The plague Angel and the aboriginals had called down buzzed around the utility shed all through the day. Eventually, hunger scattered the insects across the Outback as they, in turn, had scattered the dingoes. By evening, when the trekkers emerged to begin the last leg of their journey, only a few clouds of gnats and the odd wasp remained. Of the dingoes, there was no sign. Even the carcasses had been picked clean by the beetles and flies, the bones and bits of flesh bleached by the fading sun.
After a day in the sweltering shed, the evening air felt cool and refreshing for the first hour of their hike. The night air was no cooler than beneath the angry sun of the day, and they were soon all bathed in sweat – except the angel, who was too good for normal bodily functions. Let his mortal and semi-mortal companions suffer from heat and hunger and thirst. Their taunts and teasing at his expense were merely the jealousy of inferior beings, which he was quick to point out. And he could rhapsodize on that subject for hours, amusing his companions and taking their minds off of their troubles.
“I have wings,” Angel replied to a sally from the Wandering Jew, “because as a celestial being, my feet are too good for mere dirt. It’s nothing but golden paths for me.”
“Couldn’t afford platinum,” Alvaro replied dryly, “what with the recession and all. Had to pawn his halo last week.”
“I’d settle for a nice stretch of ice,” Drake replied, wiping sweat from his eyes. “I’d crawl across it on my belly.”
“I’d lay back and watch the stars until my cheeks were frostbitten,” Jaime sighed.
“I would like to see this ice one day,” Precious Albert replied. “Is it true an entire lake will freeze up, and you can walk from one side to the other?”
“Depends on the size and depth of the lake,” Alvaro replied, “but that’s the general idea.”
The Zulu nodded in satisfaction. One day, if he survived what he realized was a growing war, he would like to see this ice. Africa was a hotbed at the moment with epidemics and diseases running through its population, and Precious Albert suspected one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was either out or preparing to appear. And it made sense that the first, Pestilence, would appear there, the cradle of civilization where the origins of Humanity could be found. Eve, the genetic mother of all modern humans, had been found not too far from his home, as distances went on a global scale.
The heat of the night reminded him of home. The terrain in the Outback was very similar to the veldt, although the wildlife was bizarre and alien. Everything from kangaroos and koalas to wild pigs and a camel. The feral cats, pets gone wild years ago, amused him. These little pests survived and adapted almost as well as humans, living everywhere from the frigid Arctic to the searing heat of the high deserts. Precious Albert frowned. He saw more of these feral cats in the last mile. First wild dogs, or dingoes, then cats. Were these feral cats the next to attack them?
“Little eyes are watching us,” he commented to his companions.
“Yes,” Alvaro confirmed, “but so far, I see no red eyes among them. I wonder what is attracting them to the area in such numbers?”
The answer came in a slight rustling on the wind. Mice. A vast carpet of velvety bodies, invisible in the darkness, stampeding back towards the burnt areas. The outer edges of this horde provided a bounty for these feline immigrants. The midst of the mouse tidal wave was an uncomfortable place to be. A dozen of the little creatures crawled up Drake’s leg, and he jumped straight into the air.
Within heartbeats, they were covered in furry little hitchhikers. Perhaps not imminently dangerous, but decidedly uncomfortable.
“Great mobs of mice not so unusual,” Dizzy informed them, speaking without opening his mouth too much, “but not in the dry season.”
They did bite, especially if you tried to brush them off. It was better to go with the flow, treading carefully and protecting your face. One little bugger found Alvaro’s ear fascinating, and the tickle of its tiny feet and whiskers were driving the vampyre batty.
“Couldn’t you conjure up a big cheese to distract the little blighters?” Alvaro complained.
“I always found you a little cheesy,” the Wandering Jew offered.
“But not as cheesy as your jokes,” Drake shot back.
“I notice that none of these fuzz-balls bother Angel,” Alvaro commented dryly.
“That’s because he tastes like ass,” Jaime interjected.
