No matter how he looked at it, the Nephilim had failed.
Troubled thoughts played through Aaron Corbet’s mind, over and over again, day in and day out as he fought the forces of darkness that had risen because of the Nephilim’s monumental defeat.
With the sound of fluttering wings and the rending of time and space, Aaron returned to the abandoned Saint Athanasius School and Orphanage, which had become the Nephilim’s home. He smelled of the sweat of violence, and was covered in the blood of monsters. Even the small victories they managed were not enough to take away the true stink of their failure.
Aaron opened his wings in the former library that now served as their television room, to see that he wasn’t the first to return. He could hear the chatter of one of the twenty-four-hour news channels they always had on now.
The Nephilim, the blending of humanity and the angelic in the perfect amalgam of God’s most cherished creations, were supposed to keep the world from harm. They had fought hard against those who had considered them a blight in the eyes of God, and had won the honor of being the earth’s protectors against the unnatural.
But then a heavenly threat had arisen. The Abomination of Desolation, an angel of destruction, had come to the world of man. He’d believed the earth was ripe with evil, and had attempted to destroy the planet.
The Nephilim had fought valiantly. Many had sacrificed their lives for what was only a partial victory. They had prevented the Abomination from ending the world, but they had not been able to stop it from severing the world’s ties to God and Heaven.
And now humanity was suffering. Creatures that had hidden in shadow began to emerge to claim their stake in a world that seemed to have been abandoned by the Lord.
The first thing Aaron’s eyes locked upon in the room was Vilma, and he was reminded of how beautiful his girlfriend was, and how much he loved her.
As if sensing his stare, Vilma turned to look at him. Behind her, Kraus, their resident healer, worked to clean up the newest injuries of the other two Nephilim who’d been out on their own missions. Melissa seemed to have injured her hand. It was bandaged, and she flexed and released it, testing her range of motion, as Kraus tended to a nasty-looking gash on Cameron’s cheek.
“Are they all right?” Aaron asked Vilma as she came toward him.
Hearing his voice, Gabriel, who had been sleeping in a patch of sunshine, jumped to his feet with a loud bark and ran to his master.
“They’re fine, but I should be asking you the same question,” Vilma said, eyeing him.
Aaron looked down at himself. His clothes were caked with blood and the filth of violent death. “You stink,”
Gabriel said, then sneezed violently.
“Sorry.” Aaron shrugged.
Earlier he had seen a report on CNN that monsters had taken up residence under the Golden Gate Bridge, preventing any travel between San Francisco and Marin County. Local law enforcement, and even the National Guard, had been called in to deal with these creatures identified as a species of Asian troll called Oni—but the loss of life had been great.
People… civilians… were not meant to deal with creatures such as these, which was why he had stepped in. Normally Aaron wouldn’t have gone alone, but there were other threats, other beasts emerging around the world, so they’d split up.
So many monsters out there now, and so few Nephilim.
“It’s not my blood,” Aaron replied. He flexed the muscles in his back, drawing his black wings beneath his flesh. He suddenly felt spasms of pain across his body, and stumbled slightly, dropping to one knee on the floor. “Well, not all of it anyway.”
Vilma was by his side in an instant.
“Think the fight might have taken a little bit more out of me than I thought,” Aaron said.
He’d flown to the Golden Gate and attacked before the little bit of sunlight had gone. Since the Abomination had cut off the world from heaven, the daylight hours were becoming shorter, the darkness falling earlier and earlier all around the world. Having confronted creatures like the Oni before, he knew that they disliked the daylight and would likely remain beneath the bridge while the sun was shining.
The trolls had been like sitting ducks, huddled together in a filthy group of fur and fang. Aaron remembered a time, not too long ago, when launching an attack on an unsuspecting enemy would have bothered him, would have made him think that he was somehow being unfair.
But that was before he’d started to bury his friends, and seen these nightmarish monsters feed upon the remains of the dead.
“Unmerciful” would probably be the best word to define him these days, and he found that very sad. “Are you all right, Aaron?”
Gabriel asked, coming in very close to sniff his face.
“I’m fine, boy.” Aaron reached out to pet his dog’s head. “Just a little tired.”
“It’s a wonder that you’re still able to function at all,” Vilma said, getting beneath one of his arms and helping Aaron to stand. “How much sleep have you had in the last few days? Be honest with me.”
Vilma steered him over to where Kraus was finishing up with Cameron.
