Chapter 5 - Ransacked
We found what was left of the captain lying in the corridor leading from her quarters to the main cavern. The walls gave evidence to a fierce and moving battle, deep chunks of rock had been ripped from the walls with stony fragments scattered everywhere. Her caved-in head, spine, and most of her ribcage were all that remained. They had stripped her clean: armor and boots, soul orbs and meat, all had been taken. Only bloody bones and small scraps of muscle and tendon remained.
Just like they had done to Biff outside and all the other guards.
“We shouldn’t stay.” Hank was at my side, facing away to constantly scan both ends of the corridor. He’d picked up a chunk of two-by-four , holding it in a light but steady grip. By his practiced balance he’d clearly had military training; of course the dog-tags, regulation-cropped brown hair, and numerous scars had already given that much away. Twitch was at the entrance to the passage, his own twin blades unsheathed. When we’d arrived outside he had stared at the smoke still flowing outward and balked at entering; I had to practically shove him inside.
Almost felt guilty about doing that, but I really didn’t want to leave him outside alone.
“My room first,” I said, pushing down the wave of nausea threatening to add to the mess before us. Smoke still hung along the ceiling, fortunately the corridors in this part were high enough that we were under most of it. We had taken the lantern crystals from the wagon to find our way as all the interior lanterns were missing, plucked free from their mounted holders.
Whoever had attacked the base had done a darn good job of stripping away anything of value.
Steadying myself with a hand against a wall dented from the captain’s dying efforts, I turned to Hank. “Get Twitch to take you to the kitchens. See if there’s any food. They probably took everything but we still need to check. Tell him to take you to the vault after.”
Hank’s hand touched my shoulder. “Splitting up ain’t a good idea. In case they left skirmishers behind.”
I shook my head. “They didn’t. The only spirits here are us.” Before we’d gone in I’d already scanned the patterns for any sign of souls - be they free or trapped inside demons. “Inside the vault is the only spot I’m not entirely sure about. Don’t go in there until I catch up.”
He clearly didn’t approve but didn’t debate further. “Alright.” Moving quickly he and Twitch disappeared around the bend, leaving me alone with the captain’s remains.
Bending down I closed her eyes. “Sorry, Cap,” I whispered. Dammit. If we hadn’t detoured to pick up Hank, maybe we would have been back in time.
Once again I’d failed to be there for those I should.
Rising self-loathing got me moving again, running down the halls past room after room also ransacked by the invaders. Mine was at the end and it was with grim satisfaction that I noted some barbecued demons scattered in front of my doors amidst more rubble.
The felwood I’d spent a fortune on was still standing, their defensive magics having done their job. Quick examination revealed that the demons had been clad in rather expensive cloth and one had even died while clutching a book. All that was left of the volume was its leather-bound spine as the pages themselves were only so much ash on the floor. An axe handle with a shattered blade told the story that they’d tried brute force first but when that failed they must have resorted to fire magic which had rebounded right into their faces.
It’s rather difficult to open doors when the local reality had been programmed to keep them shut and untouched.
Even these bodies had been stripped of anything useful. In fact the smudged scorch marks on the floor indicated one had been removed entirely. But their cloaks had been too damaged by the flames to be worth trying to salvage. Picking up a scrap of the black cloth I blew off enough ash to make out a golden equilateral triangle that had each side pierced by a short line segment. It wasn’t a symbol I recognized.
Placing a palm against the dark planks clicked the locks immediately open, my own pattern being the only key which granted access not just through the doors but past all the stones which made up the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room behind.
When I ward a space I don’t mess around.
Stepping inside I worked quickly to get what I had come for: spare clothes and the sack of denarii I’d shoved into the rock for even safer keeping. Yipe had offered to hold my earnings in the vault, he acted as the local bank and kept ledgers for most of our crew, but call me old-fashioned as the mattress-full-of-cash technique had seemed wiser.
Case in point being today.
Mirroring the invaders I also then stripped all the lanterns in my quarters of their crystals, adding them to the sack. Other than those and a few alternate and unflattering outfits, that was it for all that I’d accumulated over many cycles.
Though I had a feeling I was going to seriously miss the tub.
With clothes, sack, and spear I bid farewell to my temporary sanctum and made my way down to the vault.
Twitch and Hank were waiting outside Yipe’s office entranceway. Hank was kneeling on the stone, running fingers over long scratches leading away from the office.
“What is it?” I asked.
Hank wiped dust from his hands and stood up. “Some heavy things got dragged out of there.” He pointed at the double doors to the office which were still closed. “We waited before goin’ in, like you said.”
“Good.” Dropping everything but the spear, I stood before the doors and scanned past them for any signs of spirit.
I couldn’t see anything, not even the wards that once had blocked my sight from delving deeper.
“Shit,” I said before kicking the doors open.
Yipe’s desk had been tossed to one side, landing in a crumpled pile of wood against a wall. As for the vault, the entire metal door had been ripped off its hinges and now leaned against the wall opposite what was left of the desk.
“That took serious muscle,” Hank marveled. “The demons around here usually that strong?”
“Old ones are.” Approaching the vault’s opening I shone some crystal light around its insides. Yipe’s pristinely organized shelves on the back wall had all been torn out, the many lockboxes which had once sat upon them were gone along with the other usual contents. He’d kept soul orbs sorted by intensity on different shelves and separate from his cash reserves. There they would wait for the next scheduled train to be shipped back to the Hole and on to Duke Valgor where the fat bastard probably cackled maniacally before using them as suppositories or something equally horrible. As for how I knew the Duke was fat, the pink blubbery demon’s portrait had held a permanent spot above the dining table in the mess hall.
“Well that’s new,” I commented while staring at the large hole in the rock where the back shelves had hung. The opening was about six feet tall and many feet wide with a larger space behind. Stepping further into the vault itself was easy, all the debris from the shelves and the rock that had been busted out to make the hole had been shoved to the sides just like Yipe’s desk had been. Thus there was a clear path from the hole all the way out to the corridors beyond.
Hank followed me in. “What they pulled out came from in there. Any ideas on what it was?”
Shining a light into the space behind the vault showed an empty ten by twelve area. “No clue. I thought only cash and souls were kept in here. Twitch, did you know about this?” I looked back over to him and he shook his head in the negative.
“Had to be seriously valuable,” Hank said. “The raiders must’ve known about the extra storage.”
The light from the crystal swung over the debris in the vault as I went to exit. “Dammit.” Under a broken board could be seen five dead eyes staring blankly upward. “They killed Yipe too.”
“The vaultkeeper.” Which reminded me. “Twitch, any sign of Cookie?”
Another negative head shake.
“What about the kitchen?”
Hank answered for him. “Cleared out. Shelves emptied, ice storage rooms and all. Oven doors ripped off without anyone bothering to douse the fires in ‘em; a few of the counters are still burning hence all the smoke.”
“That is going to be a problem,” I said, turning to march back to the main cavern. The two metal doors were ajar, the one on the left looking like it’d been kicked in by something whose foot was about the size of our wagon hitched outside. Staring at it all something felt wrong. “This doesn’t make sense.”
“How so you reckon?”
“Not sure. Just a feeling.”
Hank considered. “Try unpacking it piece by piece. List observations, don’t assume causes, and just see what you get.”
I looked at him. “You some sort of investigator?”
The newly arrived soul shrugged. “Tactical training. Give it a go.”
“Alright.” I pointed at the massive dent in the solid defensive door. “Something big enough to do that should never have made it all the way here. The soul scanner should have easily picked up on its approach and the lockdown wards activated.”
“They were inside before the Captain could get to her quarters. Her fight started in the corridor and she was forced to retreat. The damage shows a lot of close up fighting and slamming things about which meant she didn’t have her longbow. She must have been taken by surprise and didn’t have it at hand. If she’d known they were outside she would have taken the fight to them first at range using the bow. Which means the whole place was taken by surprise too.”
“How does this ‘soul scanner’ thingabob work?”
“The dish outside - you know, the one on the ground all messed up - sweeps the outlying area for signs of souls, spots where the reality is more ‘solid’ due to their presence and then hones in on traces of spiritual resonance. It’s how we know where to go to find newly arrived souls when they end up here.”
“It controlled from somewhere?”
“Operations room. This way.”
We hurried to find yet another room which had been thoroughly tossed. The lock was neatly punched out and inside the planning tables had been flipped over, chairs smashed up, and the maps ripped from the walls. Maybe they were looking for hidden safes. Even the wiring which ran up a couple walls and was bundled into a single conduit that ran out the room and down the hall had been stripped. The wide station where our Wayfinders would get their updates was completely destroyed. Crystal-embedded metal shards were all that was left of the delicate scanning equipment, its control panel and housing shattered into a pile of glittering pieces.
“Dang,” I muttered. That weird feeling was niggling at my thoughts again.
“Y’all were betrayed from within,” Hank announced matter-of-factly.
Twitch and I both whirled to face him.
“Say again?” I demanded.
He gestured to the station wreckage. “Think it through. Equipment like this has got to be worth a pretty penny more’n those lanterns which they’ve stripped from the walls. If that gizmo had been functional they would have taken it with them.”
It clicked. “You’re right.” I went back to the door and examined the small hole where the lock used to be. Something very sharp had cut it free. Doors to all the other rooms had been simply smashed in (mine being an exception, ha!), but for this one someone had taken the time to do it carefully. And quietly.
“If someone took out the scanner the rest could approach without being spotted, right?” Hank leaned against a wall and stroked his chin. “How far did its range extend and how quickly could that distance be covered?”
I frowned. “It reached pretty darn far. A force capable of taking down the Captain has to be formidable either in numbers or sheer power focused into a few. Either way would give a huge signal. I haven’t seen any fast-moving vehicles since getting here, though some demons can fly.”
Hank looked around, noting the handful of chairs and size. “This room used often?”
“Often enough,” I replied, catching the drift of his question. “Simple sabotage wouldn’t cut it, that’d get noticed.” Pulling pieces of the scanner free of each other I rummaged amidst the bits that were left. A few cycles ago the Captain had splurged for an upgrade to get better range out of it by replacing the central crystal: the part that would vibrate just so in response to the right spirit energies. To get to it required opening the entire unit up and carefully extracting the core from a gold mesh that was connected by wiring to the dish up top. I’d watched the whole thing because I’d been curious how the device worked, wondering about the mechanisms which could project its detections over a map on the opposite wall. The arcane rune-covered cabinet had been designed to make it easy to do the updates as apparently the crystals were only good for so long. Its old hunk of emerald with these spiky edges had been swapped for a new and smooth azure orb within a couple minutes.
An orb that wasn’t here.
“Bastards took the core. But why that and not the whole thing?”
“Ease of transport?” Hank asked.
I shook my head. “They must have had a lot of wagons or some other means to move all the supplies from the kitchens. This unit is what, four feet by two by one? Small potatoes.” Grateful for having sewn the gloves back together, I lifted the wire mesh free and examined it closely. The thin wires showed signs of overload, what was supposed to be a tiny grid of wiring had partially melted. “Someone hacked it.”
“Hacked? Like a computer?”
“Sort of. Random trivia for you: did you know that the term ‘hacking’ originated with MITs Model Railroad Club in the sixties and all the mods they kept making to their really complex track switchings? I bet these invader jerks used a hacked version of a core, probably with some kind of frequency filter on it. Something that would prevent their own presences from showing up.”
Hank was nodding. “Their inside guy - or demon - swapped it out with a ringer is what you’re saying.”
“Yeah. And who knows how long the device was running normally otherwise. But the filtering must have caused some backlash when the enemy got too close and fried the mesh. See? It’s toast. No longer worth taking.” I tossed the wires back into the pile.
“Any thoughts on who?”
I frowned. “One of the guards maybe? Though I don’t see how they’d get the opportunity to be suckered into such a thing. Of us reapers, Hallgyx was late getting back before Twitch and I took off, Barry and Charles were going to try and find him. Reapers are an odd group, loners really and all volunteers so I don’t see motive from us - well, except for Charles. His mother made him come.”
“His mom?” Hank chuckled. “Is Charles human or demon?”
