"Calculation never made a hero." – John Henry Newman
Luis Enrique Lanza stood out in the opening as four friends continued the stake-out of a potential vampire hideout. Luis couldn't show himself on the street. Any vampire look-outs sniffing the air for human smell would instead catch a sniff of eau du efreet.
Bait on a hook. Luis wondered if they would have taken such risk with a more human comrade-in-arms. Luis tried to keep the bitterness to a minimum. New Round Table knights chose eternal grounding to try to make the this world a better place. To just wait around for the Sons of Darkness to attack was a disservice to this noble goal.
Luis felt like an idiot, standing at a street corner, looking like a refugee from a Hammer Horror film. A foot-long braid of fresh garlic. A cross necklace made of solid .925 sterling silver. Moses assured him that these things actually worked against the enemy. All the folk tales had been distorted over eons but in them lied certain truths.
Luis looked over at the Penn brothers, sitting in the GMC Sonoma, pretending not to hate each other. Luis shook his head at this sad yet all-too-common sight. This save-the-world team of theirs had a lot of cracks in it. Band of Brothers, no sir. War is Hell. Whoever said that must have caught of glimpse of its actual casualties. Friends turned against each other. Brothers treated like strangers. Loss of life without death.
Even Luis had his own share of technical difficulties. No one knew this but him but Luis had died when Mordred's machete skewered his spinal cord. Not dead in the same way consecrated iron would have made him dead. Dead in the sense that a veil had been lifted and the illusion of Luis Lanza yielded to that thing behind the mask.
Luis shook it off. As soon as the wound had healed, so had Luis' fractured sense of self. As such, Luis saw no reason to sound the alarm over a lone bout of insanity. It had been two weeks since his last episode. My only episode, Luis corrected himself. At times, Luis could feel the efreet inside of him, but, even then, he still felt like himself.
John Damian stepped out of the limo accompanied by two ladies of the undead persuasion. Giovanni Damiano de Falcutiis, an Italian clergyman at the court of one King James IV of Scotland. Five centuries had turned a simple man of the cloth into a blood-sucking pimp. Luis caught himself wondering if he would live as long as him.
Alex had supplied the gang with fun facts about the blood-sucker's sun-loving days. Something of a joke in his day, John Damian had tried (and failed) to fly off the top of a castle with artificial wings made of eagle feathers. His spectacular failures in a wide range of fields such as alchemy, medicine and, of course, medieval aeronautics, sparked in him a dark obsession. The seek of power to quell the laughter of his critics.
While everyone else got a good laugh out of his thirty-second bio, Damian's life story gave Luis the creeps. Big-boss demons had nothing to prove. Neither did an Old World vampire lord with his bug-eating serf. A bumbling alchemist with a chip on his shoulder ... Well, that was a different story altogether. He yearned for that brass ring.
Alex didn't mean to freak anybody out with the biographical data on a modern vampire. In fact, Alex hoped that having all this knowledge would give them an edge. Besides demons and the Dark One, none of them had fought a monster in over a year.
Moses, on the other hand, didn't seem worried about the leader one bit. "Watch the child; don't take your eyes off him." Moses nodded. "He's the most dangerous one." Virgil Miller, a twelve-year-old boy who had been turned two years ago, had abilities many times greater than his peers due to the fresh human blood still inside his body.
Luis smirked. "You mean Stephenie Meyer actually got one right?" Alex gave a sideways glance and then reminded him that vampires, in general, were stone-cold killers and Virgil Miller had the proportional strength of four vampires at this stage.
The Penn brothers knew the value of information. Moses Penn had a demon in a chicken's body with experience stretching back to when Jesus had walked the earth. Literally. Moses went to Valac. Alex went to Moses. A continuous loop of intelligence.
Luis didn't like this. The ambush they had plotted out seemed unnecessary. It was too easy. If Damian really was this dumb, he had seconds to live. Perhaps, being a monster inhabiting his own corpse had made Luis paranoid but something was off.
Damian's coven had spent the last eighteen months down in Mexico. The wars within the drug cartels provided them with the perfect smokescreen for their ghoulish activities. They kept their numbers small, their territories huge and their feedings on the down-low. As soon as the missing persons here garnered media attention, Damian and his screw should have skipped town but they did not. That perplexed Luis Lanza.
Fearless leader, Alex Penn, wanted to know why or, at least, give them a better reason to leave. Damian spotted them. A shriek. A quartet of vampires joined the two vampire women. Flanking maneuvers, Luis realized. We're being boxed in by vamps.
Luis drove Tizona into the smallest of the bunch. Luis missed the heart. Moses had warned them about that. Vampires had a tighter chakra-chi structure than most of the monsters they fought. The heart or the brain; anywhere else would be no better than hitting the air around them. Virgil, the super-vamp, hissed at Luis like a snake.
Luis wanted to light them up but they were too close. His friends would burn as well. Luis looked up at the night sky. Two weeks from their last death and his friends were already on the fast track to dying again. And, this time, there would be no reset button for them. Then, Luis saw it. A streak of light sliced the stars in half. Holy hell.
The tremor knocked them onto their asses. The vampires crawled back into the shadows. Luis could see a red-orange wisp on the horizon. A fire nearby. He could feel it. Even from here. The efreet in him recognized his element. The fire ... It was rising.
"A fragment of the firmament fell to Earth." Moses looked over the living room to see if anyone was struggling with the very concept of heavenly cosmology. Hadrian Wallace had the least trouble with the lecture. In fact, Hadrian was bored by the slow pace of this impromptu presentation. Moses shrugged it off. Ever since his shamanic dream flight with Al-Khidr, nothing anyone had to say sounded significant anymore.
