Eve stared grimly at the iron gates. "This isn't going to work, Roman."
Roman puffed. "Sure it is, it's foolproof. They don't know anything about what's going on, it's unlikely those guards have any orders about me, and they wouldn't be expecting a frontal entry anyway."
Eve Strauss shook her head. "That may be true for any other than the demontainted. But vampires have long lives, with plenty of time to prepare, and concoct plans inside of plans, and have access to resources not available to the common criminal. Besides, those guards aren't human." Her Jamaican accent was strong but her enunciation was clear and concise.
Roman Capule stopped packing the bag and looked again at the two guards outside the giant iron gates to the vast wealthy gated community known to the public as the Robinson Estates. The two of them were in a van taken from a parking lot outside of one of Roman's safehouses. There they had grabbed what they could of his stashed equipment and weapons. He now picked up the night vision goggles.
"They look human enough to me," he grunted. Both men were lean, one taller than the other, and both had kevlar vests peeking out from underneath blue golf course jackets. He was willing to bet they were also packing, and more than likely something lethal.
The mocha skinned girl was pulling her brown wavy hair back. Her thick lips pursed as her green eyes tried to see over the wall into the compound grounds. She shook her head at him.
"See how they move, almost like they are restraining themselves and yet uncomfortable in their own skin? They're wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night. No, they are beastmen. Creatures of demonic origin, beasts with the minds of men and the bloodlust of animals. They can change their form at will between that of their totem animal and that of a human. The older, more powerful ones can control the change midway, transforming parts of their bodies or even turning into a hybrid creature."
"Huh." The retired special agent, formerly mercenary for hire, currently unemployed assassin zipped up the bag as he took the news in. Although he had only just met the young girl a few hours ago, he trusted her knowledge of the supernatural world. A day ago he would've laughed off her delusions in fairies, demons, and magic. Then a demon had tried to kill him. That was when she had revealed to him that his clandestine employers were a powerful vampire clan who had set him up to die.
The tall middle aged man stroked his clean shaven face. He could feel the exhaustion threatening to creep in but walled it off like the soldier he was. He was no longer dressed in the white tuxedo he had started the night in, but in a dark blue camo hunter's outfit that fit his slim build snugly. The demon huntress had discarded the server's white shirt she had used to gain entrance to the ball, but still had on the loose black slacks and grey slip on sneakers. She wore a black tank top on top that did nothing to hide her runner's build, and he grinned to himself as he saw she was completely unconcerned with how she looked. A true soldier herself.
"Alright, beastmen. That sounds a lot like werewolves to me. Do we have any silver bullets?" He was half joking, half curious.
She flashed a smile at him. "As a matter of fact, I do." She held up her leather bracer full of throwing spikes.
"Hmm. Change of plans then."
"Good evening, gentlemen! How are we tonight?" Roman called out as he sauntered up to the gate. He knew from Eve that their sense of smell was as good as a canine's, so he knew they already knew he was there before he had turned the corner. They were standing in front of the gate, silent and watching him, their eyes hidden behind the sunglasses. She had said that the eyes were the only things they had trouble changing.
He kept on. "So I'm a bit lost, if you can believe it. I was trying to visit a friend of mine who lives in Harmony Hills and got a bit turned around. These places all look the same in the middle of the night. If you could help me out, she's really eager for me to arrive, if you catch my drift." He winked at the closest one. Still no reaction. "So, uh, yeah, if you could point me in the right direction, I'll be on my wa….oops…"
He had gotten close enough to see the far one flare his nostrils, and immediately did his patented stumble into the closest one. The guard snarled at him and pushed him away, and so didn't notice the thud of a throwing spike hitting flesh. He sensed something was wrong, however, and whirled around to see Eve leaping out of the bushes. He lifted a hand to his ear radio as he reached into his jacket, only to grunt as the spike Roman had hidden up his sleeve slid home.
"Nice throw," he said to her as she ran up. Then he looked down at the bodies, curious.
She retrieved her spike from the dead body and stood up. Noticing his gaze, she smiled in amusement.
"Expecting something?" she laughed.
He flushed. "Kinda," he murmured. "Aren't they supposed to change back when they die?"
"You watch too many movies, Roman. They simply die. Changing forms is a conscious effort. The pure earth metal simply allows us to bypass their lightning-quick regeneration. So if you had not struck true, he would have torn you to pieces."
"Good to know."
Eve reached up and undid the simple latch to the gate. She saw the light on the security camera was off. He smiled and held up a small device. "Localized jammer. We're invisible."
"So now where to?"
Roman had been going back and forth on this the whole way over. But there really was no other answer. "To Rosalyn's house."
Rosalyn had been his handler with the Robinson Estates. A fellow retired agent, she had worked with him on all his missions with him, though he had never met her face to face. She was a surveillance expert, good at electronics and computers, very smart and experienced. And so he knew there was no way she didn't know who she was working for. The Robinson Estates were a secret independently funded group that employed freelance agents and operatives to further their seemingly altruistic objectives in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. What Roman hadn't known, what nobody knew, was that the group was controlled by vampire lords, advancing a centuries old sinister agenda. He had been sent to take out a target earlier that night who was supposed to be an enemy of the people, introducing a drug that was ten times more corrosive to the human body than the disease it was created to destroy. He had been told, Rosalyn had told him, that the target needed to be stopped. Instead, it had turned out to be a demon who was allied to the cause, and he had been sent to be sacrificed to it. That was where he had met up with Eve.
Someone would pay for making him a patsy. For taking advantage of him and using him. And for trying to kill him without even a warning.
The van was too conspicuous in such an elegant neighborhood; it would draw too much attention. They could approach on foot, but they might be stopped by another patrol. As detestable as the idea was, they dragged the guards' bodies into the bushes just inside the gate and stripped them.
As the two got dressed, backs turned to each other, Roman tried to alleviate their discomfort.
"Okay, so tell me some more about this Order of Tares you work for."
There was a grunt behind him, and he felt her shift. "I suppose it is alright for me to reveal more to you, since you have saved my life and my freedom multiple times this night."
"The Order of Tares was founded in 1631 by Father Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest. He was a prominent scholar and devout man, and served as confessor to the accused during the Inquisitions in Wurzburg. After ministering to many of the women, he felt that most of them were innocents tricked by malevolent forces. His subsequent studies and prayers led him to the discovery of outsiders, supernatural beings not of our world and possibly not of Creation. He named them demons, and founded the Order to hunt them down, judge them by the Word of God, and either destroy them or banish them."
Roman had already finished, but he waited until she tapped his shoulder to turn around. She couldn't hide her hair, but the smaller outfit fit her well enough. And the vest fit perfectly, which he felt was more important.
"So you're really a demon hunter then? On a mission from God?"
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he quickly sobered.
"Yes I am. The Order used to be a powerful army sponsored by the Jesuit priesthood, but after their castle headquarters was destroyed two decades ago in a mysterious attack and many of the hunters were killed, there have only been a few left. As far as I know, my father was the last ordained hunter, and he disappeared three years ago." She squared her shoulders back and lifted her chin. "But he taught me everything he knew, and I have all of his carefully researched notes, and his equipment and weapons. I will pick up where he left off, and I will find him and avenge him if need be."
Roman nodded. "I think that I will help you however I can. This has become personal for me." He smiled. "To think my brother told me I didn't have the imagination enjoy fairy tales. But this might be the first step towards your goal..surely someone this powerful will know something of either the castle attack or your father."
Eve looked at him, her lips pursed and her eyebrows creased. "Who are we going after here, Roman? Is this purely vengeance, or do you have an idea of who the leaders of this organization are?"
"A little. They were careful not to reveal too much when I was around, but there are some things I picked up on. Like the identity of de la Cruz."
