For fans of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Stranger Things: S. A. Hunt’s The Hellion, third installment of their horror-tinged action-adventure series about a punk YouTuber on a mission to hunt down the supernatural, one vid at a time
Robin Martine has destroyed witches all across the country, but since her confrontation with the demon Andras, Robin has had to deal with her toughest adversary yet: herself. While coming to grips with new abilities, she and her boyfriend Kenway make their way to the deserts of rural Texas, where new opportunities await.
Something lurks in this isolated town of Keystone Hills: a dangerous gang ruled by a husband who wields an iron fist over his wife and daughter. Robin vows to protect these Latina women from harm, but may be underestimating how powerful Santiago Valenzuela is… and how his shapeshifting powers may pose a threat to everyone Robin holds dear.
Her first night in Heinrich’s compound was a long one. The teenager lay under a wool military blanket in the deepening twilight, listening to the silence of the desert and rain drumming on the tin roof. The man slept hard, his breath a steady susurration barely audible under the rattle of the rain. Occasionally, heat lightning flashed across the ceiling, throwing her makeshift bedroom into ghastly ghost-story detail.
An incredible crash of thunder shook the room.
Terrified, Robin sat bolt upright and threw the curtain aside, preparing to run for the door.
“Good morning,” said Heinrich.
As always, he wore all black—jeans, boots, a thermal henley draped on his broad shoulders. The witch-hunter sat on a stool at the kitchen island, tall and lanky, with an expressive mouth and hard eyes, and his skin was the cold, steely kind of black, like he’d been carved from the night itself.
One of the many things she would pick up from him: the para- noid gunslinger tendency to sit against the wall, so she couldn’t be shot in the back. Or have her throat cut, how the witches liked to get you when your guard was down. Simple and effective.
“What time is it?” She put on a pair of the fresh new socks she’d bought on the way through Mississippi. Reaching under the cot, she dragged out her new boots and wriggled into them.
“About six.” Heinrich beckoned her over. “Come on, I made food.”
The teenager joined him at the kitchen island, where he’d made omelets and bacon on a big plug-in griddle. French press half-full of coffee. A cookie sheet rested on a towel, loaded with several flaky biscuits. Nearby, a radio quietly played a morning drive-time show. “Boy howdy, you know how to do breakfast.” Robin poured a big cup of coffee, dipped a spoonful of sugar into it, and made herself stir it before gulping half the cup in one go.
He watched her. “Most important meal of the day.”
Caffeine clawed the sleepiness from her brain. “Been so long since I had a good cup of coffee,” she said, downing the other half. She poured another cup and took an omelet, along with bacon and a biscuit, and ate ravenously. “Don’t let you have it in the psych ward.”
“We’ll need the energy.” The man peeled open a biscuit and spooned jam into it. “Today you start your training. Sleep okay?”
“Slept like shit.” She ground the back of her wrist into one grainy eye, her fingers shiny with grease. “Thanks for asking.”
“Yeah,” he said into his coffee cup, “I know the feeling.” He grinned. “You gonna sleep good tonight.”
* * *
According to the man, the building they lived in had been used by the Killeen Fire Department as a training structure. The lower floors were devoid of furniture or decoration—just bare cinder-block walls and cement floors. Heinrich led her all the way down and around the back of the bottom staircase to a rusty steel door. This he opened, and he shined a flashlight into a closet full of junk: two sawhorses on which hung a pair of flak jackets, a plastic trunk, and leaning in the corner was an assortment of PVC pipes pushed through foam pool noodles and wrapped in duct tape. “Here, put this on.” He took one of the flak jackets and handed it to her.
The instant she took it from him, the heavy jacket hit the floor. She gathered her arms inside and lifted it over her head. Two slabs of armor in the front and the back, and one pressed against each hip. Heinrich meticulously fastened all the buckles and straps, pulling them tight until the vest fit her like a turtle shell. He rapped his knuckles on her chest, the flashlight shining in her face. “This is called an IOTV. It’s a military—”
“A flak jacket is something different. Vietnam gear. This is desert shit. I don’t remember what IOTV stands for, but the ceramic plates can repel small arms fire. It’s current military issue. Weighs about forty pounds.”
