A wave of powerful supernatural energy washed over Charouth as she navigated the depths of an abandoned subway tunnel. Decades ago the E train sped along these tracks carrying countless passengers during rush hour. Now it all lay in ruins. Graffiti several layers thick covered the walls. Support beams, stripped of their paint, and coated in rust, hardly looked strong enough to hang a hat on, much less keep a ceiling up. Wood and cement rubble crunched under her heavy boots as she traveled farther from the point of entry. She glanced behind her. A weak emergency bulb shed meager light on the six mortals making their way down the treacherous steps onto the platform. They needed to hurry. The rotten scent of a not so fresh corpse hit her. Ugh. Gross. This kind of work was so far below her rank.
“Hurry up, guys,” she called to the struggling humans. “Dinner party’s almost over.”
She reached the point where the tunnel began a sharp curve. The heavy grunts and footfalls of the humans stopped. Charouth didn’t need to see what lay ahead. The familiar slurping and gnawing sounds of demonic creatures feeding gave her plenty of information. These guys were nasty, but didn’t have enough power to even keep that piss poor emergency light going. Something worse was about to descend on them: Charouth and her hunting party.
“Take this.” Jack, the leader of the humans crept up and presented her with a gun.
“No, thank you. I have my own weapon.” Cool white light pierced the darkness as a sword of pure celestial flame formed in her hand. The energetic fire licked around her fingers and up her wrist, yet she remained unharmed. The weapon was as much as part of her as her blood. She held the sword up higher and frowned. The flames usually burned brighter. She wasn’t one hundred percent then. No worries. She still had enough power to get the job done.
“Are you sure you’re strong enough for this?” asked Jack.
“Of course. These flesh eaters are no big deal.”
“You could barely move yesterday.”
“I’m fine now. Don’t worry.” Poor Jack. He didn’t know the half of it. How could he? He was just a man. A man who’d witnessed an angel crash land in his backyard a week ago. Lucky for her Jack was a member of the Order, a select group of humans who served as Heaven’s earthly exterminators. In exchange for his hospitality while she healed, Charouth agreed to help him and his merry band on their next hunt. Better to get this debt settled sooner rather than later.
Gods Above and Below, how embarrassing, owing a human a favor. If anyone found out there’d be no end to the mockery.
Charouth’s side still ached from the rough landing, a constant reminder of why she skulked around in the dark with humans in the first place. Note to self: No more shortcuts through Titan territory. The whole pantheon was a bunch of bastards.
The nest of pests ahead didn’t bother her. That nasty something or other beyond them in the dark was worrisome, but a problem that could wait. Deal with the nest, get the humans to safety, then neutralize the real threat. With a game plan mapped out, Charouth inched ahead, with Jack breathing down her neck. He was way too close. His body heat radiated off of him and the smell of human sweat overwhelmed her. Why did they have to sweat so much? They were a hundred feet below ground in the middle of February. It’s not as though there was any heat down here.
“Back up, Jack. Give me some room.” She rustled her wings to emphasis the point.
“Sorry.” He fell back a little. Not enough. Charouth sighed and elbowed him gently in the ribs.
“I just don’t want anything to happen to you.” A flurry of clicks signaled the humans were locked and loaded, ready for Hell to open up under the busy streets of New York. Not bloody likely. If that ever happened Heaven was in trouble and humans were doomed.
She pasted a diplomatic smile on her face. “Your concern is sweet, but unnecessary. Protecting you is my job.” Not since before the Egyptians built the pyramids, but no need to tell him that.
“These flesh eaters are pretty nasty.”
Charouth scoffed. “The scavengers are the least of your concerns in this tunnel, Jack.”
“What else is out there?”
She stared into the shadows as if they could give her a clue of what awaited them. Too bad her excellent sight didn’t include x-ray vision.
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Keep that gods-damned hell hound away from me,” Azazel grumbled. He jumped back from the drool-covered fangs snapping at his neck.
On the advice of one of his contacts in Hell, he and Zarek had spent the past couple of hours crawling around the dirt and debris of defunct subway tunnels beneath 42nd Street. The guy said one of the items on Satan’s shopping list was in the area. The list was short. Five items. A cross, a sword, an ankh, a cup, and the emblem that made the whole kit, kat, and kaboodle work. At various other points on the globe his demonic contacts searched for the first four. The fifth object needed more careful consideration. Satan trusted no one but Azazel and a few select others to retrieve the emblem Constantine saw on the battlefield before victory against Maxentius: In hoc signo vinces. In this sign you will conquer.
