To amuse themselves on the drive, the girls fell into a challenge to see who could come up with the oldest, old-school insult. Laughing and shouting, they filled the interior of the extended van with their happy noise.
“Son of a gun!”
“Jakenape!” Crystal retorted.
“Doesn’t count,” Gwen scoffed. “That’s not even a word.”
“Is too!” Crystal laughed.
“Then, define it!” Gwen challenged.
“A wimpy snot-nosed geek who does not know enough not to question her betters,” Crystal shot back.
“Epic fail!” Gwen choked. “Not a word, you thing that got caught in my craw!”
“Then define craw smarty-pants,” Crystal dared.
“The part of a chicken’s gullet where it stores pebbles to grind seeds and things,” Gwen responded, sticking out her tongue.
“Ha! Ha! Gwen has chicken teeth and chicken legs!”
“Not funny,” Gwen retorted. “Get a day job and a life!”
“I was never that young,” Cantara rolled her eyes, turning towards Helmand. She did not understand how Crystal did it – all severe and ancient one minute, the next laughing and giggling with her girls.
“Let’s hope so,” Helmand replied dryly. “Nincompoops!” He called out over his shoulder.
“No fair,” Gwen cried. “It doesn’t count if you’re older than my grandmother’s tits!”
“Thanks, girlfriend,” Crystal and Kristen shot back, choking on their laughter.
“I see London, I see France, I see Crystal’s underpants.” Morgana sang out.
“And that’s the closest to heaven you’re going to get, Morgana,” Crystal retorted. “So kindly keep your paws off my silky drawers.”
Earlier, Gwen had called Tatyana Johns with a story about tracking down her family here, and after a half-hour conversation, the older woman had invited her and her friends out to the farm. Helmand had explained that R.R. stood for rural route, small sub-roads running off the highways in a farming community. Worried that finding a farm would not be as easy as finding an address in the city, Gwen had convinced Helmand to come along after he claimed to be quite familiar with the area. And so here they all were, packed into an extended van with fourteen under-stimulated teenagers, three harassed adults and a vampyre who was determined to ignore everyone.
Aiko’s shoulder was better, and she was no longer feeling the ill-effects of the demon blood. She ached for the movement and grace of her katas and resented being dragged out to this farm, where she would be forced to sit inside the blackout curtains all day. And she was not sulking, she was meditating. She was angry with Helmand for even suggesting she would waste her time on such a petty and unproductive activity. She was Aiko, the Black Lotus, and if she could not strengthen her skills and her body, she would strengthen her mind. Promise or no promise, she would bite that old fart.
She did not like the effect he had on her. Aiko had never had a grandfather to dote on her – had never had any family outside the Hand. And the Hand did not waste energy on sentiment. She was a warrior. She took what she wanted. It was only the sickness that had caused her to act that way, but if Crystal did not take her hands off Helmand’s shoulders, she would drain her until she was a dried-up old hag. Aiko did not have a name for these feelings that left her irritable and angry all the time.
The van pulled onto a partially paved roadway that stretched for miles into the hills. The shake and shimmer and the rattle of stone showers on the oil pan made it difficult to concentrate. Much of the chatter of the other girls fell off as their eyes went ahead and to either side, searching for the mailbox that marked the Johns farm. Helmand chuckled, consulting briefly with the driver. They still had another two or three miles to go, but that did not keep the girls from looking now that they sensed the end of their drive.
The farm lay at the top of a steep hill overlooking the fields for miles in every direction. The farmhouse itself was nestled among a screen of poplars, their leaves hissing and sighing in the breeze. The house itself was a two-story white wood-sided structure with a red roof, two or three outbuildings visible behind it. The barn and silo were painted red to match the roof shingles, the name of the family stencilled in faded letters on both. At the peak of the barn’s roof, a complicated weather vane of black metal shifted in a fitful breeze, its moon and planets tinkling and clanging.
When the van rolled to a stop, a tall old lady wearing a starched and ironed apron stepped out of the door. Her grey hair was tied in a bun, and she was wiping her hands on a towel. Both at her neck and in her hair, she wore crystals.
“Well, well, well,” she greeted as they tumbled from the van, “one of you lovely ladies must be Gwen Moonshadow. Excuse my appearance, I’ve been baking.”
“Hello, Mrs. Johns,” Gwen greeted. “I’m Gwen. These are my teammates, the Ghosts.”
“Such manners,” Mrs. Johns laughed. “Call me Tatyana, or Tats, if you prefer. Well, come on inside. You must all be thirsty after such a long hot drive.”
At the door, Mrs. Johns paused, looking back at the van, “isn’t that little dark-haired girl going to come in, dear?”
