“Lookie here,” I called, as I showed the dragon a large, red, rubber ball. The gangly adolescent was as big as a car and not all that coordinated.
He let out a large ker-snuffle, his yellow eyes trained on the prize as his flat pink nose quivered with excitement.
“You want this, don’t you?” I teased before tossing the ball. “Fetch!”
The white dragon scrabbled after it in a chorus of nails on concrete, tearing through the witches’ courtyard as if my Grandma had blasted him with a fireball spell.
“You can do it!” my Jack Russell terrier hollered. “Don’t get distracted!”
The dragon’s wing clipped a wooden rack loaded down with drying herbs tied together with ribbons. Bunches of rosemary, sage, and yarrow scattered across the yard. He didn’t miss a beat.
I cringed, and not because of my klutz of a dragon or my dog who spoke English. Pirate had been talking in real sentences ever since I came into my powers as a demon slayer. No, my stomach crumpled at the way the dragon burst straight across the coven’s sacred pool, showering a witch named Frieda with a small tsunami of water.
“Aww…really?” she protested, shaking off her arms. The unexpected wave had flattened her blond bouffant hair and dripped down her black bustier.
I should add that my Grandmother’s coven of witches also happened to be a Harley-riding biker gang. They’d hit the road more than thirty years ago to avoid a particularly nasty demon. Even after I’d taken care of that problem, the lifestyle had stuck.
“Sorry,” I called, wishing I had a towel to give her. “At least he’s focused,” I added, trying to lighten the mood, neglecting to tell her she had a water lily petal caught in her bangs.
My dog’s stubby tail thumped, whipping up a small breeze. “Rookie mistake. It’s way too easy to go bonkers over fetch.” Pirate was mostly white, with a dollop of brown on his back that wound up his neck and over one eye, hence the name. “Be the ball, Flappy!” He hollered. Pirate turned to me. “I taught that dragon everything he knows.”
I snorted. “In that case, he should be a whiz at climbing up on tables to sneak pork ribs.”
“I have no idea what you mean by that.” Pirate blinked up at me with wide, sincere doggie eyes.
Innocent my foot.
Meanwhile Flappy invaded the garden at the back and started nosing through a leafy green mass of plants that could have only grown in these parts with the aid of copious amounts of magic. He stopped, sneezed, and then kept going.
A gray-haired witch named Ant Eater tossed Frieda a towel. “Go ahead and let the dragon stomp through my lavender,” she barked, “as long as he hits your Grandma with a wall of water next time.”
“Charming.” I tried to sound displeased and failed. It would be pretty funny to see.
Ant Eater grinned, her gold tooth glinting in the afternoon sun. “Gertie’s had it too easy lately.”
“She’s earned it,” I said. “You, too.”
The Red Skulls had spent so many years on the run, I wasn’t sure if they remembered how to settle down. But the last few months had been a pleasant surprise. My Grandma’s coven had taken over the Coco Cabana, a 1940’s era motor inn near the California coast. A few charms, plus early payments had kept the property owner out on his boat, enjoying his own life for the first time, while the witches made a home.
Bunches of white yarrow tied with hemp rope hung over each door, to ward off evil. Enchanted crystals glittered from flowerbeds. A fountain made from broken plant pots trickled water over stones and crystals, down onto the fragrant water lilies that bloomed in the old hotel pool. The motor inn formed a U around a center courtyard that was closed in on the back by a tall fence and a massive wall of ivy. It guaranteed privacy, along with a place to do magic.
And play with dragons.
Pots of lilac, sage, and hibiscus dotted the concrete expanse. Flappy thrust his rear end up into the air as he nosed into a thick leafy grouping of plants along the back wall. He stiffened and let out a triumphant huff.
Pirate stood, his entire body quivering. “He did it!”
Flappy emerged, victorious, his jaws firmly clutching a…oh my. I hated to break it to Pirate, but, “That’s not a ball.”
The dragon snorted as he lumbered past pots of herbs and puddles of water, his yellow eyes sparkling and his large body quivering with excitement. With a happy grunt, he dropped a hot pink motorcycle helmet at my feet.
Leave it to me to ask the obvious, but, “Why was that in the bush?”
A skinny witch named Edwina strolled past us with spell jars in both hands. “Probably from the party last night.”
It had been a doozie. In fact, most of the Red Skulls were still sleeping in. I didn’t blame them. Let’s just say they made the dandelion wine especially potent on the festival of Lammas, or the late summer harvest. After just a half a glass, I’d been more than eager to escape to a spare hotel room with my husband, Dimitri.
