Jo knew she was in over her head before she even rolled into town. Demonic omens marked this place as surely as spoor marked a trail: cattle killed and cut open like so many lab specimens, lightning storms striking all across the hills. Four states over, March was prime tornado season, but there were no tornadoes expected in Podunk, South Carolina, and no electrical storms, either, only rain and maybe an early-bird hurricane if the locals were unlucky.
This much activity, Jo’d have called in for if Ellen were anywhere in the vicinity, but she was out in Idaho scouting for a wendigo among the so-called craters of the moon. Rufus was in Philly hunting a werewolf pack.
It was just her, this go-round. Just Jo Harvelle, packing her daddy’s knife. Two years’ experience now, hauling across the country killing things, paled in the face of this many omens and the eerie yellow light of another gathering storm.
Stop that, Joanna Beth. You’re spooking like a rookie.
Research first, she decided; she’d eaten in North Carolina, mashed potatoes and country-fried steak and unsweet tea, and she was good for hours yet. Besides, the clouds rushing overhead warned of another storm coming. A certain expectant tang in the air suggested the real trouble was coming up fast.
The town huddled up against what passed for a mountain in this part of the country. The tiny library was next to useless; the equally tiny librarian peered over her glasses, rheumy-eyed, and declined to admit that the library had ever kept local records of any kind. Even yesterday’s newspaper had been put out to the garbage this morning.
It was a problem, places like this. She wasn’t native, was practically a Yankee, and local scandals were judged none of her concern. A badge would have made no difference. An accent might have, but she didn’t have the ear for them.
She sat in the local watering hole awhile, ignoring the stares and the occasional coarse joke, staring at her laptop with apparently single-minded attention, and listening for something worth hearing. There was lots of talk about the weather, but the speculation was all wild, most of it original to the speaker. Jo heard nothing that suggested the piquant spice of truth.
She’d check in her motel, she decided, and think about her next move.
As she signed in at the one motel in town, a lightning flash lit the darkened afternoon. She closed her door behind her, and a roll of thunder cracked like a drumbeat in her chest. Whatever was coming, it was coming soon.
“You’re a hunter,” said a voice behind her. Jo whirled, her father’s knife shifting into her hand as easily as breathing.
A woman sat on the room’s one twin bed.
Only, nope, not a woman.
She looked enough like one, Jo’s age, crimson hair framing a face overtaken by huge liquid eyes. They weren’t the eyes of a human, though. Jo’d been in this business long enough to recognize the electric crackle playing across Jo’s skin, the person’s ageless stare as something Other.
“Yeah, I’m a hunter,” Jo said. She held herself loose, weight on the balls of her feet, and wondered what it’d take for this creature to die. Wondered if she’d get a chance to find out. “Who wants to know?”
“I’m...” There was a pause. An expression shifted over the woman’s face, quick as a shadow. For as long as it lingered, though, she looked almost human. “I’m Anna.”
“Well, Anna, that’s my cheap-ass motel bed you’re sitting on, and I don’t double bunk.”
“I need your help.”
Jo snorted, but she holds her position. Loose. Guard up. “Yeah?”
“There are demons here.”
“You one of them?” Jo doubted it. Every demon she’d ever met, the ones not bothering to pass anymore, felt like grease. She looked into their gleaming black eyes and it was like she was back at the Roadhouse grill, her skin sheened with the leavings and odors of seared meat. Evil meat.
Jo’d be stupid not to take the offer. “Christo.”
Anna watched her through eyes that remained pupil and iris rimmed in white.
Jo reached into her jacket and pulled out her water bottle. There was maybe half a cup left, fully blessed; Jo blessed all her drinking water, because then she always had it with her. She tossed the bottle to Anna, who caught it two-handed.
“Drink,” Jo said.
Anna lifted the bottle to her lips and tipped it back; when she lowered it again, it was empty. Nothing about her fizzed or burned.
“So you’re not a demon,” Jo said. Those tests weren’t infallible, not for the highest-ranking demons, but if that’s what this woman was then Jo was pretty much screwed either way. “So what?”
“We need to stop them,” Anna said. There was a sticky quality to her voice, like static cling.
“Won’t argue that, but I don’t hunt with folks I don’t know.”
“You’ll have to make an exception,” Anna said. “You can’t do it alone, and I can’t, either.”
“No?” Jo was wearying of the stand-off.
“I know who you are, Joanna Elizabeth Harvelle,” Anna said. Well, if that wasn’t enough to put the suspicion back in a woman. “The demons here have plans, and I know you don’t want them to succeed.”
