Allison liked that they were all in the same compartment. She had been on too many planes where the troops were treated like cattle, herded into an ugly, narrow space and strapped in for the duration, while the officers flew in relative comfort in a forward compartment. This jet had an aisle down the middle and a row of seats on either side - not your typical military transport by any standard. She liked Metzger's style.
Still, the TFV soldiers had filled the plane from the back, leaving the seats closest to the cockpit for their officers. Sergeant Galleti had taken a spot in the third row, forcing Song to retreat amongst the other subordinates. That left Allison, Octavian, Metzger and Charlotte filling the front four seats. Allison had taken the second row on purpose so that she would be adjacent to Charlotte, and though she tried not to stare at her, she kept aware of the girl in her peripheral vision. Her tattoos were still there and she still had the face of a nineteen-year-old - hell, she always would - but all the fun had been burned out of her.
As far as Allison was concerned, that made her dangerous.
Charlotte had experienced things that would have broken most people and come out the other side. But this . . . Allison could see just from the ice in her eyes that this had turned the girl's heart to stone.
'All right,' Metzger said, emerging from the cockpit and clicking the door shut behind him. 'The pilot has her instructions. We're headed for Guatemala.' He slid into his seat and began to buckle his belt. 'Now, you want to tell us why?'
'Thank the Mayans,' Octavian said.
'What do the Mayans have to do with any of this?' Allison asked.
'Probably nothing. But Xibalba . . . that's not an accident. Maybe it's just what Cortez calls his coven, and if so we're going to waste a lot of gas on this trip. But I'm betting there's more to it than that.'
'It's just a word,' Metzger said, turning to look at Allison, behind him.
'No,' Charlotte said, her eyes haunted and grim. 'Cortez wasn't counting on anyone surviving that explosion. He wasn't counting on me being there.'
'How can we be sure?' Allison asked. 'He knows I used to track for Task Force Victor. He had to have realized I might be there, and he couldn't be sure that blast would kill me.'
Octavian nodded. 'Point taken. But I'm banking that he figured anyone who got close enough - deep enough into that basement - to see that word up close was going to be killed. If this is some kind of ruse, it feels like there are too many variables. More likely that after murdering all of the people in that basement, he painted that word on the wall in celebration or as some kind of declaration.'
'Punctuation,' Metzger said.
'That was the feeling I had,' Charlotte said.
'So we take it as a given for now,' Allison said. 'To which I still say, "what the hell do the Mayans have to do with anything?"'
'Xibalba is the Mayan underworld. All their dark gods . . . their death gods . . . lived there. According to legend, there was a physical entrance to the underworld, an actual door or gateway of some kind, in what is now Guatemala, near a city called Coban. It's locked, of course, barred to keep the demons on the other side.'
Charlotte gave a small grunt that might have been a laugh. 'Or it's supposed to be.'
Octavian glanced back at her. 'You found the story, I assume? The legend about the last time the door to Xibalba was opened?'
Allison shuddered, a tremor of dread passing through her. 'This sounds like the same kinds of breaches that are happening now.'
Octavian gave her the lopsided smile that she had always found charming. Tonight, she found it unsettling as hell.
'Doesn't it, though?' he said. 'Go on, Charlotte. Tell them.'
Metzger and Allison both turned to study Charlotte more closely. The vampire girl still wore a grim expression, but now she focused those deep ocean blue eyes on Allison.
'One of the Maya death gods was called Mam,' she said, her voice husky, and drifting as though she spoke from distant memory. 'Or maybe they were all called that. From what I read, the word meant "grandfather", and the people used it out of respect. When the door came open, only one man managed to stand against them, a holy man called Brother Simon, though I'm sure it was originally something else.'
'Early Catholics called him a saint,' Octavian said.
'They stopped?' Allison asked, cocking her head.
'Short version?' Charlotte said. 'Brother Simon got the door to Xibalba closed. Guy had some serious mojo, like Octavian. But the story says that one of the death gods, Mam . . . he was holding the door open. Brother Simon defeated him by doing something crazy. Somehow he merged with Mam, almost like inviting possession. Death god and holy man became one. The door closed and he/she/it sealed it up tightly. End of story.'
