This story contains graphic violence, adult language/situations, and the graphic depiction of a romantic/sexual relationship between two mature, adult women. Reader discretion is advised. No reproduction or duplication of this story, electronic or otherwise, is permitted without the express, written permission of the author.
It always came back at the witching hour.
Two a.m., Jo had always thought, was the real midnight of the soul; a time when all the dark chasms opened up, leaving you screaming and clawing for sanity, when most suicides and murders were committed, when you woke up in an ice cold sweat in wet tangled sheets and prayed for deliverance from your demons...
But Jo's demon was very real indeed.
As she scrambled, naked and bloody, to a corner of the tiny apartment, trying to lay hands on the gun she knew she'd left on the entertainment center, Jo thought crazily that if it hadn't been for Councilor Diggs, she wouldn't be in this mess. But then there was no time for thinking; with a shattering, crystalline noise, the demon stepped through the big mirror that hung on the wall, its flesh raw and wet-looking, enormous claws on both hands clicking as it scuttled towards the terrified woman with a leering grin on its half-finished face.
''Shit, shit, shit!'' Jo's trembling hands scrabbled on the shelf of the entertainment center where she thought she'd left her gun. Her left shoulder had been opened up by the demon's claws and a sheet of blood ran over her side and down her arm, dripping off her fingertips. The woman's platinum blonde hair was greasy with sweat and she tossed her head to get it out of her eyes.
As the demon moved closer, obviously savoring Jo's atavistic terror, her hand finally landed on the cold steel of her Beretta. Swinging around, she pointed directly at the demon's heart and fired, the sound of the shots roaring in her ears, nearly drowning out the pounding of her pulse, the stink of gunpowder filling the air.
The demon stopped in its tracks, a puzzled look on its face. Raising one clawed hand, it poked into one of the holes in its chest and pulled out a twisted bullet, then it tossed the spent ammo over its shoulder and continued its advance.
Jo fired again and again, despairingly. The gun had always stopped the demon before, driving it back into whatever corner of Hell it occupied when it wasn't playing with her like a cat plays with a helpless mouse. This time, for some reason, it wasn't working. With a shrill scream of rage that bubbled up from her gut and burst out of her mouth, Jo flung the gun at the demon's face and prepared to sell her life dearly.
With a bang, the door of her apartment burst open, fluorescent hall lights flooding the room with an eerie glow - and a silhouette on the threshold stepped boldly into the apartment, the door closing behind it unaided.
The demon whirled around with a snarl to deal with this new threat... and Jo's eyes widened when she saw the new woman who'd just moved into the apartment down the hall. Small, compactly built but muscular, with flaming orange hair the color of ripe tangerines. Jo's mind dredged up the woman's name even as she scrambled to get between the newcomer and the demon.
Reilly, Jo thought, her name's Evan Reilly, and then, Goddammit! What's she doing here, the crazy broad? She's gonna get killed!
Evan shook back her hair; it was long, hanging nearly to her knees and straight as bone. She was dressed in a ragged robe, and Jo noted with some detached corner of her mind that her neighbor wore fuzzy bunny slippers on her feet, the felt ears torn and drooping. The demon reached out its impossibly long arms towards Evan, and something happened that made Jo fall back in shock.
The air seemed to crackle as Evan raised one hand, palm out, towards the demon. Chanting something under her breath, she raised her other hand and pointed a black hilted knife at the creature. It squealed, voice rising up off the scale until Jo thought her eardrums would burst. She blinked; Evan's form seemed to flicker, from woman to something - wolf? - and back again. The demon hunched over and screamed again, black tongue extended and seeming darker against the yellowed ivory of its shark-like teeth.
Evan moved closer to the demon, still chanting, and a thin, electric-blue line shot out from the point of her knife, striking the demon squarely between the eyes. Dipping into the pocket of her robe, the woman flung a fistful of something into the demon's face and it staggered back. Its hellishly yellow eyes, diamond-pupiled like a goat's, glared at Evan in pure hatred, then with another scream, it leaped back into the mirror...
And was gone.
The silence was nearly deafening. Jo sank down to the floor, holding her wounded shoulder and panting. Evan briskly dusted her hand off on her robe, tucked the knife away, and looked down at Jo. ''What's a nice girl like you doin' consortin' with demons in the middle of the night?'' she asked in a voice that had a hint of Irish lilt in it.
Jo couldn't help it - she had to laugh. The entire situation suddenly struck her as absolutely hilarious, and she laughed until she cried, until she felt Evan's hands on her, lowering her to the floor.
She laughed until the darkness reached up and engulfed her in cool, blessed
"Sacred salt and St. John's wort,'' a voice said.
Jo opened her eyes a crack, squinting against the sunlight that streamed into the room. Evan sat on the floor beside her futon, both hands wrapped around a steaming mug. Jo sniffed; it wasn't coffee and she wrinkled her nose, suddenly craving caffeine.
Evan smiled slightly. She'd seen Jo in the hallway a few times. The other woman was tall, prone to wearing a worn leather jacket and ancient stringy jeans, with a baseball cap that hid her platinum blonde hair. Jo rarely smiled, mumbled hello, and went about her business in a slouch. Truly, until last night, Evan hadn't even considered that Jo might be involved in the occult - she just hadn't seemed the type.
''What,'' Jo croaked, trying to rise, then fell back again hissing through her teeth as the pain in her shoulder struck with a vengeance - but it seemed to be fading with each passing moment.
''Sacred salt and St. John's wort. I'll give you some if you wish. Demons have a mortal hatred for the stuff. But what in the name of Holy Brigit were you doin', raisin' a demon without a protective circle? Did you think you could control it that well? Woman, that was at least a member of the Fourth Circle and if it had gotten loose, the gods alone know what might have happened!''
''Shut up!'' Jo snarled; she was naked and feeling very vulnerable in front of this woman who, it suddenly came to her, had saved her life last night. Shit!
''I'm sorry,'' she continued in a softer tone, swallowing her resentment. Jo had always thought of herself as strong, needing nobody and nothing and it stung that this little orange-haired chick had pulled her out of the fire without breaking a sweat. ''Look, I didn't call it, okay? It just... came, that's all.''
Evan frowned. ''Demons don't just 'come', they have to be called. You don't have to use a ritual; all you have to do is open a door.''
Jo shifted on the futon. ''Yeah, so I'm attractive to hellspawn,'' she said sarcastically. ''The way my life's been lately that's the only attention I've gotten in months.''
''Hmph.'' Evan laid down her mug. ''Listen to me,'' she said seriously. ''This is no laughin' matter. Somehow, this demon's comin' through into this world from its own, and it clearly has some kind of attachment to you. Now, I can help you if you'll let me. If not...'' She shrugged. ''I'll just wait until it rips out your stubborn throat and then clean up the mess afterward. Your choice.'' Her eyes, the dark gray of stormy skies, stared into Jo's.
Jo shook her head, one hand going absently to her shoulder to scratch. The bulky bandage there prevented her from relieving that pesky itch. Itch? she thought. A second ago it hurt like hell. She peeled off the tape that held the bandage in place, tore off the packing and looked at her wound.
Four deep clawmarks had been there last night; Jo would have figured she'd be in the ER getting stitched. But the marks looked almost healed; the scabs were already loosening, which was why it itched so much. She stared at Evan, who smiled.
''I took the liberty of doin' a healin' on you,'' Evan said. ''I figured you not the type who'd be wantin' to answer a lot of question from nosy doctors.''
Even as Jo turned her eyes back to the clawmarks, the scabs fell off, leaving pink marks behind... which rapidly turned to the silver of months-old scars. ''I-I-I...,'' she stammered, then gulped and looked back at Evan.
The orange-haired woman relieved Jo of the bloodstained bandage and tossed it into the trash can by the futon. ''Small enough work,'' she said lightly. ''After demon banishin', I can always use somethin' positive to work on.''
''It's gone? Banished?'' Jo asked, wondering just who the hell this Reilly woman was.
''Only temporarily, I'm afraid,'' Evan replied. ''It'll be back, no doubt. Here; sip this tea and tell me how it came about that you're bein' stalked by one of the Morningstar's kinfolk.''
Jo drank the tea, nose wrinkling at the taste, and abruptly came to a decision. She'd trust this woman; after all, she'd saved her life in more ways than one...
But only so much, Jo thought. Only so far. I'm not gonna get hurt again. But I owe her, and a Tate always pays her debts.
Taking a deep breath and settling back on the pillows, Jo began her story.
"About two months ago, I took this job for a big hoo-ha on the City Council,'' Jo said. At Evan's puzzled expression, she explained, ''I do odd jobs, mostly. Bodyguarding, bounty hunting, skip tracing, some private investigation... whatever gets thrown my way. Anyway, Diggs wanted to hire me 'cause I've got a rep for taking on the strange cases - like two years ago, with the arsonist poltergeist that turned the Steinway manor into a pile of ash, that kinda stuff?''
Evan nodded, and Jo continued, ''Dunno how come I fell into this crap. It just kinda happened. So there Diggs is, holding out this wad of cash that woulda choked a mule, and I couldn't resist. I ain't exactly a legit operator; skirt just this side of the law most times, so I take what I can get.
''His boy, Alex, had been having some problems. He was twelve going on forty, so it was the usual benign poltergeist stuff - objects flying around the room, shaking bed, occasional levitation. I figured it was the old puberty angst angle and would settle itself out in a few weeks. It usually does. My job was just to keep the family calm until it passed. But then... things got more, well, sinister.
''First, the family cat was found strangled and impaled on the lightning rod on the roof of the house. Then, Mrs. Diggs was pushed down the stairs when she coulda swore she was alone, and got her leg broke. Then Alex started acting strange, speaking in tongues and getting violent. Diggs called me one night, saying I should haul ass, big bad mojo was going down. So I went.''
Jo stopped speaking as she remembered that night. It had been storming, the wind whipping the trees into a branch-lashing frenzy, and it was bitterly cold. By the time she'd gotten to the Councilor's house, riding through the freezing rain in her leaky and grumbly Chrysler P.O.S., she'd been chilled to the bone and shivering.
She shook herself out of her trance and continued, ''The house was dark; the electricity had been turned off. I grabbed a flashlight and started looking around. First one I found was Diggs; he was in his den, neck broke. His head had been twisted almost all the way around.
''The Mrs. was in the kitchen; there was blood everywhere - painted on the walls, splashed on the ceiling. She had so many sharp objects stuck in her in her that when the M.E.'s assistants carried her body out, it rattled like castanets. Anyway, I went looking for the boy. By this time, I figured it was some kind of psycho murderer, serial killer maybe. Didn't recognize the M.O., but then again, I ain't exactly on the cop's sweetheart list and don't have access to VICAP so I didn't know for sure.
''Alex was in his room. Pajamas covered in blood. And his eyes, oh God, his eyes!'' Jo shuddered. ''They were yellow, like that demon's, and they glowed. He had shreds of flesh in his teeth and he was growling like some kinda dog or something. I was packing my Beretta, but I swear, I never even thought about drawing it. I was paralyzed; I just couldn't wrap my mind around what was happening.''
Evan laid a comforting hand on Jo's shoulder. ''You couldn't have known the boy was courtin' possession,'' she said softly. ''Your gun wouldn't have been effective anyway, not against the demon. You might have killed the flesh, but the demon could still have animated it.''
Jo said bitterly, ''Whatever,'' and pulled away from Evan's touch. Swallowing, she continued, ''I don't really remember what happened after that. When the cops arrived - the next door neighbor had called 'em 'cause of the screams they heard - the boy was dead. According to the coroner's report, it was natural causes; his heart just stopped. They found Alex's fingerprints on the weapons used to kill Mrs. Diggs, and the boy's prints were on Diggs' neck, so I wasn't a suspect. They let me go.''
''And when did the demon start visitin' you?,'' Evan asked.
''About two weeks later. It comes at the same time, but not every night. At first, it just stared at me from that damned mirror; then, it came out and started stalking me. I shot it a few times and it went away. But last night, it kept coming, just reached out and took a chunk outta me. I thought I was a dead woman until you showed up.''
Evan nodded. ''And you don't remember what happened that night? Why Alex died? Or how?''
''I told ya, I don't remember!'' Jo snarled, suddenly suppressing the urge to smash her fist into the wall. ''I tried getting rid of that mirror. Hauled it to the dump one afternoon. Damned if I didn't get home and there it was, back on the wall! I tried smashing it, but whatever I use just bounces off like bullets offa Superman's hide! I tried giving it away, but it keeps coming back! Jesus Christ!'' She turned her face into the pillow and bit her lip, trying to stop the angry tears that threatened.
