The shambling thing was a vision from hell. It stank of the grave, clods of recently-turned earth dropping from the sleeve of its garish sports jacket. It waved its arms wildly, reaching out, brown crusts of blood dried upon its face and fangs. It turned full into the moonlight, and revealed a face that was--
"Miss Togar?" The bloated features responded with a snarl, as Harry Alexander stood rooted to the spot, too stunned to even recall the wooden cross that had been placed in his hand.
"Harry! What's the matter?"
From behind him came the familiar voice, mixing girlish charm and steely command, bringing him blinking back to himself.
"It-- it's Miss Togar." He tried to back away from the blood-crazed thing. "I had her for English last semester." He ducked as dirty fingernails swiped at him like claws. "I didn't even know she was dead--I think I still owe her an essay on Whitman!" The young man tried to lift the cross in trembling fingers, but fear made his grip wet and unsure, and the precious talisman flew from his hand as he turned to run. He stumbled over a root, scrambled to his feet, felt the fetid breath on his neck...
And then heard it-- the sound he had grown to love over these past few years: the ghostly, vanishing wail as the creature exploded into dust, scattering itself to the wind.
Harry rolled over to his back, and stared gratefully up at the leather-jacketed young woman with the dark-blond hair, who was shaking her head at him, flipping the pointed wooden stake in her hand, the stake that, a moment ago, had pierced the dead heart of the vampire English teacher.
"Thanks, Summer. You know, I had it under control... I mean, things were..."
His voice trailed off as his eyes met Summer Dale's, cool blue, with a mixture of amusement and real concern.
"I sucked, didn't I?"
Summer sighed. "Harry, she couldn't have been a vamp more than few days. If you can't even deal with the newbies, how are you going to face up to serious trouble?"
"I... I'll practice. Look!" He gestured emphatically with the cross he had recovered from the ground, only to have the base of it catch him smartly in the side of the head.
"Ouch!" He looked balefully at the totem, then shrugged. "OK, Summer, I admit I couldn't take on vamps without you. But still, you need backup, and that's what I'm here for. Me and Ro and Dee and Aurora and Miles "
"I know," Summer smiled warmly, and Harry was once more as head over heels for her as he had been that first day she'd arrived in Full Moon Glen. "But there's a reason that I'm the Protector, and you're not. I've been given powers and abilities that you just don't have. It's my job to protect you, and this whole world, from vamps and demons and werewolves and game show hosts." She let him laugh at that, then stepped close, and took his hand in a gesture that communicated a companionship that he valued even more than he would have the romance he'd once hoped for.
"I could never permit what I do to bring any of you to harm. If that means I have to go it alone sometimes, then so be it. I'd rather run the risk of not coming back at all than of coming back without even one of you."
Harry nodded mutely, for once at a loss for a wisecrack.
"So, we good here?" Summer smiled. "No more English teachers to stake?"
"No, I'm fine now," Harry brushed himself off, hoping to regain at least a small amount of his dignity.
"Good. Then I can get back to work." Harry opened his mouth to ask her what she meant, then noticed she was looking past him, over his shoulder.
Don't look, he told himself. You really don't want to...
And then, in a blur, Summer was past and behind him, and against his better judgment, he turned.
There were three of them, three vampires in the throes of hideous blood lust. Their resemblance to the humans they had once been was diminishing by the moment. Instead, these monsters were far stronger, faster... and uglier... than any human who had ever lived.
Any normal human. Any human that hadn't been born to be The Protector.
For there was Summer Dale, small, slender, and blonde, smiling widely as she waded into them. For a moment, Harry almost felt sorry for them.
The first creature was a wiry, grey-haired man, reaching with scrabbling hands towards his kind's ancient enemy. Summer stood, relaxed, poised, letting the attacker come to her... then, with a speed that defied sight, she had slipped her right hand past her opponent's guard, and the creature had but an instant to register shock and surprise before dissolving into dust around the wooden stake that Summer had thrust into his heart with pinpoint precision.
The first vamp was still dissolving on the wind as Summer spun, executing a perfect pirouette, taking the next attacker, a portly woman in the clothing of a hospital attendant, full under the chin with the toe of her shoe. The vamp staggered under the blow, which Summer followed up with a lightning series of kicks and punches that had the monstrous thing reeling to the point where the administration of the stake was little but a formality, so battered was the vampire.
"Summer!" Harry shouted the warning as the largest of the monsters, probably once a wrestler or bouncer, wrapped a meaty arm about her throat from behind. The creature tightened its hold, ready to choke the life out of the tiny blonde in his grasp, when Summer flexed her back muscles, gave a shrug-- and threw 230 pounds of undead meat twenty feet across the graveyard, to smash with a sickening crack against a tombstone.
Harry's gorge rose at the sound, but he'd seen too many of these encounters to imagine that the thing was finished. Instead, it flailed about, trying to force broken bones to bring it back to its feet. Summer bounced lightly over to stand over it. She waited until the thing was close enough that she could stake it without taking the trouble to bend over, then delivered the coup de gras with an almost causal gesture.
"Summer! Harry!" Harry was still recovering from his narrow escape when he heard the chorus of breathless voices, and three teenage girls came racing through the gate of the cemetery.
"Summer, I am sooo sorry," began the perky redhead in the black turtleneck and jeans, rolling big green eyes. "Somebody couldn't sort out her three dozen pairs of shoes to find the right ones for-"
"Oh, like I was supposed to come out in all this ick in my new Manolo Blahniks!" Burgundy "Dee" Blair pushed a few strands of glossy dark-brown hair back under her designer camouflage beret. "Honestly, Rowan, if you-"
"You BOTH need to chill!" Rowan Feinstein and Dee Blair turned to look at the third member of their party: a younger girl, slender to the point that she seemed to have been poured into a pair of tight levis. Her shiny butterscotch-colored hair swung free in the pale October moonlight. "Summer, I'm sorry. I'll try to keep these two on the ball next time." Aurora Dale was and at the same time was not Summer's younger sister, and took her big sister's work very seriously.
Summer shrugged. "No big. A few of the usual bad boys. Ol' Harry here was plenty enough backup for me."
"Oh, Harry!" Harry blushed as Dee ran to embrace him. While Summer wasn't above teasing Harry about his deficiencies in the area of fighting skills, he was gratified that she never did it when Burgundy Blair was nearby-and just how he'd managed to hook up with the gorgeous ex-cheerleader still baffled him sometimes.
As the two embraced, Summer looked at Aurora, still scarcely able to believe the mystical sequence of events that had provided her with the family she'd always wanted-- a younger sister. Now, Summer couldn't imagine life without her.
"Thanks." She ruffled the younger girl's hair playfully. "Home now, everyone. Let's get some sleep. Miles wants to see us in the library in the morning."
"We are approaching a somewhat disquieting time." Roderick Miles polished his glasses, set them back on his nose, and resumed speaking to his young charges. "It's a time of--ouch!"
The undignified interruption was a consequence of Miles' nose coming in contact with a 1632 edition of the Gaiman Grimoire, which floated just in front of his face.