“Ouch!” Drake swore. “One of the red-eyed bastards bit me! That’s so it. Help me find my torch.”
The carpet of fur scattered from its beam. It did nothing for the forty or fifty that were using Drake as a taxi, but sure made walking a lot easier and a lot less messy.
“Everyone, use your torches,” he instructed. “They hate the light.”
Like all nocturnal animals, the rodents shied away from the light, scattering to the darkness and safety. Slowly, as their path cleared, the number of hitchhikers infesting Drake dropped down to a dozen. The pesky rodents settled into a routine, going from exploring his backpack to spelunking through his pockets. One little fellow had settled into his shirt pocket and was defending it from all comers, knocking one more from its perch. Overall, Drake felt like a dog with fleas.
“Almost there,” Grandfather announced. “Mile, mile and a half.”
The closer they came to the sacred hilltop, the fewer mice and other animals could be seen. The hill itself looked no different from any of the others nearby – a few trees, scrub brush, a few farms in the distance. At first glance, there was nothing to show why it was held to be sacred by the aboriginals. But sacred or profane could be like that – a patch of meadow, a crossroads, a hanging tree or tombstone. Here, near the top, was a bit of rock shaped by wind and water, no different from any other rock in the range. Here a collection of twenty-five aboriginals waited for them, roasting some unidentified meat on a low fire. Drake wondered if it were a mouse or feral cat, and then decided he did not want to know.
Seeing the outlanders with Grandfather, the other aboriginals jumped to their feet. A loud, angry argument broke out between Grandfather and the oldest man in the second group. The Aboriginals gripped their weapons nervously and eyed the newcomers with hostile stares. It looked like they would end their vacation by going to war.
Sleep was heavy but troubled at the Johns’ farm. After a long day and sleepless night, they were all exhausted, and yet too anxious to rest. By one that afternoon, they were all in the kitchen, ready to begin the search for Stephaney. A debate broke out over whether they should divide up or stay together, and in the end, safety won out over expedience. Cantara’s point was the telling one – they could not rescue Stephaney if they were all hurt or dead. From this point on, no one would be left alone under any circumstance.
“So it’s off to the Summoning Circle we go,” Crystal sighed, anxious to flee the acrimony of the last few minutes.
Out in the van, they found there was not enough room for all their additions, Mrs. Johns, Helmand and Huckleberry. They decided to take both vehicles and take precautions to prevent any vehicles from coming between them. Divide and conquer was not only a sound tactical concept, but with vampyres and demons, it came down to sheer numbers. When severely outnumbered, separating the weaker members like wolves cutting the young and the ill from the herd, was your only choice. The Ghost Sisterhood was determined not to let that happen, at least not a second time.
Not having the numbers themselves, they would have to borrow a page from their enemy’s playbook. Gwen, Aiko and Cantara had their heads together, plotting devious ways to sow confusion amongst their enemy’s ranks. Cantara had a contact nearby, one of those survivalist types who was obsessed with explosives, the homemade variety cooked up in the basement with common household chemicals and a copy of the Anarchists Handbook. While explosives seldom killed vampyres or demons, getting blown up hurt like hell and made a lot of noise. And noise equalled confusion.
The fence was still torn down, and the tree, while pulled off the road, lay uncut in the ditch. Crystal saw that someone had taken the motorcycle down from the tree as she climbed out of the van. The moment their feet hit the ground, Ember and Huckleberry shot off into the forest, and Crystal frowned. She could see those two would cause problems soon. It was hard to remember that Ember was only fourteen, she was so quiet and serious since the vampyre attack.
Aiko and Alex ran ahead to catch up, leaving Crystal, Cantara and Kristen behind with the main body. There were only so many of them who could catch up with the girl, and she was Aiko’s student. The vampyre wondered why she ever agreed to take her on as a student. She was impulsive and young in a way Aiko had never been, and while enthusiastic and persistent, she lacked discipline.
