Gabriel Baleeiro felt more relaxed than he had in years. Arm in arm with his wife, Jessica, he strolled through the square in front of the Basilica San Domenico and breathed in the cool, clean night air of Tuscany. He had never thought of churches as romantic, but with the lights strung throughout the square and the late-night lovers wandering together, the façade of the fortress-like basilica made him feel like he had stepped back in time.
'Penny for your thoughts,' Jessica said, bumping against him playfully.
Gabe smiled and swung her in front of him, playing at the image of a dashing leading man from some 1940s film.
'After twenty-five years, you need me to tell you what I'm thinking?'
She grinned, shyly dropping her gaze. 'You're thinking you can't wait to get back to the hotel.'
'I can wait,' he said. 'It's a beautiful night. But I am looking forward to what happens when we return to our room.'
'Me falling asleep?'
He laughed. 'Not tonight.'
She gazed up at him, searching his eyes with the kind of adoration and yearning he hadn't seen in her in ages. Music drifted from the open door of a trattoria across the square.
'No,' she agreed. 'Not tonight.'
The Baleeiros were doctors, Gabe the senior surgeon at St George's in London, and Jessica the head of the pediatric oncology unit there. She was British born and bred, while Gabe hailed from Brazil. They'd met in medical school and fallen in love during all-night study sessions, but twenty-five years had passed in a blur of patients and surgeries and they'd had to steal romance in the tiniest sips. Aside from the occasional weeklong sunny holiday with their two sons, who were now twelve and fourteen and staying with their grandmother in Milton Keynes, they had rarely been away from their work. This sabbatical - two weeks together in Tuscany, no kids - was something of a second honeymoon, and Gabe had spent the past week falling in love with his wife all over again.
'You know what this reminds me of?' Jessica asked as they walked along the cobblestones in the shadow of the church. 'With all the lights?'
'Sao Paolo,' Gabe said. 'The festival, that night you first met my parents.'
Jessica slid her arm through his again and leaned against him as they walked. 'You know me well.'
'I know us well. Sometimes I forget, but this trip has reminded me.'
'Aren't you a bloody romantic?'
He smiled. 'Well, I am Brazilian.'
Jessica tugged him toward her and gave him a quick kiss. It felt to Gabe like he'd won a prize of some kind, but he knew that his life with Jessica was the prize. For the second time they stopped where they were, right in the middle of the square, and gazed at each other. He knew he had aged well - the white streak in his hair the one thing that put the lie to his boyish face - but Jessica had aged even better. Not that she had been untouched by the years; instead, the lines at the corners of her eyes and the edges of her lips had given her an austere, dignified beauty that youth could never achieve.
'I don't want to go home,' he said.
'How long, do you think, before the boys noticed our absence?'
'With your mum spoiling them, at least a couple of months.'
She laughed, and then grew serious again, reaching up to touch his face. 'We need to do this more often, love. Take some time for ourselves.'
'I don't know,' he said, shaking his head. 'It's unbecoming in doctors, you know. All this soppy affection. And very un-British of you, too. You're meant to be wry and jaded and hold love at arm's length.'
Jessica gave him a playful shove. 'Bugger that.'
Then she pulled him to her and Gabe went along willingly. He didn't wait for her to kiss him, wrapping his arms around her and bending to meet her lips. The late-night revelers and strolling couples around them were forgotten. The moment belonged only to them.
And then the night exploded.
The air ruptured as the front of the church blew out, glass and rubble erupting and crumbling down onto the cobblestones. The blast threw the Baleeiros off their feet, still locked in an embrace, and they hit the street in a tangle of limbs, rolling and sliding to a stop. Gabe struck his head and blacked out, coming to moments later with his ears ringing and the echo of the explosion still resounding off of the façades of the buildings in the square.
Jessica was kneeling by him, blood dripping down her cheek from a laceration at her left temple. Her eyes were glassy but she seemed otherwise unharmed. It took him a moment to realize that she was talking to him, calling his name, shaking him.
'I think I'm okay,' he said, and realized he'd spoken in Portuguese.
Not that it mattered. She'd barely have heard him over the screams of the other people in the square. Some were cries of fear and others of pain or grief - as a doctor and a surgeon he had come to be familiar with so many different types of human anguish.