'Only it's not the end of the story,' Octavian continued. 'When the Catholics rose to prominence and they were trying to bring pagans into the fold, they co-opted pagan symbols and saints all over the world, like Saint Brigid in Ireland. Here, they made Brother Simon into Saint Simon . . . at least for a while. The problem was that the people did not want to forget his real origins. They not only worshipped the man he had been, but the thing he became afterward.'
Charlotte glanced out the darkened window. 'They called him Maximon, this weird fucking god-man hybrid. For a long time, the Mayans worshipped it as a god on earth. And then it went mad and started eating them and tried to re-open the door to the underworld, and they killed it . . . this thing the Christians called Saint Simon . . . and they cut off its head.'
Allison blinked, feeling as if she were awakening from a dream. She looked at Metzger but he seemed unphased, still in the grip of the story, so she turned to Octavian and saw the glimmer of dark knowledge in his eyes.
'Oh, shit,' she said. 'No, no, this guy is not that clever. Please tell me that Cortez does not seriously have that kind of power.'
'What?' Commander Metzger demanded. 'What are you talking about?'
'For Christ's sake,' a voice piped up behind them, 'spit it out!'
Allison turned to see Sergeant Galleti in the third row, leaning out of her seat and listening with rapt attention. Beyond her, many other faces peered over the tops of their seats or around into the aisle. They had all gotten too loud. The entire team was listening now. But perhaps that was for the best.
'This thing, Maximon, was considered a saint among its people,' Allison explained. 'Don't you get it? Even the Catholics called it Saint Simon-'
'They excised all of that from the records later,' Octavian added. 'Put Maximon's face in the place of Judas's in all of the images of Judas Iscariot that you'll find in Guatemala. Look for yourself and you'll see it. They tried to make the people look at him as a demon instead of a saint.'
'But the locals thought of him as a saint. And he was beheaded,' Allison said to Metzger. 'And they buried his head right on top of the door to Xibalba.'
'No,' Metzger said. 'You're not suggesting that Cortez is tied to the breaches we've had in Europe and India? All based on one word painted in blood in some basement?'
Octavian gave him a grim look, arching an eyebrow. 'Leon, listen to yourself. You know it fits. It all fits.'
'No, it doesn't,' Sergeant Galleti put in, leaning further from her seat. 'With all due respect, if the magical defenses on this reality were put into place by Vatican sorcerers, and they used the graves of decapitated saints as the focus points, basically the gates where they could put in a key and lock it shut, then this doesn't make sense at all. Xibalba predates all of that. This story predates all of that. And you just said the church doesn't recognize this Brother Simon as a real saint.'
'I thought about that,' Octavian said. 'And you're right. This gate to Xibalba predates all of that. Brother Simon the holy man, before he became Maximon the demon-saint - he was a sorcerer, and he sacrificed himself to close and lock that gate. He did it with magic. Now, let me ask you a question: do you think the Vatican sorcerers invented all of the magic in the Gospel of Shadows? Some of it came from the Nazarene, we know that. But not all. They collected it from around the world.'
Allison exhaled. The hum of the plane seemed to vibrate in her heart.
'This was the beginning,' she said. 'They based the spells they used to seal off the world on the magic Simon used to close the door to Xibalba.'
Octavian touched the tip of his nose with a finger. 'There you go.'
Metzger swore again, shaking his head. 'So all of this . . . the other breaches . . .'
'Could be accidental or coincidental,' Octavian admitted. 'After what happened in Massachusetts, it's possible. But it feels more likely to me that he's engineered it all somehow. He wanted us busy elsewhere.'
Allison stared at Octavian. 'He wanted you anywhere but South America.'
'So he could open the door to Xibalba,' Charlotte rasped.
'Just throw the doors open and let all the demons in?' Metzger said. 'I don't understand. Cortez is a vampire, I know, but if what he wants is to prey on humans and be the prince of darkness or something, how is that goal served by letting a bunch of ancient Mayan death gods back into our reality?'
But Allison had no trouble understanding. It was all very clear to her now.
'Maybe he doesn't just want to befriend the death gods,' she said.
Charlotte nodded. 'Maybe he wants to be one.'
