28 - “**************”

 

Caveat: This chapter is the original unedited version of Devil's Gambit and does not in every way reflect the text in the printed/Kindle edition.

 

Chapter 28

“**************”


 

Lincoln Pryce arranged black candles and spread various stinking and putrid substances in a large circle. Then he placed twelve amulets on the circle so that they were equidistant from one another. Malphas had left him detailed instructions before his abrupt departure.

Pryce was just finishing this last task when his demon lord reappeared in the midst of the circle with four boys. “David,” Pryce grinned with malice. This is a surprise!”

“You forget yourself, man,” Malphas said with a dispassion that reminded Pryce how close he was to a fate worse than death. “My prisoners remain under my protection until I say otherwise.”

“But master,” Lincoln began, “what harm is there in….”

“You should remember that your continued existence is at my pleasure,” Malphas growled.

“Should you wish to return to the pit, yes,” Lincoln nodded, revealing for the first time that he knew Malphas’s weakness. The magick that anchored the demon to this world was anchored in the man’s own soul. It was Pryce’s insurance policy, and it was high time he let it be known.

Malphas’s glowing yellow eyes narrowed intensely and he said, “You dare threaten me?”

“I’m just pointing out the obvious, my lord. You should in no way interpret my words as a threat. Think of them as … a reminder of our relationship,” Lincoln said, trying to control the fluttering in his stomach.

“Very well, wizard,” Malphas said, his eyes narrowing, though his voice remained very cold and calculated. “Now we know where we stand. But stay away from the boy. There are WORSE THINGS than death, my good man….”

Lincoln nodded and swallowed hard. “Yes, my lord….” Somehow knowing his life was safe was much less comforting given what the demon had just said to him.

***

Tom lay thinking quietly by Aiden as the minutes ticked away. “We can find them,” Tom whispered at last. “We can find them, and we might even recapture them. But what then? What’s the point? They’ll kill us all!”

“Only if you don’t defeat the Bearded Demon,” Aiden added with deep laughter.

“Don’t forget exorcising Malphas and his twelve best buddies before they get us,” Tom grimaced.

“But the alternative is to have immunity in hell on earth,” Aiden replied. “I’ll pass….”

Tom looked at him and said, “We could have more time together….”

“In a dying world,” Aiden countered. “We’ll be together again in another place.”

“You still believe that?” Tom asked.

“I try,” Aiden smiled, grasping his hand tightly. Then he whispered, “Find the boys, Tom.”

“I’ll do my best,” Tom sighed. “And how did your talk with young Dylan go?”

“Not how I expected,” Aiden admitted. “He’s a troubled man, carrying heavy burdens. If we survive this, maybe there’s something we could do for him.”

“What happened?” Tom asked.

“I shouldn’t say,” Aiden answered, shaking his head. “If we make it through this, maybe he’ll tell you himself.

“One more thing that has to be postponed until after Armageddon, then!” Tom said, sitting up straight. He got up and walked to his closet and dug around for a pair of blue jeans and a dark hoodie.

“Professor Thugtastic,” Aiden teased.

“I’m not wearing my good suit,” Tom glared. “If the world doesn’t end I’ll be needing it.”

“But if it does, you look so good in formal wear,” Aiden winked. “Be careful, babe,” he added more soberly.

“Always,” Tom lied with a smile. He’d risk too much to get the boys back, they both knew too well.

***

Alasdair returned to school much weakened and barely hobbled into the school. He found Avram watching the front entrance of the gym.

“Good Lord!” Avram said, slipping an arm around him. “What happened?”

“It took … a lot to get Tom back to us,” Alasdair sighed. “You and Judah should go back to him. He’ll need your help.”

“What’s going on?” Avram asked, still supporting his former rival.

“The boys…. Malphas got the boys,” Alasdair explained. “He told Tom he’d grant us all immunity and return them if we just leave town and let it all happen. It pushed Tom too far: it was a decision he couldn’t make. It took a while to get through to him.”

“So,” Avram began tentatively, “what did he decide?”

Alasdair looked at him with surprise. “You have to ask?”

