My head hurt slightly from the day of peering into the papers, and I listened to a tape recording of Simon and Garfuncle's Greatest Hits Album. The day had been truly beautiful, and, as the Georgia hills rolled by, I was quite pleased to be out of the office. My window was down and the beginnings of what promised to be a spectacular sunset were splashed all across the clear sky. The air was refreshing and the world was at peace. And that was when I saw a jaguar.
It ran as fast as it could perpendicular to the road ahead of me, its spotted fur blurring into a single blackish-yellow splotch. I blinked, the jaguar was still there. Since I knew only one jaguar in the vicinity of Atlanta that was not caged, I stepped on gas pedal trying to close the distance between us as quickly as possible.
The jaguar saw me and made a sharp turn towards my car. The jaguars are not really built for running, and even at a distance I saw that the animal was panting. I accelerated, praying no State Trooper was near by. Something was very, very wrong here. Jim almost never ventured out in the sunlight, he was almost nocturnal, for christsake. And right here, in plain view from the damn highway.
The jaguar was running, straining every muscle it had, leaping across the ground in long graceful jumps. It had to be running from something.
Moments later my car reached the animal. Without slowing down the great cat leaped, shifting into a different form as it flew threw the air and a half-turned jaguarman landed with a heavy thud on the roof of my car. The liquid of his change splashed on my windshield, I flicked on the wipers and it was swept away. Long and furry half-paws, half-hands gripped the roof on the sides, thank God the windows were open, and the werecat growled a hoarse blood-curdling scream:
"Drive! Drive, drive!"
I sped away, the highway clear before me except for the white car ascending the hill on the horizon. As we came parallel with the valley between two hills from which the jaguar had ran out, a deafening roar shook the air. I almost jumped. Betsy swerved a little, but I straightened her out. I turned to look at the valley and my mouth dropped open.
A colossal black dog, towering above the tallest trees, was running towards us, covering the distance in great leaps. The mouths of its three heads hung open, displaying huge gleaming fangs longer than my forearm. Its tongues were long and forked like those of a snake and the saliva that fell down in splashes from the gaps in between the horrendous teeth was burning. The eyes, that looked directly at me, were full of crimson fire. Its presence hit me, flooding my senses and I almost blacked out.
"Drive!" the werecat screamed again.
I drove away, away from the awful thing, squeezing every last drop out of Betsy's old engine. The thing saw us. A long serpent-like tail lashed at the green leafy tree tops and it gave chase with triumphant howl that shook the ground beneath the car wheels.
It closed the space between us in three great bounds and bent down over the car, its mouths opened wide. The foul corrosive breath washed over us. I swerved, almost sending the car off the pavement, it missed, monstrous teeth snapped a foot away from the trunk. It crouched, jumped again and was suddenly jerked back as if an invisible leash had snapped, reaching its full length. The giant dog fell, his paws clumsily in the air, as we sped away. In the rear view mirror I saw it rise, whine and trot away, back into the valley it came from.
"Jim!" I screamed, "You bastard, get in here!"
Smoothly the catman slipped into the car through the open window and settled on the back seat.
"Do you know what that was?! That was a fucking Cerberus! What the fuck is Cerberus doing fifty miles away from Atlanta?!" I demanded.
When no answer came, I chanced a look. Jim, fully returned to his human form, lay sprawled on my back seat, completely naked and sound asleep. His black skin was still wet from the transformation. I shut up. Nothing in the world would awaken a lycanthrope after the change and I knew of only one person who was not subject to that rule. Slaine could turn back and forth at will and carry on a conversation while he did it, never pausing or loosing his train of thought. That is why he was the lycanthrope king. And that is why Jim served as his warlord.
I drove straight home, although my hands shook and I desperately wanted to stop at some gas station to use their bathroom. If someone had told me that Cerberus in full glory was running around in Georgia hills, I would have laughed him under the table. Dear God! In full sunlight, too. Those things just did not happen in full sunlight. They just did not, it was against the rules. It's during the night when supernatural gained strength, it's the darkness that spawned horrid monsters and made the humans weak and frightful. We were supposed to be safe during the day.
I pulled into my driveway, parked the car by my nice old house, and got out. Jim was still asleep. I am not a very small woman, 5 feet 7, and I work out every chance I get. But Jim was a big man and looked quite heavy. Still, if I left him in a car, there was a chance that he would awaken and bolt without explaining today's incident. Straining my arms and shoulders, I pulled him out of the car, transferring most of his weight to my back. Slowly I carried him up on the porch. At least, I did not have to worry about the neighbors, my house was out in the country and the nearest human being lived a third of a mile away behind the thick wall of dense trees.
I opened the ward on my door. The magic wards were complex self-sustaining spells which covered every entrance to my home (and even the roof since the time Slaine broke through it into my house). They prevented the supernaturals from entering my residence without permission and even the Master of Atlanta's vampire coven himself could hammer for the entire night at this protective shell without making the slightest dent. Such are the benefits of being the product of the two oldest and most powerful magical families in South Russia.
I got in, panting, and carried Jim into my bedroom. My house was not very small, but I only used the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and a single large room, which had a fold-out sofa in it and served both as a living room and bedroom. Other rooms were full of supplies, herbs, bizarre ingredients, books, and other magical junk, which I found terribly useful. I deposited Jim on the floor onto the oriental rug and took a moment to catch my breath. Then I covered him with an extra blanket, taken out from the bottom compartment of the entertainment center, and placed a large pair of sweatpants and a oversized T-shirt in plain sight. And then I departed to the kitchen.
