"Me? ME?" squeaked Father Antonio. "I'm a scholar, not a fighter. If I go along to Paris, I'll just be a hindrance. I can explain everything I know about the location of the Seer Stone to the others before they go."
Cardinal Somalo had just given the Father the joyous news he would be accompanying us to Paris and the good Father was not at all happy.
"And what if it turns out you are wrong about the location?" asked the Cardinal. "What if there is just a further clue that only an expert on Joan and Charles VII can properly interpret? No, Father, it is essential you accompany the sisters."
"But . . . but . . . but it could be dangerous," gasped Father Antonio. "If I do the wrong thing, I could put everyone at risk. And . . . and . . . and . . . I haven't been to Paris in over twenty years."
Sisters Beatrice, Camila, and Lilith had scurried off to the armory to pick up some explosives and other heavier-than-normal weapons, leaving just Mary and I with the Cardinal, the Father, and Mother Superion. Now Mary stepped forward and draped an arm companionably over the Father's shoulder.
"Don't worry so much about Paris, Father," she said in a surprisingly jovial tone. But I quickly realized from the tightness around her mouth the tone was strictly for the Father's benefit and not necessarily in a positive way. "We will probably all die in Hell before we even reach Paris."
"Hell?" whispered the Father while his eyes suddenly darted around even more wildly than before. This man was clearly no Father Vincent.
"Didn't the Cardinal tell you? The only route that will get us to Paris tonight passes straight through a Hell-dimension filled with wraiths, Tarasks, and other demons."
"But . . . but . . . but . . ." he spluttered while looking directly at the Cardinal.
The Cardinal just shrugged his shoulders. "Telling you earlier wouldn't have made things any easier."
With one arm still wrapped around the priest's shoulder, Mary reached down with her free hand and drew one of the dozen blades scattered around her body. It glowed a bright blue in my presence. "Have you ever seen a divinium blade before, Father Antonio? Oh, is it okay if I call you Father Antonio since we are going to be working so closely together? Anyway, divinium is the most effective element we have found for use against Tarasks and other demons, probably because it comes from their Hell dimension unlike steel or bronze which originate here on Earth. We definitely need to get you a few weapons to defend yourself if we run into trouble. Have you ever used a sword?"
Father Antonio was suddenly very pale and I think if Mary would have released her grip on his shoulder, he would have collapsed to the floor.
"Ah . . . ah . . . ah . . ."
"And we definitely need to get you into some armor," Mary continued. She took the hilt of the knife she was still holding and rapped it against her chest. The divinium breastplate under her outer leather garment gave a dull thud. "Divinium armor - the best, money can't buy." She paused to look the Father up and down. "Hmm, I think if we borrow Sister Alice's breastplate it should just fit."
I couldn't hold back a grin and raised a hand to hide it. Sister Alice was one of the girls training here at the Abbey. She was big and extremely strong – almost a match for me with my Halo. And she also had, by far, the largest chest of any of the sisters – at least a double-D. I couldn't get the image of Father Antonio wearing her breastplate out of my mind.
In the year I had known Mary, I had learned she used humor and sarcasm to hide, perhaps ease, her own fears. She was in rare form tonight.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the Cardinal also trying hard to suppress a grin of his own. He had met all the sisters on a previous visit and Sister Alice always made an unforgettable impression.
With a visible effort, probably requiring the recital of a Hail, Mary or two, perhaps even backwards, the Cardinal got himself under control.
"Father, I'll leave you in the capable hands of the Sisters. Good Luck with your mission. Mother Superion, if I could have a private word with you?"
Mother Superion had maintained her usual stony expression throughout the banter. Sometimes I wonder if the vivid scar on her face had severed some vital nerves or muscles necessary for her to form a smile.
She gestured towards the exit. "If you would care to join me in my office, Your Eminence."
