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Darkest Before Dawn

Maya Banks


  HONOR Cambridge applied one of the colorful Band-Aids with yellow smiley faces over the tiny prick that had been made on the arm of the four-year-old boy and offered him a reassuring smile. In flawless Arabic, she told him how brave he’d been not to show fear or distress in front of his mother and upset her further.

  He gave her a toothy grin that already showed signs of male arrogance even at such a young age, as if to tell her of course he’d been brave.

  Though Honor held no medical degree, her training was advanced and she’d learned a lot through trial by fire. Technically her job was as a relief worker, offering aid in its many forms to the poor and oppressed in the small villages caught between warring factions and the never-ending struggle for supremacy.

  Her family supported her absolutely, but she also knew they questioned her burning need to devote her life to the service of others. They were proud of her, but they also wished she had chosen other, safer places to offer help. Not the war-torn Middle East when the threat wasn’t just from other nations but within their country as well from groups, divided by religious, political and cultural differences and unable to tolerate the differences of others. They all wanted to force others to bend to their way of life, and the lengths they went to impose their beliefs on those who didn’t share the same ideology still managed to appall and bewilder Honor despite the fact that she should be hardened by now. Nothing should shock her. And yet . . . Every day she managed to be surprised, because there was always more. When she thought she’d seen it all, something always managed to catch her off guard.

  But to become jaded and cynical was the kiss of death. The day she could no longer feel compassion for the innocent and the oppressed and anger at the senseless violence and despair that was so pervasive in the region she served was the day she needed to find a staid, mindless nine-to-five job, have a safe life where the most dangerous thing she encountered was rush-hour traffic.

  Honor put her hand on the boy’s arm to direct him to his waiting mother, who was already holding the large care package filled with things most people took for granted but were precious commodities in villages where running water was a luxury.

  The entire building suddenly shook and the floor buckled beneath Honor’s feet as though an earthquake were occurring.

  No one screamed. But looks of terror, all too common on the faces of people who’d become dear to Honor, were shared by everyone. Eerie silence ensued, and then . . .

  The world exploded around them, a terrible storm, a whirling vortex of heat, fire and the acrid smell of explosives.

  And blood.

  Death had a smell all of its own. And Honor had seen more blood and death, had smelled it, had witnessed the horrible sight of the very essence of life slowly seep from a once-vibrant human being. An innocent child. A mother seeking only to protect her young. A father slaughtered in front of his entire family.

  Chaos reigned as people ran, no clear direction in mind, and yet Honor viewed the goings-on calmly, as if she were apart from her body and viewing dispassionately the attack on the relief center. One of her coworkers—her friend—screamed at her to take cover and then went utterly still, death in her eyes as blood bloomed over her chest. She sagged like a puppet, her expression not one of pain but of great sorrow. And regret.

  Tears burned the corners of Honor’s eyes as she finally forced herself into motion. There were children to shield. Women to save. The vicious extremist cell would not take them all. It was an oath, a litany that repeated over and over in her mind as she shoved children and mothers alike out of the rear exit and into the desert heat.

  One of the women grasped Honor’s hand when Honor turned to go back in and pleaded with her in Arabic to come with them. To run. To save herself. The extremists would have no mercy. Especially for Westerners.

  Honor gently extricated her hand from the woman’s desperate hold. “May Allah be with you,” she whispered, praying in her heart that God, any God, every God, would stop the hate and bloodshed. The senseless killing of the good and innocent.

  Then she turned and ran back into the building, or what was left of it. Dimly she registered that the lightweight but cool western flip-flops she usually wore had somehow fallen off her feet in the chaos surrounding her, but the last thing on her mind was protecting her feet when her life was at stake.

  She searched frantically for her fellow relief workers. The two doctors who worked tirelessly day and night, sometimes going many nights without sleep because the need for medical aid was so great. The nurses who did the work that many physicians in the United States did and with far less advanced technology or diagnostic tools.

