Before the Sun Rises Series
Nicola C. Matthews
all rights reserved
Altania rushed out the door and towards her parked car, not waiting around to see if Ash was going to follow her. She was half-way across the parking lot by the time Ash got outside. It only took him a few, quick strides to catch up with her.
“I don’t care what the Council says, Ashton. If you so much as look at me like you might be reverting to your old ways then I will cut your dick off and hand it back to you.” The thin-boned five-foot-six woman did not look at him as she spoke.
Her shoulders were hunched over, her hands balled into fists as she tried to control her anger. Her dark brown hair was pulled into a complex-looking French twist. The last time he had seen her, Altania’s hair was just past her shoulder blades. He wondered if it had gotten any longer in the last five years.
“My name is Ash. When I was embraced, I was required to take a new name. I’m forbidden to even speak my old, human name. And I have changed, Alty,” he said, choosing, for the time being at least, to ignore her crass comment about his possible castration.
Altania stopped to glare up at the man who towered over her. “Changed? People like you don’t change. They get more and more deranged with each passing day.” She turned her back to him, moving a few feet away before turning around to glare at him coldly. “And don’t you dare call me Alty. That was my sister’s name for me.”
“I have changed,” he insisted, hurrying after her as she walked towards a black SUV parked in the very back of the parking lot. “I don’t want to die any more than you want anyone that you love to die.”
Altania whipped around and marched back up to him, the anger making her blue eyes almost glow with undisguised hatred. “Then pray tell, Ash,” she said, drawing out his new vampire name, “exactly what happened to change your mind? Five years ago you would have cut off your own hand if it meant getting to your next victim. What on earth could The Council have said to suddenly make you fear for your own life?”
Ash stood still for a few seconds before quietly saying, “It’s not what they said, Altania, it’s what they did.” With that statement, he lifted the edge of his tee-shirt and pulled it over his head, turning around so Alty could see his back.
For one second Altania started to turn away from the man. She had seen more horrors in her years as a cop than any one human should have to be exposed to, and a lot of that carnage had been created at the hands of the man standing beside her. But once she saw the disfigured flesh on Ash’s back, she forgot the smart-mouthed retort she had been about to say.
Without realizing it, Altania moved closer to the new vampire, her hand unconsciously moving to lightly trace the zig-zagging pattern of scars. The pattern reached around onto his chest, the muscles beneath making the scars appear puffy and angry-looking. His arms showed signs of healed lesions as well, the scars snaking their way down to disappear into the waistband of his jeans.
“The Council did this?” she asked in a hushed voice. She swallowed back the bitter, acidic taste that rose in the back of her throat. She knew The Council was capable of a lot of things, but to torture someone for such an extended period of time, even someone as demented as Ashton Jones had once been? That was a new low even for them.
“Yes,” he answered quietly. He stood still, allowing the young woman to satisfy her curiosity. After a few seconds he decided to tell her what had transpired between him and The Vampire Council Elders.
“When I was first recruited, about three, maybe four years ago, I went through the same ‘behavioral’ training all the other assassins are subjected to. But seeing as I was a special case, The Council decided they had to instill in me a better appreciation for life.”
“Since I obviously didn’t give a shit about my own family or even my own death,” he said, “they had to get a bit more … creative. What they ultimately decided, and implemented over the course of the first years of my training, was to subject me to every type of torture I had inflicted upon my victims. And you, Altania, know firsthand how creative I had gotten at what I did.” He gave her a few moments to let that information sink in good.
“But these scars look like the wounds were inflicted months apart. How did they manage to inflict this much damage without killing you?” she asked.
Ash slowly turned around, putting his shirt on as he did so. “One thing about having so much time on your hands, it allows you to make huge scientific and medical advances. The High Council is centuries beyond what the humans are capable of in the medical field. They kept injecting me with some sort of serum that sped up the healing process in my body. Whenever I got too close to death, they would inject me and allow my body heal, and then start the torture process all over again.”
“For one solid year,” he continued, “three-hundred and sixty-five days, I lived my life chained to a stone wall in the bowels of that building.” He jerked his head back toward the brick and mortar structure they had exited, one of the many strongholds owned by The Vampire Council.
“My body and mind were subjected to every type of horror that I, or anyone else, could possibly imagine. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for one full year, I was repeatedly tortured and healed, tortured and healed, until my mind and will had been completely broken so many times I lost count. It was only then they trusted me enough to begin my apprenticeship as an assassin.”
“Once I was embraced,” he said, “they started the torture sessions all over again. It’s one thing to be tortured as a human, when you know they will eventually inflict so much damage to your body it will simply stop functioning. But you don’t have that luxury when you are immortal. You live in the constant agony of pain beyond measure, while knowing there are only two things that will kill you.”
