Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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The Price of Light

by Beverly Forehand



This is the third wave. I can see them massing from my perch at the top of the castle's turret. Wave after wave of warriors in blood and bone and putrid green -- spattered in the blood and gore that was once my Sisters.

I am 7642 -- one of the Fallen.

A shell whizzes by my head and embeds itself in a statue of Holy Artemis. I jump down from the shattered sacristy I've been using as a lookout post. Bits of stained glass crunch under my boots. They glitter in the day's falling light.

This chapel must have been beautiful once. Now, it's broken glass, charred walls, and the Dead -- Dead everywhere. Every morning we pile them by the walls. We have been here seven days. I wonder if I will be in the neat stacks lining the walls by morning, or if I will spend hours carrying others to the walls as I did today.

There are fewer to carry each morning. We are down to fifteen Sisters. We were twenty companies when this siege began. None of us left, we few remaining, are from the same unit. Even Red and I, unrepentant slaves though we are, are from different units. But, we still have our Holy Mother, Lady Ephraim in her shining armor, and she demands good order. She is the one who has us piling the Dead against the walls. It is respectful and they catch stray bullets. We Sisters like to be useful even in death.

I am to make my report. I can see Sister Cordelia tapping her foot at the bottom of the spiral stair. On the cold stone floor, her armored foot makes more noise than it should. It is eerie how quiet it is right before they attack -- just the odd bestial howl and the screams of vengeance or joy or pain. Who knows what they think -- these creatures outside who once were men?

They hung one of their captives from the outstretched hand of the statue of Lady Vesta the Ever-Loving and have been using the corpse for target practice all morning. Poor 7647 is out there hanging by one arm now, filled with hundreds of shells and arrows. I'm glad I can't see her face.

To Cordelia down there tapping her foot, 7647 was just another nameless sinner expendable to the Cause. But, once she was Sister Penelope. She was in my company and she helped sew our Battle Flag. I remember how pleased she was with the gold-leaf thread for Holy Artemis' bow. She spent weeks embroidering millefleurs around the edges of Our Lady's gown.

"7642," Cordelia shouts, "What is your report?" I give her the numbers and the positions of the enemy. There are hundreds, maybe a thousand of mixed men and beasts. We are lucky they are mostly the Converted -- those beings who were once men, but who have embraced Darkness. There are Demons there -- some at the edges of the battle. More than enough to finish us and take this last stronghold.

I do not tell her what she already knows -- that the situation is hopeless. We are outnumbered, outgunned, and this is the last night we can possibly hold this site. We have only a few cases of ammunition. The flame-throwers exhausted their fuel days ago, the phase-bows are fizzing pitifully from overuse, and last night the last plasma-caster over-heated. Sister Magdala is trying to repair it, but it is less than one hour until sunset.

Of course, the enemy dead have plenty of weapons. But Lady Ephraim would never allow the use of tainted guns. I guess that's why I am Fallen. I have been eyeing that phase-bow in the front of the chapel door all day. The gunner was human, once, and I can still make out the icon of the City of Angels under the demon-scrawl tattooed across it.

I wouldn't mind some armor either. There is plenty to be had, but Lady Ephraim forbids either myself or 7748 to wear anything but our neuro-badges. They are issued to Fallen and hooked strategically into the skin to issue neural shocks when we misbehave. Of course, our Mistress died in the first wave and is piled against the wall, so no more neural shocks for Red or I. I call her that because of the red sash she ties to her leg. It's better than a number, anyway. She can't be much more than a kid. I didn't know her before and I have been Fallen for six years.

It is hard to remember sometimes what it was like to wear armor and carry a sword and blessed bow. But, I remember the day they shaved my head and took my armor and my name. I remember them tattooing my wrist with the broken arrow -- the sign of a disgraced Sister of Artemis -- the Unforgivable sentenced to a life of slavery without hope of redemption. Penelope was the last living member of my company, until last night when she went out to secure the power converter on Lady Ephraim's orders. Well, there would be no reason to protect the converter tonight. Those grime-smeared devils blew the main hatches off it before dawn. That's about the time Penelope stopped screaming.

Shadows are everywhere here. The broken windows and holes blown in the walls filter the light at strange angles and make everything look sinister. We've been careful to seal and trap every possible access point, but Cordelia and I can't help but check every corner and dark recess. You can feel the tension in the air.

In less than an hour they'll be on us again, their first ranks charging the doors, war-beasts bellowing and worse things lurking just out of view. But they never use explosives -- nothing more than hand-held weapons -- slug-throwers, phase-guns, and even axes and swords. They don't want this castle destroyed. Even I can see that.

And the Demon-Blessed are up to something. They are the only bit of order outside. Those thrice-cursed mortals who allowed themselves to be merged with those things that seek to destroy all mankind. They had their slaves burning the dead this morning to make a clear path to the building.

Their slaves are like a sea. Wild-eyed, mouths foaming, they throw themselves at our walls and are blown apart by ammunition. They are a diversion. The enemy could have this place in a heartbeat, but they want it to remain intact. That's why the slaves charge while the Demon-Blessed move at the edges. I could see them circling this morning, their Leader, a giant in armor the color of an oil-slick, directing them. Will they come in tonight? They're probably tunneling down into the catacombs under this place. Even a child could see the weakness in this building's design. We will be beset from beneath. And, while the slaves and berserkers rage about our doors, the Demon-Blessed will strike from below and secure...whatever it was they seek.

