Dark Hollow

by Christine Morgan

October 2002
13,000 words

Author's Note: the characters and universe of Gargoyles are the property of Disney. All other characters, particularly the setting and inhabitants of Trinity Bay, belong to the author. Some violence and strong language. This story is a sequel to "Clan of One."

October, 2004

Night comes to Trinity Bay
In a marriage of mist and shadow
Gauzy brides proceeding
To meet their dark-clad grooms
The trunks of redwood, columns
Of the copse's hushed cathedral
The sea providing music
In the rushing of the waves.

Nyx Dansbourne left off reading from the piece of paper in her hand and looked up. She cleared her throat.
"Well. That's as far as it goes. What do you think?"
The newest member of Trinity Bay's police force sat on the edge of a desk, chewing on an old fashioned buttermilk doughnut that was still warm from the ovens of one of the town's few all-night establishments. She swallowed, swept her tongue across her fangs to work out the crumbs and sweet glaze, and sipped from a paper cup of coffee before she spoke. Unlike the doughnut, which was fresh and good, the coffee was bitter to the point that her eyelids, wings, and the tip of her tail twitched.
"Come on!" Nyx said. "You can tell me. Is it that bad? It is. It's that bad. It sucks. It sucks the proverbial big hairy root."
"No," Hippolyta said. "No … what? What hairy root?"
Nyx's cheeks went from pink to crimson. Her quick hazel gaze flicked to the dispatch office, which was normally occupied by the formidable presence of her mother. At this hour, the office was late, the phone lines unlit, and the scanners silent.
"Never mind," she said. "Figure of speech."
She was a diminutive woman, wiry of build and a force of nature in terms of her sheer energy. It bristled from her with such intensity that Hippolyta sometimes wondered if that was what had happened to Nyx's bristle of short, spiky hair. In the months since they'd met, Hippolyta had seen Nyx in a variety of moods. This one, this embarrassment, this self-uncertainty, was new.
"I like your poem," Hippolyta said. "But it does not rhyme."
"It doesn't have to rhyme, poems don't always have to rhyme."
"Oh. Then it is very good."
"You hate it."
"I do not."
"You do. It stinks. It's crap. What was I thinking?" Nyx crumpled the piece of paper into a ball and shot it at the trash can, sinking it neatly. "What does a cop need with a creative writing class anyway?"
"It does not stink." Hippolyta swung her legs and hopped from the desk. She crossed to the trash can and fished out the paper.
"Give me that. I'll put it through the shredder."
"You will do no such thing. You have spent hours on this, long hours, and you should not destroy it."
"What the hell else am I going to do with it?"
"Surrender it to your instructor."
Nyx groaned. "Oh, God. Poly, you don't know what that man is like. He'll make me read it to the whole class."
"You just read it to me."
"And I'm regretting it already. Give me that."
Hippolyta held it out of reach. It was an easy thing, for she was nearly a full foot taller. Nyx did not further humiliate herself by leaping at the crumple of paper, but she fixed Hippolyta with a look that was one part pleading, two parts resentment, and a dash of chagrin.
"It is a good poem. You should not be ashamed of it."
"I have to read it in front of people. They'll laugh."
"Is it not a class?" Hippolyta asked pointedly. "A beginning class for writing? They cannot expect everyone to be, who is it? Shakespeare."
"So what you're telling me is that it sucks."
"Perhaps I am not the best person to judge. What do I know of poetry? I did not even know it was not required to rhyme. I have never taken such a class. I am not even human. You should read it to others. To your mother, or to Scott, or Avery. Yes, why not Avery? Is it not his uncle who writes for the paper?"
Each name that she mentioned only made Nyx's face screw up into a worse knot. In that moment, Hippolyta thought she looked more like a brownie than ever. That had been her first impression upon seeing Nyx, one so strong that she had checked the woman for the tapered ears so common to Children of Oberon. It was in her face, with its sharp cheekbones and pointed chin, and in her shock of hair, and the lean swift movements of her body.
Put her in a brown tunic instead of a brown police uniform, in curl-toed shoes rather than hiking boots, and give her a bow with bloodthorn arrows instead of a gun and a truncheon, and the effect would have been perfect.
And now, wearing such a grimace, it would have been easy to see Nyx bent on some brownie mischief. Souring milk, maybe, or knotting tangles into sleeping children's hair, or spiriting a newborn away into the night while leaving a grinning changeling in its crib.
"The last thing I need is for Lan Scribner to get his hands on that," Nyx said. "He'd want to run it in the paper. Do some feature on how Trinity Bay's cops aren't a bunch of hick uncultured meatheads."
"Good, for you are not."
"I didn't say we were. Maybe in my dad's time, okay, yeah, before the Internet, before a click would take you anywhere in a global society … oh, forget it. Give me the stupid poem."
"Are you going to throw it through the shredder?"
Hippolyta regarded her from beneath raised brow ridges. "No? Then you will not care if I make a copy?"
"Dammit, Poly!"
The copy machine was in Georgia Dansbourne's little office. Hippolyta flipped the switch and waited for the device to warm up. She glanced back at Nyx, who was watching her and muttering darkly to herself – had she indeed been of the Third Race, Hippolyta knew that there would be some troublesome curse in the offing. Nothing fatal, no, but a gargoyle might wake up the next evening to find a sprouting flower growing at the end of one's tail, or that one spit out toads with every word.
Like many small-town police stations, that of Trinity Bay was only slowly dragging itself into the new millennium. The copy machine was an ancient clunker that hummed in an increasing, and indeed frankly alarming, pitch before a signal appeared indicating it was ready to copy. The computers were only a few years old, but still archaic by the standards of the Coalition, where Hippolyta had become acquainted with the higher technology of the world outside of Avalon. They had no robots here, their surveillance equipment consisted of a pair of binoculars and a palm-sized tape recorder, and no one had anything even close to a crystal-laser rifle.
Then again, she was still using a bow. According to the rest of the 'boys in brown,' as Scott James liked to refer to his department – males and females alike – that put her at a step or two down the old technological ladder. He stopped short of saying that her bow was a less-effective weapon, not after seeing the deadly accuracy of her aim and how her superior strength could send a steel-tipped shaft through Kevlar body armor.
A tired light came on, and Hippolyta placed the smoothed-out piece of paper on the glass screen. She shut the lid and pushed the button. A glowing white bar scrolled back and forth. The machine obediently spat out a copy. Satisfied, she folded the copy and returned the original to Nyx.
"What are you going to do with that?" Nyx asked.
Hippolyta tucked it into one of the pockets on her modified flak jacket. Nyx's mother Georgia had had a grand time customizing gear to fit around Hippolyta's wings and tail. Some of the other officers thought she was being unnecessarily cautious – or paranoid, as Avery Scribner said – by her insistence on wearing body armor. They disliked the weight, and the sense of confinement. And how often, really, was anyone in actual physical danger? This was Trinity Bay, after all.
To which Hippolyta was wont to remind them of how she'd come to their notice. Even small towns had abusive, hostage-taking husbands who would not have stopped at opening fire on officers of the law. And let us of course not forget the serial killer. Sadly, these folk no longer lived in a small town dream world where people blithely left their doors unlocked and their idea of a crime wave was a single purse snatcher.
"I am keeping it in case you renege on your promise not to shred it. This way, it will be preserved."
"I told you –"
"The letter of the law," Hippolyta said. "You might still have burned it."
"You're getting too good at this," Nyx complained, but it was with a grudging tone of admiration and pride.
They had spent most of the summer together, Hippolyta a guest at the Dansbourne home on the insistence of Georgia. During that time, Hippolyta kept up her nightly patrols and often arranged to meet with Nyx and lend her assistance. She learned all about police procedure, particularly how it differed from Coalition procedure (which more often than not had to do with avoiding, evading, or downright outmaneuvering the local authorities).
It was a funny thing, the way the townsfolk had reacted. They seemed to take it in stride with an ease that perplexed Hippolyta. She was the object of idle curiosity, no more. People nodded to her on the night streets, said hello, were for the most part pleasant and non-intrusive. As the weeks went by and she learned more of the recent history of the town, she realized with a bit of a deflating sense of her self-importance that a gargoyle was far from the strangest thing to happen here.
