"I've got it," Beatrice replied. "The rest of you, go now. I'll stay a safe distance behind. And once you're out, you need to get everyone at least five meters clear of the hole so I can get out, too."
Before she even finished speaking, I turned and raced up the stairs. Mary and Camila probably needed my help. And I definitely wanted to stay far ahead of Beatrice. If she got too close, the interaction of the Halo and the Seer Stone might throw me straight into solid rock and I might not be able to find my way out without someone to guide me.
I took the steps two at a time until I reached the upper landing. I paused just long enough to pull the divinium sword which had been strapped to my back. I might need it as soon as I cleared the hole in the floor and this was the last spot big enough to easily draw it from its scabbard.
As I charged up the last flight of stairs, I could now clearly hear repeated discharges from Mary's shotguns and the rat-tat-tat of Camila's machine gun firing short, controlled bursts. It sounded like a war was going on.
Poking my head out of the hole, I discovered Mary and Camila kneeling to each side. The air was filled with the red mist of almost too many wraiths to count. In the direction of the main body of the Nave, I could just make out at least a dozen bodies sprawled about in the nearest ten meters that was more or less illuminated by Mary and Camila's flashlights. Camila's was clipped to the barrel of her gun and whipped about as she swept the weapon back and forth. Mary's light was lying near her feet and cast a steady beam straight forward.
I could just make out more wraith-inhabited bodies moving around at the extreme edge of the illuminated area.
Normally, we tried not to kill people infected with wraiths in hopes of exorcising the demons and saving the people. But obviously that wasn't possible when at least thirty of them were attacking us at once.
I levered myself out of the hole and then took a couple of steps forward between Camila and Mary, trusting neither of them were so spooked to accidentally shoot me.
Then I focused the full power of the Halo forward and unleashed a powerful blast. All of the wraiths in the nearer half of the long chapel were blown clear of their hosts, who instantly collapsed to the ground. All the stained glass windows in the near half of the chapel also blew out. If any civilians in the area weren't yet aware that something was going on here, they definitely would be now.
"We have to get . . . clear of the hole," I said raggedly. Using the Halo that way seemed to wipe out most of my energy along with the energy in the Halo.
"Beatrice . . . is bringing the Seer Stone. It must be an artifact from the . . . from the angelic plane and can't come within five meters of . . . divinium or anything else from the demonic plane," I continued between breaths, assuming Mary and Camila hadn't been able to follow what had been going on down in the vault.
Mary was already stuffing spare shells into her shotgun, while Camila was loading a fresh clip into her machine gun. They both nodded and stepped away from the hole in the floor and moved deeper into the chapel. I followed, only staggering a little, as my strength slowly returned.
"There is something weird with the people who attacked," stated Mary.
"Weird?" I echoed.
"They just didn't move right. Not like any wraith-possessed people I've ever seen before," she continued as she holstered the shotgun she had been reloading and pulled the other one and set about reloading it, too.
"I agree," said Camila. We had just reached the nearest body and Camila poked it in the chest with the tip of her gun.
"Shit!" she exclaimed, as she stared down at the body.
"What?" I asked. I looked at the body, too. It was a man in some kind of blue nightshirt. He had a large hole in the abdomen where he must have taken a blast from Mary's shotgun.
Camila unclipped the flashlight from the barrel of her gun and then knelt down. She quickly drew one of her divinium blades and began cutting at the nightshirt. In seconds, she had it open from neck to knees.
"Does that look like the Y-incision from an autopsy to anyone else?" she asked at little more than a whisper.
I looked more carefully. I could see where the top of the Y started near the armpits and how it had been crudely stitched up. The center of the Y had been obliterated by the shotgun blast, but the bottommost part of the Y extended down to the man's pubes with the same crude stitching. And now that I thought about it, I realized the wound from Mary's shotgun wasn't bleeding profusely like it should. In fact, it hadn't bled at all. I could clearly see the almost jewel-like glow coming from the divinium pellets laced into the shotgun shell's load.
"Holy fuck," exclaimed Mary. "We've been fighting reanimated dead bodies? How is that even possible?"
In my head, the blue nightshirt morphed into a gown that would be used to cover bodies in a morgue. What the Hell was going on?
"We better check more of the bodies," I said with a shaky voice.
The three of us swept our lights forward, both to identify the location of the next nearest bodies as well as to verify none of the still mobile opponents were getting too close. I could see movement right at the extreme reach of the flashlights, but nothing any closer. If they were organizing for another attack, we had at least thirty seconds.
We moved to the next body; this time that of a woman. She was wearing a conservative gray dress unlike the first. But one look at the face made it obvious she had also been dead long before Camila's machine gun had stitched four holes across the front of her torso. Mary knelt down and used one of her knifes to tear open the front of her dress.
