“He said what?!” Judi’s eyes were spitting fire.
“And I quote,” I replied quietly, grateful for my eidetic memory, “It’s not you who’s going to be the ultimate key to our survival. It’s your daughter.”
“Son. Of. A. Bitch.”
Now, where had I heard that before? “That’s what I said.” Sissy’s eyes weren’t all that calm, either. Not spitting fire. More like molten steel. Had old Jack Hill chosen that moment to stroll through our front door, he’d not likely have gotten much older. “The question is…what do we do now? I don’t believe he’s bluffing about the darkness that’s coming. Do either of you?”
Sissy picked up the remote, clicked off the TV. The chick flick wasn’t over yet, but my girls had clearly lost their appetite for pretty boy Brad Pitt. I’d interrupted their movie night, lacking the guts to wait before flipping their worlds upside down. The tall warrior woman’s gaze settled a bit, down from molten steel to something cooler yet harder. She flicked a glance at her sister wife before answering for both of them. “No, Tree. We don’t believe he’s bluffing. It’s not his style. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t have thought keeping something like this from us was his style, either. And before you say anything else, yes, the two of us will abide by whatever decision you make, either get the hell out of Montana or stay and fight ye olde forces of evil.”
“What we decide.” I finally lowered myself into my favorite easy chair, raised the foot support thingy, and kicked back. We were going to be talking this one over for a while. “I’ll take the lead, but you two need to give me all the input you can. Short of kicking old Jack’s ass, though I’ll admit I’d like to try that, too.” Try being the operative word; I had weight and reach on him, but he had nearly a century and a half of experience on me.
“Well,” our little Mommy to be said intelligently. “Well. Um.” Her eyes, too, were settling down, her fine mind beginning to reengage. This was a good thing. “We’re green lighting?”
I nodded. “One hundred percent. Green away.”
“Well. Hm. Seems to me, o’ husband mine, the very first question we three have to ask ourselves is, will Willow be safer if we go? Because if the answer is yes, I say go, but my instinct is screaming at me that the opposite might be true. In which case, I vote stay.”
Sissy and I exchanged a look. Yep; we were agreed. “You almost have to be right, Jude. If our daughter is the key, why wouldn’t the Evil Empire chase after her wherever she went? Sort of the old you can run but you can’t hide thing, right? Here, at least, we have some serious assets. Including,” I grimaced, “the unquestionably talented fighter and sneak recruiter, old Jack Hill.”
It was settled, then; we were staying.
Our family war council was far from over, though. Judi eventually hopped up to get a legal pad and a pen, returning to the couch to take notes.
“Seems to me,” I said, “we need to break this down into categories. We know our assets pretty well, including Diamond Paws if he returns in time to take a hand in this mess–and I have to believe he intends to do just that, or he wouldn’t have left the book there for me to find. But the face of the enemy is…faceless, wouldn’t you say? At this point?”
Both girls nodded. Sissy added, “We can’t prepare for war unless we know what we’ll be facing. Do you guys remember your world history? Specifically, World War I versus World War II?”
Judi just looked blank, her hands folded protectively over her stomach. I doubted she even realized she was doing that. I remembered a few things, though. “Are you referring to the French Surprise?”
The tall woman chuckled. “Never heard it called that, but yes, the French did get a surprise, didn’t they?”
“Yep. They were all set in the trenches along the old Maginot Line, so big deal, Hitler just sent his Panzers around the trenches, blitzkrieg, lighting struck, the French lost, just like that. Because they had no idea what was coming at them; they thought they could fight the current war–current at that time–with the tactics of the previous war. Recipe for failure.”
“Exactly. Applying that lesson here and now, we can’t afford to face Jack’s soon-to-come darkness with the tactics we’ve used against Morse Code and the rest of our, um, merely human opponents. More than anything else, we must learn what this mystery menace really is. In detail. In advance. Or else.”
There was no arguing with that. The image of a boxer going into the octagon against an MMA fighter and getting his ass handed to him–which happened every time–popped firmly into my inner vision. But how—wait a sec. I reached over to the nearest curtain, pulling it aside to take a peek. “Jack said he knew a little bit about the enemy. Their lights are still on. Shall we troop on over there and beard the liar in his den? If you little sweeties are down off homicidal mode far enough?”
“Oh,” Judi said grimly, “I’m all sweetness and light. How about you, Sis?”
“Hey, I can be as two faced as any old white dude, any old day.”
I popped down the foot thingy and got out of the chair. “Let’s do it, then.”
They were expecting us. Carolyn West, the only non-fighter in our entire Inner Circle, had gone to bed, but Wayne Bruce and Jack Hill were both up. We were ready for more coffee, it being a few minutes to midnight, and Wayne had broken out the good stuff, the Kona. If he was trying to mellow us out, it worked; I don’t know a serious coffee drinker who can resist the aroma, let alone the taste, of Kona coffee from the Big Island of Hawaii.
We settled in at the kitchen table. “We’re in,” I stated, looking Hill in the eye, “but that doesn’t mean we’re happy campers. We’d appreciate it if you filled us in on what you do know before we call it a night.”
