They were stuck in the mud. Again. For the second time in three hours, they were towed out of a puddle. The first time a passing miner in a bright yellow Hummer had stopped to haul them onto the dry ground – a relative term in the non-stop slop pouring from the sky. This time it was a farmer and his team of oxen, Angel and the Wandering Jew working patiently with him and his animals while Alvaro sat behind the wheel.
To lighten the load, Drake and Jaime stood at the side of the road, a river of hair and water running down their faces. Drake was tired of being wet. He had heard of poetic fallacy, but this was ridiculous. The heavens could weep for Brendan all they wanted - please could they stop trying to drown the world in their sorrow. He could see the worry on the faces of the three supernatural beings, and despite the pundits on the radio blaming the unseasonable rainfall on global warming, Drake suspected something unnatural was happening. And he wasn’t sure he was going to like the answer the three gave him when he finally found the nerve to confront them.
Once the farmer had them out of the mud and accepted a bottle of wine from Alvaro’s private stash by way of thanks, the five climbed back into the RV. Three were leaving puddles on the floor of the cabin, scrambling for yet another change of dry clothes. It was the third time Drake had changed since leaving Johannesburg, and they hadn’t even reached the veldt yet. If this kept up much longer, they would be walking with a tent pitched over Alvaro to keep him out of the sun.
“I’ve heard of the rainy season, mate,” Jaime complained, “but this is bloody ignorant.”
“Don’t you think it’s about time you let us in on what you suspect is going on around here?” Drake grated. “I’m not blind. I see the looks you are exchanging.”
The three exchanged another look, this one to share the opinion that perhaps these two mortals were too perceptive for anyone’s good.
“In the time of Noah,” Angel explained carefully, “the Earth was rife with wickedness.”
“We’ve all read our Bibles,” Drake interjected. “Are you saying God is going to let it rain for another forty nights and forty days?”
“God was never the author of the original Flood,” Angel elaborated. “It was the wickedness of Mankind that released the water demons. God saved who and what he could, and after a struggle of forty days and forty nights, we angels bound the water demons in Hell.”
“What he is trying to say,” Alvaro added, “although it’s impossible, we suspect that someone or something has released a water elemental.”
“Normally they are very dangerous,” Angel went on. “This is not its habitat – at least not anymore. So think of it as a minor annoyance, like a mud puddle that varies in depth from two inches to ten feet.”
“In other words,” the Wandering Jew concluded, “even this far from a true water source, it is deadly. It might take a little more effort and stupidity to accomplish, but it will get you killed all the same.”
“And so,” Drake said, guessing, “if we seek the source of the rain, we will find our Zulu somewhere nearby.”
“Throwing spears at clouds, no doubt,” Alvaro sighed. “Why cannot we find one of these boys quietly teaching Sunday school?”
“If they didn’t have that itch for danger,” Drake replied, “Crystal wouldn’t be interested in them.”
Doubly unfortunate, Alvaro thought, the boy spoke only too true. If you did not dance with demons, you would never catch Crystal’s eye. Although most demons were based on fire or air, they all feed on things like hatred, greed and envy. And souls and pranic energy. Every demon could be banished, and all religions had some method to do this. There was only one God, no matter how you addressed him, or in what clothing you wrapped him in – Judeo-Christianity or Pagan mysticism. His precepts binding demons to Hell held sway throughout creation.
A water demon would attract storms to it, like the eye of a giant hurricane. Using satellite maps downloaded onto the laptop, when and where a signal was unavailable, and following local newscasts or merely the sky itself, they tracked the thickest weather. They left the road for the High Veldt with only the lightning for illumination. Alvaro, with his ability to see in the dark, and Angel with his innate talent for avoiding pitfalls, spelled each other driving. Twice they bailed out to push the beast from a mud hole, and Drake gave up changing into dry clothes. He had one pair of dry pants left, having only packed for one week, and the rain kept falling endlessly.
A fire burning in the cave glowed orange upon the rocks. Against the unrelenting greys and blacks of the failing daylight, the brightness of the fire stood out like a beacon. The lightning here near the centre of the storm was thick, striking two or three times a minute. It lit the sky like a strobe light and would have hidden the fire but for its size.
