There was pain in his head and in the ache of his neck, blinding enough to make him squeeze his eyes shut against the daylight. It was too much, worse than an all-nighter after grading papers and falling asleep at his desk, more than the pain of waking slumped in an awkward position on the couch with his brothers draped over him. It reached back to a pain he hadn't thought of in a long time, perching on a hard bench for hours after identifying the remains of parents brought home too soon. Gabriel blinked. The light was far too harsh for morning, had he fallen asleep in the office again?
"Wake, you bastard!" The growl was aggrieved, and a sharp slap to his face stunned him wide awake, mouth open to object. "We've got to leg it from here, get your ass up."
"Waking him isn't going to accomplish anything, Fenrir." That came from a sneering feminine voice.
Gabriel opened his eyes cautiously, and immediately wished that he hadn't. The last moments before unconsciousness were seeping back to the forefront of his mind like a bloody haze; the butter-blond man, his mouthful of sharp teeth, the blow to the back of his neck and the world collapsing to a fine gray point before blackout.
The man, no, Nephilim was still there, but scowling now as he crouched in front of Gabriel. "You're awake. Now get up, we've got to go."
Gabriel pushed himself half-upright, taking stock of his surroundings. Beyond the backseat of the car, as far as the eye could see was nothing but ruin. The tangled, broken heaps of cars were piled up on a concrete strip, extending into the distance. At the edge of vision, a coruscating rainbow shimmered. "We're outside the Wall," he gasped.
"No shit," growled the Nephilim - Fenrir, the female voice had called him. "Get out of the car, we have to walk across the bridge."
"H-huh?" Gabriel gripped the back of the car seat, looking the other direction. The rusted arches of the bridge rose up in the distance. "No! I'm not going to Long Island."
A steely hand clamped onto his upper arm. "Oh, yes you are," Fenrir snarled, yanking him from the car. "Don't raise attitude with me now, chimp. You're the payday, I'm the hunter, and this is already not going to plan so don't push me." He sent Gabriel spinning as he released him.
With an inelegant grunt, Gabriel fell against a slight, wiry person who shoved him with a slender hand, counter-balancing him. The female was shorter than he, with a head of angry red hair and chalk-white, lovely features. She grimaced at him, her mouth rimmed in gothic black.
"Glory, secure the chimp," Fenrir said, bending to rummage inside the car.
Finally it struck home. These were his captors, and he was being taken prisoner. Disoriented, he had believed for a long moment that there was some kind of mistake, this wasn't happening or it was the most surreal of nightmares. He looked wildly up the lane of broken cars, then Glory obscured his field of vision, stepping in front of him and poking the rumpled chest of his suit with one long, black nail.
"This one doesn't have the balls to run, Fenrir," Glory said. Her voice was low and rich, smooth like a cup of heated chocolate. It chilled him nonetheless. "He's useless, the academic type. Did you hear that panic? He's never been outside the Wall in his life."
"I don't care," Fenrir threw over his shoulder, muffled as he seized a bag from inside the car and rifled through it. "This payday is too big. He wants to pay us too much for it. There's already pursuit, with fucking Orion you can place a sure bet on it, and I for one am not going to waste precious seconds hauling his ass back over lost ground after an idiotic escape attempt."
Glory shrugged, and a talon-nailed hand went to her wrist, where she unspooled a length of monofilament from a lightweight wrist device there. "Too bad for you, pretty boy," she said with a black grimace, advancing on Gabriel.
He stumbled back, tripped over a chunk of concrete, and pinwheeled. Striking out for balance left him wide open, and Glory darted in nimbly to seize first one wrist, then the other. Giving him a nasty smile, she bound his wrists loosely together in front of him, and left a long trailing line that she kept in one hand as a lead. This done, she leaned in and planted a wet kiss on his cheek as he shrank away from her. He would put out his hands to serve as a barrier, but he was afraid he'd end up touching her, after all.
Her mouth was chalky and reptilian-cold against his skin. He wrenched himself away, stumbling over debris again as she barked with laughter. Gabriel fell against the car, glasses slipping on his nose, and stared out over the side of the bridge. Roiling storm clouds approached, but that wasn't what concerned him the most. There were small black shapes clustered in a jagged line against the battered wall of the bridge, perched here and there on lumps of displaced concrete. They were vaguely dog-shaped, with long wickedly-forked tails, stubby ears, truncated muzzles drooling with needle-sharp teeth, and bulbous lantern eyes, shining with an eerie iridescence even in the daylight.
"Quit fucking around!" Fenrir's voice rang out, and he turned to them with a sack over his shoulder. "We should've brought more guns."
"Why bother?" Glory's rich voice was thick with contempt. "When I can deploy these and more." She lifted a hand to her lips, and blew from her palm as if scattering dust.
The line of lesser demons quivered and sprang on the alert like a pack of hounds sensing prey. What made the sight so eerie was that their every muscle did so in unison. It was unnatural, the uniformity.
Gabriel shuddered at the rotten sight of them. "Goblins," he said. He had never seen one up close, though he had the experience under his belt of observing them in containment at Orion before. But seeing Glory command them drove home the point that there was a definite chain of authority amongst the Nephilim, something he had speculated but it had never really been confirmed...
Glory kicked the back of his knee, and Gabriel uttered protest. "Get moving," she ordered. "You heard him, we don't have time to waste." She pushed at his shoulder, urging him forward.
He stumbled off, moving awkwardly with his hands bound. He had never quite appreciated how the arms helped the balance until the use of them was hindered. It was odd – even in such peril, he was still analyzing things. Fenrir bared his teeth again, putting to mind such unpleasant things as torture, or worse. Yes, they would almost certainly torture him once they reached Long Island.
Even if he knew nothing, it was common knowledge that Long Island had been taken by the demons. They had seized it before anyone could establish a Wall there, and the cost of re-taking it had been determined to be far too high. There were still horror stories reverberating through the city of what had happened to those people when the demons came. Rape and being eaten alive wasn't even the worst of it. Gabriel couldn't expect anything better, but he knew at least that they had been ordered to take him alive. If it weren't so, he would never have woken up in the first place.
Behind them, the line of goblins skittered over the ground, scrabbled over cars and leaped forward.
"You're going to need a lot more than that," Fenrir told Glory.
Glory laughed, tugging on Gabriel's lead. "Plenty more where they came from," she boasted, and pulled hard enough to bring Gabriel to one knee.
He bit back a cry of pain. He had landed hard on concrete, the wrong angle for the kneecap and as he struggled upright he knew it was skinned, possibly a bad bruise that would show later. He limped on the next step, favoring it, but could feel nothing broken. He thought about hobbling, exaggerating his injury to slow them down and increase his chance of rescue. As Fenrir had said, he was sure his contacts at Orion had put out a search party...if they knew he was gone. That single thought made his eyes widen and his gut tightened with fear.
No one was coming, if no one knew that he was gone. It could be half a day before anyone grew concerned.
"Show a little care," Fenrir growled. "He's no good if he can't walk, you know."
That chilled Gabriel. If he couldn't walk, would they leave him here, after all?
