Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The hotel room unsettled them all, not because there was anything unusual about it but because it was so ordinary. Octavian had counted on them being inhibited by the mundane setting, enough so that the soldiers would hesitate before they opened fire. Thus far, he was not disappointed.

Allison stood by the sliding glass door that led onto the balcony. The door was open perhaps eighteen inches but all she needed was a crack. If Commander Metzger or either of his soldiers tried to shoot her with Medusa-treated bullets, she'd shift to mist and be gone. Octavian didn't think it would come to that, but the situation was volatile and unpredictable.

Not just the situation, he thought. A cruel smile touched his lips but there was no humor in it. Instead, he felt a trace of madness tickling at his brain. In the hours since he had found Nikki dead, his mind and body had undergone a strange, invisible metamorphosis. His grief had split in two, one part a terrible numbness that made him feel hollow and light - as if he were a ghost haunting his own life - and the other a burning, seething rage.

'What the hell is this?' Commander Metzger asked, in the clipped tones of a man used to giving orders.

He looked awkward as hell, standing there by the bureau with its flatscreen TV. They all did - him, Sergeant Omondi, whom Peter knew, and the woman on his team, who was unfamiliar. The hotel room was nothing special, but large enough to fit two double beds, which meant that nearly anywhere they stood, there would be furniture separating them from their potential enemies. Furniture wouldn't stop bullets, but it made maneuvering difficult, whether to attack or retreat. These were tight quarters to be in for any hostilities that might unfold.

'What's your name?' he asked the woman from Task Force Victor.

'Galleti.' Last name only. A soldier, through and through.

Octavian nodded, then turned to Charlotte. Poor Charlotte, thrown into the midst of something she had never asked for, first by Cortez and now by Octavian himself. The vampire girl stood in the middle of the room, in the no man's land between the two beds, caught in the crossfire of mutual distrust.

'Charlotte, come sit down,' he said quietly, gesturing to the two comfortable chairs that flanked the floor lamp, blocking the immobile side of the slider.

The vampire girl did as she was told. With her copper hair and delicate features, she had always been lovely, but she was even more beautiful in distress. As she sat down in the chair, Octavian noted that she did not sink back into it, instead sitting just on the edge. She could taste the possibility of violence and wanted to be ready for it.

Octavian took the other chair, so that he sat with Charlotte on one side and Allison - in front of the open slider - on the other.

To his credit, Commander Metzger had not asked his question a second time, letting it hang in the air as his distrust and wariness grew. Galleti looked anxious, and of the three of them she was the one who worried Octavian the most. They had already drawn their weapons once before he had forced them to put the guns away, but Galleti seemed like she wanted to give it another try.

'I'd invite you all to have a seat,' Octavian said, nodding toward the beds, 'but I can see that you're not in the mood to get comfortable.'

Metzger took a long breath and let it out, calming himself. He glanced at Allison only once, otherwise choosing to pretend - at least for the moment - that she was not in the room.

'Peter, listen, I'm sorry for your loss, but -'

'But what?' Octavian asked, feeling the sneer coming but unable to prevent it. His skin crackled with angry magic, and he could feel it bristling all over his body, purple-black light sizzling around his hands and in front of his eyes.

Galleti put her hand on her gun, but Omondi stopped her from taking it further.

Metzger flinched, Allison's presence entirely forgotten as he recognized the more immediate threat in the room.

'You can't possibly blame us for what happened to her,' Metzger said.

'I don't blame you,' Octavian said, his anger still crackling in the air around him. 'A vampire who calls himself Cortez did this. I assume Charlotte's told you something about him, or maybe not. Maybe she hasn't had the chance yet. Cortez, you see, is flying under your radar. He's not just a rogue vampire, he's a new leader for them, building something that might be just a coven, or that could be an army. And he's an arrogant son of a bitch, too. You see, he considers me the only real threat to whatever he's got planned, so he decided to . . . hurt me.'

Octavian ground his teeth together, trying to contain his rage and his grief and the hatred he now aimed at himself.

