God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down
to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness.
2 Peter 2:4
The air, sweeping down from the distant mountains and whistling through the still bare branches of the forest, was chill for the front edge of spring. Daryl Atwater shivered slightly, not so much from the cool touch of the breeze as from the sheer excitement he felt. He hugged the oversized book he carried tightly to his chest. Ahead of him marched his friends, moving almost stealthily through the shadows carrying the paraphernalia they would need tonight.
Four boys entered the woods that night. The path was, by now, familiar to them all, but each saw the shape of the unknown in the shadows, and the fear of the dark places, the disquiet which haunts the very young, was a presence each boy felt like a breath on their necks. In truth, it was not the dark which made the boys so uneasy, it was the things left unseen, hidden by the shadows not only of the trees but of their own beliefs. The boys, after all, were here to summon demons.
Daryl, ostensibly the leader of the group, was at the rear of the line. Jason led the way holding a lantern high over his head. Mick Jones, the largest and oldest of the boys, carried an ice chest loaded with beer, a sort of liquid courage each of them depended on. Mick was the least likely member of the quartet, an ex-football player who had been kicked off the team because of his violent temper. The darkness suited him just fine, it matched the color of his thoughts. Todd Weinstein, gangly and shy, walked at the end of the procession carrying a sack filled with what the boys had determined, by recent experience, that they would need.
The unofficial fifth member of the group walked beside Jason, a scruffy mutt stolen from the city pound. Each time the boys performed this ritual, a little more was added, slight modifications which they hoped moved them closer to perfection and success. Daryl smiled grimly to himself. Tonight, he was certain, would be the final time. Not only because the other boys were growing disenchanted with the occult, but because Daryl believed he had at last found the key to deciphering the book.
He had discovered the ancient, leather bound tome at an estate sale. His father, whom he rarely saw, was forever dragging him along to such things. Better that, actually, than having to actually spend time with the man. This time, some old, eccentric hermit had died leaving no heirs but plenty of debt. His dilapidated house was being emptied and some surprising items were emerging. Medieval armor and weapons, Victorian furniture, rare books and thousands of other collectibles were being pulled from closets and storage rooms, attics and basement. The man had obsessively collected almost everything, including those things associated with the occult.
An assortment of books had been piled haphazardly on a table, a small portion of the thousands boxed and crated nearby, and no one seemed to be paying them any attention. Daryl, an avid reader, was trying to relieve the boredom by looking through the stacks. The book had almost jumped out at him. There was no real reason it should have caught his eye. Bound in cracking leather with no adornment, it looked more like some cast off ledger than a real book. But inside...
Daryl had been stunned. Page after page of pictures, barely legible script, and diagrams. The book was a cornucopia of information for the aspiring wizard. He did not need to read the writing to understand it was a grimoire, a book of spells and incantations. Daryl, Jason, and Todd had been playing Dungeons and Dragons for years, and books of this sort had a special place in the fantasies they created. And here was a real one!
There was no doubt in his mind. He had to have this book. Daryl had looked around furtively, trying to see if he were unobserved. There were a few people close by, but they were absorbed in their own affairs, inspecting furniture and the like. Daryl had slid the book into his jacket, tucking it under his arm and covering it carefully. He made his way back to his father’s car and hid the book under the seat. No one had even noticed him. It was, despite his claims, the first time he had ever stolen anything, and he could not later recall what had driven him to do it. The risk had been worth the reward, though. Safely back at home, Daryl had removed the book from the car and hidden it in his room.
It quickly grew to an obsession for him. The writing remained a mystery, but the pictures spoke volumes. This was real magic, he just knew it. When he had finally revealed the book to his friends, they caught the fever of Daryl’s excitement. There were only passing thoughts given to the ominous Satanic overtones. None of them believed in God very much anyway. This was much more tangible, and the excitement of possibly being able to perform real magic was a temptation too strong to resist.
Séances produced unsatisfying results. A love potion had seemed to work for awhile, at least long enough for Jason to loose his virginity. They placed a curse on a teacher, but it could have been a coincidence that the man was later caught with a male prostitute. Slowly, the boys gravitated toward more elaborate rituals, and finally to demonology.
That was when Mick joined the group. The other boys had conducted a Black Mass one night and were talking about it at school the next day. Mick had overheard. The younger boys were more than a little afraid of the large upperclassman. Mick was well known for picking fights and bullying smaller people, so when Mick wanted to join in, the other boys were too afraid to refuse. Thus far, things had been disappointing. Daryl had been sure they were performing the ritual correctly, and he had even managed to decipher some of the incantations they were supposed to use. Yet still they had nothing to show for their efforts. It had been Mick’s idea to add live sacrifice. Daryl suspected the older boy just wanted an excuse to exercise his sadistic form of humor, yet he was hesitant to voice any objection. The only sacrifice mentioned in the book was a human one.
The entourage arrived at a clearing some distance into the woods. Here the trees formed a tight ring, blocking the chill wind and shielding their activity from prying eyes. The ground bore the evidence of prior use, and the boys each busied themselves preparing for the night’s activity. Jason tied the dog to a low branch and began dragging wood into a pile for a fire. Todd started unloading the sack, laying out the items which the book indicated were necessary for this particular ritual. Mick, as usual, sat against a tree watching the others work and began drinking. In a way, Daryl was glad this would be their last attempt. Perhaps they could at last be rid of Mick.