Ironically, Luis Lanza, now the most supernaturally gifted of their group, had the most trouble translating the words coming out of Moses Penn's mouth into Basic English. "A piece of Heaven." Everyone nodded. "Or so it seems. Authorities could not locate any non-terrestrial rocks of any kind at the impact site proper." Moses paused.
"Which brings us to one of two possibilities." Moses paced about. "One, the bad guys got a hold of it. Believe it or nor, that would be the lesser of two evils." Everyone stood up a little straighter upon hearing that. "Baddies have no use for a sacred rock. They'd sooner destroy it first." If the piece had been destroyed, they were in the clear.
"That brings us to the worst-case scenario." Moses bowed his head. "One of the good guys intercepted it. In that case, we can count on a lot of baddies trying to figure out who has it. They'll tear the city apart looking for whoever has the divine battery."
The rest of the group dispersed throughout the house. The next few days would require a lot of research. Time to figure out who might shot up to the party. San Uriel had become a boom town for a heavenly gold rush. The cutthroats and claim-jumpers would show up in San Uriel, their knives ready to carve out a bloody piece of that pie.
Alex had not attended their meeting. Judging from the letters from USU, Alex had not decided whether or not he would go back to school. Moses found this amusing. Alex had forfeited a piece of his soul and he still worried about his educational future. Abigail Vennard walked up to Moses. "Is Alex alright?" Sixty-million-dollar question.
"Why does everyone keep asking me?" Moses held out his hands. "If you are so curious, why don't you ask him yourself." Abby pulled back in reflex. "I'm sorry, I just have enough problems of my own without having to serve as my brother's voice mail."
Moses grabbed Abby by the shoulder. "Alex ..." The lie he had prepared for this occasion failed to leave his mouth. Instead, the truth came out. Abby recoiled, disgust shimmering in her eyes. "Those times you called Alex a coward, I never once believed it. Not even for a second." Moses groaned. "But Alex didn't do that just to fix a sword."
Moses let go of Abby. "He did it because he was looking for a way." Abby's eyes widened. "He wanted a way out of you, out of me, out of this, out of everything. We've faced plenty of situations where we had to invent options on the spot. Alex didn't even try this time." Moses grinned. "Alex was looking for a way out and, voilà, he found it."
Most folks, if given the chance to live indefinitely, would have fought tooth and nail to keep that chance alive. Alex tossed it away and not out of heroic impulses. Oh, no. If Alex believed that, Moses would have to pound the self-delusion out of him.
Alex did it because he feared life the way others feared death. Two many folks turning to him for answers. Too many good people relying on him. Too much pressure for the king who never learned to rule a kingdom. No matter how many lives he lived.
Abby looked ready to throw up. Moses could relate. He probably had the exact same look on his face when he learned the terrible truth. Alex laid down on the couch. Moses knew how Alex's mind worked. He had come to regard life in terms so dark and so bleak, it was a wonder he hadn't killed himself already. Life was a nightmare. Each day added to the horrors that came before. Each sunrise, an invitation to dark nights.
Alex feared for that sad day when the tiny light inside of him, the one that had kept him going all these years, finally got snuffed out by the encroaching darkness. It was the bullet wound he had healed for Abby over a year ago. Back then, he had only recently acquired the capacity to lay hands on such injuries. Back then, he'd hoped to follow up on that treatment and give Abby a better solution for the damaged nerves.
As Moses would later discover, magick did not work that way. Once he healed a wound a certain way, it would stay healed in that way until her body turned to ashes. Moses could fiddle with the web of scar tissue all he wanted; Abby would still fall prey to temporary spinal paralysis. The total cost of Alex's deal was, likely, non-negotiable.
Alexander Julius Penn cradled the bandage on his forearm. Moses took a bit more pleasure drawing out his blood than anyone else's. Alex could care less. With a little cajoling, his brother Moses had fallen in line with his plans like a good soldier. Passive-aggressive subtext of his blood-letting aside, this recon mission was on track.
"Lan bahaw saday li twenyal," Moses shouted to the heavens. He smashed that vial containing their combined blood under toe against the dirt. A complex spell with a lead-in of twelve hours, the game of shadows would allow them to mingle among the various people present at the crash site. He could feel occult energies wash over him.
The group descended into the crater and chatted up the local law enforcement. Compared to his notes on John Damian and vampires, Moses had given them a very sketchy outline of "the game of shadows." Moses told them that this spell was fragile.
Cops and surveyors exchanged pleasantries with them as if they had no actual problem with a bunch of teenagers traipsing about a potential bio-hazard/crime scene on their watch. "Play the part." As long as they acted a certain way, anyone would go along with it, blind to their blatant lies and their obvious out-of-place-ness. "Alright?"
Everyone nodded. Despite the complex charade, the search yielded nothing of value. Whoever stole the rock had some superior mojo working here. It took old school magick on an unprecedented scale to make even the microscopic evidence disappear from the impact zone. Alex knew that much about magick. The site had been cleaned.
Alex searched among the wreckage alongside the police officers who had every right to arrest them for obstruction of justice. Alex caught a glimpse of Abby, stealing a glance in his direction when she thought he wasn't paying attention. He waited. On the second time, Abby stole a glance at his brother Moses as well. That mage bastard.
