Night stalkers and boogeymen. Worried about the beasts from the farm, Helmand refused to leave after seeing the girls safely home. That was how he found himself ensconced on the couch with Aiko draped across his chest, pretending to be sleeping. This one slept even less than he did, and that was not at all. He stroked her soft hair, black and fine, silky like the kimono she was wearing. He liked the quiet, these peaceful moments as he listened to the breathing of children as they slept. Was there anything more innocent than a child sleeping? Even this one, in her pretence, wore a mask of sweetness that washed away the sins of her waking world.
A noise in the attic. Aiko was up and on her feet in a heartbeat. Before he could stop her, she was gone, a streak of black against the darkness of the staircase. Knowing he was following, Aiko did not hesitate. Not this time. Whoever was encroaching on her home, her dojo, they would not escape a second time.
As noiseless as her passage was, she still woke Cantara and Crystal. They heard the door to the attic open as Helmand followed in her wake, and were up and at his side in a flash. Aiko was still faster. At the top of the stairs, she ran straight up the wall, using the ceiling to drop in behind him and cut off his escape. She would eat him.
Young and foolish. Only an Empusae. As quick as he was, he was unskilled. No match for a Hand warrior. She broke his leg and an arm in her first pass, incapacitating her victim. She had his hair in her fist, his head pushed back, and his neck exposed. She bared her fangs.
“No, Aiko,” Helmand called out. “Do not kill him. The dead tell no tales.”
Downstairs in the living room, the Ghost Sisterhood gathered, their captive vampyre tied to a chair with their climbing ropes and one of the volleyball nets. Crystal stood between him and Aiko, still red-eyed and hissing in frustration, pacing in front of the meal she was being denied. If she were a cat, her tail would be swishing.
“He is of the First Caste,” Cantara was explaining. “We will not make him talk, no matter how much pain we inflict.”
“I can make him talk,” Kristen smiled mischievously. “I can make any man tell me his secrets.”
“Any man,” Helmand tease and winked.
Kristen gave him an appraising look, accepting the challenge. A challenge that would have to be deferred to another time. Tonight she had real work to do. Still, she could not resist sashaying her hips at him in that way a Sylph had and laughed at Aiko’s angry hiss. Some targets were too easy to resist, but she would not dare steal a pretty from Aiko, not even if he were the saltiest boy in the universe. After all, the Ghost Sisterhood had to stick together.
She stroked the vampyre’s cheek, letting her scent fill his face. His eyes dilated, his nostrils flared, and his mind was filled with sex as no boy’s mind had ever been before. She smiled sweetly.
“He’s ready,” she replied, laughing, “what do you want me to ask him?”
“Who sent him?” Cantara ticked off, holding up her fingers. “Why was he here?”
“Whoa girl,” Kristen laughed, “one at a time.”
She adjusted her shirt to show a little more cleavage and then leaned over to give him a very good look. “Who sent you? You can tell me. You wouldn’t want to keep secrets from me, would you, my pretty?”
“I would not want to keep secrets from you,” he breathed. “You smell so sweet, I want to –“
“Hush now,” Kristen teased, drawing a finger across his lips and down along his neck, “you were telling me who sent you.”
“High Lord Delph.”
“And why did he send you here?” She husked. “What did he want you to do?”
“I was to fetch a book….”
His words cut off suddenly. Convulsing, the ague shook him uncontrollably. Blood seeped from his eyes, nose and ears, and Kristen leapt back with a startled squawk. Their prisoner kept shaking, harder and faster, bleeding from his skin now. Before their very eyes, the vampyre literally shook himself apart. In sixty heartbeats, there was nothing left but a puddle of blood and dust.
“Oh, shit!” Kristen swore, “this was my favourite blouse.”
“Go change,” Miss Sweider instructed. “And you two go get some mops and clean this mess up before Aiko has a fit.”
Who that two were she did not say, but the girls knew enough to jump when she spoke, and Gwen and Morgana went off to find a bucket and a mop. The others moved away from the mess and finally drifted into the dining room.
“I thought Delph was dead after what he did to Ember,” Crystal said as she flopped down into a chair.
“There is no telling who or what vampyres died in the Upyr disaster,” Cantara replied sarcastically. “And Drake was pretty sure he spotted him during that attempt on you back in New York.”
“No vampyre did that,” Helmand said, jerking his head towards the living room.
They all looked at him now. For a civilian, he knew too much about their world, and he had an annoying habit of fading into the background so that they forgot he was there when they spoke of things better kept secret.