After the change, the lycanthropes awakened ravenous and so I proceeded to take a few pounds of ground beef out of my freezer. I defrosted it in my microwave added a splash of Worcestershire, salt, pepper, a tad of garlic powder and an egg, mixed everything well and proceeded to cook hamburgers in an iron skillet over a very high temperature. The meat patties I shaped were more than half-an-inch thick and I undercooked some of them, making sure they were half-raw on the inside. The smell of cooked meat and smoke from the burned grease spread through my kitchen and I opened a window to let some of it out. I cooked and reflected on the situation.
I am lucky enough to be Russian by birth, and I've spent the first sixteen years of my life in a nice southern city on the border of Russia and the Ukraine. I was educated mostly by my maternal grandfather, a great diviner and even a greater man, who now unfortunately was dead. He suffered a massive heart attack, an "infarct" as Russians call it, the summer before I departed for America. You would think that the finest diviner that ever lived would go in some dramatic way, fighting a vampire or slaying a demon. But my grandfather was watching TV one night, then he smiled and died. His sword, a silver-steel saber named Slayer, had been in our family for generations and now it had passed to me. I had started practicing with it when I was five years old. The enchanted weapon took to me well and now I was quite good with it. I could split a vampire's head like a ripe melon with a single stroke.
People always had difficulty dealing with supernatural. It is much safer and easier to leave the magic alnoe, to pretend not to see the monsters in the night and to think you cousin died of unchecked hemaphilia rather than of a vampire bite. I had no such luxury. When supernatural invaded into the normal world too powerfully to be ingnored, people looked me up.
These "night" jobs paid quite well but came by too infrequently to provide a steady income. Luckily, while still in college, I met Ted Monohhan, the owner of Monohann Investigative, the best private eye outfit in the South-East. Ted was in the process of investigating a series of gruesome murders. The culprits turned out to be other than human and Ted and I had a busy time killing them. After he finished revising his view of the world, Ted hired me. The job paid well, but I still took the night work on the side. The question was: could I sucker anybody in paying me for figuring out this Cerberus problem. I thought about it, realized I could not find anybody, and decided to deal with it anyway. A girl has to have some fun.
About two-thirds of the way through cooking, Jim walked into the kitchen, dressed in the sweat pants and T-shirt I laid out for him. Without saying a word he pulled the stool to the island, made himself four hamburgers from the platter I placed before him and proceeded to devour them. I finished cooking, poured iced tea into two tall glasses, and sat down opposite him. Watching him eat was like seeing a hungry wolf gorge on a freshly killed rabbit. I guess jaguar and antelope would have been a more appropriate comparing considering Jim's beast but I've never seen a jaguar feed in the wild.
He ate about six or seven when he finally raised his eyes to look at me and said,
"For a white girl, you make good chow."
I accepted the compliment with a nod of my head.
"Why was Cerberus chasing you, Jim?" I asked, taking a bite of my own hamburger.
"So that's what he was," Jim said.
"Why was he chasing you?" I persisted.
"Don't know. Here is how it went. I spent night hunting, fed well, and then fell asleep in the shade..."
"What did you kill?" I wondered.
"A sheep. I don't need you to tell me a story about a poor farmer, he'll survive. Anyway, I awoke and ate some more and was relaxing when that sonovabitch shows up and wants a piece of me. I measured the odds and took off in a hurry."
"You did not antagonize it in any way?"
"Didn't tease it, didn't growl at it?"
"Did you see the size of that thing? I'm telling you: I ran. Fast."
I finished my hamburger and wiped my hands on a paper towel. "So, it's not here because of you."
"That's what I've been telling you. But it did chase me," Jim said.
"You marked the valley, no?"
"You are a cat, it's a dog. Cats run and dogs chase, that's simple. How are we going to get rid of it, that's what worries me."
"Don't look at me," Jim said, "This ain't your mess and it ain't mine. Leave it alone."
"We can't leave it alone. What if some tourist wanders that way or a farmer? Or a kid? Come on, Jim, aren't you at least a little bit curious why it's here?"
"Curiosity killed the cat. Besides, I've got better things to do than to mess with giant dogs," the werecat said.
Jim looked at me, looked out of the window where the day was slowly dying, melting into the night, and said, "Oh, what the hell. Alright, Czarina, but remember: I'm doing you a favor. I'll ask for it back one day."
I blinked, "Why did you call me Czarina?"
"Don't ask too many questions," Jim said.
I studied his face and decided to leave it at that.
Refilling our glasses, I thought out loud: "Cerberus guarded the gates of Hades, the underground kingdom of the dead, thought up by the ancient Greeks and then passed on to Romans and a few other cultures. It was governed by a god of the same name, Hades, who, according to most of the myths, kept a tight reign on his servants. So, why was his pooch out and running around?"
"Maybe his chain broke," Jim suggested.
"According to the stories, it was only broken once and it took Hercules to do it." I recalled the giant dog falling, "No, the chain is still in place, otherwise we would've been dog food already. It just had been lengthened to permit that puppy access to the surface world. Why? Why, why, why?"
I rubbed my face with my hands, thinking.
"The doggie is on an errand of some sort," Jim said, "Who knows, maybe one of those dead Greeks managed to break out of that place."