Octavian turned away from them, sliding back against his seat. 'Why not?' he said. 'After all, it worked for Brother Simon.'
Now that night had fallen, the air had turned cold. Tori snuggled up against Cat on the sofa, thinking that one of them should get up and turn on the heat. Even a fire wouldn't be out of the question, not in Vermont in late September. But as Cat stroked her hair and kissed her forehead, she knew that neither of them had any intention of getting up off of that sofa. At least not yet.
Across the living room, Amber Morrissey stood in the open doorway that led to the dining room and leaned against the wall, her cell phone pressed to her ear, a troubled expression on her face.
'So, even now you see her as she really is?' Tori whispered.
'Yes,' Cat replied.
'It's sort of beautiful, isn't it? That dark purple like black grapes.'
'Like wine,' Cat said.
Cat looked at her. 'But terrible, too.'
'And that,' Tori agreed, turning from her wife to study Amber again, searching the air around her. 'You see the ghost, too?'
Cat shook her head. 'No. I don't think he's here right now. I think he went back out to the clearing to try to talk to Keomany some more.'
Tori stiffened. She didn't like the idea of the ghost out there having conversations with Keomany that none of them could hear. Yes, Amber vouched for the ghost of Miles Varick, and Octavian vouched for Amber, but that left the question of whether or not Tori trusted Octavian. Cat certainly did not, but Tori had always believed that the mage was a benevolent man, that he meant well no matter how often things went to hell around him. But could one blame firefighters for the blazes they extinguished, or the people caught in the conflagration? Of course not.
She ought to have been celebrating the idea that Keomany had been reborn. She would never be the same woman, never be human again, but she existed now as some kind of avatar of Gaea. Most earthwitches would be envious of such a pure, direct connection to the goddess and of the power that came along with it. Tori just missed her friend, knowing that nothing would ever be the same.
But she was dead, Tori thought, and now she's alive. It's a blessing.
As she pondered that, she began at last to believe it.
Amber finished her call and turned to them, slipping her phone into her pocket.
'That was Peter,' she said, coming back into the living room and perching on the edge of the armchair. 'He's in the air, flying to Guatemala-'
'What's in Guatemala?' Cat asked.
'Answers, or so he thinks,' Amber replied. She slid down into the chair wearing a contemplative frown on the face she allowed the world to see. 'It sounds like these breaches in Europe aren't a coincidence. Apparently there's one in India, now, too. But they're all part of a coordinated attack.'
A shiver ran through Tori. 'You're saying these demons are working together?'
'I didn't get that impression, no,' Amber said. 'More like bombs all timed to go off at the same time.'
'So who's the bomber?' Cat asked.
'The vampire who killed Nikki.'
Tori felt the dread in her belly tighten into knots. She burrowed even closer to Cat, though she knew that her wife could not protect her from the kind of darkness Amber was talking about. They would fight side by side if they had to fight, but evil on this level was so far beyond their small magicks.
'What can we do?' Cat asked.
Tori looked at her, surprised. 'Us?'
Cat kissed her temple. 'Yes, us. Can't you feel the question?'
'The question?' Amber repeated.
'The one you're about to ask,' Cat said. 'It's just hanging in the air. And I can see it in your eyes. What is it?'
'Gaea needs your help,' Amber said.
Cat laughed softly. 'So now Peter Octavian is going to tell us what Gaea needs?'
Amber cocked her head, studying them both. 'I'm guessing he doesn't need to tell you. These breaches are ripping Gaea apart. Each one is like a wound, right? How many do you think it will take to do irrevocable damage? This is the whole world on the line.'
'With Octavian, it always is,' Cat said dubiously.
Tori took a deep breath and extricated herself from the comfort and safety of her wife's embrace. She sat up, turning to face Cat.
'Then it's a damn good thing he's around, isn't it?'
Cat met her gaze for several long seconds and then nodded slowly. 'I guess it is,' she said, glancing at Amber. 'What does he need us to do?'
'Talk to Keomany,' Amber said.
'How?' Tori asked. 'Your ghost is the only one who can talk to her.'
