As exhausted as they all were, no-one objected to a trip out to the farm. Crystal and Cantara oversaw the loading of their special equipment into the van, leaving nothing behind. As the van drove out the back alley and onto the street, the girls put on their war paint and assembled their weapons. Not knowing what to expect at the farm, they would hit it ready to do battle with anything from a vampyre flight to a demon infestation. They had left New York City prepared to deal with anything short of Armageddon. These days, no Brotherhood agent left home without their full arsenal – not even for a trip across town.
Cantara and Miss Sweider let Morgana drive. On the back roads, she accelerated, navigating through the city and out onto the highway in minutes. It was dark out on the highway, and with no lights on in the van, the exhausted girls were lolled towards sleep. The quiet left too much time to think. Gwen blamed herself. She should have insisted on better security once they had taken the Wiccan Apotropaic, but Tatyana had insisted the crystal belonged to Alex, and that she should have it. Dogs were not enough against supernatural beings like vampyres and demons.
Lately, she was found she had a lot of regrets, knowing that she often acted before thinking things out fully. It was hard to shoulder all this responsibility, and she did not know if she was ready for it. Yes, it was important for Alex to have the crystal, to hold it and practice with it, to let Wiccan and crystal become attuned to each other. This was not a normal crystal that was charged in a ceremony by its intended user, rather a relic that drew directly on the life force of whoever wielded it. Still, she should have anticipated that the Johns would become targets once the apotropaic was removed from the house.
Crystal’s thoughts revolved around the same blame game. She thought that if she had only caught Shax in Alex’s dreams, all this would not have happened. Despite the risks, ending his reign of terror was worth everything. Long ago, she had realized that her vow to be his last victim was an obsession. And yet, she could not ignore the role he was playing in propagating the Prophesies of Hsatan, or the millions who would suffer if he succeeded. Obsession or not, this demon had to be destroyed.
A dog staggered onto the concession road and out in front of the van. Morgana stood on the brakes. The squeal of tires and the sudden deceleration threw the girls from their dreams and their seats. The hound disappeared beneath the bumper.
“Oh, my God!” Ember cried, racing for the side door before anyone could stop her. “You hit it!”
The others scrambled after her, and still, she beat them by a good margin. By the time they sorted themselves out in good order, she already had the hound’s head in her lap and was trying to lift it into her arms. It weighed nearly half as much as the slight girl and stretched out on the road was longer than she. Suddenly Helmand put a hand on Ember’s shoulder, startling them all. Only then did they notice a car parked directly behind the van.
“He is exhausted,” Helmand soothed, “and otherwise unhurt. Is there any water in the van?”
One of the girls handed him a bottle of water that was still half full.
“Cup your hands and hold it near his mouth,” Helmand instructed. “That’s it. Don’t let him drink too fast.”
Helmand surreptitiously lay a hand on the hound’s head, and it suddenly struggled to its feet. Nuzzling Ember, the beast knocked her over and began licking the top of her head. Gwen had caught the subtle by-play. She had never seen a Wiccan heal by laying on hands, and she realized that was what she had witnessed. At another time, it might have made more of an impression and set off more alarm bells. Now it was another stray thought racing through a mind crowded by random images and emotions.
Helmand helped Ember carry the massive hound into the van. Its paws were scraped from running on tarmac and across stony fields, their pads raw and bloody. Ember sat with the wolfhound lying stretched across her lap and an entire seat, leaving the others to crowd in where they could. Aiko and Alex, neither of whom were comfortable with this level of human contact, took up Helmand’s offer to ride with him. With Ember happily nursing her new friend, the two vehicles formed a convoy and continued to the farm. All Miss Sweider could think about the whole way was how she was going to tell the child she could not bring her new friend home with her. The border crossing would be a nightmare enough without being pinched for trying to smuggle livestock into the country.
The farmhouse wore a cloak of darkness that gave it an eerie and sinister aspect. The Ghost Sisterhood bailed out of the two vehicles, arming themselves. Cantara was organizing a sweep of the perimeter when the hound made a bee-line for the door with Gwen and Ember on its tail.
“Aiko, Alex,” Cantara ordered. “Go catch up to them and secure the house. Crystal, take half the girls and swing around the right-hand side of the house. The rest of you come with me.”
The front door was locked. With the hound scratching and whining, Gwen struggled with the mat, and the beast’s weight to dig the key she knew was hidden there. Aiko and Alex joined them, sharing a brief look before passing through the locked door to check inside. Gwen hated both of them at that moment, the smug little shits that they were. It was another two minutes before she and Ember joined them inside. By then, Alex had found Mrs. Johns lying unconscious on the parlour floor, and she and Aiko, both smaller than the prone woman, we’re trying to lift her onto the couch.
It took all four girls to lift Tatyana onto the couch – Gwen, the only normal-sized human in the bunch, and starting to feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Mrs. Johns was still unconscious when a cursory examination revealed the broken hip to Gwen’s questing hands. Gwen frowned. Although she had her full set of crystals with her, healing takes time, and the best place for the woman was in the hospital. The young Wiccan was just not sure it was the safest place at the moment.
