Midnight. The witching hour. Midway between sunset and sunrise, when supernatural beings were said to be at their strongest. The last moment Shax and his minions would expect an attack. It was time to do this for real.
In and about the van, the Ghost Sisterhood made last-minute preparations. Camouflage paint and bootblack were applied beneath their eyes and on their faces, blacking out any skin that might shine in the light. Crossbows were checked, bolts counted, crystals checked for a charge. Cantara distributed the last of their explosives among the two assault groups. The one led by herself would move about the compound creating as much confusion as they could. The second, led by Crystal and Gwen, would make the assault on the farmhouse.
The last was divided into two smaller groups. Only four would go into the farmhouse, with the second four holding the rear door, protecting their escape. With the crystal raven and the Wiccan Apotropaic, Gwen did not need anyone else to power the cathode. And, in the end, the confrontation with Shax would come down to Alex and the apotropaic.
By midnight they were in the fields surrounding the Donnelly farm, waiting for the signal to attack. Crystal’s team would come in from the east, and had already slipped through the perimeter. Cantara and her group swept in from the west. She led her people to within a couple hundred feet of the western woods, where hopefully they would be out of range of the blast debris. Having the least distance to go, they gave Crystal and her group an extra ten minutes to slip into position.
Hopefully, they gave the eastern grove a wide berth. At the appointed time, Cantara activated the remote detonator. She gave it a count of ten to power up and then triggered the explosives. To the east, thunder shook the earth. An eruption of fire and smoke mushroomed into the sky. Without waiting, the djinn set off the explosives in the west. Here they had planted some of their largest explosives, and the concussion from the blast knocked them off their feet.
Although they had planted no firebombs among these trees, a dozen fires burned in the undergrowth. Regaining their feet, Cantara and her squad moved among the trees. Wherever and whenever they stumbled upon a survivor, their crosses rose and fell, taking out any potential threat that could gather at their backs. Those at the centre of the blast were not as quick to recover as those further away. These were easy prey for the raiders, but elsewhere they would soon meet stiffer opposition.
At the edge of the trees, a large black man who was missing an arm leapt at Cantara. Using his own severed limb as a weapon, he tried to bludgeon her to death. Sneaking up from behind, Kristen plunged her cross into its back. As he spun to face this threat, Cantara stepped in with her sword and swept his feet out from under him. Her next stroke took off his head.
“Keep together,” Cantara ordered. “Miss Sweider, bring your group closer. Fill that gap between us.”
Eight here with her, eight with Crystal, and two back at the vehicles. Helmand and Mrs. Johns had stayed behind to monitor and power the wards, maintaining a haven Cantara knew they would need. Sixteen against two hundred could hope to accomplish no more than a hit-and-run raid.
Watching Ember and Huckleberrytake out the first of the vampyres, a possessed creature with slightly less speed than its untainted cousins was amusing. One was always at its back, nipping in with either cross or teeth. It was too bad a half-dozen bolts took it down before they could decide the fight on their own. Swift, like a viper, the wolfhound tore out the throat of the disabled vampyre. Cantara stepped up and finished severing its head. A vampyre was never out of the fight until it had fallen into dust.
A group of demon-possessed massed for a charge. Cantara lit a pipe bomb, lofting it in a slow arc, where it exploded above their heads. A hail of nails ripped through their ranks, knocking most of them off their feet.
She kept her crew moving. Others threw pipe bombs at any large group, as they had been instructed to do before this all began. Their next target was the new barn, where the injured beast was lumbering from its lair. Goad it enough, and it would become as much a danger to its own as it now was to them. Escaping its rampage should be easy, with its inability to see or move in more than one direction at a time.
They only had twenty pipe bombs, and they had already expended five. Twenty, thirty minutes at tops. That was all the time Cantara could buy for Crystal and her team and then they would have to retreat. She wanted to save the last five pipe bombs to cover their escape. That left ten. The thing would take at least five, and even then, the djinn doubted they could do much more than pissing it off. Until and if Crystal and her team destroyed Shax, this beast would be a terror in the night, and if it got off the farm, no-one would be safe for miles around. Somehow the odds appealed to her.
