It was hot in Africa. At least that was what you were led to expect when you thought about the Dark Continent. Not this endless downpour that drowned the world day and night. It looked like God had forgotten his promise not to let it rain for forty days and forty nights on this continent, and it felt like it had already rained for thirty of them. The streets of Johannesburg were flooded, and the cab that carried them from the airport to their hotel was throwing up walls of water on either side. A passing truck swamped the smaller vehicle, nearly washing it off the street with its wake.
In the morning, they looked onto a world that was still wet and grey. Drake and Angel were not looking forward to venturing out into that deluge to rent or buy an RV to tour the grasslands. Between the phone book and the local cab drivers, they were confident they could find a dealer; reaching it without a boat was another matter altogether. As impossible as it was to believe, the next day, it was raining even harder, the buckets of water nearly knocking them flat. Lightning licked the dark skies like dragon’s tongues. Visibility was so poor they could not even see the taxi that had stopped at the curb for them, a matter of fewer than five feet.
“We should have gone after the German,” Drake complained. “At least in Germany, they wouldn’t dump an ocean on us.”
Sitting in the cab, his clothes and hair plastered to him, and a puddle forming at his feet, he glowered at the angel who sat bone dry and immaculate. He wondered how long you would have to spend in purgatory for bitch-slapping an angel, and decided no matter how long, it might be worth it.
“The rain is good for a weed like you,” Angel teased. “It will make you grow big and strong.”
“Watch it, or I will invade your garden.”
The drive across the city was a harrowing experience. Drake was not sure if the city had streets or even buildings; he could see nothing beyond the curtain of grey. He wondered briefly if the plane had accidentally landed in Atlantis and not Africa. And then they reached the lot of the RV dealer, and it was time to climb back out into that mess.
They needed to rent an RV instead of the more ubiquitous Hummer because of Alvaro, who, like most vampyres, had an aversion to the sun. The less rugged vehicle would limit the terrain they could search through, but Angel meant to bring the RV into the savannah – the veldt as they called it here. They were looking for something high-end, durable – newer and in good repair. Not always easy in Africa, although the diamond mines brought wealth to South Africa, and where there was wealth, there were the toys of the wealthy.
There was no option to rent, not with what they were looking to drive. It had to be a straight-out purchase. The vehicle they chose was silver from bumper to bumper, gleaming even under the thick cloud cover. Even with the air conditioning, they would cook inside it beneath the African sun. No wonder its previous owner was looking to sell after barely putting a thousand miles on the speedometer. Angel preferred it to any of the others because of the shape of its suspension and its higher wheelbase – both of which he felt would serve them well out in the veldt. And the price suited their operational budget.
The drive back to the hotel was a watery nightmare. The water on the streets seemed even deeper, and potholes the size of craters opened up at random. One puddle was so large Drake thought Angel had left the road and driven into a small lake. And two young boys passing in a rowboat did nothing to shake that impression. Angel assured him he need not worry, his kind never got lost – although climbing to the top of a hill and coasting down into another wall of water added the lie to his words.
At the hotel, Drake swam into the lobby and crawled up to their room in search of anything dry. He was exhausted and hungry and was infuriated with his companion, who seemed to terrify the raindrops. As soon as he bit something that resembled a burger and fries, Drake planned to sleep until nightfall.
As the sun extinguished itself on the horizon, the Brotherhood agents prepared to leave for their trek into the veldt. Mercifully, the rain had eased off to become a minor deluge. They were barely more than soaked by the time they climbed into the RV, and you could actually see the headlights of other vehicles. Whoever coined the phrase ῾Sunny Africa᾿ was either insane or on drugs. Drake doubted the sun ever shone here. In another week, Johannesburg would be under a hundred feet of water.
Wait until they reached the veldt, Alvaro assured him. This was the rainy season, and it would rain every day. He was lying, of course. This amount of rainfall was abnormal, especially since it was the dry season. He hoped this was not the prelude to another demon hunt. At the rate things were going, their numbers would stay constant. He wondered what story the Zulu had to tell them.
This kind of trouble always occurred in threes.
Aiko and Helmand sat in a quiet corner of the attic. For the last two hours, he had watched her practice her katas, the only person outside the Hand to ever see her full workouts, and now she sat with her head resting on her shoulder.
“What language were you speaking with the demon?” She asked sleepily. He always made her feel drowsy.
Aiko frowned. The other girls all spoke Latin, and they had not recognized it. She said as much.
