The sun was almost fallen over the edge of the world, dwindling in the distance, and Jo crouched behind his hydro-bike beside Shemyahza as they gazed at the ruined contours of the island he hoped never to visit again. They were going over last-minute plans. Jo had thought earlier with the sketchy plan they had thrown into action that he might have cause to worry.
"When you hear the 'bang,' do your part." Shemyahza gave him a solemn nod, silvery irises catching the fading light and throwing back iridescence in return.
Now he was absolutely sure of it.
"Right," Jo said, nodding as if that didn't worry him a great deal. Either this man, this Nephilim, was completely brilliant, or he was about to get them both killed. Since Jo would really prefer not to die, he was going to have to do his best. He slipped his hydro-bike key into his pocket, grateful for a vehicle that could be touch-started at a distance. They'd need the engines hot by the time they jumped on them for the return trip.
"You understand?" Shemyahza said with a nod.
"All too well," Jo said, lifting his shoulders in a brief shrug. "I've never worked with anyone as, uh, daring as you."
Shemyahza's teeth flashed in his dusky face as he gave Jo a smile. "As crazy as me, you mean." His hand clasped Jo's upper arm. "You can handle it, I know you can – or I wouldn't ask. And this will work." He released him, and rested the hand on his hip.
"Didn't say it wouldn't," Jo responded. "But it's going to be hard."
"Sometimes the hard things are the only ones worth doing," Shemyahza said, his eyes glittering past Jo for a moment, then he turned purposefully, leaving his bike beside Jo's.
Jo stifled his incredulous first reaction, you're going on foot? Of course he was going on foot. He was that good, after all.
He watched, but could not pinpoint the precise instant that Shemyahza dissolved into the shadows. He was there, a lean figure casting his own shade, then he had merged into them as if he’d never been. Joe turned from the point where Shemyahza had vanished, fixing his eyes briefly on the bike then fitting his palms to the grips of the holstered sub-machine guns at his side. The naginata was his favorite, the automatic flamethrower-automatic bayonet was good, but to go in for this, he needed something to literally cut his opponents off at the knees. He would go in fast...
“Jo,” Arashi’s voice was a quiet interruption, seeking.
“You heard?” Jo returned. He knew that Arashi had excused himself before, when they were regrouping and laying out new plans, and had left an alternate to monitor them in his absence. This was the first notice that he’d returned.
“Enough,” Arashi replied. “I’m monitoring Guile’s movements. What about your end?”
“I’m okay,” Jo said, doing a quick touch-inventory of his weapons, the telescoped naginata on his back, bayonet holstered behind him with the handle poking over one hip. His body armor had taken a few hits but nothing penetrating so far. He knelt and picked up the heavy chain of explosives he had taken off his bike, hoisting them over one shoulder. He would need those in a moment.
They had fought through a cluster of demons at the bridge, but nothing too punishing. There had been no resistance since the bridge, which made Jo anticipate a strong line further in. Now he was within eyeballing range of the fortress of the head demon himself, and the prickling sense of prescience, the traditionally vulnerable line between his shoulder blades no matter how well-armored, would make him anxious if he were the type to succumb to anxiety. There was still nothing, and it made him wonder.
“Nara,” Jo prompted, pressing two fingers to the ear-path. No matter how tightly it was plugged into his ear, he thought the damned things were too fragile.
“There’s plenty of activity in the area, Jo,” the psychic responded, her tone puzzled. “It’s not headed for you and it doesn’t seem to have spotted Shem yet…ahh.”
“They’re reactionary types, guards,” Nara said. “Very dense, not like anything I’ve ever encountered before. They won’t move until they sense an overt menace.”
“What a pathetic defense,” Jo said, amazed.
“Well, you’ve already passed their front line.”
“You’d better get moving,” Arashi cut into the conversation.
“Ah, crap…” Jo scrambled, took one last look at his bike, and cased the area for the best route that would take him toward the front gate. It was, at least, more warning than Shemyahza would have given. He ripped a grenade from the end of the line, thumbed a time-delay onto the device, and tossed it to his left. He repeated as he jogged toward the gate, alternating sides, then found a pile of cover to crouch behind, glancing behind to check his distance, then peering ahead at the gate again. “Nara? This would make me nervous, if I weren’t such an easygoing guy.”