“Demon. His mother is the Duke’s current paramour. If he did this, he’s signed her death warrant.”
“There are many kids with mommy issues.”
Hard to argue that. “True. Okay, yeah, he’s on the list.”
While Hank and I had been pondering the scanner situation, Twitch had been busy rummaging through the rest of the room. He stepped back over to us while shaking his head seriously.
“What is it?” I asked.
He mimed holding a phone to his ear then held up both empty hands before gesturing to the rest of the room.
“Seriously? They took the communicator too?”
Twitch nodded in disgust, crossing his arms.
“Radio?” Hank asked.
“No. Physics doesn’t work here the same as on Earth. At least that’s what I’ve been told. It was more like a hard-line phone; I think it used the train rails in lieu of telephone wires. Connected this outpost to the next one over and so on through the loop until reaching the Hole.”
Hank gave a weak grin. “Far too much here that I don’t know yet. What’s the ‘Hole’?”
“It’s an access tunnel that goes between the dark outer side of the bowl of this realm to the inner light side. There’s apparently this simulated sun on the other side, maintained and powered by souls. I’ve never been there though.”
“They got a backup phone?”
Twitch picked up a scrap of paper with most of the halls of the outpost diagrammed on it and pointed to the vault.
I cursed. “If it was in the vault then they took the spare too.”
Stepping over a broken chair, Hank picked up the remnants of a larger map and held it open for examination. “Next question of survival importance. How far to the nearest place of re-supply and will they try to bust up that place next?”
That’s when it hit home how bad our situation was.
We were three souls and two already about-to-starve graxh with no food and no means to call for help. We did have Twitch’s magic waterskin as a source of clean drinkable water which was at least one plus. As long is it didn’t run out for some reason. However the nearest outpost was at least thirty sleeps away by graxh, longer by foot.
An attacking force must have left this place and gone somewhere, and if we weren’t careful we might just run into their backsides and then meet the same fates as those who had been here.
Worst of all, someone had betrayed the Captain and could need a convenient patsy to blame it all on. And who better than the still-recently-arrived smart-mouthed reaper who kept mostly to herself and appeared to have a chip on her shoulder against demons?
“You know,” I said with a groan, “no matter how you look at it, this has been a really crappy day. C’mon Hank, we’ve a mountain to climb.”
A cold wind blew across the top of the outpost’s hill though I’d been through some much colder.
Doesn’t mean I liked it any better.
“See anything, ma’am?” Hank stood below at the pedestal’s base, shivering under one of the extra blankets I’d pulled from my room. He was holding up a glowstone which cast its pale light across the small peak where the Wayfinder Array had been mounted before getting knocked off its perch.
The illumination didn’t even reach the ground below where the wreckage lay and our two graxhs kept bleating their hungry confusion to Twitch wondering why there still was no welcome-home feast to gorge upon. As far as what could be visibly seen we stood within a rather small bubble enclosed on all sides by unvarying darkness.
“Not yet,” I grumbled. “Shut up and let me concentrate.”
With a sigh I took hold of a twisted metal strut to steady myself and again opened perceptions up to the patterns, this time on as wide a scan as I could manage.
The ever-present burning across my back intensified and I choked out a grunt, forcing that inner sight despite the pain.
If Hank had heard he didn’t say anything. Smart.
Twitch had pointed out the numerous tracks scuffed into the dirt outside the base but it was such a mess that it wasn’t clear which way the attackers had gone. And it wouldn’t be too hard to take a group a sleep’s worth distance and then change direction just to make it more challenging. We couldn’t trust just the tracks we could see here.
Considering how little we actually kept here at the reaper outpost, attacking it had to be part of some other plan. If they’d come out of the Spires as was suspected - driving some of the resident non-social demons ahead of them - then this had to be only their first stop. Maybe they’d keep going along the train tracks to knock off each outpost in turn before completing the horseshoe loop at the Hole. But when factoring in that they’d had someone on the inside betray us to let the assholes in, they were relying on surprise which such a circuitous route risked losing - something which Hank had pointed out. See? Smart!
Going with Hank’s well-reasoned thinking I focused my attention first to the South. Empty sigils of frozen ground flowed past, reaching towards the limits of our Wayfinder and the border of the Hole’s more powerful one.
Which is where I found them.
“Holy crud. Hey Hank? There’s a sizable force just outside the Hole’s scanning range.”
“And just what do you mean by ‘sizable’?”
“Uh, on the order of at least a thousand souls worth.” The sparks all flickered in clumps, which made it really hard to count the demons. “Even at an average of ten souls per beast, that’s on the order of a hundred demons. But to control that lot? Their leader likely has twice that if not more.”
“How does that shake out in terms of power? I weren’t fightin’ literal demons in Iraq. Throw me some reference pointers.”
I considered. “Put it this way: our captain - who they slaughtered - had eighteen souls. They caught her in the corridors below where she couldn’t really open up without risking burying herself in a cave collapse, a fact which likely worked to the attackers’ advantage. But the one time I saw her go at it full? She had not quite the punch of a modern Abrams, maybe equivalent to a World-War-Two Sherman.”
“Hmm. Group strength then akin to a pair of Armor Companies. You know, a force that size needs a fair amount of support and supplies. They walking or using vehicles?”
Frowning, I tried to get the patterns into better focus and despite the freezing air I began to sweat. “I think they’ve got graxh which means wagons, and a bunch of live souls as servants by which I mean slaves.”
“Can this Hole of yours defend against ‘em?”
“I’ve never been there. It’s likely a bunker like our outpost just larger. Probably has magical defenses, but honestly I’ve no clue as to how good.”
“You said they likely came from some ‘Spires’ out West. Take a look that way and see if you can spot if they’ve got any reinforcements coming.”
That made sense. It was also a scary thought.
Shifting ninety degrees the shoulder burn flared even more intense. I needed to make this quick.
“I don’t see anything,” I said as the empty plains code whisked past. “Wait. There are dots climbing into the Spires, though they’re moving away from here.”
Four demons, each likely on their own wagon with a single graxh, were making their way up the lower hills along a switchback-style trail. The one in front glowed with a light brighter than any in the invasive force.
As I narrowed in to get a proper count of souls, it flared brighter still - and then disappeared, taking the rest with it.
“What the hell?” Attempting a surge of power to get the vision back, I tried pulling more from that now-distant column of light hovering perpetually at the edges of my perceptions.
As I did, the wound across my insubstantial wing tore as if flesh and muscle had been ripped apart.
This time I couldn’t help it. I cried out, the grip on the metal support the only thing which kept me standing.
“Jordan!” Hank scrambled up the maintenance ladder and seeing me swaying on my feet the way I was, quickly got an arm around my back and under an armpit. “It’s alright, I got you. What happened?”
Determined not to pass out I concentrated on breathing, steady and slow. “Old wound,” I mumbled. “Powering up aggravates it.”
“You didn’t say nothing ‘bout being wounded. Let’s get you below.”
“It’s not physical. Give me a moment. I’ll be fine. I just need to sit.”
He eased me down onto the concrete pad. “Where you hurt? And how bad?” His voice was a blend of concern and tactical focus.
I chuckled weakly. “From right before I died, sliced across-” I hesitated. “Across a shoulder blade. It’s a spirit wound. Ran into a fae with a cursed magic sword that cut deep.”
“Sounds like quite a story there.”
“Not today, there isn’t.”
“Still, you were surprised right before the pain hit.” The soft lighting from the crystals made his eyes look as blue as an ocean. I hadn’t realized it before but he was rather handsome. He’d manifested as if he was in his mid-thirties but those eyes showed an older depth. They’d seen much, those twin oceans, of pain but also joy.
“I had them in sight,” I said. “Then they went poof. It’s like they activated a cloaking device. You know, like from Star Trek.”
He stiffened. “Did they notice you searching them out?”
I shifted my knees, trying to find a more comfortable arrangement on the hard surface. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Then we can’t stay here.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious. Staying here means we starve; they took all the food. We’ll have to make for the closest outpost and hope the attackers didn’t divide their forces to send some that way too.”
“That’s to the East, right? You didn’t scan that way.”
“No, and I better recover for a few days before trying to do that again.”
“Yeah well, if we tried to split the difference and aim for the middle of the horseshoe of outposts it would take too long. As it is the closest outpost is a good thirty sleeps away by graxh. Maybe more. The graxh aren’t likely to survive the entire distance, and the hungrier you and Twitch get the slower you’ll walk.”
“What about you? You have to eat too.”
“I’m weird. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
It was true. Many cycles ago there’d been a screwup with our supplies and severe rationing had been imposed on our outpost. It was then that I’d discovered I really didn’t need to eat, as any hunger I would start to feel would just dissipate if given time. Back on Earth I’d been able to shift back and forth between spirit and physical manifestation, and whenever I’d gone physical I’d never felt hungry right after. It would happen only hours later.
Whereas here in Hell there didn’t seem to be as much a separation between spirit and physical. As if the bodies everyone wore were more illusionary than solid, maintained by the realm’s design which happened to include the perception of hunger. Souls here suffered endlessly with all the effects of starvation until it simply got bad enough for the soul to collapse inward into a soul-ball and cease responding to anything external out of sheer despair.
I had a weird suspicion that while I appeared to be here physically, I wasn’t really. Like somehow my spirit just maintained its own illusion in order to interact with the realm. It was just a theory, the pain across my back had prevented any experiments. Cuts and bruises took awhile to heal all the same, maybe a bit faster than they did for other souls but not by that much.
Hank was staring at me dubiously but let it drop. “The sooner we get going, the sooner we can arrive.” He offered a hand to help me up.
With a groan, I let him pull me to my feet. As I went to move past him to the ladder he stopped me.
“Your cloak. It’s wet.” Reaching out he brushed the aching shoulder blade with a pair of fingertips. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You’re bleeding.”
I sighed. “Not really.”
Holding out the fingers, his expression hardened. “This is blood.”
Shaking my head, I pulled an arm out of the cloak. “Take a closer look. You’ll find it’s only wet on the outside.”
Putting the glow crystal between his teeth, he peeled the thick cloak away from the lighter shirt I wore underneath.
Despite being wrapped up in the makeshift bra, the sudden cold hit my nipples like a pair of icepicks. I had to throw an arm over them in self-defense. “Gah!”
Oblivious to my discomforts both physical and emotional, Hank was busy examining both sides of the fabric and to his dismay realized that I was right.
I’d bled, but not from my skin. The wing had manifested its blood directly onto the outer layer of the cloak.
“How?” he asked, holding the evidence out at me accusingly.
“Like I told you,” I said with a shrug. “I’m weird. Let’s round up Twitch and the graxh. You sure picked a crappy time to die and end up here, dude. This trip is totally going to suck.” I pushed past to start my way back down.
Behind me I heard him mutter, “Like there’s ever a good time to be damned to Hell?”
Chapter 6 - Instruments
“What has he done?”
Ornate double doors guarding the council chamber of Heaven slammed open as Beliel, in black-armored angelic form, strode within. The two soldiers posted outside the high-ceilinged room peered past his shoulders with unsure glances to where Archangel Michael, Prince and Defender of the Throne, sat with wings of gleaming ivory folded calmly behind him.
Michael flicked sapphire eyes at his men who quickly lowered their spears and closed the doors.
Beliel marched forward to loom over the long council chamber, glaring from behind the battle-scarred helm at the six archangels seated upon their backless red-velvet ottomans. A sigil-carved table divided them into three and three, with a single cushioned seat remaining empty at the other end. Light streamed through tall arched windows on both sides of the otherwise empty space, but the illumination no longer held the intensity to banish all shadows.
With no immediate answer, Beliel pounded a mailed fist against the marble table, sending a crack along its center.
It was Azrael who replied. From within the depths of a hooded cloak the usual booming voice of Judgment sounded strangely subdued - as if for the first time uncertain.
“The First has abandoned his duties.”
“And you let him?” Beliel roared. Immaculately stained glass shook in their frames, surviving only by virtue of the perfection of their crafting. “Yet here you all sit! Huddle not as scared rabbits and go knock sense into that most prideful of heads! Bring. Him. Home.”
