The Graves of Saints

Chapter 17

September 24

Languin, Guatemala

Despite all she had been through with him in the scant days since they had met, Charlotte did not know Peter Octavian well. She understood that he was a warrior and a man of honor, but that for a time in his life he had killed the way that vampires killed. She knew that some epiphany had made him seek a different path, and that though he was no longer a Shadow, he was a powerful magician, or sorcerer, or mage, or whatever the hell word people felt like using this week. Charlotte had seen Octavian in action, and when he combined his magic with his determination and skill as a warrior, he was a fearsome sight. Yet she was still just beginning to understand that he had more subtle magicks at his command as well.

Silent and swift, she set out from the cover of the trees toward the rings of chanting vampires with Allison on her left and Octavian on her right. Somehow, they managed to make her feel safe, even though she was far from it. Charlotte knew a little about Allison's background, enough to know that she had been a Shadow for a time measurable in years but not in centuries. She wondered if Allison could still remember her first kiss or the sound of her mother's laughter, if she could still recall the way her heart had quickened at a compliment or the excitement on the day that school let out for summer. For Charlotte, such memories were fresh and vivid. Her high school graduation had been a little over a year before and, despite all that she had seen and done in the intervening time - despite what she was - she still held on to a cherished fragment of her innocence, locked inside her like a rose under glass. She held a secret hope, one she barely admitted to herself, that she could preserve that fragment forever.

Could Octavian remember his mother's laughter? She thought not. And yet he had made himself a good man, and that gave her hope for her own future.

If you have a future, she thought.

'This is-' she began.

Octavian put a finger to his lips to shush her, as they ran across the open field. And he was right - nervous talking for the sake of talking was a bad idea right now - but she couldn't imagine the vampires could hear her over their own chanting and the thunder of the shelling from the tanks that had been caught inside the wall Octavian had put up.

And according to Octavian, Cortez and his coven wouldn't be able to see them, either. Charlotte reminded herself that they were not invisible, although if she understood correctly the end result of the spell Octavian had cast would be the same. As long as they moved steadily and did not meet the gaze of any of the vampires, they would pass unnoticed amongst the coven until they drew attention to themselves. Since shooting people with bullets tended to draw attention, the first shot she fired would effectively break the spell, but by then she'd be right in the center of the circle.

Only yards from Cortez.

She reminded herself that she had promised to leave Cortez's fate to Octavian and kept moving in broad, quick strides, never quite running but never slowing. In moments Charlotte, Allison, and Octavian passed through the outermost circle of vampires. Charlotte had to battle the temptation to look at their faces, to see if they had noticed the intrusion, but she didn't want to be the cause of breaking the spell too soon. Octavian had gone to the trouble of working his subtler magicks, and she wasn't going to blow it.

He had worked a second spell as well, one he had alluded to with Commander Metzger. Back in the trees, just before they'd set out, he'd had everyone - Shadow and human alike - lay out all of their ammunition on the ground and he had cast a spell upon every last bullet, ensuring that each would find its target. She and Allison had assault rifles filled with Medusa-laced bullets that were guaranteed to hit what they were aimed at. But now that she was walking amongst the vampires - passing through a second circle - she wondered how much help that would be. She heard their chanting in a language she did not recognize and she tried to count the feet to her right and left as she rushed past. Extrapolating, she realized there really were over a hundred vampires, and probably closer to one hundred and fifty.

A ripple of revulsion passed through Charlotte as she slid between two vampires in the second ring. They stank like offal, and she wondered where they had been sleeping during the daylight hours. One of them moved, raising his arms as an extension of his chanting, and she had to dart aside to avoid him touching her.

Reflexively, she glanced back at him and caught herself just before their eyes would have met. In that small glimpse, however, she saw that he was smeared in blood and human viscera and fluids, and she knew where the rank stench had come from. Though it now looked like a disaster site, this had been a tourist area. Anyone who had been here when the earth tore open had been slaughtered by Cortez's followers, their innards used as some filthy element of this ritual. Anyone who had come in response, people who had rushed here to help, had likely suffered the same fate.

