Even after the mayhem of the previous stop, Chadden didn’t hesitate entering the next community. Convinced that taverns possessed the most approachable folks, she drifted into the first one she came across. Smiling, in an attempt to look friendly and also because of its ridiculous name, Hair of the Dog that Bites, she scanned the patrons, ending up across from a pleasant old gent thrice her age, his declaration, engaging in idle chat.
“Woodloch?” The old man spat and crossed himself twice, eyeing her suspiciously now. “What would you be looking for in as unholy a spot as that?”
“So you know of it?” Hope edging into her tone. “What direction is it from here? Is it close?”
“I’d say about 50 miles northeast. Wouldn’t you, Ollie?”
The woman was flanked by a shaggy-haired teen pulling up a chair to her left and a beastly looking man with a peppering of gray stubble to her right, both appearing eager to give opinion.
The younger one chimed in. “It sits on the cliffs above Orobas Valley. The castle’s been disunited, you could say. A meteor or some such thing caused all kinds of nonsense, and it ain’t been a good place since. I say it was something from outer space all right, but I don’t think it was no meteor.”
“Yeah. It was blood-sucking aliens crash landing .” The stubbly man snickered. “Earthquake caused the land split and then the water took over rearranging things, as moving water does. Plain and simple.”
“Well, lots of folks gone missin’ around here, and I think that’s a bit queer; don’t you?” asked the younger.
“They up and left this God forsaken town. Mystery solved.” replied the other.
“I seen something up there.”
All heads turned as the voice was followed by a figure emerging from a table shadowed in the back of the tavern. He was short of stature, with stubby arms and bowed legs. His torso and head equivalent to that of a normal-sized man. The misfit of body parts did not deter from a peculiar yet handsome quality to his face. She could not quite figure out what was peculiar about it, just a feeling that it was off in some way. He took a long sloppy swig, draining his mug, the remnants of which dripped from his smooth chin. Standing on tiptoe, he slammed the mug on the bar top in a hammering motion before turning toward the woman’s table.
“My name is Ollie, dear lady. At your service, to be sure.” He spoke with the congeniality of a host.
“I have this.” Chadden removed her bush hat. Wisps of blond hair tumbled loose from captivity, softening her features and making her table mates take notice. She reached into the hat and gently pulled out a tattered scrap of map, smoothing it flat on the table.
“Can you show me the location,” she asked, focusing her attention on the little man.
“I think I do know the way, but perhaps I may need something to make it all less fuzzy.”
With a nod of her head and a toss of the cash, the bartender reluctantly poured him the ale. Ollie grabbed his freshly filled mug and walked to the table, not bothering to acknowledge the bartender or the map. Instead, he proceeded with the telling of a story. The other men rolled their eyes, having heard it more than a time or two.
“I was set on exploring the abandoned castle, you see, with my business partner, Thomas. We’d heard the place hid up gold, lots of gold, ripe for the taking if you could find it.
“Exploring! You was looking to steal whatever you could get your hands on. There weren’t no gold.” The old man laughed. The imp paid no attention to the distraction.
“We set up camp just outside the stone fortress, figuring we’d get a fresh start at daybreak. I’d only been asleep for perhaps an hour or two before being jerked awake by my partner. A strange unknown force took control over him, like an intense hallucinatory fever. He was ranting and yelling, “Get away from me!” Startled, I jumped to my feet, but I couldn’t see a thing. He ran by screaming, “Run! Run!” I moved quickly in his direction, following suit, but before I could even get grasp of what was happening, he hurled himself headlong from the cliffs. It was then I saw it. Immense, dark, and as sure as I stand here, evil. I, in my small capacity, was able to crawl into hiding and watch as it passed overhead before plunging down to the broken body of my partner. They both disappeared into the black waters below.”
“Uh, yeah, sounds unpleasant, and I’m sure it was,” she said, dismissing him like an annoying gnat. The men at the table mocked and heckled the little man, and he, likewise, threw barbs their way.
Chadden succumbed to the realization that it was futile to remain there losing what was left of daylight with these characters. Holding her hat by its brim, she brushed the road from the crown, tucked in her hair and placed it back on her head, giving signs of her readying to leave.
“Might dusty out there; eh? Why not have a little more libation, pretty lady?” The man with the gray stubble asked as he slid his chair closer.
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Food? Are ya hungry?” He asked, staring at her with his own brand of hunger.
“No,” she responded.
He leaned in close, placing his outstretched fingers under her chin, lifting and turning her head so his red-rimmed and her slate gray eyes met.
Not again, she thought.
“Let’s you and me have some fun. There ain’t no need to rush outta here.”
His lips were dry and crusty and his breath abrasive. Grabbing his hand from under her chin, she rolled it into a fist, pulling straight his pointer and middle fingers so it took the shape of a gun pointed in her direction. She provocatively put those two fingers in her mouth, and his smile widened. She bit down hard with razor sharp incisors, drawing blood, which she spit into his face, the spittle resembling the splatter from a gunshot. He howled with pain, jumping up and staggering backward. She also stood, shoving the chair between them away before kicking his legs from under him. He dropped to the floor with the expected thud, and she placed a dusty leather boot on his neck. A swathe of golden hair fell into her face. She pulled one strand and let it fall into the man’s.
“Hair of the Dog that Bites,” she said.
The other men sat motionless in their chairs, both looking at her with equal measures of awe and fear. The old man picked up the map, pointed to a spot and handed it to her.
“I’ll be on my way then.” She looked at the location he pointed before folding the map and placing it into her back pocket.
Outside she gave a whistle, and a black and white paint trotted to a stop in front of her. She put one foot into the stirrup, swung the other leg around, straddling the saddle and settling into its well-worn seat.
