw on John's face. "Not huuurt ooouuu."
He closed his eyes. If only it were as simple as lifting debris off of him so he could escape. No, there was no way he was going anywhere. He couldn't move and he was certain his captors would be back long before he healed up enough to try to escape. If only he could send the puca to get Nuada or the soldiers from base. Wait. His arm hurt like hell but he managed to move it slightly, enough to fumble at his belt. He'd had his communicator. If he could just activate it, they'd be able to track him. He felt along his belt but it was gone. Either the Fuath had taken it or it'd fallen off in the jungle.
He needed Nuada. Maybe if he concentrated, tried to focus on the weird link between them Nuada would know where he was.
"Nuaaada." John opened his eyes and stared at the puca. "Aaaada." It trilled again, seeming pleased with itself. It patted John's cheek again. "Ooookay. Nuaaada." Then it turned and hobbled away.
He hoped the puca was actually going for Nuada and not just messing with his head. Stranger things had happened.
John must have dozed off because he woke as he was being slung over a large hairy shoulder. He faded in and out of consciousness as he was carried somewhere deeper into the caves. Each time he woke up it sounded like more and more Fuath had joined them. Then there was light, faint at first but growing. It came from the walls, from more inscriptions carved into the rock, like the inscriptions in the temple. He was being carried up stairs. His head swam as he was dropped suddenly onto a large stone table. More Fuath circled him. They had ropes in their hands. One of them grabbed his broken wrist and pulled his arm over his head.
He screamed and passed out.
The Fuath were chanting. They had been for at least an hour, maybe longer. Some would drop out after a few repetitions and other Fuath would step in to take their place. It set John's nerves on edge. He was tied down, spread-eagle across the stone table. The large cavernous room he was in was lit by the faint blue light coming from the inscriptions. There was a platform at the top of a pyramid of steps, with room for the table he was strapped to and a complex swirl of inscriptions. The largest of the Fuath stood in the midst of the inscriptions with its eyes closed. He pulsed faintly in time with the chanting, surrounded by a faint nimbus of blue light.
A commotion from the far side of the cavern brought the chanting to a fevered crescendo. The sounds changed, then stopped entirely. John felt drained. It was an effort of will just to stay awake. He wanted to turn his head to see what was going on but it was too much effort. He closed his eyes as his head swam. He could feel panic that wasn't his own and fear.
He opened his eyes. The puca had brought Nuada. He smiled, a bare fraction of a smile but that was all he could manage. Nuada would save him.
The leader of the Fuath laughed. His voiced echoed in the cave, making him sound ten times larger than he was. "Fáilte, mac Bethmoora." Welcome, son of Bethmoora. "Aoionóir." Honored guest.
He heard the Fuath's claws clack against the stone as they moved aside for Nuada. "Scaoileadhé." Release him. Nuada sounded every bit as regal as the prince he used to be. Was. John wasn't sure how death affected princely status.
The Fuath laughed. His shadow fell over John as he stepped closer. John cried out as his arm with the broken wrist was turned. Nuada started to run up the steps. A claw pierced John's skin. "Stadfaidh." Nuada froze and John could feel his anger, tinged with sudden fear. Somehow the Fuath had taken over the bond between John and Nuada. He could feel something moving through him as the Fuath spoke, flowing from him to Nuada.
The claw ripped up John's arm, spilling his blood along the table. He screamed and arched against his bindings. The table beneath him started to glow. "Claideb Nuada. Seachadfaidh tú." They wanted Nuada's sword. He had a feeling they weren't talking about the extendable spear.
He felt Nuada hesitate. "Tá sécaillte." It was lost. John could tell that wasn't the whole truth. It was farther removed than that. Not on this earth.
The Fuath's hands landed on John's stomach. Claws dug into his shirt and pulled, ripping the fabric apart. He gasped as the Fuath dipped a claw into the gash on his arm and slowly painted an intricate line of symbols across John's stomach. Nuada struggled against the command that kept him still, growing more and more agitated each time the claw dipped into John's blood. When the Fuath was done it held a hand over John's stomach and repeated one of the chants from earlier.
Agony filled John, radiating out from his stomach. He screamed and didn't stop. His stomach felt like it was on fire. He arched against his bonds but they held him tight against the table. The Fuath spoke again but John couldn't see, couldn't hear. All he knew was pain. The small corner of his mind that was reserved for Nuada was the only thing keeping him sane. He drew strength from Nuada, fed off his resolve. The Fuath ordered Nuada to retrieve the sword. Nuada fought the command but his body moved forward out of his control. John understood now what it had been like for Nuada to take orders from John. He felt Nuada stop next to him, opposite the Fuath. Nuada reached forward and plunged his hand into John's stomach.