Hate calmed her. Fury burned inside her, an engine to power her onward.

The ground trembled with the movements of the giant death gods. She glanced over to see that the antlered one now towered higher than the trees she had left behind. Even at that height, only the upper half of its body had emerged from the trench. It put its hands on the edges of the broken earth on either side of the crevice and tried to pull itself free, but for the first time Charlotte realized that it was stuck. Both of these enormous ancient beings were forcing themselves slowly from their own world into this one as if tearing free of a caul from their mother's womb.

Oh my God, she thought, staring at the impossibility of it all. What am I doing here?

As they passed through the third ring, almost at the center of the circle of vampires, she thought of her mother again, but suddenly Charlotte could not recall her face. Panicked, she tried to summon the memory of her mother's laughter, which had been so simple for her just moments before and now seemed impossible. The memory seemed just out of reach and she needed to hold on to it tighter than ever.

The world seemed to go still for a moment. The tanks had stopped firing and the chanting reached a pause. Even the wind dropped for a second. Only the last ring remained, perhaps twenty vampires in a tight circle, with a lone figure at the center who could only be Cortez. She would know him on sight, but even with the army lights glaring, the circle around him cast their shadows upon him.

The moment of stillness threw Charlotte off, and she hesitated. Stopped moving, just for a moment.

A moment was enough.

'Who the hell are you?' a vampire snarled, and she felt his hand clamp onto her bicep.

Nearby, she heard Allison swear, glanced over and saw Octavian catch her eye. She thought he would be angry but he only gave her a tiny, almost imperceptible nod and raised his hands, magic blazing and sparking around them in icy blue fire.

The world had held its breath. Now it seemed to shatter.

She twisted, tore her arm loose, raised her assault rifle and pulled the trigger. Bullets punched into vampire flesh as she ran amongst them. Arrogance and confusion combined were their worst enemies. They had not anticipated an attack from within and as she kept moving she saw the same expressions over and over - hunger followed by amusement at the idea of being shot, and then the horror etched in their faces as they realized the Medusa toxin was coursing through their blood.

Someone grabbed her hair and she tore free, darted and fell and rolled and popped up again. A huge vampire woman caught her by the shoulder, talons growing long, tearing her flesh, and Charlotte turned and fired a bullet into her face . . . waited a second and fired again, killing her on the spot. She didn't want to waste Medusa, but if they took her down before she had hit as many as possible with the toxin then it changed the odds for everyone.

Shouts arose. The last of the chanting died as gunfire echoed. She heard Allison's gun barking off to her left, making its way around the circles. Lights flashed as Octavian tore through clusters of vampires and the air crackled with his power, seared by magic.

Somewhere not far off a familiar voice cried out and more gunfire erupted and she knew that Metzger, Galleti, and the others had arrived and were trying to kill as many of the Medusa-afflicted as possible.

And all the while, all she could think was don't shift, don't shift, don't shift - because none of them had been certain what might happen if she and Allison shapeshifted with their guns loaded with Medusa toxin. If she went to mist, she might never be able to shift back.

Abruptly, there was space around her.

Charlotte spun, aiming her weapon all around her, looking for targets. In the splashes of light from Octavian's magic, she saw that most of the figures that loomed around her were made of stone . . . the mage's own version of Medusa.

Half a dozen vampires were closing on her. Lifting the gun with a speed only her species possessed, she shot each one. Then, with Metzger's people too far away and the vampires too close, she shot them again.

Whipping around, on guard, she realized that she had made it to the center of the now-shattered circle. A pair of naked human corpses lay on the earth, wrists and ankles staked to the ground, torsos flayed open. From their faces she took them to be twins, one male and one female, perhaps fifteen years of age.

Beyond them stood Cortez, clad in black trousers and a simple white cotton shirt now drenched in blood.

With his sad eyes and wispy, pointed goatee and the black hair he wore at shoulder-length, he looked more like a poet than a monster. But that sad face lived in her nightmares with all the pain and humiliation she had ever felt. She switched her weapon over to continuous fire.

