The Humvee took a sharp turn, shoving me against Kim.
“Bex?” Jared cal ed.
“They’re shel ing, but they’re keeping their distance. I’m just trying not to get boxed in.”
“Patience,” Samuel said.
Jared nodded, and then fastened an extra ammo belt around him. I crawled to the closest mirror, and watch as civilian cars and pickup trucks crowded the sides and behind our Humvee.
Bex swerved to the right, nudging one of the cars off the road. Claire readied her weapon.
“Just wait,” Samuel said. His voice was even, creating a strange calming effect.
I watched him for a moment. “Why can’t you stay with us until the Sepulchre?”
“So that you may rise above your struggle,” he said. “And because that was the agreement. I wil keep you safe throughout the flight and trip to Jerusalem. Then you must rise above your struggle. Only then wil you appreciate your plight.” He shrugged. “It is the way of the humans. It has always been the way.”
I wasn’t exactly sure where he was getting at, but I didn’t want to question him more. He wasn’t as practiced as Eli at human relations, and I had a feeling that no matter how in depth he explained it, I would only be more confused.
Kim leaned into my ear. “He means he can’t just give us a Get Out Of Jail Free card, because it behooves our character to struggle before success. God is all about being fair and not interfering.”
“And Hel is the opposite,” I groused.
Another swerve threw me into Kim. “I’m glad you’re here.” I said, righting myself.
One side of her mouth turned up. “I’m not.”
“Plan B,” Bex said. “I’m taking the next exit!”
Samuel held up his hand. “Stay the course. Think of them as an escort.”
“Not the good kind.”
As we approached the city, the cars and trucks around us became more uniform, and it was evident that everyone around us had shel ed. I peeked out of the window to see the sedan running alongside us. It contained a woman in her mid- to late twenties. An empty car seat was in the back.
I closed my eyes. When Samuel left us, they would attack, and we would have to kill them.
“Yes?” he said, albeit distracted.
“That woman over there,” I said, nodding in her direction. “She has a baby.”
Jared barely glanced at her. “Yeah?”
“We can’t kill her.”
The woman looked at me, her eyes bulging and black.
Jared drew my attention away from her, gently turning my jaw to face him. “She can’t kill you, either. We’re going to make plenty of tough decisions between now and then. Let’s not dwel on the shel s. We can’t.”
I nodded, but Ryan glanced at the woman in the car, and was visibly unsettled.
Jared grabbed the barrel of Ryan’s weapon and jerked it. “Everyone can shel . Everyone is a threat. The demons are counting on you to see the human and hesitate. Hesitation wil get you kill ed. Got it?”
“Five minutes!” Claire cal ed.
Everyone tensed. Bex flew through traffic, trying to leave the shel s building up around us behind, but every time he gained ground, the drivers of the cars ahead shel ed. The stores and houses seemed to be almost on top of each other, covering the gentle hil s. Many of the buildings— especial y the older ones—were made of rectangular rocks and castle-like in shape. Trees peppered the landscape, unlike the vast desert I had expected.
The sun was blindingly bright, glaring off the road and buildings. Kim squeezed my hand when we passed two statues of knights on horses, flying flags and proclaiming victory over the land. It was dizzying to think of how many how many empires had tried to own this land, and how much blood had been shed for a claim to it. We were going to be the numberless battle in that holy city. Not to own it, but survive it.
Jared looked at me. “Stay close. Never leave my side, for any reason. Keep your eyes and ears open.”
I nodded. “I love you.”
He managed a smal smile and shook his head. “I love you,” he said, pulling me to him. He planted a quick kiss on my lips, and then the Humvee stopped.
“Damascus Gate less than one klick!” Claire yel ed.
Jared looked to Samuel for explanation, but he was gone.
Bex turned, his face intense. “Shel s coming over the hil !”
“That’s it! We’re on our own!” Jared yel ed. He took the safety off his pistol, and grabbed a fistful of my vest.
Claire and Ryan left the Humvee first, and Jared and I fol owed. The bul ets were already flying, landing in the sand at my feet. We hunkered down in a smal all ey just inside a stone corridor until Kim and Bex joined us, and then Jared silently ordered us to move.
