After all my years of organizing field trips, fire drills and potty breaks for my three-year-olds at Happy Hands Preschool, you’d think I could get two geriatric biker witches through the Las Vegas airport in under an hour. But sometimes the things that look simple on the outside aren’t. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
“Don’t you even dream about casting a spell on that man,” I said to my Grandma, who had paused next to a heavy set guy sneaking a cigarette in the non-smoking area outside the Fly Away Bar and Grill. Her black “Harley’s Angels” T-shirt stood in stark contrast to his pin stripe business suit and red power tie.
Grandma tossed a lock of long gray hair over her shoulder as she rooted through her black leather bag. “He won’t even know what hit him.” She answered, in a voice roughened by hard living and an extra-loud rendition of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” sung in the parking garage elevator.
I gritted my teeth as a bearded student thwacked my elbow with his taped together backpack. In all fairness, he was busy avoiding a woman lugging a rolling suitcase that tipped over every three seconds. Was it sad that I envied them? At least they were moving.
Normally I’m a fast walker, an organized person and certainly not the type to be late for my flight. I glanced down the immense glass and silver terminal as six more people joined the already overloaded airport security line.
Ant Eater, Grandma’s second in command, flexed her shoulders and stretched out her neck. “I hope the stuffed suit’s not a lawyer.” She adjusted her silver spiked riding gloves. “He might sue you if I kick his ass.”
“Nobody is kicking anybody’s – ” I searched for the right word. “Tuffet.”
Seven years with preschoolers had made it nearly impossible for me to curse.
“Okay now I’m really late. Time to go.” I took Grandma by the purse and was about to grab Ant Eater by the silver stud belt. Then I thought the better of it. Ant Eater took orders about as well as Genghis Kahn tap danced.
She caught my hesitation and grinned at me, her gold tooth glinting in the late afternoon sunlight.
Grandma shook off my hold, moved in behind the smoking man and with the stealth of someone well-practiced at placing “Kick Me” signs, she sprinkled what looked to be sawdust over his back and shoulders. Poor guy was going to think he had dandruff – or that he’d stood too close to a wood chipper.
The man gasped, the lit cigarette teetering on his lip. Meanwhile Grandma uttered something under her breath that sounded strikingly like a Gregorian chant. Fingers shaking, he dropped the cigarette on the floor and ground it out under his heel.
“Once rude. Always rude,” Ant Eater huffed.
The man turned to Grandma, eyes unfocused like he was waking up from a dream. “I don’t smoke. Do I?”
“Not anymore,” Grandma slapped him on the back.
Amazing. And here I thought she was going to Itch spell him, maybe hit him with a Frozen Underwear bomb. “Is that new?” Never mind what it meant to mess with the man’s free will. Or what would happen if GlaxoSmithKline ever got wind of it.
“Mixed it up yesterday,” she said, with more than a hint of pride.
We’d talk about it later. But at the moment…
“I need to go,” I said, ducking into the crowd behind what looked to be an entire soccer team heading for Terminal C. “You can see me off at the security line or you can see me off here. Doesn’t matter.”
I started walking, witches be darned. I had a sexy shape-shifting griffin to meet. Frankly, it was the only way you could get me on a plane. I wasn’t crazy about flying. It was bad enough Dimitri’s business had kept him from escorting me to the airport. I mean, isn’t that how a romantic trip to Greece is supposed to start?
Besides, Grandma and the gang should be packing. They only had three days to drive out to New York if they wanted to catch their seniors’ cruise to the Mediterranean. It was the easiest way to bring Harleys along. Plus, those witches loved buffets.
Now that I finally had a ticket and I almost had a griffin, I wasn’t going to let a couple of pokey witches make me miss my flight.
I quickened my pace and took a quick inventory of the crowd in front of me: several kids in jeans that were either too tight or gangster baggy, a coach of some type who always seemed to find the break in the crowd. I squinted. I’d bet my big toe he was part-fairy, but I doubted even he was aware of it. A couple of business people… Nothing out of the ordinary, at least from a supernatural perspective.
A nice, normal day. It almost felt strange. It was like I was waiting for something to go wrong.
The two witches clanked behind me. Between their silver accessories and the spells they carried in glass jars, they could hardly move without something banging together.
“Lizzie Brown,” Grandma drew a labored breath but I wasn’t buying it. This woman would smoke me in a foot race for a shot of Southern Comfort. “You’re as jumpy as a jackrabbit.”
“Can’t help it. I’m too close.” I said, dodging a family of four. Close to a dream vacation, without demons, imps, hellions or anything else that went bump in the night. A blessedly normal trip. Did I even remember what normal felt like anymore? I couldn’t wait to find out.
“Hold up,” Grandma rumbled next to me, keeping pace.
I ignored her.
