HOWLERS

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the beginning of the end...

A rude, blaring sound could be heard coming from some indeterminable location, and Gail was on the hunt for it. She had been sitting in her bedroom at home, playing her guitar when it started. It was a horrid screeching sound, and no matter where she looked, she couldn’t find it. All she knew was that it was immensely annoying and she had to find it and shut it off. It wasn’t coming from the kitchen or the back porch, and it was getting louder and more persistent the more she searched. Suddenly, she could feel the sound as well as hear it, making her skin vibrate and her bones ache. Even her teeth began to buzz until her head swam and she slipped into an unseen hole, free-falling faster and faster until she slammed face-first into her motel bed with a long, deep gasp, grabbing onto the edges of the bed with both hands, her phone wedged between her face and the mattress as the alarm continued to squawk its derisive admonition. She pulled it free, wiped the saliva from the screen and finally subdued the clamor that had tormented her slumber. Surely Olivia didn’t sleep through this. Even a sound sleeper like her couldn’t possibly.....

SSNRRRKKKKKK!!! wwwhhhheewwww...........

Olivia was sprawled out on her sheets, the blankets rolled around her legs and her head halfway off her pillow, snoring happily away as if there were no legendary witches to consecrate and kill or ghost-wolves to send screaming into Hell. Gail loved her friend beyond even her own comprehension, and tried her best to keep that in mind as she turned the unholy shriek of that alarm back on, then tossed her phone like a flat rock across the room and right into Olivia’s ribcage. She emitted a guttural utterance of some kind and blinked once or twice, but fell right back to sleep. Undaunted, Gail hauled herself up, shuffled over to Olivia’s bed and propped the phone against her head so as to direct the evil banshee cry of the alarm right into Olivia’s ear. Slowly she began to show some signs of consciousness, the first being a kind of sputtering noise followed by an attempt to swat the phone away, but to no avail. Finally, an eye opened, an opportunity Gail capitalized on immediately by shoving the edge of the mattress with her foot.

“Liv, c’mon,” she groaned, “Stop dickin’ around. C’mon, we gotta call the sheriff. Up, lady!”

Finally Olivia shifted slightly to the left, lifted her shirt to scratch her stomach and grumbled something unintelligible before raising her head slowly, looking as though it took a great and painful effort to do so.

“Looks like we found the hole in your ‘sleeping late’ plan, huh? I twisted myself up sleeping in the car then slept way too hard once we got here, and you apparently died in your sleep.” said Gail, her voice still thick with fatigue as she made her way into the kitchen, “I feel like total ass right now.”

“Yeah. Me too. When’s breakfast?” grunted Olivia.

“Right now,” Gail grunted back, dropping a frozen breakfast burrito on Olivia’s belly as she trudged by on her way to the bathroom.

“What, no beer? Beer? Biiitch!”

She was answered by the slamming of the bathroom door and a trenchant ‘Get your own damn beer’.

Delirious in her waking stupor, Gail was oblivious to the fact that she had brought neither towel, robe, nor clothes into the bathroom with her until she was thickly covered head to toe with lather. No, Gail Stevens does not use motel towels, in case you were curious. She’s of a mind that no amount of laundering can wash out the suspicion of what they may have been used to mop up. After a heavy sigh of realization and a few muttered curses, she called to Olivia for assistance, to no avail. She rinsed off the thick coat of foam and leaned out far enough to swing the door open, only to find her friend was slipping off to sleep again, clutching her burrito in one hand, and the beer she had gotten for herself in the other, sitting straight up on her belly just as she had been holding it when she drifted off. The pieces of egg and sausage on her face would’ve been pretty damned amusing if Gail were not so thoroughly pissed at the moment.

She stepped out of the bathroom and made her way to her bed, where her robe lay across the footboard and her towels were neatly stacked on her nightstand. She snatched both and headed back for the shower, stopping a moment to tip Olivia’s beer over and continue on her way as it glugged out of the bottle and soaked her entire crotch, pooling up between her thighs on its way to puddling under her butt. As it turns out, Olivia hadn’t quite made it back to her rock-bottom, comatose level just yet, and Gail burst with laughter when she heard the tale-tell yelp as the icy brew made it to Olivia’s bare lower back and she rolled out into the floor with a thud.

“Gail! What the fuck? Why would you waste a beer like that? GEEZ!”

Gail laughed out loud again as she listened and shampooed gleefully. Outside the bathroom, she heard another beer crack open and the microwave kick on, most likely heating up another burrito. In the next fifteen minutes she was dried, dressed, and digging out her own breakfast, a bacon, egg and cheese bagel and a glass of iced instant coffee with hazelnut creamer. Olivia had opened her laptop and was going through all the photos she had taken during their time in Derby Cross, squinting at the gorier ones so as not to focus completely on them.

“This shit is just....awful. I mean, these things were humans once? It’s almost impossible to believe, isn’t it?”

Gail moved the bite of bagel she had just taken into her cheek and answered, “I know. I wouldn’t have believed any of this shit was real if someone just told me about it. This kind of evil shit is only supposed to exist in books and movies, not in quiet little places like this. Thing is, the Howlers weren’t very human to begin with. Barnett said they were werewolves who embraced their curse. They didn’t think of it as being a curse. Then there was this passage in that book I picked up last time we were at his place. It said the human essence is what makes a werewolf a murderous savage. Maybe there’s something to that.”

Breakfast was over, and there really wasn’t much to stand in the way of what was next. It was almost 2:30 in the afternoon, and the call that would lay the foundation for the evening’s dreaded task had to be made. Gail sat on her bed with her phone in her hand, staring it down, her mind roaring and spinning like a Tilt-O-Whirl ride as every possible way for this to go bad played out in her head. Darc-Oros wasn’t any better than Elsie Gryder, and she would have to bring him out of the board in order to defeat Elsie. How did she know he would keep his word and simply move on to the next plane or whatever the hell it was he wanted without wreaking havoc himself? What if Howlers descended on them and devoured them right out of the gate? Would they eventually exterminate everyone in Derby Cross? In Corden County? Who knew where it would end? She felt faint for a moment, stifling the swelling hopelessness that tried to overwhelm her. One deep, calming breath later, Sheriff Whaley’s phone was ringing. One hour later, he was at their motel door once again, and the women gathered their gear and stepped outside to the open rear hatch of the Sheriff’s SUV. They started to load their things and noticed the firearms up against the back of the seat.

“I wasn’t real sure if guns would do us any good, but I figgered what the hell, y’know? I brought them three shotguns and a coupla nines,” he said, picking up a pistol and checking it over, “Better t’ have ’em and not need ’em than the other way ’round.”

Once their stuff was loaded, Olivia reached over their stuff and picked up a shotgun, which she then proceeded to give an impressive, professional-looking once-over, ending with her sighting it down its long barrel. Sheriff Whaley looked surprised and impressed all at once. Gail just smiled.

“Her dad’s a hunter who wanted a boy.”

