Arthur Vangeest ran a wet sharpening stone down the edge of his sword, feeling it glide along the razor-sharp finish. It was a brilliant weapon with a deep history, a gift from Frieda Gotlieb many years earlier. His motions were practiced and precise, yet his mind was far away and lost in his own thoughts.
The blade didn’t need honing: he could have shaved the stubble off his face with it…
If he was willing to risk cutting his head off.
But he needed to hone it: he needed to. The action served to keep him from being idle, giving him something to focus on besides his doubts, fears, and hatred.
The occasional park goer wandered by the table, hikers or picnickers. They were careful to give Arthur a wide berth and many funny looks, but none were brazen enough to ask him why he was sharpening a sword in the middle of the park.
He honed the blade to a razor finish before every battle, a superstitious ritual that had never been so important. He enjoyed rituals and thought of them as a calming gesture. He did it in an effort to maintain his composure in the face of adversity while he risked his life on behalf of the Council.
Right now, however, he was sharpening the sword to control the horrible despair and anger raging in his heart. He sought to control it so that it wouldn’t consume him with anguish and woe.
It wasn’t working.
“Are you all right, Arthur?” Frieda asked.
Her voice was tender and full of worry, as though she were afraid to speak loudly around him for fear he might break.
She wasn’t wrong: he felt on the verge of shattering into a thousand pieces. He glanced at her, meeting her eyes, but his hands kept gliding the sharpening stone down the blade, first the rough edge and then the smooth one.
Frieda was wearing a black leather suit and had dyed her hair crimson in preparation for their upcoming mission. This raid was months in the making and she was excited to finally be out in the field once more.
She attempted to hide her excitement for Arthur’s sake, but it did little good. He could see right through her, and he honestly didn’t even begrudge her for it. She wasn’t responsible for his anguish, and with her duties as a member of the Council of Chaldea and leader of their Hunters, she rarely got to do anything so…violent.
She was beautiful and austere with a mole on her left cheek and eyes that pierced into whoever she looked at. She was also singular minded and cold as ice when it came to her work. She was, Arthur knew from personal experience, an incredibly dangerous woman.
“Are you sure? You haven’t been—”
“I said I’m fine,” he reiterated.
She pursed her lips, thoughtful. “You don’t need to go in with us,” she said. “We can handle the raid without you. After everything that—”
“I’m going in,” he interrupted. “When we breach the building, I’ll push through to the ritual chamber and search for survivors.”
“I am not staying behind.”
Frieda hesitated, but she didn’t object. “Very well. I’m not ungrateful. From recent reports, there should be four or five innocents trapped inside, and they will be spread out around the manor. We need all the help we can get.”
“How many hostiles?”
“Somewhere in the range of thirty, but we can’t get an accurate count. At least nine are possessed. The rest are zealots.”
That was a large number of demons all located in one location, though Arthur knew that many of them were lesser demons and wouldn’t be much of a risk. He had hunted and killed dozens of demons in his time as a Hunter, and most of the other hostiles in the manor were just normal people, untrained and unprepared for what was coming.
They had no idea what was about to happen, Arthur knew. He had tracked them and followed them for months, and most of them were just normal people who got themselves involved with the wrong crowd. Many of them didn’t even know what was really going on at the manor.
That didn’t matter though.
“They all need to die,” Arthur said, barely aware he was speaking aloud. “They are all guilty.”
“We are under strict orders from the Church,” Frieda replied. “Only kill the ones that fight back, and anyone who surrenders will be turned over.”
“Those are ridiculous orders. They joined willingly, so they should die for their crimes.”
“Orders, Arthur,” Frieda said. “We cannot disobey. Do you hear me?”
Arthur didn’t respond, staring off into the woods. He knew the orders, but he also knew the complete rage in his heart at what had been done to him. He didn’t intend to leave anyone alive.
“Do you hear me, Arthur?”
“I hear you,” he said.
They were sitting on a park bench just outside Monongahela National Park in West Virginia. This place was miles from any major cities and tucked away from the outside world, which made it the perfect hideout for The Ninth Circle cell that Arthur had been tracking.
It was a beautiful day in the midafternoon, not too hot and not too cold. Arthur and Frieda were waiting for three more Hunters to arrive from out of state before they commenced their raid on The Ninth Circle.
Frieda had called in a team, Charles and Mildred Greathouse as well as Dexter Colson, to deal with this cell. They were flying in from all around the world, the Greathouse family from Europe and Dexter from Brazil where he lived. He was sort of famous as a Hunter: they didn’t normally live into their forties, but Dexter was already pushing sixty.
This was one of the biggest cult cells they’d ever tracked down, and removing it from play would severely cripple and diminish The Ninth Circle. That was the theory, at least, but Arthur wasn’t sure how much he bought into it. The cult was fragmented and global, and it was designed in such a way that no particular cell could link back to the rest. This would be a blow to them, to be sure, but enough to cripple their organization? Not likely.
This was a longtime project of Arthur’s, a venture he had dedicated years of his life to. Tracking down this cell had been his mission, and he had risked everything to find it.
He had, in fact, lost everything.
He underestimated the resourcefulness of the cult, and at some point they must have recognized him. Worse, they had managed to find out information about him and his life outside of the Council.
That information was closely guarded, but someone within his own order had betrayed him. They had sold him out and the very cult he was hunting had discovered where he lived.
They discovered that he had a family.
His wife and child were murdered in their sleep while he was out in West Virginia. They were horribly slaughtered in his home in Ohio, left butchered and discarded for him to find.
It was the worst thing he’d ever experienced, beyond anything he’d ever imagined, and it had broken him. Now, he knew, there was nothing left to live for.
Nothing except justice.
Nothing except revenge.
That was two weeks ago. He hadn’t discovered who betrayed him from inside the Council yet, but he intended to pay them back in full for their transgression.
He knew that Frieda felt the same way about the crime: she’d been cautious and withdrawn since the murder had taken place. She was determined to find and punish the mole in the Council, but as yet she kept coming up with dead ends.
Frieda checked her watch.
“We can start moving,” she replied. “Dexter’s plane touched down ten minutes ago and he should be on his way. I can direct the other hunters to meet us at the site. If we leave now, we will get to the manor about twenty minutes ahead of them.”
“All right,” he said, standing up and sliding his sword away. He dropped the sharpening stone onto the park bench and started walking toward her car. “Let’s go.”
They climbed into the little Chevy and headed down the road to the west. Frieda drove in silence, occasionally glancing sidelong at him as though she was afraid he would break down and cry at any moment. He kept his expression calm, giving her no reason to suspect his motives. He doubted she knew what he intended to do, but if she even thought it was a possibility she would never let him out of her sight.
She didn’t want him here, he knew. Frieda thought he should still be recovering from his loss; his wife and daughter were gone, after all, and Frieda felt that he should still be paying his respects to their memories and not out here hunting for their murderers.
But, what she didn’t understand was that he was doing exactly that by being here. He was honoring their memories the only way he knew how. The Ninth Circle had taken everything from him. He wouldn’t be done paying his respects until everyone who had done this to his family was dead and buried. He would burn their world to the ground.