But finally, Scott James had laid down the law. That had been in the wake of a major marijuana bust uncovered by one of Hippolyta's late-night vigils. He was all for community involvement, he explained, but he had to draw the line at vigilante justice. In the future, if Hippolyta meant to deliver criminals bound and sometimes bowshot to the steps of the Municipal Building, he would prefer it if she wore a badge and gave them the Miranda warning first.
Thus, she had ended up on the payroll. The previous chief of police had retired, Scott had moved up, and that left a gap in the ranks. Public support of Hippolyta's swearing-in was overwhelming, most people seeming to feel that she was suited by her very nature for the job and might as well be paid for it. So she had, for the first time in her life, a bank account at the local branch, an apartment of her own over the Dansbournes' garage, and a last name. After considerable deliberation and rejections of numerous possibilities, she'd settled on Archer.
Nyx had retreated to her desk, still grumbling, but Hippolyta saw that she was studying the poem thoughtfully. Smiling to herself, Hippolyta picked up her cup, reconsidered, and dumped the acrid brew down the sink in the break room. She rummaged in the refrigerator and came up with a Dr. Pepper instead, which had a strip of masking tape with "Avery's – DO NOT TAKE" scribbled on it in black felt tip pen.
But Ave Scribner was in Sacramento at some conference, to which Scott had sent him because Scott James was a hands-on, anti-bureaucratic type of chief. Ave wouldn't be back until Monday. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
She popped the top on her way back to the bullpen. Rain was beating against the windows, worse now than it had been an hour ago when she'd braved the weather to visit the doughnut shop. The rain was the only drawback. She was not adverse to going out in it, but visibility was a joke. So was hearing anything above the downpour. She'd have to be right on top of trouble before she'd see it, and the odds of her being in the right place at the right time were ludicrous.
"I'll go out a little before two," she said, taking a sip from the soda. Scott had left a pile of spy-gadget magazines on his desk and she selected one, opening the cover to view an array of toys for the wanna-be Bond.
"Wally's Pub?" Nyx asked. "Yeah, Friday night … ought to be good for a drunk driver or two. Maybe a fight. It was payday at the mill today. At least the boys at Nate's know to walk, and behave themselves."
The phone rang.
"Speak of the devil," Nyx said. She leaned over to get it before the automated set-up could kick in and direct the call to Scott's home. "Trinity Bay P.D., Officer Dansbourne speaking."
Hippolyta's keen ears picked up the high, frightened tone of a child's voice and knew it was trouble even before Nyx sat up straighter in her chair. A girl, maybe a very young boy. Near tears but trying to be brave. Older brother hadn't come home from his date. Dad had gone out looking and hadn't come back either. Mom was home but asleep, she took pills for her headaches and the kid – it was a girl, Hippolyta decided – couldn't wake her up.
Nyx, speaking calmly and soothingly while still maintaining a professional tone, asked the child's name and address.
The reply came through quite clearly. "Sadie Lorenz, 319 Candle Street."
"Candle Street," Nyx echoed, and everything about her had just changed. Her face had gone chalky, and the hand with which she'd been taking down the information shook, leaving a scrawled line on the call log. "Is that in Trinity Bay?"
Frowning, Hippolyta turned toward the large map on the wall behind the desks. She had grown to know the town very well since April and had never heard of a Candle Street.
"No," Sadie replied, tinny through the phone. So young, so afraid.
"You live in Dark Hollow," Nyx said through lips that looked blue.
Sadie went on, seemingly desperate to have someone to talk to, not wanting to let the grown-up off the phone. Hippolyta didn't catch it all but gleaned that they had only moved into their house at the beginning of September, just before school started. From Eureka, but Dad had hurt his back and needed a cane and was on what either Sadie said or Hippolyta heard as "dibasillaby."
"All right," Nyx cut in. Her eyes were strange. Although the office was not especially warm, fine beads of sweat had risen on her brow. "Sadie, listen to me. Stay inside. Lock the doors and the windows. Keep trying to wake up your mother, but keep the phone with you if you can. My name is Nyx, n-y-x. Don't open the door for anyone else but me, okay? Can you do that? Even if it's one of your neighbors, someone you know. Do not open the door until I get there. Will you do that for me, Sadie?"
"Yuh-yes," the child said, the word broken by either a hitched breath or a sob.
"If anything else happens before I get there, call again. You may get a different person, but he'll be a policeman named Scott. Okay?"
"I'm hanging up now –"
"But I'm scared!"
"I know you are, Sadie," Nyx said. "I'll be there as soon as I can, but I have to hang up the phone so I can go get in my car and drive to you. Just do what I told you, and remember what I said."
"I will."
"See you soon," Nyx said, and replaced the phone.
Rather than leap up right away as Hippolyta was expecting, Nyx leaned forward and cupped her head in her hands.
"Nyx? What is it?"
"Dark Hollow. God help us." She inhaled shakily. "Call Scott. Tell him where I'm going and –"
"I'm coming with you."
"No, Poly, stay here. Call Scott."
"Bollocks to that. Whatever this place is, it's turned you white as milk. I will not let you go there alone."
"Thanks." Nyx collected herself. She picked up the phone again, punched in a number, waited, and spoke in a rush as soon as a man's sleep-fogged voice answered. "Boss? Nyx. Got a call. Trouble in Dark Hollow. Don't tell me; I know. Poly and I are on the way. Office is empty. Over to you."
She hung up before Scott James on the other end could do more than sputter. Moments later, she and Hippolyta were hurrying out into the rain, into the parking lot behind the Municipal Building. The three-story affair also housed the library and various other administrative offices, but at this hour the only vehicles in the lot were the brown police cruisers, the refurbished van that served as a book-mobile, and Avery Scribner's decrepit Ford Pinto.
"What is the matter?" Hippolyta asked. She got into the front passenger seat as Nyx slid behind the wheel. "I have never seen you like this."
"Dark Hollow," Nyx said. She keyed the ignition and the engine revved. "Dark Hollow and in the middle of the night, too. This is gonna be bad."
In the dim glow of the dash lights, Nyx's face looked like a skull. Her sharp cheekbones accentuated ghastly hollows beneath, and her pale skin picked up a greenish hue. There was a look in her eyes that Hippolyta had seen before. It had been in the eyes of her rookery siblings when they realized that this was no game, that the Archmage and his minions truly meant to annihilate them, and the battle was real. It had been a common sight in the eyes of her Coalition counterparts – Hunter and Hellcat, at least; Hyena's eyes, dilated mechanical pupils filled with unnatural electric energy, had only ever shown an inhuman bloodlust and glee.
It was the look of someone going up against unknowable odds, a grim certainty of death hanging like a pall, but determined to go through with it all the same.
The cruiser backed out of its slot, described a reversing loop through the parking lot, and turned a hard right onto the street. The windshield wipers slashed rain from the glass in swipes. Fans of water sprayed from beneath the tires.
No one was about. The town slept under the sentry of rain-haloed streetlamps. Nyx was driving too fast, especially for the conditions.
"For one so reluctant to go to Dark Hollow," Hippolyta said, "you seem in quite the hurry to get there."
"The faster, the quicker," Nyx said.
"The faster we get there, the quicker we get it over with. And there's that kid to think about. Sadie. Dammit. Why did they move there? Why? It couldn't have been through Leland Realty. Vivian Leland quit taking Dark Hollow listings – when there were any – at least eight years ago."
"Tell me of this place. Where is it? I did not know of other towns nearby."
"It isn't technically a town. Smack on the county line, so no one can decide who's got jurisdiction. We're their closest neighbors, so when there's an emergency, we get the duty."
Trinity Bay was behind them now. The trees encroached close on the sides of the narrow two-lane road, collecting rain and dropping it in giant wet splats on the windshield. The headlights cut through the gloom and once Hippolyta saw the brilliant green eyes of a raccoon reflecting back at them from the underbrush.
"But what is wrong with it?" she asked. "Have you been there?"
"Only once. Here comes the turnoff."
Ahead, barely visible, was a leaning metal pole bearing a sign. Dark Hollow Road, it proclaimed. A row of mailboxes on posts, tilting every which way, stood beside the pole. The turnoff was a left, blacktop for the first dozen yards or so and then giving way to rutted gravel. The cruiser jounced through puddles and bottomed out on the gravel. Hippolyta braced the heels of her hands against the dashboard.
