It's almost a testament to the power of love that you can find affection in the unlikeliest of places. As an immortal crone, rendered hideous by trafficking with Satan and working with occult power, you'd expect that I'm about as heartless and cruel as they come, and my life is filled with nothing but orgiastic sacrifices before burning wickermen under the full moon, drinking the blood of children and hobnobbing with hobgoblins and other creatures of the night. You'd think there's no room for a healthy relationship in this world, but you'd be wrong. I've got a very nice boyfriend, Professor Matthias Murray, and our romance is perfectly fine, if a little weird from time to time.
My girlfriends all have stories similar to mine, if not stranger, and even they manage to find someone who cares about them. Maeve Mac Roiche, Irish wise woman and druid mistress, always seems to have some young neo-pagan she's interested in. Greta Himmelfarb, career woman and mother to the ten-year-old Antichrist, has a co-worker whose eye she's caught. And Ophelia Reveaux, a New Orleans swamp witch and powerful Voodoo mambo, found herself a guy who I wouldn't think would fall for her in a million years.
It started with all of us over at Greta's for dinner. By the time it ended, we had faced down an army of fanatical Christians packing heavy firepower, a deranged ancient ghost from the mid 1600s, and a rogue angel of God himself. And somewhere in all that bloody, magical mess, Ophelia Reveaux found herself some love.
Greta's had a nice apartment on the Upper East Side. Her prestigious position paid well, and even if she wasn't able to be around her son Clancy as much as she'd like, she at least could send him to the best schools and take good care of him. Clancy Himmelfarb was a very nice little boy who happened to be the son and heir to the Prince of Darkness, Satan himself, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. He and Greta were great hosts, and after a nice dinner of salad, pasta and some good wine for the adults, he helped his mother clean up and entertained us all by having his little dogs do some tricks.
"He gonna be rolling over, honey?" Ophelia asked, as Clancy led out his pet.
"Rufus kind of rolls over all the time, to have his belly rubbed," Clancy explained, smiling at the small white dog with brown ears. "He does it so much, that it's not really a trick for him."
Maeve smiled as she raised a glass of pale white wine. "Sounds like every man I know," she said.
Greta shot Maeve a look that could make her wine go sour. "Not in front of Clancy, please."
"What?" Clancy asked. "Why not in front of me?"
"Let's just see the tricks, Clancy," I said, leaning forward in my chair. "Rufus isn't really an ordinary puppy dog, is he?"
Clancy held up a strip of turkey for Rufus. The dog sat down and breathed out a long plume of solid red flame from his little black nose. Clancy stepped back as the rush of flame, growing like some strange crimson plant, reached up to the ceiling before extinguishing in a pillar of smoke.
"Um, good boy," Clancy said, and let Rufus have the treat. "He's not, Aunt Dorcus. He's a hellhound, but he's still really nice." He knelt down, and Rufus clambered into his arms, licking his face just like any other kind of example of man's best friend.
"Speaking of nice guys," Maeve said, turning to Ophelia. "You found any fine young lads with a thing for your Voodoo lately, dear?"
"Not quite." Ophelia was very overweight, her cheeks bulging like a frog and marked with several warts. Her hair was tangled and puffy, and she wore a rumpled white wrap and so many necklaces, bracelets and bangles that she clinked when she walked. "I miss New Orleans, sometimes, and even the swamp after the moralists drove me out of the city. People didn't mind if you was black like me, and not so pretty. They cared about what was inside."
"I think you're very pretty, Aunt Ophelia," Clancy said, sitting next to her.
Greta smiled at her son. "Ophelia's looking for someone a little older, kiddo." She looked back at Ophelia. "You ought to play the field a little more. You know, take the initiative. You can't expect the perfect man to just come waltzing in through the door and stand before you."
After she said that, a gunshot rang out and her door was kicked open. The gunshot blared out into Greta's quiet well ordered apartment, and she screamed and grabbed her son. The door swung open, crashing against the wall as someone stepped inside, a smoking sawed-off shotgun in one hand. Every horrible home invasion scenario I had ever seen on the news flashed through my brain in a whirlwind of fearful images as I stared at him.
He had unkempt pitch black hair going down past his ears, and a thick moustache that wrapped around his lips and joined a neat goatee. He wore a short leather jacket, dingy jeans and a black t-shirt featuring some kind of Napoleonic zombie on and 'Iron Maiden' in bold red letters. He had a bit of a gut, so the zombie seemed to be charging at you as he walked into the room.
"Hey," he said. "Name's Eddie Kimble. I'm called Big Eddie Kimble by a lot of the ladies, and I'll let you guess why." He pointed out his finger at us. "Okay, which one of you is Clancy?" There was no answer. "I don't got much time," he said. "He's in major danger, and I'm the only cat can get him out of it, you got that?"
"Um, I'm Clancy, Mr. Kimble," Clancy said, raising a hand tentatively. The poor kid was shaking and staring at the smoking sawed-off shotgun. While he talked, Greta stood up and walked to the kitchen counter.
Big Eddie Kimble didn't seem to notice. "Good to know, little man," he said. "Look, this is a whole 'come with me if you want to live' kind of deal, you dig? I suggest you ditch the hags and start making some tracks with me. We better—"
"Get away from my son!" Greta leapt at Big Eddie, swinging a rolling pin wildly. The pin cut through the air, striking into Big Eddie's head and sending him crumpling to the ground. Greta grabbed the sawed-off and pulled it away from him. She pulled back the rolling pin, about to bash him again. "You don't come into my house and try and take my son, you bastard!"
"Greta!" I ran over to her and grabbed her arm. "He seemed like he was trying to warn us about something! You don't have to kill him!"
"He was trying to take Clancy!" Greta shot back. "He's some Satanic screwball who wants to jumpstart the apocalypse with my boy!" She pointed to Big Eddie's chest, as the intruder rubbed his forehead and moaned. "Look at that shirt he's wearing! Some kind of zombie-freak cult he must be in!"
