Chapter 1 of Awakening the Fire

Awakening the Fire: Book II of The Inferno Unleashed

Available August 30, 2013.

 

Awakening the Fire (Cover)

 

Chapter One – Countdown

 

He took a hearty sip of his steaming coffee and settled into the hard, uncomfortable bench outside the Intensive Care Unit. Hospital shifts that seemed to drag on for a thousand eternities made him truly appreciate the magic of hot water and brown beans. He could not function properly without a caffeine boost on such a hectic evening. His taste buds relished the warmth as the potent beverage settled in his stomach. The rumbling it caused reminded him of how little he had eaten today. His hunger surprised him. An appetite was the last thing he expected to have after tending to so many injuries and ailments tonight, especially those to the youth in Room 316.

Years of experience in the hospital had taught him that the end results always remained the same. Only the names attached to the husks of flesh that came into the depressive rooms changed. Still, he had to be positive. Believing that he could make a difference in someone’s life was more than part of his job. It was his outlook. Attitudes were very contagious, though, and those of Doctor Atalir always found a way to spoil his. His near-feral reaction when they had discussed alternatives for the Taljain girl had been terrifying. Why he built such a strong attachment to a girl he had never before met was beyond Rivas. He just prayed that Galbrecht did not let his inner demons draw him into trouble or worse.

He’s probably getting drunk again at The Laughing Banshee.

Doctor Bardum downed the remainder of the coffee and reopened Breena Taljain’s file. His heart simply broke every time he scanned her intake sheet. He had never seen anyone with her injuries maintain such a tenuous grip on life. It was not as if she had the chance to avoid it. Fate had wronged her the day she exited the womb of a Purgairan woman. Kill or be killed; eat or be eaten. It was simply the way of things in the slums.

Her mother doesn’t even come to visit. She probably doesn’t even realize the poor thing’s gone. Another Nepenthe addict, I bet.

Against his will, Doctor Bardum slouched and let out a weary yawn. His wrinkled coat and plastic glasses were becoming very heavy. Morning could not come soon enough. Alas, such wishful thinking was not fooling anyone. His shift was far from over. Heavens only knew what other complications would happen between now and then.

He scratched the tiny, scruffy hairs growing along his cheeks. “Stick with it, Rivas,” he convinced himself. “Don’t get lazy now.”

For the second time that night he flipped through the report Doctor Atalir had put in Breena’s file. The poor, blessed thing deserved better. Her attacker’s chains had broken almost every bone in her body and had her trapped in a coma. She would never breathe or eat properly again, if she even survived at all. Her attacker turned her ribs and jaw into a jigsaw puzzle of bones. Though her limbs and pelvis fared no better, it was the fractures on her frontal and occipital bones that frightened him the most. At any time the arteries in her head could surrender to the trauma and burst. He knew not if it was God’s benevolent grace or cruelest torment that they were still intact.

Are Galbrecht and I the real monsters for letting her live? Where do we cross the line between doing our duties and being humane?

Rivas sighed. He hated himself for the sentiment. Not more than two weeks ago he had seen something similar happen to another child. The boy had arrived in the wee hours of the night, as she had. It pained him that he could not remember his name.

You’re a hypocrite, the voice in his heart of hearts reprimanded. You remember Breena but not him? What makes her so worthy?

Doctor Bardum shook his head to ward off his conscience. The boy had been in the ICU for less than two hours when one of the arteries around his sphenoid burst. The hemorrhaging that followed imposed a tragic death. More than anything, Rivas felt like a murderer for not being able to act quickly enough. He did not think he could bear the same fate befalling Breena. Heavens forbid.

He had to be practical, though. Her chance of survival was bleak. The fact that Galbrecht had already withheld Anodyne-94 from her did not please him, either. It was the only painkiller that let her sleep restfully. At least make her final moments restful!

He pitied the girl, yes, but she was not the only patient needing tending to. It was time to check up on the others. The night would only drag on if he did not keep himself busy.

Rivas passed Room 302 about twenty minutes later and sauntered in with fingers crossed that the patient inside was finally sleeping. The man was a glutton for conversation, despite the puncture in his side that—

“Doctor Bardum! Doctor Bardum!” The frantic voice of the nurse he had reprimanded earlier on filled his ears and stopped him in his tracks. Was there no rest for the weary?

He stepped outside the room and waited impatiently for the nurse to reach him. “Doctor Bardum, you’ve got to come quickly, please!”

Then why did you leave and run all this way?

“What is it now?”

“It’s Room 316, the girl—!”

Oh, heavens pity her!  “Breena T—”

“Yeah, doctor, that one!” She stammered out each word as if it were a chore and breathed through her mouth. Breena was on the other side of the wing. Where was the other doctor on duty? “She needs you now. Come on!”

“Get ahold of yourself! What’s the problem?”

“You’re wasting time, Doctor Bardum. She’s starting to hemorrhage!”