Glory snorted, derisive. "These chimps are such delicate creatures." She yanked on his lead and he stumbled forward again, his hopes withering. He would have to rely on himself now, and simple experience told him that meant he was truly in the shit.
With a sudden shock Roman roused, flopping over, banging his head against someone hard enough to clock himself. He lay dazed on the bed, clutching his skull and trying not to laugh. "Gabriel?" he said hoarsely, but as he lay there he absorbed the details of the dimmed room and realized this was not home, nor any of the rooms he had lain in as a lover. The darkness of dreams receded and he squeezed his eyes shut, remembering where he was and why he was here. Gabriel was gone.
"Ow..." came a faint moan beside him.
"I'm sorry," Roman apologized, groping the hillocks that made out the shadowy figure of the man beside him. "Damon? How long was I out?"
"Unh." Movement stirred the bed and broke the regular line of shadow beside him, and Damon swept a hand over the light panel next to the bed. A soft radiance diffused throughout the room, lightening it by degrees until he could see Damon's sleepy, handsome face and beyond him, the night-stand clock. "A few hours, I think. Must be getting close to dinner. How do you feel?"
Roman pushed up from the bed, considering it. He didn't do self-evaluation very often; he was a creature of the present and immediate future and that was as far as it went. "Numb," he decided with a frown. "Maybe...a little angry." He felt uncertain, and put a hand out to the supine figure of his lover, touching the solid reassurance of Damon's shoulder, sliding down to his pectoral, mulling it over. How did he feel?
"You're not really up for that right now, are you?" Damon asked, blinking at him in startlement.
"No," Roman said, huffing forth a tiny sigh. That was unlike him. Was it? Hadn't he used sex to calm himself whenever something came up? This was different. This pushed him back to a night eight years ago when the safety of his world, his parents, had been uprooted and taken away forever. He was rendered small and helpless as a child again, and hated it. How dared he?
How could Gabriel leave him alone? When he knew...he knew how much it hurt.
Roman drew his knees up to his chest, fighting the sudden sobbing breath that he knew would make Damon worry, make him sit up and draw him close, trying to help. He didn't want it. He had to keep himself separate, because if someone showed sympathy right now, he would lose it again.
After several deep breaths, Roman said, "I lost it earlier." He was calmed by the steadiness in his own voice. He could do this.
"No, it's not," Roman said, obscurely irritated. It must be self-directed anger, because Damon was being too nice as usual. "I lost it, and inconvenienced everyone, and probably pissed off the people responsible for res...for rescuing..." He choked on the word. It was another acknowledgment that Gabriel was gone.
Shemyahza Guile's words floated to the surface again. Every second of my time that you waste, the greater his chances are of being tortured, raped, or killed.
"Actually, I think you just amused Shemyahza," Damon said, sounding irritated. "That man..."
"Demon," Roman corrected, running a hand over his hair, smoothing back disheveled strands. "I hate him, but he must be good."
"You trust Ms. Carson," Damon said.
Roman gave him a tight nod. "She seems like she knows her stuff. Better than the division head, thank god."
Damon laughed. There was no particular humor in the sound. "Is he really in charge? He doesn't seem–"
"I don't know," Roman cut him off, shifting himself on the bed, climbing onto Damon's thighs and raking a hand over his stomach, proprietary. It wasn't particularly sexual right now, but the sensation was a comfort to him. He didn't want to think about Loire, because it made him think of Arashi, and Roman was grappling with guilt for the first time in a while. They hadn't even done it.
"River," Damon said, uneasiness in his face, the tone of his voice. Hands settled on his hips anyway, because he had never been able to resist. Not since Roman had gotten his way.
"Can't you call me Roman? It's my name, after all," Roman said, now angry and unable to fathom why. He rolled off Damon, getting to his feet and casting a long look around the bedroom. It was spacious enough, and the wide "bay window" against one wall allowed for the illusion, as everything else underground, of a view outdoors. There was a closet with pressure catches on the opposite wall, and opposite the bed was a settee, a bookcase with the luxury of real books, and in one corner a desk with a light strip for providing greater, focused illumination, a data notepad with a wireless, no doubt, and the incongruous homey touch of a mug full of pens.
"I'm sorry, it's what I'm used to," Damon said quietly.
That made Roman feel bad, which in turn fueled irritation, and being irritated made him angry, so he kicked the bed, hopped around a bit while Damon asked him what was wrong, and clenched his teeth, refusing to answer.
"I'm going to ring Charlotte," Roman said at length, striding across the bedroom. "I'm sure she's worried, I mean, I never showed up for the class after that period."
Damon was on his feet, a hand on his wrist locking him into place. Roman refused to turn, but closed his eyes when a hand passed through his hair. "Just don't push yourself, okay?" Then he was gone, propelling Roman into motion with a single touch, leaving the room soundlessly, without a fuss.
"Whatever that's supposed to mean," he said, irritated. The room was silent and swallowed his response.
He checked his cell first, but there was no reception. They must be very far underground. No matter how many brilliant light-displays they had to simulate the outside world, he was still pressed down with the knowledge that they were sealed off from the rest of the world. A flare of hope died in his breast. If he could have dialed Charlotte's cell, there was a ghost of a chance he could call Gabriel–
No. The wall cut off all broadband communications, electrical and radio frequencies, and not many people had access to GPS lines. Gabriel certainly didn't.
Gabriel. He imagined cracked glasses and a pale face stained with blood, swallowed, and tried to banish the image. The notepad's surface was cool under his fingertips as he powered it on. It was already early evening, so he'd slept for quite a while. A hint of shame colored his thoughts now. Breaking down in front of Cedric, let alone the others, was the last thing he should have done. He would have to apologize, at least to his little brother. He was hardly in control of his own emotions...how unmanly.
No one was home at the Mead house, and Roman left a message. It wasn't so unusual for him to disappear partway through the day in any case, and so Charlotte probably wasn't so worried for him. With Arashi gone, as well, she would draw the usual conclusion.
Roman sat there for a moment, thinking. It bothered him. He really was a frivolous kind of guy. Now something like this happened, and he was useless.
A shower might make him feel better, but he didn't even have a change of clothes, so that was no good. Well, there was something he could take care of. He'd go see Cedric first, though, so that they could order things from Assistance together. How long were they really going to be here? Not even Ms. Carson knew.
He splashed water on his face and rejoined Damon in the expansive living room-type area. His lover was gazing at the light-wall, expression set. It made Roman apply the brakes and reassess, again, what a bastard he'd been.
"Hey," he said, planting himself in Damon's field of vision.
Damon barely looked up. "Hey," he responded.
It made Roman wonder if he couldn't, in fact, push Damon too far. He chased other guys away because he didn't want them to stick with him. This one, he counted on to stay no matter what. Everyone had limits – he'd just never come up against Damon's to push him before. Damon had his pride, too, and accustomed as he was to cosseting young models, he probably couldn't just let this go.
"I've been bad, huh," Roman said, resisting the urge to cross his arms and letting them hang defenseless by his sides, instead.
"Stinking," Damon agreed, still without looking at him. "But I know you're worried about your brother. If you want me to leave–"
"I don't!" Roman interjected, alarmed.