Michael stood, his white sleeveless tunic a sharp contrast against Beliel’s obsidian metal. “He has traveled where we cannot follow. Into the chaos primeval.”
Twin orange fires lit within the helm as Beliel turned to point at Gabriel. “Then your sister’s poisonous concepts have finally hit the mark of their long-intended target.”
Gabriel’s hands remained clasped across her lap. Gossamer-covered shoulders squared themselves as she met the dark warrior’s gaze. “Elohim refused to answer his pleas. Lucifer sees things I cannot, how could I or anyone have persuaded him?”
Beliel’s accusing finger lowered and the fire of his gaze shifted instead to regard the others on the council. “Then I will do that which this council lacks the courage to attempt.”
Raphael, his earthy green and blue tunic embroidered with golden fish shimmering as he too got to his feet, objected. “Such a path leads to madness!”
“A Heaven without the Light is already a madness.” Dismissing Raphael, Beliel turned to address Michael. “Shore up the outer reaches. The Rebels may be contained within their prisons but other Archons will hear of this. They will move to gather all who would rejoice in seeing us fail.”
“It is already so ordered.” Michael put a hand upon his brother’s pauldron and spoke in a quieter tone. “If you are bound to follow him, allow me to dispatch an escort to attend you.”
The warrior curtly shook his head. “No. Their safety would not be guaranteed. Even mine is uncertain. Best to risk but one to that threshold’s crossing. Prepare our city for assault as well. Guard the gates and let none unworthy pass.”
“It will be done.”
Again the doors were thrown open and metal boots marched beyond. A tremendous winged shadow swept past the windows to cover them all in momentary darkness, temporarily blotting out the sparkling spires comprising the heavenly skyline.
Beliel, second only to Lucifer himself, had taken flight in the shape of a dragon with which to speed his journey.
The wagon lurched over a rock, the bounce lifting me vertical and the hard slam back onto its slats scattering the vision of an angelic metropolis into sleep-deprived confusion. Dammit, that had been my first sleep after letting the boys have two each. The lack of food had been getting to them, sure, but couldn’t they at least pay attention to the terrain?
Moaning pitifully, I pulled the blanket tighter against the cold frosting each exhale.
Hank pulled on the reins and coaxed Martha to a stop. We’d lost Stewart only a few sleeps into the trek, our extended reaper sweep had taken too much out of the big guy’s reserves and with no refill at the outpost the poor thing had finally wailed and collapsed.
I’d led Martha ahead to leave Hank and Twitch the task of pulling what little meat was still available from the dead graxh. We’d salvaged enough planks of wood to build a small fire to cook with and that had helped the guys gain some strength, but me and Martha had gone without. Graxh were vegetarian, after all. Not to mention that feeding Martha scraps of her longtime companion and mate just seemed wrong.
“Why are we stopping?” I asked, forcing myself to sit up and stare groggily at Hank’s blanketed back. Within the narrow circle of our bluish lanterns Twitch stumbled forward alongside the twin rails of train-tracks we’d been following. He too halted once he realized the wagon was no longer moving.
Hank’s answer was rough with exhaustion. “Saw a flicker of light dead ahead.”
“Really? That’s either good or terribly bad.”
“You should look. The ol’ imagination could be playin’ wishful games.”
With the wagon now steady I dared to stand up, putting a hand on Hank’s shoulder for balance. Flipping the goggles up I peered out into that darkness. “Don’t see anything.” Rubbing crumbs out of my eyes I tried again.
And there they were. Just within the limits of where all light was swallowed flickered a set of dim sparks.
“Holy shit,” I said. “I think it’s a caravan of some kind.”
“Friendly?” he asked, fingering the knife at his belt.
The brighter light in front blinked then blinked again, pulsing out a specific sequence: some kind of demonic morse-code.
Hank figured it out too. “They’re signaling.”
Shaking the last cobwebs out of the brain I replayed the message in my thoughts and the contents became clear: Identify yourself!
“Yeah,” I said. “They want to know who we are.”
“Know how to respond? May as well go for truth.”
He had a point. If they were going to be hostile it wouldn’t matter who we said we were. “I’ll give it a shot.”
Stepping over the back of the driver’s bench I reached up to our front lantern and using my hand as a cover tried to send a response. Reapers from Outpost Epsilon, S.O.S.!
Save Our Souls - never had that emergency message ever been more appropriate. Okay, technically the demonic version translated to ‘Save Our Spirits’. Hush.
There was no immediate reply and my empty stomach lurched with heightened anxiety. From what I could see we’d be seriously outnumbered, not to mention that in our condition I wasn’t sure we could fight. But as I was about to tell the boys we’d better run for it, the light finally signaled again.
We are Lilim traders with supplies for Epsilon. Save your strength, stay put. Vance sends regards.
It was all I could do to respond with ‘will-comply’. Sinking to the bench with crazed relief I blurted out, “Guys! I think we’re being rescued!”
Twitch dropped to the dusty ground, head bowed over knees. Even with a covered face I was pretty sure he was weeping.
Hank’s response was a lot more subdued.
“Well. How ‘bout that.”
It took awhile for them to reach us and even then they approached with caution. Always a wise thing to do out here.
We stayed put as instructed within the light around our single wagon. I’d warned Hank and Twitch that Lilim scouts were moving out there in the dark as I could see them with spirit sight. The scouts were obviously wearing black clothing to be for all practical purposes invisible to normal eyes.
The lead coachman pulled a halt to his team of four graxh and the side door of a large coach decorated with carvings of flowers and vines opened. Stepping easily from that height to the ground was Vance, there was no mistaking his towering yet slender build.
Nor was there any mistaking his knee-high leather boots, slim pants with red waist-sash and matching vest, plus a fedora tilted rakishly above perfectly mischievous teeth and the ever-present handlebar mustache. At his side hung a long rapier with a fancy basket hilt, though the scratches across the decorations indicated the blade had seen real use. Thin fencer’s gloves covered his hands, ornate rings slipped over the fabric matching the jewel-encrusted stars and moons dangling from an earlobe.
He was a fancy one, was Vance. Style on the verge of parody, yet he somehow made it work.
“My my, what a sorry lot I see before me.” Vance’s circus barker voice boomed out over us. “Surely tales of struggle and valor await our eager ears, but first formalities must indeed be obeyed.”
I stepped forward. “Hi Vance.”
“Reaper Jordan! By your splendid voice do I know you, yet it is wrought with deep weariness. And thus I am both overjoyed to see you and also filled with sorrow.” With a flourish he removed his hat and bowed low.
Knowing it would please the rakish devil I curtsied as best I could manage. “Yeah, well, dreams keep ruining my beauty sleep.”
“Dreams? There are no dreams in Hell. Only memories by which the heart is wounded anew.” He straightened, reaching at least a good three to four feet taller than I was, and nodded towards the boys. “And your companions?”
“May I present Reaper Twitch, whom you already know, and a newly arrived soul who goes by Hank.”
“Gentlemen.” Vance acknowledged them both with a nod, lingering an extra moment to examine Hank who in turn nodded back.
The image of two lions checking each other out came to mind.
Vance broke the miniature staring contest to look back at me. “Now then, my dear. You are one graxh short of the usual complement and driving a wagon woefully under-supplied for having traveled this far from your home station. I sense a story ripe for the telling, if not an entire saga.”
I shrugged. “Would the short version suffice? We returned from our sweep to find the outpost betrayed, Captain Erglyk dead. The attackers stripped anything of value whether it was nailed down or not, and even now move against the Hole.”
All joviality slipped from Vance’s face, the fun-loving gypsy demeanor finding itself replaced with determined focus. “Come. Let us first get warm food into your bellies then you must share every last detail.” Pulling free the swordsman’s glove, he used two fingers to emit a sharp whistle before gesturing a quick circle over his head. Souls bound to his service appeared as if by magic from the following coaches and began preparing a campsite. Shovels broke into the dirt to start a firepit while torches were planted around the area waiting only to be lit.
From the darkness emerged his scouts, each carrying rather wicked-looking spears whose tips had been painted black. What caught me off-guard was that more appeared than even I had accounted for.
A few had even been able to hide traces of their spirits. Either that or I really was beyond exhausted and had just missed them.
Assuming my startled reaction to be at the mere presence of his ninja-like warriors, Vance stepped forward and extended a hand. “It pays to be prudent, would you not agree?”
“Hard to argue with,” I noted, placing my hand in his and allowing him to escort me towards the soon-to-be fire. Two velvet-lined high-back chairs were immediately rushed past us by several souls and placed carefully upon dirt which had been quickly swept free of any stones that could have caused them to wobble.
Vance waited for me to sit before taking the chair at my side. Considering how grubby I was, I felt guilty about sitting against such obviously expensive cushions but I wasn’t about to argue with our host and rescuer. Instead the realization of at least temporary safety washed over me, and before I knew it a roaring fire was warming my toes and a hot bowl of not-vegetable soup had not only been placed in my hands but somehow I’d already swallowed every last drop.
Twitch and Hank similarly sat on one of the many benches that now encircled the fire. They’d ended up sitting across from me and Vance, likely a deliberate move by that wily devil in order to talk to me alone. The other seats - some of which were just wooden boxes big enough for one person to sit upon - were taken by Vance’s people: a mix of devils and humans. A number of hulking demon guards wearing the livery of the Duke also stood at posts around the many simpler supply wagons.
One of the things I’d wondered when I first arrived to Hell was what exactly was the difference between a devil and a demon. The answer I received was complicated but the general rule was simple: demons without any swallowed souls were barely coherent and mostly powerless, whereas devils were beings who didn’t need to consume souls to gain power or the ability to think. Instead devils could channel other energies. The Lilim, for example, were considered devils. Indeed the luscious twins Yaria and Ruyia, scantily clad as belly dancers in their shining beads and expensive silk, could well be considered succubi. Large dark eyes simmered under lush lashes and creamy skin, with every athletic curve exuding a sensuality which all by itself would’ve caused entire NFL squads to adjust their jock-straps. The two swallowed the attention all the men could not help but give them, their devilish appetites eager for sustainment. Let’s just say that whenever Barry had visited with those two he had paid with a lot more than just coin for their attentions.
Not that he had minded one whit, of course. He’d just need to sleep twice as long as anyone else afterward.
The twins were currently admiring Hank who in turn was doing his best to keep his focus on his food, though when Yaria dipped a bejeweled finger into her own bowl and sucked it clean poor Hank coughed and needed to shift how he was sitting.
Declining a refill of the delicious soup, (sorry Cookie, but it was more tasty than yours - though could have been the starvation talking), I sat back in the chair with a contented sigh. Vance leaned forward without a word but his interest was clear.
It was time to fill him in.
I gave it to him straight. Well almost. I may have fudged over the whole standing atop the outpost to scan the horizons bit, saying instead that we had examined the tracks in detail utilizing Hank’s tracking training from his former military service. Vance’s expression darkened when told how we believed an insider had betrayed the post, and he plucked at his mustache over the raiding of the vault and especially at its secret room behind.
At the description of the triangle symbol found on the interlopers’ cloaks he raised a bushy eyebrow.
“You recognize it?” I asked.
He nodded. “If I am not mistaken, it is a symbol used by a Colonel Dhalgrix. He leads a band of mercenaries, one with a certain reputation of thoroughness. Someone must have contracted him to this endeavor.”
“Thoroughness, huh,” I said. “Well they certainly lived up to that. The outpost was cleaned out even down to every last light crystal. We couldn’t contact Delta because they also swiped the phone.”
“And the betrayer had sabotaged the Wayfinder.”
“Yep. Instead of stealing the console they smashed it. A hacked orb must’ve been used on it. The circuits were left fried and useless.”
Vance frowned. “Could they try that again at the Hole? Sneak in the same insider a second time?”
“Considering the Hole won’t be forewarned? I don’t see why not. Which brings up a question.”
“Oh?” He leaned back, resting a pointed chin against the back of his hand.
“You signaled being on contract to deliver supplies and you’ve definitely got extra wagons for it. What gives? Supplies are sent by train.”