The road sloped down a moderately steep hill. Hippolyta could see telephone poles that looked positively ancient, their sides streaked with tar, their freight of phone and electrical wires sagging. Some had signs nailed to them. Not the green and white of official road markers, but long shanks of wood with lettering painted on, or burnt in.
"Look for Candle Street," Nyx said.
"I can barely read any of them," Hippolyta said. She squinted at one, pointing down a winding trail. "That might be 'bell,' or 'ball,' but it was assuredly not 'candle.' How many people dwell here?"
"Maybe forty, fifty tops. I don't know. And it's almost goddam Halloween."
Hippolyta was about to inquire about that cryptic remark, when she noticed that the headlights were barely penetrating the night. They had gone dim and strengthless. So had the dash lights. Their feeble light barely touched the wan oval of Nyx's face now. And it was cold. Her skin could feel the heater's warm air blowing from the vents but the interior of the car still felt icy. When she exhaled, her breath formed a frosty cloud before dissipating.
"Nyx –"
"I know."
"There!" Hippolyta pointed straight ahead at a Y-curve, the left branch of the Y marked with another of the leaning wooden signs. The letters burnt into it read 'Candle Street,' and were followed by a design that might have been meant to represent a lit candle.
Nyx slowed down and took the turn. Her teeth were chattering. The insides of the windows were fogging up, making it even harder to see. Hippolyta ran a fingertip through the condensation. She traced a design of a gargoyle shape. Beyond the glass, in the forest, she saw another glint of animal eyes.
Animal eyes … six feet off the ground?
Raccoon on a branch, then. Had to be.
"I see a house," Nyx said, her words broken into sections by the clattery sound of her teeth. "Can you make out the numbers?"
The house, set a ways back from the road in a yard so overgrown that it was as if the forest intended to reclaim the land, was a small log cabin with a stone chimney. No cars were parked in view, and the only visible light was a candle in the window. The door was painted a deep red. An old-fashioned brass doorbell-pull was beside it, under scrolled brass letters: 570.
"Five-seven-zero," she reported. "We want three-one-nine?"
"Yeah." Nyx, with an apprehensive glance out the side window, accelerated past the cabin. "It has to be this way."
The next house they came to was an A-frame cottage. It would have made a nice vacation home, here in the deep woods beside a creek that tumbled downhill. A stooped old man in a black bathrobe stood on the porch, the ember of a cigarette shining in the dark as he watched the car drive slowly past. A redwood post at the end of his driveway had 621 on it in faded white paint.
"What the hell?" Nyx said. "We can't be going the wrong way. There wasn't another turnoff back at the main road, was there?"
"None that I saw. Should we ask the old man?"
"No! Let's keep going."
Just past 621 was a brick rambler that looked like it had been built in the 1950's. A collection of lawn ornaments were planted in its weedy front lawn and a VW microbus was parked in an aluminum breezeway. A television aerial poked up from the roof with spindly silver arms. Three pumpkins of varying sizes, unlit jack-o-lanterns with empty idiot's faces, climbed the concrete steps to the front door.
"Eighty-five," Hippolyta read from the cast-iron numerals affixed next to the porch light.
"That can't be right," Nyx said. "Was a number missing? Was it eight hundred and fifty something?"
"I do not believe so. There was an eight, and a five, and I saw no spot where one might have fallen off."
"This makes no sense, this makes no fucking sense."
"I see more lights ahead," Hippolyta said. "Let us find out what they are, and if it does seem the address numbers are increasing, we can turn about and go back."
The house was a little gingerbread Victorian set in the middle of a well-kept garden. A fence, twined with climbing flowers, ran the boundaries of the property. Curtain-diffused squares of light marked all the downstairs windows. The house was a rose pink with scalloped white trim, and white numerals in an arc above the front entrance.
"Three-nineteen," Nyx said. "This is it. The street numbers are totally screwed out here."
The door of the detached garage was open, revealing walls lined with shelves holding a neat array of paint cans, gardening tools, labeled Rubbermaid containers, and other items. No car, but as Nyx pulled into the driveway, the tepid headlights picked out an oil spot on the garage floor.
Someone had hung a Halloween decoration on the front door. A black cat …
Hippolyta, halfway out of the car, froze.
The cat.
It hung on the door, head down, and what she had initially taken for its shadow was a bloodstain that had run in long dribbles.
"Nyx, there is a dead cat on that door."
"Come on." Nyx had her truncheon out and her other hand resting on the butt of her pistol.
Following her lead, Hippolyta slung her quiver at her hip and nocked her bow. The sight of the cat had unnerved her and she did not know why. She'd seen worse. She'd seen a monstrous albino monster batten onto her sister and rip away a round chunk of Tourmaline's flesh. She'd seen the horrors of an alien world. A cat, especially a dead one, should not have given her such cause for unease.
Nyx crossed the tidy yard and scaled the porch steps. There was a swing done in floral fabric, a small table, a white statuette of a woman in Victorian dress, and a geranium in a suspended planter. And the cat. Up close, they could see that it had been gutted, and nailed by all four paws.
Its eyes had been cut out.
"Who would do such a thing?"
"Shh." Nyx rapped on the door with her truncheon. "Better stand back a bit, Officer Archer. This poor kid is going to be a bundle of panic anyway."
Hippolyta obligingly stepped to the side, out of immediate view of anyone opening the front door.
No one did.
Nyx rapped again, louder. "Trinity Bay P.D.," she called. "Sadie? Sadie, this is Nyx."
Still no one came to the door. Hippolyta listened intently and did not hear so much as a footfall or breath from within. The lights notwithstanding, her senses told her that the house was deserted.
"Are we going in?" she asked.
"I guess we'd better," Nyx said. She reached for the doorknob and withdrew her hand with a grimace. The knob had been splattered with the cat's blood, which had not yet entirely dried. Nyx rubbed her palm on her uniform pants and put on a pair of latex gloves. She tried the knob again.
The front door was not locked and opened onto a homey scene. The scent of new paint masked that of blood, the furniture was pleasingly arranged, family pictures and other artwork had been hung on the walls. The coat pegs held a man's London Fog overcoat, a woman's blue woolen coat with a darker blue scarf, a black denim jacket with the metal band "Lords of Haarkon" logo on the back, and a child's bright red hooded coat covered with capering figures of characters from the Hundred Acre Wood.
They went further into the house. The dining room table had been cleared from supper, placemats where they belonged, napkin holder flanked by salt and pepper shakers, the chairs pushed in. The kitchen was clean, a casserole dish drying in the rack beside the sink, the smell of ham and potatoes lingering in the air. Crayon drawings were held to the front of the fridge by magnets.
"Sadie?" Nyx called again, but despite the normalcy of the scene her voice had dropped to a whisper.
"That way, the living room," Hippolyta suggested.
Nyx led. They went down a short hall with walls so close-in that Hippolyta had to fold her wings tight against her body to avoid knocking down a collection of ceramic figurines of freakishly big-eyed children in sailor suits, ballerina tutus, cowboy outfits, clown costumes.
"Oh, shit." Nyx froze in the doorway.
Hippolyta almost trod on her heel before stopping. She drew back on her bow.
"Mrs. Lorenz?" Nyx began moving again, rushing into the living room.
It was all done in thick floral patterns, lace doilies, and crammed-together knickknacks. Amid such a colorful and busy setting, the woman on the floor looked unreal.
She was of perhaps forty, brunette, of average build, in fleece sweatpants and a quilted flannel shirt. The pillows from the couch were scattered around where the woman lay facedown. A three-legged table had been knocked over, spilling a glass of water, a brown plastic pill bottle, and a paperback romance novel onto the carpet.
Crouching, Nyx grasped the woman's outflung wrist and felt for a pulse. She looked up at Hippolyta and shook her head. "Dead. Still warm, but dead."
"Suicide?" Hippolyta asked, eyeing the pill bottle.
"Help me turn her over."
They did so, and the moment the woman rolled onto her back, head lolling, the theory of suicide was proved absolutely wrong. Her neck was livid with a scarlet mark, which darkened to a purple bordering on black at the center. The flesh around it was puffy.
