A two room apartment only a block from the river was what she called home. The place was cozy, clean and comfortable.
She dropped her jacket on a chair and wandered off to the kitchenette so I decided to have a look around. Her taste in books was an acceptable selection for the aspiring witch, although more scholarly than practical. Tending toward the occult and spiritual, most of them were modern reprints of occult classics. She also kept the obligatory altar against the north wall correctly arrayed and free of dust.
All but one of them being of the common cauldron shop variety, scattered elsewhere about was a collection of gothic/pagan nick-knacks on end tables and shelves. Her collection of trinkets had a youthful history, with the exception of a single item. I felt the vibration from the thing as soon as I walked in and it only took a moment to spot.
Hearing the water begin filling the washer, I took off the Mac and began removing my shirt. I let her throw my soiled clothes in the whirlpool and used the time to find her bathroom. Bathing the Yaoguai in her sink I thought about how impractical the weapon was in a contemporary setting. Still, the sword had sentimental value and I wasn’t about to capitulate to firearms. Like most all electronics, some mechanical devices also don’t mix well with magick. They go awry and tend to take on a persona of their own. Like the item hanging over her altar by a leather thong. Even inanimate objects acquire power, more slowly than living organisms of course, but they are generally more patient. This thing was no trinket. It had a history and a very colorful one.
When I caught a whiff of the coffee finishing, I let my mind switch gears. Leaning the katana against an Isis shaped umbrella stand, I went to the couch and waited. A few minutes later Rose returned with a scalding cup of black heaven. Cradling a cup of her own between her palms, she settled into an armchair.
“You look a lot younger than you sounded out there. How old are you anyway?”
“I’m older than I look. How about you, twenty-six?”
“Playing the enigma eh? Well good guess anyway. Twenty seven come November. You look thirty, but talk like you’re a hundred. I had an uncle talked like that. He was a Vietnam Vet and the war really messed him up, either that or the drugs. Point is, he’d seen things he couldn’t live with. You talk like you’ve seen those things, but you’re not the same. You seem, unaffected.”
“Rose, what I do isn’t fanciful. It can get ugly and violent. I don’t chase spooks and usually only get involved when the nature of the outbreak is threating.” Realizing what I was implying, she thought it over.
“Outbreak, of the paranormal? You think I’m in serious trouble don’t you?” She paused for a moment, then continued. “So do I.” A faraway look came into her eyes and her shoulders sagged. A hint of that defeated look was returning and I decided to cut it short before she clammed up on me.
“Good, if you’re willing to accept the situation, I think I can help. But first things first. The pentagram hanging over your altar, how did you come by it?”
Glancing toward the thing, she replied. “It was an initiation gift. A member of the coven gave it to me. At first I thought it was just a piece of internet junk, but there’s something strange about it. I started wearing it, but got creeped out. What’s so special about it?”
“That piece, as you call it, is a talisman. It’s about seven hundred years old and was designed for a woman named Helena.”
“Was she a witch?”
“And you know this how?”
“I told you. It’s my field.”
She nodded at me to continue.
“Helena was born in France, in 1292. She was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. They were a line of female adepts, witches if you will.”
“What happened to her?”
“Eventually she was drowned for the use of Mageia, black magic, but up until then she caused quite a ruckus. Does your coven follow any particular school or system?”
“I don’t think so. I took it be an offshoot of Alexandrian at first because some of the rituals and practices were similar, but afterwards things changed.”
“They started using Sex magic?”
“Uh huh. I didn’t mind that so much it was kind of exciting. Supposed to be I guess, but then they started Hexing and other things.”
“Blood magic and curses. Did you take part in any Vampirism?”
“Not that I know of, but things were getting really weird. It felt all wrong for me so I tried leaving. They wouldn’t let me and actually locked me up in a room for a couple of days. I don’t know who did it, but someone left the door unlocked and let me I escape. Since then I can feel them following me. Now everything keeps getting even more weird.”
“You sure it wasn’t an accident, you escaping?”
“I’m not positive, no. But Arlan was really pissed and he doesn’t seem the type to get over being rejected. At the time it seemed like an intentional oversight.
“Okay, what else is going on?”
“Christ! My hair’s falling out! I get headaches and wake up with my nose bleeding, but the worst of it is the nightmares. They’re horrible. I’m afraid to sleep.”
“Tell me about them.”
“There’s several that keep repeating, either I’m being chased by something I can’t see it, or I’m a priestess performing sacrifices. They’re, human sacrifices and I have no control over myself. I feel my victims die, hear their screams and it seems so real. Even when I’m not dreaming, I feel a darkness hanging over me, like a shroud.”
