Alan Beringer had learned the hard way never to assume he had seen everything. It was perhaps the only reason he managed to hang on to his breakfast.
The bodies, or what was left of them, were scattered across the hall. In the middle of the aisle was a heavily-gnawed arm, the flesh only mostly stripped. Too many legs and too few torsos piled up in a corner. Unidentifiable gibs hung from the chandelier, dripping putrefied slime. Lying on the steps of the sanctuary, the remains of an old man awaited, arms and legs spread wide apart, his soft tissue chewed off. On the pulpit was his head, or what was left of it.
“Demons,” Beringer said. “Most definitely demons.”
“Or a single Greater Demon,” Miles de Avaram replied. “They have a voracious appetite for flesh and violence.”
“Maybe both. Even a single Greater Demon cannot violate the threshold of a church. Not without reinforcements.”
De Avaram pale skin grew whiter. “There is that, yes. Where there is a Greater Demon, lesser ones surely follow.”
Beringer brought a scented handkerchief to his nose. The cheap cologne he had sprayed on it was cloyingly sweet, but infinitely preferable to rot. “This is the third such attack in the city. Shouldn’t this be your bureau’s highest priority?”
“The High Synod will be gathering in a week,” de Avaram said. “My bureau is busy ensuring the security of the Catholicos and the Primates. We have a higher than usual number of terrorists, madmen, assassins and heretics to worry about, and we are stretched to the breaking point.”
Beringer raised an eyebrow. “And so, you brought in one man?”
“You’re the first of our reinforcements to arrive. And, I’m afraid, you’re all I can spare for this job.”
“Sir, we are talking about a possible demonic infestation in the Holy City!” Beringer gestured at the tapestry of gore. “You can see what the Eternal Enemy has done in the heart of the faith! This is a declaration of war, not a random act of violence.”
“You are a Voidguard, are you not? You were trained to stand against the Unmaker himself!”
De Avaram crossed powerful arms across his chest. Odd. Voidguards would draw the Hexagram when uttering the name, if they dared to invoke it at all. Beringer spared a hasty glance around the room, checking for signs of reality unbinding.
“Sir, I would rather you not utter the name here,” Beringer said evenly.
De Avaram cocked his head at the altar. “The paling-stone is shattered and the ground desecrated.”
Where an ornate hexagram once rested on the altar, there was only tainted metal shards. The paling-stone that glowed at the nexus of the symbol was gone, leaving a lingering black cloud that smelled of rot and corruption.
“All the more reason not to say it. I sense the presence of the Void still.”
De Avaram sighed, shaking his head. “Sorry. I’ve been…busy. Protocol must have slipped my mind.”
“For a mission like this, I was expecting a supervisor, or perhaps an inspector. Not the bureau chief, especially not in a time like this.”
“I heard you are a man of discretion. I would rather we keep this investigation between the two of us.”
“The High Synod is at risk.”
“Exactly. Consider: if word got out that there were demons roaming Amarantopolis, what do you think will happen? Panic on the streets. Extremists and maniacs claiming responsibility. Terrorists and heretics calling up more creatures from the Void. It will immeasurably increase the risk to the High Synod.”
“I am not a superman. My chances against a Greater Demon is virtually nil.”
De Avaram patted the younger man’s shoulder. “I have full faith in your abilities. Besides, I am only asking you to find the demon’s lair. When you do, I will send every man I have at my disposal.”
De Avaram’s touch had a trace of the Void, a black soul-sucking presence that nibbled at his essence. But that was the curse of all Voidguards.
“Very well.” Beringer stuck his hands into his coat pockets. “I am new to this city. Any leads would be helpful.”
“In the week before the killings started, strange things occurred in the necropolis late at night. Unexplained lights, unquiet spirits and strange noises. Eyewitnesses have seen hooded figures passing in and out at odd hours, and creatures emerging from the ground or out of thin air. When the police walked the grounds yesterday, they found that the paling-stone was gone.” He paused. “Well, after fighting through several Voidspawn.”
Beringer muttered something dark under his breath. “Witches? Here?”
“Exactly,” de Avaram continued. “Ordinarily I would have the paling-stone replaced as a matter of public safety. But it might be a lead, and I do not wish to spook the opposition.”
“Very well. I will mount a watch in the necropolis. I will need some special equipment.”
“Take what you need. Our arms are yours.”
“Thanks,” Beringer said.
“You can thank me when this is over.”
She followed her three seniors up the path, halting at the gate to the sprawling cemetery. The coven leader, Miriam Alsagoff, held up her palm.
“It is time,” Miriam said. “Be ready.”
Kentaris drew her drinking tube to her mouth. Bit down and sucked deep. Sweet ambrosia filled her mouth. She swallowed, and a gentle fire filled her limbs. The air grew crisper, the night sharper. Her pack grew lighter, her breath easier. She was vitalized, ready, eager.
