Whatever the two ancient Aboriginals were saying, their argument lasted for two tense hours. When it ended, Drake did not even have the energy to brush the last few mice from his clothes. Whether Grandfather’s words had swayed anyone was moot after Angel chose to stretch his wings. When he wanted to, Angel made a formidable and impressive figure, wings unfurled, glowing with a silver aura, leaning against a great sword as tall as most of the Aboriginals. No matter what they believed, what you saw with your own eyes was harder to ignore than any number of words.
A middle-aged aboriginal invited them to sit at their fire and offered to share their meal. Accepting gracefully, Alvaro reached into his knapsack to add to the meal. Sharing food held a special significance in many cultures, and although Grandfather’s rival continued to shoot hostile glances in their direction – human nature being what it was – the others accepted the newcomers without hesitation.
Talk turned towards the drought and the night’s ceremony. There were several schools of thought about which song to sing, or which dance to dance. Angel decided to sing with them. These earth spirits were quasi-angels, and sometimes his kinship to them could make a difference. God had set them specific tasks, and the concerns of mankind did not always make an impression on them. They saw time in eons, and the lifespan of a human was a mere eyeblink in their peripheral vision. Supernatural beings like Angel, whose lifespan stretched on forever, were much harder to ignore.
After the meal was over, the singers split off from the main group. The rest would divide their time between guarding the circle and dancing. An Aboriginal ceremony could go on for days, sometimes weeks. Drake, who barely danced under normal circumstances, was hoping for the shortest ceremony in history. He was scheduled to dance with the third group, some four hours into the ceremony.
Angel sat with the singers, letting Grandfather take the lead. Over the last two days – had it really been that long – the pair had developed a knack for working with each other. They sang in a different dialect, but all languages were the same to angels. His tenor blended in with the baritones of the other singers, two didgeridoos creating a counter rhythm. The sound of their voices rose to fill an otherwise quiet night, even the insects and distant dingoes falling silent.
A hushed expectancy fell over the land. Standing at Dizzy’s side, Drake gripped his crossbow tighter. If the demon or demons responsible for the drought were going to strike, it would be soon. A ceremony was never more vulnerable than in its initial moments.
The attack, when it came, took them by surprise. A wind picked up from out of the still night, carrying a dust storm with it. Glaring at the night through the grit, Alvaro was the first to see the dust devils. His sword came down a little slow to save the Aboriginal’s arm, but his quick action did save the man’s life. Stealing a trick from the Apaches, Drake tied a wet bandana across his forehead and a second over his mouth and nose. Barely able to see through the curtain of blowing sand, his bolt took a second dust devil out.
Ignoring everything but their ritual, the Aboriginals continued to sing, letting their voices compete with the storm while their companions held the dust devils at bay. The dancers joined the guards, forming a circle around the singers. In a stuttered half-step, they danced – first clockwise for a quarter turn, and then counter-clockwise. They stuck out with spear, bolts, sword and boomerang, holding the dust devils away. For two and a half hours, the wind and the dust attacked, leaving no-one without a patch of scoured skin.
The fire, the dingoes, the mice and now the wind devils. Drake calculated there were still two more trials to face before they could confront the demon itself. He was hot, although he had been hot since they stepped off the plane in Adelaide. Sweat dripped down his eyes, slipping down beneath the bandana he was wearing across his forehead.
“Is it my imagination?” Drake asked, “or is it getting hotter?
“I think you are right,” Precious Albert admitted, unable to think of a humorous reply in this heat.
“The temperature has risen ten or fifteen degrees in the last half hour,” the Wandering Jew replied. “Check our water supply. We’ll need to keep hydrated.”
It was the fifth assault, and they were at a loss as to how to counter this plague. Alvaro suggested digging trenches, the way a dog would dig into the earth to cool down. This was a matter of endurance. Keeping the singers hydrated became a chore in itself, and their water supply was rapidly dwindling. It was time to start a strict rationing regime, and there was now the possibility that some of them would die of heatstroke.
Dizzy was in a heated discussion with one of the older non-singers. Neither knew what affect singing two different ritual songs in the same ceremonial circle would have, but if they did not try something, they might all die. As the temperature continued to rise, desperation decided for them.
