Demons in the Big Easy
Shivering in the cold, Cassandra leaned on her staff as she stood over the snow-covered graves of her husband and four of her five children. Her long, white hair was loose under her hood, and she stooped with age. A storm was just over the horizon, and her bones ached. Curse these old bones of mine! The staff was of heavy oak, so she didn’t know if it were more of a help or a hindrance, but she didn’t dare leave home without it. One never knew these days when one might run into a demon. Something had made the veil thinner, making it easier for them to cross into her realm, and it was Cassandra’s job to send them back where they belonged.
Cassandra sighed wearily. She was getting too old for this kind of thing. She should have trained an apprentice to take over years ago, but she’d never been able to find a young person with the necessary talent. Arwain, her oldest, had had it, but he’d died before she’d had him half trained. A demon had come upon the village when Cassandra had been busy playing the role of midwife. At sixteen, Arwain had been eager to prove his worth and had taken on the demon on his own. By the time Cassandra heard the news, it had been too late. Arwain had managed to banish the demon, but only at the cost of his life.
She patted Arwain’s gravestone. It had been nearly forty years, but she still felt the loss. “Why, son? Why didn’t you run to me instead of toward death? The village needs you now. I won’t be with them much longer.” Cassandra half-smiled at the thought. She’d soon see Arwain again as well as her husband and other lost children. If only she had good hands to leave the village in, she would be at peace with the thought of her death.
She looked down at the next two little graves that held the bodies of her two babes—twin girls. She didn’t want to think about how she’d failed to save their lives. The twins had come too early, as is common with twins. If they’d been anyone else’s children, she might have been able to sustain them, but childbirth had weakened her, and they’d passed before she recovered her strength. Her daughter Malva came next. Malva had died giving birth to the twins—Aine and Caronwyn. Cassandra grieved not being able to stop the bleeding that took her life. She’d helped so many other mothers give birth safely, but somehow she’d not been able to save her own child.
Cassandra felt eyes watching her and turned. On the other side of the fence, just off sacred ground, stood a demon. It smiled at her revealing nasty, yellow teeth and a forked tongue, its cat-like eyes glowing with satisfaction. “Good e’vn, powerful one.” The demon was short, but bloated, as if it had just consumed someone’s essence, but it was too small to have gotten past the wards she had guarding the village.
Cassandra’s lips tightened as she wondered who had been caught outside the wards. She hoped it wasn’t one of those who relied upon her for protection. She’d warned them not to be without the village boundaries after sunset. She readied her staff to perform the ritual of banishment, but the demon’s behavior was odd. “Why have you sought me out? You know I’ll simply send you back where you belong.”
The demon laughed. “Today, yes,” it hissed. “But soon there will be enough of us to overwhelm your wards and devour your village.”
Impossible. The veil might be thinner, but not thin enough for demons to cross in multitude. It would take far too much energy. “Your idle threats don’t scare me.” Cassandra took her staff and began to draw a pentangle in the snow, the first step of the banishment ritual.
The demon smiled wider as the pentangle took shape; it should have cowered in fear. “I will feast on you yet, powerful one, and the meal will be delectable.” It licked its thin lips with its forked tongue and made no effort to thwart the banishment. Any effort it made would have been futile, but still, she usually had to do the ritual while fighting them off, a lapse of concentration on her part would usually be fatal. This demon just watched as if rather amused by the spectacle.
Cassandra finished drawing the pentangle and stood in the center. She planted her staff and began to chant in the old tongue. Directing her will and her energy into the staff, she pointed it toward the demon. The demon began to fade as she pushed it back beyond the veil. Usually, at this point, the demon would scream and curse her name. This one just laughed again and spoke a single word, “Soon.”
When it was gone, Cassandra leaned against the staff; the banishment had not been difficult, but the behavior of the demon disconcerted her. Surely the demon’s threats were empty. Still, something was going wrong with the world, and she was getting too old to handle it.
She tottered to the graveyard gate. As she opened it, a young woman came racing around the corner. “Grandmother! Grandmother!”
Alarmed, Cassandra looked around for any sign of another demon. “Caronwyn, what are you doing here? The sun set half an hour ago. This is outside the wards, and demons are about. I just finished banishing one.”
“Grandmother, it’s Aine!” Tears streamed down Caronwyn’s cheeks.
Thinking of the demon’s bloated belly, Cassandra grabbed Caronwyn’s shoulder. “No, it isn’t true. The demon didn’t get her.”
