Their second night in the Outback was much the same as the first, except their new guide took a wide berth around Ayres Rock. With his own reasons for secrecy, Grandfather preferred to travel at night, when Gubbah’s helicopters were not scouring the Outback for fires. They were heading to a place most aboriginals denied existed, and fewer still would visit. In Gubbah’s language, the name meant ῾place where demons urinate᾿, in his tongue, it meant much more. Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill, the place where the ancestors wrestled with demons for the soul of the land in Creation Time.
Of course, calling it the soul of the land was over-simplifying. A better explanation was to think of it as the song of all creation, or the dream that was all life itself. It was a place where none save the people came, and here he was bringing six blow ins to this sacred place. Four were mortals, three Europeans and an African, and two something else – even one of the mortals was something more, something different. Maybe not demons, maybe not Dream Time ancestors – but at least at Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill, there would be thirteen Dream singers to deal with any kangaroo waltzing.
Angel dropped back to walk with Grandfather. He was old, but still a strong walker, his torso unbent by the passage of the years. In the bush, he wore little beyond his loin clothes and his tribal paint. He carried a spear and spear thrower, wore a store-bought knife and a boomerang in a belt made from a piece of twine. He kept up a steady, ground-eating pace that was neither fast nor slow.
“How many days before we reach this place?” Angel asked. “Is it not within cooee?”
“No days cobber,” the old man cackled. “Two nights.”
That seemed a little quick to Angel, and he frowned. There were only a few places in these parts they could be heading, and he estimated the nearest was five days’ travel over this rugged terrain. At least on foot. True, the two aborigines knew the terrain better. Still. The old one sang as he walked, something deep in his chest until he sounded like his didgeridoo. He said it was to protect them from the heat and the hidden dangers of the Outback, and it left Angel wondering.
Underfoot was still rock and baked dirt. Moisture seemed a distant rumour in this parched land and travelling at night was more necessity than mere desire. In the distance, an orange glow lit the horizon. Too early to be the sunrise and on the wrong skyline. Brushfire. Now the direction of the wind became a major concern. A shift to the southwest would steer it in their direction, and if it picked up enough speed, they might not be able to keep ahead of it.
A shift in the wind would bring the fire barreling down on two or three communities, including the town they had left. With the scarcity of water, the authorities could do little more than evacuate. Angel doubted they were set up like in North America, whose governments spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting precious stands of timber from fire. The nearest large body of water was the ocean, and dumping saltwater on so many acres of land would be as damaging as the fire. What the land most needed was some of the excess rainfall from South Africa.
“This is a dingo’s lunch,” Dizzy muttered. “It’s as dry as a nun’s nasty. Fire hit the turps. It bail us up soon.
“This bad luck,” Grandfather replied, “and a mite more. A bad song in the wind.”
Drake and Jaime, the two big-city boys, were slow to pick up on the danger. To them, a fire was a tragedy that affected one family or one business. It was quickly dealt with by the local fire department. Like a sailor on a burning ship, they soon realized they had no place to run. More and more wildlife bounded past or through their ranks. Their panicked stampede spread to the humans, who kept wondering if, and when the fire and the wind would turn. Animals often sensed things long before humans, like a dog whining about an earthquake before the first tremor was felt, or birds seeking shelter hours before the storm struck.
Grandfather’s singing sounded more ragged and desperate, and Dizzy joined him, adding his baritone to that of the other aboriginal. Long after they would have stopped for a water break, they pressed on. The wind that had blown steadily in their faces all night dropped off. They all could feel a shift was imminent.
“Is there a tall rocky outcrop around here?” Alvaro asked. If the wind shifted and the brush fire headed in their direction, they would have to run through the dawn, and he did not know if the smoke would protect him from the sun.
“Come good,” Dizzy promised.
Grandfather was heading to one of the hidden gems of the Outback. The wind picked up, blowing in a strong gust directly at their backs. Behind them, the orange glow on the horizon was obscured by a heavy black cloud. The fire was on the hunt for fresh fuel, and they were its prey. As the wind strengthened, Grandfather’s singing faltered. Their goal was still two or three miles further into the Everard Range, and the fire was four miles away and closing. It was the race of their lives, and it was going to be a photo finish – hopefully not a death portrait for their obituaries.
The terrain became more rugged as they moved into the hills. Their pace slowed on the upslope grade, increased slightly on the downslope. The land was rising, and while it slowed the bipeds, the dry tinder on the slope offered the fire a quick route up. It had halved the distance between them, and while still two miles away, Drake swore he could feel its heat warming his backside. The smoke slowly grew heavier, and the climbers had soaked their bandanas with water and now wore them over their faces to ease their breathing.
