He put his hand on Stay's shoulder and guided her behind him. "Go back inside and close the door."
"But..." Her voice was quiet and worried. "But what if something happens to you?"
Matt looked at the dozens of people in front of him, all of them staring holes through him as tensions rose. "Then hide. And run as fast as you can if you're found."
She did as he asked; he appreciated her for it. She walked back into the Order chapterhouse, closed the door, and even thought to lock it. Good girl. That would give her a few extra seconds if this went south.
And the way things were looking, the situation already cruising through Mexico at Mach Four...
Matt smiled and held up one hand. "Hi there. This a bad time?" He was talking to thirty some-odd people, men and women, all standing around a dozen different cars parked haphazardly in the house's spacious front yard. It seemed like they were roughly broken up into four groups with a few clearly here by themselves. Until Matt and Stay had stepped outside, they'd been out front arguing among themselves.
Now they were all silent, focused on Matthew and the four heavy duffel bags full of gear he'd just looted from the Order of St. Michael Archangel chapterhouse. From what little he'd overheard as he stepped out of the building, they were here to do what he'd already done - loot the place. Unfortunately for them, he'd gotten here first.
Of course, given how many of them were standing in front of him, not one of them looking particularly happy, perhaps this was unfortunate for him.
One of the three people standing around a Lincoln Town Car narrowed her eyes at Matt and curled her lips into a thin smile. "It is a fine time... for you to drop your things and get out of here. This building and all its contents is now under the domain of the Gardener..."
She was cut off by a shout from a group of angry looking older teens and young adults. They were crouched or leaning against a pair of sports cars, sunglasses reflecting glaringly back at everyone. "The hell it is! You're just here to pick over the bones like we are!" The one speaking was wearing black cargo pants and a fishnet shirt over his pale, thin chest.
"You are all heathens and grave robbers. Only we have a right to that house and to the one who defiled it!" This came from a broad shouldered man in a fine suit as expensive as the one on his bodyguard. This pair were standing beside a steel gray Lexus, its windows dark and opaque. The crucifix on the luxury car's front license plate instantly rubbed Matt the wrong way.
As soon as the suited man spoke, the entire group devolved again into bickering. Power flared along several hands, magic rising to a fever pitch. Matt could tell that energies were about to be unleashed and from the way the others reeled back and took up defensive stances, so could they. Some looked eager to fight; others were seeking cover or reaching for cell phones. One way or another, this was about to get ugly.
Matt was as surprised he'd spoken as the gathering seemed to be. The last thing he wanted to do right now was get involved in a redneck magi turf war... but he also knew there would be no getting out of here if things turned violent. He couldn't risk Stay's safety, nor did he particularly want to get spell-perforated himself.
"Look, people. There's a ton of shit in there. You could all grab shopping carts and come out with a nice Abracadabra grab bag or two. Do we really need to fight about this?"
His words appeared to reach a few people, but the man in the suit refused to be swayed. He looked at Matt, sneered, and spat, "Pretty words, hellspawn. But we won't fall for your tricks. Why do you want us to go in there?"
Matt blinked, as confused as he probably looked. "What?"
"I can smell your fiend-stench from here, devil thrall. What kind of trap have you set for us?" Even the people who looked disgusted with the holy wizard suddenly turned suspicious. Paranoia was rampant with everyone here and Matt had just become an easy target.
"Damn it! I am just trying to get us all out of here intact. There isn't any trap!"
The priest mage snorted. "Really? Let's just test that, shall we?"
Matt nodded. "Go for it, asshole."
The man took a pen out of his suit pocket and threw it hard across the yard into the hole Matt's motorcycle had made in the building's front wall. It sailed over the grass and past the ragged bricks without incident but as soon as it entered the house itself, there was a crackle of raw power and a loud clap of thunder. The pen shattered instantly, torn apart by magical energy.
"Fuck," Matt said, smacking his face into his hand. Somehow, during the time he'd been inside, the house's defenses had obviously come back up. "Look, I can explain..." he started to say...
...and was driven back against the front door by a blast of holy light! The priest and his guard were both pointing right at him, their hands wreathed in divine radiance.
Before Matt could regain his footing or catch his breath, the others were on the move. The only thing they apparently wanted more than the treasures inside the chapterhouse was a common enemy. Sadly, the holy roller had ensured they saw Matt as that target. He slumped to one knee, silently thanking his warded coat for shrugging off the blow that should have caved in his ribcage. "D... don't. Don't do th..this."
His voice was shaky and, because of the sucker punch, inaudible. A dozen people were running straight at him, pulling weapons as they advanced. He groaned and rose to his feet. No more time for talk.
There was too much incoming. Three people were shooting, two were hurling bolts of fire and one was lifting shrapnel up out of the yard and sending it all arrow-quick at him. Immediately on the defensive, it was all Matt could do to throw up a barrier between himself and approaching pain. A wall of raw entropy answered his call, shimmering darkly into existence around him.
