The late afternoon sun angled through the far windows and crashed over the polished wood floor like a honey-gold tidal wave, filling up the room with illuminated dust specks and gilding the two armored figures that stood, motionless, on the central mats. The silence stretched in an unbroken link until finally tension snapped it, and with a hoarse shout one of the black-armored figures leapt forward, raising a wooden sword in a quick savage gesture.
It had been a good day, Cedric reflected happily from the position he'd taken up in the doorway. Not only had classes returned to a semblance of normality, but Samantha, Jon, and Chandra were still sitting with him though things had calmed down. Also, he'd been on fire in the decathlon trials. Now he was getting to see Rukawa in a real-life kendo match and he squirmed with excitement as Rukawa dodged under the strike, his own shinai rising, and whirled to score a resounding point against his opponent's side.
A cheer rose up in him, clogged in his throat by the impropriety of shouting in the practice gymnasium. He did punch the air, though.
After they had finished, squared off and bowed, and the coach had dismissed them for the day, Rukawa turned toward the door in a seeking motion and unhelmed, tucking the protective gear under his arm. He lifted his shinai in an impromptu salute and Cedric gave a little wave in response, mouthing the words "good job."
Rukawa's head lifted, his mien brightening subtle ways that were unmistakable nonetheless to Cedric. He cocked his head toward the boys' showers then turned in that direction.
"I think," Cedric declared, turning from the doorway to face the bulk of Humphrey braced against the lockers opposite the gym, "the only way this day could get better is if we went out for ice cream."
Humphrey grinned, gesturing one hand as if to say, 'go ahead then.'
It didn't take long for Rukawa to shower and join them. His hand rested on Cedric's shoulder for an instant before they set off for the front steps, transmitting the pleasure at having Cedric there to see him win the practice match.
"I enjoyed it too," Cedric admitted. It was convenient now, not even having to wait for Rukawa to attempt articulating what he was thinking. Cedric just knew. He couldn't resist adding, "What do you think about celebrating your win with ice cream?"
Humor touched the corners of Rukawa's wide-lipped mouth. "Any excuse."
On that triumphant note, they descended on the outside stairs. The sunlight streamed over them, casting a lazy burnished orange glow over the afternoon. Cedric turned his face up into it, pleased with the continued clear weather. Down the length of the front steps, the utility vehicle with Roman and Felicia was already waiting for them.
"C'mon, kids!" Roman called, leaning out the front window and flapping a hand at them. "Haven't you had long enough? I had to kill time waiting for you."
"Right," Cedric said richly, hauling the door open and climbing into the backseat on the side where Roman was sitting. "That just means you didn't work on whatever homework you've been assigned. Faugh, you smell funny...don't you take a shower after gym class?"
Roman produced a snork - an undignified expression somewhere between a snort and a cough. He doubled up in his seat and wheezed with laughter.
"What's so funny?" Cedric said with a frown. To this, his brother made no reply.
Rukawa was climbing into the car beside him, taking the middle. Humphrey had opened up the passenger-side door, the shotgun seat.
"What?" Roman demanded, and Humphrey tapped the door, making a very clear gesture. "Oh, right." He hopped out to allow the bodyguard to trade places with him. Roman paused with a hand on Cedric's door, squinted up at him, then moved around to the other side of the vehicle to sit on Rukawa's far side instead.
As Felicia started the car up again, Rukawa's elbow nudged Cedric's side.
"Chop chop," Roman exclaimed, tapping the back of Felicia's head rest after he'd climbed into the car and pulled his door shut. "We can't be malingering around here all evening."
"Boy--" Felicia began, her tone argumentative.
"Excuse me," Cedric piped up, timid but determined. "Can we stop for ice cream? I'd like some, and that's one thing I didn't put down for grocery delivery."
"Course we can, sweetness," Felicia said at once. "Buckle up, everyone."
Roman muttered something about favoritism and the magical factor of cute little boys, but he was ignored as Felicia steered the vehicle out of the drive and into general traffic.
"Be nice," Cedric told his brother with a serene smile. "I'll make something nice for dinner."
"You'll do that anyhow," Roman declaimed, waving a hand.
"True," Cedric said, "but it'll be one of your favorites. So long as you put up with our little detour."
Roman settled himself back in his seat, did up his buckle, and imitated someone cinching his mouth shut and tossing away the key.
"Good," Felicia spoke up from the front. "Now, if someone could give me directions...?"
She took the next turn as directed, and pulled to a halt at the stoplight. The sun flashed through the window, filling the world up with gold. Felicia cursed and fumbled with the dash settings, dialing the windshield cover to a darker, more opaque shade.
As the car idled at the stoplight, a tall, black-haired man in a dark suit walked up to the SUV, rapping on the rear window with one knuckle. "Excuse me, I'm looking for Seventh and Bleeker?"
Cedric's hand alighted on the door control to lower the window.
"No," Felicia told him, with a shake of her head.
Cedric blinked at her. Surely that was being overly cautious? "Wh--" he began.
The rap repeated at the window, this time with a hard clink - metal against glass. Cedric looked up, this time to the shocking sight of a gun leveled on him. "Shut the engine off," the man spoke up loud enough to penetrate the interior.
"Holy shit, a gun!" Roman exclaimed, and Felicia's hand jumped to the weapon holstered at her side. She was craning her head to assess the threat and Humphrey's big hand went for the passenger side door.
"Don't," Felicia told him, low and urgent. "Wait."
The big, dark-suited man pressed the gun up against the window. "Shut the engine off now, or I'll kill the kid."
Cedric's eyes went wide as he stared down the barrel. It gaped at him, dark and endless.
"Do it!" the man barked. "Now! My orders said to bring him back; they didn't say anything about alive or not."
Three things happened one after the other, within fractions of a second: first, Rukawa exploded into action, seizing Cedric and spinning him to reverse their positions, until Cedric was behind the shield of the older boy's body; then, the engine gunned and the SUV leapt forward; last, a bullet pierced the side of the vehicle and Rukawa lurched against him.