Alex asked Moses why he did it. "Because you have no intention of ever telling her." Alex explained that he didn't want her to find out this way. "You didn't want her to find out. Period." Moses circled Alex. "What's it like living that empty skull, utterly convinced that you can run away from your troubles. You betrayed us. Don't pretend you didn't. We are here for one reason. To serve our king. Soon, there will be no king."
Alex noticed the moving limbs flitting through the dark places of the forest. He didn't care about the mission. Screw the mission. Moses had betrayed him. Leave it to the crazy wizard to try to turn this around him. Screams cut into the heated debate as cops went airborne. From the shadows emerged a nightmare. Nine feet tall and row after row of fangs, the creature roared as more of his kind joined in on the battlefield.
Luis ran north. Haddy and Abby ran east and west. Alex and Moses went due south. Alex had devised an exit strategy after three of them (Alex included) got killed in an ambush two weeks ago. That would never happen again. They would meet up at the rally point as soon as they had reached a safe distance away. Military strategy at its finest. Nonetheless, one of the beasts caught up with Moses in a matter of seconds.
Moses hit the beast with everything he had. Without missing a beat, the beast grabbed the Staff of Merlin and yanked Moses into the air by it. Alex reached for his sword. The beast lifted him by the neck. As he felt his last breath leaving his body, he looked up to see the beast minus one head. The lifeless arms of this beast dropped the Staff of Merlin, Moses and Alex. The two of them looked up at their uncanny saviors.
A tall humanoid made of rock, it had transformed one of its arms into a bladed club-like instrument and used to decapitate the rampaging beast. Alex could see the fragments of the firmament, glistening like jewels in the midday sun. Those pieces of the heavens, plugged into these crude yet effective killing machines to give them life.
The earthy knights parted down the middle as their king walked among them. "Hi, boys," Dad said in a sotto voice. "It's good to see you again." Once again, Dad had returned with impeccable timing. Once again, their dear father had saved their lives.
"This an abandoned warehouse?" Alex asked with a note of incredulity. Moses Ambrose Penn shared his brother's contempt for one of the oldest cliches in the book. They were grateful for him having saved their lives but the Abandoned Warehouse?
"Yes and no, my sons," Dad replied. "Warehouse ... yes." Dad unlocked the front doors. "Abandoned ... no." Dad lead his sons into a bustling factory floor. The building only looked abandoned on the outside, a glamour cooked up to keep this place hidden.
Tiny people milled about. None of them reached up past their waistline. Moses couldn't help staring at their hands. Everything about their bodies smacked of brutal strength but their hands had this angelic quality to them. "Dwarves," Dad explained. "Well, technically duendes. They are great workers. I got them in Manila for a song."
Moses made a face. "They're not slaves," Dad insisted, amused by his unspoken allegation. "Duendes receive better treatment than the human workers in this part of town. But you did not come all this way to report me to the Better Business Bureau."
Dad placed a hand on the stone sentinel. "You desire to know how I built these beauties and why I left you again." Dad smiled. "Fortunately, it is one story for both. Moses could hardly believe how quickly Dad quelled their tempers. Dad had changed. He seemed happier. Father was not that secretive brooding black knight from before.
Something had changed. "Indeed, something has changed." Sometimes, Moses forgot that his father got his full-ride scholarship with the Order of the Solar Temple on the strength of his psychic powers. "All my life, I fought a war against the darkest of evils. I believed that I could only hope for a good death, the possibility of victory a delusion born of madness and desperation." Dad stared at the jeweled stone warriors.
"Then, I saw the light." The warrior moved, sunlight reflecting off the jewel of heavenly splendor affixed to its chest. Moses could see where Dad's renewed hope had arisen from. Even Moses felt an odd twinge of giddiness looking at these odd soldiers.
Moses nodded. "That's all well and good but that doesn't explain anything." As the local wizard and scholar of their group, Moses had to keep an objective viewpoint. Getting caught up in the hype of these stone soldiers could cost them their very lives.
"Moses." Dad patted him on the shoulder. "My little genius." Dad sat down in a chair offered by the knight. "I promised myself I would do anything to see my family again." The thousand-yard stare, a specialty of the Penns, came over him. "One man stood in my way. He had to die." A shiver went down Moses' spine. Dad had said that last part as nonchalantly as somebody ordering a burger at a drive-through window.
"I couldn't do it alone. I needed help." A dwarf (or duende) tipped his hat. Dad, nodding, smiled back. "Azazel, the All-Father of the Forgotten, offered to kill Kaph in exchange for a favor at some future date." Dad shook his head. "He wouldn't name his favor or the date until I agreed to the deal." Dad clutched his sinuses. "But a friend of the deceased followed up the investigation. Azazel had to kill him and others as well."
Dad shook his head. "Azazel changed the deal. I had to pay up right then and there or else." Dad did not have to explain "or else." "Or else" stood for any number of gruesome acts that could occur between then and when he decided to end his misery.
Dad's eyes brightened. "Then, he explained his favor and I realized something amazing." Dad smirked. "The old monster wanted to save the world." Alex and Moses let the air out of their lungs like deflated tires. "My sentiments exactly." Dad's merry duende workers whistled an alien tune in unison like the Seven Dwarves from Mars.
"He wanted the Malleus Vulcani, a manuscript detailing advanced alchemical engineering. The Sinistra Dei, an occult branch of the Knights of Malta, possesses an extant copy, the only one I know of. It contains dozens of pages of instructions written in Argyrean. It shows how to build what Jews would later call golems. Azazel wanted golems in order to oppose those who would flock to Lucifer during his second coming."