Roman had found out where Rosalyn lived completely by accident. He had come in to meet with Dr. de la Cruz. They usually met at the gatehouse in the spare office, supposedly for convenience but Roman knew it was to keep him from penetrating too far into the gated community, But this day the good doctor was in the middle of a once in a lifetime golf game and didn't want to stop. Thus, Roman was chauffeured through the neighborhood on the security golf cart, escorted by two alert gate guards. They were careful to keep him away from anybody's view, and avoided any streets with people on it. They had turned a corner to find one of the residents unloading groceries from the back of a bright green Prius. One of the guards muttered, "Miss Rosalyn's back in town already?" in surprise. The other immediately turned and snarled, "Shut up!" at him, with a furtive glance backward at Roman. For his part, Roman had continued placidly looking at the passing houses without reaction, filing the location and address of the place away. He couldn't see much of the woman anyway, just the back of her head and a sense of relative body shape, but he felt sure he could pick her out.
That had been a month ago, he realized. That consultation had been for the job prior to the one he had just done, but he recalled with a chill that tonight's had been introduced as well. At the time he had thought nothing of the fact that the guards had talked to de la Cruz before he had been brought to the young doctor. It had been de la Cruz, he realized with a shock.
"Who?" Eve asked as they drove the security cart down the dark road.
"Roosevelt de la Cruz. A bigwig here in the community, some sort of scientist. He was my contact, the guy who gave me the assignments, and the only resident of the Robinson Estates I've ever met in person. From what I've been able to research on my own, he's the grandson of the one of the original founders of the group." He paused as he thought that through. "He is the original founder, isn't he?"
"More than likely. Vampires frequently take on the identities of their own progeny to throw off suspicion. If he is that connected, he is probably one of the clan leaders. You know where he is? If we can cut off the head the rest may fall faster and easier. At the least it would create chaos and a power vacuum that could be taken advantage of by others."
"Nope, fraid I don't know enough about him specifically. But I do know someone who would. Here we are." He stopped the cart at the corner where he had first spotted her and glanced down the street. The green Prius was in the driveway. "That house right there is where Rosalyn lives. My handler and babysitter. She should know. But if she's half as good as I think she is, she'll be difficult to get to. I have a plan, though."
She looked away from her study of the house and flashed a half smile at him. "Yes, I have noticed that about you."
Roman blinked. "Did you just make a joke, Eve Strauss?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps I am feeling about what I've read about, the thrill of the hunt. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit is rejoicing in me that I am on the right path. Now what is your plan, Roman Capule?"
Rosalyn stared at Roman with fear and hate in her eyes. Well, in one eye. The left eye was swollen shut from a well placed huntress kick to the face when she had answered the door. Eve didn't take any chances. Rosalyn was tied with duct tape to a high backed wooden bar stool and a strip was across her mouth. It had all happened very quickly.
Roman in turn studied her. She was older than he had expected, closer to his own age than her voice and manner gave. She had mousy brown short hair and a sharp angular face. Her figure spoke of a distant past spent being fit and muscular, but of a more recent past fighting suburban housewife syndrome. She had been taken completely by surprise; the doorway ambush, the initial attack, the rush into the house carrying her unresisting body. It was all the more surprising knowing her training and expertise as he did. Once she had finished tying her up Eve had left to search the rest of the house and make sure there were no surprises.
Roman looked around the kitchen, then pulled out a butcher knife from the knife block. He brought it over to her and tapped her cheek with it. Her eyes followed the blade.
"Now I'm not some badass demon hunter or supernatural scholar, so I don't know how to test to see if you're really human or not. Based on my limited experience, though, demon blood is a different color. Do I need to find out about you, Rosalyn?" She frantically shook her head.
"Good. Not a peep unless it's to answer my questions." He reached over and worked the tape off of her mouth.
Rosalyn stretched her jaw, then looked up at him.. "Roman, I…"
Roman drove the knife into the chair right between her legs. It slid in with a thud. She gasped and almost rocked back in the stool.
"Not a peep, remember? I was being serious. Let's get down to business now that we understand each other. Before I ask what I really want to know, let me ask this: is there anybody else in the house we should be concerned with?"
Her jaw clenched and eyes glittering, Rosalyn shook her head again.
"Okay good. Not that I believe you. Eve will flush them out if there is somebody." He hesitated, sorting through the rage her presence kept evoking in him. Finally he said, "Why? Why me? Why did tonight happen? How long have you known I was being sent to my death? How could you? You just laughed and joked with me like nothing was happening, like there wasn't a DEMON ABOUT TO RIP MY THROAT OUT AND YOU WERE JUST GOING TO LET IT HAPPEN!" His voice had been rising and now he was on his feet, screaming into her face, his face red, his hands balled into trembling fists. It took every ounce of willpower left to him not to slam them into her traitorous, backstabbing face.
For her part, Rosalyn had flinched away, her eyes closed and tears streaming down her face. She was choking back her sobs. "Please, Roman, I'm sorry, I didn't want to do it, I didn't want it like this, it wasn't my call, I'm so sorry." She kept repeating it over and over again. Roman sat back down, suddenly exhausted. He listened to her dully for a few minutes, then held up a hand. Gradually her sobs wound down as she regained control of herself.
"Alright, alright. It wasn't your call then. That still doesn't change the fact that you were a part of it, that you were complicit in what would have been my murder."
"Believe me," she gulped. "It was better than the alternative."
He suppressed the rage again. "What alternative?"
There was no second he was sitting in front of her, and the next he was sailing across the room. His back slammed into the kitchen cabinets on the other side of the island, and he grunted in painful shock. In a daze, he staggered to his feet to look at what had hit him. His eyes met calm dark eyes.
"My alternative, Mr. Capule. I proposed to call Mr. White and have you torn to pieces along with anybody you had ever talked to. You should be thanking Rosalyn for sparing you that." Roosevelt de la Cruz smiled indulgently at Roman, one hand resting on Rosalyn's shoulder. He cocked his head. "You are truly an industrious one, Mr. Capule. You never fail to impress me. I knew it was a risk to use you, but there are just some jobs that require the expert touch that only someone of your caliber can bring. I felt sure I could account for that quick wit of yours, keep you on your toes long enough to not question. I am very unhappy to find that I was wrong."
"De la Cruz," Roman croaked, his head swimming. "Just who I've been looking for."
"Yes indeed. I have to give you points for linking me with the woman. I thought my pet had hidden her tracks better than that." He shook his head in mock exasperation, but Roman noticed that her eyes widened in sudden terror.
Roman noted movement out of the corner of his eye. Eve. He stood up and shook the cobwebs from his head. His thumb hovered over the button on his shock glove and stepped to one side, away from the open archway.
"You tried to kill me, de la Cruz. Without even the good manners of a warning. Even worse, you used me, manipulated me, tricked me into doing your dirty work, made me think I was doing some good in the world for once in my miserable life. That's why I'm here, why I've come for you. You're not just a monster, an abomination that sold his soul for a little piece of power. No, you were a monster to me." He leaped forward, holding his hand in front of him.
Three things struck him in that instant. One, there was no thrum of electricity vibrating from his hand. No indication that the glove had powered on at all. Two, de la Cruz didn't react, just grinned at him as he raised his hand. And three, Eve was not alone.
He changed course and dove down. He heard/felt the rush of air over his head as de la Cruz swiped at him. The vampire's hand never hesitated as it struck the island counter and shattered it, spraying Roman with wooden splinters as he rolled backward onto his feet. He ended up back behind the island, genuinely frightened, and it was not just from the ease with which de la Cruz was able to move so quickly or casually expend such strength. He grabbed at his key fob and keyed in a scanning sequence. His vision didn't change.
"What's the matter, Mr. Capule? Not notice anything different?" De la Cruz laughed harshly as he ripped away the tape holding Rosalyn in place. She flinched as the tape tore at her skin. "Oh I know all about your little gadgets, Mr. Capule. Or should I call you Mr. Bond? That was one of your first weaknesses I was able to account for, your reliance on technology. You were hit with a targeted EMP blast as soon as you entered my home, keyed to your DNA."
