Helmand dropped by with the sun to visit Aiko and Alexandra, who were almost always together these days. He found them in the attic, where one was practicing her katas, and the other was reading. Convincing them to join the other girls downstairs for breakfast, Gwen was full of news about their discoveries. As she talked, Alex became more withdrawn and moody, and Helmand reached out a hand to rub her back. No one blamed her for what had happened that night except Alex herself, a night three years ago that had altered the life of thirteen people. The more Gwen talked, revealing her suspicions, the more Alex blamed herself until the weight of her guilt crushed her soul.
There was no one left to share her guilt. Zeke, Todd, Trav and Matt were all gone. She never understood why she and Zeke pretended he still had the book, or why they let the others believe Todd was the only one who read it. Maybe at first because she had started dating Matt shortly afterwards, and Matt was so dyslexic that he was functionally illiterate. But secrets had a way of keeping themselves long after the need for secrecy had passed, and it was something she and Zeke shared during a time when she still carried a torch for him.
“We need to go out to Lucan again,” Gwen announced, slurping her orange juice loudly.
“Why?” Crystal teased, “you didn’t get enough hot dogs last night?”
“We need to find the woods where those Wiccan women disappeared,” Gwen defended. “Summoning Circles leave residues that can linger for centuries. And I believe that is exactly what happened that night they disappeared. Twelve of them went out to meet a thirteenth. He was either the priest or the constable. If we find the distance from the Summoning Circle to their two houses, we will have a rough idea of the range of Shax’s power.”
“Smart,” Cantara complimented. “We can then use it to figure out where his lair must be in relationship to this one.”
“That’s still going to be a rather large area,” Morgana warned.
“But smaller than what we are working with now,” Crystal supplied. “From there, it’s a matter of looking into urban legends and investigating any that fit into that area.”
“I think I know the woods,” Helmand supplied. “What remains of it though is stretched out over three or four properties. They once called it the Witch Woods, but I don’t think it has a name anymore. Too little of it left.”
“We’ll need our finders crystals,” Gem said, admitting, “and I did not bring mine.”
In the end, only three of the girls had brought theirs, including Gwen. There was no point separating into smaller parties – they would need at least two to find the emanation from the Summoning Circle, especially one that had grown faint after the passage of so many years.
Helmand offered to drive, saying he thought a walk in the country would be pleasant on such a beautiful day. That suited Cantara very well – highway driving was a little intimidating now that cars were capable of faster speeds. She was afraid of very little in this world and several others, and still, she didn’t trust the rattling contraptions these mortals built. Nor could she control or predict the actions of the other drivers, who tended to either crowd her back bumper, or cut in front of her at high speeds. And all the while chatting on cell phones or arguing with their children.
In the van, Helmand had lured Aiko and Alexandra into the front seat beside him. Unable to hide from the others, either in meditation or the pages of the book, they were forced to join the boisterous world of their companions. And finding two pieces of fresh meat in their midst, the other girls hurled a blizzard of insults and teasing in their direction.
“That one I would eat given a chance,” Aiko muttered darkly after a cutting remark from Crystal.
“She would give you the runs for a month of Sundays,” Alex threw in loud enough for the others to hear.
“I would not,” Crystal retorted, snorting her laughter. “I am so sweet I would go straight to her hips.”
“Pure pork lard,” Gwen shot back, imitating her snort and was quickly joined by a chorus of oinks from the others.
“I do not eat pork,” Aiko announced primly, “it sours the stomach.”
“You better all sleep with one eye open,” Crystal warned, teasing. “I know where you all live.”
Out near Lucan, Helmand turned onto an unpaved concession road. Soon the shower of stones thrown up by the tires rattled on the quarter panels and oil pan. Its surface was rutted from heavy use by farm vehicles, and the suspension was given a good work out. The girls let the vibrations from the bumpy ride alter their voices by way of complaint, and Helmand smiled back at them in the rear-view mirror.
“Almost to the first farm,” he announced. “Shall we stop at the farmhouse and ask if we can hike in the woods?”
“That would be a good idea,” Miss Sweider agreed. The last thing she wanted was to be chased through the woods by a pack of dogs.
At the farmhouse, they explained to the woman who answered the door that they were a group from the University of Western Ontario studying old-growth forests. A section of the Old McCurdy woods, once known as the Witch Woods, still grew on their property, and they were wondering if she would mind if they hiked through it. Most farm folks were pretty accommodating, Helmand explained, but they liked to be asked before strangers started traipsing all over their property.
The woods were another mile down the road, starting as a windbreak that marched along a fence line. Helmand parked, and they all piled out to stretch their legs. Helmand was right. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny, with an endless blue sky stretching off into the horizon. Hands on backs to release the pressure from sitting, massive yawns, and leg stretches, the girls prepared for their hike.
