A night run felt good. Jacob was happy to see the mob move off, leaving his home to join the growing demon horde at a farm outside Lucan. He left the women and children behind with two of his sons, bringing only the adults, mostly male, and the strange little vampyre girl. They were joining a host of vampyres, possessed humans – some almost zombies as the flesh rotted from their bodies – and lesser demons of various stripes. These last, he was anxious to keep well away from his family, especially the cubs, and was glad their new overlord had decided to gather his minions at this distant farm. He was only sorry that he was forced to bring his eldest daughter with him.
Lord Delph’s orders were explicit. He had entered a dangerous game, playing the demon and the succubus against each other and hoping both would destroy each other. When that happened, he planned to flee with the best he had brought here with him, maybe somewhere up north, where he could control several small communities of humans. If he went far enough and found a truly isolated town, he could rebuild his people’s strength. And with the succubus gone, the Brotherhood’s interference would be a distant threat.
Lord Shax had chosen a farm of a previous victim for his new base of operations. What had caused him to abandon his other lair, that he did not choose to share with the lesser beings who surrounded him? With so many creatures needing shelter from the sun, the house and outbuildings were crowded. The smell of the rotting flesh of the possessed humans made Delph ill, and he chose to make his own quarters in the smallest of the outbuildings. An abandoned barn, it had the advantage of being furthest from the house and Shax’s throne room, and only had to be shared with the Shadow Slayer and his retinue of vampyre bikers.
Tonight Lord Shax had instructed Delph to lead a mission and had given him the Shadow Slayer as a lieutenant. The young vampyre insisted on taking some of his people. Since the Shadow Slayer’s people would take their motorcycles, Delph decided to ride in a dark van. He filled it with Loogaroo, and a slight, ageing vampyre who had become his advisor and constant companion.
The convoy left the new camp sometime after midnight. With an escort of motorcycles fore and aft, the van rolled out the lane and onto the highway. Although it was slow, much slower than even these vehicles needed to travel, Delph insisted they obey the speed limits and all other traffic laws. This stage of their mission was not the time to draw the attention of the human authorities. The Shadow Slayer and his people had already failed Shax once, a second failure would earn them more than a soul lashing. And Delph had no intention of joining them on that particular altar.
Their target was fifteen minutes away. At the next farm over, Delph directed the convoy to turn off the road and sent the Shadow Slayer and half his crew inside to take care of the occupants in the farmhouse. He left five to guard the bikes and the van, sending the rest ahead on foot to scout out the neighbouring farm on the far side of their target. While waiting for the Shadow Slayer to finish his task, Delph held a whispered conversation with the older vampyre, reviewing his preparations. After a prolonged and obvious debate, the young vampyre nodded.
“Jacob,” Delph instructed. “Take two of your young wolves with you and check the John’s farm for dogs. Make sure none of them can give a warning. When you are done, send one of your people back to let me know. Stay and watch until I get there.”
Jacob nodded and peeled off across the field. Once out of sight, he let the change take him. His face and limbs elongated, his torso stretched and grew hunched, his muscles thickening and hair bursting through his skin. His eyes turned red, searching the darkness for his pack mates. The night brought new sights and smells to his heightened senses, and he listened for the sounds of his prey. Only the scurrying of rodents came from the field nearby, but further away, larger prey waited.
The ancient werewolf frowned. Something on the wind smelled dangerous, the night air carrying the taste of impending violence. He signalled his two pack mates to slow down. He dropped to a trot himself, hopping the fence and hugging the trees along the property line. Sharing a look, the two cubs joined him. Each took a long taste of the night air and was puzzled. All they sensed were dogs, prey. A few bites, a broken neck or two – perhaps too many to take unawares, but even a stray leaf could start a dog barking.
They were waiting in ambush for them in a small copse of trees. Wolfhounds, massive beasts with Wiccan crystals on their collars. Not easy prey. Jacob growled a warning. Five of the beasts leapt on the werewolf to his right, pulling him down amongst a tangle of fur and teeth. He and his surviving son came together, back to back. This was not one or two pet dogs, but a pack, close to a score of these brutes with a high tolerance to their venom thanks to the crystals.
Killing these was a matter of brute strength. Even if the dogs did not bark, those inside would be alerted to their presence by the ward stones. Fighting their way to their fallen companion, they saw that it was too late. His throat had been ripped out, and only one of the hounds lay with him, its neck broken.