"Those words have no meaning for me," Eve's voice broke in from behind. All eyes went to her in surprise. Eve was standing at the threshold of the dining area and the kitchen, holding one hand behind her back and the other holding the hand of a little boy. He couldn't have been more than six, his dirty blonde hair cut military short and blinking sleep out of his brown eyes. He was still dressed in Elmo pajamas. Holding his other hand was his big sister, a girl of at least ten with long blonde hair falling down her back. Her large wide brown eyes were much more clear and alert as she took in the scene before her. She had on a pink and white frilly nightshirt and pants, with white slippers. Roman noted their facial features with a shock, and he stole a glance at Rosalyn to see her face pale with a fright that was not for herself.
"Ah, you have found my broodlings. Excellent. And you must be the Tares huntress everyone is raving about tonight. The underworld has simply been abuzz all about you; your ears must be itching horribly. The Sultan and Sultana will be most disappointed to know you're not wrapped up in a pretty bundle and on your way to enjoy their hospitality."
Eve ignored his jibe. "You will release the woman and step back against the wall, demonspawn. Keep your eyes down, I know all your little tricks."
Roman pulled out another knife from the cutting block next to him and assumed a defensive pose as he headed toward Eve. The vampire inclined his head slightly in his direction, then returned his gaze to Eve.
"And why should I? You forget that unlike our unfortunate friend from earlier I know all about you. I know what you are capable of, and what you are not. And you can't hurt those innocent children. There's no point in using them as bait. And as much as you dislike her and whatever you think she's done, you can't hurt the woman either. No, you are in no position to make threats, huntress. You are actually in a very precarious position right now. But I want to give you a chance. I am giving you the option of walking out of this house, right this second, with my promise that you'll at least get a sporting chance at escape before I hunt you down like a stray cat and rip out your delectable throat."
Roman saw it then, the truth in her eyes. She would not, could not do what was necessary in fieldwork, in wet work. He also saw that everyone else in the room saw it too. He charged forward to get between her and the pair at the same time as Rosalyn spun around in the stool and threw the butcher knife at Eve.
The next moment blurred for Roman. He was aware of de la Cruz moving impossibly fast, and the shrieks of the children as they disappeared from his sight, but his entire focus was on the knife. It flipped through the air in front of his eyes, and time slowed to a crawl as he leaped over the kitchen island and wrapped his hand around the hilt. Then he crashed to the floor and skidded to a halt right in front of the far wall. Groggily, he looked up to see what had happened.
The scenario had drastically changed while he had been in the air. De la Cruz had approached and clashed with Eve, who clutched the sword in front of her protectively. He snarled at her, and massive fangs jutted from his mouth. His hands had altered as well, sporting massive misshapen talons now. Rosalyn had taken the distraction her action had afforded to grab her children, but hadn't made it further than the corner by the side door. There the three huddled and Roman noted that though she was trying to shield them with her body, they did not look afraid.
De la Cruz lunged at Eve, trying to push her into a mistake, but she held her ground and countered his advances. Then she saw an opening and leaped forward, slashing at his side and connecting with a triumphant yell. The sword flashed bright, and Roman watched expectantly. But de la Cruz just stepped back out of reach, grinning. He looked more composed now, less the out of control monster.
"Ah, the fabled sword of Spees himself. His greatest creation. His crowning achievement. His biggest failure."
Eve, her mouth open, stared at him, then at the sword. Did it just barely flicker?
De la Cruz chuckled contemptuously. "My dear, did you really think that tainted blade could hurt me, the author of its creation?"
Eve's eyes flared. "This sword was created by Friedrich Spees, to combat evil, using the pureness of faith and the light of the Lord to destroy it, handed down to me by my mother and by her mother all the way from our ancestor, a huntress of great renown among your kind and his greatest pupil…"
"Yes, yes, but why did your ancestor have it if Spees made it? Something that powerful, given to a mere woman? Because she was his star pupil?" He snorted derisively. "That sap was always interested in the pretty ones. He was less concerned with the habits of demons, and more interested in the habits of the nuns. Know what I mean?" He leered at her, and shot Rosalyn a wink. It was a grotesquely intimate act that made her turn way, her face red.
Eve shook with suppressed rage, but the sword seemed less bright. "You make up stories to spare your life. How would you know these things, monster? You declaim the name of a great man, a man you wouldn't be able to stand up to in life."
"A man, dear one. Subject to the same desires and lusts the rest of us are subject to. And as for how I know, it's because I was there. I'm the one who set Spees up to fall. After all, your ancestor was one of my first experiments."
"LIAR!" Eve screamed, leaping forward and blindly slashing with the flickering sword.
De la Cruz dodged out of the way of the wild swings easily. "Huntress of great renown indeed! The progenitor of your bloodline was a whore, who rutted with anybody I pointed her at. She couldn't wait to bend over backwards for him, and he took full advantage of that, many times over. So much for those vows of chastity! He might still have been 'teaching' her if your many greats grandfather hadn't come along." He frowned. "I didn't expect to lose my control over her to him, but by then it didn't matter. She had done her job. She corrupted the great confessor, and introduced the flaw into the sword. That blade was forged impure, and it was to be mine along with his head. It's why, when I finally found the whereabouts of the castle twenty years ago, I ordered the attack. To reclaim my property...both it, and her descendents."
Eve, crying and shaking with rage,was making incomprehensible sounds as she swung at him and stumbled. De la Cruz smiled at her. "And I'll prove it to you."
He spun around suddenly, catching Roman charging up on him, and knocked him to the side. Roman fell, caught off guard. Quick as a cat the vampire lord turned to meet Eve's swing head on. And caught the blade in midair. It winked out.
Eve's gasp of horror was overshadowed by the roar of laughter from de la Cruz. He knocked the hilt out of her hand and flexed his razor sharp talons, ripping into her throat. She fell back to the ground spurting blood.
De la Cruz advanced on her, chortling. "The Sultan and Sultana may still get their entertainment after all." He smiled down at her. "After I get my fun first, of course."
"Not today, any day, or ever, de la Cruz."
De la Cruz turned in surprise to find Roman standing with the sword hilt clenched in both hands. "Really, Roman. Hero cliches? I'm shocked you didn't call me an evildoer while you were at it. And really, if you're going to play at being a hero, you really should have a weapon." Grinning, he stepped toward him.
"You talk too much," Roman panted, holding the empty hilt and willing it to work. Why wasn't it working? He felt nothing coming from the hilt. There was no light, no weight, no sword.
De la Cruz chuckled. "It only works for the pure, Roman. We both know that ship sailed a long time ago for you." He lunged, talons raised. In desperation Roman swung as if he had a full sword, knowing there was no other way he would be able to face the vampire. Please, he begged. She needs it. We need it. I need it.
The blade narrowly missed de la Cruz's head.
Roosevelt de la Cruz jumped back, his eyes wide. "As usual, you never cease to amaze me. I never would have thought it would come alive for you. You truly are a worthy adversary." He looked at the helpless women, then looked back at Roman, the smug smile back on his face. "Of course, I always knew you would be formidable. I've looked into your family history extensively. You have an impressive bloodline. What your father accomplished...and then there's the untapped potential of your brother. I've long thought about integrating you into my research. I shouldn't be surprised you've proven worthy of challenging me. In fact, you are probably the only one worthy enough to step up beside me."
Roman blinked at this unusual change of conversation. The sword was heavier than he thought, and he was having trouble concentrating.
"Think of it Roman! Think of the power you would gain by accepting my gift! We are immortal, Roman. We have power. That feeling of betrayal you feel? The sense of helplessness? Gone. You would call all the shots. You would be in charge, able to do what you want, take what you want. No growing old and losing strength. No retiring from the business. You can come and go however you please."
Roman felt the grogginess in his mind growing. He was having trouble thinking of any reason why de la Cruz's words were not the right decision. The words echoed in his head. The sword sagged.
"We are the takers, Roman. We are the ones who make the rules. We take whatever we want, whatever we desire. We indulge our secret lusts because we can. The strong get that right. That island princess you're travelling with? She's nothing to you. Take her. Make her yours. Show her where her place is, at your feet, beneath you, writhing for your pleasure, submissive to your every whim. She is mere flesh," he drew the word out, "and blood. She is there to serve your every need. She awaits your every command. Look at her, Roman. See how much she wants it. See how much she wants to be your slave."
