Courting Witchcraft

 

Monarchy of America: Book 2

by Thomas Gondolfi

1—Thursday, May 3, 1888

“Stella, watch the tail, damn it all!” the barrel-chested Carlos barks. Blood runs down his forehead before taking a radical right turn at his eyebrow ridge and dripping down his sideburns. The cut is at the center of a palm-shaped bruise that covers most of the right side of his face. A hellfighter gets these kinds of injuries almost every time we struggle to put a demon back in place, which lately has been almost a daily event.

“Which one,” I snap back, using my earth magic to reshape the stone wall to give me a half roof of protection against a flailing appendage as big around as a hogshead. The demon we are fighting reminds me of a monstrous beaver with four prehensile tails in place of the wide, flat one. But then a beaver usually tops out at three feet. With tusks instead of the classic rodent overbite, this one stands twelve feet high without getting off its forelegs.

“Raquel, tighten your hedgerow,” Carlos orders. Carlos de Aldana is the leader of our team. His heavily pockmarked face should be called ugly, but I find it reassuring when the chips are down.

Raquel Ruiz is a nature witch who most everyone calls Menaj or Menagerie because she always has one or more critters hanging around her, often nesting in her long, wild hair. Now, her wall of vines and bushes closes in on the arse end of the hellspawn, limiting the movement of its tails.

Maxwell Parker comes over and lays his hands on Carlos’s back. A glow from his white witch powers at least seals the boss’s cut.

“Thanks, Max.”

“You’re welcome, jefe.” Even though he is aged twenty-eight years, Maxwell Parker has the cracking voice of an adolescent teen boy. He once mentioned he’d lost a consistent tone in his voice as a child when chicken pox covered him so severely he nearly died. His vocal cords had been permanently damaged, for when he talks, it squeaks and breaks.

“I WILL SUP ON YOUR HEART AND DRINK BLOOD FROM YOUR SKULL,” the monster says. It really isn’t like talking; rather, it puts the thoughts directly into your head. Even in the loudest steam plant, you can’t not hear a demon who isn’t interned.

Steam. Power. That is what brings us to summon demons to our world. Their bodies produce massive quantities of heat to boil water. While not as prevalent as the use of coal, demons are becoming more and more common. The initial costs are higher, but their upkeep is nil. What we hellfighters do is deal with the ones that get free, like this joda in front of us.

The beast moves to my left. I’m playing right wall so I co-opt my stonework to move left to match its stride. As my stone wall slides along with the massive demon, I catch sight of a pair of stubby, almost vestigial wings on its back. Everyone else must have missed them.

“Bloody demon has wings!” I shout. With the tiny stubs it has on its back, it probably can’t fly fast, but any ability to just float off into the sky matters as we enter the final phase to reinter it. We must make sure it just doesn’t flap off to find a new place to wreak havoc.

Without missing a beat, Carlos switches our team around the way a conductor gets more from an orchestra by his baton movements. “Maxwell, take Donny’s place as bait. Donny, you have the sky.” Donny O’Sullivan, with hair as red as his name implies, slides behind Raquel’s hedgerow. With water powers, his typical role is as one of the two people that take turns taunting the demon. Because we need another side to our box, he has to change up. I think Carlos would have rather used our other baiter to keep the demon from flying away, but Bea Media is just too new to our team to understand such a shift easily. She is an ice witch just over from Spain.

Maxwell says, taking up his new duties, “‘Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.'” The scripture sends a flare of goodness hitting the beast just in the right nostril.

“AND MAY SATAN LUNCH ON YOUR TESTICLES, SCUM!” it roars back as it lunges away from Bea toward him. It takes four ponderous steps before Bea, bless her, follows through with a cone of snow and ice that strikes the beast’s ear.

“GOAT CONCUBINE!” it screams, turning to lumber toward her again.

Demons are notorious for their inability to look beyond the present. Whoever is hurting them at that precise moment receives their attentions. By using this fact, a team of hellfighters has an easy task, relatively speaking, to allow the beast to go exactly where we want it to with judicious prods. My team, the Dos Campanas, or Two Bells, is the best, at least in the Boston area. We take our name from the two differently toned bells of the Mission Church that we use to message the team on the location of any loosed demons.

“We only have another ten feet. Can you guys hold him while I set up the pentagram?” I ask.

“We got it, Stella,” Carlos says to me after catching the eye of each of the other team members. Despite the cry of the earth that it does not belong in a curl like a tsunami, I leave my twelve-foot cobblestone and brick wall in place.

