The Last of the Demon Slayers
Here’s some advice: when a gang of geriatric biker witches tells you they’ve cleared out all of the spells they left at Big Nose Kate’s Biker Bar in 1977 – don’t believe them.
I was on edge that cold-as-death March afternoon, and it wasn’t just the biker witches and their Jack Daniels brand of magic. Something in the air didn’t feel right.
Like smoke on the horizon.
I killed the engine on my Harley and planted the toes of my black leather boots on the cracked blacktop. The early spring breeze melted through my riding jacket, sending goosebumps skittering up my arms.
We were on the hunt for a new headquarters for the Red Skull witches. And while I’d suggested a cute bungalow on the shore or perhaps a progressive retirement community, Grandma and the gang had their hearts set on this boarded-up wreck of a place near the New Jersey turnpike.
Dimitri pulled up on my right, handsome as sin in a black leather jacket and shades. “Trouble?” he asked, studying me.
“How’d you know?”
The side of his mouth cocked into a grin. “I know you.”
Did he ever. Heat pooled low in my belly at the thought of exactly how well this man knew me.
The witches hooted and hollered as they dismounted behind us.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from,” I told Dimitri.
I reached out with my demon slayer powers, trying to get a grip on the energies that threatened us.
The low-slung brick building sagged with age. Old beer signs and jumbled blinds crowded the windows. A hand-painted sign read: Big Nose Kate’s – The more you drink, the better he looks.
It was the last holdout at the end of a long-abandoned road. Woods surrounded the bar on three sides, like an impenetrable barrier. A light fog swirled, making the whole place seem even more isolated and empty.
I held still, on high alert. “I think it’s everywhere.”
He eased off his bike. “Okay. I’ll fly around the perimeter. You check out the bar.”
I tried to hide my surprise. “You trust me?” Dimitri was forever trying to protect me.
“I do,” he grinned. He knew. “You can handle it.”
Dimitri could handle himself too. “Be careful.”
His eyes met mine. “Always.”
He strolled toward the woods, motioning to Flappy, an adolescent dragon we’d adopted a few months back.
I tugged off my helmet and hung it from the right handlebar of my bike, fully aware of the churning in my gut.
Whatever was wrong here, I’d find it.
Grandma lumbered toward me, gravel crunching under her Drill Sergeant-style motorcycle boots.
“Told you it was a beaut.” Her long gray hair tangled over her shoulders. She squinted against the setting sun, making her wind-burned cheeks bunch and look even rosier. Grandma wore suede chaps, an American flag bandana and a black leather jacket with Kiss My Asphalt written across the back in rhinestone studs.
“Something’s up,” I said. The air held a sizzle of anticipation.
“I don’t feel anything,” Grandma said.
I watched a winged griffin soar from the trees and toward the setting sun. A gangly dragon tottered behind.
“Why don’t you all stay outside for a minute?” I asked, expecting an argument.
Instead I got a wink from a tattooed witch named Bettina. “You heard the demon slayer.” She let out a whoop and dashed toward a broken-down Ping-Pong table in the parking lot. A dozen others followed.
Grandma peeled off her black fingerless riding gloves. “What is it, Lizzie?” she asked, her voice gravelly as if she’d spent the last century breathing semi-truck exhaust. She adjusted her chunky silver rings. “Because I tell you, Big Nose Kate’s is warded like Fort Knox.”
I had faith in Grandma and her magic. But I had to trust my instincts too.
The biker witches shouted to one another as they scavenged along the tree line.
“It’s hard to say what’s wrong yet,” I said, “other than the fact that Creely is about to chop down some pool cues.”
I nodded toward the giddy engineering witch as she headed for a spindly evergreen, toolbox in hand.
Grandma trundled off to investigate while I swiped the key to Big Nose Kate’s from her chrome-studded saddlebag. It was the only way I could do this alone.
I kicked aside chunks of asphalt as I made my way to the bar.
I didn’t like this place. I stiffened as I caught a flicker of movement in the far left window. The haggard blinds began to sway. Maybe it was just a rat, or better yet, a ghost.
Somehow, I doubted I’d be that lucky.
“What are you?” I murmured, the back of my neck prickling as I trailed my fingertips along the barbed wire framing the front door. I felt the familiar hum of my grandmother’s wards, left to protect the building against intruders. Yet there was something else as well. It throbbed low and steady underneath.
I braced a hand on the old wood door and listened for subtle changes in the magic. I coaxed it out until I could almost see it.
“Gotcha,” I said, running both hands along the door, up to the edge of the barbed wire. This was the same touch of energy I’d felt when we first pulled up to the place. I could almost taste a smoky, burning presence. It was stronger here at the door. “Who made you?”
