so for your reading pleasure, the first chapter of a new and improved Sentinel, the first book of the Ternion Archives. Sorry in advance for confusing formatting errors.
End of Michaelmas Term
In a pub so crowded condensation dripped from the windows, Aidan planned to celebrate the coming winter holiday with several pints and, hopefully, the slender brunette he discovered standing with some friends. The damp made her hair curl at her temples and the cold walk from campus left high color on her cheeks. Her jeans clung to her in all the right ways. Where had she been all term?
“Hey, I’m Aidan,” he said, pushing back his sleeves.
Her gaze traveled up his veined forearm as she took his hand. “I know who you are,” she said.
“Staying here for the holidays?” he asked. The pub was heating up by the minute. All the voices and energy made him sweat.
She nodded. “I’m swamped. You?”
He shook his head. “I’m going home.”
Her disappointment piqued his interest. For one more night he could put the search aside. This is stress relief, he told himself, ignoring the guilt pinging his conscience like gravel at a window. Besides, he’d wanted to keep looking last summer. Kaelin had insisted they go back to school for this term. It was what their mom would want, he said. Aidan didn’t know about that. Hearing their mom talk about disappearing was very different than having her really do it. Her absence had made for a long six months.
“Where’s home?” the girl asked. “You sound Canadian.”
“American, actually,” Aidan said. “I’m from Colorado.”
“Oh, yes, the mountains,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to go.”
He grinned. “That’s so weird, because I’ve always wanted to take you.”
She shook her head at the old joke. “You never have to try very hard, do you?”
“But I did!” he protested. “I was so eager to see you, I came right from my last exam. See? I didn’t even drop my bag at home.” He adjusted the strap of his book bag across his chest as his anticipation caught up with him. She went dimorphic, splitting into herself and a brilliant blue halo. Yeah, this one was definitely a keeper.
“You knew I would be here?” she asked.
“Oh yeah, I knew.” He blinked her back into one figure and grinned with the confidence of truth. Premonitions aside, the night was young, the girl was hot, and he was free until his flight the next morning. That was the plan anyway, until he saw his brother step through the doorway, shaking the rain from his jacket.
Kaelin ran his hand through his blond bangs. They both had the sort of straight hair that slid over itself, so it fell back over his eyes as if he’d combed it that way. His smile accentuated the sharp angle of his cheekbones and made a dimple in his left cheek. He scanned the room casually, but Aidan knew he was looking for him. When was the last time he’d seen Kaelin in the pub? A year ago? Hell, forget that. When was the last time he’d seen Kaelin smile?
Kaelin spotted him and made his way through the crowd. Aidan grabbed his wrist in greeting. His skin was cold from the outdoors, and he didn’t twist away like he usually did.
Aidan decided to go with the obvious. “This is my brother.”
Kaelin held out his other hand, still wearing that manic grin. “Hi. Kaelin Mentior,” he said. He glanced at Aidan, likely expecting her name.
Aidan knew it was Emma, of course, just like he knew everyone’s names the instant he saw them. But he learned long ago not to use a name until he was supposed to know it. His mom had explained it was like how everyone still just said “hello” when they answered the phone, even though everyone had caller I.D. He busied himself with finishing his pint.
“I’m Emma.” She just looked from one face to the other. Her excitement brushed against Aidan’s skin, full of anticipation. He knew what that was about. Even the primmest girls couldn’t resist toying with the fantasy of twins. Well, he was excited about her, too, but his brother didn’t play those games.
“Don’t even try,” Aidan said. “Even our own mother can’t tell us apart.”
“I need a drink,” Kaelin said. “And I’m short on cash.”
Aidan turned to the girl. “We’ll be right back, okay?”
Close enough their arms brushed, they made their way through the crowd, ignoring the stares. Kaelin leaned against the sticky bar top and Aidan dug in his pocket for pound coins. He glanced back toward Emma in the mirror over the bar; she was talking to a friend. He didn’t try to tune into their conversation. Instead he asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Just having a pint,” Kaelin answered, waving down the barkeep and pushing his bangs from his eyes again.
“Right.” Aidan drew in the scent of the outdoors off his clothes. Sleet was coming behind the rain. “You think we’re blown.”
Kaelin shook his head as he ordered a lager. “I don’t think it. I know it.”
Aidan scanned the crowd reflected in the mirror. Just university students, celebrating the end of term. For a moment, psychedelic colors weaved through the people. He closed his eyes and refocused. Nobody out of the ordinary. “Who?”
Kaelin sighed. “Chick, three o’clock, black hair.”
Ah, the only woman in the place who wasn’t watching them. Her black jacket matched the curtain of hair that framed her face. Her features were delicate, refined. High cheekbones, wide eyes, sculptured profile. He couldn’t cut through the noise of the bar to get inside her head at all.
“She’s pretty hot,” Aidan observed, a comment on more than just her looks. Their mom always said Sentinel was an unusually attractive bunch.
“Yeah, well, don’t get all uptight. They’re just checking us out before our meeting.”
“Meeting? What meeting?” Aidan leaned against his brother, shoulder to shoulder, and caught the acidic scent of his brother’s stress. Had Kaelin really been so stupid as to call Sentinel? “What the hell have you done?”
