Being possessed by a familiar isn’t all bad. I mean, it comes with some pretty impressive abilities. Don’t get me wrong, Isabelle can be a major pain in my ass at times. But she’s also hyper-aware of our surroundings.
Annabelle! Watch out! Isabelle screamed, her voice echoing from within my mind. A split second later a figure stepped out in front of my Camaro. I slammed the brakes, cranking the wheel hard to the right. Spraying gravel struck the underside of my car. A thud against the passenger side quarter panel suggested that I’d failed in my attempt to miss the moron who’d stepped in front of the car.
“Are you okay?” I tilted my head. It was my graduation party, but Ashley was the one who had too much to drink. Just a few minutes earlier she was singing, loudly, to the tune of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
I’m partial to the oldies. But now, she was unresponsive. I grabbed my phone and paused my playlist, silencing Axl Rose mid-shriek, before punching the lump of flesh that vaguely resembled my sister in the shoulder.
“Huh?” was Ashely’s only response before rolling back over in her seat. She wasn’t going to be of much help in this situation.
She was fine, relatively speaking.
It took a second for my mind to recognize what had happened. I’d hit someone! Shit…
I reached for the door handle, praying that I hadn’t killed anyone.
Wait, Isabelle urged. There’s something unusual here…
“You mean, of the supernatural sort?” I asked. Ever since my family had been attacked by a few supernatural baddies when I was nine, my sister and I had become a sort of two-girl paranormal investigation team. We were damn good at it, too. And we’d seen our share of insidious creatures. Whatever this was, particularly with Isabelle’s powers at my disposal, I was sure I could handle it.
Yeah, Isabelle said. But I don’t recognize its aura… this is something new.
New wasn’t a word typically used to describe anything supernatural. Most of the things we encountered were ancient, predating human history. “What do you mean by new?”
It’s not like anything I’ve ever encountered… at least not recently.
“Is it human?”
Sort of human was my jam. Most of what we encountered—vampires, zombies, demon-possessed Ouija boarders, ghosts—they were all sort of human. At least they’d started that way.
“If it’s human at all, I can’t leave it on the side of the road,” I said. “We have to help.”
Just be careful, Isabelle said. With your adrenaline pumping this hard, I don’t think I’d be able to take over if things get nasty.
Isabelle was the source of my power. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t helpless when I was in charge. I could access most of her abilities. They were just turned down a bit. And I could only access her magica in limited quantities. I was more than capable in most circumstances, but it was nothing compared to the kick-assery we were capable of when Isabelle held the reins. Letting her take over came with a cost, though. It was hard to maintain. A little emotion, something startling, and I’d be back in charge, only with a raging headache that would leave me useless, like a pile of mush, for the next several hours.
Still, I could handle most of your run-of-the-mill supernatural nasties without much problem. Not to mention, whatever it was didn’t appear to be moving. Its body was lying prostrate about ten feet in front of the car.
I nudged Ashley again, but she still hadn’t regained any of her wits.
“Think we could use some healing energies to sober her up?” I asked Isabelle. Ashley didn’t have any powers herself, but she was hella resourceful in situations like this. When it came to magical trinkets and shit like that… not even a Shaman could do better. And she’d learned from the best of them.
Not the best idea, Isabelle said. I’d hate for you to blow your load before we know what we’re facing.
I chuckled a bit since I was reasonably sure Isabelle had no clue what blowing one’s load actually meant—she’d been born a slave girl… owned by my ancestors, in fact. You’d think that would make things awkward between us, but we’d been together long enough that the “past” wasn’t so much a barrier to our relationship as the present. Isabelle’s phrasing aside, she had a point. Trying to sober Ashley up would take more power than you’d think. Healing spells were tricky. It wasn’t the degree of healing that took the most power, it was how extensive the injury was, how much of the body was affected. In most instances. A single hole blown in the chest was easier to heal, frankly, than trying to purge someone’s entire system of alcohol. Isabelle wasn’t wrong. It might take every drop of magica I could access to pull it off. And I still might fall short.
I took a deep breath. “Well, here goes nothing.” I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the door. The crunch of gravel beneath my feet seemed louder than I’d expected. When you’re nervous, almost every sound is amplified.
I approached the body. I almost hit myself for thinking “body.” You speak of bodies when someone is dead. Experiencing the real-world edition of I Know What You Did Last Summer wasn’t how I hoped to spend the next few months.
I cautiously approached the… person. “Sense anything more, Isabelle?”