Helmand led the others inside the parlour. He took one look at the stricken woman and frowned in concern.
“Her hip is broken, I think,” Gwen said as his shadow fell across her field of vision.
“Let me see,” he offered.
For the second time, Gwen watched the old man lay hands on an injured creature. His aura drifted out to envelop Mrs. Johns as she lay supine. Gwen watched, fascinated and frustrated, as bones knitted beneath his touch.
“Stop that, you silly old man!” Gwen demanded petulantly. “Wiccans don’t heal that way!”
“I never claimed to be a Wiccan, you silly little girl.”
Gwen threw her arms around him. She promised herself that she would not cry and could not help the few tears that snuck out past her resolve. She had so heard Jean-Claude speak through him at that moment.
Mrs. Johns roused from her stupor to find the two hugging and Aiko glowering at them from the shadows. “Stephaney?”
“Oh, my God! Tatyana!” Gwen exclaimed. “Are you okay?” What happened?”
“They took Stephaney!” Mrs. Johns sobbed. “Oh, Gwen, what are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry,” Crystal spat, all her years of hatred in every word. “We will find Shax, and when we do, I will personally rip his lips off and beat him to death with them!”
“We’ll find Stephaney,” Gwen assured her.
“Huckleberry can find them,” Ember offered. “You’ll rip those vampyres to shreds, won’t you boy?”
“Huckleberry!” Morgana complained. “It’s a wolfhound, Ember. He needs a tough name like Nightslayer or Vampyresbane. Besides, he looks like he’s been run half to death by a Loogaroo.”
A decided chill gripped the room. While not the most powerful of vampyres, werewolves were incredibly difficult to kill. Closer to humans than most of their kind, they were harder to track down and retained the heightened senses of the mortal cousins even in human form. With the cunning and stamina of the wolf, they ran in packs that often far outnumbered the five or six in a vampyre flight.
“I smell demon,” Crystal broke in as a foul odour drifted past her from somewhere in the house. “And no Gwen, I don’t have Shax on my mind.”
Aiko stuck her head in the hall and took a deep breath. The air tasted of sulphur and murder. “Something is in the house.”
“Aiko, Alex and I will go search,” Crystal decided. “Turn out the lights and wait here.”
Crystal hesitated. “It tastes like that Shadow Slayer from the other night. I remember facing one in the Himalayan mountains. It cannot slay in the dark.”
“I will go take out the main breaker,” Cantara offered. “Is it in the basement, Mrs. Johns?”
“Right under the stairs.”
The four parted company in the hall as Helmand moved to block the doorway. He worried about the four women who left his presence. He could smell death in the air and could not taste who’s it was.
Crystal was determined neither to let it escape, nor give it a quick death. She waited for the lights to go out at the foot of the stairs, savouring her anger, her mind full of violence and slow hideous tortures. The pranic energy rose inside her, stronger and more seductive each time it filled her soul. She tasted it, savouring its flavour. She was its master, and with its power, she could do almost anything. It was a danger she had to remain aware of all times because to let it hold sway was to court disaster.
At her side, her companions waited lost in their own thoughts. Alex alternately toyed with the Wiccan crystal and the ring, her nervous energy quivering. Aiko stood at her side, a study in stillness. Darkness was a two-edged sword against a Shadow Slayer - while it cannot hurt them, it too would cast no shadow. The two women at her side were unknown qualities, the ghost was hard to pin down and remarkably strong in incorporeal form, and a succubus so sated with pranic energy that she could be equally dangerous to her companions.
The djinn cut the power. The three drifted upstairs, slowly, in no hurry, waiting for the demon to find them. Why hunt when you can use yourself as bait? Once flushed out, it had only one escape, jumping through one of the windows. Out in the open, it would be a foot race, and Crystal liked their chances. So she knew it would try to destroy or cripple them first, realizing it could not hope to outrun all three non-humans. And Shadow Slayers were assassins – someone in this house was its target, and it would not leave while that person lived.
In the middle of the hallway, with as many doors in front of them as behind, it leapt from the darkness. Crystal could see clearly in the Stygian blackness under the influence of the pranic energy. Even the subtle shadows that blended in with the deepest darkness were clearly visible. She reached out towards the shadow leaping towards her, clapping her hands violently together. The Shadow Slayer dropped to the ground at her feet. Before she could lay a boot on its shadow, it rolled into one of the bedrooms.
Aiko was first in through the door with a leap that carried her across the room. She landed on one side of the window, close enough to cut off escape, but far enough away that the moonlight streaming through it did not cast her shadow. Removing her ring, Alex followed her in, choosing to walk through the wall. Ghosts cast no shadow. Lastly, Crystal moved to stand in the doorway, trapping the demon inside.
The ghost was a faint outline against the wall, formless enough to be mistaken for a shadow. The demon saw his target and grinned a toothy smile, all fangs and saliva. It feigned towards the shadow the succubus cast by moonlight in the hallway behind her, and slammed into the ghost.
