Obligations sucked. The Ghosts were scheduled to play one set early in the afternoon, and despite wanting to skip it, they all realized they owed Miss Sweider more than a forfeit. The poor woman looked decidedly haggard, the nightly pranks that Gwen and Aiko insisted on blaming a poltergeist for, or all the other girls, had not let up. Last night a flood drenched Aiko and Gwen as they lay sleeping in the same bed. And the plumber had insisted that no pipes ran through that section of the ceiling, nor had it rained in several weeks. Gwen was glad it had only been water.
Tired from a late night and a morning of lounging around, the fifteen girls crawled into the bus. Still lethargic, they stumbled into the dressing room and out onto the court and a ten-point deficit. Miss Sweider had seen enough and called a time out.
“And what would you girls call that?” She questioned sarcastically. “Because if you think that was volleyball, you’re sadly mistaken. Morgana! Ember! Wake up out there. Get your head in the game girls and get me the serve. Aiko, sub for Gwen, and show me a little of that inner demon.”
At the net, Aiko looked small while standing between the two Nordic giants. She looked to be the perfect target for a serve until you came up against her cat-like reflexes and blistering spike. She could leap almost twice her height from a standing start. It was not fair to force mortals to play against so many demi-humans, so Miss Sweider could not understand why they had such a hard time winning. Or maybe she did. Boys, shopping, music and demons, and not always in that order.
Aiko won the serve back and then owned the net for the rest of the game. She made an incredible leap and spiked the ball into the far court, leading to a discussion with the referee as to whether she had made contact with the net. Kristen and Crystal had brought the team back into the game before their opponents ran up a nineteen to eleven lead. When the Ghost won back the serve, Aiko had the ball. She had a funny serve, more finesse than power. The vampyre had a way of hitting the ball so that it seemed to change direction in mid-flight, a knuckleball that spun off fingers and bumps in unpredictable directions.
Trouble started in the second game, a game they dropped by ten points. And then the Ghosts got a notion to be somewhere else and finished off their opponents and the set in record time. A humiliating twenty-one to nil victory that left Miss Sweider more angry than pleased. It was not only the inconsistency of their play but also the utter recklessness of their display of otherworldly skills. Half the stunts Crystal, Aiko and Kristen, had pulled were not humanly possible – and at least two of these were caught on film by a camera crew from the local television station.
Out in the van, she had the energy to give them a hard stare and no more. She had Cantara take her back to the house. Let the other woman handle their Little Monsters for a while. She was going back to the house to take up drinking. Even though Cantara hadn’t driven for some years, their drive out to case the old Bishop’s residence was no place for an outsider – even if that outsider was the Brotherhood warder who had driven them up from New York. And Miss Sweider did need a break. Or maybe a vacation.
The Bishop’s residence sat on a lot close to St. Peter’s Seminary, overlooking one branch of the Thames River. Unlike its namesake, the river was slow and shallow and surrounded by a wild tangle of trees. The house itself sat back from its bank, a three-story monstrosity that towered over the surrounding trees.
Cantara found a place to park down the street, and first she and Gwen, and then Crystal took a stroll around the property. The best approach was from the rear, off the river, where they would remain invisible from the street and the seminary next door. The shadows from the trees came all the way to the back of the house. The front was well-lit, but as the house was vacant, they doubted any of these lights would be on. Come nightfall, the lot would be shrouded in darkness.
They took a few minutes to study the neighbourhood, walking around the block for several minutes. They noticed that most of the buildings in the area were commercial or residential – surrounded by open space. There were very few places to set an ambush, and given how the diary was discovered, a trap was very much in their minds. The openness also left very few places to hide reinforcements, and this limited their choices.
Back at the house, they gathered in the kitchen to prepare a meal and discuss what they had seen.
“I don’t like it,” Cantara complained. “If there is a trap, it will be inside the house.”
“There’s no way to send in a reinforced squad,” Gwen agreed. “Even if we found an inconspicuous spot to park the van, whoever waited there would be sitting ducks.”
“A small group of our strongest,” Crystal suggested. “Morgana and Gwen to watch the van, Cantara, Aiko, Kristen and I to do the search.”
“Same problem with them sitting in the van,” Cantara pointed out. “They’d be easy meat.”
“So they don’t park,” Crystal replied. “They keep circling the block after dropping us off. We’re fast enough to find them if we need to make a quick escape.”