“We’re going after them?” Avram asked rhetorically. “Can you handle things here on your own?”

“Of course,” Alasdair smiled. “At this point, there’s no reason for them to come here. No more distractions, no more diversions. The gauntlet is down….”

“Alright then,” Avram said, turning to go collect Judah. “Look after yourself. See you tomorrow.”

“God willing,” Alasdair called after him as the door closed.

***

The stars flickered in the night sky. The air was crisp, and the woods were unusually quiet. The frogs and crickets and countless other animals that would normally have turned the empty night into nature’s symphony had abandoned this place in the previous weeks. As such, Chief Pryce could hear every move the boys made as they rattled around their little prison, a locked stall in the barn fortified with razor wire.

Pryce made his way over and peeked between two boards. “Don’t you boys get up to any trouble! I’d hate to have to punish you,” he added with a laugh.

“If you’re not hurting us now, it’s because you can’t,” Peter spat back viciously. “You couldn’t help yourself otherwise!”

“Oh, you and Billy are far too old, and your brother is a bit bulky for my tastes,” Pryce admitted calmly, smiling, “but you’re right! Little Sebastien is too tasty a morsel to pass up. And one day soon I’ll taste his sweet flesh!”

David jumped to his feet and grabbed for the man through the little hole, nearly catching the cloth of his shirt. “The next time you touch him, you die,” the boy growled, stone cold.

“Good show, little man,” Pryce laughed. “You nearly got me that time. But rest assured, you’ll get to watch me teach your little boy before I put your eyes out!” David lunged impotently and wildly, shaking the walls and making Pryce laugh louder. Peter grabbed his brother and dragged him back.

“Does it make you feel powerful?” Billy asked, shocking them all. He was normally so quiet, but now, in this danger, he spoke with aggressive confidence. Seeing the look of confusion on Pryce’s face, he stepped forward and demanded, “Do you need to torture and terrify boys who can’t defend themselves just to feel a little like the man you know you’re not?”

“I’ve got all the power I need to destroy a worthless piece of shit like you to,” Pryce began, losing his temper. But Billy’s laugh stopped him. It infuriated him, but it also scared him. Billy’s smile was unafraid, his face was assured, and his chin was raised with pride. It was not what he liked to see on a boy.

“Without your magic you wouldn’t even dare to step into a room with someone like me, someone who knows what you are and how to throw a punch,” Billy said. Based on the curve of his chest and the bulge in his arms, anyone could see that punch would carry quite a lot of force.

Pryce’s face got red and his ears burned with shame. He looked like he would say, or do, something for a flash of a moment, but then he turned sharply and stormed off into the night. They heard him lean on the wall outside the barn near the door, to keep his watch far from the boy who had so intimidated him from within his cell.

“What are we going to do?” Sebastien whispered urgently, drawing as near to David as he could.

The big boy wrapped an arm around him and responded, “I don’t know.” Then he looked down into Sebastien’s eyes and said, “Trust me?” The slight boy nodded and hugged him tight. “Everybody huddle up in the middle of this stall then.” Confused, the boys did as David ordered and watched as he walked around them slowly, drawing a circle in the dirt floor.

“What are you doing?” Peter whispered.

“Shot in the dark,” David said, shushing his brother.

***

“What are we doing?” Avram asked as the coven stood around the big library, wizards scrying at a couple of tables. “We tried this before and it didn’t work!”

“Do we have any other options?” Tom asked. “Do you have any other ideas, because I’m all out!”

“No,” Avram said, shaking his head. “And on the off chance we do find,” he began, getting cut off by Dylan.

“I’ve got something,” the young wizard reported. “Something different.”

Tom walked over and peered over Dylan’s shoulder. “What is it?”

“A very, very soft pulsing of light energy in a vast field of nothing,” Dylan said.

“That could be anything,” Avram said. “Why is this interesting? We’re looking for a powerful evil….”

“No sir,” Dylan said. “All due respect, but my friends are looking for a powerful evil. I’m looking for the boys.”

“That’s useless,” Avram said. “First, the demon will be masking them, and second, none of the boys is exactly a beacon of supernatural energy either.”

