The Bushmen were roasting the remains of a giraffe. Drake and Jaime accepted a piece for no other reason than to say they had – bragging rights at any bar or pub later in their lives. The others declined, too worried to eat. They waited for a moment to talk with the Zulu. Angel, of course, understood and could follow the conversation of the Bushmen, and he spent much of the evening translating for his companions. A lot of it was the good-natured teasing one found among every group of men gathered around a fire. Only occasionally did anyone mention anything about the rain, and then only in cryptic comments.
“You are Brotherhood men,” the Zulu accused.
“In a roundabout way,” Alvaro admitted. “While we are part of the Brotherhood, we are not here on behalf of the Brotherhood.”
“Why are you here, then?” He asked suspiciously, saying something to the Bushmen that made them laugh. “Surely, you are not here for the sunshine.”
Alvaro smiled, showing his fangs, “we came for you.”
“Specialist, then are you?” The Zulu retorted, still not giving them his name. “And what would you want with me?”
“We are collecting a few specimens for the succubus,” the Wandering Jew teased. “She thinks you have something special.”
“To feed me to the succubus, I think not,” the Zulu boasted. “I think I would be too much man for that child.”
“Perhaps she feeds like a Bushman,” Angel commented dryly.
This struck the Zulu as funny. Laughing, he shared it with the bushmen. “As you can see, I am busy and cannot go anywhere right now.”
“Yes,” Angel pressed, “what has caused this?”
“I do not know,” the Zulu fell serious, the laughter fleeing his eyes. “It has been generations since anyone has seen such an angry rain spirit. Tsui’goab must be weeping for the world. The Bushmen are the eldest of the peoples, and they still tell stories of the long ago. These are evil times….”
“We ran into something in London, England and lost one of our friends,” Alvaro added quietly.
“I am sorry to hear that,” and the Zulu was. “Something wicked was set loose in the Darfur – I hear many died putting it down.”
“And what are we going to do about this?” Angel hinted.
“First we eat and gather our strength,” the Zulu stretched like a cat, “and then we see what we will see.”
Nearing midnight, they trooped out into the rain. Many with them were bushmen shaman or the best hunters from their clans. The shaman listened to the weather and led the way unerringly through the night. Soon no-one needed their guidance as they began slogging through a knee-deep puddle. A flash of lightning lit the sky, revealing miles of flooded grassland, rock and trees sticking up above its surface like islands. It looked like they would soon need a boat, but while the water spread, it grew no deeper.
“We’re miles from the epicentre,” Alvaro yelled over the wind, “if we don’t reach it soon, it will be too strong.”
“It is still not in its natural element,” Angel cried back. “See, the water grows no deeper.”
A bushman screamed and disappeared beneath the water. Lightning showed eyes glowing in the darkness. Crocodiles. Was this even their territory? Somehow they had used the rain to migrate to this growing lake.
“Come together and form a circle,” Alvaro commanded and heard his words echoed by the Zulu in the language of the Bushmen.
The darts of the Bushmen blowguns were deadly, but how effective were they out here against the crocodiles? Angel’s swords lit up the surrounding darkness. Splashes to the west marked where three or four of the beasts fought over the bushman’s corpse, and Alvaro sent a cross-bolt into their midst.
“Watch out!” Drake called. “Something’s on your left.”
Angel leapt on the brute, his swords flashing in the darkness. He hated killing animals, even something large enough to pull a full-grown water buffalo under the surface. They were merely hungry and following their nature, and now that appetite was threatening their mission. The Zulu’s spear found another mark, flashing into the dark waters at a submerged croc. Angel had seen bigger, the great saltwater crocodiles off the coast of Australia, for example. The brute that nearly pulled the Zulu and his spear underwater with it was only smaller by a whisker. Maybe these were not merely animals, after all.
“There’s an outcrop of rock a hundred yards to the right,” Alvaro called out, “make your way towards it but hold the circle. Tonight, we’re a herd of hippos.”
Drake tried hard not to shoot bolts at every ripple of water. Some of them were his friends and the Bushmen wading towards high ground. They were throwing rocks ahead and behind them now, both to scare and distract the beasts. Angel was flying, trolling the water on either side of their ragged circle. From time to time, he dove at something in the water, his swords flashing. Drake turned at the first feel of dry land under his feet, covering the retreat of his companions, Jaime, at his side.