Cortez scowled at her in disgust. 'Prodigal. You, I did not expect. But perhaps I'll have use for you yet.'

Any other day she might have mustered up an insult or a profanity. Instead, she took aim and pulled the trigger, spraying a dozen bullets at his face and chest.

With a gesture, Cortez threw up a shield of purple-black light. When the bullets struck it, they melted in mid-air and dripped to the ground.

Charlotte stared, hope fading.

Cortez was a mage, like Octavian. She had never seen a hint of it before, never seen him do the slightest bit of magic, but there it was. Gunfire still punctured the darkness so she knew that Allison and some of Metzger's people were still alive, and so were some of the coven. But none of that mattered.

The only thing that mattered now was which mage was more powerful.

As if summoned from the ether by her thoughts, Octavian stepped out from behind the stone figure of a dead vampire, hands still burning with flame that had turned a rich, coppery gold.

'Hernan Cortez,' Octavian said. 'I thought you were dead.'

Cortez turned to face him, smiling. 'Aren't we all?'

Octavian burned with the magic inside him, felt it searing through his bones, eager to be unleashed. The sorcery within him had a clearer connection to his heart than to his mind, and the urge to incinerate Cortez on the spot nearly overwhelmed him. But he had seen the coven master use magic to shield himself from Charlotte's bullets - more than that, he could feel the dark magic seething inside Cortez, coiled and ready to strike - and he knew he had to be wary.

Hands at his sides, fingers splayed like a gunslinger at high noon, he moved two steps nearer to Cortez, careful not to stray too far from the nearest of the vampires he had turned to stone. They were statues now, frozen in death, but they could provide cover.

'Peter?' Charlotte said, her weapon still in her hands.

He ignored her, hoping his silence was message enough. They had passed the point where her presence could be helpful. More than anything he wanted her to go, to just take cover, but he feared what might happen if he gave Cortez any reason to think that her fate mattered to him.

'It's over, Cortez,' Octavian said.

'Is it?' the vampire mused.

Octavian could feel the magic charging the air between them. The ground began to crackle, grass to stick straight up as if electrified, and little particles of earth swirled, small stones floating off of the ground, vibrating.

Gunshots ripped the night sky, but fewer than before. Allison and the TFV soldiers were still fighting. The Medusa toxin and the element of surprise had given them a chance and they were making good on it. Devil-bats wheeled and darted overhead, but they seemed unwilling to come too close to Cortez. The ground rumbled and a terrible miasma of stink began to roil across the ground, rolling off of the death gods. Octavian saw a serpent coiled around the upper arm of the second of the gods, while black birds roosted on the antlers of the giant who had climbed three quarters of the way out of the breach.

Hell was breaking through into his world, but none of it seemed important to him now. The only thing that mattered was the cruelty of the creature in front of him. He heard shuffling over his right shoulder and knew that Charlotte had not gone far. She had taken cover behind one of the stone vampires.

'There's just one thing I . . .' Octavian began, and then faltered. He trembled with his hatred. Even speaking to Cortez made him feel sick. 'All of this . . . everything you did to distract me from your plans . . . killing Nikki, the breaches in Europe and India . . . If you wanted to keep me away, you'd have been better off doing nothing. Had you done nothing, odds are I wouldn't be standing here right now.'

The smile Cortez had been wearing slid away, leaving a malevolent intelligence that glittered in his eyes. When he sneered, his fangs glistened in the moonlight.

'Call it a roll of the dice,' Cortez growled. 'As for killing your mate . . . that was mostly for pleasure. If you'd heard the way she screamed-'

Octavian raised a hand, cold murder in his heart. Scarlet light sliced a broad arc across the darkness, aimed for Cortez's mid-section.

'Quiet,' he said, though what he really meant was, Die.

Cortez held up both hands and a sickly yellow light flashed around them, cleaving that scarlet arc in two so that it passed on either side of him, leaving him unharmed. He snarled, fangs bared, and sketched at the air with contorted fingers, drawing into existence a pair of silver silhouettes, like the ghosts of wolves, apparitions that dove through the air, jaws wide with silent hunger.