What could it be? This castle is known throughout the galaxy for its holy relics -- the thighbone and finger of Saint Childebric Goddess-Blessed, but what use could Demons have for a few dry bones? The power of our Holy Relics is in the faith they inspire. Who would know that they had them -- or care -- once this city is destroyed? How many more Sisters and faithful warriors could there possibly be left in this city -- on this world?

There has to be something else here hidden in the depths of the castle-fortress. Someone once told me that this building, though dedicated as a shrine to Holy Artemis, Mother Goddess of our Order, was built on the site of some older heathen temple. Of course, the site was sanctified and scoured first. Still, perhaps something survived.

"'7642," Cordelia hisses and gestures for me to stop. She looks at me quizzically; "Did you hear that?"

I listen; it's a small scratching noise, almost mouse-like. I nod. It seems to be coming from below us.

"Perhaps they're tunneling into the crypts," I say.

Cordelia nods slowly. "Yes, there's something down there, we heard them this morning while you were up on top." She pauses. "Magdala has rigged the door leading from the catacombs -- it's all we can do. She set the last of the video-creepers as spies near the stair to the main chamber." She nods again. "Maybe it will be enough for tonight." Cordelia's bionic eye glints when she nods. It always makes her look like she's studying something intensely. Maybe she is. Cordelia's usually quiet. She wasn't meant to be part of a fighting company. She was trained as a healer and her skills have stood us in good stead during this siege.

When we get to the main chamber, everything is abuzz. Magdala is hunched over a phase-bow, with a pile of plasma-casters at her feet. She nods at Cordelia. "We have 4 plas-casts working -- I drained the big ones to get these in working order. The phase-bow will be ready in about --" she stops to consider, then continues "-- 20 minutes."

Young Junia, who devoted herself to the Service of the Holy Artemis only a month ago, chimes in, "And, tell her what you found!'

Magdala smiles. "We found three more crates of grenades behind the reliquary."

Junia is practically hopping with joy as she adds, "And a Siege-Tank."

"And a Siege-Tank...which doesn't work and which has a hole as big as Junia here in its rear," states Magdala.

"We could push it to the front door as a barrier," Cordelia says.

"Oh, it drives fine," says Magdala, "that's about all it does. It was down in storage with the rest of the cast-offs. A bunch of fried video-creepers, slug-thrower bits and cleaning supplies, all very useful."

"We took some of the ammonia and chemicals just in case," says Junia conspiratorially, "You never know what might be of use."

Magdala snorts, "Demons won't care if you throw a vat-full of ammonia at them, Junia."

"But men might," says the girl.

"They might indeed," I add.

Junia looks pleased.

"Well, none of that will matter if we don't get the rest of these weapons up and running," says Cordelia, "Come." We move across the room to the pile of slug-throwers which Red and Sub-Vestal Honoria are cleaning. I am pleased to see that Red has cleaned nearly twice as many as Honoria.

"7642, you aid in this effort," says Cordelia as she turns to find Lady Ephraim.

The three of us sit on the stone floor checking the slug-throwers for damage and jammed shells. Honoria is silent, but Red keeps up a steady stream of chatter. Red's unceasing banter appears to annoy the Vestal, who occasionally stops work to glower at the girl. Red's nervous and she hopes to fill the empty space with words. We've all seen battle before, some of us hundreds of times over the years, but never with odds this overwhelming.

Honoria looks up at one of the last intact windows, "10 minutes, then we need to be in our positions." I look around and see that Magdala and Junia have already moved up to the outer wall. Magdala has opened one of the murder slits and is positioning the phase-bow.

I pick up a slug-thrower and move to one of the holes blown in the wall. We've patched it so there is only a slit out of which you can see the enemy and fire. There are too many targets to choose. I fire into the mass and watch as man after man falls. Red, behind me, hands me more ammunition when mine are expended. I can hear the steady tat-tat-tat of Magdala's slug-thrower firing from beside me. The phase-bow must be working, because I see occasional liquid streams when the enemy comes within range. They melt screaming, leaving an after-image on the air for a split second. "I need more ammo," I hear someone yell, and Red runs down the line feeding someone else's slug-thrower.

We are an engine of death, efficient and merciless. When bodies start to cover the murder slits, one of the Holy Sisters, Octavia, I think, uses the plasma-casters to evaporate the blockage. We continue firing. The Demon-tainted slaves fling themselves at us, screaming about the glory of their Dark Gods and firing their weapons. Some of them are unarmed and simply run forward to the wall. They gibber and dance as if they don't know where they are and look surprised when they are hit. The Holy Icons of Artemis and of the City of Angels are everywhere, covered though they are by soot, blood, and Demon filth. It's like those paintings of Armageddon and the Fall of the Titans they used to show us when we were first dedicated to Artemis. I can't tell one body from another. I keep firing. This is the end of time.