The blood rushed from Rivas’ face as if he had seen a ghost. Had he jinxed it? No, not her too! If the nurse is right, the girl is as good as….

He let the thought trail off. Her body was too fragile for surgery and could not tolerate any other anesthetics, either.

Curse it all! I need Doctor Atalir here! He shook his head and swore under his breath. With a flail of his arm and unintelligible command he hurried over to the ailing girl in Room 316. Where in blazes are you, Galbrecht?

***** ***** ***** ***** *****‚ƒ

“Ghariel! Oh Ghariel! Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Cain Valkyr purposefully dragged out each syllable in his maniacal, singsong rant so it echoed throughout Penance Row. He was clearly having fun taunting his enemy from the other side of the dank catacombs. “You can run, run, run, but you’re still going to die! Six minutes, Ghariel! Six more minutes until the hunt begins!”

Galbrecht exhaled slowly and wiped his brow. The Cardinal was far enough away to grant him a moment of reprieve yet still too close to shake off his dread. Crossing paths was inevitable. Cain held the key to get out of Penance Row. At least he says so. He had to believe that Tairo—the Patriarch of the Sin Ministry—was somewhere up ahead, too. Next time he would be more careful.

The real challenge would begin when the countdown ended and the Cardinal pursued him in earnest.

Galbrecht cringed and spat on the ground. The aftereffects of Cain’s recent torture were encumbering. He had to remember that the stolen Prodynorph-32 only numbed his pain. It did not actually heal his injuries. Over exertion was still a very lethal possibility.

He had to return to the hospital before it wore off. I need a miracle.

Galbrecht wasted just over one minute adjusting to the murky darkness and surveying his surroundings. Penance Row was more of a roach-infested maze of sewage than a prison. The sconces housing weak, dying torches were few and far between. Thick patches of scraggly lichen and fetid moss hung from the walls and the vaulted ceiling far above. Rusted bars chiseled into the stone walls were the only hint of captivity in the cells. Resting on the opposite side were piles of rat droppings and forlorn skeletons shackled to stone. Galbrecht grimaced; he pitied those whom the world had simply forgotten about. It’ll do the same to you, too, if you let it. Keep your guard up.

Narrow, rocky straits littered with refuse lined either side of the greenish-black waterways. Any intent of using them to hide from the Sin Ministers faded when he ran his hand over the surface and immediately recoiled. Hot! It was a wonder he did not scald his flesh.

The revelation made him screw up his lips. Was sensitivity a side effect of the Prodynorph-32? His senses were becoming too acute. Even the humidity was smothering and debilitating, enough so that he nearly shed his shirt and coat. He needed them as a layer of armor against Cain’s vicious claws.

Stay alert, Ghariel. You can take them. They’re just drugged up, worthless scum. Just look out for Cain. He’s no god. He’s barely a human.

His musing shattered easily later when he spied an olive-drab, scaly snout emerging from the fizzing water.

You should be thankful you’re even walking, he chided himself. He knew exactly what it was and the meal it would make of him if he ventured near. You won’t be if that gets to you. Think of what you’ve been through after your girls died. Embrace those instincts again. You know you want to. That’s why you still think of yourself as Ghariel instead of Galbrecht. You’ll never find out why Tairo targeted your family if you perish here.

Not for the first time Galbrecht wondered how everything had come to this.

You could’ve let sleeping dogs lie. You chose not to. Now deal with the consequences.

The loudening clamor of footfalls thrust him into motion.

He crossed one of the trash-lined channels with a running leap and immediately sought cover behind a stack of rotten, musty crates seconds before a Sin Minister strolled by. He was too busy marveling over a pair of stolen, steel knuckles to notice Galbrecht. So that’s where they went. His vulnerability was too much to ignore.

Galbrecht surmised only one way to get his trusted weapons back.

With a deep exhalation he darted forth and threw his hand over the Sin Minister’s mouth. The man scarcely had a chance to realize what was happening when the doctor slammed his boot against his Achilles’ tendon. Galbrecht grabbed his skull with the other hand before he finished falling and violently jerked his neck leftwards.

The harsh crunch that followed instantly silenced his wail.

Galbrecht frowned and gently laid the body onto the ground. The nagging sense of morals he was trying to overlook gnawed at him. He had shed too much blood in the name of justice. The fallen might have once been someone’s brother, father, or friend.

That was then and this is now.

Galbrecht eased the steel knuckles over his hands and dragged the body behind the crates. Ethics blurred when his survival was at stake. Every passing second left him in greater amazement of the person he had become.

No, more like animal. I might even blend in or fool the bastards for a bit.

He was flexing his hands and savoring the feel of cold metal upon his palms when he heard the strident clang of metal scraping against metal. The distant, maniacal bout of laughter that followed made his spine tingle.

“Are you scared yet, Ghariel? Have you gone mad, mad, mad with fear?” Cain let out another maddened howl. “The excitement makes me want to cut, cut, cut you to pieces now! I can’t take it! Two more minutes, Ghariel. Two!”