Anyone camping in the veldt in this weather was someone with whom they wanted to speak. Alvaro parked the RV as close to the base of the hill as possible, and the five climbed out into the rain shrouded night. The cave itself was formed by boulders that had collected when the hill had collapsed.
Inside, standing like a redwood among a large group of Bushmen, the Zulu towered seven feet tall. His skin so dark, he looked to have been carved from ebony, and he leaned against a spear half as tall again as himself. The thirty-eight bushmen, far from home here in the Gauteng province, gave the encampment the look of a Brotherhood operation. Thirty-nine with the Zulu, they formed a full circle – they were hunting demons.
In the attic of the King Street house, Gwen, Crystal, Morgana and Cantara met for a quiet word. The object of their conversation was currently downstairs supervising Aiko and Alexandra as they replaced the drywall over one of the many holes their battle had left in the walls and ceilings.
“I like him too, Gwen,” Crystal agreed. “That’s not the point. He speaks like a Brotherhood agent and knows things no civilian should. We trust him too much for someone we know nothing about.”
“Since he’s been here,” Gwen countered, “he’s been a really big help.”
“Crystal’s right,” Cantara added, “there’s something not normal about him. He speaks too many obscure languages. Look how he read that Wiccan text – ˮ
“Or spoke with that demon,” Crystal pointed out. “Or caught Aiko and Alexandra. When they got their inner demon up, it’s like trying to catch a humming bird’s wings.”
“Nothing he’s done has caused us any harm,” Gwen accused. “You’re lucky he was here to stop Aiko and Alexandra while you still had some house left.”
“I agree with Gwen,” Morgana interjected.
“Nevertheless,” Crystal insisted. “There’s something non-human about him. It wouldn’t hurt to find out more about him. Remember: There are twelve battles in Hell that sprang from the twelve choirs in Heaven. There are five Archangels in Hell: Hsatan and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. There are six Archangels in Heaven – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Saraqael, and Remiel. Five and six make eleven. Who and where is the twelfth Archangel? Morgana, your split skill set is computers. I don’t care if you have to hack into every database of every government in the world, find out who he is.”
As budget constraints worsened, students at the Academies were dual-trained. Morgana thought of herself as Goth, specifically a lure, a vampyre or demon hunter who baited the ambushes set up by the thirteen. In truth, she was also a technical support specialist with a strong computer background. Illegal access to networks and data mining was a big part of their information gathering. They had dozens of ways of hacking into databanks – bots, and backdoors and Trojans. And sometimes physical assets – human agents – within the target.
Morgana inserted a special key into a USB port of her laptop, the algorithm onboard allowing her access to a proxy server that would hide her trail. That proxy server was hidden deep within a NIS computer and would bounce her signal through a computer in the former KGB, and then a second within the Israeli intelligence until her activities were almost untraceable. The proxy server itself was built into the chips of these computers and worked at the machine code level far below the operating system. Sweeps for spyware never went that deep.
An hour of searching, starting with the obvious – Google, Yellow Pages, and several Who’s Who sites – got her nowhere. Every hit she made returned the same page.
Have faith, sweet child, all will be revealed in time.
She gave it one more hour, trying a few Canadian government sites before taking her laptop to Crystal.
“That looks vaguely biblical,” Gwen commented.
“Great,” Crystal snapped. “We don’t have time to search the entire Bible.”
“Demonic writing often sounds Biblical,” Cantara teased, and a chilled silence fell over the four. They still hadn’t figured out how Shax and his vampyre allies always knew their plans.
It was time to go lose their last game. While Helmand chose to stay behind to work on some repairs, Alexandra fled with the girls to the game. Loaded into the extended van, the sixteen girls and adults scrambled to dress for a game they were in jeopardy of being late for, pulling on uniform jerseys and knee pads as Miss Sweider drove across town. Volleyball was for dweebs, Alex thought. And still, it was better than drywall, and while not exactly quiet at courtside, it gave her time to read the book she had retrieved from her secret stash.