“Quick like,” Grandfather urged.
He led them onto what looked like a goat path, although Angel did not remember any wild goats being indigenous to Australia. It was a little easier to travel here. Occasionally a shower of stones followed a misstep as the trail narrowed. While not as sure-footed as their guides, none of the outlanders lost their footing. A mile from their goal as the crow flies, the fire was now a little over a mile away and travelling across the land with greater ease than the hikers. Whether natural or not, the long months of drought had left a dry environment conducive to its health.
And it was a healthy fire, Alvaro thought. The wall of flame stretched in a large arch that disappeared on either horizon.
“It looks like it’s herding us,” Alvaro cried over the sound of the fire.
Angel paused, letting his wings unfurled. With a single leap, he disappeared into the smoke-choked sky.
“Fair suck of the sav!” Dizzy breathed.
The smoke rose for almost a thousand feet. When Angel broke through to the clear skies above, he hovered, taking in a panoramic view. The fire stretched in a long ten-mile arc, but whether its shape was natural or supernatural, he could not tell from here. What he could see is that they were in almost the dead centre of the fire.
Back on the ground, he yelled to his companions, “up is our only choice.”
“Come good,” Grandfather promised. “Couple of more rises.”
True to his word, the path led down for a short space and began to rise again. Each downslope grew shorter as the elevation rose. This last slope rose fairly steeply, and there were fewer patches of dead vegetation to grab hold of to counter its steepness. It also meant it would be hard for the fire to follow. Halfway up a second rise, Grandfather and the path disappeared.
The entrance to the cave was a hole in the ground created by two massive boulders that did not quite meet. Despite the tight fit, inside the long passage was spacious. It led down into the darkness. Alvaro and Drake fished out electric torches from their packs, lighting the way as Grandfather led them deeper into the cave. Below they could hear water drip into a large pool. They were safe for the moment, as long as the narrow passage did not act as a chimney, drawing the smoke down into the cavern to choke them to death.
Gwen was on the phone with her mother. It was a mark of her concern, she supposed, that she had made this call. It was not going very well. Gwen sighed, imagining that if she had a daughter who was being harrowed by a demon, she would lose her shit too.
“Really, Mom,” Gwen complained. “You can hardly blame us for anything that’s happened. Jean-Claude could at least have told us there was a Summoning Circle in the house he left Crystal.”
April said something sharp and Gwen rolled her eyes. “Yes. And we could have warded it sooner if we had known it was here. Honestly, Mom, I need some advice here.”
Gwen blew out a breath as April gave her the only advice any mother would under the circumstances. Come straight home. And then the older woman sighed herself and admitted she realized the girls could not come home now, and she could not leave New York at that moment. What they needed to deal with the girl’s nightmares was a dream catcher, and April promised to email her the instructions for crafting the exact ward.
Hanging up the phone, Gwen went off to find her bed and, hopefully, a good night’s sleep.
Alex had taken a long time falling asleep. She had pillowed her head on Aiko’s knee as the vampyre sat meditating, and although she remained motionless, Aiko knew she was still awake. Jade and Amy were watching the wards on the Summoning Circle during the first four hours of the night. It was quiet in the attic, and Aiko opened an eye to check on the two girls. While quiet, they seemed to be doing something with their crystals and were far too active to be sleeping.
The quiet lasted until midnight, the witching hour. Alex began to stir in her sleep, and Aiko reached out a hand to stroke her hair. She settled, but the respite was brief. Suddenly Alex sat bolt upright with a soul-rending wail. Aiko shook a shoulder to wake her and noticed the trails of blood leaking from her eyes like tears.
“Go wake Gwen! Quickly!” Aiko commanded.
Jade was on her feet in a flash, calling back over her shoulder. “I doubt anyone slept through that.”
Gwen had tumbled out of bed with Crystal on top of her. The two girls were sorting themselves out when Jade burst into the room.
“It’s Alex. Come quick!”
In the attic, the bleeding from Alex’s eyes was a steady drip. Gwen took one look and snapped, “get everyone up here quick! And bring my crystal set.”
When everyone arrived in the attic, Gwen sorted them out into a wedge facing the Summoning Circle. She left Alex with Aiko and instructed Miss Sweider to lift one of the wards at her signal. Gwen held the Wiccan Cathode in her hand. Quickly establishing a link with the other twelve through their crystals, she drew as much energy from her coven as she and the cathode could hold. She nodded to Miss Sweider.
The moment the ward dropped, Gwen cried, “suck floor!”