The cobblestones shook beneath him and he heard the rumble of more of the church collapsing. His chest rose and fell with shallow, ragged breaths and he glanced around, blinking at the realization that he might be slightly in shock.
'I'm all right,' he said, this time in English. 'Just shaken up. Come on.'
He sat up, wavered a bit, and then stood and stared at the church. Most of its face had collapsed and its interior yawed vast and dark, the glow of the festive lights in the square barely reaching within.
'Are you sure you're all right?'
'We've got to help.'
She hesitated, her concern for him etched on her face, but then it vanished and was replaced by the determined mask of the doctor.
'Where do we start?' she asked.
'Follow the loudest screams.'
They scanned the square, ignoring the people only now streaming out of the trattoria and a wine bar, as well as the busker who was on his knees weeping over his broken guitar.
'This way,' Jessica said, grabbing his hand.
They ran toward the church. A sixtyish woman stood over a man who'd been struck by stone debris. He looked shattered, his chest misshapen and his jaw askew as blood bubbled from his mouth. Gabe and Jessica exchanged a dark look, and he knew they were thinking the same thing. Triage.
This guy wasn't going to make it.
Not far away, a pair of college girls was crying, trying to move a chunk of wall off a third. It took all of Gabe's will to turn his back on the dying old man and run to them.
'Wait!' he said. 'Let me look at her first.'
They looked confused and he realized they didn't understand English. He started to gesture to himself, saying 'doctor,' but then Jessica was there, rattling off something in simple, passable Italian and they took a step back. The two girls stared in shock at their fallen friend, whose legs and pelvis were trapped beneath an enormous slab of wall. The trapped girl was blessedly unconscious.
Gabe dropped to his knees beside her, checking her pulse as he lowered his head and listened for breath sounds. Her pulse was weak but steady and she was still breathing. If paramedics arrived with their gear in time, and the rubble could be shifted off of her, she might live, but it was going to be a near thing.
'Honey,' Jessica said. 'Have a look at this.'
He turned and saw the two college girls staring at him hopefully. One of them, a tall, olive-skinned girl, had blood soaking through the fabric of her long, stylish sweater in a dozen places or more. Small pieces of jagged glass jutted from the left side of her face and from slices in the thin sweater. She cradled her left arm against her chest, and he knew something other than glass had struck her, but it was the glass that concerned him most. The girl blinked, studying him, and then she spoke to him in Italian, gesturing at her fallen friend.
She staggered a little, weak from loss of blood already. In minutes, or less, she would be unconscious. She would die unless he could staunch the flow of blood, but there were so many wounds.
'Jess, help me with her. Get her to lie down. Christ, we've got to figure out how to get these-'
'Gabe,' his wife said, and her tone brought him up short.
He glanced at her and saw that she had never moved. She stood staring at the ruin of the church with wide eyes, her mouth slightly open, a kind of sickly fear etched upon her features. Only then did he realize that she had never meant for him to look at the bleeding girl, never been worried about the college girls at all. Not once she had seen this.
There were things emerging from the blasted husk of Basilica San Domenico.
Gabe blinked to clear his vision, thinking that he must still be in shock and that something must be wrong with his head, for the winged figures rising coming from within the church faded in and out of sight as if they were there one moment and gone the next. They seemed to be made of charcoal smoke, phantom harpies who beat their wings as they darted from the black void of the church and into the sky above the square. He cocked his head back to watch their ascent, blinking again as they shimmered in and out, vanishing and reappearing. Demons made of smoke.
'Meu Deus,' he prayed in a whisper.
But as he watched more and more of the smoke demons emerge, he knew that God had turned his gaze away from Siena tonight.
The helicopter set down a quarter mile from the Saint-Denis cathedral. Even from the air, Beril Demirci had been able to see the cracks in the street from the earthquake that had struck just before noon, now twelve hours ago, but nobody was worrying about the earthquake now. Somewhere in Saint-Denis, she imagined structural engineers were trying to figure out whether there were buildings in danger of collapse, but she doubted many of them would be doing much firsthand evaluation. Not if they valued their lives.
'This is as far as I go!' the helicopter pilot shouted, wanting to make himself heard over the chop of the rotors.
Beril gave him the thumbs up, trying to seem competent and knowledgeable but secretly almost as terrified of the helicopter as she was of the horror unfolding in Saint-Denis right now. She had never been in a helicopter before, and now that she had she hoped never to do it again.