“That’s the difference between written and a spoken language,” Helmand replied. “Besides, exorcists use a very arcane version of it. I thought it would work best.”
“What did you say to it?” She asked, curious.
“I said if anyone was going to eat you girls, it would be me,” Helmand teased. “And I already would have if you all were not so sour.”
Aiko gave him a shot in the ribs, and he added. “And violent – probably give me indigestion for a month.”
“I am nobody’s food,” Aiko muttered darkly.
They fell silent, Aiko crawling into his arms. She liked to sit like this with her head resting on his chest. He always smelled of a spice she could not quite name, like cloves and sandalwood, vaguely alien, but pleasant. He made her feel safe as if she still belonged to someone or something. It had been a long time since she had felt that way, even with the Hand. Not the kind of total acceptance that Helmand offered her. She did not care that he was food, and since she would never take him as a lover, she would never feel the need to eat him.
“For food,” Aiko said, “you are past your expiration date.”
“Am I now,” Helmand replied, bending down and playfully biting her neck.
Aiko gave a startled squawk, and Helmand rolled to his feet. “And on that note, I have to be heading out. I’ll leave the rest of you for later.”
On the stairs leading to the ground floor, Helmand thought he heard a muffled sob. He paused, listening to the quiet house. It was coming from the living room. Silently, he ghosted down the stairs and crept into the darkened room, only a small night light casting any illumination. On the couch, a dark figure lay huddled, crying softly into a throw pillow. Even without light, he knew it was his new girl, Alexandra. Again without a sound, he found a seat on the couch and lifted her into his arms. For a long time, he sat there, saying nothing, letting her cry herself out.
“I miss Todd. And Matt, and Trav and Zeke,” Alex sniffled. “And mostly, I miss my grandmother. I want to go home.”
“If you leave now,” Helmand replied gently, “who will rescue your friends?”
“You,” Alexandra hiccupped.
“No, sweetheart,” Helmand smiled sadly. “I cannot do that. Only you can.”
They fell quiet, Alex burying her face in his chest and snotting and slobbering on his shirt. He never seemed to mind. He sat, rubbing her back, waiting for her to ask the questions he knew was coming.
“What happened to us?”
“One of you found a book in New York City?” Helmand had not meant it as a question, nor was there any accusation in his voice.
“The store was called the Mystical Curio Shoppe,” Helmand continued, “and the moment your friend bought the book, it and its proprietor disappeared.”
“He brought the book back home and shared it with his closest friends – all children from broken or soon to be broken homes, and all vulnerable. It introduced you to a game – something that was secret and belonged only to you. And the game seduced you and taught you things you would normally not do. Like stealing.”
“It wasn’t stealing,” Alex defended, “it was creative borrowing.”
“Oh,” Helmand smiled sadly, she looked so guilty she could not meet his eyes. “And would your grandmother say the same thing if we told her you were the one who burnt her favourite apron to create ‘ashes from a loved one’s most cherished possession’?”
“No,” Alex muttered.
“The game was not only a ritual. Its purpose was to corrupt thirteen souls, opening a gateway for the demon who crafted it. Twelve souls to sacrifice and one to possess. Twelve tarnished souls to pay the Ferryman.”
“But it was only a game,” Alex objected. “Lots of people played it.”
“No. Only five ever played it before you came to London,” Helmand replied gently.
“But what about all the chat rooms and blogs,” she pouted. “There were –“
“Things that only existed for the five of you. Hell’s own private intranet. As I said, the game only existed for one purpose – to corrupt the five of you and eight others.”
Alex fell silent, struck suddenly by the thought that the girl from Tennessee who she had chatted with for years had been – what? A bot or a demon? They had shared secrets, and only hers had been real. This was even worse than one of the nightmares that had troubled her sleep since she was a toddler.
“I don’t understand,” she complained. “What happened to Todd and the others?”
“Todd is currently incarcerated, suspected of the murder of you and the other eleven. And those eleven are trapped in Hell.”
“It was only a game,” Alex muttered, and then threw in, “if it takes twelve to pay the Ferryman, why am I here?”
“Because you are the one sacrifice Todd refused to make,” Helmand lifted her to her feet with him. “Come you should eat.”
Surprisingly, she was hungry. When Gwen brought her to the attic, it had all come rushing back – the blood, the pain, her death. Still too numb to cope with her memories, she had let the little Wiccan girl lead her downstairs. In the kitchen, they found the others cooking enough food to feed a small nation – all except the ones called Cantara and Aiko, who they referred to as the two cooks who had spoiled the broth. And she had eaten it all. A whole pot of spaghetti and meatballs, a dozen tacos, two dozen hot dogs – some without buns – and all the sandwiches they could make.