Barely before Miss Sweider ducked out of the way, Gwen released the pent-up energy straight at the centre of the Summoning Circle. The concussion shook the walls and threw the girls backwards. The cry that leapt from the circle made anything that ever came from Alex’s throat sound like a whisper.
Alex jerked awake and struggled to sit up. Helmand was there, reaching out to place a hand over her eyes. As suddenly as the bleeding had started, it stopped.
“I am guessing you are all very hungry,” Helmand said conversationally. “Has anyone ever showed you how to make campfire pizza?”
And they were all very hungry and not only for food. Company and warmth and any familiar activity would ease much of these pangs, maybe more so than the pizza. Helmand led them all down to the kitchen, explaining that campfire pizza could be cooked over a stove burner as easily as over a fire. He had seen two or three of the pizza pans when he had last cooked a meal here, and when he showed them the pans, the girls admitted they had all been wondering what they were. Each pan was made of two circular lids about the size of a slice of bread, a top and a bottom, hinged just after the pots and attached to two long handles.
Making the pizza was easy. You placed a slice of bread on the bottom pan, smearing it with tomato sauce, cheese and whatever other toppings you found at hand. The second slice of bread was placed on top, and the pans were lowered into place like the lid of a waffle iron. Once it was locked in place, the crust was cut off, creating a round pizza pocket. This was then toasted over a fire or a stove burner.
While they cooked the pizzas, Gwen borrowed Morgana’s laptop to download and print off her mother’s instruction. She and Gem sat at one end of the dining room table with a collection of wire, reeds, coloured thread, beads and crystals. Each dream catcher had unique characteristics and properties based on its purpose and the materials it was made from. For this one, they needed to use yellow and black thread, red beads alternated with small rubies. The outside needed to be differenced with crow and dove feathers. Fortunately, Gem’s hobby was crafting Dream Catchers, and she had brought her materials with her. Finding some of the more esoteric parts they needed tonight would take weeks, maybe months, if they had to order them on the internet.
It was not enough to have the beads and whatnot. Each had to be prepared. Some were blessed using the Native tradition with sage and tobacco, others, like the rubies, were charged using Wiccan practices. And when completed, the ward was activated in a brief ceremony. And that is where they faced their first major obstacle. Once charged, the Dream Catcher was too powerful for anyone but Crystal to carry into Alex’s nightmare, and uncharged the Dream Catcher was useless.
“Well,” Gwen announced, stuffing a pizza pocket in her mouth. She made them wait until she was finished chewing. “We’re done, but we have big problems.”
“Like what?” Morgana asked suspiciously. Last time Gwen had problems, she found herself wearing an orange dress that made her look like a misshapen pumpkin.
“The only one strong enough to carry it into Alex’s dreams is Crystal,” Gwen explained, “and whenever that girl sees Shax, she loses her shit. If she does it while we are dream walking, we could be stuck in Alex’s dreams forever.”
“I can handle Shax,” Crystal hissed.
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Gwen replied. “It’s got something to do with the amount of pranic energy you have consumed. He keeps goading you into drawing on it. The last couple of times his vampyres have shown up, you have been too pissed to go into a feeding frenzy. You only nibbled on a few and started throwing the rest around.”
“Succubus food fight,” Crystal teased. “Don’t worry, Gwen. I can control it. More and more so each time I master it.”
“Okay,” Gwen accepted her word on trust. “We have to enter Alex’s nightmare and place the dream catcher on what Mom calls the iconic centre of her dreams. It is a central symbol or figure that appears in every nightmare. I think it will be the Summoning Circle.”
Gwen chewed on a pizza pocket, considering. “Aiko and I will go with you, and if you lose your shit in there, I’m going to let Aiko bite you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Crystal teased, not as contrite as she sounded.
The girls moved into the living room, rolling back the carpet to reveal their sketches and artwork from previous evenings. Amy, Jade and Ember set to work colouring in the wards with a set of sidewalk chalk that was beginning to see the shady side of better days. As they worked, Gwen set out her crystals, explaining to Gem how to use the Wiccan cathode. This time she was taking no chances. If Shax stuck his nose in their business, she was not going to trust to wards – she had something with a little punch in mind.
Alex settled in on the couch with Aiko, leaning her head against the vampyre’s shoulder. She was not very tired, rather afraid to close her eyes and sleep after that last nightmare, and the tea Gwen had fed her was doing nothing to ease her tension. Straight up, she was afraid. This last nightmare was so horrible that her mind refused to retain any of the images, the only memory of it a lingering pain behind her eyes. She wished Aiko would sing to her again, or maybe Helmand would tell her a story, one of his long crazy tales that you could never decide whether they were real, or if you were even interested enough to listen. Something else besides the silence and sibilant whispers of the other girls.