Daryl set the book down reverently. A section of the clearing had already been cleared down to the dirt, and he began the task of redrawing their pentagram, the five pointed star used to summon the denizens of the netherworld. There was a certain way to do it, precision was required, and the arcane symbols which encircled the star had to be added in just the right order. It had to be a perfect closure, any broken lines meant the demon, if it appeared, could get to the person who summoned it. That meant a one way ticket to Hell. Normally, the boys stood in a circle around the arcane drawing and performed the ritual. Supposedly, the demon would appear in some form inside the pentagram. Once summoned, the demon would obey them and perform any task they commanded. One task only, however, and then it would return to Hell. Demons were very single minded.
The drawing complete, Daryl took a small sack of flour pilfered from his mother’s pantry and used it to fill in the little grooves he had made in the dirt. That made everything easier to see. He had drawn this one a bit larger than usual, and he smiled to himself as he thought of why. It had come to him in a dream, or at least he thought that’s what it was. He slept less and less each night, his mind consumed with the book and its contents, as if something where driving him toward some unseen goal. Daryl had seen himself and the other boys engaged in the ritual, achingly familiar by now, only he had been standing inside the pentagram. He had awakened in a cold sweat, the chill of realization throbbing inside him. The demon was supposed to appear outside the circle while the wizard was protected, held safe inside. Had he been able to read what he presumed where the instructions they might have succeeded on their first attempt. Tonight, he was certain, there would be an end to the futility. Tonight they would at last summon a demon. Daryl would step into the pentagram tonight, just as his dream had instructed. The pentagram was like the control booth, and Daryl intended to be the controller.
Soon the fire was blazing, casting eerie, flickering shadows which bounced off the trees, crossing each other like drunken dancers. Black wax candles burned steadily at the points of the pentagram as well as at various points around the clearing. A towel had been laid out and on it lay a large hunting knife, a silver cup, and the book. The boys gathered around the circle.
“Let’s get it on, “ Mick said crudely. “This shit ain’t gonna work no how anyway. We’re just wastin’ good drinking time.” He had already consumed four beers in the short time it took the other boys to set up. They didn’t mind, though. The alcohol seemed to cool Mick’s violent temper somewhat.
“Anything new from the book?” Jason asked. He held high reverence for the ancient tome. It was understandable. His parents were both a bit fanatical about religion and tried to shove it down Jason’s throat constantly. Naturally, he rebelled, but he was unable to shake the template his parents had molded him into. He was always looking for something new to believe in.
Daryl smiled. “Actually, “ he said, “yes.” Todd’s head snapped up. Todd was the skeptic in the group. He styled himself a scientist, though UFOs, Bigfoot and poltergeist were more to his liking than microscopes and Petri dishes.
“Like what?” he asked doubtfully.
“Yeah,” chimed in Jason. “What’cha got?”
Daryl was unsure how the other’s would react to what he had planned. Not that they were set on doing things a certain way or that they might fear for his safety. He knew no one here other than himself actually believed what they were doing would have any consequence.
“I think,” he began hesitantly, “that the person calling the demon is supposed to be inside the star.”
“What?” cried Jason. “That’s suicide!”
“Ain’t no way I’m gettin’ inside that circle with no demon,” joined in Todd.
Daryl could see the fear ignite in their eyes. “No fuckin’ way.”
Mick burped loudly. “I think you oughtta go for it, “ he said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing somebody get eaten.” He laughed raucously at his own joke.
The other boys looked at him oddly. But Daryl knew he had an unwitting ally. He decided at that moment that the others must not know about the true reason he wanted to be inside that circle. “Shit, guys, “ he said, “it’s not like anything’s gonna happen anyway.”
“I don’t know, “ Jason protested feebly. Mick rolled his eyes.
“Don’t be such a whiny-ass,” he said. “You goddamn well know ain’t no fuckin’ demon gonna show his hairy ass around here. “
“Then why’d you bring the dog?” Todd countered.
Mick looked over to where the animal lay quietly. “’Cause,” he said, “you know. What if it does work?”
“Exactly,” Jason said. “Thing is, we just don’t know if it’s gonna happen or not. Mick might be right, a hairy demon might just pop up inside that star beside you. What would you do then?”
“Well,” Daryl said, “ if it works and the demon ends up inside the star, then I’ll have to count on you guys to control it and not let it eat me.” He laughed, hoping they’d believe it.
Evidently they did. Perhaps it was the beer, or maybe the long series of failed attempts, but in any event when the ritual began Daryl was standing inside the circle. Jason presided as the leader, speaking the words from the book which were by now familiar. Daryl still did not understand their meaning, and the sound was harsh on the ear. Jason would be a gifted linguist one day. The incantation was torturous but he made no mistakes.
The dog had been brought to the edge of the circle, and Daryl did not miss the fact that it was Mick who wielded the large hunting knife, poising hungrily over the cowering animal. The sacrifice would be useless, Daryl knew, and even though he hated dogs he felt sorry for the animal. The cup was brought up, and each boy pricked his finger, letting the blood drip into the chalice. Todd leaned over the circle, careful not to disturb any of the lines, and Daryl added his own blood to the mixture. From his pocket, Jason added a vial of powder Daryl had prepared earlier. The recipe was straight from the book. Nothing more than some spices and powdered iron, but it seemed to be essential.
Jason raised the cup over his head and began the second incantation. With a start, Daryl realized the hairs on his arm were standing. He could definitely feel an electric crackle in the air. He wanted to shout with joy, with the elation he felt coursing through him. This had to be it, this was what it was like when the gateway opened and the world blended with the chaos beyond. It was heady, the feeling of power which churned in the air around him, and Daryl wondered why no one else seemed to notice that anything was different this time.
