It was a gruelling day on the court. After too many late nights, too many games, and too much foolishness and tomfoolery, the girls could barely work up an excited shriek, let alone chase a ball. Twice in the first game, the ball simply bounced between sleepy girls, neither making a move towards it. Miss Sweider knew it was her job to yell or shout encouragement, but she did not blame the girls. She too was exhausted. There was no doubt after last night that vampyres were stalking them, and the practical jokes had not stopped. Perhaps a third-party was responsible, but she was not ready to accept the existence of a poltergeist. At least not yet.
Miss Sweider suggested a quiet afternoon, followed by an early night. A good plan until the trouble started the moment they arrived home. Crystal could not open the door. The key turned in the lock; the throw retracted. When the door started to open, it slammed shut as if by some unknown force. The succubus was tired and frustrated enough for her eyes to glow red with her inner demon. Both Gwen and Cantara tried with similar results, and when Ember raced off to try the side door, the lock ate the key. Literally, she swore. Miss Sweider had to admit it was no longer on the keychain, but in her exhaustion, she stubbornly refused to give up her convictions about the existence of ghosts. Casper was a cartoon.
In the end, they called Helmand. He arrived a few minutes later, strolling down the street in his carpenter’s outfit. He greeted each with a hug or a pat on the back, exchanging a word or a joke. Accepting the key from Crystal, he stepped to the door. With no effort, the key slid into the lock, and it opened. Mystified, he examined the hinges for several moments. With a shrug, he held the door open for the girls.
Half the team was already inside when Crystal and Aiko walked in almost side by side. A river of black ooze streamed down from the ceiling, all but drowning the two girls. It was thick as molasses on a cold day and stank of open sewers and backed-up toilets. If either could open their eyes against the persistent ooze, it would be a toss-up as to whose were reddest.
“I’ve had enough!” Crystal screeched. “We tear this house apart until we find who or what is responsible for this shit.”
“Not until you two have had a shower and change,” Miss Sweider interjected. “Cantara, take them out back and hose them off. I don’t want them tracking that – that stuff all over the house. Gwen and Ember, go get a bucket and mops and clean this up. Morgana and Jade, you better help. The rest of you into the kitchen and start making lunch.”
Ninety minutes later, a haunt of bedraggled Ghosts gathered in the living room to lounge and nibble at sandwiches and chips. Aiko, her hair still damp from her shower, leaned against Helmand as he stroked her cheek, calming her inner demon.
Crystal could not sit still. The pranic energy surged below the surface, and despite her exhaustion, it would not let her rest – like an amphetamine junky riding a high.
“You know,” she announced to no-one in particular, “I have this nagging suspicion that Shax is behind all this. If only the girl weren’t so bloody young.”
“Well, don’t blame her,” Morgana teased, lightening the mood, “blame her mother and her lazy ovaries. She could have had her ten years earlier.”
“There was another girl who could use the crystal,” Helmand dangled tantalizingly.
“What good is was to us?” Crystal replied sourly.
“Well,” Helmand replied gently, “if you listen to her story, you will see that maybe the was doesn’t carry its normal finality.”
The girls were cranky, tired and bored. If nothing else, his voice would fill the silence while they chilled. Ember settled into Morgan’s arms the way she had when she was young, Crystal and Gwen joining them. Cantara and Miss Sweider drifted in from the dining room while the remaining girls flopped in, on or about the room’s furniture.
Originally there were only five – Alexandra and the four boys from a small town in Northern Ontario. But the book that started this whole story came from your home, New York City, and a bookstore that disappeared shortly after its purchase.
“Was it a book of Black Magic?” Crystal asked.
“No, ma petite,” Helmand replied, and for a moment she could have sworn she heard the voice of Jean-Claude. Crystal shivered.
In that magical summer between grade school and high school, they began to play the game they discovered in this book. Based on the ancient Zodiac, it had the power to grant wishes. It lured a player into sin and was addictive as any of the video games Morgana is always played on her cell phone….
Morgana looked up with a guilty start, “sorry.” And the other girls laughed.