"She's been garroted," Hippolyta said. "Strangled."
A chill draft caressed the back of her neck. Hippolyta turned and saw another hallway, with doors opening off it to a study, a bathroom, a laundry room, and a back door. The back door was ajar, the curtain sheer over its inset window stirring.
Corwin's example had taught her the folly of charging blithely through a back door. She hissed a warning to Nyx, pointed down the hall, and headed that way with her bow held at the ready. Nyx was right behind her, gun out.
The study was empty. A desk lamp cast a stark white ray over a mess of envelopes, bills, bank statements, canceled checks, and books of stamps. The small television was on, showing Conan O'Brien interviewing some junior heartthrob from the WB, with the sound turned almost inaudibly low.
The bathroom was dark except for a combined nightlight and air freshener in the shape of a tulip bulb. The laundry room was barely more than a closet, its only window of frosted glass.
Hippolyta came to the back door and snaked out her tail to pull it open. The sound of rain intensified, as did the draft eddying through. Beyond was the backyard. Like the front, it was neatly tended, with a mown lawn edged in flowerbeds. A picnic table was off to one side, a metal and plastic swingset so new that the grass had not yet eroded beneath the swings was on the other. At the rear of the yard was a garden gate, beyond which the land descended in a wooded hillside.
The gate was standing wide open. A scrap of something, drenched by the rain, dangled from the latch.
Signaling Nyx to cover her, Hippolyta went out into the yard. She reached the gate uncontested and examined the scrap. It was cloth, yellow flannel with "hunney" pots and bumblebees on it. Given what she'd seen on the smallest of the coats in the hall, she surmised that this was from a piece of Sadie's clothing. A nightgown, perhaps. It had caught on the latch and ripped as the child had gone … or been carried … out the gate.
She beckoned and Nyx joined her, with a penlight shedding a pale, tired beam.
"Someone took her this way," Hippolyta said. "I doubt as we can track them in this weather, but I will try."
"It must have been right after she called us," Nyx said. "Someone came in, strangled the mom, and made off with the kid. Damn! What else could we have done, though? We couldn't have gotten here any quicker."
"It may not yet be too late for Sadie. Let us find her."
They went through the gate and into the woods. Hippolyta's guess was correct; the ground was awash in rainwater, making tracks impossible to read.
"There, through the trees. Down the hill. Do you see it?"
She looked. "The lights, yes. Windows?"
"I didn't realize we were this close. The road loops around."
"What do you mean?"
Nyx gulped. "Downtown – if there is such a thing – Dark Hollow. Only a quarter of a mile or less as the crow flies."
"Or as the gargoyle glides."
"No, Poly!"
"If someone has taken the child, it cannot be with good intentions."
"We can't go into Dark Hollow."
"You have not told me why. What is wrong with this place, these people? The Lorenz family were newcomers here, strangers, were they not? And that is why this was done to them. I have surmised that much."
"Nobody likes to talk about it but somehow we all know. You hear it at school, from your mom's bridge group, here and there, around. Dark Hollow's a bad place, Poly. The people who live here aren't normal."
"In what way?"
"They keep to themselves and don't like having anything to do with outsiders. Their houses stay in their families generation after generation. They home-school their kids, they don't attend any area churches, I have no idea where they shop, stuff like that. Outsiders don't come here."
"The mailmen won't deliver here. They leave all Dark Hollow mail – not that there's ever much of it – in that row of boxes and won't come any farther. Ditto the paper routes. Pizza X-Press refuses to deliver here, claims it's outside their service area. Nobody goes into Dark Hollow unless they absolutely can't avoid it. But every so often, some house will get put up for sale and people will move in. They usually move right back out within a few months. But sometimes … sometimes they die, Poly. And sometimes they don't even have to move in. Marty Arnes, the paramedic, you've met him?"
"Marty, yes. He is teaching me to play poker."
"He gets calls out here sometimes. The one I remember best must've been five years ago. A couple from Grant's Pass took a wrong turn. The man driving had a stroke, ran off the road. His wife called for help on their cell phone. She got lucky. A lot of the time, radios and cell phones and other gadgets don't work right down here. Hers did. By the time the ambulance got here, the man was dead behind the wheel and the wife was nowhere to be found. Marty's partner went to have a look around and didn't come back. They never did find out what happened to either of them. It was like the fucking Bermuda Triangle, that's what Marty said. They were just gone. Gone."
"What are you saying?" Hippolyta asked. "That this place is haunted?"
"I'm not saying it but some people do. I've heard that Dark Hollow is full of vampires, ghouls, witches, you name it. Our own friendly neighborhood Twilight Zone. No one knows for sure, that's the thing."
"Then we are about to find out."
"Poly –"
"Think of Sadie. What manner of police officers are we if we cannot even protect a child?"
Nyx fingered the scrap of material she'd plucked from the gate. Her mouth settled into a line of resolve. "All right. But together. Partners, remember?"
"Partners. This way. It'll be quicker."
Hippolyta started down the slope, surefooted despite the muddy, slippery terrain. Nyx followed but holstered her gun, not wanting to fall and accidentally fire. They hadn't gone far when the chill that had first crept into the car came back with a vengeance. Breath puffed in cold clouds around their faces. The rain felt like sleet on their skin.
Down in the hollow, Hippolyta's keen nightsight could pick out the forms of buildings. No wires went to them. No electricity, no phone, no cable television. Instead, she saw the yellow glow of oil lamps, the orange flicker of firelight, and a dark rainbow of a stained-glass window. They had their own church, which explained why they did not attend others as Nyx had mentioned.
She saw no cars down there. Buggies, and black horses in a corral, but no cars.
Something caught her eye. She bent and picked up a stuffed animal, a sorry and bedraggled thing soaked with muddy water. The state of its appearance was only emphasized by the drooping ears and mournful eyes. As her hand squeezed its middle, she felt something hard inside of it. Her thumb pressed a hidden button.
"I don't suppose you want to play with me," the soggy purple donkey said in a low, doleful tone.
"What the hell is that?" Nyx gasped.
"This." Hippolyta held it out and squeezed it again.
"Pa-thetic," said the donkey.
"Sadie went this way, all right," Nyx said.
They turned toward the cluster of buildings with renewed purpose. Just then, a shift in the wind brought a smoky, spicy scent to Hippolyta's nose. She paused, tasting the air. Her fists clenched and she realized she still held the donkey.
"It's not much of a house, but I'm attached to it," the donkey said. She wedged it into the fork of a tree branch.
"Would you quit with that –" Nyx began.
Off in the darkness, a brittle voice broke into lilting song. "This old man, he played one, he played nick-nack on my thumb …"
"Who's there?" Nyx called.
"Nick-nack paddywhack, give the dog a bone …"
Cigarette smoke. Clove cigarette smoke. Home-rolled. Where was he?
"Police officers. Show yourself!" Nyx ordered.
"This old man came rolling home."
The song was followed by a laugh that was like fingernails on a blackboard. Hippolyta spotted the bobbing red ember of the cigarette.
"Come out with your hands in plain sight," Nyx said.
"Nick-nack … Nyx-Nax … Nicole!" he chortled. "Nicole Dansbourne!"
Nyx glanced at Hippolyta. Her eyes showed whites all around the irises. She was breathing too fast, scared. Not that Hippolyta blamed her. The gargoyle's own heart was thumping quickly. Her scalp tingled in a nasty crawling sensation.
"This old man, he killed two, he killed Nyx and Hippolyta too …"
Hearing their names in that song, hearing the change in that song … Hippolyta could not stand it. She brought up her bow, and let an arrow speed on its way. It flew directly at the dull red ember of the old man's cigarette.
It found its mark with the meaty thunk of steel seating itself in flesh. The old man's scream was a gurgle. His cigarette fell, vanished.
Nyx was already on the move, gun out again as she plunged through the forest beating low leafy limbs out of her way. Hippolyta bounded after, reaching for another arrow.
The old man was on his back, making glottal noises and clawing with one hand at the feather-tipped shaft that skewered his Adam's apple. Blood oozed from the wound, a sluggish trickle that would become a gout if the arrow were to be removed.