At the foot of the couch, Gwen sketched a complicated pattern onto the floor with yellow chalk. She intended to bring not only the Dream Catcher into Alex’s nightmare but the Wiccan Cathode as well. If Shax showed up, she wanted to have a surprise waiting for him and thought she knew a way to give the cathode a kick even from within the dream. Perhaps not as much as with a full coven behind her, or perhaps much more because she could tap into the life force more directly from within the subconscious world.
It was after two o’clock when Alex finally fell asleep. The others were barely awake themselves and resented her the sleep, no matter how broken and traumatizing. Gwen took a deep breath and nodded to Crystal and Aiko. Collecting their link into her crystal, she began to cross into Alex’s dream. It was a quiet one, all fluffy clouds and sunlight patches, vague, unformed images flashing through her mind like a slideshow. She looked and saw ghostly images of Aiko and Crystal on either side, the Dream Catcher more solid and real here than any of them.
The dreamscape grew darker. A black mist rolled through the white, changing everything to greys and bringing sharp edges to the images that flowed past the interlopers. An image began to take shape, becoming more vivid, more immediate and real than any of the others in the dream. Torchlight lit robed figures marching in procession across a flagstone floor, each the same height, the same body shape. In the centre of the dream, an altar rose from the floor, misty and shapeless as it took form, slowly growing more solid as it became the focal point of the image. An all too recognizable form lay chained across its stone top, Alex as she saw herself in her dreams – too many curves and too much height to match reality.
“Can you believe that outfit,” Gwen hissed cattily. “If I ever had a nightmare where I was a sacrifice on an altar, I think I would dream of myself wearing chainmail, or armour or something.”
“And way skinnier hips,” Crystal teased. “And a smaller bum.”
“My bum’s already perfect, Thunder Thighs,” Gwen shot back.
“What is happening?” Aiko hissed.
The robed figures threw back their hoods. Every figure wore the features of the same women, a hard face, pinched with heavy bags under the eyes and a haggard, hard-partying look of an addict. Alex screamed in both her dream and, in reality, the echo ringing in stereo as the watchers looked on from two worlds. Another darker figure approached. Gwen only had to look at Crystal’s feral snarl to know that this was Shax.
“Search for the Summoning Circle,” Gwen instructed, bring Crystal back from the brink of her rage. “Aiko and I will keep Shax busy.”
Gwen drew on the life force of Aiko and herself, and then reached out for Alex’s. It was like trying to swallow an ocean in one gulp, like touching the life force of the Goddess herself. Gwen had never seen so much Wiccan potential in one individual. No wonder she and her line were the key to the Wiccan Apotropaic. She reached out again, drawing a mere trickle.
Crystal, meanwhile, struggled against a kaleidoscope of hellish images. A parade of her past lovers being eaten by the worst Hell had to offer, zombie children freshly risen from their graves, flesh in tatters, eye sockets crawling with maggots. No one image remained long enough to make more than an impression as she searched the muck and filth spewing from the demon’s mind for the Summoning Circle. There.
Gwen pointed the cathode at Shax and released a charge of life force that leapt from its end in a stream as thick as a towing hawser. Shax was thrown across the dreamscape to disappear on its undefined horizons. A figure a hundred feet tall lumbered from out of the darkness – Shadow, Aiko’s dead father, twisted and bent in death. He fractured, becoming dozens, like the distorted images from a shattered mirror.
“It’s not real,” Gwen cried.
Aiko jostled her arm, pointing the Wiccan Cathode at the thing coming towards them, and Gwen struck it with a second, stronger blast. It felt as if she was holding a fire hose on her own, the pressure of the life force flowing through the cathode tearing at her shoulders and arms. Caught in the blast, the thousand Shadows exploded into nothingness, a cloud of dust blown away before a hurricane.
Now that Crystal was no longer a target of the demon’s caprice, she was free to search the dreamscape for the Summoning Circle. Here it glowed with a black light, more shadow than illumination. Faint in all this blackness, she could see it only in the corner of her eye. She held the Dream Catcher before her, edging through fragments of images that littered her path like scree and tailings from a played-out mine. It began to glow, silver and pure, battling the blackness in a sullied no-man’s-land. One step. And then another. Silver and black, black and silver, and the muddied grey where the lines of demarcation met.
As Crystal set the Dream Catcher at the centre of the Summoning Circle, Gwen released one last blast from the Wiccan Cathode stronger than any of the rest. The concussion threw the three interlopers from Alex’s dreams. The demon, she could not say. Alex woke at that moment with a start and fainted dead away.