Misdirection and deceit were the watchwords for the day. With a few quick alterations to Brendan’s passport, replacing his picture with Jaime’s, the five unofficial Brotherhood agents boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport bound for Africa. The Zulu warrior it was. The girls had won out and chose the African over the German – more for his pecs and his salty eyes, Alvaro suspected than for any skills he possessed. Admittedly, his abilities to track demons and other supernatural creatures were slightly better than the German. Still, Alvaro preferred the discipline of the German over the wild independence of the Zulu. Sometimes discipline was all you had when the shit hit the fan, and things looked bleakest. And, if you could not trust your companions to stay the course, to stick to the plan and not to a personal agenda, independence could place the entire squad at risk.
At his side, Drake sat in a dark sulk. He had wanted to text the news of Brendan’s death to Crystal, but Alvaro suggested he wait until he saw her at the end of the week. Some news was better broken face-to-face. And though the boy knew the vampyre was right, he did not have to like it.
He looked over at Jaime and tried not to glower. Crystal was right – they would need the Brit’s spelunking skills. The problem was they also needed Brendan, who was far more skilled underground than any human could be. It may not have been the best trade they could have made, and it would be difficult to replace the vampyre. They now needed another specialist, and he doubted they could poach or even trust another from the source where they had found the four they already had. Drake had an idea. Would Alvaro make a detour to Australia on a rumour that was more mist than myth?
Drake settled back and closed his eyes. It was a long flight to Africa. As Gabriel had taught him, a soldier caught sleep where and when he could.
Gwen woke up crying and immediately called her mother. Nor would she talk to anyone else until after she got advice from April. Mother and daughter talked for two solid hours.
“It was horrible, Mom,” Gwen wailed, crying for ten minutes before she could get another intelligible word through her tears. “We did not go anywhere near Shax, honest mom! This thing is in the house. All we did was visit the Wiccan woman and her granddaughter - like you said we could.”
She fell silent as her mom started off on a long-winded lecture. “Mom! Listen! Uuuuugh! The vampyres found us – all we were doing was having a wiener roast. It’s Delph. That boy has some kind of sick thing for Crystal – he’s stalking the girl.”
Again she listened to April. Some mothers only had to worry about their daughter becoming homesick when they left for the first time. Demons and vampyres were a headache April could live without. Perhaps London was not such a good idea.
“No, Mom,” Gwen sniffled. “The vampyres came here. Well, you were the one who told us we could investigate Jean-Claude’s ghost! I’m not yelling! Besides, with all the weird stuff happening around here, we had no choice.”
Her mother sighed and asked about the Summoning Circle.
“We wouldn’t even have known about it if it weren’t for Helmand. It’s creepy how Aiko has been dancing across it all this time. Oh, he’s some guy Aiko met. Ugh, Mom, you’re so gross sometimes! He’s like – oh, I don’t know – a million or something.”
“Mom, she was thrown from a Summoning Circle,” Gwen flounced on the bed, exasperated. “Who? The girl from the group of kids who died here, the ones who summoned Shax. When? Oh, God, mom! Don’t you ever listen?”
“We did a reading on the ring Crystal found,” she explained as patiently as an upset teenage girl could manage. “No. A second time. We wanted to see if the tragedy connected to the ring was also connected to the Summoning Circle. Okay, I wanted to.”
She was rolling her eyes. “Of course I set a ward, I’m not stupid. The strongest one you taught me. Yes, I know we don’t have a full coven, but I have Crystal, Aiko, Kristen and Cantara.”
“Mom, what’s going to happen to the girl? She was thrown from a Summoning Circle – at the height of the ritual. It was horrible. They were all bleeding. Blood was tearing from her eyes when the boy who was possessed shoved her out of the circle.”
“Oh yes,” excited, Gwen sat up. “It was definitely him. Is this important? I think she’s here mom. Can we do anything to help her?”
Gwen hung up the telephone and went downstairs, pausing in the bathroom to wipe the mascara off her face. She had not washed her makeup off last night before collapsing into an exhausted sleep, and her tears had left black rivulets on both cheeks. She still looked like a raccoon when she joined the rest of the Ghost Sisterhood in the living room. They had no games today and only the one set tomorrow in the qualifier for the consolation round. None of the girls felt very much like playing anyway. They were all overtired and more than a little homesick. Some serious pillow time was needed by all, and not just for sleeping.