Octavian shook his head in disdain as he waved them away, the silver running like liquid mercury and vanishing as it touched the ground. He still had questions, things he did not understand, but he could live without knowing the answers. He required only one thing of Cortez.

Memories of his imprisonment in Hell seared his mind. Images flashed inside him of the abominations he had seen there, of the magicks he had studied and the torture he had endured as he learned, only to rise up and make demons scream. As powerful as he was, Octavian had locked those memories deeply within him, but now they came surging back, right alongside images of Nikki, lying dead in her hotel bed.

A single word burst forth from his lips, in a language never before spoken in the human world. He thrust his hands out and the magic that flowed from him had no color or form, none of the static most spells gave off. The lines that traced the air from his fingers to Cortez's flesh were like rips in reality, glimpses into a darkness this world had never known. Using such magic, Octavian had clawed at the skin of creation. Dangerous sorcery, but he would risk anything to put Cortez down.

The vampire screamed as those rips shot through him, and Octavian saw it as justice. He had opened breaches in the flesh of the world and now Cortez had been speared through by other dimensions. For a moment he hung on the air, impaled by slender fingers of another reality, and then they vanished and he collapsed to the ground.

The sky erupted with the sound of the tanks shelling the outside of the wall Octavian had erected around the breach. The ground trembled and he realized that his barrier must have wavered for a moment when he had attacked Cortez, giving the army hope that they could break through. But for their own safety he would not allow that.

'You think you understand magic,' Octavian spat, striding toward Cortez. The vampire looked pitiful, with his dark, mournful eyes and his sculpted goatee. 'Did you really think you could resurrect these ancient gods and they would make you one of them? That somehow you'd be king of the world?'

Cortez stared down at the holes in his chest and gut. They were knitting closed, but far more slowly than any ordinary wound. Octavian felt sure that the vampire would try to shapeshift and escape. Charlotte had not been able to shoot him with the Medusa-laced bullets, but Octavian would not allow Cortez to elude him.

But instead of trying to turn to mist the vampire looked up at Octavian, weak and disoriented but with a kind of lunatic pride in his eyes.

'I have no dreams of my own,' he whispered, and his voice seemed different. Somehow familiar. 'I'm a servant, not a king.'

Octavian froze, cocking his head to one side. He stood above Cortez, ready to kill him . . . ready to draw on the most ancient of magicks to do so . . . but the words made him hesitate. Don't do it, he thought. Don't give him time to scheme. But if Cortez was speaking the truth, if he was only a servant . . .

'Who do you serve?' Octavian demanded.

Cortez dragged himself up to his hands and knees, a wounded dog.

'The one king,' the vampire said, and a ripple of rancid orange light flowed from his hands across the grass beneath Octavian's feet.

Octavian jumped aside, but the spell did him no harm.

Cortez started to rise. 'The King of Hell.'

A rustling came behind him but Octavian turned too late. Powerful hands clamped on his arms and shoulders and he tried to pull away. In the distant glow of military spotlights he saw the rigid gray faces of two vampires he had turned to stone, somehow reanimated by Cortez's magic. They held him tightly, stronger by far than he was, but Octavian struggled only a moment. Emerald light sparked and swirled around his fists and misted around his eyes. He needed no spoken words to turn them to rubble.

Still, in that instant he wondered. In a handful of days Cortez had gone from an unknown enemy to a renegade vampire to a lunatic with delusions of Hellish grandeur, but now to discover that he was a mage? Where had he learned such magic? It had taken Octavian a thousand years in Hell. Cortez might not be his equal, but he had skill and power.

Someone called his name and Octavian turned to see Commander Metzger stumble into the circle of stone vampires, helping Sergeant Galleti along beside him. Galleti clutched at her abdomen, and blood dripped from her hands. Both soldiers took in the scene before them and their eyes widened. As one, they separated and began to raise their weapons, turning them toward Cortez.

