Anastasia and three Brotherhood agents were waiting for them back at the house when they arrived with the four bodies. For the last two hours, she had been closeted with the eleven survivors of a ritual gone sour, meeting once with them as a group, and then with each individually. Fortunately, her task of implanting a cover story was easier because of the two-year blank in their memories created while their souls were in Hell. By the time they were ready to bring in the local authorities, all these young men and women would remember was being held by religious fanatics on a farm, used as slave labour for the last two years, moving from harvest to harvest across North America.
Shortly, a horrible accident would be reported. A head-on collision between a transport truck and a car. The four bodies in the car were burnt beyond recognition. Although a diligent coroner would discover lacerations on two of the victims’ necks, it would be explained away by the collars they had been forced to wear during their long months of captivity. A week or two later, the bodies would be shipped to the United States to their grieving families for burial. Others would be working to shorten that wait, to hurry the autopsies and inquiries for the sake of these same families – and to better keep the secrets of the Brotherhood.
It was the strangest case Detective Michaels had ever encountered in his sixteen years of policing. Twelve students from the University of Western Ontario had disappeared from this house two years ago, a thirteenth was committed to a psychiatric ward, and then they had all reappeared. Held captive, according to their statements, by a collection of religious fanatics, transported from farm to farm across North America to harvest crops. The farm they were rescued from was a charnel house, its yard littered with bodies showing signs of decomposition. The two groups – the volleyball team who claimed to be searching for a missing child when they were kidnapped, and the original group claimed to be burying the bodies of illegal immigrants buried in a mass grave sometime earlier – made a hash of the investigation.
Long years would pass before his doubts would surface from the heady influence of the sylph. Anastasia spoke words, and they became his conviction. And the physical evidence supported the story. Each of the bodies showed signs of physical abuse, a long period of deprivation, something you would expect to find in captives and slaves. And there were enough shallow holes around the old Donnelly farm to account for the number of dead they had found. When a request to interview the thirteenth student was put through, a Todd Weinham, the detective learned, had died the month earlier. He would never learn that his name had been cleared or that his friends had been found alive.
It was a tragedy all the way around. The American girls were all crying, and the detectives could not get too many coherent statements. Their four teammates who had died were well-loved, and he had not seen so many tears in a long time. In the end, Detective Michaels took what he could get. There would be years of tracking down the next-of-kin of the several hundred bodies at the farm, and these young folks had been through enough in the last few days to last a lifetime.
“The police will let us leave tomorrow,” Anastasia was explaining. “The three Brotherhood monks will drive your friends home in the morning, Alex, but I think it’s best if you come and stay with us for a while.”
“Someone will take you home for a visit in a few days,” Cantara promised. “Until we help you understand more about your circumstances, however, we can’t let you roam around unattended. Accidents with special skills like ours are common.”
“And Ember,” Miss Sweider warned, “you have to leave Huckleberry here. Mrs. Johns will take good care of him.”
“Okay,” Ember relented, a little too easily.
If Miss Sweider was not so preoccupied with twelve grieving girls, a police investigation, and a Brotherhood cleanup squad, she might have caught the undertone. Ember and the hound, a real nuisance, spent most of the night and the day up in the attic, where the Summoning Circle had disappeared. It, like all of Shax’s portals into this world, had died with him. Fortunately, only those whose bodies would still be living would return, for some of the older portals may have claimed thousands of victims from dozens of times and ages. It was difficult enough to deal with the returned without also having to confront those misplaced in time.
Keeping the girls busy packing up the van seemed like good therapy. Only Gem and Ember were let off from this chore, one mourning her twin sister and under heavy sedation, the other the loss of a cousin. Aiko found her student upstairs in the dark, practicing her katas with that great beast of hers, making a mess of both. It, or he, was the only one she talked to, and so Gwen had sent her up here to get her to open up. Aiko didn’t understand emotions. Death was death. It was as much a part of life as breathing.
“If you try that in a real battle,” Aiko commented as the girl pirouetted away from the hound’s questing teeth, “you’ll end up with a dozen blades in your back.”
“Oh,” Ember bragged, “I can do that so fast even a vampyre wouldn’t see me.”
“Only in your dreams,” Aiko scolded, “you should leap and somersault over his tail.”
She demonstrated. As Huckleberry snapped at her leg, she leapt, doing the splits mid-air to avoid his teeth and flipped head over heels across his length. When he spun to meet her, she dove across him, pulling him down with her and earning a lick for her troubles.
“They want me to leave Huckleberry here,” Ember confessed, “but I’m not going to. As soon as they are finished packing the van, I am going to hide him.”
“At the back of the van would be best,” Aiko considered. “Only Alex and I tend to sit there. How will you hide him?”
“I was thinking of using one of the blackout curtains. Huckleberry can fit under the seat,” Ember replied. “He’s very disciplined. He will sit quietly if I ask him.”
“Unlike you, my student.” Aiko teased. “Take him out for a walk now. I will let you know when the way is clear.”
Early the next morning, they loaded up the van and started the long, mournful trip home to New York City. Ember and Alex sat in the back seat with Aiko. Over the past thirty hours, the two had become as thick as thieves, and Miss Sweider suspected they were up to something – she was too overwhelmed to get to the bottom of it. Others were occupying her attention. Poor Jade was a broken doll curled up in a fetal position on a seat that should sit three, unable to stop crying. Gwen had developed a strange fever and had started vomiting an hour ago, an illness most likely connected with the misuse of the Wiccan cathode, and Crystal – well Crystal had turned to ice, and the redness of her eyes refused to fade.
Crossing the Canadian side of the border was no more difficult than driving. On the American side, they ran into a wait that stretched out for three hours. In the back of the van Ember and Alex fidgeted, and the vampyre was too still not to be hiding something. Cantara was driving and occupied with the growing traffic, unable to pay any attention, and at the moment, four of her girls were bawling their hearts out. Morgana and Gem had been co-captain of the volleyball team since Grade nine and were well-loved. Both on and off the court, they were a popular pair, and they were already missed.
At the border, a customs officer stuck his head in the window of the van, counting the passengers.
“Where are you folks headed?” He asked.
“Home to New York City,” Cantara supplied.
“And where are you coming from?” He looked back at the girls, some of them crying.
“London, Ontario,” Cantara supplied. “Sorry, we were a volleyball team. Four of their teammates died in a car accident the other night. We are taking the surviving girls home to their families.”
A large sneeze resounded from the back of the van. As the border guard and the adults looked back, Aiko pretended to be wiping her nose. The three sneezes that followed sounded convincing.
“Sorry,” the vampyre apologized. “Head cold.”
“And anything to declare?” The guard asked, turning back to Cantara.
The guard nodded, waving them through. “My condolences.”
As the van pulled onto the highway, Miss Sweider called sarcastically, “better find a place to pull over soon. I’m sure Huckleberry is crossing his legs already.”
“Oh, Ember,” Gwen scolded, punctuating her words with a dry heave.
“No harm, no foul,” Ember called back. “Besides, he’s one of the Brotherhood.”