Disaster loomed on the horizon. Overwhelmed, the Brotherhood in New York City struggled to cope with the vampyre infestation that was spreading like a plague across North and South America. Their mission to protect the succubus twisted on itself, and now Gabriel and his staff spent more time hiding vampyres from the public than it did keeping them from her. Less and less time could be devoted to the political situation that was rapidly unravelling behind the scenes. Conflicting orders originated from a dozen places, and no one knew who controlled the Brotherhood and its assets.
Amidst the chaos, the vampyre Diaspora, Brother Jonas and his faction made a bid to take over the Brotherhood. Sensing an opportunity, they circled the city like sharks around an injured swimmer. The power vacuum created by Jean-Claude’s death left his faction weak and leaderless, and now the influx of several hundred orphan vampyres exasperated the Vatican’s fiscal crisis, bringing matters to a head. Exposure from Crystal’s latest exploits and the all too public execution of a vampyre fed fuel to their claims that the moderates had lost control of the succubus and the other specialists. The Church hierarchy was beginning to listen.
Brother Jonas and his hardline conservatives had not calculated on opposition from April and the Wiccan covens. The resulting stalemate left an uneasy truce in place. April did not trust the fundamentalists, especially when Brother Jonas showed up in New York with a full century of veteran Brotherhood hunters and reopened an abandoned chapter house. It was time for April to move Crystal and her Ghost Sisterhood out of harm’s way.
“I don’t like this!” Cantara complained. “I’m not a babysitter.”
“You’ll survive,” April replied dryly. “There only teenage girls.”
“Yes,” Cantara wailed, a tinge of fear in her voice, “fifteen of them. I can barely keep up with Crystal and Gwen.”
“Yes,” April agreed, an edge creeping into her voice. “And Aiko has not been much help either. You two encourage them too much. The five of us will have a long talk tonight.”
The other three came home from school to a distinct chill in the air. The brownstone lay beneath a preternatural silence, a heavy cloud held in place by a low-lying cold front centred on April. No doubt about it. They were deep in the shit for their latest prank – Gwen knew that hanging a vampyre naked from the Statue of Liberty was not as brilliant an idea as it had seemed. Even if the sun had destroyed the evidence, April wasn’t laughing. And there were others in the Church hierarchy who were beginning to think it was a mistake to have put all their faith in girls like them.
Or so Gwen understood was the gist of April’s two-hour lecture. She hadn’t taken notes, and she had no way of checking with the other three while withering beneath April’s glare and the hypnotic influence of her calm voice. And who cares if it was cruel? She kept asking herself as her mother’s calm tones dredged up guilt from every corner of her soul. These bastards had killed Jean-Claude – it was less than they deserved. The whole filthy race had earned a death sentence thousands of times over, and she planned to introduce as many as possible to the Archangel Ural, sweet angel of death. How could anyone stay that calm and still be this angry?
Gwen wasn’t lucky enough to escape to her room in the wake of April’s recriminating words. In the dead silence that followed, she sat in a room tainted by anger, waiting for Cantara to say something. She felt ashamed of her part in their cruel sport, knowing that the first tenet of the Wiccan faith was to do no harm and realizing that her tactical planning had made the vampyre’s capture possible.
“That was an elegant piece of planning,” Cantara complimented, her voice husky even though she had done very little talking over the last two hours. It amazed her how cold and brittle a quiet, reasonable voice could be.
“Mom didn’t think so,” Gwen pouted.
“That woman could flay the hide from a demon with her tongue,” Cantara teased. “And not one cuss word in the bunch.”
“She doesn’t need the help,” Gwen concurred.
She could still hear her mother’s parting words: “I’m sending you to this volleyball tournament – not that you deserve it. London, Ontario, might be the perfect place for you. No vampyres, no demons, but there had better be fifteen perfect angels, or I might have to get angry.”
“What happens when your mother gets angry?” Cantara asked, curious because she was included in that blanket threat.
“I don’t know,” Gwen admitted meekly. “She’s scary enough when she’s only annoyed.”
“Word.” Cantara teased, emulating the girls who were coming to fill her life.
Later that night, as they lay in bed in Crystal’s room, Cantara came to check on her charges. She found all three still dressed, Crystal and Gwen lying back with their heads hanging off the bed and their hair trailing along the floor. Aiko sat cross-legged between them.
“So,” Cantara hinted, “you cornered April into sending you to this volleyball tournament. You three ready to tell me what you are really after?”
“Boys,” Crystal tried, faltering beneath Cantara’s withering glare.
“There is a Wiccan artifact hidden in the area,” Gwen confessed. “The tournament is an excuse to be in London while we search.”
“I see,” Cantara nodded. “And where were you planning to stay? Hotels cost money.”
