Nyr covered his mouth with his hand to stifle a laugh that threatened to overpower the noise in the room, but he was only successful compared to his companions. Sitting at a corner table closer to the kitchen than the bar, the current members of the Protectors of Antiquity were enjoying their third round of drinks and surrounded by half empty plates. Of the four, Du’shan’s laugh was the most surprising: he tilted his head back, his body balanced on the back legs of his chair, roaring in a way that made it seem like he always laughed like that. Even Riyad, who had seemed uncharacteristically somber the whole night, was slapping the table in amusement.
“Sands, Jin, you can’t say that shit at dinner! You almost made Nyr’s drink come out his nose!” Riyad said, wrapping his arm around Nyr’s shoulders and giving him a friendly jostle, to Nyr’s secret delight.
Jin rolled his eyes, face flushed from the beer. “Yeah, well, I’m awesome. Get over it. If I left it up to you, we’d be staring off into space in silence. That may be how you have a good time, but me personally, I like to interact with my friends.”
Du’shan nodded, downing his drink in time to get the waitress’s attention for another. She smiled and nodded, heading back to the bar without saying anything; she was used to them and seemed to have caught on to the fact that her tip increased the less she interacted with them verbally. Nyr felt bad that he still referred to her as “the red thong girl.” He knew that she had a real name, but no one seemed to have caught it yet.
“So how come you’re not hittin’ that?” Jin asked, a little louder than necessary. Du’shan was nonplussed and Nyr found himself blushing for him.
“Oh, come on!” Jin leaned across the table, making the plates and glasses clink together. “She’s totally into you. You would have to be blind to miss that. And looking that good, if she wanted me, you know I’d jump right on it.”
Du’shan shook his head, and gave the same answer he always did when the cute waitress was mentioned: “Not interested.”
“Not interested? Du’shan, when they resurrected you, did they forget to bring your dick back to life too?”
Riyad sputtered into a lip-buzzing laugh that Du’shan met with a sideways glare. “I don’t think I need dating advice from a guy who hooked up with Greg Waters.”
It was a risky burn; the table grew quiet as they watched Jin’s reaction. He was smiling like a cat ready to pounce on its prey. “Well, what does that say about you, if even Greg Waters was gettin’ laid and you aren’t?”
“You’re an ass, Jin.”
“And you’re a dick. We’re a match made in pervy, homoerotic heaven. Now ask the bitch for her phone number or I’ll embarrass you when she gets over here with your drink and ruin your chances forever.”
Du’shan looked less than impressed. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back, giving the red-thonged waitress plenty of room to set his new drink down and collect his empty. His eyes dared Jin to start something, calling his bluff the same way he did when they played cards.
The problem was that Jin wasn’t known for backing out of anything, no matter how mundane. His smile melted from cocky to cool in the blink of an eye as he caught the waitress’s attention with a quick wave.
“Miss? Hey--nice panties by the way--but um I couldn’t help but notice you checking my friend out, and if he was in any way a decent human being worthy of the attention, he’d have asked for your number by now. Since he’s not going to ask though, how about that number anyway? I’ll make sure he finds it somewhere and if he’s still a jerk and won’t call and ask you for a date, I will. I’m not a half bad consolation prize, if I do say so myself.” He gave her a wink that turned his face from angelic to devilish. Nyr was fascinated at how open he was about attraction. If there was any fear of rejection in him, it wasn’t apparent.
The waitress hid her face behind curled fingers, eyes glancing sideways at Du’shan, who ignored the entire exchange. She didn’t seem deterred by his reluctance. She took a pen and an unused napkin from her apron pocket and scribbled on it. She put it on the table between Jin and Du’shan. “Call me whenever. My work schedule’s kind of all over the place but I’ll pick up.” He fingers drifted over the table in Du’shan’s direction as she turned and walked back to the bar.
Du’shan was glaring at Jin.
“Well?” Jin asked, smirking in his victory. “You gonna take the number now that it’s right there, or is she mine?”
It looked more to Nyr like Du’shan would rather punch Jin in the face than say anything; Jin had concocted a win-win situation for himself. If Du’shan took the phone number, Jin was right, and if he didn’t, Jin got a date with a pretty waitress.
Du’shan took the napkin and crumpled it into a ball in his fist. “I like coming here. The last thing I need is another restraining order.”
“She doesn’t look like a psycho bitch to me. But if she is, well, then she’s practically my type according to you.” Jin’s smile betrayed a hint of darkness. Apparently the sting about Greg hadn’t gone totally unnoticed.
Du’shan caught it too. He paused for a moment, looking halfway between an apology and an argument, then slipped the crumpled paper into his pocket. “Guess I’ll let you know, then.”
It wasn’t an admission of anything, really, but it was good enough for Jin. He patted Du’shan shoulder and dug into his half-finished food. His crooked grin was the only evidence anything had happened.