Jason paused in his recitation, cutting his eyes at Mick. Drunkenly, Mick raised the knife in the air, a tiny grin on his mouth and the spark of malicious glee in his eye. He had his own incantation to recite, and though he slurred many of the words he did not forget any. The knife plunged down, and the boys jumped involuntarily at the pained yelp from the dog. Mick raised the knife again to show it was coated with the animal’s blood. Todd looked at Mick with distaste then glanced at Daryl to see how he was taking it. Strangely, Daryl’s face remained impassive. It was as though he had withdrawn from the activity and no longer cared about its outcome.
With a flourish, Jason emptied the cup into the fire. The flames roared loudly, as if he had poured gasoline onto them. He jumped back in haste, nearly colliding with the other boys. Mick shoved him roughly but said nothing. Any words now would ruin the ritual. Jason turned back to the circle, his face ashen. Clearly, something unusual was happening. Either the ritual was working or Daryl had put something strange into that vial. He would get the truth from Daryl later.
Now, it was time to finish. The three boys outside the circle raised their arms in the air, looking toward the stars, and slowly recited the last lines together. The last words echoed dully off the trees as each were made of lead, and the night descended into bleak silence.
Jason looked around. There was no sign of anything in the clearing other than themselves.
“Well,” Mick said, “that was a load of horseshit."
Jason frowned. He felt cheated somehow. The moment had felt so right, so full of impending importance, and now it seemed there was nothing in the world which would lend itself to some tangible evidence of its validity. No one could see God or angels, and it seemed no one could see the minions of the other side either.
Todd was looking at the dog. “I think it’s still alive,” he announced.
“Shit!” Mick cursed loudly. He kicked the prone animal savagely, making it moan. “Fuckin’ dog, “ he muttered, “ain’t good for nothin’. Can’t even die right.” He bent over the dog raising the knife for a finishing stroke.
“No!” Todd screamed. He rushed past Jason and shoved Mick hard, sending the larger boy over on his side. Todd backed off quickly as Mick sprang to his feet, clenching the knife in a fierce grip.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he shouted. “It’s just a goddamn dog, you stupid fuck! Jesus Christ, why do I even hang around you bunch’a fuckin’ losers? You’re just like the stupid dog, you can’t do nothin’ right. Where’s the demon? Huh?” He was waving the knife around like a madman. Jason and Todd were scrambling to get out of the way. Daryl, in the center of the pentagram, was unmoving.
“I get kicked off the team, my girl dumps me, those faggots on the team won’t hang out with me no more, “ Mick was ranting now, his rage building by the second. He was so much stronger than any of the boys, they were actually becoming afraid. Todd was considering abandoning everything and bolting for the cars they’d left at the edge of the woods. “All I wanted was a little revenge,” Mick continued. “You guys said we could get a demon to do anything we wanted! It’s the fifth time and there ain’t no demon! You bunch’a fuckers.” He took a menacing step toward Jason and Todd who cringed back in fear.
Mick growled incoherently and spit at the boys. He swung around, putting his back to Jason and Todd as if trying to contain his homicidal rage. His eye caught Daryl who still stood inside the circle. “And you, “ he said, “with all your talk and your weird fuckin’ book. “ He waved the knife menacingly. “I oughtta gut all of you.”
He looked around the clearing with burning eyes. “Fuck you all to hell,” he said. He turned as if to leave, kicking angrily at the edge of the circle. Dirt and flour flew, a candle fell over and went out. Mick was between steps, Jason and Todd cowering in fear, a moment suspended in time. And Daryl moved.
His speed was blinding. To Jason, it was as if a film had been edited. One instant Daryl was standing unmoving in the circle, the next he was out beside Mick. Daryl struck Mick hard sending the larger boy to his knees. Jason was stunned. What did Daryl think he was doing? Attacking Mick was suicide!
Daryl grabbed Mick by the throat, squeezing. Mick gasped and brought the knife up, stabbing at Daryl’s exposed stomach. The smaller boy’s hand moved with the speed of lightning. He grabbed Mick’s wrist with an iron grip and squeezed savagely. The boys could hear the bones in Mick’s wrist pop, and with a cry of pain he released the knife. Daryl released the larger boy and snatched the knife from the air before it could hit the ground. His hand was back around Mick’s throat before the older boy could gasp a breath.
Daryl stood straight, lifting Mick from the ground as if he weighed nothing. Mick clawed at the hand gripping his throat, choking him.
Wetness spread across the front of his jeans as his fear overwhelmed him. His throat was collapsing under the tremendous pressure of Daryl’s grip.
“You were right about one thing,” Daryl said, his voice oddly stilted, an unplaceable accent. “A sacrifice is required.” He smiled horrifically and plunged the knife into Mick’s belly, twisting it. Mick kicked spasmodically, gasping, burning with the need to cry out. Daryl jerked the blade sideways, ripping it from the larger boy’s body and sending a spray of blood onto Jason and Todd. A wet mass spilled from Mick’s belly. He gurgled as his eyes rolled back in his head, blood oozing from his mouth. The smile never left Daryl’s face. He held his arm rigid, suspending Mick in the air until the boy’s movements ceased, then flung his limp body across the clearing like a rag doll. It crashed into a tree with a sickening crunch and fell to the ground in a heap.
Jason was having a problem holding his bladder. One thought continued to race through his mind. “We did it, we did it, we did it!” Daryl had been right, someone was needed inside the circle.
The demon had needed a host.
Todd separated himself from Jason with an effort. He could barely keep the tremor from his voice long enough to speak. He wished he could remember a prayer, but only one thing filled his mind, the vision of his own fast approaching death. He glanced at Mick, obviously dead, and swallowed a bitter taste. Shaking, fighting for control of his breathing, Todd turned to face the demon. “Who are you?” he asked simply. It was all he could think of to say.