“Not much,” he answered, wincing in pain as he sat in one of the old wooden chairs that had been left behind when the school had been abandoned.
Vilma stepped back, and Kraus went to work.
“Remove your shirt,” he told Aaron in a no-nonsense tone.
Aaron tried, but he just couldn’t seem to get the shirt up over his head.
“For Heaven’s sake,” Vilma said, rushing over to help him pull the bloody T-shirt from his body.
“No amount of washing is going to ever get this clean again,” she said, tossing the filthy garment to the floor.
“Hey,” Aaron said without much conviction. “That’s one of my best shirts.”
Gabriel sniffed at the filthy pile of cloth, and the hackles on his golden back rose like quills. “Trolls,”
the Labrador said in the language of his breed. “I don’t like trolls at all.”
“The Oni aren’t very likeable,” Aaron confirmed as Kraus worked, cleaning up various bites and scratches.
Considering the level of combat he’d encountered, Aaron was surprised that he hadn’t sustained more damage. He’d gone right at the Oni nest beneath the bridge, attacking with a sword of heavenly fire. The Oni hadn’t cared for that in the least. Many had risked the pain of daylight to crawl from their hiding places and confront him.
He remembered the stink of their fur as they’d burned with the touch of his sword and the rays of the sun, and felt himself grow nauseous. The air had become saturated with the smell as he’d fought wave after wave of the snarling things. Beneath the suspension bridge Aaron had found the remains of people who had tried to cross, stored for later consumption in thick weblike cocoons created with Oni saliva. It was a horrible sight, and one that he doubted he would ever forget.
He’d used that memory, that horrible, disturbing memory, as he’d fought the trolls that had been responsible for such heinous acts against other living creatures, killing one after another until they were all dead.
Aaron leaned back against the chair now. His eyes were heavy with exhaustion, and he felt his head begin to nod, only to snap back up just as sleep was about to claim him.
“Is he all right, Kraus?” Vilma asked the healer as she reached out to steady Aaron.
“Unless there are internal injuries that I’m unaware of, he should be fine.”
“Hear that? I’m fine,” Aaron said, his eyes fluttering as he tried to stay awake. He glanced over to see Melissa and Cameron watching him, concern in their eyes.
“Are you two okay?” he asked them.
“Fine,” Melissa said, holding up her bandaged hand. “I can feel it healing already.”
“I’m okay too,” Cameron said, touching the bandage on his cheek. “Besides, girls love scars; they add character.” He laughed as Melissa punched him.
Aaron felt a pressure under his arm and looked up as Vilma pulled him up from the chair and began to lead him from the room.
“Where are we going?” he asked, trying to halt his progress.
“You need a shower, and some sleep,” Vilma replied.
On the big-screen television behind him he heard the report of a city in Ukraine being besieged by what looked to be giant bats. He planted his feet to hear the rest of the news coverage.
“No,” Vilma said firmly, pulling him around to face her.
“Melissa and Cameron are hurt. They aren’t in any condition to go. I—” he started to explain.
“They’re not going anywhere either,” she interrupted, loud enough so they all could hear. “We’re running ourselves ragged, and it’s not going to do anybody any good at all if we’re making mistakes. Mistakes could get us killed.”
Gabriel stood beside her, his tail tucked and his head bowed in submission. “She’s right, Aaron.”
Aaron was going to argue, but deep down he knew that they were
“We all need to rest—to heal.” Vilma looked around the room again, certain to make eye contact with Cameron and Melissa.
“Okay,” Aaron said, giving in. “We’ll rest.” Really, he was too damn tired to fight anyway. “Two hours. Then you wake me up. Deal?”
Vilma moved in close to him again, ushering him from the room.
“Shower first. You stink like death,” she said. “Then two hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Ms. Santiago.” Aaron surrendered as the reports of even more horrors droned from the television in the other room. Two hours. And then back to work.
* * *
Vilma waited until Aaron was finished with his shower, and then escorted him to bed.
He’d done exactly what she’d thought he would, telling her that he was feeling much better and much more awake, and that he could take care of those bats and be back for a rest in no time.
Vilma didn’t even feel it necessary to respond. She and Gabriel escorted Aaron, wrapped in a towel, from the shower room to the bedroom they shared.
“Sleep,” she commanded, pointing to the mattress.