I liked how he celebrated even better. Especially when it involved me pressed up against the oak wood door of our room. We’d barely gotten it closed before…
“You with us, demon slayer?” Edwina asked as she handed a jar to Ant Eater for inspection. Edwina nudged the curly-haired witch. “Doesn’t look like Lizzie needs this particular spell.”
Ant Eater held the jar up to the light. “You didn’t add the chipmunk whiskers.”
Edwina nodded. “They’re so small I needed to get my glasses.”
I watched them head off, talking about the intricacies involved in brewing a proper Love spell.
I didn’t even know chipmunks had whiskers.
Meanwhile, the dragon nosed the discarded bike helmet, rolling it around on the ground.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Pirate crooned. “Flappy wants to go for a ride.”
I hated to break it to him, but, “Dragons can’t ride motorcycles.” It was a wonder dogs could. I hadn’t known biker dogs existed until we’d hit the road with my Grandmother’s gang.
“The ball, Flappy,” I said, pointing, “right there. By the fence.” It lay in the dirt about six feet from where he’d dug the helmet out of the bush—a large, red ball. You couldn’t miss it.
The big dragon trundled off.
“It’s not his fault he can’t see color,” my dog pointed out. “Look for something round!” Pirate called.
The dragon broke into a run, flapping his wings. Before I knew it, he’d taken off. He flew over the fence and circled the hotel. So much for staying focused.
“You could try and fetch as well,” I suggested to Pirate. It had been his idea to teach the dragon tricks. I didn’t know why my dog was outsourcing. “You like bringing me balls and sticks. Maybe you can show Flappy where to look.”
Pirate sat down instead. “Ah, well, I fetched me some of those left over lemon squares when Bob wasn’t looking. Now I don’t feel so hot.” He stood, tail up. “Ohh… Look what Flappy has now.”
The snaggle-toothed beast kicked up a small dust storm as he landed. He let out a happy grunt and began lumbering up to us, his mouth full of a gnarled mass of twigs, and cloth, and I didn’t know what.
“Yuck,” I said, even before I realized it was covered in dragon spit. “Flappy, drop it.”
The dragon laid it at my feet and I took an instinctive step back. I detected the sharp, musty tang of rotten meat.
A bundle of sticks tied with black twine formed a pentagram. Lashed to the center, a crude human formsquirmed as if it were alive.
“That’s even better than a ball!” Pirate gushed, ready to pounce.
“Not so fast,” I said, picking him up.
I glanced around the courtyard. We were pretty much by ourselves.
At best, some poor animal could be trapped in the center of that pentagram. At worst…
I bent down for a closer look. This time, the bundle at my feet appeared dead enough. Maybe I was just tired.
The dragon stood over it panting, happy. Surely his magical animal instincts would tell him if something were off.
I forced some cheer into my voice. “Did you bring me a prize?” I didn’t think dragons were like cats, rewarding their owners with less-than-savory trophies from a kill, but I had no clue what this could be. The witches hadn’t put it together. Or at least it didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before.
The body in the center consisted of a head-like knot of burlap with a halo of colorful feathers sewn into the crown. A wad of faded yellow cloth formed the body. Poking from it, gnarled sticks made for crude arms and legs.
A faint crackle arose from it, like branches catching fire.
“Yeah, that’s bad,” I muttered, as the large, tear-shaped emerald at my throat prickled with energy. My husband had gifted me with the stone and its bronze chain when we first met. The necklace was loaded with defensive magic and tended to help me out when I needed it. For the time being, though, it held back. Even my emerald didn’t know what to make of this thing.
Frieda had gone inside. She’d probably needed to dry off. Ant Eater and Edwina lingered near the back, under the roof by the vending machines, discussing the table full of spells they’d brewed at the ritual last night. Each recycled jelly jar sparkled with pink and yellow magic, meant to dispel the darkness. At this rate, I’d need to borrow one.
Pirate squirmed in my arms, trying to get a better look at the object Flappy found. “You want me to eat it?” he offered. “I’m full, but I can make room, no problem.”
“No.” In fact, I got the distinct feeling it had been watching us. Two black stones glistened on the head of the doll lashed to the sticks. They seemed to follow my every movement. “Go get Grandma.” And then, because I really didn’t want him back, “After that, take Flappy to my room and you can both jump on the bed.”
Pirate lit up. “Get out of town!” He knew as well as I that I never let Flappy inside, much less near my pillow, much less…never mind.
It was a small price to pay. “See if you can jump as high as the ceiling,” I said, before I thought the better of it.
At least Pirate would be safe.
