The West Street Coven (Andersburg Chronicles, part 1)

The West Street Coven

The Maryland Chronicles, Part I

 

by Marc Dalesandro

 


1

          Tiffany Walsh sat dejectedly on the rough metal bench of her jail cell. Long blonde hair, tangled and dirty, hung in front of her eyes, and her robe was tattered and torn in several places.

          She was exhausted.

          A horrible notion suddenly occurred to her weary mind, and one slender hand flew to her neck and caressed the golden chain hanging there. The amulet was still there, safe. Thank the gods, she thought.

          She stood, wincing at the deep, throbbing pain that shot through her right knee as she did so. She limped over to the door of her cell and peered through the cold bars, into the murky corridor of the Andersburg, Maryland police station lockup. It was quiet, the gloom broken only by the rustling of newspaper as the one guard, seated on a rusty metal chair, pawed through the local rag.

          Tiffany made her way slowly back inside the cell to the small sink. The tiny mirror above it reflected a shockingly disheveled face back at her. Her eyes were those of a trapped animal, her face was scratched and bruised, and her thin ceremonial robe pathetically dirty.

          She was, above all, terrified.

          Where was Ronald?

          She had waited for hours, as morning slowly crept by. Her best guess was that it was now well past nine.

          Ronald had informed Tiffany – and the other two members of her coven – that if they were ever captured or imprisoned, they were to take no action. Only wait, he had said, in a voice that brooked no argument. Wait, and I will come for you. But he was not here, and the horrible failure she had suffered last night demanded immediate action. Her coven sisters were still out there, somewhere in Andersburg, perhaps being hunted down and killed. She could not just sit in the safety of the town jail while Brianna and Lori might be dying.

          There was a price to pay for disobeying Ronald: of that fact Tiffany had no doubt. It had been made quite clear during the five years she had spent as one of his servants. Once the fact of that price was accepted, however, disobedience became at least theoretically possible. And Tiffany was twenty-three now, not the wide-eyed initiate she had been when she had first come under the sway of the enigmatic Mr. Loach. If he yet required her services, he would have to accept her independence, at least to a degree.

          The decision made, Tiffany walked back to the cell door, the pain in her knee flaring once again. She had to take stock of herself. If she planned action, it would be foolish to attempt what she were incapable of. She closed her eyes and attempted to still her mind. Thoughts of Roland and her coven sisters faded. Finally, she calmed the centre of her being, where her spirit dwelled. She could now begin to assess the damage that had been done to her body and mind.

Her knee was injured, of that she was certain. Whether tendon or ligament was damaged, she couldn’t be sure, but she knew instinctively that it would get worse before it got better. She sensed that she had an hour, maybe two at the most, before the swelling really got bad. Walking on that leg would then become impractical at best and impossible at worst.

Aside from the knee, and a few cuts and scrapes, physically she was fine. She was simply exhausted from the ritual, which had gone horribly awry. Panic was not an emotion she was familiar with, but the young witch seemed to be edging closer to its vertiginous brink. Still, her mental discipline was strong, and it would hold if fear was the worst she had to face.

Spiritually, however, she was a wreck. Most of her magical force had been expended the preceding night. Two of her familiar spirits were dead at the hands of the demon she had helped summon, the other two terrified and in hiding. Grief suddenly welled up inside her. Damn it, she thought bitterly, her mind sliding unerringly toward the next, more dangerous thought: Damn Ronald Loach.

The demon’s spree of destruction was ultimately Ronald’s fault, if only for having trusted Tiffany and her sisters to perform the ritual correctly. More likely, there had been something wrong with the ritual itself. But such ideas were risky. Merely entertaining them could have very dire consequences. Ronald, after all, was a supremely powerful warlock.

Despite her spent state, Tiffany knew she had more than enough energy left to get out of the police lockup and onto the early morning streets. She doubted she could do much to help Brianna and Lori, but she would try anyway. Breathing deeply, Tiffany gathered her remaining spiritual force.

Her eyes flew open, not just sparkling green but actually glowing. Her gaze would have caused any onlooker to stare in awe  and then flinch away from the palpable power radiating from her form. She reached out one slender arm and touched the black lock-plate on the cell door. She whispered a word of power, borrowing a spark of power from Tihuruarchup, one of her surviving familiars.

Inside the locking mechanism, something suddenly went dreadfully wrong. The bolt popped open with a tortured spang, and Tiffany pushed open the door and stepped into the corridor.

The policeman in the hallway had excellent reflexes. He was up in an instant, baton at the ready. Tiffany had no time to be gentle. Her eyes met his, and she had him.

 

To officer Eldon McGuiness, twenty-one year veteran of the Andersburg police force, the situation was unusual but by no means serious. Somehow the little blonde had managed to get out of her cell. He briefly considered drawing his service pistol (Eldon had seen some of what had gone on the night before, and was predisposed to be cautious with anyone even tangently involved with that bloodbath), then thought better of it and hefted his billy-bat loose from his belt. He would put her back in and make sure the door was secure this time. He happened to glance into her eyes for a moment as he advanced toward her, and was hit by a wave of confusion and nausea. Was something wrong with the air? Was the entire hallway swimming like an asphalt road seen on a hot summer’s afternoon?

“Stop!” he yelled, but the room had begun to spin. He swung his club clumsily, but the girl sidestepped. Then the floor leapt upwards and struck him, the cold linoleum knocking all consciousness from his body. Eldon slept.

 

          Tiffany dodged Eldon’s desperate swing easily, but as she did so her knee exploded into flaring pain, almost causing her to lose her concentration. Luckily she recovered in time and was able to complete the spell. The policeman collapsed and did not rise. Tiffany briskly rounded the corner and saw the stairs leading to the first floor. She retreated for a moment, removing her tattered clothing. Eyes closed, the naked witch concentrated on fighting the spiritual exhaustion she was feeling. After a moment of silence, she muttered a few words in a strange language. She opened her eyes and walked purposefully around the corner and toward the stairs.

          The three officers she passed between the lockup and the front door of the police station did not stop or question her. The first man saw a young parking attendant, clipboard in hand, heading out to begin her morning rounds. The second man glanced appreciatively at the pretty blonde in the gas company uniform, momentarily captivated by her bright emerald eyes. The third officer – as a woman less susceptible to this particular glamour – saw a nondescript person walking with a pronounced limp. She briefly considered hailing the stranger, but then noticed a badge sticking out of the woman’s pocket. She shrugged and went back to her paperwork as Tiffany passed.

          Morning sunlight streamed through the precinct doors as the witch pushed them open and descended the stairs to street level. It was even later than she had estimated, but Andersburg seemed unnaturally empty for a sunny September morning. Far in the distance, sirens wailed. Reminded of the events of the previous night, Tiffany shivered. She needed some clothes.

          She began limping across the plaza toward a taxi stand, as quickly as her bad leg would allow. Just then, however, a black stretch limousine screeched to a halt in front of her, cutting off both her escape and her hope in one stroke. The rear door opened, and Ronald Loach stepped from the car, his tailored Italian suit and shoes immaculate and shining. He raised a jewel-tipped walking stick in mock greeting, smiling in his dangerous way. His gaze slid down Tiffany’s body, and the witch had no doubt the warlock was seeing right through her concealment spell to her dirty, banged-up body.

          “Get in, my dear,” he commanded softly. Tiffany winced, moving instantly to obey. She stepped carefully past Loach and into the car’s lushly-appointed leather interior. He slid in after her, and closed the door. A tap of his stick on the partition separating them from the driver and they were off, whisking through the city streets and toward what Tiffany could only assume was a dire reckoning.

 

2

          Brianna Clarke lay crumpled in an alley off Howard street, just a few feet from the place where she and her sisters had summoned the Canaanite demon. She was surrounded by litter and trash, and had been unconscious long enough that ants had begun to investigate her lush red hair.

          Although her body was still, her mind was very active. In a dreamlike state, it replayed the events of the previous night again and again, with shocking detail and clarity.

          Brianna had always been the most careless witch in the West Street coven. Brazen and bold, she had been responsible for their first meeting with Ronald Loach.

She had little patience for Tiffany’s love of folklore and the past, and even less tolerance for Lori’s quest for inner peace and enlightenment. To Brianna, magic was like a drug: a potent high she used and abused often. Anything forbidden had intrigued her, and the rules either did not apply to her, or were made to be broken. Unlike her other coven sisters, she had never held a daytime job. Witchcraft had occupied her time, day and night, since high school. Even on weekends, when letting off steam at the clubs with Tiffany or her few other friends, she would be magicked and glamoured – spells which made her even more attractive to men, or increased her sex drive (not that it really needed increasing).