"Rowan!" he snapped. "Would you mind waiting until after this briefing to assault my nose?"
"Sorry, Miles." The green-eyed redhead flushed pink cheeks. "But I did--I mean I-- it flew!" Her eyes widened at the sheer exhilaration: the ancient volume weighed several pounds, and the young witch-in-training had never successfully moved anything larger than a pencil before.
"Yes, well, in future, see if you can't restrict yourself to 'teenage' magazines or the like. Tomes of ancient knowledge weren't made to fly through the air unaided."
"OK, Miles." Rowan and Summer did their best to choke back giggles and look serious; Miles was always extra-stuffy Brit guy when he was in lecture mode.
He sighed, as he seemed to do rather a lot more these days, since the day when his duties as a Trainer had been triggered by the calling of the Protector that he was mentoring.
He looked at the familiar faces seated about the library table. He'd spent his life preparing to mentor one Protector-- how on earth had he wound up playing Gandalf to this gang of teenage ghostbusters? Still, he had to admit that he'd developed an affection for them far beyond anything he could have imagined. Now if only Summer and I can keep them alive to complete her task...
For all that, though, they did need bringing down to earth now and again, he thought, as he resumed.
"Nonetheless, this is the time of which the prophecies told: one thousand years to the day of the death of Saint Zeno, at the hands of the Knights of Gnee."
"Uh huh," Harry stifled a yawn. "And we have to, what-- bake the cake? Is there a ribbon cutting ceremony?"
Miles congratulated himself on having finally developed the ability not to have apoplexy at Harry's impertinence, and went on patiently.
"It means that, for the first time in a millennium, certain spirits will NOT lie quiet on Samhain, or All Hallow's Eve-- Halloween has long been the safest night of the year, where mystical threats are concerned, as the supernatural creatures usually lie dormant. This year, however, there are spells and charms which will actually be granted extra potency that night. It will not be an evening for revelry for us-we must be on guard, to protect those who are threatened."
"Except Aurora, right?" Harry nodded toward the young girl in the tight jeans and long taffy-colored hair who, at the sound of her name, put down her copy of Cosmo Girl and jerked her head back to the conversation. "I mean, she's busy that night."
"I fear," Miles continued, "that none of us, not even the Protector, is immune to some of these spells, and we will all need to on our guard, and ... Busy? What on earth are you--?"
"The party!" Rowan squalled. "Halloween is Aurora's birthday!"
Miles took off his glasses again, and wiped them, needlessly, but exasperatedly. "Aurora is the physical embodiment of the life-force of a long-lost alternate dimension-- she's quite likely older than our entire planet, and can't be said to have a birthday at all."
Summer lifted the heel of a palm in his direction. "I use my 'logic repulsor rays' on you. Aurora needs a birthday, so she can get lots of prezzies. And a party. And she's going to have one."
"But why Halloween?"
"Because, O Master of the Calendar, as you've told us before, it's the one night of the year that vamps and ghosts and such are usually taking siestas."
"But I explained that this year..."
"Yeah, they'll be busier than usual-- but we can take 'em, right?" Harry spoke up with a bravado he wasn't sure he felt. "Besides," he looked at Summer, "your vamp boyfriend'll pitch in, won't he?"
The Protector colored, never comfortable with that subject around her friends. "Seraph won't be here. He's in Australia."
"Australia?" Harry raised his eyebrows.
"Apparently, he has to destroy the scroll of Agamotto at the foot of Ayres Rock, or a plague of boils will erupt somewhere in Ohio."
"He went all that way just to save Cleveland? Ow!" He flinched as Dee punched his arm.
Summer muttered, "You're just lucky it wasn't me."
"Can we please get back to the topic at hand?" Miles gritted. "Which is to keep all of you-and, incidentally, the rest of mankind-safe this Halloween?"
Summer shrugged. "Miles, we've got to have at least some time to do halfway normal stuff, like shop for Halloween costumes and plan parties, or we'll all end up nuts! Anyway, it's not like the vamps haven't busted in on parties before. If they give us any trouble- El Stakeo!" Summer high-fived the rest of her crew.
Miles shook his head, defeated. "I pray it's that easy."
"Mistress... we failed you."
"And is this presumed to be news to me?" The woman seated in the high-backed black leather chair shook her head, dark hair cascading about her shoulders and down her back.
"No, mistress. Of course not." The kneeling creature was a fiend of hell who feared nothing that walked upon the earth... apart from two women: the accursed Protector... and Lilith, Queen of the Undead, the daughter of an obscene union (as if there could be another kind) between a female vampire and Satan, or so it was widely believed.
Lilith gazed down at the vampire abasing itself face-down before her. Her eyes might have been live coals, with red glowing in the center of a pitiless black. Her face held all the beauty of temptation, of the forbidden.
"How am I to effect my plan for the end of the line of Protectors, if I am unable to lay my hands on this one?"
There came a grunt from a corner of the small parlor, and the cowering vampire looked up to see the new speaker: a tall, broad-shouldered blond woman. She was heavily muscled, and stern of face, dressed in a severe black and white pantsuit. Carlotta DeVine was a mortal, unlike the vampires, and Lilith-whatever fiendish thing she might actually be.
"You're wasting me on petty errands." Her tone held respect, but not any special deference. " Let me go after her."
"And what would you do-- beat her to a pulp?"
Carlotta shrugged. "You don't think I could?"
Lilith shook her head, causing the ebon tresses to ripple in the candlelight. "Carlotta, if only you had imagination to match your strength."
"I don't understand-- didn't you send them to kill the Protector?"
"Kill her?" the red pupils bored into what remained of Carlotta's soul. "And suppose we were to do that? What then?"
Carlotta paused. "We... we wait for the next Protector to be called, and then deal with her."
"Precisely. There is always another." Lilith got up from her chair, and walked to where the tall woman stood at attention. The devil's daughter reached out a hand, and let blood-red fingernails stroke across the blonde's cheek.
"Protectors are killed all the time. Do you know how many I have seen killed during my time on earth? Why, there is a rogue vampire of some sort right here in this community who claims to have killed two himself." She paused, and took Carlotta's chin in her hand. "And they... always... come... back." She held Carlotta's face still, then placed blood-red lips upon the blonde's mouth. She drank deeply from Carlotta's lips; the blonde shivered, wondering just what part of her might be being sucked out.
Lilith released her hold on Carlotta's chin, and the blonde staggered back as her dark-haired mistress continued: "Kill the Protector? Oh, no. No. We can do far better than that."
The changing rooms at Patterson's department store were as familiar to Burgundy Blair as her own living room. And why not? Raised as a daughter of privilege, she'd grown up a frequent habitué of Full Moon Glen's finest shopping establishments.
When the gang had all decided to costume shop separately, to surprise each other, Dee had known that Patterson's had to be her first stop.
What luck, though, that she had arrived to look for costume ideas for the combination birthday/Halloween party at the exact time that the exclusive showing of the new Le Noir line happened to be taking place!