“You’re wrong,” Dylan said with certainty. “This is David…. This is the same energy I felt when we were fighting, only different somehow.”

Tom walked to his desk and pulled out a crystal. Sitting down, he reached out his mind and focused his energy through the long slender amethyst point, extending it through the ether toward the location Dylan had identified. With a rush, he opened his third eye and saw, through a blur, the boys standing in a weak magical circle erected by David.

“What are you doing, David?” Tom whispered across the wind. In the library, the assembled witches and wizards watched the one-sided conversation begin, fascinated.

“Trying to talk to you,” David whispered.

“Who are you talking to?” Peter asked.

“Tom,” David said matter-of-factly. “Do you know where we are?” he asked the spiritual presence.

“Yes, and we’re on our way soon,” Tom assured him. “Is there anything you can tell me?”

“Only that there’s been some movement outside,” David said. “People are beginning to gather for something….”

“The summoning is about to begin,” Tom said. “Tell the other boys to get as close to each other as they can, and stick to the middle of the circle.”

“Why?” David asked.

“Just do it, please,” Tom ordered. When David did, he saw why, as a ring of brilliant white flame sprang up around them along the circle, casting unnatural blinding light into every corner of the barn. “I’m coming,” Tom said. “Don’t break the circle, no matter what!”

“Tom?” David called.

“Yes?” Tom asked.

“Hurry,” David pleaded.

“We will,” Tom assured and withdrew quickly.

Meanwhile the glow of the flames’ flickering had drawn attention to the barn. “What’s going on in there?” Pryce demanded as he returned angrily. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the ring of fire encircling the boys. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”

“Protection spell,” David said weakly.

The sneering chief raised his hand and loosed a stunning spell at the boy, which shimmered harmlessly in the fire and dissipated. “You can’t have done this,” Pryce snarled, drawing back to unleash a more powerful attack.

David laughed and said, “Don’t bother….” Then his smile faded and he said, “But what will your boss say when he finds out you left us alone and let me do this?”

Pryce scowled and closed the door to prevent any further attention being drawn to the boys and said, “It won’t matter. You boys are just pawns this time, not sacrifices.” Then he turned to go, but fixed them in a withering stare. “This isn’t over.”

When he was gone, Peter exhaled sharply and squeezed his little brother’s hand. “Wow,” he whispered, making David smile.

***

“It’s them,” Tom said as he came back to himself, startling the men encircling him. “It’s them…. And I know where they are.”

“But HOW?” Avram demanded. “It could be a trap.

“No,” Tom said, smiling and shaking his head. “It was David…. For all Misha’s foolishness, between what he taught David and what I taught him, the boy knew enough to cast a protection spell. That was the light, the energy, that the darkness couldn’t contain. As yet, we still have something of the element of surprise. And they’re racing the clock. They’ll let us have the boys before they let us interrupt the ceremony.”

“So we’re going to let this happen?” Judah asked.

“No, but first the boys. Then we distract them as best we can and try to get at least one player out of commission. That’s enough,” Tom insisted.

“True,” Judah nodded. “Any idea how we can get in there and get the boys out quietly?”

“I’d like to begin the distraction simultaneously with an extraction,” Tom said. “Avram, Judah, and I will go to the cult and demand the boys. In the meantime, Misha, Dietrich, Cho and the others can free the boys. Misha, you and your sister can return the boys here and protect them while the rest of you join the fight. Questions?”

“What about us?” Dylan asked, looking around at his young comrades. “What can we do?”

“Alasdair is out of commission and I don’t want him to try to involve himself, as weak as he is. I can’t be responsible for you guys and it’s just too dangerous out there. You fortify the house and protect the boys so that the twins can return to the fight.”

“Tom, we can hold our own. Don’t leave us out just because I,” Dylan protested.

“THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU!” Tom yelled. “It hasn’t been about you!” He took a moment to calm himself. “The fact of the matter is I need everyone doing what they’re doing. But I need only my best in the field. And I don’t really know you. But I know the twins and I am pretty sure they could kick your asses! After this is all over we can’t test that theory out and prove me wrong but right now we’re going into battle against the strongest demon that has been set loose on earth in about a thousand years so….”