Fire. There was fire burning through him. God, he was going to die from the pain of it. Or worse, not die and stay stuck in torment. He felt Nuada pull his arm out, dragging it out slowly. Something else came with it. A sword. A shining sword that glowed, lit from within. The pain stopped as soon as the sword pulled free and John felt something close inside of him. He slumped against the table. The Fuath smiled. Nuada took a step back. He couldn't give them the sword. It was too important, one of the sacred treasures of Nuada's people, one of the four jewels of the Sidhe. The Fuath reached forward. John knew what he had to do.
"I..." The Fuath turned. John could feel panic and anticipation from either side. "...release..." The Fuath screamed and dug his claws through John's stomach. John gasped, too far gone to even scream. "...you."
He felt the magic connecting them break as his blood poured over the table. Nuada screamed. The sword flashed over John's head. He exhaled slowly and was still.
"John. John, it's time to wake up."
He opened his eyes. Warm sun beat down upon him. He was in a meadow filled with flowers, leaning against the trunk of a large oak tree. There was something off about the meadow, something not right, but it was too perfect, too peaceful to dwell on the wrong. He hadn't felt this relaxed in ages.
He turned and smiled at the beautiful woman seated on the grass next to him. Her red and white skirt formed a pool of cloth around her. She looked familiar.
"It's nice to meet you, John." She smiled at him and he felt at peace.
He should offer his hand to her, but he was too comfortable to move. His limbs felt heavy. "Hello. Have we met?"
She shook her head. Long white hair shifted against her shoulders. She had pointed ears. "No, but you know my brother."
Her smile widened. "Yes." She leaned forward and took his hand in both of hers. "Thank you for looking after him. You gave him his heart back, a heart I feared he'd lost. Thank you."
He shook his head. It barely moved. "I didn't do anything."
She patted his hand. "You did far more than you know. He needs you, even if he doesn't say so. He was so lost when I left. He needs to feel connected." She squeezed his hand. "I'm glad that it's you. I'm glad he found you."
"But I didn't..."
She turned suddenly and looked away. Her head cocked slightly, as if listening. "Yes. Our time is short here. You must go back."
"Back?" His words slurred. His eyes closed on their own and he felt himself drifting, as if falling asleep.
"Back to him."
"I never... caught your name..."
She squeezed his hand once more. "Nuala. My name is Nuala. Please look after my brother."
Her hand fell away and he knew no more.
John gasped, sucking air into lungs that had gone without for far too long. There was sudden movement to the side. He'd startled someone. His lungs burned. He hurt everywhere, inside and out, but he was alive. Miraculously, he was alive. He wasn't sure he wanted to be given how badly he hurt.
Arms lifted him into a sitting position and he nearly passed out again. He caught a quick blur of trees and a small black-haired animal hovering nearby. His head fell against a muscular chest. The person smelled familiar, like dried bark and worn leather, though the scent was marred by the heavy smell of dirt and blood. John felt safe. He closed his eyes. He was shaken roughly and his eyes slowly opened once more. He groaned. "Tired."
Nuada shifted until he could look John in the face. "You were dead."
He felt like he could sleep for a thousand years. He wanted to be sleeping right now but it seemed Nuada wouldn't let him. "'m not." There was a river nearby. His clothing was ripped and torn. He was covered in blood and so sore he felt numb. Every inch of him hurt but there were parts that hurt more. His stomach was a knot of pain. He was fairly certain his wrist was broken. His head felt light. He wasn't sure where they were aside from in the jungle. At least he was out of the caves. He never wanted to see another cave again.
"I can see that."
"Let me sleep." It came out more of a whine than he'd originally intended, but would hopefully pass well enough for an order. He started to close his eyes again. Nuada jostled him until he opened them again.
"I don't have to listen to you anymore."
"Good. Sleep now." He managed to get his head back on Nuada's chest. It made a fantastic pillow. Maybe if he was lucky Nuada would let him sleep anyways. He thought of how much he would appreciate it if Nuada just let him sleep and tried to send those thoughts through the bond. Nuada sighed.
"I suppose you want to go back to the other humans now."
He murmured a sleepy affirmative. Nuada shifted and slid an arm beneath John's legs. His head spun as Nuada stood, making him glad he didn't have to move. He heard the puca trill as Nuada started to walk. Nuada sighed again and turned.
"You can come too."
The puca trilled again. It sounded happy.
There was something John needed to tell Nuada, something that was important that he mention. It was hard to think when blissful sleep was so close. Something about being warm, a field. Oh, right. "Nuala says hello."
Nuada stopped suddenly. "What?"
John was already asleep.