Evan looked at Jo, her hand reaching out... then stopped. ''Listen to me, Jo,'' she said. ''I'll help you. You're not alone... not anymore.''
Jo snuffled, her face still turned away. ''Who gives a shit anyway?,'' she asked. ''I ain't nobody important. You just go back to your own life, Ms. Sticking-Her-Nose-Where-It-Don't-Belong. I'll be okay.''
Evan flushed angrily. ''Oh, really?,'' she retorted. ''Were you okay last night? If you're that demon's focus and it kills you, it'll be free to do whatever it wants in this world. And that's not acceptable. So, you're goin' to take my help, you stubborn bitch, whether you want it or not!''
Although angered, Jo inwardly admired Evan's spirit. She's got fire, I'll give her that, the blonde woman thought.
''Just who the hell are you, anyway?'' Jo asked, scrubbing at her face with her hand.
Evan smiled, a startlingly sweet smile that gave her the look of a slightly wicked fairy. ''I'm Eoibhan Reille,'' she replied, and even Jo heard the slight difference in the way she pronounced her name. ''And I'm here to help you.''
Jo couldn't deny the sincerity of those words, or the feeling of warmth and goodwill she got from the other woman. Under other circumstances, Jo thought absently, I'd probably ask her out on a date. She quickly dismissed that thought. She didn't even know if Evan was gay. ''Okay... s'pose I accept this help you're offering; how much is it gonna cost me?''
Evan reached out and smoothed a lock of platinum hair from Jo's brow. ''Only your friendship, colleen. And only if you're willin'.''
Jo nodded; if this women could help... No, she thought. I don't want to go there. Not now - maybe not ever.
''All right. Throw me a pair of jeans and a shirt, then tell me what we gotta do,'' Jo said, sitting up and tossing off the sheets.
Evan watched Jo get dressed; the other woman's skin was as pale as her own, though marked by old scars and the traceries of ancient injuries. She was skinny but well muscled, like a gymnast or dancer, with small breasts and a narrow waist, barely enough hip to keep from being boy-shaped. But there was one other thing...
On her right rear shoulder had been tattooed a dragon in flamboyant crimson and blue, fiery yellow and vivid emerald. It stood rampant, imperial five-claws extended, forked tongue lashing and wings outspread. Its tail coiled up and then down, snaking around Jo's upper right arm in three coils that ended with a multi-colored barb just above her elbow. Evan was impressed.
''Beautiful,'' she breathed, reaching out one hand unconsciously to touch the tattoo. Jo twisted away and pulled a worn tank top over her head, then ran both hands through her shoulder-length platinum hair until it stood up in a quiff on top.
''Yeah, got it in Hong Kong,'' Jo said, standing up and tugging on a pair of jeans whose knees were non-existent. ''Was over there about six years ago, tracking this deadbeat importer who skipped out on his partners.''
What Jo didn't tell Evan was that the importer had been a naga, one of the half-human snake-folk... and a supplier of first-rate heroin, shipped onto the island for import into the U.S. via his business. She'd confronted him in a warehouse on the waterfront and nearly died that night when he'd summoned his clan to help him. Ruefully, Jo examined the silver marks on one arm where she'd been struck several times by venomous fangs; fortunately, she'd loaded herself up on anti-venom before the incident but had still been ill for weeks after.
Evan merely nodded, sensing this was not the time for questions, then rose. ''First, I need to see about some kind of protection for you,'' she said. ''I'll just be runnin' to my apartment for a minute and throw on some clothes of my own and grab a few things.''
For the first time, Jo looked at Evan... really looked at her. She still wore her worn robe, but it was stained and spotted with blood all down the front, and the bunnies on her slippers seemed more bedraggled than ever. ''Um... I'll give you the money for a new robe if you want,'' she said lamely.
''Oh, no,'' Evan replied airily. ''I just wear this around the house. Be right back,'' and with hardly any noise at all, let herself out of the apartment and closed the door behind her.
Jo wandered through the living room, noting that at some point in the night, Evan had cleaned up. No more fast food wrappers heaped on the floor; no months-old pizza boxes stacked up in the corners. The window had been thrown wide open, allowing the first fresh air in months to sweep away the stale, fusty stench that had permeated the place before.
Even the tiny kitchen was spotless. Jo sniffed herself, then wrinkled her nose. Maybe I'd better take a shower, she thought. Passing by the mirror on the way to the bathroom, Jo realized that the silvery surface of the cursed object was completely covered in tiny, rusty red symbols. Rubbing her shoulder, she muttered an oath under her breath and went to take her shower.
When Evan returned, letting herself in without knocking, she was wearing a pair of black Lycra leggings and a big white T-shirt that had been cut off at midriff in a ragged seam. Her wild orange hair was twisted back in a simple braid that hung down to mid-thigh, revealing the half-dozen tiny gold rings she wore in each ear.
She fingered the small bandage she wore on one wrist; she'd cut herself with her antheme, the sacred knife made by her own hands, to get the blood she'd used to paint the symbols of disallowance and denial on the mirror. She shuddered as she passed the object; so many dark waves of evil emanated from that mirror that she had no doubt it was an open door to the very pit of Hell.
Evan plopped the leather case she'd brought down on the rickety wooden coffee table and sat down cross-legged on the couch, wishing she'd brought a cigarette with her. She rarely smoked these days, but sometimes craved nicotine's calming effect.
Jo is a troubled soul, she thought, listening to the running water. Truth to tell, I'm powerful attracted to her at first glance.. but I'd better watch my step. That one's been hurt, no doubt of that, and like as not sure to be skittish as a unbroken colt. She smiled to herself, recalling the other woman's stubbornness. Aye, I've rarely seen such a strong will in this lifetime, nor any other; but will she be able to accept me for what I am, even if we're no more than friends?
Evan screwed up her face, recalling other times, other places, when she'd trusted friends or lovers with her secrets... and been betrayed. Sometimes out of malice, but most times out of fear. But I must help this one, she thought, fiddling with a stray wisp of bright orange hair. Something draws me to her... some instinct. Over the years, I've learned to trust my gut when it comes to things like this.
Jo came out of the bathroom, enveloped in a cloud of steam. She'd put back on the tank top and jeans, but her hair was slicked back, wet and clean, and she certainly smelled better than she had. As she settled beside Evan on the couch, Evan sniffed and was rewarded by the scent of crisp herbs and spice. ''You smell nice,'' Evan said with a smile.
''Uh, thanks,'' Jo replied, a bit nervous. She got back up again and scrubbed her hands on the back of her jeans. ''You want a beer or something?'' she asked, moving to the kitchen.
''No, thank you.''
Jo grabbed a can of Coors from the refrigerator, popped the top, and took a long swallow. The shower had helped clear her head, but now she was dealing with other problems. Like her libido. Down, girl! she thought to herself. Jesus, you just met the woman and you're ready to play pat-fanny-squeeze-titty with her already!
She went back into the living room and sat down again. The couch was so small she was forced to sit close to Evan, barely a palm's length away.
Evan reached for the leather case and opened it up, folding down the sides. Within were various phials and bottles, each one strapped to the interior. She removed three, then with a frown, took out a fourth. ''Now then, first thing I'll do is put up some protections around you. Close your eyes.''
Jo started to ask why, then shut her mouth and did as she was told. No sense in arguing with the woman every time she turns around, she admonished herself. Either you trust her, Tate, or you don't - you pays your money, you takes your choice, and you sticks with it! She ignored the growing sense of nagging doubt and forced herself to be calm.
Evan uncorked one phial and put a bit of oil on her fingertips, then anointed Jo's eyelids, murmuring under her breath the Rann of Othersight. It would allow the other woman to see what she was doing, see the fields of magical energy Evan would be weaving into a protective ward.
''All right. Open your eyes again.''
Jo did, then swallowed a shriek and screwed them closed again. ''What the hell?''
''It's all right, colleen. You're just seein' what's there all the time, only now your eyes are opened to it.''
Cautiously, Jo opened her eyes again. Evan was surrounded by a snaky, twisting brilliance of purest blue-white; her own hands glowed with dull yellow, red and blue, but there was a narrow streak of black that pulsed and shimmered, interlocked with the other colors.
Evan put one hand on Jo's leg. ''See the black? T'is the demon's hook into you. This is how he comes back, Jo. You're his focus, his foothold in this world.''
''Get rid of it!'' Jo bit her lip to keep from screaming; she suddenly had the overwhelming urge to climb back into the shower and scrub and scrub until her flesh came off in strings... and another urge to get up and run, run as fast as she could away from this woman and her... magic?
''I will, I will,'' Evan soothed. ''But first things first. Turn around and lean back against me.''
Jo closed her eyes and shifted on the sofa, suppressing a sigh as she felt the softness of Evan's breasts pressed against her back. Warm, strong arms came around and held her tight, and even as she flinched, the need to throw off the other woman's touch strong, Evan breathed in her ear, ''Open your eyes and watch.''
Jo did. Evan's hands were in front of her, every finger flashing with rings, nails cut sensibly short and unpolished. She was... God, she's braiding the light! Jo watched, holding her breath, utter fascination overwhelming everything else as Evan weaved and twisted strands of her own blue-white aura into and around Jo's, building a shield that would provide a measure of protection against psychic attack from the demon.
As the interlocking weave of light surrounded her, Jo took a deep breath, suddenly feeling better than she had in weeks, and the urge to get away from Evan fluttered and died.
She'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be fully well and alert; her senses had been dulled down, only pain and fear spiking to peaks whenever the demon appeared. Evan's voice with its musical lilt chanted words that Jo didn't understand, but somehow knew had to do with the magic. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Jo said to herself, and relaxed for the first time in a long time.
And within Hell, a demon snarled in frustrated fury, its hold on Jo weakened
by Evan's magic. But in a moment, realizing the binding was still there,
if no longer as strong as it had been, the demon stopped sending thoughts
and feelings of mistrust and fear along the link... and stroked its chin
with its clawed fingers, deep in thought.
After she finished the Rann of Withy-Work, Evan was tired. She'd nearly depleted her stores of personal energy, and in a big city, there were scant ley lines to draw upon. She hoped the shield she'd woven would be enough to protect Jo from an attack until she could do some research, raise more magic and complete a permanent banishment ritual.
She was mildly surprised that Jo had relaxed so much when she'd been to tense before; the other woman leaned against her, eyes half-closed, a small smile on her face. When the shield was finished, Jo sighed and squirmed a little, obviously snuggling closer. Evan's lips curved in a tiny smile of her own; she knew Jo must be feeling much better, now that the demon's influence had been lessened.
Evan placed the flat of one palm on Jo's forehead and whispered a Blessing, then said, ''Now turn around and face me.''
With a sigh, Jo obeyed, loathe to give up the sudden, sheer comfort of feeling the other woman's closeness. She sat cross-legged facing Evan, their knees touching.
''I'm goin' to paint some symbols on your face, hands and feet, as well as over your heart, kidneys and navel. You won't see them; they'll be invisible to normal sight, but they'll help ward off evil influences and assist in purifyin' you.'' Evan pulled a small clay dish out of the leather case, and quickly mixed some of the contents of the other three phials, putting all the glass containers back into their slots when she was finished.
Taking a tiny paintbrush out of the case, she swirled it through the clear fluid. Jo asked curiously, ''What's in that?'' as Evan, a frown of concentration on her face, began painting lines of symbols on Jo's forehead.
''Lady's Mantle, rue and rosemary oils, plus a bit of garlic, believe it or not.''
''T'isn't supposed to.'' Evan continued painting, then said, ''Now don't move your face and don't talk! I'll be through here in a moment.''
Quickly, Evan finished Jo's face and moved to her hands and feet, including palms and soles; when the liquid dried, it was invisible as promised. Jo wrinkled her face experimentally but she couldn't feel anything different.
To her eyes, however - ow upon row of delicate glyphs marched in ruler straight rows across her skin, glowing with a faint blue light. She held up one of her finished hands to admire it. ''You know,'' Jo said, ''When all this is over with, I wish you'd write me down some of this stuff. I think I'd like to get it tattooed into an armband.''
Evan chuckled. ''Might not be a bad idea, considerin' your choice of career.'' She stopped and took a deep breath; although the expenditure of magical energy was small, just enough to activate the symbols, it was, on top of everything else, nearly exhausting. I won't be good for much after this, she thought ruefully. Maybe enough to put protections on the threshold and window, but that's goin' to be it for a while.
''So where are you from?'' Jo asked a bit awkwardly as Evan pulled up her shirt and began painting something on the skin over her heart, small wisps of her hair brushing Jo's breasts.