“That’s a death curse. It’s what sent you to the bridge. I can help with that, but I need to know; when you kill your victims in your dreams, how is it done?”
“Mostly with a knife, like an athame, but sometimes, God it’s so gruesome! I kill them with my teeth!”
“That’s not good, but I think we can fix it. I’m going to need to know where to find your coven.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you about them while I cook. How do you like your steak?”
“Rare. Just singed a bit.”
“A meat and potatoes guy eh?”
“Well, meat anyway. Though it’s really not necessary for you to cook.”
“Look. You saved my ass back there. It’s the least I can do. Besides, I’m hungry and I want to hear the rest of the story.”
“Looks to me like it was worth saving.” The look she gave me was calculating for a few seconds before softening into a rather smug sort of smirk. Good, I needed her morale to be on the rise.
“I mean, which story is that?”
Okay, so I have a thing for red-haired, green-eyed Irish girls, but Rose‘s personality had been subdued, almost subjugated by someone seeking control over her. The strength of her spirit demanded she fight back, but overwhelmed as it’d been she’d come to see death as her only escape. If I hadn’t come along when I did, I’ve no doubt she would’ve jumped. Now though, with only a modest amount of support it was returning to dominance.
“About Helena, the witch.”
“I will, but first fill me in on this group you were with.”
I knew any involvement beyond the platonic would be dangerous. Still, it’d also been a long time since I felt comfortable enough around a woman to make such an obvious pass at her. As she started to regale me with details regarding the members of her abandoned coven, though her speech was somewhat guarded it was free of its prior note of depression.
“No steak sauce, salt and pepper, anything?” She asked a few minutes later retuning to the living area with a plate bearing a bleeding bovine slab.
“No thanks, it’s perfect!”
Returning to the kitchen to retrieve her own moderately rare steak, I also noticed a more pronounced sway to her hips as she walked. A sashay is what I’d call it.
“So this Arlan founded the group?”
“Pretty sure.” She sputtered between chews. My own steak had disappeared as if by magic. While she worked on hers I launched into the tale of Helena.
“Let me start by explaining that Helena was the survivor of birth twins. Having never taken a first breath, her sister was denied burial on hallowed ground as her mother was a known sorceress. Being first from the womb, had she lived she would’ve been the sixth daughter in the line making Helena the seventh. Since things didn’t work out that way, it brought into question that Helena was the child anticipated. She was closely monitored and as it turned out she wasn’t, but there was fear that if she gave birth, the child she bore would be the target. This might sound like a strange question, but is your mother still living?”
“I don’t know. She put me up for adoption when I was a baby and I haven’t seen her since. What has that to do with anything?”
“I’ll get to that in a minute.”
“Well what was she the target of?”
“Patience please. Helena grew to womanhood, coached first by her birth mother and later by others in secret ways of the witch. According to legend, her mother was stoned and Helena set out on her own afterwards. As she became more proficient in the craft her reputation as both a healer and seer earned her an advisory post in the court of King Phillip. Later, when Pope Clement took up residence in Avignon, she was forced to flee persecution and eventually, just like her mother she was executed for witchcraft.”
“I’ve heard of similar stores. The burning times, The Malleus Maleficarum, the drowning and torturing. It’s unspeakable!”
“They were sad times, yes. But during her stay in Paris, Helena was given a warning regarding her heritage and a talisman. It was made for her by a member of Phillip’s court, created with a single purpose in mind.”
“Which was?” Rose asked right on cue.
“To protect her and her expected child.”
“You mean like demonic possession?”
“Something like that only worse.”
“Well what was the warning?”
“She was warned that if she should give birth to a girl child, she must guard her from the Dark Queen. The talisman was to be placed immediately around the child’s neck and kept there because, more or less, it was feared that by default the child would be the one chosen to host the Mother of Evil in her quest to reenter the human world.”
“I don’t get it. Who’s this Dark Queen?”
“She who was cast out of the garden.”
“You’re talking about…?”
“Yes, but to avoid attention, let’s leave her name out of it.”
A look came over Rose’s face that was a mixture of disbelief and fright.
“Look. I may dabble in witchcraft, but this is way out of bounds! Whether she was a real person or just another myth, she has a hell of a reputation. Mother of Vampires, Queen of the Zombies and a whole lot more.”
“The stuff of fairy tales, I know, but if you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain.”
“I still don’t see what any of this has to do with me?”
