They were on dry land. Someone somewhere had once said the key to winning a battle was to hold the high ground. Drake wondered it that long ago general had ever found himself on a rain-swept hilltop, surrounded by demon crocodiles. Moments ago, a lightning strike had charred a patch of ground at the base of the hill. His hair was still standing up in the aftermath of its discharge. He was convinced that only the presence of Angel kept it from striking closer.
“Is it my imagination,” he complained, “or is it raining frogs?”
Something soft and squishy landed on the top of his head. Others began to raise their hands to protect their heads as every third or fourth raindrop landed with a decided plop.
Alvaro held one in his hand, examining it. Poison was not one of the ways a vampyre could die, not so his human companions.
“It’s one of those South American frogs,” Alvaro cried above the storm. “Try not to touch any of them. I think they’re poisonous.”
“Great,” Drake complained. “After everything I’ve been through, vampyres and demons and wild dogs, I’m done in by a frog.”
“We got to get out of here,” the Wandering Jew called.
The Bushmen were not fazed by the amphibian rain. Upon learning they were poisonous, they began picking them up with leaves and tossing them to the crocs. How many frogs would it take to poison a demon croc? Like their natural counterparts, they opened their mouths to snap up the tidbits, fighting to get their share. Twenty minutes later, the first of the crocodiles floated by belly up.
“It’s working! Everyone start helping the Bushmen,” Alvaro urged. “Carefully.”
With a large leaf from some unknown bush – with Drake’s luck the African equivalent of Poison Oak – he grabbed a handful of mud and frogs. He found he did not have to come close to the water to feed these brutes, anything thrown near them landed in their mouths. For an hour, they threw frogs until soon the horde of crocs was either dead or too sick to bother with fresh meat.
Wading away from the island, Drake said to Angel, “demon crocs and raining frogs – we’re either on the right track, or your boss is pissed with one of you boys.”
“How do you know it’s not you, you wanker?” Jaime retorted.
“Because I’m his favourite,” Drake replied. “Besides, I’m too pretty.”
Right at that moment, one last frog landed on Drake’s face. The Zulu’s laughter chased him into the night. Pride does go before the fall.
A quarter of an hour later, the waves started. Waves in two feet of water might not be overly large, not like something out of a Hollywood movie that bitch slaps some ship, but these packed a wallop. Drake lost his footing twice, Jaime three times. The Bushmen were not faring too well, either. The Zulu and the specialists were constantly fishing someone from the rough water before it could wash them away. Their progress slowed, the footing beneath the water slick with mud, and often the rough water hid pitfalls like holes and hidden bushes.
Whoever’s idea it was to sneak up on the demon in darkness had licked too many South American toads. For one thing, it was dark, and for another, it was blacker than a witch’s heart. They could see nothing. The first of the waterspouts fell upon them from out of the night. Drake barely managed to pull one of the bushmen to safety. The Zulu caught directly in the path of a second, stabbed it with his spear. A terrible wail rent the night. Startled, he pulled back his bloody spear.
“By all the spirits of my ancestors,” the Zulu cried. “It dies like a man.”
“Get to that cliff,” Alvaro ordered, “straight ahead.”
“Come together!” The Wandering Jew ordered. “And keep the formation tight.”
He had fought many things in his lifetime. Men and vampyres, Alvaro thought, beasts and demons. This was one for the annals. If he were in the habit of keeping a journal, this nightmare trek across this shallow lake would take up pages and pages. He had his swords out now, hunting as he led the way towards the lee of the cliff. Twice he leapt into a waterspout, swords flashing as he ripped it apart from the inside out. Their screams sounded worse from the inside, and the vampyre’s ears rang with impending deafness.
“I don’t know how much more of this we can take,” Alvaro called to Angel. “We lost another two bushmen making it to this bloody cliff.”
“We must be getting close,” Angel called back. “It’s attacks are coming more frequently.”
“I thought you said it would be weaker here,” Drake accused.
“Oh, it is,” Angel assured him, “no monster sharks or killer whales here.”
“Don’t give it any ideas,” the Wandering Jew cursed.