Ember led off, hopping the barbwire fence with ease despite her clunky Doc Martens. The other girls soon followed, turning to wait for the three old farts to scale the fence. The trees on this side were nothing spectacular, either old and gnarled, or misshapen and stunted. In the distance, they could see a small copse covering maybe a half-acre of land. A few of these looked taller, but it was mostly more of the same pauper trees – old beggars and their half-starved offspring.
Trees were not why they had come here, Gwen reminded them. Trees that were once part of the same forest retained a residual memory, and if something dark once happened here, their finder stones should pick up traces of it. While they may not find the actual Summoning Circle here in this clump of trees, a reading might tell them they were on the right track. Gwen already had her crystal out and was sure she could feel something faint emanating from the distant woods. She could not be sure from this distance, and not without a reading from at least one other stone, but she was far more sensitive than any of the other girls in her coven.
Crystal had felt edgy all morning. It felt like a diffused ache in her bones, and the pranic energy burbling in her mind soured the breakfast in her stomach. She kept looking in the distance for something that was not there, like that funny feeling you got when a storm was coming and was still a long way off. She put it down to the ghost of Shax’s presence. Crystal had been chasing him for so long now that she could taste his trail even when it was almost a century old. He had been here, in and about this country, and on more than one occasion. His taint was strong and overlapping.
Every demon had a select number of portals into this world, sometimes no more than a half-dozen, sometimes as many as a score. When the apotropaic associated with a portal – be it relic or person attuned to that demon – was lost, corrupted or damaged, that portal would become a favoured doorway for that demon. But sometimes that self-same apotropaic drew the demon to it, and the more powerful or fatal the relic, the stronger the attraction. This latter was the case between Shax and the Wiccan apotropaic – a weapon wielded by a woman against the Betrayer of Women.
It was cool under the trees of the woods. Aiko had never been in a forest during daylight, and she stopped to admire how the dappled sunlight reflected off her skin. It fascinated her the same way a deadly snake fascinated its victim moments before striking. She turned to find Alex watching her and blushed.
“Outside in daylight is new to me,” she offered.
Alex nodded. “I guess we take a lot of things for granted when we are alive.”
Gwen and the two other girls with finder stones wandered among the trees, coming together periodically to compare results and calibrate their stones. Finally, Gwen made a decision.
“It’s farther to the west, I think,” Gwen decided. “The trees remember something dark, but these ones were not a witness to it.”
“There’s another concession road between here and the next patch of trees,” Helmand replied. “We might as well drive. I think that stretch of woods is owned by the government.”
The fence along this stretch of old-growth forest was dotted with No Trespass signs, and one larger one declaring it the property of the government of Canada. Some Crown land was fenced in like this to keep out hunters or had been set aside for research, or military use. There was no way to tell from looking at it, and even Helmand did not have the faintest clue where to ask to find out. One of the many ministries was no doubt responsible for Crown land, but the responsibility could be divided between several.
“Well,” Crystal decided for everyone, “in for a penny, in for a pound. We didn’t come all this way to be stopped by a fence.”
She was almost willing to take her words back after her first two attempts to climb it. A high chain-link fence topped with a single strand of barbed wire, the trees growing so snug against its far side it was difficult to find a place to climb. Once at the top, her legs straddling either side, she found herself at an impasse. Okay, she was stuck and at risk of being circumcised by the barbed wire. The tree branch she thought would help her over had snapped under her weight like the traitor it was, leaving her hanging, so to speak.
“I think we should leave her there,” Morgana commented to Alex. “A good warning to anyone else trying to trespass.”
“When I get down from here, you are so eating dirt,” Crystal threatened, laughing at her predicament.
Once they had all made their way over the fence, finding the trail in the woods was easy. Their stones seemed to vibrate in their hands when pointed in the right direction. Following that same trail through the thick underbrush was another matter. Thorns and branches pinched and gouged the girls as the stones kept pointing to the thickest patches of foliage. Ember accused Gwen of doing it on purpose after she caught a pine branch across the face, and Gwen tried hard not to laugh when she denied it. It was only because this section of woods was truly old-growth forest, one of the few patches that had not been clear-cut in the eighteenth hundreds.
When they stumbled onto the almost circular clearing, it came as a surprise. Amid a wild tangle of trees and bushes, the patch of dead earth was a shock. Hardly anything grew here, except a few toadstools, a patch or two of moss, and a sparse sprinkle of struggling seedlings. Gwen’s finding stone grew ice-cold the moment she stepped out of the trees. The chill extended up her arm and raced down her spine, a leaden feeling settling into the pit of her stomach. There was no doubt in her mind that this was a Summoning Circle, a place where twelve Wiccans had lost their battle and their souls to a demon.
“This is it,” Gwen announced. “Now, all we have to do is drive from here to the church and record the mileage. Then we’ll drive back here and do the same thing for the constable’s house.”