'Nikki died because she loved me,' he said, jaw tight. He looked up at Metzger. 'I have to live with that. This Cortez wants me off balance. He figures it'll make me more vulnerable. And for that, he killed her.'

Octavian stood, barely feeling the ripple of magical energy that flowed from him, a silent assault on everything around him. The floor lamp rocked but didn't fall. The glass in the sliding door cracked, as did the television screen. The three ordinary humans in the room were all knocked back a step, but none of them made any move to defend themselves. Octavian saw the realization in their eyes, the cold fear at the knowledge that if he wanted to kill them, there would be nothing they could do to stop them.

'Cortez did this,' Octavian said, walking toward Metzger. 'But there is plenty of blame to go around. Part of it's on me, because I couldn't protect her. And part of it is on Task Force Victor.'

'But you said-' Metzger began.

'I said I didn't blame you, personally, Leon.' Octavian glanced over his shoulder at Allison for a moment. 'But Task Force Victor? The UN? Part of the blame is on all of you. See, the guy who had the job before you, Ray Henning, was a good soldier who snapped. He couldn't see that human beings and Shadows aren't very different from one another, that there are angels and devils in all of us. He wanted to exterminate all Shadows, even though he had one of the finest people I've ever known, human or otherwise, working for him. Henning snapped, stopped caring how many innocents were killed in collateral damage from his war. Allison Vigeant did what had to be done in that moment. She took him out of the fight.'

Octavian poked Metzger in the chest. Where his fingertip had touched, the commander's shirt smoked and blackened.

'You bastards should have pinned a medal on her. Instead she had a target painted on her back. Task Force Victor took their best vampire hunter and made her their primary target. They diverted their attention - and consequently, Allison Vigeant's attention - from their main objective, which was to stop rogues like Cortez from building up a coven, so the kinds of wars we've seen between Shadows and vampires or between humans and Shadows, would never happen again.'

Octavian leaned in so that he was eye to eye with Metzger, their noses only inches away.

'And now Nikki's dead.'

To his credit, Metzger didn't flinch this time. 'I didn't witness Henning's death with my own eyes. If what you're saying about Vigeant is true, then I agree with the rest. Let's proceed from that assumption, at least for the moment. What do you propose we do about it? You called us, remember? Why are we here?'

Octavian nodded, stepping back from him. He glanced at Charlotte and Allison and then at the soldiers.

'I called because that's the protocol, Commander. A vampire did this. Task Force Victor is supposed to be my first phone call. I called because your people are partly to blame for this, and I expect you - and them - to step up and do whatever it takes to help me find Cortez and his nest and put them all down.'

'Of course-' Metzger said.

'And,' Octavian interrupted, 'I called because there's a crisis looming that's going to require your attention. The UN's attention. The world's attention. It would have been my number one priority, but now . . . now I have something to do that's more important to me than saving this godforsaken world.'

As swiftly as he could, he laid out what had happened in Hawthorne, Massachusetts, ending with the death of Keomany Shaw and the defeat of the chaos queen, Navalica. He explained that before they were able to take her down, Navalica had unleashed such a wave of chaos magic that it must have been like sending up a flare to let other supernatural entities know that the path to Earth lay open.

'Open,' Allison interrupted, speaking up for the first time. 'But not undefended.'

Octavian gave her a nod. 'No. Never that.'

When he was done, even stoic Sergeant Omondi looked frightened. Galleti's gaze was far away, as if she were thinking about all of the people she loved and needed to see before demons tore the world apart.

'How quickly is this going to happen? This . . . invasion?' Metzger asked.

Octavian batted the question away. 'It isn't like that. We're talking about potentially infinite parallel dimensions. Some of them are nothing but scorched ground and dead civilizations, while others are just . . . stillness, never having had a spark of life. Yes, there are all sorts of horrors out there, but it isn't as if they're organized. They're not plotting against us. And the barriers have deteriorated dramatically, but they're not gone entirely. That will slow things down a little. There won't be any coordinated invasion, but there might be a hundred small ones. You're going to need to be able to react at a moment's notice and shut these incursions down as quickly as possible. You may need to respond to more than one at a time, and that's going to require Task Force Victor being able to mobilize regular UN troops, as well as those of allied nations if necessary.'

