Andi blinked. “Break into…” she said under her breath.
“I wasn’t sure you were coming back,” Laura said, speaking right over her.
“We did come back,” Andi said slowly.
Laura nodded. “I see that.”
“No. Earlier. We were already here.”
Laura’s smile shuddered for a moment, but didn’t quite fade. “Yeah, yesterday. You said you were going to pick up a few supplies.”
Jenny stepped up beside Andi and put an arm on her shoulder. “That’s right. And we did.”
Andi opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything.
Laura looked between one and the other. Her smile wasn’t doing quite so well anymore, but she seemed determined to keep it up. “How about we go inside and talk.” She gestured towards the winery.
Andi immediately bristled. Her trap sense was tingling all sorts now. If they went into the building, they would be more constrained–and if Maxwell really was setting a trap it would be the perfect location for it.
Unfortunately, they didn’t really have a reason not to go with her. For the time being at least, Jenny seemed willing to go along with Laura’s pretense that she hadn’t seen them this morning.
It didn’t stop Andi from feeling the ring on her finger though. She didn’t need to specifically touch it to activate it, but it was comforting in a way.
Inside the shop, they were alone. Whoever the other woman they had seen the very first time they’d come to visit was gone. Just the two of them and Laura.
She gestured to one of the tables and took the seat across from them. “So, what do you have in mind?” she asked.
Andi and Jenny shared a glance. “You don’t remember anything, do you?” Jenny said. So much for pretending that they didn’t know anything.
She looked from one of them to the other. Her expression continued to fall. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do,” Jenny said.
She just shook her head.
“Please,” Andi said, reaching out to put a hand on Laura’s arm. “Where were you this morning?” Ultimately, the hand on the arm was serving two purposes. First, she was hoping to comfort her a little bit at least; getting her guard up wasn’t likely to help anyone. But second, she had a sneaking suspicion.
All for naught though. If her arm had passed right through Laura’s arm, she would have had reason to worry. But she skin was every bit as solid as Andi’s, albeit slightly cool to the touch. That could easily have been explained by her waiting outside for them though.
“I…” She paused, obviously considering. “I was as here all morning.” Something in the way she said it…
“What is it?” Andi prompted.
“I… don’t remember.”
Andi and Jenny shared a glance. Just like when Andi had gone to meet Percy. Right at the same time that there was a bit of a difference between what Laura thought she had done and Andi and Jenny knew she had. It was perhaps the best evidence so far that Maxwell was behind everything so far.
Evidence that he was a sorcerer and a nasty piece of work at that… Fairly obvious. But this was a much more direct link.
“We came back this morning,” Jenny said. “We already went with this.”
Laura shook her head. “That… can’t be right. I haven’t seen you since yesterday.”
“We went to the shack,” Jenny said. “Had a bit of a fun time. Turns out your brother is a …”
“Piece of work,” Andi cut in. If Laura didn’t remember the events of the morning, it was possible she was still innocent when it came to the realms of demonology. For better or for worse, Andi wanted to try to preserve that innocence, at least for a little while.
Again, Laura considered the both of them. Perhaps she wasn’t quite so slow as Andi had thought. A fair point. She seemed though to come down on the side of giving them another chance. “If you went to the shack, then you can tell me what’s inside.”
Neither Andi nor Jenny said anything at first. It wasn’t that they didn’t have an answer, but rather that neither was sure how the other would react. Unfortunately, both took the initiative at the same time.
“Yes,” Andi said, right on top of Jenny’s “No.”
The two looked at each other. “I guess…” Jenny said, right on top of Andi’s “Well, not really…”
In other words, operation ‘don’t make the sister of a potentially dangerous sorcerer suspicious’ was a bust.
“So what really happened?” Laura finally asked.
Andi took the lead before Jenny could say a word. “It looks a lot like a fancy bachelor pad. Projector, nice couch, the works.”
Laura nodded her head. “That sounds about right.”
“And then there’s the basement…” Jenny said. Andi tried to hide a smile. She didn’t think she would have chosen to be quite so direct, but it worked out.
Laura’s response was slow. “What basement?”
“There’s a nice elevator; goes down to a nice complex completely underground.” Laura was shaking her head slowly. “Probably a few floors. Bigger than this place at least.”
“That makes sense.”
It was Andi’s and Jenny’s turn to share a look of surprise. “It does?” Jenny finally asked.
