I hate to repeat myself, but once again it should be to no surprise by now that I'm a big fan of Tim Marquitz's Demon Squad urban fantasy series. I've been awarded the opportunity to present to you guys the first chapter of the next book in the series, At the Gates, which will hopefully be published by December or so if things go as planned (which they rarely do).
At the Gates is a more serious novel than its predecessors, though still delivering in the humor we have come to expect. It also should be apparent the progress made writing wise. For those interested, you can enter to win a free e-copy Resurrection just by participating on Falling into Books giveaway, you have until Friday September 30, 2011. I should point out that At the Gates is still in the final editing stages, so what you're about to read is not necessarily the final version.
For more information, please visit the authors' site.
If you're not up-to-date in the series, the following passage will spoil some events in the series up to this point. You've been warned. And of course, enjoy:
It had only been two weeks since I’d helped to raise the Anti-Christ, so when my cousin Scarlett showed up, beaten to within an inch of her life, telling me Heaven had fallen, I can’t say I was happy to see her.
The words out in a breathless rush, she fell into my arms, a ragdoll of crusty blood and blackened scabs. Chunks of her golden hair were missing, ripped out from the roots. Streaks of reddened ooze stained her scalp and sporadic burns covered her skull, the flesh bubbled and peeling. The acrid scent of seared meat invaded my nose, settling thick on my tongue. My stomach roiled.
Her eyes lolled back in their sockets as she tried to focus through lids encircled by sunken black rings. She clutched to me with piercing fingers, one of her hands obviously disfigured. Her desperation lent her strength, despite it all.
As I bent to scoop her legs up, I saw a close trio of deep gouges that ran the length of her neck and came to a jagged stop at her chest. The tar-like seep of a supernatural wound filled their depths. I could see bone.
Though horrific, her injuries didn’t stop there.
Everywhere I looked there was evidence of a losing battle. Bruises tattooed her skin in swaths. Burns and ragged cuts covered her like gory paint upon a canvas. Her clothes were shredded and muted yellows and bluish-blacks peeked out from beneath the torn leather.
The hilt of her sword, Everto Trucido—loosely translated as Demon Slayer—was crusted in dry, flaky blood, so much so the design was lost in the thickness of it. The lower half of its sheath was cracked and there was a piece missing, the stained point visible through the hole.
Though Scarlett and I had our moments when it came to getting along, often butting heads over the stupidest of things while I snidely wished her bad luck, it sickened me to no end to see her like that. I felt my face flush as I carried her to the couch. A boiling knot of fury welled up in my guts to replace the sickness. Since Lucifer moved on, whatever our differences, she was the only family I had left…
…and no one fucks with my family.
In a crimson haze, I left her on the couch and hurried to retrieve a vial of my departed uncle’s blood. Just a couple of drops would heal Scarlett in minutes, but before I got two feet from the couch, a wave of cold insistence peppered my senses, raising the hackles on my neck. My eyes went to the open door.
Out in the street stood three figures, little more than darker shadows against the backdrop of night. Whoever they were, they must have followed Scarlett. If they were the ones who’d hurt her, things were about to get interesting. For them.
No time to batten down the hatches and get my cousin into the mystical bomb shelter of the basement, I decided it best to go out to meet our uninvited guests. Exhausted as I was from trying to whip my newfound magic into shape, my anger provided me with a nice pick-me-up, energizing me with adrenaline and fury. Who needs caffeine when you’ve got rage?
“Call for backup, CB,” I shouted over my shoulder to Chatterbox, my zombie-head roommate, as I ran outside, snatching my pistol off the end table on my way out.
I’d taught him a few basic codes so he could relay emergency messages to DRAC, and even set up the speed dial on the phone to make it easy for him, seeing how he only had his tongue to work with. Given my track record, I’d probably need all the help I could get. If nothing else, I’d need a cleanup crew.
The only downside to letting him use the phone was the rancid trail of spit he’d leave across the number pad. It was a good thing I didn’t make many calls.
Once outside, the door slammed shut of its own volition and I felt the protective wards go up, sealing the house off. They were good in a pinch, but they wouldn’t hold up against a determined assault; they were more of a speed bump. Though in the mood I was in, they wouldn’t have to do much.
The trio spread out a little, making it harder to hit them all at once. They knew what they were doing. That fact sobered me a little, and I was glad I’d thought to get a call into DRAC. My anger dropped off a few degrees as I looked them over, my senses drifting out to take their measure.