Robin’s face went cold. “You ain’t gonna be shooting at me, are you?”
“Lord, no.” Heinrich smiled. “This is just for weight training. Bought ’em for emergencies, but they make good weight vests.” He didn’t specify what constituted an “emergency.” Instead, he opened the plastic trunk and dug out a pair of things like icepacks. Velcro ripped open and he slipped them around Robin’s ankles. “Ankle weights.”
“What is all this for?” Her feet felt like they were made of lead. “Like I said, weight training. Come on.” He grabbed one of the pool-noodle swords and a burlap sack, and led her back upstairs. “Want you to wear ’em for three hours today, and every day from now on. Toughen you up, get you used to carrying extra weight. Trust me, you’ll see where I’m going with this after that three hours.”
By the time she had climbed back up the three flights of stairs, the teenager was huffing and puffing. “Jesus,” she wheezed, leaning against the wall of their den as Heinrich stepped over to the record player and put on a Fugees album. The speakers banged out “Ready or Not,” and Lauryn Hill sang about playing her enemies like a game of chess.
“No,” she sighed.
“Good,” said the man, and he threw her a padded stick. She barely caught it, almost fumbling, and when she looked back up, he had heavy pads strapped to his hands. “Let’s work off that breakfast, kiddo.”
* * *
The rain worsened into a downpour—bad enough Heinrich had to let down the tin-sheet awnings covering the windows. They spent the entire time in the “lair,” as he called it, beating each other with the pads and the boffer. Plenty of room there, an open space some thirty or forty feet square, the furniture pushed out of the way, with that dusty Oriental rug in the middle of it.
Their sparring session was soundtracked by everything from Ray Charles to Ol’ Dirty Bastard to James Brown to twenty different heavy metal bands. “Nine times out of ten, once you’re face-to-face, they gonna try to claw you with their fingernails,” he said. “Like fightin’ a wildcat.” She tried to bat his padded hands aside, but somehow he kept managing to shrug past it and deliver a volley of body blows. “But it’s a last-ditch effort. They’ll try to keep you from even getting close in the first place.”
Frustration twisted around her chest, binding her even tighter than the IOTV. She couldn’t seem to move fast enough to get through his hands. “They’ll use tricks, try to appeal to your empathy. Lie to you. Offer you riches, immortality. They’ll make you see things. Terrible things. Wonderful things. Things that make no goddamn sense. They’ll make familiars, like they did with your daddy, send those after you. When all else fails, they fall back on the claws.”
He slapped her across the face. “You paying attention?”
Heat and ice surged across her skin as a shot of adrenaline hit her, pissed her off, made her see red. Santa Esmeralda crooned in the background, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. She swung the boffer overhead—“Urrgh!”—and caught him across the wrist.
“Good one,” said Heinrich. “Time to come down. Get out of that vest and go get some water.”
Dropping the boffer, Robin staggered toward the kitchenette, clawing at the IOTV’s straps. Clutching the counter, she used her foot to hook a stool and drag it over to sit on. As soon as she got the armor off and let it slam to the floor at her feet, every muscle in her body screamed out in relief.
* * *
December in Texas. Humidity made it unbearably chilly outside, cold right down to the bone, but their lair was heated from underneath by a furnace.
In hindsight, the structure and exertion were probably what cured Robin of her torpor and cleared her head, focused the thoughts scattered by the death of her mother and the breaking of her spell, and fended off her depression, more than the psych medication. First thing every morning, they got up and ate breakfast, then sparred each other until lunch whether they felt like it or not. Heinrich went out to chop some wood while Robin made lunch, then they ate together and spent a few hours poring over old books. Case studies about witches, occult encyclopedias, language trainers, German, French, Chinese, and Icelandic magic tomes, books of hieroglyphs and runes, and other esoterica.
