Authors: Eric Asher
My gun came up and killed another man, one I hadn’t seen closing on Sam.
the third didn’t get to finish. A lance of light struck down from above, piercing his skull.
I dove away as the fourth man opened fire on me. Something tugged on my pants leg, but I kept moving, angling around a rack of clothes. I was moving for Sam when I heard the hiss of a rocket followed by the wet crunch of a watermelon meeting a sledge hammer. I glanced back to find a bomb lance protruding from the necromancer’s face. He fell backwards slowly, and then the lance detonated. It sent a grisly, burnt rain into air around us.
I slid up beside Sam and rolled her over. She winced, bleeding like a stuck pig on blood thinners.
“Shit, why isn’t that closing up?”
“You okay?” Dad asked as he came up beside us. “Oh hell, Sam. You’re bleeding everywhere.”
“Use me, sis,” I said as I rolled my sleeve back.
“No,” she whispered. “You’re already bleeding. Ankle.”
I glanced down at my jeans. The tug I’d felt earlier. I pulled up the cuff and stared at the grazed bullet wound.
“That was close,” Dad said.
“Shit.” It was still bleeding, but I didn’t think it wasn’t bad enough not to help Sam.
“Me then,” Dad said. “If she needs blood, she can have mine.”
Someone grunted and it was followed by a loud thump. Dragging sounds accompanied Edgar and Zola’s arrival. Zola’s hands were wound around the hood of a necromancer. He looked young for Philip’s crew, mid-thirties and a bit pudgy.
“Snack time,” Zola said as she foisted the unconscious man on to Sam.
Sam frowned, a slight hesitation as she glanced between me and Dad before she wrenched the man’s neck back and bit into his jugular. He’d never wake up again. The rivers of blood from Sam’s chest slowed almost immediately. A small knot untied itself in my gut.
“We would have shot him anyway,” Edgar said.
“Yep,” I said. I can only assume he was trying to justify feeding someone to my sister. “Where is she, sis?”
Sam pointed to the customer service counter as something inhuman screamed and wailed back in the courtyard with Mike and Belphegor.
Dad offered his hand and picked me up. His left arm was soaked in blood. A thin red slit showed through his coat. I hadn’t even noticed it.
“How bad?” I asked.
He glanced at the arm. “Done worse to myself with a fillet knife.”
The memory came back to me. Mom had freaked the hell out when he came in from the garage one day, the tip of his middle finger in a paper towel. All he said was “Who wants to take a field trip to the hospital?”
“You okay here?” I asked Sam.
“I’ll stay,” Edgar said.
“Thanks,” I said as Sam rolled her eyes.
“I found her!” Foster said as he zipped into the group. “Sam was right on, she’s behind the customer service desk.”
We broke into a run. Dad led the group as we wove between clothing racks and came out into the aisle leading to customer service. Another roar and what sounded like a small explosion followed us from the outer courtyard.
I didn’t hear the incantation, but a burst of lightning lanced out from the corner of the hall. Dad slid to the side, ramming a shelf full of Godiva chocolate and triggering a cascade of metal and glass shelving. I was firing without hesitation, the barrel on the pepperbox rotating with each flash and thunderclap as I sent bullets screaming through the wall.
Foster dive-bombed the wall and exploded into his full height a foot away from it. His sword slid through the barrier like butter. There was the start of a scream, followed by a choking gurgle.
We rounded the corner. Mom was on the other side of a counter, beaten and bloodied. Her expression settled somewhere between hope and disbelief as she saw me and Dad come in. Dad saw her and his face hardened. He turned back to the hallway, to the dying man trying to push away from us with his feet while he held a hand over the blood pouring from his neck.
“You goddamned mother fucker,” he snarled as he raised the butt of the whaling gun to his shoulder. The bomb lance hit with enough force to fling the necromancer to the back of the hall and put him through a door before it exploded.
“Nudd be damned,” Foster said. “Those things sure are inconsistent.”
Dad smiled as he lowered the cannon. I hoped I’d never see a look like that on his face again.
The fire alarm went off as we all gathered around Mom. Sprinkler heads sprayed stagnant water that felt slimy and stank like rust mixed with rotted eggs.
“Damn, that burns,” Foster said as he snapped back into his small form and buried himself in Zola’s hood. “Steel pipes, must be rusting.”