Roman obediently turned and stared at Eve, lying on the floor clutching her throat. Eve watched him with horror that was rapidly dissolving into a need to please him, to submit himself to him. Her father's journal had warned of the vampire's ability to hypnotize with their eyes, but de la Cruz was draining her very sense of self with just his words, his presence. In spite of herself, horribly aware but uncaring, her free hand started to unbutton her shirt. She would offer herself to him as soon as he showed the least bit of interest. Hopefully she would become his favorite pet. She found herself mewling with desire.
Roman, for his part, was feeling things he had long suppressed. He was looking at Eve truly as a woman for the first time that night, as an object of desire. As an empty vessel waiting to be filled. As meat to be used. Not as a partner. Not as a potential protege. Not as a warrior. He struggled to rise above the murk in his mind even as he felt himself reacting to the thoughts of her as his slave, of all women as his slaves.
"She can be yours, Roman. She's the price of admission. Show us you want the power, Roman. You can even have my breeder in the corner too, if you'd like. She's useless to me now, but she is quite good. Very experienced. You'll like her."
The mewling sound that arose from the corner was mixed with bitter sobs as Rosalyn fought herself to keep from ripping off her own clothes.
Not an object of desire. Not a woman to bend to his will. Not meat. Not a slave.
De la Cruz's eyes shifted. "Or maybe I misjudged your tastes. Would you prefer the little one? That would still work for me, your bloodlines are compatible. As long as you don't leave a permanent mark on her."
De la Cruz gasped and fell back to one knee, bleeding from the slash across his chest. Roman staggered back as well, his eyes nearly blinded from the light. His head was exploding with pain, but at least it was clearing the fog away. He gritted his teeth as he tried to peer through the haze at the vampire.
De la Cruz grimaced as his body convulsed with pain, but he still barked a sharp laugh. "I was wrong about you. Pathetic idiot. When I feast on your whore and get my strength back I'll end you slowly. You're too weak to wield the sword properly, fool."
A bloody hand plucked the sword out of Roman's hands.
"I'm not," Eve stated flatly, and swung the sword in a wide arc. De la Cruz's head, locked in a gruesome smile, rolled to a stop in front of Rosalyn. She was crying freely now, clutching at her children. They simply stared, expressionless. With a deliberateness that bordered on indifference, the girl reached out and gently closed his eyes.
"We have to get out of here now."
Rosalyn broke the uncomfortable silence. She got up, coaxing the children on their feet as well. Her face, though still tear streaked and puffy, was calm and resolute.
Eve was leaning reluctantly against the counter as Roman tried to tie a ripped up kitchen towel around her neck. Though the artery hadn't been sliced, she was still bleeding, and he feared there might be damage to her vocal cords. He was still dazed himself, and his body ached all over. He didn't know if it was just that he was too old, or that he had taken more of a beating than he thought.
Eve tried to snort and failed. "What's the urgency?" she whispered. "This place is as good as any other at present. And why should we listen to the prior occupant's pet?" She ignored the twinge at those words.
Rosalyn met her gaze squarely. "Because now that he's dead, several events have been set into motion. The first is that I'm freed from my compulsion to serve him. My duty is now to my kids. But the more relevant reason is the medical device he had implanted inside of his heart that alerts whoever's on the other end that his heart has stopped. That would be the other two heads of the Ro'benson Cabal, who will most certainly send somebody, or something, to find out if he truly is dead and to take care of anybody left."
Roman clenched his jaw as he finished wrapping the towel around Eve's neck. It was more difficult to do without touching her. "Fine. Seems like it makes sense. We'll believe you for now. Do you have an escape contingency?" He hated trusting her, but he knew that she was a professional when it came to mission planning.
"Actually, yes. I've already contacted an extraction team," she held up a small key fob similar to his, but with only a single button on it, "but we need to hurry downstairs to meet up with them. There's a secret passage in the wine cellar."
Eve tried to stand and almost fell. She was pale from blood loss. He wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her. She tensed immediately, and he knew she was also still dealing with the aftereffects of the vampire's influence. He looked pointedly away from her and forced his body to relax. "Lead the way. Keep your hands where I can see them. I still don't trust murderers."
They followed her as she held the children's hands down a hallway and then down some stairs to a wine cellar. She pulled a bottle out of a rack and placed it in another rack. There was a click and then the whole section of wall swung open to reveal a circular stone stairwell leading down into gloom. She turned no light on. As they followed her down into the darkness, the humidity level rose and there was the sound of water splashing. They reached the bottom to find themselves beside an underground river in a sewer Rosalyn stopped, put a finger to her lips, and drew back into the dark alcove. She stared intently down one tunnel, clearly expecting someone.
By this time Roman had been carrying Eve, who was slipping in and out of consciousness. "Hey," he prodded her once they stopped. "Stay awake!" He felt the adrenaline rush from the events of the night abruptly leave him, and he sagged against the wall as he set her down on the ground, arms shaking. He knew she must be feeling even worse. "Say something!"
"Nothing to say. So tired. Are we safe?" she murmured.
"Not yet. Stay focused. Concentrate on backwards, say a verse, do something." He felt her pulse in her wrist and worried at how slow it was.
Silence dropped over them, only interrupted by the gentle splashing of the water; then, "tell me something then. How did you throw off the compulsion? How did you trigger the sword?"
She asked like she expected an answer. Strangely enough, Roman thought he knew it.
"I once knew a girl. Back when I was much younger, when I thought I ruled the world. In my early twenties. She was beautiful, smart, sassy, capable, strong. She had a dry wit that cut you even as you laughed. She knew how to put me in my place, but did it in such a way that it just made me fall for her even more. Stacy Varga. She was short, petite, just a little thing, and could have kicked my butt without breaking a sweat. Well trained. We weren't supposed to be involved with each other. We worked together, we went on missions together, and it was highly frowned on. But we couldn't help falling in love." He paused, remembering. Her mocking half smile, the studious look on her face when she was analyzing something, her constant hunt for excitement and adventure.
Eve, meanwhile, breathing heavily, looked up at him with sudden insight. "The marine?"
Roman nodded slowly. "It was supposed to be our last mission together, as coworkers. I had the ring in my pocket even as we jumped. I was going to do it after we successfully completed the mission. She had been assigned to protect me. For eight, wonderful months. We just clicked." He closed his eyes, seeing it again in excruciating detail. "She was supposed to jump after me, but she had a bad feeling about the mission. She insisted on going first."
He opened his eyes, his vision blurry. "I watched her die, in front of my eyes, and I prayed I wouldn't be next. I could only think of my own skin. I mourned her afterwards, and forever do, but in that second I was confronted with my worst self, my deepest flaw, and it was ugly.
He looked at Eve. "I think that's why I was able to resist de la Cruz. I've already been exposed to the worst of me, I've been scoured deep down, made to atone for my own inadequacies, I have experienced the best a woman can be for a man, and I threw it away, if only emotionally. I can't ever see people, especially females, the way his kind do. I couldn't, and still be able to honor her memory. It's what keeps me going." He paused. "And you said that the sword works on purity, right? Maybe that also means purity of focus and purpose, because that I have in spades. Especially right in that moment. Because I was going to kill him."
Eve looked away. "You have proven yourself more worthy than I. I could not resist it. I wanted what he was saying...and then what he said about my ancestor...he debased her and her line and he debased me…" she choked and grimaced in pain as the tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
Roman shook his head, but couldn't say anything. He didn't know what he could say. He looked up uncomfortably, and found the boy watching him intently. The girl was huddled next to her mother, staring at Eve with an unfathomable expression on her face. Roman felt a twinge of uneasiness looking at them.
"So what's your story, Rosalyn, if that's really your name? Are you or are you not working for these monsters? How did you come to be living with him?" He hesitated as he felt the next words come to mind, then plunged on. "Were you and he really…?"
