Startled, Alexander woke with a vampyre hovering above her. Darkness lent her fangs extra inches. Her head was pillowed in the vampyre’s lap. The two girls glared at each other, deciding if and when they would throw down again, and waiting for someone or something to break the tense silence.
“You have a strong heart for a gaijin,” Aiko said after a long moment. “Trained, you would make an adequate warrior.”
Alexandra stared at her suspiciously, weighing her words for an insult. She shrugged. Both girls sported twin black eyes; Aiko had a bruise on her cheek, and Alexandra had a fat lip.
“How did I get up here?” She asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“Helmand says I am to guard your dreams,” Aiko replied, and then answered the challenge in Alex’s eye. “Obedience to one’s elders is honourable.”
“Better to find your own way,” Alex muttered. “Just because you lived a long time, doesn’t mean you know shit.”
“How will you find your way if you ignore the signposts set out by your elders,” Aiko paused. She was a poor judge of human age, and while older physically than the other girls, she thought this one was more of a child. “It is late still. Humans usually sleep through the night.”
“I’m too hungry to sleep,” Alexandra admitted. She was always hungry, no matter how much she ate.
“Come, April said you should eat,” Aiko rose to her feet in one fluid motion.
“Who is this April everyone is always quoting?”
“She is the sensei of our house,” Aiko replied. “And Gwen’s mother. Best, we don’t get on her bad side.”
Alexandra laughed. She could not picture this little vampyre girl being afraid of anyone – and that thought stilled her laughter. Who was this April? Even that butch Cantara was afraid of her, and she was pretty sure the djinn ate glass bottles for breakfast, washed down with a bucket of rusty nails.
The human girl ate like a grazing herd of elephants. Aiko did her best to help her prepare each meal, wondering where it all went. She was no bigger than Aiko herself. Five-foot two or a little less, slim with perhaps more chest and less muscle. She had no hips or belly to speak of, and the feast she ate did nothing to add to either.
Soon they retired to the attic, Sated, the ghost drifted off to sleep. And into a nightmare. Aiko frowned. She stroked the girl’s cheek as Helmand did her own to soothe her anger. And then the screaming started.
Gwen was the first one in the attic and seeing Alex sprawled on the floor, demanded. “Aiko. What did you do to her?”
“She is having a bad dream,” Aiko replied calmly.
“Well, wake her up,” Crystal snapped. God, she was growing bitchy from lack of sleep.
“But she must sleep,” Aiko protested.
“She’ll get no rest like that,” Gwen soothed, bending to wake the girl.
Gwen frowned. It was too hard to wake the girl from her nightmare, harder than it should be by a good country mile. When she finally woke up, they talked for a couple of minutes while Crystal fetched a pillow and blanket. Settling her down, Gwen gave Aiko a few whispered instructions before returning to her bed.
The dreams returned almost as soon as Alexandra fell asleep, and with them the nightmare. These dark dreams had started haunting her when she was two during that period when her mother would leave her at home alone and escape to the bar. Unable to afford both a babysitter and her drinks, she had sacrificed the welfare of her daughter on the altar of alcoholism. And the nightmares had troubled her sleep ever since, growing worse once she had come to London. Dark, terrible images that brought on panic attacks and often left her too frightened to scream.
Aiko frowned. The girl struggled with something in her sleep, thrashing under her blankets like a cat trapped in a bag. As Gwen had instructed, she tried to wake the girl. She frowned again. This stupid human child was determined to be contrary. She would not rouse from her dreams no matter how hard Aiko shook her, and her thrashing grew louder. The others would be thinking they were fighting a battle royal up here, but what could the vampyre do? It was time to wake Gwen before the girl hurt herself.
Gwen started from sleep. She swore she had only closed her eyes five minutes ago. Aiko was standing at the foot of her bed.
“The girl will not wake up from her dreams,” Aiko complained.
“She’s not doing it on purpose, Aiko,” Gwen teased when she saw the look on the vampyre’s face.
Aiko hissed. Humans were annoying, but that is what you get if you play with your food. She should have eaten the ghost-girl before Helmand made her responsible for her sleep. Together they woke Alexandra and brought her down into the living room, where hopefully her thrashing would not wake the others. Miss Sweider came down and fixed them all a glass of warm milk, something her mother had always done when she had nightmares as a child. The four sat on the couch until Alexandra fell asleep with her head pillowed on Aiko’s lap.