Dad sighed. "A lifetime's worth of favors, two million dollars in bribes and three human lives." Dad pointed to a bloated manila folder on the table. "All used up to get this out of the Vatican." Dad shook his head. "Azazel wanted to kill you all before you had a chance to let Lucifer back into this universe. And he very nearly did just that."
Dad exhaled a gust of air out of his nose. "I convinced him that the flesh-eaters from beyond the stars would dine on his children as readily as they would on humans and realized that the Dark One was not the lesser of two evils and no less dangerous."
Moses raised an eyebrow. Who were the Children of Azazel? Dad bowed. "Hags, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, minotaurs, dragons, basilisks, etc.; they are descended from the Nephilim. When the other Grigori realized they were to be buried in Dudael, they made Azazel promise to look after all their descendants as if they were his own."
Dad sighed. "The Four Princes of Hell saw the Elioud as potential soldiers and demanded they serve in their armies. He refused to order his children to serve Hell." Dad shrugged. "In this fashion, he betrayed both Heaven and Hell. He does not want his family to suffer for he did to protect them. He sent me ahead to get things ready."
"Sure you got enough soldiers?" Luis Lanza stared at the rows of hags, ghouls, minotaurs and other monsters looking back at them. Moses had brought home seven bottles of star jelly from this warehouse. Moses didn't happen to mention what it did, only that he always wanted some. Alexander Julius Penn noticed the lack of duendes.
Before Alex could ask, Dad answered. "I sent them all home for the night." Dad inspected a nearby golem with a dowsing rod. "Nothing to do except for some routine maintenance." Dad looked over at Luis. "Sorry about the guys." Dad sighed. "Elioud don't get on well with fairies. It's part of the reason I sent all the duendes away."
Alex went for his sword went he saw the seven vampires approaching. "Where's my manners?" Dad gestured to John Damian and his motley crew as they sauntered up to their group. "These fine ladies and gentleman belong to the West Coast coven."
Alex's hand was still on the hilt. "We've met." Damian smiled, visibly amused by this strange turn of events. Alex smiled back with equal force. The leader, John Damian, took it in stride. That child vampire Luis had wounded ... Not so much.
"Temper, temper, Virgil." John patted the eternal twelve-year-old on the head. "We are comrades now. We must fight together, not each other." Virgil stepped down, still growling. "Fancy us meeting like this." Damian had on his best shit-eating grin.
Something in Moses' pocket vibrated. Like a cell phone. Alex knew better. Alex could see the faint reddish glow. The resident wizard had brought that denarius with Belial's soul in it with him. With it, he hoped to barter a peace with his organization.
A long shot but one well worth taking. "What's wrong, Alex? You look pale." He had a mind to call John on the irony of that statement but Moses interrupted. Moses unlatched his belt buckle and handed Durendal hilt first to his father. Like a feudal-era Japanese samurai surrending his sword to his daimyo. Dad smiled at the gesture.
"Keep it." Moses' eyes widened. "I don't have to be psychic to know you're going to need it." Alex could only hope Dad meant against Lucifer. Because, right now, the vibe in this warehouse suggested that they might have to fight their way out of here.
Alex had vowed to keep their breed in check and now he had to fight alongside them against a common enemy. Moses took Dad's return better than he did. Alex still couldn't decide whether he liked this torque of fate. "I'll keep this brief. The Nephilim, the first monsters, have been revived. Lucifer has acquired panchrest, the final ingredient in the elixir of life, the one thing that can restore the Nephilim to full capacity."
When Dad explained what panchrest was, Alex felt his limbs go numb. "We did this." Lord Belial had kidnapped Christina Loman (the only child of a human father and an angel mother) and used the panchrest in her blood to raise the dead. That old demon bastard must have kept some of the corpses to harvest their latent panchrest.
A hand landed hard against his face. Alex clutched his right cheek. "Don't ever say that again." Dad grabbed Alex by the shoulders. "Lucifer did this and we're going to stop him, even if it is the last thing we ever do." Dad had never laid a hand on him or his brother. "We're at war." Dad shook his head. "Guilt's a luxury we cannot afford. You are only responsible for what you can control; Lucifer is under nobody's control."
A demons-only club, Luis thought as they approached the horny devil themed strip club, the Hellfire Club. Don't that beat all. It was the only one of its kind on the West Coast, according to Mr. Penn. A strange choice for their first offensive. Luckily, Mr. Penn, in a chatty mood, explained the rationale behind the Battle of the Hellfire Club (might as well name these before anyone did). Lucifer's army could hide forever.
They couldn't come after him so they needed him to come after them. Sanity, a rare commodity on either side of this old war, was the child of reason and rationality. Most folks's defintion of sanity didn't include pissing off the Devil. Their rag-tag band of monsters and madmen had picked a fight with Old Scratch and Biblical cannibals.
Sabnock, the demon in charge of this novelty strip club, had pissed off his boss. For a demon, upsetting one's superiors meant more than just losing one's job. Sabby had two choices. Stay where he was and end up the bottom bitch in the largest prison colony in all of Creation. Or trek stateside and enjoy being a big fish in a small pond.
John Damian wore an ear-to-ear grin as Mr. Penn gave the go-ahead. Luis Lanza knew the feeling. He could feel it too. Human or efreet, Luis Enrique Lanza loved a good kill. It had replaced every other good sensation in his life. Abby didn't want him anymore. Who could blame her? Luis didn't want himself anymore. He just wanted to kick back and lose himself to the creature inside of him.
Luis took a deep breath and joined the charge into a demons-only strip club.