The barbed wire began to curl toward my fingers and I jerked them back. Just because Grandma’s wards recognized me didn’t mean I wanted them to get too friendly. Like most of her spells, they were a bit too prickly for my taste.
I took a deep breath and inserted Grandma’s key into the lock. The iron bolt opened with a creak and a poof of smoke and sparks.
Big Nose Kate’s was cold and dark. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of old bricks and a healthy dose of mildew. But there was something else in the bar.
It smelled like death.
Judging from the laughter and boot clomps echoing up the walk I had about two seconds to figure this out by myself.
I eased past an overturned barstool and shrieked as I walked right into a spider web.
“Hells bells!” I scrambled to snatch the sticky mess off my face. Yes, I’d gone eyeball-to-eyeball with a demon, a possessed werewolf and a virtual army of imps, but it didn’t mean I enjoyed getting bugs up my nose.
“Why, Lizzie Brown,” Grandma chuckled from the front door, “you’re hopping like a cricket in a frying pan.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, forcing myself to stand perfectly still. I had a reputation to uphold, however shaky it might be.
I yanked at a piece of web tickling my nose. It ended up being the spider – a big, fat, bubbly-butted spider. This time, there was no mistaking the shriek as I launched it halfway across the bar.
Grandma bellowed in delight as I rubbed at my cheeks, my chin, my hair until I was sure the bug didn’t have any friends, and in the process, transferred the sticky mess of a web from my face to the leg of my brand new black leather pants.
Meanwhile Grandma was doubled over, tears in her eyes.
“Cut it.” We had real problems here.
“Sorry,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “Here you are this bad-ass demon slayer…”
It would take more than a spider to change that.
“Stay behind me,” I said as the hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I’d been feeling a disturbance for the past fifty miles.
“Look,” she said, straightening and wiping her eyes, “we stayed outside while you John Wayne’d your way in here. But take a gander. Our wards held.”
True. Still, “something’s wrong.”
“Tell me about it.” Creely planted a hand on the door jamb behind us. “I don’t know how we’re going to get the Ping-Pong table through the door.”
It was strange none of the witches could sense it. Grandma’s coven had spent thirty years on the run from a fifth-level demon. Any one of them could spot a hex from a half-county away.
An icy breeze whipped through the door behind us and I shivered. “I don’t like this place.”
“Are you kidding? It’s perfect!” Grandma said, tossing a Light ‘em Up spell. Bulbs flickered to life across the bar, even the ones that had broken in their sockets or fallen to the floor. Nice trick.
I scanned the window where I’d seen movement earlier. There was nothing but mangled blinds and a smudge in the dust.
And then I focused on the rest of the tavern…
A wreck of a Harley lay crushed on top of a wooden pool table in a snarl of green felt and shattered timber. Whiskey bottles covered in three decades of grime hunkered together behind a long oak bar. Pickled egg jars held up a handwritten sign advertising $1.00 drafts.
I wrinkled my nose. “You left it this way?”
“It was easier than cleaning,” Grandma said. She slapped me on the back. “Lighten up, Lizzie. The wards in this joint helped us hide from a fifth-level demon for almost a year. We’re safe. And we’re about to have a very good time.”
I surveyed the well-used barstools and peanut shells still strewn across the floor. “You say this place is soaked in protective magic.”
That meant whatever I was feeling had to be coming from outside. I hoped Dimitri was all right.
“Something’s been chewing on the Steel Trap wards, but we can fix that tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’ve got defensive spells above,” Grandma said, jamming a thumb toward the ceiling.
I followed her gaze. “Looks like graffiti to me.” Black marker scrawls streaked across the orange tiles.
Hell’s half acre.
Lusty Lucinda rides like a girl.
Midnight bugs taste best.
“It’s not always what you can see,” Grandma remarked.
“Okay. Fine. Let’s stay the night.” I was about to let out the breath I’d been holding when a streak of red shot out from under the dusty jukebox and darted straight for my head.
“Incoming!” I ducked and heard it splat into Grandma’s leather jacket.
Ant Eater, Grandma’s second in command, guffawed behind her. “Hot Foot Spell!”
Grandma cursed, hopping on one foot. “You gonna help me get rid of it?”
“No. I’m going to enjoy it,” Ant Eater said.
I stared at Grandma. “You left live spells in here?” I couldn’t believe it. Then again, this was the Red Skulls we were talking about.
Grandma ground her steel-toed boot into the floor while she dug the sticky glob of a spell out of her jacket and flung it at Ant Eater.
I was about to tell her it served her right when a wet spell slapped me upside the head. “Ow!”
Ant Eater’s eyes widened. “Oh hell.”
“What?” I demanded. My forehead stung where it hit. I touched it and felt a hard knot.
She turned to the mess of witches behind her. “We have a situation!”