I stared at him. "Maybe. If a soul slipped past Cerberus into surface world, it would be the dog's responsibility to return it. The chain is just long enough for him to reach the soul and bring it back."
"So how come it has not done it already?"
"I don't know."
I considered. "A necromancer. Know of any?"
"Nope. Where would we get one?"
"Nataraja," I said, rising up, "Vampires and necromancers go together. Come on, let's go visit Taj Mahal."
"What makes you think he'd lend you one?"
"I'll bat my eyelashes and ask nice."
"He owes me a favor," I explained, "For finding Wiggles."
"Who the hell is 'Wiggles?'"
"Twelve feet long, as thick as my leg, scales, cobra hood. You know, 'Wiggles'. His pet snake. It bolted about a month ago and I was hired to find it."
"I thought you didn't work for vampires, Czarina?"
"I don't. That was a special case: he was claiming the Pack had stolen it. Don't get me wrong, I am not wild about you guys either. But if the Pack and the Coven fight, too many humans would get caught in the middle. I care about humans."
"You are racist, Czarina. Racist against the supernatural."
"I prefer to refer to it as "magic-selective," I winked and we left.
Nataraja, the Master of the local coven, the lord of Atlanta's vampires, owned a luxurious casino in the very heart of the city. The casino, a life size replica of India's Taj Mahal, complete to the last little detail of its ornamental white marble walls, was a breathtaking sight. Especially at night, when dozens of carefully positioned lights made its walls shine with a surreal glow. It was as if the fairy tale Palace of Arabian Nights suddenly appeared in the middle of Atlanta. I half expected to see Aladdin fly on his carpet about the full white dome of the roof or see a Golden Antelope run across the marble steps scattering gold.
The casino boasted a completely safe "family-oriented" environment. And indeed, there were no muggings around Taj Mahal, no prostitutes waited for tricks around its walls, and the place had never been robbed. Its night employees made sure of that, all eighty of them. The casino had been staffed with Nataraja's vampires.
I walked past the metal statues of the Hindu deities frozen in peculiar poses, positioned in the rectangular low fountains leading towards the tall arched marble gates of Taj Mahal. I was alone. The lycanthrope Pack and the coven existed in a very delicate balance, hardly tolerating each other's existence. The sudden appearance of the Pack's Warlord in the coven's lair would severely upset that fragile peace. I didn't want a war on my hands. Dealing with a giant helldog was quite enough for now, thank you.
I walked past the two vampire guards, dressed in uniform black tuxedos. They regarded me with cautious eyes, but said nothing. I entered the Taj Mahal and paused to adjust myself. I can feel supernaturals using other than the usual five senses, and the presence of so many bloodsuckers at once confused me. After a couple of minutes of concentration, I sorted out the complex overtones of their power and could pinpoint every vamp in the room with my eyes closed. Exquisitely dressed in black, men in wide shouldered tuxedos, women in slimming dresses and wearing identical pale lips gloss, bloodsuckers glided across the floor, serving drinks, and stood behind the tables, dealing cards. Their human customers suspected nothing. Cold prickles of fear ran along my spine, despite the Slayer, strapped in the long sheath to my back, under the green sweatshirt. "Children", Nataraja called them. Evil, twisted, dead things, damned for all eternity. They came in the night, they stole into our houses, they drank our blood, sipping the life out of our bodies. The thought of a pale corpse latched to the warm neck of a human being almost made me wretch.
I turned to see a pleasant-looking corpse tap me on the shoulder.
"Do you have an appointment?" she inquired in a polite voice.
"No," I said.
"Wait, please," the corpse departed to speak to another undead, male and carrying a walkie-talkie. The male vamp said something into it and nodded to vampiress. Vampiress walked over to me, her hips swaying slightly. Her red hair was pulled away from her face and piled on top of her head in accurate arrangement of spiraling curls.
"Follow me, please."
I did. We took an elevator to the top floor, then proceeded down the hallway to a certain room. We entered, past the guards to reach what looked like another elevator. Except that no elevator actually came, there was not even a cable, just the straight elevator shaft, stretching twenty feet up and down.
"Wait, please," the vampiress said.
I stood, waiting. All three of them stared at me with dead eyes. It would be very tempting for them to try and jump me now, to rid the coven of my obnoxious presence once and for all. I could feel it and I was a bit amused. Each of them was less than a hundred and fifty years old. Were they to attempt disposing of me, every single one of them would be dead before they touched me. I smiled and took comfort at that thought. The bloodsuckers read my mood, shifted and looked slightly uncomfortable.
A faint whisper of a noise came from the shaft and Rowena, beautiful with glorious blond hair falling down to below her knees, descended down the shaft.
"We are delighted to see you, Vera," she said in the smooth voice of a perfect hostess, while floating motionless in the air on the level with the entrance, "Please, allow me to assist you."
"Glad to see you, Rowena," I smiled back at her, held on to her hand and stepped into the shaft.
We shot up through the air to stop before a small carpeted hallway. I stepped onto solid ground and Rowena landed beside me. She was shorter than I, only about five two or five three. She wore an emerald green dress fashioned after the gowns from the time of Henry the First. Her figure was perfect and the dress left nothing to the imagination. Her eyes were huge, deep, and as green as her gown.
"Nataraja is expecting you," she murmured and walked down the hallway. I followed her.