Someone is hit to my right. I hear the metallic thud of an armored body hitting the floor, then the slug-thrower begins firing again as another Sister steps up to take the place of the fallen. A body blocks my line of fire. He's deranged, pawing at the end of the slug-thrower, foaming at mouth and crying all at once. I fire through him until he sinks into the heaps of dead in front of the building. Out of the corner of my eye, I can still see him twitching. I lean forward slightly. There's something big moving out there behind the battle smoke.

"Demon-Blessed!' I hear Cordelia yell. I brace the slug-thrower on my knee so I can keep firing while I reach behind me and pull the extra ammo closer.

One of the mutated swollen forms pushes through the smoke a heartbeat ahead of his brothers. I take aim and fire. I see him flinch from the impact, but he doesn't even slow until Magdala shoots his legs from under him. He continues to crawl forward until the sea of slaves covers him. The berserkers surge forward waving their swords and mauls and howling. Some attack each other in their madness.

I aim for their heads. It usually takes three or four shots to bring one down. My slug-thrower clicks empty and I reach down for more shells, but by hand grates on nothingness.

Then they hit the door. It actually bends inward on its hinges, but it holds. I can hear the dull grate of metal on its metallic surface. An arm reaches in through the slug-thrower hole and tries to wrench me out, but I slash sloppily with my battle-kurka and lop off a hand. I push away from the dead slug-thrower and turn toward the door, elongated battle-kurka held two-handed.

A Sister falls back from the wall with her arm ripped away at the socket. She rolls her eyes and falls with a thud, blood pooling on the floor.

Something slams into the door and with a splintering crack is gives way. Demons, men, and war-beasts topple into the main chamber.

"Fall back, fall back," Lady Ephraim is screaming.

We retreat toward the corridor that leads to the sanctum, Magdala laying down covering fire with her slug-thrower. Red and I walk backward swinging the battle-kurkas as shields.

Unarmored men pop apart under slug-thrower fire and the battle-kurkas' slices. Another of the Sisters is hit and falls to her knees. Blood-streaked hands pull her into the mass of bodies screaming until Cordelia shoots her in the head. She slumps and falls under the press of bodies.

The Demon-Blessed begin hacking through the mess of bodies with their axes and swords in the furor to reach us. They rant and roar as they hack through the crowd. When the last of the Sisters is through the archway to the sanctum, Red and I turn and run. I hear the sanctum door clang shut behind me and see Magdala struggling to get out of the slug-thrower harness. "What I wouldn't give for a flame-thrower," she says.

Junia runs past me and disappears down a side alcove.

There's a scream to my right, "Holy Mother," Honoria wails, as Lady Ephraim falls to the floor.

Rivulets of blood immediately begin to stream from her body. She has been hit, three, maybe four times in the upper torso.

Cordelia kneels over her, pulling at her breastplate, and yelling for her medic's bag. Junia skids down beside her holding the weighty pack of syn-skin, hypo-needles, and coagulants. "She's bleeding out," Cordelia says calmly. "Junia, I need you to put your fingers there and there."

Junia looks at her blankly, her eyes gone wide with shock.

I ram her hand into the Holy Mother's open chest cavity, blocking the arterial blood flow with my fingers. "You have to hurry," I say and Cordelia nods, administering a hypo-needle of anesthetic.

Cordelia looks at me over the body and shakes her head. Junia is crying softly and holding Ephraim's hand. Ephraim's lips are moving, but the only thing that comes out is gouts of blood.

"Don't talk," Cordelia says, "It will be over soon."

The pounding against the door has stopped. Ephraim tries to raise her head. "Aemilla," she manages to gasp. Her hand jerks out of Junia's grasp and paws the air. "Aemilla, you have to listen," she says spitting blood. She looks around wildly and raises her hand again.

"I'm here," I say, "I can hear you, Lady Ephraim."

She turns her head toward my voice. "You have to know," she says, "Don't you. You remember?"

"Yes," I say, "I remember."

"The code, Aemilla, you'll have to do it for me. Say you're me, you," she stops, panting and choking, and reaches out with her hand to clutch at me, "Seth, Beta, Mortis, Alpha, 15, 15 -- you remember."

"Yes," I say, "I remember." Her hand slides away from me and she smiles weakly. "I never thought," she said, "It would come to this." Cordelia is giving her more shots, but she starts to convulse anyway. Junia and I try to hold her down, but she suddenly stops shaking and I know she's dead.

Junia is hyperventilating until Cordelia slaps her hard. She falls into a steady sob, rocking beside her dead Canoness.

"What did she mean, what did she want?" I hear Red ask behind me.

"She wanted me to call in an aerial strike -- or, rather, a planetary strike," I say. Magdala opens her mouth, but I speak first, "I know the radio is broken."

"How could you send the orders, even with the codes?" demands Honoria. I stand up inches from her. I can feel her breath on my face.

"I am High Vestal Aemilla Verity of the Daughters of Artemis of the City of Angels, 2nd Founding the Order of the Blessed Bow of the Lady -- or I was, once. The codes may change, but the protocols never do. But none of that matters."

"What do we do now?" asks Red.

"Cordelia is in charge here," says Honoria, looking down at the Healer.

