I realize that I don’t always grow on people in a positive way, but even so, we’d only known each other for two days. And as I don’t usually apply myself to doing housework with a hangover, finding the note tucked into the neck of the Cabernet Sauvignon bottle we’d emptied the night before was purely by accident. At first I didn’t even want to read it, being pretty sure it was another heartfelt farewell.
I didn’t know much about her, except that she wore her umber dyed hair to a length past her shoulders and was actually a natural red. Oh yeah, and her name was Cassandra. She had long legs, a nice athletic body and passion to spare. Whether the passion was genuine or pretense I couldn’t tell and I suppose that should’ve been a sign she’d found a chink in my armor. I liked her; really liked her and that hadn’t happened in a while so I was willing to accept our impromptu romance as a shared experience. Besides, there was just enough innocence left in her eyes to make it all believable.
I’d felt the movement when she get out of bed and didn’t think anything of it. Not until I heard the front door open, before closing softly behind her. I just lay there after that, inhaling her scent and remembering how much I like the feel of her on my skin. Our meeting I could only describe as cyclonic, as everything around us immediately started spinning. We never did take time to talk about much, including our pasts, although these days explanations why people leave aren’t really expected. Just the same I was sorry to see her go and curiosity got the better of me.
The note I slipped from the bottle neck was written on a piece of the stationary I keep on the desk, right where most would have a computer. Her handwriting was elegant, reminiscent of a prior age when penmanship rather than multi-media expressed an individual’s thoughts and feelings. The wine stains absorbed into the paper were starting to dry and looked an awful lot like blood.
‘1717 West Alameda. 7:30 pm. Please come, Cassie.’ That was all that it said. I knew right then she wasn’t requesting a romantic tryst and thought it a good thing I hadn’t let my hopes peek out from under their rock.
Like most people, I keep clear of Alameda these days. Things tend to go awry close to the Core; more often than not, badly awry. It’s been like that since a pack of geniuses calling themselves Raven’s Wing Coven built a device for tapping into the Ley-line conduit.
From what I remember, the mastermind behind it went by the name Mephisto and the day he threw the lever, switching the damn thing on, was also his last day on earth. I doubt anyone involved had an actual grasp of what they were screwing with. I suppose they thought they could control it, maybe gain an edge over the other covens.
At the time it was assumed Mephisto was one of those power hungry madmen, the sort that don’t like to share. He initiated the core on his own schedule without any assistance, which was actually fortunate for his coven. They survived by not being present. As for Mephisto, his ghost was immediately promoted to No.1 on the paranormal investigators most wanted list.
Since then several members of Raven’s Wing have joined their fearless leader by sharing his fate, but to date, no one’s been able to get near enough to the Core to shut it down.
For Danny Daniels, AKA Mephisto and the rest of his enterprising coven, it turned out to be a whole lot more than they bargained for. I heard rumors that Raven’s Wing was still on the project; working on a damper to govern the flow, but how they expect to install it is beyond me. In trying to reap the magickal whirlwind, they’ll likely wind up as semi-sentient vapor right alongside their ex High Priest. I haven’t been down there to verify this myself, because like I said, I try to avoid Alameda.
Why Cassandra was going there was her business and again, not necessarily mine. But she did invite me and did I mention, I’m sometimes plagued by a hopelessly overwhelming sense of curiosity, especially when it involves a tall redhead with shapely legs and a slight over-bite? In the meantime if I was going to let myself become inveigled in this lunacy, and I already had the strongest suspicion that I would, I needed to do some prep work.
I’m pretty sure that if anyone could handle close contact with the Core, I was that candidate. Still, it wasn’t anything I was looking forward too. As long as I didn’t get too stupid; like trying to cast anywhere near it or actually laying my hands on the thing, my chances of survival should be pretty good. Even so, an ounce of foresight’s worth a hundred times its weight in hindsight. Meaning, I had some shielding to do.
I rarely wax autobiographical for the simple reason my history makes me a target for every would-be warlock out there with ambition, and they’re all ambitious. Real Magick is ambrosia to those who sample it, one taste is never enough and there’s no such thing as too much. It’s also true that the darker the fruit, the sweeter, more addictive the flesh. I am being metaphorical here, well for the most part anyway. Even with vampire cults springing up like toadstools after a spring rain, partaking of human flesh and blood is still pretty much frowned upon. Dark magick has its ways though; pursue it and decadence will follow.
As for the Core, it didn’t really bother me that it enhanced the magickal ability of every generic spell-caster in the vicinity and having had a rather lengthy head start, I’ve never considered exposing myself to its influence to augment my own abilities. Besides, I rarely even use magick anymore. As for shutting the thing down, I hadn’t really thought of trying that either. I’m generally unaffected by the wave, but just to be safe I choose to keep my distance.