Nataraja's throne room, located in the great dome of the Taj Mahal, was an example of what happens when an individual has too many ways of getting money and too few ways of spending it. It was luxurious beyond belief. White carpet, soft and ankle-deep, covered the floor, contrasting with walls shrouded in indigo velvet. Art, depicting mythological scenes, was carefully placed among the velvet folds, and, although I know nothing about art, I was willing to bet the masterpieces were originals. Dozens of statues from every continent, each the opus of its creator, stood here and there among the antique furniture worth more than my house.
At the wall, opposite to the entrance, on a slightly raised platform sat Nataraja's throne, a complex and elegant structure. It was solid gold. Vines, bearing large flowers with jeweled petals spiraled, animals, both real and mythical, their eyes glowing with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamond, danced about on the throne's entire surface, painstakingly worked with the sure hand of a genius jeweler. Above the throne on the wall hung an elephants head, life size and carved of ivory. Each protruding tusk was enclosed into a wide ring of gold.
Rowena proceeded to the three steps leading to the throne and sat down on the second one. Wiggles, sweet thing that she was, hissed at me, and slid over to curl her monstrous coils about Rowena's feet and put her triangular head onto vampiress's lap. Rowena began stroking the scales gently.
Nataraja himself, was stretched out on the throne like a big lazy python. He wore his usual white tuxedo and a turban with a sapphire the size of a chicken egg. Vampirism paled his skin, but his features loudly proclaimed his heritage: Nataraja was a Hindu, over five hundred years old. Turk, his bodyguard, stood to the side, like a magnificent predatory eagle. His cruel large featured face communicated a taste for brutality. A large scar criss-crossed his nose. It looked to be made by a saber, but not mine. Turk hated me with a passion but would do nothing without his Master's permission.
"Yeeees?" Nataraja asked. His feet were hung across the throne's left armrest and his head hung down so he was practically upside-down.
"I was a-wonderin if I might borrow a necromancer. Since I was so successful in finding Wiggles."
Nataraja sat upright and caused a thin smile to appear on his face to let me know he recognized my joke. Just your friendly neighborhood vampire, no cause for alarm. "Unfortunately I do not have a necromancer in my possession right now," he whispered. His voice carried through the room, filling it with sound as dry and as rustling of the snake's scales against each other. It had a hypnotic quality to it, it penetrated your body to stare at you mind and to cloud it. I shrugged it off.
"You try every time, don't you?" I asked.
Nataraja allowed himself a dry chuckle. "Yessss, I suppose I do," he said softly, the way a mother would sing a lullaby to her child, "Seeee, I can't help but wonder, what do you taste like?"
"Well, since my blood burns the damned, I would say somewhat like Szechuan pepper. So, how come you don't have a necromancer?"
Nataraja actually looked slightly embarrassed, "He died a few years ago. Rather unfortunate. I did not require the services of one until now. I suppose, when I'll need a necromancer, I will simply subjugate one. Would you like me to do so?"
"Nahh. Thanks for your time."
I turned and as was walking out, Nataraja sent a lingering "Byyye, Verrrraaa," my way. It rolled at me, almost raising me off my feet for a brief moment. I shook my head and went out. Rowena "assisted" my descent.
Jim was waiting for me a block away from the casino. We agreed that his car was best for this venture, so he had driven Betsy to his house and returned in his own vehicle. He drove a silver Ford Explorer, one of those large sport-utility vehicles that made you appear rugged and sheik at the same time. He'd had time to change while I was exchanging pleasantries with Nataraja and now he wore black dress pants and black shirt. There were buttons on the collar but it looked more as a long-sleeved T-shirt than a dress shirt. The sleeves were pushed up almost to the elbow, revealing Jim's muscular forearms.
I opened the door and hopped in. "Woo-woo, traveling in style?"
"Always," Jim said, "Anything?"
"No. His necromancer died a few years back, which could mean anything from five to fifty. Who else would know?"
We thought about it and then I asked, "Would the watcher have that sort of info?"
Jim started the Explorer.
"Yes, he would."
The Watcher was a G-man, a spook, a man in shades, except in his case it was the bum in shades. He was sent by the U.S. Government to keep an eye on the supernatural happenings in Atlanta and it was rumored there was one in every major city. While the government could not control the supernatural or acknowledge its existence, it did set up field observers to gather information. Atlanta's Watcher was a very strange kind of guy. I knew him pretty well: his office was next door to mine. We are both employed by Ted Monohhan. His name is Nick.
I had no idea where Nick could be found in his off-hours, but Jim did. After about thirty minutes of traveling, we drove up to a small bar. The building was shabby, the parking lot small and littered with broken bottles, and somewhere in the dark somebody was loudly throwing up. A small sign proclaimed the name of this fine establishment: "The Pit". The pit, indeed.
Jim parked, we got out, and walked in.
The air in the bar was thick with stale smoke and cheap booze. It was that sort of place where nobody would tell you anything. You could show any of the patrons a picture of their own father but the only reaction to it would be "Ehhh. Never seen him." Despite the atmosphere, it was nearly half-full.
We stood a moment adjusting. The visibility was near zero, but I saw Nick right away: I knew what to look for, because his attire never changed. He wore a long sweeping grey trench coat, much worn and torn in a couple of places. On his head was a hat. Not a cowboy hat or a wool cap, but an old fashioned felt hat, soiled beyond belief. He saw us right away and when our glances met, he tipped his hat, holding its brim between his index and middle finger the way most people hold a cigarette. We walked towards him. I took the grimy stool next to him, while Jim remained standing. I think he was afraid to mess us his stylish pants. And rightfully so.