The game pieces – the ones they had found at the house – were locked up in a police evidence locker. The book, the demon-written journal where she had recorded the logs from every game they had played, and the game pieces Todd had made were still where she had hidden them. Hidden, not only because she did not trust these girls, or that Helmand would not approve, but because she was not ready to share this last link to her old life with anyone.
With the book beneath her shirt, she followed the others into the Labatt’s Centre and found a seat on the bench near Miss Sweider. While the girls prepared for the game, Alex brought out her book, deciding to read it cover to cover. It was the only way she could be sure to find a way to free her friends – and there had to be a way somewhere on one of its pages. The problem with randomly flipping through the pages of this book was that it was almost impossible to find the same page twice. For one, there were no page numbers. For another, the pages seemed to shuffle themselves randomly throughout the book, a characteristic she had once seen as fascinating, and now found utterly frustrating.
The Ghosts were losing their first game, Alex was sure of that. She added her voice to the other girls shouting encouragement, turning her eyes back to the book. The first section of the volume was about the rules and history of the game. Its claim to almost magical properties had appealed to her for the same reasons the Goth subculture had. Both, as she was, were things rejected by mainstream society. She was snubbed by most of the girls in her hometown because who her mother was and chose – if not quite her own way – a path that was furthest from that taken by her classmates.
Alexandra had blonde, shoulder-length hair – dyed black in life before her death – fine features, a baby’s nose, and startling green eyes. Sometimes she would change her eye colour, purple or red, or once with a pair of skulls with designer contacts. Unfortunately, she had her mother’s overdeveloped chest, the one that started all the trouble in her and her daughter’s life. Alex’s face had always been covered with white cake, her lips blackened with lipstick, and her eyes two masks of mascara. She had been a hard girl with a strong undercurrent of vulnerability, desirable without a conscious need or want to be desired. That had been her life before her death. Now she no longer knew who or what she was, and doubted she ever had.
The first game was lost. The girls looked tired out there, and Alex knew that was partly her fault. Hers and the little bitch who thought she was a vampyre. With everything she had been through over the last thirty-six hours, Alex could almost believe she was. ‘Ha!’ she thought, ‘I kicked a vampyre’s ass. Oh yeah! I’m a badass. Put that in your pipe, Matt, and smoke it.’
Alex looked down at the book and frowned. She had tried bookmarks in the past, but they always seemed to disappear, as if the book were swallowing them. Now the words on the page had seemed to rearrange themselves, and she was having trouble finding her place. The Ghosts must be doing better this game because the bench was by turns more noisy and quieter than it had been the last game. If a sudden burst of cheering caused her to look up, she would lose her place, and finding it again was a Herculean task. Whatever, she was motivated and stubborn beyond her years.
Something of what Helmand said about this book must be true. Only a demon or an asshole would write a book that was almost physically impossible to read, and yet whose content was so fascinating and addictive. There was something magical about this book. Alex had always believed it, and it was what had always drawn her to read it so often.
The Ghosts won the second game, and the two teams were playing out the rubber match. It was just as well, Miss Sweider thought. The last four games of the playoffs would be televised, and another display like earlier in the week would attract far too much attention. Already they would be returning with one less driver and an extra girl, and she did not know what to expect at the border. How closely did they keep track of a girls’ volleyball team in the post-nine-eleven era? And where were the girls going to sleep tonight with three of the beds still broken, and only one toilet to keep up with all sixteen of them? Next time she was sending April along with the girls, and she would stay behind to deal with the vampyres and the Brotherhood Schism back home in peaceful New York. It had to be easier.
Alexandra let the girls gather her up after they lost their second game of the day and their last game of the tournament. She let Gwen lead her out to the van, never taking her eyes off the book. There was too much historical data for no-one ever to have played the game before, and the text sited dozens of other historical works. Surely some of them were real? Their names sounded like old historical farts – Rene Ghirlandaio, Giovanni Pinturicchio, and Victore Sodamo – and Alex remembered finding one or two of them when she did a Google search. Although Helmand had told her the sites did not exist, like one of those worms that redirected your browser to fake web pages and search engines, she did not want to believe it.
