Chapter Two—Take Up Serpents

"And these signs shall follow them that believe: In My name they shall cast out devils . . . they shall take up serpents . . ."—Gospel of Mark, Chapter Sixteen

"Do you have the time / To listen to me whine / About nothing and everything all at once? / I am one of those / Melodramatic fools / Neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it / Sometimes I give myself the creeps . . ."—Green Day

"Sam Stone came home to his wife and family / After serving in the conflict overseas / And the time that he'd served had shattered all his nerves / And left a little shrapnel in his knee / But the morphine eased the pain, and the grass grew 'round his brain / And gave him all the confidence he'd lacked / With a purple heart and a monkey on his back / There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes / And Jesus Christ died for nuthin', I suppose . . ."—John Prine

Hsarus crouched down low behind the bushes, passing his sword—a respectable Irish hand-and-a-half of impeccable workmanship—back and forth between his hands to give his busy fingers some work. A young woman in a revealing (but practical, because she needed the freedom of movement) outfit woven of coarse green fabric was kneeling beside him. They were watching a patrol of skeletons that had cornered an Amazon. They didn't rush in and kill her, as would've been the norm, but neither did they allow her to leave. She was holding a razor-sharp kukri knife in her right hand, and a rock she had picked up in her left hand; every minute or so, she would rush the skeletons, usually felling one, but would be pushed back.

Hsarus turned to the sorceress crouched next to him. "Laura," he said to her, "take care of this lot; I've got an odd feeling about the cemetery a ways down the road."

Laura nodded curtly. She stood up, still unnoticed, and stepped out from behind the cover of the bushes. She spun her long staff in one hand and pointed it at one of the skeletons, sending a bolt of fire in their direction; it bounced harmlessly off of one's shoulder.

Laura laughed; that was exactly what she'd planned. Three of the skeletons broke off from the group and moved toward her. She spun her staff again and threw up a wall of fire in their path; they collapsed and did not get back up. The trapped Amazon, taking advantage of the distraction, lashed out again: There was no flesh for her knife to cut, but the weight of the bent head allowed her to swing with enough force to shatter bones. The sorceress moved in as well, spraying fire out of the ends of her staff as she swung it against the arms and heads of the undead. Together, they overwhelmed them fairly easily.

When the fighting had ceased, Laura extended a hand to the Amazon and said, "Laura."

The Amazon took her hand gratefully. "Alexa. Now, we need to get down to the cemetery, and quickly."

Dolos was in trouble.

He was crouched behind a headstone, rapier in hand, half-heartedly listening to see if Blood Raven was getting too close. A broadhead arrow protruded harmlessly from a thick leather pad on his thigh; an inch up or to the left, and it would've had nothing but threadbare trousers to stop it, surely severing his femoral artery. Blood Raven hadn't seen what headstone he'd ducked behind like a spooked rabbit hiding from an angry owl, and knowing his fear and helplessness was making a game of it: She paced back and forth, slowly coming closer, looking behind every headstone she passed, making sure to keep out of rapier reach of those she hadn't checked. She was calling:

"Oh, where did you run off to, my scared little bunny? Why don't you come on out and play?"

Dolos knew that soon either Blood Raven or the mindless, hungry Undead would draw too close for comfort and he would be forced to hide again; he'd die when that happened. Finding his current, mercurial refuge had been a fluke. When he ran again, Blood Raven would certainly see where he ran to, if she didn't shoot him down before he found shelter again.

He was listening half-heartedly for two reasons: Partly because he was drunk, but mostly because his brain refused to register what his eyes and ears had told him, were still telling him. He'd recognized Blood Raven immediately; her strong arms, graceful figure, long brown hair, were all unmistakable. But the eyes . . . they weren't the eyes he remembered. They were black, cold, sadistic: The eyes of a demon. And when those eyes found him, they recognized him immediately as a slightly aged, deeply troubled, and plainly road-ragged incarnation of the boy she'd known in Tristram.

Dolos's mind recoiled in horror; this shouldn't be, and with two flasks of evil, skull-popping white lightning inside of him, it was easy for this mind to convince itself that this simply wasn't. The only part of him really listening, really giving a flying fuck, was the brainstem, a reptilian shoggoth of nerve endings concerned not with emotional troubles or rationalization of what the eyes were seeing, but only with keeping the body alive long enough to pass on its genes. As long as this part of his brain functioned, he wasn't going to go tharn. As much as Dolos hated life, the survivor deep inside of him wasn't going to let him die if it could help it.

Blood Raven got a bit too close for comfort, and Dolos, running on pure instinct, bolted for the relative safety of a nearby crypt entrance. The demoness laughed and nocked an arrow onto the string of her bow. It wasn't a recurve yew bow like an Amazon's, but was a simple Osage orange flatbow, like what most of the Rogues carried. She'd drawn a bead on Dolos's neck and had the string at half draw when she heard, behind her, a jovial battle-cry. She turned around just in time to see an orb of bright light lay low one of her undead soldiers. Instinctively, she drew the string back to her ear and fired the arrow in the general direction from which the battle-cry had come.

The arrow stuck, quivering, in the shield of a tall, lanky man. The man was dark-skinned, with long curly black hair and a great black beard, and was dressed in the fearsome black robes of a desert bandit. A leather satchel hung from one shoulder. He held an Irish hand-and-a-half sword in his right hand.

Blood Raven nocked another arrow and started to draw it back, but collapsed with a long ribbon of cold steel jabbed into her side: Dolos, seeing the demoness distracted, had snapped back to reality and taken advantage of this moment of weakness. The writhing, helpless body at his feet seemed to break open, and from it a pillar of blinding white light shot skyward.

The stranger sheathed his sword and stepped foreward. "Good day, traveler. I am called Hsarus. What is your name?"

"Dolos," said Dolos.

Hsarus seemed to be chewing the name over. "Dolos . . . fitting name for a Necromancer. Any mage, really. It's certainly cumbersome enough."

Dolos, still shaken by the events of the last few minutes, answered curtly: "You're one to talk."

Hsarus's hard face broke into a grin. "I am, indeed. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dolos."

Dolos motioned to Hsarus's side and asked, again curtly, "What's in the bag?"

Hsarus chuckled and answered, "My secret weapon." He opened his satchel, reached a hand inside, and produced from its depths the coiled form of a very long, very irate diamondback rattlesnake, easily eight feet long and as thick as a man's arm. It uncoiled, gliding easily and harmlessly up Hsarus's arm, across his shoulders, and down his other arm, resting its head in the palm of his other hand. "His name is Crowley."