Nick was studying a puddle of brown liquor someone had spilled onto the counter. An old shirt, pink with violet and purple criss-crossing circles, a frightening relic from the seventies, periodically scared the world when trench coat opened slightly as Nick drank the thick liquid in a dirty glass.
"Are you wearing those orange suspenders?" I asked.
"Because they would clash with this shirt. Badly."
"What do you want?" Nick asked. His hair was brown and straight and cut just as it reached his shoulders. He never shaved and there was something in his eyes that always made me want to back away slowly with my hands up in the air. Maybe that's why he usually wore shades.
"A necromancer. If you got one handy."
Nick did not answer right away. A large bartender with beefy arms tattooed from shoulder to the wrist refilled his glass without Nick asking and walked away. Nick took a swallow.
I looked at Jim, he shrugged.
"As you wish, Czarina. I would tell him, or we'll be here all night."
So I did. Nick listened without commenting. When I was finished, he splashed the rest of his drink into his mouth, turned the glass upside-down on the counter, and stood up. His black paratrooper style boots, once shiny but now scratched, connected with the floor with a dull thud.
"Let's go," he said and we did.
As Jim drove, Nick spoke in a calm voice. "There are two necromancers in the greater Atlanta area. A voodoo priest and a Frenchman. Both live out of the city in the vicinity of that valley you have mentioned. We should see the houngan first, he's more knowledgeable. The Frenchman is not very stable."
"Not very stable?" I glanced at the car clock. It said 1:21 am.
"Has an M. D., he is an eye surgeon. Currently barred from practice. Father and both uncles are renowned physicians. Physchological evaluation: schizophrenia. Had been hospitalized in mental institutions twice, first at fourteen and again while in his thirties. Both times for claiming to have raised the dead to life. Had once been dubbed 'Modern Franskenstein' by London Times."
"That don't mean he's crazy, just stupid," Jim said, "If I raised zombies for a living, I wouldn't boast about it.
It took us a little less than an hour to arrive at the houngan's house. The voodoo priest owned a triple-wide trailer set on a recently cleared lot. An old brown Chevy was parked at the stairs leading up to the narrow door. Jim parked next to it and we got out.
The night was chill. The sky above me was impossibly high, and little shiny specks of stars watched me from above as we made our way to the trailer's door. The peculiar smell I always sensed when dealing with necromancy, sweet and sickening, lingered about the grounds. But I felt no person.
"I don't think anyone is home," I whispered.
Jim stopped suddenly and drew the air into his nostrils. His face hardened.
"Blood," he said.
"Chicken?" Nick asked.
"Human. And a lot of it."
Nick nodded, reached into one of the deep pockets of his trenchcoat and pulled out a small bundle. In the light of the moon I saw white latex gloves in his hands, the kind I used to use when I worked in a lab. He shoved a pair at me,
"Put them on."
I did. Nick drew a gun. The huge barrel of an old, Army issue, Colt '45, glared at me. I saw Jim sneer. He had no need of guns. I did not unsheathe my saber. I was sure no one was home.
Gloved and ready we approached the door. Cautiously touching it with only his fingertips, gun in his other hand, Nick tried the door. It was not locked and swung wide open. The inside of the trailer was very dark. Slowly we entered what looked like the living room. The sharp smell of blood flooded my nostrils, forcing its way into my mouth. The furniture and shadows formed unfamiliar dark shapes and I tried my best not to bump into any of them. No need to add to the fiber collection.
Quietly we circled the large living room sofa and a group of soft chairs. The silence was absolute, each of us was used to moving with very little noise. The moonlight outside the large windows seemed unnaturally bright.
I passed into the kitchen, Nick was moving against the opposite wall of the hallway. A headless chicken layed on the counter, its feathers stained with sticky blood. I paused to look at it the neck: the cut was clean, made by something razor sharp. The blood had dripped from the open artery to form a small dark puddle on the linoleum floor. The puddle was too small: someone had gathered the blood as it ran from the neck. On the floor was the leftover. I raised my eyes and saw a door along the wall of the hallway.
Nick stood, back to the wall, on one side of the door. He nodded and Jim took up the other side. I stood waiting. Nick touched it and the door swung open with a loud screech. The houngan was inside. I swallowed and forced myself to walk into the room.
Bright moonlight shone through the window on what once had been a dark-skinned man in his late forties, maybe early fifties. He had been a little on the heavy side during his life and now his body looked bloated and dead, like a thick, bluish log. The corpse now had no head. His thick neck was a bloody stump, cleanly severed by a sharp blade: probably the same one as was used on the unfortunate chicken in the kitchen.
The corpse lay in the middle of a white powder ring, probably chalk from what I knew about necromancy. Complex patterns of white and black were drawn in similar fashion on the floor around, intertwining with the outline of the ring. Across the walls arcane, unholy symbols were splashed in bright human blood. As time passed, the blood thickened, and the symbols blurred slightly. It did not matter, though, for they had served their purpose. The unnatural act had been accomplished.
"Let's go," Jim decided. He and I left the trailer, while Nick insisted on checking the rest of the rooms. Outside I gulped the fresh night air as if it could cleanse my tongue and wash the smell of blood out of my mouth. Nick came out.
"What's your take?" He asked me.
"We're screwed," My voice sounded badly, as if somehow its sound offended the dead.