"I can't," Damon finished, giving him a wry look. "But if you need space, well, I guess you're letting me know that right now – so I'll back off, all right?"
Roman shook his head. "I'm just being an ass," he said, bending to place a hand on each of Damon's knees. "Give me another chance?"
"That's not even an issue. You never expended your first one," Damon assured him, reaching up for his face, taking him in hand and delivering a slow, warming kiss.
His tongue probed at Roman's lips and he let him inside, eyes closed and concentrating. He was warm and gentle right now, though Roman knew if he skimmed his shirt off they'd both have bruises for anyone to see. Above anything he was safe because Damon loved him, and he trusted him not to leave him.
Like Gabriel had left him... the thought flew through his mind and his eyes snapped wide open. A door hissed wide on the other side of the room and Roman pushed himself up and away, Damon's hand leaving his cheek last.
"Aren't you two a pretty picture," Felicia remarked, striding into the room. She observed them, cocking a hand on her hip. "Your little brother invited us over next door for dinner. Said he's elbow-deep in cooking right now."
"He's the domestic one," Roman said with a twist of his lips. He couldn't really cook. It drove home the point that he'd been cared for all his life. He really was helpless. "Any, uh...any news?"
Felicia rolled her head to the side. "Now you know I would have woken you up if there had been," she chastised. "Give the man some time to work. Guile has a good success rate even if he seems unreliable."
"Oh," Roman said. She got right to the heart of the matter. He'd been left with nothing to say.
"Let's go over and help Cedric," Damon suggested.
The closed-in corridor betrayed the antiseptic nature of this place. No matter how they tried to make it seem like a natural compound – there were light-walls installed in the corridor ceiling, providing illumination from a blue panel that mimicked a skylight – there was still an oppressive sense in the back of Roman's mind. Well, that might be the fact that Gabriel had been kidnapped by demons, too. That more than anything might be giving him a sense like one claustrophobic.
I want to go home, the thought flickered through Roman's mind, but there was no going back. They would just have to deal.
The door for the suite next door chimed when Felicia pressed her ident disc to its display, giving notice to those within that there was someone requesting entry. Roy's assistant Keiran answered the door, looking mussed, then he withdrew into the further reaches of the apartment. The smell of something simmering and savory was on the air, but Cedric was nowhere in sight.
"Hey," Damon murmured, nudging him. "I'm here for you, you know. And Cedric."
Roman stretched his lips in an approximation of a smile. "I know," he said, lowering his head. He didn't deserve his lover, and now his brother was gone. He had to hold it together and he'd already broken down once. This whole day was painful proof that he wasn't ready to be a man yet, and he didn't like getting things rubbed in his face, and his family was still in crisis.
Maybe he could hold it together from now on, for Cedric.
As they stepped into the dim apartment, both Roman and Felicia started as someone moved in the living area. Only the light-wall provided illumination, and it must be tuned to the outside environment because the shadowed slant of its rays provided the illusion that the building was on the shadow side, with the sun moving down west in a gradual slide for the horizon.
"Shee-yit," Felicia complained, a hand at her waist. "Humphrey, you could've scared me if I weren't dead certain no demon could get inside here!"
The big man shrugged, turning to look at them. He was leaning over a chess board, its game advanced to the end stages.
"Where's Cedric?" Roman asked.
Humphrey crooked a thumb toward one of the hallways.
"The library, huh?" Roman said. His mouth lifted and fell again, the form of a smile without its feeling. In times of stress, they all sought their own comforts.
He really was unreliable.
Cedric kicked his stockinged feet over the edge of the chair, leaning over the table and watching Roy sort through a pile of screen-files. "So my brother really did do all kinds of important things?" he said interestedly, dragging a stylus over the surface of the table, which was one great data-interfacing panel.
"Yes, and a lot of them were classified," Roy said, giving him a slight smile. "Some still are. But your brother's translations have really helped to hold the line against demons, or translate bits of technical information that Orion has found over the years."
"That's excellent," Cedric said gravely. "And he doesn't do it for money or notoriety, either. He just likes to work."
Roy gave him an indulgent smile. "He likes learning new things more than almost anything in the world, hates politics, resists most practical applications to some of his studies for fear it might contaminate pure knowledge...he's the most dedicated scholar I know," he said, picking a screen-file and inserting it into the notepad.
"You sound like you admire him a lot."
"I do. Of course I do. He's my mentor, and has been since I started at the university. I feel lucky that I've gotten to work with him as a master's student," Roy said, powering on the notepad and scrolling through files. After a moment of this, he looked at Cedric with a small smile. "Think you're going to follow in his footsteps?"
"Well...I don't know," Cedric said with a little frown. "Even Roman has something that he likes to do more than anything else. But I suppose I have time to decide, right?"
"Right," Roy replied, inclining his head. "You're very young, Cedric, but you've been advancing very fast for your age. Just remember to give yourself time to grow up and make sure your choices are your own, not someone else's."
Keiran re-entered the room, pausing on the threshold for a moment. "Roman Vaille is here, and his, uh..." He glanced at Cedric.
"His lover," Cedric supplied.
"Er, yeah..." Keiran rubbed at the back of his head, seeming abashed. "And their bodyguard. I guess they're here for dinner?"
Cedric widened his eyes. "Dinner!" he exclaimed. "Sorry, Roy, I have to go. Let me know if I can be useful later, all right?"
"Of course," Roy replied, waving him off. "I should be saying the same. Let Keiran know if you need any help cooking, all right?"
"Huh? Why me?" Keiran said, and Roy laughed.
Roy even had nice laughter, Cedric mused as he pattered up the hall. The sauce smelled good, but if he didn't reduce the heat soon, all the moisture would boil off and leave it too thick.
"He's a good kid," he heard Keiran saying, along with Roy's response, "He's very mature. I think Gabriel and Roman left him too much alone."
But he didn't think he'd been alone too much, Cedric thought to himself in protest. He loved his brothers and knew that they had a lot of things that were important to them, things that kept them busy or out of the house. He didn't feel neglected. But he was glad that Rukawa was fast on the path to becoming his friend.
Cedric dashed back to the living area, neatly sidestepping his brother, and took a quick glance at the game he was playing with Humphrey. The big man looked up and gave him a nod. Cedric jerked his head in return, darting a hand to the board and throwing his knight into play, capturing a pawn and positioning it for a rook. He would probably lose it, but that set up his queen for a few deadly moves. Then he hurried into the kitchen, ignoring his brother's exclamation, and grabbed a long-handled spoon to stir the sauce. Chicken was baking in the oven, and pasta was bubbling away in a large pot. The only things left to attend to were salad and some brief attention to dessert.
"Hey," Roman said, appearing at the kitchen's entrance. "Cedric?"
"Oh, aniki," Cedric said, finishing with the sauce. He frowned, wondering if he should thin it. He had no idea when Ms. Carson and Arashi would be joining them and he wanted to wait until everyone was here. "How are you?"
"I should be asking the same of you," Roman said with a nod. He put a hand on his hip, then crossed his arms with a frown, then dropped them and advanced, an uncertain expression overtaking his lovely face.