Daryl smiled again. “Ah, “ he said, “such a familiar question.” He laughed, and it sounded like a chorus.
“Come, “ he said, moving toward the boys, “ let me tell you.”
Dawn was breaking over the forest. A thin mist clung to the ground, blanketing the world with a soft dewy kiss. The country road was deserted at this time of day, not that it would ever see much traffic anyway. Two cars, parked on the grassy stretch between the road and the nearby forest, had been waiting quite awhile.
There was movement among the trees, still shrouded in darkness. A boy emerged into the light, followed by another. A third emerged, and together they stood a moment blinking at the clear sky. Wordlessly they moved to the cars. One was enough, and the other was abandoned there.
They moved with purpose, steering the car toward town. The car vanished into the mist, and the road was alone again. The forest was quiet.
Four boys entered the wood one dark night, and something else had emerged.
We should live for the future, and yet should find our life in
the fidelities of the present; the last is the only method of the first.
Henry Ward Beecher
Seventeen year old Frances ran down the wooded path, as she had done so often before, at full speed. She was passing the two mile mark and had barely begun to breathe hard. the ground was rocky and uneven, but she knew it well. While her physical abilities might have amazed most, Frances knew she had yet to reach her full potential. Her father could easily run faster than she, and there were some in the Clan who could out distance her, though not many.
She leaped easily over a wide ditch and thought about what a star athlete she could be if she were allowed to reveal her special abilities. It was difficult sometimes to swallow her pride. She was passing the three mile mark now and nearing the end of the path. She expected her father to be waiting for her, probably ready to run her through yet more exercises.
Training meant a lot to her father. Geoff Durant was a man out of place. He had been prominent at one time, but had made a mistake. Whatever it was, it had earned him censure and a kind of banishment. The Durant family was the only one of the Clan here in this small southern town.
Tyler, her younger brother, had been born with Talent, and the Seers predicted he would make a fine sorcerer one day. He took after his mother and grandmother in that respect. Fran, however, took after her father. While it was not uncommon for males to be born with magical ability, it was unheard of for a female to be born with the Skill. That was the basic division of clan members. Those with Talent became practitioners of the Art: sorcerers, healers, seers, whatever their magical propensity directed. Those with Skill became warriors, trained in the martial arts, possessing physical abilities far beyond those of others, and utterly unable to work any of the Arts.
Geoff saw Frances as his path to redemption. Women were not allowed to become warriors. In fact, if any were born possessing any portion of Skill it was so hushed up that one never even heard rumors about it. Yet there was no denying Frances had it. If Geoff succeeded, Fran would be the first acknowledged female warrior.
The woods ended abruptly, and Frances slowed to an easy jog. Her father was waiting, just as she had expected. She was surprised, however, to see him wearing practice armor. Her own armor lay in a disordered pile.
“You have three minutes,” her father said simply. Fran thought he was being unfair. Had he not even timed her run? To expect her to run nearly four miles in less than fifteen minutes and be ready to jump into a fight without so much as time to catch her breath was more than unfair. It was criminal. Fran knew he was serious and wasted no time, or breath, arguing.
There was not enough time to put on all the armor. She roughly pulled the padded aqueton over her head but passed over the cuirass. The greaves were a must and she hurriedly strapped them onto her shins. What else? She grabbed up the tassets and slapped them onto her forearms. She was fast, but not fast enough for anything else. She cast the other pieces aside digging for her sword which, predictably, her father had placed at the bottom.
Her sword was one of the few things she was allowed a choice about. Armor and tactics were standard and were expected to be learned by rote. But a warrior needed some flexibility, so the type of arms he carried was a matter of personal choice. Geoff favored a falchion, a kind of one handed scimitar, which freed his other hand to hold a buckler. Fran detested the little round shields and depended on her speed to move out of the way of incoming blows. Her own choice ran to Japanese lines. A sleek, two handed katana was her favorite.
Just as her hand closed around the sheath, her father sprang into action. Frances had no time to draw before he was on her. She parried his first stroke with the sheath, drawing the blade smoothly in the same motion. She feinted for his side, his blade moved to block, and Frances rapped him on the head smartly with the empty sheath. He erupted with a flurry of strokes, pushing Fran backwards as she parried furiously with both blade and sheath.
Abruptly, she tossed the sheath into the air towards her father’s face. He instantly batted it aside. Fran was already in motion, leaping sideways into the air and delivering a kick to her father’s exposed side. Had she been wearing full armor she doubted if she would have been able to do that trick.
Geoff stumbled but recovered quickly, turning in time to catch his daughter’s stroke on his shield. It was what she had expected. As her father turned to ready his return stroke, Fran place a spinning back kick against the edge of his buckler. The straps gave way under the force and the shield flew off his arm. Only her reflexes save her from her father’s stroke. She felt the air from his blade brush her hair in its passage.
A year ago, Fran would never have believed she would be in this position. The transition from wooden practice blades to steel swords was only the first step. A misstep on her part would result in serious injury, or even death. In part, she could understand what drove her father. He was miserable in his exile even after all this time. The summer was fast approaching, and that meant that Fran would soon go before the council and be judged. For both she and her father it was the final step in a long journey. She had to succeed, and to make sure of that Geoff was determined his daughter would be better than any male warrior she might be pitted against.
Fran rose from her defensive crouch and launched an assault on her father. Deprived of his shield, he was more cautious now. He still wore three times as much protection as Fran, but he knew how deadly his daughter could be. It was a fact which she took pride in. Geoff was a fifth generation warrior. His only hope of continuing the legacy lay in convincing the council they should allow his daughter to wear the armor legally. He was a severe taskmaster, and Fran had learned much in a short time. She believed she was almost as good as her father, was certainly a better marksman.
