At dawn, Helmand returned to the house on King Street. Only Aiko was up to greet him. She was standing two feet from the window, watching the fading night. If she were out of the van, would the mortal still be alive? Funny, another’s death had never bothered her before. She did not even know his name, doubted anyone, but Cantara and Miss Sweider had before that night. Their attackers had been her kind, a wild pack similar to those the Hand had hunted for decades. Would she not have caught their scent while they were still miles away? Somehow she thought she would have.
Helmand moved to stand quietly behind her. His presence was comforting, not as a lover’s would be, but in a way she had never felt before. Unquestionable trust.
“They left no trail,” He murmured.
“Who?” Aiko asked. How did he always know what she was thinking? Did he read her thoughts like Alvaro?
“The ones who attacked us last night,” Helmand explained quietly. “Something was masking their presence. We were lucky you sensed them when you did.”
“Some of us anyway,” Aiko muttered, leaning back against his chest.
They stood like that for a long time, watching the sunlight creep across the carpet towards their feet. Aiko backed further into his arms. She did not want him to see her weakness, yet could not overcome her blind terror of the sun. Nothing had ever hurt as much or left a scar before like that one foot that had been exposed to the sun. Humans called it porphyria – the vampire disease.
“I have brought you something,” Helmand said, letting her back him up by a foot. “It is a cream to protect you from the sun.”
He held out a white porcelain jar. Aiko stared at it with distrust for a long time. She would rather hide from the sun and saw no advantage to walking under its light. This rare genetic disorder that interfered with the production of hemoglobin and left one sensitive to sunlight was so prevalent among her kind that it shaped their entire culture – it was a message from their ancestors that she was not ready to ignore.
“Go ahead,” he urged. “Try it. Only on the one hand.”
She let him help her slather one hand with the cream, covering both sides and half her forearm –to be on the safe side.
“Come,” he smiled patiently. “It will not hurt you.”
She did not want him to think her weak, and still, she hesitated. For weeks that foot was blistered and swollen, itchy hives covering every surface, and she had been unable to scratch at them. Slowly, she reached out her arm. Her fingertips touched the shaft of sunlight and her hand involuntarily curling into a fist. Unfolding the fist, she slid her hand into the sunshine up to the first knuckle, fighting the flinch that cowered beneath the impassive mask she wore. Nothing. No pain, no blisters.
Gwen came down to start breakfast and found them standing in the window, Aiko splashing both arms into the sunlight like a toddler with her feet in a pool.
“My God girl,” Gwen breathed. “Your skin is absolutely glittering.”
“Helmand gave me a cream to protect me from the sun,” Aiko was smiling with happiness.
“Remember, leave a patch of skin untreated at the base of your neck,” Helmand warned. “The skin must breathe. Perhaps your friend will help you with it if I start breakfast.”
“Does it really work?” Gwen chatted happily, pulling Aiko along with her upstairs.
Helmand retreated to the kitchen, quietly humming as he pulled mixing bowls, pots and pans from various cupboards. He had no problems finding anything and had bacon frying, the table set, and the first batch of pancakes and French toast on the grill when the girls trooped downstairs en masse.
They stood in the doorway at Aiko’s back, waiting for her to try her new gift, more than one expecting to see the vampyre melt on the sidewalk. Aiko took a tentative step. Gwen moved to her side and caught up her hand. Together they took a second step and Aiko was standing in the shadowy sunlight beneath the trees.
“It is bright,” she complained.
Brendan flexed his shoulder. The bullet holes were two scabs on his chest and back, and he felt only a distant twinge when he moved his arm. Tonight he would break through to the Underdark, only two or three feet of dirt separating them. While he discussed this last bit of digging with Chalky, Angel and Alvaro prepared their equipment. They would head down into the tunnels soon, hopefully completing their search in time to clean up behind them.
And there was still a lot to clean up. Mounds of dirt covered most of the garage floor, shovels and wheelbarrows stored haphazardly wherever space would allow. Takeout cups littered one corner, and the remains of a Chinese meal were everywhere. And, of course, in the centre of the repair bay, the adit of the tunnel stared accusingly up at him.
“Might as well get to it, lad,” Chalky suggested. “I’ll get another load in the van while I still have the hands to help.”