Tizona ripped open the first demon-possessed devil-themed stripper that got near him. He didn't have kill her so hard. He could have put her down in a far less gruesome manner.
Luis realized something the others didn't. War didn't stop with killing. To win a war, one had to make the enemy sick to death of war. So much talk these days about "the war on terror." A meaningless distinction. All wars relied on campaigns of terror.
Who had the stomach to fight a war to the last man (or demon)? One side needed to get the other side to surrender before then. What better way than to scare the ever-living crap out of them?
The now vacant host, a dark-skinned scantly-clad woman, decorated the walls with her innards. The look in the next demon's eyes told him that he had succeeded in striking fear into his hell-bound heart. "Run," Luis said in a voice a note above a whisper. The demon ran his plump human legs ragged.
Luis breathed out havoc, smoke rising from his fire. Luis served his king well but he always wondered if he saw him as a human being. Luis had no problem with Alex if he saw him as just a monster. It's probably true, Luis thought. Luis didn't make the mistake of seeing himself as human anymore.
Luis looked ahead and realized that scared demon had mustered reinforcements. He hadn't put the fear of God in him. Or, at least, not enough to get him to give up. The demon hollered at Luis, waving a machete in one hand. Luis placed a hand over his mouth, pantomiming a yawn. The demon closed the distance.
At the last second, Luis caught Stonewall Jackson in the throat with Tizona. "Sssshhh," Luis said as the demon gurgled on the blood of his host. "It's over." Luis stepped back and rendered a masterpiece of roasted flesh with the dying demon's ample human body. "Viola."
Luis doubled over as white-hot pain overtook him. "Aaahh!" Luis turned to face his attacker. The elderly Italian in the running suit brandished a bloodied knife, his hands protected by heavy-duty work gloves. The man let his real face slip though for a second, that of a roaring lion. "Consecrated iron."
Sabnock said something in reply. Luis couldn't make it out. His lips moved in concert with a strange alien language. Luis winced as glimpses of a faraway desert land flitting behind his eyeballs. "No!"
Out of reflex, Luis slashed Tizona through the air between him and Sabnock. The old man fell over without a single spark of hellfire issuing from his body. Sabby had jumped ship, leaving only a husk behind.
Luis felt sorry for this poor bastard. He too had endured a stint with demonic possession. His ended better than his did. That never happened to me. The lucidity of that thought shocked Luis. In truth, that happened to a boy who died months ago. Everything that happened to him clung to his brain after death.
Everything he knew about himself came from the burnt-out neural pathways of a fresh corpse, the dreams of the dead filling his efreet mind with an unwarranted and unstable sense of identity.
What he couldn't remembered worried him more than anything else. What had he had done before he had entered his body? Did he even have a "before" worth remembering? Luis just didn't know.
"Damn," Moses cursed as he looked at his blood as it mixed with the star jelly.
"Damn, damn, damn." His worst fears incarnate. Anyone raised by Christina Loman had absorbed traces of panchrest into their bloodstream. If Lucifer captured Abby, Haddy or him alive, he would have enough to make more Nephilim, more killing machines, more death and more disaster.
Moses couldn't focus on the results. His mind still lingered on the bolt of electricity that he had fired from the Staff of Merlin. It didn't even faze the Grendel but didn't make Moses feel any better about it. To put it bluntly, he shouldn't possess electrokinesis. In truth, the power itself shouldn't exist.
"What the Hell?" Moses exclaimed as lightning exploded from his hands. Moses had worried once before about turning full demon. It turned out he did have a demon inside of him, just not his own.
The electricity fizzled into the air. Moses breathed a sigh of relief.
Devoid of a Nephilim counterattack, their army had returned to the warehouse. Moses worked through the night tying up loose ends.
Just one more to go, Moses thought as he approached John Damien, the leader of the vampire platoon. "I need a sample of Virgil's blood."
Moses spoke the question without a hint of gravity in his voice. He hoped his soft sell would win a quick approval. "Nope," John said without his stride. "Me and my friend over there gave enough of our blood tonight to keep your puny war machine going for a few extra days, I think."
A shrug in reply. "Fine." Moses walked away. "For that, you'll never get to find out what I needed it for." Moses counted his steps silently. He had it ten steps before he caved in.
"Alright then." John Damian put his fingers to his lips and whistled. "Batter up, Virgil." The child vampire flinched at the sight of Moses' syringe. "Good doctor here needs your blood."
Virgil didn't even hesitate. He held out his arm and let Moses drain his blood. "Good boy, go along then." John patted Virgil on the backside as he ran off.
John noticed the shock in his eyes. "Didn't expect us vampires to treat each other so well, huh?" Moses didn't reply. "It's alright. You blood-bags take us for monsters. You're the monsters. Especially that Vlad Tsepes. He used to butcher our kind by the hundreds."
John bared his fangs. "That's right. Old Vladdie hunted vampires. He never turned into one. Pretty sure, he'd have killed himself if he did." John leaned up close to Moses. "You're like him, you know? Trying to prove your humanity by killing all the monsters you can get your grubby hands on."
"You sure like hearing yourself talk." Moses mixed the star jelly with Virgil's blood. "A nifty trick you vampires have. Being about to survive getting stabbed with a Sword of Creation. Almost makes up for the casual murders and killer sunburns."
John smiled impishly. "I bet you're wondering how we do it." John raised his index finger. "Lucky you, I have an answer to your burning question." John Damian laid down on the table and looked at him with his head upside-down. "Two words. Vermes gehennae." John smirked. "Fancy that, a big powerful mojo-slinger like you and you've never heard of hell-worms. All the cool kids have them."