“What are you?” Jo grated out.
“I won’t hurt you,” Anna said. Which. Well. Jo was only minimally reassured.
However, the chances that this person, whatever the hell she was, was being put off by one measly hunting knife, however personally sacred, seemed slim. Jo slid it back into its sheath.
She had one last question, though. “Why me?”
“You don’t need me to show you that demons are real, that the threat is real. You already believe.”
“Just what I can see,” Jo said. It sounded more like a warning that she’d meant, but that suited her fine. “What am I gonna see?”
“There used to be church outside of town. People were buried in the cemetery there. The building is long gone now, and the cemetery is forgotten, but tonight the demons will destroy the souls of everyone buried in it.”
“They can do that?” Jo asked, shocked temporarily from her distrust.
“Tonight they can.”
“So what do we do?” We, she noticed after the fact. God damn it.
“At dusk, we go, and we seal the cemetery.”
“I’m guessing you know how to do that?”
She could still be lying, but Jo didn’t see the point. Maybe she was trying to get Jo out of the way; maybe she meant to sacrifice Jo in an arcane black magic ritual.
It wasn’t like Jo had any better leads, though. “Okay,” Jo said.
Anna nodded. “Salt the door. I’ll be back for you.”
Then Jo stood alone in an empty room, still and silent but for a sound like the snap of a sheet in a high wind.
“God damn it.”
Jo salted the door like Anna said, and the windows, too – not that she wouldn’t have anyway. She put up all her usual wards and then some, went so far as to mark a grease-paint devil’s trap on the underside of the rug and empty out a spray bottle under the sink and fill it with holy water.
She’d have been lying if she said the demons outside were the only thing she was guarding against.
It was tough to tell, weather being what it was, but Jo judged there was maybe an hour to sunset when Anna appeared again. Jo didn’t see it happen; she walked out of the bathroom, drying her hands on her jeans, and there was Anna.
“Damn it,” Jo said, for form’s sake as much as anything. Her fingers itched for her knife, but she’d pretty much decided against stabbing Anna, and there was no other visible threat.
“Do you have a permanent marker?” Anna asked.
The words took Jo a minute to process; they were by several orders of magnitude the most human thing she’d heard Anna say. Then Jo got the tube of greasepaint out of her duffel and handed it over. Anna went to the window and began smearing a complicated symbol on the glass the like of which Jo had never seen.
“What is it?” Jo said.
Anna glanced her way, regarding her for a brief, solemn eternity. “Angels.”
Jo’s mouth moved without her, which was good, because if she waited on rational thought she’d have waited a while. “Supposing I believed you, why would I care about angels?”
“Because angels want every soul in that cemetery to burn, and we’re the reason they won’t. After that, you won’t want to be found for a while.”
“Right,” Jo said. Again, her mouth ran away from her. “Then I don’t believe you.”
Anna blinked at her, and then she shrugged: a human reaction, fit to match her earlier request for permanent marker. “But you believe in demons.”
“Yeah,” Jo said.
“Good enough.” Anna returned to her greasepaint graffiti.
So Jo’d maybe been wishing a few hours ago for some outside assistance; this wasn’t what she had in mind.
Maybe Anna’d be better than nothing. Jo’s judgment was pending.
“It’s time to go,” Anna said.
“I need to take anything?”
“Just yourself,” Anna said, as if Jo were coming to a party and asking if she should bring dessert. “Now.”
And just like that, Jo wasn’t in her motel room anymore.
Well. Not just like that. There was a sting, sharp as snow driven against her face, except it passed through her whole body. Then Jo was standing in a bunch of trees that looked pretty much like all the other trees thereabouts: dense and leafy and wild.
“What the hell?” Jo asked. She meant the words to come out stronger than they did.
A fresh crash of thunder rolled.
“They’re preparing,” Anna said. Her gaze was fixed overhead at clouds that looked too dark to be anything but the overdone effects in a summer B movie. Or possibly a swarm of demons. Jo’d never seen one, but Ellen had described how they’d looked the night the devil’s gate opened.
“Come on,” Anna said. She was standing a few yards off, stance wide, shoulders straight. Immovable, Jo thought.
Jo stepped carefully over fallen branches and what were maybe broken parts of building, maybe just stones. The snap of twigs under her feet sounded wrong, dulled. When she was at Anna’s side, she asked, “Where are we?”