“Fair enough.” The old man looked tired, I realized, but I couldn’t gin up much sympathy for him. Later on, after I’d slept on it, maybe I’d begin to empathize with what he’d been going through these past several years, but for now…not so much. “First off, some of the old myths and legends were actually fairly accurate…in their day. But the darksiders have–”
He shrugged. “Just what I call them. Parasites and predators who start out more or less human but prey on humans. You remember Star Wars, right? Come to the dark side, Luke? Something like that. If they’re focused on behavior that impede Souls on their way to God, then I consider them to be darksiders.”
“Okay. Got it.”
“All right, let’s see…trying to figure out where to start…evolution. Did you know that scientists have identified twenty-six human species that have existed on Earth at one time or another? No? I mean, we’ve all heard about Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man, right? And we know we’re called homo sapiens…but the thing is, homo sapiens is the only survivor, the last species standing, of all twenty-six. And we’re evolving, too, not falling to another species–not so far, anyway–but changing. Living longer, growing taller and stronger, becoming addicted to electronic devices instead of the thrill of the bloody hunt, that sort of thing. We’re evolving socially, too; the idea of the United States of America electing an African American President–half African American, anyway–would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. Believe me, I know; I was there.”
Sissy interrupted. “Is there a point to all this, Jack?” She might have been the old man’s slave at one time, but she clearly didn’t mind snapping at him now.
He took no offense. “The point is, we’re not the only ones evolving. The darksiders, those who shapeshift and hunt humans for blood or meat, those who cast spells to control men and their emotions…they’ve been evolving as well. A lot of our writers and even our so called thinkers seem to assume those who work in areas we consider evil…well, they’re not supposed to evolve. It’s unthinkable. They’re supposed to stay stuck in their stereotypes, doing things the way they’ve always done them.
“But we’re both blind and stupid if we accept that point of view. Think about it. Why wouldn’t the enemy evolve? Okay, so in the white collar crime area, the guy who ran a shell game at a carnival a century ago, his great grandson might be working a high tech Ponzi scheme on the Internet. The principle is the same, but the tools are different.”
Judi was frowning, her furrowed brow just the cutest thing you ever saw. “That’s all well and good, but how does that apply to, say, a werewolf or a vampire? Or a witch? Because I assume that’s what we’re talking about here, or some combination or variation thereof.”
Jack hesitated, gathering his thoughts while Wayne topped off his coffee. Something passed between the two men, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Just in the past twenty years or so, I’ve begun picking up hints here and there. I can’t swear I’ve got it right, not completely, but it looks to me like those three have begun finding ways to…meld.”
“Huh?” My girls looked as lost as I felt. “Say what?”
“Meld. Fuse. The more advanced shapeshifters have always been able to adopt forms other than the classic werewolf form, the toughest vampires can tolerate sunlight just fine–up to a point–and the witchiest witches have found ways to look more like Samantha than three crones tending a bubbling kettle. But now they’re finding ways to…reproduce, I guess you could call it, though I’m not sure sex per se is involved. Their methods are closely guarded secrets; the few informants I’ve found have consistently assured me of that.”
“So…” Judi looked down at her stomach, appalled. “What’s the result of this…nonsexual reproduction?”
The fingers of Jack’s left hand drummed on the table, a sure sign he was nervous. “Worst case scenario–or best case, I guess, depending on your point of view–would be an individual who could live on either blood or meat, cast spells like a witch or wizard, and assume any form it chose. I say it because such an ultimate predator could switch between genders at will.”
Images cascaded through my head. “So,” I said, my eyes squinting with the effort of containing the flow, “you’re saying that this…creature…could walk up to an unsuspecting girl, say, looking like Brad Pitt. Suck her blood, eat her flesh, suck the marrow from her bones. Then it could turn into, oh, for example, a Great Dane dog, trot off, turn the corner, become a bird or maybe a snake if there was a hole handy it could slither down, sleep it off, then resurface as a woman and target a man the next time it got hungry?”
“Something like that,” he agreed. “But hold on. As I was saying, that’s the ultimate scenario, but from what I’ve been able to gather, that sort of apex predator is still a bit of a daydream–or a nightmare, if you will–for the darksiders. As I understand it, at least to date, there are now a number of evolved individuals who combine two of the three–vampirism and shapeshifting, or witchcraft and vampirism, or witchcraft and shapeshifting–but there has never yet been a successful combination of all three.”
“Wait a sec.” I turned my coffee mug in my hand, scowling at it like I thought it was hiding the answers we needed. “You’re saying the ultimate evolved darksider, against which no human or even group of humans would have a real chance, is the goal of those who feed on humans? Either their blood or their flesh or their emotions?”
Hill shook his head. “Not the goal of all of them. My last informant, a truly brave woman who managed to pass on a good deal of data before they caught on and killed her, told me that the dark side is every bit as splintered politically as any mainstream human nation. But the one splinter group, a group of radicals, yes; that’s their goal. And they have a prophecy. I don’t know if this prophecy is in some ancient book or scroll or what, but they believe it. I hesitate to share it even now….”