“Yyyyes!” my dog said, with the joy only animals possess. He ran like greased lightning, Flappy in his wake.
He pawed at room 102. “Lizzie wants you!” he said to Grandma as she opened the door. “It’s something smelly!” he added over his shoulder as he dashed down the row of rooms. I’d kept my door propped open for fresh air. Pirate nudged it the rest of the way, dashing in ahead of the dragon.
Grandma stood in the doorway to her room, perplexed. She still wore her leather chaps and a black t-shirt from last night. The words: Kiss My Asphalt curled in silver across her chest. Her long gray hair tangled around her shoulders, uncombed, and black circles lingered under her eyes. She’d had fun.
“We’ve got a problem,” I called, motioning her over. She nodded, not questioning. I stepped back to give her a clear view of the mess on the ground as she approached. “I’m hoping maybe you started flinging some crazy enchantments after I went to bed.”
She slowed, her mouth forming a tight line as she studied the mess on the ground. “It’s not ours.”
“Damn.” That’s what I was afraid of. Now that I could focus better, I felt a presence radiating from it, a deliberate sense of purpose. “I think it’s alive.”
“Yes and no,” she murmured, crouching down to study it. “The pentagram holds in the power, it neutralizes the threat and keeps it inside.” She held a hand over it, as if measuring the magical force it held. “If you touch the doll, all bets are off.” She glanced up at me. “How the hell did it get here?”
Her guess was as good as mine. “Flappy fetched it from outside the wall.”
Grandma stood, frowning. “That’s the only way it could have gotten past our wards.”
“He carried it by the sticks.” Thank God. I didn’t want to think what would have happened if he’d have bitten down on it. Or eaten it.
Grandma scrutinized the bundle, she could detect a weakness with eyesight alone.
“It feels…dark,” I said. It wasn’t just the smell or the way it quivered from the inside. There was something else to it. “I want to take a closer look.”
She nodded. “I’ll watch over you while you do.”
I focused my powers. As a demon slayer, I had the ability to draw closer to evil than most would ever dare. I needed to. I liked it, which was another whole level of danger.
With Grandma standing guard, I let go. I called my demon slayer energy up from inside until I could feel the hot, churning force radiating up my spine, filling my chest. It built. I opened myself to it and let it flow into my arms. I flexed my fingers, tilted my head, as the heat invaded me. I held off, waiting for it to build to razor-sharp stab of intensity before directing all my energy straight at the bundle of twigs, and cloth, and feathers. It poured out of me, slamming into the twisted mass of energy surrounding the figure inside the pentagram.
At that moment, I saw with sickening clarity the faint grey mist surrounding it, then deeper, to the shard of darkness roiling, colliding, screaming to escape the doll. It panted and fought, hidden from everyone but me. The blood in my veins went cold. “There’s a black soul inside this doll.”
Grandma cursed under her breath. “You need to be sure,” she warned.
“Believe me, I’d love to be wrong.” But I wasn’t.
My power excited it, made it call out to me.
Black souls were also known as shadow people, wraiths. These were spiritual remains of the truly wicked, those too stained for salvation, the ones flirting with hell.
My mentor took regular trips to purgatory, trying to redeem the ones he could. I did my best to avoid them.
“Okay, then.” Grandma said, thinking. “We have to secure it.”
“I’m more interested to learn who broke this one out,” I told her. Still, she was right. We needed to deal with it immediately, especially since Flappy had crushed part of the pentagram in his mouth. “I don’t think we can fix it,” I said, unwilling to touch the pentagram. No telling what other kind of magic it held.
“That pile of sticks could break apart at any time,” Grandma said. “We need a trap,” she hollered over to Ant Eater. “One of the wood ones, with the runes.” She glanced at me, worried. “It’s double enchanted. We don’t have anything stronger. Haven’t had time yet.”
“You think it’ll work?” I trusted Grandma, even if she did tend toward the kind of loosey-goosey magic that made me sweat.
She grit her jaw. “It’s the best we’ve got.”
Ant Eater opened a cabinet near the spell tables and carefully withdrew a wooden box.
Grandma blew out a hard breath as she ran a hand over the back of her neck. “At least we’re building up our supplies. A month ago, we wouldn’t have had the time to make and dry a trap like this, and we definitely wouldn’t have had a secure place to store it.”
“It’ll work,” I said. I’d counted on the witches often enough to recognize their skill. Besides, it’s not like we had a choice.
Ant Eater hurried over with the trap, giving Flappy’s prize a second and a third glance as she did. “You need me to call the rest of the coven?” She asked, placing it in Grandma’s hands. It hummed with energy.