Something was building, inside her or out, she couldn’t tell. This must be what deep-sea diving was like, she thought: darkness and the inexorable grip of the deep.
“It’s the church,” Anna said. “We’re standing in the cemetery. I’ll hold them off, but you’ll have to bind the seal.”
“How the hell do I do that?” Something was wrong with her ears. She thought she might be shouting, and yet she could barely hear herself.
Above, the seething black storm scudded in, ever closer.
Jo saw the word on Anna’s lips, felt it in her bones more than heard it. “Blood.”
Anna’s attention snapped away, eyes fixed above and shining with a light that was more than natural.
Of course it’d be blood. It was always blood.
Jo gave Anna one last, hard look: was this a person who’d bring Jo out here for black magic, hell-raising purposes? Once Jo started bleeding, would she ever get the chance to stop?
There was no one to ask, no one to trust except her own instincts.
It was the demons gathering overhead that decided her. Blood it was.
Jo thought there ought to be a ritual, but Anna hadn’t given her one; there ought to be some particular location, some special words, but she didn’t have them. By Anna’s stone-steady presence at her side, though, Jo guessed that right here was as much the center of things as she was likely to find.
Just blood, then. That was easy enough.
Jo drew her knife, the weight of it in her hand a more familiar friend than any flesh-and-bone acquaintance, and cut across her palm. It stung. She made a fist and squeezed the welling blood from her hand onto the knobby ground.
The pressure she’d been feeling before, natural and otherwise, closed vise-tight around her. She couldn’t move, couldn’t so much as lift her head or draw breath. It felt like the very life in her blood and body was being held still.
A crack of thunder broke like a crack in her head, and the mighty pressure shattered. Jo fell to the ground, heaving in gasps of air.
It took her a few moments like that, knees growing sore against rocks and tree roots, before she could sit up and look around. The sky was still dark and getting darker as the last of the daylight failed, but the heaving blackness of before was gone. As Jo looked, a huge raindrop fell on her cheek.
It was then that Jo noticed Anna. She was kneeling, too, though Jo couldn’t tell if it was from shock or relief or something else. Reverence, maybe, bowing those slim shoulders.
Jo waited. More raindrops fell, big wet splashes on her head and arms.
After a moment or two, she ventured over to Anna. Touchy-feely though Jo wasn’t, if it’d been some other person, Jo might have put a hand on her shoulder. Instead, Jo said, “I think they’re gone.”
“They’re safe,” Anna said.
“The demons?” Jo asked, although she doubted Anna meant them.
“The faithful.” Anna looked to the sky, and Jo caught a glimpse of her eyes, shining with something that was neither power nor rain. “You know, I miss it sometimes.”
Anna looked down and pressed her hand flat against the dampening earth. “Being faithful. Believing.”
Jo had no idea what Anna was talking about, but she was damn sure it was above her pay grade. “So, can you give me a lift back to motel? I have no idea where the hell we are.”
The moment passed, and Anna rose. There was a wobble in her legs, and before Jo even thought about it, she put her hand out to catch her. Anna didn’t feel anything like Jo’d have expected. She felt human. Cool and a little clammy, what with the rain, but human.
Then it wasn’t raining anymore.
Jo just barely caught Anna before she crumpled flat on the highly suspect carpet of Jo’s motel room.
“Damn it,” Jo muttered. Who knew what exactly she was damning, but she could make a list, no problem. She adjusted her grip on Anna, who may or may not have been conscious, and got her over to the single bed. Once Jo got her laid out, it was pretty clear: out cold.
“No bunk sharing,” Jo said, for all the good it did her. She felt Anna’s forehead, but there was no fever. Could a person get a fever, teleporting to hell and back and fighting off demons with the power of her... power? Anyway, Anna didn’t have one. Her breathing was even. She could have been sleeping, although up to now Jo’d have bet a shot of the good stuff that Anna didn’t sleep.
Jo took her first aid kit to the bathroom and cleaned her hand, and then she bandaged the cut. It ached, but it’d be all right, she judged.
She came back out and considered Anna again. She didn’t look sick or injured, just worn out. Under the circumstances, Jo could excuse her that.
Jo was feeling less than full-throttle herself, but she was also hungry. She gave Anna a last glance and then went to the door. The salt still lay thick across it, a secure, unbroken line.
Good thing Anna was apparently one of the good people. Today, anyway.
Jo came back a half hour later with two greasy sacks of fish and chips. She doubted Anna ate, either, but that left more for Jo, and there were worse things than second-day fried cod.