"Houngan is a sacrifice. See, nothing comes for free. If you borrow a soul from the dead, you need to offer them a life in return. The older the corpse, the greater the sacrifice. For the recent dead you might use a chicken, for the older a goat. To raise a very old zombie, five, six hundred years in the ground, one would need to kill a human. He," I nodded towards the trailer, "Was a necromancer. The ultimate sacrifice to the Gods of the Dead is the Master of the Dead. There is no telling what the guy could raise, riding on this sort of high."
Jim looked at the moon.
"We better hurry," he said.
The house of the Frenchman was a massive two-story structure, its dark silhouette outlined sharply against the moonlit hills. We could see it very plainly from the country road, where he had parked. Between us and the house was the wide open expanse of a grassy field. In that field stood Cerberus.
It was huge, bigger than I remembered. It moved about in circles, great paws leaving visible dents in the soil. The grass was scorched in the several places where he must have paused and the burning saliva dripped onto the ground. The serpent tail, both thicker and longer than "Wiggles" lashed at its sides. The colossal dog stopped. Three pairs of ruby eyes, aglow with underworld fire, looked upwards. Cerberus shook his heads and howled, an eerie, marrow-chilling sound.
I cringed against the blackberry bushes, behind which we were hiding, scratching myself on the thorns. A narrow ditch separated the bushes from the field.
"So, what's the plan?" I looked at the men.
Jim grinned, "We'll just let Nick shoot the damn thing."
Nick gave him a nasty look.
"Shooting it would do no good," I pointed out in a hoarse whisper.
"I've got a grenade," Nick offered.
"A grenade, huh?" Jim's smile got wider, "Some of us have only our hands."
He flexed the thick muscles on his forearms. Before Nick could answer, I butted in.
"No, you don't get it. Cerberus is immortal as long as people keep believing in the whole Hades thing altogether."
"Nobody should be believing into it," Nick said, "It's a dead religion. Greeks have been Christian for centuries."
"Tell it to all the kiddies, who read the Greek myths everyday." I defended my point in a fierce whisper, "There are college professors who make a living out of arguing what Orpheus represented. The books, the comics, the movies..."
"Okay, okay. Chill," Jim looked at the dog.
Cerberus stopped trotting and began digging, facing the house. Great showers of dirt flew in our direction from under his paws.
"We know that whatever the dog wants is probably in that house," Nick said.
"Yeah?" I asked.
"So, why doesn't it go and get it?"
We stared at the house and the dog. Cerberus gave up on digging, and trotted, circling the house.
"Maybe it can't," I said, "Remember the wards on my house? Maybe there is a similar ward set up around that place and its keeping Cerberus out."
"That's a pretty tall maybe," Jim said.
I watched the dog as it made its circle about the house. "Look, when it passes behind that hill, we can chance it."
"I've got a better idea, Czarina. Let's turn around and go home."
"We can't go home now! He already killed one person..."
Suddenly Nick rose and sprinted to the house, clearing the ditch in a single jump.
"Oh, fuck me!" Jim said, as I ran after the Watcher.
The next moment, we were running across the field, our every move plain in the moonlight. And then Cerberus saw us. Howling so loud, my eardrums almost burst, he chased us. My legs carried my body through the air, my feet hardly touching the ground. Nick was a few steps ahead of me and Jim, who could have easily overtaken both of us, put himself between me and the dog. The ground shook each time Cerberus's paws struck it. My heart was pumping, blood was thudding inside the veins in my head. Another moment and I thought my chest would burst and then the horrid teeth snapped a few feet away and a roar, filled with disappointment, announcing that we were safe.
I almost fell, but forced myself to stand and even walk, bending at the waist. Nick was breathing hard, but his face had not changed it color. Jim was smiling. "I must be insane, risking my life for two anglo types."
Cerberus struck at the invisible boundary, and I backed away as the massive black paws hit the air only feet away from my head. It growled again and began furiously digging.
"Better go," Jim said, "Before Fido here makes a hole under the fence."
The house was very dark. No windows were lighted, no lamp brightened the porch.
"Feel anything," Nick asked.
I stopped and quested. Usually I have to see something to feel its presence but if I concentrate, I can feel some of the more potent powers at a distance. "The necromancer is there. He knows we are coming, he must've heard the dog. Something else... I don't know what that is. Not a zombie, not a vamp. Something unfamiliar."
"Well, we'll just have to see," Nick said, taking out his gun.
I took the Slayer out of the back sheath. Jim watched me do it.
"Ever twist your elbow doing that?"
"No," I said, "I had a lot of practice."
We braved the porch. The concrete steps were covered by a green fake-grass carpet.
"Who said French had refined taste?" Jim wondered softly.
The outer screen door was open, but the second wooden door was locked. Nick looked at it thoughtfully for a second and then delivered a solid well-measured kick to the lock. The door creaked, and flew open as the lock neatly popped out of the wood. Nifty.
We entered the hallway. It was dark, quiet and empty. It opened into two different rooms, each of which lead in its turn to other rooms. We split up and moved through the house, scouting the rooms. With Slayer glowing very dimly in my hand I felt much better. The pre-battle high began to slowly build up inside me. I checked the bedroom on my right. It was cluttered with furniture. I moved in, keeping my back to the wall. I checked the closet with a swing of my sword, dropped down softly to look under the bed. Nothing.
