I stood on the edge of a precipice, the hard ground under my bare feet already warming beneath the rising, scorching sun. The unblinking redorange eye of an angry god rose slowly over distant desert sands, beyond endless dunes, watching as I paid for the sin of practicing magic without a license.
Just as I had been at every execution before, I was dressed in almost nothing. A white scrap of fabric tied at my hip, covering one leg and leaving the other bare below the knot. Another length of the same stuff was draped around my neck, crossed in front to cover each of my humongous boobs, and then tied behind to keep it there. My hands were tied behind my back. I wore no jewelry. Resentment rose up in me at the notion that Sindar, High Priest of Marduk, had stolen it. And then I wondered how I knew that.
This isn't me. I mean, it feels like it's me, but it can't be me. She's olive-skinned. She's gorgeous. Her boobs are huge. I'm pale and blonde and too thin. No curves here. Not like those, anyway.
And yet it was me. I was there. On that cliff. In that body. No denying it.
There were two other women, dressed pretty much the same way I was, one standing on either side of me. I felt close to them. I loved them.
Three men stood behind us. I felt the one behind me, his hands, warm and trembling, resting softly on my back, low, near my waist, where the skin was bare. My back was screaming with pain I didn't understand, but that man's touch was good. Soothing. I tried to relish it, thinking it was the last time I would feel it or anything good. Ever.
I wanted to turn my head, to look back at him, to see his face, but somehow I could not convince my dream self to do that. It didn't matter, though. I knew what he looked like. In my mind, I saw him clearly: his long black hair, his fine white tunic with a sash of scarlet, the fat gold torque around his corded neck. His arms were banded with steel and coated in fine dark hair. He was strong, and he had ebony eyes.
I didn't need to see him, nor the poor, half-dead man being held captive by soldiers a bit farther away. He'd already been beaten bloody, but he was struggling to break free as they forced him to watch. I'd glimpsed his face as they'd marched us up the cliff, far from our city gates. He barely looked human. His own mother wouldn't have known him.
And Sindar, the High Priest, he was there, too. I knew his face, as well. Eyes lined with kohl, lips darkened with the juices of rare desert berries. The rolls of fat at his neck, sporting layer upon layer of gold. His robes of the finest fabric, imported from the East. His belly so big that the golden cords of those robes had to be tied above the bulge, making him look like a mother about to give birth. I knew he was there, knew the secret lust in his eyes for what was about to happen to us. He was twisted, turned on by violence. Or maybe just by the rush of knowing he held the power of life and death in his hands.
I was going to have to kill him one day.
I tried to look at the other women, because, aside from the touch of those large male hands on my skin, they were the most interesting part of this whole thing. They had dark hair and dark eyes, just like I did. But as I looked at them, they changed, the way a reflection in still water will change when a stone is dropped into it. One briefly became a blue-eyed platinum blonde, the other a fiery redhead, modern women in modern clothes. It was brief, the illusion, and then the High Priest was speaking in some long-dead language, and the hands at my back began trembling harder than before?kneading my waist, I thought?and I closed my eyes in bittersweet anguish.
"Remember, my sisters," said the raven-haired woman who had so briefly been a blonde. "Remember what we must do. We cannot cross over until it is done."
Oddly, the words I heard were spoken in an exotic language I knew I didn't know, yet I understood every word.
I tugged at the ropes that bound my wrists, tugged so hard I felt new blood seeping from the welts already cut into my flesh from my struggling. My gaze strayed to the jagged rocks far, far below, and my toes dug into the hard earth as my body instinctively resisted.
But, as always, it was futile?and I knew it. So I relaxed and reminded myself of the plan.
An instant later, my body was plummeting.
There were no screams, not one, not from any of us, as we arrowed downward like hawks diving onto their chosen prey. Our own weight propelled us as our feet pedaled uselessly. The only sounds were the soft flapping of our garments and the arid wind rushing past my face, whipping my long black hair above me. I smelled that wind, sucking it in deeply, tasting every flavor it held in my final breath. I closed my eyes, and awaited my fate. Then I heard the others, their voices chanting a familiar verse, and I joined them. My heart raced faster and faster as I waited to feel the impact of the already bloodstained rocks below.