Säben Abbey didn't have an associated cathedral, but it did have three chapels scattered around the premises. We had congregated in the largest one, dedicated to Saint Mary, for the jump to the demon realm. If this holy place, used by generations of sisters for worship, could bestow any advantage on arrival in the demon realm, we intended to use it.
The first three rows of wooden pews had been moved over near the wall to clear some space. Those of us who were making the journey were standing with joined hands in a circle in the center. The nuns who were warrior sisters in training and who would remain behind, plus Mother Superion and Cardinal Somalo were seated in the four remaining rows of pews.
We sisters who were making the journey were decked out in all of our armor, including shields on the left forearms of most, and equipped with swords, knives, and other weapons of our choice, plus backpacks filled with explosives and other gear. Well, except for me. I wasn't carrying a backpack as I needed to get my cloaking vest back on as soon as we made the transition to help hide us while the Halo recharged. Father Antonio was also wearing a backpack filled with supplies. We had found some armor for him, sadly not Sister Alice's, and had armed him with a trio of divinium knives, but it was decided he would be a bigger danger to himself and us if we gave him a sword.
At a nod from me, Sister Beatrice began to pray in a loud clear voice:
Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae coelestis,
satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo, divina virtute, in infernum detrude.
Everyone joined in for the Amen, even me. My Latin when I had joined the sisters had been nonexistent. Over the last year, I had been working on it, but I was still pretty horrible. But we had used this prayer to Archangel Michael before every battle so I knew it by heart:
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.
And do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Since our journey was about to take us to the demon realm and we were on a quest for a device that would allow us to directly communicate with Michael, it seemed even more appropriate than usual.
Once the prayer was over, all of us sisters reached up and pulled our chainmail face coverings down and into place. In the early days, only Sister Beatrice had worn one, but after multiple battles with Tarasks, we had all adopted the idea. Well, a modified version these days as more divinium became available. Now the chainmail was made of divinium and, as a consequence, we had added a ten centimeter wide by three centimeter tall rectangular opening to see through. Not all of us were as gifted as Sister Beatrice, who could fight with almost all of her vision blocked by the chainmail. But even she had been forced to adopt the opening once the face coverings were changed from steel to divinium. If I was close by, the glow from divinium obstructed what little vision she had left.
Once my face covering was in place, I stepped forward until I was facing the altar with its large gold cross. The other sisters each picked up a pair of modified Claymore mines that had been resting by their feet. These directional anti-personnel mines were filled with ball-bearing sized pieces of divinium. Everyone's first task once they were through the portal was to run forward five meters and place the mines in a circle around our position as a first line of defense while we waited the necessary seven minutes. If there was time, each sister was carrying two more strapped to their waists for an inner line of defense. We had practiced this maneuver countless times and all sixteen of the mines could be in place within the first fifteen seconds. Assuming we had fifteen seconds before we came under attack. And also assuming we arrived on even, level ground. Then everyone would draw their preferred weapon be it a sword, a shotgun, or a machine gun in the case of Sister Camila.
As the sisters who would remain behind began to sing softly from the pews, I could sense everyone who was going getting in position behind me. I undid the three quick-release buckles that held my cloaking vest in place. Then I slipped it off my right arm and back, so it dangled from my left arm just above where my divinium shield was strapped to my forearm to allow me to quickly get it back on after everyone was through the portal.
Once I discovered the Halo's true purpose from Adriel, I had had to try it out. I had made the first trip alone and the seven minutes I had spent there had been scary as hell. And since it actually was Hell, I guess that expression was more on-point than its use by anyone before. Anyway, regardless of my fears, nothing bad had happened. I had arrived on a desolate desert-like plain that was empty as far as I could see. Nothing had come within sight in the seven minutes required to recharge the Halo. I hadn't hung around to tempt fate.
In the twelve months since then, I had used the Halo for transport two more times, both had been so the sisters and I would better know what to expect if the time ever came, like tonight, where we had to use the Halo on a real mission.