"No!" Cedric choked, clutching at his friend's shoulder. He was practically buried in the crook of Rukawa's neck and he scrabbled at him, searching for a good look. No, he couldn't deal with it if it were to happen again, he simply couldn't.
The SUV barreled through a stop light and kept going, but Cedric was focused on what was going on inside. "Look at me," he said, grasping at Rukawa's face, turning it towards him. "Rukawa? You have to be okay!"
Rukawa straightened atop him, the one sheltering arm tightening around him. His face lifted, and crimson-blazing eyes met Cedric's. He'd been there all along, for him. He wasn't going to leave.
A hand slapped the dash and Felicia was shouting, jerking the wheel and making the car spin around. Cedric peeked over the curve of Rukawa's arm. They were facing the street they'd come from, and two big cars were pulling into the road, blocking that direction as well. Cedric was pinned to the bench seat by Rukawa's arm alone, and that made him realize he'd been ripped clear from his seat belt. It didn't hurt, he had time to register the thought, then the vehicle was turning yet again, Felicia was flooring it and aiming the vehicle directly into a store front window.
"What's going on?" Roman yelled.
"We're under attack," Felicia snapped back, "and both ends of the road have been cordoned off!"
The end of her sentence was cut off by the shattering impact as the SUV plowed through the store front, mowing down glass and support structures, hurling itself into the heart of the shop. Cedric was buried beneath Rukawa's arms, which had become wiry steel bands around him, keeping him in place as everyone was flung by inertia around the vehicle interior. There were a few sickening bumps before the car jolted to a stop.
"Out, everyone out of the car," Felicia ordered, following suit and jerking her door open. She moved around fast to Roman's door, flinging it wide and grasping at him. "Come on, let's go, we've got to find someplace defensible."
Roman fumbled with his seatbelt and all but fell out of the back seat. Cedric was tugged out of his side into Rukawa's arms, then the older boy set him on his feet, a silent question in his eyes.
"Let's go," Cedric said with a curt nod. He slipped his hand into the broad palm beside him, for security.
Humphrey was already out of the crashed vehicle, standing between the two of them and the gaping wreck of the store front window.
"Let's see if we can't find an exit from the other side of the building while I call for back-up," Felicia said, gun raised and pointed toward the ceiling in one hand, the other groping for her phone.
A spray of bullets cut through any chance for conversation and Cedric ducked, pressed close to the floor by a bigger body above him, sheltering him again.
"That way!" Felicia was waving her arm in a wide arc toward the closer wall, the one closest to Cedric and Rukawa. "Go, get down that corridor, now!" Another rain of bullets clipped the edge of her words.
Rukawa crouched ahead of him and gave Cedric a sprawling shove. "Go," he rumbled, rising enough to get his legs under him.
If there was ever a time for the power within him to manifest, Cedric thought desperately, then now they had reached it. He needed a shield, something to keep them all safe. He needed something harder than plasteel, to repel the bullets that rained in on them indiscriminately.
Instead he crawled for the hallway on hands and knees, keeping himself flat as they shot at them.
"Who are they?" Roman shouted, in the distance but closing in. "I thought the goddamned city was cleared!"
"Does it really matter? They're fucking shooting at us!" Felicia screamed. "Now get down that hallway, boy! We need to get you someplace even moderately defensible! And I hope you hit your damned panic button!"
Another rattle of bullets cut Roman's answer short and made them all duck flat even as Humphrey and Felicia returned cover fire yet again. Cedric crawled into the hallway and stood, gasping. Even as he watched, a bullet ripped through Rukawa's shoulder before the young man staggered into the hallway. He shook himself like a big dog ridding himself of a flea and pressed one hand to the wound as he joined Cedric, grasping at him and carrying him deeper into the hallway with his momentum.
"You okay?" Cedric said anxiously, and Rukawa gave him another nod, keeping a hand steady on his shoulder.
Humphrey joined them in the hallway now, shooting around the corner and waving a hand to Roman, who skittered along like a boneless thing before reaching safety from the intermittent scattering of bullets.
"Let's go," Roman said grimly, plucking at Cedric's sleeve and giving a nod to Rukawa. "We need to find us some place to take cover to gain the time for reinforcements to arrive."
They headed up the hallway, Humphrey at their backs, and Roman palmed the door open at the end of the hall.
There wasn't even time to shout. A gun aimed, and it went off.
"No!" Cedric screamed, and someone else fell. He twisted in Rukawa's arms, but the boy was bigger and stronger and spun him away from the new threat, the doorway filled with another man in a black suit who had fired the gun beyond them. Before Cedric's horrified eyes he saw Humphrey on his knees, blood coating his throat, dripping from a hole in his neck.
"Him too?" a dispassionate voice asked.
Felicia appeared in the hallway, reacting fast and firing off a quick round but her angle was bad. The man who had ambushed them at the door shot her, too, catching her squarely in the shoulder and knocking her down.
"The orders say the two Vaille brothers," a disembodied voice answered, a woman's voice floating from beyond the doorway. "Kill the rest."
Rukawa leapt forward, sending Cedric sprawling against the ground with one well-placed shove, swiping at Roman to send him tumbling as well, and slapped the gun out of the black-suited man's grip with the good reflexes honed of athleticism, or something more. He was shorter than their attacker but plowed right into him, tangling with fists and a strategic knee and sending the man to the ground. Then he reeled back as a metallic hiss sliced through the air. Rukawa staggered and clutched at his neck, crimson blossoming down the front of his pale uniform top.
Beyond him in the doorway a woman stepped into focus, black-suited like her male compatriot. She brandished a thin, five-pointed throwing blade in each hand and her eyes were cool, alert. Beside her, the man groaned and struggled to get to his feet. The woman zeroed in on Rukawa and cocked her hand back to throw another blade.
"No!" The scream seemed to flatten everything in a five-meter radius; everything except Rukawa, who jerked the throwing star from his neck. The woman was sent to her knees with the force of Cedric's scream and the man collapsed with a pitiful, wordless sound.