Shax snarled. To the left of his throne, two of his minions were performing a vivisection on a living subject, peeling back his skin with delicate care. Above them, in its web of shadows, one of the spiders was feeding on a young girl, her garbled screams a serenade that no longer soothed. Shax the Betrayer stomped in frustration on one of the bodies beneath his throne to still its death throes.
He had felt that pranic energy as it neared his portal – so sweet and rich. And then, for a moment before it was snatched away, an even greater source of pranic energy had teased his senses. Had he been playing with the wrong mouse all this time? No! No! She could not be that strong. Or could she? How close to achieving their goal had they been on that night in Upyr? If he could push her into another feeding frenzy…. But no, he did not have enough vampyres. Unless. Yes, yes, that could work.
More troubling was the source of the shielding that hid her from him. What could do that? Certainly very few objects, but could she tolerate the presence of such a holy relic? She too was Hellspawn like himself. Another more powerful demon. But who and why?
Beneath the sleeping city of London, England Angel led his party of spelunkers slowly along the tunnel. Each step was one step closer to mortal peril. Angel wasn’t being melodramatic. He had never hunted anything as dangerous either in this life or his previous one as a Guardian Angel. Since the night he had fallen from Grace, he had thrown himself in the path of danger in a subconscious death wish. This was the first time he felt fear. Angels were immortal. They did not die – but there was always room for the first time within His plans.
Only Brendan seemed comfortable down here. He had replaced Alvaro at Angel’s side, both because of his knowledge of the Underdark, and to spread their strength along their column. Who knew when and where the Doom Vampyre might strike? The narrow quarters of the passage did not reassure Angel the way they seemed to comfort Brendan. What were solid walls to a monstrosity like this? And these walls were only hardened clay, not even honest rock.
Brendan reached out a hand and stopped him.
“The passage has levelled out,” he hissed, “and it forks up ahead. Two, no three side passages branch off the head of this one.”
When the others had caught up with them, Angel explained how he wanted to approach the forking tunnel. “Alvaro take the others into the right-hand fork and form a defensive square. Brendan and I will cover you from here.”
Alvaro nodded. Dousing their lights, he led his squad along the tunnel with Angel and Brendan trailing. At the juncture, a natural chokepoint where the passage widened, they hurried across the open space. The anticipated ambush never happened. Angel and Brendan rejoined their companions in the new passage. The walls here were rock, chalkstone, a little more solid than clay, but still not strong enough for Angel. Depleted uranium would not satisfy the angel or make him feel safe.
The passage stayed level for a thousand yards and then began to climb steeply. The two at point paused several feet up the slope and waited for the others. Angel did not want the party to lose sight of each other. On the slope, this would mean bunching up more than might be tactically prudent, but even together, they might not match what waited for them. Why make it any easier for it?
Brendan was getting tired of holding the crucifix clenched in his hand, but as long as Angel held his sword, he would keep his own weapons to hand. He wondered what the tunnel was bypassing that it climbed almost four hundred feet before immediately plunging down almost twice the distance. On the downslope, they had to be careful lest the steepness sent them into a headlong run. Angel was constantly halting to prevent their column from getting too strung out, but Brendan did not fault him for his caution. You never knew what was waiting for you at the end of a steep slope.
When the slope levelled off, the tunnel turned sharply to the right. Here, they slowed even further, the arc of the curve hiding the head of the column from its tail. When the passage suddenly veered to the left, spiralling back the way they came, Brendan stopped.
“There’s a steep drop beyond the next bend,” he warned. It was the updraft. With deep shafts, air always flowed in or out, and while the atmospheric pressure eventually equalized, there was always a subtle flow that his sensitive skin could detect.
Angel went ahead to check it out. It was more than a shaft. The floor simply disappeared for a hundred feet, an almost bottomless drop replacing it. A narrow ledge hugged the wall, following the arc of the curve. Angel definitely did not like it. During the entire crossing, not only would they be vulnerable, but they would lose sight of each other. There was no way he could cover both the front and the rear of the column, even flying.
“We need to keep straight,” Jaime insisted. “The crystal is getting hotter the further we move along this passage. Mum said finding or warding stones heat up when close to their targets.”
Angel nodded. He did not like it, but he saw no other choice. He would fly in the middle of the column with Brendan in front and Alvaro in the rear. Fly and pray.