“Jean-Claude left me a house,” Crystal muttered.
“I see,” Cantara encouraged, “so you will need to call ahead and have someone open it for you. Is it furnished or unfurnished?”
“Mom said it’s been empty for a long time,” Gwen offered.
“You’re going to need an agent who can furnish it if needed,” Cantara instructed.
“Maybe I should make a list,” Gwen concluded.
“And now,” Cantara continued, shoving the girls over to make room for herself at the foot of the bed. “Let’s talk about how you are going to track down this artifact.”
“There are several Wiccan covens in the area,” Crystal replied vaguely. “We thought we’d start by making contact with them. One of them might know what this Wards of the Dark are all about.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Cantara conceded. “And any thought about who or what else might be looking for it? For example, what does this artifact do?”
For a moment, no one spoke, and then April said from the doorway. “It is an apotropaic. The most powerful one known to the Wiccans.”
“Against what?” Cantara countered suspiciously, not liking where this innocent volleyball tournament was heading.
“It is one of two relics capable of destroying a demon lord known as Shax,” Crystal hissed.
“And don’t you think that maybe he might be interested in keeping it from you?” April asked, entering the room unnoticed. “I seem to recall Jean-Claude mentioning something about the two of you having a history.”
“Then he better stay out of my way if he does not want to be stepped on,” Crystal spat. “I need it, and I will have it.”
“Besides, Lord Shax is a coward.” Aiko supplied. “He is a trickster who would not willingly face danger. He will not come anywhere near this relic.”
“And is he incapable of tricking some other demon lord into doing it for him?” April replied sarcastically. “Some things are hidden for a reason.”
Crystal scowled and swallowed the mouthful of snot she was about to spit out when April continued. “However, the Congress of Covens does want to find this artifact, if possible. Look, listen and learn. Do not try to recover the item on your own.”
“Why –ˮ Cantara began when April held up a hand.
“We suspect Shax is in the area,” April continued. “Our presence in Southwest Ontario has not been strong ever since the massacre of the Black Donnellys and the local covens tend to go their own way. There was a schism in the Eighteen Hundreds, and it has been a more fragmented group ever since.”
“And what makes you think Shax is there?” Crystal asked in an all too hungry voice.
“An urban legend that brought Jean-Claude to purchase a house in London, Ontario,” April replied with a heavy overtone of resignation. She spent a long moment looking into Crystal’s eyes, trying to figure out what she was driving her to go to London.
“Six years ago thirteen university students spent a weekend in that house,” April continued in a more serious vein. “They only found one.”
The three demon-born sat forward.
“Shit, girl!” Cantara swore.
“I’m missing something here, aren’t I?” Gwen asked meekly.
“Thirteen to summon the beast,” Crystal began.
“And thirteen to bind it,” Aiko continued.
And then together:
“Thirteen lie in wait,
But twelve will never find it.”
“Thirteen to summon a demon,” Cantara explained. “One host and twelve sacrifices.”
“Oh, dear.” Gwen breathed.
“Jean-Claude heard about the house two years ago and made arrangements to buy it,” April explained. “With things coming to a head here in New York, he never had a chance to investigate. Look around the house if you like, ask the local covens about the artifact, but stay well clear of the demon, any rumours of a demon, or the vaguest whiff of a demon fart. Have I made myself clear?”
Her eyes captured all four of those in the room, and she waited.
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused in a subdued mumble.
The next morning Gwen and Cantara began making phone calls. Their first chore was to find out who had the keys – the lawyer or the realtor. Gwen did not realize planning could require so much work – logistics, Cantara called it – or that it could be so frustrating. Once they found the keys, they discovered the title had not yet been transferred from Jean-Claude to Crystal. Their New York lawyer had to fax a copy of the will and death certificate to London - Gwen and Crystal needed a good cry, reminded afresh of the wound caused by his death - and then Crystal needed to fax a letter authorizing the local lawyer to act as her agent to open the house. And they still had no furniture or food, or anything else seventeen people would need to live for a week or more.
Hurt balls! That was all Gwen had to say. After an entire day on the phone, all she had to show for it was a sore ear and a crick in her neck. Since when did a medic plan the movement of an army? Surrender was an option, people! She agreed with Shakespeare’s sentiment ῾first we kill all the lawyers᾿, adding the bureaucrats, operators, and definitely whoever invented volleyball tournaments to her own list. This last group needed to be fried in oil and fed to demons. Or whipped and beaten at the very least. Why couldn’t they hold it closer to home, like say in the park around the corner? It wasn’t even the sexy London, the one in Europe with all those European boys.
