Nightfall – Jake Halpern & Peter Kujawinski

The elevator doors opened. Through the darkness the lights of the lab equipment and monitors sparkled like alien stars. I slipped against the wall and walked as quietly in my boots as possible down the hallway. My neck was damp with nervous sweat, while the code numbers continuously looped in my head. I punched in the eleven-digit number. The panel blinked in response. I cringed when the door beeped. The lock releasing sounded like a ton of bricks falling into a metal dumpster in the silent corridor. I opened the door and slipped into the room. The outer room blushed an eerie yellow from the emergency lights along the floor base. The code to Ryker’s cell was the same code backward. No sooner had I hit the last number than the green panel beeped, releasing its hold. Nerves in my stomach twisted. I hadn’t let myself think about actually being alone with him. Croygen warned me, but circumstances and my stubbornness won out.

Again, I was far too deep to turn back now. It took me a moment for my eyes to adjust to the solid blackness of the inner the room. Eventually the glow from the emergency lights from the other room bled, giving an outline to the objects in the room. There wasn’t much here, only a bed and some medical equipment. The darker mass of Ryker on the gurney loomed in the middle of the room. His labored breath, like someone in pain, reached my ears. Emotion took hold and I rushed to his side, my fingers finding his face. Tears filled my eyes as I touched him, my heart slipping into my gut, thrashing around like a wounded bird. “Please be all right.” What if we went too far? What if today was simply too much, and I had killed the man I loved? “Ryker, open your eyes.

” My hands slid along his jaw, cupping his face. His grown-out stubble scratched my palms. Touching him now was different. Before, I had only been a husk, not letting myself truly experience what it felt like to have him near again. He stirred under my hand, a slight moan coming from his throat. I leaned in closer and saw his lids blinking, trying to open. “Ryker, wake up. We need to get out of here.” Not thinking, I unhooked the cuffs on his arms. Freeing him.

His eyes opened, his white eyes glowing in the darkness. Absent eyes landed on me like we were strangers. He sat abruptly. My arms dropped, and I took a step back. He still only wore the gray scrub pants, and his chest continued to leak blood and pus from both new and old gashes. Wounds I gave him. “You come back for more, human?” Disgust twisted the words, his eyes cold and remote. “Carving me up during the day isn’t enough for you?” “Ryker, it’s me.” “I know who you are.” He swung his legs down and stood up, his body moved like a coiling snake.

“I’ve been waiting to be alone with you for a while.” This man wasn’t Ryker. A shiver ran down my back. “Ryker. It’s me, Zoey.” I focused on linking our names, making a connection. Deep down, I believed in those rare moments we had shared, the times his eyes cleared. I felt if he really saw me, he would be able to override the promise. I was extremely wrong. “Your name will mean the same to me dead or alive.

” His voice was void of feeling. “Nothing.” He fisted his hands, taking a step. “Fight it, Ryker. I know you are under there somewhere.” I backed up. Ryker didn’t even flinch. “All that’s in here.” He pointed to himself. “Is a demon.

Well, half…on my father’s side.” He took a step, drawing my attention back to him. For every step he took, I took two back. Father? Demon? What was he talking about? He didn’t know who his father… Oh no. No. No. No. An image of two blond men came into my mind. How did I not see it before? The similarities between them became glaringly obvious. The body frames, strong jaw lines, the Nordic likenesses.

“Vadik?” My mouth dipped open. A gruesome smirk turned up Ryker’s mouth. “And this half-demon has made a promise to kill you, human.” We moved at the same time. I went for the door. He bolted for me, reaching me as the door handle rolled in my hand, slipping through my fingers. His hand wrapped around my throat, and he threw me back against the wall next to the door. “Ryk—” My mouth opened to speak, but he squeezed down, cutting off my words. With a grunt he slammed me again, ripping the air from my lungs. My fingers went to his hands, clawing at them.

“Ryker…” His lids fluttered, his glassy eyes sparked with life. His hand loosened around my throat, giving me a gulp of air. “Zoey.” He blinked, his voice low. He dropped me to my feet, his hand falling to the dip at the base of my collarbone. “Yes,” I whispered hoarsely, ignoring my burning throat. “Stay with me.” I reached out for him. The instant my hand touched his face, his eyes slammed shut, like it burned his skin. “I can’t fight it,” he whispered.

“Yes. You can.” I drew him closer to me, tipping his forehead against mine, hoping contact with me would help keep him centered. “Remember we do whatever it takes to live and be together. That’s the love I want with you. Whatever the outcome. We fight.” He jerked his head up, sucking in air. He blinked, his brows dipping in puzzlement. Fearful of losing him again, I wrapped my arms around him.