Casper Weisburger smiled gently. “Turn it down a notch, novice. You don’t want the monsters to sense you coming.”
She nodded, reigning in the raw energy radiating off her. This batch of ambrosia was potent, its quintessence content far stronger than what she was used to. She stored it in her, feeling electricity snap through her fingers. Sweat trickled down her cheek.
“You sure you can hold it in?” Weisburger asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “And we need to be ready for what’s coming.”
A heavy lock snapped. The gates swung wide open.
“Let’s go,” Vann Taber said.
The witches entered the necropolis. The men brought boxy submachine guns out from under their cloaks, unfolding their stocks and bringing them to their shoulders. Alsagoff drew a small shotgun that seemed like an overly-long pistol. Seraphina patted the revolver at her hip — it was her weapon of last resort. She wasn’t much of a gunslinger.
Her talents lay in other fields.
Alsagoff led the way, carefully picking past tombstones and mausoleums. The men covered their arcs of fire, while Kentaris spread her senses and waited for signs of the Fallen. The newspapers claimed the police had found monsters roaming the Necropolis the day before; they couldn’t have destroyed them all.
Monsters usually came out at night.
Alsagoff raised a fist. They halted.
The earth shifted.
The witches spread out, taking cover. Kentaris positioned herself behind a tree, and watched.
Rock rubbed against rock.
Kentaris leaned out, checking for everyone’s position. Under the clouded moon, she couldn’t see anything. Closing her eyes, she drew on the power flowing through her and affirmed her will. When she opened them again, she saw the world in fields and lines of energy. Cold black fog filled the air. Previously-unseen objects appeared, their densities betraying them. Deep under the earth, she saw the outlines of untold number of coffins, some filled, some not. Most intact, some broken. Her comrades glowed in brilliant shades of green, yellow and red, all the brighter for their pre-battle dose of ambrosia. Cones of light shone from their eyes; they, too, were employing Dark Vision to see through the night.
A long, low moan floated through the cold air.
She sent power to her hands and legs, waiting. Watching.
A loud keen to her right. She turned.
A mausoleum stood alone, away from the gravestones. She squinted, squeezing every last drop of power she could. Enough to amplify sight without liquefying her eyeballs. Someone, something, moaned. As the darkness resolved she saw that the mausoleum door was open.
And a creature shambled forth.
Hunched over, it sniffed at the air, and growled softly. More of its brethren—three, four, five, six—sprang forth from the doorway. They spread out, sniffing and scanning, looking for prey.
“Contact right, ghouls,” Alsagoff radioed. “Six of them. Sera, kick off when ready.”
Kentaris touched the push-to-talk button secured at her collarbone. Pressed twice. Tsk-tsk. She watched her targets, letting them come closer, closer, closer. Close enough she could take them all with one shot.
Opening her hands, she concentrated, expressing the ambrosia through her sweat glands. Blue particles trickled forth, freezing into shards as brittle and sharp as glass.
The wind blew. Towards the ghouls.
The one in the lead straightened. Sniffed. And howled.
“Fuck!” Kentaris muttered.
She opened her hands, spewing her shards forth. They grew wings and fins in flight, their rudimentary intelligences seeking the ghouls. They swarmed the nearest ghoul, sinking deep into its flesh.
Ghouls were beasts of rot and decay. Their bodies brimmed with diseases, animated only by corrupt energies. Each needle was a package of compressed time. The needles burst on impact, accelerating the natural process of decay ten, hundred, a thousandfold. The ghoul dissolved into black goo.
The men fired. Sharp, stuttering PAP-PAP-PAP, three round bursts at a rate so slow she could track each shot, picking off the ghouls with aimed fire. One dropped, another, a third. An arrow of time, larger and thicker than her swarm of time-shards, pierced a ghoul, and the monster too crumbled to dust. Another one leapt from tomb to tomb. Bullets shattered stone, tore up the dirt, but did not touch it. It spotted Kentaris, and pounced.
Through her feet Kentaris was linked to the earth. Ambrosia linked her to the world, touching the forces that governed inertia and gravity. She increased the force of gravity five, then ten times.
The ghoul smashed into the earth, shattering its limbs and bones. It made a frothing, gurgling noise that fell in between a howl and a mewl. The lungs were punctured, and it could no longer move. Kentaris didn’t want it to suffer any longer than it had to, so she let a time-bolt turn it to dust.
“Move in and clean up the bodies,” Alsagoff called. “It’s going to be a long night.”
Kentaris dusted herself off and stood. For her first time this wasn’t so—
A man’s voice cut through the dark.
“INCOMING DEFILED BEHIND YOU!”
If this story looks familiar, it’s the original concept of my Covenant Chronicles series. To see how it really turned out, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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