"I pass my command to the High Vestal," says Cordelia flatly,

I move past Honoria. "Magdala, can you get that radio working?" Honoria pulls out her slug-thrower and I see Red reach for her battle-kurka out of the corner of my eye. I ignore them both. "First, Red and I will need some armor. Magdala, what do you need to get that radio operational? And can we bring that Siege-Tank forward to block these doors?"

Magdala nods. "The Siege-Tank's no problem. We can drive it from the supply room to here easily enough. But the radio is not repairable. Maybe if I had some components..."

"There's plenty of equipment outside," I say. Red is already stripping one of the dead Sisters of her armor.

"No!' Honoria bellows, "I won't have you wearing armor and we cannot use the enemies' accursed gear! I will kill anyone that..."

"Then you'll have to kill us all, and then you can hold this position yourself. The planet will be overrun because no one will order a strike and whatever's hidden in this building -- whatever it is that the Demon-Blessed is so determined to have -- will be theirs, and all because of Honoria and her damnable pride."

Honoria lowers her slug-thrower. "I won't touch tainted gear."

"Don't, then," I say. "Red and I will secure the radio, you can secure this door."

"No," Magdala says, "I'll go with Red. You don't know what's needed."

"Fine," I say. "Cordelia, tend to the wounded. Junia and I will search this place."

"You need armor," Red says, looking down at the Holy Mother. I shake my head and she moves over to the other casualties.

Cordelia follows her. "Wait," she says, "You'll have your armor soon enough."

After a few minutes, Magdala and Red come back dragging some armor with only a few bullet holes. "I can take care of those," says Magdala activating the flaming end of a hand-welder. "It won't be quite as good as new, but it should hold," she continues. Red has found some armor for herself as well and Junia is helping her kit up, stopping every now and again to sniff back a tear or two.

Honoria inspects the door, scowling. "It will hold for some time," says Magdala seeing the Sister's grim expression, "That's triple-reinforced iron and lead. And I didn't see any weapons other than slug-throwers, swords, and axes in the other room." Honoria thumps the door with her armored fist, but looks unconvinced.

Cordelia is patching the wounded as best she can. I hear three shots ring out. Junia looks at me with large eyes. "They return to the Mother," I say.

Cordelia comes out of the sanctum side room cleaning her pistol. "We're down to five now," she says. She's right -- Magdala, Honoria, Junia, Red, Cordelia, and myself. I nod. Cordelia continues, "There's something odd about the holy altar. I think Magdala should take a look at it." Magdala gets up and we all move into the shrine.

Cordelia has laid the three dead sisters near the altar and covered them with the altar cloth. I can see red seeping through the fine linen. Cordelia points to the base of the shrine. "I noticed it when I was tending Sister Celeste. It's tilted."

Magdala kneels to better inspect the altar. From somewhere outside I can hear a muffled thump. They are trying to dislodge the sanctum door.

"Could the bombardment on the first day have damaged the foundation?" I ask.

Magdala shakes her head. "No, this was made this way." She points to one of the corners and to the bas-relief around the base. "It's hollow."

"Hollow?" I ask. She nods. That's why it's shifted. The marble isn't solid through.

She thumps it and leans her ear closer to the sacristy. "Hollow." she states nodding.

"Red," I say, "Go and get something to open this."

"What do you plan to do?" demands Honoria.

"Smash this base," I say, "There's something in there. This is what they are looking for."

Magdala nods, "It seems likely -- hidden with the holy relics -- it's the safest place."

"It's blasphemy to disturb the bones of a Holy Saint," shouts Honoria.

"I'll move them," says Cordelia. "A Healer has the right to tend the Holy Dead."

Honoria does not look appeased, but she leaves and comes back with a maul. Red trails her carrying an assortment of ammunition and one of the phase-bows.

Magdala holds her hand out for the maul. "I can do it with the least damage," she says. Honoria hands her the weapon and Magdala kneels by the altar. She lifts the maul, gives the base an experimental tap, and motions for us to stand back. With one powerful swing, she cracks the base. Marble topples out in chunks, but the altar doesn't collapse. Magdala leans down and switches on the light she has attached to her shoulder. She cocks her head quizzically and reaches in and pulls out a plain black box. Blowing marble dust from the top, she hands it to me.

"It's light." I say.

"Hermetically sealed," she says, "Maybe warded with spells of some sort."

Honoria hisses her disapproval.

Magdala shrugs. "That's to open it without damage. If you want it open, I can do that."

I set the box down on a nearby table and nod. Junia is already pulling Magdala's tool kit in from the other room. Magdala rummages through it and pulls out a power file. She sprays the box's seal with some sort of white liquid and then turns her head away as she strikes the lock with the file. There is a pop and sparks shoot out from the seal. Magdala looks at me and I nod for her to open the box. She flips it open and we all peer at the contents -- another box, small and intricately carved of something that looks like bone.

"I've seen this before," I say, "Or one like it."

"Demon filth," growls Honoria.

"Just look at it." says Junia; 'It's very pretty."

"What exactly is it?" asked Red.

"It's an alien artifact," said Magdala, "That's Chiton. The Mantos use it for their most holy relics -- it's actually their bone."

Red looks aghast.

"It's considered an honor," Magdala finishes."

"It's an abomination," said Honoria flatly, "And, here, with the holy relics of Saint Theodoric! We should destroy it now!'