'Miles is the only one who can hear her, at least right now,' Amber replied. 'But Keomany is a direct line to Gaea now and we don't yet even know the full extent of her abilities. She's something brand new in the world, at least as far as Octavian knows, and she's still in the process of becoming whatever it is that she's going to be. The way Miles tells it, talking to her is like having a conversation with someone who's only half awake.'
'And you want us to help you wake her up,' Cat said.
Amber fixed them both with a grim look. 'If Octavian's right, what's happening now will start a chain reaction that will tear the soul of this world apart. To me, that's all metaphysical bullshit. But for you . . . he's talking about your goddess. And my guess is that whatever this thing is that Keomany's becoming, if Gaea is torn apart, Keomany will die right along with her. And maybe all the rest of us, too.'
Tori shivered, wishing more than ever for a fire in the hearth. She was tempted to burrow up against her wife again, but there was no hiding from this. Instead, she turned and took Cat's hand.
'Let's go,' she said, getting up from the couch and trying to pull Cat up beside her.
Cat resisted, giving her a pained look. 'Octavian got Keomany killed once already.'
'No, he didn't. Chaos killed her while she and Peter were busy trying to save the world again. You may not like him-'
'I know, I know,' Cat said, reluctantly getting up from the sofa. She turned to Amber. 'We'll do whatever needs doing.'
Tori smiled. 'Just don't ask Cat to like him.'
In her dream, Beril Demirci is a little girl again. She sits on a flat shelf of rock overhanging a river, breaking the heads off of daisies and tossing them into the rushing water to watch them swept away. While picking flowers in the nearby field she found some violets as well, but she loves the vivid purple of their petals and does not want to throw them. And yet . . . when the last of her daisies has floated downriver, she picks up one of the violets, breathing in its lovely scent. Then she breaks off the stem and tosses the flower into the water.
As it rushes away, regret washes over her and she reaches out for it. The broken, beautiful violet rises from the water, gliding back toward her outstretched hand . . .
And she wakes.
Frowning, troubled even in her sleep, Beril grumbled as she forced her eyes open, taking in her surroundings. She lay on her side on a cot, facing the featureless drape at the rear of a tent. Somewhere beyond the tent she heard the crackle of radio static and the mutter of voices and then, far off, someone sobbing with grief. After the casual joy of her dream, she felt her heart begin to ache, yearning for a return to the sweet innocence of slumber.
Something poked her hard in the back.
She cried out, twisting around and scrambling off the edge of the cot, heart hammering in her chest, thinking of demons. But the two figures that stood over the cot were not monsters and they were not evil, just a pair of serious men wearing identically impatient expressions. Considering that Father Laurent was decades younger than Chakroun and a kind-hearted man, it seemed strange that the priest and the ancient Moroccan conjuror could look so alike.
'What the hell is wrong with you?' Beril demanded. 'I was sleeping!'
'Yes,' Chakroun agreed. 'And we have been trying to wake you.'
In his hand he held a rough-hewn walking stick, which she now recognized as the offending instrument. She had the urge to poke him back, but let it pass.
'What could be so . . .' she began, before realization struck. 'Wait, are the Shadows here?'
Father Laurent looked dismayed. 'Not yet. But Monsieur Chakroun-'
'I believe I have a way for us to slip a small group through the barrier without dropping it entirely,' the ancient mystic said.
Beril rubbed her eyes, climbing to her feet. She had fallen asleep in her clothes but still felt somehow exposed and vulnerable, the men having come upon her while she was dozing. Her thoughts were still caught in the sticky webbing of sleep, but she forced herself to make sense of what they were saying. She and Chakroun had managed to create a barrier around all of Saint-Denis, trapping the utukki demons inside, but the barrier would not hold forever and the utukki continued to multiply inside that magical sphere. According to Father Laurent they were being born from the womb of a human woman who lay in the basement of the ruined cathedral, not far from the single creature that had infected her with its spore and thus fathered them all. Killing woman and demon would end this incursion, but if someone was going to go down there to try to kill the demon, they had all agreed to try to save the woman it had attacked.
'We were going to wait for the Shadows to come,' she said. 'Surely one of them has a better chance of getting inside the basilica than any ordinary person?'
'True,' Father Laurent said. 'But hours pass and then hours more, and we are promised that they are on the way and they do not come.'