'Thank you!' she called, trying to figure out how to turn the latch that would open the door.
As she fumbled with it, someone did it for her from the outside and the door rattled as it slid on its tracks. With only a small satchel as her travel case, she jumped down from the chopper - could she call it a chopper, or was that silly? - and turned to face the soldier who had opened the door.
'Miss Demirci?' he shouted over the noise.
She nodded and he turned away, gesturing for her to follow. The soldier moved at a trot and she kept pace with him, slipping the strap of her bag over her head so that it hung behind her as she ran. The roar of the chopper increased and then quickly began to diminish and she glanced back to see that the pilot had already taken off, headed away from here as fast as his aircraft could carry him.
Smart man, she thought.
Which makes me what?
With the helicopter gone, the sound of artillery shelling grew even louder. It thumped the air and she felt every shot and every impact in her chest, shaking her heart. The soldier led her toward a cluster of military trucks and smaller vehicles, where a group of other people in uniform was clustered around a folding table. Though her Turkish homeland had its share of military activity, Beril had rarely seen soldiers up close and knew next to nothing about the way such things were organized. Only by their bearing could she identify these people as officers of some kind, so she followed her escort and relied upon him.
Her soldier brought her not to the table but to a tall, dark-eyed woman in full military gear. Beril thought her bulky helmet made her head look enormous and out of proportion to her body, but she bit her tongue. She had a tendency to speak her thoughts unfiltered; it frequently got her into trouble at home and she didn't want the same thing to happen here. She had been called into the midst of an unfolding crisis, and knew the focus needed to remain on the horrors at hand. It was simply that she sometimes couldn't stop her thoughts from racing off on tangents and her tongue from following.
'Major Rojas,' the soldier said. 'This is the woman you've been waiting for.'
The dark-eyed major frowned. 'Beril Demirci?'
'That's me,' Beril said, her small voice likely getting lost in the roar of nearby battle. She looked around, hoping for some kind of shelter, but the major seemed in no hurry to take cover.
'Major Paola Rojas, UN Security Forces. You've heard of Task Force Victor?'
'Good,' Major Rojas said. 'Come with me.'
She nodded to the soldier, who turned and ran off to wherever he was meant to be next. The major led her past the table where other officers were barking orders into phones and radios, though they seemed to be having trouble with communications and having to repeat themselves. Runners came up to the table, received orders and raced away. One of the officers poked furiously at a blueprint or something spread out on the table and tried to make a point the others were ignoring.
'In here,' Major Rojas said, and Beril looked up to discover that they were outside a long trailer and the major was holding the door for her.
Not much by way of shelter, but at least it would muffle the noise of war. Beril went up the few steps and found herself inside some kind of communications center. Video screens showed flashes of explosions and glimpses of horrible things, all in some kind of night vision she had only ever seen in movies, but each image was fuzzed with static and slashed with jagged lines that reminded her of lightning.
There were four people already in the trailer. Two were technicians who were cursing and trying to get their equipment to function more effectively. The other two were an odd pair, a young male soldier clad in what she now recognized as UN fatigues and a very old man whose hair and beard were a frost of tight white curls and whose skin was the color of cinnamon. The old man wore a kind of tunic, beige and faded, a pair of loose brown trousers, and conspicuously expensive but well-worn hiking shoes that were startlingly discordant with the rest of his appearance.
'Beril Demirci, this is Sergeant Ponticello, also Task Force Victor,' Major Rojas said. 'And maybe you already know Mr Chakroun.'
'Not Yousef Chakroun?' she asked, catching her breath a little.
The old man's eyes crinkled and he nodded in greeting. He and Sergeant Ponticello had been sitting in office chairs that seemed bolted to the floor around a small table, but now both men began to stand. Chakroun looked exhausted and somewhat bedraggled, but she presumed a man of his age must always have an air of weariness about him. The Moroccan mystic was rumored to be at least ninety-six.
'No, please. Don't get up,' Beril said.
'Miss Demirci,' Chakroun said. 'Octavian speaks highly of you.'
Beril shook her head. This was too much. It had been startling enough for her to get a phone call from Peter Octavian, a more powerful mage than any she had ever encountered - or heard reputable stories about - but the idea that Chakroun and Octavian had discussed her made her feel slightly faint.