Without preamble, her father called an end to the session. Fran lowered her guard slowly, wary of some trickery. It would not be the first time. She had never won against her father. The matches always ended in her defeat or, as happened more frequently, in a draw. Geoff sheathed his sword and turned his back to Fran. She took a few paces back and relaxed. When he began to remove his armor, only then was she convinced the fight was over.
She accepted his critique of her performance quietly. There was little he could say which was negative. Fran’s ability was nothing short of phenomenal. Geoff had first suspected his daughter of meta-human abilities when she was nine years old. She excelled at gymnastics, seemed unbeatable in just about any sport. He taught her chess, a game she rapidly mastered to the point she had to be forbidden to play with anyone outside the Clan. Like all girl children, she was tested at ten for any paranormal ability. She not only failed at every test, she seemed to affect those children who clearly had Talent. That was when Geoff sat up and took notice.
The first criteria of Skill was near superhuman physical abilities. Stronger, faster, greater agility, and a keen intellect; these were the attributes of a warrior. Warriors also enjoyed a partial immunity to magic, a valuable asset for those engaged in the Eternal War. It seemed to be a negative energy field the warriors produced themselves, and it worked not only to negate or weaken spells cast at them but also to affect their ability to work magic, or the Art as it was called.
The critiques had become milder as Fran’s lessons continued. She made fewer mistakes and improvised with astonishing results. If ever the council had to judge a candidate with greater attributes, it had to have been rare indeed. Geoff left Fran to finish stowing the gear and went into the house. She gathered up both sets of armor. Each required a fresh coat of oil before being stored, not that the alloy would ever rust. It was another of the Clan’s deep secrets, a metallurgy which defied modern technology.
Like all youths, Fran accepted the faiths and practices of her family without developing an abiding conviction of her own. The histories and legends were merely stories. She was practical in nature, choosing to believe only what she could sense, relegating all else to the realm of fantasy and speculation. There was no denying that those in the Clan represented a separate branch of humanity, yet it seemed farfetched to accept a genealogy descended from heavenly creatures.
The gear was stored in short order and Fran proceeded inside for the second half of her daily training. Each evening before supper she spent two hours with her grandmother being instructed in academics. History, mathematics, science, languages, each more advanced than her schoolmates would receive before college. She was under strict orders not to reveal her advanced intellect to outsiders, and it created considerable pressure on her at school. Somehow she managed to keep a B average, pretending to be average and deliberately missing answers on tests. It meant holding back in gym class, as well. The end result was that she appeared aloof or anti-social, a kind of self-fulfilling judgment for she actually had no friends at this school.
Sometimes she was uncertain if it was a life she wanted for herself. More than anything, though, Fran did not want to disappoint her father. He had enough drive for both of them. She was being swept along on the tide of his fervor with little opportunity to pine for a different life. She tried not to think about what her life might be like after the audition. No one talked about the things warriors did, but she was certain it was dangerous. And she was ill prepared to do anything else. All her energy had been put into absorbing the martial skills to match her physical abilities. If she failed...
Arranged marriages were a way of life in the Clan. Only those with status had some say in choosing their life partners. Unrecognized girls were at the bottom of the social structure, and lacking Talent, denied possession of Skill, that is where she would be. At the bottom, subject to the whims of the council in deciding her life. That, as well as her devotion to her father, drove her to greater levels of achievement. How could she ever let anyone else control her destiny? Perhaps living outside the Clan environment for so many years had distorted her world view. They would say she was too westernized, suffering from undue influence of a decadent society.
An arranged marriage was an unsettling thought. Her mother always told Frances she was too much of a romantic. It was true to an extent. She wanted love to come first. The adventures she dreamed of were not full of intrigue and danger. Rather, she dreamed of family, picnics and vacations, moonlit walks, and socializing with neighbors. Everything she never had and what everyone around her took for granted.
Her grandmother was already waiting for her in the library. At least, she thought, the Clan arranged for members to have good paying jobs. It meant they could afford a large house with enough land to conceal the rigorous training she received. Room enough for everyone to have some private space. Fran bowed to her grandmother as protocol required.
“Greetings, my Lady,” Fran intoned sonorously. The Lady Hannah Folstaff smiled in amusement. She shared her daughter’s loss of status along with her son-in-law, and Fran made it a point to honor her when appropriate. Lady Folstaff had held high position on the regional council for a time, only retiring when it was clear none in her family would be rising to replace her. In her way, she was as demanding a teacher as Geoff. Both required nothing less than excellence, and Fran strove hard not to disappoint her, though for different reasons than for her father.
“How was your practice session today, my dear, “ the matron inquired.
Fran moved to her usual place on the floor, crossing her legs comfortably under her. “It went very well,” she replied. “Father seemed pleased.”
The Lady smiled. Her granddaughter had come a long way indeed. Though she rarely made mistakes even in the early days of her training, often her performance was not what her father desired. He pushed her too hard, sometimes, yet Fran had never balked or given up.
“Your studies are nearly complete,” she told the young girl. “There is little more I can teach you.”
“What?” Fran asked in astonishment. “Does that mean there is no more to learn?” she asked innocently.
Her grandmother laughed. “Of course not, my dear,” she said. “Learning never stops. One person can never learn all the knowledge God has provided in the world around us. You have been very fortunate in many ways. Women in the Clan are not often afforded so much education as you have received."
