At the base of the bridge, Bailien waited, watching the water, looking for Lucien, ignoring the sharks’ fins periodically slitting the surface. The river washed over his foot-claws, lunging past the base’s black, moss-gummed lips.
Behind him, the priest was unconscious, propped into a sitting position against the stone stanchion, breathing deep and even, a swollen dark bruise on his temple. The sleep spell hadn’t worked on the mortal and Bailien had had to use force. He’d been careful and hadn’t broken skin.
He’d dispatched William, to find out who the women traveling with the priest and the girl was, where she resided.
“Weak one,” he remembered Raguel saying. Those words had stung. They still did. Yet he couldn’t let go of the fact that he saw no recognition in his betrayer’s face. Why? How couldn’t he remember those he’d betrayed? Was it because Raguel had been more interested in his blood than a reunion? Lost in the Bloodlust? Why would a demon keep such company? Befriend a priest? Save an innocent? More mysteries than Bailien had the time for. District One’s coven leaders would be here soon. He had to return to the coven.
His thoughts then turned to the trio of benevolent souls. The child’s aura. So bright. So pristine. Unmarred and innocent. Never had he seen such an aura. Though rare, it wasn’t unheard of for a child of twelve to retain such purity. He marveled at how such a tiny vessel could contain it.
And what about the women. Bailien had seen her soul’s scars. Yet, the pain that had previously soaked her soul had been removed, once coveted malevolent emotions displaced. Such hurt wasn’t so easily dispatched. Another enigma. Pieces of a puzzle he couldn’t put together. Not yet, anyway.
The priest’s aura reflected a benignant soul, one that rarely, if ever, strayed from morality’s path. It hadn’t always been so. At some point in his life, the priest had committed a mortal sin. Several, in fact. Yet he hadn’t devolved. Hadn’t succumbed to the dark. Impressive, for it was so rare.
The water rippled. Shark fins fanned out, steered away from the disturbed area seconds before Lucien exploded from the water. He landed next to Bailien, who felt the concrete beneath his feet undulate like the river’s waves.
Lucien shook himself, sprayed both Bailien and the priest with water. Father Purgeon slept through it. Bailien wiped the river away from his eyes.
“What was the point of that?” Bailien asked, staring at Lucien in shear amazement.
Lucien knew that Bailien wasn’t referring to the drenching, but to him leaping after the Winged-One.
“Difficult catching a Winged-One without wings,” Bailien said. “Still haven’t adjusted to that wolf form of yours.”
This enraged Lucien. Had Bailien forgot whom he was talking to? Had he forgotten that Lucien once commanded House Wrath’s legions, that he was subordinate to Lucien, beneath him? Seemed like Bailien needed some reminding.
“You overstep yourself, Bailien!” Lucien said. “Remember whom you serve.” He stood on his hind legs, rose to his full height and glared at Bailien. “I will kill him, Bailien, with or without wings.”
Bailien wondered if he’d made a mistake following Lucien on that mad mission to take Heaven. That failed mission that had landed them in this current predicament. The one that had entailed trusting the Gatemaster, Raguel in the first place. Embarking on that mission had been a mistake. Trusting Raguel had been a mistake. Following Lucien had been a mistake. Yet, he’d served under Lucien since the Revolt, when Lucifer had raised his banners against God, and abandoning his liege lord wasn’t something he could easily do. But Lucien was making it difficult to resist the urge to forsake him. Bailien had been out from Lucien’s wing for twelve mortal years, and that freedom, that time away from him, had allowed Bailien to actually see that Lucien was no longer worthy of service, no longer worthy to lead. Perhaps, never had been.
“Raguel will return, Lucien. For his friend. For a feast. Maybe even for me. Whose blood on this realm’s more powerful than mine? You saw him. He could hardly contain himself; it’ll only get worse. He’ll take care of what we can’t. What we wouldn’t dare to, without feeling Hell’s wrath. He’ll also prove us right, however unintentionally, that the Mortal Born are unworthy to serve us upon this realm, at least in positions of power. Astor doesn’t know the Recreant’s a Winged-One. And what he doesn’t know will kill him.”
“Astor knows that his coven’s security is compromised. He knows that the Recreant can enter the coven after having fed off two of his minions.” Lucien’s brow furrowed in understanding. “But, he would not understand why a Recreant would want to do such a thing. He does not know that the Recreant has befriended the priest and will come for him. He will not expect it. But we know. We know he will come.”
Lucien was grinning, feeling an emotion he wasn’t used to feeling. Mirth. The only one he wanted to kill as much as Raguel was Astor. Bailien was right. Astor wouldn’t expect a Mortal Born Recreant to invade his coven, not with an entire coven’s worth of vampires at his disposal. He wouldn’t be prepared to fend off such an attack. But Lucien wasn’t interested in any plan that didn’t include Raguel’s demise, the betrayer’s death by his hands. “And what then? Hand him over to Hell? To the Seven? You ask more than I can give. Besides, it is best we dispatch Raguel now. He is more dangerous now. Now that he is addicted to the blood. How do you propose to stop him once he wields his weapons, his songs? Too risky.”