The box was no bigger than a Chinese take-out container. The witches had carved protective runes into every surface.
Grandma traded a meaningful look with her second in command. “Not yet. Hang tight. I’ll need you to watch from a distance. Call the others if we get into trouble. Don’t try saving us yourself.”
Ant Eater nodded. “Right.” She’d been backing Grandma for longer than I’d been alive.
“Thanks,” I said to her retreating form. Hopefully I could handle this without backup. All told, I wasn’t sure what the witches could do if I screwed up. They might be able to scramble enough power to keep a black soul trapped, but I was the only one who could capture it. Or destroy it.
Grandma opened the box. A blue mist swirled from inside, curling over her fingers. “Looks good from my end.”
“Then let’s do this,” I said, closing in on the doll. The air right around it felt hot, sharp. It settled over me, stinging as if a thousand tiny needles pricked my skin.
The last time I’d touched a black soul, I’d pulled it out of a werewolf’s chest and nearly killed him.
This one pounded for release. It was angry. Trapped. Waiting. It needed a place to be, it missed having a body. It would take mine if it could.
I rolled my shoulders, trying to keep them loose. Focus.
My palms slicked with sweat. Cautiously, deliberately, I touched my fingers to the cloth, willing myself to stay calm as a tiny, marble-sized knot bubbled to the surface. In a million years, I didn’t think I’d ever get used to that feeling.
Now. I tore through the flimsy covering and reached for it.
It skittered sideways.
“Frick.” I chased it. For a second I gave in to desperation. I lost control.
But in my job, any loss of focus could be deadly. I forced myself to pull back, all the way out. I held my hands out to my sides. Not so fast. It wanted me to make a mistake.
I’d kept the pentagram and the rest of the trap intact. Tearing the cloth helped me get to it, but the move hadn’t allowed it to escape.
“You okay?” Grandma asked, her voice even more gravelly than usual.
“Yes.” I opened my mind, forced myself to concentrate on directing my power instead of dwelling on the fear of what would have happened if I hadn’t touched this first, if someone non-magical had stumbled across it, if the trap broke, if I let it get away. I braced my hands around it again, brushed the hard knot with my fingers, and gripped it tight, yanking it straight through the cloth.
Holy Hades. It sucked me down. I felt the blackness overtake me, the power of it seep into me. My mind swam.
“Let it go,” Grandma ordered.
“I am!” I tried to open my fingers, but they wouldn’t move. My head felt like it was stuffed with cotton.
“Lizzie!” She gripped my shoulder. It didn’t matter.
It called to me.
Another body. Mine!
It feels so good.
I’m almost in.
I swayed, but managed to stay upright, harnessed by the tight whisper of fear. But that gave it power—my terror, my emotion. I let it go. I let the negativity fall from me as I reared back and hurled the malignant spirit away from the people I loved.
The air crackled as the black soul caught on the witches’ wards. A cord of hot, red power zipped down my arm, driving a stinging shock through me as the black soul broke into a million tiny pieces that soared toward the afternoon sun.
As I came back to myself, I felt my palms, hot on the concrete, my knees scraping against the rough path.
Grandma had me by the shoulders. “Damn it, Lizzie. You scared the crap out of me.” She gave me a shake. “How are you feeling? What do you need?”
My mouth and throat felt painfully dry. “Nothing.” At least I didn’t think so. I was covered in a thin layer of grit. “I didn’t kill it, did I?”
Truth be told, I had mixed feelings about shadow people. The expedient thing was to eliminate them so they could never attack again. But I also knew a fraction of them could be saved with the right kind of intervention. Who was I to deny any soul that chance?
The lines around Grandma’s mouth deepened as she squatted down next to me. “You didn’t kill it. Or hurt it when it went to pieces. That’s what they look like when they’re…” She waved a hand at the sky.
“Free,” I finished. Free to evolve if they so choose, to seek the good.
Free to hunt.
Grandma gripped my wrist and helped me up. I didn’t need it, but it made her feel better. I winced at my stiff knees and tingling legs and shook them out, trying to get the circulation back. I didn’t like the idea of that black soul out in the world, but it was a hundred times worse to have it in a position where it could infect anyone who touched that doll.
I planted my hands on my hips and looked to the sky where it had disappeared. “I just want to know where it came from.” Grandma’s wards should have kept out anyone who wanted to do us harm. They sure zapped that soul on the way out.
Before she could answer, the back gate banged open. There stood a man in a long leather overcoat with a black Stetson tipped over his eyes.
“Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the mule.” I never thought I’d see him again.