If you live long enough, you come to understand your place in the scheme of things. And if there’re two things I’ve learned, it’s don’t monkey with human evolution and never, unnecessarily piss-off a redhead. So unless there’s some personal gain involved, I keep to myself and let them do as they will. But concerning redheads; this one just might be worth the trouble that always seems to come when I break my own rules and get involved in their everyday designs.
By my reckoning, 1717 was only a block from ground zero and that could only mean one of two things. She was involved with a coven intent on shutting the Core down, which was the more unlikely, or one planning to attempt a ritual in its proximity. The second would boost their power alright, probably strait into the next plane of existence. Both plans would be equally dangerous and potentially disastrous. With the thing having established itself, no one could predict the outcome of either, not even yours truly. The Core had developed a mind, or perhaps I should say a ‘Will’ of its own and screwing with it would have repercussions.
Ready, set, we’re off to see the wizard, but with multiple layers of protective magick in place. A trench coat lined with contact sensitive banishing spells is a good start, especially when it’s about to start pouring crap outside.
Catching the bus, I took it as close to Alameda as the driver was willing to deliver me. I don’t drive anymore as all the electronic gadgets and sensors they put in automobiles these days tend to go haywire around me. When my brand new ‘89 Caddy started lurching, hopping and gurgling before up and quitting on me in the middle of the interstate at rush hour, I knew my days of driving were done. Even when I take the bus I have to move quickly to the back if I want to get where I’m going. And oh yeah, I never fly!
The remaining two miles from the bus stop to 1717 was an interesting stroll. Keeping properly to the sidewalks, I took my time. Row after row of empty houses looked as if they’d been suspended in time. No broken windows, no peeling paint, water stains or even bird dropping marred their perfect exteriors. A Sherwin Williams rep would break out in tears if he could see this! The grass of the meticulously manicured lawns hadn’t grown an inch in two years. There were no tree limbs tangled in the power lines or lying in the street. The entire neighborhood was preserved in impeccable condition, but there was no one around to perform the maintenance.
In fact, as I walked, the only thing I did see that seemed out of place was an errant blackbird being drawn backwards across the sky. I guess that was my first clue things were about to get screwy.
It wasn’t Cassandra who answered my knock, but a tall muscular man with long black hair. His sorcerer’s robe was nearly as dark as his ebon dyed mustache and Van Dyke beard. By the look in his eye, I knew he was someone I was going to have to deal with. Since I wasn’t about to ‘cast’ to determine what he was holding in the hand behind his back, I just guessed by sucker-punching him in the throat.
Dropping to the parquet like a rag doll, he became entirely absorbed in trying to breathe. If he’d been able to speak I might have taken time to interrogate him, but I knew he was just a doorstop and hardly alone. Besides, the important question was already answered. The revolver he dropped told most of the tale. Emptying the cylinder of silver hollow-points pretty much explained the rest. Whatever they wanted, they were willing to kill me to get it and I had to wonder how they’d known to use silver, but the point seemed moot at this stage.
“Wolfe?” There was something familiar about that voice.
“Ass-cramp! Is that you?” I responded from the opposite side of the wall.
“No need for name-calling. Askaran will do. I tried to warn young Alex that he should try honey rather than a stick. But such is the impetuous nature of youth.”
“You know where you can shove that stick right? I’m here for the honey. Hand her over and I’ll just walk away.”
“That simply won’t do. We have a plan you see. With your help, we can accomplish a miracle.”
“Oh yeah, what plan is that exactly?”
“We’re shutting down the Core!”
“With silver bullets?”
“You must forgive me that. I thought you might be resistant to the idea of helping us.”
“You did get that part right.” I wasn’t about to tell him that his movie props were pretty much useless ’cause if silver bullets were lethal, I’d have been dead long ago.
Her first scream, intended I’m sure as straight forward coercion, sounded authentic enough. It was Cassandra’s voice and equal portions of surprise were mixed with the pain. Followed by some whimpering, I hoped they hadn’t damaged her too badly.
“I’ve branded her for you, with a pentagram. You know how much I enjoy this, shall I continue?”
“I knew I should’ve hunted you down after the Awes-witch incident. I see now the error of my ways. What’s the game, the return of technology, or a quest for power?”
“Both, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed.”
“There’s plenty of stuff that still works. You really think we need all the gadgets? And why the cloak-and-dagger bit, you could’ve just asked.”