My scalp started to tingle. “What is it?” Some of these spells could be really dangerous. I couldn’t believe Grandma just let them fly around loose. Anybody could have walked in here over the years. What if the wards had weakened and some kids had wandered by? What if a homeless person had needed a warm place to stay? Heck, even a burglar deserved better than to be hit by random magical incantations.
“Hey!” I protested as Ant Eater mashed her fingernails against my forehead and pulled away a quarter-sized piece of flat rubbery goo.
“Ohhh…” A witch with a blond bouffant pushed her way through a growing number of gray-haired, leather-clad oglers. She planted a manicured hand on each of my cheeks and studied the point of impact. “Tar and feathers, Lizzie,” she exhaled, sending out a waft of cigarette and bubble gum breath. “I don’t know how we’re going to fix this.”
My stomach churned. “As long as it’s not deadly I’m fine,” I said.
“It won’t kill you. But it might just make you cry a little bit.” Chomping her gum, she dug through her white purse until the fringe at the bottom shook. “It’s more of a beauty-product emergency.”
She had to be kidding. “Beauty product?” These witches did mud masks the old fashioned way – by riding through puddles. Well, all except for Frieda.
“Here ya go,” she said, handing me a rhinestone-studded compact.
I took it and gasped. My hair was gray. Steel gray. Which would have been fine except it had been black about a minute ago.
“What did you do?” I demanded.
I’d had three gray hairs in my entire life. Three. And I plucked them as soon as I saw them. So this? Well, this was unacceptable.
“It looks nice,” Grandma said, not really paying attention to me as she ran her boot along the bottom rung of a bar stool.
“It doesn’t look nice,” I said, panic rising. “That’s what people say when they don’t know how to fix things.” I turned to Frieda. “But you can reverse this because you are a Red Skull biker witch and you know your magic.”
“Well…” Frieda chomped at her gum, buying time. “It’s less magic and more…hair enhancer. It used to be platinum blonde. I guess it got old.” She tested a lock of my hair between her fingers. “Problem is, it’s the permanent kind. We brewed it so you don’t ever have to worry about dyeing your hair again. No other color will take.”
Oh no. Wrong answer. “Well then you’d better figure out how to fix it. Now.” I had a big date tonight. Finally. Dimitri and I had been trying to get something going for quite some time now and no biker witch spell was going to blow it for me.
“Okay, okay,” she winced, “don’t get all Red Skull on me.” Frieda brightened. “Hey, you’re acting like one of us and now you look like one of us -”
“Frieda!” We didn’t have time.
She sighed, as if I was the difficult one. “Okay, darling, here’s the poop: you’re going to be gray from here on out unless we can get your head under the sink and brew up a counter spell in the next two minutes. Does the water run in this place?”
Soon after, I had my head under a rusty faucet in the ladies room while Frieda rubbed oily gunk into my hair. I’d stripped off my coat and stood freezing in a purple leather bustier, which was my demon slayer trademark of sorts. Although right now I doubted I’d impress too many bad guys with my shivers.
“There’s something glowing in the corner,” I said, straining to see.
“Head straight,” Frieda said, adjusting my neck. “It’s only a Lose Your Keys spell and we’re already staying put.” Her fingers dug into my scalp as she rubbed. “You just be glad your dog was able to get us some dragon feathers, or you’d be a silver-haired beauty for the next seventy years.”
“I didn’t even know dragons had feathers,” I mumbled to the rusted sink.
“That’s ‘cause you never petted one behind the ears!” I nearly jumped sideways when my dog ran a cold nose under my pant leg and above my sock. “I have a whole collection. Gray ones and blue ones and white ones…I even have a pink one, but it’s kind of smushed.”
“Pirate!” My Jack Russell Terrier had started talking to me the day I came into my demon slayer powers. Real words. Call it a side effect. Pirate liked to say he’d always talked and it was me who never listened.
He gave a wet doggie snort against my shin. “Why are you getting a bath in the sink? Did you roll in something good? Was it stinky? ‘Cause I found a dead chipmunk outside and I don’t mind sharing.”
“Go get a hair net,” Frieda told my dog. “And ask Bob to pour a shot of Jack.”
E-yak. The black muck and dragon feathers were bad enough. “You’re going to pour whiskey on my head?”
“Nah. I’m just thirsty.”
Ten minutes later, I stood with what looked to be motor oil glooped through my hair, with half my split ends stuffed through a two-sizes-too-small hair net. Then Frieda handed me a cowbell.
Oh yes, I was hot date material. I glanced at the door. He should be back soon.
“Is the bell really necessary?” I sighed at the parade of biker witches clomping past me. Most of them were holing up at the bar – Frieda included. The others were gathering the last of the renegade spells and other flying surprises, a little too late in my opinion.