“Yeah. He renovated the place a few years back. It never quite made sense how many trucks of dirt they took out of the place.”
That made sense enough. Of course, there was one wrinkle… “Then why didn’t you say anything last time?” Andi asked.
Laura blinked. “Last time?”
“Right,” Jenny said. “You don’t remember.”
Laura shook her head. Suddenly, she was standing. “Either you’re outright lying to me… Or something really strange is going on.”
Andi stood with her. To her surprise, she found that she was barely suppressing a smile. Strange was something that Andi was becoming increasingly used to.
“It’s easy enough to prove though,” Laura continued. “All we have to do is break into my brother’s shed.”
“Again…” Jenny muttered under her breath.
Not quietly enough though apparently. Laura said with a smile, “again then.”
Just in the short time it took to walk to the shed, Andi was already half convinced that the entire morning’s activities must have been a dream. She just couldn’t very well reconcile the Laura of the morning who’d gone the elevator and disappeared while fighting a demon with the Laura who apparently had no idea regarding any of that.
Still, when they got to the shed, it looked pretty much the same as it had in the morning. Then again, it hadn’t changed when they’d gotten into it.
The three of them stopped a fair bit away and looked up at it. After a while, Laura said, “It doesn’t look like much from out here.”
“It’s bigger on the inside,” Jenny said with a smirk. Turning to Andi, she said, “How about we just cut to the chase?”
Andi turned to her. “No more lies?”
“Well,” she said. “Not many anyways.” She pulled out the mirror and held it out for Andi. “Care to do the honors?”
Laura’s expression couldn’t have been any more perfect.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Andi said. “Geister.”
Without looking back, she held the mirror out and walked right towards the shed. She thought she heard a gasp from Laura when she didn’t slow, but then she was through.
The experience was a strange one. Previously, when she’d used the mirror to walk through the bathroom door back in her apartment, she hadn’t felt anything. This time, there was a slight tingle and a feel of resistance. It felt vaguely like pressing through a sheet of staticky plastic.
For just a moment, she felt a jolt of sheer terror run through her. Had Maxwell expected their return? Of course he had. Of course he’d known…
Then she was through.
Still, she was inside. The interior of the shed looked exactly the same as it had during the morning. Quickly scanning to make sure no one was hiding in wait, Andi turned back to the door. There was a control panel on the back of the door with obvious controls for opening the door.
A touch of a button and the door slid open.
Laura and Jenny were standing right on the other side. Jenny had a slight smirk on her face; while Laura was standing there with her mouth hanging open. Even if she had seen the events of the morning, that still had to have been surprising–to see someone walk right through the door like that.
“Like I said,” Jenny said with a smile. “Magic.”
Andi rolled her eyes and headed over to the couch. She wanted to find that remote again.
“So you’re saying, there’s an entire underground complex down there,” she heard Laura saying. “And that I went down there with you this morning.”
“Exactly,” Jenny said."
“So… what happened then?”
Andi still couldn’t quite guarantee that she wasn’t just a good liar–really good–but she was at least starting to believe.
“We had a… bit of trouble,” Andi said. She paused, midway through lifting a pillow looking for the remote. “Um. Jenny? What’s the point again?”
Jenny opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. She closed it again without saying a word.
“After all,” Andi continued. “We came back to rescue Laura…”
“Wait, what?” Laura said. “Rescue me? From what?”
Oops. For the moment, Andi elected to ignore the question. “But if she’s here now, we don’t have to go down again just now. We have time to prepare.”
Jenny was nodding slowly. “We could use a few more…”
Andi mentally finished her sentence. Demons. “Still, with a bit more time.”
Laura refused to back down. Taking a step forward to place herself directly between Andi and Jenny, she turned to the former with her hands on her hips. “What did you mean, rescue me?”
“Well…” Back to hesitating.
Hesitations suddenly cut short by a solid thud, shaking the entire room and nearly knocking Andi off of her feet.
“What in the…” It could have been any of them that spoke, the thought was so universal.
Another thud, followed shortly by three ringing bells one after another. Then they knew all too well what the sound had been.
The top of the elevator shaft was rising out of the floor. It was almost certain that the elevator itself would be shortly behind.