They were supposed to make this easy. They were supposed to drop me off at the outside baggage check. Instead, they had to find parking for their Harleys, hit every wrong button on the parking lot elevator and insult the check-in clerk. Of course American Airlines didn’t offer upgrades for demon slayers, even if I did save Las Vegas and pretty much the entire West Coast from Armageddon. As it stood, I was lucky those two didn’t get me downgraded to crazy.
I dug a finger under the strap of my sundress that had fallen down with weight of my carry-on and said a quick pair of thanks for my ultra comfy Adidas Supernova Cushion Cross Trainers.
“You’re not late,” Ant Eater growled off my left shoulder. “You’re two-and-a-half hours early.”
Yeah, well that was late in my book. I always liked to arrive for international flights at least three hours prior to takeoff. Next time, I’d add a half hour for each witch who decided to see me off.
“Well you can take one more minute.” Grandma cut in front of me and attempted to detour us toward a metal bench with thin gray cushions. “This is important. Vital,” she said, her blue eyes boring into mine.
“No. It can’t be.” I could practically hear my departure gate calling for me. “Why can’t it wait?”
“Loosen your bra straps, okay?” Grandma said, as she led me over to the bench. “I helped save you from a she-demon, you can give me a minute on an airport bench.”
“One minute,” I said, knowing I was doomed.
Grandma took my hands, her silver rings hard against my skin and her palms rough from riding her bike. “Our situation has changed. I felt it on the way over here, Lizzie. I think you’re ready.”
The only thing I was ready for was an in-flight cocktail.
While Grandma and the rest of the Red Skull biker witches took their magic very seriously, they also had a way of practicing the kind of loosey-goosey lifestyle that gave me hives.
“Ready for what?” I asked, hefting my shoulder strap again. The Port-A-Pooch pet carrier was the best on the market. I’d researched it. But the darned thing wasn’t light. Neither was its cargo.
Grandma nodded and Ant Eater reached inside her black fringed bag. Out came a small wooden chest, about half the size of a shoe box.
Oh help me, Rhonda.
Thick iron bands supported the bottom and wrapped around the lid. Studs drilled into the bands. The tips of them almost looked like switch stars, the main weapon of demon slayers like me. I traced a finger over the wood itself – old and furrowed with carving marks, as if the box had been sculpted from solid wood.
“This was your mother’s,” Grandma said, her fingers tracing a switch star. “After your mom left us, I promised your Aunt Serefina that if we found you, if you had powers, I’d give this to you when I thought you were ready.” She placed the box into my hands like it was a piece of fine china. “I think you can handle it now.”
“Oh.” The box was lighter than I’d expected. Smoother. I found the bench and sat with the box in my lap.
I tried to tune out the noise of the airport and take this in, be appreciative. For all I knew, this could be a watershed moment – one I’d look back on for the rest of my life. I wanted to recognize the importance of my demon slayer heritage. Instead, my mind kept wandering back to the words Grandma had used. I think you can handle it now.
Handle what? Everything I’d handled since Grandma found me two months ago, right before I’d morphed into the Demon Slayer of Dalea, had been much more of an adventure than I’d ever asked for – or wanted.
As uncomfortable as it was, if I was truly honest with myself, the only thing I had a mind to handle was the sexy shape-shifting griffin meeting me at my departure gate.
I studied the protective runes carved into the bottom of the box. “What makes you think I’m ready now?”
Grandma took a seat next to me. “I’m not sure you are,” she admitted. “Let’s see if you can open it.”
Oh lovely, and just what I needed – a test.
The box didn’t have a keyhole, or a clear lid. In fact, I didn’t see any openings at all. “Should we really try and open this here?” In a crowded airport? “Do we know what’s inside? I’m going to have enough trouble getting my switch stars through security.”
My hand wandered down to my demon slayer utility belt and the five switch stars it held. The stars were flat and round, about the shape of small dinner plates. Razor-sharp blades curled around the edges. The TSA wouldn’t like them, but I had to have them on me at all times.
Grandma sighed. “I told you we put a spell on your switch stars so nobody can see them. Otherwise, you’d have been arrested by now.”
Ant Eater nodded, her gray curls bobbing slightly as she looked down at me. “You should have let us take care of your jumbo bottle of shampoo too. I don’t know why you insisted on stuffing everything into a one-quart baggie.”
“Rules are rules.” A fact Grandma and the gang would do well to remember. Besides, I was worried enough getting my switch stars through the metal detector. I didn’t need things to fall apart if something went wrong with my Pantene Pro-V.
As for the box? “Please say it’s not something live.”
A nose snorted from my carry-on. “I heard that.”
Ever since I came into my demon slaying powers, my Jack Russell Terrier could speak – real words. I was still getting used to it.
Pirate wriggled an ear, then a nose, and finally his entire top half out of the green Port-A-Pooch. He blinked sleepily. Today, I’d followed my checklist for preparing an animal for flight, which had meant lots of exercise to wear him out and hopefully get him to snooze through a good portion of the trip. It had worked, until now.