"No autopsy scar," stated Mary. Then she moved her light over to the body's side. "But these are definitely the marks where embalming fluid was injected. What the Hell is going on?"
Just then, Lilith and Father Antonio walked up, their arms filled with Beatrice's armor and weapons. This reminded me to look back towards the hole torn into the floor. We were maybe five meters from the opening, but barely.
"Come on, we need to get further from the hole before Beatrice emerges or she might accidentally take us out," I said.
I started moving forward. I tried to look in three directions at once - forward, to keep an eye out for a new attack; back, to know when it was safe for Beatrice to exit, and finally, down at the bodies we were passing. Okay, I really didn't want to look down, but I felt a morbid fascination with these bodies. How long after they were dead were these wraiths able to reanimate them? I mean, Paris was an ancient city with numerous vast cemeteries. If they could suddenly reanimate bodies that had been dead for months or years or centuries, we were in a lot of trouble.
And how come we had never seen this before? What had changed to allow the wraiths to inhabit the dead as well as the living?
"Okay, Beatrice. We are all clear. It is safe for you to bring out the stone, now," I said. I think my voice sounded surprisingly calm, given the current situation.
Beatrice emerged with the stone cradled in her right hand. I almost didn't recognize her at first glance. Not only was her armor removed, but so were her coif and the outer layer of leather she typically wore over the armor. Either she hadn't had time to get those items back on or they had had divinium stitched into them so she had had to abandon them. Once she was clear of the hole, she stood there bareheaded with her dark brown hair in a braid tightly coiled to the back of her head, a white cotton top which almost qualified as a chemise and that was stained red over the bottom ten to fifteen centimeter from our sojourn in the blood ocean plus liberally splashed with red flecks over the rest, and a pair of black tights. Well, the tights could have been black or brown or burgundy or some other relatively dark color as it was impossible to tell with the current thick coating of still wet blood. Regardless, she was extremely hot. I suddenly wished I got to see her like this more often, not that I wanted to go through what we had already been through tonight just to have it happen.
"Here they come again," shouted Mary, drawing my attention away from the vision that was Beatrice and back towards our opponents.
"Get to the sides of the chapel," said Beatrice through our earpieces in her normal, sometimes annoyingly calm voice. "Let's see if the Seer Stone can handle them."
I gestured Mary and Camila towards the left wall, while I led Lilith and Father Antonio to the right one. The chapel was just wide enough that we should be clear of the stone's effects if we were right against the walls. I was curious to see what the Seer Stone would do, too. But if it had no effect, I wanted us positioned so we could hit the wraiths from both sides. I was grateful to see that Mary and Camila had slung their guns and drawn their swords. I didn't want them to accidently shoot those of us on the other side.
As soon as we reached the right wall, Lilith dropped the items of Beatrice's she had been carrying and drew her own sword.
Beatrice started pacing forward, holding the Seer Stone high over her head. With each step she took, the glow from the stone seemed to intensify until the nearer end of the chapel felt as bright as it must be at noon on a sunny day. For a second, I wished we were in the upper chapel so I could see its stained glass windows in all their glory. Then I remembered all the damage I had caused here when I had unleashed the Halo. If I had done it up there, those beautiful windows would have been utterly destroyed.
"Back to Hell, you demon-spawn," shouted Beatrice. Then she continued in Latin that I couldn't quite follow. I really needed to work harder on that.
Only I could see the red-mist form of the wraiths through the power of the Halo. Well, perhaps Beatrice could, too, while she held the angelic device. Anyway, from my point of view, with screeches and roars of agony, the red wraiths were streaming out of their host bodies. As they departed, the lifeless bodies dropped to the floor. The overall effect wasn't dissimilar to what had happened when I had released the blast of energy from the Halo. Except the range of the Seer Stone seemed even greater, as by its powerful light, I could see all the way to the far end of the chapel and the wraiths were streaming out of every body I could see.
And abruptly it was over. All the wraiths were gone. And all their victims had collapsed to the floor. Well, except for one. Had one of the hosts been living? When I had forced wraiths out of the living before, the afflicted person had sometimes remained upright.
This solitary individual was one of the nearer ones among those who had survived the initial blast from my Halo. Now, he stood no more than eight or nine meters from where Beatrice stood as she lowered the Seer Stone from overhead and back to where she could more comfortably cradle it in her arms. The stone was still lighting up the interior of the chapel and made it easy to see the man was wearing a priest's vestments.
Obviously, Father Antonio could see this, too, as he took a sudden, hesitant step forward. "Francis, is that you? But . . . but . . . I saw your obituary in L'Osservatore Romano only a couple of days ago."
Alarm bells began going off in my head. The man in front of us was dead like the others we had examined, but somehow his body had remained upright even after the departure of the animating wraith.