"The Archons of the City of Angels would have had to put it here, Honoria," said Cordelia, "So, it's here for a reason."

I picked it up from the table, evoking an indignant gasp from Honoria. "This is Mantos," I say. "It's a sort of gateway, I think."

Magdala cocks her head and leans in closer. "I don't see any way to activate it," she says.

"It's spellbound," I say, "It would take one of their Seers or Claig-Leaders to activate it properly."

"We should destroy it quickly!' said Honoria.

"This is why they haven't razed the building," says Cordelia, "This is what they want."

"It would seem likely," I say.

Cordelia smiles, "So, we have some cheese for our little mousetrap after all."

"Maybe," I say, giving the box a little flip on my palm, "Maybe we do indeed... First, we need to move that Siege-Tank up to the door. We need the extra reinforcement. You did say it was drivable, Magdala?" I ask.

The technician nods. "But it isn't good for much else."

"Could we load it with explosives and trigger it to detonate from a distance?" I ask.

Magdala nods. "Yes, that would be no problem. But we'd have to open the sanctum door..."

"We can activate it to open remotely," I say. "We will need a diversion if Red is going to get one of the radios."

Magdala looks at me quizzically.

"One Sister is enough of a risk," I say, and she nods resolutely.

"I'll show you what I need for repairs," she says to Red.

"Could we have the Siege-Tank spray ammonia, or something ignitable?" asks Junia, "It's mostly men out there."

Magdala nods again. "I can rig something workable, but it won't be pretty. Come Junia, I need an extra pair of hands." The two women rush off down the corridor, Magdala stopping to pick up her tool kit.

"What about the rest of us?" Red asks.

"We're going to have to go into the crypts, but I don't want to go blind. Let's see if we can get a few of the video-creepers up and running."

"There are two operational. One is on sentry by the door to the crypt," says Cordelia.

"Yes, I remember. We need to recall those for some modifications."

Cordelia walks over to the sanctum monitor, scrolls through a few screens, and pushes some buttons. "They should be here in a few minutes," she says.

"Good." I say nodding, "This will have to be closely timed. They probably have Demons out there and if we're not careful, they'll be wise to our plans." Cordelia and Honoria reflexively look up as though checking for hidden spies. "I'm counting on the fact that they may be listening to some parts of our conversation. We need them to know that we're going to destroy the artifact to lure them in."

Honoria smiles, "I'll be glad to put an end to this alien apostasy," she says.

I don't remind her that there are plenty of theories that the Mantos, insectoid though they are, evolved on this planet, alongside humans. Or, that the Mantos have allied with humans in past battles. None of that would matter to Honoria anyway -- all that matters to her is that consorting with aliens is outlawed by the Order.

"No," I reply, "There's a more difficult task I have in mind for you, me, and Red. Cordelia will have to destroy the artifact."

After a few minutes, Magdala and Junia come back. "The Siege-Tank is in place and we've loaded it with munitions and a trigger device." Magdala laughs, "I'm glad there wasn't anyone around to see my sloppy work -- it may not be pretty, but it should do some damage!'

"You're a credit to Artemis," I say.

"We'll see," Honoria mutters under her breath.

"It sprays ammonia and gasoline now," Junia chimes in, "They won't like that very much!'

"Good," I say, "What's the range on the trigger device?"

"That's not a problem," Magdala says, "And we found a remote we can use to pilot the vehicle."

"Good, give Junia the trigger," I say, "She can deploy it from the tower."

"How will I know the right time?" asks Junia.

"Just use common sense," I say. Junia takes the remote from Magdala tentatively.

"I'll do my best for Holy Artemis," the girl says.

The video-creepers come skittering in on their long spider-like legs after a few more minutes. Magdala already has the three broken creepers lying on the table. She cracks one open and harvests its components for the other two's repair.

Red and I drag the box of grenades from the storeroom. Each of us takes a full complement of grenades -- both personnel grenades for use on the unarmored bodies and rare concussion grenades. We line the concussion grenades, guaranteed to pry open even the best-made armor, beside Magdala's workstation.

Red and I drag the remaining personnel grenades to the sanctum door and start stringing them on trip wires around the room. Once this room is flooded with the Demon-Blessed and their slaves, there will be no way to avoid these traps. And, although they will be relatively harmless to the Demon-Blessed, personnel grenades are devastating to mere men -- tainted by the Dark Powers or not.

When we finish our work, Red and I return to the sanctum. Cordelia has returned the artifact to the black container in which we found it. There's something disturbing about the ivory box -- it's as if it has eyes. It exudes a presence of its own -- not malign, but aware -- as if it knows that it also has a part to play in these events. Magdala has finished the work on one creeper and set it on its spindly legs. It skitters around the room, albeit a bit drunkenly, and comes to a rest at Magdala's signal. The two good video-creepers have been outfitted with concussion grenades and crouch idly near the door to the corridor.

"Keep that shoddy one away from the others," Magdala cautions, "You don't want it knocking into them and setting off those concussions." Honoria reaches down and grabs the lurching creeper and pinions it under her arm. It clatters and waves its segmented legs. With a flourish, Magdala releases the last repaired creeper. It moves true and veers toward the door in an orderly fashion.