Next was the bathroom. Shower. I jerked the shower curtain aside, ready to swing. The shower was very clean. The linen closet was full of towels. Everything was neat, clean, and well-maintained. This just did not look like the house of a necromancer. I backed away from the bathroom and proceeded into the living room.
A massive wooden table, designed to sit eight, occupied the center of the floor. Only two chairs were placed. Nick came out of the door frame of the kitchen to join me and soon Jim descended the staircase.
"Nothing," he reported, "He's here. I can smell him." I looked around. Necromancer. The Master of the Dead. Where would he be? Certainly not on the second floor, too far from the ground. The ground... I looked down. Apparently Nick had the same thought, because he kneeled and lowered his ear to the floor boards. He knocked on the parquet floor and was answered with a hollow sound.
"The table," I said softly.
Jim moved before any of us could. With a simple effortless motion he picked up the wooden table with one hand and carried it to the corner. Hooray for lycanthrope strength.
Nick moved to the middle of the floor and studied the lay of parquet. He produced a large knife from somewhere in depths of his trenchcoat and carefully slid the blade between the planks. The floor panel popped up. Nick lifted it and moved it to the side. Under it was a hole. A deep dark hole in the ground, leading into a narrow horizontal tunnel, dug out of the earth like the burrow of some giant groundhog. It was very narrow and only six feet in tall, so I would be able to walk without hitting my head on the ceiling, but both Jim and Nick would have to slouch. Just looking at it made me claustrophobic.
"I'll lead," Jim said. He easily jumped down and disappeared in the opening, Nick followed him, and I brought up the rear.
The ground about me was crumbling, as I squeezed through the narrow hallway. Rocks and roots were embedded in the earthen walls. No light came except for the pale glow of my saber.
I concentrated on slowing down my breathing. The walls threatened to close in on me, like the ground closes over the grave. Images from "The Serpent and the Rainbow" flooded my mind, reminding me what it would be like to be buried alive. What kept the necromancer from collapsing this tunnel. I envisioned masses of brown dirt tumbling upon my head and instantly wished I had not.
The tunnel ended suddenly, opening into a wide cavern-like room. The ceiling was relatively high, about eight feet. Another tunnel just like the one we just exited could be seen in the opposite wall. A small torch was thrust into the dirt, emitting sooty smoke that spiraled upwards, rising into a small hole made in the earth ceiling.
"Why did we stop?" I asked.
"Dr. Allen here had a bad feeling," Jim said, nodding towards Nick, who stood staring at the walls, his face unreadable as usual.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Holes," he pointed to the walls.
I looked harder and saw dozens of black holes about as wide as my fist puncturing the dirt of the walls.
"I wonder what are they for?" I thought out loud.
A low rising rumbling was my answer. It came from all the sides at once and grew stronger and stronger until the whole room was full of its sound. A rat fell out of a hole to the left. It was big and grey. It did not scuttle, it did not peep, or sniff. Instead it sort of wandered towards us as if it was not sure what to do. Communicating with animals is my business, I am a witch after all. And so, I quested towards it and found... death. Its small black eyes, shiny during its life, now were black and empty like two tiny dots of soot.
"The rat is a zombie," I said, straining against the sound of the rumbling. The men looked at me.
"Run that by me again," Jim said.
"That rat walking towards us is dead. He animated it," I explained raising the Slayer. Jim sniffed the air.
"I'll be damned," he said with an expression of great surprise on his face. The rat made its way to me. The dead eyes stared at me. Dead teeth bared in a ferocious snarl, the rat attacked my boot. I swung and it fell, cut in a half. The top half twitched a few times and than began to pull itself in the direction of my foot with tiny rat paws. I cut it again, and all three pieces lay, jerking, on the ground.
"How many like that could he animate?" Nick asked, watching the holes.
"I don't know," I said.
My thoughts suddenly took a very ugly turn.
"Could he make a hundred?" Nick asked, keeping his voice emotionless.
"Yes, probably," I didn't even want to begin to consider what would happen if one of such corpses bit me.
We began crossing the room, facing the holes. Another rat fell into the room. Then another. Then another... Holes here and there began spewing grey rodents. The rumbling was now so loud, it was almost impossible to bear. The dark wave of dead rodent flesh advanced and began surrounding us.
"Hallway!" Nick said and we made a break for it.
I ran, crushing little dead bodies under my feet, slicing with my sword left and right, trying to keep the rats as far away from me as possible. Dead rodents launched themselves at my feet, driven by the will of a necromancer who directed them. Luckily the hiking boots were thick and they held. I made it to the hallway first, Jim was right behind me and then Nick.
Suddenly Jim yanked my legs from under me and I fell nose first into the dirt. The sound of an explosion shook the hallway, dirt and dust fell on top of me. The fear of being buried alive gripped me and I fought to get free. The dirt above me parted and I emerged, my eyes wide, gulping for air. Behind us the hallway had collapsed. Nick was shaking the dirt out of his hair, holding his felt hat in his hand. Jim rose from the dirt like Lazarus.
"Grenade?" I gasped, trying to even my breathing.
"Yep," Nick got up, knee deep in powdered dirt.
"They'll dig through it," I said, rising to my feet.
"How do we stop them?" Jim asked, joining us.
"We kill the necromancer," Nick answered grimly.
A thought had struck me: we were cut off from the exit. I brushed it aside and decided to burn that bridge when I came to it.