Maeve stood up and joined Greta. "That's just Iron Maiden. Leading stars in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal."
"Crazy babes…" Big Eddie said, slowly sitting up.
Ophelia walked over to his side and helped him up. She walked him to the couch and set him down. "I think you might have overreacted a little," she said. "He's being a little macho, and maybe he swaggers a bit, but I think he don't mean no harm. I knew plenty of Southern dandies like him, always looking for a duel, but still meaning well."
Greta wasn't buying it. "He comes into my house, waving a gun around and talking about my son. I don't give a good goddamn who he is. He threatens Clancy and I'll send him out in a freaking bodybag."
Clancy walked over to his mother. "Mommy," he said, his voice small. "Maybe we could just give him a chance to explain himself. Please?" His voice squeaked a little, and Greta wrapped an arm around his shoulder. She looked down at her boy and then gave a quick nod.
All of us looked down at Big Eddie. Ophelia had brought him some water, and he was sitting up. "Oh man," he said. "You hit like a mack truck, ma'am. Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, I'm gonna be feeling this tomorrow. I've gotten into fistfights with Bigfoot and they didn't hit so hard." He snorted. "Oh and don't go dissing Maiden, not if you know what's good for you." He sipped the water and nodded thanks to Ophelia. "And the little dude's right. I'm here to help, cause he's in some big trouble."
"What d-did I do?" Clancy asked. "Oh god. I'm sorry if I—"
"Not what you did, but what you're gonna do, Young Master Antichrist." Big Eddie shook his head. "They want to shut you down before you get the chance, and they wanted me along for the ride, the bastards. I told them where they could stick their holy crusade, so they tried to blow me up." He sighed. "They got tons of money, tons of followers willing to die for a shot at Heaven, and more bad stuff. Real big guns, if you feel me."
"Who the hell are you talking about?" I asked.
Big Eddie shook his head. "Not Hell, baby. Christians." He looked up at Clancy and then the wide window behind him. "Crap!" he shouted. "Get away from the window, kid! Get the hell down!"
Greta grabbed him and pulled the boy down. The glass became a spider web as a silent sniper cracked away at Clancy, nearly missing. Maeve and I stepped up to the window and looked down. A limousine was parked across from us on the darkened street, and we saw the barrel of a long rifle out of the window.
"By Dagda's horns…" Maeve looked back at Clancy, who was huddled in his mother's arm. Her eyes narrowed. I took a step back, knowing to keep my distance when this happened. "A mere child and they strike at him." She blinked and the limousine exploded. A fireball shot outwards from inside the car, rending steel and raising a cloud of red flame. Maeve turned away from the window, the flickering flames casting long shadows in the apartment. "We'd best leave," she said. "Kimble, you can explain on the way."
He stood up, pausing to grab his sawed-off. "Sounds good to me, ma'am," Big Eddie agreed, his macho bravado vanishing once he caught a glimpse of Maeve's true power. He stood up, still holding his head, and all of us grabbed our coats and hurried out of the apartment. Greta held her son's hand, and Rufus pattered after Clancy. The boy pushed his glasses up on his nose, trying his best to be brave. I hoped he wouldn't have to go through anything more.
Big Eddie started talking as we made our way down the darkened hall and to the elevator. Rufus's little claws pattered on the hardwood floors, and his eyes glowed cherry-red in the darkness. Clancy stayed near his mother, and she didn't take her eyes off of him. Maeve went in the front, one hand outstretched and ready for powerful spells. I stayed in the back, while Ophelia stood next to Big Eddie. He talked evenly as he reloaded his sawed-off.
"His name's Reverend Ray Rumple," he said. "He runs some experimental 'Confrontational Ministry' called the Swift Society of Angels, or the SSA. I told him that it's 'ass' spelled backwards and things went downhill from there. Like I said, he invited me over to his ministry in Georgia to ask for my help with a job."
"That's what you normally do, then?" Ophelia asked. "Hunt demons?"
"Demons, werewolves, vampires, zombies, re-animated nutcases with meat cleavers and bad attitudes – baby, I do them all. I'm a monster hunter, a grade-A ass-kicking, damsel-saving modern day knight errant with a soundtrack by Motorhead." He grinned at her. "Sound like a good job to you?"
Greta coughed, interrupting Eddie's attempted flirting. "So, why didn't you agree to the job?" she asked. "Killing the Antichrist sounds like something that would be right up your alley."
"That's were you're wrong, sister."We reached the elevator. Big Eddie stepped before Maeve and punched in the button for the lobby. We started going down. "I hunt monsters. I could never hurt a child. And they don't even understand how the whole Antichrist-thing works. They just see 'son of Lucifer' and reach for their guns."
The elevator dinged. We had reached the lobby. We all stepped out, Greta waving to the doorman as he let us into the dark street. It was getting to be close to the witching hour, and the streets were mostly empty. The skyscrapers were abloom with light, and only an occasional taxi rattled down the slick street. Maeve led us down the street and suddenly raised her hand.
She sniffed the air. "Hold on," she said, turning around. "This is just what they want – sending us out of the apartment and into the street. They're ready for us."
"What?" I asked. "Maeve, I don't see any witchfinders."
The voice came from my side. "Then maybe you ain't been looking, temptress." I turned around and saw a white-haired fellow with a red face in a black suit. He had a large crucifix draped across his Brooks Brother's tie, which looked like some 'bling' you'd see sported by a gang-banger with a Jesus fetish. More of his friends stepped out of the shadows, all wearing matching suits and packing a variety of assault rifles, combat shotguns, and other high-powered weaponry.
The Reverend Ray Rumple wiped a hand over his broad forehead. "And lo, though the agents of Satan stood before him, he did not fear! For he had the power of God on his side!" He smiled as he stepped back to his SSA army. "We hid ourselves from you, just as you are now hidden from the city. No one will help you, temptress." He had a broad southern accent, and was constantly licking his lips.