  Everywhere she turned, all she saw was blood, rivers of blood. And death. The stench made her stomach revolt and she clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent herself from being violently ill and to silence the scream that welled from the very depths of her soul.

  There was no solace to be found anywhere she looked, but she could at least be grateful that she didn’t see the bodies of many children, or their mothers. Most had fled, well trained and accustomed to such attacks. Honor’s comrades, her friends, the people who had the same calling as she, hadn’t fared as well.

  The very earth exploded beneath her. Around her. Stone and debris pelted her, battering her in an endless wave of pain and terror. She took a single step, wincing when something sharp cut into her tender foot. And then the already sagging roof collapsed, sending her sprawling painfully across the ravaged floor. Debris rained down on her. No, that was the ceiling caving in on her, pinning her beneath rock, rubble, a shattered beam. The cloud of dust and smoke was so thick she couldn’t suck air into her tortured lungs.

  She wasn’t sure if it was the thickness of the smoke and decimated plaster that made it impossible for her to breathe or if it was the mountain of rubble she was buried under, pressing mercilessly down on her until she was sure every bone in her body would be crushed, unable to withstand the unbearable strain.

  Pain was present. It was there. She knew it. But it was distant. As if it were trying to penetrate the thickest fog surrounding her. Numbness crawled insidiously over and through her body, and she wasn’t sure if it was a blessing to be unable to feel what had to be excruciating pain or if this was the curse of death.

  Her death.

  Her eyelids fluttered sluggishly as she struggled to remain conscious, too afraid that if she gave in to the encroaching darkness, death would win the ultimate battle.

  She wasn’t a stranger to death. She saw it on a daily basis. Nor was she in denial of the enormous risk she took by working in a country not only at constant war with neighboring countries, all with different agendas, beliefs and differing levels of fanaticism, but also divided within their own borders, each region determined to overtake the entire country and force their will on those with opposing viewpoints.

  And then there were those who needed no reason to murder, terrorize and victimize their fellow countrymen. Those were the worst of all. Unpredictable. They reeked of fanaticism, and their only agenda was to strike fear in the hearts of all who crossed them. They wanted glory. They wanted to be feared by their enemy and revered by other factions too afraid to engage them in battle.

  They wanted the world to know of them. Who they were. They wanted people to whisper their name as if afraid of conjuring them by speaking of the monsters too loudly. They’d fast learned that the quickest way to elevate their status, gain worldwide media attention and be able to recruit the elite, the best of the best, ones not only unafraid to give their lives for their “cause” but who embraced the glory of being a martyr was to target Westerners. Americans in particular.

  The U.S. media gave the glory seekers precisely wha
t they craved. Around-the-clock coverage every time they launched another attack. And with that attention came ambition for more. They’d grown bolder, rapidly expanding their network, their power giving pause to the very nations that would ordinarily condone such hatred of the West.

  Such power made leaders of oil-rich countries nervous. So much so that an unprecedented summit had been called, bringing together sworn enemies to discuss the ever-growing problem of a fanatical group with power, wealth, military might and unprecedented numbers joining with each passing day.

  Men and women from all corners of the earth. What could possibly inspire such hatred? Such a thirst for pain, violence, hurt and suffering?

  Honor shuddered as the numb shell surrounding her showed signs of fragmenting, and for a moment pain assaulted her, taking her breath. Black crept into her vision, the light growing dimmer and dimmer. Tears burned like acid, but she refused to give in to them. She was alive. At least for now. None of the other relief workers had been as fortunate.

  The building looked as though a meteor had hurtled through the earth’s atmosphere and decimated the entire area. Half of the roof had collapsed, and judging by the creaking and groaning that echoed with the faintest whisper of wind, the rest wasn’t far behind.

  She’d never get out. And for that matter, perhaps her fellow relief workers had received mercy from a higher being. A quick death was surely better than what awaited any survivors discovered by the bloodthirsty savages who’d wrought such devastation.

