The resulting crater was a wound in the earth, and it burned, black smoke pouring off it.
“Ok, so who’s not rotschreking right now?” she called over the intercom.
“I’m good,” called Jack.
“Yo,” said Shen.
“Can’t see him,” Jack replied. “Probably flew off screaming.”
“Eh, he’ll be back, I guess.” Olivia licked the blood from her fingers. “Can we get near?”
“Not with that much fire coming off it,” said Jack, his signal crackling as he edged around the pit.
Switching cameras to the one mounted on Jack, she could make out the pit better, the lip still glowing red hot. “Well, if Balrus is down there, we want to get down too. Search the area, look for alternate routes down. There must be an access point here somewhere.” She paused. “And someone get Alice down here. I could do with some guidance.”
Getting several tons of inert coolant delivered in the middle of the night was neither easy nor cheap, but in the end it had been the only feasible option for getting down into the pit. The explosives had been a shaped charge, blasting its way down to a level below the catacombs, deep beneath the city. Alice had confirmed their suspicions, that someone with true faith was fighting the Setites below them, a vision of a burning snake.
They’d set up a channel for the coolant, and a crane with reinforced cables to lower insulated crates down. Olivia went to each of the ghouls in turn, speaking quietly, finding each of their preferences for “joining the night shift” or not, if the worst should happen, as they waited for the coolant to arrive. She tried not to be discomfitted by them, their adoration, the way they looked at her, and she tried to be kind. This is what vampires do. This is what being a vampire means. One of them struck her as strange, the cadence of his voice unfamiliar. She spoke to their commander, Simon, at the end.
Simon had been a security advisor in Afghanistan, until he’d lost use of both his legs to an IED. Thanks to Shen, he walked again. He inclined his head to Olivia as she approached.
“One of our men has been compromised,” she said, stating the ghoul’s name. “I need you to keep him up here with a group of the others.”
“Of course,” Simon nodded, and relayed the order.
The coolant arrived, and they quenched the burning pit with it. They had packed the exterior of a storage crate with dry ice to keep the interior cool,and it hissed as the ice sublimed. A dozen ghouls went in the forward party, with Jack and Jed on the inside and Shen suspended from the outside of the crate in a firesuit with a temperature probe.
“How’s it feel down there?” Olivia monitored the channel, along with the readings from the coolant tanks and tension from the cables as the crate was lowered.
“Hot.” Shen’s line was crackly. “About mid forties in the suit.”
“S’pretty cool in here,” came Jack’s voice from inside the crate.
“Wait, do you feel that?” asked Shen.
“Feel what?” Jack crackled.
Olivia frowned. “What is it, Shen?”
“There’s some kind of chanting. Something’s draining my vitae.” Shen’s line went silent.
“Shen, do you read me?” Olivia turned to the crane operator. “Pull them up.”
Shen cut back in abruptly. “-removing my ears doesn’t seem to have much effect. Ah, it seems I’m out of range.”
The crane hoisted the crate out of the pit, lowering it onto the nearby tarmac, and Shen dismounted himself from the exterior, inspecting the ghouls as they left.
“It looks like no-one inside the crate suffered the ill-effects of the ritual,” Shen mused. “Perhaps the noise of the ice?”
Olivia pursed her lips. “I could rig the communicators to generate white noise, but you’d be deaf down there.”
“We can still give simple commands without sound,” interjected Simon.
Olivia nodded. “Alright then. Let’s try this again.”
The ghoul’s communicators hissed as they stepped once more into the smoking storage container. Olivia passed a pair of glasses and a tablet to each of Jack and Jed.
These have HUD. Easier to communicate.
They nodded understanding and stepped in after the ghouls.
The second descent was no less nerve-wracking, conducted as it was in effective silence. The ritual countermeasure seemed to work, and Shen and the ghouls began to set up a beachhead at the bottom of the pit with bright lights and fortifications as Jack and Jed headed into the underground complex.
Sitting in her command center, with Simon tense at her side, Olivia pulled out her phone and dialled for Cain.
“Olivia?” he sounded surprised.
“Hi Cain. You got any guys round where I am now?”
“Unfortunately, no.” The Nosferatu’s tone was wry. “I’m afraid the explosion’s taken most of them out of commission for the evening.”
Olivia clicked her tongue; she had genuinely expected at least some of Cain’s spies to remain. Hoped that one of them was her infiltrator. “Really? A shame. You want the vid feed on my guys down there?”
Cain sounded surprised. “Of course. That would be very helpful.”
They looked like rubble at first, so numerous were they, and so scattered, but as Jed and Jack drew closer, they could make the bodies out. Dressed in robes, faces of a similar cast to the Setite they had captured the previous night, a narrow six-inch silver stake with a splinter of wood in each of their hearts.
Looks like Balrus’ work. Follow the trail. the message from Olivia came. Shen and a team of ghouls stepped in to move the torpored kindred out, loading them into the crate.
The gangrel and the gargoyle headed further into the complex, into passages of cut stone, not local sandstone, walls adorned with hieroglyphs and friezes of snakes.
Olivia frowned. “Hey Cain, can you read these?”
There was a pause. “I can translate them.”
Jed seemed to sense something up ahead, and motioned for Jack to stop, pulling a grenade from his belt. The next few moments were a series of stills, faster than the framerate of the camera, the bright light of the flashbang, three figures on a set of stairs, and then death. Jack, elbow deep in the viscera of one, ripping out the spinal cord of another. Bodies on the floor. Olivia retched into her hand, nearly missing the long dark streams of vitae that streamed from them and up the stairs behind.
Looks like a component of the ritual. Try not to kill any more of them.
Jed stopped to type painstakingly into his tablet. Acknowledged.
They were halfway up the stairs when a silver stake lodged itself in the wall by Jack’s head. Looking around, Jack raised his hands, and stepped backwards. No-one around, at least, no-one on the cameras. Olivia overrode local control on Jed’s tablet, replacing the display with a single word.
The tablet vanished from Jed’s hands.