This is where she learned more about the ways and methods of how witches were able to use cats to scry and to control people. She learned the radius from which a nag shi dryad could draw life-force, what factors could alter that reach, and the properties of its accretion disk, such as how running water could dampen it; she learned fire was just about the only thing that could kill a witch older than at least forty years, and bullets were useless other than for slowing them down. She learned the various forms witches who held the Gift of Transfiguration could choose to take—beasts and self-augmentation only, no doppelgängers or inanimate objects; she learned how elaborate witches could make their illusions, from simple visions of insects to artificial realities; she learned the range and strength and dexterity of the Gift of Manipulation, which you might know as telekinesis, and ways to defeat it, such as blinding the witch, because they could only manipulate objects they could see.
After study time, Robin went outside in her vest and brought
firewood up the two flights of stairs to the third floor, whether they needed it or not. By Christmas, she had filled the entire eastern wall of the furnace room with chunks of oak and pine, and Heinrich had to cut the loads from five to two per day.
Then it was suppertime. The weekends were downtime, and they made big, heavy meals on Saturday and Sunday like slow-cooker Italian meatball soup, chicken enchiladas, steaks and baked potatoes, and pizzas of all shapes and kinds, and during the week, they nibbled the leftovers for supper.
After dinner, they crashed on the couch with a little bowl of ice cream or a soda float and watched TV or a movie out of Heinrich’s collection. DVDs and VHS tapes covered one entire wall of his den. Robin lost count of the number of times she fell asleep on the couch watching Zatoichi annihilate a gang of troublemakers.
“Wherever I go,” said the blind swordsman, “I’m the god of calamity.”
* * *
By that summer, their sparring looked like something out of one of those movies. The teenager worked him around the den with the boffer, and he juked and jitterbugged out of the way like Sinatra, the both of them swashbuckling up and down the stairs, from the window and through the kitchenette. Whenever he managed to parry the boffer and go in for the kill, either he’d get kicked in the leg and staggered, or Robin would twirl the boffer over her head and down across his forehead.
One day, she backed him into the kitchen and he managed to pin the boffer with a cabinet door. Out of some kind of instinct, Robin snatched a barbecue fork out of the dish drain and tried to stab him with it, but Heinrich shielded his face with his free hand, and the fork jammed deep into the hard foam of the punch pad.
Pulling out the fork with a wince, he tossed it in the sink, then slid his hand out of the pad. Two neat puncture wounds vampired the back of his fist.
She gasped. “I’m—”
Heinrich gathered himself, standing. “It’s okay.” “I’m so sorry.”
“I said it’s okay.” Blood dripped on the kitchen floor between their feet. “The apprentice has become the master,” he said, back- ing away to the first-aid drawer. He dug out a roll of gauze and wrapped it around his injured hand. “Maybe,” he began, as the girl ripped a handful of paper towels off of a nearby roll and wiped up the blood, “maybe it’s time to finally show you something.”
She gave him a confused look.
“Come with me,” he said, grabbing a combat knife off his bed and clipping it to his belt.
They clomped down the stairs to the bottom floor of the fire tower and into the closet where he kept the pads and boffers. In the back of the room was a steel rack with cardboard boxes. In one of them was an orange case, and inside the case was a flare gun. He handed it to Robin.
“What do I do with this?”
“Stick it up your ass? I don’t care. Just don’t lose it.” She shrugged and jammed it into the back of her jeans.
Outside, Robin followed him through the broad main avenue running through the middle of Hammertown. Spaghetti-western shopfronts loomed over them on either side, their façades welcoming them inside with signs in Arabic. He stepped down one of the side alleys, cutting between a tin shack and a two-story building. Left, around a corner, through a chain-link gate with a Beware of Dog sign in Arabic.