“We’re ready to listen, girlfriend,” Ember offered, sinking down on the couch beside Gwen, “if you are ready to talk.”
“It was all so,” Gwen was at a loss for words. “I’ve never seen anything so deeply disturbing. There were thirteen of them like Helmand said.”
They stood at eleven of the twelve Zodiac houses, pale and gaunt like the ghosts they would soon become. Two stood in the centre of the star. They were a little older than us, some of them in full Goth regalia.
The circle glowed even though only one of the twelve candles were lit. Most of them were only shadows in the darkness. Closer to the floor, I could see clearer. I think the surrounding circle itself was lit by a silvery light.
Strange items surrounded the board, and at each house, little figurines stood emanating different coloured lights. Only eleven glowed. The boy who would become Shax held the twelfth figurine. They all looked tired and happy as he started to conduct a strange ritual, almost worshipful.
And then, one of the shadows crumpled over. I could not see the others as clearly as the two in the centre, but the blood seeping across the floor of the Summoning Circle was so vivid. Unnaturally bright. The girl had her back to me. She turned to him, blood seeping from her eyes and her nose and her mouth.
“Like Aiko when she’s feeding,” Morgana teased, sticking her tongue out at the vampyre when she hissed.
“When the ritual reached its height,” Gwen continued, “he shoved her out of the circle. Mom says that’s important. She says the ring is the key to saving her. Only -.ˮ
“Only what?” Crystal snapped. She was becoming blinded by her thirst for vengeance against Shax.
“She wouldn’t truly be alive,” Gwen tried to explain. “Not like you and me. She might be able to take corporeal form if we can get the ring to her. But she died and is trapped someplace between life and death.”
The girls fell silent, digesting Gwen’s words. Only Ember could relate to being dead, or somewhere close to it, having come so near to the grave herself. The others could only confront their own mortality and shiver.
“At least,” Miss Sweider offered, “you could give her soul some peace.”
“She’s also been trapped in a non-world for several years,” Gwen warned. “She may not be sane anymore.”
“What do you want to do?” Morgana asked.
“We need to make contact with her,” Gwen explained, “and then find a way to take the ring to her.”
“I think I can do it,” Cantara offered. “It can’t be much different than planar travel, and I have travelled with Angel once. I think I saw how he did it.”
“A séance then,” Gwen concluded. “Mom says not near the Summoning Circle, and not to wait until dark. Oh, and we need to find out her name. I can’t very well sit there yelling out hey you.”
“I’m on it,” Morgana leapt up.
“Bet I find it first,’ Ember challenged. “Loser runs naked around the block!”
“No streaking,” Miss Sweider warned. “The neighbours will complain.”
“We might as well use the living room,” Crystal suggested. “It’s the largest room.”
The girls set to work, preparing for a major ritual. With the furniture removed from the living room and the rug rolled up, they made room to draw their wards. Jade directed several of the Wiccan girls, scribing complex symbols on the floor with chalk. They used a spray bomb of Fix-It to keep the chalk from smearing, making it semi-permanent. With cathode and the crystal raven, Gwen charged their crystals. The ritual set of twelve crystals she had used as a child had been replaced by April and Jean-Claude with a fuller, more powerful set on her sixteenth birthday – Wiccan crystals must always be given freely as a gift, but charged by their user. Until today they had sat untouched in an ornate wooden chest, set in partitions of felt and silk. Some were amethysts, some amber and quartz, and there were a diamond, ruby and emerald – uncut, and hand-polished. Most were meant for healing, but for this, she would use them all.
April and Gwen had charged each crystal in different rituals according to their natures. Some could only be powered by moonlight, in a wooded glade through one complete phase of the moon. Each crystal held unique properties – some were tuned to earth, some to water, and still others to the spirit. Choosing carefully, she placed a crystal on each ward as it was drawn – not yet activating them. Even when the ceremony started, they would need to keep their circle open, leaving two wards uncharged until and if the spirit arrived. Miss Sweider and Kristen would handle this. Gwen would have preferred setting Aiko here but sensed she would need her in the central circle.
With the wards set, they broke for lunch. Gwen was learning the importance of wards, especially after what happened on Crystal’s birthday. Any Wiccan ceremony with a supernatural being was dangerous, and tonight she was conducting one with four. Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she had not eaten breakfast. Cantara and Aiko had made lunch of soup and sandwiches. Gwen took one of the sandwiches Aiko had prepared and lifted its bread suspiciously.