Andi turned to Jenny, both of them backing away. “You don’t think…”
“It couldn’t fit…”
Laura was backing away too. Even if she wasn’t lying and hadn’t actually been with them this morning, there was only so many ways to react to people backing away the way they were. “What in the world is going on?”
And smiled at her, albeit halfway between a grin and a grimace. “Trouble,” was all she said. Another bell–if she remembered the previous events correctly, this meant the elevator was here now. “Run!”
She didn’t even wait to see if the other two were following. She just ran.
Through the door and out into the yard, she ran. She heard at least one pair of footsteps following her and had to assume that both of them were. There were far more solid sounds even further behind that. Something large was back there… It didn’t take much to imagine what that might be.
A fair distance form the shed, Andi turned back. She was right in one at least. Both Laura and Jenny were right behind her, running to catch up. She was a little surprised that she’d kept such distance from the both of them. Still, that surprise turned to naught when she caught site of what was following them.
Jenny slowed, looking up to catch Andi’s gaze. She must have seen something, as she stopped almost dead in her tracks and spun to look behind her.
Andi heard her swear–she completely understood the feeling.
Between the two of them, Laura finally came to slow as well. She turned and stopped dead. “What in the hell…”
And knew that feeling. She knew that feeling all too well.
Interestingly enough, the thing following them wasn’t the demon they’d fought during the morning. Nor was it the tentacled beasty that Andi had run from by herself back on that train. This one was something entirely different.
This one looked an awful lot like the woman they’d come back to rescue. But of course it couldn’t be. The other Laura–Andi was already thinking of her as ’their’ Laura–had been with them the entire time. What was more, the new comer had something that quite clearly identified her as something not altogether natural.
She had the demon’s silver hammer.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Andi asked no one in particular.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure I’m believing it,” Jenny said.
Laura–their Laura–said nothing. Andi would have given rather a lot to figure out what she was thinking.
“That’s… not possible.” She finally said.
“Welcome to our world,” Jenny said.
The other Laura stopped. She was a few yards on the other side of their Laura, then Jenny and finally Andi a few yards back from there. The four of them stood, all staring at one another.
Other-Laura had the silver hammer held lightly, almost idly in one hand.
That more than anything was setting Andi’s sense on edge.
She had felt the impacts of that hammer against the walls down beneath their feet. She had felt the air waver as it passed by.
A normal human being couldn’t possibly be holding that hammer so lightly. Even with the ring, she wouldn’t have been surprised if she could even lift it at all.
“Hey Laura…” Andi called out.
She wasn’t sure exactly what outcome she expected, but it still sent a chill up her spine when both Lauras answers simultaneously. “Yes?”
Andi elected to ignore the further Laura and direct her question to the nearer one. “Just checking. You don’t have a twin do you?”
Laura half turned, but not enough so that she would lose sight of said twin. She shook her head slightly, saying “Well, at least I didn’t think I did.”
“Of course not,” the other Laura said. “She’s clearly an impostor.”
It was such a classic situation that Andi could have laughed. It was only that she didn’t think either Laura would take kindly to that.
A pair of twins where there couldn’t possibly be twins, each claiming that the other was the fake. In this case though, the decision was easy.
One Laura had been with them the entire afternoon. The other had come from the sorcerer’s den, so to speak.
One was holding a silver hammer that shouldn’t have been humanly possible. The other had nothing in her hands, which now that Andi was watching were shaking ever so slightly.
On of them seemed genuinely concerned with her brother’s well being and those two strangers that had come to help him. The other had a cold hint to her voice, barely noticeable at first, but obvious given a moment’s thought.
Andi made a snap decision, hardly a decision at all. Stepping forward, she took up position side by side with Laura, facing the silver-hammer-Laura down. She had a hand on her ring. Not necessary to activate it… but much more so to keep a positive state of mind.
A moment later, Jenny joined them. Now it was the three of them, facing off against the one and her hammer. Not exactly a fair fight–if fight it came to.
It was a wicked grin, devoid of any real mirth.
With a simple shrug of her should, she set the hammer to swinging. In a single effortless motion, she had the hammer spun it to catch her other hand. A few tapping motions that would have looked significantly less threatening had Andi not known just how heavy that hammer was–and how lightly other Laura was tossing it around.
It was looking like they were in for a fight–and not a pleasant one.
“Stärken,” Andi said, her voice steadier than she expected. A moment later, she heard Jenny activating the pocket watch. They were going to need a bit more than that though… “Big Red?” she asked.
