The place used to be a boiler room. Ancient machinery rusted away along the walls, leaving a central space. In a far corner, obscured by a collection of pipes, a group of naked women whimpered. In between him and them was Simon.
“Sure took your time, eh?” Simon said.
“Let the women go,” Beringer said.
He sniffed. “Eh, why not. They served their purpose.”
He waved his hand.
Loud CRACKs resonated in the room. A great gush of liquid followed, carrying the stench of acids and rot. The women twitched, and all at once fell in a crumpled heap.
“No,” Kentaris said.
“What the fuck did you do?!” Beringer roared.
The Greater Demon giggled. “I let them go, didn’t I? Alive or dead is immaterial, no?”
Their spirits tried to leave their broken bodies. Simon waved a finger, and the streams of light bent sharply backwards, flowing towards him.
“Hodegetria Mariam, come preserve—”
Simon sucked in the souls. They swirled round and round, disappearing into the Void. He licked his lips and smiled. “They weren’t believers. Why should she care? It’s not like—”
As the afterglow of the muzzle flash burned into his eyes, Beringer advanced and pressed the trigger. He fired as fast as the trigger would reset, dumping rounds into the Demon’s center of mass, and by the Creator he was hitting! The bullets were exploding downrange, drilling deep into the demon. He fired and fired and suddenly he had no target.
He paused, scanning. Simon was crumpled up in a messy heap. The Greater Demon stretched out a hand, black liquid pouring from his mouth.
“No, please…enough. I…”
“Nah. Just fooling.”
Simon blurred. The Void in Beringer reared up and the world seemed to shrink. A sense of stuckness sank into him; Simon had sent time askew. Beringer extended his pistol and BAMSimon was right there in front of him. Beringer pulled the trigger and the Greater Demon smiled and twisted and the bullet flew past his face and stopped and Simon reached in and grabbed the pistol with one hand.
“Neat toy, but useless.”
Simon slapped the edge of the shield, pushing it down in a flare of light, and yanked Beringer into him. With a powerful jerk and a twist, Simon tore the gun from Beringer’s hand. There was a loud CRACK, and in its wake pain rippled down his finger and into Beringer’s brain.
“FUCK!” Beringer screamed, stumbling.
Simon blurred again, tossing the gun away. The pistol described a neat arc before freezing above head height. The demon reared back and slammed a powerful kick in the middle of Beringer’s shield. The shield ignited, burning off some of the Greater Demon’s essence, but the kinetic energy passed through the shield and into the Voidguard, sending him flying through thin space—
And on his ass. The witch swerved around Beringer, sliding up next to the Greater Demon. She rushed Simon, a black blade in hand. She grabbed the demon’s arm, slashing wildly at his face.
“STAB HIM!” Beringer shouted, scrabbling to his feet.
She twisted the angle of attack, going in with a stab. With one arm the demon deflected the weapon arm. With the other he slammed a palm into her face. As she recoiled away he smashed an elbow into the crook of her grabbing arm, breaking her grip. Simon stepped in with a knee that blew her into a corner.
Beringer pulled out his right-hand aetherium crystal. His broken finger burned, but that was unimportant. With a concentrated thought he forged his xiphos and charged. As Simon turned around, Beringer slammed his full body weight into the demon. As Simon staggered away, Beringer raised his sword to the guard. Soft voices whispered at the edges of his hearing, and Beringer banished them with a shout.
He drove the shield into Simon, pushing him back. Beringer lowered his shield and thrust in a twisting overhand stab, burning a trail through Simon’s neck and chest. Beringer retracted the shield and rushed for the nearest wall, his shield scorching and smoking. Pinning the demon against a corner, Beringer wended his sword through every opening. The demon braced himself against the wall, holding off the shield with both forearms. Beringer slammed in a shield uppercut, collapsing the demon’s defenses and exposing his lower line. Beringer brought his sword low, hacking and cutting at the demon’s legs and guts. Dark snakes scrambled at the edges of his vision and he sent them away with another scream.