Kaelin gave him a look, his mouth set like he was holding back a retort. He shifted away--as far as the crowd would allow. “She’s been gone six months, Aidan. She’d have contacted us if she could. I think Sentinel has her. We have to try to negotiate her release.”
“Negotiate? They don’t negotiate, Kae.”
“I think Jacob will.”
Hearing the name pushed the air out of Aidan’s chest. A part of him had wondered if Jacob actually existed. Maybe their mom wasn’t so crazy, after all. She’d always warned them Sentinel was too powerful to evade forever, and he’d only ever half-believed it. Now his brother had gone looking for them. “You talked to him?”
“No,” Kaelin answered. “But I left him a message.”
“How did you get his number?”
Kaelin leaned his elbow on the bar, held his bangs back with his fist. “Sentinel’s web page. Jacob’s not trying to hide. He’s got a house in Canada, and one here, near Henley.”
Aidan thought hard on their surroundings, which he’d neglected to do when he’d arrived. Cigarette smoke darkened the red walls. Students, talking, drinking, laughing, crammed the entire pub. He took a deep breath, willing the individual voices to recede back into the dull roar. The noise was excellent cover for conversation, but this much energy gave him a headache. A part of him craved escape, and it wasn’t just the threat of Sentinel. As much as he missed his mother, he’d found a certain peace without her conspiracy theories, her reminders for vigilance, and her obsessive fear of Sentinel.
“You know more about them than any outsider does,” she always said. “They’re threatened by you. Never forget that.”
Sure, they’d been told it over and over, but again, talking was a far cry from proof, from believing.
He tried to remember if the bathroom had a working window. He knew from previous visits there were two exits: the front and the side alley through the kitchen. The tail stood between them and the side door, and the front door was no good. Four steps and a landing put them on display for abductors. Surely no one would start shooting at the crowded pub--Sentinel didn’t go in for that kind of press--but there might be a windowless van out front. And they’d be looking for twins. Much as he hated it, he and Kaelin were better off separating.
His mother had trained him to find escape routes from every building he’d been in since he was a small child, but this was the first time he ever thought--really thought--he’d need one.
Then something occurred. “You think Emma is with them?”
“No, but she’ll work as a floater for you,” Kaelin said.
“I don’t want to use her like that.”
“Do you want to meet them on our terms or theirs?”
“I don’t want to meet them at all!”
Kaelin’s mobile rang and he looked at it. “Sentinel Security Services,” he told Aidan. “Right on time.”
“Let them leave a message--” Aidan said, but Kaelin flipped it open.
“This is Kaelin.” He listened. “Yeah, I know where it is. See you then.” His voice was deep and flat. He sounds tough, Aidan realized, like he could actually take on these guys. It wasn’t an easy thought, because he knew his brother. Terror lurked behind his confidence.
Kaelin pocketed his phone. “I’m meeting Jacob in at that pub on Market.”
“This is insane. You can’t do this,” Aidan said.
“I am doing this. Are you coming with me or not?”
Aidan shook his head. “Not. Shit, Kae, you think you’re going to have a nice little chat with Jacob and then walk back out again, much less with Mom?”
“It’s a public place. What’s he going to do?”
“That’s my point. They could do anything at all and we don’t have back-up. You’re an idiot for even trying.”
Kaelin slammed his empty glass down on the bar. “Fine. I’ll handle it alone. As usual.”
Aidan flared. “That’s not fair! I looked all summer, just like you. You’re the one who said to stop--”
“I said we should go back to school. I didn’t say we should stop looking.” Kaelin glanced at his watch. “I have to go. I’ll call you when I’m through.”
“Yeah, you do that,” Aidan said. He turned away from his brother and leaned his elbows on the bar, scowling.
Kaelin stood for another moment before turning away and pushing his way through the crowd. Aidan watched his progress in the mirror over the bar, saw all the girls turn their heads at his passing. The woman with the black hair gave Kaelin a disinterested glance and look away. Damn. Kaelin was right. Everyone always took a second look.
Emma made her way toward Aidan. “Are you guys all right?”
“Uh, yeah,” Aidan said. “He’s just mad at me. He’ll come back in a minute.”
Kaelin walked through the door and the darkness swallowed him. He didn’t even look back.
Fine. If he wants to be stupid, he can just… Aidan sighed. “Damn. I have to go.” He gave Emma his untouched pint, wondering why he couldn’t just have a normal family, and maybe even a girlfriend, just for once. “I’m really sorry.”
She caught his arm. “I can give you my number and--”
“I’m sorry,” Aidan repeated. He kissed her cheek and pulled back reluctantly. “I wish I could; I just can’t.” He stepped away from her pleading gaze, put himself between the front door and the Sentinel asset, and eyed her until she met his gaze.
She nodded at him like they’d made a silent agreement. Warning breathed across the back of his neck as she started making her way through the crowd toward him. She was just the outrider. No way to know when the real cavalry might arrive, but so far, Sentinel had indicated they thought Aidan and Kaelin couldn’t handle themselves.
I’m about to prove you wrong, bitch, Aidan thought.