In the lee of the cliff, the waterspouts lost momentum and died out with a splash. Regrouping, the forty-one survivors took stock of the situation. By their best calculations, they were only five miles from the epicentre of the storm. An hour’s brisk walk, if the water demon co-operated. Drake doubted it would, and at this rate of attrition, they would lose another eight before they reached its lair. Taking advantage of the brief respite to rest, they began to discuss their end game. The Bushmen had a banishing ceremony, something that would take twenty minutes to set up. They would be lucky if they had twenty seconds, and it would be up to Angel and the twenty-seven others to buy them the time.
After a fifteen minutes rest, they set out into the night with only the rain to oppose them. For three-quarters of a mile, they watched the night, slogging through water and waiting. Nothing. That in itself almost stopped them dead in their tracks, wondering what horror it needed so much time to prepare for them. The anticipation was eating at their nerves, imagination supplying dozens of dangers, from chasms opening up beneath their feet to flesh-eating minnows. When the attack came, it was both a relief and a fright worse than any nightmare their minds could conjure.
Seaweed. Flesh-eating seaweed. The roebuck that started from their path had taken two bounds forward before the seaweed pulled it under. The long green tendrils grew over it, stifling its bawling cry as it crept down its throat and bore into its eyes. Of course, it wouldn’t go near Alvaro or Angel. Nothing ate vampyre or angel. Because they tasted like ass, Drake thought sarcastically and would give it indigestion and the trots for a hundred years. Unfortunately, they could not do this alone, and the others were made of sweet mortal flesh.
Angel flew ahead to reconnoitre. It was two miles from one end to the other. He supposed he could fly them over one at a time, and the Lord alone knew how long that would take. And that would mean separating. Divide and conquer. At some point, a small group would be alone and vulnerable. If they lost three more, they would no longer have enough bodies to face the demon, and that would mean it would win here.
When Angel returned, a Bushmen shaman had begun to chant, the others chanting decant. Their deep voices rose from their barrel chests, filling the night with a throbbing hum. They began to dance in the water and the rain, a half stutter-step that sent waves rippling across the surface of the lake.
“What’s happening here?” Angel asked the Zulu in a whisper.
“The shaman says when stalking prey that is stronger and faster, a wise hunter uses its strength against it,” the Zulu explained. “They call on Tsui’goab to rid the land of this blight.”
Psychologists explain away the spirit world as an entoptic phenomenon brought on by rhythmic dancing, music, sensory deprivation and hyperventilation. It fit their rational, scientific worldview. To the Bushmen, there was only the journey through the dream world and into the spirit world. One hunted a totem animal – for the sky god, it was the eagle – following this spirit guide from the world of man and into the world of the divine. Their dance and chanting started slowly, the cautious hunter stalking his prey through the long grass of the veldt. Sighting his prey, the shaman called to his fellow hunters. The chase was on.
Their dancing became frenetic. In the skies above, the clouds became darker, angry with impending violence. Overhead lightning licked the clouds, jumping from bank to bank like pulsing veins. Drake swore he saw a giant eagle, white and electric in the discharge of lightning. Below these skies, the dancers moved quicker, throwing up great gouts of water. Their chanted words grew louder, more excited, more imploring.
They crossed the border from the dream world into the spirit world. Loud explosions rocked the Heavens: Tsui’goab was here.
Lightning struck the surface of the water directly in front of them. The concussion of the blast knocked several of the exhausted dancers from their feet. Steam rose from the surface of the water, and through this curtain of mist, they could see a series of lightning strikes hit the lake. Walking a straight line, it cleared a path through the seaweed bed twenty yards wide. The mist became a fog, a solid wall of steam.
“Quickly!” The Zulu cried. “The shaman says we must follow the lightning.”
The forty-one tumbled into the curtain of mist. It was hot and smelled of ozone, and visibility dropped to a few feet. And still, they could hear, see and feel the rapid lightning strikes. Each bolt lit the steam a brilliant white, strobing as the frequency increased. They were running almost directly behind the lightning now. Behind them, the seaweed was rallying, drifting back to fill the trail burnt through it. There was no option but to go on.