Rosalyn glared at him, her face flushed. "Smooth, Roman. Yes, I was his whore. Is that what you wanted to hear? Are you happy? I couldn't control myself around him. I did anything he told me to and anything he ordered me to. I had to. It's how I was bred."
Roman frowned at her. "What?"
Rosalyn sighed, the exhaustion in her face evident. She reached out and hugged the boy closer to her. He clutched at her in turn. "I, and my familly and by extension my children, are the products of one of de la Cruz's many breeding programs. He used to be an alchemist and an archivist back in the Dark Ages before he was cursed. He somehow determined that genetic bloodlines were the key to the future, whether humans or other. He felt he could create the perfect slave for any situation with selective breeding and mingling his own blood with ours at the genetic level. You know, because he was so much greater than us. He has been...pruning...several bloodlines, hundreds of families across the globe for centuries. Arranging marriages, keeping track of births, removing less than desirable traits. Most don't even know he exists...existed."
She reached up and massaged her temples. "That's really how he knows about you and your family Roman. That's why you were hired. That you were good at your job was icing on the cake and a great excuse to get you close. His plan all along was to draw you into accepting the curse and bringing you to bear. With the intention of using you to continue to breed the perfect soldier."
Roman suppressed a shudder. This was way more far reaching than he had originally thought. "Wait, isn't...wasn't he a vampire though? I thought they were just about sucking blood, not, you know, bloodlines."
"The curse creates a mortis change in the victim, causing internal deterioration but also dramatically slowing down and arresting some vital varies from person to person. They're not immortal, they're just long-lived. De la Cruz discovered that his...seed...was still viable. He took full advantage of it, indulging his lusts in the name of science. He believed that his tainted blood was the key to creating stable and powerful mutations. My grandmother, my mother, and I are all directly related to him. He's my father, my grandfather, and if I had proved worthy he would have been my sire as well." She said this in a resigned way, as if the horror of her words no longer bothered her. She looked down at the children. "These are his children, Christian and Andrea. They are the light of my life and my only reason for living. I did everything I could to protect them from him. He didn't think of them as his children, he saw them as the latest in his experiments. And he made sure they always knew what their purpose in life was going to be from an early age, where they stood with him. Part of the indoctrination process."
Roman glanced down at the girl and found her staring at him. This close, he could see that though her face was a carefully crafted blank mask, her eyes communicated the hopeless despair embedded in her soul. He couldn't help but stare back in horrified sadness. "Was he really offering her to me?" he whispered hoarsely.
Rosalyn nodded sadly without looking at him. "It wouldn't be the first time."
The echoing sounds of a motor briefly drew everyone's attention away. "Who's coming?" Roman asked.
"A group that specializes in dealing with strange situations. A gang of misfits that I only recently made the acquaintance of. I'm pretty sure the vampires don't know about the Black Lotus. They'll help us get to safety, without incident or fear of discovery. They can be trusted."
"Unlike others," muttered Eve. Roman simply nodded. He looked down at Eve to find her eyes closed. He checked her pulse again, just to be on the safe side. Her heartbeat was a little stronger.
"Who is chasing us? You said the other two leaders? Vampires too?"
"I think so. Lydia has been around a lot longer than either of them. I don't know as much about her. But if she's not a vampire lord, she's got to be a demon. She's very powerful, and very scary. She keeps strange company, and she's the only one without a house on the grounds. Both of them deferred to her. But Thomas King is pretty scary himself. He's usually out of the country taking care of estate business, but he's here now overseeing a merger with another company."
Roman went cold, and lifted his head sharply. "King? Thomas Alexander King?"
Rosalyn started. "Uh, yes, He looks young, like about your friend's age, but he's supposed to be at least as old as de la Cruz was."
Roman let out a breath. Then took another long deep breath and slowly let it out. His heart was pumping hard, and he felt the rage coming back again. Rosalyn glanced over to watch the boat pulling up, then turned back and frowned at the expression on his face. "What's wrong?"
"Thomas Alexander King was the name of the other agent on that mission, the only other survivor besides me, when Stacy died. He's the one who betrayed us."
The third time the knocking sounded at the door, it was far more insistent and impatient than the previous attempts. Roman checked the peephole to make sure it was who he thought it was and grinned. He patted down his shirt and waited a few more seconds. He could practically feel the man's seething. Then he reached up to undo the locks on the door and pulled it open.
"Detective Rogers! How surprising to see you out and about at this hour! Don't you people usually have urgent business at the coffee shop right about now?"
The craggy foreboding visage frowned at him. "Mr. Capule. I was beginning to think I was mistaken about you being an early riser." The huge man in the trenchcoat seemed to ignore Roman's opening comment. Instead, his eyes flicked to the open hallway behind Roman.
Roman started to smile even wider at first. For weeks they had played this game, and it seemed only he was enjoying it or even participating. When he saw where the detective's eyes rested though, he realized he was making a strategic mistake.
"So what can I help you with this morning that can't be discussed down at the station," he smoothly stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him, but he knew it was already too late. Rogers had seen the pile of shoes, some of them women's, stacked neatly next to the door.
Stan Rogers' face was expressionless, but Roman could still detect the smug gotcha in his eyes. "Just a few more questions, Mr. Capule. Really just cleaning up a couple of details. Our latest witness seems to have changed his testimony and can no longer be relied upon, but something else struck me. Do you have a moment?"His tone made it clear that he didn't care if he did nor not.
Roman looked pointedly at his watch, his face no longer amused. For two months the police had been investigating the disappearance and presumed murder of entrepreneurial tech genius Sean Quinn, and he and Eve were still at the top of the list of possible suspects. Roman knew that the only real reason for that was pressure being applied from what remained of the Robinson Estates. The fact that the head detective of the homicide division was the primary on the case was just further proof of that.
"I suppose, Detective, although I must really get back to my guests." No point in disguising that now. The policeman's appearance now was no coincidence. Either he had been staking the apartment out, or he had followed one of the group here. Neither option was appetizing.
Rogers had already taken out his notebook and was writing in it.
"Actually the question I have is really for Ms. Straus, if she's available to speak."
Roman smiled grimly. Of course it was. "Her injuries were quite extensive, as you remember detective, and are still healing. Plus, her nurse has her on some powerful medications. She's currently sleeping."
The tall man nodded, as if he had expected that answer.
"Then I'll ask you to relay the question to her, and communicate it back to me as soon as you can. I can count on your integrity on this, right? The eyes flicked up at Roman, then jumped back down to his notebook. Roman wasn't fooled. He was smiling amicably, but his jaw practically ached from keeping his face loose.
"Getting back to the night in question, we were given the impression that you and Ms. Strauss had left together with the missing individual, but you continue to assert that there was no further contact between you, right?" His eyes flung back up.
"Because we've been made aware of a message from a foreign dignitary asking to the whereabouts of Eve Strauss, an individual that Sean Quinn was financially linked to. It seems this person had a prior arrangement with the young lady."
The Sultan and Sultana. He had completely forgotten about that.
"Sorry detective. That doesn't ring any bells. I personally don't have any idea about that, but I'll be sure to ask her when she wakes up. I'll make sure to let you know what she says."
Rogers' eyes bored into his, unwavering. Roman kept his face passive, but briefly wondered if he had lapsed momentarily when Rogers nodded and started writing again, satisfied.
"See that you do, Mr. Capule. I'll be expecting your call. Make sure to keep yourself and Ms. Strauss available for any further information needed to solve this case." He snapped shut his notebook and abruptly turned and walked down the hallway.
Roman watched for a moment more, tempted to say something. When the dark suited man turned the corner out of sight, he relaxed slightly and slipped back inside. As he walked down the hallway to the living room, he nodded to the two hulking figures who had positioned themselves next to the doorway. Twins, massive and ugly as sin, Roman had mentally dubbed them Frank and Stein. He hadn't paid attention to their real names. The closer one smirked at him, as if he could read this thoughts. For all Roman knew, he could.
He walked into the crowded living room. Now that the threat of discovery was gone, the occupants were starting to talk and move around again. Occupying all the seating space the small area could hold, The Black Lotus looked at him expectantly.