“Looks t’ me like it didn’t matter. That’s one apple def’nit’ly didn’t fall far from the tree.” He couldn’t have hidden how impressed he was if he’d tried.

“Yup. Well...I guess there isn’t anything else to do here. Thank you for doing this, Sheriff. I’m not so sure we could pull this off without you.”

“Like I said before, ma’am, I’m sworn to protect Derby Cross and Corden County. I’m in ’til the end.”

“Let’s head out. It’ll be night before we know it, and we have a lot to do between now and then.”

With that, the three were headed to Gryder’s Cove once again, each riding in silent contemplation as they made their way deeper and deeper into the forest, higher and higher up the mountain, closer and closer to Elsie’s house and to their fate, whatever that might entail. Every minute of sunlight lost made nightfall feel moments away, nerves on edge and heart rates climbing by infinitesimal measure as they passed through spots in the road that were totally shaded into others that were speckled with sunlight or directly under a spot where an opening in the canopy allowed the afternoon sun to pour in. The abrupt changes in the light brought on visions of the night to come, of the sun sinking ominously below the tree line like a burning orange metaphor for every life at stake should they fail. Dread has a way of making time pass slowly, and Gail found herself again wishing she still smoked, both to pass the time and to soothe her jerking nerves. How perfect would that be right now, with nobody talking, just inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly as each person contemplated their role in this...whatever it was that was only hours from playing out to an end none of them could predict.

Olivia was the first to break the silence, the little movies in her head that were showing everything that could go wrong tonight having become too much for her to ponder any longer.

“I feel like we forgot something,” she said, furrowing her brow, “did you check your backpack before we left? Gail? Hey...”

Gail snapped back to reality, her own thoughts vaporizing at the sound of Olivia’s voice.

“Um, yeah, yeah...we have it all. The stuff from Giselle’s, the board, oil, all that. We’re good.”

Her response was a little robotic and cold, being as a little bit of her mind was still trying to claw its way back to the place she had been, lining out tonight’s adventure and trying to discern all the possible outcomes and what to do about it.

“OK, just wondering. I mean, even if we forgot something, it’s a little late now, huh?”

Translate that to mean, ‘The silence is making me as insane as the idea of what we’re doing. I just need to talk.’

“Yeah, guess it is. Thanks for the sudden paranoia, Liv.”

“No sweat. I aims to please!” said Olivia, laughing more out of relief and stress release than actual mirth as Gail reached behind her seat and pulled her backpack over it, opening it, then rummaging through its contents, assuring herself that she had remembered everything they would need. As it turns out, there were a few things she forgot she had packed for the trip.

“Anybody up for a Zippy Cake? They’re the peanut butter filled ones.”

Sheriff Whaley’s eyes widened in the rear-view mirror.

“Yes, ma’am, I believe I might be able t’ handle one,” he said, almost smiling as Gail pulled open the wrapper and handed him the treat over his right shoulder. He took a bite that knocked out more than half of the chocolate-covered cake and began to chew it up slowly, noticeably savoring the chocolate and peanut butter flavors like a true connoisseur of junk food. He took a long sip from his water bottle and smiled at Gail in the mirror.

“Now THAT’S Zippy!”

Gail and Olivia both chuckled a little at the sheriff as they unwrapped their own cakes, the world suddenly a little less grim and surreal. At least it was, until they came upon the spot in the road where the trees opened up just a little, exposing a bit more of the sky to let one know that there was a clearing ahead. Gryder’s Cove was only minutes away, and that light that had just ignited in everyone’s eyes was dimmed in an instant.

“Almost there,” said Sheriff Whaley, his voice now somber and a little unsteady, “won’t be but a few minutes ’til we...shit, there it is.”

There it was indeed. The run-down house with the rusted tin roof, the archaic domicile that became a mausoleum of gray wood reeking of death and evil stood watching them drive up into its front yard, park and reluctantly step out of the SUV to approach the front steps. Its gaze was weighted and cold, like the scowl of a serial killer who wears that contemptible countenance to leave no doubt in the minds of all that look upon him that he is unremitting and without remorse. Gail’s skin crawled at the thought of stepping foot inside Elsie Gryder’s house, let alone following through with the plan that had been set into motion by coming back to this cursed place.

“Let’s get unloaded. Lotta shit to do.”

Yeah, get all hard-assed. Nobody will know you’re scared out of your fucking wits.

Sheriff Whaley was turned almost all the way back toward his vehicle before he ever took his eyes off the house, bringing up the rear behind Gail and Olivia as they made their way back to collect everything needed to dive headfirst into the unknown. The first shades of evening were threatening to fall at any given moment, and a sense of heightened awareness sank in as backpacks and duffle bags were hauled up onto the front porch and dropped by the door. Gail took a deep, steadying breath.

“Are we ready?”

“Ready as we’ll get, I s’pose,” answered Sheriff Whaley, staring through the filthy windows in the door, “Let’s get on with the ghost bustin’.”

The door protested heavily when Gail turned the knob and pushed it open. That smell, that horrid stench flooded over them like an unseen blast of hot, dirty flood water as the door wedged on the warped floorboard that had served as a doorstop even back when this house was not so old. She looked over to Olivia, ready to say something supportive if need be, only to find her standing there, staying strong, using her jacket sleeve over her mouth and nose like a filter as she began bringing their things inside. Gail smiled to herself and went over to her backpack, taking the pages given to her by Barnett James from a pocket in the front. She studied it a moment, looking in particular at the things they still needed for the ritual, things they had hoped to find there. She looked around the room, scanning the shelves of books, jars and boxes, the cabinets and tables that were piled with more of the same as well as candles and God-knows-what.

“Guys, look here. This is what we need,” she said, motioning Olivia and Sheriff Whaley over to her, “I guess the best thing to do is just start looking. Start wherever you like, but we’re running short on time. Elsie knows what we’re doing here, I can feel it.”

No time was wasted beginning the search, each tossing things aside to get to buried or hidden items. Sheriff Whaley was moving some papers neatly aside from one shelf to another, looking for a blank piece of lambskin parchment.

“Sheriff? Hey, Sheriff!” called Olivia, “Dude, we’re burning the house, remember? I don’t think we’re getting points for neatness.”

He paused a moment and looked at his handiwork.

“Um..yeah, right, right. Sorry ’bout that.”

Finally he found something that looked like dried animal skin, rolled and tied with a black ribbon, which he cut, then unrolled the stiff sheet to find it was unused. He tucked it under his arm and continued his search for anything else from the list he could find. Olivia found the black candles on one table, a huge white one on another, and a jar of dried-out spiders on a short shelf in a corner, and Gail came up with iron nails from the shed out back and a copper cross that had hung upside-down in the kitchen.