Near the barn, a collection of possessed, demons and vampyres were rallying around the monster. As one, Cantara and four others tossed a hail of pipe bombs into their midst, already racing around the far side of the barn as they landed. Nails, several plumes of flames, and a noxious yellow smoke rose from their midst, enraging the injured beast. As it bucked and bit at its handlers, Cantara and her team sprinted past the opposite side of the barn, hitting the confused mass with a hail of cross bolts. It was time to race around the house and rejoin the others, covering their retreat if there was to be one…
Crystal looked up as the first explosion rocked the western woods. Almost on cue, the eastern grove burst into flame. The second explosion from its midst nearly threw her flat on her face as she rose to race towards the farmhouse. Accepting a steadying hand from Aiko, she led her team towards the house and the rear door. As the concussion of the explosions from the West rocked the night, an elite squad poured out the front door of the farmhouse and right onto the three IEDs Alex had planted earlier. The explosion sent a ball of flame rising over the roof, lighting their path as they made their assault on the unprotected rear door.
On the porch, they paused. Nodding to Crystal, Morgana set up her team to guard their escape route. Crystal returned the nod and then turned to look at Gwen. The human winked, and Alex and Aiko did a disappearing act, checking for any booby-traps on the other side of the door. A head that could only be Alex materialized halfway down the door.
“It looks good,” she whispered. “It’s some kind of mudroom.”
Crystal followed Gwen inside. Aiko was already checking the far door, scanning the hallway beyond for any sign of their enemy. The house was strangely empty. She turned, shrugging. They would not have to fight their way inside, but getting out might be a totally different story. Gwen stepped up, gesturing for the others to form a wedge at her back. In her hand, she gripped the cathode, threatening to snap it with the pressure.
Inside, the ceilings were covered in shadowy webs, silky black strands that blended into the shadows and sent little electrical shocks through their bodies when they came in contact with their skin. In the kitchen, Gwen discovered why this entrance was not unguarded. A dozen dog-sized spiders with the heads of grinning women were busy spinning something the shape of a human body into their webs. Without thought, Gwen reached out, linking with her three companions through her crystal. The discharge of her cathode swept spiders, webs and cocoon through the far door and out into the room beyond.
They knew they were here now. From this point on, there was no turning back until they had accomplished what they came to do. At the centre of the kitchen, Gwen and her companions paused, waiting for a response from their opposition. When none came, Gwen nodded to Aiko. As the vampyre kicked the door open, Gwen let loose with a second blast. In its wake, they crashed through the door, weapons ready.
On the far side of the door, a familiar scene unfolded before them. Straight from one of Alex’s nightmares, with robed figures packing a dark candlelit room. At the far end, Shax sat on a throne of skulls, overlooking a ceremony where a red-robed figure loomed over an altar. Chained to the altar, the small figure of Stephaney looked on, a whimper coming from a throat raw from crying and screaming.
“Ah, my sweet Crystal,” Shax drawled. “So good of you to bring me a sacrifice, but as you see, we already have one.”
Alex looked up at the sound of that voice. Todd. He looked good and horrible in the same breath. One eye was black and runny, several teeth missing from his smile, his clothes had been worn and slept in for weeks, and his hair was a greasy mass with patches missing. Her heart died, and her insides turned to ice.
“Ah Shax,” Crystal mimicked, “you are the last of your cabal alive. So kind of you to volunteer to die.”
Gwen only had eyes for Stephaney. Nothing else mattered – the banter between succubus and demon, Alex’s heartbreak, even the spiders crawling towards her. Lifting the cathode, she fired. Along one side of the room, black-robed figures cartwheeled towards the wall. Aiko dodged into the vacancy, reaching Stephaney’s side. A sly look in his eye, Shax waited until all but the last chain was broken. He raised a hand, sending a blast of cold air towards the interloper.
