Assassin: Fall of the Golden Valefar
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“Sorry about before,” he said quietly. “If they knew I cared about you, they’d hunt you down. It was better to let them think that you didn’t matter to me.”
Natalia glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He cared about her? It felt like someone dropped ice down her spine. She tried to act like it didn’t matter; she tried to think this softness wasn’t him. This was the false Eric. This was the guy that drove her crazy because he made her doubt herself. She nodded slowly, pretending to be something she was not, “So that stuff you said, before? It was just a bunch of crap to get me to leave?”
Eric stopped and turned to her. Natalia held the sandwich loosely in her hands, her gaze meeting Eric’s. His lips wanted to move and say two different things. He blinked slowly at her. It was like time was frozen. Finally he said, “Something like that,” and they continued walking shoulder to shoulder down the street. He watched her eat, and realized she must be hungry. He wondered if her food stores had been depleted, but knew better than to ask her. He’d have to go by her place and see for himself.
Natalia felt happy for a moment. The simplicity of walking with someone and eating something that was once so common brought back a flood of memories of happier times. Her dark lashes were lowered, her eyes looking down as she spoke, “You make me crazy, you know that?” She shook her head. Eric glanced at her, appearing apathetic, but she wondered if he was acting, pretending like she was. She didn’t want to cause his mood to shift, but she had to know, “You only seem to run hot or cold. There’s nothing in the middle for you, is there?”
Eric grinned, “Hot? When have you seen hot?” He tried to hide the laughter in his voice, but he knew damn well that she hadn’t seen hot. He kept that part of himself hidden from everyone, especially her.
Natalia looked over at him, “Then what’s this?” She laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Awh, I’m so screwed. You only have two modes: I hate you and I hate you more!!” She wasn’t entirely kidding, and didn’t expect him to respond the way he did.
His voice was deep, his eyes gazing at the little lines in the pavement. “I just want to protect you, Nat.”
“From what?” she stopped talking, her heart beating with a deep rhythm that scared her.
Glancing up at her, he asked, “Isn’t it obvious?” His pulse thundered in his ears. What was he doing? Eric knew he shouldn’t go down this road with her, but he couldn’t stop. Maybe he was selfish. Maybe it was because he’d be gone soon, but he dropped his guard. He put away his barbed words and just enjoyed walking with her, hearing her voice and responding the way he would have if he was still himself, and not the desperate monster that crawled under his skin. “From me.”
“I already know what you’re capable of. I’ve seen it.” This was the man that confused her. There was a softness in his voice, in his eyes that didn’t belong there.
“Natalia…” he stopped walking. She took another step before turning. Her lips were parted like she was surprised. He ran his hands through his hair. “You don’t know all of it.”
His voice was so shaken. It felt like someone pulled all the air out of her lungs in one tug. “I don’t need to. I know enough to see that this part of you, this—whatever it is—is something that you keep hidden. I just don’t understand why.”
Eric’s lips parted, as he looked at her, trying to find the right words but there were none. Finally, he answered, “Because it’s the least of me. It’s deceptive. It’s not who I am.”
“It’s what you could be.”
“No,” he shook his head, his eyes even more haunted than they were before, “it’s what I was, but I’m not that man anymore. He’s gone, Nat. The guy that saved you a few years ago is gone. It doesn’t matter what I want. If the same situation happened today—“
She held up her hand, her face pinching in anger, “Don’t say it. You know damn well that you’d do the same thing!”
Sadly, Eric shook his head, knowing in his heart that he wouldn’t. “That’s what you don’t want to see. That’s what you can’t admit—that I’d let them have you—I’d watch them destroy you.” Eric’s chest felt hollow, like he’d spilled his guts and now he was empty. There was no good man left inside of him.
Natalia stepped toward him, “If you think that, then you don’t know yourself anymore.” He started to interrupt, but she held up her hand. “I know you’re a lot more fucked-up than most people, but Eric… that’s not who you are.”
Maybe she was right. Maybe she could tell how hard it was for him to keep hold of his old self. The blood-thirsty sadistic side of him was warring within him even then. He wanted to take her, hurt her, make her cry out and bask in her fear, but Eric kept his hands in his pockets. He wouldn’t touch her. He’d never touch her.
He asked the question that plagued him, the one he dreaded answering, “Then who am I?”
Natalia saw the softness in his eyes, vulnerability as rare as a kind word was spread across his face. She felt pulled to him when he was like this. Whatever was happening to him, she could feel him at war with himself. He was too hard on himself to see what he truly was, but she knew. And that’s why she hadn’t acted yet. She breathed deeply, shaking her head as if she were astounded he couldn’t see it. “You’re a good man who has done a lot of bad things.”
Eric let her words sink in. His tongue wanted to slash at her and say things to make her retreat, but he kept his mouth shut. He wished he knew what she was thinking when she looked at him like that. There was sadness in his gaze, an uncertainty that she wore like a mask. It was only present when he was kind to her, which was rare. But right then, in that moment, he couldn’t ignore the ache in his chest anymore. Turning away, he started walking again, Natalia at his shoulder. “So much more than you know.”