“I think they get the point, Tom,” Avram said, halting his rant.

“Everyone ready and into position. We leave here in ten minutes,” Tom declared and left the room to go get a few things and talk to Aiden once more.

When Tom entered, Aiden’s parents retreated. Tom sat on the bed next to Aiden and said, “It’s time to go get the boys.”

“Be safe,” Aiden said with a sad look. “I wish I was going with you.”

“I’m glad you’re not,” Tom said honestly. “If we were going out to take down a gang, you’d be the first man I’d choose, but…. Aiden, I love you. It’s not fair that this is the way it’s been for us, but….”

Aiden put his hand on the back of Tom’s head and pulled him down into a kiss. “I love you too, Tom. Now go get the boys, and I’ll see you when you get back.”

Tom’s eyes watered but he nodded and squeezed Aiden’s hand before rising and walking to the door. Doreen hugged Tom silently as he passed them in the hall before hurrying to her son’s side.

Micky just held out a hand and shook Tom’s. “Doc, you’re a badass. Don’t get yourself killed out there. My son needs you.” Tom coughed and nodded.

“Alright everyone,” he called as he entered the living room, “you know the plan. Misha and Alexa have the boys once you’ve freed them: the rest of you – Cho, Dietrich, Shirit, Elise – you join us as soon as you can. Try to hit them from behind and do as much damage as you can. And remember, there are no bystanders out there. Everyone is fair game, and I suggest you aim to kill.”

There were some startled faces, but everyone nodded. Judah added, “Remember the evil these people have worked to bring into our world, the damage they’ve tried to do. They don’t deserve your sympathy.”

“Right,” Tom nodded, “let’s take as few cars as possible, except Misha and Alexa need their own…. Ready?”

Everyone nodded, and they all hurried outside and piled into cars. Soon their caravan was moving swiftly through town and into the country, as the evening darkness deepened.

***

“Master,” one of the cultists said, approaching the now fully robed Pryce, “why aren’t you at the fires? The ritual will begin soon.”

“I have an important task to see to,” Pryce answered sharply.

“Of course, master,” the cultist said, lowering his head. “It’s just … I’m surprised there is anything more important at this time than the ritual.”

“You aren’t here to think,” Pryce spat, “or to question the will of the one we serve! Now run along before I demonstrate why I am the master and you the mere acolyte!”

“Now, now,” Malphas’s sickeningly smooth words came from the darkness. “What kind of leadership is that? The boy has a question, Lincoln!”

A look of surprise and recognition passed over the acolyte’s face: he knew the master’s identity. Pryce was livid but remained silent. After tonight, it wouldn’t matter in the least. Or at least that’s what he hoped. Through a barely veiled snarl, Pryce said, “I’m guarding some hostages.”

“And how are our guests, Chief Pryce?” Malphas smiled, approaching the young cultist and grasping the young man’s shoulder with his long, delicate fingers.

“Haven’t heard a peep out of them,” Pryce lied.

“How do you even know they’re still in there?” Malphas demanded. “The door is closed!”

“Surely you’d know if they were gone,” Pryce observed, “given your infinite wisdom?”

Malphas raised an eyebrow and gazed long at Pryce, whose insolence was again showing. “Very well,” Malphas said, closing his eyes and projecting his demonic intellect through the walls of the barn. Then his eyes opened in a rage and with a blast of angry fire he blew the door off the barn. With an invisible hand he dragged Pryce into the barn behind him. “WHAT HAPPENED HERE?” Malphas demanded.

“I,” Pryce began. “I turned my back and….”

“I CAN SEE!” Malphas roared.

“More like stormed outside after Billy insulted your manhood,” Peter snorted from behind the powerful circle. Malphas’s attention snapped back to Pryce, fury in his eyes.

“You can’t kill me,” Pryce shouted as Malphas raised his hand.

Malphas closed his hand in a fist and the invisible energy tightened around Pryce’s whole body. “I may not be able to kill you,” Malphas snarled, “but I am most certainly able to keep you alive and torture you mercilessly! You petty, insignificant fool of a mortal! You really let your ego get in the way of a summoning aeons in the making?”