It is played in patterns, and the more perfect a pattern that is played, the more likely your desire will be granted. It was a shortcut to all your dreams that can be as addictive as any drug. But the one game they all longed to play, the Grand Game, required thirteen players.
That had all the girls sitting up. There was a magic to the number thirteen – thirteen to hunt a demon, thirteen to summon a demon, and thirteen to open the gates of Hell.
Play a perfect pattern in the Grand Game, and it would grant the players unlimited power. A hypnotic, narcotic that five lone players could only dream of in a town with no other Goths.
“Alexandra was a Goth?” Morgana interjected.
From her white heat to her Doc Martens. Every player had their dark desires – we all have some secret too powerful to share – and for Todd, there was only Alexandra. She was sweet and pretty and owned a pair of startling green eyes that had haunted his dreams throughout his adolescence. She had already dated all three of their friends, and he felt it was only a matter of time before she discovered her true love in him.
There is nothing more powerful or painful than unrequited love.
For Todd, the Grand Game became as much an obsession as his desire for Alexandra. When the five migrated south to London to attend university, he carried the game with him to this very house.
A clap of thunder boomed across the sky, and the girls giggled as a delicious thrill of fear chased itself around the room.
This house has an interesting history. It was built by Mortimer Longbone, who was said to be a pirate, a highwayman, and a slaver who had sold his own daughters. The slate for its roof was taken from a quarry where a boatload of children drowned, the fireplace from the home where a family was massacred by a servant, and the wood for its framing from hanging trees and the guillotines of the French Revolution.
In the very attic where Aiko practices her katas, Todd found a game board inlaid into the floor.
There was nothing to it then but to troop upstairs and investigate for themselves. Aiko dragged Helmand along with her as the girls migrated to the attic. Lights were found. Unlike Aiko, most of the girls could not see in the dark. No-one who had been up here had noticed the floor inlay, not Aiko, who practiced in the dark, or the girls who had mopped the blood from the stairs – mostly because they had not been looking. And there it was, beautiful in its simplicity. An ancient Zodiac embedded in the floor with rare woods and precious metals. Several squares of varying wood had been added, three beneath each sign, and wax droppings showed where different coloured candles had been lit. It looked like nothing more than an elaborate game board.
“It kind of reminds me of the Grimorium Verum,” Gwen breathed.
Here Helmand took up his story.
The first of the two mortal sins the game teaches its players is greed and sloth, the first of the Ten Commandments it teaches them to break is Thou Shall Not Steal.
It plays much like a board game with a scavenger hunt thrown into the mix. Each pattern must be completed in seventy-two hours. Incomplete patterns are said to bring bad karma to the players. A pattern is one complete circuit of the Zodiac, the pattern chosen by dice and chance. Forty-eight items must be gathered between the witching hour of the first day and the witching hour of the third.
A perfect game starts with the three houses in Aries, following the signs counter-clockwise around the Zodiac. And during the Grand Game, ultimate power is the lure for any who played a perfect game. It was an obsession with Todd – power, money, and Alexandra – everything his heart desired.
A Grand Game needs thirteen players, twelve for each sign of the Zodiac and a ritual master to direct the flow of the game. And they were only five.
University days are a time to stretch your wings, to explore new places and people from all across the country. In their teen years, the five dreamed of moving away from their hometown to a large city, somewhere where they could meet up with eight other players. And as chance would have it, they found eight fools here in London.
“I do not believe in chance or coincidence,” Cantara muttered darkly. “Not this type of chance.”
“Oh Cantara,” Gwen complained, “it’s just getting good.
“It’s a honey trap,” Cantara retorted.
Helmand tapped his nose and pointed to Cantara. “And one of the most dangerous.”
Each of the main five players came from troubled homes. For Todd, his home was the most recently broken. His anger at his father’s betrayal, and his unrequited desire for Alexandra that bordered on an obsession, made him a prime target for this kind of seduction.
Alexandra and the other three were troubled children brought into Todd’s happy home by his father, who was their mentor through a church-sponsored program. From an early age, Alexandra’s mother left her alone to go out drinking, and one day when she was four, her mother ran off with a biker and never returned. The moment these two met, a bond formed between them, and Todd became her best friend and protector.