“Feel me, Ryker. Remember us. We are more powerful together.” My hands drifted over his back, running up and down his body. The scars, open wounds, and dried blood were jagged under the tips of my fingers. He breathed out, letting his body fall against mine, pressing my back against the wall. In an instant, his hands moved under my top, roughly grazing my skin. His touch was fire to my system. A barely audible groan escaped my mouth. He bit down hard on my lip, drawing blood.

The pain only triggered more craving. Our breaths became frantic as our mouths moved together with need. He yanked his head back, his tongue sliding over his bottom lip. He reached to his mouth, blood pooled on his finger. My blood. His gaze went to my mouth. He leaned forward, his tongue slowly licked my broken lip. He watched me as he trailed my mouth. Ryker drew back, swallowing. His eyes glinted, a rumble rolled from his chest, sounding wild and threatening.

It was instant, the shift. The taste of my blood. A growl flared from his throat. His muscles tightened under me. He pinned my body harder against the wall with his, grabbing my face forcefully. With a snarl, his hands slid down to my neck. “Ryker. Don’t—” My plea cut off, his hands compressed around my neck. A thumb rubbed softly over my vocals. Then his eyes flared, a strangled cry wrenching out of him, full of pain.

I saw him fully leave me. The curse battling for dominancy. And winning. He grunted. His shoulders grew, expanding with power. The thumb which had caressed my skin was now pushing into my throat. My mouth gaped for fresh air, which would not come. Spots dotted my vision as I fought against his hold. Like a cat put in water, I clawed, kicked, and hissed, but he did not relent. “A promise is a promise.

” He drew close to my ear, nipping. “And I never break my promises.” He was going to kill me. It was exactly what I asked him to do, but I was no longer willing to go. Instinct to survive was ingrained deep, and when it came down to the moment, I fought. For myself. For him. For Lexie, Sprig, Croygen, Daniel…for the girl who was still trapped in Duc’s warehouse being used as an escort. For all the lives Rapava was destroying or would. A heaviness gripped my brain, tugging sleepiness into my mind.

My sight drifted down a dark ravine into blackness. I didn’t want to go out this way. If I were going to die, I wanted to be far away from DMG, where I knew my loved ones would be safe. Anger punched my abdomen. All Ryker and I had been through, the love we finally found and let in and this was how our story would end? It felt life was mocking me again. Daniel’s death had been horrible, but this was vindictive and cruel. Memories of Ryker and me flashed in my head, our bodies intertwined, discovering each other. The moment by the creek in Peru where he told me about his past, when I realized I was falling for him. The night he curled up behind me because I had a bad dream. When he kissed me in the rain….

the night he snuck into the closet while Amara was across the hall. Putting a birthday candle in the loaf of bread for me. Every moment played out in my head with the man I fell for. I held no blame or anger at Ryker as I felt my life slip from me. This was my doing. The only fury I could feel was at myself, for forcing him to do this, something he would have to live with. I think we all wish for that epic ending, where everything is resolved and our death would have meaning. This was not the case. A tear slipped down my face. A sorrow for what could have been.

The loss of hope and happiness. And because my love wasn’t strong enough. This time we couldn’t fight and win. I had lost. Everything. Not something I was good at. I heard a strange pop as my life slipped across the divide into nothingness. ONE Death. I could feel it the moment it happened—the instant my lungs gave up the struggle, burning with a blistering fire, clinging to the last bits of oxygen. In usual Zoey style, I didn’t slip peacefully into the quiet darkness.

No. Of course not. Far too easy. Electrical charges burst through my muscles, sizzling in my veins, and inflicted excruciating agony down every tendon. I had experienced a lot of pain in my time, but this felt as if my soul were being seared and torn from my body. Death was a bitch. My ears filled with bellows of pain, sounding more like a lion’s roar. Am I doing that? Can someone dead make those sounds? The aching grew more intense. Penetrating and cruel. I wished for it to end.

The inferno moved through me, torching out the last trace of life. Death finally claimed me, wrapped me up in its arms and took me away, leaving my shell behind. Finally. Peace. But even in my demise, I didn’t do things like normal people. The quiet blackness only lasted a moment before the electricity clustered together in a huddle, striking lightning at my lifeless heart. Agony reached up and plucked me from oblivion and shoved me back in my body. My lids and mouth opened and I gasped, sucking in a mass of air, which scorched my lungs. The torment stayed locked in my throat, but the anguish filled my mind and soul with a shattering scream. Then with a pop, it released, my muscles going limp.

It took me a few moments to comprehend objects around me. My brain started out simple: Ceiling. Floor. Me. Movement tugged at the corner of my eye, pulling my attention to the two massive bodies sliding across the floor, slamming into a wall. I watched them. Every breath was painful, spurring a coughing fit. But air felt good rushing back in, filling my lungs, returning my senses. The figures moved violently around me, my ears full of the loud grunts and exhales. A stunning, dark-haired man moved into my view.