Or, they already had the pub surrounded.
Someone bumped into him. His heart skipped.
“Sorry, mate,” a guy said. Skinny build, pockmarked cheeks. Definitely not one of the enemy.
“No worries.” A cold breeze at his back drew him toward the open door. The temperature was dropping by the minute. It would be sleeting before dawn. Great night to fend off the best mercenary soldiers in the world.
He ducked his head and walked out the door. As soon as he rounded the building he broke into a run, cutting through the alley. Without hesitation, he re-entered the pub through the side door and trotted through the kitchen. Nodding at the haggard cook, he stepped up to the interior doorway and scanned the pub again. No sign of her. With any luck she’d never guess he’d come back in. Now it was just about waiting for her to gain some distance away from the pub.
Another girl smiled at him, eyed him up and down. The last thing he felt like doing was flirting. He headed for the bathroom and locked himself in. The window was too narrow to fit through, but after a short fight with the stubborn sash, he cracked it and listened. Nothing but rain, but fear tightened around his chest. To settle his nerves and pass the time, he caught hold of a bar overhead and did chin-ups until his tanned cheeks flamed and he broke a sweat. After a third irritated knock on the door, he pulled his sweatshirt hood up, tucked his shoulder-length blond hair into it, and looked at himself in the mirror.
“You can do this.”
After going back out through the kitchen door, he jogged down the alley, toward the street behind the pub. That afternoon the skies had been clear. He hadn’t even worn a jacket, just his sweatshirt. At least he had his wallet and a knife in his bag. He had a long night ahead, worrying about his brother and trying to figure out how to rescue him from Jacob.
He passed through the busy streets, his boots splashing puddles, his head up. He tried to keep his pace even and behave as if he knew where he was going. How long until they figured him out and closed in? At sea level he was able to outrun just about anyone, but he’d still feel better with a healthy head start. His mother had warned them of the enemy’s physical prowess. He didn’t dare call his brother, but he could at least do a little recon.
He kept walking, wishing for his jacket. Shivers jangled his vertebrae. The rain increased to big, splattering drops, soaking his sweatshirt and stinging his cheeks. He jammed his hands in his pockets and gritted his teeth against their chattering.
He tried to stay within sight of other people, but soon enough he found himself on Market Street. Besides the glow of the pub on the far corner, it was all closed shops and drawn drapes. A man in a long coat appeared about a block back. He kept his distance. Aidan kept walking, concentrating on the sound of the footsteps behind him. If he were tailing Aidan, he’d be quieter, sneakier. Probably just some businessman heading home.
Even with that reassurance, his mind sank into doubt. Why didn’t they just make a move? Reason told him he’d lost the Sentinel asset from the pub, but instinct said: They already have you and they know it. His instinct sounded more certain than his reason.
His mother would say that sort of thinking was careless and fateful. He should be focused on eluding them and helping his brother, not capture.
No sooner had he chided himself when two figures stepped from the shadows a half-block away, arms loose, feet widespread. They stood between him and the pub. He stopped walking and glanced back. The man in the suit paused, keeping his distance. Parked cars lined the street and a tall iron fence fronted the church behind the sidewalk. The street was quiet on this miserable evening. Raindrops glistened like bullion under the amber lights.
The two walked forward, a man and a woman. “Just come along and no one will get hurt, kid.” American accent. No gun in sight. Yet.
His mother’s voice, recalled from countless drills, prompted him: Never meet an opponent standing still. He moved.
They rushed him.
Aidan threw himself from their grasp, using his height advantage. He had two steps on them. He could run. But a lifetime of confusion, fear, and frustration held him. He’d always been told this moment would come, but reality crashed down on him. Sentinel had his mother, now maybe Kaelin. He could run now, but he might never find them again.
He spun back on them, fists aiming for contact. The world went kaleidoscopic, but it only spurred him on. He was on the man in seconds, driving him to the pavement. They grappled in a puddle, Aidan pounding his chest, his jaw, wherever he could get a shot in.
The man punched back doggedly, but Aidan was so angry he barely felt the blows. The woman behind Aidan finally dragged him away, one hand wrapped in his hood, her other locked around the strap of his bag, nearly strangling him.
Aidan scrambled for purchase with his feet, shoved his weight back into her. They fell back and her grip loosened. He jerked his arm up, slammed his elbow into her face. The man sprang from the ground. Still on his back, half-laying on the woman, Aidan kicked out, hard, heard the crunch of a kneecap. He felt more than heard the answering cry. He kicked again, planting the bottom of his boot on the man’s chest. The man toppled, his head slamming back to the pavement. He didn’t move again.
Aidan found his feet in time to block two more strikes from the woman before taking an elbow to the ribs that made him double over. Her fists snapped out, delivered ringing blows to each ear.
That he felt. Fury flared with the pain. Aidan rammed into her, his fist connecting with her temple. She dropped like a rag doll.
Caught up in the torrent of his own rage, Aidan bolted toward the man in the suit. He barely had time to register the gun. Something seared through his chest. He collapsed to the wet pavement, unable to catch himself. Paralysis melted his resistance. The rain turned black.