He waved a hand. “It was understood to be an accident, but I am not so convinced.”
“The boiler on the train for the usual supply run exploded quite dramatically after pulling away from Delta.”
Crap. “They really didn’t want anyone finding out about Epsilon any time soon.”
“That appears to be the case.”
My stomach fell as another realization clicked into place. “All the other reapers from my outpost must be dead or swallowed. Those mercs could have used the post’s Wayfinder to track down anyone out on sweeps.”
“Yet they didn’t attack you. That could raise suspicion for yourself you know.”
I winced. “You’re right, it could. Except we went outside the scanner’s range before heading back in. We were late getting back.”
He asked coolly, “And why would you go beyond the assigned route?”
It was my turn to squirm uncomfortably. “Uh, well, we went to the Edge. Where we found Hank.”
“My dear reaper, you know as well as I that doing such is forbidden out of consideration for safety. Nor do you strike me as one to disregard such concerns to fulfill the wishes of tourism.” The firelight flickered across his dark eyes as he regarded me.
I bit a lip and looked away into the flames of the firepit. “I have some abilities. Sensing spirits is one of them. I picked up on Hank’s, I couldn’t just leave him there.”
“Ah, and there it is,” he said, his head nodding.
“An explanation whose validity I could scarcely deny. Your compassion, as much as you try to hide it, is unmistakable dear lady. Why do you think I have asked so fervently for you to join us instead of wasting such talents traveling alone across empty fields? What songs that melodic voice of yours could sing, what music! Your heart fills every breath and word you speak, crying out to share its passions with any willing to hear. And yet you strive to keep its treasure buried. What a poor musician I would be to fail to notice such potential.”
My face flushed, the fire was obviously getting too warm. I tried to get the conversation back on track. “We’ve got to get to Delta as quickly as possible. They need to pass word back to the Hole and warn them.”
“I can readily do better than that.”
“We are mobilized as a stopgap until the train is repaired. As such I have in my possession that which the train itself usually carries.”
“Such as what?”
“My own communicator. And just past our fire lie the rails upon which the device depends.”
“Holy crap, you’ve got a phone? What are you waiting for! Call them!”
He stood. “If my lady shall excuse my temporary absence, I shall indeed have this information propagating its way to the Hole forthwith.”
I shooed him away. “Stop wasting time and go!”
With another flourished bow he went.
As Vance walked off Hank caught my attention. Being across the fire he could only tilt his head in obvious question of what was up. I pointed towards where Vance had gone then mimed holding an old-style phone to my head. It took Hank a moment but he got it and nodded. He leaned over to tell Twitch who seemed to be staring into the fire through his goggles.
Twitch didn’t respond. He’d fallen asleep with a bowl still in his lap.
I grinned at Hank and shook my head. No point in waking the poor guy up.
Meanwhile the Lilim had put away the deep cooking cauldron and its tasty soup. One came by with a large pitcher, offering to fill my ceramic cup with a clearly alcoholic beverage. It smelled sweet like a fruit punch but the first sip came with a kick.
If I had to guess it was mixed with some form of grain alcohol.
I took a larger swallow, closing my eyes as the warmth sank down my throat and to the tips of my toes. The sensation deserved another draught and soon my cup was empty.
That’s when the clapping began and it wasn’t from applause.
The cook, still wearing a thick apron which had obviously protected him from many a fire’s errant spark, stood at the edge of the flames with hands held forward, fingers from one hand tapping across the palm of the other. After a moment a wagon driver joined in, clapping an accompaniment to the growing beat.
When they added in stomps from their feet for yet another layer of sound I recognized the pattern.
It was a twelve beat rhythm, more specifically it was the Compás to a Fandango.
A scout, still clad in his black cloak and protective leathers, widened how he sat on the wooden box and began tapping a counter-rhythm. The resulting thumps against the wood sounded clear and crisp as the box was also something I knew all too well: a cajón - an instrument which had originated in Peru used by slave musicians in the Spanish colonial Americas. But it had in the last century spread to other musical styles. It was Paco de Lucia who had brought one to Spain to use with his flamenco.
The twins grinned at each other and after downing the last drops from their own cups moved to a wider spot before the fire and began to dance, long slender fingers flowing through the air pulling hands and arms along for the ride. Their hips and shoulders resonated to the beat and their feet kicked their own emphasis into the dirt as they swayed.
It wasn’t the same style of dance I’d grown up watching while my father played the guitar accompaniment but it was similar, like a blend of belly-dancing, flamenco, and something new. Raven-silk hair fell free with each toss of their heads to bounce and brush across their lower backs, tight muscles across their stomachs flexing to vibrate hips at a soaring rate.
I couldn’t help it. Tuning into the beats my hands joined in, the warmth of the circle (and the booze) having given my fingers an excuse to forgo their gloves.
Another scout reached behind his bench. What he retrieved was not a guitar but similar, the roundness of its back and shorter neck without frets looked an awful lot like an oud - an ancient stringed instrument of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia and a mainstay of Arabic music.
With a nod to those clapping palmas and the man on the cajón, the scout began to play with tones immediately haunting and soulful. As the oud player warmed up, the twins stepped back to add their own clapping to the mix.
One of the twins (Yaria as I figured out later, as it took me awhile to learn to tell them apart without cheating) turned their attention to me as I tried to keep up. Her eyes narrowed while staring at my clapping hands and a flush of self-consciousness knocked me out of rhythm. I had to stop, rub hands together, and refocus with eyes closed on the beat being driven now by the oud.
When I thought I had a feel for it again I opened my eyes only to find Yaria standing over me, the fire framing her svelte figure. She grabbed my wrist with unexpected speed and strength.
I tensed, preparing to break her grip. She laughed and let go. “Your nails,” she said, “are longer on one hand than the other.”
She was right. “Out of memory for my father,” I said. “He was a guitarist.”
“And you? Do you play?”
“Nowhere near as good as him.”
“But you do.”
I shrugged, flustered from the intensity of her stare. Okay, it was also the raw sensuality of her movements and the fact that she’d gotten really darn close. She leaned in closer still, the back of my chair preventing my escape as her chest brushed ever-so-lightly against mine. Ack!
“You know this music.”
I swallowed. “I know something similar.”
She straightened, then ran a fingertip down my nose. “You sit.” With another laugh she slipped past towards the ornate wagon Vance had stepped out of.
Good lord, if I had still possessed male equipment I could have pitched a tent for the night. Even the lingering scent of her, mixing with the smoke from the fire, remained tantalizing.
No wonder poor Barry had been so addicted.
Blinking to clear a spell that had nothing to do with magic, I spotted Hank leaning forward with concern. I waved him off and mouthed, I’m fine.
Not sure he believed it but he stayed seated. That was actually rather sweet, him being protective of me.
Finishing the current piece with an incredible burst of sound, the oud player put down the instrument in order to refill his mug and the others decided to follow his lead. I was still fairly buzzed from just one cup and figured I should stop there, refusing the offer of more.
I didn’t even hear Yaria’s return, she had crossed the icy dirt without so much as a crunch. Thus I nearly leaped out of my skin when she reappeared next to me.
Into my hands was shoved something far too familiar and yet utterly astounding: a guitar.
And more than that, it was a perfect copy of a flamenco guitar all the way to the rosette around the opening. Even the top was the proper German spruce with sides and back made out of cypress.
Which of course was impossible.
“How the heck?” In shock I looked up at Yaria.
She was keenly enjoying my reaction. “Look closer, reaper. Feel it.”
Running fingers along the fretboard I couldn’t help but open senses beyond the physical. Because I did feel it. Within the guitar’s wood, the strings, and even the pegs pulsed a familiar energy.
The instrument had been forged from someone’s soul.
Amazement transformed to horror. “Who was it?” I asked.
Yaria’s answering grin was not kind. “A talented guitarist whose troubles with love drove him unto our realms.”
“Did you do this to him?” I don’t think I could have hidden the threat in my tone even if I’d wanted.
Not that it bothered her any. “No, reaper, we did not. After many cycles his desire to again play his beloved music drove him mad until he collapsed and became the very item he had vainly sought. Ironic, don’t you think? Now others may play their songs upon him while he has no hands with which to offer his own.”
“Yes. And also one of my father’s most prized possessions. Now play, reaper. I wish to see my father’s expression when he returns.”
I hesitated. To force my own limited skill upon a soul seemed wrong.
The Lilim guessed at the nature of my resistance. In a softer tone she added, “Ask yourself what is worse: to be stuck as this and never make a sound or to have at least a few moments of shared passion even if not directly your own?”
She had a point.
Plucking the strings to adjust the tuning I could feel it, a deep abiding sadness tinged with regret. There was only one piece that came to mind which could match such emotion.
I began to play a Granainas solo, specifically one by Paco De Lucia - not that I could equal such a master in skill. But right now the feeling was more important.
With the first few notes a hush fell over everyone and they all stopped to listen.
There’s only one way to play such a song properly. You have to disconnect the mind and let the heart guide the fingers. Maybe it was the alcohol I’d consumed or the relief of being rescued after too many stressful sleeps, but the drawstrings I’d kept pulled tight inside loosened.
Into the music I released my own sadness and loss, not only of failing to protect Danielle but of missing everyone I’d left behind. I wanted to watch Jenna’s eyes light up with her snark-filled laughter, I yearned to lean against Zap’s quiet strength even in the midst of uncertainty, I ached for Danielle’s unabashed astonishment and joyful yet mischievous grin at each new piece of magic she uncovered, and I felt hollow not having Khan being my fuzzy warm snuggle-buddy like he’d been each and every night for so many years.
And with all that had happened, I needed to talk about everything and nothing with my best friend Isaiah.
It all came out in a rush yet the music did not speed up, instead it flowed even slower and more measured letting each note linger in the ears of all who listened, whispering of the losses they too had suffered yet relishing the memories, knowing that the time they had shared was all the more precious now it was gone.
The pain was raw yet there was a measure of calm in the final tones which faded into a silence broken only by the snap and crackle of the fire’s still-burning flames.
Vance was standing besides his chair. I hadn’t noticed his return.
When the hush’s echo finally slipped away he spoke quietly, as if more to himself than to me. “This is why you are wasted as a reaper.”
I didn’t feel like arguing. Getting to my feet, I silently handed him the guitar.
He held it for a long moment as if wanting to say more but instead knelt to open the case and carefully return the instrument within its sanctuary. Once it was latched and sealed with a small spell of protection he said, “It will take time to get a response from the Hole. Each outpost in turn will need to relay the report after their Captains review the content.”
“Bureaucracy in Hell,” I muttered. “No surprise there.”
He shrugged. “As I’m given to understand, Heaven’s is worse. At least here the enterprising can usually find ways to grease the wheels in their favor when necessary.”
“If you say so.” I stifled a yawn. Playing the piece had left behind a feeling of sleepy lassitude.
Vance noticed. “You and your comrades must be exhausted. Whilst I would normally endeavor to regale you with music, dance, and wine - perhaps slumber while we wait is best.”
I looked over at Twitch who was still fast asleep where he sat. Hank himself was fighting to open his eyes every few moments and was slowly losing that battle.
“Yeah, I better get the boys to our wagon so they can knock off properly.”
Realizing I meant to take the first watch and thus delay my own rest, Vance stood tall and placed a hand over his heart (if he had one). “You and your men are my guests while we camp here. Me and mine shall protect you as if you all were part of our family.”
If there’s one thing I had learned both from the instructors at Whateley and from my own interactions with other-worldly beings, it’s this: guest rights are paramount. This was true for the fae, for gods, and yes, even for devils and demons. A violator of such would find their place within the societies ruined, and they’d be outcast and banned. He meant every word.
“Thank you, Vance.”
“For you, my dear, it is the least I could do. Now go. If my suspicions are correct there may be interesting decisions awaiting when you awaken.”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by decisions. Oh well, for once I’d try to worry about something later rather than sooner. My eyes were losing the same struggle as Hank’s after all.
Rounding up the boys we returned to where Martha had been busily scarfing down bushels of hay mixed with vegetables. She bleated at us until Twitch scritched her ears for a few minutes while Hank and I laid out the blankets.
