|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
Raven and Crow
Keri Hurst's hair was dyed a raven's black and pulled back tightly into a ponytail, which fell decoratively over her left shoulder. She pushed her black-rimmed glasses further up her nose. Blue eyes stared out at the older woman before her. She tried not to stare at the crow's feet marking the other woman's face. She swept her hand along the underside of her skirt as she sat. She was a perfect dress size 2.
“I'm sorry. That is a most unusual request,” began Bobbi Morgan. “And one I am not sure is legal.” She was a taller woman; her hair a solid white – not lifeless gray, but the color of newly fallen snow. It was drawn up on top of her head like a snowdrift. Keri hadn't expected to meet the owner, and a female one at that, when she showed up at the Funeral Home's front door. She didn't mean to be sexist, but she knew there was a scarcity of women undertakers. Probably from a mortuary family.
“I understand that. It's just my company, Acme Cleaning and Disposal, has some questions about the site that could be cleared up so much sooner and more easily if I could just examine the corpse.”
“We prefer diseased. And Acme is ...”
“We were the crime scene clean-up crew at the motel.” Women weren't given only light duty at Acme. She'd surprised her burly male co-workers helping to move a heavy generator once. Crime scene took extra training and afforded one extra pay. Blood was not only a biohazard; it was difficult to get out of carpets. The motel was not a cheap fleabag, but an expensive residence motel, advertising Air Conditioning, Mini-Kitchens and Satellite TV. The room hadn't felt right. It wasn't that she was being flighty, or the splatter patterns of the gore either. It was a preternatural sixth sense she hoped abandoned when she left her Father's huge home and hall.
“The answer must be no.”
The Funeral Home sat upon a hill. Even after-hours, Keri knew she'd find a live-in guard, someone to call the cops if required. The owners were less fearful of body snatchers than necrophiliacs. What moonlight there was filtered dimly and softy through the clouds. Keri looked different, was different. Her armor shone in the faint light like the Aurora Borealis. A silver-wired helmet covered her blonde hair. Twin raven's wings of sharp bronze swept back from the sides. The pommel of an equally sharp long sword graced her palm. She slipped carefully through a basement window. The embalming and exsanguination devices were in the basement. She wasn't alone.
“Valkyrie Kára Hrist, you should obfuscate yourself better. But then you are a frail, fey blonde.” Bobbi smirked widely and very happily. Bobbi's hair was now a free flowing red, a fiery crimson. Bobbi Morgan – the names resonated in Kara's mind – Badb and Morrigu are two of the names in the Celtic female trinity for the Mother-goddess of Death and War. Only Macha was missing, but maybe that sounded too much like a gourmet coffee. The redhead before Kara was obviously a banshee, a follower of the Goddess that had warned Dagda by the river ford of death and war, then joined in the mélée herself.
“I'd think serving mead in Valhalla is more your forte, than picking up the valiant off a Norse battlefield. I don't think this one is meant for Odin or Freya,” the older woman said. Kara grew uncomfortable with the mention of her home. She would not return until she could retrieve her stolen Cloak of Feathers. Until then, she would never see her fellow sisters, Odin's Choosers of the Slain.
“A redhead disrespecting a blonde. Where is the sisterhood? In medieval archetypes, blonde represented innocence and virginity. Brunettes were the temptress.”
“Today, blondes are sluts,” Badb said.
“Bleached blondes. Natural blondes are dumb, naïve. Innocence as a failing, not a virtue. How sad is our world now? Shouldn't you be a crone?”
“You saw me as a Calliach, but I can be more fearsome!” Badb smiled fiercely, lifting the point of her spear. “Why are you really here?”
Kara stepped forward. “The motel room smelt of foul magic. I need to determine if the dead was victim or sorcerer.”
“You think the soul is hanging around like this is a seedy bus stop? I'll have to upgrade the vending machine.”
There was a crash as the door to the cold room was torn open – from the inside. A skeletal form in black shroud stood there. A long, curving scythe was held in its hands. It was Death itself! “Who's next?” thought Kara née Keri. “Kali?”
“I claim what is ours.”
Badb stuck her thumb toward Kara. “There may be another claim pending.”
“The necromancer is ours by right.” -- I was right, thought Kara.
“Yours by right?” One of Badb's vermilion eyebrows raised slightly.
“We had a contract.” A contract? Kara's mind raced. “Where have you hidden the soul?”
“You're a servant of Azrael?” Badb asked.
Death's agent shook its head affirmative.
“Name him,” she continued. The cloaked spectre was silent.
Badb said: “Or the Angel of Death's Master! Even we, the fey, who were silent during the Battle in Heaven can name Azrael's Lord.”
Again there was silence.
Kara thought back on the motel room she had so recently cleaned. “The salt!” she cried. “It was the salt in the room which felt wrong. Why was there so much? It had to have been a protective circle. One that failed. The sorcerer died, but his spirit must have escaped.”
“It's not Death.” Badb spat. “It's one of the Prince of Lies' legion.” Her spear drew up. Its barb pointed at the spectre's heart – or where that sanguinary valentine should be. “It's a demon,” she cried, “come to claim the soul.”
Badb smashed her spearhead down upon the bony hand. The skeletal appendage went flying. The creature's remaining hand swirled the butt of its scythe around in a wide arc. The wooden shaft of the scythe struck her forehead, and she tumbled to the ground. The spectre's feet drove into her ribs with a loud cracking sound. It kicked again.
Lifting her sword, crying an oath to the Valfreyja, Kara rushed the demon. She swung the weapon two-handed in a viscous slash at the creature's hood. Sparks flew as the blade of the scythe parried her attack. The force of the block made her arms numb for an instant. That sparse moment was all the monster needed to launch its own assault. The wide wings of her helmet deflected the blow. One hand loosened its grip upon her hilt. She doubled her efforts in the other and countered with a lard lunge into the cloak. The sword passed cleanly through the cloth, touching no solid flesh to poke out the other side. Her blade was hopelessly entangled. The demon brought its own cutting edge around in an arc for Kara's head.
The crescent scythe stopped in the air, meeting Badb's spear. It was trapped by twin iron guards, shaped like small crow's wings that flew at the spearhead. Kara forced her sword free. She pulled that sword above her head and, with all her strength, chopped once, twice, thrice at the creature's neck. Each time the sharp blade bit into something. No blood flew. It was worse than striking the hard scales of a dragon. It was more like beating an iron plow against a buried stone in the winter soil of Greenland. The spectre's skull finally tumbled off its shoulders and the demon flashed into a silhouette of burning hellfire and vanished, leaving the nose-fouling stench of brimstone. Kara sneezed forcefully, loudly, like an old man taking a pinch of snuff.
“It's been said before.” Bobbi smiled. “But this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
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