Though Bailien was loath to admit it, Lucien had a point. But Bailien felt he had one better. “That’s a possibility, but he’s never been to Hell. He’s never been reborn in blood, given the blood of our Father. How could he have possibly learned to convert his angelic songs into demonic ones?” Bailien felt that there was more to Raguel, more than the addiction, possibly having something to do with avoiding Hell. “He looks like a demon, but I believe, only in form. He’s defiantly not an angel, for he’s betrayed Heaven as well as us. By avoiding Hell, he’s deprived himself of the power to brandish the songs he would’ve learned. I’ll take my chances on a hunch. It’s the only way, Lucien. Hell will honor us if we prevail. Asmodeus will have to release us, return us to our proper House. Don’t you want reinstatement? Don’t you want your body back? Your wings? I know I do.”
Lucien thought on Bailien’s words. Bailien’s hunch made sense. But was it worth delaying vengeance? Could he hold his hate? After all, he did want his body back, wanted his legion back, and all the powers he’d once wielded. But he didn’t think he could do it. He knew he wouldn’t be able to control himself once he laid eyes upon Raguel again. But he nodded his head in ascent anyway to appease Bailien, for now.
“Once inside, follow my lead,” Bailien said as he made his way over to the priest and shoved him to the ground and out of the way. The priest’s cheek met stone. Another bruise that would be waiting for him when he woke. Where Father Purgeon’s back had been, the red seal of Asmodeus blazed, beating like a heartbeat. Bailien palmed the sigil and crimson light punched past his fingers.
Matching scarlet illumination seeped from underneath the cuff of his overcoat as the sigil on his forearm awakened along with the sigil set in the masonry. The sigil on the wall ceased blinking, remained lit for several seconds, and then winked out, as did the one on his arm. Bailien removed his hand.
The sound of stone grating on stone as a slab of wall rumbled askance and revealed a passageway descending into darkness.
Lucien tossed the priest onto his back, grasped the arms now hanging over his shoulders, and followed Bailien below, into the Coven of the Bridge.
In the Hall of Gathering, Astor, agitated and anxious, was sitting in the host’s chair to keep himself from pacing. He’d been patient. He’d given Bailien and the dog enough time. The others would be here soon. Bailien and Lucien were cutting it close. Astor had wanted the Recreant captured before the other coven leaders arrived. Then he wouldn’t have to ask for aid. Then he wouldn’t seem so weak.
Now he’d have to warn them. Now he had no choice.
There were six naked humans chained to the walls, bruised and beaten, but very much alive. Refreshments for the guests. All of them faced the blood-smeared walls. Lust’s sigil branded into each rump. Siphoning, transparent tubes imbedded within their skin. Attached to every artery. Blood flowed through the tubes running up the walls and across the ceilings’ concaved dome. Decoratively depending just above seven iron goblets set before seven steel chairs surrounding a round metal table. Each tube dammed shut by the miniature valves at their ends. Each cup had a House sigil as did each seat.
Astor had sipped his share while waiting. Though far too agitated to feed, appearances had to be kept. He’d not appear before the others looking like a blue-veined, shriveled up thing.
He toyed with the talisman hanging from his neck and twirled it between his fingers. A second passed. He thought about activating the glyphs on them. Then changed his mind and dropped it onto his chest. As he was about to activate the glyphs, the House sigil on his arm burned. He pulled back his sleeve; Asmodeus’s seal blazed bright red. Behind him the bound mortals shrieked and writhed, the manacles cutting into their wrists and ankles. Astor grasped the sigil on his arm, closing his eyes as he did.
Bailien? Astor asked.
Yes, master. We’ve returned.
Astor let go of his arm and opened his eyes. He had to restrain himself. He wanted to jump up and race toward the entrance and see if they had the Recreant in custody. Then he remembered what he was. He remembered who he was. A coven leader. The Coven of the Bridge’s ruler, Astor.
Bailien entered first. Lucien, who had an unconscious human strewn across his back, followed him. Astor saw the mortal’s aura. Though he was both confused and disappointed, at least he’d meet the Seven’s quota. One less worry among so many. But it was a miniscule victory and it wasn’t what he really wanted. He rose from his seat, his fangs extending, eyes blazing. “Where’s the Recreant!”
“We lost him, master,” Bailien said.
“Lost him? You lost him!” Astor was livid. Bailien was taking all this too lightly. “Two former Winged-Ones, unable to find a Mortal Born Recreant. You’re both inept and deserve to be in your current quandaries!” He pointed to the priest on Lucien’s back. “William could’ve brought me a replacement. What a severe misallocation of resources. You two are useless. No wonder you’ve no longer a legion to lead.”