Finally the three of us were stretched out across the wagon bed, me in the middle. As odd as it felt to be pressed against by two men, I somehow didn’t mind.
The warmth was nice.
As slumber pulled me into its soft depths thoughts lingered on the beautiful guitar. Before my hands had let go of the instrument, a voice had spoken two words within my mind.
Chapter 7 - Children
For once sleep was peaceful. No disturbing visions of troubled angels and heavenly conflict.
Which was nice.
We all stumbled out of the wagon and over to where the Lilim had kept the fire going and they offered us bread, cheese, and more wine. Gladly accepting the first two, the third I politely declined.
Keeping a clear head seemed like a better idea. Twitch’s waterskin would have to do.
After sitting and tearing off a good chunk of a hearty round loaf, Hank spoke through a mouthful. “What now? Next outpost?”
I thought about it. “Possibly. Vance will likely turn the caravan around and head back. No point in the delivery now.”
“So we go with him?” Hank’s blue eyes studied me. It felt a lot like being judged.
“You got a better idea?” I said, staring right back at him.
He realized what he was doing and looked away. “Hey, I’m just the new guy. What do I know?” he asked while taking a bite of cheese.
Twitch was unhappy about the concept of going with the Lilim, catching my attention by the shake of an upraised fist.
“Dude,” I said to him, “this Dhalgrix guy and his crew sound tough. If the Captain couldn’t take them, what chance do we have?”
The fist extended a finger and pointed it at me.
“Hey, don’t give me that,” I protested. “We don’t even know if the Hole will listen to our warning. Heck, they could already be overrun.”
From behind us out of the ever-present shadows Vance appeared. “The Hole is still intact, at least for now. We received their response.”
We all spun around to face him. Today he was dressed more like a cowboy in all leathers, chaps, and boots. Though I doubt cowboys wore rapiers at their hips. Hank offered him a piece of cheese.
“Ah, thank you.” Vance took it and made a point of chewing slowly.
“Spill it, Vance,” I growled. It’s not like the news was important or anything. Sheesh.
He swallowed and grinned. “They discovered their Wayfinder had also been altered. Upon restoration it immediately alerted them to the close proximity of the mercenaries. Defenses were activated.”
“Do they know who betrayed us?” I demanded.
Vance nodded, tugging on the freshly waxed strands of his mustache. “Yes. A reaper arrived with a similar story of having returned from a sweep and finding your outpost overrun, likely by excursions out of the Spire.” The tilt of his smile made it clear he was enjoying drawing this out.
“Well, who was it dammit!” I was on my feet, wanting to throttle the news out him.
“Xargglxesh, firstborn of the new Duchess Ruchinox.”
“Charles? That bastard!”
Vance raised an eyebrow. ”I do believe his parentage is clear.”
Twitch used a thumb to mime slicing the jerk’s neck.
I nodded at Twitch. “Duke Valgor can’t ignore this kind of betrayal. They’ll probably execute him.”
Vance regarded me for a moment. “His fate has yet to be determined. Despite vigorous questioning he has stuck to his story. As the Wayfinder’s original core was found amongst his possessions the evidence is against him.”
Vigorous questioning. In other words, torture. Chewing on a lip, I gave some thought to that. “He’s not the type to hold up to that kind of thing for long. Could he really not know what he’s done? Magic memory wipe or something?” I’d seen people - and angels - be possessed by a particularly nasty entity before. Such things were certainly possible.
“Perhaps,” Vance acknowledged. “Which is why the whelp is still alive.”
Hank asked, “Can the Hole defend against Dhalgrix’s force?”
Vance pondered. “Budget cuts of late have stripped them of their usual number of defenders. However they do have solid wards in place which are currently holding. The outposts have also been commanded to recall their reapers and march on the Hole to break what is now a siege.”
I shook my head. “Without the train that will take way too damn long. Convenient. There’s definitely more collaborators within the Duke’s ranks.”
Vance’s smile broadened. “Which brings me to my newest - and quite lucrative I might add - contract.”
Another contract? “They want you and your Lilim to attack Dhalgrix? No offense, Vance, but I don’t think you have the numbers.”
He laughed. “Attack? Goodness, no. But the Hole is without eyes outside their fortress other than the coarse readings from their Wayfinder. To launch a flier for observations requires lowering the shield, a risk they won’t dare take.”
Hank rubbed his chin. “To arrive in time to be of any use you’ll have to cut your wagons loose and ride those graxh directly across the gap between here and the Hole. The map I saw showed it as being a rough path.”
Vance’s grin widened even further beyond the limits of human lips which was downright creepy. “Oh there will be no need for graxh. Myself and a select few of my family have an entirely different and much faster method of arrival. Furthermore, after weaving a marvelous tale of the bravery and strength of your mighty trio in striving across these deserted plains with the very message that preserved their base, we have been charged to bring you three with us.”
Hank and I exchanged uneasy glances. Twitch though gave the idea two thumbs up.
“You were able to convince them we weren’t involved that easily?” I asked dubiously. “Pretty sure demons are more suspicious than that. No offense to your oratory skills.”
Maintaining that sinister smile Vance said, “Well, I was also informed that all three of you were, as they put it, disposable. Should any of you step out of line.”
Weirdly enough that made me feel better. Less chance of it all being some kind of trap with that in play out in the open. “Ah. Got it.”
Hank must have felt the same as he nodded. “So how are you proposing we get there then? Walk?”
Vance executed a florid blow. “I shall show you.” Backing up by about twenty feet, he began murmuring under his breath words in a language I both knew and didn’t.
It was both angelic and not.
Imagine studying old English and having become used to hearing Shakespeare spoken with absolute eloquence. Such was my experience when applying my will to the fundamentals of reality: each angelic word flowing perfectly in rhyme, measure, and meaning. Nothing wasted, everything crisp and true, the intent manifested directly and clean.
Now turn that into someone taking those Shakespeare verses and translating them into the speech patterns of the residents of the less savory and lamentably less educated parts of any city. With every third word also converted to pig-Latin just for fun.
That’s what it was like hearing Vance cast the magic he invoked. Inefficient and sloppy, like (to switch metaphors) splashing tar across the works of da Vinci without obscuring the fact that the painting had originally been a beautiful woman. The rough content was there but all elegance was gone, the divine horribly muddied and diluted.
Yet it worked.
A (rather obviously) male harpy with brown wings the span of a small house and claws the width of tree trunks tossed back a feathery head still showing Vance’s face and bellowed a tremendous laugh at Hank. The stylishly curled mustache had survived the transformation, though it now was interleaved with black feathers as well as hair.
Still chuckling Vance-the-harpy said to Hank, “To answer your question oh you beautiful-eyed soul, why walk when one can fly?”
He made an excellent point.
We’d been airborne for hours and Vance wouldn’t shut up about proper singing techniques and practice. “And this is why controlling your breathing is so important!”
It was a good thing that he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes for the umpteenth time since I was strapped into a sitting position on his wide and feathery back. Not quite the same as being trapped next to an annoying passenger on an airliner but I was still a captive audience.
At least the ride was smoother than a wagon.
Yaria and Ruyia similarly had shifted into massive harpies with feather-covered bosoms and carried Twitch and Hank nearby through the total darkness. I’d already expressed concern about their flying blind, but I’d been reassured that in their harpy-like forms they could ‘see’ the air currents and thus knew exactly where they were in relation to the ground and terrain below. Given the impressive width of their wingspans they also kept their distance from each other, so whether I liked it or not I was stuck talking only with Vance who obviously relished the chance.
“Ah, Jordan,” his huge face shouted, “Between your sweet soprano and your skill with a guitar, you could fill the Concordia in Dis to the brim. Not only with all the Dukes and Lords of demonkind, but the Fallen would be, dare I say it, falling over themselves for tickets! Samael himself I am sure would descend from his lofty towers to witness the beauty you would bring to his domain. Your days of sleeping upon rickety wagons would be replaced with the finest luxuries all the realms of Hell could offer. Think of it!”
The idea, of course, terrified the bajeezus out of me. Good lord, the last thing I needed was that kind of attention to which the unease in my gut readily agreed.
Vance however was practically drooling at the prospect like a rock-star’s unsavory manager. “The best darkberry wine brewed by the abandoned elves of Nidavellir, the handsomest incubi - or succubi, should you prefer - would fawn at your feet, the most splendorous dresses and accommodations, why every pleasure or pain you could possibly desire would be yours for the taking.”
“Hey Vance? Mind if I ask you something?” I needed to knock the conversation onto a different track, and I had just the topic with which to redirect his ego.
“Hmm? Of course not!”
“When you transformed, that magic you used - what was it? It didn’t feel like the kind I’ve seen demons throw around. If anything it seemed stronger.” I wasn’t going to tell him how his casting was like someone trying to draw using chalk on a whiteboard. I wasn’t that stupid.
“Oh that? Why, that was just a taste of the power of the Lilim.”
I’d heard some stories about the Lilim from the other reapers but nothing concrete. “Can you tell me about your people? I’m curious.”
He paused to consider and responded with a question of his own. “How much celestial history are you aware of?”
“You mean like about angels? I, uh, I’ve had some exposure.” Hey, I wasn’t lying. All awkward amusement aside there was still a ton I didn’t know.
Vance cleared his throat. “Well then. Before the beginning of time as we understand it the first archangels manifested, and led by the Morningstar they pushed back the darkness. Our mother, Lilith, was amongst those first ones.” With reverence he added, “She held the title of The Victorious - leading the others against that dark as directed by Lucifer’s light to carve free each portion of the Source’s domain. In this role she was fearless, cunning, and beautiful.”
August’s words about such things came to mind. “When Samael rebelled, did she join him?” I asked. “As I understand it, Lucifer fell later - after the rebellion had failed.”
“You do indeed have knowledge! Not many mortal souls do. But no, Lilith did not join with Samael in his uprising. Neither, however, did she fight for Elohim - despite her love for Lucifer.”
That was surprising. “She stayed neutral?”
“It was her pronounced opinion that the arguments on both sides were flawed. Thus she withdrew from Heaven when the fighting began, and her Seat of Victory became instead the Seat of the Defender - occupied now by Archangel Michael.”
An image intruded on my thoughts. I was standing amongst other archangels within a high ceilinged cathedral of marble with windows made not of glass but gemstone. Kneeling before us was Michael in glorious golden armor and Azrael who wore only a simple white robe. Azrael’s wings were this soft white but onyx trimmed their edges.
Vance beat mighty wings to lift higher over hills poking up from the otherwise flat plains. The jarring motion pushed the vision aside and I didn’t fight to hold on to it. Now was so not the time to black out and be lost in ancient memory.
“Huh,” I said, regaining focus. “You say she’s your mother though? If she didn’t rebel, how’d she end up in Hell?”
“When the Morningstar was thrown by Michael from Heaven’s summit, she followed. It is said she tried to catch her first love before he crossed the threshold of Hell’s Seal, but instead the boundary swallowed them both. She won’t speak of it, indeed there are many things our beloved mother still keeps from us.”
I frowned. “Alright, now I’m confused.”
“I know that the Grigori bred with humans, but as far as I understood it they did so with human women only - as angels themselves cannot bear children.”
He chuckled. “I have heard of the stories of the Watchers and their attempt to breed an army against the Host. But they were not the originators of the notion. Have you not heard of the legend that speaks to Lilith having been Adam’s first wife?”
Truth is, I had but hadn’t put two and two together of Lilith also being one of the first archangels. “Uh, now that you mention it, yeah?”
“Our mother was the first angelic to experience incarnation as a mortal. Whether she had permission to enter Elohim’s Garden and do so is not revealed to us. But, being the conqueror that she is, their relationship had certain issues from the start. Thus she left. They both, shall we say, desired to be on top.”
I couldn’t help it. I snerked at the thought of a naked and ignorant Adam arguing about sex positions with one of the most powerful archangels.