"We're ready then," I say. All of us begin checking our weapons.

Timing really is everything. We're set to go.

Junia and Magdala lug the slug-thrower and its remaining ammunition up to the tower. Junia has the trigger in her satchel. I can see the antenna poking out from under the latch. Magdala has the tool satchel slung around her neck. It swings as they walk and hits the slug-thrower casing with a tinny sound.

It almost reminds me of the bells outside the Holy Shrine to the Great Mother. How long has it been since we heard those bells calling us to sing Our Lady's praises? It seems a lifetime since I knelt to hear a sermon or did anything except hold a battle-kurka in my hand.

Magdala has programmed the remote to drive the Siege-Tank at full speed once the sanctum doors are open and she's set the doors to open in ten minutes.

Cordelia, Honoria and I all climb to the gallery above the sanctum and position slug-throwers. We have a case of personnel grenades divided amongst us. And Magdala has rigged a limited force field around us that can be turned on when we no longer need to shoot.

I've kept the box with me. I have to make sure Honoria doesn't destroy it. I can tell she's wondering if Magdala and Junia are taking it up the stairs.

Magdala will seal the doors behind her as they progress to the tower. There are seven of them; it would take weeks to breach them all. The only other way to the tower is the small hatch that I used to climb to my parapet. It's much too small for anyone in power armor. Probably no one bigger than a woman or a child could use that hatch.

Red is already waiting in the access hatch that runs under the floor of the sanctum and leads to the outside. It's a tight fit even without her armor and she is probably the only one of us small enough to crawl through it. These last six months as a Fallen have whittled her already thin frame down to muscle and sinew. She will only have one chance to creep outside and secure a couple of radios.

I hope our diversion is enough. Cordelia spent the better part of this morning pin-pointing a fallen communications team. They were warriors faithful to the City of Angels who fell in the 1st wave of fighting -- not that Red would hesitate even if they had been traitors. Still, it seems fitting that they will have a part in the redemption of this city and of this Holy Place even in death. That is all any of us can hope for -- to be useful and to serve the Mother.

I stand on the edge of the balcony balancing the slug-thrower against the railing with Honoria to my right and Cordelia to my left, waiting for the sanctum door to rise.

The hammering on the door ceased a couple of hours ago, as if even those creatures waiting outside know something is about to happen. The scratching underneath the chapel floor has stopped too. They're down there now. I can't hear them, but I know they are there advancing slowly through the centuries of rot.

I can see the tiny lights along the top of the door come on. They blink experimentally for a moment, and then the door starts to lift. The Siege-Tank reeves up its engine and the treads grind impatiently against the stone floor. Green gray smoke belches from launchers as the smoke grenades are released. Then, with a screech, the door shoots upward and the Siege-Tank lurches forward, immediately crushing all those standing in its way. I can see armored bodies lurch out of its path and then it's lost from sight.

I adjust the sight that Magdala's attached to my slug-thrower. I hear screaming and see a trail of flame puff from the outer room. The Siege-Tank has released the chemical stream onto the crowd. I hear more wails and then the personnel and concussion grenades trapped above the door start to drop. I see one Demon-Blessed, huge and malformed, stagger through the smoke and then fall, blood spurting from his neck.

We fire into the milling mass below us. Cordelia stops and lobs two concussion grenades. Another Demon-Blessed falls. They seem confused as to whether they should follow the Siege-Tank or fire upward at the three of us. I feel a shudder go through the marble of the guardrail. The Siege-Tank must've exploded. The enemy, men, demons, and Demon-Blessed, are falling back. The sanctum door falls shut with a clang and we open fire on those trapped in the sanctum.

We continue firing down into the gallery until all movement has stopped. When the smoke clears, we return to the sanctum and administer the Goddess' Divine Retribution to the enemy wounded. Magdala has already come down from the parapet and is prying the access hatch off. I can see Red's fingers looped around the grid work as she anxiously awaits Magdala's completion of the job. When Magdala and Junia lift the hatch aside, Red jumps out. "Help me lift these," she says, reaching back into the chute to pull out a radio. "I brought three back," she says, "They're all a little beaten up. And I wasn't sure what you needed."

Magdala inspects each radio as it is lifted from the chute. "These will do," she says. "I can cobble together something working from their components." She motions for Junia and Red to help her carry them.

Red looks back at the sanctum door, now covered with smoke soot and blood. "Should we try to reinforce that?" she asks.

Magdala looks back. "No time." she states.

Cordelia is leaning against the now shell-riddled table, rifling through her medic's pack. "Cordelia?" I ask. She grimaces and administers a hypo-needle to the chainmail and leather joints at the inner elbow on her right arm. "The bleeding's stopped," she says. She reels a little as the anti-biotics kick in.

"Can you shoot?" I asked.

She nods, "Yes, it's in the shoulder. I'll balance the slug-thrower on my hip, but..." she indicates her left leg. There's a blackened hole the size of a large coin still smoking slightly, "I doubt if I can keep up with you now."

I nod. "That's all right," I say, "You stay here with Magdala and Junia." I hand her the box. "They'll come for this if they get past us in the crypts. Magdala is rigging a limited force field, but it won't hold for long. Don't let it fall into unfriendly hands."

