Alexandra, who refused to believe in life after death, vampyres, Wiccans, or the crazy nightmare she now found herself living, sat on the living room floor staring at a crystal. It was a hunk of rock. If she stared at it long enough, all she would get is cross-eyed and a headache. And she had stared at it too long. Her knees and ankles hurt from sitting on the hardwood floor, she had a crick in her back, and if that girl Gwen told her to try harder one more time, she was going to smack her down.
“I don’t understand,” Ember complained. “She did it okay with Aiko and me yesterday. Aiko said she was the student who picked it up the quickest.”
“Picked up what?” Alexandra sighed. “The pox, an STD, what?”
“Slipping into a trance,” Ember sighed, exasperated. “Like when Aiko was teaching us to clear our minds.”
“It’s a receptive state,” Gwen tried to explain. “You need to put your mind into a state where it is ready to accept the power of the stone.”
Alexandra rolled her eyes. So much mumble-jumble. Look at me, I am a witch! Where is my long nose and warts? She stared hard at Gwen.
“What?” Gwen asked, growing uncomfortable under her stare.
“You’re a witch,” Alex teased, “I’m waiting for your skin to grow green.”
“I’m a Wiccan, not a witch,” Gwen pouted, giving the older girl a playful shove. “Ember, go get Aiko.”
Ember was up like a jack-in-the-box, racing off in a cloud of dust and thundering hooves. Crystal called down, accusing Gwen of creating the noise, and wondering why she had not outgrown the need to announce herself each time she moved. Gwen yelled out that it was not her, and if she needed witnesses, she could ask Alexandra or Miss Sweider. Ember asked that since they were going to be yelling, why did she have to run all the way upstairs when she could have called up?
Aiko came downstairs, glaring at everyone. When will these human children grow up? She glared an accusation at Gwen, who giggled at her. “Quiet is a blessing from your ancestors. You should spend more time practicing it.”
“Oh, don’t be a stuffed shirt,” Gwen chided. “Come help us out. I can’t get Alex to still her mind and concentrate. Ember said you could.”
“Well,” Aiko replied, dropping to the floor with the grace of a ballet dancer. “It is a more productive use of your time. Ember should join us. She needs practice. A warrior does not let her enemies know she is coming a week before she arrives.”
“Hai,” Ember bowed her head and giggled, ruining the effect.
Aiko rolled her eyes, a habit she was picking up from the human girls. One day some of her good sense and discipline would wash onto these girls, and then their universe would be in for a world of hurt. Nothing would erase the silliness in this lot, and that would only lead to trouble.
“You must clear your mind like we did the night before,” Aiko instructed.
“But that was different,” Alex complained. “This is hocus-pocus.”
“Not all things in this world are visible,” Aiko frowned, searching for an analogy. “You believe in germs, and you cannot see them. Concentrate, and today you will learn something.”
Aiko took up the crystal and showed Alex how to hold it, lightly as Gwen had taught her. She handed it back to Alex, watching while she took it up, imitating the vampyre. Aiko raised a disapproving eyebrow.
“Focus,” she instructed. “Empty your mind of all thought and emotion. Become like an empty vessel ready for the water.”
All Alex could think about was how gay this was. They wanted her to reach out and light a crystal as if she was some kind of power source, and if they were not careful, she would laugh so hard that she would piss herself. And that reminded her that she had to pee, and all she could think of then was the press of her bladder. Which reminded her how uncomfortable she was with her ankles pressing into her thighs, and how stiff and sore her knees were becoming. And overall, how bored she was with this crap, and how much she wanted to go off and read the book – a task she felt was accomplishing more than sitting here staring at her navel. And maybe she should get her belly button pierced the way Morgana had? At least then she would have something more than belly button lint to look at.
Aiko’s voice became a sleepy sing-song. Stray thoughts chased themselves across Alex’s mind to die unrecognized. She found herself drifting in a lucid dream state. And for that one moment, she felt the crystal as if it were alive and pulsing.
“You did it!” Gwen enthused. “You reached into the crystal even though it is not attuned to you. That’s an awesome start.”
“Yeah, but Aiko had to help,” Crystal muttered darkly as she entered the living room.
“It took me a month to get over my block,” Gwen defended. “You don’t alter someone’s world view in a day. It’s going to take some practice.”
“We don’t have a month, Gwen.” Crystal warned the other girl.
“I know,” the Wiccan sighed, “we’ll have to figure something out. But, at least now, we can see if she can use the Wiccan Apotropaic. If Mrs. Johns lets us.”