"Temptress?" I asked. I snapped my finger, wreathing my hands in dancing blue flame. "Look, Billy Sunday, how about you say a final prayer before I flambé you?"
Reverend Rumple folded his arms and smiled. "Black magic!" He nodded to his followers. "See? The mark of Satan!" He pointed to Clancy and Rufus. "And there is the spawn of the pit! The anathema of our heavenly father! Gaze at his godless face! See his godless…dog."
"Please, d-don't call Rufus names," Clancy said, his voice shaking. "And I don't want to fight God or, um, destroy the world. You don't have to hurt my mom or my friends. Please, there's no need for it."
"The Devil speaks with a forked tongue!" Rumple cried.
Maeve stepped forward. She glowered at Reverend Rumple and his friends. "Your self-righteous blathering's getting on my nerves, lad," she said. "If you know who young Clancy is, than I'll wager you know me. I'm Maeve Mac Roich, the Grove Mother! Beloved of the Earth Goddess and the Horned God, mistress of earth and keeper of the wild places!" Her voice boomed and the wind stirred on the empty, dark street. A few fallen leaves whipped around Maeve, forming a sparse cloak of living greenery. "Who amongst your sorry pack of scoundrels can stand against me?"
Rumple nodded. "We've got God on our side," he said. "And that ain't all."
A tall figure of smoky darkness stepped out from behind Reverend Rumple. His body was wispy, like he was a reflection cast on smoke. He wore a dark purple cloak and a broad-brimmed slouch hat, with a lacy collar. He had neat white hair covering his ears, a perfectly formed white beard, and pale eyes that glowed ice cold at Maeve. With his cape, and rapier, he looked like a dour version of one of the Three Musketeers. He pointed his sword at Maeve. I realized he was a ghost, an age old specter summoned up from the afterlife. He didn't look happy.
Maeve recognized him. "Sir Waldrop Worm," she said. "Witchfinder General of old England. How many sisters did you kill during the war of the Roundheads and the Cavaliers? How many more did you kill in my own precious home, when you led Cromwell's fanatics against the old ways?"
"Not enough," Sir Waldrop replied. He pointed his saber at Maeve. "But you were always the one who got away. No longer."
"You're naught but dust and bones, boy," Maeve said. The wind stirred around her, the dead leaves from the gutter forming two rotating columns of dull green around her hands. "I sent you screaming into Hell for the evil you brought in the name of God, and now you're back. Well, you can go and suck my warts, you bleeding bastard!"
She blasted out the leaves into Sir Waldrop, each piece of greenery crackling with emerald arcane energy. It blasted straight through his body, but Sir Waldrop wasn't stopped. He ran forward, swinging his ghostly sword to hack Maeve apart. She clapped her hands, sending out a rolling wave of green flame that tossed him back, but he still wasn't beaten. I didn't like it.
Ghosts shouldn't be that powerful, not enough to take on Maeve Mac Roich. Something must have been pulling Sir Waldrop's strings, a real heavy hitter in the supernatural world. But while I was thinking, Reverend Rumple pointed a finger at us and ordered his devoted thugs to open fire. "Purge the devil-worshippers!" he cried. "Earn your place in Heaven, boys! Kill them all and God will know his own!"
They opened fire, and Ophelia and I clasped hands and started turning back the bullets. We put up some high powered shields of living flame, which absorbed the bullets and kept on blazing. Greta held her son close, looking around in terror as gunfire and magic flames drained out everything else. Big Eddie opened fire with his sawed-off, blowing off the head of an SSA rifleman in a shower of brains and skull. Maeve and Sir Waldrop's ghost were still trading blows, his spectral sword against her nature sorcery. It seemed that they were evenly matched.
Reverend Rumple stepped back. "Enough of this crap!" He looked up to the skies and raised his hand. "Oh Galariel, most favored of the Heavenly Host, best of God's children and most beautiful of all – rain down your blessings on the faithful!"
"Boil my newts," I whispered. I turned to Ophelia and Big Eddie. "We gotta get out of here. If they've got Galariel—"
"Who?" Greta asked.
"Rogue angel, baby. If he's on their side, we may all be doomed. What say we spend the time doing something fun?" Big Eddie asked. He paused and smiled at her. "You know, you really are a mother I would like to f—"
A bolt of solid white lightning split the sky. The lightning bolt hung there, a strange jagged line that had cut through the dark air. The crease in reality twisted, sparks and smoke flying out like some low budget light show. I thought I heard a strain of trumpets, as a single red-rimmed eye peered out from the crack. It was Galariel all right. He was the one angel who had gone too far, taking his war against Hell beyond levels that God would sanction. He was immensely powerful, and if Reverend Ray Rumple and Sir Waldrop had him as back-up, our little coven wouldn't last long.
"Yeah!" Reverend Rumple laughed and clapped his hands. "What do you think, Sir Waldrop? We just let the angel here burn them right up with some holy flame?"
Sir Waldrop smiled. "Let me take them to my domain in the realm of the dead. There the witches and the spawn of the Devil will burn."
"Sounds good, old buddy." Rumple nodded to Galariel's eye. "You heard him! Power the old timer up and let him take them all!"
Maeve looked back at us. "Start running," she said. "Sir Waldrop's gonna take us to his part of the afterlife – his personal spirit dimension. It'll be bad, that's for certain, and he'll have all the witch-burning joys he can imagine." She pointed at Clancy. "Stay with him! Keep him safe!"
"Maeve!" I cried, as Sir Waldrop opened his coat. His chest was an open window into another world, the edges silvery and faint. I caught a glimpse of a lightning-streaked sky, a rain-swept village and countless nooses and hanging trees within. "He'll hurt you!"
"Nothing more than my sisters have endured," Maeve replied. "Now run!"
Galariel pumped energy into Sir Waldrop and a cold wind blasted into us, dragging us to the portal. Maeve let herself go, folding up her arms and wrapping her body with blazing green energy. If she was gonna be taken, I guess she wanted to at least give her nemesis's ghost some indigestion. I turned to run, grabbing Ophelia's hand. We started dashing for a nearby alley. Big Eddie ran with us.