Cedric looked at his brother as he approached, really looked at him. Roman was an amazing blend of handsome and pretty, with full lips and intense jade-green eyes. It was small wonder he was so popular with boys and girls both. Roman put an arm around him, and Cedric tensed. He knew his brother was trying to comfort him, but Cedric didn't want it right now. He'd had his sniffles out against Roy's shoulder, and now all he wanted was to focus on the everyday mundane until he heard enough to chase away his deepest fears.
"Um, I'm feeling better now," Cedric said, as Roman's other arm settled around him. "Really."
"Well...I'm sorry I flaked earlier," Roman told him, pulling Cedric into a close embrace. "It was stupid of me, and I let you down."
"Well, you're really worried, right?" Cedric said forthrightly. "You're the one closest to Gabriel, and, well...our parents are gone. So...so you've..."
"Yeah, but I've got to grow up," Roman murmured. "After all, I've got you. I've got to grow up, right? I mean, if...if..."
They both tensed, and Cedric pushed Roman away with both hands. "He's coming back," Cedric stated in no uncertain terms. He thought back to the ripple of corded muscle he'd seen on Shemyahza's bare arms. The man was strong, and he was Orion's elite. "He is, so don't even say it." He blinked, hard, and Roman shook his head slowly.
"You're not cute at all," Roman told him, mussing his hair.
"Nng," Cedric responded, levering Roman's hand off his head and turning for the stove again.
"Can I help with anything, Cede?" Roman asked him, voice rich with amusement.
"It's Cedric!" Cedric corrected with annoyance, but his mouth tugged in spite of himself. If they could do this much, then maybe they would be okay. "Well, yes. You can tear up the lettuce for the salad."
"Ugh, I'm sorry I asked."
"You already said!" Cedric turned on him, getting a bit shrill.
"I know, I know. Am I really that unreliable? Don't answer that. Just point me in the right direction and I'll do my best," Roman told him, resting a hand on his shoulder before going to open the fridge.
"That's all I ever wanted," Cedric murmured.
"Heard any news?" Roman asked, overly nonchalant.
Cedric gave him a shake of the head. "None, but I invited Ms. Carson to dinner. I'm hoping she'll give us updates. She seems nice..."
"And cagey," Roman said with a frown. "Cedric, where on earth did you get all this food?"
"Oh, this?" Cedric waved his spoon about. It was just time to peek in the oven again. "Humphrey went and got it for me." He puffed out his chest, pleased.
"Damn," Roman said. "I think he likes you, Cede. This is enough to feed an army."
"Come on, let's make food for our army. Then maybe they'll tell us good news."
Cedric almost laughed at the very thought. It was a superstition, of sorts. I'll be good if only this will go right. Only this was the biggest, most important thing he'd ever wished for.
"This is the day that never ends," Roy intoned, popping another screen file into the notepad. Across the table from him, Keiran leaned over the display surface, his pale face rendered ghastly by the faint backsplash of light. When he turned up his face, there were hollowes beneath his eyes. "Honestly, Gabriel's filing system is so obscure I think that only he could understand it."
"I haven't worked for him very long, but that's the impression that I get," Keiran said.
If he was trying to be helpful, Roy found it tiring instead. He leaned his own elbows on the table, planting his face in his hands. His neck was a solid line of pain from nape and clear down to the hard-to-reach spot between his shoulder blades.
"So...what is it that we're looking for, exactly?" Keiran asked. "I mean, you told Ms. Carson we'd continue the work, but how can we do that without Gabriel?"
"He had already translated some portions. I'm looking for his notes, and the translations that he had done already," Roy explained through his fingers. He was feeling discouraged, too. Everything that Gabriel had ever handed off to him before, he had been able to accomplish, from simplifying lecture notes to making a presentation before the Dean. In a way it was good, because he'd learned all that he was capable of. Now, though, he was totally overwhelmed. "If we have at least that much, it could provide clues to the rest, or at least a touchstone for starting. You see?"
"In other words, mostly Orion wants results right now and you're trying to provide them with anything that they can use," Keiran interpreted.
"Maybe. We'll see," Roy said. He heaved up a sigh and settled his head more firmly into his hands, pressing his index fingers against the bridge of his nose. That glint in Alicia's eye had certainly indicated that would be in his best interests. "If we can do that much, then maybe it will help us figure out just exactly why this book was so damned important, they would have Nephilim kidnap the professor out in broad daylight right off the street. Stupid..."
There was silence from Keiran's side of the room, which he took to be thoughtfulness. Then he heard footsteps. Roy swallowed, taking mental inventory of how many screen files they'd gone through. The labeling appeared to be completely haphazard, and some were even blank. How was he supposed to find anything when the files were in this condition?
Fingers clasped his neck, a light touch, and Roy groaned as they began to knead at his stiff, sore muscles. "Unf," he uttered, or something like it. He wasn't exactly keeping track. "Don't stop..."
Keiran chuckled; it was a husky, sexy sound that sent shivers coursing down his spine, helping the knots to unfurl that much faster. "You looked like you needed it."
Roy gave himself a firm mental shake. Of course Keiran was just being nice, why would he stop to notice Roy now just because his beloved Professor Gabriel was gone? At any rate, now wasn't the time for even thinking about that sort of thing. Not to mention, it was completely inappropriate because not only were they in a student-teacher relationship, but right now Keiran was the assistant, and he was the boss. Accusations of improper conduct weren't taken so seriously as they had been in days prior, since the only issue was making sure both parties were consenting, but for Roy, he did worry about his reputation. It didn't seem right...
Which wasn't an issue, because Keiran wasn't interested in him.
He pulled his face out of his hands, giving Keiran better access to his neck and the tightened muscles. His skillful fingers stroked out the knots, leaving behind a glowing sensation of well-being.
"So what do we know so far?" Keiran mused, his fingers lingering in firm, relieving strokes.
"Well, I know that while Gabriel was working on this tome he wondered if it was one of the Five," Roy said, biting back a groan. Keiran's fingers felt so good he wondered if he could bribe him to never stop, or perhaps do this on a semi-regular basis.
"Explain," Keiran commanded, his sublime fingers molding over Roy's temples.
Roy was breathless until Keiran's fingers returned to his neck, then he picked up the thread again. "The Five is one of the key grimoires of the Nephilim world," Roy explained. "Not many people know about them, apparently even amongst the demon world. There are only six major arcana in existence. For one of them to fall into Orion Corporation's hands..."
"Oh, I see!" Keiran said. He left off kneading Roy's neck, and took a seat beside him. His face shone with enthusiasm. "Of course, if we got our hands on something so important they tried to kidnap Professor Vaille."
"It's not," Roy said with a small head-shake. "It can't be. That much, I pieced together from Gabriel's mutterings. There were too many discrepancies with its period dating, the materials it was composed of, as well as the place it was found. It contained, as far as he could determine, a mixture of spell and history details, and with any luck, some important secrets. Gabriel was in the process of trying to verify if it was the actual Five itself, or a replica."
