Blaire's mother always complained that she had the slowest reactions. Blaire used to think that was a bad thing, but right now, that may have saved her life.
She stood, jaded, as strangers passed her. Some stopped, oggled, and she stared back. Her expression was flat and disinterested, when she was anything but.
No longer in her t-shirt, jeans, and boots, Blaire wore a cotton ivory nightgown that cut off at her shackled wrists. Rusted iron cuffs hung her against a black wall as if she was some sort of art piece. And maybe she was here. It’s so hard to know anything when no one speaks to you.
Not long ago Blaire was lying on the forest floor in writhing agony, a lethal snake dancing on her body in total blindness. Next she was blinking to consciousness in a different place.
It can’t be anything but Hell. There was no other explanation for the monsters. A majority appear mostly human. But parts of their body, like their backs, necks, heads, mouths, or eyes are sharp and grotesque.
The ones that truly intimidated Blaire, enough to force her to close her eyes, were the ones she could not see. The ones that wore an animal skull as a mask or had their body covered entirely.
There were other humans like Blaire shackled against the wall, dressed the same, waiting for an untold fate.
Blaire chalked it up to shock that had kept her silent. If she was confused, she would have asked: “Excuse me, where am I and how did I get here?”
Only a person in shock would watch their neighbor’s throat be slit and do nothing but stare.
“That’ll stop the crying,” a woman with scales for flesh said as she pulled back her jagged fingernails.
In her black and white gown, she reminded Blaire of the snake that lured her here, and she hated her instantly.
But without the woman's ruthlessness, Blaire would never have known the rule forbidding talking, crying, screaming, or any sound.
Blaire hardly dared to breathe.
A few times the snake lady would come over and lift Blaire's face, her hand as cold as carved ice, just to be certain Blaire hadn’t died.
But surely Blaire couldn’t die. Not when she was in Hell. The hanging corpse beside her just dropped to a lower, much worse, level of Hell for her disobedience.
Blaire's brain struggled to piece together a puzzle that it didn’t have.
How long would she be here? Forever? To be gawked at as if she was some special amenity? What if she was unchained? What happened to her then?
A man with skin like black sand and misty eyes came to a stop before her. Unlike others, he appeared dateless.
The two stared at each other for what seemed like centuries.
His pale eyes melted to demonic black, causing Blaire to see her reflection. Helpless but not scared. No…not yet. Once life stopped spinning and she was alone, the situation would dawn on her and she would feel differently.
But for now, who has the time for things like that?
“Interesting,” a voice bloomed into Blaire's head, low and intrusive.
The man turned and walked off, carrying a barely discernible smile.
Before Blaire could react to what happened, a language she didn’t understand, ghoulish and garish, croaked down the hall.
Blaire watched the observers stream out of the hallway.
“Come on. Come on, come on. Quickly,” the snake woman barked as her minion monsters fumbled with the locks against the walls.
A beetle-like man freed Blaire from the chains and took her wrists. She flinched at the gross contact but said nothing.
All the living humans were lined up and the ages varied from child to adult. Some were handsome, some were plain, others were exceptionally hideous. Races from all across the world were shoved into one place.
Blaire wondered what their story was. Did they idiotically chase after a poisonous snake, too?
All of them were led down the hall and through the door the demons had entered. Once Blaire stepped inside herself, her heart dropped.
The humans were being lined up onto a glossy performance stage. Before them were countless rows packed with monsters cozy in their black thrones.
A show was about to happen, and the humans were the entertainment.
“Tanaka Kaito!” Snake Woman began in English, forcing an Asian boy to the front of the stage. “Fourteen-years-old. Straight from Kyoto, Japan! Blood type B-”
“Thirteen!” a voice in the ocean of monsters cried.
“A little higher, please,” she coaxed.
This is an auction. They’re selling us.
“Sold!” The snake woman shoved Tanaka backwards where he was captured and dragged off stage. To where, Blaire didn’t know and didn’t want to know.
Snake Woman smiled, revealing a flash of shark teeth. “Better. Now, Marco Bianchi. Have a taste of this fine Italian blood-”
Marco, a man much older than Blaire, possibly with a family, dug his heels into the floor as he was pulled forward.
Snake Woman reached out and sliced his cheek with her nail.
“Smell that? O negative,” she advertised, and voices of all volumes and textures explode.
A child-girl-broke out into a wail. Blaire couldn’t blame her; this was terrifying. At least she had made it this far.
Just a bit longer, Blaire tried to telepathically push.
