The back door was slightly ajar. She pushed it open, but did not enter, waiting for an outcry from within.
“Hello?” She called out hesitantly. There was no response.
The back door opened into a neat and tidy lounge room. There was a door into a hallway, and she followed it past bedrooms, the beds all made, past a bathroom, a dining room, to the kitchen.
She did not open the fridge. Power came and went, and the contents of fridges weren’t worth scavenging as a result. She found the pantry, but it had been stripped bare. Someone had been here before her, most likely a neighbour who knew the house was empty. She sighed. She had searched many houses that day, and her backpack was still very light.
There was a door under the staircase which opened into a small storage space, and she exclaimed with excitement when she opened it, taking off her backpack. The owner of the house had been on a diet and there were protein bars, vitamins, and diet shake powder. She shoved it all into the bag before making her way out of the house coming to a standstill as she stepped out into the yard.
The children had gone quiet, and the sudden silence was ominous.
Verity looked up on a gasp and ducked back into the doorway. The sky had been torn open and glowed red. She judged the distance from her shelter to the portal as the first specs of black appeared, the winged soldiers, the Nephilim passing through the portal from their realm into hers.
Winged Hellions most people called them.
The Nephilim were the creators of the Others, the werewolves, the vampires, and many different types of magical almost-humans. Created as slaves, and then discarded as failures, the Others had lived hidden by glamour spells amongst the humans, fiercely guarding their secrecy, until a deranged vampire called Lucian had tried to take over the world, three years before Verity’s birth, in a terrible battle that had been called Armageddon.
The vampire Elior had defeated Lucian, and for twenty years the vampires had protected the rest of the Other world from humankind, until the humans had risen against the vampires, and the Others had revealed themselves in order to stand with the vampires against them.
That battle had drawn the attention of the Nephilim, and the skies had begun to turn red with their portals, spilling out Winged soldiers who attacked without discrimination anyone directly below the portal.
The portals appeared unpredictably, and for about half an hour, the sky would glow red where it was, and then the portal would close. The vampires, Others and remnants of human military would rush to the site and there would be a ferocious battle, with the Winged Hellions often scattering into the skies.
Her eyes were lifted directly above as something passed over head. The gargoyles flying into the battle, she thought, her heart in her throat. The gargoyles had been a fixture of the city since the city had been first established and Verity had spent her entire life watching them fly through the skies, fascinated, and attracted by their mystery.
There was something reassuring about seeing them fly through the sky. Her mother had told her as a child that the gargoyles were the guardians of the city, and that they protected it.
Verity waited in the shelter of the building until the sky returned to blue, and then began to weave her way through the streets towards home. As she passed by, the occupants of the houses came out into their yards, looking towards where the portal had opened, eyes searching the skies for any sign of Hellions.
There was just the one gargoyle in the sky, the griffin, circling. That was a normal sight. The griffin gargoyle always stayed in the air, watching over the other two on the ground.
The portal had opened over suburbia as they tended to do. In the early days, they had opened over the city centre, but the gargoyles were fierce, and the Hellion’s losses had been heavy. Apparently learning quickly; the Hellions portals now opened further and further out from the gargoyles’ building, delaying their response, and allowing the Hellion forces more chance at survival.
As she neared the area where the Hellions had attacked, the streets emptied of pedestrians, and the buildings showed the damages of the battle. She passed soldiers wearing the black uniform of the vampires searching for the injured enemy. They did not stop her – she was not what they were there for.
Debris crunched under her feet, glass and bricks from buildings crumpled beneath the strikes of magic and human technology until she stood in front of her destination, her jaw dropping in horror.
In the morning the building had been whole and had housed several families living in a co-op trying to survive through combining resources. A couple of the adults had been medical – two nurses and a GP. They had been kind, offering their services to those around them, in exchange for food where food could be given, but more often for free. There had been a number of children – many orphans or strays who had become separated from their families - little, lost victims of war.
They had run a collection centre for vampire blood donations.
As a witch with the power of healing, she had been staying with them for the last few days, offering her services in exchange for shelter and a share of their resources. Their supplies had been running low, and she and two others had left in the morning to scavenge the houses in the surrounding neighbourhoods in the hope of finding something left behind. Her search had taken her further out than she had hoped.
Finding the front of the building in rubble, tears stung her eyes. She wondered where the sad eyed children were now, whether they lay beneath the dust and stone or whether their guardians had managed to evacuate them to another safe-haven.
A groan startled her, and she began to pull at the debris, fearing what she would find - the broken body of someone she knew - but unable to leave someone to suffer.
She did not need to dig far before she recognized the armour-plated chest, and the crumpled wings, of a Hellion. The man bled from the corner of his mouth. His wings were badly broken, and his chest plate was riddled with bullet holes.
“F-k,” she sank back onto her heels. He moaned again, his eyes fighting open through the debris that glued his eyelashes together. His eyes were the blue of sapphires, the colour deep, clear, and perfect against the grey of the ash and dust that covered him.
“Help,” he said.
A tear ran down her cheek and she closed her eyes against the threat of others as she turned her face from him. He is the enemy, Verity, she told herself. It would be like treachery to save him.
He would have been amongst the force that smashed this building. She did not know how many broken children’s bodies lay beneath the rubble, victim to the indifferent violence of this invading force. And yet, injured as he was, he was no threat, and to simply walk away would be the same as murder.