Keiran tilted his head in a charming manner. "Couldn't we ask Arashi or Ms. Carson to find an actual Nephilim, one on payroll who would be able to verify that in a matter of moments?"
"No, it's not that easy," Roy said with a frown, thinking there was no way Keiran could be aware of how cute he looked just now. "If they did have someone like that at Orion, that person would have ID'd it before giving it to Gabriel for translation."
"Maybe they wanted him to verify independently?" Keiran suggested. "You know, withhold the knowledge until they got the professor's opinion on it, as well?"
"It's possible," Roy said slowly. "And if they already knew for sure how important it was, that would explain why they reacted so quickly and decisively this morning when Gabriel was taken." He frowned, propping his chin on a fist. Why do that, though? Orion wasn't usually so cagey with them.
This grimoire was different. It was definitely high-stakes, more than any piece of work Roy had seen cross their desk before now.
Keiran sniffed, and Roy looked up. He was astounded to see a redness at the corner of the boy's eyes, hint of moisture threatening to spill forth. "I wish it hadn't happened. I wish they had let us know how important it is some other way."
By killing someone? Roy thought, but bit his tongue. He couldn't afford to think it, because for all they knew it was true. He pushed off his seat and hovered near his assistant, not daring a touch even for comfort's sake. "Ah, Keiran...I'm sorry. I got you involved in this whole mess."
Keiran turned up big blue eyes on him. "How could they let it get this far? Isn't protecting people their job? I mean, if it was that important, why not keep it here to begin with!?" By the end of it, he was shaking.
"Keiran..." Roy went to pat his shoulder, feeling awkward, and for the second time that day found someone's face buried against his chest. Keiran clutched at his shoulders, tacitly begging comfort. With a sigh Roy gave into it, drawing him in close, resting his head on Keiran's sleek auburn hair. "Come on, we've got work to do. We can't afford any time for tears."
The boy shook his head against Roy's chest. His voice was a bare whisper. "Sorry, Roy."
"Forget about it." Roy silenced his internal voice, and gave them permission to waste a moment while he stroked Keiran's hair, enjoying the closeness with no other pretexts. Was it wrong to seek comfort, at a time like this?
Alicia Carson palmed open the field ops coordination center door with her ident disc, peering into the gloom that permeated the place informally dubbed "war room" within. Arashi Loire was seated beside a bank of monitors, the white and green glow from their screens the only real illumination within. He had his back to the door and an ear-path extended from his left ear, its thin stem pointing near his mouth. She stood behind him for a moment, taking in the six different data displays he was working from. The boy was, no doubt about it, a gifted creature. His hands danced over the keying surface, scrolling here, panning there, freezing a portion of data, highlighting and magnifying then scrolling through again. How many attention tracks did he possess?
That was something he couldn't have gotten from his father, Alicia thought with a rueful twist of her lips. Division Head Loire was brilliant in spots, but also erratic. Fortunately, he was the opposite of a micro-manager; he preferred to pick excellent people and let them go to work without bothering them. He had a talent, in fact, for picking just the right person.
Arashi passed a hand over his console, freezing three screens and muting the constant hum and chatter, and swiveled in his chair to face her.
Alicia controlled the startlement in her face, giving him her best blank, pleasant expression. "Find anything?"
"Still compiling data, none of it too terribly useful," Arashi said with one of his perpetual frowns. "The team is in the field, on the relay; Shemyahza worked out a plan for them to follow. I don't have anything new to report."
Alicia's eyes flicked to his ear-path. "Can they hear you?" she asked quietly.
Arashi tapped a finger to the small device. "Not anymore," he replied.
"Good. You must have figured out by now, for Gabriel to be kidnapped in this fashion there must have been a leak. As far as we know, no one outside of Orion knew of this tome's extraction. It was a high-level secret," Alicia said. It wasn't that she didn't trust the team she'd put in the field; she did, implicitly. But some things had to be dealt with on a private basis. "The team who excavated it probably suspected what they had, of course, but we deal in artifacts on a regular basis. None of them have ever gotten a response like this."
"Of course I suspected," Arashi said with a nod. "One thing I've tried to pull is records access, but since I'm new to this division, I don't have the permissions I'd need. I think that whomever leaked this information to the Nephilim found the electronic record."
Alicia was the one to pull a scowl, this time. "That shouldn't be possible," she said. "Anyone with that level of clearance has been vetted, screened, has gone through background checks and psychological profiling–"
"Yeah? How many high-level hackers have you got on payroll, or contract?" Arashi said.
"Your cynicism is showing, Arashi," Alicia said with a chuckle, though she took the point. She was not amused, and this was something that needed to be looked into – immediately. If they had leaked one thing, where were the limits?
She eyed the boy as he swiveled back to the bank of monitors, setting one of the screens back into motion. Arashi brought up a list and looked over his shoulder at her. "I can track IPs, but I can't trace them to the logical conclusion, the logon ID. I could've done it back home – I mean, back in San Francisco, but my father hasn't assigned those permissions. He wouldn't think of it, of course."
Alicia hesitated. Like he said, the division head hadn't given Arashi the highest level of permissions. But the son of Loire wouldn't be consorting with demons, and from what she knew of interacting with him, observing him, and reading his psych profile as she did all potential members of her team, she knew that Arashi had an innate sense of justice, and had demonstrated his fierce sense of morality on more than one occasion, according to his prior supervisor.
It was very like Division Head Loire to simply forget to evaluate the access his son would need. And she could tell that Arashi had too much pride to ask him.
"Arashi," Alicia said, and paused again. He turned a gray eye on her, wary. "I know you have a lot to deal with right now–" He snorted and waved a hand at the monitors as if to indicate, it takes four to keep me busy. "Okay, so...I'd like to give you that security clearance. If you've already narrowed down IP addresses, that's further than I've gotten. This is my division, and I don't trust anyone else to do this investigation."
Arashi jerked his chin upward. "And my father?" he asked coolly.
"The division head has deputized me to look into this matter," Alicia replied, equally on the level.
He pondered this. It confirmed Alicia's choice, because even with the clearance being offered to him, he still wanted to make sure it was kosher. "All right," he said, lifting his chin again. "I'll trace down those IPs and give you a list of names. Sound good?"
"And data on their connections, what they accessed, if they sent anything..."
Arashi was nodding. "There's ways to disguise some of that, but I think I can get you what you need. There's a terminal over there."
"Okay." Alicia inhaled, and nodded in return. "Give me your ident disc, I'll scan it." She seated herself at the nearby terminal and placed his chip on the data surface, powering up the unit with a flick of her nail. While the OS flickered on and it hummed to life, she glanced over her shoulder.
Arashi had already focused on his bank of computers again, tapping away at streams of data, a frown creasing his flawless brow. He really was a handsome young man. At his age, with his looks, he could have anyone he wanted – Alicia remembered being that age. Of course, here he was, hanging out in a sub-level buried in a confidential building of a massive corporation. And of all the people to be hanging around a school building, he had been in Roman Vaille's presence when she called him.
"Very convenient, Roman Vaille being with you earlier just when I needed him," Alicia remarked. She could feel Arashi's eyes drilling holes into the side of her head, and barely managed not to smirk.