“Still nothing,” Nara said, soothing. “Don’t worry, it’s—”
The light came first, a gust of brilliance fountaining up from the far side of the building, then the thundering report of the blast-wave arced outward, flattening everything in a shock of heat and lurid red-gold. Jo leaped up and lobbed the entirety of his string of explosives toward the gate, keying them for a short time interval.
In the distance, leathery wings unfurled and dark, blocky shapes sprang into action, loping toward him in the night that was suddenly laced through with ribbons of light. Jo held his position for a moment, firing off a few bursts of round from his semi-automatics, measuring the distance until he judged it was about time.
He turned and sprinted for all he was worth.
Behind him, the lesser shocks of his own explosions -- industrial-standard rather than the new responsive polymers – rattled the ground as he ran. Jo didn’t bother looking over his shoulder, trusting Nara to have his back and let him know if something paced too close. He was running for the spot he’d staked out earlier, a good place to hold his ground and fight.
“Jo—” Nara cried, her breath indrawn for a panicked injunction.
The rasp of wings overhead alerted him, and Jo dropped to the ground, twisting as he fell so as to put several rounds into his attacker. Heat flared along his back faster than he could think, and Jo was engulfed in a blossom of fire, pulsing at the center as energy snapped out with searching, claw-tipped fingers. The incoming flyer was seized in those fiery talons and crushed, its black beak gaping in a last harsh cry before it was tossed aside. The energies retreated inside him once more. “Thank you, Syd,” Jo murmured, scrambling to his feet and directing the rattle of gunfire at his closest enemies. The glyph had never failed him, and he would thank it for that – until the day he found his friend. It was fine work that would save a man but allow him enough room to do his close-quarters, dangerous combat – as if Syd had put some of his thinking self into the working.
He turned and ran again, arms pumping. The last, greatest of his explosions, the entire string, went off behind him and shook the stable foundations of the night. He checked the ammo levels of his guns and found his level place.
“Guile has ingress,” Arashi intoned in his ear.
Jo swiveled, spraying out a torrent of lead as he turned. He grinned fiercely as the glyph extended again, this time forming a protective lattice around him. This fight had just begun.
Outside the sounds of a firefight raged as Shemyahza raced up the dank gray stone hallways of the Long Island fortress, baring his teeth occasionally. His blood roiled and called for the fight, telling him in no uncertain terms he should be out there, swinging a sword.
“Nara,” Shemyahza snarled under his breath. “Where the fuck…? Am I going to have to check every single fucking room in this fort?”
“Calm down, Guile,” Reims barked rebuke over his ear-path. “There are so many malignant signals right now, there is no way Nara could penetrate the cluster to find one single, weaker signal.”
“Right,” Shemyahza muttered, coming to a stop at the junction of two hallways, looking up each direction with a terrible scowl. “Thanks for the help.” He sighed, doing the requisite weapons-check to make sure none of the tools of his trade had shifted during his dead run, and absently wiped a thread of dark blood – not his – off his dusky arm. He would have to engage in something he hated, then.
Shemyahza took a deep breath, almost another sigh, and his crimson eyes slid shut. He was impatient with this method, because not only did it take time but required stillness, a form of meditation. He had a rudimentary ability to sense life, whether human, demon, or animal. He centered himself, dispelling the irritation and letting go of his sense of urgency. It was difficult. Shemyahza pictured himself on a grid, feeling the inert mass of the hallways that enclosed him, the dark clots of energy that comprised startled demons running this way and that, and in the distance, a hazy bright lacework of energy, human edged in—Shemyahza’s eyes snapped open in startlement.
That energy had just looked at him, stared him in his incorporeal face and asked “who are you?”
No one had briefed him on this. Shemyahza ground down a sudden spurt of anger, picking the left-hand fork that would take him on the shortest path. They had Vaille in a room on the shore-facing side of the fort, luxurious digs apparently, so they hadn’t gotten down to the rape and thumbscrews after all. He had some kind of power, and he was being well-kept, so perhaps this wasn’t the rescue mission that he had been led to believe.
Shemyahza broke into a run again. Either way, he had to be out of here and fast before Jo couldn’t buy him any more time. So his first stop… He paused at another juncture, orienting himself and synching up his mental impressions with this physical reality. There was no resistance in the hallways. He hadn’t really expected one, with the household such as it was concentrated on the presence of Jo outside, but if there had been he would have tried to play himself off as Nephilim recently affiliated with the fort.