Galbrecht had not realized how hard it was to stay calm until now. He needed to be ready. At once he rummaged through the thug’s pockets for anything useful. All he found was a few flint matches and two unused syringes of Nepenthe. What a waste. Only dust and air kissed his fingers when he searched for more. He lifted—

The apocalyptic click of a crossbow trigger behind his neck halted his search.

Beads of cold sweat trickled down his brow. The Nepenthe fell freely onto the ground. How had he been so careless? Again. He was at the mercy of the Sin Ministry now.

“You weren’t much of a challenge. Get up and put your hands where I can see them.” His fetid, sour breath made Galbrecht want to hurl again. “I’m going to make a spectacle out of you for the Cardinal. He’d get a real laugh out of that.” The man prodded him twice with the blunt edge of the crossbow.

Get ready, Ghariel. He’s overconfident. You can do this.

“I don’t know what you did to tick off the boss but it’s pretty bad. You should be honored.” He laughed smugly and slammed the crossbow into the back of his skull. “Don’t speak or I swear I’ll spill your brains.”

Move on the count of three.

“The bolt’s got a splash of the Cardinal’s tropical frog sweat on it.”

One.

“A few drops will bring about paralysis. You should know.”

Two.

“No, I changed my mind. Talk…now. Beg me to—”

Three.

In a single, lightning-fast motion, Galbrecht bashed his heel into his captor’s shin and ducked. The Sin Minister screeched and haphazardly pulled the trigger. The poisonous bolt whizzed just over the doctor’s head before the crossbow tumbled harmlessly out of his hands. He gasped and stammered in confusion—

That was the only opening Galbrecht needed to grab the man and launch him over his shoulder. A loud splash sent a spray of warm water onto his clothes and cheeks.

He watched the Sin Minister flail about and gasp frantically in an attempt to breathe. He was completely oblivious to the bubbles moving ever closer as he swore boorishly and reached for solid ground—

Then eighty carnivorous teeth closed in upon his legs and pulled him under. A muffled cry followed by a horrifying crunch radiated throughout Penance Row. A successive bite consumed the Sin Minister’s torso up to his shoulders. Within seconds only a patch of bloodied breeches and a widening, crimson puddle remained of him.

Galbrecht did not move until the alligator plunged back into the murky depths. The sound of it devouring flesh, bone, and everything in between made his stomach turn. He had not intended to deliver the man to such a grisly demise. It was exorbitant. Cain would find the red stain he had left behind easy to follow, too. He wracked his mind for a way to cover it up but could think of nothing.

I’m no different than they are, he mulled over in disappointment. I’ve stolen another life and yet I’m only thinking about saving my own skin.

That could be you if you’re not careful, his reason warned. Get real! These bastards aren’t going to stand still while you overcome this petty regret. The dog threw in his lot with murderers and criminals. He deserved to die. You’ll slay more before this night is over, too. It’s just the way of things. Kill or be killed, Ghariel. Kill or be killed.

He clenched his teeth together and kicked the weapon into the murky water. It would do him no good against someone as fast and wily as Cain.

As if on cue, all the torches rimming the walls abruptly died out. Galbrecht could not see more than a dozen feet ahead. He realized he had not known true danger until now.

“Ghariel!” Cain’s familiar yet distant shriek made his temples throb. At least he had some breathing room. “Your time is up, Ghariel Lodan! You are still alive, yes? I heard that splash, splash, splash just now. You better not be dead. If you are I swear I’ll kill you again, and again, and again!” He chuckled and grated his claws against the iron bars six times in succession. “Beware the fiends in the water, Ghariel. They can’t have you. No, no, no, they cannot. You’re all mine!”

The harsh screech struck Galbrecht like the blow of a hammer. He could feel tingling waves shoot up his forearms. Even his eardrums felt on the verge of exploding. The Prodynorph-32 was clearly making his senses far too keen. Not for the first time he wondered if he would have been better off without it.

Don’t be stupid! Without it you’d be utterly crippled.

“Five nothings and four very hungry reptiles will join me in my hunt, hunt, hunt. Have you any last words, any dramatic confessions to make?” He let out a screeching hiss. “You’re a surgeon, Ghariel. You’re supposed to be, be, be smart! You could’ve figured out why, why, why the Lord Master took your family away! Look at where your oh-so noble quest for revenge got you. Look at it, Ghariel. Look hard!”

So, he’s not acting alone, the doctor considered. He tried to tune out as much of the Cardinal’s gloating as possible. Two are already down, which leaves three. I still don’t like the odds. To say that survival is farfetched is an understatement.

“It’s time for the hunt to begin! Ready or not, not, not, Ghariel Lodan, here I come!”

 

Awakening the Fire (Wrap)

 

Click Here to get Empyreal Illusions: Book One of The Inferno Unleashed.

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