'And the demons propagate,' Chakroun said. 'And the woman suffers.'
A sound startled them, the clearing of a throat, and all three of them turned to see that Sergeant Ponticello had entered the large, military tent. Behind him, silhouetted in the opening, stood a short, muscular, bald man with a goatee, his arms and neck covered in occult tattoos. A tall, slender woman waited beyond him.
'Visitors,' Sergeant Ponticello said.
Beril studied them. 'Are you-?'
The tattooed man took a step deeper into the tent, and now Beril could see the beautiful female behind him.
'My name is Santiago. This is Taweret,' the tattooed man - the Shadow - said, gesturing toward his companion. Then his eyes narrowed with grim purpose.
'Tell us about this woman.'
Just after four in the morning, chaos erupted out of relative calm. Most of the refugees from Siena had been loaded onto trucks and transported to a safer distance. Jessica Baleeiro tried to think of what the next city was but her mind had gone blank.
We shouldn't have stayed, she thought. Why did we stay?
But she knew the answer. Jess and her husband, Gabe, had stayed behind because they were doctors and, God help them, doctors were not supposed to run when there were people who might die without them. The last of those with minor injuries had been taken away just before two a.m., but there were three wounded who were still waiting for evac, all of them soldiers who had sustained their injuries after night had fallen and the smoke demons had returned to their full ferocity. They needed to be medflighted out and the officer in charge kept telling Gabe and Jess that a helicopter would arrive just as soon as the barrier had been stabilized.
Just thinking about it in such a mundane way, like the white-haired old Sicilian man they'd brought in was going to build a brick and mortar wall instead of some kind of magical shield that would trap the demons in the city . . . it made the world feel soft and uncertain beneath her feet.
Now she glanced at the old Sicilian and wondered what would become of him.
'Jess, come on!' Gabe shouted. 'We've got to go!'
He took her by the elbow of her uninjured arm and tried to rush her toward the transport truck that waited. Soldiers were running for it, leaping on board, while others climbed into smaller vehicles or piled on top of the two tanks that stood ominously still about fifty yards away. Engines roared and orders were shouted in Italian. The lieutenant who had been so appreciative of Gabe's work on his wounded comrades - and had joined Gabe in urging Jess to evacuate with the others because her injured arm meant she could not help care for them - came racing over, gesturing frantically to them.
Jessica shook loose of her husband, sending pain lancing through her arm and shoulder. She turned and looked back at the sorcerer, whose name she had never learned. From here she could see his lined, leathery face and his bulbous nose. He looked more like a fisherman than a sorcerer, but there could be no mistaking that the barrier that shimmered and crackled between them and the city came from his fingertips. It did not extend from his hands so much as it responded to them, as if the wall were made of music and he its maestro. When he moved his hands it bulged and billowed and when he gestured to a place where the shield seemed to be breaking down it glowed again with its full force, lighting the darkness.
But it was crumbling, that shield. The fisherman-sorcerer had been standing there all night. Exhaustion burned at Jessica's eyes and weighed on her bones, but she could not begin to imagine how badly drained the old Sicilian must be. Now, after many hours of keeping the horrors back and buying the military forces the time to do what they needed to do for the evacuees, he was faltering. Cracks appeared in the barrier, thin spots that seemed to wear through until holes opened, and he had to reinforce those thin places.
In the amber light from the old man's magic, even from this distance, she thought she could see tears on his wrinkled face.
'Jess!' Gabe shouted, grabbing hold of her again.
She turned to stare at him and the lieutenant. 'What about him?'
Gabe hesitated. He understood, of course, and she knew that the idea of leaving the poor old man to his fate must be gnawing at his heart the way it did at her own. But he was ready to go - ready to run - and somehow she couldn't make her feet move. She knew there was nothing they could do, but that only paralyzed her more.
'Signora, please!' the lieutenant cried. 'We must retreat!'
Jess searched her husband's eyes. Over the engines and the shouting, she could hear her own heartbeat.
'What about our patients?' she asked. 'The helicopter never came.'
'They've been loaded onto a truck,' he told her, even though he had told her the same thing several times already.