The three gathered in the middle of the room and looked over their finds, comparing them to the list. That was all of it, and now came the task of finding the leather case that would contain the board’s power. The sky was dimming and a deep-seated panic began to set in as they frantically searched every room, pulling down shelves and pictures, toppling tables and pulling on any board that looked remotely loose. Olivia went into the kitchen to check the cupboards, coming up nil. Against the far wall was a huge sideboard that looked promising. With a long grunt and considerable effort, she shoved the big cabinet into the middle of the floor, removing every drawer and opening every door. Still nothing. Then, knocking on the entire wall to check for hollow places, her shoe sole caught on a loose floorboard.

“Aha. What’s this?”

She reached down and tested the board, guaging just how loose it was before giving it a tug and finding it wasn’t giving at all. She stood with her feet on either side of it, grabbed it and held tight with her fingers curled under it and jerked upward with everything she had, calling it bad, bad names when it resisted. She relinquished her grip with a grunt and stood over it, breathing heavily.

“Gail! Hey! Gimme a hand in here, huh? Gail?”

Olivia turned to step out of the kitchen and call again, her foot catching the corner of the unbudging floorboard. She fell fast and face-first with a loud slapping sound as she caught herself with her face and chest, both hands smacking the floor upon impact. There was an eternity of silence as the pain sat in. Her face slowly drew up into a tight wince as she cried out.

“ooooOOOOW!!! God-DAMMIT!”

Olivia rolled over and clapped her reddened, still-stinging hands over her flushed face as Sheriff Whaley and Gail both came running into the kitchen and stood over her.

“Oh shit! Liv, you alright? That sounded like it hurt!” exclaimed Gail, reaching for Olivia’s hands, which were still employed in the task of comforting her smashed face. The Sheriff stood there looking as if it were his face that just plowed up the floorboards, looking around for the blood that surely splattered when she hit.

Wiping away the tears that had flooded her eyes when her nose smacked the floor, Olivia blinked and tried her best to focus her eyes. That’s when she saw it: a hole in the ceiling, right above the place where the sideboard had been, covered from above by another piece of wood. She slowly moved her hands away from her throbbing, burning face and pointed to it.

“Hey guys. What’s that?”

Gail and the sheriff both looked up, seeing the hole there and thinking the same thing at the same time.

“Let’s shove that thing back over here,” said the Sheriff, grabbing the sideboard at one end and motioning Gail to get the other. They pushed it back into place, the feet scrubbing harshly against the dry old floor. Sheriff Whaley pushed a chair up beside it and carefully stepped up onto the seat. The old chair creaked a lot, wobbled a little, but the sheriff managed to steady himself then step up onto the sideboard. At this point he began to think maybe one of the women should have climbed up there, being as he now had to practically go to his knees to fit between his perch and the ceiling. He reached up and pushed the board covering the hole aside, then stood up slowly, the hole just big enough to accommodate his head and chest. Gail handed him a flashlight, which he flicked on and slipped up into the slender gap between his body and the edge of the opening. He looked left, then right, in all directions, seeing nothing but the dusty corpses of various small animals. He eased around to look behind him, and as the pale blue LED light scanned over the boards, two glints of light came racing toward him with a loud screeching sound. Long yellowed teeth flashed and Sheriff Whaley cried out loudly, cursing and stuttering as he fumbled the flashlight and reached for his gun, which seemed determined to mock him by sticking firmly in its holster. He ducked out of the hole, and the giant rat that had bolted toward him skated by and ran into the rafters. The sheriff took a minute to catch his breath, holding his chest as his color returned. He looked at Gail and Olivia, a little embarrassed that he had lost his composure over a stupid little rat. A stupid, filthy, disease-infested rat.

“I oughtta shoot that bucktoothed asshole,” he muttered.

“Did you see anything other than enraged rodents?” asked Olivia, using her hand to unsuccessfully conceal her smile.

“I don’t rightly know, miss. Maybe you wanna take a look?” Sheriff Whaley smirked as he stood back up, placing his gun beside the spot where his flashlight had fallen. With his head back in the ceiling, he picked up the flashlight and scanned the floor, the wall boards, and the rafters for his assailant. No sign of it, and he breathed a sigh of relief. As he was lowering his head from the hole, he took one last look for the rat, and there, wedged in the third rafter, was something that looked like a flat briefcase with no handle and covered in weird designs. He reached out a hand toward Gail.

“I got somethin’ here! Hand me that chair up here an’ hold ’er steady for me.”

Gail put the chair up onto the sideboard and slid it over toward the sheriff so he could feel the back against his leg. He positioned it and again asked the women to hold it steady as he stepped up into it and stood up. Now most of his body was in the attic, and, with minor effort, he was able to get himself on up and inside. He shone the flashlight on the object again, and sure enough, there it was: ancient leather, all sorts of strange symbols etched deep into it and crudely stitched with thick leather thongs. This had to be it. What the hell else could it possibly be? He pulled it free then handed it down to Gail, who completely let go of the chair as she took it in hand and looked it over, taking in every detail with utter fascination.

“Comin’ down, y’all. Watch yourselves.”

Ever so carefully Sheriff Whaley made his way down the makeshift ladder until his feet were safely on the rough floorboards, Olivia managing to hold the old chair steady by herself as Gail continued to examine the case. Olivia and the sheriff stood on either side of her, all three becoming lost in the darkened designs that graced almost every inch of it.

“My God, look at this,” muttered Gail as she stroked its edge, “I was talking to him. This is his skin. His actual skin, Liv. Check it out.”

She tossed it over to Olivia, who quickly back-stepped and let it fall to the floor.

“Are you shittin’ me, Gail? God!”

Sheriff Whaley sighed, walked over and picked the case up.

“OK, now we got it, what next? It’s damn near dark, and we still need to do the ritual.”

“We need to put the board in it, cut off Elsie’s influence over it. Let’s do that right now, maybe she’ll stay away while we’re getting ready if she can’t sense the board anymore.”

Olivia was looking into the next room as though trying to see something that wasn’t there.

“Say, are we even sure her body’s still here? I mean, with all this going on, how do we know someone didn’t come up here and drag her body out and burn it already? Maybe some scavengers have made a mess of it by now. Just sayin’.”

“The odds o’ that are prety slim, Ms. Scott. Nobody’s had the gall to get anywhere near this place for decades. We oughtta go have a us a look all the same, I reckon. C’mon, y’all.”

Sheriff Whaley led the way through the house to Elsie’s tiny bedroom. The stench in this room was far greater than anywhere else in the house, the source of it, rotting flesh and evil. There, on the rickety iron bed, covered in that heinous tattered bedspread, was Elsie Gryder’s body, dried hands clutching her covers, jaws agape and her remaining few teeth exposed by curled, parchment-brittle lips. The three stepped slowly up to the side of the bed, looking down at the gruesome remains with a strange aggregation of pity and disdain. Suddenly, as though a dial had been turned, the lighting inside the house dimmed down noticeably, and the three looked at each other, eyes alight with fear.

“Get the lanterns! Shit, grab all the bags!” cried Gail, bolting for the living room, the sheriff and Olivia tight on her heels. Six hands reached out, snatched up the various backpacks and duffle bags, and six feet made a mad dash back to the bedroom. They sat everything at the foot of the bed and knelt down, unzipping and unsnapping as they searched for the ritual items, the board, any and everything needed. Sheriff Whaley looked over at Gail and wondered if he looked as panic-stricken and pale as she did. He decided to offer her some kind of comfort (actually fishing for some himself) and put his hand on her shoulder.