There were forty-two of them on thirty-six motorcycles. The previous owners had thought they were a tough lot – there were no angels in Hell. They had been delicious. This bunch needed no colours, no name. Riding a collection of stolen Harleys and Indians, they were the meanest thing on the road, and certainly the worse collection of road trash that had ever ridden into Henry’s Roadhouse.
They would wait out the daylight in the roadhouse, hitting the blacktop at nightfall. They would drain Henry, the bartender and the two waitresses, and any patrons who wandered in before taking to their bikes. The sawed-off shotgun Henry kept under the bar, mostly for show, would be as useless as a blunderbuss against this lot. For the moment, it gave him a sense of security. And he had nothing to complain about with the way they were buying drinks, not running a tab, and paying good American currency at par. Of course, these days, it was a toss-up as to which was worth more – the greenback or the loonie.
Henry knew trouble when he saw it, and the moment the three newcomers walked in, he sensed something bad was going to happen. His hands rested on the shotgun beneath the bar. The Sanguinarian did not worry the other vampyres, even with the one they mistook for an Empusae and the massive Loogaroo to back him. There were enough of them to finish off the young lordling in a wink and a nod. Perhaps they would even make it hurt.
“Which one of you fools calls himself flight leader?” Delph asked coldly.
A vampyre stood up from a stool at the bar and turned. From his size and shape, he could only be a throwback from the Civatateo, a genetic quirk that was springing up among their clans. All muscle with low intelligence, they made good shock troops or cannon fodder, and little else. Delph nodded to the stranger beside him.
Spreading long leathery wings, it let the flesh melt from its face. A flat, noseless face, more skull than flesh, and empty eye sockets marked it as a demon. Henry pulled his shotgun out from under the bar and let go with both barrels. None of this Hollywood bullshit of waiting until it pulled the gun from your hands and beat you around the head with it. The Shadow Slayer grinned as its skin grew over the holes in its head and chest. It leapt on one of Henry’s shadows cast by the lights behind the bar, sweeping it with a massive claw. Henry’s eyes flew from his skull as a massive rent opened up across his face.
It was not so much that a Shadow Slayer was difficult to kill as it was to defend against. In the fractured lighting of the bar, the biker vampyre cast three shadows – one of them over seven feet long. It was the obvious target and the one he sought to pull out of the path of the Shadow Slayer. It hamstrung him through a smaller version of himself cast on the wall– a shadow of a shadow. Lame, it was only a matter of time before it finished him off, but like a cat with a crippled mouse, it was prolonging his pain.
This was more than caprice or cruelty. It was an object lesson for the forty-one it would let live. It leapt to the ceiling, cutting a long, nasty slash across the shadow cast there. Its victim limped away, holding one eye in its socket, seeking desperately some dark corner where he would cast fewer or no shadows. It was impossible beneath the multiple light sources in the bar. Escaping a third attack with just a scratch, he stumbled towards the door and the dubious safety of daylight.
His allergy to the ultraviolet light of the sun was mild as such things went amongst vampyres. While direct contact with sunlight hurt, it did not leave debilitating scars or deadly allergic reactions. He, and those of his fellows who were seen as throwbacks, were part of the genetic experiments put in place by Delph’s father, and a partial tolerance to sunlight was one of the many benefits. If he could reach his bike, he could ride away and find shelter for the day, somewhere where he could lick his wounds. His hamstrung leg made him slow as he limped out the door. The Shadow Slayer was even slower, giving him hope. He reached his Harley, and the engine caught on the first kick. He was doing it; he was going to escape.
Almost lazily, the Shadow Slayer reached out and lopped the head off the shadow of the rider and bike cast. Twenty feet away, the bike accelerated. Rider and head separated. Like a chicken in a slaughterhouse, the headless body rode the bike for another two hundred feet before one succumbed to death and the other to gravity.
“Welcome to the legions of Shax,” Delph announced quietly. “Please, clean this mess up on your way out. I will be in touch with instructions shortly.”
One of the waitresses managed to voice the scream that was caught in her throat for the past five minutes. Ignoring it, Delph and Jacob walked out the door and into a darkened van. Even this short walk, swathed head and foot in trench coats, hats and scarves, was painful. Sometimes one had to make sacrifices for one’s cause.