Dee had handed her invitation to the pale, dull-faced young woman at the door, and was then escorted into one of the sumptuously-furnished dressing rooms reserved for the store's best customers. Standing by the curtained changing area was a tall, striking-looking blonde. Muscled, hard-looking. Water polo, Dee concluded to herself.
As Dee entered, she thought she saw movement behind a curtain separating the rooms, and caught a glimpse of long, dark hair and a whiff of some exotic scent.
Madame Le Noir? Has to be. Dee suppressed a nervous giggle at the thought that she might meet the designer before the day was out.
The blonde nodded. "Tanya, if you please." While the receptionist took up a position by the door through which they had entered, another woman with the same dull look in her eyes rolled in a clothing rack, upon which hung the most extraordinary assortment of garments that Dee had ever seen:
Black. All black. And leather. All leather. Not Halloween costume vinyl; a lifetime of buying Italian shoes and bags told her that in an instant.
It began with a bustier that looked to Dee as if it might have come from some cartoon character, and worked its way down to a pair of shiny, high-laced black leather boots.
A second glance showed her that there were actually a few things on the rack not made of black leather: the black fishnet hose, for example, and the garters.
Interesting. Probably expensive. But
She glanced up dubiously at the women, and the blonde answered her silent question.
"It's all the rage this year, my dear." The blonde's smile looked as though it was meant to be reassuring, but if that was the case, Dee thought, she was seriously out of practice.
Dee turned back to the clothes, her eyes widening. She had really begun the expedition just to have an excuse not to wear her old cheerleader's outfit yet again, but this...she blushed to consider herself in these things.
Oh, Harry... what on earth would you make of this?
She had no trouble picturing his shocked response.
But why not? Sweet and funny as Harry was, he seriously lacked something in the "adventure" department. Maybe this was just what he needed-- they needed.
And, after all, it was supposed to be a surprise!
She thanked the women for their help, and disappeared into the changing room with the clothes. She stripped, and then began to dress in the black elegance.
The feel of the leather on her skin was so strange. That made no sense-- she handled leather accessories all the time. Why should this be different?
Because of what it's about. Because it's to make me even sexier. This isn't purses and gloves.
The bustier took some work to get over her well-formed chest, and the heels of the gleaming boots seemed insanely high, even to her, but when she was done, and looked in the mirror, she couldn't ever remember having felt quite so... transformed... by clothing.
As Dee stepped out of the dressing room, the blonde looked up, and for a moment Dee thought she could see a look of pure astonishment on the woman's face. Or was it something else?
"My dear, you look..." the blonde appeared to be lost for words, stunned by the sight of the shapely brunette who was now kitted out in black leather like a dyke wet dream. "Such a pleasant time you and I could have together-- It's a great pity that my Mistress has plans for you that must take precedence."
Dee's brain took a moment to process what the woman had said... a moment too long.
"Gosh... this is very... wait, what are you doing?"
The blonde's face had lost none of its look of composure, but her blue eyes were suddenly drilling into Dee's.
The girl froze, as if mesmerized, and in that moment, from behind, the woman called Tanya seized both her arms in a steely grip.
"Hey-- what- ahhh!" Dee's ability to shout exploded into a weak hiss of air from her lungs, as the bony hands holding her tightened their grip: a grip of such unholy strength that Dee had the first chilling inkling that this had something to do with her relationship to Summer.
As Dee squirmed, whimpering in pain, Carlotta Devine approached her. The tall blonde had reached into her purse, and withdrawn a white cloth pad inside a plastic bag, her movements slow and easy, as if she knew there was no chance of Dee's breaking Tanya's grip.
She stood towering over the terrified Dee, and slowly removed the cloth from the bag, dangling it the way the boys would have once tried to frighten her with a toad or salamander.
"Deep breaths, dear." she smirked. "You're due for a bit of a nap."
Oh, god... this is bad. This is the True Crime section at Borders... these people are serial killers, or rapists, or...
and the receptionist standing at the door opened her mouth to smile, and as she did so, Dee watched in horror as her face distorted, her forehead growing large and bulbous, her eyes bloodshot, evil-looking fangs beginning to show now in her mouth.
... or vampires! The thought had barely registered when Dee began to feel the fumes from the cloth assail her nostrils, and she could swear she could already sense it in her bloodstream, causing her to feel dopey and slow.
Now, her tongue felt too thick to even attempt a scream, and she desperately tried to flail her head away from the cloth, but Carlotta simply grasped a fistful of her long hair, close to her head, and forced her to hold still as she raised the cloth to Dee's face, to let the chloroform have full access to the girl.
Dee's head spun, her face a sandwich between the fist in her hair and the cloth smothering her nose and mouth. She could feel the woman behind her shifting her grip, now embracing her victim so as not to allow Dee to slip to the floor and avoid the pad. She hugged the helpless young woman close, pressing the lush form hard against her body, as though remembering what sensual pleasure might have been when she could still feel such things. Her grip on Dee was sure and strong as Carlotta continued her businesslike application of the drug. The blonde watched coolly as Dee's brown eyes began to roll in her head, her limbs now sagging like wet pasta.
Harry!.. Dee's thoughts were vague, and she was sinking fast. Harry... I need you... I need Summer.... oh, I need help.
It was Burgundy Blair's last thought before drifting into a cloud of unconsciousness.
For a moment, all was silent as Carlotta regarded the slender form slumped in the arms of the dull-eyed vampire. Then came the rustle of fabric, the curtains parted, and "Madame Le Noir" glided into the room. For a moment, Lilith did nothing but take in the scene before her. A smile began to spread across her face, and her features shifted, growing more angular, and the brown pupils in her eyes began to glow red.
"It begins." She nodded to Carlotta, who reached behind the curtain, and withdrew a black leather satchel. She opened it, to reveal a world of black leather within.
"Secure her," Lilith instructed. "I don't want her alerting the Protector until the moment of my choosing." Carlotta nodded her understanding, and set to work.
Carlotta began by having Tanya lay their captive face-down on the thick pile of the carpet; Dee's long, dark hair puddled on the carpet as she lay, senseless.
For a moment, Carlotta just drank in the sight. She'd very nearly lost it altogether when Dee had emerged from the changing room, a vision in fetish black. Unlike Lilith's vampire minions, Carlotta was still capable of enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, and she'd rarely seen flesh that seemed more pleasurable than that of this ex-cheerleader dressed like a modern-day Bettie Page. Then, she set to work.
Dee's arms were drawn up behind her back, as Carlotta produced a pair of cuffs, as black as the satchel from which they had come, though the skin that made these cuffs was from a creature not native to the realm of the living.
Carlotta knelt down beside Dee's unconscious form, and lifted her wrists, sliding them flaccid and unyielding into the cuffs, the girl's slender fingers drooping almost comically. Carlotta felt a thrill at the knowledge that her mistress was watching her at work; she wanted the approval of those blazing red eyes.