“We’re gonna be fine, Ms. Stevens,” he said, trying to feign faith with a half-hearted smile, “We’re the good guys, right?”

Gail put her hand on his and tried to smile back. She looked him right in his eyes, seeing that he was indeed in this to the end. She could tell from the resolve in his gaze that he would be there for her and Olivia through this whole damned harrowing ordeal, and began to thank him for all he had done so far as a flash of strange light blew by her face and snatched Sheriff Whaley’s head from his body. Blood lurched up from the wound where the ripped arteries jutted out of the quivering flesh that used to be his neck while his body flopped backward and bucked violently against the floor, splattering blood across the room then finally settling as the last gush of air gurgled out of the lungs. Gail screamed louder than she ever had, scrambling backward in wide-eyed horror at the sight of the sheriff’s now-lifeless body lying stone-still, his uniform soaking up the pool of blood that had blurted from his open neck. Olivia had frozen, the sight overloading her senses to the point of catatonic silence, a bottle from Madame Giselle’s in each hand. She didn’t dare take her eyes from the floor directly in front of her.

Wh-wh....oh God! Wh-what the FUCK was that?

From her left, Gail felt the cold bluish light radiating onto her face and neck. Slowly, so slowly she turned her head, knowing already but hoping she was wrong, to see a large, pale blue apparition floating just above the floor, hollow black eyes staring right through her as it held the sheriff’s bleeding head in its massive jaws and snarled. It made an ethereal growling noise that reverberated through the decapitated head and came out of that mouth as well, making the sight even more abhorrent. It was a Howler, much bigger than the ones they saw at Evert Earwood’s farm, and it seemed to be taking great delight in playing with the sheriff’s head like a chew toy while she watched (more like couldn’t look away no matter how hard she tried). She managed to draw in a couple of ragged breaths and summon enough strength to reach out and take the board in one hand and fumble around for the case with the other. Before she could find it, the ghost-wolf picked up the severed head and went rocketing out the front door, tearing by Gail so close that her face was left icy and almost numb, making her scream again as she dove for the board and slammed it into the open case. She closed it up and fastened it shut with the rusted buckle on the front, dropped it onto the pile of bags and crawled over to Olivia, who still hadn’t moved an inch from the position she was in when the Howler came.

“Liv? Liv, honey? Olivia, we gotta go....gotta go now....Liv?”

Olivia raised her head slowly, then opened her eyes as though they would be burned out of their sockets if she opened them to quickly.

“That’s it, that’s it, baby, come on! Help me get this shit in the bedroom and end this. We’re almost there, don’t lose it on me now!”

Olivia took Gail’s hand, tears welling up and dumping out of her eyes in buckets as her friend helped her to her feet. Once she was standing, her expression made a drastic turn as she stared at the sheriff’s remains. She looked so terrified, so lost and unsure at first, but now her eyes narrowed and her mouth twisted up a little. Her brow furrowed as she turned to look Gail right in the eyes, arms crossed.

“Let’s get this bitch on the barbecue.”

Gail felt empowerment flood her being to the bone.

“That’s my girl!” she said with new-found bravado.

They gathered the necessities for the ritual and placed them all into one backpack they had emptied while searching through all the bags they had brought in. Gail threw it over her shoulder and hauled it into the bedroom, Olivia on her heels with Darc-Oros’s skin-case under her arm. Referring to the papers they got from Barnett, they raced against the sunset setting up: black candles here, white ones there, two drops of this and a drop of that in a small iron cauldron suspended over the flame of yet another candle. They turned the bed so Elsie’s head was pointing due north, then opened her arms and put her feet together like a bone compass, pushing the nails into the sparse flesh of her feet and hands and finally driving the the last one into her skull with a hammer they had found in a dresser drawer. The concoction heating up over the candle flame was now ready, and Olivia took her sheet and read the first passage as she slowly poured the potion into Elsie’s eye sockets.

De’ah hetnun

Onumin eh lac hen

T’aïgh non hagi elatži

Baîl an-ha lo ne

Gail opened the vial of anointing oil and tossed the cap. She dribbled it onto Elsie’s forehead, hands and feet, then took up the athame as she read:

Elijhe na’üte deta

(pointing the blade north)

Elijhe na’üte båni

(pointing the blade east)

Elijhe na’üte tarun

(pointing the blade south)

Elijhe na’üte hinæ

(pointing the blade west)

Olivia untied the black ribbon from the small plastic bag and emptied the contents into Elsie’s gaping mouth, careful not to touch the leathery remnants of her tongue.

Don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t puke.....

Outside, the tall pines had begun to lean in the heavy winds that began to whistle and moan past the windows of the old house. Night had come, and the sky was becoming angrier as the words were read, as though the heavens knew what was going on.

Alharî hetnu radin te

Necrutis articet nin-haj

Foru crotamus nij hagi

Nonitæ ret hag

As she read the last verse, Olivia opened up the delicate red bottle and peeled away the protective bubble-wrap enough to expose the cork, which she pulled and tossed aside before pouring the still-fizzing contents between Elsie’s exposed ribs over the dried chunk of blackness that used to be her heart. It was as if the house had suddenly been hit by a wrecking ball: a hard thud that shook the entire house and almost made Gail and Olivia tumble to the floor. Then a second time, and the girls ended up right on their asses beside the bed, but quickly gained their feet again, knees bent and hands out, keeping still and quiet, waiting for another one that never came.

“What the fuck was that?” Olivia whispered, eyes still wide.

“No clue, but I think it’s over now,” said Gail, slowly standing up and walking across the room to a window and taking out her papers, trying to read them in the moonlight.

“So now what?” she muttered, almost to herself.

“Your guess is as good as mine. I’m afraid to ask, to be honest.”

Olivia stood also, fishing around for the matches the sheriff had brought.

“So when do we light her up?” asked Olivia, leaning over the bed and looking the corpse over, “Is there any particular place we shou....should um...........Gail, could..could you come over here a minute?”

As she stepped back up to the bedside, she saw what had Olivia’s face running pale as well as impeding her breathing. The crusty piece of charcoal that was once a heart quivered a little bit, then a little more, then almost rocked itself over. It swelled some, the black, rubbery surface bulging and contorting as it grew. In...then out...in...then out...becoming redder and bigger by the second until it was no longer a clod of decrepit tissue, but a full-sized beating heart. Olivia’s mouth and eyes were wide open as she pointed to it, then looked at Gail, pointed to it again, looked back at Gail, repeat process until completely terrified. Gail had both hands over her own heart, not even daring to breathe.

“Is it supposed to do that? Should we set her on fire? What the fuck, Gail? Gail? SAY SOMETHING!”