Greta and Clancy hurried after us, Rufus scampering at their heels. Then Clancy tripped on the street. He fell onto the pavement, and started to be dragged back. "Oh crud!" he cried. He looked up at Greta and I saw them exchange a glance.
Greta grabbed Clancy's arm and pulled him up, then leapt for Sir Waldrop. "Take care of him!" she cried.
"Mommy!" Clancy shouted, as his mother followed Maeve into Sir Waldrop's private Hell. He would have followed her, but Big Eddie scooped him up and leapt into the alley. We ran for a while, hoping to lose the SSA and their angelic back-up in the maze of dumpsters and rats behind Greta's apartment building. Once we had gotten enough space, we slowed down a little.
"Don't worry, little man," Big Eddie said, setting the boy down. "We'll get her back."
"We have to." Clancy looked back in the alley. Rufus danced around his feet, growling excitedly. "We have to. She's in trouble because of me. You all are."
Big Eddie put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Hey," he said, and his voice was soft, not boisterous and bragging like it had been previously. "That's not true. You're a good kid, and you're only in trouble because of an accident of birth. A bunch of uptight jerkwads think you're a threat to the world, but that's not true. No matter all the crap that gets piled on you, you can still stick to your guns, listen to good people like your mother, and be a truly awesome dude."
"Y-you think so?" Clancy asked.
I heard some SSA footsteps coming down the alley.
Big Eddie looked up, grabbing his sawed-off. "I know so. After all, my parents were trailer park bums and look how cool I turned out," he said. "Okay, witch-women. How about you magic us up a way out of here? I'll go hold off the Retardation Army." He walked calmly into the alley, leveling his sawed-off as the SSA fanatics started charging in. Big Eddie cracked off two shots, blasting the legs off of a cultist. He tossed a grenade in after them, and the explosion rocked the alley and strained my ear, letting pieces of pavement patter to the ground.
I looked over at Ophelia as I raised my hands. I pointed at one of the doors, some back exit to a trendy café. "We'll use that as a focal point, okay?"
"Hmmm?" Ophelia asked, clearly a little distracted. "Oh, sure." She raised her hands and started weaving arcane symbols in the air. I did the same. I didn't really care where the spell took us, as long as it was safe and away from that alley. "So, what do you think of Big Eddie?" she asked, finishing her part of the enchantment.
I stepped forward, conjuring a key out of the living mist, and setting it in the lock. It was cold and wispy in my hand. "A macho jerk, but at least he's on our side." I looked back at Big Eddie. He was standing in the flames of the grenade's explosion, playing air guitar on his sawed-off and spinning around.
"But the way he talked with Clancy was so…nice." Ophelia smiled. "I think he's a good guy."
I opened the door, revealing a clean white hall. I didn't know where it was, but at least it wasn't here. "Okay, Clancy," I said, taking his hand and leading him through. "Just stick with Aunt Dorcus now." I called back to Big Eddie. "Come on if you're coming!" I cried. He reloaded his shotgun as he ran to me, Ophelia close behind. Once everyone was through, I moved to the shut the door.
Green Thomas suddenly poked his head out of my purse and looked up at me with nervous bulging eyes. "My lady," he asked. "It seems we are in grave danger indeed. Know that I will do whatever I can to aid you in your quest for safety against the intolerant—"
"Thanks," I said. "Just shut up for now." Then I slammed the door shut.
I joined my friends in the hall and looked back at the door. It was a men's room. I cautiously walked down the hall and looked around. We appeared to be in a restaurant, some fast food greasy spoon with a penchant for big plastic statues of their mascots leering at their customers. It was a Scratchy's, part of a chain devoted to clogging arteries the world round, with a bunch of forest animal mascots that seemed insane from their constant grins.
The paper-hat topped worker at the counter stared at us. "Oh," he said. "Didn't see you guys come in."
"People often don't," I said. I pulled aside one of the bright plastic chairs. "Mind if we sit and have a little coffee and food before you close down? We'll tip."
"Um. Sure." He disappeared into the back of the shop and started getting some food ready. I looked outside and saw that we were in Brooklyn somewhere, hopefully not too far from Manhattan. Then again, getting as far away from the crazy Christian kooks as possible sounded like a good idea.
Clancy sat down next to Ophelia, Rufus hopping into his lap. The dog licked his face and Clancy scratched his ears. The poor kid wasn't crying or anything. He was determined to get his mother back safe, and that was all there was too it.
Big Eddie sat down opposite them, leaning back and stretching his legs. "Well, that wasn't so bad," he said. He reached out and patted Rufus on the head. "I gotta say, you witchy babes really know how to rumble. I haven't seen a light show like that since I dropped acid at Ozzfest."
"It's a little different than that," I said. I felt a little bit of anger at Big Eddie Kimble. He had just wandered into our lives with his bravado and macho attitude, bringing tons of trouble with him. And now he lay back there, ordering some Scratchy's Chicken Scratch-sticks while two of our friends were trapped in some witch-hunter's netherworld. "What's it to you anyway?" I snapped, a little harsher than I meant. "Why do you even care about us?"
"I defend the innocent, sister. That's what I do."
"And why?" I wanted to know.
"Because it's right," Big Eddie replied. He shrugged. "There another reason I should know about?"
Ophelia smiled. "That's the kind of thinking you don't see much these days."
"I'm an old fashioned kind of guy. Everything's been crap since 1988 anyway." He shrugged. "But, hey, I take a licking and keep on kicking." His eyes fell on Clancy and his smile vanished. "Oh, man. Sorry, little dude. We're here chatting and you're still worried about your mom."
"Yes, Mr. Kimble," Clancy agreed. "And I'm also kind of worried about my…well, being the Antichrist. Am I really gonna cause the Apocalypse? Maybe it would be better if I let them capture me."