'Now, Prodigal,' Cortez spat, face etched in pain from the holes in his torso, where moonlight still shone through .

The words sank in just as Octavian released the concussive spell that had been building in him. The animated stone vampires shattered and crumbled to the ground even as he turned toward Charlotte. He saw her copper-red hair and those ice blue eyes glinting in the distant glow of the spotlights and the pale shine of the moon, saw the intricate design of her tattoos beneath torn clothing, and saw the way she raised the assault rifle in her hands and turned the barrel toward him . . .

Her body jerked like a marionette. Her eyes were wide.

'It isn't . . .' she said, unable to finish. She didn't need to. He understood.

Either now, or long ago, Cortez had made her his puppet.

The coven master grinned. 'Fire.'

'No!' Charlotte screamed, but her finger tightened on the trigger.

Octavian threw up a shield to defend himself and the bullets that struck it became smoke. But he heard the wet thump as they struck human flesh and the cry of pain and spun just in time to see Metzger stagger backward, his chest torn up by close range gunfire. Galleti had caught only one bullet, but it had passed through her neck and now she clutched at her throat, trying to stop the gushing blood, her torn-open abdomen all but forgotten.

He turned away even as Galleti dropped, moments from death. Charlotte screamed in sorrow and fury and she tried to fight her own body as she took aim at Octavian again. With a gesture and a muttered word he turned the gun to molten slag in her hands. Burning and melting, it fell from her grip.

Again he spun on Cortez, intent upon pushing him back into some parallel dimension piece by piece.

'Who sent you?' he screamed. 'Who is the King of Hell?'

Magic coursed through Octavian, straining to be unleashed, and at first he had assumed the tremors to be coming from within him. But then the ground shifted and roots thrust up from the soil, spawning vines that slithered toward Cortez.

Keomany, Octavian thought, distracted for a moment. At last.

Then he saw that Cortez had not noticed the roots and vines. The coven master no longer seemed interested even in defending himself, smiling as he tilted his head back to gaze at a part of the night sky beyond and high above Octavian.

A terrible moan filled the air, like the sky itself had a malevolent voice.

A dozen feet away, Charlotte screamed for him to run.

Octavian turned, a pit of dread in his gut as he realized that the trembling he'd felt had not come from inside him, but from the footfalls of a giant.

The resurrected, antlered death god towered so high above him that its head was beyond the reach of the army spotlights. But its eyes burned a hellish crimson as it bent down toward him, a huge, gnarled hand reaching for him. Viscous fluid dripped from its open, jagged maw and the slits in its face through which it breathed.

Octavian gaped at it. 'You have got to be fucking kidding me.'

He unleashed the magic that had been building within him in a single burst of concussive power straight at its hand and the death god snarled and clenched its fist, proving that he'd caused it pain.

But its other hand closed around him, ripping him from the ground like a child plucking a flower from her mother's garden.

Octavian cried out as it began to crush him. As he felt himself lifted higher into the darkness above the reach of the army's lights, the mad god tilted him enough that he could see Cortez down below.

Even from that height, he could see the vampire begin to applaud.

Siena, Italy

Kuromaku stood on the back of the military transport as the smoke demons pierced the air with their harpy's scream and bent their wings to make another diving attack upon the survivors who were attempting to retreat to the barrier that Octavian's surrogate mages had thrown up around Siena. On a tank forty feet away, the gigantic Kazimir stood like some mad king, shouting at the sky. The smoke demons would come again and Kuromaku would hack them apart with his katana. Kazimir would grab and break and rend them with his bare hands . . . or else his hands would pass right through them as if they were nothing more than mist. Either way the creatures would fall or drift away and then slowly coalesce and rise into the air once more. They weren't defeating the enemy, only buying time for the survivors to get to the magical barrier and, hopefully, slip through to the other side - and that was if the mages could maintain a doorway without letting the whole wall come down, setting the smoke things free.