Sitting in the only armchair scowling was Brock, the leader of this band. Roman had been dealing with the very stocky man for weeks now and still wasn't sure about him other than he was brusque and incredibly sharp minded. He was thickly muscled with a massive barrel chest, but only came up to about four and a quarter feet. He had a thick grey beard that he kept well groomed but was completely bald otherwise, and deep set black eyes that took in everything but gave nothing back. Roman had never seen him wear anything other than blue denim overalls with a grimy white t-shirt, a loaded brown leather toolbelt, and thick hobnailed boots.
Rosalyn and Eve were on the couch with Mary, the Black Lotus's healer. She was a perky Korean goth girl who loved to smile and chat. She had a round friendly face and was always dressed in black scrubs with skulls. Roman wasn't sure if she was a real nurse or not, but there wasn't a doubt that her presence was helping Eve to recover faster. She was a larger girl, and sat on one end of the couch with Eve beside her so she could support her. Eve, for her part, was dressed in some baggy pajamas that he had found at the corner drugstore and looked much better. She still had trouble speaking louder than a whisper, and whatever venom the vampire had pumped into her was running through her body, but the scar on her neck was mostly healed. Rosalyn was leaning forward, still bleary eyed from a late night with her kids, but her eyes still watch him as he moved, darting away when he looked directly at her.
Terra and Hunter, two newer additions to today's meeting, were standing by the patio doors, peeking out at the courtyard. The third man, a lean rangy man in all denim, was leaning against the wall near them. He was a mystery to him.
"Trouble?" Rosalyn asked, anxiously picking at her pants leg. Brock glowered at her.
Roman shook his head, his annoyance obvious. "Just a loose end I forgot to deal with. But it won't be a problem." Shouldn't be a problem, he amended to himself.
Brock's scowl depened. "Ye should be wary of the detective, lad. He is a hound to be feared once given a quarry. We have run afoul of him in the past."
"Be that as it may," Roman said dismissively as he nodded to one of the other visitors. "We have work to do, and little enough to do it. I'll handle the good Detective Rogers in my own time."
The man bounced forward, excited. Franklin was the techie of the group, enamoured of all things technical and technological, and a genius with all electronics. His tallish skinny form was hoisting a small black box that looked like an old record player was forced to mate with a slide projector and neither enjoyed it. As he busied himself connecting the mass of unidentifiable wires to the large LCD tv in the middle of the room, Roman turned back to Brock.
"So what's with the emergency meeting? I'm assuming you got some news on King?"
Brock looked pointedly at Rosalyn, who immediately leapt to her feet and walked up to stand next to the tv.
"We had a breakthrough earlier this week. We know where King is, and more importantly, we know what he's doing."
Everybody leaned forward expectantly.
"First, a little background. I've worked for the Robinson Estates for most of my life, in one fashion or another." A coughing fit from Eve seems coincidental, and Rosalyn's cheeks redden slightly. "In all that time, I was privy to a lot of their secrets. And even as well placed as I was, I don't have the first clue about the other two founders, Thomas Alexander King or Lydia O'Dell...who they really are, what their past was, or even what they were. They were able to stay hidden in the shadows. Until now. Franklin, are you ready?"
The lean tech gave her a grinning thumbs up as he flipped a switch on the device. At a word from Rosalyn, one of the men in back turned off the lights to reveal a 3D holographic display forming over the television screen that was now lying horizontal. There was a collective murmur as the group watched, fascinated. Even Brock's eyes raised up in surprise.
The projection was of a satellite picture rendered in exquisite detail, overlooking the earth. It was so life-like that Roman almost felt like he was free falling...a sensation that intensified when the image started zooming in to a location. Even as the zoom sped up, the image sharpened and clarified in detail. Many recognized most of the landscape and features that appeared then disappeared offscreen.
"This is the Al-Masalla obelisk of the Temple of Ra-Atum, in Al-Masalla, Cairo. It was the reliGious center of the ancient city of Heliopolis, during the Old Kingdom. We have come to find the pillar itself is the doorway to a pocket dimension, which is where King has been hiding for the past few weeks. It's a sure bet that as well hidden and powerful as it is, it's his base of operations and probably source of power."
The holographic display rotated around the obelisk as Rosalyn talked. Roman, his arms crossed, grunted.
"I still don't get it. Why here? Why Egypt?"
Rosalyn glanced nervously at Brock, who closed his eyes and nodded resignedly
"It's because King wasn't just any lawyer or monster. Thomas Alexander King was, is, the first pharaoh of Egypt. Ra-Atum, himself, to be exact."
In the reverberating silence that followed, Roman started laughing. He doubled over, laugh so hard he couldn't keep himself straight. He managed to catch Brock's scwl and Eve's shocked face out of the corner of his eye, and with great difficulty composed himself. Rosalyn was still starting at him, her lips pressed together.
"This isn't funny, Roman."
"No, it isn't. I'm sorry, I'm not laughing because it's funny. So you're saying that an ancient pharaoh...what...mummy?...sabotaged my mission to kidnap a Venezuelan cartel princess, had everybody killed in a double cross, went on to found a monster Illuminati healthcare PAC, and is now hiding in his pyramid with his tail between his legs?"
Mary broke into a giggle, and Brock redirected his glare at her. She practically slapped her hand over her mouth.
Rosalyn wearily shook her head. "He's not a mummy. That implies death. Thomas King is very much alive. He's very powerful and very old, but not dead. He's from a time before known recorded time, when the supernatural walked with the natural…"
"He's nephilim," Eve croaked. "An outsider. He's demonbred, demon raised. His kind consorted, " her face twisted on that word, "with mankind, to produce a creature spawned from Hell."
As the group watched the girl struggle with the aftereffects of speaking so much, Roman turned to Rosalyn.
"What's nephilim?" She wouldn't meet his eyes, and instead crouched down beside Franklin. Brock spoke up, surprisingly.
"Tis the name the holy gave to those of us that were around before the Cleansing. What your call called the Flood."
Roman rubbed his temples. "Like in the Bible?"
Rosalyn was fiddling with the controls of the projector with Franklin looking on worriedly. "To answer your earlier question, Roman, the reason why here, in particular, is because this portal leads to another dimension, to a sun temple. It was where Egyptian legends say the Benu-Phoenix, an ancient being of great power, would come to restore itself. It's possibly because of that legend that King is here. He might be planning something, something to do with its power. My sources, the same sources who gave us this breakthrough, told me that he comes here every few decades for months at a time. They can advise me better about what we can expect once we get there."
Mary couldn't contain herself any longer. "We're going there? After him?" The rest of the group started talking, either trying to get their two cents in or talking to each other. Rosalyn looked around, alarmed, and Eve paled as she tried to get Roman's attention.
Brock stood up, and silence instantly fell. "Aye, we go to him. There be no guarantee of when he'll come out, and we are losing time. It will be a dangerous mission, with potential casualties, but we must go to him. And make no mistake, he knows we come. He's not stupid. He'll have the best guarding him, creatures that no normal man can expect to confront in his worst nightmares. Ye must be prepared," Brock turned to Roman, "to witness horrors such as ye've not seen, and keep going, lad. We must prevail. There will be no second attack."
Roman stared at Brock, his words from earlier cascading in his mind. He really looked at him, and Brock met his gaze as if he knew where his thoughts were taking him.
"Your kind. You said your kind." Roman suddenly saw. Little details rose up over the past two months, inconsistencies that he had filed away. Pieces to a puzzle that now swirled into place to form a pattern he couldn't believe he hadn't seen before.
"You're not human." The two men kept their gazes steady on each other. Roman broke first, his eyes sweeping the room. "None of you are."
One of the men in back, the lean denim clad one, bared his teeth in a feral smile. Eve, horror slowly creeping over her face, shrank away from a suddenly quiet Mary who looked at her with apologetic eyes. Rosalyn slowly rose to her feet as the tension of the room skyrocket to razer edge.
Roman's body tensed as he mentally traced a path through the room that would get him to his hidden weapons and get Eve to safety. Brock also tensed, his muscles bulging as his mouth set in a firm line. The subtle movements of hands to attack positions filled the empty spaces.