Commander Metzger lowered his gaze. 'Christ.'

'Yeah, he's not going to show up like the cavalry,' Allison said.

'That's not helping,' Charlotte said.

Allison arched an eyebrow, clearly amused that the younger Shadow had thought to correct her, but she didn't argue.

'Peter,' Metzger said, his tone wary. 'I understand that you want to go after this Cortez yourself, but you know that our mandate means that we're going to be hunting him, too.'

'I'm counting on it,' Octavian said, locking eyes with Metzger. 'That's why you're here, Leon. You and I, we're going to sit down with Charlotte together and she's going to tell us every detail she remembers. You'll go after him your way and I'll go after him mine. Anything you learn, you'll pass on to me -'

'You know I can't do that.'

'You will,' Octavian said. 'You will. I'll speak to the Secretary General myself, and it will all be okay. We're all on the same side. Some people wish that wasn't true, but it is. That includes Allison, and you, Commander, are going to square that with the Secretary General yourself. That's your end of this.

'You'll pass along any information you find about Cortez. If you locate him, you will not go after him. You will tell me where he is, and you will stay the hell out of my way.'

Metzger looked like he wanted to argue, but he held his tongue. Octavian glanced at Sergeant Omondi and Galleti, but they were both too overwhelmed to do anything now except watch their CO for a cue.

'Once upon a time,' Octavian said, 'I had a coven of my own. Not a vampire coven, but one made up of both Shadows and humans . . . people I trusted. When a supernatural crisis occurred, we did whatever we had to do to resolve it. A lot of my friends died along the way, but it worked.

'That's the way it's going to be again, Leon, starting with Allison and Charlotte, if she's willing. As soon as we're done here, I'm going to make some calls. I have a funeral to plan. My old friends are going to want to be there, but it's going to have to happen fast. Once Nikki is laid to rest, my friends and I will be going after Cortez, starting with whatever intelligence you can gather in the meantime.

'When Cortez is dead, I'll worry about the rest of the world.'

* * *

September 22

Saint-Denis, France

Hannah Barclay leaned back in the passenger seat of the battered blue Renault, relishing the view as they wended their way out of Paris and north to the small commune of Saint-Denis. It was a picturesque suburb famous for the presence of the country's national stadium, and for the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis. Hannah loved soccer - or football, as Europeans called it, always with enough emphasis so Americans knew they were being corrected - and she wished she were on the way to the stadium for a game. Spending the day doing research at the Basilica was not her idea of a good time, but she only had one semester to study at the Sorbonne and if she wanted to make the best of it, screwing up a research paper before September had even ended would be a terrible idea. Already she had spent too much time drinking wine in cafes along the Seine. She needed focus.

'. . . you even awake, yet?' Charlie was saying from behind the wheel.

Hannah frowned and turned to look at him. Twenty-one, perpetual two-day stubble, hipster glasses, not bad in bed. They were both students at Columbia University in New York and had spent much of the fall semester of their sophomore year fucking each other's brains out. It had been gloriously uncomplicated, or so she had told herself. When Charlie had found himself interested in someone else and drifted off in that direction, Hannah had responded with the same combination of aloofness and sarcasm that she brought to everything she did. She was just self-deprecating enough that her friends didn't complain about her snark. Not much, anyway.

But she missed him. Maybe it wasn't love, but she liked Charlie a lot more than she had ever let on. Now here they were, both juniors doing a semester abroad at the Sorbonne. His girlfriend, Brittany, was back in New York. But instead of taking the opportunity to get closer to Charlie, maybe tell him how she really felt about him or at the very least seduce him, all she had to offer was snark. Sarcasm was the only arrow in her quiver, and that sucked.

You're such a coward, she thought.

And accepted it.

'What are you saying?' she asked.