He had almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and a lean, built body. A trickle of blood dribbled down his cut lip as he leaped at another figure. Croygen! My brain registered the man, his fist slamming into the other huge guy below. I struggled to sit up. My throat ached as coughs and breath fought to get in and out. A growl erupted from the man under Croygen, and it was like someone flicked on the light, pouring memories back into my head. Ryker. Oath. My brain scrambled to try and make sense of what happened. How did Croygen get in here? Where was my sister? Why didn’t he just run for it like I asked? Why did he come back? Slowly, I pushed myself up and stood, the room spinning.

I gritted my teeth, trying to stay upright. The space echoed with the sounds of skin and bone crashing into each other as Ryker and Croygen rolled and punched one another. Ryker grunted, his white eyes unfocused, confused, and glowing bright. He pushed Croygen off and struggled to his feet, his arms up in defense. Or offense. It was hard to tell. His shoulders expanded, filling the room with the threat of an impending attack, but then he retreated from us. “Zoey, get back!” Croygen shouted, jumping between us. “Listen to me, Wanderer. You make one move toward her and I will destroy you.

Because if you kill her, you kill me, and I like myself far too much for that.” Without the power of the oath controlling Ryker, he would never hurt me. I had forced him into the vow. At the time I thought there might be a chance I was dying, and if he didn’t kill me himself, he most definitely would have died. I also knew the oath would connect us. He would be able to find me. This all happened before I knew where I was going and the danger of him coming after me. But Ryker had killed me. I had died. It remained the one thing I was sure about.

Deep in my soul I felt the bond connecting us had been severed. “You are stronger than this.” Croygen moved and blocked Ryker’s direct line to me. “Believe me, you are the most stubborn ass. You can fight it.” Ryker’s eyes locked on Croygen with wildness. He looked around confused and scared. His bare shoulders rose up and down with his staggered breaths. He wore only gray scrub pants, his powerful torso heaving in and out, drawing my attention. I stared at the wounds, at what used to be gashes.

The deep cuts I had created across his stomach and chest, only hours before, were no longer oozing. They had closed and looked like day-old wounds. It was all the confirmation I needed. “Ryker?” My scratchy voice wavered, my hand still protectively around my neck. He froze at my voice, but his eyes stayed on Croygen. “What are you doing?” Croygen hissed at me. “Trust me.” I swallowed and inched closer to the Wanderer. “Ryker, look at me.” Ryker’s chin twitched, but he didn’t glance over.

“Zoey…?” Croygen tried to move in front of me, but I sidestepped him, letting Ryker see me. “Look at me, Viking,” I tried to demand, but my voice barely formed the words. “Zoey, no.” The pirate reached for me. “He’s okay. The oath is broken.” “What? How?” Croygen sputtered. “Because he killed me.” “No. I saved you.

” Croygen shook his head. “I felt it.” “Not before I died,” I responded but kept my gaze on Ryker. “You look pretty good for a dead girl.” “I don’t know how it all works. Maybe it was long enough to break the curse. He has his magic back.” I motioned to his healing wounds. There should have been an emptiness inside me, though, a giant hole where his powers used to be, but I sensed no change, even though I knew they must be gone. “I felt his powers leave me.

” I took a timid step closer to Ryker, holding up my hand. He growled like a cornered animal. “You’re okay. We’re not going to hurt you. We’re your friends.” Ryker shifted his weight, his gaze finally roaming over me, fastening on mine. His eyes dropped down to my neck, then back to my face. A grunt rolled from his gut, and he blinked a few times. The vague clouds dissolved in his eyes, filling with recognition. The tension crowding the room deflated along with the muscles curling his neck.

He licked his lips. “Zoey?” he muttered. “Viking.” I took another stride toward him. “Don’t.” He jerked back with a growl. “It’s still there.” “What?” I stopped so suddenly I rocked back on my feet. “I can feel it.” He pushed himself against the wall.

“Less now but still there.” “I…no. It broke. I felt it,” I exclaimed. “I have a plan.” Croygen held up his palm. “How about we get out of here first? Then we can get drunk and converse about all our crazy, hysterical theories.” Croygen was right. All this could wait. Now wasn’t the time.

“Where are my sister and Sprig?” I twisted toward Croygen. Croygen motioned through the window. Sprig sat on top of a blanket wrapped around my unconscious sister. Sprig held his tail, stroking it nervously. “We have to go.” “Like I said.” He rolled his eyes. “My axe.” Ryker’s voice sounded deep and unemotional. “Good luck finding it.

