House of Shadows
The operators stayed aboveground for fifteen minutes.
Long enough to replace their expended magazines with spares from their vehicles. Long enough for the RPD to swoop down and form an outer perimeter. Long enough for the flying ambulances to recover the former hostages and send them to hospital.
As the last ambulance took to the air, Yamamoto found the senior cop on scene and clapped his shoulder.
“Sergeant, we need your help.”
“What do you need?” the cop asked.
“We still have work to do here. We need you to maintain the perimeter and make sure no one breaches the scene. Not even the New Gods. We also need more paramedics on standby, prepped for a mass casualty event and evacuation.”
“What are you going to do?”
“To save lives.”
The six operators regrouped by the office. Dirty, sweaty, covered in blood and filth, but still ready to go. Fox had swapped out her sniper rifle for a carbine, and Tan held his pad in both hands. Under the eyes of the surveillance cameras, the operators huddled together around Yamamoto, as though listening to a briefing.
Yamamoto held up his phone and hit the speed dial.
“Sir, it’s Yamamoto. We’re still at the House of Shadows. We’ve resolved the hostage crisis on the ground floor, but we have reason to believe that the remaining hostages in the basement are at risk. Unless otherwise directed, we will carry out an in extremis hostage rescue.”
‘In extremis’ was the magic phrase that waived the requirement for a warrant. ‘Unless otherwise directed’ gave Yamamoto an excuse to hang up and switch off the phone before Pearce could say anything.
Tan touched a bare finger to his pad and gave the team a thumbs-up.
“I’ve killed the cameras.”
“Let’s go!” Connor said.
The team jogged around the back. The door to the mechanical room was locked. A lock buster shattered the lock, Connor’s boot sent the door swinging in, and the team flowed in.
The mechanical room was empty. Inside the storage room, Connor saw shelves on either side and a blank wall to his front.
“That’s the entrance to the stairs,” Mustafa said, gesturing at the wall.
Connor rapped his knuckles against the wall. It sounded slightly muffled. He knocked the wall on his right, and that sounded like solid concrete.
“False wall,” Connor confirmed.
“Do any of you see a button or lever or something around here?” Mustafa asked.
“No time for that, rookie. Everyone, clear the room.”
Connor set his pack down and removed his breacher strips. Each strip was a thin sheet of flexible explosives rolled up into a neat bundle. He grabbed one strip, tore off the adhesive backing, and stuck the strip diagonally against the wall. He fastened a second strip, forming an ‘X’, then daisy-chained both strips together and wired up the assembly to his detonator.
Outside, Connor rejoined the team and held up the detonator.
“Three! Two! One! MARK!”
He squeezed the clacker.
A muted flash and a thunderous blast issued from the door. Through a cloud of thick dust, the operators piled in.
A hole yawned between the shelves. Connor turned on his carbine-mounted light, revealing a flight of steps that spiraled down into oblivion.
Keeping to the inner edge of the stairs, they descended into darkness, training their weapons at the blackened depths below. The only light came from the weapon lights. Connor saw nothing but stairs and stairs and more stairs, forever circling counterclockwise.
For a moment, he felt an easy sense of dread. Where were they going? Why hadn’t they seen the end? How many floors were there? How was the enemy reacting?
Then Yamamoto halted.
They had reached the bottom floor. A green-painted door awaited them. Yamamoto positioned himself next to the door and tried the handle.
Yamamoto made a fist and pumped it up and down. Connor moved up to the other side of the door, held his weapon high, and jammed the muzzle of the underbarrel shotgun against the lock at a forty-five degree angle. Racked the shotgun bolt. Fired.
The door shuddered. Connor booted the door open. Yamamoto flowed in, and Connor followed.
Darkness. Pure, complete, utter darkness. A darkness so total it swallowed the light, reluctantly surrendering to the team’s lights. The dim white circle of Connor’s flashlight revealed bare gray rock and empty space—and little else.
This was wrong. Connor had chosen this light for urban use. It should create a soft diffuse glow and a wide splash zone. This was… wrong.
As the thought filled his brain, a cacophonous chorus of animalistic howls filled the room.
Connor switched off the light. Darkness descended once more. He pivoted left, took two steps, aimed at the growling darkness, light on.
Rock, bare floor.
Light off. Two steps. Gun up, light on.
A deep low growling.
The light caught a monster full in the face. Pale face, glowing red eyes, unnaturally huge mouth filled with sharp teeth.
He fired. Once, twice, the head erupted in blood.
Light off, step up—
Something heavy crashed into him. Powerful arms slammed him against the wall, pinned his weapon against him, and dragged him down to the floor. The threat howled curses and gibberish into his face. Unnaturally powerful legs scrambled to hook around his torso. His thumb hit the light switch. In the feeble backwash he saw a creature with the ears of a bat and the muzzle of a wolf, one powerful arm pressing his carbine against his chest, the other raised high.