On the night of Friday, October 21st, however, Brianna was not at a club or disco. Instead, she was with her two coven sisters – related not by blood, but by magical bond – standing in front of a chalk pentagram that had been drawn expertly on the asphalt behind the Plains Bank location on Howard Street. The heart of Andersburg’s financial district was deserted as a ghost town near midnight. Even the gangs of muggers and graffiti artists had moved on by then, perhaps sensing in some way the horror to come. As Brianna watched impatiently, Lori finished the pentagram and stood up, still muttering magical words of power. Tiffany stood off to one side, lost in the book she held opened in front of her. Lori glanced at her, nodded once, then stepped back and spoke one last word. Brianna could feel the force radiating from Lori, a palpable wave moving from the petite brunette into her creation. The runes and eldritch marks of the circle began to take on a strange substantiality, as if they were now more than mere lines of chalk. A faint radiance seemed to surround the

pentagram as Lori slumped against the wall, exhausted.

Brianna fidgeted as Tiffany flipped pages, checking her incantations one last time. This is taking forever. Loach had trained them for this moment for weeks – they had to be ready by now. The three girls knew the danger they were attempting to avert. Somewhere in Andersburg, another group of witches or warlocks were at that very moment also calling forth a creature of their own – one which would devastate the city and perhaps lead to the enslavement of the entire world. Their only hope was Lori’s circle, and the thing that Tiffany would call up from its depths. Still, Brianna trusted no one completely, not even Ronald.

“Bri, calm down,” Lori called tiredly. “I can feel your tension from over here.”

Brianna glanced sharply at her friend. “I’m not tense, I’m eager.”

Lori smiled. “You’re impatient. But this can’t be rushed.”

“Take your time. If you want the truth, it’s these stupid robes. They itch. Do we really have to be naked underneath?”

Lori waved at her dismissively. Brianna shrugged and resumed watching Tiffany. Will she ever begin the ritual? In truth, the redheaded witch often felt fairly useless during their shared activities. Though she provided a deep wellspring of spiritual force for her coven sisters, she had no experience with lore, runes, or spells. Her magical abilities were not in tune with nature or the rhythms of the spirit world, like Lori’s. Nor was Brianna skilled using incantations and delicate manipulations of spiritual energy like Tiffany. No, Brianna thought, I’m good for only one thing.

Violence.

Though Ronald Loach would never admit it, Brianna Clarke had, in fact, been among his greatest finds in a lifetime spent moving through the worlds of magic and the supernatural. The West Street coven itself was very unique: three young witches who shared common interests had abilities far above the skill level of most others. Finding Brianna among them had been an incredible bonus. Few witches were as skilled at or as interested in using spiritual force in her particular manner. While Lori meditated in order to receive guidance, and Tiffany studied to attain greater understanding, Brianna was a woman of action.

Tall and physically imposing, the beautiful redhead was not disposed to reflection or analysis. Her familiar spirits, both originally from other planes of existence, were frightening monsters capable of wide-scale destruction. The rituals needed to bond such creatures to a witch were brutal, agonizing, and long. Brianna had embraced both as a matter of course. In fact, she had performed the first while alone, with no assistance whatsoever. When her landlord had finally broken down the door to her apartment, he had found her lying covered in blood, near death, on the floor. It was only after he called the police that he noticed the burning black candles and several mutilated animal carcasses strewn about the large pentagram that had been drawn on the carpet.

While her friends summoned the Canaanite on that fateful Friday night, Brianna stood sentinel. If they were attacked in any way, she would protect her coven sisters. Her familiars were powerful and deadly, eager to kill and destroy at her command. The first was from a distant place of eternal blazing fire and never-ending heat. It had no name, and manifested itself as a small, flickering orange tongue that resembled a hovering candle flame. Brianna had nicknamed it “Red” for lack of a better word.

Her second familiar was Ii, which resembled a four-inch floating blue eyeball surrounded by coruscating white sparks. Both familiars had originally hated Brianna. Since familiars who hated their mistresses were useless at best and dangerous at worst, the witch had been in a bit of a sticky situation. Soon, however, both creatures’ resentment had faded. Ii had been placated when it learned the brevity of its servitude. Brianna’s entire lifetime would seem a few mere moments to the spirit. In addition, the creature had apparently been alone in its own universe, and was fascinated by this world of “not-Ii” as it thought of earth.

          Red’s animosity had decreased as it began to realize that there were many things in Brianna’s world that had not yet been burned; objects (and beings) that Brianna might command it to touch with its terrible immolating heat. This thought excited Red and bought its loyalty.

Tiffany and Lori’s familiar spirits hated and feared Brianna’s.

Now, as her sister finally began chanting, Brianna called out to both. Ii popped into view with a crack of static, exuding the pungent aroma of ozone as it floated, crackling, a few feet above Brianna’s left shoulder. Red manifested with a muffled floomph and began to circle its mistress protectively. The familiars tolerated each other’s presence but maintained a cautious distance from one another, as always. They also tolerated Ronald Loach, Tiffany, and Lori. Other friends of Brianna’s were generally safe while in their presence (so long as they maintained a prudent distance from both the creatures and Brianna herself).

Strangers and enemies were definitely not.

After many days of preparation, their task came to fruition quickly. Within two minutes of Tiffany’s chant beginning, the pavement inside the circle seemed to iris open into a black pit. Strange green smoke drifted out of the hole, but was contained within the circle Lori had drawn onto the alley. As Tiffany’s chant grew louder and more insistent, even Brianna (who was not attuned to such things) could feel her force. Something was being drawn, pulled by the blonde witch from some terrible elsewhere. Brianna tensed, her familiars sensing the anxiety flooding through her. Ii began to trail thin streams of deadly electricity, glowing blue like a miniature sapphire sun. It’s eyeball was fixed squarely on Lori’s portal. Red blazed brighter, lengthening to its maximum of about three inches. The heat radiating from the fire-creature raised a sheen of sweat across Brianna’s face and body, despite the chill night air. The atmosphere had also become supercharged with energy from Ii, causing Brianna’s thoughts to turn to sex for some reason.

At the last moment, Lori seemed to realize something had gone wrong. Her runes were dimming, not growing brighter as she had expected. Some of the green smoke was now escaping the circle into the night. Brianna saw her step forward to warn Tiffany, but it was too late.

The Canaanite exploded from the portal with a sound like a soul tearing.

          Tiffany had one moment to gape, open-mouthed, as the eight-foot demon towered above. Then Brianna saw it step easily across the circle and come for her.

          Hurriedly, frightened almost to the point of panic by the demon, Brianna sent her familiars forward to save her sister. As Ii and Red moved to confront the summoned horror, their mistress’ gaze remained riveted on the Canaanite, forcing her mind to process what her eyes were seeing.

Here was a creature that had terrorized the middle-east in biblical times. A denizen of Cain’s shadow-land; minion of that Evil One marked by God for all eternity. It was vaguely humanoid, with a thick, scaly, black-green hide riddled with open sores that exuded a dark pus. Squat legs with two knees each supported a barrel-chested, unclothed torso matted with clumps of filthy hair. Apish arms swung from the thing’s broad shoulders, hands like paws clawing ceaselessly at the air. It’s head was a squat, flattened appendage with twin beady, red eyes set far back into its misshapen skull. As she watched her familiars close in on the thing, Brianna saw its hideous mouth gape open, revealing thin needle-teeth packed in rows like those of a shark. She had a momentary vision of those teeth striking like a storm of knives, leaving any flesh they touched a tattered, poisoned ruin.

Tiffany screamed and stumbled backward as the Canaanite advanced on her. Her left knee seemed to buckle, and she landed roughly on the unforgiving asphalt. Brianna saw Tiffany’s four familiars wink into existence, and then turned all her attention toward her own attack.

          As the demon swung a great, clawed hand, slicing Piotos, Tiffany’s gentle and protective Greek familiar, to ribbons of ether, Brianna commanded Ii to strike. Long, snaking filaments of electricity or something like electricity streamed from the blue orb of Ii’s body, enveloping the Canaanite in a deadly halo of energy. The demon paused mere feet from Tiffany’s prone form, its ugly head slowly revolving on its thick, stalk-like neck to regard its new adversary. It appeared to be suffering annoyance, but not pain, from Ii’s discharge. Brianna – who had seen Ii fry men and spirits alike in seconds – gaped in disbelief. Ii broke off its attack and hovered uncertainly.