The one in the center was a woman—or something vaguely resembling one. Easily six foot and a handful of change, she was built like a professional wrestler; powerful. Her broad shoulders and huge arms were barely contained by the skin-tight workout shirt she wore. The muscles of her stomach were defined in granite underneath. Her sandy blond hair was cropped short, helping to emphasize the more masculine traits of her face; the squared jaw and slightly protruding set of her forehead. Her linebacker thighs were encased in Spandex and the narrowness of her waist would have made Charles Atlas proud. If it hadn’t been for the pair of double-D’s strapped tight to her chest, I would have thought she was a man had we passed on the street.
Her gray eyes met mine, her stare icy. On each of her hands she wore what looked like modified brass knuckles with three sharp, jagged spikes protruding from them. They looked like a perfect match for the wounds on Scarlett’s chest. That got my blood to boiling again.
Though she didn’t appear afraid, she did seem hesitant. She set her feet without advancing. I’d apparently screwed up whatever they had in mind. I’m good at that.
The guy to her right was the polar opposite. Rail thin and pale as milk, he stood five feet tall, if he was lucky. His face was narrow, with sharp cheekbones and a hooked nose. Weasel eyes stared out at me from under a mane of long black hair. I could have opened a can on his face.
He wore a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, which hung off him like a bed sheet, and a pair of way too tight black jeans that only emphasized his genetic failings. He carried twin, twelve-inch daggers to compensate.
The last of the motley crew was a public service announcement for the wrongs of a fast food diet. Tipping the scale somewhere close to six hundred pounds, he was a behemoth with stubby limbs. His massive head was shaved bald and I could see the rolls of his neck peeking out from behind his ears. Round, and far from what anyone with eyes would call attractive, his face bore a close resemblance to a Bassett hound. Mottled jowls hung loose from his jaw and sagged into his wattle. Even his eyelids looked fat. I’d bet money blinking was an aerobic exercise for the guy.
His clenched fists were empty, but seeing how they were the size of canned hams, he probably didn’t need a weapon. He didn’t look like the kind of guy you wanted to cut in front of at the buffet. You’d probably lose a finger or two.
After a few moments of tense silence, the woman spoke, her voice a profound basso. “Our feud is not with you. Give us the angel.”
“Sorry, sweet cheeks. You want her, you’re gonna have to try a little harder than that.”
While I would normally be more cautious when facing down an unknown enemy, my senses weren’t registering these guys as world-beaters. They had some power between them, no doubt about that, but after all I’d been through in the last few months, it felt like I was swimming in the kiddy pool.
That told me one thing. There was no way these three were responsible for taking down Scarlett. They could finish her off, weak as she was, but it hadn’t been them that laid the real beating on her. They’d picked at the scraps though, and that was enough for me.
Big boy looked to the woman, apparently waiting for her to decide their next move. The gesture told me who to hit first when things went south. Chivalry be damned.
“Let’s just kill him, Venai,” the pale one demanded, his words like razors.
Though he spoke brave, he too stayed in place, waiting for orders.
“Be quiet, Zellick.” Venai squared her stance to reinforce her command, the other two seeming more than happy to follow her lead. “This is your last warning, demon. Turn over the angel or face the consequences. We will not be denied.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. So I did. A lot.
The little guy must have had esteem issues because he leapt at me without waiting for the go ahead. Bared teeth and silver blades led the charge, his hair whipping out behind him. Combat reflexes taking over, I circled from his path and got out of his way, keeping him between me and his buddies.
It seemed as though he was moving a few notches below normal speed, which was weird. Used to being the slow one, it felt good to have the advantage for once.
He landed with a huff, his posture turning defensive the instant his feet hit the ground. His face was screwed up in a mish-mash of fear and worry, realizing I hadn’t even raised my gun. He moved away to cower behind the woman. It was clear who had more testosterone out of the three, not to mention the bigger dick.
I waggled my finger at him. “Try that again, Twigs, and I’ll blow the Emo out of you.”
The lines of her face etched deep, starring the corners of her eyes, I knew Venai had made up her mind. She hunched and lumbered forward. Swinging my .45 up to meet her, I spotted big boy raising his arms in the air. My brain clicked on just as he swung his ham hock fists. They crashed into the ground with a boom that rang my ears like church bells, the sidewalk jumping beneath me.
Jell-O under my feet, my legs buckled and I fell on my ass. Venai waited just long enough for the ground to stop moving, then came at me fast. My body shook like I’d been caught up in turbulence, and she got to me before I could put my gun to use.
