Lilith should have had a better sense of the urgency of her situation. But this wasn’t the first time she’d found herself evading the angelic Host. They’d come after her before, and by the year 2016AD, she’d gotten the hang of it.
She’d learned their patterns. She knew where to go, which trails to follow and which paths to avoid. She knew the angels better than they knew themselves, and on top of it all, she still had Raziel’s pages in her possession.
Using them had always been a difficult choice, for they harnessed the power of Creation particles – raw and untamed energy. Toying with that was similar to swinging a nuclear weapon inside a porcelain store.
The last time she’d used a single line from the second page, not only had she blown a score of demons out of existence, she’d also rearranged the entire geography of the Australian continent. Aboriginal drawings depicting that disaster still lingered inside the red caves of Tunnel Creek.
So, she took the side roads. The underground trails. She stayed in the shadows and she spoke to no one. For the first time in over a thousand years, she’d been reduced to wearing drab clothes in order to blend in. She had to drive a car, too. Oh, the aggravation…
The fiery red 1960 Corvette convertible she’d picked wasn’t that bad, though. The engine rumbled and roared like an angry tiger as she tackled the tight curves towards Santa Barbara. The sky was a ginger orange, a typical Californian sunset shade, with long reddish and violet strips of clouds criss-crossing the atmospheric canvas. She smiled and lit up a cigarette as she passed the ‘Welcome to Santa Barbara’ sign.
By the time she reached Zelda’s house, she was left with an incandescent butt. She pulled up in front of the one-level hacienda, flanked on both sides by manicured hedges. She got out of the car and threw the stub on the asphalt, crushing it with the tip of her moccasin.
She pulled a brown handbag over her shoulder, walked past the pink ceramic flamingos decorating the lawn and headed for the big red door with a brass knob and classic knocker. Zelda was living it up in these parts of California, she thought.
A middle-aged Puerto Rican woman with rich chocolate brown hair, wide caramel eyes and an overly tanned skin opened the door after the second knock. She lifted an eyebrow, her mouth bent in a sassy smirk. Her English had strong infusions of Spanish that reminded Lilith of a long summer she’d spent in Cuba taunting Fidel’s secret police, dropping bodies all over the Regla district of Havana.
‘Ay Dios mio, this is not good.’
Lilith sighed and took her sunglasses off. Her long hair had been captured in a loose bun beneath the Panama sun straw hat, making it difficult to recognise her at first glance. But the glimmer in Zelda’s eyes made it clear that she knew who stood in her doorway.
‘Long time,’ Lilith nodded. ‘How’s my favourite witch doing?’
Zelda rolled her eyes and went back into the living room, cursing in her sweet Spanish slang. Lilith followed and closed the door behind her. The house was decorated in a warm mid-century style, with scarlet fabric accents, walnut surfaces and brushed brass details. A faint aroma of almonds and apricots lingered in the air, and the lounge area was glazed in California sunset natural lighting beaming through the large window.
Zelda opened the minibar cabinet and pulled two thick crystal tumblers out, along with a bottle of Jim Beam. She placed the glasses on the cluttered coffee table, on top of a stack of old newspapers and magazines. Her bony fingers opened the bottle and poured triple shots for both, then handed one to Lilith, who by that time had already settled herself in one of the armchairs.
‘What are you doing here, Lilly?’
Lilith smiled at the endearing name. She lit up another cigarette and took a long sip of bourbon.
‘Last time I saw you, you were barely keeping up with your rent for that little roach-infested shoebox in South-Central. You’ve come a long way, Zelda. Well done!’
The witch sighed, gulped the bourbon and poured herself another glass.
‘Well, a good clairvoyant makes good money these days. I’ve worked my way up here.’
‘That’s true, especially for the real deal, isn’t it? How did you manage to separate yourself from all the frauds?’ Lilith smiled and finished her bourbon. She then helped herself to a second triple shot, cigarette hanging loosely between her lips.
‘I gave a few complimentary readings. After they all came true, those who survived showered me with money and gifts. Before I knew it, South Central had become too vibrant for my business, so I moved here. It’s quiet in Santa Barbara, I like it. No trouble,’ Zelda looked at Lilith specifically when she emphasised the last part of her statement. Lilith smiled and nodded.
‘You know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t serious, Zelda.’
The witch sighed and served herself with another glass of bourbon.
‘I know, querida, but every time you show up, disasters happen. Remember last time?’
‘Oh, come on, it was only a couple of nights in jail. I bailed you out, didn’t I?’
‘Why’d you wait two days to get me, then? Ay si, I remember, it was because you got what you wanted from me and I wasn’t your priority anymore, was I?’ Zelda was visibly irritated.