Running in the water is a difficult, clumsy proposition. The falling rain was cold, the water below the surface hot, barely tolerable. Slogging through water that fluctuated from one to two feet deep, the surface beneath their feet alternating between mud and stone, took its toll. Drake’s legs felt like lead, stiff and sore, his joints at his hips complaining with each step. Behind him, the water roiled with the withering plant, its rapid and unnatural growth chasing the fleeing humans. Run over by a plant. It was too surreal to be believed and refusing to suspend his disbelief, Drake could not surrender to his fear.
Exhaustion was another matter. Two miles of wading through water was a gruelling marathon that left the boy wondering what they would have left on the other end. For him, the answer was almost nothing. Too shallow to swim, they still had a little over two miles of wading on the far end of this barrier. Had it really only been ninety minutes since they started? It felt like days.
Angel called a halt beyond the billowing cloud of steam. The party was soaked with sweat and rain, some of them bent over and huffing for breath. The Bushmen were indefatigable. Years of hunting big game on foot, chasing their prey for hours, sometimes days as they waited for blood loss or poison to bring it to ground, left the smaller men with incredible endurance. Even Alvaro was looking worse for wear. How much had their battles weakened the water demon? More than it had their own party?
“What else could go wrong?” The Wandering Jew asked no one in particular. “If you ask me, we have this thing on the ropes.”
“Wasn’t it Ali who used the Rope-a-dope trick to deliver the knock-out punch?” Alvaro retorted sarcastically.
“Speak for yourself,” the Wandering Jew replied. “I’m good for another four or five hundred –. ˮ
“Feet,” Drake concluded.
“I was thinking inches, mate,” Jaime threw in. “I’m all in.”
“Nonsense,” the Zulu laughed. “It’s a fine night for battling demons.”
“There’s high ground up ahead,” Angel suggested. “Let’s see if we can check out the lay of the land from up there.”
“The lay of the land,” Drake announced. “The lay of the land is about two feet underwater and sinking.”
Angel flashed a smile and led the way off into the rain-lashed night. Only a slight blur of black marked the hill from a night sky that was nothing but shades of black. The water grew shallower leading up to the hill, the footing more treacherous as mud and loose rock competed for the same stretch of ground. Soon they were slipping and sliding up a slope that felt as if it would disintegrate at any moment, the waterlogged dirt running down to the lake in rivulets.
Alvaro stood on the peak and stared into the night for a long spell. He raised a hand to the horizon, still saying nothing. Finally, he spoke. “What’s that dark circle coming towards us?”
Angel, the only other member of the company as far-sighted in darkness as the vampyre, took a good long look. He shrugged. “Your knock-out punch.”
“You think maybe you should take a closer look?” The Wandering Jew asked sarcastically. “I always find it helpful to know how many are dropping in to have me for dinner.”
Grinning, Angel took to the air, drawing forth both of his swords before he was more than a wingspan away. Whatever was coming towards them lay about a mile away. In the dark, it looked like a massive, withering carpet. The seaweed coming back for a rematch was the first thing that came to his mind. Whatever it was, there was no telling this far up in the darkness. He would have to take a closer look, a much closer look.
Snakes! Thousands upon thousands, a withering mass of scales and tongues and fangs that blanketed the horizon. Every known water snake, and a few species either unknown or long ago extinct, slithered towards the island in a great arc. Angel swooped down, spearing a massive anaconda to carry back to his companions. Its withering carcass threw off his balance, making flying difficult. Fighting demons could be like this – a series of sharp battles, seven curses to sap your strength before the final confrontation. It was why so many demon-hunters settled for mere banishment rather than outright death.
Angel let the snake fall amongst his companions and followed it down. “Can you say snakes?”
“All that is snakes?” Alvaro scoffed. “Have you been nipping at the sacramental wine again?”
“He looked pretty drunk flying back,” the Wandering Jew cut in. “That would take -.”
“- Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions,” Angel added. “Take your pick.”
The Bushmen began stripping the carcass of the snake, talking excitedly among themselves as they ate. It was not so much a matter of what to do about this latest curse as it was about who to ask to intercede. One school of thought leaned towards Cagn, the Creator Spirit, and a second towards Heits-Eibib. Whichever, they needed to come to a consensus soon. The surging mass of snakes was closing, and they looked hungry.