Her spiked fist crashed into my left side and I screamed as she dug in. The sound drowned out the snapping of my ribs. A lightning bolt of pain followed as she yanked her fist away, the jagged spikes ripping clear of my flesh. Blood and black ooze was flung away in a messy arc that seemed to stain my vision. My eyes teared up, blurring the look of Venai’s satisfaction as she pulled her hand back, ready to hit me again.
Out of instinct, my finger hit the trigger and I heard my gun’s report off to my side. Though I hadn’t aimed the shot—my conscious mind not even registering I was still holding the gun—the bullet hit her in the shin. She shrieked, her voice octaves above her normal basso growl, and stumbled backward into Zellick who’d come up behind her. The two went down in a heap, pale boy on the bottom. He was probably used to it.
“Jorn!” he called out, breathless from beneath Venai’s solid bulk.
Presuming he meant big boy, I looked up to see the mountain of Manwich shambling toward me. Not feeling too confident a bullet would suffice to bring him down, I extended my left hand, whimpering the whole time as my ribs screamed at the movement. Though I had a hard time concentrating, my side feeling as though it had been gored by a bull and then rolled in salt, I gratefully felt my magic well up.
Still new to having power, I’d practiced for the last two weeks, struggling to gain some measure of control over how much energy I released and what form it took. It hadn’t been much of a success.
The mystical bomb shelter of my basement had taken a beating as I’d worked on different combinations of force. Seared black walls and a few scorched pieces of furniture were a testament to the competence of my incompetence.
Out here, with big boy closing, I didn’t have to be precise. Without having to second guess my ability or worry about burning my house down, I smiled and let loose. A burst of fire erupted from my palm and sprayed out like a flame thrower, heading straight toward Jorn.
His eyes flew open wide and he covered his head with his arms just before the flame engulfed him. An ear-piercing shriek cut through the night as he tumbled back. Fiery tongues of red and orange licked at every inch of his massive frame.
His burning body lighting the night, I closed my hand to cut off the gout and smelled burning flesh. Black smoke wafted from between my fingers. Jorn fell to his back with a thunderous boom and tried to roll, but his size prevented it. His monstrous torso held him in place, and his screams continued.
I hauled myself to my feet with a groan. A wave of light-headedness washed over me, spurred on by the pain from my side and the manifestation of my magic. Through tunneled eyes, I saw Venai had gotten up as well. She dragged her wounded leg behind her as she raced as fast as she could to assist her burning companion. Zellick was nowhere to be seen, though I knew where he was the second I heard a boot scrape the porch behind me.
My speed advantage taken away by surprise and injury, I had just started to react when he buried his dagger in my back. The blade cleaved through the flesh and muscle and slid between the ribs on my previously unwounded side. The tip settled inside my lung.
Though I’m sure I intended to scream, what came out was closer to a barked gurgle. Blood spewed from my punctured lung and ran up my throat. It gushed from my mouth, deep black and ugly. I could taste the bitter sickness as my body reacted to the magical blade. Its pungent nastiness filled my lungs with blood and gooey pus instead of air. Given enough time, I would drown in my own fluids.
Spurred on by that pleasant thought, I dove forward. The momentum of my panicked retreat spun me away from Zellick and the gloating smile carved across his thin lips. I didn’t get far, the ground rushing up to meet me. The fall drove the blade in even deeper. Another cry burst from my mouth, this time in crimson, not words. I managed to roll onto my stomach to relieve the pressure.
Pale boy out of sight behind me, my gun uncomfortably grinding into my gut underneath, I expected the next thing I felt would be the last thing I ever felt; him finishing the job. It would serve me right. I’d been too confident.
“Zellick!” Venai’s voice shook the air. “Help me!”
The knife wielder growled above me, but rushed to her side without hesitation, leaving me to bleed out.
My sight still fubar’d, I watched as a blurry Venai slid her arms under Jorn’s bulk, ignoring the flames that gnawed at them, and heaved. She lifted him several inches, then a foot, the veins on her monstrous biceps bulging.
The wound in her leg was a seeping mess, blood pooling at her feet, making it hard for her to gain leverage. Her back strained Herculean under the tight shirt, the fabric stretched to its limit. She faltered just as Zellick reached her, his own pale arms joining hers, using the momentum of his run to counter gravity. It was just enough.
