CHAPTER 44: THE LAST STAND
They didn’t speak.
Marie simply stared out at the passing city. Isabella rested her head on her shoulder and closed her eyes.
Cole was still exhausted, the battle had taken everything out of him. And the thought that it was not yet over made him feel like his insides were rotting. He thought about how many people he had killed today. For the first time in his life, he was sick of it all.
Only Joriel seemed upbeat.
“Don’t be too downcast.” he told them “There is always hope, always. I am proof of that.”
The girls didn’t answer, but Cole had a thought.
“How’d you get in that cage in the first place?” Cole asked.
“Mabus and I have been enemies for a very long time.” said Joriel.
“Why’s that?” Cole asked.
“Many reasons. But I guess you could say it started when he stole my wife.”
Cole looked at him.
“Angels have wives?”
“Some of us. Yes. Other do not.” said Joriel, a little irritably “We’re like people that way.”
“What are you thinking about?” Isabella asked.
“Virgil.” said Marie.
“He was the one who told me we were trapped in there.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. He was real, he wasn’t one of Mabus’ fakes. He was really there and he’s the reason we were able to get out.”
“So where is he now?”
“That’s what I’ wondering. I was expecting him to be here when we woke up.”
“You don’t think he’s…”
“I mean, you know…”
“I don’t know.”
The strum of the helicopter’s blades had faded into the background a long time ago, so when the shrill alarm sounded it took them all by surprise.
“What’s that?” Marie said, starting.
“This light started flashing.” said Joriel “A moment please.”
He crushed the insolent light with his thumb and it cracked like a sparrow egg, a thin trail of smoke curling upward. But the alarm still shrieked.
“We’re out of gas.” said Cole “Find a place to set us down.”
Joriel grunted assent, and the helicopter began to lose altitude a little faster than either Isabella or Marie were comfortable with.
“Damn. Damn, damn, damn.” Cole muttered.
“What?” Marie asked.
“You see that over there?” Cole pointed. In the distance they could just make out a large grey mass behind them, creeping inexorably like algae.
“Must be nearly a thousand in that mob. And they’re headed right for the chamber.”
“But we can beat them to it, right?” said Isabella.
The chopper touched down with a vicious jolt.
“Run.” said Cole.
Thomas was back on top of the world.
His bruises, to his body and his pride, were already forgotten.
His knife was in his hand, and to his back an army of a thousand men were chanting his name.
Ave Tomas! Ave Tomas!
They shook the stone sky with their voice.
The earth trembled at their step.
This time, Marie, he thought, this time I will keep my promise to your father.
“Halt! Who goes there?!”
“I’m wearing a giant scorpion suit that is golden. Do you still want to ask me that question or do you want to go back to just looking stupid?”
“Sir? We thought you were dead!”
The courtyard of the chamber had been turned into a makeshift barricade. A ragged dozen or so Red Scorpions could be seen manning lookout points. Please tell me this isn’t it, Cole prayed. Please tell me we have more than this.
“Sir, what are our orders?”
The Red who had challenged him had only half a helmet, the rest had been broken away, and judging by the bloody mess beneath he’d been wearing it at the time.
“First thing we need is to get those doors open, we need to get these girls inside.”
“Not going to happen, sir.” said the Red, gesturing to the massive black steel doors that led into the chamber. “It’s been sealed up tight, we can’t get through to anyone inside.”
“If I may?” Joriel growled, and began to change.
“Hold your fire, hold your fire!” Cole yelled as the Reds reached for their guns.
Ignoring them, the huge lion, braced himself against the door, testing it. He took a step back, pulled back his fist and gave the door such a blow that Marie felt the earth shake.
Unfortunately, the door did not so much as buckle.
Joriel gave a roar so loud that those nearest to him were knocked off their feet.
“You okay, big guy?” Cole asked.
“That was quite painful.” Joriel sniffed.
“It’s New Matter.” said Cole, “Even you can’t bust through it.”
“Are you alright?” Marie asked.
“I’ll be fine, I just…” Joriel stopped, his ears twitching.
“What is is?”
The helicopter screeched overhead and with a blast of machine gun fire it tore through the courtyard. And then another, and another.
“Take cover!” Cole roared.
Isabella and Marie ran, bullets tearing up their footprints.
“Bella! Take my hand!” Marie screamed.