“Upon impact upon one of the smaller spaces of Hell,” Vance continued, “our mother found herself rather alone. The other archangel rebels had fallen along with many members of their Houses: the lesser angels whom had formed around them and followed them to war. None of Lilith’s former house had gone with her to Hell - even many of Lucifer’s angels of Light had leapt from Heaven to follow his path. Not content to squat by herself on an otherwise empty rock like Beliel later did here, she formed a space wherein she could manifest an incarnation not unlike her time in the Garden and invited demons she found worthy to her bed.”
I finally got it. “The Lilim are like the nephelim. Instead of being part human you’re part demon!”
“Precisely. From our demonic fathers flow our many forms and admittedly our appetites. But from our beloved mother we touch, even if distantly, the divine. And by breeding only with other Lilim is our angelic bloodline preserved.”
That made sense, though I had a feeling that the direct offspring would be the most powerful. I was about to give comment to that effect when, despite being thoroughly wrapped in layers of blankets, all the hairs on arms and legs stood on end.
I didn’t have time to shout warning.
A loud thump against one of Vance’s wings accompanied by a horrible ripping sound sent us tumbling towards the ground.
Chapter 8 - Cleanse
In a mad tumble we fell.
Vance shrieked, his injured wing pulled inward causing us to spiral. If my legs hadn’t been so well bound by leather straps I’d surely have been tossed free.
And my own wings, being stuck as spiritual ephemera, would have done me no good.
“Vance! Pull out of it!”
A shudder ran through the beast under me and with an agonizing groan the muscles across his back pushed the wounded wing out into the rushing wind from our descent. Having shifted my sight spirit-side I could see two dimly glowing gashes across the wing’s top leaking a stream of diamonds in our wake.
The massive feathers caught the air and with a lurch the spinning stopped. Using tremendous strength Vance beat against the air to level out our flight, narrowly missing the tips of rather sharp ice-spires sticking up from the terrain. Unfortunately this effort caused his wounds to bleed faster.
Below us was nothing but jagged edges and at our forward speed there was no safe place to land.
Wrapping hands further into the leather straps I looked over a shoulder spotting the large glows of Yaria and Ruyia diving down towards their father, the smaller brightness of Twitch and Hank both hanging on for dear life.
But behind Yaria lunged a pair of other human souls, trapped and condemned within the outline of a bat-like demon. Said demon held two knives that had sparks of their own.
Dear god, it was armed with a pair of soul-forged daggers.
As it sped towards us like an F-18 racing a trio of crop dusters I shouted, “Yaria, look out!”
She didn’t hesitate. Snapping her own wings in she dropped and rolled to one side as the demon blasted past the air where she’d just been. Twitch, similarly strapped in, held tight with one hand, his other already having pulled free one of his katanas. His glove was no longer on that hand; he’d wedged it into his belt.
I knew what that meant. Yet how could they fight if they couldn’t see their attacker? If the demon was really like a bat it might be using echo-location or some other trick. Having leveled out, it sped its way into the space above likely setting up for another dive attack.
Ruyia called out. “What’s happening?”
Vance, struggling to keep his wing straight, was gurgling a stream of curses so I shouted back so Ruyia and Yaria could hear. “Demonic flyer! With soul-forged blades!”
Both echoed their father’s curses. Yaria shouted, “You can see it?”
“Yes!” Tracking the damned thing I saw it shift and plunge towards Ruyia and Hank. Speaking of Hank, he’d bound his feet more firmly and was now standing on Ruyia’s back, a borrowed short sword from one of Vance’s crew at the ready. “Dammit,” I muttered before yelling, “Ruyia! Here it comes!”
Numerous possible actions streamed past my mind, some more solid than others indicating greater chances of success. Seizing one I shouted, “Hank! Strike upwards at two o’clock on my signal! Ruyia, bank right! Do it…NOW!”
To her credit Ruyia didn’t hesitate. The giant harpy tilted immediately, her right wing dipping just as the demon lanced towards it. This also shoved Hank closer and he too did as told. Using both hands he swung his blade up into the demon’s path, shouting as he did so.
His sword smacked into the demon with a loud thump, the creature’s own momentum working against it to open a thin line through the coarse hide. Unfortunately no blood flowed and the demon’s resulting shriek was echoed by another from above.
Good grief. There were two of them.
The one Hank just tagged rolled off and zoomed back above. At the speed of these things there was no way I could shout directions fast enough. Given the size differential they were like crows mobbing eagles, capable of using their greater maneuverability to continually harass.
Though given their armaments harassment wasn’t the goal.
“Where are they now?” shouted Yaria, anger and frustration overriding panic. “We should cast a light spell so we can target the bastards!”
“No!” Vance commanded, having regained his focus. “We are too close to the Hole! If you illuminate too much of the sky their forces will see and send more. We must kill these in the dark!”
“Father, how?” Ruyia asked.
“Sing, children! Disrupt their senses and let the mortals upon our backs strike!”
Vance’s plan clarified various potentials. “Yaria!” I screamed. “Pull up even with your father! Hank’s blade isn’t strong enough to do real damage, they’ll leave him and Ruyia for last. Ruyia, you need to back off and follow me and Yaria. Then be ready and when I shout do your thing!”
Ruyia was unconvinced. “If my rider’s blade can’t penetrate, how can either of yours? Your spear and swords will fare no better!”
In a low growl Vance spoke before I could. “Trust her, daughter.”
Any other objections Ruyia might have had she kept to herself. As I watched the demons form up for another strike in the nothingness above, Ruyia eased off and began breathing deep. Yaria glided closer to me and Vance while Twitch mimicked Hank’s feet binding preparation. Once firmly entwined his other glove came off.
With twin swords he stood ready, cloak and wrappings billowing in the wind of our passage. He scanned the sky from behind goggles, their close-range enchantment for dark-seeing triggered at full.
The bite of the air against my own eyes almost had me reconsidering using my goggles, but I saw better without them. Nor was there any time to second guess. “Here they come! Twitch, you’re up first!”
Yaria, glancing over a winged shoulder, almost balked as she shouted at me, “Where’s your spear, girl?!”
I ignored her.
By listening closely I could just make out the whistling of the first one’s descent and had to time it perfectly. “Ruyia…GO!”
If my feet hadn’t been lashed to Vance’s back, the resulting shockwave would have launched me straight off to a rocky doom. Ruyia’s harpy cry unleashed a bellowing ear-piercing shriek which slammed over our heads. Should she have aimed directly at us I’m sure my eardrums would have been shredded like a pinata attacked by a major league slugger.
Which is likely what happened to the first demon as it spiraled towards Twitch. Struck by the deafening sonic blast, any cry of its own was unheard. It certainly lost all focus on trying to stab weapons into Yaria’s back, falling as it did right in front of her passenger instead. A passenger whose crossed hands were already vibrating at such a speed that a soft iridescent glow escaped his swords, enough light to show exactly where his enemy was about to bounce.
With a double thrust of arms Twitch sliced the demon into three pieces, the top and bottom parts flung clear of Yaria. The center bits landed wetly against her feathers first before sliding their way back due to the inrush of wind from her flight.
The second demon, having followed the first and only catching the edge of Ruyia’s shout, slammed towards me with two knives held outward hoping to plunge into my chest.
Soul-forged or no, they were no match for angelic armor. From under my sleeves Camael’s bracers deflected the attacking metal with outward blocks which I shifted into wrist grabs. Letting myself fall backwards, I flipped the nasty-toothed beast over me to slam into Vance’s broad back.
That’s not what killed it though.
Heeding Vance’s warning about not blazing across the sky, I tried something different. The crimson flames wanting to pour out of the angel’s armor became focused by my will as tight snakes of fire. Snapping forwards from my wrists they burned and burrowed their way underneath the demon’s skin and into its chest.
By the fires of the battle angel’s rage the thing’s lungs cooked from the inside out. Smoke churned from its bat-like ears and fang-filled mouth, and its screams turned to choking and then silence. I let its wrists slide past my fingers, grabbing the hilts of its weapons as the charred remains tumbled freely off into the dark.
In the quiet that followed a chuckle could be heard.
“See?” Vance said, his amusement tinged with obvious pain. “Breathing. It’s absolutely vital.”
Vance refused to land and allow us to dress the cuts across his wing, claiming that it would heal fine on its own. The trail of blood through the air behind us had indeed thinned but I was uneasy at being this high up dependent upon his sole judgment that it ‘twas only a flesh wound.
I itched to have my own wings back. It definitely gained me a deeper understanding as to why my grandfather - who had been a Colonel in the Air Force - was said to have been an absolute pain in the ass as a passenger when flying commercial, ranting to my poor grandmother in the seat next to him how the pilots were doing everything wrong.
Apparently he’d even once stormed the cockpit to yell at the crew after a particularly bumpy landing.
Me? Descended from ornery and stubborn perfectionists? Go figure.
Eventually the darkness before us gained a hazy glow and the harpies quickly veered along a tangent of that distance and descended to the now-smooth and empty plain. Unlike the ground near my outpost the dirt here was formed from a greyish rock, though patches of black ice still wended through the fractal cracks. As soon as we were down, the guys and I untied our own duffel bags worth of stuff and hopped off.
I’d had an argument before we left with Vance over supplies as the only baggage for him and his daughters was a small three-person tent, its poles and canvas folded tightly into a single duffel. Considering we had no idea how long we’d be stuck out here spying on the mercenary-led siege, that seemed like awfully light packing. But Vance insisted it was all they needed; in fact he’d laughed and said we wouldn’t need our own sacks of food and skins of water.
If I hadn’t spotted sigils twisting their way beneath the camouflaged canvas I would have argued more vehemently.
Once we were clear of their backs and got all the leather straps removed, Vance and his daughters murmured again in their weird corrupted-yet-divine tongue and shifted back to their more human-like forms. Except this time they wore black leather armor much like their scouts had, making them rather difficult to make out against the absolute-dark background behind us. They were tall, slender, and looked every inch like graceful ninjas.
Vance rubbed his arm a few times though, waving off a concerned Yaria as he began to unpack their small tent. The daughters moved to help, the task made more difficult as the only light we had to go by was the glow off in the distance where we could just make out the hill within which the Hole had been dug. A greenish spheroid surrounded the entire rise of rock, occasionally sparking small streamers much like a flint being struck.
Arrayed in front of the glowing green shield was more conventional lighting: the mercenaries had set up camp outside the mystically powered shield with poles likely topped with all the light crystals stolen from our outpost shining over the flags proudly waving their triangular symbol of gold.
While the Lilim worked on the tent I examined the two short swords I’d taken from the demon. Each had simple silver hilts and crosspieces, but the blades themselves were pure unadorned black with blood grooves down their middles. Just holding them felt awful as they radiated a singular desire to hurt, maim, and kill. The souls within had been beaten down until only this spiteful hate remained, trapped like that possibly forever. All traces of compassion or even individuality were simply gone.
They were horrible pieces of work. The more I held them the more I wanted to recoil and drop them to the ground then go spend an hour washing my hands.
But as nasty as they were, they could be useful. My own makeshift spear’s blade had encountered quite a few demons whose hide was like those fliers: too thick for regular metal to penetrate. These blades would harness what was left of their souls’ sparks to rip through just about anything - angelic armor fortunately not included.
I was kneeling to unwind the bindings which affixed the regular blade to my spear when Hank came over.
“You did well in that skirmish,” he said, taking hold of the spear’s staff to keep it steady so I could more easily use both hands to work free its old pointy bit.
I disagreed. “Nope. I was stupid.” One of the knots refused to loosen to fingers somewhat numb from the cold so I leaned over to pull on it with my teeth.
“Stupid? You reacted swiftly and gave excellent direction in a moment of crisis.”
Speaking between tugs I said, “It should never have reached that point. It was stupid to not continually scan the sky for flying scouts.” The knot finally gave up causing the rest of the leather string to unravel, allowing the removal of the knife I’d lashed there.
He shrugged. “Far scanning tires you. Could you have maintained vigilance for that many hours of flight? Here, give me that.” He took the now-freed knife.
I started to bind one of the soul-forged evil things to the staff. “Non-stop? Probably not. But I should have done it at intervals.”
Hank looked over to where the three Lilim were finishing the assembly of the tent. Twitch had gone over to assist. In a lower voice Hank asked, “You sure you want our new companions to know what you’re capable of?”