Father Antonio took two more steps forward when he abruptly started shaking and quickly collapsed to the ground where his body continued to convulse like someone repeatedly shocked by a Taser as I had seen in countless cop-shows back in the day. I had already taken a couple steps towards the fallen man before I realized what was happening – he had stepped within range of the Seer Stone while still wearing the divinium armor we had given him.
"Beatrice," I shouted even though she was barely more than five meters away. "You have to move away before the Stone kills him."
I saw her eyes flash around before she began to move. Obviously, she was making sure where everyone was so she didn't step too close to someone else while trying to move away from Father Antonio. In the end, her only option was to move towards the far end of the chapel, which brought her closer to the reanimated priest.
As soon as she was far enough away, Lilith moved to check on Father Antonio.
I kept my attention focused ahead. "Beatrice," I continued while trying to keep my voice at a more normal level even though I still felt a strong urge to shout. "We examined the bodies of several of the people the wraiths were using in the attack. I don't know how, but they were already dead before arriving at the chapel. Somehow, the wraiths had been able to reanimate their bodies. From what Father Antonio said before his collapse, I think the man in front of you is also dead. I don't know why he is still on his feet." I didn't know how much Beatrice had overheard or understood while she had still been down in the underground passageway.
Beatrice took several more steps forward, but stopped with about four meters still separating her from the priest.
"Can you speak?" Beatrice asked. "I am Sister Beatrice. What's your name?"
I took a couple more steps forward careful to stay a good six meters back from Beatrice and the Seer Stone. I could see the priest better now. He looked at least seventy-five with a fringe of white hair. And one good look at his face left no doubt he was dead.
As I watched, his mouth made movements like he was trying to speak, but no sounds came forth.
"Take a breath and try again," said Beatrice calmly and gently. No way would I have been as in control if I was the one trying to hold a conversation with a dead man.
The man drew a shuddering breath and spoke again. "I . . . am . . . Father . . . Francis . . . O'Mallory." His dead eyes suddenly widened and a panicky expression filled his face. I think he just realized he was dead.
"Father O'Mallory, do you know how you ended up here?" asked Beatrice.
His expression became even more panicky. Again, his mouth made movements without any sound.
"Breathe, Father," said Beatrice.
"I . . . was . . . dead! . . . No . . . I . . . am . . . dead. . . Dear . . . God . . . what . . . has . . . happened . . . to . . . me?" His voice was paper thin and barely human in the beginning and by the end it was a wail like you only heard about in ghost stories. My skin was crawling simply hearing it.
Suddenly, a sound that had been in the background for a few seconds fully registered.
"Local police are on their way. We have to get out of here before we get ensnarled with them," I said.
It was clear the others had heard the sirens, too. Everyone was nodding.
"Mary and Camila, if you can get passed Beatrice, you take point. Then Beatrice, you next. Lilith and I will cover the rear and see about Father Antonio," I directed. Father Antonio had come around and was sitting up, but he might not be able to move quickly without help.
Beatrice stepped closer to the dead priest and held out her hand. "Father O'Mallory, can you walk? We need to leave now."
Father O'Mallory took Beatrice's offered hand and turned towards the main door at the far end of the chapel. I had visions of a slow shambling zombie from some old movie.
"Do we have time to take him with us?" I asked Beatrice. I wasn't certain what my biggest issue was, but it was probably simply the thought of having to spend a prolonged period around someone who was dead. It shouldn't have bothered me that much considering I had been dead for hours before having the Halo jammed into my body, but it did.
"We can't just leave him here," replied Beatrice, as she and the old dead priest began walking towards the door at a steady pace. "The police won't have any way to deal with him and his unusual circumstances. It is something the Church will have to deal with, particularly since he is one of our own. And perhaps, once we have more time, he can help us understand what was going on here tonight."
Beatrice was right, of course. We couldn't just leave the dead priest here, who knew what would become of him. And who knew how long he would remain in this state somewhere between life and death. Whatever power or magic was keeping him like this seemed unlikely to last too long. And perhaps he could help us understand how the wraiths had come by this new ability.
Mary and Camila had managed to skirt passed Beatrice and her new charge. They reached the main door, pulled it open, and stepped out into the relative darkness. Beatrice and Father O'Mallory were heading towards the door. Father Antonio had regained his feet, but didn't look too steady. After retrieving the portion of Beatrice's armor he had dropped near the wall, I stepped closer and threw his left arm over my shoulder. Lilith shifted her portion of Beatrice's gear until she was able to get his right arm over her shoulder.
As we followed the others out into the night, I glanced back. We had worried about how people were going to react to the blood trails we had left in the upper chapel and how Cardinal Somalo was going to explain it. But now it seemed inconsequential compared to the state of the lower chapel – twenty-plus corpses strewn around the space, many of them obviously already dead for days but riddled with fresh weapons' fire; and a hole blown in the floor revealing a long forgotten underground chamber.
Cardinal Somalo was definitely going to be earning his pay over the next few hours!