The four were thrown back, Alex tumbling out through the open kitchen door. Climbing to her feet, Gwen glared across the room at the demon.
“You silly little demon,” she grated. “We are so throwing down.”
She had raised her cathode a split second before he raised his hand. Fuelled by all her anger and worry, she drew more life force than she had ever before. One of the candlesticks flew across the room, embedding itself in the wall to quiver above the demon’s head. Aiko dodged in, grabbing the girl and the chain at the same time. The demon’s counter barrage threw her and her burden out through the door, where she landed beside Alex, bruising her tailbone and her dignity.
Crystal and Gwen rejoined them in the kitchen, covering their retreat. “Tell Morgana to take Stephaney to the van. We end this tonight.”
“Oh, you’re so right, girlfriend!” Gwen swore. “Nobody zings me! That’s so my job.”
Aiko moved to the back door, carrying the crying girl. Outside, she passed her burden to Morgana before disappearing back inside.
“Hey, sweetie,” Morgana soothed. “Climb onto my back, and we will go find your grandma.”
As the little girl’s weight settled on her back, Morgan led the way from the house, letting Gem move past her to cover their point. In a dead sprint, they headed out into the cornfield, the four of them keeping in a close group to avoid getting separated in the darkness. Corn stalks slapped her face and caught at her feet. Hidden in the tall corn, they could not tell if anyone was chasing them, but the blackness and their imagination made up for any lack.
The girl on her back grew heavy. It must be her imagination, Morgana thought, but her legs seemed to be longer. She felt a sharp pain in her neck. Turning, Morgana saw a red-eyed monster on her back. Her last thought as the venom hit her bloodstream was, this isn’t Stephaney.
Morgana’s body fell with a thud. The vampyre had miscalculated. On the ground a few feet from her first victim, she still wore the face of the child, looking up to see the tallest girl, a shadow in the darkness, move towards her.
“She fell,” the vampyre whimpered.
“Here,” Gem offered, “let me help you up.”
As Gem bent down to rescue the child, leaving her two companions to help Morgana, the vampyre struck again. Her disguise would no longer fool the last two, and one of them screamed. Sky leapt, eyes red, fangs dripping with blood. Something sharp scored her back. A long, angry scratch that fuelled her feeding frenzy. It had been so long since she tasted the sweet saltiness of fresh blood. The third and the fourth she killed, ripping the throat out from the last one in her anxiety to feed. The fear, the agony, spiced her meal to perfection, and inside her mind, the demon Shax giggled.
Huckleberry heard the screams. He was off like a shot, Ember hot on his heels. Somewhere out in the corn, one of their friends was in trouble, and she was off before Cantara could stop her or send someone to help. They had their own problems at the moment. With no one to guard the rear door and the minions massing for an attack, she and the six who were still with her needed to use up the last of their explosives. If everything did not work out inside, this might be the end of all of them. There were too many of them, and cross bolts and their crystals and her swords would not be enough to stem the tide of flesh threatening to drown them.
In the corn and the darkness, Ember was the wind. While her own sense of direction was useless without visual clues, the wolfhound knew exactly where to lead her. His weight left a trail of bent stalks that was easier for her to follow, even in the darkness. The field and the nights seemed to stretch on forever. Behind her, the noise of the battle faded, ahead she heard nothing. She was falling behind Huckleberry but not by much. Years of training, running ten miles a day since she was a very young child, giving her incredible stamina.
The vampyre was feeding. So engrossed in the blood of the four she had slain, Sky did not see the hound leaping at her until the last moment. She rolled backwards, the hound reaching back to snap at her as he sailed inches above her face. Coming to her feet to face the hound as it spun on its hind legs, she barely caught sight of the human girl who came pelting into the clearing of crushed corn stalks. Ember and Huckleberry leapt simultaneously. The vampyre rolled out of the way, setting herself to take advantage of the collision she envisioned. In midair, the two spun out of the way, landing to face their target.