Pryce grunted and groaned, but Malphas barked, “Don’t speak! Don’t try to speak!” Then the demon turned his penetrating gaze to the boys, and though he was barely able to see through the pure fires protecting them, he caught a whiff of something there. “Tell me, Peter: how much do you think this man deserves to suffer?”

Peter’s breath caught in his throat as the other boys looked to him. “No one should suffer.”

“Are you a politician, boy?” Malphas laughed heartily. “I can feel your heart, Peter: I can feel the desire that rustles in the deep of your soul. It’s a desire for vengeance that runs to a dark place.”

“I’ll never say what you want me to say,” Peter avoided, averting his eyes.

“Very well,” Malphas said, releasing his grip. “Lincoln, this is your lucky day, it seems….”

“No!” Billy shouted. “No! Make it a hundred times worse than he did to Peter and David, and make it last!”

Malphas smiled as Pryce began to scream, his body pressed against the boards of the wall as unseen torments began to be inflicted upon him. David covered Sebastien’s eyes with his chest, but Peter watched for a while, nodding his thanks to Billy.

“Ahh,” Malphas sighed happily. Then he looked at the boys again and said, “It’s so hard to find good help these days! I’ve been waiting to do this for ages!” Then the demon pointed to the ground next to him and a figure appeared, then another and another. The three spirit sentinels surrounded the circle with a hungry look. “Don’t try to escape, my boys…. These homunculi have a taste for sweet flesh.” Then he swept out of the barn with a flourish.

The angry humanoid forms snarled and drooled as they circled the boys and kept watch over them. The young cultist, all but forgotten, quietly slipped away, not to the ritual but to his car. No one would soon miss him.

Malphas appeared in the clearing where the cultists had gathered and begun to build the fire, which flashed at the demon prince’s arrival. “My acolytes, the hour of the ascension of my master is at hand. It is time to summon the thirteen from their temporary abodes. Are the circles prepared?”

“Yes, my lord,” a female cultist answered.

Malphas raised his arms and an angry cloud began to form above them. “Then let the ceremony commence!” Each circle was surrounded by three cultists, who made sure the sacrifice did not escape. One last bloodletting would release each demon from its resting place into a circle, and the thirteenth would close a circle of circles.

At the first circle, the three well-practiced cultists began to make their sacrifice. They couldn’t take their time to enjoy every moment of it, but that didn’t mean that the defilement wasn’t as complete. After about fifteen minutes, Malphas raised his hands and said, “I summon and bind you, my lowly brother Sendor, of the realm of lust. Come and rest among us, and join my dark coven this night!” In a flash, a bent and crooked figure appeared within the circle and began to lap up the blood, semen and excrement that littered the circle. One of the cultists didn’t escape his reach, and the young woman’s screams made exquisite music for Malphas, as the second circle began their sacrifice, having learned an important lesson about speed and watchfulness.

***

Tom pulled off the road and turned off the lights, and his little caravan followed suit. With all the cars at a stop, Tom got out and motioned for everyone to get close.

“According to the map, the driveway to the farm is about a half-mile down the road. The house sits about a tenth of a mile from the road, and the barn is a few hundred yards to the left of that. So those of you who are going after the boys, creep through the woods across the street from the farm, past the driveway and then approach the barn via the woods from the other side. If you meet resistance, neutralize it as quietly and stealthily as possible. Questions?” Tom asked.

The group charged with freeing the boys shook their heads no, and Misha answered, “Tom, I’m not leaving here without them.”

“I know, Misha,” Tom said with a nod. “See you on the other side, friends,” he added as the tall Russian took the lead. Dietrich looked over his shoulder as he took up the rear flank of the group and fixed Tom with a knowing gaze. Tom nodded once and Dietrich’s full attention shifted to the wilderness surrounding him.

“Alright,” Tom added, looking to Roy, “are you ready for this?” he asked the man carrying a big duffel bag.

“I’m in it ‘til the end,” Roy shrugged. “What else I got going on if you guys blow it?”