“Aiko isn’t feeling very well,” Crystal supplied.
“She’s sulking,” Helmand said knowingly.
“She is not,” Gwen defended. “Aiko never sulks. Never!”
Inside, seated at a maple table large enough for eight, Mrs. Johns served her guests lemonade and homemade cookies. The kitchen itself was spacious, bright and neat – obviously the focal point of the household. Its cupboards were old and oft painted, the linoleum worn and still waxed to a glossy sheen. Modern plumbing with a new double sink had been added, but the gas stove and fridge had not been new since the forties or fifties.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Johns explained. “My granddaughter is napping. She’ll be sad she missed you. We don’t get company out this way too often.”
“Did she have a hard morning?” Crystal asked. She had a few herself and would kill for the luxury of a nap.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Johns laughed. “At her age, senior kindergarten is a big deal. She goes three days a week and thank God. It gives me time to do the baking.”
Crystal tried hard to hide her disappointment. If the child were so young, there would be no confronting Shax with the crystal. The most she could do was banish him back to Hell. It would be at least a decade before the girl would be ready for such a battle.
“Well, we’ll have to stay,” Gwen said staunchly. “At least until she wakes up.”
“Oh, she would love that,” Mrs. Johns smiled. “It’s hard on a young girl with only me for company.”
“I noticed your crystals,” Gwen commented, changing the subject, “the one around your neck, it’s very like mine.”
As she fished her crystal from its place down the front of her shirt, Gwen made an ancient Wiccan sign.
“Oh, are you of the sisterhood?” Mrs. Johns asked, grabbing at the crystal at her throat.
“All of us girls in the Ghost Sisterhood are,” Gem replied. “Well, most of us.”
“Cantara, Crystal, Ember and Morgana are not part of our coven,” Gwen explained. “Oh, and Helmand, of course.
“That many young women in the same coven,” Mrs. Johns replied. “My oh my.”
“Most of the girls at our school are Wiccan,” Crystal supplied.
“Brotherhood, then,” the old lady replied, “and from New York City. That would make it the Academy of the Apocrypha. I suspect you have lied to me, young lady.”
“Not really,” Gwen gulped contritely. “Well, only a little. It’s not really my lineage. It’s the family tree of a Wiccan family we read about in a text we found.”
“That nasty book,” Mrs. Johns hissed.
Crystal laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m sorry,” Crystal apologized. “It’s just that Aiko hisses exactly like that.”
“I fear she does,” Helmand offered in a conciliatory tone.
“I’m sorry, where are my manners,” Mrs. Johns replied. “I’m sure you meant no harm. Unfortunately, that book has caused my family no end of grief. Of course, that was back in my grandmother’s time.”
“We wouldn’t cause you trouble if it weren’t so important,” Gwen assured her.
“And why is it so important, dear?”
“The Grand Convocation believes Shax is in the area,” Gwen explained. “My mother asked us to find any of the local covens – the true covens.”
Like with the Goths, there were Wiccans, and there were Wiccan covens. The Goths were named for the Visigoth warriors, the first of the Demon Hunters, and when the Goth subculture became popular, they hid among them. The Wiccans followed the ancient traditions passed down from mother to daughter in some chains unbroken since the time of the first Wiccans. Their crystals were handcrafted – never purchased – mothers helping daughters harvest and polish the stones, purify and charge them. For them, Wiccan was not only a faith, but it was also a lifestyle.
“Oh, please excuse me, girls,” Mrs. Johns said suddenly. “I think that is my granddaughter.”
She returned shortly with a tow-headed little girl with a sunny smile and large inquisitive eyes. Stephaney was tall for her age, easily passing for six or seven. She was excited to find so many guests in her house, dancing from one group to another, easily conducting half a dozen conversations. She was precocious and full of mischief and chatted away like a flock of wrens. Ah, to be four again.
“Can we have a bonfire and roast marshmallows and hot dogs?” She asked, holding her hands in prayer and tilting her head to one side. “Can we, Oma, please?”
“Well,” Mrs. Johns considered. “Our guests do have to drive back to London.”
“That’s hardly far at all!” Stephany urged. “And I will be good forever and ever.”
“If our guests can stay,” Mrs. Johns relented, watching for Miss Sweider’s nod of approval, “then okay. A wiener roast we will have.”
“As long as we are staying,” Miss Sweider suggested pointedly, “the least we can do is help out.”
“Well,” Mrs. Johns considered, “if Helmand could take some of the girls out back by the barn. We have a fire pit. Perhaps they could get the bonfire started.”
“With pleasure,” Helmand replied. “The wood would be?”
