John Ringo

Queen of wands

Queen of Wands

A Card in the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot deck

The Queen of Wands is the joining of water and fire, representing fire’s flickering movement and is a card of restlessness and relentlessness. The Queen of Wands represents an individual who is well-grounded but prone to recklessness when challenged, who is self-initiating and goal oriented, a firm friend and a formidable foe. The Card represents the Seer and is the symbol of Vengeance.


BOOK ONE

The Shadow of Death

The Mother’s Tale

CHAPTER ONE

“You okay?” Mark Everette asked as he came out of the bathroom. The executive was already dressed and had a suit coat over his shoulder on a hanger. “You don’t look so good.”

“Thank you for your phrasing,” Barbara Everette replied. Mark’s thirty-four-year-old-one year his junior-wife was sitting on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands. She’d been in much the same position when he started his morning ablutions. Normally she’d have been dressed and getting breakfast ready by now. “I’m fine,” Barb continued, looking up and wincing at the light from the bathroom. “Just a headache.”

“Okay,” Mark said, frowning. “You’ve been getting a lot of those lately. Maybe you should see Dr. Barnett.”

“I doubt that the good doctor could do much for me,” Barbara replied. “You’re going to be late. Allison can fix breakfast.”

“I don’t have time to take the kids to school,” Mark pointed out.

“I’ve got it,” Barb said. “Just…go. And let Lazarus in when you leave.”


Barbara sighed in relief as Mark left the bedroom, then felt a pang of regret. She really should be drawing strength from her husband, not feeling drained. But Mark had never been much of a nurturer. He expected to be supported and comforted, not the other way around. And explaining her current problem as anything other than “a headache” would have the men in the white coats at the house faster than you could say “Mommy had to go away.” Because Barb was hearing voices.

A year ago this never would have happened. Just a year before, she’d been a nice, normal homemaker with, on the outside, the perfect life. Nice house in a nice neighborhood, steady husband with a good job who neither cheated on her nor abused her, three great kids and the respect of her friends and fellow homemakers. Need a hand with the bake sale? Call Barb. Charity auction? Barb’s your gal.

Oh, Barbara Everette had her oddities, anyone would admit. Most of her fellow homemakers did not pack a pistol in their purse. And when the rest of the gals were down at Curves going through a gentle workout guaranteed to raise no more than a glisten, Barb was practicing and teaching a variety of Oriental martial arts and tossing around men twice her size. Both of those oddities were legacies of an Air Force dad who’d dragged his family around to a multitude of Far East postings, as were the occasional loan-words she’d slowly filtered out of her vocabulary. The church ladies of Algomo, Mississippi were unfamiliar with such pejoratives as kwei-lo and gaijin.

But a year ago she’d made either the greatest or the worst mistake of her life. Tired of the endless domestic routine, she had insisted on “just one weekend” alone. She just wanted two days to do whatever she wished, mainly find a nice hotel and sit around reading.

A series of chance happenings, or more likely God-driven choices, had left her marooned in a backwater Cajun town. One that had been taken over by a demon.

That was when Barbara Everette discovered that there was more inside her than she’d ever dreamed. She had been a committed Believer since she was quite young, it was just part of her makeup. She’d inherited the full measure of an Irish temper along with the slightly curly strawberry-blonde tresses. Faith kept that in check.

But in Thibideau she’d discovered there were times for that full-blown rage to manifest in the service of the Lord. Such as when a cult was killing women to feed their demon master. And she discovered that true devotion, faith and service paid off when the Lord gave her the power to not only challenge the demon but blow its lousy ass straight back to Hell.

She’d survived. Police had become involved. Then psychiatrists had become involved when she refused to admit to “reality.” There were, of course, no such things as demons. Yes, a group had been committing serial crimes, but demons weren’t involved, Mrs. Everette. Take the nice pills.

Fortunately, there were people to deal with the police. Barbara was recruited by a group that dealt with “Special Circumstances.” That was the euphemism the FBI had coined, very quietly, for those rare cases where things got “beyond normal activities.” When werewolves stalked the night, vampires drifted through open windows, when demons and their worshippers gathered their powers. When the supernatural intruded on their normal and customary doings.

To fight the supernatural required very special skills, ones that the majority of the populace, much less the police, did not develop. It required not only Belief but a firm commitment and connection to a god.