Charlie said to her, 'You didn't look like you were sleeping, but your brain certainly isn't awake.'

'Must be the oh-so-stimulating company,' Hannah replied. 'I was ruminating. It's something intelligent people do when trapped in the car with drooling morons.'

He laughed and shook his head. 'Isn't it too early for you to be such a bitch?'

'I don't have to be awake to be a bitch.'

Charlie smirked. 'I remember.'

'Oh, please, my friend the scintillating conversationalist. What was it you wished to discuss this fine French morning?'

'I was just bitching about having to get up so early to come out here. I wish I hadn't put my research off so long.'

'You'll be fine,' Hannah said, more warmly. 'You do better under pressure and you know it. That's why you wait until the last minute. I have no idea what my excuse is-'

'Too much wine and too many cute Parisian guys.'

Hannah smiled. 'And one girl.'

'You're such a tease. I know you did not make out with that girl. You're just toying with my helpless male brain.'

'Maybe. Anyway, it doesn't matter. We'll both be fine. Me more than you, of course, because I picked something easy and you decided to get all philosophical.'

'Picking a dead king and doing research with no room for conjecture about the future would have bored the shit out of me. Besides, this way I get to spin theories that will eat up some of the assignment's word length. Trust me, fifteen pages on Marie Antoinette losing her head would have ended with me throwing myself from the top of Notre Dame.'

Hannah laughed.

'My suicide is funny to you?'

'No. But I'm calling you Quasimodo for the rest of the day.'

They both smiled, but then lapsed into the silence of old friends, long-ago lovers, and other people who no longer have anything to prove to one another. Charlie drove around for a while trying to figure out where he was supposed to park in order for them to explore the Basilica. When he finally had it sorted out, they found themselves right in front of a cafe and couldn't resist going in for a coffee. A few minutes later, coffee in hand, they strode down the street and paused to gaze up at the building's façade.

The Basilica of Saint-Denis was a huge, sprawling, Gothic cathedral that had served as the prototype for an entire wave of architecture. It had been founded in the seventh century by Dagobert, one of the Merovingian kings, who had chosen the site because it held the tomb of Saint Denis. Hannah couldn't deny that all of the stories that had their endings at the basilica were interesting. The place became an abbey, the center of a Roman Catholic monastic society, and over the course of many centuries, myths and stories had sprung up about its various architectural advancements. More importantly to her and to pretty much the whole world, the Basilica of Saint-Denis was known as the necropolis of France - eight hundred years' worth of kings and queens and other royals were buried there. What had started as a tomb for Saint Denis had become the crypt for Charles Martel, Pepin the Younger, and a whole host of kings called Henry and Louis.

To most tourists, the main attraction at the basilica was likely the tomb of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. Hannah had never been inside the place, but as she and Charlie walked along the street toward it, she glanced around for a cake shop, certain that someone must have taken advantage of the opportunity. When she didn't find one, she wasn't sure if she was disenchanted or pleased; home in the US, she felt sure there would have been a shop called Let Them Eat Cake right outside the cathedral doors.

Hannah hadn't come to research Marie Antoinette or Louis XVI, however. She was much more interested in Catherine de'Medici, who had been ignored by her husband during his reign as king, but then gone on to hold the reins of power for three decades after his death. She'd seen her three sons each become king in succession, but all the while she had been in control. Catherine had a reputation for brutality, but other than that, she was Hannah's sort of woman. As she tipped back her coffee and drained the last bitter dregs, she gazed up at the cathedral. It was both beautiful and formidable, but what really struck her was how much money must have been involved in its upkeep.

'Who pays for all of this?' she asked.

Charlie gave her a sidelong glance. 'So now you're interested?'

For a moment she wasn't sure what he meant, and then realized he thought she was asking about his own research paper.

'Not in what you're working on. I'm just wondering. There's no way Rome has the budget for it.'

Charlie nodded. 'You wouldn't think so, but you'd be wrong. When the Vatican fell apart after the revelation, the church treasury was frozen. Payments weren't being made because they were trying to protect church wealth from lawsuits. Yeah, the Papal hierarchy completely collapsed, but not for long. It was only, like, two years before the College of Cardinals were able to agree on a new Pope.'