He chuckled at that and it was the opening I was waiting for. I wasn’t sure what form the transformation would take this close to the Core, but I assumed it would be generally unpleasant. I can usually maintain complete control over my lycanthropy, but this was going to be unpredictable. With three inch claws I tore through the plaster over drywall and stepped slathering through to the other side. Two men and several women, also robed in the black wrap of their calling, moved to as if to slow me down. They’d never discover what the core had in store for them because with their ears ringing from their own gunfire, I treated them with all the deference I gave to the wall.
With a glowing hot branding iron in his hand inches from the exposed skin of Cassandra’s chest, Askaran was looking a little nervous. As for the girl, her hair was hanging over her face and trickles of sweat ran in trails down her torso. Completely naked, she was unmarked except for the pentagram-like burn on her ribs. The image would’ve made a great cover for one of those old horror comics, but otherwise, she looked well enough.
My philosophy of violence is pretty simple. I like to have the ball in my court and if I’m going to kill someone, I don’t waste time with threats. Try that and you’re likely to be dead before you finish. If you’re out to coerce someone you’d best stick to logic, because once again, threats just don’t get the job done.
I took his hand off at the wrist. The hot iron fell to the floor where it began smoldering. Clutching his stump, Askaran yelped then started mumbling, but familiar with the spell he was attempting, I put a final end to his troublesome noise making.
It took longer for the transformation to recall than to set loose, but I managed it. When I was back to my old lovable self, I took Cassandra’s face into my hands and blew into her eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“It burns!” Twin pools of liquid amber opened shedding more tears. Suspended by straps and hung against the wall,
she began writhing.
“Alright, hold still.”
Placing my left palm over her burn, I drew away as much of her pain as I dared. The work of an Empath is no easy chore. Overdo it in the pain relief department and consciousness becomes a fuzzy, furry thing scampering for a place to hide.
“That’s better!” She gasped. “How’d you do that?”
“We can talk about that later. Right now I need your help.”
“Have you seen my clothes?” She asked as I set about freeing her wrists from their lashings.
“Nope, sorry. Those robes have a few tears in them, but if you’re set on covering yourself…”
I gave her time to find the one with the least amount of blood on it and after donning the thing, she gave me a smile I could easily have gotten lost in.
“Let’s get out of here.”
“You’re not even going to try?”
“So you were just part of the plan?”
“We’re so close. We have to at least try!”
“What was Askaran to you?”
“My step-father, but that’s not important. We can put an end to magick!”
“By bringing back technology? Uh-uh. It doesn’t work that way. Magick will abide, but your grandiose plans, whatever they were, won’t. The Core is a focal point, not the source. When I shut it down, there will likely be a period of flux where nothing works until it achieves balance. But I guess we might as well get started.”
“You’re going to do it?”
“I am. It’s likely the only way of getting your sort to leave me in peace!”
“I’ll be eternally in your debt.”
“This is probably not a good time to go thinking about eternity! Keep quiet and follow me.”
Housed in a large concrete bunker, the Core had its own line of defense in place. I found multiple fields of varying charges surrounding it once we got inside. Concentrating more intently than I had in a long time, step by step I made my way through to the power switch. I must have made for quite a show. I could feel my body fluctuating to the pressure of pushing through magickal resistance. My shielding vaporized along the way, but I was only slightly charred upon stepping through the final veil.
“What the hell are you? And who’s that in there with you?” Cassandra asked seeing the same shadowy image I could see standing at the lever.
“An afterimage of Daniels I expect, sort of like an echo. Now still your mind, hold your breath and hush.”
When I regained consciousness, I sat up in the street. I was still in Alameda, but the bunker and its contents were nowhere in sight. Lying beside me stunned, asleep, or maybe dead, a redhead with gorgeous long legs was spilling out of a tattered black robe.
After checking for a pulse, I took advantage of the moment by placing my hand against her forehead. There was a trickle of consciousness starting to awaken and it was just enough for me to do a little overdue house-keeping.
A moment later those twin amber lamps opened and blinked several times before she sat up to start adjusting her covering.
“Who are you? Do we know each other?” She asked, lifting long, rather delicate fingers to block the sunlight from her eyes.
“Oz, the great and powerful, but you usually call me Wolfey.”
“I do? I can’t seem to remember that. Wait a minute, who am I.”
“You, my dear, are my girlfriend. Your name is Cassie and you adore me most of the time. I’m afraid we were in a bit of an accident and you bumped your head.”
“Oh yeah, well how’d my stomach get burned, Mr. Oz?”
“It’s a long story and I haven’t quite finished making it up yet. You want to sit here in the street all day, or get outta here?”
“What I want is a drink, a bath and a bed. Think you can help me out with that?”
“Now that’s my kind of ending!”