''I was born in Ireland,'' Evan replied, applying broad yet precise strokes; this symbol, and the rest, would be much larger and the work would go more quickly. ''But I've lived in America for... a long time.''
''I figured. I mean, you don't hardly have an accent or anything. Just a little one. It's kinda cute.'' Immediately, Jo could have slapped herself in the forehead. Aw, Jeez, Tate, g'wan and impress her by babbling like a fuckin' idiot, she thought.
But Evan didn't seem to mind. Finishing with the heart symbol (which Jo thought looked rather like an infinite series of snakes eating their infinite tails; the symbol was complex and nearly eyewatering), the orange-haired woman put down the brush and unzipped Jo's jeans, pulling them down a bit to expose her navel. ''Thank you,'' she said simply, picking up the brush again and ignoring Jo's indrawn breath and involuntary flinch. ''I've worked hard to fit in.''
Jo gulped. It had been a long time since she'd felt another woman's hands on her body. She tried to hold herself as still as possible, although the movements of the brush tickled a little.
Evan blew a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. ''So, tell me a bit about yourself, Jo. How'd you get involved in magical affairs? Most folks don't believe and if they see, deny.''
Jo let the breath she'd been holding escape her lips slowly. ''Um... ever since I was a kid, I could see things, you know? Like dead relatives and stuff. I never told nobody 'cause I figured they'd have me committed. Anyway, after mom died, it got worse. All the time I was Seeing, I mean, every time I turned around; walking to school, riding the bus, going to the store. I thought I was gonna go crazy 'cause I just couldn't get them outta my head - the voices, the whispers. For a while there I figured I was schitzo or something.
''After I graduated, I drifted a while, doing whatever - spent some time in construction as a laborer, even picked vegetables in Florida. Then I met this woman in Louisiana; she took one look at me and hauled my ass off to see her grandmomma.''
''Who was a voodoo priestess, I'll bet,'' Evan murmured, continuing her painting.
''Yeah. Big time mambo, lived in a swamp shack in Bayou Teche. Nothing but alligators and Spanish moss as far as the eye could see.'' Jo began to relax again. ''She waved a chicken at me and did some kinda ritual, and after that, things got better. For a while.''
Evan nodded. She'd met untrained psychics before. One of the reasons she'd wanted to get shields on Jo as soon as possible, even with her own depleted resources, was that the untrained but gifted were often targets for psychic predators. What the mambo had done had been a panacea; something intended to provide short-term relief by blinding Jo to the Otherside.
''Somewhere along the way, though, you learned some control?'' Evan pulled down Jo's shirt and motioned for her to turn around.
Jo shifted around with a grunt, then felt Evan's hands raise her shirt again. ''Um, yeah. Not like you can take lessons at your local community college.'' She bent forward at the pressure of Evan's hands, and soon felt the brush again. ''Anyway, I just kinda fell into it by accident. A friend of mine bought this house that turned out to be haunted. I went there to help. Next thing I know, I'm chasing friggin' ogres, or dealing with pissed-off spirits and shit. I read a lot; best thing my old man ever did for me was get me a library card.''
''You mean to tell me you've had no formal training? No training at all?'' Evan was so shocked she stopped her brushstrokes.
Craning her head around, Jo replied, ''What? Like I could just walk into my neighborhood coven and say, 'Excuse me, but I'm psychic and I have this little problem I'm hoping you can help me with.' I wish. I just try and keep up, that's all, do the best I can. I make a fairly decent living, enough to keep me in beer and pizza, anyhow. And pay the insurance on my piece of shit land-yacht.''
Evan didn't reply; she continued the scrolling design she was painting
on the other woman's back, and silently vowed to make sure she found a
good teacher for Jo before. If I have to leave, she corrected
herself, then shook her head and picked up more oil on her brush.
The symbols were finished. Jo whipped off her shirt and stood before a full-length mirror in a corner of her small apartment, admiring Evan's work. ''This is too cool!'' she said, twisting her head around to see the design painted low on her back, and another to cover the area where her heart would be. ''I gotta get copies of this stuff, Ev! Jeez, Bald Henry's gonna go apeshit when he sees this!''
Evan leaned back on the arm of the sofa, her mouth pinched. She was tired, so tired... ''Who's Bald Henry?'' she asked.
''My tattoo artist. He designed my dragon. I wanted this geisha chick on my back, but I think I'm gonna have him duplicate your drawings.''
Evan chuckled. ''That's a good idea. I'll have to show you how to activate them...'' She broke off, remembering she might not be around when Jo had the markings permanently engraved on her flesh.
''Um, Ev? How do I turn this off?'' Jo waved at her eyes. ''I mean, the lightshow's neat and all, but I think it'd be kind of a distraction while I was driving or something.''
Evan twisted her fingers in Jo's direction and muttered something, and Jo's normal eyesight returned. She looked back into the mirror and saw the symbols were no longer apparent. ''They're still there, right?''
''Yes.'' Evan licked her lips. ''Mind if I take you up on your beer offer now?''
''Shit! I mean, yeah, sure, hang on a sec.'' Jo carried her shirt in one hand and went to the refrigerator, grabbing a pair of bottles from the interior. Good old Sam Adams, she thought, returning and handing a bottle to Evan.
The orange-haired woman smiled slightly. ''Bottle opener?''
Jo grinned. ''No prob.'' She took the bottle back and twisted the cap off, bicep bulging. ''I used to pop 'em off with my teeth, but I hadda quit when this bottle slipped and snapped one of the front ones in half.'' At Evan's raised eyebrows, she shrugged and plopped back down on the sofa. ''Bar trick to impress the babes.''
Evan took a sip of beer. ''I'm goin' to have to go out for a while,'' she said, trying to focus on Jo's face and not her exposed breasts. ''I need to pick up some supplies.''
''Sure.'' Jo put her feet up on the coffee table, beer bottle swinging casually from one hand. ''Want me to give you a lift?''
''Thanks for the offer, but no.'' The last thing Evan wanted was for Jo to see her in her shiftself without any warning. ''I'm goin' outside the city a while. I'll be back before nightfall. In the meantime, I suggest you get somethin' to eat, maybe take a walk in the park or read a book, and relax. You've been on edge a long time.''
''Whadda I do if fuckface comes back?''
Evan grinned. ''Pray to the deity of your choice and run like hell. Here,'' she continued, tossing Jo the keys to her apartment. ''If the demon really does try again - and I don't think it will, at least for a while; I hurt it pretty badly - then get to my place as quick as you can. It's fully warded; nothin' short of a god is gettin' in there without an invitation.''
Jo snickered. ''Gee... it's not even our first date and already you're giving me the key to your apartment.''
Evan rose and walked to the front door. ''Just don't break anything.'' With that, she departed, closing the door behind her.
Jo sat there thoughtfully a moment, enjoying the first peace she'd known in weeks. You know, she mused, I have no idea why I opened up to Evan like that. I just met her, but already it seems like I've known her forever. I've never met anybody I've been so, well, comfortable with. Not in a long time.
Abruptly, she stood and pulled her shirt on, then donned a pair of scuffed and scarred boots. Crossing to the front door, she reached out and grabbed a worn leather jacket from a hook screwed into the wall, shrugging into it and patting one pocket to make sure she had her keys.
''What the hell,'' she said aloud. ''I'm as curious as the next girl.''
Jo left, intent on following Evan - no other thought in mind but to learn
what she could of the woman she already, if instinctively, considered
Evan didn't bother going back to her own apartment; she left the building and stepped directly into the cab that drew smoothly up to the curb. The driver was a small man and incredibly hairy; dirt-brown hair cascading over his forehead and beyond his shoulders, a thick beard buried his face almost up to the eyebrows.
His glittering brown eyes sought Evan's in the rearview mirror. ''The usual?'' he grunted. His voice was odd; husky and deep, yet at the same time carrying light musical undertones, almost as if an oboe and a flute were playing a duet. She nodded, leaning back against the cracked leather seat as the cab pulled away and headed down the street. The morning rush hour traffic had dissipated; they had fairly clear sailing all the way to her destination.
''How's Laurel?'' Evan asked after a while.
The driver grunted again. ''Okay,'' he replied shortly, then after a moment, ''Need help?''
''No, I don't think so, 'Restes. I'm goin' out for a run; I need to rest a bit and relax.'' Evan stared out of the window, barely noticing the click of the driver's hooves as he manipulated the brake and gas pedals. Orestes was a satyr; his incredible mop of hair concealed the two tiny horns that rose up from his forehead. He and Laurel, a dryad, had been together for centuries, long before the pre-cursor of this city had risen like a cancer from the woodlands that had been here before.
Most mortals don't know it, Evan mused, but many of their myths dwell among them. If imperfectly blended, the human mind has a great capacity for self-denial and self-deception. She knew ghouls who worked as funeral home directors or state pathologists; ogres and trolls employed as bouncers in nightclubs or as enforcers for organized crime; she'd even seen Astarte Herself working a highly successful string of call girls out of an exotic dancing club downtown called Babylon High.
And as for myself... I pass, I blend, and I'll keep on doin' it, too. I've no other choice.
In complete silence, the cab sped down the streets.
Jo followed the taxi cab at a discreet distance, weaving behind cars, careful to keep from being spotted. She didn't know how Evan had gotten a ride so quickly - no way she'd had time to call a cab company, fer Chrissake - but she chalked it up to yet another mystery to be solved.
The cab soon left the city behind, headed for the suburbs, then beyond to the large wooded area that had been designated a state park. Jo parked her car at a discreet distance and waited as Evan exited the cab, leaning over and speaking to the driver, who afterward drove his vehicle away, leaving the orange-haired woman standing at the gated entrance.
Evan went inside after paying the entrance fee; in a few moments, Jo followed, digging a couple of wrinkled and faded dollar bills out of the pocket of her jeans and being waved inside by a sour-faced attendant in a too-tight, food spotted uniform.
Evan walked briskly down the pine-needle strewn trail, seemingly having a destination in mind. Jo, baseball cap pulled down over her forehead, kept her in sight but was prepared to duck behind the nearest bush or whatever if Evan turned around.
She never did. After a bit, Evan turned off the trail, moving deeper into the woods; with a deep breath, Jo followed, wincing every time her feet crunched into last year's dead leaves.
When Evan reached a clearing surrounded by enormous trees, Jo crouched down, concealed in greenery, and prepared to watch. I got no clue as to what's going on here, she thought, but damned if I'm not as intrigued as hell.
Evan spread her arms out wide, nostrils flaring as she took deep breaths of the crisp forest air. Then she closed her eyes, reached down deep inside - and changed into her ShiftSelf.
Jo gasped as Evan's form melted, sort of... it was difficult to tell just exactly what was happening; her eyes didn't want to focus, kept sliding away from the blurred image, but in the space between one heartbeat and the next, Evan was gone and in her place stood an enormous wolf, easily twice the size of the normal North American kind.
The wolf's fur was the same brilliant orange as Evan's hair had been and its eyes the same stormy gray. A slightly stiff mane of hair stood up around the wolf's neck, and her tail was a tangerine plume that wagged once or twice before settling down.
Evan lifted her muzzle and sniffed, lips unconsciously drawing back to expose long, razor sharp fangs. Although her senses were keener than most humans when she wore skin, in her shiftself they were unbelievably sensitive. An elusive scent drifted on the slight breeze; her forehead wrinkled as she tried to place it.
Jo clamped down on the yell of surprise and shock that threatened to leap out of her chest and fought to stay still, her fingers digging into the dirt convulsively. Fuck me! she thought wildly. Evan's a goddamn werewolf!
Evan whirled around, facing the stand of greenery where Jo was concealed.
Her fangs were exposed and gleaming, a deep growl rumbled low in her chest
as she leaped, powerful muscles uncoiling with startling speed.
"Christ!'' Jo scrambled backwards, twigs snapping beneath her flailing arms as she tried to avoid the wolf's attack. But she lost her balance and fell, sprawled on her back in the dirt and as helpless as a child.
The wolf landed directly on top of Jo, straddling her, a pair of big paws on either side of Jo's head. Jo looked up... directly into a muzzle full of the sharpest, meanest looking teeth she'd ever seen in her life. Drawing a tiny breath, Jo whispered, ''help.''
Evan was furious, both at Jo and herself. Scathach's Tits! she thought blasphemously. Why now? And why didn't I sense her followin' me? She lowered her massive head and sniffed the terrified woman beneath her, checking for blood or pain scents; even angry, she wanted to make sure Jo hadn't suffered any damage from her fall.