That stopped me. In the weak light I couldn’t make out his expression. “You’re pretty perceptive.”
“I have my moments.”
“If you are wondering whether I trust them, the answer to that is no. Not fully.” Winding the leather string tight, I tied a new knot. To keep it truly secure I’d need to do a few more. “I only know Vance from the few times his troupe swung by the outpost to peddle their wares, and I’d never stuck around for any of their revelries. But from that first visit on he’s been overly friendly.”
“Could he have a crush on you?”
That caught me and I had to think about it. “If so, he’s never made a move. Of course every demon or soul that’s tried has found themselves eating dirt. There, that should do it.” I’d finished the final knot, letting go of the weapon.
Lifting it up, Hank swung the spear around a few times. “The balance is off.”
I stood and held out a hand. He promptly gave it back and after a swing or two of my own I had to agree. “Damn. I wonder if I could get a smith to do this proper.”
“Is the tang even separate from the hilt of that thing? Or is it a unitary forging?”
“No idea.” Huh, that was a good question.
“Those bindings should hold for a combat or two, but you better re-tighten after each use.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I had to do that with the old one.”
“Why not use the dagger as is?”
“While I may be tall for a girl, most demons and fighting men are taller still. A spear gives me better reach.”
“You’re likely faster though.”
I laughed and clasped his shoulder. “You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. The more souls a demon has consumed, the faster and stronger they can become. For that matter, don’t underestimate souls - you’ve yet to see Twitch go all out. Though he hates doing it.”
“He was vibrating his swords, wasn’t he?”
“Yep. And he can do that all over. He’s frighteningly fast when he wants to be.”
“But he doesn’t like it.” Hank looked over to where Twitch, gloves back on, was trying to help with the tent.
“You’ve never chaffed so badly that your skin and clothes caught fire. This is an awfully chilly place to be naked.”
“Is that what happened to him? He tell you that?”
“Nope. I’ve never heard him speak. But I’ve watched him start a campfire by rubbing two pieces of paper together. He’s also always careful to remove his gloves and usually rolls up his sleeves before fighting.”
Hank considered and his expression grew with perhaps a new measure of respect for Twitch. In the dimness it was hard to tell. “I think they’ve got the tent set up.”
“Good. I have some suspicions about that thing. Let’s go see if I’m right.”
As we walked over Vance was standing before the tent’s opening flap with hands outstretched and obviously casting a spell. While no normal light resulted, from my perspective the sigils woven into the fabric pulsed and shifted into a different alignment.
“There,” Vance said. “Now, why doesn’t everyone go on in.”
I grinned. Yep, definitely suspicious. “Everyone? Seems a bit small for that.”
“Take a look for yourself!” He shooed in his daughters, and then held the flap for Twitch and Hank who went right in. “My lady, if you would be so kind as to honor us with your presence?”
I laughed. “Let me guess, you’ve got some kind of Tardis there, don’t you. Bigger on the inside.”
“Please join us and find out.” He waved towards the entrance but instead of the motion being smooth and practiced the hand stuttered and stopped.
That gave me pause. “You okay?” I stepped closer to him, barely making out beads of sweat upon his forehead as they reflected the distant lights.
“Never better, my dear.” His other hand which had been holding the flap abruptly let go and fell to his side. We both stared at it and he muttered, “That’s not right.”
No sooner had he said that than his eyes rolled up and knees collapsed.
“Vance!” Throwing forearms under his armpits I barely managed to catch him. “Guys! Help!”
From the darkness within the tent emerged Yaria’s head. Eyes widening at the scene she reacted instantly, easily pulling Vance off. “Get his legs!”
I did so and together we carried him into the tent much to the astonishment of everyone else.
The inside was almost exactly what I had imagined except for the color scheme. I’d pictured reds and purples, however the Lilim’s tastes ran more with blues and yellows. But indeed the inside was much larger, practically the size of a banquet hall complete with soft plush couches and thickly woven rugs plus stacks of wine barrels and a plethora of silver chalices. The dining table was magnificent hand carved felwood much like my doors had been, complete with matching high-backed chairs. Above were several crystal chandeliers, their glowing crystals instead of candles making everything very bright in contrast with the outside.
“Get him on the table,” Ruyia commanded as she shoved pewter platters and goblets aside which caused an incredible clatter as they bounced off the floor and each other.
Laying him out on his back the twins quickly pulled off the thick leather covering his hairless torso, exposing his left arm and chest. Two long scabs ran over the bicep, his olive-toned skin angry and red around the marks but clearly healing. In fact the wounds looked weeks old instead of being only a couple hours fresh.
The problem though wasn’t the cuts. It was the blackness under the skin branching out like lightning through his veins with a few tendrils already creeping into his chest.
“That’s not good,” I said rather obviously, earning a disdainful glance from Ruyia.
Yaria let fly in the demonic tongue something about flies, zombie yaks, and barrels of acid simultaneously infesting every orifice. A translation could never truly do it justice. “The blades that did this, they aren’t the ones you recovered.”
Replaying the battle in my head, I had to agree. “You’re right. The first flier did this, the guy Twitch sliced to pieces.”
“Then we have a problem.” The twins locked eyes then grimly nodded at each other. “I’ll hold him,” Yaria said as she hopped onto the table to straddle her father, pressing one hand firmly to his chest and the other grabbing hold of the arm below the marks.
“What are you doing?”
That’s when I heard Ruyia draw her rapier, its blacked-out blade looking oddly ceramic under the brightness of the chandeliers.
“The wound is cursed,” Yaria hissed. “The old fool should have examined it immediately. Idiot! I shouldn’t have listened to him! With the source maybe we could have pulled it out of him, but without…he trained us to fight, not to heal!”
Certainty came over me as I peered at Vance’s chest, looking past the skin through layers of muscle into the pattern of which he was made. “It’s already seeped into his left heart. Lopping off his arm won’t stop it.”
Ruyia’s sword hesitated where it hovered above the arm. “Then what can we do?” Her voice cracked halfway between a whisper and a wail.
“Dammit,” I said. “Back off and give me a moment.” Hastily pulling off my gloves I tossed them over to Hank before shoving sleeves way up my arms, bunching them up by the shoulders. Yaria’s eyes widened as she noticed the gold and black bracers underneath but she didn’t say anything. Instead she removed her hands from Vance’s shoulders and shuffled knees down the table to give me more room.
Leaning over the cuts I traced a finger over them without touching to trace the curse’s infection. It had the same feel as holding the swords, pure lines of hatred seeping their way deeper into Vance’s flesh and spirit. It was both a spiritual and physical malice, the focused spite of a lost soul made manifest desiring nothing more than death and pain to all things.
If it reached Vance’s second heart or if the tendril already worming its way up his neck towards the brain succeeded it wouldn’t take long for it to be all over. Cleansing this mess would require a similar technique as Raphael had taught when we had healed Tamara’s soul of its demonic infestation. Though this wasn’t attacking memories so much as energetic conduits and arteries.
Unfortunately for Vance the light I used to touch still twinkled too damn far away as if just to tease me with a useless presence. I didn’t have the required mojo to shine bright enough.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t borrow some.
Looking up at the twins their distress was clear: Yaria’s furious expression defended her from a growing inner despair and Ruyia was trying hard to choke back tears.
“Twitch. We’re going to need you and your waterskin,” I said with forced calm but not for his benefit. The more the twins panicked the harder this was going to be.
To his credit Twitch didn’t hesitate and was immediately past the flap to where his sack of supplies lay outside.
I held out my hands to the twins. “You two, come stand at my sides.”
Ruyia moved closer, still holding her sword. But Yaria’s eyes above the ninja cloth otherwise covering her face only narrowed.
“What are you going to do?” Yaria asked, a sharpness on each word.
“You both love your father,” I said slowly. “If you let me, we can use that to save him.”
“You’re a healer?” Ruyia asked, frowning. “I thought you were a reaper.”
Twitch came back in and silently offered me the precious waterskin.
I shook my head at him. “You’ll need to be the one to pour. She loved you, not me.”
Yaria blinked as she finally got it. Rolling off the table in one smooth acrobatic motion, she landed beside me and put a hand on my upper arm. “Sister, you should do the same.”
Ruyia started to sheath her weapon but I stopped her. “I’m going to need that.” Still confused by what we were to do, it took Yaria’s nod for her to let go of the sword. She then joined her sister and her warm hand took hold on the other side.
Standing across the table, Hank caught my attention. “What can I do?”
Biting on a lip, I thought about it. “He could struggle. Hold him down.”
Yaria objected. “Father is strong. I should be the one to do that.”
Hank hopped up onto the table, albeit not as gracefully as Yaria had done. “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” He took a similar position as she had, holding Vance’s chest and arm using his weight to pin down the rest.
I placed the edge of the sword over one of the scabs on Vance’s bicep. To the twins I said, “I need you two to focus on your love for your father. In fact, you should remember all the moments in your lives when you’ve felt that the strongest. The more pure your focus, the better the chance this will work. Do you understand?”
Yaria nodded and after a moment’s hesitation her sister did the same.
“Once I feel it strongly enough, I’m going to reopen the wounds. Twitch, at that point I need you to pour the waters gifted to you by Leila’s heart into the openings. Got it?”
It was his turn to nod.
“Alright ladies,” I said. “Make your father proud.”
The twins bowed their heads and closed their eyes. Their hands began to warm against my skin but not with actual heat.
Keeping my own focus ready, with two quick strokes of Ruyia’s rapier Vance’s blood dripped onto the table and Twitch tilted the skin so its pure water could wash over the fresh gaps in the skin.
Stretching out a single finger into the water’s stream I completed the circuit.
If Vance and his daughters had been purely demons this would never have worked.
Barry had explained it once after quite a few pints of light-side beer and a huge bowl of Cookie’s finest stew.
“Ye have to understand that demons are no like us, lass,” he had said, wiping foam from a beard that looked more like a throw rug in the making. “The way they feel about things is jus’ different-like. Take, fer example, their families.”
“What about them?” I’d asked. While Barry had gulped pint after pint, I was still sipping my first. To be honest it tasted like piss but obviously Barry hadn’t minded.
“Why, there be no real love. Tis an arrangement with built in extortion, see? When a demoness drops a bairn, the wee tyke is still mostly formless and jus’ a blob o’ hunger. She then names it true, and only then does the barra settle down and have a shot at growin’ ta be more. Even then the minger needs munching on some souls ta learn ta speak. And the ma, well she still knows that name, aye? With that an’ a bit o magic she can bind her spawn ta her will as she pleases.” He took another long pull on his pint to let it all sink in.
“Can they even feel love?”
“Aye, ‘tis possible,” he said, plonking his cup down and refilling from the pitcher sitting between us. “But only if the souls they’ve eaten are strong w’ it. Even then ‘tis a bit like comparing a toddler’s fingerpainting to one o’ them master painters. ‘Sides, most don’ go for that sort o’ soul anyways, just muddles ‘em up inside.”
Yaria and Ruyia weren’t full blooded demons. They were half angelic and, even if that angel had fallen, the fundamental pattern was one built out of love. The potential was there and those two loved their father something fierce.
I caught only flickers of what they focused on in order to hold strong to that feeling. Yaria replayed memories of Vance training his daughters how to move and fight and how to tap into the magical capabilities within their natures. Many scenes of his patient guidance and encouragement wove together into the strands of affection which I channeled into the water pouring out of Leila’s gift.
Ruyia’s were different. Her father had taught her music. Memory after memory of practicing techniques for various instruments each worth an individual fortune, cascaded into the stream. She eventually had settled on the same one that he himself had mastered, with uncounted fires flickering behind the pair of violinists playing duet after duet.
Those memories were simply beautiful. The ache of loss of not having been able to do that with my own father nearly as much as I’d have liked almost cost me my concentration. But with a sniff I shoved that feeling aside and made sure to let it only resonate with the joy from the far too few times Dad and I had done the same.