Isabella gripped onto her and the bullets became languid, yellow-hot raindrops in the slowtime envelope.
And above their heads the pilot blinked in shock as the two little girls became black-red blurs that vanished before his eyes.
“Joriel!” Cole shouted “Now!”
“I love these things.” Joriel growled, and leapt.
He landed on the first chopper, snipped the tail from the cockpit with a single bite.
He sprang and landed head down on the wall of the chamber, digging in with his claws and watched as the crippled chopper crashed into the chamber a hundred feet below him and exploded.
The second honed into view. He sprang like a flea, landing on the cockpit and waited there, watching the terrified occupants as they tried desperately to regain control. The chopper spun in mid-air and the third one hovered above it like a kestrel.
That’s it, thought Joriel, get me in your sights.
The third helicopter opened fire, and Joriel had to give them credit.
A split second earlier and they might actually have hit him. The second helicopter went down in the gunfire and Joriel was already in the air leaping towards number three.
He landed on the third chopper, he raised his paw, claws extended.
One of the figures behind the glass pulled something from his waist and aimed it at Joriel.
The angel had just enough time to see the glint of the Colt Single Action Army.
The glass exploded with a single shot and Joriel felt a searing pain.
Ezekiel Holtz watched him fall from the helicopter to the ground hundreds of feet below.
“Hm.” he said “I thought they always landed on their feet.”
As it happened, Joriel did in fact manage to land on his feet.
A mere ten feet of the ground he managed to swing his legs under him and collided with the earth.
A ton of dust was thrown into the air. Slowly, groggily, growling like an avalanche, Joriel staggered to his feet.
It was times like this that he really, really missed his wings.
And as the dust cleared, he saw himself facing them.
There were hundreds of them. Too many even for him.
And he spoke to them.
“Men of Gomorrah. Hello. I am Joriel-Dagan-el-Yoli.” he told them “And I tell you this. Even in this place, you cannot escape the justice of Heaven for your sins. Let him come forward, who would seek judgement for the things that he has done.”
And they came at him, a great tide of limbs and blades, a stink of sweat and filthy clothes, a great chant of “Ave Tomas!”
And he tore into them, swearing that before he died, they would learn to fear Heaven.
“Here they come!” Cole roared.
His voice was hoarse. His arms heavy.
Thomas’s army seemed to stretch off forever, an endless sea of hatred. It was like the man was a disease, able to infect others with his raging madness.
Marie gripped her sword tightly with one hand, and Isabella’s hand with the other. We can get through this, she thought. Mariana could have. Mariana could have held off this whole army.
But I’m not Mariana.
Thomas was at their head, running for the gates of the courtyard of the chamber, dodging gunfire from the Red Scorpions. He was charging right for them.
We’re too young. This isn’t right.
Isabella’s hand gripped hers so hard it was turning snow white.
So many things we never did. So many years we should have had.
The last few seconds were slipping away. It was always the way. Even for someone like her, someone who could bend the passing moments, shift it and shape it to her will, in the end, in the very end there was never enough time.
Still, a good life, if terribly short. She had been loved. No one could ask for more.
And she kissed Isabella on the forehead, and braced herself for the last seconds of her life. Seconds that would pass slowly and bloodily, like red drops falling on snow, tap, tap, tap.
And filled with white intensity, sour and burning.
Or so she thought.
What happened was much worse.
Thomas was ahead of the charge, running low to dodge the gunfire. He ducked, rolled, leaped like a panther at Marie, only to be knocked out of the air by the Scorpion. But Thomas gripped Cole’s arm even as he was knocked back and held it, every ounce of wiry strength in his body acting as weight on Cole’s right arm, hobbling him. Cole could knock Thomas away with his left arm. Or he could use that left arm to fend off the rest of the army. He could not, however, do both. A Goth in bear skins swung his club and Cole was knocked to his knees.
Thomas aimed a vicious kick to Cole’s head and he was on his hands. The Goth raised the club again and brought it down on his skull. The helmet cracked and one of the lenses shattered. And Marie saw Cole’s eye, quivering in pain and terror.
And something went off in her.
The warriors pulled back screaming as a screeching red/silver thing, a storm of sharp edges, a razor twister, sprang up around the fallen Scorpion and suddenly Marie was standing over him, the sword was raised and her eyes were burning emeralds.