With their plans drawn up, they set the table for dinner and sat down to eat. During dinner, Cantara worked out a detailed defence of the house should something unwanted follow them home, or if this was a ruse to divide their numbers, drawing the strongest away from their mortal companions. The house itself had too many windows to hold off a determined assault, but the configuration of the living room and dining room formed a natural defensive point. When the assault team headed out to investigate the Bishop’s residence, those who were left behind would assemble with their other equipment here.
“I would like to have Gabriel’s man here to oversee things,” Cantara scowled, “but I don’t think the Brotherhood would approve of any of this.”
At full dark, the team assembled downstairs for a quick inspection. Gwen and Morgana wore street clothes, ensembles put together by Aiko from observations of the local populace. It wouldn’t do to attract undue attention while circling the neighbourhood. The other four dressed from head to foot in black – Aiko in her shinobi shozoku, Cantara in leathers and silks. Someone had found a woollen toque to hide Kristen’s white-blonde hair, which shone in even the faintest light.
At a nod from Cantara, they headed out to the van. Morgana would drive with Gwen riding shotgun, the other four hiding in the back. Their outfits would attract far too much attention. Both Aiko and Cantara wore swords – not a popular look on the streets of conservative London. Morgana drove carefully, neither speeding nor driving too slow, observing traffic signs and lights.
Finding herself preparing for a mission without the Hand, Aiko was uneasy. While this was not the first time she had gone on a solo mission, it was her first with strangers, and it left a vague sense of guilt. The disquiet was troubling. Until that moment, she had not realized that she missed her family. Shadow, of course, but not those she had called brothers. There was a camaraderie in the Hand, a closeness that arose during the long hours of training and shared danger of their lives. It was different from the forced sisterhood she shared with Gwen and Crystal – much different.
She found herself wanting to talk to Alvaro about this and hated herself for the weakness. The Roman was barely a man. No matter how ingrained respecting her elders was, she found it hard to give it to someone who would not kill his own food.
Morgana slowed down a block from the Bishop’s residence, where a greenbelt offered easy access down to the river. The four-member assault team climbed out of the van and disappeared into the shadows. As it drove off, they waited inside the edge of the trees. Only when the road was empty did they move deeper into the woods. Falling into a familiar pattern, with Cantara in the lead, Crystal and Kristen in the middle, and Aiko trailing, they made their way down to the river.
At the river, they paused to get their bearings. The gentle ripple of the flowing water was the only sound. Crystal frowned. She had no direct memory, but the shadowy memories of her past lives told her there should be other noises. Crickets and frogs, the buzz of insects – not this nothingness.
“Something doesn’t feel right here,” she whispered. “Go slow.”
Cantara nodded, a motion visible to her companions, even in the darkness. Noiselessly she crept along the riverbank, loosening her swords in their scabbards as they drew closer to their target. Even she could sense that something was not right. No animal sounds. Even the wind seemed frightened into stillness. She often paused, searching the undergrowth with eyes and ears for others. She found nothing, but the animals definitely sensed something. Sometimes it was an absence that told you your enemies were close, and the stillness along the river was a huge void.
Crystal pulled even and placed an arm on Cantara’s. They were directly behind the Bishop’s residence, about ten feet from the river.
“Something is in there,” she hissed. “Something I have never sensed before.”
Her companions set loose their inner demons, letting them roam and listening to that internal ability that all demons had to sense another. A deeper corruption emanated from the house, a wrongness twisted and bent beyond naming.
“So it is a trap,” Kristen breathed. “Is that Shax?’
“No,” Crystal replied flatly, “I would know Shax’s taste anywhere. It is not one I am likely to forget soon.”
“I will go,” Aiko stated. “It will neither sense nor see me. If an object that a murder was committed over is in the house, the crystal Gwen gave me will find it.”
“No, Aiko,” Crystal objected.
“This book is something we must have,” Aiko interjected. “I am a Hand warrior. I may go where others cannot.”
“Be careful, sister,” Crystal warned severely. “If you get yourself killed, you will be the first ghost to be haunted by a living person.”
A small smile crooked the corner of Aiko’s mouth and then she disappeared. Where she had stood, tendrils of mist crept among the trees. Like a living creature, it quested, crawling across the darkness to slip onto a manicured lawn. Her three companions moved as close to the house as they dared, stopping to watch her progress from inside the trees. If they could sense it, whatever was inside must be able to sense their presence as well. Nothing was more frightening than the unknown.
Aiko reached the house and drifted up the wall towards one of the windows. She decided to enter upstairs and to work her way down from there. Demons seemed to prefer basements, an iconic similarity to their own plane of existence. All three of the demons she had slain had made their lairs in the deepest point of the buildings they had inhabited – a wine cellar, a crypt, and once the bilge of a wrecked ship. She suspected here would be no different.