Not really… I mean, this is pretty weird.
“What do you mean?”
The aura… most of it is average, normal human. Typical teenage male stuff, a lot of hormones.
“Not anything I can’t handle.” I chuckled. “But he’s alive?”
“But there’s something more…”
“You can’t nod in my head, Isabelle… I can’t hear you.”
Yeah, sorry… it’s incredibly powerful, but its hold on him, its aura is separate. It’s like whatever it is had only started to try to take control of him.
“So we’re talking a possession?” I asked.
Of a sort…
I released a sigh. A simple possession. Exorcisms were one of my strengths… our strengths, rather. Isabelle gets a bit snippy when I don’t give her the credit due. I reached into my will and tried to draw enough power to expel whatever nasty creature had managed to latch itself to the boy.
But then everything went cold.
“What the hell, Isabelle?” I asked.
Sorry, I had to cut you off.
“What for?” I said, slightly perturbed.
You don’t want to exorcise something if you don’t know what it is. You don’t know what it could do, you know, once it leaves the host.
“Well, I’m a little short on options here. I can’t leave him like this.”
I reached down and touched the boy’s forehead. His skin was cold—but not “corpse” cold. I wanted to roll him off of his back and onto his side. In my experience, the last thing you want to do with someone possessed is have them lying on their back. Vomit inevitably accompanies most possessions, and ensuring that the boy’s airway would remain free of today’s half-digested dinner was a necessary priority. But the boy had just been broadsided by my car. I’d seen my share of medical dramas—I knew enough to realize moving someone with a potential neck injury was a bad idea.
He wasn’t a bad-looking boy. Probably my age, though it’s hard to tell with boys. Puberty seems to strike at different times. This boy was baby-faced with dark black skin. I mean, about as black as black can get. His tight jeans and tucked-in plaid shirt suggested he might not be entirely in-tune with American culture. I hate to make assumptions based on appearance alone. I mean, he might just have zero sense of style. But I suspected he might have been an immigrant. An exchange student, maybe. He just had that I’m-not-from-around-here vibe.
With my thumb, I gently lifted the boy’s left eyelid. I gasped.
His eyes were pure black. No iris at all. It was like his pupil had dilated so much that it took over his entire eyeball.
“Well, that’s not normal,” I declared. The possessed often have some dilation, but this was off the charts.
With pupils like that, he should have been able to see everything, even in the dark.
“Then why walk out in front of the car? I mean, my headlights were on. There’s no way he did this by accident.”
“What’s going on?” asked a familiar voice from the direction of the car.
“Ashley!” I shouted as my sister clung to the hood of my car to maintain her balance. “I’ve got this. Get back in the car!”
“No way, sis!” she said, stumbling in my direction. “Holy shit! You hit someone! You should have let me drive!” Ashley giggled, covering her gaping mouth with one of her well-manicured hands.
“Ashley, get back in the car,” I said, more curtly this time. I wasn’t in the mood for her drunken bullshit.
“Sweet!” Ashley said. “This dude’s possessed!”
Don’t get me wrong, I got my own thrill out of supernatural encounters. It was mildly addicting. But you never showed it. Not when you were sober, anyway. We were serious paranormal investigators.
I raised my voice. “There’s nothing you can do to help. Not like this.”
Before I could continue, Ashley shrieked.
Instinctively I turned to the boy. His eyes were both open—completely black.
Annabelle, get back! Isabelle’s voice practically exploded my cranium.
I leapt to my feet and jumped back a pace. Flight usually takes precedence over my instinct to fight when I don’t know what’s happening.
Before Isabelle could stop me, I released a torrent of energies at the boy.
He inhaled, drawing it in.
“What the fuck…”
“Delicious,” a deep, gravelly voice answered, one too deep to belong to a boy of his age. “And curious…”
“Tell me your name, demon!” I shouted, trying to hide my complete shock at the fact that the creature seemed to feed off my spell. That spell… it was almost always an instantaneous exorcism. At least when dealing with the lower-level demons.
Whatever it was within the boy laughed. “I’ll give you my name, if you give me your number.”
Being flirted with by a demon wasn’t unusual. I’d yet to meet a single one who wasn’t a blatant misogynist. Or a perv.