I felt a sudden jarring blow, like the hit of a powerful electric jolt, in every cell of my body. And then nothing. Blackness.
I opened my eyes and stared through the darkness at the ceiling of my tiny Brooklyn apartment, willing my heart rate to drop back to normal. It was running like a late bicycle messenger on deadline, banging so hard against my rib cage that I thought for a second I might be having a heart attack. I lay very still, afraid to move and make it worse, my eyes wide, blinking at the ceiling.
I'm not in some fucked-up desert. I'm not wearing an I Dream of Jeannie Halloween costume. I have little boobs. Nice, firm, little boobs. And blond hair.
I moved my hand carefully, as if I was afraid to set off some unseen trap, and lifted a lock of said hair, so I could see it for myself by the glow of my plug-in night-light.
Yep. Blond. Perfectly blond. Or amber-gold, as my stylist calls it. Crimp curled, only without need of a crimper. And hanging just below my ears, right where it belongs. No long, flowing, ebony tresses in sight.
I took a deep, cleansing breath, inhaling till my lungs wanted to burst, then holding it for a beat or two, before blowing it all out, real slow. And then I did it again. And again. It was a technique I'd learned in the open circles I used to attend, led by my friend Rayne?Lady Rayne, that is?back when I used to believe in magic and shit. Which I didn't anymore.
When I felt it was safe to move again, I turned my head to look at the clock on the nightstand. Midnight. Again. It was always midnight when I woke from the damned recurring dream?
The Witching Hour. And on the night before Halloween, too.
Shut up. I'm not a witch anymore.
?and I could almost never get back to sleep.
The adrenaline rush of being shoved off a cliff tended to get a person's blood flowing, I supposed. Sitting up in bed, I pushed both hands through my hair. My spiky bangs were sideswept and tended to fall into my eyes. I thought it made me look mysterious.
My heart was still hammering. I needed a smoke, but like a jackass, I'd quit again, so there wasn't a cigarette in the entire place. No, wait, maybe?I'd switched out handbags just before my latest attempt to go healthy. I might have missed one.
I swept off the covers and got up too fast, then pressed the heels of my hands to my eyeballs to make the room stop spinning. Hell. Another deep breath. Damn, I needed nicotine.
Okay, steady again. Good. I made my way across the bedroom to the halfway decent-sized closet that had been the apartment's one and only selling point?besides it being only two subway stops or a good brisk walk from work?and rummaged around in the darkness within. I stubbed my toe on my antique replica treasure chest and cussed it out for being in the way before I located my most recent handbag, a pretty little leopard print Dolce & Gabbana number that had cost two months' rent.
I had a weakness for shoes and bags, and killer good taste. There were worse things.
Yanking the bag off the shelf by its tiny silver handle, I opened it and had an instant rush of gratification at the whiff of stale tobacco that wafted out. I pawed inside until I felt a crumpled, cellophane-wrapped pack that still held one beautiful, stale menthol.
One. Just one. My precious.
Lighter? Junk drawer. I dragged a bathrobe off the foot of my bed on the way into the living room-slash-kitchenette, then rounded the Formica counter that separated one from the other. The junk drawer?official holder of anything I didn't know where else to put, size permitting?yielded a yellow Bic.
I smoothed the wrinkles out of the slightly bent cig and put it between my lips. It felt good there. Lighter in hand, I speed walked to the bedroom window and wrenched it open. Then, sitting on the sill, illuminated by the moonlight I used to dance beneath, one leg dangling outside, the other holding me firmly in, I cupped my hands at the far end of the cigarette, like any smoker does when there's likelihood of an errant breeze.
But before I could flick my Bic, I went very, very still, my eyes glued to my wrists, which, I suddenly realized, really hurt. They'd been quietly hurting ever since I'd awakened from that stupid nightmare. The pain had seemed like part of the dream, like the pain all over my back and the impact with those rocks. I'd been waiting for it to fade, like the rest, but clearly it wasn't going to.
Clearly. Because there were angry red welts on my wrists, welts that had been bleeding, and that still bore the twisted pattern of rough-hewn rope.
My jaw dropped?and my one and only cigarette fell from my lips and fluttered down, way down, to the sidewalk below, looking a bit like a girl in white, plummeting from a friggin' cliff overlooking the desert in Bumfuck, Egypt.