Olivia had ramped up into full panic mode now that she saw Gail going catatonic. There was only one thing to do: she drew back and slapped Gail right across the face....hard. This had the immediate reactive effect of Gail slapping her back.....harder.

“Oh shit! I’m so sorry sweetie! I just..why did you hit me, anyway?”

“I thought you were losing it! I was just trying to bring you back, that’s all!”

Gail grabbed her friend and hugged her tightly.

“Don’t hit me again, though. You’re stronger than you look.”

Olivia smiled and nodded, still holding her reddened face.

“Wait, hey, what’s that supposed to mean? Am I, like, too scrawny, too butch or what?”

Gail wasn’t listening, though. She was frantically searching through the pages in her hand, trying to find something, anything, about what was happening. Maybe Barnett should have given her the whole damned book. Now that would have been helpful. As she read, the black stain under Elsie’s bones began to get wetter and crawl up the decaying bones as the petrified organs began to inflate and pulse. The ragged corpse began to jerk and quake, making the old bed frame creak while the springs rang out cacophonously from under the mattress. Finally Gail’s mind wrapped around what was happening, and she was able to process a solitary thought: Get the board!

Making a dive for the gruesome leather valise, Gail landed amongst the other bags and jammed a shotgun butt into her hip. At that moment it became painfully clear that she had forgotten to take her meds in the midst of preparations for this evening’s undertaking. She winced and uttered several bad, bad words as she sat up, but kept to the task at hand, dumping the board out onto her lap then retrieving the planchette from the front pocket of her backpack. The body in the bed continued to convulse and spasm as its flesh reformed ever so slowly from the increasing mass of black goo that now bubbled and glurped to the surface of the molded mattress.

“How is this happening? Barnett didn’t say anything about this bitch coming to life!” cried Olivia, who had made her way over to where Gail was seated, somehow comforted by the presence of the board. Outside, deep in the trees, they could hear limbs breaking in the wind, and the long, low howls of the ghost-wolves who were making their way to the ancient house. As the thunder slammed the sky, Elsie Gryder’s wicked, empty laugh resonated through the clouds with it, and both women felt their spines freeze over with fear. She was coming; she knew her body was being resurrected, and she meant to make use of it.

Gail dropped the planchette onto the board and put her trembling fingertips on the edge. Closing her eyes, she thought his name, but didn’t feel anything happen. More and more audibly she repeated it. Then the board vibrated. It rocked a little, causing the planchette to slide to the leftmost edge. Then, it began to tremble, right out of Gail’s lap. She lurched backward and got to her feet, watching the symbols on the board begin to emit wisps of smoke as they became outlined in living sparks of red and orange, changing shape and position in perfect tune with the burgeoning storm. The familiar serpents of black spectral smoke began spewing from the center and surrounded the board. Like torrents from an angry ocean they swirled and spiraled upward until they formed a thick pillar of sloshing black and gray ectoplasm from the board to the ceiling, creating a swelling roar as the lightning from outside came streaking in through the windows and attached itself to the living plasma, dancing in and out of the turbulence. Then, louder than the lightning, the phantasmal tornado, even the thunderstorm pounding against the walls and old tin roof, came that terrible, shrieking laugh: Elsie Gryder had come home.

She came gliding in through the front door, arms outstretched, taking in all the goings-on with great curiosity and delight, almost oblivious to the presence of the one whom she vowed to destroy if she didn’t bring back the Bahz-Ma’al. In fact, she slid right past the table Gail had taken refuge behind and over to her bed, where her body lay panting and twitching, almost fully formed but still looking very much like a corpse. The milky eyes turned an empty gaze upon Elsie’s ghost, and the resurrected body tried to reach out, the hand quaking so hard that tiny shreds of flesh fell from it.

“I knew I felt it. I knew it,” she muttered as she smiled, “Elsie Gryder’s back!”

“Not for long, mongrel.”

The voice was deep and powerful, almost percussive even though the words were spoken evenly and quietly. Elsie had been so caught up in discovering her renewed body that she hadn’t noticed the subsiding of the supernatural tempest and the appearance of the apparition from the Demon Door, the one so many had held captive inside his own witchboard. Darc-Oros now hovered right behind her, a pale green light surrounding him as he opened and closed his fists then threw his arms out wide, causing blue sparks to jump from one hand to the other. The sparks turned to streaks of pulsing light, gathering between his hands into a flashing ball of blue light.

“This is your last night on earth, witch. Prepare to face Hell!”

Darc-Oros shoved his fists forward, ejecting the sparking light-ball toward Elsie, who dodged it with ease, cackling as she returned fire with red bolts from her right hand. Darc-Oros shot upward, Elsie’s counter-attack missing him by inches. As he was preparing to retaliate, Elsie shot backward, screaming with laughter and went streaking into her body with a resounding clang of iron and rattling of bedsprings. The corpse shuddered from head to feet one last time, flopping hard against the bed, then lay totally still. The wizard, Gail and Olivia all stood waiting, watching the breathless body intently. One large gasping breath filled the chest, and Elsie’s body stood straight up off the mattress, her hands glowing with piercing red light. The dry lips pulled into a smile, exposing her broken black teeth.

“Let’s git it on, boy!”

She fired multiple red bolts at Darc-Oros as she flew straight for him, his own blue-green blasts narrowly missing her head as she came. The sorcerer suddenly evaporated with a burst of powdery green light then reappeared behind the rotted witch, hands outstretched, chanting indistinctly. When he clapped his hands together, a brilliant white flash filled the room, blasting everything from every shelf and table, blinding the humans who had been looking on in abject panic, and toppling anything standing. Elsie slammed into the far wall, her head bouncing against it twice before she sank to the floor.

“I shall now bind your power, just as you have bound me these long, long years. Your pathetic excuse for magic will be useless, and you will be destroyed!” Darc-Oros swept in fast, his hands lit with blue light that seemed almost like a gelatinous liquid. He used it to bind her hands and feet, then slowly backed away, chanting something unheard for centuries, hands clasped in front of him. As his incantation continued, his voice arcing up to a booming clamor. He separated his quaking hands, blue-green lightning sizzling and sparking all around them, creating an abysmally deep hum that caused the entire house to rattle as the remaining windows shattered and the nails holding it together worked their way out of the boards. The light was alive, seething with the sorcerer’s rage, and it continued to grow in front of him. The storm wind rushed in and swirled violently around him in a torrent of leaves, broken branches and pine needles.

“Now, Elspeth Louise Gryder, you meet the consequence of keeping me prisoner for your own ends! Now, here, in the house of your ancestors, comes your demise at the hands of your superior!”

Elsie’s murky eyes opened slightly, turning upward toward the strobing ball of power. Darc-Oros drew his hands back. Elsie set her top teeth over her bottom lip, drew in a quick breath and whistled shrilly through her decayed incisors. Quicker than thought, what seemed like more than twenty Howlers came tearing in through the wall behind Darc-Oros, ripping into him like lightning, pulling him apart with sprays of green spectral light. The ball of light he had created fizzled and dispersed with a lackluster blink, like turning off an old television. The wizard screamed something indiscernible as he was being consumed piece by piece by the Howlers, each tearing off something and bolting off to gnaw on it in another part of the house.