“So, let’s go,” he said to himself. He ran for the outer wall of the fort, fixing on that white presence with purpose.
Within moments he was there, skimming his hands over the wooden panel of a door with a frown of concentration. No inimical spells. He freed a device from his pocket and flicked it open, aiming its sensor the length and breadth of the door. The scanner was courtesy of Orion, an updated version of the one they had let him use on his last contract – they always let him keep the toys, and merely asked him for feedback on how they worked. Always innovating. Once he was satisfied that the door was clean, he tried the handle.
It opened under his touch.
The room inside was wide, high, and luxurious. It reeked of mind-numbing incense, the kind that Nephilim employed to make humans compliant. Shemyahza adjusted his first opinion of Vaille – the professor might not know what he was, and for the lord of the place to be using psychotropic drugs on him indicated he was trying the easier path before torture. The thought that he might be civilized as far as Nephilim went was dismissed as ridiculously improbable.
The tall figure of a man stood by the window. Shemyahza approached on soundless feet, sizing him up. Like his brothers, the professor had fair platinum hair, on Gabriel grown to barely brushing the edge of his broad shoulders. He wore a rumpled suit and leaned against the window casement, gazing at the firework-display of explosions outside.
“I’ve come for you,” Shemyahza announced, and the man whirled with a low, startled noise.
Their eyes met with an almost physical shock, Shemyahza’s crimson on the Vaille’s clear, jade green. The beauty that had been in Roman’s face was in Gabriel’s refined to maturity, the strong cheekbones, fine nose, and sensually molded lips creating a whole of handsome grace.
“You…” Gabriel began, his brow furrowing in recognition.
Shemyahza inclined his head. “Shemyahza Guile,” he replied, tucking an arm behind him as he delivered a partial bow. “Orion sent me. Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Gabriel took several steps toward him, then shook his head. “Wait, he has the Third—”
“I don’t care if he’s taught parakeets to chant its hallowed phrases, we’re leaving,” Shemyahza retorted, closing the gap between them and seizing Gabriel’s hand. His palm was cool, his fingers slender but strong, another kind of shock thrilling through him at the touch. Oh, yes, very nice…but right now, entirely beside the point.
“But…but the knowledge, it’s invaluable…”
“Jo Carselyle is out there buying us time right now,” Shemyahza ground out, tugging the professor along with him through the rough hall. “You really want that time to run out?” As per their plan, by now Jo would have brought the fight around to the side of the building, the site of the initial explosion where Shemyahza had made entry. That meant he and Gabriel would take a different route out of the complex. He centered himself for a brief instant, casting out his consciousness, barely aware of the indrawn breath of the professor beside him.
When he came back to himself, he heard Gabriel breathe, “You—you’re Nephilim.”
“And your first clue was?” Shemyahza returned ironic acknowledgment. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the fires out front die down.”
“What do you mean—” Gabriel began, and Shemyahza hauled him along, saying “Never mind, let’s just get going.”
Further up, Shemyahza opened a door onto a vast expanse of tiled floor, a ballroom perhaps, or kingly sort of audience room. His first instinct was to shut the door on all that echoing space, but it was the closest route to the front.
“What are you doing?” Gabriel whispered tensely.
“Fastest way through,” Shemyahza muttered back. Gabriel’s fingers tensed in his. “Come on, the front of the fort is just beyond.”
“How do you know that?” Gabriel challenged.
“Same way you do.”
Gabriel sucked in a breath but held it as Shemyahza met his eye, daring him to deny it. There were things the man had kept suppressed in him until now, Shemyahza knew. Considering the other brothers, it might be simple ignorance.
The darkness of the room enclosed them. Gabriel stuck to his side close enough to share the radiance of his body heat. The floor beneath them was smooth, checkered marble, vestiges of an age long past, a more luxurious time when houses with features like this room roosted up and down the East coast.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
The boom of that sepulchral voice startled even Shemyahza, who groped for his closest weapon and had it aimed in the right direction as lights powered on all across the ceiling strip.
A lanky figure in a green-gold suit stood between him and the exit. The Nephilim didn’t bat an eye at the gun aimed for his head, his smooth face expressionless as he took in both of them, the tableau of escape.
