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Cletus examined the pulpy mess that covered the front of the car. Then he looked down the street at the houses.
No lights were on. Not one person had stepped out to see what the commotion had been.
The area was still as death, as if every living creature had been frozen in time, unaware of what was happening. Did these things have that kind of power? Could they move in another dimension, separate from humankind's own?
Cletus tried to clear these thoughts away. They created a clutter he didn't need right now.
It was behind him.
Deep and gutteral. Wheezing, angry, staggered breaths.
He felt his heart press against his ribcage. He gripped the Mossholder and slowly turned around.
The thing dropped from the sky like a curse from Heaven and landed on top of the car. Sporadic flashes of lightning enabled Cletus to see it in bits and pieces.
A flash -- legs, four powerful legs that ended in corded talons, legs that supported a thick and hard-muscled body ... another flash -- arms, muscular human arms protruding from massive shoulders, hands wide and clenched ... big flash now, a roar of thunder -- a long, segmented tail, thrashing back and forth ... three quick flashes -- two long horns jutting from a semi-human face, thick spit spraying from its mouth, eyes red and glowing, it was big, maybe eight feet tall--
--a final flash and he saw it whole, saw it ram one of its arms through the roof of the car and wrench Joe McGuire's head from his shoulders, pull it out in a spray of blood, and devour it in three bites.
Cletus ran forward screaming in rage, raised the shotgun, and saw the vein-streaked wing flap down toward his face. Something sharp caught the upper corner of his lip and tore away a small section. He staggered back and slipped in a puddle of blood, nearly losing his grip on the Mossholder, never taking his eyes off the monstrosity that faced him from the top of the car, its wingspan twice the size of a man. Cletus felt his breath escape him not in fear but a perverse kind of awe.
The tight, sinewy muscles of its legs rippled as it swayed from side to side. Its skin was rough and scaly. Dozens of stone-shaped boils covered its torso, each of them raw and seeping, ripped open by its every breath. From its left side a large pink flap of flesh fluttered against the wind where a wing had been; the other unfurled toward Cletus again and he jumped back, seeing the long, triplejointed fingers of its hand. It gripped a long whip.
Cletus saw its nostrils flare, a dark, slimy liquid dripping from them and onto its lips, thin, crusty lips curled back to reveal jagged rows of yellow, rat-like teeth. Heavy waves of matted hair hung from beneath its chin, swarming with maggots. It twisted its mouth in an effort to get something out, words maybe, but all that emerged was a terrible howling.
Its eyes locked on Cletus's face.
He raised the Mossholder and--
--nothing left but blame--
--took aim as the Fury pulled back its arm.
Cletus couldn't dodge the whip in time. Twelve feet long, its tip a cluster of razors, the leather thick and studded with hundreds of tiny metal spikes. The Fury yanked back with incredible force, snapping the leather frighteningly close to Cletus's neck. He hit the ground belly-first and felt a few of the spikes nip at his thigh before the Fury snapped back again. Cletus figured he had maybe four seconds if he was lucky. He scrambled forward on hands and knees, still gripping the shotgun but then came the hiss of leather. He twisted around and saw the whip wrap around his right leg, then the Fury pulled back, tightening the spikes and leather. Cletus screamed as it tore through his flesh and gnawed his tendons. The Fury tossed back its head and let out a howl that rose toward the gathering storm. Cletus covered his ears and tried to silence the horrible sound, then yanked himself forward, the spikes ripping deeper into his leg, the pounding rain nearly blinding him. He reached out toward the handle of the car door, gripped it in his fingers, pulled himself up onto the seat and pumped three rounds through the roof.
The creature's bitch-howling grew worse. Cletus felt the whip slacken and the pain ebbed but did not cease. He took a deep breath, pumped another shell into the Mossholder's chamber, and fired through the bloodcaked hole above him. The thing keened and pulled back, tightening the whip once more. Cletus fired through the roof again then again then again. The remaining metal of the roof buckled upward as something thick and black spattered down onto his face, mixing with the rain and hissing as it seared his flesh.
The whip went slack. Cletus pulled his mangled leg from its grip. A large piece of something covered in stinking, dripping boils flopped through the opening in the roof. Cletus looked at the windshield and saw the wing covering it. Above him was a wide veil of tumors and gore. He pushed himself from the car into the street. The pain in his leg was nearly unbearable; he prayed he wouldn't pass out. He had to know, had to make sure...
He pulled himself up along the edge of the door until his hand gripped a section of roof, then hoisted himself up and--
--right into the thing's waiting face.
Its eyes were alive with anger. It curled back its lips, snout wide and dripping, and for a moment Cletus feared that it would lurch forward and take his head off like it had Joe McGuire's, but it only opened its wide, awful mouth. The stench of rotting meat blew into Cletus's face as a long, slithering gray tongue rolled out of its mouth--
--Cletus fell back onto the pavement. Above him, the tongue oozed over the side of the roof, jerked twice, then was still. A thin trickle of black liquid ran down its center and dripped toward the ground, each drop hissing as it hit the pavement.