She found herself smiling. 'I don't know what to say.'
'Don't say,' Major Rojas cut in. 'Sit down and help us figure out what the hell we're supposed to do.'
Chastened, Beril nodded and slid into a seat at the small table. Break table? Lunch table? Or was this tiny, round surface efficient for whatever official business took place in this -
Stop. No tangents.
'Tell me,' was all she said.
Major Rojas remained standing. It was clear that she wanted action, not words, that it upset her to be here while not far away demons were attacking Italian and UN troops and trying to get past the military blockade to kill more civilians. Many hundreds were already dead, some killed in the earthquake but most slain by the creatures emerging from the bowels of the basilica - Beril knew that much - and some must be getting past the guns and soldiers.
'Mr Chakroun arrived nearly seven hours ago. He's been able to pinpoint the breed of demon-'
At the mention of the word, the two techs glanced at the little meeting table nervously.
'-but we haven't managed to identify the source.'
Chakroun leaned toward her across the table. A faint scent of spice wafted from his clothes, or perhaps from his body itself. 'We don't know where the little ones are coming from.'
'Oh, there is a big one. No doubt about it,' Chakroun said.
'We haven't seen it yet,' Sergeant Ponticello added. 'Mr Chakroun tells us-'
'Tells them,' Chakroun said with a sniff.
He passed his hand over the table in a swift, circular motion, and a kind of mist rose up from the surface, shifting and drifting and then coalescing into something horrible. For the first time, real fear raced along her spine, a cascade of icy shivers. The demon had an insectoid body, but fat as a slug, with long upper arms that ended in sharp talons. Its mouth was a maw full of rows of black teeth like long needles, and there were eyes all over its upper half.
Beril felt sick to her stomach.
'Is it . . .' she began. 'I mean, I've seen woodcuts of it, I think. Is it a Tatzelwurm?'
'Think of it as a cousin of the Tatzelwurm,' Chakroun said. 'The Akkadians called these creatures utukki.'
'Akkadians?' Beril said. 'But why would a demon of Middle Eastern origin appear in France?'
Major Rojas sighed in frustration. 'It found a way in. That's all. It's here, and now we deal with it, and its offspring - if that's what the others are.'
'They must be,' Chakroun said. 'Otherwise we would have seen other adult utukki.'
The ancient mystic waved his hand over the mist-figures and they dissipated. Beril stared at the place where they had been for a moment and then leaned back in the chair, wondering what Octavian was thinking, calling her to come here. Yes, she knew a great deal of magic and could wield it with some confidence, but this was war. She had never been a warrior.
'Hey,' Sergeant Ponticello said, snapping his fingers in front of her face.
They had been talking to her but her mind had been elsewhere. She glanced at the techs, catching them staring, and the two men turned around quickly. The many screens continued to fuzz and distort, the images becoming worse instead of better.
'I'm sorry,' Beril said. 'I just don't know why I'm here. What can I do that Yousef Chakroun cannot?'
Chakroun reached out and put his hand over hers. 'Beril, listen. I have befuddled them, clouded their primitive instincts to keep them from straying far from here, to give the soldiers a chance to destroy them. But I am an old man. I haven't the power to destroy them or even to fight them properly. Octavian tells me that you have spent your life studying the occult, that you have the knowledge and the skill and most importantly the heart to fight the utukki.
She shook her head. 'No. I really do not. Octavian is the true mage. I can fight them, perhaps even destroy some of them, but there are so many. Even if I could kill them all, I have never faced a creature as powerful as whatever brought them into our world.'
'People are dying out there,' Major Rojas said. 'Soldiers and civilians. Husbands and wives, mothers and children. We're doing the best we can at holding them, but no matter how many of them we kill, more just keep coming. We might be able to hold them like this for days if we have to, but if there's no end to them, at some point they're going to get through. I don't like sorcery. I'm not going to lie. But magic's the only thing short of bombing the hell out of Saint-Denis that's going to put a stop to this.'
'We don't know if bombs would do it, Major,' Sergeant Ponticello said, his Sicilian accent strong. 'However the utukki got into our world, if there's a passage, bombs could just rip it wider.'
'Exactly,' Major Rojas said. 'We need you. Help us hold the line. Help us destroy these things.'
A loud rap came on the door and then it was yanked open. The same soldier who had been Beril's escort poked his head into the trailer.