Fran frowned. Each time some foible of her extended family was mentioned she got a touch of nausea deep in her stomach. The entire structure of the secret society was so archaic, so out of touch with modern conceptions of gender roles. Her family had taken a chance on Fran. Without clear permission, they had undertaken to train the girl and teach her things far beyond what unclassified people were normally allowed. There was more riding on her upcoming audition than a future career.
Lady Hannah settled on theology for the night’s lesson. It was a subject they never seemed able to exhaust. With only a limited number of texts to rely on, most of what was believed by open society was speculation. Of course, the Clan had access to documents no outsider had ever guessed existed, much less glimpsed. They had covered the Bible first, which in itself is an exhaustive study. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Gospels, the Apocrypha, even Jewish Pseudepigrapha, all had been subjects of lessons. Then, of course, was the actual history of the Clan. From the legends of angels consorting with human women to found a new, superior breed, to specific events where warriors or mages had influenced the course of human history.
And there was the Eternal War.
From the beginning of creation, Man had struggled with dark forces. Evil was a basic part of the human soul, or at least the capacity for it. The Enemy, however, was something more tangible. The boundary between the mortal world and the afterlife was not easily breached. Angels did it routinely, spirits of the dead much less often. The most difficult crossing was for demons, though even they found a way across some times. And when they made it to the mortal plane, they found the Order waiting for them.
The evening was thickening when Fran’s grandmother called a halt to the night’s lesson. “You are the brightest pupil I have ever had,” the matron said approvingly. Fran beamed with pride. “It will be a shame if the council does not grant your acceptance into the rolls of warriors.”
It was a sobering thought. It was known, but not spoken of, that the only reason Fran was being given a chance to audition in the first place was because of the respect the council still held for the Lady Hannah. The weight of responsibility pushed down heavily upon Fran’s shoulders. More futures than her own were riding on this.
Fran rose and bowed once more. She left before anything more could be said. She had just enough time to shower quickly before supper.
The future is a dangerous thing. Unknowable, unstoppable, and filled with life changing consequences. A person could go mad worrying about what tomorrow might bring. Planning ahead was different than obsessing about outcomes one had no control over. The Lady Hannah, Geoff, even Fran’s mother, Lydia, fretted constantly about the future. Fran was more pragmatic. Life was here, today, the future was as much a ghost as the past. What was done could not be undone, and what was to come could not be accurately foretold by even the best Seers. But what one did today, at this moment, that was all one ever really had. Fran’s past was legends, her future lay in mystery, and all she could do was be the best she could be at the present.
The future had a way of taking care of itself.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
The girl on the street corner was young, barely fourteen. She had the right appearance for her profession, though. Makeup applied a bit too heavily, tight shorts and a cut off t-shirt, plastic bangles on her wrists, ankle high boots and shiny pantyhose. Her shoulder length black hair framed her pretty face in a neat square cut; her skin, pale from living mostly at night, gave her a look of fragile beauty, believing the whorish outfit she wore. It did not take a genius to guess she was a prostitute.
Sherri Hoffman had run away from home and an abusive stepfather at the age of eleven and was quickly swallowed by the city. The street had been her home for the first four months, living hand to mouth, narrowly avoiding the roving gangs. It was ironic that her biggest fear in those early days had been that she would get raped.
She was at her lowest when she met Jimmy. He was clean, obviously well off, handsome, and the most charming guy Sherri had ever met. It perplexed her why he would show any interest in her. Then, she knew some guys just liked young girls, and hunger had pushed her to the point where his kind was no longer as repulsive as they had been. He took her into a diner that first night, fed her as much as she wanted to eat. He was a smooth talker, and Sherri was so shell-shocked from life on the streets that she really had no care whether or not there were strings attached. She wanted to be clean again, to enjoy hot food on a daily basis, to sleep at night without fear.
That’s what Jimmy offered. He took her in, made her his girlfriend. Sherri did not mind. Her stepfather had taken her virginity, and sex with Jimmy was gentle by comparison. Eventually she began to enjoy it. He enjoyed teaching her, and she was an avid student. She even began to think of it more as making love than just sex. Life, it seemed, had taken a turn for the better.
Jimmy made it clear from the start that Sherri was not to pry into his private life. It seemed odd to Sherri, was she not part of his private life? She was his girlfriend after all. Or so she had thought. Then she was introduced to all the other girls Jimmy called his girlfriends. Sherri was not part of Jimmy’s private life at all, she was part of his business.
The other girls were sympathetic, yet they made it clear they were as powerless to help her as they were themselves. Jimmy was a pimp and Sherri was to be the newest addition to his stables. The pimps of the city formed a sort of network. Escape was impossible. Jimmy had made considerable investment, he told Sherri, in the young runaway’s circumstances. She would have to pay him back with the only commodity she had to offer. Her body.
Her first “job” was with another pimp. The man was fat, sweaty, and made it clear he had no interest in Sherri’s pleasure. And it only got worse from there. She was young. As long as her air of innocence remained she could command high fees to very select clients. After that, the novelty of her youth still garnered a lucrative income. At least she was not required to walk the streets. Yet.
Sherri pulled her thin wrap a bit tighter over her shoulders, trying to push the memories of a different life deep inside her, covering them with the considerations of the moment. She patted the tiny pink plastic purse she carried, bull of the accouterments of her trade: condoms, lubricants, and Tylenol Her parents would have been shocked to learn she was so familiar with such things. There was not much left in the world to shock Sherri.