Big Eddie shook his head. "You got it all wrong, little man!" He slapped the table. "See, here's the thing – humans are all about choices. Evil vs. good. Wrong vs. right. Some freaking awful Nickleback crap vs. goddamn Van Halen." He paused and scratched his beard. "What I'm trying to say is that you can choose to use your Antichrist powers to bring about the End Times. Or not. It's all up to you."
"That's how it works?" I asked. "How do you know?" Truth be told, Kimble was right, as far as I knew.
"Speculation, a little experience on the demonic plane, that sort of thing." Big Eddie pointed back at Clancy. "So you've got power. But you know what Stan the Man and King Kirby say about that, little man – great responsibility comes along with it."
"Wow," Clancy whispered. "I just thought it came with Rufus." He patted his dog's back. Rufus rolled over, and Clancy gave his belly a quick rub. "Wait a minute," he said. "How did the angel guy know where I was? I never talk to strangers, but he seemed to know our address."
"Omniscience," Big Eddie explained. "From what I can gather, old Galarial's like an all-seeing eye. He can't manifest here on the mortal realm – and thank Christ for that – but he can put his big old peepers all over, and pump some power through, like to that Puritan puss-head back outside your house."
"Omniscience," I repeated. I looked outside just as a bolt of lightning cleaved through the sky. "He can find us here." The lightning remained, a living crack of burning energy cutting through the air. I looked around, trying to find something Galarial could pour his arcane power into. What Galarial chose surprised me.
The giant-sized statue of Snuffy Squirrel, one of Scratchy Bear's forest friends, came to life and swung its round gray tail at me like a war club. Ophelia grabbed my shoulder and pulled me down, letting the statue's tail swing over my head. I sent a blast of raw fire energy through the squirrel's chest, melting it to slag. I felt the heat radiating through my fingers, an almost comforting warmth.
"I'm not paying for that!" I cried, stepping on top of the table. I looked out at the sea of mascots. Every one of them, from Timmy Trout to Molly Moose, was alive, animated and hungry for blood. I started sending out jets of flame, though my energy was burning dangerously low. I felt tiredness in my arms and behind my eyes. I knew I couldn't keep this up for long. "Ophelia, got any ideas on a speedy exit?"
Big Eddie grabbed Clancy's arm and pulled him out of the way of Henry Hedgehog, stopping the boy from getting some long spines shoved in his chest. Eddie pulled out his sawed-off and unloaded both barrels into the Hedgehog's face, sending plastic flakes everywhere. "No need, baby. I'm a one man army and I'm ready for war!" He slammed the shotgun open and reached for two more shells.
But before Big Eddie could reload, Olly Owl swooped down and dragged his talons across his back. Big Eddie went down on the tiled floor, cursing and swearing as he tried to turn around and gun down the owl, which was now aiming a talon at the terrified Clancy. Before the claw could rend the boy's flesh, Rufus sent a torrent of living flame onto the mascot, sending it flying away and crashing through the window.
"Um, good dog," Clancy said, holding his hellhound close.
Ophelia was looking through the leather bags and pouches on her belt, peering through bits of mud, strange juices from crushed bugs and lizards, and odd potions that could change minds and bend the laws of physics. "Hold on, honey," she said, her fingers finally settling on one bag. "I've got just the thing."
"What?" Big Eddie asked. "Some Delta Blues classics? Maybe some gumbo?"
"Nah, Eddie." Ophelia tore one of the pouches from her belt. It was made of black velvet, tied with a red cord. "I'm calling on the shadow children of Damballah, and they're gonna help us out." She pulled the ribbon from the bag and held it up. A dozen long black shapes, living sinuous shadows bursting with strength and movement, wriggled out of the bag and flew into the ranks of Scratchy's Forest Friends.
These were the Shadow Serpents, children of Damballah, the Loa of Ancestors, and summoning them took some major power. Ophelia was such a kindly woman that I always forgot she could pack some real bad juju. The Shadow Serpents lashed out at the animated mascots, slithering through the air and smashing right through their bodies. Plaster and plastic sprayed out on the tiled floor in a constant rain. The Shadow Serpents opened their smoky mouths, sinking long red fangs into the mascots and causing them to slow, crack and shatter from within. Every one of the Forest Friends was destroyed or stopped, and we could make our escape.
Big Eddie ran next to Ophelia, as I stayed with Clancy and Rufus. "Oh, man!" Big Eddie cried, kicking open the door, and then holding it for me, Ophelia and Clancy. "That Voodoo that you do was tight! Those serpents were all 'pwaah!' and those fast food freaks were all 'blaaah!' and then exploded. It was truly awesome, my lady."
"It wasn't too much," Ophelia said, with a modest shrug. "I serve the Loas with both hands. They give me everything I need."
We walked down a darkened alley, with the black sky above us barely broken by the city's lights. It was getting very late, and poor Clancy leaned against me, fear for his mother keeping him awake. Big Eddie Kimble didn't seem to mind, and I figured he was the kind of guy who stayed up a lot.
"Yeah, but most of the Bokors I've run into like making zombies for evil, not for good. They're about as friendly as a scorpion, and nothing like you." Big Eddie paused. "You're really nice, and very sweet to Clancy and your friends. That's a rare thing in a witch."
"No so rare," I said. "As much as cretins like Reverend Rumple and Sir Waldrop Worm would have you believe."
Clancy looked up at me, eyes wide and frightened. "Why do they hate you anyway, Aunt Dorcus?" he asked. "You're so kind and good. It seems like most witches are like that, but they hate them."
I shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe they're jealous of our power. Maybe they don't like it when someone doesn't believe in the same things as them. Most likely, they've got tons of their own problems, and instead of focusing on them, they blame everything on the weird woman who knows some healing powers. They've always been losers like Sir Waldrop, trying to make a buck and get some influence off of blaming bad things on scapegoats."
"But they'll always be heroes, like Mr. Kimble, who will defend the innocent, right?" Clancy asked.