The penlight touched his face for a fleeting instant, long enough for them both to see the shriveled, yellowish cast to his features, the lank white hair, and the cataracts veiling his eyes. Nyx dropped the penlight when his bunched hand left the wound and wavered toward her. Hippolyta yanked her backward, not wanting her to be touched by that scabrous claw.
An instant later, as if that movement was the final surge of his strength, the old man went limp and died.
"He's blind," Nyx said. "A blind, crazy old man … but he knew our names, Poly. He knew our names!"
The man's other hand was curled into a loose fist and held protectively against his chest. Hippolyta, not without a grimace of distaste, leaned down and used her talons to pry it open. Two roundish objects were cupped in his palm. They were greenish-yellow and slit with black lines.
"Oh, my God." Nyx had retrieved the penlight and saw them too. "Are those …?"
"The eyes of the cat," Hippolyta said. "The cat that was nailed to the door."
The cat's eyes revolved of their own accord in the dead man's hand. The pupils widened, briefly catching the penlight's beam and coming alive in eerie blue-green circles. A hideous chuckle came from the lips of the corpse. It sat up.
Nyx jumped back. Hippolyta stifled an exclamation.
"This old man, he played three," sang the corpse tunelessly. Air bubbled in the blood that was still seeping from the throat wound.
Hippolyta grasped her arrow, kicked out, and the old man slid back off of the impaling length. It left a hole the size of a half-dollar in his neck. A freshet of blood ran down his chest. The cat's eyes rolled free and Nyx stomped them. They popped like grapes. A feline screech, unheard except in the corridors of their own minds, cried out in protest.
Flinging the arrow aside – it felt vile – Hippolyta set another to the string. At point-blank range, she shot it through the old man's seamed and age-spotted forehead. It punched through his skull and nailed his head to the forest floor. His body jerked and writhed, but he was stuck.
"Go!" Hippolyta gave Nyx a shove.
"What about him?"
"Forget him! We must find Sadie or all is in vain!"
They were running, leaving the pinned-in-place corpse behind.
"We're probably already too late," Nyx panted.
"I know."
And yet they kept running. It was a pell-mell headlong plunge down the hillside, wet leaves slapping at them, slick branches scratching. Hippolyta told herself that they were running to the rescue, but in her gut she knew that they were also running from the horrible abomination that the old man had become.
Claiming it to be a rescue effort was the only weak balm they could offer their injured pride. Fear had them now. All they could do was try not to let it rule them.
The lights down in the town's dark heart guided them. They went more carefully now, neither of them speaking of what they might be walking into but both of them keenly aware of it. Danger. Sorcery of the blackest sort.
The rain stopped. Or rather, they came to a place where it was no longer raining. The line of demarcation was clear. It rained in the woods, and not in the center of town. The sky above was still thick with clouds but the ground was dry.
"Look at it," Nyx said. "It's like … I don't know what it's like."
Hippolyta surveyed the town. As before, there were no cars, wires, or other modern conveniences to be seen. A cluster of buildings surrounded a water pump that appeared to be in vintage working order. The streets were cobblestone and hard-packed earth, the buildings made mostly from logs or weathered, unpainted planks. Chimneys and iron stovepipes stuck up from the roofs. There was a wagonwright's shop, and a blacksmith, and a chandler.
"My dad took us on vacation back East when I was a kid," Nyx said. "We went to Colonial Williamsburg or some tourist trap where they had people dressing and acting like it was a couple hundred years ago. That's what this reminds me of."
"Shh." Hippolyta was vigilant, her bow nocked and drawn but held down at her side. Every one of her nerves was singing with apprehension.
Horses. Buggies. A chicken coop with the low and sleepy cackle of hens coming from within. A slat-sided black dog prowling along. Washing that someone had forgotten to bring in, hanging on the line. A plot of land where cornstalks rustled secretively, and fat pumpkins nestled amid slithery tendrils of their vines. A scarecrow overlooked this farm-plot, askew on a pole, straw protruding from the ragged cuffs of its shirt and pants. Its head was a gunnysack with a lumpy, painted face.
"Actually," Nyx whispered, "it more reminds me of Ichabod Crane. We see a headless horseman, Poly, and we're out of here pronto."
"Shh!" She hissed it more urgently.
That scarecrow. Had its head moved to follow them? She could have sworn that it had been turned slightly the other way, empty painted eyes staring off toward the water pump. Now it was facing them. Or was it a trick of perspective?
Hippolyta had a sudden flash of premonition. If she ignored the scarecrow, it would clamber down from its perch and follow them, stealthy but for the scratchy crackle of its straw stuffing. It would come up behind them. Its hands, old work gloves, would close around her throat or Nyx's with a death grip.
She made her decision. The bow swung up, the bowstring twanged, and the missile sliced surely through the air. The steel shaft went through the left breast pocket of the ragged flannel shirt and the sound that she heard wasn't that of an arrow striking straw. Not even the dense-packed bale of a hay target.
The scarecrow lurched and toppled. Its arms caught cornstalks as it fell, bending them. It landed with a heavy thump in the pumpkin patch.
"Wait here," Hippolyta said.
"Screw that, we stick together," Nyx said.
They hopped the fence, a splintery post-and-split-rail affair that had seen better days. The scarecrow was a motionless bundle. Its limbs were twisted in all directions.
"Why'd you kill a scarecrow?" Nyx asked.
"The arrowhead." Hippolyta touched it where it had emerged from the back of the flannel shirt. Her fingers came away red and wet with blood.
Nyx swore. She pulled off the hat, then the gunnysack.
The man was younger than the one whose sing-song taunting had chilled them, but he was still of stocky middle age. His hair was greying and long, his beard was shaggy. In his agape mouth were only half a dozen yellow, crooked teeth. Sores and warts dotted his windblown skin. He was dead. Her shot had stilled his heart instantly, not giving him the chance to cry out.
"I've got to call this in," Nyx said. She gave Hippolyta a look that was mingled fear, dismay, and irritation. "You've killed two men already. I thought Scott talked to you about that! Warn, then subdue … a lethal shot as a last resort only!"
Hippolyta nodded absently. Having to fill out the required paperwork was a necessary evil, but right then she was unconcerned as to how her actions might be looked upon by a police review board. There was procedure, and there was doing what had to be done. Even if neither of the men had done anything to prove themselves a threat, she knew it was only because they hadn't been given the opportunity. One woman was dead and her family was missing. Something had to be done.
"No I.D.," Nyx said. "His clothes are home-made, even his shoes. He's not wearing a watch, either. What the heck is this, some sort of Amish country from hell?"
Not knowing what that meant, Hippolyta did not reply. She went back to the fence and balanced atop two of the posts, peering about.
Something incongruous caught her eye. It was the back bumper of a car, just visible in the open door of a barn. A human would not have been able to see it, so cloaked in deep shadow, but Hippolyta could make out the faint gleam of chrome and a suggestion of taillights.
"Over here," she said, and waited for Nyx to catch up.
They crossed the town. The scrawny black dog growled at them from a distance, and backed off with its lips curled when Hippolyta took a menacing step toward it.
"A car," Nyx said when they were close enough for her eyes to make it out.
Fresh tire tracks and footprints indicated that the vehicle had been pushed, not driven, into the barn. Hippolyta studied the dark interior of the building, paying particular attention to the gloomy loft, while Nyx went to the driver's side and put her face to the window.
"It's the Lorenz car, has to be," she said. "There's a couple of toys in the back seat, a county map, and the tape collection is part romance novel audio books, part heavy metal, and a few kids' sing-alongs. Keys are in the ignition. One of those Lucite rectangles on the keychain. Hang on." She opened the car door. "Family picture. Mom, Dad, teenage boy, little girl."
"No doubt. The woman's the same one we found at the house. This is no good, Poly, no good at all. We should get out of here, wait for Scott before we do anything else."
"Can you, in good faith?"
Nyx sighed and drew her gun again. "No. Let's go find them."
The town was still deserted when they emerged from the garage. Even the dog had disappeared. The light sources they'd seen from up the hill were now defined as candles in the front windows of many of the houses, greasy tallow candles with sputtering wicks. They were unattended, many of them on windowsills with muslin curtains behind them, and it was a miracle that none of the buildings had caught fire. The brightest glow came from the church, and it was with a sort of doom-filled foreknowledge that both Hippolyta and Nyx knew this was where they'd find the people of Dark Hollow.