“Mom said,” Gwen explained, “that you will need to eat a lot, and to let you eat your fill.”
She felt like Slimer from the Ghostbusters and kept looking under her chair, expecting to see a pile of pre-chewed food beneath her. In the kitchen Helmand rooted around in the fridge and cupboards. There was not much left in the house after her last binge. He made a meal of soup and cheese and crackers. Setting it all before her, he took a seat across from her. Alex felt guilty eating it all herself, but he refused her repeated offers to share.
Later, Aiko climbed down from the attic, exhausted from hours of practicing her katas. She thought a snack would do her good and remembered she still had several bottles of blood in the fridge. If that thing downstairs had not eaten them too, bottles and all. Even if Gwen said the girl was not necessarily behind everything that had happened at the house, she did not like the thing. Forgiveness was not one of her strongest suits.
At the foot of the stairs, she paused, sensing a presence in the living room. Even in the dim light, she could see it draped all over Helmand. Aiko had never experienced jealousy. In the past, when she had a rival for a man, she simply killed and ate her. She wondered what ghost would taste like.
Aiko was still in the kitchen, sucking back her second bottle of blood when hunger drove Alex in looking for a snack. Moments ago, Alex had woken up in the living room alone and now found one of the strange girls drinking a bottle of foul-smelling wine.
“He’s mine, skank!” Aiko hissed.
“You take that back,” Alex threatened, “or I’ll slap you silly.”
“Try it slut.”
Alexandra’s mother had been the town slut. As much as she hated her mother, she hated that word more. It was so on.
“We’re throwing down, bitch!”
An angry vampyre was fast, an angry ghost slightly faster. It grabbed a handful of Aiko’s hair and pulled. The vampyre was so startled she forgot her training and grabbed the ghost’s hair, throwing her against the wall. She went through it and into the living room. Turning into mist, Aiko gave chase.
In the living room, they came together, two hissing balls of fury. The sound of breaking furniture roused the household. The three supernatural begins – Crystal, Cantara and Kristen – were the first to arrive on the scene, but by then, the fight had disappeared into the basement. Worried, they split up, fearing a large-scale vampyre invasion. Crystal raced off to investigate the noises coming from the basement, while Kristen guarded the stairs, and Cantara checked the doors and windows.
The pair materialized from a grate in the hallway between the kitchen and the back door, locked in a death grip. Startled, Cantara let out a squawk that sent Crystal racing to her side.
“It’s you two pets,” Cantara spat, “trying to mop up the house with each other.”
“Where did they go?” Crystal breathed.
Cantara pointed towards the ceiling.
Racing towards the stairs, Crystal shouted, “if you two don’t stop acting like buttheads you’re – you’re grounded for a decade.”
A head popped out of the ceiling, screaming, “you are not my mother!”
Something dragged Alexandra back through the ceiling, and they all heard the unmistakable sound of breaking porcelain.
“What made you think that would work?” Cantara asked sarcastically.
“It works for April,” Crystal sighed.
Crystal almost had them trapped in the attic. Almost with a ghost and a shape-shifting vampire was further away than in hand grenades and horseshoes. They tumbled down two stories, passing between Cantara and Gwen on their way to the kitchen. Plates and pots slammed into the vampyre, fists and feet pounded the ghost. Aiko’s curses rose to fill the house when it bit her. She was no-one’s food! She threw the fridge, crashing it through the wall and into the hall as it chased the poltergeist. Alexandra sent its contents spilling out towards the vampyre, and threw herself after it. The two collided against the wall separating the kitchen and the living room, melting through it.
How long had the fight been going on? Five, ten minutes? Chasing them through the house, Crystal frowned at the ruin that had once been her home. Was there even a piece of furniture still in one piece? When she caught the two, she would kill them and then ground them straight through the afterlife. How did the lamp end up halfway through the ceiling?
Something large and unearthly banged against the floor upstairs. Crystal made it downstairs when she threw up her hands and raced upstairs to investigate. With two supernatural beings fighting, the most the mortal girls could do was to try to stay out of the way of the flying debris, and all the other three supernatural beings could do was run in circles and pray for the combatants’ death. Miss Sweider tried calling out in an authoritative voice, but one of the girls was too angry to listen, and the other was not on her team and did not have the habit of listening to her.
They crashed through the living room ceiling, and suddenly Helmand was there. He caught one up in each arm.
And it was over.