Promise of wrath the hel.., p.16
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       Promise of Wrath (The Hellequin Chronicles Book 6), p.16

           Steve McHugh


  September 1195. City of Acre.

  The Teutonic Knights arrived just after Irkalla and I finished the search of the house. We asked them to search the premises for anything they could find, and to take special care of the map pieces, before Irkalla and I ran through the baking city streets to find Nanshe and tell her about what we’d discovered. Attacks were imminent.

  After asking several soldiers, we found Nanshe in a large building close to where Isabel had lived. Nabu was with her, and they were discussing the plans for the defense of the city in the event of further attacks. Gilgamesh stood in the corner, staring out of the window. He didn’t appear to be all that pleased to be there.

  Nanshe’s reaction to being told her life was in danger was a slight shrug. I’d expected a proportionally larger response.

  “My life has been in danger before, and will be again,” she said. “All those who came before are dead. Whoever Siris sends—she won’t try herself—will join them. We have a more pressing issue.”

  “And that would be . . . ?” I asked, realizing that the topic of someone trying to kill her had been well and truly ended.

  “Out there is a village with an unknown realm gate, somewhere several hours from here. It’s likely that five thousand trained men and women have already left the realm gate with a plan to attack this city. Along with their vampires, and anything else Siris has on her side, this is going to cause a lot of trouble. I can’t see them razing the city, though. It would take a lot more than that.”

  “What could the serpent be? Tiamat?” Irkalla asked.

  “She is sealed somewhere with no realm gate. There’s no way to get to her.”

  “Wait, you mean the Tiamat?” I inquired. “The dragon?”

  Nanshe nodded. “If she were released, death and destruction would follow. The last time she was free, men and women worshipped her like a god. Even we were not immune to her murderous whims, and several of our kin were killed by Tiamat and her children. Even if they were able to find Tiamat, Siris and her allies would have little control over her. No, they’ll want something more controllable, but just as deadly: one of her children, maybe.”

  “And where would they be?” I asked, knowing full well that I wasn’t going to like the answer.

  “We don’t know exactly,” Irkalla told me. “They’re in several different realms. The person who placed them in their new homes underwent a mind-wipe as soon as it was finished. They could be anywhere within a thousand miles of here, but they’ll be remote, and no one will have the means of opening them.”

  “So, we have a realm where thousands of attackers are coming from. And there’s another realm somewhere hiding the children of a dragon.” I rubbed my temples to try to alleviate the pressure I suddenly felt. “Siris and her people certainly believe they can open this realm to Tiamat’s children. If they can find, or make, a guardian to do it, then I don’t see any reason why not. Maybe that’s why they took Isabel: to force her to be the guardian to open the realm gate.”

  “Did you get anything about the schedule being changed when they discovered that Hellequin would be here?” Nabu asked.

  “No,” Irkalla informed him. “The plan was always to attack last night. The man I interrogated knew nothing about any changes to incorporate Nathaniel.”

  “It’s why Asag was sent after me; he was meant to stop me getting here. Almost did, too.” My words gained Gilgamesh’s attention. It was good to see him up and about again.

  “That makes sense. Unfortunately, Asag is dead, so asking him anything would be impossible.”

  “He didn’t die that long ago,” Irkalla pointed out. “I could try to take his soul. See if I can learn anything.”

  As far as ideas went, it wasn’t a bad one.

  “He’s curse-marked,” Gilgamesh told her. “Blood curses. You take his soul, all kinds of awful stuff could happen to you and anyone near you. It’s not worth the risk.”

  “Did you find anything at Siris’s home?” Nabu asked.

  “They were searching for something,” Irkalla said. “They destroyed part of a map. No idea why.”

  “Too heavy or large to move?” Nabu suggested.

  Irkalla shrugged. “Maybe they just didn’t want it falling into anyone else’s hands.”

  I left the three of them to discuss things, and walked over to Gilgamesh. “What’s on your mind?”