  Why had she been left to suffer? Why was she without mercy and grace? What sin had she committed to survive only to be condemned to hell, a fate worse than death? A cold chill dug deep into her battered body and clung tenaciously to her bones, her blood. She was freezing from the deepest recesses of her soul when around her the world was on fire, the flames of hell greedily consuming its victims.

  “Get a grip, Honor,” she muttered, her words slurring, evidence that she was in shock.

  Here she was whining because she was alive. She’d survived the impossible and worse, her coworkers hadn’t and she’d dared to envy them? She’d been spared when no one else had. It had to mean something. Her life had purpose. There was still much for her to do. God wasn’t finished with her yet, and here she lay amid the rubble of destruction acting the ungrateful child for having lived. Never had she felt so ashamed. What would her family think? They certainly wouldn’t be upset that she was still alive. Her death would cause them endless pain. She was the baby. The youngest of six siblings and she was dearly loved by all. They might not like that she put herself at such risk, but they understood her calling and supported her. They were proud of her. If for no one else, she would survive for them.

  The sound of raised voices, barked orders and debris being shoved aside froze Honor where she lay trapped. Panic welled, her heart accelerating wildly. Her breaths, already ragged and painful, grew even more so. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to make a sound.

  The soldiers were picking through the ruins looking specifically for the Westerners—the people who ran the relief center and offered aid to refugees. Their triumph over the success of their attack sickened Honor. There were gleeful shouts as one after another, a worker was found dead. Tears tightened her throat when it was suggested that the bodies be dragged from the clinic and lined up so photos could be taken and shown to the world, a warning to others that their presence was offensive.

  Oh God, what would happen when they found her? They were systematic in their search, almost as if they knew who the relief workers were and how many there were. If they were happy over so many dead, how much more excited would they be to have a live hostage? Someone to make an example of.

  The building creaked and groaned, the remaining walls protesting the weakness of the structure. More debris rained down, pelting the entire area. Honor barely managed to hold in a sound of pain when something hit the objects covering her, causing them to crush her even more.

  The invaders were suddenly cautious and wary, their talk going to whether it was safe to continue their systematic body count. When one suggested they get out immediately—before what remained of the shell of the building fell down around their ears—an argument broke out, the voices loud and harsh and entirely too close for Honor’s comfort.

  They were near her and drawing closer all the time. She could all but hear their breaths, feel the urgent exhalation over her neck even though she knew that wasn’t possible. But she felt hunted. Just as prey surely must feel when a predator was closing in for the kill.

  She closed her eyes and prayed to live when just moments earlier she’d lamented the fact that she hadn’t died. A fervent prayer became a litany in her mind not only to live, but to survive. To escape, unscathed, the terrible fate she’d endure were she discovered by the soldiers who thought nothing of raping, torturing and killing women. Or children, for that matter.

  A shudder quaked through her body before she could call it back, and then she held her breath, hoping she hadn’t betrayed herself. She forced calm she didn’t feel to settle over her body, blocking out the pain and gut-wrenching fear. Never had she been more terrified than she was at this moment. No amount of preparing, no number of close calls with militants bent on destruction could possibly have given her a glimpse into the reality she’d spent too many months to count mentally bracing herself for.

  In her heart she’d felt it inevitable that she would face ultimate fear, pain, but she’d never truly allowed herself to think she could be killed doing what she felt was her calling in life. Her parents had tried to convince her. They’d pleaded with her in the beginning, even going so far as to say they didn’t want to lose their “baby.”

  Her four older brothers and older sister had all gathered to attempt to persuade her not to go, pulling out the big guns, telling her they wanted her to be a part of her nieces’ and nephews’ lives. Her sister had tearfully held Honor’s hand tightly in hers and chokingly said she wanted her sister to be at her wedding, at her side, even though her sister had no plans to marry anytime soon.