“I’m getting to that, but hold that thought. This power of which we speak of was banished by Jehovah. But about six hundred years after the birth of Christ she found her way into our world. Bringing upon mankind an age of darkness, she hung around until Richard the Lionheart with the aid of an army of priests, forced her to retreat back to limbo. Her influence remained strong for a long time after that, pretty much until the Ottoman overthrow of Constantinople. That event seriously weakened the stranglehold she had on Christendom and allowed for the rise of enlightened thinking. You familiar with the Renaissance?”
“I may have heard of it.”
“Sarcasm eh? Well pardon the history lesson. I’m just illustrating that in secret she waits, manipulating a plan for her return. She picks her opportunities to seduce humans into doing her bidding. In her dark heart she desires to be born again into the world from which she was exiled. If she should succeed, for a time she’d be more or less harmless as an infant. During which, those she has seduced would look after her.”
“And Helena was to be her guardian?”
“It was feared that she was chosen to fulfill that role. Pope Clement suspected her of giving birth and harboring a daughter who was the intended vehicle of the Dark Queen’s return. The talisman was designed to detect her evil and repel it and make no mistake, she whom we discuss is the true mother of evil. I thought the thing long lost and it turning up here makes me think you have an unexpected guardian within the coven. Now I have to ask you a delicate question. Did you have sex with any members of this coven?”
“No! What? Well, yes. But you don’t think I…”
“Actually, I do. That’s what brought me here. If you’d gone along with their plan, they wouldn’t have placed their curse on you. On the other hand, if you had I’d be hunting you instead.” I paused to attend to the scratching at the window pane. Noting the bluish glow radiating from Yaoguai’s blade I knew we were about to be interrupted.
“What do you mean? You’d be hunting me instead?”
“Some explanations are going to have to wait. I suggest you take to wearing that medallion, starting right now!”
I wouldn’t have blamed her for not believing me, but to her credit Rose was on her way to retrieve the talisman when the glass of the window shattered. I made use of the time to retrieve Mei-Yue’s gift. I was about to set myself and the sword between whatever was trying to get in and at the object of its desire, when I had second thoughts.
I was set to intercede, but this seemed as good as time as any to find out just how effective the pendant I made for Helena actually was. She’d been witch-ecuted before it could be tested and the blue flame running along the Dragon Sword’s length was a positive sign that whatever was trying to gain access was born of magick. Hard as I might try, I might not be available at the moment I was needed and if I could rely on the talisman’s effectiveness, then that could free me up considerably.
Rose’s apartment was backed up to an alley and as an added precaution someone had prudently installed a heavy gage steel mesh over the windows. It was enough to slow the thing down, but not stop it. Looking like it was composed of viscous smoke, an arm the girth of a mature oak tree reached through. Stretching toward Rose, it was all I could do to restrain the urge to intercede.
Sliding the chain over her head, the pentacle settled between Rose’s breasts and she turned to face the smoky fist of foulness. Halting halfway across the room, with a rush of wind the invader withdrew toppling furniture along the way.
“Blessed be! What was that thing?”
“I don’t know exactly, some kind of golem.”
“Where’d you get the sword?”
“It was hiding by the umbrella stand.”
“What do you mean it was hiding? And why is it blue?”
“The sword is a celestial, the dragon to be exact. He glows like that in the proximity of threatening magick. We’ve been together a long time and when he doesn’t want to be seen he’s very good at concealing his whereabouts.”
“You realize you sound crazier with every word you say?”
“Yeah, but tell me you didn’t just see a ghostly arm bust through your window to drag you into the otherworld and I’ll drop it.”
“Considering what just happened you seem incredibly calm.”
“I’m not sure I believe any of it, but if it’s real I can’t afford to panic can I?”
“No, you can’t. They’re still going to send someone else after you, but fortunately my presence wasn’t revealed.”
“Why should that be a secret?”
“It won’t be for long. I suspect someone already knows about me and just isn’t sharing.”
“Maybe it’s time you told me who you are and why is it exactly that you are here?”
“I guess you have the right to know, but I would also caution you that the fewer that know about me the better off we both will be. Got a suitcase?”
“I know a place where you will be safe. I’m going to have to ask you to trust me without real reason to.”
“Well, seeing as you’re the only thing that hasn’t tried to hurt me tonight, I’ll give you that. But how is it you happened to come along when you did?”
“In mysterious ways does this world work. It was partly by chance, but that chance came into being because I’ve been looking for you. It helped that someone sent up a smoke signal.”
“I didn’t know it would be you personally, no. I was keeping watch for another Helena scenario and I heard a whisper.”
“A whisper, smoke signals. That’s pretty cryptic don’t you think? I’ve got a lot of questions.”
“Fine, I’ll answer as many as I can. You pack and I’ll make sure the path is clear. We can talk along the way.”