The mongoose – Ichneumon – was the natural enemy of the snake. The words of the oldest shaman ended the debate, and the Bushmen left off their eating to take up their positions. The Zulu and the Outlanders moved to form a defensive position in front of their dance, waiting for the snakes without the least hope of stopping them. At least, Drake thought, being eaten by snakes was slightly cooler than being done in by a frog or a plant. Died battling a plague of snakes would definitely look better on a gravestone than frog roadkill.
Their chant and dance looked and sounded no different from the first, except they danced on dry land now. The mongoose was their spirit guide. Again the shaman hunted, seeking guidance and aid from one of the Bushmen deities. The chanting grew louder as the snakes drew closer. Soon a slithering slur and the lapping of water competed with the rhythmic slap of their bare feet and the sing-song chant of their voices.
A loud gurgle broke over the sound of both. Not as reassuring as say the thump of attack helicopters or the explosion of air-to-surface missiles. When one burped to the surface almost at his feet, Drake bent down and stuck a hand into the water. His arm came away covered with a black, thick ooze. Oil. Pockets of it were bubbling to the surface in and among the snakes. It added another shade of black to the kaleidoscope of shadows and darkness that was the surface of the lake.
A single bolt of lightning struck the water. It ignited an inferno, a wall of flame that circled the island they stood on. Lighting the darkness beyond, they watched snakes fighting the weight of their numbers to flee the flames. The mongoose was the natural enemy of the snake, and Ichneumon harrowed them mercilessly.
Standing at the waterside, Jaime spoke over the sound of the flames, “the crocs, the waves, the waterspout, the seaweed and the snakes – I only count five trials mate.”
“You forgot about the water,” Drake cut in.
“Or haven’t you been wading through it for the last three hours?’ Drake asked sarcastically.
“If Drake’s right that would make seven,” Alvaro concluded, “and we can all go home now. You forgot the frogs.”
“Oh, I’m trying,” Drake muttered. “I thought these trials were supposed to get progressively harder. The last two seemed lame.”
“Tell that to the Bushmen,” the Zulu retorted darkly. “Summoning powerful spirits is exhausting and dangerous work.”
Drake nodded and followed the others out into the lake. True, for the last few miles, he and his companions had been dead weight, relying on the Bushmen to get them past the obstacles set in their path. He was a man of action. Trusting to his weapons and brute strength to fight evil. He knew almost nothing about the spiritual battles of people like the Bushmen shaman and the Wiccans, or what it cost. He could see that they were moving slower, but they were all moving slower after three hours of wading through the chilly water.
All that seemed to separate them from their goal was distance. One foot in front of the other, the gentle slosh of the water lulling them towards sleep. Exhaustion was a siren call that made their minds sluggish and their limbs clumsy. Tripping was more common, but tripping was a good thing, throwing you three or four more steps forward without the need for conscious thought. Rest, they all needed before they would be ready to face the final trial, rest that they could not afford to take as time began to work against them. Not only did the demon grow stronger with each passing hour of rainfall, but all too soon, it would be daybreak when Alvaro would need to find shelter from the sun. Whatever the Bushmen planned, and how much time they would need, they did not know. This was not their place, nor their mission.
The water deepened as they approached the centre of the lake. First rising above their knees, and then to mid-thigh. Soon they were wading through waist-deep water. Crocs, frogs, waves, seaweed, waterspouts and snakes, Drake kept chanting to himself, still searching the dark waters and night skies for hidden dangers. The demon should be the seventh plague. Nothing else should come at them if he could trust the wives’ tales and the textbooks from his Metaphysics and Demonology classes. Somehow, now did not seem like the right time to renew his doubts that school did not teach any practical skills. He prayed that he had been wrong all these years, oh so very wrong.
The water had been deep enough to swim in for some time now, but somehow in their exhaustion, no-one thought to try. Near the centre, it grew shallow again, and it was too late. Again wading in water above their knees, they looked out over a still pond. Everywhere else on the lake, ripples disturbed the surface of the water. Here it was as still as glass. Not even the wake from their wading disturbed its dead surface.