“This would only work if one of those two were possessed by Shax,” Crystal warned.
“We’ll just have to trust that these women knew what they were talking about,” Gwen replied. “They lived in those times and were closer to the infestation.”
“When did you get so wise?” Crystal complained.
“Since always,” Gwen quipped.
The flight to Australia was relaxing. Dry and warm for the first time in what felt like months, Drake had slept almost the entire flight, only waking long enough to inhale the inflight meal. And Australia came as advertised – hot and dry. In fact, it was in the middle of a drought and had not seen rain anywhere on the continent in over a hundred days. ῾Sucks to be a farmer,᾿ Drake thought when the taxi driver shared his complaints about the unseasonably dry weather, ῾but suits me to a tee. Give me sunshine, hot, bright sunshine to dry out my poor waterlogged bones.᾿
In Adelaide, looking for a guide to the Ayers Rock region, they ran into their first snag. What they sought to do was nearly impossible. It took thirteen dream singers from four different aboriginal countries and thirteen different clans. And even then, Wandjina did not always answer. The last time it was tried was when the white man first came to the continent, and the singers had called, singing and dancing for weeks without an answer. The petitioners need must be dire, and even then, Wandjina may not come in his human form. The oldest ancestors said he had been in the Dream Time so long that he has forgotten his true form from the Creation Time.
The second obstacle was that the government had cancelled all tours into the Outback because of large dingo packs and the risk of fire. At the moment, four major brush fires were burning in the heart of the continent, the worst being blamed on a careless tourist. It looked like no Crocodile Dundee vacation for them. They were, however, able to book a cabin in a small town near Mutitjulu, about eight klicks from Uluru or Ayers Rock, the closest they could come with the government ban still in place.
The six Brotherhood soldiers arrived at the cabin moments before dawn, booking and registering it in time to get Alvaro inside before the sun. Around noon, Angel took the three boys with him and made the rounds of the local bars, two of which were located outside of the town itself. They were looking for an aboriginal guide, a half-breed older fellow with dark skin and blue eyes, who often went around in traditional dress to add colour to his tours. When not out in the bush, he was known to frequent one of the three bars or the gutters in and about them.
Dizzy Cobar, as the locals called him, was known for his telling of aboriginal tales – some of them authentic. He had been raised in the Outback by a family from the Anangu Country and had somehow managed to miss both World Wars. He currently claimed to be one hundred and ten years old, but one bartender had confided that he doubted the old fellow was older than sixty. He was the type of character Angel was looking for, one independent enough to ignore the government ban on tours into the Outback, and desperate enough to need the money.
They found Dizzy leaning up against the back wall of the second establishment they checked, not nearly as drunk as he pretended to be. There was a shrewdness behind his façade, and Angel suspected he hung around the bars more to listen to the rumours to use to spin the tales he would tell them later.
“Buy you a coffee and a little tuck, mate?” Angel offered.
“And why would you be wanting to do that Blow in?” Dizzy asked suspiciously.
“Might be, I have a spot of work you might be interested in,” Angel replied. “And a story or two we’d like you to tell.”
They went into town, to a diner, because Dizzy’s act had already gotten him banned from that tavern as well. At the diner, they ordered four steaks, the cattle industry here in Australia, while smaller than the sheep industry, was still carried out on a large scale. Most of its herds were purchased by the Japanese, but the domestic market consumed its share. Dizzy liked his steak well done and washed down with three or four beers. He spun tales as he ate and drank, paying for his meal with stories of the bizarre and the strange.
“We need to get to Ayres Rock,” Angel explained. “We would like to meet some people there, and we’re wondering if you can help us out.”
“How many of you?” Dizzy asked between swigs of beer.
“Bloody big mobs, cobber, for sneaking about,” he cautioned, opening the negotiations.
“Not if they happen to meet you, say in that grove of eucalyptus and gum trees down the road away.”
“Yes,” he drawled, “cost big bikkies for supplies for seven blokes. Not so easy to hide, I think.”
“Perhaps if they were purchased several days apart and from different locations, say by someone stocking up for a business,” Angel countered.
“Reckon I’d need to go to Andrew’s Trading Station,” Dizzy suggested, “I’ll be flat out like a lizard drinking down to Mutitjulu.”
“Say we start off with six hundred American dollars to help defray your cost?”
“Beauty cobber,” Dizzy replied. “Take three days, I reckon. If we tee-up around midnight four days from now, might be we could take a walkabout without any notice.”
It was fifteen miles from the Summoning Circle to the church once they tracked down the original site. Now they were on their way back out to the site of the Summoning Circle to repeat their experiment with the home of the constable. The Carroll Homestead was a farm that belonged to his uncle, Michael Maher, and whose fields had been swallowed up by a larger farming concern. There was some debate as to whether the original house still stood, or whether it was the farmhouse or the barn that had burned down during the thirties. It was conflicting information that saw them beginning the second half of their task as darkness fell.
