Some people swore the house was haunted, that the Madonna had appeared there on the day the angels drew forth their fiery swords and the devils hit back, hard. On that day, the gates of Heaven were trumpeted open, and of Valhalla, Gehenna, Ys, and all the fright-filled places.
SFC Pero stumbled alone, up the flash burned steps, ignoring those behind her. They didn’t want to lose her, those starving civvies, the frightened children, the women pulling at rags to cover their bare shoulders, but the house tugged at Pero’s gut with its own suffering, called more strongly than the wailing at her back.
She turned the green brass handle.
Inside, dust stirred beneath her boots and Pero kept her suit lights low. She stepped across creaking boards and around overturned furniture, avoiding the glint of broken glass.
She had already done all she could, buried the last of her squad in the ashes outside, even stopped to deliver a baby beneath a darkened, midday sun. Now this house (why this one?) filled her nostrils with the smell of blood.
The big rooms faded, one into the next, and suddenly there it was, shivering behind a cascade of drapery: a bearded, stumpy thing, tortured and bleeding.
“Sacred ground!” it screamed, Pero’s comset picking up the translation a heartbeat after the shriek.
“I’m a medic,” Pero said softly, holding out one hand, fingers splayed. With the other she unbuckled her kit and held it forward, the cross faded and threadbare. She moved softly, shaking loose rolls of gauze, some anodynes, and antiseptics.
“They’ll kill you!” warned bloodied lips.
“Yeah? You’re a tengu, aren’t you? A mountain spirit from Japan, right? Here, let me help.”
“Those islands burned.”
“Yeah?” Removing a gauntlet, Pero gentled a touch against sore-bound flesh, her eyes catching the marks of shackles recently cut away.
“You escaped.” She began at the ankles with a spray, noting the tension as it built like tears in the eyes of the beast. “I guess it doesn’t matter from which side.”
“This is holy ground,” the tengu whispered, calmly, as if sharing a grave truth of which Pero seemed unaware.
“I have a habit,” Pero confided, “of not being where I’m supposed to be.” She laughed a sullen laugh. “Why I’m still here, I guess. Out riding when the cities burned. You?”
“Bound,” the tengu answered, watching.
“Oh, yes. As soon as they could. Long ago. Changed me all around as soon as they could. Had to have their war, else what’s a judge-“ the tengu winced “what’s a judgment for?”
“How’d you get away?” Pero asked.
“Disguise!” the creature laughed wildly, only to stop when a tear rolled down one blood-crusted cheek.
Used to the ravings of damaged men, Pero continued, ministering to the little wounds first, building trust for the rest.
“You’ve killed no sinners!” the tengu whispered close, knowingly, even as it held out its hands for care. Its eyes stared past Pero, roving the disheveled room. “Banished no devils!”
“Yeah?” Pero continued her ministrations, patient and sure at first, but as she worked, the tengu’s hurts only grew. A wound opened in the beast’s side. Bits of shrapnel appeared over one ear, then across the brow. Pero’s heart beat in her temples as it hadn’t since the Rapture.
“Shapeshifter!” Her fingers trembled.
“It’s all right, Zoe Pero. What you’ve done for the least of these-”
“My name!” Pero choked, falling back on her heels, catching a handful of dust.
“Where there is one, must others come?” The voice had shifted too. There was power in it. “My faith. My child!”
“What are you?!” Pero demanded. “Damn you!”
“Kirisuto,” the tengu said simply, rising on bare and broken feet. “Damned under many names. Ill used, but free at last.” A hand came forward, open and waiting. “Now, help me to the door, child. We’ll start over once more.”
Nothing was ever the same again after that.