Now what? Evan said to herself as Jo stayed frozen in place, barely breathing. I can't communicate with her, and I surely don't want to shift back into skin, not when I've gone to the trouble of donnin' fur. Damn the woman for her curiosity! She's as bad as Bluebeard's wives! I didn't want this, not now... maybe not ever.
Then an idea struck her. Jo was psychic, after all, if untrained.
Carefully, she reached out a probe, pushing it past the shields she'd fashioned around Jo, and mentally said, ::Can you hear me, colleen?::
Jo came close to leaping out of her skin when she heard the familiar voice inside her skull. Aloud, she said, ''Uh-huh,'' and nodded carefully, thinking, I left the fuckin' Beretta at the house like the world's biggest asshole. I gotta play along here. Maybe I'll survive this after all.
The ''voice'' chuckled. ::I can hear you, you know. And aye, you'll survive all right.:: The wolf's gray eyes held a glint of amusement. ::If I let you up, will you promise not to run?::
Jo nodded again, feeling her heart fluttering in her chest.
Evan backed away, then sat down, tongue lolling out of her muzzle in a wolfish laugh. ::I can catch you if you try to run:: she sent. ::Just calm down, Jo. I'm not a big bad wolf, and you're no Little Red Riding Hood, either.::
Jo sat up, her baseball cap lying forgotten where it lay after being knocked off by her fall. ''Um... so tell me something, uh, Evan...'' Abruptly, Jo felt anger welling up in a mighty wave; she felt humiliated, betrayed and really, really pissed. ''WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?'' she yelled. Echoes of her shout bounced through the forest, scaring every living thing in miles.
Evan winced. ::I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. What would you have liked me to have done? Said, oh, and by the way, I spend part of my life in a fur coat chasin' rabbits? Believe me, I intended to tell you... if I thought you could handle it.::
Jo panted, then with a convulsive heave got to her feet, dusting off the seat of her jeans. ''Goddammit, Ev! You scared the shit outta me! And whaddya mean with that crap, 'if I thought you could handle it?' I know we haven't known each other all that long, less than a friggin' day in fact, but didja really think I wouldn't find out eventually?''
Woman and wolf stared at one another, and it was the wolf who lowered her eyes first. ::My apologies:: she sent. ::I meant no insult. It's just that... well, most mortal folk who find out usually react in one of two ways. Half want to turn me into a circus exhibit; the other half start meltin' down the family silver to turn into bullets.::
Jo huffed. ''Honestly, Ev. You know what I do for a living. I've seen stranger shit go down. Christ! Give a woman a little warning next time; you scared five years offa me, I swear.''
::I'm sorry.:: The wolf looked as contrite as a being could whose face was covered in fur. ::Listen... I have some business to do here. Why don't you go back to your car and go home. I'll be a few hours yet, but I promise I'll explain when I return. All right?::
Jo thought a moment. ''All right,'' she said slowly, then pointed a finger at Evan. ''But I'm expecting an explanation the minute you walk in the door, okay? And it wouldn't hurt to pick up a pizza as a peace offering.''
Evan sighed. ::I will.:: She rose and shook herself, settling her flamboyant fur back into place. ::I'm truly sorry I frighted you, colleen.:: She trotted over to Jo, who flinched back a little but stood her ground. Carefully, Evan thrust her muzzle into Jo's hand and licked her fingers lightly. ::I'll see you before nightfall:: she sent, then nuzzling Jo's hand again, ghosted away into the forest.
Jo stood there, watching the she-wolf vanish. Her fingers still tingled from the rasp of Evan's tongue. ''What the hell am I thinking?'' she said aloud in exasperation, running a hand through her platinum blonde hair. ''Tate, the ASPCA would probably have you arrested, so just lock it down, babe. Besides... ain't she a bit hairy to be your type?''
Bending, she snatched her baseball cap up off the ground, jammed it back on her head, then turned around and tromped away, unaware that a pair of gray eyes watched, and a pair of sensitive ears listened.
Evan, back in her SkinShape, tapped on the door then let herself into Jo's apartment, a flat pizza box balanced on the palm of one hand. As promised, it was only dusk, a red giant sun sinking slowly behind the skyscrapers and radio towers.
''Um, Jo?'' she said, walking in hesitantly. ''I brought your pizza.''
''C'mon in, Lassie,'' came Jo's voice. Evan shut the door behind her and entered the apartment fully.
Jo was perched on the sofa, bare footed once again. ''Anchovies?'' she asked, uncoiling her long length from the faded and patched leather seat.
Evan wrinkled her nose and decided to ignore the Lassie remark. ''Ugh! Who eats hairy fish?''
Jo bit her lip but it was too good to pass up. ''I do,'' she said with a leer, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. ''On almost every friggin' date, in fact.''
For a moment, Evan was non-plussed, but the meaning behind Jo's remark finally dawned and she flushed. ''Oh, uh... okay. Sure,'' she mumbled, sliding the pizza box on the counter of the tiny kitchen.
''So, what do werewolves eat when they're to home?'' Jo asked, picking up the lid of the box and inhaling... Ah, she thought, cheese, sausage, pepperoni, onions, extra garlic, mushrooms and peppers - Paradise! I can feel my arteries clogging already.
Evan raised a brow. ''You know, you're takin' all this a bit too calmly, colleen. Are you sure you're all right?''
Jo lifted a steaming slice from the box, jiggling the strands of molten mozzarella until they either fell off or came with. Taking a big bite, she chewed and swallowed before answering. ''Well, I had some time to think it over while you were gone. The way I figure it is: if you really wanted to kill me, you coulda done it last night when I was passed out. Or you just coulda waited for the demon to do it for you. Now, don't get me wrong - I'm still not sure I'm okay with all this wolf business - but at least I'm not gonna freak out on you or nothing.'' She bit into the pizza again, managing to cram most of the rest of the slice in her mouth.
Evan smiled. Jo didn't know it, but the mental probe she'd sent was still in place and her surface thoughts resonated down the link. By Kernossus, Evan thought, she's tellin' the truth! Evan quickly terminated the psychic link from her end but left the strand in place; it would come in handy should Jo ever see her in her shiftself again, but she didn't want to frighten the other woman by reading her thoughts uninvited.
Jo munched her way happily through three more slices before emitting a contented belch. ''S'cuse me,'' she said without a trace of embarrassment, wiping her chin free of red sauce with a paper towel. ''My stomach thought my throat'd been cut. Now, lemme grab a beer and you can tell me all about how come it ain't no full moon and there you were in the forest doing your Rexette the Wonder Dog routine.''
Evan followed Jo out into the living room, electing to sit in a battered armchair instead of the sofa. Jo frowned slightly, but swigged her beer and didn't say anything. Shit, it's not like we're married or anything, she thought. In fact, we haven't even had a friggin' date yet! So let her sit where she wants, but her ass is gonna get sore after a while 'cause of that busted spring... hee hee hee...
''How do I begin?'' Evan said after a moment, then sighed. ''I think it best I show you somethin' first.''
Both of Jo's pale brows rose. ''Show me?'' she asked.
Without answering, Evan took off the shirt she wore and turned slightly in the chair, and Jo caught her breath.
Engraved on Evan's back and covering her from shoulders to waist was a tattoo in dark blue, but somehow so subtly shaded despite the single color that Jo could've sworn she was looking at a painting. Trees, a moon, snow. It appeared to be a landscape, but suddenly Jo's sight shifted, and she saw it was also a picture of a wolf, staring back at her with all the wisdom of the world in its eyes...
''Jeez! Where'd you get that done?'' Jo got up and crossed over to the chair, running one hand lightly down Evan's back, then twisting the other woman slightly so she would get a better look. ''That's gotta be the best work I've ever seen.'' Jo also noticed that Evan had another tattoo, also dark blue, on her upper right arm - this one a stylized circle with spirals that seemed flowerlike, yet at the same time reminded her of spearpoints. ''Got any more?''
Evan smiled. ''Yes,'' she replied shyly, then pulled her shirt back over her head, much to Jo's disappointment. In her tattoo-admiration frenzy, she'd not gotten a chance to really see the other woman's breasts. Oh, well, Jo thought, slouching back over to the couch and sitting down. Maybe next time.
As Jo took another swig of beer, Evan said, ''As to where I got them... they were placed on me during a ritual that took thirty days and thirty nights.'' She rubbed her suddenly sweaty palms on her leggings; this would be the hardest part. ''The woad's stood up pretty well, don't you think, considerin' it was done more than two thousand years ago.''
Beer spewed all over the coffee table as Jo choked.
"What the fuck?!''
Evan nodded. ''Aye, colleen. You're lookin' at a very old woman indeed.''
''Well, gawd, Ev, you hardly look a day over three hundred.'' Jo wiped her lips with the back of her hand and noticed her fingers were trembling slightly. She willed them to be still.
''I had scant choice in the matter. You see, Jo, when I was a young girl, my parents gave me over to the Druids for trainin'. I had the gifts, you see, both of magic and also the family blessing. One of my ancestors did a favor once for Lugh Light-Spear - one of the old gods - and was blessed for it by bein' gifted with the shiftself. It skips generations; as far as I know, bein' as how I've had no children and don't have any direct descendants, I'm the last of my clan to be so.'' Evan twisted a strand of bright orange hair around her finger absently.
''Ooooo-kay,'' Jo replied, sitting back again and staring at the other woman. ''And this explains your age... how?''
''T'was in the time when Gaius Julius Caesar thought to conquer Gaul. My people were just one of the many tribes who fought the Roman invasion; at the time, I was just finishin' my trainin' and was about to be initiated fully into the mysteries.''
Jo screwed her eyes up, probing her memory. ''Um... that woulda been around, what, 54, 53 B.C., something like that?''
Evan nodded. ''Yes, although the calendar we used reckoned the years somewhat differently. One of my Druid teachers, Uilliam, had a prophetic dream durin' my initiation ceremony.''
Evan remembered as if it was yesterday... The old man, his wattled and sagging skin marked by woad and splashed with the blood of the sacrifice, falling to the floor in ecstasy as the gods granted him a terrible vision. She sighed. ''He saw the comin' of the Christus, the crucified one who would supplant our gods. I was chosen to remain behind; to give up death and the hope of rebirth in order to preserve the knowledge and the magic for a time when the gates would be opened and the old gods returned from exile.''
''I see.'' Jo lifted the beer bottle to her lips, then put it down again when she realized it was empty. ''So you've been roaming around for two thousand friggin' years?''
''Close enough as to make no difference. I've lived in most parts of the world; fought on many battlefields, both mundane and otherwise. And I've learned from many different traditions; my approach to magic is somewhat eclectic, but I doubt my teachers would disapprove. Only... don't be mistaken, Jo. I'm not a werewolf, not as you believe them to be.''
''Uh-huh. So... wolfsbane cocktail ain't gonna work?''
For the first time since she'd sat down, Evan smiled. ''Afraid not. Nor will silver bullets. I'm not invulnerable; I can be hurt, even wounded mortally. But given a chance, I heal fast, as many an enemy has found to his disadvantage. Also, I'm not bound by the moon phases; I can change to my shiftself anytime I choose.''
''Assuming you're not loco, and I'm not hallucinating or stuck in a hospital somewhere with tubes up my nose... what now?''
Evan spread her hands. ''Up to you. I understand if you don't want to be friends with me; after this demon business is finished, I'll leave you be if you want. I warn you, though... I've no desire to end up in a zoo somewhere, or in a lab bein' vivisected for the sake of science. What I am is a secret and I prefer it remain such.''
Jo nodded her agreement. ''Sure, I can see why you'd feel that way. Hey, c'mon! I trusted you, right? You think I wanna end up in some Vegas act? Or worse yet, in a padded cell?'' She rubbed her nose, thinking furiously. Aw, what the hell, she thought, taking a deep breath and plunging in. ''I know we just kinda met, and under some pretty fuckin' weird circumstances... But I like you, Ev. Really. And I'd like the chance to get to know you better.''
Evan had studied human nature a long time... and to all her senses and innate instinct, Jo seemed sincere. ''I'd like to get to know you, as well,'' she replied.
Blue eyes gazed into stormy gray... and finally Jo heaved herself off the couch with a grunt. ''Wanna beer?'' she asked, loping into the kitchen.
''Sure,'' Evan called, rising and moving over to the couch to sit down again.
The demon whimpered softly, licking its wounds with a long, black tongue. The wolf-woman had hurt it, but not too badly; right now it was in pain, but would heal while wrapped in the supernatural fires of its home... Hell.
Eridu was a childe of Azrael, demon of corruption. As it lifted burning waters from a pool to soothe its face, its ''father'' - in the form of a dark, greasy cloud of roiling mist - drifted up.