Legend had it that the owner of all five objects got some pretty badass powers. Like most legends, this one was probably worthless. Why something so valuable would be hidden in a dingy subway made less sense than sunshine in Hell. Didn’t matter to Satan. What the Dark One wanted the Dark One got.
“You should be nicer to Princess,” said Zarek. “She’s about to hit pay dirt.”
“Can we just find this damn thing and get the hell out of here?”
“Why so testy, friend? Didn’t sleep last night? Maybe you should see a shrink.”
Az’s vision tinted red as anger coursed through him and he swung out at the other Fallen. His fist connected soundly with the man’s jaw, making a satisfying crack. Zarek spat out a loose tooth. Rubbed at his jaw. Served him right.
“Okay. I deserved that.” Zarek grinned like an idiot.
What was he so happy about? Smarmy bastard. Azazel turned his attention toward the two-headed hound sniffing around a hole in the wall. It sucked to admit it, but Zarek had a point. I am testier than usual. The nightmares that used to plague Az every night had diminished down to striking only a few times a week, but they still left him with his heart racing, panicked, drenched in sweat, and partially shifted into his demon form. A thousand years as the recipient of Satan’s special brand of hospitality shackled him with a centuries-long fear of falling asleep. These days he only slept when his body made him.
“You flaking out?” asked Zarek, less out of concern for Az than how it might inconvenience him and his hellhound.
“Nah, I’m cool, man. I’m cool.” Az took a deep breath.
Princess stopped poking around the hole. Both her heads lifted, necks stiff, four eyes focused straight ahead. Fingers of powerful energy brushed against Az’s skin. He shuddered. Something dangerous was out there. “Looks like Princess found something.”
“Princess and I will check it out,” said Zarek. “I fully expect rescue if I don’t return in five minutes.”
“Rescue this.” Azazel flipped him off.
With a cocky wave, Zarek took off down the pitch-black tunnel. Azazel drew the long hunting blade strapped to his thigh and began the countdown in his head.
She heard the growling hellhound before it appeared in the dingy haze of the tunnel’s sparse lighting. The burnt rubber smell of brimstone assaulted her. Great. A beast fresh from Hell. The humans were no match for this. She ran back to Jack’s group where the team busied itself removing all traces of the hellish corpse eaters.
“You guys need to leave.”
“More scavengers? We can handle it,” Jack said, handing a shovel to a member of his posse.
“No, Jack. This is beyond your skill level.”
“Don’t dismiss us so easily.”
“I’m not. Trust me.” A deep rumbling howl sounded in the darkness ahead. “Take your people and get out. Now.”
Jack opened his mouth to protest once more and the hellhound’s call sounded again. His people gathered behind him, eyes full of questions.
“We’ll retreat to the stairs, but if we hear you in distress, we’re coming for you.”
Jack’s team gathered up their gear and shuffled off back to the rickety stairs.
Once they were out of sight, Charouth called her sword again, tightened her grip on it and edged forward.
“Well, what do we have here, Princess?” A bald-headed angel leered at her. The hound lunged, razor sharp fangs bared, straining at the chain that kept her tethered to her master’s side.
“Turn back, Fallen,” said Charouth.
“Prissy one like you giving me orders? I don’t think so.”
“There’s nothing down this way for you.” Who is this guy? Char ran through her mental Rolodex of Fallen that she knew. Nope. Didn’t recognize him. Didn’t matter. The stench of Hell combined with the power flowing from him gave him away as a very old Fallen. Maybe even one of the first. Great. This mission just skipped horrible and made a beeline straight for disaster.
“Oh, now I’m intrigued,” said the demon. “You reek of human and you’re blocking that tunnel. What delicious mortals are you hiding? Princess is hungry.”
“Princess will have to get a meal elsewhere.” She brandished her sword. “Turn back.”
“Get her, Princess,” the Fallen commanded, unhooking the chain from the hound’s collar.