But the little girl wasn’t looking at anyone, just flopped onto the floor, giving up on life. Or death.
Snake Woman sighed. “This is why I don’t accept kids.”
She waved for the girl to be brought over.
As soon as the child felt arms on her, she squealed, shrieking and crying for her mother. The tantrum silenced the crowd, but Blaire knew it isn’t in sympathy.
They enjoyed watching this as much as they enjoyed buying a human. Probably more.
Snake Woman approached the blonde child and Blaire wondered, panicked, what her name was.
Where was she from? How did she die? What is her family going through without her?
Also, could Blaire really just stand by and watch a child be tormented?
Unable to contain herself, Blaire surprised Mr. Beetle by winding him with her elbow and broke free from his loosened, grimy grip.
Blaire lurched forward but was slammed to the floor as Snake Woman’s demons pinioned her.
“Oh.” Snake Woman circled around the child and hovered over her. “Blaire Blackwood from England.”
“America, actually,” Blaire sneered, surprised by her courage. “Get your goonies off me.”
“Rather eager to cut the line, aren’t you? I thought you were the submissive type.” Snake Woman smiled. “Oh well. I can make an exception this once.”
She waved her demons and they pulled Blaire to her feet. She was dragged past the other humans, including the once crying and now hiccuping girl.
Blaire gave her a confident, reassuring nod.
“Blaire Blackwood! From America,” Snake Woman announced mockingly.
She reached out for her and Blaire winced, preparing to be sliced, diced, or however she wanted to serve the human. Her fingers cuffed Blaire's wrist and she reeked of metal and copper. Blood.
“Ei-” Snake Woman’s voice caught as her eyes dropped to Blaire's wrist.
She yanked Blaire forward so suddenly Blaire almost tripped over her own feet.
Blaire worried she was going to be cut down by those lethal nails but instead the auctioneer whipped her attention back to her minions and hissed, “She’s already owned!”
“Owned?” Mr. Beetle repeated, confused. “But no one-”
Snake Woman held up Blaire's arm and faced it to his direction.
He paled ten shades when his eyes landed on the snake bite.
“How did you not notice?” she hissed. “This girl belongs to the Ophidia clan!”
As if summoned, a man appeared from the darkness. His presence instantly shut down all sound in the room, commanding respect. No, it wasn't respect. But it wasn't fear, either. It was beyond that. And it was clear he was not an invited guest.
Blaire watched as his black laced boots leisurely headed in her direction. His ebony pants moved without sound and the tail of his long black jacket floated as if he was underwater.
Like a black wolf, he was elegant in an inspiring, ominous way.
Blaire's eyes traveled upwarded, excited and guarded. She was more impressed with the upper half than the lower.
His gothic peacock jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a solid black vest. But she could care less about his outfit. He could be dressed as a clown and that wouldn’t have made a difference.
He was the living image of a fallen archangel. Raven hair settled over his ivory skin as flawless as Grecian statue, carved so sharp Blaire was certain that if she touched his cheekbones she'd cut herself.
There wasn’t a hint of softness or gentleness on his face, particularly his eyes. The almond shape beauties were pure gold, smooth and indifferent as he neared.
Blaire winced as Snake Woman’s grip tightened around her wrist, but he remained unaffected.
“Cole!” Snake Woman exclaimed, her voice catching.
Blaire's heart pattered in excitement, then confusion as she searched for any detail to connect this Cole to her Cole.
There was none.
Blaire could convince herself it’s because it’s been twelve years. They’ve grown up. But no. Even the townspeople knew who she was upon first glance. This Cole's hair was darker and his eyes weren’t honey. Rather than sweet and liquid, they were hard and stale.
It’s been twelve years, Blaire reminded herself. How would you look if you were in Hell for twelve years?
“You have something of ours,” Cole commented nonchalantly.
He sounded different, too, but Blaire didn’t hate it. His voice was like a siren’s call dragging you to your doom.
“It was a mistake,” Snake Woman explained hoarsely. “I had no idea-”
“No idea of your debts?”
“To pay them I had to-”
“Use our name?” Cole seemed to love interrupting Snake Woman.
“We’re cousins!” she pleaded. “Family! You should understand.”
Disgust flashed across Cole’s eyes. “You're a lizard, and nothing more. Don't try to create something out of our relationship that doesn’t exist.”
She flushed. “Yes, yes. Of course. I'm sorry. I will find another way to repay you.”
Cole smiled, and it was the first time Blaire experienced pleasure and dread at the same time.