The girl was a runner unable to flee from her family or the nightmares that were haunting her. Todd had a knack for finding her, somehow always knowing when she was hurting and how to comfort her.
“That’s sweet and all,” Crystal complained, “but how does any of this help us?”
“Patience, little one,” Helmand urged.
The game is the work of a trickster demon and of one demon in particular. You girls, I hope, will recognize the configuration and see the danger. Thirteen to summon the beast and thirteen to bind it/Thirteen will seek the beast, but only one will find it.
“So the girl we seek is a captive in Hell,” Crystal scolded, “and the only way to free her is to banish Shax. And to do that, we need the girl!”
“My, aren’t we cranky,” Helmand teased. “Perhaps I should finish my story after you have had a nap?”
“Maybe we should return downstairs where we will be more comfortable,” Miss Sweider suggested. She really did want to hear the end of the story, if there was an end. “Helmand would probably appreciate a coffee after all this talking, and if you girls don’t intend to finish your lunch, I suggest you put away the food before we get ants.”
“Blood-thirsty vampyre ants,” Morgana teased, chasing the girls out of the attic with an evil laugh.
Seated in the living room, a coffee in one hand and Aiko in the other, Helmand prepared to renew his tale. Crystal noticed he never seemed to eat or drink, only used the coffee cup as a prop. Casting back in her mind, she could not recall one image of Helmand eating during the night of the wiener roast. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him, and he winked.
“Now, where was I?”
Playing the Grand Game, especially a perfect pattern, has its inherent difficulties. Playing an incomplete pattern brings misfortune, and thirteen personalities can lead to conflicts. After one such failed game, Todd was struck by a truck. Sitting at his bedside as he lay in a coma, Alexandra realized how much he meant to her, and how difficult it would be to fill that place in her life the way he did. She fell in love.
Love, or much of what we call love, can be corrupted. But sometimes, if it’s true enough, it can survive anything. We can all guess what happened to Todd as they finally played that perfect game….. On that dreadful night, some small portion of him survived.
At the fateful moment, he pushed Alexandra out of the circle.
“Oh my God!’ Gwen exclaimed. She knew that breaking any circle, even a Wiccan circle, was dangerous. “What happened to her?”
“That is one mystery you will have to solve on your own,” and he touched a finger to the side of his nose. Rising, he bent to kiss the top of Aiko’s head. “And on that note, I have to be going.”
When the door closed behind him, the girls got up and began clearing away the dishes. Suspicious, Crystal checked Helmand’s coffee cup and found it untouched. He did not taste like a demon, but there was something more than mortal about that man. She wished she knew whether they could trust him. Too many strange things were happening, and she was not too sure if Aiko’s recommendation was necessarily a good thing. She liked everyone, especially for dinner.
In the kitchen, as they washed up the dishes, then began to talk.
“How are we supposed to figure it all out?” Ember complained. “It’s too much like schoolwork.”
“We need to know more about what happened that night,” Gwen replied.
“Where do we look?” Gem asked.
“Newspapers!” Morgana replied.
“What are you going to look for?” Gem retorted. “Local Youth Possessed by Demon?”
“Grisly Murder at King Street Home,” Morgana shot back, racing into the living room to fetch her laptop.
Crystal realized she was hungry again. None of them had eaten very much of their lunch. All of them were hungry, over-tired, and way too bitchy. She began to take down pots and pans, rooting through the fridge and cupboards.
“Hey, Aiko,” she asked suddenly, “do you feel like learning how to cook? We could do something Japanese.”
“Random or what?” Aiko teased, imitating Gwen.
“It will be fun,” Crystal urged, “we could do like sushi or something.”
“Eeeew, Crystal!’ Gwen complained. “That’s like raw fish! You better let me help.”
“And I found it!” Morgana announced. “In the local paper. Booyah! I rock! I am the bomb!”
“Enough dancing and more reading!” Ember shot back.
Twelve University Students Missing! Frat House Murder Produces More Blood Than Bodies!