“You sounded worried,” he said, “but don’t you worry because I am on the job.” Pirate squirmed the rest of the way out of the carrier and shook off, his tags clinking. “Some days, I think I’m part German Shepherd.” He sniffed at the box, his little body quivering. He was mostly white, with a dollop of brown on his back that wound up his neck and over one eye.
He gave a full body sneeze. “No animals,” he announced. “In fact, it don’t have any smell at all. That’s too bad.”
I turned the box over in my hands.
Pirate licked at it. “It’s pretty.”
Sure. Pretty like Pandora’s box. My mom hadn’t exactly been the best influence on me. And she’d proven that I couldn’t trust her. “We’ll check it with the luggage and I’ll open it in Greece.”
“Why?” Grandma asked. “I want to see what’s in it.”
“You don’t know?” I didn’t like that one bit.
Maybe it was a good idea to open it with Grandma and Ant Eater here, in case whatever was in there decided to attack.
I tugged at the teardrop emerald around my neck, given to me by Dimitri. It held an endless source of protective magic, which was good because otherwise it would have been used up a week after he’d given it to me.
I glanced at Ant Eater. “You still have those stun spells?”
She patted her black fringe purse. And I had five switch stars.
No telling what my mom left behind in this box. She’d shirked her duty, passed along her demon slayer powers to me before dumping me off on my adoptive family. I didn’t relish the idea of any more surprises from Mom.
Grandma placed a sandpapery hand on my arm. “Open it, Lizzie. It’s part of your destiny.”
Destiny my foot. Since when was I going to get to choose my own life? I’d been forced to go up against a mad scientist demon and then a sex-on-the-brain Las Vegas succubus and right when I was about to take off on a dream trip to Greece with my hot boyfriend, Grandma wanted me to open up a box full of trouble.
“If I open this now, I could get arrested, miss my flight, let a creature loose on the airport…”
Grandma nodded, admitting the possibility. “Or you could gain a powerful tool that you need right now.”
“I don’t need anything right now except sun, sand and a shot or two of ouzo.”
“So you say.”
“So I know.”
“Then why are you still holding the box?”
Heaven help me. The worst part was I knew how to open the box without a latch or a lock. I touched each of the fingers on my right hand to each of the five switch star adornments on the box. They warmed under my fingers and my stomach filled with dread.
I wasn’t kidding Grandma about the ‘getting arrested’ part. My short time in the magical world had taught me that unexpected things could – and always did – happen to me.
“Hold on to your britches.” I placed my hands on either side of the iron bars lining the box and lifted them away.
Pirate’s collar jingled as he danced in place. “Ooh…smoky!”
A thin stream of vapor flowed from the opening in the box, giving way to delicate rings.
Fingers stiff with anticipation, I lifted the lid.
Lavender velvet cushioned the inside of the box. Three loops made up of the same material lined the bottom, supporting – nothing.
“It’s empty.” I said, surprised, confused and – I’ll admit it – a bit relieved.
“No it’s not,” Grandma said, huskily. “Touch it.”
“Touch what?” I brushed my fingers over the velvet insides of the box. Down lower, close to the empty holders.
I did. My breath caught in my throat as my fingers scraped a smooth, invisible bar.
“What is it?” I asked, gathering the courage to touch it again. It wasn’t any longer than my hand. Round, from what I could gather. It felt like glass, only slicker.
“Is it hot?” Grandma asked.
“No. It doesn’t feel like anything.”
“Or smell like anything,” Pirate said.
Grandma whistled. “I think it’s a training bar. Your mom used to use one with her instructors. Your Aunt Serefina too. Only theirs I could see. Usually.”
“But I don’t have any instructors.” I didn’t even have Aunt Serefina. She’d died trying to save the coven. “I just have you.” Sure Grandma did what she could, but she seemed as much in awe of this thing as I was.
“Yeah, well that’s about to change too,” she said, unable to keep a smile out of her voice.
I flicked my eyes up to find her looking at me like it was my birthday. “Now?” I’d been asking for this kind of training for weeks and she picks now.
“Of course. You had – what? Two days off in Vegas while we planned this trip.” She said it like she couldn’t imagine what I’d been doing.
“I was recovering from an almost-Armageddon.”
“With your hot, sexy griffin.”
“We slept most of the time!”
“Oh come on, Lizzie – you’re a demon slayer. What’d you think it would be? Sunshine and cupcakes?”
“No. But I could use a week off.” Or even one more day.
“Time off is for pussies. I wrangled up a kick butt instructor for you. Better than the entire team your mom had. Formal training begins in Greece.”
Dimitri would love that. “And this is for training?”
“Maybe.” She looked inside the box. “I don’t know. I didn’t plan this part. But there’s a way you can find out.”