Lilith put the cigarette out in the small porcelain plate on the table. It had once been a part of a charming little tea set, found at a yard sale next door. She rested her elbows just above her knees, and continued her campaign to sway Zelda in her favour.
‘You know damn well that I had to kill the spawn first. You pointed me in the right direction and I managed to save those kids. I had to choose between your temporary discomfort and the death of innocent children. My decision was reasonable and you know it.’
The witch rolled her eyes and leaned back into the comfortable chair. Both of her hands clutched the glass as it rested in her lap.
‘Well I am not breaking into any building for you again, just so we’re clear.’
‘It’s not why I’m here, Zelda. This isn’t a rescue mission.’
‘You’re here because you need my help, obviously. Last time I helped you I got arrested for breaking and entering. I’m just laying out some new rules here, because I haven’t seen you since that night.’
‘Relax, you won’t have to leave your house for this one, trust me.’
Zelda stood up and pulled the blinds down to cover the large floor-to-ceiling window, the only element that didn’t belong in that mid-century setting. Lilith turned a lamp on, responding to the darkness that had befallen the room.
‘What are you doing, Zel?’
‘Querida, you still seem to attract trouble. I can smell demons near this town, now,’ Zelda replied and pulled out an armful of candles from a cabinet.
She used her spare arm to clear the coffee table before placing the candles in their specific order. An ancient esoteric pentagram had been carved into the top surface, previously hidden by the stacks of magazines that now laid on the floor. Each candle belonged to a symbol, forming the points of a star. Lilith watched her quietly. She knew what was coming next. Zelda had known what this was going to be about from the moment she opened the door to greet her.
‘Don’t worry about demons,’ Lilith replied slowly. ‘Something bigger is after me.’
Zelda fetched a wooden bowl from another cabinet, and placed it in the middle of the coffee table pentagram. She stared at Lilith for a brief moment, a sense of panic engulfing her.
‘How much bigger?’
‘Let’s just say it has archangelic proportions…’
Zelda straightened her back and started cursing in Spanish again, as she pulled a drawer from underneath the coffee table and took out several velvet bags in shades of red, green and blue.
She emptied their contents in the bowl – rock salt, crushed bones and dirt. It was all part of a difficult ritual she’d only done twice before; the last time had nearly killed her, but she would do anything for the woman who had saved her life and opened her up to real witchcraft.
More than 35 years ago, Lilith had taken her out of a Puerto Rican orphanage and brought her to America; she’d taught her a few spells from her deer skin pages and left her to grow and enjoy life on her own.
Lilith had always been a fierce fighter for the freedoms of women. Her methods were often questionable, but the kind of universe that she’d opened up for Zelda made every other risk worthwhile.
‘What have you gotten yourself into, querida?’
‘I, personally, didn’t do anything, I swear. I’ve been minding my own business– ‘
‘Killing men, you mean.’
Lilith gave Zelda the kind of stare that signalled the start of a very serious conversation.
‘Killing monsters, Zel. Killing monsters that this society hasn’t been able to apprehend or punish properly. Providing justice and closure to innocent women. You know that already, don’t make me waste my time justifying my actions. I don’t have long until Azrael shows up again… So, as I was saying, I was just minding my— ‘
‘The angel of death?!’
Zelda’s face was frozen; fear clenched her jaw and beads of sweat bloomed on her forehead.
‘The Archangel of Death, to be precise. The Grim Reaper himself. Yes.’
‘What is he doing here? Why is he after YOU?!’
‘I’m getting to that part. Now take a deep breath and have another shot of bourbon, you’ll need it.’
Zelda obeyed; with wide eyes and trembling hands, she poured herself another glass and gulped it all down in one go. She then sat down, facing the coffee table and its ritualistic paraphernalia. Lilith sighed with regret.
‘I’m sorry I brought this to you, Zelda. But I have no other choice. I need to find out what’s going on. There’s a death sentence on my head straight from Heaven, and I don’t know why. It’s like they just decided to end me and I have no say in this whatsoever. So, they just sent Death himself to get me – not even a run-of-the-mill reaper-angel. I haven’t done anything that I haven’t been doing since I got out of Hell, Zelda. If they’d had issues with my methods, they would’ve done something about it a long time ago. This is coming out of the blue and it’s unfair, I deserve to know why, at least.’
Zelda listened and nodded gently, staring at a candle and digesting all the facts she knew about Lilith.
‘Querida, maybe it’s just your time to go now. Maybe Heaven decided you have lived for long enough…’
Lilith shook her head and finished her bourbon.