Rukawa examined the blood dripping from his captured throwing star, expressionless, then threw it back at the woman, hard.
It connected with a sickening thunk and stood out in the middle of her forehead, a grisly ornament.
"Keep fucking moving," someone grunted behind them.
Cedric clambered to his feet, seizing Rukawa's hand for comfort and turning to behold Felicia staggering upright, shaking her head with groggy determination. She knelt beside Humphrey, then punched the man's side.
"Get up, you big faker," she told the other bodyguard, her voice hoarse.
"You're not even bleeding," Roman observed shakily, backing up the hallway and curling an arm around Cedric's shoulders in passing.
"I'd be a real piss-poor bodyguard if I wasn’t protected enough to keep myself alive long enough to do my job," she informed Roman, then moved up the hallway like a jaguar, checking the bodies beyond the three of them. The woman, Felicia left where she lay. The man, she aimed her gun carefully behind his ear and pulled the trigger.
Cedric flinched, burying his face in Rukawa's side to try and stop the sight of it. When he emerged, Humphrey was standing behind them, blocking the hallway and making shooing motions with both hands. His front was a mess of blood but what Cedric's eyes had registered as a hole before now seemed to be a crease in the side of his neck. It had bled out an awful lot but he would live.
"Thank goodness," he breathed, and hurried beside Rukawa as they passed through the doorway where they had been so-recently ambushed. Closing in the distance, there were shouts and the crunch of glass as more of their attackers approached.
"Hurry, but stay behind me," Felicia ordered, easing around the corner with her gun aimed at the ceiling again. "There could be more of them anywhere." Despite her initial injunction she was moving slow, placing each foot with deliberation as she moved forward into another long hallway lined with closed doors, white-walled, faux marble tile in mottled white and gray underfoot.
Cedric clung to Rukawa's head and suffered a disorienting instance of déjà vu. He had been here, he sensed, though he'd never set foot in this store before and in fact didn't even quite know where they were. It was a simple hallway, but he was overcome with dread, so much that he dragged his feet when Rukawa moved on and tugged at his hand, looking down at him with concern.
"You don't understand," Cedric whispered, knowing Rukawa thought that he was afraid of what was going on all around them. It was more specific and horrible.
Behind them, Humphrey had caught up and he shut the door, twisting the bolt home though it would provide only a flimsy barrier to their pursuers. He put a broad hand to Cedric's back, encouraging him forward.
"We shouldn't..." Cedric began, frustrated. How could he articulate the certainty of something bad ahead when they all knew the attackers closing in on them from behind had guns and the willingness to shoot? "I think there's another ambush!"
"Where there's one, there will be another," Felicia agreed from up front. "We gotta keep moving, kids. It could be another ten minutes before reinforcements get here and we have to act fast."
"There's no place to hide," Cedric whispered, but followed obediently this time when Rukawa pulled at his hand. Humphrey brought up the rear of their ragged procession, covering the locked door with his gun. Already someone had closed in near enough to hit the door with a bang.
"Hurry!" Roman stage-whispered, flashing green eyes huge in a pale face over his shoulder, then pressing close to Felicia.
"Stay back," she snapped, trying a door, easing it open and cursing, tugging it shut again in a quick gesture. She tried a few doors as banging continued on the door behind them, followed by a quick spurt of gunfire. "All right, this one!"
Cedric checked his sense of unease but it was wiped out by the panic of the door being kicked open behind them. They piled after Felicia, emerging in the midst of a sea of mannequins, some clothed, some not, some in varying stages in between. Off to one side at their immediate right there were racks of clothing.
"Store room," Roman noted.
Off in the distance above the rows of wigged heads there was the blocky red lettering of an emergency exit sign.
"Go, go!" Felicia said, suiting action to words and sprinting for the far side, bobbing and weaving amongst the densely placed mannequins. "First, though, I want you boys to find someplace to hide! There's sure to be someone covering that exit by now. Humphrey, block the door."
Humphrey nodded, holstering his weapon and making for the nearest work desk, gripping it and heaving it over easily as though it were made of cardboard. As he manhandled it into place, a spray of gunfire pierced through the door and the big man rolled to the side, retrieving his gun again.
"Hide!" Felicia repeated, more urgent this time.
Roman had already dived for cover near a tangle of mannequins, draping himself in heaps of discarded multi-color fabric and stiffening his posture until he could be mistaken for one of the inanimate models. Rukawa drew Cedric along with him deeper into the storage room, wading past the crowd of frozen human figures, heading for a closet.
"No," Cedric blurted, dragging his heels in.
His eyes alighted on the mannequin to his left and he was riveted to the spot as surely as if he'd been rooted, stricken with a swift and terrible bolt of realization. Confirming the nightmarish déjà vu, the head of the nearest mannequin lolled in his direction and its plasticine features contorted, opaque flat eyes taking on a flicker of life. Its molded mouth moved, curving up in a wide and gloating smile.
"Rukawa!" Cedric exclaimed, unsure whether to crowd against his friend or pull away, seeking a nonexistent safety.
The older boy reacted immediately, swinging in the direction of the threat and alighting on it, punching out and sending the mannequin's head flying.
"Boy, what on earth--" Felicia's voice rang out. "I told you to...augh!" She cut off with that outcry, her gun firing and echoing through the high-ceilinged store room.
The mannequin spasmed, listing to one side then lurching toward them with arms outstretched.
"What's going on!?" Roman yelled, breaking his immobility to thrash against hard clinging hands of a trio of mannequins that had converged on him.
Trapped, they had walked right into it and now they were finished, Cedric thought in despair, battering at a mannequin that closed on him, its stiff hands reaching for him. Somewhere in the distance, Humphrey was shooting again. Rukawa was a whirlwind beside him, punching and kicking in all directions to gain them a clear circle. However many he shoved back, though, four more returned to press in on them, tightening the knot.