Bullets rusted, fire burned out and erosion turned the debris into inert ashes. That bought him a few seconds, long enough for him to move the battle away from the front door. A stray shot could pierce the door or wall, possibly hitting Stay.
A familiar word sent energy to his legs, giving him a massive leap up off the porch and over the assembled mass. In midair, he pulled his pistols and lined up a pair of shots. Taking down a mage or two wouldn't be fast enough and he really didn't want anyone killed if he could help it. Most of these fucks were just greedy, not evil. He needed area effect. He needed to disperse the groups and stop their focused ability to fight.
He needed a couple of explosions.
His bullets crossed down through the air and slammed into a pair of car hoods. A beat-up Impala and an expensive Lexus were perforated as his shots drove holes into their engine blocks. Normally, this would not have been enough to ignite anything but Matt laced both rounds with destructive magic. The spell, a particularly wicked one he'd been working on since finding it in a Dark Order spellbook, made the worst possible outcome into the most likely one.
From the way both vehicles erupted into metal and flames, he'd gotten it right. As he flipped and landed in a combat crouch, the twin blasts behind him did a fine job of forcing the gathered crowd to disperse. Ballistically.
Now others were flying through the air, though not with quite the same grace or control. Yes, the explosions were probably going to kill a few people, but that couldn't be avoided. Sometimes, to make an omelet, you had to break a few assholes.
The magi strong or lucky enough to weather the firestorm turned and attacked. Three spells were incoming. One,. a discharge of lightning, ground out on a chunk of car Matt pulled up off the ground with telekinesis. That same piece of automotive steel reflected another beam of holy light.
Matt had just enough time to realize that meant the priest wizard was still standing before the third spell slammed home. A mental effect, he was less prepared to defend against something like this. Sheer confusion tried to short out his ability to function. He staggered and nearly fell, vertigo blazing along his every nerve. "Damn it," he hissed. "Got to focus!" He slammed one fist into his leg, the hard impact of his gun butt bringing him back to cognizance.
The priest, over confident, had stepped out of the flaming debris to press his advantage. Matt grinned to himself, snapping up with both guns, and caught him flat footed in his sights. "Say Hi to God for me."
Before he could fire, a booted foot smashed into his arm, ruining his aim and making both shots go wide. One bullet drove into the ground impotently while the other took a Hot Topic-clad punk with an ankh earring straight through the head. A fine red splatter marked where he dropped, a goth marionette with its strings violently cut.
"Hellspawn!" The roar came from beside him, but Matt was already vaulting away. His arm was throbbing, probably broken, but he couldn't worry about that right now. He snapped his head up just in time to see the priest's bodyguard bearing down on him. The huge man was wearing a pair of fingerless gloves and holding punching daggers with cross cut-outs through the blades. He'd have admired their workmanship if the bastard wasn't trying to introduce them to his skull.
He dodged left and got a kick in the chest for his trouble. He ducked to avoid the next swing and was backhanded to the ground. Rolling out of the way, he felt a sting of screaming pain as the bodyguard stepped on his hurt arm. "Return now to Hell, spawn of darkness."
If there was one thing he was grateful for where religious types were concerned, it was that they stopped to preach before doing anything. The few seconds of sililloquy was enough time for Matt to work a mental spell of his own and hurl it full force at the big man's mind.
Matt had been hurt so often in the last few months that he'd started to wonder if there was something he could do with all that pain. A captured St. Michael laptop provided his answer; a Sensate Gate. Since learning about this technique for storing away dark emotions and agony, he'd been quietly socking away every hurt and ill he'd suffered. Now, he reached out and touched someone... with four months of utter torture compressed into a single heartbeat.
Matt called it a Mindscourge. The man, his eyes rolling back as he rasped for air before falling down, obviously didn't have any kind name for it at all. He gurgled once, convulsed and collapsed. For the look of him, the spell had forced a massive coronary.
He couldn't help himself. "Glad we had this little heart-to-heart," he told the cooling corpse as he leaped to his feet. There was at least one more mage to deal with and he probably wouldn't do a good job of that on his back. A quick scan of his surrounds brought bad news. There wasn't just one opponent to worry about.
There were eight.
Four of them were a little burned and seemed downright upset. One was, as he'd figured, the priest. The other three were the Lincoln Town Car crew. Normally, they were probably all enemies but tonight, there was a common foe - him.
"Fan... fucking...tastic." He quickly spotted a wide tree trunk he could use for cover and ran for it. His earlier spell was still energizing his legs; this made the dash inhumanly fast and caused the mass incoming fire to miss cleanly. Fire, frost, and bullets all missed, tearing up the Order's finely manicured lawn. Crouching behind the tree, he heard a wave of attacks burrow into its gnarled form. The old oak wouldn't last long under that kind of withering assault.