“You okay?” I asked as I scooted up beside Zola.
“I’m good,” Foster said. “Oh, you mean your mom.” He laughed to himself.
Dad pulled a folded knife out of his pocket as Mom reached for him with her bound hands, clutching him as if to confirm he was real. The antlers of some unfortunate beast were attached to the knife handle. He pulled the blade out and started sawing through her bonds. Layers of nylon rope had been used. Her wrists were bruised and burned. Her raven hair would soon be matched by a swelling black eye. The blue eyes peering out from her thin face were a stark contrast. She’d been hit more than once, and the discoloration was a brutal contrast to her pale skin. My own hands started to shake and Zola hung her head.
“Ah’m sorry, Andi,” Zola said. “Ah’m so sorry.”
Dad finished cutting her bonds and pulled her close. She threw her arms around him and lost it utterly. My own cheeks were wet from more than the sprinklers as she sobbed into his shoulder. The back of her shirt was broken open and the white cloth was red. A whip? A blade? Something far deeper than mere rage took up residence in my gut.
“He has to die, Zola,” I said.
“For this?” she said as she looked at Mom. “Ah would kill my own brother.”
I heard a shout from outside the room. “Mom! Is she okay?”
“Is … is that Sam?” Mom asked, her voice shaky between sobs.
“Let’s go see the grumpy vampire,” I said as I pushed the dripping wet hair out of my eyes. Mom smiled, and I wished she’d never stop smiling. Dad helped me pull her to her feet and I put my arm around her shoulders, careful to avoid the wounds on her back.
“Get me out of this sprinkler crap and I’ll heal her,” Foster muttered. “Feels like I have a sunburn, and I don’t get sunburns!”
Dad and I smiled slightly at the fairy, but Mom just looked at us, bewildered.
“She can’t hear him?” Dad asked as he looked across at me.
I shook my head.
“A friend,” I said.
“We’ll fix that later,” Foster said. “Just get me out of the damn rain.”
We are here,
Happy’s voice thundered through my brain.
hey’re here,” I said. “Happy and Vicky.”
“Good, Ah don’t know how long Mike can keep that up,” Zola said as she rabbited over the counter and landed beside Mom.
“How are you?”
“Zola?” she asked, bewilderment obvious on her face. “What are you doing here?”
“The boy would never let me live it down if you were eaten by zombies.” Zola smiled and put her arm around Mom. “Come, let’s get you out of here. Ah’m sure Sam’s worried.”
“Sam’s here too?”
I smiled at them both. It’s easy to forget how lucky you are to know the people in your life. Almost losing Sam once, and now Mom, were hellish reminders of that. We walked back outside the customer service area. Sam was still attached to the necromancer. I was glad to see Vik crouched beside her.
“Good to the last drop?” I asked.
Vik let out a low laugh.
Sam looked up, her eyes glancing around the group. She smiled and pushed the body to the side as she stood up. Sam wiped her mouth with one of the few dry spots on her sweater. She was a tower of gore.
“Better?” I asked.
“Sam, what happened?” Mom asked, instantly transforming from victim to mother hen as she blotted Sam’s face and looked at the holes and the rivers of red marring her clothes. She fussed over Sam as Zola stepped up beside them.
“Where’s Edgar?” Zola asked.
“He went to help Mike when the holes …” she glanced at Mom and changed whatever she was about to say. “When I got better.”
“Good, that’s good.”
“I am going to assist Edgar,” Vik said as he ran his thumb over the amulet Zola had given him.
Zola nodded as he left. “Dimitry, stay with Sam and Andi. Damian, come with me. We have issues to resolve.”
“No, we have balls to cut off,” Foster grumbled from Zola’s hood. “Not issues, balls. To cut off.”
Zola drew my staff and rapped it on the wet tiles. “You have a way with words.”
I bent down and kissed my mom’s head.
“Be careful,” she said.
“Always,” I said as Foster and Sam both looked up at me with something like disbelief.
A burst of flame from the front of the store set us in motion. No words, just movement, running up the escalator, back to the same floor as the carousel. The murk was thinner, but it was vomiting red light, pouring across the floor as it began to climb the walls in spasms and arcs.
“It won’t hurt you,” Zola said.