Nyr was glad the evening wouldn’t end in a fight. The four of them weren’t prone to fighting amongst themselves, but with the amount of time they spent together, they pushed each other’s buttons, both purposely and otherwise. Jin and Du’shan were naturally more volatile than either Riyad or Nyr. With Jin, it often seemed like a show of dominance; Du’shan was just stubborn. Riyad only got involved in arguments when he got frustrated, but his current state of melancholy made Nyr wonder if someone had taken something too far recently. The business was surviving, Ath’ran was doing well and visited often, and there was nothing physically wrong with him, but Riyad’s mind was weighed down elsewhere.
With another skirmish over, Riyad’s quiet blankness had returned. The Arcadian nibbled on a fry, eyes unfocused and far away. Nyr frowned but said nothing. If it were any of his business, Riyad would talk to him about it.
Somewhat to Nyr’s relief, Jin did not feel the same way. Now that he was finished with Du’shan, he turned his attention to the Riyad, his gaze glittering with impish curiosity and booze. “I doubt you’re having any lady trouble, so what’s wrong with you?”
Riyad seemed only distantly aware he was being spoken to and blinked at Jin. “What? Oh...no. It’s nothing. Stuff,” he said, mostly guessing at what was being asked.
Jin threw a handful of fries at him. “Damn it, I hate Arcadians. We’re supposed to be friends, right? So how come you and Du’shan always have this ‘get out of conversation for free’ card? Hell, I bet Du’shan knows what’s up.”
Du’shan nodded. Riyad sent him a disappointed glare and sat back in his chair. “It’s honestly nothing. And frankly, I don’t even remember telling Du’shan.”
“You didn’t,” he said. “I overheard you talking to Ath’ran.”
“So it’s not just another Arcadian conspiracy.”
Du’shan nodded again, now Jin’s accomplice instead of his adversary. He ignored Riyad’s glare, and began to relate the issue. “It really is a small matter,” he began, “but his father’s invited the family for dinner next week. All of them. Riyad hasn’t seen most of his older siblings in long time and they are not all that friendly to each other.”
“They started it.”
“No doubt you’ll amaze them with your maturity.”
Riyad stuck his tongue out at him.
“You’re all depressed because daddy wants to have you over for supper?” Jin rolled his eyes and slumped in his seat. “Here I thought maybe you’d gotten some girl pregnant and I could have gotten on your case for not telling us you were seeing someone. Why does your life have to be so boring?”
Riyad scowled, throwing Jin’s fries back at him. “Boring?” He stood up and pulled his shirt up to expose taut abs, bellybutton, and a thin trail of hair leading down to the waist of his jeans. Nyr to blushed and look at Du’shan instead.
“See this?” Riyad asked, pointing to his left side. "Efrim stabbed me with a pair of scissors when we were kids, and not by accident. Seven stitches. On the way here from New Arcadia, Samir beat me unconscious every time I woke up for weeks. And you don’t want me to even get started on Anusvar.” He sat back down, mildly aware that other people were staring at their table.
“What did you do to piss them off so much?”
“Nothing. There are almost fifty of us. If dad ever looked as though he favored one more than the others, everyone else hated that one. Dad’s been really good at keeping his distance from all of us, though, so we sort of just guess at which of us is dad’s favorite. My mom was his favorite wife, and I look like my mother, so I was pretty much screwed."
“The fact that everything in life comes easily to you doesn’t help,” Du’shan said.
Riyad looked over at Nyr as though he’d forgotten he was there. Nyr waited patiently, hoping the moment he’d chosen to chime in hadn’t been the wrong one.
“She’s the eldest, Herazade. We call her Anusvar as sort of a nickname. It means jackal.” Riyad smiled, shrugging his shoulders. “She’s the one I mentioned before. Works in the government. She’s one hell of a vicious bitch, but she’s the one I get along with the best. We both do work outside the family--she just gets less flack for it than I do, because she’s dad’s heir. The head of the family is expected to be of impressive social stature. Can’t say it helps that they consider the Protectors of Antiquity to be as impressive as working as a cashier at a convenience store.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I could have been a whore, but I came to work for you guys instead of my aunt. What a waste of my life.”
All eyes turned to Jin in questioning silence. Jin sipped his drink, looking at them over the rim of his glass. “What? You don’t think someone would pay for this? Fuck you.”
Nyr shook his head in shock. “Were you really going to be a prostitute?”
Jin shrugged. “Wasn’t my plan, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. I came to Solace with Auntie Xiao, and she opened a buffet and brothel and I worked a little in both, doing maintenance and stuff. When you see just how much they can make in a night, the money is really tempting though.”
“What made you chose to work for the Protectors of Antiquity?”