There were times, in the beginning, when she had been tempted to call her parents, to arrange a rescue. But, all in all, she knew she was better off being a whore for Jimmy than being a sex toy for her stepfather. At least here there was nothing to hide, no moments of shame when her mother’s husband degraded her, calling her a slut each time he lay his sweaty body onto hers. Sherri shuddered at the memory. She had been unable to refuse. Sometimes he would beat her anyway, just because he liked it, and her mother always looked the other way. Sherri had gotten her share of beatings from Jimmy as well, but there was a difference. Sherri felt a kinship with the other hookers, a sort of family, and when Jimmy hit her his reasons were obvious. Her stepfather was just a vicious drunk.
A purple Cadillac rounded the corner, the thumping music audible even at this distance. Jimmy might not dress like a pimp, Sherri thought, but he’s got all the other signs. The car screeched to a halt at the curb and Sherri hastily got in. She barely had the door closed before the car was in motion again. Jimmy, dressed in his usual sweatpants and undershirt, scowled at the expensive watch on his wrist. Sherri guessed they must be running behind, and of course Jimmy would blame her thought she had already been standing on the street corner almost half an hour. She could not bring herself to care. He would more than likely rough her up later, but she could handle it. If he bruised her she would not have to work for a few days!
Nothing was said between them the entire ride, which suited Sherri. She already knew what to expect tonight. Sherri still got the special jobs, utilizing her youth, a familiar routine.
The night was still young when Jimmy delivered her to her evening’s appointment. It was the sort of thing she dreaded, some guy with more money than finesse had hired her out for most of the evening. Jimmy would not allow anyone to rent her for the entire night; he was as yet uncertain he had full control over his property. The hotel was one of the nicer ones, though she had serviced clients in much nicer surroundings. It was clean and well lit, but intimate enough to afford its tenants with considerable privacy.
“I’ll be back for you in four hours,” Jimmy said as she got out of the car. Sherri felt the implied threat in his voice. His purple Cadillac roared away from the curb and sped down the street leaving Sherri, for the very briefest of moments, free. She wished she could turn and run the opposite direction. Freedom would not be so easily gained. She wondered where the spies might be, they were always someplace around. The pimps looked out for each other, protected their sources of income aggressively, often with violence. Sherri turned with a sigh and entered the hotel.
The room she was headed for was on the top floor, twenty stories up. There was no elevator attendant, and even had there been Sherri would have aroused little attention in anyone who was not a pedophile. She wore a simple schoolgirl’s skirt and long sleeved blouse. Quite the innocent little girl on the outside. She carried different outfits in her little shoulder bag, along with some toys some men liked to see her use. She had to be accommodating.
There were only two rooms on the top floor, each a massive penthouse suite. The hotel was more luxurious than she had thought. She knocked on the appropriate door, somewhat apprehensive about who would greet her on the other side.
She could not have been more surprised. The door opened to reveal a young boy, not much older than herself. Her first thought was that she had gotten the wrong room. The boy looked her over carefully, showing no emotion. “You from Jimmy?” he asked.
Sherri nodded. Now her thoughts took a different track. Was this some kind of boyhood initiation? Or did his parents know nothing about his plans for the evening. He let her into the room and locked the door behind her. She looked around, noting the rich furnishings and the seeming absence of anybody else. He walked around her slowly, appraising her.
“How old are you?” he asked, still inspecting her.
“How old do you want me to be?” It was her standard answer. Jimmy screened the clients carefully, so there was no chance this was some sort of police sting, no need to conceal her purpose for being there. But some guys wanted much younger girls, and Sherri was practiced at playing different ages.
The boy’s eyes met hers for the first time. Deep, she thought, like a well. It was almost disturbing how much he seemed to convey with his eyes, as though he were some ancient wise man who for the evening had returned to his youth.
“Fourteen,” she heard herself saying. There was some power in his gaze, those beautiful eyes. She could not lie to him.
He nodded noncommittally. Gently he reached up and stroked her cheek. She shivered at his touch. She wondered just how old he was, but it was not her place to ask. He took her hand in his and led her to the bedroom. The bed was enormous, the room as elegantly furnished as the previous.
He turned to face her. “Undress for me,” he said simply. With deliberate slowness, Sherri obeyed. Strangely, she found herself wanting to please this strange boy. Perhaps it was the apparent closeness in their ages, or some power in those deep, hypnotic eyes. She peeled her clothing off, feeling his gaze roam her body as each inch of her pale flesh was exposed. She could feel an electric tingle throughout her body, an excitement she had nearly forgotten she could feel. What was happening to her?
She stepped out of her panties and added them to the pile on the floor beside her. His eyes devoured her nude form. Sherri felt no embarrassment, no belittlement in the boy’s admiring inspection. She felt like a real schoolgirl again, reliving an innocence she had never really known. His eyes met hers again, holding her gaze. She giggled nervously; and he smiled in return. None of it seemed new to him, despite his youth, yet he nonetheless delighted in her bareness. Slowly, he began to undress, letting Sherri give him the same inspection he had given her.
Sherri was young, but she was well experienced. She had seen more naked men in her short career than she could count. There was something about watching this nameless boy disrobe, however, that set her nerves on fire. She found herself panting, breathlessly awaiting each part of his body to be exposed to her hungry eyes. It had been a very long time since she had felt desire, and it was making her dizzy with excitement.
When he was as bare as she, he stepped closer. She could feel the heat of his body and found herself longing for the touch of his skin on hers.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Sherri, “ she replied, voice betraying her emotions.
The boy smiled. “My name’s Daryl,” he said. He stepped closer and enfolded her in his arms.
Sherri lay on the sheets gasping for breath. Daryl lay next to her, equally out of breath. It was better than anything she had ever imagined. Not even Jimmy in the outset of their relationship had ever made her feel what this virtual stranger did with ease. An orgasm, that was what he had told her it was. Actually, several of them. It brought with it an abiding hunger for more. Like a starving person who gets his first taste of a long delayed meal. She wanted more and more, and Daryl, with the vitality that only youth can provide, was willing to give her all she wanted.