He hooked the xiphos into the demon. Over and over and over again. The demon crumbled. Holy fire flared through him, burning him from the inside out. It was if he had no bones, no flesh, like a solid wall of Void-stuff that parted before the sunblade. Beringer stabbed and stabbed and stabbed and stabbed some more. The shield grew thin, blistering smoke choking up his nose.
The shield detonated, sending a wall of divine flame into and through the demon. Beringer used the force of the blast to jump back, preparing himself for a counterattack. Time resumed, and the edge of the Void bled away.
But the witch had not had her fill. She zipped, fast, faster than he could track. She honed in on the broken mess, knife high. She sank the blade in deep, and Beringer had just enough time to wonder why the severed arms had disappeared before she pumped the demon’s remains with her energy.
“Return to your world, Fallen one! There is no place for you in this world!” she called.
The body dematerialized.
Beringer’s pistol hit the far wall and bounced off into the dark. Kentaris staggered away, catching herself against an ancient machine.
“Is it over?” she whispered.
“I…I think so,” Beringer replied, panting. He glanced around, looking for his weapon.
She turned, smiling. “Good. I—”
Simon appeared behind her. His neck elongated, and he rested his head on his.
A black clawed hand punched through her torso.
Simon shrank, drawing himself into the wound. It sealed up. Kentaris blinked.
And shrieked. Holding her hands to her head, she stumbled against a wall. Her hair fell out, and large horns sprouted from her skull. Her fingers blackened turning to claws.
“Fuck…” Beringer muttered.
That was Simon’s plan all along, he realized. The Greater Demon wanted to lure Kentaris into the apartment, force her to exceed her ambrosia threshold, then possess at the height of her powers. And with a human body with that kind of power he could wreak untold havoc.
She spouted some gibberish and the horns blackened, fell away. She brushed past Beringer, growing taller. Her feet turned to thin, delicate-looking spikes. More legs sprouted from her torso, and she left her boots behind. She took a few more steps and black smoke punched out of her, reverting her body to its original form. Beringer approached her, sword in hand and she yelled, “Don’t come near me!”
She fell, picked herself up, and staggered to the other corner of the room. There, in a corner, where the remains of the hostages, draped in black tentacles. She dropped to her knees, and the tentacles leapt up and speared her. She screamed, throwing her arms out. Her fingers turned to knives, and more blades sprouted from her hands. She screamed something, and the Void-growths rotted away.
She sucked in a shot of ambrosia and spat it out, drawing a line in the dust. She linked her will to it, and a pale white light shone forth, the ward sealing her into her corner.
“Kill me!” she shouted.
Beringer approached her, soulblade gleaming. “Are you sure about—”
Tears streaked down her eyes. “Do it! I am not going to die a monster!”
He nodded. Aiming the sword at her throat, he held up his left hand.
“Hodegetria Mariam, Panagia, kecharitomene, blessed are you amongst women. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Help us stand fast against the Unmaker and his servants, and return us to the glory of Creation. Amen.”
He traced the Hexagram in the air. Lines of light hung in the air, forming the symbol of his faith. This, he expected.
But not what happened next.
The Hexagram expanded, transforming into a doorway to a light purer than any he had seen. In it he saw the silhouette of a woman. She leaned forward, touching Kentaris’ forehead. The witch screamed, dropping into unconsciousness. A stream of black energies exploded from her skull, turning into a tight dark ball. The woman gestured, engulfing the demon in a bubble of light.
“Are you…” Beringer said. “Are you…?”
She stepped aside, giving him a clear view of the trapped demon. And Kentaris, sprawled on the floor, motionless.
Yes. I have purged all traces of the Void from her. She simply needs to rest.
“You finally came,” Simon said, his voice booming from the bubble. “Are you going to take me away, then?”
We have unfinished business in this fallen world.