She hissed. This time, as the two leapt to attack, she met the second in midair, her fangs sinking into Ember’s throat. When a mortal is bitten by a vampyre, there are three possible outcomes. They die. They are turned. Or they survive and develop an immunity to vampyre venom. This immunity brings other benefits - improved reflexes, less need for sleep or food, and improved night vision. Ember felt the pain and smiled. She drove her cross so deep into the small vampyre’s chest that her fist followed it in. As the first trail of dust drifted across their line of vision, her victim looked down at her bloody chest.
Across the field, Shax felt the death of his minion. His enemies entered, leading with a blast from that Wiccan wand of the one human. Annoyed, he cancelled her attack with a wave and signalled more of his minions to enter from the front of the house. How much more his little beloved would have accomplished if some human scum had not slain her? He would personally rip her entrails out and have one of his pets eat them while she was still living.
Gwen turned the focus of her attack from the demon to the possessed and vampyres streaming in from the front of the house. She could keep them from the room or fight those already here, but not both. It was up to Alex now, and she needed Aiko, who was up to her chin in demon-possessed humans. Crystal wielded the raven, and the cross Jean-Claude had given her, strong with the pranic energy raging inside even if there was nothing for her to feed on here. Gwen swept the room briefly, and then turned the cathode back to the doorway – no more than a second or two, and still long enough for five or six more to reach the room.
“Alex, sweetheart,” Todd called. It was Todd, her Todd. “Bring me the crystal honey. I need it.”
Walking as if hypnotized, Alex stumbled across the room. Shax spoke sweet words to her, and she heard only the man she loved. He needed the crystal. It was such a small thing, merely a hunk of rock. Surely it would not hurt if she let him hold it.
“Alex!” Crystal warned, ducking beneath a broken table leg that one of the possessed was used as a club. “No.”
It was as if she were in a trance. She heard or saw nothing beyond Todd, all dark and brooding as she remembered him. That song he always sang to her whenever she had one of her nightmares ran through her thoughts. He was smiling, that same funny, crooked little smile that she suddenly realized she loved. One more step, and then another. Closer and closer, the crystal held out in front of her.
Cantara watched the last of their explosives sail through the air. Suddenly Ember and her wolfhound dashed out of the field. The concussion of nails and flame had a bare heartbeat before scattered the bodies of the possessed when they fell upon the survivors, lashing out with twin crosses, feet and fangs. Slashing, ripping, tearing, they crossed the open ground towards the far corner of the house. Leading with her Doc Martens, girl and hound smashed through the window and into the living room. Her cross took the eyes from one of the Nightmare Spinners, those half spider half women who were so difficult to kill, Huckleberry ripping a leg from their victim.
The sudden appearance of the red-eyed girl – tears streaming like a river from her eyes – was enough to break the demon’s spell. Seeing herself inches from the shattered husk that was her Todd, seeing into the eyes to the horror that lay beyond, a sudden wave of rage swept through Alex’s mind. Slipping off her ring, she disappeared. If he wanted the crystal so badly, she would give it to him. What did she know about fighting the Wiccan way? What she knew were knives and fists and teeth. Fuelled by two years of heartache and frustration, she drove the crystal through the demon’s eye.
The crystal flashed, glowing white-hot. It felt like a nuclear bomb had mushroomed in her mind, in the minds of everyone in the farmyard. The flesh melted from Shax, leaving only his true self – black body seeded with needle spikes, red-eyes two pools of hate, one torn and smoking, teeth jagged and sharp as knives. A long screaming wail of pain rent the night. The silvery-white light oozed from his damaged eye socket, spreading in tiny fissures down his face and neck. Hands that ended in eighteen-inch claws ripped at the crystal, smoking and burning until the stench of seared flesh choked the air.
A long moment that was painful to watch passed. And with the suddenness of lightning from a clear summer sky, Shax exploded in a shower of leathery flesh and black ichor. Where he stood, a smoking black pool stained the floor.
“Ember?” Crystal cried. “Ember, what’s wrong?”