It was an answer, but not to the question she was really asking. She knew they were on the truck, just as well as she knew that all three of them were going to die on that truck. Gabe and Jess could have gone with them on a chopper, kept them stable on the way to a hospital, and there would have been medical supplies on the helicopter. But in the back of a truck, with no idea how long it would be before they reached a hospital, all three men were as good as dead. The simple fact that Gabe hadn't been asked to go with them in their transport was a silent and grim acknowledgement of their fate. They might be dead already.
She felt numb. Shaking her head, she looked back again at the old Sicilian and felt a tight knot of nausea in her gut. When she tasted salt on her lips, she realized that she was crying.
Gabe took her chin in his hand and tilted her head back so that he could gaze into her eyes.
'I know,' he said. 'But please, my love. I can't watch you die.'
'I don't want to die.'
'Then we must go.'
The lieutenant swore in his native tongue and Jess turned to see him backing away from them, staring at the barrier. She and Gabe both turned to see it beginning to fail on a large scale, holes appearing and spreading while the remaining parts of the wall dimmed and hissed. The old sorcerer staggered, thrusting his hands into the air, patching the holes as best he could, but it was useless.
The tanks started to move out and the trucks followed suit. The lieutenant shouted at them, then turned and ran.
'We're going!' Gabe said, grabbing her arm again and dragging her along behind him.
Jess let herself be pulled along in the wake of their fear, but she remained somehow numb. Her feet moved beneath her and she found herself running - they were all running, after the last of the trucks, at the back of which soldiers screamed at them to hurry, to jump, to live - but all she could think about was that she did not know the old sorcerer's name. If she had known his name she could have called to him, let him know that he wasn't alone, that someone would mourn for him when he was gone.
They were at the back of the truck, running after it as it kept rolling toward the narrow road into the hills. Most of the Italian and UN forces had already pulled back to a safer distance, created a new perimeter while the sorcerer did his job. But the shield had never stabilized and now it was falling and she wondered if they had pulled back because they had expected this to happen. Expected the old man with his big, Santa Claus nose to do his best and then just die.
The lieutenant jumped into the truck, helped up by other soldiers, and then turned to reach for Gabe and Jess. Her husband tried to urge her forward, to get her onto the truck before him, but a noise like the world sighing came from behind her and she turned to discover that it was the sound of magic failing. What remained of the barrier crackled one final time and then turned to nothing but wisps of glowing smoke.
The demons came through as if born from that smoke, screaming in the voice of Hell, beating their wings and darting through the air, talons bared. The first one descended upon the old sorcerer, talons raking his face, ripping right down to the bone. He screamed as a second fell upon him, the smoky thing like some nightmare bird of prey. It plunged a fist into his chest and tore out a dark, glistening mess that could only be his heart, and his scream ended . . . but it would linger forever in her mind, waiting for her every time she closed her eyes.
'Go, Jess!' Gabe cried. 'Move it!'
He swore in Portuguese, calling for the Italian soldiers to grab her. Somehow she had kept running, stayed on her feet, and now she turned to look at the truck only a couple of yards ahead, rolling slowly enough for them to jump on. The lieutenant reached for her again. Gabe had one hand on her arm and the other on the small of her back and she knew that he was about to try to physically hurl her up into the truck bed.
'Jump, love,' he said. 'Ju-'
She felt him brace his hand against her back, ready to push, and then it was gone. The other hand gripped her arm, digging painfully into her flesh, and she cried out as she turned. Gabe pulled at her, no longer hurrying her ahead but now clutching at her, drawing her upward.
Jess stared up into her husband's terrified eyes and saw the smoke demon above him. The harpy had him by the throat, its other arm wrapped around him from behind, clawing at his chest as it lifted him into the air.
The truck rolled away as she screamed, crying as she reached for him with her injured arm, blinding pain shooting through her. But she grabbed him by the wrist of his outstretched hand and held on. The smoke demon pulled and Jess pulled back and Gabe dug his fingers into her arm until she began to lift off the ground along with him.
His eyes went wide as he realized what he was doing. She saw the moment of his decision and the bottomless sorrow in his gaze just before he let go of his grip on her. Shrieking in anguish and pain, she tried to hang on by her injured arm, to be an anchor for him, to keep him with her, but her fingers would not obey. Her grip slid from his wrist and she fell three feet to sprawl on the road.