It was dead.
For a few moments Cletus sat there weeping; weeping in fear, weeping for the loss of his friend; weeping for the five little boys.
He tore off his belt, wrapped it tightly around the mangled portion of his leg to stop the bleeding, then forced himself up.
He dropped the shotgun and grabbed the Uzi, snatched his Colt and McGuire's Auto-Mag then, for good measure, picked up the whip and wound it carefully around one shoulder, its handle within easy reach.
He turned and pushed himself in the direction of Helen Winston's house.
Something in the back of his brain reminded him that there was still one Fury left but he chose not to think about that.
His mind was too full of Paris.
But he no longer blamed himself. Esther would have been proud.
Grimacing from the pain, he broke into a staggered run.
Helen lay staring at the ceiling, her passion spent for the moment. Visons of her past on the Acropolis faded into the soft white glow of an outside streetlight, filtering through the window blinds, ethereal and peaceful, giving a vague human form to the blond man sitting opposite her.
Paris had donned his disguise once more.
She blinked, took a breath, and sat up.
"Do you understand now?" asked Paris.
Her voice was hoarse from her cries. "I always understood. I just never knew." She stretched out her arms and reached down to caress her two, long, slender, perfect legs, even in length and so beautiful. Men would die for the chance to touch these legs.
And so they shall, she thought, reaching behind to rub the center of her smooth, painless, perfect back.
From somewhere in the distance she could feel the vibrations of many great, majestic things burrowing through the earth toward her house.
Paris rose to his feet. "They're coming. We have to leave now."
Helen remained unmoving, unblinking, admiring her perfect body in the glow of the streetlight.
Cletus fell twice but managed to pull himself up and continue. Beneath his feet he could feel the ground trembling. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder and saw a large winged form following him. It passed through the storm clouds and swooped lower but did not attack.
He collided into a row of trash cans, spun around, dropped to one knee, then pushed forward. He was only a few dozen yards from her house.
He lifted the Uzi, flicked off the safety.
"Do they all want me as much as you?" asked Helen.
"None want you so much as I, my love. But they'll fight for you. After they've punished me, they'll fight."
"Why will they punish you?"
"Father Heaven was to couple with you first, then we, the First children, were to share you. They will kill me if they get the chance. But Mother Earth has promised me sanctuary if I can get away with you by my side."
Helen began to laugh; softly at first, then building to a loud crescendo with every flash of lightning and clap of thunder.
"We'll begin The Age all over again, Helen. We'll make this world anew. We'll rid it of all the rot and ignorance this pitiful human race has dumped on it. And it will be ours. But we have to leave now!"
"I don't think so."
She watched as Paris's eyes grew wide with terror.
She continued laughing.
"PIease," he said. "I beg you--"
"If you love me," she said, "then you'll fight for me. You will champion my honor."
The house began to vibrate. Windows shattered. The walls began splitting apart. From below came screams for life, for love, for revenge.
Her smile widened as she touched every inch of her body. "Prove your love for me and I will bring forth many children for you. We will ascend the New Acropolis and listen as the Sirens serenade us."
The front door blew off its hinges and a man rushed in, leveling a machine gun at Paris's chest.
"Don't move!" screamed Cletus.
Helen giggled. "Two champions to defend my honor?"
Cletus turned and looked at the naked woman who stood on the other side of the room.
The pain in his leg ebbed away under a rush of fire that filled his chest.
She was the most stunningly beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
"Well, Paris," said Helen. "It seems you've some competition."
Paris glowered. "You always were an arrogant one."
"Yes. But think what pleasures await the victor."
The house was shaking apart now, chunks of plaster and sections of beam falling around them. Cletus pressed himself against what remained of a wall, still holding the gun on Paris, who turned to him and said: "If you want to live, then give me the whip."
Something large and heavy landed on the roof of the house, howling.
Cletus whirled around and began firing at the shadows emerging from every corner.
"Who shall have me?" said Helen.
"PLEASE!" screamed Paris.
Cletus fell to the floor as the house was rocked from underneath. The Uzi flew from his grip and smashed into a far wall. He saw the ghosts of five little boys standing in the glow of the streetlight and called out his wife's name. McGuire's deputies would be screaming down on the house at any moment with the state police in tow.
Cletus knew it would do no good.
"May the best man win," said Helen.
There wasn't even time to scream. The floor splintered upward as the first of Helen's many champions crawled out.
The Fury exploded through the roof and swooped down, howling in ecstasy.
The Age had begun.
The New Acropolis began to rise.
And rain drowned out the screaming.
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