“Will you and the other Dream Time ancestor sing with us?” Dizzy asked Alvaro.
“We will be glad to try,” Alvaro replied.
“Speak for yourself,” the Wandering Jew complained. “My voice sounds like a foghorn choking on an angry cat.”
“In that case,” Drake croaked, “it ought to scare the demon away all on its own.”
Five of them moved off to one side. It was a simple song that Aboriginal mothers sang to cool off their children in the summer’s heat. Dizzy was afraid to try anything more powerful. Not here, and not in the middle of one of his people’s most powerful ceremonies. Dizzy led off, a simple singsong of all nursery rhymes the world over. The others joined in. As advertised, the Wandering Jew’s voice was an ungodly wail that sounded like the death rattle of a backed-up toilet. If the demon did not give up soon, Drake thought, he would fall on one of Alvaro’s swords.
A cool breeze rose in fitful gusts. A puff or two at first, barely strong enough to register on the overheated worshippers. Each gust came a little stronger, carrying some of the heat away with it. It settled down to a steady breath, not more than gentle zephyr, and the temperature dropped by slow degrees. While it would never be truly cool under these baleful skies, it was decidedly more comfortable than the hundred and forty-degree heat that had baked them for the last hour or so.
Two songs from the same point in the continuum intrigued the Wandjina. Something was wrong at that here and now. Something dark and evil. There were so many here-and-nows, thousands upon thousands of them, that sometimes he could not keep track of them all. Small things escaped his notice. He lived, not in the future or the past, but in every possible present in the time stream. Already he was beginning to forget what he had seen, and he turned back, perplexed.
The sky overhead grew pale with the dawn. Two Aboriginals were helping Alvaro pitch the tent, where he would shelter from the sun. The odd beetle scuttled about the canvas, a legacy of the plague Angel had called down onto the dingoes. As the sky lightened, it turned yellow, flickering with flames and waves of the growing heat. Alvaro slipped beneath the canvass, escaping a sky and the sun that was more and more a blaze of fire, its heat hotter than anything they had encountered to date. Pundits would later claim it was a solar flare, but at the moment, the vampyre knew that they had somehow miscalculated the number of trials, and they were witnessing the appearance of the demon.
The sky turned blood-red, and the ground beyond their circle smouldered. Heat ripples swallowed the horizon in every direction. A face appeared in the flames, flickering, insubstantial and malleable. Cold and vengeful, it looked down onto the world, ready to burn everything with its fiery hatred. This land was his and anyone, mortal or otherwise, who dared threaten his dominion would die withering in agony. A tongue of flame leapt down towards the Aboriginals and their allies, covering a circle ten times wider than their own. It raced in a fiery ball that nothing they had with them could stop. This looked like the end of everything.
A little brown man walked through the smoke and flame, never losing the smile that split his face. Dressed in a loincloth and covered with white paint in designs even the Aborigines had never seen, he walked with nothing more than a tall, thin staff in his hand. His hair was white silver, his eyes as black as night.
He stood in the centre of their circle, looking up at the fiery blast that threatened to wipe out all life for one hundred yards, and still, he smiled. A single puff of smoke left his mouth. It rose into the air, growing larger with each foot of height, spreading to take in the entire sky. The puff of smoke became a cloud, the cloud a bank, and the bank a storm. The sun disappeared beneath its blanket, and the sky turned dark. The first drop of rain fell onto the parched earth, bringing a promise of release from the heat. And then the downpour came. Raindrops that felt like iron fists hammered them down to the ground with their weight.
In the sky, the demon screamed in rage, burning at the clouds with its fiery anger. Lashes of flame were met by lightning, and where the cloud cover was rent, more clouds moved in to heal the wound. After the heat of the last one hundred days, the wet, heavy air felt as cold as an arctic blast. For all of ten minutes, the humans watched the struggle out on the open hilltop and finally retreated to crowd Alvaro in his tent. Wet and uncomfortable again, Drake left his complaint unvoiced. No one would have heard him over the noise of the battle carried out in the heavens above, lightning and fire colliding in violent peels of thunder that deafened everything within a thousand miles.