Eric spent the rest of the day with Natalia and left her at sunset. The pain that carved his body into an evil man, was assaulting him. The effects of Julia’s blood couldn’t tide him over. He needed more. It made him blind to the fact that Natalia seemed to have somewhere to go. She practically ran into her house to get away from him. He assumed that his mood was returning to fowl, so she wanted to part on a good note. He had no idea Natalia wasn’t that innocent and it would blindside him later.
Natalia slammed the door behind her, breathing hard. She didn’t understand. How could Eric be like that? How could he be so sweet one moment and murderous the next? She banged her head against the door. If she didn’t find that damn book soon, she was screwed. The fabled book had the list she needed, and it would confirm his identity if Eric had it. Part of her wondered if she was a moron, following a deranged lunatic around for all these years. It didn’t matter how hard she searched, she never found his book, his notes to himself so he would remember who he was and what he’d done. It was an artifact that only the oldest angels maintained.
Her lips pulled into a crooked grin. Eric was no angel. Not anymore. That’s why it took so long for her to find him. And whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was attracted to him. Everything about him was enticing. The curve of his muscles, the angle of his jaw, the color of his eyes. Her stomach clenched thinking about it. He was her type through and through. Every ounce of him made her want to feel his skin beneath her hands and taste his lips. Sometimes she looked at him and wondered if he was thinking the same thing. The longing in his eyes undid her. He made it difficult to think, and if Eric continued to act like this, she was screwed. Not only did it mean she was attached to him, but it meant that she’d been wrong all this time. It meant she’d tracked down the wrong man. Natalia put her hands on her head, pressing hard, trying to crush the doubt that was growing around Eric.
Eric walked the streets for hours, trying to subdue his pain, but his feet still took him to the darkest place in the city—the place that would sate his burning desire for blood. It was a location where Valefar lurked and Martis were glaringly absent. Ivy had told them, warned the Valefar, that they could only prey on the wicked, and technically, this place was wicked.
Carina’s stood in front of him. It looked like a smashed up hotel, but it was so much more than that—it was a place where Rome’s men could play with women any way they wanted. The more nefarious the act, the more likely it was to be found here.
Carina’s was a brothel that sprang up after the war, and there wasn’t anyone who wanted to shut it down. Places like it kept the streets safer at night, and made sure those who had a taste for pain weren’t out stalking helpless prey. They gravitated toward one of the brothels instead, and Carina’s was the largest and the most accepting of their needs.
Pain seared through Eric’s body, blistering under his skin. His fists clenched tightly, and he knew that it would ease soon. Pushing through a door that lie in the debris as though it fell from the sky, Eric passed through and moved underground, emerging in a long dark hallway. He edged forward in complete darkness until he came to a cellar door and rapped his knuckles on it.
The door cracked open flooding the alcove where Eric stood with smoke and music. A large man with tanned skin and dark eyes looked at him, saying quickly, “She won’t have you here again. Not after last time.” He pulled the door open and Eric walked through. Carina’s was filled with the scent of blood… and sex. He nodded at the man, letting him know he heard his warning.
The room was vast, filled with people sitting on chairs, leaning on tables. Music wafted through the air, playing some tune from long ago. No one seemed to notice that the décor was ancient, like a mid-nineteenth century whore-house with flocked velvet wall paper the color of dried blood. Long drapes stretch from the floor to ceiling, and thick tassels covered everything with ornate fringe. The fringe was on the couches and the uniforms—if you could call a corset and a barely-there panty a uniform.
It was stiflingly hot. Smoke clung to the dark ceiling in a hazy cloud.
Eric approached the long bar that ran the length of the room. Behind it were mirrors that stretched high making the room appear twice as large. Gas lamps flickered dimly. A girl in a corset moved with ease over the lap of the man next to him. At one time, that would have been enough. But not now. Eric needed so much more. It had grown into a necessity, coming here, to this place where screams rang out and pain was lost in pleasure. This was part of the reason he couldn’t stand the sight of himself anymore. He knew how far he’d pushed the girl last time he was here, and the warning at the door let him know it was too far. There was a twisting in his gut, but he needed more. Convincing Carina to give him another girl was going to be difficult, but necessary. For some reason, this place had not attracted Ivy’s attention, and he needed to keep things that way for a while longer.
Eric felt Carina’s eyes on his back before he saw her approach him. Her gnarled finger was in his face before he could turn around. “NO!” she was shouting in Italian, “There is no room for you here. Even we have limits.” Her hair was plaited down her back in a long blonde rope. A blood-red corset pulled her waist in while it pushed the swells of her breasts up high. Every woman who worked for her wore the same corset, a scrap of fabric that barely covered anything below the waist, and a sheer black robe over it.