Nodding, Brendan dropped into the grease pit and then into the tunnel. After some of the places he had crawled into lately, the tunnel felt spacious and comfortable. He travelled its length in a blink, slowing only as he came up to their new dig. The little tram was there waiting for him. Filling it was a matter of moments for him, and he spent the downtime shoring up their digging from last night. Some of his companions would need a ladder to get up and down the shaft, especially the mortals and the old one.
At that moment, the old one was frowning. Alvaro was puzzling over a text from Aiko he had received shortly before. What did she mean she was playing in the sun, and should he be pleased or worried that she was unsure if she liked it? The woman was either senile or had been hanging around with mortal teenagers too long. And why all these texts? Most adults, including himself, used their cell phones to communicate needed information. She was chatting. Definitely too many teenagers in her life. The next time he saw her, he was grounding her from her cell phone for a decade.
“Get your head in the game, dude,” the Wandering Jew teased. “She’s eight hundred, old enough to wipe her own nose.”
“And I’m sure Cantara won’t let her hurt herself,” Angel threw in, “much.”
“Thanks,” Alvaro muttered. “With friends like you, who needs demons.”
The third tram came up with Brendan close on its heels.
“We’re through,” he replied, brushing dirt from his hair and clothes, “but it’s a long bloody drop.”
He held up a skinned elbow to prove his point. One second he was standing with one foot on the dirt, one on the rung of the ladder, the next he was tumbling through the air. A brick floor met him with a violent embrace.
“I think it’s an old sewer system,” he explained. “Tunnels go off in all directions.”
“No worries, mate. We keep east.” Jaime replied, holding up a compass and testing it. It was a high end, a self-calibrating unit with a rugged steel case for durability and a leather wrist strap. “Number 10 is east of here.”
“Go rig a rope for self-slipping,” Angel instructed. “We’ll pack up here and join you in a minute.”
In the tunnel, Angel and the two vampyres would take the point, so they entered first, followed by the three mortals, the Wandering Jew taking up the rear. Brendan shimmied down the rope to test its heft, Angel following close behind on a wing and a prayer. Once in the chamber below, they lit the area around the rope with several electric torches. Separating for a quick recon, they met again in the centre and gave two tugs on the rope to signal those waiting above. Nothing but rat droppings and dust.
When all six assembled below, Jaime consulted the compass. Brendan and Drake packed away the ropes, knowing they might need them further down in the tunnels. Alvaro inspected the bricks. This was definitely the collection point of a Victorian Age sewer. Frowning, he consulted the Brotherhood maps. This particular section of the tunnel was not marked on any of the most detailed maps, which showed a culvert through which a branch of the River Tyburn ran below the city. Or was it? Did he have this upside down or sideways?
“The maps are no help at the moment,” he sighed. “Let’s go east and see if we can hook up with the tunnel we are looking for. I think we need to go deeper.”
Angel nodded, taking the lead for this section of their spelunking. The tunnel was still high enough for them to walk upright in, and while the mortals in the centre had lit the lights on their helmets, he travelled ahead in darkness. A guardian angel did not fear the shadows – the creatures sometimes hiding in them were another matter altogether. The floor underneath him was dry and dusty, the brick uneven, and he tread carefully, marking the way with a piece of sidewalk chalk. Even here, the ever-present spider webs hung like drapes from the ceiling, and he was glad to see them. Anything that could scare off the spiders and the insects they fed on was not something to be approached lightly.
They came to a cross tunnel, where they paused briefly to consult. Brendan had wandered up one arm before Angel called him back. Tunnels were more his home than any of them, but his habit of wandering off was troubling.
“Stay close to the group,” Angel warned.
Brendan nodded and took the lead once they decided to continue straight. They were still in the old sewers, where the passage was growing progressively narrower. Soon they would see piping running off to the old manholes and street gratings. These would end suddenly, as they saw no evidence that this section of the sewer had been attached to the main lines for decades. As he moved along, Brendan chalked the walls, marking their way in case they had to flee in a hurry or backtrack. And when the passage they were following ended in a massive cave-in, that is exactly what they were forced to do.
At the cross corridor, Brendan pointed to the arm he had started up earlier. “I think we should go this way.”
“Why?” Alvaro asked.
“I don’t know. It feels,” Brendan was at a loss for words, “like it’s sloping a bit downwards.”