Once again, Gwen made the call. She was more forthcoming with Mrs. Johns this time, explaining the circumstances and the special needs of the new girl. Since that night on the farm, she had called the woman twice a day to check on her and her granddaughter. Throughout a half-dozen calls, a friendship had developed between the two, and Gwen often found herself talking to the older woman about other matters. Her difficulties with her mother, the problems leading up to the rescue of Alexandra, or some of the frustrations arising from sharing a house with sixteen women and girls. Mrs. Johns was curious, to say the least, and invited them all out to the farm for a second attempt at a cookout.
Loading everyone into the van, the Ghost Sisterhood set out for the farm without Helmand as their guide. Cantara was driving, a skill she had picked up in the early days of the automobile, and that had grown rusty over the last decade or so. Miss Sweider sat directly behind her to help with navigation, if and when the GPS became difficult. Morgana had programmed their destination into it before leaving the house, and already its tinny male voice was annoying the djinn. What did men know about directions anyway? They waited until they were hopelessly lost, and then blamed the map or the highway department, or the noisy kids in the back seat.
“Morgana, this contraption is broken,” Cantara complained. “It can’t even get me onto the highway.”
“No, it’s not,” Morgana spat back after a brief look. “It’s the next on-ramp. Just follow the signs that say North.”
In the back of the van, Alex sat beside Aiko, her feet tucked up beneath her and a familiar book in her face. Aiko no longer had to sit behind the blackout curtains but preferred the solitude. She did not resent the ghost’s intrusion, the girl was quiet, spending most of her time reading, and like her, was an outsider amongst the mortals. Aiko imagined they were becoming friends after their own fashion. True, they did not gossip, spent little time talking about emotions or anything else, but were constantly in each other’s company.
Companionable silence, Aiko thought as she frowned at the book Alex was reading. Helmand said it had been written by or for a demon. Aiko had no doubt that it was cursed. Removing a cursed item from its victim was not always as easy as taking it away or destroying it. Often, once destroyed, it simply reappeared, or you destroyed the mind or the soul of its victim with it. It was a complex trap, designed not only to provide a portal for Shax into this world but also to destroy this girl. Taking the book away could only bring harm to someone who had suffered enough already.
“What are you staring at?” Alexandra accused, growing decidedly uncomfortable under the vampyres unblinking gaze.
“I am curious about the book,” Aiko replied flatly.
“It’s mine,” Alex retorted.
Aiko raised a questioning eyebrow. “I was merely wondering what you seek in its pages?”
Alex closed the book and held it protectively in her lap. She looked into the vampyre’s eyes for a long time before replying. “Somewhere in here must be a clue to rescuing my friends. My boys and I were responsible for what happened to the others….”
“When you find it,” Aiko offered, “I will help you kill Shax.”
“Thanks,” Alex whispered.
Gwen moved up to the front of the bus as they neared the farm. She was anxious to see for herself that little Stephaney and her grandmother were safe. Having neighbours drop in, or borrowing several dogs didn’t seem adequate protection against a flight of vampyres and a pack of werewolves. Of course, the house itself stood on the conjunction of two ley lines and was ground sacred to the Wiccans. Much of the effectiveness of sacred ground was a convention, and even when combined with a true source of power – such as an ancient relic, or a saint’s body – it was no guarantee that a vampyre or demon would fear it.
The little girl was waiting for them when the van pulled into the driveway. She jumped off the porch and ran out to greet them before the van rolled to a stop. Gwen leapt from the vehicle, scooping up the little girl and twirling her in the air. The pair collapsed in a dizzy, giggling heap.
Mrs. Johns came out of the house wearing her apron and a dusting of flour. She had been baking all morning in anticipation of her guests and their healthy appetites. She greeted each girl with a hug and a warm smile, not excluding the two women, Aiko or the new girl. She held Alexandra out at arm’s length and took a long look at her.
“Land sakes alive, child,” she breathed. “Who’s your momma?
“Laura Saunders,” Alex muttered, a dark look crossing her face.
“And your grandmother?”
“Laura Saunders,” Alex replied, beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“Yes, that would be her name now. She would be my older sister,” Mrs. Johns explained, “and you are the spitting image of her when she was your age. Come inside, I have a few pictures of her we can look at over a glass of lemonade.”
She had photo albums by the score, beautifully laid out volumes that she and her granddaughter had spent hours scrapbooking. Decorated with store-bought felts, and metal trinkets, and with pressed flowers and leaves from the farm, they were works of art well worth viewing even if the people in the pictures were strangers. A tear ran down Alex’s cheek as she studied the pictures of her grandmother when she was her own age. They really did look alike – almost twins – and a sudden flood of homesickness washed over Alex.