Moses smirked right back at him. "Bull." John wagged his index finger at him. "Stringing together a couple Latin words and acting like a smart-ass doesn't mean you know your ass from a hole in the ground." Moses smiled evilly. "Beside, you're the court jester who thought he could fly."
John jumped down from the table. "That would have worked if someone hadn't mixed chicken feathers into my design." John sighed. "You blood-bags always have to see it with your two eyes." John rolled up on the sleeve on his right arm. "Well, feast your eyes on this." John bit into his forearm.
Moses stared transfixed as orange-red fleshy serpents crowded the wound and laid down their lives to fill the gap. "I have tens of thousands of these bugs inside of me." The wound vanished like it never existed. "Your fancy sword can kill the individual hell-worms but the colony lives on as long as it has a heart and brain."
A straight answer. A rare thing coming from this well-seasoned manipulator. Moses speculated in his head that the vermes gehennae might have evolved in Purgatory. They must have started out as parasites living inside of ghouls, one of many species descended from Azazel's hippie commune.
John took his silence as an invitation to speak. "Life's good when you're a vampire."
Moses smirked. "Yeah, until humans started hunted your kind down."
John smirked. "That's what humans do!" John screamed that last part. Moses reached for a crucifix. "You blood-bags see enemies in everyone and everything. We're all just monsters who need to die to satisfy the insipid psychodrama of a species of lonely paranoid neurotics."
John looked out the window. "I'd love to stay and chat but I need to get home before I turn into a pumpkin." John blew him a kiss before he leaped out the window. "Sweet dreams, Hoodoo Man."
Luis tossed Tizona against the floor, frustrated. Their army had given Old Scratch the bird by burning the Hellfire Club to the ground. The Father of Lies didn't seem to care. San Uriel tonight didn't look like a city on the verge of supernatural warfare. San Esteban on this night looked like a city at rest.
Despite himself, Luis worried about Sabnock. Not so about him escaping and telling Satan what they had done. In fact, they had attacked the demons-only strip club for the express purpose of getting the Devil's attention. No. Luis wondered about the knife wound he had given him back at the club.
Luis winced in the omnipresent light fixtures of the warehouse. Mr. Penn had explained the logic behind them. Apparently, every kid who ever cowered from the monster in the closet had the right idea. Nephilim could "flit" between any shadows. No shadows meant no tricks.
A growl echoed through the brightly-lit interior. Other growls followed in reply. Luis raced to Tizona and apologized for treating him like garbage. Luis could only hope Tizona would accept his apology before the monsters found their way inside. Luis unsheathed his sword as the growls came closer and closer.
A Nephilim crawled down from a window, his body clung to the wall like a spider. The other Nephilim, six in total, followed him. Mr. Penn and Alex barked orders for everyone to back away from the windows. It took three deaths for the remaining army to act on such a basic principle of self-preservation.
Mr. Penn signaled to a duende next to a giant switchboard. The tiny fairy man yanked on a lever nearly half his size. Electricity flew through the air as a golem came to live.
Remnants of a forgotten people with delusions of world domination, the golem sprung to live and tossed themselves headlong into the fray.
Azazel's grand army. Mr. Penn's crowning achievement of engineering. The final hope for this world against the deprivations of Lucifer. Scrapped by the first Nephilim to sink his claws into them.
In a brief moment of esoteric thought, Luis Lorenzo remembered the story of Nebuchadnezzar, a mouthful of a name belonging to a mad king who lost his entire kingdom to his insane visions.
Luis wondered what happened when a dream died. Did good dreams go to Heaven and bad dreams go to Hell? Or did they vanish back into the nothingness that gave birth to them in the first place?
Luis had his share of dead dreams and no clue as to where they went when they died.
Luis looked closely at the rampaging Nephilim. The apparent leader of this horde of conquering monsters had a mark across his neck. Luis looked closely at it. The strange mark wrapped around his neck.
It almost looked as if someone had chopped off his head. Then, the horror of it struck Luis all at once. It looked like someone had chopped off his head because someone had chopped off his head.
Then, a sick endless moment of despair possessed Luis. In his experience fighting as an Arthurian reincarnate, he had seen some amazing weapons. Yet Luis could hardly imagine a blade sharp enough and powerful enough to slice through a Nephilim. Despite this small miracle, the Nephilim had survived.
Luis couldn't help but notice that the creature's hearts did not quicken from the rigors of combat. The Nephilim belonged on the battlefield and their bodies respected that.
A rock propelled by Nephilim muscles collided with the warehouse generator. So many light had drawn their power from that lone generator. A tactical weakness they should have resolved before picking a fight with Satan's new army. Luis sighed as darkness fell upon the warehouse and its occupants.
Fortunately, Luis and the gang had come prepared. Luis switched himself on. Every light on him lit up the surroundings. The helmet light lurched forward into the darkness, revealing its secrets.
Luis stared without passion at the remnants of their army. The ones not obviously dead looked like wreckage made of bones and meat. The ones with superhuman durability had gotten it worse than the weaker ones. A minotaur had his torso below the lungs exposed, his intestines dragging along the factory floor.
A meat missile sailed past Luis' head. Luis looked in the direction of the projectile and found it on top of a hollowed-out Nephilim. Virgil's face smiled, It wasn't dead but wasn't in working form either. Luis felt three stabs in the back as a Nephilim jabbed his bone spikes into his spinal cord.