“Who is this, anyway?”
“Helmand,” Crystal drawled, “I haven’t seen him all day, have any of you?”
“Peanut Butter and Cheese Whiz,” Aiko replied flatly.
“Oh, Aiko,” Gwen laughed, “it’s supposed to be peanut butter and jelly.”
“Jelly is fattening,” Aiko retorted. “With hips like those, you will never get a man of your own.”
“Burn, girlfriend!” Morgana reached up to bump fists with Aiko.
“You chose it,” Crystal said around a laugh, “now you got to eat it.” Taking a bite of her own sandwich, she choked. “Aiko! Did you mix mayonnaise with the jelly?”
“You chose it, now you got to eat it,” Gwen replied smugly. She was hungry enough even to eat that but felt lucky she had the one with the cheese spread.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon when the entire household gathered in the living room. The curtains were drawn closed, and a dozen candles were lit. At Gwen’s nod, the other Wiccans began setting the wards, all but the two guarded by Kristen and Miss Sweider. She sat in the centre circle with Crystal, Aiko and Cantara, fussing with four crystals that she had arranged and rearranged a dozen times already. Reviewing her preparations in her mind, Gwen cast her eyes about the room. Thirteen candles sat about their Summoning Circle, twelve of them lit. The lights were out, and she could see a faint emanation from the wards as they became active. It was time.
Gwen spread out a red silk cloth and placed the ring in the exact centre. She nodded for the other three to pick up their crystals.
“Join hands,” Gwen instructed. “Clear your minds.”
It was easiest for Aiko, who often meditated for hours and even days on end. The djinn was still by nature and Gwen had been holding séances since she was six or seven. For Crystal, whose mind was crowded with the memories from hundreds of lives, keeping her thoughts still was a struggle. In quiet moments the memories of her past came cascading through her mind, mixing with the pranic energies in a turbulent froth. And then Gwen felt that subtle shift and knew their minds were now receptive to the supernatural. Alexandra would come. The ring and her two favourite targets were waiting for her.
“Alexandra?” Gwen called in a whisper. “Come home, Alexandra. You have been away too long.”
Thunder burst from a sunny sky. The power went out, something they barely noticed in the darkened room. The twelve candles flickered, burning even brighter for a heartbeat before going out altogether. In total darkness, they sat, waiting with bated breath. Nothing but the darkness.
And then the thirteenth candle sparked to life.
“Now!” Gwen hissed.
A chill rose to fill their Summoning Circle. Struggling against the cold, Kristen and Miss Sweider began the incantations to close the wards. Beyond, darkness leached up from the floors and oozed from the walls.
“Mine!” It screeched, streaking across the room. “Give it back, or I’ll kick your asses!”
The darkness beyond the circle became blacker. It coalesced, gathering substance and form. Lightning flickered amidst the blackness, crimson and green bolts veining its surface. Their circle was still open when a voice boomed out.
“Her soul belongs to me, Crystal Raven!” Shax threatened. “I will not let you have her!”
Crystal leapt to her feet, eyes so red they lit the inner circle with their light.
“No!” Gwen warned. “Crystal, do not break the circle! If you break the circle, he can enter.”
The succubus was too far gone in her hatred. When it seemed everything was coming undone, Helmand walked in the door.
“That is not how it works, dear Shax,” he spoke to the demon in a language none of the girls recognized nor understood. “Her true love’s sacrifice has earned her a chance at redemption.”
“The girl is mine, according to the ancient covenant,” Shax spat. So this is what has hidden the girl from him, this filth. “She has freely offered her soul to the darkness.”
“Through trickery and seductions,” Helmand smiled sadly. “And still the sacrifice was made, and by the rules of the self-same covenant, your right to her has been ceded. Now leave this place. Or shall we dance?”
The darkness became a whirlwind, rattling the window and stirring up dust and random articles in its path. As Shax’s frustration became a tornado of rage, he smashed against the now completed circle, weakening the wards. But their lights held. With one last clap of thunder, the demon threw himself against the Summoning Circle and blinked out.
“Now Cantara,” Gwen hissed.
The girl threw herself against the djinn as she picked up the ring, but she had no form or substance. Cantara ignored the poltergeist, holding the ring in the palm of her hand and her gaze on the aura beyond its physical form. Her eyes lost their focus, her vision splitting between the here and now and the plane where the ring was drawing her. She took a step and found herself in her own plane. Frowning, the djinn stepped back to the world of men, and the girls could see her once again. This was not as easy as Angel had made it seem. There was some invisible thread that connected her to her own plane, and she needed to find a way to ignore that pull while she was in the betwixt and between.