Once Dee's wrists were secured in the smooth leather, Carlotta dropped them to lie limp and pale on the brunette's back. Another set of cuffs came out of the sack, and Carlotta drew Dee's arms together, so that the girl's elbows nearly touched. Carlotta was sorry that her captive hadn't been awake for that particular moment: she dearly loved hearing the moans that always produced. The second set of leather cuffs was then clamped in place above Dee's elbows. While Tanya lifted the drooping form, Carlotta passed what looked like a simple leather belt around Dee's middle. She buckled it closed at the back, then clipped the wrist cuffs to a metal ring near the back of her waist, thus securing Dee's arms in place.
Dee's long, shapely legs then received similar treatment: one set of soft pliant cuffs joined her ankles, and another was fastened just above her knees, wrinkling the black fishnet hose, her polished black boots squeaking against each other as the fastenings were tightened.
From the sack, Carlotta then drew out a ball of white plastic, perforated with holes, black straps dangling from it.
"That won't keep her very quiet," Lilith observed.
Carlotta nodded. "But it will keep her breathing-- I assume you'd like her to continue doing that, at least for a little while?"
Lilith gave a wintry smile, "Of course. I should really leave this sort of thing to you."
"Don't worry-- once she wakes, I'll change it out for something a bit more stifling." And Carlotta had to bite her lip to keep from drooling at that image.
She took a handful of Dee's long hair-- trying hard to keep her mind on her work-- and lifted the girl's head, allowing her jaw to drop slackly open. Carlotta then fixed the white plastic ball between the girl's fine white teeth, setting it back far enough to allow her mouth to lock down on it. She lowered Dee's head to the floor again, and while Tanya held the girl's lush mane aside, buckled the ball gag in place at the nape of her prisoner's neck.
As Tanya and the receptionist cleaned up the few traces of their presence, Carlotta reached down and lifted the wilted, bound, form, throwing her easily across a shoulder. Long dark hair streamed down Carlotta's back, but the belt and cuffs kept Dee's bound hands and arms hard up against her back. Carlotta put an arm up to steady her captive, finding that Dee's firm ass fit nicely into her cupped palm.
Lilith smiled as she followed Carlotta, watching the bound and gagged figure sway against her minion's back.
That's one, Protector. The first one. But not the last.
Magic. This is where they do it. The real stuff.
When Rowan had received the invitation to be interviewed by the Cyber-Coven Foundation, she'd worried about not being able to share the information with her friends.
"Are you working below your mystic potential?" the card had read. "Would you like to self-actualize and change the weather at the same time?"
Rowan breathlessly skimmed the rest of the invitation. Strictest confidence... not to be shared with those of mundane mind.
It felt strange, not to confide in Summer, or even in Miles, but just this afternoon, hadn't Miles reminded her of how he regarded her dabbling as something of an annoyance? No, this was something Rowan would do on her own, for herself. Afterwards, if it led to something, then she'd share it. Anyway, she already had her costume, so why not take the afternoon?
The exterior of the building had seemed surprisingly mundane, like a conventional office park--but then, what should she have expected? If there'd been any mysterious castles in Half Moon Glen, she'd probably have encountered them by now.
Her ring on the bell had been answered by a plain, sullen-looking brunette, dressed in something that looked as if it were left over from a particularly flea-bitten Renaissance Faire.
I hope that's not the uniform of the institute. I don't look good in frilly stuff.
After waiting for just a few minutes in the rather antiseptic waiting room, Rowan heard her name called, and turned, to behold one of the most striking sights she had ever seen: a woman.
Not just a woman... since coming to terms with her sexual orientation, Rowan had flirted here and there but never before had she fallen completely under the spell of another woman. This woman was not especially tall, but seemed to tower over the diminutive young witch. She was dressed all in black, and rich sable hair flowed down her shoulders and across breasts that seemed to be beckoning to Rowan from under her gown.
"M...Miss...Mrs...Ms..." Rowan was babbling as she tried to get her hormones to go back to sleep.
"Le Noir," the woman seemed to purr the name. "Madame Le Noir." She nodded to a second woman who had entered the room: a tall, heavily muscled blonde. Not conventionally pretty, but with a rough confidence that seemed to hit Rowan almost as hard as Madame Le Noir's more conventionally elegant beauty.
"So lovely to meet you at last," the long-haired brunette smiled, showing lustrous, impossibly- polished teeth.
"So... you know me." Rowan's voice sounded tiny in her own head. Of course they know you, numskull-- they sent you the invitation!
"Yes, Miss Feinstein, we're extremely impressed with your potential."
Rowan did her best to suppress the sheer giggly joy that this engendered, but it was very hard-- after all, it wasn't that long ago that she'd been little more than a pencil-twirling beginner. Now, here she was, being lauded by two women clearly skilled in the arts.
And what women they were, particularly for a young girl still exploring her options in that department.
The fashionably-dressed blonde was the more physically imposing, but it was the strange intensity of Madame Le Noir that truly impressed... indeed, she threatened to sweep Rowan right off her feet.
Her fashion was not about "style", but a sort of Old World elegance. She wore a long, black gown, and her midnight-dark hair flowed about her like a matching cape.
It was her eyes that most fascinated Rowan. Any time she looked directly at them, they appeared to be a deep, dark brown. But once or twice, she caught herself glancing sideways at them, and in those moments, Rowan could have sworn that she saw flickerings of deep red-- blood red-- in them.
"This way, please-- we have a little test prepared for you."
"I--but-- I haven't studied!"
The brunette laughed, a sound that strangely reminded Rowan of something impossibly brittle and sad.
"Don't worry, dear. Perhaps 'test' is the wrong word. Just an 'evaluation' of your abilities." She nodded in the direction of the next room. "If you'd remove your shoes and socks, please."
Rowan flushed, embarrassed at having had to be asked. Clearly they weren't dealing in kids' stuff here: of course she would approach a place of power barefoot! She set the shoes and socks aside, and the women stepped back to allow her to precede them into the room.
The small room was hushed, and bare of furniture. Quiet, of course, was needed for the performance of any spell of great power or significance, and the place felt soundproofed. The walls and furnishings were festooned with drapings of brightly colored silk: scarves and bunting. Rowan wiggled her bare toes in the deep pile of the carpet. She took her place at the center of the circle, kneeling as instructed, her eyes lowered as the incense was lit, and the incantations begun.
Rowan took a deep breath, getting as much of the sweet smoke into her lungs as possible, as though willing it to permeate her, to change her, to grant her the power to work great magic.
From behind, Madame Le Noir set her hands gently on Rowan's shoulders, sending thrills rippling all through the younger girl. "And., now, dear..."
Rowan closed her eyes, awaiting the warmth that always accompanied a spell successfully employed. She had to admit, though, that warmth of a quite different sort was already suffusing her. The proximity of the stunning dark-haired woman... her scent... the feel of her milky skin when they'd touched hands... and now, the silkiness of her long tresses against Rowan's face...
Wait a minute...
The woman had been standing behind her, right?
Rowan opened her eyes to slits, just enough to tell that the woman hadn't moved, that she wasn't hovering over her or anything...
And suddenly, the touch of soft hair on her face became a caress... an actual, physical, movement.