Caronwyn shook her head. “No, Grandmother, she’s fallen through!”
“Fallen through what?” Cassandra pictured a hole in the ice over the river and wondered why her granddaughter would come to her instead of someone who could help. Running water negated magic, and she’d be useless in such a situation. Aine and Caronwyn were all she had left, and she couldn’t bear to lose either of them.
“A gateway, a random gateway!” Caronwyn wrung her hands. “Grandmother, we have to go after her! We have to bring her back!”
Random gateways between Domhan and Earth did occur, but they weren’t common, and they were so obvious they could be easily avoided. “Surely you’re mistaken.”
“No, Grandmother, I saw it with my own eyes. I was out gathering holly for the Solstice celebration when Aine came running up the hill, followed by Henrik. They were arguing as usual. He was pleading with her to listen to reason, and she was cursing him and his ancestors.”
Cassandra hoped the cursing would take. Henrik was no where near good enough for her granddaughter.
“Aine stopped at the edge of the cliff and told him if he came any closer she’d jump. You know how dramatic she always is. I came out and told her to step away from the edge. She said she’d do no such thing until he apologized. He said, ‘Alright, I’m sorry.’ But Aine didn’t think that was good enough. She told him that he really needed to mean it, and she stamped her foot. That’s when the edge of the cliff gave way.”
Caronwyn let out a wail. “She flailed with her arms, but she still went over. Both Henrik and I screamed her name and ran to the edge of the cliff. That’s when we saw the black light. She fell straight into it. The air crackled with lightening. Then the black light disappeared, and she was gone. We searched all around the base of the cliff, and we couldn’t find her body. She’s gone through. She’s on the other side. You have to bring her back.”
Cassandra sank down on a nearby stone. Random gateways were unstable. Aine could have arrived in mid-air and fallen to her death or materialized inside stone and suffocated, or worse yet, she might not have made it all the way through and be trapped somewhere between Domhan and Earth in that dark, formless void forever.
“We’re wasting time. We have to go after her now. Who knows what will happen to her in that frightful place?”
The same thing that would happen to any young girl without money on the streets of Earth. Earth with its racing technology was no easy place for the laid back inhabitants of the slower moving Domhan.
“Take me to where she went through. I need to get a reading on the gateway, so I can build one in proximity to when she went through.” The where wasn’t difficult. Any gate built in the vicinity of their village would place them in the Earth city of New Orleans. But when was harder to pin down. Time moved weirdly between gates, and a cross could take a few minutes or a few years. If there was enough residual energy from the gate, she could likely pin Aine’s location in time down to within a few months, but that was as close as she was likely to get.
“This way.” Caronwyn grabbed Cassandra’s arm and start pulling her after her.
Cassandra’s knees and hips protested sharply. “Slow down, child. This body doesn’t move like it used to.”
* * *
Cassandra was winded and hurt in all her joints by the time Caronwyn had dragged her up the steep hill to the spot where Aine had gone over. Cassandra planted her staff and leaned heavily against it. She could still feel the gateway’s residual energy. After she’d rested a moment, she stepped as close to the edge of the cliff as she dared. She focused her energy through the staff and sent a beam down to where the gate had been. The residual energy from the gateway was faint, but still strong enough that Cassandra could read when Aine had gone through. It was a nearly instantaneous gateway. Aine had come out, if she’d come out, at nearly the same moment she’d left. Cassandra only wished she could be that precise in building her own gateway.
As Cassandra and Caronwyn came back down the hill, they were met by Henrik and nearly half the villagers, including Zinna and Yale—Aine’s other set of grandparents. “Is it true?” Zinna asked. “Has our Aine fallen through?”
Cassandra nodded and patted Zinna’s arm. “It certainly appears that way.”
“You will go after her, won’t you?” Yale asked. “You’re the only one within a hundred miles that could.”
“Of course I’ll bring her back.” Dear goddess. Please let me find her. Let me be in time.
“What can we do to help?” Zinna asked.
“Get me Aine’s hair brush—I’ll need some of her hair to perform a tracking spell. And bring me all the gold and silver you have. They have value on Earth.” On Domhan, they were so common that even the poorest of the poor had them in quantity. “I may need the money to track Aine down.”
Caronwyn stepped forward. “You mean, we may need the money. I’m going with you.”
“You?” Cassandra, Zinna, and Henrik said at once. Caronwyn was a timid girl. She’d hardly cross the village street without Aine holding her hand.