Charouth stepped to the side, avoiding the worst of the beast’s initial assault. She backed up against the wall, crushing her wings in the process, and waited for the demon dog’s next attack. A quick bob to the left saved Char from the snapping jaws. She countered with a roundhouse kick to the side that sent the dog sprawling. Princess scrambled to regain her footing, shaking both heads and growling. Charouth swung her sword in a wide arc connecting with one of the snarling, slavering heads. A sizzling sound pierced the air as the severed head plopped into a muddy puddle. Black goo sealed the stump where Princess’s head used to be and the smell of burst flesh filled the area. Princess let out a fierce howl and lunged for her again. Charouth swerved. Too slow this time. Fangs sank into her left arm and the sword dematerialized. Godsdammit. She swung a hard left, trying to dislodge the hound with a smack upside the concrete wall. Stunned, Princess released Charouth, then scurried to a darkened corner. Charouth slid to the ground. Clutching the injury, she let loose a string of curses in languages lost to humans millennia ago. For the second time this week raw, agonizing pain coursed through her. The low, hissing sound of her skin melting away added to the horror.
Don’t look. It’s okay.
Recovered from the assault, Princess charged. Her powerful jaws opened wide and lunged toward Charouth’s neck. Just in time she scuttled clear. Too weak to wield the sword, Charouth summoned an S-shaped glaive, took a deep breath, and struck. Blade connected with flesh and the second head flopped to the ground in a sickening thud.
“Sheanar bitch!” the Fallen snarled.
Charouth staggered to her feet, cradling her wounded arm. Princess’s venom burned her flesh. At full strength, the bite would have been as harmless as a bee sting, but after the massive amount of healing her body had undergone in the past week Charouth was far from fit. The mild skirmish with Princess took too much energy. The last thing she needed was a fight with a Fallen at full power and fresh from the Netherworld. His was the most dangerous type of renegade angel. If they sensed weakness in their prey—game over, man. Game over.
Charouth clenched her teeth through the pain. “Now will you back off?”
“You killed my dog!”
“Same thing could happen to you.”
“You’re full of it, sheanar. It’s obvious Princess mauled the hell outta that arm of yours. Might want to get it looked at before you lose it.” He cocked his head to the side slightly. “Run along now. Your master’s calling.”
Charouth felt a miniscule tingle in her mind. The Fallen must’ve noticed the glowing brand on her neck that meant an incoming call. Talk about bad timing. Remiel, her master and Maker, wanted a face to face meeting. He would have to wait, even if it meant a new entry added to her roster of inadequacies.
“None of your concern. What are you doing down here, Fallen?”
“I don’t report to you, sheanar.”
Gods, how she hated that term. In the language of Hell it loosely translated to “loyal one”. Given the residents of the Netherworld had no concept of loyalty it made sense they turned the word into the highest insult for angels like her, those who pledged allegiance to the Creator.
In a blink, the bald Fallen rushed to strike. She brought her arm up to block. Damn that poisoned bite. Too slow again. With the flick of a wrist, he grabbed her by the neck and slammed her against the wall. She winced as her wings made contact. Chunks of concrete fell to the ground. His nails lengthened into deadly claws. Blood oozed from her flesh. He reeked of the Netherworld. Her eyes watered, vision dimmed, face flooding red in shame. Oh, the embarrassment of it all. Outmaneuvered by a Fallen. Incapable of protecting humans. Mauled by a friggin’ hellhound. Talk about demotion. She’d be lucky if they allowed her a Watcher position after this.
“I’m gonna love ripping your head off, sheanar.”
The air thrummed with tension and power. Less potent than what the Fallen, radiated but more recognizable, this was the energy she’d felt earlier.
“Release her.” A new voice entered this little get together. It was dark and ominous, yet strangely familiar.
The Fallen loosened his grip a bit and turned his head toward the tunnel. It was so quiet. No rats scurrying in dark corners. No dripping water. Not even the distant rumble of a train. Just eerie, disconcerting quiet.
“No worries, man. I just found us a little bitch to play with.”
“Let her go.” The newcomer cocked his weapon. It echoed loudly in the underground silence. “Now.”
“Oh, come on, man. She’s a spunky one. We could have fun with her. Before we kill her.”
“Amazarek, let her go. This woman is mine.”
Charouth twisted her head toward the newcomer. Her jaw dropped. She saw a ghost.
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