In the failing evening light, I look at the exploded basement beneath with a certain amount of dread. For nearly a month after the demise of Baron Snowdonia and the end of his plot to release hellspawn to cause chaos and destruction in Boston, we had no demon escapes. Then they restarted in earnest but with one deadly difference.

“Please, Lord, make this a clean one. I pray not just for my own personal preference but for the life of some poor soul.”

As I get closer to the dark hole, I smell that my prayers have not been answered. Issuing forth from the orifice is the odor from holding a penny tight in your hand during the summer. The bitter tang of an overripe privy follows quickly on its heels.

I pull a metal lamp from my carpetbag. I’ve taken to carrying the oversized tote instead of a purse so I could bring a change of clothes. Many a dress had been burned, ripped, or torn asunder in this vocation. With all the callouts the last few weeks, I need to be able to cover myself in case of an accident.

Using a match, the oil-impregnated cord catches and provides a modicum of light. The reek of spilled intestines is overbearing in the murky cellar. Slithering into the hole, I urge the rock into a smoother shape to minimize at least the physical damage to my outer dress. It won’t save me from the red stains that are sure to follow. Blood drips from the ceiling joists, and bits of flesh peel off the walls to land in the greater puree that had been a human. The majority of the body, sans legs or much in the way of a gut, lies propped up against the remnants of a wooden staircase. It is much more intact than we’ve found in any other such case.

Morbidly curious, I move closer, only to see not the macabre grimace of death on the victim’s face but a beatific smile. That frightens me more than the gore that drips on my neck and down the back of my dress. He holds a strand of metal wire in his right hand that leads two feet away to its broken end. His fingertips have some odd, black calluses on them that weren’t done by any demon.

“Stella, how is it going down there? El diablo is a handful, and we’re getting tired,” calls down Carlos. I’ll have time for morbid curiosity later. I have a demon to imprison.

“Hold on, Carlos, it’s a mess down here.”

I rip the remnants of the man’s peasant blouse off his chest and use it as a rag to wipe down the ceiling. Holding a demon on ground that has blood, flesh, or even a grave is like using your arm to put meat into the mouth of a lion. Confident that no more drips will happen, I urge the flesh-impregnated soil to pile up into the lowest corner of the basement to be removed later.

Witchcraft is quite a lot like true love. Two people join their lives together, and somehow they become more than one. Neither is demanding. Neither dominates the other. It is a partnership. That is what it feels like to share with the earth. I ask, and it willingly gives, as that is the nature of our collaboration.

Before I can set a pentagram in place, I find a smashed bit of tin and metal bits. My first thought is a lantern, but there is a spring and wind-up key. I scoop the bits into my bag for later examination. I scuff a flat, smooth area on the clay-rich ground. Extending my senses through my hand, I no longer feel the weakness of blood within feet of the point I intend to temporarily seal the creature.

Holding the lamp in one hand, I draw with the other. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust. Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart…” I’ve had a great deal of practice lately so it only takes the one single recitation of the scriptures of Psalms 91:1–4 to draw the five-pointed star and its protecting circle on the dirt. As I do, I urge minerals in the earth to collect to each trace line of the star and fuse with the goodness of our Lord and savior. A faint glow shows my handiwork in the shadowy environment. There are no gaps so the prison is ready.

“Bring him in!” I call to my comrades.

A roar of defiance answers my team moving into the most dangerous phase of our work. Up until now, it has been getting the demon to make the choices we want. Now we physically have to move this mass of chaos the last few yards.

I let my wave of stone relax and form a shepherd’s crook twenty feet long and over a foot through. I put the hook in the middle of its back and pull, using the earth’s strength. I hear grunts of my team pushing.

“LEAVE ME, OR I WILL HANG YOU ALL BY YOUR ENTRAILS! AWAY!”

Earth may be slow, but it possesses a great deal of raw power. My physical strength might squash a cockroach on a good day, but augmented through the earth, I am something of a strongwoman. No matter how much the hellspawn backpedals or digs its claws into the cobblestone for purchase, our team inexorably pulls it back to its jail, inch by inch. I mentally will the earth to shorten my improvised hook with each successive movement toward me.

The hellspawn changes its tactics. No longer is it spending its energies trying to kill us but instead in finding an escape. “RELEASE ME, MORTALS, OR I WILL HAVE YOU CLEAN MY BUNGHOLE WITH YOUR TONGUE AS YOUR ONLY NOURISHMENT FOR ALL ETERNITY!”

Between the six of us, we give it no opportunity to find a way beyond us. The beaver shrinks as the magic in the soil sucks him toward my pentagram. I hear a low, throaty howl that reminds me of a windy day blowing over a chimney followed by a short pop and then silence.