An emotional rag, she slammed down the receiver and used a word or two that had her mother shaking a bar of soap at her. At moments like this, Gwen really missed that silly old man and his knack of making the most difficult tasks seem like child’s play. She felt the loss almost daily and was lonely because she could not talk about it with Crystal or her mother. Not without making one of them feel guilty, and the other crushed by the weight of her own grief. Both had loved Jean-Claude as a man, but for Gwen, he had taken on the role of her father and mentor. It was a void in her life she was having difficulty filling.
She was left with Cantara. And no matter how much of a man-child the djinn was, she didn’t cut it. And Aiko had severe daddy issues of her own.
Later, when Gwen went looking for Crystal, she found that the succubus had slipped away without her. Crystal did that a lot lately. She would take to the rooftops, travelling too fast for even the djinn or a vampyre to follow. ῾Letting loose her inner demon,᾿ Alvaro called it, and not even April would interfere. They all needed to find ways to deal with their grief, and if Crystal’s was to run across the top of New York City, who was April to criticize? And even if she had asked, Crystal would not have been able to explain. Ever since her feeding frenzy deep beneath the streets of New York, there were times when Crystal felt too dark to bear the company of any living soul. Times when her presence was too dangerous for any mortal.
The Pranic energy she had consumed coursed through her veins like a living thing, barely contained and fighting to free itself. It burned through her soul, wanting to destroy anything and everything. At these moments, she was closer to the demon than to her humanity. It was more Pranic energy than she had ever consumed in all her past lives, more power than any succubus had ever held, and it drowned her in its need. Her eyes glowed like bloody jewels, and her thoughts were feral children running wild through the night. Hatred and anger leaked from her in sibilant hisses. Sometimes she would hunt – to kill and not feed – and at others, she would race across the New York skyline, fleeing her own nature.
Such fits would last throughout the night, leaving her worn and exhausted by dawn. She would crawl home and lock herself in her room, still needing to be alone with her shame and her anger. Once she had taken Aiko with her, seeking another’s company, hoping it would curb her desire to kill and maim. But even the vampyre’s slowness was frustrating during her moon madness, and the company was unwanted in the end. Angel might have kept pace with her fury, but the bloodthirsty bent of her mood did not sit well with his nature. And so she sought the solitude of the rooftop shadows, a place where few dare venture and even fewer could follow.
Someone or something was on the rooftop with her. A cruel smile curled Crystal’s lips as she realized they were hunting her. Who would dare hunt a demon born to the night, whose bite was feared even by her own kind? Sniffing the wind, she caught their scent. Mortals, she decided. She could feel the Pranic energy now, an uncaged beast hungry for blood, and she struggled with the urge to rend their flesh. But the cruel bent would not leave her. Whoever dared to disturb her in this mood was about to learn a very hard lesson.
Brotherhood hunters? She frowned puzzledly. They must know there were others on these rooftops. What was going on here? Gabriel would never send anyone onto these rooftops when she left the brownstone to race the wind. He knew better than that.
Crystal doubled back and crept up behind one of the squads. Sure enough, they were hunting, weapons drawn and ready. She scented the wind again. Nothing. Nothing was up here on this roof except her and these mortals. And so they must be hunting her. Something did not smell right. She was no longer sure if she was who they were hunting. And if not her, then who or what? She tested the wind like a wolf scenting prey. Aiko and Alvaro. How could she have missed their trail? Vampyres had learned to hide from her kind and could be as still as a shadow when needed. Still, with the pranic energy all but rippling across her skin and her senses so raw every sight, sound, and smell was magnified a thousand times, they should not have been able to hide from her.
Unaware of the drama unfolding around him, Alvaro chuckled deep in his throat and drew a finger along Aiko’s cheek and down the nape of her neck. A lover’s tryst? Almost Crystal let a fit of jealousy distract her from the true meaning of the words she had just overheard. Some faction of the Brotherhood was seeking the hallaf of Abraham, to either destroy or control her. Had things gotten so bad since Jean-Claude’s death? Perhaps at any other time, Crystal would have given it more thought, but beneath the heady influence of the Pranic energy, the night was awash with unbridled passions.
Crystal leapt into the middle of five Brotherhood soldiers, knocking them flying like bowling pins. She dodged a cross bolt. Faster than the human eye could track, she leapt across to the opposite rooftop, startling Alvaro and Aiko at the beginnings of a kiss. She was in among the second half of the Brotherhood squad before either of her companions could register what was going on.
Here, Crystal came face-to-face with the author of this farce. Brother Jonas.
“Foolish mortal,” she hissed. “Did you think I would let you interfere with my plans?”
Gripping a handful of the monk’s robes, Crystal lifted him by one hand and raced off into the night. Behind her, Alvaro’s desperate cry faded into the distance…..