Brazen sunshine baked the dirt under their feet. Before them spanned a seemingly infinite vista of Texas desert and, in the distance, a backbone of vague gray mountains.
Between here and there was a lone bur oak, with a short thick trunk and branches stretching in every direction. This tree draped shade over a dilapidated barn with a high, pitched roof and a broad door. Strung through the handles was a strong new chain, secured with three padlocks. The man took out a keychain and unlocked all three, tossing the chain aside. Then he opened the door, pulling both panels aside.
Inside, a ragged, filthy woman in a tattered dress stood tied to one of the support posts under the hay loft, her tangled hair over her face. Ripe body odor hung in the air, along with some pungent, fruity undercurrent Robin couldn’t quite identify.
“Oh, my God!” she cried, pushing past into the room.
Before she could free the man’s captive, one hand shot out and grabbed the drag-handle of her vest, stopping her in her tracks. Heinrich pulled her gently backward, pointing at the ground.
“Icelandic containment ward.”
On the dirt under her feet was an enormous circle etched with salt, an elaborate runic diagram comprised of a dozen concentric circles. Between each circle was an unbroken sentence of hundreds of sigils. With his bandaged hand, Heinrich directed Robin’s attention to the walls and ceiling, where dozens of algiz protection runes had been painted on every visible surface. Then he pointed at the woman tied to the support beam in the center of the runic bullseye. Glinting in the woman’s chest was the handle of a dagger. “Is that a witch?” Robin struggled to make sense of the scene.
Nothing witchlike stood out about this scrawny woman, whose face was pale with abject terror and exhaustion and misery. The woman peered at them through a curtain of matted hair. “Oh, God.” Her voice was kitten-weak. “Are you here to save me? This man has had me trapped here for months.”
A burst of anger gave Robin the words she needed. “You mean you’ve had a witch out here the entire time? Like eighty feet from where we sleep? Are you high?”
“Please help me,” said the woman. The silvery dagger was buried in her chest right up to the cross guard, and a stain ran down her belly in a banner of dull brown. “I think I might be dying.”
“You ain’t dyin’, Tilda,” Heinrich said mildly.
Writhing in her bonds, Tilda stared at him with wild, baleful eyes. The man stepped across the outermost circle of the containment ward toward her, taking care to disrupt the runes with his foot.
“What are you doing?” asked Robin, her heart beating a little faster.
“Been a couple of months since I been around to see my good friend here.” Heinrich stepped inside another of the concentric circles. Dry dirt gritted under his boot as he disturbed another ring of symbols. “Thought we could stop in and say hi before lunch.” The woman’s eyes didn’t leave Heinrich’s face. Terrible eyes, the washed-out blue high beams of a dope fiend, glaring from under thick eyebrows. Heinrich stepped into another of the circles and a slow smile spread across her face, revealing jagged teeth in ink-black gums.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Robin.
Fear gripped her. Shivers ran through her like a stampede of wild horses, and her face and hands became cold. The sound of her mother’s last words, echoing in the back of her mind as Annie Martine lay broken on the floor—Cutty. Witch. The sight of her father writhing on his back next to her, blood gushing out of his mouth and nose. Witches aren’t real witches aren’t real witches aren’t real—but they were, weren’t they? They were real. And here was one, right in front of her, large as life and dark as death, glaring at the both of them as her mentor crept closer and closer.
“Nothing is a good idea, except in hindsight.” Heinrich stepped into another circle, scuffing the diagram again. “Every decision we make is a Schrödinger’s Box. D’you know what that is, Robin Hood?”
“Sure. Yeah. The cat in the box.”
“The cat in the closed box, both alive and dead until you open it and find out which it is. Every decision we make is a Schrödinger’s Box—both good and bad. We never know which until after we make it.”