Gail, get the board,” whispered Olivia to her gawking friend, trying not to attract attention to herself. Gail was preoccupied with being utterly shocked at the events that had just transpired, forcing Olivia to resort to other measures to get her attention. She picked up the planchette and bounced it off the side of Gail’s head, which had the desired effect of bringing her back to the task at hand. She rubbed the stinging spot where the planchette had struck and looked at Olivia as though she had lost her mind.

“The board, goddammit!”

Olivia picked up the case and tossed it to Gail, who snatched up the board and stuffed it inside just as the last of the blue light binding Elsie dissipated. Gail buckled the flap shut, and the Howlers and their respective meals began to slip off into the night. Elsie got to her feet quickly, snarling at the two panic-stricken women.

“You two bitches are jest about t’ piss me off,” she growled, making a flicking motion with her fingers toward them, causing an unseen force to slam into their chests and knock the breath right out of them as they hit their backs. Gail scrambled back to her feet and grabbed the case, then Olivia’s hand, and made for the door with all she had, Olivia right on her heels.

“RUN, BUT YA CAN’T HIDE!! AAAHAHAHAHA!!!!!” Elsie shrieked, limping out behind them, her dull gray hair trailing behind her. Her unsteady gait gave the girls enough time to get outside, catch their breath, and try to form a plan. They hadn’t anticipated anything that had happened so far, and they really hadn’t even been terribly well prepared for the plan they had in the first place. Every passing moment, the witch’s body was repairing itself, getting stronger, so something had to give soon.

“Now what?” asked Olivia, watching the house as Elsie’s shape came closer to the front door.

“I have no fucking idea!” exclaimed Gail, “Why did she...I mean, the ritual was supposed to consecrate the body, not bring it back to life! There’s nothing about it anywhere in the pages we got from Barnett, and nothing about what we oughtta do now!”

“Shit shit shit! We should’ve taken the rabid armadillo case in Savannah!”

“Armadillos give you the creeps, Liv, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, well, this is a lot less creepy, isn’t it?” Olivia spat sarcastically.

“OK, look, Liv, we gotta figure something out. If we kill her body, she’ll just keep attacking us once she’s out of it. We have to find a way to finish her for good, then burn the body and destroy this damned board.”

“Maybe one o’ my books might he’p ya out, girlie!” said a gritty voice from over Gail’s shoulder. She wheeled around to see Elsie standing right behind her. The witch grabbed Gail by the throat and lifted her from the ground kicking and struggling for air, ready to throw her into a nearby bookshelf. Olivia reacted without thinking, landing a hard kick right in Elsie’s crotch, causing her to drop Gail and cry out. She immediately shook it off, though, grinning at Olivia.

“Ain’t got no man-parts, girlie. What ‘n th’ hell’d ya think that’d do?”

“It was my first instinct being as you look so much like a man!”

Neither Gail nor Olivia could believe that just came from her mouth.

“That’s IT!” barked Elsie, seizing both women up by raising her fists, then throwing them several yards back by thrusting them forward. They tumbled over the grass and landed on their backs. Gail’s back and limbs felt as though they were being injected with hot shards of glass. Getting up was the last thing she wanted to do, but she knew she had to get back to her feet, no matter what. As soon as she did, she was tossed like a rag doll over and over, slammed against the ground, against Olivia, until both had bloody noses, black eyes and bruises from head to foot. Elsie cackled maniacally as she tossed the girls around like some kind of psychotic puppeteer, firing red bolts of magic at them when they were on the ground. They were barely able to dodge them by rolling side to side, and the ones that made contact would skate across their skin and leave an open, black and bloody burn. That wasn’t even the worst that would happen to them.

Elsie began to pull at the air in front of her, stretching her fingers in and out and chanting:

Detal ne’us gratinus lesusvi!!

Gail and Olivia levitated off the ground. Elsie opened her hands. Slowly she closed them, and the girls both screamed as they felt their insides being wrenched, their bones being twisted, ribs compressing. Suddenly they were jerked upward and then slammed to the ground, every bit of breath leaving their bodies on impact. Twice this happened, leaving Gail nearly unconscious and Olivia whimpering in the fetal position, clutching her abdomen and rib cage. Elsie hobbled over to Gail and looked over her still form, smiling as a long drop of saliva slid over her bottom lip, stretched downward and broke off, landing on Gail’s neck. She drew back her putrid foot and kicked Gail right in the stomach. She responded with a sound like someone trying to vomit but can’t, but didn’t wake up.

“Little bitch, tryin’ t’ fuck wit’ me, now? Think you can bring out that som’bitch in the board t’ kill me? Little whore!”

She stomped Gail’s back, causing her to gasp sharply and jolt awake just in time to take another decrepit foot to the head, almost knocking her lights out again.

“Got sum’p’n special in mind for Red over there. She’s gon’ wish she’d never got involved in this mess.”

Elsie was thoroughly enjoying the suffering she was inflicting on Gail and Olivia, so much so that she had forgotten all about the witchboard that started this entire episode, at least until Gail summoned her breath to call out to Olivia, “Liv...get th..the board, Liv. Don’t let her have it, no matter what happens!” Then blackness enfolded her once again.

This drew Elsie’s attention instantly. Her dead eyes darted around the yard, scanning the dead grass for the tattooed leather, but Olivia had already managed to crawl over and tuck it under her body.

“Give it up, Red! I’ll gut you and feed you to the Howlers!”

Olivia didn’t budge, but stayed rolled up around the case, holding it tight in her arms. She knew Elsie couldn’t summon the Howlers as long as the board was contained, and was willing to suffer anything to protect her friend, and suffer she did as Elsie used her powers, her feet and her fists to pound Olivia against the ground, the house, the dead trees at the edge of the yard. Olivia still would not relent, and her multiple cuts and bruises served as signs of bravery she never knew she was capable of, although this fact didn’t make it hurt any less. Elsie stopped trying to physically take the thing and began trying to use magic. Olivia held fast, ending up right in Elsie’s arms when the case flew to her. She almost knocked herself out delivering a hard head butt that split Elsie’s forehead, causing black goop to seep out of the wound. Elsie dropped her and the case, shaking it off quickly. Olivia ran to Gail’s side and shook her.

“Gail, c’mon baby, wake up....Gail, please! I need help! Please!”

Olivia had begun sobbing, and now she was trying so hard not to lose it. Gail stirred just a little, her eyes opening slightly. Olivia picked up her hand and held it to her battered chest.

“‘Nuff assin’ aroun’, Red. Now I’m ‘bout t’ tear you two apart!”

She raised her hands to the sky. Thunder rumbled low in the distance and lightning arched cloud to cloud, lighting up the clearing as though the sun was being switched on and off. The wind began to howl and whirl, and Elsie’s voice filled the entire scene.