  She’d almost given in to their emotional blackmail. Inwardly she winced. Blackmail was too harsh a word. All they’d done and said had been out of love. It had been her mother in the end, sensing Honor’s battle between wanting to please her family, wanting their happiness, and answering her need to serve others in embattled, terrorized nations, who had gathered the family together and quietly but firmly told them to stand down.

  There had been so much love and understanding—and pride—in her gaze as she’d looked at Honor, tears glittering brightly in her eyes. Honor had felt it like a tidal wave, consuming her. Love, her mother’s love squeezed her insides and warmed her heart as nothing else ever had.

  No, her mother hadn’t wanted Honor to go, but she understood. And she had told her husband and her other children that it was time to let go and allow Honor to fly. To be whom she was meant to be. It was her time to shine, when throughout her young life she’d been the quiet one, reveling in the accomplishments and happiness of her siblings as each followed their chosen paths.

  Her mother’s speech had shamed her siblings and her father, though that was never what Honor wanted. Each had offered their unconditional support and her father had hugged her tightly, gruffly telling her that she would always be his baby and to promise him she would make it back home.

  Her chest swelled and ached, tears burning her eyelids once more as she considered the possibility that she would break her promise to her father.

  Another rumble rolled through the battered building, and more debris and parts of the ceiling still intact came tumbling down on and around Honor. She heard coughing and muttered curses and then hope sprang to life when she’d thought she had none.

  The militants came to the agreement—the conclusion—that they needed to evacuate the crumbling shell before they got trapped. Or killed.

  The talk became lighter, relief seeping into some of the voices that had argued for the
ir departure. They pointed out that dead bodies went nowhere and no one could have possibly have survived the explosions and deadly snipers who’d picked victims off as they attempted to flee.

  Honor stifled a sob of grief. So many senseless deaths and for what? Because they were rendering aid to people desperately in need?

  The next words she heard, growing fainter as the men began their retreat, froze Honor to the bone.

  They would return once it was safe and locate each victim, ensuring that none of the aid workers had eluded death. God. They knew each worker. Had studied their targets. And provided Honor could even free herself before they returned to do their macabre accounting, they would know she hadn’t died.

  Which meant that they’d ruthlessly hunt her because above all else, this group was intolerant of failure. And if even one—Honor—escaped with her life, then their objective had not been achieved.


  HONOR came awake with dim awareness, her mind fogged. Disorientation had her in its firm grip and she struggled to make sense of her current situation. At once, pain slammed into her, as though it had simply been waiting for her awareness, annoyed that she’d slipped into unconsciousness and evaded its harsh, punishing pull.

  She panted softly and peered through the piles of debris atop her and experimentally tried to wiggle her body, testing not only for more severe pain that would signal serious injury but also to see if she had any chance at getting herself out of the rubble pinning her to the floor.

  It was pitch-black, signaling that night had fallen. She breathed a sigh of relief before quickly realizing that she wasn’t out of the woods by a long shot. The night only helped her if she could somehow extricate herself from her prison and be mobile enough to flee into the protection of the dark.

  Before despair could completely envelop her, she firmly pushed the negative emotion away. She was in enough danger without her convincing herself she had no chance. At this point, hope was all she had. And a very strong will to survive. To not be defeated by men who thrived on pain, fear and complete subjugation of everyone who didn’t hold to their ideology.

  She would get home. She would find a way. And by God, when she did, she’d send the biggest “fuck you” to the terrorist cell that had murdered her coworkers—her friends—and let them know that a simple American woman took their best shot and survived it.

  Imbued by a new sense of purpose and determination, she set her mind to figuring out what she could move and what the best course of action was to pull herself from the carnage under which she found herself imprisoned.

  The minutes ticked by with agonizing slowness. Pain was her constant companion. Sweat bathed her body, but she was too damp for only sweat. She knew she was bleeding. Not horribly so and not fast or she wouldn’t be conscious. But sticky warmth clung to her skin and she could smell it now that the acrid smell of mold, plaster, destroyed stone and wood and the chemical smell of explosives had diminished, carried away by the night wind.