“Auntie Xiao’s place is near the fringe. I’m used to a little more excitement in my life, so I wanted to move core-ward. Can’t beat a job that includes a place to stay and it sounded a lot more fun than just some data entry position at a bank or something.” Jin smiled. “Other than Ath’ran, I don’t think any of us thought we’d grow up to work in some basement-level facility doing the shit we do. I mean, Nyr, you were a priest and getting medical training, but you’re not exactly using any of that knowledge on a daily basis. And Du’shan used to beat people up. Now he reads. I, for one, am impressed.”
Du’shan punched him in the arm, more or less good-naturedly, but the look on Jin’s face betrayed how much it had hurt. He rubbed it with a scowl.
Nyr thought about what he had said, though, and turned to Riyad. “What about you? You’ve got a degree. Did you always plan to work with Ath’ran on this or did you have different plans for yourself?”
There was glass. And smoke. Lights flickered as wiring was ripped apart by the mob streaming in through the windows, doors, even the walls in a flickering blur of screams cut short by bursts of shining red. In the moments before the room was flooded by the darkness, Nyr could make out inhuman shapes. Some stood on two feet, some crawled, some had tails that whipped and writhed. They were gray and black and everything in between, grotesque and silent amidst the screams of terror-turned-pain they elicited.
Nyr felt the table tip over, heard glass shatter at his feet, but could no longer see. Someone was shouting words but they were lost. A hand grabbed him, and he thanked god as his heart began to beat again that it was a human hand. He felt himself being pulled and his eyes adjusted so that he could see a swinging metal door and beyond it the abandoned kitchen. He didn’t dare breathe, afraid he’d let out some sound to draw the attention of the monsters. The kitchen ended with a doorway to an alley and Nyr was standing near a trash canister under a single street light.
He fell against the wall, face hidden by the bricks and his own arms as he tried to breath, to think, to stop his legs from shaking so that he could stand up. There were arms again, still human but less forceful, hugging him and touching his head, and there were soft, frightened words that had no meaning to Nyr.
It was Riyad’s voice. Riyad had gotten out. He pulled himself away from the wall to look at him, to make sure he was okay. He was. They both were.
Du’shan’s fist smashed into the wall, the crack of his bones making reality snap back into focus. His eyes were slits and his chest heaved. Nyr could almost see the anger and misery coming off of him. He could not see Jin, though.
Du’shan punched the wall again, harder. Jin wasn’t there.
Jin wasn’t coming.
Nyr brought his hands to his face, covering his mouth and nose in an attempt to keep himself together. The wall didn’t need another person abusing it any more than he needed a broken hand or foot. Riyad was holding him, though, his face pressed against Nyr’s. Things weren’t okay; they weren’t going to be.
Screams filtered past the door, horrible wet gurgles of expired lives. They weren’t only in the bar though: they came from all around. Above, in the apartments off the street, Nyr could hear screaming. They were surrounded by the lethal chaos; it just hadn’t noticed them yet.
“We get home,” Du’shan said at last in a voice Nyr never wanted to hear from him again. “We lock ourselves in and we wait.”
“What about Ath’ran?”
”If I fall over dead then we know he’s died. So long as I’m alive, we know he is. That’s what Alan said.”
Riyad nodded, stepping away to peer out of the alley in the direction of their nearly hidden base. It wasn’t far but the thought of running out into the open kept Nyr’s knees locked in terror. He watched Riyad and Du’shan move together as they looked out at the street, envious of the way they kept fear from crippling them. He used the wall to creep closer to them, afraid of being too far behind if they decided to suddenly make a run for it.
Du’shan’s death was quick. Long, spindly fingers penetrated his chest, and a hand and arm followed it all the way through his chest cavity. Riyad was thrown to the ground behind Du’shan, and his scream was less inhuman than Du’shan’s silence. The attack had been aimed at him by a crawling creature that had descended unseen down the face of the building; Du’shan had seen it coming first and, without time to do anything else, had moved into its path.
Riyad looked up through the spray of blood to see claws mere inches from his face, stretching to reach through Du’shan’s corpse and claw out his eyes. Eyes wide and insane, he scrambled backwards, stumbled to his feet, and ran.
Nyr tried to follow but fell to his knees. He tried to call out to Riyad but his voice was gone. He watched the creature fling Du’shan against a wall, freeing its arm from his corpse. Du’shan crumpled awkwardly, a lifeless doll: broken bones no longer serving to keep his torso in line. He landed facing Nyr, eyes open, blood dripping from his lips.
Nyr’s heart felt cold. He was alone. In less than ten minutes, his entire life had ended one person at a time. Jin, Du’shan and Ath’ran along with him were dead, and Riyad....
Riyad had left him there to die.
His frozen heart dropped somewhere in the vicinity of his knees and shattered. Of course Riyad had left him. Nyr would have slowed them down, gotten them caught. Why should they both die because of him? Riyad had a chance, now. Du’shan’s death had bought him the opportunity and Nyr’s death would buy him the time to use it.
As the shadow passed over him, Nyr bent his head with a prayer on his tongue. His thoughts, even as long nails crept over his scalp, remained on the man he had fallen in love with.