The woman’s breathing came quick and fast, blowing streamers of her hair out in front of her face, huff huff huff huff like birthing breaths in a Lamaze class. She laughed under her breath, casting all pretense aside. “You’re a pretty little one,” she croaked, her cheek meeting her shoulder in a bashful sort of way. “A little older than I like, but that just means I’ll have to cook you a little longer. You’re still ripe.”
“Yeah, Robin Hood,” said Heinrich. “They eat virgins, remember? They’re pedophages? Didn’t your mother ever read you the story of Hansel and Gretel?”
“You mean that’s real?”
“Yeah, it’s real. We been reading the same books up there in that tower, ain’t we?” The man took another step into a smaller circle, dragging his foot through the salt symbols. “Remember that one I made you read about witches in medieval Russia?”
She winced. “I’m sorry. It was long-winded as shit and really badly translated. I only made it about halfway through.”
Dust shook out of the witch’s clothes, hanging in the sunbeams coming through the hayloft, as she thrashed violently in her bindings. Rope bound her wrists and elbows behind the pole; rope kept her neck pinned. “It’s been so long since I’ve eaten,” said Tilda, grinning with those gnarly brown teeth.
“Anyway, who the hell said I was a virgin?” asked the teenager. Halfway through scuffing another of the circles, Heinrich shot her an incredulous look. “You were involuntarily committed in your sophomore year, and you’ve been in there ever since. Your mother was about as religious as you can get in the South without mailing your paycheck to Billy Graham. You trying to tell me you got laid in the nuthouse?”
“Well, you did just call it the ‘nut’ house.”
If he’d been wearing glasses, he would have peered over them at her.
“No, I didn’t get laid.” Robin scowled. “I was too busy going through the Ludovico technique, sleeping through HGTV reruns, and eating spaghetti with a plastic spoon to care about sexual intercourse. Besides, antidepressants make it hard to orgasm, apparently.”
At this point, the man was only a few feet away from the witch. Her mouth opened, and kept opening, and her tongue uncoiled, fattening, lolling from between her teeth like a purple python. Lengthening, sharpening, Tilda’s teeth bristled in her cavernous mouth. “Come a little closer, Heinie,” she said, grinning.
Despite herself, Robin couldn’t help but laugh.
The man stepped inside the last circle, a ring of runes some six feet across. Reaching out with her serpentine tongue, Tilda could almost reach him—close enough, in fact, for Heinrich to lean backward to avoid getting licked in the face. As he did, he moved around the witch, sidling around the inside of the innermost rune ring.
“What are you doing?” asked Robin.
“Oh, nothing.” Heinrich’s hands rose in that don’t mind me way.
The witch watched him, her tongue curling around her own upper arm. “What are you doing?” she asked, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing either.
Then Tilda looked down at her feet. Robin looked down as well, and realized the Icelandic containment circle had been disturbed in a straight line from her own toes to directly in front of the witch. The witch’s eyes came back up to Robin’s face, grin widening. In one swift motion, Heinrich slid the combat knife out of its sheath and cut the ropes.
Looking back and forth between the two of them, Tilda seemed to be indecisive about who to go after first, but she turned toward Robin and lunged forward, reaching—
—the teenager flinched in terror, falling—
—but Tilda was immediately halted by the silver dagger in her chest, doubling over around it. “Gurk—!”
“What the hell, dude?” said Robin, sitting on her ass in the dirt. She reached behind her back and pulled out the flare gun he’d given her earlier, pointing it at Tilda.
“The Osdathregar.” Heinrich stepped away from the witch, standing by the innermost rune ring. “In the Vatican Archives, documents call it the Godsdagger. Secret verses of ancient Hindu texts refer to it as the Ratna Maru.” Tilda reached up and grasped the hilt of the Osdathregar, trying to wrench it loose. The man paced around the perimeter of the ring, his hands clasped behind his back. “Nobody knows who made it; nobody knows where it came from. All we know is that it’s powerful enough to stop a witch cold in her tracks.”