Laura was looking from one of them to the other, but nothing so far had been physically impossible–other than the mere existence of the other Laura. The hammer was close, but it could have been lighter than it looked, rather than heavier.
Big Red though; that would be something else entirely. That would be a line that once crossed they wouldn’t very well be able to recover from.
“Fine,” she said. She reached around to her purse–Andi had been wondering where she’d been hiding it–and pulled out the foot tall red action figure.
“Um, guys?” Laura said. “What’s going on?”
Neither answered. They didn’t have to. Instead, Jenny calmly tossed the figure into the air and said a single word: “Augeo.”
Big Red immediately began to grow. It took only a matter of moments until he stood, full height, just as big and red as he had been the night before.
Laura’s eyes grew big as well. Too late to take it back now…
Unfortunately, the other Laura took Big Red’s appearance as a sign to make a few changes of its own. Completely silently, she began to grow. By the time Big Red’s transformation was complete, the other demon’s–there was no doubt about it now–was only just beginning.
It began with the muscles. The effect was strange, something like a series of balloons inflating one after another from one arm to the other and then down the legs. She looked strange unbalanced while the changes were going on, skin stretching to nearly the breaking point on one side and the other completely human.
After that, she grew. It was almost a direct scaling, everything growing at once, expanding in all directions.
As she grew, she darkened, skin deepening to first red and then nearly black. It was definitely the same demon they’d seen this morning.
“Well, that answers that question,” Jenny said.
Andi knew exactly what she was getting at–she’d been wondering exactly how Laura could have disappeared this morning and not remembered a thing in the afternoon.
It all made a lot more sense if they’d not actually talked with Laura in the morning. If she hadn’t been taken by the demon, but rather was the demon.
Of course that didn’t help the current situation.
The first time, they’d barely made it away with their lives. This time, they had a real innocent to protect.
They may have had Big Red, but given the sheer size and scope of the thing in front of them–Big Red didn’t look quite so big anymore.
With a roar, the newly transformed demon lifted its hammer and charged.
Big Red let loose a roar of his own and ran forward to meet the other demon. He may have been a few feet shorter and a fair bit less muscular, but with a single swift motion, he’d caught the hammer and held it in place.
For a second, two, three, the demons held steady, both pushing as hard as their unnatural forms would allow. Then, ever so slowly, demon-Laura started to gain the upper hand. Inch by inch, the silver hammer was forced downwards.
“A little help here…” It took Andi a moment to realize that it was Big Red speaking. That pleasant tenor was still entirely too nice to be coming from such an ugly form.
Right. They had more than one demon at their disposal.
With a cry of her own, Andi ran forward to join the fray.
Big Red managed to keep the hammer under control just long enough to give Andi and Jenny an opening. The hammer was touching his nose when Andi landed her first punch.
She couldn’t reach much higher than the beast’s waist, so instead she went for the back of the knee. With a blow that should have been enough to cripple an elephant, she hit the demon.
Her hand bounced.
It felt like a steel sheet covered in a thin layer of rubber. Just enough give to keep her from breaking her hand, but nowhere near something that she was going to be able to punch through.
Unfortunately, it didn’t appear that either Jenny or Big Red was having much better luck. That morning, Jenny had been using a steel cable or something of the sort along with her amazing speed to rip through the demon’s flesh, but she had no such weapon this time. Andi couldn’t actually tell what she was doing this time–seeing nothing more than a blur–but whatever it was, it wasn’t working
Big Red on the other hand, at least had a chance. He couldn’t quite match the other’s raw strength, but he at least seemed to be marginally quicker. He could keep the worst of the blows from landing on either Andi or Jenny, at the cost of a few solid blows to himself. He was bleeding from a number of wounds, but was grinning all the while. If Andi didn’t know any better, she was would have said that he was enjoying herself.
It would all be for naught though, if none of them could actually land a blow.
“You don’t by any chance have your gun?” Andi asked the air.
Jenny stopped for a moment, suddenly seeming to appear right to her side. She took a big breath–she had to have been running hard even with the speed boost–and shook her head. No such luck it seemed.
Not that she was sure a gun would have worked in the first place. Still, it would have been nice.
They still needed a weapon. She turned around, scanning the surroundings. Grape bushes? Too hard to get hold of, even harder to use as a weapon. Their car? Too far away, the demons would just get out of the way. The fence?