''AND HAST THOU COMPLETED THY TASK, MY CHILDE?,'' Azrael asked. Its voice was changeable and changing; at the moment, it sounded like a woman racked by the throes of either orgasm or intense agony.
''The pale woman will be mine, Lord,'' Eridu hissed, bowing at the waist. ''As soon as I am well, I return to the mortal world.''
''BE WARNED, ERIDU. I DO NOT TOLERATE FAILURE.''
''This is known, Lord.'' Eridu bowed again, this time lower than before. ''I but toyed with the woman in past times; now I am in earnest and have given the matter much thought. In twice seven days will come the waning moon, when the dark powers are at their strongest. Then shall I strike.''
''GOOD.'' Azrael's voice had changed again; now it was the bellowing of a man gone insane. ''THE MORTAL IS POWERFUL AND HER LIFE HAS BEEN RECORDED BY OUR INCORRUPTIBLE COUSINS AS A FORCE FOR THE LIGHT. IT AMUSES ME TO SNATCH HER FROM THEIR GRASP AND CAUSE CHAOS IN THE UPPER REALM. THIS WILL BE A COUP FOR OUR DREAD EMPEROR; ANOTHER STRIKE AGAINST THE ONES ABOVE.''
Eridu shuddered at Azrael's mention of the Incorruptibles and the Ones Above; it knew its Lord referred to the Bright Servants of The-One-Who-Cannot-Be-Named. ''Yes, Lord,'' it said. Dark tears of blood drizzled down its cheeks as it said earnestly, ''I will not fail you. The woman's spirit and power will be yours and her flesh mine. I will wreak havoc on the mortal realm before I am finished, and there will be such a harvesting of souls that the Morningstar will be well pleased, indeed.''
Azrael's voice was that of a child who has slain its parents and laughs mockingly at the horror it has wrought. ''SEE THAT YOU DO NOT FAIL, ERIDU. OR IT WILL BE THY FLESH THAT IS DEVOURED BY THY BRETHREN, AND THY SPIRIT THAT FLEES HOWLING INTO THE ABYSS.'' With that, Azrael drifted away again.
Eridu shivered and clenched its hands into fists, ignoring the way its claws cut into the flesh of its palms. Oh, no, Lord, it vowed silently, I will not fail. Vengeance shall be mine.
It returned to its task, thinking all the while it sunk slowly into the pool of flames. I must be rid of the wolf-woman, it thought. She is the obstacle that stands between me and my goal... And after a while, an idea came... and Eridu showed its shark-like fangs in a purely evil grin.
A week passed, seven days of bliss as far as Jo was concerned. Evan had practically moved into her apartment, although so far she'd declined to share Jo's futon, preferring to sleep on the couch.
Yeah, Jo thought, we'll see how quick she gets tired of that old act. The platinum blonde woman was seated cross-legged on the floor, trying to meditate. Evan had begun tutoring her in both controlling and maintaining her psychic ability, and Jo was progressing in leaps and bounds.
It's almost like she's not really teaching me anything, Jo thought, all efforts at making her mind still and quiet a total failure so far. It's more like she's just helping me remember stuff.
Jo smiled to herself, the sun streaming in through the window creating a halo of light around her head. She'd been sleeping better, eating better... I never felt this friggin' good in my life. All because of Ev.
At that moment, Evan walked into the apartment, carrying a covered dish in both hands. ''Mornin'!'' she called, kicking the door closed behind her with one foot. ''I brought breakfast.''
Immediately, Jo uncoiled up from the floor. ''Yum!'' she said eagerly. ''What's on the menu?''
Evan went into the kitchen and put the dish down on the counter, then began grabbing plates and silverware. ''Huevos rancheros,'' she replied. ''I made the salsa yesterday.''
''You know,'' Jo said, taking off the lid and digging into the dish with a spoon, ''there are advantages to being five thousand years old. At least you know how to cook.''
Evan snorted, slapping napkins down on the counter. ''Hmph! More like two thousand years and well you know it. Hey! At least put it on your plate first, woman!''
Jo shoveled a spoonful of the delicious mess into her mouth and closed her eyes. ''Mmmm,'' she moaned. ''More... more!''
Smiling, Evan dished up a healthy serving to her starving friend and then served herself. Both women ate in silence, then Jo said, ''So tell me why we're still hanging around here while that's on the wall.'' She pointed her fork at the cursed mirror. ''You told me your apartment was bigger'n mine, anyway.''
Evan's hair was down this morning, and cascaded to the backs of her knees in a straight length of brilliant orange silk. ''I want to keep an eye on it, for one. And for another... the demon would be able to find you no matter where you were. The mirror's just a convenient access point; it would still be able to manifest in this world because you're its true focus, not the mirror.''
Jo grimaced and gulped from her coffee mug. ''We've been farting around for a week here, Ev. Not that I'm complaining, mind you.'' She grinned. ''Any luck on figuring out the origins of the hellspawn?''
''No.'' Evan had been spending a lot of time at the library, roaming the stacks and the Rare Books Department, hoping to figure out the demon's name and ranking. Such knowledge would be valuable ammunition in their fight. ''But I did find somebody today who might be able to help.''
''Yeah? Like who?''
''He's a man I've heard of, never met. You might know him... Bartholomew Long?''
''Shit! Bart Long? I thought that bastard was still over in England, adding to his precious hoard. When'd he get over his fear of flying?''
''He's in the States for a few weeks, attendin' estate auctions. If you know Bart, you know he'll stop at nothin' to add to his occult collection. At least, that's his reputation as I've heard it.''
''Yep. That's him all right. So where's he at now?''
''Stayin' at the Rosecrown Hotel downtown. Nothin' but the best for Mr. Long.''
It was Jo's turn to snort. ''Uh-huh. The best of everything, all right. He's got more money than God.'' She sipped her coffee again. ''When's the meeting?''
''In about an hour. He was reluctant enough to talk to me; I'm hopin' I can persuade him to let us take a look at some of his grimoires. Finish your breakfast, get dressed, and we'll go see what I can charm out of the fellow. I did ask him if I could do some research just in the books he brought with him - he always carries several dozen of his best pieces everywhere he goes - and the man was quite rude and refused unconditionally.'' Evan sighed. ''It's a long shot, I think, but our best one so far; I'll just have to see if he can be begged, bought or bribed.''
Jo thoughtfully ate another forkful of the eggs and salsa, then grinned. ''Oh, boy... ol' Bart's gonna be real surprised to see me. Dontcha worry, darlin'. When I'm through with him, Fat Boy Number One over there is gonna be crawling on hands and knees to let you do anything you like. You didn't tell him you were bringing me to the meeting, right?''
Evan shook her head. ''No, but...''
Jo whooped, slamming her fork down on her plate and making it rattle. ''Baby, you just leave everything to me! Damn, but I'm looking forward to this. Bart owes me one, and it's payback time.''
Even though Evan tried to press for details, Jo refused to explain.. but her anticipatory smile never faded.
Bartholomew Long was in his mid-fifties; balding, close to three hundred fifty pounds of sheer mass, with tiny piggy eyes that peered out at the world from beneath a shelf of fat on his forehead. When Jo walked into the lobby of the five-star Rosecrown Hotel, the big man almost swallowed his tongue.
''J-j-j-Georgia Tate!'' Bart managed to get out, face turning the purplish-red color of raw liver. ''What a... surprise.''
''Aw, can the crap, Bart,'' Jo retorted, standing beside the couch where Long sat. ''Me and my friend want to talk to you.'' She jerked her thumb at Evan, who glided up in her usual noiseless manner and smiled slightly.
''Good mornin', Bart,'' Evan said. ''Good to finally meet you.'' To Jo, she whispered, ''Georgia?''
Jo muttered back, ''I'm gonna kill that fat S.O.B. Can I help it if my mom had bad taste in names?'' She thrust her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket and spoke up. ''C'mon, Bart. You gotta room we can go to, someplace private?''
Long rose with the majestic grace only the truly obese can maintai and led the women to the elevator. ''My room is on the fifteenth floor,'' he said, struggling to regain his dignity and his calm. ''Er, Ms Tate...,'' Long said as they rose up floor by floor, ''If this is about that unfortunate cemetery incident...''
Jo flashed him a tight smile then turned to Evan. ''What Bart's getting at is the time he stuck me with this Haitian bocour - black magic dude - who owed him some money. Damned if Ti Cousin didn't have some zombies hanging around, waiting for the chance to corner me in a fuckin' graveyard and try to rip me to shreds. Hey, Bart... I ever show you the teethmarks I still got on my aching ass?''
The doors of the elevator slid open, and Jo continued talking as they followed the sweating man to his room. ''And the worst part of it was, Ev, not only did Mr. Long here not tell me I was dealing with a bocour, but he stiffed me for the bill! Not one penny did I see... and that was three years ago. Said he was dissatisfied with the service, of all things. Can you believe it?''
Long fumbled with the keycard, finally managing to shove it into the slot of the box that hung on the door. There was a click, and he opened the door and waddled inside, followed closely by Jo, who was still talking. ''Bart, I gotta real hard-on for you, bud. It wouldn't be lying to say I was something close to homicidally pissed.''
Evan closed the door behind them as Jo loomed in front of Bart, causing him to press his back against a wall fearfully. Jo was tall enough to look him in the eye, and the murderous expression on her face was almost enough to induce a heart attack in the fat man. ''I'm gonna do ya slow, Bart,'' she hissed. ''Slow and easy, peel ya back one layer at the time...''
Long licked his lips, eyes darting back and forth. ''Please!'' he half-shouted. ''Ms. Reilly! Call her off! I beg you!''
Evan crossed her arms over her chest. ''Are you goin' to pay Jo what you owe her?''
''Yes! Yes, I've got cash, I've got traveler's checks... Please! Don't let her hurt me!''
Evan put a hand on Jo's shoulder and squeezed. Jo responded by leaning forward slightly and pretending to sniff at Long's face, murmuring, ''Fee, fi, fo, fum... gonna see me the blood of an Englishmun...''
Long shrieked, ''I'll pay! I'll pay! With interest, if you want!''
''Good.'' Evan squeezed again and Jo backed off slightly. ''Now,'' Evan continued, ''I also want complete access to your travelin' collection.''
Long's chest rose up and down with the heaving of his breath. ''What collection?'' he asked, licking his lips.
Jo smacked him lightly on his rounded belly. ''Aw, jeez, Bart! The lady wants to check out those books and manuscripts you always carry with you. Got it, or do I have to get nasty? I can always take my payment by the pound... of flesh, that is. You got plenty to spare.''
Bart's lower lip pushed out as he considered. Evan Reilly he'd heard of vaguely, mostly whispers among other collectors about how she sometimes managed to get her hands on the most extraordinary items. Jo Tate was another matter. He regretted the day he'd ever let his accountant talk him into hiring the big blonde woman. ''Very well,'' he finally said, ''but they don't leave this room and I'm staying to supervise.''
Jo looked at Evan, who nodded. ''Fine,'' Jo said as she backed down completely. ''Now where's my money, you miserly son of a bitch?''
Long's hand scrabbled inside his suit jacket for his wallet while Evan
Driving back to their apartment building, Jo was still elated. ''Whoo! I got five grand in my pocket - in cash, thank you!; I finally paid back that cheese-paring bastard for dicking me over that Haitian deal; and I gotta beautiful woman sitting beside me, even if it is in this piece of crap Chrysler instead of a Jag.'' She grinned at Evan, who returned her smile.
The old land-yacht of a car rattled and grumped down the road, threatening at any second to either explode into pieces or just give up the ghost right then and there. Jo drove confidently, left hand on the wheel, steering expertly through the late afternoon traffic.
Casually, she stretched her right arm across the seat back, incidentally draping her hand over Evan's shoulder. Evan gave her a startled glance, but didn't protest or move away, so Jo relaxed. It was a beautiful day, she was feeling fat and happy, and there didn't seem anything that could possibly go wrong...
Suddenly Evan lunged across the seat, grabbing the steering wheel and wrenching it to one side, heedless of traffic. The Chrysler slewed across two lanes, but the black Mercedes that had been behind them seemed to gather itself and leap after the older vehicle, clipping a Volvo's fender in the process.
''What the fuck?'' Jo hollered, trying to take control of the wheel again, but Evan ignored the squealing of brakes, frantic horn blowing and shouts of irate drivers as she continued to guide the Chrysler in and around the traffic, seemingly driving by blind instinct. Holes that weren't there before miraculously opened up a heartbeat before the big car skidded into a lane.
Jo gritted her teeth and stood on the brake a split second before Evan choked, ''No!''