"Yes. And?" Arashi prompted.
"And nothing," Alicia said innocently. "If you hadn't been with him, I would have had to send out another pair of bodyguards for him. Worked out to be quite the convenience for me."
"Hn." Arashi turned a hard look on her, then his chair creaked as he faced front again.
Alicia quirked her lips and stopped teasing the boy. He was bright - a gem, a treasure - and still had all the failings of his sex, total density. All he would've needed to say to turn her off the scent was that they had been in class together, but by trying so hard to discourage questioning, he had all but confirmed it. Really, it was none of her business. But she'd learned in an extensive background check of Gabriel's family that the younger brother was somewhat free with his autograph.
She added alpha clearance to Arashi's permissions. It was only a step above the authority level he'd had before, so Alicia assumed that it had merely been an oversight on the part of the division head. His assistant was in charge of incoming transfers; perhaps he'd thought that a youth like Arashi had been assigned his former clearance as a mistake, or simply hadn't trusted him.
"And times," Alicia added as an afterthought, handing the ident chip back to Arashi, who swiveled to accept it.
"Of course," Arashi said, an insulted look crossing his face.
Alicia suppressed another chuckle. Her poker face was better than this boy's, she'd wager. She toyed with the idea of having him assigned exclusively to her unit; she was willing to bet there were a lot of other professionals who were put off by his direct, analytical, yet overall reclusive attitude.
"All right, then if you could press for results by–"
Arashi raised a hand in the 'stop' gesture, cutting her off. He pressed a finger to his ear-path, activating it to full volume. He didn't even wince, though Alicia could clearly hear yelling and the rattle of firearms. He raised his eyebrows at her, and she signed 'later.' He surprised her with a nod of acknowledgment.
Oh, yes, she wanted this prodigy in her unit on a long-term basis. If she wangled it just right, the division head might even thank her for the honor.
'Dinner at six in the first suite,' she signed, but Arashi's abstracted look gave notice that he might not be paying strict attention, any longer. She let herself out of the war room and paused for a moment, adjusting to the sunlit levels of brilliance.
Alicia looked overhead at the fake skylight, shading her eyes. It was a flawless imitation of the sky, but she could never forget how far underground they truly were. Her next stop was her office, then Roy's suite for dinner. It was sweet of Cedric to invite her, and doubtless they would all be expecting an update. That was a frustrating thing, to tell them that the only thing they could do was sit and wait for results from the field team.
Meanwhile, on her end she would continue to pursue the leak. At least they'd had incomplete information – otherwise Gabriel, her responsibility, could have been dead already.
Now there was still a chance.
The inverted steel arches of the bridge rose up in the distance, clawing at the sky. Shemyahza leaned against his cover behind a pile of rusted, trashed cars, one hand on the broadsword, the other on a handle bar of his hydro bike. He was poised, dark face creased in concentration as he focused on the distance while Arashi fed cool updates into the ear-path. He might as well have 'does not work well with others' tattooed across his forehead, because while he didn't precisely distrust Jo Carselyle to do the job they'd all agreed on, he did think he'd feel better if he were the one up on the front line by the bridge. Shemyahza was a hands-on kind of man.
"...picked up an ion trail from the departed vehicle. No cross-streams, so this would seem to be our culprit–" Arashi was saying.
Shemyahza pressed his ear to the flimsy little piece of electronic equipment carefully. He was constantly crushing the things out of disregard. "There's no chance of this being a false trail?"
"Negative," Arashi replied. "This was tracked from the breach by the latest imaging."
"Assuming the breach point was pinpointed accurately," Shemyahza pointed out with what he believed was justified cynicism.
The kid snorted. "I have footage from the nearest Wall cam that turned up since you left. This is your target."
"Ah." Shemyahza released his ear path and grinned ferally. If it was, then so much the better. He was spoiling for a good fight.
Jo's mellow, measured tones joined the line. "I've reached the bridge. I'm dismounting."
Shemyahza squinted into the distance. With his hawk's-eye vision, he could just make out the distant figure of Jo climbing down, approaching the front line of abandoned old vehicles, detritus of the old world – row after row of rusted gasoline cars frozen in eternal gridlock. He recalled the very day it had happened fifty years ago, when widespread panic broke out over the world. These people had been trying to evacuate, and then the demons descended.
"Jo, hold your position!" The sharp, female voice crackled over the line.
"They left a trip-wire, an energy line!" Nara warned.
"Thanks to the psychic," Shemyahza muttered under his breath, then spoke up, "We'll have to change plans. I'll come up front–"
"No," Jo interrupted. "I can handle this. I'll disarm it and proceed as planned – we can't afford to have them know how many hunters are on the trail, not yet."
"Hmm." Shemyahza's mouth formed a speculative moue. He had never had the opportunity to work with Jo Carselyle before, though he contracted frequently with Orion. He might have heard of the man before, but he definitely would have remembered that stunning, full-back length glyph that surely must have been tremendous pain to carve into his flesh. He'd wondered as he laid eyes on it what sort of powers it possessed – whomever had drawn it up had a very thorough knowledge of demonology; the glyph was an amazing design within itself, a piece of art with historical significance in the demon and human worlds. It was a particularly ornate inverted cross, but it was composed of very finely rendered script that anyone besides Shemyahza, a scholar, or another Nephilim would think part of the design. He had recognized both protective and offensive injunctions, and it was a wonder that the carving of the glyph itself hadn't blown Jo into smithereens - it was very carefully balanced.
"I'll give you five minutes," Shemyahza warned. "If you trigger an offensive line–"
"If I do, we'll have plenty of other things to worry about," Jo said. "That's enough time."
"Right." Shemyahza returned to his bike. Odds are, he was going to need it soon. He glanced over his shoulder, where Reims and Nara waited in the squat, black armored truck. It would probably be able to take the Long Island bridge – it would just drive over the corpses of cars along the way – but Reims wouldn't be willing to risk Nara, and Shemyahza wouldn't want them so close to the biggest demon lair in the area. There would be all kinds of uglies in the area, some independents, some sentries and worker beasts, the lot of them enough to break down Nara's sensitive psyche.
He would need to get the professor back in one piece somehow, though. That meant trashing the bike was right out, if the truck wasn't close by for back-up.
A soundless spark blossomed on the air and Shemyahza's head snapped up. He gaped at the distant energy signature forming a silent red cloud in the distance.
Arashi's angry voice crackled over the line. "What the hell was that?"
"Er, sorry," Jo Carselyle responded, sounding rushed but sheepish at the same time. "I can't always control it..."
"What's done is done," Shemyahza cut in, taking his hand from the sword-hilt. He had gripped it without even realizing. "Nara?"
"He disarmed it," the psychic confirmed. "No incoming."
"Not yet," Arashi grumbled, just this side of audible to all. "With an energy signature that distinctive–"
"If no one has any objections, I'm taking the bridge," Jo interrupted. "Seeing as time is of the essence."