“Bowen,” Shemyahza said, identifying the man with the sense of something out of context. “Last time I saw you, you were quite happy ruling Ireland and extending your dominance toward the rest of Europe.”
Granac Bowen bared his teeth at Shemyahza in an amiable demon smile. “North America has greater fruits for conquest, as it turns out.”
Shemyahza shook his head slowly. “You’ll never make it past me, let alone that mad fucker Lucien. You don’t have what it takes, Granac, you’re a schemer, not a power-player.”
“Ah, but I have the Third.”
Shemyahza shrugged. Was that supposed to be impressive? He had probably stolen it from one of the European kingpins and fled here. “You had to kidnap a human to have even a hope for understanding its power.”
Granac’s smooth expression collapsed into a hungry snarl. “What do you know about it, blood traitor—” He began a lunge across the length of the polished tile floor, ignoring Shemyahza’s gun.
Shem stowed his gun and dug in his pocket, rolling the last of his supply – three marbles – over the floor at Granac Bowen.
They were pathetically small, three silver spheres traversing the black and white checkerboard. Granac stopped them with his shoe and looked at them inquisitively. “Marbles, Shemyah—”
Shemyahza seized Gabriel and spun him around, forcing him to his knees and shielding him with his body. The last of his polymer explosives went off with a thundering bang, followed by the counterpoint of Granac’s hideous screech. He felt heat all along the length of his back and thighs in spite of his covering of body armor and weaponry, then it died down.
“All right,” Shemyahza said genially, holding a hand out for the sprawled professor. “Now let’s go.”
Gabriel got to his feet on his own with a dazed look, his glasses askew. “Where did he…?”
“Gone as soon as he felt the heat of it,” Shemyahza said. “Probably fled to a hiding place, or went to find a healer – he’ll be hurt pretty bad, but I’m sure he’s not dead. We’re too hard to kill.”
“Okay,” Gabriel said, accepting Shemyahza’s outstretched hand again. “Let’s go.”
Shemyahza opened the great front doors of the fort onto a holocaust scene, fire and slaughtered bodies everywhere. To his credit, the man beside him did not gasp or shout, but stuck close to his side as Shemyahza picked out the path that would lead them through the fire. He hadn’t brought the proper gear along with him, so he had nothing to toss over Vaille for protection, but the man didn’t utter a gasp of complaint beside him. The heat of burning was enough to make Shemyahza curl his lip in discomfort, but they continued.
At the edge of the fires, a pair of squat black demon-hounds waited, the low growl reaching him at gut-level below the crackling snap of fires. Shemyahza shoved Vaille back from him, drawing a long silver-glint of steel – and a modded automatic with what Orion called a “beefeater” clip. Vaille shouted, bullets sprayed forth, and the hounds were leaping at clumsy arcs for his throat. The rounds hit them in chest and shoulder and they kept coming, strings of venom dripping from their disfigured snouts. Shemyahza spun, the clear swing of his sword cutting them in half, his return pivot dicing the rest into so much meat. He had his blade wiped and returned to the scabbard a second later as he turned. Ten seconds.
“S-so fast,” Vaille said, shaky.
Shemyahza arched a brow. “First time you’ve seen Nephilim in action?”
“Guile,” Arashi’s voice was an icepick of reality. “Now’s the time. Jo’s finishing up your plan.”
Shemyahza didn’t offer his hand this time, but chopped his hand to imply urgency of motion. “Let’s go, Jo is on his way out – and when we hit those bikes, we’ve got to take the bridge, hard.”
Gabriel climbed to his feet, unsteady. “What about Joseph?” he cried, breaking into a run as Shemyahza sped up his pace.
Shemyahza quirked an evil grin over his shoulder. "Don't worry, he's got enough explosive to bring the damn gate down, and make his escape after.” He vaulted onto the bike once he reached it, and drew Gabriel up after, only faintly surprised at how well the man had kept up with him. “Hold on tight, now. I meant it when I said we were hitting it hard!”
Already turbo-charged, the hydro-bike gunned forward at his lightest touch, and he steered for the unobstructed side of the bridge. Goblins swarmed from the shadows and Shem loosed half a clip of beefeater rounds at them, scattering the idiot minions every which way. Behind them, the fortress of Granac Bowen burned. Shemyahza allowed himself a tiny smirk of satisfaction as Gabriel Vaille clung tight.