‘It doesn’t work like that, my darling. I was given eternal life from the moment that God breathed life into me. A bunch of mindless pigeons with too much power nowadays cannot end something that God Himself has granted an eternity. This planet will burn one day, Zelda. It will crumble and fall apart in billions of fragments as the Sun explodes and dies. And I will still be alive. And Heaven cannot change that. The Host cannot simply decide that I’ve lived enough. They don’t have the authority. My death sentence would only come in the event of a crime against God. I am innocent, Zelda. I haven’t committed any crime against Heaven or God. All I do is try and right the wrongs that my decisions (or lack thereof) have caused throughout the centuries, that’s all…’
Zelda sighed and took out a box of matches from the same drawer. She smiled gently.
‘I understand, querida. Alright, let’s see what’s going on, then. We need to pierce the Veil, don’t we?’
Lilith nodded and straightened her back.
‘It’s the only way for me to reach out to the heavenly plain. They never showed me the way to Heaven, and my pages don’t have that information either. I need to peek in there and see what’s happening. I may find some answers… and I may not. But it’s the only option I have now.’
Zelda lit the candles, one by one, then turned the lamp off. Evening was setting outside, in violet hues blocked by the thick black wood blinds.
‘You’re asking me to step into the Underworld and hopefully hitch a ride with an Angel into Heaven. You do know I will be opening myself up to all kinds of spirits, right, querida?’
‘I’m aware of that, yes. I’m sorry to put you through this.’
‘I’ll try and listen in on those feathery bastards who guide the recently departed to the afterlife, querida. But if something happens in the meantime and I can’t control it, you know what you have to do.’
Lilith nodded once more. The last time they’d done this, they were looking into the spirit world when Zelda’s body was occupied by a wandering spirit. When Zelda pierces the Veil, her own spirit leaves the physical form, leaving her body open to unwanted visitors.
But this time the risk was far greater, as they were now aiming to breach an entirely different dimension. The passage was extremely dangerous, as the presence of a soul still linked to its living body drew the attention of more than just restless spirits.
Demons lurked in the darkness and, as Zelda had already specified, they were circling Santa Barbara. Demons followed Lilith everywhere, like mindless heroin addicts despite the fact that she always sent them back to Hell or even killed them if they murdered humans.
Lilith’s code of justice did not resemble that of the Angels. She didn’t just kill demons because they were demons. She knew better than that.
‘I will do whatever it takes to bring you back safe and sound, Zel.’
‘And if you can’t, you kill me. Do you understand?’
‘Good. Let’s get this show on the road then.’
Zelda took out a small pocket knife and pulled the small curved blade outwards. She cut the palm of her hand and let the thin stream of blood pour into the bowl with a gasp, on top of the salt, bones and dirt.
Lilith’s body began to glimmer, as she closed her eyes and used her sliver of Creation to amplify the effect of the spell. This ritual had been taken out of one of her pages, after all. She knew the extent and the consequences of it. It would not go well for Zelda if she didn’t do it right.
‘Hear my calling, unlimited force of Creation. I am your servant, your loyal servant made of bones, flesh and skin. Your life flows through my veins and I only serve you. Hear my calling, as I ask you to open the doors for me. Let me abandon this body for a brief moment. Let me through, let me walk freely through your fields. Let my soul pass beyond the Veil. Let me walk with the spirits as they ascend to the heavens. Let me in…’
Zelda’s eyes turned white, as the candles burst into bright flames. The blood in the bowl became incandescent, moving around like mercury until it swallowed the salt, the bones and the dirt.
Lilith watched everything in absolute silence, her body glowing. She placed her hand above the bowl and used Zelda’s knife to cut her palm. White blood poured out, enveloping the fiery mixture below in a soft light. The candle flames smoothed into thin beams of pure light that extended into the ceiling above them.
The pentagram on the table drew itself on it like a mirrored design, with incandescent lines. Particles of dust fell down, some of them settling in Lilith and Zelda’s hair. The field was complete now.
The universe had opened its little back door for the witch, whose spirit stood up from the body with milky contours and stepped into the column of light. A thick smoky chain extended from her body’s chest, linked to her spirit, and it grew in length as the distance between body and soul increased beyond the ‘door’.
A strong wind blew outside, and Lilith could hear it roam across the manicured lawn, whistling and whispering danger.
She looked around and sniffed the air, her skin iridescent and her essence fuelling the spell that had allowed Zelda to leave her body and go beyond the Veil in search of answers. Demons were close. At least a hundred of them. Since when had they gotten so brazen? Since when did scores of them start leaking through the cracks? It was cause for concern.
Then a familiar odour struck her senses. A strong whiff of sulphur with an under-layer of bergamot, the latter which reminded her of her own scent.