Rosalyn's voice cut through the battle haze in his mind.
"Don't be an idiot, Roman. These are the good guys."
Roman whirled around, his reflexes uncoiling to evade an attack, to find her standing in front of a prostate Franklin, holding one of his previously hidden guns out to him by the barrel. His arm reached up to take it, then lowered to his side. All the tension flowed out of him and she nodded and flashed him a relieved smile.
"You know my past, as much as I could bring myself to share. I'm as human as is possible under the circumstances. But yes, the Black Lotus is not human. They fight against creatures like King and De la Cruz. Evil beings that look to exploit and corrupt and seduce and take and destroy. Not all of these...outsiders...are bad. Those creatures call themselves the Lords of the Earth, but we call them Unseelie. The evil ones. The ones who deal with demons."
"You are all tainted, abominations…" Eve's hoarse voice gasped as she tried to pulled herself up out of the couch. If she could levitate straight up into the air she would've been crawling on the ceiling by now.
"No, baby, the Church has lied to you. It's lied to all of you. They've been hiding our presence from everybody for centuries. They've always looked at anything not human as being evil. Really, we're just as different as you are. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just trying to survive in a cruel world." Eve looked at Mary, uncertainty in her eyes, but Mary's soothing tone seemed to visibly calm her.
Roman, his mind still buzzing, looked at the group with new vision. How had he never noticed how unnaturally short and stocky Brock was? Or the strange yellow silhouette that hovered just outside of Mary's body, mimicking her movements like a shadow? The twins Frank and Stein made The Undertaker from wrestling look like a circus midget. Even Franklin, as unassuming as he was, had a greenish tint to his skin.
He looked back to Rosalyn. "So there are good ones and bad ones? They're not human but help humans?" She nodded wordlessly.
"Okay. Okay, you know what, I can accept that too. It would plug up some gaps I've had some trouble with in all this business." He looked around the room again, taking in their relieved expressions and Eve's uncertain face.
"Is this all of us then? We're the strike team? I need some details on the mission. How do we get there, fly on fairy wings?" He was joking to lighten the tension, but some part of him was half expecting a yes.
Rosalyn smiled. "The rest of the team will meet us on site. And as far as fairy wings…" She held up an unusual key. "How does an airbus sound?"
Nine pairs of eyes watched the shadows lengthen around the obelisk from a parked van across the rubbled plaza.
Roman rubbed three hours of sleep out of his eyes and checked the clip in his gun once again. They were waiting for Rosalyn's agent to show himself, but they had been here for close to an hour. Brock assured them that if King didn't already know they were here, he would now, but she would not budge, insisting that getting up-to-date intel was the difference between a successful and disastrous mission. Roman agreed with her, but his patience was wearing thin. He checked the other members of the team to make sure they were holding up better.
The lean denim clad Russian, Markul, was a shapechanger, just like his giant bear of a counterpart, Hunter. Neither one had any weapons or equipment to check, so they took turns dozing lightly. Terra, an awkwardly muscular girl, was supposed to be some sort of elemental. She was in the copilot seat next to Brock, who had sat motionless staring at the obelisk with a scowl on his face. He had sat that way since he had been overruled on going right in. Rosalyn sat behind him, frowning and fiddling with a headset as she tried to hear the signal. Eve was next to him, with Mary beside her. She was still pale, but feeling stronger. She had insisted on coming with them, dead set on being present. She had at least conceded to staying in the back of the attack with Mary, who was something called a dryad.
The ninth pair of eyes belonged to a fluffy white housecat that seemed to have adopted the group. It had climbed onto the roof of the van and sat waiting as well. Nobody had acknowledged it, so Roman tried his best to ignore it as well.
The journey to this point had been relatively easy and trouble free, despite Rosalyn's misgivings. He could tell she was apprehensive about something she hadn't revealed to them. Her insistence on waiting for the agent bordered on manic, but she had overruled every attempt to discuss the issue. Since she was the mission organizer, they had reluctantly conceded. Roman knew it would not last long if the mystery man didn't show up, however.
Even as he thought about voicing his concern, however, Rosalyn's headset suddenly spewed static. At the same time two shadows detached from the plaza's edge and approached the van. Brock signaled for the team to mobilize. Without sound or pause, they exited the van and took up guard positions flanking the van. Rosalyn, Brock and Roman advanced to receive the visitors.
The man was dressed in a black cloak that covered his whole body. He had dark wavy hair and piercing blue eyes in an angular, mirthless face. A blue cross containing a vial set in ornate silver hung from his neck. Roman was slightly surprised to see his companion was a young girl, no older than Eve herself. She was pale with bright blonde hair that was bound in purple leather into two pigtails that stuck straight out from her headhead. She had a red pendant with a cross on it around her neck and was dressed similar to the man but with a red cloak. Neither looked like they were natives of the region.
The man's eyes flickered expressionlessly over the rest of the group before coming back to Rosalyn. "Aijin, you did not shade the truth when you said you come for battle. Good."
Rosalyn gave him a formal bow and said, "Amon, well met. Speed is of the essence. What information do you have for us?"
Instead of responding right away, Amon took a moment to look over the group, his eyes searching, assessing. When that piercing gaze settled on Roman, something in his eyes flickered, but then he turned back to Rosalyn.
"It is as you feared, Mistress. Tak has activated the Scions of the Dynasty. They wait just inside, ready for battle. And he has already started the ritual. You must be quick." He turned to leave, gesturing to his young shadow to follow. He paused, staring into the distance. "I am sorry, Aijin. It has been an honor to serve with you. I will send what help I can." Then they disappeared back into the shadows.
Roman glanced back at the rest of the group. Most had dark, grim looks. Markul shook his head in barely concealed dismay. Eve was pale and wide eyed. He sidled up to her. He couldn't help noticing that the cat had also disappeared.
"What's a Scion of the Dynasty, and why is everyone acting like we just heard our own eulogies?"
Eve shook her head, speechless. It was Mary who answered for her.
"Oh, honey, the Scions are such bad news. When Ra took over the Egyptians, he needed some trustworthy lackeys to rule in his place when he was taking care of his own business. So he took a servitor and his sister and her husband who were loyal to the death, and did horrible experiments on them. He bound fey flesh to them and infused them with demon blood and cast wicked spells on them. They were reborn as gods to the ancient Egyptians and brought the entire civilization to its knees in worship to Ra."
Eve closed her eyes. "My father's book mentions them. They are no longer alive but automatons, indestructible and powerful, without known weakness. Osiris, Set, Isis."
Roman nodded. "Of course. The party wouldn't be jumping without all the guests of honor." He checked his gun again, then unexpectedly grinned.
"Maybe it won't be as bad as we think?"
It was worse.
They had emerged from the portal into an ambush. They had appeared right at the edge of the original solar temple of Ra-Atum, a giant block of stone plaza open to an unmoving desert sun that blazed without mercy. In the center was the obelisk and altar, up a giant mass of steps that loomed over their heads, and the small figure of King could barely be made out next to them. The view was slightly obscured by the three large figures towering over them, already moving to attack even as Roman became aware of his surroundings.
Osiris was a mammoth block, at least nine feet tall and haphazardly wrapped in the decaying cloths of the ancient mummies. What skin could be seen between strips was sickly green and craggy and yet muscular and tough. He wore a tarnished crown and torc and swung a massive flail with ease that could send booming winds cutting into the group as it crashed into the ground, scattering them and wrecking their initial charge. Set was a white skinned figure only slightly shorter than Osiris armed with a sickle and a rod. His flaming hair glowed with mystical energies as he fired bolts of black power at the two shapechangers who leaped to grapple him. Isis was a lithe, dark skinned woman of Egyptian beauty dressed as an ancient Egyptian queen and twirling a staff bladed at both ends. She was impossibly fast and highly skilled at hand-to-hand combat.