         In the next instant, Tiffany’s most aggressive familiar, Ashante, struck. Ashante was shaped like a golden, wingless mosquito, its long proboscis capable of rapidly sapping spiritual force from any opponent it attached itself to. Now, as it punctured the Canaanite’s repulsive flesh, the demon uttered a roar of pain, albeit mingled with a horrifying rage. Ashante swelled, growing fat with energy from the summoned creature. In mere moments, however, Tiffany’s familiar changed color from deep yellow to a sickening brown. It bloated beyond recognition and burst open with a thick popping sound. Liberated energy stolen from the Canaanite exploded like a bomb, hurling Ii away. Brianna fell to her knees on the ground. Lori, who had been chanting an incantation of some soft, was thrown against the wall of the Plains Bank. She crumpled bonelessly to the ground and did not rise.

“Run, Tiff!” Brianna screamed,

Tiffany, obviously still in shock at the destruction of her two familiars, simply sat in the street and stared at the advancing Canaanite. Brianna sent a mental command to Red, and the creature instantly spewed forth a geyser of white-hot flame. The spout of fire engulfed the demon and caused both the asphalt at its feet and the brick of the building behind it to come alight. The Canaanite roared again, its flailing talons shredding the bank’s wall like tissue paper. Alarms began to wall inside the building, finally startling Tiffany out of her trance-like state.

“Run!” Brianna screamed again, moving to step between the demon and her coven sister. Tiffany clumsily gained her feet and limped away, wide-eyed with terror.

          Brianna knew she was about to die. There was no way to stop the horror they had summoned. Perhaps Lori could have banished it, but Lori was either unconscious or dead fifteen feet behind the monster. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, however, Brianna had to somehow give Tiffany time to get away. In desperation, she sent Red another command as the Canaanite quickly closed in.

          This time, a flaring wall of fire was thrown upwards from the familiar spirit. Intense heat bathed Brianna like a searing desert noon, the shimmering flame-wall standing between the Canaanite and the redheaded witch.

It was not enough.

A cruel hand, heavy as an anvil, pushed through the raging inferno and caught her in the midsection. Brianna was knocked to the ground by the pummeling fist, cracking her skull against a concrete curb. Both familiar spirits winked out of existence as their mistress lost consciousness, bright blood beginning to pour from her head wound.

3

          Slowly, Brianna’s mind began to break free of the loop in which it was stuck. The events of the previous night began to fade, to recede like the last wisps of nightmare.

          At nine-fifteen, she opened her eyes.

          As the morning light struck her retinas, bright pain lanced through her skull. Her head throbbed insistently, keeping pace with her heartbeat like some terrible metronome. She moved, and a thousand knives stabbed at her side. Brianna had always been in touch with her body, instinctively able to analyze and take stock of her own state of health. I have several broken ribs, she thought, wincing. Congealed blood coated one side of her face, but she didn’t think the head wound was serious. Her fingers explored her tangled hair and damaged scalp, finding a large bump like an egg and a long, crusty cut. Ignoring the pain she was experiencing, the young witch staggered to her feet. Besides the ribs and the scalp wound, she seemed to be all right.         

          Lucky, she thought. Luckier than I deserve to be.

          It was obvious that Ronald Loach had betrayed them. The incantations and runes meant to contain and control the Canaanite had been useless.

          Brianna began to walk slowly toward the mouth of the alleyway, and Howard street beyond it. She wondered if Lori and Tiffany had managed to escape the demon they had summoned. Even if they had, they were still in extreme danger. If Loach had finally shown his true colors, he had no further use for the West Street coven. They would be liquidated, like any other superfluous asset.

          Brianna had always been the most wary and suspicious of their mysterious benefactor. Men who were attuned to the currents of magic which flowed through the world were few and far between. Finding a warlock of Loach’s power, one so accomplished and apt, was even rarer. Such a man would need to be ruthless, ambitious, and driven. The fact that he was also a successful businessman worth many millions of dollars sent up further red flags in Brianna’s mind. What does a man with power want? More power. Yet Ronald’s offers of friendship, financial support, and magical advancement had been very enticing to Brianna as well as to her coven sisters. They had reached a sort of plateau in the world of sorcery. Genetic predisposition and natural talent could only take the witches so far. To advance further, they required freedom from nine-to-five jobs, access to ancient writings, resources enabling travel to exotic locations. Loach had offered all of these and more. He had even shared with them his own accumulated knowledge.

          Ronald had built for them the three-story mansion they now called the Motherhouse. His army of lawyers and accountants had taken care of all legal and financial matters, bills, and paperwork. They had complete freedom to study, practice the mystic arts, travel, and indulge the occasional desire for material things. In exchange for this largesse, Ronald had demanded their complete loyalty.

          Brianna reached the street corner and debated the idea of going back to the Motherhouse. Surely Loach would have the place watched, if not occupied by his goons. He would do so even if he believed her dead.

          In the end, she really had no alternative. Barefoot, she was still wearing only the thin robe they had donned for the summoning. She had no money, no identification. That was all at the house, along with the keys to her Miata and the car itself. She had to return there.

          Her appearance was also a problem. Brianna was sure that Tiffany could have waved her hand in the same situation and morphed from rags to a Miss America gown, but the redhead did not have that option. Taking a deep breath (and wincing at the lances of pain that came with it), Brianna scraped what she could of the dried blood from her face, wiped some of the dirt from her thin garment, and stepped onto Howard Street. She began to trudge home, flashes of pain flaring like obscene fireworks with each step.

          Brianna vaguely recognized that there were less people around than would be normal on a business day. She counted her blessings, realizing that the events of the previous night must have convinced many residents of Andersburg to stay at home.

          The sight of a six-foot redhead, barefoot and covered in blood, attracted considerable attention from the few people who had ventured out onto Howard Street. Many passersby stared, one unfortunate motorist colliding with the car ahead of him while ogling her. Brianna ignored the stares and leers. An elderly gentleman asked her if she was okay. She nodded quickly and kept moving. She may have been “okay” physically, but mentally she was in turmoil.

          The more she thought over the circumstances of the past several years, the more she cursed herself for trusting Ronald. At first, of course, he had fulfilled all his promises. He had freed the girls from the mundane hassles of life, and allowed them to concentrate on their mystical studies. They, in turn, had become much more powerful witches.

          When they required transportation, Loach would frequently allow them the use of his private jet (it was on one such junket – to Malaysia – that Brianna had found and bonded her second familiar, Ii). When threats reached the vicinity of Andersburg, it had been Loach not the coven who had neutralized them. Brianna still remembered a night two years previous, a night Ronald had appeared, ashen-faced, and instructed them to remain indoors, answer no bell or knock, and ward themselves with sigils until dawn. He had left, and in the morning had appeared only briefly, looking drawn and weary. He had spent the entire day in their spare room, sleeping and perhaps recovering. Later, they had learned it had been a master vampire, passing through on its way to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Loach’s servants had buried its remains in a plot on the Motherhouse grounds, topped with a large ornate cross.

          He had been protecting us, Brianna realized. He hired us as apprentices and servants, but had instead treated us as prized possessions.

          In fact, the only services Loach had regularly required of them were divination and scrying. Though he himself was more than apt to perform the rites and rituals of soothsaying, he had insisted that Lori and Tiffany read the Tarot, cast the bones, and peer into the crystal on his behalf. They had done so, many times. And their sight had always been consistent with his own: a future of prosperity, power, and triumph.

          “Bastard!” Brianna muttered, clenching her fists in rage. She swore that Loach would pay for his treachery, swore on the soul of her own mother, who had died bringing Brianna into the world.

          A police cruiser had pulled alongside her, and was now creeping up the street, matching her halting progress. Damn, she thought, quickly ducking down the next small alley that presented itself. She couldn’t run, not with the broken ribs, but she did force herself to walk faster, cursing her injury and Ronald Loach in equal measure.

          More troubling than the curiosity of Andersburg’s finest or the stabbing ache of her ribs was the pounding headache she had developed, complete with a nagging, dizzy fogginess. Hopefully, it was merely an aftereffect of the bump she had taken when her head hit the curb. Perhaps a mild concussion at worst. Anything more serious, and she was as good as dead. Loach would find her in her hospital bed, and make certain she never left it. She needed to–

          Suddenly, a man stepped out of the shadows in the alley, from between two rusting dumpsters. It was only a vagrant, hand held out in piteous entreaty, but for a fleeting moment Brianna thought she saw Ronald Loach.

          She shouted a word of power, and blue-green brilliance flashed in the alley’s darkness. Both Ii and Red momentarily flared into visibility as Brianna borrowed energy from her familiars and channeled it into lethal force. A wave of energy swept the derelict from his feet, propelling him into the brick behind him with bone-crushing velocity. He collapsed soundlessly as shouts of “Police!” and running footsteps rang out behind her.

          Frantically, the witch scanned her surroundings. Noticing an iron door in the wall opposite the dumpsters, she pointed, shouting the same word of power again. Her voice sounded shrill and disturbingly thin, but the door flew inward, twisting off its hinges with a protesting shriek of metal.