HECHALA MEK-TOH

RAHN FAKAL NEHUN

TASTAKI’NE NO HE’TRO!!

The old witch’s eyes glowed white, lighting up her moldered face. Her nails started to grow longer and thicker, curving inward like the talons of some mythical beast. Her black teeth elongated into crooked fangs, and a pointed, dark green tongue lolled out of her mouth, spreading a dark slime across her lips. Gail had pulled herself up onto her elbows, while Olivia held her head up and began to cry out loud.

“Gail! Oh my God! Are you alright?”

“Ain’t gon’ matter here ’n a minute. She’s ’bout to be so far from alright, she’ll never be right ag’in!”

Elsie’s voice was now a deep, gritty growl as she turned to the girls and bared her new fangs, green spit blowing out of her gaping jaws as the wind whipped around her. She reached out toward Olivia and waved her hand. Four deep gashes appeared across Olivia’s upper arm, deep and pouring blood. A flourish of her other hand and similar wounds opened up across Gail’s chest. Elsie growled and smiled, unhinging her lower jaw with a loud cracking sound until her mouth looked wide enough to swallow a bowling ball. One more quick gesture and the witch had them both hung in the air, one hand suspending them upside-down while the other beckoned the blood from their wounds and into her gaping maw. One deep gulp and her flesh became more alive, restored by a great leap. Elsie laughed a deep, satisfied laugh and pulled another long stream into her mouth. The pair felt life being drained slowly, too weak to fight anymore. The case lay on the ground under Gail, again forgotten in the throes of Elsie’s hunger for vengeance.

Every breath felt like it could be the last. Vision blurred, speech impaired, limbs practically useless, Gail and Olivia just hung there in the air, beaten and bruised, losing life and consciousness. This was it, the end, and it had come much too soon. Gail’s mind began to reel, playing out all those things she never did and should never have done, dreams and ambitions unfulfilled. She felt herself fading away, and she began to whisper her goodbyes:

Daddy....I love you so much....I’ll tell Mom you never stopped loving her.....

Liv....my best friend....I love you, too...my life would’ve been so empty without you.....

She was pondering how she might greet her mother on the other side just as the angels came into view, two of them, stepping in time with each other from among the dead pines at the edge of the woods.

Angels? In black hooded robes and draped in silver chains?

They stopped at the edge of the yard. Elsie was unaware of their presence, still draining the girls slowly, toying with their life force and laughing. Gail’s eyes were getting heavy, and just as her brain shut off the lights, a familiar voice barked from under the hood of the smaller figure.

“PUT ’EM DOWN, NOW!!”

Still the witch ignored the strangers and continued to bleed Gail and Olivia like fallen game. They reached up and rolled back the hoods to reveal the faces of Officer Judy and Maudine Swafford! They stood in the blasting wind, their long white hair swirling and threshing all around them, hands clasped together. A white light began to seep from between their fingers, and as they pulled their hands apart, the white light pulsed to yellow, then to orange, then to red. Judy’s voice seemed to boom from the sky itself when she cried out,

“AUNT ELSIE! YOU ALWAYS WAS A BITCH!”

At this, the demon witch wheeled around, recognizing the voice of the one who dared insult her. She snarled, spitting a thick purple bile from her throat as she screamed and lit up her fists with retaliatory magic. Judy and Maudine looked to each other with determination, then back to Elsie. Raising their hands over their heads, they threw the thrumming light right into Elsie’s face, knocking her head-over-feet to the ground, breaking her hold on Gail and Olivia, who dropped to the cold ground with a thud. Just as the scene playing out before her dimmed and she succumbed to the hazy sleep of blood loss, Olivia reached out, grasped the skin-case and pulled it to her, clamping her arm around it as she drifted off into unconsciousness.

Elsie and the two hooded women were throwing all they had at each other, all the while driving Elsie closer to the house. While she and Maudine exchanged blows with invisible fists, Judy worked her fingers in the air as if weaving imaginary fibers together and chanting. Suddenly Elsie was slammed backwards onto the ground, unable to move. She screamed and struggled, but remained bound to the earth, cursing and chanting furiously. The effort seemed to be taking a toll on Judy, who was holding the enchantment in place with a trembling hand. Finally Elsie hit upon the right incantation, and rose from the grass, firing red-hot light at Judy, who countered with white, exploding each blast with her own. Meanwhile, Maudine had slipped around behind them, unsure of what to do next, but knowing she had to do something.

Just as she was about to make her move, hands raised, she saw the ground lurch in several different places, red dirt and grass parting. It started happening all across the yard, then came the shrill sound of crying...no, screaming...angry, unholy screaming as the corpses of infants began to breach the surface and shake the red earth from their necrotic bodies. The tumult of shrieks and moans was almost unbearable, and Maudine could only watch in befuddlement as they made their way toward Elsie, who was completely absorbed in her battle with a very harried Judy.

One by one, they leapt at her, hanging onto her arms and legs, biting her repeatedly and clawing at her skin. Instead of blood, black goo oozed from the wounds, and the dead children licked and sucked it up, growing stronger as it filled their bodies. Elsie tried to fight back, slinging the zombified babies this way and that, but they were becoming too powerful. Their unrelenting attack gave Maudine and Judy time to regroup while they continued to pull chunks from Elsie’s limbs with the bone protruding through their shriveled gums. They ran over to Gail and Olivia, checking for pulses and breathing. Judy took out a small vial and held it under their noses in turn. With a pained groan, Gail came around slowly, turning her face away from the scent emanating from Judy’s potion. Olivia was a little slower to come around, but was waking up by the time Gail had sat up, head in her hands.

’They’ll be alright, Maudine. We gotta finish this for good this time. These girls done a good job gettin′ her ready for us, but it’s up t’ me ‘n’ you from here on out,” said Judy, standing up and placing her hand on Olivia’s still-swimming head.

“They have one last thing to do for us, I’m afraid. Let’s not waste another minute, sis. This ends tonight. You need to keep fighting while I handle this.”

Maudine’s voice was firm and determined. She put her hand on Gail’s shoulder as Judy turned and walked back toward the place where Elsie still struggled against the onslaught of her remaining resurrected stillborn. They held on tight while Judy launched an assault of white and blue light that sparked like fireworks when they plowed into Elsie’s torso.

“Can you get up, child? Can you move alright?”

Gail nodded, though her body knew she was lying. There wasn’t a single part of her that didn’t throb with debilitating pain.

“How ’bout you, miss?” Maudine asked Olivia, who barely had her eyes open and was still lying on her side.

“Oh, my. She’s not lookin’ so good. It’s gotta be you, Miss Stevens. You’ll know what to do, and when to do it.”

Maudine knelt and placed the skin-case in Gail’s lap, then stood back up and turned to see Judy gathering up a fireball between her venous little hands.

Damned good idea, big sister.....