They shared Aiko’s vigil for another twenty minutes before the two humans sought their own beds. Twice more, Alexandra would wake them with her cries of alarm, and as the girl’s exhaustion grew, it became progressively more difficult to wake her. Finally, she dropped off into an exhausted slumber, and the entire household slept late to catch up on their rest.
The girls crept down into the dining room in a trickle of ones and twos. Keeping quiet beneath Aiko’s protective glare, they tiptoed around the kitchen, looking for breakfast.
“That’s the second night she’s kept me up,” Crystal complained. “Not that I need it, but I miss my beauty sleep.”
“Maybe we should put ghostie back where we found her,” Morgana grumped sleepily.
“Morgana Althea Adams!” Gwen scolded. “Don’t you be so cruel.”
“Sorry, mom,” Morgana teased.
“You know we don’t mean it,” Crystal sighed. “We’re all so tired we got our bitch on.”
“I don’t think these are normal dreams,” Gwen defended. “So, it’s not really her fault.”
“What do you mean?” Cantara asked, moving into the room to join the conversation. She didn’t need the sleep, and if she did not have to put up with fourteen overtired and cranky girls, it would mean nothing to her.
“I think her dreams are sendings.”
“Does that mean you can do something about it?” Crystal asked more sharply than she meant.
“Well,” Gwen hesitated, “if we do a dream reading, we could learn enough to ward her dreams. Maybe.”
“April would skin us alive,” Jade objected, “and then tan our hides for the next decade. You always want to try stuff that will get us grounded until we’re all ninety-year-old virgins.”
“Then why do you always go along with it?” Gwen challenged.
“Because we never get to try any of the really cool rituals back home.”
Alex felt the chill in the air after keeping everyone up for a second straight night and retreated up to the attic, where Ember and Aiko were doing an exercise. Distracted, she put down the book to watch. Their motions were so graceful and lithe. Her eyes became fascinated by the hypnotic rhythms, and the book lay forgotten at her side.
“What are you two doing?”
“Aiko is teaching me Vampyre Ninjitsu,” Ember enthused. “It’s wicked!”
“It is Ken-Kami, the fist of spirit,” Aiko replied dryly, “and it is not wicked.”
“Want to try?” Ember offered. “Aiko can show you.”
Aiko frowned. She already had two human students, Ember and Gwen, and as a master had a right to choose who to pass on the secrets of the Hand. Still, it felt wrong to teach non-vampyres.
“First, you must learn to focus your mind and control its force,” Aiko explained. “And then you must practice the balance between mind and body. And lastly, and most importantly, you must learn to fall –ˮ she paused, adding wryly, “without going through the floor.”
“Master these three simple lessons,” Aiko continued, lifting a disapproving eye at Ember, “before you can move on to the First Katas.”
“And how many Katas are there?” Alex asked, curious despite herself. She had already kicked this vampyre’s ass or at least fought her to a draw.
“Nine hundred and seventy-eight.”
It was a combination of the challenge and boredom that found Alex sitting cross-legged with the other two. Falling into a light vegetative state was easy in her exhaustion, but clearing her mind of all thoughts and emotions was nearly impossible. Too many things crowded her thoughts – Todd and her boys, the game and demons, the existence of souls and Heaven and Hell after a lifetime of disbelief. Too much emotional baggage from her past and her present, and only Aiko’s hypnotic voice to counter it.
For an instant, she saw that face from her nightmares – red eyes and razor-sharp teeth, pocked with boils and bristles of hair. And then Aiko led her into a place of peace and calm.
“Good,” Aiko spoke, shattering their meditation. “This you must practice every day until you can find your centre on your own. And you,” she turned to Ember, “you have been letting your training slip.”
“Sorry, Sensei,” Ember muttered. “Too much has happened lately. I know, a warrior does not make excuses, she finds a way.”
They moved on to balance and falls.
Meanwhile, Gwen was deep in conversation with Crystal, Cantara and Miss Sweider. Even if she allowed Gwen to attempt a reading of Alex’s dreams, the kind of ward Gwen envisioned would need to be active, and not passive. That meant one of them would have to monitor it through the night. And with who and what they were dealing with, that might be too much of a risk for a good night’s sleep.
“It’s obvious we’re being harrowed,” Cantara interjected, “and I agree with Gwen that the girl might be the gateway.”