“Fire! We need fire!” The Zulu cried. But where would they find dry wood in the middle of this shit?
“The elder shaman says these are not normal beasts,” Angel muttered as he joined Alvaro.
“Werecrocs,” Alvaro retorted. “This is the last time I let you choose our vacation destination.”
Late that night, Crystal snuck downstairs to meet clandestinely with Gwen, Cantara and Morgana. Aiko and Alex were upstairs in the attic, where Aiko was monitoring the ward they had set around the summoning circle. From time to time, one of the Wiccans would come up to check on it, strengthening the ward with their crystal. It was not an ideal situation, but it was better than none of them getting any sleep, and safer for Alex. And it had the added advantage of closing the last channel Shax had to spy on them. If he wanted to watch their activities now, let him use hard assets, and it was about one of these possible assets the four gathered.
“I saw him in the dream too,” Gwen explained, “but that does not mean he was there. It could have been a manifestation Alex dredged up to protect her sanity. After all, two demons were running amok through her mind.”
“Could he be like a male Wiccan?” Morgana asked.
“I’ve never heard of one,” Gwen admitted, “it’s still a possibility. Crystals can be attuned to anyone, and if he had a strong enough scrying stone…”
“I don’t like this,” Crystal seethed. “If he’s not working with Shax, he’s a Brotherhood agent. Look at that website hoopla – that stinks of those arrogant bastards.”
“I’ve seen Anastasia and others use that type of message before to warn others off an active investigation or a sensitive mission,” Cantara admitted.
“I know, you said you don’t know every agent,” Crystal sighed. “Jean-Claude would have known, wouldn’t he.”
“With the Brotherhood resources stretched so far they are moving assets around,” Cantara shrugged. “Bound to be agents in the area whom we don’t know.”
“Look,” Morgana cut in, “the girl and the Summoning Circle are the two obvious leaks. Helmand squared off against Shax the same way Jean-Claude did the night we held the séance.”
Cantara glared at the three girls. “That happened before?”
“We were young, we were foolish, we were drunk on sugar,” Gwen tried, but Cantara wasn’t buying it. Not even her awesome French accent.
“Can we stay focused on the here and now,” Crystal complained. “Us or Shax? If Helmand works for the Brotherhood, who or what brought him here?”
“Since Jean-Claude’s death,” Cantara began carefully, “the Brotherhood in this region has been in disarray. The Vatican would have records of open cases – one of the other sectors may have found assets to investigate. Also, keep in mind the co-operation between the Orthodox Church and some of the Eastern arms have not always been what it should.”
“I would have to agree,” Gwen concurred. “Helmand has to be Brotherhood – he knows Aiko is a vampyre, knows about Wiccans and Wiccan lore, and he knows too much about demons. I think he’s a specialist.”
All eyes turned towards Cantara. “Well, there is the way he caught Aiko and Alex. And we are not the first group of specialists to go rogue.”
“Specialists have an otherworldly smell to them,” Crystal objected, “and he smells – human.”
“He reminds me of Alvaro or Angel,” Gwen replied.
“And yesterday he reminded you of Jean-Claude,” Morgana teased. “Only the other night you were trying to convince us he was a reincarnation of Jean-Claude.”
“Sometimes,” Gwen admitted.
The four fell quiet lost in memories of Jean-Claude until Cantara added. “You know safeguards were put in place after the Anabaptist Rebellion. None of the specialists know what they are, but Alvaro thinks it’s a squad of highly trusted specialists – a Stasi, so to speak. I will run the name Helmand past him at the first opportunity.”
In the morning around the breakfast table, the entire household gathered to discuss what they had learned about Shax. A good night’s sleep, the first in many days, left the girls with an excess of energy and was probably mostly responsible for the bacon and toast war that broke out. Aiko was managed to keep her dignity and remained aloof until a piece of soggy toast landed on the bridge of her nose. Ember. Time to teach the student a lesson. Faster than the human eye could follow, she tore up bits of toast and threw. A blizzard of crust chased Ember from the dining room and did not let up until she reached the stairs to the basement.
“Let’s see if you and Ember can clean that mess up, Aiko,” Miss Sweider said dryly, “as fast as you made it.”
Aiko’s smile showed a healthy amount of fang.