A half-dozen bites bled on Jacob’s arms and legs. The two hounds he had killed brought their number down to seventeen – too many to fight off. Jacob made a decision.
“Michael,” he shouted. “Climb the tree, the big one. Stay there until I come back.”
“Obey me, son,” his father snapped. “It’s time these hounds learn what it means to run with the Loogaroo.”
As soon as his son started climbing the tree, Jacob threw back his head and howled. The sound cut across the night enshrouded farm, and the hounds answered with a bray of their own. Jacob dropped down on all fours, leaping past the dogs and out into the open field. Turning on a heel, the seventeen wolfhounds raced off in his wake. As long as they wore those ward crystals, they would chase him, and the wily old Loogaroo intended to run this pack to Hell and beyond.
At the neighbouring farm, Jacob’s daughter, Heather, turned towards Delph, “something is wrong at the John’s farm. Father sends a howl of warning.”
“What could go wrong?” Delph snapped. “All he had to do was kill a couple of dogs.”
“Obviously something unexpected, my lord,” the Loogaroo replied, “or my father would not have sent a warning.”
In the house, Mrs. Johns heard the howl too. Startled from sleep, she felt the ward crystal at her neck grow cold. Rolling from bed, she made her way down the hall to her granddaughter’s room. She realized her mistake the moment she felt the stone go chill, letting the girls take the Wiccan Apotropaic from the house. They needed to get downstairs to the safe room, and hopefully, it wasn’t too late.
Her granddaughter was a light sleeper, thank God. It was late for a girl her age, and while she was groggy, she was still quick to respond. Sleepily rubbing her eyes, she followed her grandmother out the door. The hallway was still dark, and Mrs. Johns did not take the time to turn on a light. The stairwell was black, a pool of darkness where they could not distinguish the walls from the stairs. Nor did they see the dark figures lurking in ambush.
Mrs. Johns had time for the start of a scream as she was thrown down the stairs. The wall hit her head, the collision taking consciousness with it….
Grandfather stood with his arms crossed, glaring at Angel. “What you be, cobber?”
It was Drake who found an answer. “He is a Dream Time Ancestor of my people.”
“And that one?” Grandfather asked, shrewdly, nodding his head at Alvaro. “Tell me deadset, and no bulldust cobber.”
“Slightly different flavour of the same thing,” Drake explained, pointing to the Wandering Jew. “Same for him.”
Grandfather nodded. Outside the fire raged, and while thick and black smoke choked the sky, the fire never reached the cave. The smoke crept into the cavern once or twice, but never thick enough to offer any real danger. The water at the bottom kept them cool, and while the level had dropped, it was still sweet and cold. They had taken food out of their tuck bags, but no-one felt like lighting a fire, not even for cooking. It was too strong a reminder of what waited for them outside.
The afternoon passed in a desultory fashion, napping and lounging around the pool of water, occasionally dipping their heads to cool down. Outside, the fire collided with the foothills of the Everard Ranges, the wind blowing steadily behind it until it exhausted its fuel and extinguished itself. For miles, in all directions, nothing but charred brush and dirt could be seen. Black, charred plants stretched out before them.
As dusk greyed skies that were still sullied by smoke, the seven men climbed out of the cave to inspect the damage. What they could not see with their eyes, their noses brought to them the full impact. Charred earth and still smoking stumps of trees perfumed the night air, tickling the back of their throats and adding a steady thirst to their struggles to deal with the heat. Even with fresh water from the cave, they were going through their supply too fast. There were no other water holes between here and their destination, and the drought had taken care of any pockets of groundwater.
Heat and thirst were not the only trials they faced tonight. In the safety of the foothills, the wildlife that had fled the fire choked the trail, including a growing pack of dingoes. Normally not dangerous to humans, the hunger caused by the drought was bringing them together in large enough numbers to threaten sheep and cattle herds. And tonight a group of seven hikers moving through the foothills.
Eyes in the darkness, some white and some red. Too many to count. Angel frowned at the growing number of red eyes shining amongst the mortal white eyes of the native dingoes. These could only be possessed, Hellhounds let loose amongst their desperate brethren to add to the misery of the dying Outback. So far, these were keeping their distance, but how long his presence would keep them away from the group, he could not tell. Already dark shapes ahead on the path told him they were coming close enough to be fully visible, and when a pack did not hide from its prey, it was sure of its kill. All too soon, they would lose their fear of man and come looking for flesh.