“Come on, boy,” she said with a slight squeeze of her thighs, ushering him forward. “I think our destiny’s less than a day’s ride away.” She rode out from the territories propelled by purpose. Every inclination, including intuition, pointed to being close. Her plan was not without flaws. She was sure he’d know she was coming.
The noise of her approach echoed in the stillness of the overlapping pines, and the foggy mist rolled into the gorge as if timed with her arrival. It covered the soft beauty of the landscape, leaving only a grotesque outline of a castle looming in the background. The towers pierced the clouds, elongating ominous shadows that fell across the lake. The trail was visible in the twilight, winding around the cliffs. She tied the horse near the water’s edge and made her way up, with the gloom’s cold hunger biting at her heels. The path turned to crumbling stone steps that led around the west side to a gated wall in severe disrepair. The rusty hinges screamed as she pushed it open, and the sound of his voice penetrated the night.
“Regardless of the warnings you felt compelled to come.”
He stood brilliant against the drab dead gray of everything around him.
“Always surrounding yourself in darkness, Asmodeus,” she greeted in reply. “Does it make you feel still of the light?”
“Should I be of the light, sister?” He responded.
“No, I suppose that has long passed.”
“Have you been searching for a very long time?”
“Have you been waiting for a very long time?”
“I’ve been on watch.”
She shed her human form, and the brilliance of white light consumed the darkened sky as she stretched her wings, flapping them slowly. Small loosened shimmering particles fell away.
“I have been in that form too long,” she said. “Ah, now I can hear the songs of my brothers and sisters.” She looked at Asmodeus. “Do you still hear their song?”
His mood darkened. “Why have you come?”
“You spend your time corrupting man, collecting souls. And it is rumored you are trying to open the gates.”
“It is our time.”
She laughed. “It is the time of your penance, brother. You will gain the view from the other side of the gates.”
“You think it that simple to apprehend me, then go ahead.”
“Defiance will be paid with an angel’s sword, Asmodeus.” She was speaking to the wind, for he no longer lingered.
“Rebellious to the end, eh?”
She turned, startled by a familiar voice. “Ollie?” Chadden reverted back to human form.
“At your service,” he said, tipping his hat.
“You had me a bit quizzical as to why you needed to find this place. Being that I’m highly motivated by the rewards of life, I thought you may be needing my assistance.”
“That was quite the story you told back there,” she said.
“It does add to the intrigue; doesn’t it? So how is it you plan to kill this dark angel,” he asked. “I bet it’s with that sweet sword you’re carrying.”
“I hadn’t planned on killing him,” she responded. “What do you know of this? Who are you?”
“I guess you could say I’m a bounty hunter of sorts. I’m hired for my abilities and paid for my results.”
“Demon hunter,” she said with disgust.
“Sort of this and sort of that,” he responded, brushing off her remark. “Now should he be caught and I am the one doing the catching, I shall want that sword as payment.”
Chadden eyed him squarely. He was familiar with the power of an angel’s sword, but did he know the power of hers.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s let this play out. You know the way?”
“Guide me, then.”
With their bargain struck, Ollie excused himself for what he called the necessary metamorphose for the journey. Looking to be in unbearable pain, a transformation began. He tore at his clothes, grunting, pulling, straining until they were in shreds and there was nothing visually human left about him. He was a shapeshifter who now resembled a wolf. No. As two more heads emerged, she realized he took the form of a hellhound, the most hated of all fallen creatures.
Chadden followed as he led her into the deep recesses of the castle. It was well underground that they encountered their first group of demons, which Ollie dispatched with ease. He was agile and fought without the savagery of the wild beast he’d become.
“Impressive,” she remarked moving past the carnage.
It was impossible to tell how long they traveled. Time seemed of no consequence here. After a couple of lackluster skirmishes, she was sure occurred in an effort to cause battle fatigue, they entered an enormous vaulted chamber, and the smell of sulfur was upon them.
“The gate must be close,” she said, though the blanket of darkness still seemed endless.
“Night is a world of its own in which treachery and terror thrives.” Asmodeus said, as if reading her thoughts. “I will give you a choice, just as I was given a choice. Join me. We will spread the seeds of our dreams. Our greatness will tread upon the inhabitants of the world above and the one still above that.”
She was neither afraid nor tempted, just patient. She waited for him to finish droning on. Always the long-winded egotist, she thought as he spoke. He seemed to be getting closer or maybe she was moving or perhaps it was just her eyes adjusting to the dark. Whatever the case, it was to her favor. That damned hellhound was at his side now. She knew his loyalty was only practiced on her. Evil was always so predictable.
Chadden had the creepy sensation of a multitude of eyes watching. Creatures of the night, she assumed, waiting, whispering, wanting her to submit. None would suspect brutality. She was, after all, an Angel of Redemption, deliverer of salvation, rescuer from sin, blah, blah, blah. “Was” being the key word. They were naive to the disappearances in the heavens and the endless infighting that had occurred since. Dominance over the heavens and the earth meant keeping evil back, in the dark and unaware until all was restored. She had faith all would be restored. Until then, she was a winged warrior of that faith.
With a flashy quickness developed fighting side by side with Michael, the mightiest of archangels, she brandished his sword, the first sword ever forged, kissed by the holy waters and blessed by the maker of the heavens and the earth. It’s power unyielding. She leapt toward her nemesis, catching him off guard, and pierced his heart with the first blow. She swung around and beheaded the hound with the second.
“In your name, Michael, I avenge thee,” she whispered and drew close his sword.
Desolation and despair turned solid in the air around her, and she could hear the skitter of things moving quickly back into the recesses from which they came. She kneeled, looking into the lifeless black eyes before closing their lids.