In the twilight, finding the right patch of woods was difficult, and they all tumbled out of the van to search the fence line for the branch Crystal had broken off scaling the fence. It was agreed that they would use this as a reference point if they could find it. Crystal seemed to remember it was close to a sign, and there were about a dozen of them along this stretch of highway. To save time in the failing light, they spread out along the fence line in groups of threes and fours.
Helmand was walking towards the farthest sign with Aiko, Ember and Alexander. Ember was telling him all about a backwards flip kick she had almost mastered last night when he caught the sound of motorcycle engines. A lot of motorcycles. He caught a whiff of something that curled his lip.
The cyclist sped up the unpaved concession road, kicking up an unseen cloud of smoke. They spun off the road and headed straight for the group that included Helmand, Aiko and Alex. Leaping from their bikes, their attack concentrated on the spot where Alex had stood. When frightened or angry, Alex was developing a habit of slipping off the ring, disappearing and reappearing somewhere completely different. The hair pull was only effective against a few of her attackers: the eye-poke was far more satisfying.
Aiko flew into a group of bikers, all kicks and fangs. Separating one cluster from an overwhelmed Ember, who had actually connected with a backwards flip kick, the vampyre faced off with the main group and suddenly knew them for her own kind.
“Use your cross,” she hissed. “They are not human.”
Helmand, meanwhile, quietly took their leader out of the fight. Both recognized each other for their true nature. Between their two kinds, there could be nothing else. The shadow slayer could only hiss in frustration. The creature blocking his path cast no true shadow, not here on Earth or in Hell. There was nothing it could do to hurt him, nor would this creature do it any true harm, and still, it could not move past it.
Crystal’s edginess had increased steadily all through the afternoon. By nightfall, she barely contained the pranic energy that danced obscenely across her soul. When the bikers cut off the highway onto the concession road, she sensed them for what they were and hissed. If Shax had other objectives tonight, he had both goaded her too much and once again underestimated her strength. Almost before the impending violence started, she exploded amongst their ranks like a supernova.
Three vampyres disappeared in a cloud of dust. Crystal grabbed the front tire of a motorcycle still ridden by two vampyres, throwing it and its riders into the fence over Aiko and Ember’s heads. The vampyre pulled the human child out of harm’s way, and then found herself being pulled away by Cantara and Miss Sweider. Crystal was in a rage, too angry to even feed. Only the pranic energy and the urge to destroy ruled, and the red lasers of her eyes tracked new targets restlessly.
Realizing an enraged succubus had dropped into their midst, the vampyres fled to their bikes. One more died, skewered by a branch of a tree, and then crushed by the tree itself as Crystal dropped it on him.
With the motorcycle engines fading in the distance, Gwen ducked beneath Helmand’s restraining arm and raced towards Crystal. Unlike the others, she knew Crystal would not hurt her, even after she tackled the succubus and sat on her. This was not the first time she had ridden out a pranic energy jag with Crystal, and no matter how frightening her eyes and temper seemed, she was still Crystal.
“If you don’t take a chill pill,” Gwen warned, “I’m going to make you climb the tree and fetch that motorcycle.”
“Only if you get off me,” Crystal complained. “You’re squishing my boob.”
Gwen laughed and rolled off her. “Girl, you’ve made a hell of a mess. Let’s say we run away before Mom makes us clean it up.”
“It’s not that bad,” Crystal defended, “some of the fence is still standing.”
Standing, Crystal pulled Gwen to her feet and walked over to join the others, her eyes still mostly red. She stopped, studying Helmand for a long moment.
“How is it that Shax and his people always know where we are when you are around?” She accused.
“Crystal!” Cantara rebuked. “That is hardly just. Every place we go to is somewhere we must go to find and destroy Shax. He needs no one to tell him that we will eventually investigate this Summoning Circle, or the Johns and the Wiccan Apotropaic, or the Bishop’s residence. After all, he planted the book that led us to it.”
“Sorry,” Crystal muttered. “It looks suspicious, is all.”
“Ah, yes,” Helmand nodded, “I see how it might. But I assure you that none of this is why I am here.”
“Then, why are you here?” Crystal couldn’t keep the demand from her voice, and she sounded petty and whiny in her own ears.
“Because of a promise I made to a certain young man named Jean-Claude, many years ago.”
“Hey!” Gwen objected. “I thought you said you had never met Jean-Claude.”
“Ah, silly girl,” Helmand teased, “I said I had not had the pleasure of being related to Jean-Claude, who told stories as well as I did.”
Gwen gave him a severe look. Sometimes Helmand was more slippery than Jean-Claude at his worst.