He considered climbing into the tree's upper branches for a surprise strike but his broken arm vetoed the idea immediately. He couldn't jump the distance; too many lower branches would get in the way and getting tangled meant certain death right now. He needed to think of something clever. Now.
But he was out of time. There was a blur to either side of him and the eight were on him. Each one moving at lightning speed, it was all Matt could do to keep up with them visually. He would need to match their alacrity if he was going to survive but the only spell he had for that took a second to cast. He needed space.
A primal scream did the trick. He released his hold on the entropy inside him, bellowing in a roar of destructive sound that splintered wood, shattered ear drums, and broke glass for a hundred feet all around. The force of the wail sent everyone hurtling backwards. While they were picking themselves up, he was working the Herculean Rhyme.
The priest, not surprisingly, was the first to his feet. Eyes glowing with holy light, he blinked away tears of blood and tried to focus through the pain of the scream reverberating through his skull. Hammering Matt with a counter charm, he was joined in his efforts by the woman magi from the Lincoln group. Both of them pushed their power against Matt's, trying to stop his spell with all the power they could throw at him.
To everyone's surprise, including Matt's own, it wasn't enough. The Rhyme completed and potency flooded through his every muscle. His vision took on a dim, red haze and all he could hear was the sound of his own heartbeat thundering in his chest. The force of their failed negation magic slammed both the priest and the women hard, sending them both to the ground.
Matt hoped against hope that they wouldn't get up again.
Then he was moving, leaping on top of the closest one before the man could get up. Matt's punch drove his gun through the mage's chest, tearing a ragged hole and sending crimson in a gout across the grass. Without pulling his arm free, Matthew turned and brought both his pistols level with the next one to stand.
Surprise was all that the target got to register before six bullets tore his upper body asunder. A detonation of blood covered those near him, a second shock to ass to the deafness from which they were all still reeling. Two found the wherewithal to attack, their own guns firing through the space Matt had been. He was now moving faster than they could, his body a few feet past where they perceived him to be.
The woman worked a quick spell and touched the tree for support. Its natural energies powered her magic, sending a wave of enchantment over the clearing. Gardenarian spellcasting at its finest, Matt noted, as his guns were repelled by the force of Gaea. He let go of them rather than be hurled back with them; they landed nearly a hundred feet away on the lawn. She wanted to play without firearms? He could do that too.
The spell had apparently disarmed everyone; there was no significant metal left to any of them. Two mages stood up, fire in their eyes and on their lips. A cooperative spell. From their matching pentagram amulets and the simultaneous casting, they were obviously coven mates. That was fine with matt; they could share the same coffin too.
He ran past them, eyes focused on the bitch with the nature magic. His right arm extended as he went by the two wizards, Matt didn't even finish calling forth his sword until he was right in the woman's face. Its damage was done, however, since its magical presence occurred before its physical manifestation could take place. A second after he stopped in front of the Gardenarian priestess, the two men trembled, spat blood, and fell over.
Externally, they were perfectly healthy. Inside, their organs were all cleaved completely in half. They were dead before they hit the ground.
"What... what are you?" Her words were thick with fear but her reflexes were still focused. She threw up a shield that forced him back a few feet as she reached for a wand of yew wood in her belt. He tracked the gesture and saw the wand. Instantly, he felt it was a dire threat and every instinct screamed for him to evade.
He didn't argue. Diving aside, he narrowly avoided a wave of invisible energy. Something karmic, he assumed, given the type of wand. There was a lot of blood on his hands, figuratively and literally, right now; a karmic strike could be devastating. He needed either cover or another target and he needed it quickly.
Another mage provided both. Matt tumbled forward, grabbed the man by his button-up dress shirt, and lifted him off the ground. The man's hands shook in sudden fear, dropping the glass athame he'd been holding. Seeing it fall, Matt thought quickly and lashed out at it with his foot.
The crystalline blade shattered instantly, sending shards of glass spraying towards the woman. She hissed a druid's curse and lifted her hand to shield her face as the tide of clear razors hit her full force. There was a cry of pain and then nothing. Just dead silence. The man in Matt's grasp looked terrified at the sound; she must have been one of his cabal.
A split second of pity seized him and Matt put the man down by dropping him. "Run," he growled. "Run away now."
The mage didn't argue. He got to his feet and took off, wide eyes and panic stricken. Matt tracked him with his predator's eyes for a moment, distracted by the rabbit-run. That proved to be unfortunate when a lash of magical pain struck him in the side.
It was a torment spell, one Matt had felt before. A favorite trick of the Order, it worked by telepathically forcing signals of pain into the body. Most mages used it in the form of a glowing whip, just like this one was doing. The wielder obviously wasn't Order of St. Michael, but Matt had long since figured out that spells rarely stayed the property of one tradition for very long.