We said nothing, just gave him the stinkeye and waited.
“Tree, Judi….” I noticed that Hill’s hands, along with the rest of him, had gone completely still. “The prophecy, as my late informant passed it on to me…she only had a fragment, not the whole thing, but what she did have went like this.”
Among the peaks of granite
in the final year of the Great Brown Father
There shall come unto Earth
The Matriarch of our Clan
Born of extremes
Born to rule
Born Three In One
Heartbite, Mother of Generations
We all sat and pondered that for a while. After a bit, feeling stupid, I scratched my head and admitted, “I don’t get it.”
Judi’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. “I think I do. There’s a lot of limestone in these mountains, but plenty of granite, too. And while we all live in Powell County, not Granite County, well, the prophecy could be referring to Willow being born right here, next year.”
“Huh?” For some reason, I still didn’t get it, though I suspected Sissy did; she was looking patient rather than confused.
Our little mother to be lectured me as if I were her child. “Obama’s last year in office is next year, Tree. And he’s only half black, so, Great Brown Father? Why not? Honey, I’m thinking the bad guys want our baby to raise as their own. That she’s going to be born with the talent to do all sorts of supernatural stuff. That if they can grab her and raise her as their own, brainwash her to believe in sucking blood and sucking marrow from human bones, ho-ho, then she becomes Heartbite. Maybe she’d be impregnated as soon as she’s old enough, get knocked up by a boss vampire-werewolf or something–however they do that, sexually or nonsexually, start churning out little baby three-way darksiders like a queen bee, kept in darkness and encouraged to be nothing but a baby factory. Or maybe both, practice her dark arts and produce babies. Wait; it said she’d be born to rule, right? Okay, so brainwash her to do that, too. And I will not let that happen!”
I turned to Jack Hill. “This is what you consider a little bit of information?”
He nodded ruefully. “And damned little it is, too. The enemy is going to know when she’s born, Tree. You know, like everybody from King Herod to the Three Wise Men knew when Jesus Christ was born. And they’ll be coming, trying to find and take her, not to kill but to turn to their purpose. Going back to the Star Wars analogy, Luke Skywalker was mostly grown up before he had to face the enemy directly; his people were able to keep him hidden for years, though it did eventually cost them their lives to do so. But the way we’re set up, especially with you three voting to stay and fight, you can’t run off to hide your child in Egypt like Jesus or on the distant planet of Tatooine like Skywalker. We’re going to have the supernatural equivalent of a battalion of storm troopers and the Death Star zeroed in on the idea of capturing little Willow.”
Was that all? Maybe I was in shock, but somehow that sounded like a piece of cake. Okay, maybe the whole cake, and Devil’s food at that, but I was willing to bet the bad guys and gals–or bad its, whatever–did not know about Wolf Cave or the special modifications being incorporated in our half-finished home. They certainly did not know about Diamond Paws and what he could do…unless they were already monitoring us via astral travel…or government drones….
Sissy thought of something I’d missed. “What about collateral damage, Jack? Is that the reason the entire area with us at its epicenter is possibly going to be wiped out?”
“I really don’t know.” He sighed, reluctantly admitting the limitations to his intel. “I’ve never been able to figure that part out. But my gut tells me the Heartbite group is going to invade this area for another reason. They want Queen Heartbite, yes, but I can see where this neck of the woods could also be a great long term base for a huge group of evolved predators. That is, we’re kind of remote but not too remote, with fallback wild country next door in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and an easy vehicle commute to Missoula to hunt for victims.”
Wayne Bruce hadn’t spoken this entire time, remaining unobtrusively in the background, but he had something to say now. “One thing we’ve never been able to pin down is the infection factor. That is, does a bitten victim, if not killed, face the likelihood of turning into a darksider? Or is that a myth? We simply don’t know enough about how they reproduce, how they make new members of their posse.”
“Hold on.” I stared at Jack. “If Wayne knows all about this, I presume Carolyn West does, too. So, you could tell your slave lovers but not the rest of the people who’ve been fighting at your side for years now? Hill, why am I no longer surprised?” There was no heat left in my voice, just a touch of resignation.
“Treemin,” he said mildly, “if you didn’t have an unborn child’s safety to consider, would you have even been able to believe all this? Would you? Really?”
Huh. I hadn’t thought of that angle. “Probably not. You know, I really hate it when we disagree and you turn out to be right.”
We called it a night, excused ourselves, and headed back across the driveway. It wasn’t far, roughly thirty-five yards, but the night sounds struck me as ominous for the first time in a long time. I pulled out my Taurus Curve with its load of silvertip hollow point bullets, noticing that my girls were doing the same. Our innocence had been destroyed. I doubted I’d ever again leave the house after dark without my night vision monocle, even for such a short jaunt as this. Back inside our own hopefully secure walls, we locked down hard–something we’d never bothered to do before–and headed for bed.
Despite the late hour, sleep would not come easily.