  She took her time, testing each part of her body, starting with her feet. She wiggled her toes and then flexed her feet and then rotated her legs as best she was able, wincing when her knee bumped into a jagged piece of stone. The walls of the clinic were completely stone, the ceiling made of wood with heavy beams supporting the structure. The floor was concrete and no amount of sweeping or cleaning prevented the sand from blowing in and accumulating on every surface. It made trying to keep a sterile environment one bitch of a job, and infection was always a worry among the doctors and nurses.

  Her knee felt tight. Swollen. And very sore. She bent it slowly in small increments, not wanting to do further damage if it was badly injured, but she desperately needed to have the use of her legs. Her arms weren’t as important. But she needed her legs and feet to get her the hell away from this place. As quickly as humanly possible.

  She couldn’t count on help coming in. No rescue. The State Department had issued a decree ordering all U.S. citizens from the region, and there would be no aid for those who ignored the warning. There were no U.S. troops in the area. No embassy. No American presence here at all.

  And no other group or country’s military dared to oppose the militant savages for fear of reprisal. They were too busy holding a summit where everyone talked the issue to death instead of taking action, a fact that infuriated Honor.

  How could any government turn away from the pain and suffering of countless men, women and children in such a widespread area? Why wasn’t there more public outrage? God only knew it was reported in the media around the clock. Was everyone so fatigued by the constant coverage that it had become tedious and they’d distanced themselves? Or were they just so smug and comfortable in their safe environment that they had no care for the plight of others?

  She harnessed the helpless rage that clawed at her, and she held it to her. It served to heighten her determination and strength to free herself.

  After her careful examination of her limbs and the areas of her body that protected her most vital organs, she was satisfied—or perhaps merely hopeful—that she could do this.

  She started with her hands, scratching and shoving away all manner of clutter, swearing when her fingers caught on sharper objects, slicing the skin and causing her to bleed. Her fingernails tore raggedly, ripping into the quick, but it was minor compared to the pulsing pain in the rest of her body and only sharpened her drive. The more setbacks she incurred, the angrier she grew, and adrenaline took the place of pain and the self-defeating thought process her mind seemed to be caught up in.

  It was hard to work, positioned as she was—on her stomach or rather awkwardly angled slightly to her side. It forced her to work mostly with one hand, the one not bent under her body and useless except to clear what it could reach.

  She had no concept of the passing of time, only the urgency that she escape before dawn, when the killers would no doubt return to resume their body count. She bit into her lip to hold back her tears of grief, determined that they wouldn’t beat her. Only she could tell the stories of the now-dead heroes and heroines who’d devoted their lives to helping others. Only she could bear witness to the atrocity committed here, and their bravery and selflessness would not go unheralded. Not if she had anything to say about it.

  After what seemed to be hours, she had uncovered the entire upper half of her body and for a moment she sank down, resting her cheek against the floor as she prepared for the next step. Somehow she had to turn over and sit as upright as possible so she could work on freeing the lower half of her body. Her legs. Her only hope for getting away from this place.

  Gathering her strength—and courage—she began twisting her body, wincing as every muscle protested the awkward movement. She felt weak as a kitten. Sweat now soaked her tattered clothing. Between it and the blood coating portions of her body, her pants and shirt stuck to her like they’d been glued on.

  Her injured knee would give her the greatest problem. She had to rotate her entire bottom half, regardless of the weight pressing down on it.

  Gritting her teeth, she planted one palm down on the floor and twisted her upper body so that her other hand hovered inches above the floor on her other side. She pushed upward, straining, twisting and then gasping as pain splintered through her legs. Both of them.

  God, would she be unable to walk after all? Had she broken them both, and was she in too much shock to feel the breaks? The only pain she could identify was in her knee.