"Son of a bitch!" The teen with the whip was the same one who'd spoken out about bone picking. Wiry and intense, his fishnet shirt was torn and his chest was bloody. Probably from the car explosions, since there were also burns on his face and hands. "You killed Ronnie, fucker!" This one was crying too, but it wasn't blood from the sonic shock wave. It was tears; he was standing there, defiant, body wracked with sobs even as he pressed the attack.
There were a million things Matt could have said but none of them would have made any difference. He probably had killed Ronnie. That might have been the punk that ate his stray shot earlier. That didn't matter, nor did the fact that it had been an accident. Matt had gone into this not wanting to kill any one and, as usual, he'd completely screwed that up.
Sword and whip met in a bright, crackling clash. Matt was on the defensive. He was raging with the power of the Heracles spell but he didn't want to kill this guy. The mage looked to be even younger than he was. He was fighting out of grief and rage. Matt could sympathize with that. If he could, he'd spare this one. He really didn't want to kill anyone else if he...
A backlash of pain down the torment spell send a spasm through Matt's back. He howled in rage and lashed out wildly, virtually no control over his muscles as his spine lit up in anguish. Staggering, gasping, he moved back and shook his head, trying to clear it as the sensations of being on fire subsided. He whirled back into a defensive crouch, bring up his glowing angelic blade to ward off any more whip strikes.
But none came. Back where he'd been, half a teen was dropping to his knees. The top half, still wrapped in bloody fishnet, was laying beside his own falling leg, mouth opening in closing in shock as the realization of his own death dawned in his dimming eyes.
"Oh God damn it!" Matt roared in frustration. Even when he wanted to spare people, they ended up dead. "God fucking damn it all to fucking Hell!"
Almost like a message from the Lord, a blast of golden light ripped down from the sky and drove him to his knees. His active spells all failed, strength and speed ripping out of him as his magical power dwindled to nothing.
"You will pay for your blasphemies, hellspawn." The voice was behind him, weak but defiant. The priest, it seemed, was still alive and well.
Alive. Well. And really pissed.
It hurt, but Matt turned his head to look at the priest as he walked slowly closer. Matthew's sword was gone; the holy smite had temporarily dismissed it. he was unarmed, hurt and gasping for air. Somehow, he didn't expect the priest was going to give him a chance to catch his breath. Still, stalling was worth a try.
"You aren't... Order," he said as loud as pained lungs would allow. "Why are you here?"
The priest stopped advancing, tilted his head and gave Matt a puzzled look. "Why? Why? The Order of Saint Michael, Archangel was an extremist group whose practices and faith were not condoned by the Catholic Church. Publicly, at least."
Matt narrowed his eyes. "So what... what are you? Holy backup?"
That actually brought a bitter laugh from the man. "Not backup. Oversight." As he spoke, he took a battered leather Bible out from under his coat and turned to the Psalms. "The Order's methods may not be well-liked among my brethren but we cannot allow their failures to remain undealt with."
That didn't surprise Matt, though the idea of a group bigger than the Order was a bit of a shock. "Failures... like me?"
The priest nodded and made a gesture in the air over his Bible. "Just so." He murmured a small phrase in Latin as the air around him began to glow with bright, angry energy. Matt was in no shape to dodge. Damn it. "Burn in Hell, Mr. Engel."
"Yeah," Matt said, his thoughts going instantly to Stay and how he hoped she would get out of the house safely. "Fuck you too, Father."
The light become painfully bright and a roar of thunder split the night. Matt expected there to be searing agony but instead, he felt nothing. No smiting. No burning. No hell. Nothing had happened at all. Daring to open his eyes, he looked up at the mysterious priest who'd been about to end him.
There, to his great and instant relief, was Zephyr. Engine roaring, she was parked on top of a broken mass of religious fucktard. It was everything he could do to stand and stumble over to his motorcycle after picking up the fallen Bible. Even lifting his leg to climb onto it was an exercise in willpower. "What kept you, slow poke?" he mumbled to her.
The bike, for its part, chose not to dignify him with an answer. It just spun out on the priest's wet corpse and roared off towards the Order house again. There was a fledgling to pick up, after all. Dealing with rude, ungrateful masters could wait until they were a long, long way from this bad, blood soaked place...
She stood over the bodies and the wreckage, the light of the car fires reflecting in her eyes. Her shirt was torn and ragged, her arms and legs cut in a hundred places. There, in the ruins of the house's lawn, lay the bodies of her coven mates - friends and lovers all.
They'd come to get back what the fanatics of the Order had stolen from them, the relics and texts that had been seized from Gardenerian libraries across the nation. Now they were dead. All of them lost, except for her. As their High Priestess, she'd led them here to "reclaim their destiny". Now, as their High Priest, she would have to bury them.
Bury... and avenge.