“You wish you could get these digits,” I said, taunting the creature. “But you couldn’t handle this.” Most priests would warn against taunting a demon. But the Church’s rites took time to work. My spells worked immediately. In my experience, egging a demon on was the best way to rend him vulnerable. If I could make him lose his focus, for even a short moment, a well-timed spell could rattle the demon loose from its host.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the demon cackled. “You’re doable. But not my type. I’m more into blonds.” The demon looked at my sister. Clearly she was the one he had in mind.
“I hate to be the one to break the news to you,” I said, “but she isn’t a natural blond…”
“Do you think I care about what’s natural?”
The demon had a point, I suppose. I should have known better. Still, I was trying to distract him.
Be careful, Annabelle…
I ignored Isabelle’s voice. I didn’t want to give anything away. It’s one thing for a demon to see me cast a spell——chances are he’d think I was a Druid, since my magica was remarkably Druid-like in flavor. If he knew what my power really came from, though… Well, I don’t know how he might use that against me. When dealing with demons, it’s best to hold your cards as close to the chest as possible.
“Let the boy go!” I demanded.
“In exchange for what?” the demon responded. “The boy made a bargain, fair and square.”
A bargain… It was almost too cliché. But most demons don’t make bargains. That would presume at least some kind of negotiation. “What did he do? Lose in a battle of fiddles?”
“That only happens in Georgia,” the creature responded. “Besides, the fiddle isn’t my style. Though I once agreed to a rock-off with Tenacious D.”
A demon with an appreciation for old-school comedic rock duos? “Must’ve sucked when they smacked you with greatest song in the world… I’ve heard the tribute.”
Not just a demon, Isabelle said. I mean, he is, but he’s something more. Not sure what it is… try to keep him talking.
I paused a split second—it was a moment too long. Enough to rouse the creature’s suspicions.
“Your tit for tat is weak,” the whatever-it-was said. “Almost as weak as the magic you pretend to wield.”
“Pretend?” I said, feigning offense. In truth, very little offends me. Paranormal investigation isn’t for snowflakes.
“Your magic,” the creature said, “has a distinct flavor about it. Ahh, I can sense it… two girls at once, all in one body. Not a bad way to end a Friday night.”
Shit… he suspected that I wasn’t alone.
Don’t admit to anything, Isabelle said.
“Sorry, you aren’t my type,” I said.
“Too dark? You racist.” The creature sneered.
“More like too evil!” Ashley interrupted, hurling a vial of holy water at the creature.
“Ashley, no!” I shouted. Holy water would only work against a demon. Anything else, it would only escalate the situation.
The vial shattered over the boy’s face. The creature within him forced a broad grin that strained the limits of the boy’s mouth.
“A feisty one, she is!” the creature shouted before releasing a raucous laugh and licking the moisture from his lips. “Thanks for the drink.”
I reacted promptly, releasing a second purging spell while his attentions were turned toward Ashley. It wouldn’t be enough to break the “bargain” that supposedly bound this creature to the boy—but it might be enough to lure him out, to give him enough of a smart that Ashley, if she managed to get her wits about her, could nail him with a salt pellet.
I wasn’t sure if the spell worked——it was the same one I’d cast before with no effect. Still, the creature was putting on a good show, at the very least, to give me the impression that it had. The boy’s body dropped to its knees, his back arched. His neck whipped back——enough he’d definitely need to see a chiropractor in the morning. With the roar of a freight train, a violent black cloud poured from the boy’s mouth.
The black cloud struck me, attempting to make its way in. Isabelle pushed back.
Seat’s taken! Isabelle screamed from within my mind. I never should have let her see Forrest Gump.
The cloud retreated a bit, hovering in silence in thin air for a moment before decidedly turning toward my sister. Apparently, she’d picked up on my signal. She snatched the pellet gun from beneath the passenger seat of the Camaro and fired a salt pellet at the cloud of smoke. But the creature was immune, striking Ashley with a violent force. I looked, jaw-dropped in horror, as the black cloud of smoke forced itself into her mouth, nostrils and ears.
“Aw, hell no!” I shouted. “Leave her alone!”
Ashley would have warded herself against this kind of thing if she’d been sober. She wasn’t at all on her A game.
Ashely’s eyes turned black.
The creature had taken her. Still, I didn’t have time to freak out or panic. At least now, whatever it was, it wasn’t bound to her by a bargain. If I’d been able to coax the creature out of the boy, luring him out of Ashley should be easy… strictly speaking.
I tried to muster another spell, but I was tapped out.
This isn’t good…
“Ya think?” I hushed my voice, trying to be discreet about the fact that I was responding to Isabelle.