The revelation. The day, many years ago, now, when the world first learned of the existence of the Shadows, and of the clandestine arm of the Vatican that had consisted of sorcerers and killers. Faced with incontrovertible evidence that the church had been involved with black magic, people had turned their backs on Rome. Had the revelation not coincided horribly with the murder of the then-current Pope, someone might have been able to get the disaster under control. But after decades of conspiracies and scandals that had eroded the public's trust in the church, the revelation had been the last straw. The power of the Vatican had been largely dismantled. Or so she'd thought.

Hannah frowned, glancing around for a trash can where she could dispose of her coffee cup.

'That makes no sense,' she said. 'The Third Ecumenical Council was only four or five years ago. And the American clergy didn't even attend that one. No way was there a new Pope that soon after the shit hit the fan.'

Charlie rolled his eyes. 'How do you not know any of this? No wonder you're only interested in dead queens. Look, I'm talking about the internal restructuring that happened long before Vatican III. The church was embarrassed, yeah, and a huge percentage of money just stopped coming in. The American Catholic Church broke off from Rome and a lot of people in other parts of the world either didn't want to fund the Vatican after the secrets that had come out, or they didn't think there was anything left to fund.

'But there was. A skeleton crew, yes. But a Pope, absolutely - Pope Paul the Seventh - and a new College of Cardinals. They started quietly rebuilding the Roman church only a couple of years after the revelation, putting the pieces together, getting control back of their most valuable properties. A lot of European governments, including the French, financed the maintenance and security of the church's landmarks for a lot of years. Now the church is starting to take over managing the properties for themselves again, and those governments want to collect. The French government and the Vatican are in the middle of a huge legal battle to decide who actually now owns the Basilica of Saint-Denis.'

Hannah hung her head a little, smiling at her own self-absorption.

'Y'know,' she said, 'I'm going to do something I almost never do.' She looked up at him, searching the blue eyes behind those hipster glasses, and tried to forget all the times he had kissed her. 'I'm going to apologize.'

Charlie clapped a hand over his chest and dropped his coffee cup, its remnants spilling onto the broad sidewalk in front of the basilica. He staggered and grunted as if rocked by a heart attack.

Hannah punched him in the shoulder. He let out a girly sort of 'ow', but his grin remained.

'I'm serious,' she said. 'That's almost verging on interesting.'

Charlie linked arms with her. 'I'll take that as a compliment before you ruin it. Now, come on. I want to interview a few visitors, some staff, and at least one clergy member if I can find one, and I don't want to be here all damn day.'

Nearly two hours later, Hannah had filled many pages in her notebook with observations about the life and death of Catherine de'Medici and the resting place of her remains. Most of what she needed to include in her paper she had already known before visiting the basilica, but the on-site research had been required and, truth be told, she hadn't minded at all. Every inch of the place was beautiful, its history fascinated her, and as she explored its naves and tombs, she felt as if she were breathing ancient air. Now, though, with her stomach grumbling she had tracked Charlie down and had been attempting to hurry him toward the completion of his own research.

They were at the bottom of a curved stone stairwell that had been accessed by a small, carved wooden door at the rear of the abbey, away from most of the tombs. A narrow corridor ran off to the left, beneath the abbey church, lit only by an occasional dimly burning bulb. In front of them was a black, wrought-iron gate, beyond which she could only see more stone.

'Please, Charlie, I'm hungry,' Hannah said. 'What the hell are we doing here?'

'Waiting for the priest,' he said, as if she might be too simple to understand.

Hannah sighed. She knew very well they were waiting for the priest to come back with a key. During the French Revolution, a lot of the tombs of the royals up in the abbey had been opened and the remains of monarchs had been dumped into a pit and dissolved with quicklime. She had sort of assumed that anything that might have been left of Saint Denis would have been destroyed, but according to Father Laurent, the grimly handsome abbot of the basilica, that was not true.