Alvaro looked at Angel and shrugged. Maybe the kid had some six sense for grade or elevation, something ingrained from hundreds of years living below ground. Like your ears popping at high altitudes, or the air becomes thinner. Still in the lead, Brendan moved up the side tunnel, ducking his head as it quickly narrowed. For a moment, his companions thought he was leading them down another blind alley, but it levelled out and stayed at that height after a few hundred feet. Walking slightly bent over, their shoulders hunched and their necks cricking from ducking their heads, they walked for an uncomfortable quarter mile. And when the floor became an unending series of moguls, it became difficult to keep their eyes on anything but their feet.
Brendan slowed his pace. It would not do to be surprised by anything nasty – say like a stray Eater of the Dead or a zombie-vampyre. He chuckled at his imagination. Not even Hollywood had come up with that combination, not yet anyway. Still, there were other dangers in the Underdark besides the supernatural. Common, everyday mishaps, like collapsing floors, where water had created sinkholes hungry and waiting for the unwary. Or everyday cave-ins, or pockets of bad air where his mortal companions would suffocate. Did Angels need to breathe, he wondered?
And, of course, there were always the pockets of gas where a sudden spark could take out a party in a flash fire. Brendan continued to rattle off potential dangers, wondering why he ever wanted to return to this underground world as he picked his way over a particularly rough patch of floor. Flashfloods when you were crawling through a storm sewer. Rabid rats, who sometimes roamed in aggressive packs. And sudden drop-offs, like the one he had almost fallen into.
“The tunnel drops,” Brendan hissed. “It looks deep and freshly dug. Or at least newer than this.”
“I’ll fly down and check it out,” Angel instructed. “You three break out the ropes. Brendan, watch my descent; Alvaro, cover our rear.”
Angel drew forth his blades and his wings. Better cautious than sorry down here in the Underdark, no matter how close to the surface it was. On strange ground, you never knew what you would run into, and while sometimes that was as benign as raw sewage, there were always those times when even that sewage bit back. Flexing his wings, he stepped out over the pit and drifted down. Brendan was right. This was a rough-hewn surface, claw dug rather than by hand.
And it was deep. Already Angel had drifted down for over a minute, falling at a hundred feet per, and still, he saw no signs of the bottom.
It was a good thing they had brought plenty of rope because whatever they rigged here, they would have to leave behind. It would not do to need a quick escape and have to wait for him to fly up, or for one of the others to climb. And then he came to the bottom. The floor was littered with small animal bones and bits of rock, grim scree that made footing treacherous. Here Angel paused, looking around carefully. This was definitely the home of an Eater of the Dead or had been in the past. The bones under his feet were old and almost fossilized, and the walls of the tunnel leading off ahead of him were smoothed with age.
Safe for the moment. Placing an electric light at the bottom to mark it, Angel flew back up to his companions to let them know what to expect on the climb down. At the top, he found Drake and Jaime making the ropes fast to pitons they had driven into the brick wall, the other three watchful and ready.
“It’s deep,” Angel explained. “I will fly back down to keep watch. Alvaro, you come down first and watch your step at the bottom. An Eater of the Dead made its lair down there, and the bones are about a foot deep.”
Nodding, Alvaro came forward to test the ropes. The passage was wide enough for two to climb down together, but with a mostly dirt wall, they did not want to risk a cave-in by putting too much weight on it. He waited while Angel made the return trip down, monitoring his progress in the flashes of light and darkness that now filled the passage. He dropped the ropes down, giving them a few shakes to keep them from tangling as he waited for Angel to signal for him to begin his climb. Alvaro really hated all this spelunking. When could he get a mission that involved lounging on a beach with a beautiful woman, plying her with fine wine and sweet words to learn her secrets? Where was his James Bond moment?
He gave a thumbs up to the others and leapt over the edge. Repelling was far easier than climbing, he would give them that. Still, Alvaro did not trust the soft clay patches he found every few feet along the surface. Elsewhere, slick patches told him that moisture was leaching into the sides of the tunnel from somewhere. Maybe from that underground river that was supposed to be running through here? According to the map, they should have struck the conduit carrying the river beneath the streets of London long before this, and if they were this far off the grid, the maps would no longer be of any use to them. Chalk and bread crumbs it was then.