“You know what to do, then, Roy,” Tom nodded, and the man jogged with unbelievable stealth into the woods on the farm side of the road.

“What’s he doing?” Avram asked.

“No matter,” Tom said. “Let’s worry about our part.”

“And what’s that?” Avram asked.

“We’re going to wait for a few minutes,” Tom answered, “and then we’re going to walk up the middle of this road and up the driveway….”

“Hell,” Avram exclaimed. “Couldn’t be a bit more subtle with our distraction?”

“That would defeat the point, wouldn’t it?” Judah asked with some irony.

“I’d hoped we’d sneak up on them and then unleash a show of force,” Avram said.

“I had in mind something along those lines,” Tom nodded, and began walking up the road. “Are you coming?”

Avram and Judah quickly caught up with him, and Avram insisted, “Don’t keep us in the dark, Tom!”

“Alright,” Tom said, walking at a more leisurely pace. “I pulled up a satellite image of the farm on the internet. Just behind the house is a huge propane tank. My plan is to take out the first sentinels we come to, working our way toward the clearing where the ritual is likely occurring. Malphas will ignore us and send his flunkies to slow us down. But when we’re close enough, I’m going to blow that tank up. That should get his attention….”

“That is a show of force,” Avram said. “Alright, it’s your call.”

“You still prefer the more subtle approach though,” Tom smiled.

“Of course I do,” Avram said. “But it may be that the time for subtle has passed.”

“My sentiments exactly,” Tom said with a grim smile.

***

Malphas watched the tree-line warily. So far, the summoning had gone without a hitch. Four of his demonic coven had arrived, and the fifth would soon be present. Could it be that Tom had actually taken him up on his offer? He grunted softly and shook his head. No, that was not possible. Somewhere out there was an enemy he couldn’t predict, who could at this late hour still pose more problems than he would like.

“Where are you, Corman?” he asked himself out loud. None dared stand close enough to hear him. His attempts to locate the man and his people were frustrated by some invisible force, so Malphas checked in quickly with his sentinels. All quiet. It did not comfort him.

Nevertheless, he raised his hands to complete the fifth summoning, and at that moment the first sign of trouble reached him: he lost contact with one of the homunculi in the barn. But there was nothing he could do at the moment. “I summon and bind you, my lowly brother Nestor, of the realm of covetousness. Come and rest among us, and join my dark coven this night!”

As soon as the sixth ritual began, Malphas reached out to his sentinels around the house, instructing them to assault the barn. The being whose eyes he was looking through as it approached the door, however, rejected him as the deadly spell struck it in the back.

Opening his own eyes, Malphas snarled. “Now it has truly begun,” he whispered with anger.

***

“I’ve got this one,” Misha yelled to his sister. “Go help Shirit and Elise!” Misha had cornered the snarling humanoid and was working on a spell to sever its link to its master, but Shirit and Elise had the last of the wild creatures trapped between them. Like a cornered animal, it was lashing out wildly and both of them were in serious danger. “Don’t even think about it,” Misha added with a glance at David, who looked like he was about to break his circle to try to help.

No sooner than Dietrich returned from dispatching the creature he had lured outside, three more of the creatures rose from the ground. One was just behind Misha, and Dietrich quickly knocked it to the ground. “CHO!” he yelled at the same time. “To your left!”

The third one rushed Elise from behind before Alexa could get to her and sunk its deadly teeth deep into the woman’s fine shoulder. In a rage, Shirit dispatched the creature between her and Elise, as Alexa tried to tear the creature off its victim.

Misha joined his sister and soon they had dispatched yet another of the monsters. But Elise was badly injured and was bleeding profusely from her shoulder. Misha said, “Dietrich, see to Elise. Alexa, prepare the boys to move. Now…. He’ll wear us down if we stay here!” Cho finally dispatched his foe as well, and he helped Dietrich lift Elise as they prepared an emergency evacuation. More monsters would have quickly followed, but for the shock wave that knocked them all off their feet. The sound was ferocious.

Misha knew, as soon as he could think, that Tom now had Malphas’s exclusive attention. “Come on! We have to move now before it’s too late!”

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