According to legend, upon his execution by beheading, Saint Denis had picked up his own severed head and walked the six miles from the site of his execution to the place where he would eventually be buried. These days nothing remained of his body, but Father Laurent insisted that the head of Saint Denis remained entombed in the crypt beneath the abbey church.

'So, what's the tomb upstairs for?' Hannah demanded.

'That's where he was buried until the revolution. It's mainly for tourists.'

'And, what, Father Laurent's going to show you the real tomb because you're doing a research paper?' she scoffed.

Charlie smiled. 'He's going to show us because I asked. It's not a big secret or anything.'

Her stomach rumbled hungrily. 'Come on, Charlie. What does this have to do with your research? Remember you were all obnoxious about how easy your paper was going to be because it was all going to be theories about the future of the church instead of its past?'

'Well, yeah,' Charlie said. 'But it's the severed head of a saint. It's cool, right?'

She threw up her hands. 'It's not like we're going to be able to see it!'

He shushed her, glancing down the corridor, and when she turned she saw Father Laurent making his way toward them, passing from pools of dim light into shadow and then back into the light again. For a priest, he wasn't bad looking. It had occurred to Hannah that if the new Vatican could draw young, intelligent yet formidable looking guys like Laurent into the priesthood, maybe they would someday re-establish their former power and influence.

The priest carried an ornate key on an iron ring.

'The church is more concerned with tradition than security,' he said in fluent but accented English, shaking his head as he slipped the big key into the lock. 'I am constantly amazed by how much we rely upon our assumptions of what will never happen . . . until it does.'

'Is this really it?' Hannah asked. 'What about the doors upstairs? They must be alarmed.'

Father Laurent nodded. 'Yes, and there are cameras, of course. But a single, determined individual could get in and out easily enough, if they had a plan.'

The hinges squealed as he swung the gate inward. He turned to glance at them. 'Neither of you is planning a heist, I hope?'

'Well, actually . . .' Charlie replied.

Hannah laughed. 'You've seen too many movies, Father.'

The priest smiled and then stepped through the gate, gesturing for them to follow. With his graying hair and square jaw, he had a hard look about him, but the smile gave him a warmth that made Hannah feel safe in his presence. She found herself wondering how his life had led him here, and thought she might ask him a few questions for her own research when Charlie had finished.

'It's incredibly nice of you to do this,' Charlie said as he and Hannah followed the priest into the narrow corridor beyond the gate.

'It is my pleasure,' Father Laurent said. 'It is a nice break from performing services for a tiny congregation while noisy, rude tourists wander around the abbey as if they are children at the zoo.'

He turned and reached into the shadows for a switch that brought to life a sequence of caged light bulbs along the ceiling of the corridor. The bulbs offered only splashes of light to navigate the darkness.

'As you can see, our power is almost as archaic as our security,' Father Laurent said.

He set off down the corridor, moving from one pool of light to the next, and they followed.

'If you don't mind me asking, Father,' Hannah began, 'I was wondering how long you've been a priest.'

They both knew the unspoken remainder of the question: had it been before or after the revelation?

'Only three years,' he said without turning. 'I found my calling later than most, but the church needed-'

The whole corridor shook around them, the stone floor seeming to rise and shift beneath their feet. Hannah cried out and caught herself against the wall. The caged lights flickered, one of them popping and going dark. Father Laurent stumbled and fell to his knees as the floor bucked under them. Hannah caught a glimpse of Charlie's face, saw that his lips were moving, but she couldn't hear him over the deep rumble of the world around them and the grinding of stone. Dust sifted down from the ceiling and then two more bulbs popped in quick succession, so that very little light remained.

Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod.

A fucking earthquake.

Only seconds had passed but already it felt like it had been going on forever. With a horrible crack, a fissure appeared in the wall to her left and she knew she had to get the hell out of there. Back in the archway, at the gate . . . that was what they said about earthquakes, wasn't it? Get into a doorway. Or was that for hurricanes? She couldn't remember and suddenly all she could hear was the thunder of her own heart in her ears. It beat against the inside of her chest so hard that she put one hand over her breastbone and reminded herself that she was too young for a heart attack, too young to die, too young to be killed in a fucking earthquake.