All of that flowed through the water and into the two wounds of Vance’s arm. Their love was a light which cut through the darkness of hate which the dark-souled blades had pressed into his skin. Careful to take it slow like Raphael had taught, I used the brightness like ocean waves on a beach during a rising tide, washing further and further up the shore with each pulse before pulling back only to spill forward yet again.
Vance’s body bucked mightily at first contact but Hank held firm. A few lurches later Vance quieted and in response to each withdrawal of the tides his veins pumped foul-smelling ichor out of the gashes on his arm, running like a rancid chocolate syrup.
Twitch let his skein pour faster and true to its nature the flowing freshwater never ceased.
Still, the curse had gone deep. While the veins in the arm were clearing - indeed the wounds themselves were already starting to knit themselves closed, getting the light further in to the chest proved difficult.
The tendrils of hate were already wrapping around his hearts.
I didn’t have time to ask permission, only hoping the twins wouldn’t immediately try to kill me as I reversed Ruyia’s rapier and stabbed downward into Vance’s sternum directly between the two hearts whose beats were coming too slow.
Ruyia shrieked and her fist flew towards my head at a speed which rivaled Twitch.
The blow didn’t land. Yaria had caught it inches from my temple. “Trust her!” Yaria demanded. “Keep the focus!”
Ignoring the strike which could have knocked my brain out through an ear, I pulled Twitch’s hand over so the water splashed into the new bloody gash across Vance’s chest.
Maybe it was the sudden spike of fear that did it, but Ruyia failed to hold back tears and in her panic her own heart opened true. As her hand returned to my shoulder it lit up on its own, casting a brilliance through my skin to ignite Yaria’s as well.
My eyes closed as the surge rushed through, willing it to spiral down through me into the crystal-clear water which then became a lance of light all its own, driving directly into Vance.
The ichor caught flame as fireworks burst from his every pore and each vein and artery lit up under the skin as if he’d swallowed thousands of tiny LEDs. For that moment he looked much as I had when the light used to deign me with the gift of its glory.
While everyone blinked their eyes clear I ran a hand through the water still spilling across Vance’s chest. My inflicted puncture was gone as was any sign of hateful corruption.
He didn’t even have a scar.
As Ruyia sharply inhaled and Yaria stared with wide-eyed surprise, I took hold of Twitch’s hands to tilt the waterskin upright so it’d stop pouring. He let me screw the cap back on and with goggles pushed up his hazel irises blinked back into mine, rapt with awe and something more which I couldn’t help but finally notice.
Twitch, in his absolutely quiet and reserved way, had fallen head-over-heels in love.
I very much wanted a stiff drink. Heck, make it two.
Chapter 9 - Deal
On the sands of the Black Sea was where the two men found him, an empty bottle of gin between his legs and all-too-distant stars hanging above. Grabbing an arm each over a shoulder, Soren and Isaiah more dragged than carried the limp magician back to his small hotel room and unceremoniously tossed him into the narrow shower, clothes and all.
Isaiah turned the cold tap on full causing the man to lurch with a groan, the mystic symbols across his palms vainly trying to block the spray deliberately aimed at his face.
“Alright, alright! Christ, I’m awake!” Bloodshot eyes peered blearily at their surroundings, focusing first on the battered and stained tiles of the shower and finally rising to the source of such a rude awakening. Recognition of the dour bespectacled man whose business jacket and conservative black and red tie were now rumpled sparked another outcry and a fast incantation in Latin directed by the outstretched hands.
When nothing happened Nick slumped against the shower’s wall. “Shit.”
Lit only by a bronze desk lamp further in the room, Soren spoke. “Your magics have been temporarily bound, Nicolas. We must talk.” He was sitting in the only chair, a low-profile arrangement of metal and fake leather.
Nick ran wet fingers up his face and into the buzzed haircut above. “Talk. Sure, yeah.” Shaking the water from the hand he held it up towards Isaiah. “Help a guy up?”
Isaiah stepped back. “No.”
It took a couple tries but Nick eventually found his feet and stumbled past out of the bathroom to the mini-fridge. Dropping to one knee, he opened it. Isaiah followed, standing against the wall and keeping the magician between himself and Soren.
Watching the magician rummage past the many to-go containers in the fridge, Soren commented, “I hardly believe another drink will be of much help at this moment.”
Nick held up a bottle of water. “Not booze. I’d offer you gents some but it’s the last one.” Closing the fridge he leaned his back to it, legs sprawling across the floor. Tossing the plastic bottlecap across the room he took a long drink. “You’re supposed to be dead,” he said to Soren. “You know that?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Shaking his head, Nick took another sip. “According to Sariel you used the book to awaken Camael and let him loose to take out Azazel. That kind of energy was more than even you could shield yourself from. Or so he thought.” Peering at the tall dark man in the chair, Nick’s eyes widened. “Unless.”
“Continue the thought, Nicolas. Unless what?”
Lifting the crinkling plastic with an unsteady hand, Nick went for another drink but it never reached his lips. Brow furrowing, his eyes shifted back and forth as his mind started putting piece after piece together.
He then laughed, albeit weakly and barely more than a sob. “This is like a bad joke, isn’t it? War and Death step into a hotel-”
With a snap of the wrist the water bottle flew towards Isaiah’s head and the magician made a mad dash towards the door. Batting the bottle aside, its contents splashing across the walls and floor, Isaiah kicked the slightly taller man’s Nick’s feet out from under him and as the magician fell forward Isaiah pivoted to ride him to the floor, slamming Nick’s head sideways into the carpet while a knee pressed hard into his back.
Leaning further down Isaiah shoved an obsidian hand before Nick’s eyes. Spitting each word into the man’s ear he snarled, “I’ve not tapped into the power this hand represents out of concern for the world. But to take you down, you piece of shit, I’ll gladly accept the risk.” Nick tried to speak but Isaiah’s knee ground further into his spine, eliciting instead a grunt of pain. “Betrayer,” Isaiah growled. “They died because of you!”
Nick’s eyes flashed, his voice shifting tone to one from long ago. “You dare speak of betrayal? Who slaughtered the souls fighting under your banner? Clean up your own house before casting aspersions on mine, Lord of Death. That one there sliced off my wings to prevent me from saving my children, and what were you doing? Oh yes. You were busy murdering your own!”
With a roar Isaiah let go of Nick’s face, fingers clenching tight as they pulled away preparing to surge downward again with all the force he could muster.
Power surged through the room as a crimson wave, knocking Isaiah sideways and shaking the entire hotel, dust from grinding mortar spilling from the many bricks.
Startled out of his rage, Isaiah rolled over to stare at Soren. The sorcerer stood now behind a sword nearly as tall as he was, red flames curling along the blade towards the sharp tip hovering an inch above the carpet. Lines of force danced throughout the room along with the sharp scent of ozone. With an outstretched finger Soren touched the golden pommel while his gaze looked beyond. The angel within him spoke.
“Upon mine wings lie the stains of more blood than either of you shall ever see. And what has such brought us?”
Neither of the other men replied. Slowly getting to his feet, Isaiah moved to stand between Nick and the exit, brushing pieces of brown carpet from his tie as he did so.
As for Nick, he groaned and pulled himself into a sitting position. “If you haven’t come to add my blood to your collection, then why are you here?”
Pulling his touch away from the sword, Soren allowed its presence to fade away but all knew the flaming blade could return in a blink of the eye. “To offer you a deal, Barakiel.”
Nick flinched. “Don’t call me that.”
“It is your true name.”
“Maybe so, but still. Don’t. What mephistophelian deal could you possibly be offering now, Callas?”
“We need your services in getting a message to Jordan Emrys.”
Risking a confused glance over at Isaiah, Nick said, “She’s gone. The blast from that bomb would have scrambled her spirit across wherever she teleported it to. I warned her to flee but she didn’t listen.”
“Again you demonstrate insufficient faith.”
“No way,” Nick protested. “Aradia didn’t have the strength to withstand that kind of blast. Though you boosted her with celestial power in Los Angeles she’s still only a Nephelim, even if she is the Morningstar’s daughter!”
Isaiah spoke, anger still burning within. “She is Aradia no longer, Grigori.” His voice then boomed across the room with a force equaling that of the flaming sword. “For her name is Amariel, she who is promised by the Most High to be the Light again made manifest!”
This time no dust fell or bricks shook. Beyond the physical plane the declaration pulsed outward across the realms of spirit, the deafening truth sending shivers up the magician’s aching spine.
With the echoes still lingering, Soren crouched besides Nick. “She exists. She moved herself and the crystal to a prepared defense which cast her beyond the barrier forged by the Throne at the end of the First War. And now we must get a message to her.”
“You’re saying she’s an angel now. Fully. So why do you need my help? What can I possibly do to…” Nick blinked as understanding finally kicked in. “Shit. She’s in Hell.” He looked up at Soren. “Do you even know which of the realms she’s in?”
“She fell to Beliel’s rock.”
Nick grimaced. “That place is too small. I have no contacts there. Can you trace her location?”
“Only if we get close enough.”
Closing his eyes Nick did some mental math. “It’s been what, over a week? With the time differences, good grief Callas, she could be anywhere down in that pit by now and have gone through who knows what. From her perspective years could have passed. She may no longer be the shining princess you think she is.”
Isaiah twitched at that but stayed quiet.
“Then,” Soren stated calmly, “I require your services as a guide. You have studied their realms and their politics, you know the layout of the domains. And as a Grigori you will have easier access to knowledge there than I.”
Nick snorted. “You can’t be serious. Why don’t I arrange for you to make one of your famous deals with say a Marquis or even a Duke? Have them do the legwork to deliver your note or whatever.”
“You seriously mean to go to Hell just to deliver a message? Are you daft? There’s no coming back.”
Soren was resolute. “The Lightbringer discovered a path and returned. One she can employ if she but knows of it. And as he used it to free another, so can she.”
“Impossible.” Nick shook his head. “And before you talk again about faith, that point is moot. While he,” Nick flicked a thumb towards Isaiah, “is itching to throw my ass down there regardless, I’d be insane to help you of all angels. One whiff of being allied with the Host’s red-winged butcher and any odds of survival would vanish in a rain of Fallen blades. Not that I’m inclined to be helpful in any case, all things considered.”
Isaiah growled. “You owe it to her.”
“Do I?” Nick scowled. “As I recall the details, Aradia collaborated in the lie dangled before the rest of us when we all got recruited against Azazel’s madness. The blood of our children stains her hands as well as yours. Hell may be exactly where she belongs!”
Isaiah took a step towards the magician but a gloved hand from Soren stopped him.
“Aradia,” Soren said slowly to Nick, “did as was necessary, much as it pained her to do so. Her arguments to Gabriel convinced where mine did not. Without her sight guiding the path the spirits of your children would of a certainty have been destroyed instead of merely bound.” Soren paused then continued more gently, “Hate me if you must. But Aradia does not deserve such treatment.”
“She and Gabriel could have told us the truth.”
Soren’s hand lowered. “Would you and the other Grigori have believed them? That there was no other way?”
Glaring at the two angels Nick said nothing.
“Therein lies the crux of the current matter,” said Soren. “The messenger must be believed. That is why I wish to make a deal. Not with some demon. With you. Be my guide.”
Nick’s blood-shot eyes narrowed. “Just what exactly do you think you can bargain with in return? Dazzle me, oh legendary deal-maker. Let’s see your best godfather impression. Bring it.”
The dark sorcerer regarded the mage. “I offer two things, each of which alone would be worthy of my request.”
“That’s crap.” Nick crossed his arms. “But let’s hear ‘em anyway.”
“First is that Azrael will swear that he will make no attempt to break the fourth seal, thus preserving the souls of the Nephelim within the safety of incarnation as you so desire.”
Nick looked sharply to Isaiah and asked, “You’d do that?”
Unfriendly eyes regarded him from behind circular lenses. “I am willing to consider it.”
After staring at the lawyer for a long count Nick returned his attention to Soren. “And the other?”
This time Callas Soren - or more precisely, Camael - spoke solemnly:
“The second, Barakiel of the Lightning, is that I shall return unto you your long lost wings.”
Nick opened his mouth as if to speak but no words came out. Finally in a strained voice he said, “You unbelievable bastard.”