Alex stared at his abdominal wound, surprised by his own apathy. Before the weighty responsibility of saving the world had fallen on his shoulders, a wound like this would have scared the living hell out of him. Alex could care less. This wound couldn't kill him. Not with a wizard handy.
Moses placed the Staff of Merlin above the injury. He poured a whole bottle of star jelly onto it. He chanted words in Old Angelic, more or less telling the injury to leave his body.
As soon as the wound started to close, Moses began gathering up his medical supplies.
He had other patients waiting.
"I can't move."
"Good." Moses smirked. "You have nowhere to go anyways."
Alex remembered quite vividly what happened after their army had large chunks of their asses handed to them. An impossibly tall creature appeared and started holding off all seven of the Nephilim by himself. Dad identified this obscenely bad-ass warrior as Azazel, the All-Father of the Forgotten Folk.
Alex looked up at Dad as Moses continued to load himself down like a pack mule. "I saw him." Dad raised an eyebrow. "The one you killed." Alex's eyes widened. "He's alive."
Dad chuckled. "I didn't kill him." Dad sighed. "I chopped off his head." Dad shook his head. "Big difference." Dad playfully punched Alex in the shoulder. "Rest up; you need your strength."
Alex took his turn to chuckle as Dad left the room. Everyone needed his strength. He learned that the hard way. The moment he had run into the cover of this backroom to the warehouse, all heart left his gang. Hadrian barely made it to the far wall. Abby came within inches of losing her nose. Luis … looked like a road map to Hell with all the fresh wounds crisscrossing his efreet-powered body.
The backroom defied rational explanation. By most conventional explanations, the door leading into it should have exited out onto the street. Dad hadn't bothered to explain why it didn't but he had given its name and a short cryptic summary. "It's a ghost door built to withstand sephirothic interference."
Bang! Alex stared at the door as if he had x-ray vision, like the door would vanish if he stared at it long enough. Another one followed. Bang! Alex nearly swallowed his tongue. Had Azazel fallen in battle? What chance did they have if a former archangel couldn't hold his own against seven of those soldiers?
Dad stumbled in. In all their years, they had never seen their father stumble.
Dad fell over. Blood pooled in the small of his back. Alex's heart skipped.
Without thought, Moses reflexively armed himself and disarmed himself in a split second. The consecrated iron blade, the one with Herodias' true name carved into it, sailed through the air at Luis.
Luis batted it away with Tizona. The iron blade jutted out of a nearby wall. "Nice shot."
Moses reached for the Staff of Merlin. Electricity coursed through Luis' body. "Please." Luis spread his arms theatrically. "You can't burn me." Luis grabbed the Staff of Merlin and tossed it aside.
Luis hadn't noticed Durendal over all his medical supplies. "Any last words?"
Moses looked over at Alex. "Don't give him an inch."
"Moses, no!" Alex screamed as Moses deflected Tizona.
The fiery blade extinguished itself as it left Luis' hands.
The rest happened in a fraction of a second. Moses unsheathed Durendal and drove it into Luis' large intestines. Struck down, Luis fell against the wall next to the door, the fire in his eyes extinguished.
Alex summoned his strength and got up. Alex shambled towards Luis as death slowly spread through his body. The sight of Luis' eyes, his real eyes, spooked Alex. He hadn't seen them since the night he had gotten him killed and possessed by this identity-challenged efreet.
The efreet had forgotten Luis but he remembered now. Luis silently begged Alex to end this. Alex pulled the iron blade out of the wall. "Sssshhh," Alex cooed as Luis let an anguished cry slip through his teeth. "It's over." Alex removed the head with one fluid stroke. The remains exploded into volcanic ash.
A half hour passed. Those thirty minutes crawled by like thirty days. The legendary heroes of Arthurian myth hurdled toward in a cramp panic room with the heated ashes of a fallen comrade circulating in the air conditioning. The forces of darkness had upped their game and they sent them into ignominious retreat. Worse yet, only the dark streets and their many shadows kept them from abandoning their post.
Moses made a note to himself to harvest Luis' ashes. Efreets usually took hours to ash out like he did. That meant his ashes had tremendous power still locked away inside of them. Moses could use that kind of extra mojo. Especially now that the enemy had shown a willingness to evolve its tactics to suit a modern war. Despite all this, his brother Alex would never approve of him harvesting his ashes.
Not to sound like a paranoid kook but Moses had suspected for some time that Luis might turn on them. Hell, Luis probably had an inkling. It didn't make killing him any easier but he did what he had to do.
I did what I had to do. Moses wondered if those words meant anything anymore. He had ran that simple phrase into the ground. His future looked very bleak with many more opportunities to utter those seven awful words of moral bankruptcy and grim determination.
Moses Ambrose Penn had spent this time reviewing Dad's wound. Moses could keep it from bleeding. Moses could keep it from getting bigger. Yet, for all that, he couldn't stop it from killing him.
Luis had inflicted this wound with Tizona. It would detonate the chi reserves along the chakras. Dad would die in exquisite pain, his supposedly immortal soul scattered into sub-sentient pieces. His only hope of resurrection would lie in the Outer Dark, a place infinitely worse than non-existence.
Horror bubbled up inside of Moses when he realized that the same thing must have happened to every human being who fell in this fashion. Every demon-possessed human host … reduced to nothingness.