“Please, master, forgive me,” Bailien said, bowing, then dropping to a knee. “Except this soul for now to appease the Seven. Soon, I will have two more for you, purer than this one. I’ve dispatched William. Have him watching them. Keeping them in place. More than enough to meet your quota. As for the Recreant, Lucien knows where he resides, knows where he rests during the day. By tomorrow we’ll have him.”
Though he was furious, Astor was relieved to fulfill the Seven’s needs, and their creation’s hunger. He’d deliver the priest to the Seven tonight to fulfill his quota. Then give them the other two Bailien had promised him tomorrow. Three pure souls for the Seven in total. The demon lords would praise him for bringing him so many in such short time. Besides, he’d inform the other coven leaders tonight about the Recreant.
“If Lucien fails to bring in the Recreant tomorrow, I’ll take the blame. If for some reason we are unable to bring in the other two pure souls I promised you, I’ll take the blame for that as well.”
Astor thought about this. What had he to lose? As long as there was a scapegoat, Astor would be safe from Hell’s wrath. Besides, both Bailien and Lucien were no longer favored below.
“I’ll hold you to your word Bailien,” Astor said. “Tomorrow, if I don’t have those two pure ones and the Recreant, I’ll make you both pay.” He grazed the talisman around his neck with his finger and made sure they saw him do it.
Still on his knees, Bailien said, “Thank you, master. You won’t be disappointed.”
Astor grinned, loving the sight of Bailien on his knees, supplicating before him. He turned to Lucien and said, “Deliver the priest to his cell. Harm no one en route, Lucien. Remember, Asmodeus strengthened the glyphs.” Astor rubbed the talisman. The shackles ignited briefly, long enough to send searing pain throughout the werewolf’s extremities. Lucien howled. “Return to your cell afterwards. I’ll release you at daybreak to finish your hunt.”
Astor looked at Bailien. “Remain with me. Tell your tale to the others, whatever you’ve learned. I must still follow protocol and inform the others that there’s a Recreant on the loose, in case Lucien fails. I’ll not suffer for him.”
Darkness. Stagnant smells. Nausea. Pain. Motion.
Father Purgeon slipped in and out of consciousness. Fragmented flashes of memory tried piercing through the fog. The train. Vampires. Roman crashing through the window. Saving Avalyn and Sarah. Then, another vampire, punching him. After that, everything was a blank.
He wasn’t sure that his eyes were open. He couldn’t see a thing in the darkness. The stench was so strong that he had to swallow back the bile he felt burning up his throat. His head hurt, felt like it had been hit with a hammer. His cheek stung and it felt like the bones beneath it were broken. Yet, none of these injuries hurt as much as the grip grasping his neck.
He was moving. That much was clear. He felt his bare feet dragging behind him. Felt his toes scraping along the stone ground. The corridors were pitch-black. He strained his eyes, slitted them, trying to penetrate the dark.
Then he saw a faint light in the distance and raised his head, straining against the grip. Yes, there was light ahead. A red glow pierced the dark, throbbing and pulsing.
He turned his head. There was just enough light to see by. He traced the furry arm grasping his neck and saw who it was connected to. That thing from the train. He dropped his head. He didn’t want to look at the creature.
He felt the beast slow just as they reached the source of the crimson illumination. Everything was bathed in red now.
They stopped before a metal door with no handle. Above it, red glyphs blazed. There was something familiar about them, but Father Purgeon couldn’t quite grasp the answer.
Lucien raised his left arm and touched the characters. The sigil on his fur blazed bright. Both the glyphs and the House sigil on his left arm ceased pulsing and blazed for a second, and then went out. The door popped open with a metallic clang and Lucien tossed the priest inside.
Father Purgeon landed on his chest. He pushed off the floor with his hands, rose to his knees, then to his feet, turned around and faced the entrance.
The beast was at the threshold, taking up the entire doorframe. The creature slammed the door shut. Inside the chamber, above the door, the red markings ignited, made the chamber look like it was bathed in blood.
Astor rolled up his sleeve, exposing the seal of Asmodeus, House Lust’s sigil. He grasped the seal with his right hand and closed his eyes. The sigil ignited. Blood-red light exploded along his arm.
Bailien waited, several feet behind Astor, as the coven leader opened the conduit to Hell.
The crimson radiance engulfed Astor’s mind. Then darkness doused the scarlet effulgence. Astor felt his mind fall into the inky void. He heard his master’s wings before he saw him, beating heavy and loud, like dry leather crackling in the air. A rustling sound followed as Asmodeus lifted the cowl away from his mouth, ivory fangs depending from a scarlet sneer.
Master, Astor said, feeling the fear course through his body as it always did when speaking to the demon lord, palpable and piercing.
Tell me you have another virtuous soul for us, Asmodeus said. Tell me you have not failed us. Lucifer’s creation hungers.
Yes, master. I have not failed you, Astor said, trying not to stammer, knowing how his master loathed cowardice. Another pure soul waits by the Seven’s seal.