"I wouldn't exactly call Mr. Kimble a hero," I said, staring at the heavy metal monster hunter.
Ophelia shook her head. "Really?" she asked, reaching out and taking Big Eddie's hand. "I would."
"Whoa, baby," Big Eddie said. "You are moving a mile a minute. Not that I don't like the destination, if you dig my meaning…" He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "How about after this is over, I hang around the Big Apple and we can get to know each other a little better?"
Before Ophelia could answer, an engine's roar cut through the air like thunder. For a few seconds, I thought it was Galariel, but even his omniscience can't be used continuously. I looked up in the sky as a spotlight appeared on us, and realized that it was a helicopter. It was sleek modern attack chopper, doubtlessly bought by Reverend Rumple's substantial fortune from gullible donors, and was roaring down in our direction.
The lights from the helicopter's underside were blinding. A rifle cracked from the open door, kicking up pavement at my feet. "Step away from the Antichrist!" the loudspeaker roared. "Leave him to our divine judgment, or you will be purged!"
"A helicopter?" Big Eddie asked. "That's crap!" He raised his sawed-off. "This won't be more than a popgun to something like that! Goddamn televangelists and their crazy campaign drives!"
"Hold on." Ophelia whistled into the air. "I may have something that could help – the Loup Garou!"
"Step away from the Antichrist!" the helicopter's speaker repeated. "This is your final warning!"
"Screw you!" I shouted up, and then looked at Ophelia. If her plan didn't work, I doubted I had enough power to keep us safe from the bullets, and certainly not enough to smash through the helicopter and bring it down. "A Loup Garou?" I asked. "Those are werewolves, strictly ground-to-ground creatures. How will one of those help?"
Ophelia finished her whistle and smiled at me. "But how do they get around?" she asked.
I smiled. I had been around Ophelia enough to know some of the bayou spells she wielded. "Giant bats," I said. "The size of jet lines."
A great hurricane wind struck down on us, knocking Clancy to the ground and sending Rufus skittering across the street. The helicopter started spinning out of control, its rotors roaring madly. I managed to stay standing, craning my eyes into the starless dark, just in time to see something move.
Great leathery bat winds beat the air. Long claws reached out and grabbed the side of the helicopter, wrenching it from the sky like it was a metal bird. I couldn't see much of the great bat in the darkness, but I saw the glint of its giant eyes, brighter than stars, and then its wings were beating again and it was off, swooping up into the darkness. The helicopter was dragged after it, their weapons firing uselessly in all directions. Then it was gone.
Big Eddie helped up Clancy and patted his shoulder. "Hot damn!" he cried. "That was some good thinking, Ophelia. You are one righteous conjure-woman, if you don't mind me saying."
Clancy nodded. "Thank you, Aunt Ophelia." He held out his hands and Rufus came scampering back, no worse for wear. He wiped the dust from his blue jacket and ran a hand through his dark curly hair. "You know, I think we should stop running." His voice was small and it nearly cracked, but he was adamant. "We have to rescue Aunt Maeve and my mom. They can just send more angels and helicopters after us, until we stop running and start fighting back."
Big Eddie nodded. "The little dude's right, man. We gotta take the fight to them!" He pantomimed a punch at an imaginary opponent. "But I think it's gonna be pretty tough. For starters, we gotta go into Sir Waldrop's freaky spirit world. He'll have a lot of power there, and being in the netherworld means that Galarial himself can show up. We're no match for him and that's a fact."
I considered the problem. Galarial was a rogue angel, so he couldn't get much help from the Heavenly Host. I needed something as powerful as Galarial was, with a grudge against angels. I quickly realized that the answer had been in front of me the whole time. "Leave that winged jerk to me," I said, reaching into my purse. "I got just the guy to call."
"And what about Sir Waldrop?" Ophelia asked. "We are not match for a specter of his power." Then Ophelia smiled, as she had another idea. "So why not get some help from something that is, who already has a hatred against the witch-hunter?"
"I like the way you think," I said. I pulled out Green Thomas and looked him over. "My familiar here should be able to get the help we need."
"Hey, am I missing something?" Big Eddie asked. "We're talking about leading an assault on an angel in the afterlife! You guys have it all figured out?"
"Wow, nine-year-old me was right," I said. "Boys are stupid." I smiled at Big Eddie. "We should be able to summon up the help we need. We just have to keep Galarial, Waldrop and Rumple busy until the cavalry arrives."
Clancy looked from me to Ophelia. "Okay," he said, and it would be almost funny to see the little boy being so serious, if the situation was better. "I guess when Galarial finds us again, I'll just give up, and say that I'll trade myself for my mom. I'll ask to see her, and maybe then they'll take us to the afterlife. Then your friends can arrive." His voice was soft but strong. "And please, make sure it works. I don't want my mom to be in any more danger."
"I think it's got a good shot of working, honey," I told him. I looked down at Green Thomas and gave him very detailed instructions.
My familiar nodded at me, and he understood how desperate things were. "Very well, mistress," was his terse response. He leapt forward, using all of his power for a quick teleportation spell back to his apartment. He'd find all the materials he needed there, and since he had helped prepare countless spells, he knew where everything was.
Green Thomas vanished into the air, like he was leaping into a suspended pool and vanishing in the waters. After he was gone, I turned back to my friends. "Okay," I said. I stepped forward, yelling to the streets. "Oh Galarial?" I asked. "Are you there? Come on, you big, white winged prick!"
Thunder was the response to my words. It was loud enough to shake my bones and make my heart pound faster. Clancy shivered and I took his hand. Ophelia did the same, and Big Eddy stepped protectively before us. Rufus sat on his haunches, watching with a low growl as lightning tore through thy sky and remained. The seam in the dark air opened, and Galarial's red eye glared out.
I turned to Clancy. "Okay, honey," I said.
"I-I want to make a deal with Reverend Rumple and Mr. Worm!" Clancy called. "I'll let you guys have me, and do whatever you want. But I need my mom back!" His voice quaked, but he stayed strong. "Let me see her! Let me and my friends go into Mr. Worm's part of the netherworld, so we can see her!"