The church was painted black. The stained-glass windows were bloodred, fiery amber, violet, the stormy blue of an angry sea. The images depicted in the windows were terrible ones: a woman being burned at the stake, naked figures cavorting with a monstrous goat-beast, a baby being roasted on a spit, a scarlet king on an ebony throne, an inverted star surrounded by strange symbols.
Hippolyta was shocked to see gargoyles lining the edges of the roof, but they were only stone carvings. Hideous ones, too, with long lolling forked tongues and demonic horns and impossibly huge and erect male organs.
A low murmur of many voices softly chanting came from within the church.
"Satanists," Nyx breathed. "Devil-worshippers."
"And Sadie must be meant as their sacrifice."
Nyx grabbed her arm. "You're not going to kick in the main doors, charge inside, and start shooting the place up. That'd be suicide, Poly. We've got to think this thing through. We've got to be subtle, or we're as good as dead."
"Up there." Hippolyta indicated a window, an ordinary one with black drapes, above the main doors. A railed ledge, not wide enough to be a balcony but too big to be a sill, ran along the front of the church.
"How? Climb?"
She went over another fence, this one into the graveyard that ringed the church. The headstones bore images of obscene cherubs, hogs with long sharp teeth, goats walking on their hind legs. A quick perusal of the names and dates was enough to make her mouth go dry. Many of them, far more than would seem likely, had died on their birthdays. More all had common dates of death, though the years might differ: June 6th, October 31st.
A rose trellis climbed one side of the church. The blooms on it were withered and brown, but the thorns were still viciously sharp. Hippolyta tore down as much of the rosebushes as she could, and used the trellis like a ladder. The flimsy thing squeaked and swayed beneath her weight, but held long enough for her to reach up and grasp the railing. She hauled herself up and over, and waited on the ledge for Nyx. It would have been easier to glide, even carrying the policewoman, but the landing spot was quite narrow and precarious.
The window opened easily enough. Nyx insisted on going first. Hippolyta followed. They slipped past the curtain and into a cluttered storeroom. Cloth-draped furniture crowded the space, sharing it with a mockery of a Nativity scene in which the mother of the grinning fiend-child was apparently a jackal and the Magi bore a strong resemblance to popular depictions of War, Famine, and Pestilence.
Nyx opened the door. It gave onto a gallery that ran around the interior of the church. Below, the people of Dark Hollow knelt in their pews, heads bowed, garbed in black robes and chanting from red-bound books. To one side, a stocky man was tied and gagged. He had been stripped and badly beaten, and lay on the floor at the feet of two teenagers.
The taller of the two was a handsome boy of perhaps seventeen. He had black hair tipped with crimson, worn shaved on the sides and spiky on the top. His clothes were black, silver rings and studs adorned his fingers, earlobes, lip, eyebrow, and nostril. The girl with him was perhaps of the same age, gorgeous, with a lush body packed into a short red dress and thigh-high red boots. Her hair was platinum-blond, long, shimmery.
Neither of the teens paid attention to the man, except to give him a kick if he groaned too loudly through his gag or struggled too much. They were staring raptly at the altar, which was a plank of raw and sap-bleeding wood supported on the backs of two nude, kneeling women.
Above the altar was a crucifix, hung upside-down. A living creature twined around the carved wooden figure of a bearded man in great evident agony. This creature was a snake yet not a snake. It was long and scaly, its body sinuous, but it had limber legs ending in needle-sharp claws. Its eyes burned with yellow fire as it undulated around the suspended cross.
The chanting ended abruptly as the priest behind the altar raised his arms. He was a strikingly good-looking man, with black hair tied back in a ponytail and dark, commanding eyes. His robe was a simple fall of black silk, open down the front. He was naked beneath it, his body as white and hairless as a Greek sculpture. A black disk covered with white traceries hung from a gold chain around his neck.
Nyx nudged Hippolyta and indicated confusion. Where was the girl? Where was Sadie? The beaten man was her father, and they recognized the tall teenage boy from the family photograph that had been encased in Lucite on the keychain, but they could not see Sadie.
The priest began to speak, his voice rich and rolling. His words were in some bastardized form of Latin that Hippolyta felt she should understand, but she did not. Nor did she particularly wish to. She was sure he spoke of blood and fire, death and sacrifice, cruelty and power.
When his sermon ended, he turned to the girl with the shimmering platinum hair. "Judith," he said. "Bring her to me."
The blonde inclined her head. She paused only long enough to give the boy, who had grown restive, a glance of smoldering sexual promise before heading for a small door.
Hippolyta caught Nyx's eye, silently drawing an arrow. Nyx nodded and held up her gun.
An attendant appeared with a golden chalice. The priest took it, set it upon the altar, and filled it midway with a substance too free-flowing to be blood. Wine, then. He produced a black-bladed dagger and sliced the palm of his left hand, holding it over the goblet as ruby drops fell. His next act was to stand over the chalice and urinate into it. At last, he lifted the chalice to the coiling snake, and coaxed it to milk twin streams of clear venom.
"Andrew Lorenz," he said, as he stirred the noxious mixture with the blade of the knife.
The teenager with the red and black spiked hair straightened up. "Yes, Brother Cain."
"You come among us of your own free will. You bring gifts of sacrifice to our fellowship."
"Step forth."
As the teenager did so, Brother Cain gave a signal to more of his attendants. They hoisted the bound body of Andrew's father and carried him to the altar. The women supporting it on their backs winced as the weight was settled upon the plank, but they did not voice a complaint.
Judith returned then, leading Sadie by the hand. The child, curly brown hair all mussed around her tear-streaked face, was still wearing her damp and muddy Winnie the Pooh nightgown and fuzzy slippers.
"Daddy!" she cried when she saw the man on the altar.
Mr. Lorenz bucked and bumped and made stifled noises in his throat.
"Andy, stop, what are you doing to Daddy?" Sadie wailed.
"To join with our fellowship, you must sever the ties that brought you into this world because they are not of our ways. Your mother is dead?"
"I throttled her with an extension cord," Andrew said.
His father's eyes closed in a paroxysm of grief and horror.
"Take this, and drink," said Brother Cain. "And then with this knife, sever your last tie and you will be one of us. Then you shall induct your sister."
Andrew accepted the offered chalice with its contents of wine, blood, venom and urine. He looked into it dubiously, swirled it, and raised it to his lips. He drank.
Hippolyta fired.
The arrow caromed off the golden cup, knocking it flying from Andrew's hands.
"Nobody move!" Nyx shouted. "Police!"
Brother Cain reacted with uncanny speed. He snatched the knife he'd placed within easy reach of the boy, and poised it against Mr. Lorenz's throat. His white skin was spattered with the liquid that had sprayed from the tumbling goblet, and the arrow had missed him by inches as it streaked past to embed itself in the wall beneath the cross.
"I have him."
She fired again. As quick as Cain was, the knife had only nicked his victim's neck before Hippolyta's arrow found its mark. Cain flew back, the knife spinning away into the crowd. The fletching filled the socket of his left eye, the point jutted from the back of his skull. Another lecture in the making.
The congregation came shrieking to their feet. Nyx fired a warning shot into the ceiling, the report loud as a thunderclap in the enclosed space. Hippolyta dove from the gallery, raining more arrows indiscriminately into the fleeing humans as she bore down on the altar.
Andrew Lorenz saw her coming and screamed. He was soaked with the fluid from the chalice, and looked like someone who had just woken from a dark enthrallment. That did not stop Hippolyta from pinning the matricide's feet to the floor with two well-placed shots.
"Nyx!" she called above the din. "The girl!"
Judith, dragging Sadie, had fled back the way they'd come. As Hippolyta made to go after them, she felt something cold and wet splash across her upper arm. It immediately began to sting.
Venom! The snake had spit at her, and only the way she'd been twisting in flight had prevented it from hitting her in the face, in the vulnerable eyes. Her copper-colored skin was already turning black and seething with blisters.
She pivoted in midair, fighting to hold her arm straight despite the pain as she drew back on her bow once more. The snake-thing launched itself from the upside-down cross, striking at her, leaping at her, uncoiling like a spring. Its fangs glistened.
The jaws yawed wide. She loosed the string.