Frieda tossed back a swig of beer and grinned. “That may look like an ordinary old cowbell. But I enchanted it like a genuine egg timer. The dragon feather cocktail must stay on your head for exactly thirteen minutes thirty-seven seconds or I’m not responsible for what happens next.”
She paused expectantly. “Okay. You got me, Lizzie. Want to know what happens next?”
Besides, I’d already set my Swiss wrist watch. It had been a gift from my anal, adoptive parents to my equally anal self. It was silver, tinted pink, which is how I used to like things. My watch told precise time, was waterproof up to 12,800 feet and I didn’t go anywhere without it.
“At 5:20 or thereabouts,” Frieda began.
“5:20 and twelve seconds,” I corrected.
She waved me off. “You will dunk your head in the sink and I will douse it with water. Capiche?”
At least she couldn’t drink much more in the next six minutes.
“Okay. Well try not to get it on the leather.” I looked down to my mussed black leather pants. I had some clean ones in my saddlebag, but I’d rather save them for tomorrow. Besides, I’d be changing soon into this slinky red sweater dress I’d found at the Ann Taylor Loft Outlet while the biker witches rode the SeaStreak Ferry, looking for mermaid scales. Evidently, we’d arrived during molting season. Lucky us.
Some days, I couldn’t believe the things I had to put up with. But then there were the times that made everything worth it. Take tonight, for instance.
Any moment now, my sexy-as-sin boyfriend would be walking in the door. Dimitri and I had been to hell and back – twice – but we’d never been on a real date. Tonight would be the first time.
If we made it that far.
Last time we thought we could relax, we were attacked by an army of imps. Then we spent four months in Greece. You’d think we could have squeezed in a date somewhere. But we spent most of our time re-building Dimitri’s estate. Then every time we tried to leave, one of the biker witches blew something up. Or my dog got loose with his dragon. Or Zebediah Rachmort, my mentor, decided he needed me right then because conditions were perfect for me to levitate or slow down time or visualize.
That last one really got me. It didn’t make any sense to sit around and ponder my abilities. And before you say anything, pondering is different than planning. When I outline a strategy, I have a clear goal in mind. I’m not just sitting around wondering about things.
Now that Rachmort had gone back to Boca Raton and we’d landed here, I could move from visualizing my hot-as-sin griffin without his jeans – or anything else – and start realizing it.
In fact, Dimitri and I promised ourselves once we got back to the States, we would ditch the witches and the dog for at least one night a week. We’d talk, we’d cuddle – we’d date.
Although frankly, right now I’d be relieved to see Dimitri whole and unharmed.
He had a habit of picking dangerous assignments and then trying to do them by himself. Yes, he was a big, bad griffin and did just fine on his own. Still, I didn’t want to think of him getting into trouble out there.
I rubbed at the tension in my shoulders, my wrist brushing the cold sludge in my hair. Focus on what you can control. I simply needed to wait for the bell to jingle, rinse out the spell and get back to normal.
If only things were that easy.
Three loud knocks sounded at the door.
It wasn’t Dimitri. He wouldn’t have knocked for one thing. And I’d have sensed him for another.
I looked to the witches at the bar. They hadn’t noticed, which was strange. I focused my demon-slayer powers and detected the unmistakable scent of death on the other side of the door, like rotten cherries and burned hair.
My throat went dry.
Relax. I was the Exalted Demon Slayer of Dalea. I could deal with this. Even if I’d only inherited the job less than a year ago.
I flung open the door and was hit in the face by the same smoky, burning sensation from before, only this time it was a hundred times stronger. A black crow stood on the porch. The thing was massive – the size of a house cat with a shiny black body. It spread its wings wide and screeched.
“Holy Hades,” I gasped, my fingers dropping to the razor-sharp switch star I always kept on my utility belt. That’s when I realized the bird was dead. Its eyes were milky and vacant rather than black and beady. As it turned from the porch, I saw it had been run over. The back of its skull caved in and its spine twisted at an impossible angle.
My heart sped up.
“A zombie crow,” I whispered, unable to take my eyes off the thing.
It turned back to me. “Reeeaaawrk!”
The dead bird’s cry sent new shivers up my spine. “What do you want?”
It uttered another unearthly shriek.
Before I could decide what that meant, a tower of flames shot up from the woods beyond the bar. “What the—?” It blasted us with a wave of hot wind and flecks of dirt. The crow stumbled against my leg, and I took a quick step back. I rubbed the grit from my mouth and eyes as the fire crackled orange against the bare trees of the forest.
Caw! Caw! The bird beat its wings and urged me to follow.
Sure. A zombie bird wanted me to ditch Big Nosed Kate’s Biker Bar and head out into the woods toward a tower of flame, which – I was starting to notice – did not seem to be burning any of the trees.
The door remained closed behind me. It seemed no one in the bar had noticed.
Okay, well, I had five minutes.