"What's happening--ugh!" Rowan's cry was cut off as her open mouth suddenly filled with masses of perfumed hair. Her eyes bugged wildly, and she started to choke, as she felt more of the tendrils begin to wrap themselves about her face, pressing against her lips and sealing the dampening wad of hair in her mouth.
"Uunnhh!" The tiny sound that escaped from her mouth was involuntary, since she was desperately trying not to gag on the hair in her mouth, but it scarcely mattered: it wouldn't carry far, and she was quite alone with the women.
In the few seconds it took Rowan to recover from her sheer disbelief at what was happening, more of Lilith's ebony locks wrapped themselves about her wrists, and pulled them tightly together in front of her chest. Frantically, she tried to raise them to her imprisoned mouth, but the red eyes that bored into hers seemed to have drained all her strength, along with the incense, which she now realized was sapping her will, both mental and physical: her mind was clouded, and her limbs were slow to respond.
"Nothing to say, little witch?"
The gloating voice drove a dagger of ice into Rowan's heart. It took a truly powerful witch to produce any effective spell without the uttering of words of power; gagging a beginner like herself was tantamount to stripping her of her powers altogether.
"That's quite all right." The woman was cooing now in a voice that reminded Rowan of all the foul things that she and Summer had fought together. "It's not your sparkling conversation that we require." She waved a hand languidly in the direction of the incense that continued to fill the room and Rowan's head. "Ironic... few ordinary humans would put themselves in the power of the incense. But tricking an ambitious witch into it was child's play!"
Now, Lilith stood before Rowan, revealed in all her hateful beauty. As her long hair held Rowan helpless, her blond lieutenant reached to the pile of ceremonial silks, and began to use them to replace the binding tresses.
Rowan felt the grip of the demoness' hair beginning to loosen, but the smoke that filled her nostrils left her with less and less will to move.
First, Rowan's wrists were wrapped in front of her in a magenta-and-gold silk scarf that dangled for at least three feet. As the red-haired witch weakly squirmed and squealed, the tall blonde wound the silk about Rowan's wrists again and again--three times, four, five, the sleek material first caressing her skin, then nipping at it, pinching tiny folds of flesh. Next, one length of the black and gold silk bunting was passed about her middle, like a gaudy belt; her hands were bound to it so they dangled uselessly at the front of her waist.
Once Rowan's hands were secured, Carlotta began to ball up more of the silk as she approached the whimpering girl. The bound redhead felt the hair that filled and bound her mouth begin to loosen as the blonde held the balled-up silk before her face.
As her mouth was finally freed of Lilith's hair, Rowan tried to gather enough breath to scream for help, but Carlotta simply placed a palm firmly on top of the girl's head and popped the huge wad of silk past her teeth, into her mouth.
"Hhnnggffff!" Even within her own head, Rowan's cry sounded tiny and muffled. Another scarf seemed to drift like a silken cloud before her face; Carlotta whipped it into a thin band, and jammed it hard against the wad of silk already distending the redhead's abused mouth. The blonde's hands pulled hard on the ends of the scarf, and the delicate silk transformed into cruel steel as it was pulled tightly around Rowan's head, biting the skin of her cheeks, the knot it made at the base of her neck like being punched in the head.
Bound and gagged. Somehow, the incense had left her just enough sense to formulate the thought... helpless.
Carlotta then laid the securely-trussed witch down on the floor, sat down, and lifted Rowan's bare feet into her lap. Tauntingly, she stroked one of the silk scarves over the naked soles before wrapping it around the girl's ankles. She snugged and secured the ankles just as she had the wrists, then rolled her captive onto her side. Rowan felt the blonde place a hand at the back of her legs, and her upper back; she then began to bring the two hands together.
Carlotta's strength would have been too much for Rowan in the best of circumstances, and bound as she was, she could do nothing to prevent the woman literally folding her up bodily, forcing knees up between bound elbows, so that they nearly touched her chin. Tightly-banded silk was used to bind ankles to wrists, leaving Rowan now no more than a helpless ball at the feet of her captors.
"Comfortable?" Lilith stood over the bound girl, almost sorry that the young wicca had proved such easy prey.
As Lilith gloated, Carlotta finished off Rowan's captivity by floating one last silk scarf flimsily about her face, then folding it over twice, and binding it across Rowan's eyes, twice around her head, and knotting it at the base of her skull, tightly enough that not even the effects of the incense could completely dull the pain, matching that of the lumpy knot made by the gag.
Helpless. If there was one thing that Summer had tried to teach all her friends it was that the truly determined are never helpless-- no matter the odds, even in the face of Apocalypse, you were never helpless.
But she's wrong. Because I am. I am helpless. My hands and feet are useless. With my mouth gagged, I might as well be mute, and now I'm blind. Summer preached never giving in to despair. But she's not here. I am. I'm the one bound and gagged, and Summer--
and as the thought broke off, Rowan found that it was actually possible to be more terrified than she already was.
Because she had figured it out. These women weren't after her-- they were after Summer. They were going to use her to trap The Protector. Not only was she to be used as a pawn to lure her best friend, but the thought of what these mystically powerful creatures might then do to the world that Summer had sworn to protect
Rowan had barely had time to whine a despairing sob into her gag when her attention was drawn to the sound of something rolling on wheels- some kind of cart? Strong hands lifted her, then, and Rowan discovered that it was a large basket or trunk, on wheels the discovery made as the powerful Carlotta casually deposited her ball-tied form into it, storing the bound girl away from prying eyes.
Like many witches, Rowan's senses were unusually strong. And now, she had lost them. She couldn't see for the blindfold her sense of taste told her only of the huge wad of damp silk in her mouth and, as the lid came down, she was even deprived now of sound from outside her terrifying prison.
Smell? She still had that-the mustiness of the trunk, and the stink of her own fear. And she could still feel. She could feel every tormented muscle, every inch of abraded skin and as though it were a tactile thing, she could feel her spirit sinking lower with every movement of the trunk.
"Bring her, Carlotta."
Two, Protector. That makes two. And we're not done.
No signal. Figures. Aurora Dale snapped her cell phone closed in disgust and threw it back into her purse. Summer had asked her to get hold of one of the gang-- any of them-- to add a few items to the shopping list for the party, but no one had been answering all afternoon, and now there wasn't even any point in calling.
She swung her purse as she walked, lost as she so often was in trying to make sense of just who she was and where she fit in this world. As Miles had said, she'd manifested herself in the body of a teenage girl, and been accepted as Summer's sister, but she still knew so little of who or what she really was. Despite the fact that Summer was not truly her sister, she felt a strong kinship, not only as family, but in the sense that her origin meant that, within her, was some as yet untapped power. What that might be, she had no idea yet. She wasn't a fighter, they all knew that-- even Harry, who loved her like a kid sister, would be far more use in a fight than she ever had been.
It was, in fact, precisely the same thought that had been in Lilith's mind, earlier that day.