“Your grandmother and I were very close at that age,” Mrs. Johns said wistfully as she came to stand behind the girl. “She married a man from one of those Evangelistic churches – a Baptist, or some such thing - and he was dead set against us Wiccans. He died young, and that’s when she married your grandfather.”
“Grandma was married before?” Alex husked.
“For over two years,” Mrs. Johns raised a hand to her head, thinking back. “I’m sorry, I can’t seem to recall that rascal’s name. Our mother never approved of him, and the family lost track of her for a time there.”
“Grandma was the black sheep of the family,” Alex hooted. “Grandpa would have a stroke. And then never let her live it down.”
“I have something else to show you that was hers before she left home. It’s in the main parlour if you all want to join us.”
If they were expecting some secret passage down into an underground vault, or even a hidden safe behind a wall panel or picture, the girls were disappointed. Mrs. Johns reached into an old-fashioned sewing basket, pulling out a pincushion shaped like an oversized tomato. She popped out a crystal about four inches in length, long and thin with eight sides – pure quartz with veins of gold and silver in its centre exactly as Gwen’s mother had described.
“On the night she eloped with that preacher fellow,” Mrs. Johns explained, “your grandmother came to my room and left this with me for safekeeping. It has been in our family for well over a hundred years.”
“There is a family legend attached to it,” she continued, “something passed down from mother to daughter since our first ancestor found it. Perhaps it is time you heard the story.”
In the winter of eighteen fifty-four, a strange illness spread amongst the animals and rotted the harvest in the silos. Some of the locals blamed a harmless hagawitch who lived in a shack at the edge of a marsh. Talk in these parts, as you might know if you have heard the tale of the Black Donnellys, can turn ugly – and that talk has a way of becoming action when folks are frightened enough.
Before these dark mutterings could become darker deeds, your great-great-grandmother had her husband go out and fetch Grandma Bell and hide her in the barn. I suppose I should say it was that very barn out there – to heighten the drama, if for no other reason – but that barn was built in the nineteen-thirties after the original one burned down.
Now it wasn’t more than a day or two later when a mob gathered and headed down to the marsh in the middle of the night. They burned down the old woman’s shack and a sight more than half the marsh. I suppose you think a marsh will not burn, but with all those gases – methane – it created an inferno they said you could see three counties over.
The hagawitch was an old Irish crone people claimed was not quite right in the head – she spoke only in riddles, and wore a foul-smelling concoction in her hair to keep away the mosquitoes and black flies. She kept a spider as a pet and claimed she could read your future in its web. To thank my mother for saving her life, she had her spider weave a web for our great- great- grandmother.
The old crone foresaw Grandma Greta’s death in a few short years. She warned that her husband would uncover a powerful talisman and give it to her daughter. And that her daughter must guard it well, passing it down mother to daughter against the day one of her kith would need it in time of dire misfortune. If her words were forgotten, or the talisman lost, our bloodline would be cursed for all eternity.
“For other Wiccans, it is a ward against some impending, yet unknown darkness,” Mrs. Johns concluded, handing the crystal to Alex. “For our family, it has always been the secret from the Rede in the Web. I think the time the hedge witch warned us about is now.”
Alex frowned. Too much bizarre unbelievable, plain silly shit for her to buy into. And yet her friends were missing, and in unguarded moments, memories of that night flooded into her mind – the blood, the pain, the heartache. It all seemed like a bad dream, but here she was, three years later. Three years for which she had no memories. One day it was 2009, and the next, it was 2012. So what other explanation did she have?
Reluctantly Alex took up the crystal. It felt cold to the touch. A shiver raced up her spine from more than the cold, as if by touching the stone and confirming its reality, she was confirming the reality of her own death, of the demon, of the truth behind her friends’ disappearance.
“Try it,” Gwen urged. “Aiko will help you.”
Even more reluctantly, she sat on the floor next to Aiko. A chill raced up her spine and settled into her kidneys. Taking a long, calming breath, she nodded. The vampyre returned her nod. She was beginning to think of the other girl as a vampyre, and if she accepted this, then she was slowly accepting that she was a ghost – and maybe not truly real anymore.
“It is time to let go of your fears and clear your mind,” Aiko whispered. “Free yourself of your earthly concerns. Here there is only you, an empty vessel waiting to be filled….”