The Chrysler shuddered and shrieked, spinning out of control in a full 180 as it skewed across a lane; the driver of the Mercedes slammed into the rear of the car as it spun, causing the Chrysler to flip over the safety rail and plummet down the embankment, rolling over and over before finally coming to rest, upside down, at the bottom.
Sudden, shocking silence...
Evan coughed, tasting coppery blood in her mouth. She lay curled up on the roof of the car, the shattered windshield scant inches from her face. From the pain and the difficulty breathing, she knew broken ribs had pierced her lungs, and she lay quietly, panting and trying to stay still, as her body knitted itself back to its healthy state.
Suddenly, a breathy moan close to her made her scattered wits abruptly come together. Jo!
Evan rolled over, biting her lip against the sudden grinding in her side, and saw Jo. The platinum blonde woman's arm was broken, one end of the bone standing out through the sleeve of her blood-soaked leather jacket. Both her legs were twisted at impossible angles, and as Evan frantically laid her head against Jo's chest, her heartbeat stuttered... and stopped.
''Noooooooo!!'' The wavering howl was torn from Evan's constricted throat.
Jo's heart suddenly began beating again, but Evan, even as she felt the sweaty flush of relief, knew it wouldn't last. Probably internal injuries, bleeding... she couldn't work on Jo, not cramped up in the wreckage of the car.
She tried the driver's door; it was jammed tight. Turning back over, she tried her own door; it, too, was jammed. Clenching her teeth together, Evan pulled her legs back, knees almost flat against her chest, and screaming a high-pitched Celtic warcry, suddenly slammed both feet into the door with all her strength. With a metallic shriek, the door exploded from its hinges and flew for several yards before bouncing and skidding along the ground.
Grabbing the back of Jo's jacket collar, Evan backed out of the car, pulling the other woman with her. Her own injuries were almost fully healed, and Evan brought all her concentration to bear on her mortally wounded friend as soon as she'd gotten her clear of the wreckage.
She cast about mentally, seeking something... There! A tiny trickle of a ley line cut across from north to south. Combined with her own severely curtailed resources, it might be enough.
Evan knelt down by Jo's head and brought her hands above her head, palms out. Taking a deep breath, she began sonorously chanting the Seven Ranns of Healing and simultaneously tapped into the ley line, drawing on the small source of magic.
While she chanted and guided the magic, Evan used the mental link that still existed between herself and Jo to monitor her condition. Slowly, shattered bone drew itself back together again and fused; the ulnar bone sticking out of Jo's arm withdrew back beneath the skin to its proper place; internal organs, rent and split with the force of the woman's impact against the steering wheel, healed. Flesh drew back together and bruises paled. Time passed, it seemed to crawl, but in fact it was but a matter of some minutes before Jo, her face losing its blue tinge and flushing to healthy pink, began breathing easier and stirred.
''Ev?'' she croaked, blue eyes fluttering open to stare up at Evan's face. ''W-w-what...''
Evan continued the chant to its end, making sure blood clots in Jo's system were broken up into harmlessness and shunted away; for good measure, she used the very last little bit of the magic to repair the worn cartilage in Jo's knees and soothe away an incipient headache. Then she lowered her hands and stopped, her breath harsh and raspy.
''Uh, Ev?'' Jo sat up carefully, patting herself with both hands. ''Last thing I remember we were driving home... Oh shit! My car! We were in an accident, right? Christ, baby... you okay?''
Evan nodded. Her skin was the color of heavy cream and slicked with sweat. She'd so depleted even her own personal stores of energy that her body barely had the minimum required to keep her heart beating and her lungs drawing breath. She had none to spare to answer Jo's increasingly frantic questions. Even her orange hair seemed dulled and lifeless, coated with blood, oil and grease. Her upper torso swayed slightly and her pupils expanded as she struggled to remain conscious.
''Ev? C'mon, baby, talk to me!'' Jo lightly stroked one of Evan's hands. ''Talk to me, dammit!''
But Evan couldn't speak; her tongue was felt thick and clumsy in her
mouth, like an alien object she had no control over. Her gray eyes met
Jo's... and she gratefully surrendered to unconsciousness.
When Evan woke up, it was night, and the cool evening breeze that floated off the bay wafted through the window, bringing the smells of salt and waves and water and fish.
She came around slowly, first aware that she was on her back, being cradled against a chest, arms around her from behind, soft breathing in her ear. ''Jo?'' she murmured.
Jo's voice whispered, ''Uh-huh. How you feel?''
''Better,'' Evan rasped, licking dry lips. ''Drink?''
A cup was pressed to her lips, and the cool, clear water tasted better to Evan than any of the finest wines she'd ever sampled. ''Mmmm, good,'' she said, relaxing against Jo again.
''I had a helluva time convincing the cops you weren't D.O.A.,'' Jo said softly, putting the cup back down on the coffee table. She and Evan lay on her couch, a knitted afghan thrown over both of them. ''Then the paramedics arrived. By then, you were breathing more normally and your heartbeat was strong. I told 'em you fainted and they let me take you home. Both of us checked out, by the way.''
She chuckled. ''Damnedest thing they ever saw. Fire/Rescue guy took one look at that car, a second look at us, and told me I'd better hie down to the nearest church and start lighting candles, 'cause it was a miracle we survived, let alone without a scratch.''
Jo shifted slightly, but when Evan began to sit up, her arm tightened around the other woman and drew her back down. ''So Officer Friendly drove us home after taking my statement, which was nothing but a bunch of bushwah anyway. Some of the witnesses said we'd been hit from behind by a Mercedes, but - and you won't believe this - not one soul among 'em noticed the way you were weaving in and outta traffic like friggin' Mario Andretti.''
Evan sighed. ''The Mercedes?''
''That's another thing. The car was right where the driver left it... with a dead man behind the wheel. Apparently, we were hit by a corpse.''
''What?'' Evan squirmed around until she was on her side, still reclining against Jo, and she stared at the other woman. ''What did you say?''
Jo chuckled again. ''I said, the driver was a dead man. Literally. Bony fingers clutching the steering wheel, the whole nine yards. Best guess was he'd been dead several weeks. You shoulda seen the cops scratching their heads over that one.''
''Do they know who he was?''
''Yeah. Small-time drug dealer who hit the state lottery a coupla months ago. Jeffrey Bach, otherwise known on the street as Jazz. His mile long record didn't stop our chock-full-o-wisdom elected representatives from giving Jazz a check for a quarter-million bucks. He blew it all, partied hearty, and finally joined the choir eternal following an overdose. Guess what they found in his apartment?''
Evan closed her eyes, then opened them again. ''The same thing we found in Bart's book, right?''
''Bingo!'' Jo sounded enormously pleased. ''Besides the usual books on black magic, they found an amulet exactly like the one we read about - lead, inscribed with Azrael's symbol and his name. I figure Jazz musta cut a deal with the Corrupter.''
Evan nodded. ''Makes sense, especially since we figured out from The Book of Hidden Lies that the demon who's tryin' to kill you is Azrael's offspring, Eridu. I'm willin' to bet that somehow, Bach's body was reanimated, probably by an imp under Eridu's control, and sent to kill us.''
''Which reminds me,'' Jo said, ''just what the hell were you doing, grabbing the wheel like that?''
''I got... a warning. That's the only way I can explain it. If I hadn't, we'd have both been killed instantly. As it was, if you hadn't stepped on the brakes, we'd have probably been okay.''
''So it's my fault now, hmmmm? Well, if you'd bothered explaining to me that some imp from the nether regions was gunning for my Chrysler, I might not've panicked.''
Jo reached out a long arm and snagged a bottle of Harp ale from the coffee table and took a sip. ''That's okay, baby. I remember... I remember hearing you singing or something, and there was this terrible pain, I mean I just about died, and when I opened my eyes, you were there looking like hell. What was that about?''
Evan took a deep breath. ''You nearly did die, Jo.'' Her hand reached out to touch the other woman's face. ''Thank gods there was a ley line there, otherwise...''
Otherwise I'd have given, and kept on givin', pourin' myself into you until there was nothin' left, she continued silently. Until I gave it all entirely and died myself, making the last twenty centuries a mockery in the faces of my family, my clan, my faith.
Jo froze at the light touch on her face, then willed herself to start breathing again. ''Um... were you hurt too?''
Evan nodded. ''Aye. But I heal much more quickly than you do. I was never in any danger. It's just... well, usin' magic is just as hard, or harder, than most physical labor you can think of. It takes a lot out of you.''
Jo's eyes narrowed into blue slits. ''Something tells me I'm not hearing the entire truth, here, but I'll let it slide, Ev. Someday, though, I want the whole story. Deal?''
Evan withdrew her hand reluctantly. ''Deal.''
''Okay, so we know the name of the demon who's after my hide. We know who its sire is. Now what?''
Evan swallowed and sat up, resisting Jo's grasp. ''Now... we raise some magic. After that, I'll make a talisman to banish and bind Eridu and you'll be free of his influence for good.''
Jo, already missing the warm presence of Evan in her arms, sighed, ''What the hell, baby... I'll try anything once.''
Evan didn't reply, her gray eyes staring unfocused into the distance as she considered their next move... and not without misgivings.
"Tell me again why we're doing this?'' Jo's voice echoed hollowly off the tiled walls of the bathroom.
''It's partly for purification for the ritual, colleen.'' Evan scattered another handful of dried herbs and salt into the steaming water-filled tub. ''And partly because we both stink to high heaven!''
Ruefully, Jo glanced down at herself. In the rush to get Evan back home and safe, she'd completely forgotten she was still clad in her filthy T-shirt and jeans. Peeling off her shirt and wincing as dried blood stuck the fabric to her skin, she sat down on the toilet seat to pull off her boots.
They were in Evan's apartment; the orange-haired woman had deemed her place best for the ritual they were going to initiate. She'd so far refused to give Jo any details, just that it was the best and most efficient manner of raising a considerable amount of magic in the shortest time possible, barring human sacrifice - a concession that had made Jo shudder.
Jo glanced around the bathroom; it was easily the size of her entire apartment, and dominated by a whirlpool tub that could seat six without all of them having to be really good friends.
Evan's apartment had originally been two separate units; at some time in the past, one of the numerous companies that had managed the property had knocked down some walls, erected others, and rented it out as a luxury two-bedroom.
Jeez, I never saw so much stuff in my life! Jo thought. Evan's furniture was an eclectic mixture of antiques and modern pieces, all of it arranged with an artist's eye for balance, texture and color. Paintings that hung on the walls in gilded frames had familiar signatures - Gaugin, Renoir, Monet, Degas.
Whatever else, Jo said silently to herself, the chick's got money from somewhere. I guess a coupla thousand years of compound interest really adds up.
Removing her boots, Jo stood back up and shucked off her jeans, tossing them into a corner to join her shirt. ''I think I'm gonna burn mine,'' she said to Evan, nodding at the pile.
Evan flung her own once-blue shirt into the corner and wriggled out of her dirty and torn Lycra leggings. ''I couldn't agree with you more.''
Jo stood up, admiring Evan's form. The other woman was smaller but bulkier than herself, with a strong frame that supported an astonishing amount of muscle. Her breasts and hips were full, but only enough to lend feminine curves... and what curves, Jo thought, wiping her lips with the back of her hand.
Evan's breasts (And thank God there's only two of 'em!, Jo snickered to herself) were tipped by rosy nipples and swayed enticingly as she moved, bustling around the bathroom laying out towels, soap, shampoo. Finally finished, Evan stepped into the tub with a sigh and motioned Jo to join her.
For the next hour, they washed themselves and each other, Jo taking great pleasure in soaping up Evan's incredibly long hair and taking extraordinary care not to let it get hopelessly tangled. Finally, though, Evan stood and grabbed a towel. ''You can run clean water in and soak a bit if you want,'' she said, getting out of the tub and briskly rubbing herself dry. ''I've got some more preparations to do in the other room.''
Jo watched Evan's shapely buttocks as she exited the bathroom, then leaned back against the side of the tub with a sigh. First women I've been naked and close to in months, and all she thinks about is work, work, work!
Blowing out an exasperated breath, Jo heaved herself out of the tub and
grabbed her own towel.
Evan's stomach felt like it was inhabited by a thousand butterflies.
Why am I so nervous?, she thought, lighting another fat white candle and pulling the twisted iron stand into position. Not like I haven't done this before.
Ah, but before you weren't so attracted to the other, were you?, her inner self admonished. Before you weren't... in love.
Evan rolled her eyes. Kernossus! I've only known the woman for a week! How can I be in love? In lust, surely, for she's beautiful and brave and brightly souled - but love? I think not. Or, at least, I hope not.