She opened her eyes, the un-shed tears falling, clearing a spot on the dark metal of his armour where they struck, the liquid beading and carrying away with it the dust of debris.
She eased off her backpack, finding the bottle of precious, clean water within, and used it to take a couple of each of the pills and chewed her way through a protein bar, before she placed her hands on his chest. She focused her power, feeling her way through the bewilderment of threads that appeared before her like a tangled skein of veins.
She healed bullet wounds and broken bones, crying out as each wound made itself felt on her body, the ghost of wings she did not possess straightening beneath her magic, her skin puckering and oozing blood beneath bullet holes that she had not experienced. She sagged over the man, her chest heaving, smelling the sharp tones of her own agonized sweat.
She pulled herself upright and brushed the crust of blood off skin that bore no wounds, never trusting that the wounds that appeared on her would disappear again. When she found her body unmarred, she repeated the inspection of him, peeling back his armour in order to inspect below it, rubbing away the black, dried blood, to find the skin below perfect.
She felt along his wings, gradually uncovering them from the debris until he lay free.
She slid her arm under his head and fed him water and a combination of supplements, originally intended for his victims, as many as she could get into him before he hung lax against her grip, the weight of him forcing her to lay him back against the rubble.
For the first time she realized how precarious their position was, half exposed in the fragile ruins of the building as night pressed in around them. It was growing cold, but lighting a fire, should she even be able to find enough wood to burn, would only expose them to the predators of the night.
She began to search the debris, building an A frame around the unconscious enemy, until his form was hidden from casual viewing and slid into the delicately balanced structure along his side.
It was not a comfortable bed, the rubble beneath them uneven and hard. What warmth his body against hers generated was leeched away. Every time the wind picked up, it would work its way through the gaps in the stone and debris, and prick at her from beneath as well as above.
She shook, and pressed her body against his, trying pathetically to offer him what little warmth she could.
He dreamed, feverish, fighting his way through the weakness of his body until he thrashed against her.
“Shh,” she murmured fearfully as his half-vocalized nightmares echoed off the walls. “Sleep,” she stroked the dark hair back from his face and saw the sapphire of his eyes as he opened them, looking at her without seeing.
When he replied, it was not in a language she knew.
She lay at his side, her lips against his ear, and murmured fragments of nursery rhyme, trying to bring him peace in his suffering, stroking, and murmuring, feeding what little power that she could spare him to ease the fever that pulled at him, encouraging the fragile spirit to cling to life.
In the grey of pre-dawn, his stillness woke her. At first, she thought he had passed, and then she felt beneath the solid piece of metal that formed his breast plate, and his heart struck hard and strong against his ribs.
He shifted beneath her touch, his hand closing over hers. She looked up and met sapphire eyes. His hand edged her hand down his body to where he was hard, closing her fingers around him.
“Oh,” she gasped, fighting against his grip. “No.”
He did not allow her retreat, his grasp on her hand almost cruel as he drew it along his length, his breath released on a harsh, guttural moan.
He rolled onto his side, his wing disrupting the fragile A frame she had built over them, his hips rocking into the grip that he forced her hand to maintain. Pieces of wood and dust crumpled around them, as his closed his mouth over hers.
“No,” she protested, turning her face from his, and fighting to free her hand.
He lifted over her, kneeing her legs apart and tugging her trousers down her legs.
“No,” she writhed beneath him, shoving against his bulk. “No.”
He released her hand in order to tug her into position.
She struck the heels of her hands against his chest plate, the force of her blows of as much impact as the strike of a moth’s wings against glass and cried out as he entered her, her face crumpling in pain, tears finding their passage between the creases that her grimace carved.
His groan was primal, and his hand lifted her hip into his thrusts. The metal of his breast plate pressed on her chest indifferently. She fought for breath her ribs constricted beneath his weight. His thrusts were hard, his knees on her trousers pinning her calves to the ground so that she couldn’t even adjust beneath him to alleviate the pain of his flesh in hers.
When he came, her mouth worked against his neck in a silent scream, feeling the heat of him spread within her. His breath was heavy, the metal plating of his armour against her unarmoured body grinding against her rib bones.
“Please,” she managed to say. “You’re hurting me.”
He looked down at her in surprise, as if the possibility that he might be harming her had not occurred to him, and he lifted his weight from her slightly, enabling her to take a full breath.
His attention shifted, his nostrils flaring, and his expression curling in a snarl. His wings drew up towards his body, flicking off debris. He lifted from her, rising to his feet, and grabbed her by the wrist, lifting her in a socket wrenching pull.
She tugged against his grip, and he shook her making a hissing shh noise with impatience.
She could hear men’s voices, the sharp cadence of their words speaking of military origins.
His head angled, listening to their approach, his attitude of wariness - he was in the midst of enemy territory, and trapped on land as taking off into flight would only draw their attention and fire.
She looked up at his handsome face, the expression pinched and alert, and utterly indifferent to his grip on her, or the harm he had wrought her after she had saved him, and she yanked against his hold, feeling his nails score her skin, but finding freedom.
She grabbed her backpack as she ran, through the door, bursting out onto the street before the soldiers, colliding with the lead soldier, a huge, naked man with a tawny mane of hair hanging free over his shoulders.
Her eyes met his, seeing the flash of green Other, before she got her feet under her and she ran, the precious pills of her haul spilling out of the backpack and scattering like stolen jewels over the rubble in her wake.