Caronwyn crossed her arms. “Aine would do it for me, and you may need help.”
“What help could you possibly be?” Zinna asked, in what Cassandra thought was a tactless manner.
“You have no magic, granddaughter,” Cassandra said more gently. “It’s best if I do this alone.” Caronwyn would only be someone else she’d have to worry about.
Caronwyn tried to argue, but Cassandra stood firm. Caronwyn glared at her. “I’ll fetch Aine’s brush and gather the village’s gold and silver.”
“Bring it to my house at sunrise. I need light to create a gateway, and it’s too dark tonight.”
Caronwyn and the villagers scattered, and Cassandra hobbled home. She went to her old trunk, opened it, and took out the quilts to reveal the false bottom. She fumbled with the secret catch and opened it. Inside were souvenirs from her previous trip—most importantly, a thousand Earth dollars, money to keep her until she was able to sell whatever gold and silver the villagers donated to the cause. Cassandra had always intended to go back to Earth or go to the capital and do great things. She was really too powerful for such a small place. But after her adventure, she’d fallen in love with the village blacksmith. She’d married and had children. Then she’d used her talents for the good of the community, protecting it from demons and wild beasts, helping the crop to yield bounteous harvests, healing the sick. She didn’t regret her choices; she’d had a good life, if not the exciting one she’d once imagined.
She’d offered the money to Aiden, her youngest, when he went off adventuring, but he’d told her he didn’t intend to pass through. She smiled at the thought of her youngest, most mischievous child. He’d always been getting into one mess or another. But he’d had a good heart. All would have been well with him, but he envied the talent his older brother held. He’d always been after her to teach him more, and she’d tried. Aiden’s magic had hardly been adequate to light a candle. She sighed as she wondered what had become of him. She hadn’t heard a word from him since he went off thirty years ago, but in her heart, she couldn’t believe him dead. If he’d been dead, she surely would have felt it somehow. She’d always believed he would return. She still did. She just didn’t know if she would be still be here when he did. At seventy-five, she was already an old woman.
Cassandra dismissed useless thoughts of Aiden and began gathering the paraphernalia she’d need for the spells to rescue her granddaughter: candles, incense, chalk, and a compass. She was powerful enough that these trappings weren’t strictly necessary, but they helped conserve energy she might otherwise need. Lastly, she lay her wizard staff by the bundle. She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, but if she had to fight, it could come in handy.
* * *
When Caronwyn arrived early the next morning carrying a sack of silverware, candlesticks, and jewelry that she’d been able to gather from the villagers, Cassandra was dressed in her warmest clothes and had the thousand dollars and the magical paraphernalia in a pack that had been among her souvenirs. The storm that had been threatening the night before was upon them.
Caronwyn collapsed with the sack at Cassandra’s table. She was trembling. Caronwyn and Aine were twins and had never been apart a day in their lives. The separation must be terrible. “I’ll find her,” Cassandra said with an assurance she didn’t feel.
“Let me come with you,” Caronwyn pleaded.
Cassandra shook her head. “We’ve been over this.”
Surprisingly, Caronwyn argued no further. When Cassandra was ready, Caronwyn—carrying the heavy gold and silver—accompanied her into the woods behind her house to the clearing where she’d built her first gate all those many years before. In the clearing were two trees the proper distance apart to anchor a gateway.
The wind was blowing too fiercely for Cassandra to have any hope of lighting the candles that would help focus the spell. Fortunately, she had the energy to proceed without them. She drew a pentangle in the snow between the trees with her staff. The five points—one for each element (fire, earth, air, and water) and one for the spirit—anchored her so that she didn’t get caught between, as Aine may have done. Then she began the chant in the old tongue—the language of the goddess herself. She pleaded with the goddess to allow a rift between worlds that she might step over. At first, nothing seemed to happen. Perhaps the storm negated the magic necessary to open the gate; rain would. Snow didn’t usually bother magic. Then, a bolt of lightening ripped through the air, and the air between the trees filled with a blackness so absolute it denied the existence of light.
Caronwyn screamed and grabbed hold of Cassandra’s arm. Cassandra had forgotten just how dark and powerful the gateway was. “It’s alright, child.” She patted Caronwyn’s hand. “Remember I may be gone awhile, but that doesn’t mean I have failed. Give me the gold.”
“No!” Caronwyn said, and before Cassandra could stop her, she stepped into the darkness. Cassandra had no choice but to follow.