Police have confirmed the blood found last week is human, but are unsure whether an actual crime has taken place. Twelve students remain missing, including the fiancé of the lone survivor….
“The ring!” Gwen cried. “The ring is the key!”
Forgetting the rice cooking on the stove, she galloped off upstairs, tugging at the thong she wore around her neck. Shaking her head as a mass exodus from the kitchen went rocketing in Gwen’s wake, Miss Sweider turned down the heat under the various pots. She had an entire afternoon of quiet, and she supposed she had Helmand to thank for that. All good things come to an end, she mused, noting Gwen’s excitement had sucked up even Aiko and Cantara with it. When had she become the old one?
Upstairs in the attic, Gwen held up the diamond ring, waiting for the others to settle in.
“The tragedy connected to this ring is linked to this room,” she announced. “We need to do a reading to be sure.”
“Um,” Gem objected, “next to that.” She pointed a shaky finger at the Zodiac.
Gwen frowned. “We’ll have to set wards. And strong ones.”
She made a quick headcount – three Wiccans in the middle to read the ring, two at each cardinal point, Guardian and crystal bearer. It was the strongest ward she knew. Crystal and Jen in the north, Aiko and Heather to balance them in the south. Cantara and Petra in the West, and Morgana and Kristen in the east.
The Wiccans got busy with chalk and crystals, creating a pattern on the floor to rival the one in the centre. Gwen called out the wards.
“I call upon Gabriel in the north, with earth ward our prayers. I call upon Uriel in the South, with fire ward our prayers. I call upon Michael in the east, with air ward our prayers. I call upon Raphael in the west, with water ward our prayers.”
It was a fusion of Catholic and Wiccan mysticism, and the strongest Brotherhood ward she knew. With a portal to Hell only inches away, she hoped it was strong enough.
Taking a seat in the centre with Jade and Gem, Gwen placed the ring on a black silk cloth. They aligned their crystals and linked hands.
“Remember,” Gwen warned, “this is only a reading.”
She closed her eyes and slipped into a light trance. In the distance, thunder chased lightning across the sky. The lights went out. A faint glow from the Zodiac was the only illumination. And then figures filled her inner sight….
Todd, Alex and Trav moved into the pentagram itself to complete the ritual. Gwen could see thirteen shadows now.
“Oh, Mighty Pisces, Lord of the Twelfth House, lend us your aid,” Todd intoned as he placed the last quest tile in place.
As Trav extinguished the candle, Todd placed the figurine of the Crucified Thief in its square.
“Oh, Mighty Phlegmatic Lords,” Todd concluded. “Rule the Fourth Quarter forever. Join us now as we complete our circle.
The circle surrounding the pentagram was definitely glowing silver. Along the perimeter, the other players grew noticeably paler in the eerie glow. Alex and Todd stood in the centre of the pentagram, with her one step ahead of him and facing outward. Todd’s skin glowed with the same light, and he could not seem to bring himself to move.
B.O. grew paler still and began to sway side to side. He vomited a stream of blood. Zeke moved to help him when he, too, was gripped by crippling cramps. Still unable to move of his own volition, Todd watched as one by one his friends began to vomit blood. Black and thick, it ran from their ears and nose. Alex turned to face him. Blood ran in rivulets from her eyes. He wondered if the tears streaming down his face were real or blood. He struggled to reach for Alex, to hold her, to save her. One hand barely had strength. A single tear rolled off his cheek.
Gwen screamed. The vision was so horrible that her eyes rolled back into her head. Her faint broke the connection as a brilliant flash of lightning lit the attic. Cantara flicked on a flashlight and moved to light the way as the Nordic twins lifted Gwen from the floor.
“Crystal, Kristen,” she instructed. “Go see to the lights. The rest of you, let’s get this mess cleaned up and head downstairs.”
Miss Sweider met them on the stairs with another flashlight and helped guide the girls down into the living room. They brought Gwen to the couch and laid her down, covering her with a blanket as she started to shake. Whatever she had seen, they would have to wait until tomorrow. She needed rest now.