This infatuation with a half-dead wolfhound was an example. Aiko had caught her trying to teach the beast a kata when she should have been sleeping like the other mortals. Aiko saw only a hound’s cunning in the demonstration Ember had forced her to watch, but it did have the girl practicing her katas, so it was not all bad. And the beast’s size did counterbalance her own lack of stature. Maybe her promise to Ember to let the hound train with them was not totally a fool’s errand. A true warrior learned to use every resource at hand.
At the Summoning Circle, the only signs of recent occupation they found were their own. This had always been a long shot and nothing more than the central point of their search perimeter. Every site they searched would have to be a fixed distance away from this, the hub of their wheel. Helmand helped Gwen and several of the Wiccans do something with their crystals that would alert them if anyone came near the Summoning Circle – a kind of inverted ward. When he was done, they hiked back to the van.
The church was next, and then the schoolhouse because they were both in or near town. Also long shots, they were too visible and accessible to hide traps and troops. Still, they needed to be checked out, if for no other reason than something nasty might be waiting there for them. The church was sacred land, the last place they would expect a demon unless it had been profaned sometime in its past. It had happened before, and possession had its own rules. A demon lord like Shax could possess hundreds of humans and animals.
The church, unlike many churches with failing congregations, was very much in use. At the moment a wedding was taking place, over a hundred people crowded into its pews, and its parking lot was choked with vehicles. There was nothing for them here. Disappointed, they stopped to look accusingly at the old building before turning back to the van. Their worry and anxiety for a little girl had coloured their expectations, and although they all knew these first few places were the least likely, they could not help hoping against hope.
The schoolhouse, where the Biddulph Peace Society met on that bloody night, was no longer used by the local school board. Some effort had been made to restore the building as part of the Black Donnelly tourism revival. Despite this, it had the look of age and abandonment and wore a mantle of secrecy that screamed demon lair to the girls.
A large crow sat on a tree, leering down at Alex as she climbed out of the car. It gave an angry caw and swooped down at the girl’s head. The crystal on his collar glowing red, Huckleberry leapt into the air, his jaw closing on the bird like a bear trap. As if this was a signal, hundreds of ravens and crows burst from the schoolhouse. An angry cloud of black feathers descended to the spot where Alex had stood. It was not easy to target a ghost, and Alex had slipped off her ring and disappeared. Those who were standing near her were not so lucky, caught in a blizzard of feather, beak and claw.
Aiko became a mist, materializing to snatch a bird in each hand. Ember and Huckleberry bit, kicked, snapped and punched everything in sight. And then Gwen brought out her Wiccan cathode, calmly linking with Crystal and the other girls. She put paid to the whole feathered riot with one blast.
“I’d say we’re on the right track,” Cantara remarked dryly. “That was a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.”
“They were a British rock band, weren’t they?” Morgana asked, tongue in cheek.
“You girls shouldn’t be allowed out of the house until you are at least forty,” Cantara complained.
“I blame their limited education,” Miss Sweider added, ducking a hail of pebbles from the driveway.
“Only three more farms to check,” Crystal commented anxiously.
“I think we should take a more indirect approach to these three,” Cantara suggested. “Park a mile or two away and send Alex and Aiko ahead to scout.”
No-one really liked the plan, no matter how much sense it made. Waiting felt like doing nothing, and the girls all felt a need for action. Aiko led the way from the concession road to the first farm, the one-time home of the constable who had led the mob who butchered the Donnellys. Anyone who could disappear at will made excellent scouts, especially when they retained their memory of the terrain and surroundings they passed through even in their altered states.
The two quickly fell into a routine without having to discuss it. As they neared the site, one turned into a mist, and the other disappeared. Aiko always circled the building to the left, Alex to the right. Once they met up again on the far side, they drifted in together for a closer look. The first farm was a working farm, and the only one at home was the wife, an ancient dog, a dozen barn cats, and one harassed chicken. The barn held only dust and hay and an eclectic collection of what had to be farm equipment. What would they know? They were two city girls – or at least a city slicker and a townie.