Connor turned away, trying to shoot out his left arm. But the carbine had him pinned. The creature hand crashed into his crown. Claws raked his skull. Screaming in pain, Connor squirmed, trying to buck off the monster, but he was too strong, so he released his carbine and went for his boot.
The monster smashed him in the head again. His ears rang, his vision blurred. Connor grunted, pulled up his pants leg—
His hand closed around a plastic grip.
The monster cocked its fist again. Connor snaked his arm around, pointed his backup gun at the Elect’s head and pressed the trigger.
The sharp crack lit the room for a second. Blood burst from both sides of the Elect’s face.
Connor fired and fired and fired, until the monster collapsed on him. He squirmed out under the dead weight, pistol ready, and scanned.
The room around him was a swirling, maddening kaleidoscope of winking lights and gunfire. An operator stopped beside him, back to the wall.
Mustafa in full werewolf mode, hammering out double-taps into the dark.
Must be nice to have a beast form with enhanced senses, Connor thought. He got up to a knee and planted his back against the hard rock.
“I’m up, I’m up,” Connor said.
“Roger,” Mustafa said.
And shot the fallen Elect twice in the head.
Connor shoved the backup gun back into his holster and recovered his carbine. His vision was fuzzy, warm liquid trickled down his neck, but he could still move, he was still in the fight.
Connor flicked his light on again and swept his area of responsibility.
Four bodies slay sprawled across the floor. The stink of powder and death filled his nose. A quick double-tap behind him, then a second. His light played across a human figure—
An eight-foot tall skeleton in a black cloak, a bare skull grinning from under the hood, holding a scythe in its left hand.
Next to it, a huge woman squeezed into a red corset and flowing robe, blood dripping from her fangs, blood smeared across the dagger she held in both hands.
The Lord and Lady of Shadows.
And before them stood a tall and queenly figure in a white blood-spattered dress. A woman with black hair that tumbled to her waist, eyes that glowed red in the light, her teeth bared to reveal sharpened fangs. In her delicate hands, she held a dagger.
Shane DeMille, Speaker of the Court of Shadows.
More white lights trained on and around her. She stood at the head of an arcane sigil etched in the floor. Connor glimpsed bright red lines etching triangles and arrows and circles, words smeared across bare stone, symbols he had no names for, arrowheads and dots and squiggles, all of them random looking, yet somehow connected in a grand tapestry.
And anchoring the design were the four hostages.
They were bound to tall steel stakes embedded in the floor, one to each cardinal direction, strangely limp and compliant. Their heads lolled, their limbs were slack, their gaze unfocused. Their clothes had been cut open, scores of cuts ran across their exposed chests and necks, and slices of flesh missing from their thighs and arms.
“Welcome to the House of Shadows!” DeMille shouted.
“Drop the weapon!” Connor replied. “Do it now!”
She laughed. “Where is your warrant?”
“State Green!” Yamamoto ordered.
Connor released his finger from the trigger, holding back a swell of frustration. Yamamoto wanted someone to take responsibility for this atrocity, and there would surely be consequences for shooting a Speaker of the New Gods.
But some people just needed to die.
“You don’t have a warrant?” she said. “Then you are in violation of the Treaty of Babylon!”
“Your men tried to kill us,” Yamamoto replied. “You have human sacrifices arranged at the altar. Your legal protections and null and void. Drop your weapon.”
“You dare order around a Speaker of the Court? You cannot—”
“Pep, pep, pep.”
A bright red laser dot danced across her chest.
A blazingly bright ball of sun-hot plasma exploded right over her sternum, knocking her down.
It was a Pulsed Energy Projectile. An infrared laser pulse that vaporized the topmost layer of molecules on the target, generating a plasma cloud powerful enough to knock it down and deliver excruciating pain.
“Target down!” Wood called.
“Moving up!” Connor said.
DeMille twitched and shuddered on the ground, shrieking in pain. Carbine at the ready, Connor approached the fallen Speaker. He swept his weapon left to right, scanning for more threats.
Abruptly she went silent. And laughed.
“Stay down!” Connor ordered.
DeMille picked herself up, as graceful as a dancer. Her eyes were fiery sapphires, her teeth bared in a sardonic smile.
“You dare defy the Court?” she said.
“Pep! Pep! Pep!” Yamamoto ordered.
“Come! Witness the wrath of the Lord and Lady of Shadows!”
A red dot appeared on her chest. Superheated plasma exploded outwards from her chest, incinerating her clothing. But this time, she remained standing, smiling, tendrils of smoke rising from her body. Her exposed flesh was unmarred, her perfectly-formed breasts as pale as moonlight. No bruising, no scratches, nothing.
She threw her head back and roared a word.