Not Egypt. Babylon.
I turned around so fast I almost fell, looking to see who had just whispered the correction. But that was stupid, because it had come from inside my own head.
Father Dominick St. Clair led the way, and Father Tomas, his chosen successor, followed with his heart in his throat. He was nervous, and not ashamed to admit it. It wasn't every day a man was asked to assist in an exorcism. So far, it had all the markings of a made-for-Hollywood production. Creepy old house sadly in need of a paint job, check. Careworn mother, old beyond her years, dressed in clean but faded clothes, check. Narrow staircase that creaked when you walked on it, check. Big wooden door with unearthly moaning coming from the other side, double check.
He stood there and told himself he was a twenty-nine-year-old man with a first-rate education?Cornell, for crying out loud?and a left brain that ruled him. Practical. Intelligent. That part of him did not believe this could be real.
And he suspected that was the part of him Father Dom was trying to stomp out. The doubting side. The doubting Tomas.
The older priest couldn't know it was already too late. Tomas had made his decision. He couldn't keep living something he didn't believe in. He was only waiting for the right time to explain that he couldn't keep living in service to vows that no longer meant to him what they once had.
Dominick paused outside the old wooden door. It had an oval brass knob that had probably been there for two hundred years. "The job I've been grooming you for is coming soon."
He was being "groomed" to keep a witch from releasing a demon from its Underworld prison. Great. He'd often wondered if the Church elders knew about Father Dom's obsession with the ancient legend of He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. All Tomas had wanted was to be an ordinary priest, to help the poor and hungry and misled, to offer faith to the faithless and hope to the hopeless, to pay back the kindness shown to him by the Sisters of St. Brigit and Father Dom himself, who'd raised him from the age of ten after his faithless, hopeless, addicted mother's suicide.
He'd studied. He'd excelled. College, then the seminary. But unlike every other seminarian, he'd been yanked out of school early and personally ordained by Father Dom. He'd been given special dispensation with regard to Tomas, the old man had said, because of the importance of the mission.
"Did you hear me, Tomas?" Dom asked, sounding impatient.
Tomas snapped out of his thoughts and looked the old priest in the eye. Dom's face was like a white raisin, his body stooped. Yet his eyes were sharp and his perception sharper. Sometimes Tomas thought the old man could see right inside his brain, read the thoughts going on there. But then, he should. He probably knew Tomas better than anyone.
"Your faith isn't strong enough yet to do what will be required of you, Tomas," Dom said, and Tomas realized that he'd already said it once while he'd been lost in thought. "Faith ought not need proof to sustain it. But time is short, and you need to know. Demons are real. And powerful. See for yourself."
He opened the door, and Tomas looked inside. The girl in the bed might have been twelve. Maybe less. She was thrashing, arching her back, grunting and moaning. He froze in place as his mind tried to process what he was seeing. And his initial feeling was that he ought to yank out his iPhone and call 9-1-1.
Dom pushed past him, his black bag already open. He pulled out a crucifix and a bible, small and black and worn, its pages edged in gold. "Get the holy water. Bring it here."
Tomas pushed his doubts aside to be considered later.
He took the bag from Father Dom and rummaged inside until he found the vial, pulling it out and uncorking it.
"Use the water and draw an X on her forehead whenever I tell you."
Tomas moved up to the other side of the bed. The girl stank of urine, and it made him want to gag. She was foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog, thick white bubbles erupting everywhere.
"Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde? " Dom nodded at him, and Tomas wet his forefinger with holy water and drew an X on the girl's forehead. She was hot to the touch, and Dom was still praying. "In nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis?"
He kept going. Tomas stopped listening. He found himself pulled into the girl's eyes until they rolled back, and he shot Dom a look. "She needs an ambulance. A hospital."
Dom stopped what he was doing and glared at him. Then he lifted one long arm and pointed his arthritically bumpy forefinger at the door. "Get thee behind me." He didn't say "Satan," but it was in his tone.
Tomas didn't argue. He didn't want any part of this. He left the room, head down, and walked down the stairs and out of the house. His trusty old Volvo wagon was waiting at the curb, behind Dom's boat-sized seventy-something Buick. He got in and drove, and he didn't look back.