Still, nagging doubts lingered as she finished her preparations for the ritual, rolling up a Klimt area rug to expose the wooden floor in the living room. Just as she completed the last finicky detail, Jo emerged from the bathroom and walked down the hall to the living room to join her.
''Okay,'' Jo said, eyeing the candlestands arranged pentacle fashion around the large drawing on the floor. ''Now do you think you can tell me what we're gonna do here?''
Evan moved to the center of the drawing, tossing down several large flat cushions, and replied, ''Come here and sit, colleen. I'll explain, I promise.''
When Jo settled down across from her, Evan continued, ''In order to combat Eridu, I need magic, which is in scarce supply here in the city. The amount I've used in the past week, includin' my reserves, has left me bone dry. Normally, I'd just accumulate it a bit at a time, but there's no time left. Eridu could come back at any minute, which is why I want to do this ritual. It'll raise a great deal of power and at little cost to us both.''
Jo raised an eyebrow. ''Do we have to wear little black hats and dance widdershins or something?''
''No.'' Evan clasped her hands loosely together. ''We have to have sex.''
Jo's other eyebrow shot nearly to her hairline. For a moment, she was speechless. ''Excuse me? I thought you just said we had to have sex.''
''I did.'' Evan smiled. ''Many cultures practiced sex magic, colleen. It won't hurt, I promise. And you'll leave the ritual with more energy than you came to it with.''
Jo thought about this for a moment. Okay, now, I admit I wanted to get her in bed, practically from the first minute she waltzed in the apartment door and cold-cocked that fuckin' demon. But...
The more she thought about it, the more Jo realized she didn't really mind the idea after all. In the past week, she'd gotten to know Evan well, better than many of her so-called friends. They'd gotten so close in such a short amount of time that when Jo thought about it rationally, it just didn't make sense. But she did know one thing - the feelings she had for the smaller woman were powerful ones.
''Okay.'' Jo shrugged. ''I got no problem.''
Now it was Evan's turn to raise her brows.
''Look, baby,'' Jo said, trying to relieve the tension with a little humor, ''Who am I to refuse a request from a drop-dead gorgeous carrot-top whose sitting stark-damn naked in front of me and practically begging to knock boots? A saint I ain't.''
Evan giggled, then sobered. ''Are you certain you want to go through with this? I can find someone else if you've doubts...''
Jo snorted. ''Don't you dare!'' She grinned and patted Evan's knee with one hand. ''B'sides, who you gonna call in the middle of the friggin' night? Sex Magic Partners R' Us?''
The candlelight lent a burnished gold sheen to Jo's skin, and despite the warmth of the apartment, her small nipples were erect. Evan sternly reminded herself that above all else, she must remain in control. Despite her assurances to Jo, if the ritual spun out of control, the results could be disastrous.
Jo ran a hand through her pale hair. ''So whadda I do?'' She was beginning to be a bit nervous... Shit! You'd think I'd have gotten over performance anxiety by now, she thought.
Evan smiled. ''I'll guide you. Just relax.''
Evan consecrated the circle.
For the first time, Jo noticed that the floor around them was covered in painted symbols and they sat in a clear space in the center. Some of the glyphs and drawings she recognized, some not. They were aligned in geometric precision along painted lines within an enormous circle.
Evan raised her arms above her head, this action making her breasts taut, and began chanting the Rann of Opening-The-Way.
The liquid cascade of language sounded beautiful to Jo, even if she didn't understand a single word. It was a bit like the Gaelic she'd heard spoken at this pub she'd been to, Harpwinds, but the words of this chant were somehow both more musical and more harsh, all at the same time.
Jo shifted to her Othersight, something Evan had taught her... and saw the pulsing, blue-white lines of magical energy spring up around them, forming a sort of geodesic dome that reminded her of a spider's web.
Evan shook back her brilliantly orange hair, ceasing her chant, and lowered her arms, holding her hands out in front of her, palms out towards Jo. At Evan's nod, Jo put her palms against the other woman's.
Immediately, she sucked in her breath as a small whirlwind of power swept through her, and her blue eyes half-closed as the magic left her open and receptive, tingling from her toes to the crown of her head.
Evan leaned forward and kissed Jo on the mouth, tongue sliding across her lips, then gliding in, wet and warm... Jo moaned in the back of her throat and laced her fingers through Evan's, pulling the other woman closer still as Evan's tongue explored her mouth.
Breaking off the kiss, Evan nibbled on Jo's lips, then along her jawline to her ear. Jo closed her eyes completely when Evan's tongue curled along the delicate curve of her ear, and Evan's teeth closed gently on her earlobe, pulling it into her mouth and sucking.
Jo pulled her hands away from Evan's, and she ran them across her lover's shoulders, feeling smooth muscle shift beneath her fingers. When Evan nudged her, pushing her over onto her back, Jo didn't even try to resist, spreading her legs wide to accomodate the other woman's body.
She felt boneless, surrounded by liquid warmth... Evan shifted her position so that she was straddling Jo, tangerine hair falling around their faces like a silken curtain. Jo ran her hands along Evan's back as she kissed her deeply, tongues fluttering, mouths melding into a delicious whole.
Evan shoved aside her own feelings of arousal. This was neither the time nor the place for such things, although she promised herself that if Jo was still willing after this, she'd welcome the blonde woman to her bed anytime... and that right happily.
''Now, colleen... let's unleash your dragon,'' Evan murmured against
Jo's lips, then kissed her again.
Jo lay on her back, eyes squeezed shut, body covered in sweat. Once again, Evan's skilled fingers and tongue were bringing her almost to the point of climax, something that had already happened so many times that Jo had lost count.
She couldn't think rationally anymore; her body responded to Evan like a musical instrument in the hands of a maestro. Jo tossed her head from side to side, her hands tangled in Evan's hair, hips rolling, pumping in waves. She groaned, ''Please...''
Evan felt Jo tightening on her fingers and stopped licking her, raising up her head slightly to assess her lover's condition with narrowed gray eyes. Jo was almost exhausted, sweating profusely, and at this point, it would barely take any effort at all to make her orgasm.
Evan withdrew her fingers and used her thumbs to pull apart the lips of Jo's vulva, blowing a cooling breath across the heated, slick flesh while Jo shuddered and nearly cried out, back arching to push her hips up, offering herself to Evan desperately.
After waiting a moment, Evan probed the lines of force that still surrounded them... the magical energies were pulsing wildly now, glowing hotter and hotter, brighter and brighter...
Bending her head, Evan slid her tongue back into Jo's sex, expertly laving her with long, slow laps. Jo pulled her hands out of Evan's hair and her back came completely off the cushions as she arched up with a loud moan, hands balled into fists, her entire being solely concentrated on the sensations that were bringing her closer and closer to the edge.
Evan used the flat of her tongue, sweeping up and down, taking her time, knowing from Jo's response that it would only take a touch... Judging her moment carefully, Evan placed a fingertip on Jo's rock-hard clit and touched her lightly, once.
With a guttural scream, Jo spasmed, on and on and on, delirious with sheer pleasure, hips banging up and down, shuddering and gasping, a fresh flood of sweat and musky fluid pouring off of her and out of her, soaking the already wet cushions... She felt lifted on wings of pure, blue-white flame, a mighty dragon uncoiling from her spine and soaring higher and higher, pulse pounding so hard she could barely breathe...
Evan watched as magical energy boiled off Jo, a roiling mass of the purest power she'd ever seen. It seemed endless, unstoppable, growing brighter and brighter until she had to squint or be blinded. And still it grew, a roaring, raging inferno that swirled faster and faster until like an arrow shot from a bow, the energy generated by Jo's orgasm flew into the waiting web of magic Evan had raised... and exploded.
The apartment seemed to rock, the building seemed to shake and Evan threw her arms around Jo's thighs and hung on. Jo screamed again as Evan's breasts came into contact with her now ultra-sensitive sex and she spasmed again, nearly throwing Evan off as her body twisted and shivered, another but smaller wave of magical energy rippling into the web.
Evan threw wide her defenses, abandoning her mental shields completely as she grabbed the lines of the web and strove to bring them under control. The magic resisted, bucking like a maddened mare, but Evan set her jaw and concentrated, slowly but surely taming the wild magic to her will, feeling it soaking into her, limning her very bones with power, until she felt giddy and light-headed.
Quickly, she manipulated the magic, shifting it into her reserves, filling those to the brim, then trickled some into the ring-amulets she wore on every finger, filling those as well. Then, Evan carefully insinuated some of the magic into Jo, massaging away her weariness and sore muscles, leaving her glowing with health and energy.
At last, she was done. Feeling a bit tired but still much, much better than she had, Evan collapsed the web with a flick of her will and gathered the remainder of the energy, calling it like a bird to her hand, and released it joyfully, scattering magic to the four winds like silver coins, a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the gods.
All was quiet and still once again, the silence broken only by the sound of Jo's deep, even breathing and Evan's sigh as she laid her head back down on Jo's flat belly and closed her eyes.
After a while, Jo chuckled and stretched a little, marveling at the way she still felt. It was as if all her life she'd stood outside, nose pressed against the glass, watching a feast being laid and never invited to the table... now she felt absolutely sated, top-filled to the brim and running over, the dragon at rest. Tired but it was a good tired, fulfilling and fulfilled. She stroked Evan's hair with one hand and gave a contented sigh of her own.
''Wow,'' she said softly, a wicked grin spreading over her face, ''Can we do it again? Huh? Can we?'' Jo sounded like a child who was begging for another ride on a roller coaster.
Evan's snort was muffled, and she smacked Jo's hip medium-hard while
the other woman giggled.
Over the next few days, Evan showed Jo how to increase her protective shields, strengthening them... how to ward her apartment with ''traps'' to catch supernatural intruders, ''alarms'' to warn her of dangers both mundane and otherwise, and how to both make and activate talismans and amulets against specific threats.
Jo's command of magic was growing stronger every day. Evan took her back to the park to show her ley lines, teaching her how to draw on them for energy, use her will to mold the magic to her purposes. The lines in the park were small, barely existing and nearly worthless for practical purposes, but it was good practice.
Jo was a good pupil, always willing to work, never complaining, had a near instinctive grasp for the work, and seemed quite content with her teacher.
It was the end of another week, and the two women were relaxing in Jo's tiny apartment. They'd taken to sleeping together, most often in Evan's enormous tapestried bed, but occasionally on Jo's futon. They hadn't had sex again yet, contented with touching and kissing, closeness and the comfort of one another's presence. Jo was slumped on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table, one arm around Evan's shoulders, her lover snuggled up against her. This felt so right, so true... For the first time in her life, Jo thought she might be falling in love, and, oddly enough, the prospect didn't terrify her as she once thought it would.
Maybe I'm growing up, she thought, looking at Evan's face. Of course, if somebody'd told me I'd fall for a two thousand year old Druid-wolf-witch-woman, I'd have sent 'em to the nearest nuthouse or called the white-coated boys with nets to come and get 'em.
Several times, mostly at Jo's request, Evan had gotten ''bitchy'' as Jo facetiously called it, donning her shiftself and allowing the other woman to get used to her wolf shape. Jo still couldn't get over it; dealing with the fact that Evan was a magic worker was easy - she'd dealt with magic before. The age difference was another hump Jo had gotten over fairly quickly - Evan certainly didn't act as if she were two millennia older, and Jo, after a bit of internal wrestling, finally decided to be casual about the whole thing and just accept it. But the wolf...
''It's not that I gotta problem with it per se,'' Jo had plaintively explained once, ''It's just that I keep expecting some dude from the ASPCA to show up every time I kiss you or something. Of course, if we made a porn video, there's guys I know who'd buy it in droves.'' Evan hadn't been amused at Jo's attempt at humor.
Jo buried her face in Evan's hair and inhaled contentedly. As always, Evan smelled of some faint, sweet musk that never failed to make her heart beat faster. ''Damn, you smell good,'' Jo murmured.
Evan smiled. ''My thanks, dearheart.'' Certainly, Jo can be more than a little crude sometimes, she thought, but those rough compliments of hers mean more to me than all a courtier's flowery words.
Evan tilted her face up and kissed Jo lightly on the lips, raising one hand up to cup the other woman's chin. ''Chinese?'' she asked.
''Sounds like a plan to me,'' Jo answered, reaching for the cordless phone that sat on the floor...
And that's when all hell broke loose.
After the failed attempt to use the dead drug addict to kill Jo and Evan, Eridu sat in a corner of Hell and brooded. True, that failure had cost it nothing more than a worthless imp under its control, but still... i did not like to be thwarted.
It realized it should have been more patient, waited until the time when its power would be at the peak before attacking, but trying to kill the women in a semi-mundane fashion had seemed an appealing idea.