He knows I’m here. He has access to Ashley’s memories.
“So he knows everything,” I replied to Isabelle, recognizing that at this point keeping up any kind of ruse was pointless.
“How unique.” The same raspy voice that he’d used while speaking for the boy spoke from my sister’s mouth. “How does it feel to be the product of an abortion?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m not talking to you, Anna.”
“It’s Annabelle.” I narrowed my eyes. I hated it when people tried to shorten my name.
The creature smirked. If he had access to my sister’s mind, he clearly knew calling me Anna would annoy me. He was trying to get under my skin.
He’s talking to me…
“That’s right. Isabelle, isn’t it? You’d intended to claim this body for your own, but someone else intervened.”
“Not true,” I protested. “Not completely…”
Don’t listen to him, Isabelle said. He only knows what Ashley knows… nothing more. He’s trying to drive a wedge between us.
“Is it any wonder that you two can’t ever get along? Such a shame, fused together in a single body for the rest of your lives…”
On that front, the creature was right. Isabelle and I didn’t get along… not well. It could be downright miserable at times.
“I could relieve you both of this burden,” the creature said. “I could untangle your souls.”
“That’s not possible,” I said.
“It was a Loa’s magic that melded you together,” the creature said. “Only a Loa’s magic could separate you. You need only make a simple bargain.”
I looked around. We were standing at a crossroads. And he was a Loa? My stomach dropped. I knew there was something familiar about all this. For years, Isabelle and I studied the Loa. Learning about them… never encountering one. Not since that night nine years ago… the night of the attack.
Don’t trust him. There’s bound to be a catch. There always is…
“What are the terms you propose?” I was already resolved not to take him up on his offer, no matter how enticing it might seem. Still, in my experience, with demons at least, the more I could get them to talk, the better. With little more than book knowledge to guide me, I assumed a similar tactic with the Loa: make him talk, learn what you can, let him think you’re enticed by his offers.
Annabelle, no! Don’t even listen!
“I can free you of your unfortunate… cohabitation… but I must lay claim to her soul. She will belong to me.”
I wanted to roll my eyes—but I was still trying to give the Loa the impression that I was considering his offer. In truth, it wasn’t much of an offer. It wasn’t that I liked Isabelle that much, personally, and there was something tempting about letting her go. The powers are great and all, but you never have an ounce of privacy when your head has another soul churning about in it. I couldn’t do a damn thing without her moralizing it. She was like a cartoon angel constantly perched on one shoulder… but I didn’t need a demon on my other to balance her out. My own nature was mischievous enough. Sometimes a girl just wants to live, ya know? Still, you don’t share a body with another soul for nine years without developing some kind of affection for one another. She could be a thorn in my side… but give her over to this creature? Yeah, that wasn’t about to happen.
“What would you do with her?” I asked.
“It isn’t your concern,” the creature replied.
“It is, if you’re going to get me to agree to this bargain you’re proposing.”
“Very well…” The creature’s smirk looked out of place on Ashley’s face. It wasn’t an expression Ashley would make. “Even as I possess the only power that can free you from your possession, my soul, too, is bound to another… and it is only the power she wields that can grant me my independence.”
“So you’re looking for a straight trade? My freedom for yours?” I asked.
“It is the fairest bargain I have ever proposed to a mortal.”
“But you still didn’t answer my question. What would this bargain do to Isabelle?”
“I’d free her, once she freed me. She could rest in peace.”
The Loa was doing his best to sell me on the deal. On the surface, it seemed fair enough. But why was he “bound” to begin with? If the magic Isabelle possessed had bound him, there had to be a good reason. I couldn’t risk freeing some kind of cosmic villain on the universe, no matter what he promised.
The magic of Annwn is meant for life. If it was used to imprison this Loa in some way, life itself had to be in the balance…
I turned my head and coughed twice. It was a signal I often used to let Isabelle know I heard her. In the past we used a number of random passphrases and gestures. Some of the classics included the phrase “inverted nipples,” picking my left nostril, and a double-slap on my own right butt cheek. As one might imagine, though, these signals often led to awkward social moments. While it was less entertaining——for either of us—the double cough over my right shoulder was subtle enough that it sufficed without the risk of embarrassment.
If I could just get him to talk a little longer, get him to think I’m considering it, my magic might recharge just enough to try one more spell.
At least that was the plan before a loud rumble accompanied by the brightest headlights I’d ever seen came hurtling over the hill, on the opposite side of the crossroads from where I’d come.