"She's not a Protector-- I don't even know if they're actually related." Carlotta was making their final preparations, loading more of their mystically-powered supplies into "Madame Le Noir"'s huge stretch limo.
"True," Lilith responded, "but I have a sense for these things... there is something about the younger sister that is not wholly canny. It is probably nothing that can threaten us, but I don't plan to risk that. We will work quickly and carefully."
"And these?" Carlotta glanced into the old leather satchel, at the items she had placed inside.
"Ah, those." Lilith smiled. "Let us just say that the anniversary of the torture and death of dear Saint Zeno has provided us with an enchantment that not even The Protector is proof against."
Hours later, then, with both Dee and Rowan secured, as Aurora walked distractedly, her hair swinging like glossy panes of amber in the sun, the black limousine was able to pull up beside her almost unnoticed.
Aurora sensed the big car before she saw it, a dark shape at the corner of her vision. It moved like a black shark, silent and swift, the back door opening wide, a maw to swallow her with.
In an instant, Carlotta was out of the vehicle, on the sidewalk, one hand wrapped about Aurora's slim waist, the other pressing firmly over the girl's soft lips.
"Hmmmm?!!???" Aurora's squeal of alarm emerged from under Carlotta's huge palm as no more than humming. The big woman's fingers pressed down on Aurora's cheeks, creasing the porcelain flesh, and she indulged in a bit of grinding hard up against the denim-clad buttocks.
The arm that Carlotta had about Aurora's waist was also pinioning her arms, one hand clamped fiercely onto the girl's right wrist. She yanked with the arm about Aurora's waist, and the squirming girl was lifted off her feet. Aurora tried to kick back, but Carlotta ignored the flailing of the girl's booted feet.
The car had never come to a complete halt, and Carlotta leapt up, carrying Aurora like a doll, and bounded into the limo door from which she'd emerged.
As the limousine eased back into traffic, the tinted windows kept any passersby from seeing the pitiful struggles of a young woman in the hands of a woman with strength that dwarfed that of any woman Aurora had known, save her sister. Carlotta released her hold, and Aurora sprawled to her knees onto the carpeted floor of the huge car.
"Let me go!" Aurora squalled. "When my big sister gets her hands on you--"
The easy laughter which the threat brought was chilling-in Aurora's experience, even the most confident and powerful vampires had a healthy respect for the Protector.
Claw-like talons dug into Aurora's skin as Lilith took her chin in her hand, gazing into her prey's eyes.
"Yes... yes, your sister will come. For you, and for her friends. And we shall have a greeting prepared for her." She released Aurora's chin, and nodded to Carlotta, who pushed Aurora face-down to the floor of the limousine.
"OOooff!" Aurora tried to lift her head from the thick pile of the limousine's carpet, but Lilith simply placed a foot to either side of the girl's head, trapping the long butterscotch tresses beneath her boots as Carlotta secured their captive.
The blonde reached to her waist, to the coil of smooth white rope that hung there. With Aurora unable to rise from her prone position, Carlotta was easily able to trap her flailing hands, hold them behind her back wrist to wrist, and begin winding the cord about them. She passed the rope around and between, cinching the girl's wrists in such a way as to allow her no leverage at all.
Once Aurora's wrists were tightly bound, Carlotta turned around, sitting on her captive's squirming, denim-clad ass, facing her kicking feet.
"Ah!" Carlotta flinched as one of Aurora's boots caught her a glancing blow on the side of the head, more by accident than design. She grabbed her ankles, gave them a savage yank, and bound them tightly together.
Carlotta then twined her fingers in the girl's silky mane, and forced Aurora's head back, until she was able to insert a thick wad of gauze packing into her mouth, past the fine white teeth, pressing down on her tongue, filling her cheeks.
She released Aurora's hair, but before the girl could even begin to try to force the cloth from her mouth, Carlotta had taken a roll of heavy black tape and pressed a wide strip of it across Aurora's lips, from cheek to cheek. The frightened girl whinnied beneath the gag, panicking at the reduction of oxygen, as a second strip of tape was pressed diagonally over the first, then a third making a cross with the second; the girl's face was threatening to disappear beneath layers of black tape.
Carlotta stood up, placed a booted foot under Aurora's tummy, and rolled the helpless girl onto her back.
"HHHMmfff!" Aurora's eyes were wild over the gag, racing madly back and forth between her two captors, as though one or the other might have some shred of mercy in them. Not that she had any illusions, but at this point, she had no other hope, either.
Carlotta then went down on a knee, and Aurora flinched, wishing she could phase through the floor like a comic book character. But there was nowhere for her to go as the blonde bent over her, her scent a perfume of evil, and laid a pair of gauze pads over Aurora's eyes.
"Nnnnnn..." The pathetic whine was accompanied by a slight shake of her head, but Aurora knew better than to anger her captor by making any serious attempt to dislodge the pads. Tightly bound, securely gagged, her fear having eaten away at her strength, she closed her eyes to allow the pads to be taped in place, tears dampening the gauze.
Carlotta's large palms smoothed more sticky black tape across her captive's face, sealing the pads in place. Aurora's face now consisted of nothing more than a few patches of pale skin peeking out from between a fright mask of shiny black tape. Only the long, butterscotch hair would have allowed any one to identify the bound and gagged prisoner lying, a helpless bundle, on the floor of the limousine. Unable to see, she could only shiver in terror as she felt her bound ankles lifted off the carpeted floor, and something pulled up past them.
Past the knees now past the thighs rough fabric of some kind a sack!
Despite her fear and pain, Aurora begged the muscles of her body to respond, to make one last attempt to resist ... but it was no use. Her captors knew their business-- she was theirs, to dispose of as they would. As the rest of her trussed body was stuffed into the sack, she gulped for air, feeling the coarse cloth passing across her face, desperate to get what fresh air she could before she was sealed up inside.
Finally, her world disappeared into darkness, and she could do nothing but lie still, to conserve her oxygen, straining her ears to hear her captors' plans. Words were hard to distinguish. At one point, she thought she heard what might have been a spell of power-- she'd heard Rowan experiment with a few-- followed by the clinking and clanking of metal. She had no idea what the sound might signify, but knew with a terrible certainty that she would soon be finding out.
It was hardly the first message of its kind that Summer had received, though it was the first time she'd received one while baking cookies.
After Miles had finished the briefing, while her friends had set off on their various Halloween errands, Summer had returned to the quiet home that she now shared only with the sister who had somehow appeared in the wake of her mother's death. Summer had long since given up questioning just what it all meant; she was content to live with her mother's memory, and Aurora's love.
And cookies. Spooky Halloween cookies were just the thing for Aurora and her friends: let them gobble down the things that threaten to consume them almost daily!
It manifested itself first as sounds: odd creaks. Window blinds and shutters moving and snapping.
And then came the mist. Deep and thick, like a sea-green fog, rolling into the Dale family kitchen.
The greenish cloud threatened to fill the kitchen, finally resolving into a set of smoky letters.