“A” god was the part that at first surprised Barbara. She was the only member of the Foundation for Love and Universal Faith who was a Protestant Christian. The rest were pagans of various flavors, Hindu, Wiccan, Asatru worshippers of the Norse Gods. The group was in contact with and occasionally drew on support from the Catholic Church, and in some cases, specific rabbis became involved when a Hebrew rite was of use. But she was the only Protestant for sure.

But she had, by then, become able to sense the power of others, its source and level. And the people she now associated with were, unquestionably, on the side of Light. Otherwise, she could not have fed power to her closest friend when a demon drained her soul. Given that Janea was a high-class call girl, stripper and a High Priestess of Freya, the Norse goddess of fertility, joining FLUF had required some reevaluation of the details of her Belief. “Suffer not a witch to live” simply did not compute.

The current problem was just a new development. She knew that, intellectually, and generally she could wrap her emotions around it. But it was a royal pain in the ass. It wasn’t ESP; she couldn’t read minds. She just heard voices. If she couldn’t feel the similarity to her God channel, she’d simply go to the shrinks and get the nice pills to make the voices go away.

The voices were generally simply unintelligible whispers, but sometimes they got comprehensible. And generally when she could hear them clearly, they were negative. “You’re no good.” “You’re not a good mother.” “Everyone hates you.” Sometimes there were positive messages, but those were rare. She could ignore it, mostly. She knew she wasn’t a bad mother, that she wasn’t a bad person. But it was just so constant.

And then yesterday she’d seen something. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked like a black snake wrapped around a young woman’s neck. The head, which was more humanoid looking, had its fangs sunk into the woman’s shoulder.

Barb had almost asked the woman about it before she realized that nobody else was noticing the snake. And she’d received a serious “death stare” from the woman, more like a girl, for no reason she could determine. As she passed the woman, the thing had hissed at her quite clearly. Again, nobody in the grocery store noticed. The woman herself didn’t even appear to notice.

But things were getting seriously weird in Barb-world these days.

Mark left the door to the bedroom open, his back set in disapproval, and a black cat oozed into the room and up onto her lap.

As soon as Lazarus curled into her lap, the voices didn’t stop, but they were muted. She scratched the cat on the back of the head and pulled him in close.

“What’s happening, Laz?” she whispered. “What in the hell is happening?”


“Mark, I’m going to have to go out of town,” Barb said as she pulled the half-and-half out of the refrigerator. It had taken her nearly thirty minutes to put on a bit of makeup and a jogging suit. Something had to be done.

“Again?” her husband asked, surprised.

“It’s been nearly two months since I went to a Foundation meeting,” Barb said, trying to keep a combination of annoyance from the voices, annoyance at Mark and low blood sugar from causing a blowup. “It’s beyond time.”

The problem was, okay, in honesty, she’d coddled Mark. She had, throughout their marriage, managed the household. It could, arguably, be other than coddling. Mark was a disaster in the kitchen when they were first married, to the point that she’d thrown him out. And, frankly, it was just easier to pick up after him than get him to do it. So she cleaned the house, she did the cooking and the dishes. Over the years, Mark had gotten to the point where he barely knew where the pots and pans were. So going away before Allison stepped into the breach was a serious problem; the entire household generally fell apart.

The other problem was, no one knew what Barbara did on the side. Mark was not someone she could sit down with and calmly explain that she was now fighting demons. Demons didn’t exist in the world of peanut processing. Besides, the Foundation was as secret as the best mystics in the world could make it. So she had to lie. Lying wasn’t one of those things good Christian wives were supposed to do with their husbands, but there really wasn’t another choice.

“Allison will manage the house,” Barb said, looking over at her fifteen-year-old daughter. A year ago she’d have said that with the greatest of trepidation, but since the night Barb had “adopted” Lazarus, Allison had been an absolute model child. In fact, Barb was fairly sure that Allison knew damned well that Mommy’s trips didn’t have much to do with prayer meetings. Oh, there was quite a bit of praying, but it was generally along the lines of “Lord, please keep the demon from eating my soul.”

“I’ve got it, Dad,” Allison said, looking up from the book she was reading. Normally, there was no reading at the table. Breakfast was generally an exception. “Jason and Brooke will help.”