  “I’m sorry I was not more help last night. That monster blindsided me, and I was unable to continue the fight at your side. I feel foolish that such a whelp as that managed to best me.” Gilgamesh didn’t appear to be happy with himself over what he saw as a failure. Never mind that Asag would have killed me too if not for his magical weakness. Gilgamesh was a proud man, and the loss against any opponent was going to stay with him for some time.

  “I got lucky myself,” I assured him. “Asag wasn’t a pushover.”

  “No, but it’s a shame he had to die. We could have gotten answers from him. I doubt he’d have been forthcoming, however. He was always a cruel, nasty little demon.”

  “Were you friends with Siris?”

  Gilgamesh nodded. “She’s a great warrior. A dangerous opponent, with a smart mind. Hates her drink, though, so she’s not exactly good to go out celebrating with.” He gave a slight smile. “Probably why she got the goddess of beer name. Did you know she hated it?”

  “Nanshe told me.”

  “She is a proud woman, and to have her mocked like that . . . I don’t think she ever recovered from it.”

  “Did you know Isabel?”

  He shook his head. “Never even heard of her until Mordred mentioned her name. Still don’t know anything about her. Where she came from, who her parents are . . . nothing.”

  “Mordred said her mother was someone who lived in the city. She died a few years ago? Mordred said he’s lived here on and off ever since.” I rubbed my eyes. It had been a long few days, and I was beginning to get tired.

  “You need some rest, my friend,” Gilgamesh said with a hearty slap on my back.

  I nodded. “You’re right. There’s not going to be an attack in broad daylight, but they might still try again tonight. I’d rather be there for that. Can someone recommend me a place to sleep?”

  “There’s an inn not far from here,” Nabu said. “Go, rest. We’ll see you tonight.”

  I said my farewells and set off for the inn, which was easy to find. Rooms were free to friends of Nanshe and Gilgamesh. My room was at the top of the three-story building, and I almost fell asleep opening the door.

  I couldn’t keep my eyes open—something was wrong—and staying awake was a literal battle, but I was too tired to fight it. I managed to drag myself toward the bed, and didn’t even feel my head hit the pillow as I slid into sleep.

  “Wake up.”

  I tried to open my eyes, but couldn’t quite manage it. Pain tore through my shoulder and I jolted awake, to be met with darkness.

  “It’s not late yet. No one is going to come for you for a while.”

  “Siris, I presume,” I said to the darkness of the room.

  A moment later a candle came alive, revealing Siris sitting on a chair several feet away, a dagger on her lap.

  “I wouldn’t try anything,” she warned. “The venom in your blood will not kill you, but this dagger will, should you feel the need to be heroic.”

  I remained lying on the bed trying to figure out when I’d been poisoned. I thought back over the last few hours, and realized it must have been during the fight with Asag. “So, Asag’s venom makes people tired?”

  “Mostly. I assumed it would have hit you earlier, but I suppose all that running around fought off the reaction. Asag is furious with you.”

  “He’s not dead?”

  “No. You should have taken his head, which would have done it. I don’t think he’s going to fall for your tricks twice, though.”

  “Why are you here?” I asked, sitting up and yawning as I leaned against
the wall behind me. Apart from a fuzzy head and a general ache that appeared to reverberate through my entire body, I didn’t feel too bad. I thought about testing my magic, just to make sure it was useable, but I didn’t want to cause Siris to attack, and the simple knowledge that I could feel my power inside of me was enough to calm any thoughts of having lost its use.

  “We need to talk.”

  “Talk? You tried to kill me, and a lot of other people, and you also sent a small army of vampires to murder a lot of people. I don’t think talking is going to change anything. You want to destroy the relationship your kin and Avalon have developed. You’re hoping that by disrupting it or stopping it, Avalon will just vanish. Well, I’ve got news for you: Avalon isn’t going anywhere, and you’re not strong enough to stop all of it.”