Claire pointed further inside the corridor. “Damascus Gate. Markets and pedestrians. No good.”
Jared nodded once, and then we moved out. Claire took to the street with cover fire, running at ful speed to the next all ey. People walking in the street would run, and then suddenly stop to fol ow. Jared pul ed me across the street, and a large man with military fatigues ran at us. Claire put a bul et in his head in less than a second. Jared didn’t bother to slow down. We jumped over the corpse and caught up.
Duck and cover seemed to be the plan of action for the next two streets. The Old City was a series of narrow rock roads and corridors lined with trinkets and rugs for sale. We reached the end of one road to find ourselves at the beginning of a marketplace. Claire froze, and we stopped abruptly behind her. A hundred or so people stopped, slowly turning around. They eyes of men, women, and children were black as night and bulging from their sockets.
“Move,” Claire said, waving us back.
Jared turned on his heels, leading us to the next building and up a set of stairs. We climbed to the roof, with the mob just behind Bex and Kim.
Jared took a few wide strides and then we leapt from that roof to the next. He wanted to continue, but I refused, waiting for Kim. Once they breeched the top of the stairs, I saw hands clamoring over bodies, the shel s trampling each other to get at us. Bex was focused, but Kim’s eyes bulged.
“Just hang on to him!” Claire cal ed.
Bex, stil running, hugged Kim to him, and when his feet left the roof, he cradled her to his side like a footbal . His landing was smooth, but Kim had to take a moment we didn’t have to get her bearings. The mob stil came at us, most of them fal ing to the all ey below when they tried to make the jump.
My hands flew to my mouth. Children were among those fal ing to their deaths.
We made the jump four times, and then descended a set of stairs that lead us to another series of corridors.
Jared hunkered down, letting Kim catch her breath. “We’re in the Christian Quarter. The Sepulchre is two klicks away. We’re going to take the west bypass, and make a path. It’s a high traffic area for tourists, with high rock wal s on each side, so we’re going to have to mow a path.”
“Copy that,” Ryan said, cocking his rifle.
Jared began to speak again, but a smal group of young men shot at us from above. We ran again, dodging shel s and bul ets. Bex fol owed up the rear, turning and shooting as he ran. Ryan and Claire were at the front, their rifles against their faces, pointing the barrels in every direction they looked. As many times as I had tried to imagine it, we real y were in the middle of a war. The sounds of the AK-47s trading shots and the bul ets ricocheting off the wal s and roads just made me run faster.
Already exhausted, Kim had trouble keeping up, and Bex kept encouraging her to keep moving. We took cover behind dumpsters and parked cars every few seconds, and the noises around us paused ever so often when we hunkered down, and began sounding like a familiar beat.
Claire and Ryan would reload at nearly the same time, and then we’d start again. Jared would drop a clip and reload as we ran, and Bex did the same. At one point, he pul ed a second pistol, turning to lay down more cover fire until Jared yel ed for him to keep up. He was next to Kim in less than a second.
Shel s that were unarmed simply tried to grab us, but the demons were stil human on the outside, and Ryan quickly learned how to incapacitate them. He would use his elbow or the butt of his gun, and shooting the ones he didn’t have time for. I noticed most of his bul ets landing in their kneecaps or shoulders, hoping to give them a chance once the demons let them go.
In the court of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a large crowd obstructed the two giant wooden doors that led inside. They stood like statues, their arms calmly at their sides, their black eyes and ashen skin confirming control by the demonic. Some of them were civilian, but most were in fatigues, holding AK-47s. The building itself was massive, much larger than I had imagined, made of stone. I suddenly felt much better about being holed up in there for the next sixty days or so, but the high rock wal s made it impossible to do anything but initiate a head-on invasion.
“Should we wait until dark?” Bex asked.
I grabbed his bloodied shoulder, pressing my palm against it. “You’re hit.”
He winked. “It’s not bad. So...should we wait?”
Jared shook his head. “We just need to get in there.”
Kim sighed. “But how? There are hundreds of people out there.”