“Okay,” I said, really wanting to believe her as I glanced into the burning remnants of the wing to our right.
“Start of a hellgate.” She answered the question I hadn’t asked. The pepperbox was in my right hand, the focus in my left, as soon as we cleared the sprinklers.
Foster climbed out of her cloak. “Mike!” he said as he drew his sword and started forward, growing into his full size. Mike’s hammer was a beacon in the darkness. Sweeping lines of flame followed him through the shadows as he struck and parried Belphegor. His face was cut, showing a huge gash, leaking black blood, from his left temple to his chin.
As we got closer, I could see him wobbling. His legs were unsteady and bloodied. Belphegor was moving in for a kill, the tentacles of his right arm intertwined with a shadowy scimitar. His left slid a silver tooth out of his face and it dimmed and grew into a matching blade. I stumbled a step, wondering what the hell I was looking at.
“Damian, save him!” The scream was right beside me. The little necromancer’s cry punched through into our reality without me having to focus at all.
My gun snapped to the demon and I pulled the second trigger on the pepperbox. All six barrels fired, perforating Belphegor and knocking him to the ground. Mike fell to one knee, breathing hard.
“I can’t beat him,” he said between gasps.
“Foster, get him out of here!” I said.
“But—” he started, but I just pointed at Mike and put myself between him and the demon.
Belphegor chuckled as he righted himself. “The Smith cannot win, little boy. You have no hope.”
I dropped a speed loader into the pepperbox and snapped it closed before I smiled. “Ah, but I have friends.”
The air froze and a torrent of razor-sharp hail swarmed Belphegor. The demon grunted and stumbled as wicked bits of ice tore into his body. A fluid that stank of roadkill and decay began to leak from the demon’s wounds.
Vicky came through the skylight, scattering glass and steel in her wake. She still looked like a child, small and lanky, but her spirit showed color now. Her hair shone a less translucent blonde and the jacket she wore was almost identical to my own black bomber. I wondered how she’d changed clothes, incorporeal as she was. Then it started. Flames burst from her shoulders and raced down to the fists crossed before her body. The scream that followed bore the rage of a thousand broken children.
Belphegor’s head snapped up and he started to slither away.
“Demon!” Vicky’s voice thundered like a god, and it stopped Belphegor dead.
He spun and his arm struck out toward Vicky. She grabbed the mass of tentacles in midair as she cracked the floor with her landing, and where her fiery hands touched the demon, it was destroyed, bits of fire and ash bursting from his wounds. Belphegor screamed. The harmonized wail sent shivers across my entire body like a fork scraping a plate, only infinitely louder and far, far more disturbing.
I watched her. My gun hung uselessly at my side, and I knew the only weapon I could raise against that monster was a soulart. God, but I didn’t want to touch Belphegor’s aura.
The remaining tentacles of the demon’s right arm lashed out and knocked Vicky’s legs out from under her. She grunted as she landed hard. The demon ran, his legs unraveling into dozens more tentacles and propelling him through the north wing of the mall with astounding speed. Vicky was on her feet a second later, running down the demon. I followed.
“It’s strong,” Mike said as he swooped in beside me.
“You already healing?” I asked.
“The hellgate,” he said as he grimaced. “It helped.”
“At least it did something useful,” I said as we entered the next courtyard. There was a smoking hole in the gate for Dillard’s.
“It’s strengthening Belphegor too,” Foster said as he glided between us. “He’s taking her back there, Damian.”
“Back where?” Mike asked.
“Where she died,” I spat. “Bloody hell, what’s that going to do to her?”
“No,” Mike said. “She can’t handle that.”
The certainty in his voice made my eyes burn. I didn’t have the heart to ask him what would happen. Vicky. Goddammit, we’d already been too late to save her once.
“We won’t be too late again,” Foster said. I must have spoken my thoughts out loud, or the fairy was reading my mind.
We cleared the melted gate. I could feel the heat emanating from the metal, and then the battle came into view. So fast, strikes and counterstrikes, lunges, screams, and bursts of ash.
I saw them go over the edge then, a writhing explosion of darkness and flame, falling to the basement, falling beside the door that led to garage as we ran through the smoldering remains of the perfume department. Wretched smells of melted plastics and superheated beauty supplies gagged me.