With interest, Shemyahza peered into the distance. So it had been the glyph. He was very much looking forward to seeing that thing work up close and personal. The way it had disabled the trip-wire had been unconventional, undoubtedly not what Jo had been expecting, and could yet prove inconvenient. Yet Jo clearly did not have a drop of Nephilim blood, so those weren't his own magics he was wielding.
"I'll give you a lead," Shemyahza responded. "Then I'm coming after. Keep us updated." He strained his eyes scanning ahead. Surely something must have seen that upward blaze. The sole redemption had been its silence. Many soldier-class constructs and demons were focused on the auditory and olfactory senses, not to mention too dirt-stupid to look up.
He was able to let the silence hang for a few moments, while seating himself on the bike and triple-checking the convenience of the arsenal of weapons to hand. They should have gone in fast, but that was even stupider than this plan. He really should have asked for more men, especially when Long Island had come up.
Shemyahza had been to Long Island once for a bounty, after the Walls had gone up and the demons had taken it over completely. That was when the East Coast Nephilim still hadn't known his name, and he had been able to go in under guise of a lackey from the West, one of Lucien's men. The name had been enough to get him through the door. They had kept humans in cages back then. He wondered if they still did. One thing he knew for sure: Long Island was under new management, and it was tight. The place was a fortress, and if Gabriel had made it within the walls, they might need to come back with an army indeed. He bared his teeth. He did not want to call in any favors from the Sparda.
He tapped at his ear-path. "Hey. Given the duration since the breach and where they've gone, what are our odds of recovery?"
Arashi's reply was flat and immediate. "I don't think you want to know."
There was a sigh. "Well, they didn't steal the best vehicle that they could've. Projections have them breaking down on the bridge, getting snagged or stuck in the middle of those derelicts, so they would have to finish the remainder on foot. Odds are, with no resistance you would recover the professor before they reached the island, nine to one."
"And with resistance?"
"Probability verging on zero," Arashi's bleak voice stated. "I'm sure you don't need to be told there's going to be resistance."
Shemyahza grimaced, peering over the rusted, dented hulks of cars up the cracked highway. The concrete was pitted with the etched reminder of a blast-wave long since past. If they had gone in there, guns blazing, more than likely it would have brought reinforcements from the island. A surgical strike was the only way to go. Yet they hadn't brought enough to smash through the resistance that they were likely to encounter, shiny new toys from Orion notwithstanding.
What he had told the Vaille boy was true. If they didn't reach the professor in time, well, Nephilim did twisted, painful things to those they liked. He had seen some of the monstrosities they'd displayed like party favors. Truth being none of the Vaille boy's business, Shemyahza had been raised by humans, and knew it was a strong possibility that he had a thread of human blood somewhere in his ancestry. There was no accounting for those who weren't psychotic – it was more than just blood and raising that imposed a sense of human ethics that stuck. If he were the philosophical type he might say he and the others, those that aligned against the mad ones, possessed a soul and honor to go along with it.
"There's skeletons in some of these junk heaps," Jo said, sounding surprised about it. His breath was short, signaling that he was moving fast.
"Got hit by the blast wave," Shemyahza said. "Never been to Long Island before?" That last was half jeer.
"Never planned on it," Jo replied grimly.
There was an intake of breath on the line, light and cautionary.
"Nara?" It was Reims' first input since they had departed the Cygnus building. The bodyguard's tone told Shemyahza all he needed to know. The two of them were here as back-up, but in a pinch, he'd see to his partner when it came down to it.
"Jo has incoming," was all that she said.
Shemyahza started his bike. Looked like he would be seeing action a little sooner than he'd thought.
"I've got this," Jo said. "Leave it to me, I want to scout further. Shemyahza – you might want to see if you can ride your bike on the walkway, it's free of wrecks."
"Don't forget to leave enough for me," Shemyahza said genially. "Arashi?"
"He's fifty meters ahead," Arashi reported. "Hold position per your plan."
Shemyahza fumed for an instant. He was hanging back here spinning his wheels when he should be up there, preparing to do battle. He actively despised waiting. This was why he normally took single contract ops with Orion, but the bounty they had offered on this professor was a nice, fat one. He had to come back alive, or he wouldn't get paid. Also, he'd feel a lot better about the whole affair if he were up on the front line, but then he wouldn't be the one hanging back to engage the Nephilim who'd abducted their professor.
He hoped the man was worth all this.
Nara's voice crackled over the line. "Goblins!" she cried. "Twelve of them."
Shemyahza's hand clenched on one of the handlebars as he leaned forward. How much longer...?
In the distance an explosion flared up, and this one was not silent. It laid a blast of heat and sound up over the bridge, a towering column that would serve as a beacon for any interested demon in a thirty-meter radius or more.
"That is NOT low-profile!" Shemyahza shouted, certain he couldn't be heard over the dull roar. He kicked the bike into gear.
"Shemyahza, go!" Arashi barked.
Jo's communication came in spurts. "These"– a grunt of effort –"these ones are decoys..." In the distance, another explosion, this one lesser than the first. "Just a distraction! Go!"
"I've scanned them!" Nara cried, punctuating the noise. "Two Nephilim, one male, one female – they're sending a wave of goblins and summoning soldier-demons from the area, go, Shemyahza, get going!"
"Don't need to be told," the words whipped out of his mouth as he gunned the bike down the stuttered length of cracked highway, weaving in and past the shells of rusted vehicles. He headed for the walkway as recommended, a separate strip clear of cars. If he could make it up the length, if it was unblocked, if he didn't get swamped by an approaching wave...
Everyone's lines fell silent but for the sound of fighting on Jo's end. He fought near-silently, in all likelihood still trying to mask his location to keep things on his end as long as possible. Gunfire was a dead giveaway, and demons died almost as well at the point of a sword, especially the lesser kind. Goblins were disgusting, rotten black flesh-bags, but stupid and short-range.
Any moment and he would barrel past Jo. With any luck, his quarry thought that only one hunter had been able to set out so quickly. They would be near the end of the bridge if it had taken Nara such a long time to suss out their position. Shemyahza pushed the hydro bike to its speed limit, spotted a rusty heap of obstruction several meters ahead, and his eyes widened.
Balancing one hand on the control bar, he freed his sword and swung it in a savage arc, limbering his wrist. Before he could spin it in a circle, preparing it for a little wreckage-clearing, a small black shape leapt onto the path, swiveling and aiming large, bulbous pale eyes in his direction. It was joined in short order by two more.
Shemyahza swore. Those little biters were the type to get hit and cling to the frame of his bike, chewing at its rubber tread and throwing him off balance. He swung, aiming the flat like a tremendous bat. It struck with a sodden thump, clearing two but a third sprang into the air and inertia did the rest. The goblin smacked into the front of his bike, shook its weedy head, and clung with all fours. He gritted his teeth and swung again, carving up the obstruction and putting a spin on it, clearing it out of his way just before his front tire would have impacted and hard.
The bike shot past and Shemyahza caught a glimpse of peripheral fighting on the bridge, Jo Carselyle surrounded by a chain of goblins with a naginata in one hand, a modded bayonet-machine gun in the other, engulfed in a whirl of deadly red that pulsed outward from him in reducing waves. Shem grinned fiercely, the battle-tide spiking his blood at the sight, and gunned his bike forward again, seizing the goblin that had scampered over his wind-guard, popping its head, and tossing it aside.