There were more bullets shredding the door that had led into the store room, but Humphrey's barrier held for now. He had put away his gun in favor of taking on the mannequins bare-handed, pulling off heads and tossing them away, seizing limbs and tearing them apart piece by piece but the creatures converged on him, too, piling him under a welter of unyielding bodies.
Roman was held in place struggling, his arms held behind his back, hair across his red face in silky disarray. "Cedric!"" he shouted. "Rukawa, charge on out of here like a battering ram and just get out of here, damn it!"
Rukawa's hand closed over his again and the bigger boy followed Roman's directions, ramming his shoulder into the closing throng that was coming for them. He bowled over the few holding Roman captive, then used his body as a wedge and pushed his way through the crowd, carrying them along with him to the thinned-out fringe of mannequins close to Felicia.
"Humphrey!" Felicia called, and the big man headed in their direction, wading through the mannequins as though they were mere snow drifts. Another round of bullets slammed through the beleaguered door and Humphrey staggered, but he kept moving doggedly in their direction.
"Hurry," Cedric whimpered, as a forest of blank pleasant-featured heads rotated in their direction and the mannequins began to move toward them in a slow wave.
Felicia eased the emergency exit door open, her gun at the ready. She drew back fast, leaving her toe between door and frame to keep it open.
"More of them?" Roman demanded, sounding scared, and she responded with a tight nod.
"We'll have to go through 'em to get past them," she told them, low-voiced, then whipped around the corner and fired off a couple of quick shots.
"What's doing the damned mannequin freak show!?" Roman asked, near hysterics. He shook off another creeping pair of hands, throwing a sharp elbow behind him and flailing out, knocking the thing's head off.
"A demon," Cedric said, centered in calm assurance. What order could pull this kind of trick with the mannequins, he knew not, but Nephilim blood ran in its veins.
Humphrey crashed through the last line of moving bodies, rejoining them. He kept the rest of the creatures at bay with well-placed punches and kicks. Even headless, they kept moving toward them with mindless will.
"Let's go!" Felicia snapped, after checking around the door jamb again.
"Wait!" Cedric cried, but he was swept along into the golden sunlight, the lingering beauty of the afternoon still a clear dazzling arc around them. The emergency door thudded shut behind them, clicking home with a finality that indicated they wouldn't be able to return that way short of blowing the door off its hinges. The street wasn't empty, a good sign as cars moved both directions and casual pedestrian traffic milled on the sidewalk around them.
As they piled onto the sidewalk out of the building, Felicia frantically scanning in both directions, a group of black-suited men burst around the corner with guns in their hands.
"Get down!" she ordered them, and the afternoon was split into bullets and screaming again.
Cedric dove, his cheek pressed to rough concrete as he was flattened to the sidewalk by Rukawa. Beside him, Roman was cursing and praying between one breath and the next.
"Where is the fucking back-up!?" his brother screamed, and Cedric had begun to wonder the same thing himself. Had it really been so few minutes, despite so many heartbeats?
"We have to keep moving!" Cedric said, squirming out from beneath Rukawa's clutching hold. "They're not going to kill us. But that won't stop them shooting anyone in their way, including the people around us and Humphrey and Felicia!"
"How do you know?" Roman asked, but he followed Cedric's lead, getting up into a half-crouch as more bullets followed the first volley and Humphrey towered over them, returning fire as Felicia slammed home a replacement clip.
She went down to the pavement hard again, grunting with the impact and shooting even as she fell. "Go...boys, go," she coughed.
Cedric turned from her and faced a suddenly deserted sidewalk. "Come on," he was telling his brother, when a blue sedan from the street slewed to a stop beside them and more dark-suited men piled out, swinging guns and heading in their direction.
"Shit!" Roman exclaimed, backpedaling, but there was nowhere to go behind them.
The rain of bullets was swift and merciless this time. Humphrey went down to one knee, caught between the crossfire. Rukawa swung Cedric behind him again, pushing him down below the level of gunfire.
"No!" Cedric screamed again, seeing Humphrey slump over face-down on the pavement, this time blood staining all the way through his back in coin-shaped circles that bled downward. His cry triggered an explosion -- perhaps it was the explosion, or the origin -- and a wave of force blew outward, flattening their attackers and flipping the vehicle they had left skewed by the curb, and a few others that had stopped in traffic as the shooting began and were left abandoned.
Rukawa waded into the oncoming attackers as they struggled to rise, heedless of the guns that trained on him and the shots that were squeezed off.
"Go, let's go!" Roman yelled, bending beside Felicia, who struggled to rise, fell back grasping Roman's arm, and pressed her gun into his hand. Her glyphs had flared into sun-bright relief on her arms, but her eyes fell closed.
The black suits coming from the other direction had closed in, finally, and one of them reached Cedric before Roman got back to his feet again.
"Hold it right there," the man commanded, grabbing Cedric and pulling him tight against his side, holding him in place with a brutal hand closed on his jaw. "Drop the gun." He jabbed his own gun against Cedric's temple.
Roman hesitated, levering the gun in two steady hands.
"He's not going to kill me," Cedric told his brother with certainty. "Shoot him!"
Roman's finger tightened, and the suit snarled and jammed his gun into Cedric's thigh. "I might not kill him but I can hurt him real bad!" the man warned, and the men to either side of him fell in, their guns trained on Roman. "And we can hurt you, too, kid."
The gun clattered to the pavement.
"No!" Cedric cried, anguished. The déjà vu was over. The worst had happened, he couldn't have stopped it, and now they were in territory unknown. "Rukawa!"
His friend turned in their direction, having downed all five of his opponents. A red aura of rage sizzled off him, practically visible to Cedric. He jerked as he took in the sight of Cedric held prisoner, and started toward them with murder in his eyes. His shirt was all over blood but he was still moving, ready to fight.
Behind him, a shot rang out from one of the men crumpled on the pavement. Rukawa staggered and kept coming. Another shot followed, and another. Cedric struggled and opened his mouth to scream when a blow clipped him in the head, so hard it stunned him and the world swam around him.