Cordelia looks at me strangely and then takes the box in her hand. "It's warm," she says, "It wasn't before, was it?" She looks at it again and then places it in her satchel. "Grace of the Mother," she says.

"Grace of the Mother," I reply.

Magdala, Junia, and Red return from the tower. "Everything is in place," the technician says. "We have the slug-thrower and the radios and I've rigged the stairwell to implode. After it's down, no one's coming up or down from there unless they use the hatch." She hands me the force field generator and I pass it on to Cordelia.

Magdala frowns, but then notices the hole in Cordelia's leg. Directing her remarks to the Healer she says, "Keep it confined to a small defensible area. It will only shield 100 feet or so around you."

Cordelia nods.

"I should have the radio operational in 10 minutes. We'll put the call through and Goddess willing this will be over in an hour, " Magdala says.

Junia, standing by her side, looks teary-eyed, but resolute. She and Magdala turn and make their way to the corridor that leads to the tower, picking across the room's littered dead. At the end of the room, Magdala stops and turns, "Lady Aemilla," she calls, "Die well."

I nod and reply, "Goddess grant you grace."

Magdala and Junia disappear from sight.

We leave Cordelia with the box, the maul, and the force field, and start for the crypts. Honoria has picked up a long-handled flail from one of the fallen Sisters and Red and I have our battle-kurkas and phase-pistols. I see that Red has scavenged a two-handed sword as well. I have Lady Ephraim's phase-bow. Each of us has one concussion grenade, and Honoria has the remote for the creepers. They stand in a neat little line by the heavy sigiled door leading to the Honored Dead. The twitchy creeper is still listing to its right, but at least it isn't running into anything.

"Send the first two in ahead of us," I say. "We'll keep the two with grenades close to us and send them ahead once we've spotted our targets."

Honoria enters the long code into the door and it opens reluctantly with a hiss of air. The first two creepers lurch into the darkness directed by Honoria. After they disappear, Honoria sends the other two inside and then Red, Honoria, and I step into the darkness.

I adjust the night vision on my helm and look around. I can see the two closest creepers hunched in the darkness near the wall a few feet in front of us. The air is heavy with dust and I am glad to have an air-filter built into my helmet. I can see the eye slits of Red and Honoria's helms glowing slightly in the dark as well. I nod my head and we advance, weapons drawn.

Honoria studies the monitor on her handset that broadcasts the images from the first two creepers. After a few minutes, she holds up her hand.

On the monitor I can see five green and gold glowing eyes advancing slowing through the gloom. The video-creepers are running lightless with only their slight hum to give them away. Cordelia maneuvers them underneath one of the crypts and waits until the enemy passes. She swings the creepers behind them and after a few moments the spiders continue to follow.

We move forward again, our own little video-creepers a few paces ahead. Every footfall echoes too loudly.

"There's a fork in the crypt a few corridors ahead of them," Honoria types onto the monitor screen. "If we take this corridor, we can come out behind them." She pulls up the schematic of the crypt on the monitor screen and gestures to the junction.

I nod.

She adjusts the two forward video-creepers to continue trailing the enemy at a discreet distance and then we turn left into another dark corridor. This is the hall of Honored Saints. Sisters, City Archons, and Goddess-Blessed who have lived spotless lives lie here moldering away throughout eternity. Their shrouded bones lying against the walls muffle our footfalls. Vigilant to the Goddess and the City even in death, I know that they would want to help us destroy these monsters and heretics walking unimpeded among their Holy Fellows.

We swing out into the main corridor and my helm's filters pick up a change in the air. Fresh air is coming down the main corridor, presumably from the tunnel the Demons have dug. I lift my pistol and continue down the corridor, Red and Honoria behind me. I can barely make out the two creepers crouched against the wall ahead.

"Stop," I hear Honoria say softly. We all come to a halt. She nods at the monitor. A pair of eyes, only one of which looks even remotely human, is looking directly into one of the creeper's cameras.

Honoria speeds our two video-creepers ahead and we duck around the next corner, each of us taking out her own concussion grenade. When Honoria can see the Demon-Blessed on creepers' cameras, she orders the mechanical spiders to drop their concussion grenades. She triggers the two other creepers to explode simultaneously and we run around the corner and fling our grenades, ducking back into cover to avoid the blast.

Honoria throws the monitor on the floor, its screen flashing static. We advance into the hallway in a covering formation, pistols lifted. Red throws a couple of mini-grenades ahead of us.

Yellow-red light blooms, once, twice, followed by twin thunderclaps. We wait, straining to hear movement or the cries of wounded Demon-Blessed through concussion-deadened ears.

Silence.

The five Demon-Blessed lie twitching on the floor, their armor rendered useless, torn to shreds by the concussion grenades. I lift my battle-kurka and lop off the head of the nearest heretic. Behind me, I can hear the whir of Honoria's flail as she twirls it above her head and delivers a blow to another of the enemy.

After all the heretics are dispatched, we move down the corridor toward the airflow. Bits of the ruined spiders crush under our feet. They had served the Goddess well.

I can see the light coming in from the open shaft ahead and the noises of battle drift through muffled and obscure.