          Brianna stumbled inside, hoping for some refuge from capture, some opportunity to repay her erstwhile employer for the ruin he had brought to the West Street coven.

4

          Lori Saudere lit another cigarette. She uncrossed and then re-crossed her legs, dragging deeply on the smoke and willing it to calm her jangled nerves.

          After a few moments, she exhaled with an audible sigh.

          “Relax, my love,” Ronald Loach said, sounding serene and nonchalant as always, even as he turned the Ebon Shard in his hands. “Seeing you this agitated fills my heart with concern.”

          Lori laughed, a harsh, snorting sound. “You don’t have a heart, Ronald,” she replied, taking another pull on her shrinking cigarette.

          “True,” Loach allowed. “But seeing you in a state of anxiety does make me rock hard, and we have little time for play at the moment. So calm yourself.” Something in his tone changed with the last few words, Lori noted. They had been a command, not a request.

          “Yes, Ronald,” she conceded. Loach nodded and went back to scanning his book, which she assumed was some ancient tutorial or instructions for using the Shard. His elegant three-piece suit was immaculate, the crease in his pants razor-sharp as always. Loach was fifty but looked forty, with a full head of brown hair, dignified mustache, and perfectly-trimmed beard. Golden rings gleamed on his manicured hands, and his expensive shoes were well-polished.

          The young witch adjusted her brassiere beneath her smart business attire. She bent and wiped a speck from her shiny black pumps. It wouldn’t do for her to look any less than her best, on the day she would join Ronald in becoming a living god.

          “Lori,” came a plaintive cry from across the room. “Lori, how could you do this?”

          “Shut up,” Lori snapped at Tiffany, who was still trapped in the magic circle. She had crawled to a location farthest from the Forgotten ldol, but the circle was much too small to allow her escape from its effects. The blonde witch tried to chant again, to cast some spell of escape or glamour of power, but the idol glowed softly and nothing happened.

          “Lori, let me out of here! He’ll betray you too.”

          “Nonsense,” Loach said, looking up from his reading in seeming amusement. “My love for Lori is constant and unending, my sweet,”

          “You bastard…” Tiffany said weakly.

          Lori watched as the Forgotten Idol continued to glow, sapping more and more of her fellow witch’s spiritual force. Lori did not know much about the macabre statue, only that Ronald had found it in some Aztec ruins. He had confessed to murdering most of an entire village before one of its elders had finally broken down and divulged the item’s location.

          Now he smiled, the predatory grin of a shark, and resumed his research.

          Lori stood and began pacing, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor of the Motherhouse. She had shared this home with her friends for almost five years, and now she would stand alone. It had been time, she told herself . They were useful, but it had been time to make the jump to the next level. In truth she had known for much of the last year that her kinship with Tiffany and Brianna was waning. They did not share her interest in attaining real power. Tiffany was content to continue as a mere dabbler in magic, with a few parlor tricks here and there, a few crumbs tossed from Ronald Loach’s table. She had no real ambition, no drive to attain more. To Tiffany, good times with friends were more important.

          Brianna, at least, had power. Lori was forced to respect the redhead’s sheer force. But she used that power haphazardly, without direction. Her rampant sexual desires and fiery emotions stole her focus, robbed her of coherent plans. It’s a pity that I wasn’t born with her talent, she thought wryly. If I had, events might have proceeded in an entirely different manner. Perhaps Ronald would be the one inside the circle.

          As if he were privy to her innermost musings, Loach snapped the book shut and looked up, startling Lori.

          “You’re certain all five of the Fiori were slain, my love?” he inquired.

          “Yes,” she replied emphatically. “I watched the Canaanite kill every one of those old farts. How do you think I was able to take that?” She gestured toward the Ebon Shard. Ronald was still fondling it, turning it over and over in his hands.    

          “Ah yes. If even one of them still drew breath, they would never have allowed you to leave.” His eyes began to dance with a strange, wild eagerness. “And so it is finally finished. Check and mate.”

          “Why don’t we use it now?” Lori asked. She was getting impatient, and her nerves were worse than ever. “Why do we have to wait for Brianna?”

           Loach continued fingering the crystal. “It has been asleep for four thousand years, my dear,” he answered. “Best to not wake it hungry. We’ll nourish it first, with the blood of your two powerful sisters.”

          “Don’t call them that,” Lori instantly snapped, taking another harsh drag on her cigarette. “They’re not my sisters.”

          “Lori, Lori…” Tiffany, forlorn.

          “I apologize,” Loach said, eyes laughing. “The blood of those two useless sluts, then. Whatever you prefer. First, a bit of nourishment for our sleepy friend here. Its first sustenance since the pyramids rose. Then we wake it.”

          “And we become gods?”

          Ronald placed the crystal delicately back into its rune-carved box. As he did so, Lori felt her anxiety and nervous fear immediately recede. Without the Ebon Shard exposed, without it staring at her with its languid, crawling malevolence, she felt better.

          “Not gods, God. We become God.”

          Tiffany was on her feet now, testing the circle desperately. “Lori! He’s planning to–“

          “Shut up, bitch!” Lori roared, wheeling from Loach to face her erstwhile friend. She was filled with pent-up rage at both Tiffany and Brianna, rage fueled by the many slights and insults she had suffered over the years. Things the girls had done, and things the girls had failed to do, had turned her against them. Lori’s feelings for both had curdled to resentment, anger, and sour envy long ago. Ronald had stoked those bitter sparks, stoked them until their flames had built high enough to burn any camaraderie and friendship that had once existed to ash and cinder.

          “Shut up! I don’t want to hear you. Don’t talk to me!” she shouted, then uttered an ugly word of power. The Forgotten Idol blazed into unclean incandescence, green eyes flaring in its fat, repulsive face.

          Tiffany screamed as the idol devoured her energy, then fell to her knees.

          Ronald watched, amused once more, as she began to sob quietly.

          “That’s better,” he said approvingly. “Now, Lori my love, please go downstairs and prepare the Canaanite for battle. Brianna will be arriving soon.”

          Lori nodded, her angry eyes still glued to Tiffany. Finishing her cigarette, she tossed it to the floor and ground it beneath her toes. Without another word, she turned and strode out of the room.

          “That’s much better,” Ronald Loach repeated as Tiffany’s weak sobs continued. He reached forward, opened the teak box, and once more removed the black crystal inside. As he began to turn the shard over and over in his hands the predatory, shark-like grin returned to his handsome face.

5

          The drive from the Andersburg police station back to the Motherhouse had been very quiet. Ronald had not spoken to Tiffany, and she knew better than to press him when he wasn’t in a talkative mood. He was obviously angry, furious that his plans had not been successful.

          Tiffany wracked her brain, mentally replaying the events of the previous weeks over and over. Where had they gone wrong? It had been more than a fortnight since Ronald had come to them, calling an emergency meeting and explaining the peril the city – perhaps the entire world – was in. It seemed that a rogue group of elderly sorcerers called the Fiori had plans to summon a demon from its other-worldly pit, using an ancient and forbidden ritual. They were planning to use the creature to obtain a mystic artifact called the Ebon Shard from the place it was stored, far beneath the city in a warded crypt. These magic wards were such that any mortal would be slain instantly upon entry, but a pit fiend would be able to steal the Shard and return with it to the Fiori.

          With this Ebon Shard, Loach had explained, the evil old men would be able to live forever, with enough spiritual power to control the weather, bond horrible creatures to themselves as familiar spirits, and eliminate their rivals in the mystic arts. The Shard had been created in prehistoric times, and was rumored to contain the essence of some monstrous being which had been exiled from earth sometime before the dawn of man. Using the might the Shard still contained, the Fiori might eventually gain rulership over the entire world.

          Ronald did not know, however, where the Fiori were based, where they met, or where they planned to summon their demon. They were protected by many glamours of concealment, and seemed for all intents and purposes to be respectable businessmen, church leaders, and upstanding members of the community. Only after the summoning would this shadowy cabal reveal themselves as practitioners of the dark arts.

          Loach did have a plan, however. Using their combined powers, the West Street coven would raise their own monster, a particular type of demon called a Canaanite. This creature would intercept and prey upon the other monster before it could steal the Shard. The Canaanite would then return to the witches’ circle for banishment back to Hades.

          They had set out to learn the rituals and glyphs, the eldritch lines and the proper alignments of time and space which would allow the summoning to take place. Tiffany and Lori had studied for weeks, honing their skills. Ronald knew enough about the conditions for proper calling of demons to predict what night the Fiori would make their move with near certainty. Now all he needed was for his apprentices to pool their resources and carry out his plan.

          The West Street coven had done as he requested. Using Lori’s skills with the circle, Tiffany’s incantations, and Brianna’s wellspring of available energy, they had perfected the ritual and called forth the Canaanite demon.