At the house, there was no more time for reading as Alexandra and Aiko returned to punishment detail. There were holes to patch, mudding, sanding and painting, furniture to reassemble and glue, and a dozen things that needed to be swept and mopped and cleaned. How did the two of them manage to do so much damage? There was no way around cutting the lamp out of the ceiling and the floor above. How it had managed to get stuck halfway between the two rooms neither of them could say, although Alex vaguely remembered trying to shove it down Aiko’s throat. And the toilet? Blame that one on the vampyre and her wild kicks and punches.
By the time supper was served, Alexandra was exhausted. How the little shit could work all day, play three games of volleyball, work some more, and still not be the least bit tired was beyond her. And the little kiss ass would have worked longer if Miss Sweider hadn’t said they had done enough for one day and could take the rest of the evening off to watch movies with the other girls. Besides, Helmand said the mud and the glue had to dry overnight, so they couldn’t start sanding and painting until tomorrow anyway. Almost falling asleep over her plate of pork chops and cream corn, Alex shovelled the food into her mouth robotically, not noticing she was already on her seventh helping. Her increased appetite hadn’t added an ounce to her, so why should she care?
In the living room, Alex sat in a corner furthest from the vampyre, reading by the nightlight while the others watched a movie about vampyres and werewolves. She smiled secretly to herself. Now she was sure she knew where they got all their crazy notions about demons and vampyres and curses. Too many horror movies and too many novels, nothing but. There was not one comedy or action movie, every single DVD in their collection focused on zombies and other undead creatures, apocalyptic invasions and demon possession. It was an obsession that was becoming their reality, and she was not too sure she was not being drawn into their world view.
Hey! She could walk through walls. Call that normal, she dared you.
The book was up to its old tricks. She was frustrated in her search to pick up her reading from where she had left off in the afternoon and refused to let the text play her again. Looking up, she found the girl Gwen at her side, one of her annoying crystals shoved in her face doing a reading.
“Sorry,” Gwen shrugged. “Mom wants me to take a reading and call her every night. None of us have ever done this before. I mean, raising someone from the dead is like mind-boggling or something.”
“So, I was really dead?” Alexandra did not know whether to laugh or cry.
“I don’t know,” Gwen shrugged.
She noticed the book the girl was hiding under one leg, frowning at the black streaks it sent skittering across the surface of her crystal. “Helmand says we’ll be able to help your friends, and I trust him. He reminds me of Jean-Claude.”
“Who is Jean-Claude?” Alexandra asked, startled that she was curious. In a way, none of these people were real to her.
“Jean-Claude was like my dad, I guess,” Gwen replied quietly. “My father died before I was born. Mom was renting an apartment in his house in Montreal while she was going to school, and we lived with him. When we moved to New York City, he came with us and bought the building we live in now.”
“I never knew my father,” Alex offered. “I don’t think my mother did either. He left before I was born, and then my mother took off when I was two. I was raised by my grandmother.”
Soon after the reading, the girls retired upstairs. The house was quiet when Helmand came down from checking the caulking on the new toilet. Pausing on the stairs as a strange sound from the living room caught him in mid-step, he listened to what sounded like a tag team cage match, and Alex was on the bottom. A frown crossed his features. He had hoped it would end with her rescue from Limbo and knew in his heart that her trials and tribulations were only beginning. She had a long road to go before she found redemption. Many heartaches, many long, lonely hours with no one to help.
In the living room, he found her rolling on the floor amid a nightmare. Without waking her, he lifted her into his arms, gently stroking the side of her face to still her troubled dreams. She had no one in the here and now, no one except for one girl who shared her isolation, and it was to her that he carried Alex. With the shortage of beds, Aiko had set herself up in the attic, rolling out a mat that she used more for meditation than sleeping. She was sitting there meditating when Helmand lay Alex down, pillowing her head in Aiko’s lap.
“Each night she wrestles demons in her dreams,” he whispered, stroking Aiko’s hair until the anger left her eyes. “Watch her, guard her dreams. Do this for me, for her, and for yourself.”