Honoria pulls out two concussion grenades and balances them precariously in her left hand ready to throw. Red grips the battle-kurka two handed and advances one foot before the other like a cat.

I pull out the phase-bow, the blessed weapon of the Goddess, and the battle-kurka, now as familiar as my own hand. With the adrenaline of battle and fear running through my veins, the two-handed battle-kurka feels strangely light and it's no problem to wield it one handed.

Honoria runs forward and throws the two grenades and at the sound of their explosion, we all leap out of the tunnels. Everything is a blur of armor and smoke as I hurtle out of the opening leaping over the heads of our crouching enemies. Honoria is already on her feet, firing her pistol, and attempting to pull out her flail. I fire the phase-bow at the nearest enemy and watch his chest armor explode in a shower of light. He falls backward into the hole.

Above us and to the right, I can hear the staccato tatting of the slug-thrower and the roaring of men and Demons. Red is swinging the battle-kurka and singing. Everything seems to be moving so slowly.

A giant in blood-drenched armor charges me, but I duck and roll, swinging the battle-kurka behind me and slashing into his torso. Their leader is before me -- the colossus I've seen from the tower many times.

Helmless, he laughs and says, "Well done, little sister," as he pulls his halberd from its sheath. I leap over him with a flip I've seen a Mantos Claig-Warrior execute with perfection. As I flip over his head, I swing the battle-kurka and feel the Goddess-Blessed weapon bite deeply into his Demonic flesh. I land on my feet with much less grace than the Mantos and hold the battle-kurka two handed.

The giant closes on me slowed only slightly by his now bleeding wounds.

I parry his blow and kick him in the chest, using the force to propel myself away.

He staggers a little then rushes onward, opening his mouth to reveal fangs and two mewling snakes' heads. He's stronger than anyone I've ever fought before.

I swing the battle-kurka over my head and down at his chest and shoulders. One of the whip-like snake heads strikes at me, too close for my comfort, and is lopped off. It twists wildly spraying acid across my helm. I hear the sizzling of dissolving metal as the drops eat into the helm, but they don't reach my skin. From the corner of my eye I see a small silver armored figure hurling from the tower.

Junia falls like a star to the ground. The slug-thrower is silent. Honoria is screaming and I hear her rapid firing with her phase-pistol. Red's voice rings out loud and clear, singing as she kills. I join her song. "Oh Goddess give us Grace in this hour. We are your sword. Please be our shield."

The giant charges again and I step to the side and swing backwards as he rushes past me. His shoulder is severed and a mass of green puss spews from the wound. My vision blurs and all goes white and milky. I turn reflexively and pretend to fall. When I can feel his shadow, I spring upward leading with my battle-kurka held two-handed. I feel it connect with a grind and rip it free from his body. I turn to meet the smoky figure charging me from behind and block with the full force of the battle-kurka. I hear the deadly stir of air as a weapon falls and lean to the right away from the blow. Battle-kurka raised, I step forward and swing, taking off my enemy's head. Red has stopped singing. "Great Lady be my strength in darkness or light," I sing, moving on to the next clouded form.

The ground trembles and I smile. This is the beginning. Either the aerial bombardment has begun and Magdala has succeeded or the Mantos have come for their artifact. It was easy enough to activate -- just the turn of a few modules and the pressing of a few runes. I've seen it done often enough before when I fought with the Mantos. Perhaps both are happening at once. It doesn't matter. Fire and the Goddess' Grace will save this planet one way or the other, and these Demons will all be destroyed.

In the past, my decisions had been made to save myself or to save my Sisters. I was a Daughter of Artemis with the sacred trust of command. I followed my heart and the Lady's will and that sometimes conflicted with the Rules of the Order and the Law of the City. My Faith was never touched -- not even when they condemned me. But as one of the Fallen I sometimes doubted my resolve. Maybe I had been wrong, too willful. Had I fallen from the Order alone or from the Goddess herself?

Faith is the only Light and Shield of Mankind. I've always known that was true, even if I myself had fallen from that Faith. But as I swing my battle-kurka and feel it connect with the flesh of another enemy, I know something more. There is forgiveness -- forgiveness from my Order, forgiveness for my sins, forgiveness from myself. I feel the Lady's grace fall on me and all turns to brightness. I continue my song in praise of the Goddess, dispatching my enemies with my battle-kurka, weapon of a fallen Sister. The ground trembles again and there is a low roar surrounding us. I close my eyes and continue my song. When the light comes, I step into it.

THE END


© 2012 Beverly Forehand

Bio: Beverly Forehand is a freelance writer, editor, and social & digital media marketer living in Nashville, TN. Her stories and articles have been published in Atriad Press' Haunted Encounters, Bewildering Stories, FATE, The Harrow, Fine Gardening, Quantum Muse, Muscadine Lines, Waxing Waning Moon, the Ghost Story Society, and other publications. She published a pet recipe book with Dawson Progressive and was a monthly columnist for Critter Exchange/All Creature’s Exchange, an animal advocacy newspaper, for many years. She is currently a featured writer for Barkley & Paws. Her hobbies include cultivating her medieval herb garden and begging her cats (unsuccessfully) to stay off the sofa.

Beverly Forehand

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