The eye was still for a long time. And then, with a horrible keening that made my brain boil in my skull, Galarial blinked. The seam increased, a portal appearing in the middle of New York. Winds howled like angry beasts, and my feet left the ground as I was pulled forward. None of us tried to fight us. We let ourselves be carried along, right into the afterlife.
The colors blurred around the edges of my vision. Wind tore at my face, making my eyes bulge and my teeth chatter. I felt like I was being tumbled around in a washing machine, or shot through a slide at a water-park. Cold air blasted into my face, nearly knocking me over. I didn't have the energy to look at Ophelia, Clancy, Big Eddie or Rufus, just focusing on staying in one piece and keeping it together. Before I knew it, my feet touched down on earth and I was still.
I looked at the gray ground and slowly stared at my surroundings. We were in a rickety wooden village, like something out of a Hammer Horror film. The dirt was gray as ash, and the cottages, shops and monolithic church all seemed empty. Torches blazed on the corner of every house, sending up greasy green plumes into the dark sky. Chains rattled in the windows, and empty iron cages swung from tall posts in every corner. It was a witchfinder's paradise, a haven of torture and death. Every step I took made me feel sick. In the center of the town, I spotted Sir Waldrop, Reverend Rumple and his prisoners.
Maeve Mac Roich and Greta Himmelfarb were tied up to large stakes, kindling lying thick at their feet. Sir Waldrop stood over them, a green torch blazing in a thin hand. Reverend Rumple was relaxing on a wooden stool, his surviving SSA thugs around him. Above them, gleaming white in the dark sky like something made out of sunlight, was Galarial. The angel was a revolving wheel of light, blinking red eyes looking out from the edges and six pairs of wings beat in irregular motions. Galarial could appear in all of his glory and power here, presenting a tough foe indeed.
"Mommy!" Clancy started to run to his mother, but I grabbed his shoulder. He looked plaintively at me and then remembered the plan. He gulped, but walked forward slowly. Big Eddie stayed near him, Rufus was at his side, and Ophelia and I were close behind. We headed down the empty village for the town square.
Sir Waldrop Worm pointed at us with his saber. "And so the sinners return to my Eden!" he cried. "Prepare to have the Lord's vengeance visited upon thee!"
"Spare me the sermons, buddy," I said. "We're here to make a deal – we hand over Clancy, and you give back Maeve and Greta." I was playing for time, hoping the reinforcements would get here before Galarial and Sir Waldrop just decided to butcher us all. I saw the panic on Greta's face and I gave her a long look, with a quick nod. She trusted me and knew I'd never hand Clancy over to these extremist kooks.
Greta played her part, straining at the steel chains that held her in place. "No! Not my boy! Please, Dorcus, don't do this!" It sounded real enough for Sir Waldrop and Reverend Rumple. I didn't think Greta needed to act very hard.
Clancy stepped forward. "No, mommy," he said. "I'm not worth it."
Reverend Rumple nodded. "Oh, I don't know about that, sonny. Matter of fact, why don't we just kill your mom, you, and your friends? Seems to me like that's just about the best course of action here. And there's no one to say otherwise." He nodded to Sir Waldrop. "Ain't that right, Witchfinder General?"
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!" Sir Waldrop cried. "And her companions in the darkness are doubly cursed for consorting with the devil!" Rumple's thugs stepped forward, covering us with their automatic weapons. Galarial glared down, the turning of his wheel-like body speeding up like a ceiling fan cranked to the max.
Big Eddie shook his head. "You pricks are dumb as Nu Metal fans, you know that?" He pointed at Rumple. "All of you intolerant religious idiots are living in the Stone Age. At least the Witchfinder knows that. You think you're actually gonna accomplish something by pissing off a bunch of people just because they're different?"
"We're gonna achieve your death, boy," Rumple said. He nodded to his men. "Kill them all."
They opened fire, and Ophelia and I raced to set up a shield and run for cover while Big Eddie fired back with his shotgun. He blasted down two of the Christian kooks, while we deflected their bullets. I felt the impact of each shot, sapping a little more of my energy. I didn't know how much longer I could keep it up. All it would take would be one to get through, and then I'd be finished.
Sir Waldrop moved to the stakes, holding back his torch. "Let the cleansing fires finish these heretics!" he cried, preparing to toss down his torch. Clancy broke cover and ran forward, Rufus flying at his heels. I tried to run after him, wincing as bullets whipping past the boy.
"No, no, no!" Clancy whispered to himself. "You won't hurt her! You won't!" He grabbed Rufus's tail and hurled him forward, just as I grabbed the boy's shoulder and pulled him back under my shield. A wave of bullets struck at us, and though I burned them back, we still ended up on the ashy ground.
I looked up to see Rufus flying over the piled wood, green fire dancing around him. He reached the two stakes and tore at them with his little teeth, his tail wagging furiously as he sought to free them. The fires danced closer to Maeve and Greta. Ophelia sent over a spurt of thick black swamp water, rising multi-colored steam and forcing the flames lower. The heat was tremendous, enough to make me sweat and my eyes water.
Then Maeve was freed. She flew out of the post, suspended in midair by her raw power. She tore away the chains binding Greta and hurled her back to us, then faced Sir Waldrop. "We've got business, sir!" she cried, a living vine rearing from under her sleeve. The greenery coiled like a muscle about to strike. "I'll kill you again and again if I have to!" Her long thorny vine crashed against his sword. I could feel the impact from where I lay on the ground. It raised a torrent of dust, and I coughed and turned away.
"Battle is joined, harlot!" Sir Waldrop cried. "And angels will guide my blade!" He looked back up at Galarial. The angel soared lower. My spirits fell. We wouldn't stand a second against Galarial in a fight. I could feel heat pulsing around him, ready to smash us all into nothingness.