“You've had your chances, Lizard. Now it's time to pay up.”
It became a very tense and quiet atmosphere. Blaire was in the dark, but she knew enough to gather that Snake-er-Lizard Woman, had done something very foolish.
Lizard Woman shoved Blaire forward and ran.
Cole caught Blaire with one arm, his attention still locked on the Lizard Woman.
Blaire was passed onto someone else-someone she hadn’t realized existed-but Blaire couldn't focus on them. She could only focus on Cole.
It all happened rather fast.
Lizard Woman was running, Lizard Woman was falling, screaming, and seizing on the floor. Blood seeped through her eye sockets, mouth, ears. But she remained alive, suffering as so, and Blaire could only stare.
Cole hadn’t even twitched so how…?
Blaire's eyes drew to the audience still remaining in their seats. They were petrified of Cole and of whoever held Blaire. Not as possessive as Mr. Beetle, but just enough to make sure Blaire didn't try to run.
As if she'd risk ending up like Lizard Woman.
While Lizard Woman continued to writhe, Cole turned to her minions and waved his hand.
Blaire was not sure if they did this willingly, or if he had some majestic power, but the result was the same.
Cole glanced at the shivering humans and ordered: “Run.”
They clumsily found their way off the stage, some needing the assistance of others. Even the little girl had to be carried away as she reached for Blaire. It broke Blaire's heart to ignore her cry.
“You helped sully the Ophidia family’s name.” Cole stepped toward the line of demons.
Wisely, they said nothing.
Blaire waited, as well as everyone else in the room, and watched as each was executed.
They weren’t given the same treatment as Lizard Woman. Blaire supposed she deserved the Special.
This time Blaire could see Cole kill them; watch their heads fly into the crowd as he slashed their necks with an insanely sharp dagger.
He struck as swift as a viper and Blaire couldn’t look away. She had never seen someone move so gracefully. Except for Lizard Woman. But she had no class, no beauty. She was rotten.
Nausea overwhelmed Blaire as she shifted her eyes to the audience.
They all were.
When Cole was finished, he swiveled to the audience as unruffled as he was when he made his first appearance.
With the bloody blade in his hand he announced, “Anyone else found abusing, insulting, or taking the Ophidia name in vain will receive equal or worse treatment. Thank King Viperei for showing you mercy this time.”
As no one reacts, Cole added crossly, “You may leave now.”
More than half mystically disappeared. The rest scurried away like frightened mice.
Blaire's attention was steered from the dispersing crowd as Cole approached her, his arms wrapped behind his back.
He wouldn’t kill me, would he?
“What’s your name?” He stopped, leaving only a few inches of space between them. If Blaire reached out, she could touch him. But she didn’t.
“You have a name, don’t you?” Cole pushed impatiently.
“Blaire,” she breathed.
Silence wedged it’s way between them and Blaire watched in fascination as Cole’s split pupils melted into circles.
He remembers me! I'm not wrong! He's my Cole!
“Blackwood,” she added, relieved. “Blaire Blackwood.”
In a flash, his fingers were around her wrist and she was rudely yanked towards him. It was Lizard Woman all over again only much, much, more startling.
Blaire flinched at the aggressive contact of his skin against hers and watched with one eye as he glared incredulously at her wounded arm.
“Blaire Blackwood,” he echoed, acting indifferent, and her body shivered. “Why are you here?”
Blaire swallowed. “I came for you, Cole.”
He bristled at the sound of his name and released her.
In his eyes Blaire was ugly, unwanted, unnecessary. It was extraordinarily painful for Blaire to see.
“We'll be taking you to your owner, King Viperei,” Cole answered coldly, withdrawing into himself.
Huh? Blaire's eyebrows furrowed.
This was not what Blaire expected to hear him say.
I'm nobody, nothing, to him, Blaire thought, dazed.
This wasn't what she expected. It wasn't what she planned. Her dream reunion was shattered.
“Viperei?” she managed to ask softly.
The man behind Blaire lifted up her arm, offering it towards Cole, but he didn't accept it.
Blaire watched, frozen, as a checkered brown and yellow snake slid down her shoulder and arm.
Blaire jerked as the snake sunk its fangs through the fresh holes on her arm.
As the reptile curled around her arm and slid back to the man behind her, a shock of pain flooded her symptoms. Bile shot out of her mouth and she vomited acid between Cole and herself.
Before Blaire could feel so much as an ounce of mortification, she lost strength to stand and dove straight for the puddle of throw up.