When he came to his senses, he was hanging by the armpits with a big black-suited man towering over him. Roman was still fighting behind him, spitting and hissing imprecations at the man who had one of Roman's arms twisted at a painful angle behind his back. The man cuffed him and threatened to cold-cock him worse than his little brother had gotten.
A long black limo had pulled to the curb beside them and its door was cracked open.
Worst of all, Rukawa was motionless between two suits beside him on the sidewalk, his head hanging so low his face was totally obscured. He was covered in blood, the original color of his uniform top obscured beneath the unfurling scarlet. A steady drip-drip rolled off his face to splat on the curb.
"Fucking kid gave us a worse time than the goddamned bodyguards," one of the men was saying, delivering a punch that rocked Rukawa's entire body. Still he hung between the two black-suited men, a dead weight that if not for the thread of unconscious awareness that connected him to Cedric would have sent the boy into a crying panic.
"How did you do it?" Roman was demanding furiously, his head turned in the direction of the partly-open door. "The mannequins, and all your damned people knew exactly where we were."
"Not all demons in the city work for Orion Corporation," said the cold voice of Richard Vanderbrant as the door of the limo swung open. "Bring them in."
Prodded by several guns, the last hope represented by Rukawa slung between two of the bigger, thuggish suited men and with their protectors dead or fallen, Roman and Cedric had no choice but to obey. They climbed into the open seat of the limo, stumbling as they went. Before they were released to crawl over the leather seats they were searched quickly and efficiently and their panic buttons were taken.
"What about this one?" asked one of the suits, nudging Rukawa's slumped head roughly with the barrel of his gun.
Cedric hiccupped, scared to his marrow. If they finished off Rukawa he would die, he was mortally convinced. He shivered and sent a pleading look toward the monster masquerading as his uncle.
"Him too," the verdict came after a dreadful pause, during which Richard assessed Cedric's reactions.
"Now," the Vanderbrant proclaimed, his blue eyes piercing as he surveyed his nephews while they settled across from him in the limo, both flanked by a guard. "I'll be rid of two of the blood that tainted our line."
The last thing Cedric saw before the limo door slammed shut and the vehicle sped away was a boot descending on Felicia Arks' head.
"Clusterfuck," Kory Wynne breathed before they even fully cleared their vehicle.
"Total," Kyle supplemented his brother's thought, his voice emotionless as he scanned the scene. Overturned vehicles, some of them still smoking, and fallen heaps of people here and there. He paused by their Jeep and almost radioed for paramedics to come once they'd cleared the scene, but held off.
"Cal's here," Kory noted with a hint of relief.
"Assuming he didn't have anything to do with the carnage," Kyle said tightly. "Find the Vailles."
Kory jogged up the bloodstained sidewalk, his gun gripped low.
"Cal Pierce," Kyle called out levelly, approaching the lieutenant from the City and Wall Defense Corps. "You're first on the scene?"
The dark-haired man's head turned. He wore body armor that covered his torso and a form-fitting navy shirt beneath, the armor giving the impression that he could actually be hurt. "Kyle," he greeted him in return. "First on scene, responding to the panic button. They're gone."
"Kory's checking anyhow," Kyle said, casting his gaze around the street again. It was littered with glass, and people who had surely been passing by, nothing more.
"I've already called paramedics, though I'm not sure..." Cal trailed off and set his jaw. That meant he didn't think there were survivors amongst the fallen.
"Over here!" Kory's shout made both their heads snap up and the men headed for a patch further up the sidewalk that had been blocked by an overturned car.
"Damn it," Kyle breathed as he caught sight of Felicia Arks sprawled on her back on the sidewalk, her face a battered wreck. He rushed to her side, Cal moving swift beside him but passing the fallen bodyguard to go further up the sidewalk.
A few meters beyond Felicia, the bulk of Humphrey Platt lay face-down, his back covered in bloody patches that indicated whomever had felled him had used armor-piercing rounds; the man never went anywhere without his body armor when he was on the job. Kory knelt beside him, two fingers on the side of the big blond man's neck, and his normally cheerful face was strained and grim. After a moment he looked up, made eye contact with his brother, and shook his head.
"She's alive," Kyle croaked, after performing the same check on Felicia. Her face had been severely damaged by what looked like a few good kicks to the head, but somehow she was still breathing. He checked her over and made a risk assessment, then rolled her onto her side. It would be worse for her to choke on her own blood than to aggravate any potential spinal or internal injuries.
"Hey," Cal said, coming back to them and displaying his open palm. "Kory, are these..."
The younger Wynne brother joined him, peering at the small ident disc-sized items. "Yeah, these are our panic buttons," he said, and strode a short distance beyond Cal, kicking the tire of an upended car in a sudden, savage gesture.
"They were taken," Kyle said, reaching for his ear-path.
"Acknowledged," said a neutral voice on the other end of his connection.
"That means they're still alive, though, right?" Cal said, the hope on his face plain.
Kyle stared past the wreck of a smoking car, tempted for a moment to kick something himself. They hadn't gotten here in time, even though they'd been in the same damned Ring of the city. Now one of his compatriots was dead, and even with the paramedics on the way the other might not survive. The people entrusted to their charge had been taken from beneath their very noses.
"For now," he said aloud. He strode back toward one of the bloodstains, determined to find out if any of the fallen had belonged to the opposing side.
The word dropped through his consciousness like a stone sent tumbling through deep waters. Using it as a trigger the way he'd been taught during the past few sessions with Shemyahza, he used it as a starting point for shutting away every non-essential point of potential concentration. The first veil of awareness he dropped was his sensitized awareness of Shemyahza Guile.
Waking the past few mornings beside the long muscled length of Shemyahza had been an experience unlike any other in his life; one Gabriel thought he quite enjoyed. So far he'd found it impossible to wake before the other man, who always greeted him with the sight of an intent gaze moving over his face, his body, shortly accompanied by a stroking hand. Their joinings had been beyond satisfactory, beyond satiation, and Gabriel was still reeling from the amazed unlikeliness of discovering his other, his equal, in so irregular a manner.