“There’s a cord or two against the side of the barn,” Mrs. Johns replied. “Stephaney can show you. I guess the rest of us can make up some potato salad and get the wieners ready. I always keep plenty about.”
“What about buns?” Miss Sweider asked. “I can run out and pick some up.”
“Oh, dear me, no,” Mrs. Johns replied. “I made up a double batch this afternoon. Still make all my bread myself, same as my mother.”
Leaving the girls under Cantara’s supervision, Helmand wandered back to the van to check on Aiko. She had been alone for several hours now, and that was a little more serious than a sulk. He found her seated in her blackout fort at the back of the van, and eyes closed, and hands held loosely on her knees.
“Do you not want to join the others?” He asked in a kindly voice. “We are getting ready for a wiener roast.”
“I do not eat wieners,” Aiko replied easily. “And I am not sulking. I cannot leave the van. I am allergic to the sun.”
She showed him an extensive scar on her left foot.
“Ah,” Helmand nodded, “I thought as much. We will be here until after dark, come join us then.”
“I will think about it.”
The bonfire was blazing. The heat of its flames, now four or five feet high as they burned a good pile of wood to create a bed of coals, drove the girls and their hosts back. It was still a little too warm for a fire, but if they wanted to eat before seven, they needed to start the fire now. For many of the girls, it was their first cookout, and Helmand or Cantara had to restrain them from throwing more fuel on the miniature infernal than they had already.
Two picnic tables were gathered from various points in the yard and carried closer to the fire. Everyone helped carry out barbeque implements, paper plates, condiments, and drinks. In time a hotbed of coals glowed as red as a demon’s eye, and they brought the food out. A hot dog roasting production line was formed, little Stephaney in her element as she instructed the older girls. There was a knack to roasting wieners, she explained, or else the fire ate the hot dog and not you.
Even after dark, Aiko decided to stay in the van. Both Crystal and Gwen had been in to check on her, the latter trying to convince her how much fun she was missing. A Wiccan roast sounded a lot more fun, although she preferred her meat rare. The truth was she was not in the mood for company, and the van offered her more privacy than she had enjoyed in weeks. Strangely, she was growing fond of the succubus and Wiccan, even the djinn, but sometimes they were too mortal to tolerate.
A strange smell wafted in through the open window of the van. The hairs on the back of Aiko’s neck stood up. Even when playing volleyball, despite Crystal’s restrictions, Aiko carried some of her blades with her. She felt naked without them. Drawing a wicked-looking knife, she rolled to her feet and crept out of the van. Outside the door, she paused, scenting the night air. She smelled fire and the nauseating odour of roasting meat – and below this, something darker.
The scent led her to the front of the house and down its long driveway. At its base, beneath the branches of a massive pine, she found their driver – his neck broken.
At the fire pit, Crystal looked up at the sound of the cry. “That’s Aiko!”
“It came from the front!” Cantara replied. “Some of you stay here.”
Of course, no one did. Soon only the Johns and Helmand remained by the fire. Beyond its light, only darkness and silence waited. Helmand did not like it. He picked up a brand from the fire, placing himself in front of the Johns with the fire at their backs. Eyes. Red and glowing in the firelight. And they were upon him, creatures with long legs and shaggy coats, others with fangs and pale skin like Aiko.
Stephaney’s scream sent the others racing back towards the fire. Crystal, Cantara and Aiko led the way. In the distance, they could see Helmand facing off against a score of vampyres and Loogaroo. Vampyres were fast, but always Helmand was there to meet them. Later, when the Pranic energy left her, Crystal would remember. Now it raged within her veins like a wild beast, aflame with its hunger. It pulled her out in front of her companions. Alone, she leapt into the flank of a large Loogaroo, carrying two others down with it. They found their feet before she did, racing off into the night before she could feed.
Their warning howls sent the other Loogaroo scattering, leaving the vampyres to stand alone. One went down beneath Aiko’s blades, a second to Cantara before the survivors fled.
“Is everyone all right?” Helmand called out when the vampyres had all scattered.
“Brother Brian is dead,” Crystal replied.
“We should call the police,” Helmand suggested.
“The Brotherhood buries its own dead,” Cantara spat back. “Besides, what would we tell them? We were attacked by a pack of wolves the size of horses.”
“Point taken,” Helmand apologized. “We will need to bury his body.”
“There is a graveyard down in one of the fields,” Mrs. Johns offered. “I will take you there as soon as I see my granddaughter settled safely inside.”
“The twins and I will sit with her until you get back,” Kristen offered.
“I believe I saw some shovels in the barn,” Helmand suggested.
Crystal frowned. He did not question their need to avoid the authorities and insinuated himself into their group too easily. How had the vampyres known where to find them? He would bear watching.