          Then, something had gone terribly wrong. Tiffany still couldn’t understand why their glyphs had dimmed and their spells of binding and containment had fizzled. Without those glamours, the powerful entity had gotten loose, and heaven knew what it had done to downtown Andersburg. She imagined whole city blocks destroyed, buildings ablaze. No doubt the death toll had been high. Worst of all, she pictured the evil Fiori laughing as they claimed their prize. Hanging her head in shame, Tiffany sat next to Ronald Loach and hated herself.

          Finally, the limo had arrived at the Motherhouse. Ronald stepped out, and Tiffany followed. Her knee was worse now, stiff and nearly useless. She hobbled behind Loach as he walked briskly up the stairs and opened the door. Wincing in pain, she navigated the stairs and limped inside. She closed the door behind her, then looked up to see Lori standing there, with a smiling Ronald looking on.

          “Lori!” Tiffany greeted her friend, whom she had feared dead. But there was no response from her coven sister. Tiffany noticed that Lori’s fists were tightly clenched, and an aura of force surrounded her. Almost as if she–

          “Go ahead, my love,” Ronald said. “You wanted this opportunity.”

          An instant later, Lori attacked. Her three familiar spirits materialized with harsh popping sounds, ready for war. Confused, Tiffany could only gape in shock as the spirits came for her.

          Lori’s first familiar was D’zou, which she had bonded to herself in China with the aid of a former girlfriend. It resembled a small oriental monkey, except instead of a normal head it had only a skull with dull green flames for eyes. Among D’zou’s talents was the ability to cloud minds, to make a person lethargic and slow. It stared at Tiffany, and she felt her brain fill with dense cotton. She struggled to clear her head as the second spirit, Mollei, approached.

          Tiffany did not know where Lori had found and bonded Mollei, but this ghost was shaped like a disorganized blob of ectoplasm, floating at about eye-level. It could exude a cloud of noxious poison, causing enemies to choke and eventually collapse into unconsciousness. Its purple fog was already starting to swarm around Tiffany, and she held her breath as she stumbled backward, toward the door.

          Two of her own familiars had already been destroyed by the Canaanite, but she called the two that remained. They appeared instantaneously, though Tiffany’s reserves of energy were now almost gone. Tihuruarchup, her South American friend, moved to block the advance of the blob Mollei. Tihu (as she called it) resembled a floating mud brick with strange inscriptions carved into it. Of a protective nature, Tihu could provide shelter against magical and physical attacks. As it began to push the choking poison away from Tiffany, her last familiar moved to intercept D’zou.

          Pana was a small, crab-like thing, whose minute stature belied its impressive ability to cause damage with its incredibly powerful pincers. It quickly latched onto the monkey D’zou’s leg, causing the ape to scream in pain and Tiffany’s mind to clear somewhat. She grasped for the door handle, meaning to get out of the room and try to understand what was happening. Lori attacking her, while Ronald looked on? Was this some sort of bizarre punishment for her failure last night?

          Tiffany never made it to the door. Lori’s third companion, a dog-like being named Qwinas, propelled itself into her midsection, knocking her off her feet. Its slavering jaws sought her throat as she screamed in pain and terror. The witch raised her hands to protect herself, shouting a word of power. Pale sparks shot from her fingertips, weak but enough to cause the dog pain. It whimpered and scampered to the side, but before Tiffany could rise a kick from Lori caught her directly in the temple, causing her vision to explode into a burst of multicolored sparks. They ushered her out of consciousness and down into the black embrace of nothingness.

 

          Tiffany awoke inside a magic circle, similar in design to the one in which they had summoned the demon the night before. She was in a large room, dominated by a gigantic mahogany desk, matching bookshelves, and a luxurious leather executive chair: Ronald Loach’s private office, his home-away-from-home at the Motherhouse.

          The room was empty.

          Tiffany’s head was a snarling tangle of pain. She felt nauseated and sick, physically and mentally. Her damaged knee was swollen and stiff.

          Why had Lori attacked her? Why had Ronald egged her on?

          First things first, she thought. I need to get out of here. She rose to her feet slowly and turned an experienced eye to the runes that had been drawn around the perimeter of the circle. If Ronald or Lori thought that she could be held so easily, they had seriously underestimated her.

          Just then, Tiffany noticed there was something else inside the circle with her. It was a small figurine or statue, carved from granite and measuring perhaps four inches tall. It depicted a wizened, ugly little man, corpulent and squatting in a half-erect, uncomfortable-looking manner. The rolls of fat etched onto its face hid eyes narrowed in malevolence. Tiffany grimaced at the sight of the unpleasant little thing, then turned back to her chalk prison. Though she lacked the intricate skill Lori possessed in this area, the blonde witch knew enough about the particular magicks of containment to undo the circle she found herself in with relative ease. She began to chant, closing her eyes. She’d focus her energy on annihilating the sigil on the southwest tangent, the one which resembled a double-crossed “Z”. Surely, Ronald and Lori would have known she would do this…

          Suddenly, the young witch gasped as she felt the spiritual force she had been gathering to use against the circle brutally torn from her. The thief wanted even more: Tiffany could feel it reaching with ethereal tendrils for her personal reservoir of energy. She screamed in shock and revulsion as she felt her soul being violated.

          The revolting statue had turned somehow and was now facing her, staring directly into her eyes with its hateful gaze. It was also glowing a malignant shade of green. Tiffany stopped trying to access her power, relaxing the connection between her mind and spirit. This denied the artifact any more of her essence. She felt its presence in her brain, oily and filled with a disappointed rage. The statue is alive! Moments later the alien presence was gone, the ugly figurine dark and silent. Tiffany sighed, edging back from the evil thing. She could still feel its watchful presence, eagerly waiting for another chance to steal her life force, and leave her an empty, dead shell.

          As she was still staring at the statue with a mixture of revulsion and fear, the office door swung open and Ronald Loach walked into the room.

          “Ah,” he said, grinning with false friendliness. “I thought I felt you awaken. We have much to discuss.”

6

          Brianna reached the second floor landing before cries of “Halt! Police!”

rang out just behind her. She would have to fight.

          Fighting was, she reminded herself wryly, the only thing at which she truly excelled. The ability to channel and direct her spiritual force for destructive purposes was what had initially drawn Ronald to her. After a never-ending stream of facile, immature men entering and leaving her life, Loach had been something else entirely. Sophisticated, urbane, and cultured, he had already known her greatest secrets, known about her power and her weaknesses. Yet he wanted to help her, to help all of them.

          Brianna was not a woman who trusted others easily. It had taken her a lifetime to cultivate the few friendships she enjoyed. Ronald Loach had not been immune to this skepticism. In fact, even after they had begun to meet with him and begun hammering out their business relationship, Brianna had remained the most hostile toward him. Deep in her heart, however, the imposing redhead wanted to believe he was what he seemed: a benevolent benefactor, a tutor and patron, a guru who would show her where she belonged, where her place in the world lay. Though suspicious and cautious by nature, Brianna had also been naive. And Ronald Loach preyed upon naiveté like a shark among minnow.

          Now, as she turned to face her pursuers, the powerful witch put all remorse, doubt, and self-recrimination out of her mind. Now she needed only one emotion: anger.

          The two officers placed their hands on their guns when they noticed the wild, nearly ecstatic look on her face. They drew and aimed when her two familiars suddenly burst from the ether before them.

          Brianna gestured, and Ii unleashed a storm of electric power. The policeman closest to her was struck by several crackling blue bolts. His weapon clattered uselessly to the stairs as he collapsed, unconscious. The second man opened fire, but Red moved with incomprehensible speed to block each bullet, flitting instantaneously here, then there, vaporizing the tiny projectiles to boiling wisps of metallic gas. When the man’s service pistol was empty, a torrent of flame turned the stairway near his feet into a blazing inferno. The officer screamed and stumbled back down to the first floor, calling urgently for backup on his radio.

          The fire spread rapidly, and Brianna limped down the burning hallway, sending Ii ahead of her to destroy the large window at its end. As glass exploded around her in a shower of blue sparks, she leapt through the shattered exit her familiar had created.

          Brianna stepped out into empty air and watched the dark asphalt of the alley twenty feet below rush up to meet her, as the first fire alarms began to blare.

7

          “I suppose you’re wondering why I have you in there,” Ronald Loach said lightly, as if he were making casual conversation. His cruel eyes danced, sparkling with excitement. The bastard loved this.

          Tiffany didn’t answer. Though she had many questions, she knew anything she said would only fuel his glee and provide him more sport.