“Leave him alone!” she screamed “I won’t let you hurt him! You won’t hurt anyone else! I will stop you! Do you understand me, Thomas?! I don’t care how many times you come for us, I will be there! And I will stop you! You all think he’s so terrifying?” she said, addressing the warriors “You think you should be afraid of him? He has spent years trying to kill me. And he’s failed. Every single time he’s failed. He’s not terrifying. He’s pathetic. And the only, the only, reason he’s still alive is because I let him live. I am Marie Dashonde, the Hangman’s Daughter. I am thirteen years old. And I am the one you should be afraid of. The next one to take a step towards us finds out why.”
No one made a move.
Thomas turned to look at them.
“Oh, you’ve got to be joking. Really? The tough little girl with the tough little girl speech is all it takes? Well, good luck invading hell, gentleman, I’m sure you’ll do fine. You.” he said to Marie.
“What?” she said.
“Before I was just going to kill you.” he said, advancing on her “Now you get to be a warning.”
“Marie…” Cole gasped “Run…”
“Marie…he’ll kill you…you can’t stop him…”
“I’m not running. Not from him.”
“Marie. It won’t bring your father back. It won’t do anything. It won’t mean a thing.”
“Cole.” said Marie quietly “That’s not why I’m doing this.”
Thomas was over her, the knife raised high. It seemed like he had always been there.
She knew the grip by this stage, the curve of the knife turned inward, the index finger folded over the tip of the thumb, those terrible eyes, at once dead and manic.
“I’m doing this because there’s nowhere left to run.” she whispered.
And behind her, the black gates swung open.
Thomas saw him first. Standing seven foot tall in the doorway, age grown all over him like ivy. It was difficult to see the original man. He was wrinkles, baldness, blemishes and decay. He was rot.
Circling high over their heads, in the cockpit of the helicopter, Ezekiel Holtz took off his dark glasses and squinted.
“Ah no…” he muttered “Come on.”
But there was no room for doubt. Mabus stood before them.
And Thomas realised that his last chance to kill Marie had already slipped through his fingers.
He tried anyway.
Mabus had shifted to his side and tapped him lightly with the back of his hand. Thomas went flying into the stone wall as if he’d been hit by a wrecking ball and crumbled to ground and lay still.
There was silence. Weapons dropped from limp hands and clattered to the ground. No one dared breathe.
And then, finally, someone shouted nervously “Ave Mabus!”
A few seconds passed as they digested this.
And suddenly they were all doing it, every man shouting the words, screaming them, trying desperatly to be the loudest, trying to show his loyalty, trying to prove that, whatever about these other traitors, he had always been faithful.
Louder and louder the chanting;
“Ave Mabus! Ave Mabus! Ave Mabus!”
Mabus raised his arms and closed his eyes, as if basking in their adulation, and this seeming abolution only spurred them on to chant still louder.
“Ave Mabus! Ave Mabus! Ave Mabus!”
Over their heads, Holtz turned to the pilot. “Get us out of here. Now. Or I shoot you in the head and you will never know just how big a kindness that was.”
On the ground, Mabus gave a little smile and opened his eyes.
His pupils were tiny pits of blackness in a sea of milky blue, his irises and his whites long since having run into each like paint. He turned his palms to face them.
Before they realised what was happening, the row nearest to him was already dead. The began to scream, as beards sprouted from their faces as if being vomited by their skin. They snarled around their chests and shoulder and shot through grey and then fell to the ground. They tried to scream at the pain of decades being piled onto their bodies but could only manage creaking groans. They tried to run, but the muscles had rotted from their legs. They tried to move, but they were now just piles of bones, decaying on the ground. And even then, Mabus did not stop. He did not stop until every last warrior who had followed Thomas to the chamber had been aged to dust.
He walked through the dust and when he found a tooth or a piece of bone he would speed time around it until it had decayed to nothing. He then spat as a final mark of disgust, and turned and walked back towards the courtyard, kicking their ash from his sandels.
“You there.” he said to one of the surviving Red Scorpions, pointing to Thomas “Lock him up. I’ll deal with him later.”
Mabus turned to look at them; Cole battered and bloodied and barely able to raise his head, Isabella and Marie pale and terrified.
“Well, look at you all.” he said “If you ask me, I think we could all do with a nice cup of tea.”