Scrambling to her feet, she screamed her husband's name, thinking not of all the memories they had made together but all of the years without him that now stretched before her, so cold and empty. Gabe did not scream for her. It might have been that the thing had already killed him as it rose higher into the sky, but Jess watched them go, breath hitching in her chest, the icy numbness of denial spreading through her, killing even her pain. This could not be happening. She and Gabe had a life. They had love.
Screams from behind her made Jessica turn. The transport truck was under attack by several of the smoke demons, the harpy-things dragging soldiers from the vehicle or slaughtering them in place.
She heard wings flapping above her and she looked up. Death had come for her and it was nothing but mist, a cloud of charcoal smoke in the shape of a monster. The demon had eyes the color of butterscotch. In her numbness, that was all she could think. Butterscotch.
It dove toward her and she froze, waiting, watching it come.
The bird that slashed across its path might have been a hawk or a falcon - she wasn't sure of the difference. It flew at the ground as if it meant to dash itself to death against the road, and then it changed. The air rippled and a figure took shape there as if a human being had been poured into creation, built from nothing in an instant.
A man stood before her, tall and dark-haired, his Asian features severe. He glanced at her for a single heartbeat, then reached to his hip and drew a long Japanese sword from thin air, with a flourish worthy of a stage illusionist. The demon attacked, clawing at him without even realizing that he had already cleaved it in half with his sword. The twin halves of the demon fell to the road, but they were made of some insubstantial, infernal mist that immediately began to draw and flow together again.
The swordsman - the Shadow, for that was what he was, she realized - stabbed it in the heart and then brought the blade down to split its head in two. The thing turned to viscous liquid, black tar, and splattered the road. An eyeblink later that tar began to evaporate, smoke rising from the ground like a fire had just been put out.
Something moved to her left and Jess twisted away from it, thinking another of the demons had come for her. But the creature that stood above her was a man, not a thing of smoke and death. He was, in fact, one of the biggest men she had ever seen, a literal giant, and he threw his head back and shouted at the demons darting across the sky in a language that might have been Greek.
Two of them swept down to attack him and the giant grinned, revealing fangs, and then his flesh rippled and fur sprouted and he transformed into the biggest bear she had ever seen. Like the Japanese swordsman, he was also a Shadow.
'Come,' a voice said.
She tore her gaze from the bear grappling with the demons and saw that the swordsman had appeared just beside her. He offered his hand, intending to pull her up, but her numbness shattered and she began to sob with grief, thinking of Gabe reaching for her . . . of the look in his eyes just before he let go.
'Come,' the voice said, softly now, in her ear.
He took her arm and helped her up, taking note of the way she held her injured arm.
'My name is Kuromaku,' he said. 'Stay with me.'
'What's the point?' she said, glancing up at the harpies circling above them, trying not to hear the sounds of screaming soldiers or see the giant bear tearing into the smoke demons nearby. 'The barrier's down. You're too late.'
'No,' Kuromaku said, finding and holding her gaze with his own. 'There is another barrier. We brought mages with us, two of them, and they have created a new wall where the military has made their camp.'
She stared at him, trying to take it all in.
'The new perimeter,' she said. 'There's a wall there?'
'But that means that we're . . .'
Kuromaku arched an eyebrow. 'Yes. It means the barrier is up and we are on the wrong side. My friend and I came to aid you all,' he said, gesturing around him. 'To protect you as you retreated to the new wall. I am sorry we did not arrive sooner.'
'You're too late,' Jess said, gazing up into the night sky - now turning from black to indigo, just the barest hint of the coming dawn.
'Not for you,' Kuromaku said.
Jess looked at the place in the sky where she had last seen her husband.
Then the giant was beside them, no longer a bear, and the Shadows were hurrying her toward the army transport, where soldiers kept shooting at smoky things their bullets could not seem to touch. But the Shadows and their weapons could kill the monsters, and Jess knew that if they were very lucky, some of the soldiers might be saved. And she knew, also, that if they were wounded they would need her help. Despite her own injury, despite the grief that had gutted her, leaving only a hollow core, she would do all she could.
She was a doctor.