” Croygen headed for the door. “My axe,” Ryker rumbled, pushing off the wall, following us. “I’m not leaving without it.” “Viking!” Sprig’s voice squeaked as Ryker stepped into the outer room. He ran up to Ryker’s feet. The Wanderer didn’t say anything but leaned down and picked him up, giving his head a rub before putting him on his shoulder. “I know you’ve missed me.” Sprig snuggled into Ryker, happiness widening his smile. “I actually did,” Ryker mumbled and shot me a look again. The instant his eyes settled on me, his pupils flickered with a cold, angry expression.

His chest puffed, and he turned his head away. He sucked in a strangled breath, putting more distance between us. A battle waged inside him. “Keep her away from me,” Ryker growled at Croygen. “No.” I stepped to him, causing him to backpedal. “Stay back, Zoey!” He held up his hand. “The oath is still there.” “Zoey.” Croygen motioned me over to him.

“Get behind me.” “No!” I exclaimed. “I am not afraid of you, Ryker.” “I still might kill you, Zoey.” “No. You won’t.” I shook my head. “How are you so sure?” he seethed. “Because you already did.” My eyes narrowed.

Ryker turned away from me. “Escape while you can. I’ll cause a distraction.” “What? No!” I cried. Sprig straightened, his smile dropping. “No way. We didn’t come all the way down here to leave you.” Croygen shook his head. “I don’t give a shit. I am not safe.

It’s better if I stay locked up here.” “Are you pooping out your brain again, Viking?” Sprig peered into the Wanderer’s ear. “Did it turn to mush in there?” “Absolutely not, Ryker.” Croygen and I spoke at the same time. There was no way I would leave without him again. “Oh, mush…with sugar and honey.” “I don’t trust myself. What I’ve already done…” Ryker rubbed at his head. “Or honey with a little mush on top?” Sprig chattered. Croygen glanced over at me.

I could feel his questioning stare, but my focus locked on Ryker’s back. “Fuck you,” I spat. Ryker jerked his head over his shoulder. “Excuse me?” “Fuck. You.” He turned to fully face me. “You think you’re being noble? That sacrificing yourself for me is the right thing?” Irritation and confusion flickered over Ryker’s face. “I am not going to fight about this with you. You’re going.” Fury slammed into me, pushing my legs forward until I stood in front of him.

“You selfish bastard. If you think you are taking the high road here, let me tell you…You. Are. Not.” Ryker’s bewilderment only deepened, his eyes pinching in the corners. He glanced over at Croygen for help who only offered a shrug in return. I shoved at his chest, bringing his attention back to me. “You are not going to do this to me. Not after what we’ve done to get you.” Ryker’s face flushed scarlet.

“To you? I am doing this for you.” “No, you’re not!” I clenched my palms into fists. “What the hell? I’m trying to save your life, Zoey.” He gritted his teeth. “Well, stop.” “Okay, human. You are not making any sense.” He leaned in, getting into my face. “I still feel the oath. It’s not as strong, but it’s there.

I could hurt you again. Do you realize that?” “Yes.” “Do you want to die?” “No.” He threw back his head, his arms flailing at his side. “Then why are you arguing with me?” “Because…” I shifted awkwardly. I took a deep breath and looked into his face. “We are survivors. We fight. We live. No matter what it takes, it’s who we are. We don’t let things beat us: DMG, an oath, Vadik. You and I are a team, and we will fight against whatever comes our way. Good or bad, we claw, bite, and battle our way out.” I moved to him, and he went rigid. “And don’t assume I will be so easy to kill, Viking. I came back this last time. Remember I’m the Avenging Angel,” I whispered hoarsely. “Okay?” He waited a beat before nodding. He remained distant, keeping a wall between us, but at least he agreed. “Wow. This is better than a Spanish soap opera.” Sprig peered down from Ryker’s shoulder. “Does this make anyone else hungry for a snack?” Ryker actually snorted. “Some things never change.” “Can we get out of here now?” Croygen started toward my sister. “Seriously, we’ve wasted too much time.” “Still need to find my axe.” “Really? I think getting out of here is the first priority.” “I agree. We have no idea where they put it.” I reached for Sprig. He leaped to my shoulder, crawling under my hair. “I can feel it call to me.” Ryker grabbed the blood-coated scrub shirt on the table, slipping it on. “Just need to be close enough to know its exact location.” “Come on.” Croygen bent over and lifted Lexie into his arms, pressing her to his chest. “You need to be silent, okay?” I whispered to Sprig. He nodded in agreement, holding on to chunks of my loose strands. Ryker and I followed Croygen out. Nerves flittered all over me. “Okay. Let’s do this.” Croygen winked at me. Ahead of us lay the impossible, and we had no choice but to bulldoze straight into it. Sink or swim. Into a tank full of sharks and other deadly predators.


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