Kuromaku only knew the warrior's way, but this was not a war he could win. Two Shadows and a handful of soldiers? They would be lucky just to get out of Siena alive, and the barriers that had been erected here and in France - and that must by now have gone up in India - were a temporary solution. The breaches would continue to worsen and widen if they weren't sealed. He knew Peter Octavian well enough to know that his old friend must have been confident that he could manage the task eventually, but meanwhile, Kuromaku felt useless.

If his sword could not kill his enemies, what was its purpose?

'There!' Kazimir shouted.

Kuromaku turned to see two of the winged things diving toward his transport. Several wounded soldiers lay in the back, seen to by Jessica Baleeiro, the doctor they had rescued but whose husband had been taken by the harpies. The smoke creatures plummeted from the sky, taloned hands extended hungrily, drawn to the men who were already bleeding - already dying.

No bullets flew, no gunshots pierced the early morning sky. The soldiers took cover as best they could in the open back of the transport. Some held on tightly to the framework of the truck's flatbed while others aimed their weapons, perhaps intending a final, useless attempt to defend themselves. Dr Baleeiro bent low over one of her patients, twisting toward Kuromaku with a worried look in her eyes.

She needn't have worried.

Kuromaku took two running steps, dancing over the prone forms of the wounded, and launched himself into the air. The katana whickered through the air, glinting with morning light as it hacked through the two smoke demons. He landed beside the doctor, turned and cut them again, then a third time, so that pieces of them spilled away into the air like a dispersing cloud of insects.

Something had changed. He had felt it in the resistance against his sword. And now as he watched the remains of the demons pulled away and swirled onto the wind, he realized that these two were not coalescing again. They were not rebuilding themselves.

Kazimir roared with delight and Kuromaku glanced over to see him rending one of the smoke demons to pieces, tearing off a wing even as he bent its head too far for it to survive. The giant was killing the thing.

'That's new,' Jessica Baleeiro said, standing beside him, hanging on to the framework in the rear of the truck.

'I don't understand,' Kuromaku said.

'I do,' she replied. 'I noticed it yesterday. They're more solid while the sun is out. Sluggish, too. If this means you can kill them . . .'

Kuromaku nodded slowly. 'It does. But there are only two of us, and hundreds of them, with more coming. There is no way that we can kill them all.'

'But this helps, right?' the doctor asked. 'We'll reach the wall?'

Kuromaku had no time to reply. He heard the horrid screech of the harpies again and turned, bringing his katana up. Three of the smoke demons were bearing down on them, jagged wings bent, charcoal flesh less transparent in the daylight. The truck bumped and swayed over rutted earth but he kept his footing, watching their descent, seeing every facet of his attack in his mind before he began to move.

'Stay down,' he said.

The katana felt warm with the memories of all of the battles they had fought together over the centuries. He flexed his fingers on the handle.

The ground shook beneath the truck. Dr Baleeiro grunted and tumbled on top of one of her patients, who cried out in pain. One of the soldiers swore loudly and gunfire stitched the morning light. Kuromaku had a moment to mentally curse the transport's driver, and then he realized that the shaking had not ceased. The ground beneath them had bucked and now continued to tremble.

'Holy shit!' Dr Baleeiro said, pointing.

Kazimir called out for him to look, but Kuromaku did not need the instruction. He stared in fascination as the earth itself erupted, rock and soil driving upward toward the three smoke demons and colliding with them . . . flowing over them . . . enveloping them and dragging them back down into the ground.

'What is it?' Dr Baleeiro called.

Kuromaku stared as huge roots the width of mature trees shot from the ground, spiked skyward to coil around other smoke demons and dragged them down as well . . . down beneath the earth. Where the demons were pulled underground, the soil glowed with a shimmering silver light, as though they were not being buried in the dirt so much as removed from the world.

And put where? he wondered.

'Are the mages doing this?' the doctor shouted at him. 'The ones who came with you?'

Kuromaku could not be certain, but he doubted that very much. This was something else. Something more.

Saint-Denis, France

The sun had risen but the barrier that kept the insect-like utukki demons trapped in the ruin of Saint-Denis also held in much of the smoke from the fires and devastation. Air passed through, but not without some resistance from the tense magic of the wall, and so the smoke filtered slowly. Inside the protective dome, what remained of Saint-Denis lay in shadow created by the smog of its destruction.