Its wail of pain shook the house to its foundations. The Wiccan Apotropaic flared into life, filling the room with light. Crystal stomped on the neck of the demon’s shadow with her heavy Doc Martens. The more weight she put on its neck, the more of its substance filled its shadow, and the more transparent its physical body became. As the pranic energy raged inside her, Crystal’s eyes grew into red, glowing jewels, her hair blew in a non-existent wind, and she grew so alluring it was painful to look upon her.
The eyes growing in the shadow looked up at her in panic. The Shadow Slay itself voiced a soundless wail, neither halves yet possessing enough vocal cord to articulate sound. It did not know what was happening to it, but the pain the demon felt in stereo was enough to tell it that death hovered nearby. It had been banished many times in its lifetime – some of them through very painful methods. This was different. This was unmaking – soul death.
“You will tell me where they have taken the human child,” Crystal’s voice echoed, fracturing and recombining in a chilling choir.
The Shadow Slayer hissed and spat inarticulately. Its two halves bucked and squirmed beneath her weight.
“Oh please do resist me,” Crystal whispered seductively, drawing more of its true self into its shadow.
An echo of a moan rose from the shadow, and still, it was unable to release the scream that was struggling to escape. Crystal took a long, slow pull on the demon’s soul, like the caress of a sadistic lover. This was the succubus at her worst. All sex and violence. Its scream could now be heard by those downstairs. Crystal smiled a little girl’s sweetness down at her prey.
Those waiting down in the parlour heard the first scream. And two long minutes later, a second wail that filled the night with terror. Ember struggled to hold back the wolfhound, grabbing hold of two fistfuls of fur and gripping them for dear life. Cantara, returning from her mission, moved to help her. They sat in the dark, listening to the increasingly disturbing sounds from upstairs, worrying. None of the screams sounded like the voices of their friends, but then with soul-rending wails, it was difficult to tell. Someone or something was suffering beyond even their endurance to listen.
Crystal came downstairs looking like a pagan goddess, primeval and earthy, her two companions at her back like handmaidens. Unable to see the full effect in the darkness, the humans counted the sets of red eyes and sighed. Helmand shook his head sadly. There would be no redemption for that soul, in this life or the next. A soul was immortal. To destroy one was a tragedy, and unfortunately, sometimes necessary.
“The Black Donnellys.” Crystal sighed. “That is all I could force it to tell me before it died.”
“Then they’ve taken Stephaney to one of the sites associated with the Black Donnellys,” Gwen concluded.
“I’ll go get the lights,” Cantara offered.
“And I’ll go fetch my laptop,” Morgana threw in.
The company reassembled in the kitchen, where Mrs. Johns busied herself, preparing breakfast for her hungry guests. They were all exhausted and would need sleep before they could do anything, although Mrs. Johns did not think she could sleep a wink until Stephany was returned home.
“I am sure they will not hurt Stephaney,” Gwen explained through a yawn. “They mean to use her as bait to lure us into a trap.”
“How can you be so sure?” Alex demanded. This was her little cousin they were talking about.
“It’s the third time a demon has attacked one of the three of you,” Gwen explained, passing out coffee. “One, or all of you, is a target and the reason for all this.”
“Ugh! Gwen!” Cantara complained. “You put sugar in my coffee. How can you give sugar to someone as sweet as me? It’s a crime against humanity!”
“But not djinn,” Crystal shot back. “With Shax, it’s all wheels within wheels. Whenever you think you’ve unravelled all his plots and traps, six more are hatching.”
“With Delph involved,” Gwen went on, adding another spoonful of sugar to Cantara’s coffee on the sly, “Crystal would seem to be the obvious target. She did destroy his crèche in New York. With the Wiccan Apotropaic and your connections to the Summoning Circle, you are a target too – after all, only you and Stephaney can destroy him.”
“What about Aiko?” Alex asked curiously. “Why would he want to hurt her?”
“She ate his doppelganger,” Morgana added drolly. “Shape-shifters are extremely rare. If you ate my shape-shifter, I’d certainly want to spank you?”
“Stephaney,” Jade interjected. “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
“Right,” Gwen nodded. “So she is being used to lure us to one of the sites associated with the Black Donnellys. And that narrows it down to about seven places.”
“The second Summoning Circle,” Ember listed, holding up fingers as she enumerated each, “the two Donnelly farmsteads, the church, the schoolhouse and the constable’s farmhouse.”
She paused to count her fingers, “that’s only six.”
“The Johns’ farm,” Gwen said with finality, forcing up one more of Ember’s fingers.
The room fell silent. Were they already sitting in the middle of a trap, waiting for the teeth to be sprung? Each girl looked at the others, and then Aiko shook her head.
“You can rule out this farm,” she said reasonably. “Shax will want you to come to him to rescue the child, somewhere where his defences are set, and traps lie in wait.”
“So we’re down to six places,” Crystal decided. “We’ll check out the Summoning Circle and the two places we found the other day. Morgana and Alex, see if you can get a lead on the other three places.”
“And what about Huckleberry and me?” Ember asked. “What do you do?”
“Get some sleep.”