The chaos that we had battled against is chained, leaving us with nothing to do. As always, that break from desperate activity to nothingness leaves us numb.

Joder,” Raquel says with about as much vehemence as one might have walking into a spider’s web. A squirrel takes that moment to emerge from Raquel’s mussed hair onto her shoulder. It chatters something I assume to be a rebuke. Raquel, on the other hand, leans against the cleanest of the basement walls.

Carlos drops down to the floor against the same wall, his face a pale white, accentuating the pitting there. Maxwell collapses to the ground and rolls onto his back, panting. Donny, sweat trickling like from some mountain spring out of his hair, opens a canteen and chugs the entire thing dry. I can empathize. My dress is soaked through and bears the red pox and other smears of blood splatter.

I offer weakly, “Can we not have another released demon for a few months?”

# # #

A milk bath at the O’Shaughadain Bathhouse is a necessary cleansing experience. It removes the feeling and appearance that I’m Sweeney Todd wandering the streets looking for another human victim.

Clean and in fresh clothing, I leave the steaming warmth as dusk trades places with night. The streets are nearly empty, and the bareness reminds me of how tired I am. The tub bath may have been an error as it relaxed me too much. I bite my lip and push forward, only a few blocks from my flat. Despite my willpower, I stagger over a cobblestone that might be a tiny fraction of an inch above the others around it.

“Ma’am, you don’t look very well. Maybe you had one too many at your local pub?” says a man striding down the boardwalk. He is in the traditional bobby’s blue uniform with the white acorn device of the king’s seal across his chest. His diminutive height is more than made up for by the breadth of his shoulders. The man looks like a short ape. I detect just the hint of a guttural German accent from the squat guardsman.

I wonder what happened to our regular beat policeman, Paterna. It must be his night off or some kind of transfer. “No, sir. On Mary’s grave, I’ve not had a drop. I’m a hellfighter, and I just spent the evening battling with a demon. I’m more tired than…” I trail off. “Well, more tired than anything I can think to compare myself to.”

The beat cop says, “Another demon? By his son, Jesus Christ, but can’t those beasts be held in place for once and for all?”

“I’ll be honest, Guardsman, no one expected people to start sacrificing themselves to release one.”

“I guess that is nothing but the truth. Do you want me to help you the rest of the way home?”

“No, thank you, sir. It’s just over there. I can manage another pair of blocks.”

“Yes, ma’am. Then you have a nice night. Get some rest.”

“Top of my list, sir.”

I should be in my poderabile, the air-powered vehicle Viscount Henry Helms gave me for helping to save his business. But the problem with owning a buggy, trap, or cart is that it needs to be someplace when it isn’t being used. There is nowhere near Chapman’s Boarding House that I can stable it, horses or no. So, more often than not, I spend my time walking, like now, or taking the trolley.

The door to my home is in sight. I’ll be on time for dinner before my landlady locks the door tonight. I’m certain the widow Chapman has some sterling qualities, but if so, the Lord has failed to show them to me in the nearly five years I’ve lived as her boarder. That being said, cooking is one of the lesser of her skills. I rent a home here only because the room and board are cheap, period. Between the poor food, my landlady’s snooping, and her faux moral superiority, I have sworn on more than one occasion to find new living arrangements. I just never seem to find the time. And with demons being loosed almost every second day, I don’t have the time or gumption to do so now.

Between the crown’s survivor pension of my husband, who died in the liberation of Ireland, and the salary paid to me by the Coal Syndicate for spelling coal dust out of the air, I get by. I don’t live lavishly, but I have a roof over my head and food in my belly. Moving anywhere likely would upset that balance.

Some might ask me to use the monies I make from being a hellfighter to pay for home and provender. Instead, everything I make being a hellfighter gets saved for that rainy day that is old age. I will be able to take care of myself in my dotage. I won’t be a burden on anyone.

“Emperor of Spain Plans State Visit!” calls an enterprising young girl hawking the evening edition of the Boston Herald only a block from home. I don’t know who she could be calling to except me as the streets are empty. I stumble up to her stand like someone just about in her cups. Maybe I should have taken that officer’s offer of his arm. “Young Amanda, if I remember correctly. I’ll take one.”

“Yes’m, I be called ‘Manda. Thanks for ‘membering. That’s a penny, Widow Ochoa,” she says, handing me over the paper. I unsnap my purse and offer her two but pull them away at the last moment. Amanda’s eyes go wide in lust for the extra tiny coin.