“We can’t lose the girl,’ Crystal pointed out. “We need her. Shax was one of the prime movers behind the prophecies of Hsatan. He is the last one.”
“You can’t be sure that his death will end that threat,” Miss Sweider pointed out.
“No,” Crystal agreed. “It’s what Pope Sylvester and I always believed. And I have already removed the other three from the board.”
“We have a full coven,” Gwen decided, “if I use the three other supernatural beings. Whether it’s useful to us or not, as Wiccans, it is our duty to lend aid where and when we can. I have the power to relieve Alexandra’s suffering, and we will abide by the Three Fold Laws.”
Every Wiccan ceremony had different requirements, but similar preparations. The living room, both because of its size, and because faint traces of their previous wards still lingered, became their healing temple. Anyone could make chalk figures, as long as they knew how to stay within the lines. That’s how Cantara, Ember, Alex and Aiko found themselves roped into colouring with sidewalk chalks. And the djinn had to admit something was calming about the activity. Perhaps that was why every human child, at some point in their lives, found themselves seated at a table with crayons and colouring books.
Suppertime came and with it a renewal of appetites. The girls gathered in the kitchen to prepare two big pots of spaghetti and meatballs – one for the thirteen who partook of daily meals, and one for the ghost who was trying to eat her way into corporeal form. No-one dared tease Alex about her appetite under Gwen’s jaundiced eye, who was quickly becoming a tyrant. Alex was a Wiccan first, someone that was condemned to live out eternity as a poltergeist, and whose damaged soul had been healed. Gwen was damned if she was going to let anyone’s thoughtlessness ruin all their hard work.
Supper was a noisy, boisterous affair as the girls burned off some of their nervousness. Tonight’s ritual held more than a little danger. Aiko was learning the social importance of a meal, and although she would rather be anywhere else than here watching food graze, she forced herself to join the girls for at least one meal a day. The ghost – her student Alex, she corrected herself – still ate like a starving man at the last feast. Cooked meat and boiled plant material disappeared down her throat at such an alarming rate that Aiko found herself curious about where it all went. The girl should be as big as any ten sumo wrestlers. She edged her chair away nervously.
“Mom says,’ Gwen explained, “that you’ll eat like this for a while before your appetite begins to taper off.”
“Good,” Alex nodded, “cause I don’t think I could afford it.”
“Don’t worry about money,” Crystal slurped up a string of spaghetti, “the Ghost Sisterhood looks out for its own.”
“Don’t tell me you formed a fan club for little old me,” Alex teased. “I’m touched, but I’m not your type.”
“We’re on a mission from God,” Ember threw in, shrugging. “What? I couldn’t help myself.”
“The devil made you do it?” Morgana asked sarcastically.
“We’ll explain it all later,” Gwen cut in. “Let’s say, interested parties have asked us to do a little favour for them. Now, if you’ll excuse Ember, she has some dishes to do.”
“Me and my big mouth,” Ember muttered as she stomped into the kitchen.
It was time. With a belly full of food, Alex was lethargic enough to fall asleep. Gwen, Crystal, Aiko and Cantara sat on the floor in front of the couch, watching her. Alex found it difficult to fall asleep with an audience and said as much. Aiko began singing a Japanese lull-a-bye about cherry blossoms in the spring. She had a sweet, soft voice, and while she sang, the other girls activated their wards.
At first, she did not dream, and Gwen, who was watching for rapid eye movement, thought they might have to wait for another night. Time dragged on. It was hard to do nothing except twiddle with her crystal. As she matured, both as a person and a Wiccan, she was acquiring an inner stillness. At the moment, it did little to help with either her excitement or the anxiety that was making her need to pee.
Alex stirred, throwing off her blanket. Gwen reached to tuck her back in when a fist and the arm it was attached to came flailing towards her face. Aiko pulled her out of harm’s way.
“It is time,” Gwen breathed. “Drop into a trance and let me guide you. Remember, touch nothing when we enter her dream. Observe only.”
Gwen sought the centre of her crystal, focusing her mind, waiting for that light trance when her mind was receptive to other possibilities. She reached out for the others. Crystal, the black raven with gleaming red eyes, Aiko in her traditional ninja outfit, and Cantara, always underdressed in the crystal lattice. Her mother would have had a word or two to say about the djinn’s outfit if she were here to see it, but Gwen was too busy at the moment for such stray thoughts.