Santiago and Taweret had moved through the barrier as mist. There had been a trick to it, a slow persistence required, but they had managed the task and then drifted side by side through the air above the fallen roofs and broken steeples of Saint-Denis. Utukki crashed through the tiny windows of top-story garrets and burrowed into wine cellars in search of survivors. As they floated swiftly across the city, Santiago heard the occasional scream as the demons found someone who had remained hidden until then. He had no muscles to flinch, but his consciousness recoiled at those screams as he imagined men and women or even children who had evaded the monsters so long that they might have believed themselves to be safe. But none of them would be safe until he and Taweret put an end to this.

Through the smoky haze, they drifted toward the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Most of the western façade had collapsed, eclipsing any chance of entrance through the front doors. But they didn't need to worry about the rubble, for this corner of the basilica had shattered so completely that the church below lay open to the elements and to intrusion from the air.

Something shifted in the rubble as Santiago descended through the jutting, broken beams and inside the pile of debris that had once been the city's most beautiful structure. With a thought, he rebuilt himself from mist to man, feeling the comfortable weight of flesh and bone. As malleable as it might be, he preferred the solidity. Santiago would never have admitted it, but the ephemeral nature of shifting to mist frightened him. The lack of substance made him feel like nothing, as if he weren't even real, and such thoughts were far more terrifying than demons.

Taweret appeared beside him, sculpted from mist and then flesh.

'This way,' she said, striding elegantly across the debris, as confident of each step as a dancer on a stage.

Santiago turned in a full circle, taking in the wreckage of the basilica. Columns jutted from piles of rubble and partial walls still stood, bearing the ornamentation and iconography that represented the wealth and faith of the reborn church. If the woman they were seeking really still lived - the woman this Father Laurent said had been touched by the father of all of these utukki - that was its own sort of miracle.

Off to the left the rubble shifted again, but Taweret was already headed in that direction. She had noticed it as well. Now, as Santiago followed her, he saw a strange formation ahead, where the debris seemed to have been piled up around a wide hole like the mouth of an anthill. It was here that the rustling noise had come from.

'Taweret,' he said, attempting to warn her.

The demon wriggled from the hole. As it slipped free it turned on Taweret, a high, chittering noise coming from somewhere inside the creature. The utukki took flight, darting at Taweret, who caught it mid-flight and drove a fist through the hard shell over its chest, rooting around in search of delicate organs. The thing struggled for several seconds and then went limp, hanging from her arm, dead and leaking rank-smelling ichor.

Taweret glanced at him. 'Down?'

'Down,' Santiago confirmed.

Taweret did not hesitate. She lay on her belly on the debris anthill and slid headfirst down the gullet of the thing, into what could only be the utukki's birthing room. Santiago did not blame her; the idea of descending feet first into the hole without knowing what awaited him below was not a pleasant one, but he wasn't sure coming face to face with one of the utukki in such close confines would be much better.

She won't, he thought, suddenly sure of it. They were being born into the world, but there's an interval. He recalled Father Laurent had said something about it. They had a few minutes before the next one was born and he wanted to take full advantage of that.

Santiago swore silently as he lay on the edge of that anthill on his belly, then reached down inside the jagged gullet of the thing and dragged himself in. He might have tumbled straight down but he had the strength to keep himself from plummeting, and his clothes caught and tore on sharp edges of fallen stone and glass and shattered wood. As he moved deeper, the walls of the hole were slick with a viscous, putrid substance he could only imagine must be some kind of demonic afterbirth, and he lost his grip and slid the rest of the way.

Tucking his head up, he tumbled out of the hole onto the filthy stone of an ancient stairwell, where Taweret crouched in the gap between debris and steps, waiting for him. The edges of her lips crinkled in what might have been amusement at his oafishness, but he took no offense, certain he had looked foolish. Now he scrambled to his feet, glanced around quickly, and started down the stairs. She turned and had begun leading the way, grateful that lights of some sort still burned up ahead, either candles or oil lamps, deep in the cellar below. Shadows could see much better in the dark than humans, instinctively altering the composition of their eyes to adjust for anything but total darkness, but he was still glad of the light.