Jorn tumbled over with a ground rumbling thud, the flames smothered in a whoosh of air and blubbery mass. His scream drifted off and was replaced by a low, wrenching moan that seeped from his mouth. Venai fell to her knees at his side, burying her face in the flab near his ear.
Zellick, on the other hand, turned his attention back to me. A wicked gleam in his eyes, he waved his remaining dagger in the air and stalked forward.
“You are so going to pay for this.”
Marilyn Manson would be so proud.
Unable to catch my breath, more blood than air filling my lungs, I forced my hand beneath me and dug for my gun. Doing everything I could to ignore the agony that chewed at my every nerve, I at last felt the cold solidness of my pistol grip and latched on. Shredding my knuckles on the concrete, I hauled the gun out and pointed it in the general direction of Zellick.
He squeaked as I pulled the trigger. Unable to hold the heavy pistol steady, my arm strafed right. The first two shots went wide, though their whistling threat stopped him in his tracks. The third, all credit to luck, caught him in the shoulder. He cried out and skittered back, fear and agony painted across his face in equal measure. He ran to his companions’ sides, clutching at his wound, his eyes on me the entire time.
Before I could realign my arm and get off another shot, Venai drew a glowing symbol in the air and opened a portal between us. She dragged its shimmering blue shape over them like a blanket, its mystical depths swallowing them whole. They disappeared in a flash. By the time my eyes adjusted, the night was empty, though several of my neighbor’s lights were on. Worse still, I thought I could see movement behind one of the windows across the street.
I sighed. There was nothing I could do about it now. Michael Li and his cleanup crew would have to take care of it…if they ever showed up. DRAC had yet to recover from Asmoday’s treachery, not to mention the latest Anti-Christ fiasco. They were stretched so thin as to be see-through.
I got up and made my way to the house, blood and oozing blackness running down my chin as though I were a horror movie extra. The door was a blur. It was as though I was peering at it through binoculars, my vision little more than hazy pinpricks. Every step was a trial.
Who’d have thought walking thirty feet could be so hard?
The door popped open by itself and I stumbled inside. I heard it close behind me as I stumbled down the hall to my bedroom. A trail of red stained the carpet, blood squishing beneath my feet at every step. No energy to go around the bed, I tossed my gun away and plopped down on the mattress with a barely repressed scream, and slid across to the other side. With one arm, I reached down over the edge of the bed and knocked the small nightstand out of the way. Catching the corner of the carpet, I pulled it back and stuffed it under the frame and tapped up the corner tile beneath it.
From within the cubby hole, I pulled out one of the last few vials I had of my uncle’s blood, and slid off the bed the way I came. Using the spring of the soiled mattress to help me to my feet, my teeth grinding to shards as the dagger wiggled in my lung, I stumbled toward the living room.
Stopper off, I swallowed two tiny sips and dropped two more into Scarlett’s unconscious, open mouth as I passed. With a dripping sigh, I sealed the vial to keep it from spilling and crumpled to the floor, a pool of warm blood forming under my head. All that was left to do was wait…
It didn’t take long, though it sure felt like it had. After just a moment, a sensuous flush of energy trickled down my body, heating my cold skin. Goose bumps tickled as the overwhelming pain started to become manageable under the orgasmic rush of Lucifer’s claret. My eyes closed of their own accord and I lay there trembling as though I were spooning Keira Knightley.
More a stiff pressure than pain, I felt the dagger slip from my back, hearing it thud to the ground beside me, pushed out by the healing process. Then with a last cough to rid my mouth of blood, I sat up and leaned against my armchair to look over at Scarlett.
Still out, her injures far worse than mine, she shuddered and twitched. Low moans echoed deep in her throat as the blood performed its miracle. Her leathered knees squeezed together and her hands, the disfigured one already on the mend, clutched at her ample chest in a way that was impossible to ignore. Trust me, I did my best.
Well…not really my best.
Chatterbox whistled low and winked at me. He was enjoying the show.
A moment later, Scarlett sat up with a start, her frantic eyes searching the room. Her now healed hand was on the hilt of her sword, white knuckles shining through the grime and blood. She saw me and exhaled hard, realizing where she was. She slipped back into the cushions of the couch, swiveling the sheath to lay the sword across her lap.
“It’s a good six or seven inches, depending on how I hold the ruler.”
If looks could kill.
I raised my hands in surrender. “You’ve been here about ten minutes, maybe less.”
She hopped to her feet in a flurry of movement. “Then there’s still time.”
“Time for what?”
“To save Heaven.”