Now with the vest removed, I reached out to the Halo with my mind. Using it for transport wasn't mentally that different from using it to phase through solid objects in a controlled manner. I just thought to myself about where I wanted to go with real intent. It was sort of like when you are sitting in a chair in your bedroom and think about going to the kitchen to get a glass of water. You can think about going without really going and you can think about going and then actually climb out of the chair and do it. It was like that with Halo. I could think about the demon realm and a portal didn't open every time. I actually had to intend to go before the portal would form.
When I used the Halo to return to the human realm, I thought of a specific destination and that's where I arrived, which was why I knew I could open a portal into Sainte-Chapelle even though I have never been there. Somehow the Halo just understands and makes it happen. I have no idea how it works, but then I don't know how it allows me to phase either. You just have to have faith in a piece of demonic technology – crazy, I know.
For the transition to the demon realm, I just try to command it to take me somewhere barren and desolate and far removed from anything. And each time I try to give the impression I don't want to end up anywhere I've been before. I have no idea how things work in the demon realm, but I don't want to appear over and over in the same location in case some denizen of that place decided to stake out the spot.
I focused my thoughts on the Halo and within seconds I could feel it powering up. I don't know if it actually heats up or if it is all in my head, but I could feel my back begin to glow like I was standing under a blazing sun.
Then there was a brilliant flash of light and a pitch black circle about three meters in diameter formed in front of me. The edges of the circle fluoresced in a color somewhere between purple and blue that shouldn't exist in the real world.
I had to go through first and then stay close to the portal on the other side so the Halo would hold it open. The three times I had used it before, the portal stayed open for exactly twenty-three seconds before the Halo became too depleted. Plenty of time for six people to get through if no one dawdled.
Taking one last deep breath, I stepped through the black doorway.
And almost immediately I stumbled. On all three previous occasions, I had arrived in the equivalent of the middle of a desert. Oh, the colors were all impossibly wrong and the air smelt of what I imagined was fire-and-brimstone. But the ground was the equivalent to dirt covered with pebbles and small stones.
But not this time! I was thigh-deep in some kind of liquid. The sky was a murky, milky white and the sun was a giant burning ball of pitch-black. I don't know how a black sun can give off visible light, but obviously physics here were way different from physics back home.
The sky was crazy, but similar to what I had seen on my previous visits. But this deep liquid was something entirely new. It stretched before me as far as my eyes could see. Then, when I looked down, I realized it was blood-red. And it wasn't just the color. No, it had the consistency of blood, too. No, the voice in my head screamed, not just the color and consistency of blood, it had to be actual blood - a literal ocean of blood.
My fear was ramping up, but I knew the others were right behind me. I had to take at least a couple of steps to the side or they would all pile through on top of me and knock me under. I didn't want my head immersed under this vile-looking liquid, having my legs immersed was bad enough.
I had barely started to move when I was hit by a wave I hadn't even noticed approaching. It wasn't a giant wave, but enough that the sticky fluid surged passed my crotch and all the way above my waist. I forced myself to take another step to clear the portal while keeping an eye out for another wave and that's when I was certain I saw something moving through this impossible liquid. It wasn't close, at least a hundred meters off, but there was definitely something alive out there. My mind quickly conjured an image of an aquatic demon with row after row of needle-sharp teeth. I think I was beginning to hyperventilate.
Sister Lilith was the next one through. After me, she was our strongest fighter. Truthfully, while I was using the Halo to hold the portal open, I was effectively useless in a fight. Anyway, if we had arrived in the middle of a horde of Tarasks or other demonic beasts, Lilith was the one most likely to be able to keep things at bay long enough for the others to arrive and for us to regroup.
But she wasn't expecting to arrive in this blood ocean any more than I had been. She, too, almost stumbled with the unexpected drag of the viscous liquid and with the added encumbrance of the Claymores in both of her hands. I reached out to grab her arm in support at the same moment her wings automatically spread wide and began to flap to take part of her weight. Her eyes, too, swung around wildly.