An incomprehensible word, a word with no human meaning, a word that did not and should not exist in a rational universe. The word stretched through the world, ripping it apart at the seams, rewriting the laws of reality, undermining the essence of creation.
The flashlights dimmed further, and living nameless shapes crawled and nibbled at the edges of the light. The floor wobbled, the walls heaved as though they were breathing, the ceiling warped and bulged. Connor’s bones turned to jelly, his blood turned to ice, his fingers froze. He tried to lift his carbine, but his muscles would not obey him.
Fires glowed within the statues eyes.
And the icons moved.
Slowly, ponderously, the Lord of Shadows stepped off his altar. One bony foot, then the other, in utter silence. He gazed upon the humans, upon Connor, his eyes a cold, pitiless flame. In the eternal fires, Connor saw a chilly spark of malevolent intelligence, a consciousness alien to this dimension, so far removed from human understanding Connor could not begin to grasp his thoughts.
With his right hand, he planted his massive scythe on the bare stone. He held out his left hand behind him. The Lady grasped it, and delicately stepped off the altar.
The Lady was no longer a sculpture of rock, clothed in fine fabrics, painted and carved in the likeness of a woman. Now she was a living being, a giantess of warm flesh and hot blood, her eyes sparkling with the brilliance of frozen youth.
YOU HAVE DONE WELL.
Deep and rumbling, a male voice filled Connor’s mind, driving out all other thoughts in a liquid, golden rush. The same male voice he heard lurking in the words of the Elect he had taken down in the church.
DeMille spun on her heel and prostrated to her gods.
“Thank you. This one is not worthy.”
YOU HAVE BROUGHT US THE BLOOD AND FLESH OF OUR ENEMIES. AND THE ONE WHO DARED TO CHALLENGE US. WELL DONE.
This voice was female, cold as ice, a soprano infused with pride. The other voice that had spoken alongside the Elect.
“It is a small token, for everything you have done for us.”
A WORTHY GIFT, NONETHELESS, the Lord said. YOU SHALL BE REWARDED HANDSOMELY.
BUT FIRST, WE FEAST, the Lady declared.
“Feast on this!” Connor shouted.
Mustering the sum total of his willpower, he twisted his hips and shoulders, jerked his shoulders and elbows, crushed his fingers around his weapon, raising it to—
A word blasted him down, down to his knees. His muscles rebelled, his nerves surrendered, his brain blanked out. The word dragged on and on, a never-ending parade of nonsense syllables and soft consonants from a tongue never spoken by humans, a word that penetrated his flesh and blood and filled him with ice and water.
The Lord and Lady spoke in tandem.
YOU ARE OUR MEAT, OUR BONES, OUR BLOOD. WE SHALL FLAY YOUR LIVING SKIN AND WEAR THEM AS OURS. WE SHALL CONSUME YOUR FLESH AND NERVES AND BRAINS AND ADD THEM TO OURS. WE SHALL DRINK YOUR BLOOD AND MAKE IT OURS. WE SHALL TAKE YOUR SOULS TO EXPAND OURS. WE ARE THE COURT OF SHADOWS. WE ARE YOUR GODS, AND WE WILL BE YOUR ALL.
It was a strange sound, but a pure sound, a sound that erased everything before it. The demonic glossolalia quaked and disintegrated. The Lord and the Lady went silent, and tilted their heads.
That voice. Lone and defiant, humble yet confident, a paean to something greater and a dedication to the transcendent.
“In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Know this word. It is a sacred word, a word truthful and holy and pure, a word that is the essence of God. It is the Unstruck Sound, the Cosmic Sound, the Sound of Silence. It is the sound of the pure soul, free of suffering; it is the sound of all Creation, echoing into infinity. It is the Word that creates, sustains and dissolves.
“It is God.
“He has been here before you, and will remain long after. Before the Word your word is nothing, before him you are nothing and less than nothing.”
THE SQUEAK OF VERMIN, the Lord said. INSIGNIFICANT.
A SOUNDLESS CRY, the Lady said. MEANINGLESS.
“Try this word, then. Yahweh.”
Yamamoto had said it slowly, calmly, but with complete conviction. A strange shudder passed through the world. The things at the edge of the light retreated. The psychic weight pressing Connor down evaporated. The sound in his mind disappeared.
And the statues froze.
YOU DARE SPEAK HIS NAME HERE? The Lady said.
EMPTY WORDS, the Lord said. YOUR FAITH IS MUDDLED, YOUR DOCTRINE HOLLOW, YOUR GOD NONEXISTENT. YOU ARE DUST BENEATH OUR FEET. NO GOD WILL SAVE YOU.
Yamamoto approached the statues, his left hand held high, his necklace dangling from his fist.
And his cross glowed.