Just as Galarial turned his eyes on Clancy, I caught a whiff of rotten eggs. I turned around as I smiled. Footsteps, many sounding like tentacles or hooves, were coming our way across the ash ground. I stood up and waved. "Balthigore!" I shouted. "Over here!"
Balthigore came charging into the town square, joined by a dozen of his demonic pals. Balthigore's frock coat and cravat were immaculate, his horns were long and curved, and he was grinning like he had just munched on a delicious meal. He waved at me, holding his pitchfork high. "Hi, girlfriend!" he called. "Just heard about your trouble with that lousy feathered freak." He pointed at Galarial.
The angel stared down at the pack of demons. Galarial was powerful, but Balthigore had gotten all his friends. Some were muscled bipedal bulls with red scales, steam flaring out of their bovine nostrils as they shook their horns. Others were balls of writhing tentacles and leering eyes, chattering like birdsong as they rolled forward. Many carried pitchforks or whips, the obsidian and volcanic weapons of the Pit.
"Thanks for the assist," I said. "And you don't have to pay rent, for the rest of the month!"
"I never pay rent anyway, sister!" Balthigore replied. He looked back at Galarial. "I remember this jerkwad and his Seraphim kicking me out of the Palace of Heavenly Delights, just because I had Lucifer's name on my mailing list. I beat up angels for free." He leapt up at Galarial, his demon buddies flying up after him. They pounced on Galarial, and the flying wheel tilted and careened wildly out of the sky. The scent of brimstone was strong in my nose, and Galarial shrank from view as he tried to fly away from the demonic horde.
Soon he was gone, and Sir Waldrop and his allies were alone. Sir Waldrop glared back at Maeve. "Satan may aid you!" he cried. "But your dark powers will not avail you! This is my world! My little section of the afterlife! I will best you here, no matter how many demons you summon."
I stepped forward. "Newsflash, smart guy – you're not the only who died. And those demons aren't the only ones I called up." I turned around as a cold wind rushed through the village, stirring clouds of ash and making the metal cages swing back and forth like rusty pendulums. "You made quite a lot of enemies in life, Sir Waldrop. I just invited them other."
The dark sky suddenly wasn't empty. We looked up and saw an army of witches in the sky, all dead and gone from the Burning Times and beyond. They rode on brooms, stoves, stones, bits of living flames, bones, batwings and the backs of their familiars. Their ragged dresses and cloaks flapped as they descended, and the marks of the rack, the noose, the torch, the pricking needle, and every other torture the witchfinders had used against us were on their skin.
Some of them had been killed by Sir Waldrop, but others had been murdered in Germany, in Spain, in America, in Africa or anywhere else intolerant religious ingrates had talked their way into positions of power. Some of them weren't even the ghosts of witches, but just women who were a little strange, a little different, and a little unlucky to incur the wrath of their peers. I had ordered Green Thomas to put out the call to all the ghosts, as well as asking for Balthigore's help, and tell them where to show up. And now they were here.
They came screaming down from the sky, swooping over Sir Waldrop and the SSA. They grabbed them up with gnarled hands and tossed them onto the blazing fire, cursing and howling in a thousand languages. Maeve got out of their way, nodding grimly as they tore at Waldrop's aged bones. The SSA soldiers opened fire at them, but their bullets were useless against the vengeful phantoms. I heard Sir Waldrop scream, a grating noise that made my teeth ache.
Maeve ran over to join us. "I'm getting a portal ready that should take us back to the land of living!" she cried. "Follow me!" She started running away from the town square, leaving the witches to deal with Sir Waldrop and his friends. We all followed, Greta staying close to her son, as Rufus joined them.
"Wait!" Reverend Rumple ran after us, holding out his hands. "I'm no Christian! I've cheated on my wife! With a man! While high on meth! And he was underage!" He turned to Big Eddie. "Please! Don't leave me here with those witches!"
Big Eddie swung his shotgun to face Rumple. "So, you're a sinner, after all, huh? Well, you know what they say – the Lord does work in mysterious ways." He fired, blasting off one of Rumple's legs. The priest fell to the ground, screaming as the swarm of witch ghosts descended on him and pulled him to the fire. Those poor women had a lot of frustration to work out, and I hoped they made Rumple and Sir Waldrop suffer as our kind had suffered, so many times down the years.
Maeve waved her hands, tearing the fabric of the afterlife apart and opening a portal back to New York. She waved us in, and we hurried through. Once more, the colors around me blurred and the winds between worlds battered my body.
When everything cleared, we were back in New York City, standing on the sidewalk outside of Greta's apartment. Clancy was held in his mother's arm and she kissed his cheek and rocked him back and forth. "My brave little boy," she said. "My brave, courageous little boy." The poor kid had seen some horrifying things tonight, but then again, as the Antichrist he was a little used to it, and he knew his mother, his dog and his friends would always be there to protect him.
"Thank you, mommy," Clancy said. Rufus leapt around them, and Clancy paused to pat the dog's head. "Let's go inside. I'm kind of tired." I felt the same way.
I looked over to Ophelia and Big Eddie. He was scratching his head and staring at her. "You've got some real bad mojo, sister," he said. "And I'm a badass ass-kicker. We should, like, hang out…or something…"
Ophelia nodded, handing him her card. "Give me a call," she said. "We'll have dinner sometime. I know just the place. They serve gumbo like you wouldn't believe. Most of the waiters are zombies, but the smell is bearable"
"Zombie waiters. That is so metal. Sounds awesome," Big Eddie agreed, as happy as a schoolboy. He turned over to me. "And Miss Oakshire, uh, I'm sorry about being kind of a jerk earlier. That's how I act sometime, you know?"
"I know," I said. He acted macho, but there was a good person inside. Funny how love can find you at any time, even in the form of a leather-jacket clad metalhead monster hunter. I was glad Ophelia had found someone that was good for her, even if he was so different. "But I don't mind so much."
We all headed back to our apartments and hotel rooms, anxious for some sleep.