“Oh, yeah?” Jason asked grumpily. The male twin had his father’s dark looks, as did Brooke. Allison seemed to draw almost entirely from her mother. “Who’s gonna make me?”

“ I will,” Allison said, staring him down. “Or do you really want to take me on, little brother?”

“No,” Jason admitted, bending his head back down to his plate. “Allison’s got it. We’ll help.”

“Fine,” Mark sighed, picking up his suit. He’d finished breakfast and was on his way out the door. “Whatever. Write when you get work.”

“I love you, too,” Barbara snapped as the door closed. “Lord, forgive me for that.”

“He will,” Allison said, handing a bit of bacon to Lazarus. The cat licked it for a moment, then got it into his mouth and disappeared under the table, purring.

“It was uncalled for,” Barbara replied, pouring a cup of coffee. Her hand shook so badly that she slopped some of it on the counter, and when she tried to pick up a spoon to stir the cream and sugar, she dropped it back into the drawer.

“Mom, are you okay?” Allison asked.

“Everyone keeps asking that!” Barbara snapped, then sighed. “I’m sorry, Allison. No, I’m not okay. But I will be. I just need to go…see some people.”

“It’s not cancer, is it?” Brooke asked worriedly. One of her friends had died of juvenile leukemia when she was still in preschool, and it had left a scar. “You’re not dying, are you, Mommy?”

“No, it’s not cancer,” Barbara said, getting the mess cleaned up and her coffee stirred. She could perform a full Swan Drifts Over Mountain Above Clouds maneuver, something that no more than ten people in the world could equal. She could damned well stir her coffee. “I’ll be fine. I just need to go see some friends and get some advice.”

“It’s the Change, isn’t it?” Jason said, not looking up from his plate. “Bobby Townsend’s mom is doing the Change. That’s what he calls it, anyway.”

“It’s not menopause, Jason,” Barbara said, trying not to laugh. “I’m only thirty-four. That won’t happen until I’m in my fifties. You’ll be out of the house.”

“Good,” Jason said. “Because Bobby says his momma’s going crazy.”

Lazarus had finished his bacon and now oozed back out from under the table and rubbed against her leg. Whenever the familiar touched her, the voices became less. But she couldn’t pet him and use both hands. She looked down at him then picked him up and set him on her shoulder. “You. Stay.”

“That looks…really weird, Mom,” Allison said as Barb pulled out the makings of breakfast. The cat had all four feet planted on her left shoulder and was swaying to keep in place. But he wasn’t moving.

“Yeah,” Barb admitted, preparing some instant oatmeal. It was about all her stomach was going to take this morning. “But it works.” She glanced at the clock and shook her head. “Time for you guys to be done. Out the door in ten.”

“Brooke, eat it or throw it away,” Allison said. “Moving it around your plate doesn’t count. Jason, three bites then head for the room.”

“Yes, Mother,” Jason said, sarcastically. She really had sounded like Barbara, who had gotten her parenting skills from a military spouse and her officer husband.

“Mom, what’s really wrong?” Allison asked as soon as the younger kids were gone.

“Not something I can explain, honey,” Barb said, sitting down at the table.

“Mom, I know, okay?” Allison said, gesturing with her chin at the cat still perched on Barbara’s shoulder.

“No, you don’t ‘know,’ Allison,” Barbara replied, tartly. “You suspect some things and you think you know others. If the time ever comes, I’ll explain as much as I can. But you do not ‘know’ anything.”

“I know where that cat came from,” Allison pointed out.

About six months ago, Allison had fallen into bad company. The bad company in this case being a softball coach with almost “magical” abilities. Barb had at first feared that there was hanky-panky going on when the coach started taking the girls off for “team-building exercises.” Then, after using her connections in the Foundation to get background information, her more paranoid side had starting ringing alarm bells. The coach had previously been associated with both Satanic and Santeria sects. And the change in the team had been…demonic. Metaphorically.

Barb had charged in in full demon-slayer mode: battle gear, bell, book and cross, ready to take on demons or acolytes with mundane or magical weaponry.

In fact, the coach had been a poseur. He used the trappings of Satanic rites to convince the girls they had magical backing. When Barb burst out of the darkness he’d literally wet himself.