Inside, the doppelganger sensed the approach of one of its prey, but could not pinpoint its location. Frustrated, it began a slow search of its new hunting ground. It became an old box, transformed into a scrap piece of lumber, and then a patch of rubber on the basement stairs. In each new room, it paused, tasting the air, its long forked tongue flicking forth like a snake’s. It had no form, and many, only its tongue and flat black eyes remaining stable.
The room Aiko entered was a bedroom. In the darkness, she saw that most of the furnishings had been removed, only odds and sods remaining in preparations for the demolition. She materialized, holding the crystal to check its warmth. It was very cold.
Upstairs. It had briefly sensed its prey on the top floor. It did not understand how its prey managed to disappear like that. It gave this some thought and decided to proceed cautiously. It had not survived for eons by being reckless.
Aiko materialized at the top of the stairs. She felt the crystal once again, deciding it was slightly warmer. She dematerialized again.
It was there again. The taste of fresh meat. It had scanned the vampyre’s memories briefly, and then the creature disappeared again. If the doppelganger had a mouth, at that moment, it would have frowned. This one had a frustrating habit of hiding, becoming invisible to all its senses.
In the first room Aiko came to on the main floor she took her true form again. The crystal was definitely warmer and grew hotter when she held it closer to a wall separating it from an adjoining room. Becoming mist again, she seeped into an electrical outlet and disappeared.
There! Close now. The doppelganger became a cobweb in the doorway of the room its victim had vacated heartbeats ago. Where did its meal go? Patience, it warned itself, must not get angry. And then it sensed its prey again.
Aiko stood, holding the crystal close to a stone fireplace in what had once been an office. It was almost too hot to handle. She eyed the stone of its hearth, holding the crystal closer and further away from various stones. A subtle discolouring in a stone halfway down the left side caused the crystal to burn the hottest. Prying it loose with her fingertips, she uncovered a cubbyhole. Inside, in a cloth pouch stiff with age, she found a leather-bound journal that was the mate to the one they had found under the floorboards at the house.
She was turning to leave when she found herself face-to-face with Shadow. “How?”
“Child,” Shadow chided, “are you not glad to see me?”
Confusion froze Aiko with indecision. How could Shadow be here? Before this week, she had not believed in ghosts. Now, she was not too sure anymore.
Shadow stepped out of the doorway, taking a step closer. A sickly smile on his face, he moved closer, and still, the girl made no move. Young and tasty. Closer still.
His eyes were black.
“No!” Aiko screamed, her blades appearing in her hands. “You are dead. I have drunk your blood to its bitter dregs!”
She dematerialized, a mist drifting out of the grasp of this monster who wore her father’s face. Rematerializing slightly behind and to its right, Aiko lashed out. It had Shadow’s skills and more, flipping backwards past her blade. And then it was gone. Aiko stood facing an empty room, the stone sitting by the fireplace, dust and cobwebs in the corners.
She sensed more than felt its attack, becoming mist and drifting towards the fireplace. Aiko hesitated, holding her formless state. It, too, had disappeared. She drifted up to the ceiling where she could take in the entire room. From this birds-eye view, she carefully studied her surroundings. Where did it go? She would not leave this place before she had avenged the dishonour this creature had brought to her father by taking his form.
She caught a motion out of the corner of her left eye. Turning, she saw only cobwebs. Frowning, she gave the wall some serious thought. And she moved. She coalesced with her back turned to the wall about three feet from its opposite side. She waited.
The vampyre was like itself, the doppelganger decided. It did not know how, but it looked forward to absorbing her skills and knowledge with her flesh. It leapt.
Aiko spun, taking it with both blades. One through its throat, one through its abdomen. She smiled, satisfied at the sight of the black ichor leaking from its wounds. What Aiko killed, she ate.
She was shaking worse than ever as she rejoined her companions outside. Even in darkness, Crystal could see the black blood dripping from her fangs and chin.
“My God, little sister,” Crystal scolded, grabbing her chin, “what have you been eating?”
“Little sister, that is going to make you sick,” she warned, scooping her up in her arms.
“I eat what I kill,” Aiko replied calmly, moments before vomiting down Crystal’s shirt.
“Ugh!” Crystal swore. “That’s nasty.”
Cantara picked up the book Aiko had dropped, wiping the vomit from it on the back of Crystal’s shirt. “Well, if someone had to get slimed, better you than me. Let’s get this blood drunk puppy home.”