          “Of course you are,” Loach answered for her. “You are also wondering why I’ve turned against you, why Lori stood with me, and what that is,” he gestured toward the statue inside the circle with her. “Well, allow me to enlighten you. We have a little time, before Brianna arrives and I become momentarily busy.” He smiled his shark-like grin. Tiffany did not speak.

          Loach stood up, walked around his massive desk, and approached the circle. “First things first, my dear. I did not turn against you. In truth I was never with you, so it would be quite impossible for me to turn. Your coven sisters and yourself were useful to me for a time. That time has now passed.”

          Tiffany’s fury rose up inside her. She stood, facing him across the mystic barrier. There was so much she wanted to say, to scream at him. Loach held up a hand, as if to forestall her. “Tiffany Walsh. Eighth-degree arch-witch. Initiate of the Chant. Impressive, to most. To me, merely the means to an end.” He stared at her, his bright eyes seeming to bore past her flesh and into some hidden treasure, some secret vault of value that only he could see. “Or course, I did not need you per se, dear Tiffany. Never think that. I required only the genetic legacy passed down from your grandmother, Louise Walsh, the Witch of Low Hills. Her perfection, her competence. There could be no mistake with the summoning.”

          “Why didn’t you summon your own demon, Loach?” Tiffany yelled. Open defiance now, open fury toward one to whom she had never so much as raised her voice. “Are you that much of a coward?”

          She expected anger, perhaps apoplexy. But Loach only smiled wryly.

          “Let’s move to the second matter: your dear ‘sister’ Lori Saudere. Child of witch and warlock, raised since infancy in the ways of magic. Mistress of Circles, powerful arch-witch and soothsayer. Why would she disown you for me?”

          “Because you have done something to her!” Tiffany blurted. “Some spell or glamour…”

          Loach laughed. “Not at all. What she does, she does for her own reasons. They are petty, grasping, and ultimately deluded reasons, but they are reasons nonetheless.” He turned to his desk, walking with easy gait. Tiffany wanted to attack his unprotected back, but she was mindful of the figurine, still staring at her. She could feel its emanations, searching for a way back to her pool of energy. It was seeking any crack or crevice in her mental armor that would allow it to feed on Tiffany’s life essence. If she summoned her power, its ethereal tendrils would be on her instantly. Helplessly, she watched as Ronald Loach picked up a rune-covered box and turned back to her. “Lori wants power. In truth, she left your friendship behind long ago. But only recently did she decide to make the final break from your coven. When I told her about this.”

          “What is it?” Tiffany asked.

          Loach laughed. “You’ll find out soon enough. Why don’t we talk about the Forgotten Idol instead? Yes, that’s it sitting inside the circle with you. How do you like its company?”

          “You made that ugly thing?” Tiffany asked. “How?” She tried to surreptitiously edge closer to the artifact ” thinking to knock it away, out of the circle ” but the less space between her and it, the more powerful its invisible, searching fingers became. In order to kick at it, she would need to submit herself fully to its greedy, fatal embrace. The only blessing was that its reach was apparently short. If she could only get outside the circle herself, she didn’t think it would be able to affect her.

          “You flatter me, dear. I didn’t manufacture the idol. It’s from Atlantis, actually, although that land’s inhabitants called it Sargassum. Thousands of years ago, when Sargassum sank beneath the waves, some of its relics remained. This idol was used to punish sorcerers, I believe. Fascinating, isn’t it? I found it in the ruins of Otumba, the Aztec city. I’ve been saving it for just this purpose.”

          “You’re insane, Ronald. What are you planning to do?”

          Loach smiled. “Well, that’s an easy question to answer. Brianna will be here in moments. She is going to receive a very nasty welcome. But don’t worry, my dear, you will see her soon, when she joins you in there. I will sacrifice the three of you tonight, collect your hot, steaming life’s blood, and pour it over the Ebon Shard here.” He paused to flick a bit of dirt from his suit’s lapel. “Yes, yes, Lori as well. Don’t look so surprised, I told you she was deluded. Then, once the proper incantations are spoken, and the Shard awakened…well, I suppose I’ll do whatever I wish. Literally.”

          Tiffany’s mind was roiling, thoughts and ideas crashing into one another as she struggled to formulate some kind of a plan. She couldn’t lose hope.

          “Now, my dear, I believe I shall retire to prepare for the ceremony. I’ll be seeing you again.” He began to walk toward the door, carrying the Ebon Shard in its box. “Oh, and should you become overly fatigued resisting the pull of the statue, just give in. I’ve instructed it not to kill you. You’ll merely sleep until I have need of you. Think of it as my final kindness.” He grinned, carrying the box with him as he left the office. The door closed softly behind him, leaving her alone with the hungry idol.

8

          Lori stood in the lower room. She did not see the demon, but this was not unusual. Though fearsome when they did, such things took physical form for only short periods of time. Usually, they existed as ghostlike filaments or wisps of ether while on the physical plane, only manifesting their true forms when necessary. She glanced around the elegantly-appointed chamber, filled with tasteful and expensive European furniture, and extended her powerful eldritch awareness.

          There it is, she thought, spotting a cottonball-like mass of ectoplasm in the far corner. Though it resembled a harmless spirit in this form, Lori could sense the Canaanite’s evil energy from across the room. As the thing’s summoner, Lori had complete control over the demon, provided she had made no mistake in her lore-weaving (and she hadn’t, or she would already be dead). During the previous night’s’ summoning, she had needed to collapse near the thing in order to pull off the charade of its escape. If there had been any imperfection in the incantations or runes, the creature would have killed her without a thought. Of course she had not counted on Brianna’s attack being quite so energetic. The witch’s actions had caused a massive fire that had swept through three buildings. The demon had also been enraged by the attack of the tall redhead’s familiars, and had vented its anger by rampaging through the downtown core before she had been able to exert control and bring it to heel. Still, twenty-four wounded and three dead was a small price to pay for her very own denizen of the abyss.

          Grinning slightly, the young witch commanded the monster to her side. She would now prepare it for battle, not that a Canaanite demon ever needed much preparation. It was usually those forced to deal with one of the horrors who had to be thoroughly prepared.

          The demon floated from its corner perch and began to drift toward her. Lori felt her own familiar spirits cringing at the thing’s approach. she calmed them with a quick few words in the language of magic, then continued to extend her awareness through the Motherhouse.

          She could sense Tiffany upstairs, near Ronald’s revolting little plaything. But aren’t we all his playthings? she thought with a sardonic grin. Loach, too, she could feel, surrounded by his powerful wards and sigils, glamours that protected him from any magical harm and made his image weak and indistinct to Lori’s mystic sight. He held the Ebon Shard, a black, empty hole in her awareness. Here was a power that far surpassed her; one which instilled in her both fear and exhilaration. The thought of that raw, unbridled power being shared with her was delicious. I believe I’ll keep this demon around, she decided, in case Ronald has thoughts of betrayal in mind. In fact, he almost assuredly does. Perhaps the Caananite will dissuade him.

         She suddenly sensed Brianna close by. Her coven sister was approaching, slowly, from the north. And she was angry.

9

          Brianna was in no shape to be cautious or methodical as she returned to her luxurious home. If she allowed her fury and rage to subside, even for a moment, she would collapse from her injuries and her exertions. She limped up West Street, both familiars manifesting fully in the air above her. She was naked, the last vestiges of her dress having been blown or burned off in her escape from the burning building. Several cars followed her and bystanders gawked. Sirens wailed, momentarily distracted by the burning building several blocks away. Soon, they would be upon her. This had to be finished quickly.

          She would grab the car and check to see if Tiffany was alive or not. Maybe someone had left a phone number for her at the hospital. If she encountered Loach or any of his hired thugs, she would attack on sight. Ronald himself would most likely kill her if they fought, but she had nothing left to live for anyway. Her coven was destroyed, their patron revealed as a manipulative betrayer. Brianna hadn’t the mentality for escape; she couldn’t bring herself to slip away like a beaten dog. Where could she go, if her sisters were dead? Better to go out fighting, and maybe take down the source of their doom in the process.

          There was a stretch limo parked in front of the Motherhouse.

          Loach.

          As Brianna stepped past her home’s mystic perimeter, the cars and pedestrians following her progress suddenly stopped, mouths agape, and began talking amongst themselves, confused. Brianna knew that to them she had just vanished into thin air.

          The Motherhouse had been built entirely with Ronald’s funds. Loach Industries, his construction company, had erected the entire mansion, using workers from out of state. Loach had included certain mystic stones and arcane patterns around the perimeter of the house’s grounds during and just after its completion. Together, these wards effectively made the Motherhouse invisible. Subtle alteration of the minds of passersby made them unable to perceive its existence at the end of West Street. To most, the woods were as unbroken and unspoiled as they were four years ago when the land was cleared. Only those who knew the glamours were there – those with talent enough to understand how they worked – could penetrate the mist of forgetfulness that hung around the place and see it as it really was. Since none of the onlookers on West Street had that ability, they simply saw Brianna disappear as she crossed the property line and entered the cobbled drive of 86 West Street.