He looked like he was about to argue, and then thought better of it. Smart boy
Aaron stumbled across the room like the Corpse Riders they’d encountered not long ago. At least he now smelled better.
He fell onto the mattress, and barely had the sheet and comforter over him before he was asleep. “Do you think he’ll stay there if we leave?”
Gabriel asked Vilma.
“You could stand guard if you want, but I think he’s down for the count.” “And how about you?”
the dog asked her.
“What about me?” she questioned, heading back to the TV room, where they’d left the others. She wanted to be sure that Melissa and Cameron were listening to her orders. “You’ve taken on more responsibility as second in command, and you haven’t been sleeping all that much either,”
Gabriel reminded her.
“I don’t need that much sleep,” she lied. “Never have. I was always the early riser in my family.”
Which wasn’t a lie, but it had had more to do with her studies in school. Those days seemed so very long ago now. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even looked at a book. “You look tired,”
Gabriel said, looking up at her as they walked.
Vilma stopped, and squatted down to his level.
“I’m fine.” She scratched him behind one of his golden yellow ears. “It’s just that things are a little intense around here.” “I worry about you,”
Gabriel said, and licked her hand. “I worry about all of you.”
She smiled, leaning forward to kiss the top of his head.
“Good ole Gabriel,” she said. “It’s nice to know that somebody is looking out for us.”
She stood then, knees cracking as she did. “That didn’t sound good,”
“It felt even worse.” Vilma laughed. “Must be getting old.”
There was truth to what she said. Over the last few months she felt like she’d aged physically, and mentally.
She was sure that she wasn’t supposed to feel this way at nineteen, but then again, most nineteen-year-olds weren’t out killing beasts that seemed like they’d crawled out of Stephen King’s worst nightmare. “Or maybe you’re just not taking care of yourself the way you should,”
the dog suggested as they walked down the hallway again. “I’m just saying.”
“I’m not going to deny that there’s some truth to what you’re saying. Which is why I put Aaron to bed, and told the others to…” Vilma trailed off as they entered the TV room and saw Melissa’s wings emerge from her back. Cameron’s wings were out too, and he was about to cloak his body with them to disappear, off to who knows where.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Vilma asked, striding into the room.
Kraus stood silently nearby, putting away his creams and salves.
“We’ve had a breather,” Cameron said. “There’s something going on at the Great Wall of China, and an ocean liner is under attack off the coast of Africa. We thought we’d go and check things out before—”
“No,” Vilma said.
Cameron gave her a quizzical smile. “What do you mean ‘no’?”
“What part of ‘everyone needs a rest’ didn’t you understand?” she asked sternly.
“I got it, but I thought you were just saying that to get Aaron to lie down for a while,” Cameron explained. “We’re fine,” he said, looking at Melissa, who nodded in agreement. “We can handle a few more situations before we crash.”
“And I said no,” Vilma said with even more forcefulness.
Anger suddenly showed upon Cameron’s face. “We can’t just do nothing,” the younger Nephilim said. “There are people dying all over the world in ways too horrible to even think about,” he said, gesturing to the television screen that was reporting on some other bizarre and potentially fatal incident.
do nothing,” she said, snatching up the remote from one of the chairs and turning off the broadcast. “We have
to do nothing,” she stressed. “For a little while. Just until we’ve recharged.”
“But people are dying,” Melissa argued.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Vilma snapped. “But I also know that we’ve been going nonstop, traveling all over the world, dealing with one emerging threat after another, saving lives, but we’re killing ourselves.”
Cameron was about to argue, but Vilma silenced him with a stare.
“As far as we know we’re the only ones of our kind capable of dealing with these threats. And the last time I checked, there weren’t all that many of us left.”
“But we have to do something,” Cameron insisted.
“And we are,” Vilma answered him. “By resting we keep ourselves fresh and on the ball. We’ll be less likely to make mistakes—and more likely to survive our battles.”
Vilma paused, the realization of what she was about to say taking quite a bit from her.
“We can’t save everybody,” she said quietly. “And we’re going to be able to help even fewer people if we go out there running on fumes.”
She looked over at Kraus, who was trying to slip out of the room unnoticed.
“Back me up, Kraus?” she asked.
The healer of angels stopped, and slowly turned. “You’re completely right, Miss Santiago,” he said. “One’s level of performance diminishes greatly while fighting the effects of mental and physical fatigue.”
Vilma looked back to Cameron and Melissa. “So that’s just how it’s going to be.”