Disappointed, they carried their news to their companions, who dejectedly climbed back into their vehicles. Only two more sites to go, and no matter which they chose to search first, Gwen instinctively felt the right one would be the last place they looked. They were both equally valid choices. Both were the scenes of grisly murders, isolated, and were at one time the home of the Donnellys. The consensus leaned towards the farm of the son since the house of the parents was now a tourist attraction – too much in the public eye to hide a horde of vampyres and demons. Somehow Gwen felt they were bound for both surprise and disappointment.
Where they chose to park was further away from the farm. Whalen’s Corners was smaller than Lucan, but the Donnelly farm was further away from town. Waiting in and around the van was brutal. It was still hot enough to be uncomfortable, and while tired enough to take a nap, the need to stay alert made that impossible. And so they sat in or about the van, occasionally taking a stroll around the two vehicles, eyes scanning in all directions. They carried crosses and crystals, equally proficient with both, and a crossbow or two lay ready at hand to those seated in the van.
And it was all for nothing. When Aiko and Alex returned to report a smaller farm swallowed up by a larger concern, its house abandoned and fallen into ruin, Mrs. Johns couldn’t take it anymore. Already on the verge of collapse, this latest disappointment was too much. She broke down in the van and could not stop crying. It seemed like forever since she had last seen her granddaughter, and she was trying to be strong. Crying never solved anything, but it was too hard. She was so worried that she could not think straight, and Gwen’s soothing words did not penetrate through her hurt.
“Fifth time is the charm,” Gwen was saying, “whatever is lost is always in the last place you look.”
Meaningless nothings, but she was sincere, and she meant well. Mrs. Johns couldn’t bring herself to be mad at her. They were trying, and they were as upset as she was. The demon, and not these girls, was to blame for Stephaney’s disappearance. And it was right that she gave Alexandra the crystal. Her sister was the eldest, and the apotropaic had always been passed down through the eldest line. Her precautions had not been strong enough. She had been counting on the hounds to give her enough warning to get down to the parlour – a safe room seeded with Wiccan crystals and wards. Each generation had added to the wards and had left their full set of crystals behind, hidden in lamps and knickknacks and tapestries.
If they had reached the parlour in time….
Helmand led the way out to a secluded spot on the Roman Line, a few short miles from the old Donnelly farm at lot 18. Morgana pulled the van up behind his car. The little lane ended in a small grove of trees, a wood lot out of sight of concession road 6. Here, they piled out. Huckleberry wandered into the trees to mark his territory. The others unlimbered their weapons, not bothering to hide their crossbows now that they were hidden from the road by the trees. Cantara and the Nordic Twins were scattering little nasties amongst the trees – vials of holy water, sachets of wolfsbane and garlic ash and hickory charms.
Once their temporary base of operations was set up, Aiko and Alex did their disappearing trick. There was a connection between the two that allowed them to stay aware of each other, even in incorporeal form. Aiko led the way through fields high with corn, a stray breeze drifting through the tall stocks contrary to the direction of the natural wind. Mist and shadow, they moved easily over the rough furrows that would have tripped up feet, leaving no physical trace of their passage.
Nearer the farm, a small grove separated the fields from the farmyard. Here they slowed, watching the motion under the trees. For their initial pass along the perimeter, they avoided whatever or whoever was waiting here. By mutual consent, they stayed together. Something told them that this place was not deserted, some sixth sense that lets one supernatural being feel the presence of another. At this moment, their internal alarms screamed of demons.
The first circuit of the perimeter showed three pockets of what looked like humans. Drifting across an open field of grass between two of these groups, they approached the first of the outbuildings. An old, small barn, it lay furthest from the farmhouse, but still well within the perimeter. Alex walked through the back wall while Aiko drifted in through the loft. On the ground floor, Alex found dozens of vampyres, some Loogaroo, lounging about in groups. It reminded her of nothing more than a barracks room, its soldiers resting between battles.
Her presence disturbed the Eater of the Dead. It scuttled across the barn, sniffing at the air. At one point, Alex had to step through the wall to avoid it, and its odd behaviour was attracting the attention of the other vampyres.