Hollywood had conditioned Robin to expect the eldritch and the ornate: a wavy flambergé with a pewter-skull hilt, cord-wrapped handle, and a spike for a pommel, a Gil Hibben monstrosity from a mall kiosk. But the real Osdathregar was a simple main gauche with a gently tapering blade a little wider than a stiletto. The guard was a diamond shape, the handle was wrapped in leather, and the pommel was only an unadorned onion bulb. The diamond of the guard contained a small hollow, and engraved inside the hollow was a sinuous scribble.
“See that symbol there?” Heinrich pointed at the hilt. “That means purifier in Enochian, the language of the angels. Regardless of where it came from, this is a holy weapon. Which means even if it can’t outright kill a witch, she can’t remove it from where it’s em- bedded. Deep magic, baby. You stake her into the floor, or a wall, wherever, she’ll be there until the end of time, or until you come along and pull it out.”
With the flare gun’s muzzle, the teenager gestured to the diagram that filled the barn floor. “What about this, then? And the ropes?”
Heinrich shrugged. “In my line of work, I’ve learned to appreciate redundancy.”
“What can kill a witch, then?”
A wry smirk. “Come on, Robin Hood. That’s Mickey Mouse kindergarten shit. You know what kills a witch.”
“. . . Fire?”
“Ding ding ding!” cried Heinrich. “We have a winner! Now, listen—I’ve brought the anger out in you, Robin. Made a fighter out of you. You finally cut me. Now I need to get rid of the fear. A knife ain’t nothin’ but a worthless piece of steel unless you’re willing to use it!”
With that, he pulled out the dagger. Now nothing stood between them.
“Guns can’t stop me, child,” said the witch, marching resolutely through the gaps in the ward and out of the barn. In broad daylight, she was even more disgusting, a crusty ghost wrapped in shit and rotten fabric. Blood running down her chin looked like hot black tar, dribbling all over the ground. Her fingernails were yellowed spades. Her hair was the woolly, filthy mane of a lion, and her eyes were fiery red and yellow, with pinprick pupils.
A shout from the man in the barn: “Fire, you idiot!”
The flare gun in her hand. Robin pointed it at the witch and pulled the trigger, but the safety was on.
Tilda didn’t even flinch. “Nice shootin’, Tex,” she cackled, and charged, tongue snaking, harpy talons extended.
Panic made a live wire out of every nerve in Robin’s body. Stones dug into her knees. She aimed the flare gun with both hands and fired. The flare hit center mass.
Waves of incredible heat washed over the little barnyard as the creature erupted into flames ten feet tall, a tornado of smoke and light. Tilda shrieked madly, staggering toward the teenager, flaming hands outstretched.
“Grain alcohol,” said Heinrich, coming outside to join them. Blackened fingers combed through dim orange whorls of light, cupping and clawing, searching. The rest of her was obscured by the column of fire. The teenager shuffled sideways along the fence, trying to keep the flaming witch from grabbing her. “I see you burning, Robin Martine,” gurgled the thing in the flames. Collapsing on her knees, and then kneeling prostrate in the shade of the giant bur oak, Tilda laughed through a mouthful of fire. “One day, your enemies will trap you, and you will burn just like me.” She fell over and lay motionless, a black wraith shrouded in light. “You will burn,” she said in a strained hiss. “You will die.”
The last syllable seemed to stretch on forever, becoming the soft rustle of the bur oak’s leaves, until it faded into silence, broken only by the warp and woof of the flames biting at the wind.
They stood there and watched her burn until she was a coal sculpture, twisted into a fetal position in the dust.
“That wasn’t pleasant,” said Heinrich.
“Wasn’t a fucking birthday party, that’s for sure.”
He looked over at her, genuinely surprised. “It’s your birthday?”
“Yeah,” said the teenager, and she walked away, still gripping the flare gun in one trembling hand.
“Happy birthday,” he called after her.
“Stick it up your ass.”
Copyright © S. A. Hunt 2020
Pre-Order Your Copy