That might just work.
Best yet, it made a certain sort of sentimental sense.
Crossing the ground in a few steps, she reached into the full power of the ring and ripped a chunk of the fence cleanly out of the ground.
She heard a gasp from behind her–Laura most likely. She would just have to get over it though. Save her life first, worry about property damage… later.
She took a few minutes to tear off what was left of the fence, leaving only the main pole itself. It wasn’t quite as simple a metal bar as she’d used twice before, there were still a few jagged edges along the top part. With any luck, that would make it even more viscous of a weapon.
For once, she didn’t even think. She ducked.
A blur of silver swished through the air right where her head had been a moment before.
She swung her new weapon from her back, landing a raking blow along the black rubbery flesh. It wasn’t perfect, but for the first time, she at least managed to break the skin. A thin spray of dark blood covered the ground.
The demon roared.
Standing over her the way it was, with her flat on her back on the ground, it looked even bigger. It seemed as big as an elephant. An elephant that seemed dead set on ending her life.
A crack split the air and a vicious looking wound appeared in the demon’s side. It was twice as long and much deeper long than the blow Andi had landed. Andi hadn’t seen her coming in, but she caught a glimpse of a blur moving away.
It was enough though, to distract the demon. Rolling as quickly as she could, she put some distance between herself and it. Bounding to her feet, she took stock of the situation.
Big Red wasn’t looking too good. Dark bruises–even darker than his deep red flesh–dotted his skin and one arm hung at an unnatural angle. Then again, his limbs had never quite seemed natural to begin with.
Jenny, Andi couldn’t quite see. She kept flitting from place to place, never even taking a moment to slow down and catch her breath. At least not that Andi could see. Although at the speeds she was moving, she could rest several hundred times as quickly as well. She could be taking a minute’s breather in the blink of an eye. That really was a neat ability.
Laura–the real Laura–was gone.
Andi felt a rush of deja vu. It was just like the first time. Laura was gone again. And the first time, that had apparently been because she was the demon… Andi didn’t think she could deal with it if that were the case yet again.
Speaking of their demonic friend, they were actually starting to do some damage. They’d landed nothing more than a fair collection of cuts and scrapes, but even that was beginning to take its toll. It seemed a little slower and it wasn’t quite throwing that hammer around with quite the same reckless abandon.
They might actually be able to do this.
Of course that was right when things went from bad to worse.
The voice was a new one and came from far off to the side, back from the direction of the shed. It was a man’s voice, which at the moment left really one option.
All four of them turned. The two demons stopping beating on each other for a moment. Jenny slowed. She was still jittering, which meant she was still accelerated. She was just standing in one place. It had to be maddening, watching everyone creep along so slowly, knowing that if you slowed down you’d lose your one biggest advantage.
Maxwell–it had to be Maxwell–was surprisingly average. After everything, Andi had built up a mental picture of him that was somewhat… bigger. More impressive. He just looked normal. Mid twenties, a touch below average height and thin. He had the same darker complexion and hair that his sister did, albeit cropped short.
The most interesting thing about him was a surprising collection of jewelry. Andi thought herself relatively progressive, but it still stuck out. A half dozen earrings in each ear, three or four necklaces, and enough bangles and belts to furnish a small army–although what a small army would do with such armaments was anyone’s guess.
Andi felt a sinking feeling. That was one thing that the book had made clear enough, the more solid a physical form you could give a demon, the longer it would last. Metals tended to work better; jewelry had the advantage of not looking out of place when you went out among the general populace.
Well, until you were wearing quite so many all at the same time.
She had no way of telling how many of them housed demons and how many were just a distraction. Best case? He had many times as many demons as Andi and Jenny had between the two of them. Worst case? Every single one was a demon…
And he’d just stopped all of them with a single word.
“Come here,” he said again.
Andi and Jenny shared a glance, but of course he was talking to his demon. The not-Laura. Step after rumbling step, the demon covered the ground back to its master. It was swinging the hammer slowly front to back. Even that revealed a terrifying strength in those massive arms.
Andi took the opportunity to move nearer to Big Red and Jenny. She was ready to square off against the others, even if it was mad. They had barely been able to hold their own against Maxwell’s demon, now they had not only the demon but its master as well? With a dozen or more additional demons on his side?