Because of her partial demonic nature, Lilith could travel to and from the demonic realm without needing the Halo's portal. But she was even more loath to come here than me. She had told me that every time she went to the demon realm alone it felt like more and more of her humanity slipped away. She was afraid at some point her humanity would totally slip away and she wouldn't be able to return, or if she did, she would come back a complete demonic monster. She said it wasn't the same when she was with the rest of us, but I'm not certain I one hundred percent believe her. But it was her life and she had to decide for herself what risks she was willing to take. And, obviously going with us and being part of the team was one she wanted to accept.
"There's land behind us," Lilith said at almost a shout while pointing back over her shoulder.
I had only been focused on the direction which I had been facing when I had arrived. Now, standing several steps to the side, when I looked back, I could see passed the black portal and could tell Lilith was right.
"We have to get to shore," I said, even as Beatrice came stumbling out in turn. "There is something, some creature in here. I've seen it. Go. I'll tell the others as they arrive."
Lilith nodded and lifted higher into the air and headed over the top of the portal towards the shore.
I grabbed Beatrice and pulled her in my direction until she was also beyond the side of the portal.
"Get to shore," I said, while gesturing in that direction with one hand and reaching towards the emerging Mary with my other.
Mary had a five-kilo claymore mine in each hand and was simultaneously trying to shepherd Father Antonio, in case he decided to bolt at the last second before entering the portal. She wasn't expecting thigh-deep blood any more than the rest of us. She wasn't able to regain her balance and both she and the Father toppled face-first into the blood and momentarily completely disappeared below the opaque surface.
Right on their heels, Camila came stumbling through. Before Mary or the Father even resurfaced, I grabbed Camila's arm and jerked her to the side so she wouldn't end up on top of the others. The second I knew she was clear I had the Halo close the portal. Then I twisted far enough to reach my right hand across to hit the seven-minute timer strapped to my left wrist without releasing the grip I was maintaining on Camila with my left hand. I can sense when the Halo is fully recharged and ready for renewed use, but sometimes knowing exactly how much time remained had its uses.
"Get to the shore, now!" I almost shouted to Camila while gesturing in the required direction. "I'll get Mary and Father Antonio."
By this point, both Mary and the Father's heads had reappeared, but neither of them had regained their feet. And at first glance, it was almost impossible to tell them apart with the thick slimy coating of blood obscuring their features. Fortunately, the Father hadn't lost his glasses and they were the first giveaway as to who was who.
"What the fucking hell, Ava!" shouted Mary, as she struggled to her feet.
"Sorry," I said. "We have to get to shore."
The Father was still struggling to get his feet under him as another small wave broke over us. I grabbed one of his arms and Mary grabbed the other.
We struggled towards the shore. It wasn't as bad as what I imagine it would be like to force your way through molasses, but it was definitely harder work than moving through normal water. And that didn't even factor in the thirty pounds of armor and equipment I was carrying. I could see Lilith on the beach planting her claymores about ten meters from the waterline facing inland. Beatrice had reached ankle-deep blood and was now running forward. Camila was about ten meters ahead of us and the blood was below her knees.
We had barely moved five steps when Mary abruptly stopped which almost threw us all off balance again.
"Shit. I dropped my Claymores when I went under. I have to go back."
"Leave them," I said as I started to drag the others forward again. "I've seen at least one creature slightly further out. We have to get to the shore now!"
Mary didn't have to be told twice, as she swiped at her eyes through the narrow opening in her divinium face covering with one hand and kept her hold on the Father with the other.
It seemed like an eternity before we reached shore, but when the Father collapsed at the center of the ring of claymores Lilith, Beatrice, and Camila had set I checked the timer and was surprised to see only forty-five seconds had passed since I had closed the portal and the Halo had started to recharge.
That meant we had to survive another six minutes and fifteen seconds.
And that's when I heard the unearthly screech from the blood ocean behind me. And it sounded scarily close. Then a second, even louder bellowing roar sounded from behind me, but further off to the left.