  “You’ve got it all wrong.” She sounded incredibly smug. “Avalon is a festering, corrupt cesspool. It needs to be destroyed, torn down, and rebuilt. The deities who joined it—those I used to call my kin—are willing to accept a small share of the power. We are not. They want to remain in the shadows, twisting the human world as needed. We believe that humans should be our servants, and that we should be worshipped for our power. Humans are lesser beings. It’s our rightful place to stand above them as they kneel to us.”

  “So you want a fairer Avalon, but one that’s willing to wipe out a large chunk of humanity should they become a problem?”

  Her eyes narrowed. “We are better than humans. Elaine is in control of Avalon. Arthur is dead, Merlin is weak. None of these things should be.”

  “You sound an awful lot like Mordred.” It made me wonder about his motives. His whole reason for being had been to disrupt and destroy Avalon at every opportunity. Yet on this occasion, he infiltrated Siris’s organization with the purpose of killing her. A question occurred to me. “Why does Mordred hate you so much? And it must be a lot, because it would take a huge amount of hate for him to put killing you over destroying Avalon.”

  “We’re old acquaintances,” she said with a grin. “You should ask him about the time we spent together.”

  “That sounds a lot less pleasant than it should.”

  “It was pleasant for me. Probably not so much for him.”

  “The whole Isabel thing. It was just personal for you, right? Nothing to do with what you have planned for the city?”

  “Very good. I just really wanted to screw with Mordred. I don’t care about her, or what happens to her.”

  “You’re not going to make her a guardian then?”

  The confusion on Siris’s face lasted only a second, but it was enough to let me know I was on the wrong lines. I tried a different approach.

  “How else are you going to open the realm to wherever Tiamat’s children are?”

  Siris smiled, and clapped slightly, patronizing me. “Very clever. You figured out what the plan is. Well, you still can’t stop it. As for how we’re going to open the realm, we don’t need a guardian. There are more ways to get there than the ones Avalon likes to feed you.”

  “You’ve lost your mind. There’s no way that Merlin or Elaine or anyone else is going to allow you to tear Avalon down. You’re a group of misfits and power-crazed idiots. You’re going to die here. You’re going to die painfully, and if, by some small chance, you succeed here, Avalon will crush you and anyone you call a friend. They’ll wipe you from whatever realms you call home. You can’t win.”

  “We’re in this for the long game, Nathaniel. Our aims here aren’t about winning or losing, they’re about hurting you. Hurting you and your friends. Hurting this city, taking away one more jewel in Avalon’s crown.”

  There was no use in trying to talk to her; she was fanatical, and fanatics are rarely rational people. “So is this the part where you kill me?” I was still feeling achy, and probably not a hundred percent capable, but I was pretty sure I could give Siris a good fight, if that was the direction she wanted to go in.

  “I’m here because I’ve been asked to give you a message. And this was as good an opportunity as I’ve had since you arrived.”

  “A lot of effort to get me a message.”

  “It’s an important message. And the man who told me to give it to you isn’t used to disappointments.”

  “Nergal?” I guessed.

  “You’ve learned quite a bit since you’ve been here. I’m almost impressed.”

  I ignored the taunt. “Let me guess: you’re going to tell me to leave the city. To let you take it, and to tell my Avalon masters that this whole area is off limits. Maybe you’ll threaten a few people too.” I leaned as close to Siris as I dared. “Not sure if you know this, but I don’t respond well to threats.”

  Siris chuckled. “Nergal doesn’t want you to leave. He wants you to stay and watch as everything burns down around you. He wants you to see the bodies litter the streets as you try in an impotent attempt to stop us. He wants you to witness the beginning of the end of your world. His only regret is that he couldn’t be here to watch as we break your spirit. Then you’ll be our message to the world. The Hellequin, broken and beaten. Merlin’s pet destroyed.”

  “That’s a big message.”

  Siris pushed herself onto her feet and threw the chair aside, which collapsed from the impact against the wall. “You should take us seriously.”

  “I do. I take all threats against people I care about seriously. I just like making you angry. I find it entertaining that you would come here to tell me nothing. You’ve literally told me nothing, and you’ve risked yourself to do it. So, why are you really here, in the city? What are you here for?”