But right here and now, his connection with Shemyahza was a distraction and he so screened it out.
The lab was blanketed in a white noise diffuser, but there were still small noises that reached him, vying for his attention. Off to the far side of one work table, Kieran was shuffling plas-film printouts and humming something soft and tuneless. Gabriel tuned out his awareness of sound, knowing he wouldn't need that sense for this particular project. If Shemyahza needed his attention he would touch Gabriel's shoulder, as they had established for the interrupter.
With sound gone, Gabriel narrowed his field of vision. This was the easiest sense to manipulate; he realized he'd been doing so for years when he began working with Shemyahza to establish his filters.
Now he made an assessment of other distracting factors that impinged on his awareness, and dropped muffling veils on them one by one until Gabriel stared forward at the words on the screen, enjoying a complete and total silence. That established, now he reached, pressing his sense inward as Shemyahza had taught him. This was the final step, the time-subjective one, and the line of work in which Gabriel was employed was well-suited to it. He could translate more in a shorter amount of time, gain understanding of complex passages without losing an afternoon or weeks, and to anyone else it would seem as though he were simply flipping through the screen output very quickly.
Reference manuals to his left, empty sheets of plas-film readied to the right awaiting copious note-taking.
Gabriel worked methodically through the passage. Employing this new time-stretching skill, he had made an executive decision to translate the first half of the grimoire first. If the spells within were so deadly that they required some kind of sacrifice, he had to understand the histories and whatever contextual clues were given by the narrative portion. So far, the few passages he'd worked on contained little helpful knowledge for using the grimoire as a tool, but had fascinating historical information that set forth answers that would revolutionize his entire line of work.
The first finished translation he had completed that morning covered early days of the Nephilim in the time long before Greek city-states or conquering Roman generals; the contextual cues were more during Babylon's era and beyond. It fit with certain Biblical references that Gabriel had always assumed were cues that the designation of the word "Nephilim" was a stand-in for the human-appearing order of demon. The greatest revelation was one implied by the cryptic dedication itself.
If Gabriel's translation was spot-on, the Nephilim themselves were a hybrid race, created by perpetuation between humans and something else, perhaps that greater evil implied by his earlier translation.
He worked deeper into the current passage, his awareness of anything else stripped out to nothing but the words on the screen, the open books beside him to search for cognates, and the various permutations of wrestling a complex language into another, human language that was complex in entirely different ways. Time slowed to a crawl and the clock on the lower right pane of his data display ticked more slowly, its seconds turning past as though they were minutes.
Gabriel savored the moment and dove into the next passage. After he was done with this section Shemyahza would rouse him, feed him, make him rest a bit then turn him loose again. Time-stretching had its price, though his lover assured him the effects of fatigue would lessen with repetition and practice.
A hand grasped his shoulder, angling in for the join between neck and the sinew beside it. Gabriel's eyes fluttered annoyance -- he hadn't finished the passage, and that was their arrangement -- but he was already surfacing, veils peeled away and the full force of the rest of his environment crashing down onto him. Until he'd begun to put the use of filters into effect, Gabriel had had no idea how much distraction his surroundings had exerted on him. It was true that before, he really had been pulled in every direction trying to pay attention to everything.
His phone was ringing, and he focused on that. Shemyahza had pulled him out of it because he'd tuned out all sound. When he got better at it, he would be able to learn how to snap out of it if certain triggers occurred. Right now, he responded to Shemyahza's touch.
"Hello?" Gabriel answered, after checking the incoming display. The number was blocked, which meant it could be one of Orion's.
"Do you know where your brothers are?"
The low, confident baritone curled through him with a familiar chill.
"Richard?" Gabriel said, confused. "Why are you... they're at extra-curriculars." He glanced at the clock. Yes, it was about that time. He had been alternating work and rest periods all day long. Soon, Shemyahza would make him quit for a few hours.
"Are they?" There was a short laugh, an unamused bark of sound. "I'm calling as a concerned uncle."
Gabriel stared straight ahead of him at the data display, one large symbol resolving itself into a word he knew, but had little experience with. Treachery.
"You know where they are," he stated, coldness gripping his guts. "Otherwise why call?"
"There are malcontent factions surrounding the city, Gabriel. You yourself should know this, given your recent kidnapping."
"How did you--!?" Gabriel exclaimed, floored. He was sure Alicia wouldn't have specifically alluded to his own capture, even to his own uncle. She was aware of the estrangement, after all. He rose to his feet, fury flooding through him hard and fast enough to make him choke. Shemyahza was instantly by his side, setting down the cup of tea he'd brought in favor of gripping Gabriel by one arm, silver eyes searching his.
"You should have known they would become pawns in this struggle," Richard continued softly.
"You've taken them," Gabriel said hopelessly. "Richard. What have you done?"
"Did I say that?" Richard countered, smooth as silk. "As I said, I called as a concerned uncle. What would you do to save your brothers, Gabriel?"
"You can't possibly expect me to accede--" Gabriel began hotly, his fingers clenching around his phone in lieu of hurling it at the nearest hard surface. He was rigid, rooted in place, the shock seeping into the core of his being and it was cold, a blazing furious chill.
"Think about that," Richard interrupted, and the soft click, then blank tone of the open line heralded the end of the call.
Gabriel glared into Shemyahza's concerned eyes, dropping the phone with a clatter to the work station beside him, then exploded. "Bastard! The goddamned rotten, evil bastard, how could he, we're his own flesh and blood!" He flailed, and Shemyahza's broad hands caught him, absorbed the blows; he struggled and Shemyahza let him expend the energy, furiously striking out at nothing, meeting unyielding flesh. "How could he! How could he!? Horrible, foul, evil..." He degenerated into a string of the most blistering curses he could dredge up from his alternative vocabulary.