Brendan took to the ledge like a tightrope walker, striding along as if its surface was as wide as an avenue. The Wandering Jew came next; he and the two mortals roped together. Alvaro came last, like Brendan, not roped to the others. If an attack came at any point along the ledge, at least three of them would be able to hold it off. Flying in the middle of their column, Angel could see neither Brendan at the front nor Alvaro at the rear. The curve of the tunnel did not allow a direct line of sight, and if he could not see them, they could not see him.
Training showed. The ledge did not deserve the name along much of its length, petering out to a series of toe and finger holds. Drake was a climber, spending long hours on the rooftops of New York City or on climbing walls, and Jaime was an experienced spelunker. It was all that saved them when the ledge collapsed beneath them. Clinging to the wall with fingers and toes, Drake held one end of the line and the Wandering Jew the other as Jaime dangled between them. Angel flew in to help the Brit find purchase, taking some of the tension off the ropes before the heavier boy pulled the others down with them.
It was the worst time for Brendan’s cry of alarm. “It’s on the far side!”
Brendan was a vampyre. When speed was needed, he could be incredibly quick. His companions would have no chance against what waited on the far side, not trapped on the ledge like this. Black as the shadows, it stood at the lip of the pit, its wings and head touching the roof of the small cavern that lay beyond. The twin blades it held in its massive paws were four times the size of those Angel bore, and it owned arms the size of redwoods to wield them. Its eyes glowed like red coals and drool the colour of blood dripped from fangs as long as Brendan’s fingers. If he did not drive it back from the lip, the others would never make it off the ledge.
He was a vampyre, quick as a wink. So was it and something more. Unlike it, Brendan was a creature of the Underdark. Five feet from the end of the ledge, Brendan used the wall, running up its sheer side and diving between its wings. It turned, this Doom vampyre, quick as thought as it followed its prey.
Further along the ledge, Angel waited only as long as it took for Jaime to find toe and handholds.
“Follow us as quickly as you can,” Angel ordered.
He flew off. Rounding a corner, he saw sparks fly as Brendan rolled away from two towering blades. Angel had no time to absorb anything more. Brendan was crab-walking backwards away from a series of strikes. Like a silver arrow, he streaked through the dark. The blades that met his sent tingles through his arms, like hitting a brick wall with a broken bat. If his swords were not a part of him, he would have dropped one or both.
Brendan was on his feet now. He caught the beast in the back with his crucifix. Being both an angel and a vampyre, the weapon did little more than scratch him. Turning, it threw Brendan back into a wall. The impact had knocked the weapon from the boy’s hand.
It had been enough time. The four others were safely off the ledge, but Brendan was trapped deeper in the cavern. The other five spread out, circling their quarry. Other than Angel’s, their weapons were ineffectual and did little more than annoy it. When it had backed Angel into a corner, Brendan leapt. Faster than thought it spun, its massive blades cleaving Brendan in two.
It was all the time Jaime needed. Shouting, “In this fateful hour/ I call upon Heaven and all its power.”
Of course, his Mum would choose something for the ward neither of her sons was liable to forget, even under stress. It was from Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘A Swiftly Tilting Planet’- a book his Da had read to him when he was Little Johnny’s age, and he had read to his brother when the wars had taken his father.
The key to a ward was not in the words themselves, rather it lay in the power of the crystal. Its trigger could be as simple as a nursery rhyme or complex as a ritual. With the words – all this I place between me and the power of evil – he leapt onto the Doom Vampyre’s back.
It was the size of a moth, glowing with a silver-white light. Where it struck the great beast, a pinprick of light rent its blackness. There were four and then twenty, diving like kamikazes into its vileness. A hundred. A thousand. Each struck the vampyre until their brightness sullied its darkness. The cavern was ablaze with their numbers. It screamed in pain as its attackers mercilessly stung it. When the light had totally consumed the blackness, both blinked and were gone.
Dust was drifting from both halves of Brendan as he lay broken deeper in the cavern. Alvaro rushed to his side. Brendan was dying. Any wound from an angel was fatal to a vampyre, even the blades of a fallen angel, and this was no scratch.
“What were they?” Brendan coughed.
“Cherubim,” Angel replied. “The smallest of my kind. ‘Lo, shall the smallest amongst you be the greatest.’ That’s written over the gates of the Celestial Gardens.”
“It hurts Alvaro,” Brendan cried. The dust trailing off him became a sandstorm, and he was gone.
“I hope this was worth it,” Drake spat.
“It had to be done, mate,” Jaime croaked, his voice cracking. “I could not go away and leave this undone.”
“I’d hate to be you when Crystal Raven hears her boyfriend has died,” Drake replied levelly.
“Peace,” Angel spoke, “he has gone to a better place.”