          She verified that the vehicle parked near the door was indeed Ronald’s personal car, then gestured to Ii. The other-dimensional being unleashed a flood of electricity at the limousine, destroying its windows, blowing out all four tires, and ripping the hood and trunk from their moorings. One door also blew off, landing on the lawn some thirty feet away. The horn blared momentarily, then was cut off in an awful warble as it melted and liquefied. Brianna smiled bitterly as she walked past the ruined car. She had struck the first blow, to Loach’s pocketbook.

          As Brianna approached the door, again she did not hesitate. Loach was inside, but she would not enter timidly the den of the wolf. The redheaded witch ascended the steps, still wincing with each footfall at the pain from her broken ribs, and spoke a word of power as her slender hand gripped the doorknob. She drew on power from her own inner wellspring and also from her two strong familiars, and the steel doorknob melted like taffy under her fingers. She tore it from its mooring, threw it aside, and kicked in the door.

          Lori was standing inside, and towering over her stood the demonic horror they had summoned last night. Lori was smiling, her aura bright. She spoke a word, gesturing, and the door behind Brianna slammed shut, sealed now not with a latch but with magic. Brianna knew she could overpower the brunette’s enchantment, but she had no wish to do so. As the Canaanite roared, a terrible, unearthly sound, Brianna was already in motion.

          Lori had made one mistake, and that was to imagine Brianna would react as Tiffany had. But the tall redhead was steeped in suspicion and nearly always expected betrayal. Perhaps Loach had ensorcelled Lori, or perhaps she was acting of her own volition, but to Brianna she had instantly metamorphosized from friend and sister to enemy. The element of surprise that Lori had counted on evaporated like morning mist.

          It was not to be a battle like the one fought behind the Plains Bank. Now, Brianna had little or nothing to lose. She was not trying to protect or shield anyone. She did not have to worry about discovery or arrest. This time she was free to let loose her last reserves. With a grimacing snarl, she ordered Ii and Red to kill the Canaanite demon. At the same time, she ran for Lori, ignoring the towering menace next to her. Lori now the one caught by surprise ” desperately summoned her three familiars. Brianna’s body began to glow with blue energy, borrowed power from Ii, and she collided with Qwinas the dog head-on.

10

          Tiffany heard the explosion that marked the end of Ronald’s personal limousine.

          Brianna’s arrived!

          Seconds later, she heard the door crash open, then the insane bellowing of the demon. The battle had been joined. Tiffany knew it was now or never: she had to get out of the trap in which Loach had caught her. She reached one hand up to her neck, grasping the pendant that hung there on its thin chain. It was true that Ronald Loach had kept much from the West Street coven, had hid his real intentions and his ultimate aims. He had also likely concealed his most potent lore from the three witches under his tutelage. But they, too, had secrets they had not shared with their mysterious benefactor. Although Loach knew of Tiffany’s grandmother, had heard of her deeds and her reputation, there was much of which he was ignorant. The Amulet of Cthon, for example.

          Louise Walsh had obtained the amulet long ago, when she had been younger than Tiffany now was. Handed down through the next generation of the Walsh family – a generation that had produced no witches – Louise’s granddaughter had received the amulet on her fifteenth birthday. Late that day, Gramma Walsh had taken the young girl aside and explained certain things in a long conversation during which Tiffany sat, enraptured, until dismissed. Louise had told her the story behind the creation of the amulet, so far in the past that the sinking of Ronald’s Sargassum would seem mere moments ago. She had entrusted it to Tiffany, but warned her about its dangers. Some tools shouldn’t be used, Gramma Walsh had said, –and some cures are worse than the disease.

          Now, however, it was time to put the tool to good use.

          Tiffany spoke a secret phrase, syllables of power that Ronald Loach had never heard, and the Amulet of Cthon surged to life.

          The watchful Forgotten Idol immediately sensed the pendant’s energy and reached for it greedily. Tiffany felt a great movement of force, an opening of some forbidden doorway, and the jewel around her neck jumped and coiled like an attacking snake. A beam of pure white lanced from it, directly to the repugnant little carving sitting in the circle with her. The Forgotten Idol blindly grabbed for more of the pendant’s power, sealing its doom. The amulet secured it’s mystic grasp and tore a shimmering, wriggling something from inside the statue. Like a taut bowstring, the white beam of energy snapped back into the Amulet of Cthon, hauling the twisting, trapped essence of the Forgotten Idol in with it. There came a horrible squeal of terror and pain, then the circle was once again dark and quiet.

          An instant later, Tiffany crushed the remains of the Forgotten Idol to powder beneath her foot, its form made brittle and dry by the loss of its animating soul. The blonde witch turned, cold and calculating now, and spoke several words in quick succession. The double “Z” southwest sigil exploded in a shower of sparks, and Tiffany stepped across the circle and headed for the stairs just as a long, aching scream tore through the air from below.

          I’m coming, Brianna! She thought fiercely, willing her damaged knee to move. Hold on.

11

          Brianna stood, holding Qwinas’ severed head in one gore-coated hand. Behind her, Ii and Red were firing salvo after salvo at the Canaanite, which was tearing up the mansion trying to catch the annoying, rapidly-moving targets tormenting it, The Motherhouse had already begun to burn.

          Brianna glared at Lori, a fierce grin distorting her face. “Bad dog,” she said, tossing the rapidly-degenerating blob of ectoplasm that had once been Qwinas onto the ground.

          Lori, now looking far less confident, backed away from her coven sister. She gestured, sending her remaining familiars Mollei and D’zou toward the tall redhead. Brianna saw Lori’s eyes dart to the staircase, perhaps hoping for aid from Ronald Loach. Then D’zou was before her, trying to lock its gaze on her own. The ape’s eyes were its only real weapon, so Brianna faked toward Mollei and then grabbed the monkey’s head like a bowling ball, her glowing fingers sinking into its eye sockets and turning the luminant plasm contained within them into a gaseous soup. The blinded creature screamed piteously, and Brianna discarded its mangled body and turned her attention toward Mollei, which was spreading its noxious fumes in a desperate (and pathetic, in Brianna’s opinion) effort to cover its mistress’s retreat.

          Just as she was about to destroy the last spirit and corner her former friend, however, she screamed in agony as a bolt of pain lanced into her heart.

          A witch could be bonded to her familiar spirits in one of several ways, and the rituals Brianna had used were the oldest and most durable. Unfortunately, they also caused mistress and servant to be connected, each feeling wounds that afflicted the other.

          Brianna turned, and saw Ii trapped inside the Canaanite’s mouth, the demon’s multitudinous teeth piercing and shredding the electrical being’s body. Ii was gravely wounded, and in a moment more would be destroyed.

          The link between a witch and her familiar allowed either to borrow energy from the other. The witch would use power from a potent spirit to help her cast an enchantment or fortify a glamour. Brianna had taken energy from both of her ghostly companions in the past, and this had allowed her to duplicate their abilities for short periods of time. Familiars could also borrow energy from their mistresses, although this was much less common. Only someone who dearly loved her spirits would allow them to partake of her precious inner wellspring of spiritual force.

          Brianna Clarke was such a person.

          Now, she fed Ii a puissant dose of her own power, willing her energy into the thing’s broken form. Through their mental bond she felt the dying Ii accept her gift with what might have been gratitude.

          Ii seemed to swell, glowing brighter than the noonday sun. Vitality filled it, and its sparking form radiated heat in waves. The Canaanite screamed as its deadly teeth melted and liquefied, running down its chin in rivulets as the other-dimensional familiar surged with newfound power from its mistress. Its wounds healed, and the damage done to its ectoplasmic form repaired, Ii began to move upwards, melting through the roof of the demon’s mouth and through its ugly head. The spirit emerged from the demon’s scalp, trailing electricity in blue-gold streamers. The Canaanite roared in pain and fury, its grotesque hands flying to the open ruin of its cranium.

          There was nothing it could do to save itself as Red attacked.

          The powerful flame-creature released a gout of bright fire, pouring it like a spigot directly into the demon’s brain. For a second or two the Canaanite stood, fiery material oozing in thick streams from its eyes, nostrils, and ears. Then its skull disintegrated into several burning pieces, and its massive, headless torso staggered and fell to the floor with an enormous crash that shook the Motherhouse to its foundations. The floorboards gave way, sending the dead monstrosity down into the basement amid huge plumes of smoke and dust.

          Brianna lost her footing for a moment, and it was in that instant Lori struck.