She kept her focus on the ring, ignoring Gwen’s warning to hurry. There was no time here. She stepped into the world beyond this one, a world without sights or sounds, boundless and without horizons. This was a place of fogs and mists and shadows. In the human plane, she was standing less than a foot from the girl, here there was an unfathomable gulf between them. Cantara needed to search through the fog and discovered that here thought was action. Gwen was right. On the plane she had come from time was running short. A thousand images and memories flashed before her mind’s eye as she ran, faster and faster, until she grew dizzy and felt nauseous.
Coming to a halt, feeling as if she were breathing hard after a gruelling twenty-mile marathon, she rethought her plan. This was definitely not the way to go about it, Cantara decided sardonically. Slowly, one thought, one memory at a time, she moved. Faster and faster, still careful not to leap into a speed spiral, she searched through the mists and shadows. She saw others, or felt, or sensed their presence – whatever worked here in the other realm. None of these was the one she was looking for, but how she knew, or why it was so hard to find a presence that was only a foot away from her on the human plane she could not say. Nothing here made any sense.
And then, there she was. She looked small and insignificant compared to the presence she cast in their Summoning Circle, smaller even than Aiko maybe. She was staring – glaring actually – at something or someone who Cantara could not see. With a thought, she moved to the girl’s side. With another, then held up the ring with an open hand.
“Take it,” Cantara instructed. “Put it on and take my hand.”
Tentatively, the girl reached out. And quickly snatched her hand away. With a thought, Cantara reached out and grabbed her hand, placing the ring in her hand.
“You must put it on and take my hand.”
Still, the girl hesitated, not as bold and aggressive here as she was in the physical realm. She slipped the ring halfway on. Gwen had been very precise in her instructions – if the girl did not take the ring and put it on of her own free will, they could do nothing to help her. Cantara, who had the bedside manner of a rusty file grating on your nerves, could not smile here even if it was her habit. She tried sending reassuring thoughts, and the girl seemed to respond. With aching slowness, she slipped the ring fully on her finger. Looking up at Cantara with frightened eyes, this stranger without form reached out and took Cantara’s hand.
And they were there, standing in the Summoning Circle in the living room of a house on King Street. The girl looked around wildly, confused and frightened, hiding both behind a mask of anger and aggression. She looked and saw the ring on her finger, and then back at the strangers who were in her home.
“Who are you?” She demanded. “What are you doing in my living room?”
Gwen stood up and grabbed her into a hug before Alexandra could react. “We did it! We saved you, Alexandra.”
“My name’s Alex,” she shot back, trying to pry herself free from the other girl, “and the only one I need saving from now is you!”
“Ease up a little, girlfriend,” Crystal laughed, “you’ll crush her. I’m Crystal Raven, and these are the Ghosts. I own this house now, and we are staying here while we are playing in a volleyball tournament.”
“Bullshit!” Alex spat, “Todd, Zeke and I are renting this place. I have a lease.”
“Um,” Morgana suggested, “maybe you should read this and then we will explain. Is it okay to leave the circle?”
“Yeah,” Gwen nodded.
Alex noticed the chalked symbols on the floor as the lights came on. Helmand came up from the basement, and she turned, saying, “this is kind of cool. But this is still my house.”
“Peace little one,” Helmand smiled, walking over to take her hand, “your ordeal is almost over.”
Feeling strangely comforted in the old man’s presence, she let him lead her into the dining room, where Morgana was setting up her laptop. She took a seat beside the strange girl, one of the two wearing Goth regalia and more comforting for its familiarity. She recognized Google when it came up, and the site of the local paper. While Trav was always the one who was big into computers, she had done enough surfing over the years to know her way around a keyboard and the internet.
“Read this,” Morgana suggested gently, “
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….
“Bullshit! This is all bullshit!” Alex exploded. “They’re all upstairs sleeping!”
“Sweetheart,” Miss Sweider soothed. “While exploring the house, we found the Summoning Circle up in the attic.”
“It’s only a game,” Alex muttered darkly.
“It’s more than a game,” Gwen explained patiently. She took the girl’s hand without asking. “Come, I will show you the rest of the house while the others make you something to eat. Mom says you will need to eat – and lots.”