They didn't make a single noise between them, but their attacks were so well-coordinated nobody could get past them or gain any sort of edge. The silent attacks unnerved the group. Worse was the speed, strength, and imperviousness of their attacks. Roman quickly realized his gun was useless. Isis was not only too fast to hit, but her spinning staff deflected the bullets everywhere. The shots simply glanced off Osiris's skin, and the bullets simply veered away from Set. He settled for trying to get past them to get a shot off at King, but he was thwarted there too. There was always at least one Scion between anybody and the center of the plaza. Roman knew it was deliberate, but he could see no way to gain any ground. Brock and Terra were going toe to toe with Osiris and losing, Set had the shapechangers writhing with pain as they were thrown aside, and Isis was reducing Rosalyn, Mary and Eve to tatters. Eve was just barely hanging on to her sword, her shoulders slumped in exhaustion.
Then a screech broke the strangely silent battle, and a massive eagle crackling with electricity erupted out of the portal behind them. It was followed by a cat person leading several other individuals. Amon's backup had arrived. The three Scions paused in their attacks, looked at each other for a split second, then fell back into a formation to better protect the area around the steps. This gave the original team a small break to confer, and Roman rushed to Eve's side.
"He's completing the ritual," she croaked, staggering against him. King's movements and erratic gestures slowed as he raised his prize from up off the altar. Roman and Eve stared in horror.
"NO!" screamed Rosalyn as Andrea's still form came into view in his arms. She tried to run to the steps but Isis swept her legs out from under her almost as an afterthought as she engaged the cat person.
Roman and Eve had already moved forward, him practically dragging her. For some reason there was a break in the fighting and he was able to reach the bottom steps. As he started up, gun drawn, Eve sagged down, finally out of energy. Roman stopped to grab at her, but she pressed the hilt of the sword into his free hand. The blade flickered out of existence.
"Go," she hissed, and drew a wicked looking dagger from her boot.
Roman, aware of the renewed fighting and the approaching presence of the Scions, briefly debated. But this might be their only chance, and they were out of time. He nodded to her and squeezed her shoulder, then bounded up the steps.
As he reached the top the sword blazed into life, white hot. Thoma Alexander King stood before him, expectantly holding a ceremonial dagger over the girl's throat. They locked eyes for the first time in decades. Roman noted that King hadn't aged a day since that mission.
King sneered at him. "Ah, Roman Capule. Or should we drop the pretenses? Should I call you by your real name, Cameron Paul? You should never have gotten this far, never gotten to this place, but it doesn't matter now. None of it matters. You're all too late. After all this time, after all the centuries of worrying about you, you're finally too late." His eyes were whirling, and Roman had the feeling that the creature had finally snapped. Behind him, the sigils on the obelisk glowed with an orange-red eminence, flowing in and out of the air, writhing with life. Roman felt a crackling in his head, and his eyes were drawn against their will to the obsidian tipped pyramid on top of the obelisk. He wrenched his eyes away and pointed the sword at King.
"I'm not too late, traitor. I'm here now. And I'm going to kill you. For this girl, for my friends, and for Stacy."
King's face contorted and he cackled. The light from the obelisk recoiled. "That jarhead was collateral damage. You were the one who was supposed to die. You were the one who was foretold to stop me and destroy my empire. And you may have inconvenienced us in the short term. But look at you now. One step and I slit this girl's throat. Completing the ritual. Giving me infinite power. All because you chose to come against me. ME!" he roared, spittle flying from his lips. "Your friends will be decimated by my loyal Scions. Your little Jamaican witch hunter is already dead. Thanks to ME! You've already lost, in the best way possible, without even a sliver of hope. By your own doing! When I release the Benu-Phoenix, this body will absorb all of its energies, and then I will kill her, taking it all for myself. You are…"
Lower the sword, Roman. He cannot hurt me or you.
The crackling resolved itself in his head into words, and Roman was half surprised to find the sigils flicking in rhythm to them.
You and the girl are safe. He does not know the power I command. He does not understand what he does. I will keep her safe. Come forward, Roman.
As Roman listened to King's tirade, he watched the light creep up the girl's feet, resembling ribbons of fire. The voice was gentle and sure, and he had a feeling it was to be trusted. Besides, he was out of options. Every way was death for someone he loved, someone innocent, someone undeserving.
Roman did the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. He lowered his arms and let the sword's blade blink out. Then he took a deep breath, stared King into shocked silence, and took a step forward.
The obelisk burst into flames as the dagger descended. His cry was drowned out by Rosalyn's scream as blood spurted out the girl's throat. King's triumphant sneer loomed in Roman's face as he rushed forward to staunch the wound. King lifted his arms to the pillar as it sprouted fiery wings and blazed into the form of a colossal bird made of flames that overcast the sun and plunged the entire temple into firelit darkness. All combat stopped as everybody looked up in fear and awe. King shouted arcane words up at the being. Roman, his hands, drenched in blood, was the only one close enough to see the sudden change in his face from confidence to horror. Then the phoenix blazed blue fire and exploded.
King screamed as he was bathed in the blue fire. He stumbled and fell down the steps away from Roman, burning to vaporous ash as he rolled. There was nothing left of him by the time he would have reached the bottom. At the same instant the three Scions groaned as one and toppled over, motionless.
Time seemed to slow.
The blue fire also showered down on Andrea and Roman. Roman watched in amazement as it covered her body, not burning her, but infusing her and making her body glow. The wound closed up and her eyes opened and looked up at him, so blue it hurt to look too long at them.
Thank you, Cameron. It has been centuries since I've been free.
"What just happened," he said to the girl, who was sitting up.
Andrea, or the being that was Andrea now, looked sadly at the carnage around them.
This could not have been avoided, but I truly wish it could have been. The creature you knew as Thomas Alexander King, or Tak as it liked to call itself, used my natural energies to empower itself. It's bonds kept me on the edge of immolation, the absolute peak of my power. Once I was released, once you were able to distract it, I was able to complete the process. It thought it had more control of me. It thought wrong. I have inhabited this body for now to protect it from death...although...She cocked her head at Roman in confused amusement.. Some of the residual energies seem to have empowered you as well. That is not a normal reaction in your kind.
Roman frowned as he tried to frame his next questions, but the being shook her head.
I cannot hold the sun here forever. Already this pocket dimension breaks down without its creator. We must depart quickly. She glanced at Rosalyn, who was frozen in mid race up the steps. And she needs her daughter back.
Roman hesitated, then nodded. I understand, he thought at her. What will happen to the girl?
I take many years to grow back into my full strength. I am eager for the rest. This body will house me for much of that time. I will not awaken unless needed. Goodbye, Cameron Paul, who is Roman Capule.
Time resumed as the blue glow faded from the girl's body. She collapsed into Roman's arms as Rosalyn breathlessly arrived. The frantic mother started checking the girl's vitals, but Roman had already relinquished her into Rosalyn's arms and was stepping away. He knew she would find nothing wrong with the girl other than a scratch on her throat. Instead, he started down the stairs, eyes fixed below him.
Isis had found Eve while he had gone for King. The huntress had tried to put up a fight to at least keep the goddess occupied, but there was no question what the outcome would be. Roman found her body next to the figure of the scion, the bladed staff still sticking out of her chest. He gently pulled it out and laid it down next to them, then he cradled her close. An ache he had not felt in years welled up inside him. He looked down at her face sadly, thinking of the price paid for doing what was necessary and wondering if it was worth the cost. He reached out with a trembling hand and closed her eyes.
As he did so, he saw his fingertips crackle with the same blue fire. With a start, he saw Eve's chest hitch, then start to rise. Her eyes popped open and she looked around in wide eyed confusion.
"Wh...what happened? Roman? Where's Isis? I remember pain…" Her hand flew to her chest, but judging from the speed the color was returning to her face, Roman knew she wouldn't find any wound.
"We won," he said simply. He looked up as the pseudo sun started fading black and shouts of hurry echoed around the temple. He looked back down at Eve.
"There are more of these monsters out there, Eve Strauss, of the Order of Tares. And we still have to find out what's happened to your family. Will you join me in the hunt?"
She looked up at him and smiled. "Let's get them."