The old mayoral house. One half hour. Alone. And as the last word finished forming, Summer could sense the rest of the cloud settling about her, permeating her clothing and hair-- didn't smell bad, but this spell would clearly allow whoever sent it to track her movements, ensuring that there would be no time to enlist aid.
And why should I, anyway? Summer slipped off her apron, and began to change into her black night-assault gear, preparing her weapons. A few quick phone calls told her that Aurora's phone wasn't getting signal, and Rowan seemed to have forgotten to turn hers on again.
The second set of calls wasn't much better. She had to leave a message on Miles' machine, and she hated to involve Harry in anything dangerous if she could help it.
So I go it alone. The Protector. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it
Well, no, I really didn't. Too late for that now, though.
She pulled the door closed behind her, sparing a glance as she always did for what might be her last sight of her home, and set out.
It had been over a year since the former mayor had transformed himself into a land-dwelling octopus and ravaged half of Full Moon Glen, before Summer had been able to destroy him. Though Miles had had the mayor's former home checked out, and determined that no sinister magic remained, no one had been anxious to step forward and occupy the place. As a result, the huge hulking mansion stood vacant, paint peeling, windows broken, practically screaming "Haunted House".
Summer had left her Prelude parked around the next block, and quietly reconnoitered the place. Certainly, she could see nothing that looked particularly dangerous-- no gangs of gun-toting werewolves or New Age demons-- but then, that was so often the way of things: danger that was quiet and subtle.
Her entrance was as stealthy as she could make it, her survey of the premises quick and sure.
But of course, she was expected.
The opening in the floor was a well-oiled cliché, Summer's legs going out from under her as she plummeted through the trap door. Unlike the hapless movie adventurers to which this sort of thing so often happened, Summer was a trained Protector, and despite the fall, landed on her feet, one stake already out of her pocket, crouched in a fighting stance.
The room she'd landed in resembled a medieval dungeon-- no marks for originality here, people-- with half of it curtained off by thick black velvet drapes. Between her and the only exit door stood a long-haired brunette wearing a floating, gauzy something that Stevie Nicks would have killed for.
"So. The Protector." Lilith purred the greeting.
"So. The Lady-Drac-Wannabe-with-the-split-ends." Summer stood balanced on the balls of her feet, waiting to find out what the woman's game was.
She was pleased to see the insult hit home, and impressed at the red glow it brought to the woman's eyes.
"Neat trick," she smiled. "Have you tried X-ray specs? 3-D glasses?"
The smoldering eyes banked their fire momentarily; then, with a theatrical gesture, the woman sat in a huge black leather chair, pointed to the other side of the room, and the black velvet curtain that had hidden half the room was drawn aside, and as Summer looked, her taste for jokes suddenly gone.
A tall blonde woman stood on a raised platform against the wall, like a game-show hostess showing off merchandise. In this case, however, the merchandise consisted of three young women.
Burgundy Blair was dressed in the most outlandish black leather fetish gear that Summer had ever seen; she was also upside down. She seemed to be wearing at least as much leather in the form of cuffs and restraints as in her outfit, and she was suspended by her ankles, her wrists fastened at the small of her back, her mouth filled with a thick black pad of leather, her long dark hair a soft curtain reaching towards the floor.
Near to where Dee hung was a low black table, of some sort of polished wood, with a pale form lying bundled atop it, her body formed into a ball and tightly bound with colorful silk scarves-- Rowan! Summer gritted her teeth at the sight of the red-headed witch so cruelly twisted and tied. Her friend was blindfolded, and Summer was about to call her name to reassure her when her eyes took in the sight of the third captive, and her voice sank into her stomach.
There was a tall pole, running from floor to ceiling, next to the table where Rowan was laid. It had been wrapped around and around in thick, shiny black tape and under the tape was pinned the slim form of her sister.
She could barely see Aurora: the girl seemed to be cocooned in black tape. Her booted feet didn't touch the ground, and it was obvious that her weight, light though she was, was being supported solely by the black tape; it was almost impossible to see her face, buried in more of the sticky stuff.
Summer snarled angrily, and was about to turn and rend the women one at a time when something floated into her line of sight, just before her sister's gagged and blindfolded face. It was square, turned on its side, its corners lining up with the compass points, shades of red, blue, green, and yellow glowing and shifting.
"A soul gem. Doubtless you've seen one before."
Seen one? Summer had nearly died when Seraph's soul had been stolen by one of the things; restoring it had almost finished her, and she had a terrible respect for its mystic power.
The gaudy gem spun slowly before Aurora's face. Summer estimated that about twenty feet separated her from her bound sister, but the gem was fewer than twenty inches from her face. Even with her speed and strength there would be no way to reach the thing before it began to drain all that was Aurora's essence from her helpless body and somehow she was sure that the woman in the chair was expert at controlling the obscene thing.
"One thought from me," she confirmed Summer's suspicions, "and there won't be enough of your sister left in there to fill a thimble."
Summer's eyes flickered back and forth. The blonde woman was far closer to the prisoners than she was, and doubtless armed. For that matter, the brunette was but a few steps away. She might get one, but there was no way to prevent the other from hurting or killing her friends, or her sister.
All right. This was a familiar situation to the Protector-- play for time, give her enemies enough rope to hang themselves, then help them get their necks in the noose.
"All right, Lady Redeye," Summer tried to sound casual, "you got me here. What's the next move?"
"Why, your surrender, of course." The red eyes seemed less angry now, and instead were glowing with what appeared to be deeply banked fires of cruelty.
Summer laughed. "Yeah, that'll happen. Look, I don't know who or what you think you are-- "
"I am Lilith." The woman stood up, and her blazing red eyes stopped Summer cold. "I was evil and power before your ancestors were born." She glanced over at the captives. "You do understand that refusal to cooperate will result in pain beyond death for those you love."
Dammit, she did realize that. Pretend to co-operate. Let's see where they're going with this.
Summer shrugged. "Fine-- I surrender. Now get to the point."
Lilith sighed, as though content to have finally achieved a goal.
"Carlotta, will you please see to this?"
Summer watched as the tall blonde made her way towards her. For all her size, of course, Summer knew the woman would be no match for her-- did she dare to try and take her on now? No... There was simply too much distance between her friends and herself. Maybe if Rowan had been the one closest to her... if she could have freed her to help with a spell or something... but no, the only one she had any chance to reach quickly was Dee, who'd probably just have fainted again. Gritting her teeth, Summer allowed the blonde to make her move.
Carlotta held out a length of chain, with cold, cruel-looking shackles and cuffs.
Summer held her hands out, affecting a look of boredom.
"OK, Xena," she sighed. "Let's get it over with."
"Oh, no." The blonde spoke for the first time, and her voice was filled with a confidence rare among Summer's opponents. Vamps might bray and bluster, but this human woman's confidence was disquieting. "Behind the back."
Summer shrugged and turned, placing her hands behind her.
Less leverage this way, she mused to herself. Might have to just snap the chains before I work on the cuffs. She was savoring the look of shock that she would bring to Carlotta's face as she burst her bonds when she felt the woman's strong, clammy hand clamp down on her wrists. There was the sound of clinking metal as the big blonde whipped the cuffs around, and a cold "snick" as she snapped the first one around Summer's left wrist.