Closer now. Nara's voice whispered in his ear that his quarry was just ahead. Behind him, Jo still fought in silence, blades and protective magic keeping his enemies at bay. Shemyahza was beginning to think he'd have a chance, Arashi's predictions notwithstanding.
There was a break in the barrier that separated the highway strip from the pedestrian side, and Shemyahza steered his bike toward that breach. Soon they should be in sight. After a split second of deliberation, he clicked his broadsword into the sheath and went for a rapid-fire gun instead. He wouldn't be going for stealth any longer, once he caught sight of the professor and his kidnappers.
A hoarse female voice shouted out and Shemyahza's head jerked up. There, in the distance, a curvy woman with long, red hair stood atop a car hood. She had spotted him, and raised skinny arms in a summoning pose. A line of soldier demons seethed from hiding, leaping from twisted heaps of metal and clambering over car doors. They sprang forward, bare meters from where he rocketed forward with his bike, a cloud of hunched black shapes headed for his treads.
Shemyahza swore and slewed his bike, but there wasn't enough time. The bike skidded, caught debris and demon guts in the wheels, and he came to a halt in a shower of sparks, jumping free as the first wave of attackers poured over him. "Athena's tits," he growled, and rattled off a round of gunfire, the bursts punctuating black flesh and spilling soldiers backward into the breasts of their comrades, who clawed forward to get at Shemyaza.
Clear of his bike, he reached up with the other hand for the sword he had put away. This was exactly why he preferred the clean sweep of a sword over the messy cloud of bullets, which were good for precision but not for fighting against a horde of enemies that outnumbered his clip capacity.
The woman screamed, a husky injunction to fight, to kill, and the soldier-class creatures leaped in unison. Shemyahza unsheathed his broadsword and swung it in a devastating arc in one continuous motion, using momentum to cut deep into the flesh of his enemies. Dark red blood flew on the air, splattering his vest, his bare arms and he roared, pivoting to put extra force into the return stroke as he spun his blade in the opposite direction, wielding it one-handed and squeezing off another round of machine-gun bullets in a deafening rattle.
Soldier-demons dropped, and Shemyahza sliced his way through the creatures that rose up in their wake. Dimly, he heard a woman's voice saying "Engaged, Shemyahza has engaged..." and tuned it out as he hewed a path through blackened goblin flesh and lesser demons.
In the distance, the rattle and hum of answering gunfire punctuated silence that had come from Jo's quarter. The redhead up on the car hood was screaming frantic orders, interspersed with loud invective. Shemyahza continued his own furious sword-dance, spinning and hacking at the petty creatures foolish enough to throw themselves in his path.
He swung the blade until none were left, and the formerly silver glint of the broadsword had dulled to a blackish maroon. The clip of his gun was empty and he surfaced out of bloodlust with a start. Dozens, twenties, perhaps half a hundred corpses lay scattered around him, flung against broken car windshields or heaped in oozing piles. Shemyahza turned burning crimson eyes on his quarry, who shrank back, stumbled, and fell against the windshield of the car she stood upon.
"You, you're Nephilim!" she cried, her hoarse voice shocked.
Shem planted his blade in the concrete, holstering his spent machine gun. "You noticed," he said, baring his teeth and tasting sickish-sweet blood. He advanced, and the redhead scrambled off the car, galvanized into flight.
He sprang into action, moving faster in pursuit than she could manage to flee. The demoness had possessed strong summoning powers, but she was crap in the physical department, and had worn stupidly high-heeled sneakers in the field, to boot. She made it perhaps five strides before Shemyahza seized her by the back of the neck and slammed her face-first into the windshield of a derelict vehicle. She screamed shrilly, and he shook her by the scruff and pinned her against the car, broad hand encasing her neck and holding her in place.
"Gggk...you're too late," she spat, her poisonous eyes flaming with madness. "Blood traitor, how dare you? How can you?"
The squeeze of his fingers on her larynx forced her to shut up. "I'm here for a bounty," he said conversationally, baring his teeth at her. "You may have heard. There's a big, fat payday on a young professor that got taken from a breach this morning. Now, I don't know about you, but if someone's offering that kind of money on the retrieval of just one man, I'm going to collect on it. And if I have to step on your neck on the way, well..." He grinned, knowing that the battle-light in his eyes would be seen and interpreted by her as the madness of their race.
"It's just a bounty for me," she gasped around his constrictive fingers. "Let me go, you son of a bitch!"
Shemyaza shook her by the neck hard enough to bruise. She had her hands on his forearm, grasping, weakly attempting to pry him off her, and she squealed as her skinny body was rattled against the car. Her shoulders were bleeding from the broken glass. "So where is he? This payday?"
Her poison-green eyes filled with hate. "Gone, he's gone, you blood traitor. Fenrir's long past the bridge by now. I was here to stop you, only. Turncoat!"
With a wrench, he snapped her neck to the side and released her. She slumped bonelessly down the side of the car, a sack of meat and nothing more.
Shemyahza stepped back, turning away from the staring corpse and unearthing a scrap of cloth to wipe his bloody hands and arms before the muck dried. He peered toward the end of the bridge, which was rife with jagged metal blockades and cars piled like bricks to blockade it from easy or en masse entry. "Nara?" he queried, tapping his ear-path to make certain it was on. He didn't see anyone, but they could be in hiding.
"You're disgusting," the psychic informed him.
Shem shrugged, not particularly insulted. "It gets the job done. You work with Nephilim, you learn never to leave enemies behind – they're worse, demons, about grudges."
A hydro bike roared up, and Jo Carselyle pulled it to a rumbling idle, brown eyes anxiously seeking Shemyahza. "Where are they?"
"Nara?" Shemyahza prompted again.
"Scanning," came the abstracted reply.
"She said they were gone," Shemyahza said, and kicked a goblin torso out of his way, heading for his own bike. He pointed with his sword to the distant barrier, remembered that Jo might not be able to see it, and sheathed his sword with an abrupt movement. "If they're past that blockade, we need a change of plans."
Jo shook his head, putting on an incredulous look. "We're good, but wouldn't you want an army to take that fortress?"
"In and out's my plan," Shemyahza said, giving the man a quick, dirty grin. "I don't intend to engage an army."
"Shemyahza, has the target been lost?" Arashi's voice prodded like a spear.
"Nng," Shemyahza responded. He didn't want to be held accountable to a kid, and moreover, it galled him to have to admit that Arashi's prediction had been dead-on.
"Acquired," Nara's distant voice interjected. "The professor is just beyond the barrier with entry Fenrir. And–ahh!" Her cry tapered into crackling silence, and Reims could be heard soothing her.
"Mid-levels," Nara gasped out. "There are a dozen mid-levels just beyond the barrier, waiting..." She fell silent.
Shemyahza aimed a finger in Jo's direction. "Time for another plan," he stated.
Jo's eyebrow hiked skyward. "You've got another plan?" he questioned.
"No, that's why we're coming up with one now."