Jo’d finished her fish and was halfway through with her fries when Anna stirred.
“Morning, sunshine,” Jo said, because what was the point of letting someone sleep on your bed in their soggy clothes if you couldn’t be obnoxious afterwards?
Anna sat up cautiously, the stiff, no-sudden-moves demeanor of someone with a truly godawful headache.
“Fried fish and mutilated potatoes?” Jo offered, holding out the second bag.
“No, thanks,” Anna said.
After a while, Jo asked, “So what was that?” Jo was a little less afraid of Anna when she was holding herself that way.
Anna closed her eyes – against the none-too-bright overhead bulb, Jo suspected. “This is what happens when you rebel.”
Uh huh. No supernatural critter worth its salt gave straight answers. The chatter mouths were all minor beings in the monstrous hierarchy. “So what are you, again? Because no human I know can hold back a swarm of demons with their aura, or whatever you did there.”
Anna smiled faintly. “No. No human.”
“I was a believer. I’m not anymore.” She looked over at Jo, and her mouth spread into a grin, wide but tight at the corners with some tension she wasn’t giving away. “I ran away from home.”
Jo snorted. “I did that once.”
“And?” Anna looked genuinely curious.
Jo shrugged. “Kind of still doing it. I’ve got my mom’s blessing now, though – at least, she doesn’t cuss at me every time I call her. Sometimes we even work together.” Not always, because Harvelle women could only spend so much time in each other’s company before one was threatening the other. Sometimes, though, it was Jo and Ellen, killing evil sons of bitches and kicking demon ass.
While Jo was pondering the vagaries of Harvelles, though, Anna had gone wistful. She wore that look again, like she’d cry if her eyes weren’t so huge they held all the tears in.
Had to be shock, Jo figured. “You sure you don’t want food?”
Anna shook her head and then grimaced. “I think I’d like to lie down,” she said.
“Sure,” Jo said. “I don’t need to sleep in that bed or anything.”
Anna’s eyes went just a little bit wider, if that was possible. “I’m sorry.”
Jo shrugged. “It’s fine. Pretty sure you saved my ass out there. Guess one night’s sleep isn’t too much to ask.”
Jo’d consider sharing, but the bed was a twin, and the available space just wasn’t worth the risk of elbows to the face. Instead she brought in a blanket from her truck and laid it out on the floor. Wouldn’t be her last time sleeping there, either. Hunting: not known for its creature comforts.
She offered Anna dry clothes, but Anna declined. Didn’t matter to Jo; she wasn’t going to be sleeping in that bed tomorrow night anyway.
Jo brushed her teeth, turned off the light, and laid herself out under her blanket. It was only now, when all the rest of her lay still, that she realized how her heart was still racing. It’d been a banner day, facing off a demon horde and getting beamed hither and yon like some Enterprise red shirt. Without the dying, though.
Anna’s voice came from the bed. “Why did you run away?”
Jo blinked into the darkness. Was it sharing time now? “I wanted to hunt, and Mom said not under her roof. So I got out from under her roof.” When Anna didn’t answer, Jo added, “You gotta make your own choices, you know?”
“Yeah. I know.”
Jo waited for more, but none came.
Jo woke to housekeeping banging at the door. She opened it and blinked at the bright mid-morning light streaming in. She hadn’t realized she was so wiped.
She turned then, remembering. The bed was empty. Anna was gone; had been gone for a while, judging from a certain dissipating fizz in the air. That meant she was recovered, Jo supposed.
The housekeeping woman tried to bustle in, but Jo promised to be out in a jiffy if she’d just give her fifteen minutes. Once the woman was gone, Jo packed her duffle. It didn’t take long. She nabbed some paper towels from the bathroom, too, and took a few swipes at the angel camouflage symbol on the window. Actually getting it off would be a pain, but she managed to smear it around enough that the pattern would no longer suggest “Satanic cultist” to the uniniated.
She was ready to head for the door when she noticed the pad of motel stationery, set askew on the bedside table. On the tablet were words written in ballpoint in a sharp, looping scrawl. They read, If you hadn’t run away from home, those souls might not have been destroyed, but you wouldn’t have been the one to save them. Don’t look back.
Jo stared at the note a moment, lifted it to see if it smelled of anything but paper and ink – it didn’t – and then folded it and slipped it into her pocket.
Maybe Anna needed a note like that to remind her what she’d run from, and to. Jo didn’t.
Jo kept the note anyway.