It kept going.

And then she was screaming for it to stop, fear swallowing her, enveloping her. Charlie grabbed her outstretched hand and tugged her toward him, or drew himself toward her - it was hard to tell. He pulled her into his arms even as they tried to keep their balance and he kissed the top of her head.

Hannah slapped his hands away, frantic with terror, just wanting to reach the gateway. She saw the hurt in his eyes and wanted to scream at him for being so sensitive when thousands of tons of stone were about to come down on their heads. Instead she grabbed his wrist and dragged him back the way they'd come. How long had it been going on now? Twenty or thirty seconds. It had to stop soon, didn't it?

As if in answer there came a bang and crash behind them, down at the darkened end of the corridor, so loud that for that one moment it muffled the grinding roar of the earth's distress. The ground shifted violently and threw them into the wall. Hannah stumbled and fell, then immediately began to regain her feet. She looked up to see Father Laurent coming toward them, a cloud of dust roiling behind him in the corridor. He looked more anguished than afraid, and she realized that something had just happened to the tomb of Saint Denis. The ceiling must have given way and caved in on top of it, or the floor beneath it had split.

She wiped dust from her eyes, blinked and looked at her hand to discover that the dust was mixed with blood. She had banged her head.

'Come on!' Charlie said, squeezing her hand and getting her to focus.

It took her a moment before she realized that she had heard him, and then to understand why. The quake had quieted to a tremble.

And then it ceased.

Father Laurent caught up to them. 'Please,' he said. 'We must not remain here. It may not be safe.'

Hannah nodded. The priest passed by them, taking the lead again. Hannah held Charlie's hand, grateful for his touch, her heart still pounding in her chest and thumping in her ears as she wondered if the stairs would be blocked. She'd had panic attacks before, and suddenly her thoughts raced with claustrophobic terror at the baseless idea that they might be trapped down there.

'We're okay,' Charlie said, sensing her terror. 'It's over. We just have to get outside and we'll be-'

An electrical crackle filled the air, followed by a loud pop as the rest of the caged bulbs went dark, sparks falling from the shorted fixtures. If not for the light of the stairwell coming through the open gate up ahead, they would have been in total darkness. Hannah still feared being trapped, but the light acted as a beacon, speeding her forward.

'I must hurry,' Father Laurent said. 'I can't imagine the damage in the village, or in the city. I fear for Paris. There will be people who need my help.'

Last rites, Hannah thought. He's not talking about digging through rubble. He's talking about taking away their sin before they go to God.

Somehow that made her panic worse, but she swallowed it down and just nodded, squeezing Charlie's hand as they approached the light spilling in from the stairwell on the right. The ceiling had buckled slightly above the gate, so that it could not be moved. If Father Laurent had closed it behind them, they really would have been trapped there. Her heart leaped as she glanced at the stairs and saw that although some debris had fallen, their way out remained open.

The stink of something rotten filled her nostrils. Flinching in revulsion, she turned to look at Charlie. For a moment, her mind could not make sense of the thing she saw looming in the darkness behind him, could not take in the multitude of sickly green eyes or the rotten, oozing splits in its flesh or the glistening red shards of bone or horn that protruded through its skin all over.

It wasn't until it opened its mouth and revealed rows of teeth like hundreds of black needles that she truly saw it, and felt something inside her die . . . something that might have been hope.

The demon wrapped long talons around Charlie, lurched forward, and bit off his head. Blood jetted from the stump of his neck, bathing the demon's face and filling the air with the acrid copper stink of it. Hannah knew she was screaming, felt her throat go ragged from her shrieks, but she couldn't hear her own voice. All she could hear were Father Laurent's prayers behind her, as if he were whispering in her ear.

In front of her, the demon dropped Charlie's twitching corpse, dragged itself over him, and reached out one long, black-taloned hand.