“Only they won’t let you die,” he said with a dry, humorless laugh. “Instead, they allow your body to heal itself so they can continue to torture you in ways you could not even begin to imagine.”
Ash’s brown eyes had taken on a far-away look, as if he were reliving all the terrors he had endured. “So you see, Alty, I not only have a new respect for my life, I even have respect for those who I would have given my right hand to be left alone with for ten measly minutes.”
Altania shuddered at his remark. She hoped he had changed. She really did. And not because she didn’t want to die by his hand, but because she knew, without a doubt, that if he hadn’t changed, she would be able to kill him without so much as a second thought. It didn’t matter how many family members they threatened; she would not simply lie down and accept death by his hand.
She had dreamed for so many years about how much she would love to see Ashton have the same pain inflicted upon him that he had done to her sister, to her, and to his countless other victims. She had wanted that more than she had wanted her next breath. In her heart-of-hearts, she had not wanted him brought to the human’s idea of justice. She had wanted him to suffer, to feel the complete mental anguish of knowing there was nothing he could do to save himself from the inevitable torture and pain. Now, seeing the handiwork of The Council, knowing Ashton had suffered as not even his own victims had suffered, the images that used to give her so much comfort were now making her incredibly sick to her stomach.
Altania turned, fighting back the bile which threatened to rise in her throat. She dug around in her pocket and pulled out her car keys. She wanted to sit down for a moment, clear her head, concentrate on something other than the strange feeling being invoked in her by the images of Ashton chained to a wall, naked, whipped and bleeding, his dark brown hair hanging down to cover a set of haunted brown eyes.
A pale hand reached out and plucked the keys from her trembling hand. Ash gripped her elbow lightly as he guided her towards the passenger side of her SUV.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Altania. Maybe you should sit down before you hit the pavement.” He used the remote of the keyless entry to unlock the doors, depositing her into the passenger seat.
“Here,” he said as he produced a small PDA from his jeans pocket. He handed the device to her before he moved to the driver side of the truck. “Get caught up on our mission. That’ll help clear your head. Regardless of your feelings for me, we still have to work together. Best to get used to it now.”
Altania narrowed her eyes at him, muttering, “Stop reminding me,” as she took the small PDA from Ash. She had the hand-held computer on and was flipping through the files by the time Ash slid into the driver seat.
“What is all this?” she asked, the detective in her taking over as she read through the information.
“It’s all the files from S.H.i.E.L.D.,” he replied as he adjusted the seat to a comfortable position, moving the seat further back to accommodate his long legs.
“How the hell did you manage to get your hands on this?” she asked in astonishment, her eyes skimming over the files as fast as the small computer could load them.
“The CRNH received it anonymously about a year ago. They think it came from one of the scientists who were hired by the Shield of Humanity. I’m pretty sure it came from Tannitha, although after all this is over with, she’ll probably be kicking herself in the ass for sending the information.”
Altania’s brow furrowed as she read through some of the files. “What’s the CRNH, who is Tannitha, why is she kicking her own ass, and why would she send classified information from the agency that she worked for in the first place?”
“The CRNH is the Center for the Rights of the Non-Human. I know that PDA belonged to Chief Scientist Tannitha Johnson because I was the one who smuggled it into the agency for her. Sergeant Hall refused to allow any of their research to be stored on computers. He was convinced the government could hack any computer system, and he didn’t want his ‘work’ falling into someone else’s hands. He was more than a little paranoid, and for good reason.”
Alty looked up from the device. “If the research wasn’t backed up on computers then why did this Tannitha Johnson go against policy to keep an electronic record, and then send the files to CRNH? Better yet, how did The High Council get a hold of this information?”
He took the PDA from Altania and flipped through the files on the computer until he came to the one he wanted. He handed the PDA back to Alty who read the file name aloud. “Subject Number 6349, Formerly Subject Number 6103.” She looked back at Ash expectantly. “Is this supposed to mean something to me?”
He gave the young woman a wry smile. “Just read it,” he said.
Altania turned her attention back to the small computer, her eyes drinking in the information as quickly as it appeared on the screen. It only took her a few minutes before she had read over the entire file.
“Let me get this straight,” she said with astonishment in her voice. “The Council has hired us to bring in the son of the man who organized the entire Shield of Humanity?”
His smile held no humor as he started the SUV and pulled out into the deepening night. “That’s the idea,” he said flatly.
She turned off the computer and put her seatbelt on before she turned in her seat to look at the vampire’s profile. “Alright, I think you need to start at the beginning.”