At the bottom, he gave the rope a tug and moved away from it to begin to explore his surroundings. First Drake and then Jaime repelled down the rope, taking up position as they formed a defensive perimeter at the mouth of the new tunnel. The Wandering Jew followed, leaving only Brendan at the top, quietly checking the pitons and the rigging before taking his turn on the ropes. Unlike the others, he did not fear the dark and the unknown. Tunnels like this had been his home for so much of his life that he felt safer here than he did out under the open sky, and no matter what the shadows hid, it still had the comfortable feeling of home. This was his element.
Once reassembled, they headed out off down the tunnel in a tighter group. Angel and Alvaro took point outside the perimeter of the light, far enough ahead to maintain their night vision. Brendan took the lead again, and the Wandering Jew the point. They travelled with their weapons unslung, difficult along the rough, scree littered tunnel. This tunnel was definitely not on their maps. Although they soon reached bedrock, or the hard, dry clay that passed for bedrock beneath London, and were no longer afraid of sudden mudslides, the passage had an uncomfortable feeling creeping up their spines.
The floor and sides of the tunnel became firmer, the clay almost fused by some past cataclysmic inferno. Rocks and bones still littered every inch of their passage, and they had left the cobwebs behind with the sewer. Angel paused, holding up a hand that only Brendan could see. What was that lying up ahead? He signalled for the others to move up. Two blades materialized from both hands, glowing in the darkness. When the others were formed up behind him, Angel sent Brendan back to guard their rear with the Wandering Jew, only then creeping forward a couple of feet. Something was lying across the tunnel about twenty feet ahead.
Bodies. The desiccated remains of eleven, no twelve humans. Broken weapons and equipment scattered over forty feet of tunnel. Jaime rushed ahead, searching desperately among the wreckage. After five minutes, he came up with a pendant with a lime green crystal, looking like nothing more than a piece of costume jewellery.
“What happened here, Jaime?” Alvaro asked patiently.
“How should I know?” Jaime snapped back. “I wasn’t here, was I?”
“It’s time for the truth, lad,” Angel prompted.
“Alright,” Jaime relented. “It started five years ago…”
The authorities claimed it was a serial killer. We quickly knew better. The thing that came in the night and made off with children – only the children of Brotherhood households, and always the youngest. Twelve of my mates and I decided to go after it.
We knew the truth. At first, we suspected the vampires or maybe some new demon.
I broke into the Brotherhood archives and learned the truth. It happened twenty-five years ago, every youngest child from every Brotherhood household. And again, forty-five years before that. Curious, I went after older and older records. You know how that ended up, mates.
And when I was expelled, these bloody bastards decided to go on without me – I told them thirteen, we needed thirteen. Bloody waste! They did not even know how to use me mum’s crystal.
We knew the truth. We suspected it was a demon – but I had learned how wrong we were….
An angel that had been bitten by a vampyre.
“That could never happen,” Alvaro shook his head, disappointed.
“Once,” Angel replied, and all eyes turned towards him.
He was the greatest of my kind – Zakriel, Guardian of the Guardian Angels. Pride goes before the fall, they say. He was our alpha and omega, the one angel we all wished to be, the one we all tried to emulate. Whispers said he once rescued a child’s soul from Hell, from the Great Beast Hsatan himself.
Pride. She was a mere wisp of a child, this instrument of his doom. Michael himself warned us against rescuing the child – but what were mere words to someone like Zakriel. He would go even where the Archangels feared to tread. A boast. The last words of a fool and a braggart. He never saw it coming. He placed the child in his arms, placed her fangs within reach of his throat….
“Christ!” Drake whispered.
“Even he might not help us here,” Angel returned wryly. “Let’s head back while we still can.”
“No!” Jaime shouted. “We must kill it!”
“Jaime, be reasonable,” the Wandering Jew soothed.
“It killed my little brother, now didn’t it,” Jaime shot back. “Bloody hell if I am going anywhere before it dies!”
“There are only six of us,” Brendan replied. “You said yourself it would take thirteen.”
“Not with them,” Jaime retorted, holding up the pendant, “and not with this!”
“They didn’t do so well even with that,” Drake offered, kicking at a skull to punctuate his point.
“Aye,” Jaime smiled, a cold and brittle thing, “but they did not know how to use me mum’s crystal, now did they?”
“And you do?”
“Aye. That I do, mate. That I do.”