Up in the loft, Aiko ran into a similar situation. Here she found Delph and several upper caste vampyres. One, an old, emancipated gentleman with an aristocratic air, turned and stared almost directly at her moment she entered the loft.
“A strange vampyre has entered our coven,” the old vampyre warned.
“Who? Where?” Delph demanded. “I see nothing.”
“One of Kagawa’s brood,” the other replied. “There, I think.”
He pointed to the left of where Aiko stood. Puzzled, she drifted out through a crack in the wall. How had he sensed her when not even demons could while she held no corporeal form? Already the alarm was spreading as she slipped inside and signalled Alex, who was having her own problems with the Eater of the Dead. They still had a mission to carry out. Now it would be more difficult, the possessed humans actively searching the compound and outbuildings for them.
The next building they chose to investigate was an old silo, rickety and corroded, its top twenty feet or so leaning to the right. Here they found a mixed bag of lesser vampyres, a few demons, and a mass of possessed humans packed in like cordwood. It was one way to hide a horde, Aiko imagined, but the stench was unendurable. She wondered what the vampyres and demons had done to deserve to be billeted here, and then her mind turned to more practical matters. If these could be trapped or struck here before they could untangle themselves, they could take them out of the fight. She would mention it to Cantara and Gwen as soon as they returned.
The possessed humans now moved about the compound with hellhounds, a variety of canines possessed by imps. Avoiding these became increasingly difficult as they dodged and sprinted about the new barn, attempting to take a second look. Finally separating, Alex sent the hounds on a wild goose chase about the farmyard, leading them in a dozen different directions. Aiko took advantage of their confusion to slip into the barn. What waited there was a nightmare in the making, an amalgamation of several large Eaters of the Dead, at least one demon, and various human body parts. Frankensteined together into a blob of flesh with teeth and claws and brute muscle, it did not look as if it could move in any coordinated fashion. The chains that held it pinned to the barn floor said something different. And not all its bellows were of pain, but screams of rage and anger and frustration.
Only the house remained unchecked. If Stephany was here, it had to be in the house. So many of the possessed moved about the farmyard now that it was not possible to get a closer look. It was time to find a way out of this mess. Coming together in the centre of the compound, the two scouts decided to make a direct break towards the small grove of trees. It would not be easy. The trees were crowded with the emaciated humans, eyes red and hungry as they searched the undergrowth for anything still living. Dead or not, Alex would be as much of a target as Aiko.
Inside the woods, the two materialized side-by-side. A kick and a branch to the side of the head took two down, and they were gone again. Ten feet to the left, they reappeared again. A fist to the face and a flip and they were gone. Up in a tree, Aiko took a bead on three closing in on Alex, a hound pulling on a leash at their head. The vampyre leapt, swords and knives in hand. The hound went first, a blade through its throat. Alex turned, a broken tree limb held like a spear. She caught one of the possessed humans in the chest, pinning it to a tree as Aiko finished off the last two. And they disappeared again, drifting out of the trees, leaving confusion behind them.
Across the field, they fled as quickly as only a ghost or a vampyre could travel. On the far side, they took a long loop through the countryside to throw the hellhounds off their scent and then turned back to the grove of trees where the others were waiting. In a cloud of dust, they materialized.
“There is a mixed bag of vampyres and demons in and about the house,” Aiko reported.
“And a shit load of zombies,” Alex interjected.
The possessed became zombified, although Cantara had heard scholars describe it as demon leprosy. Unable to feel pain, cuts, bruises and even broken bones went untreated. Hunger was ignored, as were most other bodily functions, and the smell of death lingered wherever the possessed gathered. They were not truly undead, only half a step from the grave.
“Too many for us to get close to the house,” Aiko continued. “If the girl is there, she would be inside.”
“Okay,” Cantara nodded. “If we are going to do this tonight, we have some work to do. Let’s get moving, we are burning daylight.”