I didn’t want to know.
“I saw your mom do it. Serefina too. Hold it. Wrap your hand around it and it’ll tell you what you need to do next.”
Sure, why not take advice from an invisible bar that had once belonged to my crazy mother?
Problem was it played to my weakness. I loved to know exactly what was going on.
“So this will tell me what I need to do in terms of training?”
Grandma rubbed at the Phoenix tattoo on her arm. “For you, probably yes. For your mother, it foretold of the attack on our coven.” She dropped her hands. “It predicted her sister’s death, but hell, it also predicted mine. You don’t see me going anywhere, do you? Nobody can tell exactly what is going to happen. Free will is always in play.”
Yeah, except for the smoker she’d spelled.
I ran a finger along the bar and felt nothing.
“Try it,” Grandma said. “For me. I want to be here when you use it for the first time.”
Oh geez. I rubbed Pirate on the head and let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding.
“Okay.” I might as well figure out what I had to do next. There would be brainstorming to do, lists to write. Dimitri had a laptop, which meant I could even type my lists. This was sounding better all the time.
I eased the bar out of the velvet loops and paused for a split second before wrapping one hand around it.
Grandma’s breath brushed my shoulder. “Clear your mind.”
I did. At that moment, I let go of everything and focused all of my energy on the smooth glass in my hand. It felt solid, comforting. Warmth flooded my palm and crept up my arm. My breathing quickened as a door opened in my mind. I gasped.
“What is it?” Grandma asked.
“Wait,” I said, catching glimpses of a hazy picture. I squeezed my eyes shut and reached out for an image just beyond my reach. I gripped the bar tighter. It was like I was an inch away from opening another door.
“What is it?” Grandma held my arm.
I made it. The door fell open and I saw Dimitri. He knelt among the ruins of a great stone building in the middle of a forest. Sweat coated his broad back and glinted off his olive skin. He turned to me, his hands covered in blood. I sucked in a breath. This wasn’t real.
“Lizzie,” he called out, his face twisted in anguish.
Please don’t let it be real.
My heart raced and I fought the urge to go to him.
This isn’t real.
And then I saw myself lying on the ground, my chest ripped open and my head twisted at an impossible angle.
“Enough!” I smashed the bar onto the floor and heard it shatter.
Grandma yawped. “Damn it, Lizzie!”
I didn’t care. My eyes flew open. I braced my hands against the airport bench and forced myself to take deep, even breaths. I was back.
Grandma’s worried eyes met mine. “Whatever you saw, you don’t have to do it, Lizzie. You hear me? You don’t have to do it.”
“I know.” I said. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want Dimitri to have to watch, or find me later, or whatever had happened. I had no idea what I’d just seen. I’d never used an object like the bar before. For all I knew, the thing was cursed, damaged, on the fritz.
“What’d you see?” Ant Eater crouched in front of me.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” It was a twisted vision. It didn’t mean anything.
Besides, no good could come out of Grandma and Ant Eater analyzing a prophecy of my death. And she said herself it wasn’t always right.
Still, I couldn’t get the horrible image out of my mind. Being a demon slayer was dangerous work. I knew that. And, yes, people had tried to kill me before – but I’d never had to see, in high-definition detail, exactly what could happen.
This bar had predicted the death of the demon slayer before me. Now it was supposed to tell me what the near future held for me.
Mouth dry, I stared straight ahead, willing myself to focus on the commuters rushing past.
“Stop.” I told myself. I was at the airport. I ran my hands up my arms, over my unbroken chest. I was fine. Dimitri was handling paperwork instead of my blood and guts. He would be meeting me at the gate soon. “Stop it.” Think of something else.
At least the bar was gone, reduced to a million invisible little pieces.
“Um, Lizzie?” Ant Eater stood and began backing away slowly, her motorcycle boots treading light as a chorus of tiny shards began crackling all at once. It sounded like an ice storm on a tin roof.
“What’s it doing?” Grandma demanded.
“How should I know?” I stood, one hand on my switch stars.
“Hold up,” Grandma cautioned. “You draw a star and every TSA agent, police officer and security guard is going to be on you like a chicken on a June bug.”
Pirate growled. “I’d attack it, but I don’t see it. Now that ain’t right.” He paced back and forth next to me. “I thought you said we were going to take a vacation from all of this hoodoo.”
My thoughts exactly.
We all watched the off-white floor, as if we’d suddenly be able to see my family’s supernatural gift, one of the many that hadn’t quite worked out for me.
“Well,” Grandma said, “You couldn’t have opened the box if you weren’t ready.”
“Naturally.” I replied, wondering how the heck I was supposed to handle this one.
We never could tell if the bar managed to find all of its pieces, or how it fit itself back together. But I did feel it, as it rolled up to me and rested against my right foot.