Both were almost too tired to move now, their bodies coated with sweat. The room was filled with the odor of their bodies, and Sherri inhaled it deeply. How could she ever go back to being a common whore after a night like this? She had a taste of what real lovemaking could be, pretending would be so much harder now.
Daryl turned to her and stroked her skin lightly. “How was that?” he asked.
“The strongest one yet,” Sherri laughed softly. “I’ve had so many that I lost count.” She glanced at the clock. She was already ten minutes over the time limit, but she could not make herself care. She had no desire to leave, not even from the fear of what Jimmy might do to her. How could she leave Daryl? What she felt for him right now, it could be nothing less than love.
Daryl tuned to look at her, a strange, unreadable expression on his handsome face. Sherri reached out and stroked his cheek gently, sighing with utter contentment. The moment was perfect, and she wanted to stretch it out, make it lost forever.
“Stay with me,” Daryl said, unexpectedly. Sherri’s heart skipped a beat. It was as if he could read her mind.
“I can’t,” she told him. “ I’m not allowed to stay the whole night with a client.” The words sounded awful to her ears. The moment was shattered, she was Sherri the whore again, and everything was business.
“That’s not what I meant,” Daryl said softly, his eyes seeking something in hers. “I mean: stay with me. don’t go back to Jimmy. Ever. “
Sherri’s heart skipped a beat. Hope and fear surged through her. It was exactly what she had wanted but she knew it could not be. Daryl was just a boy, and no matter how rich or influential his family was, he could never keep her safe from Jimmy or his network. Besides, she could not believe anyone really wanted to help her. She was just a common whore. Even the thought of that word applied to her left a bitter taste in Sherri’s mouth. She sat up suddenly and hugged her knees, trying desperately to choke back tears.
“What’s wrong?” Jimmy asked, sensing her distress.
Sherri shook her head. “I can’t,” she said sadly. Jimmy was a ruthless killer. More than one of his girls had turned up dead in an alleyway after making him angry. He was probably down at the curb right now getting angrier by the minute. “I gotta go,” Sherri said, sitting up suddenly.
Daryl’s hand was soft on her arm, pulling her gently back to the mattress. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll pay Jimmy extra. You’ve nothing to fear from him.”
Sherri felt the sincerity in his voice and relaxed. “I wish I could stay,” she said, near tears. “I really do. I mean forever, not just another hour. Shit!” She was getting carried away. He was just a client, damn it! The only interest he could have in a whore like her was between his legs.
“It’s not what I meant, either, “Daryl replied, his voice low and soothing. “You mean more to me than physical pleasure. Much more. I can protect you from Jimmy. You can stay with me forever.”
Sherri looked at him with sudden hope. If only she could believe that.
“Forever,” he replied solemnly.
“You don’t understand,” Sherri said. A tear rolled down her cheek and Daryl quickly wiped it away. “Jimmy’s a killer, a real killer.”
Daryl smiled thinly. “So am I, “ he replied. And in that instant, Sherri believed him.
“You’re not like anybody I’ve ever met,” Sherri told him. Already she was relaxing. She felt as though her life was on the verge of some monumental change. Let Jimmy kill her, she did not want to live if it meant surrendering the life she had glimpsed in Daryl’s eyes.
“In what way?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “like the way you talk. You don’t talk like somebody your age.”
He laughed. “I’m older than I look,” he said.
Sherri gave him a sidelong look. He laughed again, tapping his chest. “Older on the inside, I mean.” Sherri laughed with him. That she could certainly believe.
He quieted and stroked her face lovingly. “So,” he said, “will you stay with me?”
The deep wells of his eyes seemed to conceal a storm and a deeper strength which promised shelter. The harbor she had dreamed of and longed for. She took a deep breath. “Yes,” she said in a whisper.
Daryl smiled warmly at her. He reached up with his other hand to hold her head gently. He kissed her softly, and she felt his vibrancy, his sheer, barely contained energy. Their eyes met again. Sherri was daring to feel happiness.
They moved together again with an urgent need. She was no longer surprised that he was excited again. She wanted him inside her again, wanted to join with him. Quickly, they climbed the slopes of bliss once more, waves of passion swept over Sherri. Daryl’s eyes locked on hers as he moved on top of her. She peaked, and it was more intense than before.
Pleasure coursed through her body like cold fire. She became dizzy, and her eyesight grew dim. She shook with the power of her climax, yet her eyes never left Daryl’s. She cried out loudly in ecstasy, clawing at her lover’s back as if to pull him deeper inside her, to unite with him more fully. And she felt it, the touch of his mind, his presence, in her head. Her thoughts became his, and he flowed into her like a chill breeze.
Suddenly she was on top of herself, thrusting into her own shaking body. She had no time to puzzle over it. The wind was increasing to a roar, sweeping around her disembodied mind. She could hear voices in the storm, thousands of voices. They flowed like liquid over her thoughts, each one sending her to greater heights of pleasure.
She was no longer Sherri, she was Daryl. She was both of them together. She was a woman in the next room, listening quietly. She was a man down on the street, knife in hand stealthily approaching an angry and impatient looking Jimmy. She was across town, in a car somewhere in the mountains, in a plane crossing the ocean, walking through a crowded restaurant.
Sherri let go, blending into the mist, the haze of bliss which enveloped her. She knew then what Daryl was, how truly ancient his existence. And she did not care. It was Sanctuary, a shelter from the storm of her life, and she welcomed it. Sherri sank into oblivion with gratitude.
And the Legion had increased by one.