Dream reading was an extremely rare talent among Wiccans and dangerous as much because of ignorance as anything else. The psyche of both the subject and the Wiccan could be damaged by a misstep. Some of the most experienced Wiccan was loath to try it, and there were stories of women lost in the minds of their subjects, their own bodies an empty shell.
Tapping into the energy of four crystals, she made the step into Alex’s dream. At first, Gwen could only see darkness. Slowly, as her inner eye grew more focused, she recognized black shadows dancing amongst the darkness – shadows cast by flickering torches. Typical of Shax’s motif, she found herself in an underground temple. She let the dream pull her further inside, not attempting to move of her own volition.
Alex lay on a stone altar, her sheer robe covering almost nothing. Shax the Betrayer of Women - true to form. A twisted human form stood leering down at his sacrifice. In his hand, he held a wicked, curved dagger, gleaming ebony in the flickering torchlight. Surrounding both sacrifice and high priest, robed figures gyrated in a suggestive manner that made Gwen blush. Even clothed, that was too much – worse than the forbidden dance and a dirty rap video combined.
And then Crystal locked eyes on the twisted human and spat. “Shax!”
“Crystal! No!” Gwen cried.
Crystal shot off like a stooping hawk, pulling her companions along with her. The images from the nightmare shattered. A rapidly mutating dreamscape hurtled past them, each image darker and more lurid than the last. Twisted bodies, humans coupling with animals and demons, eviscerated bodies, battlefields of bloated bodies, flies rising from each in clouds…. Shax fled. Slowly, taunting the succubus with his existence, teasing her with his nearness. Cat and mouse, mouse and cat. Who was the fly, and who the spider? It was difficult to tell in this fragmented world leaking out of the demon’s mind.
Crystal was strong, even here. Her quarry underestimated both the focus of her anger and the power of the pranic energy unleashed within her. She had him trapped in some dark niche of Alex’s mind, someplace even she feared to tread.
Crystal leapt, and suddenly, Helmand was there. “Not here, little one. The time is not yet ripe.”
Snarling, Crystal surged through the dreamscape, seeking a way past the infuriating man. Where did that beast go? She knew Shax was still here. Crystal could smell him, taste him in every image in this world. There!
Lightning across a blighted sky, she leapt at her enemy. And again, the silver man rose to confront her.
“Not here, little one. The time is not yet ripe.”
Crystal’s scream of rage echoed across the dreamscape. “Four hundred years, I have waited. He is mine! I can kill him here!”
Gwen struggled to regain control of the ritual through the link, but there was no controlling Crystal’s fury while under the influence of that much pranic energy. Four hundred years was a long time to carry a grudge, and when that hatred was fuelled by the death of your soul mate and the life energy of several thousand vampyres, the need for revenge was like a nuclear reactor gone critical. Gwen rode a nightmare of her own and rode it bareback.
Shax had a fright, but he could see that his plan was working. The pranic energy from the thousands of vampyres she had eaten that night in Upyr was taking control. Soon it would be an insatiable feeding frenzy. All human lust and affection would feed it until she exploded like a supernova, shattering the Thirteen seals on the gates of Hell.
He miscalculated. There was no escape. He tried to flee this nightmare and found Crystal had sealed him in. She was a mere thought away from rending his flesh.
“Not here,” Helmand insisted. “Come, little one, this is not your time. Victory here would mean the death of all who are with you. Choose another time, another battlefield.”
Gwen and Aiko caught up with Crystal, wrapping her in a cocoon of love and shame. Love from Gwen, who would always see her as a sister, shame from Aiko, who saw her berserk rage as a dishonour to her clan – the Ghost Sisterhood. Still snarling incoherent threats, the succubus let herself be drawn back through the dreamscape. If not for Cantara and the other nine girls forming a beacon, Gwen would never have found her entry point. Exhausted, she fell back into her own mind.
“Wake her!” She croaked. “Wake her now!”
Gwen crawled over to Crystal as Aiko and Cantara moved to wake Alex. She had a headache that could kill a mule, and her vision was a watery blur. She shook Crystal until her eyes opened.
“I’m sorry, Gwen,” she husked. “It’s the pranic energy. Sometimes I can’t control it. It latches onto whatever strong emotion rises within me and starts running amok.”
“Just don’t ever take me along for the ride again,” Gwen teased.
“I’ll try, little sis,” Crystal smiled, “but I make no promises I can’t keep.”