'Major, you're going to want to talk to this guy. We've got a priest out here who says he's seen the demon that's causing all of this.'
Chakroun said something in his own language, nodding in anticipation.
'Well, bring him in.'
The soldier ducked out and then the door opened wider. Her first impression of the priest was of bruised wisdom. Thin and drawn, face battered and his arm in a sling, he looked defeated. But then he raised his eyes and surveyed the people in the trailer, and she saw the courage and anger in him. His gaze rested a moment on Major Rojas, likely sensing her command status, but then the priest focused on Chakroun.
'My name is Laurent,' the clergyman said. 'I woke in a tent hours ago, being treated by a nurse. I'd have come right away but they wouldn't let me out and then no one would listen.'
'We are listening, Father Laurent,' Chakroun said softly.
'You saw the demon?' Major Rojas added.
'I believe I was there the moment it broke through,' Father Laurent said.
'And the others, the offspring?' Chakroun asked. 'You know where they come from?'
A look of horror passed across the priest's features.
'I do,' Father Laurent said, visibly shuddering. 'God help me, I do.'
Hannah had lost track of the hour, and even the day. She had lost track of the number of times she had fallen unconscious and woken again. She had lost count of the demons that had slid from inside of her. Every time her eyes fluttered open into bleary awareness of her surroundings she would begin to cry. Tears had dried on her cheeks and she could taste their salt on her lips.
Then her breathing would quicken again and she would feel new convulsions in her belly and realize it was this that had woken her from blessed oblivion. Another monster was about to be born. She lay on the stairs with rubble strewn around her, half-naked and bruised and violated, and she wondered how many times she could give birth before the blood and fluid that slid from her would be too much.
I should be dead by now, she thought, more than once. More than a dozen times.
Whatever infection or curse the thing from the crypt had afflicted her with, it must also be keeping her alive. In a moment of clarity, her thoughts coalescing for a moment out of pain and anguish and disgust, she realized that it was only logical - if the creature in the bowels of the cathedral meant for her to be the host for its children, whatever sickening magic made that possible must also keep her alive. She was less mother than she was doorway.
The thought made her twist around and vomit onto the stone steps.
Shaking, sobbing, she unleashed a wordless scream for mercy, for help, for an ending. Down below her, just outside the iron gate that led into the subterranean crypt, the demon shifted. Its body made a crunch and clack on the stone floor and the debris shaken loose from the ceiling by the chaos going on outside. The basilica shook with each explosion and echoed with the screams of nightmare things that had no place in this world.
It's wrong, she thought, catching her breath to scream again. This is a holy place. A house of saints.
The demon could have slithered up the stairs after her, could have gutted her with those dagger fingers or burrowed its shark teeth into her chest and eaten her heart. She had tried to rise, tried to run after Father Laurent - had that been today or yesterday? How many hours had passed? - but before she managed two steps she would be wracked with contractions again, another monster forcing its way out of her, chittering and gnashing its jaws. But Hannah understood now that the demon did not climb up to her because it had no desire to kill her.
It wanted her alive, and breeding.
She didn't look down at the demon anymore. The last time, she had nearly stopped breathing when she caught a glimpse of its eyes - so many eyes - looking right back at her, and a feeling of approval had washed over her. The thing had chosen her to bring its spawn into the world, and it was proud of her sorrow and her screams. Hannah could sense it, somehow, as if the long hours of agony and desperate humiliation had created a link between them.
Or maybe they can sense it, and I can feel what they feel.
In the near darkness, with only the flickering orange emergency lights casting their wan illumination in the stairwell, she felt another contraction coming and let out a terrible sob. Closing her eyes, she prayed for an attack that would bring the ceiling crashing down on top of her, putting an end to this.
A gush came from between her legs and she felt the wriggling begin again, the pressure and the pain as a new monster twisted and slipped and slithered its way out, stretching her vagina to obscene extent. Her breath came in hitching gasps and she grunted, fighting the pain, until a wail of despair erupted from her lips, wrenched from some hopeless place inside of her.
Please, she thought, praying again for the church to fall down upon her.
Then she was beyond conscious thought, her scream so loud that it drowned out the chittering of the newborn and the thunder of combat outside.
Her mind shut down and for a time she would be lost in saving darkness.
Until the next one came.