The arrow plunged into the gaping mouth, straight down the snake-thing's gullet, and tore through the meat of its back somewhere around the hips. A heartbeat later, the creature collided with Hippolyta. Fangs pierced the body armor of her vest and stuck fast. The writhing mass of scaled muscle slammed into her and whipped around her waist with one convulsive movement.
Hippolyta dropped her bow to grapple with the snake. It was working its jaw madly, trying to drive the fangs deeper, trying to get them through the armor to reach her skin. Its claws, short but razor-edged, tore at her legs.
Her glide had become a frantic effort to remain aloft as she and the creature fought. She glimpsed Nyx racing along the upper gallery, gun extended in both arms, shouting at someone – Judith, it had to be – to let the girl go. The panicked congregation heaved this way and that like black-clad sheep in a rocking livestock car.
The snake succeeded in jerking its fangs free of her armor. They flashed again, this time at her face. She interposed her left forearm, with its leather bracer. The fangs hooked over the top and a spurt of venom ran down her front.
She reached around with her other hand. The leading edge of her wing clipped the wagon-wheel chandelier, setting it to swinging and showering hot wax and lit candles onto the people below. No time to worry about that. She wedged her talons into the roof of the snake's mouth and pulled. As its jaw opened, she caught the bottom edge with the other hand.
The heavy body was lashing against her, claws shredding her pants as they scrabbled for purchase. She held the beast at arm's length by the two halves of its head and yanked with all her strength.
Something cracked. The snake flailed. A gruesome tide of watery blood spewed from its mouth. The slick wetness made Hippolyta lose her hold.
As the snake fell, she whipped out with her tail and snared it by the hind leg. A hard spin of her body whirled it out and away to strike the far wall with pulverizing force. It slid down, twitched, and lay still.
She landed on the swinging wagon wheel to catch her breath and regain her bearings. Her wing ached, her skin felt doused in acid, but she was unbitten.
Then she saw the little girl. Judith had Sadie around the neck and was using the child as a shield while she backed toward the door. Nyx was on the gallery, her gun leveled at the blonde. Hippolyta saw the hesitation in her friend's hazel eyes. She did not want to harm the girl.
Fire, Hippolyta thought. You can do it.
It was as if Nyx heard that silent plea. Her finger tightened on the trigger. They had been practicing marksmanship together, until the rest of the officers laughingly referred to them as "dead-eyes," so she knew Nyx could make the most of what little target Judith allowed.
The congregation was not fleeing. They had rallied and just as Nyx shot, they threw themselves bodily against the beam that supported the gallery. The entire wooden structure shook. Nyx's arm jerked. A bullet hole appeared in the doorjamb next to Judith's head.
The blonde cast a feral sneer Nyx's way and bolted. Hippolyta took off from her unsteady perch, swooping low, wings swept back. She could see Sadie, the brown eyes brimming with terror.
Brother Cain rose up in front of her. His face was a bloody mask, the arrow still protruding from his eye socket. She could not veer aside in time and slammed into him.
They went down together, tumbling over the struggling bound form of Mr. Lorenz. The altar plank was abandoned, its supports having joined the crowd, but Andrew was still rooted to the spot. He seemed to be trying to muster the courage to rip the arrows from his feet.
Hands closed around her throat. Thumbs dug into her windpipe. She was looking up into the maimed face of Brother Cain. No new blood was flowing and she understood him to be dead, dead but still horrifically animate and bent on finishing her.
Nyx cried out in alarm. The congregation had gone to work on the beams with a will, and the entire gallery was about to come down. Nyx fell against the rail as the entire thing tilted. She hit it with her hipbones and flipped over. A sea of black robes closed around her. Gunshots – one, two, a third – were muffled by the press of bodies.
Hippolyta drew her legs up as far as she could, then pistoned them out in a single raking kick. Her hindclaws tore Brother Cain from chest to thighs in long bloodless strips even as he was thrown up and off. His fingernails left strips of their own on the sides of her neck as he lost his grip.
He landed on his back beneath the inverted crucifix. Hippolyta noticed how it was wobbling, the destruction of the gallery having sent shockwaves through the whole structure. She charged the wall with her shoulder. The pain was like an explosive charge, but she barely cared as she watched the blunt end of the crucifix flatten Brother Cain's head into paste.
She saw her bow and snatched it up. Seconds later, arrows were whistling toward the congregation. When she had fired her quiver empty, she waded in. Her eyes were ablaze, her strength felt tenfold as she tossed humans through the air like so many rag dolls.
At the bottom of their heap, she found Nyx. She was dazed and hurt, half her clothing in rags, but she was coherent.
The rafters groaned. The wagon wheel chandelier suddenly let go its chain and crushed two black-robed people beneath it. Some of the fallen candles had started fires, which were spreading and giving off plumes of smoke.
"The whole thing's coming down," Nyx coughed.
"Get Lorenz," Hippolyta said. "I'll go after the child."
Nyx headed that way. Hippolyta dashed to the door through which Judith had taken Sadie. It gave first onto a little room where she presumed that the priests attired themselves. There were robes hanging on pegs, at any rate. Another door stood open on the crisp autumn night. A filthy bedroom slipper, orange and black with a stuffed tiger's head, had come to rest against a gravestone.
Before, she had remembered Corwin's lesson about throwing caution to the winds in these sorts of blind pursuits. She did not completely disregard that now, but she still went through the door with a brand of ready recklessness. If Judith were lurking there and tried to stop her, that would be one young human who'd soon learn the error of her ways.
But she could see Judith, and Sadie. They were at the fence that ran around the churchyard, Judith spitting curses as she tried to manhandle Sadie over. Why she kept the girl when she could have fled faster without her was a question that Hippolyta did not have time to ponder.
She was out of arrows, but did not let that slow her in the slightest. A leap took her to the top of a tall marble monument and then she was aloft.
Judith wrested Sadie over the fence, the child losing her other slipper in the process, and slung her over her shoulder in a fireman's carry.
Hippolyta swooped low, and at the bottom of her arc she grabbed Sadie as neatly as if she'd plucked a fish from a stream. Before Judith could react, Hippolyta was soaring high, shifting Sadie around.
"Hold tight," she said to the child.
Sadie's little arms wrapped snug around Hippolyta's neck.
"Here we go."
She looped about and descended fast. Sadie screamed. Her hair blew straight up, her nightgown rippled.
Judith heard the cry, turned, looked up.
Hippolyta backwinged like a striking hawk. Her heels collided with Judith's chest. The blonde was knocked off her feet, legs flipping up. The back of her head struck a gravestone. She came to rest sprawled atop the grave.
Still holding the little girl, Hippolyta skimmed the tops of the other gravestones and touched down outside the fence. She saw Nyx and Mr. Lorenz coming toward them, on either side of the staggering, limping Andrew. The boy's hands were cuffed behind his back, and the arrows were gone from his feet. His father did not look much better off and Hippolyta remembered something about disability, a bad back, and Lorenz needing to walk with a cane.
Stained-glass exploded in a tinkling cough. The church was in flames, smoke pouring from the doors and windows. Several black-robed people were running from the scene. Many were wounded, bleeding. Some had arrows still sticking out of their bodies.
No one paid the least bit of attention to the group that met on the far side of the churchyard. Hippolyta set Sadie down and smiled as the little girl flung herself at her father. "Daddy, Daddy," Sadie sobbed. Mr. Lorenz, naked and bruised, his wrists and ankles abraded from his bonds, seemed oblivious to anything else as he hugged his daughter.
"You brought the boy," Hippolyta said, looking at Andrew.
"I couldn't leave him there. The place was on fire and about to –"
The collapse of the roof interrupted Nyx. A gout of flames and sparks belched high into the air. The stone gargoyles teetered, some falling over backwards to vanish in the inferno, others pitching headfirst into the graveyard where they cracked into pieces.
Andrew's gaze settled on Judith's corpse. He made a miserable noise.
"He swears it wasn't his fault," Nyx said. She held up what Hippolyta first took to be a length of cord. Then she identified it as a long thin plait made of strands of human hair. Flaxen-blonde human hair. "He was wearing this around his neck. A present from Judith."
"Ensorcellment," Hippolyta said. She took the hair, snapped the plait, and cast it to the earth. She stomped on it.