Another phone rang and Shemyahza silenced Gabriel with the press of one long dark finger over his lips. The demon's eerie silvery eyes were blazing fit to meet the fire that had sprung up in Gabriel's breast, and he transferred Gabriel into the crook of one arm, gathering him against his body as if to offer comfort and keep him there, protected, all in one motion as he fished a phone out of his pocket and answered.
"Guile here," he answered, and the suppressed savagery in his voice made Gabriel shiver with the promise of violence.
He wanted it, he realized, and there was no thrum of remorse in him to answer that thought. He wanted the full fury of Shemyahza's dangerous nature turned on his opponents. Shemyahza would do for him what Gabriel would not, perhaps could not for himself though in that moment if someone had handed him a gun and placed Richard Vanderbrant before him he thought he could have managed.
"Yes, we know they've been taken," Guile told the person on the other end of the line, doubtless Alicia Carson.
Once again they had been cleared from the building, Gabriel thought in a daze. And once again it had been a mistake. Shemyahza had been right but Gabriel knew, tucked there against the demon's side, that his lover took no satisfaction in it.
"It was Vanderbrant, Gabriel says," Guile continued. There was a pause, then he answered in a thundering growl, "Yes, he's sure! Power in the city or not, the man has gone too far, Carson! Lock the city down before it's too late."
Roy and Kieran had risen from their work stations, both wearing looks juxtaposed of equal parts alarm and concern. Gabriel waved them off as they moved as if to approach. "Get packing," he informed them. "Cram everything back into the boxes they came out of the other day."
"What--" Kieran began, and it only took a single glance at Gabriel's face to silence him.
"Of course we're coming back to Orion," Shemyahza replied to an unspoken question, his voice rich with contempt. "Send whomever you can spare. A whole damned army if you're able. Not Cygnus - Vanderbrant was there; if there's any chance of compromise we're not returning to that facility."
Gabriel concentrated, and he could hear Alicia's thin reply. Now you're just being paranoid -- no, never mind, given the circumstances I'm not allowed to say such a thing. Cal Pierce is coming with a platoon. He was at the scene.
Not long after that exchange Shemyahza shut his phone and dropped it back into his pocket. Gabriel was turned, his shoulders taken in broad hands and he let himself be manipulated, moved around but still within the comfort of that sure grip.
"We'll get them back," Shemyahza told him, keeping his voice low.
Gabriel closed his eyes. If he pushed his awareness, he thought, perhaps he could feel them. Against the blackness of his eyelids he sought to project himself outward, to see, and found himself jarred back into his body by the abruptness of hands that shook him to awareness.
"That's too dangerous right now," Shemyahza said darkly. "Right now, our immediate priority is getting you and the grimoire and the tools of your trade back to a more secure facility. We'll let...professionals...try later." The way his lip curled implied he was thinking something far less flattering at that particular moment.
"My uncle," Gabriel said, still numb from the unforeseen betrayal. "It was him, he was letting me know...he did it."
Shemyahza's fingers flexed on him. "He's a dead man," the Nephilim told him. "A man like Richard Vanderbrant has to be halfway decent at risk assessments in his line of work. Well, he just miscalculated. He's underestimated not only Orion, but the allies you have at your back."
"Why would he do it?" Gabriel asked, prying himself free of Shemyahza's comforting hands and sinking into the chair he'd so recently vacated an eternity ago, before Richard's chilling words.
"Does it matter?" Shemyahza turned from scooping a number of plas-film materials back into the box they'd been unpacked from so recently, flashing a grin with a feral hint of fang.
Gabriel laid hands on the most important screen-files, dropping them into his pockets for the best kind of safekeeping. As long as they were on his person, and he was protected by Shemyahza, nothing would happen to them. "It matters to me. No matter how much he hates us, he's supposed to be our flesh and blood."
Shemyahza was silent for a long moment, trench-coat covered backside presented to Gabriel as he swept things into a box left and right. He set it down after clearing off an entire work surface, then turned to face Gabriel, his long face solemn. "I can only give you my best guess, Gabriel, but I do have one."
Brow furrowed, Gabriel gestured for his lover to go on.
"He's a power in the city," Shemyahza said, folding hands at his belt. "He knows, at least in part, what goes on behind the scenes -- what Orion keeps from the general populace. He saw me for what I am, the other day. Could be he's been thinking of you and your brothers as the same."
"As...demon blood," Gabriel ventured, and in his mind's eye he saw Arianna Vaille, young and blonde and laughing as she hefted toddler-sized Roman into her thin but strong arms. He saw Carson Vaille, his father, hovering with a shy but proprietary smile, and his pale lavender hair was long enough to fall over one shoulder as he reached out to place a hand at the join of his wife's slender neck and shoulder. Gabriel remembered Richard Vanderbrant at the same family occasion from which he dredged up that old memory, and he knew the dark look on the older man's face.
It was the look he'd seen the other day as it was aimed at Shemyahza. It was the same look of disgust Gabriel well remembered, given new context.
"I'm going to kill him," Gabriel said aloud, almost abstractly.
Shemyahza assured him, "Not if I can procure the honor first."
After hastily explaining the changed circumstances to a frightened Kieran and a very upset Roy, they spent the next twenty minutes clearing all of the materials essential for the grimoire's research back into the boxes from which they'd come. The grimoire itself had been in its sealed airtight safe since final scans had been completed during Gabriel's absence. They had barely finished scrambling after everything when the basement laboratory's new alarm system sounded the proximity alert.
"It's Kellan," the smooth, unruffled voice of Roy and Kieran's bodyguard reached them, piped through the intercom.
For an instant, Gabriel hated the calm of the woman's voice. Strong fingers curled around his own, slipping into his palm, squeezing around the bones of his hand for a moment not to demand anything of him, simply there. The touch was gone as fleeting as it had come and Gabriel wished for it back, but he was not going to stand there holding his lover's hand like a child.