“Bloody big mobs of dingoes,” Dizzy muttered. “London to a brick, they make us tucker before the night’s out.”
“This is not normal,” Angel agreed. “And I don’t think the drought is the only thing to blame for these larger than normal packs.”
“Rack off, blowie!” Dizzy shouted at the night.
Noise. “Make as much noise as you can,” Alvaro shouted at the top of his lungs. “Maybe it will keep them off balance long enough for us to find a place where we can fend them off.”
“A rock of two wouldn’t hurt either,” Drake commented, throwing sidearm out into the darkness.
“Better think of something fast, or we’ll be wading through the blighters,” Jaime complained. “We’re arse deep in them now.”
The hills were growing steeper, the valleys between darker and deeper. They were doing their best to keep to the ridge tops, not wanting to give up the high ground to the pack that was dogging their heels. When their numbers reached some invisible threshold, where their hunger outweighed their natural fear, the pack would attack - before that crucial moment, Alvaro wanted to find somewhere they could put rocks or water to their back, and find enough tinder to start a fair size fire. Come daybreak, he would have no choice but to retreat into a tent, and come the next nightfall, he did not see how they would be any better off.
They needed a more permanent solution and still had to keep alive until they found it. Drake had his electric torch out and was lighting up targets for Jaime and Precious Albert. The two had gotten up a competition between them, one with a slingshot and the other with a traditional sling, and were keeping a running score. Even propelled, the stones did little more than bruise the dingoes, although, in the distance, he could hear several fighting over the carcass of the one Precious Albert had brought down.
“What we could use right now,” the Wandering Jew suggested, “is a nice quiet stampede of elephants. You wouldn’t happen to have a couple stuffed up the sleeve of that robe of yours, Angel, would you?”
“No,” Angel replied, “but you’ve given me an idea.” He wondered. Not a stampede, but a swarm of biting insects
Wasps, bees and gnats. If they could find a place they could defend and pitch the tent, he wondered if he could not do anything with the two Aboriginals. It came down to a race between the dingoes overcoming their fear or the seven travellers finding a place of safety. There was something too primal about being eaten by a pack of old dogs, and it struck Angel as wrong. He did not have to voice his opinion to know his companions agreed with him. After everything they had been through, they deserved a pack of sabre-toothed tigers or Tasmanian tigers at the very least.
“A dingoes lunch,” Angel muttered darkly.
“What cobber?” Dizzy asked, misunderstanding. It was too similar to the Australian expression a dingoes breakfast, or no breakfast, and was wondering how the stranger could be hungry at a time like this?
“I said I don’t intend to end up in a dingoes belly,” Angel replied.
“No worries, cobber,” Dizzy replied. “It come good. We’ll be in a safe place soon.”
Two more ridgebacks, maybe three. A dingo, one of those half-breeds, darted towards Grandfather’s back. Angel’s swords flashed. Shooting out his hand like a switchblade, it caught the red-eyed beast in the neck, severing its spine. The carcass would not distract the pack for long. As hungry as these dingoes were, more than natural instinct drove them. The red-eyed pack leaders would harry their mates back to the hunt all too soon.
“Look to your blades,” Angel warned.
“Crossbows out,” Alvaro ordered the boys. No more playing around with slings and stones.
The crossbows, made of modern composites, were quicker to load and had a greater range than their ancient counterparts. Still, those armed with them had to see their targets to shoot them. In the low saddle, it was darker than a demon’s heart. Sensing weakness, the pack dodged in to pull down one of its prey. Suddenly, Angel’s swords lit the shadows. Dizzy was on the ground, holding the fangs of a Hellhound from his neck with an arm wedged in its mouth. Three cross bolts found its neck and head.
Alvaro helped the Aboriginal to his feet, a sword held protectively before him. The arm would need some stitches. The best he could do for Dizzy now was a quick field dressing to keep him from bleeding to death. He took up his sword again, bringing it up in time to catch a dingo’s leap. It impaled itself to the hilt, the weight nearly dislocating the vampyre’s shoulder.
“Keep moving,” Angel warned.