“If the silliness is done for the day,” Gwen said primly, avoiding the accusation in the others’ eyes. Just because she fired the first shot, so to speak, didn’t mean she had started the war. “Let’s talk about what we learned last night.”
“Not as much as we should have, thanks to me,” Crystal sighed bitterly.
“Don’t blame yourself,” Gwen interjected. “I sense that you are the target of these attacks. I know Aiko, and I bore the brunt of most of them, but follow me. You found Alexandra’s ring, as I believe you were meant to – Shax could not have anticipated that you would pass it on to me. I believe he counted on greed and the size of the diamond to make sure you would keep it.”
“Okay,” Jade nodded. Her logic followed a pattern from many of their demonology lessons. “Only that does not explain why the poltergeist – I mean Alex, went after Aiko.”
“Good taste,” Ember suggested, sticking her tongue out at Aiko.
“First, you are assuming that Alex was responsible for those attacks,” Gwen continued. “And when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. What do Aiko and Crystal have in common?”
“A terminal case of the Uglies and an annoying habit of scaring away cute boys?” Morgan took a guess, ducking a hail of bacon and toast.
“Pranic energy,” Crystal replied dryly.
“If Alex is connected to Shax because of her involvement with the summoning circle, the summoning circle is a second connection,” Gwen continued. “You remember what the Banshee taught us in Metaphysics class.”
“Gwen!” Miss Sweider objected.
“Well,” Gwen defended, “the one time she was not screaming, she said that a demon will control the summoning circle he enters this world from…”
“And I have been -.ˮ Aiko began.
“Dancing naked,” Ember threw in.
“Practicing my katas,” Aiko concluded with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Shaking her jiggly parts for all their worth,” Morgan giggled.
“Near the summoning circle,” Gwen tried to add.
“Trying to seduce the demon,” Jade overrode her.
“Please,” Gwen cut in, “keep your petty jealousies to yourselves, so I can finish. Sensing the pranic energy, he mistook Aiko for Crystal. Taken together with all we learned from reading Alexandra’s dreams, I believe that Crystal is the target and that it has something to do with the pranic energy she consumed that night in Upyr. You remember what Jean-Claude said about the Greater Key of Solomon?”
“No.” Crystal replied sarcastically. She hadn’t exactly been herself that night.
“And Vlad,” Jean-Claude turned, shaking his head in disappointment. He slowly walked down the stairs, towards the edge of the diagram crafted onto the floor. “You silly little vampyre. The Grimorium Verum. Surely with access to the Greater Key of Solomon, you must have recognized this?”
“How did you know?” Vlad stammered.
“Come, my old friend,” Jean-Claude chided. “A society that has slaves has no secrets, no? Shall I tell you which three of your guards your wife is having an affair with? And Xavier. You silly little demon. We should have met long ago, no? Tell me, which one of Shax’s silly little minions are you?”
“It is over Jean-Claude,” Vlad warned. “Either way, the girl dies, and so do you!”
“There is a third way this scenario can end, no?” Jean-Claude smiled sadly. “Xavier never did plan to kill her. He meant only to enrage her into a feeding frenzy. Even now, the crystal raven is cleaning the toxins from her blood. Soon she will sense the presence of her prey. The Greater Key of Solomon was never written by a mortal. You have been played for a fool Vlad, no?”
“Mom told me he believed the demons wanted the vampyres to lure Crystal into Upyr, the largest concentration of vampyres, and therefore of pranic energy, in the world.”
“Jean-Claude believed that if too much pranic energy were concentrated in one individual,” Cantara spoke quietly, “it would shatter the seals on the gates of Hell and usher in Armageddon. He warned that any time End of Day prophecies become proliferate, we need to be most vigilant.”
“Signs, and those who claim to see signs,” Miss Sweider nodded.
The room fell silent. Much of this was gibberish to Alex. She was not sure she even believed in a life after death, and here she was a ghost. It was all too dated. And improbable. This was supposed to be a scientifically literate society, the twenty-first century, not the Middle Ages. Like any human being confronted by something too bizarre to be real, she refused to believe in it.
“I have an idea,” Gwen broke the silence. “If Shax has trouble telling Aiko and Crystal apart, maybe we can use that to trap him.”
“Yes,” Crystal replied, “but unless we can kill him, it won’t mean anything.”
All eyes turned to Alex, and she squirmed in her chair. “What?”
“It all depends on whether she can use the Wiccan Apotropaic.”