“And what is that?” Simon asked.
A thought popped into Beringer’s head. “There is something I need to ask. Who summoned you? You could not have crossed over by yourself.”
The demon sniffed. “You couldn’t tell? He was right in front of you all this while.”
“One of your fellow Voidguards. Miles de Avaram.”
Beringer blinked. “What? You can’t be—”
“His name, his true name, was the price I asked of him before I would do his bidding.”
Beringer shuddered. “What did he want?”
“He simply asked me to incite panic in the city, pursuing targets he chose and prepared. But he has an ulterior motive, and I do not care to further his goals.”
“What do you mean?”
Simon laughed. “You’re a dense one, aren’t you? Why do you think you’re still alive? Why do you think I let you go at the necropolis? Why do you think I let you join forces with the witch and track me here, to a place where no else will see you working with her? Come on, mortal, did you really think you could cross swords with an Archon and live?”
Beringer’s jaw locked. Eventually, he summoned the strength to speak. “Why? What do you get out of all this?”
“De Avaram’s allegiance is to the Church. Mine is to the Dunastes. De Avaram is planning something to expand the influence of the Church. Why should I let him undermine the Dunastes?”
Beringer swallowed. “Why should I trust you?”
He speaks the truth, Voidguard. He has no reason to lie.
“You heard her. I don’t get anything out of lying to you here.”
Beringer swallowed. “I see. You could have just told me from the get-go.”
“I have performance appraisals like you, you know. And I answer directly to the Dunastes. I cannot simply tell him that I allowed the Voidguard to banish me. I would be the laughing stock of the Abyssal Palace.”
Beringer laughed. He couldn’t stop himself. “Really?”
“Then? What do you know of us, anyway?”
The question sank deep. The Voidguard’s storied history spanned centuries, but few had caught a glimpse into the inner workings of the Void.
“Anyway, we’re done here. Now go on, clean house. Make your mother proud.”
Beringer nodded. “Thank you.”
“See you on the next go ‘round.”
The bubble floated through the portal, disappearing in a flash of light.
“Wait. What? What did he mean by the ‘next go ‘round’?”
The Creator respects free will, always. This is not the first time we have tried to return Simon to the fold. It is not the first time he chosen to descend to the Void, nor, do I suspect, the last.
“What? Why won’t he just stop Simon from going back?”
That is anathema to his will. He did not give us all free will just to take it back.
“But Simon will get out and hurt more people. Annihilate them.”
Yes. There will always be people like you to stop them. You do not see the big picture at your level. The Struggle Eternal is not about you; it is not even a struggle. More of…balance.
It is not yet the appointed hour of the Apokalypsis. All shall be revealed then. Until then, go forth and stand fast against the Void, and know that the Creator shall watch over you always.
The gate closed, leaving no trace behind.
He blinked. “Holy…”
Kentaris moaned. Sitting, she rubbed her temples. “What…what happened?”
“He’s been exorcised. We had a lot of help from…well, from the Most High.”
“Huh. How about that?” She squinted her eyes. “What are you going to do now?”
“The job is done. Simon’s finished.” She stared down the soulblade. “You, on the other hand, still have your duty, no? Something about not permitting a witch to live?”
Beringer blinked. The xiphos was still pointed at her throat.
Church doctrine was clear. Once a monster, always a monster. Even after being exorcised, there would always be the taint of the Void. The Church had a cleansing ritual for that, but there was no absolution for those not of the Faith.
But…this was how the Church made Voidguards. By bringing in a demon and allowing it to stay long enough to meld its essence to the Voidguard’s soul, granting the Voidguard the power to touch the Void. The Church said it was necessary, and all Voidguards were volunteers. Even now Beringer still had nightmares. And if the Church granted indulgences and promised a final redemption to those who would stand against evil…
“This blade is for monsters,” he said. “You’re not.”
He retracted the soulblade. Slipped it back in his pocket. Held out his good hand.
She took it.
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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