They had reached a crux. Any sign of weakness now would send the entire pack avalanching down on them. As of yet, the dingoes had not lost their caution, but that could change in the space between heartbeats. Their path was climbing again, in places too steep to keep both hands on their weapons. Fortunately, the slope was too much for the dingoes to make a concentrated attack, although one or two daring beasts tried before tumbling down the hill. Ahead, some of the smarter beasts stood waiting where they knew they held the high ground, and their prey would have to come to them, off-balance and vulnerable.
Angel flew up the slope, two swords flashing. The dingoes retreated. They did not know what to make of this thing that swooped down on them from above, but they were not yet willing to give up their advantage or their prey. Twice more, Angel dove out of the sky, driving the bolder beasts off the crest. The boys climbed over the top, letting loose three bolts. Grandfather’s boomerang whirled through the night air, and the Wandering Jew struck out with his staff, and they took the crest.
The ranger’s station, when they came to it, was little more than a utility shed barely large enough for the seven of them if they removed the shovels, ropes and miscellaneous equipment. But it would serve its purpose. With Angel and the two boys keeping the dingo pack at bay, the others quickly emptied the shed. Once inside, Alvaro went to work cleaning and stitching Dizzy’s wound. While he worked, Angel quietly explained to Grandfather what he hoped to accomplish with their help.
The old aboriginal sat thinking for a long time before he nodded. He knew a song, something of the ancient magic he had learned at the knee of his grandfather.
“It’s a right ripper, cobber,” he cackled. “You are as cunning as a dunn rat. Come good for sure.”
The plan was simple. Grandfather and Dizzy would sing the magic with Angel, while the others wedged the door shut and used the tent to seal any cracks. As they worked, the baritones of the two aboriginals rose to blend in with the surprising tenor of Angel, filling the shed with sweet harmony. Their singing became rhythmic, rising and falling faster and faster until it sounded like the hum of ten thousand insect wings. Louder and louder, more imploring, more demanding, angrier. Drake could swear he could feel tiny feet crawling up his spine as he listened.
Outside, an answering song rose in counterpoint. At first, a dozen wings, and then a hundred and a thousand. Soon the hum of a growing swarm filled the surrounding hills. As their numbers grew, the sound of their wing rose to drown out the song of the singers. Wasps, and bees and gnats and beetles – if it flew and it stung, it answered their call, recreating one of the seven plagues God had visited upon the Pharaoh and his people.
The dingoes might be Australian and not Egyptian, but they did not like the biting insects any better. Snarling and biting and snapping, the pack was harrowed across the hills. Any attempt to draw near the shed was met by an angry swarm, and several mounds of buzzing, swollen flesh marked where those who had heeded the warning too late had fallen. The singers kept their song going through the dawn, and as long as their song remained, the insects stalked the hills. Finally, the pack scattered, seeking easier prey elsewhere in these hills.
Tatyana Johns woke at the bottom of the stairs to the pain of a broken hip. It all came rushing back to her. Painfully, she searched the stairwell and the hall for her granddaughter. Not finding her, she dragged herself into the front parlour towards the phone. That dark scum had taken her little Stephaney. She needed to call Gwen. Only the Wiccan girl and her friends had the knowledge or the power to rescue her granddaughter.
She must have passed out once or twice from the pain. The crawl across the hall seemed to take forever. She fought to retain consciousness, struggling against the agony to reach the telephone – the only lifeline her granddaughter had left. Even the slight rise between the floor and the rug seemed too great a height, but somehow she managed. By sheer force of will, she slithered across the floor when even a crawl became more than she could manage.
The phone was on a table too high for her to reach. While cordless, its base was plugged into a wall outlet. Mrs. Johns reached out for the cord, latching onto it as a spasm of pain wracked her body. The phone tumbled from the table and landed out of reach. She could just cry and might have if the life of her granddaughter did not hang in the balance. Where and how she found the strength to crawl that last two feet, she did not know. At long last, the phone was in her hand, and she was dialling.
Gwen was slow to answer the phone. She was still groggy and disoriented from having been thrown from Alex’s dream. She forgot all about her headache as soon as she heard the faint voice on the other end.
“Mrs. Jones?’ Gwen cried. “Is everything all right?”
“They took Stephaney!”
“Vampyres, I think,” the older lady moaned. “The ward stone went ice cold, but it was too dark,”
“Hang on!” Gwen promised. “We’ll be right there.”