“It wasn’t Stephaney,” Ember choked. “That thing they carried out of here. Morgana –.”
“What?” Gwen pressed. “What happened?”
“Morgana and the others are dead,” Ember cried through tears that wouldn’t stop. Her vision was so blurry she could not see her surroundings. “It was some kind of vampyre. I – I got there too late.”
Outside, the fighting died out. In one breath, they were retreating into the farmhouse, the second the Ghost Sisterhood was surrounded by rotting corpses, the stench of their decay so thick they could taste it. Cantara led the way inside, arriving in time to hear the last of Ember’s announcement.
“Shit burgers!” The djinn swore.
“If that’s wasn’t Stephaney,” Gwen suddenly asked, “where is she?”
No-one spoke for a long moment, and then Aiko broke the silence. “The well. She’s in the well.”
Her words broke their hearts. The well was deep and cold. If they had placed the tiny girl in the well, how could she have survived one night, let alone two?
“I will climb down and fetch her,” Aiko said, more command than an offer.
When the sounds of the fighting faded, Helmand and Miss Johns cautiously drove the two vehicles to the Donnelly farm. He was now helping Cantara fetch the bodies of the four girls from the cornfield, wrapping them in sheets found in the farmhouse and placing them gently in the van. Mrs. Johns stood anxiously by the well as the girls readied torches and ropes, wondering if she would find her baby alive, hoping against hope despite all the death that tainted this night. Aiko ignored their preparations, taking one last look into the well before jumping down to the icy water below.
When the bodies had fallen into the water, Stephaney had managed to climb to a ledge. She was cold and hungry, her throat was raw from crying and screaming for help, and she was exhausted. She must have fallen asleep because all the noise had woken her, and she sat now, shivering and frightened.
A splash sent a shower of cold water washing over her chilled body. Yesterday someone had thrown two dead men and a dog into the well, and the bloated bodies frightened her. A hand reached out from the darkness, and she screamed – her throat too raw for more than a squeak.
“It’s me, Stephaney,” a vaguely familiar voice soothed. “Do you remember me?”
“You’re one of the ghost girls,” Stephaney muttered.
“We’re going to get you out of here.”
“How?” The little girl cried. “It’s too high up, and I am not very big yet.”
“I will climb out,” Aiko said. “Vampyres climb very well. Climb up on my back, and I will show you.”
Aiko swam up to the ledge, turning to take up the weight of the girl. She had carried larger packs up the sides of sheer buildings, and the climb up from the well meant nothing. The girl was colder than she was, and she worried that Stephaney would not have the strength to hold on.
“Wrap your legs around my waist,” Aiko urged, “just like that. Now hold onto my neck as hard as you can. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt me.”
The sides of the well were slick with slime, its rock damp and cold. Rough edges gave the vampyre foot and toe hold as she climbed, and the split toe of her footwear offered her a better grip than the boots the other girls wore. From time to time as she climbed, she whispered encouragement to the girl, urging her to hold on tighter. A rope snaked down into the darkness, slapping the vampyre in the face. Too focused on the rock face to lose concentration, she ignored it but would remember to scold someone when she reached the surface. Vampyres needed no aids to climb even the sheerest surfaces, and they should learn to have faith in her skills.
Mrs. Johns was waiting on the surface with a blanket and a fresh change of clothes. Gwen helped her change the girl, a task made all the more difficult because she refused to let go of Aiko. She was cold, suffering from the first signs of hypothermia, hungry and frightened beyond feeling. But a good night’s sleep or two and a warm hot meal would go a long way to helping her overcome these. Her ordeal was over for the moment, although years would pass before she totally recovered from the night terrors and trauma of this experience.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Johns kept repeating, her tears of happiness and fear rolling in streams from her eyes. “Thank you, girls, ever so much.”
“We better get out of here,” Cantara broke up their gathering once the bodies were safely in the van. “With the glamour shattered, it won’t be long before someone reports all this to the police.”