Gail watched Maudine march off to stand beside Judy, conjuring up her own blazing orb of fire. Elsie stumbled backward, slapping at the carnivorous beasts still tearing into her and screaming, obviously weak and drained of power. The sisters began to chant in unison, moving the fires back and forth across their faces. The light revealed the few zombie babies Elsie had managed to take down, some with their heads smashed, others laying in twisted, broken poses.

“You...hhhhhrrrrrkkk!!.....can’t take me down, ya li’l brats! Y’ ain’t too old fer me t’ whoop the tar outta ya once I kkkrrrrfffff!!......lay m’ hands on ya!”

Elsie’s sputtered threat was weak at best, and hardly a deterrent as the sisters advanced on her. She backed up her porch steps, feeling her way behind her as best she could while still being clawed apart.

“Goin’ back to th’ bed won’t help ye, now, Elsie Gryder,” said Judy, her voice even and confident, “Your end comes tonight, one way or another!”

By this time, Elsie was on the porch, dragging herself to the open front door. She reached up, grasped the doorknob, then pulled herself to her feet.

“Kill this body, li’l Judy Thomas,” Elsie growled in the gravely voice her corpse provided, “Kill it, see what my immortal soul does later! Won’t neither you nor Maudine Thomas ever know a moment’s rest, I swear it!”

Judy laughed, laughed loud and hard.

“You heard her, Maudine. Let’s get to it.”

With a final outcry, they expanded and joined the fireballs they had kept burning while Elsie had been talking.

HEZET NOS DET’E!!

Thrusting their fists forward, the sisters sent the blazing orb streaking toward Elsie. There was no time to dodge, duck or counter. It slammed full force into her abdomen, knocking her off her feet and into the house. All at once the infant corpses caught fire and burst into wisps of the whitest smoke ever seen as their little souls were finally freed. Elsie’s magic was too weak to imprison them anymore, and they spiraled upward and out of the cracks in the ceiling. By the time the old witch had screamed and fallen to her knees, Judy and Maudine had conjured up two more rounds of fire as they stepped onto the porch and through the front door. Again they called out the incantation and pelted Elsie with the second fireball, igniting her ragged dress, then her hair and tattered flesh. She writhed on the floor, shrieking and pulling the flaming skin from her bones, chanting curses that fell flat no sooner than they were uttered. As more flesh ruptured, the dying magic escaping her body caused the flames to burn hotter and hotter with a dark red hue.

Judy and Maudine watched cautiously, biding their time as Elsie tried to get to her feet, crawling toward her bedroom, pieces of burning flesh popping off and onto every piece of furniture she passed and causing them to burst into flame as well. Finally Elsie made it to her bedroom, but just as she dragged herself past the doorway, the flames overtook her and she crumbled to the floor, her right arm flopping down close enough to the bedspread to ignite it, which caught the ragged curtains hanging from the filthy window beside her bed. The fires through the house were still small, but they threatened to join into a full-blown blaze at any second. The sisters stood only a moment more to watch Elsie’s bones blacken before heading for the front door, using an enchantment to keep a bubble of clear air around them. No sooner than their feet were back on the grass, that horrid voice resounded through the cove.

“AAAAHAHAHA!! Now you two old bitches are gonna pay th’ price for messin’ with yer Aunt Elsie!”

They were way ahead of her. They had been chanting all the way out of the house, hands joined, and when they pulled their free hands out from the sleeves of their robes, there was a strong, pulsating white light between them. They raised their hands into the air, and the light became a blinding blue and white fire, and the entire mountaintop lit up like midday. Gail’s eyes were riveted on the light orb, and she almost forgot

about the gripping pain that held her body prisoner on the grass. Suddenly, the way that one thing you remembered you were supposed to do dawns on you right before the very second that it would be too late, it hit her: the board! She had to toss it into the fire before Elsie’s ghost could be destroyed!

She struggled up, trying not to cry out. Hell, trying not to cry period. She got to her feet, and her every part of her burned and throbbed in protest, taking her breath as she tried to take a step forward. She could hear Elsie laugh, then growl a warning as she realized which spell the sisters had readied for her. Gripping the case tightly in her right hand, she set her jaw, clenched her other fist and stepped toward the now-blazing house; carefully, determinedly she increased her stride, tears running and heart pounding. She pulled back the arm holding the case, and, breaking into a limping sort of run, she screamed as she drew back her right arm and threw the case through the front door and into the inferno. Elsie felt it happen, and spun her head around to see her precious board being swallowed by flame, burning black and orange.

“NOOOO!! GOD DAMN YOU, GAIL STEVENS!! I’LL KILL YA FO.......!!”

Her threat was cut short by the booming flash of white and blue fire that engulfed her entirely from head to feet, splitting her apart and igniting each piece in a bright display of green ectoplasm and magic fire. She wailed and cried out curses of all kinds, then all was suddenly silent. No crickets, no cicadas, only complete stillness.

Like a sonic boom from the center of the yard, one last scream burst across the cove and spread outward with dark green light, and all was silent again. Then the strangest thing happened. From the inside pocket of Gail’s jacket came a sound, the sound of wailing guitars and drums that was unmistakably Black Label Society. She took out her phone and sure enough, there was a message waiting for her. Suddenly there was a clear, strong signal out there in those woods. With painful effort, Gail put the phone away and slumped to the ground, beyond the point of exhaustion. She had made it back over to where Olivia still lay in a daze and collapsed beside her, taking her hand and holding it tightly.

“It’s over, sweetie. It’s done. You slept through it, but it’s over,” Gail said with a tiny laugh and kissed the back of Olivia’s hand. Judy and Maudine were making their way over to Gail, their robes and hair dancing in the dying winds. They knelt down with Gail and Olivia, checking them over before hugging them each tightly.

“AH-ah!! Owww!” Gail breathed, her entire body super-sensitive after being punished like it had.

“Sorry, kiddo,” smiled Judy with a wink, “You just did so damn good, I couldn’t help m’self!”

Maudine produced a small blue vial, pulled the cork and tipped the contents into Gail’s hand. It looked like any hand lotion, but smelled strongly of herbs Gail couldn’t identify.

“Rub a little of that where it hurts, dear,” Maudine smiled, “should fix ya right up.”

Gail did as instructed, and by the time she was done, she wasn’t in nearly as much pain as she had been. Still throbbing pretty good, but nothing like the injected-with-hot-glass feeling she had moments ago.

“Liv? Liv, wake up.” Gail nudged her shoulder, but still no movement.

“Y’don’t think....” Judy started, but Gail shook her head.

“No, Officer Judy, she only sleeps like the dead. Liv, get up!”

This time Gail began poking her forehead relentlessly.

“Let me give it a shot, there,” smiled Judy, her little eyes twinkling. She held her finger out, pointed it at Olivia’s nose, and out cracked a small blue spark. Olivia lurched against the grass and rolled over and up onto her knees, eyes wide and looking quite confused.

“I-I-I’M UP, I’M UP! NO PANCAKES, I GOTTA GET TO THE BUS STOP!”

Everyone but Olivia giggled, then howled with laughter. It was over.....it was finally over, and that was as good a reason to laugh as any.

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