It was as if all the rain that had not fallen throughout the drought had chosen that place and that moment to come down. Puddles formed everywhere, reminding those in the tent of their recent experiences in Africa. The struggles of the demon grew weaker and weaker, the rain became more violent and more intense, and the land beneath seemed to green up in the blink of an eye. And then, as quickly as it began, the rain stopped, and the skies cleared, blue and warm with no sign of the demon or its searing heat.
Wandjina turned to those huddled in the tent. Later, Alvaro said he heard perfect Italian, Drake an American and Jaime an English accent, the Aboriginals their own dialects, and Perfect Albert, Zulu. What he said was, “I have come, and I will come with you. This time and place are in very grave danger.”
Cantara led them to a small village about twenty miles away and then out onto a concession road that did not deserve the name. The farms along this road grew further and further apart, either larger than the others or separated by stretches of wilderness. At the very end of the road, in an area surrounded by uncultivated hills and woods, a ramshackle house stood on a lot that had long ago gone to seed. Weeds grew around rusting tanks and farm equipment, a tangle of thorns and two or three blossoms marked wild rose bushes, and the uncut lawn had grown waist-high. A pack of dogs came bounding around the house, and Huckleberry stood up on the seat growling and lifting a lip to expose long fangs.
Ember bailed out of the van before Cantara could warn her about these dogs, Huckleberry hard on her heels. Where this sudden love for large dogs had come from Morgana did not know? The apartment complex where they lived in New York was too small for dogs and surrounded by nothing but busy streets and tarmac. Morgana envisioned a disaster in the making and was surprised when Ember waded into the midst of these attack dogs, rubbing their ears and scolding them for their ill manners. And even more surprising, these xenophobic hounds trained to rip out throats were listening to her and were soon sitting in a row before her as she lectured and cajoled.
Their owner came out of a barn to the left of the house. He watched, amused, as his supposed attack dogs were cowed by a girl who barely reached five feet, even with the heels of her Doc Martens. There was only one person who would bring someone with this kind of unique talent to his farm – Cantara. He watched as a collection of girls and women and one man climbed out of two vehicles, wondering how they had come through his gate.
“Elliot,” Cantara greeted. “I see the dogs have gotten bigger.”
“For all the good they did,” he complained, teasing. “One little girl coos at them and they’re eating out of her hand.”
“That one’s special,” Cantara admitted.
“Aren’t all your friends?” He laughed.
Elliot was a tall man, nearly seven feet tall, his bulging arms covered from knuckles to shoulders in tattoos. He wore a bushy beard that hung halfway down his chest, ending inches from a pronounced stomach. How much of his bulk was fat and how much muscle was hard to say and at his size, it did not matter much. It would take three men of normal size to take this mountain of flesh down, but his specialty was not hand-to-hand combat. It was explosives. And the more inventive, the better as his fertile imagination came up with some extremely nasty little surprises.
Why he needed such extravagant security or what his problems were Cantara never knew? It was one thing they never discussed. They had long ago come to a mutual if unvoiced agreement not to lie to each other. Both had their secrets, and they would remain that way.
Cantara shrugged, and he laughed. “And what can I do for you today, sweetheart?”
“I am looking for something to light up my life,” Cantara teased. “Something with a lot of bang, and fire.”
“Been playing around since the last time we talked,” Elliot replied. “Came up with something special for you. Come out to the barn, and I will set you up. Wait until you see these beauties.”
Ember chose to stay out in the yard and play with her new friends. The rest of the party, curious, followed the giant into his smoky and dusty workshop. It was subdivided into a collection of rooms, a metal shop, two storage rooms where he kept his finished product, and a small laboratory in the back where he brewed up his explosions. The place smelled of sulphur and nitrates and other strong, unidentifiable chemicals that permeated the air and cleaned out their sinuses. Everywhere was piles of buckets and bits and pieces of metal and plastics, scoops and welding and brazing equipment, hoses and tanks, and at least three different generators, one half-dismantled and looking like a puzzle missing some pieces.
“This little beauty,” Elliot was saying, “works much like those IEDs in Afghanistan. Only this one sends up a shower of stakes. You said hickory was best for what you wanted?”
“That will work,” Cantara confirmed. “How many do you have?”
“I need a few that will make a lot of fire and noise.”