'Do you hear it?' Taweret asked.

Santiago frowned. He'd been so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he hadn't been paying enough attention. Now he heard the slow, ragged breathing that came from further down the stairs and the low moan of pain that interrupted it. A quiet laugh followed the pain, a sound of madness and surrender.

He shifted to see past Taweret, even as she continued down the steps, and he could see the young woman splayed in the stairwell. Her belly gleamed in the lamplight, distended and lined with blue veins. Her legs were wide open, thrust so wide she looked as if she had been split by a warrior's axe. Blood slicked her thighs and, holding his breath a moment, Santiago could hear the slow drip of it running down the steps. He had no idea why she was still alive.

Until he heard the shifting and the scraping even further below and looked past Taweret to see the massive demon lolling there at the bottom of the stairs. Its eyes gazed up at her in some kind of infernal adoration, and suddenly Santiago knew the woman remained alive because the demon wished it, because she was its host, mother to its children.

Taweret took a step beyond the woman.

'Stop,' Santiago said curtly.

She turned to him, frowning; Taweret did not take kindly to instructions.

'If it kills us both, who will release her?' he asked, gesturing to the helpless, damned madonna on the stairs.

Taweret seemed to look at the ruined woman for the first time. She stared a moment at the slick, bloody wound the woman's vagina had become and she shuddered, turning slowly away. Santiago noticed that the woman's belly had grown. As he watched, it bulged further and something squirmed inside. The woman seemed barely conscious, but with the demon-child moving within her, she opened her eyes wider and let out the most pitiful noise. Had her throat not been raw from days of this, it might have been a scream.

'What's your name?' Santiago asked, kneeling beside her.

'I don't want to know her name,' Taweret said, her accent thick. 'Do what must be done. Release her.'

'Someone should remember her name.'

'Kill her, Santiago. Kill her before she has to suffer the birth of another of those nightmares, or get out of my way.'

Santiago knew Taweret was right, and it was not as if he had ever hesitated to take a human life in the past, when the moment called for murder. It just troubled him that she might die without anyone ever knowing who it was who had suffered here.

Then her head lolled to the side and she looked at him with eyes that might have been pleading or might have been empty, evidence of a mind hollowed out and driven mad by torment.

A quick snap and it would be done. After that, they would try to kill the demon father. He only wished they had been able to bring the mages with them to try to take this curse from the woman, but they would likely never have made it all the way to the basilica alive.

'I'm sorry,' he said, reaching for her throat.

The world shifted. The stairs cracked and buckled and thrust upward, throwing Santiago and Taweret against the wall. The damned madonna rolled to one side and slumped and slid down half a dozen steps, much closer to the demon that waited in the crypt below.

'What is-?' Santiago managed, before the ground surged and bucked and split again.

Pieces of broken masonry rained down overhead. A chunk struck his shoulder, breaking bone that he reknitted instantly. He heard a terrible, ragged, wheezing scream and looked down to see that a massive piece of stone and mortar had crushed the woman's legs. More than ever, mercy demanded that he take her life, but even as he started downward, Taweret staggered in front of him.

'I'll do it,' she said, leaping the distance and alighting right beside the broken woman.

The demon moved, lurching to its feet and then practically gliding up the stairs toward Taweret.

Santiago shouted for her to defend herself, but he needn't have bothered. Before Taweret could even turn, the ground shook again and thick roots burst up through the shattered steps, wrapped around the demon and began to haul it down into a hole that appeared in the stairwell. For a moment he thought the steps had fallen away into some kind of abyss, but then he saw the way the darkness down in that hole shimmered and flexed and flowed, and he knew that it was not a hole at all.

It was a portal.

The twisting roots thrust the demon down into that portal as if feeding it into the ravenous maw of another world.

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