In short, nothing could heal from that. When Moses voiced this certainty aloud, John Damien chuckled. The old vampire had lost his entire coven and still he laughed. Perhaps, he had the right idea. Perhaps, humor would release Moses from the iron grip oppressive reality had on his soul.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing can heal from that, eh?" John asked, parroting Moses' word right back at him. "We both know that's not true." John nudged his head to the door. "Hell, Virgil had a wound just like that one. Same sword even." John growled. "Still alive and kicking until those damn beasts ripped his head off."
Moses caught his drift. "Never," Moses said. The acid off his words could have melted a hole through the floor. Alex had thought to trust Luis despite his status as a pyrokinetic revenant born of bloody murder. Why make the same mistake twice? Did they not learn the first time?
"I'd rather he die first." Moses meant every word of it.
John smirked. "By the looks of it, you're about to get your wish." John took on a rare solemn disposition. "Listen, I'm not usually this generous. So show a little gratitude for me even offering, you damned whelp." John bared his fangs. "New blood like his will heal up that nasty cut in ten seconds flat."
Moses shook his head in complete disbelief of the situation. Two choices, neither of them good choices. Either let his father die and let his soul turn to cosmic dust or … allow this monster to turn his father into a monster just like him. Moses despaired but suddenly realized that he still had an out.
"Ask him, not me," Moses said after a long pause. If Dad wanted this for himself, he wouldn't stop him. If John Damien tried to force it upon him, he'd better get used to walking around with the Staff of Merlin halfway up his ass. Moses returned to treating Dad with several healing magicks at once.
Each spell got weaker and weaker. The wound of Tizona had a malevolent intelligence behind it as it bypassed every obstacle he launched in his way. No wonder a Sword of Creation could kill with such frightening ease. The wound's magick never stopped its path of annihilation once inflicted upon its prey.
In a quiet moment of contemplation, Moses, the man with a dozen plans, came to a bleak epiphany. Dad could not survive this and remain human. Either he vamped out or his soul got blasted into oblivion.
He's dead, Alexander Julius Penn thought for the fiftieth time since he killed his best friend Luis Enrique Lanza. I killed him. Well, Moses killed him. Alex just put him out of his misery. Alex stared at the consecrated iron knife as if he no longer recognized it anymore. As if he desecrated it by killing Luis.
No, no, no, no! Alex chanted mentally. Luis died almost a year ago. That thing took his place. Alex, more than anything, wanted to believe that but the efreet had his eyes in the end, his human eyes. Alex wondered what cover story Moses would cook up for Luis' second and final death. Alex cringed.
So much had happened between him and Luis during the last eighteen months. Their current lives buckled under the weight of their past lives. Luis had lost the girl. Alex had gotten the girl, then gave her away when Moses revealed he had pulled a Cupid on her.
Yet, regardless of everything that had happened between them, Luis still came with him and the others to Las Vegas. To the Valentine Hotel where he ultimately lost his life.
Then, on top of losing his best friend, Alex's father stood zero chance of survival. Tizona, the Sword of Fire had burned a hole into his fragile human frame. Add the unknown magicks that ripped the souls of its victims from their bodies and nothing sane or moral could stop his father from dying.
More guilt; I can live with that. Alex shrugged. After all, what choice do I really have?
Alex laughed. Cold bitter laughter but laughter nonetheless. Only the hope of glorious death in battle kept Alex from collapsing under the weight of his massive responsibilities. Unfortunately, one of those responsibilities involved staying alive just long enough to finish every fight he started.
Moses returned from his recon. "He's gone." Moses didn't need to specify. Only one individual's absence on the battlefield could put such wide-eyed terror in his wizard brother's eyes. Azazel had abandoned them. Perhaps, the Nephilim figured out a way to kill him. More likely, they had simply worn him down, drained his mighty reserves of strength until he only had enough left to beat a hasty retreat.
Alex got back onto his feet. "To Hell with this." Alex grabbed Excalibur and unsheathed it. "I only have one life left to live," Alex explained to everyone in the room. "Not gonna let it end like this." Hadrian and Abigail sprung to their feet. "I can't say we'll survive but … see you on the other side." Alex marched out.
Moses grabbed Alex by the collar. "Alex," Moses said in the smallest voice he could summon. "I'm sorry." Alex asked what he was sorry for. "About everything, dammit." Moses watched as Haddy and Abby went ahead of them. "We might die out there and I don't want us to die mad at each other, alright?"
Alex smiled. "C'mon, bro." Alex handed Moses his staff. "Let's finish this."
While everyone regained brief snippets of their in-between lives, nobody could recall how they had died in any of them. Memory of his first death burned inside of him like a cattle brand. The memory of his second death … not so much. Who knew many last stands Alex had fought and died in?
A Nephilim emerged from a shadow underneath the stairwell. This time, the old monster's hearts raced as it made itself known. Alex hoped against hope that he had inspired fear in these beasts. Of course, Alex knew in his own heart that he had likely inspired rage, not fear.
The gang unsheathed their blades and spread out.
Alex recognized this Nephilim. The one who lost his head and reattached it. Nice trick. Alex slashed him in half. Alex didn't care if it didn't kill him. It still looked like it hurt. Besides, the Nephilim's unique physiology made it easy to cut right between its hearts.
The other Nephilim went berserk. The monster dashed at them in the blink of an eye. In another blink of an eye, the Nephilim' body parts flew in every direction. Limbless torsos, crawling arms and disembodied legs withdrew into the shadows.
Alex blinked again. Dad appeared in front of him. Blood dripped from Tizona as it trembled in his hands. A look of sadness filled his face as his fangs slid down. Alex blinked a fourth time. Dad disappeared for the third time in his life.