“If you would be so kind, Amanda, let the others know I prefer not to be called a widow.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will!” As I drop the coins in her hand, one bounces off and falls to the ground. I bend over to pick it up. Something slams into my shoulder like the fiery sword of the devil himself. A loud bang reports and echoes off the buildings and back to me like a badly stuttering young man.

I fall backward. Amanda falls forward atop of me with a scream. Another bark shatters the evening’s silence as I feel the pain pierce through my gut like a fireplace poker being shoved through me. The young girl in my arms grunts and spits blood onto my face.

I don’t know what is happening. It is too blurry, but I know I need to protect the young miss. The earth and cobblestones come to my aid, rolling the pair of us up into a protective cocoon. The three more repeated explosions of what I now recognize as gunshots are followed by bullets deflecting off our stone and mortar security blanket.

Constabulary whistles fill the night air, most at a distance. That one guardsman should be very close. Several more whistles sound as bootsteps come running up toward us. My energy seeps out of me like milk from a leaky churn.

“Ma’am! Are you OK? Help me get the stones off of her and the girl!” No German accent.

“Stella?” I recognize this voice as Paterna.

“Get Maxwell,” I manage to whisper. “Bell in Hand. Healer.” I feel someone pressing on my side and what had been a dull ache erupts into full-fledged agony. “AAAAA!”

“You, Kennedy. Go to the Bell in Hand and get Maxwell here now. Hurry.”

Extreme pain dilates time. It seems to go on forever. In other ways, the world goes on around you at a speed that rivals the fastest locomotive or dirigible. It flies by, and while I focus on my body’s cry for help, I can’t follow everything that transpires.

Eons go by before I hear Maxwell’s screechy voice.

“The girl first,” I hear someone bark. Nothing exists for me except for pain. Bits and pieces of the conversations around me soak in.

“Last rites will have to wait. Stella needs me,” Max says. I need last rites? I wish I’d been able to…

“Stella? Stella, can you hear me?”

“Max. Oh, fuck, I’ve made a mess of things.”

“Stella, this is going to hurt.”

“Sure it is.”

# # #

“Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” Max’s voice causes my mind to lumber into existence. I sit up with a start, clawing at my middle. My dress has a hole the size of a dinner plate ripped out of it. I see an angry, round puckered scar, very similar to a belly button just inches to its right. In sitting up, I sway, uneasy if not downright dizzy.

“Careful, Stella. Take it easy. Those wounds are going to take a day or so to fully heal.”

I can feel just a mild throbbing where there had once been agony. “Wounds? Plural?”

He touches my shoulder, where I find a similar tenderness within the mass of old scarring I bear from my lesson in how not to summon a demon.

I must be slow, thinking about myself first. “What about Amanda?”

Inspector First Antonio Guizzetti kneels down next to me. “The newsgirl is dead. A shot went right through the middle of her chest.”

This isn’t the first time I’d survived a disaster where others perished. I look at the sheet covering what had been a promising young life. “Did you at least get the scum?”

“No, Stella. What can you tell me about what happened?”

“I was coming home from a demon hunt. Tired.” A tear leaks down my cheek. I try to wipe it but find that lifting one of the arms that is supporting me starts me tipping. “I was buying a paper when I heard the first shot. It knocked me over. I just tried to protect us.”

“First shot?”

“Five shots total, I think,” I say, my focus wavering. My eyes are spending as much time closed as open.

“Five?”

“Did you see who shot at you or where from?”

“No. Wrapped us up,” I mumble. My head lolls to my shoulder.

“Inspector…Antonio, enough,” squeaks Maxwell. “Can’t you see she can barely sit up, much less answer questions? A serious healing like this saps the will from the patient.”

Lo siento. You’re right. Can you take her home, or do you want one of my men to help?”

“I can handle it.”

If it weren’t for Maxwell’s broken voice, I wouldn’t know who was speaking. “Stella. Stella, can you stand up with my help?”

“Sure, I’m not that tired—I think.”

“Take my arm.”

Another voice intruded. “Inspector. We found where he fired from—an attic storeroom on the third floor of Schafer’s Dry Goods.”

Squeaky voice. “Stella? Stella. Listen to me. We need to go to your rooming house.”

My attention fails to keep up with what’s going on. I hear Chapman’s querulous voice. “No. Men are not allowed in the rooms.”

“Do you want to carry her up the stairs? Then by the love of God, please observe some silence and let me do this. She isn’t light.”

That isn’t nice, or fair.

To purchase this title:

ebook – https://tanstaaflpress.com/books/courting-witchcraft-ebook/
print – https://tanstaaflpress.com/books/courting-witchcraft/