“I think we’ve arrived mates,” Jaime whispered. “A bit of a letdown, ain’t it?”
It burst from the water. A fifteen-foot spout of water, gyrating, coalescing as it took form and shape. Water hurt. Both the watery hand that bitch slapped him, sending Drake flying ten feet through the air, and the hard landing it offered his unprotected back. Angel dove at it, swords flashing uselessly through the water. Alvaro and the others circled, trying to surround it while the shaman organized his thirteen dancers. Drake spat water and stood up, brushing a wet sleeve over his eyes. He drew his crucifix. Water hurt. Now it was time to see if it could bleed.
Drake dove in and hamstrung one of its massive legs. Water definitely hurt worse when shaped like a massive foot that booted you in the ribs. Angel and the Zulu moved to his rescue, stabbing at it with their weapons like so many gnats against a mountain. Distracting it, that was about all they could and were doing. Maybe even annoying it a little. One of the Bushmen exploded as a giant hand caught him up, squeezing him to death. Drake, who had seen blood and death before, nearly lost his cookies as he watched one of his companions being popped like a zit. Definitely not a nice way to go.
“Everybody, move in the opposite direction from it,” Alvaro ordered, “create a whirlpool to weaken it.”
It was like a game in a backyard pool – if it spun clockwise, they spun counter-clockwise – only this game had deadly consequences. While they pricked it, nipped at its heels, and kept it off-balance with their numbers, the shaman and his twelve assistances began a vaguely familiar chant. Like some Latin hymn Drake had heard long ago in church, but with heavy African undertones. They danced a ragged display through their exhaustion and the difficult medium of knee-high water. Drake nearly got flattened by a stray slap of the demon’s hand as he became caught up in the hypnotic rhythm of their chant and dance. He would need to stay focused on the battle and not on the thirteen shamans. Not when a momentary lapse of concentration had such unpleasant consequences.
This dream world and the totems that inhabited it were very unfamiliar to the shaman. He followed a dove, its white feathers bright against the darkness of the half-formed world that surrounded him. It was difficult to come here fully, and he knew he had much further to go. This was not the place of his ancestors, and it did not welcome him and his fellow hunters. There were dangers here, even in the dream world, jealous spirits who resented all trespassers. The dove led them on a path covered with light, darkness crowding in on either side. The shaman sensed he was safe here on this path, but in the darkness beyond great evil lurked.
Drake’s collar bone was broken. Several others sported injuries, two of them unable to continue the fight. If you could call it a fight. He had yet to see any sign that they had hurt or even weakened it.
The thunder that rent the night knocked them all flat. For a moment, its sheer volume drove even the water back. A pinprick of light became a searing beam too bright to look into. Wider and wider, it tore a hole through the mass of clouds, chasing the darkness to the four horizons. Vaguely, they could make out a figure, winged and wearing armour, drifting down from the heart of that light. A massive sword took shape, larger than the demon, a long jagged chip missing from near its tip.
“Now that’s what I call stomping on a mosquito with a nuke,” Angel breathed.
“Who is it?” Drake asked.
“He is the Archangel Michael.”
The figure grew too bright for any of those save Angel to watch. He landed on ground no longer covered with water, separating the water demon from the lake and the source of power it had crafted for itself. Desperately, the demon sent tendrils out in every direction, trying to reconnect with the water. In one last act of desperation, it drove into the earth, seeking a hidden spring. Michael’s sword dropped like a collapsing mountain. It clove through the dirt, through the rock, and through the demon. A geyser of water and its death scream rose into the night sky.
Michael stepped back. Nodding to Angel and bowing to the Bushmen, in a blink, he was gone.
“That’s it!” Jaime complained. “That thing mops the lake with us, and that blighter comes down and takes it out without working up a sweat.”
“We wore it down for him,” Drake wheezed. His bloody shoulder was killing him.
The paling sky was spreading, driving the clouds apart as it stretched towards the horizon. Looking up, Angel frowned.
“It’s almost dawn.” He instructed. “I’ll fly Alvaro back to the RV before sunrise. You others come along as best you can and meet us there.”