 

          Lori watched as the demon she had been hoping to use as insurance against Ronald Loach was destroyed by her former friend. She needed to act fast, before the tall redhead could organize her two freakish monsters again and turn them on her. Before Brianna could tear her eyes away from the ruin of the Canaanite, Lori crept from behind Mollei’s foggy curtain, preparing one of her most devastating spells. When the mansion shook as the demon’s carcass fell through the floor, Lori stepped forward and shouted a ringing word of power.

 

          Brianna heard Lori’s yell. She knew what was coming, but the floor’s motion had left her off-balance and helpless to avoid it.

          An invisible, solid stream of force flew from Lori’s hand, surging through the empty air between the two women and striking Brianna cleanly in the midsection. Unbelievable pain tore through her as she felt her shattered ribs puncture her internal organs. The impact of the beam knocked her off her feet and to within inches of the jagged hole in the floor.

          Brianna couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Her entire world was pain. A spurt of bright blood shot from her mouth, and she fought to remain conscious.

          She didn’t notice Red and Ii attack Lori simultaneously, their fire and lightning striking the defenseless witch down like the hammer of some vengeful god. In the room above, Tiffany heard Lori’s last horrid screech of pain, but Brianna did not. She had begun coughing, reddish spittle flying from her lips as she convulsed. She knew she had suffered a fatal wound.

12

          Tiffany ran down the stairs just as Brianna crawled slowly to her knees. Lori was obviously dead, her charred remains blackened and still on the other side of the giant crater in the middle of the room. The acrid smoke filling the room burned Tiffany’s eyes, and she could see flames licking up the walls and across the ceiling. The whole Motherhouse would soon be ablaze.

          The Canaanite demon seemed to have been destroyed, but Tiffany knew there was a greater danger in their home, She scanned the room cautiously, searching for Ronald Loach as she crossed the ruined floor, avoiding several piles of degenerating ectoplasm. She saw that Brianna was in bad shape. Blood was pouring from her mouth, and she was coughing constantly. Ii and Red circled their mistress protectively, but they allowed Tiffany to approach unmolested.

          “Bri” Tiffany yelled. “Stay there! Don’t try to move.”

          Brianna somehow managed to make it to her feet. She raised one shaking arm and pointed, her voice stolen by another bout of wet coughing.

          Tiffany turned, and saw Loach walking toward them.

          He had changed from his expensive business suit into warlock’s garb: a black robe covered in sigils and runes. In his right hand he carried a long, wicked-looking wand, made of some type of coiled wood. His other hand clutched the Ebon Shard. Loach was coming with easy strides, but his eyes were sharp and watchful. To Tiffany, he looked like a beast which had wounded its prey, and was now circling in for the kill.

          “You bastard,” Brianna croaked, spitting. “Die!”

          Red and Ii rushed toward the grinning warlock, but Loach raised his wand (which none of the West Street Coven had ever seen before) and spoke a single word. A rolling ripple of magic pulsed outward from the wood, erasing both familiar spirits from the room. “Not today,” he said casually.

          Tiffany saw Brianna glance at her, then felt an enormous rush of energy as the redhead gave her the last of her force. With her familiars banished and her body broken, Brianna lacked the capability to mount an offense. After sending her remaining energy to her sister she collapsed, coughing wetly.

          “It’s just you and me now, Ronald,” Tiffany told her former master. “No circles, or idols, between us.”

          “Oh, please dispense with the theatrics, my dear,” Loach requested. “Nothing that has happened here has changed what will take place in the next few moments. You will die, as will your injured sister. Lori, I fear, has preceded you both by a short time.” He glanced at his former lover’s corpse with distaste, and Tiffany was tempted to back away. She held her ground, however, as he continued. “Your blood – and whatever small amount Brianna hasn’t spat up by now – will be enough to nourish the Shard, and I will be ascendant.”

          Tiffany didn’t waste time arguing. She summoned her familiars and channeled her force plus some of the power Brianna had provided into a killing hex, aimed straight at Loach’s heart. The warlock laughed, however, and waved his wand again. Tiffany’s magic was struck from the air, dissipating harmlessly before reaching its target. Then Loach moved to attack.

          Tiffany commanded Tihu, her Aztec familiar, to erect a shield, as strong a barrier as it could generate.

          Ronald laughed again when he saw what Tiffany had done. He raised the wand and pointed it directly at the blonde witch. She flinched as a bright yellow beam flew from the stick and smashed against her invisible protective wall. Loach merely smiled and fired again. Over and over, his seemingly inexhaustible wand threw bolts of bright magical force towards Tiffany, and her barrier began to crack. Tihu was trying to maintain the wall, but the energy it had gained from Brianna’s gift was exhausted. It was now sustaining the barrier using only its own rapidly dwindling supply of power. Soon, Loach would break through.

          Just as the mystic shield fractured and began to crumble, however, Tiffany gave a single mental command.

          Loach was many things: businessman, magnate, warlock, soothsayer. But in all his guises his one weakness was overconfidence. He had been told, time and again, that his future held one achievement after another, victory on top of victory. He would see his enemies dead and watch as his plans came to fruition. So it had been, for all of his long life. He had no reason to assume that his luck would change: that he, too would perish as those who had opposed him in the past had perished.

          So when he attacked Tiffany’s barrier with his wand, sending beams of shining destruction at it again and again, it never occurred to him to check what her other familiar was doing.

          Pana the crab leapt upwards from where it had crept, near the back of Loach’s left foot. Its crushing claw darted forward, the spirit meaning to grab the Ebon Shard from its owner’s hand. Loach saw the jumping ghost at the last second, jerking away in surprise and shock. Pana’s claw closed not on the crystal the warlock held, but on his forearm about halfway to the elbow. The crab closed its pincer, twisting off a large chunk of Loach’s flesh, leaving a gaping wound.

          The warlock screamed in agony. His shocked eyes stared in disbelief as rivulets of his own blood spurted and ran down his arm.

          Onto the Ebon Shard still clutched in his hand.

          Whatever dark, ancient being resided in the Shard did not awaken fully – of this Tiffany was certain. If it had attained consciousness, she was sure all three of them would have died immediately. As it was, the instant Loach’s blood touched the artifact, the presence inside stirred, as a vicious animal disturbed from a sound slumber will stir. The Shard began to glow with a strange, colorless light, and Tiffany felt a horrid presence in the room with them. The Shard was active for mere instants before its ugly light shut off, as if a hidden switch had somewhere been reset.

          Tiffany realized she had thrown her hands over her eyes at the sight of the crawling, ugly brilliance of the Shard. She removed them in time to see the body of Ronald Loach slump bonelessly to the floor.

          His corpse bore an expression of utmost terror, and his hair was now a pure, snowy white. Every drop of blood had been drained from his body, and the wand he had been holding was a cracked, splintered ruin. Loach had died without a sound, killed instantly by the merest touch of the thing inside the Ebon Shard.

          When Tiffany reached him, she saw that the Shard itself was unharmed, laying a short distance from the corpse of her former teacher. Brianna had lost consciousness at some point, so there were no witnesses as Tiffany’s hand crept up to the Amulet of Cthon once more. Words were spoken, and a few seconds later the Ebon Shard vanished from earth forever.

          A tool put to good use, Gramma, she thought, and for some reason tears fell from her eyes in the burning, wreckage-filled room.

 

13

          When Ronald Loach died, the glamours and enchantments he had placed on and around the Motherhouse vanished. The mansion reappeared, becoming visible to everyone in Andersburg. The fact that it was a blazing inferno at the time of its reappearance only added to the dramatic effect.

          The West Street coven is no more, Tiffany realized as she drove Brianna’s Miata out toward the highway. Her friend was strapped into the passenger seat, grievously injured but stabilized by a hastily-cast spell.

          Tiffany had not decided exactly where they were headed. Perhaps they would drive to her great-uncle Gregory’s place, about two hundred miles to the west in Essex. Gregory was a sorcerer and healer; he could repair Brianna’s torn body. Another option was Brianna’s father in Newport, though the redhead would never allow it if she were conscious. Tiffany would think it over once she left Andersburg for good.

          One thing was certain: for the first time in five years, they were free to make their own decisions. They had, of course, sacrificed much for that freedom. Lori was dead, as were Tiffany’s familiars Ashante and Piotos. There were also the consequences of using the Amulet of Cthon ” twice. But those consequences, plus whatever other challenges they had to face in the days and weeks ahead, could be dealt with. After all, Tiffany thought, each new adventure begins with some measure of risk.

          As the car sped toward the on-ramp of the interstate turnpike, Tiffany Walsh felt optimism wash over her like a welcome spring rain.

          It was time for the next adventure of her life to begin.

 

 

       END

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