"Say again?"
"A spell. She bewitched him."
"We'll let his defense lawyer worry about how to phrase that one."
"How did you free him?"
Nyx grinned, not without a touch of malice. "Snapped off the arrowshafts just above his feet and gave a good pull. He's bleeding like a stuck pig, so he'll need a doctor."
"I loved her," Andrew said, still looking at the lifeless Judith. "I thought she loved me, too."
"We'd best be on our way," Hippolyta said. "'Ere the locals return with reinforcements."
But still, no one troubled them as they made their way to the barn where the Lorenz's car was hidden. Mr. Lorenz was in no state to drive so he sat in the passenger seat with Sadie on his lap while Hippolyta belted Andrew in the back. She sat beside him, her body at an angle, ready to give him a thrashing if he proved foolish enough to try anything. Nyx got behind the wheel.
The church was fully engulfed. A silent ring of spectators stood around it. They did not try to rush in and rescue anyone, although a few voices still screamed and begged for help from within. Nor did they take action to extinguish it. They only stood, and watched it burn.
As Nyx drove, Frank Lorenz told them what had happened. He and his wife had become worried when Andrew wasn't home by ten, as promised. When midnight had come, and Sally was resting on the couch trying to forestall another of her migraines, he had abandoned his study where he'd been balancing the checkbook and watching The Tonight Show to go and look for Andrew. They knew he'd been seeing a girl from Dark Hollow.
At first, like any teenager rudely uprooted and taken away from his school and friends, he'd claimed to hate the move and the new house and everything associated with it. Then he'd met Judith. The complaints stopped, but his personality had undergone another change. A darker, frightening one. Sally was afraid Judith had gotten Andrew hooked on drugs. Frank had heard of Brother Cain and wondered if his son might have gotten mixed up with a cult.
Not wanting to upset Sally further, Frank had decided to go out alone and look for the boy. He'd been on his way out when Sadie appeared, sleepy-eyed and scared. He told her he was just going to look for Andrew, and that he wanted her to stay put and take care of Mom.
He had gotten in the car and driven into town. But it wasn't the same. They'd only been living in Dark Hollow for a few weeks and did all their shopping in Trinity Bay because there simply wasn't much to choose from in Dark Hollow. But he had been there a few times. Never staying long because something about the place didn't seem right. Still, it had been normal enough outwardly. There was electricity, and there were cars, and the people kept to themselves but dressed like anyone else.
Until that night. He'd reached the middle of town and seen just what Nyx and Hippolyta had. No power lines. No phones. No televisions. A town that might have been transplanted from an earlier era. The church, which had been a slightly run-down but otherwise ordinary building, turned black and gargoyle-adorned.
They had surrounded him as soon as he got out of the car. He didn't remember much of the rest until he'd regained his senses in the church, tied up and sore all over from being beaten. At first, he'd tried to talk to the congregation. He pleaded, threatened, cajoled, and got no response. After a while of that, Andrew and Judith had come in with Sadie.
"So they went to the house," Nyx said. "Found your wife there …"
"Is she dead?" Frank Lorenz asked. "Is my Sally really dead?"
"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but yes."
"Just like he said. He killed her. Didn't he?" Lorenz turned in his seat. Sadie had fallen asleep against his chest, thumb in her mouth. His red-rimmed eyes fixed on Andrew. "You killed your mother!"
Andrew hung his head. He presented the very picture of abject wretchedness but Hippolyta felt not even the tiniest urge to speak up for him. Ensorcelled, perhaps. Seduced into the fellowship by Judith, won over by Brother Cain's dark charisma, but she suspected that Andrew Lorenz had been a willing participant. He had known, spell or no spell, what he was getting into.
Nyx was right. It was for his lawyer to work out. But sitting beside the boy, feeling his evil radiating off him, Hippolyta momentarily wished that instead of nailing his feet to the floor of the church, she'd sunk those arrows into his worm-raddled heart. Or that Nyx had left him to burn.
"Sadie must have called us right after you left," Nyx said. "And they showed up just when she got off the phone. Snatched her."
"And left 'this old man' to watch over the house," Hippolyta said. "Which they marked of their black sorcery with the dead cat."
Lorenz was weeping softly, cradling Sadie to him. Andrew stared out the window at the passing scenery, redwoods shrouded in rain and darkness.
The car was quiet for a while, Nyx hunched over the wheel as she concentrated on the road. This would be no time to get lost. Not in Dark Hollow. Hippolyta was sure that they could withstand anything that might happen by night, but if day came and she turned to stone, Nyx would be alone. True, the dangers of the town probably diminished by day, but there was still Andrew to consider.
She saw lights ahead. The steady bright disks of headlights, the revolving red and blue of emergency flashers. The vehicles blocked the road. Nyx slowed, stopped, and got out cautiously. And here, there were streetlights. Not many, looming in the darkness each with a single cyclopean eye, but there had been none before. She was sure of it.
"We've come out," Nyx said with relief.
Scott James was there, with Marty Arnes and others from Trinity Bay. Hippolyta stayed where she was to keep an eye on Andrew but she could hear them through the glass. They'd tried to get into Dark Hollow and couldn't. Each time they passed the crossroads – this was where Book Street met Dark Hollow Road, if the signs were any indication – they'd find themselves going in the opposite direction as if something had picked them up and turned them around. They had found Nyx's cruiser at the Lorenz place, found Mrs. Lorenz and the cat on the door. No mention was made of the old man in the woods.
Andrew, his feet bandaged, was put in the back of a cruiser. His father and sister were turned over to Marty Arnes for a trip to Trinity Bay's small hospital. Marty took one look at the condition Nyx and Hippolyta were in and ordered them to follow right along. They assured him they would, and the ambulance drove away.
The rain had eased up some, falling now with a gentle whisper instead of the hard punishing roar. It was soothing on the spots where the venom had blistered her flesh, cool on her face. Hippolyta closed her eyes and let it wash over her.
"Will we be long at the hospital?" she asked.
Nyx had been trying to tell Scott what had happened, while he peppered her with questions. They both looked at her.
"Why?" Scott asked.
She opened one eye and regarded him. "Because I am going to have much paperwork for all the men I shot."
"Holy shit," Scott said, and swiped rainwater from his forehead. "How many?"
"Shot and killed? At least three. Shot and wounded? I did not keep count of those. And there was the girl whose neck broke when I kicked her into a gravestone."
"For God's sake, Hippolyta!"
"There was none of your God in Dark Hollow tonight," she said, now pinning him with the steely gaze of both eyes. "If there was some other god in attendance, it was not one you want around."
"We might have to gloss this one over, Scott," Nyx said. "Our only witnesses are Lorenz and the little girl, and I don't think either of them is going to be able to remember the details. Luckily for them! The kid killed his mother, some Satantic thing, we can even blame it on his taste in music if you like, but maybe we better leave Dark Hollow out of it."
"We can't do that, Nyx."
"Who's going to believe the truth?"
"What happens when half the residents of Dark Hollow pop up, claiming that a couple of Trinity Bay police officers went on a rampage and burned the church?" he countered.
Hippolyta snorted. "To come forward is to admit they were a part of it. I doubt me that any of them will."
"She's right," Nyx said. "They're not going to want this to get out any more than we do. Let's just leave it at that, Scott. It's for the best."
"I don't like it," he said. "People will talk."
"It's still Trinity Bay," Nyx said. "Stranger things have happened."
"Stranger than this?" Hippolyta broke in. "Now, hold a moment! Lo these past months I've heard many a tale of this town, and none have come close to what I've seen tonight."
Scott and Nyx exchanged a wry glance.
"Well," said Scott, "that's Trinity Bay for you, Hippolyta. Just when you think you've seen it all …" He shrugged.
"Yeah," Nyx said. "One of these days, we might even tell you about the werewolves."
"They weren't werewolves per se," Scott said, aggrieved. "How many times do I have to –"
"Cease," Hippolyta said. "I beg of you. Let us just be done with this place. I hurt, I'm hungry, and I've run out of arrows. Let more stories wait until some other night."
"Fair enough," Scott said. He opened the doors of his cruiser. "Hop in, ladies, and we'll go pick up your car."


The End

copyright 2002 / Christine Morgan / christine@sabledrake.com