“How long?” Cameron asked, his shoulders slumping, his wings sliding into his back.
“Go back to your rooms,” Vilma said. “Rest… nap, do whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries. We’ll talk again in a couple ’a hours.”
She could see that the Nephilim weren’t happy, turning away in a huff to retreat to their rooms.
“Don’t test me on this, guys,” she warned, just in case they were thinking of going off against her wishes. “You wouldn’t care for the repercussions.”
The threat sounded good, even though she had no idea what the punishment would be. Maybe she’d make them hang out with Verchiel for an afternoon—and she wouldn’t wish that on a goblin or rabid grackleflint. Verchiel,
she thought as she watched the two Nephilim leave the television room. He was the former leader of the Powers, the angelic host whose sole purpose had been to hunt down and slaughter all Nephilim. And he lived with the Nephilim now. After supposedly dying in battle, the murderous angel had been sent back to earth, for what purpose, nobody could really decipher.
One of the theories was that he’d been sent to make amends for the sins that he had committed as leader of the Powers. And what better way to make amends than by helping the Nephilim keep the world from plunging into total darkness?
She hadn’t seen Verchiel in a few days and wondered if she should pay the nasty angel a visit. Maybe he would be able to impart some heavenly wisdom about what they could—or should—be doing in order to continue with their mission.
Vilma truly didn’t expect much from Verchiel, but at this point she was willing to try just about anything that might help them.
Even talking with an angel who had tried to kill her.
* * *
The visions were killing him.
Dustin “Dusty” Handy lay on the mattress in the middle of the room the Nephilim had given him, and shook as if he were in the grip of a soaring fever.
His eyes were tightly closed, but he could see the images of all that was happening out there in the world—nightmares made reality.
The visions came at him in waves. It was as if every single television channel were being beamed onto one screen in his mind, all at once, and at the highest volume. He’d tried to fight the visions, to get them under control, but he just didn’t think he was strong enough. And when they were at their worst, he knew that to be true.
Dying was starting to look better and better.
Sometimes Dusty would take a memory and try to focus on that, to drown out all the other images that cascaded through his mind. He would often think about the blind old man who had given him the responsibility of a special horn.
The responsibility of the Instrument.
The Instrument had belonged to the angel Gabriel, and it was to be given only to one strong enough to control its power. The horn was to be blown only when all hope was lost and darkness was about to claim victory, when it was time for the world to die.
Dusty had tried to fight the urgings of the Instrument that had wanted him to play it, to call down an angel of destruction to end the world’s pain, and he’d been doing really well until…
Until he wasn’t. Overwhelmed, and unable to resist the Instrument any longer, he’d blown into it, then in the shape of a harmonica, sending the planet that much closer to extinction.
The Instrument had called down the monstrous angel—the Abomination of Desolation—and the Nephilim had done battle with the horrible result that Dusty had been responsible for summoning.
The Nephilim had managed to stop the Abomination from performing its sole duty, but not before it had transformed the Instrument into the mother of all swords and plunged it into the earth, severing the world’s connection with Heaven.
The enormous sword was still there outside the Nephilim’s haven, protruding from the ground like an antenna, broadcasting these visions inside Dusty’s skull.
Driving him to the brink of madness.
When he wasn’t thinking about how the world had become so screwed up, Dusty contemplated ending it all. But how he would kill himself was the question.
He wondered if Kraus had anything stronger than foul-smelling salves in that bag of his, something that could put him out of his misery quickly and painlessly.
But suicide would have to wait, as there came a knocking at Dusty’s door. Before he could answer, the person on the other side opened the door.
“Rise and shine, handsome,” Lorelei said as she limped into his room, the rubber tip at the end of her cane thumping on the wooden floor.
Dusty had just enough strength to lift his head. Since all the business with the Instrument and the visions, he’d been gradually losing his eyesight. Now he could only see blurred shapes and outlines. Soon he would have just the visions inside his head.
“Is it bad?” she asked.
Dusty must’ve looked as nasty as he felt. “Yeah,” he managed, head falling back onto the pillow.
“Well, you’re not doing yourself, or anybody else, any good lying here in the dark. Get your ass up, and we’ll see if we can mix up something in the science lab to help you out.”
Just the idea of standing was enough to send Dusty’s body into fitful spasms, the visions intensifying to the point where he wanted to scream, but he was too weak to do so.