The lights in the room flickered, and the floor rolled slightly as the earthquake hit. Summer gave an involuntary gasp, and looked to where her friends might be crushed as the building collapsed...
She blinked, trying to make the picture make sense.
Nothing in the room was shaking. Dee's glossy curtain of dark brown hair still drooped lazily, her bound body not swaying in the wake of the temblor...
An earthquake that only affected me?
Before Summer was able to get all this to make sense, she felt the second cuff fastened to her right wrist...
and this time, the effect was volcanic. The room seemed to blaze red in her vision, and she was physically staggered, managing to stay upright only through force of will.
"How does it feel, Protector?" Lilith drew out the last word as though tasting each letter. "How does it feel to be mortal ordinary human again?"
For an instant, Summer had the illogical urge to remind the woman that Protectors are certainly human...but in the pit of her stomach she knew all too well what the woman meant.
For while no one else in the room was affected, Summer was staggering under the weight of not only the chains, but something they carried with them... some kind of...
"Yes, it's a spell." Lilith's voice was a purr, and she ran strands of her silky dark hair through her fingers as she watched Summer weaken. "Didn't your esteemed Teacher warn you that certain spells would be unusually potent this All Hallow's Eve?"
Spell. Summer's fogging brain was trying to make sense of the word, when she felt blazing heat around her waist, as Carlotta wrapped the chains about her, and fastened the wrist cuffs to it, at the small of her back. The chains are enchanted.
"Whaddya think, Protector?" Carlotta snatched up a fistful of Summer's hair and yanked on it. "Bet you'd forgotten what pain is."
"Aagh!" The pain in her hair forced an exclamation out of the chained Protector, and she regretted giving her enemies that satisfaction, but she had to focus all her attention on the chains...the cuffs... getting free...
"Here-- another helping." Carlotta turned Summer around by the hair, and laid a fierce, open-handed slap on the girl's face. She then let go her grip on the blond tresses, and Summer staggered back against the wall. Carlotta was on her in an instant, spinning her around. The large woman pressed her body up against Summer, flattening The Protector face-first into the wall, and as Summer slumped, dazed, against the wall, she felt Carlotta fasten the cuff of a shackle to her right ankle. A short length of chain was played out, and a kick to her left leg forced Summer to stumble, giving Carlotta enough play in the chain to cuff the left ankle as well. Summer now had only about ten inches of chain between her ankles, to allow movement.
"What have you done?" She found herself wailing.
"What have we done?" Carlotta smiled thinly. "Let's just say we've done a bit of protecting ourselves."
"Now, Protector." Lilith rose from her seat, her ebony mane a flowing cape about her dark-clad form. She pointed to a spot on the floor, just below the low dais upon which her chair stood. "There."
Miserably, Summer shuffled forward, hampered by the weight of the shackles, the short length of the hobble, and the oppressive feeling of weakness that pervaded her body. She stood now, forced to look up to see Lilith's face.
The elegant demon-woman raised her face heavenward-- which struck Summer as the wrong direction-- and sighed.
"Do you know how many of my kind have faced Protectors over the centuries?" Summer gritted her teeth, willing to let the bitch gloat while she tried to think of something--anything-- she could do to get herself and her friends out of this mess.
"Some of us have killed Protectors, others have been killed by them. But none has taken a Protector as a slave... until now."
Through her haze of pain, Summer growled, "You're crazy. You think you can kill me? Fine. Do it and get it over with-- if you really think you can."
The sound that Lilith made would have been at home in a nightmare. Somehow, though, Summer knew it was intended to be a laugh.
"KIll you? Why on earth should I do that?" Her red eyes bored into Summer's blue ones, and the chained girl found herself unable to look away.
"Kill you, and we have a new Protector to deal with... and another and another... darling, it's been done! Ages and ages of the same useless cycle. Well, starting now, the cycle is broken."
She seized Summer's chin in fierce talons.
"You will remain here, as my slave. No dead Protector means no new Protector will be called-- and my minions and I will have free reign over this pathetic planet. By next All Hallow's Eve, when the enchantment will leave those chains, this miserable world will belong to me, and your precious humans will exist only for us to feed on."
Even if her brain hadn't been fogged, even if her limbs hadn't been on fire, Summer would have been too stunned to speak.
"And, now, Protector... you will begin your life of submission by kneeling at my feet."
"Like hell!" Summer put as much vehemence into her defiance as she could, but she knew it was no use. As it was, she barely had the strength to stand.
"One good kick would have her on the floor," Carlotta observed dryly.
"No. Oh, no. Far too easy." Lilith took a step toward the captives, and reached out to gather up a handful of Dee's streaming locks, drawing the unconscious girl's head up, exposing her throat. She extended the index finger of her other hand, and as Summer watched, horrified, the fingernail grew until it was a razor-sharp talon grazing the helpless girl's skin.
"Your choice, Protector."
Choice? With innocent lives at stake... with her strength drained from her... chained... powerless... Summer was damned if she could see a choice.
Summer took one miserable step... then another.... and found herself sinking dizzily to her knees, arms chained painfully behind her. She looked up, trying to keep as much defiance in her face as she could.
"At last," the demoness breathed. "The great Protector-- kneeling in submission before me."
Lilith reached to the table beside her, and picked up a heavy metal collar. She bent down to where Summer knelt, helpless and humiliated, and slowly slipped the collar about her throat. The woman's touch sent a wave of nausea through Summer's body, and she swallowed bile. In her current condition, the collar seemed to weigh a ton, and her head sank to her chest.
"My collared pet," Lilith cooed, stroking the silky blond head bowed before her. "My pretty slave." And she snapped the buckle in place, connecting the collar to the rest of the shackles, licking her lips as though she could taste the sweetness of Summer's collared throat.
"Before I have finished with you, this posture will be second nature to you in my presence." She picked up a leather leash, and clipped it to the front of Summer's collar.
If I could only... but it was no use. Not only couldn't Summer do anything to effect an escape, she was losing the ability even to think of what she might try.
"By the time we are through, you will worship me as the goddess that I am. And the longer it takes you, the more of your friends that will be sacrificed along the way. But no need to rush things-- this conversation is at an end."
Summer could hear Carlotta come up behind her.
"Ugghh!" A thick rod of metal, with leather about it, was jammed into Summer's mouth, and fixed in place with a series of chrome rings, leather straps, and buckles. She choked as Carlotta fastened it tightly, the bit jammed into the corners of her mouth. She could feel herself beginning to drool, and realized sickly that the gag would do a poor job of keeping someone quiet, which meant two things: it had been applied to her for no other reason than discomfort and humiliation... and that there was no chance of anyone being near enough to hear any cries for help. She was on her own-- collared, shackled, muzzled... and alone.
Or was she? She felt a sharp yank on the leash, forcing her head back. Summer held onto her sanity with one thought:
As crazy as it seemed, no matter how much of a longshot it might be...
There is always...
To Be Continued...
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