It was a trick of the light. It must be. And yet…
“Do not speak of faith to me. Lord of Shadows, you copied your appearance from an Old World legend. Lady of Shadows, you stole the visage of Mater Maria and corrupted it for your own ends. You are false gods.”
A terrible soundless shriek filled the room. A shriek of rage, promising excruciating tortures and awesome punishments for uncountable aeons. But beneath that, there was undercurrent of despair.
The Lord pointed.
DeMille shot to her feet, charging Yamamoto, wailing like a banshee, raising her dagger above her head.
Yamamoto stood his ground.
She lunged in.
He pivoted aside. His right arm rose and fell like a sword. A meaty thud. And DeMille dropped.
He sniffed. Kicked her knife away. Stepped on her hand. And turned once again to the Lord and Lady.
YOUR FAITH IS WEAK AND IMPURE! YOUR HEART WAVERS! YOU ARE ONLY FLESH, AND ALL FLESH WILL—
The titanic statues groaned. Slowly, inexorably, they fell to their knees.
“Silence,” Yamamoto said. “You speak not to me. I am but an instrument in the hands of the Almighty. He who made all things, he who sustains all things, he who ends all things. Even now, witness his presence in your domain. Before him, you are powerless.”
“Surrender now to the power of the Almighty. Give unto him all the souls you have taken. Flee now this world, and submit yourself to the Judgment of God.”
A bone-rattling scream reverberated in the world. A gust of cold wind blew through the world. The curtain of darkness lifted, and the flashlights filled the world with light. In the newfound illumination, Connor saw an empty chamber carved from stone, the bleeding bodies of broken vampires splayed across the floor, and tough boxes piled high against the walls.
The light faded from the statues.
“Is it over?” Connor whispered.
“It’s over,” Yamamoto said.
“Will they come back?”
“They always do.”
The operators snapped back into combat mode. They dispersed throughout the room, checking on the bodies, securing weapons and devices, cutting down the captives and tending to their wounds. As Connor stood watch, Yamamoto cuffed DeMille.
She moaned softly.
“You… What did you do?” she asked.
“Nothing. I merely allowed God to work through me,” Yamamoto said, patting her down.
“God? Which one?”
“The God of all.”
“You… what are you?”
“A believer. Nothing more.”
“An Old Believer? In this world? Still?”
“There are more of us than you can imagine.”
“Hey boss,” Wood called, “we need medevac for the civilians. They’re all in a bad way.”
“Got it. Is everyone okay?”
Connor patted himself down. He was bleeding from wounds in his head, but he was still conscious, he could still move. But there was a pain building behind his eyes.
“I’ve got multiple head lacerations,” Connor reported. “But I’m still good to go.”
The rest of the team checked in. Light injuries, nothing serious. Connor tore open his first aid pouch and grabbed a combat dressing.
“What are we going to do with her?” Fox asked.
“We take her with us,” Yamamoto said.
“You can’t arrest me! I am a Speaker of the Court! I claim ecclesiastical immunity!”
“Yeah, yeah, shuddup,” Connor said, wrapping the gauze around his head.
In an alcove in the rear corner, the team found the elevator doors. A quick search of the bodies yielded a keycard for the control panel. The team tried to squash themselves into the elevator, but there wasn’t enough room for everyone. In the end, Yamamoto volunteered to stay behind with DeMille.
As he backed up, Yamamoto leaned into Tan’s ear and whispered something. Tan gave him a thumbs-up.
The second the doors closed, DeMille spoke.
“Who hired you? The Pantheon? The Liberated?”
“We’re STS. We’re not mercenaries. We uphold the law,” Yamamoto said.
“What’s so funny?” Connor demanded.
“Do you actually believe that?”
“It’s our job description.”
She laughed again.
“Do you still believe the fairy tale they told you? That the gods must answer to human laws, and that the STS impartially enforces them?”
“No fairies in that tale,” Connor said.
“Oh, you poor, naive fools. They don’t tell you anything at all, do they?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Pantheon and the Liberated started this war. But your superiors aimed you at us.”
“Bullshit. You used the Cartel to seize turf from the other powers,” Connor said.
“Yes, we won it by right of conquest. But that war ended years ago. Now, the Pantheon and the Liberated conspire to reclaim their territories—and used you as their weapon of choice.”
Connor wanted to say it was bullshit. But no one had sanctioned the Pantheon for unleashing an avatar in Three Rivers. And how did the Liberated learn about the House of Shadows—and why did they arrive so soon after Yamamoto’s report?
“You see now? There’s a grander game being played.”
“What game?” Yamamoto demanded.
She grinned at him. “A game of gods, for the highest stakes.”
“What stakes? Which gods?”
“Don’t worry your silly little head, mortal. You are not an instrument of your god. Merely an instrument of the powers who run this world. You may have won this time. But the Court endures. The game continues.”
“What do you mean? What game are you talking about?”
She laughed and said nothing more.
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