“I have just the thing,” Elliot replied, thinking about his inventory.
He led the way out of the barn and towards a shed set well back from the house. The house itself was a prop, booby-trapped from basement to attic and wired with enough explosives to send it into orbit. Elliot himself lived underground in a bunker, its door disguised by an old outhouse that leaned to one side and with a roof that had collapsed in on itself. The entire structure was overgrown with grapevines and brambles and looked as if it had been abandoned for decades.
Whoever or whatever this man had pissed off, he took his security seriously. Perhaps only paranoia, but he had never struck Cantara as anything other than sane and rational. Just because you are paranoid didn’t mean they were not after you.
“This one,” Elliot explained, showing his guests what looked like a common pipe bomb, “makes a lot of noise. I have a few with remote detonators and maybe a dozen with wicks.”
Cantara nodded. She was the only one of her companions who knew anything about explosives, with the possible exception of Aiko. What she wanted more than anything else was something along the lines of napalm, something with a lot of flames to add a little shock and awe to a demon’s night.
“And my piece de resistance,” Elliot smirked. “My own version of Greek fire. It’s a two-stage device. The first is your everyday variety of firebomb. As the fire heats up, it will trigger a second explosion, showering the area with ball bearings. Be careful not to stand too close when these babies go off.”
“Do you have anything that will take out a building?” Aiko asked. “Something we can lay around the perimeter of an old silo with enough kick to bring it down?”
“You’d want something you can detonate remotely,” Elliot mused. “C-4 is the best. I got a little something, prefabricated units. Is the silo metal?”
Aiko and Alex nodded.
“I can let you have six,” he returned. “But it’s going to cost you. This stuff is highly unstable and difficult to make.”
“The usual arrangement?” Cantara offered. “I can wire money into your Cayman Island account.”
Crystal was curious about when and how these two had met. When would the djinn have ever needed explosives? Such weapons were hardly effective against demons and vampyres, no more than annoyances. Although she supposed the concussion of an explosion would throw either off-balance, maybe long enough for you to get into range with a traditional weapon. Nor could she get a handle on Elliot. Was he part of the lunatic fringe or some sort of ex-black ops soldier with dangerous enemies from his past?
She wondered what April would say if she saw her daughter paw through these explosives like tops at a sale. Or even that look in Gwen’s eyes as her furtive little brain hatched nasty plots? More and more, she was becoming the general marshalling her forces for war and less the healer her mother had always wanted.
Were they at war? Is that what all this had come to over the past four centuries? If so, it had been until recently a cold war – a war of espionage and assassinations. That night in Upyr had changed everything, but to whose advantage? Certainly not the vampyres, whose forces were now scattered across two continents. Maybe even three. Who was to say that none of them had escaped to Europe? Even in this day of heightened security, no-one was looking for vampyres, and the Brotherhood had been in disarray for months after Jean-Claude’s death.
This had always been a three-sided war, but Crystal was no longer sure who the third side was. Definitely, the Prophesy of Hsatan worked to the advantage of the demons, and the vampyres had always wanted a homeland of their own. She couldn’t help feeling someone was pulling the strings of all three from behind the scenes.
Crystal and the other girls wandered outside to join Ember while Cantara went down into the bunker to make the wire transfer. Ember was still playing with the dogs.
“Look!” Jade teased Morgana. “Your cousin is trying to teach those beasts Kung-Fu. I always knew there was a defective gene somewhere in your family.”
“It is the Way of the Hand,” Aiko returned levelly. “And if you watch closely, you will see she is developing a kata that combines her skills with those of the beasts.”
The girls fell silent, watching. Ember kicked and spun and dodged as the dogs ducked, leapt and darted to snap at her feet or clothing. There was a rhythm to their movements, almost a dance around a defined circle. Some of the hounds grew bored with the play and wander off to sniff at the newcomers – not every old dog could learn new tricks – but always in the centre of this storm of feet, fists and fangs, there were Ember and Huckleberry.
“One day,” Cantara commented dryly as she moved to join them, “that girl will be very dangerous.”
“She is a better student than I had first thought,” Aiko admitted.
“Let’s get this stuff loaded,” Cantara called out. “We have a lot of work to do, and only a few hours of daylight left.”