  Siris looked out of the window. “To deliver a gift.” She turned to me. “Your friends are coming.” She pushed the window open and jumped out. I walked over and watched as she vanished into the ground, making any attempt to follow her impossible.

  Six Teutonic Knights were running up the street. They stopped below my window, and I launched myself out, using my air magic to slow my descent.

  “Siris paid me a visit,” I told them after landing on the ground.

  Irkalla came a short while later, while the knights threatened the screaming innkeeper with obstruction. I felt sorry for the man, but I had neither the time nor energy to intervene, so I left the knights to deal with him.

  “Sorry. This shouldn’t have happened,” Irkalla said to me as I washed the remains of sleep from my face in a bowl of water.

  “Not your fault. No one expected her to come back to the city. She said she’d brought a gift.”

  “Like what?”

  I shrugged. “She didn’t give me anything. And she came back here to give me a warning from your ex-husband. Apparently I’m to be used as a cautionary tale for those who would oppose him and his group. I don’t plan on letting that happen.”

  “Hellequin!” a soldier shouted as he sprinted up the street toward me. “Hellequin!”

  “Over here,” I called with a wave of my arm. “What’s happened?”

  He paused and took a deep breath. “Nothing, everyone is fine. Better than fine, actually.”

  Irkalla and I shared a confused expression.

  “The woman, Isabel. They found her outside the city gate. She’s alive, but asleep, or something.”

  We followed the soldier back through the city to the building where I’d first met Isabel when arriving in the city.

  I entered the building alone, but instead of going up, I followed a set of stairs down into a room beneath the earth. A large cell had been built at the far end. Runes had been carved into the stone where the bars had been set.

  “Nice cell,” I said to Nanshe and the two guards, none of whom were facing me.

  All three turned around, and I got my first glimpse of Isabel, who was alone in the cell, sleeping. Her hair had been pulled up and tied on top of her head, the bite marks on her neck easy to see.

  “Vampire,” I almost whispered.

  “Yes,” Nanshe agreed. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. “
Isabel has been bitten by a vampire. This whole situation gets stranger by the day.”

  Isabel opened her eyes, but remained still. “Food.” It was not a request.

  “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” I told Nanshe.

  “Food,” Isabel repeated.

  “You’re going to want to get her something,” I told everyone. “And you’d best hurry it up, too.”

  Nanshe ordered her knights to find a chicken or other small animal that wouldn’t be easily missed.

  “She needs a person,” I said before they could leave. “She needs the blood of a person.”

  “We have prisoners,” one of the knights said.

  “Bring the most evil bastard you’ve got. Human bastard. Someone already scheduled for execution.”

  “You’re going to let her kill someone?” Nanshe asked.

  “It’s that or have her go insane in there.” I turned to the knight, who hadn’t moved. “Now.”

  I returned my attention to Isabel, who had rolled onto her side, watching us. Her pupils were bright red, and I knew that if those bars weren’t there, she’d have attacked us. Newly awakened vampires don’t have a lot of patience, and most lack the ability to tell friend from food.

  “I assume no one saw who dropped her off?” I asked.

  “No,” Nanshe confirmed. “It was done not long after nightfall.”

  “It’s possible the Siris visit was a diversion.”

  “When did Siris visit you?”

  I’d forgotten that Nanshe hadn’t been told about the visit, so I filled her in on what Siris had told me.

  “Nergal knows about you. That can’t be good.”

  “He might know about me, but he doesn’t seem to care that I’m here. He’s still off somewhere else. No, Siris came back into the city for something else. I was just on the way, and Isabel is a diversion.”

  Nanshe’s sigh was one of a person having reached the end of a very short fuse. “This is not becoming a good day.”

  “Also, Asag is still alive. That’s not great news.”

  “Cut his head off next time,” Irkalla said as she descended the stairs behind me. “His body vanished from where we’d placed it, in a locked cell at the other side of the city. He killed two guards there. We only learned about it just before I came to see you. I was actually on the way to warn you of his escape.”

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