Now Eridu sat and thought, warning away those of lesser rank with a snarl, and ignoring the mad wailing of souls in torment. Finally, however, it came to a decision.
The wolf-woman is strong, it thought. And I am no Lord of Hell to contest her so easily. But, where one might fail, many might succeed.
And so Eridu went about Hell, seeking its siblings and equals, from the ever-gibbering Eligon to the taciturn and melancholy Ophiel, falsely promising great rewards in Azrael's name and gathering several Third and Fourth Circle demons to its cause.
The demon host, some dozen in number, bewinged, befanged, beclawed, furred or feathered or scaled or a combination of bizarre in-betweens, met their general on the Plain of Division, gathering before the Wall of Octroi that separated Hell from Earth. Small chinks and the occasional gaping maw had opened in the wall before, created by human magicians or sometimes accidentally by unconscious mortal will - and every demon in Hell, from lowest to highest, knew the moment a breach occurred and scrambled to take advantage.
Eridu allowed a vast smile to stretch its lips, and strings of viscous drool slathered its chin. The mirror conduit in Jo's apartment was blocked by the wolf-woman's spell, but Eridu knew that with a concerted effort, the power of the Denial would be broken. It could return alone, using its binding on Jo as a way of getting through, but its brethren could not come. So... the Denial must go.
It raised its hands and with a howl, plunged all of its claws into the lines of force that covered the conduit, the breach in the wall; at the same time, it sent a staggering burst of demonic energy that struck Evan's spell-shield like a hammer.
The lines of the Denial shivered, then began to wilt and decay, turning
black as frost-seared rose petals and falling away, crisp bits of ash
floating through the sulfurous air. The conduit pulsed with dark energy
now, a rhythm like a dying man's heart, stuttering and irregular, and
Eridu howled once again in triumph, leaping through the breach, followed
by its brethren - and all of them ready for bloody war.
Jo jumped up as what seemed like hundreds of demons poured through the pulsating mirror, the air shivering with their unholy cries. In a heartbeat, she realized it was only a dozen or so. But one fuckin' dozen is twelve too many, she thought crazily.
Evan, too, was up and moving, twisting her fingers and shouting the Rann of Turning-Back-The-Enemy, blue-white magic sizzling into demonic flesh and causing wails of agony.
A nightmare of bloated, greasy flesh with multiple eyes flowed to Jo's side and huge hands reached for her. Ducking the demon's attack, Jo concentrated, forming an aura of force around her hand, then slammed her fist into the creature's stomach, sending it shrieking and tumbling back into another.
Evan gasped, ''The talisman! Jo, go for the talisman!'' as she blocked a winged gargoyle's attack and staggered back, her shirt ripped open down the front by the demon's three-clawed hand.
For a moment, Jo was torn, paralyzed by indecision. She didn't want to leave Evan alone, even for the short amount of time it would take to sprint to the other woman's apartment and grab the talisman Evan had constructed, a powerful artifact they'd planned to use in a ritual to seal Eridu back up in Hell. As she hesitated, another demon, its upper lip pierced by a copper arrow, feinted at her and she instinctively pulled back, thin narrow cuts opening up on one cheek.
''Jo! Get out of here NOW!'' Evan screamed even as she smashed a hastily created whirlwind of magic into the face of a grinning demon. ''GO!''
''Shit!'' Jo turned around and ran for the door.
As soon as she knew her lover was safe, Evan waited, panting, as the demons gathered around her, a snarling, growling horde.
Her lips stretched in a feral smile. Holding out a hand, Evan threw back her head and screamed a word that ripped from her throat, leaving behind a pain as if she'd swallowed jagged glass. As the echoes of that cry faded and nothing happened, Eridu licked its face with its black tongue and sidled towards her, claws clicking in anticipation.
There was an explosion of light, brilliant, eye-searing, centered around the woman, making the demons draw back, hissing and muttering. When the light faded, Evan was clad in silvery armor, blue lines of energy crackling across the metallic surface, and in her hand she held a sword whose blade was a smoking, white-hot flame.
''Now,'' she said hoarsely, clenching one gauntleted hand into a fist, ''Come and die, hellspawn!''
The demons howled in fury... and fell upon the woman as one.
Jo ran back down the hall towards her apartment, the precious talisman clutched tightly in one hand. Inscribed upon the tablet of incorruptible gold were Eridu's secret symbol and name, centered in a Double Seal of Solomon and surrounded by arcane glyphs. Used against the demon, the talisman would banish Eridu back to Hell, severing its ties in the mortal world - including its bond with Jo.
Her friggin' door wouldn't open. Jo wanted to scream and tear at her hair in frustration, but instead of continuing to wrench futility at the stubbornly closed door, she concentrated as Evan had taught her, feeling the power turning to her will, but slowly, too slowly. Frustration mounting, Jo yelled, ''FUCK!'' at the top of her lungs and just threw magic at the door, heedless of the consequences.
With a rending moan, the door shattered, exploding into splintered fragments and dust. Jo blinked once, and muttering, ''Goddammit, there goes the security deposit,'' leaped through the open doorway, shaking bits of disintegrated wood from her hair.
The first thing she saw as she entered the living room/battlefield was Evan, on her knees, bleeding. Her blue eyes widened, then narrowed in fury, taking in the paleness of Evan's face, the ruptured armor and broken sword that, even as she watched, faded into sparkling light, then vanished completely, leaving the wounded Evan helpless in her torn shirt and jeans.
Jo raised a hand, holding the talisman out for Eridu to see. ''Get away from her!'' she demanded.
Eridu showed its sharkish teeth in a complacent grin. ''See you, mortal,'' it said in a high-pitched voice like the squealing of nails on a chalkboard, making Jo shudder. ''The wolf-woman dies as you watch... unless we can come to an agreement.''
Jo's eyes flicked back and forth. A good half of the demons who'd joined the initial attack were dead, the apartment strewn with ghastly severed limbs and heads that were rapidly rotting, creating an unholy stench. Her stomach tightened and she suppressed a gag, thinking, At least Ev took some of 'em out... now what the fuck can I do about the rest?
Eridu moved closer to Evan and placed one hand against the pale column of her throat, claws dimpling the skin... a clear threat. ''Enter willingly into a pact with me and my Lord Azrael,'' it said, ''and the wolf-woman will go free.''
Desperately, Jo searched her mind for every scrap of demon lore she'd ever read and everything Evan had told her about these creatures... One thing she knew for sure - never, ever take a demon's word for anything. And even if you think you've got all the contingencies covered, think again. Demons were infamous for their Jesuitical skill in wriggling through loopholes, and Jo could think offhand of at least a half-dozen cases where the magician had experienced first hand, and to his/her detriment, the demonic reputation for cunning and lies.
''No!'' Evan choked, ignoring the claws digging into her flesh. ''Jo, don't do it!''
With its free hand, Eridu cuffed Evan across the head. ''Silence, witch!'' it hissed angrily, then its bright yellow eyes turned back to Jo. ''Decide, moral, or I kill the one you love and take her soul down with me into Hell.''
The one you love... those words struck Jo like a spear of light, illuminating every corner of her mind so suddenly that she caught her breath.
Yes, she finally admitted to herself, I love Evan. I love the way she smiles, the sound of her soft, slurring snores against my neck, the way she moves and the color of her hair and her smell and those gentle kisses that make my knees go weak. I love her.
Jo's blue eyes locked on Evan's gray and a wealth of silent meaning passed between the two women... then Jo looked up and glared at Eridu, her lips twisting into a sneer. ''Fuck YOU!'' she screamed, and threw the talisman at the demon's face, flinging herself to one side and praying she'd read Evan's intentions right.
If not, Jo thought as she collided with the couch, we're both so much fuckin' dead meat. Baby, I hope you know what you're doing!
A reply insinuated itself softly into Jo's mind... ::Trust me.::
And Jo did, breathlessly hoping for something to happen.
At the exact moment Jo threw the talisman at Eridu, who flinched at the sight of the missile, Evan twisted her form into her shiftself, changing from a strong if helplessly caught woman into a raging, snarling she-wolf.
The remnants of Eridu's demon allies scattered with squeals of terror as Evan, growling and wrinkling her muzzle to show ivory fangs, leaped among them, ruff of bright orange hair standing up and sparkling with static electricity, storm gray eyes full of fury and frightening intelligence in her wolf's face.
The talisman struck Eridu squarely in the chest and stuck there, burning and sizzling into its flesh, and it clawed at the gold medallion, screaming shrilly. A few of the demons tried to strike back at Evan, but she evaded their blows with ease, seemingly dancing in mid-air - graceful, deadly, and everywhere at once. Fangs slashing like razors, the she-wolf exacted a terrible toll... and the demon's will broke.
The demons hastened to cast themselves back into the mirror in a panic, shoving and tumbling over one another in their hysterical zeal to quit the mortal realm and be free of the savage, unstoppable wolf who harried them as if they were helpless sheep. One by one they disappeared... leaving Eridu alone.
Eridu, still screaming, digging its claws into its chest and gouging out chunks of flesh in its agony, staggered backwards, and its eyes lit on Jo, who lay half on, half off the sofa, breathing heavily.
''You!'' it growled, taking hold of the bindings it still had on Jo and cruelly smothering the woman's will, using its hook of dark energy to take control, ''Kill the wolf!''
As if in a trance, Jo's hand slid beneath the sofa, emerging with her Beretta. Beads of sweat sprang up on her forehead as the gun shakily rose, pointing straight at Evan.
Evan shifted again, back into her skinshape, and crouched on the floor. Her eyes sought Jo's and saw the desperate plea in those blue eyes. She straightened up, standing proudly, and turned her back on her lover deliberately.
Making a sign in the air with her right hand, Evan began chanting the Rann of Banishment and Binding. Eridu snarled at Jo, ''Kill her! Kill the wolf-woman! I command you!''
As the words of the Rann rang through the air, Jo struggled against the demon's grasp. In horror, she watched as her finger tightened on the trigger, and she redoubled her efforts, trying to wrench control of her body away from Eridu. Reaching deep inside herself, into some unknown well of strength, she managed to rip herself free of enough of the demon's control in order to lower the gun before it fired - right into her own leg.
Eridu screamed again as pain shot through its own leg. In binding its essence with the mortal's, it had forgotten that whatever was done to her, it would feel as well. The gunshot would was incredibly painful, magnified twice over because of the link.
Evan continued chanting, swirling sparks of magic coalescing around Eridu and settling into seven coils of blue-white energy that seared the demon's flesh, making the smell of burning meat fill the apartment.
Jo fired the gun again, once more into her own leg, making Eridu howl in agony. Between the pain of its wounds, the wolf-woman's binding ritual, the hated purity of white magic that choked it, and the desertion of its fellows... it gave up.
Releasing its hold on Jo completely, Eridu fled, still howling, tail tucked between its legs, back through the mirror - which pulsated, surface rippling and heaving, before shattering into a thousand silvery fragments with a sound like a crystalline bell.
Evan drew a deep breath. ''It's gone, completely banished and bound back into Hell.''
Despite the pain in her leg, Jo gave her lover a shaky grin and replied, ''Yeah. This house is clean,'' in her best Zelda Rubenstein imitation.
There was a long moment of silence... and then the ruined apartment rang with the sound of both women's laughter.
Jo flopped down on Evan's bed with a grunt, grunting again when Evan fell half on top of her. Her arm encircled the smaller woman's shoulders, pulling her closer, and Jo heaved a sigh.
''I'm beat,'' Jo muttered. ''Friggin' exhausted. You?''
Evan whispered, ''Yes.'' She had expended more magic healing Jo's bullet wounds and making certain she was fully cleansed of Eridu's influence. Now Jo's aura sparkled in shades of topaz, sapphire and ruby, just as it should. But if one looked closely, and Evan had, there could be detected the faintest line of shimmering blue-white - the color of magic.
In Druid terms, Jo would now be considered an acolyte priestess, Evan thought. But I think I'll wait a while before tellin' her.
Evan snuggled her face into Jo's shoulder, her arm wrapping over the other woman's waist. ''Let's just lay here a little while, dearheart, and rest.''
Jo yawned. ''Sounds like a plan to me... love,'' she added hesitantly, and was rewarded for her bravery by Evan's soft kiss against her arm, and Evan's voice saying, ''Good night, love. Sleep well.''
Her lady cuddled sweet and warm in her arms, the assurance of love given and received and returned bringing a glow to her heart, Jo closed her eyes and fell asleep, a tiny, contented smile curving her lips.
And in Hell, the remnants of what had once been the demon Eridu quivered once... and then were still.