“Please,” Dusty managed, wrapping his hands around his head to keep it from exploding. “I want to die.”
He heard Lorelei grunt at this, and then felt her cane strike him hard in the groin. Dusty let out another painful cry, distracted suddenly from the torturous images inside his head.
“Get up,” she commanded. “You only get to die when you’ve outlived your usefulness,” Lorelei said cruelly. “And I see a whole lot of potential in you and that horror show going on inside your skull.”
* * *
It was a spell that required strength Lorelei really could not spare, but she knew she had no choice. If she didn’t do something to help Dusty, he wasn’t going to be able to survive, and she needed him. The tiny mouse perched on her shoulder squeaked a warning into her ear, as if sensing what she was about to do.
“I know, I know,” she muttered in response to the tiny rodent, who had been named Milton by his former owner—Lucifer Morningstar. Leaning heavily upon her cane, she knelt her magick-ravaged body on the floor with a minimum of discomfort. It was the getting up that would be a bitch.
“But there really isn’t much of a choice.”
She knew the spell well, having used it quite often over the last few weeks to give the Nephilim that extra power in order to accomplish their missions. Lorelei liked to think of it as the magickal equivalent of a Red Bull, only it was her supernaturally charged life force that gave her recipients the extra kick.
The spell she was going to use on Dusty was slightly different. It would boost his ability to focus, rather than his ability to wave a flaming sword around for a few extra hours.
She muttered the ancient Archon words beneath her breath, and felt herself grow weaker almost immediately. This side effect had heightened since the business with the Abomination of Desolation. Wielding the Archon spells now stole her life energy far faster than her body could replenish it. But it’s all for a good cause
, she thought, bringing her tingling fingertips toward Dusty’s sweaty face. The young man thrashed his head from side to side, as if in the grip of delirium.
“Hold still,” she commanded as she placed her fingers upon his dampened brow, and let the power of the spell flow into him.
Dusty let out a cry, his body going rigid beneath the sheet as she momentarily entered his mind, strengthening his ability to hold at bay all that plagued him. At the same time she glimpsed a bit of what he was experiencing.
She’d helped Dusty before, each time understanding more about his strange gift related to having care of the Instrument. It was wild inside his head, and she honestly hadn’t a clue how he had lasted this long, which was probably why he’d been chosen to receive this gift, this burden.
Dusty’s mind was strong.
The potential she saw inside his brain was truly exciting. In Dusty, Lorelei hoped they’d found a way to track and hunt down the nightmarish threats that plagued the world. She also hoped he could eventually show them how to restore the world to some state of normalcy.
And perhaps even locate the missing Lucifer Morningstar in the process. Finding Lucifer was a priority. He’d been missing for close to a month, and no matter what sort of spell Lorelei attempted, she couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere. It was as if Lucifer had vanished, or even worse, been eradicated. She didn’t want to believe either of those options, so she kept on searching, even though each new spell shortened her life by minutes, hours, and sometimes even days.
She removed her fingertips from Dusty’s brow, breaking their connection. She immediately felt dizzy. The spell had most definitely taken its toll. It took all the strength she had to rise to her feet again and make her way to lean against the wall.
“How’s that?” she asked.
Dusty was sitting up now, his feverish look temporarily gone.
“It’s good,” he said, running a hand through his longish brown hair. His eyes seemed to focus on her then, taking her in. “But what about you?”
Lorelei pushed off from the wall, not wanting to show any weakness. Milton the mouse clung to her neck, his tiny whiskers tickling her ear as he told her in his simple mouse language that she should rest. But Lorelei wasn’t listening.
“Don’t you worry about me,” she instructed. “Let’s worry about getting you out of that bed and back to the lab with me.”
Dusty crawled out from beneath the sheet, wearing only a pair of sweatpants. Lorelei turned around, giving him a little bit of privacy so that he could get dressed.
“How much longer can you keep this up?” Dusty asked. She could hear the jangle of his belt as he pulled on his pants.
“What? You mean helping you out?”
“All of it,” Dusty said. Lorelei turned to face him as Dusty buttoned his shirt. “Helping me, finding new threats to the world, looking for Lucifer, giving up a part of your life energy so that—”
“I said not to worry,” Lorelei said. “I signed up for this, and I’m in it for the long haul.”
But she could sense that life would soon be coming to an end for her, and she didn’t have the heart to tell Dusty that all of this responsibility would soon belong to him.