Claire pul ed a pin from a grenade. “Like this.” She rol ed it into the crowd, and in seconds a large explosion blew people and body parts in different directions. A huge brown cloud of smoke fil ed the area and Claire and Ryan ran ful speed into it.
Jared grabbed my sleeve and we fol owed. We didn’t get five steps before a hail of bul ets rained down on us. Jared was hit several times and faltered. A bul et ripped through my arm. At first it didn’t hurt, but the closer we got to the Sepulchre, the more the burning surged through my veins.
The memory of the pain in my leg at the Japanese restaurant in Providence immediately came to the forefront of my mind. Jared flipped around, and emptied his pistol into the dissipating cloud. He pushed me forward, and Claire and Ryan took me into the church.
“She’s hit!” Ryan said.
They had already cleared the main room. Ryan tied a piece of cloth around my arm while Claire took out the shel s in the rest of the church and secured the entrances. Jared, Bex, and Kim came into the doors as one unit, with Kim sliding in on her knees. Bex slammed the door closed behind them, and immediately covered the window.
After a few minutes and sporadic gunfire, Claire returned. “We only have a few minutes before they reorganize. The barricades won’t hold for long. We need to get underground.”
I winced as Jared tightened Ryan’s tourniquet. “I thought they couldn’t come in here.”
Jared frowned at the dark red saturating the cloth on my arm. “It’s the tomb they can’t violate. The church and basilisk itself are fair game.”
Bex glanced back from the window. “Whatever we’re doing, let’s do it fast.”
The cloud from the grenade had cleared, revealing dozens of mutilated corpses on the ground. More shel s were crowding the Sepulchre, and were now climbing its wal s and beating on the doors.
Jared lifted Kim off the floor. “You have the book?”
She nodded, breathing hard.
“You ready to do what you came here to do?”
“Yes, and it’s about damn time, Ryel,” she said, tightening her grip on the pack.
We retreated into the church, passing extravagant garnishing of gold, marble and artwork. Candles lined altars, and pictures of the crucifixion of Christ. We passed a set of stairs that made Claire pause before advancing into the Sepulchre of Jesus.
“Where do they lead?” I asked.
Jared glanced at the stairs only briefly. “That would be the stairway to Calvary. Christ climbed those steps on his way to be crucified.”
We continued through a large room to another room that held a smal er room within it. You could walk around this room, but Claire advanced inside.
“Is this it?” I asked.
Jared squeezed my hand. “The Holy Sepulchre.”
We filed in, and everyone dropped their packs. I was confused. The adornments around the room signaled a holy place, but all this time, my mind pictured an underground cavern.
“This can’t be it. How can we protect ourselves in here?”
Claire sighed. “Not in here.” She pushed the altar to the side, revealing an ancient steep staircase. “The true tomb is hidden below. It’s hidden from the public.”
“I’m having my baby in a hole,” I said, more of a statement than a question.
Bex laughed once. “Uh...is there room in the inn?”
My stomach lurched, and I grabbed Jared’s arm.
“Nina?” he said, immediately worried.
I grabbed my bel y with both hands and groaned. “Give me a minute,” I said, panting.
Claire took a few steps down. “We don’t have a minute.”
“Let’s get her downstairs,” Bex said, checking outside the room. “They’re coming.”
Claire clicked a flashlight onto her rifle and ducked down the staircase. Ryan fol owed, and then Jared, me and Kim went down next, with Bex closing the opening behind us. The stairway opened up into a stone hal way that led to a massive cavern. Damp, dark, and drippy. Just as I had imagined.
“Feeling better?” Jared asked, touching my protruding stomach.
I nodded, stil looking around the room. The flashlights il uminated giant stone arches lining the vast space, accessing lateral hal s.
“Where do they lead?” I asked.
“Tunnels. Two hundred yards either way isn’t protected. They won’t come down here, but don’t wander.”
Kim pul ed the Naissance de Demoniac from her satchel, and pointed her flashlight around the room, settling on what looked like a formerly adorned altar. She walked over to it slowly. Even in the dim light, I could see her body shaking uncontrol ably. Ryan and I walked behind, watching her hold the book in front of her.