We followed the torches, embedded in the hallway walls at irregular intervals. The tunnel was long and winding. It must have taken the Frenchman a great deal of time and a staggering amount of effort to dig it out. Of course, he probably had corpses to do it for him.
I lost the sense of time, and I did not know how long we had been wandering through the tunnels. I was tired and I was getting very angry. I was stuck in this grave because of some zombie raiser's sick ambition and I did not like it. The chances of the necromancer surviving this night very getting rather slim. Suddenly Jim, who was ahead of me, rushed forward. I followed him and burst into a room. It was well lighted by several torches and the two human figures in the middle of it were plain.
One of the men was naked, holding a large ornate knife he kneeled on a rug before a large wooden cross thrust into the dirt. On that cross the other man was crucified. The man on the rug saw us and screamed. A huge dog, shaggy and dead, attacked me emerging from a burrow in a wall. I had time to raise my left arm, but that was all. The shear force of the impact threw me off my feet. I fell backward, dead fangs in my face, my arm pressed against his throat. The dog made no sound, as he pushed against me and I felt the rotten flesh of its throat fold under the pressure. Keeping my arm steady, I put the blade I still held in my other hand, against the back of his neck. The trouble with zombies is that you can't kill them by a thrust to the heart or vital organs. You have to disembowel them, hack them to pieces small enough that they don't keep coming after you. With a jerk, I forced the Slayer into the dead flesh and felt the spine crumble. The pressure ceased, I kicked the dog off me and jumped to my feet. The dog's head was almost disconnected from his neck, hanging by a ligament that must have been less decomposed than others. The dog attacked me again. I slashed in a classic overhead stroke I practiced so many times and cleaved him in half. I kept swinging and swinging and swinging, until the mess of dead canine flesh lay absolutely still. Then I turned, just in time to see the necromancer's head torn from his shoulders by Jim's hands.
Nick stood in the middle of the floor, three more dog corpses lay motionlessly at his feet. .The rats that probably been following us, were now surely dead. And then I heard a roar, a triumphant howl.
"The dog!" Jim looked up.
"The defenses collapsed," I said. My voice sounded hoarse.
"It is Cerberus," said the unfamiliar voice in Ancient Greek, "He has come for me."
We turned. A thing on the cross looked back at us with said eyes. It looked like a man but it did not feel like one. He was completely nude and extremely thin. His flesh was dark, dry, and shriveled. His skin was wrinkling in numerous folds as if it once covered a much bigger body. Huge nails, the kind used for concrete, held him to the cross. He emitted no hostility and I moved to take him off, but he shook his head.
"The nails do not hurt me."
"What did he say?" Nick asked.
I translated the best I could. My knowledge of Ancient Greek was moderate at best, but I understood enough to make sense.
"What are you?" Jim asked.
"He is a mummy," I answered for the thing, "That bastard raised a mummy."
Rough sounds came from above. Cerberus was digging us out.
"My name was Aeneas, " the mummy said, "I am the son of Kharfe, the Builder of Pyramids, the half-brother of Menkaure, who one day would be the Ruler of Egypt." I translated almost unable to believe my own years.
"Kharfe built one of the Giza's pyramids," I added, "Somewhere around 2550 BC."
"My mother was Greek. I was chosen among all of the children," the mummy continued, "For my face was a great likeness of the royal son Menkaure. I was taught his manner, I was taught his language, I was trained and schooled like him, I was raised at his side. I was told of the false Gods of Egypt, but I remained true to my mother's faith. I was to take Mencaure's place and one night, when an assassin crept into our chamber, I did. The murderer was apprehended, but his dagger, the great metal tooth, carried poison on its blade. I remember dying. I died slowly, very slowly, so my half-brother could live and rule Egypt. I remember entering Hades. I remember Erebus. Peace, tranquillity at last among the colorless tulips by the water of Styx." The mummy fell silent, as I finished the translation.
"Why was he raised?" Jim asked.
I translated. The mummy pondered my words, trying to grasp the meaning and then chuckled, stratching its dry lips. It was an eerie sound and for some unexplained reason it frightened me more than anything had frightened me this night.
"Poor fool," the mummy rasped, "He believed he was raising one of the Royal Blood. The descendant of Animal-headed Gods themselves! Poor, wretched fool. He wanted to learn the secret of immortality. He knew Isis had raised her husband Osiris, and he wished to ask her for the secret using me and my faith as a vessel for his mind. Little did he know..." The mummy leaned forward, nails grinding with a creaky sound against the dry flesh. Its eyes opened wide, it began to whisper and as it spoke, its voice grew to a shout.
"Fool, fool, fool... There is no life after death. No life. There is only Hades! You hear me?! There is only Hades!"
The mummy fell back, its body limp and its eyes closed. Whe I finished, translating its words, it lifted its head and looked at me.
"Release me," it said.
"How?" I asked.
"Through the fire Prometheus had given my people. I do not want to die in Cerberus's teeth. Destroy my body, for I want none of this world."
The mummy closed its eyes. Nick took one of the torches and placed it under Aeneas's feet. The dried embalmed flesh ignited and Aeneas himself became a torch. We stood back and watched.
The earth above our heads was pulled away by massive paws. A drop of burning saliva fell into the hole, intensifying the fire. The Cerberus growled happily and then it was gone. The fire began to subside. And carefully, helping each other we climbed out of the hole to the surface world, where the early colors of sunrise began to spread across the night sky.
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