"A contingent from the City and Wall Defense Corps is here," she continued. "Gabriel? There's been no attempt on the Carrack building but they say your brothers have been taken. I'm sorry."
Gabriel bowed his head. "Open the door," he told Shemyahza. "If you deem it safe."
Shemyahza moved forward from his side smoothly as a coordinated dance, bending his eye to the security measures that gave him readouts on who stood beyond the door and much more, all of it complicated beyond Gabriel's scope of expertise. "I see Pierce out there," he said, a cautious note in his voice. "What's the word?"
"Word is, we're to move you someplace safe," replied a firm, reassuring baritone.
"Where's your lovely mate?"
This was greeted by a bitten-off curse, then, "Rue's on the scene where the boys were taken, doing an ident confirmation. It was...bad."
"And how did you meet your Rue?" Shemyahza continued, shrugging past that assessment with single-mindedness that made Gabriel's spine stiffen in outrage.
There was a sigh from the unseen man. "I was looking for my son. It's me, Shemyahza. Cal. They wouldn't dare send someone pretending to be me; I'm too well-known."
"That's exactly the audacity I would expect of the opposition, given what's happened today," Shemyahza muttered, but he was throwing back the heavy manual bolts that secured the inner door from entry.
Outside, a man only a few inches shorter than Shemyahza stood filling up the doorway with his well-muscled but proportionate bulk, a tight expression of anticipation on his classically handsome face. He gave the taller Nephilim a nod, then his dark eyes tracked beyond to Gabriel, Roy, and Kieran and his nostrils flared, head cocking to the side. "You're all here."
"How bad was it?" Shemyahza prompted, stepping back and drawing Gabriel away from the door.
When Shemyahza had told Alicia Carson to send an army, someone had taken him literally. Cal Pierce and Kellan stood just inside the door as a veritable flood of men interspersed with the odd woman out trickled through the entryway.
"Take everything," Shemyahza ordered them, sweeping an arm to indicate the entire room, and they obeyed.
"It was bad," Cal repeated, answering the earlier question, his eyes averted. "Humphrey Platt is dead, along with several innocent bystanders.
"It was Richard Vanderbrant," Gabriel said bitterly, convinced on the strength of that one mocking phone call. What would he do to save his brothers? He would do anything except, he suspected, give over the one bargaining chip he possessed. He was a formidably intelligent man, when he turned his mind to the relevant problem and not some tangent that had caught his attention. The only reason for Richard to ask him that question was because someone had approached him, in turn, with an offer. Someone on Long Island who had offered to make it worth powerful Richard Vanderbrant's while. And in return...
The grimoire wasn't his to turn over, but the knowledge was within him, bound up in the intricacies of his photographic memory and on tap to be projected at will. Even if he could give himself, if Shemyahza would let him go willing into the noose a second time, Gabriel knew that the seductive whispers of power weren't worth the searing events of his most horrible visions.
A city broken, a city swallowed up in flame and shadow awaited if Gabriel was weak, if he wavered for an instant.
Shemyahza shushed him, one hand reaching out to grip his neck near the nape. "That's what Rue Pierce's trace is for, amongst other things," he said.
"Let's get you to safety," Cal said once the room had cleared of all his people. He ignored Gabriel's startling proclamation and let Kellan usher Roy and Kieran out, hanging back until Shemyahza had taken Gabriel by the elbow to steer him out of the laboratory.
When Gabriel cast a last look over his shoulder, riven to the core for a moment with the certainty that he would never see the place again, he caught the oddly tight smile on Cal's face as the other man met his eye. With a shake of the head, the man broke eye contact, and Gabriel paid attention to what his over-active senses were telling him. Cal was other, like he was; he was taken, the next impression crashed down on him; and despite his casual demeanor he was...enraged.
As Shemyahza's fury had washed over him earlier like a comforting warm tide, so too Gabriel drew strength from knowing that Cal was angry. It was turned in the right direction.
"Where are we going?" he found the voice to ask at last as he edged into the elevator along with Kellan, Roy, Kieran, his Nephilim, and the addition of Cal Pierce taking up the rear guard. Neither he, Shemyahza, nor Cal were anywhere near the neighborhood of small, and Roy took up a fair amount of space until they were packed shoulder to shoulder.
"The Polaris building," Cal replied.
Gabriel's mouth worked, and his brow tugged in a frown. "I don't know that one."
"It's Orion's most closely-held New York facility," Shemyahza replied. "Each major city has one top-secret underground establishment. Cygnus was nothing compared to this."
Before the elevator reached the garage level, Gabriel tugged at his lover's arm. "Wait, our things."
"More things can always be purchased," Shemyahza told him, soft but adamant. "We need to leave, Gabriel. We need to get you, all of you, to a place that no outsider can touch regardless of what connections they have."
Gabriel looked to his other side to find Cal Pierce nodding.
A small fleet of armored personnel vehicles awaited on the garage level, underscoring how seriously the transport of one Gabriel Vaille and his scholarly effects was being regarded this time around.
"We should never have left," Gabriel said, turning on his heel to take one last look at the elevator, picturing the empty penthouse level above.
"No," Shemyahza agreed, and that single word unlocked Gabriel's grief.
He let himself be taken by the arm and escorted to the nearest car. It bristled with shielding and armament. Shemyahza helped him into the compartment then climbed after, securing the door. Gabriel wouldn't look out the window as the car pulled out of the garage, setting his face into his hands instead. He had failed them completely.
The sooner they arrived at their new facility in the Polaris building, the better. Gabriel had much work to be done. If anything happened to his brothers, he would do his level best to find and translate the spell to kill them all.
Shemyahza's arm settled around Gabriel's shoulders as the car sped into the gathering gloom of oncoming twilight. "He's a dead man," the Nephilim repeated into Gabriel's ear, soft enough that the words would project no further. As little as a day ago, it might have been chilling. Now Gabriel took it for the comfort it gave him and wished the car onward, the better to get back to his critical translations.
If Orion couldn't do the job, it might be all that Gabriel would have left to do for his brothers.
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